It has been 50 years since I was a Yankee student at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C. The day I arrived, as a tender freshman, a 20-foot banner hung from the front of my dorm that said, “Forget? — Hell!” I had never been any farther south than Washington DC. I didn’t know what that meant until someone told me. The South has a long memory — at least for a grudge.
I have since come to love the American South, and have lived in it longer than I have lived in any other region of the country. I don’t share its politics, but I was at a Quaker college and its values were those I shared. I studied hard — not really true: I took lots of courses and wanted to learn everything, but I can’t say with any honesty that I was a hardworking student. I read constantly, but not always those things required for my courses.
One day, another student, Big Jim McLarty, said, “I’m going hiking in the Smokies next week. Wanna come?” The Great Smoky Mountains National Park strides the boundary between North Carolina and Tennessee with some of the highest peaks east of the Rockies. The Appalachian Trail balances on the top of its ridges. Big Jim wanted to hike the central portion of the range, to Ice Water Springs.
Big Jim was the son of a noted Methodist minister from Asheville, and the baby brother of the actress whose stage name was Eileen Fulton. (Birth name: Margaret Elizabeth McLarty). For 50 years, she was a fixture on the soap opera, As the World Turns, where she played Lisa Miller Hughes Eldridge Shea Colman McColl Mitchell Grimaldi Chedwyn, wife of six husbands, divorced three times, widowed four times, participant in more than 30 love affairs and victim of amnesia, kidnapping, hysterical pregnancy and auto accidents.
Big Jim had a “stage name,” too. He was the Nunny (more properly, The Noney.) When he first came to Guilford, he had to fill out a form with personal information and in the box for “church preference,” he wrote: “None.” It caused a kerfuffle at the time (We’re talking the late ’60s in the South, where there is a church on every other street corner) and he became known for his freethinking answer. (I came a few years later, and when I had to answer the same question — church preference — I put down: “Gothic.”)
Anyway, The Noney said just to pack sleeping bags. He would bring the food for the trip. “I have lots of stuff left over from earlier camping trips,” he said.
And so, we drove up U.S. 421, U.S. 64 and U.S. 70 to Asheville, where we stopped at The Noney’s ancestral home to pick up his gear and then drove down past Maggie Valley and Lake Junaluska to the Smokies. The sunny day turned cloudy and The Noney explained that the mountains sometimes make their own weather. This was a new concept to me and I was suitably amazed. Nothing like that happened in New Jersey, where I grew up. The turnpike never made its own weather, although perhaps the Monsanto plant did.
We parked in Newfound Gap and began the hike about three miles north on the Appalachian Trail and stopped for the night at a lean-to at Ice Water Springs.
The woods were thick around us, but you could see parts of Tennessee to the west. There was a wooden lean-to in a clearing. It had eight bunks along its back wall, in double decker, and with a chain link fence across its front.
“Are there bears?” I asked, with some thought to my own safety. We didn’t have any bears in New Jersey. My only experience with a real bear had been at the Bronx Zoo. Other than that, there was Yogi Bear on TV and when I was an infant, a giant stuffed panda bear. But there were actual bears in these woods.
“Don’t worry,” said The Noney. “You just treat ’em like a big dumb dog.” This pretty well capsulized The Noney’s approach to life in general. He was one of those sparkly people that nothing bad ever touches — or who remain unaware that bad things are even a possibility.
It remained overcast and by late afternoon, I was standing just outside the lean-to making photographs, when a bear crossed the path about 30 feet away. It spotted me, hesitated a moment and then charged. It lumbered (as bears do) straight at me and got to within a few feet of me before turning away and running off into the woods. Big Dumb Dog. Big Dumb Me — I stood there and took a photo of the bear charging. Maybe it wasn’t the biggest bear in the woods, but it was big enough. And I snapped the shutter instead of ducking.
Come dinner time and the dusk, and The Noney scrounged around in his knapsack and pulled out a handful of tinfoil bags, looking for a dehydrated dinner. But there was nothing but dehydrated strawberry milkshakes. “I guess I must have already used up all my dinners,” he said. We were hungry after a day’s hiking and bruin-dodging, but the cupboards were bare. Lucky for us, some other campers in the lean-to were generous and offered us some of their food. The Noney just laughed it off.
