Monthly Archives: May 2018

on happiness vis-à-vis sadness (and the other way around)

 

 

“We are more apt to feel depressed by the perpetually smiling individual than the one who is honestly sad. If we admit our depression openly and freely, those around us get from it an experience of freedom rather than the depression itself.”

 

— Rollo May, Paulus: Reminiscence of a Friendship (1973)

 

 

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These thoughts, this post, are occasioned by a film I saw about beleaguered people in a foreign country.

I was transfixed — totally engrossed in the people’s stories and the picture the film gave of their daily lives.

I shared my enthusiasm for the film with someone close to me and suggested that she see it with me.

She said no, she had no interest (despite my strong recommendation) in seeing the film.

“Why?” I asked.

She answered (perhaps she was looking for excuses), “I don’t want to see something that will make me sad.”

This struck me as patently ridiculous. Since when has it been imperative to avoid things — in life, in art — with the potential to make oneself sad?

 

 

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It should be obvious that true art mixes joy and beauty with pathos.

In his Poetics, Aristotle developed the theory of catharsis (from the Greek κάθαρσις, catharsis, meaning “purification” or “cleansing” — the purification and purgation of emotions — especially pity and fear — through art”; as explained on Wikipedia). Note that, as explained in the online encyclopedia article, catharsis represents an “extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration” (italics added).

The film which I saw was a documentary about North Korea entitled Under the Sun. More about this below.

 

 

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So much for theory. Let’s consider some examples. But first, a digression about happiness in PEOPLE.

To what extent is happiness a desideratum? Can we expect it? Is there even such a thing — is it real? How should we regard others who are, seem to be, or claim to be happy?

My father, Alan W. Smith, thoroughly enjoyed life, on many levels: an interest in things (including the delight he took in little things, such as observing what happened once to dry ice when he threw a chunk of it over the side of a ship into the water; he wanted us to see it), including intellectual curiosity; a love of music (chiefly as a performer); a delight in people and their company; a delight in little amusements; pleasures such as eating, drinking, and the outdoors (experienced as an everyday citizen, not as a woodsman; e.g., raking leaves in the fall, a walk with his wife or the dog on the seashore, a blizzard). He had a keen appetite for life.

Unlike a lot of adults, he loved his work. He never begrudged, never complained about anything. Welcomed everything and anyone who came his way.

He could loosen and cheer up a group simply by being himself and by virtue of his presence. He didn’t mind looking ridiculous, making fun of himself (or being made fun of), or being regarded as extravagant or incautious.

Oftentimes, he would enter a parlor with people leaning forward in their chairs — tight lipped, looking uncomfortable.

“What’s everybody looking so glum for?” he would say. The complexion of the group would change just like that and people would begin talking and joking. In the words of Louisa May Alcott*, he “pervaded the rooms like a genial atmosphere, using the welcome of eye and hand which needs no language to interpret it, … making their [his guests’] enjoyment his own.”

He took the weather with equanimity, be it a blizzard, a hurricane, or an earthquake.

My father happened to be in the Bay Area, visiting my older brother in the late 1980’s, shortly before the former died, when an earthquake struck. “I’ve always wanted to be able to experience what an earthquake feels like,” he told me afterward. As my former therapist pointed out, such an attitude showed an appetite for life and an eagerness to experience it.

A hot summer’s day? A great excuse for setting off a few fireworks in our back yard, or for a lobster cookout (which both my parents loved) in the front yard of our rented summer house on Cape Cod.

I remember a blizzard in my home town of Canton, Massachusetts when I was in high school. Everything was shut down. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do. An idea came to my father. Wouldn’t it be great to toast marshmallows and cook hot dogs in our living room fireplace? There was a problem, however — we didn’t have the ingredients. Such niggling problems never seemed to stand in the way of the fun planned by my father. Come to think of it, how about a walk? We walked, tramped about two miles each way through snowdrifts, found a store that was open, and bought marshmallows, hot dogs, and buns.

There was, of course, another side to him. He could be pensive and gloomy. He could be irascible and had a bad temper. His cheerfulness was only one side of the coin.

When something untoward happened to him — an argument with his second wife, for example — he would say to himself through gritted teeth (as she used to tell me), “I’m not going to let it ruin my day.”

 

 

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Phony Cheerfulness

 

A truism: no one is happy all the time.

There was a nice looking, perky girl in the class a year ahead of me in college: Marie E______.

