Saving Japan’s Cherry Blossoms, in Defense of Light Verse, and Victorian Dogs
The man who saved Japan’s cherry trees: “Almost all lords brought cherries — wild and cultivated — from their principalities with them. And so in Edo gardens — in varying blossom colours, petal numbers and tree shapes — Japan’s diverse cultures, traditions, climates and peoples were represented and celebrated. For months at a time, blossoms of the different varieties, which each bloomed at different times of the year, would put on colourful displays.Today, however, Tokyo’s cherry trees are known for their synchronous blossoming. Along the Arakawa River, great rows of trees turn pink for eight days only, each April. In unison, here and elsewhere in Japan, their blossoms bloom and then die quickly, symbolising the beauty and fleeting transience of life. The cherry trees of contemporary Japan are not a diverse mix. They are mostly just one species — the somei-yoshino, a cultivated variety with single pink blossoms that bloom on bare branches. Naoko Abe concerns herself with two things in this book, first published in 2016 in Japanese. She investigates how, when and why this change took place; and she traces the life and work of an English ornithologist-turned-cherry-tree-specialist, Collingwood Ingram, born in 1880, who was responsible for saving many of the varieties of Japanese cherry that would otherwise probably have become extinct.”
Can light verse be serious? Patrick Kurp argues it can in The Los Angeles Review of Books: “Some of us never outgrow our childhood pleasures, guilty or otherwise. But only in the last half-century or so has light verse become less than respectable among readers, poets, and critics, and less ubiquitous in popular culture. The New Yorker featured it for decades, making Ogden Nash a household name. Millions of non-poetry readers can still quote him: ‘Candy / Is dandy, / But liquor / Is quicker.’ Phyllis McGinley, one of the best-known light verse writers of her day, published in Ladies Home Journal (and The New Yorker), and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1961. Kingsley Amis, himself an enthusiast and practitioner of the form, described the highest aspirations of light verse as ‘genial, memorable, enlivening and funny.’ Still, some readers and critics maintain that light verse isn’t real poetry. It’s kids’ stuff, doggerel, greeting-card fodder, unhappy echoes of Richard Armour, whose whimsical riffs appeared in Sunday newspaper supplements starting in the Great Depression.”
Turns out my German Shorthaired Pointers are just Victorian “confections.” They don’t care, and neither do I.
Christian Gonzalez writes about a debate over the Western canon at Columbia: “A fascinating though regrettable consequence of Stalnaker’s argument is that it reduces the canon debate at Columbia to a curious binary: radical students who would like to see the Core abolished on one side, versus the Columbia establishment that hopes to preserve the Core on the other. The former insists that the Western canon propagates white supremacy and should therefore not be read; the latter counters by agreeing that while, yes, the canon is characterized by ‘gaps, exclusions, and fictions,’ it is still worth engaging with it, the better to subvert and criticize it. Those who believe that the canon ought to be read simply because it is our patrimony as residents of a Western nation are rendered voiceless in the discussion. Such a perspective is not considered legitimate. Instead, the debate takes place almost entirely between different factions of the Left, each of them holding a basically disparaging view of the canon. In the meantime, everybody else is forced to spectate from the sidelines, waiting as the Left resolves what’s merely an internal disagreement.”
Graphic adaptations of literary works are becoming more popular. Julian Peters recently finished his graphic version of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” A few years ago Tim Hamilton illustrated Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Now we have Dan Parsons and Jennifer Grossman’s adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Anthem. Check it out.
Michael Schaub praises Amy Hempel’s latest collection of short stories: “Hempel occasionally draws comparisons to authors like Mary Robison and Joy Williams, but she writes like nobody else—she’s an irreplaceable literary treasure who has mastered the art of the short story more skillfully than just about any other writer out there. Sing to It is a quiet masterpiece by a true American original.”
Thomas Kidd recommends a recent article on Presbyterian jerks: “Douglas Winiarski (Univ. of Richmond) has a remarkable article in the latest William and Mary Quarterly on the history of the jerking exercise, or the ‘jerks,’ in the Second Great Awakening. Religious historians since the 1800s have often alluded to outbreaks of the jerks in the revivals, but until Winiarski, we have only had a vague sense of where the jerks happened, how often, and among what groups…The jerks, however, were dramatic and apparently uncontrollable physical manifestations that originated in specific places and among specific groups in the early phases of the Second Great Awakening. Perhaps counterintuitively, these ‘somatic’ (bodily) exercises commenced in the early 1800s among Presbyterians, especially Scots-Irish Presbyterians of the trans-Appalachian Upper South. Although we often think of Presbyterians as one of the most cerebral of the historic evangelical traditions (in contrast to Methodists and Baptists), Winiarkski paints a picture of some Presbyterians as proto-Pentecostals.”
