Monday, December 27, 2021

A New Year’s Reverie: When Memoirs Meet (Patti Smith, James Wolcott, Pauline Kael)

The streets are cold, it’s hard to get a cab, and your jacket isn’t warm enough--Metropolitan captures that chill discomfort and how the conversations that string between two people walking from one bleak stretch of the block to the corner are part of the invisible wiring of the city, the connective tissue through which memories, memoirs, novels, and, yes, movies are eventually made.

James Wolcott offered a Christmas Nocturne that pointed out why Metropolitan is a great Christmas movie.

For me, this part of his passage envisions the other holiday bookend, New Year’s Eve: wherever go you, you have to get back. However engaging the festivities are inside, they are so often connected by those cold, bleak, deserted streets in the middle of the night. And that connective tissue that spools out far beyond the chatter in the street is, as Wolcott says, the thing of memories and memoirs, which seems an appropriate subject for a December 31 post.

I read Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids in September of this year, and segued into Wolcott’s memoir, Lucking Out. The two together captured the art and soul of the 70s and pinged points in my own timeline. Reading the first-person tales of these cultural players I felt like a little ripple in the water from their radiating splashes, if I may be allowed such an aquatic metaphor.  My timeline put me at Rutgers College, in New Brunswick, NJ, in the midst of two of its vibrant scenes—indie/punk music, and poetry.

The Court and the Melody

Patti’s description of the beginning of her performing life and Jim’s description of the CBGB scene from its birth rippled into my later memories of the Court Tavern and the Melody Bar, New Brunswick, circa 1981, a nexus for new bands finding their voice in reaction to the revolution of Horses, Talking Heads 77, the Dead Kennedys, the B-52s, to name some of the standouts. When live bands weren't playing, the speakers thumped the new sounds, new rhythms (Ce que j'ai fait ce soir-là, Ce qu'elle a dit ce soir-là . . . . .Ay Ay Ay Ay Ay Ay Ay Ay). It was a good time to be young and dancing, dancing, dancing, with the thoughts of those papers that needed writing sliding away in waves of sweat.

Even some frats, Fiji in particular, had the vibe in the early eighties, at least for their parties. “Pulled me up” shook the house following Donna Summer, and jocks and denizens of the artistic dorm, Demarest, jumped “up, up, up” together, rubbing elbows and other body parts for the duration of the song, replacing the antipathy the cliques had when the same people passed each other on College Ave.

Wolcott from the epicenter:
“If I can pinpoint the moment the Heads burst through the attic and pointed north, it was the night when they introduced a new number, “Pulled Up,” where the joy whoop of “you pulled me up, up, up, up, up, up!” expressed a giddy, salvational energy that left Warholishm behind like a toy-model village as Astronaut Byrne shed gravity and saw angels knocking around. Not Blakean angels, like Patti’s, but Japanese toys.”

Patti in the epicenter:
In 2010 Patti played a benefit for the Court Tavern, along with The Smithereens and Slaves of New Brunswick, at the State Theater. She had never played there herself, but knew of its historical importance and current need for young bands.


“Smith had two raps for the night, one being about not just saving the Court, not just saving New Jersey, but saving “the whole fucking world!,” her arms often outstretched to hold, or pumped in fists over her head in triumph. The other was about simple perseverance being the key to almost any undertaking in life. Be it music, art, or owning a bar, she hammered home, passionately, that it was the people who kept going that matter, despite being thrown down and fucked over again and again, the people who get back up and keep going, despite the odds, despite what others may care or think, are the ones who triumph.” Mike Black, The Aquarian



William Blake & Allen Ginsberg

 I lived off campus for 2 years in the town of New Brunswick, for a short time in Kevin Hayes's apartment on Plum Street that was party central for the academic set. 

Kevin had a tradition of an annual blow-out party for the vibrant poetry scene in NB. One party from 1981 or ‘82 stands out: Alicia Ostriker, a poet who taught at Douglas, edited an edition of complete Blake poems for Penguin, which Allen Ginsberg liked and used for his own work. I think Kevin had arranged for Ginsberg to come for a reading, and then there they were in my old living room, along with the editors of the newly launched lit journal Long Shot, Eliot Katz and Danny Shot, and 100 others on couches, under couches, virtually hanging from the chandeliers. It was the scene from the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, minus the suits (but with several B-52's inspired bouffants).

At one point I was in the kitchen talking to someone about my Milton class with the delectable William Keach when Gregory Corso walked in looking for a bottle opener for his beer, and saying, “Milton. So here’s where all the intelligent people are.” What a great opening line. I’m sorry to report I was too unsure of myself to engage him in conversation. The graduate students, however, pounced.

Somewhere long after midnight I was standing on the 4th or 5th step down from the top of the stairs to the apartment, having a conversation with someone sitting on the landing. The door opened and Allen Ginsberg and some of his entourage were leaving. As he walked down the stairs behind me, he turned and kissed the back of my head. A literary benediction of the highest order. A little of just what an English major hopes to find at college.

