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“The older I get, the more the complexities of life narrow down to simpler components,” said Stuart. “The interactions become more complex, but the basics seem fewer.”

“Yes,” I prodded.

“I’ve been thinking about emotions, or more precisely, about how emotions are manifested by our bodies in terms of muscle reactions, hormonal dumps, brain chemistry — emotions as a physical reaction to external or internal stimuli.”

“Sounds clinical.”

“Well, I’m no scientist and I can’t claim any justification for this, but I’ve spent nearly 70 years examining my self — my inner self — and trying to understand just how I’ve reacted to the many events in my life, both the good and the bad.”

Stuart and I have both been around for a long time, been through many things, some of them together. Marriages, divorces, trips, jobs, houses, friends, pets, births, and more recently, deaths. 

“And I’ve come to believe that there are really only six emotions.”

“Surely, there are an infinite number of emotions,” I said. “At least an uncounted number. ‘I am large, I contain multitudes.’ ”

“Yes, it sometimes seems that way, but I think it is more like the taste  buds on your tongue. Only a few, but the combinations of them allow us to identify a huge range of flavors.

“The six emotions I have winnowed it all down to are: sadness, anger, fear, contentment, joy, and finally, desire — erotic desire. Each of these manifests itself in a distinct part of the body, or combination of corporeal locations.”

“I know where desire is felt.”

“Well, yes, but I don’t mean this as a joke. Let’s take them one by one and examine them.

“I start with sadness, because that’s the one most proximate, at least for you.”

“You’ve got that right.”

“Sadness — and I mean sadness, I don’t mean depression, which is a lack of affect and therefore, the opposite of emotion — sadness wells up in the eyes, in the higher portions of the chest, in a pursing of lips graduating into a pulling apart of the corners of the mouth and stretching of the neck ligaments. 

“Each of these emotions is a range, not a single thing. Sadness can run from a kind of wistfulness into a full blown gnashing of teeth and rending of garments.”

“Been there.” 

“Fear hits the pit of the stomach and the back of the neck; it widens the eyes and tightens the throat. Anger tenses the whole face and focuses the eyes, tightening their orbits; it also stiffens the back of the throat and may also clench the fists. 

“Contentment is a warm feeling throughout the body, a relaxation of tightnesses. It is what we most often call happiness. And it is very different from joy, which is an inhalation, or alternately, a holding of breath, along with a swelling of chest and perhaps a throwing back of arms. You almost escape your skin. 

“And desire — and I mean specifically sexual desire, not just the inclination to acquire what one doesn’t have — desire swells the loins.”

“And what about love? Isn’t that one of the big emotions?”

“In my way of thinking about it, love is a cause of emotions, not an emotion itself.

“Think about it. When you are young, at first flush, love is a combination of joy and desire; as you age, it may become contentment and desire, then, perhaps contentment alone. Certainly it can also cause anger in one, or fear, and ultimately, love can be expressed through sadness. You know about that all too directly. These are all the pipes attached to the keys of the organs, from flute to diapason.”

“And hate?”

“Likewise, it triggers a range of notes: anger and fear mostly.”

I can never tell just how seriously to take Stuart. His enthusiasms are certainly genuine, but they are not often long lived. He gets on a topic, drives it to its logical or illogical end and than, like an infant tempted by some new shiny object, moves on to something else. Still, there is often something to be learned by looking at the world from an angle outside even the periphery. 

“I imagine some sort of sliders on a sound studio mixing panel, pull up the fear and anger, deaden the joy and contentment. Fingers constantly pushing the controls up and down.

“Again, my disclaimer: I am no scientist, this is all just self-examination, but science does seem to have correlated certain hormones and neurotransmitters with emotional reactions. Fear and adrenaline, contentment and serotonin. Endorphins and joy. Cocktails mixing them make for some astonishing complexity. We all know it’s possible to love and hate at the same time. Shaken, not stirred.”

“You have me remembering a girlfriend I had many years ago, in Seattle,” I said. “I was crazy in love at the time, but her reaction was that ‘Love is just pheromones.’ Rather knocked me down a bit.” 

“I remember her,” Stuart said. “Nothing blonder than her hair but the sun.”

“Yes, that’s her.”

“Well, it started me thinking. We almost always pit emotion against  rational thought, as if they were opposites. Bones and Spock. What if thought was the same as emotion — a physical and chemical reaction that the body washes over us? Are there peptides and purines that channel or produce reason? Is it all ‘just pheromones?’ We privilege reason over emotion in our culture, but let’s face it, reason does not always provide better outcomes than emotion. Remember Halberstam’s book with the ironic title?”

The Best and the Brightest.”

“Yes. Logic, I’ve always said, is a provincialism of our culture. I blame Plato.”

“You usually do.”

“Or maybe Zeno. His paradox only works in language, not in reality. The tortoise will always be passed by Achilles in just a couple of bounds. Yet, the logic proves that Achilles cannot possibly ever catch up. I have doubted reason ever since I thought that one through. 

“So, I’m imagining a gushing brain chemistry that makes us divide each question into ones and zeros, yes or no, black or white, salt or pepper, chocolate or vanilla. Is there a bestiary of thought as there seems to be one of emotion?  You love Beethoven’s late quartets, right?”

“Who wouldn’t?”

