Tuesday, October 31, 2006

"Radios, it is"

"An' after he studies at night, why -- it'll be nice, an' he tore a page outa Western Love Stories, an' he's gonna send off for a course, 'cause it don't cost nothin' to send off. Says right on that clipping. I seen it. An', why -- they even get you a job when you take that course -- radios, it is, nice clean work, and a future."
That's Rose of Sharon speaking of her hopes for the future with her husband Connie, in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939).

Above, part of an ad from Popular Mechanics (June 1938).

From the same issue of Popular Mechanics: Alkalize with Alka-Seltzer, "MONEY MAKING FORMULAS," A mystery EXchange name.

Steinbeck on migrant camps

For my students reading The Grapes of Wrath -- an excerpt from John Steinbeck's 1936 account of migrant camps in California:

Here is a house built by a family who have tried to maintain a neatness. The house is about 10 feet by 10 feet, and it is built completely of corrugated paper. The roof is peaked, the walls are tacked to a wooden frame. The dirt floor is swept clean, and along the irrigation ditch or in the muddy river the wife of the family scrubs clothes without soap and tries to rinse out the mud in muddy water.

The spirit of this family is not quite broken, for the children, three of them, still have clothes, and the family possesses three old quilts and a soggy, lumpy mattress. But the money so needed for food cannot be used for soap nor for clothes.

With the first rain the carefully built house will slop down into a brown, pulpy mush; in a few months the clothes will fray off the children's bodies, while the lack of nourishing food will subject the whole family to pneumonia when the first cold comes. Five years ago this family had 50 acres of land and $1,000 in the bank. The wife belonged to a sewing circle and the man was a member of the Grange. They raised chickens, pigs, pigeons and vegetables and fruit for their own use; and their land produced the tall corn of the middle west. Now they have nothing.
Death in the Dust (Guardian Unlimited)

Robert Fagles' Aeneid

Robert Fagles' translation of Virgil's Aeneid will be out in a couple of days. From a New York Times article:

"I usually try not to ride the horse of relevance very hard," Mr. Fagles said recently at his home near Princeton University, from which he recently retired, after teaching comparative literature for more than 40 years. "My feeling is that if something is timeless, then it will also be timely." But he went on to say that The Aeneid did speak to the contemporary situation. It's a poem about empire, he explained, and was commissioned by the emperor Augustus to celebrate the spread of Roman civilization.

"To begin with, it's a cautionary tale," Mr. Fagles said. "About the terrible ills that attend empire -- its war-making capacity, the loss of blood and treasure both. But it's all done in the name of the rule of law, which you'd have a hard time ascribing to what we're doing in the Middle East today.

"It's also a tale of exhortation. It says that if you depart from the civilized, then you become a murderer. The price of empire is very steep, but Virgil shows how it is to be earned, if it’s to be earned at all. The poem can be read as an exhortation for us to behave ourselves, which is a horse of relevance that ought to be ridden."
Translating Virgil's Epic Poem of Empire (New York Times, free registration required)

And here's a link to a related post, with one passage from the Aeneid, as translated by Robert Fitzgerald, Stanley Lombardo, and Robert Fagles:

Three Virgils

Reader, which translation do you prefer?

Boo!



[Construction paper, ink, colored pencil, twine, by James Leddy]

Monday, October 30, 2006

Sonny Rollins in Illinois

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we are here tonight, and we must remember that music is the -- one of the beautiful things of life. So we have to try to keep the music alive some kind of way. And maybe music can help. I don't know, but we have to try something these days, right? [Sonny Rollins, Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert, recorded September 15, 2001]
Sonny Rollins at the Tryon Festival Theatre
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
University of Illinois, Urbana
October 29, 2006

Sonny Rollins, tenor saxophone
Clifton Anderson, trombone
Bobby Broom, electric guitar
Bob Cranshaw, electric bass
Victor Lewis, drums
Kimati Dinizulu, percussion

Salvador (Rollins)
Serenade (Mario - Drigo)
Why Was I Born? (Kern - Hammerstein II)
They Say It's Wonderful (Berlin)
Global Warming (Rollins)
Sonny, Please (Rollins)
Don't Stop the Carnival (Rollins)

I heard Sonny Rollins 17 (or was it 16? 15?) years ago -- the greatest musical performance I've ever heard. When I read that he was coming to the Krannert Center at the University of Illinois, my first impulse was not to go. Nothing, I thought, could match the performance I'd heard. But go I did, and I'm very glad.

