Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Greek & Roman Comedy, If It Wasn't So "Historically" Pathetic

A little bit of slush outside GCT after #Juno #Blizzardof2015 was done with NYC. Photo NYTimes

Hubris: In the modern sense based on Greek tragedy means extreme pride or self-confidence. When it offends the gods, it is usually punished.

The Roman goddess Juno: wife of the chief god Jupiter, was regarded as queen of the gods and known for her jealous nature.

You combine these two ancient ideas, and you end up with a bizarre, man-made shutdown of one of the world's great cities while a few flurries float on by.

The Greek Side
What first ticked me off was the use of the word "historic." The blizzard of 2015 was being called historic before it happened. That, my friends, is an act of hubris:  pre-determining, deeming in fact  that something is going be epic. Something as powerful and unpredictable as the weather.  And hubris, we know, is often punishable by the gods, the cosmos, fate, whatever. Just ask Xerxes, or Ajax, or Oedipus.

Beyond the time-bending arrogance, there is the question of our language. Words have meaning. When you play with that, you cheapen everything about our most important human asset. Why would anyone do that?

It unfortunately happens very easily. It started at Mayor de Blasio's pre-storm press conference. He started the idea with "This could be the biggest snowstorm in the history of this city.”

But it was our beloved National Weather Service that put the anachronistic thought into play, as Gothamist reported: "CRIPPLING AND POTENTIALLY HISTORIC BLIZZARD TO IMPACT THE AREA FROM LATE MONDAY INTO TUESDAY.

Now we see that they did say "potentially historic." But that is a clunky phrase. No news agency is going to pick-up a three-syllable adjective in a headline or even in text. Of course it got picked up around the world as "historic." There were often quotations, a nod perhaps to the fact that it hadn't actually happened yet.

CNN website:  "The National Weather Service, which isn't prone to exaggeration, is using terms like "life-threatening" and "historic" to describe the weather system taking aim at the Northeast, with the worst expected to hit Monday night into Tuesday. " And so on in countless reports.

Even so, why was it such a short walk from a mis-applied "historic" to a curfew & the shutdown of the MTA? The subway shutdown was ordered by Gov. Cuomo. Gee, New Yorkers used to be made of sterner stuff. We were known for it. What has happened to us?

The Roman Side
Count me as one of the many who did not understand the #Juno hashtag attached to #Bizzardof2015. Wasn't that a movie with Ellen Page? What is going on.

Thank you uproxx for explaining it:
The Weather Channel named the storm Juno, by themselves, with "no preexisting agreement between the various weather organizations to (or not to) name winter storms."

Do we need to try to name everything in nature we want to control?  Or is this part of a brand-crazed culture.

There was some more helpful background in the Lowell Sun.
"It came from a list that high schoolers in Montana created."

Of course it did.

"The Latin class at Bozeman High School generated a list of storm names for the 2014-2015 winter season, used by The Weather Channel to name particularly notable storms."

The Punishment?

Good-willed New Yorkers, trapped at home, subjected to hours of Don Lemon in the #Blizzardmobile, who insisted after every commercial for hours on end that he had "breaking news." Oh my God. Sure we changed the channel or turned off the TV entirely, but that didn't change the fact that he was out there . . . saying these inane things.

And the predictable egg-on-face for all the authorities as the flurries failed to fall in Gotham, while we were under a siege-like lock down. 

To our Eastern Seaboard neighbors who are actually dealing with significant snowfall, may the gods smile upon you and clear your way quickly.

And may these same elements of a perfect storm never come together in this way again.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Extreme Intimacy of Penmanship: National Handwriting Day

Dad's handwriting
Yesterday was National Handwriting Day.  How did I not know this? I love everything about it.

It was declared waaay back in 1977 by WIMA, the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association, to "celebrate the lost art of penmanship."  So it has nothing to do with computers replacing handwriting. They were worried about typewriters replacing pen to paper. Imagine that.

They chose January 23 because it is John Hancock's birthday. A lovely touch.

Twitter did it proud with #NationalHandwritingDay and people posting photos of personal notes; of writing favorite poems/passages to take a picture to post for the day; and of posting examples of famous writers handwriting. It is wonderful hashtag to peruse.


Mom's handwriting
The Extreme Intimacy of Handwriting

If we count the modern age of home computers from Apple's 1984, I squeaked in to have the experience of letters from home, and first love letters, that needed to be, well, physical letters.

