Florence in Words
October 6, 2015
As a person who enjoys film, but who has never “studied” film, I realized, even as this class began, that I have much to learn. Professor White opened with a question, “How does the film end?” He called on me and I said, “With a baby’s crying.” “Yes,” he said, "and did you like that?" “No,” I said, “I couldn’t see the point.” He seemed delighted: “We disagree,” he said.
And I learned that one must “read” more than the words on a page when one views film. I had not occurred to me that, to begin with, I should have read much more carefully the two short stories, “In a Grove” and “Rashomon,” by Ryunosake Akutagawa, which provided Akira Kurosawa with material for his film. Had I done this, I might have been able to focus on what it was that Kurosawa chose, and what he omitted. In short, the film was of his own making, and in making it, he could use whatever he wanted to, and he could add as well.
In addition, certain techniques were available to him that I have not learned to think about in a meaningful manner. I am referring here not only to adding something like the appearance of the swaddled baby crying, but also the lighting after the rain has stopped. Indeed, he could have and did stop the rain at the end of his film, and he did have the sun come out, and the baby stop crying. And he had the lying woodcutter say he would adopt the baby whose swaddling clothes he had previously stolen. Thus, the filmmaker was dropping a note of hope into the foregoing turmoil. (I might have noticed as well that the filmmaker chose to omit the misery of the old woman who was making wigs from the hair of dead women.)
Professor White introduced other kinds of questions having to do with the value of eye-witness testimony in a court reviewing a crime, and the curious question of why three people admit to committing the same crime? He reported on research which has claimed that stress may narrow memory, thus making certain eye-witnesses unreliable.
At the end of the class, returning to the film, Professor White said that Kurosawa had been inspired by silent films and with the use only of black and white. He added, at the end, perhaps thinking of his opening question and my response, that the Japanese have problems with the film’s ending.
October 3, 2015
I wondered how many in the class noted the large green and white paper bags on the Professor’s desk. But I turned my attention to taking notes, and almost an hour passed before Professor White began to talk about Proust’s life, suggesting that we think of him as a contemporary of Thomas Hardy, Andre Gide, George Sand, Arthur Schopenhauer, Gustav Mahler, and a host of other painters, composers, writers, philosophers. It was interesting to me, particularly that Gide, as publisher, offered the first volume of Swann’s Way, turned it down, and when it appeared, admitted that it had been the worst decision he had ever made.
Professor White’s comments on the novel emphasized Proust’s life as his great resource and his use especially of his intense ability to rouse various kinds of memory, kinetic, visual, tactile, olfactory…the whole gamut, which was why the two parts of today’s lecture served each other.
Just before the ten-minute break, Professor White began to unwrap the packages on his desk: he had bought more than two dozen (so there could be second helpings) madeleines and a quart of milk and cups. What a sweet surprise for all, and I led the way not to the goodies but to taking a photo of the Professor distributing them. Yes, it was a lovely, thoughtful gesture, and one reason he is among professors beloved.
What about the novel? Did I learn anything I valued especially? I liked the ways in which Professor White could separate the complicated—and not often admirable—life of the writer from the work he had produced, even as he noted that the one had emerged from the other’s strengths and weaknesses. He noted, for example, that Proust was a snob, and that he could write about snobbery with special vision, sometimes making it absurd.
And finally, did I come away as ecstatic as I had the week before? One must remember that, at 86, ecstasy is rare. But I came away calmly content with my life. And pleased to have been in class. And ready to read more Proust.
September 14, 2015
When I was a junior at Hunter College—in 1948—I took an elective Classics course with Professor Pearl Wilson. I read the Iliad and the Odyssey and a group of plays, including the Orestia. ( I don’t remember the Romans.) Professor Robert White opened this third class on Thursday night by reminding us that the Greeks and Romans were “his” professorial focus, and he was going to talk about the importance of memory for all of them.
First he noted that the transmission of the Iliad and the Odyssey had been oral, that at one point in history one person with a prodigious memory could recite all 12 books of the Iliad, all the books of the Bible, all of Canon Law, 200 speeches of Cicero, and more besides. Such ability, he countered, may clearly not be important in an age of computers. Still, memory had to be essential for the creators of the Iliad and the Odyssey, who probably could not read or write; their talents were oral. Later, the texts of these epics were written down by people who were retelling what they had heard. Would this result in a loss of that prodigious memory?
Then he went on to talk about Plato’s Dialogues, and the relationships between memory and the concepts of truth and beauty and honesty. From Plato’s point of view, one needed to recall what once one knew before birth. I liked especially the idea of memory as writing on a wax tablet inside the mind—is it clear, muddy, hard, soft? Can we hold on to it, or will it disappear?