Sonny Rollins is 76, but the only visible evidence of his age is a Fred Sanford gait. Rollins' long face and full beard make him look like a Biblical patriarch or a figure from an El Greco painting. His sunglasses, loose dark-blue shirt, and red pants make him look like Sonny Rollins. His performance last night was filled with countless bright moments of excitement and surprise, spread across two hours of music: three calypsos ("Salvador," "Global Warming," and "Don't Stop the Carnival"), two great standards, a funky modal piece ("Sonny, Please"), and a beautiful out-of-the-way treasure, Riccardo Drigo's "Serenade," from the 1900 ballet Les Millions d'Arlequin.

"Serenade" was for me one of the great moments from this concert. In an online interview, Rollins remembers this melody as introducing "some kind of radio show" from his youth; last night he described it as "an old Italian folksong" that someone "on the wrong side of 40" might know. (I didn't.) "Serenade" is a beautiful waltz melody; like Dvorak's "Humoresque," it sounds as though it was made for jazz musicians to play on (especially with Rollins' reharmonization of the first eight bars). Another favorite moment from last night: "Why Was I Born?" I've listened to the performance of this song from The 9/11 Concert many times in the last few weeks and was thrilled to hear an even more exciting performance of it last night.

Rollins' solos are like entries in the Oxford English Dictionary: lengthy, thorough, discerning, leaving no nuance unexamined. And like OED entries, they are filled with bits of cultural history. Rollins quoted "Oh! Susanna" several times (as on The 9/11 Concert); "52nd Street Theme," "Lester Leaps In," "My Romance," "Rhythm-a-ning," and "Scrapple from the Apple" also turned up in his solos. "They Say It's Wonderful" had a honking moment from "Here Comes the Bride" (the "Bridal Chorus" from Wagner's Lohengrin).

Clifton Anderson -- who when I last saw him played opening and closing themes and only the most modest solos -- has become a worthy second horn, playing with great authority. Bobby Broom is an inventive guitarist, but his sound was often lost in the sonic mud of Bob Cranshaw's bass (whose amp must've been turned up to eleven). Victor Lewis is a drummer of great energy and taste, and Kimati Dinizulu's tuned percussion added detail and texture. Dinizulu contributed the most unexpected moment to the night's proceedings -- an long, understated, melodic solo on "Serenade."

What made this concert especially wonderful for me was the chance to go to it with my daughter Rachel. She was a tyke stuck at home with a babysitter the last time Sonny Rollins came our way. And now she can dig jazz! (Thanks for coming, kiddo.)

Sonny Rollins' new CD, Sonny, Please, is not yet in stores but is available online and at Rollins' performances.

Sonny Rollins (website)
Sonny, Please (CD)

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Firefox 2.0 space-savers

Lifehacker has a second terrific post about improving Firefox by minimizing its "chrome" -- the various thingamajigs and whatnots that take up screen space. The comments too offer useful suggestions.

Geek to Live: Consolidate Firefox's chrome

[This post, which first appeared in duplicate, disappeared when I added "Broken, broken, dream." So here it is again.]

Broken, broken, dream

Blogger is broken, at least for now. I have a duplicate post ("Firefox 2.0 space-savers"), which appeared after repeated attempts to publish came back with errors. Now each instance of this post returns a "Page not found" error and cannot be deleted.

Technorati is broken too (as is the case with many blogs). Neither my posts nor links to my posts show up.

