Thursday, May 26, 2016

Foucault’s Pendulum, by Umberto Eco

Eco is a brilliant writer and an encyclopedic mastermind who somehow manages to touch upon almost everything in the course of spinning his tale. As far as that goes, lovers of The Name of the Rose will not be disappointed with this one either: there is much here to marvel at and to ponder over, and, even at an excess of 600 pages, it grabs the reader’s fascination early on and doesn’t loosen its grip throughout. (The fact that it is divided into 120 – not an arbitrary number, to be sure – bite-sized chapters is a big help in that regard.)

But the occultism (including grotesque allusions to child sacrifice, forays into animistic voodoo, and such) gets pretty thick at times, leaving a reader with any properly-oriented spiritual sensibilities feeling like they need a good shower. And at some point, the astute reader will become aware of the fact that, just as the protagonists in the story are playing an elaborate game, piecing together disparate facts, clues, and associations to construct an intricately woven and (almost) convincing metanarrative, the author is playing a similar game with his readers. Ambiguity, uncertainty, irresolution, and doubt are precisely the point, to a large extent, but the end-game appears to be to elicit a resigned acknowledgement that there ultimately can be no metanarratives – though we desperately want there to be – and all attempts at imposing meaning on the meaningless cosmos amount to the deluded ravings of self-emaciated and bug-eyed conspiracy theorists. In the face of ultimate and inevitable meaninglessness and encroaching despair, simply put it all out of mind and enjoy the beauty that presents itself to you at the given moment.

Well, nice try, Umberto, but as well written, ingeniously devised, and (at times) fun your own elaborate literary conspiracy theory is, I’m not buying it.

My singular attempt at insightful literary observation regarding this work: just as each Canto of Dante’s Divine Comedy ends with the same word, “stelle” (“stars”), several of the ten major sections of this book, including the very last, end with a line containing the word “beautiful” or “beauty,” or with some simple expression of incidental beauty experienced or observed. (Beauty and symbolism are paramount themes in Eco's works, both fiction and non-fiction.)

A couple of gems definitely worth holding onto:

“I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.”

“And someone else—was it Chesterton?—said that when men stop believing in God, it isn’t that they then believe in nothing: they believe in everything.”

Saturday, April 16, 2016

From Culloden to Cumberland

Today marks the 270th anniversary of the Battle of Culloden (April 16, 1746) – in which Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland (third and youngest son of King George II of England) destroyed the Jacobite army of Charles Edward Stuart (aka “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” and “The Young Pretender”), putting a definitive end both to the latter’s rival claim to the British throne and to centuries of Scottish resistance to British assimilation.

The battle is a significant one for many reasons. For starters, it is noteworthy for being the last pitched battle fought on British soil. But its greatest significance lies in the events (and people) which it set in motion. Having spent the last several years reading a good deal of English and Scottish history, I’m convinced that an adequate understanding of the American Founding is impossible without a thorough knowledge of the earlier and parallel flow of historical events on the other side of the Atlantic pond. 

Would that time permitted me to write something more polished on the subject, but I’ll have to limit myself to spurting out a few brief facts concerning some of the things which can be traced back to Culloden and the associated Anglo-Scottish struggles.

  • Scotland experienced a great mass exodus following Culloden, as many despairing and discouraged citizens saw no better hope than to emigrate to the American Colonies and begin life anew.
  • Many who fought in America’s War for Independence three decades later were survivors of – or the sons of those who had fought at – the Battle of Culloden. 
  • Some of those who emigrated did so with the deliberate intent of living to fight again another day, perhaps half a world a way. Some of the leaders of America’s War for Independence (Arthur St. Clair being perhaps the most notable example) saw that struggle as a mere continuation of the same struggles of their homeland.
  • A number of geographical features associated with my own native region – the Cumberland Mountains, the Cumberland Plateau, Cumberland Gap, and the Cumberland River – owe their names to the Duke of Cumberland, aka “Butcher Cumberland.” Explorer Thomas Walker, who named them in 1750, was an apparent admirer, which I suppose testifies to where his own sympathies lay.
  • The original settlers of my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee were overwhelmingly of Scottish descent. The two acknowledged founders of the settlement, James Robertson and John Donelson, were sons of Scottish expatriates (albeit pre-Culloden). Ironically, the settlement was established (1779-1780) on a high bluff overlooking the Cumberland River, a name which could hardly have been more odious to anyone with Scottish lineage and sympathies.
  • The aftermath of the Battle of Culloden provides the setting for Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novel Kidnapped, and the story is virtually incomprehensible without a decent understanding of that historical context.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Enrique Granados: Centennial Commemoration

NOTE: This is an updated version of an older post.

