Archive for September, 2012

Ovid: Metamorphoses

September 30, 2012

Publius Ovidius Naso
(Norton, 2004) [8 A.D.]
Translated from the Latin by Charles Martin
623 p.

Of course I have known that Ovid is counted among the most important Latin poets, and I had planned, in a hazy way, to read him someday. Then, when reading C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image, I was surprised to see Lewis remark that the most important sources for understanding the art and literature of the Middle Ages are the Bible, Virgil, and Ovid. At that, I bumped Metamorphoses forward in my reading queue, and at last I have completed it.

The organizing premise of the work is well-known: Ovid recounts stories in which the characters undergo some sort of change — usually, but not always, a literal change of shape. Since such stories were common in the annals of Greek and Latin mythology, the poem serves as an idiosyncratic whirlwind tour of the mythological corpus. Some of these stories were familiar to me — Orpheus and Eurydice, Icarus, Pyramus and Thisbe, Narcissus, Midas — but most were not, and reading them has been a good, if steep, education.

While I wouldn’t describe Ovid as a comic poet, he does have a whimsical, irreverent sense of humour in some of the stories. There are several violent battle scenes reminiscent of Homer, but Ovid’s descriptions of the brutal deaths of the warriors are so extravagantly gory that they become something akin to a spoof. Similarly, there was a well-established technique in the epic tradition, inherited from both Homer and Virgil, of conveying descriptions using elaborate similes. Ovid follows suit, but not infrequently his similes have something peculiar or inappropriate about them. Consider this example, taken from the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. Pyramus, thinking that Thisbe has been eaten by a lion, slays himself with his sword. Then:

It was as when a water pipe is ruptured
where the lead has rotted, and it springs a leak:
a column of water goes hissing through the hole
and parts the air with its pulsating thrusts;
splashed with his gore, the tree’s pale fruit grow dark;
blood soaks its roots and surges up to dye
the hanging berries purple with its color.

It’s like a death scene from Monty Python. Similarly, he is sometimes irreverent in his treatment of the gods, as in this passage describing the homely vanity of Mercury:

He left the sky and came down to the earth
without disguise, so great his confidence
in his own beauty, which, though not misplaced,
was aided by the care he took of it,
smoothing his hair, which had been mussed in flight,
arranging his cloak so that it hung just so,
letting its pricey golden border show,
and making sure that the wand in his right hand
(with which he brings sleep on or drives it off)
was freshly shined, and seeing that the wings
were gleaming brightly on his shapely feet.

At other times, however, he is sober in his telling, and he is well able to do justice to a tragic tale. Towards the end of the poem Ovid gives a long speech to Pythagoras in which he discourses on the mutability of all things — the apotheosis of the metamorphosis, so to speak. This, too, is written with dignity and without facetiousness.

Being but a middling Latin scholar, I am ill-equipped to judge the merits of Charles Martin’s translation. I can say that the English reads easily and gracefully, and sometimes rises to the level of eloquence. I have no desire to seek out another version (though I’d be interested to know if I should have such a desire).

[The house of Sleep]
There is a hollow mountain near the land
of the Cimmerians, and deep within
there is a cave where idle Sleep resides,
his special place, forbidden to the Sun
at any hour from the dawn to dusk;
the earth around it breathes out clouds of fog
through dim, crepuscular light.
No wakeful cock
summons Aurora with his crowing song,
no restless watchdog interrupts the stillness,
nor goose, more keenly vigilant than dogs:
no wild and no domesticated beasts,
not even branches, rustling in the wind,
and certainly no agitated clamor
of men in conversation.
Here mute repose
abides, and from the bottom of the cave,
the waters of the sleep-inducing Lethe
flow murmuring across their bed of pebbles.

Outside, in front, the fruitful poppies bloom,
and countless herbs as well, that dewy night
collects and processes, extracting Sleep,
which it distributes to the darkened earth.
Doors are forbidden here, lest hinges creak,
no guardian is found upon the threshold;
but on a dais in the middle of the cave
a downy bed of blackest ebony
is set with a coverlet of muted hue;
upon it lies the god himself, at peace,
his knotted limbs in languorous release;
around him on all sides are empty shapes
of dreams that imitate so many forms,
as many as the fields have ears of wheat,
or trees have leaves, or seashore grains of sand.

