Sunday, March 20, 2016

Seventy Years of Retrospection

To read the criticism from individuals who are  not old enough to have heard the great singers of the past in their milieu is an activity that I have had to learn to avoid.  Styles change, tastes change, times change. Anyone born after 1970 would not yet have developed the taste or interest or have had the opportunity to have heard a live broadcast or performance of the voices from the middle part of the last century. While these artists were fortunate to have had their voices captured on recordings, those listeners coming of age in the 1990s and 2000s would only know those voices from the cold, mechanical CD's that were brought out as the phonograph or stereo disappeared.  If these young listeners happened to find a vinyl recording, chances are it was a production of the oil shortage of the 1970s, when record producers manufactured paper thin, poor quality "records," which often sounded as though they had been in the path of an elephant stampede.  Worse yet, even the major recording studios allowed quality control during this time period to slip.  Conrad L. Osborne, writing in High Fidelity, noted that the DGG Meistersinger sounded as though the engineers had recorded it under a wet blanket--the original dynamics were horrible.  Remastering it twenty years later restored much of its vitality, but the lack of warmth of the new digital recording could never hope to match the Bavarian State Opera performances that produced the original. Those who cannot understand the praise for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau upon his death three years ago are those who never heard the great voice that reshaped the musical world.  By 1978 that voice was a shadow of what it had been, but those of us lucky enough to have heard the voice from the early 1950s, to 1960s, and into the early 1970s heard the later efforts with our ears still full of the glory of those early years.  The critics grumbled, but the musicians never hesitated.  Fi-Di was the baritone of choice for fellow singers, conductors, and composers.  He taught Pavarotti how to breath during their recording sessions of MacBeth; he was championed by Elizabeth Schwartzkof and her husband Walter Legge; he was sought out for performances by Fricsay, Szell, Bernstein, and Karajan.  He was discovered for the rest of us as an opera voice by Furtwangler.  Composers wrote songs and operas for him. Britten wrote the War Memorial with Fi-Di in mind and begged him to sing at its first performance.  For those of us who grew up with his performances, he was the reason we love opera and lieder.  Both Richters  (Karl and Sviatislov) sought him out as a musical partner. John Culshaw admired him so much, he offered Fi-Di the role of Sigmund in the "Solti" Ring. Yes, the singer had that much range.

But Fischer-Dieskau is not the only singer who is in danger of being put on the scrap heap of time past.  The middle of the last century produced giants who must not be forgotten.  My earliest memories are of Melchior during the war years.  Even a ten-year-old boy listening to an antique radio receiver could not mistake THE Wagnerian voice.  It even transcends the miserable quality of the recordings of those war years.  Whether he was paired with Flagstad, Frida Leider, Margaret Harshaw, or Helen Traubel, the experience was thrilling.  Rudolph Bing and the other managers of the Met ruined this for everyone. In his efforts to "save" the Metropolitan Opera, Bing did not renew the Melchior's contract--he was in his sixties.  He forced George Szell out (for which the Cleveland Orchestra is forever grateful). He fired or his predecessor fired Helen Traubel--she with the power Flagstad and the lyrical beauty of Janowitz.  We thought we would never again hear performances with the grandeur of a Melchior, Flagstad, Schorr Ring.  Herbert Jansen took Shorr's place in America and the great Hans Hotter took his place in Europe [sadly, because of the war, many Americans did not get to hear Hotter until 1946 or 47]; Leider, Harshaw, and above all, Traubel took Flagstad's place; but no one could replace Melchior.  When they were gone by the mid 1950s, we were convinced we would never hear their like again.  As a result we almost missed and certainly under appreciated those who took their place.  Seemingly out of nowhere came Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Wingassen, Otto Edelmann, Ferdinand Franz, and Ludwig Suthaus.  Marta Modl and Astrid Varnay provided suitable heroines until Nilsson burst onto the stage.  Sadly, she too now suffers the attacks that Fischer-Dieskau must endure.