“And what have you always said about the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ or the cavatina? ‘At its highest levels,’ you said, ‘thought and emotion cannot be told apart.’ Isn’t that right?”

“To quote a First Century prophet from the Levant: ‘You have said it.’ ”

“So, I’m trying to work out another mixing board, one for thought. Or, is it the same mixing board, but turned sideways? Does thinking create facial expressions or muscle contractions the way emotions do? When I’m lost in thought, I can feel me face go all flabby as I’m lost in thought — or sometimes the reverse, I screw up my lips and nose as I work through a knotty problem.

“At the very least, I’m convinced that the body and the mind are not separate entities, but rather a single thing looked at from different ends. We get all flummoxed when we divide ourselves up between thinking and feeling, between body and soul, between heaven and earth, between realism and idealism. I imagine it all as Medieval humors, only with modern, scientific names like urocortin and oxytocin. They didn’t have microscopes and magnetic resonance machines, but those Medieval people were not simple-minded idiots. Their brains were just as good as ours. It’s just their research facilities were underfunded. And they didn’t have as many giants on whose shoulders to stand.”

“So, she was right? It’s all just pheromones?”

“Perhaps. Remember, I’m no scientist, and even if it is all just pheromones, it doesn’t feel as if it is.”

“Well, I think it’s dinner time and I’m feeling hungry. Let’s go see what we can cook up. I’ve got a new pasta recipe that I think Genevieve will like.”

I will now tell you of the great and noble city of Glebe-limb. It is three days north-northwest of Akron, which I have told you of, and lies on the shore of a great sea which has no salt in it. A river empties into the saltless sea and it is navigable except in those times when the river is burning, the flames of which make great black clouds above the city. 

It is called the Forest City, but there are in it no forests. The people worship Jesus, but cannot agree on the best way to do so. There are also Jews and those who worship Muhammed. In this region of the kingdom of Ohio iron, steel and rubber tires are abundant. The water is not good, but produces an excellent beer, which the citizens consume in great quantity, which produces many fistfights, especially in the summer, when it is excessive hot.

The king is Adolf Bus, who controls the beer production and has become very wealthy. Now it happened that Marco, the son of Messer Niccolo, acquired a remarkable knowledge of the city and now I will tell you about it.  

Among its citizens there is a race of giants, twice the size of humans, who wear helmets and armor weighing at least 3 shekhims. Those of this  race are called“browns,” and despite their warlike appearance, they lose every battle they fight. 

The king has built a great stadium which can contain a million people in it. It is named for him, Bus Stadium, and is perfectly round. In it, a game is played, and I will tell you about the game. The players stay in a hole in the ground until it is their turn to perform, and then they emerge and hit a hard round ball with a stick. They are known as Indians and are the indigenous residents of the area. 

There is a food that is served during the game to those watching and I will now tell you about it. It is a small loaf of bread on which rests what looks like a swine pizzle, but without the channel for the urine. They cover this with a brown sauce that has a hot taste. The people eat this from one end. That is all I have to say about the food.

Marco Polo

There was once a great war between the residents of Glebe-limb, which sits on one side of the burning river, and Ohio City on the other. There was great animosity between the cities, and the king of Glebe-limb had a bridge built across the river to attract the caravans of merchants who came to the area and so to by-pass their rival city. The army of Ohio City tried to barricade the bridge and stop the caravans and divert them to its markets, but King Bus used his beer wagons, drawn by great horses with shaggy feet, each 25 hands high, to break through the barrier. The war ended when the rebels took axes to the wagons, opening great barrels of beer, which both sides drank until they could no longer see each other. The two cities are now one. 

This battle they commemorate each spring during which time students spend a week away from their studies and consume the bitter, fizzy bever.    

Now let us leave this city and move on to tell you about another region, which is called Toledo.

I am not a religious man, but I have a ritual that I perform every day: I wash my breakfast bowl.

It doesn’t seem like much, especially in this age of dishwashing machines and takeout food on paper plates, but my ritual has a long and meaningful history.

There was a year in my life when I didn’t have a job. I lived with friends in North Carolina and did their cooking and cleaning. Every morning, after breakfast, I washed all the dishes.

To others, dishwashing may seem a boring chore, but to me, it was a time to regain contact with the eons. I could stand at the sink with my hands in the steamy suds and stare out the kitchen window at the leaves blown from their trees.

I stared out the window as I worked, mentally walking down the path behind the house past the tin-roof barn and the wide rolling field where old Mr. Price grew beans and tobacco. On the far side, there was a brook that meandered into a small ravine about a dozen feet deep, wet on its north, sunless side, and dry on the south.

And across the granite that forms the streambed as it cascades through this ravine was a long white stripe of quartz, an igneous dike where molten lava once inched up a joint in the surrounding rock and cooled into quartz bright and shiny against the black of the basalt streambed.

And standing at the sink with my hands glossy with detergent, I could travel upstream into myself the same way, finding, eventually, the glistening evidence of my own deepest thoughts: people I had long forgotten, places I hadn’t remembered being, songs I had sung with my grandmother, and sometimes even peace.

And so I rinsed the hot soap from a dish with scalding water and left it in the drain rack. I reached for the next dish and I thought about other times I have washed dishes.