Perhaps I shouldn’t say this. It will sound petty and perhaps mean spirited. But Marie’s perpetual cheerfulness grated on me.

A friend of mine, who lacked emotional depth and (often) insight into human relationships, was eager to get to know Marie and had several tennis dates with her. The relationship went no further.

“The thing I like most about her,” he told me, “is that she’s always cheerful.” This comment seemed obtuse and fatuous. It nettled me. I would be willing to bet that Marie’s perpetual cheerfulness was her way of dealing with insecurities that she probably felt.

 

 

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Happiness in a person without an admixture of sadness seems to be inimical to the human condition. One wants to get to know both sides of a person — to hear about their highs and lows from him or herself.

What about my father? you might ask. Didn’t I just wax rhapsodic over his cheerfulness and capacity to enjoy life?

I noted that he had another side that, while it was less often seen, would suddenly be displayed in bursts of anger. And, my father knew profound grief from family tragedies for which he did not bear responsibility but in which he was the chief mourner and suffered the most.

A capacity for joy does not preclude an awareness of sadness, does not obviate sadness.

Who wrote the Ode to Joy? The same composer who in his late quartets, beautifully, incomparably, expresses pathos, sadness.

 

 

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The film mentioned above is Under the Sun (2015), a documentary about North Korea. It was directed by the Russian documentary filmmaker Vitaly Mansky.

It is beautifully done and tugs and pulls at the viewer emotionally on many levels. The central person in the film, who is unforgettable, is an adorable eight-year-old North Korean girl named Zin-mi. The plot is ostensibly about Zin-mi going through steps, including school, as she prepares to join the Korean Children’s Union. At the film’s conclusion, she breaks down and cries upon being admitted to the children’s union. She is perhaps crying from relief that the stress of achieving the goal is over and, it seems, from what one would call joy mixed with sadness.

As I noted in a previous post:

re “Under the Sun” (a film about North Korea)

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/08/25/re-under-the-sun-a-film-about-north-korea/

 

The compelling thing about the film is that you come away caring about the people and touched by the film’s PATHOS — despite the fact that one is aware that the people live incredibly hard, regimented lives in a totalitarian state where they have been effectively brainwashed and reduced almost to automatons (or so it often seems).

The film features beautiful, elegiac music composed by a Latvian composer, Karlis Auzans. It captures the pathos musically, for example, in a scene where you see North Koreans having family photos taken in a sort of assembly line fashion. A couple stands proudly in front of an automatic camera with their children. The photo is taken and another couple poses. And so on. As they stare into the camera, one sees expressions of pride but also feels a great sadness. The music rises to an emotional pitch and captures this. One feels empathy with the people posing, with the North Koreans! One feels that they are people, just like us. That, despite very hard lives, they experience feelings like ours. One feels like crying oneself, but one, at the same time, experiences a kind of joy in contemplating the miracle of human existence, and how this elemental reality links us all, regardless of circumstances.

 

 

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This got me thinking about pathos in literature and music. About the comment “I don’t want to see something that will make me sad.”

Anna Karenina ends sadly. Does that make one any less desirous of reading it? It seems that in most operas the plot involves a tragic love affair, often with someone committing suicide, dying of grief. Art (in the broad sense of the word) is full of grief, so to speak, as well as happiness — as depicted by the artist drawing upon a profound knowledge of human life. Would one wish all art to be reduced to the level of a situation comedy?

What about music? Ever hear stirrings of pathos? In Beethoven’s late quartets, in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony, and so forth?

Case closed.

 

 

*In Alcott’s novel Work: A Story of Experience (1873).

 

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

  February 2018; updated May 2018

the particular matters; quotes from famous authors

 

 

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”

— William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”

 

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

— William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

 

“To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit — General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess.”

— William Blake, Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses

 

“AND many conversèd on these things as they labour’d at the furrow, Saying: ‘It is better to prevent misery than to release from misery; It is better to prevent error than to forgive the criminal. Labour well the Minute Particulars: attend to the Little Ones; And those who are in misery cannot remain so long, If we do but our duty: labour well the teeming Earth.… He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer; For Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars, And not in generalizing Demonstrations of the Rational Power: The Infinite alone resides in Definite and Determinate Identity. Establishment of Truth depends on destruction of Falsehood continually, On Circumcision, not on Virginity, O Reasoners of Albion!”

