Saturday, March 24, 2007
I haven't been back to College Station since graduation in spring 2001 (Fightin' Texas Aggie Class of 2001, WHOOP!), and sports are the only way I can indulge my Aggie spirit now. With the dismal - considering the 1998 Big 12 Champion Aggie Football team, yes, it's dismal - performance of our football team in the late Slocum years and the Franchione years (I would only wish us to lose to tu (Texas) so Fran could be fired) basketball under Gillispie has provided a way for me to stay in touch with my alma mater from hundreds of miles away (besides opening up my checkbook), and it's wonderful to be able to see old haunts on ESPN or ABC. And to hear the Aggie War Hymn, and see people filling the stands in Reed arena and sawin' varsities horns off, oh, it brings a tear to my eye.
From the vantage point of my current university, whose unofficial motto is "where fun comes to die," I miss the camaraderie, the traditions, and the knowledge that there's more to life than just academic learning and medieval dress-up day. I miss the feeling of commitment to each other and to shared values, the commitment that also leads some of my classmates to fight in Iraq now. I know alumni complain about the death of Old Army and the lack of spirit in New Army, but at least we are all Aggies, and this season our Men's Basketball Team made other people in the country want to be Aggies too. I am honored that these young men represented Texas A&M to the sports nation.
2006-2007 Texas A&M Men's Basketball Team, Whoop!
Friday, March 23, 2007
I had previously mentioned Robert Garis's second-hand story about Violette Verdy's dinner party to introduce Boulez and Balanchine. Lincoln Kirstein remembers the same episode, and writes of it in Thirty Years: Lincoln Kirstein's the New York City Ballet (1978):
Pierre Boulez, the leading French composer and conductor of his day, served a not entirely happy series of seasons as musical director of the New York Philharmonic Society. We never saw him in our theater. Balanchine knew his discs and went to Fisher Hall to hear him conduct his personal compositions. A principal dancer in our company, a friend of both Boulez and Balanchine, urged that they meet. Balanchine asked why: “Because both our names start with B?” “No, no; because one is a great conductor-composer; the other a great etc. etc.” They met. The next morning I asked our great etc. etc. what the evening was like. “Marvelous; you know her mother is a very great cook: her quiche….” “Yes, but what about Boulez?” “Ah,” said Balanchine, “he’s a physicist and I’m a gardener.”
More random and fun comments from Kirstein:
"[Balanchine] has been described as a kind of Ivan the Terrible of ballet; an article in the Village Voice told the sad tale of a lady who claimed to have been destroyed in her psyche by exposure to his ruthless, inhuman schematization in the corps de ballet. She was driven to marriage, babies, and kitchen, and not a minute too soon."
"…alternatives to classic ballet usually invoke 'self-expression' as salvation, and…the 'self' of most aspirants is dubious as to both maturity and information…"
"Commercial TV is a parasitic infection in which mendacity competes with irrelevance. 'Educational' side effects may offer some palliation; war has always improved the practice of surgery."
Lincoln Kirstein will get his own post one day; it is a shame that no biography of this fascinating man and major supporter of 20th century art exists.
Thursday, March 22, 2007
From the Boston Banner
A new era of slave catchersPlease tell me that someone did not seriously attempt to compare American chattel slavery to illegal immigration. Please.
In the 19th century, many people who were owned as slaves in the South undertook "self-emancipation." They ran away and fled the South by whatever means possible. Some walked to freedom. Some got on commercial ships and worked their way to safe country. One brave couple - a very light-skinned woman and a dark-skinned man - took the train to freedom by pretending that she was the mistress and he was the servant. Many ended up in Boston, New Bedford, Fairhaven, Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.
Then the federal government allowed former owners of slaves themselves or their agents to seek out and capture their "property" that had settled in the North. People of color lived in fear of the slave catchers, of their discovery by unsympathetic citizens or of other ways in which their former owners could capture them and return them to shackles.
Some stood in their defense, but many kept silent. They had broken the law. They had fled their homeland in the South. So they were "illegal" immigrants to the North. It mattered not if they worked, went to church, raised families or contributed to the common good. It was against the law for them to seek liberty and opportunity, to break their shackles - to live like free people.
