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Archive for January, 2004

Last Straw

Posted by acdtest on January 30, 2004

Last Straw

[I most heartily apologize for posting the following article on this weblog. Not because I’m in any way ashamed of having written it, but because when, several months ago, I refocused the purpose and content of acdouglas.com to concern itself exclusively with matters cultural it was my specific intent to eschew posting or referencing any article of a political nature. There’s already far too much of that sort of idiot crap infesting the blogosphere. But the latest murderous Palestinian bombing of a Jerusalem bus yesterday cocked my last-straw trigger, so to speak, and reading this post by weblogger J.W. Hastings of Forager 23, and the comments attached thereto, tripped it.]

With each passing year of the almost fifty-six-year-old “conflict” between the Israelis and Palestinians the real bottom-line nature of that conflict, as well as why the conflict has been so resistant to any lasting solution, becomes more and more clear. That is, more and more clear to me. To those in positions of power world-wide, even some in positions of power within the governments of the combatants themselves, the bottom line nature of the conflict seems to have become more and more clouded and fraught with myriad and impenetrable subtleties and difficulties that defy even clear definition, hence the perennial putting forward of doomed-to-failure “peace plans,” and the earnest engagement in impossible and equally doomed-to-failure Pollyanna “peace processes.”

And what’s become more and more clear to me concerning the bottom-line nature of the conflict is the manifest and incontestable circumstance that the Palestinians (as well as the Arab world generally) will accept as lastingly satisfactory no solution to the conflict that includes the continued existence of a sovereign State of Israel. No matter what concessions to Palestinian demands the Israelis are willing to make, no matter what they’re willing to give up for the sake of peace, the Palestinians (and, again, the Arab world generally) will not be lastingly satisfied if, at the end, the State of Israel remains a sovereign and powerful entity in the region. Every Israeli concession, every partial surrender, will be (has been) looked upon by the Palestinians not as a step toward a peaceful coexistence with Israel, but as one step farther taken in the resolute march toward the Palestinians’ (and once again, the Arab world’s) ultimate, intractable and uncompromising goal: the State of Israel’s total dissolution.

If I’m right about that (and it’s manifest I am), then it becomes immediately clear that every apparently successful step toward a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that at bottom leaves Israel sovereign and powerful is merely just that, apparently successful, and in reality little more than a for-the-moment-satisfying stopgap at best, and at worst, an insidious progression in the process of a slow suicide for Israel.

So, what then is the answer to the question of a genuinely lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? One thing that for certain is not an answer is sitting down at bargaining tables. After all, one cannot bargain in good faith with an opponent who will be satisfied only if you end up dead. Bargaining conferences have been (and are) nothing but charades used by the Palestinians in an attempt to jockey for a better position in their march toward their ultimate real goal. And if I’m also right about that (and, again, it’s manifest I am) that would seem to leave but a single effective strategy for Israel: an unambiguous and loudly declared promise of an overwhelming military response to any act of deadly aggression against her sovereignty or her people, ending, if necessary, in all-out war with the Palestinians (and with the Arab world as it could not help but be) with but one of only two possible outcomes: 1) Israel loses, in which case the State of Israel will cease to exist as every Israeli man, woman, and child will end up dead either at the hands of the Arabs, or, Masada-like, at the hands of the Israelis themselves; or 2) Israel wins, in which case the Palestinians and the Arab world will have no choice but to accept a sovereign State of Israel in the region on Israel’s terms, hate it though they (and, I suspect, much of the rest of the world) surely would.

And what part the United States in such a war threat, and war itself if it came to that? Unambiguously determined. We back Israel to the hilt against all her enemies with whatever is necessary. We could do no less and still preserve even a shred of our moral or practical authority. In the entire world the United States has but two genuine friends: Britain and Israel. All our other “friends” — many of whom (all of whom, in the Arab world) actively but secretly hate and/or are contemptuous of us — are contingent friends only, and would without compunction turn on us in a heartbeat if they saw any gain to be secured by doing so.

But all this is unthinkable, is it not? World War III for certain, and therefore something not to be entertained or even imagined, right?

Not right.

