I recently wrote a piece about grammar and vocabulary peeves. And I mean “peeves.” It’s too common to take such language infractions as if federal law had been broken. For me, such things are merely irritants. Others may take such examples as I gave as bad grammar, or mistaken grammar, but I meant to show the personal reaction some of us get when the way we were trained to use language gets trampled on by those not similarly trained. 

Sometimes, there is truly a misuse of language and creates misunderstanding or even gobbledegook, but at other times, it is merely a failure to recognize how language changes and grows through time, or a refusal to understand idiom or regionalism. 

The war between descriptionists and prescriptionists is never-ending. As for me, I have matured from being a mild prescriptionist to a rather forgiving descriptionist, with some few hard rules added. I feel that to be either all one way or all the other is a kind of blind stupidity. 

For instance, I would never use the word “irregardless.” It is unnecessary. But neither will I claim it is not a word. Maybe it didn’t used to be, but it is now, even if it is an ugly word. If someone wants to sound coarse and unlettered, he or she is free to use “irregardless,” regardless of its gaucheness. 

There was a notepad full of examples that I did not fit into the previous blog post, and some newer ones sent me by friends or readers. So, I thought a followup might be due. Some of these are clearly mistakes and misusage, but others are just rules I or we learned at an early age and now flinch at whenever we hear or read them flouted (the confusion of “flouted” and “flaunted” being one of the mistakes that make us flinch). 

I am at a particular disadvantage because I was horsewhipped into shape by the Associated Press Stylebook. I never use an abbreviation for “road” when writing an address, while I have no problem with “St.” for “street.” Why the AP chose this path, I have no clue, but they did and now I am stuck with it. It was driven into me by a rap on the knuckles during my first week working on the copy desk. I am also stuck with “baby sitter” as two words, while “babysitting” is one. 

(Sometimes the stylebook is brutally ignorant. When I began as a copy editor, it told us to spell the little hot pepper as a “chili” and the dinner made with it and meat and/or beans as “chilli,” but we were in Arizona, where Spanish and Spanglish are common, and would have looked like idiots to our readers if we had followed that rule, so we were allowed to transgress and spell the word for both as “chile.” I believe that the Associated Press has finally caught up. I am retired now, and no longer have the most recent copy of the book.)

Of course, the AP Stylebook wasn’t designed to decide once and for all what is correct usage, but rather only to standardize usage in the newspaper, so different reporters didn’t spell “gray” in one story and “grey” in another. But the result of this standardization is the implication that what’s in that book is “right and true.” As a result, I almost always avoid saying “last year,” or “the last time so-and-so did this,” but rather contort the sentence so I can use “past” instead of “last,” the logic of which is that last year wasn’t the last one — at least not yet. Yes, I know that is stupid and that everyone says “last year” and no one is confused, but the AP has rewired my neurons through constant brainwashing. 

It also has me aware of distinguishing jail from prison. People are held in jail awaiting trial; after conviction, they serve their sentence in prison (yes, some convicts serve their time in jails, but that doesn’t change things. Jails tend to be run by counties; prisons by state or federal governments.)

And so, here is my list of additional words and phrases that get under my skin when used or misused. 

For me, the worst, is the common use of “enormity” to describe anything large. I twitch each time it sails past me. An enormity is a moral evil of immense proportions. The Shoah was an enormity; the vastness of the ocean is not. 

Then, there is the confusion between “imply” and “infer.” To imply is to slip a clue into the flow; to infer is to pick up on the clue. 

One hears constantly “literally” used instead of “figuratively.” Ouch. It debases the strength of the literal. 

There are rhetorical figures that are misapplied over and over. Something isn’t ironic simply by being coincidental, nor is oxymoron the same as paradox — the latter is possible through reinterpretation, the former must be linguistically impossible. To be uninterested is not the same as being disinterested. It causes me minor physical pain each time I hear some bored SOB called “disinterested.” 

I have other peeves, lesser ones. “My oldest brother,” when there are only one other brother. “Between” three people rather than “among.” Using “that” instead of “who” when referring to a person: “He was the person that sent me the letter.” Pfui. 

There is a particular personal proscription list for anyone who uses “which” instead of “that” in a sentence with a defining adjectival phrase, as in: “It was the dog on the left which bit me.” It’s OK in: “It was the dog on the left, which bit me, that I came to despise.” 

Some of us still make a distinction between “anxious” and “eager.” The virus makes me anxious. I am eager to get past the threat. There are other pairs that get confused. I try to ensure that I never use “insure” when I’m not talking about an insurance policy; the wrong use of “effect” can affect the meaning of a sentence; further, I never confuse “farther” with something other than physical distance. “Floundered” and “foundered” mean different things, please. 

From other people and from comments to the blog, I have heard complaint of “bringing something with me when I go” or “taking something home with me.” “Bring” comes home; “Take” goes away. 

Another hates seeing “a lot” as one word, unless, of course, it has two “Ls” and means to portion something out. Yet another yells at the TV screen every time someone says “nucular” for “nuclear.” I share that complaint, although I remember many decades ago, Walter Cronkite making a reasoned case for pronouncing “February” without the first “R.” “It is an acceptable pronunciation,” he said, “It is listed as a secondary pronunciation in the Webster’s Dictionary.” I’m afraid “nucular” has become so widespread that it is in the process of becoming, like “Febuary” an accepted alternate. But it hurts my ear. 

Trump give “free rein” to his son-in-law, but perhaps it really is “free reign.” Confusion abounds. 

All this can reek of pedantry. I’m sorry; I don’t mean it to. There are many times you might very well subvert any of these grammatical conventions. I have heard complaints about sentences that start off as “I and Matilda took a vacation” as ugly and wrong, (really, the grammatically worse “Me and Matilda” is idiomatically better, like “Me and Bobby McGee”) but I remember with literary fondness the opening of Herman Melville’s “I and My Chimney:”

I and my chimney, two gray-headed old smokers, reside in the country. … Though I always say, I and my chimney, as Cardinal Wolsey used to say, I and my King, yet this egotistic way of speaking, wherein I take precedence of my chimney, is hardly borne out by the facts; in everything, except the above phrase, my chimney taking precedence of me.

And there are presidential precedents. “Normalcy” wasn’t a word until Warren G. Harding used it to describe a vision of life after World War I (there are examples from earlier, but he popularized its use and was ridiculed for it — “normality” being the normal word). 

I would hate to have to do without George W. Bush’s word: “misunderestimate.” If that hasn’t made it into Webster’s, it should. I think it’s a perfectly good word. Language sometimes goes awry. We don’t always hear right and sometimes new words and phrases emerge. I knew someone who planned to cook dinner for a friend. “Is there anything I should know about your diet? Anything you don’t eat?” “I don’t eat sentient beans,” she said. He had never heard of that sort of bean. It was only much later that he smiled at his own misunderstanding. Since then, I have always kept a bin of dried sentient beans to make “chilli” with. At least, that’s how I label the tub. 

Language shifts like tides. Words come and words go; rules pop up and dissipate; ugly constructions are normalized and no longer noticed, even by grammarians. I have listed here some of the formulations that still rankle me, but I am old and wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. I’m curious, though, what bothers you? Let me know in the comments. 

I began life as a copy editor, which means, I had to know my commas and em-dashes. My spelling had to be impeccable and I memorized the Associated Press Style Book, which taught me that the color was spelled g-r-a-y, not g-r-e-y. Except in “greyhound,” that is. 

It is a line of work I fell into quite naturally, because from the second grade on, I have had a talent for words. I diagrammed sentences on the blackboard that had the visual complexity of the physics formulae written on his whiteboard by Sheldon Cooper. I managed to use my 10 weekly vocabulary words, tasked with writing sentences for each, by writing one sentence using all ten. I did OK with math, but it was never anything that much interested me, but words were another thing. I ate them up like chocolate cake. 

The upshot is that I am a prime candidate for the position as “Grammar Cop,” bugging those around me for making mistakes in spelling, punctuation and usage. And, admittedly, in the past, I have been guilty. But as age softens me, I have largely given up correcting the mistaken world. And I have a different, more complex relationship with language, less strict and more forgiving. 

The cause for this growing laxness are multiple. Certainly age and exhaustion are part of it. But there is also the awareness that language is a living, growing, changing thing and that any attempt to capture it in amber is a futile endeavor. 

But although I have come to accept many changes in speech that I once cringed at — I can now take “their” in the singular (“Everyone should wash their hands”) and have long given up on “hopefully” — there are still a handful of tics that I cannot get over. I try, but when I hear them uttered by a news anchor or starlet on a talk show, I jump a little, as if a sharp electric shock were applied to my ear. 

The first is “I” used in the objective case. It gives me the shivers. “He gave the award to Joan and I.” It gets caught in my throat like a cat’s fur ball. 

The second is using “few” for “less.” I know that the usage has largely changed, but it still assaults my ear when I hear, “There will be less pumpkins this Halloween, due to the drought.” Ugh. 

A third is the qualified “unique,” as in, “His hairstyle is very unique.” It’s either unique or it isn’t. 

Then there are common mispronunciations. “Ek-setera” is just awful. Although, I did once know someone who always gave it its original Latin sounding: “Et Caetera” or “Et Kye-ter-a.” Yes, that was annoying, too. 