Even the lesser lights of this period deserve remembering and listening too.  Flagstaff's protege Set Svanholm provided a viable Siegfried when Melchior left the stage.  Ramon Vinay stretched his baritone voice to sing the heldentenor roles--in fact, after the war, it was his voice, not that of Hans Hopf, that we heard most often from Bayreuth.  Canadian George London, during his active singing years, was not a lesser light.  He was a great talent with great lower register range.  He, just like Peter Hofman twenty-five years later, was in such demand and sang so many performance that his voice failed him at an early age. The fine Canadian singer Eileen Ferrell never got the chance she deserved, but her recordings are well worth seeking out.  Fortunately for all of us, a third Canadian singer found a better fate.  Jon Vickers' dark heldentenor voice filled the void when Suthaus left the scene.  I have written elsewhere about the singers from the American Great Plains--James King and Jess Thomas--singers who made the 1960s and 1970s another revival of Wagnerian music.  During this same time Gwyneth Jones and Regine Crespin (a few years before) provided the needed heroines.

We must never forget that before Waltrude Meier there was the incredible Christa Ludwig. Nor should we forget that before Matti Salminen there was Marti Talvela, and before him there was Kurt Boehme. Before there was Ekkehard Wlaschiha  there was Zoltan Keleman and Gustav Neidlinger. Josephine Veasey, Clair Watson, Anna Reynolds and all of the other great female voices of the 1960s and 70s must not be forgotten.

When we reached the 1970s, once again we thought the greatness was past. However, we discovered Siegfried Jerusalem and Rene Kollo.  Helge Brilloth must be fit in here somewhere.  In desperation, we recruited Placido Domingo from the Italian repertoire, and other than his mangled German in Die Meistersingers, he made the transition well. A few years later the often overlooked Poul Elming became an important force in this world of Wagner. There are others whom I have not mentioned.  Maybe later.  The point is that we must not forget, we must not overlook, we must not exile these great voices to the graveyard of forgotten singers.  Our musical heritage will be diminished if that happens.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Nightmare of an Old Man

Maybe it is time to put myself out to pasture, to live a sheltered life, to protect my apparently fragile vision of culture and intellectual rigor.  With each passing day, I discover new examples of the dumbing down of my language, my philosophy, and my culture. When logic is no longer considered necessary, then academic and philosophical precepts no longer have meaning or importance.  We are becoming an illogical, superficial, vapid culture. I fear for the emptiness of the intellectual lives of the next few generations.

Consider  the loss of clarity currently being imposed upon English.  I am not about to stumble into the blind dogma of Swift, Dr. Johnson, the combatants of the Inkpot Controversy, or others who stood like the politician with his broom trying to hold back the ocean tide.  I understand that English is a living language that grows and changes with those who speak it.  I do not fear its growth or its changes that reflect social or scientific expansion. Furthermore,  I long ago accepted that the distinction between "may" and "like" had disappeared. I long ago accepted that "so" had become an intensifier and not just a conjunction--something that leads to the illogical breakdown of comparisons.  For instance, we commonly hear people announce that "it is so hot." What has been lost is the logical completion of the clause: "it is so hot that ..."  What truly discourages me are the losses of subtlety, of depth, and of exactness that are occurring in the language and, hence, in the culture.  I realize that I am succumbing to the Enlightenment concept of a common, intense, shared language being the means of resolving misunderstandings. Society quickly became too diverse for that concept to prove true.