If things ever came to such a pass, and if the position of the United States were made unambiguously clear and in earnest, the intention and show of force would be more than enough. The rest of the world would stand back, much of the Arab world included, and offer no more than loud, aggrieved and condemnatory clucking noises at the U.N. and in the world press. Realistically, they could not do much more than that. They would, of course, hate us for our show of power in behalf of Israel, certainly, but they couldn’t hate us more than they already do, or be more contemptuous of us, and so we would not only lose nothing by taking such a position, but would actually stand to gain in terms of respect and/or fear from other nations (in the geo-political arena, the two are the same in practical terms).

It’s surely uncivilized, and a not attractive thing to contemplate, I confess. But if the history of mankind has taught anything it is that in the intercourse of both individuals and nations, when nagging push comes to ineluctable shove, there’s but a single language which all understand, and to which all respond predictably: overwhelming physical force or the real threat of same. He who carries and shows a willingness to wield the biggest stick wins.

Always.

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More On Sweeney Todd

Posted by acdtest on January 28, 2004

More On Sweeney Todd

As I noted here a week ago after arriving at the party a full quarter-century late, I’m much taken with Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, and spent the last week engrossed in a sort of saturation involvement with the work. I first came to it several weeks ago via a TV version done originally for the Entertainment Channel with George Hearn in the title role, and the incomparable Angela Lansbury — about whose stellar performance I cannot even begin to speak without sounding like a gibbering groupie or movie fan — as the very creepy but curiously charming Mrs. Lovett.

Although I could see instantly this was no ordinary Broadway musical (an art form I find vapid and tiresome and have little patience with, even with the best of its examples), I was at first confused by that TV production because something important was missing; something I sensed (but of course couldn’t know) was essential. And what was missing, I decided, was the orchestra, which in this TV production is barely audible. For the typical Broadway musical that would not be a serious problem (as opposed to being merely a problem) as the orchestra for such is not much more than fill accompaniment, much like the orchestra in a typical Italian opera. For both, it’s the songs and singers that are important, and as long as they’re fully intact, and the stagework what it should be, all is well.

Not the case with Sweeney Todd, I conjectured.

And I conjectured correctly, for after purchasing the original cast CD album (also starring Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett, but with Len Cariou in the title role), and for the first time being able to hear that orchestra, I understood at once just how important it is to the work, which is to say Wagnerian-important, as I remarked previously. The very heart of the work’s narrative, emotional, and dramatic core is contained within the orchestral music in Jonathan Tunick’s brilliant orchestration, and a comprehensible Sweeney even partially absent that orchestral music is to me inconceivable.

More generally, Sondheim’s music for Sweeney, melodically and harmonically, is even today atypically avant-garde for the Broadway stage (and the choral writing especially complex), and utilizes forms ranging from the Dies Irae of the Gregorian Requiem Mass (a prominent idée fixe cum leitmotif in the Sweeney score) to love ballads sacred, profane, and perverse — the “Johanna” ballads sung by Anthony (sacred) and Judge Turpin (profane and perverse), “My Friends” (perverse), “Wait” (sacred, in a Mrs. Lovett creepy way), “Not While I’m Around” (sacred when sung by Tobias; perverse (and creepy) when sung by Mrs. Lovett) — to Broadway “jump tunes” (“By the Sea”), as I’ve heard this form referred to by Broadway mavens, to the big Broadway production number (“Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir”, “God, That’s Good!”), to extended Broadway comic numbers (“The Worst Pies in London”, “A Little Priest”), and even to Old English folk ballads (“Parlor Songs”), and a kind of Chanson (“Green Finch and Linnet Bird”). Thanks to Sondheim’s and Tunick’s rare and original treatment, however (and Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics which everywhere are pure magic), all these familiar forms take on a character and coloring markedly unlike that which their provenance would suggest.

And both Sondheim and Tunick are not above, um, “borrowing,” at times almost verbatim, from the music of composers such as Bernard Hermann (from the scores of the movies Cape Fear and Psycho) and Gian Carlo Menotti (from the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors), to name just two that I recognized immediately.

In all, a rich and veritable musical smorgasbord almost without parallel in the Broadway musical theater — at least as far as it’s known to me.

