“What do you read, my lord?”
“Words, words, words.”

words words words

For 25 years, I made my living by writing words. In all, some two and a half million of them, writing an average of three stories a week. Yet, in all that time, I had an underlying mistrust of language, a sense that, even if I could still diagram a compound-complex sentence on a blackboard, the structure I saw in chalk did not necessarily mirror the structure of things I saw around me in the world before it is named. The one was neat and tidy, the other was wooly and wiggly.

A good deal of misery and misunderstanding derives from a failure to recognize that the logic of language and that of the real world are not the same.

tomatoWe find this in simple form whenever someone tells you that, for instance, “a tomato is not a vegetable, it is a fruit.” This is a sorry assertion. A tomato is neither animal nor mineral, therefore, it is a vegetable. But, of course, that is not what is meant. In common usage, we use the word, “fruit,” to name a sweet edible and “vegetable” to name a savory. But “vegetable” is also an umbrella word, describing all things vegetative. To aver that a tomato is not a vegetable is to confuse these two usages, and therefore to make an assertion both pedantic and ignorant.

More importantly, this doesn’t really say anything about the Solanum lycopersicum, but about the categories we use language to establish. It is an argument not about the berry (and that is the technical term for the red globe you slice onto your salad), but about the English language.

Whales GoldsmithOr consider this: “A whale is not a fish.” When such a statement is made, it does not discuss whales or fish, but rather, makes a claim about language. The whale is unaffected by the words and fish swim happily past it. But it is a discussion about the categories of nouns: We choose to make the definition of the two classes mutually exclusive. A whale is a mammal.

But it needn’t be so. Through the 18th century, a whale was a fish. Jonah was swallowed by a “great fish.” Anything torpedo-shaped that swims in the sea by the action of its fins was considered a fish. A whale was a very large fish, who just happened to be one that gave birth to live young and suckled them. It was an idiosyncrasy of the whale, just as it is an idiosyncrasy of the salmon that it swims upriver to spawn.

spinous and testaceous fish goldsmithgoldsmith crustaceous fishIn fact, if you read Oliver Goldsmith’s “History of the Earth and Animated Nature,” the best-selling nature book of its century, the category “fish,” also included many other things that live in the watery parts of the world. Whales were “cetaceous fishes,” flounder were “spinous fishes,” sharks were “cartilaginous fishes,” crabs and lobsters were “crustaceous fishes,” and clams and oysters were “testaceous fishes.” It was a perfectly natural way to divide up the various denizens of the undersea. It wasn’t till Carl Linne decided to slice up the world in a new way, based on a combination of skeletal morphology and reproduction, that the whale was surgically removed from the universe of fishes and told to line up on the other side of the room with lemurs, llamas and raccoons. Did the whales even notice?

The basic problem is that language is an intercessor. It sits between experience and understanding. When we approach language, we see only the intercessor — we mistake the priest for the deity.

Words always distort, they always lie. Yet, at bottom, we trust words more than we trust our own eyes. We judge politicians by the labels they are tagged with, not by paying attention to what they actually say or do: Conservative or liberal — when applied to reality, the labels are close to meaningless.

The case may be a little easier to understand in terms of Greek. The ancient Greeks were the first logarchs, they valued verbal meaning over experiential meaning; they actually thought language was a one-to-one descriptor of reality. Their faith is naive to us now. For instance, Zeno’s paradox is only possible in words. Set a tortoise and Achilles out on a race and see if Achilles can’t catch it. No problem. Set it in words, and suddenly, it can’t be done: The problem is entirely in the words, words, words.

sunspotsIt is the logic of language that frustrates Achilles, not the tortoise. It guided how the Greek thought about the world. Polarity, opposites, hidden ironies and surprising conjunctions,  it’s how the language is organized,  even before you even consult reality. So, when the Greek saw language as a mirror of the reality and language posits polarity, it must be because the world is polar. But is it? Opposites are only a linguistic trick. Hot and cold are just relative points on a single thermometer: Sunspots are “cold” places on the sun, even though they are thousands of degrees Farenheit; liquid nitrogen is “warmer” than absolute zero. Linguistic legerdemain.

Even liberals and conservatives are just guys in the same blue suits. They don’t look like a dime’s worth of difference to the Fiji Islander.

By the logic of language, the world is divided into nouns and verbs; look out the window, however, and what you see is the conflation of noun and verb: something very much closer to Ovid’s Metamorphoses: a constant velocity of things ever growing and changing. No noun is static; no verb without its referent.

Marble statue of the ancient greek philosopher PlatoThe issue I have with Plato — aside from his totalitarian fascism — is his faith in an “ideal” of things. The ideal bed, unlike any real bed, is a stultified noun, not a bed. To Plato, the world is cataloged with nouns, only nouns. The perfect human is a form of arrested development. For Plato, the perfect human form is a male figure, age of about 25, all muscle and lithe, with little fat. But a real person is born tiny, grows, ages, marries, has his own bairns, gains experience, grows feeble and dies. Just as a rose isn’t the pretty flower, but a shoot, a bud, a flower, a rose-hip bursting to seed and once more from the top. Over and over. All the world is at every moment changing, growing, shrinking, spreading, running, molting, squawking, collapsing, weeping and rising. It is a churn, not a noun. “Panta horein,” as Heraclitus says: “Everything changes.”

Language is this thin veneer, the shiny surface, the packaging we are cajoled by. Break open the box, and the reality is something else.

It is much like the belief that geometry transcends embodiment. In other words, a triangle is a universal possibility, no matter if one was ever built. It is one of Plato’s ideals. God himself cannot create a four-sided triangle. But to change this “truth,” all we have to do is change our definition of the word. We don’t need a deity to do that, all we need is a lexicographer.

