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Archive for August, 2019

The World at Evening — Summer

As this suburban summer wanders toward dark
cats watch from their driveways —

The color of the sky makes brilliant reflection
in the water

There is a time, seconds between the last light
and the dark stretch ahead …

— Rachel Sherwood

A little more than a year ago, I made a summer interlude for my Sylvia I blog; now I’m content with a few words. Then I was gone for 16 days, now it’ll be 10. Then I went with a Road Scholar group to the lake district and borders of Scotland and England in the UK; now we go (me, my two daughters) to Calais, northern France.Why? well I said I wanted to go to the beach, Laura said she wanted to go to France, and Izzy was not going to be left behind.

This sculpture commemorates an eleven month siege on Calais by the British during the hundred years war …

The town or small city has a long history, it’s one of the channel ports between England and France and was owned by England for a very long time. Lots to see beyond the beaches. Castles, prisons, towers, a cathedral, museum. I looked it up on Amazon and bookfinder.com and found many books: on the recent history of immigration to the place and the development of what was known as The Jungle; as a place of war, from 14th century to WW2; where peace treaties and the like were signed; fishing and trading, commerce; a place to set mysteries. Today there are beaches, hotels, shopping, roads to drive, walks to do, markets to buy food and all sorts of goods. There are even ferries.

Laura rented a bnb for us that looks lovely in the picture: it has air-conditioning and wifi. We’ve bought to go to London at least once (see Kensington Garden exhibit), to Paris more than that (we signed up for a food fest). So we’ll use cabs and trains — spend money. The hard question for me is which books to take — to guess which ones will hold you when traveling and away is not easy, but I know Trollope may be relied upon, and so one will be Phineas Finn (as I will teach it this coming fall). I should probably take a good book on or by Austen too. They usually “work.” A small French dictionary — though for a long time it was an English city in France.

Google produces many pictures. Painters like to paint fantasies and semi-realistic images.

I love the art of Eduard Vuillard; many years ago with a visiting friend, I saw a gigantic exhibit (rooms upon rooms tracing his career) of Vuillard’s paintings, murals, drawings at the National Gallery: Dinner with Two Lamps: rue de Calais:

Chez nous, here in Alexandria, Laura’s friend, Marni, will come every day and has promised to stay 45 minutes with the two pussycats, provide food, water &c. Clarycat already made friends with her, and I hope before the end of the time, Ian will come out of hiding and join them in play.


An archetypal harbour scene by Nell Blaine (1986) — Banner Hills, 1986

From Three Poems at the End of Summer by Jane Kenyon

I stood by the side of the road,
It was the only life I had.

Miss Drake

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Surviving plant (coleus, said to be tough) on a day when the deadly heat measures 113F at 12:49 pm

Friends and readers,

Izzy, I and Laura will be away starting Thursday: we are going to Northern France, a beach at Calais, to be specific, and we hope to “stretch” the time to visit Paris once or twice, London once (or twice). The bnb looks lovely: air-conditioned, wifi, each of us with a room of our own.

As we go off, here is Izzy’s latest personal rendition of a song: The Corrs’ Give Me a Reason

Here are the lyrics:

It’s not romantic here in blue
Swimming, swimming in blue
You left me lonely and confused
Question, questioning you
So soon goodbye you stole my heart
Believe, believing you
Was it a lie right from the start
Answer, answer me do
Well now my body’s weak so just give me a reason
And my make-up’s off so just give me a reason
And my defense’s down so just give me a reason
Give me a reason
Give me a reason
You’ll never know the love I felt
Wanting, waiting for you
It takes a weak heart to forget
Follow, follow it through
Well now my body’s weak so just give me a reason
And my make-up’s off so just give me a reason
And my defense’s down so just give me a reason
Give me a reason
Give me a reason
Give me a reason
So what’s a girl like me to do
Drowning, drowning in you
And who’s to save me from the blue
Carry, carry me through
Cause now my body’s weak so just give me a reason
And my make-up’s off so just give me a reason
And my defense’s down so just give me a reason
I am strong enough so just give me a reason
Now my body’s weak so just give me a reason
And my make-up’s off so just give me a reason
My defense’s down so just give me a reason
Give me a reason
Give me a reason
Give me a reason
Give me a reason
Give me a reason
What did I do wrong