I recalled the night my son was born. I had been at the hospital for his birth, in the delivery room as he entered the world screaming and miry. After I had taken the usual photos and Annie went back to her room for some well-deserved sleep and the kid was cleaned off and sent to the nursery, I drove home and found a kitchen full of dishes, greasy and smeared, waiting to be cleaned. Annie had been in labor almost two days and, though I had been with her through most of it, I also had gone home periodically for meals.

Those dishes and the ones left over from the dinner at which she started feeling her contractions were scattered all over the house. I filled the sink with hot water and divided up the dishes from the pots and set the plates and silverware into the sink to soak. Steam rose from the suds.

I remember that night; I was in knots, loaded with the new responsibility of a child and desperate with the empty feeling that my wife and I no longer could live together. I stuck my arm into the water and my guts began to relax.

I rinsed the first plate and my mind went blank – the blankness of meditation. My belly loosened and my teeth, which had been gnashing through the nights as I slept for months, relaxed. I rinsed the next plate, and it clicked against the first as I settled it in the drain rack. Soothing.

My problems were not solved, but I could look at the dilemmas I faced without the desperation I had been feeling. My frenzy abated.

Dishwashing became my mantra.

I recall camping with the redhead who succeeded my wife. We were staying in an abandoned farmhouse in a hidden valley of the Blue Ridge. Looking out over the balustrade, we saw the cliff across the glade, the rocky stream that poured down the valley bottom, the second growth in the old farm fields, millions of black-eyed Susans swaying in the breeze. As the sun dropped behind the cliff, I took our supper dishes down to the stream and washed them, scouring them with sand from the creek bottom and rinsing them in the icy water. Billions of fireflies made Fourth of July for us. I left the cold dishes on a large rock to dry overnight.

I recall once seeing a twisting globe of blackbirds rise from the trees and stretch out like the Milky Way across the sky. Hundreds of thousands of birds roosting took flight and spanned the evening sky. I dipped the last pan into the darkened suds and scrubbed it.

When the student asked Zen master Chao-Chou for instruction, the sage answered, ”Wash your bowl.” All philosophies else try to figure out logical ultimates, leaving us, at the end, only a useless ash.

No matter if Plato be right, or Whitehead, or Sartre, the one action that we all share is ”washing our bowl.” No matter if everything Wittgenstein ever wrote is absolutely true, we must act as if he never wrote anything. We still must wash our bowls. If everything is explained, nothing is explained, and we are back on square one. Better to wash your bowl.

So, as I wiped the final grease from the stove top and wiped down the counters and cutting board, I replaced the salt and pepper in the middle of the table and wiped off the tabletop.

All that remained was to rinse the dishrag and dump the greasy suds down the drain, setting the washbasin out to dry. That completed, I dried my hands on a fresh towel and began on one of the day’s other tasks.

Once, long ago, when I visited a friend, Judy Crawford, no longer with us, at her mountain house up near the Plott Balsam mountains of North Carolina, I cooked her a giant meal of coq au vin and I made French bread. We had several friends over and feasted, making such a pile of greasy dishes that we all agreed to let the mess sit overnight. ”I can’t look at the kitchen tonight,” Crawford said.

I woke early the next morning and dressed and went downstairs to the kitchen. It was a little after 6, and the sun was hours from rising over the first peak. I filled the sink and started the dishes. Boonie, her cat, crawled around my ankle, looking up at me, squealing for milk. A few robins and a bluebird were scratching at the ground outside the kitchen window. It was quiet – calm and silent. I finished every last dish before Crawford woke up.

”Golly. You didn’t have to do that,” she said when she saw her shining kitchen. No, I didn’t have to, but I enjoyed it. I was at peace.

Most of what we do in our lives is frivolous – watching TV, fixing the car, reading books, waiting for the bus – but the washing of dishes is important: It is necessary. And it is something humans have been doing since before the days when Abraham lived in Ur. Washing dishes is part of being human.

The TV show, Seinfeld, was famously said to be “about nothing.” But that is not actually true, is it? It was about a group of self-absorbed mooks in New York City. But more than that, it was about humiliation. In every episode someone — usually George — is humiliated. Sometimes it is painful to watch.

But there really are programs about nothing, or at least, in which nothing happens. These shows are primarily British and they are a subset of English television that I find increasingly attractive.

As I have gotten old, I find my attention span increases, and I prefer to float along at 4 mph, soaking everything in, instead of racing through a frenetic plot in expectation of reaching a conclusion. Even British cop shows tend to move more slowly and proceed with less overt violence. (There may be a grisly murder, but usually we are spared the actual crime and the story opens on some unsuspecting person coming across a body. In medias res.)

But it isn’t just the police procedurals and detective shows. Many a British sitcom moves at the pace of the sun across a blue sky. More on them in a moment, but it isn’t only the comedies. There is a gentleness that pervades most British broadcasting. Just consider David Attenborough’s calm and reassuring voice.

Still, nothing could quite prepare me for Great Canal Journeys. Over eight series, actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales take us down canal after canal, from England to Venice to India. All at the aforesaid 4 mph.

Both in their 80s, they have been married for over 50 years, and for more than 40 years, they have been devoted canaliphiles, owning their own “narrow boat” and spending luxurious moments drifting down verdant waterways in a boat 8-feet wide and 60-feet long, raising a family and taking them along the way.