A bit of dialogue from a dream last night (whose context vanished when I woke): "I am in baloney recovery." The inspiration here must be Nellie McKay's "Suitcase Song":

try and tempt fate
get pneumonia
recuperate with soy bologna
Technorati tags (Ever the optimist!)
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Friday, October 27, 2006

Firefox 2.0 tweaks

Lifehacker has a tremendously helpful post for anyone using the new Firefox 2.0. Don't be put off by the words "Geek to Live"; anyone smart enough to use Firefox should be able to negotiate the tweaks described.

I've been using Firefox 2.0 since Tuesday and find it fast and stable. My only dissatisfaction is with the new, washed-out theme, but -- lo! -- the Firefox 1.5 theme is now available for use with 2.0.

Firefox 2.0
Geek to Live: Top Firefox 2 config tweaks (Lifehacker)
Winestripe (default Firefox 1.5 theme for Firefox 2.0)

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Proust: fashionable parties

There is no fashionable party, if one takes a cross-section of it at sufficient depth, that is not like those parties to which doctors invite their patients; the patients talk very sensibly, display excellent manners, and would give no sign of being mad if they did not whisper in your ear as an old gentleman passes, "Do you see him? That's Joan of Arc."
Marcel Proust, The Prisoner, translated by Carol Clark (London: Penguin, 2003), 223

Previous Proust posts, via del.icio.us

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Tower Records

Anthony Tommasini remembers:

Older record collectors have memories of wonderful, quirky independent stores run by managers who were passionate, if opinionated, about the music they sold. I remember when Pamela Dellal, a good mezzo-soprano based in Boston, worked as a saleswoman at the Harvard Coop in Cambridge in the early 1980’s. I used to call her the czarina of classical music at the Coop because she was so informed, efficient and forceful in her recommendations.

For many years Tower Records at Lincoln Center has been the closest New Yorkers have had to those small shops of earlier times. This is a paradox, I know, since the company, which opened its first store in 1960 in Sacramento, grew into a bullying retail chain that pushed out independents. Still, because of its location, Tower Records at Lincoln Center was a mingling place for classical aficionados. There, music students, opera buffs, contemporary-music devotees, everyday concertgoers and, now and then, well-known artists would bump into one another and talk shop.
Requiem for a Store’s Dying Classical Department (New York Times, registration required)

Related post
Record stores (The Relic Rack, Sam Goody's, J&R)

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

"[I]n my own hand, in my own notebook"

Q. How did you work on the translations?

A. I had this whole routine worked out while doing the Homer. I wrote out every line of Greek in my own hand, book by book, a big notebook for each book. One line to two blank lines. As I went through the Greek and copied it out in my own hand, I would face the difficulties -- any crux that turned up, questions of interpretation -- and try to work them out. I accumulated editions with notes and so on as I went along. So before I was through, I had acquired some of the scholarship that was relevant to my problems. But always, in the end, it was simply the Greek facing me, in my own hand, in my own notebook.
Robert Fitzgerald, "The Art of Translation," interview with Edwin Frank and Andrew McCord, Paris Review (Winter 1984). Reprinted in The Third Kind of Knowledge: Memoirs and Selected Writings, ed. Penelope Laurans Fitzgerald (New York: New Directions, 1993).

The image above, showing the opening line of Iliad 3, is a small part of a reproduction of a manuscript page accompanying the interview. (In the Greek, the episodes of the poem are lettered, not numbered; 3 is gamma.) Fitzgerald's Odyssey appeared in 1961; his Iliad in 1974.

Related post
Words from Robert Fitzgerald

Ethiopian spicy tomato lentil stew

Here's a link to a recipe for something that tastes much better than smoked chicken water. Isa Chandra Moskowitz is the host of The Post Punk Kitchen and the author of Vegan with a Vengeance. Her recipes rule.

My wife Elaine wants me to mention that fenugreek (which the recipe calls for) might be most easily found in an Indian grocery store. The word fenugreek derives from the Latin fenum Graecum, "Greek hay."