English, for far too many people, has ceased to be a written language.  We are told that the younger generation reads more voluminously than any other generation.  That may be true, but this group is not reading anything that is out of its comfort zone.  The vast majority of my college students refuse to read Shakespeare even when his works are assigned--"it is too hard."  For social reasons, we cannot teach them the Bible as literature, so the works of Milton whose constant allusions to biblical material (the hidden talents for instance) are lost to these students. There is no "profit" in learning Latin, since no commerce is conducted in the language; therefore, the roots of innumerable, valuable English words are lost to this group. Thus, while they may be phonemically aware, they struggle with fluency, have tiny vocabularies, and lack the ability to comprehend text that demands any rigor.  We are no longer an auditory society.  We have produced a generation of kinesthetic learners who lack the ability to do abstract thinking--thinking that depends upon the power of words.  To demonstrate how widespread this failing has become, a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education made a case for limiting the teaching of higher mathematics (algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus) since most students cannot do it and probably "will never need to do it." The mind is supposed to function creatively, analytically, and abstractly.  I would point out, however, that if one cannot think abstractly, he or she cannot be truly creative nor detailedly analytical.  I find it illuminating that most of our Latin-based words are abstract rather than concrete.  Without the exposure to Latin morphology, we have limited an important mental tool--abstract reasoning.  The results are staggering.  Because reading anything written in another time period is too difficult, the students refuse to do so. The consequences are that historical processes, habits, behaviors, customs are lost.  Fine, one might say--they do not exist any more.  Sadly, they do--they exist in idioms, sayings, expressions that we use everyday--most of which have no meaning to the current generation of college students. Ask any of them to translate a common idiom or expression.  "A stitch in time saves nine--A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."  They will be lost. The grim reaper is an image they know, but since we no longer have a reaper to cut our grain, they do not know its origin and cannot use the word "reap" in a logical way in a sentence. Forget trying to get them to make the connection with Father Time.  Even more difficult for them is any expression using the word "glean," since we no longer have gleaners following the reapers in the fields. To glean nuggets of information from text is a concept lost on them.  According to Morse Peckham, the Romantics' view of the universe changed from the enlightenments' worship of "reason" to a worship of the imagination.  "Reason" explains what exists, but imagination allow us to create new things.  It is in imagination that we depend most on abstract thought.  Ours is supposed to be a creative age with new wonder following one upon the other.  Ask, how many are new and how many are simply improvements of an older self. The poet philosopher has become the rapper, lost in the Medieval dogma of violence. Now my age is showing.

Still, what I find incredibly unfortunate is that the simplest of logical constructs are not only being lost, but that the loss is being encouraged. Even the most respected sources are finding ways to dumb things down. Consider the following:

Martha Kolin declares in her fascinating study Rhetorical Grammar that the rules of the language are learned in the process of learning to speak, so when we study grammar, we are essentially codifying the logical rules that we innately know.  English is syntactical, since it is declension free. We have approximately eight basic sentence patterns into which we fit our various parts of speech. Nouns function as subjects and objects.  Without inflections, English noun use is simple--the same word functions as a subject or as an object.  The only changes that nouns undergo are for possession and plural.  We force nouns to become verbs, we use them in prepositional phrases to become adverbs and adjectives.  We even play with their spelling to transform them into being adjectives.  Importantly, they are concrete or abstract, common and proper.  Many people object to the nominalization of verbs forcing them to be come nouns.  The expansion of the language demands this, and very often the nominalization makes sense.  The process does not impact the grammatical rules of the language.  The grievous problem for American speakers of English is pronouns.  These noun substitutes follow the basic pattern of nouns; however, this group has kept its inflections (I use the word to reflect the origin of the change in spelling that takes place as nominative pronouns transform into objective pronouns; obviously we are changing more than the ending of the word). English grammar, as we learn it in infancy, requires that a subject agree with its verb in number (singular subject requires a verb that reflects the singular --in the present tense) and a pronoun must match its antecedent in person, number, and gender.   A vast number of Americans have blurred the line between nominative and objective forms of the pronoun, especially when the pronouns occur in pairs.  Hence, "me and her are going out on Friday night."  This person would never dream of saying," I am going out." But, when pronoun appear in pairs or when a pronoun and a noun are paired, this speaker will demand that the objective case be used.  When an instructor tries to point out the rule and the logic of the situation, the student, who is now so inured to this form, will reply that the correct way "just doesn't sound right." The logic of the construction has been lost.  An even greater attack on logic is the misunderstanding of indefinite pronouns--only four of which are always plural.  In American speak, "everyone, anyone, someone is always followed by "they or them." The frustration is made greater by the fact that these speakers use the correct number verb.  Another problem began in the 1960s when the feminist movement attacked the "sexist" language illustrated by always using "him" as the objective pronoun following a singular general nominative noun-- "a parent, a scholar, a doctor..."  The simple solution here was to use a hybrid he/she, him/her.  Perhaps the result was clunky, but it met the requirements of matching number, case, and gender.  Now the battle has reoccured as a result of the transgender/gay/lesbian objections to "non descriptive pronouns." Fine, people have a right to live the lifestyle that suits them best, but to solve this problem by replacing him or her with them or to replace he or she with they is illogical.  Not only does it blur gender lines (the least of the problems), it also blurs the number lines.  Using "them" turns singular into plural and further complicates the situation by corrupting the agreement with the verb of the sentence.  Rather than seeing a rational solution, Oxford University Press and Merriam Webster recently have both published articles assuring us that "they/them" is just fine, acceptable, and approved.  They point out that 'you" long ago lost its singular and plural forms.  Understood. The American egalitarian society was not about to put up with a polite and a 'familiar" form that was as illogical as the problem being looked at here.  Those who use this as an argument to dumb down the language should not use one misconception to argue for another.  We might as well use "it" with indefinite pronouns or generalized singular nouns.  That would make more sense than "they or them."   A little discipline and a little logic would solve this--take our pants off and we are all some sort of he/she or him/her.  I will never be a "they."

