05 February 2015

7 Ladycroft, Wellington, Surrey
Sunday 10 March 1946

Philip Larkin to J.B. Sutton:

     " ... I have been feeling cheerful today on account of the weather. Really it has been a delightful early spring day. The sun has been shining in the cold sky since dawn and even now at 20 to 6 I can see the last flush of it on the red brick house opposite. There has never been a single cloud in the sky, north, south, east, or west. I walked in the morning and in the afternoon too, first round the wooded foot of some local hills, along paths that were very muddy because the sun was bringing out the frost, and then round the villages this afternoon, looking at the graveyards and the different houses all quiet on Sunday afternoon. You can remember, I expect, days like this when every thing far or near at hand seems specially graced by the light. Sheep, railway engines, yards, lanes, distant hills, iron gates, drinking pumps.

     "I was not in a mood when I wanted to make anything out of it: I was quite happy to let it alone. After weeks and months of small, feeble, intermittent harmonies from my own character, this sudden enormous flood was as wonderful as hearing Earl Hines after a YMCA piano-basher. It makes me glad to be alive and sets my head humming with all sorts of schemes, that will live as long as gnats. Certainly the privilege of being able to walk about on a day like this makes nonsense temporarily of all one's hopes and fears. All that matters is that we've only got fifty years, at the outside, to look around. So let us be as eager and meticulous as a Boston Vice Squad on a mixed bathing-beach, and if we should produce art, so much the better, but the only quality that makes art durable & famous is the quality of generating delight in the state of living. It is the peculiar function of art to do this. A book concerning the most vital social and political problems may be quite dead except for a description of a man eating a steak pudding ... "

                                                               -- from "Selected Letters of Philip Larkin   
                                                               1940-1985." ed. Anthony Thwaite.

02 February 2015

Talking about books. On the radio.

How it should be done -- here

04 June 2013

" ... While the zipper may not be a monumental or socially transforming technology like the railway or electricity, it is the only machine -- and machine is what it is -- [which is] regularly operated on a worldwide scale at our most intimate contacts with others and with our environment, sometimes ablutionarily, sometimes seductively ... "

-- Giles Forden, "Alligators of Ecstasy," a review of Robert Friedel, "Zipper: An Exploration of Novelty" (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994), Times Literary Supplement, 26 May 1995.

01 April 2013

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in  my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.

-- Emerson, "Nature."

25 February 2012



"A dangerously liquid world" -- John Sutherland discusses drinking and its sequelae: here here and here.

"We're addicted to rehab. It doesn't even work" -- here.

11 November 2011

* * * THE READING ROOM * * *

... Oblivion, thought Miranda, her mind feeling among her memories of words she had been taught to describe the unseen, the unknowable, is a whirlpool of gray water turning upon itself for all eternity ... eternity is perhaps more than the distance to the farthest star. She lay on a narrow ledge over a pit that she knew to be bottomless, though she could not comprehend it; the ledge was her childhood dream of danger, and she strained back against a reassuring wall of granite at her shoulders, staring into the pit, thinking, There it is, there it is at last, it is very simple; and soft carefully shaped words like oblivion or eternity are curtains hung before nothing at all. I shall not know when it happens, I shall not feel or remember, why can't I consent now, I am lost, there is no hope for me. Look, she told herself, there it is, that is death and there is nothing to fear. But she could not consent, still shrinking stiffly against the granite wall that was her childhood dream of safety, breathing slowly for fear of squandering breath, saying desperately, Look, don't be afraid, it is nothing, it is only eternity.

Granite walls, whirlpools, stars are things. None of them is death, nor the image of it. Death is death, said Miranda, and for the dead it has no attributes. Silenced she sank easily though deeps under deeps of darkness until she lay like a stone at the farthest bottom of life, knowing herself to be blind, deaf, speechless, no longer aware of the members of her own body, entirely withdrawn from all concerns, yet alive with a peculiar lucidity and coherence; all notions of the mind, the reasonable inquiries of doubt, all ties of blood and the desires of the heart, dissolved and fell away from her, and there remained of her only a minute fiercely burning particle of being that knew itself alone, that relied upon nothing beyond itself for its strength; not susceptible to any appeal or inducement, being itself composed of one single motive, the stubborn will to live. This fiery motionless particle set itself to resist destruction, to survive and to be in its own madness of being, motionless and planless beyond that one essential end. Trust me, the hard unwinking angry point of life said. Trust me. I stay.

