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In 1873, an amateur German archeologist working in western Anatolia, claimed to have dug up a trove of gold he called “Priam’s Treasure” and ascribed to the king of Ilium during the Trojan War of Homer’s Iliad.

Whether any of his claim was true remains contentious; Heinrich Schliemann fibbed about many of his claims. But what is not under question is the public attention roused by the gold. Nothing dug from the earth quite hypnotizes the layman so much as gold. Treasure. Pirate’s booty. Roman coins.

The fascination seems unquenchable. Museum blockbuster shows are predicated on that fascination. “The Treasures of Tutankhamun;” “Treasure Houses of Britain;” “Catherine the Great: Treasures of Imperial Russia;” “Splendors of the Ottoman Sultans;” “Treasures of the Czars.” The list is long. And so are the lines to get in.

But while traveling blockbusters are tarted out with gold, the permanent collections of major museums also offer more humble relics of antiquity. Visit the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Boston Fine Arts Museum, even a smaller one, such as the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Va., and you find vitrines highlighting the pottery dug up from the historic layers of soil. While the gold glitters, the simple ceramics — more common than the jewelry — yield up more useful information about the people who lived before our ancestors knew they were our ancestors.

Shards of Egyptian pottery have turned up in Afghanistan, evidencing the far-flung trade network from before the 12th century BCE, Greek red-figure ceramics show up from Spain to Iran. When archeologists want to find out about the lives of the earliest European settlers in the New World, they search out the middens of refuse from those early outposts and it is the broken dishes, cooking vessels, drinking cups and flatware that tell us perhaps the most. We learn where those dishes were made, how they were used, about the trade networks that brought Delftware from the Low Countries to southern England and to Massachusetts, where the village burgermaster showed off his status, while the laborer ate off tin plates.

But such clayware isn’t shown in museums only for its historical importance. You can find great esthetic value in archaic Greek ceramics, in red-figure and black-figure pottery, in the designs of pre-Columbian figurines, in Egyptian clay palettes, in ancient Chinese vases. They are shown in museums for their beauty. They are works of art.

On a visit to Colmar in eastern France, to see the Isenheim Altarpiece, that huge symbol of the sorrows of life on earth, the museum also had a whole wing of domestic arts, including some fabulous dinnerplates, hand painted with flowers, abstract floral patterns and the occasional family crest. There was no question that those beautiful plates deserved their spotlight behind the glass.

Which brings me to my own kitchen. I have way too many dinner plates. The cause is esthetic, not practical. In fact, it is anti-practical.

My interest in what I ate off of was nil until my second unofficial marriage. I have no recollection at all of what plates we had during my first official marriage. Anything that held victuals was sufficient.

I know we had a few blue-speckled enamel tin plates. As humble as our incomes at the time. (I still feel a nostalgia for tin plates). Years later, between relationships, I lived with friends whose plates were a traditional Pfaltzgraff design. I came to feel a comfortable homeyness about them. Who knew you could have emotional feelings about baked mud?

But with my second unofficial pairing, the two of us sought out dinnerware that expressed who we were, or who we thought we were. Something vaguely arty.

We found the perfect answer in the stripped-down esthetic of Dansk breakfastware. The large plate was as plain as could be, with a mildly speckled blue ironstone, about 10 inches in diameter, with a half-inch lip around the edge, almost as if it were a pie tin. We had the bowls and mugs to go with them, and for years, they served as a signal of the kind of Modernist esthetic we cared for. Others might choose more flowery plates, or something elegant with gold rims, but we liked the showy simplicity of our Dansk dishes.

Where those dishes went, I have no idea. Through divorce and  break-up, they have vanished. But many years — many decades — later, I came across a pair of Dansk plates in a thrift store. These were brown rather than blue, but they were the same design. I snarfled them up and use them to this day, still enjoying that heavy crockery feel, that masculine, stripped-down directness.

