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fryStephen Fry’s “Wagner and Me”

I recently enjoyed “Wagner and Me”, a documentary by Stephen Fry illustrating his internal conflict about loving Richard Wagner’s art while deploring the artist’s character.  Since I am a great admirer of Wagner (and of Stephen Fry), I watched with interest.  The idea that the artist must live up to the art-lover’s expectations of an equally admirable moral character can be daunting.  In the remote past, little was known about the private lives of artists.  Starting with Mozart, I guess, the audience has been getting a clearer picture of the man as well as the art.  (Mozart left behind an enormous amount of correspondence that is fascinating to read).

After I first heard Wagner in my early teens, I eagerly looked for more of him and (thank goodness), there is quite a bit of music to explore…days of it if you played each opera back to back without a break.  My personality requires that I learn everything I can about things I like.  This meant months of hanging out in the college library.  Because Wagner was controversial in his lifetime, there is an enormous amount of literature devoted to his worship or his damnation.  I read a lot of it.  Both kinds.

I was distressed to read that Wagner was not a nice man.  But he had some dedicated, if not actually slavish, devotees.  This is curious.  I read the huge two-volume diaries of Cosima Wagner to get a very personal view of the composer.  I was then able to separate the art from the man.  I had to.  The amazing magic of the music was evident.  Stephen Fry feels the same way.  But Fry went further and created a documentary to delve deeper into this idea of “art gods” with feet of clay.

I was pleased that Fry spent a segment on the Tristan Chord which encapsulates the psychological and emotional magic of Wagner in a sort of shorthand.  It is a perfect way to bring hours of music and 50 years of composition into 5 minutes of illustration for an audience who might not be familiar with the music. (Side note:  Isolde’s Leibestod is a musical rendition of a seven-minute orgasm, and when it was played in the theatre the first time, women were fainting in the aisles, and not because their corsets were too tight.) On the other hand, Fry did not mention nor play the Bridal March from Lohengrin.  I can assume that he did not want to emphasize this more cliched Wagnerian insertion into modern life.  Perhaps Fry worried that if brides-to-be knew about the history of the composer they might not want to hear that music on their wedding day!

Either way, and both ways, this brings us back to the idea of  THE ART and THE ARTIST.

This morning in the news is a nasty bit of expose on Woody Allen, which is what sparked me to write this blog post this morning.  While I seem to be able to forgive Richard Wagner for the nastier parts of his character, I find it more difficult to overlook Allen’s.

To me the clear answer is that somehow ART transcends the human experience.  It is almost like ART exists somewhere beyond physical reality, like Plato’s Forms, and human beings draw it down through the lens of their existence in an infinite variety of media.

No human being is flawless enough to equal the concept of the art.  Each artist is an indicator of what humanity IS.  This means we must look at the good and the bad, or else we will not see the whole.

And that is what art is for:  as Shakespeare (through the immortal Hamlet) said, “the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”

my lord Hamlet, and all of us

my lord Hamlet, and all of us

Looking at the mirror of Wagner’s anti-semitism and vindictive jealousies shows us the world’s.  Looking at Allen’s sexual allegations re-affirms to us of what we do not accept in our society. Mozart’s potty-mouth reminds us of why stand-up comedians can make us laugh just by saying “poop”.  The artist-mirror of imperfection is like a bridge between us fallible humans and the sublime perfection of human art. The mirror has a crack in it, but the art does not.

Perfection.  Listen to it.  You will forgive Wagner, as I have.

wagner

600px-TristanChord.svg

Blue Damask

Blue Damask Cover Final small

Find Blue Damask on Amazon

Eighteen months ago I had an idea while I was floating in the pool staring at the Arizona sky.  Ideas are like that.  They often come when you do not have a pen or pencil or stylus or notepad.  Fortunately, this was not a fleeting idea, but grew steadily larger and wider and I found myself thinking the story while I stirred spaghetti sauce or drove to work.  When an idea refuses to go away, it means I have to start another novel.  The characters began to speak to each other and to me, and then exciting things blossom into scenes involving biplanes and horses and trains and long knives and bottles of whiskey–the words and images flew around inside my mind and insisted they become a story on paper.

