Sometimes the Internet Works For Us

Yesterday, I visited YouTube to see what the algorithms had for me and saw this video:

Brian Wilson – Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) (Demo Vocal Tracks)”

It’s 2 1/2 minutes of Brian and I guess some of the other Beach Boys performing background vocals for a beautiful song on the Pet Sounds album, my all-time favorite (and #2 in the recent Rolling Stone Top 500 — “Who’s gonna hear this shit?” Beach Boys singer Mike Love asked. . . ).

This morning, the video popped up again. While I was listening, I noticed a link to a song by Fleet Foxes, one of my favorite groups:

Fleet Foxes – Shore (Full Album) 2020 

Fleet Foxes has a new album out? I didn’t know. So I played the first track:

“Wading In Waist-High Water”

It’s beautiful. Fleet Foxes often remind me of the Beach Boys. I wondered how the new album, released in September, was being received. A search for “Fleet Foxes Shore” turned up a review from Pitchfork magazine.

On his fourth album, singer-songwriter Robin Pecknold refines and hones Fleet Foxes’ crisp folk-rock sound, crafting another musically adventurous album that is warm and newly full of grace. 

They gave the album an 8.3, which sounds high.  

As I was looking at the review, I saw this:

Elsewhere, there are explicit nods to contemporary classical music, as on “Jara,” which features hocketing by Meara O’Reilly, and “Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman,” which pairs O’Reilly with a snippet of Brian Wilson counting to resemble Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, and, in its sampling, also recalls the early work of Steve Reich. 

A snippet of Brian Wilson counting? Well, I had to click on that.

Surprise, surprise! It turned out to be:

Brian Wilson – Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) (Demo Vocal Tracks)”

Yes, YouTube had twice recommended one of the thousands of Beach Boys/Brian Wilson videos they offer, of which I’ve watched many, and that took me to somebody else’s album, which uses part of that particular Pet Sounds session, which is in a YouTube video that’s probably getting attention because Robin Pecknold borrowed Brian Wilson counting “one-two-three-four” for his new Fleet Foxes album, Shore.

In the old days, only ten years ago, I might have quickly ordered the new Fleet Foxes CD. The internet would have succeeded in selling me something. But since CD technology is fast disappearing and I almost never play one except in our 16-year old car, there’s no rush. I can play the whole thing on Spotify and see if I want a copy for the car. 

Was I manipulated? Sure. Were a few more bytes of my data stored away in Google’s innards, only to be mined for heaven knows what purposes? Yeah. But sometimes it’s nice to be a tiny cog in a vast machine, even something to be a little bit thankful for.

“The Drunken Silenus: On Gods, Goats, and the Cracks in Reality” by Morgan Meis

This is a strange little book. It begins with the author explaining that he was living in Antwerp, in Belgium, because his wife was working on a project there. He had nothing in particular to do, but after realizing that the 17th century, Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens had once lived in Antwerp, he decided to write a book about Rubens. It’s not a biography of Rubens though. It’s a series of brief meditations on the art of painting, ancient history, Greek mythology, Greek tragedy, hundreds of years of European history, especially Europe’s wars, and Rubens’s family, in particular the affair that Rubens’s father Jan had with Anne of Saxony, who was William of Orange’s wife, and how William of Orange and Rubens’s mother Maria reacted to the affair. There’s a lot about Friedrich Nietzsche, too. And other things.

The book’s central thread goes something like this. Silenus was a minor god in Greek mythology with a gift for prophecy. He was the very wise tutor and companion of Dionysus, the much more important god of the grape-harvest, wine, fertility, vegetation, insanity, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, festivity and theater. Silenus is best-known for something he once told King Midas (who was apparently a real person, but couldn’t turn anything into gold). Midas asked Silenus what is the most desirable thing for a human being. Silenus told him the best thing is not to have been born.  But if you have been born, the best thing is to die quickly.

Peter Paul Rubens’s father Jan was the legal advisor to Anne of Saxony. They had an affair, the affair was discovered and Anne’s husband William threw Jan in jail. Jan eventually got out, was forgiven by his wife Marie, but died a broken man. Their son Peter Paul grew up to become the most influential artist of the “Flemish Baroque” tradition. 

