Archive for the ‘Aesthetics’ Category

Another Musical Dialogue

©2017 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

The genesis for the essay below dates way back to May 2003, when I had a brief email dialogue with a disc jockey in Dallas. At that time, I didn’t have Internet access on my computer at home here in West Texas; I was using one of the computers at Sul Ross State University to write emails and posts for a previous blog. Since I didn’t have my own Internet service available for music appreciation, I was limited to my small collection of LP’s and the local radio station. All that was played on the radio was country & western and golden oldies. I like classical C&W but not the modern stuff, and I also like many of the old pop hits; but I would have preferred for the broadcasts to be dominated by classical music. Fat chance!
The radio station piped in its music (and national/state news) from Dallas. (By the way, the Dallas station has long since replaced its music format with right wing news and talk shows.) After several months of listening, I noticed that there was a lot of repetition; the same songs were played almost every day. I knew more old records were available, particularly at a shop on Garland Road called “Collectors Records”. I decided the Dallas station could use a little coaching from Bob Litton, so I emailed the disc jockey, Bud Buschardt.
In my first email, I mentioned “Collectors Records” to him and suggested he shop a little there. He replied that he knew of the store and in fact had helped the owner establish his inventory.
I also suggested about half a dozen titles to him, emphasizing the Carpenters’ “I Know I Need To Be In Love”, probably my most favorite of all, which I conceded might not be played much because it is a slight “downer”. Bud replied that he could not recall ever hearing Karen’ Carpenter’s song, that all the station’s music has to be tested in “focus groups”, and that “if it’s a “downer’, we wouldn’t play it because we have to keep all our music upbeat.”
I began to mull over the “downer” question and felt I had to write something about it, if for no other reason than my own amusement…and possibly Bud’s. I don’t know if it amused him or not, since he didn’t reply to my final email, repeated below with some slight editing in the interest of clarity and fullness.

 * * * * * *
Hi Bud,
¶A phrase in our recent email dialogue — “”probably a little bit too much of a downer” — settled in my brain, germinated into a theme, and now demands hatching. Two qualities in my character predetermined such an event: a lifelong tendency to melancholia, and a compulsion to analyze everything to death. I will write it, and you have the choice of reading it or not.
¶Actually, I fib slightly when implying that the subject of the psychology of popular music only recently occurred to me; I have considered the matter almost every time I have heard a popular song, and even some classical pieces, over the past quarter-century. Perhaps I should go back even further, and I might if we eliminate the philosophical plane. For, in my early teens I know I reacted very negatively to songs I considered silly, such as Eddie Fisher’s “O Mein Papa” and Frankie Laine’s “Cry of the Wild Goose”. On the other hand, during the high school years, I would put my ear to the radio and turn up the volume to listen to Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” and Bill Doggett’s “Honkytonk”. However, these were all hormonal reactions, not discriminating ones. I never questioned whether any of the songs should have been recorded or aired.
¶Perhaps it was while I was at the university that I was first alerted to individuals’ clashing emotional responses to music. I was sitting in the student center at SMU listening to a song I had played on the jukebox — Henry Mancini’s “Dreamsville” (from the TV show “Peter Gunn”) — when a couple of coeds in a booth across the room reacted, one of them complaining, “Why did anybody play that depressing song?” I was surprised but didn’t say anything. I had never considered “Dreamsville” depressing — slow certainly, as most piano bar jazz songs are, but not depressing.
¶Also during my university years, I learned about Plato’s — and the Spartans’ notion that all music other than marches should be forbidden. I never liked marches, excepting the “Entry of the Guests” from Richard Wagner’s Tannhauser and his “Prelude to Act II of Die Meistersinger.  The idea that anyone would want to ban love songs and other non-martial music was worrisome.
¶I am much older now, and my blood has cooled quite a bit, so, when I hear young people driving with their car windows open and their radios blaring incomprehensible songs, I have to remind myself of the days when my sap was running strong and I had my head up against the radio. Also, I listen more attentively to the lyrics now (if I can understand them), and many of them strike me as not only silly but downright harmful.