Perhaps it is past time for this octogenarian to fade away, to resign his place in the world and the culture, to ignore what he cannot change.  I have watched the culture grow as the Renaissance blossomed into the Age of Reason, as the Enlightenment became the Romantic period, as most of our cultural touchstones (for good or bad) were canonized during the Victorian period, as the modern, abstract, and post modern periods expanded knowledge and expression, and I have watched it shrink as the dumb down of the 1990s and millennial period turned away.  No one learns anything anymore. No one puts anything into his/her head.  Instead, he or she takes a picture of it and stores it in a cell phone, never having bothered to even process it mentally for a fraction of a second.  Lose one's cellphone and turn into a complete idiot.  The robots will win easily.  The terminator is about to become true.

Sunday, February 21, 2016


For those of us with open minds and a love of letters, the week of February 17, 2016, was one of great loss.  The passings of Umberto Eco and Harper Lee provide closure to twentieth-century literature.  As artists they inhabited very different worlds.  Eco, the cosmopolitan scholar and intellectual philosopher explored universes that require one to have imagination, yet intellectual rigor, to accompany him.  Lee, the provincial woman of the American South, explored a world too real, too earnest, and too painful for any but those who had experienced it to truly comprehend.  Yet, both spoke to the human condition, to humanity's noble self, to ideals that seem to be slipping away once more.  Perhaps by their deaths they will reawaken the quests for understanding, the defeat of ignorant hatred and bigotry, the love of universal sacrifice for the betterment of all.

Eco is familiar to me only through translation, something I regret very much.  Anyone with the insight and intelligence that his tales reflect must have had great fun playing with the language--something translators struggle to recreate and generally fail (i.e. how can any non-American speaker begin to translate the dialect of Huckleberry Finn). As a result, my experience with Eco entails study of only two works--The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum. His philosophical work Kant and the Platypus has always fascinated me, but I fear the language slippage from Italian to English prevents complete understanding of some very subtle concepts.

Eco was a man of vision. He created a fascinating, yet horrifying, medieval world of superstition and blindness in The Name of the Rose. Blindness becomes one of the major motifs of the novel.  Only Baskerville sees the truth, but only with the help of mysterious lenses.  Eco creates an English pragmatist combining Sherlock Holmes and William of Occam (he of the Razor) to cut through the superstition of a medieval abbey to find the truth. Eco always seems to have his tongue in his cheek, drawing one of his own heroes--Jorge Luis Borges, the blind Argentina writer and director of the Argentinian National Library--as Jorge from Burgos, the blind keeper of the Abbey's library and the source of the mystery.  His attempt to keep subrosa the Aristotelean work on laughter (since laughter is a sin) makes him put poison on the pages of the manuscript. The scribes seeking to enjoy this forbidden fruit succumb to the poison.  The truth sets no one free except for Baskerville whose free thinking has put him at risk to the inquisition.  The humor is dark, ranging from sweeping to subtle satire.

Foucault's Pendulum creates an entirely different time, but a similar world as that presented in Name of the Rose. Here, Eco presents an almost modern world in which an old word processing machine provides the source of an esoteric conspiracy linking the Knights Templar and the Illuminati to Foucault's Pendulum.  There is no William of Baskerville here to straighten things out.  Instead the paranoia of the protagonist, Casaubon--George Elliot's out-of-step philosopher in Middlemarch (who sought the key to all knowledge) leads the reader through a series of coincidences and imposed cause-effect relationships blurring the lines between the scientific method and superstition.  The occult consumes rational thought as superstition leads to insanity. A serious statement from one who said, "When men stop believing in God, it isn't that they believe in nothing: they believe in everything."