Pfaltzgraff pattern

But when it came to my second official marriage — the one that took — there was a problem. Although Carole and I were perfectly matched in so many ways, there was a significant rupture in our esthetic senses. Where we were the same was that neither of us tolerated bad design. We both wanted something well thought-out and pleasing to our senses. But Carole tilted toward the traditional, the more feminine, the more what I called “doilied-up.” While I, of course, favored the blunt, direct and undecorated and modern look. This could be a problem.

So, over 35 years of living together, we tried many ways of satisfying both of us. She usually won in this struggle. She came with an heirloom set of Haviland settings, well over a hundred years old. But they were too valuable to actually use. So, they sat in a cupboard looking elegant. Elegant if that is the sort of thing you value.

She also had a thing for Blue Willow ware, and collected platters and plates, bowls and tureens in the pattern. Some so old their whites had begun to turn brown. They came from Goodwills and Salvation Army stores, and while they didn’t cost us a whole lot, took up way more pantry space than their use warranted.

Blue Willow was perhaps the sweet spot for Carole, but it wasn’t enough. She brought home random dinner plates from her sallies into various thrift stores. We collected quite a few floral plates. Then, there was a mismatched set of autumnal plates that she meant to use for Thanksgiving dinners. Those plates featured grouse or hunting scenes.

There was a new set she bought without telling me. One day, it showed up: A bright red and white set of Christmas dishes, bordered with reindeer and sleighs. The whole disaster — plates, salad plates, bowls, cups, saucers. Hardly room in the cabinet to hold them. And they were used, maybe, once a year. The crowded shelves hardly left room for the wine and water glasses.

Fiesta ware

My Modernist taste was clearly being drowned under a welter of semi-kitsch. Meanwhile, the growth of Blue Willow continued.

Clearly, there had to be some kind of compromise. Weighted to her side, of course, but at least a little give.

The clue came in France, while we were visiting the gardens painter Claude Monet had established for himself in Giverny, some 40 miles northwest of Paris. We have been to Giverny three or four times, in different seasons. It is powerfully beautiful, restored to its original glory.

And in the inevitable gift shop, there were offered for sale reproductions of the tableware that the painter used for his guests. In 1898, Monet designed a porcelain dinner service by painting a simple white plate with a blue edge and a yellow rim. It was executed by the company of Godin and Arhendfeld and perfectly set off the bright yellow dining room the painter fitted out in the old farm house that he refurbished.

In 1978, the Foundation Claude Monet commissioned the Robert Haviland and C. Parlon company of Limoges to recreate that original set of crockery. We gawked at it in the Giverny gift shop, salivated over it, distressed by its price. If you wanted to buy such a dinner plate now, it would cost you $155. Yes, per plate. A single five-piece place setting was $570. Standard setting for six, nearly $3500. Clearly this was out of our price range.

Yet, we knew we had found that compromise. Both traditional and Modernist, with the imprimatur of a great artist we both loved, it would have been the perfect set for our kitchen. We pined; we sighed; we longed.

In the meantime, every few years, we would see some place settings we liked, and if it was in our price range, we might buy it. We did both love the joy of the hunt for dinnerware we both could live with. There were compromises, mostly by me.

But then, we found a perfect knock-off. The Italian firm of Pagnossin had a set of blue-edged, yellow-rimmed plates. They were on sale. They weren’t exactly the same as the Monet plates. Monet’s had a light, powdery blue edge. These had a navy edge. But the yellow was identical. They were elegant, traditional and modern. We fell in love with them. I still have them and use them whenever company comes over.

Now that Carole is gone, the Blue Willow is gone, too. So are the red Christmas dishes. Alone, I find myself eating off of paper plates more than I care to admit. But I still have the faux-Monet plates and the replacement Dansk plates. And I keep several of Carole’s additions. There are two beautiful, simple plates with blue flowers drawn, not painted, on them. And there is a set of four Rita Monti hand-painted dishes, with floral and Renaissance patterns on them, very Mediterranean, which are perfect for pasta or fish. It seems I have mellowed; my need for masculine simplicity has softened into an absorption of some of Carole’s personality into my own, where it persists, even as she no longer does.

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.”

flaxman

As I get older, so do the books I find most congenial.

