Courage and Belief

Albrecht Dürer. Cupid the Honey Thief (from Olga's Gallery)

I blame my silence of late on long hours in a windowless room and long weekends in wide-open spaces. One wipes all creative thoughts away and the other makes the thought of trying to describe a moment anathema to the moment's loveliness. But words will mount up as they always do, and threaten to spill over.

I spent the last two weekends at my home, my original home, not my current one. Two weekends ago there was a wonderful family party an over-flowing used bookstore (in which was found a copy of the Amphigorey; an illustrated Aubrey Beardsley; and a two-volume collection of Keats' letters); and a lovely shoebox of tomatoes carted back on the train.

The week was grey (office grey, not oyster, pearl, lemony, or pale blue grey), and closed-up and a bit stifling and I don't like to dwell on it.

Friday was euphoric: a friend discovered tickets to Mother Courage and her Children and I trekked up to the park, leaving midtown and all of its sharp corners for the cool, damp, and quite verdant park. There was a fantastic sense of being back on Hampstead Heath, walking from the Kenwood House to the small home of the woman who was to be my "History of London" professor during the study abroad term I loved so much. We walked through cold, wet grass, horse and hound crossings, and creeping mist to be greeted with hot tea and those little cakes and sandwiches that are perfect for restoring strength.
That's what the walk from Cedar Hill to the Delacorte reminded me of last Friday, and it was still trumped, impressively, by Brecht's play.

I've spoken at length about the play already, during the walk home from it, last weekend with my family, again with a friend; but those conversations can't be recaptured. What I have been thinking about since the play, and since the conversations, is how strongly I was reminded of the Greek tragedy and comedy I've read. In Brecht's play, there's a wonderful ease to the way comedy shifts to tragedy and then back again, and an incredible intensity of each. I'm not one who gives up disbelief easily, but this play had me in minutes.

Oh, and I love Kevin Kline.

As far as the reading of late goes, I've just finished Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis, a book that was unfortunately omitted from our collection at the library. But I purchased it, read it, and enjoyed it. I've always been a bit of a mythology nerd (in fact, I'm a bit of a nerd about a lot of things, as my sister has enjoyed reminding me of lately...), and this re-telling of the Psyche and Cupid tale was just what I needed. (I think it also helped me to find the Greek-ness in Mother Courage). CS Lewis returns often to the question of belief, but he does it from so many different angles. In the Narnia Chronicles, we see belief and faith at its most innocent. The Out of Silent Planet trilogy takes belief in the adult world and shows how close to insanity belief in something extra-ordinary will seem. The eldil at the end of Hideous Strength are creatures I would love to believe in, beautiful, otherwordly, and infinitely precise in what they are.

The sort of belief in Till We Have Faces is of a much darker, blood-soaked variety. The cruel and capricious gods are more real than the sun-lit reason of Greek philosophy. The truth of sacrifice and injustice and pain are what should be believed in, not freedom or a tidy sort of justice.

It's jealousy and self-service that lie at the root of everything, a lesson that Mother Courage teaches as well....though in both works, there is an alternate lesson as well.

These are the truths of mortality; they touch no part of the divine. Lewis describes well the reaction of mortal flesh to the divine -- pure soul-shrinking shame. Belief is born from that feeling of shame, a feeling that crystallizes when the broad and penetrating beam of honesty brings to light every dark recess and hidden flaw. It's a light which reveals everything and forgives nothing; but a light that can be faced with courage and a matching honesty of acceptance. I like to believe that there is some fragment of the divine in each mortal mass, a fragment from which courage can be pulled and belief sustained.

But I also believe that the roles of courage and belief are often played by shoddy actors in creaking costumes and cracking face paint.

Courage and Belief

Albrecht Dürer. Cupid the Honey Thief (from Olga's Gallery)

I blame my silence of late on long hours in a windowless room and long weekends in wide-open spaces. One wipes all creative thoughts away and the other makes the thought of trying to describe a moment anathema to the moment's loveliness. But words will mount up as they always do, and threaten to spill over.

