Category Archives: aesthetics

thoughts about Charles Ives (and Copland, Barber, and Gershwin) … plus thoughts about making lists of favorites (and making such judgments in general)


On Sunday, February 25, I attended a performance of Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 2 by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

The program notes for the concert read as follows:

Charles Ives is widely recognized as the first authentically American composer. The supreme collagist in music, Ives is perhaps most appropriately described by piling on words the way he piles on tunes. Composer Lou Harrison, rejoicing in Ives’s “bewildering munificence,” has written: “There is very nearly something for everyone in Ives — rousing band marches for the athletic extrovert, sweet prayers for the pious, amazing constructs for the intellectual … big-sized pieces, minute works, vulgar ones, polite ones, serious, funny, bland, tortuous, affectionate, and business­like ones, ones for the many, ones for the few, and some in between, and so on, and whatnot else … Plainly he was a man who loved many things much.”

Ives’s multiplicity is evident in every aspect of his life and art. An insurance man who composed at night, Ives was almost totally isolated from the musical establishment. He was a passionate nationalist who based his music on traditional American tunes and his metaphysics on Emersonian transcendentalism. Yet, with the help of his father (a small-town bandleader), he inaugurated the most daring kinds of polyrhythmic, polytonal, and aleatory effects. Indeed, his international significance stretches beyond music. As poet and short-story writer Guy Davenport puts it, “Ives aligns with the most significant art of this time: with Pound and Eliot in the reuse of extant compositions, with Joyce in the hermetic diffusion of symbolism throughout a work, with Picasso in exploring the possibilities of extending forms and techniques.”

Like Joyce, Ives aspires to the abstract and the visionary, yet is rooted in the homely and the everyday. Pierre Boulez pointed out that Ives is distinct from other musical innovators in that “the origin of his music, of his invention, is to be found in the surroundings of his life” rather than in a symphonic tradition. Prior to Ives, there was no American tradition in symphonic music; there was nothing to extend or rebel against — only a pallid recycling of European Romanticism. (Even the New Orleans syncopations of Louis Moreau Gottschalk were more popular in Europe than America.) For his inspiration, Ives went directly to the hymns, popular tunes, and band marches from his boyhood in Danbury, Connecticut, transforming these simple sources into a complex mélange.

Ives once called his most ambitious works “ear­stretchers,” and given the stretch that is required, it is not surprising that he has always incited controversy and bewilderment. Many of his most visionary works had to wait half a century for a performance because musicians hadn’t the slightest idea what to make of them.



A few phrases leaped out at me: “the first authentically American composer”; “a passionate nationalist who based his music on traditional American tunes and his metaphysics on Emersonian transcendentalism”; “Ives aspires to the abstract and the visionary, yet is rooted in the homely and the everyday”; “the origin of his music, of his invention, is to be found in the surroundings of his life.”

Another daring innovator, a visionary poet, whom these words call to mind is Walt Whitman. I feel that Ives, an American original, is much like Whitman (who, by the way, was also influenced, deeply, by transcendentalism).

I am less inclined — this is probably a shortcoming on my part in comprehension — to think of Ives (as does Guy Davenport) in connection with Joyce, Eliot, and Pound, let alone Picasso.



Another quintessentially American composer — by which I mean not only an American native but also a composer of works unmistakably American — is, of course, Aaron Copland. I regard Copland as the greatest American composer. Copland was an early champion of Ives’s music. If for no other reason, I would say that Copland outranks Ives because the latter’s output was comparatively meager.

The greatest single WORK by an American composer? I will take a stab at answering the question and say Porgy and Bess.





I had a lively exchange with a follower of this blog recently. He wrote as follows:

How do you rank classical composers?

Yes, some are timeless — Mozart, Beethoven, Bach — but how would you rank Nielsen vs. Sibelius, Copland vs. Chopin, Brahms vs. Roger Sessions? Or even Bach vs. Mozart or Beethoven?

And why bother? What one likes is important. I’ve always objected to someone who says this author or this composer is overrated, etc. Compared to what, and why? And overrated by whom?



I answered as follows:

My answer would be yes and no.

I generally don’t like ratings and usually disagree with them (what are the 10 greatest American films?).

But to say someone is overrated (I might say, for example, Hemingway, but I know there would be lots of disagreement) or underrated (e.g., Haydn, in my opinion) is entirely valid; people often make such judgments — it’s a matter of making comparisons.

