Sunday, April 27, 2014

124. Exiles in New York, part 4

      This is the fourth and last post about exiles in New York.  It deals with some who came here as a result of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and the Fall of France.

Strife among the Gauls in exile

     In the lobby of a New York hotel, during World War II, the well-known French playwright Henri Bernstein, upon encountering fellow French exile André Maurois, slapped him twice -- once, he said, as a Frenchman, and once as a Jew.  “I shall pulverize you,” Bernstein reportedly warned Maurois.  “I know how to hate.  I shall ruin you.  I shall isolate you.  I shall reduce you to a position of helplessness.”  Such were the threats of one noted French author against another, the two of them wartime refugees in New York, and both Jewish.  Nor was Bernstein’s an idle threat.  He quickly launched a barrage of attacks on Maurois in the French-language press of the U.S. and Canada, and spread rumors that Maurois was a Vichy sympathizer, a fascist, a foe of the British, and an anti-Semitic Jew.  What was this all about?

     The collapse of France in the spring of 1940 had brought the end of the Third Republic and the installation, in that part of France not occupied by the Germans, of the right-wing Vichy regime, with Marshal Philippe Pétain, a venerable hero of World War I, as its head.  But even as the Vichy government told the French they must adjust to German hegemony in Europe and, in effect, make nice with Hitler, General Charles De Gaulle had launched the Free French movement in Great Britain so as continue the war against Germany.  Every French citizen – and above all the intellectuals, to whom many looked for guidance -- had to choose between Vichy and De Gaulle, the newly established regime and the rebel.  This conflict could assume a ferocity even among the French exiles in New York.

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Henri Bernstein
     For Bernstein, coming to the U.S. was easy: his mother was American, he had wealthy in-laws here, he spoke English fluently and had visited here often.  And getting out of France was necessary, since he was Jewish.  Only days after the Germans marched into Paris in June 1940, he left for England and sailed from there to New York.  Over here he lived sumptuously in the Waldorf Astoria, with a sampling of his art collection on the walls, including a Manet painting and a Toulouse-Lautrec drawing.  A notorious womanizer, he took up with Eve Curie, the daughter of the Curies of radium fame, and then with a popular singer.  But when it came to politics and the war he was a passionate supporter of De Gaulle, on whose behalf he wrote articles for the New York Times and New York Herald Tribune and other leading newspapers.  After the war he returned to France and continued writing plays until his death in 1953.

André Maurois, with a picture of Balzac on the
wall behind him.
     And Maurois?  Also a Jew (he was born Emile Herzog), he had done liaison work with the British army in World War I, making many British friends, and had lectured in the U.S. and as a result entertained a very positive feeling for the U.S. and its citizens.  In 1938 he was elected to the Académie Française, an honor coveted by some and scorned by others among the French intelligentsia.  Then, in June 1940, before the Germans entered Paris, the French army sent him on a mission to England, where De Gaulle tried to enlist him as a propagandist addressing the French from London.  He declined, fearing for the safety of his family back in France, but also out of loyalty to Pétain, for whom he felt respect and affection.  Instead, now demobilized, he accepted an invitation to give lectures in the U.S. and set sail with his wife for New York, where the managers of posh hotels, knowing him from previous visits, were glad to welcome him, assuring him he needn’t worry about paying until he had earned some money in America.  He and his wife stayed first at the Plaza, and then in a small apartment on the 17th floor of the Ritz Towers.  Invitations for weekends in the country followed.  As I have noted before, it pays to have connections, and Maurois had many.

     But comfy living was no defense against Bernstein’s attacks.  When Maurois wrote an article for Life magazine stressing how the French loved Pétain and asserting – sincerely, no doubt, but erroneously – that the Marshal’s more controversial measures had been taken under duress, it could only have stoked Bernstein’s anger and intensified his hostility.  Hence the two slaps in the hotel lobby, and the outpouring of threats and hate.  Maurois was by nature a moderate who could see more than one side to an issue, and in wartime moderates are not in great demand.

     Though deeply hurt by Bernstein’s attacks, Maurois lectured extensively throughout the U.S., stressing the menace of Nazi Germany to an America that was still technically neutral, and trying to convince skeptical audiences that France’s collapse was the result only of military inadequacies, and not of moral decadence, corruption, and defeatism.  In New York he socialized widely with Saint-Exupéry, Romains, and other French refugees, and numerous American friends as well, and even had a chat with Eleanor Roosevelt, who appreciated the positive effect of his lectures. 