Now, in the 21st century, 144 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, another people have fled both economic and political repression to come to this country to seek freedom and opportunity. The immigrants from countries south of our border have not come to break the law. They have come to seek the same opportunities for freedom. They have come to feed their families. They have come to support their families who remain in their former towns and villages.
And the new slave catchers, employees of the U.S. government, sweep down like vultures to capture those who have tried to liberate themselves. And they find them - not in the welfare offices, not begging on street corners, but working in substandard conditions for substandard wages.
It is more than ironic that in New Bedford, the dreadful sweep was undertaken in the inhumane factory of a manufacturer whose primary client was the United States government. So families were torn apart. Children - many born here and thus citizens - have lost their parents. Wives and husbands have been separated. Who knows when and how they will be reunited? And people who have been working, contributing to the safety of our soldiers in Iraq, are torn from their livelihood and their hope.
Never mind that they have been working in substandard conditions. Never mind that they have been enslaved by greedy employers. Never mind that they have chosen the limited options available to them to support their families.
Those who are arrested in the name of illegal entry to the United States and then isolated in captivity are taken before an immigration judge, without adequate counsel, and shipped somewhere to await deportation. Try to find a particular person who has been captured by the immigration authorities. Try to locate them. Try to visit them. You will likely fail.
These images of families torn apart - of children ripped from the safety of their families, of husbands separated from wives - are they that different from the now-fading images of African American slave families torn apart by the brutality of slavery?
The cries of children and mothers, of fathers and brothers are no different today. They are only uttered with a different accent.
At the same time, we read in the newspaper that some farmers are trying to get the government to loan out prisoners to harvest the fields because there are not enough migrant laborers. Change one type of slave labor for another. This is happening in the land of freedom and opportunity.
These actions of the government are shameful. We have denied our heritage. We have trampled on our ideals. We have witnessed a dreadful injustice. We have kept silent. We have failed our democracy.
Ed Blackman is the former pastor of Eliot Congregational Church in Roxbury and is a member of the board of the Museum of African American History.
Brain: an organ of soft nervous tissue contained in the skull of vertebrates, functioning as the coordinating center of sensation and intellectual and nervous activity
Mind: the element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought
Self: a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, especially considered as an object of introspection; from Brok’s dictionary definitions (taken from New Oxford)
In a first year grad school course on drug abuse, we were asked by the professor why people take abused drugs. My classmate and I, the only two neuroscience students in the class, responded "because of what they do to the brain - their pharmacological sites of action affect areas of the brain involved in euphoria and habit formation, etc." "NO, people take drugs because of how it makes them FEEL!" was the retort from a psychology student. Nevermind that there are mountains of evidence (cf TE Robinson) that mammals who habitually use drugs do not "like" the drug anymore (in science-speak, rodents and primates develop tolerance to the euphorigenic effects of abused drugs after repeated drug exposures), but neverthless crave it. No, the correct response is, "You don't FEEL ANYTHING independently of your brain!!!" (At least, not in our mortal bodies.) One's perception of the world occurs entirely through that organ at the top of your body.
[Fun fact: The adult human brain is about 2% of body weight. A cat's brain is 0.8% of its body weight. This is why I call my kitty "pea-brain" and often mock her ability to process info.]
If you’ve ever held a human brain in your hands, as I have, you know that it is not very impressive – only about three pounds or so, the size of the clenched fists of an average man, just tissue with a few spaces (sulci and the ventricles). And yet, this organ is responsible for what we know of ourselves and our environment. And all this organ really does is move ions around.