I admit I’ve always been something of an old pedant and have always spent more time with what other people have called “serious” books rather than best-sellers or recent worthies. But age has only exaggerated this tendency.
wright moon 2

Perhaps it is because as I’ve gotten older, the distance between the old tomes and the present seems shorter and shorter, almost to the point of disappearing.

For many readers, such books as the Iliad or Ovid’s Metamorphoses seem incredibly distant, in a past that is so vastly divorced from the concerns of today that they question the relevance. But for me, the space between then and now has become compressed and it is in those old authors that I find an urgency and relevance unmatched.

I am now 66 years old — two thirds of a century. It is a time that has passed as swiftly as an eyeblink. I was a boy last Tuesday. My grandmother used to say, with some amazement and some pride that she was born before the Wright Brothers’ flight and lived to see the moon landing. This is a personal, internal sense of history. It is increasingly the way I see the past. yardstick

If I measure the time between now and my birth, and take it as a yardstick, I can get a sense of the it. jesse james

Sixty-six years from my birth is now; 66 years before my birth was the year Jesse James was shot dead — 1882. If I flip my yardstick over one length down the timeline from that, I arrive at 1816, the year Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein. One more flip of the yardstick and I’m at 1750, the year Johann Sebastian Bach died. That is, I’m only three lifetimes — three very short, skipping lifetimes from Bach and those last unfinished measures of The Art of the Fugue.

I could keep flipping the yardstick to measure the years before: 1684, 1618, 1552, 1486, 1420, 1354, etc. And I discover it takes only 30 copies of my life before I’m face to face with Caesar Augustus. Only 42 lifetimes and I’m sitting there with Homer. Forty-two of my own short lifetimes — not enough to fill a bus. So, you see, the past increasingly does not feel long ago, does not feel alien, does not feel irrelevant. It feels contiguous. I can measure it all out in lifespans I can imagine and visualize it in a way impossible with the more Saganesque “billions and billions” of the cosmos.

Heck, I can take that yardstick back far enough to see them painting the caves at Lascaux and I haven’t even filled up a jumbo-jet.

World War II ended three years before I was born; it is fresh in my culture’s memory and a constant in television documentaries. Troy fell three millennia ago and it hardly seems any different to me. It is all connected and I feel the fibers of my blood and sinew in the pulse of history.

So, the paroxysms of current events, which feel so dire to those younger than me, feel like familiar blips when taken in the long view. I do not know if we will survive them, but chances are we will. And even the genocides of Rwanda and Darfur or the beheadings by Islamists seem merely familiar excrescenses of an eternal human tendency, and in fact pale compared not merely with the Shoah, but with the extermination of Native Americans, the pyramids of skulls left by Tamerlane or Genghis Khan, or the smiting of the Canaanites and Jebusites ordered by Jehovah (Deuteronomy 20: 16-17). According to scientist and author Jared Diamond, it is possible that Neanderthals disappeared under just such a fatwah. skull pyramid

So, when I open Homer’s Iliad and find in its opening lines grief and the corpses of “so many fighters leaving their naked flesh to be devoured by dogs and vultures,” it is no more removed than Afghanistan or Gaza.

“Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto.”

I am constantly amazed that the first book in the Western canon should never have been bested. The Iliad has a breadth of vision unmatched by anything else I am familiar with. It is always the first on my list.

homer bustHomer describes everything from the food to the landscape as if he were a gobbling camera, eating up the full existence of life. And not, like some novelist, in different chapters, but in a single sentence he can telescope from the entire battlefield down to the iris of a bee’s eye, and then back out again in the space of five or 10 words. It leaves one not just with the grand view and not with the microcosm, but with a clear sense that they co-exist in a single space, a single comprehension.

There is little so vivid as Homer’s description of battle. Yes, our modern understanding of war — at least those of us who have not been in it — has more to do with battalions and artillery, but even in modern warfare, the experience of it from the inside is personal: one human soldier and the chaos that threatens to erase him (or her) and the light that comes in through his eyes.

