Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll.

I am sitting at the edge of a continent, looking out at a flat expanse of grayish blue, which falls away from me, and when I force myself to notice it, rolls downward at the horizon and below my line of sight – it is the rounded top of a ferris wheel revolving eastward at some speed.

Nearer to shore, the color is broken with bands of white, breakers on the beach, but further out it is expansive. Somewhat below the horizon, far out to sea, a hurricane is sending its message in waves to our shore. Wind blows the trees nearby, and the surf is riled. There is mizzle in the air. The storm has passed here once again, only glancing at us as it moves by.

When we are young, the sea is romantic. It is the cradle endlessly rocking, we write poems about it, spindrift and seawrack, we stare out at it as if we were expecting to discover our adventure.

Many of us manage to maintain this sense of awe in the face of the waters, but for others, the sea has become a summer rental, or a weekend away from the city. If you were privileged to sail across the ocean on a ship, you will change your attitude in another way: It will become a daily monotony of wet flatness. Either way, the ocean will lose some of its mastery over us.

It is the edge of a continent. I have been back and over that continent more times than I can count, and have a body memory of its extent. I know in my bones the size of it, measured in days on the road, in the exchange of one horizon for the succeeding one. There are hills, cities, forests, grasslands, rivers, traffic lights – let’s not forget the traffic lights – and the homes of friends we stop to visit.

Looking east from here, though, out to sea, the globe is not speckled with features; it is uniform, save for the wiggle of waves and the rise and fall of the swell. It is a face without eyes, nose or mouth. And one senses that if you were to reach the horizon – that edge of your vision from any single location – you would find only another, identical horizon the same distance hence.

Inland, the picture is busy, it is our daily lives, the commerce between people, the schedules, the hubbub, the striving, the disappointment. It is populated and squirming. In that sense, it is life.

Outward, the sea shows us blankness of the non-human cosmos, seeming to be unlimited, at the very least, with no surveyor’s stakes plotting out squares of ownership. It is the blankness of death, and therefore, death itself. It is why we stare out at it, why it stares back, why it fills us up so we are like a bottle overflowing.

I have seen three of the planet’s oceans and several of its smaller seas – small but still immense. I have lived on the Atlantic shore and on the Pacific Coast and felt very different oceans. I have sailed on both. I have seen the Indian Ocean, and felt the warm, humid air, thick as a fur coat, from its shore. I have seen the North Sea and the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Sea of Cortez. And all of them leave me with a sense of a flatness stretching out like a drumhead, but curling down over their horizons, and always, I know that past that eye-reach is more flatness. More water; more swell, more wave, more whitecaps, more low clouds, shifting with the barometer.

The oceans are not infinite, I know. They are not eternal, I know. Byron’s encomium is nowadays wishful thinking: “Man marks the earth with ruin; his control/ Stops with the shore.” Pace Byron, but we are fouling the seas quite efficiently now.

Nevertheless, that does not change our sense of the watery parts of the world. They beckon us to our life adventure – at least in our minds, they do – and they speak what Whitman called the low, delicious word, “The word final, superior to all.”

They remind us of the vastness of the universe, our measly place in it as pismires, our short parole upon the watery planet, to be revoked at a time unknown to us – a knock on the door, a suitcase packed ready to go.

No doubt it is why the oceans look so beautiful to us. They promise that there is something larger, less transitory, less mutable.

I look out on the Atlantic this morning, storm offshore, waves pawing the sand around like a cat playing with a mouse. I look up at the clouds, gray as the water beneath; I look beyond them.

“If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

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I recently wrote about the Bible as part of our cultural heritage, along with Ovid, and the importance for our younger readers to be familiar with both of them, since they provide such an important resonance for so much of our art and literature. Not simply as footnotes to explain some obscure allusion in some poem you are studying, but as a kind of foundation layer — a diapason for everything that has followed and sounding deeply underneath it.

I received one rather snarky comment complaining that my piece was characteristically over-weighted with Western culture, and that I should have also mentioned non-Western writings.

My reader, I think, had rather missed the point. I was talking about the Western culture we were born into. I was not making a value judgement that ours is necessarily better or more important than others. But I was not born into the Chinese, Indian, African or Native American cultures.

I have always encouraged the widest possible exposure to the rest of the world. I have tried to read widely in other cultures, and to familiarize myself with the art and music of other peoples.

But there are two problems inherent in the criticism my misguided reader has leveled at me. This is not to exculpate myself — I do sometimes overvalue my own culture — but rather to point out some serious problems with trying to be too cosmopolitan. I wish I could embrace all times and all cultures, and god knows, I have tried my best. I read widely, whether the Mahabharata or the Tao Te Ching; I have studied the development of Chinese landscape painting and the impenetrable glyphs of Mesoamerica; I have attended Chinese opera; I watch the new cinema of Iran. I traveled to South Africa to study contemporary art there.

One should be familiar with the Popol Vuh, with the Egyptian and Tibetan books of the dead, Gilgamesh and the Shahnameh.

One should also read more recent things by Chinua Achebe, Athol Fugard, R.K. Narayan, Kobo Abe, Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa. Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are hardly less essential than Leo Tolstoy or William Faulkner.

Still, there are insurmountable problems with the whole idea.

The first is that no matter how much I study, how much I learn — even if I were to get my Ph.D. in the Fu poets of China and were able to read them in their original language — Chinese culture would never be native to me. Culture, like language, is acquired, not learned. And just as it is impossible after the teen years to acquire a new language as a native tongue, no matter how well you learn that new language, you can never fully absorb a non-native culture. You will always know it from the outside.  Its idioms are elusive.

So, the sort of resonance I wrote about — the unconscious undertones you pick up when reading in your own lingua that deepen your emotional understanding of your text — you can never fully acquire in a culture you study later in life. Deep as you penetrate, you cannot soak it in the same way a Chinese child, or an Indian child soaks in his own.

Related to this is the second problem.