Patti from the epicenter:

“...I went through our belongings and found exactly fifty-five cents, slipped on my grey trench-coat and Mayakovsky cap, and headed to the Automat. I got my tray and slipped in my coins but the window wouldn’t open. I tried again without luck and then I noticed that the price had gone up to sixty-five cents. I was disappointed, to say the least, when I heard a voice say, “Can I help?”I turned around and it was Allen Ginsberg.

We had never met but there was no mistaking the face of one of our great poets and activists. I looked into those intense dark eyes punctuated by his dark curly beard and just nodded. Allen added the extra dime and also stood me to a cup of coffee. I wordlessly followed him to his table, and then plowed into the sandwich. Allen introduced himself. He was talking about Walt Whitman and I mentioned that I was raised near Camden, where Whitman was buried, when he leaned forward and looked at me intently.

“Are you a girl?” he asked
“Yeah, I said, Is that a problem?”.
He just laughed. “I’m sorry. I took you for a very pretty boy.”
I got the picture immediately.
"Well, does this mean I return the sandwich?"
"No, enjoy it. It was my mistake."

He told me he was writing a long elegy for Jack Kerouac, who had recently passed away. “Three days after Rimbaud’s birthday”, I said. I shook his hand and we parted company.
Sometime later Allen became my good friend and teacher. We often reminisced about our first encounter and he once asked how I would describe how we met. “I would say you fed me when I was hungry”, I told him. And he did.”


Circles and Squares
 I took one film theory class in college, where we worked our way through the big Gerald Mast/Marshall Cohen compendium, which put Pauline Kael’s "Circles and Squares" right after Andrew Sarris’s "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962" so you can easily read the two together.

That’s a treat everyone should enjoy once in their lives.

Kael eviscerates Sarris with the simplest of tools: a close reading of the text, with her passion for what she sees as the idiocy of the approach—-and particularly his use of “internal meaning” and “élan” which she hammers on repeatedly-—making the pages almost too hot to turn.

One example, but there are so many:

"Sarris believes that what makes an auteur is 'an élan of the soul.'(This critical language is barbarous. Where else should élan come from? It’s like saying “a digestion of the stomach.” A film critic need not be a theoretician, but it is necessary that he know how to use words. This might, indeed, be a first premise for a theory.)"

Later she cries, “I am angry, but am I unjust?”

Wolcott from the epicenter:

"She couldn’t stand 'stiffs,' whose tastes were fully formed, rigidified, and stuck in the petrified forest of the past, and those of us sitting in the Algonquin were on the upswing of our careers, just starting our scouting missions. These were the years of encouragement. Some would stray off target, disappear into the reeds, defect from criticism under the pressure of unfulfilled expectations and career frustrations, or simply find something more frolicking to do, Pauline being more ambitious for them than they were for themselves. In a sense we would all fail Pauline because none of us would surpass her defiant nerve, her resounding impact.”

Pauline Kael was the second film critic I became aware of as a teen, when I discovered The New Yorker. (The first was Vincent Canby, because my parents were New York Times readers). I loved her writing, her voice, her mind.  Fast forward to September 3, 2001, I happened to be walking through a nighttime Times Square with The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cadfael, itself quite a moment in my own timeline. I looked up to see Pauline Kael dead at 83 making its way along the zipper. Neither of companions felt the pang of that news, which surprised me. Crossroads of the world, a crossroad of my life (although I didn’t know it then) and now the end of era, which was just a week away from the end of life as we knew it. Not what Kael had in mind when she opposed Sarris's Circles with Squares, but a cinematic moment I hope she would appreciate.

Happy New Years everyone! 

Patti Smith at State Theater Court Tavern Benefit, cover of Jim Carroll's "People Who Died"

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Snapshots of A Child's Christmas in Massapequa


There's a whole literature of vibrant writing from writers looking back to the Christmases of their childhood for memoir or fiction.

My favorite is Dylan Thomas's wildly florid prose poem of A Child's Christmas in Wales:

Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed. But here a small boy says: "It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea."

Dylan's writing is so exuberant it lead me to search for some memories of my own childhood Christmases . . .

years and years ago when the GI Bill first lead to the burgeoning of middle class suburbia outside of Gotham, and the next generation reaped the benefits of prosperity within its sprawl. A split level house meant having a staircase to bound down on Christmas morning. The anticipation of walking down those stairs made us all giddy.  As we descended, the living room came into view, dotted with brightly wrapped presents piled high in specific spots for each family member. It was a magical sight and the joys of the day were those that would never be matched again in quite the same way.