I spent the last two weekends at my home, my original home, not my current one. Two weekends ago there was a wonderful family party an over-flowing used bookstore (in which was found a copy of the Amphigorey; an illustrated Aubrey Beardsley; and a two-volume collection of Keats' letters); and a lovely shoebox of tomatoes carted back on the train.

The week was grey (office grey, not oyster, pearl, lemony, or pale blue grey), and closed-up and a bit stifling and I don't like to dwell on it.

Friday was euphoric: a friend discovered tickets to Mother Courage and her Children and I trekked up to the park, leaving midtown and all of its sharp corners for the cool, damp, and quite verdant park. There was a fantastic sense of being back on Hampstead Heath, walking from the Kenwood House to the small home of the woman who was to be my "History of London" professor during the study abroad term I loved so much. We walked through cold, wet grass, horse and hound crossings, and creeping mist to be greeted with hot tea and those little cakes and sandwiches that are perfect for restoring strength.
That's what the walk from Cedar Hill to the Delacorte reminded me of last Friday, and it was still trumped, impressively, by Brecht's play.

I've spoken at length about the play already, during the walk home from it, last weekend with my family, again with a friend; but those conversations can't be recaptured. What I have been thinking about since the play, and since the conversations, is how strongly I was reminded of the Greek tragedy and comedy I've read. In Brecht's play, there's a wonderful ease to the way comedy shifts to tragedy and then back again, and an incredible intensity of each. I'm not one who gives up disbelief easily, but this play had me in minutes.

Oh, and I love Kevin Kline.

As far as the reading of late goes, I've just finished Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis, a book that was unfortunately omitted from our collection at the library. But I purchased it, read it, and enjoyed it. I've always been a bit of a mythology nerd (in fact, I'm a bit of a nerd about a lot of things, as my sister has enjoyed reminding me of lately...), and this re-telling of the Psyche and Cupid tale was just what I needed. (I think it also helped me to find the Greek-ness in Mother Courage). CS Lewis returns often to the question of belief, but he does it from so many different angles. In the Narnia Chronicles, we see belief and faith at its most innocent. The Out of Silent Planet trilogy takes belief in the adult world and shows how close to insanity belief in something extra-ordinary will seem. The eldil at the end of Hideous Strength are creatures I would love to believe in, beautiful, otherwordly, and infinitely precise in what they are.

The sort of belief in Till We Have Faces is of a much darker, blood-soaked variety. The cruel and capricious gods are more real than the sun-lit reason of Greek philosophy. The truth of sacrifice and injustice and pain are what should be believed in, not freedom or a tidy sort of justice.

It's jealousy and self-service that lie at the root of everything, a lesson that Mother Courage teaches as well....though in both works, there is an alternate lesson as well.

These are the truths of mortality; they touch no part of the divine. Lewis describes well the reaction of mortal flesh to the divine -- pure soul-shrinking shame. Belief is born from that feeling of shame, a feeling that crystallizes when the broad and penetrating beam of honesty brings to light every dark recess and hidden flaw. It's a light which reveals everything and forgives nothing; but a light that can be faced with courage and a matching honesty of acceptance. I like to believe that there is some fragment of the divine in each mortal mass, a fragment from which courage can be pulled and belief sustained.

But I also believe that the roles of courage and belief are often played by shoddy actors in creaking costumes and cracking face paint.

Of treetops, lunacy, and laughter

Schiele's Little Tree

Well if my last post bordered on self-pity, my fantastic weekend certainly turned things around. I had a beautifully open two days which were spent doing quite a few of my favorite things. I had a lovely long walk on Saturday, complete with the exhibit at the NYPL on the dialogue between French artists and writers; lunch in Bryant Park, book browsing at The Strand, and an evening with La Dolce Vita.