The last I’ll mention here is the locution, “centered around.” Gets my goat every time. Something may be “centered on” a focus point, or “situated around” something, but “centered around” is geometrically obtuse unless you’re discussing Nicholas of Cusa’s definition of the deity, whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. 

Others have their own bugaboos. One friend cannot get past the confusion between “lay” and “lie.” She also jumps every time someone uses “begging the question,” which is misused 100 times for every once it is understood. 

Of course, she may be more strict than I am. “There have been errors so egregious that I’ve stopped reading a book,” she says. “I just stomp my foot and throw the book away.” 

Her excuse: “I was an English major.” 

There are many other issues that bother me, but not quite so instantly. I notice when the subjunctive is misused, or rather, not used when it should be. If I were still an editor, I would have fixed that every time. 

I am not sure I will ever get used to “like” used for “said.” And I’m like, whoever started that linguistic monstrosity? I also notice split infinitives as they sail past, but I recognize that the prohibition against them is a relic of Victorian grammarians. It is too easy to lazily give in to those ancient strictures. 

So far, I’ve only been talking about catches in speech, although they show up in print just as often (you can actually come across “ect.” for “etc.”) But reading a book, or a newspaper or a road sign and seeing the common errors there can be even more annoying. There is probably nothing worse, or more common, than the apostrophe plural. You don’t make something plural by adding an apostrophe and an “S.” “Nail’s” is not the plural for “nails.” This is encountered endlessly on shop signs. 

And digital communication is fraught with homophone confusion. “They’re,” “there,” and “their,” for instance, or “you’re,” and “your.” I admit that occasionally this is just a mental hiccup as you are typing. We all make mistakes. I have sometimes put a double “O” after a “T” when I mean a preposition. That’s just a typo. But there are genuinely people who don’t seem to notice the difference with “to,” “too,” and “two.” (I have great tolerance, however, for the ideogrammatic usage of “2” for “to” in electronic messaging. I find it kind of amusing to see the innovation in space-saving for Twitter and e-mail. I may even have been guilty myself of such things. Indeed, there is a long history of this sort in handwritten letters in the 15th to 18th centuries, when “William” was often “Wm,” and “through” was often “thro.” Paper was expensive and abbreviations saved space.)

Some frequent typological absurdities make me twitch each time. I really hate seeing a single open-quote used instead of an apostrophe when a word is abbreviated from the front end. You almost never see “rock ’n’ roll” done correctly. 

There are lesser offenses, too, that I usually let pass. “Impact” as a verb, for instance. It bothers me, but the only people who use it tend to write such boring text that I couldn’t wade through it anyway. (I wrote about the management class mangling of the language in what I call “Manglish.”) “Different than” has become so normalized for “different from” that I’m afraid it has become standard English. Of course, the English themselves tend to say “different to.” So there. 

There are distinctions that have been mostly lost in usage. “Can I” now means the same as “May I” in most circumstances, and almost no one still makes a distinction between “shall” and “will.” 

Many of us have idiosyncratic complaints. I knew someone who complained that “laundermat” was not a word. We saw such a one on Vancouver Island when visiting. “It should be ‘laundromat,’” she said, arguing the parallel with “automat.” 

Another cringes at “would of,” “should of,” and “could of” in place of “would have,” “should have,” and “could have.” But this is merely a mishearing of the contractions “would’ve,” “should’ve,” and “could’ve” and turning them into print. Yes, it should be corrected, but it doesn’t get under my skin when I hear it. 

And there are regionalisms that bother some, although I glory in the variety of language. One person I know complains about such phrases as “had went,” but that is a long-standing Southernism and gets a pass, as far as I’m concerned. 

And much else is merely idiom. If you get too exercised about “I could care less,” please relax. It means the same thing as “I couldn’t care less.” Merely idiomatic. Lots of grammatical nonsense is now just idiomatic English. Like when the doorbell rings and you ask “Who’s there?” and the answer comes back, “It’s me.” If you hear “It is I,” you probably don’t want to open the door. No one talks like that. It could be a spy whose first language is not English. Better ask if they know who plays second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers (old movie reference). 

And the Associated Press hammered into me the habit of writing “past week” instead of “last week,” on the principle that the previous seven days had not, indeed, been terminal. You can take these things too far — but I am so far brainwashed not to have given in. “Past week,” it will always be. 

I may have become lax on certain spelling and grammar guidelines, but one should still try one’s best to be clear, make sense, include antecedents for one’s pronouns and be clear about certain common mistakes. “Discreet” and “discrete” are discrete words. And someone I know who used to transcribe her boss’s dictated letters once corrected him when he said a client should be “appraised” of the situation and typed instead, “apprised.” He brought her the letter back and complained that she had misspelled “appraised.” Being a man and being in management, he could not be persuaded he was wrong. She had to retype the letter with the wrong word. There’s just nothing you can do with some people. 

Language is just usage at the moment. It shifts like the sands at the beach, what was “eke” to Chaucer is “also” to us. What was “conscience” to Shakespeare is “consciousness” to us. Thus does conscience make grammar cops of us all. We don’t learn our mother tongue, we acquire it and what we hear as babes becomes normal usage. Ain’t it the truth?

A lot has changed since the beginning of the past century. My grandmother was always amused by the fact that she was born before the Wright Brothers flew and lived to see men walking on the moon. 

She might also have said she was born before the Russian Revolution and lived to see Communism punk out and die. 

But there are smaller, less monumental changes, too. Men used to habitually take their hats off upon entering public buildings. For that matter, men used to wear fedoras and trilbies, but now, if they wear hats at all, they tend to wear them with their peaks turned backwards, perhaps to protect their necks from the sun, like a havelock. Elbows used to be banned from tables and doors used to be held. 

Some of these changes have been all to the good. We wear seatbelts in cars now. Antibiotics have meant that a cut on the finger doesn’t lead to death. Women have the vote. Harvey Weinstein is in jail. All to the good. 

But one change I lament and that is the demise of letter writing. 

This comes to mind because I have been reading The Oxford Book of Letters, edited by Frank and Anita Kermode. It is a beautiful volume, in that rich, deep blue fabric binding and gold titling that distinguishes the work of the Oxford University Press. In it are hundreds of missives, beginning with a 1535 letter by Sir Antony Windsor to Lady Lisle and ending with a 1985 letter from Philip Larkin to Kingsley Amis. (About Lady Lisle, the second wife of Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle, it was said she was “incomparably evil.” Letters are a great source of historical gossip.)  

Lady Lisle also apparently gave Lord Edmund Howard (father of Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard) a cure for kidney stones. He wrote to thank her: “So it is I have this night after midnight taken your medicine, for the which I heartily thank you, for it hath done me much good, and hath caused the stone to break, so that now I void much gravel. But for all that, your said medicine hath done me little honesty, for it made me piss my bed this night, for the which my wife hath sore beaten me, and saying it is children’s parts to bepiss their bed. Ye have made me such a pisser that I dare not this day go abroad, wherefore I beseech you to make mine excuse to my Lord and Master Treasurer, for that I shall not be with you this day at dinner.” 

Lord Edmund was luckier than his daughter; he only lost his continence. 

So many of these letters are either entertaining for their anecdotes or impressive for their style. Many are acrimonious. Katherine Mansfield wrote to Princess Bibesco in 1921 about an affair the princess was having with Mansfield’s husband, John Middleton Murry. She wrote: “I am afraid you must stop writing these little love letters to my husband while he and I live together. It is one of the things which is not done in our world. … Please do not make me have to write to you again. I do not like scolding people and simply hate having to teach them manners.”

Not included in this book, which contains only letters written in English, is one of my favorites, written by German composer Max Reger to the critic Rudolf Louis, after Louis published a bad review of Reger’s Sinfonietta in A. “I am sitting in the smallest room in my house. I have your review before me; it will soon be behind me.” 

There is often a spontaneity to letters that text written for publication lacks. Their offhandedness lets us see their authors with their hair down and their tunics unbuttoned. And they let us see the thought processes that can underline the finished work that is later published. The letters of Vincent van Gogh, for instance, are treasured for the insight they give, not only to the artist’s work, but into art and esthetics in general. He was an unkempt but profound writer. 

But I am not lamenting the loss of letter writing only because of the professionals. I miss the intimacy that grows between friends when they communicate with each other over distance. A distance that shrinks to nothing with the opening of an envelope and the avid consumption of its contents. 

When my wife died, the letters I received from a friend who had a similar loss were the single most comforting balm I got. There was much sympathy from others and the sentiments were truly appreciated, but the fact that she and I shared this experience gave her letters a truthfulness and understanding that were the only thing that actually helped. I cannot properly put a value on the importance of receiving those letters. 

I’m not sure what has led to the decline of the practice, although the rise of e-mails must take a good share of the blame. E-mails have a cloying impersonal life on the computer screen or worse, the cell phone. And they tend to be short. A good letter can go on for glorious pages; a typical e-mail has the businesslike efficiency of an eviction notice. Worse still, the Twitter tweet. Even blown open to 280 characters, it is not even long enough for a 17th century salutation: “To my esteemed colleague, friend and benefactor, Lord Essington, Earl of Hardwick and champion of the oppressed Irish during this time of travail amongst the peasants, and cousin to her ladyship Princess Analine, and father of my dear wife, who sends her greeting with this note … etc., etc. etc. …” 

I’m afraid I am still at heart a letter writer. Although most of those I produce now are sent via e-mail. My recipients must cringe when they get that beep on their machines and see my name in the heading, knowing that they will be asked to read two or three pages worth of chatter instead of the laconic “Arrived Dec. 10. Things going well.” 