They are an Irish musical group

Miss Drake

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Simone de Beauvoir’s early existentialist essay

Frank: Might you have forgotten him, with time?
Claire: That amount of time doesn’t exist — “All Debts Paid” (Outlander 3:3)


Frank (Tobias Menzies) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) — Boston, 1968: he the tragic figure

Hope is the thing with feathers — Emily Dickinson

Friends and readers,

I get so tired sometimes. I want to stand or to sit ever so still, and hold my head with my hand on my forehead, over my eyes, and to keen. To give way at last. I am so fond of my nearly furniture-less sun-room. I wonder what Jim would think of it. I’ll never know. He would laugh, not mockingly. I do not remember him ever laughing mockingly. No jeers. His laughter was ever kind, gentle teasing, cordial, lightening up life. If it were not that I fall asleep because my one plush rocking chair is so comfortable, I’d sit there many hours in sunpuddle reading.

I seem this summer to be feeling more grief than I have in a while. I was so stunned that first year. It may be how things accumulate: this summer I realized too late (typical of me) that the ISECS (International 18th century society) meet in Edinburgh in July was one to go to — I could sense it from the photos I saw on face-book. To have been there then. I would have known enough of the people. I would have walked new streets that I’ve not tried, alleyways, maybe seen a play. I had been earlier this year regretting that Jim and I didn’t go to a Renaissance Society meeting that was held in Florence: he wanted to go in the early 2000s, but I was still so seared from a time in the 1990s when I tried on my own and was shattered by the experience — I knew no one and found it an endurance ordeal. He was right: we could have learned so much while we saw what was worth seeing; he would have been with me this time. Not so here. Now it’s come to me my reason for resolutely turning away, that my idea that I wanted to teach to take up the full six weeks had not taken into account I could have gone by saying I would teach a 3 week session at the OLLI at Mason summer session; no one would have minded. Why didn’t I think of this? Ah, if there is ever a next time.

Jim used to say when I’d cancel a class at Mason where it was a matter of required courses with grades, and it seemed no one or few minded at all, why didn’t he have a job like that; one where when he didn’t show up, many were relieved ….


Giovanni Volpato and Louis DuCrois, Temple to Sybil, Tivoli (1750) — once the wallpaper on Jim’s laptop (now mine, with a different picture

And then I had a panic attack trying to find a restaurant on a central Alexandria Old Town Street — having been invited to lunch there by two thoroughly monied Northwest DC-resident women (from the OLLI at AU). But he has missed so much. I merely miss my friend, my partner, the daily absence, the easy fun together.

***********************************


Clarycat this past Wednesday morning ….

I thought for this entry I’d transcribe my notes from a remarkably at moments exhilarating class experience I’m part of at the Politics and Prose bookstore for 3 evenings, 6-8 pm: it’s called “3 Odd Humanists,” but it’s about three existential texts and writers: Sartre’s Existentialism is Humanism” (it’s not), Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity (Of Ambiguity is a more accurate, indeed close translation), and Weil’s The Need for Roots (Uprootedness in French). Ten highly intelligent some well-read people all reading the text, with a professor, David Johnson, from Georgetown who comes prepared. He startled me the first night by beginning with Plato and Aristotle. I remembered back to my early undergraduate days reading “selections” of philosophy by myself (300 people in the class, we sat in a vast lecture hall while the teacher talked on up front) for a required course whose absurd title I can’t quite recall.