And so, in the middle of the night, sleeping behind the wire-mesh fencing that protected the lean-to inhabitants from the creatures of the woods (although not from the mice), a noise woke me up. The knapsacks hanging on the wall were rocking back and forth, the fencing was jangling. A bear — rather larger than the one I photographed — was attempting to steal our bindle, reaching between the fencing and the wall, stretching out its paw to get the goodies. It was pitch dark. I didn’t know what to do.
Then The Noney flew from his sleeping bag as if he were shot from a cannon, and screaming at the top of his lungs with his arms flailing, running toward the bear. The bear was stopped short and the half-dozen campers in the other bunks were jerked awake not knowing what all the noise was about. The Noney screamed and flailed; the bear withdrew judiciously and everyone else’s flashlights turned on. The Noney stood in the spotlight and smiled. “Big dumb dog.”
“I’ve been thinking about numbers.” Stuart poked his fork into a pile of pasta in front of him and twirled.
“Mostly, we think of numbers in terms of mathematics,” he said. “Or arithmetic. All very abstract. But I’m looking at them in terms of the humanities.”
Genevieve had spent the afternoon cooking up a Pasta all’Assassina, something she had just learned from YouTube. It piled up on our plates in small pyramids of spaghetti.
“You know how there are these sequences of numbers in math? Like 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256 and so on. Or the Fibonacci Series: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 — you know. Logical sequences that seem to have some meaning outside mere math.”
“You mean like the spiral in a seashell or the arrangement of seeds in a sunflower…”
“Exactly. Well, these patterns, as patterns, are purely mathematical, in other words, they only exist in the Platonic ideal of mathematical thinking. I was looking for a sequence that made sense without arithmetic, that English majors could grasp at a gander.”
“And did you find one?” I asked.
“Absolutely. I considered the mythic or symbolic punch of numbers and came up with a sequence something like: 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 9, 12, 21, 40, 42 — that’s kind of a ringer in this — 101, 1,001, one million, and finally, ‘billions and billions.’ That last, thanks to Carl Sagan.”
“If I understand you, these numbers carry significant weight in folktales, mythology, religion and popular culture. But don’t all numbers carry some kind of baggage? I mean, you left out eight from your list, but there is the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism.”
“You are right, most numbers have something, but my list considers only the big boys in the number-myth world. The ones that carry the heaviest weight.
“One, of course, is the unity. It is the prime singularity out of which all else evolves or explodes, like in the Big Bang, or the One-True-God. Two is the duality of yin and yang, of pairs of opposites, of Yoruba twins, of Castor and Pollux, of the Navajo twins Monster-Slayer and Born-of-Water. Or of the salt and pepper shaker or even the right and left hands. Two is big in the Sequentia Stuartii. Yes, that’s what I’m calling it.”
“Three is a quantum jump, though, I think,” I said. “Three is everywhere, from the Three Little Pigs to the Holy Trinity. Goldilocks and the Three Bears, in Greek mythology, the three Furies, Graces, and in Norse, the three Norns. In joke telling, there is the rule of threes, and in photography, we hear of the rule of thirds. Omni Gallia en tres partes divisi est.”
“Yes, three is big,” said Stuart. “Four is a little smaller in the mix, but still, there are the four seasons and the four directions, the four Classic humors and elements, the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism…”
“The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Let’s not forget my favorite. But I notice five and six don’t make your list.”
“Again, there are some references, but they thin out with five and six, and thus fly under my significance bar. Five has the pentagram, but most other associations are a bit more arcane, and therefore don’t have the currency of the big-number power. Six has what? Six sides to a die. Or if you want to go really esoteric, the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda has Six Immortal Holy Ones to attend him. I had to look that one up.
“Ah, but seven. Seven is king. It is the big kahuna of numbers. If I make a graph of number significance, seven is off the charts. The home run of numbers. Seven days in a week; seven seas; seven continents; seven hills of Rome; Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.”
“Seven Deadly Sins, again, let’s not forget my favorites.”
“And the Seven Cardinal Virtues,” said Stuart. “Seven planets in the Ptolemaic universe, seven notes in the diatonic scale. The seven liberal arts. Break a mirror and get seven years of bad luck.”
“And the number is so persuasive, someone decided there were seven colors in the rainbow. What is ‘indigo,’ after all, but just another blue. They added it so they could have seven colors.”