So I began another book.  Here it is.  If you had told me it would be a year and a half before the idea became a real physical item, I might have been discouraged that it would take so long to become “real”.  Instead, I enjoyed every moment of the creation from the blank page to the cover design to the formatting headaches.  It was always a “work in progress” …and now the progress has ended!  It is a strange feeling.  I have been living the characters so long they are as real to me as anyone I know.  Surely they are not dead now that the book is done!

Then yesterday I had another idea.

Blue Damask will be free on Kindle for three days: Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the 25th -27th of January.  Two paperback copies will be entered in a Giveaway on Goodreads.  Enter to win one of them before February 28th!

Happy New Year!

 

I am in love with Dead People

TE-1935Thomas Edward Lawrence

Richard-Burton-38898-1-402Sir Richard Burton

Not Kemaleddin, but his nephew, Piri

Not Kemaleddin, but his nephew, Piri

Zombie_walk_Pittsburgh_29_Oct_2006

 

 

     No.  Not necrophilia.  Not zombies.  History.

     It has been said that history is full of dead people, and this is true.  History is a mausoleum of humanity.  Historical fiction is a method of resurrecting the dead in a pleasant way that does not require candles, chanting and a scary-looking necromancer raising his staff over a pentagram.

     People are born, they live, they die.  This cycle continues through the centuries without end, yet a single human lifespan is not long enough to experience everything a person could see and hear and do.  Two lifetimes are not.  Three or four or five are not.  Have you stood in the biography section of a large library?  A thousand life spans are not enough.  Through books, we living humans can peer into the lives of those who have come before us.  They are strangers, but still are people who have been babies, children, lovers, parents and then old men and women who always, without exception, pass into Hamlet’s undiscovered country.

     We can learn more about what it means to exist than merely what we experience personally.  In fact, it is often not until someone is dead that their lives begin to blossom.  A second life, so to speak, immortality only hinted at while they were alive.  Samuel Pepys was not sharing his diary in the seventeenth century, but readers now can know what he had for supper, or whether his wife was moody on one day or another.  We can know more about a person after their death than we did while they lived.  Biographers sometimes start writing before their subject’s demise, but the juicier bits of a life do not sprout until the body is laid to rest in the ground.

     Adventurer Sir Richard Burton is one of my favorite dead people.  He did things in his life that I would not do in mine, but I enjoy reading of his exploits.  Some of the more colorful and disreputable adventures are shocking enough even today to make for jaw-dropping reading.  His real life does not need a fictional re-telling, a biography will do just fine in his case.

      Other dead people need a bit of fiction to resurrect them and put some meat on the skeletal facts of their lives.  The clothing of the cadavers with imaginary events and conversations does not make their stories less true.  I fell in love with Kemaleddin Reis after reading his sixteenth century eulogy, lovingly composed by his nephew Piri.  Research showed only the bare bones of Kemal’s life, but some tidbits nearly screamed at me to flesh out.  His own sultan had imprisoned Kemal for almost a year.  There was a hint that the Reis was being punished because he had acted without orders.  This tells me Kemal had extreme confidence in his decisions and a certain amount of contempt for politicians. Novelists must clothe their subjects in fantasy to bring them back to life.  This is the method of literary necromancers.  Kemaleddin Reis is duly resurrected in my novels.

      Once a dead person lives and breathes and speaks on a page, we are closer to them than even to the living persons in our lives.  This intimacy comes from being inside their heads, listening to their thoughts and feeling their emotional responses to events which could not be done while they lived, even if you knew them personally.

     Recently I researched T.E. Lawrence as part of a study I was doing for the next novel.  The study started as a fact-finding mission, but after reading thousands of pages I found I was in love with Ned Lawrence.  He has been dead for 78 years.

      Even if I had met T.E. Lawrence in 1925 at a dinner party, I would not know as much about him as I do now that his letters and biographies have been published.  He had to be dead and then resurrected by other besotted writers before he could truly come alive for all of us to meet him and listen to his words forever.

      I am in love with dead people.  I enjoy resurrecting them so others can dance with them along with me, but I prefer mine to be fully fleshed and speaking in complete sentences.  Zombies are less interesting and their stilted conversations are limited to the texture and flavor of brains.

History is better.

Chauvet Horses, 30,000 years old

 

An individual human life can range from moments to a century.  Yet even a century is a heartbeat when the entire span of human history is imagined.  I am reading a book on the Siege of Malta and the Battle of Lepanto, two events that spanned decades, but in hindsight can be analyzed and discussed in an evening.  It made me think about the complexity of existence and how limited a single lifetime can be, even one that is long and filled with adventure.  It still can represent only a fraction of what is possible, or what has been.