¶As examples, I will cite the lines “Anyway you want me, that’s how I will be” (Elvis Presley) and “I would sell my very soul and not regret it” (Perry Como). I have met a few people over the years who were willing to submit themselves to their lovers’ designs, and I felt sorry for them. As for the Como bit, I can’t enjoy any of his songs anymore after hearing “It’s Impossible”.  One day, I was sitting at the bar in a small Dallas pub when a woman (one of the regulars) at the other end of the bar happened to mention that she liked “It’s Impossible” very much.
¶“How can you say that, Nancy?” I exclaimed. “This guy’s saying he would sell his soul and not regret it, all for some love interest. Your soul is your personhood.”
¶Another regular (man) sitting near me said, “It’s just a song, Bob.”
¶Since then, I noted the effect a song has on me as I listen to it, and I have come up with some interesting insights in the process. (At least I consider them insights.)
¶The most pertinent insight here is that the words alone do not necessarily make a song depressing. Sometimes, in fact, what on the surface might seem like a “downer” can be belied to a degree by the music. I think such is the case with George Jones’ “The Race Is On” and, to a lesser extent, with Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (naturally)”, where the tempo is fast in the first instance and lilting in the second. Moreover, parts of each song are rendered amusing — to my temperament even comical — by the lyrics: “My tears are holding back, trying not to fall” and “My god, that’s tough; she stood him up; not point in us remaining”. Another song where the humor of the lyrics counteracts the supposedly melancholy theme of the song is Kris Kristopherson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down (from a hangover)”: “No way to turn my head that didn’t hurt…looked into my closet and found my cleanest dirty shirt”. (The old C&W songwriters were really good at sensuously humorous lyrics.)
¶Before I depart from C&W, I want to say a little about a couple of my favorites, which in their narratives are “sad” songs yet arouse only admiration in me: ” Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe” and Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil”. Both of these are true poems! Being a Texan, I have lived through enough summers, with the heat waves rising off the railroad tracks, to pick up on the sensual evocation of a southern country June in “Ode”. I love its detailed, sensual imagery. Of course, it’s the story of two lovers with a dark secret (presumably an abortion) which leads to the suicide of one and the anticipated suicide of the other, but their secret is perhaps too secret to involve me; and, after all, it is a ballad — a ballad in the tradition of “Edward” and “Barbara Allen”. They’re always tragic but tragic at a safe distance.
¶‟Long Black Veil” is balladic, too, in a different manner: it’s slower, deeper, more masculine, if you will. The words are very simple, almost all of one or two syllables; and the lines follow one another inevitably, rather like the better poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt. Of course, the story is supposed to be tragic; but I don’t get involved with it in that way because, had I been the defendant, I would have told the judge that “I had been in the arms of my best friend’s wife”. No hanging for love for me.
¶There are a few songs I would consider as genuinely touching the depressive nerve but which don’t go all the way because the protagonists are aware of a broader picture. One of these is Frank Sinatra’s “Cycles”. The singer acknowledges that he has been through more rough times than he would have liked “…but so have many others”. He recognizes that life is made up of cycles (“first there’s laughter then there’s tears”). He knows he’ll be able to sing a happy song again…sometime…‟just don’t ask me now”. So we know this guy’s in a bad spot, but he’s not knocked unconscious by it. It’s a moody song, a philosophical song, but not a particularly depressing one.
¶A song roughly similar to Sinatra’s is “You Gave Me A Mountain” by Elvis. Man! Everything happens to this poor chap! The whole closet of woes has been dumped on him. But that’s just it. So many bad things happen to him throughout his life — from his mother dying while giving him birth to his wife running away with his only child — that I am too overwhelmed with his long list of troubles to really empathize. It’s just too preposterous.
¶Now we come to my favorite pop song of all time: The Carpenters’ “I Know I Need To Be In Love”. (It was reportedly Karen Carpenter’s favorite, too.) Here again the singer-subject knows her down mood is not an untraversable chasm. She knows that the means of crossing over it lies within herself.