What’s wrong with that? One is always enjoying works of art for their own sake and, at the same time, engaging in armchair criticism.

So, I recently heard a piece of Max Bruch’s in concert and was pleasantly surprised; he reminded me of Brahms. But I am not prepared to say that he outranks Brahms.

I am always compiling inventories and laundry lists in my mind; it’s a good way mentally to keep track of writers, composers, etc. and their works. I FEEL THAT THIS IS KEY.

So, I get into Carl Nielsen, and think: how does he compare to Sibelius? People are still arguing about Tolstoy vs. Dostoevsky.



to which the follower of my blog replied:

I am not saying you shouldn’t rate composers yourself, or authors, or whatever. And I enjoy discussions such as Chopin vs. Schubert.

I’m just saying that when you say that someone is overrated, I say by whom? If you are saying that you believe that x is better than y, or more interesting than y, that’s fine. If you’re ranking your opinion of Nielsen vs. Sibelius, that I understand.

But if you’re saying that the world knows that one is better than the other (either way), I say on what authority is this statement made?

That’s my only point here. And maybe that people waste their time arguing things like Tolstoy vs. Dostoevsky. They were both great writers and I don’t give a damn if someone thinks that one is marginally better than the other.



Our email exchange ended there. But, I think it does make a great deal of difference whom one thinks is better: Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. We are usually not talking about marginal differences — some people actually like one and dislike the other. I know of lovers of Tolstoy’s works who can’t bring themselves to read Dostoevsky.

The point is that such comparisons can be trivial or frivolous, but not necessarily so. There is an inner critic in the brains of aesthetes. So that, experiencing a work of art — literature or music, in this case — they are not only “submitting” to it, allowing themselves to enjoy and be edified by the work, they are also asking themselves what they think of it. This is a good thing. And, by applying one’s own standards, which, needless to say, are subjective, one is making a mental inventory for future reference. So, for example — as a person immersed in literature and music — I have developed a mental map to help orient myself. I have my likes and dislikes. And, I make comparisons: Bruch reminds me of Brahms, Schumann as well. (Whitman reminds me of no one else!) I think that Thomas Wolfe is far superior to Theodore Dreiser. And, so on.



I have posted here (below) some of my favorite pieces by composers whom I regard as quintessentially American.


three songs by CHARLES IVES

Charles Ives, “A Christmas Carol”

Charles Ives, “Memories”


Charles Ives, “In the Mornin’ (Give me Jesus)”



“The Circus Band” (sung by Sara Dell’Omo, soprano)



string quartet no. 1



from The Tender Land (opera)

The opening bars are posted here.



“Morning on the Ranch” (from the Red Pony Suite)



“Letter from Home”



“Quiet City”




Adagio for Strings



Knoxville, Summer 1915



Also posted here is a recording of the film score of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. For a long time, the LP was out of print. In my opinion, the soundtrack album is outstanding for its arrangements and orchestration.


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   February 2018

“New and improved” in the arts is not always better.


Last night, Friday, November 10, I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York which included a performance of Saint-Saëns’s string quartet No. 1 in E Minor.

In the program notes, it was noted that Saint-Saëns was “an aesthetic conservative [who] railed against the stylistic innovations of Debussy and Les Six.” Les Six were a group of French composers that included Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, and Germaine Tailleferre.

The concert also included a performance of Brahms’s stupendous String Quartet No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 51, No. 1. A contemporary of Saint-Saëns (who outlived Brahms by a half a century), Brahms was considered a conservative within the romantic tradition.

That I like these two composers so much and am not crazy about the music of composers such as Debussy and Ravel (who Saint-Saëns also did not have a taste for) — for the most part (I am unfamiliar with the composers of Les Six) — makes me, no doubt, easily identifiable as having conservative tastes.

Yet, so many of the composers (and writers) whom I admire were profoundly original. This includes Beethoven and, yes, Shakespeare, to take in two spheres of the creative arts. I suspect that few would engage in dispute upon this. Many artists now ensconced in the canon were once regarded as being so original if not mystifying and transgressive that their works were often ignored or ridiculed.

