Tag Archives: Herman Melville Moby-Dick

Roger W. Smith, “thoughts about reading”

 

‘thoughts about reading’

 

 

“I seek in books only to give myself pleasure by honest amusement; or if I study, I seek only the learning that treats of the knowledge of myself and instructs me to die well and live well.”

 

— Michel de Montaigne, “of books” (The Complete Essays, translated by Donald M. Frame)

 

 

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“Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. … as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye. … a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

 

Areopagitica: A speech of Mr John Milton for the liberty of unlicenced printing to the Parliament of England

 

 

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I am very desirous to receive letters from You, and hope You will write to me very freely, both about your brother [Charles Cornelius Chambers] and yourself. Pray tell me very particularly the title of every book that You have read at school and every thing that You have learnt since You went thither. Tell me also what books or parts of books You have read for your pleasure, and what plays or exercises You and Charles are fondest of. For my part, when I was of your age, I was fonder of reading Robinson Crusoe and the Seven Champions of Christendom, than I was of any kind of play whatsoever; and, as I suppose that You may probably have the same taste, I have ordered those books and some others to be sent to You.

— Sir Robert Chambers, letter to his son Robert Joseph Chambers, February 12, 1790; in Thomas M. Curley: Sir Robert Chambers: Law Literature and Empire in the Age of Johnson (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998). pg. 516. (Chambers, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal, India, was then residing in Calcutta, and his sons Robert and Joseph in England. The Famous Historie of the Seaven Champions of Christendom was a late-sixteenth, early seventeenth-century romance by the English writer Richard Johnson.)

 

 

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Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? … They are for nothing but to inspire. … Books are for the scholar’s idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings. But when the intervals of darkness come, as come they must,—when the soul seeth not, when the sun is hid and the stars withdraw their shining,—we repair to the lamps which were kindled by their ray, to guide our steps to the East again, where the dawn is. We hear, that we may speak. …

It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us ever with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads. We read the verses of one of the great English poets, of Chaucer, of Marvell, of Dryden, with the most modern joy,–with a pleasure, I mean, which is in great part caused by the abstraction of all time from their verses. There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had well-nigh thought and said. …

I would not be hurried by any love of system, by any exaggeration of instincts, to underrate the Book. We all know that as the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed by any knowledge. And great and heroic men have existed who had almost no other information than by the printed page. I only would say that it needs a strong head to bear that diet. One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.

 

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar” (an address delivered in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1837 before the Harvard Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society)

 

 

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My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; … Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind. …

It is not all books that are as dull as their readers. There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.

 

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods

 

 

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Is Literature forever to propose no higher object than to amuse? to just pass away the time & stave off ennui? — Is it never to be the courageous wrestle with live subjects — the strong gymnasia of the mind — must it offer only things easy to understand as nature never does. [italics added]

 

— note, probably late 1850’s, by Walt Whitman; in Walt Whitman: Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, Volume IV: Notes, edited by Edward F. Grier (New York University Press 1984), pg. 1561

 

 

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“I was not an omnivorous reader–just a slow, idle, rambling one.”

 

— Theodore Dreiser, A Hoosier Holiday, Chapter XXXIX

 

 

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“Read, read, read. Read everything–trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.”

 

— William Faulkner, Statement at the University of Mississippi, 1947

 

 

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And then there was his book collection which numbered well into the thousands. Those books, mostly on the history of the fascinating period of his youth including the Spanish Civil War, Stalinism and World War II, were his sacred texts. He brought several tomes with him on his honeymoon in Mexico, much to my mother’s chagrin. He never let anyone read or even touch them. Their presence in every room meant that the apartment could never be painted or properly cleaned. I alternatively worshipped and loathed them, but they influenced me greatly.

 

— “A Jew without a burial site,” by Judith Colp Rubin [an essay about her father, Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr.], The Times of Israel, August 30, 2018

 

 

 

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Books are one of the most important and fulfilling things in my life.