— William Blake, “Jerusalem”

 

 

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”Dear Hugo, you must write to me often as you can, & not delay it, your letters are very dear to me. Did you see my newspaper letter in N Y Times of Sunday Oct 4? About my dear comrade Bloom, is he still out in Pleasant Valley? Does he meet you often? Do you & the fellows meet at Gray’s or any where? O Hugo, I wish I could hear with you the current opera – I saw Devereux in the N Y papers of Monday announced for that night, & I knew in all probability you would be there – tell me how it goes – only don’t run away with that theme & occupy too much of your letter with it – but tell me mainly about all my dear friends, & every little personal item, & what you all do, & say &c.”

— Walt Whitman, letter to Hugo Fritsch, dated Washington, DC, October 8, 1863; from Selected Letters of Walt Whitman

 

 

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“[I]n these lives of ours, tender little acts do more to bind hearts together than great deeds or heroic words. …”

— Louisa May Alcott, Work: A Story of Experience

 

 

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“… I particularly liked your manner of explanation when you lowered your voice and spoke quietly of the elements that interest us both, the humane particulars of realization and communication.”

— William Carlos Williams, letter to Kenneth Burke, November 10, 1945

 

 

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“The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnified world in itself.”

— Henry Miller, Plexus (New York: Grove Press, 1965, pg. 53)

 

 

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“In the ordinary is the extraordinary. In the particular is the universal.”

— Frank Delaney (1942–2017), Irish novelist, journalist and broadcaster; blog post re James Joyce’s Ulysses

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   December 2015; updated June 2018

 

 

 

 

 

some of my best friends …

 

 

 

“Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

“Don’t cry over spilt milk.”

“A watched pot never boils.”

“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

“A stitch in time saves nine.”

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

 

AND

“Some of my best friends …”

 

 

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I grew up with these sayings, all of them except the last one.

These commonplaces are not indicators of stupidity or poverty of thought. There is much wisdom in them. Many of them were used by my mother.

 

 

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What about some of my best friends …?

First of all, it’s not an adage. It’s a cliché.

In the online Urban Dictionary, some of my best friends are … is defined as follows:

Something prejudiced people say when they’re called out on their prejudice. Smacks of tokenism and hypocrisy.

Person A: You can’t trust those goddamn crackers.

Person B: Don’t be prejudiced against white people.

Person A: Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are crackers.

It’s an oft ridiculed line, perhaps justly so.

But I would be inclined to take — at least in my own case (from which I would be inclined to generalize) — a contrarian view.

I would not be inclined to trot out the phrase. But, like the adages I quoted above, the phrase seems to contain some truth in it as a reflection of the actual experience of many people.

Which is to say.

Everyone has prejudices; no one is perfect. One can still hold — buried within oneself — prejudices toward certain racial, ethnic, or religious groups. Anyone who is honest about human nature will admit that they are hard to overcome.

It is true in my case, though people would not call me prejudiced or racist.

What I have found is that if one is honest about self-examination and introspective, one can find prejudices that one harbors. That’s where one might find oneself having a “some of my best friends” experience, though, in my case, I would be embarrassed to use the term; not inclined to do so for fear of being ridiculed.

 

 

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You may have limited experience of certain religious or ethnic groups. I did. I grew up in New England. Practically everyone was Christian, Protestant or Catholic; there was one black student, as I recall, in my high school; I had one Jewish friend (not a close friend); and I probably did not even know what the term Hispanic meant, having never met as I recall someone whose ethnicity was so designated.

I live in New York City now. I went to a liberal college with a majority of Jewish students. I have experienced ethnic diversity in the workplace and my adopted city.

Still, I harbor prejudices. And, my experience of some religious and ethnic groups has been limited.

But then you or I meet someone from one of these groups and the two of you have immediate rapport. The buried prejudices, old thoughts that you never quite dealt with, don’t matter. Experience for the moment has trumped old animosities, fears, resentments buried within you and directed toward an amorphous group, not toward individuals.

 

 

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A final thought. It doesn’t involve friendships, but it seems pertinent.

I love the ethnic diversity of New York City: the mixture of races and creeds and of the native and foreign born.

I often experience positive interactions with strangers. I can’t get over how helpful and nice people are in this big, supposedly impersonal city, where everyone is supposed to have little time for one another.

I try to — and in fact do — respond in kind.

These positive experiences — most often with people who are not of the same race, class, religious or national origins, and so forth — are incredibly edifying. And, what’s most significant, from the point of view of this post, is that they trump any need to address prejudice issues on an abstract level.