Ethiopian Spicy Tomato Lentil Stew, from The Post Punk Kitchen

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Vegan nightmare

Or perhaps anyone's nightmare. I was standing in the supermarket, reading the ingredient list on a carton of Silk soymilk:

INGREDIENTS: SMOKED CHICKEN WATER,
and that's as far as I got. Silk really is the soymilk of my dreams -- and nightmares.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Homeric blindness in "colledge"

I've been thinking about Homeric blindness today -- not the legendary blindness of the perhaps non-existent poet nor the literal blindness of the Cyclops Polyphemus but the figurative blindness of Homer's egomaniacs.

Odysseus is one such egomaniac. When he makes his escape from Polyphemus in Odyssey 9, he shouts back to the Cyclops to let him know just who has blinded him and stolen his animals:

"Cyclops, if anyone, any mortal man,
Asks how you got your eye put out,
Tell him that Odysseus the marauder did it,
Son of Laertes, whose home is on Ithaca."
That's a wonderful moment for thinking about Odyssean strength and weakness: having made his tricky escape from the Cyclops' cave, which involved the anonymity of being "Noman," Odysseus can't resist the desire to tie his name and line to his deeds. His desire to be known blinds him to the practical necessity to get away; he's like a pickpocket who stops to announce that he's lifted your wallet.

The suitors in Odysseus' household suffer from another form of blindness, a cluelessness as to the ways others might see them. In Odyssey 21, they're concerned that they will be shamed if the old beggar (Odysseus in disguise) is able to succeed in the test of the bow (bending and stringing Odysseus' bow and shooting an arrow through the sockets of twelve axe-heads). They want to maintain their reputation and fear being shown up by an old tramp. But as Penelope points out to them, men who have done what they have done "'cannot expect / To have a good reputation anywhere.'" Their names are already mud.

I thought of both Odysseus and the suitors today when reading a newspaper article about a student "organization" called War on Sobriety. The group's purpose is to drink (deeply) during each day of homecoming week. Saturday (the day of the Big Game) is devoted to all-day drinking, beginning with a beer breakfast. "It's our fight for the people who like to drink," one leader of the group is quoted as saying. He is identified by name in the article; I'm omitting his name here.

This student is also quoted as saying "It's really underground. We don't want to get a bad reputation." Yet he's giving an interview to a newspaper reporter (and leaving tracks that any potential employer will be able to find via a search engine). There it is: Odysseus and the suitors combined. Duh.

One question that this article doesn't address: Wouldn't a week of sustained drinking create some sort of difficulty with the responsibilities of being a college student? I suspect though that the members of this group aren't in college. They are, rather, in what I call colledge, the vast simulacrum of education that amounts to little more than buying a degree on the installment plan.

If I sound cranky, it's because the so-called War on Sobriety (front-page news in a college newspaper) serves to cheapen the degree of any student who's really in college.

(Odyssey passages are from Stanley Lombardo's translation.)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

IE 7

Microsoft has released Internet Explorer 7. Here's a link worth clicking on before using the program:

http://www.ie7.com

Jokes aside, Firefox is a far better browser.

Firefox 1.5, free download

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Introducing Rickey Antipasto

I sometimes amuse myself by pondering the odd names attached to the day's spam mails. (I'm easily amused.) I've even made imaginary lives for some of these "people." But today I received a spam mail from a "writer" for whom I can imagine no real-world existence. I find it easy though to imagine him as a character on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Yes, his name is Rickey Antipasto.

I can hear the voice of William Conrad (the Rocky and Bullwinkle announcer) so clearly: "But for Rickey Antipasto and our friends, time was running out!"

The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (Wikipedia)

Related posts
The folks who live in the mail
The poetry of spam

Proofread car fully!