But sending even a long e-mail is cheating. It precludes the pleasure we almost never enjoy anymore and that is being able to slit open an envelope and read an actual letter, on paper, in writing, that we can carry with us and don’t need to boot up to read. 

Before the days of the internet, I used to write letters prolifically. In March of 1979, for instance, I wrote in that single month, 500 pages of typescript that I mailed out, doling the missives to a dozen different friends and acquaintances. A year later, one letter alone, that I wrote to my closest friends was 64 pages long. Part of it was a description of a visit to the Seattle Aquarium:


“Huge scrotal octopods, all valves, siphons and tentacles, are strangely graceful.

“A lime-white seastar rests on the sand and over it a flounder, like some Arabian magic carpet, flies, wavering its Persian body.

“Looking sleepy among the rocks is a wolf eel with its prizefighter’s prognathous face. He is metallic blue with black coindots in bands across his body. He slithers around the floor boulders prehistorically.

“A sculpin stares straight at me from behind the glass with two Japanese fans for fins. A round, flattened seaperch floats slowly past the window. He has neon blue skin showing through rows of brown scales. From a distance he just looks brown, but up close, he is a vision.” 

Those were days when I was seriously lonely, first living in Seattle (the 64-page letter was about my life there), and then when I moved back to North Carolina and felt so alone in the world that I suffered a complete mental disjunction. The letters helped me feel human again. I was making contact; I did have friends, after all.


I was living in Summerfield, N.C., at the time, some rural miles north of Greensboro, and on a sunny day, I would take my aqua-green plastic-framed clatter-keyed portable typewriter out to the tree stump near the woodshed and sit down and pound away on the keyboard for hours, writing letters to everyone I knew. I made carbons as I typed, so I still have many of these letters, though the paper is getting a touch brittle and some of the carbon ink is smudged and fading. 

But these relics are a kind of diary of my time then. Letters often work that way for their authors. It feels a bit solipsistic to keep a journal, but the accumulation of letters does the same thing in a more gregarious way. And by sharing thoughts with friends you feel more connected with the world, part of it, necessary to it. 

It is said the only way to becoming a good writer is to write. And the practice of writing letters is how I became proficient enough to land a job at a newspaper, where over a quarter of a century, I produced two-and-a-half-million words. I look back at my own archive of letters — a fraction of those I wrote — and see in them the growing ability, from awkward to fluent. 

In their introduction to the book, the Kermodes wrote: “The archives of the world are crammed with letters. Even when, around the beginning of the present century, the telegram and then the telephone took over much of the quotidian correspondence, the old epistolary habit persisted; huge numbers of letters continued as usual to be written, most, as usual, dashed off with little premeditation, some, as before, carefully composed, polished perhaps from an original draft; and if the writers were at all famous many scribbles were preserved along with the weightier and more considered effusions. According to Dan H. Laurence, the editor of a four-volume selection, there were ‘tens of thousands’ of G.B Shaw letters extant, and of these his very large book includes only about a couple of thousand. Of a far less busy writer, E. M Forster, about 11,000 letters survive. The correspondence of Virginia Woolf occupies six big volumes, and that of D.H. Lawrence, who died at 44, requires seven. These people were not, so to speak, professional letter writers like Horace Walpole, whose correspondence fills almost fifty volumes in the Yale edition; their letters were incidental to their main business in life, though one could say they had the scribbling habit.”

It would be hard, they say, to imagine an “Oxford Book of E-mails.” 

We are now asked to stay home for our own good and for the good of others, and to maintain a “social isolation.” What a good time to regain the intimacy of the written letter. Certainly better than watching 18 hours of TV a day. 

I’ve spent my whole life soaking up Western culture, with a good dose from the East as well, and now that I am 72, I am wondering if it was all worth it. 

To what end all this reading, all this music and art, all this delving into history, psychology, science — this collection I have amassed of Ovid, Livy, Homer, Hesiod and the rest, the reading of modern novels I began in high school, the vast commonplace book of my brain, the syncretization of all national arts and philosophies? I have only a decreasing fraction of my time on the planet remaining to me, and when it is reduced to zero, all this accumulation of cultural clutter will evaporate. Poof. Gone. 

I see my granddaughters at the beginning of their accumulations, making all the same mistakes I made (well, not all of them, and some that are entirely original to them), and I know that if I have acquired any knowledge — I hesitate to call it wisdom, for really, it is only the giant ball of string I have collected through living — it can not save them an ounce or tittle of the troubles they will have to pass through. 

There are people who I admire with infinite appreciation who have avoided all this “high culture” and have contributed meaningfully to our lives. The teachers, nurses, chaplains — to say nothing of the mothers and the uncles and aunts — who have, through compassion and the service they have given to the benefit of others, are so much more directly worthy of praise. Even so simple a job as waiter seems to me now a more meaningful metier than my own life of page-turning and thought-gathering. 

William Yeats, in his A Vision, postulates two conflicting sensibilities for humans, which he names the “primary” and “antithetical.” All of us, he says, are composed of bits of each, in different ratios. The Primary sensibility understands the here and now, the useful, the social; the Antithetical comprehends the mythic, poetic, the psychological, the parts of our psyche that might be called the “hard wiring.” The ur-profession of the Primary is nurse; that of the Antithetical is the poet. 

Yeats measures the ratios of these two urges in the symbol of the phases of the moon and counts 28 tinctures — and that’s the word he uses — with a growing proportion of Antithetical as the moon waxes, and a decreasing proportion with the waning. No one, he says, is either all Antithetical or all Primary, but always an intermixture. 

 He goes on to apply this metaphor not only to psychology, but to history and I’m afraid he has lost me there. Yeats can get a little wacky at times. But I am looking for a purpose to my own Antithetical inclinations. Can this lifetime of lucubration have any wider value? Can I justify the ways of me to humankind? 

I am reading George Orwell’s “Inside the Whale,” in which he very thoughtfully takes to task Henry Miller, not for his obscenity or for his ability as a writer, which he admires, but for his quietism, Miller’s refusal to consider the political consequences of the times. Orwell, of course, was famously committed, having gone so far as to fight in the front lines of the Spanish civil war, and been shot in the throat for his efforts. 

Miller, on the other hand, is, in Orwell’s words, “a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive accepter of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses.” He is, in another passage, a Nero fiddling while Rome burns, although unlike other such fiddlers, Miller does so while facing the flames, not denying them. Miller’s ultimate stance is “a sort of mystical acceptance of the thing-as-it-is.” 

Orwell was writing in 1940, when “To say ‘I accept’ in an age like our own is to say that you accept concentration camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs, aeroplanes, tinned food, machine guns, putches, purges, slogans, Badaux belts, gas masks, submarines, spies, provocateurs, press-censorship, secret prisons, aspirins, Hollywood films and political murders. Not only those things of course, but those things among others.”

Miller, he says, would hardly disagree with him. 

And, while I do not share Miller’s anarchism, I, too, have come to feel the individual has almost no effect on the historical machinations of his age, and that the recognition that little can be done means that the best approach is to let the universe move on its way and to accept whatever is dished out, including the annihilation of the self, which is death. Not so much that whatever is is good, but rather, that whatever is, is. What Joseph Campbell calls “the willing participation in the sorrows of the world.”

It is what Krishna counsels Arjuna to do in the Bhagavad Gita section of the Mahabharata, before the battle of Kurukshetra. Arjuna is to signal the beginning of the fighting, but stops short, considering the bloodshed and the misery that will ensue, including the slaughter of his own relatives. Krishna, disguised as his charioteer then more or less stops time, like Joshua halting the sun, in order to give the warrior a lesson in Dharma. You must do what you must do, he says in essence; the world will continue anyway. 

And so, I value those who with practical efficiency ameliorate the suffering. Surely, they are willingly participating in the sorrows of the world, and doing their best to lessen that suffering. 

But there are those of us who have other functions in the world. Scientists, for instance, aim to understand the world. Their work may be useful latterly, but their primary aim is understanding what is not known. Pure science precedes applied science. We value the work of pure science for what it tells us about the universe; the knowledge gained may — or may not — lead to practical application. 

There are, however, other paths of study that further the human endeavor, and these, too, may or may not ultimately be helpful. 

Science is the test we give to the objective world; art is the test we give to everything else. If we want to understand what happens inside another’s brain, we look to a neuroscientist; if we want to understand what happens in another’s mind, we read a novel. 

Each of us has a world inside us, TARDIS-like, bigger inside than outside, and that teeming interior world governs what we feel about the outer world, how we act in it, what we believe is true. It is in the arts, literary, visual, musical, physical such as dance, that we explore that interior and attempt to plumb its depths. 

And, as a pure scientist’s work can lead to an applied use, so the work of an artist, philosopher, historian, can lead not only to a better understanding of our humanity, it can have practical effects in the world. One has only to think of Harriet Beecher Stowe or so simple or ephemeral thing as the way Jean-Claude Belmondo hangs a cigarette off his lip in Breathless. 

The effects are normally less world-shaking than the shift in attitude toward race-slavery, but those effects are measured in each individual life, and how much a psyche is opened and bloomed in the world. 

Delving into that interior, one finds its mirror in the books one reads. One studies them to study the self. Such is a lifelong process of discovery and whether it has real-world uses or not, must be attempted, just as pure science must be continued. 