I recall the pleasure long since past, when I was a boy, of curling up with a book, often at bedtime, just before going to sleep. I recall vividly a particular rainy day when I seem to recall we were in some remote location, perhaps a rented summer place. I spent a good part of the afternoon with a book, and felt so warm and cozy, sheltered from the elements.

I used to love that I was allowed to go to the Cambridge Public Library by myself after school when I was in the early grades. It was a rather long walk. I loved being in the children’s room, finding books, and being able to check them out by myself. There was a feeling of ownership and pride, of excitement in discovery, of being able to decide what you yourself wanted to read.

I loved receiving books as gifts. My parents and relatives were thoughtful gift-givers when it came to books. (I myself seem have inherited this. I have often had someone tell me, how did you know I would like this book, and this has occurred with people I don’t know well. Once I wanted to show appreciation to an editor with the gift of a book. She was thrilled to get the particular book I chose. It was not one, though I knew it was regarded as excellent, that I myself would have desired to read.)

I still love to curl up with a book. They are always there for me. They comfort me and are a solvent for boredom, idleness, and lonely hours.

 

 

 

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My home is filled with books, much as was the case with my former therapist, Ralph Colp, Jr. I have run out of bookshelf space. I have tried to impose some order so that I can find a book. Those on shelves are fairly well organized by broad subject areas and authors.

Dr. Colp told me there was nothing like having a book-lined study. Of having a book on the shelf there when you want it. Of being able to survey, take stock, of the riches there. He quoted to me what Edward Gibbon wrote: “My early and invincible love of reading I would not exchange for all the riches of India.”

Dr. Colp’s consulting office was lined with books, but he told me that this was only a small fraction — most were in his living quarters. He had run out of shelf space and some of the books in his consulting office were on the floor in tall piles. “What do you do when you want a book on the bottom of the pile?” I said to him once. “It seems to me that that would present a problem.”

“You’re right,” he said.

This was at a point in my therapy sessions when Dr. Colp had moved to a co-op in which he had an office and an apartment (his living quarters) on the same floor. Prior to that, I had been seeing him in a suite of offices he shared with another therapist, where there were few books. The first time I visited him in his new office, he spent the whole session showing me his books: a first edition of Darwin, for example. We never got to the session (therapy, that is) — he seemed unaware of time and was carried away by showing me the contents of his bookshelves.

 

 

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What makes a good reader? And why is reading important?

The answers seem to a large extent to be self-evident and, yet, they are questions I enjoy thinking about. Below are some thoughts of my own about reading. A description of my own reading habits. And, my advice to readers. In no particular order.

 

 

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The foundation of reading, like any pastime, should be pleasure, that you enjoy it. If you have a good experience with a good book, a great work of literature, you will want to repeat the experience. I experienced this, for example, with the following books which I read in my youth and my teens: Ben Franklin of Old Philadelphia (a young adult book; sixth grade); Anna Sewall’s Black Beauty (sometime in my elementary school years); Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season (a book about baseball; read by me in high school); Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (high school); and Pitirim A. Sorokin’s Leaves from a Russian Diary (in late adolescence), to name just a few. All were books that totally engrossed me; or, as the cliché goes, I couldn’t put them down.

A former friend of mine, the poet Charles Pierre, said to me that one should make it a point to read books expeditiously — don’t take forever to read them. You would not (although the analogy is not quite exact), for example, want to watch an opera over several evenings. This seems right, but I often violate the rule.

I want to read substantial, deep books that challenge me, fully engage me in deep thought. I get great pleasure from reading, but I do not read for pleasure in the sense of escapism (“literary” junk food).

I have found from the experience of a lifetime that I would rather travel mentally through reading books than travel in the literal sense. Reading a good book — say, a long novel — is akin to me to taking a trip, being on a journey. War and Peace, Moby-Dick, Les Misérables, Great Expectations.

