Novel History

Maybe my case is not that unusual?  But when I was in school (thru high school), I believe that I only took history classes when I had to. I don’t think I really got any pleasure out of them. I recall paging through review books, to get the lowdown on main events, so that I would do respectably on the tests. In English, at least I recall one teacher (in junior high) who kind of gave off sparks, and got me interested. But in history, nary a one do I remember.

In college, as you might guess, I was not inspired to take any history classes at all. But since then, I now realize I’ve creepingly worked my way into an interest in — and a reading acquaintance — with history. I still, even now, don’t think of my self as “reading history”. (I am, rather, a novel addict.) But here (roughly chronologically) are some ways in which I’ve managed to learn a bit about the past, with interest …

Books on the history of certain major technological advancements. I’m especially thinking of David McCullough. I know I’ve read his The Great Bridge, and The Path Between the Seas, about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal, respectively. I’ve also read books by others on the creation of the transcontinental railroad, and the first trans-Atlantic telephone cables. (The latter being Voice Across the Sea, by Arthur C. Clarke, who this time is not writing science fiction.)

What one might call “popular history”. I’m thinking right now of the writers Barbara Tuchman (e.g. The Guns of August, on the start of World War I) and Collins-Lapierre (Freedom at Midnight, about the Indian independence movement).

Various readings about the history of mathematics. I’m especially interested in the work of Archimedes, who figured out such matters as the area between a parabola and a straight line, with methods that can be hard to understand today, but which were in some ways as powerful as calculus, which didn’t emerge until almost 2,000 years later.

The New York Review of Books is my favorite periodical.  (Yes, even including the New York Times.)  I have been recently catching up on several months of past issues.  (I used to allot this journal to my subway reading, but for obvious reasons that option was not a good one during the past year.)  Here, from the April 5, 2018 issue, is an example of their coverage of books of history: one about George Washington’s relationship with Native Americans.  (Spoiler: “[Washington] was the only prominent founder to invest his enormous prestige in a just solution to America’s Native American dilemma”.)

 

Unconventional views of history. I’m particularly thinking of David Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which presents events not from the “winner’s” perspective — the way one usually gets history — but from the point of view of those downtrodden over the centuries: Native Americans, Blacks, women …

Podcasts. My favorite podcast is the ongoing History of the English Language.  This non-trivial endeavor began in 2016, and now comprises 146 hour-long episodes, not to mention “bonus episodes” (for Patreon contributors), stand-alone audiobooks, etc. The creator/narrator, Kevin Stroud,  takes the broad view, demonstrating how developments in the English language cannot be understood without investigating political, economic,and social developments. True to my affinity for “non-standard” history, Mr. Stroud does not even have a degree in linguistics! He is only driven by curiosity, dedication … and an obvious love for his subject.

I have just recently come upon Mike Duncan’s podcast, The History of Rome. Begun in 2007, this project was completed in 2012, after 179 episodes running a total of 73 hours. I hope my interest in this will hold … in that case I have a lot of enjoyable listening ahead of me.

Heather Cox Richardson is an historian. On her Facebook page (and also, some days after their Facebook appearance, posted to YouTube) she makes two one-hour videos every week. Tuesday is devoted to current political events in USA. On Thursdays she speaks about topics in American history, particularly as they relate to our present situation.

Recent example of HCR’s video talks:  On March 11, 2021, a fascinating discussion of how the Republican and Democratic parties have essentially reversed roles policy-wise, since the time of Lincoln (who, as you possibly might find surprising , was a Republican).

HCR is one of the only people, for whom I would say that their videos are more interesting to me than their prose output. (I normally avoid informational videos as much as I can, since — despite YouTube, for example, allowing one to speed them up — I get impatient, and would usually much rather scan through a written document, pausing where I want/need to pick up information.)

My last category, books about history by writers who are primarily novelists, consists (at least so far) of only one book: Son of the Morning Star, by Evan Connell. I read this some years ago, and it has managed to “haunt” me, so that I just gave it another read recently (an unusual event, since I’m typically eager to go on to the next book). I believe that it is quite unusual for a novelist to write a history book. (Note that I am not talking about an “historical novel” here, but rather bona-fide historical non-fiction.)

The special quality of this book starts, for me, with its title. This is the story of George Armstrong Custer, known especially of course for his “Last Stand” at the Battle of the Little Bighorn (1876). Custer was, after his death and the loss of all his men in that battle, originally greatly admired, as a tragic fallen hero. But as Connell says, nowadays his “stock sells for nothing”.  Nevertheless, Connell chooses to name his book so as to cast a romantic kind of glow upon him. (“Son of the Morning Star” was a name conferred upon Custer by the Arikara Indians, apparently from the appearance of Venus at dawn, during a battle in which Custer figured.)

