Thursday, August 21, 2014

After the Storm

Yesterday we had a thunderstorm that, despite its brevity, managed to wreak a maximum amount of havoc in a minimum amount of time. It seemed to happen in the space of only 15 minutes. I was in the coffeehouse when it hit and would nearly have missed it if I hadn't glanced up from my book and seen how extremely Stygian the view had gotten through the front window. It wasn't even 5:30, but it looked like night was falling. It had all happened in a hurry.

Since I was planning to go to a movie, I left the coffeehouse to go home for dinner. The rain had passed over, but I heard thunder off to the east. I moseyed through quiet residential streets, not realizing the storm had done any damage until I got to a stoplight, half a mile from home, which was not working. When I turned left, I found myself stuck in a line of molasses-slow stop-and-go traffic. When I got clear of that, the next stoplight I came to was also on the blink.

When I walked into my building, there were no lights in the hallway, and an alarm was sounding insistently. In my apartment, there was no electricity at all, though I did have phone service. I called to let someone know about the alarm, discovering from our apartment manager that he had no power either. I went back out into the hall, crazily lit by a white emergency light on the exit sign but otherwise dusky, to locate the source of the alarm, which turned out to be a wall panel next to the stairs. The building seemed unfamiliar, transformed into a slantwise, alternative version of itself by the shrilling alarm and altered lighting.

I thought to myself that it was a good thing I was planning to eat leftovers anyway; my pasta salad was still chilled inside the non-functioning refrigerator. In the back of my mind while I ate was a lingering memory of the great power outage of February 2003, which lasted on my street for almost a week and for much longer in other places. I knew this outage would likely be resolved within a few hours but thought it best not to count on the lights being on when I came back home. I was doubly glad I had plans because watching a Jimmy Stewart movie in the familiar environs of the Kentucky Theatre seemed much more appealing than trying to read a book by battery-operated candles with an alarm shrieking in the background.

I took my pink piggy LED flashlight, my umbrella, and my foldable rain cape with me when I left, feeling somewhat like a Girl Scout assailing the wilderness. There were no functioning traffic lights as far as I could tell. Things were moving surprisingly well, if slowly, though I don't think I'd have wanted to be a pedestrian trying to cross the street. I encountered an officer directing traffic at the biggest intersection, but otherwise, it was inch forward, keep your eye on the cars approaching from various directions, inch forward some more, and wait for your chance to go. The slightly chaotic air gave the scene an upside-down quality that might have been more carnival-like if it hadn't also been nerve-wracking.

It wasn't until I reached High Street downtown that I finally found a working stoplight, and then it was as if I had crossed the border from a topsy-turvy country teetering toward lawlessness back into the familiar world of everyday, just by passing through an intersection. The trip had seemed longer than it was, and I was sure I was late, but by the time I found a parking spot, I realized I was right on schedule. It was as if time had slowed down in the place with the power outage, but the clock came right again as soon as I passed out of it.

The crowd was a bit smaller than usual for a summer classics movie, so the rain had no doubt kept some people home, but everything else was as usual in the theatre as we waited for the movie to start. The organ played, the crowd sang "My Old Kentucky Home," the smell of popcorn hung in the air, the movie was introduced, and the lights went down. Up on the screen, Jimmy Stewart's smiling face appeared, and we settled in for an evening of Harvey, which in itself is a comic meditation on the intersection of different worlds--one everyday, and one uncanny. It was rather appropriate, under the circumstances.

My trip home from the movie was uneventful. By the time I got back, the stoplights were working, the power was on, the alarm had been silenced, and we were back to business as usual. It was, I guess, a little reminder of how we are all, always, at the mercy of nature, no matter how secure the trappings of civilized life seem. None of us are bigger than the most fleeting of summer storms. I guess it's good to be reminded of that from time to time.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Prospero Drowns His Books

I was watching a Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of The Tempest, with Christopher Plummer, the other night and was having a little trouble hearing all the dialogue. Rather than turn the sound up, I decided to let it be and follow the events instead of the words. It was rather enjoyable just to be carried along by the story instead of hanging on every syllable. I don't know if that isn't the best approach in any case; academic habits of analysis can sometimes get in the way of simple enjoyment.