Around 1616, Rubens painted “The Drunken Silenus”. It shows Silenus stumbling along, surrounded by some of Dionysus’s retinue, which included nymphs and satyrs.

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A couple years later, Rubens painted “Two Satyrs”, two more of Dionysus’s pals.

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A lot of history went by. Millions died during the Thirty Years War. Hapsburgs and Bourbons went at it. The nations of Europe slowly assumed their current positions.

Then, in 1872, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche published The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. Wikipedia says:

Nietzsche found in classical Athenian tragedy an art form that transcended the pessimism and nihilism of a fundamentally meaningless world. The Greek spectators, by looking into the abyss of human suffering and affirming it, passionately and joyously affirmed the meaning of their own existence. . . .

. . . Nietzsche discusses the history of the tragic form and introduces an intellectual dichotomy between the Dionysian and the Apollonian (very loosely: reality as disordered  . . . versus reality as ordered). Nietzsche claims life always involves a struggle between these two elements, each battling for control over the existence of humanity.

Which brings us back to Silenus and Dionysus, the nymphs and satyrs, especially the satyrs. And goats. The author of The Drunken Silenus thinks Nietzsche valued the wild and crazy Dionysian approach to life more than the calm and collected Apollonian. I think the key chapter of The Drunken Silenus is “Is God a goat? What possibly could that possibly mean?” 

The way Nietzsche tells it, when Silenus finally reveals to Midas the greatest thing for man, that it is best for man never to have been born and second best for a man to die quickly, Silenus lets out a shrill laugh. Silenus laughs because in telling King Midas the best thing, he actually tells him the worst thing . . . 

Nietzsche thinks the ancient Greeks — the Greeks of the satyr plays and the songs in the forest, the Greeks who came before the classical period of Plato and the brilliant days of Greek rationalism — those Greeks were bold enough to make a health of their pessimism. . . .

The olden Greeks, the ancient Greeks, thinks Nietzsche, understood life under the principle of the goat, the young goat kicking and bucking in the woods. . . Even to ask the question of what is good or bad for a man is to lose touch with the primary intuition that God is a goat. That’s to say, God is not transcendent, imperturbable, untouchable, unknowable. God is none of those things. God, if God is the God of the world, has to have the characteristics of the goat, the randiness and unpredictability, even the stupidity of the goat. . . 

And so, the question of good and bad for man is canceled before it can be asked. It is preempted. The satyr would never think to ask that question. . . . Goats don’t ask questions like “what is the best thing for goats?” Goats just go out and express goatlieness [35-38].

Getting back to Rubens, I suppose Rubens’s father and Anne of Saxony (who was also imprisoned by her husband) were the Dionysians. Rubens’s forgiving mother Marie was the Apollonian. And Rubens himself, the great artist, was a proto-Nietzsche:

When Rubens took to painting Silenus he wasn’t grabbing randomly at the bits of ancient mythology floating around in the intellectual breeze. Rubens had a whole program of satyrs and Dionysus and Silenus. . . Rubens was being very Nietzschean here, if we can be anachronistic — literally anachronistic, since it was . . . Rubens who came first and Rubens who first painted Silenus as a central figure within this story of Dionysus.

So that’s The Drunken Silenus. You might find it interesting, but I should mention that, even though it’s a short book, it’s repetitious. The author likes to repeat himself, often in the same paragraph. It also gets tedious near the end, as he starts getting more abstract and paradoxical, suggesting that life is death, and reality is unreal, that kind of thing (I’m not quoting here). It’s the kind of book that’s hard to put down until it’s easy.

The Silence by Don DeLillo

This is Don DeLillo’s new novel, his 18th. It gives the impression that DeLillo, who is 83, has run out of gas.

Five characters confront an unexplained crisis in 2022, during which civilization, at least the parts that rely on electricity or the internet, suddenly stops. A man and woman on a flight from Paris to Newark run into trouble. They eventually make their way to a New York City apartment where two friends, a husband and wife, live. The husband was planning to watch the Super Bowl. The only other character in the novel is the wife’s former student.