I began my adult career as a teacher, and after that, as a writer; but in either job, the goal was the same, to spread knowledge. I fervently hope that my efforts have been, in at least some tiny smidgeon of a way, a benefit to humanity. 

As I write this, I am conscious that all this may very well be pure rationalization, making for myself an excuse for my life. But I will offer this apologia. When I was young, I was so much more self-absorbed — as young people tend to be — but a life of reading, listening, and looking have opened my emotions to much that was little more than words, words, words when I was beginning. I have been cracked open. I have become infinitely more compassionate and more sympathetic to others than I was. I see peoples’ emotions on their faces in ways that were invisible before. The pains and joys of others have become my own. Perhaps not to any great extent, but enough to make me aware of how others must navigate their lives. 

And when my wife became ill, I became her caregiver until the end, and doing so was, with not a shred of doubt, the most meaningful thing I have done in my life. I believe I would not have been capable of such empathy, such caring and devotion, if it had not been for a life opened to all that was outside of myself, and opened by art, literature, music, dance, reading of history, philosophy, biology, physics, chemistry, and all else that would otherwise have been blank to me. 

As I watched her decline, I saw all of suffering humankind in her, and all of aspirational humankind in myself, and they were the same thing. And so, when she died, I did, too, with the exception that I am still here. But then, so is she. 

There is the echo of this in all of the books that I have ingested, all the music, with its sonic analog of emotion, all of the perennial philosophy. “Alle menschen werden brüder.” 

For most scholars, as with most scientists, a career is built specializing, knowing more and more about a smaller and smaller angle of the whole. They become tenured professors and further the knowledge of the world in meaningful particulars. I have, in contrast, attempted to know more about a wider range of things, in effect seeking a unified field theory of the humanities. The endeavor has been so far as fruitless as that of physicists, but it has been why I read Dante and Saul Bellow, study Raphael and Francis Bacon, listen to Bach and Glass, feel in my own muscles Petipa and Pina Bausch. 

Someone has to put it all together. Our outer lives are vital; we need to aid the suffering, feed the hungry, still the wars, cool the fevers. But we also have inner lives, and they need attending, also. Human beings “shall not live by bread alone.” 

If all I have said here is nothing but rationalization, a kind of weaseling out of my responsibilities in the practical world, that does negate the truth. Motives are one thing; truth is another. 

And finally, if none of this counts, if none of this weighs on the good side of the scales, I can only say: It is my nature. Learning ever more is the satisfaction of an insatiable hunger. May those I love and those who love me forgive what I have made of it. 

D.H. Lawrence in Italy

“Comes over one an absolute necessity to move. And what is more, to move in some particular direction. A double necessity then: To get on the move and to know whither.”

The opening sentences of D.H. Lawrence’s 1921 travel book, Sea and Sardinia. It is one of my favorite sentences ever, first because it expresses an impulse I share, but mostly because of the odd inversion of word order and the way it replicates the order of the impulse hits. 

What I mean is that when such a feeling “comes over one,” it is first unnamed. You don’t originally understand what this need is, just that it rushes your emotions. It is only second that you identify what it is that you are thinking of. To run the sentence in normal order — “An absolute necessity to move comes over one”— implies you understand what it is when it hits. It is a two-part process and the first part is non-verbal, almost primordial. Word order matters.

Lawrence is largely unfashionable these days. His novels — those “bright books of life” — can feel dated. Certainly his phallo-centric worship seem bizarre. It’s hard to read “Lady Loverly’s Chatter” without without laughing, or at least gasping. Of course, it’s not his best book. (Fashion is untrustworthy; you should read one of his novels or short stories to see just how good he is, despite his preaching). 

But in addition to his fiction, Lawrence wrote about his travels and singular writings they are. Do not expect objective recitations of fact, but rather what is left after being filtered through the author’s distinct sensibility. This makes them both more interesting and relevant many decades after they were published. Many travel books are written; most drop out of date within years; a few — a very few — transcend time and place to become, dare I use the word, “literature.” 

Such books are a joy to read, and give you insight not so much into a destination as into how an active mind can interact and react with place and turn its air and soil into words. 

Lawrence wrote four such books. In addition to Sea and Sardinia, there is Twilight in Italy, Etruscan Places and Mornings in Mexico, which includes essays he wrote about New Mexico also and a beautiful encomium to the Hopi Snake Dance. 

“How is man to get himself into relation with the vast living convulsions of rain and thunder and sun, which are conscious and alive and potent, but like the vastest of beasts, inscrutable and incomprehensible? How is man to get himself into relation with these, the vastest of cosmic beasts?”

Such books go back into antiquity. Few books are as readable, or as revealing of their authors, as the Histories of Herodotus. While the book functions mainly as a history of the Persian Wars, in it our gentleman from Halicarnassus takes us everywhere from Egypt to India, serving up travel tidbits that may be true, may be lies, or may be simple misunderstandings. 

His story of ants in India the size of dogs that go into the desert and bring back gold could perhaps be a mistranslation of a word for marmot rather than ant, and a further misinterpretation of Himalayan marmots who dig into the sand and catch gold-bearing sand in their fur. He never says he actually saw such ants, but only heard travelers tell of them.

Herodotus is sometimes called the “father of lies,” but he is always lively. 

There are other classical travels, too, such as the Anabasis of Xenophon and the Description of Greece by Pausanius. Xenophon is pretty straightforward, but others, such as Ctesias of Cnidus stretched the credulity of their readers. Ctesias wrote a book about India, called Indica (existing now only in fragments, but quoted often by other authors), in which he describes such things as a race of men with only one leg, and whose feet are so huge they can be used as umbrellas. 

In the Second Century, Lucian of Samosata ridiculed such outlandish claims in a book he called “A True Story,” in which he reported on “things I have neither seen nor experienced nor heard tell of from anybody else; things, what is more, that do not in fact exist and could not ever exist at all. So my readers must not believe a word I say.” In this, he says, he is therefore much truer than such liars as Ctesias or Herodotus because he admits his tales are all lies from the get-go. 

The most famous of questionable travel books is certainly Livre des Merveilles du Monde or “The Book of the Marvels of the World,” also called the Travels of Marco Polo, which appeared in the late 13th Century. (I say “appeared” rather than “was published” because there is no authoritative version. It sprung up in many languages in many countries at the same time, often with conflicting content.) It was ostensibly compiled by a Venetian hack writer named Rustichello of Pisa who shared a prison cell with Marco Polo in Genoa and transcribed Polo’s tales of his travels to China. 

The trustworthiness of Polo’s Travels has been questioned since it first appeared. Parts of it are surprisingly accurate, geographically and historically, but other sections are cribbed from other books written by Rustichello, ripped whole-cloth from his popular fictions. Scholars have been arguing over the book for hundreds of years. 

It is, however, and despite some tedious repetition, a good read, which is why it came out in six different languages and 20 different editions in just a few years. 

The discovery of the New World led to many journals, books and manuals. Perhaps the most famous is now just called “Hakluyt’s Voyages,” and was published in 1589 by Englishman Richard Hakluyt. His many books informed William Shakespeare’s sense of the world and its peoples. 

The title of his principal work is nearly a book all by itself. There was a fashion for long, descriptive titles back then. For instance, what we now call Shakespeare’s King Lear, was first known as the “True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King Lear and his three Daughters, With the unfortunate life of Edgar, sonne and heire to the Earle of Gloster, and his sullen and assumed humor of Tom of Bedlam: As it was played before the Kings Majestie at Whitehall upon S. Stephans night in Christmas Hollidayes.”

And so, Hakluyt, not to be outdone, titled his travel book: The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation: Made by Sea or Over Land to the Most Remote and Farthest Distant Quarters of the Earth at Any Time within the Compasse of These 1500 Years: Divided into Three Several Parts According to the Positions of the Regions Whereunto They Were Directed; the First Containing the Personall Travels of the English unto Indæa, Syria, Arabia … the Second, Comprehending the Worthy Discoveries of the English Towards the North and Northeast by Sea, as of Lapland … the Third and Last, Including the English Valiant Attempts in Searching Almost all the Corners of the Vaste and New World of America … Whereunto is Added the Last Most Renowned English Navigation Round About the Whole Globe of the Earth.

And that’s why we now call it “Hakluyt’s Voyages.”

But it is in the 18th Century that travel writing went mainstream. It was the era of the Enlightenment, and learning about the other quarters of the globe became a part of what we were enlightening ourselves about. Scores of travel diaries and memoirs were published. 

Samuel Johnson wrote A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, which is about a country he had little affinity for, and his sidekick, James Boswell wrote about the same trip in his The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL. D. Johnson wrote about Scotland; Boswell wrote about Johnson. In one notable episode, they extolled a hearty dinner consisting entirely of cold butter and milk. Yum. 

Novelist Tobias Smollett wrote a popular Travels Through France and Italy, published in 1766, which is not much read these days, but in contrast, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, by Laurence Sterne, is a classic. Smollett didn’t much cotton to foreign ways and pretty well grumped his way through the Continent. Sterne, in his book, from 1768, took a much more amiable view. Sterne actually crossed paths with  Smollett in Italy, and satirized him and his pique as the character Smelfungus. 

HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan

In 1839, Charles Darwin published what is now known as The Voyage of the Beagle, which was his portion of the scientific and geographical expedition of the H.M.S. Beagle around South America and into the Pacific. 