I doubt even the England’s Channel 4 expected the reaction to the series. Who would want to see an elderly couple navigate obscure waterways, drinking the occasional glass of chablis and discussing old plays they have been in? But the series is mystifyingly hypnotic.

A viewer commented, “Tim & Pru brilliant once again on Channel 4 — awesome adventures and dealing with real life issues.”

And another: ”Is there a more lovely and gentle programme on telly than Great Canal Journeys? Proving life never stops being an adventure.”

Can the suits at Channel 4 have ever expected the reaction to the series on first broadcast in 2014? Or that the series would continue through eight sequel series?

With each journey, you feel you have spent time with old friends you have gotten to know intimately.

That last is not an exaggeration. Because we learn in the very first episode that Scales is suffering from dementia. “A condition,” West calls it. “a slight condition.” While Scales can remember “a hundred-thousand lines of Shakespeare” and things that happened 60 years ago, she cannot always remember the morning. And what we see with astonishing tenderness is how West and Scales manage their relationship in the face of her increasing sense of being lost. We can often see it in her face.

Yet, there is nothing maudlin about the show. They two obviously love each other and their is a glint in their eyes that shows how much they enjoy each others’ company.

There is also a lot of gorgeous B-roll, featuring the green landscapes, the decayed relics of the Industrial Revolution that spawned the canals, and the cities they once made possible.

But it is West and Scales that make the show real. They speak in “real time” aboard the boat, but also in voice-over, commenting on what we just saw, and their different takes on it. So, there are three levels to every scene: the journey, the conversation on the journey, and the commentary afterwards. It gives the series texture.

This sense of enjoyment, spending time with people we come to know and feel almost as friends, is what animates several of the British shows I find myself watching.

The oldest and earliest of the “nothing happens” TV is a series called Last of the Summer Wine, which ran on the BBC for 37 years, from 1973 to 2010.

Over that stretch, the show hardly changed, and through all 295 episodes, very little happened. In every episode, three Yorkshire pensioners sit around and talk, walk through the countryside and talk, visit the cafe and talk.

They might plan a trip and we see them discuss how to manage it. They may gather supplies, but by the end, they haven’t traveled at all. Credits roll.

Last of the Summer Wine is a leisurely visit with people you enjoy spending time with. You don’t watch to see what will happen; you watch to visit friends. The cast changed over the years, with actors dropping out due to illness or death, and new pensioners added to keep the level up to three.

The half-hour series was funny, but gentle. The cast of subordinate characters eventually numbered in the scores, all of them idiosyncratic and memorable. After each episode, you felt refreshed by the quiet, if frustrated humanity of the Yorkshire village — and the sometimes impenetrable North Country accents.

A bit more conventional was the series, As Time Goes By, starring Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer, which ran on the BBC from 1992 to 2005. The premise is that in 1953, they fell in love, but were separated when he went off to the Korean War and did not see each other again for 38 years; they meet again and fall in love again, now older, with full lives — and backstories — behind them.

As Time Goes By

Again, lots of subordinate characters, all distinct and memorable, and the sense, with each episode, that you are spending time with friends you are eminently comfortable with.

Two more recent shows take this nothingness to extremes.

Michelle Terry

From 2011 to 2013, over a scant 13 episodes, The Cafe follows three generations of women who run a seaside cafe in the resort town of Weston-super-Mare on the southwest coast of England. Created by Michelle Terry and Ralf Little, and populated with a dozen or so regular characters, it follows the cafe-owner’s daughter, Sarah (Terry), who wants to leave the town and go to London to become a writer; she doesn’t pull it all together until the final episode; in the meantime, the worries and happenstances of the dozen characters play out in a complex web of relationships. Again, it is the calmness of the series, the lack of violent crises, and the three-dimensional cast that make you want to sit through the half-hour in which nothing happens. It is a kind of therapy, and all your pent-up angst drains away.

Most recently, beginning in 2015, Detectorists follows two sad-sacks in rural Essex County, just northeast of London, who spend all their leisure time with metal detectors, scouring the farm fields looking for “Saxon treasure,” but mostly finding beer-can pull tabs and buttons.

The series was created and written by Mackenzie Crook, who also stars as Andy Stone, one of the pair (with Toby Jones as Lance Stater). Stone is lean and wiry and through the first several episodes establishes himself as a true loser. He is living with a schoolteacher, Becky (Rachael Stirling), who is bright, energetic and — what the heck is she doing with this droopy hound dog?

One of the things that makes the series so compelling is that over the course of three series (the show ended in 2017), we discover that Andy has genuine substance. Beneath the fecklessness is a solid man, who earns a degree in archeology, marries Becky and raises a child.

Yet, in each episode, nothing really happens. Andy and Toby walk fields swinging their metal detectors back and forth and commenting on the weather, or asking about what happened on last night’s QI (another British TV series — and a quiz show in which panelists score points not for the right answers to questions, but the most interesting answers, answers that are “quite interesting.”)

This is so much different from standard American TV, with its roots in vaudeville, with its relentless set-up and punchline. “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer in your pants.” It is a rare sitcom that transcends the cliches of the genre, or the monotonous pace: set-up, punchline; set-up, punchline. Something has to pop every second in fear that the viewer might grab the clickerator and change channels.