“Thrasymedes stabbed Antilochus right in the shoulder and cracked through the bony socket, shearing away the tendons. Then he wrenched the whole arm out and down thundered Antilochus and darkness blanked his eyes. …

“Peneleos hacked Lycon’s neck below the ear and the sword sank clean through, leaving Lycon’s head hanging on his body by only a flap of skin. The head swung wide and Lycon slumped to the ground. …

Tarantino is playing catch up.iliad mitchell

It isn’t merely the violence that is shown us, but the desires, the pity, the sorrows and the triumphs. I try and re-read the Iliad once a year, and each time in a different translation. Last year, it was Alexander Pope’s. This year, it is the recent one by Stephen Mitchell. I’ve read in past years, translations by Robert Fagles, Richmond Lattimore, Walter Benjamin Smith with Walter Miller (illustrated by the great Neoclassical designs of John Flaxman), and George Chapman.

(Of these, I recommend Fagles for first-timers. Chapman is rough sledding, despite the reputation Keats gave it in his sonnet.)

If I ever have to shrink my library down to something I can carry in a duffel, it would include the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Bible and a Shakespeare.

Ah, but I would have to make room for a Milton, too.

NEXT: A grand finale

 

 

Three graces Louvre

The Renaissance is finally ending.

That great rebirth of Classical learning sparked the greatest growth of art, science and technology, but it seems to have run its course: Science is now suspect; pseudoscience gains enthusiastic converts every day. Democracy, misunderstanding the dictum that no one is better than anyone else, has come to believe that the lowest common denominator is also the highest possible intellectual achievement and that the idea of learning from our betters is somehow ”elitist” — or at any rate will depreciate our self-esteem.

Listen to the illiterate sentences of bystanders interviewed on the evening news — heck, listen to the local news anchors themselves — and you wonder whether anyone still knows that sentences require both nouns and verbs, and that together they make for articulate thought.

What has changed, more than anything else, is that we have begun losing touch with that Classical learning that undergirded those 500 years of human glory. Another Dark Age is setting in.

The real problem is the loss of the influence of Classics on the general population. For 500 years, art, culture, even technology, were based on a general acceptance of Greek thought. When we lose that, we lose our connection to our culture — and not merely European culture, but the widening world culture. If Asia or Africa once had cultures without roots in Greece, it is no longer true. Sony could not make electronics equipment without the rational, scientific turn of mind made possible by Greek ideals; budding African democracies owe their politics to the same ideals. Not solely, certainly. And we gain from them as they gain from us. But the world culture is at bottom Classical.

It is not merely, or primarily, a body of knowledge that is important, although that has its place. What is more important, and what is most Greek, is a method of approaching knowledge rather than the mere facts of it. It is the Greek skeptical approach that demands rigorous proof. We owe our medicines and our TVs to such an approach.

SONY DSC

Multiculturalists — and I usually count myself among them — sometimes denigrate the Greeks, blaming them for racism, sexism and a host of other ”isms.” And the Greeks are guilty. They were not perfect.

But that misses the point. All human endeavor is imperfect.

We should not be so quick to condemn the failings of our ancestors; better to try to learn from those failings.

The critics are themselves guilty of an ”ism,” which is the moral arrogance of ”presentism,” the belief that the current state of morals and intellect is somehow the ”correct” one and that they may judge the failings of the past from their own certainties. The radical feminist argument is not fundamentally different from that of the Spanish priests who burned the Pre-Columbian codices on the grounds that those writings were harmful to ”their” present.

A little humility, please.

What’s more, even the critics use the dialectics of Classical thought to deconstruct what they object to. It is always ironic to hear a feminist use Greek argument to berate the Greeks. Feminists disparage the Classics as being misogynist — and make no mistake about it, the Greeks valued what they considered ”masculine” virtues and often made little place for women in their theory.

Yet, one only has to open Homer’s Odyssey to see a wealth of women — strong women — and feminist virtues. Other plays, such as the Antigone, present strong, thoughtful women. Greek actuality is much less coercive than is sometimes thought. And that aside, even if we take account of some of the cultural peculiarities of the ancient Greeks, inherent in their thought — and more importantly, in their thinking processes — are the seeds of all current thought, including multiculturalism. It isn’t Eastern thought or Third World thought that values diversity: It is the Greeks who gave us that.