Another thought occurred to me as a result of what the program notes said about Saint-Saëns: “Progress” in the arts, the new and avant-garde, is not always better. A distinction should be made between works that were “revolutionary” in their time and, also, indisputably great and many iconoclastic works that were perhaps intended to titillate or shock that will probably not stand the test of time. Take the visual arts for example. The Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York City are chock full of works that illustrate this. And consider the many writers who seem to illustrate this: Céline, Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, to name just a few.

The dustbin of the arts awaits.

Creative geniuses are emerging all the time. Whose work is revolutionary and profoundly original. I would cite examples such as Alban Berg and Philip Glass in music, Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner in fiction, and Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens in poetry.


— Roger W. Smith

   November 11, 2017



Addendum: My good friend Bill Dalzell, an original thinker skeptical of much of what is considered orthodoxy, used to say, “Science marches backward.” A paradox. Meaning that, while it might seem absurd, there is an element of truth in it. Perhaps the arts don’t always march forward.

highfalutin hogwash; pseudo intellectual inanity; pernicious pomposity, perverse pontificating (take a hike, Spiro Agnew! you too, Bill Safire!)


Two things are pertinent to this post — form a background to it, so to speak.

First, this past March, I wrote a blog post:

Racism Rears Its Ugly Head

about objections to a painting by the artist Dana Schutz based upon photographs of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, the black teenager who was murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955, which was featured in the 2017 Biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan. Protests had arisen over the work. I am in principle opposed to the destruction of art for reasons of political correctness.

Secondly, I am working on a post of my own about the craft of writing. I want to be able to illustrate it with examples of both good and bad writing.



With these things in the back of my mind, I read an op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times which stopped me cold, that was so bad it was unbelievable. I thought to myself, how did it get published? I posted an angry comment on the Times site, but the comment did not get posted. No doubt, the Times editors found it inappropriate. Strange, because often comments posted in response to Times opinion pieces are not well written or articulate; and, in fact, many are obtuse and display ignorance and lack of acumen.



The piece that has astounded me with its badness and inanity is

“The Art of Destroying an Artwork”

by David Xu Borgonjon

New York Times

October 25, 2017

The Times article merely indicates that “David Xu Borgonjon is a curator and writer.” Googling him at

I found out that “[David Xu Borgonjon] is a curatorial fellow at Wave Hill and is the co-founder of Screen, a bilingual Chinese and English platform for media art commentary. Currently he is preparing a series of “Strategy Sessions” for Summer 2015, a professional development workshops for artists using board games as metaphor. David has coordinated the Gallery of the Women’s Center at Brown University (where he graduated in 2014 in English with honors in a Dual Degree program with the Rhode Island School of Design).”

And so forth. The information on the site may be slightly dated. Wave Hill is a 28-acre estate in the Hudson Hill section of Riverdale, Bronx, in New York City which consists of public horticultural gardens and a cultural center which includes an art gallery.



One has to read Mr. Borgonjon’s piece in full to get a feel for its awfulness. It is a textbook example of flawed writing built upon cockeyed premises. A key problem, which I intend to use by way of illustration in my planned blog on writing, is that the piece is too abstract, is not tethered to fact. One might ask, what’s wrong with a conceptual piece of writing, with exposition for the sake of exposition? Is there such a thing as too abstract? Yes, there is, and Mr. Borgonjon’s horribly written piece shows how this can occur.

It’s very hard to even figure out what he is talking about. One has to wade through the piece, which is tortuous reading, a ways to get some idea of what he is talking about. This, right away, indicates a problem. There are some would be intellectuals/thinkers and writers who seem to think that nebulous writing is a sign of great thoughts percolating in a genius’s mind, thoughts which he or she can’t waste time trying to explain to us. That it is our duty, should we wish, to come up to their level. This is hogwash.



The following are some excerpts from the op-ed du jour, followed by my comments (in boldface). Good luck in figuring out what the writer’s fulminations mean.


“But there’s a problem with this binary formulation, which opposes the sacrosanct art object to the interests and demands of the public. Curators need to think about more creative ways to withdraw art from public display. Rather than thinking of calls to remove art as either right or wrong, institutions should think of them as creative opportunities to reimagine who their public is.”

This is pure nonsense. Highfalutin language signifying nothing. Jargon laden mumbo jumbo. The underlying premises are flawed and the views imbedded in them are toxic and pernicious. Idiotic premises lead to idiotic conclusions.


