Sunday, April 20, 2014

123. Wonder and Why We Need It

      “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysteriousness.  It is the source of all true art and science.  He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead – his eyes are closed.”  So wrote Albert Einstein in his essay “The World as I See It.” 

     And Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes, whose performances in Paris just before World War I electrified audiences and changed ballet forever, said to the young Jean Cocteau, who was beginning to make a name for himself in the theater, “Emerveille-moi!” (“Do me wonders”).

     This post is about wonder, our sense of it, our need of it.  In it longtime viewers of this blog will recognize themes of earlier posts, as for example trees (#71), insects (#34), silence (#55), and near-death experiences (#62).  But what is wonder?  A feeling of being surprised and overwhelmed by something, a revelation of something new and mysterious and meaningful, or the familiar transformed.  It takes us out of ourselves, it puts us completely in the moment.  As examples of experiences provoking wonder in my own life I would cite these examples:

·      The rose windows of Chartres cathedral, incomparably beautiful, which, far from being embedded in a wall, seem suspended in space.

File:Chartres Cathedral North Transept North Rose Window 2007 08 31.jpg
Chartres, the rose window in the north transept.  But no photograph can
truly convey the beauty of a rose window.

Andreas F. Borchert
·      Dawn on Mount Canigou in the Pyrenees.  Having climbed the mountain and spent the night in a chalet near the summit, on awaking early in the morning I looked out a window and saw the sky suffused with rose – the most beautiful sky I had ever seen; it cast a spell, it transformed me.  Hurrying through breakfast, I rushed out to find the rose replaced by a milky white that was still magical, still enchanting.  Fifteen minutes later I was at the very top of the mountain, but the milky white too had vanished, giving way to a bright, sunny day where every detail of the landscape stood out clean and clear.  Impressive, but the awesome splendor, the mystery was gone.

·      On Monhegan Island, off midcoast Maine, a turbulent ocean, roiled up by a storm the day before, breaking over Gull Rock, a ninety-foot-high slab of gray rock hunched up against the sea like a reclining giant, its rounded crest vanishing at intervals in a torrent of white spume: the most violent sight I have ever witnessed in nature, a display of raw, brute force compelling wonder and awe.

·      Jacques Cousteau’s description of underwater reefs that he explored with the aid of the aqua-lung he had pioneered: corals like brain or staghorns or cactus or candelabras or skulls of dwarfs and giants; clams with shells ajar, displaying swollen mantles like the painted lips of harlots; sinister moray eels glowering from crevices with bared teeth; a crumpled feather bonnet that explodes into the bristles of a lion fish; and two hundred feet down, the boundary of reason and the beginning of rapture of the depths, as danger becomes voluptuous and enticing and the diver is lured ever downward toward steep walls of white walking canes, witches’ heads, and giant sponges festooned with spider webs: vistas he must renounce or risk his life.

File:Gulf of Eilat (Red Sea) coral reefs.jpg

     That is all very fine, you may say, but Chartres and Mount Canigou and an island off midcoast Maine and underwater reefs in the tropics are not exactly urban phenomena, and this blog is supposed to be about New York.  Where in this crowded, noisy city is one supposed to experience wonder? 

     Not easy.  For what characterizes this city is precisely what inhibits a sense of wonder:

·      Noise
·      Hurry
·      Busyness, exertion
·      Concern with the practical
·      Greed, the obsessive preoccupation with money
·      Ambition, the drive to get ahead
·      Skepticism, doubt, irreligion

Certainly, to experience a sense of wonder one wants quiet and calm, freedom from practical concerns, and an abatement of ego.  Which for New Yorkers isn’t easy.  And yet, there is wonder to be had, if we look for it.

File:Sycamore - Stages of opening leaf buds (1) - - 768239.jpg
A sycamore bud opening.

Evelyn Simak
     This is April, the miracle month, when buds open and parks and gardens come alive.  Look at an opening bud: a tiny clenched fist that gradually begins to loosen and expand into leaves and flowers – for me, an emblem of all beginnings of life, even the embryo in the womb.  From nothing, or almost nothing, a clenched bud or the tiniest speck of a seed, comes the wonder of life, which we take so much for granted.

     And trees, whose glories I have already sung (post #71).  Both the majesty of their skeletal architecture in winter, and the vast expanse of their rustling leaves, pulsing and shimmering in the sun, when traversed by summer breezes. 