Aristotle, on the other hand, was interested in memory’s retrieval, in enabling the recall of memory. He thought that the young and the old both have poor memories: As Professor White announced that he disagreed here, he moved quickly on to the Romans, who, like Aristotle, were interested in the kinds of memory that enhanced public speaking, law, oratory. In particular, lawyers needed to remember their opponents’ main points so as to oppose them.
The class was only half over by this point and the rest was as interesting, sometimes funnier, and always memorable. I left with a smile not only on my face but in my being. For whatever complex of reasons, I left feeling almost happy, certainly cheerier than I have been in years. And it was not only the wonderful anecdote about his college friend assumed dead one day, and the next a co-winner of the Nobel for work on the hippocampus (which I knew meant work on memory). It was not only more anecdotes about prodigious memories (I had one of those once). Perhaps it was all of that, and some other essence having to do with taking notes, and, yes, remembering.
September 9, 2015
The first class, on Monday evening, August 31, was an Introduction to the course as arranged by Professor Robert J. White, and a depiction of his rather unusual memory. I’ll begin with that opening episode, in which Professor White asked the twenty-six people in the room each to write their names on a piece of paper, and then their “year” at college. Then he asked that we answer two questions: what is it we like best? And what it is we like least?
He did collect these pieces of paper very slowly, beginning in the middle of the room, where I was sitting. And I did notice that he looked at me as he looked at my piece of paper. But I went on to look at the syllabus he had distributed and didn’t pay a lot of attention to him as he was collecting the other pieces of paper.
Once he had them, he went through them as he named the person and made eye contact. He moved around the room as he did this. And it took at least 30 minutes for him to name every person in the room, stumbling a bit only over some Asian names. And then he talked a bit about (his) memory, and noted that his knowing our names may not carry over to the next class, since it was two weeks away, with Labor Day coming in between.
He then went through the syllabus, describing some of the books and films we are to see. The course, described as “Memory across the Disciplines,” might have been called Across the World in Prose and Film. This Thursday, the make-up class, he will discuss Jonathan K. Foster’s Memory: A Very Short Introduction. And then we have ten days before we meet again to read Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, pp. 3-191.
And now I get to the small irony. The only book on the list which I have read, and indeed written about its formation as a novel, is Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. I can’t be present at that class, on October 5, because that is the evening The Feminist Press will celebrate its 45th birthday at its annual Gala. And I can’t be absent, can I?
What to do? Probably nothing. Again, there’s a break for two weeks, when Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana will be discussed. So be it, I have to say, though I have read Mrs. Dalloway many times since 1953 when I was a graduate student TA-ing for an Intro to Literature course in which it was on the reading list. Like the students, I was puzzled, but I found some solace in the company of working class and would-be writer, Septimus Smith and his hat-making Italian wife. Mostly the students complained that there were no chapters, and that nothing happened, ignoring the suicide, or not reading that far. And so I can tell myself to enjoy the irony, not fret about it, and remain silent this time.
August 20, 2015
And for the past two weeks, I have rearranged my life so that I can read the book mornings, after breakfast with the New York Times and the crossword, when doable. I read for at least two hours into the afternoon, sometimes a bit longer, and I am a rapid reader. Still I have at least another week before me. And though I know the plot, I don’t know the details, despite having seen the dramatic version once.
“Hamilton,” the musical play by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which I saw on March 12, was astonishing not only for its story line, not only for the fact that the founding fathers and mothers were enacted by men and women of color, and not only because the unusual music was a compound of Broadway, rap, and hip-hop, such as had never before been heard. And it all passed my particular test: I could understand every word. Indeed I and the people I went with—the Hunter College High School alumni association had bought out the Public Theatre as a benefit, since Lin-Manuel was one of our very own—were so enthusiastic that we are preparing to see it once more, on Broadway, next November, again as a benefit for the high school.
Reading the biography, I can see Lin-Manuel’s attraction to the abundant energy of Hamilton, his brilliance as a theorist and as a popular writer. And the story itself, of an immigrant born into the squalor of poverty and illegitimacy on an obscure Caribbean island, and rising to be the foremost intellectual founder of this nation, responsible especially for establishing clear monetary policy and the department of the treasury. And all the time, he was a flawed human being, drawn into a degrading sexual affair, and willing to risk its open knowledge in order to clear his name of charges of fiscal or any kind of governmental abuse. It’s impossible not to admire Hamilton, even when he is being most obtuse. (The rhyme appeared in homage to Lin-Manuel.)
August 7, 2015
I watched the Republican debate last night and was appalled or mystified by the crowd, and not only because of the comic central (who was placed in the center) who seemed to be saying that he was going to run separately if the Republicans didn’t choose him as their candidate. He really does have delusions: thinks he can beat Hillary as well as any (or all) of the Republicans. How does a person get to live in such a delusionary world? Is it an illness?