I could write an entire entry on any one of those, but the combination has left me (almost) speechless with bookish happiness. I saw a first edition Nadja by Andre Breton; Mallarme illustrated by Manet (I'm sorry, just writing that phrase leaves me a bit giddy); Ernst photo-collages; and the most fantastic Magritte book-object complete with cut-outs and a strange half-jingle-bell stuck into cardboard.

At The Strand I picked up a cheap but long sought-after copy of Une Semaine de Bonte, allowing me to puzzle over bird-headed people, ladies gushing water, and sinister claws creeping out from behind tailcoats whenever I please.

I ended my evening with La Dolce Vita (in the fashion of my days as a librarian--though my last few weekends in NY have been uncharacteristically raucous). I was entranced from start to finish and have not been able to shake the vision of aristocracy ghost-hunting in the ancient villa.

Sunday began with Don Quixote, the largest book on my summer reading docket, which I'm going to say is the reason why I've put it off for so long. Why?! I spent the morning laughing in my apartment, and then laughing on the roof of my building as I read through the true hilarity of this book. I put The Knight of Sorrowful Coutenance aside for a bit as a trooped downtown to check out a pool.

I have a theory that if you're the athletic type and you spend your formative years learning to excel at one specific sport, you will never, ever leave that sport behind. I haven't swam in over a year but chlorine water flows as swiftly through my veins as it ever did. I've been craving a good long swim for a while now, and yesterday I found it. I joined NYHRC which has the most pools in the city (as far as I could research) and had myself a lovely, muscle-wearying swim.

It was divine, and left me in the highest of spirits for the rest of the afternoon.

And if that weren't enough to send me off to a merry week, I had yet another fantastic encounter. A beautiful bookstore boy, a friendly grey cat, and a new Italo Calvino: The Baron in the Trees...plus a whole slew of books ordered (so as to have a good excuse to return to the bookstore and visit with the aforementioned boy and cat).

I took my Calvino into the park and read beside a hedge full of gregarious chickadees as Cosimo established himself as a treetop dweller. A certain sort of, if not lunacy, then at least eccentricity that put me in a good mood as I thought of my fortuitous pairing of books.

Bosch's Ship of Fools

I returned to Don Quixote and laughed myself to sleep as I read through the funniest passage I have ever come across in a book-- the valorous engagement between Don Quixote and the herds of sheep.

I can't think of a better way to end a weekend.

Of treetops, lunacy, and laughter

Schiele's Little Tree

Well if my last post bordered on self-pity, my fantastic weekend certainly turned things around. I had a beautifully open two days which were spent doing quite a few of my favorite things. I had a lovely long walk on Saturday, complete with the exhibit at the NYPL on the dialogue between French artists and writers; lunch in Bryant Park, book browsing at The Strand, and an evening with La Dolce Vita.

I could write an entire entry on any one of those, but the combination has left me (almost) speechless with bookish happiness. I saw a first edition Nadja by Andre Breton; Mallarme illustrated by Manet (I'm sorry, just writing that phrase leaves me a bit giddy); Ernst photo-collages; and the most fantastic Magritte book-object complete with cut-outs and a strange half-jingle-bell stuck into cardboard.

At The Strand I picked up a cheap but long sought-after copy of Une Semaine de Bonte, allowing me to puzzle over bird-headed people, ladies gushing water, and sinister claws creeping out from behind tailcoats whenever I please.

I ended my evening with La Dolce Vita (in the fashion of my days as a librarian--though my last few weekends in NY have been uncharacteristically raucous). I was entranced from start to finish and have not been able to shake the vision of aristocracy ghost-hunting in the ancient villa.

Sunday began with Don Quixote, the largest book on my summer reading docket, which I'm going to say is the reason why I've put it off for so long. Why?! I spent the morning laughing in my apartment, and then laughing on the roof of my building as I read through the true hilarity of this book. I put The Knight of Sorrowful Coutenance aside for a bit as a trooped downtown to check out a pool.

