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JANE RYDER NOMINATES: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

123_2302a I nominate “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot.

One of the reasons I’m convinced of its sublimity is that I’m really not keen on poetry, and in fact don’t care for anything else Eliot ever wrote.

But this particular poem encompasses, encapsulates, the entirety of human existence, in a way no other type of writing could. A novel would make all the subtext into text, and rob it of its nuance; a play would make it mundane and common by forcing the words to be spoken by mere mortals; setting it to music would limit and trivialize it. It has a solemn, tragic beauty that would be diminished in any other form.

The poem isn’t flawless (“I should have been a pair of ragged claws …” is a tad goofy), but the missteps add to the poem’s overall perfection, the way a slightly “off” feature on a beautiful face makes it even more beautiful.

This is my favorite stanza:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail… Continue reading

VAST PARAPETS AND PROMENTORIES OF SOUND

257bIt was mountains of sound—vast parapets and promontories and cliffs of sound. The deep bass notes were born of thunder, or the roar of a great fire, or the eruption of a volcano. They filled the space completely, as thoroughly as the air, as densely as water.

Somewhere in the interstitial spaces between the notes, the trills of the higher ranges could be heard flitting overhead.  It was as if the very songs of the birds had been captured for the pleasure of the composer.

It was the last few bars of the benedictory song being played one ordinary Sunday morning on the great pipe organ of New York’s Trinity Church.

It shook the air.

It was the roar of an immense waterfall. A roar of booms. It was primordial, as if left over from some great cataclysm. Or beginning.

It shook the air and vibrated the body and the soul.

It was sublime.

Though it was one of my mother’s great joys to finally obtain a Hammond for our small town church, I’ve never been enamored by the sound architecture of the ordinary organ. And though my favorite aunt Marian sang… Continue reading

THE BIRD THAT WOULD SOAR . . .

IMG_7650cSeveral recent blogposts notwithstanding, I have never been one to lean on the quotations of others, great or not. I have preferred most of my adult life—but to less effect, I suppose—a more experiential search for wisdom. So I have been surprised at the strength of my appreciation for the series of literary plaques set into the sidewalk near the New York City Public Library.

From the concrete below, a bronze rectangle faces upward to the sky and warns, “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings.” (From The Awakening, an 1899 novel by Kate Chopin, 1851-1904.)

Lest one think only of race or ethnicity (and why might one not, for it is true there as well), the context for this particular remark is womanhood—the quiet constraints on the freedoms of women at the turn of the twentieth century. It would be two decades before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution finally recognized (not “gave”, as some might say, but recognized) the right of women to vote. That was a necessary step, but a hundred years later we know it was not anywhere near sufficient to dissipate the hard… Continue reading

INFORMATION IS LIGHT

075aInformation is light,” announces the bronze plaque set into the sidewalk at my feet. Then it continues: “Information in itself, about anything, is light.” The source is cited down in the corner: Tom Stoppard, from Night and Day, 1978.

Another plaque states: “I want everybody to be smart. As smart as they can be. A world of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.” – Garson Kanin, Born Yesterday, 1946.

The plaques are part of the Library Walk, and set into the East 41st Street approach to the New York Public Library. Looking mostly upward in the vertical city, I nearly missed them. Along with a number of others, they have given me both introspective and instructional pause.

Both of these statements were prescient counsel for our culture, our country. Nonetheless, we seem to have slid into a period of willful, noisy ignorance, of petulant dismissal both of “facts” —information and conclusions which we have long mutually accepted as reliable—and the orderly ways in which we determine them. Science, through no fault of its own or its practitioners, has among many of our fellow travelers become suspect. Knowledge itself, whether scholarly or just widely experiential,… Continue reading

THE SUBLIME–IN 2 MINUTES AND 53 SECONDS

019aIn my last post, I laid the foundation for an occasional series exploring the sublime—unmatched and unmatchable human accomplishments that rise above all others, that rise “beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.” Achievements which transport us viscerally or intellectually, emotionally or spiritually to a place of great wonderment. As examples, I proposed Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin and the sculpture Balzac by Auguste Rodin.

For my next nomination, I ask you to watch a performance of the Barcarolle from the opera by Jacques Offenbach, The Tales of Hoffman. Watch it here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=is0Lb4cj_3c. (Yes, my first suggestion for the transcendental requires you not only to listen to music which derives its name from gondoliers, but to watch it on social media, no less.) It will require about three minutes for your first time through, but my guess is you will want to hear it again, again, and perhaps again. I’ve imported a translation from the French below.

Sisters Irina and Christina Lordachescu perform the Barcarolle in what appears to be an anteroom of a concert hall in Budapest. They are accompanied only by a pianist. It’s an informal setting, not unlike having them in your… Continue reading

THE SUBLIME: AN OCCASIONAL SERIES

060aOne can learn much from the truly great accomplishments of the human mind and spirit, those which are incomparable, transcendent, sublime. Including, I’ve found, much about oneself.