“What we should be asking, instead, is how it should ‘go.’ A work of art could be destroyed (burned, buried, shredded), edited, documented, mourned or even substituted. It could be supplemented with performances, talks, protests. It could be turned into minimalist furniture for the museum cafe, or sold on eBay, with the proceeds going to charity.”

This is pure NONSENSE. How can the Times publish it? “It could be turned into minimalist furniture for the museum cafe, or sold on eBay, with the proceeds going to charity.” Is he serious? If he is, it’s sad. No, deplorable.


“Contemporary art theory has long held that the artwork takes place not in the moment of creation or exhibition, but rather in the ways that it circulates in the world. That’s why withdrawal isn’t just a negative act. The museum is actively putting the withdrawal into the world, which will then circulate beside and on top of the artwork, as a rumor, a footnote, a filter. I am arguing for a creative acceptance of the pressure to withdraw an artwork, rather than either outright rejection or reluctant acquiescence.”

Here we have an example of what might be called “over abstraction,” supposedly weighty observations, disguised as such, which amount to pseudo profundity. There is a pretense of deep thought, and nothing more. Everything is made perfectly UNclear. It shows an incapacity for thoughtful or meaningful analysis.


“Social media has changed how we communicate, and social inequity continues to differentiate how we feel. These dynamics are changing the way we curate. For one thing, the work of exhibition-making no longer ends when the show opens. Instead, it continues as a process of listening, a public performance that goes on for months.

“In some way, as curator Hera Chan points out, the dynamics of the platform economy threaten to make curatorial expertise obsolete. Who needs us when institutions can figure out, thanks to social media, crowdsourcing and machine learning, audience preferences quickly and accurately? The difficult question of who ‘we’ are, when we are faced with a controversial artwork, is the curator’s only remaining raison d’être. Consider that exhibitions don’t have a standard rating system, like movies or music — at some level, we must believe that every show should be accessible to all of us. Like churches or public television in a different age, museums are now our civic institutions, where we go to argue about who counts as ‘us.’

“The ‘should it stay or should it go’ approach fumbles the opportunity to broaden and enrich what that “us” is. It’s a difficult question, and we will not agree, but even asking it together creates a kind of community. It falls to curators to facilitate this conversation. Institutions, following the lead of artists, should respond creatively to the call for censorship. Perhaps the withdrawal of the artwork can make room for something else to come into view: a new public.”

Claptrap. Nonsense. And, like the nonsense genre, almost impossible to decipher.

“Fumbles the opportunity”? An infelicitous phrase if there ever was one! This writer clearly knows something about fumbling, from experience, displays verbal ineptitude that is plain to see.



I am almost inclined to say that this piece should be censored. It’s that bad, both as a specimen of writing and as an attack on art by someone who deems himself a curator. Of course, I’m against censorship. But beware of such writing by persons who pat themselves on the back for being in the intellectual vanguard. It’s just plain awful. And, as I’ve already said, it’s pernicious in its “know nothing” views worthy of a troglodyte and highly objectionable in a so called curator, presumably devoted (ha!) to preserving and promoting art. How about destroying? Anyone game?


— Roger W. Smith

   October 2017

on aesthetic and cultural appreciation of literature and film; my favorite directors (小津安二郎は日本の映画監督・脚本家)



(Japanese translation of my comments regarding the director Yasujirō Ozu is appended below.)



on aesthetic and cultural appreciation of literature and film; my favorite directors (小津安二郎は日本の映画監督・脚本家)

by Roger W. Smith

I will begin this essay with some comments on what I feel the development of aesthetic sense and critical standards, as they apply both to literature and to the cinema, entails.

To put it as simply as possible: in order to have a deep appreciation of anything cultural, you have to become acquainted with the BEST works. Nothing less.

Let’s consider literature for a moment. Consider the case of someone whose acquaintance with books is limited to reading works such as The Thorn Birds, Jacqueline Susann, The Bridges of Madison County, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and similar works.

I have nothing against such writers and works or their readers per se. It’s enough that people love to read and take pleasure from it. I am not a snob.

But, if that’s all you have read, you will never have

a frame of reference;

a yardstick; or

models of excellence

for purposes of comparison when it comes to appreciating literature in full.

You won’t be able to distinguish between what is perhaps entertaining and/or diverting and what is truly great. You will never know the difference.

The same comments apply to cinema.