The pretense of assuming a non-native culture is almost always a form of Orientalizing. That is, there is a kind of romanticized sheen that is cast over the other culture. And that other culture is often used as a flail to scourge one’s native culture.

Lord knows, Europe has a lot to answer for historically. And those who bemoan Western culture use the counter-example from some other culture to make the point. The problem with this kind of cultural self-loathing is that it ignores the simple fact that it is not Western culture that creates the evil, it is human beings that do so. Every culture has its evils to answer for. Europe may, in the past 500 years been dominant, and have a list of sins more immediate in our cultural memory, but we should never forget that all cultures are made up of humans, and humans do and have always done reprehensible things.

I once made a study of genocides, and which religions have been responsible for the largest portion of them. Turns out they all have their murders. The religion least likely to turn on others is Buddhism. Yet, even they have their share; not the least is the current situation with the Rohingya in Burma. So, historically speaking, no one escapes blame. Before Columbus, Native Americans were not living in peace and amity: They were killing each other. China had Mao; Cambodia had Pol Pot; Rwanda had its Tutsis and Hutus. Humans red in tooth and claw.

The romanticization of other cultures leads to some utter silliness. I never cease to be stunned by all the “harmony with nature” blather about American Indians, as if they, as a group (and not a hundred different languages and cultures), had some magic relationship with the natural world that Europeans do not. You look at European painting or read Western poetry and practically all you see or hear is nature, finely seen and deeply felt.

And conversely, you travel through the Navajo reservation in Arizona and see the profound overgrazing that has devastated grasslands. Or visit First Mesa on the Hopi reservation (one of the places I most love in the world), and peek over the edge of the precipice and see the trash and old mattress springs tossed down the cliff as a trash dump. Talk to me then about how Native Americans live in harmony with nature.

No, I don’t mean to imply that Europeans are better than Native Americans, nor do I mean that some Native Americans don’t have a specific cultural relationship with the natural world. What I mean to state is that Native Americans are people too, and are just as capable of being less than their best selves.

These two problems together mean that when we leave our own milieu, we are always tourists — or at best, travelers — strangers in a strange land, fascinated by this bauble or that, able to learn lessons and pick up fresh ways of understanding existence, but these are always souvenirs, the benefits of travel that broaden our horizons.

When we Orientalize — idealize the foreignness of others — we can easily toss away the pith and suck on the bark. There is much value, say, in Buddhism. And if one is to have a religion, it is certainly the least offensive, with the least blood on its hands. But if you want to be one, be a Buddhist in a jacket and tie; don’t shave your head and wear yellow robes. If you were born in Indiana or West Anglia, these Volkgedanken externals miss the elemental meaning and turn profound ideas into cosplay.

So, be aware of the rest of the world. Read widely and deeply. But also, drink deeply from the culture that gave you birth. You may understand other places and other peoples in your head, but you feel your own in your belly. If you are Chinese, dive into Chinese culture; if Mexican, soak in your history, literature and art; if you are born into the culture of Chaucer and King James, imbibe deeply of the Pierian Spring. Learning from other cultures broadens you, but your mother culture nourishes you.

A few years ago, I read the Bible, cover to cover, and my general response was “These people were out in the desert sun too long.”

I mean, you must slice off bits of your private parts, but you must never cut off your sideburns? You cannot wear cotton blends without risking being stoned to death or eternally damned? If you have a flat nose, you cannot go to your house of worship? I mean, either you have to allow the possibility that in 40 years in the wilderness of the Sinai Desert, someone suffered sunstroke, or that perhaps the manna from heaven was actually some sort of psychotropic mushroom.

Or, you can read the so-called prophetic books and ask yourself, is this some sort of occult conspiracy gibberish? It too often reads like word salad. There is some sanity in the gospels, but then you descend back into paranoid craziness with St. Paul.

I can think of no better prophylactic against religion than actually reading the Bible. Those who profess belief too often cherry-pick the parts they like and ouija-board interpret the prophesies and ignore the batshit nutjob stuff that surrounds it all.

So, I hope I have established my bona fides as a non-believer when I say I am against removing the Bible from public schools. That’s right — I believe the Bible should be taught in school from an early age. Not for religious indoctrination, and also not for religious inoculation, but rather to familiarize the upcoming students with the stories from the book.

The Four Evangelists by Jacob Jordaens

When I was teaching art history, many, many years ago, I was surprised that my students knew so little about the subject matter of the paintings we were studying. Renaissance and Baroque paintings are suffused with biblical imagery, and to understand what is going on in many of those paintings, you need to know the cultural context — i.e., you need to know the Bible stories.

But, in a test, when I asked “Who were the four Evangelists,” only two of a class of 22 knew. One of them half-remembered, “John, Paul, George and Ringo.”

It hardly mattered if the students considered themselves Christian, or even merely generally religious. They were by and large, astonishingly ignorant of their cultural patrimony.

Abraham and Isaac. Cain and Abel. Lot’s wife. Jacob and Esau. Potiphar’s wife. Jacob’s ladder. Aaron’s rod. The golden calf. Balaam’s ass. Joshua and Jericho. David and Jonathan.

There are tons of stories that were once the common well of cultural reference for all European and Euro-American peoples, and by extension and the African-American church, for Black Americans, too.

It isn’t just Renaissance paintings, but in everything from Medieval illuminated manuscripts to the poetry of W.H. Auden. It shows up in sculpture, in novels, in dance, in symphonic music and Baroque opera.

The Slaughter of the Innocents by Rubens

Daniel in the lion’s den. Boaz and Ruth. Jonah and the great fish. Paul and the road to Damascus. The massacre of the innocents. The wedding at Cana. The raising of Lazarus. The giving unto Caesar. Doubting Thomas.

The loss of these stories in popular parlance isn’t just a loss of religious faith, but a casting off of hundreds of years of art, literature and mores.