But as you get older as a viewer, you don’t need the buzz so much as you need the connection.

In these British series, the viewer is drawn to empathize with the characters (or, with the canal journeys, the real people). They all become friends we enjoy spending our time with. At a pace for sipping and savoring, for taking it all in and processing it. At 4 mph.

My brother-in-law likes to listen to something he calls “ugly music.”

This is music with angles, asymmetries and dissonance. I first established my bona fides with him by recognizing a piece of music by its very first note, although it took at least a full second — maybe a second and a half — for the name to gather on my vocal chords and make the passage out past my teeth: “Bartok’s fifth quartet.” I think I shocked him.

Of course, I knew the piece well. For I, too, listen to and enjoy ugly music. And I own and read the score to the Bartok Fifth. Also to many other pieces of music that might be considered by fans of more consonant sounds as “ugly.”

But, I am a firm believer in the observation made by Tom Robbins in his novel, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, that “The ugly may be beautiful; the pretty, never.”

The “pretty” is conventional; it is bland. It requires no thought or consideration: It just lies there, accepted with lip service paid, but with little active engagement. It is a postcard sunset, a Montovani recording, a symmetrical-faced actress indistinguishable from other symmetrical-faced actresses.

But beauty is an active engagement. You have to actually look or hear. You have to notice. It takes effort on your part. Pretty soothes you into complaisance, beauty wakes you up.

There is a French concept, the jolie-laide, or beautiful ugly. It is most often applied to women whose features are not traditionally good looking, but in concert add up to striking beauty and attractiveness. Think of Cate Blanchett, with that slash of a mouth, squinty eyes and broad nose. Each odd by itself. Blanchett is no cornfed cheerleader. But together the features make up a stunning beauty.

The French have almost a corner on the jolie-laide. Consider Jeanne Moreau. Or Isabelle Huppert. Or Charlotte Gainsbourg. It was her father, Serge Gainsbourg (say “gaze-boor”) who wrote a song about the “Laide jolie laide.” He was no icon of handsomeness himself, although I think many found him irresistibly attractive.

But, I’m not talking simply about feminine pulchritude or masculine formonsutude, but about esthetic beauty, about art.

Consider one of the ugliest paintings ever made, and how unbearably beautiful it is. I’m talking of Matthias Grunewald’s crucifixion from the Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, France. The Christ is writhing in pain; his skin is brown and gray, covered in sores; his hands are twisted, his head hung low and grimacing, his ribcage pulled up from his sagging gut, stretching him out, racked; his feet twisted and distorted. Even the cross bows downward from the weight, not just of the body, but of the suffering.

Around him are the mourners, also pulled and distorted, all crying and gnashing their teeth. The landscape behind is dark and barren. There is not a single note of grace in the frame, not a single square centimeter of prettiness. Yet, the painting is unutterably moving. You can hardly bear looking at it, yet, seeing it makes you recognize your own humanity in a profoundly deeper way.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that only ugliness can be beautiful, but rather, making the case that it can be.

Like that ugly music. Brother-in-law listens to Schoenberg with pleasure. One of the first pieces that turned him on to classical music was Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge — surely one of the hardest pieces to listen to in all the repertoire, but also one of the most sublime.

And it’s not just classical music. He listens to jazz, also, with an ear for the more abstruse and difficult bop. Or free jazz. Let’s face it, Cecil Taylor is not a cocktail lounge pianist. Or Thelonius Monk. That is music proud of its own awkwardness, and uses it for expressive purpose.

One might compare Son House with Montovani. The one is pretty, the other is raw, ugly, powerful. House gets to the gut with the sharpness of a surgeon’s blade. Montovani, no matter how glossy and smooth, is a soporific.

Other ugly music: Tom Waits, grating in voice and peculiar in instrumentation, yet, more satisfying than, say, John Denver. I know, that’s not fair. Sorry. But you know what I mean.

I have a long history with ugly music of all kinds. Appalachia is weighted with ugly music that is beautiful. Consider those mountain Baptist family choirs, singing vibrato-less and consistently just a hair flat, making the most mournful keening. Or the scratchy mountain fiddling of Emmett Lundy. I treasure his few recordings.

Many years ago, I had an LP of field recordings of amateur Spanish brass bands playing for religious festivals, marching down village streets. Sour, scratchy, blaring, they were so intensely beautiful in their ugly way, I came to love them. Alas, the LP is long gone and I’ve never found a digital replacement.

When I was a teacher of photography, one assignment I gave my students was to make a bad photograph. I required that it not be a technical botch, but a bad photograph from conception in the viewfinder. What my students — or at least my good students — discovered, and I already knew, was that if you are paying attention to what you are doing, it is very, very difficult to make a bad photo, because the fact of your attention rules out anything not paid attention to — i.e., the ugly.

It is often said that beauty lies in the eyes (or ears) of the beholder, but I think this saying is basically misunderstood. It is taken to mean something like “To each his own,” or “de gustibus non desputandum est,” but I take it to mean quite differently, and more to the point, that beauty is found in the engagement of mind and senses with the object of perception. In other words, when you pay attention with the focus of someone defusing a bomb, you discover layers of depth and meaning — and therefore beauty — that you might not have suspected. And so, the stains on a concrete sidewalk, layered with fallen leaves and maybe a gum wrapper, will, when observed attentively and with the full engagement of your sensibility, may very well strike you as heartbreakingly beautiful.