Or better, we can look at the problem a different way: I have written elsewhere (https://richardnilsen.com/2012/06/24/artists-math) that a triangle is a five-sided figure — the three usual sides, plus the top, looking down on it, and the bottom, resting on the desk. You can turn any triangle over from its back and lay it on its belly. triangleIf triangles exist in the world of things, they must have five sides. Language, like the axioms in geometry, pales in comparison to the real world of mud and bricks. There are 300,000 words defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, but that is an infinitesimal number compared with the number of things, acts, colors and sizes in the phenomenological world. There are an infinitely large number of things in the universe for which there are no words.

Take this, for instance. Here, where two walls meet is a corner. But where the wall and the ceiling meet? What is its name? In English, it has none.

Or this place on the wall — it is named the “center.” But this point, just as real, only a few inches from the center, is nameless and so is the one a few inches beyond that.

starsNames are like the stars in the sky, only points, between which is an infinity of space, just as real as the stars.

Language is feeble. It is up to us to see the space between the words, to recognize the feelings between the signpost emotions of hate, joy, anger, sadness — this million slight inflections that are nameless.

Up to us to explore the confusing rush of sense data, the confusing signals of society and nature, the overwhelming input that we censor with our language, allowing only those portions that sport nametags, as if they were Shriners at a convention.

It is up to us to recognize and celebrate all the things, times, places, acts, flavors, feelings, breath and abysses that don’t have names, to enjoy the cold floor and sunlight coming through the window in the morning when the birds haven’t yet begun chattering.


There is a line in Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden” that should be a starting point: “The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find.”

These are two primary foci for our existence: There is the world and there is our mind working on the world. Mind and world, the face and the mirror. The central problem is that the world is incomprehensible, multifarious, immense and unimaginably complicated, self-entwined and raw, while our minds, however brilliant, are puny organizers and pattern-finders. What we believe of the world is what we have been able to make of it, and we are simply not humble enough to recognize the insufficiency.

bee blossomTake something as basic as sight. We look upon the world and take what we see as something “real,” something actually “out there.” Yet, we know that visible light is such a tiny sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum, that our human vision is essentially nothing more than the chink of Pyramus and Thisbe, the slat of a Venetian blind lifted to see a wedge of the  world outside the window. Other animals are sensitive to different parts of the spectrum, and for them, the world is a different world: The bee sees not the daisy that you or I see.

We know this because human ingenuity has given us instruments that can measure those portions of the wavelengths that we cannot apprehend directly, and proves their existence. But we cannot know them directly: We are too limited. For that matter, so are the instruments.

Also limited are the odors we can smell, the sounds we can hear, the tastes we can enjoy or revile, or, for that matter, the languages we can understand or the names we have for the emotions we feel. And yet, somehow we feel we can say we know the world.

I am constantly amazed at human arrogance in the face of the vast ignorance we daily confront. Perhaps it is unavoidable that we have faith in our senses and our minds, that we believe what we have learned of the world is the way the world in actuality, is. It takes an act of imagination to escape our shortsightedness.

And it is not only the world beyond our skins that escapes us: The conscious mind — that part of ourselves we generally consider to be “us” — is such a small part of what our brains do for us. We are not consciously aware of our guts squeezing the chyme along our bowel, not aware of our capillaries constricting, our irises expanding, our hearts beating faster or slower, depending on the unconscious monitoring of our inner bodily needs. Consider yourself at this very second, sitting or standing. Are you fingers curled? Are you tapping them? Is your head tilted slightly? Are you yawning? Have you sneezed? Did you “decide” to do any of those things? Your body seems to work quite autonomously, and your administration has delegated authority to its constituent parts to act on their own. Let’s face it, you would die if you had to will each heartbeat, each breath, each eye blink: Keeping track of it all would be impossible.

And yet, we have faith in that little voice in our heads that seems to be in charge: It blithely makes assumptions that cannot be justified.

This is not to toss out the little voice: We could not operate in the world if we did not simplify it to our purpose; we would be overwhelmed. We make schemas and function within those schemas quite happily, but are seldom aware of their artificiality.

tres riches heuresA good deal of trouble is caused by our unawareness. In politics, for instance, one side believes in pure capitalism, the other in socialism, but each view is only a schema, and takes not into account the great variability of human want, need, ability, and the inevitability of change, both historical and social. Remember feudalism? Monarchy and aristocracy? These were earlier schema, and sustained over centuries, even millennia. One thing might work better at some point, while its opposite might be more functional at another, neither perfectly, while all are always mere band-aids. No human reality can be encompassed by an ideology. They are all simplifications to the point of absurdity.

take outRepublicans who now believe things diametrically opposed to what they had once believed, think that if they can finally pass the laws they want, everything will work like a well-oiled machine from thence onward. Conservatives, who once championed strong central power, now believe the least government is best. (In reality, they believe in whatever will best preserve their own hegemony and wealth and if that changes, so will their ideal of proper government). But in practice, nothing is ideal, nothing is unchanging and perfect: Politics is always ad hoc. It doesn’t fit into cardboard pint containers like so much chop suey.

Religions, political ideologies, psychologies, even science are all such partial schemata and none can be said to encompass all of existence. It isn’t that we should trash all of them, but rather that we should recognize their agendas. And beyond that we should embrace, enjoy and revel in all that is not contained therein. The universe is vast, it contains multitudes. It is this plenitude and fecundity that ultimately sustains us. No system is enough.