You must be willing to submit yourself to a book, give yourself over to it, get lost in it. This happened to me with Moby-Dick. A critic once called it “a whale of a book.” Well, I devoured every part of it, including the cetology. I was totally wrapped up in it and Melville: the story, the whaling lore, Melville’s tone and style, the Elizabethan or Shakespearean ethos, the beauty of the narrative and descriptive passages.

Effort and stamina are required to get though a long book, including the great ones. But if the experience is worth it, curiosity and motivation (as well as pleasure) keep you going. This happened to me with Moby-Dick. It took me about three weeks to read it, in a copy borrowed from the public library that had wide margins and nice big type. During free time once, I was reading it on the steps of an open space in Midtown Manhattan. A man about my age with his girlfriend approached and, noting what I was reading, asked me if it was for a course. No, I said, I was reading it for myself. This, he plainly showed, pleased him.

I read deliberately and slowly because I want to get everything I can out of a book. (Speed reading to me is almost an oxymoron.) A good reader is an active reader.

The books of most famous writers, invariably serious readers, usually contain marginalia. I no longer make marginal notes, but I do take notes quoting passages that I want to remember and/or be able to refer to. My “marginalia” nowadays consist of typed notes which I email to myself.

Authors whom I enjoy and references within a book to other works often lead me to other books. I always have a mental inventory of books waiting to be read.

Introductions should be read after — not before — the work itself. I want to form my own impressions — make my own judgments — without being influenced or prejudiced by an introduction. This seems to be most true of fiction. I often find introductions to be well written and very informative. But, first, I want to “meet” the author, with no one telling me what I will find or what to expect. It’s like meeting a new person.

To be ready for a book, say a classic novel, you have to be in the right frame of mind. This has happened to me with many classics. At some point — often this is the case — I feel the urge to read them. There are classics that did not engage me or that I did not understand or appreciate at some point in my life which I pick up later and am thoroughly engaged by. A good example is Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It’s not the kind of novel I would ordinarily read. I tried reading it once not that long ago when perhaps I was just not in the mood. It seemed like a not particularly well written and overrated work. For some reason, I picked it up again recently and was able not only to finish it, but to fully appreciate Shelley’s genius.

Something very similar happened to me with Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I could not get through in college but read years later with great enjoyment.

One should read for as short or long a time as one likes. As for the best “reading position,” I sprawl, read in a reclining position. Dr. Colp read sitting upright behind his office desk, where he did all his intellectual work. I have never been much inclined to read (as opposed to doing research) in libraries.

I have found that the ability to read and focus on non-trivial reading material such as literature and expository or scholarly writing is a reliable measure or barometer of mental health. For me, at least. Meaning, that when I can’t focus enough to read, I am usually mentally troubled, in an agitated frame of mind.

As regards scholarly books — reading for the sake of learning — a deep, scholarly, and (hopefully) engrossing book, by someone who knows more than I do about a subject, I am very willing to submit to instruction, tutelage, by a scholar. In line with what I have just said, such reading seems to put me in a calm, deliberative, objective state — “in neutral,” so to speak. It enables me to get outside of myself mentally, to put aside self-absorption and the concerns of the moment. It is truly a matter of expanding one’s horizons.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2019

thoughts about the ocean

 

 

When asked what she would miss about the voyage, Greta [Thunberg] said–much as some harried adults feel about a long trip–the best part was “to just sit, literally sit, staring at the ocean for hours not doing anything.”

“To be in this wilderness, the ocean, and to see the beauty of it,” she added. “That I’m going to miss. Peace and quiet.” She paused for a moment.

 

— “Greta Thunberg, Climate Activist, Arrives in N.Y. With a Message for Trump; The Swedish 16-year-old sailed across the Atlantic on an emissions-free yacht to speak at the U.N. Climate Action Summit next month,” by Anne Barnard, The New York Times, August 28, 2019

 

 

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It was a clear steel-blue day. The firmaments of air and sea were hardly separable in that all-pervading azure; only, the pensive air was transparently pure and soft, with a woman’s look, and the robust and man-like sea heaved with long, strong, lingering swells, as Samson’s chest in his sleep.

