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Some years ago, when we were looking for a new cello for our daughter, we visited a luthier who took the time to answer our questions about the differences among all the instruments he had. 

What exactly is the advantage of the $40,000 violoncello over the $1500 student piece? The luthier picked up a beginner model and played a few notes. It sounded good; clear pitch and nice tone.

“But notice this,” he said, drawing the bow back over the C-string. The tone began, clear but muted. In a moment, the instrument seemed to wake up and the tone became richer, louder and more resonant. 

He then picked up a better instrument. The bow drew over the same string and immediately, the tone popped. 

A third cello was the high-end he had on hand, a French instrument from the mid-19th century. One touch of the bow and the thing sang like a Pavarotti, clear, bright, loud, rich as foie gras. It almost seemed to vibrate before he moved the bow. It was electric, alive. It was as if the cello was paying as close attention to him as he was to the cello. 

The difference is resonance. Resonance is when one vibrating body causes another, usually larger body, to vibrate sympathetically, which often amplifies the effect — in this case, sound. 

Resonance may be vibrating air, or, as in the cello, the interior and back panel of the instrument. If you bow a naked string, you get a puny sound that cannot project. But let that string’s vibration be carried down through a bridge into the body of the cello through soundposts and it causes the back of the cello to vibrate sympathetically and become, essentially, a speaker, to let the music fill a concert hall. The French cello we heard had a more subtly planed and constructed back panel, of graded thickness, which allowed it to resonate throughout the range of pitches playable on the cello.

Resonance isn’t just for music, though. It is one of the means by which art and literature amplify their meanings. The words say one thing, but behind them, larger and peeking through, are the ghosts of all literary history. 

One of the most famous example is the opening of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. “April is the cruelest month … stirring dull roots with spring rain.” The poem ironically borrows its resonance from Chaucer: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, the droghte of March hath perced to the roote …” 

When I was a sophomore — like most sophomores — I believed that the “trick” was to spot the allusions intellectually, as if they were footnotes (Eliot did not help by including footnotes with the poem). As if being clever were the point of poetry. 

But that is not it at all, that is not what is meant at all.

Poetry such as Eliot’s assumes a familiarity with a wide variety of literature of the past, but not as a sort of Jeopardy quiz — rather, if you have a chest stuffed with the rags and bones of your culture, the meaning rather vibrates sympathetically. You feel it rather than think it, more like weather than like a weather report.

Consider, say, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. “Fourscore and seven years ago…” He could have said, simply, “Eighty-seven years ago…” But his audience was a Bible-familiar one, who would have heard in that cadence an echo of the King James version of Psalm 90: “The days of our years are threescore and ten.” Listeners to the speech would not have smiled and told themselves, “How clever, he’s referencing the Bible,” but rather, the organ-tones of the Authorized Version would have resonated in their limbic system, adding heft to the president’s words. 

Lincoln also frequently couched his rhetoric in the words of birth and death, which would resonate deeply with his audience at the dedication of a cemetery, when death had undone so many. Few Americans, North or South, escaped losing family members in that conflagration. 

So, when he continues: “brought forth,” “conceived,” “created,” “conceived” again, “endure,” “gave their lives,” “that the nation might live,” “new birth of freedom,” and “shall not perish,” that personally shared sense of accouchement and mortality pushes up from underneath the words, giving the republic blood and veins, nerves and bones. 

This is not a policy speech, filled with abstractions and empty words, but rather, a text resonant with the power of birth and death. That and the biblical tone give it its solemnity and power. 

In English, how much more resonant is the title of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past — an echo of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 — than a simple English translation of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (“in search of lost time” — which sounds more like someone trying to catch a missed train). 

In the English-speaking world, the sounding board of so much resonance comes from Shakespeare (Brave New World; Band of Brothers; Pomp and Circumstance; The Winter of our Discontent; Slings and Arrows), the King James Bible (Absalom, Absalom!; The Children of Men; Clouds of Witness; East of Eden), and the Book of Common Prayer (The World, the Flesh and the Devil; Ashes to Ashes; Till Death Us Do Part; Peace in Our Time.)

Resonance overflows in culture, usually passing unremarked, but obvious — at least to those who have absorbed their history, their literature and art, even popular art.

Consider King Kong, captured and shackled with “chains of chrome steel” in New York. The curtain rises and there is our ape, crucified. Kong is not simply a nightmare monster ravaging a city, but a sympathetic sufferer. 