It occurred to me that I was trying to watch the play with "beginner's mind," and I started wondering what it would have been like to see it as a child. There are so many fairy tale elements in the plot that I think I would have loved The Tempest, without understanding all the nuances, if I had seen it as a little girl. What else should a play with a magician, an enchanted island full of invisible voices, castaways, airy spirits, talking monsters, a violent storm, true love, comedy, and the righting of wrongs be except charming?

There is a way in which searching for meanings and parsing phrases can actually get in the way of understanding, and to me this play is proof of that. I think Shakespeare wanted above all to enchant, to be Prospero, to exert his powers of creation to make a new world, or possibly just remake the old one. We're meant to fall under the island's spell, to dwell for a while with incantations, sorcery, and inexplicable happenings, to feel ourselves out of our usual element. The initial storm, which deposits the seafarers from the kingdoms of Milan and Naples onto Prospero's island, is a portal to a different world, and it pulls in playgoers, too.

The plot is simple and appeals strongly to the love of a happy ending and sense of justice restored. Prospero, the wronged ruler, stranded for a dozen years on the island with his daughter, has used the time to perfect his knowledge of magic. He seizes the chance to bring his enemies within his reach by calling up a storm that brings their ship to his island. They are punished as much by the strange, uncanny air of the place (which almost brings them to madness) as by the fear of being castaways, although the violent storm and near drownings give way to a less dire, if initially befuddling, fate.

What child hasn't fantasized about the magical ability to control his surroundings and shape things to his liking? Prospero can actually do it, in an unusually potent display of what psychologists might call "agency" that more than makes up for his prior helplessness in the face of wrong. Prospero's ultimate purpose, despite the fear and confusion he creates, is benign: it's the restoration of his own rights and reconciliation with his adversaries. His daughter Miranda falls in love with the son of the King of Naples, setting the seal on the theme of restoration and healing. The King, who had feared his son drowned, finds that he is still alive when Prospero, like a stage magician pulling back a curtain, suddenly reveals the two lovers playing chess together. Everything that had seemed wrong, after a satisfying amount of confusion and trouble, comes right again.

As a child, it wouldn't have bothered me perhaps, but it does occur to me now that a few hours of torment isn't really the equivalent of twelve years of confinement. The events following the shipwreck take place in less than an afternoon, though of course, it's a magical three hours, which could very well seem longer. My better nature tells me we're meant to think that the experience was so bewildering that to have continued it much beyond that would have been cruel . . . Ariel seems to think so, at any rate.

Prospero also makes it plain that he is finished with magic once his ends have been accomplished: "This rough magic, I here abjure." Ariel is freed from Prospero's service, Prospero drowns his books, and there is a sad sense of something numinous passing. Should Prospero really have to give up the knowledge that saved him and become like other men once more? And yet again, maybe it's for the best. It would be unwise and dangerous to continually be calling up the powers of air, light, and storm to correct every little problem that might arise in the future. There are supposed to be laws for that.

It's a wonderful play, wise and affecting, and I wish I had seen it when I was young. It would have been lovely to have seen it just for itself without study or preconceived notions. Somehow Shakespeare has become high-brow and lofty, and one is often taught to believe that a lot of scholarship is required to make sense of it. This play simply overturns those notions.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Mayhem, Murder, and Magicians

Yesterday I finished Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a novel about dueling English magicians in the Napoleonic era. It took me more than two weeks to read it, which tells you something about the length of it (782 pages). It's wonderful when an engrossing story is also a lengthy one so that you can stick with it for a while . . . if your budget doesn't allow for vacations, isn't a good book a great alternative? Wasn't it Emily Dickinson who said, "There is no Frigate like a Book, to take us Lands away"? (Yes, it was--I just looked it up.)