I know I need to be in love;
I know I’ve wasted too much time;
I know I ask perfection of a quite imperfect world
a fool enough to think that’s what I’ll find.

Nevertheless, the danger is there and it’s real:

Wide awake at four AM without a friend in sight,
hanging on a hope that I’m all right.

She’s in a dark moment emotionally, and there’s no one available to talk her out of it…except herself. She has sufficient self-knowledge to pull herself together. The tension lies in the question of whether she will do it. I have been in that condition many times myself, so the lyrics ring very true to my ears. It is because they so well articulate my own self-criticisms that, instead of depressing me, they hearten me.
¶Well, Bud, that’s the end of my little essay on “downer” music. I hope you read it and get something out of it. As for me, the little egg that’s been pestering me has finally hatched.
Best regards,
Bob

Finis

Confession of a Grouchy Classical Music Lover

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Photo Credit: Patrik Goethe

©2017 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

¶I have written about my classical music preferences and biases previously, but I want to return to the topic now with hammer and tong. So, beware, faint of heart.
¶Firstly, the instruments. On the negative side of the ledger I enter the violin—at least the violin when played as a solo instrument; when the violins are part of a mass involving other instruments, as in some of Tchaikovsky’s fairy tale ballets or in Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”, they are pleasing enough to my ear. When the piece has been composed specifically for a single violin or a duet, then the often scratchy sound irritates my ear, much as when a chalk is dragged across a blackboard. I used to appreciate Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” very much; now they only irritate me, possibly because they summon up in my mind all those phony smiling faces of the Baroque era but more certainly because they sound so much alike.  Unfortunately for me, compositions featuring violin solos seem to dominate the playlists of most classical music stations. But that perception could be due simply to my sensitivity to annoyances.
¶Heading the list of favorite instruments come the classical guitar and the English horn: I can’t break the tie. Both of those instruments have prominent parts in Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez”. Most of the other string and wind instruments I can appreciate, too, particularly the cello and the flute; sorry, but I can’t recall any particular compositions, besides Sergei Prokofiev ‘s “Peter and the Wolf”, where those instruments are focal. (But that’s just an index of my musicological ignorance; not a fair picture of our international repertory.)
¶Other instruments which can be pleasing when employed moderately are the coronet and the drums.
¶What it all boils down to, I guess, is that I generally prefer the quieter compositions, such as works the Impressionists Paul Ravel and Claude DeBussy gave us. Richard Wagner’s mystical preludes to “Lohengrin” and “Parsifal” also appeal to me. None of the louder compositions — especially Ludwig von Beethoven’s heavy, repetitive symphonies —appeal to me; yeah, I go against the general consensus there. (When I want something louder and faster I’ll tune in to a country-and-western station.)
¶Nearly all the adagios, especially the second movement of Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjues” and Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” easily fit into my comfort zone. The majority of classical music fans list those two pieces among their favorites, so I am “with the crowd” there at least. In fact, I can’t think of any composition finer than “Aranjues”.
¶It will probably strike the regular readers of my blog posts that I favor adagios because I am a melancholic, so it is natural that slower and moodier pieces would appeal to me. However, one does not reach seventy-seven years without learning that nothing is black and white. My tastes have changed over the years. For instance, I used to really enjoy George Frideric Handel’s entertainments for King George of England: you know, “Fireworks” and “Water”; now my awakened class-consciousness is repelled by them. Same story with Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”.
¶Of recent, I have found myself appreciating Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart more than I did back when I was in my twenties and thirties. Poor Mozart got off to a bad start with me because of a radio program to which I used to listen, the theme music for which was “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”. For some reason I can’t recall, it irritated me. During the same period, I saw the film “Elvira Madigan”, a depressing, romantic story that featured the andante from Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 21”; the concerto’s part in that film was so prominent that it gained the popular sub-title “Theme from Elvira Madigan”. Now, however, I have begun to favor Mozart because so much of his music is melodic and cheerful, especially when compared to Beethoven’s; a person can hum more of it.
¶I suppose I should apologize to any readers who don’t gain much from reading the above. True enough, there is not anything enlightening or entertaining in the content. But this “confession” is really just a “note-to-self”. I seldom attract any comments on my posts and only a few “likes” here and there, so I imagine I am writing mostly to myself anyway. By this point — four years into my blog-posting — I have begun to accept that reality. After all, I seldom read other bloggers’ posts either. And I think writing to one’s self is preferable to talking to one’s self (something I also do too much).
¶So, goodbye, Cyberworld. Have a pleasant 2017.

Finis

Meaningfulness

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

Peter: Jesus, you are my Ground of Being!
Paul: Lord, you are my Ultimate Concern!
Jesus: Whaaattt?

This past Friday, my friend Chris and I met in my humble lodging for our regular bi-weekly, two-hour conversation and coffee-sipping. Over the past two months, we have been viewing DVD lectures by the late philosophy professor Robert Solomon, a specialist on Friedrich Nietzsche (N.). Solomon’s wife, Professor Kathleen Higgins, also a Nietzsche scholar, participates in the series. The lectures are about N. — his life, personality, and philosophy — of course; but interspersed among all of them are some comments on previous philosophers who had positively influenced Nietzsche, such as Arthur Schopenhauer (S.), and those who had negatively affected him, such as Socrates. This essay is partly my own take on S.’s and N.’s views concerning the meaning of life. The later part is my own view of purpose and meaningfulness — what the philosophers call teleology.

I have read very little of S. the pessimist, for I don’t need to read anything that will make me more depressed than I already am. Besides, everyone who is literate in Western philosophy, even in the most minor degree, has read or heard that S. considered life as essentially “suffering and death”, and that, given the choice of whether to live or die, the better option would be to die, but that an even better option would be not to have been born.

What I did not know, however, and one of the bits of interesting notions in Schopenhauer’s weltanschauung, is that S. eschewed Immanuel Kant’s view that one could justify life and find meaning through rationalism, and progress through rationalism to the Christian faith, according to Prof. Solomon. A more visceral response, particularly through an aesthetic appreciation of music, was more effective, S. believed. The benefit of music S. attributed to its abstractness as contrasted with the representational character of pre-20th century visual arts. Listening to, and contemplating, music, he held, would lift the suffering human out of his or her pointless individuality into a consciousness of a larger Reality, or “life as a whole”. But, as I mentioned in one of my early poems, that lift can last only as long as the music lasts.

I have read a few of Friedrich Nietzsche’s works but, unfortunately, not the one which is most pertinent on this topic, The Birth of Tragedy. So, I will have to rely again on Prof. Solomon’s — and Prof. Higgins’ — interpretations. They say that, while N. agreed with most of what S. had to say about life being almost totally a matter of suffering and death, he differed with S. on finding it pointless. Where S. postulated that humans proceed from desire or hunger to satisfaction and back to desire/hunger, always longing for complete satisfaction or contentment (picture a “couch potato”) and never finding it; N. believed that absolute and permanent contentment is not really any human’s desire at all. Rather, N. theorized, meaning is to be found in the passions, i.e. dedication to a person, to a project, or to an art can give meaning to life. Here, again, arises the question of how long that passion can last.

One of the best though tardiest lessons I ever learned was that regular settings and reviews of goals are very important. I recall reading, while a senior at the university, an article that related how frequently college seniors commit suicide. Of course, several reasons can cause young people to kill themselves; the later teens and early twenties are emotionally tumultuous years; but what struck me about this article was that it was specifically about college seniors who were soon to graduate. Either the article stated or I inferred (can’t recall which) that the most likely cause for many of those deaths was that the students had not set any goals beyond college; campus life was all that had mattered to them, and they could not see anything meaningful beyond it.