Let’s say that in the past you saw films like The Graduate, Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home, or Kramer vs. Kramer and regarded them as classics. Perhaps you still do.

I have news for you (I’m sorry if I sound arrogant): THEY AREN’T. For why I feel this way, see my discussion of directors and films below.

Extending this comment broadly (i.e., to both literature and film), I would say that it’s like comparing War and Peace with Ben-Hur or Anna Karenina with Erich Segal’s Love Story. You have to have read or seen classics to know the difference.



I only began to understand and appreciate film after moving to New York City in the late 1960’s, just after graduating from college.

I owe my appreciation and acumen about films, such as they are, to a friend I made during my early days in New York: William S. (Bill) Dalzell.

Bill Dalzell was a self-employed printer who did printing for left wing groups such as Women’s Strike for Peace. (An aside: he was apolitical, though he was sympathetic to such groups’ goals.) He was a very cultured person and a lover of film, as well as of New York.

He taught me, single handedly, to appreciate film.

Bill Dalzell had a personal list of his five all time great films:

D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916)

German director Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938)

Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944, with a Part Two released posthumously in 1958; in my opinion, Ivan the Terrible is an even better film than Eisenstein’s better known film The Battleship Potemkin)

Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (The Word; 1955)

Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew (1964)

(See YouTube links below.)

Thanks to his advice, I saw them all at least once.

Truly classic films such as the above five are in a league of their own. Few people have seen them or even know of them.

What are some of the ingredients of great filmmaking? Not being a film critic, I can’t say really – I am not qualified to. But my friend Bill made an observation to me once that I remember. He said that films work their magic by “sight and sound.”

Consider the great directors. Most use music very effectively, use it sparingly. They don’t overdo it. But music is a key part of the aesthetic experience. And, the great directors don’t use schlocky music. What you get is Prokofiev, Monteverdi, Schubert, and so on, plus awesome original music. How many treacly film scores have we been subjected to by second rate directors?



To Bill Dalzell’s list of the greatest films, I would like to add and comment on a few favorite directors of my own.


Yasujirō Ozu, a Japanese film director and screenwriter

He is not nearly as well known as he should be, though his critical reputation is very high. He is my personal favorite among directors, perhaps outranking the five listed above.

Of course, it was Bill Dalzell who first alerted me to Ozu’s films. He made a comment that turned out to be true. In Ozu’s films, nothing happens.

They are films about ordinary Japanese people — businessmen, housewives, families — living ordinary lives. One watches them going about their daily lives – there is no melodrama — and, instead of being bored, by some magic which the director, Ozu, achieves – which one can only marvel at – the viewer is never bored. Instead, one is totally engrossed.

It seems like a certainty that you are watching real people go about their lives, a documentary of sorts, as if the director had entered a home or workplace in Tokyo and turned on his camera. It’s hard to believe – one totally forgets – that one is watching actors.

There is wonderful music, simple and enchanting, used sparingly.

It is wonderful to hear Japanese spoken.

There is a sense of place. The films are shot in Tokyo. One feels that one is there, in the houses with people sitting on mats, in bars where businessmen are drinking copiously, in the narrow streets with their colorful lights and signs and paper lanterns.

Ozu has a great visual sense, but like everything else in his films. his cinematographic technique is not obtrusive. He is not showing off. You are having a wonderful aesthetic experience without quite realizing it.

There is no distance between you and the film, because everything is done simply and with great clarity. There is no bombast, no showing off, no cinematographic techniques being used simply to impress. And, there is no overacting, as is, sadly, the case with most American films.

I do not have a single favorite Ozu film. My favorites include:

Late Spring (1949)

Early Summer (1951)

The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice (1952)

Tokyo Story (1953)

Late Autumn (1960)

An Autumn Afternoon (1962; Ozu’s final work)


Robert Bresson

My other personal favorite is the French director Robert Bresson. My favorite Bresson film – his films are all of the highest quality — is Au hasard Balthazar (1966).

The Balthazar of the title is a donkey. It is a sort of “Black Beauty” story (the reference here being to the novel by Anna Sewell). The characters are plain people – some of them mean spirited and petty minded, if not downright cruel – in a French village.

The haunting soundtrack features the second movement (Andante) from Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 20 in A major, D. 959. Bresson uses music sparingly, but extremely effectively.