Harper Lee, on the other hand, recreated a world that many of us knew all too well. However, she gave it to us through the perspective of a child, a young, mischievous innocent whose struggle for understanding illuminates the goodness that can prevail in a world filled with hate and bigotry.  The American South before the 1970s was a polarized world.  Those of us who fought to change it can never forget the ignorance, brutality, and inhumanity that was always present, always working, always felt.  In the county in which I now live, four young black men were accused of a crime similar to that of To Kill a Mockingbird. Captured by local law enforcement, the four sat in the back of a sheriff's car. The sheriff decided there was no point in a trial. He opened the door, said "run," then shot and killed them as they fled.  This week the "Groveland Four" will be memorialized and their innocence vindicated. This was an open display of what lay beneath the surface throughout the region.  This was the backdrop to Lee's novel. Scout, the young narrator, does not fully understand what she describes, but she describes it well enough that the reader understands perfectly.  The novel is laced with subtle humor amidst the pathos of the story. Ironically, it is the mentally unstable Boo Weekly who defends Scout and her brother from the hatred aimed at them by the town.  No more noble character exists in fiction than Atticus Finch unless it is Sydney Carton. We must not be confused by the publication of Go Tell a Watchman.  Published as a sequel, it is in fact a first draft and reveals how significantly Lee revised Finch for the final version.  To Kill a Mockingbird stands as a civil rights landmark, speaking out through the voice of an innocent for truth, human values, and acceptance.

Since the publication of all three works discussed here, we have seen a world that has slipped back into the errors exposed by these works.  Battles that we thought were won have reemerged. The American election campaign now underway signals this. Candidates are running on the basis of religious superstition, bigotry, xenophobia, and selfishness. Maybe by renewing interest in these works as a result of the authors' passing, the efforts they sought to bring about will be reinvigorated.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Love ... and Death

Today, February 14, is a day to celebrate love. Yesterday, February 13, was a day to remember a death--the death of Richard Wagner.  Despite the shortcomings of his personal life, Wagner understood how sacrifice connected love and death. He repeated the connection in opera after opera. He even encapsulated the concept in Tristan und Isolde.
The concept of sacrifice for the benefit for others is an essential part of the Romantic ethos--Morse Peckham identified this leap of faith that occurs when the individual eliminates his or her ego, pride, and selfishness to serve the greater universe.  The motivator in many cases is love--usually caritas, the love of humankind.

Wagner often employed individual characters to represent a universal need or thought. This trend takes its roots in the beginning of the popular Wagner Canon.  The Flying Dutchman represents those whose misdeeds have doomed them. Senta redeems him through her love, which culminates in her sacrificial death.
In Tannhäuser Wagner explores the dichotomy of eros or cupiditas and caritas.  Elizabeth's death for the love of Tannhauser redeems the lost soul of the minnesinger.  Wagner uses another Romantic image  to signify the redemption--Peckham elucidates how the mechanistic eighteenth-century image of the universe--the clock--was replaced by the Romantic image of the universe--the tree.  When Senta dies, Tannhauser's wooden walking staff buds and blooms, essentially, the tree being reborn. We know that both characters have been redeemed by Senta's sacrifice.
In Lohengrin Elsa's fears prevent her happiness, but her death redeems Gottfried.  In Die Meistersingers, Sach's sacrifices his own happiness to ensure the happiness of Eva--this is probably the greatest sacrifice in Wagner's works because it is on a human scale.  Sachs is offered an opportunity for love and happiness from Eva, but he realizes her true feelings.  He denies himself a last opportunity for selfish love to grant her own desires.