-- Katherine Anne Porter, Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1938).
"Is happiness worth losing your memory?" -- here.

Jonathan Cott and ECT: here

12 October 2011

. . . Error is Created. Truth is Eternal. Error, or Creation, will be Burned up, & then, & not till then, Truth & Eternity will appear. It is Burnt Up the Moment Men cease to behold it. I assert for My Self that I do not behold the outward Creation & that to me it is hindrance & not action; it is as dirt upon my feet, No part of Me.

"What," it will be Question'd, "When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?"

O no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty."

I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight. I look thro' it & not with it.

-- William Blake, A Vision of the Last Judgment.

I have very little of Mr. Blake's company; he is always in Paradise.

-- Kate Blake, his wife, attrib.

09 October 2011

* * * THE READING ROOM * * *

That direct stare which passes between the young and the old is high up among the classic confrontations. It prefaces one of the great dialogues of opposites, and contains a frank admission of helplessness on either side, for nothing can be done to blot out the detail of what has been, or block in the detail of what is to come.

On the one side is the clean sheet and on the other the crammed page, although the aged man knows only too well that youth isn't pristine, and that some of the ugliest marks to be found on the record were made then. As young and old survey each other, there is no envy and very little envy respectively. The young do not want to be old, nor do they entirely believe that they ever could be, and the old, generally speaking, do not wish to be young. Once through the gamut of time is enough for most people. What usually occurs is that an aged man still finds life surprisingly sweet and desire
s more agedness, but not a repeat full trip.

The young and the old are also sympathetically linked by their common awareness of the burdensome nature of life, because being strong and facing the prospect before us can be as daunting as being weak and facing the end of the road. In one respect, however, the old have the advantage, for with agedness comes an amazing recall of the talk and actions of youth -- exquisite, painful, shaming, triumphant or whatever.

The busy decades of work, parenthood and adult drives of all kinds promised to have obliterated these immaturities, and one of the shocks and sensations of old age is the completeness of their recovery. If the young could understand the intensity of this recall, it would be enough to make them deliberately do things worth the recalling, a kind of burying of spring's trophies to be dug up for nourishment in the winter. So the main difference in the confrontation is that the young do not realise that they are accumulating the memories which alone, in old age, will often make them interesting and tolerable to youth. For it is a bitterness which no amount of common sense can lessen, that memories are about the only thing that youth will want from age.

-- Ronald Blythe, The View in Winter: Reflections on Old Age (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979)

15 July 2010

Anthony Thwaite, in the New Statesman, on Philip Larkin -- here

08 October 2009


Boston, 1850 ... Early in the day chambermaids are seen hanging the bedclothes out of the upper windows; at the window of a basement of the same house, I see a woman ironing. Were I a solitary prisoner, I should not doubt to find occupation of deep interest for my whole day in watching only one of the houses. One house seems to be quite shut up; all the blinds in the three windows of each of the four stories being closed, although in the roof-windows of the attic story the curtains are hung carelessly upward, instead of being drawn. I think the house is empty, perhaps for the summer.

The visible side of the whole row of houses is now in the shade, -- they looking towards, I should say, the southwest. Later in the day, they are wholly covered with sunshine, and continue so through the afternoon; and at evening the sunshine slowly
withdraws upward, gleams aslant the
windows, perches on the chimneys, and so disappears. The upper part of the spire and the weathercock of the Park Street Church appear over one of the houses, looking as if it were close behind. It shows the wind to be east now.

At one of the windows of the third story sits a woman in a colored dress, diligently sewing on something white. She sews, not like a lady, but with an occupational air. Her dress, I observe, on closer observation, is a kind of loose morning sack, with, I think, a silky gloss on it; and she seems to have a silver comb in her hair, -- no, this latter item is a mistake. Sheltered as the space is between the two rows of houses, a puff of the eastwind finds its way in, and shakes off some of the withering blossoms from the cherry-trees.