Think about it (move some potassium and sodium around in the cerebral cortex of your right hemisphere). Imagine yourself walking with a loved one on a sidewalk along the beach and gazing out at the horizon. Suddenly your fingers, which are running along a rail, contact a piece of gum. The information about that object is running up your fingers, hand, and arm, to your spinal cord, through the brain stem, through the reticular formation into your thalamus, and then to areas of the somatosensory cortex, then back to motor cortex and cerebellum and down through the brain stem to move your fingers off of the gum, at the same time as your visual cortex and motor cortex are sending information to the cerebellum to plan the movement of your head and then sending motor signals through the accessory nerve (XI) so that your eyes can look at the gum you have touched (through the oculomotor nerve (III) and trochlear nerve (IV), then back through the optic nerve (II)); from the thalamus, info is being sent to your hippocampus to sort through prior experiences that are similar to the current tactile sensation; your limbic system and associated cortex are 'deciding' what 'emotion' you 'feel' about this experience, and then relaying that out to motor areas to change your facial expressions through the facial nerve (VII) - we are social creatures, after all; and information is also coasting to Broca’s area and then back out to the nerves connected to muscles of the mouth, lips, and tongue so that you can say something to your loved one about what you have just touched. See how long it took you to read that? Your nervous system does this in fractions of a second through nothing more than moving around some Ca2+, Na+ and K+
Take out parts of the hippocampus, and you’d forget who you are. Remove parts of your posterior parietal association cortex, and you wouldn't recognize your limbs as belonging on your body. How do we integrate all these different parts into a 'self' that we are aware of?
He said, "It's all in your head," and I said, "So's everything," but he didn't get it. - Paper Bag, Fiona Apple
Broks' writes: “We continually, and effortlessly, picture each other’s thoughts and intentions. We form assessments of what people ‘have in mind’ – presupposing that there are such things as minds…The same mental machinery enables us to form ideas of ourselves as unified and continuous beings – to make sense of what is going on with regard to our own mental states. People with impoverished mind-reading skills (such as autistic people), or with rich but unreliable interpretations of their own and others’ mental activities (like schizophrenics) are severely disadvantaged.” And yet schizophrenia is most likely attributable to a complex organization of impaired cholinergic and glutamatergic transmission in cortical regions of the brain (cholinergic and glutamatergic receptors are cation channels once activated). Autism may be the result of abnormalties of cell size and transmission in the temporal lobes of the brain and the limbic system. If we look closely enough, can we understand mind and self?
[I'm largely ignoring philosophical perspectives on the mind and body, as science completely rejects dualistic thinking and more recent theories focus on whether and/or how empiricism can be used to understand the mind (see Colin McGinn's arguments that humans may lack the cognitive ability to understand the mind; philosophers like Daniel Dennett and neuropsychologists like Hebb argue the opposite) and not-yet-developed methods to understand the brain's function (see John Searle and Thomas Nagel).]
According to one researcher, as humans developed language, areas of the brain became involved in forming a cohesive narrative of one’s life experience, ultimately generating a sense of ‘self.’ Maybe neuroscientists will one day prove Buddhism correct? (I'm being facetious.)
When considering questions of mind and self from a neurobiological perspective, we must take into account the following factors:
unity nature of consciousness: we experience the world as a sum, not all the parts separately
intentionality: our experiences have meaning that the mind collects and represents over the range of our lifetime
subjectivity: our experience of the same stimulus differs. Far from being machine-like, our minds deal with semantics like values, sense, and meaning (see Searle). These are inherently subjective.
So where does that leave us? Can neuroscientists find the 'seat' of the self or consciousness, tucked somewhere in cells that are doing nothing much grander than adding up electrical potential from ion concentrations? (Actually neurons, like almost all cells, have receptor areas and second messenger signalling that enhance or diminish their responsivity to inputs and outputs.) Wasn't there a magazine article that claimed neuroscience had disproven the notion of the soul? This is the century of neuroscience, or so it was titled by one popular magazine at the turn of the century. This century will see scientific examinations into the above questions (and hopefully I'll stay employed), and this brief overview is only meant to provide a glance into the issues.
Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology (2003) by Paul Broks
Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology (1996) by B Kolb & IQ Whishaw
Fundamental Neuroscience (1997) ed. DE Haines
Principles of Neural Science (2002) ed. Kandel, Schwartz, & Jessel
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Beethoven's "Immortal Beloved" from that famous passionate letter ("my angel, my all, my very self") is suspected by some to be Antonie Brentano, the wife of Franz Brentano, who was the brother of Clemens Brentano and sister of Bettina Brentano von Arnim, herself an artist remembered for her association with Goethe. Clemens and Achim von Arnim (yes, Clemens' brother-in-law, but post-publication) are responsible for Des knaben Wunderhorn (Youth's Magic Horn), a collection of German folk stories published in 1805.