There are at least four important reasons for maintaining our connection with Classical learning.

From least to most important, they are:Derek Walcott

-› Knowledge of Classical myth and literature. Losing the Classical references means that our literature will become increasingly undecipherable, and in consequence, we will lose tradition, our connection with our past — all our pasts — and we will be in danger of repeating old mistakes. It isn’t only Milton: We cannot read Derek Walcott’s Omeros without understanding Homer.

–› Clarity and precision in discourse. Greek thought is about clarity of language, if nothing else. Greek (and Latin) language does not easily permit sloppiness. We would be better writers and speakers if we were exposed regularly in grammar school to the Classics and Classical languages. The anti-Classical cabal is led by the trendily popular deconstructionists. The postmodernists and deconstructionists: Why read them, since, by their own argument, what they write is meaningless?

–› Acquaintance with the tragic view of life, which is the true view. Americans are becoming a nation of slack-jawed optimists who seem to think life is perfectible, whether they are liberals and think government can perfect it, or conservatives and think that private enterprise can perfect it. Both are wrong. Life is made up of impossible choices. We can only make the best choices in the future if we acknowledge the worst choices of the past. Choices made from ignorance or denial breed more bad choices.

The tragic view is that life causes pain, that there is no alternative, that you must do your best to make moral choices, knowing that whatever choice you make will turn out in the end to be immoral. People will die, suffer or at least be disenfranchised. You cannot act without injuring someone, yet act you must. The Greeks can toughen our hides.

The Mahabharata

–› Finally, the Classics can provide us with the deep, satisfying enjoyment that makes life worth living. If we open ourselves up to the Classics, we will find a deep well of pleasure, the powerful aesthetic experience that illuminates our lives. The Iliad, for instance, is the best book I have ever read, and I have read some good ones, including the Mahabharata of India and the Old Testament of the Levant, both of which have their own power.

Still, compared to them, the Iliad is more aesthetically complete. It makes a world from the greatest panorama down to the smallest detail, all filled in by Homer in just the right proportions to convince us of its reality.

In the end, it has nothing to do with dead white males: The Classics include Sappho, to say nothing of the Odyssey, which convincing arguments say was written by a woman. It matters nothing to me. Sappho and the Odyssey have given me some of the greatest pleasure of my life.

Perhaps we must give up the Classics: It is happening de facto if not by choice. But I dread what will replace it: superstition, intolerance, confusion and chaos.

It is a lesson of history: Clarity breeds uncertainty, which in turn leads to humility and therefore tolerance. On the other hand, confusion and chaos tend to invite political takeover by arrogant tyranny: Inclarity in discourse, public and private, masks the sloppy thinking of the self-righteous.

The Classics are not irrelevant.

myron diskobolos

adam and eve

OK, so then what is the “canon,” with which we should all be familiar?

There are scores of lists, put forth by scores of people, ranging from insightful critics to close-minded boobs (Yes, Bill Bennett, I’m talking about you). Such lists usually share the usual suspects: Here’s Hamlet, there’s War and Peace, and over there is the Recherche of Marcel Proust. All of them worthy of your deepest attention and capable of inciting the most delightful pleasure.

But as I’ve written before, the purpose of engaging with the canon of Western culture is to understand who your grandparents were, whose cultural DNA you were born to — the common inheritance of all of us in the modern world, our Adams and Eves.

Through most of my youth and into my adult life, my version of the list has grown and grown. I have, after all, at least 50 films on my Top Ten list. I could not do without hundreds of books I have read, paintings I have seen in the flesh, music I know by heart.

But, as I have grown old, I have jettisoned more and more baggage. “Simplify, simplify,” Thoreau said. I’ve given away books, CDs, DVDs. I’m tempted to dump even more. Those that were important, I have internalized; those I want to keep are those I reread and reread.

Under even those, however, is a foundation level, the cultural footings on which I have built my intellectual life, and that the civilization I have inherited was founded upon, almost as its Constitution.