This is not just something for pointy-headed esthetes. I have known a farmer who can squeeze a handful of spring soil in his hand and find its loamy odor beautiful enough to bring tears to his eyes. For most of us, it’s just dirt. But to someone who attends to it, it is the essence of existence.

It is the engagement that creates beauty, not the beauty that creates engagement.

And so, when you listen to the Schoenberg Piano Concerto with this sort of eager absorption, you discover a beauty in it that those listening passively, perhaps with the radio on while doing their taxes, can never enjoy, hearing instead only a jumble of disconnected noise. It is not disconnected; it is not noise. It is a carefully created esthetic whole and a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

When I was in high school in New Jersey, I spent as much time as I could in Manhattan, visiting galleries, museums, bookstores and concert halls. And I came to love the Museum of Modern Art. I’d get out of the elevator on the gallery floor and to my right would be Jackson Pollock, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Pavel Tchelitchew’s Hide and Seek (a painting that primarily appeals to an adolescent, which I was at the time), and beyond those, the the farthest gallery was Picasso’s Guernica, 25-feet wide and 11-feet high.

It is a painting of utter ugliness, not only in subject matter (the Nazi bombing of the Basque city of Guernica in 1937) but also in the angular, distorted and abstracted shapes that make up its design. If one has a shred of humanity, the painting cannot be seen without a welling up in your gorge. It is the prime example in the 20th century of a political painting that is actually an esthetic success. It is Picasso’s shay-doov, and the one piece of art, if we had to choose a single one to represent that century, would be the consensus choice.

It is also profoundly beautiful. While I am pleased that the painting has finally been returned to a democratic Spain, I mourn its absence from New York, from my life. I treasured its palpable presence and its emotional power.

The ugly may be beautiful, the pretty, never.

I’ve written before about why I am not a conservative (Link here), but now I want to point out that neither are Republicans.

What is conservatism? Through the centuries, it has been defined by two central guiding principles.

First, that tradition is the best guide for governance. The wisdom of centuries of ancestors has winnowed the true and lasting from the meretricious and ephemeral. We should not make ill-considered changes in the functioning of society, but only those absolutely necessary, and even those should never be done quickly, but only with judicious deliberateness.

Second, that a strong central government is necessary for the smooth running of society. A Hobbesian Leviathan to control the powers of crime, greed, violence and selfishness that are the core of basic human nature.

This sort of conservatism has been both a strength of such lasting governments as those of Great Britain, and a weakness, when entrenched interests use its tenets to prevent the furtherance of justice. In America, we have seen this most maliciously in the retrenchment against Civil Rights and the enforcement of segregation.

So, a faith in keeping things running smoothly as it has been running, and in a strong central government are what define conservatism. But this is almost 180 degrees from what those who now call themselves conservatives believe. In fact, they seek to promote the crime, greed, violence and selfishness that are the core of basic human nature. All checks removed. Yea!

For them, the central government is too strong, too invasive, and such segments of the Republican Party as the Tea Party, seek to blow up two centuries of established patterns of governance. What happened? Conservatives are meant to be wary of change.

These once-fringe elements of the Republican Party are much closer to Anarchists than to Conservatives. As Grover Norquist famously said about the Federal government, “I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

Once again: This is not conservatism. It is anarchism.

In recent decades, the Republican Party has been the conservative party, from Barry Goldwater, through Ronald Reagan and into the 1990s, but that has all changed. There is precious little conservatism in the party these days.

Of course, parties have changed over the years, over the centuries. When the Constitution was written, it was the fervent hope of all those participating that the government would be able to function without the pernicious effect of factions. That didn’t last long, as almost immediately, the Federalists began feuding with the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans.

But, while the parties were originally formed on ideological grounds, they soon became something else: competing teams of political power-seekers. They might as well have been football teams. They existed on patronage and party machinery. In the 19th Century, occasional third parties arose, based on political philosophy, but they either soon faded, or were absorbed into the system. Whigs, Free-Soilers, Know-Nothings.

The one that survived and prospered was the Republican Party, begun as an anti-slavery party, and, after the Civil War, the party of Reconstruction and then the party of Big Business. The logic of this evolution is not clear, except as the party was led by power-seekers who gravitated toward money.

But it was also the party fostering conservation in the natural world, and the party that undertook the breaking up of corporate monopolies. Nowadays, that is hard to credit.

Through most of the 20th Century, the contending Republican and Democratic parties were simply teams vying for power. There were liberal Republicans and quite a few conservative Democrats. Both parties contained a spectrum of inclinations. They were just teams competing for power.

But, since Goldwater, the parties began a process of ideological cleansing, with those calling themselves conservatives drifting ever more to the Republican Party. Some were motivated by genuine governing philosophies, but many were pulled toward the right by the rise of Civil Rights. There was a conscious strategy among some Republicans to appeal, mainly via dogwhistle weasel words, to abject racism.

The Republicans claimed to be conservative; they excoriated the Democrats for being “liberal,” as though that were a pejorative term.

But just how conservative are current Republicans? Not much.