To thoroughly familiarize myself with this new-to-me work, I began by following my usual procedure with any new musical work, which is to first listen several times through to get the work’s overall shape. Having done that, I proceeded to embark on my usual next step: a study of the full score — and was stopped dead in my tracks. It seems there’s no full score to be had, the only score available for purchase being the piano (vocal) score; almost useless for the study of a work such as Sweeney. Worse, it seems that in all probability there’s no full score even extant — for purchase, rent, or otherwise — or so I was informed by a professional acquaintance of mine with many years experience conducting non-Broadway productions of Broadway musicals (he informs me, for instance, that not until the mid-1980s was there available a full score for even so classic a Broadway musical as Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 West Side Story(!)).

For a classical musician, such a state of affairs is both astonishing and incomprehensible. How, for instance, does one prepare for a performance absent a full score? And absent a full score how is the original orchestration preserved across performances in various venues?

The answer, it seems, is the rental of a copy of the original handwritten(!) full score from the designated agent, from whom all the orchestral parts must also be rented, and all that available only to a theater company that intends actually producing the work. It seems the matter of copyright infringement (i.e., performances unauthorized and/or unpaid for) is the specter ostensibly being protected against by this misguided practice (misguided because, especially today, there’s nothing to prevent unauthorized copy of such rented material. And even if only the parts were rentable, nothing to prevent utilizing them to readily “reverse-engineer” a full score).

But as in all things, old practices don’t go easily or willingly into that good night, and in the meantime seriously interested amateurs such as myself (not to speak of genuine students who want to make the Broadway musical theater their life’s work) are royally screwed, and have no choice but to make do with a piano score, as totally inadequate as it most decidedly is for a work as complex as Sweeney Todd.

Major bummer.

Anyway, more on Sweeney to come anon. But for now, enough.

Posted in Music, Opera, Theater | Comments Off on More On Sweeney Todd

Score Another For The Philistines

Posted by acdtest on January 24, 2004

Score Another For The Philistines

The murderous onslaught on high culture by the philistine horde continues, the latest salvo proceeding from the venerable New York Times as outlined in an interview with New York Times Book Review executive editor, Bill Keller.

The nub of it:

He [Keller] promised “dramatic changes” in the Sunday section [of the Book Review] now that head honcho Chip McGrath is stepping aside. He also indicated that the top brass is rethinking book coverage top to bottom.

And which way are the winds blowing?

Well, if you write non-fiction, review non-fiction, or prefer to read non-fiction, break out the champagne. “The most compelling ideas tend to be in the non-fiction world,” Keller says. “Because we are a newspaper, we should be more skewed toward non-fiction.”

What’s more, if you’re perplexed or simply bored with what passes for smart fiction these days, the Times feels your pain. More attention will be paid to the potboilers, we’re told. After all, says Keller, somebody’s got to tell you what book to choose at the airport.

Charming.

Idiots.

Posted in Books, Cultural Commentary, Literature, Print Media | Comments Off on Score Another For The Philistines

A Brief Note On Sweeney Todd

Posted by acdtest on January 23, 2004

A Brief Note On Sweeney Todd

Had anyone suggested to me before yesterday that I’d spend two consecutive days listening four times through a complete Stephen Sondheim musical — listening in the same way I listen through, say, a complete Wagner opera — I would have thought that person lunatic.

But that’s just what I’ve finished doing, and I can report (and, yes, I know just how late to the party I am) Sweeney Todd is a veritable wonder, and the original cast CD (RCA) a wonder as well. The audio is sterling, and the performances first-rate all round, vocally and dramatically, the chorus most decidedly included. And Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett — an impossible role, vocally and dramatically — is done so superbly the performance beggars adequate description or praise.

But most amazing of all is the orchestral music; music as dramatically Wagnerian-integral to the play as anything any of Wagner’s successors ever wrote. The music itself is astonishingly rich, complex, and difficult, and here performed to utter perfection by this supplemented pit band conducted by Paul Gemignani (a name unknown to me); a performance, ensemble-wise, the equal of, or better than, any of this country’s major symphony orchestras.

I’m totally blown away by Sweeney, and haven’t finished with it yet.

Posted in Music, Opera, Recordings, Theater | Comments Off on A Brief Note On Sweeney Todd

Detective Story

Posted by acdtest on January 20, 2004

Detective Story

A couple days ago I was messing about on the computer with music going on the radio in the background to which I was only a quarter listening, when my attention was suddenly arrested by music from Walküre, Act II, Scene 5 (Sieglinde’s awakening near the beginning of the scene), but strangely out of context.

I gave the music all my attention then.

