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Pre-Weekend Miscellany

Shh.  I am in the process of sneaking away for the weekend to engage in a variety of self-indulgent pursuits when not engaged in strictly serious committee meetings.  To distract you whilst I eye the possible exits


  • As the result of an opera-related e-mail exchange, the redoubtable, knowledgeable and highly-opinionated A C DOUGLAS has very kindly added this Fool to the very selective sidebar list of culture weblogs at his Sounds & Fury.  My interests are frequently more frivolous than those of ACD, so this is indeed a pleasant surprise.  Details of my e-mailed comments -- involving Wagner, director Robert Wilson and a small slap at Puccini -- are in ACD's post, here.
  • David Giacalone takes time away from law, ethics, haiku and other pursuits to take a whack at the Hot Topic of the day with an Open Letter to Gas-Whiners.  In a Very Long Post, David reduces those who are permitted to complain about high gasoline prices to a Very Short List.  Are you on it?
  • At Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell is once again touting the virtues of John Crowley's novel, Little, Big.   Largely because of the enthusiasms expressed for it in various posts at that site, I tracked it down and read it myself at the end of last year.  (I even quoted it in a Christmas-seasonal post.)  It is a wonderment and then some.  The book is actually in print at the moment, which is not always the case.  Read it and be astounded.

In Alexandria, Love's Labour is Lost in Translation

Colby Cosh has begun posting a daily (or near-daily) survey of items from the obscure nooks and exotic crannies of the English-language world press.  Sez he:

There are English-language newspapers nearly everywhere, and most aggregator sites don't really touch them.  Surely intelligent Westerners would get interested in what's going on in China or Nigeria or Bangladesh -- if somebody made it easy for them.

No doubt they would -- and don't call me Shirley.

Mr. Cosh's April 19 aggregation included a fascinating-to-me article from Cairo's Al-Ahram Weekly by Mohamed Enani, a professor of English literature at Cairo University: "On translating Shakespeare into Arabic."  The piece is adapted from a talk Professor Enani presented during a "Shakespeare Now" conference held earlier this month at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Miss Lillie Langtry as Cleopatra, with unidentified stuntserpent, 1890As a riveting read, Professor Enani's talk suffers a bit from its academic origins -- this was the sort of conference, we learn from the sidebar, at which professors laid out "a postcolonial critique of humanist interpretations of the playwright" or read papers with titles such as "Enter the Ghost in his Night Gowne: the Corpus or Corpse of Shakespeare" and the poststructuralist "King Lear and the Missing Salt" -- but it is chock full of intriguing nuggets reminding the Western reader that, Harold Bloom notwithstanding, Shakespeare's influence is not so "universal" as we sometimes assume.  Indeed, the theatrical landscape of the Arab world is very different from our own, as Professor Enani begins by pointing out:

Until less than a century ago there had been no Arabic plays, that is, plays written originally in Arabic.

As for Shakespeare in Arabic,

The earliest extant Shakespearean translation dates as far back as [sic!] 1900, namely Mohamed Iffat's free -- perhaps too free -- translation of Macbeth.  The early decades of the 20th century saw a variety of adaptations, notably Sheikh Salama Higazi's Shuhada' Al-Gharam (Martyrs of Love) -- a musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, presented to an audience brought up on the tradition of Ottoman music, and written in classical rhymed verse, in 1912. . . .

                                * * *

[B]y the early 1950s, the Shakespearean canon came to include three of the four 'great tragedies' -- Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth -- and three other plays, The Merchant of Venice in Mutran's version, Julius Caesar in Mohamed Hamdi's version, and Romeo and Juliet in Ali Ahmed Bakatheer's blank verse version.  The omission of King Lear from the canon seems odd; it was not done into Arabic until the 1960s in modern standard Arabic prose, then into verse in the 1990s.  So, in fact, was the omission of the rest of the comedies and all histories.  Even after Taha Hussein had initiated in the 1950s the grand project of translating all of Shakespeare's plays, under the aegis of the Arabic League, into Arabic prose, the other plays of Shakespeare remained largely unknown.

(It is interesting to note that the one of Shakespeare's plays that is actually set in Egypt -- Antony and Cleopatra -- is apparently not among the works that have been widely translated for reading or performance by Egyptians.)

Professor Enani also describes the critical fallout he endured after translating The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1981.  Fed a steady diet of mighty Shakespearean tragedy, the critics questioned whether the frolicsome intrigues of Falstaff and company weren't a betrayal of the Master:

One wrote an article in a Cairene weekly, a virulent attack on my 'frivolous' work, entitled 'The killing of a dramatist', by which he meant that I had murdered Shakespeare, the grand writer of tragedies.  Another exclaimed 'Is this the Shakespeare we know?  This is an act of forgery, committed by a man who should know better than to vulgarise the venerable poet of the English-speaking world.'