“God created the world in seven days. Six plus a day of rest. The Bible is full of sevens. Seven years of fat and seven of lean in the Pharaoh’s dream. Seven days of Passover. Seven year Jubilee cycle. Jericho was conquered on the seventh day after seven priests with seven trumpets marched around the city seven times. King David had seven elder brothers. After Elisha raised the child from the dead, the kid sneezed seven times. There are seven pillars in the House of Wisdom.
“In the New Testament, seven demons are cast out of Mary Magdalene, seven loaves to feed the multitude in Mark and Matthew, the seven last words of Christ on the Cross. And Revelations is filthy with sevens. Seven golden lampstands, seven stars, seven torches of fire, seven seals, seven angels and their trumpets, seven last plagues, seven golden bowls, seven thunders, horns and eyes, diadems and kings.”
Genevieve had been mostly silent through all this, letting the boys blow their steam, but she joined in. “I was raised Catholic,” she said. “And I was brought up with seven sacraments, the Seven Joys of the Virgin and the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin, the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. There were Seven Corporal and Seven Spiritual Acts of Mercy.”
“Sevens out the wazoo,” Stuart said. “And it isn’t just Christianity. There are seven chakras in Hinduism. And seven great saints, seven worlds in the universe and seven gurus. Agni, the fire god, has seven wives, seven mothers and seven sisters and can produce seven flames. The sun god has seven horses to pull his chariot. In the Rig Veda, there are seven parts of the world, seven seasons and seven heavenly fortresses. I could go on.”
And he does.
“In Islam, there are seven heavens and seven hells. You make seven trips around the Kaaba. A baby is named on the seventh day of life. The seven sins of polytheism.
“In the Baha’i faith the text is The Seven Valleys the soul traverses. It is the number of islands in Atlantis, the Seven Cities of Gold that the conquistadors searched for.”
“Gandhi had his list of the Seven Blunders of the World that cause violence,” said Genevieve. “Wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, religion without sacrifice, and — “
“I know this one,” said Stuart. “It’s in the news daily: politics without principle.” (And “men without shutting up,” thought Genevieve, but who was too polite to say it out loud.)
“In China, there are the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove,” Stuart went on. “There are the seven lucky gods in Japanese mythology, and the seven-branched sword. The Buddha supposedly took seven steps at his birth. And believe, me, we’ve only scratched the surface of seven.”
“There are seven holes in the human head,” said Genevieve.
“And my favorite,” I said. I have a lot of favorites. “The seven directions. Some American Indian mythologies recognize seven: the four normal ones, plus up and down, and most importantly, the seventh direction — in. The inner world is one of the directions.”
“Let’s not forget The Seven Samurai and Bergman’s Seventh Seal,” I said. “Or Se7en.”
“Or Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties, or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Or the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao.”
“Or The Magnificent Seven,” I said. “Or Seven Years in Tibet or Six Days and Seven Nights. Or The Seven Year Itch.”
It was becoming a contest.
“Return of the Secaucus Seven,” Stuart added. “And Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Seven Days in May. House of Seven Gables…”
“The Seven Little Foys. The Seven Percent Solution. Seven Up! from Michael Apted’s Up series…”
“Stop it. Stop it now,” Genevieve said. “Boys,” she spit out, as a short summing up of an entire gender.
“Eight pretty well disappears,” said Stuart, “but nine makes up for it. A stitch in time saves nine. Cloud nine is the ultimate in happiness. A cat has nine lives. Possession is nine points of the law. There are nine muses. The Norse god Odin hanged himself on the World Ash Tree for nine days to gain wisdom. In Christianity, there are nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. The Aztec and Mayan underworlds both had nine levels. Nine justices on the Supreme Court. Nine circles in Dante’s Hell. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, there are nine rings of power given to nine ring-wraiths. Buddha had nine virtues.”
“There used to be nine planets,” I said.
“Pregnancy lasts nine months,” said Genevieve.
“Nine players on a baseball team and nine innings in a game,” said Stuart. “And classical composers often had a superstition that their ninth symphony would be their last. Yes, nine is a pretty full number, contrasted with ten — the most bureaucratic of numbers. Yes, there are the Ten Commandments, but the number 10 is the least charismatic of numbers. It is the basis of the decimalization of the world. And you both know how I feel about that. Base 10 — Pfui.”