Or take Jeff Koons porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp, Bubbles. Behind that monument to banality is the historical power of the Elgin Marbles and the East Pediment of the Parthenon. 

The resonance can also work in reverse, as a pop culture image can enlarge a high culture image: That wide-shoulder, spindly-leg Richard III of Olivier was built from the image of Disney’s Big Bad Wolf. Olivier has remarked on this several times. 

In music, there are quotes from previous music, such as Rachmaninoff’s constant use of the Dies Irae of plainchant. But such a quote is meant to be recognized immediately for what it is. 

More to the point of resonance is the half-hour finale to Gustav Mahler’s enormous Third Symphony, a deeply moving adagio that can bring a sergeant-major to weeping. Hidden in its main theme is the slow movement of Beethoven’s final string quartet — the one with the epigraph: “Muss es sein? Es muss sein!” (Must it be? It must be!) When Mahler says his symphony must contain the whole world, this is the resonance behind it. We might not recognize the tune until it is pointed out — when it becomes obvious — but it works its weight upon us in the audience anyway: a faint remembrance of things past that makes the present music glow from inside. 

The problem with all this is that it posits a cultured audience, one reasonably familiar with the art, poetry, literature, music and theater of at least 2,500 years of European culture, something increasingly rare. In the past, those who read poetry or collected art had also read the Bible and Homer. Now it is rare to find even a professed Christian who has actually read the whole Bible, or remembers stories from it that a hundred years ago were common heritage: David and Jonathan; Ruth and Naomi; Balshazzar’s feast; Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; Balaam’s ass. So now, when reading Melville, the name Ahab or Ishmael require footnotes when, in the past, they carried a rich resonance on first reading. 

Of course, no one can have such a complete familiarity of English and European literature and art to catch all of the baited hooks that authors and artists drop down. And some writers (I’m talking about you, Ezra Pound) are so obscure that you would have to be Ezra himself to understand all the buried treasure he has left in his Cantos. This is overkill. Hang it all, Ezra, there can be but one Cantos, and thank god for that. 

But, in the past, even a reasonably well-read audience felt the presence of the pulse underneath the skin of what they were reading. So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to what we read and see.

apostle 1When I was leaving the theater after seeing Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, way back in 1997, a loud woman in the back of the crowd screamed out, somewhat redundantly, ”That’s the worst movie I have ever seen … in my entire life.”

At first, I couldn’t understand her reaction. It was a very good film, a quiet, intense character study of a Southern preacher. Perhaps, I thought, there were not enough car crashes in it, not enough glowing, cherry-red petro-explosions.

Certainly the film had not fulfilled her expectations.

And that was the sticking point. I have thought about it long and hard. Was The Apostle an outlier or a harbinger? There have been many articles written about the death of irony, yet, irony refuses quite to go away. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, led to a brief hiccup in our otherwise comforting embrace of the snarky, but it soon returned. If we briefly took a breath and said to ourselves, some things are too real, too important to sniff at, well, then it didn’t stop Stephen Colbert, it didn’t put an end to The Onion.

But there was still something in Duvall’s film. The singular quality of the film is its lack of irony. Everything is presented utterly straight, with no snide comments under the breath, no revelation of hypocrisy, no hidden agenda. Duvall neither makes fun of the Apostle’s deeply held religion, nor does he proselytize for it: It is not a “Christian” film, but a sober look at the complexities of a Christian life, fully rounded, and not a summation of a generic Christian life, but rather only this one person. Irony depends on stereotypes, on “classes” of people, not on individuals.

This straightforwardness is rare in Hollywood, perhaps unique, where we expect a cushion of irony to protect us from messy experience. hangover 1

Irony, narrowly defined, is saying one thing but meaning another. As when we see a friend green-skinned and hung over in the morning and say to him, ”You look bright and chipper today.”

In that, we are both in on the joke. Often, though, an audience is split between those who get it and those who don’t. Irony is thus used frequently as a kind of shibboleth for a clique. Those who ”get it” are in, those who don’t move to a retirement community in Florida.

Irony is also a literary trope, which means, its expectations are linguistic and not experiential. Most Hollywood movies set up a form and audiences know where the story is going. A gun flashed in an early scene will by expectation be used in a later scene. The surprise we wait for is the when.

But The Apostle never quite does this. Each time we spot an obvious plot development, the movie goes elsewhere, and where it goes is closer to what might happen in real life than what we would normally expect in a movie.