     And light on water, any water, whether a puddle or a river or the sea, if one looks toward the sun: depending on how much or how little wind there is, sheets or splotches of light, dancing tiny silver specks, a pulsing, glistening expanse that so fascinates me and sucks me into it, that I would almost call it the living face of God. 

File:Monarch Butterfly.jpg
Clinton and Charles Robertson
     And insects, which can be seen, with patience, in the city’s parks.  Monarch butterflies (now, alas, endangered) migrating north from Mexico in spring to feed on milkweed here, and then returning there in autumn.  In Maine in the fall I have caught the tail end of the migration, with their orange wings boldly lined with black fluttering over or perched and feeding upon the blue or purple asters.  Their numbers wax or wane from season to season; some years I was told that at the peak of the migration they were so thick that you could almost walk through a field of them, brushing them gently aside as you went.  But even here in the city you can see them in smaller numbers in the parks.

     Or the sinister beauty of the praying mantis, its spiked forelegs waiting patiently for some unwary victim to venture into their lethal embrace and be trapped and eaten alive.


     And the familiar honey bee, whose mating habits elicit wonder perhaps tinged with horror.  The virgin queen bee in her one nuptial flight soars into the air and the drones, the males, follow; the queen then mates in midair with one after another – maybe a dozen or more – each of whom ejaculates with such force that his penis ruptures and is left inside the queen, following which, emasculated, he falls to the ground and dies.  Leaving a trail of dead drones in her wake, the queen, with their sperm stored inside her, returns to the hive to begin her endless task of laying as many as 2,000 eggs a day, thus assuring the survival and continuance of the hive.  For a sensitive and dramatic account of this and other aspects of the honey bee’s existence, poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Life of the Bee (1901) is essential, even if it needs to be supplemented today. 

     But mating is only one phase of the mysterious life cycle of the hive, the whole of which inspires even greater wonder and awe.  And maybe a warning to the males of all species: once you have implanted your sperm, biologically you are no longer needed and can easily be dispensed with.  And so, guys, if you want to stick around, make sure you make yourself needed in some other way.

     And now, having glanced at these minuscule creatures, let’s engage with vastness: the night sky strewn with stars, albeit not easily seen in the city unless one goes to a rooftop, a pier, or a park (if one cares to venture at night into a park).  But if we do and see the starlit heavens, we can be mesmerized, yanked out of our worries and concerns, and vaulted into some higher  awareness.  Having read The Universe Story by cosmologists Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, I can envision the first flaring forth, the explosion of primordial energy, never to be equaled again, as frenzied particles cascade into existence, and gigantic galaxies pinwheel through the dark emptiness of space, creating clusters of systems, and clusters of clusters of systems, till the Milky Way begets ten thousand new stars, including our Sun, and the clouds of elements hovering about the Sun give birth to that tiny fragment of the cosmos that we presume to apprehend, the planets, including what Swimme and Berry call “the extravagant, magical, and living Earth.”  The universe, they conclude, is a celebration of existence and life and consciousness, of color and sound and movement, of living and dying – a celebration in which we humans must participate.  There is only one story, the story of the universe, and every form of being – ourselves included – is an integral part of it. 

File:Admiring the Galaxy.jpg
ESO/A.  Fitzsimmons

     All this, out of a glimpse of the sky at night?  Yes, for that glimpse, or even the mere memory of it, points me to the cosmos, to vastness, to the mystery of origins.  Just reading my scribbled notes on Swimme and Berry, I am swept away, humbled, overwhelmed.  What they and other cosmologists give us is the modern Genesis, to which the only conceivable response is wonder.

File:Dorian Gray.jpg

     Contemplating the cosmos, or some significant part of it, isn’t the only gateway to wonder.  Certain lines of poetry, even when torn from their context, grab me in a more modest, but still inspiring, way:

·      “The unplumbed, salt, estranging sea.”  (The last line of Matthew Arnolds’s “Dover Beach,” and surely the best line he ever wrote.)

·      “DETERMINED, DARED, and DONE.”  (The triumphant last line of Christopher Smart’s “A Song to David.”)

·      “plus vaste que nos lyres”  (Yes, even a fragment of a line can reach me.  From Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau ivre,” a magical poem that never fails to dazzle me.)

·      “with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their
           own bodies good to eat a thousand years.”

(The last line of Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl,” another magical poem.)

      Swimme and Berry’s cosmos overwhelms me; these lines simply hint at mystery, but mystery is the key to everything, and certainly to wonder and awe.