Parsifal takes these concepts out of the realm of earthly love into the realm of caritas as the hero sacrifices much to ensure the salvation of wounded nature, a wounded, selfish hero, and a spiritually wounded heroine. Parsifal baptizes Kundry, cleans away her sins, and frees her for redemptive death in the light of the Grail. However, it is the kiss of love he receives in Act II that awakens the sleeping prince and calls him to his sacrifice.
Ultimately, in the great Ring cycle we see the elements of love, death, and sacrifice combined to save not just a single person, not just the world, but the universe. Alberich renounces love to gain the power of the Rhinegold. That power is encapsulated in the Ring. High-minded Wotan takes the Ring, puts it on his finger, and even though he yields it to the Giants, he has been corrupted. All his efforts to redeem himself are selfish and fail. However, his daughter, whose love for her father and for Siegfried, gives up first her godhood and then her life to redeem father, son, and the universe.
Two successive days--the day to celebrate love and the day to remember Wagner's death--coincide to celebrate the act of unselfish loving sacrifice, which unites love and death and Wagner. Spread the love.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The non-apocalypse

In an age of nuclear anxiety, terrorist phobia, and zombie apocalypses we attempt to project our own insecurities and nightmares onto works whose zeitgeist originates in another era.  In our egotism, we often attempt to "modernize" these works, assuming that contemporaneity will clarify for us what the author or composer really had in mind in his own day.  We desperately desire to impose modern values, fears, and anxieties on these works to make them "relevant" to contemporary readers or viewers. One particular example illustrates the adage that attempting to clarify a corner only unfocuses the center. 

Wagner's Parsifal in modern productions is often stripped of the setting implicit in Wagner's stage directions.  Instead, we are regaled with a postapocalyptic wasteland or a desolate industrial ghost town--places no swan in its right mind would approach.  Such settings steal the magic and the mysticism that unites all living things through the spiritual life force represented by the Grail.  Wagner's Grail realm exists in two dimensions--the physical and the ideal: the living forest and meadow transform beyond space and time into the Grail hall--the physical into the ideal.We, of course, associate this with Schopenhauer and the concept of the phenomenal and noumenal worlds. The protagonist is sent--he is the chosen one--to open the realms to each other, which allows the one to restore the other with vitality, vigor, and voluminous wonder.  To present the opera in any other way is to misread the Romantic ideal of sacrifice.  Sacrifice, one must note, is for the benefit of others--not for one's own gain.

This misreading of sacrifice is what dooms Klingsor,  his selfish hopes, dreams, and desires.  Klingsor's actions are motivated by the desire for selfish power-- Power with which he seeks to rule, to force his will upon others, to control the lives and deeds of everyone else.  Yes, he sacrifices to attain these goals, but to ultimately succeed, he must acquire the Grail.  This ultimate goal, however, is beyond his reach. His necromancy is based upon his own selfish thoughts--thoughts he attributes to everyone else as well.  He seduces many of the knights away from the Grail, away from the pruned and kept forest to his rank and foully overgrown garden of flower maidens.  He uses Kundry to seduce Amfortas, who in his pride has taken on a role not meant for him in order to be a heilge helde.  

With Amfortas's fall the mistake of many modern producers begins.  This is their justification for their apocalyptic view turning the Grail realm into Mad Max's desert. Wagner gives no hint of this desolation in the libretto.  Wagner tells us that only those who are called can truly enter the realm.  Klingsor lost his calling.  He sacrifices not for the good of others but for his own selfish desires.  He mutilates himself mistaking this for a selfless sacrifice.  He is doomed because this sacrifice only intensifies his selfish longings. For it, Titurel cast him out.  Once the Grail turns against him, no longer calls him to service, Klingsor's hopes are doomed.  The Grail calls the chosen one--the pure fool.  When Parsifal fulfills the first part of his destiny, we see the futility of Klingsor's efforts.  The sacred spear, the weapon he has succeeded in acquiring from the selfish Amfortas, the weapon upon which he based his hope of overcoming the Grail realm, deserts him the first time he tries to use it as it comes to Parsifal's hand in midair like a lost dog returning to its true owner.  In the erlorser's hand, the spear redeems the fallen land.