Well, it wasn’t Walküre, certainly, but there was the music — a haunting, twelve-note, two-phrase melodic segment — almost verbatim*, in the midst of some very second-rate music I’d never heard before.

And what was it?, you may ask, and well you may. What it was was the principal motif of the first movement of Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony, a work totally unfamiliar to me. What was Wagner’s music doing in a Liszt symphony?

That sent me to the books posthaste. Who had taken it from whom?

A quick perusal of the reference material I had to hand yielded the necessary information in terms of dates of composition of both works, and in terms of who of the two composers had knowledge of the other’s work and when.

From letters between the two composers, bosom friends at that time, the case seemed clear-cut. Liszt had a full score of Walküre, Act II in his hands by 12 October 1855, and Wagner, as late as 12 July 1856, was still expressing his desire to hear Liszt’s Faust. Liszt, then, took it from Wagner; a reversal in the ordinary direction of the pilfering in that deep-bonded personal and professional relationship.

But for some reason the matter continued to occupy my thinking far longer than its importance warranted. Perhaps it was because the solution to the mystery was acquired so easily, and was so clear-cut. Perverse, I know, but there it is. In any case, I determined to delve a bit more in detail into the business.

A Google search turned up nothing pertinent on the Faust beyond dates of composition, and so I went back to the reference materials I had to hand (all on Wagner, none on Liszt).

In Ernest Newman’s superb book, The Wagner Operas, I found this snarky little remark in his description of the action in Walküre, Act II, Scene 5:

Sieglinde begins to move restlessly in her dreams. The violas give out a short melody [here, Newman quotes the twelve-note, two-phrase segment in question] which the sufferers from Wagnerphobia assure us Wagner borrowed from Liszt.

Well, that would seem to have indirectly confirmed my original finding, and I ought to have gotten off the case right then and there. But I found Newman’s snarky remark bothersome because, uncharacteristically for this great Wagner scholar, he made no attempt at all to explain, by even so much as a quick gloss or blurb, what’s in error with people thinking Wagner lifted that melodic segment from Liszt.

Further research was required, I decided. (I know, I know. I ought to get a life.)

My next step was to look up Faust Symphony in the index of Volume II (1848-1860) of Newman’s massive, four-volume definitive Wagner biography, The Life of Richard Wagner (quite unbelievably, now out of print). That revealed the following morsel of intelligence:

They were eight glorious days [Liszt’s visit to Wagner in Zürich in July, 1853] both for Liszt…and for Wagner…. Liszt played for him, he says [in his autobiography, Mein Leben], from the manuscripts, his Faust Symphony, various piano works, and some of the symphonic poems….

Newman footnotes this mention by Wagner of Liszt’s Faust Symphony with the following:

Wagner, however, seems to be in error here. Liszt did not begin work on the Faust Symphony until August, 1854, finishing it in October of that year. Wagner is perhaps confusing Liszt’s visit of July, 1853, with that of October, 1856.

As Newman says, perhaps. But I wasn’t at all convinced. For me, the plot, as they say, was beginning to thicken.

The dates of composition of all three movements (minus the choral coda) of the Faust Symphony are given as August to October, 1854 by almost all the Web sources I found, and that agrees with Newman. But Liszt didn’t have the score for Act II, Walküre in hand until 12 October 1855. Does it seem reasonable, I asked myself, that Liszt would have gone back a year later, and rewritten not merely a segment of what he’d already written, but the principal motif itself, which means he would have had to rewrite the entire first movement?

No indeed. It seems totally unreasonable. But that 12-note, two-phrase motif is undeniably almost identical, even to the “color” of the instrumentation, to that Act II, Scene 5 moment in Walküre. How to explain that? The only other explanation would be that both Liszt and Wagner lifted it wholesale from a third composer, identity unknown. But the very idea is prima facie absurd.

The bloody plot has now gotten so thick I can barely see my way through.

I go back to the two-volume Wagner-Liszt correspondence to see what else I might pick up there, and find this in Volume II in a letter from Liszt to Wagner:

Together with this [letter] I send you the score of my Künstler chorus, and between this and the autumn I intend to publish half-a-dozen orchestral pieces, also in full score. By October the Faust symphony will be finished, which also will be published soon after.

The letter is dated, “Weymar, February 21st, 1854.”