Katherine Anne Porter wrote the lovely "A Christmas Story"

When she was five years old, my niece asked me again why we celebrated Christmas. She had asked when she was three and when she was four, and each time had listened with a shining, believing face, learning the songs and gazing enchanted at the pictures which I displayed as proof of my stories. Nothing could have been more successful, so I began once more confidently to recite in effect the following:
    The feast in the beginning was meant to celebrate with joy the birth of a Child, an event of such importance to this world that angels sang from the skies in human language, to announce it and even, if we may believe the old painters, came down with garlands in their hands and danced on the broken roof of the cattle shed where He was born.

z


I shared my Christmases with my only sibling, an older brother. His presents were of no interest to me--a virtual litany of trucks, cars, trains, army men, model airplanes-- but we still were supposed to wait to watch each open one present at a time, so our parent's attention could focus on each of us, ping-pong like. There were some things he got before I was old enough to open presents that I liked, including styrofoam building blocks that you could build an igloo with and then get inside.

We don't know here that he will one day have his own family of two girls and a boy to share Christmases with and I could be the aunt in Porter's story.


Charles Lamb wrote an Elia story that also comes to my mind this time of year:

CHILDREN love to listen to stories about their elders, when they were children; to stretch their imagination to the conception of a traditionary great-uncle or grandame, whom they never saw. It was in this spirit that my little ones crept about me the other evening to hear about their great-grandmother Field, . . .


We too liked to hear stories of our elders. Grandma O. told of one Christmas Eve she saw a spider on the ceiling, and thinking it was bad to kill a creature on such a night she let it live, and the family went out to Midnight Mass. When they came back, the spider had given birth and there were dozens of baby spiders "dropping all over the place" as she told it. That was too much for her and she got the broom.

We didn't sit upon our dear old dad's lap often, but this one Christmas Eve he wanted to read us "Twas the night before Christmas," and mom captured the scene that is so real it looks like a scripted movie set: the roaring fire, the stockings hung with care, the wreath, the hand-made paper chains lining the fireplace, the post war paneling and Eames-inspired chair and ottoman. 

We don't know here that my dad will die an early death from colon cancer, or that I will have more in common with Elia's tale of his Revery: Dream-Children than I would want:

"We [Alice and John] are only what might have been, and must wait upon the tedious shores of Lethe millions of ages before we have existence, and a name”—and immediately awaking, I found myself quietly seated in my bachelor armchair . . ."

But there has been music. More music than I ever could have imagined.

For Dylan Thomas too, who closes his tale with this:

Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang "Cherry Ripe," and another uncle sang "Drake's Drum." It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird's Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.


Merry Christmas, One and All.




Saturday, June 13, 2020

A Real Cutter, Ballantine, and MacChesney: Dad and my Faux Uncles


A guy sits down at a bar and says “Oh, I’m so tired from doing all those chores.”

 Next barstool says, “What chores?” First guy, “I’ll take a Ballantine, thanks.”

Did I mention it’s 1953? Even that detail wouldn’t have helped me get it entirely. This was a little joke my father once told me, and he had to explain it was a play on “What’s yours?” which is a way of saying “What’ll you have?” and that if you ask it in a bar, it means you’re buying the round (unless you’re the bartender.)

 [Let’s take a tangent here: Not that I doubted my father, but I had never heard this “What’s yours” in real life anywhere. Then in college I was reading Hemingway’s "The Killers" (written in 1927), and here are the opening lines: The door of Henry’s lunch-room opened and two men came in. They say down at the counter. “What’s yours?” George asked them. So Hemingway and Dad were on the same page; that’s an English major’s dream. It was also one of those moments when you are reminded just how much more your parents really do know, especially when you are just 18.]

But back to our bar. This little joke was part of the jocular culture of a neighborhood bar in Richmond Hill, Queens, in the late forties and fifties. My father walked into The Shelton in Richmond Hill as a young man, and, in a sense, met his life when he met another Irish American habitue named John. They would enjoy a special, deep, lifelong friendship along with John’s own brother Luke. Their personal histories would become part of the larger picture of the forces that built post-war suburbia. It sounds cliché, but it was all the real thing. They three drank together, laughed together, and dated together. Their love for each other reminds me of Ballantine, Cutter, and MacChesney in Gunga Din, a film they all knew and loved.

They were each true, devoted, smart baseball fans, with that special edge that comes from being New Yorkers, and they spent many, many happy hours arguing the merits of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Mets (my Dad) over the Yankees (Luke and John).

They married within months of one another, started out in small garden apartments in Brooklyn, then all made the big move to the house on Long Island, mostly fueled by the G.I. bill in one form or another. Soon the three families were growing. My memories of these two uncles along with the faux cousins are some of the happiest of my childhood. Particularly ringing in more than a decade of successive New Years with 2-day parties that rotated among the three houses. They faced the trials of life in the knowledge of several certainties, including God, country, and each other. I admired their rooted goodness and decency, and came to understand that their own flavors of quiet desperation were tempered by their commitment to family.