Connell, while I believe sticking to facts, nevertheless takes liberties with his narration that conventional historians would normally not allow themselves to do. He dwells on apparently minor figures for pages at a time, just because he finds them interesting. (As do I.) He digresses to discuss Native American artistic practices:

A gunshot was represented by fan-shaped lines diverging from the muzzle, just as European artists tried to represent a shot, except that this symbol might appear without the gun — indicating that a shot had been fired at a certain time or place. Similarly, a club or a bow or a whip might be shown in contact with an enemy although the owner might be some distance away, meaning that this weapon did at one time strike the foe.
They had no concept of perspective and almost never attempted to foreshorten. In a trail of hoofprints passing out of sight the farthest would be as large as the closest for the very good reason that whether a horse is close to you or far away his hoofprints will be the same size.

Connell pauses to muse on the images that we have of Frederick Benteen, an officer in command of a battalion at Little Bighorn:

In not a single photograph does he look formidable, not even very military. He appears placid, gentle, benevolent, with feminine lips and prematurely white hair. Only after contemplating that orotund face for a while does one begin to perceive something rather less accommodating. Embedded in that fleshy face are the expressionless agate eyes of a killer. One might compare them to the eyes of John Wesley Hardin or Billy the Kid. Now, this sinister absence of expression could be nothing more than a result of myopia, a condition afflicting him after the Oklahoma winter campaign of 1868-9 when he lent his protective goggles to a regimental surgeon. Still, in Civil War photographs he has almost that same look.

Connell does not bind himself to the chronological narrative of the typical historian. For instance, he begins his book with the shock of the first revelation of the Little Bighorn battle to the outside world.  Initial assumptions had to be soon reversed:

… a party of at least sixty United States cavalrymen — or what resembled cavalry, proceeding by twos, with a guidon flying — rode into view. A second cavalry unit then merged with the first and Lt. Roe understood that they were hostile Indians dressed in Army clothing.

About this time Lt. Bradley returned from the other side of the river to say that the dark objects on the hillside thought to be buffalo skins were, in fact, dead horses. What had been mistaken for skinned buffalo carcasses were the naked bodies of Custer’s men. Bradley had counted 197 dead soldiers.

I would be grateful to find out about other works of history, written by authors who normally are novelists. At least up to now, history books by conventional historians just do not seem to do it for me …


WELL —  now that I have put all my sources for historical information down in one place — maybe I have been able to compensate just a bit, for neglecting the normal, formal history book?

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How the novelist helped his heroine

In May, 2018 my wife and I were on vacation in Spain. We took an easy side-trip to Gibraltar, to spend the day. I (momentarily) mastered my acrophobia to take a cable-car to the top of the storied Rock, which had great views … along with the famous monkey residents (barbary macaques).

Descended from the Top of the Rock, I also encountered the to-be-expected tourist items, but the inevitable fish-and-chips, accompanied with John Smith’s Ale, were really not so hard to endure. 🙂 There was also the iconic Veddy British “pillar box”:

Being the literary character that I am, I recalled the famous (in certain circles) linkage to one of my very fave novelists, Anthony Trollope.  Trollope’s day job was with the Post Office.  In 1854 he recommended that pillar boxes be installed in the Channel Islands.  They were the first mailboxes in Britain.  By the next year they had spread to London.  No longer need one make a trek to the post office to mail a letter.

I recently finished Trollope’s novel The Duke’s Children (1880).  (I have now concluded my traversal of his “Palliser” novels.) 

One of the plot threads concerns Lady Mary, the Duke’s daughter, who is in love with a gentleman — Frank Tregear by name — whose station in life, the Duke feels, is beneath her.  He has forbidden the couple to see each other.  Lady Mary is, at one point, staying with the Countess, Lady Cantrip, who has been charged by the Duke with the challenging task of keeping an eye on her, where her romantic life is concerned.  

Though she knows the practice would be frowned upon, Mary has not actually promised not to write to Tregear.  When he writes to her, she can not resist replying.  And, in Chapter XXIV:

The next morning Lady Mary showed [Lady Cantrip] a copy of the reply which she had already sent to her lover.

Dear Frank,
You may be quite sure that I shall never give you up. I will not write more at present because papa does not wish me to do so. I shall show papa your letter and my answer.
Your own most affectionate
Mary.

“Has it gone?” asked the Countess.
“I put it myself into the pillar letter-box.” Then Lady Cantrip felt that she had to deal with a very self-willed young lady indeed.