     When the U.S. entered the war, Maurois played a more active role in the struggle, going with his friend Saint-Exupéry to join the Free French forces in North Africa, though what he did there isn’t clear.  After the war he rejoined his wife in New York, taught French literature at the University of Kansas City, Missouri, where he imparted to the children of those middle regions, so rich in corn and hogs, the glories of Proust and Balzac.  When he returned to Paris in 1946, he found that his apartment on the Boulevard Maurice Barrès had been occupied by the nephew of Herman Goering, who on departing had ordered all Maurois’s books removed or destroyed, the furniture mutilated, the Aubusson and oriental rugs torn, and the paintings carried off.  Maurois was crushed by the loss especially of his books and rare papers.  It would take him five years to reconstitute the library.

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Jules Romains
     Another French refugee in New York was the novelist Jules Romains, whose decision to leave France was motivated in part by the desire to protect his wife, who was Jewish.  Sailing from Lisbon, they arrived in New York in July 1940 and took a low-priced room at the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th   Street, a famous gathering place for writers, journalists, and critics, where the management, knowing who their new guests were, upgraded them to a suite.  Then they moved to the Hotel Mayflower on Central Park West at 61st Street, where they ended up in a penthouse with a shared terrace: another example of the advantage of being preceded by one’s reputation and having the right connections.  In New York the French exiles were not skimping along in a garret, picturesque as that might have been. 

     Romains’s political views were not likely to please Bernstein, who was busy demolishing the image of Pétain that Maurois at first tried to preserve.  A pacifist who had avoided military service in World War I, Romains had argued in the postwar years that only a reconciliation between France and Germany could bring lasting peace in Europe.  This point of view, which might have been laudable in the years following World War II, was, to put it mildly, misguided and deplorable when he maintained it after Hitler’s rise to power.  But Bernstein never attacked him with the vehemence he showed to Maurois.  Romains participated in Voice of America radio broadcasts, then in 1941 went to Mexico, where he had many friends, to join with other French refugees in founding the Institut Français d’Amérique Latine.  By now he was done with pacifism and gave lectures attacking Vichy.   When peace came he returned to France, where he was elected to the Académie Française in 1946.

Bertolt Brecht

Brecht, looking like a son of the people.
     The fiercely anti-fascist German playwright Bertolt Brecht had collaborated with the composer Kurt Weill to create The Threepenny Opera (1928) and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930), both of which, savagely critical of capitalism, were great successes despite the vehement protests of Nazis in the audience.  When Hitler came to power in 1933, Brecht left Germany, lived for a while in Denmark, and in July 1941, with his wife and harem (he always had a harem) came to the United States, where he wrote some of his most famous plays.  An American who met him in New York in 1946 described him as a short, wiry man with close-cropped hair and a thin, bony face with a stubble of beard.  Brecht, he reported, talked with a flow of nervous energy, his eyes sparkling with a wry sense of humor, as he radiated a great force of will that made him seem much younger than his age of 48.  And he smoked cheap cigars.

     Others were less generous, finding Brecht contentiously arrogant, manipulative, and even, since he disliked bathing, smelly.  Thomas Mann called him a gifted monster, and W. H. Auden, with whom he collaborated, remarked that Brecht was one of the few people on whom a death sentence might be justifiably carried out. Though born into a comfortably middle-class German family, in photographs he always managed to look “proletarian” – close-cropped hair, plain clothes, grim-faced or with a faint, sly smile -- and in so doing repeated the gesture of Walt Whitman who, in the 1850s, presented himself to his readers as working-class and “one of the roughs,” a parallel that Brecht, had he been aware of it, would probably have rejected with disdain.

     Though clearly an exile, Brecht was not really an exile in New York, which he visited occasionally, since he settled down in Hollywood -- the most curious of locales for an avowed Marxist in proletarian garb -- and then in Santa Monica.  While still in Germany Brecht had known the U.S. chiefly through film and fantasy, and the names of its cities and states had had a certain exotic allure; now he could experience first-hand the glories and horrors of this bastion of capitalism.  The U.S., for Brecht, was ignoble and loathsome, and Southern California a “Tahiti in metropolitan form” where the air was unbreathable and there was nothing to smell.  Why was he there at all?  Presumably because of the climate, the presence of a German-speaking community of fellow exiles (Brecht never learned English), and the possibility of making money in Hollywood (which he never did).