If we imagine that every human life is a book, and that each book is kept in a library, then the magnitude of human experience can be visualized.  This library is too big to explore.  Even condensed into a single volume titled “The History of Civilization” would be too limited.  An individual could not read all those books in his or her lifetime.  In order to get a full understanding of what it means to be human, there must be Art.

Art is a form of communication that can condense human experience into a flash of comprehension and even “experience”.  This is the big “Art” that includes music and dance and architecture and all forms of human expression.  Without these elements of culture, each human life would just be a brief replay of eating and sleeping.

When you look at art (or listen) your brain is encouraged to Grok Fully a message from one mind to another.  Time becomes meaningless.  The images of the horses in the Chauvet cave speak to us now.  The spoken language of the artist is as dead as he is, yet this language of beauty and truth will never disapear.  30,000 years is nothing.  And everything.  It is now.  You can see it.  Now.

Concepts can be communicated as well.  Here is something remarkable that needs no words in any language to communicate in mere moments the entire history of human war:

Picasso 1937 Guernica

This is not just one war, but all wars.

And this is not just one man, but the idea of man:

Michaelangelo's David

And woman

Da Vinci's Mona Lisa

And music.  Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is an audible representation of being human.  In one short hour you can be infused with every human emotion there is.  You want to know what sadness sounds like?  Joy? Love?  Tenderness? Hatred and anger? For $1.29 you can listen to centuries of collected human emotion on your portable listening device.  What does Hope look like?  Fear?  Love? Museums are filled with sculpture that will show you.  Here is something we all can understand:

Rodin "The Kiss"

And this is a tomb.  We can understand in one eyeblink the brief breath of one woman’s life and the eternity of this monument and see the love of a man for his wife:

And not to forget film and theatre and literature too.  Can’t forget fiction!  Exploring what being fully human means has been a common theme since The Metamorphoses of Apuleius.

Why are we here?  What does it all mean? We want to know.  We have to know.

A life without Art is a life lived alone.

 

Bladerunner. "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"

Art is forever.  Life is brief.

My son asked me today, “How do you teach patience and perseverence?”   Apparently he knew someone who needed to learn and my son wanted to teach them.

I said, “Those qualities cannot be taught.”

So then he asked, “Then how did I learn them?”

Mind you, he is 22 years old, and I thought of the witty retort: “it takes time and effort to teach patience and perseverence”, but the truth is that he had learned these things by the time he was he was 5.   I tried to remember teaching my children.  I realized that what I taught them were the attributes that are required before patience and perseverence can be developed.  Then they developed those skills by themselves.  I was raised in a military family, so I learned early on never to shirk responsibility or shift blame.  Those were shameful behaviors that my parents snuffed out pretty darn quick.

My kids were taught that they are responsible for what happens to them.  This cause-and-effect lesson can be painful, but is necessary.  When they fell down or hurt themselves my first reaction was to say, “Slow down and watch where you are going.”  They put their own band-aids on.  When they were sick they were put to bed with juice and told to sleep.  There was absolutely no coddling.  Nowadays this would be considered child abuse by parents who think their children need to be worshipped as gods.  I am thinking now of parents whose children see a doctor when their noses run, or who call their teachers to complain when their child fails a test.

After some years of this training, my kids rarely sported skinned knees or colds lasting more than a day.  They never played illness or injury as if it were an advantage.  Even now when they are all adults they watch where they are going and go to bed uncomplaining with juice if they are sick.

Disappointments were handled the same way.  I never told them that the disapointment was caused by someone or some circumstance.  I always said, “Why didn’t you do X?” or “Why didn’t you try harder?” and  “You will get it next time if you work at it.”

So by emphasizing that they were responsible for what happens to them, they learned patience and perseverence all by themselves.

I reminded my son of the opening 10 minutes of Kung Fu.  I told him that Caine came to the monastery as a child, not with a clean slate, but having already learned patience and perseverence.  The boys who were dismissed had not. Caine waited outside the gates for a week, then longer, then in the rain…and then the important clincher: “After you, honorable sir.”

I told him to show his friend that film and perhaps it might help.  Those who are extremely self-centered cannot think beyond their personal space.  They cannot be patient because they want what they want right now.  They cannot persevere because if they can’t get what they want, they abandon the goal or try to get someone else to get it for them.  And…they seem to be always whining.