Abstractions become irrelevant. It’s the personal interaction in the here and now that matters, and one experiences a wonderful feeling of common humanity.

A dimension of actual lived experience I love. Because, as William Blake said: “He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer. …”

Translation (or should I say extrapolation): You will never be able to overcome prejudice in the abstract; you will — society will, can — on the individual and personal level.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 2018

 

Carl Nielsen, “Tidt er jeg glad, og vil dog gerne græde” (song)

 

 

 

score

 

 

 

 

 

Posted here is a song by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen: “Tidt er jeg glad, og vil dog gerne græde” (Often I am glad, still may I weep from sadness). The text is by the Danish novelist and poet Bernhard Severin Ingemann (1789-1862).

“Tidt er jeg glad” was included in a collection of songs: En Snes danske Viser (a Score of Danish Songs), published in 1915, which included songs composed by Nielsen and Thomas Laub, a Danish organist and composer who was a friend of Nielsen’s.

Nielsen’s output of songs was prodigious. They are well known in Denmark and show Nielsen’s indebtedness to Danish literature.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 2018

 

 

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LYRICS

Tidt er jeg glad

Often I am Happy

 

Tidt er jeg glad, og vil dog geme gæde
thi intet Hjærte deler helt min Glæde.
Tidt er jeg sorrigfuld og maa dog le,
at ingen skal dem bange Taare se.

Tidt elsker jeg, og vil dog gerne sukke,
thi Hjærtet maa sig tavst og strængt tillukke.
Tidt harmes jeg og dog jeg smile maa,
thi det er Daarer, som jeg harmes paa.

Tidt er jeg varrn, og isner i min Varme;
thi Verden favner mig med frosne Arme.
Tidt er jeg kold – og rødmer dog derved;
thi Verden slukker ej min Kjærlighed.

Tidt taler jeg – og vil dog gjeme tie,
hvor Ordct ej maa Tanken oppebie.
Tidt er jeg stum – og ønsker tordenrøst,
for at udtØmme det beklemte Bryst.

0, du, som ene dele kan min Glæde!
du ved hvis Barm jeg turde frit udgræde!
0, hvis du kjendte, hvis du elsked mig,
jeg kunde være som, jeg er – hos dig.

 

 

Often I am happy and yet would like to cry,
for no heart shares completely in my joy.
Often I am sorrowful and yet must laugh,
so that no one will see my frightened tears.

Often I love, and yet would like to sigh;
for my heart must silently and tightly seal itself off.
Often I feel angry and yet must smile;
for those I feel anger toward are fools.

Often I am warm, and shiver in my warmth;
for the world embraces me with frozen arm.
Often I am cold and yet feel flushed;
for the world cannot extinguish my love.

Often I speak and yet wish to be silent,
when my words don’t wait for my thoughts.
Often I am silent and wish for a thunderous voice,
in order to empty my tortured breast.

Oh you, the only one who can share my joy!
the only one upon whose bosom I could freely cry!
Oh, if you knew me, if you loved me,
I could always be as I am … with you.

 

 

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“Tidt er jeg glad” (Often I am Happy) provides an example of how Nielsen establishes musical expectations and then, as the melody follows its natural course, smoothly undermines the fulfillment harmonically. And yet, at first hearing there is nothing particularly remarkable about this song: its rhythms are regular, the melody mostly stepwise, the harmonic progressions are normative, and the text-setting is syllabic. Indeed, the song is simple almost to the point of sounding amateurish. Yet closer attention reveals that these ordinary features result in a creation more ingenious than immature, and that the momentary lapses between expectation and fulfillment contribute to the expression of both the structure and the meaning of the poetry.

The point of the poem is to suggest that things are not what they seem, that the protagonist’s inner reality is exactly the opposite of his outward appearance. The poem’s veneer of well-being masking dark truths is a feature of much Scandinavian literature and film—no wonder, in a region of the world where “decorum” is a veritable maxim to live by. In his aphoristic presentation of contrasting emotions and images, Ingemann conveys the turmoil suffered and energy expended in hiding one’s deepest feelings. Surely it was this tension between extremes of emotion that attracted Nielsen to his poem.

In the song, the general sadness of the poem is conveyed through the minor-mode context, consistently serious tone, and plaintive melody. Even though phrase after phrase presents opposing adjectives—happy/sad, sorrowful/laughing, warm/freezing, loud/soft—the music maintains a single somber mood throughout. In the following analysis it will become apparent that Nielsen chose more subtle musical means than the simple vacillation between major and minor modes, or slow and lively rhythms to underscore these polarities.