So … if Trollope had not (in so-called “real life”) advocated for the pillar-box, who knows what might — or might not — have happened?  Would Mary have been able to navigate her way to the actual brick-and-mortar post office, unescorted as she would likely have had to be?  Who knows?  They do say “Amor vincit omnia” … but isn’t it nice that the Trollope with the day job was able to give Mary a helping hand?

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A toe of the elephant

Intrepid readers of this blog may recall that some years back, I wrote a review of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.  I was very impressed.  If I may quote myself:

I ended up thinking this was one of the most worthwhile novels I’d ever read … and perhaps the most intellectually challenging, to boot.

I just recently finished my second Mann — Doctor Faustus.  (I mainly used the Lowe-Porter English translation, but often consulted the German original.  See my blog post “Dual language e-reader” for details on how I do this.)  This work likewise made a deep impression on me.  Most memorably, since I’m a classical musician, I was very struck with Mann’s knowledge in this area … in some respects perhaps exceeding even mine.  🙂  (Since Adrian Leverkühn, Mann’s protagonist, is a composer, there is ample opportunity for musical discussions.)  I actually can’t think of any other novel which is so intelligent in its treatment of classical music.  In my reading notes, I jotted down a list of music-related passages which I intend to follow up on …

And then (as in The Magic Mountain) there is the parade of philosophical ideas.  And various literary references.  Since I feel overwhelmed when I think of even summarizing all of this, I will discourse upon only one toe of the elephant at hand.  I hope you will not feel too much like one of the famous blind men in the tale … but you do know how you can go about remedying that situation.  🙂

The hero-composer Leverkühn is, we see, at one point occupied by the project of setting, for marionette theatre (!), a selection of stories from Gesta Romanorum.  (In one of the novel’s correspondences with reality, the orchestration for this piece matches that of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat.) Of course you can get details in the Wikipedia article on Gesta, but to summarize, this work (hitherto unknown to me) was a collection of stories, in Latin, compiled in about the year 1300.  (The title, Deeds of the Romans, is misleading, since only some of the tales originate in classical Rome.)  Surmised to have been put together by a clergy-person as a manual for preachers, it is ostensibly produced for moral instruction.    Gesta was a best-seller in its time.  Very shortly, below, you will get an idea of why …

Mann includes in Chapter 31 of Doctor Faustus, Tale XXVIII of the Gesta, which I will reproduce below as he renders it (in my Lowe-Porter translation).  This story especially caught my attention, since I am currently in a reading (out loud) group that is wending its way through Giovanni Boccaccio’s own collection of tales, The Decameron (ca. 1353).  As Mann suggests, Boccaccio very likely found inspiration for some of his often-raunchy stories in the piously-framed Gesta.

If you intend to read the following narrative aloud, please remove youngsters, and those with delicate sensibilities, from the room before proceeding further!  You have been warned …

There is for instance the fundamentally unmoral fable, anticipating the Decameron, “of the godless guile of old women,” wherein an accomplice of guilty passion, under a mask of sanctity succeeds in persuading a noble and even exceptionally decent and honourable wife, while her confiding husband is gone on a journey, that she is sinfully minded to a youth who is consumed with desire for her. The witch makes her little bitch [dog!] fast for two days, and then gives it bread spread with mustard to eat, which causes the little animal to shed copious tears. Then she takes it to the virtuous lady, who receives her respectfully, since everybody supposes she is a saint. But when the lady looks at the weeping little bitch and asks in surprise what causes its tears, the old woman behaves as though she would rather not answer. When pressed to speak, she confesses that this little dog is actually her own all-too-chaste daughter, who by reason of the unbending denial of her favour to a young man on fire for her had driven him to his death; and now, in punishment therefor, she has been turned into this shape and of course constantly weeps tears of despair over her doggish estate. Telling these deliberate lies, the procuress weeps too, but the lady is horrified at the thought of the similarity of her own case with that of the little dog and tells the old woman of the youth who suffers for her. Thereupon the woman puts it seriously before her what an irretrievable pity it would be if she too were to be turned into a little dog; and is then commissioned to fetch the groaning suitor that in God’s name he may cool his lust, so that the two at the instance of a godless trick celebrate the sweetest adultery.

Oh yes, one more tiny detail.  Mann just happens to omit the Moralizacio, the moral lesson that the Gesta places after the story proper (or shall we say the story improper?).  Evidently this is supposed to make everything just peachy …

My beloved, the knight [the husband] is Christ; the wife is the soul, to which God gave free will. It is invited to the feast of carnal pleasures, where a youth — that is, the vanity or the world — becomes enamoured of it. The old woman is the devil ; the dog, the hope of a long life, and the presumptuous belief of God’s clemency, which lead us to deceive and soothe the soul.