Hither, and thither, on high, glided the snow-white wings of small, unspeckled birds; these were the gentle thoughts of the feminine air; but to and fro in the deeps, far down in the bottomless blue, rushed mighty leviathans, sword-fish, and sharks; and these were the strong, troubled, murderous thinkings of the masculine sea. …

Aloft, like a royal czar and king, the sun seemed giving this gentle air to this bold and rolling sea; even as bride to groom. And at the girdling line of the horizon, a soft and tremulous motion–most seen here at the equator–denoted the fond, throbbing trust, the loving alarms, with which the poor bride gave her bosom away.

… Like noiseless nautilus shells, their light prows sped through the sea; but only slowly they neared the foe. As they neared him, the ocean grew still more smooth; seemed drawing a carpet over its waves; seemed a noon-meadow, so serenely it spread. …

 

— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Chapter 132. “The Symphony”

 

 

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Brad,

 

BEATS AIR TRAVEL

I love her words and thoughts about the sea.

Her yacht docked in Manhattan right below Wall Street. I go there often to walk and enjoy the proximity to the water.

 

Roger
— email to my friend Brad Coady, August 28, 2019

 

 

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— posted by Roger W. Smith

   October 2019

Sixth Avenue on a rainy afternoon; Herman Melville

 

 

 

Sixth Avenue 4-23 a.m. 11-30-2018

Sixth Avenue, New York City; Friday afternoon, November 30, 2018

 

 

I took this photo of Sixth Avenue on my way home on Friday afternoon.

It’s been raining a lot in the City this week.

Rain can be a slight inconvenience, like other weather phenomena, but I never really minded it. It can be “nice.”

When I was very young, my mother took me once to my eye doctor, Dr. Johnson, in Boston on a weekday. We went by subway.

The appointment lasted a long time. Going home in the late afternoon, it was dark and rainy. I didn’t mind. I loved having my mother all to myself. When we got home, she put me to bed. She was so kind. She kept saying that I was cold and wet and that I must be very tired: it had been such a long day and we got home late.

Re this photo of Sixth Avenue, this street scene, it reminds me of Herman Melville’s words (in Moby-Dick): “a damp, drizzly November in my soul.”

Thanks to the Good Lord that it came upon me once when I was first living in NYC to read Moby-Dick, in a library copy. What a book!

THE Great American Novel.

 

 

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Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; CHAPTER 1. “Loomings.”

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

musical (and non-musical) musings

 

 

On Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017, I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York which included a performance of Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante in E-flat Major, K. 364.

A sinfonia concertante (also called symphonie concertante) is an orchestral work, normally in several movements, in which there are parts of solo instruments, generally two or more, contrasting a group of soloists with the full orchestra.

Prior to attending the concert, I received an email from my brother. He wrote, “The second movement [of the Sinfonia concertante], with the soloists playing off against each other with marvelous lyricism and wit, is one of the most beautiful compositions I’ve ever heard.”

So true.

While listening to Mozart, and during the concert in general, several thoughts crossed my mind.

 

 

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I don’t quite know how to express this thought. But, as is well known, there is something ethereal, otherworldly, about Mozart’s music. This is almost a truism.

It encourages, stimulates deep concentration. It seems to take one into another realm of contemplation. This reflects where it was coming from, the “musical subconscious” of a genius.

I know these may be platitudes. But, I was thinking about when this happens. When you are listening not just to notes, or admiring specifically the musical structure or form, but are in a realm of pure aesthetic delight and feel like you’re entering into another’s consciousness, which is to say, sort of like being ushered into a new sphere for the privileged (that is, us listeners). And, that the composer is “speaking” from his subconscious, or supra-consciousness, to yours. A sort of mystical fusion?

I don’t quite know why, but I was reminded — when listening to the second movement of the Sinfonia concertante — of Mozart’s Maurerische Trauermusik (Masonic Funeral Music; K. 477; K. 479a), in which the listener has the same experience.

