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.
Recently on Turner Classics, I caught the 1968 Clint Eastwood film, Hang ’Em High. And in the opening scene where a posse of miscreants attempt to lynch Clint, there were a passel of familiar character actors, including Ed Begley, Bruce Dern, Alan Hale Jr., Ned Romero and Bert Freed. And the oldest of them — the only one to hesitate about hanging a man — was a face that burned familiar and at first, I couldn’t place. Then it hit me, this grizzled old rancher was Bob Steele. The movie suddenly interested me more and I stayed to watch it through.
When I was a wee bairn, in the early 1950s, TV was rife with old Westerns. Television was new and stations were starving for content. Libraries of old movies were packaged and sent to local outlets and afternoon programming included piles of old Westerns, mainly from the Golden Age of the 1930s. As a five-year old, maybe seven, I clearly had my favorite cowboy stars. Hoot Gibson, Tim McCoy, Ken Maynard, Buck Jones. And Bob Steele. All of them stars before the advent of Gene Autry or Roy Rogers.
They each had their shtick. Hoot Gibson tended not to carry a gun; McCoy brought a historic sense of the real West. Maynard was a trick rider. And Steele was the king of the fistfight.
I must have watched hundreds of these Westerns. Later, when half-hour Western series took over the evening, I watched Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid. But it was the movies that really spoke to me.
It wasn’t just that they were cowboy movies — although that was their primary attraction (I had a cowboy hat, a cap pistol, and when I was four years old, an imaginary horse I rode around the living room, which I named Whitey.) It was also my introduction to movies. I am not going to claim any great sophistication in my appreciation. I wasn’t particularly paying attention to the editing or lighting, but I did notice the music and I did notice, even at that tender age, that there were scenes that must have been shot silent, with no dialog and with Foley sound added later, like the coconut clop of horse hooves. The sound and visuals didn’t quite match up, making it clear they were done separately. And I was aware of the various wipes and dissolves. They loved their wipes. In that sense, I had some early appreciation that these were artifacts, creations of a filmmaker.
As an adult, when I occasionally watch an old Western, I am kind of embarrassed that I loved them so much as a boy. On the whole, they were clunky, cheaply made, and ridiculously repetitive. The same plots over and over, this time with Tex Ritter, that time with Bob Livingston, another with Johnny Mack Brown. Every banker and lawyer wore a string bow tie — that’s how we knew who the villain was.
And every one of them had a gang of brutes led by Harry Woods, Charlie King or Roy Barcroft. The string bow ties tried to cut off water to the ranchers, or tried to cheat them out of their land, or schemed to steal the deeds to the gold mine. And they all seemed to end with a mass shootout in the distinctive rock formations of the Alabama Hills of California.
These programmer Westerns went through a clear evolution. Later in life, I began to look at them more closely and saw that change over time. Beginning with the silents, there was Broncho Billy — really Maxwell Aronson, born to an immigrant Jewish family, who became the first cowboy star. He made hundreds of films, mostly one-reelers, all before 1920 and included titles such as Broncho Billy and the Indian Maid (1912), and Broncho Billy and the Land Grabber (1915). There was no attempt at realism. They were pure fantasy.
That changed with William S. Hart, a one-time Shakespearean actor who took his duty to the West seriously in a series of popular melodramas. In almost every one, Hart was a tough hombre redeemed by the love of a good woman. Some of the films stand up, and I’ve watched Hell’s Hinges (1916) only recently and astounded at some of the visuals. Or Tumbleweeds (1925), with the great Oklahoma Land Rush sequence that is still a benchmark in such things.
The other side of the movie Western world was Tom Mix, the fancy-dress cowboy, with crescent-pocket shirts, embroidered boots and Tony, the Wonder Horse. His 1925 Riders of the Purple Sage is one of his less show-bizzy films, based on the Zane Grey novel. I’ve seen it several times.
The two strands of Western continued through the genre’s history. Even recently, you can sense the ghost of Tom Mix in something like Will Smith’s Wild Wild West (1999) and the stern rectitude of Hart in Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992). (Or both together in the Coen Brothers anthology film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, with the Mix clone Buster Scruggs in the opening episode, and the heartbreaking Hart-like realism of the penultimate episode, “The Gal Who Got Rattled.”)
The early sound era was, for me, the high water mark for the Western. By the 1940s, the B-Western had worn itself out and by the 1950s, with godawful series like Whip Wilson, they were just embarrassing.
There were, I posit, three types of Western actor. There were those who could actually act (the rarest of the breeds); those who had genuine screen presence even if they were no Oliviers; and finally, the wanna-bes who just went through the motions as if carved from balsa wood.
In the first group were William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy), Harry Carey, Johnny Mack Brown and Bill Elliott. They all had both acting chops and screen magic. In his earliest films John Wayne had all the magic needed, but only later did it ever occur to anyone that he might actually be able to act. When John Ford saw him in Red River, from 1948 (the year I was born), he was impressed and famously said, “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!” He could, although he didn’t always need to.
Others, such as Tex Ritter or Gene Autry had the gleam on the screen, but no one would accuse them of being able to recite dialog and sound like an actual human being at the same time. And at the bottom of the list comes Sunset Carson, possibly the worst actor ever to mount a horse.
