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Father and Son

This is not news to America’s wives, but: Men hate change.

I don’t mean only a pocketful of pennies and dimes — fishing weights in the trousers — I mean that a man feels uncomfortable if his favorite easy chair has been moved for vacuuming and put back no more than an inch from its original spot. He will feel compelled to nudge it that last inch.

I mean that when a favorite shirt finally blows through at the elbows, he won’t throw it out, but will wear it on Saturdays, to the dismay of his wife and daughter; and when it is finally no more than strings of tattered fabric hanging from a collar, he will use it to polish the car.

And what is more, when he needs to replace a work shirt, he will find a carbon copy, preferably bought from the same store, even the same rack, as the first.

I mean that when an old TV goes on the fritz, a man will stand there holding the aerial in his hand, watching the Cubs through the snow, rather than go out and buy a new tube.

Guys who buy Fords trade them in on new Fords, guys who buy Chevys later buy more Chevys.

How many men do you know who try different hairstyles?

Most men I know settled on a hairdo in high school and have kept it until there was no hair left to do.

I’ve seen 50-year-old bald men who have gathered what fringe remains and greased it into a ducktail.

Sometimes this aversion to change is misread by wives as being laziness. And sometimes it may be, but by and large, a man doesn’t fix that creaky door because for him the creak has become a familiar part of the home, and he simply doesn’t want to change it.

The great example of this principle in literature is the story by Herman Melville, “I and my Chimney.” It is comic and depressing at the same time.

Its narrator stands guard against the constant plans for improvement his wife devises.

“Old myself, I take to oldness in things; for that cause mainly loving old Montague, and old cheese, and old wine; and eschewing young people, hot rolls, new books, and early potatoes and very fond of my old claw-footed chair … But she, out of the infatuate juvenility of hers, takes to nothing but newness; for that cause mainly, loving new cider in autumn, and in spring, as if she were own daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, fairly raving after all sorts of salads and spinages, and more particularly green cucumbers (though all the time nature rebukes such unsuitable young hankerings in so elderly a person, by never permitting such things to agree with her).”

The narrator’s fallback position, always, like the hero of Melville’s other story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” remains, “I would prefer not to.”

The basic instinct men have for what can be seen as monotony is a part of the way life is compartmentalized for them. For women, I often feel, life is all of a piece. Each part flows into the next, and women seem quite happy to think about or do several things at once.

Men are not that talented, and part of what has become an aversion to change is really just a man’s way of putting certain things on automatic pilot so he doesn’t have to think and act on them, so he can focus his attention on whatever he believes is important.

If one attacks life freshly and alertly each day, there are millions of decisions that will have to be made. A man feels overwhelmed by them. busy mom

So whatever can be decided by rote — the shirt, the socks, the route to work — is preset and unaltered, so that he can expend his energy creatively at the office.

So it is a matter of priorities. For mothers, what must be attended to is whatever minor emergencies present themselves, in whatever order they occur. The baby needs changing, the third-grader has skinned his knee, the teen-ager needs the car keys.

She cannot do as the man does and make a list of things in their order of importance, and address them in that order. Some men spend their whole lives on that list, rearranging it as new problems present themselves and never getting to the actual problems themselves.

Like many people, I used to think that gender differences are merely learned behaviors, but the older I get, the more I realize that the different wiring of men and women is more fundamental. If women are unhappy about the way men act, they shouldn’t immediately ask that men be different; you might as well ask that they have three arms instead of two.

It is more to the point to ask why they are as they are, whether tens of thousands of years ago on the veldt such behavior made a kind of genetic sense that in a 20th-century city is now obsolete.

Perhaps women as nurturers must keep their attention as widely spread as possible, so as not to miss the one kid headed for the pool while attending to the other’s bruised arm.

Men as protectors needed to focus their attention very narrowly, ignoring lesser commotions for the larger one of a preying lion or wolf.

At which point matching socks are kind of silly.

"Michael Jackson and Bubbles" by Jeff Koons, and Elgin Marbles figure

“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” by Jeff Koons, and Elgin Marbles figure

In 1632, the young English poet John Milton, just out of college, took up residence at his father’s country estate at Horton, near Windsor. And for the next six years he managed to read everything that had ever been written and was extant, in all languages living and dead, that a European scholar of the time might have heard of. That included literature, history, biography, philosophy, science, mathematics — the whole throatful of it. milton cigar

Everything that had ever been written.