It is indeed an interesting contrast between S. and N. that while the first sought respite, the latter sought strife (not strife against other people but a continual struggle within the self to make one’s self better). N.’s view is very much in keeping with that of the ancient Athenians. Consider the following passage from Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, in which a Corinthian ambassador, while urging the Spartans to aid them in their conflict with Athens, criticizes them for their lackadaisical attitude:

“The Athenians are revolutionary, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution; you have a genius for keeping what you have got, accompanied by a total want of invention, and when forced to act you never go far enough. They are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment, and in danger they are sanguine; your way is to attempt less than your power justifies, to mistrust even what your judgment sanctions, and to think that there will be no end to your dangers….So they toil on in trouble and danger all the days of their life, with little opportunity for enjoying, ever engaged in getting: their only idea of a holiday is to do what the occasion demands, and to them laborious occupation is less of a misfortune than inaction and rest. In a word, one might truly say that they were born into the world to take no rest themselves and to give none to others.”[1]

As for myself, I believe that the most contented people are also the most active people. To that extent I certainly agree with N. But I also believe that there is a Reality — a spiritual Reality that surrounds us and yet is much too much beyond our capacity to understand. Each of us must search and discover it on his/her own without over-reaching.

A recent NOVA episode on PBS hosted by astrophysicist Brian Greene reveals how the latest frontier of cosmology has forced scientists into theories they are sometime embarrassed to present. One of them is that our universe is actually two dimensional with an edge to it that is comparable to a holograph. Also, they say that space is nowhere empty, not outer space nor molecular space, but that in every part of it “things” are constantly moving, from particles to planets; and that space is not like a vapor but more like a piece of pliable material that can bend and be stretched. Even more nonintuitive: There is no past, present or future; there is only NOW.

I do not mean to imply that all of this new scientific theory-developing is an argument for a higher being: most of the scientists, I think, would deny that absolutely. All I am saying is that, as S. and N. should have, we should refrain from placing absolute designs on “the real world/universe” until a good deal more evidence is in, probably beyond my own remaining lifespan.

In the meantime, we can each discover our own Higher Power (I read that there must be 7.4 billion of them about now), purposes and life-meanings. Let’s just don’t try to impose them on others.

Bob Litton, March 1967, reading An American Tragedy in Wesley-PCF office

Bob Litton at Southern Methodist University in 1967.

[1] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley, ed. Sir Richard Livingstone, (Oxford University Press:1943), Book I, ¶70.

Finis

NOTE TO READERS: For some reason I don’t know, WordPress.com (WP) does not allow non-WP bloggers to register “Likes” on my or other WP bloggers’ posts. However, anyone can enter a comment in the “Comment” box and it will be published, after I have “moderated” it. I am inviting non-WP bloggers to comment, even if it just to say “Like” or “Don’t Like”. And, although I prefer positive comments, disagreeing or critical remarks are fine, too, especially if they might help me improve my writing; but no snarking, please: that’s rude!
— BL

Fragile Civilisation

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

I have been viewing again some DVDs about the course of Western Europe’s cultural history since the fall of the Roman Empire; I bought the set a year ago. They constitute the 13-part documentary titled Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark, which was produced by BBC-2 back in 1969. While still a graduate student at SMU, I enjoyed the series when it came to the U.S. the following year. The personable, humorous and brilliant Kenneth Clark immediately became my newest hero.

My description of  this Scotsman, Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), contains the adjective “humorous”, but I don’t mean by that that he was a comedian or even that the primary tone of Civilisation is light-hearted: it is in fact often melancholy, even at times somberly prophetic, for the theme of the narrative is how the trend of civilisation in Europe has not been an unswervingly upward slant but has declined several times since 476 C.E. (the generally accepted date of Rome’s conquest by the Germanic chieftain Odoacer) and has even slipped into darkness once for several hundred years. Nonetheless, Clark’s comments frequently are interlarded with understated wit, a quality which has characterized many British intellectuals over the centuries.

But wry wit is not my theme: rather I want to align myself with Clark’s emotional concern about the impending fate of the West today—Europe’s of course but America’s as well. During at least two of his presentations (or lectures, if you prefer), Clark alludes to the very possible extinction of what he chose to call today’s “civilisation”. (This spelling, by the way, is not a typographical error; the British spell “civilisation” with an “s” while we in the United States spell it with a “z”; I have elected to employ the British spelling throughout this essay.) Without being specific, Clark alludes to recent events as portents of another dip in humanity’s cultural development. I still don’t know what he could be referring to: the Cold War? modern art? mechanization? materialism? political corruption? Here and there in the episodes he mentions all those and other fault-lines, as well as the constant, congenital “fragility of civilisation”. But if there is any single danger to current civilisation that he considers our immediate nemesis, I am not certain which it is.

Early in the first episode of Civilisation, Clark conceded that he couldn’t define civilisation…“yet”. Then, playing on the cliché about the philistine who at first demurs when asked what to him is “fine art”, Clark adds “…but I know it when I see it.” He later makes the same remark about “barbarism”. Soon thereafter, however, he lists several attributes of his subject: “intellectual energy, freedom of mind, a sense of beauty and a craving for immortality”. Still further on in the series, Clark adds stability, confidence, prosperity, order, and broad participation in society. And even further on, Clark describes a civilised society as “intelligent, creative, orderly, and compassionate”; but these latter qualities are not simply what create civilisation, they are also what are necessary to sustain it. Nomadic peoples, such as the Vikings for instance, although supremely confident and adventuresome, could not develop a civilisation, according to Clark’s definition, because they were unstable and saw no value in maintaining anything other than their tools for survival: in the case of the Vikings, their ingenious ships. And the highly cultivated society of 17th century France could not last because the portion of the population which participated in it was too small.