Of course Boccaccio spins his spicy Decameron tales with no such moral lessons to come in as the Deus Ex Machina at the end.  Which is why the Church tried to ban the work.  (It was too popular though, so a “corrected”, i.e. expurgated edition was created instead, which the Church tried to fob off on the populace at large.)

I now have learned that the Gesta Romanorum tales have echoed down through the centuries, not only influencing Boccaccio, but being re-presented in works of Chaucer and Shakespeare, to name only the two most world-class names.  Thanks to Herr Mann for this engrossing, thought-provoking novel, which among so much else, yields such rich pathways into the literary past!

 

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Playing LIVE chamber music on the internet (Jamulus)

New 27may2021 “Getting Jamulus to Work for String Players”, by Patrick Early

Click HERE to view this PDF (dated November 2020).  This should not be the first place you go, to read about Jamulus!  But — if you can be tolerant of the academic-sounding tone — here is a well-researched and fact-fllled document.  I finally got information, here, about how useful an (expensive!) Thunderbolt audio interface is, in terms of reduced latency.  (Only about 5 ms worth, according to Mr. Early.)  And hmm, maybe I should be using a microphone that attaches to my violin or viola?!



You may not see my buddies, but I can hear them …

Any questions on the material below, please feel free to contact me (Tom) at email address:  frethoa AT aol DOT com .
You may also “Leave a Reply” at the bottom of this page.



Want some motivation?  Check out the Concordia String Quartet playing together at the same time, but each in their own home!  (Note: the video was added later; Jamulus is an audio-only product.)


Jamulus for Chamber Musicians — Written by my internet string quartet, an illustrated guide to getting started.  Read this first!


(New 05aug2020) Don’t have a Jamulus-savvy friend available at the moment, but would like to check out your setup?  Read:   Trying Jamulus on your own first


Not specifically for classical musicians.  But here are two excellent introductory videos by John Punshon.  These are actually recordings of Zoom (well, its lookalike Jitsi) sessions:


Online rehearsals with Jamulus — In this video, violist Konrad of the Vierimpuls string quartet explains their setup for optimum internet playing.  Worth watching, but do not feel you need such fancy hardware, in order to have fun!


If you want to get a bit more serious about internet music-making, Sweetwater is a well-respected online audio equipment dealer.  Your humble correspondent purchased a microphone and audio interface from them.  It is easy to talk to a real, knowledgeable person on the phone!  They made sure that I had the correct cables and accessories to connect everything together.  They even followed up after the sale, with messages asking if I had any questions or issues.

And no, (regrettably) I am not getting any compensation from Sweetwater for this endorsement …


If you want to explore the official Jamulus presence on the Web, HERE is a good place to start.  There are links to:

  • Jamulus documentation
  • Discussion forums.  Many helpful folks hang out here.
  • Sourceforge.net, the host for the Jamulus project.  Here is where you can download, for free, the latest version of Jamulus (Windows, Mac, Linux).  Note that Jamulus is updated frequently, so keep an eye on this page for the latest and greatest.
  • The source code, at Github (for those with that extra measure of geekiness)

Note the useful Software Manual .


Remote Live Music-Making With Jamulus — a writeup from the standpoint of a chorus. But like the author says, most of it applicable to instrumental groups. (My only demur is his attitude of “Embrace the latency”.) Along with Jamulus, he discusses other approaches, including JamKazam and Jacktrip. But as you’ll see, he concludes (as I do) that Jamulus is the best approach for “remote live music making”.


Facebook Jamulus pages:


New 28feb2021  Digital Audio & Video 101 for Musicians

Not specifically Jamulus.  BUT … Sampling rate?  dB?  Bit Depth?  HERE is Chris Whittaker — Music Director of Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra — with a demystifying intro to digital audio matters.  (And video matters too, for that matter.)


Idiots Guide to Installing Jamulus Server on Amazon AWS Lightsail Ubuntu instance

Here is a nice dose of tech speak — but made as easy as possible under the circumstances.  🙂

Why would you want to install your own (i.e. “private”) Jamulus server?  After all, there are plenty of public ones available …

  • To try and minimize latency (delay), especially if you’re in a remote area
  • To make reliable, good audio recordings of your sessions.  (The recording is done by the server.  Each musician has their own track, enabling you to create the optimum balance of volume when you combine the tracks later.)
  • To avoid having people popping by and listening in on your sessions.  (But who knows … maybe the next Jamulizer popping by your quartet session might be a violist, who would like to make a five-some to play quintets?)