     If literature can lead to wonder, then why not all the arts?  Of course.  For dance, the ending of Jerome Robbins’s Illuminations, inspired by Rimbaud’s poetry: the poet, his forearm bleeding with a wound inflicted by profane love, watches as in the distance sacred love, all in white, arabesques back and forth, back and forth, hypnotically.  (In real life Rimbaud had indeed been shot by his angry lover, Verlaine – an instance of very profane love.)

File:Uttar Pradesh Apsara.jpg     For sculpture, the dancing Hindu attendant to the gods at the Met, and Shiva’s cosmic dance, both in the marvelous South Asian hall, give me a feeling of mystery and wonder, though almost any Buddha could surely do the same.

     For painting, Kandinsky’s four abstract compositions at the Museum of Modern Art, created in 1914 for the American collector Edwin R. Campbell.  For me, their explosions of line and form and color express primordial energy akin to that evoked by Swimme and Berry.

     As for the cosmic in music, one can’t do better than Bach.

     Too artsy-fartsy?  All right, how about higher math?  In the New York Times Book Review section of December 5, 2013, I was amazed to read a review of Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, by the mathematician Edward Frenkel.  Frenkel, a Russian immigrant who became a professor of math at Harvard at the tender age of twenty-one and now teaches at Berkeley, says that as a boy he was hit by the beauty of mathematics like a coup de foudre; in other words, he was suddenly, totally, and hopelessly smitten.  And when, still in his teens, he made a new mathematical discovery, it was “like the first kiss.”

     The beauty of math?  Falling suddenly in love with it?  For most of us, once mired in the intricacies of algebra, this at first seems close to inconceivable.  My mother used to say that, with effort, she could figure out x, but she didn’t have a clue as to what to do with it.  Like Mom, like son: I have to enlist myself in the same army of ignoramuses, even though in high school, idiotically, I pursued the affair into the abstruse realms of trigonometry, of which I remember not one jot or tittle. 

     But Professor Frenkel is of another tribe altogether.  He insists that mathematics must be beautiful; there is no room in the world for ugly mathematics, and the fitting response to it is love.  A photo shows him teaching at Berkeley in 2010 with dark, somewhat tousled hair, in a polo shirt and jeans, gesturing earnestly in front of a blackboard inscribed with mathematical formulae.  His fervor is obvious.  Yes, decidedly a lover.

File:Edward Frenkel.jpg
Edward Frenkel at Berkeley in 2010.
Eget vaerk, Soren Fuglede Jorgensen

     But Frenkel takes it further: mathematical structures, he insists, are every bit as real as anything in the physical or mental world.  Nor are they human inventions.  Like Plato’s ideas, they exist timelessly in a realm of their own, awaiting discovery by mathematicians.  And these structures or patterns, emerging unexpectedly, hint at something hidden and mysterious.  And if they are not of our making, who put them there?  Frenkel doesn’t mention God, any more than Swimme and Berry (a Jesuit, by the way) posit a Divine Force initiating the first flaring forth.  But Frenkel’s mathematical world is in the end one of awesome mystery, of wonder. 

     And if mathematics can lead us there, what cannot?  Wonder, and all it implies, seems to be the ultimate goal, acknowledged or not, of the human race.  To be without wonder is to be entombed in desolation.  Whatever our woes (and they are real), we aren’t meant for desolation; we are meant for celebration and joy.

     For believers, wonder leads us back to the Creator, whose ways are truly wondrous and mysterious.  For nonbelievers it points to the mystery of origins and endings, and the final mystery that we must all one day confront.  Having begun, like all organic life, in the sea, we will end where the cosmos began -- in light.  Immeasurable, incomparable light.

     Note on the callery pear:  For years I wondered what those small to medium-size trees are that at this time of year, still leafless, explode into masses of small five-petaled white flowers all over New York City, but no one I asked could tell me.  They are everywhere along the streets and in the parks, but for me they remained a mystery.  I knew they belonged to the rose family, as do apple and cherry trees and most of the common native fruits, but that was all.  Finally, a year ago, I consulted the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, and they gave me the answer: my mystery tree is the callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), a name I had never heard before.  It is a planted tree, not a wild one, native to China and Vietnam, but the second commonest tree on the city’s streets.  View it while it’s in riotous bloom, but don’t expect a luscious, soft, edible fruit; the reddish fruit is small, hard, and inedible for humans, though birds will feed on it once it has been softened by frost.  But you probably won’t even notice it, or the tree itself, once the flowers are gone.  This is its moment; enjoy it.

