Auden: Doubt

Posted in quotes, writers-poetry on December 29th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Auden: Doubt

“The basic stimulus to the intelligence is doubt, a feeling that the meaning of an experience is not self-evident.”
― W.H. Auden, Selected Essays

Scholarly Study Of Art: Helen Vendler

Posted in art, ideas, quotes on October 12th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Scholarly Study Of Art: Helen Vendler

Helen Vendler, the great critic and scholar of poetry, gave a talk called the Jefferson Lecture, “… the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.” It is worth taking a look…

In a rare case of justified applause, the government chose wisely in Vendler.

Vendler’s lecture is an attempt to explain the necessity for scholarship in the appreciation of the arts. Vendler is not someone who puts you off with vaunting ego; she is simply saying a necessary part of the arts is scholarly study. Such study in other words is not outside, nor incidental to the arts.

… such studies establish in human beings a sense of cultural patrimony. We in the United States are the heirs of several cultural patrimonies: a world patrimony (of which we are becoming increasingly conscious); a Western patrimony (from which we derive our institutions, civic and aesthetic); and a specifically American patrimony (which, though great and influential, has, bafflingly, yet to be established securely in our schools). In Europe, although the specifically national patrimony was likely to be urged as preeminent–Italian pupils studied Dante, French pupils studied Racine–most nations felt obliged to give their students an idea of the Western inheritance extending beyond native production.

It’s not fashionable to be nationalistic – if you are American, Vendler is shrewdly saying. Other countries grok pride in culture; Americans seem suspicious of culture, at least as far as I can tell. They aren’t sure what to make of it. If you are being sold something, which is what the pop culture is always doing, then Americans trust the accompanying cultural aura – it’s part of the familiar merchandise stream.

She affirms again, in this next quote, the role of the scholar:

If we are prepared to recognize the centrality of artists and their interpreters to every past culture, we might begin to reflect on what our own American culture has produced that will be held dear centuries from now. Which are the paintings, the buildings, the novels, the musical compositions, the poems, through which we will be remembered? What set of representations of life will float above the American soil, rendering each part of it as memorable as Marin’s Maine or Langston Hughes’s Harlem, as Cather’s Nebraska or Lincoln’s Gettysburg? How will the outlines and the expressings and the syllables of American being glow above our vast geography? How will our citizens be made aware of their cultural inheritance; how will they become proud of their patrimony?

This is all beautifully said, and true, but I think she might agree that if all scholarly works about the arts disappeared, a terrible thought really, but if such were the case, new scholars would be spawned by the compelling nature of art itself. Art is the singular song, scholarship the chorus.

She ends her lecture with a a beautiful quote from Wordsworth:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.

Vendler attributes half that celestial light to the scholarly search for meanings in art. I’d suggest it is more fully the art which provides the illumination for the scholar.

Martin Amis About Meaning

Posted in quotes, writers-poetry on September 22nd, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Martin Amis About Meaning

Again, it must be stressed that you don’t have your themes tacked up on the wall like a target, or like a dartboard. When people ask, What did you mean to say with this novel? The answer to the question is, of course, The novel, all four hundred and seventy pages of it. Not any catchphrase that you could print on a badge or a T-shirt. It’s a human failing to reduce things either to a slogan or a personality, but I seem to have laid myself open to this—the personality getting in the way of the novel.

—Martin Amis

Success: Banville and Nietzsche

Posted in pop culture, quotes, writers-poetry on August 27th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Success: Banville and Nietzsche

John Banville, in his Paris Review interview:

“One of my favorite Nietzsche aphorisms is-I always trot this out when people ask about some other writer who’s having a huge sucess for some cheap thing…”

You will never get the crowd to cry hosanna until you ride into town on an ass.

T. What’s-His-Face Boyle

Posted in ideas, quotes, writers-poetry on February 12th, 2012 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on T. What’s-His-Face Boyle

We’re about half way through the wonderfully written, The Women, by T.C. Boyle. (This post’s title comes from a New Yorker cartoon. His middle name is great: Coraghessan; his first name is Tom, which is good too.) The Women is the tabloid-like story of Frank Lloyd Wright and his women.

On his site, T.C. Boyle has an essay describing his journey as a writer, which contained this advice given him by John Cheever:

All good fiction is experimental, he was telling me, and don’t get caught up in fads.

Leonard Cohen, Annie Lamott and Who By Fire

Posted in art, ideas, quotes on July 24th, 2011 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Leonard Cohen, Annie Lamott and Who By Fire

We’ve been listening to singer songwriter ladies’ man Leonard Cohen. A mention somewhere and we started listening via Spotify. Spotify seems it could establish a new standard for online listening. The prices seem high, but it is a nifty idea.

Who By Fire is our favorite song by Cohen. This piece, after some background checking, is based on the Unetanneh Tokef, an ancient Hebrew piyyut or hymn. Who shall live, and who shall die, the subtext. The excellent lyrics, as always with Cohen, performed with deep melancholy, truly resonate. His voice is not his strong point; it is the intelligence and poetic yearning that wins you over finally.

Cohen needs accompaniment, a good group of musicians behind him, and even some more subtle orchestration – something to give the work shape. The purity argument seldom works. We’re not talking Las Vegas glitz-ification here, although just such SNL satirical treatment springs to mind. Listen to Who By Fire in solo and accompanied version; the latter much rounder and more effective.

I wasn’t surprised to read Cohen is depressive. I was surprised to find he is a cult figure. Like Dylan, who has so much more range, Cohen gives pop music an honorable hook into traditional strains in human culture – both in poetry and music.


Cohen about the writing process:

…like a bear stumbling into a beehive or a honey cache: I’m stumbling right into it and getting stuck, and it’s delicious and it’s horrible and I’m in it and it’s not very graceful and it’s very awkward and it’s very painful and yet there’s something inevitable about it.

In 1998 Cohen said:

I feel that we’re in a very shabby moment, and neither the literary nor the musical experience really has its finger on the pulse of our crisis. From my point of view, we’re in the midst of a Flood of biblical proportions. It’s both exterior and interior. At this point it’s more devastating on the interior level, but it’s leaking into the real world. I see everybody holding on in their individual way to an orange crate, to a piece of wood, and we’re passing each other in this swollen river that has pretty well taken down all the landmarks, and pretty well overturned everything we’ve got. And people insist, under the circumstances, on describing themselves as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative.’ It seems to me completely mad.”

Ahead of his time, was Cohen in that insight.


Since we are quoting: listening to that sensitive soul Anne Lamott, she quoted John Gardner about writing – about creative work as creating a dream,

Gardner said:

…the dream must be vivid and continuous.

All art shares that dream well spoken quality, because life has that quality.

Lamott also mentions Blake’s reminder, that we are here:

…to endure the beams of love.