Largest ever galaxy portrait - stunning HD image of Pinwheel GalWhat wakes us to the complexity is experience: travel, reading, learning other languages, meeting other people (as a “thou” not an “it”), education, and most of all, the exercise and strengthening of imagination, which all the previous foster. Openness to the world rather than stricture according to ideology or schema. Pulling our turtle heads into the shells of our small perceptions is nothing but retreat.

And whenever possible — and this is the biggest lesson I have swallowed in 68 years on this round, bubbly planet — to love the things of this world. All of it, helter-skelter, unapologetic and enthusiastic, chaotic, overwhelming, incomprehensible and glorious. And recognize our smallness, our ignorance, in the face of it.

RW ca 1975When I was young and just out of college, my ambition was simple: to know everything. I mean, to read and study, and do, and finally to be able to put together all the pieces into a single grand scheme: My own unified field theory. I was not daft, I knew at the time this was an impossibility, but I thought as a goal, it was at least a starting place.

peterson guideOthers in my graduating class had more specific goals — to become a doctor or lawyer or research scientist. Such goals required focus and specialization. They would have to learn all they could about law or medicine or pigeon behavior, but I would be purposely unfocused. I wanted to take in the whole horizon. I collected Peterson guides to learn the names and calls of all the birds, the names of trees and wildflowers. I read all the poetry I could find and all the history, too. Ancient, modern and otherwise. I had books on physics and astronomy, and I listened to all kinds of music and learned to read scores. I was in pig heaven.

encyclopedia brownDo not laugh. Of course this was all silly. But when you are young, you are an idiot. I was no exception, in fact, I was probably the the very model of youthful and ignorant assurance. It helped that I had a retentive memory. Or as I now put it: Facts stick because my brain is gummy. I developed something of a reputation, both as a know-it-all, and as “Encyclopedia Brown.” One girlfriend used to make spare cash by betting her coworkers that when I came to pick her up after work, that I would be able to answer a question they thought they could stump me with. “Who was the first secretary-general of the U.N?” “Trygve Lie,” I would say, and money would change hands.

These were sparse years: With no specialization, it was hard to find a meaningful job. I didn’t much care, as long as I had enough money to feed myself and rent a garret apartment. Recreational reading included the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Oxford English Dictionary. I was a vacuum cleaner.

I do not know where this drive to learn came from, but I have always had it. Others may learn for reasons of usefulness; I never thought about the pragmatic aspects of knowledge: The learning was the end itself. More, more, I wanted more.

You might point out that a vast accumulation of fact is not really erudition, and that merely knowing bits of fact confetti is not the same as understanding or wisdom. For me, back then, that was beside the point. I wasn’t concerned with wisdom, I just wanted to know everything.

I was lucky, I didn’t have to live with me. I’m sure I drove people nuts with my Cliff Clavin act.

Audubon's Mockingbird

Audubon’s Mockingbird

Time passes and it is now 50 years since I first entered college and took up the study of ancient Greek and the poetry of Chaucer. My memory is no longer so acute. I cannot always bring up the name of the Duchesnea indica or the Mimus polyglottos. But in the long course of years, I have absorbed so much minutiae that it has all transmuted into something else. I cannot call it wisdom; I’m still an idiot. But, at 68, I have accumulated so much experience, I have a very different perspective. The simple enthusiasms of youth have given way to the calmer, chastened complexities of a life both illuminated and deflated. I have no wisdom to impart, but I have observations.

RW at 67In the past, people talked about the wisdom of old age, but now that I am there, I know it isn’t wisdom, it is only the result of long years of witnessing human folly, of many, many head-buttings with the harder facts of existence, and having built up a vast treasury of our own personal mistakes, misunderstandings and imbecilities.

Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony has six movements and each originally came with a short explanation. After the first movement, the remaining ones are: “What the meadow flowers tell me,” “What the forest animals tell me,” “What Man tells me,” “What the angels tell me,” and finally, “What love tells me.” It is clear that no single one of these is sufficient in itself, but the whole presumes all. No single truth suffices.

I hope to present in the next several weeks my humble version of what Gustav loaded into his symphony. The things I have come to understand over nearly seven decades of breathing, seeing, tasting, feeling, dancing, hurting (both transitive and intransitive), and finally coming to some glimpse of loving.

University professors, if they have reached some level of eminence, are occasionally asked to prepare a “last lecture,” which subsumes all the most important lessons they have to give. This is a lecture that cuts through all the burly detail to undiscover the essence of what those details outline.

Me lecturingIt may seem the height of hubris to attempt such a “last lecture,” when I am not a tenured faculty member at an Ivy League academy, and make no claim to exceptional brilliance or wisdom, but the fact is that anyone who lives long enough has a longer view, and sees things differently from when youth fills us with self-righteousness and certainty.

Nor is this one of those inspirational harangues. I am not Mitch Albom and I am not dying immanently, like Randy Pausch. I do not expect to teach you how to be a “better” human being, or to make the world a better place, or disclose the secrets of a happier life. My goal is merely to see a little more clearly and to attempt to make sense of what cannot be made sense of.

In short outline, I have maybe 10 or a dozen themes to fill out, which I hope to do in the next few weeks in this blog spot. It is a challenge I have set myself. Have I learned anything?

deep end of the poolThere are two approaches to learning: Some prefer to take small steps and try out the simplest and easiest first; others like to dive headfirst into the deep end of the pool.

When it comes to classical music, the first approach is most common. We don’t want to scare our pupil, so we spoon feed the shorter, easier, more comfortable pieces to them: a Chopin waltz or a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. At its worst, this leads to a belief in the student, that classical music is a warm bath to soak in, a place to let your mind drift, to let soothing images wander through your imagination.