Parsifal must learn the meaning of sacrifice, so he wanders for 10 years under Kundry's curse until the Grail recalls them both.  The Grail forest and meadow are still intact--No decay, no apocalypse, no deterioration. Amfortas has put himself above the good of the others as he seeks death by denying the Grail to himself and the others. In his pride he dooms Titurel to death. Parsifal arrives with the dawn of a new day.  The holy spring is there to provide the cleansing water of rebirth. At the height of the day (mitt wok), the Grail calls him to it. The Grail has used the Spear to protect itself, and in Parsifal's hands (the King's hands are the hands of a healer) Amfortas is healed and the two dimensions of the Grail realm are reunited. Kundry is given release. The sacrifice of Parsifal in the wasteland has made him worthy of his calling. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Robert Hayden, Love, and Sacrifice

One hundred and two years ago yesterday my father entered the world; he was a New Year's baby.  We always asked him what time of the day he was born; he always replied that he was very young then, so he didn't remember. I can never think about him without recalling Robert Hayden's beautiful poem that exquisitely delineates the meanings of sacrifice and love.

I was an only child, spoiled and selfish without realizing it. Looking back now, I am pained at the self-centered demands that I made and egocentric treatment that I expected. My family was nothing like Hayden's, who endured the insanity of his mother, the brutality of his grandmother, and the hostility of his Detroit neighborhood. Yet, his poem illuminates with crystal clarity the inattention and incomprehension that a child pays to the subtle sacrifice and love of a parent.  Some days the poem is almost too painful to read.

Those Winter Sundays
Robert Hayden, 1913 - 1980

 Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

I try to teach this poem to students in Florida. How do I make Floridians understand winter--winter cold--winter so cold that the dryness cracks the skin.  Whether the "blueblack" refers to the cold darkness in the house or to what the cold does to the skin as the blood seeks the warmth of the center of the body, the concept--never experienced--is meaningless to them.  Nor, since none of them have had to do hard labor outside in harsh conditions, do they understand the sacrifice made here of getting up on his one day of rest.  The image of the "fire bringer" also escapes them, since they no longer even have to push buttons to regulate their programmable thermostats.  My efforts to explain the great fireboxes in the basement into which people shoveled coal and kept lit so that heat from the fire in the great cast iron dragon would rise into the upper levels of the house draw only puzzled stares.  As millennials, they no longer take time to bank their campfires should they camp out, so the line in the poem about unbanking the coal escapes them.  I try to make the point by playing part of "The Very Last Goon Show," in which Eccles is discovered in the dark in the basement by Neddy. Neddy asks who he is, and Eccles replies that he is the coal man. He came down the shoot with the coal. When Neddy tells him he should have let go of the sack, Eccles replies that they told him they were giving him the sack  There is no reaction from the students. The concept is beyond their experience and understanding. The pun is meaningless to them. However, when Hayden points out "No one ever thanked him" my heart often breaks. This heroic figure of a man striving through his labor to support the family until he is injured and sore, yet brings the heat and light Apollo-like, and no one even says thank you.  It reminds me in a strange way of another poem by Li-young Lee--"A Story."  Here a desperate father tries to find a new story to tell his son. When he draws a blank, he screams to himself
"Are you a god,
the man screams, that I sit mute before you?
Am I a god that I should never disappoint?"

What is the role of the god--to be praised and worshipped or to provide for his believers all that they need?  In Hayden's poem, clearly it is the latter.

The second stanza of Hayden's poem is easily accepted by my students, although they cannot imagine the cold being so strong that it can splinter and snap plant material (or even the family tree where the cold refers to the quality of the relationships as much as the temperature outside). Some of them come from dysfunctional families, so they do understand the "chronic angers" of the house.  I try to build on that point, but the third stanza evades them.

In the third stanza, Hayden once again calls on the heroic image of the fire bringer--I thought it archetypal, but my students do not understand it.  And since none of them wear dress shoes that require polishing, the humbling of the father to the level of a bootblack or a servant also escapes them.  Since most of them are intolerantly religious (without attending an organized service), they almost comprehend why the dress shoes are needed on Sunday, but since none of them have ever polished shoes or embedded the polish into the prints of their fingers, they cannot envision the mess, the dirt, the misery that comes from such efforts.  My attempt to tie the misery and lowness to young Dickens' misery while pasting labels onto shoe blacking bottles falls on deaf ears.  They simply cannot understand the humiliating circumstances equating this Black father to that a Black Man reduced to shining shoes on the street corner would reflect. The social statement means nothing to them.  That one would humble him or herself out of love and sacrifice ascends beyond their reach.