It has been pointed out by many observers that the leaders of the Republican Party have made a devil’s bargain with these fringe groups to gain and keep power in Washington, but that now, the monster has begun to kill its own creator. As a smaller and smaller faction of radicals enforce their will on primary elections, otherwise sensible politicians have had to curry the favor of the nut-groups, leading to a wider and wider division between the two political parties, and into that divide has seeped an element so toxic, it could destroy the whole thing.

Donald Trump is not a conservative. He isn’t anything. There is no philosophy of government, no thoughtful consideration or principles. He says one thing one day and the opposite the next. Heck, he can even contradict himself within a single sentence — if you can acknowledge those utterances of word salad as sentences.

Trump is a creature unfit for the office, unfit even for human company. A “short-fingered vulgarian” and self-promoter, he makes me embarrassed to be an American. And not because of his politics — which are bad enough — but because he is such a poltroon. I needn’t enumerate his gaucheries, insults, lies, distortions, self-aggrandizements, arm-twisting handshakes, bilious lip-poutings, shuffling gait, knee-length neckties, blatant nepotisms and the creepy things he has said about his daughter — all these and more can be found by the thousands on the Google.

But, because the Tea Party has controlled the Republican Party, and because a minority of voters in a crowded primary managed to win Trump the nomination in 2016, the party finds itself having to defend and support the unsupportable and indefensible.

And now, no grown-ups have gotten what they wanted, or thought they wanted. Only the immature, thoughtless and xenophobic have got what they sought.

I have no doubt that many a Republican congressman and senator would be more centrist, if they did not face rabid primary challenges in their now gerrymandered districts.

Some Republicans no doubt would like to promote genuine conservative ideals, but they have been backed into a corner, and now face defending tariffs instead of free trade. They have to campaign against the very institution they are members of. And they have to excuse behavior from their party leader that they would have salivated over being able to use against any Democrat. Did Bill Clinton lie about Monica Lewinsky? A threat to our nation. Did Trump lie about Stormy Daniels? Well, he’s just being Trump. No big deal.

They are caught, not merely in a round of hypocrisy, but hypocrisy so blatant and toxic it may well end up disintegrating the Republican Party. And most of the country  — a majority of voters — will find it hard to lament the demise.

If you were to name the greatest composers in the Western musical tradition, three or four names would come up uncontested.

Yes, you might have your favorites beyond these, and good arguments can be made, but by consensus, you would have to name Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and …

Bach, because he is the source. He towers above everyone in his emotional power and technical brilliance. Different composers can fill the needs of various moods, but you can listen to Bach in any mood. He is universal.

Mozart, because no one ever had such fluency of expression or more immediate melody. Music seemed to grow from him like peaches from a tree.

Beethoven, because no one ever strove higher or struggled more painfully to find the exact note, the exact emotion, the exact nexus of human and transcendent.

And …

You might nominate Richard Wagner, or Franz Schubert. Johannes Brahms or Claude-Achille Debussy. Stravinsky or Schoenberg. All good choices, in their way, but the name that comes up more than any other as worthy of the company of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven is Franz Joseph Haydn, yet he is so often overlooked. His name does not spring up with the alacrity of the Big Three, but is almost always mentioned: And yes, there is Haydn.

Why is he given such short shrift? He is one of the Big Four. He practically invented the symphony and the string quartet; at least gave them the form we have encountered them ever since. And the wealth of his invention is mind boggling. He wrote 104 symphonies (depending on how you count), with almost as many minuets and yet, not one of those minuets  could be mistaken for any other. How can you create that many third movements and yet make each one emotionally, melodically and rhythmically distinct? And memorable.

His music has never left the repertoire, but is so often played as a warm-up piece to start a quartet recital, or tucked into a symphony program before the Big Piece after the intermission. We pay him lip service, but seldom really listen. Mostly, he is a pleasant bit of music before we have to wake up for the Mahler or Sibelius that will follow.

I believe the reason is that for many of the more popular composers, you don’t actually have to listen: You can let the music wash over you in emotional colors and flavors. You just float downstream with the tunes. (I don’t mean that if you do actively listen, you won’t find a logical argument, but that for most concertgoers, the musical argument is beside the point; Tchaikovsky swells your heart whether you recognize a sonata form or a polonaise).

But Haydn is music meant to be listened to actively, because what he does in his work is to give you a pattern of notes, and then take you on a journey of wit, through the permutations afforded by that pattern of notes. Your ability to follow all the clever things he does is the key to your understanding — and your pleasure. Yes, there are some good tunes, but they are the grist for his art, not the point of it.

Certainly, all good composers do this, but none to quite the degree you find with Haydn, or to quite the point. Through most of his career, he wasn’t writing for the common public, but for a sophisticated audience, who could follow his clever construction and deconstruction of the sonata form, or the variation form. In other words, they listened actively. I.e., they got the joke.

Nikolaus I

His boss through most of his time at the Esterhazy estate was Prince Nikolaus, an avid music lover and himself a performer on the baryton — a now obsolete instrument, a sort of combination cello and guitar. Haydn wrote 126 trios for his employer to play on that instrument.

Because the prince was musically knowledgable, his court followed suit, and it meant that Haydn could inject his music with many a musical in-joke his audience would enjoy. I use the word, “joke,” but that doesn’t mean they are meant to be overtly funny. No, the “joke” was some catch or punchline the audience was meant to pick up on, like an odd key change, or the turning upside-down of a them. Some of them are funny, but the point is the wit — the cleverness.

Wit is a word that meant something different, larger and more important in the 18th century than it does now. We tend to use the word as synonymous with “comedy.” We expect to laugh at wit. A witty saying, a witty remark.

But in the century of Haydn (and before, to some extent), wit was an entire class of thinking. It meant, as Sam Johnson expressed it, “a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.” Or in his other formulation: “The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.”

An easy example: his Symphony No. 60 in C, called “Il Distratto,” or the absent minded, or distracted. The first movement is a pile of jokes, from the very first notes: a pompous introductory fanfare that goes absolutely nowhere, followed by a spritely tune. In Haydn’s style, a first theme is usually followed by a second theme in a contrasting key and mood. But here, the second theme also goes nowhere; it consists of just one note and its ornaments, over and over, losing speed and energy until, as if the orchestra has forgotten where it is and what it is doing, suddenly wakes up and charges ahead with renewed energy. (Link here).

The conductor Kenneth Woods describes it as funny and modern. “Possibly the funniest and most modern symphony ever written”, going on to say that “Haydn uses most of the 20th-century ‘isms’ in this piece—surrealism, absurdism, modernism, poly-stylism, and hops effortlessly between tightly integrated symphonic argument and rapid-fire cinematic jump-cutting. This is Haydn at his absolute boldest—he undermines every expectation, and re-examines every possible assumption about music.”

And at the very end, the orchestra stops, mid-phrase, and retunes the violins, before getting back to business. Yes, that is musical slapstick, but no one did it any better before PDQ Bach.

Or the finale of his Symphony No. 61, a sprightly prestissimo punctuated throughout by comic oboes playing the same two notes over and over again. Never changing; over and over. Da-dah. (Link here). Da-dah. (Click on the timing listed in the dooblydoo for the last movement).

Or the opening of final movement his quartet, Op. 76, no. 5, which places the kind of cadential chords used to punctuate the end of a movement instead at the very beginning. (Link here). And, of course, the movement ends with the same final chords.

Fugue theme, Symphony No. 70

My favorite is the finale of Symphony No. 70, which begins with a joke: Five repeated notes, quietly played, repeated several times, lulling you into a reverie, then, the same five notes blasted at full volume, waking you up. It does this again, and you figure, this is going to be one of Haydn’s great jests, then, just when you think you have it figured out, a great, furious and very serious fugue breaks out, occupying the center of the movement. Finally, back to the five-note joke, ending with a forte crash of those notes. Light-hearted, or deadly serious — you can’t tell. (Link here). That is yoking heterogeneous ideas together by violence.

But it all depends on an audience with some knowledgable expectation of what is likely to happen, so when it doesn’t, it comes as a delightful surprise. If you don’t have this background, it just becomes pleasant tunes.

The string quartets came with a knowledgable audience built in. They were not meant so much to be heard by an audience, as played by amateur musicians at home, and so the pleasure in them is as much in the playing as in the hearing. And the wit is there for the musicians to enjoy.

When Prince Nikolaus died, Haydn was freed to travel and make his reputation outside the estate. His music became more public, and instead of his symphonies being made up of cleverness piled on cleverness for the delectation of connoisseurs, he made them bigger, louder and gave each one at least one great joke for the middle-class audiences to remember, like the most memorable scene from a movie they could talk about over coffee after it was over. So, there is the tympani bang in the “Surprise” symphony, the Turkish military band in Symphony No. 100, the tick-tock in his “Clock” symphony and the righteous, bumptious fart joke made by the contrabassoon in the slow movement of his Symphony No. 93.

This is not to imply that Haydn was all punchlines and gags. There is great depth of emotion in many of his works. Take for one, the Seven Last Words of Christ, a liturgical piece, originally for orchestra and later turned into a piece for string quartet (the version most often heard today). It is eight great adagios, one after the other, meant to evoke an introduction and the last seven utterances of Jesus on the cross (Link here). It is Haydn’s genius to be able to write them so distinctly that you never have the feeling of one long slow piece, but rather seven great, separate meditations.

Or, the Piano Variations in F-minor, written over the death of his closest female friend, Maria Anna von Genzinger, one of his most sober compositions.

Sometimes Haydn’s wit is funny. Sometimes, it is profound. It is always surprising. It is meant to surprise.

And Haydn’s wit can be found in some of his most serious works. The opening of his oratorio, The Creation, depicts primordial chaos in a disjunctive series of phrases and fragments in disparate tonalities (Link here). And when, after that, the choir sings, very quietly, “And God said, let there be light, and there was …” all heavens break out in trumpets and kettle drums  in a great C-major chord” “LIGHT!!!!” (Link here). It is a simple, even naive effect, but in live performance can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Wit can also render the sublime.

Of all the great composers, Haydn seems the most sane and even-tempered. Bach could bluster to city officials and get into fights. Mozart could squander his money. Beethoven had his heaven-storming bouts of choler. But Haydn found decent happiness on this earth and expressed in his music a satisfying sense of order and sanguinity, if occasionally a touch of mischief. His is the happiest music I know that is not also simple-minded.

I spend this much time on Haydn, because I love him. As I get older, I find that Haydn’s music has a staying power that sustains me. I can confidently turn to any piece and find deep and abiding pleasure.