Dickand JaneThe “Dick and Jane” approach, though, can be patronizing. If you have a real hunger for emotional and intellectual depth, the approach trivializes the subject. It pretends that the more difficult music isn’t the real heart of classical music, but some sort of broccoli to be had along with your Satie Gymnopedie or your Carmen Suite. Classical music is meant to be listened to with intensity and focus, as you might read Dostoevsky or a Greek tragedy. If your mind wanders, you have lost the trail.

I recently wrote a blog about sharing my music with my granddaughter, Tallulah Rose; she, in turn, shared with me her contemporary indie-pop music (You can find it here: https://richardnilsen.com/2016/03/14/both-sides-now).

The response to this blog entry was overwhelming: More people have clicked on it than any other, and the comments added to it are legion. The piece must have hit a nerve.

Among those comments have been a number of repeated questions, and one of those is a request for further “guidance,” as to what to listen to in order to become more familiar with classical music. There is a hunger out there for something more serious or formal than the 3-minute song.

So, I’m assuming an adventurous listener, perhaps with a collection of Frank Zappa, Nick Cave or Radiohead. That is a listener who does not want to start out on baby food, but wants to dive into the deep end, who wants to drink the hard stuff.

So, here is my preliminary list of deep-end music for those who want to find out what classical music is really all about: It isn’t about style (there is a great deal of so-called classical music that is really just the conventional style of its day and has no particular claim to posterity — one thinks of Ditters von Dittersdorf or Friedrich Kalkbrenner) but about sounding depths, expanding on form, creating sound narratives and searching for meaning. I have written in the past that the essential question of classical music is “How do you write a piece of music that lasts longer than three minutes?”monk stamp And that the idea of classical music needs to be expanded to include the classical musics of other cultures, such as that of India or Japan, and also to include jazz, which is really just another classical music, at least in the hands of its most serious practitioners, such as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk or Duke Ellington.

But here, I am going to restrict myself to what is commonly called classical music: the European-American tradition of art music.

So, here’s a first go-round of suggestions for the brave new listener.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Grosse Fuge. Originally the final movement of his string quartet in B-flat, Op. 130, it proved to challenging for both the audiences and the performers of his day, so he felt compelled to write a replacement for it and publish the fugue separately as his Op. 133. It might be the toughest nut to crack in all of classical music. In it, Beethoven builds such a huge double fugue (that is, a fugue not on one theme, but on two themes played simultaneously, upping the ante and the difficulty by not doubling, but squaring the complexity), that it breaks the mold of what a fugue can be, as the fiddlers nearly saw their instruments in half. Playing this music is like taming wild tigers. If you survive this, everything else is a piece of cake.

grosse fuge furtwangler

There is one performance that nearly tames this wild animal, and that is a recording from 1954 with conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler leading the Vienna Philharmonic in an orchestral version of the music. It can be found on You Tube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSfcE3HH7dk.

Grosse fuge animation

A version for quartet in more modern sound can be had from an unidentified quartet with an entertaining animation that makes visual the notes at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6s0Mp7LFI-k.

polonaise fantaisie horowitz

Frederic Chopin, Polonaise Fantaisie, Op. 61. This must be the hairiest thing Chopin ever wrote, incomprehensible on first listening — it seems to wander and never make up its mind. But after many hearings, it is one of the high points of western music. Give it a chance. Those opening chords are the most desolate in all music, especially the way Vladimir Horowitz plays them. Horowitz owned this piece. Here he is from 1966 in Carnegie Hall: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KI38MuQ4YdQ.

bach chaconne heifetz

Johann Sebastian Bach, Chaconne from Partita in D-minor for solo violin. A great teacher of mine said that this is what he called “serious” music, that is, music not meant to paint a picture or tell a story, but music so abstract, so pure as to exist practically in a Platonic realm. On a single fiddle, he has the violinist play variants of the same series of chords over and over, gaining in depth and complexity as it moves along. Here is Jascha Heifetz playing at about the age of 70. It doesn’t get much better than this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6q-Zqz7mNjQ.

bach chaconne grimaud

For contrast, the Chaconne has been transcribed several times for piano. Here is Helene Grimaud playing it as opened up by the great pianist Ferruccio Busoni (don’t expect pure Bach; this is a 19th century re-imagining, but it is glorious): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sw9DlMNnpPM.

bartok quartet

Bela Bartok, String Quartet No. 5. Written in 1934, Bartok’s next-to-last string quartet is a model of construction, built in an arch-like form, so that it moves fast-slow-fast-slow-fast, with key structures and melodies equally symmetrical. The two slow movements imitate the sounds of night, with chirping and cawing, crickets and crows. The central movement is in a time signature typical of Bulgarian folk music, with beats broken up into nines broken into patterns of 4+2+3 and later into tens, broken into 3+2+2+3. And, in the finale, just before the end, you hear an imitation of a hurdy gurdy. It’s a lot to fit into a tightly argued quartet. Here it is played by the Hungarian String Quartet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMjRjLHbacw

berg violin concerto

Alban Berg, Violin Concerto. This is one of the most emotionally draining pieces of music from the 20th century, written “in memory of an angel,” the angel being Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma

Manon Gropius

Manon Gropius

Mahler and Walter Gropius. Manon died a teenager from Polio in 1934 and Berg, who was exceptionally close to the family, wrote this concerto in elegy. It is composed in the 12-tone technique, but in an accessible style, because the tone-row he built the music around has obvious tonal implications. It is heartfelt and moving, and in the final movement, the last notes of the tone row miraculously turn into the Bach chorale, “Is est Genug,” “It is enough.” If you can hear this and not blubber like a baby, you are more stalwart than me. Anne-Sophie Mutter, New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gd0dMs0MTg8.


giza view from cairo

We were watching a TV show about ancient Egypt and the voiceover told us the pyramids we were visiting were “35 centuries old,” and that phrase suddenly struck me in a new way.

