Category Archives: Art

A Multi-Layered American Part III — French Connection

It is now time to switch to the French connection. While I was born into the Jewish and Russian parts of my identity, the French part only occurred due to my family’s 12-year residence in Beirut during my childhood, which I wrote about previously. It was there that I got a French education in an academically oriented French Lycee.

I not only learned to speak and write French but also absorbed the French world view which is rational, secular and totally oriented to critical thinking. I was very influenced by the 18th century great philosophers, and the Enlightenment remains my favorite period of history. Some other Frenchmen I have loved: Moliere for his beautifully written and shrewdly observed comedies, Voltaire for defying the Established Church, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Gustave Flaubert, in spite of their being classics which had to be admired.

Later I loved Sartre and Camus for their ideas, and finally I must mention Henry Troyat, a very prolific novelist who like my family left Russia as a boy and wrote about both Russian and French life and their interconnections. I read him for pleasure.

The French connection got a big boost when I married a Frenchman in 1943. David Klugman had the same Russian Jewish background as myself and we were introduced by mutual friends in Tel Aviv. David had lived in Grenoble with his widowed mother from age 13. In 1940 when France was under German occupation, he and a companion secretly crossed the Pyrenees and escaped across the border to Spain and from there to Portugal. There he joined De Gaulle’s Free French Forces and fought in North Africa’s Western Desert along Montgomery’s British troops. We met during one of his leaves, started corresponding, and eventually married.

At the end of the war David was demobilized in France and I joined him there. We lived in France for 3 years during which my daughter Dina was born. Throughout our whole marriage French was spoken at home. As a result both our daughters Dina and Helen (born in Oakland) are totally fluent in French.

 

 

And so one might say that Jewishness has been a constant but unobtrusive presence in my life, Russia has fulfilled my emotional needs, and France lodged itself in my brain’s frontal cortex which deals with problem solving and intellectual life. I think they all live together in harmony.

Next time I will tell about our move to the United States and how we fared in yet another new country.

Loss and Longing

goethe

Editors note. We are starting today with a note that came from Simone after she had submitted this new post. Something about how she is thinking….

“The way this one was born is sort of typical of how I start associating. I had watched a short documentary on Bela Bartok where he stood forlorn on a ship’s deck gazing mournfully at the sight of approaching New York. His distress was palpable. Then the song Knowest Thou the Land came into my head.”

LOSS AND LONGING

Knowest thou the land where lemon flowers bloom
The land of golden fruit and crimson roses
Where the breeze is fresh and birds fly in the night
There, father let us fare.

Goethe’s poem:”Kennst du das Land” inspired many artists, most notably Amboise Thomas who in his opera “Mignon” gives it a haunting melody. When Mignon sings “Connais tu le pays” you cannot help but follow her to her Paradise Lost. Forcefully removed from an idealized land, she conjures it as if in a trance.
This yearning for a golden past is also present in Verdi’s opera Nabuco. The Jewish People forced into exile to Babylon sing “Va Pensiero,” a lament of nostalgia for the sights and smells and feel of their far away land.

Throughout history, in ancient Greece and Rome, exile was a form of punishment imposed on enemies, non- conformists and political opponents. Napoleon was sent to Elba and then to St Helena, Victor Hugo to Guernsey and Solzhenitzyn was exiled from the Soviet Union along with many other “enemies of the regime.”

There is a category of writers who flourished in the Austro- Hungarian Empire and then also in Vienna between the two world wars, who have experienced a sense of dislocation when their safe and happy past disappeared in the distance. Stefan Zweig describes this feeling very well…a feeling of missing the happiness you once had, a feeling associated with a place and with days gone forever, of the world of yesterday. He calls the period before World War I:the golden age of security.

Many Austrian Jews who thought they had assimilated, were bitterly disappointed in the 1930’s when they realized they had been living in a fool’s paradise. They felt themselves forcibly expelled into a hostile world. The composer Bela Bartok was intimately tied to the land where he lived, to its folklore and music. He had transcribed 6,000 folk songs of Slovak, Romanian and Transylvanian origin. He left his home for the United States during World War II and found himself a man without a country. He felt unappreciated and struggled with sickness and poverty. Caught in the storm, he never recovered.

We know many other exiles from that lost world:
Mahler, Freud, Klimt, Kafka, Koestler. Some survived better than others but all had lost an essential part of themselves.