There were tons of these guys that I used to love, before I ever developed the critical faculty to judge their thespian talents. Among my favorite Saturday afternoon movies were the Three Mesquiteers films, with shifting casts that included, at different times, John Wayne, Crash Corrigan, Bob Steele, Max Terhune, Bob Livingston, and even, briefly, Duncan Rinaldo. Buster Crabbe left behind Flash Gordon and made a series of pretty good Westerns. But when the name Bob Steele came up in the opening credits, that was the best. Remember, I’m talking about being seven years old here.
Steele had a long career. His first film, as a juvenile, was in 1920. His cowboy heyday came in the ’30s, but he kept working in Hollywood even after hanging up his spurs. Famously as Canino in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946). He kept working until 1974, appearing in such films as Rio Bravo, The Longest Day, and even a comic role as Trooper Duffy in F Troop (1965-67).
And so, I’m watching Hang ’Em High and I recognize, hidden in the crowd, that face, now leathery and wrinkled, with a stubbly beard, a flash of 60 years condensed. How could I have recognized it so unconsciously? It’s not as though I had thought of Bob Steele more recently than decades ago. But it tickled something in my memory and I twitched. “That’s Bob Steele.”
In 1968, Steele was more than 10 years younger than I am now, and yet, he looked so old. What does that make me?
The year I was born was the year Vittorio de Sica released Bicycle Thieves. I am not claiming to have seen it when it first came out, but when I search Wikipedia for all the movies that were made in 1948, Bicycle Thieves was the one that, when I did finally see it, moved me the most and stays with me the most permanently.
My birth year was a decent year for cinema. Olivier’s Hamlet won the best picture Oscar; John Huston won best director for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; he also made Key Largo, which I will watch every time I come across it channel surfing, even if I see only the final 15 minutes: It is like a favorite tune you love hearing again.
Others from 1948: Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair; Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero; Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story; Orson Welles’ Macbeth; Howard Hawks’ Red River; Hitchcock’s Rope; Visconti’s Terra Trema; and the last great screwball comedy, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, with Myrna Loy and Cary Grant. And, I’m embarrassed to admit, one of the stalwarts of my childhood of TV watching: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
My 73rd birthday is looming and I began to think — among many more important things — about all the movies I have seen in those seven decades. When I was a kid, I saw piles of them on TV, including those that aired 15 times a week on Million Dollar Movie, where I was first introduced to those English “kitchen sink” movies of the 1950s: Look Back in Anger; The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner; Room at the Top. There were a surprising number of British films on New York’s Channel 9. They certainly gave me a formative impression of the United Kingdom that later cleansed the palate after the Masterpiece Theatre syrup.
And so, I thought to list the best movies for each of the years I’ve been alive. “Best” is the wrong term, of course: I couldn’t have seen all the movies made. But these are the movies I saw that I loved the most. Taken year-by-year, they make an uneven list: Some years were bumper crops and some were slender picking, but year after year, these were my picks.
When I was 1 year old, Orson Welles dominated Carol Reed’s The Third Man. When I was 2, Jean Cocteau made Orphée, which remains on my Top Ten list (although, I must remind you, my Top Ten list has about 40 films on it.)
1948 Bicycle Thieves
1949 The Third Man
The next decade begins with Jean Renor’s The River, although I should admit it is a late addition to my list. The first several times I saw it, it was in a miserable print with scratches, washed-out colors and blown-out contrast. I passed it off as one of Renoir’s lesser efforts. I was very wrong. Since then, Criterion (god bless’em) has sent out a gorgeous print and it would be hard to find a more gloriously beautiful film visually.
I saw Kurosawa’s Ikiru for the first time in a porno theater. I was recently graduated from college and a local film society could afford to rent out the theater for their film series. The posters in the lobby challenged the imagination.
For 1954, I couldn’t decide between The Seven Samurai and Godzilla. When I was little and Million Dollar Movie ran the Americanized version of Godzilla with Raymond Burr, I thought it my favorite cheesy monster movie. Now that I am grown up and have seen the unmutilated version, Gojira, I recognize it as one of the most heartbreaking films ever made, up there with Bicycle Thieves and Mouchette, and is really an art film about the bombing of Hiroshima. It also has one of the greatest film scores, by Akira Ifukube, that expresses the grief.
The decade ends with La Dolce Vita, which may top my Top Ten list. Every time I watch it, it seems deeper and more profound.
1951 The River
1953 The Earrings of Madame …
1954 GodzillaandSeven Samurai
1955 Pather Panchali
1956 The Searchers
1957 Wild Strawberries
1958 Hidden Fortress
1959 400 Blows
1960 La Dolce Vita
Up until 1968, all the films on this list were seen in retrospect, on television or on DVD. I was not a big moviegoer in my youth. There was no theater in my town. But after taking a film course in college, I got hooked and from Kubrick’s 2001,saw all the films when they came out.
1962 Jules and Jim
1963 The Silence
1964 Dr. Strangelove
1965 Red Beard
1966 The Battle of Algiers
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey
1969 The Passion of Anna
1970 The Wild Child
Choosing one from many is fruitless. It’s just a game. Take 1975: My favorite from that year is Ingmar Bergman’s version of Mozart’s Magic Flute. But it was a toss-up between that and Antonioni’s The Passenger, which I saw again recently and was even better than I remembered it.
