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Faye Vanderveer — an idealized Alexandria City street

Dear friends,

One should not be astonished either at what people are willing to do to one another nor what they will accept as living conditions. Only a realization that conveniency and self-interest when it comes to economic circumstances conquer all objections can explain how Washington, D.C. has grown to this large metropolis when every summer we have weeks & weeks of weather that is hard to breath in. I’m told not that it’s just as hot in New York City, but that you can be miserable there too — indeed 89 degree with lower 70s humidity is not fun, but it’s still not as deadly as temperatures in high 90s with 81% humidity. That’s what it’s been for over a week now and we are promised temperatures in the 100s this weekend.

I dream of Maine, and look forward to my 10 days in Inverness, Scotland in August. I tell myself if I find I like the Road Scholar program truly, next summer not only will I go to the Lake District in August but if I don’t go on a Jane Austen tour in June (that’s when most of them are), I will find something for a widow with no friends to travel with for June to New England — one of the packages which include many plays. That’s what Jim used to concoct for him and me — with Izzy sometimes. Rent a Landmark house from the 19th century in Vermont, go to a lake for swimming when not on the road to a good play in the Berkshires (including one summer Lillian Hellman’s Summer Garden, other years Stoppard, Turgenev, Shakespeare, Shaw …)

Road, a feminist blog I follow included one of more perceptive essays on “ages of grief” I’ve read. It seemed to be my case: once surrounded by parents, with husband, two daughters, now alone with memories

These days when I read or hear about the death of anyone at any age and think about those who loved them, I have more than a glimmer as to how those left behind might be feeling. One of the many wonders of old age is what happens when your mind encounters sad, perhaps devastating, events. It sweeps over your knowledge of such things, whether personal or through friendships, like a strong breeze passing over a variety of prairie grasses: Big bluestem, salt grass, bottlebrush, porcupine, rice grass, foxtail, timothy, cupgrass, tufted lovegrass, wild rye. You ask, Which one is this? And then comes a moment when a known grief springs up green and fresh. Oh yes, this kind again.

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Here are the two extraordinary experiences I hope you can reach:

I’m writing to recommend daring the heat — enduring it — and going to the Richmond Museum of Fine Arts or wherever the next place the exhibit of Yves St Laurent’s extraordinary art in dresses, costumes, jewelry, accessories, shoes, hats, headdresses, capes, cloaks, just about everything you can dress a woman in, which art includes the cloth he himself makes a first version of, the weave of each material, the designs and colors of the objects. I am naturally inclined to be sceptical and see “fashion” and “high couture” as commercial art (which it is) aimed at making huge amounts of money from the super-rich. That would take attracting the lowest common denominator in that class’s taste. But that’s not what this man did. Over the course of a long life-time he invented deeply appealing costumes for women. He begins as a homosexual boy making cut-outs (yes dressing paper dolls), which his parents don’t discourage him from.

Quickly he learns to sew, make patterns and his first fashion costumes. His parents were upper middle class people with good connections in Algeria, and before Yves was in his twenties he had a central position in Christian Dior’s firm. He lived a highly unconventional life in Paris, traveling, partying with all the important people in the arts, and so his artistry, talent, and by this time intuitive ability to make costumes that mirrored the spirit of each decade or helped create it brought him within a few years management of the firm when Dior died early unexpectedly. I’d say the exhibit has at least 8 rooms of mannequins which take you through the phases of his career, the different emphases of fashion.

Along the walls one sees his drawings and designs; the items are numbered so you can follow along with a free slender catalogue. There are on-going films of famous fashion shows here and there — like when Laurent broke with the constructed clothing of the 50s


Not that these are not fashioning the self

Or the costume-like fashions of more recent decades..

Within each staged presentation of a kind of fashion, the costumes are arranged to reinforce and contrast with one another. Two huge staged presentations of earring, necklaces, chokers, bracelet jewelry, from the beautifully tasteful to gorgeously bizarre. I was with a friend and we discussed and talked as we went through: we could see he didn’t lived a troubled life (he succumbed to drug addiction for periods).
It was the poetry of fashion. I kept coming across a dress, or full outfit, or cloak I could see myself not only wearing but quietly reveling in.

It was a 2 hour trip by car there — in the broiling heat — we got lost at one point. The museum does have a good cafe (and better restaurant but by the time we got to lunch, well after 3:30 it was closed). Then 2 hours back by car. This museum (like the Brooklyn Academy of Arts), specializes in the unusual so that it draws people to come from all over. A few years ago Jim drove us down to the museum to see a huge exhibit of Picasso’s art. The collection is not big but what they have is well-culled — and this time smaller exhibits (Tiffany art glass).