We both knew the antipathy Stuart harbored for metrification and the inhuman procrustification of the division of things into tens. Everyone familiar with Stuart knew. The next number in his sequence is 12.
“Twelve is a dozen,” he said. “It is 12 signs of the Zodiac, 12 hours of day and 12 of night. There were 12 disciples of Jesus and 12 tribes of Israel. Hercules had 12 labors. There are 12 Olympian Gods, 12 months in a year. Twelve notes in a dodecaphonic tone series. Twelve days of Christmas. Twelve jurors in a panel. Twelve knights of the Round Table. Twelve steps for Alcoholics Anonymous. Paradise Lost is in 12 books.”
“I can think of a bunch of movies with 12 in the titles: 12 Angry Men; Ocean’s Twelve; 12 Monkeys; The Dirty Dozen; Cheaper by the Dozen; Twelve Years a Slave.”
“And Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night,” said Genevieve.
“Thirteen has plenty of mojo,” said Stuart, “but it is negative. Bad luck. There are at least three numbers with bad magic. Thirteen is one everyone knows. And 666 is the “mark of the beast.” And poor number 17 used to have no juice at all — one of the emptiest numbers, but now has quickly dropped from null to negative with the advent of Q. Nutjobs are going bananas every time they hear a number 17.
“Then, there is 21, the points of blackjack and the minimum age to enter a casino and play blackjack. In many places, it’s the minimum age for a lot of things. The 21st Amendment ended prohibition, and when it did, you had to be 21 to buy hooch. Which you could do at the 21 Club in New York.”
“There are 21 guns in a 21-gun salute,” I said. “And the TV game show that was rigged, Twenty-One. There have been four movies with that name. Add up the dots on a die and you get 21. It’s the number of shillings in a guinea. Or was.
“And according to Duncan McDougall in 1907, the human soul weighs 21 grams. I didn’t know they used metric back then.”
“Next is 40,” said Stuart. “It rained for 40 days and 40 nights. Christ spent 40 days in the wilderness. There are 40 Norse Valkyries and ‘Life begins at 40.’ Muhammad was 40 years old when he received his revelation. For Russians, the ghosts of the dead remain at the site of their deaths for 40 days. We listen to ‘Top 40’ radio stations. A short nap is ’40 winks.’ The number of Ali Baba’s thieves. ’40 acres and a mule.’ And the average work week, in hours.”
“I take it that 42 is in your list as a nod to Douglas Adams.”
“Absolutely. It is also Jackie Robinson’s uniform number, the number of lines in a page of the Gutenberg Bible, and the number on the back of the spider who bit Miles Morales, turning him into Spider-Man. It is also the number of the third most famous street in Manhattan (I give primacy to Wall Street and Broadway).
“A hundred is a useful number, but doesn’t carry much mythological weight,” Stuart continued. “But a hundred and one rises in power. It is the college course number of introduction. It is a book title more popular by far than ‘100.’ There are 101 Dalmations and the 101st Airborne Division is ‘the tip of the spear.’ There was a sappy recordings of the 101 Strings. Simon Bond’s 101 Uses for a Dead Cat. The George Orwell’s truly horrifying Room 101.”
“Doesn’t that mean that 1984 is a number in your sequence?”
“Yes, I guess so. I hadn’t thought of it. My next number is 1,001. From the Thousand and One Nights of Scheherazade. It is one of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Buckminster Fuller called it a Scheherazade number in his book, Synergetics, meaning it is palindromic and a factor of any other Scheherazade number. But that is math, and my galoshes get stuck in the mud of math. Don’t ask me about it.”
The number, million, said Stuart, used to have more meaning, when it was the largest number most people thought in terms of. Being a millionaire meant something back then.
“But it still has some cache. In popular usage, a million means a lot. ‘You’re one in a million,’ ‘a million-dollar smile,’ ‘not in a million years,’ ‘a million-dollar question.’ And ‘I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles.’