I am now 68 years old, which is a bit more than two-thirds of a century, and I have a body-sense, a memory-sense — a conceptual awareness — of what a century feels like. I wrote for the newspaper for a quarter of a century. Four times that and Bingo! So, a century has a palpable meaning for me. I feel it in my bones. Hearing the TV presenter, then, made me react, “Thirty-five is not a very large number.” I can picture in my mind’s eye what 35 centuries might be, and it really doesn’t seem like all that long. The Viking Age ended only 10 of them ago.

Anton and Laura Nilsen

Anton and Laura Nilsen

After all, my grandfather, who I knew when I was a boy, was born in 1890, which was the year Vincent van Gogh died. It was also the year Sitting Bull died, and the Elephant Man (John Merrick), and Heinrich Schliemann — the man who discovered Troy. My grandfather was seven years old before Johannes Brahms died. These historical figures seem that much less remote when I think of it that way.

Rowan and Nancy Steele

Rowan and Nancy Steele

For my wife, it is even more present. When she was a girl, her great-grandmother lived with her family. Her great-grandmother, Nancy Jane Steele, was a Civil War widow. She married Rowan Steele after that war, but Rowan had been a cavalry soldier during the battle at Appomattox. That dumps the War Between the States right in my wife’s lap. History is not some remote collection of facts gathered from a book, it is family.

The word, “century,” has its roots in family. The Latin word was “saeculum,” which was an indistinct time period that measured, basically, the time from your grandfather to the time of your grandchild. Caesar Augustus regularized that time to be 110 years, but in effect it varied from 90 years to about 120 years. It was an “age.”

History, as a subject, is different if you think of it that way. It is not a set of facts for a trivia contest, but a continuity, of which we are each a knot along a string.

For many, these days, that continuity is found in genealogy: How far back can you trace your ancestors? With various DNA tests, you can discover ancestry beyond the civic records of the standard genealogy. A y-DNA test can follow the paternal haplogroup all the way back to Africa, with punctuated stops along the way. A maternal mitochondrial DNA test can do the same for the distaff side.

It means that you are very personally connected to the history you study in school. Somewhere among those pogroms, crusades, wars and massacres, your strands of DNA were either slaughtered or doing the slaughtering, and probably both at different times. Looked at through the small lens, genealogy is your story; looked at through the big lens, all of history is your story. How can one not be interested?

Carol Lily

Carol Lily

My granddaughter is now studying AP world history, and sometimes, she comes to me for help understanding the subject. I wish I could somehow inspire her to see it not as an impersonal school subject she has to be graded on, but the story of how she got here, what happened on the way to her creation, and how she fits into that grand, long picture. She makes good grades, but it would be more important to think of history as something personal, something that informs her life: She is Southern, so the slavery that ended 151 years ago colors her life every day; the arguments held in Philadelphia in 1787 affect what she can and cannot do today; that the battle of Plataea in 479 BC is part of the reason she speaks English today and not some descendant of Farsi.

The horsemen from Mongolia shaped what later became Russia, which became the Soviet Union, which defeated Nazi Germany, became our enemy in the Cold War, and led to Vladimir Putin today. It is not ancient history, it is merely the dangling end of a long cord: The same people who gave us Xanadu and Kublai Khan gave us the Silk Road and the Golden Horde, and is one of the reasons given for why Hungary is named HUN-gary, and, incidentally, gave their name to the tartar sauce you put on fried fish.

Know-Nothing poster

Know-Nothing poster

It is disappointing to see so many Americans with so little sense of history, of where we came from. We hear the resurrected Know-Nothing-ism of Donald Trump and too many of his followers hear no resonance of the anti-Catholic, anti-Irish sentiment of the earlier wave of xenophobia. The past, for them, is a black hole out of which no wisdom can emerge.

Presentism, as it is sometimes called, is rampant: the belief that what is now is somehow “true,” and the past was all a big mistake; it is the error that what we think and believe now is the “right” and “correct” version of the world, and those benighted people of old were merely beta-versions of humanity. We require more humility; history can provide that humility.

I can remember when the faces of Eisenhower and Stevenson on the tiny black and white television we had in the house when I was yet too young to go to school. I remember the Dodgers at Ebbets Field. I remember when they added the second deck to the George Washington Bridge. ike and adlai 1952These things are now history. They are ink on a page in the history book my granddaughter reads for class. But I was a real person who lived through them. My father lived through the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. My great-uncle wore puttees as a dough boy in the first War to End Wars. My wife’s great-grandfather fought in the Civil War. Somewhere, back before my genealogy became writ into the family bible, I surely had ancestors who went a-viking and worshipped the lord Odin.

I feel those connections, not as dry intellectual answers to history-class homework questions. History is not something merely read, it is red, it runs through our veins. It’s been there for 35 centuries, at least.

kelly briar

It is impossible to listen to the final quartets of Beethoven and not recognize in them something quite different from the optimistic and heroic thrust of his most popular works, the Eroica, the Appassionata, the Razumovskies. The quartets in question no longer follow the standard four-movement shape of the classical quartet and symphony, and they no longer seem addressed to the world and society, but rather, they are discursive, wandering and seem turned completely inward.



It has been called his “late style” ever since 1855, when Wilhelm von Lenz wrote his book, “Beethoven and his three styles,” which attempts to give shape to the composer’s career, with an “early style” in imitation of Haydn and Mozart; a “middle period” with all those grand exhortations to heroism and the overcoming of obstacles and the establishment of freedom and individualism; to the “late style” of innigkeit and apparent formlessness.