Each of the short phrases of text is supported by just two measures of music. Even though these small units are equal in length, the song does not come apart at the seams because Nielsen has arranged the harmony so that the end of one phrase is at the same time the beginning of the next. Each phrase ends on the dominant of one key or another that progresses into the next phrase; this musical dependency matches the poetry’s string of dependent clauses. …

Thus, in as concentrated a fashion as Ingemann himself, Nielsen has matched the poem’s balanced presentation of polarized emotions with the perfect musical counterpart: a pattern of alternating harmonic poles – dominant and tonic – the circle-of-fifths harmonic sequence. Further, as an analogue for the protagonist’s emotional deception, he interrupts this sequence with deceptive motions, translating into musical terms the dichotomy between what the person appears to feel and is actually experiencing inside. The continual fluctuation between anticipation and retrospective reinterpretation in the harmonic domain, then, serves to intensify the poem’s emotional zigzaggery. … By underscoring the contrasting emotions with opposing harmonic functions, … Nielsen succeeded in fusing the musical and poetic syntax.

 

— Annie-Marie Reynolds, Carl Nielsen’s Voice: His Songs in Context

vigilante-ism

 

 

re:

“They Spoke Spanish in a Montana Store. Then a Border Agent Asked for Their IDs”

By Matthew Haag

The New York Times

May 21, 2018

 

https://mobile.nytimes.com/2018/05/21/us/montana-border-patrol-agents-spanish-speaking.html

 

 

 

This kind of profiling and harassment of the foreign born is inexcusable, incredibly stupid, and unproductive. In a word, it’s deplorable.

What was the agent thinking?

The Times article notes:

An agency spokesman declined to discuss the specific episode but said that the officer’s actions were under review.

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and officers are committed to treating everyone with professionalism, dignity and respect while enforcing the laws of the United States,” a spokesman at Customs and Border Protection said in an email on Monday. “Decisions to question individuals are based on a variety of factors for which Border Patrol agents are well-trained.”

This is reassuring (meant sarcastically).

 

 

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I am totally against vigorous anti-immigrant enforcement and President Trump’s no nothing, get tough on immigrants policy. (On May 16, Trump launched into a riff about “people trying to come in” and being deported who are “not people.” “They’re animals,” he said. “It’s the latest in a series of statements stretching over Trump’s entire national political career that carelessly conflate immigration, criminality, and violence,” it was noted in a Vox post.)

As noted in previous posts of mine (see links below), I feel that such a policy is not only uncalled for, not justified by any facts, and mean spirited, but that it goes against our foundational principles as a nation and against fundamental concepts of decency and humanity.

And, I believe that following the opposite policy would ensure that we continue to remain a strong country — that, besides inflicting undue hardship on people, it drains us culturally and spiritually and hurts us economically — that it is neither fair nor humane or advantageous from an economical or practical point of view. (See, for example, reference to Wall Street Journal article below).

To say nothing of the pain it has inflicted upon individuals.

 

 

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Regarding over-zealous border patrol actions: Last month, I was detained by airport security officers/screeners while changing planes at the Stockholm airport.

I asked why. Was I under suspicion? You get no answer.

I was detained for about 25 minutes, thoroughly searched, and asked innumerable questions, such as what places had I visited, what hotels had I stayed in and what were the room numbers, had I given anyone else access to my luggage, what companies have I worked for. My passport was taken away and returned to me just before the flight departed. There are two stickers on the back of my passport now, one saying “SECURITY” and the other ‘DELTA SECURITY 7/16.” I am afraid to remove them.

I fit the profile of a _______. Shoe bomber? There was nothing about me or my trip, or my carry on items (a laptop computer and a tote bag with a book or two, my passport, an audiobook, and nothing much else) — my suitcase had already been checked in — that was suspicious.

It was very stressful and helped to ruin my trip.

 

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 2018

 

 

 

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See also my posts:

 

 

“extreme vetting” of immigrants?