The last of the friends died this week. My father died first when just 57, which was terrible. One of my clearest memories of his wake was how visibly upset my Uncle Luke was. “How could this happen” he cried out with honest abandon in the funeral home. As the families of Ed, John, and Luke gathered yesterday for Uncle Luke’s funeral Mass, we each had the same visual thought: They are sitting on the great bar stools in the Shelton in the sky, arguing about the Yankees and Mets. It did not go unnoticed that the first of the day’s Subway matchups, while we were having lunch after the Mass, went to the Mets. What happened in the evening at Shea would be cause for recriminations and another round of celestial Ballantine.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

The Songs Our Mothers Sang to Us: Isoko and Betty

Yoko & Isoko Ono; Ellen & Betty O'Neill


Several years ago I stumbled upon Yoko Ono's Desert Island Disc, recorded Friday, June 15, 2007, when she was 73 years old. 

Yoko's story brought me an unexpected connection to the whole beautiful, shared notion of mothers & daughters, a choral connection across cultures and decades. Amazing.

It was for her selection of the song "When I Grow to Too Old Dream." Here is the story she tells of why she chose it.  Her distinctive, slight voice somehow made the story even more poignant and resonant:


Yoko:  "This is a very personal memory for me.

One day I just felt I wanted to call my mother.

The way she said "Oh Yoko" I thought there was something strange.

And then she said "I just fell in the kitchen," or something like that.

And I thought, this is serious and I thought I had to do something, but I was in New York and she was in Japan.

So I said, "Ok Mommy, let's sing that song, remember that song you used to sing."

and I started "When I grow too old to dream."

[And my mother started to sing back very weak and very haltingly.]


Ok. Let's start again, "When I grow too old to dream. . ." 

I kept repeating it and repeating it and she finally sang the whole line.

I was so choked up. And my assistant called to Tokyo, to the hospital and got the ambulance to go to my mother, and she was saved."

And that is how Yoko Ono kept her mother calm and alert while her assistant telephoned Japan and got her mother help.


"When I Grow Too Old to Dream" is a song with music by Sigmund Romberg and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, published in 1934. (Yoko Ono was born in 1933). It is one of those extremely special tunes, like Amazing Grace and Danny Boy, that strikes a chord deep within many, many people.

The terrible scenario of an elderly loved one who has fallen is one that every family has known.  Keeping her mother calm and alert was absolutely the thing to do, very quick thinking on Yoko's part. And of ALL the songs in ALL the world she could use, what pops into her head in that desperate moment is a song in English that her mother sang to her as a child.  Isoko of course  also sang songs to Yoko in Japanese, but "When I Grow" has a tune that can connect soul to soul very deeply. Perhaps that is why it popped into her head in that stressful moment.

I hadn't thought of the song in years, but my mother, who was born the same year as Yoko, sang it to me too when I was a child. 

What makes my mom's rendition so special is that she cannot "carry a tune."  My mother can hear distinctive notes in a song, and can recognize songs, but she struggles to re-create differing pitches of any kind. Her notes often come out as a monotone. And yet, her love of songs and desire to share was so strong that I did hear "tunes" come through that monotone. And this song in particular, which I have known practically since birth.

When I grow too old to dream
I'll have you to remember
When I grow too old to dream
Your love will live in my heart
So, kiss me my sweet
And so let us part
And when I grow too old to dream
That kiss will live in my heart
And when I grow too old to dream
That kiss will live in my heart


The song was used in the 1935 film The Night Is Young, starring Ramon Navarro and sung by English light opera actress Evelyn Layne.

Leonard Maltin is not fan of the film: "Novarro, wretchedly miscast and mugging mercilessly, brings his 10-year MGM career to a pitiful end playing a Viennese archduke who spurns his royal fiancee for a fling with ballerina Laye. Oscar Hammerstein/Sigmund Romberg score, including "When I Grow Too Old to Dream,'' is an insufficient saving grace."

Gracie Fields and Nelson Edy had early hits with it, followed by Nat King Cole and Doris Day. Yoko used the Gracie version for her Desert Island Disc. That is not my favorite, because it's too operatic for such a gentle tune (although it does have the nice intro verse).  Here is Linda Ronstadt in a lovely duet with Kermit & Muppet chorus, also with the intro verse.




Sunday, May 3, 2020

Sexy Beast, I Mean Bing: Happy Birthday!




Bing Crosby’s birthday is today, May 2, as he cites in his autobiography Call Me Lucky: "Uncle George kept my father company, diverted him with his best stories and raised a comforting glass with him when I was born on May 2, 1904."

OR it's tomorrow May 3, the date all the biographies site for him, including the Gary Giddens. And those bios cite 1903 as his birth year, not 1904. Turns out Bing celebrated May 2 because of a complicated family thing & then Paramount used that in their materials, but he was born on May 3. Unfortunately, this confusion about the simplest of a man’s details is the least of the problems with his legacy.

Like the Olympian gods, Bing Crosby is largely forgotten and unloved today, except for the descendents of some loyal fans. Gary Giddins made a valiant attempt to focus attention on this Mozart of the popular song with his very ample 2001 biography Pocketful of Dream. And for a brief moment, pop culture glanced at “the first white hip guy born in America” (as Artie Shaw called him). But the attention has not been sustained. And yet . . . when people discover his work in the 1930s, new fans are born.