Here is my current (15jul2020) setup.  After a few sessions with basic equipment, I decided to invest a significant — but low in terms of other audio equipment out there! — amount of less than $300.  (I already had the Bose QC-35 headphones.)  So, to go with my Windows 10 laptop, I acquired an AKG P120 microphone and a Focusrite Scarlett Solo audio interface (plus required accessories).  I now get much better sound than I did from the laptop’s microphone.  The “Overall Delay”, while better than before, still tends to run on the high side (about 50 ms).  Though good sessions are possible with this delay, I’d still like to find a way to cut it down!

Not Jamulus-related … but I already had an iPad Pro, so I decided to digitize my sheet music.  I don’t have a big printed chamber-music library; therefore, much of what I play is downloaded from IMSLP in any case.  On my iPad, I use the terrific forScore app.  I bought a PageFlip Firefly pedal (partly visible beneath the black chair holding the iPad), so I could make hands-free page turns.  I am now saving the hassle and expense of printing the music.  Plus, I no longer need a music stand, stand light, tuner, or metronome (the last two being built into forScore).


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What a Dame

As some of you may know, I’m a devoted reader of crime/mystery/detective books.  Among their authors, Agatha Christie stands, for me, not only tallest, but somehow in … a class by herself.  Of course the plots are devilish.  But along with that — and despite that — her narration just has the most natural quality, with Humour at every turn.   Before she was Agatha Christie, here is Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller …

Agatha_Christie_as_a_child_No_1

My particular problem, however, is that … I have a MOST challenged memory, when it comes to keeping track of what is going on in a mystery book.  So, like all Christies, the first time I read Lord Edgware Dies, I was just totally at sea.

Pback cover 645827

I have just finished reading it again, for the second time.  (Or perhaps the third?)  In a way, it was even more fun, because I remembered enough not to feel completely flummoxed, yet still was fuzzy on a good part of the goings on.

Oh, here is how the book looked upon its American introduction, in magazine installments Dickens-style.  Thirteen For Dinner (or for the book, Thirteen At Dinner) was the original American title.  M. Poirot is so proud of les moustaches!

American-13-for-Dinner

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Bobbing in Finnegans Wake

The Resident
Michael Hofmann

We have the White Louse. His name is Donal Dump.
He is the Resident, and he heads the Dump
maladministration, squillionaires and a
sprain-surgeon, a Cabinet of all the talons. They
call him a racial spigot. He sees it as he calls
it, which makes him spigot. He squitters Twitter on
the shitter, and we titter after. He only squeaks
for us. He is our mouth-squeeze. He has a
background in constriction. Bill the Wall! Bill
the Wall! He owes the Dump Hotel, wright here in
DeCease. He is a self-dealing man who once in his
youth wore out the uniform. Then bone spurts
struck, and he invalidated to the venereal front. A
ployboy and a much-married man and father to the
fair Larissa-without-portfolio who he’d love to give
one to. Or even several. A stately plump buck who
takes the time to vent before the chopper with his
luxury hair and tie blowing bravely in all
erections. Fake nudes! Fake nudes! To me he is a
crevice to the orifice. The economy is re-relegated
like you wouldn’t believe. Unvironment too.
Offense Dept. going bangbusters. Eye ran. Blat!
Mixed Tans. Blat! Gerry mans. Blat! He achoos
new tariff-farts every day, whining easy-peasy dread
wars, slapping stanchions on Shiner and our other
alloys. (All except Rusher, on account of Poo-in.)
He is surely flushing in the dawn of a brand-new
Yellow Rage. Grate again! Grate again! GAGA!
GAGA! We are a Nation of Lawns. (He flogs golf off
a tetchy handiclap.) We have the suppuration of
pars. There is the Supreme Bought, also the
Senilate and the House of Unrepresentatives (tho
cuntly in Demographic hands). We stand by the
corruptibility of our unstitutions, and the wisdom
of the Foundering Fathers.

 

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Classic audiobooks on your smartphone… no charge

Much as I would like to denounce the smartphone as the nemesis of literature, with nary a redeeming quality …

The iPhone has a (free) “Podcasts” app available. If I search a bit on this app, I can find a (free) podcast (but really an audiobook) of Gibbon’s DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE. A book I might never get to, in its printed form. (Impure reader as that may make me.)

If you “subscribe” to the podcast, the app even goes automatically to the next section, when it gets to the end of the one you’ve been listening to. And it remembers where you left off, when you come back to listen later.

So… a neat way to access a great work one might not otherwise read … while doing your laundry or whatever.

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The Grey Lady adds a bit of color

Headline:  “A Portrait of the White House and Its Culture of Dishonesty”

Date:  April 18, 2019

Is this the first time the New York Times has printed the F-word?  I do not recall seeing it before.