 

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/08/17/extreme-vetting-of-immigrants/

 

 

“prevarication; institutionalized cruelty”

 

https://rogersgleanings.com/2018/01/17/prevarication-institutionalized-cruelty/

 

 

“immigration policy, Walt Whitman, and Donald Trump’s wall; or, the Berlin Wall redux”

 

https://rogersgleanings.com/2018/02/10/immigration-policy-walt-whitman-and-donald-trumps-wall-or-the-berlin-wall-redux/

 

 

 

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See also:

 

 

“Coveted exemptions from Trump’s travel ban remain elusive for citizens of Muslim-majority countries”

by Abigail Hauslohner

The Washington Post

May 22, 2018

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/coveted-waivers-for-trumps-travel-ban-remain-elusive-for-citizens-of-muslim-majority-countries/2018/05/22/d48cc8d8-48b6-11e8-827e-190efaf1f1ee_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.fef135ae45e0&wpisrc=nl_evening&wpmm=1

 

 

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See also:

 

“Immigration Is Practically a Free Lunch for America; Tax cuts are well and good, but the surest way to spur economic growth is to let in more people.”

By Neel Kashkari

The Wall Street Journal

January 19, 2018

a poem

 

 

ON BEING ASKED, WHENCE IS THE FLOWER?

In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals, fallen in the pool,
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool.
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew:
But, in my simple ignorance, suppose
The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.

 

— Ralph Waldo Emerson; quoted by Louisa May Alcott in her novel Work: A Story of Experience

 

 

We call this flower rhododendron.

This poem speaks to me. I was not familiar with Emerson’s poetry. My loss (up till now). I can see why Emerson is admired as a poet; I have some prior knowledge of it from his essays and can see similar qualities.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   May 2018

 

 

 

My freshman comp instructor would be turning in his grave.

 

 

re: “Maybe abusive authors don’t belong on my bookshelf. But what about in my classroom?”

by Sandra Beasley

The Washington Post

May 14, 2018

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/05/14/maybe-abusive-authors-dont-belong-on-my-bookshelf-but-what-about-my-classroom/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.d649e40e0746

 

Read this op-ed, if you can bear to — it’s painful to read — and tell me what you think.

 

 

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I posted a comment on the Washington Post’s comments page in which I stated:

Has anyone noticed that writing instructor Beasley herself can’t write?

“American University, where I often adjunct.” [Adjunct has been ordained as a verb?]

“Most of our craft learning is subsequently channeled through eight to 10 books.”

“I have always emphasized the writer as a fully dimensioned being. What do I do when those dimensional flaws are revealed?”

“That does not make this is a bucolic dawn of justice.”

“These behaviors are not exclusive along heterosexual lines, nor do only cis men commit them, nor have we given proper attention to compounding violence based on class and disability.”

“To put someone on a syllabus is to privilege them with our attention.”

“Are we inviting students into a tall tower from which the world is viewed at a distance? Or are we giving them a compass to navigate toward the horizon?”

“Or choose other authors. To not allow dynamics of our era to inflect how we teach is to gird the argument that literature is a self-contained and impractical pursuit. If your principal hesitation is that you’ll struggle to come up with replacement authors while remaining inclusive, consider that the diversity you’ve congratulated yourself on is merely tokenism in disguise.”

“When you are a writer who learns a beloved author has a dark side, you experience waves of disillusionment. When you teach that author’s work, you feel an additional stab of concern. …”

ENOUGH.

Writing such as this would have horrified my freshman comp instructor. It makes the opaque jargon of sociologists by comparison sound Churchillian.

 

 

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Regarding the content/message of this op-ed, I thoroughly disagree. Several comments (see below) posted on the Washington Post’s site by readers of Ms. Beasley’s op-ed say essentially the same things I would be inclined to. The comments which follow are theirs and not mine, but their views are in agreement with views of my own:

 

If you follow the highly flawed logic of this, then by all means throw out all of Lincoln’s speeches or maybe mention of Lincoln in schools–I am totally sure that, by today’s standards, Lincoln would be sexist, homophobic, transgender-phobic and racist too. Oh yes, and implode the Lincoln Memorial too. Suppose Kubrick said something sexist or racist 55 years ago—so “2001” and “A Clockwork Orange” should be jettisoned from film and cultural history? This all sounds a little, no a lot, Orwellian here.

 

Historical revisionism is not a way to teach. Should we stop talking about the Crusades because some people were abused? What about the Roman Empire? We have to look at people according to the mores of their times. Lots of people were anti-Semitic back then, and approved of black slavery, and treated women like servants.

 

So we should get rid of the classics then? Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, etc. make some very racially insensitive statements in their books. Who knows, maybe Mark Twain slapped his wife around a bit, it is rumored that Emily Bronte had an incestuous relationship with her brother. Every single writer from the 19th century would fail #me too scrutiny … heck, even the bible would fall short!