But how can you choose when in the same year, you could have picked: Jaws; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Shampoo; Dog Day Afternoon; Nashville; Monty Python and the Holy Grail; Love and Death; Kurosawa’s Derzu Uzala; Picnic at Hanging Rock; Hester Street; Barry Lyndon; The Man Who Would Be King; The Story of Adele H.; Grey Gardens; The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum; and Arthur Penn’s Night Moves.
Lina Wertmuller gave us both Seven Beauties and Swept Away; Ken Russell released two over-the-top biopics on Mahler and Franz Liszt (Lisztomania) — to say nothing of Tommy. Pier Paolo Pasolini dared you to watch Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. And there was The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
And 1975 was not exceptional. I could make a similar list for most of these years.
1972 The Godfather
1975 The Magic Flute
1976 Taxi Driver
1977 Annie Hall
1978 Pretty Baby
1979 Apocalypse Now
1980 Return of the Secaucus Seven
The 1980s was the decade it all went to hell. The top-grossing films of the decade were E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial; Return of the Jedi; The Empire Strikes Back; Batman; Raiders of the Lost Ark; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. (also: Ghostbusters; Beverly Hills Cop; and Back to the Future, all among the top 10). Hollywood knew where the future was and it wasn’t back (“I am small; it’s the pictures that got big”).
Yet, there are always great movies made. My best of the decade is Kieslowski’s Dekalog, ten short films based on the Ten Commandments — sort of. They were made for Polish TV, and the director made longer cuts of two of the segments, and for 1988, I have chosen A Short Film About Killing, one of the most brutal and truthful films I have ever seen.
1981 My Dinner with Andre
1982 Fanny and Alexander
1984 This is Spinal Tap
1986 True Stories
1987 Wings of Desire and Full Metal Jacket
1988 A Short Film About Killing
1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors
By the ’90s, I was working as a journalist and often functioned as back-up movie critic, and so got to see a lot of films, including a fair share of really bad ones, and so, perhaps, it made me a little more tolerant of those that were good but perhaps not classics to make the AFI list. Still, my list includes some of my all-time favorites.
Krzystof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy — and especially its conclusion, Red, are among the most moving I’ve ever seen, deeply humane. And it changed my thinking about coincidence both in fiction and in life.
It was the decade I finally discovered Pedro Almodovar. I now own all of his films on DVD and share them with whoever is willing to sit still long enough. He is, with Kieslowski and Jean Renoir, among the most humane of filmmakers.
1991 La Belle Noiseuse
1992 Reservoir Dogs
1993 Three Colors: Blue
1994 Three Colors: Red and Pulp Fiction
1995 Before Sunrise
1996 Sling Blade
1997 The Apostle
1998 The Thin Red Line
1999 All About My Mother
2000 O Brother, Where Art Thou
In 2017, some misguided Broadway producers attempted to make a stage musical from Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, a film so cinematic it lives in a world of its own. The musical closed shortly after it opened. How could it have been otherwise? The movie has elicited a good deal of hate from those who could only see an impossibly sweet smile and goofy haircut. There’s a lot more going on in it. It was my favorite film from 2001. I loved the color manipulation, the inventive camera movement and the quirky editing. It is a film you can simply sit back and have fun with. How is that any different from Tarantino, other than the violence?
2002 Russian Ark
2004 The Merchant of Venice
2005 The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
2006 Children of Men
2007 The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
2008 Man on Wire
2009 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Swedish version)
2010 Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1
After retirement in 2012, I saw fewer and fewer films, at least in theaters. But I still ventured out for a few selected movies. In 2016, my wife became increasingly ill and I spent most of my time looking after her needs. There are no films for the whole year I can list. It is, until 2020, the only year left blank. After she died, I had little will to leave the house. But I have seen a few films since that I felt were notable. Now, most of the movies I watch are either streaming or from my DVD collection, which, at its peak, included about 200 French films, and all of Almodovar and nearly every drop of Werner Herzog.
And I thank providence for Turner Classics and the Criterion Collection.
2011 Tree of Life
2013 Blue Jasmine
2015 The Hateful Eight
2017 The Death of Stalin
2018 The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
2019 Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
This is my list. If I made it again, I’m sure I would list different films. I’m sure if you made your list, it would be completely different. Again, it’s just a game, an exercise. It doesn’t mean anything.
Today we enter a year that is a calendric anomaly: Every 101 years, for the past 12 centuries, the year is written in consecutive numbers. This year is 2021; the last time this happened was 1920.
This stuff is for geeks only. There is absolutely no significance to this peculiarity. But we are a species hardwired to find significance where there is none. I am fairly certain that 13 months from now, there will be predictions for the end of the world on Feb. 22. Why? Because it will be written in the shorthand as 2/22/22. That hasn’t happened since Jan. 11, 1911.
So, we may ask, will anything significant occur in 2021, other than the misdating of checks for a month or two? In 1920, there were several significant events. Prohibition began in the U.S. In Germany the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or German Worker’s Party, changed its name to Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or National Socialist German Worker’s Party, a rather long and clumsy name soon shortened to Nazi. More meaningful to us now, perhaps: The Spanish Flu Pandemic, which killed up to 50 million people, officially ended.