Then two nights ago I saw at the Folger the RSC Live production of Antony & Cleopatra, from Stratford-upon-Avon. It started slow and in the middle of the first act seemed to drag, but as it move on (it was three full hours, with one brief intermission) the actors playing Antony (Antony Byrne), Cleopatra (Josette Simon), their entourages, her women, his men, Enobarbus were viscerally deeply affecting, engaged. I had read the play as erotic, imagined aging wildly adoring and playful lovers, who cut down, rise to heights of ecstatic poetry. Also that it was a political parable about the effectiveness of cold ambition, hypocrisy, ruthlessness, heartlessness (Caesar). But I had not taken into account how it explores the lives of women (Octavia is not a small part), their relationships with one another. More important I didn’t know it dramatizes defeat at length. Yes it’s about characters who make bad self-sabotaging decisions. As if they wanted to blow away public life. I was so moved by Antony’s speeches berating himself, Cleopatra’s turn to suicide, and all the other characters’ failed attempts to rescue this pair or themselves. It explores the inner anguish of tragedy spread out before us. An black English actress played Cleopatra, and dressed exotically; the older great male actor (I’ve seen him many times before) was self-ripped up loss in dignity. Their costumes terrific; doubtless what would draw S Laurent to go.

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My class at the OLLI at George Mason this summer ended Tuesday around 1:30. All those who stayed the course, and that included nearly 25, said how much they enjoyed the two contrasting historical fictions, DuMaurier’s King’s General and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover. They said they loved how I choose books slightly off beaten path. I had found on the Internet a YoutTube of a remarkable lecture on why Sontag wrote and lived the life of a radically activist public intellectual as well as writer, poet, film-maker. I summarized for them the content of this remarkable lecture on Sontag’s work by Savanna Illinger which I here share with you:

Brief high points: Sontag felt literature should advance our understanding of the real, and denounce things which conceal human misery under the cover of sentimentalism. What Mary Wollstonecraft said was the justification for literature (poetry) to extend the sympathetic imagination in Sontag’s words is we have a duty to reveal other people’s true reality, warts and all, and suffering. Very hard because we have a hard time taking the sufferng of another as real. We cannot understand what war or battle is unless we have lived in a war zone. Photographs often constitute a barrier because while they acknowledge what is seen, they offer no understanding of what they picture, no admission of how photos are artificially framed; they promote emotional detachment and thus inauthenticity. For the imaginative contemplating the art work to be a fully ethical experience, you should be moved to translate your empathy into action. Early on, she thought essays, discourse, verse were much better at conveying reality, reason, against sentimentalism; but around time of Volcano Lover and In America, she saw in stories an ability to lead readers to enter into, ponder the lives of others. In the 18th century the significant moment pictured occurred just before or after the trauma; nowadays the deeply traumatic, wildly violent without dignity is what we show to disturb our readers. There is a superb essay on Sontag by A. S. Byatt.

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One good enough experience, and one thrown-away opportunity

With Izzy this past Sunday night I went again to the Kennedy Center. This time to see Cabaret, in the Eisenhower theater in the 2nd balcony where we remembered sitting with Jim for Sondheim many a time, and our last New Year’s Eve together — a group of actors/singers imitated the rock stars of the 1950s, with “Elvis” the chief personality. The terrace was again beautiful, but now too warm to walk much. We’d never seen this famous musical: it is very much mainstream Broadway (or at least this production was), all gussied up and partly disguised by the imitation of German Weimar culture of the 1920s. It was a very humdrum production and I could see through to where its numbers resembled all sorts of others in other mainstream sweet and sentimental musicals. For example, “Money makes the world go round” is the equivalent of “Money doesn’t grow on trees in Oliver Twist. Now I know the context for the different songs: so “What good is sitting alone in your room” is sardonically ironic in context. I knew it was based on stories by Christopher Isherwood with an invented Bohemian heroine, Sally Bowles, who becomes involved with one of your white, blond virtuous American males (as appeared in this production). I had not realized there is a poignant story of an aging German landlady who is frightened out of marrying a deeply tenderly kind aging Jewish tenant. I now know why the musical appeals.’

Tonight I betook myself to the Smithsonian for what looked like a good lecture on George Orwell in the 21st century but most unusually the speaker was dull: Andrew Rubin was very cautious and all qualification, so I wondered who he was worried he was offending. He read his paper without attempting to reach the audience; he was disdainful of said audience too — not that their questions did not show utter misapprehensions, likening ISIS for example to the Republicans in Spain who were for a decent humane secular life — showed real obtuseness. As Rubin said, ISIS is pathological destruction. Read The New Yorker on the destruction of the Mosul library, or irrelevant an about their own identity, such as was Orwell anti-semitic?).


What’s left of the millions of wonderful books, ms’s, art, several heritages found together — now a site filled with landmines

I thought of a question I didn’t get to ask: on surveillance. Winston Smith is famously being watched, monitored, is in danger of being destroyed. Ruben didn’t broach this topic. I wondered what specifically in Orwell’s era was he worried about, and was he ever threatened. He broadcast for the BBC, and perhaps had had his fill of timid and political censorship. Despite this disappointment, I saw in the catalogue the institution has some good lectures on literary (one on a Sylvia Plath exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London) and film people coming up (Mingle with Marlene Dietrich), and I’ll try to go in the coming summer evenings.