Since then, it has become standard to view an artist’s career into three: apprenticeship, mastery, and a “late style” in which the artist perhaps gives up his public function to investigate his private concerns. Within this pattern, it has become usual to see the late period as the culmination of an artist’s life and work, as its height, as its reduced essence.rembrandt self portrait

And so, we see the final paintings of Rembrandt, the late romances of Shakespeare, the last dark photographs of Edward Weston or the Ninth Symphony of Mahler as somehow special, as more meaningful, as “better” even as “best.” We look to them for something like a peroration of wisdom, the final words or notes or brushstrokes of a sage. Goya’s black paintings, or the black paintings of Jackson Pollock. (Usually, there is some element of darkness in late work, whether it is the Beethoven quartets or the quiet “ersterbend” that ends the Mahler Ninth.)

weston china cove pointlobosAs Minor White said of the Weston photographs: “Rarely are we shown the maturest work of men who have lived richly and whose spirit has grown all their lives … the last photographs of Edward Weston made at Point Lobos … may parallel in content the last quartets of Beethoven.”

There are many problem with this formulation. First, so many artists — certainly the majority — don’t fit into this pattern. Second, while we can recognize a “late style” in the final works of Franz Schubert, Schubert died at 31. Can that be considered his late period? Suppose he had lived his three score years and ten? What would have followed his “late style?” Obviously, a late style is something we apply only in retrospect. Even Beethoven, whose late style defines the idea, died at a fairly young age of 56. Where would he have gone if he had lived to 70? His late style would then have been something transitional.

Then, there are artists whose supposed late style is generally admitted to be a decline. One thinks of the final paintings of De Kooning. And there is the problem of someone like Wagner, who strove self-consciously for the prestige of having a late style with the artificial spirituality of “Parsifal.”

There is another issue, too. Late style means more than one thing. Initially, we think of art that is intensely personal rather than public, art that reaches the darker and more private parts of the human experience. But that is not the only thing — perhaps not even the primary thing — that defines late style. As Edward Said said in his study of the subject, late style is characterized by an increasing simplicity of technique. Take those late quartets, which are a bouquet of dances, marches, recitativ and arias, and movements sometimes so short, they hardly count as movements at all. They alternate with long fugal passages where the counterpoint is hidden in blocks of chordal harmony. Even their sonata-form movements are choppy with short, punchy themes entering stage right and quickly running off stage left, chased by the next patch of tune. There is a superfluity of material and an economy of means.Heiliger Dankgesang

It is as though an artist, a composer, a poet, had spent his youth perfecting an elaborate craft, the mastery of which is part of his declaration to the world, but having become increasingly confident of his ability, he no longer considers it to be the important part of his work. The competence is still there, but the showing-off is gone: The artist only uses so much of his virtuosity as is needed to make his point.

Another way of putting it is that when young, an artist is in love with his artform — with his villanelle, his twelve tones, his impasto — and so aware of the tradition and history of that technique, that he wants to strive to shoulder his way into that history, to take his place. But as age and its concomitant wisdom encroach, the technique seems a shallow exercise compared with the content: The balance shifts to what he has to say rather than how he says it.

As Arnold Schoenberg said, “There is still plenty of good music to be written in C major.”

This is Picasso’s arc: Early work is meant to rattle art history. He goes through his “periods,” which are each an exploration of a particular technique or “ism.” But in his later life, he freed himself to simply play with his paints or his pottery. It is clearly Picasso’s “voice,” his “look,” but the ism ceases to be the point: the work becomes an endless parade of bulls, women, birds, still lifes and images of concupiscent artists, often with bulls or women.matisse cutout

Or Matisse, who ended with paper cutouts, as simple as a child’s finger painting.

One sees this in many a career, where the young artist finds his voice and shouts to make a name, but once having established his bona fides, feels then free to explore what he is really interested in. One thinks perhaps of Richard Diebenkorn, who made a name with abstract art, and after becoming famous, started making “pictures.”

kelly coverI was struck seeing some drawings by Ellsworth Kelly, who made his career with minimalist Color Field paintings — they might as well have been models for flags — but these drawings were of plants, in simple black line on simple white paper. They were elegant and expressive and nothing like the bland paintings. He has made them throughout his career, but they had been seen only once (in 1970) before they made a big splash, showing them in 2012 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Kelly clearly loved the plant forms he drew.

There comes with age and experience — and perhaps prodded along by the awareness of the extreme shortness of life — a need to say what needs saying unencumbered by all the apparatus and hoopla that seduce our younger selves.

And this is where the simplicity of means becomes the same thing as the profundity of meaning. In his middle period, at the height of his Beethoven-ness, he can spend an entire symphony showing us how an obsessive rhythmic motiv in C-minor can grow into a triumphal shout of joy in C-major. But by the late quartets, the emotional expressions pass moment by moment, as if attention to the present were more important than presentiment of the future or reminiscence of what has gone before. There is an intensity of the now, an urgency of being present. And that is where we find the marriage of the late style’s depth and its simplicity.

Johnson dictionary

I love long sentences. I’m tired of all the short ones. Hemingway can keep them. Newspapers can urge them. Twitter can mandate them. To hell with them.