Quiet as the prospect is, there is a continual and near thunder of wheels proceeding from Washington Street. In a building not far off, there is a hall for exhibitions; and sometimes, in the evenings, loud music is heard from it; or, if a diorama be shown (that of Bunker Hill, for instance, or the burning of Moscow), an immense racket of imitative cannon and musketry.

-- Nathaniel Hawthorne, The American Notebooks.
A world: what belongs to us, our habitat, mental or physical; what's out there, beyond the mind and the self, the profusion of things we haven't dreamed or invented; other people; an order, a coherence, a realm, or a shape drawn on the face of chaos. It's also ... what we talk about when we are getting above ourselves. A world: most of us are lucky if we have a street or a block or a patch of garden where we know our way around; if we know where our house is situated.

-- Michael Wood, in the New York Review of Books, 14 July 1994.

03 October 2009

Justin Cartwright
lowering himself to shtick? Parodist John Crace takes aim -- here.
Ban on baby pictures lifted.

. . . . . GENESIS 1:1 AND ALL THAT

"The most rewarding journalistic year of my life" comes to an end.

15 September 2009

The man who makes personal contacts with his fellows
runs the risk of being laughed at if he is ridiculous; of being contradicted if what he says happens to be untrue or to displease his hearers; of being knocked down if he is offensive; and of being simply disregarded, ignored, and disbelieved if he happens to lack the impressive personality which commands attention and inspires respect.

The writer, on the contrary, runs no such risks. He is promoted from mere humanity and has attained the apotheosis of the printed word, which still preserves something of the talismanic and supernatural quality which letters and symbols, hieroglyphs and formulas have possessed from the remotest beginnings of civilization.

Concealing his merely human physique and personality, the author presents himself to the world disguised in the magic and pontifical robes of pure verbiage. To the eyes of the multitude he offers not his own insignificant form but a vast and majestic dummy of paper ...

-- Aldous Huxley, Vanity Fair (1928) [abridged here by ET], from "Complete Essays, Vol. II: 1926-1929," ed. Robert S. Baker and James Sexton (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000).

06 August 2009

"Hallucinations are never
loud" -- Oliver Sacks.

No, hallucinations are loud -- here.


14 April 2009


William James introduces Benjamin Paul Blood (1832-1919), author of "The Anesthetic Revelation" -- here.

11 April 2009

In hourglasses the grains of sand increasingly rub one another smooth until finally they flow almost without friction from one bulb into the other, polishing the neck wider all the time. The older an hourglass the more quickly it runs. Unnoticed, the hourglass measures out ever shorter hours.

-- Ernst Juenger

There are ... two kinds of spleen; one mocking, active, passionate, malignant; the other morose and wholly passive, when one's only wish is for silence and solitude and the oblivion of sleep. For anyone possessed by this latter kind, nothing has meaning, the destruction of the world would hardly move him. At such times I could wish the earth were a shell filled with gunpowder, which I would put a match to for my diversion.

-- Hector Berlioz, Memoirs, translated by David Cairns.

17 February 2009

Not to be overlooked in the Darwin centenary. Begin reading here.

26 January 2009


A Patriotic Lullaby

The quilt that covers all of us, to date,
Has patches numbered 1 to 48,
Five northern rents, a crooked central seam,
A ragged eastern edge, a way
Of bunching uglily and a
Perhaps too energetic color scheme.
Though shaken every twenty years, this fine
Old quilt was never beaten on the line.
It took long making. Generations passed
While thread was sought, and calico
And silk was coaxed from Mexico
And France. The biggest squares were added last.
Don't kick your covers, son. The bed is built
So you can never shake the clinging quilt
That blanketed your birth and tries to keep
Your waking warm, impalpable
As atmosphere. As earth it shall
Be tucked about you through your longest sleep.

-- John Updike, The New Yorker, 16 November 1957, p. 54.