I enjoy also when I come out around 8 and the sky is just darkening seeing how crowded the store is (a lecture upstairs will be going on), the people drinking, eating, reading and taking notes in the store (one guy at a table surrounded by books and papers), outside in the street everyone eating ice cream (I finally saw where the ice cream store is further along on the block), people sitting on benches, strolling about, eating out on the sidewalk by or in a restaurant, a good city life scene. Once three summers ago Vivian and I bought ice cream cones in a crowded store in Old Town in summer, it was around 9:30, people milling people all about us, two blocks from the river, an uncommon scene (some special event had occurred earlier in the day). I even ate mine. Then on both occasions, I could come home to my bed, my cats, my house, and relax. This time I ate supper and started this blog. I gather at Politics & Prose this kind of thing goes on almost nightly.

I want to transcribe a few scattered notes in the context of my own reading of the three books thus far. My handwriting is so feeble, the class proceeds by conversation mostly, not lecture, but I suspect I’ll get more out of what was said or remember some of it by writing the notes out, turning my Pitman stenography and memory into readable English.

What is now wonderful about philosophy is I’m learning it’s about finding a rationale, an encompassing perspective for oneself (with others) which explains and predicts how things are and can comfort. A kind of meaning or patterns. And it’s fun to do. The last or only time I took a real philosophy course before was a small class where we read a new book each week, starting with Sophocles, moving “through the ages” and languages, to include Dante’s Inferno, and on to 20th century texts: each time, in a manic way I thought, interpreting what we read to show that this text too exemplifies Heidegger’s existentialism — as explained to us in a readable more or less coherent text by Magda King. And it worked each time! after a while I could parrot and apply the Heidegger as-told-by King outlook to the point of getting an A+ in that course. But I did not see my own thoughts, feelings, acts intimately in terms of existentialism; that is what we are encouraged to do in these grown-up sessions.

So, on to what I have from Sartre & Beauvoir & Weil thus far:

Sartre (translator Carol Macomber): “In reality things will be what men have chosen them to be. Does that mean I must resort to quietism [conform]. No.” So in my life that means that although I was born to very poor unconnected parents, I ignored all attempts to make me make a life’s choice based on making a middle class income. Instead I chose literature, writing, and ended with low paid teaching (because that’s what the society has chosen for someone like me who does this ….)

I see Prof Johnson said that Sartre shows us a paranoid view of reality and what Sartre says we must do is move deep into our own minds and remain true to them. We are obligated it seems to feel the reality of anguish and abandonment when we realize we cannot turn to others to create our own meaning; at the same time as irrespective of others, no matter how they might try to stop us, we must fulfill our talents. We find we are here existing. (This reminds me of Heidegger’s thrownness.) The individual exploration of the self is what matters. We are a presence to ourselves. At the same time we must be responsible for our acts. If circumstances are against your doing something, Sartre says it is still cowardly not to do it — he insists you have the potential or capacity to act so not to act is a choice. David Johnson said that for Sartre subjectivity is your presence in the world.

He asserts that human relationships are fundamentally hostile. I fear this is so. We must affirm the value of what we choose. Must we?

He seems to think morality must have a broader scope than sympathy and devotion to another. Yet the concrete goal of helping another (rather than the vague group) is more useful. Reality alone counts. Dreams expectations only serve to define us as broken dreams, abortive hopes, and thwarted expectations. I feel I am in Samuel Johnson’s world here.

One problem I found is that Sartre is prescriptive, not descriptive as I remember Heidegger was. I think of an old Bible story about how if you are given certain talents, you must use them or God will punish you. No one supernatural will punish you in Sartre’s scheme — but yourself. He is unforgiving. I also found him defensive — especially against communists (!) who he said demanded that we give ourselves over to group idea or set of ideas. Thus we lose our freedom. Why not just ignore them? He was very bothered by Camus’s Stranger because he felt the book argued for the futility of any attempt to explain the world. (This is a branch of nihilism, commented the teacher). He says we must ignore others and yet himself cannot dismiss someone else’s admired book. Sartre says what has happened today is a breakdown of central social systems, so that people are aware their way of life is not universal nor their norms or values: we daily live in close proximity to disillusionment, disenchantment because we have woken up. Now to me we are with Kant saying that the enlightenment is a movement where we are adults and our own authorities based on our own experience and developing judgement.

