Saturday, December 18, 2010

Lists & Notebooks

I am jotting down lists for a talk next month to Roanoke's Shakespeare book club on Faust: "Myth and Music."

'Tis the season for lists. Shopping lists, gift lists, wish lists and more. Umberto Eco's fascinatingly quirky monograph, The Infinity of Lists is open on the kitchen table to an excerpt from the Walpurgisnacht scene from Goethe's Faust (I am not planning on replicating Mephistopheles's bewitched recipe, for the record).

The Walpurgisnacht scene is one entry in my notebook of archetypal "journeys to the abyss." Christ's descent into hell another. Also Ulysses's and Orpheus's journeys to the underworld. And Dante's trip with Virgil in the Divine Comedy. One might add a trip to any shopping mall in the US the weekend before Christmas. And so on.

My obsession with mythology can now add James Hollis's Tracking the Gods: The Place of Myth in Modern Life to this year's top-ten list of favorite books.

He quotes Paul Tillich's observation that "the greatest sin of modernism was not evil…but rather the barren triviality that preoccupies us" (Inner City Books, 1995). Which recalls another apt quote from another list.

This one from the pragmatic critic and philosopher, John Dewey. "The enemies of the esthetic are neither the practical nor the intellectual. They are the humdrum...submission to convention" (Art as Experience, 1934. Perigree edition 2005).

I can see the mountains from my apartment in Roanoke, the sea from our bay-side home in Norfolk. Nature is the origin of the aesthetic and an antidote to humdrum convention. Selah.

My list of favorite Italian films would start with several by Michelangelo Antonioni. That list would be ordered by preference for his muse, the mysterious and unpredictable Monica Vitti. Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert) is at the top of the list. Among other concerns, it centers on the balance between technology and nature. The poetry of modernity. I'd never seen nuclear reactors as man-made volcanos but that is exactly what they resemble in the opening sequence of this visually stunning film (Antonioni's first in color).

It can be viewed as a series of modern art tableaus. Urban landscapes. Toxic beauty (the yellow smoke and sulfuric wetlands embody such oxymoronic tension). Though I don't think the film would make a great opera, it provokes thought on the tense relationship between tradition and progress. Which brings to mind the shifting landscape of classical music in the US, from concert programming to opera production.

But I digress. That tangent was inspired by a quote from Signorina Vitti as she looks dreamily out on the water (I listed it in my notebook, just above John Dewey's).

"It's never still...never, never...I can't look at the sea for long or I lose interest in what's happening on land."

One of the most interesting perspectives on what's happening on land is from an airplane window. I love sitting by the window on a partly cloudy day and glimpsing the curvilinear form of the city-scape as it comes into view upon descent. To trace the arc of a bending road that mirrors a river's curves is to marvel at the beauty of technology and the marriage of the aesthetic and pragmatic. One could expand the list of metaphors thus inspired, from the winding paths of life to the body's curves to "Spoon River" and beyond...

I don't know if that counts as an example of Dewey's aim to "restore continuity" between the experience of everyday life and the aesthetic. But living in a place where that continuity is conscious helps. The list of cities with an admirable commitment to public art might start with Chicago. Within a few blocks of one another are sprawling and fanciful sculptures by Calder, Miro and Picasso, with Chagall's panoramic mural of the Four Seasons in between.

The four seasons reminds one of the quaternity of elements, the stages of humankind, the four corners of the square and the squaring of the circle. The mythopoeic fourfold and the unity forged through diversity.

(There I go again, poeticizing lists, listing metaphors, randomly mythologizing).

One answer to the question "what does one do on one's first saturday off since the summer?" is to make such lists. To "discern the movement of soul" (Hollis) and follow Dr Jung's advice to relate to the infinite in the quest for the "authentic life" of meaning.

'Tis the season to give thanks and celebrate the mysterious beauty of life. To borrow a wonderful metaphor from my colleague, Jim Gates, let us give presence more than presents. Let us count the ways life is rich with meaning. The list is not important. It is the act itself.

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