But how can that be? Newman says Liszt didn’t begin work on Faust until August, 1854, and that date agrees with all the other articles I read. Yet by his above letter Liszt appears to have already begun work on the symphony by February. The answer can only be that Liszt at that time had at least a rough draft of, at the very least, the first movement of the symphony by February, 1854, and by the presumed prior knowledge wording, almost certainly before that date. And we can say with some measure of assurance just how much before. Wagner was not in error when he said that on his visit to Zürich in July, 1853 Liszt played for him the Faust Symphony — or at very least the draft of the first movement of that work.

And that’s when Wagner first heard that 12-note, two-phrase melodic segment that found its way eventually into Act II, Scene 5 of Walküre. It could have happened no other way as Wagner did not begin writing the music for Act II until 4 September 1854, and didn’t complete that act until 18 November of the same year, and so there was no way possible that Liszt could have heard a note of it before November, 1854, by which time not only the first movement, but all three movements (again, minus the choral coda) of the Faust had already been completed. And so it must be that what Wagner had expressed his desire to hear in his letter of July, 1856 noted above was the full score of the finished work.

Astoundingly, it would appear that in this case Newman’s normally stellar scholarship was deficient, and his snarky remark above noted, misplaced. The direction of the pilfering between the two great friends was, then, as per usual, with Wagner the pilferer, and Liszt the pilferee.

Not an airtight case, I grant you, but close enough to make no nevermind.

Gads!, I do love a detective story with a proper denouement, don’t you?

*I’ve no score for the Faust Symphony, and heard the first movement but that one time. I’m told by a source that’s to be trusted, and who is in possession of scores for both the Faust and the Walküre, that the 12-note, two-phrase melodic segment at issue is not quite the verbatim same in the two works (they differ some in their melodic intervals; at points, minor vs. augmented), but the full shape of it, and the “color” of the instrumentation, is undeniably the verbatim same in both works.

Posted in Music, Opera, Wagner's Ring | Comments Off on Detective Story

Totally Outrageous

Posted by acdtest on January 19, 2004

Totally Outrageous

Oh my. This is totally outrageous.

Posted in Worthwhile Articles Elsewhere | Comments Off on Totally Outrageous

So Whose Gold Is It Anyway?

Posted by acdtest on January 19, 2004

So Whose Gold Is It Anyway?

The Nibelung dwarf Alberich forswears love forever, takes a lump of gold from its resting place at the bottom of the river Rhine, forges it into a ring which confers upon him unlimited power, and thereby sets into motion the chain of events which is Wagner’s epic tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The Nibelung’s Ring”).

Conventional readings of Alberich’s seminal deed have it that he stole from the Rhine the gold from which he forged his ring, and indeed throughout the texts of all four music-dramas Alberich is referred to as a Räuber, usually translated as robber or thief. But the German noun Raub, which ordinarily means robbery, has another meaning as well used poetically; namely, rape or ravish (i.e., seize and carry off by force, or despoil), and it seems to me, within the context of the Wagnerian mythology of the Ring, that poetic meaning more correctly and more accurately characterizes Alberich’s initial deed. How can one steal that which he’s paid for in full, and therefore his very own?

The gold of the Rhine — the Rhinegold — cannot be said to be owned by anyone at drama’s opening. It’s certainly not owned by the three Rheintöchter. They’re merely its appointed guardians (more about what that entails anon). The Rhinegold can be said, in a poetic sense, to be owned by the Rhine itself, but its resting place at the bottom of that great river is merely a transient state, self-defined, for as the Rheintöchter inform Alberich, the Rhinegold may be forged into the ring of power by anyone willing to forswear love, which implies unequivocally that such a one is entitled to take the Rhinegold for that purpose, and therefore become the owner of both gold and ring.

So, what, then, did the guardianship of the Rheintöchter entail? Surely, it did not — could not — entail their taking physical measures to prevent the removal of the Rhinegold from its resting place at the bottom of the river. The very idea is absurd. It would seem, then, that their guardianship could have entailed nothing other than their informing any prospective fancier of the Rhinegold that only one who first forswore love would be entitled to it. Such a warning, as is made clear in the text of Das Rheingold, was considered by the Rheintöchter to be more than sufficient to ward off any prospective taker of the Rhinegold, for who in that primal world would even consider doing such a thing given the condition required?