I perhaps should mention “light”, since Clark asserted that light “can be seen as the symbol of civilisation.”  He is referring to the light of reason, education and accumulated knowledge as well as to the light that was so typical of Dutch painting during the 17th century and to the light studies in 19th century French Impressionism. His appreciation of light is almost mystical.

Although Clark does not name any singular major threat that confronted mid-20th century Western Europe, he does specify what caused the luster of previous cultures to fade: fear of war, plague and the supernatural; boredom; exhaustion; and insularity.

At the end of Clark’s cultural tour he confesses himself to be a “stick-in-the mud”, by which he means that he holds onto several values and beliefs which have been abandoned by some other modern intellectuals. Peace, he says, is preferable to violence, and knowledge is preferable to ignorance. He adds that he cherishes courtesy and compassion. And above all he advocates for the recognition that we humans are a part of Nature’s big picture, not separate from it, and that we should view other animals as our brothers and sisters, much as Saint Francis of Assisi did.

Now, to the present. I have my own personal issues with which to cope, issues that no one other than I can resolve. But I also share in many, and in some ways starker, issues that confront Americans as a whole and others that are faced by everyone on this planet, whether they are aware of them or not. What makes these problems seem especially intractable is that they are typified by paradoxes and dilemmas.

Recently, for instance, I heard an interview on National Public Radio in which the interviewee was author of a book about the psychological disturbances that afflict many military service people when they return home from places like Viet Nam and the Middle East. These disturbances we have classified as “post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”. The author, who is himself a veteran of the Iraq conflict, claimed, however, that that classification is inaccurate, at least in his case. He said that the problem evolved not from having been in a combat situation but from leaving it. Coming home to a “stable” environment had made him feel marooned, so to speak. On the battle field he had been in the company of men who depended on each other every second for their survival; when he got home, he felt isolated because of the separateness and indifference he saw all around him. In another NPR interview, a woman who had survived the horrors of the ethnic war in Bosnia during the 1990’s said she was ashamed to admit it, but she now yearns for those days because people cared for each other at a very deep level. During that same interview, mention was made of how the murder and suicide rates in New York City steeply declined immediately after 9/11.

I cannot accept the notion that the cohesion of society—of civilisation—depends upon war and other calamities.

For any of you who are interested, you can view Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View documentary on YouTube…at least as of May 29, 2016.

Finis

 

 

Naughty Children…Rated R.

© 2016 By Bob Litton.  All Rights Reserved.

It’s a good thing Christmas is already done and gone; I would hate to complicate the stockings for any toddlers who might accidentally see this post and become corrupted at a very early age. But, oh heck, it’s bound to happen someday, what difference does it make if that day is today?

Recently, for some unknown reason, I began reflecting on my childhood experiences, particularly on the little ditties my playmates and I used to sing between our giggles. Whoever wrote the lyrics, I have no idea; the tunes, though, went with familiar songs from operas…although we were not acquainted with any operas at that age (5- to 8-years-old).

Here’s the first one; the tune’s source I don’t know, but it was well-known — perhaps “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Richard Strauss’ opera Salome (?), or the “Bacchanale” from Camille Saint-Saens’ opera Samson and Dalila (?):

“All the girls in France
wear tissue paper pants.
All the girls in Spain
go naked in the rain.”

Now, who came up with those verses? The author surely must have been an adult; it is highly unlikely that any child wrote them. I want to make it entirely clear here that the depictions of national habits are fabricated…false. And I do not believe the author of those scandalous lines was intentionally being derogatory; he (or she) was more probably just depending on the countries’ names as sources for rhyme words, just as many of our naughtier limericks include “Nantucket”.

What interests me now, though, is the question: To what extent did our singing those ditties reflect our level of developing knowledge about what is naughty? Actually, in my case it is an unanswerable conundrum. My memory is not that retrievable or specific; I do well just to recall having sung them when I was so young.

And here’s the second, sung to the “Toréador Song” chorus in Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen:

“Toréador, don’t spit on the floor.
Use a cuspidor; that’s what it’s for.”

Those lines, of course, are not “naughty” in the usual sense of the term, merely slightly gross. I can credit them for at least causing me to learn what a “cuspidor” is, for I had never seen one and did not see one until many years later, in a movie.

Finally, here is one which I suppose we can say is derogatory, although not against any nation or even any particular persons. The words are to be sung to the “Bridal Chorus” music from Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin:

“Here comes the bride,
Big, fat and wide;
Here comes the groom,
Skinny as a broom.”

Now, on what occasion would any child sing that?! Only during those times when two or more of them are together and acting silly — which happens frequently; or at least did during my early childhood. I believe you will agree with me that the verse is snide, and to that limited but still hurtful extent “naughty”. Many children, I believe, sometimes feel impelled to be cruel in what they say: What child hasn’t yelled at a parent he/she loves but who is denying them something, “I hate you!”?

Very young children are not as “innocent” as parents and politicians often proclaim them to be.