It boggles the mind. Today, we cannot even keep up with the magazines we subscribe to; most of human knowledge falls off the edge of the Earth, where the map of our erudition shows nothing but serpents. reading the oed

We can never achieve what Milton did; it’s foolish to even try. But shouldn’t we attempt at least some sketch of what was fully painted for the poet? There have been recent books by writers who have read every article in the Encyclopedia Britannica (The Know-It-All, One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, A.J. Jacobs, 2004), The Oxford English Dictionary (Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, Ammon Shea, 2008), or the equivalent of the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf (Great Books, David Denby, 1996), but such ventures are little more than stunts.

To absorb 5,000 years of human culture requires more than memorizing almanacs or dictionaries. It means to have a grounding in the art, literature, theater, music and architecture of our ancestors.

Of course, most of human knowledge, at least in ordinary life, in mass or pop culture and in our individual autobiographies is utterly trivial, and it would be a crime to stuff our brains with it.

But not all knowledge in this information age is trivial. There is still a core of useful literature — and I use the word in the broadest possible sense — that it behooves us to be acquainted with.

It is unfortunate that there is an argument over this. In the imbecilic culture wars that currently ravage the intellectual countryside, the lines are drawn between ignorant armies.

On one side, you find right-wing reactionary fossils fighting to maintain the canon of mainly European classics. On the other side, there is a cadre of victimization that wants to eliminate anything written by dead white males.

A pox on both their houses.

Milton didn’t have to worry about the canon. For him, the canon encompassed everything he could possible encounter.

Since that time, though, we have had to become more selective. Those items we have, as a culture, thought worth perpetuating we have called ”classics” and added them to the list — the canon — of ”required reading.”

But we misunderstand the very idea of culture if we believe the world froze solid with the publication of the Harvard Five Foot Shelf.

Corneille

Corneille

The canon is a garden that must be weeded and tended, and each season may call forth a different harvest.

The problem with the conservative view is that it values a former ”golden age” that our own time never measures up to. It is a sentimental view of life and history, and deaf to the fact that we live now, not in the imaginary ”then.” It is the voice of Cato, of Corneille, of William Bennett — a man of whom it is said he cannot sleep a-nights if he suspects someone, somewhere is having fun.

It is a view of an idealized perfection that we have disastrously fallen short of. It is one form of imbecility.

The problem from the other side is an egalitarianism that is just as moronic. According to them, nothing is better than anything else. Either it is merely a question of personal taste, or it is one of cultural identity.

By their standards, it is elitist to prefer Pablo Neruda to Rod McKuen. Let them, I say, let them renew their subscriptions to Us magazine.

They can deconstruct its gossip to death and find the parallels with Plutarch — if they only knew who Plutarch was.

To consider one “text” more important than another, for them, is to promote colonialism and the subjugation of the downtrodden.

Hence, they judge not by esthetic considerations — it’s all just personal taste to them — but rather by politics.

For them, politics overwhelms aesthetics — overwhelms reason, emotion, common sense and experience. For them, everything has a party line. Ah, but they forget, politics answers no question worth asking.

It also worries me that behind the masks of intellectual argument, I sense a fascism on each side — at the very least a certain priggishness to both sides that any reasonable human finds dangerous.

At bottom, the problem is that both sides make the mistake of believing the canon immutable and fixed. They see the canon as an end, one side blindly despising it and the other defending it like Texans at the Alamo.

But the canon, properly seen, is a beginning, not an end; a foundation, not a roof.

It is the ABC of cultural literacy, the cardinal numbers of thought.

One used to hear the warning that when you have sex, you are having sex with everyone your partner has ever slept with. Well, when you read a book, you are also reading everything that the author read. When you hear music, you also hear everything that composer heard.

Culture is the slow accumulation of thoughts and habits. To read Melville is to hear the diapason of King James under the rich melody of the prose. Every author is the product of multiplier and multiplicand: the writer’s imagination and the long road of history leading to his standing on the curb with his thumb out.