Some things -- testy theater critics among them -- seemingly are universal.


Bonus Alexandrian content:  I have, most unexpectedly, managed now to write two consecutive and unrelated posts somehow tied into the libraries, ancient and modern, of Alexandria.  One more Alexandrian connection occurs to me to close out this post:

The poet C. P. Cavafy, though Greek himself, was a lifelong resident of Alexandria, and knew a thing or two (we non-Greek readers are assured) about mixing "high" and "low" or formal and demotic  language in his work, as did Shakespeare.  Cavafy, for that matter, wrote a poem or two referencing Antony and Cleopatra and the sad fate of their offspring.  The opening paragraphs of W. H. Auden's Introduction to Rae Dalven's translations of Cavafy's poems take a hard squint at the migration of poetry from one language to another:

Ever since I was first introduced to his poetry by the late Professor R. M. Dawkins over thirty years ago, C. P. Cavafy has remained an influence on my own writing; that is to say, I can think of poems which, if Cavafy were unknown to me, I should have written quite differently or perhaps not written at all.  Yet I do not know a word of Modern Greek, so that my only access to Cavafy's poetry has been through English and French translations.

This perplexes and a little disturbs me.  Like everybody else, I think, who writes poetry, I have always believed the essential difference between prose and poetry to be that prose can be translated into another tongue but poetry cannot.

But it if it possible to be poetically influenced by work which one can read only in translation, this belief must be qualified.

[Photo of Miss Langtry as Cleopatra via Shakespeare and the Players.]

Why You Can't Ask for Less Aeschylus, Alas

73 of the 80 plays known to have been authored by Aeschylus are no more than names to us, their choruses, strophes and antistrophes long since mouldered away.  And why?  Because of absurdly restrictive ancient copyrights, that's why. 

Jane Smiley, in her Los Angeles Times review of Stuart Kelly's The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You Will Never Read, reveals all:

For writers who are thinking of stashing their work against the apocalypse, maybe the story of Aeschylus is the best cautionary tale.  According to Kelly, the man died the strangest of deaths.  Out for a walk, he was attacked by an eagle and killed.  Kelly doesn't record how Aeschylus' contemporaries interpreted this event, but he suggests that from the eagle's point of view, the playwright's bald head might have looked like a stone, which the bird meant to pick up and drop on the shell of its prey, a tortoise.

As far as Aeschylus knew, his legacy was taken care of: He had written his own epitaph (concerning his valor at the Battle of Marathon) and his plays were famous and carefully preserved.  Then, about 200 years after his death, the Egyptian Pharaoh Ptolemy III decided that he simply had to have the only manuscript of Aeschylus' complete works for his library at Alexandria.  The Athenians turned it over for a large consideration, but part of the deal was that no copies could be made.  History went awry.  In AD 640, Amrou ibn el Ass burned the library of Alexandria with the manuscript and hundreds of thousands of other scrolls.  Still, Aeschylus was lucky.  Almost all that is left of Sappho is her name.

A tragedy, that's what it was.  Or, rather, 73 tragedies.

All Have Won, and All Must Have Prizes:
Brandy Karl Hosts Blawg Review #54

Brandy Karl, one-time law student and present-day solo intellectual property practitionist, is proprietrix of "bk!: Brandy Karl's IP blog ," which this week provides a home to Blawg Review #54.

As should perhaps have been expected of one whose law-student weblog was the Alice-centric "a mad tea-party," Brandy has adopted a Blawg Review theme built around the benign and whimsical influence of the Rev. Charles Dodgson, aka, Lewis Carroll and the chapter titles from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (with a guest appearance by Tweedledee and Tweedledum from That Other Alice book). It is well worth a visit, and I'm not just saying that because Ms. Karl has given her Official Bostonian Imprimatur to my Easter saga of squirrels and colonial copyright infringement as, of all things, "the best post of the week." 

"Pshaw!" sez I.  Nevertheless, I am blushing.

The Mother of All Whistlers

I like the idea of the "mash up" genre -- in which artful remixers take sampling to its extreme by digitally combining entire unrelated songs -- better than I like any actual examples I have heard of the form.  That said, I could not but smile last week when the car radio brought me the sweet sound of "Whistler's Delight" by DJ Riko.