Nearly ninety years later, Gustav Mahler wrote songs to several of the poems contained in that work; two of the most memorable are St. Anthony of Padua's Sermon to the Fishes (Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt) and Primeval Light (Urlicht), both of which would be incorporated into the third and fourth movements, respectively, of Mahler's 2nd Symphony. An aside: the funeral of Hans von Bulow, the famous conductor and pianist and cuckold to his former wife Cosima Liszt and former cherished friend Wagner, helped to inspire the fifth movement of Mahler's 2nd Symphony in its themes of resurrection.
After Mahler's death, his wife Alma eventually became re- involved with the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius (they'd had an affair while Mahler was still alive), with whom she had daughter Manon Gropius. Manon's sudden death at the age of 18 inspired Alban Berg to compose his Violin Concerto To the Memory of an Angel in 1935 (by this time, Alma was married to Franz Werfel). [I've never seen Bride of the Wind (2001), named after Kokoschka's Alma-inspired painting.]
Fifty years later, Jerome Robbins choreographed a ballet to that music, titled In Memory of... with Suzanne Farrell in the lead part. Even though Robbins denied that it was in memory of anyone specific, the title, timing, and Robbins' choice of Farrell, considered to be the greatest and most cherished muse of his NYCB colleague, left no doubt for most people that it was in memory of...of course, Balanchine.
In both 1969 and 1977 Balanchine had made plans to do a ballet for Farrell, casting her as Salome (their relationship made this casting a bit hmm, questionable; Stravinsky had joked to Robert Craft about how much clothing this Salome would shed) to music from Berg's Lulu Suite. I don't know Balanchine's thoughts on Mahler, but I do know that according to ballerina Violette Verdy via dance critic Robert Garis, in an encounter in the sixties that she arranged between her friend Pierre Boulez (that enfant terrible of the classical music scene) and Balanchine, hoping that their mutual passion and knowledge of music would create some rapport and fascinating insights at her dinner party, Boulez did all the talking, and Balanchine did almost none. How is that related to Mahler, you may be wondering? Well, Boulez is a noted Mahler lover and gets a verbal "thank you" near the end of the third movement of Luciano Berio's 1969 work Sinfonia that directly alludes to Mahler's "St. Anthony and the Fishes" music. Quite the stretch, I know.
And to take this chain full circle, Balanchine considered Beethoven's music "not danceable." In Balanchine's view, only three composers: Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and Glazunov, wrote "danceable" music, in the sense that it was meant to be danced to, in rhythmic pulse. Balanchine did choreograph works to Gluck, Bach, Mozart, Schumann, Bellini, Bizet, Mendelssohn, Ravel, Webern, Ives, Gershwin, and many others (he didn't choreograph more than 430 works to the same music over and over again), but considered Beethoven wonderful music to be listened to, not danced to.
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Mon coeur s'ouvre à la voix,
comme s'ouvrent les fleurs
Aux baiser de l'aurore!
Mais, ô mon bienaimé,
pour mieux sécher mes pleurs
Que ta voix parle encore!
Dis-moi qu'à Dalila
tu reviens pour jamais,
Redis à ma tendresse
Les serments d'autrefois,
ces serments que j'aimais!
Ah! réponds à ma tendresse!
Verse-moi, verse-moi l'ivresse!
[Samson]Dalila, Dalila, je t'aime!
Ainsi qu'on voit des blés
les épis onduler
Sous la brise légère,
Ainsi frémit mon coeur,
prêt à se consoler,
A ta voix qui m'est chère!
La flèche est moins rapide
à porter le trépas,
Que ne l'est ton amante
à voler dans tes bras!
Ah! réponds à ma tendresse!
Verse-moi, verse-moi l'ivresse!
[Samson]Dalila, Dalila, je t'aime!
My heart opens to your voice,
like the flowers open
To the kisses of the dawn!