The appearance of any work by J. Harris Miller is a major event in literary and cultural studies.
Blurb from the back cover of Literature as Conduct: Speech Acts in Henry James, by J. Hillis Miller (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005)

Hurricane

For my students (or anyone reading Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God), here are some links concerning the hurricane of 1928. One excerpt, from "The Florida Flood":

In 1928, thousands stayed in the interior. People asked many times, "Why didn’t they flee?" Now people are asking the same questions about New Orleans. The answer in both cases is the same. For many people, fleeing just wasn’t an option.

As in Katrina, many of the victims were poor -– in this case, poor migrant workers. While Katrina’s targets had the option of an Interstate highway system, those along Lake Okeechobee had the option of following a winding 2-lane road north or taking the road to the coast – the last place anyone would want to go with a hurricane bearing down. And the vast majority didn’t have access to a car, much less own one.
The Florida Flood (History News Network)

Florida's forgotten storm: The hurricane of 1928 (Sun-Sentinel) 2003 recollections from survivors of the storm

The night 2,000 died (Sun-Sentinel)

A storm of memories (St. Petersburg Times) A 1992 interview with a survivor of the storm

Water World (New Republic) Review of Eliot Kleinberg's Black Cloud: The Great Florida Hurricane of 1928 and Robert Mykle's Killer 'Cane: The Deadly Hurricane of 1928

Drawing-room

Reading Proust has made me wonder: what does drawing-room mean? Could the word have originally referred to a room in which accomplished young ladies worked on their sketching? Alas, no. Here's a charmingly quaint definition from the Oxford English Dictionary of the word's meanings then and "now":

1. a. orig. A room to withdraw to, a private chamber attached to a more public room . . . ; now, a room reserved for the reception of company, and to which the ladies withdraw from the dining-room after dinner.
The OED records the word's first appearance in 1642, as a shortening of withdrawing-room, which itself goes back to 1591. The even older withdrawing-chamber dates to 1392.

So I began to wonder about withdraw, which suddenly looked rather odd. Why does it mean what it does? The explanation is found in the word retire, which comes into English from the French retirer, "to withdraw," from re- and tirer, "to draw, to pull; to take out, to extract" (Cassell's French-English Dictionary). So to withdraw is to retire.

I shall now retire to the drawing-room.

Oops, it's ladies only.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Proust: "that supernatural instrument"

Proust's similes are always a delight:

And I went downstairs, hardly stopping to think how extraordinary it was that I should be going to see the mysterious Mme de Guermantes of my childhood, simply to use her as a source of practical information, as one uses the telephone, that supernatural instrument before whose wonders we were once all in awe, and which we now use unthinkingly, to call our tailor or order an iced dessert.
Marcel Proust, The Prisoner, translated by Carol Clark (London: Penguin, 2003), 24

Previous Proust posts, via del.icio.us

Monday, October 16, 2006

Hardy Mums



My dad's a master in small spaces. This punning collage arrived in the mail today. In real life it measures 1 7/16 inches by 3 1/4 inches.

[Pen and ink illustration and colored pencil, by James Leddy.]

_
L

Orange Crate Art just had its fifty-thousandth visitor. I'm teaching the Aeneid on Wednesday, so I'm marking the visit with a Roman numeral. The bar above the numeral indicates multiplication by 1,000 -- a lot simpler than 50 Ms.

The fifty-thousandth visitor was from Redmond, Washington, from some company called Microsoft, going to my post Cool laptop via a link at Lifehacker.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Overheard

"You're the only person I know who could be frightened by a radish."

Previous "Overheard" posts (via del.icio.us)

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Achilles and stochastic

How could I not look at the text of a spam message titled "Achilles and stochastic"? A small excerpt:

Ten years ago a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. But when I end up in the hay it's only hay, hey hey. Round, all around the world. Maybe tomorrow, I'll want to settle down, until tomorrow, I'll just keep moving on. 80 days around the world, we'll find a pot of gold just sitting where the rainbow's ending. Ulysses, Ulysses -- fighting evil and tyranny, with all his power, and with all of his might. He's got style, a groovy style, and a car that just won't stop. In search of Earth, flying in to the night. Thunder, thunder, thundercats, Ho! Thundercats are on the move, Thundercats are loose. Top Cat! The indisputable leader of the gang. He's the boss, he's a pip, he's the championship.

Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune.
And now it's back to reality (grading).

stochastic (Merriam-Webster OnLine)

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Tea (take 4 times daily)

I take delight in any "study," no matter how small the sample (75 tea-drinking men in this case), that confirms the wisdom of doing what I like doing anyway:

Regular cups of tea can help speed recovery from stress, researchers from University College London (UCL) said on Wednesday.

Men who drank black tea four times a day for six weeks were found to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than a control group who drank a fake tea substitute, the researchers said in a study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

The tea drinkers also reported a greater feeling of relaxation after performing tasks designed to raise stress levels.
And now back to grading midterms (and drinking tea).

Beat stress, drink tea (Reuters)

Related posts
Tea
Tea and health

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

In a memory kitchen

I rarely drink water from a juice glass. At work, I drink my way through a 32-ounce Nalgene bottle. At home, I drink water from large tumblers or Dixie cups. But this morning we were out of Dixie cups, and I wanted just a sip of water. So I filled a juice glass at the kitchen sink and had a moment of what Proust calls "involuntary memory," the unbidden return of the past via sensory stimuli.

Drinking this glass of water brought me back to the details of my grandparents' Brooklyn kitchen. The juice glass brought to mind my grandparents' glassware, most likely made by Libbey, with floral designs baked on. Water from my grandparents' tap would turn to a gray cloud in a glass and then clear. Whatever the reason -- aeration? the softness or hardness of the water? -- it doesn't happen at my sink. (And right now I am also remembering being fascinated in childhood by jelly glasses, the way whatever stories they told -- usually of the Flintstones -- ended and began again and again as one turned the glass, like a childhood version of Finnegans Wake.)

Looking around this memory kitchen, I recalled four other details -- cutlery with red plastic handles, a aluminum percolator with a glass knob at its top, a black- and grey-speckled metal roasting pan, and the fluorescent ring that seemed at one point synonymous with "kitchen," anybody's kitchen. I thought about aprons and anisette, but only vaguely. I thought of my grandparents as being in the living room, right next to the kitchen.

Later this afternoon, my wife Elaine made espresso, and the metallic coffee smell put me in my grandparents' kitchen all over again.

Monday, October 9, 2006

Crate art, orange



The Crate Label Museum has lots of orange crate art -- other fruits and vegetables too.

Crate Label Museum (via Armand Frasco's notebookism)

Sunday, October 8, 2006

Overheard

"You're like a mental backspace."

Previous "Overheard" posts (via del.icio.us)

Cigarettes and similes

Love is like a cigarette. You know you held my heart aglow between your fingertips. And just like a cigarette, I never knew the thrill of life until I touched your lips. Then just like a cigarette, love seemed to fade away and leave behind ashes of regret. Then with a flip of your fingertip, it was easy for you to forget. Oh, love is like a cigarette.
"Love Is Like a Cigarette," Richard Jerome and Walter Kent, 1936 (transcribed from the 1936 Duke Ellington recording, with singer Ivie Anderson)

Seventeen years ago today, I smoked my last cigarette.

Related posts
Cigarettes and similes (David Sedaris on Kools)
No smoking
Thank you for not smoking

Friday, October 6, 2006

Proust: "People never cease to change"

People never cease to change position in relation to ourselves. In the world's imperceptible but everlasting march, we think of them as motionless, in a moment of vision, too brief for us to perceive the motion that is bearing them along. But we need only choose from our memory two pictures of them taken at different times, yet sufficiently close together for them not to have changed in themselves, perceptibly at least, and the difference between the two pictures measures the displacement they have effected relative to ourselves.
Marcel Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah, translated by John Sturrock (New York: Penguin, 2002), 409

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Reality trumps satire

During the American Library Association's Banned Books Week, a Texas parent filed a "Request for Reconsideration of Instructional Materials" seeking the removal of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 from a high school's curriculum:

"It's just all kinds of filth," said Alton Verm, adding that he had not read Fahrenheit 451. "The words don't need to be brought out in class. I want to get the book taken out of the class."