Nothing much happens after that. The characters express their fear and confusion by talking in brief bursts, sentence fragments, all sounding the way Don DeLillo often writes (which I usually enjoy). From two randomly chosen pages:

“The semi-darkness. It’s somewhere in the mass mind,” Martin said. “The pause, the sense of having experienced this before. Some kind of natural breakdown or foreign intrusion. A cautionary sense that we inherit from our grandparents or great-grandparents or back beyond. People in the grip of serious threat.”

And:

She thought for a moment. “The painted ceilings. Rome,” she said. “The tourists looking up.”

“Standing absolutely still.”

“Saints and angels. Jesus of Nazareth.”

“The luminous figure. The Nazarene. Einstein,” he said.

It’s a very short book, only 117 pages, with plenty of white space on every page. Maybe it would work as a play. It’s formatted like a typewritten script in what looks like Courier New. There are only five characters. They talk a lot. The play would only need four sets (an airliner, a clinic, an apartment, a street). I’m sorry to say it doesn’t work as a novel.

Another Damn Book To Read

Just what I needed.

drunken-silenus.jpg!Large

I’d seen advertisements for The Drunken Silenus: On Gods, Goats, and the Cracks in Reality, a new book by Morgan Meis. Then I saw a review by Leanne Ogasawara for Dublin Review of Books. Here’s half of it:

A man finds himself in Antwerp with nothing to do. Then he remembers, among other things, that this is the town where the painter Peter Paul Rubens made his home. At first, this annoys him, because he has no interest whatsoever in the painter. But then he thinks, why not write a book about Rubens.

Why not, indeed?

Essayist and critic Morgan Meis sets out to develop a new style of writing about art, one that is informed by a passionate looking. . . .

So, what is the painting in question? Well, it should be said that Rubens’s Drunken Silenus is not even in Antwerp anymore, since the city is now much too small for its golden boy. The painting is now in Munich. Meis travels there and stands in front of it. . . .

Meis is a philosopher. And so, standing in front of the drunken, out-of-control figure of Silenus, he immediately thinks of Nietzsche. . . .

According to Meis, Rubens was bowled over by Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne   and who wouldn’t be?   in which the character Silenus can be found, playing a minor role in the back of the picture. You can see him slumped over asleep, presumably in a drunken stupor, being carried along on a mule. Rubens gravitates to this plump figure and brings him centre stage in his own painting, where naked Silenus seems ready to spring right off the canvas.

In case you don’t remember   and why would you?   Silenus was the tutor of Dionysius, and member of his wild and crazy entourage. He was also the goat-god who got tangled up with King Midas. Famously, the king asked Silenus to tell him what was the best thing in the world for men? “The best thing in the world for men is to never have been born,” declares Silenus. “And the second best thing is to die early.”

You get the idea: this is what my son would call a buzz kill. But this profoundly pessimistic message deeply affected Nietzsche. Nietzsche, who was so fascinated by opposing ancient Greek impulses – one toward order (the Apollonian) and one toward frenzy and the irrational (the Dionysian), could not help but be impressed. As Meis tells it:

All this talk (Nietzsche realised) of the measured and balanced Greek mind was sloppy. No, there is turmoil. Nietzsche saw it because he was willing to look. He didn’t listen to anyone else, the experts, the other scholars. He just took a look.

When I studied Nietzsche in university, we read Dodds’s 1925 work The Greeks and the Irrational. The book was revelatory, illuminating all that was irrational about ancient Greek society. We tend to idealise the Greeks for their devotion to reason   in law, in mathematics, rhetoric and philosophy, for example. But the Greeks, said Dodds, were also deeply driven by irrational forces expressed in religious and other social practices. . . .

According to Nietzsche, Silenus was the greatest hero because he embraced the violent irrational forces that are at our core. And indeed, this is the way he has long been viewed, even in Rubens’s sympathetic depiction.