All setups are frustrated.

Unlike almost any mainstream Hollywood film, there was no ”in joke” to be in on.

Instead, the story of the Apostle E.F. is given to us as an esthetic construct, something to apprehend and appreciate, to hold in our mind, whole, as we might hold in our hands a glass orb, rotating it and seeing it from all angles.

In its lack of irony, The Apostle is an odd fit for our cultural moment. The 20th Century was a century of irony; irony has been our lingua franca. But, there are some indications that as we descend into the 21st, irony has begun to wear out its welcome. It is still pervasive, but oftentimes, it seems to come by rote, as in so many sitcom pilots, seemingly written from some formula. Irony is tired; it wants to put up its feet and rest. We expect the irony, but we don’t really believe in it anymore. It’s just the norm, which we also are too tired to give up.

This shift away from irony has happened before: It is clearest in the change from the 18th to 19th centuries, from the irony of Alexander Pope to the sincerity of William Wordsworth.

daffodilsOne has only to compare the mock epic tone of The Rape of the Lock with the straightforwardness, almost blandness of “I wandered lonely as a cloud/ That floats on high o’er vales and hills,/ When all at once I saw a crowd,/ A host, of golden daffodils.”

A younger generation back then, tired of the artificiality of the older and sought to substitute an authenticity for the artifice.

There were things that were important to be said, the younger generation thought, and to be said clearly and meaningfully. The century that followed Wordsworth was a century without irony — and almost, at times, it seemed without a sense of humor.

Eventually, the century gagged on its own sincerity, so that when the new one began, the page flipped back. Poets such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound stoked their verses heavily with irony, never saying quite what they meant, always approaching their subject obliquely.

We no longer trusted the Great Truth spelled out in large, direct letters, and for good reason. Too many Great Truths turned out to be miserable lies. Colonialism, Imperialism, racism, purity, idealism. There have been many deaths. picasso violin

This wasn’t true only in literature. Music turned from Tchaikovsky’s grand passions to Stravinsky’s tweaked noses, art from grand historical paintings to pasted bits of daily newspapers and deconstructed violins.

One has only to compare the historical straggler, such as D.W. Griffith’s sentimental Way Down East with Ernst Lubitsch’s brassy Ninotchka. It is the same change. You can see the pendulum swing, saeculorum decursum, over and over.

Between the irony and the directness there is constant battle, for neither is sufficient. Each mode has both its strengths and weaknesses. Direct sentiment soon devolves into Victorian sentimentality, so that we laugh now at the mawkishness of much of it. But irony declines into mere cleverness, so that we admire an author’s wit, without much regard for his sense.

This has certainly been the case in Hollywood. It is rare to find a film in which actors behave the way any real people behave or feel the feelings of real people. Instead, they speak in catch phrases that ring with bell-like cleverness. The plots are artificial; their resolutions preposterous.

”Hasta la vista, baby!”

”Go ahead, punk, make my day!”

”Show me the money.”

“I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!”

On television, it is even thicker. Seinfeld was a wonderfully clever sitcom, but it was, by its own admission, about ”nothing.” All style, no substance.

Most sitcoms are the same, and most hourlong dramas are numbingly formulaic. Forrest gump

Yet, there is a hunger for substance. It shows up in such mainstream places as movies like Forrest Gump, where the sincerity and lack of irony of its main character seems like a breath of life. The movie itself was mildly ironic, but the character was guileless. And what is more, his earnestness — that is, his ”pure heart” — won him all his prizes. (I am not defending the film as a whole, but only making a point about its underlying proposal of directness and sincerity — many people despise the film for this very reason).

In that, the tone of the movie was completely at odds with its predecessor, Being There, where we were all in on the great in-joke, as the idiot gardener, Chance, fools all the supposedly smart stuffed shirts into finding profundity in his inanities. Chauncey Gardner

And just as a clever century distrusts an earnest one, the pendulum swings back and we are beginning to be unsatisfied by the cleverness. The deeper Quentin Tarantino dives into genre film pastiche, the more irrelevant he becomes. His first films were about something — the deaths in Pulp Fiction, however clever in terms of plot, were real deaths with consequences; in Kill Bill, the deaths are just tin ducks in a shooting gallery. They carry no punch.

This great cultural sea change may be due, but it hasn’t become pervasive yet. Still, there are warning signs: Sincerity has also brought us political correctness; it has brought New Age philosophy; it has brought us any part of a Tyler Perry movie that isn’t Madea.