25 January 2009

* * * THE READING ROOM * * *

Intellectual Alpinist Fails to Encounter Deity

"The tips of my fingers just reached their aim, but only touched without anchoring themselves. As I fell back, my foot missed its former support, and my whole weight came down on the feeble left hand. The clutch was instantaneously torn apart, and I was falling through the air. The old flash of surprise crossed my mind, tempered by something like a sense of relief. All was over. The mountains sprang up with a bound ... "

-- Leslie Stephen, A Bad Five Minutes in the Alps, from "Essays on Freethinking and Plainspeaking" (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1873)

26 July 2008

Vita Sackville-West reads from "The Land".

05 April 2008

* * * * THE READING ROOM * * * *

"Are the Histories the nonfiction masterpiece of the nineteenth century in America? Probably. Are they the masterpiece of historical writing in America in any century? Certainly." -- Edmund S. Morgan on Henry Adams in The New York Review of Books, 17 November 2005.

To begin reading at once, click here.

22 February 2008

Epigraph from Michael Gruber's "Valley of the Bones":

There are four evidences of divine mercy here below. The favors of God to beings capable of contemplation (these states exist and
form part of their experience as creatures). The radiance of these beings and their compassion, which is the divine compassion in them. The beauty of the world. The fourth evidence is the complete absence of mercy here below.

-- Simone Weil, "Gravity and Grace."

19 February 2008

* * * * * * * * * * THE READING ROOM * * * * * * * * * *

Elizabeth Hardwick (1916-2007) on Edith Wharton: here.

11 November 2007

Neal Ascherson writes:

"War kills. That is all it does." The words come from Michael Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars, and Carolin Emcke [in Echoes of Violence: Letters from a War Reporter (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007)] has used them as the epigraph for her first chapter. Maybe she took them out of some context that would modify their meaning. I hope so, because they are not true.

War certainly kills, often lavishly. It would be easier to loathe unconditionally if that were all it does. But having lived through one enormous one, fought in a small one, and attended several others as a spectator, I can't deny that wars can make the world go round as well as spattering
it with blood. Wars destroy nations and create others; they release torrents of technological change and innovation that would normally take many decades to evolve. They bereave women and also liberate them; they shatter the isolation of communities and leave them with alien diseases and mountains of military surplus. They empower and enrich thousands of unworthy people, but they also give angry self-confidence to millions of good people who had been taught to regard themselves as worthless. Wars turn cities into archaeology and green meadows into deadly minefields, but they can also generate historic upwellings of hope and solidarity.

When they end, most men and women feel released from a nightmare and swear: "Never again!" But others, while sharing that relief, confess that they found something in war that they loved, and that they will always miss.

-- Neal Ascherson, "Do They Crave War?", The New York Review of Books, 8 November 2007.

* * Also by this writer:

Diary: "Neal Ascherson among the icebergs." London Review of Books, 18 October 2007: here

"It ended the most devastating slaughter until the Second World War." Guardian, 1 November 1998: here

On Poland and the Church. Frontline, PBS, 1998: here

On the old. Guardian, 15 November 1998: : here

On St. Petersburg. Independent, 28 May 2003: here

On Robert Fisk. Independent, 16 October 2005: here

On the fall of Berlin. London Review of Books, 28 November 2002: here

Oh what lovely war! A chance to kill that men just die for. Observer, 11 July 1999: here
"The Moral Equivalent of War" (1910) --

27 October 2007

* * * * * THE READING ROOM * * * *

According to A.N. Wilson "There never was a healthier man of genius, nor one whose talk was so endlesssly absorbing."

The book in question -- here.

23 October 2007

From "The Mail," The New Yorker, July 23, 2007:

Alex Ross draws an interesting portrait of Jean Sibelius and his works ("Apparition in the Woods," July 9th). However, his statement that Finland went to war against the Soviet Union in 1941 "partly because Fascist elements had infiltrated the government and the Army, and partly because the Nazis would have taken over the country anyway" is misleading. Other than in the early nineteen-thirties, when Fascist elements unsuccessfully challenged our democratic system, Fascism did not play a significant role in Finnish politics. There were never any "Nazi-style race laws" in force in Finland, and the Finnish government's wartime policy of resisting German attempts to inspire anti-Jewish actions in Finland has been publicly appreciated by our Jewish communities. For Finland, the Continuation War of 1941-44, as it is called in our history, had its roots in the Winter War. After having attacked Finland in 1939, the Soviet Union acquired, in the Moscow Peace Treaty, important parts of Finnish territory and the right to establish a military base near Helsinki; the annexation of the Baltic countries, in the summer of 1940, demonstrated the expansive nature of the Soviet policies and left the area vulnerable to further aggression. The Continuation War, then, was a defensive struggle for my country, politically separate from the war of the great powers.