How is existentialism humanism I asked the teacher: because we are centering ourselves on ourselves, on people relationships; through people the world is created. Well, I’d say in part. I read that Sartre says humanism is thinking man is the end we work for, humanity the supreme value. Well this is just wrong. Other animals count too and we must value them and act for them as much.


Ian this very morning on what was Jim’s desk, now my third library table, with the laptop on it too.

My notes on Beauvoir are more coherent and extensive. I felt that she was explaining Sartre — it is an early work, before The Second Sex, before any of her novels and long memoir.

The past is never to be used as a template for the present — David Johnson’s comment on a passage by Beauvoir which is not my understanding of her.  To me she subtilizes, nuances, and interjects an ethic of care. We might say hers is the woman’s point of view, his the man’s. She is concretely about politics and  the cruelties of fascism (as is Weil):

I know that Beauvoir write at her outset our nature has two basic impulses we must obey: to disclose ourselves to others and to will, to act out what we want or feel as mirrored by this disclosure. (She was accused of essentialism.) I thought how solitary confinement is a form of torture: the person can neither disclose him or herself, nor can he or she will an effective act.

Well, Johnson said for Beauvoir subjectivity is terrifying, as we are a mere small presence in a particularly unjust or evil world. She does insist that evil is real, that there are bad actors in the world, they rise to power and will evil. There can be no general ethics for all. We are left in ambiguity. We find ready-made values imposed on us by “serious” people, and these values veil our liberty from us. She is not a nihilist. When we genuinely act authentically we must not impinge on others’ liberty either – or speak or act for them.

Freedom for Beauvoir brings about transcendence, not in any divine but by opening up and providing for indeterminate possibilities. We do have to exist in the present. The last part of her text is her worrying over the Heideggerian idea that people to be human must thrust themselves forward into the future. The enslaved person is denied a fundamental need because he or she can have no future, can plan nothing as at any time he or she may sold or forced to do something he or she would rather not. Johnson remarked the future is the not yet. Religion tells us to throw ourselves into a future that’s is not so, so we must dismiss that. But many philosophies show how people live in terms of the future. I remember learning in the class on Heidegger that he explains why slavery is so de-humanizing: Nonetheless Beauvoir says we must live in the present; the future can be seen through what we are doing in the present, it is incarnate in the present. We must not lose ourselves in the not yet?

I was impressed by how often she brought up childhood, how many references to Rousseau, a long passage on Emile. She declared that “the child does not contain the man he will become.” At long last. There were several passages on how women have been enslaved, how even in cultures where there is opportunity to disclose themselves authentically to someone other than a trusted confidant, to act according to her will, she has been taught submission, struck by how she saw through the gaiety of women who are complicit with the wills of men, how quickly their graciousness can become hard, bitter fury. She too demands we not resign ourselves or we have failed. A piece on Mlle de Lespinasse’s abject letters in love, that Lespinasse is in love with suffering; she sees Lespinasse’s many renouncements, her dependence as frightening. So does Austen in Marianne Dashwood.

She gave me freedom when she said (reminding me of Elinor Dashwood) it is enough to be liberated in one’s thought. I felt comfort when she allowed for joy in history (and presumably historical fiction) because you assume a relationship of sheer contemplation and aesthetic enjoyment. The past is past.

Outside of time and far from men, we face history — Beauvoir, as translated by Bernard Frechtman

But I do know from Orwell “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls [our understanding of] the past.”

Johnson also seems to have talked of failure — or I have notes where he seemed to be saying how intentional we are, we may not be able to disclose ourselves to another. They are in their subjectivity. I cited RLStevenson, a favorite passage:

There is indeed one element in human destiny
that not blindness itself can controvert. Whatever
else we are intended to do, we are not intended
to succeed; failure is the fate allotted. Our business
is to continue to fail in good spirits. — Robert Louis Stevenson

To which one of the people said, Becket said that more concisely: fail better. I thought of all the exchanges on the Internet I’ve had over the years and how I misunderstand others and they misunderstand me, or how what I have said does not register as important to them, but some side issues or details I cited, and maybe vice versa too.