For, while irony requires a modicum of intelligence, sincerity is democratic: Everyone is invited — no brain too small. It runs the gamut from genius to imbecility. Not every 19th century poet was Wordsworth; heck, even Wordsworth was only Wordsworth on a good day.

The watchword for irony is skepticism; for sincerity, credulity. Blind faith in alternative medicines, UFOs and astrology is only possible in a time when our irony is eroding.

Yet, irony doesn’t get off the hook so easily, either. There are reasons some people feel compelled to give it up as the new century reaches its teen years.

The first is that irony is words, not life. It is essentially linguistic. That is, its rules and habits are linguistic rules, not experiential rules.

With irony, as with a joke, you have to have the setup and punch line come in the right order, followed by the rim shot. Out of sequence, they fall flat and meaningless.

Real life has other demands, but with irony, we translate the experience of life into the language. Language is a kind of parallel universe, divorced from reality, but somehow accepted as its mirror: When we are laughing at a joke on a sitcom, we are laughing not at life, but at language.

It is at the core of what is called Modern Art, that the process becomes the subject: The painter paints paintings about paint, the playwright constructs dialogue about speech, the sculptor shows us the raw surface of stone. Modernism has been about the tools it uses.

And that is why, at the end of the Modern century, the armor of irony that has protected our egos from the embarrassment of our sentiment has begun to fall off. We demand real experience.

When that woman yelled out her frustration at The Apostle, she was complaining that her linguistic expectations — the language of film we have all become accustomed to — were violated. Robert Duvall was doing something different.

But our culture now requires of all of us that we rise above our comfortable irony and attempt to see what is actually out there, floating in reality.

And deal with it.

 
 
 
 
 

A Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers: 

“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”

birds

This is about two very unpleasant men and a third about whom I know little except his work and talent. I learned from all three.

Old EzThe first is Ezra Pound, a vile anti-semite and spouter of crackpot economic and political — to say nothing of conspiracy — theories. He also wrote some profoundly beautiful verse. When I was in college, I pored over his Personae, the collection of his shorter poems. But that is not why he makes this list. I read a lot of wonderful poetry by lots of excellent poets.

The one thing you have to say about Pound is that he knows a lot of stuff. And as he got older, more and more of that stuff became the upholstery of his writing — cushion stuffing, basically. Pound couldn’t help writing about what he knew — or rather what he had read about. It is very literary knowledge and you wonder if he ever looked around him to see the street traffic or the overcoats his fellow pedestrians were wearing against the winter. Instead, his head is stuck in the world of Procne and Philomela, that of Greek classical culture, Renaissance finance, the historical concepts of founding fathers and Provencal verse forms.

I mention Procne and Philomela for a reason. In his early poetry, any reference to nature comes in the form of a literary reference. Hence nightingales and doves. In the myth, Procne was turned into a swallow and her sister into a nightingale. In Pound, owls are Athena and eagles are imperial. One gets used to this as one gets used to the scenic flats in a stage set. pound mugshot

But then, after the war, when Pound, who had been making rather silly anti-American radio broadcasts for il Duce, was arrested and imprisoned as a traitor in a POW camp in Pisa, his poetry begins to crack, much like he cracked mentally. The Pisan Cantos, for which he won the Bollingen Prize for poetry in 1948, has its share of remembered, misremembered and half-remembered arcana, but throughout the many sections of the book, moments pop through where you are suddenly out of the dusty library of his brain and in a cage in Pisa, noticing actual weather and actual birds.

“4 birds on 3 wires, one bird on one”

And you see them, black notes on a musical staff. The world begins to break through the battlements of book learning. Air ventilates the stony cell of his brain.

“The Pisan clouds are undoubtedly various

and splendid as any I have seen since

at Scudder’s Falls on the Schuylkill

by which stream I seem to recall a feller

settin’ in a rudimentary shack doin’ nawthin’

not fishin’, just watchin’ the water,

a man of about forty-five

nothing counts save the quality of the affection”

At several points he notices small but very real details:

“That butterfly has gone out thru my smoke hole.”

And you weep to know that buried under all that pointless erudition — an erudition that is a deflection of experience — there is a genuine human soul who might have been truly great. Cantos

The final fragments of Cantos speak of his dawning understanding of what he has failed to grasp.

“Let the gods forgive what I

have made

Let those I love try to forgive

what I have made”

These are the final words of his Cantos, and your heart breaks. And you remember the quote from Henry Miller: “What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature.”