[Ovid’s last word]
My work is finished now: no wrath of Jove
nor sword nor fire nor futurity
is capable of laying waste to it.
Let that day come then, when it wishes to,
which only has my body in its power,
and put an end to my uncertain years;
no matter, for in spirit I will be
borne up to soar beyond the distant stars,
immortal in the name I leave behind;
wherever Roman governance extends
over the subject nations of the world,
my words will be upon the people’s lips,
and if there is truth in poets’ prophesies,
then in my fame forever I will live.

Happy Birthday, Glenn Gould

September 25, 2012

Glenn Gould was born this day in 1932, which means that we are marking (what would have been) his 80th birthday. Gould is one of the few truly great musicians to have come from my country. He was a fascinating man, a complex man, with a winsome, if eccentric, manner, who had the gift of playing the piano like a — well, like both an angel and a fiend. Not everyone liked his playing, of course, but no-one could ignore it.

Gould is especially associated with Toronto, the city in which I live, and for those who know where to look the place is haunted by him still. His piano sits just outside the performance hall in the CBC building downtown — the hall itself is called the “Glenn Gould Studio”, for that matter. I remember walking one day, a few years ago, in the Beaches neighbourhood and being surprised by a commemorative plaque in the front yard of one of the houses noting that it had been Gould’s house. My wife went into labour with our first child while we were eating in a diner which was a favourite of Gould’s.

As a pianist, he played almost everything, from Gibbons to Webern, but of course he is especially known for his way with Johann Sebastian Bach. I will not claim to be especially enamoured of his Bach playing; he is not the pianist I go to first when I go to Bach; yet I cannot deny that when I do hear him playing this music, it is an absorbing and fascinating experience.

And so: happy birthday, Mr. Gould. Here is a film of him, as a fairly young man, playing the Contrapunctus IV from The Art of Fugue:

(I do not know what is going on with the piano in this film. It is clearly a piano, but it has a jangly quality that is reminiscent of a harpsichord. A prepared piano?)

Surfing with Mel

September 20, 2012

Friend-of-this-blog Matthew Lickona (a longtime member of the Korrektiv Kollectiv) has gone and written another book, or something:

The blurb is as follows:

On April 11, 2012, published a private letter from screenwriter Joe Eszterhas to director Mel Gibson. The letter chronicled, in alarming detail, their disastrous attempt to collaborate on a film version of the Biblical Book of Maccabees. The media flare-up that followed focused on Eszterhas’ characterization of Gibson as an angry, Jew-hating sociopath, but largely ignored the spiritual crisis at the story’s heart. Using the letter as a map, Surfing with Mel sets out to find some meaning within the madness, and winds up outlining a darkly satirical and deeply profane portrait of two men at war with each other, with their pasts, and with God.

This isn’t the first time Matthew has taken a run at a script: I still think that his Alphonse story would be a terrifying success if picked up by Hollywood, and I remember he wrote a few brief scripts along those lines, but it seems they are still waiting for their day to come.

Surfing with Mel is being published for the Kindle. If, like me, you are one of those happy souls who do not own a Kindle, you can still get the book to read on your computer — unless, like me, you live outside the United States, in which case you’ll apparently just have to sit tight.

Anyway, many congratulations to Matthew. It is always an achievement to have something one has written appear in print — or “print”. Many happy returns!

Nagel on Plantinga

September 19, 2012

An interesting article in the New York Review of Books in which the eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel reviews, fairly favourably, Alvin Plantinga’s recent Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Nagel summarizes the book’s central argument in this way:

He holds, first, that the theistic conception of the relation between God, the natural world, and ourselves makes it reasonable for us to regard our perceptual and rational faculties as reliable. It is therefore reasonable to believe that the scientific theories they allow us to create do describe reality. He holds, second, that the naturalistic conception of the world, and of ourselves as products of unguided Darwinian evolution, makes it unreasonable for us to believe that our cognitive faculties are reliable, and therefore unreasonable to believe any theories they may lead us to form, including the theory of evolution. In other words, belief in naturalism combined with belief in evolution is self-defeating.

This isn’t a new idea — if I’m not mistaken, C.S. Lewis posed a version of this argument against naturalism in one of his books — but Plantinga has devoted a good part of his philosophical work to giving it a sounder foundation. As Nagel points out, the first (positive) part of the argument draws on Plantinga’s epistemological notion of “warranted belief”, which he developed in a series of books (none of which I have read).