In the beginning, Crosby was sexy and compelling. He had a distinct, astonishing voice and a way of singing that was unlike any other on the landscape.

He was a genuine heartthrob, best seen in a movie that is almost impossible to get now, the original Big Broadcast (1931, but before they started assigning years to them. Photos from this great site). Crosby plays himself, and the scenes of the women stampeding to kiss him are funny but entirely believable. Women fell in love with his voice on the radio, and the early shorts and movies use that as a story line.

Here he is, in The Big Broadcast, singing Dinah looking like a male model for Banana Republic, and  Please accompanied by the legendary Eddie Lang.



The tragedy of Eddie Lang. Lang met Crosby when they were both in Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, and Eddie followed when Bing left the band. They were very close, and Giddins writes how devastated Crosby was when Lang died, hemorrhaging after a tonsillectomy. It was Crosby who had recommended that Lang have his tonsils out to help with chronic hoarseness and so be able to take on speaking parts in future Crosby films. It was an enormous burden for Crosby to bear that Lang died at age 30 from this operation that he recommended.

Important Beatles notes: John Lennon sites Crosby's Please as an influence for his writing Please Please Me: "I was always intrigued by the words of ‘Please, lend me your little ears to my pleas’ – a Bing Crosby song. I was always intrigued by the double use of the word ‘please’."

And in Scorsese's Living in a Material World documentary, Olivia Harrison says of George: "He liked the moon, you know. If the wind was blowing and the full moon was up, he’d put on Bing Crosby singing "Sweet Leilani" and just make the moment even better. And then he might hand you a gardenia."

The First Music Video?
In 1932 Marion Davies insisted on Crosby as her leading man in Going Hollywood, a wild pastiche of a musical. It’s maybe best known for the Grand Central extravaganza number, while the Make Hay While the Sunshine number is almost too hard to watch.

But there is one scene that deserves a place in film history: a drunk, disheveled Crosby singing Temptation intercut with close-ups of the smoldering Fifi D’Orsay. It’s dark and evocative, with other cuts to blurry, tightly-packed bodies, swaying to the pulsating rhythms of the song. It looks like an early music video. The comments on YouTube tell it all: “how young he is” and “how sexy he is” and “Crosby has more talent in his little finger than Sinatra has in his whole body” [okay, that one is just a nice swipe at the other guy].



Yeah. That’s what propelled Crosby into the hearts and imagination of an entire generation, three quarters of a century ago.

Stardust, 1931
One more (audio) clip: Crosby in 1931 singing Star Dust (first published as two words, and then one). It’s nothing like the standard Nat King Cole. He sings it with a wild abandon, always pushing on the tempo. Pure passion. Pure despair. Pure, natural talent.




This Crosby of the 1930s is the guy who fired my father's imagination to be a life-long fan.  As well as a guy from Hoboken, named Frank. And that's a pretty good legacy in itself.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Good Friday: Saint Peter's Worst Day


Thanks to Gwen Toth, the amazing director of music at Immanuel Lutheran Church and founder/director of the early music group ARTEK, I learned an astonishing piece by the great Renaissance composer Orlando di Lassus.

It's Lagrime di San Pietro, The Tears of Saint Peter, a setting of a twenty-verse poem by the Italian poet Luigi Tansillo (published in 1560), to which Lassus added a final motet.

The music is rich and soaring and dense and transparent all at the same time, like all the masterworks of Renaissance polyphony.

But it is the text that is such a discovery for me. The poet Tansillo imagines the grief beyond grief that Peter feels after he has actively denied Christ three times before the cock crows. It's a rich, relevant thought for contemplation that speaks across the ages.

At the Last Supper Jesus told Peter that he would disown him three times before the cock crowed.

Peter replied: "Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will." "I tell you the truth."

OF course that's not what happens. From Gospel of Luke, the third denial:

About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean." Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.



When Eyes Met

Tansillo's verse focuses on that image of Jesus turning and looking straight at Peter, imagining what it must have been like for their eyes to meet and for Peter to comprehend the magnitude of what he had done.

The entire poem is worth reading, because it tells such moving story, but these excerpts give you an idea. Peter projects his fear and shame onto Christ, that Christ is angry at him for the denial. But Christ has no such anger or hatred of Peter, and when Peter realizes this, he can barely stand it.


When noble Peter, who had sworn
that midst a thousand spears and a thousand swords
he would die beside his beloved Lord,
realized that, overcome by cowardice,
his faith had failed him in his great moment of need,
the shame, sorrow and pity
for his own failure and for Christ's suffering
pierced his breast with a thousand darts.

But the bows which hurled
the sharpest and most deadly arrows
into his breast were the Lord's eyes, as they looked at him;

It looked as if his Lord, surrounded by many
enemies and abandoned by his peers, wanted to say:
"What I foretold him has now come to pass,
disloyal friend, proud disciple"

"More cruel", He seemed to say, "are your eyes
than the godless hands that will put me on the cross;
nor have I felt a blow that struck me as hard,
among the many that did strike me,
as the one that came out of your mouth.