Finis

Identity

© 2016 By Bob Litton

Note to Readers: This short story was written back in the late 1960s (or perhaps the early ’70s); I was in graduate school at the time. With that background, some readers might view it as juvenilia. But I have kept it in my files all these years and took it out today and still like it.
The reason I have not sought to have it published before now is because one of my former professors deflated me by declaring, “You’ve got this kid thinking like a Harvard graduate, Bob!” Today, however, I recalled reading a 
Life magazine article decades ago about a 10- to 12-year-old boy who was attending science courses at the University of Chicago. When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, the devout prodigy replied, “Well, right now I want to be a priest, but when I get that old I might feel different.” How mature an insight for a boy that young!
     Another element I want to mention: From the time I started to write stories (as an adult) I realized that my efforts were not stories so much as they were essays with characters in them.
Whatever its literary worth, I hope you will gain something from reading “Identity”.
—BL

Chuck could tie his own shoes now.  He was telling himself that over and over again as he struggled with the laces.  “Hurry Chuck!” his mother called from the living room below.  At last, they were tied!  He stood, looking critically at the closet mirror.  He was wearing his red cotton shirt, just like Gene Autry’s shirt, at least as it always appeared in the comic books.  His blue jeans, too, were just like Gene Autry’s jeans.  If only the shoes were cowboy boots, but his mother had said those would have to wait until Christmas.  Chuck lowered his pants’ cuffs over the shoe-tops so that the laces were at least partly covered. When I get my boots I won’t have to bother with laces! he imagined.  His appearance was most important today because he was going to the state fair with his mother, going to the fair for the first time in his life.

He hopped down the stairs and found his mother opening and closing her umbrella to make sure it was still reliable.  She was very mistrustful of mechanical things.
“Oh Mother, we won’t need that, will we?”
“We might.  We’ll be out there all day, and the radio said a squall line is gathering in the north.”
“What’s a squall line?”
“A lot of rain all bunched up.”

The bus Chuck and his mother rode was crowded with young people in sweatshirts and crazy hats.  Teenagers, swinging their arms carelessly about and yelling to each other the length of the bus, awed the boy.  He knew they were not adults like his mother, who was a large, country-bred woman, yet they were bigger than he;  and, although he didn’t know the word, he could sense their competitiveness.  Huddling as close to his mother’s side as he could, he observed their antics.

They were unseating each other as an impromptu game.  A standee would try to eject a likely victim from his seat.  If he was successful, the seat became his own, and it was then up to the new standee to find a weaker opponent to dislodge.  Each victim held on to the seat bar with all his might, and it usually took several minutes of straining to pull him loose.  Chuck’s mother ignored these frolics, but he watched them fascinated.  And so it went until they arrived at the fairgrounds.

Balloons!  Pennants!  Reds, blues, yellows, polka dots and stripes!  A waving, weaving mob of people.  It was too great a task for Chuck to keep his attention trained on any single sight; there was too much variety.  Here, a little girl, hardly older than Chuck himself, was licking at some pink, fluffy stuff that reminded him of angel hair.  There, an old man, gray-grizzly, with a yellow apron on was blowing cacophonous, quasi-music through a silver disc and then bellowing out that the crowd should buy his bits of tin.  Now came a bunch of teenagers, six abreast, shuffling along the paper-littered street and carrying large teddy bears and tawdry little chalk figurines.  In the distance were elevated machines going round and round high in the air with screaming people in bullet-shaped cars.  Beyond those strange machines were tents flapping in the damp wind over farm implements.  In another direction were sedate buildings draped with flags, and open air stages where bands were playing.

Suddenly Chuck noticed a tent with posters hanging down its sides, posters like giant comic book covers.  On one was a woman with long, frizzled hair who was smiling at the two huge snakes encircling her body.  Such sharp teeth she had!  In another picture an otherwise human sort of man—who looked depressed to Chuck—had alligator scales all over his body.  Chuck paused, heedless of his mother, to gaze at the bizarre posters. They saddened him; but he sensed they weren’t supposed to, so he felt guilty about his sadness.  His mother came up to him and gave him a gentle nudge meaning to come along with her, but he didn’t move.  Instead, he memorized the heavy, dark lines and the ferocious coloring of the posters.

A man behind a wicker-wire cage with a large roll of tickets was hawking for one show:  “Step on in, folks, and satisfy your curiosity.  If you hurry you can still catch the famous Crisp family of acrobats.  Most talented folks you’ll ever hope to see.  Only one dime, ladies and gentlemen, only one dime.  Thank ya, lady…thank ya, buddy.”

Chuck’s mother looked down at her son with a teasingly inquisitive smile, “Would you like to go in?”

Chuck hesitated, glancing at the man high above him and then at the lane of sawdust leading through the tent flaps.  He nodded affirmatively without looking at his mother.  He wasn’t at all sure he wanted to go in there, but he thought his saying “no” would somehow be detected as a sign of fear, and Gene Autry wouldn’t respect a “fraidy-cat”.
“Two, please,” said his mother to the hawker, opening her coin purse and delving for the dimes.
“Thank ya, lady.”

Inside the tent was a fat, hemp rope stretched on short poles cordoning off a sawdust arena.  Since there were no seats, the crowd gathered close to the rope, jostling each other, vying for clearer views.  Chuck’s mother was tall and sturdy enough and not too feminine to push men around.  Her neighbors all agreed she had pushed her husband right into his grave.  Now she elbowed her way up to the roped boundary and pulled Chuck up in front of her.  The boy grabbed the rope to maintain his equilibrium within the slightly swaying crush of the crowd.