He looked through the book and found the following things wrong with the book: discussion of being drunk, smoking cigarettes, violence, "dirty talk," references to the Bible and using God's name in vain.
Fahrenheit 451 depicts a world in which the reading of books is prohibited and books themselves are burned.

Parent criticizes book Fahrenheit 451 (The Courier, via Boing Boing)

Related posts
Reality trumps academic satire
Reality trumps The Onion

A night at the opera

This past weekend I had the wonderful experience of attending a performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni at Indiana University. My experience of opera is rather slight, my musical interests having been almost entirely elsewhere, so I went to the opera as one might travel to another country, with unguarded curiosity as to what it's like over there. It was delightful over there. Tito Capobianco's direction added some smart bits of stage business as the story moved from sexual comedy to the darkly supernatural close. The orchestra, conducted by David Effron, had a beautiful sound, particularly the strings. And the singers ranged from very good to excellent. The three performances that most impressed me: Austin Kness' Don Giovanni, a cocky narcissist sans qualms; Alan Dunbar's Leporello, a servant living through his master's conquests; and Siân Davies' Donna Anna, one of the Furies who pursue DG for his wrongdoing.

If you're lucky enough to live near a university with a music program, try a student opera. You too might like it over there.

(Thanks, Martha and Gary!)

Don Giovanni, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Words from Robert Fitzgerald

Why care about an old work in a dead language that no one reads, or at least no one of those who, glancing at their Rolex watches, guide us into the future? Well, I love the future myself and expect everything of it: better artists than Homer, better works of art than The Odyssey. The prospect of looking back at our planet from the moon seems to me to promise a marvelous enlargement of our views.¹ But let us hold fast to what is good, hoping that if we do anything any good those who come after us will pay us the same compliment. If the world was given to us to explore and master, here is a tale, a play, a song about that endeavor long ago, by no means neglecting self-mastery, which in a sense is the whole point. Electronic brains may help us to use our heads but will not excuse us from that duty, and as to our hearts -- cardiograms cannot diagnose what may be most ill about them, or confirm what may be best. The faithful woman and the versatile brave man, the wakeful intelligence open to inspiration or grace -- these are still exemplary for our kind, as they always were and always will be. Nor do I suppose that the pleasure of hearing a story in words has quite gone out. Even movies and TV make use of words. The Odyssey at all events was made for your pleasure, in Homer’s words and in mine.

¹ This enlargement has now occurred, making everyone realize with a new pang not only the beauty of our blue planet but, by contrast with lunar and extra-lunar desolations, its bounty and fantasy of life.
That's the final paragraph of Robert Fitzgerald’s 1962 postscript to his translation of The Odyssey. The footnote is from 1969.

I wish Fitzgerald had written "the versatile brave man and woman," as Penelope too is both versatile and brave (as Fitzgerald of course knew). Replace the Rolex watches with Blackberries, substitute "the Internet" for "movies and TV," and Fitzgerald’s words seem as timely now as when he wrote them. This paragraph is for me a good explanation of why one might value and learn from ancient works of the imagination.

Monday, October 2, 2006

Deep purple

Purple blankets, purple cloaks: A student asked a good question. Why, in the Odyssey, is it always purple? The word in Homer's Greek is πορφύρεος, porphureos. Lesley Adkins and Roy A. Adkins explain:

Vegetable dyes were common, but the highly prized and expensive purple dye came from two species of sea snail (purpura and murex brandaris), which were native to the coasts of Syria and Phoenicia. (Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece, Oxford UP, 1997)
Purple was the color of majesty. Thus the expression "born to the purple" and the phrase "purple mountain majesties" in "America the Beautiful" (which I've heard, since grade school, as "purple mountains' majesty"). And it's fitting that purple should be the favorite color of the artist once again known as Prince.