How to teach them to release the ego?  How do you teach someone he or she is not the center of the universe?  Hard to do if they have been taught that they ARE since birth.

When there is so much to overcome, there is an “aha” moment when folks do “get it”.  There is a moment like that in Kung Fu as well.  The child Caine asks the blind monk Po, “Old man, how is it that you hear these things?” and Po replies, “Young man…how is it that you do not?”

You can see the “aha” in Caine’s eyes.

I told my son to give the DVD to his friend and cross his fingers.

Sufi Whirling

The first part of third book in the series of the Elysium Texts, the Chaldean Codex, takes place in the mountains of Persia.  The adventurers meet up with Sufi dervishes in the mountains in their search for followers of Zarathustra and the remnants of the disbanded Assasssins.  In my research I have become fascinated with the dervishes and their hypnotic dance meditation.  Sadly, an authentic audience is unlikely for many reasons.  One can still see the tourist versions in Turkey, however, and I posted a short clip of one of those.

The Persian poet, Rumi, discovered this very zen way of communing with God in the 13th century.  The practice has ebbed and flowed over the years depending on the political situation.  Every culture has a shamanic mysticism preserved somewhere inside.  This one shares attributes with Tai Chi, Labyrinth-walking, chanting and even the modern Rave.  There is a disciplined ritual to the movements, each of which has a significance in the communion with god.  The costume as well.  Rumi’s esctatic poems reflect the insight and enlightenment he achieved by touching god in this manner.  He says,

Just like God you will rip and tear down

and at the same time sew and repair.

You will open and close

Both at the same time.

If you want you can appear and conceal yourself however you like.

You will see everyone everything bare and naked.

Yet no one can see you

In the land of soul

You will be sultan of sultans.

Wonderful things can happen when one goes ’round and ’round.

Yummy

I went to see the John Carter movie this weekend.  I had read many of the Burroughs novels when I was 12 or so and had mostly forgotten them, so it was with only a small amount of nostaligia and a large amount of expectation that I went to see this.   I remember only that Dejah Thoris annoyed me when I was pre-pubescent and I am pleased that she has been brought up-to-date and displays a bit more independant kick-ass than the 1917 version. And you can see that John Carter has buffed up a bit over the Art Nouveau version (yummy yummy).

“Get behind me, Dejah, I’ll protect you!”

In the movie when he rescues her he says “Get behind me” but then she grabs a blade and does some bad-guy carving-up…so he looks at her, mouth agape then says, “or maybe I’ll get behind you.”  I couldn’t help but think of the cover.  I’m pretty sure the screenwriters were thinking of that too.

I am also pleased to report that they stuck pretty much to the original story and the changes they made enhanced the narrative rather than F’d it up.  Burroughs tells a great story.  Leave well enough alone.  The 19th century Earth adventures and the timeless Mars adventure were both beautifully done:  gorgeous costumes and backgrounds, super-awesome CGI and a great screenplay.  Music wasn’t memorable, but that is not why I go to the movies.

The spirit of the story comes through, the characters and the intent.  There is a scene where John has led the “good guys” to the wrong city and Tars smacks him upside the back of his head.  Priceless.  I loved that…the screenplay writers (there are three of them) knew exactly what to do to maintain the feel of the adventure, the companionship and deep connection of the cadre of friends as they try to save the city and the planet.  It was obvious they had respect for Burroughs.

I give this 5 stars because it is the most fun I’ve had at the movies in years.  I had so much fun that I had the wicked wicked thought as I came out of the theatre that I wanted to turn around and go back in and watch it again right away.  I mean, right away.  In fact, I’m thinking about doing that right now.

I am just so pleased that someone, somewhere, decided to spend 250 million dollars to make me happy for 2 hours.

Addendum:  After looking at some professional critics’ reviews I had to laugh.  Some said the film was “derivative”.  Wait…I’m still laughing, let me catch my breath.  OK.  This reminds me of one of those teacher pass-arounds where they share student essays.  A high-school student wrote on his test, “I don’t see what’s so great about Hamlet.  It’s just a bunch of cliches.”

I guess they just didn’t know that A Princess of Mars is one of the first interplanetary romances written in English and spawned an entire literary genre.  Star Wars is derivative.  Not this one.  *facepalm*

There's something about a man in chains...in a pit...on Mars

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