I was also thinking about how and when this can or does occur also with literature. Suddenly, you are not just reading sentences, following a plot, etc. You are in synch with the author’s subconscious, which is to say that his genius has transported you to a new level as a reader. This happened to me when reading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. It’s not just a good yarn or a book about whaling — it’s a book about the mystical qualities of the sea, nature, cetology, and what underlies them; the wonder and terror of the physical world conjoined with the deep truths that can be found; human existence and the ironies of daily life. Melville was writing at such a deep level — he was truly inspired. His genius is what strikes you and unmans one, so to speak. The same thing is true of other literary works of genius such as Paradise Lost and Tolstoy’s novels.

 

 

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Thought number 2 of your faithful correspondent. This occurred to me mostly while listening to other pieces on the program.

It’s okay if the mind wanders during a concert. If fact, it’s by no means a bad thing if it does. Great art stimulates the mind. (Another truism.) To appreciate, enjoy, and savor it. But also, to think deeply, energetically. Even if the work doesn’t seem to be ABOUT anything.

For instance, in my post

 

“Mozart, Alexander L. Lipson, and Russian 1 with Professor Gribble”

https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/11/18/mozart-alexander-l-lipson-and-russian-1-with-professor-gribble/

 

I explained how at a concert I attended in November, listening to one of Mozart’s greatest quartets led me by a train of associations to think about Pushkin and, by the same “inner logic,” about a Russian course I once took.

What I find happening is that my mind wanders sort of back and forth, from the music being performed to all sorts of thoughts and musings inspired by it. These range from thoughts about the music itself (including the sort of thoughts that might be classified under the rubric “music appreciation”) to thoughts somewhat related to the music (such as listening to a requiem and musing about death) to thoughts that suddenly arise having little or nothing to do with the music. However, this is tricky. Music from classical to popular comes laden with associations. A piece may evoke a train of thoughts or memories that only you can explain, arising perhaps because the music reminds you of when you first heard the piece, of similar music you have heard, of other works by the same composer, and so forth. It’s kind of like what happens with dreams: seemingly bizarre associations, but one can often relate them to “facts” buried within one’s subconscious and known only to oneself.

I find that I come home from a concert mentally refreshed and stimulated, with the stimulation producing creativity and earnest thinking.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2017

 

 

 

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Addendum:

 

Mozart, Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major, K. 364; 2nd movement, Andante

 

 

 

Mozart, Maurerische Trauermusik (Masonic Funeral Music) in C minor, K. 477 (K. 479a)

 

 

The Masonic Funeral Music is an orchestral work that was composed by Mozart in 1785 in his capacity as a member of the Freemasons. It was performed during a Masonic funeral service held on in memory of two of Mozart’s Masonic brethren.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

an island … a city surrounded by WATER

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

photographs by Roger W. Smith

 

 

 

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The photographs posted here above were all taken by me within the past few months in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, NYC.

I love skylines, love dense clouds. New York City has wonderful skylines. You can’t really see them from Manhattan, but you can from the waterside and from the outer boroughs, which have lower buildings.

It is wonderful that Manhattan is an island bounded by water: the ocean (New York Harbor), the East River, the Hudson River, the Harlem River.

One thing this does is prevent urban sprawl and the development of a megalopolis ending nowhere.

It also gives the city an almost enchanted quality or aspect.

As Herman Melville put it in Moby-Dick (Chapter 1, ‘Loomings”):

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?

But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand—miles of them—leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues—north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither? … There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries—stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water. … Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.

 

 

— 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)

 

 

 

以下、このエッセイの日本語への翻訳の一部を参照してください。

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

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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?

 

 

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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

 

 

 

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Addendum:

 

from the Wikipedia entry on Yasujirō Ozu:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yasujir%C5%8D_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:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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.

 

 

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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

 

 

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Addendum:

 

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

https://rogersgleanings.com/2015/11/05/roger-w-smith-essay-on-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.

 

 

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Addendum:

 

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.