Susan Herbert

And that’s the news from this Lake Woebegone, where my cats are my good companions and my younger daughter my beloved. Still listening to Gaskell’s Ruth read aloud: what a painful book. Next up: Woolf’s Night and Day.

Miss Drake

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Dear friends and readers,

How’s about a little bit of art criticism, poetry and music to start your day:

I put the picture below on facebook under the “rubric:” a touching scene:

NewYorkerApril2015
Attributed to Thomas Bliss, from the New Yorker,

and the following chat ensued:

Diane K: “Really, and utterly un-ironic. I tore to the title page to see what bit of sarcasm I was missing, and lo and behold, it is what it is.” Arthur L: “A canine Romeo and Juliet?” Diane Loiselle L: “Yes.” Me: “We are too discouraged from the feelings of the heart — we need not ironize everything” [two people “liked” that]. Diana B: “(Scratches head) Maybe I’m too literal minded or something, but are you saying there’s a second dog in this picture? I don’t see ‘Romeo,’ only ‘Juliet.’ Unless it’s supposed to mean that the dog is looking wistful because he’s trapped in a zillion-dollar piece of real estate? Somebody explain, please!” Me: “There are two dogs. A white one is standing on a lower balcony on lower hind legs looking up, with paws on the top of the grating. A brown one whose head can be seen through the grating and is under a small bush of some sort is looking down. I like the like the adjective wistful. I agree we need not see it as Romeo-and-Juliet romance and we do see two dogs trapped in zillion dollar apartments. The one below has fur that looks well cared for; the top one has ears that look brushed. I saw them as longing for closer companionship, to play with one another. If I were their owners I would not pemit them to come onto those balconies lest they fall. But I am becoming too realistic. It’s a fetching emblem. The New Yorker often turns what are pictures of wealth into picturesqueness …”

which morphed into a dialogue:

Diana B: “Oh, thank you Ellen. I couldn’t see all that on my screen – still can’t – so no wonder I was puzzled! I only see the top dog, which limits my perspective!” Me: “A sign of the control (from over-the-top sentimentalism) is that the lower dog is not wagging a tail and we can’t tell which dog is which sex. Yet they stand there so stilly …. (I just invented that adjective). New Yorker cartoons and drawings are often very clever … [a few minutes later] There is a hint of a cat on the next red brick building, next to the air conditioner on the ledge. One hopes not — yet there is the hint of a swishing tail or maybe paw just over the ledge. Now I notice the air-conditioner — I know that apartments in NYC can cost “the earth” and yet have very old fashioned technology. Only central air keeps you cool in summer.”  [So the picture is about NYC too.] Diana: “I can’t see any of those things as the picture is so badly reproduced here. I’ll take your word for them. Ellen, you might like to listen to the wonderful old song, “Oft in the stilly night.” Must try to find a good version for you. ‘Oft in the stilly night, ere slumber’s chains have bound me, Fond mem’ry brings the light, Of other days around me.’ Is it Burns? Or Scott? You’d like it… ” Me: I know and do like it and have it (in effect) in my copy of the 1972 Emma: the actress playing Jane Fairfax plays it in front of the others in the first scene where she plays the piano. The film adaptations bring home how often she does play for different ones film different moments in the novel where Jane plays the piano and others listen. It’s neither Burns or Scott but someone else (more minor). Diana: “Thomas Moore! Not so minor, lovely old Irish song. I’m so glad you know the melody, Ellen.” Me: “Ah yes. In the text itself (Emma), there’s an allusion to an old Irish ballad. Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t we “know” that Austen had Irish songs in a songbook — and would play them in the early morning.”

By which time ten people (all friends I know, most have met face-to-face) had “liked” the thread.

Only the music and tone of “Oft in the stilly Night” calls for evening, a dark twilight.

Click to hear bagpipes:

Oft in the stilly night
Ere slumbers chain has bound me,
Fond memry brings the light
Of other days around me:
The smiles, the tears of boyhoods years,
The words of love then spoken;
The eyes that shone,
Now dimmd and gone,
The cheerful hearts now broken!
Thus in the stilly night
Ere slumbers chain has bound me,
Sad memry brings the light
Of other days around me.

When I remember all
The friends, so linkd together,
I’ve seen around me fall
Like leaves in wintry weather,
I feel like one
Who treads alone
Some banquet-hall deserted,
Whose lights are fled,
Whose grlands dead,
And all but he departed!
Thus in the stilly night
Ere slumbers chain has bound me,
Sad memry brings the light
Of other days around me.

72Emma3JanePlaysBackShot
Ania Martin as Jane (Constantduros’ Emma, BBC 1972): here the music is Schubert’s overture to a ballet, Rosamond, later in the film adaptation she plays twice more, and once it is “Stilly night …”

MrKnightleyAppreciatesEmmaglum
John Carson as Mr Knightley appreciates it, Doran Goodwin as Emma glum, left out, with Constance chapman as Miss Bates smiling gamely but not understanding at all.

All very suggestive of Jane Austen’s inner world, not quite blocked off from us.

Sylvia

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