I found no one faithful, nor kind,
among the many that I deemed worthy to be called mine:
but you, for whom my love was so intense,
are more deceitful and ungrateful above all the others.
Each of them offended me only by leaving me:
but you denied me"

The words full of anger and love
that Peter seemed to see written
on the serene, holy eyes of Christ,
would shatter whoever who heard them.

Like a snowbank which, having lain frozen
and hidden in the depth of the valley all winter,
and then in springtime, warmed by the sun,
falls apart and melts into streams,
such was the fear which had lain like ice
in Peter's heart and made him repress the truth;
when Christ turned His eyes on him,
it melted and was changed into tears.

And his crying was not a small spring
or mountain stream, which dries in the warm seasons;
for although the king of Heaven forgave him
immediately for his disgraceful deception,
not a single night in his remaining life passed
without the cock's crow waking him up
and reminding him how shamefully he behaved,
and inciting new tears for the ancient betrayal.

Realizing that he felt much different
than before, and unable to bear to remain
in the presence of the scorned Lord,
who loved him so, he didn't wait to see
if the harsh tribunal would hand down
a severe or clement sentence, but,
leaving the despicable place where he was,
bitterly crying, he returned outside.

By denying my Lord, I denied
life itself from which every spirit springs:
a tranquil life that neither fears nor desires,
whose course flows on without end:
because then I denied the one true life,
there is no reason, none at all, to continue this false life.
Go then, vain life, quickly leave me:
since I denied true life, 1 do not want its shadow.”

So Peter is in despair, almost it seems to the point of suicide. But we know he rallies, and is the rock upon whom the Church is built. The stone rejected by the builders is now the cornerstone.

And yet, that moment of looking Jesus in the eyes after he denied himself 3 times when it really counted was a cross for life.

The end of the Lassus piece is an older, Latin motet re-set. Its words are also pretty incredible: Christ on the cross telling us that as horrific and painful are the nails and spears, they are nothing to the pain of ingratitude. Imagine that.


Behold, mankind, what I suffer for you,
To you I cry, I who am dying for you;
behold the pains with which I am afflicted;
behold the nails with which I am pierced.
There is no pain like that of the cross;
and great though my body’s suffering might be,
the pain of ingratitude, however, is worse,
such ingratitude as I have experienced from you.



Images
Caravaggio, The Denial of Saint Peter, 1610
 Peter's Denial by Rembrandt, 1660. Jesus is shown in the upper right hand corner, his hands bound behind him, turning to look at Peter

Saturday, August 3, 2019

History of a Two Weeks' Tour Through Switzerland



One night—it was in 1816, and one of those nights the Swiss believe God made for them alone—a boat approached silently, leaving behind her a wake brilliantly broken in the light of the moon. She drifted in towards the whitened walls of Chillon Castle and touched the bank without any shiver, without a sound, like a settling swan.


From it stepped a pale-faced man with piercing eyes, his uncovered head held proudly. He was wearing a black cloak that reached to his feet, which however, did not entirely hide the fact that he limped slightly. He requested to be shown Bonnivard’s cell. There he remained, alone, for a long time. When he had gone, another name was inscribed on the martyr’s pillar—Byron.

Alexandre Dumas, Travels in Switzerland, 1832, published 1843

It is now nearly three weeks since my Journey took place, and the journal I then kept was not very copious; but I have so often talked over the incidents that befell us, and attempted to describe the scenery through which we passed, that I think few occurrences of any interested will be omitted. 

My opening mirrors Mary Shelley's 1817 History of a Six Weeks' Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland. You can read the whole "little volume" on Gutenberg.

I came to Switzerland because of family, but I found myself living in the footsteps of long-beloved writers. My journey became my own bookshelf writ large, as I joined Dumas, the Shelleys, Byron, Mark Twain, J. W. Turner, Charles Dickens, Gibbon, Rousseau, Chateaubriand, and many others through the German- and then French-speaking parts of the extraordinary country.

My great grandfather Sebastian Anton Waldis was Swiss, his daughter was my maternal grandmother, Regina Caroline Waldis Brown. She passed down to us a small wooden box with the word Rigi carved on the bottom that her father brought with him on his long immigration journey. In our own middle age, my brother and I became interested in the Swiss heritage that we had long ignored, given the ethnic dominance of being O’Neill’s from Brooklyn.

Sebastian’s marriage certificate listed Arth, Switzerland as his birthplace. Odd sounding town. Google maps showed it to be a tiny hamlet on Lake Zug, about an hour south of Zurich, in the canton of Schwyz.  I planned a trip to visit his hometown, and to see more of country, then join with an organized bike tour out of Lausanne. And that is how I came to live in the heady world of Mt. Rigi and the surrounding towns of Weggis, Vitznau, Arth, and Lucerne, then over to Lake Geneva, Gstaad, and Bern.