Literature is nice, but living one’s life in the actual weather wearing actual galoshes is more to the point.

The relationship between brain and book is explored in the next book — which has the most unfortunate title since the now out-of-print Design of Active-Site Directed Irreversible Enzyme Inhibitors: ZenbookIt is Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The title is a faddish one, that practically screams, “I was written in 1974!” The book has nothing meaningful to say about either Zen Buddhism or motorcycles. But it has a lot to say about the central distinction between nouns and verbs as they play out both in our minds and in the world before us.

Pirsig makes no attempt to be likable. He is spiny, querulous, bossy, pedantic, and exhibits some of the anempathetic qualities of Asberger syndrome. Yet, he is unquestionably brilliant.

He uses Plato’s dialog, Phaedrus, to examine what he calls “Quality,” which he defines in an entirely idiosyncratic way, essentially remaking the word entirely. Pirsig

“Quality is not a thing. It is an event.”

That is, a verb, not a noun. It is one’s engagement with the world in the instantaneous present, before anything is named or understood.

The book slowly builds to this understanding as Pirsig takes a motorcycle trip with his son. The tour is interrupted by long stretches of philosophical discussion taking us into the issues of perception.

“Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past, and therefore unreal.” When you have experienced something and given it a name, it is already over. That unintellectualized instant of engagement is an active boiling; anything after it is already a snapshot looked at in leisure.

And we tend to fit what we experience into the patterns of the snapshots we already have in our photo album. As I have said many times, “What you know prevents learning.”

The climax of the book, for me, comes when Pirsig makes the leap from this to the words of the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, and suddenly, the odd, incomprehensible language of that Chinese classic pops into palpable reality: “The name that can be named is not the absolute name.” Pirsig substitutes his odd definition of “quality:” “Fathomless! Like the fountainhead of all things …  Yet crystal clear like water it seems to remain.”

I have since substituted the word “beauty” for “quality.” If art seeks beauty, it is in the form of engagement with “the fountainhead of all things,” the precious, unslotted, uncataloged now and its very active nowness. Beauty is the engagement, not the thing: A verb, not a noun.

But language itself can be bypassed. Too many seem to believe that thought comes in words. It may do so, but a good deal of thought comes non-verbally. There is visual thinking, aural thinking, spatial thinking, temporal thinking. You cannot verbally engage your brain with a pitcher’s slider and hope to connect with the bat. The thinking involved is completely non-verbal.artur schnabel

Music is the great cultural means of making an argument over time without words, and you cannot get a better example of this than Beethoven’s piano sonatas.

Of all the things I learned at college, the one I am most grateful for is the ability to read musical scores. I collect scores — Eulenberg and Kalmus miniatures — the same as language books, and read them with much pleasure. If you are on an airplane and try to listen to music through headphones, all you get is static drowned in jet noise. But if you bring along the score, say, to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, you can read it and hear it in your head and the jet noise disappears.

And no score has meant more to me than Artur Schnabel’s edition of Beethoven’s sonatas. The notes sit on the pages like Pound’s blackbirds on their wires and sing their song. schnabel edition score

Schnabel is a micromanager as an editor, and many pages have more footnotes than musical notes. But he was one of the greatest performers of this music ever — his recordings of the complete set, made in the 1930s, is still in print and has never been superseded, even as technology has progressed. And his insight into the music, expressed in those footnotes, is always enlightening. I have gone through those two volumes of sonatas many, many times, always with profound enjoyment and growing depth.

I cannot imagine my library without them.

NEXT: What has fallen by the wayside

woody mugshot

Woody Allen’s peccadilloes are in the news again, as his ex and his purported son publically dis his recent Golden Globe “lifetime achievement” award.

This is not to defend Allen. Whether he is a child molester or not is not a question I can weigh in on. There is certainly something creepy about the whole affair with him and his current wife, Soon-Yi.

But whether the filmmaker deserves recognition for his films is a completely different question from whether his conduct in life is reprehensible.

We so often confuse private morality with public achievement, and demand they complement each other. They seldom do.

Not that Woody hasn’t given us a few hints over time. father andrei

In his Love and Death, Diane Keaton asks shriveled old patriarch Father Andrei for his wisdom.

He answers haltingly from behind a 9-foot beard: ”I have lived many years, and after many trials and tribulations, I have come to the conclusion that the best thing is — blond 12-year-old girls. Two of them whenever possible.”