As I said above, Nagel is largely appreciative of Plantinga’s project:

The interest of this book, especially for secular readers, is its presentation from the inside of the point of view of a philosophically subtle and scientifically informed theist—an outlook with which many of them will not be familiar. Plantinga writes clearly and accessibly, and sometimes acidly — in response to aggressive critics of religion like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. His comprehensive stand is a valuable contribution to this debate.

but being appreciative is not the same as being convinced. In fact, Nagel doesn’t seem to like either of the views that Plantinga addresses:

Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives.

This sounds an awful lot like a segueway to Nagel’s own book Mind and Cosmos, which bears the wordy but intriguing subtitle “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False”. Mind and Cosmos is just out from Oxford University Press and, though I am prudently waiting to read a few reviews before I pony up, I am hoping to read it before long.

Scarlet Town showdown

September 14, 2012

As I am sure everyone is aware, Bob Dylan’s new record, Tempest, was released this week. I’ve listened to it a few times, and I’m still thinking about it. For me, the late career revival that he has been riding peaked with Time Out of Mind, which set a standard that the other records have to greater and lesser degrees failed to match — which is not to say that they haven’t been good records. Tempest doesn’t disturb that general view of things, but I’m still trying to decide just how good it is.

The music is roughly the same stew of blues, folk, and rock that has been served up on his last few records, with the blues predominant. The blues is a formulaic and repetitive genre, and this might account for my hesitation; at first blush much of the music does sound formulaic and repetitive, and I need time to really dig into the songs to find out what is going on. I can point out that the initial reviews have been generally positive (and have included a five-star review in Rolling Stone).

One of the immediately appealing songs on the record is called “Scarlet Town”, and I thought it would be fun to put it up alongside Gillian Welch’s recent song with the same title. I know, I know, these are pretty superficial grounds on which to select two songs for comparision, but, when you get right down to it, who needs more than superficial grounds to listen to two good songs?

Dylan first:

(Note that his copyright lawyers have eagle eyes, and it is possible that this video will disappear shortly.)

Gillian second:

If you’re so inclined, you can leave a note below saying which you prefer. I’m keeping my own opinion secret for now.

Great moments in opera: Turandot

September 12, 2012

Turandot was Puccini’s last opera; in fact, it was left unfinished at his death in 1924. It departs from the verismo conventions of his other major operas, taking us instead into a mythic Far East where a cruel princess has set a deadly trap for the many suitors who come seeking her hand. It is generally considered one of Puccini’s most successful operas, and with good reason, for it is full of splendid music.

The basic scenario is this: Princess Turandot is determined not to marry, and to each potential suitor who approaches her she proposes three riddles; failure to answer correctly results in death. Enter the young Prince of Tartary who, catching a glimpse of Turandot, falls in love and resolves to seek her hand.

Our first “great moment” is the Act I aria Signore, ascolta! (“Sir, listen!”). Sung by the Prince’s servant-girl Liu, it is her plea that he not attempt to answer the riddles. Liu is secretly in love with the Prince, and for her the Prince’s plan is disastrous on all counts: if he succeeds he marries Turandot, and if he fails he dies. The aria is sung here by the wonderful Montserrat Caballé, in a concert performance that, alas, has no subtitles:

The Prince responds immediately with Non piangere, Liu (“Do not cry, Liu”) in which he reassures her, and asks that she look after his aging father if he (The Prince) should fail to answer the riddles correctly. Together these two arias are a great one-two punch, the likes of which one does not encounter very often. (Another great example of back-to-back hits is the combination of Che gelida manina and Si, mi chiamano Mimi in La bohème.) The aria is sung here by Jose Carreras, with English subtitles and poor video quality:

In Act II we are treated to In questa reggia (“In this kingdom”), Turandot’s first big aria. In it she explains why she sets the deadly riddles for her potential suitors: her ancestor, Princess Lo-u-Ling, was forcibly married to a foreign prince, and for this insult she has herself vowed revenge upon foreign princes, one and all. This motive is, admittedly, either not very noble or not very intelligent, but the music in which it is expressed is gorgeous. Here we have Birgit Nilsson in a 1968 performance, senza subtitles:

Act III brings us an aria that has a fair claim to being the most famous in all of opera: Nessun dorma (“No-one shall sleep”). It is a favourite of tenors the world over, from rotund Italians to broken-toothed Englishman to frizzy-haired rockers, and, admittedly, there is something genuinely spine-tingling about its climax, rising to that stupendous threefold “Vincero!“. By this point in the story the Prince has successfully answered Turandot’s riddles (!), but she, being still unwilling to marry him, has been offered a way out: if she can guess the Prince’s name then he will submit to death; otherwise she must relent and marry him. He sings this aria in the early morning hours of the day she is to deliver her answer, anticipating his victory. Here is Placido Domingo, with English subtitles:

(Another terrific YouTube performance of this aria is by Giuseppe di Stefano, which can be seen here.)