Alberich, that’s who. And only because cruelly, if innocently, pushed to the deed by the unthinking behavior of the Rheintöchter themselves in response to his attempts at wooing them. In that sense, the Rheintöchter can be said to have failed, wantonly and abjectly, the principal charge of their guardianship by themselves creating a condition that all but ensured its breach.

By this reasoning (and to my way of thinking, the only reasoning that makes ethical, dramatic, and mythical sense within the context of the Ring) it’s clear Alberich is by no stretch of the term a thief. He paid, and paid most dearly, for his right to take the Rhinegold from the river for his own, and forge from it the ring of power, which ring is without question his and his alone as the very title of the tetralogy itself proclaims. There’s but a single thief in Das Rheingold, and that’s Wotan himself, chief god and maker of laws. When, in Scene 4, Alberich declares that the ring is as much his own as his head, eyes, and ears, and hurls at Wotan — who’s just about to forcibly take the ring from Alberich’s finger for himself (which he does in the next minute) — the appellation Schächer (thief), he speaks nothing but the truth; technically, legally, and ethically.

When I informed some Wagner fans of my intention to post here an article making the case that Alberich was in fact no thief at all in the matter of the Rhinegold, one replied, “If you can get Alberich off that rap the Michael Jackson defense team want to hear from you NOW!”

My number’s in the book.

Posted in Opera, Wagner's Ring | Comments Off on So Whose Gold Is It Anyway?

4’33” And Counting

Posted by acdtest on January 16, 2004

4’33” And Counting

n response to a communication expressing (justifiable) horrified disbelief that the venerable BBC was planning to broadcast a “performance” of “composer” John Cage’s “composition” 4’33”, one professional classical music critic (name withheld as an act of charity, as per usual) wrote:

I’m thrilled, then, to see the radiant story linked in ArtsJournal today from the Guardian, the British newspaper, putting Cage in a fuller context. Please read it. Cage was a great man and a great artist. I understand why a lot of people don’t see that — he was very far from the way most of us live and think — but I’ve found that many people who think he’s nonsense don’t know much about him. Here you can read what he was about before you form any opinion.

What’s wrong with this picture?

And this is someone who teaches at Julliard, no less.

Is it any wonder classical (i.e., “serious” or “art”) music today is so empty of new works that can bear honest comparison to the great works of the past?

Not a bit of it.

UPDATE (17 January at 6:43 PM Eastern): Weblogger George Hunka of Superfluities takes exception.
UPDATE 2 (21 January at 3:50 PM Eastern): John Cage fan Steve Hicken of Symphony X also takes exception. Mr. Hicken declares 4’33” “an étude” that “help[s] us learn how to pay attention to what is around us.” Uh-huh. A PoMo étude, no doubt.

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Something Completely Different II

Posted by acdtest on January 15, 2004

And Now For Something Completely Different II

Faithful John

A New But Unmodern Translation of The Tale
From The Collection of The Brothers Grimm

I.

here was once upon a time a king who had fallen mortally ill and knew he was about to die, and so he called for his favorite servant who was named Faithful John because his whole life long he had been in the king’s service and was as true to the king as one man could ever be to another.

And when Faithful John came to the bedside of the king, the king said to him, “My most faithful John, I feel my end is fast approaching, and my only concern is for my son and only child. He’s still young and does not always know the best way to guide himself. I ask you to give me your solemn oath to be as a father to him and teach him what he must know so that he may become a courageous, just and noble king.”

And Faithful John replied, “On my oath, I swear to do what you ask and serve the prince as truly as I have served you, and I will never forsake him should it cost me my own life.”

At this the king was well pleased and thanked his faithful servant from the depths of his noble heart.

And then the king said to him, “It’s my wish that after my death you show my son all that is his, all the rooms and chambers in the palace, and all the vaults and the great treasures that lie within. But on your oath swear to me you will never permit him entrance to the chamber which lies at the end of the great gallery, for within that chamber is the picture of the princess of the Golden Dwelling, and should he see it he will be so smitten by her beauty that he will faint dead away and go through great dangers for her sake, and from this he must be protected.”

And Faithful John said, “On my oath, I will do all that you ask if it be in my power to do so.”

The king then once more thanked his faithful servant and said, “Now I may die in peace,” and with that he laid his head on his pillow and died.

