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sublime

A TALE OF TWO BOOKS

IMG_0815 (1)aIf you’re drawn to stories of the art world (and who isn’t?), the beauty and the money and the chicanery, you might have considered picking up the following books. For me, aspiring writer that I am, they illustrated some of the differences between rather ordinary storytelling and the remarkable. I didn’t set out to make such a comparison, but the rather startling weaknesses of the first were all the more apparent upon reading the second.

The Art Forger is a debut novel by B.A. Shapiro (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013). Glossy and sexy, the cover is clearly intended to draw the attention of what I’ll call the airport patron: quick choice, disposable, and full of positive reviews (“engaging”, “addictive”, “ingenious and skillful”, “blazingly good”, etc.). It was the subject matter, though, that drew this reader.

It’s a twist upon a twist in the art forgery sub-genre: Is the stolen, now-recovered Degas the original work or a forgery? If the latter, is making a forgery of a forgery a crime? It’s an interesting concept, and in more sure hands it might have been pulled off.

For me, the term “insouciance” came to mind. (I can’t tell you quite… Continue reading

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 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

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