The trip provided Darwin with much of the data that led to his theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. But much of the book is just a good read, with the author’s reactions to what he discovers. 

Bahia jungle

In mid-summer the ship stopped at Bahia in Brazil. Darwin wrote: “The day has past delightfully. Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest. The elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers, the glossy green of the foliage, but above all the general luxuriance of the vegetation, filled me with admiration. A most paradoxical mixture of sound and silence pervades the shady parts of the wood. The noise from the insects is so loud, that it may be heard even in a vessel anchored several hundred yards from the shore; yet within the recesses of the forest a universal silence appears to reign. To a person fond of natural history, such a day as this brings with it a deeper pleasure than he can ever hope to experience again.”

Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft

In 1844, Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, published her Rambles in Germany and Italy, in 1840, 1842, and 1843. The book combines memoir with political analysis and was widely praised at the time. 

It followed the path taken by her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark in 1796. In it, Wollstonecraft wrote that “The art of travel is only a branch of the art of thinking.” And she wrote that travel writers should have “some decided point in view, a grand object of pursuit to concentrate their thoughts, and connect their reflections.”

Mark Twain in the Holy Land

It is the point of view that distinguishes travel literature from mere travel writing. And you get that in spades in four books by Mark Twain. He published The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress in 1869 about a trip he took two years earlier to the Holy Land, with side excursions all through the Mediterranean. It was his best-selling book during his lifetime.  And the source of one of his most famous quotes:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

He followed it up a few years later with Roughing It, an account of his travels and travails in Nevada and California. Then in 1880, he followed with A Tramp Abroad, which details a trip he made through Germany and the Alps. In it, he included a screamingly funny pasquinade on the Teutonic tongue, called “The Awful German Language.” 

For instance, linguistic gender baffled him. “Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in distribution; … In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.”

Finally, he went around the world, including to Hawaii and and India, and wrote about the trip in Following the Equator, published in 1897. The heat in India got to him: “I believe that in India ‘cold weather’ is merely a conventional phrase and has come into use through the necessity of having some way to distinguish between weather which will melt a brass door-knob and weather which will only make it mushy.”

I wish I could mention all the wonderful and quirky travel books I have read: Travels with a Donkey by Robert Louis Stevenson; The Alhambra by Washington Irving; Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig (yes, it’s a travel book, of sorts). 

And those I wish I had read: A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling by Ibn Battuta; Through the Brazilian Wilderness by Theodore Roosevelt; Travels With Myself and Another: A Memoir by Martha Gelhorn (the “other” is Ernest Hemingway); The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara. 

But there are finally three more that I have read and recommend to everyone: 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Matsuo Basho, which recounts a journey he made, mostly on foot, around the wilder parts of the north of Japan in the spring of 1689. It is a haibun, a combination of prose and poetry — mainly haiku — and functions as both a travel diary and a poetry anthology. It also has profound things to say about life, time and consciousness.

“Months and days are travelers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float off on ships or who grow ancient leading horses are also forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them.”

Voyage autour de ma chambre (“Voyage Around My Room”), published in 1794 by French writer Xavier de Maistre. He wrote it while under house arrest, and managed to turn his confinement into a pilgrimage, as he wandered around the room, 36 paces in circumference. 

“I have just completed a 42-day voyage around my room. The fascinating observations I made and the endless pleasures I experienced along the way made me wish to share my travels with the public; and the certainty of having something useful to offer convinced me to do so. Words cannot describe the satisfaction I feel in my heart when I think of the infinite number of unhappy souls for whom I am providing a sure antidote to boredom and a palliative to their ills. … 

“When I travel through my room,” he writes, “I rarely follow a straight line: I go from the table towards a picture hanging in a corner; from there, I set out obliquely towards the door; but even though, when I begin, it really is my intention to go there, if I happen to meet my armchair en route, I don’t think twice about it, and settle down in it without further ado.” 

—Finally, I want to offer George S. Chappell’s 1930 Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera: A Fascinating Trip to the Interior. The title seems self-explanatory, but the book antedates Raquel Welch’s breakout film Fantastic Voyage by three and a half decades. 

Our hero, along with an ornithologist, botanist and cameraman, first enter the mouth, do some spelunking and climb the cliffs of the molars. As they explore the innards of the human corpus, they escape from an enraged Amoeba, and discover the Heeby-Geebies that infest the Nerve Forests of the Lumbar region. Pausing only to carve their initials on the spinal column, the four brave souls reach Lovely Livermore and search for the source of the river Bile. Scarcely have they had time to shoot the rapids at the conjunction of the Gall and the Spleen and view the dance of the Hemoglobins when a violent upset in the interior forcibly ejects them.

What can I say? It isn’t only travel that is fatal to bigotry, but so is reading, especially reading about travel.  

How did I ever become such a sobersides? An old fogey? So donnish?

My late wife used to call me “the man who can’t have fun.” But I do have fun. I have lots of it; it’s just that I get pleasure out of things most people find impenetrably dull. I find them incredibly fascinating. I watch C-Span Book TV on weekends, for instance. I read Homer and Dante, and listen to Paul Hindemith. I pine for ballet. And little makes me happier than digging into some arcane research. 

It goes way back to when I’m this kid, see. When my classmates were listening to Cousin Brucie on the AM radio and loving the Drifters or “Splish-splash, I was takin’ a bath,” I was spinning Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on the Sears Silvertone. 

In third grade, I enjoyed diagramming sentences. Why?

 These things come to mind because I recently came across an essay written by Artsy editor Casey Lesser about how seeing Guernica when she was 15 years old changed her life and set it on its course. I had an instant reaction to her piece because when I was about the same age, I also came across the painting. 

It was in the early 1960s and I was a high-school student in New Jersey. I took the bus to Manhattan as often as I could and practically lived in the city’s museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, where I became lifelong friends with Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Jackson Pollock’s Number 1A and, of course, the wall-spanning expanse of Picasso’s Guernica. 

Back then, when I would exit the elevator on the third floor of MoMA, the painting — more than 11 feet high and 25 feet wide — dominated the view to the right, on the far wall through two other galleries. It was on “permanent exhibition,” and I was confident it would always be there for me to see. Nothing is permanent in this life, and in 1981, the painting absconded to Spain. 

With its powerful and painful imagery, the painting was proof to my adolescent mind that there was a world more real and more meaningful than the suburban life I was stuck in. And like countless young “sensitive souls,” from Wilhelm Meister to Holden Caulfield, I urgently and earnestly yearned for something that cast a larger shadow on the screen. I was a little too conscious of being the hero of my own Bildungsroman. 

That early exposure to the art at MoMA, and especially Guernica, aimed me at my eventual career as an art critic. Parvis e glandibus quercus. Or, as Pope had it, “As the twig is bent, so the tree inclines.”

But this recognition also set me off to consider what other early exposures bent that twig. Of course, some of the most transformative influences were people: teachers, friends, and eventually, wives. But I am concerned here primarily with arts and books that yanked the steering wheel from my hand and sent me in new directions.

I was in high school and my new exposure to history, poetry, foreign languages, both Latin and Spanish, all kindled a growing sense that there was more to life than sitting in the living room watching Bonanza and eating Oreos. 

Many of us rebel as adolescents against the banality of our lives, and that of our parents’. Most of that rebellion is inchoate and poorly aimed, leading to teen drinking, minor car theft or simple sullenness. But in some few cases, such as mine, there was a clear alternative: For me, the life of the mind. 

Art and literature spoke of an existence that was not banal, but intense and meaningful. I began eating it up. 

For instance, theater. I had little experience of live theater until my freshman year in high school, when the class was bussed down to Princeton, N.J., to see Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the McCarter Theatre. It was the perfect introduction to the Bard; the story was clear and simple, so, while the language was baroque, we could still follow the play easily enough. 

McCarter Theatre Center

Then, the following fall, we went back to the McCarter to see O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. What crazed educator thought that a three-and-a-half hour play about a screwed up family in 1912 was a good one for high school sophomores, I don’t know. But it struck just the right note of high seriousness for my nascent psyche. I loved it. I wanted more. 

I’ve already written about my high school girlfriend, who became a professional musician, and how we used to make out on her couch while listening to Stravinsky on the phonograph. We went to countless concerts and recitals in New York and I came to love classical music. I bypassed the doo-wop: My Four Seasons were Vivaldi’s, not Frankie Valli’s. 

I took up reading contemporary literary fiction: Updike, Bellow, Pynchon. Two books especially hit the mark. I was bowled over by Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I sought epiphanies. It’s a book I still read again every few years. 

Then, I discovered Kazantzakis after watching the movie of Zorba the Greek, where I read the book and found in the novel a deeper level of Buddhist thinking, which sent me on to discover Zen via Alan Watts and poetry via Matsuo Basho. 

Each taste made me seek out more. Haiku eventually expanded into Paradise Lost — an inflation equivalent to the early seconds of the universe after the Big Bang. 

All this was heady stuff for a pimply-faced teenager, but even if only dimly understood at the time what I was reading and experiencing, I knew it was bigger and more important than my paper route or the Reader’s Digest. The desire for a richer, deeper, more profound life has been the driving force behind my inclination toward what used to be called high-brow culture.