If you saw the movie The Prestige (which was also a book), you have a little of the flavor of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, though Clarke's book is comical, and The Prestige, in my memory of the film, is rather grim. Strange & Norrell is recommended by my local library for readers who enjoyed The Night Circus, which is how I came across it. Some reviewers have said it combines high fantasy with the drawing room humor of Jane Austen. Certainly the social contretemps endured by Clarke's characters seem more in keeping with the brightness of Austen's world than with the deadly earnestness of The Prestige, despite all the magic and references to Faerie.

Personally, though, I can't imagine any of Austen's people holding much truck with the spell-strewn, whimsical characters of Clarke's book, though I see what reviewers mean about the society humor. The book is funny as well as fantastical, and the humor is a nice balance to the dark twists the story takes. I don't think the book would be as effective without the sniping social climbers, jealous rivals, mystified government ministers, and long-suffering servants who inhabit its pages and counteract some of the eeriness. There are many good fantasy writers, but the ability to seamlessly combine wildly imaginative plotting, alternate worlds, wit, history, and satire is rare, I think.

I would compare the tone of the book to Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising, with its sense of menace and otherworldly mayhem, crossed with the quirkiness and dark humor of Sadie Jones's The Uninvited Guests, with some Neil Gaiman-style chaos, a la American Gods, thrown in. This description is not to detract at all from the author's originality and sheer imaginative brilliance, but it does give you an idea of the territory the novel occupies.

The genius of the story lies in the characterization of the magicians as just another species of "gentlemen scientists," men of standing who happen to have chosen the art of magic for their profession instead of law, the military, or the Church. They approach the most arcane and fantastical of tasks--walking through mirrors, bringing someone back from the dead, moving a city across the ocean to affect the course of a war--with the matter-of-factness of scholars; they study, hoard books, publish, curry favor, seek publicity, become arrogant, and jockey for position. Historical figures, including George III, the Duke of Wellington, and Lord Byron, mingle easily with the book's characters, exhibiting none of the artificiality of "cameo" appearances. They are just a few more well-drawn personages in a large, sprawling, and lively cast.

In one of my favorite scenes, Strange, the bolder and more adventurous of the contending magicians, has feuded with Lord Byron, whom he encounters while traveling in Switzerland. The two men share the same publisher, who receives letters from both of them, each complaining about the other, on the same day. The publisher, Mr. Murray, decides that although it's too bad his clients don't jibe, it really isn't surprising, "since both men were famous for quarrelling: Strange with Norrell, and Byron with practically everybody." In a footnote, Clarke has Byron use Strange as the inspiration for the magician in his poem Manfred.

I don't know if Ms. Clarke intends ever to revisit these characters; the story's conclusion seems to leave the possibility open, since the end, though satisfying, doesn't tie all the loose threads up neatly. While this may have been simply a nod to complexity and a refusal to go with a predictable ending, it makes for an easy segue into a sequel if it ever comes to that. I wouldn't count on it, but I wouldn't rule it out either. The trickster spirit of the novel, of taking characters and readers places they didn't expect to go, is evident even in the closing sentences. I turned pages anxiously to see how it would turn out but was obstinately sad when it was all over.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Over the Threshold in Newport, KY

Last week I went to see a concert at Southgate House Revival, an old/new music venue in Newport, Kentucky. Southgate House used to be located in an old mansion of the same name close to the Ohio River but has moved to an old church a few blocks away and changed its name accordingly. The original Southgate House is historic, having hosted a number of prominent people, including Abraham Lincoln; it's also known as the birthplace of the inventor of the Tommy gun. Southgate House Revival's new home is an 1866 Methodist Episcopal church that had been abandoned for some years before being adapted as a music venue.

