Wednesday evening Convivium discussions often start hares that occupy me for hours or days. And of course each hare draws one to any number of interesting rabbit holes, and so it goes. Last night, the Question was, essentially, How’s It Going?. There was much talk of disappointments and rampant commodifications, so perhaps there’s an underlying Question: Can It Be Fixed?. The answer is (generally, and often resoundingly) No. And yet we keep wanting the answer to be Yes, <== granting us efficacy in the world, having our efforts and energies mean something, and not to have been somehow in vain… and so evoking rueful reflection on naïvetes of the past…
Or perhaps (I thought to myself) it’s a matter of thinking about which windmills we’ve chosen to tilt against. That Quixotic image keeps coming up, ever since Cervantes 1604, and wants looking into as a prevailing recurrent trope. It begins in a Tale of
…attacking imaginary enemies… …striving for visionary ideals…
It didn’t take too long (just 40 years) for the windmill-tilting trope to find its way into English as a fully-fledged metaphor. A bit of googlement discovered the first occurrence, in John Cleveland “The Character of London Diurnall” (1644), in which we find
The Quixotes of this Age fight with the Wind-mills of their owne heads; quell Monsters of their owne Creation; make Plots, and then discover them; as who fitter to unkennel the Fox, than the Tarryer, that is part of him.
The Windmills now stand for
…to waste time fighting enemies or trying to resolve issues that are imaginary, unimportant, or impossible to overcome…
…the pursuit of “an unrealistic, impractical or impossible goal”…
After an intense week of thinking and reading and writing about entanglement with computers, I fell to wondering about my own history of writing about things that were on my mind, and Montaigne bubbled up: I wondered if his Essays had been written for himself [they started out that way] and if it was only later that he bethought to publish them for wider readership [yes, in 1580]… and didn’t I have a Kindle book that would remind me… and sure enough I’d bought Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer in April 2011… so, worthwhile (a) to look at again, and (b) to consider the content and directions of that 11 years. It turned out to be a very interesting, worthwhile, and encouraging two days of re-reading Bakewell’s marvelous book. The structure of the book, limned by the subtitle, has chapters thusly:
Q. How to live? A. Don’t worry about death
Q. How to live? A. Pay attention: Starting to write Stream of consciousness
Q. How to live? A. Be born
Q. How to live? A. Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted
Q. How to live? A. Survive love and loss
Q. How to live? A. Use little tricks
Q. How to live? A. Question everything: All I know is that I know nothing, and I’m not even sure about that
Q. How to live? A. Keep a private room behind the shop
Q. How to live? A. Be convivial: live with others
Q. How to live? A. Wake from the sleep of habit
Q. How to live? A. Live temperately
Q. How to live? A. Guard your humanity
Q. How to live? A. Do something no one has done before
Q. How to live? A. See the world
Q. How to live? A. Do a good job, but not too good a job
And yes, it feels that my own writings are of the same allusive and digressive (not to say wandering…) ilk, such that a Project of attending more closely to Montaigne seems delicious to contemplate. So I’ve queued up several resources to hear, read, and enjoy exploring:
from the Preface: He was, without being aware of it, the leader of a new school in letters and morals. His book was different from all others which were at that date in the world. It diverted the ancient currents of thought into new channels. It told its readers, with unexampled frankness, what its writer’s opinion was about men and things, and threw what must have been a strange kind of new light on many matters but darkly understood. Above all, the essayist uncased himself, and made his intellectual and physical organism public property. He took the world into his confidence on all subjects. His essays were a sort of literary anatomy, where we get a diagnosis of the writer’s mind, made by himself at different levels and under a large variety of operating influences.
Montaigne’s times were in some ways not so very different from our own (France riven by religious conflict and inept government; physical danger from various marauders, including epidemic disease and the unpredictable thrashings of victims of structural inequalities, and uncertainties about the future), despite the vast gulf of differences in technologies that 440 years presents. The wonder of Montaigne’s essays [and it was he who coined the term ‘essai’…] is that they speak so clearly across that gulf, and have done so pretty continuously for all that time. Cotton’s translation of 1685 is still readable, and there’s a long-running Montaigne Industry, which charts a history of extremely varied readings and fashions and emphases (all ably and amusingly tracked by Bakewell).
One of the pleasures/trials/challenges of advancing age is the occasional experience of finding oneself faintly ridiculous. Sometimes it’s a consequence of some quest or quixotrie one has embarked upon, some exercise in futility or overweening bumptiousness which has turned out to be vastly more complicated and complex than one initially anticipated. That’s OK, nobody is watching the clock or running a performance review on your ass, or not yet anyway. Today’s case in point reaches back 20 years, or maybe 75 years.