File:Callery pear 2 .jpg

This is New York

 File:World Trade Center collapsed following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack September 16 2001.jpg

     Coming soon:  Exiles in New York, part 4: strife among the Gauls; an exile who hated bathing, Southern California, and capitalism; and a keeper of the flame with orange bangs.  And then some more famous deaths.

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder

Sunday, April 13, 2014

122. Exiles in New York, part 3

     This is the third post on Exiles in New York.  Originally I anticipated only one post, but I found such interesting characters that it soon become two posts, then three, and now four, but four, I insist, is the limit.  New York has always been a refuge and new home for those fleeing oppression – or  scandal or debt or irrelevance – in the Old World.  It is the gateway to the New World, a land of opportunities where people can try out new lives, new identities, new ideas.

Marc Chagall

File:Marc Chagall, 1911, I and the Village, oil on canvas, 192.1 x 151.4 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York.jpg
I and the Village, 1911.
    A giant cow’s head with a milkmaid inside it, a trudging peasant with a scythe, upside-down houses, a sprig of flowers, and a huge green human face.  Or a floating couple above a bright red floor, the husband kissing his wife who holds a bouquet of flowers.  Or a winged fish with a violin above a pendulum clock drifting in midair, against a blue riverscape and, on one bank, a pair of clasping lovers.  These are some of the Chagall paintings that I have seen at the Museum of Modern Art, often labeled Surrealist, whimsical, primitive, dreamlike, or Expressionist, though none of these terms conveys fully and accurately the unique quality of his art.

File:Portrait of Marc Chagall.jpg     Born to a family of observant Hasidic Jews near the city of Vitebsk in imperial Russia, all his life Chagall would express in his art the memories and impressions of his childhood, the very images that I would see here in New York.  The 1917 Revolution offered Chagall opportunities denied him as a Jew under the Czars, but in time he moved to France, where he was recognized as a major Modernist artist.  Inevitably, his work was denounced as degenerate by the Nazi authorities in Germany, but after the Fall of France in 1940 he and his wife Bella remained in Vichy France, unaware at first of the threat there to Jews.  With the help of a forged visa supplied by an American vice-consul in Marseilles, they finally left France in May 1941 and arrived in New York in June. 

     A celebrity in a country whose language he could not speak, Chagall lived at 4 East 74th Street, visited galleries and museums, and became friends with other exiles like Piet Mondrian and André Breton.  He especially relished visiting the Lower East Side, where he could have Jewish food and read the Yiddish press, his main source of news, since he hadn’t mastered English.  Yet contemporary American artists had little appreciation of Chagall’s art until Pierre Matisse, the painter’s son, sponsored exhibitions of his work in New York and Chicago in 1941.  Asked by the choreographer Leonid Massine to design the sets and costumes for his new ballet Aleko, he did so with such success that at the premiere in September 1942 he was included in the curtain calls, to tumultuous applause. 

     Chagall’s life in New York was not altogether happy, since he yearned for Paris and Vitebsk, and felt guilty for having abandoned his people in a time of persecution.  To convey his anguish at the Nazi extermination of Jews, his art began to show Christ as a Jewish martyr next to a burning shtetl, a new phase of work contrasting sharply with the childlike and fanciful works preceding it.  In 1944 he was stricken by the news that his beloved Vitebsk, long occupied by the Germans, had been destroyed in fighting between the Germans and Russians, and later that same year his wife Bella died suddenly from an infection, following which he couldn’t work for months.

     Grateful to America for providing him with a wartime refuge, he returned to Paris in the fall of 1947.  He is well remembered here, and two immense paintings of his adorn the front lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center.

     Me and Chagall:  When I first encountered Chagall’s works here in New York, I was charmed.  Then, over the years, I decided that he was offering a bag of tricks – floating lovers, the fiddler uncle, upside-own houses, the Eiffel Tower, flying clocks – that were repeated far too often; I was tired of them.  Too folksy, too childlike, too naïve or pseudo-naïve.  It all seemed just a bit flimsy, an impression I never got from Picasso, Matisse, or the German Expressionists.  A gifted illustrator and set designer, perhaps, but not a great artist.  Now I find that many critics agree, though just how critical of him they are varies greatly.  It seems a commonly accepted conclusion that early Chagall is good, and late Chagall bad.  And when I see a reproduction of Praying Jew, a 1914 work in black and white showing its subject, bearded and hunched, in a prayer shawl, I am again impressed: no flying figures, no blasts of color, but instead a very solid figure devoid of fantasy and whimsy and engrossed in prayer.  Yes, Chagall had his moments.  I just wish there had been more of them.