Essay of the Day:
Discussing artists or works in terms of periods (like “modern”) or even centuries is usually unhelpful. Artists do what they do, year after year, and while “times” change, people don’t. Occasionally, though, period terms can be helpful in highlighting the particularities of individual artists. Such is the case (for the most part!) in Simon Morrison’s piece on Tchaikovsky in The Times Literary Supplement. Tchaikovsky, Morrison argues, was a man of the eighteenth century. His music, however, anticipates modern composition:
“In the final years of his short life, Tchaikovsky gained almost cult-like status among the Symbolists. He was described in the Symbolist journal Vesï (Libra) as a modernist seer and polestar of Zukunftsmusik, the music of the future. Given Tchaikovsky’s French Classical allegiances, Musique de l’avenir might have been more appropriate. But the German term, borrowed from Richard Wagner, was fairly applied to Tchaikovsky’s expansive final opera Iolanta, first performed on a double bill with The Nutcracker in 1892.
“Iolanta, based on Henrik Hertz’s play Kong Renés Datter, King René’s Daughter (1845), begins in a garden. The innocent heroine is thought to be blind (though never called as such) by the people minding her. Her caring, if oppressive, father wants her cured of her condition, but the mystic he recruits for the task fails, offering little besides talk about “the two worlds of the flesh and the spirit” above an ostinato, a sustained, two-minute-long crescendo, and a pile of Eastern mystical musical clichés. The character, based on a real person, is not from the East at all, but is a moor – a Muslim from North Africa named Ibn-Hakia, aka Ibn al-Haytham. Ibn-Hakia was a tenth-century astronomer, mathematician and physicist whose contributions to optical science remain relevant today. Eventually the right fellow, a Burgundian knight, comes along and the power of his love seems to restore Iolanta’s sight. The cure is enacted at sunset.
“Iolanta is, among other things, about innocence (represented by harp, halos of strings, and the heroine’s sweetly consonant singing) and experience (the dissonant orchestral undergirding of the fourth number, King René’s arioso). Tchaikovsky turned to Wagner’s music dramas for models of a knowing chromatic music, yet his subversive handling of Wagner reverses the terms that Wagner himself set out. In Iolanta, experience seems over-rated; instead, the innocent are the more profound. The brief overture to Iolanta is an upside-down, woodwind-dominated paraphrase of the opening of the Tristan und Isolde prelude. (One of the characters in Hertz’s play, not Tchaikovsky’s opera, is called Tristan.) Far from a deferential Russian homage to Wagner, however, Tchaikovsky’s music offers an insubordinate critique. The discordant, disquieted overture represents groping in the dark – not Iolanta’s, but Wagner’s. She will demonstrate that she possesses the things that her father and the other people who pity her will never have: namely, insight. She possesses a spiritual vision – as does, by extension, Tchaikovsky himself.
“The Nutcracker, although commercialized for Christmas, bears political import in Russia. The scholar of music and politics Damien Mahiet compares the second act, which features dances in the land of the sweets, to a ballet des nations and interprets the entire work as a celebration of the Franco–Russian Alliance under Tsar Alexander III. By this point in his career Tchaikovsky was a patriotically imperial composer. Yet the ballet also bears a deeply personal dimension. Tchaikovsky completed The Nutcracker after the death of his sister Aleksandra, and freighted the score with acoustic memories of a person and a place – Aleksandra’s house in Kamenka – that Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest recalled as sacred relics. The “Chinese” dance has nothing to do with China, but everything to do with the whistle of a teakettle in the kitchen. Roland John Wiley, a musicologist specializing in Tchaikovsky’s ballets, hears refrains of the panikhida, the Russian Orthodox service for the departed, in the score, suggesting nostalgia in its truest sense: painful and irremediable rather than bittersweet. The famous celesta that accompanies the Sugar Plum Fairy, representative of the cold brightness of the Silver Age, may also evoke a stranger image – metal teardrops. In his essay “Tchaikovsky and the Russian ‘Silver Age’”, the musicologist Arkadiy Klimovitsky connects the magic lantern “phantasmagoria” of the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” with the tone painting of the impressionists and poems about blizzards and dancing masks. The consistent compound rhythms would have taxed the choreographers of the ballet, Marius Petipa and his disciple Lev Ivanov, as the asymmetrical rhythmic patterns in The Sleeping Beauty had previously. The “Waltz of the Snowflakes” is surrealistically not a waltz, but a fateful chaconne consisting of eight variations of a theme. Klimovitsky invokes a poem by the Symbolist Alexander Blok to explain The Nutcracker: throw open the door, the poet tells us on Tchaikovsky’s behalf, leave sadness behind and dissolve into the whiteout.
“Of course the idea that Tchaikovsky anticipated the experimentalism of the Symbolists and Surrealists runs counter to his conservatism as a person and as an artist, his reverence for the music of eighteenth-century composers, reliance on the number format in his operas, general adherence to the diatonic system, and predilection for German augmented sixth chords. But he embraced these things in order to counter them, or to highlight and enhance them with his own unmistakable signature. In his late works, meters are scrambled and gestures displaced over the registers before fading into nothingness. Lives, Tchaikovsky believed, should have the textures of dreams.”
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