Not every plant can successfully be transplanted. Some roots are too deep and some trees are too well adapted to their terrain to thrive elsewhere. Similarly, some people are too embedded in their milieu to uproot successfully. Zweig and Koestler both committed suicide, torn from their connections and unable to face the unknown.

Today many exiles flee from war-torn countries. Their fate is even worse because of the brutality of their forced exodus and the physical dangers they face. They cannot even allow themselves the luxury of giving voice to their distress. They are too preoccupied with day-to-day and moment-to-moment survival.

Strength in Symmetry (part 1)

mandala1mandala2mandala3Does Nature love symmetry? Apparently so.

Animals maximize their survival chances because any departure from symmetry affects locomotion. If one leg is shorter than the other you limp and become prey to predators. Birds could not fly nor fish swim if they were not evenly balanced. Their equilibrium would be affected.

And symmetry breeds success…I understand that perfect symmetry helps horses win races.

So most animals are bilaterally symmetrical and their bodies are divided equally into left and right sides. There are always exceptions. (sponges have an asymmetrical body plan).

As I look out at the trees from my window, I notice that they too have approximate symmetry even though they are not going anywhere. Pines are perfectly balanced but in most trees the two sides do not match exactly, branches may protrude. But I imagine that they too are shaped so that they do not topple over.

Of course fruit and flowers have perfect radial symmetry as we can see if we cut an apple or an orange in half. Bees are said to have imperfect vision but they are drawn to flowers because of their symmetry. So this seems like an evolutionary advantage. And the fruit is probably prevented from falling prematurely because its weight is even.

Our bodies are also approximately symmetrical. We too have two legs, hands, ears etc. But then why do we have only one heart, liver and pancreas? Why do we favor one hand over the other? (and why is it usually the right hand?)

In arguments we like to assign sides by saying: on the one hand, on the other hand, yes or no, true or false, something or nothing. So if we were a millipede would we see one thousand alternatives to every question?

(next time, more symmetrical thinking)

Musicians Without Borders

George Frederic Handel

George Frederic Handel

Yo Yo Ma

Yo Yo Ma

Before “globalization” people mostly lived and died in their own little corner of the world, only dimly aware of famine or pestilence elsewhere. But there always existed a class of wandering minstrels, happy to make music wherever they went. Musicians speak a universal language and can be understood and appreciated in many diverse lands. These musicians run the gamut from energetic and talented street musicians to some of the more illustrious musical wanderers I will mention here.

Jean Baptiste Lully was born Giovanni Battista Lulli in Florence in 1632. He was a dancer, guitarist and violinist. At age 14 he moved to France at the invitation of the young Louis XIV. There he wrote court ballets, collaborated with Moliere (He wrote the music for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.) and became director of the Royal Opera.
He died of gangrene in 1687 having struck his toe with the big stick he used for conducting.

Luigi Boccherini (1743 -1805) was a composer and cellist born in Lucca, Italy. His father was a cellist too. They were both employed as court musicians in Vienna. In 1770 he was invited to the court of Charles III in Madrid. There he lived, married and composed. He was inspired by Spanish music, especially the fandango, wrote elegant chamber music and developed the string quintet.

George Frederic Handel (1685-1759), born in Thuringia, Germany traveled to Hamburg where he became a violinist at the Opera. He later went to Italy at the invitation of Prince Ferdinando de Medici. When in Hanover, he met George Louis who was later to become King George I of England and who took a liking to him and enticed him to England. It was for George I that he wrote the famous and hugely successful Water Music which was performed on barges on the Thames. I like to think of those two expatriates conversing in German since neither was fluent in English. After the death of George I, Handel composed large scale anthems for the coronation of King George II and his consort Caroline, an occasion of great magnificence.

Jacques (born Jacob) Offenbach 1819-1880 was born in Cologne, Germany. He studied at the Paris Conservatory and remained in France for his entire musical career. Paris at that time offered a more favorable atmosphere for European Jews. Offenbach was a violinist and cellist and played in the Opera Comique Orchestra. He then shifted to composing operettas and opened his own theater Les Bouffes Parisiens. He is remembered mostly for Orpheus in the Underworld, La Belle Helene and his last unfinished work Les Contes d’Hoffman.