The fact is, we cannot read everything, the way Milton did. We must be more selective. Suggestions for that selective offering is what we call the canon. But it changes constantly: It now includes James Baldwin and Toni Morrison; it includes Derek Wolcott and Yukio Mishima;  The Beatles and Duke Ellington.

The Laocoon

The Laocoon

How can you understand Jacques Derrida without standing firmly on the firm ground of Kant’s a priori? How can you read Isabel Allende without sensing the spirituality of Calderon behind her words?

How can you understand Jeff Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles if you don’t already have the Elgin Marbles in your system? You can’t. How can you get the joke on the back of countless Yellow Pages if you don’t know the Laocoon?

Certainly, the old rationale for learnedness remains: These are great writers, profound thinkers and brilliant painters and sculptors and we cannot consider ourselves educated without their acquaintance. Knowing them is its own excuse. But even more important is that when you hear the echoes in a piece of art, see its ancestry, the piece resonates. Resonance is what gives art and literature is power. kane

Like the mirror scene in Citizen Kane, one man is multiplied into an army. Like Isaac Newton said, if we see further, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. It is a wise man who knows his parents.

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. 

a house

You walk through New England and you sense that it is a place that has finished itself. It was once the seed from which America grew, but it is now the seed husk, and the growth is elsewhere.

The Southwest, for instance, where people move around like billiard balls on a break. Or the Northwest, where eyes watch the Pacific Rim for the coming millennium.

But New England has settled like an old house. It has become itself and leaves becoming to others.

I don’t mean to imply that New England is dead. Boston is a busy city, and Hartford or New Haven might as well be a suburb of Manhattan. Nor do I mean that change has left New England behind. They have their satellite dishes and their shopping malls, just like the rest of the country.

Yet, there is a sense, as you walk through the countryside, that New England has become comfortable with what it is, and no longer feels the need to change into something else.

Blueberry heath

New England wasn’t the first part of the New World settled. Not even the first part of the United States. Virginia, Florida and the Southwest can claim that distinction. But the settlers of Massachusetts gave us the first American myth: The hard-driving Yankee industriousness that weathered all kinds of inconvenience to create a government and an independent nation. We remember Plymouth Rock, the Pilgrims, Cotton Mather, Paul Revere, Samuel Adams — the myth of Yankee ingenuity, hardiness and perseverance.

It was a useful myth for our nation’s first 150 years or so. But the United States has left the Novae-Anglo myth behind in a spurt of expansion and immigration. Culturally, New England, outside the big cities, now looks kind of monochrome.

You travel through New England and you see the idea that America used to have of itself. There are paths through woods around lakes, roads through farms built on stony ground, old warping wooden houses with weathered clapboards along the Maine coast.

Fox lake

This is the New England that gave us our first cultural identity, through the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Emily Dickinson.

It was a cultural identity that taught hard work and little play. It taught guilt and redemption, tight lips and stoicism.

That once-ideal American, hard working and suspicious of pleasure, seems to have disappeared, replaced by a softer, fun-addicted American. But the habitat of that earlier American is still there to be seen.

Visit the less-populated portions of Cape Cod, for instance, south of Truro, and feel the salt wind whip over the sandy dunes. It’s a wind that can turn your face into leather.

Or climb Mount Greylock, with its granite and white pines. You get the long view from its summit.

Or watch the white water in the Swift River along the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire. You can see the power that New Englanders sought to run their mills.

Or walk along the Boston Common on a warm Sunday morning and see the office buildings that border it, the business that the Common grass provides relief from.

Perhaps you can saunter along the shore of Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., on an oak-orange fall afternoon. You know that the Massachusetts winter is coming soon. You feel, like cold humidity in your joints, that life is short.

You can see the aftermath of that first American in the emptied brick factories of Fall River and Lowell and the white steeples of the churches in every hamlet of Vermont.

Victorian house

Sometimes, New England seems surprisingly unpopulated. It was once the most crowded part of the country, but now, outside its main population centers, you can find a lot of empty space to walk through.

Your boots slog through piles of fallen leaves and stub on the outcropped stones that float in the New England soil.

And finally, you stop on the granite of the Maine coast and watch the surf peck away at the continent, slowly and with great noise.