When brother David (16 years older than myself) was dying, he wanted to hear a particular piece by Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1702) that he had somewhere on 78… a turntable that could handle 78s was quarried and hooked up to bedside amp and speakers, and the 11″ disk was played. David had thousands of records (he was an acoustic engineer, founder of DBX, builder of Earthworks speakers and microphones, audio perfectionist, but not the most orderly of folk), so just finding that one was an adventure in itself.
Lately I’ve been curating my own mountain of vinyl and figuring out how to make the collection(s) more accessible. My solution has been to stick numbers on the albums (around 2500) and photograph their covers, then make web pages with pictures of albums belonging to the (very) various categories, so that I can leaf through the visual catalog and find, for example, a particular obscure Persian ney album, or specific gamelan performance, or Bach chorale, or… and put that prize onto a turntable and step back in time to remember former encounters with the music.
And so the barn now has glorious sound capabilities, analog and Bluetooth digital, downstairs in the Museum and the Shop (Cambridge Soundworks speakers) and upstairs in the Auxiliary Library (Earthworks speakers). I’ve been figuring out how to access and move amongst the various media, including cassette tapes, CDs, mp3s, and streaming Bluetooth services, as well as vinyl and shellac. And while I was sorting and cataloging and tagging, I came across that Buxtehude 78. This morning I woke up wondering if I could play the record through the amps and speakers, and sure enough I exhumed that 78-capable turntable (complete with 78-specific stylus) and the record was playable after 20 years of hibernation.
Next question: could I sort out a pathway from the 78 to a digital recording? In effect, an analog to digital conversion, should be easy. And probably is, if you know what you’re doing or are willing to try a lot of solutions that ought to work …play into a CD writer, or make a cassette tape, or perhaps run the signal from the turntable and through a preamp and then somehow pass that through USB to Audacity editing software on the laptop… It all sounds feasible, given the right connectors and the proper curses to make bits of hardware accessible to one another. But for a lot of good reasons it doesn’t quite work as well as it seems that it should… and that’s what I spent most of the day messing with, learning a lot about paths that didn’t connect and might work if I had the right bit of equipment.
By 4 PM I was at an impasse with connectors and jacks, and was figuring to do other things for a while, and attack the problem again in the morning. I thought maybe I should just see if the interwebs could tell me anything about the 78 record recorded in 1946… so I searched for title and performer (Axel Schiǿtz) and mirabile dictu up came a YouTube video of the exact precise very recording, with none of the surface noise and pops and clicks of the shellac original. I could actually hear the words, and thus have some idea of what brother David heard all those years ago (before there even was vinyl) and kept in his memory all his life. Here it is:
Aperite mihi portas justitiae Open to Me, Gates of Justice
So the faintly ridiculous part of this was that I didn’t ask Google first, I who generally pride myself on knowing my way around the worlds of Information that I’ve inhabited all my life, and that I’ve kept up with pretty well. I was stuck on the realia of that 78, on the story from David’s last days. But now I have a slightly better understanding of where he was at (Gates of Justice indeed…), what he thought about, and how he responded to the intricately structured sound of a rather obscure Danish/German mid-Baroque musical eminence, as interpreted by an even more obscure Danish singer.
Our UPS dude said to Kate today, “What does your dad do up there in the barn?”. Her answer: “Who the hell knows…”
Organizing stuff in the barn always means finding things of Significance that have been hiding for years. Some of them connect to stories and Stories.
This one ended 60 years ago. The tall person was David Lyon, my Chadwick roommate in 1958-59, after which he went to Paris for two years (long story there), before returning to Chadwick for his senior year, which was my first year at Harvard. He’d just been accepted to Harvard himself when he died in a car accident. The old people in the photo are Commander and Mrs. Chadwick, the grandparents of the three at the back and great aunt/uncle to the rest. Mrs. C. was a huge presence in my Chadwick life.
Here we see Betsy’s sister Caroline and her first husband Steve Butterfield, in 1973. Shame it’s not color — Steve’s hair was a magnificent red. He worked for Bolt, Beranek, and Newman when the internet was being born, and was the first person we ever saw use email. When we were at Stanford in the 1979-1980 sabbatical, Steve was at Xerox PARC. He gave me a tour of the Future just when the personal computer was being invented…
Broot took this one in summer 1963, the young guitarist clipping fingernails.
And this is Larry Fredericks, taken sometime in the 1980s. He was a colleague/friend in the first few years at Acadia, an enthusiastic member of CPC/M-L (Communist Party of Canada, Marxist-Leninist). He had a marvelous International Harvester Scout, red in colour, which at one point he traded in for a bronze-hued Impala with electric windows. He took me for a ride on the Big Road, getting it up to 90 or so, and zipped the windows up and down… I said “Lar, what you got here is a Bronze Pig”. He thought that characterization was funny until I wrote a rather mocking song about it. I learned the power of music and lost a friend… but then one day maybe 10 years later he turned up… he was doing something in banking or was it stock-broking in Toronto, and had rented the white Cadillac convertible at the airport.