There has been an ersatz distinction between high-brow and low-brow. But that distinction is characteristically middle-brow. There is a snobbery of the middle classes that seeks to distinguish itself from the uneducated tastes, and an aspirational striving for the status (and wealth) that seem to mark the upper classes. In this dynamic, there is an inherent self-loathing to the middle class, at least when it is self-aware. 

And no doubt my allegiance to fine art was originally spawned by this loathing of what seemed a mundane and insipid upbringing. Art told me there were more serious concerns in life, and bigger adventures. If I didn’t want to be squelched by the 9-to-5 life, hanged by the necktie and imprisoned by my own front lawn, then I would have to take on Bach, Joyce, Hokusai, Zora Neale Hurston, Laurence Sterne, Miles Davis, Correggio, Xenophon, and Philip Glass. Gobble them all up and look for even more with an incessant appetite. 

That was all a half-century ago. I have sucked up every bit of knowledge and wisdom I could find, only to discover that I knew less and less, and was more foolish than I ever knew possible. Now at 72, I no longer feel intolerant of the middle class that gave birth to me, but find it is the foundation of a society that allows me space to be an outlier. Only with the solid support of a functioning culture could I have found a means to leave it behind. Its tolerance allows me my eccentricity. I know I would have found none in Stalin’s Moscow nor Pol Pot’s Phnom Penh. 

So, I have been allowed to read what I want, see and hear what I want, and if that has led me away from the class that a-borned me, it has led me to a place where I find it hard to judge anyone. Not impossible, but difficult, knowing how little all my education and cultural exposure has taught me. Much information; little wisdom. 

But it has informed my life, made it richer, provided endless pleasure, occupied a mind that hated inactivity, and, as all great art and literature does, nurtured compassion and forgiveness, an awareness of others both locally and globally. It has been the key to let me step out of the prison of myself. 

I once wanted to change the world. Most of us did in the 1960s. We knew we could make it a better place. That has all collapsed. Now, my idealism is drained from me, my expectation for the future and future generations is quelled. I expect no better than life can serve up. There is no end, only perpetual churn and change. I cannot fix the world; it needs no fixing, it only needs accepting, faults and all. And my need for improvement turns in on myself. 

Someone once said in defense of our youthful enthusiasms that what is called maturity is made up of equal parts of cowardice and exhaustion. I once would have agreed. Exhaustion, maybe, but cowardice, no. Maturity is acceptance. “The wrastling for the world axeth a fal.” 

I still find myself bored by the simple and simple-minded, and find myself excited by the complex and the beautiful. And so, I read Tolstoy, listen to Bartok, examine the canvases of Titian and Francis Bacon, weep over the dance of Pina Bausch, and soak in the films of Tarkovsky. These may not be plebeian tastes, but they are my tastes. They satisfy. 

It is is not just the life of the mind, it is life to the mind. 

“Do not move. Let the wind speak.” 

May those I love try to forgive what I have made of it. 

It was one of those days in February; Eliot called it “Midwinter spring.” The temperature pushed close to 60 degrees, the sun was low in a clear sky and a breeze blew the treetops into some sort of syncopated dance swaying back and forth against each other.

That kind of light turns every shadow black and blasts every highlight into a glare. The lawn was covered in sweetgum balls and, like the song, there were three cats in the yard.

I took a walk around the house, up the driveway toward the highway and saw the gulley that went through the culvert and bent off into the woods and I realized that it would eventually dump into a creek that dumped into a river that dumped into bigger rivers until it hit the ocean. I was standing at the twig-tip of a vast dendritic pattern.

The last storm blew down a dozen or so pines, several still leaning like drunks against the straighter, darker trees. The floor of the woods was covered by last fall’s crumbling leaves.

The cats at once and together all flopped over sideways and rolled back and forth on their backs, like they were taking dust baths. Emily has gotten fat; Panther and Saffron are chunking up, too, but it is Emily that looks like a furry ball with legs and a tail. The ducks, all Indian Runners and some with orange bills, some with green and three with black bills that look like tire rubber, run in a nervous mob from one end of the enclosure to the other, squawking all the way. And then back. And then again, back and forth.

Saffron

I walked all around the yard to get some air, some sun and some exercise, and when I got back to the patio, I sat down in the sun to collect some vitamin D. I sat there in the canvas chair, with my arms dangling off the sides, fishing for cats, and Saffron jumped into my lap demanding attention.

The sun was so bright that with my eyes closed, I could still see the bright orange of the inside of my lids. I studied the vague patters I saw in that orange and wondered if they were interior or exterior; when I turned my head, the shapes didn’t move with it and so I assumed they must be the patterns of the trees in the yard, veined across the closed eyes. I tightened my closed-eye squint and the color turned to the most beautiful purple or mauve. Relax and orange, squeeze and purple.

Leaning back in the chair, I opened my eyes and took in the whole scene, woods and yard, cats and sweetgums, the black lines of shadow thrown by the dropping sun and the bright walkway reflecting like silver and I thought of the end of Goethe’s Faust.

He says, finally, “To the moment I say ‘Remain a while. You are so lovely.’ ”

Of course, that’s the point at which Faust dies, and I’m not quite ready to go, but I recognize the quiet satisfaction of such a moment. The earth pauses, the moment extends. It could hold this forever, except that it can’t.

The world is coming unhinged, again. The long history of genocide and war, of hatred and calamitous revanchism, of dictators and ignorance, comes recycled. For some it is a time of terror, of fleeing destruction and living in refugee camps, or of hiding from child soldiers seeking to machete anyone. There is an abundance of horror.

Yet in those tents in Jordan or those favelas in Brazil, or the ship-breaking yards of Bangladesh, there are moments of joy, of a mother and her child, of the children playing in the dust, a smile at the color of the rust in an old machine. The moments may be fleeting, and they may contrast with the background of tragedy, but they are real. And they are necessary.

Even for us in the First World, life gives us loss and death, suffering and pain. We will each go through heartache or divorce, the death of someone we love, the calumny of our enemies and the uncaring of those who should know better. For us, too, such moments are a requirement. Even if we don’t feel the oppression of tragedy, we too often suffer the banality of time passing unnoticed, of daily chores crowding out the glimmers of awareness that, when paid attention, kindle joy.

Joy, beauty, awareness, all give us a different relationship with existence, with the planet, with its people, with the sky and land, with the cosmos. Even if for an instant in a February afternoon, it keeps us alive, and wanting to be.

In the world of classical music, someone who tickles the ivories tends to be considered either a pianist or a musician. Musicians tend to play Bach and Beethoven; pianists rather favor Chopin and Liszt. 

Brendel

Of course, this is not a simple dichotomy; it is a spectrum. But it helps to understand the difference between, say Vladimir Horowitz and Alfred Brendel. 

The Brendel side sees the “text” as sacred and attempts to provide a sort of Platonic or idealized performance of the music. The Horowitz camp, instead, sees the music as a canvas on which to display the joys of piano playing and the possibilities afforded by the 88-key machine. 

The one sounds studied, the other sounds spontaneous.

Perhaps my bias shows. I tend to downplay the very laudable talents of a Brendel, because I see it as a kind of embalming, or a making of a museum exhibit. I have always been more taken with pianists who bring themselves to the score, to see the score not as an end, but as a beginning, as if it were a photographer’s negative that can be printed in many contrasts and tones. Not ideal forms, but Heraclitan flow.

Paderewski

The latter parts of the 19th century and the beginning of the next were the heyday of the pianist as star. It was the time of Paderewski and de Pachmann, who gave very personal performances of their programs. 

But somewhere between the world wars, there emerged praise of piano players who were notable “as musicians” rather than as pianists. It was praise heaped on such notables as Josef Hofmann and Artur Schnabel. The parallel might be thought of as journalism, where the actual reporter disappears from his story and only the facts remain. 

(James Joyce famously once said that an artist should remain “invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”)

And so, for Brendel (sorry for picking on so august a man), the score is something to be studied, balanced and weighed, finding tempo ratios to emphasize the unity of the piece in question, to make sure it all coheres as a whole, from initial downbeat to final chord. To make such a case often requires the pianist to avoid making too much of details here or there, to subsume all into the integrity of the whole.

de Pachmann

While for the pianist, as a class, the details are what make the pieces interesting. If you have to lose something of a long view, you gain immeasurably in the emotional communication of the piece. 

(The distinction between emphasizing the whole against emphasizing the detail was described by famous art history Heinrich Wölfflin as one of the defining distinctions between what he called “classical” art and the “Baroque,” or, more popularly, romanticism.)

 Pendulums swing back and forth, and the age of keyboard musicians such as Murray Perahia, Emanuel Ax, Olga Kern, Marc-Andre Hamelin, András Schiff and Nelson Freire is giving way to a new, more overtly expressive group of pianists as ivory ticklers, less concerned with hitting their marks than with connecting with their audiences on a primal level. 

I have brought up all this backstory to express my love for the music of four younger pianists — “younger” being a relative term: These are each in their 40s or 50s. But pianists tend to reach their expressive prime not in their salad days but in their riper age. A few, such as Arthur Rubinstein or Mieczysław Horszowski kept getting better into their 90s. 

Lisitsa/Beethoven

Valentina Lisitsa

The impetus for this is a new series of YouTube videos by Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa, now 46, in which she has begun recording all 32 Beethoven sonatas. She posts new videos one at a time as she goes through the canon chronologically. 