This used to be a joke; it is now evidence.

Former fans, turned prosecutorial, now search the Wood-man’s films for this kind of evidence, ever since Allen’s former squeeze Mia Farrow accused him of sexually abusing their adopted 7-year-old girl, Dylan, and Allen admitted having an affair with Farrow’s 21-year-old adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. ronan farrow

Not that Farrow gets off: She has recently implied that her son, Ronan, may not have been Woody’s child, after all. She may have been cheating with Frank Sinatra. Looking for old-time sexual morality in Hollywood can be like looking for sympathetic liberals on Fox News.

But about Woody, there’s lots of evidence to be unearthed from the films, from the underage girlfriend in Manhattan to the shifting family connections in Hannah and Her Sisters.

Rightly or wrongly, Allen’s life and films have always been confused by his fans. After all, Allen plays the same character in each film, a character that seems to be a stand-in for the film maker. No one mistakes Chaplin for a tramp, but Allen seems to be so much like Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, Isaac Davis in Manhattan and Gabe Roth in Husbands and Wives, that the confusion is natural.

So it’s no surprise that some formerly devoted fans have decided that they can no longer stand to see their fallen hero’s films.

So, let us please re-establish the separation between the artist and his creation. For his real sins, take him to court, for his art, remember the art exists, now, on its own, just as a son or daughter now exists separate from parent, and should not be held guilty of the parent’s crimes or vices. Polish director Polanski attends news conference for film "Chacun son Cinema" at 60th Cannes Film Festival

Roman Polanski is a reprehensible human being, but a very good filmmaker. Should we stop showing his Macbeth to high school students because of his crimes? Not if we want to convince those teens that Shakespeare is actually an exciting playwright.

Separating the artist from his work is essential. Otherwise, we will need to get rid of our copies of Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll, after all, enjoyed taking photographs of nude little girls.

And if we are religious, we will have to stop singing that Ave Maria, because Franz Schubert liked sex with underage boys.Robert Frost

Artists are as venal, evil, self-centered, confused and destructive as the rest of us. The history of art is a landfill of disturbing biography.

Robert Frost sounds wise and paternal in his poems, but he was such an S.O.B. off the page that he drove his son to suicide.

William Burroughs and Norman Mailer have been hell on wives. Charges of child abuse now dog even James Joyce.

Benvenuto Cellini was a murderer. Ezra Pound was an anti-Semitic apologist for Fascism. Herbert von Karajan was a card-carrying Nazi. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Hector Berlioz were drug fiends.

And we cannot begin to count the number of drunken novelists.

Sometimes we forget that Lord Byron diddled his sister. Or that Percy Shelley married a 16-year-old girl and then told her that he was in love with another teen-ager and that maybe all three could live together. Wagner

Or that Richard Wagner wrote Tristan und Isolde while enjoying a love affair with a woman he borrowed from her husband, who was housing and feeding the freeloading composer at the time. Wagner’s wife wasn’t happy about the arrangement, either.

This rogue’s gallery of adulterers, criminals, perverts and wackos made some of the greatest art of all time.

I am not suggesting that we let Woody off the hook. If he is guilty of child abuse, he should have to pay the price. He is certainly guilty of foolishness and self-deception in his relations with Soon-Yi.

But it is the man, not the art that should have to pay. Allen is one of America’s best film makers, the one of the few who consistently make films that examine the quality and meaning of life. That his films vary widely in quality is not in question, but even Allen’s worst films — Interiors and September — are serious attempts to deal with issues.

And his best, from Annie Hall to Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives, are as rich and textured as the best of Jean Renoir, who, by the way, married one of his father’s nude models and later divorced her.

What is so hard to understand is that Woody Allen can be so wise on celluloid and so foolish on the streets of New York.

But this goes well beyond Allen, and well beyond artists.

Our heroes just can’t seem to keep their noses clean.

One after the other they self-destruct, turning from demigods into blackguards before our very eyes.

Pick one, let his luster shine for a few moments and then notice the worm.Lindbergh

And I mean some of the most accomplished and meaningful personalities of the American century: Charles Lindbergh was a Nazi sympathizer. Martin Luther King Jr. was a womanizer. Elvis was a drug addict.

The list is long and luxurious, and the heroes in question come from politics, sports and the arts. We admire their accomplishments, even aspire to be like them, and then come to find out, as with O.J. Simpson, that they beat their wives and perhaps worse.