What starts off as a seemingly ordinary remix of Peter Gabriel's "Games Without Frontiers" rapidly devolves into an inspired medley of famous- whistling-bits from the past 50 years or so.  The March from Bridge on the River Kwai sidles alongside the Andy Griffith theme which bumps into "Sweet Georgia Brown" and caroms across the "Dock of the Bay" and many more before the assemblage wraps up with a sprightly and cheerful anthem to Better Denial Through Optimism that will remain nameless here.  See if you can name 'em all.

In the physical world, "Whistler's Delight" exists only as a limited 12" vinyl production from the UK's Prank Monkey Records, but

  • Clicking here will lead you to a complete streaming version hosted on the Prank Monkey site.  (It lacks a volume control and launches automatically, so adjust your own audio before passing through the digital portal.)  Hunting around further at Prank Monkey, you can find out what happens when John Lennon is reImagined through the lens of Malcolm McLaren's contribution to the Kill Bill 2 soundtrack or experience London Booted, a track-by-track mashed-up-'n'-remixed remake of The Clash's London Calling.

Bonus Fool-ishness from the Past: The first voice you hear in "Whistler's Delight" is the immortal Bubb Rubb, a citizen of Oakland, California, who was first mentioned here a-way back in September, 2003.*  The links in that post are no longer working.  For access to all things Bubb Rubb, including the KRON News report that started it all, you may now click here.

* The second voice you hear is Lauren Bacall, whose fame is and ever shall be less fleeting and better deserved than that of Mr. Rubb.

It's Different for Squirrels

Over the past two years, I have established a habit of posting an artistic squirrel on this site each year for Easter.  [Here are links to the 2004 and 2005 versions.] 

German artists have provided past years' squirrels, so for a change of pace this Easter season let's turn to a North American great, John Singleton Copley, who painted this image of a squirrel in durance vile:


If you click on the picture, you can see the entire painting of which this poor little fellow is only a part.  This is Copley's 1765 portrait of his stepbrother, Henry Pelham, age 16 at the time.  The original hangs, with many another Copley, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  And at this point, one link begins to lead to another and this post runs off in directions I never expected when I began it, including a foray into an authentic Early American intellectual property dispute involving a Famous Patriot.

Henry Pelham was himself an artist and in 1770 made an important contribution to the iconography of the American Revolution when he produced the famous image of the Boston Massacre centering on the death of Crispus Attucks.  Pelham's original is nowhere to be found, but its content has been preserved through contemporary watercolor copies such as this one:


Unfortunately for Pelham, it seems he lent one of his drawings of the event to a friend -- one Paul Revere -- who promptly adapted it into an engraving of his own, taking sole credit for it and putting it out for sale on the colonial streets several weeks before Pelham's version appeared.  By the time Pelham's came out, public demand had been sated -- "Massacre fatigue" had apparently set in -- and there was little market left for it.  Pelham wrote a stern letter to the unscrupulous Mr. Revere:


When I heard you was cutting a plate of the late Murder, I thought it impossible as I knew [you] was not capable of doing it unless you copied it from mine and as I thought I had intrusted it in the hands of a person who had more regard to the dictates of Honour and Justice than to take the undue advantage you have done of the confidence and trust I reposed in you.

But I find I was mistaken and after being at great Trouble and Expence of making a design, paying for paper, printing &c, find myself in the most ungenerous Manner deprived not only of any proposed Advantage but even of the expence I have been at as truly as if you had plundered me on the highway.

If you are insensible of the Dishonour you have brought on yourself by this Act, the World will not be so.  However, I leave you to reflect and consider one of the most dishonourable Actions you could well be guilty [of],

                H. Pelham

Ultimately a Loyalist in his sympathies, in 1776 Pelham left Boston for London, where he developed a reputation as a miniaturist.  He drowned while traveling in Ireland in 1806.

And what of the squirrel?

The further history of young Pelham's exploited and put-upon squirrel is unknown.  I would like to imagine that he made a daring escape from his chains and after many picaresque treetop adventures found safety in Montreal, where he fell in with une bonne écureuil canadienne, founded a circus troupe and lived to a ripe old age surrounded by artistic offspring.  It's a nice legend.

Happy Easter to all.

Still, Waiting . . . ,
or, Didi à-Gogo

VLADIMIR:  You must be happy too, deep down,
                  if you only knew it.
ESTRAGON:  Happy about what?
VLADIMIR:  To be back with me again.
ESTRAGON:  Would you say so?
VLADIMIR:  Say you are, even if it's not true.
ESTRAGON:  What am I to say?
VLADIMIR:  Say, I am happy.
ESTRAGON:  I am happy.
VLADIMIR:  We are happy.
ESTRAGON:  We are happy. (Silence.) What do we do
                  now, now that we are happy?
VLADIMIR:  Wait for Godot. (Estragon groans. Silence.)