— Roger W. Smith

  July 2016; updated September 2017





from the Wikipedia entry on Yasujirō Ozu:

Ozu is probably as well known for the technical style and innovation of his films as for the narrative content. The style of his films is most striking in his later films, a style he had not fully developed until his post-war talkies. He did not conform to Hollywood conventions. Rather than using the typical over-the-shoulder shots in his dialogue scenes, the camera gazes on the actors directly, which has the effect of placing the viewer in the middle of the scene.

Ozu did not use typical transitions between scenes, either. In between scenes he would show shots of certain static objects as transitions, or use direct cuts, rather than fades or dissolves. Most often the static objects would be buildings, where the next indoor scene would take place. It was during these transitions that he would use music, which might begin at the end of one scene, progress through the static transition, and fade into the new scene. He rarely used non-diegetic music in any scenes other than in the transitions. Ozu moved the camera less and less as his career progressed, and ceased using tracking shots altogether in his color films. …

He invented the “tatami shot,” in which the camera is placed at a low height, supposedly at the eye level of a person kneeling on a tatami mat … even lower than that, only one or two feet off the ground, which necessitated the use of special tripods and raised sets. He used this low height even when there were no sitting scenes, such as when his characters walked down hallways.

Ozu eschewed the traditional rules of filmic storytelling, most notably eyelines.


from the Wikipedia entry on Robert Bresson:

[Bresson is] known for a spiritual and ascetic style. Bresson contributed notably to the art of cinema; his non-professional actors, ellipses, and sparse use of scoring have led his works to be regarded as preeminent examples of minimalist film. …

Three formative influences in his early life seem to have a mark on his films: Catholicism, art and his experiences as a prisoner of war. …

Bresson made only 13 feature-length films. This reflects his meticulous approach to the filmmaking process and his non-commercial preoccupations. ….

Bresson’s actors were required to repeat multiple takes of each scene until all semblances of “performance” were stripped away, leaving a stark effect that registers as both subtle and raw. This, as well as Bresson’s restraint in musical scoring, would have a significant influence on minimalist cinema. …

Bresson is often referred to as a patron saint of cinema, not only for the strong Catholic themes found throughout his oeuvre, but also for his notable contributions to the art of film. His style can be detected through his use of sound, associating selected sounds with images or characters; paring dramatic form to its essentials by the spare use of music; and through his infamous “actor-model” methods of directing his almost exclusively non-professional actors.



A Comment:

What I most like about Ozu’s films is his appreciation of moments of silence or non-action. So much is allowed to happen in those moments! They are almost always missing from American films, which seem to require constant noise and movement. You didn’t list it, so I’ll add another favorite: “Good Morning,” which is a comedy.

Thanks for bringing Ozu’s film to the attention of your readers!

— Ella Rutledge

    November 9, 2016




I would like to clarify one aspect of the above.

I think it is important to be able to tell what is a classic and what is not a classic, which is the point of this essay.

But you can’t be force fed classics – it’s the kiss of death when it comes to developing a love and enthusiasm for them.

Comments along these lines were made by me in the essay Roger W. Smith, “My Early Reading” posted here at

“My Early Reading”

As follows:

I think that to love reading, you have to begin by doing it because of intrinsic interest in the topic and because you are anticipating pleasure, not because you regard it as a duty. You should read whatever you like to; it could be books about sports, entertainment figures, lowbrow fiction, whatever you really and truly want to read.

Whenever (and this comment pertains mainly to classics) you are restricted to encountering good books only as school assignments, when that’s the only place where you encounter them, the game is lost. If you think that classic books are those that you are required to analyze and write essay exam questions on, and nothing more, you will probably not enjoy them in later life. My counsel to all readers, especially young ones, is read whatever you want to read, as much as you can. Seek a level where you have a genuine interest and read at that level. An interest in the best books will often follow.




Similar thoughts of mine upon reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick? (2011).

On pg. 61, Philbrick mentions “the wisdom of waiting to read the classics. Coming to a great book on your own after having accumulated essential life experience can make all the difference.”

YES – waiting, I would be inclined to say, until you are ready, motivated, and receptive.

Waiting until the most opportune time.

This is precisely that happened to me with Moby-Dick. And, practically every other classic and/or “great book” I have ever read.

Hardly any of them – almost none – were read by me as school assignments.





The following film can be viewed on YouTube at the following links.