“The million has largely been replaced the the billion, ‘with a B.’ To be rich nowadays requires being a billionaire. Everett Dirksen reportedly observed, ‘A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.’ Although he denied ever saying that, it was quoted in The New York Times in 1938. Also, Carl Sagan never actually said ‘Billions and billions,’ he did use it for the title of his last book. It was actually coined as a catchphrase on the Johnny Carson show. But the concept has now become a name for a vague but large number, the Sagan. It joins other ‘indefinite hyperbolic numerals’ such as ‘gazillion’ ‘bazillion,’ and ‘umpteen.’ Since it is ‘billions’ plural and ‘billions’ plural, logically that would require that ‘billions and billions’ be at the very least four billion whatevers.”
At this point, Genevieve brought out the Ile Flottante and after we ate it, we sat at the table for a moment and looked at all the empty bowls and dishes. And the wine glasses calling out for refills.
“We forgot the sequel, Guns of the Magnificent Seven,” said Stuart.
I woke up this February morning to a gray, cloudy, cold day, with reaches of fog climbing up the sides of the mountains, giving them all the look of a Chinese painting. Brouillard in French. Nebel in German.
And that set me to thinking about Long John Nebel, a radio personality from WOR-AM in New York, who had an all-night talk show when I was a kid, interviewing people who claimed they had been in flying saucers, or explained there was a civilization that lived in the center of the earth, or that could bend spoons with their minds. It is where I first heard of Charles Fort, Edgar Cayce and astral projection.
Long John’s theme song was originally written for the movie The Forbidden Planet by David Rose, but was never used there. It was distinct and spooky, just like most of Long John’s guests.
Remembering Long John reminded me also of Jean Shepherd, whose program ran on the station just before Long John. For 45 minutes each night, Shep told stories of his childhood or army life, ranted about modern culture, played the Jew’s harp or kazoo along with The Sheik of Araby, and drove his engineers and management nuts. His theme music was Eduard Strauss’s polka Bahn Frei, in a Boston Pops arrangement by Peter Bodge. Eduard was the lesser known younger brother of Johann Strauss II and you could call him the Eric of the Strauss family. I listened to Shepherd night after night and heard the polka so many times — thousands — that as soon as I think of it, it becomes an ear worm and for the next couple of days, it plays in my head endlessly.
And so, I’m sitting there this morning, enjoying the nasty weather outside and my mind wanders to TV show theme music. There’s the William Tell Overture and The Lone Ranger; Love in Bloom for Jack Benny; Love Nest for Burns and Allen.
Burns and Allen was a show we watched regularly in the 1950s, and in retrospect, I can see it as the first Postmodern series, as George would retreat to his study above the garage and watch the same show we were watching, on his TV and commenting on the plot as it played out. This level of knowingness became common later with such shows as It’s Like, You Know… Everyone’s doing it now.
These connections, from fog on the mountain to Postmodernism, are the way the human mind works. One damn thing leads to another. We might all like to think we are rational beings and think logically, but no, it’s a slow bumping from one thing to another, and sometimes we make them fit together like the Tab A and Slot B of a puzzle.
It’s a version of the Kevin Bacon game. How many steps to get from this to that. For instance, I can get to Vladimir Putin in only three steps. When I was music critic in Phoenix, I was friends with the director of the Arizona Opera, the late Joel Revzen (an unfortunate Covid victim late last year; I will miss him). After he left Arizona, Revzen worked at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and became the designated repetiteur for Valery Gergiev (Revzen would rehearse the orchestra and singers for weeks to get them ready for the jet-set conductor who would swoop in the last week and put the finishing touches on the performance). Gergiev also invited Revzen to conduct his orchestra in Moscow, the Mariinsky Orchestra. Gergiev, in turn, is pals with Putin. Three jumps and bingo.
I can connect with Albert Einstein in two steps: My friend and predecessor as music critic in Arizona was Dimitri Drobatschewsky, who was born in Berlin. Dimitri’s father was a noted violinist, and when Dimitri was a young boy, the family played string quartets at home, and occasionally, Einstein — an amateur fiddler — would sit in. A quick two-step.
Dimitri knew many of the most famous musicians of the 20th century, and through them, I could trace connections to Rachmaninoff, Heifetz, Rubinstein, even George Gershwin. And through Gershwin to Arnold Schoenberg, and through him to Gustav Mahler. Short trips and many connections.
Let’s see how many connections I need to make it to Johann Sebastian Bach.