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How to ruin a pretty good piece of music

This past August, I was once again a participant at the Bennington Chamber Music Conference, at the like-named college in Vermont.  At one of the faculty concerts, there was performed a work already familiar to me:  Anton Arensky’s String Quartet in A minor, Opus 35.  (It is very unusual, as string quartets go, in that it is scored with two cellos, instead of two violins.)  I had always had some liking for the piece, though perhaps finding it a bit on the “kitschy” side.

But, a few months before I re-encountered this piece at Bennington, I learned something about it — not for the better — that now is indelibly connected, in my mind, with the music itself.

In March of this year, I myself played the viola part in a New York City performance of this Arensky quartet.  Actually, we just performed the famous second movement  (sometimes heard in a string-orchestra version), called “Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky”.  I wanted to learn about this background of the piece, so I started to do some research …

The theme of the Variations movement is described in the Bennington program notes as a “solemn, lyrical hymn”.  But there is much more to it than that.  The theme is from the fifth of Tchaikovsky’s “Sixteen Songs for Children”, Opus 54, composed in 1883.  The text that Tchaikovsky set (in Russian, as you might expect) is a poem called “Legend” by Alexey Nikolayevich Pleshcheyev.  Now, here is where things get interesting.  The Pleshcheyev poem (as you can read, in detail, here ) is a translation of an 1857 poem called “Roses and Thorns” by the American poet Richard Henry Stoddard (1825-1903).

Richard Henry Stoddard

Here is Stoddard’s poem:

The young child Jesus had a garden,
Full of roses, rare and red:
And thrice a day he watered them,
To make a garland for his head.

When they were full-blown in the garden,
He called the Jewish children there,
And each did pluck himself a rose,
Until they stripped the garden bare.

“And now how will you make your garland?
For not a rose your path adorns.”
“But you forget,” he answered them,
“That you have left me still the thorns.”

They took the thorns, and made a garland,
And placed it on his shining head;
And where the roses should have shone
Were little drops of blood instead!

So the Jewish children took all the roses away from Jesus, and placed the crown of thorns on his head.  If this is not emblematic of the centuries-old anti-Semitic trope of the Jews being responsible for Jesus’ death, I don’t know what is!

One might hope that Pleshcheyev’s translation — which was what Tchaikovsky actually used — altered the text to get rid of the anti-Semitic venom.  But a Google translation that I did from the Russian — laughably crude though it is — indicates that this is not the case:

There was a garden for Christ the Child,
And he made many roses in him;
He watered them three times a day,
To make a wreath myself then.

When the roses blossomed,
He called the children of the Jews;
They tore the flower,
And the garden was completely devastated.

“How will you weave a wreath now?
There are no more roses in your garden! ”
– “You forgot that spikes
Remained to me, “said Christ.

And they made spikes
A wreath of spiny for him,
And drops of blood instead of roses
The man decorated it.

If anything, this more condemnatory to the Jewish children than the original English.  (“They tore the flower, / And the garden was completely devastated”)

Lest you, dear reader, think that I am just being too sensitive about this issue, let me show you that others share my aversion to the anti-Jewish message.  On YouTube , one can find Tchaikovsky’s song rendered by the USSR State Academic Russian Chorus.  The notes supplied with the video provide this translation of the text:

When Jesus Christ was yet a child,
He had a garden small and wild,
Wherein He cherished roses fair,
And wove them into garlands there.

Now once, as summer time drew nigh,
There came a troop of children by,
And seeing roses on the tree,
With shouts they pluck’d them merrily.

“Do you bind roses in your hair?”
They cried, in scorn, to Jesus there.
The Boy said humbly: “Take, I pray,
All but the naked thorns away.”

Then of the thorns they made a crown,
And with rough fingers press’d it down,
Till on his forehead fair and young,
Red drops of blood, like roses sprung.

“The Jewish children” has here managed to become “a troop of children”.  Nice and harmless, for the English-speaking web surfer …

One more “alternative version of the facts” … this from the GodSongs website.  At least they are honest about their version’s antecedents:  “The lyrics of this song were translated by American author and translator Nathan Haskell Dole (1852-1935) from the Russian poem Legenda by A N P [sic], which is itself a translation of the poem “Roses and Thorns” by American Richard Henry Stoddard”.  Here is the GodSongs version:

Christ, when a child, a garden made,
And many roses flourished there.
He watered them three times a day
To make a garland for His hair.

And when in time the roses bloomed,
He called the children in to share.
They tore the flowers from every stem,
And left the garden stript and bare,

“How wilt Thou weave Thyself a crown
Now that They roses are all dead?”
“Ye have forgotten that the thorns
Are left for Me, the Christ child said.