In the language of aesthetics, the sublime is “the quality of greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, aesthetic, spiritual or artistic. The term specifically refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.” [See footnote.]

But not beyond our accomplishment. And not beyond our appreciation, for the sublime transports us viscerally, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually to a place of great wonderment. Of awe. It leads us to a capacious realization of the heights possible within the human experience. Of the pinnacles within our reach if only we pursue them.

Some accomplishments that attain the sublime are the product of spontaneous inspiration, or more likely of relentless exploration and trial by individuals who have the experience and perspicacity to allow such ideas to pierce the commonplace. I think, for instance, of Auguste Rodin and his rough but powerful statue Balzac, the great thinker standing far back and assessing—some say dominating—the world, his immense energy barely contained.

In Peter’s Parchment, The Beguilement of Brother Alphaios, while walking along… Continue reading

OF STARS AND SOULS

122_2277a
At the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., there is an impossibly long wall of bronze stars—an abstract but instantly recognizable  representation of the heroes of war, the horrors of war, soldiers lost at war.

Each one of the four thousand palm-sized stars standing at attention represents one hundred lives lost. One star, one hundred fathers, sons, brothers, and yes, mothers, daughters and sisters lost at war.

Four thousand stars.

It is overwhelming.

I’d say inconceivable, were it only so.

122_2279aIn front of the wall lies a shallow reflecting pool.

Up on their wall, the stars are fixed in place.   Below, in reflection, they stir about, stretch, converse with each other. They reach toward their comrades and withdraw, reach toward the captivated visitor and withdraw.

Up on their wall, the stars are flotillas, regiments, squadrons.

In reflection, they are souls.

J. S. Anderson

Photos by J. S. Anderson:  Field of Stars, World War II Memorial, Washington, D. C.

Oneliness

Sky.Elephant Head
Some time ago, my best friend Liz (now my wife) and I were discussing the burdens of responsibility at work and home, the rush of our lives, the clamor of family.  Each of us spoke of a need to be alone from time to time and the quiet pleasure it can bring.

Time alone allows our minds to rest, our emotions and physical bodies to settle, to breathe.  For her, to peruse recipes, imagine fine meals and cook them at her leisure—and emerge relaxed and recharged.  For me, to let my mind drift and mull.

Peace and relaxed introspection was our common wish.

We could not find a word or phrase that captured the sense of it.   “Alone” or “being alone” weren’t sufficient, for they did not carry a sense of contentment or pleasure.  And the words “lonely” and “loneliness” convey  negative values such as sadness, depression and even anguish—the opposite of what we wanted to express.

Accustomed to playing the occasional word game, we found ourselves working backward from “loneliness”—the antonym, we decided—until it came to us:  Drop the first letter and create an entirely new word: oneliness.  … Continue reading

GUEST BLOGS…

115_1507On April 18, 2014, The Editorial Department published a guest blog I prepared entitled “What Do I Know?”  It gives my take on the old stumbling-block of an adage, “write what you know….”  Yes, I have a grasp of several subjects, but what I know best is how I perceive the world around me, emotionally, intellectually, viscerally and visually.  And that opens up a world of possibilities.  Check it out:
http://www.editorialdepartment.com/blog/item/what-do-i-know

(The Editorial Department’s Peter Gelfan was the editor of BOOK OF HOURS:  The Beguilement of Brother Alphaios.)

On April 21, 2014, Lucky Bat Books,  my publisher, posted my guest blog  “Mr. Kissinger and Me.”  It tells a story I heard years ago about the famous Henry Kissinger, the former U. S. National Security Advisor and Secretary of State.  No, I didn’t remotely know him, but it posits a very high standard for one’s work—one which I think authors should keep in mind.  Here’s the link:
http://www.luckybatbooks.com/2014/04/mr-kissinger-and-me/

J. S. Anderson

Photo by J. S. Anderson.  Chiaroscuro at Park Headquarters, Saguara National Park West, Tucson, AZ

The Impulse Toward Inquisition

IMG_5548The word “inquisition” has a Middle Ages ring to it, and a distinctly religious one.  Its three best known episodes—the Medieval, the Roman and the Spanish (driven more by royalty than religion) have won a chilling place in Western cultural lore through stories of Catholic pursuit of heresy, machines of torture, and burnings at the stake.  Ad extirpanda, issued in 1232 by Pope Gregory IV, was an awful call for the systematic elimination of heretics, and gave papal sanction for the use of torture.

The Catholic Church has not been the only one to use such measures in pursuit of doctrinal purity. John Calvin, the reform founder of what would become the Presbyterian Church, pursued much the same response when his own nascent denomination was affronted by other reformers. (See Out of the Flames, by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone.)  Many secular governments, even commercial interests have done the same.  Moreover, inquisition is not only history, it is a horrifying but recurrent modern phenomenon as well.

The book God’s Jury, by Cullen Murphy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), makes this case convincingly.  He cites some recent examples and predicts there will… Continue reading

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