My ideal can be found in the long serpentine railways of words shunted hither and thither over dependent clauses, parenthetical remarks, explanatory discursions and descriptive ambiguities; sentences such as those found in the word-rich 18th century publishing world of Fielding, Sterne, Addison, Steele, or Boswell, and perhaps most gratifyingly in the grand, gravid, orotund sentences of Edward Gibbon, whose work I turn to not so much for information about the grandeur that was Rome, but for the pure sensuous pleasure to be had from those accretive tunes built from the pile of ideas and imagery (to say nothing of ironic asides), and peppered liberally with the notations of colons, semicolons, dashes and inverted commas.

Johnson by Joshua ReynoldsNeedless to say, my love of such sentences caused me some embarrassment during my years as a practicing journalist, where I was encouraged to keep my sentences simple and clear. I am sure I must have tested the patience of many an editor over those years. I did pick up one countervailing habit: My paragraphs tend to be short. Often a single sentence per.

It is not only 18th century writing I enjoy. The same love of the trailing, dawdling sentence gives me pleasure in William Faulkner, James Agee and Lawrence Durrell. I want to settle into each sentence as if it were a good book.

I remember in the second or third grade learning to diagram sentences. Noun, verb, object; subject, predicate. This was the armature upon which was built increasingly baroque structures. (When we had assignments to use our newly learned vocabulary words in sentences, I always tried my best to use the entire list in a single sentence.)

What kind of sentence am I talking about? When Gibbon talks ironically about how the spiritual “gifts” of early Christians as well feathered their own nests as proved their piety, he follows with: “Besides the occasional prodigies, which might sometimes be effected by the immediate interposition of the deity when he suspended the laws of nature for the service of religion, the Christian church, from the time of the apostles and their first disciples, has claimed an uninterrupted succession of miraculous powers, the gift of tongues, of vision, and of prophecy, the power of expelling daemons, of healing the sick and of raising the dead.”  I like that: “suspending the laws of nature for the service of religion.” Gibbon has a way of making clear his own skepticism through irony while at the same time never crossing the line into a simple “Nya-nya.” It is a performance of extreme delicacy.tristram shandy hogarth

Tristram Shandy lays the (comic) misfortune of his life to the interrupted coitus of his conception, explaining in one grand run-on sentence: “Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it; — you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, as how they are transfused from father to son, etc., etc. — and a great deal to that purpose: — Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man’s sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world, depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracts and trains you put them into, so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, ’tis not a half penny matter, — away they go cluttering like hey-go mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to it, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them off it.”

The extreme pleasure of the book is as much linguistic as it narrative.

Or from The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling: “For the reasons mentioned in the preceding chapter, and from some other matrimonial concessions, well known to most husbands, and which, like the secrets of freemasonry, should be divulged to none who are not members of that honourable fraternity, Mrs. Partridge was pretty well satisfied that she had condemned her husband without cause, and endeavored by acts of kindness to make him amends for her false suspicion.”

Simple thoughts may be satisfied with simple sentences, but knotty thoughts, thoughts of subtlety and complexity, require longer compound and compound-complex sentences; sentences in which ideas are parsed, turned over, elucidated, tested and rubbed up against themselves.

(I am reminded that in The Bear, a portion of Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, a single sentence continues for 11 pages. To say nothing of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. Hurrah.)

These sentences I admire and enjoy, are not mere coagulations of verbiage, but rather like puzzle pieces that fit together ultimately to make a perfect construction. Or the worms and gears of an intricate machine turning smoothly. They might be compared to their advantage to the miserable word salad of unfinished thoughts and undefined terms of the blather of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump: long empty strings of cliches and bigotry, and cliched bigotry, in a never-ending stream of inanities and incoherencies that never reach that concluding peroration that brings all the eggs into a single meaningful basket. It is language spewed, not built. My heroes learned their lessons from the classical languages, whence Aeschylus can have his opening speaker in The Agamemnon go on for a full page before punctuating his speech with the single concluding verb that ties the whole performance up in a word that makes sense of all that came before. Grammar can be used to effect: Trump hardly knows there is such a thing as grammar. He is a bilge pump.

But all this is only prolog to my actual subject for today: The odd and magical concatenation of entries, definitions, etymologies and examples found in the famous dictionary of Dr. Johnson. Johnson has his many prejudices that today strike the reader as comical, as when he defines “oats” as “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Or defines “stateswoman” as: “A woman who meddles with publick affairs. In contempt.”

rhinoNevertheless, if you consider the immensity of the task he set himself in 1746 — a task that wound up taking away nine years of his life — you must admire his profound sincerity and deep devotion. He put together the first comprehensive English dictionary, and in doing so, pretty well had to come up with the plan for it ab ovum. (There were glossaries and word lists, and a few dictionaries before him, but none complete or even attempting to be so). If his definitions sometime seem a trifle punctilious, it must be remembered he was pretty much inventing the whole idea. The definitions range from those that hardly convey what we would consider sufficient information (“Rhinoceros: A vast beast of the East Indies armed with a horn on his front”) to those that seem to do verbal somersaults to convey their meaning (“Network: Anything reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.” By the way: “To Decussate: To intersect at acute angles” and: “Reticulated: Made of network; formed with interstitial vacuities.”)swine

We are so used to a more casual and informal speech these days, that it is a pleasure to see these words in their after-five formal dress. (“Rosin: Inspissated turpentine; a juice of the pine.”) Remember, Johnson had to invent his definitions from sheer air. How would you do if you were faced with defining several thousand words from scratch? How would you define “lard,” for instance. For Johnson, it was “the grease of swine.” There is both an elegance to that terse explanation, but also, to our ears, a kind of humor. We don’t speak that way anymore.

Or how would you explain “smoke?” Johnson: “ The visible effluvium, or sooty exhalation from anything burning.” “Sun?” “The luminary that makes the day.”