Sergei Rachmaninoff

File:Sergei Rachmaninoff LOC 33968 Cropped.jpg    If the Russian Revolution created new opportunities for Chagall, it did just the opposite for Rachmaninoff, since his family were impoverished members of the old Russian aristocracy.   His status as a world-famous composer, pianist, and conductor could not prevent the loss of his estate, his  way of life, and his livelihood.  At age 44, in December 1917 he left Petrograd (soon to become Leningrad) for Helsinki, Finland, with his wife and two daughters on an open sled, taking with him only a few notebooks with sketches of his own compositions and some other works.  After giving concerts in Scandinavia for a year, he decided that the U.S. might offer the best financial opportunities and came to New York in November 1918.  He was soon giving concerts and signing contracts, and in 1921 bought a five-story house at 33 Riverside Drive, near 72nd Street, where he recreated the atmosphere of Ivanovka, his summer residence in Russia, hiring Russian servants, entertaining Russian guests, and observing old Russian customs.  Homesick, he struck some of his friends as a melancholy aristocrat yearning for a past that could never be recovered.  In 1925 he sold his house and moved into an apartment building at 505 West End Avenue, near 86th Street, which remained his New York residence till the end of his life. 

     Capitalist America was good to the exiled pianist.  In the years that followed, his towering presence (he was 6  foot 6) was seen often in the concert halls of the U.S. and Europe giving concerts of dazzling virtuosity, and he prospered to the point that he acquired a home in Beverly Hills also, and a villa in Switzerland where he spent his summers from 1933 to 1939.  His favorite piano was a Hamburg Steinway, of which he had two for his New York residence, two for his home in Beverly Hills, and one for his Swiss villa.  When he published a letter in the New York Times in 1931 condemning the Soviet regime, that regime banned his works as “decadent.”  He and his wife became U.S. citizens in 1943, and soon afterward he died of melanoma in Beverly Hills, just four days before his seventieth birthday.  He wanted to be buried at his villa in Switzerland, but wartime conditions made this impossible, so he was interred in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.

Quentin Crisp

File:Quentincrisp1.jpg      Admittedly effeminate from an early age, Quentin Crisp (an assumed name) survived schoolyard bullying to work briefly as a male prostitute in London (looking for love, he found only degradation), and attracted both admiration and hostility because of his bright make-up, dyed hair, and painted fingernails and toenails.  During World War II he cruised about the streets in the blackout picking up G.I.s, whose kindness and tolerance inspired his love of all things American.  His autobiography The Naked Civil Servant was published in 1968, but it was the 1975 TV version, broadcast by both British and U.S. television, that made him famous.  After that he toured Britain with a one-man show comprising an entertaining monologue and a question-and-answer session with the audience.

     For Quentin Crisp, New York City was love at first sight: “When I saw Manhattan, I wanted it.”  He brought his show here in 1978, his stay at the legendary Chelsea Hotel coinciding with a fire, a robbery, and the death of Nancy Spungen (see post #121).  Finding Britain homophobic and parochial, and New York more open, friendly, and welcoming, in 1981 he moved  here permanently at age 72, arriving with few possessions and finding a tiny one-room apartment on East 3rd Street in the East Village, where he lived contentedly in squalor.  (“There is no need to do any housework at all.  After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.”)  Listing his phone number in the telephone directory, he talked with anyone who called him.  Dinner invitations poured in, and he accepted them all on condition that his dinner be paid for.  In recompense, he entertained his hosts with colorful stories about his life, so that dining with him was soon said to be one of the best shows in New York.  To support himself, he performed his one-man show, wrote movie reviews and columns for U.S. and British newspapers and magazines, acted on the stage and on TV, and of course dined out.  By accepting every invitation to a cocktail party or premiere, he insisted, one could exist on peanuts and champagne.  Easily recognized by his tilted hat and painted face, he was soon a venerated celebrity on the Lower East Side, where people waved at him on the street, bums greeted him, and deferential young men asked for his autograph.