It isn’t just a recent phenomenon.

For every Woody Allen there is a Charlie Chaplin; for every Roman Polanski there is a Fatty Arbuckle. And let’s not forget Ingrid Bergman.

Let us not forget the charm of Ty Cobb, the graciousness of Babe Ruth and the temperance of Pete Rose.

Madonna raised eyebrows with her reputed NBA exploits, but what of  Clara Bow, who had a thing for the 1927 University of Southern California football team. The whole team.

Horatio Alger

Horatio Alger

Just think of some of their stories, moving backward in time. Errol Flynn, the patriotic hero on screen, was a Nazi sympathizer who died in a hotel room with an underage girl.

Horatio Alger, before he became the author of those inspirational rags-to-riches stories that Republicans like to recommend to those on welfare, was a minister who lost his job because he liked to seduce young boys.

It seems as if no one can escape: Who was the most saintly man of this century? Mahatma Gandhi liked to sleep naked with young girls, and he regularly weighed his excrement in the morning.

So beside that, a governor with his pants down in a motel room may seem kind of tame.

Even if he later became president.

I do not mean to debunk all our heroes, but to better understand what they are and what role they play in public life.

Heroism is a story we fashion from someone’s life, gaining nourishment from the pulp and spitting out the pits. As a story, it is tidied up with a beginning, middle and end, and it sports a moral that is meant to make our lives better or more meaningful. Unlike a real human life, it cannot sustain the complexities, contradictions and ambiguities that are always found in people, so it simplifies to make a point.

Charles Barkley is right to complain about being a called a role model — role model is the term we use instead of hero in an increasingly bureaucratic society — because the role he is asked to play is so much smaller than the life he lives.

Flesh-and-blood heroes are like actors that step into a part we need them to play.

And we do need them.

In earlier times, the hero was the person who translated the will of the gods into history. We no longer may believe in the gods and destiny, but we still need heroes. The hero is the link between the everyday life we live in and something transcendent. He brings the sky down to us so we can see it, feel it and taste it.

Michael Jordan hanging in the air like an angel who doesn’t need wings. richard burton

But when we hold our heroes up to higher standards than humans can sustain, we are like little children who cannot tell the actor from the part.

An adult doesn’t condemn Hamlet because Richard Burton was a lush.

Our heroes are capable of doing all the things ordinary people can do, including lying, cheating and stealing. Murder and rape are not beyond them, nor is mere vanity or meanness.

Like humans, our heroes are bundles of contradictions; they are large and contain multitudes.

For their crimes, we prosecute them as we do anyone else. For their simpler sins, we develop short memories. For their heroics, we need to be grateful.

What we forget is that a hero is a hero for what he does, not for who he is.

bruckner stamp austria

Are you old enough for Bruckner?

Poet Ezra Pound said there is no reason you should like the same book (or music or art) at 40 that you liked at 16. At 16, I liked Ezra Pound; now I’m 65.

The author graduates high school in 1966

The author graduates high school in 1966

Our tastes change as we age, or they should. My introduction to classical music was Tchaikovsky. His symphonies and concertos pumped new-generated hormones through my arteries like adrenalin — when I was in high school.

It wasn’t long before I left him behind for Stravinsky, then Beethoven.

By the time that I was middle-aged, I had gone through Bach, Mozart, Berlioz, Debussy, Mahler, and most recently had added Bruckner and Haydn to the list. I get things from each of them I was deaf to earlier. Now that I am retired, I have finally come to appreciate Verdi. But, boy, it was hard to get past all the oom-pah-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah-pah.

The path won’t be the same for everyone, but there are some general patterns that seem to hold.

In painting, we all loved van Gogh at about the same time we loved Tchaikovsky. There is a bigger-than-life striving in van Gogh that appeals to the adolescent, striving himself for some sense of the heroic.

The author 1975

The author 1975

That same aspiration drove us to read Catcher in the Rye.

With a few more years under an increasingly large belt, we drop Tchaikovsky as hopelessly sentimental, Salinger as naive and simply move past van Gogh as we become aware of the Impressionists, who tickle our eyes all over again. Hormones calm, reality sets.

When we are in college or as grad students, we tend to gravitate to those things that are trendy, new, and exclusive, that set us off from the proles: We read Umberto Eco or — in my generation, Alberto Moravia and Robbe-Grillet. We jumped on Marina Abramowic  and Bruce Nauman and listened to Lutoslawski, Schnittke and Harry Partch. Yes to Pina Bausch, meh to Swan Lake.