Pekka Lintu
Ambassador of Finland
Washington, D.C.

15 October 2007

Sie war ein wirklicher Star!" (Comment on YouTube.)

Zarah Leander Other video clips: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7.

About Zarah Leander: here.

08 October 2007

05 September 2007

* * * * * THE READING ROOM * * * *

 ... The unimaginable scale of our Universe means that astronomy has never really become an experimental science, but has largely remained an observational one, having more in common with, say, archaeology than chemistry or other laboratory-based disciplines. Consequently, even though it is perhaps the oldest science, it is also in some respects the least mature. The absence of the traditional interplay between theory and experiment, the inability to perform repeated experiments under slightly different conditions, and the sheer difficulty of measuring anything at all have stunted its development compared to younger fields.

     For this reason, one often finds in astronomy certain tendencies that other subjects have largely grown out of, such as a mania for classification and nomenclature. Taxonomy has its place within the scientific method: modern chemistry owes much to Mendeleev's periodic table; botany could not have progressed without Linnaeus; and the theory of evolution was founded on Darwin's painstaking studies on the Galapagos Islands. But arranging things in groups and giving them names does not in itself constitute scientific progress, no matter how systematically it is done. The great experimental physicist Lord Rutherford dismissed this kind of activity as not science but "stamp collecting."

     This brings us to the grand debate that took place last summer under the auspices of the International Astronomical Union, and which provides the context for David A. Weintraub's book Is Pluto a Planet? The problem before the IAU General Assembly was what to do about the fact that recent investigations have revealed the presence of a number of objects orbiting the Sun that are ostensibly as worthy of the name "planet" as Pluto, which in our current textbooks is the ninth one out.

     Obviously, which objects should be called planets depends on how you define what a planet is. The solar system contains objects of all shapes and sizes, from tiny asteroids to immense gas giants such as Jupiter and Saturn. Where should one draw the line? The original proposal was to increase the number of planets to twelve by admitting some lowly new members to the club, but in the end the IAU decided to demote Pluto to the status of a "dwarf" planet thus restricting the number of true planets to eight. This was a controversial decision, at least in the United States, because the vital vote was taken on the last day of the meeting when most of the US delegates had to take flights home. Pluto was discovered by an American, Clyde Tombaugh, in 1930, so the decision deprived the nation of its only planet-discoverer.

     The 'no' decision hinged on the adoption of three criteria: that the object be round, i..e., have a shape determined by internal gravitational forces; that it should have cleared its own orbit of debris; and that it should be orbiting our own star, the Sun. None of these has any special scientific value; the resulting decision was therefore pretty arbitrary.

     Moreover, deep-space observations have led to the discovery of literally hundreds of planetlike objects orbiting other stars. These exoplanets offer much greater prospects for scientific progress into the general theory of planet formation than the few objects that happen to have formed in our own particular vicinity, so why are they excluded from the definition? In any case, what have we learned from the new nomenclature? Pluto is still the same object that it was before August 2006, and astronomers still don't understand what one can infer from its own particular properties about the general process of planet formation. Is it a planet? Who cares? In this case there really is nothing in a name."

-- Peter Coles, Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Cardiff, in the Times Literary Supplement, 24/31 August 2007.

04 September 2007

* * * * THE READING ROOM * * * *

At the end of the newsroom now, Lennox Mark was still speechifying about Taylor, the decent but essentially unintelligent editor who was being fired. The ritual of the insulting speech, delivered to the victim before a drunken baying audience, had something of the feeling of a public execution. Sinclo hated bullying. In the army he had always moved in to stop it, actually getting one sadistic corporal court-martialled when he found out what he'd done to his men. Lennox Mark seemed worse than the corporal. Sinclo had to go back to school (Radley) to summon up comparable examples of oikish thuggery. He wanted very much to go up to Mark now and punch his face, as he had once punched a Radley boy who was picking on a younger child.