     Unpredictable and provocative, he outraged the gay community by calling AIDS a “fad,” and homosexuality “a terrible disease,” remarks that could be seen as self-hating and arrogant, or as a tongue-in-cheek bid for attention.  Even as the gay lib movement swept America, he never spoke out for gay rights or endorsed campaigns against homophobia; his role, he felt, was simply to be himself.   By now, for him sexual adventures were irrelevant.  For many in gay life, he was too old-style camp, too flamboyant, not “cool.”  Some critics saw him as jealous: gay liberation meant that he was no longer unique, the most visible queer in town, and he resented it.  Be that as it may, he was certainly a loner, not a joiner.

      Returning to England in poor health to tour with a revival of his one-man show, he died of a heart attack in a Manchester boarding house on November 21, 1999, one month before his 91st birthday; he was cremated there and his ashes were flown back to New York to be scattered over Manhattan.  Some thought his return to “merciless” England (his phrase), a trip obviously beyond his strength, was deliberately suicidal, based on the calculation that if he died in the U.S. he would get an obit on page 10, whereas if he died in England on the eve of a farewell tour, and with a play about him running in London, his death would be front-page news.  To the surprise of many, his estate was valued at over $600,000. 

     His wit was proverbial.  Planning to move to the U.S., he was interviewed at the U.S. Embassy in London and asked if he was a practicing homosexual.  “I didn’t practice,” he replied.  “I was already perfect.”

Other instances:
·      Never keep up with the Joneses.  Drag them down to your level.
·      Life was a funny thing that happened to me on the way to the grave.
·      An autobiography is obituary in serial form with the last installment missing.
·      To know all is not to forgive all.  It is to despise everybody.

     He is now revered for simply being himself, for not hiding his homosexuality but flaunting it, for making the outrageous acceptable.  Kathleen Egan in the New York Times called him “an anarchist armed with a compact.”   His credo:  Be yourself, whatever the cost.  To which one might add:  Above all, do it with flair.

Louis Napoleon

File:Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte 1836.JPG     After a failed coup d’état in Strasbourg in October 1836 and a resulting short stay in prison, Louis Napoleon, the nephew of the great Napoleon and future Emperor Napoleon III of France, at age 29 felt a sudden urge to visit the New World and, disembarking in Norfolk on March 30, 1837, proceeded to New York.  Installed in a hotel here, he is said to have met some of the best French and American society in the city, as well as Washington Irving, who invited him to his country estate.  Already he was sporting the deliciously waxed mustache with its tips curled upward, and the tuft of beard below it, that would characterize his later glory days and become known as an impériale.  His favorite topics of conversation were his uncle the Emperor, the reasons for the coup at Strasbourg, and his conviction that he was destined to rule France.  Perhaps in imitation of Alexis de Tocqueville, whose influential work Democracy in America first appeared in 1835, he planned to tour the country so as to know American institutions better, but when informed that his mother was dying in Switzerland, he left the U.S. in haste so as to be with her until the end, which, after some delays en route, he managed to do. 

     As for his reception here by the French community, I suspect that he was welcomed warmly by the Bonaparte faction and greeted less warmly by the legitimists who wanted a Bourbon restoration, and the supporters of the then current regime of Louis Philippe, the “roi bourgeois.”  Not to mention those who yearned for a republic.  In those days the French, being politically versatile, had many options. 

     Be that as it may, Louis Napoleon was destined to influence fashion in this city and nation.  Once he finagled his way into becoming, like his uncle, the Emperor of the French, his impériale was much imitated by the hirsute faction on these shores.  And his consort, the Empress Eugénie, is said to have launched the vogue of the hoopskirt – a dubious claim to fame, given the difficulty stylish women had in maneuvering its ample proportions.  There are at least three theories as to why she favored this outlandish innovation: (1) she wanted to hide her pregnancy (she would give birth to the prince impériale); (2) her couturier wanted to promote the French fabric and trim industry; (3) though acclaimed as a beauty, she had bad legs and wanted to hide them.

Lorenzo Da Ponte

File:Lorenzo da Ponte.jpg     Jewish by birth, and a Catholic convert who became a priest unburdened by his vow of chastity  (he hung out with Casanova), Lorenzo Da Ponte, known today as Mozart’s librettist, achieved a rare distinction by getting himself banished from  sensual, easy-going Venice, his native city, for immoral conduct -- specifically for “public concubinage” and “abduction of a respectable woman.”  Among his misdeeds were a mistress who bore him two children, and, so the story goes, his living in a brothel and organizing the entertainments there.  His priestly duties, it seems, were a sideline, or maybe nonexistent.