I have a theory that if you're the athletic type and you spend your formative years learning to excel at one specific sport, you will never, ever leave that sport behind. I haven't swam in over a year but chlorine water flows as swiftly through my veins as it ever did. I've been craving a good long swim for a while now, and yesterday I found it. I joined NYHRC which has the most pools in the city (as far as I could research) and had myself a lovely, muscle-wearying swim.

It was divine, and left me in the highest of spirits for the rest of the afternoon.

And if that weren't enough to send me off to a merry week, I had yet another fantastic encounter. A beautiful bookstore boy, a friendly grey cat, and a new Italo Calvino: The Baron in the Trees...plus a whole slew of books ordered (so as to have a good excuse to return to the bookstore and visit with the aforementioned boy and cat).

I took my Calvino into the park and read beside a hedge full of gregarious chickadees as Cosimo established himself as a treetop dweller. A certain sort of, if not lunacy, then at least eccentricity that put me in a good mood as I thought of my fortuitous pairing of books.

Bosch's Ship of Fools

I returned to Don Quixote and laughed myself to sleep as I read through the funniest passage I have ever come across in a book-- the valorous engagement between Don Quixote and the herds of sheep.

I can't think of a better way to end a weekend.

An Empty Box

Vermeer's Girl Asleep at a Table

I don't have much of a topic tonight, but I do have something I'd like to attribute that fact to:

I am the sort of person who notices small, overlooked bits of life and experience. I like to look at flowers, read signs, check out loose threads on the glossy people who surround me. I like finding spelling errors and incongruities in images. I particularly like noticing thoughts, the ones I didn't realize I was having, and then to think about how I came to be thinking that particular thing.

But this capability of mine requires fuel: it requires variety I suppose, and that certain crystallization of the world when it suddenly makes sense to look just a bit deeper, to immerse myself in the sharper edges, brighter colors, in the surficial pool and eddy of life and nature and experience.

And lately I've found myself sedentary, artificially illumined, and in a world of paper and a different way of speaking. It's not a world conducive to interesting thoughts.

Sometimes I think that I live best when I am living outwardly: when my moments of existence are more tightly rooted to the place I am in. But there is an acute divorce of mind and moment which occurs when an interested person finds herself in uninteresting confines.

How can I infuse life into this lifestyle I am currently and necessarily leading? Weekends help thoroughly, as does a continuous, though slower-moving stream of fiction, poetry, and criticism. It helps to be naturally of a mutable and swift mind, the sort that finds its feet quickly and feels comfortable in a multitude of contexts. But it's hard to keep the spirits from sinking, and if my mind is naturally quick, my spirits are naturally melancholic.

I do love that last word, its in my top twenty or so favorite words, along with mercurial, saturnalia, mellifluous, gloaming, nightshade, and chrysanthemum (there are many others, now that I think about it). It's interesting to think about how I only really have favorite words in one language...any words I may enjoy in French would be for a one-sided reason, not at all like the English words I adore for their auditory qualities as well as the wealth of meaning they also carry. Fluency is such a strange thing--utterly unnoticed and yet essential to exist as a specific person.

An Empty Box

Vermeer's Girl Asleep at a Table

I don't have much of a topic tonight, but I do have something I'd like to attribute that fact to:

I am the sort of person who notices small, overlooked bits of life and experience. I like to look at flowers, read signs, check out loose threads on the glossy people who surround me. I like finding spelling errors and incongruities in images. I particularly like noticing thoughts, the ones I didn't realize I was having, and then to think about how I came to be thinking that particular thing.

But this capability of mine requires fuel: it requires variety I suppose, and that certain crystallization of the world when it suddenly makes sense to look just a bit deeper, to immerse myself in the sharper edges, brighter colors, in the surficial pool and eddy of life and nature and experience.

And lately I've found myself sedentary, artificially illumined, and in a world of paper and a different way of speaking. It's not a world conducive to interesting thoughts.

Sometimes I think that I live best when I am living outwardly: when my moments of existence are more tightly rooted to the place I am in. But there is an acute divorce of mind and moment which occurs when an interested person finds herself in uninteresting confines.