When Herman Melville begins his magnum opus with “Call me Ishmael,” we need to understand who Ishmael was in the Bible if we want to feel the depth of the meaning of such a simple statement. It resonates.

When John Steinbeck titles his book, East of Eden, do we know what geography he is laying out for us? When William Jennings Bryan exhorts us not be be crucified on a “cross of gold,” do we feel the mythic undertones of his rhetoric? Everything we say has resonance, more and less, with the long line of cultural continuity. We have lived with the Bible, in one form or another (depending on denomination) for nearly 2,000 years, and the Torah, for even longer and the residue from it has colored almost every cultural effusion since the Emperor Constantine decided to change the rules for the Roman Empire.

Of course, it isn’t only the Bible that needs to be taught. All of Greek and Roman mythology is equally part of our cultural inheritance. It should also be taught. How can you read Shakespeare or Milton — or John Updike — without it? I would recommend that everyone by the 8th grade have read Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

What I see is a rising population of those cut off from their past, from their inheritance. They are like untuned strings, with no fiddle or lute to provide resonance. And it is this resonance that is so important. A familiarity with our cultural origins allows meaning to open up when you read, that emotions become complex and connections are made. The world is electrified: A switch has been turned on and a darkened room is lit.

And what do you get without this resonance? I fear you need only look at the White House and its current occupant (and I use the word advisedly: an “occupant,” like an anonymous piece of junk mail rather than a “resident,” which implies roots.) For without resonance, you have simplicity instead of complexity, you have response without consideration of consequence. If someone insults you, heck, punch him in the face — a simple and simple-minded response. And a dangerous imbecility in the face of the complex cross-forces and dangers of the interconnected world.

Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Resonance is complexity. It is the plate tectonics under the surface geography.

A great deal of art and literature has something important to say to us, and the best of it resonates within the sounding board of 6,000 years of cultural development, with each layer built on the last and a through-line of meaning. Without it we are intellectually, emotionally and morally naked.

I have a book I love greatly. In august buckram, of a deep navy blue, with gold embossed letters on the spine, it is the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, compiled in 1951 by Iona and Peter Opie. It is more than an anthology; it is a deeply researched tome of scholarship, as one would expect from the Universitatis Oxoniensis.

Each rhyme is compiled with variorum versions and usually several pages of history, interpretation and arcana. Humpty Dumpty covers four pages, with footnotes. We learn that versions exist in Sweden (“Thille Lille”); in Switzerland (“Annebadadeli”); Germany (“Rüntzelkien-Püntzelken”); France (“Boule Boule”) and elsewhere. That Humpty-Dumpty is the name of a boiled ale-and-brandy drink; that there is a little girls’ game by the same name; that the name was also given to a siege engine in the English Civil War.

And we learn that there is a commonly-held belief that the rhyme (I can’t really call it a poem) is really about the fall of “My kingdom for a horse” Richard III. Not, apparently, true.

If there is a common theme in the book, it is that although so many people believe there is a “secret” meaning to so many of these nonsensical nursery rhymes, and seek out who in history is really being referenced, almost always such belief is unfounded. The poems are either attested to much earlier than the historical figure, or we know by internal evidence, it could not be.

How many people believe “Ring around the rosey” is about the Black Death or the Great Plague of 1665? This folk etymology doesn’t appear until after World War II, but now seems universally accepted, despite all evidence to the contrary. The symptoms in the verse are simply not the symptoms of the disease.

Or take “Sing a song of sixpence, A pocket full of rye; Four and twenty blackbirds, Baked in a pie.” The Opies relate several “interpretations” of the rhyme: “Theories upon which too much ink has been expended are (1) that the twenty-four blackbirds are the hours of the day; the king, the sun; the queen, the moon; (2) that the blackbirds are the choirs of the about-to-be dissolved monasteries making a dainty pie for Henry; the queen, Katherine; the maid, Anne Boleyn; (3) that the king, again, is Henry VIII; the rye, tribute in kind; the birds, twenty-four manorial title deeds presented under a crust; (4) that the maid is a sinner; the blackbird, the demon snapping off the maid’s nose to reach her soul; (5) that the printing of the English Bible is celebrated, blackbirds being the letters of the alphabet which were ‘baked in a pie’ when set up by the printers in pica form. … If any particular explanation is required of the rhyme, the straightforward one that it is a description of a familiar entertainment is the most probable.”

Occam’s razor, once again.

I grew up in suburban New Jersey, largely destitute of what Bruno Bettelheim called the “enchantment of childhood.” I never read any fairy tales until college. And the child rhymes I had about me were not usually the ancyent classiques, but rather, the newer comic ones.

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear

Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair

Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy

Wuz he?

or:

Oo-ee Goo-ee was a worm

A mighty worm was he

He sat upon the railroad track

The train he did not see

Oo-ee goo-ee!

Then there were the spelling rhymes:

Chicken in the car

The car won’t go

That’s how you spell

Chicago.

or

A knife and a fork

A bottle and a cork

That’s the way to spell

New York.

There were those set to familiar tunes, like the “Great green gobs of gooey grimy gopher guts,” or:

Be kind to your webfooted friends

For a duck may be somebody’s mother.

Be kind to your friends in the swamp,

where the weather is very, very damp.

Now you may think that this is the end —

Well, it is!

That abrupt ending was a theme, as in “Ooey-Gooey” and in

There was an old crow 

Sat upon a clod; 

That’s the end of my song. 

—That’s odd.

When I was a kid, I thought that kind of deconstruction of the scansion was hilarious.

Later, I learned such eternal classics as:

O I had a little chicken and she wouldn’t lay an egg

So I ran hot water up and down her leg

O the little chickie cried and the little chickie begged

And the little chickie laid me a hard boiled egg.

Which we rounded off with the modern rewrite of “Shave and a haircut, Five cents:”

Match in the gas tank:

Boom-boom.

Also hilarious:

On top of spaghetti,

All covered with cheese,

I lost my poor meatball

When somebody sneezed.