Mark Twain's “Sunrise” on Mt. Rigi

Dining in a cable car from Weggis
“In a moment we were deeply absorbed in the marvel before us, and dead to everything else. The great cloud-barred disk of the sun stood just about a limitless expanse of tossing white-caps—so to speak—a billowy chaos of massy mountain domes and peaks draped in imperishable snow and flooded with an opaline glory of changing and dissolving splendors, while through rifts in a black cloud-bank above the sun, radiating lances of diamond dust shot to the zenith. The cloven valleys of the lower world swam in a tinted mist which veiled the ruggedness of their crags and ribs and ragged forests, and turned all the forbidding region into a soft and rich and sensuous paradise.  

We could not speak. We could hardly breath. We could only gaze in drunken ecstasy and drink it in.”  Mark Twain, Tramps Abroad, 1880

There is still a rush to be on the top of Mt. Rigi, called Rigi Kulm, at dawn to see the sunrise. I was happy to summit at midday. Mark Twain’s attempt is wrapped in his signature comedic happenstances: he and his traveling companion had slept all day.  What they first thought was the sunrise, they realized was sunset.  Which I saw from a unique dining experience in the cable car to Rigi Kaltbad from Weggis.  You can see how easily sunset and sunrise could be confused.

Arth, Brunnen, and Lucerne, as I fall into the footsteps of the Romantics

The hand-carved box great granddad brought from Switzerland, on Lake Lucerne

The Rigi-Bahn station at the top of Mt. Rigi

Arth itself having no good hotels, I stayed in Vitznau—the town Sebastian’s own grandfather Franz Joseph was from—on Lake Lucerne. Everything that has been written about the beauty of the Swiss lakes is weak in the face of their actuality. I brought GGdad's wooden box with me, to the shores of the lake. Arth being on the other side of Mt. Rigi, I needed to take the amazing cog wheel up one side of the mountain, and down the other.

The journey from Vitznau is the more dramatic as you ride at an astounding incline into the air, the town falling away as you enter the clouds. The journey down to Arth is miles and miles of the forest primeval. In Arth I visited the church of Sebastian’s baptism. Built in 1694, the baptismal font looked like it could be from 1854, and that brought his past into my present, into my journey.

Next I went to the Staatsarchiv in Schwyz to inquire for more details about Sebastian’s life, where I learned that he was in prison in the neighboring Brunnen for 4 years. Privacy laws attach to all court records from 1848 onward, and so I’m working with an archivist to get the record unsealed. My heart tells me it was for stealing a loaf of bread. This is a man who carried a tiny wooden box on the long journey from Switzerland, and named my grandmother after his mother and sister.

Mary Shelley had a very different experience of Brunnen:

“The summits of several of the mountains that enclose the lake to the south are covered by eternal glaciers; of one of these, opposite Brunen, they tell the story of a priest and his mistress, who, flying from persecution, inhabited a cottage at the foot of the snows. One winter night an avalanche overwhelmed them, but their plaintive voices are still heard in stormy nights, calling for succour from the peasants.

Brunen is situated on the northern side of the angle which the lake makes, forming the extremity of the lake of Lucerne. Here we rested for the night, and dismissed our boatmen. Nothing could be more magnificent than the view from this spot.  The high mountains encompassed us, darkening the waters; at a distance on the shores of Uri we could perceive the chapel of Tell, and this was the village where he matured the conspiracy which was to overthrow the tyrant of his country; and indeed this lovely lake, these sublime mountains, and wild forests, seemed a fit cradle for a mind aspiring to high adventure and heroic deeds.

Yet we saw no glimpse of his spirit in his present countrymen. The Swiss appeared to us then, and experience has confirmed our opinion, a people slow of comprehension and of action; but habit has made them unfit for slavery, and they would, I have little doubt, make a brave defence against any invader of their freedom.”  
Mary Shelley, History of Six Weeks' Tour
The steamboat serving Vitznau to Lucerne across Lake Lucerne

I took the steam boat from Vitznau to Lucerne. The water, the landscape: the very same the Shelleys experienced. It was like walking into the timeless spaces in Mary Shelly’s own travelogue. What delights me about travelogue is the voice, the voice of a writer you enjoy, now more directly speaking to you, sharing details with you, the potential fellow traveler.

“We departed the next morning for the town of Lucerne. It rained violently during the first part of our voyage, but towards its conclusion the sky became clear, and the sunbeams dried and cheered us. We saw again, and for the last time, the rocky shores of this beautiful lake, its verdant isles, and snow-capt mountains.”

The Shelleys and I Go Over to Lausanne 

“The rain detained us two days at Ouchy. We however visited Lausanne, and saw Gibbon's house. We were shewn the decayed summer-house where he finished his History, and the old acacias on the terrace, from which he saw Mont Blanc, after having written the last sentence. There is something grand and even touching in the regret which he expresses at the completion of his task. It was conceived amid the ruins of the Capitol. The sudden departure of his cherished and accustomed toil must have left him, like the death of a dear friend, sad and solitary.