The scene before Chuck made him draw his shoulders in, and his hands moistened as they more tightly gripped the itchy twists of the rope.  There were ten small people, about Chuck’s height but with adult-size heads and mature faces, and they were performing acrobatic stunts.  The stubbiness of their limbs made the lithe agility of their movements seem all the more incredible than if done by ordinary humans.  Chuck had thought such beings existed only in the tunnels and towers of fairy-tale books where they hammered on anvils or spun gold out of straw.  Yet here they were in the flesh bouncing through somersaults.  Finally they all came together and proceeded to form a human pyramid by standing on one another’s shoulders: the seven males formed the base and middle, and the three females towered on up until the last could almost touch the peak of the tent.  When they had successfully completed this stunt, the crowd clapped enthusiastically for them.

Only Chuck remained silent and still.  He couldn’t have told why, if anyone had been concerned to ask, but he felt dread welling up within him.  He suddenly wanted to leave this tent with its sawdust and ropes and weird denizens.  But his mother’s broad body was flush against his back, and there was a thick mass of enchanted spectators around the roped perimeter.

The family of dwarfs broke up the pyramid and were preparing to leave so that the next act could enter, when one of the male dwarfs happened to notice Chuck and, laughing in an increasingly extroverted manner, exclaimed, “Brothers!  Sisters!  See, he’s like one of us.  He’s our brother!”  Then the humorous dwarf came up to Chuck and tried to tug him into the arena.

Chuck suddenly realized why he had wanted to escape earlier, why he was repelled by the very sight of these people.  Yes, he was like them, for they were all wearing red shirts and blue pants.  Two more of the dwarfs recognized the significance of their brother’s allusion and then they, too, pulled gently at Chuck’s sleeves and chimed in with the sing-song cajolery:  “Come, little brother, and join our fun!  Stand on your head or turn a somersault!  We’ll show you how.”  But Chuck clung with all his might to the rope and would not be dislodged.  The spectators began to titter, cheer, laugh.  In a short time the tent became an echo chamber of hilarity.  Even Chuck’s mother smiled and tried to encourage her son to go into the ring and play with the dwarfs.
“Go on, Chuck.  They won’t hurt you.  They just want you to play with them.  They’ll show you how to do a somersault.”

But Chuck held to the rope, speechless, practically mindless with the agony of his humiliation, until finally he began to cry out—to squall, “No,! No! Never!  I don’t want to be like them.  Never!  Let me go home!!”  The ducts of his eyes opened and a downpour flooded out.

The mob of people, all bunched up, melded by curiosity into a single, monstrous being, gradually ceased to laugh.  Its face, just recently so wrinkled with laughter, now took on the bathetic expression of an extravagant tragedian.  A multitude of eyes suddenly became blandly solicitous for this odd little boy who apparently didn’t know how to play but would rather cling to the rope as though he were a hundred feet off the ground.

The three dwarfs let go of Chuck’s arms.  They were embarrassed that their good-natured camaraderie should bring tears to a child’s eyes.  Chuck’s mother looked at them apologetically and was just about to verbalize her feelings when one of them interrupted her:  “It’s all right, lady.  We didn’t mean to frighten him.  Poor kid’s scared to death.  Better take him home.”

As he left the tent Chuck suddenly stopped crying.  He felt the surprising calm that follows a total cry.  But the tears remained on his cheeks, and the cooling twilight air seemed to crystallize them there.  With arm crooked, Chuck wiped the freezing tear-drops on to the red cotton of a shirt sleeve.  He wondered at the strange calm within him and at some new tempest welling but still submerged.  Something had been destroyed; something else was germinating.  Peripherally, he was aware that his mother was trying in her own way to console him.
“My goodness, Chucky!  What’s wrong?  They didn’t mean you any harm.  Are you all right now?  My goodness!  I’ve never been so embarrassed.  You did want to see them, didn’t you?  Yes, you know you did.  Weren’t they wonderful acrobats?  We’ll be home soon.  Do you want some cotton candy?  No?  Oh well….”

Chuck twinged at his mother’s obtuseness.  All she had seen was that he hadn’t wanted to go into the ring and that he had embarrassed her.  She didn’t recognize the meaning of his refusal to identify with the dwarfs─his rejection of them as “brothers”.  In that moment some of her authority as interpreter of the external world dissipated.

For the rest of the week Chuck was quiet and reserved.  He played unwillingly with other children and brooded much.  Even apparel became a matter of indifference to him; he wore whatever his mother laid out, neither exhibiting any preference for the red shirt nor avoiding it.  When Christmas arrived at the end of the week he accepted the boots under the tree as indifferently, almost as though he had forgotten about them.

Chuck didn’t forget the dwarfs though.  As the sense of injustice against his own self waned he gradually came to accuse himself of acting wrongfully against the dwarfs.  Over and over he relived the scene in his mind, trying to imagine a happier outcome.  In one daydream he was wearing something other than red and blue, and the dwarfs were oblivious of his presence.  In another he dignifiedly but kindly refused to participate and made them feel good by the graciousness of his refusal.  His imaginings increased in their romanticism: In the last he was jumping over the rope and tumbling with the dwarfs enthusiastically, brilliantly, so that they begged him to join their troupe.  The grotesque contrast between this day-dream and actual fact brought Chuck up short in his imaginings.