It rolled off the table

And onto the floor,

And then my poor meatball

Rolled right out the door.

“Rolled right out the door,” had me rolling on the floor.

Almost as much as:

I see London, I see France;

I see someone’s underpants.

Underwear being, of course, in grade school second in delirious comedy only to farts.

Such rhymes may refer to real personages, of course, as:

Lizzie Borden took an ax

And gave her mother forty whacks

And when she saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one.

(Although court records tell us Lizzie’s stepmother received 18 blows and her father, 11. Still, we don’t go to children’s doggerel for historical research.)

The fact is, this stuff is just nonsense verse, and we loved it, not only because we were immature little brats who found bodily functions risible, but because rhyme and meter delight the mind and ear. The children’s rhymes we recited when we were bairns were one of the ways we acquired language. (It has often been pointed out that we don’t “learn” our native tongue, but rather “acquire” it, picking it up by example, and examples that are memorable are easier to remember, QED.)

I don’t mean to imply these versicles were understood to be, or designed to be pedagogical, but that their effect was to make language magical and something we didn’t simply use, but delighted in.

Of course, sometimes the stupid rhymes were meant to teach, like “In Fourteen-hundred and Ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Or, in even more egregious form, causing lifelong damage to those required to memorize them in music-appreciation classes, those mnemonics that taught classical music:

This is the symphony

That Schubert wrote

And never finished.

Or:

In the hall of the Mountain King

Mountain King

Mountain king

In the hall of the Mountain King

Was written by Edvard Grieg.

Can’t unhear what you’ve heard. Such things led to parodies, also, sung to the opening of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40:

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a Mozart

Shoot him down, shoot him down, shoot him down…

So, as we grew up, we still loved the silliness that we first encountered with our nursery rhymes and nonsense verse. It is why Walt Kelly’s Christmas carols are sung even by people who don’t know where they come from:

Deck us all with Boston Charlie

Walla-Walla, Wash., and Kalamazoo

Nora’s freezing on the trolley

Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!

It is why we love Shel Silverstein’s ditties:

The Slithergadee has crawled out of the sea.

He may catch all the others, but he

won’t catch me.

No you won’t catch me, old slithergadee,

you may catch all the others, but you wo— 

My brother says he doesn’t even remember writing this one, but I wrote it down many, many years ago:

Watch your scotch

Or it’ll get brittle.

And I was once asked to be a Cyrano for a college roommate I detested and to write a poem that he could pretend he wrote for a girl he fancied. Her name?

If you have a yen,

Don’t ask if, ask Gwen.

I don’t remember how that romance turned out, but, you know, “Match in the gas tank; Boom-boom.”

I cannot forget that Abigail Adams said, “Remember the ladies.”

I recently wrote a blog about several of my “heroes.” I was not oblivious of the fact that my five choices were all of the dangly-bits gender, and I promised in that entry to follow up with one on women who were also my heroes — those who embody character that I admire and would aspire to, if I were a better person than I have managed to be.

Top on my list of women who are my heroes I would place my wife of 35 years, but I will not be writing about her, for deeply personal reasons. Let us simply acknowledge that there is now a constellation that bears her name, made up of the brightest stars, cast up into the nighttime sky.

As with the previous posting, there are some women who most of the world would add to the list. I will never be as brave or as eloquent as Malala Yousafzai. If someone had shot me in the face, I’m sure I would have lain low for the rest of my life, looking back nervously over my shoulder and jumping at Fourth of July fireworks. But Malala continues to speak out forcefully for the education of women. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, when she was 17, which is the age my granddaughters are now. I think of them as mature for their ages, but Malala — wow. They don’t hand out Nobel Peace Prizes for being class president or state legislative page. She is one in a billion.

They do hand out Nobel Peace Prizes for upholding democracy in the face of authoritarian military juntas, though. Aung San Suu Kyi has one. She spent a total of 15 years under house arrest in her native Burma for speaking out against the repressive government, and finally managed to bring democracy back to her nation. (I recognize that all heroes run the risk of clay feet. Malala so far has avoided that fate, but Aung San Suu Kyi nearly blew decades of good will in the world by failing to condemn violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma. One always has to forgive something in one’s heroes. Not one of us is perfect.)

But my personal pantheon comprises five women who have something to give me on a more personal level; they embody traits that I would aspire to and that among them are fervent curiosity; a willingness to include everyone in the circus of humanity; an ability to feel not just sympathy, but empathy; a refusal to accept the conventional wisdom; and a burning aliveness. The each see the multiple layers of existence not as contradictory, but as accumulative.

Toni Morrison — Another Nobel Prize winner, this time for literature, Morrison has the fierce physiognomy of a Tibetan temple’s guardian demon. She suffers not fools gladly. But, as with the Buddhist demons, when you accept her for herself, she turns out to be a guide, not a gatekeeper. I especially appreciate that, although she can walk through walls — indeed, chew the walls up and spit them out — she does not cave in to the conventional definitions laid out for her by society.

When asked about feminism in a 1998 interview in Salon magazine, she said, “In order to be as free as I possibly can, in my own imagination, I can’t take positions that are closed. Everything I’ve ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it, to open doors, sometimes, not even closing the book – leaving the endings open for reinterpretation, revisitation, a little ambiguity.” 

She has done a great deal for feminism by being the powerful woman she is. It may be “off-putting to some readers, who may feel that I’m involved in writing some kind of feminist tract. I don’t subscribe to patriarchy, and I don’t think it should be substituted with matriarchy. I think it’s a question of equitable access, and opening doors to all sorts of things.”

And geez, can she write.

Agnès Varda — French New Wave cinema broke away from the conventions of studio filmmaking in the 1950s and ’60s, with a fresh approach to storytelling. Varda is often including in their ranks, but really, she isn’t in anyone’s army. She is peculiarly and significantly her own. It is often hard to tell whether she is making documentary or feature film. Her fiction often includes bits of real life, and her documentaries are often so imaginative that the only way you can categorize them is to call them “personal essays” in film language.