    -- Waiting for Godot, Act 2

Buster and Sam eye one another warily

Today marks the centenary of the birth of Samuel Beckett, seen above with Buster Keaton during the filming of Film.  Online observances of the occasion and sounds of Beckett-praise are legion, although a few examples of a countertide can be found if one looks hard enough.

George Hunka's Superfluities considers the emormity of the challenge Beckett poses to other writers:

Many of us have tried to imitate his cadences, his characters, his imagery, only to find to our regret that these cadences, characters and imagery are uniquely his own.  But that would be the easy part; much easier to imitate the man's voice than to try to follow his uncompromising, painful example, which has no truck with the marketplace.  Much easier than to construct our own figures and mythologies, cadences and characters and imagery, from our dreams and our pain and our past.  And it takes years, because the ability to externalize the consciousness comes only with the experience of extended time, and a growing familiarity with the increasing presence of death and suffering, and its inevitability.  You can't sell this, and you can't learn it; not all the reading in the world, nor any MFA program, can give you that.

Attached to that post is a photo of Beckett in color, which comes as a bit of a shock.  Is there any 20th Century writer who seems more firmly to exist in black and white?  (Elsewhere, Mr. Hunka offers good advice on what you might do if you have a spare $100 or so lying about.)

The Elegant Variation, meanwhile, posts a properly monochrome Beckett photo while attempting to resist temptation:

Like much of the rest of the reading public, we pause in our paces today to doff our bowlers in recognition of the centenary of Samuel Beckett's birth.  We thought of running off with an appropriately Beckettian tribute:


Candles.  A whoosh.  The candles go dark.


But that seemed to offend our sense of duty . . . .

Instead, TEV offers up a "compendium of interesting Beckettania with which to spend your day."  If that material is not enough for you, we might add:

Beckett is not, of course, universally admired.  The late John Gardner in his 1979 Paris Review interview expressed his doubts:

Samuel Beckett -- surely one of the great writers of our time, despite my objections -- is loved by critics, but except for John Fowles, I hear no one point out that the tendency of all he says is wrong.  He says it powerfully, with comi-tragic brilliance, and he believes it, but what he says is not quite sound.  Every night, Samuel Beckett goes home to his wife, whom he's lived with all these years; he lies down in bed with her, puts his arms around her and says, 'No meaning again today . . .'

Gardner at least freely allowed as how Beckett was a "great writer of our time."  Far less generous is the assessment of The Revd Dr Peter Mullen BA PhD, rector of the Parish Church of St. Michael Cornhill in the City of London and Chaplain to the Stock Exchange [!].  Writing today on the weblog of The Social Affairs Unit, he is having none of it:

In Beckett's sordid vision, metaphysics is not the only dead end. Where there is no meaning, there can be no morality. In a nihilistic universe, it is not only the purposes of God and his angels that are meaningless: so also would be our promises, our social contracts, our declarations of loyalty and love. All worthless.

But of course we do love, we do make and even keep promises sometimes; and by these actions we demonstrate that Beckett's world is not merely intellectually incredible, it is ethically perverse as well. And, of course, if the universe is really as meaningless as Beckett says it is, then the claim that Beckett's writing can be described as 'true' or even 'competent' is merely self-refuting nonsense.

On second thoughts, Samuel Beckett does not write like a dream. He writes like a nightmare.

Other than that, Dr. Mullen, how was the play?

And Even Banjos Sound Good to Me:
More on Sweet Billy Pilgrim

Sbp Two weeks ago, after more than two months' impatience with the challenge of obtaining overseas music through U.S. of A.-merican retail channels, I at long last received my copy of Sweet Billy Pilgrim's "we just did what happened and no one came."  [That link leads to, from which I acquired my copy; as of this posting date, they claim to have a few more copies in stock, so perhaps your wait will not be so long as mine if you act, as you should, quickly to acquire this CD.]

I first wrote about Sweet Billy Pilgrim's music last May, here, and my enthusiasm has not subsided.  The challenge is to find something not already said better by someone else that will convey the special appeal of this CD.  Let me, then, associate freely and we shall see what comes out:

This is music from a rainy country where the sun, on those occasions when it gets through the thick low clouds, sends down a clean-scrubbed clear-edged slanting light out of Vermeer.  Water appears and recurs, usually as an enveloping and comforting presence.  Meaning and salvation of one kind or another are always at stake.  A pastoral soul journeys in a post-pastoral world, singing to himself as he goes.