 

 

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Addendum:

 

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

 

 

D. W. Griffith

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eisenstein

Ivan the Terrible, Part One

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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小津安二郎は日本の映画監督・脚本家

 

 “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)

 

彼は、その作品で評論家から非常に高い評価を得ていたが、彼のことはその評価に見合うほど知られていない。彼は私が個人的に好きな映画監督であり、おそらく上述した5人の監督を上回るだろう。

 

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。

 

それらは、ビジネスマン、主婦、家族など、日本の庶民の何気ない日常を描いた映画だ。見ている人は、彼らの日常生活をただ見るのだが、メロドラマのようなたぐいではない。退屈するどころか、小津監督が吹き込む驚嘆すべきマジックにより、観客は決して退屈することがない。むしろ、見ている人は夢中にさせられる。

 

実際の人々の日常生活のありさまを、あたかも監督が東京のある家庭、または職場に潜入し、独自のカメラを回して撮ったドキュメンタリーか何かを見ているような感覚を受ける。役者の演技を見ている、ということを全く忘れさせられるのは、実に信じがたい体験だ。

 

音楽も素晴らしく、シンプルで魅惑的な音楽が控えめにバランスよく使われている。

 

日本語の話し言葉が非常に耳に心地よい。

 

場所の感覚がしっかり存在する。この映画は東京で撮影された。これを観ている人たちは、自分が実際に映画の登場人物の家の座敷や、ビジネスマンがおびただしく酒を飲むバー、カラフルなネオンや看板、紙ちょうちんの並ぶ狭い街路地に居るかのように感じる。

 

小津監督は優れたビジュアルセンスを持つが、映画のその他すべての部分と同様、彼の映画技術には押し付けがましさがない。彼は見せびらかすことをしない。あなたは気づかないうちに、素晴らしい美を体験させられる。

 

すべてがシンプルで、かなり明瞭に作られているため、あなたと映画との間に距離を感じない。印象付けるために、大げさな表現、見せびらかし、映画技術は一切使わない。そして、残念ながら大半のアメリカ映画がそうであるように、大げさな演技はない。

 

私の好きな小津監督の映画を1つだけ選ぶことはできない。私のお気に入りの映画のリストを挙げることにする:

 

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)

 

 

 

 

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ウィキピディアの小津安二郎のページより

 

小津は恐らく、物語の内容と同じくらい、彼の映画の技術的スタイルと革新によって知られている監督であろう。彼の映画のスタイルは、晩年の映画でより顕著になってきており、このスタイルは彼の戦後をテーマにした映画の中で完全に確立された。彼はハリウッド映画のしきたりに従わなかった。それよりは、会話のシーンで典型的な肩越しのショットを使ったり、カメラを役者に直接向け、観客がシーンの中にいるような効果を出した。

 

小津はシーンの間にも典型的なトランジションを使わなかった。シーンの間に彼は、特定の静的オブジェクトをトランジションとして使ったり、フェードやディゾルブなどよりは、ディレクトカットを用いた。静的オブジェクトは、次の屋内シーンが展開される建物を用いることがほとんどだった。音楽はこれらのトランジション中に挿入され、1つのシーンの終わりから始まり、静的オブジェクトによるトランジションを経て、新しいシーンでフェードしていく、といった具合に使用した。彼がトランジション以外で物語の世界に属さない音楽を使用することはほとんどなかった。小津は、キャリアを積むに連れカメラを移動することが少なくなり、カラーフィルムになってからは、トラッキング・ショットの使用を一切止めた。…

 

彼はカメラを低い位置に設置し、日本家屋での座ったときの目線、または、それよりも低い床から30~60cmほどの高さで撮影する「畳ショット」を発明したが、これには特別な三脚を使用し、セットを上げる必要があった。彼は、キャラクターが廊下を歩くときなど、座り芝居のないシーンでもこのロー・ポジションを使用した。

 

小津は、映画によるストーリーテリングの伝統的なルールを避け、これは視点の構図で最も顕著だった。