For a final great moment, consider Liu’s Act III aria Tu che di gel sei cinta (“You who are begirdled by ice”). She sings to Turandot, chastising her for her coldness, and foretelling that she too will one day know the power of love. This is Liu’s “suicide aria”; she stabs herself when she’s done. (Turandot, having discovered that Liu knows the Prince, is putting the screws to her in order to force her to divulge his name. Liu kills herself to avoid betraying him.) The singer here is Leona Mitchell, and the aria lasts about 2-1/2 minutes:

It would seem that the Prince’s wooing has done little to thaw Turandot’s icy heart, but following Liu’s death he takes the risk of kissing her, and she warms to his embrace. She agrees to marry him, and thus the opera comes to what is supposed to be a happy finish, though opinions might justly vary as to whether the happiness will outlast the honeymoon.

The Music Salon

September 11, 2012

I have added a new blog to my blogroll: The Music Salon is the work of Bryan Townsend, who evidently loves classical music, and who writes clearly and accessibly about it. This is harder to do than you might think, and the number of consistently interesting classical music bloggers is small. Mr. Townsend certainly belongs among them. I discovered him about a month ago, and have since been surprised again and again by the quality and the interest of his posts.

You’ll find all kinds of things discussed on his blog, ranging from focused (but not overly technical) looks at specific compositions (example: Scarlatti’s K213 sonata) to interesting surveys of the repertoire (example: Musical Ciphers) to observations about cultural aspects of music (example: Musicians and the Media) . He has a recurring series called “Masterpieces of Music” that covers specific works and composers (such as Guillaume de Machaut or Chopin), and he even makes occasional forays into the world of popular music (such as this appreciation of Leonard Cohen).

If this sounds good to you, I encourage you to take a look.

Chrétien de Troyes: Perceval

September 9, 2012

The Story of the Grail
Chrétien de Troyes

(Yale, 1999) [c.1190]
Translated from the Old French by Burton Raffel
310 p.

Perceval was the fifth and last of Chrétien’s great Arthurian romances. Like Lancelot it was left unfinished at his death, which is a great pity, for it was undoubtedly his most ambitious work. Even the truncated version we have, which shows no signs of nearing completion, is, at over 9200 lines, about 30% longer than his other poems. It is a work which, despite moments of endearing humour, sustains a more solemn and mysterious tone than was typical in his earlier works.

The incomplete poem is structurally awkward. The story initially follows Perceval but switches, at roughly the half-way mark, to follow the adventures of Gawain. For several thousand lines the story jumps back and forth between the two knights, but the last third of the (truncated) poem is devoted entirely to Gawain, the titular knight having been apparently forgotten. Presumably Chrétien would have brought the two storylines together at some point, providing a more satisfying artistic unity to the work. It is true that there are certain parallels between the adventures of Perceval and Gawain which do something to bridge the gap between the two parts, but I imagine that Chrétien had planned something more obvious to tie things up nicely. Once again, it is a pity that he did not live to see the project through.

The first part of the poem charts Perceval’s course from a naive, rural simpleton to a great knight of Arthur’s circle. His father, who had been killed in combat and whom Perceval never knew, was a renowned knight, and Perceval’s mother, in sorrow over her husband’s death, kept vigilant guard over her son to prevent his knowing anything about knights and combat. Eventually, of course, her efforts failed, and Perceval took to knighthood like a fish to water. Among the most humorous scenes in all of Chrétien’s poems are those in which Perceval, with the simplicity of a child, questions a knight about his fascinating vocation. He learns quickly, and his prowess soon earns him entry to Arthur’s court.

From there, a great number of adventures follow. Central to them is, of course, Perceval’s encounter with the grail, which serves as a kind of axis around which the poem turns. The grail is not the Holy Grail of legend, but rather, here, close to the source of the tradition, it is a kind of serving dish (“a plate wide and somewhat deep,” says a source contemporary with Chretien). Perceval sees it while a dinner guest at a great castle. His host, the Grail King, has suffered for years from mysterious wounds, and has been sustained only by daily consumption of the Host. Seated at dinner with the King, Perceval beholds a strange parade, but bites his tongue for fear of saying something inappropriate. The scene is worth citing in full:

They sat in a hall lit
As brightly as candles can make
An indoor room. And as
They chatted of this and that,
A servant entered the hall,
Carrying — his hand at its center —
A white lance. He came out
Of a room, then walked between
The fire and those seated
On the bed, and everyone saw
The white wood, and the white
Spearhead, and the drop of blood
That rolled slowly down
From the iron point until
It reached the servant’s hand.
The boy saw that wondrous
Sight, the night he arrived there,
But kept himself from asking
What it might mean, for he’d never
Forgotten — as his master at arms
Had warned him, over and over —
He was not to talk too much.
To question his host or his servants
Might well be vulgar or rude,
And so he held his tongue.