My companion gathered some acacia leaves to preserve in remembrance of him. I refrained from doing so, fearing to outrage the greater and more sacred name of Rousseau; the contemplation of whose imperishable creations had left no vacancy in my heart for mortal things. Gibbon had a cold and unimpassioned spirit. I never felt more inclination to rail at the prejudices which cling to such a thing, than now that Julie and Clarens, Lausanne and the Roman Empire, compelled me to a contrast between Rousseau and Gibbon.” Percy Bysshe Shelley's July 12 letter in Mary's Travelogue

Is there a more naturally literary soul than Shelley? I love his angst about contrasting Gibbon and Rousseau.  I feel connected to the literary continuum by the nestling dolls of literary fandom. Shelley is moved by seeing where Gibbon finished Roman Empire in Lausanne, and he visited Vevai/Vevey where “Rousseau conceived the design of Julie.” For Dumas, it was tracking down Chateaubriand.

Hotel Angleterre, Lausanne
In Lausanne I did not make it to the plaque that shows where the Hotel Gibbon stood with its garden of acacia trees, but I made sure to see Hotel Angleterre et Residence where Byron wrote The Prisoner of Chillon.

My bike tour met up in a hotel next to Hotel Angleterre. We biked through the UNESCO Lavaux vineyards—producer of the lovely grape Chasselas—over to Vevey, on Lake Geneva.  From the town, we started biking around the glorious lake, through the district of Montreux, until the celebrated castle was in sight.




The Prisoner of Chillon



The display about Francois Bonivard at Castle Chillon, the inspiration for Byron's poem

There are seven pillars of Gothic mould,
In Chillon's dungeons deep and old

“We passed on to the Castle of Chillon, and visited its dungeons and towers. These prisons are excavated below the lake; the principal dungeon is supported by seven columns, whose branching capitals support the roof. Close to the very walls, the lake is 800 feet deep; iron rings are fastened to these columns, and on them were engraven a multitude of names, partly those of visitors, and partly doubtless of the prisoners, of whom now no memory remains, and who thus beguiled a solitude which they have long ceased to feel. One date was as ancient as 1670. ” Shelley's letter in Mary's Travelogue

Byron's signature carved into the pillar he thought was "the" pillar; or added by savvy Castle staff

The first thing every guide says at the Castle is how it is the most visited cultural site in all of Switzerland because of Byron. To this day.

The other tidbit is editorial: that things couldn’t have been too bad for Francois Bonivard because when he was freed, he married four times, and was always in debt because of his extravagant lifestyle. The implication being that he wasn’t damaged by being in prison from 1530 to 1536, and chained to a pillar for the last four of them. He was a prisoner of Switzerland’s religious wars: he was a Catholic monk who started fighting for the rights of the Genevese  not be ruled by the Duke of Savoy. He became a celebrated Protestant on his release, and so the marriages.

Bryon paints a very different, though mythical picture.  The real Bonivard had no 5 brothers (although one of the guides thought he perhaps had one sibling, but he was not imprisoned with him.)

Byron’s poem is a masterpiece of darkness and suffering. If Bonivard himself perhaps was not in extreme pain during his imprisonment, many people were devastated by the cruelty and barbarity of the religious wars

Their belief with blood have seal'd,
Dying as their father died,
For the God their foes denied;—

Sir Walter Scott's review Quarterly Review 16 (October 1816) 172-208:
"It will readily be allowed that this singular poem is more powerful than pleasing. The dungeon of Bonivard is, like that of Ugolino, a subject too dismal for even the power of the painter or poet to counteract its horrors. It is the more disagreeable as affording human hope no anchor to rest upon, and describing the sufferer, though a man of talents and virtues, as altogether inert and powerless under his accumulated sufferings. Yet as a picture, however gloomy the colouring, it may rival any which Lord Byron has drawn, nor is it possible to read it without a sinking of the heart, corresponding with that which he describes the victim to have suffered."

Is the signature Byron’s? I would think not. There's too much space between the "B" and "Y," which has lead to an odd dot being added through the years.

Lake Geneva/Leman is well served by a fleet of steamboats. You can see the enormous pistons

From the Castle, we took the steamboat back to Vevey.

“We sailed from Clarens to Vevai. Vevai is a town more beautiful in its simplicity than any I have ever seen. Its market-place, a spacious square interspersed with trees, looks directly upon the mountains of Savoy and La Valais, the lake, and the valley of the Rhone. It was at Vevai that Rousseau conceived the design of Julie.” Shelley's July 12 letter in Mary's Travelogue

Alphorn players on Lake Lucerne in Vevey for the Fete des Vignerons, 2019

The next day we headed for Gstaad, where Hemingway is still remembered, and then on to Bern. Making the journey to great grandfather’s hometown was a privilege. It was even more of a privilege to journey with the good education that brought me the richness of the Romantics in Switzerland.