They plaited then a crown of thorns
And laid it rudely on His head;
A garland for His forehead made;
For roses: drops of blood instead.

Again, the Jewish children have conveniently disappeared.  Some may say that this makes things OK, and that I am being unduly sensitive.  But how can one forget the words that Tchakovsky set … which he was certainly aware of, and which, by setting them to music,  he gave his tacit approval to?

Others will perhaps argue that Stoddard, Pleshcheyev, and Tchaikovsky were simply the product of their times … which like many (most?) past eras and societies, were inherently anti-semitic.  I may somehow understand this, intellectually.  But getting my feelings to go along is another matter …

I confess that I have been influenced in my views, on the bearing that “extra-musical” matters have on the “music itself”, by the writings and talks of the contemporary American musicologist Richard Taruskin.  On YouTube there is, for exmple, this talk of his called “Did Somebody Say Censorship?”.  And here, from Volume 2 of his Oxford History of Western Music,  is part of his discussion on perhaps the most famous, arguably anti-Semitic work of all:

… the turba [“crowd”] in the [J.S. Bach] St. John Passion, following the Book of John itself, is identified not as “das Volk” or “the people” (as it is in the Matthew Passion), but as “die Juden” or “the Jews.” An accusation is being made, one that is no longer supported by responsible historical or theological scholarship, that the Jews rather than the Romans were responsible for Christ’s death. That accusation, now often called the “blood libel,” has had a bearing on a history of bloody persecutions, culminating in perhaps the most horrible page in the history of the twentieth century.

Obviously, Bach had no part of that. Nor was he, as far as anyone today can guess, personally anti-Semitic as the term is understood today, except insofar as he probably subscribed to Luther’s doctrine that the Jews should submit to conversion on pain of punishment. In all likelihood he rarely, possibly never, met a Jew and thought little about them. The St. John Passion was intended for performance before a congregation of Christian believers for whom the Gospel text was … well, Gospel. The insult it contains to Jews was wholly incidental to its purpose.

But today it serves other purposes and is performed before other audiences. Bach is long dead, but the St. John Passion lives on. Jews not only hear it nowadays, they often participate in performances of it, and are sometimes shocked to learn what it is that they are singing. Are they wrong? Does Bach’s music redeem the text? Would it impair Bach’s work from the standpoint of its present social use if the text were emended to exclude the blood libel?  And if people disagree about the answers to these difficult questions, on what basis can they be adjudicated?

 

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A foreign experience

Red Sorghum is a rather long novel, at 359 pages.  Most of it is taken up with scenes of violence, much of the violence being rendered in graphic detail.  Reading it was not easy for me.  Yet, I found that the rewards far outweighed the difficulties.

Published in 1986, this is a multi-generational family chronicle that takes place in China, from the 1920’s to the 1970’s.  Much of the bloodshed arises from the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), during which the Japanese invaded China and perpertrated many atrocities.  Between 10 and 25 million Chinese civilians perished in this war.  As if that were not enough, violent confrontations also occur, in this novel, between rival Chinese groups.

But now to get to the side of the book that just didn’t let me give up on it.  To start, there is how the storytelling flows back and forth, non-chronologically.  A character might come to an unfortunate end, … but can happily come to life again later in the narrative, when we are at an earlier point in time.  In a way, memory triumphs over mortality.

Then there is the “inside” view of the Chinese mentality that we get from a Chinese novelist, writing about his own country.  The view there of an individual life (based on their huge population) seems rather different from the Western outlook:

The old man with the dark face and white beard shouted, “What are you crying for? This was a great victory! There are four hundred million of us Chinese. If we take on the Japs, one on one, how do you think their little country will fare? If one hundred million of us fought them to the death, they’d be wiped out, but there’d still be three hundred million of us. That makes us the victors, doesn’t it? Commander Yu , this was a crushing victory!”

“Old uncle, you’re just saying that to make me feel good.”

“No, Commander Yu, it really was a great victory. Give the order; tell us what to do. China may have nothing else, but it’s got plenty of people.”

Also … I had certainly heard of foot-binding before.  Even after reading this book, it still seems barbaric to me.  But now, like the books’s narrator, perhaps I have a slightly more nuanced view.  These women do have a special quality to their walk …

A yard in length, the cloth bindings were wound around all but the big toes until the bones cracked and the toes turned under. The pain was excruciating. My mother also had bound feet, and just seeing them saddened me so much that I felt compelled to shout: ‘Down with feudalism! Long live liberated feet!’ The results of Grandma’s suffering were two three-inch golden lotuses, and by the age of sixteen she had grown into a well-developed beauty. When she walked, swinging her arms freely, her body swayed like a willow in the wind.  [1]