She is clearly in love with the things of this world, from her first feature, La Pointe Courte, from 1954, which focuses as much on the physical settings and objects in the small fishing village central to her story, as it does on the two main characters. There are wooden sheds and fishing nets lingered over lovingly by the camera, which moves ever so slowly, giving us all the time we need to pay attention. She dares us to be bored and challenges us to transcend that boredom by paying attention to the wealth she has spread before us.

In The Gleaners and I, she begins by following the poor as they gather bits of food left in the farm fields — a practice written into French law. But, the movie goes on to look at many people who have found value in things forgotten and discarded, including artists who make work from found objects. This includes herself. She said in an interview “I’m not poor, I have enough to eat.” But she points to “another kind of gleaning, which is artistic gleaning. You pick ideas, you pick images, you pick emotions from other people, and then you make it into a film.”

There is no doubting Varda’s feminist bona fides, but her argument is found not in politics, but in human relationships, and in the unembraceable fact that we all die. We wait for the biopsy results with the pop star in Cleo from 5 to 7, we watch the suffering of the poor wraith as she winds down to a cold death in a ditch in Vagabond, and we see Varda’s own love for her husband, Jacques Demy, as he slowly winks out of this life in Jacquot de Nantes. In all of them, death is not a literary device, but a vivifying fact of life we all must face with — if nothing else — creativity.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg — There are many reasons for admiring Ginsburg, not the least of which is her sparkling wit. Even as she becomes older and slower, the words that come out of her mouth always a bit more hesitatingly as age grips her ribcage are often ripping funny. There is always light flashing in those eyes. Whenever she shows up on a C-Span panel discussion, I stop flipping channels and sit through the duration. I love hearing her.

And certainly one admires the legal career which lead her to the senior position on the U.S. Supreme Court (in age, if not in length of service). She is always on the right side, even if not always on the winning side. Her dissents are deeply felt and forcefully written.

One also admires her fashion choice, wearing that lacy jabot across the front of her judicial robe. She was the third woman to administer the oath of office to a president, and the first Supreme Court justice to preside over a same-sex wedding.

And there is her love of opera; she has even appeared several times as a supernumerary in opera productions. And her long marriage to her late husband, Martin Ginsburg. I have a warm regard for anyone forming so close a bond for so long a time.

But the single quality I most admire in the Notorious RBG is the fact she could be friends with the late Antonin Scalia. How, you ask, could this have been possible. Scalia was the most ideologically inflexible of the justices during his term, and the most biting in his writings, whether in the majority or in dissent. Truculent and pugnacious, he had a nasty turn of phrase and seemed to ooze contempt for those who disagreed with him. Yet, Ginsburg and Scalia had a famous friendship in the court. They went to opera together. For years, the Scalias and the Ginsburgs had dinner together every New Year’s Eve. (His friendship with RBG is the one single redeeming feature I can cite in Scalia’s favor).

Nan Goldin — Seeming a universe apart from the high-achieving Supreme Court justice is an artist known for her snapshots of her drug-using friends. Goldin, now 63, made her name with The Ballad of Sexual Dependency in 1985, a slide show with music accompaniment that was presented via a Kodak Carousel transparency projector presented against the walls of a gallery. Along with the hundreds of slides, a recording of music by the Velvet Underground, Charles Aznavour, Nina Simone, James Brown and Richard Strauss played, underlying both the rebellious and romantic nature of the lifestyle portrayed — that of the gay subculture, the heroin chic, the damaging personal life of Goldin herself.

It is painful to look at these lost people, with their bruises, smeared eye-liner, tangled hair and thousand-yard-stares. One critic called them “the beaten down and beaten-up,” with “gritty disheveled miens” photographed in “dark and dank ramshackle interiors.”

An edited-down version of the slide show was published a year later as a book. It would be hard to turn those pages and feel there was anything to admire in them, other than the color and composition of them as photographs. But they are redeemed by two contradictory things: their truth and their romanticism. Goldin was not pointing her camera at this lifestyle to admonish it, but to document it; she was not outside it, but a part of it. It was a harsh self-inspection. But it also, while telling hard truths, explored the deep and abiding search for meaning in life. The need for transcendence, for escaping the banality of bourgeoise existence. Surely we are more important as individuals than as cogs in a societal machine.

For a more in-depth analysis of Goldin’s work, check out: https://richardnilsen.com/2013/08/30/the-goldin-mean/

Anne Iott — There are people who are bilingual, but Anne Iott is so in a very specific way: She is an artist, but she was also the chair of the art department at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, Va., for many, many years and was fluent both in art and in administration. This is — if you haven’t been subject to either or both — extremely rare. To be able to converse meaningfully with artists about art in their own language, but to be able to function efficiently in the bureaucratic atmosphere of academe is more than a talent, it is a genius.

As an artist, she is first a painter, but that is just the start. There is hardly an art form or medium that she hasn’t essayed brilliantly. There are prints, collages, photographs, assemblages and in recent years, artist books, which she seems to spin out of her like a tree grows apples.

Certainly her prolific drive to create would nominate her for this list, but it is rather more than that. Anne has a special genius for seeing in other people that which they do not see in themselves. She has helped uncounted people with their careers and with their lives. I know; I owe my career as a writer to her. When I was teaching as a lowly adjunct faculty member at TCC, she finagled a position for me at Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot newspaper as a freelance art critic. She knew I was a better writer than teacher. I wound up writing one or two reviews each Sunday for the paper, which gave me the confidence and experience to sign on full-time to the Arizona Republic when my wife and I moved to Phoenix, Ariz.

But it is not mere gratitude for her constant support and aid that I put her on this list, but rather for the particular ability to see other people clearly, even when they don’t see themselves, to go out of her way to make life better for other people. Anne has made a good life for herself, but she has also made good lives for all those she has helped. Nothing feels so good as to be seen. Really seen.