Also of significance, upside and downside: The 19th Amendment gives women the right to vote; and hydrocodone is first synthesized. Of no significance at all: the East Bengal Football Club was established in Kolkata, India.
Going back a century and a year, in 1819, Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia; Alabama admitted as the 22nd U.S. state; and Princess Alexandrina Victoria was born. In 1837, she becomes Queen Victoria and gives her name to the rest of the century. A less significant event, but perhaps related to Queen Victoria: In 1819, the erotic and explicit wall paintings discovered in Pompeii were barred from view to the public.
Another lurch backward and A.D. 1718 was the year of Blackbeard the pirate, who in May attempted to blockade the harbor at Charleston, S.C. and who was killed in November at Ocracoke, N.C. by the Royal Navy, when he is hit by five musket balls and sliced with 20 sword wounds.
The abbreviation A.D., or Anno Domini, is traditionally printed ahead of the date, as opposed to B.C., or “before Christ,” which comes after the date, although this nicety is often abused in practice. And now, it is replaced with C.E. and B.C.E. (Common Era and Before Common Era) which, while less Christian-centric, sound rather more bureaucratic. Perhaps the formality of “A.D.” could be reduced if we used a more modern translation from the Latin and rendered it not as “Year of Our Lord,” but instead as “Year of the Boss.” Tradition lends sanctity to the old Jacobean translations with their “thee” and “thou.” For instance, what sounds important and holy as the Ark of the Covenant sounds reverential if we call it simply “the box with the contract in it.”
Anyway, this game of sequential numbers really only begins with A.D. 910. Before that, zeros get in the way: 809 doesn’t quite work. We could print it as 0809, but no one does. So, the anomaly starts with 910, the year Alfred the Great’s son, King Edward defeated the raiding vikings at the Battle of Tettenhall in the West Midlands of England. But do they teach that in New Jersey grade schools? No.
The year 1011, or MXI in the Julian Calendar, Danish King Thorkell the Tall and his army laid siege to the city of Canterbury, taking hostage the archbishop, Ælfheah; Godwine, Bishop of Rochester; and Leofrun, Abbess of St. Mildrith’s. The archbishop was then murdered by being “pelted with the bones of cattle” and then struck with “the butt of an ax.” In other worlds, “Going Medieval” on him.
In 1112, Otto the Rich is appointed Duke of Saxony by Emperor Henry V. Also Garcia the Restorer of Navarre and Henry the Blind of Luxembourg are born and Vasil the Robber of Armenia dies. In other news, Duke Boleslaw III of Poland has his half-brother Zbigniew blinded and thrown into a dungeon, so, we’re still in the Middle Ages.
Pope Innocent III called for the Fifth Crusade in 1213. Not so innocent, he had also caused the Fourth Crusade, which razed Constantinople and killed thousands and included the rape of nuns by the crusader army. If that weren’t enough, Innocent also instituted the Albigensian Crusade, in which papal forces massacred about 20,000 men, women and children, heretical Cathar and orthodox Catholic alike (his general said, “Kill them all and let God sort them out.”)
Which brings us to 1314, when Jacques de Molay, 23rd Grand Master of the Knights of Templar is burned at the stake in Paris. The phrase “nasty, brutish and short” comes to mind for all these centuries. Also, Robert the Bruce defeats Edward II of England at the Battle of Bannockburn.
A theme is developing. In 1415, the Council of Constance tries Jan Hus for heresy and then sentences him to be burned at the stake. And, at the Battle of Agincourt Henry V of England defeats the larger French forces on St. Crispin’s Day. St. Crispin is patron saint of cobblers, curriers, tanners and leather workers and was beheaded in the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian.
In 1516, Thomas More published Utopia, a book describing the perfect society, probably because the real world wasn’t. It was a busy year: In addition, the first national postal service was created by Henry VIII in England, the world’s first ghetto was created in Venice, and — little known or celebrated — Christopher Columbus had a cousin, Rafael Perestrello, who actually did sail to China and trade with merchants at Guangzhou.
In 1617, Johannes Kepler begins publishing his theory of elliptical planetary orbits; and John Napier invents Napier’s Bones, the first multiplying computer; and Henry Briggs publishes his book describing logarithms. Science is beginning to win over superstition, except that in Sweden at least seven women are burned to death as witches at the Finspang Witch Trial.
Which takes us by a commodius vicus of recirculation, back to 1718 and the settlement of New Orleans in New France and the introduction of the white potato to New England. Everything seemed new, including the potatoes.
And the Panic of 1819, the first major peacetime financial crisis in the U.S., which some historians call the “First Great Depression.”
And 1920 and the first great Red Scare, when a terrorist exploded a bomb on Wall Street (very like Nashville), and the Palmer Raids arrested more than 4,000 suspected communists and anarchists and held them without trial (as at Guantanamo) and the New York State Assembly refused to seat five duly elected Socialist assemblymen. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were arrested. Also: The oldest existing movie footage of a professional wrestling match. America becomes America.