Her playing is brilliant but utterly untraditional. Fast movements are faster than a speeding bullet; slow movements can be dirge-tempo. Always her tempi are shifting, speeding up and slowing down, pauses added to phrases and dynamics ratcheting up and down, even within a two-note phrase. This is playing not about unity but about contrast and diversity. This is a Beethoven that is alive and having a grand time.

Lisitsa is a peculiar case in the history of virtuosi. She did not come up through the piano-competition mill, but by posting performances on YouTube and gaining a loyal fan base. 

This put off some fogey critics — especially those who rather preferred a piano playing wearing tails and white tie — but excited a generation of real fans. 

On an upright

Her first recordings were mostly of the music of Franz Liszt and Rachmaninoff — big Romantic pieces in which she could show off her blazing technique. But, unlike some other note-grinders, she didn’t simply hit the right notes in the right order, but instead made exciting music. 

Liszt himself knew how to make drama of his concerts, with his long hair and dashing attitude. Lisitsa gave us Liszt as theater. We have perhaps too often forgotten that a concert is an entertainment, that it has an audience. (Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2)

You watch Lisitsa’s face as she plays and it is clear she is having fun; the music gives her — and us — genuine pleasure. (La Campanella) She is not giving us a pianistic lecture in music history, but giving us a reason to enjoy life. 

Which is why her new Beethoven series is so exciting. (Rondo from the Waldstein sonata) This is Beethoven as intoxicating. As I write this, her series has reached the first six sonatas. They sizzle as she plays. There is ample pedal — something recent pianists have considered to be rather a deplorable sin, as if they were musical Puritans.

You can find scores of her performances on YouTube, including a barn-burning version of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 2 No. 3. 

Grimaud

But Lisitsa isn’t the only great pianist bringing new fire to classical music. Hélène Grimaud is just as astonishing. D.T. Max in The New Yorker wrote, “Grimaud doesn’t sound like most pianists: She is a rubato artist, a reinventor of phrasings, a taker of chances.”  

Her performance of Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription of the Bach Chaconne is furious and exciting. Purists complain that Busoni is “kein Bach,” but it is great music. 

It is the taking of chances, of seeing familiar ground in new ways that make my favorite pianists so moving. For them, classical music is not old, it is as present as today’s performance. 

These pianists are virtuosi, but more than that. They find the meaning in the music, what the music is really about, and how it says that music to its audience. 

My third nominee is the Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev. He also makes the music his own. He has technique to burn — listen to the Schulz-Evler transcription of the Blue Danube — but he can also turn out a Scarlatti sonata better than anyone since Horowitz, although, like the older pianist, he can sometimes rewrite the music, adding octaves or, in one case, his own coda. 

His recordings of the five Beethoven concertos is a revelation. 

Denk

And finally, I have heard Jeremy Denk many times live, none more overwhelming than his program at the Zankel Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in 2008, when he played, back-to-back, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata and Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata — the two thorniest and most monumental pieces in the repertoire, each 45-minutes long. Then, for encore, he reprised the “Hawthorne” movement from the Ives. It was a memorable night of knuckle-busting. (Alcotts movement from the Concord Sonata). 

Denk has a sense of humor, which shows up in his blog, “Think Denk,” but also in his recitals. I heard him perform Beethoven’s “Eroica” Variations, which he explained as, at least partly, comic, and his performance was both beautiful and witty.

He also performs the piano music of György Ligeti, which he plays as fluently as if it were Mozart and makes a persuasive case for it. (Etude: “Disorder.”)

“There’s something I like about music that’s on the edge of destroying itself,” he has said. 

There are others in the younger generation that have also taken up the cause for more fluid, flexible and exciting performance. But these four are the ones I know best and admire the most. Seek them out.

I first became interested in Monet’s water lilies when I was teaching black-and-white photography in Virginia, over 40 years ago. Of course, I had always loved the paintings; I grew up with his long panel at the Museum of Modern Art, which was a kind of second home as a teenager. 

But while I loved them, I hadn’t really thought about them. 

Because the photo lab where I taught back then was set up entirely for black-and-white, I thought in black-and-white. Seeing that way is different from seeing in color. A bright red might grab your eye in a scene you look at, but in the monochrome print you make, it is the same gray as a green or a blue. So, you learn to see in lights and darks, highlights and shadows. The world becomes translated to patches of charcoal and blasts of ivory. 

Such seeing — and thinking — leads to seeing your frame as a kind of jigsaw puzzle of those highlights and shadows, and you use them to make designs. Patterns. It is what is taught as “composition.” Rule of thirds; foreground-background. The frame edge becomes a kind of corral fence inside of which you deploy the monochrome elements of your design. 

But, looking at Monet’s nymphéas, I realized there was very little careful design, the way I was taught to see. Especially in the long ribbon-like murals of water lilies. I wondered if there were a way to make a successful black-and-white version of them. 

Back then, there was no digital photography; it was all Tri-X, Dektol and Kodabromide. I couldn’t easily drain an image of a Monet painting of its color to see what it looked like in black-and-white. But there were old art books that had black-and-white illustrations, and I found a few of those books and attempted to study them. There didn’t seem to be any good reason to look at such a painting; without the color, the image was vague, inchoate and pointless. 

At first, I put it all down to poor reproduction. Perhaps if I made my own photographs. So I dragged out my 4-by-5-inch field camera and tripod and drove down to Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge on Back Bay, at the north end of the Outer Banks, where there was a rich crop of Nymphaeaceae (the scientific name of the water lily family, a name richer in vowels than the plant is in chlorophyll). 

Now, I had photographed water lilies before. I made some images I was happy with at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina. But there, I was photographing individual water lilies, or small pairs or trios, which allow for easy disposition into designs. Or I could use a single blossom as a point of focus.

What I was now interested in was the mass of lily pads floating on a larger body of water, a deracinated version of Monet’s luscious color images. Was there something of value that could be extracted from the subject? 

It isn’t as though Monet has not had imitators. Since his first water lilies in the 1860s, there have been knock-offs. The 20th century is especially full of epigones. Most all have managed to attempt some variation not on water lilies, per se, but variations on Monet’s take on water lilies. 

They’ve been done in water colors

In thick impasto

in pen and ink

colored pencil

in silk screen or other print forms

and my favorite: wallpaper

Even Pop Artist Roy Lichtenstein has had his go at the subject

The impact of Monet’s flurry of flowers has been enormous. I got on the queue and tried my luck. 

I carried my bulky view camera out to the wildlife refuge and set it up looking down on a clutch of lily pads and tried to find a way to frame them that made sense. 

The initial problem was how to make a black-and-white design with so chaotic a subject matter. Should I angle the camera out to exaggerate the near-far relationship? Should I attempt the “overall” design and find them roughly equal size in the frame?

Should I use massed pads as individual subjects and pair groups rather than individual pads?

Or use clear sections of water as negative space?

Should I get close and single out an individual? I could put bits of others agains the frame edge to irregularize the rectangle.

I tried many different approaches. 

The results look best shown as 20”-24” prints, large for photographs — almost the size of paintings. (The physicality of prints, the rich black of the silver image, and the impact of the size is impossible to show on a digital screen. You have to imagine.)

After all this, what was my conclusion? Well, I never really came to one. My photographs were interesting enough, but I’m not sure they told me that much about Monet’s sense of design. 

That had to wait until I managed to visit Monet’s gardens at Giverny, some 30 miles northwest of Paris. I have now been there four times, and each time attempting to make images. The first visit, I attempted to make black and white images, primarily. The second, I gave in completely to color and by the third visit, I had found my own way into making images of this famous garden. 

But the water lilies were still an issue. They really don’t make that interesting a photograph. They are largely a dull green against a greenish, brownish water. 

A few years before, I had made a photograph of water lilies in a pond in Mississippi that I later noticed looked very like vintage photographs made at Monet’s water garden, where the water and its plants was just one element in an otherwise traditional landscape design. 

Monet, however, was not making traditional landscapes. He was interested in something completely other. On a flat canvas, he was seeing into layers of distances: the water surface, the water underneath the surface and the reflection in the water of the sky, the clouds, and the trees surrounding the pond. 

This, then, became my intent as I came back to Giverny and photographed once again the lily pond that Monet had created. 

I found I could recreate a passable Monet imitation, but I’m not happy with doing that. 

There were images that looked under the surface to find the tangle of roots underneath and bits of tree reflection and sky on the mirror interface of the water.

I made wider and wider images, like the cinemascope panels made by the painter.

And I found ways to mix the water lilies with the weeping willows.

But this was all pastiche. I enjoyed them, but they weren’t me. They were apprentice lessons. Do it his way first and then wander off on your own.

My own inclination is to find other ways of “complexifying” an image. I like a good tangle, I enjoy looking through one tangle at another. 

So, I sought to mix the water lilies of Giverny with the plants, reflections and trees to show, not the mere patterns of lily pads

which would never approximate Monet’s luxurious colors, but rather to see what I could find for myself in the garden. Nature is prolific and extravagant, it seeks to fill the world in a green horror vacui.   

I love seeing vegetable growth, the vines, the twigs, leaves, panicles, stalks and roots. And the gardens at Giverny overflow with sprouting, stretching and swelling. 

In my several visits to Giverny, I have amassed a couple of thousand photographs. Many are duplicates or in poor focus, but there must be at least 1500 images that are printable and showable. Most are of the upper garden and the flowers there, not the lower garden with the water lilies. 