All those on these lists, both men (in a previous post) and women embody qualities I love and admire in them, and would wish to be able to emulate. I can try, but even when I don’t succeed, these are the lodestars of my better self.

Everyone has his heroes. Of course, the definition of “hero” changes through time and according to who is making the list. In Classical literature, the hero was the one who could translate the will of the gods into history. For some nowadays, we call heroes those who save little children from burning buildings. For others, they call schoolteachers “hero,” or their fathers, or someone else they admire. We have fallen a great way since Achilles became the man who bought us ice cream when we were toddlers.

But really, it has gotten even worse. I remember when the question turned bureaucratic and we began substituting the phrase “role model” for hero. The language is the poorer for it. So is the culture.

But perhaps something less ambitious is appropriate these days, since it is not as if we can believe in the epic hero, the Siegfried or the Aeneas. The 20th century destroyed any illusion we might have had about nobility, and the democratizing replacement has proved sadly short on transcendence.

And in the 20th century, those who aspired to translate the will of the gods brought disaster and destruction to the planet. One thinks of the mythic aura that the propaganda machine set as a halo around Adolf Hitler and the Übermensch, and the idea of heroism now has a stink about it that is hard to shake off. We cannot take seriously the idea of the single human who transcends human limits and converses with the gods. Clay feet for everyone. The cult of personality has left us with Kim Jong Un. However dangerous he may be, he still looks like a parody. So does Mr. Trump, with his dangling neckties and slouch walk, orange skin and ferret-fleece head. Sad.

No, we cannot take any of these pint-size heroes seriously.

Not that there isn’t still a hunger for such. How else can you explain the tsunami of superhero movies, with their rippling chests and spandex tights? Or, for that matter, the rise of so many authoritarian and would-be authoritarian regimes around the globe?

In the ancient myths, heroes were defined by a single act, often resulting in their deaths, making for few retired heroes. But it isn’t the paroxysm of the heroic act that we seek anymore, or can accept — after all, you can’t make a sequel if your hero has been killed and translated into a constellation in the night sky.

And neither can we believe anymore in the “will of the gods.” Whatever gods may have survived Nietzsche have retired to their corners to let the last remaining deity any culture fervently believes in fight it out with himself as Sunni and Shia.

That doesn’t mean we can’t have personal heroes, those we feel embody the values and achievements we care most about. For some, those heroes play sports or lead insurgencies, or make millions of dollars in real estate. They aren’t exactly “role models,” because we don’t truly aspire to put in the hard work required to meet these goals. But we like to imagine that, given the right circumstances — mostly in our daydreams — we might be like them.

Certainly there are a few heroic people who the large proportion of the world’s populace can admire. At least those who feel the warm pumping of humanity beating in their veins.

It’s hard not to think that, despite the recalcitrant and reactionary stubbornness of the Vatican, that Pope Francis is trying his damnedest to reform the Roman Catholic Church. Not in all particulars, of course, but he has clearly made clear he is less judgmental and more inclusive than anyone at the head of the church, perhaps since its founder. He has sent out olive branches to Muslims, to atheists, to homosexuals, even to the Orthodox Church. Now, if he could just do the same thing for women.

And there is an overpowering force of acceptance and forgiveness in the Dalai Lama. Yes, perhaps he giggles just a wee bit too much, and there are the political ramifications of Tibetan separatism, but the Dalai Lama seems to be able to function as a spiritual leader to everyone from Buddhists to atheists — and even to fundamentalist Christians, who recognize in him, if not the spirit of “true religion,” at least that he means well.

And I have to admit that these two men are heroes to me, too. Perhaps one sees their limitations, but then, Siegfried and Aeneas had notable shortcomings as well. (Siegfried was none to bright; he didn’t know the meaning of the word “fear.” Someone should have bought him a dictionary. And Aeneas, well, as far as heroes go, he was sliced from a large sheet of cardboard.)

Who would I put in my personal hagiography? It changes from time to time, as new heroes emerge and former ones snap off their clay feet at the ankles. But for the purpose of writing this short entry, I want to nominate five names. These, then, are my personal heroes, more than bureaucratic, and perhaps a tad less than monumental.

David Attenborough — Pretty much anyone who has seen the 91-year-old BBC TV presenter recognizes immediately the genuineness of his enthusiasm and his complete lack of vanity, with his white hair blowing around his head as he climbs trees in the rainforest or rides under the waves in a submersible. Attenborough, unlike most presenters, not only writes his own material — which is delightfully free from the usual nature-film cliches — but is his own producer. In fact, he was the head of BBC programming for years. He is not just a talking head, he is our surrogate for discovery. Everything he presents, he seems to be finding out for the first time and wants us to share it with him.

“I just wish the world was twice as big and half of it was still unexplored.”

If nothing else, his longevity onscreen is unmatched. His first nature film was made in 1954, which for those of you who are math-challenged, was 63 years ago. I am a geezer, but I was in first grade when he made Zoo Story for the BBC. Although he has slowed down, he still provided the voice over for a sequel to The Blue Planet.

I wish I had his enthusiasm and his energy.

Werner Herzog — If Attenborough is the avuncular voice of nature films, Herzog is the voice of nature biting back. His Bavarian-accented English is hypnotic — you cannot turn away. But it is the voice of doom. Make that in capital letters. But there is a kind of smile behind the terror. For Herzog, life is nasty, brutish and short, but it seems to amuse him. If it isn’t bears out to eat you, it is albino crocodiles, or Viet Cong shooting at you in the jungle.

“I believe the common denominator of the Universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.”

If that isn’t enough, then take this one: “I am fascinated by the idea that our civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.”

How is it, then, that his films are so life-affirming and joyous? It must be because he throws himself into the Maelstrøm with abandon. One sees him like Slim Pickens as Maj. Kong in Dr. Strangelove, riding the nuclear bomb like a bucking bronco.