How can I infuse life into this lifestyle I am currently and necessarily leading? Weekends help thoroughly, as does a continuous, though slower-moving stream of fiction, poetry, and criticism. It helps to be naturally of a mutable and swift mind, the sort that finds its feet quickly and feels comfortable in a multitude of contexts. But it's hard to keep the spirits from sinking, and if my mind is naturally quick, my spirits are naturally melancholic.

I do love that last word, its in my top twenty or so favorite words, along with mercurial, saturnalia, mellifluous, gloaming, nightshade, and chrysanthemum (there are many others, now that I think about it). It's interesting to think about how I only really have favorite words in one language...any words I may enjoy in French would be for a one-sided reason, not at all like the English words I adore for their auditory qualities as well as the wealth of meaning they also carry. Fluency is such a strange thing--utterly unnoticed and yet essential to exist as a specific person.

Vinteuil's Little Phrase

Cover image of Miranda Lehman's album: Shipwrecks and Russian Roulette
(image borrowed from the 16sparrows website)


I should probably change the title of this blog to "Dusty Letters from a Librarian"

I have had a post-it note stuck onto the back cover of A.S. Byatt's A Whistling Woman for about a week now; on it is written:

Vinteuil's little phrase
Shipwrecks and Russian Roulette
NY Mag and affair with Proustian

This cryptic scrawl has been intended to serve as a reminder to me to write a post about those three phrases, here it is.

I take a sordid pride in being able to talk about my journey through memory with Proust. I've truly loved the volumes I've read (I'm in the early stages of v. five), and spent too many hours copying out passages and lamenting my vanishing knowledge of french. The pride comes in knowing that out of the gobs of people who have a tendency to use "Proustian" as a catchall descriptor for memory, or a madeleine to lend credibility to their description of being launched through the vaults of memory upon the merest whiff, taste, glimpse, or some other sensory experience, out of all of those people, only a select few have actually read anything by Proust.

In the latest issue of NYMag (the cheap eats one), "Proustian" shows up twice, a frequency which prompted me to google the word and see how many hits I came up with. In doing this I realized that the word itself has been extracted from its literary meaning (the fact that it only has meaning because there are six volumes of prose attached to it), and given a dictionary meaning. Not quite fair to the six volumes of prose which have somehow become consolidated (impressively) into one compact word.

In the process of glossing Proust the NY Mag way, countless of other quotable/pseudo-archetypal descriptions are missed. The madeleine scene may be well-known, but what about "the unconscious author of my sufferings"? A phrase that haunts me a bit, turning up whenever my mind is relaxed, plagiarised countless times, in countless places.

But my favorite is "Vinteuil's little phrase" and the passage in Within a Budding Grove where the narrator describes the effect of a great work of art when it touches you inexplicably and personally:

In Vinteuil's sonata the beauties that one discovers soonest are those also of which one tires most quickly, and for the same reason, no doubt-- namely that they are less different from what one already knows. But when those first impressions have receded, there remains for our enjoyment some passage whose structure, too new and strange to offer anything but confusion to our mind, had made it indistinguishable and so preserved intact; and this, which we have passed every day without knowing it, which had held itself in reserve for us, which by the sheer power of its beauty had become invisible and remained unknown, this comes to us last of all. But we shall also relinquish it last. And we shall love it longer than the rest because we have taken longer to get to love it. The time, moreover, that a person requires --as I required in the case of this sonata -- to penetrate a work of any depth is merely an epitome, a symbol, one might say, of the years, the centuries even, that must elapse, before the public can begin to cherish a masterpiece that is really new.

Reading this again reminds me of what I wrote about Brueghel's Fall of Icarus and my love for this painting. My favorite bit is not the lovely little feet kicking in the corner--the well-looked for and well-loved irony of the composition-- my favorite thing to look at again and again are the stairs, the gently curving, shadowed stairs. And like the narrator in the above passage, there is nothing I can point to to explain my love of those stairs in that painting, the closer I come up to them, the more invisible they seem.