And then two other servants
Entered, carrying golden
Candleholders worked
With enamel. They were wonderfully handsome
Boys, and the candleholders
They each clasped in their hands
Bore at least ten
Burning candles. A girl
Entered with them, holding
A grail-dish in both her hands —
A beautiful girl, elegant,
Extremely well dressed. And as
She walked into the hall,
Holding this grail, it glowed
With so great a light that the candles
Suddenly seemed to grow dim,
Like the moon and stars when the sun
Appears in the sky. Then another
Girl followed the first one,
Bearing a silver platter.
The grail that led the procession
Was made of the purest gold,
Studded with jewels of every
Kind, the richest and most costly
Found on land or sea.
No one could doubt that here
Were the loveliest jewels on earth.
Just as they’d done before,
When carrying the lance, the servants
Passed in front of the knight,
Then went to another room.
And the boy watched them, not daring
To ask why or to whom
This grail was meant to be served,
For his heart was always aware
Of his wise old master’s warnings.
But I fear his silence may hurt him,
For I’ve often heard it said
That talking too little can do
As much damage as talking too much.


And so it was in this case, for Perceval later learns that had he satisfied his curiosity and asked about the lance, the grail, and the silver platter, the King would have been healed of his wounds. Worse, because he did not ask, the King will never be cured. At this, Perceval devotes himself to discovering the meaning of the mysteries he witnessed.

Naturally, this is all hard to understand. A bleeding lance? A connection to the crucifixion suggests itself, but if the grail has not yet been related to Christ, should we expect any such relations here? (Maybe. There is actually more Christian theology in this poem than is typical of Chrétien’s other works, but in this case we have no particular reason to suppose that the lance is the one that pierced Christ’s side. Chrétien never does get around to explaining the mystery, so we are left with our speculations.)

This story of the grail stands, as I said, quite close to the source. Chrétien remarks in the opening section of the poem that the story came from “a book the count gave me”, so, unless we are dealing with a playful authorial modesty, the story was not original with him. Some scholars apparently believe that the origins of the myth lie in Celtic lore.

That said, Chrétien’s version of the story was immensely influential. Four different conclusions to the poem were composed by other hands following his death, ranging in length from about 9000 additional lines to over 19000 additional lines. Shortly after Chrétien died, a Burgundian knight named Robert de Boron wrote a poem in which he identified the grail with the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper, and his grail, the Holy Grail, was incorporated into a vast number of later works.


This completes my undistinguished overview of all five of Chrétien de Troyes’ surviving romances. I believe that the set will come up if one clicks here.

Rumours of Wonder

September 4, 2012

Terrence Malick’s new film, To the Wonder, had its premiere this past weekend at the Venice Film Festival, and a few early reviews have started to appear. Predictably, the film “divided” the audience — I wouldn’t expect anything else. The Telegraph called it “a film of tender, often rapturous beauty”. Alex Ross says that the film makes prominent use of the orchestral Prelude to Parsifal in a sequence shot at Mont St.-Michel, which seems another way of saying the same thing (and which, incidentally, makes my eyes roll back into my head). Malick’s films — his three most recent, in any case — have captured my heart in the past couple of years, and I am eager to see To the Wonder when I have a chance.

It might be a while yet, as the film apparently has no distributor. In the meantime I’ve been doing a bit of reading about it, while trying to avoid learning too much about the story. As was the case for The Thin Red Line, Malick’s final version apparently cuts the performances of several A-list actors, including Jessica Chastain (!) and Rachel Weisz; it explores parallels between carnal and spiritual love (which was also an implicit theme of The New World); it pursues the non-narrative, discontinuous, whispered-voiceover style of The Tree of Life to an even greater extent. No doubt it’s a “difficult” film, but I must say it sounds pretty terrific to me.

The kicker is that it will be showing here in Toronto next week at the film festival, but I won’t be able to see it then.