D. W. Griffith

Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (1916)


Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet, Yasujirō Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon, and Robert Bressson’s Au hasard Balthazar are available from the Criterion Collection.






 “On Aesthetic and Cultural Appreciation of Literature and Film, and My Favorite Directors” (小津安二郎は日本の映画監督・脚本家)




もちろん、小津の映画を最初に教えてくれたのはBill Dalzelld だった。彼はいずれ真実であることが明らかになるコメントをした。小津の映画では、何も起こらない。


















晩春 (1949年)


麦秋 (1951年)


お茶漬けの味 (1952年)


東京物語 (1953年)


秋日和 (1960年)


秋刀魚の味 (1962年、小津の最終作)













thinking “too energetically”


I was thinking today of something I read about Charles Darwin. It was in an article about Darwin by my former therapist, Dr. Ralph Colp Jr.

Early in the course of our sessions, I told Dr. Colp that I was interested in writing. “I’ve done some writing myself,” he said.

“Some writing.” Indeed. His output was prodigious. I have recently been rereading some of his articles. They are all superb — superbly researched, crafted, and written. These include articles of his such as “Bitter Christmas: A Biographical Inquiry into the Life of Bartolomeo Vanzetti” and “Sacco’s Struggle for Sanity,” both published in The Nation. Also, “Trotsky’s Dream of Lenin” and “Why Stalin Couldn’t Stop Laughing,” published, respectively, in the journals Clio’s Psyche and The Psychohistory Review.

And, a plethora of articles on Charles Darwin, such as “ ‘Confessing a Murder’: Darwin’s First Revelations About Transmutation,” “Charles Darwin’s Dream of His Double Execution,” “Charles Darwin’s Insufferable Grief” (about the death of Darwin’s ten year old daughter Annie), and many others.

In an article of Dr. Colp’s, “Notes on Charles Darwin’s ‘Autobiography’ ,” published in the Journal of the History of Biology (1985), he writes about various aspects of Darwin’s upbringing and personal life, including his experience with and tastes in literature and music. He states:

He stated that he had lost his taste for music, but then admitted that music stimulated him to “think too energetically” about what he was working on. He was enthusiastic about certain musical compositions, and some songs.

This was a perceptive insight, I thought, both on the part of Darwin, and, vicariously, by Dr. Colp — it struck me and I retained it fixed in memory. This is something I have observed myself.



The other day, while doing some writing, I listened to the fourth movement of Brahms’s first symphony. It is a piece I have loved, especially the fourth movement, ever since high school.

I thought it would psych me up. I wasn’t paying that much attention, but suddenly I felt, this music is getting on my nerves.

Annoying? Brahms? How could that be?

One has to be in the right frame of mind for any mental activity: conversation, contemplation, study, a lecture or museum exhibit, reading, listening to music. (I realize that I’m stating the obvious.)

This is very true of music. Sometimes I will put on a beloved classical piece and find that I’m not in the right mood for it. But another piece works. And so on. Often, music is just what the doctor ordered: soothing or, conversely (if this is what’s needed), stimulating, a tonic. At other times, music gets in the way of mental processes. In that case, you have to choose either to listen to it with complete focus and no other mental processes going on, or to turn it off and focus on whatever it might be you’re engaged in that requires your attention.

Would you not agree?


— Roger W. Smith

  September 7, 2017

a pregnant thought


conveyed to me by a long time friend, Bill Dalzell, in a phone conversation this morning

he was quoting a statement made by a philosophy professor in a college class he was enrolled in many years ago

the statement, as paraphrased by my friend: the question is not whether a philosophy or belief system is TRUE, it’s whether you like it nor not; does it appeal to you, say something to you? … the same thing applies to art [in the broad sense of the word]

my friend was wresting with religious doubts at the time; his professor’s statement was a consolation and revelation to him … what I would say, to the extent I understand, “translating” my friend’s inferences as best as I can, is that one can believe, engage with, bow to genius and inspiration (and, yes, truth!) without fear of being ridiculed for stupidity and credulity because something hasn’t been scientifically proved or some assertion or other has been disputed

a thought of my own: this statement has wide ranging implications … think of all the narrow minded, benighted people who want to find fault with art because they DISAGREE with something or other; to dissect, eviscerate it because they feel it is not CORRECT


— Roger W. Smith

   July 13, 2017