Within the week the old king was laid in his grave, and there was great sorrow and mourning throughout the kingdom for he was a good king and was well-loved by all his subjects. And when the period of mourning came to an end Faithful John told the young king all that he’d sworn to his father, and said to him, “On my oath, I swear to serve you as truly as I served your father, and I will never forsake you should it cost me my own life.” But of the old king’s wish concerning the chamber at the end of the great gallery he said nothing.

And then Faithful John said to the young king, “It’s now time for you to see your inheritance,” and he took him through the palace and showed him all the rooms and chambers, and all the vaults with the great treasures that lay within, but he did not show him the chamber which lay at the end of the great gallery. The king, however, took notice of this, and said, “Why is it that you show me all the apartments in the palace, all the vaults, together with the great treasures that lie within, but pass by the door of the chamber which lies at the end of the great gallery?”

And Faithful John answered, “It’s forbidden me to show it to you, for on his deathbed I swore an oath to your father whose wish it was that the chamber remain unopened.”

But the king would have none of this answer and pressed Faithful John to unlock the chamber saying that if he could not see what was within he would have no rest day or night. He then tried to break open the door by force, and Faithful John pulled him away, saying, “My king, leave off, for within the chamber is something so dangerous and terrifying it would cause you to faint dead away, and bring the greatest misfortune on you.” And by saying this, he hoped to deter the young king. But the king would hear none of it and swore he would stay by the door of the chamber day and night until he was given entrance.

Now, the picture within the chamber was of such great beauty and charm that there was nothing like it in the whole world, and it was so admirably painted that it seemed to have breath and life of its own, and was so placed within the chamber that when the door was opened it was immediately visible. Faithful John knew of this, and as he saw that the king was determined to gain entrance to the chamber and there was no help for it, he contrived a plan whereby he would enter the chamber ahead of the king and stand in front of the picture so that the king could not see it.

And so, with misgivings and heart heavy as lead, Faithful John sought out the key to the chamber on the great ring of keys which never left his side. He then unlocked the door, went in front of the king, and stood before the portrait to block the king’s view of it. But the king was not to be denied, and he peered over Faithful John’s shoulder and beheld the picture. And when he gazed on the image of the princess of the Golden Dwelling, whose beauty was even more radiant than the great quantity of gold and jewels that surrounded her, he was indeed smitten as his father had foretold, and fell to the ground in a faint.

Faithful John lifted him up and carried him to his bedchamber and refreshed him with wine until he was himself again. And the king’s first words were, “Whose image is it that has so smitten me?” And Faithful John replied, “It’s that of the princess of the Golden Dwelling.” Then the king declared that his love for her was so great that if all the leaves on all the trees in all the world were tongues they would not be able to proclaim it. “I would give my life to win her,” he cried, “and you, my most faithful John, must help me.”

When he spoke thus, Faithful John knew the young king’s heart was as noble and courageous as his father’s, and that nothing he could say would deter the king from his quest, and so he gave himself up to the king’s wish, for he had sworn to guide and protect him from all harm, even should it cost him his own life.

Faithful John considered long and hard with himself how best to accomplish the task the young king had set before him, for he knew that to catch but a glimpse of the princess was a difficult matter. After some time he decided on a way that the task might be accomplished, and he said to the king, “Everything around the princess of the Golden Dwelling is made of gold — dishes, glasses, bowls, even the household furniture. Among the great treasures in your vaults are five large trunks of gold. Summon all the goldsmiths in the kingdom and have them fashion all the gold in one of the trunks into all manner of objects — vessels, household goods, and the shapes of beasts of all kinds — such that they may be pleasing to the princess, and we will travel to her with these and see what luck we will have.”

Then the king summoned all the goldsmiths in his kingdom and commanded them to fashion all that Faithful John had instructed him. And they worked day and night until, at last, a great number of magnificent golden things had been wrought, and the treasure was ordered to be placed aboard a ship, and the king and his faithful servant sailed with the ship far across the sea to the land wherein lived the princess of the Golden Dwelling.
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Posted in Special | Comments Off on Something Completely Different II

Let’s Hear It For Trash!

Posted by acdtest on January 13, 2004

Let’s Hear It For Trash!

ots of play has been given this post by weblogger Michael of 2Blowhards contrasting the professional movie- and book-persons’ view of trash and art generally, and in the books world in particular. The post is of ghastly length, but still interesting reading written as it is by a long-time professional observer of the arts biz, tendentiously biased though his views may be.