Yo Yo Ma (1955- ) is a Chinese-American cellist born in Paris to parents who were both musicians. He spent his school years in New York. Ma was a child prodigy and started performing at age five. Although we think of him in the context of classical music, he has been called “omnivorous” by critics because of his eclectic repertoire. He is interested in American bluegrass, Argentinian tango, Chinese melodies and Brazilian music. Ma was invited to the White House by several Presidents. He and Itzhak Perlman both performed at President Obama’s 1st Inauguration Ceremony.

May these wonderful artists continue to wander among us.

(Editor’s note….Simone has several thousand loyal followers and readers and we are very proud of that. But let me take this opportunity to ask you to respond and comment on her blogs. Her thoughts expand your world and your response will greatly expand hers. Just click below on “leave a comment”)

TV Recommendations–The Best in British Detectives

deathinparadiselewismidsomermuders

Unmasking the Villain

The creation of a Metropolitan Police in Britain in 1829 gave rise to the fictional detective hero. Edgar Allan Poe created the first one, C. Auguste Dupin in The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841. Charles Dickens followed with Mr. Bucket in Bleak House in 1852. With a new public desire to find out how crimes are solved, many stories with detectives as protagonists began to appear. In the beginning they were police officers. The sub-genre of the amateur sleuth evolved later. The tradition lives on and has now migrated to the television screen.
Here are three different series which I watch often. All three have a contemporary setting. In each the detective is a police officer. Even though they all involve violent murders, they could be classified as “cozy” inasmuch as the setting is rural and the people often know each other. These are in contrast to the “noir” or hard-boiled genre which usually takes place in a big impersonal city with its “mean streets” and is heavy on physical violence.

DEATH IN PARADISE

This story is a pastiche, a tongue-in-cheek imitation of the classic thirties murder mystery. The setting is the idyllic fictional tropical island of St. Marie. The police chief hero is not a native and is something of a “fish out of water.” He is a bumbling individual and thrashes around but ends up discovering the culprit. Of the Who-dunit, how, where, when and why,the emphasis is on the “how” because the murder seems impossible. But then our hero has his “Aha” moment often caused by something irrelevant to the story. Every traditional gimmick is employed: false confession, red herrings, rehash of the story with everyone involved gathered in a room while the detective eliminates them one by one until he shines the light on the culprit. He or she is of course the least likely individual. It is a formula, and we like its familiarity.

MIDSOMER MURDERS

The setting for this series is the picturesque county of Midsomer with its wealthy inhabitants, Tudor houses, thatched roofs, and impeccably maintained gardens. It has its fetes, garden tours and other English festivities. Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby is a likable fellow, the very essence of Englishness. He is often shown at home with wife and daughter.
Against this idyllic setting, there are sinister crimes, murders of revenge, jealousy, fear of revelations of misdeeds in the past, hatred and betrayal. Unfortunately the plot is so intricate that it is often difficult to follow: many corpses, several overlapping tragedies and sometimes even more than one culprit. The key to unraveling all these happenings is “Why.” Here too the least likely person often turns out to be the villain, (or one of them). Still, it is captivating to watch because the characters are well developed. Also the acting is very good.

INSPECTOR LEWIS

This series is a spin-off of the Inspector Morse mystery series; Inspector Lewis was Inspector Morse’s sidekick. The setting is the beautiful University of Oxford with its population of ambitious and often arrogant professors and dons and its miscellaneous students often overworked and underprepared. Professional rivalries, cheating, betrayals and other shenanigans are on the menu. Again the beautiful architecture and historic traditions are at odds with the sordid machinations of the academics who do not hesitate to stab each other in the back, literally and figuratively. In contrast to Inspector Morse who was an intellectual and opera lover, Inspector Lewis has a working class background and little familiarity with literary quotations. Instead he relies on his common sense, good intuition and hard work. He is stubborn and determined to get to the bottom of a case. Here too the “Why” is the predominant question and the villains are often snotty and arrogant.
In all three series the focus is on the detective, but he is not the central character and his own problems do not intrude and cause a distraction. The suspect is not obvious and is often respectable, a pillar of the community or an admired academic. The solution is credible and derives from the characters and the plot. There is no “Deus ex Machina” or artificial ending. Solving the mystery and unveiling the villain is the goal and it answers our craving to see the murderer identified and punished and order restored.