But walking through Monet’s vision in the fall is a kind a paradise. I think of Milton’s Eve or Marvell’s “Garden,” or Wordsworth’s daffodils. A world alive; a world happy and bright; a world we can sometimes enter. 

 

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On the surface, water lilies would seem to be an unpromising subject for painting. Except for their flowers, there is little color to them. Their shapes are mostly just repetitive ovals on the surface of the water. Unlike a rose or a tulip, there is little structure to be seen — a pad floating on the water, a bloom — usually plain white — in an open space here or there. 

But Claude Monet managed to turn them into an icon of both Impressionism and Modernism. The water lily is as identified with Monet as sunflowers are with Van Gogh or soup cans with Warhol. And since then, a gazillion artists after him have imitated his work. 

Like photographer Edward Weston and his peppers, no one before him thought it worth their attention; after him, hordes of artists and Sunday painters have taken their crack at it. An artist sees something nobody notices, and suddenly, everyone can see them. 

The problem is, very like Weston and his peppers, his epigones don’t merely see water lilies, but some reflection in their minds of having remembered Monet’s water lilies. The paintings reshape reality. 

In some ways, Monet actually made it harder to see the real water lilies. 

What is missed is that Monet wasn’t painting water lilies in his some 250 canvases on the subject. They are merely pretext. When he first began painting them, he wanted to paint what he saw. Monet was the great transcriber. As Cezanne said, “He is only an eye; but what an eye.” 

He could see nuance of color and was able to paint not what he knew but what activated his retina — that is, not a house or a peony, but whites, reds and blues, shaded from highlight to shadow. When put down on canvas, those hues and tones could be seen as a house or peony, but it was never the object itself that he attempted to capture, but the visual impression of them. 

“Perhaps my originality boils down to being a hypersensitive receptor,” he said, “and the expedience of a shorthand by means of which I project on a canvas, as if on a screen, impressions registered on my retina.”

But at some point as he turned into the grand old man of Impressionism, the outer world ceased to be of much importance and became merely the armature for his work, the reason for wiping across his canvas his flake white, vermilion, madder, cobalt blue and emerald green.

In a letter, he wrote, “The subject doesn’t matter!”

In the earlier work, there is usually a subject; in the later work, he developed a sort of “overall” design, almost like wallpaper. He prefigured the world of such later painters as Jackson Pollock. Indeed, it was really only after the Abstract Impressionists that common audiences could understand what was going on in Monet’s late water lilies. 

Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

They were, to paraphrase Pollock, not water lilies at all, they were paintings. 

The best and most memorable of them are the mural-size nymphéas. Any museum in the world worth its salt has one of these: MoMA, the Carnegie, Chicago, etc. They tend to be huge, wide, paintings, almost ribbons of paint stretched 10-, 15-, or 20-feet wide as grand Cinemascope wide-screen visions. And where, in the earlier paintings, the water lilies were often the foreground to a more conventional landscape, backgrounded with trees and a shoreline, the later ones eliminate the horizon and become sheets of color. 

Museum of Modern Art, NY

In those museums, a single Nymphéas (as he called them) could eat up an entire gallery wall. 

But the grandaddy of them all are the eight paintings mounted in two oval rooms of the Orangerie in Paris. If you lined them up end to end, they would be longer than a football field. The two rooms are end-to-end, making a floorplan in the shape of an “infinity” symbol. Along the longer sides, panels are some 42-feet long and 6-feet high, and the pointy end of the football shaped rooms, the paintings are 20-feet long. Between each pair of panels is an entrance. The ceiling is a kind of skylight, flooding the paintings with natural light. The walls are white. 

The whole is one of the wonders of the art world. Critic André Masson famously called the installation the “Sistine Chapel of Impressionism.” 

The whole thing came together because of time and place — a confluence of the World War and the room in which to hang the pictures. 


Even 30 years before the Orangerie finally opened, Monet had in mind the idea. “One imagines a circular room, the walls of which, above the baseboard, would be entirely filled by water dotted with these plants to the very horizon, walls of a transparency by turns toned green and mauve, the still water’s calm and the silence reflecting the opened blossoms; the tones are vague, lovingly nuanced, as delicate as a dream.” 

He was thinking primarily of a private patron decorating his home. 

Some years later, he was still mulling the project. In a 1905 article in the Gazette des Beaux Arts, he was quoted, “At one point I was visited by the temptation to use the theme of nymphéas for a decoration. Carried the length of the walls, enveloping the entire interior with its unity.”

Still, nothing came of the idea. It sat in the back of the painter’s mind for another decade. Then came the war. The Western Front and the trenches of World War 1 were as close as 35 miles from Monet’s home in Giverny. At times, he could hear the artillery fire. In 1914, his wife had recently died, and so had his elder son. The younger son and his step-son had joined the army. Monet was devastated and anxious. Many of the inhabitants of Giverny fled to safety but Monet remained: “If those savages must kill me, it will be in the middle of my canvases, in front of all my life’s work.” He saw, as an old man, his painting as his patriotic contribution.

{French filmmaker and playwright Sacha Guitry captured silent film of Monet painting in his garden in 1914.) 

At the end of the war, the painter formed an idea for a memorial, a gift to the nation commemorating both the victory and the loss of life. He proposed this to his longtime friend, now prime minister of France, Georges Clemenceau, two large panels, one of flowers to mark the victory and the other of weeping willows as a memorial to those who died. (Willows were a common symbol of mourning in the 19th century.) 

The day after the Armistice in 1918, Monet wrote to Clemenceau: “I am on the verge of finishing two decorative panels which I want to sign on Victory day, and am writing to ask you if they could be offered to the State with you acting as intermediary.”

The prime minister liked the idea, but suggested a larger series of a dozen panels. It grew to 19 panels at one point, before winding up with the eight we see today at the Orangerie. Monet fussed and painted, and fussed and destroyed paintings he was unsatisfied with, and fussed over where they might be displayed. Several venues came up and were dismissed, for various reasons. 

Ultimately, two rooms at the Orangerie at the far end of the Tuileries gardens in Paris, near the Place de la Concorde were chosen and prepared. It had been built in 1852 by Napoleon III as a place to house citrus trees.

 Unfortunately, Monet never got to see the paintings in place. He died  in December, 1926, and the water lilies at the Orangerie were opened to the public May 17, 1927. 

Orangerie

At the time, both Monet and Clemenceau were seen by the post-war generation as old-hat, a holdover from a previous century and for the next 40 years, they were occasionally walled over to allow the showing of newer art. But after the next great war and with the rise of Abstract Expressionism, Monet was recognized not so much as a holdover, but as a prophet of the coming abstraction.

Musee Marmottan, Paris

During his life, Monet was enormously popular and became rich — something very few artists, even great and now-famous artists failed to achieve — but his water lilies were not always understood. For a show of water lily paintings in 1909, one critic wrote: “One’s first reaction to these 48 pictures is bewilderment. In most of them, objections having little to do with painting are the cause of this malaise; they have to do more with the identity of the subject and the number of duplications and with the at first seemingly fragmentary aspect of these pictures. The paintings manifest an authority and independence, an egocentric quality that is offensive to our vanity and humbling to to our pride. M. Claude Monet is interested in pleasing only himself.”

Nelson Atkins Musuem, Texas

But at least one critic seems to have grasped something essential about the paintings. They are not designs carefully laid out inside a frame, with horizon lines and identifiable primary subjects. French critic Roger Marx noticed that same year, “The painter deliberately broke away from the teachings of Western tradition by not seeding pyramidal lines or a single point of focus. The nature of what is fixed, immutable, appears to him to contradict the very essence of fluidity; he wants attention diffused and scattered everywhere. He considers himself free to place the small gardens of his archipelago wherever he pleases: to the right, to the left at the top of at the bottom of his canvas.”

Several Impressionist painters were influenced by Japanese prints and Chinese art at the time. Monet, like Van Gogh, even copied some of them in oil paint. He built a bridge in his water garden at Giverny in the style of a Japanese bridge on a Hokusai print. He was photographed on it with Clemenceau.

But the influence on the large water lilies has not always been mentioned.

One of the salient characteristics of Chinese landscape painting is that one doesn’t just stand back and take in the whole as a coherent design, but rather, might follow a path the artist has laid out, along a river or up a mountain, finally coming to rest at a little halfway house for contemplation.

  Many such paintings are not even possible to view in toto, since they are scrolls that must be slowly unwrapped and rerolled as you follow a journey from one end to the other. The details along the way are to be lingered over. In such work, there is no controlling or overarching composition or design. Only the detail.

And in Monet’s earlier paintings, there are horizons, rivers, trees, umbrellas, flowers — something to make a shape within the shape of the canvas, a single pattern that one can step back and take in at a single bite.

But when you have a 42-foot long panel that is 7 times longer than it is high, and in a room too narrow to step back to take it all in at once, you are forced to view the work as if it were a scroll, and enjoy detail after detail as you walk along the painting’s length. 

And so, you step from detail to detail in the Orangerie, relishing the daub of yellow and the streak of blue and, if you are in the receptive mood, you let go anxiety and discontent and let the water and floating lily pads calm you into a restful and meditative state. 

Orangerie detail

Or, as Monet put it, “it would attain the illusion of a whole without end, of a watery surface without horizon and without banks; nerves overstrained by work would be relaxed there, following the restful example of the still waters, and to whomsoever [visited], it would offer an asylum of peaceful meditation at the center of a flowery aquarium.”

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