 

Am I the only one beginning to worry that when the right has finished burning all the books they find morally objectionable, and the left has finished burning all the books they find morally objectionable, we’ll be left with nothing at all?

Censorship has always been the one thing both sides have been able to agree on, although for completely different reasons.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   May 2018

Handel, “Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne”

 

 

 

 

Posted above.

The opening of George Frideric Handel’s cantata “Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne”:

Eternal source of light divine
With double warmth thy beams display
And with distinguish’d glory shine
To add a lustre to this day.

which comprised the processional to the marriage of Harry and Meghan today.

 

 

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An acquaintance with whom I sometimes exchange thoughts about music wrote me recently: “I am still am not high on Handel. Great composer for his time and parts of the oratorios are moving (to me), but overall doesn’t impress me.”

I don’t agree. For a long time, I was thoroughly into Handel. One could devote a lifetime to exploring his works.

The cantata celebrates Queen Anne’s birthday, and the accomplishment of the Treaty of Utrecht (negotiated by the Tory ministry of Anne in 1712) to end the War of the Spanish Succession.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 19, 2018

thoughts on the uprising in Gaza

 

 

re:

“Palestinians have no choice but to continue the struggle”

By Noura Erakat

Op-Ed

The Washington Post

May 16, 2018

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/global-opinions/wp/2018/05/16/palestinians-have-no-choice-but-to-continue-the-struggle/?utm_term=.1fa9b9694dc7

 

 

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The following are excerpts from Ms. Erakat’s Op-Ed:

Palestinians have been organizing demonstrations, boycotts, strikes and demonstrations, boycotts, strikes and outright revolts from hostile foreign rule since 1917, when colonial Britain designated Palestine for Jewish settlement. With the stroke of a pen, the great power declared that indigenous Palestinians, 90 percent of Palestine’s population, would not exist as a political community for the sake of establishing a Jewish national home.

Had Jews merely wanted to live in Palestine, this would not have been a problem. In fact, Jews, Muslims and Christians had coexisted for centuries throughout the Middle East. But Zionists sought sovereignty over a land where other people lived. Their ambitions required not only the dispossession and removal of Palestinians in 1948 but also their forced exile, juridical erasure and denial that they ever existed. So, during Israel’s establishment, some 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes to make way for a Jewish majority state. More than 400 Palestinian cities and towns were destroyed or taken over by Jewish Israelis. Forests were planted to cover the ruins and other evidence of the Palestinian presence on the land.

This “nakba,” or catastrophe as Palestinians refer to it, did not end in 1948. Israel has justified its existence on an unequivocal Jewish demographic majority in a place where Muslims and Christians combined had constituted an overwhelming majority. By its own definition, Israel has set up a mutually exclusive equation: Israel exists if Palestinians do not; Palestinians exist if Israel does not.

Rather than challenge this zero-sum equation of human existence, the United States has provided Israel with diplomatic cover and bottomless military aid. Israel continues to systematically dispossess Palestinians. It continues to steal Palestinian land for illegal settlements while destroying Palestinian homes and evicting families. Israel also continues to deny Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homeland just because they are not Jewish.

This is why Palestinians have been resisting for more than seven decades: They are fighting to remain on their lands with dignity. They have valiantly resisted their colonial erasure. They have succeeded in inscribing their peoplehood in international law and the global consciousness. Despite Israel’s best efforts, they have remained on the land and are not going anywhere. …

Palestinians have endured tremendous suffering and hardship, but there is no choice but to continue in struggle. Israel and the Trump administration are trying to make permanent the exclusivist regime that they have imposed upon Palestinians — one based on racial and religious supremacy: apartheid. But Palestinians, even in this devastating moment, are paving paths of resistance to new and possible futures where freedom is not a mutually exclusive privilege but a natural human condition that can be enjoyed and embodied by all.

 

 

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Comments by Roger W. Smith (submitted to The Washington Post):

 

“This is a brilliant op-ed piece that makes its points clearly and forcefully. It presents the issues with stark clarity and is educational for someone like myself, an American who is not Jewish and has not experienced the issues and controversies at close hand. The Israeli polity really is an apartheid system, with the Palestinians second class citizens. The sad thing to me is that I believe a true democracy, notwithstanding that Jews would not be the majority, demographically, would mean Israel would become a better place to live in (not only a more just society) for all.”