When I went for a senior year abroad at Southampton University, England,  there were no cell phones or email.  There was only one phone in the whole dorm, at the bottom of the staircase. So contact was by letter, and I have to say my mom & dad, and brother were wonderful and wrote to me almost every week. That's a lot of letters, and I cherish them greatly.

But yesterday's National Handwriting Day reminded me of something I hadn't thought about in years: the enormous emotional charge of seeing the handwriting of a loved one.

 It is a  simple visual experience, on the one hand, seeing the ink on the envelope. But it is something of a phenomenon that those particularly shaped letters connect—instantaneously—to your deepest feeling, knowledge, love, of the person who formed them. 

When I was feeling homesick, I only had to pull out a letter from mom or dad, each with their most distinctive penmanship, and the homesickness dispersed. What my mom wrote was important, but it was her handwriting that created the feeling of a hug 3,000 miles away because that visual DNA is only hers, and it brought her into the room along with our bond. This is not so with email.

When the letter is from a lover, that instantaneous recognition/connection for me was literally electric. I felt sparks within my nervous system that I couldn't control, it would sometimes actually take my breath away, because of all that lay beneath those particularly formed letters. (Which is why it did all eventually burn out, like a circuit board.)

All from the Alphabet. Formed. On a Piece of Paper.

It is a very special, magical corner of the human condition that letters on paper can so vividly evoke he who wrote them. And one that our digital generations are missing out on.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

James Joyce's "The Dead": a.k.a Have Yourself a Merry "Little Christmas"

"His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

* * * * * *

For many, the Day of "The Dead" is el Dia de los Muertos.

For me, it’s January 6. Little Christmas. Twelfth Night. The Feast of Three Kings, the day to reread and savor the final story in James Joyce’s Dubliners and so experience Epiphany in all its meanings.

The word epiphany comes from the Greek “epiphaneia” meaning “manifestation." The feast originated in the Greek Orthodox faith, there called Theophany, and it celebrates when the Christ child’s divinity shone through his humanity, as acknowledged by the Magi’s adoration.

James Joyce is generally credited with the crossover of such a religiously charged word to secular life and literature. A Google search brings this definition: Epiphany in fiction, when a character suddenly experiences a deep realization about himself or herself; a truth that is grasped in an ordinary rather than a melodramatic moment.

Leave it to the angry Irish Catholic apostate—taught by the Jesuits at Belvedere College, a willing devotee of Aquinas—to be attracted to the Greek-inflected word and the sheer power of an idea manifested into discernible reality.

Joyce explored his own secular theology of epiphany in Stephen Hero—an early sketch for A Portrait of the Artist, which he hoped to publish as a novel that never happened. From that sketch: “By an epiphany he [Stephen Hero] meant 'a sudden spiritual manifestation,’ whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.”

The Little Christmas Party at Aunt Kate's

And so it is with extreme care that Joyce brings us the annual Little Christmas party at Aunt Kate’s Dublin home, where he captures “the most delicate and evanescent of moments” for the ages. The life in the story is deep and textured—-every sense is engaged, history swirls, humor abounds; we are rooted in place and time by specific references and stirred by timeless emotions. You can read the masterpiece here, and Wallace Gray’s notes are an excellent, down-to-earth guide to the references.

There are many epiphanies in this story, and much is made of Gabriel’s decision that “The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward”—to connect again with his Irish soul and not travel out to Belgium or Germany—in what is one of the most famous last paragraphs in literature.

But the epiphany I cherish most is the underlying one of Gabriel’s realization about his wife Gretta.

Gabriel’s first reaction to Gretta’s mood after hearing The Lass of Aughrim is “He longed to be master of her strange mood.”

He suffers through terrible emotions in their hotel room. His lust for Gretta quickly decays to anger when she mentions the boy in Galway from many years ago:

“While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another. A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror. Instinctively he turned his back more to the light lest she might see the shame that burned upon his forehead.”

Oh Gabriel—all that self doubt, all that horrible self criticism because you think that Gretta is comparing you to another. It’s not about YOU. She’s simply filled with a memory of her own past. Please let her have that part of her life, and don’t punish her for it.

And then, Gabriel does just that.

“Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully. . . So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life.

“He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover's eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

“Generous tears filled Gabriel's eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love.”

From that realization, Gabriel’s soul is opened, and once that happens, anything is possible.

Joyce leaves us in silver shadows, in the peace of falling snow that unites the living and the dead. Critics disagree as to whether Gabriel is spiritually dead at the end, or if now that he realizes he has never fully lived, something more is possible.