I had been to the old location a few times and was curious to see the new place. The old mansion was quite an institution, with its prominent hilltop situation, elegant facade--including a tower and a widow's walk--and many steps leading up to a wide porch. My first impression of Southgate House Revival, from the outside, was that it exudes a much humbler ambience. The exterior is somewhat dilapidated and lacks signage to tell you where to go; you enter by an inconspicuous side door off a small, claustrophobic parking lot between the church and an adjacent brick building. The surrounding block is plain and unassuming, almost austere.

When I was growing up, Newport had a reputation for vice, but it has traded its notoriety for more family-oriented entertainments these days. It retains some of the feeling of a ramshackle riverside district, even with all the new restaurants, spiffy bars, and entertainment options in the immediate area. The mix of old and new, wholesome and edgy, combined with spectacular views of the Cincinnati skyline across the river, makes for an interesting, unsettled, and slightly fraught energy. So it's probably fitting that Southgate House Revival seems to represent in itself the coniunctio of the entire neighborhood. It is very much a marriage of opposites.

The show I saw was in the Sanctuary, which has been refitted with a concert stage and a bar. The Sanctuary is beautiful: it has splendid pointed arches, Gothic corbels, vivid stained glass windows, hanging ecclesiastical light fixtures, a ceiling that soars--and numerous shadows. There's a phenomenal pipe organ (Cincinnati-made) behind the bar, which is opposite the stage. I was so struck by the sight of that ethereal organ serving as backdrop to all those bottles of spirits that I had to stare at it for several minutes. Talk about the sacred and the profane (or secular) mingling and mixing and creating a complicated third thing! Talk about an axis mundi. There it is, in concrete, architectural terms.

I was stirred by the extraordinary energy in the room, as I think most anyone would be, consciously or not. The union of worldly and spiritual planes rarely occurs so dramatically. I read an article about the owners of the business that made it clear they're alive to the sacred dimensions of the space and feel it's entirely suited to the business of connecting audiences with music (I agree with them). It would be difficult for any performance not to be shaped by the tenor--part mystical and part streetwise--of this liminal, dreamlike interior. You definitely feel you're on the threshold of something. It's a little like C. S. Lewis's Wood Between the Worlds in Narnia: jump in, and there's no telling where you'll end up.

In Jungian terms, the coniunctio expresses the meeting of the conscious and the unconscious, a process that brings the individual closer not only to his or her innermost self but also to the larger concerns of the world soul. According to Jung, it's a messy process and one that's often resisted. Just a guess: I'm tempted to think that any artistic performance, regardless of style or intention, would affect the listener more profoundly in Southgate House Revival because the room itself amplifies the content and carries it past the conscious mind's defenses. It's rare to be any place where the architecture is so revealing of what goes on within.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Nothing to See Here, Except . . .

Things have been quiet around here for the last week or so. Traffic is light, Starbucks has been mostly empty, and there's a feeling that everybody must be out of town on vacation. It's very pleasant. Even the fireflies seem to be off napping somewhere.

Coinciding with that, we've had sort of a summer version of a polar vortex, with a storm front moving in and cooling things down, trailing ragged thunderclouds and pinkish-gold sunsets in its wake. It's amazing how charming a cold spell can be when it happens in the middle of July, dropping temperatures to the 70s, lowering humidity, and still allowing the sun to shine.

A little over a week ago, it was so humid that even at 8:30 at night, walking was like wading slowly through curtains of moisture. I much prefer that to walking through sleet and snow, but it does sap your energy if it goes on long enough. After a week of storm clouds wildly chasing sunshine, and vice versa, we're back to heat and humidity, though I understand we're in for another cooling spell in a day or so.

Among the charms of a summer evening's walk this week, I have spotted: toadstools, like something from a nursery rhyme, right on my street; a cardinal on a treetop silhouetted against the sky; two rabbits sitting together in a field; scampering chipmunks; porches edged with riotous flowers; and a complex sunset of mauve, pink, and orange. Tonight, big, fat cumulus clouds, tinged with apricot from the setting sun, seemed too lazy even to move, as if an artist had painted them on the backdrop of the sky and then went off on tea break, leaving them hanging.