The others were somewhat in awe of him, if not seemingly frightened. He is, of course, a bully, and they all understand the power of money. He seemed to indicate that he has contributed funds to most if not all of them, and his tone towards them was generally scornful. I wonder how many people, ordinary people like me, see him as a bully, a delusionary bully. He does have money and in this culture money is power. He also seems devoid of normal kindness, even towards those with less or no power, less or no money. His normal demeanor is scornful. Those who have less are weak; they are fools.
And the audience? They seemed with him, but I am hoping that someone has listened even more carefully than I, and that someone had had access to faces in the audience after some of the ugly things were being said. I hope someone is analyzing this, and that that person will tell us about the crowd’s response to him. Rachel Madow: are you listening?
As for the others on stage, the two sanest seemed to me to be the former governor of Florida and the current governor of Ohio. Jeb Bush stuck to his views on immigration; and John Kasich offered a vignette about attending a same-sex wedding, saying that, apart from human kindness, such weddings had become the law of the land. They seemed to this 86-year old political junky to be the only ones able to joust with Hillary. They’ve not had her international experience, nor her eight years in the White House. But they can brag about their hands-on management of state bureaucracies.
August 6, 2015
As I wrote in my blog on Yoya, I couldn’t remember whether I’d written a blog about her before. And of course the keeper of my website, dear Jen, reminded me that indeed I had, not once but twice. And so I went to look, and of course then I remembered. So what does it mean? After all, I am 86, and my mother was by this age so deep into Alzheimer’s that she knew no one by name, though she knew I came to visit her regularly, and she sometimes was at the elevator waiting for me (or someone, since people came and went from there).
I can’t answer the question, not the one about me or the one about my mother. But I am preparing to learn more about the question. I’m auditing a course at Hunter College called “Memory across the Disciplines,” taught by Professor Robert J. White, of the Classical and Oriental Studies department. The first class meets on August 31, a Monday night, and I am looking forward to it more than I can say. The reading list opens with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, a book that was the subject of a thesis I wrote in the mid-1960s. The thesis was rejected for not being 500 pages and 12 chapters, and for being written on an “unimportant writer.” Perhaps I will read that 100-page essay to check whether I touch on “memory.” Clearly, I don’t remember, which is entirely appropriate for the moment.
So, if you are interested in memory, tune in a bit later on. I’m a bit over-whelmed right now: I traded a fat novel I had enjoyed for a fatter biography. I don’t usually read nonfiction. But I’ve been captured by Hamilton and I’m ploughing through it. Much of the history is entirely new to me, since whatever history I studied was British, alas. But that means that the book is as interesting as a novel whose plot you don’t know in advance. Who knew that New York’s upstate power was greater than the New York City’s and that the Governor would be an enemy not only of Alexander Hamilton but of the colonies becoming a country, a nation? Yes, I’ve a lot to learn in that area.
And so Hamilton has knocked me off course for the moment. Without knowing what the course on memory would include, I had been planning to begin to reread Virginia Woolf’s novels from the very first one forward. And indeed, I began with the draft that Louise DeSalvo rescued from oblivion: Melymbrosia, the first draft of The Voyage Out, not an easy read. And, speaking of memory, I thought it much different from the published novel I had first read more than 50 years ago. And yes, I’m reading The Voyage Out right now—in the evening, before bed. Hamilton gets my best morning hours!!
August 4, 2015
Outside of my apartment I use a cane, at least in part so that people made a wide circle around me. Even with Yoya, who has to be walked three times a day, I manage with the cane. And she manages, though she’s as averse to canes as I am. And so the cane resides in my right hand, while Yoya maintains her position to my left, or, if she must—for reason of grates or other conditions she objects to—she moves to the right, but well in advance of the cane. And so, until yesterday, we both managed to walk three times each day, usually two short walks and one long one with an errand or a purpose in mind.
To get to the bank to deposit checks, we walked through a parklike, shady block that was also interesting to a creature whose life is mainly lived through her nose. I could note (or at least sense) her ecstasy at certain revered spots outside of planted areas, and her stops were restful for me. She is also a delightful companion when I want to sit down for a few minutes, for she also sits down to observe the passing world, always on the lookout for other dogs.
She’s the kind of dog whose occupation is to guard me, which means she has to move when I move from one room to another. Even if she is fast asleep, my movement wakes her up and she moves uncomplainingly to find another spot near wherever I’ve located. And if someone out in the hall is coming or going, she offers me her protection in the form of a non-bark that can be described perhaps as “uh, eh, eh, uh.” The sound comes out a little like a rattle. No barking unless the person is headed to our apartment.