"Not that Tony could ever be accused of being a dedicated follower of fashion."

Laughter from the sycophants.

The present occasion was making sharply clear in Sinclo's mind impressions which had hitherto been only latent. The mist was clearing and the grotesque edifice was revealed, its gargoyles and resident monsters in all their Grimm Brothers monstrosity. The smoke coming from the nostrils of Peg Montgomery could have been from a dragon's nose. Aubrey Bird (the diarist 'Dr. Arbuthnot'), one of the last men in London to affect royal-blue shirts with white collars, was certainly an evil old fairy. L.P. Watson, whose travel books had so impressed Sinclo, was perhaps one of those knights errant caught in the tangles of a briarwood for a hundred years -- or was he simply in a snare of his own cynicism? And now, entering ostentatiously late, tiptoeing as through a minefield, with such exaggerated movements of her long, thin, pointed shoes (hand-made in Paris) was the Enchantress herself, Mary Much, her silver-blonde bob, and her long, cool, beautiful face gazing mischievously around, casting spells as she strode.

As Lennox spoke, The Daily Legion was exposed to Sinclo in all its brutality and power. And it was the power, expressed through money, of the tycoon which made sycophants of them all: including Sinclo himself. He was fully aware of that, having, on the strength of his Legion salary, taken out a mortgage on a flat he could only just afford. There did not have to be any rules, telling you things which must not be done or said. There was a perpetual atmosphere of fear, generated by Lennox and his wife, by Mary Much and by the editors ...

-- A.N. Wilson, "My Name is Legion" (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

* * * The above reviewed from the "inside" by Victor Sebestyen -- here.
Mahler C Minor Symphony Led by Rodzinski


Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Artur Rodzinski; Astrid Varnay, soprano; Enid Szantho, contralto; and the Westminster Choir, Dr. John Finley Williamson, director.

Dr. Rodzinski's program last night at Carnegie Hall, announced beforehand as being "dedicated to the suffering of the oppressed," was not exactly a heartening affair, even when those dead, personified by the Westminster Chorus, rose to their feet and began to sing (in English) Klopstock's "Resurrection" Ode, used by Gustav Mahler as text for the final part of the fifth movement of his leviathan-like Second Symphony. For this reviewer, the piece is pathetic, but not in the moving sense of the word, because the degree of its insistence on dramatic effect isolates it from the realm of truly important music, and thus deprives it of the right to be judged as such. If the composer had been content to let his work be simply a piece of music, it might have been either a good one or a bad one, but it would at least have stood on its own purely musical merits; however, since he insisted on making it a shocker, complete with chorus, organ, ten horns, augmented percussion, and offstage flourishes, there is no way open for us to consider it from the point of view so feverishly indicated by its creator: from the point of view of dramatic impact. Today, as a thrill-producing device, it is as outmoded as a stereoscope.

One is sorry that Mahler was fated to live and work in age when Disney and Fantasound had not made their appearance, not because he would necessarily have been interested in films as a medium of artistic expression (although he might easily have been, and why not?), but because the infinitely superior ability of that medium to express his particular kind of literary-philosophical magniloquence would have induced him to exercise his talents in fields of expression more appropriate to the art of music.

As it turned out, Mahler's architectural abilities eclipsed his creative sense of proportion, with the result that his music is not situated on a main thoroughfare of music but on a byway. Neither the thematic material of the Second Symphony nor the harmonic treatment of the material is forceful (read: original) enough to assign it to that wide avenue. What is present is a strong personal inflection capable of imbuing his expressive faculty with a high degree of eloquence. But that eloquence is employed almost exclusively to give tongue to a megalomaniacal passion for the grandiose. One has a suspicion that, given the proper circumstances, he might have qualified as a favorite with certain groups in the Third Reich, whose doctrine of glorification of the irrational conditions all esthetic manifestations of that country ...