To the speaker of the poem, however, and to the sensitive reader, this sacrifice means the world in reflection. The repetition of the line "What did I know?' emphasizes the boy's recognition through recall and reflection the sacrifice made for him, and the nostalgic respect grows.  The very last line defines the concept of love through sacrifice--"love's austere and lonely offices." These were the gifts my father gave to me those many, long years ago.  Happy Birthday Father.  Thank you; Now I understand.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Difficult Time of Year

This is the time of year when we reflect on the past months and identify those things for which we are thankful.  In fact, today is the day that formalizes this process. While I have many things for which to be thankful, my reflections of this year are at best painful and at worst soul killing. The men I have most admired, one of whom's death we observed this week, seem to have been forgotten and their great achievements lost in the selfishness of the present. The events of this year 2015 make my life and the things of which I am most proud seem wasted and useless.

My country seems to be divided as deeply as it was at the time of the Civil War of the 1860s. Hatred and distrust seem to have filtered their way back into public consciousness.The lessons that John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us now seem like distant dreams.  I have been fortunate enough to spend time with some of the "greats" of my lifetime. A brief five minutes with Candidate Kennedy in 1960, years with Marshall McLuhan and Morse Peckham, and I had the privilege of working with Dr. King, though most of his followers would not remember me.  Of these men, Dr. King probably had the greatest influence on me.  We were from different worlds, as different as different could possibly be, yet something between us allowed us to work together, and we hoped, make a difference.

My country is now at war. It is at war with a philosophy, just as it was in the 1960s and 1970s. My efforts at that time in the anti-war efforts caused much discomfort to many, but the hope was that those efforts would change America, America's way of thinking, America's dependence on the military-industrial complex that seems to prosper from building the machinery of mass death. Dr. King is remembered for his civil rights work, but we must never forget his advocacy of peace, something that probably led to his assassination more than his civil rights work.  Here is a link to his speech for which I did some of the research:
As an atheist, sitting in the church listening to his speech was difficult, but his words show the power of Dr. King to be more than that of a ideologue, a demagogue, or a empty idealist. He was motivated by his faith, a Pauline Christianity that irritated me as much as I am sure that my Kant-Schopenhauer view of the world did him.  The point is that we saw each other not as members of groups, but as individuals, individuals with unique traits and personalities and qualities.  Dr. King realized, even as he spoke on behalf of the poor, the African Americans, the dismissed of society, that while it is easy to hate a stereotype, it is difficult to hate an individual if one takes the time to know that person. We were individuals who admired and respected each other.  Our efforts, I am sure, helped to eventually bring an end to America's involvement in that ugly war, and I had hoped taught America a lesson about killing people over philosophies.  Now I know our hopes were nothing more that dreams. Not only is my country in a war, but  also we are killing not only the combatants in the war but also their victims. "Killing" is a strong word, but what else can one call it, when a Country turns its back on those fleeing the "enemy" and delivers them up to the ideologues and religious bigots no better than Nazis.

As a freedom rider I endured many hardships so that my country could have racial equality and harmony. What has gone wrong?  Why do we have to have a "Black Lives Matter" movement? What has disappeared in our moral fabric that we do not value everyone.  To those who say, "All lives matter," I would respond that yes they do; however, it seems that only African Americans are dying of gunshot wounds on almost every new newscast. We need a voice to appear who can lead us to Dr. King's dream.  Wordsworth asked for Milton to return. Paul Lawrence Dunbar asked Frederick Douglass to return. I ask Dr. King to return. We need your guidance, your conscience, your wisdom, and your voice.

Privilege has forever been a cause of vice. A university in my own backyard is now the home of a "White Student Union," something designed to protect "white rights." The very idea makes me cringe with shame.  That young, white adults--the most privileged people on earth--are ignorant enough to think that they are abused bewilders and saddens me. This is not just a step backwards--it is ten giant steps backwards and transmits a message that is horrifying and dispiriting. We see the stereotypes and not the individuals.  We have become cavemen fearing anyone from a different tribe. Schopenhauer said that to injure someone in the phenomenal world is to injure ourselves in the noumenal world.  Where is that idea now?

This holiday has always been a favorite of mine.  Sadly, the turkey will leave a bitter taste in my mouth today.
Happy Thanksgiving.