—I knew Dimitri; who knew cellist Gregor Piatagorsky; who recorded Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 2 with Artur Schnabel; who studied piano with Theodor Leschetizky; who learned piano from Carl Czerny; who was a pupil of Ludwig von Beethoven; who met Wolfgang Mozart; who knew Johann Christian Bach; whose father was Johann Sebastian. Nine steps over 271 years, an average of 30 years per step.
That’s a bit over the standard Kevin Bacon line, but I can still claim only six degrees from Beethoven. I knew someone who knew someone who knew someone, etc., who knew Beethoven. Finding connections, whether of acquaintance or through association of ideas, everything is connected to everything else. When we isolate anything, we rip it from its context, and its context extends, however tenuously, to the edges of the universe.
And I cannot think of 271 years as being all that long ago. I have lived for nearly three-quarters of a century; my father was born 102 years ago. That’s the year of the Versailles Treaty and the year Pierre-Auguste Renoir died. So, that’s a century, a father-son century. Only 10 of those father-son centuries and we are in the reign of King Canute of England. The Middle Ages. A millennium. And only 10 of those brings us to the very beginnings of agriculture and civilization itself, growing along the Fertile Crescent, the Indus River Valley and in China. That’s just the father-son century times 10 times 10. All of civilization, there between your thumb and forefinger.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that everyone with even a drop of European in their DNA can count Charlemagne in their family tree. We are all related. Further back, we seem all to have the bones of Lucy as our great-great-great, etc. grandma.
And anyone who saw the 1978 James Burke television series, Connections, knows that the world doesn’t progress in a linear fashion, but by accretion. It takes a handful of previous inventions to permit the breakthrough we all know. It’s a web, not a line.
Even today’s weather in Asheville is dependent on yesterday’s rain in Tennessee and last month’s disturbance over the Pacific Ocean.
In my own life, I realize I could have had a Ph.D. in some specialty, maybe a sinecure in a college or university. It was actually what my life-arc seemed to predict. But I could never narrow down my interests. I wanted to learn everything. An impossibility, of course. But I have spent my seven decades looking for the way all things are related, for the bigger picture. The beaker into which it all mixes. The mind casts a wide net, wide enough to move from a gray day through a radio talk show to Charlemagne and even to Gobekli Tepe in Turkey.
We’re approaching a full year of pandemic lockdown, barely leaving the house except to restock the larder. But at least the house is full of books, music and DVDs. It would take more than a single year to run out.
But it puts me in mind of the old cliche: What book would you take to a desert island? It’s a silly question, really. If you are stranded on a desert island, a source of fresh water is a need infinitely more immediate than a good read. But even if we take it as simply a trope, the answers people give are seldom very satisfying. Most list a book they enjoy, which is fine, except that you can only read most of those books once, maybe twice, before they grow stale.
No, the trick is to find a book that can reward multiple re-readings. And the same for “desert island music” or “desert island movies” (ignoring the problem of finding a DVD player in the middle of the Pacific, or the electrical outlet to plug it into.) Just picking favorites is a sucker’s game. How long would it take before listening to Stairway to Heaven for the hundredth or thousandth time to reduce you to a gibbering idiot?
So, I set to make a list of things that could reward many traversals. This is, of course, a game and is utterly meaningless — but then most fun is. I task each of you to find a list of your own of things you could stand listening to, re-reading, or re-watching for endless times. I’m going to present my choices as they would an awards show: nominees and winners.
Desert Island book
The sign of any good book is its re-readability. But even some of the best have just so much to offer. Madame Bovary is a great book, but once you’ve unwrapped its meaning, you are finished — unless you can read it in French and can unpack its verbal brilliance. I’ve seen many desert-island lists that offer things like Harry Potter books or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. And no knock on them as good reads, they aren’t books you can marry for the long haul.
My nominees for Desert Island Book are:
—War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. This may be the best novel I have ever read, full of people who are so real they seem not to be characters in a book, but transcriptions of life. I am in awe of this book.
—Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. This counts as my favorite book, and I have indeed re-read it many times — at least I’ve re-read the opening chapter, “Loomings,” scores of times. It was my original problem with the book. I loved Melville’s way with words so much, that each time I picked up the book, I’d start from the beginning, which made it a very long time before I ever actually finished the thing. When I pick it up again, I’ll start with “Call me Ishmael.” Again.
—Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. This is the funniest book I’ve ever read (pace P.G. Wodehouse), but funny books tend not to outlive their punchlines. You can only tell a joke once to the same audience. But Tristram Shandy isn’t a joke book, and its inhabitants are so ridiculously human and its wordplay so trippingly choreographed, that it never wears out for me.
—À la recherche du temps perdu, by Marcel Proust. This seems like the perfect choice for the desert island. First, it is exceedingly long — seven volumes and more than 4,000 pages. Second, it is filled with memorable people and discursive episodes that never seem to come to a final conclusion. It goes on. And on. The biggest problem with it, in English, is to find a decent translation that isn’t too Victorian sounding and stuffy, or too modern and chatty.
—Ulysses, by James Joyce. This is a book that not only can stand a re-reading, it requires it. No one can get it all in one go-through. Joyce’s prose, in those chapters that aren’t purposely difficult, is the most perfect prose I know in the English language. Its cadence is musical, its word-choice precise, its flavor yummy. And the difficult chapters — you know who you are — take parsing like so many physics formulae and can keep you fully occupied while you wait for a passing steamship.
And the award goes to:
Ulysses. It wins because it is in English to begin with. You can never be sure with Tolstoy or Proust, that you are getting what is in the original. They are always at a remove. Ulysses is your own tongue, taken to its stretching point. I can’t imagine, say, reading it in a French translation, or in Mandarin. It is not transmutable. And it can stand a lifetime of re-reading without ever being sucked dry.
Desert Island Music
This is the category that most exposes the problem. For most people, music means song, and no three-minute ditty can wear long enough to keep you going under the coconut tree. This isn’t a place for your favorite tune. This then requires something like classical music. But even most classical music can’t take the over-and-over again requirements of the island isolation. The obvious choice would be Beethoven’s Ninth, but really, you can only listen on special occasions. Over and over would be torture.
My nominees for Desert Island Music are:
—Quartet in C-minor, op. 131, by Ludwig van Beethoven. Really, any of the late quartets. But this is music so profound and so emotional that any barrier between the highest thought and deepest emotion is erased. They are the same thing. The C-minor quartet has six movements and each is distinct and each is a pool to dive deeply into.
—The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, by Johann Sebastian Bach. Thirty variations on a simple sarabande tune, arranged with a complex cleverness hard to credit. This is music to last a lifetime. Indeed, it was the first thing that pianist Glenn Gould ever recorded and the last thing. To paraphrase Sam Johnson, “To tire of the Goldbergs is to tire of the world.”
—Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler. The composer said a symphony “should contain the world,” and no work more completely attempts this than Mahler’s Third, with a first movement that is longer than most full Haydn symphonies (“Pan Awakes: Summer Marches In”) and ends with an adagio just as long, which is built from a theme borrowed from Beethoven’s final string quartet and utters “What Love Tells Me.” I cannot hear the work without disintegrating into a puddle.
—The Passion According to St. Matthew, BWV 244, by Johann Sebastian Bach. This is the human condition in sound. All of it. No music I know of is more profound nor more emotionally direct. It lasts for nearly three hours and includes not only all the world, but heaven and hell, too. From the opening chorus, with three choirs and two orchestras, to the final “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder,” which expresses infinite sorrow, this is music that shoots directly into the psyche and soul. It cannot be worn out.
—24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87, by Dmitri Shostakovich. I considered Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, but I already have Bach down twice. He is the obvious choice for desert island music, so rich is his music, but I also think of Shostakovich’s version, which is just as varied both technically and emotionally. I could live with this for a very long time.
And the winner is:
St. Matthew Passion. This is so all-encompassing, so complex technically, so disturbing emotionally, that I cannot bear to give it up. I am not religious and the doctrinal aspects of the story mean nothing to me, but the metaphorical import is overwhelming. This is what it means to be human. And what music!
Desert Island Film
Of course, the film you want on a desert island is a documentary about how to get off a desert island. And if you need a film you can watch over and over, I’ve proved already I can do that with the 1933 King Kong. I’ve watched it a thousand times since I was four years old. But that is not the kind of thing I mean, not what can sustain you through multiple dives into a film’s interior.
My nominees for Best Desert Island Film are:
—Rules of the Game, directed by Jean Renoir. La Règle du Jeu (1939), which many critics have called the best movie ever made, is certainly the most human, humane and forgiving film ever, while at the same time being satirical and biting about human foible and hypocrisy. Yes, it’s in French, with subtitles.