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   May 16, 2018

 

 

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See also my post:

 

“a better, stronger country?”

https://rogersgleanings.com/2018/01/07/a-better-stronger-country/

Tom Wolfe

 

 

re:

“Tom Wolfe, Author of ‘The Right Stuff’ and ‘Bonfire of the Vanities,’ Dies”

By Deirdre Carmody and William Grimes

The New York Times

May 15, 2018

 

 

 

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An obituary of journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe (1930-2018) was published in today’s New York Times.

A few thoughts of my own about Wolfe.

I am not that qualified to comment. I was never a big fan his and am not that well acquainted with his works. But, I do know something about writing, and I would like to comment from that angle.

The Times obituary notes: “In his use of novelistic techniques in his nonfiction, Mr. Wolfe, beginning in the 1960s, helped create the enormously influential hybrid known as the New Journalism.” It goes on to say, about Wolfe’s best-selling novel (his first) The Bonfire of the Vanities:

Although a runaway best seller, “Bonfire” divided critics into two camps: those who praised its author as a worthy heir of his fictional idols Balzac, Zola, Dickens and Dreiser, and those who dismissed the book as clever journalism, a charge that would dog him throughout his fictional career. [italics added] …

Mr. Wolfe’s fictional ambitions and commercial success earned him enemies — big ones.

“Extraordinarily good writing forces one to contemplate the uncomfortable possibility that Tom Wolfe might yet be seen as our best writer,” Norman Mailer wrote in The New York Review of Books. “How grateful one can feel then for his failures and his final inability to be great — his absence of truly large compass. There may even be an endemic inability to look into the depth of his characters with more than a consummate journalist’s eye.”

“Tom may be the hardest-working show-off the literary world has ever owned,” Mr. Mailer continued. “But now he will no longer belong to us. (If indeed he ever did!) He lives in the King Kong Kingdom of the Mega-bestsellers — he is already a Media Immortal. He has married his large talent to real money and very few can do that or allow themselves to do that.”

Mr. Mailer’s sentiments were echoed by John Updike and John Irving.

 

 

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I read The Bonfire of the Vanities. I was caught up in it at first, but by the end was getting bored. Wolfe’s characters are stock figures. They are completely uninteresting. They have no humanity. They do not come alive.

A character like Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities has no depth or personality. He is meant to merely represent a stereotype, and the same is true of other characters in the book, such as the black youth injured in an auto accident for which McCoy is arrested and a reporter for the New York Post type tabloid. The novel left me feeling, by the end, profoundly unsatisfied and empty.

Wolfe is decidedly not worthy of comparisons to Balzac, Zola, Dickens, or Dreiser, all of whom I have read (though, in the case of Zola, not as much as I would like to have) and admire greatly.

The Times obituary states that “Mr. Wolfe became one of the standard-bearers of the New Journalism, along with Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion and others.” It is my opinion that most of them — with the exception of Gay Talese — were seriously overrated. (Breslin could not write.) The reason I would qualify this statement of mine with regard to Gay Talese is that Talese — unlike, say, Didion, and Wolfe — never had pretensions to be anything but a journalist. And, Talese’s nonfiction works were well researched and well written.

The Times obituary states:

Every morning [Wolfe] dressed in one of his signature outfits — a silk jacket, say, and double-breasted white vest, shirt, tie, pleated pants, red-and-white socks and white shoes — and sat down at his typewriter. Every day he set himself a quota of 10 pages, triple-spaced. If he finished in three hours, he was done for the day.

“If it takes me 12 hours, that’s too bad, I’ve got to do it,” he told George Plimpton in a 1991 interview for The Paris Review.

This kind of dedication to writing is impressive. It reminds me of Anthony Trollope, who, as he famously noted in his autobiography, had to do his “allotment” of pages every day. Wolfe’s daily writing routine seems to be what would amount to very good advice for would be writers.

“There is this about Tom,” Byron Dobell, Wolfe’s editor at Esquire magazine, is quoted in the Times obituary as saying. “He has this unique gift of language that sets him apart as Tom Wolfe. It is full of hyperbole; it is brilliant; it is funny, and he has a wonderful ear for how people look and feel. He has a gift of fluency that pours out of him the way Balzac had it.”

Balzac did not have the “gift of fluency.” Like Dreiser, he wrote clumsily (but not as badly as Dreiser did). I love Balzac, but not for his style. And, incidentally, Balzac is the polar opposite of Wolfe, in that his characters are completely believable, unforgettable, totally human. I never cared for Tom Wolfe.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 16, 2018