Den? “A cavern or hollow running horizontally, or with a small obliquity, under ground; distinct from a hole, which runs down perpendicularly.” The nicety of the distinction is deeply felt for someone who cares about language.

“Mouth: The aperture in the head of any animal at which the food is received.”

“Tree: A large vegetable rising, with one woody stem, to a considerable height.”

“Wolf: A kind of wild dog that devours sheep.”

“Orgasm: Sudden vehemence.”

Can you do better? Well, in some cases, yes, but only because we have several hundred years worth of lexicography behind us (and less delicacy about sex). Remember, Johnson was inventing the thing, a first draft.

I like it when the language is wearing its white tie and waistcoat: “Cough: A convulsion of the lungs, vellicated by some sharp serosity. it is pronounced coff.” If you flip the pages, you find also: “To Vellicate: To twitch; to pluck; to act by stimulation.”

Or: “Whey: The thin or serous part of milk, from which the oleose or grumous part is separated.”

Some of the definitions bear the wisdom of Johnson’s worldview, giving us more than we may actually need to know: “Compliment: An act, or expression of civility, usually understood to include some hypocrisy, and to mean less than it declares.”

There are many words that no longer survive in any meaningful form: “Stirious: Resembling icicles.” And there are words where Johnson threw up his hands: “Stammel: Of this word, I know not the meaning.” (OED says, “A coarse woolen cloth,” and “a shade of red in which the cloth was commonly dyed”).

There are moments where the lexicographer simply got things wrong, or took a metaphorical use as a second definition. He defined “pastern” as “the knee of a horse.” It is rather, part of the foot of a horse. When a woman  asked Johnson how he came to make such a mistake, he answered, “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.”

But by and large, his work was an admirable thing, for which I thank him. And thank him for the pleasure I gain both from his formality, his erudition, and the not infrequent (and often unintended) humor. It is impossible to read through the dictionary and not sense the very particular and idiosyncratic man behind it. Most dictionaries feel distant, academic, objective. Not Johnson’s book: Who read it, hears the blood and bones behind it. Everything in it — and especially its preface — its intensely personal. Its triumphs and its failings are human and profoundly so.

This shows nowhere more than in his botany and zoology. There were many animals with which he clearly had no first-hand information. Some of these were merely legendary, and often a skepticism of such hippogryphs comes out in his entry. Sometimes not.

alligator crocodile“Alligator: The crocodile. This name is chiefly used for the crocodile of America, between which, and that that of Africa, naturalists have laid down this difference, that one moves the upper and the other the lower jaw; but this is now known to be chimerical, the lower jaw being equally moved by both.”

“Salamander: An animal supposed to live in the fire, and imagined to be very poisonous. Ambrose Parey has a picture of the salamander, with a receipt for her bite; but there is no such creature, the name being now given to a poor harmless insect.”

“Tarantula: An insect whose bite is only cured by musick.”

camelopard“Camelopard: An Abyssinian animal, taller than an elephant, but not so thick. He is so named because he has a neck and head like a camel; he is spotted like a pard, but his spots are white upon a red ground. The Italians call him giaraffa.”

It is fun to read through the dictionary as a kind of bizarro-world view of 18th century natural science, punctuated by Johnson’s peculiar phraseology and word choice: “Tadpole: A young shapeless frog or toad, consisting only of a body and a tail; a porwiggle.” As for the tail: “That which terminates the animal behind; the continuation of the vertebrae of the back hanging loose behind.”

I wish I could go on with so many more entries, but I can only end with a few.

starfish“Starfish: A fish branching out into several points.”

“Frog: A small animal with four feet, living both by land and water, and placed by naturalists among mixed animals, as partaking of beast and fish. There is likewise a small green frog that perches on trees, said to be venomous.”

“Toad: An animal resembling a frog; but the frog leaps, the toad crawls: the toad is accounted venomous, I believe truly.”

“Wasp: A brisk stinging insect, in form resembling a bee.”

“Serpent: An animal that moves by undulation without legs. They are often venomous. They are divided into two kinds; the viper, which brings young, and the snake, that lays eggs.”

“Lizard: An animal resembling a serpent, with legs added to it.”

“Shrewmouse: A mouse of which the bite is generally supposed venomous, and to which vulgar tradition assigns such malignity, that she is said to lame the foot over which she runs. I am informed that all these reports are calumnious, and that her feet and teeth are equally harmless with the mouse. Our ancestors however looked on her with such terrour, that they are supposed to have given her name to a scolding woman, whom for her venom they call a shrew.” (vide:  “Shrew: A peevish, malignant, clamorous, spiteful, vexatious, turbulent woman.”)

elephant“Elephant: The largest of all quadrupeds, of whose sagacity, faithfulness, prudence , and even understanding, may surprising relations are given. This animal is not carnivorous, but feeds on hay, herbs and all sorts of pulse; and it is said to be extremely long lifed. It is naturally very gentle; but when enraged, no creature is more terrible. He is supplied with a trunk, or long hollow cartilage, like a large trumpet, which hangs between his teeth, and serves him for hands: by one blow with his trunk he will kill a camel or a horse, and will raise a prodigious weight with it. His teeth are the ivory so well known in Europe, some of which have been seen as large as a man’s thigh, and a fathom in length. Wild elephants are taken with the help of a female ready for the male: she is confined to a narrow place, round which pits are dug; and these being covered with a little earth scattered over hurdles, the male elephants easily fall into the snare. In copulation the female receives the male lying upon her back; and such is his pudicity, that he never covers the female so long as anyone appears in sight.”

And the elephant also brings us back to the GOP and its excrescences: “Trumpery: Something fallaciously splendid; something of less value than it seems.”


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