So we fall back on “the appeal:” we try to appeal to others based on their groundwork to understand us and we try to respond to appeals. An ethic of looking to the other, but respecting (not fearing) them except when evil actors, she can be brought together with Carol Gilligan’s humane groundwork on the psychology of women. And hence l’ecriture-femme.

I have begun Simone de Weil – the cover to my edition of her book is silly: a photo of carrots (root vegetables anyone?). Translator Arthur Wills. I know she starved herself to death, so desperately hideous to her was the barbaric WW2. She is so different from the other two, though. Not just the belief in God but an assumption we must take this belief into account in our understanding of life, death &c The publisher has TS Eliot as introducer because he was an overt fervent (in his later poetry) Anglican. Then he’s right about Weil having a way of beginning with a very wrong idea, indeed lopsided (to my mind), sometime perverse, but then from this point A she leaps to Point B, where she is uttering a brilliant explanatory truth and moving from truth to truth, some just statements and others encompassing utterances … There is paradoxically a lot more pragmaticism and open politics about the 1940s wars and the horrors of Nazism. Yet the soul’s needs is what she is on about: what are “the vital needs of the human being.” She is very Samuel-Johnsonian.

She offers concrete alternatives to the anti-humane organizations of our society, their de-humanizing and uprooted values. I discover too I have her deeply anti-war commentary, The Iliad or The Poem of Force, ed and trans. Hames P Holoska.

I’ve been reading in these two Weils this morning. I am troubled by my discovery that in her Uprootedness (The Need for Roots), the central presences are men. Once she leaves universal needs and talks of society, it’s the working men who must be freed, the peasant is a man. Women come up only as pregnant wives, as prostitutes (which she want to outlaw) or sewing.

There is no more masculine work I know than The Iliad, and all Weil’s words are couched as universals, not as gendered situations, yet here most frequently she picks out passages about women’s grief, women’s subjection. I gave up on Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls because its realism made it so monotonous; the heroine never had any choice, any separate subjectivity; this makes me want to return to it but I know I won’t find there what Beauvoir, Sartre and Weil all claim is possible: freedom in subjectivity through the mind. Frederick Douglas was able to achieve it and then fled — barker did not want to dwell on the unusual person.

I find Weil’s analysis spot on, her memory of the poem is mine. A poem about force, exulting in brutality, incessant and at the same time including all these passages of poignant helpless loss.

***********************


Sissinghurst Kent: the gardens

I want to bring up all-day “course” I took at the Smithsonian a week ago Saturday, “The Splendours of English Country Houses:” Bonita Billman talked a nearly 6 hour lecture (putting it all together and eliminating the breaks and lunch) on “the splendors of English country houses,” historically conceived; we began with Bess of Hardwicke and Renaissance massive structures and ended on a renovaton of a 14th century castle by another filthy rich family with personally aesthetically ambitious people with their hands on great gobs of money, the Courtaulds’s Elthan Palace. She was genuinely informative, insightful, wry, lots of information. I’ve ten pages of dense stenographer, 5 pages of a xeroxed summary of what she said, names of houses, architects, places, a good bibliography. Pictures of architectural elements.  I just can’t transcribe this material.

So my faith in the Smithsonian as a place to go for reasonably intelligent lectures is restored. Once, one long summer day a miraculous nearly 8 hours by a man who knew all these is to know about the Beatles and their music, with accompanying music, pictures. But the last 3 lectures I went to at the Smithsonian were embarrassingly bad; one was morally moronic (about surgery in the 19th century in the UK). I worried I would be getting hours of talk intended to elicit gasps at the obscenities wealth inequality that made these places possible over the centuries (still supports some), or these irritating giggles. There was still this curious stupid laughter (common in film audiences). I like art history – I in effect minored in art history in college. One got only 2 credits for every course you took: so to me that just allowed me to take more of them and I did. The Smithsonian has many art history lectures, most mediocre — the speakers speak as if they never read any deconstructionism or theory. Still, the Smithsonian still has far fewer literary choices than they did when I first joined.