And the last thing on my post-it note: Shipwrecks and Russian Roulette is the name of an album by Miranda Lehman, a short, sprawling album with only ten tracks and one main musical phrase. I have fallen in love with this CD... hard, fast, furious love. It haunts me (I'm haunted by a lot lately) and I listen to it when I wake up, before I fall asleep, and sometimes during the day if I can persuade myself to turn off Regina Spektor's Samson for about 30 minutes.

Vinteuil's Little Phrase

Cover image of Miranda Lehman's album: Shipwrecks and Russian Roulette
(image borrowed from the 16sparrows website)


I should probably change the title of this blog to "Dusty Letters from a Librarian"

I have had a post-it note stuck onto the back cover of A.S. Byatt's A Whistling Woman for about a week now; on it is written:

Vinteuil's little phrase
Shipwrecks and Russian Roulette
NY Mag and affair with Proustian

This cryptic scrawl has been intended to serve as a reminder to me to write a post about those three phrases, here it is.

I take a sordid pride in being able to talk about my journey through memory with Proust. I've truly loved the volumes I've read (I'm in the early stages of v. five), and spent too many hours copying out passages and lamenting my vanishing knowledge of french. The pride comes in knowing that out of the gobs of people who have a tendency to use "Proustian" as a catchall descriptor for memory, or a madeleine to lend credibility to their description of being launched through the vaults of memory upon the merest whiff, taste, glimpse, or some other sensory experience, out of all of those people, only a select few have actually read anything by Proust.

In the latest issue of NYMag (the cheap eats one), "Proustian" shows up twice, a frequency which prompted me to google the word and see how many hits I came up with. In doing this I realized that the word itself has been extracted from its literary meaning (the fact that it only has meaning because there are six volumes of prose attached to it), and given a dictionary meaning. Not quite fair to the six volumes of prose which have somehow become consolidated (impressively) into one compact word.

In the process of glossing Proust the NY Mag way, countless of other quotable/pseudo-archetypal descriptions are missed. The madeleine scene may be well-known, but what about "the unconscious author of my sufferings"? A phrase that haunts me a bit, turning up whenever my mind is relaxed, plagiarised countless times, in countless places.

But my favorite is "Vinteuil's little phrase" and the passage in Within a Budding Grove where the narrator describes the effect of a great work of art when it touches you inexplicably and personally:

In Vinteuil's sonata the beauties that one discovers soonest are those also of which one tires most quickly, and for the same reason, no doubt-- namely that they are less different from what one already knows. But when those first impressions have receded, there remains for our enjoyment some passage whose structure, too new and strange to offer anything but confusion to our mind, had made it indistinguishable and so preserved intact; and this, which we have passed every day without knowing it, which had held itself in reserve for us, which by the sheer power of its beauty had become invisible and remained unknown, this comes to us last of all. But we shall also relinquish it last. And we shall love it longer than the rest because we have taken longer to get to love it. The time, moreover, that a person requires --as I required in the case of this sonata -- to penetrate a work of any depth is merely an epitome, a symbol, one might say, of the years, the centuries even, that must elapse, before the public can begin to cherish a masterpiece that is really new.

Reading this again reminds me of what I wrote about Brueghel's Fall of Icarus and my love for this painting. My favorite bit is not the lovely little feet kicking in the corner--the well-looked for and well-loved irony of the composition-- my favorite thing to look at again and again are the stairs, the gently curving, shadowed stairs. And like the narrator in the above passage, there is nothing I can point to to explain my love of those stairs in that painting, the closer I come up to them, the more invisible they seem.

And the last thing on my post-it note: Shipwrecks and Russian Roulette is the name of an album by Miranda Lehman, a short, sprawling album with only ten tracks and one main musical phrase. I have fallen in love with this CD... hard, fast, furious love. It haunts me (I'm haunted by a lot lately) and I listen to it when I wake up, before I fall asleep, and sometimes during the day if I can persuade myself to turn off Regina Spektor's Samson for about 30 minutes.