And then (though not specific to the Chinese) there are the dogs!  There is a section many pages long, in which the behavior of a pack of dogs is chronicled in detail.  (Indeed, one of the book’s five parts is called “Dog Ways”.)  I will admit that what the dogs are actually engaged in is rather horrible.  (Think of the dead on a battlefield, and you will probably get the idea.)  But the writing is totally absorbing.  One feels (with due respect to the author) that an actual canine is narrating this section!  You may get a small idea from this excerpt:

One of the battles [for domination of the pack] occurred when a dog in Green’s brigade, an impudent male with thick lips, bulging eyes, and a coat of bluish fur, took liberties with a pretty spotted-faced female who was one of Red’s favourites. Infuriated, Red charged the motley male and knocked him into the river. After climbing out and shaking the water off his fur, Thick Lips launched into an angry tirade, which earned him the jeers of the other dogs.

Green barked loudly at Red to defend the honour of his brigade, but Red ignored him and knocked the motley cur back into the river. As he swam back to shore, his nostrils skimming the surface, he looked like a huge river rat. The spotted-faced female stood beside Red, wagging her tail.

Green barked contemptuously at Red, who returned the insult.

One must surely mention the sorghum, which one sees in the book’s title … and just about everywhere in the novel.

Mo Yan himself admits that he has been greatly influenced by William Faulkner.  Just as Faulkner has his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, so Mo Yan has his (semi-fictional) Northeast Gaomi Township.  The main activity there is growing sorghum, a grain used for food, and also to make “sorghum wine” — so called in the novel, but actually a distilled spirit called “baijiu”.


Making this “wine” is the occupation engaged in by the central family in the book.  But beyond that, sorghum is the central “leitmotif” of the novel.  It is constantly mentioned in all kinds of metaphorical constructions, … but somehow instead of being annoying, this reader (at least) felt it as a strong unifiying element that helps us gain distance from narrative that can be hard to assimilate, because it is so painful.  At the end of the book, we gain some understanding as to why the red sorghum was so much on the narrator’s mind:

The sorghum that looked like a sea of blood, whose praises I have sung over and over, has been drowned in a raging flood of revolution and no longer exists, replaced by short-stalked, thick-stemmed, broad-leafed plants covered by a white powder and topped by beards as long as dogs’ tails. High yield, with a bitter, astringent taste, it is the source of rampant constipation. With the exception of cadres above the rank of branch secretary, all the villagers’ faces are the colour of rusty iron.

More than just being itself, the red sorghum is symbolic of the glorious past.

Along with Faulkner, Mo Yan also claims Gabriel García Márquez as an influence; and indeed, Red Sorghum has been cited as an example of “magic realism”.  Events that in ordinary life would be unbearably painful are transmuted into richer, more complex things.  Example:  near the end of the book, a female character, evidently near death, appears to have gone berserk, mouthing abuse and cursing the family around her.  But it turns out that an evil spirit has taken possession of her body.  Finally, a Taoist has to be summoned from the village to exorcise the demon!

Red Sorghum was originally written in Chinese.  I read the able translation by Howard Goldblatt.  I don’t normally read translated books (having the purist position that it’s “like taking a shower with a raincoat on”), [2] but an experience like this shows me how much I might, generally, be missing …

Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012.  At the end of his Nobel lecture, he tells a story that I’d like to repeat here.  It has nothing to do with Red Sorghum!  I just like the story a lot:

Bear with me, please, for one last story, one my grandfather told me many years ago: A group of eight out-of-town bricklayers took refuge from a storm in a rundown temple. Thunder rumbled outside, sending fireballs their way. They even heard what sounded like dragon shrieks. The men were terrified, their faces ashen. “Among the eight of us,” one of them said, “is someone who must have offended the heavens with a terrible deed. The guilty person ought to volunteer to step outside to accept his punishment and spare the innocent from suffering.” Naturally, there were no volunteers. So one of the others came up with a proposal: “Since no one is willing to go outside, let’s all fling our straw hats toward the door. Whoever’s hat flies out through the temple door is the guilty party, and we’ll ask him to go out and accept his punishment.” So they flung their hats toward the door. Seven hats were blown back inside; one went out the door. They pressured the eighth man to go out and accept his punishment, and when he balked, they picked him up and flung him out the door. I’ll bet you all know how the story ends: They had no sooner flung him out the door than the temple collapsed around them.

NOTES

[1] Though foot binding was banned in 1912 by the new Republic of China government, the practice continued in some rural areas till about mid-century.

[2] “Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.”  Though of course I am not talking about poetry here, this aphorism came to mind.  I encountered it in the 2016 movie Paterson.  I feel like it has been around longer, but cannot find an earlier source.

 

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