As an indefatigable cheerleader for all things pop cultural, and a hater of all things even marginally elitist even though himself a ressentiment-saturated crypto-elitist, it’s not surprising Michael’s post is a thinly veiled if uncharacteristically muted advocacy of books valued by pop culture, and one which makes the contrasting observation that professional movie people — whose business is, after all, rooted in trash — are, generally speaking, free and open-minded sorts accepting of both art and trash and well able to laugh at themselves, and professional book people, generally speaking, uptight, long-faced, unreasoning enemies of trash who take themselves way too seriously.

What was most interesting to me, however, was the comments thread attached to Michael’s post; a thread some 86 messages long at last count, and consisting of thoughtful and fairly lengthy comments by readers responding to Michael’s call for “any thoughts about what a more down-to-earth and pleasure-centric view of reading-and-writing might be like” (nice touch, that), and for a ‘fessing up to “any guilty reading-and-books secrets” his weblog’s visitors may have.

In that 86-message-long comments thread, the majority of commenters standing shoulder to shoulder with Michael’s take on things (Michael is forever saying or implying he encourages discussion and debate, but what he’s really on about, always, is soliciting agreement with his own views), there were but two clearly dissenting voices.

Said commenter Ulf, bravely:

Living, like I do, in the ultimate low-brow city, Las Vegas, I nonetheless would consider myself a book person, having worked in NYC publishing before moving here.

I admit that I’ve read very little genre fiction or whatever you want to call it. But not really for snobbish reasons, I’ve tried, I really have, but more often than not I find such books unintentionally funny, when the author threatens to trip over his own sentences.

To me, the real pleasure in reading is a pleasure of language, which is probably why I read a great deal of poetry. Contrary to popular belief, there are a number of fabulous living or recently deceased poets whose work seems to bring the kind of pleasure many who posted here are looking for. Why are they not buying that stuff? And they aren’t since contemporary poetry sells about 500 copies on a very, very good day.

To plug just a few: Fred Chappell (also a fine fiction writer), Kelly Cherry, James Merrill (who died too young), Glyn Maxwell, Paul Muldoon, Michael Hartnett and Tony Hoagland.

The pleasure of a well-written sentence/stanza far outweighs any need for literature to represent reality as I see it. The most fabulous fiction writer of the last couple of decades was W.G. Sebald, whose books, difficult though they may be, I challenge anyone to put down unfinished? I once found myself re-reading “The Rings of Saturn” three times before moving on to the next book, all within a few days.

The genre fiction I’ve tried to read has just not had that kind of pleasurable effect on me. My last attempt was “The Da Vinci Code,” surely a popular book by anyone’s standard, and I found myself laughing so hardily at the awkward prose and repetitive cliches (not to mention inept descriptions) that I could not follow the story for very long. I eventually gave up on the thing about 200 pages in.

And, just as bravely, commenter Jason followed with:

I happen to enjoy reading the New York Review, Proust, and Faulkner — so I guess that puts me in the books category. Not that I don’t also enjoy lighter fare like campy films, blithe.com, and fun short fiction. But there’s something deeply satisfying about rich, finely crafted prose that the cheap shit can’t replicate. Trashy novelas may offer ephemeral pleasures. Great novels stay with you. I find lines from Baldwin or even Kirk Vardenoe coming back to me at random points in the day. They speak to something beyond the immediate circumstances of their construction, they achieve something higher and purer. In short, they offer the reader wisdom, not just pleasure.

I absolutely agree that postmodern literary crit is pontifical dreck. And self-consciously “literary” fiction is unbearable. But the best stuff in life requires effort. And I’ve found the most satisfying fiction is indeed multi-layered and difficult and, yes, literary.

The ratio (2/86) is about what would be expected in a matter such as this, but still encouraging. It suggests the poisonous pop cultural tide has not totally succeeded in overwhelming appreciation of what’s genuinely important, worthwhile, and, yes — Michael’s tendentious insinuations to the contrary notwithstanding — “pleasure-centric” in literature.

A small encouragement, to be sure. But an encouragement nevertheless.

Posted in Aesthetic Commentary, Books, Cultural Commentary, Literature | Comments Off on Let’s Hear It For Trash!