      When the Cold War took hold, Brecht’s avowed Marxism got him into trouble.  Summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, he testified that he had never been a member of the Communist Party, but smoked an acrid cigar that made some of the committee members slightly sick; the very next day he left the U.S. for Europe.  In 1949 the offer of his own theater where he could fully realize his vision of epic theater induced him to return to Berlin, but to East Berlin in Communist-ruled East Germany, where his Berliner Ensemble became world-famous.  A canny Marxist, he retained his Austrian passport while in East Germany and stashed the money from the Stalin Peace Prize, which he received in 1955, in a Swiss bank account.  His detractors are quick to point out that he never denounced Stalin’s atrocities or the oppressiveness of the East German regime, but he influenced U.S. and European theater to a remarkable extent.    He died of a heart attack in 1956 and is buried in Berlin.

Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya

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Goggle glasses and a patterned bow tie
perched at his throat like a butterfly:
most definitely a bourgeois.

     The German composer Kurt Weill was born into a middle-class Jewish family and was composing music by the age of thirteen.  Photos show him, young or old, as a good bourgeois, serious, unsmiling, tightly buttoned and neat, with glasses – a far cry from Brecht’s proletarian (or pseudo-proletarian) image.  In 1924 he met Lotte Lenya (an assumed stage name), an actress of Viennese working-class origins, whom he married in 1926.  Though no classic beauty, as an actress and singer she had great stage presence, an untrained soprano voice that was unforgettable, and a raw, gutsy quality that suited perfectly the work of Weill and his collaborator Brecht, and that brought her instant fame in the role of Jenny in The Threepenny Opera (1928).  Though hard to classify – opera, musical, or play with music? -- this work, an adaptation of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (1728), was an immediate success, treating audiences to a world of thieves, murderers, and prostitutes that shocked and fascinated them.  By 1933 it had been translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times on European stages.

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Not a great beauty, but incredibly
dynamic on the stage, unforgettable.
     In spite of this success, Brecht and Weill soon distanced themselves from each other, primarily because, by 1929, Brecht’s ideas were tinged more and more with Marxism, and he was becoming increasingly opinionated and dictatorial.  The rise of Hitler’s National Socialist Party put Brecht, Weill, and Lenya in danger, since they were known leftists and Weill was Jewish.  Lenya was now living with the singer Otto Pasetti, and early in 1933 she initiated divorce proceedings against Weill, which may have been in part a tactical move, since it would let her reclaim some of his assets that might otherwise be seized by the Nazis.  When Hitler came to power in March of that year, Weill and Lenya fled Germany separately.  The pending divorce did not keep Lenya from performing in Brecht and Weill’s sung ballet (ballet chanté) The Seven Deadly Sins, which opened in Paris in June 1933 to mixed reviews and would be Brecht and Weill’s last collaboration.  Three months later Lenya and Weill’s divorce became final.  But by sometime in 1934 Lenya’s affair with Pasetti was over, and after a brief fling with the Surrealist artist Max Ernst, she became reconciled with Weill, who had been having an affair of his own with Erika Neher, the wife of the renowned set designer Caspar Neher, who worked closely with Brecht.  In spite of their infidelities, Weill and Lenya always remained friends and collaborators and finally resumed their relationship.  Even in free-living artistic circles old friends, it seems, are best.

     In September 1935 the, dare we say, happy couple came to New York, residing first at the St. Moritz Hotel on Central Park South (not exactly a refuge for the impecunious) and later in an apartment at 231 East 62nd Street; they married again in January 1937.  Convinced that his scores in Germany had been destroyed by the Nazis, Weill broke dramatically with his German past, speaking and writing German rarely, and studying American popular music so as to create works completely different from what he had done in Germany.  Unlike Brecht, he and Lenya adapted to the capitalist American society and prospered.  His American works never matched the earlier ones in bite, but some of his creations, notably “September Song,” had remarkable success.  There are those who argue that his American career was not a sharp break with his past, but simply a new phase of it, but I’m not convinced.  It’s quite a leap from “Mack the Knife” to “September Song,” and I can’t believe that any of the Broadway musicals he helped create had the keen edge of The Threepenny Opera, where Mack the Knife pronounces, “What is the robbing of a bank, compared to the founding of one?” (a statement that might well have resonance today).

     Weill and Lenya moved into a house of their own in New City, Rockland County, in May 1941.  He became a U.S. citizen in 1943 and died of a heart attack in a New York hospital soon after his fiftieth birthday on April 3, 1950; for weeks afterward, Lenya was so distraught that neighbors were afraid to let her stay alone at night.  Despite the off-and-on infidelities, her life had been intimately linked to his ever since their first meeting in 1924.