If you looked at the image of July in one of those medieval books of hours, like the Très Riches Heures du Duc Berry, you would see what July looks like around here, minus the sheep and the castle. In fact, there is a street named Kastle near here, and there's a house not far away where (I'm not kidding) a sheep used to graze in the yard, so with a little imagination you can see some overlap. It's a pity the sheep is gone. I never saw it in the summer, but it would have made a lovely Très Rich Hours scene, Kentucky style, to go with all the cardinals, rabbits, hostas, and begonias of our suburban summer.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Shall We Gather at the River?

In my first year of graduate school, I tried to figure out the myths we currently live by in America, in the absence of a single religious tradition and the presence of multiculturalism. It was hard to identify one thing that most people hold as sacred until someone mentioned money. I guess I was reaching for something loftier, thinking that surely there was something grander we all subscribe to. I was slow to come to the realization, but you know, money explains a lot of things.

This unpleasant truth has slowly become clearer to me as I've watched the news over the last few years. It's not that there's anything wrong with making money, but when it becomes the highest value, with no other principles to check it, things get out of whack pretty quickly. Jung talked about the importance of balance in psychic health, of not having too much of one attitude or value to the detriment of others, and this is true at the collective level as well as the individual.

Some depth psychologists, like Thomas Singer, talk about the idea of "cultural complexes," recurring themes in the nation's psyche that play out in social life, politics, cultural trends, entertainment, and the media. Over time, it's possible to work through some of these complexes, as we grow conscious of them, through debate, compromise, lawmaking, and social change. It's a long process, and one that only works when all of the viewpoints on an issue, whether it's gun control, abortion, or affirmative action, are heard, considered, debated, and tested. Singer has said that it's usually a mistake to locate soul and "rightness" on only one side of an issue. Only deep engagement, passionate disagreement, consideration, argument, reconsideration, and compromise, over and over, for as long as it takes, can ever resolve things.

Interestingly, the cultural complex surrounding materialism in our society is the area in which Singer sees little engagement, meaning that we remain stuck in any issues touched by money--which, after all, covers a lot of territory. From tax reform to corporate regulation, from consumer protection to the role of money in political campaigns, from economic growth to health care, we run into stalemates time and again because the high value placed on the making of money clashes with so many of our other values.

Everybody knows the story of King Midas, who was gracious when one of Dionysus's satyrs fell asleep in his vineyard and was in turn granted anything he desired by Dionysus. When Midas asked for the power to turn anything he touched into gold, even Dionysus (not exactly a model of moderation) asked if he was sure that's what he wanted. Midas got his wish, which seemed like a great thing for the first half hour or so, until he killed his own child by the touch of his hand and found that even his food and drink turned into metal. It turned out there was a cure, which involved bathing in the river Pactolus, though Midas couldn't undo the damage he'd already done. It's assumed he emerged from the river considerably chastened.

Talk abut a tale for our time!

I read an article yesterday discussing the recent Pew Research Center finding that the number of Americans who think the United States is "exceptional" is dropping. This is true regardless of political party, and the trend is especially evident among those aged 18-29; only 15 percent of them think the United States stands above other nations. There is more than one way to look at these statistics, of course (exceptional in what way, exactly?), but Aaron Blake and Jaime Fuller of the Washington Post suggest that this finding is related to another trend, revealed by a recent Gallup poll. In 2013, Gallup found that Americans' satisfaction with the level of freedom in their lives has fallen 12 percentage points since 2006 (we're now in 36th place). Gallup explains the drop in terms of unhappiness with the economy, the government, and corruption. In other words, the New Normal.

Most of the people I know do live by other values besides money, and I believe we've always taken it for granted that our country stands for much more than power and greed. The question is, are we still justified in feeling that way? And if money is the root of so many of our current problems, what can we do about it?