On this day one hundred years ago (March 24, 1916), the composer Enrique Granados met an untimely, tragic and ironic end when the passenger ferry Sussex, on which he and his wife were traveling, was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the English Channel.

Granados was a virtuoso pianist and composed primarily for that instrument, though a number of his works have been transcribed for the guitar, for which they seem exceptionally well-suited. His Twelve Spanish Dances are particularly delightful, and I especially recommend the 2003 recordings by father and son Celadonio and Angel Romero. The most famous of the twelve is No. 5, Andaluza, though I am especially fond of No. 12, Danza Triste (aka Melancholia), No. 4, Villanesca, and No. 7, Valenciana. (His Ideal Waltz, No. 8 among his Valses Poeticos, has become another favorite of mine.)

At forty-eight years old, his career was just beginning to blossom and his mind brimming over with unrealized musical ideas. In January of 1916, he reluctantly agreed to make a first-ever trans-Atlantic voyage (he was terrified of water) in support of his opera Goyescas, which premiered in New York. It was on the final leg of the return journey back to his beloved Spain that tragedy overtook him. Following the torpedo strike, Granados made his way to a lifeboat, and from there he caught sight of his wife struggling in the water. Despite his acute aquaphobia, he jumped in to try and rescue her. Both drowned, and his body was never recovered. They left behind six children. (To further underscore the irony, the ship had broken in two, and the portion which remained afloat, which included Granados’ own cabin, was later towed to port with the greater number of its passengers still safely aboard.)

Granados was apparently also a painter of some repute, after the fashion of his countryman Francisco Goya, whom he much admired. (He dedicated both an opera, as mentioned above, and a suite of piano compositions to Goya's memory.) I have not, however, been able to find any examples of his work as a visual artist.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Strange, Surprising Adventures of a Decades-long Quest for a Long Lost Literary Volume

Bibliophiles (and perhaps few others) will appreciate this: I completed a holy grail quest of sorts this past week, finding something for which I have been searching for the better part of three decades!

When I was 14–16 years old, my family spent two years living and working on a dairy farm in New Hampshire. We occupied the second floor of a mammoth three-story (plus a cavernous cellar) antebellum mansion, situated on a grand hilltop, overlooking the Connecticut River, the fields, and the grounds of the picturesque estate. The house included a modest library with some interesting volumes, many of them antique. During one winter spent there, probably with sub-zero temperatures outside and knee-deep snow covering the ground, I huddled in the evenings in my bedroom, reading – and becoming utterly enthralled with – an old, a magnificently illustrated edition of Robinson Crusoe.

By the time we relocated back to our native Tennessee a couple of years later, I had other things on my mind, and the thought of taking the foresight to record the publisher, publishing date, and name of the illustrator never occurred to me. Throughout the intervening years, I have searched the proverbial literary haystack (there are hundreds of illustrated editions of Robinson Crusoe, it being one of the top contenders for the title of Earliest Novel Ever Written) – used bookstores, ebay, estate sales, etc. – in vain for a copy of the very same edition, which I would recognize immediately. (Nor was I ever able, as a professional illustrator myself, to identify other illustrators from the period – late 19th or early 20th century, as I estimated, correctly as it turns out – whose work seemed a match for the drawings in my own recollection.)

But on Wednesday of this past week, I stumbled on a big clue in the library of Belmont University (where I teach a typography course during the spring semester), and spurred on by that discovery, I paid a visit on the day afterwards to Vanderbilt University’s library, where I found it! (Vanderbilt’s campus is within easy walking distance of my office, and I frequently stroll there during breaks from work, enjoying the magnificent trees, architecture, and, occasionally, the library.)

My long sought-after edition was published in 1900, by R.H. Russell (apparently an imprint of Harper & Brothers), with illustrations by the brothers Louis and Frederick Rhead, (who were in turn younger brothers to another noteworthy illustrator from the era, George Wolliscroft Rhead).

With this information in hand, tracking down and procuring a physical copy of my own should now be feasible, and, in the meantime, I’ve discovered that is available online in a variety of electronic formats.
But for now, I shall revel in the fact that, up until this week, I had last held a copy of this edition in my hands approximately 28 years ago – ironically, the same length of length of time “poor Robin” was marooned as a castaway on his lonely island (lonely, that is, at least until Friday came along).