It is the documentary films primarily that I am talking about. He also makes some of the most daring feature films — how can you top Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, or Fitzcarraldo? — but it is the many, many documentaries that Herzog shows his peculiar Weltanschauung. Again, like Attenborough, there is never an ounce or a gram of cliche. Every utterance is original, but more to the point, true — at least as Herzog understands it.

As the late Roger Ebert had it, Herzog “has never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons, or uninteresting. Even his failures are spectacular.”

Brian Lamb — If Werner is a wolf, then Brian is a lamb. In the current political climate, where everyone yells at the top of their lungs, spewing venom and spit, Lamb is the quiet center of a vortex. Lamb invented C-Span, made it happen, and managed it from 1975 until he retired in 2012. He still shows up on the TV network, asking simple, direct questions of those in the news, without rancor, and seemingly without any agenda other than getting at the facts. I have never heard him raise his voice; I have never heard him express a political opinion. To this day, I cannot tell whether he is liberal or conservative, so close to the vest does he play it.

On the other hand, one believes he leans to the liberal side, if for no other reason than his happy toleration of diverse points of view. Diversity tends to be a liberal virtue. Nevertheless, I cannot tell for sure.

Lamb manages to make C-Span more than just a static camera in the Senate or on the House floor. On weekends, there is Book TV, and then, there is History TV on C-Span 3. You hear engaging lectures and panel discussions from every spot on the political spectrum — again, all played straight, no comment, no angle. Wow. For my money, Lamb is a secular saint.

John Lewis — You see his face behind the podium and you hear his deep, sorrowful voice and you know this is the pure expression of humanity, straight, no chaser. There is a moral power to his utterance. One imagines him reading a shopping list and making you feel like a better person for it.

Now 77 and a Congressman from Georgia’s Fifth District, Lewis is the soul of dignity. He has been through great suffering, was beaten and jailed, watched his mentor murdered in Memphis, fought for Civil Rights and now, as one of the few remaining voices of the Struggle, speaks not for African Americans, not for Americans, but for human beings. If we were any of us a hundredth as noble as he is, we should be proud. If we were to be visited by some alien civilization, I would want Lewis to speak for humanity as we were introduced.

John Waters — We make no bones about it, John Waters is an indifferent filmmaker. Many of his films are notable, but more for their outrageousness than for their cinematic virtues. Not that saying such would much bother him; he seems to know just where he fits into film history.

But it is Waters the man that I wholly admire. He can be funny — he usually is — he is often ironic, although he says he eschews irony, he knows the borders of good taste and makes sure he stays on the far side of the line, but there is an essential and unquenchable goodness about his vision.

I first noticed this in one of his lesser films, Pecker, about a young man devoid of irony who makes a splash in the New York art scene. Waters could easily have lampooned the nabobs of that scene as shallow and exclusionary — and he does have some fun at their expense — but in the end, he finds room for them in his universe, too.

It is admirable that he can be sharp but accepting also. There is a loving gentleness behind the kitsch and Waters never, ever looks down on his creations. He recognizes the silliness of human behavior, but counts himself among the silly. I would trust my life to Waters.

So, these are my saints, at least for the moment. There are more of them, but this gives you a range of them. There are women, too; I hope to write about some of them in the future. And even some political figures, although I might be hard pressed to name any of them currently living.

Do I live up to their example. Hardly. But in my mind, I try my best, which is all any of them can, or have asked.

 

Please forgive me for what I am about to do.

Over the past five years, during which I’ve written nearly 500 blog entries, the least popular among them, according to the page views, have been those concerning music. People don’t seem to like reading about music, and worse, about classical music.

But today, I’m going to do far worse. I’m going to write about the Second Viennese School — the so called “atonal” and twelve-tone composers who have been blamed for destroying serious music in the 20th century.

The three primary composer in this supposed school are its founder, Arnold Schoenberg, and his two students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. There are many things to be said about them, not the least of which is that they are three very different artists, whose music can hardly be mistaken for each others’, but what I am most interested in doing is undoing the misunderstandings about their work, primarily about Schoenberg’s music.

Schoenberg by Egon Schiele 1917

Because I want to say at the outset that I find Schoenberg’s music — for the most part, and there are exceptions — ungodly beautiful and moving.

Schoenberg shares with Johann Sebastian Bach that the most common and simple-minded things said about them are patently untrue. People, even those who should know better, believe that Bach’s music is somehow mathematical and logical, whereas if you have ears to hear, you find some of the most irrational sounds, and deeply and profoundly emotional music ever penned. Bach’s music is not rational, but Baroque, which means florid, extravagant, formally adventurous, like the extended keyboard cadenza of the Fifth Brandenburg, or the unpredictable trailing series of odd comet-tails at the end of the C-minor Prelude of the first book of the Well Tempered Clavier.

Schoenberg, likewise, is seen by those who don’t know his work well enough, as dry, academic and formulaic.

And, because Schoenberg in his later career, came up with a “system” of writing music, he is also seen as somehow dry, academic and formulaic, as if his music were somehow a hyper-complex form of sudoku. In fact, Schoenberg is a hugely Romantic composer, whose music — again with a few exceptions, is as emotional as the most fraught moments of the St. Matthew Passion.

Another similarity between the two composers is that Bach, before Schoenberg was one of the most dissonant composers in music history. We’ll get back to that.

But first, let’s look to Schoenberg’s actual career and output. His first works, which were enthusiastically received when premiered, include such late-romantic period pieces as the Gurre-Lieder and Verklaerte Nacht, which are both so fervent and passionate that they make Wagner’s Tristan sound like Haydn. Gurre-Lieder is a huge undertaking, lasting almost two hours, with 150 orchestra players, including 10 horns and 6 tympani, and another 200 singers in the choir. It was first recorded by Leopold Stokowski in 1932 and it took 27 sides of 78 rpm discs.