     After Weill’s death Lenya, who in turn became a citizen in 1944, returned to the stage and performed memorably as Jenny in Marc Blitzstein’s brilliant 1955 Off Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera at the Theatre de Lys in the West Village, a production that I was privileged to see twice.  The first time, worn out from a long trip by car back from vacation on Cape Cod, I was swept along into the theater by some adventurous friends who followed some other people in, and so witnessed a dress rehearsal where I kept telling myself that this was a remarkable production, even as I caught myself nodding off and pinched myself awake.  

     The second time I saw Threepenny I was fully rested and alert, and confirmed my first impression that this was a remarkable event, and her now husky voice inimitable.  From then on I was a devoted fan of anything that Brecht and Weill had worked on together, and anything that Lotte Lenya sang or performed in; she became a part of my New York experience.  I will never forget her rendering of the song “Pirate Jenny” in The Threepenny Opera, where she plays a lowly and exploited hotel maid who imagines a pirate ship coming into the harbor to avenge her; when the pirates ask if she should kill some or all of the people, she answers tersely, in the German version, “Alle,” in that one short word conveying unforgettably the resentment and hatred toward their masters of the downcast and oppressed.

     In the 1950s “Mack the Knife” became popular in the U.S.; you couldn’t avoid it.  I loved the song but was troubled by its new status as a hit show tune that every pop singer wanted to have a crack at; divorced from its context in The Threepenny Opera, it was less sinister, less haunting.

     Another New York triumph for Lotte Lenya was George Balanchine’s City Ballet production of The Seven Deadly Sins, newly translated by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, which opened in December 1958.  The main character, Anna, is presented as a split personality.  Lenya had the speaking and acting role, the rational Anna, her face framed by orange hair and bangs, with bold red lips and garish mascara, a grotesque appearance suggesting figures out of German Expressionism, the flagrant streetwalkers of Kirchner or the caricatures of Gross.  The dancing role was performed by Allegra Kent, who would experience the seven sins in seven cities of a mythological America.  By way of introduction Lenya informed the audience in her inimitable down-to-earth voice, with a glance at the lovely young dancer, “She’s the good-looking one; I’m practical.”  In the original 1933 production by George Balanchine in Paris, Lenya had done the same role with Tilly Losch as the dancer, with the two of them about the same age and Losch bearing a remarkable resemblance to Lenya.  In this New York production the fact that Lenya was 60 and Kent a mere 21 seemed irrelevant, given Lenya’s effectiveness in the role.  As the two Annas seek their fortune and encounter the seven deadly sins in the cities of America, a male quartet (with the mother a bass in drag, another grotesque Expressionist touch) watch smugly and receive their earnings, which they use to gradually build a little house for themselves.  Needless to say, the quartet represents the capitalist bourgeoisie  exploiting the labor of workers.  I’ll never forget the quartet’s insistent repetition:

                  Lazy bones are for the Devil’s stockpot.
                  Lazy bones are for the Devil’s stockpot.

I saw the ballet twice and was overwhelmed by it.  Amazingly, it was not revived by City Ballet until 2011.

     From 1960 on Lenya lived in an apartment at 404 East 55th Street in New York.  In 1961 she appeared in the movie version of Tennessee Williams’s The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone as the enterprising Contessa who helps Vivian Leigh find a young Roman lover; for her performance Lenya was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.  She would marry again three times but, being determined to promote the works of her deceased husband, in 1962 she created the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music and oversaw vigilantly the revivals of his works, even to the point of attending rehearsals script in hand and following the performers line by line.     More performances and recordings followed, and more honors.  Keeper of the flame even when her own life was sputtering out, in her last days she embraced the acclaimed opera singer Teresa Stratas as her successor in keeping Weill’s music alive.  Stratas moved in with her to see her through her last days as she succumbed to cancer.  Lenya died on November 27, 1981, aged 83, and was buried beside Weill in Haverstraw, New York. 

     Source note:  For information on Bernstein, Maurois, and Romains in New York, I am indebted to my longtime friend and comrade in the study and appreciation of French literature and culture, Jeanine Parisier-Plottel.  Bernstein’s attack on Maurois is recounted in Maurois’s Mémoires; though Maurois doesn’t identify his attacker by name, it is obviously Bernstein.

This is New York

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Jorge Royan

     Coming soon:  A post on Remarkable Women: a prostitute’s daughter who slept in an empress’s bed, married and divorced an ex-vice president, and hobnobbed with ex-kings and a future emperor. 

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder

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.

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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.

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     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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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     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.

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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.

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This is New York

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     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