And now, 20 and 21. Already momentous: The UK leaves the EU as ethnic nationalism once again begins to show its ugly face around the globe. And the Covid pandemic has caused us to replay much of 2020: the 2020 Summer Olympics are planned for this year, and also the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest. The U.N. has declared 2021 as the International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development — and they say the U.N. is too bureaucratic. It is also the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables.
Also expected in XXMMI is Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Fla. And in the U.S. the largest brood of 17-year locusts, called Brood X, will emerge for the first time since 2004. Something to look forward to.
I graduated from Northern Valley Regional High School at Old Tappan, or NVRHS at OT, which always reminds me of Professor Peter Schickele’s USND at H — University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. (I’ve been to Hoople. There is no university there. There are cows. But then, there was no valley I ever noticed in Old Tappan.)
In northern New Jersey, our school’s football team played our arch-rival, Hawthorne, and before the big game each year, there would be a pep rally, in which we were inculcated with “school spirit,” and induced to yell, “We’re Number One!” over and over, despite the fact that every fall, Hawthorne trounced us badly. Their players always seemed twice the size of ours and looked more like a farm team for the Chicago Bears.
Yet, we were “the best high school in New Jersey,” a claim that was patently untrue. (We were a perfectly good school; I’m not complaining. But the other schools were also fine.) All over the country (probably the world) schools are making the claim that they are the best and we should all feel proud of our, what? Accomplishments? We were pimply faced kids, let’s face it. I never did understand the school spirit thing.
Why should we claim that our group is better than your group. And this goes for nations, religions and ethnicities as well. I never understood nationalism, the metastasized big brother of school spirit. What evidence do you have that America is the greatest nation in the world? “America is Number One!” Number One in what? School shootings?
My point isn’t that the United States is the root of all misery in the world. My country has done many praiseworthy things in the past 250 years. But so have other countries. I have seen no evidence that we are any better or worse — that Americans are any different at all — from other peoples. Yes, there are cultural differences. Germans, Chinese, French, Paruvians all have national cultural tendencies. But under it all, we have the same genetic construction.
Despite that, nations war, and worse, ethnic groups choose to idealize themselves and demonize their neighbors. And just to make it all just that much sillier, usually these contending ethnicities are almost identical. Ukrainians battle with ethnic Russians. Armenians with Azerbaijanis. Israelis with Palestinians. Croats and Serbs. If one writes the language in Roman letters and the other in Cyrillic, they can claim their languages are totally different, even if they can talk to each other over the phone with no problem.
When I say we are genetically the same, I suppose that also entails the atavistic gene that makes us tribal. This may have been helpful when humans traveled across the landscape in extended family groups and needed to protect themselves from other groups also seeking the limited resources. But now that we have nuclear bombs, this tendency threatens to be fatal. For the whole species.
You can’t really have an “America first” without also having a “screw you” attitude to the rest of the planet. And if we do that, where will we get our bananas and computer chips?
If we wish to think that the United States is better than everywhere else in the world, then why are Danes happier than we are? Why are Cubans healthier? Why are the Swiss better educated? In the most recent rankings, the U.S. is listed as 22 out of 178 countries in economic freedom. Educationally, we rank number 40 in math education, 25 in science and 24 in reading. We are 46th in maternal mortality and 42nd in life expectancy. In standard of living, we are only 13th. In political corruption we ranked 23 out of 198 countries, and that was before the Trump administration. We are only 45th in press freedom. And 21st out of 128 for the rule of law.
Another place we are not No. 1: Many Americans think we pay more in taxes than anyone else, but actually we pay less than any other developed nation, except Mexico — and that counts Mexico as a developed nation.
Oh, we have a few titles: We are Number One in child deaths by firearm. And we have the biggest military budget, spending more than the next 10 countries combined.
Other firsts: The U.S. incarceration rate is 716 per 100,000 population, which is the world’s highest. Even 36 of our states have higher incarceration rates than any country in the world. We’re No. 1 in gun ownership both overall and per capita. We watch more TV than any other nation.
And yes, we are No. 1 in corona virus infections.
Further, more Americans think the U.S. is the greatest country in the world than citizens of any other nation. We’re even No. 1 in smug self-satisfaction.
This is all not an attempt to denigrate my home country. After all, we’re a long way from the bottom of most of these lists. But it is to counsel modesty. It is to say we’re not exceptional; we have good points and bad points. Yes, we had slavery and we had a national plan of ethnic cleansing toward Native Americans, but we also had the Marshall Plan, and a long history of accepting immigrants and refugees (this last has always been in danger from the “America Firsters.” Trumpism is not all that new; we had “Know-Nothings” in the 19th Century.)
As has been pointed out, those who believe America is the best country in the world probably haven’t been anywhere else.
And my main point isn’t to make the case for or against the U.S., but rather to decry the universal tendency for human beings to think what they have, what they do, and what they believe, is better than anyone else has, does or believes, and further, is willing to kill them over it.
We have had what has been called the longest stretch of world peace in the earth’s history, from the end of World War II until now. But that is true only if you don’t count the myriad regional conflicts and minor wars that have been constant. Wikipedia lists more than 75 armed conflicts since 1945 (counting them is a bit inexact — which are separate and which are just phases of continuing conflict). And even this moment, there are wars in some 20 countries, the major ones in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Turkey, Somalia, and Libya, and all through central and northern Africa.
We are Israelis and Palestinians; Sunnis and Shias; Ukrainians and Russians; Azerbaijanis and Armenians; Armenians and Turks; Muslim Kashmiris and Hindu Kashmiris; Tamil and Sinhalese; Tutsis and Hutus; Burmese and Rohingya; Hatfields and McCoys; Republicans and Democrats. Us and Them.
I get it: We are more comfortable around people with the same values and habits. And we may be put off by the folkways of others. We don’t eat a lot of snails in the U.S. But is that a reason to condemn those who enjoy a bit of the old escargot? We worship different gods (or the same by a different name), but that shouldn’t be an excuse for killing them. One religion crosses themselves with three fingers, another with two. Get the scimitar! (My favorite was the Albigensian Crusade, where the besieging general was asked how to tell the heretics from the believers, said, “Kill them all and let God sort them out.”)
I am put in mind of the plea of Oliver Cromwell to the Church of Scotland (“England’s Canada”), “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”
A little humility goes a long way to helping us recognize our commonality. Our essential humanness. But humility is in short supply.
“Knowing this and that better cannot be had, know then why old men should be mad.” Or as my late wife used to say — frequently — “We are all just dumb monkeys.”
In the summer of 1853, painter John Everett Millais and writer John Ruskin traveled to Brig o’Turk, a tiny village in the Scottish Highlands, with their friend Sir Henry Acland and Ruskin’s wife, Effie. The purpose was for Millais to make a portrait of the writer in the rugged landscape.
While Acland held the canvas steady on the rocks and swatted away midges, and Millais painted al fresco, Ruskin himself took to drawing rock formations along the freshet where the painter worked. The large drawing of Gneiss, With its Weeds was the poster art for a 1993 Phoenix Art Museum exhibit, “The Art of Seeing: John Ruskin and the Victorian Eye.” I fell in love with the drawing on sight.
It had everything I respond to: texture, detail, close observation and an attention to the world as it is that is as close to love as is possible to hold for the inanimate world. Ruskin was an astonishing draftsman and many of his drawings and watercolors are part of the collection of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford University. I much prefer his visual art to his writing. Ruskin was probably the most important and influential art critic of the 19th Century, and I find his writing truly insightful, but I would rather crack gravel in my teeth than have to read his prose, which is the heaviest most tedious sort of Victorian fustian possible. Sentence by sentence, lightning flashes; paragraph by paragraph, he is soporific; chapter by chapter, he makes you want to point a pistol at your uvula.
Here is a chapter opening from his Stones of Venice:
You better rehydrate after reading a paragraph like that. Best to take Ruskin in wee small doses and think him a genius. His shorter sentences can be memorable — in a good way.
“Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless: peacocks and lilies, for instance.”
And rocks. Stone carved and molded, left striated and torn by time and weather. Many of Ruskin’s drawings are of stone, or rocky outcrops.
“It is not possible to find a landscape, which if painted precisely as it is, will not make an impressive picture,” he wrote in Modern Painters. “No one knows, till he has tried, what strange beauty and subtle composition is prepared for his hand by Nature.”
Ruskin believed that close attention paid to the things of this world reaped benefits intellectual and spiritual. That a minute inspection of a piece of turf, such as Durer painted, contained all the seeds of a spreading universe. Indeed that questing after spiritual rewards through oneiromancy, divination, crystal ball or thumps under the table, would lead away from the genuine sense of transcendence available from simply paying close attention to the here and now.
He wrote in Modern Painters: ”The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, — all in one.”
Hence his willingness to spend weeks on a simple drawing of an outcropping of gneiss in a watercourse clumped with weeds.
(And weeks not paying attention to Effie, who received her attention from Millais, who also made numerous sketches of her. He painted her sitting beside a waterfall, or quietly sewing, with foxgloves tucked into her hair. He also helped Effie with her own drawings, took long walks with her in the evenings and sheltered with her under a shawl, waiting for the rain to stop. In turn, she read Dante to him. She eventually left Ruskin and, after an embarrassing annulment, married Millais. Embarrassing in that it turned out Ruskin had never consummated his marriage and was actually panicked, on his wedding night to discover that his bride had hair “down there.” His beloved Grecian marble goddesses did not. Ah, but they were stone. As for Effie and Millais: They had eight children.)
But back to that 24-by-28-inch drawing. It has stuck with me for all these years. There is something about that smooth-weathered gneiss that ticks a sympathetic spot in my psyche, purely sensuous. I can feel its surface in my imagination, its hardness and texture. The roundnesses of its protuberances. The very temperature of the stone under my fingers.
And in my own work, I have often attempted to mimic its sense of texture and quiddity. I have photographed many a stone face.
Actually, I have been photographing rocks for long before I saw the Ruskin drawing. Some of my earliest remaining images are of rocky landscapes, and the first show I had, almost 40 years ago, was titled, “Rock Water Green.”
At first, when I was young and ignorant, I wanted to make stunning landscape photographs. Inspired by the work of Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Paul Caponigro, I wanted to capture the sublime in black and white.