—La Dolce Vita, directed by Federico Fellini. The great 1960 Italian classic of the Roman “sweet life” in the postwar years shows us Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) as he negotiates personal relationships, professional crises and spiritual doldrums. The meaning of the movie has been debated for 40 years. It has been seen as anti-Catholic and as a reactionary embrace of religion. It has been seen as an angry critique of modern life, but also a celebration of it. It has been called pornography, and also one of the most moral movies ever made. It’s rich enough to embrace many meanings. Fellini said he was not a judge, “but rather an accomplice.”
—Andrei Rublev, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. If La Dolce Vita was ambiguous, Andrei Rublev is close to impenetrable. There is no slower film, outside Andy Warhol’s 8-hour-long Empire State Building. It is not so much a story as a dream, full of significance, but not explainable meaning. It is so unutterably beautiful it simply doesn’t matter what is happening on screen. I love this film. I don’t mean enjoy, I mean love.
—Fanny and Alexander, directed by Ingmar Bergman. Some films are art, some are great stories, some are deeply understanding. Fanny and Alexander is all three. It exists in multiple versions — a single one for movie houses at 188 minutes and a 312 minute version originally intended as a TV miniseries. I choose the longer version for my desert island. This is Bergman at his most human, least artsy and symbolic. It can engulf you.
—Dekalog, directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski. Polish director Kieślowski made this 10-part film on the Ten Commandments, although not in any literal way. Each film is directed in a different style, and none is religious. The two best concern “Thou shalt not kill” and “not commit adultery,” Your heart will be wrenched from your chest and stomped upon.
And my choice is:
Rules of the Game. I cannot count the number of times I have watched this film. Not as many as King Kong, I guess, but close. And I know from experience it can hold up under uncounted viewings. There is plenty to enjoy from a filmmaking point of view, just as there is in Citizen Kane, but it is also a profoundly forgiving film — the single most important quality in a human life.
I have a few more categories, that I’ll suggest in abbreviated form. There you are on the desert island with a bookshelf and a DVD player. You can add a desert island opera, a desert island epic poem, a desert island play.
An art form that puts it all together in one package, opera would be an excellent way to spend your island time. But again, we have to consider which opera can stand multiple viewings, that has multiple meanings or interpretations. We all love La Boheme, but there is only so much there under the hood. And Wagner would just wear us out. We are down to Mozart. The Marriage of Figaro is a perfect choice, but I’m going with my favorite:
Don Giovanni, by W.A. Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte. Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? Is it a dramedy? Whatever it is, it is filled with real people doing things real people do (aside from talking to statues and falling into hell, that is) and with some of the best music Mozart ever wrote. Fin ch’han dal vino…
There is not a wide field to choose from, and how can you pick among the Iliad, the Odyssey, Dante’s Commedia, or Milton’s Paradise Lost? (Notice, I did not include Vergil. Dull stuff). Nor can I pick an Icelandic saga or a Medieval droner, like Parzival or the Nibelungenlied. I’ve tried slogging my way through Tasso and Ariosto, but get dragged down in slow motion. There is just one for me, and I re-read it every year:
The Iliad, by Homer. How can the first entry in the Western canon still be the best? Nothing beats Homer. His imagination is immense, from the largest cosmic scene to the fingernail of a flea, it is all encompassing, and moves with the instantaneity of movie cutting from the one to the other. Actually, if I had to leave behind novel, music, film and everything else, and had only one companion with me, it would be the Iliad.
What do you mean “live theater?” We’re on a desert island. But, if I can imagine a DVD player and an electric socket on the bare sand, I can imagine a stage play. This is all theoretical anyway, remember?
Angels in America, by Tony Kushner. Without doubt the greatest thing I’ve ever seen on the live stage is the original New York production of Angels in America — both parts. It is overwhelming, and will demonstrate to anyone who hasn’t had the experience yet, that live theater is unmatchable by seeing the same thing on PBS Live From Lincoln Center or even in Mike Nichols’ filmed version. Wow. And I’ve seen some great Shakespeare live, even by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Angels rules.
And so, we’ve turned an isolated desert island into a library, concert hall, movie house, opera house and legitimate stage. Far from being solitary, we’re crowded. Pandemic be damned.