So, I am proposing a canon. A very short one, but an essential one.

First, there is Homer. Everyone should have read the Iliad, at least. The Odyssey is initially more fun — or at least the chapters that chronicle the wanderings of Odysseus — but the Iliad is one of the founding documents of Western civilization and provides a necessary backdrop for everything that has come since.

I reread the Iliad about once a year. I try different translations, because any bit of ancient Greek I used to study has evaporated. The newest translations are usually the best, not because they are more literary, but because they speak the language I use. Older translations sniff of their age, smelling of linsey-woolsey or gaberdeen. I can sense the antimacassar oil on the Lang-Leaf-Myers translation. I sense the Cold War in the Lattimore.

So, the Robert Fagles translation is my standard, although the most recent re-read was in the even newer Stephen Mitchell version.

In Homer, you find the myths that have been re-used and re-energized in all the books written since, that outline the archetypes, give us the parameters of story and narration. The scope of Homer is the widest: from the bee’s tongue to the planet’s motions among the stars.

This is all beside the wonderful enjoyment gotten from reading it, 2500 years after he (or she) set it down.

The second book in my canon is the Bible. Not for any religious reason; I’m completely an atheist and have no use for religion. But the Bible is, like Homer, one of the founding documents and underlies all that has followed. I may wish otherwise, and may often wonder if the Bible wasn’t really authored by a group of people who have spent too long out under the desert sun. It may have been written by white bearded patriarchs under the influence of sunstroke, but they are our grizzled patriarchs.

There are two important considerations when approaching the Bible.

The first is the translation. The King James version is the primary one, and it is the organ-pipe tones of the KJV that underpin our own ideas of language, of majesty, of ritual and solemnity. It is the KJV you hear behind the sentences of Melville and Thoreau, behind the speeches of Martin Luther King.

But the King James is also miserably out-of-date, with usages that are no longer current and oftentimes either misleading or downright incomprehensible. So, a more modern translation may make the stories of the Bible easier to assimilate.

Even so, I prefer mixing the King James and a modern translation with an interlinnear word-for-word translation that demonstrates how much any translation of the Bible is de facto an interpretation. I have valued greatly the Everett Fox version of The Five Books of Moses from the Schocken Bible. Any version of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles is a moving target.

The second thing is that you should read the whole Bible, not just the familiar parts. Some of it is heavy slogging, but you should have read the whole thing. It’s one of the best ways to counteract the baleful influence of all those fundamentalists that would have you believe only their way. You see how they pick and choose only the parts they want and that reinforce their prejudices. You will be astonished at how many things are held to be “an abomination.” You will scratch your head over most of them.

The Bible stories are the Semitic balance to the Hellenic myths and between the two, they are the parents of all that followed.

Finally, in my canon, are the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare. Ideally, one should see them on stage, in an excellent production (since a mediocre production can be the kiss of death for someone whose language is a florid and baroque as Shakespeare’s), but the fact is that it is as text on a page that Shakespeare has most influenced the course of Western Civ. We read Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and their words continue to astonish the attentive reader with their fire, their brilliance, their wit, and their expansiveness. The “sirrahs” and “prithees” may certainly feel dated, but everything else is bursting with life.

It was after a long-ago divorce that I first decided that if I was going off into exile, I needed to pack only three books: The Iliad, the Bible and a complete Shakespeare, and that somehow, if the world were destroyed all around me, I could resurrect an entire civilization with just these three.

And we would see everything that followed.

Apollo

Apollo

The older I get, the less reading I do, and the more re-reading. It’s a common symptom of age. There are many things that change as you leave behind the enthusiasms of youth.

I remember the complaints about conductor Arturo Toscanini that his repertoire was small and repetitive: How many times can you play the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, and why don’t you play more contemporary music?

Toscanini 2First, you have to remember that when Toscanini was young, he gave world premiere performances of many new works, including Puccini’s La Boheme and Sam Barber’s Adagio for Strings. He gave world premieres of at least 25 operas. When he was young, the music of Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy were brand new, not the concert stalwarts they later became. He gave the American premiere of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. He programmed all of George Gershwin’s major pieces, even if his Italian soul never quite beat to the jazz rhythm. 