Of the nine songs on the album, I was already familiar with five.  Four ("Stars Spill Out of Cups," "No Jesus in Here," "God in the Details" and "Experience") have been pretty freely available online over the past year, and were mentioned in my earlier post.  [You can still stream or download them via the band's Official Site -- which also offers the wonderful non-album track "Forget to Breathe" -- or via the band's weblog, "Pilgrim's Progress", or via the band's MySpace page, or attached to Alan Williamson's very favorable review at *Sixeyes.]  The fifth, "Atlantis," previously appeared on the "Stars Spill Out of Cups" EP but for some reason, although it is the same recording of the same song, it sounds better, more "right," as the first track on the album than it did as the closer on the EP. 

All four of the newer songs are very good, and three of them are better than that.  My favorite of the moment is unquestionably "In the Water I Am Beautiful," which is, in some sense, its own remix: the sonic atmosphere is completely different each time the title/chorus returns.  The song even includes a crunchy arena-rocky electric guitar solo . . . lasting all of three seconds.

The influences of the Eno-Fripp-Nelson-Sylvian school of atmospheric production are apparent, but never by way of obvious imitation: we've heard some of these sound combinations before, but it may have been in a dream.  Tim Elsenburg's plaintive tenor is sometimes front and center, sometimes heard as if by accident.  Sounds are placed around it as if they fell out of an interesting cupboard, or else with the deliberation of a rock garden in Xanadu. 

[Tim's remixing and production skills are on display at his separate "williampilgrim" MySpace page -- which features a streaming version of the Sweet Billy Pilgrim remix of David Sylvian's "Heart Knows Better" -- and he somewhat explains the essence of the Sweet Billy project in the interview linked in this recent post, which reveals (and I can't say I'm surprised) the formative effects of inter alia 1970s Beach Boys and David Bowie's "Sons of the Silent Age."]

So yes, SBP really is as good as various persons of discerning taste have declared it to be and as yet underdiscovered.  Be the first on your block to join the pilgrimage.

Good Knight: Another Glimpse of the Klimts

The Los Angeles Times is a frequent and deserving target of scorn, but let us give credit when it is due: in Christopher Knight the Times delivers to its readers one of the very best visual arts writers currently to be had.  He does not quite achieve the consistent heights of, say, Robert Hughes, but when Mr. Knight is good -- which is frequently -- he is very good indeed.

Today, he delivers a terrific column on the five Gustav Klimt paintings (previously mentioned below) temporarily on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  The ostensible subject is the literally-golden opportunity that LACMA has to acquire these works for its collections.  To make his point, Knight gives a mini-survey of early 20th century art, makes a compelling case for the historic and aesthetic importance of even the less famous of these five paintings, and does a sterling job of pinning down just how the paintings "work" and why they are themselves so compelling.

The article will inevitably disappear into the Times pay archives, so it should be read promptly.  Here is one of the best passages -- with added links to some of the works mentioned -- focusing on the group's centerpiece, Adele Bloch-Bauer I:

Why is the 1907 portrait so significant artistically?  Think of it as a hinge — a pivot between a moribund, impossibly constricted world about to vanish forever and a new one whose contours could only be imagined.

With an exquisitely rendered image of a pretty, contemplative and artful young woman — his likely lover — the artist transformed an illustrious classical myth into a metaphor of creative ecstasy.  Adele is Klimt's Danae.

In the ancient myth, the beautiful princess Danae was locked away in a bronze tower by her father, who had been warned by an oracle that one day her son would kill him. The randy Zeus — a god who loved a challenge almost as much as sex — devised a way to get to the imprisoned virgin.  He transformed himself into a shower of gold dust, seeping through cracks in the ceiling and enveloping, irradiating and impregnating her.

Painters from Titian to Edward Burne-Jones painted the Greek myth, at times casting the characters in their Roman guises.  In a monumental 1603 version of the story painted by the great Dutch Mannerist Hendrik Goltzius — a masterpiece already in LACMA's collection — the shocking theme is mercenary love.  Danae, a sumptuous nude asleep on a pillow of platinum-colored satin amid a flurry of impish cherubs, is attended by a grizzled crone acting as procurer for the impatient Jupiter; leering Mercury, Roman god of commerce, looks on with glee.  Greed and power are about to soil purity.

Klimt also painted the myth, in an explicitly sexual work still in a private Austrian collection.  But Adele, his metaphoric Danae, is a thoroughly modern Jewish woman of taste, style, brains and means.  The artist showers her in a torrent of gold, the light enveloping her body and ready to re-conceive the world.

Marvelous stuff.  Read the whole thing and join me in hoping that the Art Museum demigods will smile on Los Angeles and grant Miss Bloch-Bauer and company permanent resident status.