But, o my beloved,
to dry my tears the best,
Let your voice speak again!
Tell me that to Dalila
You will return forever,
Repeat to my tenderness
The oaths of other times,
The oaths that I loved!
Ah! respond to my tenderness!
Pour out to me the drunkenness!
Dalila, Dalila, I love you!
Like one sees the wheat
the blades undulate
under the light breeze.
So trembles my heart
ready to be consoled
by your voice which is dear to me!
The arrow is less quick
to carry death,
Than is your love
to fly into my arms!
Ah! respond to my tenderness!...
One of my favorite arias, from Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila (1877),
libretto by Ferdinand Lemaire. Painting is Georgia O'Keefe's
Black and Purple Petunias (1925)
Monday, March 19, 2007
A rambling meditation on women and men
Your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall be your master. – Genesis 3:16In Genesis, Woman exists before Eve. Woman is the partner of man, his complementary help-mate. In the second account of creation she is formed from the side of Adam; who was Adam before? Rashi wrote that Adam was androgynous before the creation of woman - God created Adam in His image, incorporating the masculine and feminine. In the Bereshit Rabbah commentary, woman is attached to Adam, but in such a way that he cannot see her and be made whole until she is separated from him, and can see his mirror image. Once he sees her, Adam calls her "woman, for she was taken out of man." It is only after the Fall that Adam re-names the woman Eve, "because she would become the mother of all the living." Woman: identified as part of the man who makes him whole, his inspiration and helper; Eve: identified through procreative ability, bound to longing for and submissiveness to her husband. The latter is God's curse for women.
[Note: I much prefer reading midrash for notes on women than that of the Church Fathers. At least when reading writings in the Jewish tradition, I can easily dismiss the misogyny. When misogyny is found in the writings of saints in one's own Church, I want to hurl objects.]
Women have struggled with the tension, as Croce writes of, "sexual complicity in conflict with individual freedom.” Perhaps this is why I have always thought of male and female celibacy so differently. For men, celibacy is discipline, restraint, and bearing the burden of lack of biological progeny. For women, celibacy is freedom, a return to Eden, unburdened of the longing for a man. In the consecrated life, it's also the gift of Christ as spouse, so that the admonishments of Colossians 3:18, Ephesians 5:21-32, and 1 Peter 3:1 no longer seem overwhelmingly cumbersome.
Every man has a Don Quixote in him. Every man wants an inspiration. For the Don it was Dulcinea, a woman he sought in many guises. I myself think that the same is true in life, that everything a man does, he does for his ideal woman. You live only one life and you believe in something and I believe in a little thing like that. It has worked so far. It will last me. - George Balanchine, 1965.
It has always fascinated me that some men long for the original woman, the woman separated from his side. We can enter into the dangerous territory of men who place women on pedestals, and the virgin/whore complex, and yet there is something elemental and primitive about a man's longing for his muse. In the literature of every age, there are mortal men who desire and aspire to conquer women or women-like creatures. While there are several meanings to this including their unattainability (tied to the taming of nature), there is also the longing for the help-mate and inspiration. The desire to proclaim the words of Adam to the chosen woman, "this now is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh." The love for the Blessed Virgin in plastic art and hymns is tied to this - she who is Woman in John's Gospel and Vision.
I want to see the world through you; for then I shall not be seeing the world but only you, you, you! I have never seen you without thinking that I should like to pray to you. I have never heard you without thinking that I should like to believe in you. I have never longed for you without thinking that I should like to suffer for you. I have never desired you without thinking that I should be allowed to kneel before you. - Rainer Maria Rilke to Lou Andreas-Salomé, found in Holthusen’s Portrait of Rilke: An Illustrated Biography (1971). Andreas-Salomé, by the way, was a muse for Nietzsche, Rilke, and Freud.But how does a woman carry on the life of the muse, without being overcome by the longing 'to be weighed down by the man's body' as Kundera writes? How does she not turn into a Medea? There is the awful example of Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel, lovers for ten years. There are also the attenuated careers of women like Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. However, they were artists in their own right. [See Kavaler-Adler’s The Creative Mystique: From Red Shoes Frenzy to Love and Creativity (1996) for a full run-down on object relations psychotherapy to understand the sense of self and separation from the male ego that must occur for women artists to gain control of their lives according to this theory.] What is the average woman to do? How is she to be Woman to a man?