The author 1977

The author 1977

Yes, we were showing off. In many cases we admired more than enjoyed.

We then gave up the need to be au courant or exclusive as we came to distinguish between the gee-whiz and the substantial.

As adults, we craved the substantial. Adult tastes are acquired tastes: Poussin, Schoenberg, Milton, rutabagas, pickled herring.

Old age now brings something else: simplicity and inclusiveness. I am no longer quick to drop the critical meat-cleaver and sever away something I consider unworthy. They are all worthy. Tchaikovsky as much as Webern, Salinger as well as Joyce. We are enriched by each of them.

The author in his "Van Gogh" pose 1980

The author in his “Van Gogh” pose 1980

(No, I haven’t gone senile — I’m not ready to accept Andrew Lloyd Webber or Thomas Kinkade, although I see some value in Norman Rockwell that would have shocked me to hear anyone admit when I was 20. No, Rockwell is no Raphael, but there is room for an entire spectrum of abilities and accomplishments. What I ask isn’t so much undying masterpieces, as sincerity of attempt, and a willingness to put in the work.)

So, growth isn’t just a case of moving on from one thing to another, but adding more and more to our trove. By the time you are my age, you will have a heady backlog of esthetic experiences to draw on.

What is most interesting to me is that, if we continue to grow, we can return to art we left behind and find something new in it. From age 17 to about 40, I couldn’t bear Tchaikovsky — it seemed like treacle. But then I began noticing his bizarre harmonic sense and what I might call ”orchestration from Mars.” You only have to read the scores to see how peculiar is his voice leading. When I could get past the heart on the sleeve, I discovered an intelligence there that was hiding, or rather, that I was unwilling to discover, having made up my mind and moved on.

The author at Canyon de Chelly, 1989

The author at Canyon de Chelly, 1989

An now that I am bald, bearded and grey, I find that there is something even in the emotional immediacy that once embarrassed me.

As we grow, we not only grow into new experiences, we grow out of our old prejudices.

This all came back to me this week as I watched Lust for Life on cable. The 1956 biopic starred Kirk Douglas as van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Gauguin. The film is an odd combination of excellence and awfulness, mixing insight with bromides, sanitizing the painter’s life while emphasizing the insanity.

More than anything, this is the van Gogh who appeals to adolescents, the van Gogh of idealism, identity crisis and suicide.

Alienated, misunderstood.

But there is one more aspect of him that is included: his commitment and perseverance. These quieter virtues, more than his insanity, give van Gogh his stature as an artist.

the author lecturing 2005

the author lecturing 2005

There was a time, in my 20s, that I dismissed van Gogh. The peculiar paint-busy canvasses, I was convinced, were just the evidence of a deranged mind. If you were schizophrenic, you could be a great artist, too.

But more careful study in recent years, especially of the many notebooks filled with drawings, told me something else again. Van Gogh paints the way he does because of his unwavering honesty to his eyes. He kept looking till he got it right.

And ”right” for him was to notice everything that his eyes saw, not merely what he had been trained to see.

If you stare long enough and with enough concentration, you can see something of the granular reality van Gogh saw. We no more pay attention to it in daily life than we pay attention to the grain in a movie’s film stock. It is not the information, but the medium of the information. We filter out so much. Van Gogh didn’t.

the author at Giverny 2008

the author at Giverny 2008

The other wonderful thing about van Gogh is that he had so little talent.

We tend to think of great artists being as fluent as Mozart or Raphael. Yet talent is a poor indicator of quality in art. For every Raphael, there are scores of Geromes and Bouguereaus: accomplished and pretty, but ultimately empty.

Van Gogh shared a lack of talent with several other great artists: Cezanne, for instance; or Jackson Pollock. One searches the drawings and oil sketches of Cezanne for even the slightest encouragement of talent. His drawing is hopelessly awkward.

Pollock searched for years for an adequate means of expressing what was inside him. To do it, he had to give up everything he had learned. If he had no talent for drawing, he would not draw. He found a talent for splashing instead.van gogh landscape

Van Gogh’s notebooks are full of erasures. He looked, drew, erased, looked again, drew again, erased again. Many drawings are never finished, but those that are, are right in a way the more facile Ingres never is.

Van Gogh was stubborn. I admire that in him more than I admire the talent of William Merritt Chase.

But give me another 10 years and we’ll see.