-- from Paul Bowles on Music, edited by Timothy Mangan and Irene Herrmann (Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 2003).

23 August 2007

* * * * THE VISUAL WORLD * * * *

" ... And who, precisely, is Agnes Martin?

"Her semi-obscurity is exactly the point ...

"The paintings are reticent in turn -- pale, spare, barely there.
(Martin rejected the term Minimalist in favour of Abstract Expressionist, but if she wasn't a Minimalist, it's not clear
who would be.) Her pictures seldom reproduce well; and at first one looks much like another.

"Martin's basic technique stayed the same for years. She began with a square canvas -- precisely six feet by six feet -- and primed it with plain white gesso. On top of the gesso she then laid down faint horizontal lines in pencil, followed by exacting, ultra-thin washes of oil paint or acrylic. Sometimes she added vertical pencil lines, creating delicate grids; at other times, she made simple horizontal stripes. The bands of pigment were usually matt white or off-white, sometimes tinted a pale gray or yellow. Later in her career she added a nearly invisible coral pink and a faint blue pastel to her palette. And that, kids, was that.

"It is impossible to overstate their self-effacing beauty. Martin herself wrote that she believed the function of art to be "the renewal of memories of moments of perfection." Making art seems to have been a kind of meditation for her: she meant her paintings as aids to contemplation -- "floating abstractions" akin to the art of the ancient Chinese. And it's true, though they are built up line by line, by almost imperceptible increments, that after a while her pictures begin vibrating on the retina with a strange energy -- flipping back and forth between metaphysical registers, like one of Wittgenstein's playful visual paradoxes. The sense of calm they evoke in the viewer is similar to the liturgical mood Rothko's work can produce, but Martin is less morbid, theatrical and self-consciously "profound". Facing down the void, Rothko can at times be downright bombastic. Martin is more humane and in some way stronger: smaller in scale, indifferent to sublimity (though her paintings achieve it). It's the difference, perhaps, between Lowell and Bishop.

"Yet there is no doubt that Martin's work will always be caviar -- the very palest of pale fish roe -- to the general. Who better, then, to serve as my guardian angel? The artist would no doubt be appalled to hear it, but admiring her work aloud is now a fail-safe way for the upwardly mobile poseur to signal intellectual depth and all-round ahead-of-the-curveness -- like subscribing to ArtForum and actually reading it. Martin is the sort of artist show-offs show off about, know-it-alls know about. I think I like her -- the whole chaste package -- because she was ... so seemingly unencumbered with envy or the need to strategise. Thinking about her has a soothing effect -- like imagining myself reincarnated as a smooth and shiny pebble, glinting in the sunlight at the bottom of a cold, clear mountain stream ... "

from Terry Castle, "Travels with My Mom", London Review of Books, 16 August 2007. (NOTE: Terry Castle has a blog at terry-castle-blog.blogspot.com.)

15 August 2007

Who knew? Until recently, he didn't.

"For some -- record collectors with every catalogue number at hand, theatre buffs with first-night casts memorized, children who draw precise architectural blueprints of nineteenth-century silk mills -- a cluster of facts can be both luminous and lyric, something around which to construct a life."

-- Tim Page,
Personal History:
"Parallel Play": Living with Asperger's syndrome, in the latest
New Yorker (August 20, 2007)

14 August 2007

"Colors ... are never seen in isolation; they are so puzzlingly variable as to justify a curious observation made by Goethe while he was concerned with the theory of color:

'The chromatic has a strange duplicity and, if I may be permitted such language among ourselves: a kind of double hermaphroditism, a strange claiming, connecting, mingling, neutralizing, nullifying, etc., and furthermore a demand on physiological, pathological, and aesthetical effects, which remains frightening in spite of longstanding acquaintance. And yet, it is always so substantial, so material that one does not know what to think of it.'

"The elusiveness is not so much a particularity of perception as it is of cognition in general. The privilege of observing everything in relation raises understanding to higher levels of complexity and validity, but it exposes the observer at the same time to the infinity of possible connections. It charges him with the task of distinguishing the pertinent relations from the impertinent ones and warily watching the effect things have upon each other."