But of course she knows the sound of the man’s name who comes to fetch her. If the phone rings to announce him, all I have to say is “Don is coming,” and she’s at the door waiting. And yes, he gets the ecstatic welcome I get when I’ve left her even for an hour, all the wiggling and all the murmurs. And yes, I write this just one day later, missing her.
July 7, 2015
Last month I asked, “What is it I need to recover my ability to be independent, cheerful, and mobile?” Yes, I talked about this as I was preparing for bed, alone in my apartment, in one of those conversations with myself that I’ve written about in a poem published here. And I hit on the idea of “walkers,” individuals who might have a free hour or two each week to walk with me in exchange for my helping them perhaps with writing poems or prose. When I told Ellen Bass about this idea, she moved swiftly to put it into action. She wrote to four poets in New York and told them what I needed, and pronto, there was Scott Korb, professor at NYU, sending me Melissa Sakow, new M.A. who had studied prose writing with him. We’ve had several walks and talks, and we’ve been working on a piece about Melissa’s undergraduate college.
The second person to call me came from Ellen’s magnificent mailing list, though Briana Rose hasn’t seen Ellen in years, and has stopped writing. Briana has, instead, become a dance movement teacher and practitioner, who has recently moved from the Bay Area to New York, quite close to where I live. We walked once to the postoffice and the bank and talked in part about Ellen, in part about differences between dance and movement.
The third person, Elyse Hilton, who works as a lawyer, has recently been Ellen’s student at Pacifica where she is enrolled in an M.A. Writing program. And though we have walked only once, we have already exchanged poems, and I’ve discovered that not only is Elyse a fine poet, she is also a fine critic who demonstrated her talent by critiquing the poem I printed here as part of a blog. I am going to respond to Elyse’s critique by printing a revised version in my next blog and giving her credit for it.
There is a fourth “walker,” unavailable until fall. And in the fall, Ellen will be in New York for a recording session at the New Yorker. (Some of you may know that six of Ellen’s poems have appeared there.) What I’d like to do is plan a party for the walkers and sponsors—Scott and Ellen.
And yes, I feel as though I’ve made progress. To wit: Yesterday, I took a taxi to the JCC, the gym I haven’t been to since the knee surgery in mid-November 2013. And I went to the swimming pool and swam for half an hour, not as vigorously as I once did, but I kept my legs and arms moving, sometimes taking turns. I mean that occasionally I walked the length of the pool; occasionally I used my arms vigorously and my legs laconically. Always, I kept moving, and when I was through, I wasn’t too tired to take myself to lunch in the place I used to frequent where I could have my favorite grilled cheese and tomato sandwich and feel almost myself again.
Yes, it’s the day after, and I am resting. On Wednesday, I am going to a meeting and I am also going to the pool again. And yes, at least one walker on the weekend.
June 22, 2015
I am writing especially to thank two people whose comments I just found on my web-site, both very kind and thoughtful comments. Betsy Herman, thank you for encouraging me about writing poetry, and Doreen Saar, thank you for mentioning that you had been a student in my class. I do forget that part of my life, for I was far happier then, and it’s easy to dwell in the present and forget that once, life was different. If you’ve read my memoir, you know that I chose teaching at Goucher over marriage to my handsome English husband. And I would probably do it again, though right now it would be nice to have a partner. I am writing also to say that I will not give up on the blog right now, and I will write more regularly.
What have I been doing? I’ve been rereading Jane Austen “backwards.” That is, I began with Persuasion and ended with Northanger Abbey. And last night I watched a film version of Persuasion that I thought could have been better, though it was better than the version of Emma I saw some weeks ago. Perhaps the best film version was the early Pride and Prejudice with Greer Garson (I think) and who? Am I alone in my view of Austen’s greatness? And filmdom’s failure to get at her nuance?
As for poems, I have to begin again. I have to believe again that I can write something I can call even a “journal/poem.” For whatever reason, I’ve stopped that kind of happiness-making writing. Guess I felt discouraged. But I will give it another try.
And for cheer, let me conclude on a wonderful note: I am in the early stages of improving my ability to walk by having “walkers,” people—all connected in some way to Ellen Bass—who can come to my apartment and walk with me for an hour or two. And, yes, there is an “exchange.” I am available to read their work, prose or poetry, and even advise about publication. Each of these women—yes, they are all women—have been students of Ellen Bass, except the first one, who is a student of a New York-based friend of Ellen, a writing professor and poet at NYU. I’ve walked with Melissa twice, and she’s now given me a piece of her prose to critique, and it’s a delightful exchange. Walking and talking for critiquing and writing advice. What could be better?