     Forced to leave Venice in 1779, he moved to Austria and finally turned up in Vienna, where he made the right connections and became the court librettist, working above all with Mozart on his best-known Italian operas.  These, his glory days, ended when his patron, the emperor Joseph II, died in 1790 and was succeeded by a monarch who was quickly prejudiced against Da Ponte by his enemies at court.  Da Ponte then transferred his talents to London, where he engaged in various theatrical and publishing activities, until debt and bankruptcy forced him to flee to the U.S., where he had already dispatched his wife and children (yes, he seems to have actually married this one), since she had relatives there.  When, at age 56, he disembarked in Philadelphia in 1805, he possessed a violin and little else, having gambled his scant funds away on the voyage.

     In America he settled first in New York, where he briefly ran a grocery store, then decamped for Pennsylvania, where he may have run a millinery and a distillery (accounts differ).  Returning to New York, he opened a bookstore and a rooming house where the roomers, many of them students at Columbia College, savored his sophisticated talk about the arts, Mozart, and Italian cooking.  He also taught Italian, primarily to young women, which, given his past, might make one fear for their chastity, though by now his sexual misadventures had probably come to an end.  White-haired and toothless, he still managed to ooze an Old World charm that won him many friends, though his tales about himself and his accomplishments were such as to inspire mistrust.  In time he taught Italian literature at Columbia College, where he had no fixed salary but was paid for each student enrolled.  Alas, after the first year he had zero students and therefore zero pay.  But he remained on the college faculty for thirteen years, and so became the first Jewish-born professor and the first Catholic priest to teach there, though by now he passed for an Anglican.

     His two great passions were opera and Italian literature, and he was determined to make them both better known in this raw, vital city in this raw, vital land.  In 1825 he mounted a performance of Don Giovanni in New York, then introduced Rossini’s music to the U.S. through a concert tour with his niece.  In 1833, at age 84, he founded the New York Opera Company, the first opera house in the country, but his financial acumen had not improved, and after two seasons the company was disbanded and the theater sold to pay its debts.  A U.S. citizen since 1828, he died here in 1838 and was honored with an enormous funeral ceremony in the Catholic cathedral on Mulberry Street.  What became of his remains is unknown, since the cemetery where he was buried was closed soon afterward and the graves relocated elsewhere.

      An astonishing life, or maybe one should say lives, since he kept reinventing himself and tried his hand at everything, a Venetian Jew turned Catholic priest turned Anglican with a talent for seduction and debt.  Still, he  initiated the teaching of Italian literature and induced an interest in opera in a city and nation that up till then were blissfully ignorant of both.  Though the location of his remains is uncertain, a tombstone was belatedly put up in 1985 in the Calvary Cemetery in Queens.

Lorenzo da Ponte
One tombstone could hardly hold all the man's accomplishments.


     So spoke Harold Clurman, when commenting long ago on the characters in a scene presented in the Playwrights Unit of the Actors Studio.  (A very good scene, incidentally, and well acted.)  His words often come to mind when, returning from errands, I notice the cigarette butts and stray bits of paper tossed in the small front area of the building next door.  That area is well kept by my neighbor, who plants things there.  But Americans, alas, think that every garden is an ashtray, and every park a trash dump.  At times, in the course of my hikes, I have walked for a short distance beside a highway and noticed the litter there: plastic cups and utensils, brown paper bags, cigarette butts, bits of paper, even whole newspapers.  People seem to think that, if they toss trash out a car window, it will somehow disappear.  But it doesn't.  Yes, Americans are pigs.  One welcome exception is the state of Maine, which really strives to keep its highways clean.  Billboards are limited, and there is almost no litter at the sides of roads; you can actually enjoy the landscape, and the landscape there is well worth looking at.  But New York State, like most states I have visited, is strewn with trash.  Yes, alas, Americans are pigs.

This  is  New  York

File:Times Square at Night (7823232238).jpg
Stuart Sevastos

     Coming soon:  To celebrate Easter and the miracle of the Resurrection, next Sunday’s post will be Wonder: Our Need of It, with comments on Mount Canigou at dawn, Chartres, opening buds, brain coral, the first flaring forth, the beauty of mathematics, the wisdom of the body, and related matters.  After that, one more glance at exiles, another at famous deaths in New York, and probably a post on Remarkable Women (I have a juicy trio in mind).

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder