Fifth in an ongoing series, Notes from a Plague-Time
With the hideous toll of the coronavirus pandemic rising steeply — 49,605 U.S. deaths at this posting, 187,330 deaths worldwide — and while continuing to “shelter in place” and “self-isolate,” this pilgrim’s heart desperately wants release, wants to soar, wants beauty, truth, lightness.
To wit (yes, wit!): Like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing to “Pick Yourself Up” (photo above). At a time when experts fear that, with the plague-induced economic collapse, we are facing another Great Depression, it is cheering to note Fred and Ginger created beauty, truth, and lightness in the depths (1936) of the first depression, urging us to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, start all over again.
If more reason is needed to seek Art’s consolations, we now have another manifestation of American crazy: The extreme right-wing out in the streets, defying “social distancing,” brandishing guns, protesting government “overreach,” all fanned by the tweeting demagogue in the White House (“LIBERATE MICHIGAN”) — threatening the rest of us with a resurgence of infection. It all combines to make one yearn for what the Roman poet Virgil called “the upper air,” where truth and beauty reign, where instead of a heaviness of the soul there is a lightness, what Italians call leggerezza.
Poet John Keats’ immortal line — “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” — captures great Art at its heights. Here are the high places my mind goes to, not only for deep cleansing, but for release, for solace, for hope, and, crucially, for fuel: For I go to these high places not for permanent escape, but as a respite, to replenish before I re-engage with the titanic struggle besetting the world. Where I can manage it, my forthcoming examples come with metaphor, intensifying the meaning. Starting with the aria — meta-metaphor alert — “Peace, peace, my God!” Finding peace, even fleeting, I can carry on.
This post is repurposed from one I filed just after Donald Trump’s election in 2016, titled “This Blogpost is NOT about Donald Trump: Seeking Beauty, Truth, Lightness.” Sad to say, all the reasons I cited then for seeking Art’s consolations have proved not only valid but been magnified many times over. New development since then: Streaming video — of concerts, opera, films, plays (I recently streamed Syracuse Stage’s terrific production of Amadeus). Check your favorite venues for streaming options.
Allora, the consolations of Art, which — they are just a click away — I hope will console you, too.
SONG: As promised, “Pace, pace, mio Dio” (“Peace, peace, my God!”), from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, sung by Leontyne Price. Marvel at the sublime “Flower Duet” from Delibes’ Lakme. For the beauty that human voices can create en masse, enjoy Handel’s Messiah (in full), sung by the King’s College Choir (“Hallelujah!” chorus” here). And for their calming effect, Gregorian chants (more here).
MUSIC: Bach, the Master, always elevates; here’s a cello suite and Toccata and Fugue (more here and here). Vivaldi’s Four Seasons transports us back to Nature. Here are Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, with jazzman Benny Goodman on clarinet; my favorite Brahms, Opus 118: Six piano pieces; and, for a majestic note, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. For those mourning the damage done to America and the world, Chopin’s nocturnes and the requiems of Mozart, Brahms, and Verdi. My absolute favorite piece of chamber music is Ravel’s Piano Trio. The French make a point of beautiful music, so here are Debussy, Poulenc (also here), more Ravel. For ineffable beauty, Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, Sibelius’ The Swan of Tuonela, and Elgar’s Enigma Variations; for a sad beauty, the tangos of Astor Piazzolla; and for esprit, Walton’s Crown Imperial. Metaphor alert: For a New Day, Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony and Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.
And enjoy again the American songbook — Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Berlin — all sung by Ella Fitzgerald. Enjoy again the American sound of Ellington, Goodman (“Sing, Sing, Sing”), and — as tonic reminder in a pandemic — Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World.”
DANCE: See Fred and Ginger dancing to the sublime “Cheek to Cheek” and “Waltz in Swing Time” and, cited above, “Pick Yourself Up.” See Fred and Cyd Charisse in the lovely “Dancing in the Dark.” See Fred and Rita Hayworth in an amazing number in You Were Never Lovelier. Of course the mind seeking joy goes to Gene Kelly’s iconic rain-splashed number in Singin’ in the Rain and his iconic ballet in An American in Paris (also here). Here’s the iconic ballet in The Red Shoes with Moira Shearer. Ever-revelatory is Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, created as “blood memories” of African-American life; the Nicholas Brothers are ever-astonishing. Metaphor alert: Prodigal Son, with Mikhail Baryshnikov.
PAINTING: Rather than large-scale work — history paintings, Biblical parables — I am thinking more human-scale. Portraits, for example — by Da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael, Rembrandt, Modigliani, and Holbein the Younger for his portraiture of the great humanist Erasmus, as well as other assorted worthies (here, here, and here). Postcards of Velazquez’ “Aesop” and Daumier’s “Don Quixote” sit on my desk. At this fraught time, Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of our founders, including Abigail Adams, resonate.
Likewise, in fraught times, simple things resonate: the sea (Courbet), the view out a window (Bonnard), Matisse’s late-in-life cutouts. Just as they did in music, the French Impressionists found the beautiful, with Manet, Monet, Degas, and Cezanne exalting everyday life. I love Van Gogh’s expressiveness (here, here, and here), especially in his final work, “Wheatfield with Crows.” I love Vermeer’s humanity, especially as portrayed in his “Geographer,” with a man bent over maps, looking up to the light. With misogyny so blatant (still), I think of the art of Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot, Georgia O’Keeffe, Anon. On a somber note, I think of Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” Finally, metaphor alert: Goya’s “Colossus,” Caravaggio’s “Narcissus” and “Ecce Homo,” and Bruegel the Elder’s “Tower of Babel.”
LITERATURE: The poet Virgil, cited above, I will quote in full (it is one of my life-credos): “Easy is the descent to the lower world; but to retrace your steps and to escape to the upper air — this is the task, this is the toil.” Another life-credo is from Orwell: “The fact to which we have got to cling, as to a life-belt, is that it is possible to be a normal decent person and yet to be fully alive” (italics Orwell’s). Camus has inspiring words for this plague-time, from, appropriately, his novel The Plague: “....to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”
In American letters, I think of Emerson’s question in his essay “Politics”: “Are our methods now so excellent that all competition is hopeless? Could not a nation of friends devise better ways?” In Henry Adams’ novel Democracy, a historian says: “Democracy asserts the fact that the masses are now raised to higher intelligence than formerly. All our civilization aims at this mark. We want to do what we can to help it…. I grant it is an experiment, but it is the only direction society can take that is worth its taking…. I am glad to see society grapple with issues in which no one can afford to be neutral” (see also here). I think of Thoreau’s advice: “Simplify, simplify.”
I think of Edith Wharton’s description of America’s Gilded Age, in The House of Mirth: “A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implication lies in its power of debasing people and ideals.” Read Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country, the “custom” being the getting and spending of money — which practice Trump ensures for his super-rich cronies by firing the Inspector General who was to oversee dispersal of the $2 trillion relief package Congress just passed. But, here I descended “to the lower world” — sorry, back to “the upper air…..”
Melville, in the famous opening of Moby-Dick, captures the need for escape we all feel now, sheltering. Now at least we have time to commit it to memory: “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” For a portrait of the White House’s present occupant, see Melville’s novel The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (full book here).
If sheltering in place — our mode of existence for the duration — leaves you feeling little scope for personal action, and feeling your “Thinking of you” email counts as nothing vis-à-vis the actions of the medical heroes working this plague’s front lines, consolation can be found in the last lines of George Eliot’s deeply humane novel, Middlemarch, which sum up Dorothea Brooke’s life: “Her full nature….spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.” In plague-time, it’s good to think of “the growing good of the world.”