But afterwards I realized that there were serious lacks in her talks. She omitted to evaluate what we were seeing from a truly aesthetic and moral standpoint. If we divest ourselves of alluring richness-worshipping preconceptions about showing off wealth, prominence, making a stage or set to emphasize power, status; many of the rooms Billman showed and a helluva lot of the objects were anything from ludicrous, ridiculous and to objectively seen obscene. Useless. Extravagant and done on the backs of the abysmal low wages and fierce hard physical labor of huge numbers of people. Imagine what John Berger would have said — he’d have perhaps produced an hour’s lecture of what was worth looking at truly, the rest cultural study of the super-rich and super-powerful. I did fall asleep for a while over the long part about Palladian houses and objects. Thank you for this critical funny observation.

The TLS for August 2, 2019 had a review by Michael Hall, of yet another of these books which insist on sheer celebration of the houses the rich for themselves, which had this aware perspective. The houses named were most of them Billman discussed. It is no longer true the 1% must give up these houses; they are buying some of them back and re-converting them into luxury palaces for themselves and their friends. Take Eltham Palace, a renovated 14th century castle:

Inside the house the decor is strictly and unqualifiedly art deco, with the accent on name furniture interior decorators:

Someone on my timeline commented: “This looks like the lobby of the headquarters of a life insurance company. I trust it comes across better in person.” This fits into these existentialists: we are to ask whose subjectivity, what values are these houses imposing on us, at what cost to whom and why cannot this money be spent on the poor, the vulnerable, the refuge (a section of Weil is on the ultimate uprooted, the refuge), or some social services program, how about comfortable for free buses and trains.

*************************************


Izzy and I at the neighborhood summer block party Tuesday evening this past week — it’s talked about as if a central event; for the second of two times we’ve come, we found it sparsely attended

So I come back to where I began: this summer or this time of this summer is again hard. Truthful talk of a widow’s life. At that lunch I did after all make at the fine restaurant, with the two women we discussed what it is to be an older woman alone.

One said she was a widow of 40 years and epitomized her experience thus: “yes you get to go out for lunch like this,” but then spend your life as an outcast come evening: suddenly you are not invited to places you were because you are not a couple; how other women regard you as a threat. Yes. The other has been widowed twice, on her third and now unhappy marriage; her first husband was simply shot to death one day in their house; she came home to find the corpse; no one ever discovered who did it or why; she was left with three young children. The second a successful companionship, died of cancer. I remembered a third woman (online friend) this week told me (as she has before) of all the reproaches she has been the target of if she brought up she had been unlucky or looked sad — her husband died when she was 37 and he in his mid-40s:  the speakers seem to resent that she got a social security check, and pension as this man’s widow. She too left with two children. Why do people resent the minimal needs of others their class being met by some group set up for this through some shared scheme.  Jim was dead two weeks and I was told “it’s your own fault now if you are miserable” (but someone I hadn’t realized disliked Jim very much for his reclusive ways); that first year:  “get over it!”

We have been reading and discussing Trollope’s mid-career Miss Mackenzie on Trollope&Peers: its focus is a 35 year old spinster, left a lot of money, and trying to make a choice of life for herself and we’ve been discussing what were and are attitudes towards people who never marry, never have a partner, nor children. Why people marry? Why have children? One of the most moving modern plays of the 20th century of the realistic kind I’ve seen is by Lillian Hellman, The Autumn Garden; it focuses on a 50 plus year old woman now divorced (the husband left her for a much younger woman) whose 3 children are anywhere from indifferent to scornful. How lonely she is, how unappreciated she feels. Maybe I’d like a deeply compatible relationship once again, but I don’t think I’d get one like what I had where I’d again be allowed all the the time to read and write and watch what I want on TV, and nowadays go where I want (to classes) and (as a single man said on our list) I’ve an idea that no relationship could be worth giving up those freedoms for me — even if the price is years of nights alone and coping with my disabilities.


Trollope is having an Italian renaissance …

It’s called facing or accepting one’s lot, which I am doing this summer.

Ellen

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