I think a reasonable first step might be to get clear on the things that matter to us most. If we want to curb the influence of money and support other values in our culture, we can do it, but we have to have the will. Do we have that will? It's a big question. What else do we hold dear, and what else do we think makes life worth living? What do we want our country to stand for? Maybe the right place to start the conversation is with questions like these.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Wine for the Palate, Yarrow for the Heart

There's something in Vanessa Diffenbaugh's novel The Language of Flowers that makes me think of the movie Sideways. It may not seem that a teen-age orphan making her way in the world after years of foster care and a frustrated middle-aged oenophile should have much in common, but they do. There's the central role of grapes and vineyards in both stories, of course, but there's also a similarity of mythic themes.

At first glance, Sideways seems to be about one thing primarily, and that is romance. The film is replete with sensual images: wining and dining, epicurean picnics at sunset, flirting, and long drives through gorgeous fields of ripening grapes. Aphrodite's presence is so strong and beautifully rendered that it initially diverts attention from another, more patient figure in the story.

In keeping with Miles' tendency to devote himself to sybaritic pursuits while shying away from love, the movie seduces with soft-focus images of romantic dinners and voluptuous wines. Meanwhile, another goddess bides her time, making herself known only through subtle gestures. That's Demeter, notable mostly for her absence at first but coming into clear focus in the scene in which Maya asks Miles about his obsession with Pinot and in turn shares her feelings about the life cycle of the grape. No mere aficionado, Maya is the real deal. She not only loves to see things grow but is perceptive enough to understand that the key to Miles is bound up in his appreciation for a temperamental grape that needs a lot of nurturing to thrive. The subtle language of wine, shared by Miles and Maya, leads from sensual appreciation to something more deeply sustaining.

In The Language of Flowers, Victoria seems to have little going for her on her emancipation at age 18 from the group home in which she's been living. She shares Miles' penchant for acting out and has her own troubled and unhappy past. She, too, has a secret, sophisticated, and sensitive knowledge of a little-known subject, in her case the symbolism of flowers. Desperate to avoid living on the streets, she asks a florist for a job, revealing her innate gift for combining flowers not merely in beautiful arrangements but in a manner that speaks true. Unknown even to herself, Victoria is a healer, skilled at hearing what a giver wants to say to a recipient and knowing how to say it.

Like Miles, Victoria has betrayed and been betrayed and is afraid of intimacy. As her growing success as a flower arranger begins to open a new life for her, she, too, confronts the possibility of love. The not-easily-deflected interest of Grant, a farmer and purveyor she encounters in the flower market, simultaneously leads to a halting romance and a re-engagement with the traumatic past. Grant also speaks the rare language of flowers, which both intrigues and frightens Victoria but ultimately proves too difficult to ignore.

Nurturing takes many forms in this story. As in Sideways, Demeter is first absent, ineffectual, or deflected and then unmistakably central. Victoria begins to encounter one maternal figure after another, from her employer, to her roommate, to her employer's mother, a midwife and wise woman. Even Grant is a nurturing figure. Finally, and surprisingly, Victoria discovers that the imperfect mothering she received in the past, which had seemed so insufficient, was in fact perhaps enough. Grant leads her to a rapprochement with the woman who nearly adopted her years ago and whose teachings about the language of flowers proved to be a true mother's gift.

Flowers generally fall into the realm of Aphrodite, with their beauty and sensual appeal, but in this story they represent nurturing, care, true insight, and love. As in Sideways, a symbol with one meaning proves to have unsuspected dimensions, leading the way delicately from mistrust to trust and from insufficiency to abundance. Miles and Victoria play multiple roles, though the most prominent one for each is perhaps Persephone, at first sojourning in the Underworld and finally returning to life. Miles, Victoria, and the characters who surround them are examples of the way mythic themes surface in remarkably different contexts, all but unrecognizable sometimes but ever persistent.

Unlike some love stories, which seem too lightweight and inconsequential to be believed, both Sideways and The Language of Flowers have a gritty layer of reality. My guess is that this is because neither story stops with physical attraction but also acknowledges the importance of nurturing and understanding. Both stories are ultimately grounded in the earth.