At each year’s reading, I like to think that Garbriel and Gretta go on to happier, more deeply conscious lives with each other. But it remains a serious question: do we ever know even the person who most intimately shares our life?

[photos from John Huston's excellent film adaptation of The Dead.]

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Evelyn Waugh's Epiphany & "Ellen's Invention"

As Christmastide brings us to Epiphany, we inevitably turn to Evelyn Waugh, that maddening amalgam of irreverence, anger, faith, and generally agreed-upon misanthropy.

I first wrote about Evelyn Waugh's 1950 novel Helena for Epiphany several years ago, before I had read it, because I knew its famous passage about the feast—pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate—through sermons. 

And I knew the novel was historical fiction about he journey of St. Helen (or Helena)--the mother of Constantine, who converted the Roman Empire to the Holy Roman Empire when he himself converted to Christianity--to Syria Palestine in 320 or so to find the True Cross of the crucifixion, which she does from instructions from the Wandering Jew in a dream.

At one point in the novel Helena is at an Epiphany Mass in Bethlehem. She is tired, and as the service goes on and on her mind begins to compose a somewhat mystical dialogue to the Magi (abridged here).

"This is my day, she thought, "and these are my kind."

"Like me," she said to them, "you were late in coming. The shepherds were here long before; even the cattle. They had joined the chorus of angels before you were on your way.

"How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculations, where the shepherds had run barefoot!

“How odd you looked on the road, attended by what outlandish liveries, laden with such preposterous gifts!"

"You came at length to the final stage of your pilgrimage and the great star stood still above you. What did you do? You stopped to call on King Herod. Deadly exchange of compliments in which there began that unended war of mobs and magistrates against the innocent!

"Yet you came, and were not turned away. You too found room at the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life there was room for you too.

"You are my special patrons," said Helena, "and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have had a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.

"For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate."

Such beautiful thoughts about outsiders, late-comers of all kinds, and gifts that may not seem needed but are not turned away because they are brought with love. We should all keep such charity in our hearts all year round.

"Ellen's Invention"

I later stumbled upon the novel in a used book store, and reading the whole story found that it is a highly personal expression of faith of a Catholic believer converted from and living within the Anglican tradition.

The fact that it's from the same biting satirist who brought us Vile Bodies and The Loved Ones makes it more surprising. Just the idea of writing the "story" of Constantine's mother search for the True Cross is intriguing.

Here is how Waugh introduces us to his tale in his Preface:

"It is reported (and I, for one, believe it) that some few years ago a lady prominent for her hostility to the Church returned from a a visit to Palestine in a state of exultation. 'I got the real low-down at last,' she told her friends. 'The whole story of the crucifixion was made up by a British woman named Ellen. Why, the guide showed me the very place where it happened. Even the priests admit it. They call their chapel 'the Invention of the Cross.'"

It has not been my primary aim to disillusion this famous lady but to retell an old story."

Ellen is the Anglicized Helen. [I was baptized Helen because back in the day you needed a saint's name for the rite.] The allusion that St. Helen/Ellen was "a British woman" is part of a literary tradition (not factual) from 12 century Geoffrey of Monmouth down to G.K. Chesterton that she was a daughter of King Coel, married off to Constantius then having Constantine the Great,  thus giving a British pedigree to the Holy Roman Imperial line!

Like Brideshead Revisited, the novel is a prose poem filled with the most beautiful cadences possible. Wiki quotes Waugh as declaring it "far the best book I have ever written or ever will write," and that daughter Harriet later said, "the only one of his books that he ever cared to read aloud."

In the course of the novel Helen finds and excavates the chamber where the 3 crosses from Good Friday were stored.

And so Waugh ends his tale in the last chapter entitled "Ellen's Invention," a mocking of the Anglican lady in the Preface who attributed the crucifixion to her:

"Helena's many prayers seem to have received unequal answers. Constantine was at long last baptized and died in the expectation of an immediate, triumphal entry to Paradise. Britain for a time became Christian, and 136 parish churches were dedicated to Helena. The Holy Places have been alternately honoured and desecrated, lost and won, bought and bargained for, throughout the centuries. But the wood has endured. In splinters and shavings gorgeously encased it has travelled the world over and found a joyous welcome among every race. For it states a fact.

"Hounds are checked, hunting wild. A horn calls clear through the covert. Helena casts them back on the scent.

"Above all the babble of her age and ours, she makes one blunt assertion. And there alone is Hope."