But it is true that after he came to the NBC Symphony, he concentrated on the war horses. His repertoire did narrow as he got old. The problem is that we know Toscanini mainly these days for his RCA Victor recordings, made near the end of his life, and so we have a skewed vision of his career.

That narrowing is not uncommon in artists, who generally — if they get to live long enough — develop a streamlined “late style,” which eschews much of the complexity they favored as young Turks, and gets straight to the point, as if the knew they didn’t have time for all the hoopla and somersaults. 

And so, as his hair whitened, Toscanini focused on those works he knew he could never exhaust: things like the Beethoven symphonies. They provide endless riches, endless possibilities, and endless satisfactions. 

I say I recognize this because as I’ve aged, I, too, have narrowed my focus. As a young art critic, I kept up with all the newest trends in contemporary art. I loved the buzz and fizz: Who’s up, who’s out. What’s the latest and greatest. I even went so far as to disparage much of what is found in our art museums as “relics” of the art process, and therefore not really art — real art is what is coming out of the studios today. Or even better, tomorrow.

And, as a music critic, I felt the same way. Give me something to shock my ears and lord keep me from having to hear another Beethoven’s Fifth! 

But there is a great change in one’s approach to art as one matures. Maturity isn’t just a slowing down and tightening up: It is the weight of experience. When we are young, we know so little, yet we think we know so much. We have the answers, and why don’t the fogeys understand that?

Life, however, burdens you with the accumulation of experience and what was clear as an adolescent is infinitely muddy as a grandfather. 

When we are striplings and in love with art, we tend to idolize it, and its makers. We test ourselves against our heroes, and against the art they made. Are we up to it? Can we maintain in ourselves the vibrancy and aliveness of the art we adore? Aren’t we “special,” too? Of course, we are! The world in art seems so much more brilliant and colorful, so much more emotionally intense. 

But, after a few marriages, a few divorces, a few illnesses, a few disappointments and the deaths of too many of those we loved, after seeing the politics of our time repeat themselves endlessly and stupidly, after seeing more genocides in the world, and hearing the idiocies of dogma and doctrine, the evils of ideologies and the fears of unknowing engender the hatreds of tribes and nations, after all that and the heavy weight of more, we — if we have been lucky — have earned a portion of wisdom. What we once valued from books, we know know more directly from life. And now, instead of measuring ourselves against the art we love to see if we measure up, instead we measure the art against our lives and experience to see whether the art measures up. And very often, it doesn’t. 

So, in our dotage, we fall back on a few trusted worthies, those poems, books, paintings, symphonies, choreographies that we have tested against our experience and which hold up and continue to give pleasure, consolation, understanding and — I hesitate to use the word — what we have come to regard as truth. 

It is what I find in those books and in that music that I re-read and re-listen to — that give me sustenance, that feeds my inner life and tells me that I am not alone but share something with those writers, those composers, those painters and sculptors who have gone through enough life to have developed enough emotional complexity to make art that says something real, and doesn’t just tickle my need for novelty, or — as in my youth — my self-announced grandiosity. glenn gould

So, I re-read The Iliad at least once a year, and re-read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Melville’s Moby Dick, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Goethe’s Faust. I just finished again Dante’s Commedia, and expect to take on Chaucer next. I listen to Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations, or to the Budapest Quartet and the late Beethovens. I weep every time I see Balanchine’s Apollo or his Prodigal Son. I cannot get all the way through Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode without sobbing quietly. 

And Toscanini doing Brahms’ Fourth. I don’t know how many times he conducted that piece, and I certainly cannot count how many times I’ve listened to that recording. I can hear it all the way through now purely in my mind; I don’t even need the score. 

These things — and many more — seem rock-solid and true. 

I expect you have or will have your own list of works that do it for you. They shouldn’t be the same ones; after all, you have lived your own life and collected your own list of wounds and sorenesses, giving you your own sense of what life must be, despite all our best efforts.