In Poetry, Auden’s description of the 1930s as a “low dishonest decade” applies to our moment. That said, solace is to be found in personal ties, as Matthew Arnold in “Dover Beach” writes: “Ah, love, let us be true / To one another! for the world, which seems / To lie before us like a land of dreams, / So various, so beautiful, so new, / Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; / And we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
For the long view, I go to my favorite poet, Emily Dickinson (pictured above): “This World is not Conclusion. / A Species stands beyond — / Invisible, as Music —/ But positive, as Sound —/ It beckons and it baffles — / Philosophy — don’t know — / And through a Riddle, at the last — / Sagacity, must go —/ To guess it, puzzles scholars — / To gain it, Men have borne / Contempt of Generations / And Crucifixion, shown — / Faith slips — and laughs, and rallies — / Blushes, if any see — / Plucks at a twig of Evidence — / And asks a Vane, the way —/ Much Gesture, from the Pulpit — / Strong Hallelujahs roll —/ Narcotics cannot still the Tooth / That nibbles at the soul — “
In Drama, I think of the lines from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, near the end: “I can’t go on like this.” “That’s what you think.” ( In a pandemic, those lines bear repeating.) Not often recalled are these lines from Godot: “We’ve lost our rights?” “We got rid of them” (see also here). On the loss of America’s reputation, I think of the dishonored John Proctor’s lament before he is hanged, in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!…. How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” (see also here). For America at its very essence, revisit Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s masterpiece (full 1940 movie here, with a young William Holden, music by Aaron Copland). For characters contending with an injust society, see the oeuvre of Ibsen (An Enemy of the People, A Doll’s House, et al.). For characters who think (or try to), see contemporary playwright Tom Stoppard, notably his plays Arcadia and Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
Shakespeare speaks to all circumstances. We might use our self-isolation to commit to memory select speeches from Shakespeare, such as: “How all occasions do inform against me, and spur my dull revenge….” Here Shakespeare presents humanity at its best, from Hamlet: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god, the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals — and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” Jump down the rabbit-hole of scholarly argumentation and examine: Did Shakespeare spray that speech with exclamation points in the original — yes or no?
Four years ago when I posted the original version of this commentary, my mother was beginning her final descent, so I was going to the 23rd Psalm for comfort. It comforts still: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul….”
Speaking of restoring the soul: some lightness, leggerezza…..
For sheerest delight, I go most readily to the films of the 1930s and ’40s, when Hollywood served up inspiriting diversion for hard times. (Apologies in advance: Clips are not available for all the following; you will have to go to the full movie, which is pleasure in itself.)
See Claudette Colbert drive Clark Gable crazy in It Happened One Night; see Katharine Hepburn drive Cary Grant crazy in Bringing Up Baby; see Cary Grant drive Rosalind Russell crazy in His Girl Friday (full movie here); see Joel McCrea drive Jean Arthur crazy in The More the Merrier; see screwball comedy in general. Turning romantic, see Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy fall in love in Woman of the Year; see Bette Davis and Paul Henreid put their love in context in Now, Voyager (their last scene here); see Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn do the same in Roman Holiday. See Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman rediscover their love in Casablanca (their last scene here); see Bogie and Bacall lay the metaphors on each other in The Big Sleep. For more recent fare, see the hilarious Moonstruck. See also Bette Davis deliver her famous line, “I’d like to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair”; see a drunk Jimmy Stewart drop in on Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story; see William Powell go fishing in Libeled Lady; see Jimmy Cagney sing and dance in Yankee Doodle Dandy, also dance down the White House stairs. Hear Irene Dunne sing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” And see Sullivan’s Travels for the importance of laughter in bad times (also here).
Back to the present bad times….: To endure this pandemic and economic collapse — and gird for the repair work afterward — observe the gallantry portrayed by Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in Mrs. Miniver, set in World War II, especially the scene where, sheltering, they gallantly talk of mundane things while German bombs drop overhead. See veterans of that war come home to altered futures and manage in the magnificent movie, The Best Years of Our Lives. To fight the toxic bigotry unleashed by our divisive President, see Gregory Peck fight the good fight, here against anti-Semitism, in Gentleman’s Agreement.
Further about our repair job — post-pandemic, post-economic collapse: No less than hard-nosed George Orwell thought regeneration was possible. But it would take clear thinking — “To think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration” — and language that tells the truth, not the lies we are drowning in now. Reading Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” will restart your engine (see also here).
Perhaps the last word, as we prime for that work, might go to Wislawa Szymborska, Polish poet and Nobel laureate. Speaking of rebuilding after ruination, she wrote, wittily: “Shirtsleeves will be rolled / To shreds.”
To the upper air! And to get us there: Fred and Ginger again, dancing to…..“Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”
For other posts in this series, see here.