Simon Rattle conducting Gurre Lieder

Gurre-Lieder has since been recorded scores of times, but each is a major event. The music is profoundly chromatic, taking up where Wagner left off. But, for all that, it shares with the music of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss the orchestral complexity and harmonic richness of late Romanticism.

Verklaerte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”), written originally for just six string players and later orchestrated, is less expensive to perform, and therefore gets frequent hearings in American concert halls. I once heard the New York Philharmonic under Kurt Masur play it, and I was overwhelmed. The music has both such power, and such shimmering surface beauty, that it is hard not to have your breath taken away.

But, of course, it is not this music that most people think about when they think of Schoenberg. Actually, it isn’t really the music they think about at all, but the theory, the words, which can sound mechanical, whereas Schoenberg’s music is anything but.

Which brings us back to JS Bach.

The word often used for Schoenberg’s music is “atonal.” And along with that, it is seen as overwhelmingly dissonant. And it is true that Schoenberg saw that the chromaticism of late-romantic music was stretching the limits of traditional tonality. After Tristan und Isolde, the standard harmony was so consistently modulation-oriented that it hardly made sense to call a piece “in D major,” or “E-minor.”

Schoenberg hated the term, “atonal,” and for good reason — his music remained tonal throughout his career, although in a complex and disorienting way.

Bach, again, was a hugely dissonant composer. Just take any of his chorales and play only the off-beat chords and you find it sounds rather like Schoenberg. With all those appoggiaturas, passing tones, suspensions and pedal-tones, notes grate on other notes constantly. But the containing tonality of Bach’s language means that these dissonances are always resolved, so the overall effect is one of consonance. But just look at those notes on the page: constant and pungent dissonances.

With the emphasis on chromatic modulation in Schoenberg’s music, it led him to create music that uses the expectation of dissonance resolution to keep us hooked-in to the harmonic sound-world of Western music, while never letting us reach that final resting place. It is akin to keeping the 12 pitches up in the air like a juggler, with no way to stop.

This creates strong emotion in the listener; it is often a nagging, unpleasant emotion, one of alienation and anxiety, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t emotional. Schoenberg felt that the emotions appropriate for the 20th century — a century of war, genocide, deicide, dislocation and fear — should be appropriate to its era, and its music should explore these honest emotions rather than playing to the sweet-and-light expectations of audiences used to Dvorak and Schubert.

So, Schoenberg’s music uses the expectations of harmony and subverts them to create emotion. It is hardly dry or mechanical; it is in fact, often unbearable, not because it is ugly, but because it strikes so close to the bone, so unnerving in its accuracy when conveying such emotions.

Just listen to A Survivor from Warsaw, or the second string quartet, or the piano concerto. This is great music, of profound and raw emotion.

If you listen understanding the music not as aimless atonality, but frustrated tonality, drawing out the expected and hungered-for resolution, you will hear it fresh and anew, freed from the cliches about Schoenberg’s “method.”

Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten.” (“I feel air from another planet.”)

The method so decried in the latter half of the 20th century is serial technique. With his first so-called atonal works, Schoenberg found it was harder than he thought to escape the apparent resolution of his dissonances into the schema of major-minor tonality, and sought a way of ensuring he could avoid being heard as writing in a key. So, he invented — slowly over several decades — dodecaphonic composing. In its simplest form, it requires the composer to use all 12 tones of the octave serially, before using the first tone again. A “tone-row” would create a repeating pattern of those 12 notes that substituted as a kind of melody, or at least a kind of content for the music.

It should be noted that Schoenberg himself never gave himself over to the technique completely. He mixed and matched. He once later complained, “There is still much music to be written in C major.”

Berg painted by Schoenberg 1910

It is his acolytes who took up the cudgel of 12 tone music and hammered it home with such relentless humorlessness that it practically destroyed concert-hall music. Serialism was extended to include not only pitch, but rhythm, also, destroying any ability for an average educated listener to comprehend the music as an esthetic pattern.

But, that is later, and a misapplication of Schoenberg’s example.

His two primary apprentices each took 12-tone music in divergent directions.  Alban Berg managed to force 12-tone music into a harmonic framework, the way Schoenberg had attempted to make impossible; Anton Webern gave up tonality altogether and began exploring timbre and pitch as tantalizing new sounds, in an of themselves: If you want music as sudoku, it is with Webern you should travel, not Schoenberg.

Berg was, if anything, more romantic than his mentor. His operas, Wozzeck and Lulu, are shattering emotional experiences, and his violin concerto is one of the most noble and profound pieces of music written in the past 100 years.

In the concerto, Berg arranges his tone row in such a way as to make major and minor triads almost inevitable. To create his organizing tone row, he stacks on top of each other, a G-minor chord, a D-major chord, an A-minor, and an E-major chord, and follows them with a tail that plays out the beginning of a scale. Throughout the concerto, the 12-tone technique manages to imply tonal centers.

Webern by Max Oppenheimer 1908

Webern, going in the opposite direction, uses his tone rows to make delicious pings and squawks in the orchestra. To those who love it, the music scintillates. What you enjoy in it are novel sounds and novel arrangements. Whereas Berg is on-the-sleeve emotional, you could believe that with Webern emotion is irrelevant to music. (The composer would disagree).

It is Webern’s brand of serialism that took hold as the century progressed, and taken up by such later composers as Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez. If you have a problem with such music (I find Babbitt’s music tedious, but Boulez’s Répons is glorious), then blame Webern, not Schoenberg.

It is certainly true that you probably don’t want Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire playing in the background while you serve dinner guests, or listen to the String Trio through headphones as you sit back comfortably in your easy chair to spend an hour reading Proust. It isn’t easy listening, nor was meant to be. The music demands your intense attention, both intellectually and emotionally: You must give yourself over completely to the music, and then, you will discover one of the great composers, a colleague of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner and Mahler.