But over time, I became much more interested in using the camera to focus, not the lens, but my attention, and more often, on details rather than grand compositions. That aspect had always been there, but now, it became predominant.
But, because I was working in silver and chemicals, almost all of it was in black and white. The advent of digital gave me an opening to a different way of seeing — in color. Color and black-and-white are completely different things; monochrome emphasizes form and texture while color almost makes you forget the form. Shadows are the jewel of black-and-white and the bane of color — they can leave shapes impenetrably confused. It took a while to become comfortable with the added dimension and new way of seeing. (I haven’t given up black-and-white, but now use them for different purposes. I still love the range of grays from glare to inky black.)
And the new dimension changed my approach to photographing stone. At first, I sought out the garish, like these rocks along the Blue Ridge Parkway, stained with iron rust.
And I had the 20th-Century prejudice towards lining things up parallel with my picture plane. I thought of the rock faces as if they were abstract paintings.
These are from Schoodic Point in Maine. I have always been attracted to the textures of the rocks, even when thinking of them as if they were paint on a canvas.
But visiting the Mendenhall Glacier north of Juneau, Alaska, I found the rocks to be, not paintings, but sculptures. The shapes advanced and receded, jutted and sunk, rounded and jagged. And I found myself spending the better part of a morning making a series of images emphasizing their three-dimensionality.
And, instead of the garish color of the rust, I delighted in the subtle blues and grays of the stones, cooler and warmer shades of the stone.
And the texture, wrinkled or scratchy, matte or glossy, is something I don’t only see, but feel, as if on the tips of my fingers. Shelley wrote: “The great secret of morals is a going out of ourselves,” and art, even so minor a one as my gleanings on the surfaces of stone, is a form of sympathy. When I watch dance, I feel in my muscles the twisting of the dancer’s legs. When I hear the swelling of strings in Brahms, I feel it in my chest. When I see the colors in a Monet waterlily, I recognize the world I inhabit. It is not enough to see or hear the art as something separate from oneself; one must not merely recognize oneself in the art, but rather one must feel the unity.
This rock I photograph is me. I don’t mean that in any vague New-Age way, but in the real sense that the shapes and colors we share are the stuff of my own realization of myself as part of the cosmos.
“The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see.”
“What have you seen that was the most beautiful,” she asked. A distinction is often made between the “pretty” and the “beautiful.” The second is of a completely different order from the first. But, for me, there is a third order, as different from beautiful as beautiful is from pretty. That third order gives not just pleasure, but transcendence. Below is the last of three parts.
At the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona, there is a free-standing room, a box, with two doors: an entrance and an exit. When you go through, you find yourself in a sealed black room filled with tiny LED lights suspended on wires from the ceiling, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of them. All the walls, the floor and ceiling are mirrors, and so the universe of lights is visually infinite. It is completely disorienting. You are meant to walk through and go out the exit, but the first time I went, I walked in a straight line from the entrance and came out — the entrance. You can not avoid getting lost.
It is an art installation by Yayoi Kusama called You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies and is one of the most popular pieces in the museum. Kusama is a 91-year-old Japanese-born artist who has lived for the past 40 years by choice in a Tokyo mental institution. By one survey, from 2005, she was the most popular artist in the world. Her work is easy to enjoy. Perhaps too easy.
It is always some manifestation of her obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it is also fun. In an otherwise dismissive review in The Guardian from 2018, Jonathan Jones complains of another one of Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrored Rooms,” that it is on “about the same artistic level as a lava lamp – or an infinite number of lava lamps,” but nevertheless, says, “I was as blissed out as the next idiot.”
Where is the rule that says art, to be good, must be difficult to understand? Besides, it is more important to have an experience than to be told what something means. Kusama’s installation is an unforgettable experience. It is also a reminder of experience: the daily encounter with the infinite we live through but don’t see. Once in a while, we may look up at the night sky and admire its vastness, but most of the time, we just shut the door and turn on the TV.
Giving in to the infinite — or the emotional experience of it — is the source of the third level of the beautiful. It can hit you whenever you are open to it. Not necessarily seeking it, but nevertheless open to it. Most often, we spend our lives closed, trying to make sense of the everyday things that take up most of our time. But there are moments when it all breaks in. These moments tend to stick in our psyches, to be brought back in memory to refresh our lives.
In May of 1972, my second unofficial wife and I (seven years of living together must qualify as something), hiked up Rock Castle Creek near Woolwine, Va., to an abandoned farm, known as the Austin Place.
It took about 40 minutes to climb the trail to the farm. The noise of the creek stayed with us as we went past fields of Virginia creeper and forests of fallen chestnut. We crossed the creek three times on hewn logs.
There is a rise at the end of the trail, and a field gone to seed. At the other end, at one corner of the field is a collapsing gray weathered barn with many chinks, fallen doors and cracked windows to let the sun ricochet in abstractions inside. Past the barn is the house, two stories and old, chipped and dirty paint, balusters that are no two quite the same — having been twisted or replaced or fallen — A second floor porch with crusty hammock hooks, a green tin roof and cherry trees garnishing the facade. We climbed the old concrete steps to the porch and sat our burdens down.