I’ve been going through photographs, in the early stages of choosing for the September Granite Gallery joint show, and have some that aren’t candidates for the gallery but have something about them that is …memorable, and shouldn’t be lost in the thousands of the Flickr photostream:
I spent quite a bit of the last fortnight wrangling the Question “how about we explore the roles music has played in our lives?” which is for me something between a sheer impossibility and a marvelous opportunity. oook.info/Conviv/musics0.html is the summary collection of pointers that I arrived at, many of them YouTube videos, but a week later I’d probably put up a whole different set. I continue to struggle with how to curate my collections: vinyl, cassette, CD, MP3, video, bibliographic, playlists (mostly Spotify), material from the various iterations of Cross-Cultural Studies in Music, and of course instruments.
I note that I didn’t post anything to the blog in February and that it’s now past mid-March. So what have I been up to in that time? Most of my keeping track has been managed on yellow pads, but one of the most recent distractions was email from HR65 about our 55th Reunion, delayed 2 years because of COVID and now scheduled to take place in May, and do we want to register and attend? This sort of thing usually puts me into some sort of tailspin: I surprised myself by actually enjoying the 50th Reunion, back in 2015 (which seems another world entirely), but my ambivalence about Harvard is pretty close to the surface. The 55th is basically a day of ‘symposia’ (which means listening to erstwhile classmates talk about something, and tends toward the Grand Questions) with bits in between for “breakout sessions” that are supposed to evoke conversation. I run screaming, but ?why? … and I have an answer to that. Or maybe it’s an Answer. The question one is surely likely to be asked (if anybody asks anything) is “so what have you been doing?” and you get a few minutes to try to say something significant, memorable, fulfilling. Ugh. But imagining that socially discomfiting question did inspire me to try to sculpt an Answer (impossible to deliver/convey in the allotted few minutes, and to a complete stranger at that), if only to remind myself about what actually matters.
So here goes: at the core of what I’ve been doing in the 16 1/2 years since I retired and moved to Maine has been curation of a lifetime of enthusiasms, putting It All Together for myself and perhaps for some as-yet-unimagined audience. There’s a catalog of activities that span parts of that 16 1/2 years:
14 years in support of Alice (1925-2010) and Wick (1924-2019)
about 5 years being more involved with writing, much of it to keep track of thoughts re: Convivium Questions
and throughout, reading and buying books that bear upon enthusiasms
reorganizing the personal Libraries, a vast enterprise in negentropy
And of course playing at hypertext, working toward building a Lifebox.
Each of those is a saga of discoveries, far too complex for that elevator-pitch few minutes, and mediated by incoming periodicals and blog posts and books. In short, I’ve been enjoying my life day-to-day, no boredom or lack of things to do, and being pretty private about most of that, though it’s at oook.info for anybody to explore ad lib. I’m on the Periphery in almost every way, spatially and intellectually and practically, working at blamelessness. Self-absorbed covers it pretty well.
This marvelous improbability hung above the kitchen stove at Horton Landing through the 1970s, and surfaces today because I’ve been sorting through saved images on various hard drives. Perhaps I’ll add others I encounter as the day unfolds.
and here comes another one:
Much thinking lately about Time and age cohorts, bringing to mind a painting (by John Faed, 1851) which I have as a print, formerly framed and hung in a Nova Scotia parlour, sporting the title
Shakespeare und sein Zeitgenossen
It shows a fictional/imaginary meeting at the Mermaid Tavern of everybody who was anybody in London literary circles around 1600 or so. Think of them as a cohort, sharing time and space for a few years (moments?). Wikipedia decodes the Dramatis Personæ:
(from left in back) Joshua Sylvester, John Selden, Francis Beaumont, (seated at table from left) William Camden, Thomas Sackville, John Fletcher, Sir Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Donne, Samuel Daniel, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Southampton, Sir Robert Cotton, and Thomas Dekker.
Has it really been a month since the last blog post? Of course lots of stuff in that time, books arriving and being wolfed down and at least partially digested, various end-of-year summings-up, and the plunge into 2022. Staying home, minimizing f2f encounters, watching It All Go Down.
Preparations for the weekly Convivium have supplanted blogging to some degree, and
tell the tale of my wandering attentions pretty well.
By way of paying attention to the world outside the many comforts of home, I’ve been following Heather Cox Richardson and Umair Haque, both sort of paywalled (or anyhow I’m not sure if hyperlinks to their posts on Substack and Medium are readily accessible), and both painting not-rosy pictures of what’s just around the corner.
…and then consult The Aleph (pdf), when you’re ready for the next thing… Hell of a ride. I’ve just ordered The Total Library : Non-Fiction, 1922-1986, so The Future Is Assured for the rest of January. And of course other things will appear, seemingly out of nowhere.