It snowed all New Year’s Eve, and nearly a foot of snow had accumulated by the time the sky cleared that night.  Chuck put on his coat and boots and went out to stand on the back porch.  A full moon glimmered luminously on the snow.  Over one of the pecan tree’s crusted limbs was scurrying a shadowy squirrel.  Ah, thought Chuck, how great it must be to be simply a squirrel looking for a pecan—a squirrel in all its squirrelness hunting pecans, unconscious, not wishing to be anything else!  Why were little boys afflicted with the urge to pretend to be something they are not?  Why must they torment themselves pretending they are cowboys—or dwarfs?  Ah, to be a squirrel!

And then he laughed.  In helpless, boyish giggles did he laugh.

Finis

“If at first you don’t succeed…”

Black and White Print--more contrast

“After Work Cocktails”: A pencil drawing I did sometime in 1962-64, while I was majoring in art at Southern Methodist University. It is copied from a liquor advertisement in some magazine and is one of the best pieces I ever did. The ad drew me to it by its interesting balance of light and dark areas, the way forms were created by shadowing. That was what I emphasized. Framed, the drawing now hangs on a wall in my small study, constantly reminding me of the talent I hid under a bushel.

* * * * * *

© 2015 By Bob Litton

When they design the urn for my ashes, the potter should paint upon it the following title: “Bob ‘The Trier’ Litton” just to record the persistence with which I have tried to drop this blog. I grow weary and self-critical when I constantly check out my stats page; it’s a downright juvenile habit.
I tried to discontinue “The Vanity Mirror” again just recently: You might have noticed the big “Goodbye” at the end of my last post. As was the case in some of my prior efforts, the aim was to withdraw from my computer and take up pencil and pad to resuscitate, if possible, my sketching talent. I was not very hopeful, for I have allowed that talent to lie unused for so long that it has nearly atrophied.

I have a small sketchbook in which are page after page of the same composition: a frontal view of three men on horseback with polo sticks in their hands; they are so close together that the viewer is bound to assume they are about to have a collision in the next pounding of a hoof. My “model” source is a now yellowing photo that I cut out of a newspaper years ago.

Previous attempts at copying the image were so disappointing that I set my pad aside and returned to other occupations, including this blog. These recent drawing efforts, however, have shown some improvement — enough to be encouraging.

But another, rather odd, factor has entered to help me stay on track: the fun of analysis. I have read too many Sherlock Holmes stories and seen too many SH movies for there not to have been a residual effect. And, like Dr. House, I analyze virtually everything, often when I shouldn’t, according to one of my brothers. However, in the present case, that habit has worked toward my benefit: It has given me a way of enjoying pencil-pushing apart from any aesthetic pleasure I might derive from the products themselves. I will try to explain.

Firstly, I noticed years ago when an artist friend sketched the same picture I am working on how his eyes switched back and forth, frequently, from the photo to his own drawing, and how he never seemed to draw a line longer than what he had viewed. I admired his ability to do that and doubted my own ability to emulate him, for my tendency is to glance at the subject, depict some of what I had seen and then ad-lib into a longer line, maybe even more lines, relying upon memory or what I reasoned should occupy that extra space. I believe that now I have conquered that ability at least slightly; and — who knows? — it might be a skill that can be developed further, like a bicep.

Proportionality is another element that now fascinates me — the struggle to realize that I am trying to reduce a 7×10-inch image to one of 5×7. I developed a proportioned grid, but it did not help because of the small dimensions I was working with, so I returned to free-hand drawing. It is quite difficult to maintain a consciousness that the line I am now drawing on this page is not to be the same length as that rider’s shoulder; it needs to bend sooner. And those horses — all three being reined toward a left turn — are leaning somewhat; their shoulders, withers and heads should indicate that. Speaking of heads: I noted the varying degrees of fore-shortening among the mounts’ heads. Although hard to achieve, the challenges of such effects are fascinating to puzzle over and then pull off.

The faces of the riders are just as difficult to render, especially the one in the middle because he is grimacing as though he were grinding his teeth. The sketchy result too often makes his face look like the grill of a 1940-era Ford. I’ll save that one for my final stage of deliberation and action.

Have you grabbed my point yet? The intoxication of determining my areas of weakness — my flaws — and problem-solving have surpassed any aesthetic goal I have. Those impulses are helping me finish something (I hope) that I might not have otherwise.

Subject matter is a problem for me, too. As a child I loved horses and wanted one very much; but I was a poor city boy, and having a horse was an impossible dream. Now I am next to indifferent toward horses, yet I must concede that there is something attractive about them as art subjects: I wish there wasn’t. I feel we artists have concentrated on horses too much and over-long. The same is true of the human figure.

What is there about the bodies of humans and horses that causes them to dominate our art? I suppose it is because, for one thing, we are intimately connected with them; and, for another, their musculature is often prominently displayed. Perhaps I should add that humans and, to a lesser extent, horses can do things other creatures cannot. However, the various apes and monkeys are quite capable of various activities, too, but we don’t draw them very much. Strange!

Perhaps I am committing an etiquette gaffe in publishing this blog before finishing the polo drawing, but I just wanted let you know I am still alive, sitting on the fence of abandoning my blog or slogging onward. If I ever finish the drawing I’ll publish it.

Finis

 

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