As we looked out over the front lawn, it was weeds, then the rapid stream with a bridge that looked like a fallen ladder over it, more weeds beyond that, then a sharp rise and embankment with an apple orchard above it, all going feral. A bit further than that, the trees started climbing nearly straight up. The mountain took off like a precipice and climbed 1,000 to 1,500 feet.
I found an unlocked window leading to the pantry and got myself into the farmhouse and opened the front door. The day was idled along contentedly. We wasted all of it with the productive waste of happiness.
We brought out a hammock and lay in that for a while. We cooked a stew for dinner. Near the end of the day, we lay together in the hammock on the second floor porch, looking out at the beauty, listening to the stream and smelling green leaves and budding flowers, feeling the warmth of the sun. We dozed, then held each other some more. We watched the brilliant crowns of the trees as the sun narrowed to a shaft behind the ridge and illuminated only their tops. The incandescent crowns grew smaller and more precipitous on the head of the trees.
Against the dark of the trees and hillside a billion flickers burned thick as stars as lightning bugs made Fourth of July for us. I have never seen so many at once. And the moment stood still and I felt the old Faust plea: “I could almost wish this moment to last forever, it is so beautiful.”
Kusama’s installation brought back that day, the points of light in the dark, and the feeling of infinite awe.
There is something about a crowd of points in an undifferentiated field that speaks of eternity: It is the stars in the black of midnight. The motion of the tall grass in the prairie curling in the wind, animated, as the Lakota say, by Taku Skanskan — the life-giving force of nature. The swaying tips of trees against the sky on a breezy day. The self is forgotten and I become a universal witness to a universal transcendence.
The Little Bighorn National Battlefield in Montana is a quiet place, with the hiss of wind in the grass and the buzzing of grasshoppers. The road through the park continues for about five miles, past the congested visitor’s center and along the high ridge of bluffs and coulees over the river bottom to the location where Custer’s subordinates, Reno and Benteen, held off the Indian siege for two days.
Most people hang around the monument on Battle Ridge, where small white crosses mark the places where Custer and his men fell. But if you drive to the end of the pavement, you can walk out in the grass, which curls in the breeze like white horses on the sea swell, and hear the phoebe’s song among the seedheads, and watch the approach of an afternoon thunderstorm with its dark clouds and flickering glow of distant lightning.
I had the experience thrust on me in the late 1960s at Gaddys Pond, near Charlotte, N.C., which was then a privately owned lake that was a stopping place for Canada geese on their migrations. The geese, the brants, the crows that hung around, all made an amazing din of squawks. You could barely make out any individual sound, because the buzzing was everywhere. It is one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard. There must have been a million birds on that pond. Points on a ground.
Sometimes, I will take out my old Peterson cassettes of bird calls just to play the part of the geese — the million-geese squall of honks. It satisfies as much as a Bach fugue.
In eastern North Carolina one winter many years ago, millions of blackbirds descended on Scotland Neck. The bare trees were leafed out with them and periodically they would rise up the the tens of thousands and swirl in a great murmuration — a twisting cloud of tiny dots against the iron-gray winter sky. You had to involuntarily suck in a great breath of frozen air for the sheer admiration and beauty of it.
In the late 1970s, when I lived in Seattle, I spent many unemployed days at the aquarium. Watching fish in the window of the great tank was relaxing, but something more akin to the murmurations of birds was the salmon run. You could stand underneath it and look up through its glass bottom and watch the hundreds of fry twist in circles above you, and like the birds, seem to move as a single entity instead of a million commas or apostrophes darting through the fluid.
There is something about these swarms, whether fireflies or salmon, that seems both utterly random, yet, carefully organized. Very like the night sky, governed by some relatively simple physics, but so immense as to be indistinguishable from the infinite.
This sense has, in the English-speaking world, been labeled “the sublime.” It is not simply the beautiful, but the beautiful that is overwhelming. “It takes your breath away,” is too easily said, but seldom actually encountered. But when it does, you enter a different reality. Time stops, eternity begins.
It was an anonymous author known as Longinus (we don’t actually know who he was, other than his name) who wrote the treatise, “Peri Hypsos,” or “On the Sublime.”
“Nature prompts us to admire, not the clearness and usefulness of a little stream, but the Nile, the Danube, the Rhine, and far beyond all, the Ocean; not to turn our wandering eyes from the heavenly fires, though often darkened, to the little flame kindled by human hands, however pure and steady its light; not to think that tiny lamp more wondrous than the caverns of Aetna, from whose raging depths are hurled up stones and whole masses of rock, and torrents sometimes come pouring from earth’s center of pure and living fire. … “
“When we survey the whole circle of life, and see it abounding everywhere in what is elegant, grand, and beautiful, we learn at once what is the true end of a human’s existence. … Therefore even the whole world is not wide enough for the soaring range of human thought, but the mind often overleaps the very bounds of space.”
That may sound a bit hyperventilated, but if you have once experienced it and left your corporeal existence behind to join with the cosmos for that brief second and know that eternity is not simply a very long time, but something without time at all, then you will have experienced beauty in a new way that has nothing to do with something merely being pleasing. Yes, it is only a psychological experience — I’m not making any great anagogic argument here — but it is a glory.