-- Rudolf Arnheim, Visual Thinking (Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 1969).

05 August 2007

" ... In 1956, the magazine Haiku Research estimated that there were at least four million Haiku poets practicing the art -- if that is the proper word for the tireless permutations of crows perching on a branch, frogs leaping into a pond, drops sliding off bamboo-leaves, and autumn leaves rustling in a ditch. Its stereotyped imagery and fixed number of syllables leave no scope for individuality, style, or critical evaluation. The inquisitive Mr. Enright once asked some professors of literature how they could tell a good Haiku from a bad Haiku. "We cannot," replied one of them, "the trouble is that we don't know what standards to apply. But perhaps you, from Cambridge ... "

"He smiled politely. Another suggested with a strangled cough, "All Haiku are good perhaps?"

-- Arthur Koestler, The Lotus and the Robot (New York: Macmillan, 1961).

26 July 2007

Benjamin Britten on Giuseppe Verdi:

"To analyse a devotion to an art is beyond me, but here are a few observations, which I hope will explain a little why I love the music of Verdi so much.

"The variety and strength of his melodies. Verdi can, of course, write the obvious square tunes, which use many repetitions of the same little phrase and work to an effective climax. These abound in the earlier operas, and are immediately endearing: I think particularly of Parigi o cara in Traviata. But he can also write the long casual lines, a succession of apparently unrelated phrases, which repeated hearings discover to have an enormous tension deep below the surface. The wonderful 'conversational' duet at the end of Act I of Otello is a case in point.

"The perpetual 'unobviousness' of his harmonies. Verdi has the gift, which only the very greatest have had: that of writing a succession of the simplest harmonies in such a way as to sound surprising and yet 'right'. The accompaniment to the Egyptian trumpet tune in Aida is an extreme example of this. Then later in his life he developed a new kind of harmonic originality, which I can most easily describe by reminding the reader of the astounding string accompaniment to the bell strokes in the last scene of Falstaff, and the obscure Ave Maria 'on an enigmatic scale' from the Quattro Pezzi Sacri.

"His attitude to the voices on the stage and the orchestra. This seems to me to be perfectly right. The voices dominate, and the orchestra is in the background -- but what a background! In the later works especially, the orchestra has a range of colours wider than with any other composer. For soft shading, the Nile scene in Aida is inimitable, and no one has ever made the orchestra roar so terrifyingly as at the beginning of Otello.

"In the construction of his later works Verdi seems to have discovered the secret of perfection. At the beginning of his life he accepted the convention of the times in the sharp definition of the numbers, and he balanced these numbers brilliantly. Fundamentally, he never changed this attitude, but later on the numbers melt into each other with a really astonishing subtlety. The fact that the most famous composer alive today [i.e., Stravinsky, in 1951] dismisses Otello and Falstaff 'because they are not written in numbers' shows, it seems to me, that he does not know the works very well.

"And so on. I have no space to write about his vitality, his breadth of humanity, his courage, his extraordinary career which developed into an almost divine serenity. I should like to end with a personal confession. I am an arrogant and an impatient listener; but in the case of a few composers, a very few, when I hear a work I do not like I am convinced it is my own fault. Verdi is one of these composers."

07 July 2007

Robin Holloway, writing about the late Regine Crespin and her performance of the Wolf/Moerike song "In der Fruehe":

" ... Crespin is equally at home at a much lower storey. [RH has just described the Hugo Wolf Society recording by Tiana Lemnitz.] This is the unidealistic version; as always she is richly sexual -- the very timbre as well as her masterly deploymant of it (listen to the chalumeau of 'Nachtgespenster' and 'laenger') make one see and feel the disordered bed, the sultry night, the sensual coils."

-- from "Song on Record," ed. Alan Blyth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

12 June 2007

With some translations you lose so much in the original.

08 June 2007

Ear Trumpet
totters onto the scene once more, and in yet another manifestation. ET's first appearance, as a newspaper column, was back in 1972, when we were all very young -- Seiji Ozawa's appointment as BSO Music Director was greeted with enthusiasm -- how little we knew! -- and there was something called the underground press. But that is a story (perhaps) for later on ...