[Note: Camille Claudel (1988) directed by Bruno Nuytten, with Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu is a fine film. However, there are two significant disappointments with this film: the failure to address the influence of Claudel on Rodin’s artwork, which according to some critics, may have been profound., and the psychology behind Claudel’s breakdown – this is beyond a woman who is angered that her lover continues to have other affairs.]
Aimai-je un rêve? - Mallarmé, L'après-midi d'un faune
In Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), James Stewart seeks to re-create a lost-love (played by Kim Novak). In so doing, questions arise as to how much we ever know and love our beloved. Do we subtly train our lovers to be who we want them to be, do we make them into figments of our imagination who we love only as projections of ourselves? Were Adam and woman originally a complete and complementary projection of each other?
Now Jocasta kneels on the floor at the foot of the bed and then she rises with her leg close to her breast and to her head, and her foot way beyond her head, her body in a deep contraction. I call this the vaginal cry; it is the cry from her vagina. It is either the cry for her lover, her husband, or the cry for her children. - Martha Graham on her dance Night Journey, in her autobiography Blood Memory (1991) The cry for the lover, the need for a man (even if that man happens to be one's believed-to-be-dead son, taken as lover and husband). Can women escape the curse of Genesis, other than through the consecrated life? In the third episode of Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage (1973), after Johan (Erland Josephson) has told his wife Marianne (Liv Ullman) that he is having an affair and is leaving her that very morning to be with his mistress, after the outbursts and crying, she calmly helps him pack his things. She reminds him that he forgets his toothbrush. This is one of the oldest questions of woman to man: how can you live without me? We are symbiotically joined, how can you turn away?
Give me children or I shall die. - Genesis 30:1Rachel's cry to Jacob earns her a rebuke, for should she not know that woman has a purpose other than procreation and that children are only God's to provide? The meaning of barrenness is only understood through the light of the New Testament's Virgin and Church. And yet women are still confined by the Fall into their role as Eve, with their procreative abilities paramount in importance.
Leila (1996), directed by Dariush Mehruji, is an Iranian film set in modern day Tehran (so husband and wife do not physically touch, and she is dressed in a black chador throughout). Leila (Leila Hatami) and Reza (Ali Mosaffa) are a married couple, happy and in love. But after a year of trying for children, they discover that Leila is infertile. Thus begins the dilemma: should Reza, an only son, take a second wife (this is Iran and Islamic culture, after all) in order to have a son of his own for the family? Reza's mother (Jamileh Sheikhi) batters her daughter-in-law with fears that Reza will come to not love his own wife if he does not have a son of his own. Reza attempts to re-assure Leila, "All I want is your happiness." Nevertheless, Leila decides to encourage Reza to take a second wife. As he interviews women that a matchmaker has set up for him, she takes strolls in a park or along the sidewalk alone, made unimportant by her infertility. After meeting each prospective bride, Reza picks Leila up and they joke about the qualities that the woman had until one day Reza expresses his approval for a woman he has interviewed. They marry, and as Leila listens in the darkened guest bedroom as her husband and his new bride walk up the stairs of their house (the new bride's dress percussively hitting each step, like the pounding of Leila's fearful heart in her own ears), to the room where their marriage will be consummated, she bolts and leaves. She cannot share him afterall, and cannot sit in silence with the person who she has become: a shadow of her husband.
On the face of it, this is a feminist movie about the denigration of women into child-bearing vessels. However, it is also about two people who are totally in love, and yet, as Jane Shapiro names it, practice "intimate terrorism." They are so concerned with the other that they become passive aggressive. They dare not speak completely truthfully. Yes, Leila's mother-in-law is practically a Gorgon Greek chorus standing in for Iranian society, but the heartbreak of Reza and Leila is in how they subtly turn on each other. She fears losing him, she longs for him, and he fears disappointing her. A woman locked in the curse of the Fall.