But what is a goat-god anyway? Nietzsche responds to this question, in Meis’s words that:

God is a goat because God is truth and the real truth of the matter is that life is a matter of running and jumping in the forest and rushing after something to screw and something to eat and, according to Nietzsche in what he thought he learned from the Greeks, even the life of the mind, the intellectual life of the sad-thinking-creature known as man, this creature who must think and make art and make culture, insofar as man does those things, ought to be done with the pure life-expressing power of the goat.

Have you heard of the old joke that, Life is so terrible, it would have been better not to have been born. Who is so lucky? Not one in a hundred thousand!

More than anything, The Drunken Silenus is about the “tears of things” (lacrimae rerum). Underneath the beauty of Antwerp   underneath the beauty of all cities, he says, is the irrationality of violence, chaos, and war. A world of tears.

This is the deeper truth that Nietzsche uncovered in the figure of Silenus. And in Meis’s telling, as the Franco-Prussian War came to a head during The Birth of Tragedy’s original composition, this same impulse toward war and violence is what connects civilisations through history. This Dionysian horde that Nietzsche surely imagined battering the walls of the besieged city of Wörth in 1870 was the same Dionysian horde that devastated Europe in the Thirty Years War in Rubens’s time. . . .

In this telling, history is not a love story. But I do think there is something healthy about Nietzsche’s pessimism. To dwell on transience, in the tears of things, in decay and ruins, is ultimately an empowering practice. In Japan, it is referred to as “scattering flowers and fallen leaves” 飛花落葉 or . . . “dewdrop loves and our dewdrop selves”. The Lotus Sutra teaches that all that appears before us is as a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow. All is like the dew or lightning. It should thus be contemplated that nothing has reality. That everything is in flux and that all must eventually perish is a sad but inevitable fact . . .

Unquote.

And then a purchase was made.

Peter Paul Rubens painted Silenus another time. Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs shows Dionysus’s companion and tutor getting a little help from his friends. We all need assistance sometimes, especially in what Ms. Ogasawara calls “our current time of worry and sickness”. Am I right or am I right?

Two days.

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Ratner’s Star by Don DeLillo

A book editor named Gerald Howard believes Don DeLillo deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature:

By every metric that we use to measure literary greatness—including overall achievement, scope and variety of subject matter, striking and fully realized style, duration of career, originality and formal innovation, widespread influence here and abroad, production of masterpieces, consistency of excellence, pertinence of themes, density of critical commentary, and dignity in the conduct of a literary career—Don DeLillo, now eighty-three, scores in the highest possible percentile. 

He says DeLillo’s case for the Nobel rests on four propositions:

1. “No American novelist has examined more broadly and with greater insight and originality our postwar history and experience”.

2. “The astonishing and unmatched string of four midcareer masterpieces: White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), Mao II (1991), and Underworld (1997). [All] permanently lodged in the record of American literary greatness.

3. DeLillo’s influence:  [His] work is currently available in forty-three languages and/or countries. He is a true global phenomenon. . . . In the anglophone and domestic spheres, there is no writer more revered than DeLillo.

4.  “The dignity and nobility that he has brought to his vocation as a novelist. . . . He eschews almost all the encumbrances and strategies of a postmodern literary career”.

I’ve read the four novels mentioned above and several of his others. DeLillo is clearly worthy of the Nobel Prize. It’s too bad the Swedish Academy marches to its own peculiar set of drums.

Since DeLillo has a new novel coming out (The Silence), The New York Times interviewed him this month. They gave the interview this title: “We All Live in Don DeLillo’s World. He’s Confused By It Too”:

A permeating paranoia. Profound absurdity. Conspiracy and terrorism. Technological alienation. Violence bubbling, ready to boil. This has long been the stuff of Don DeLillo’s masterly fiction. It’s now the air we breathe. For nearly 50 years and across 17 novels, [he] has summoned the darker currents of the American experience with maximum precision and uncanny imagination.

The interviewer asked a question about DeLillo’s 1976 novel, Ratner’s Star. It’s not a well-known book, possibly because it’s been called “his weirdest novel” and “famously impenetrable” (which must mean “famously” among a small group of readers and critics). A footnote to the Times interview says it’s an “intricately structured semi-sci-fi romp”. That was enough for me to get a copy and start reading (I had a copy years ago but it’s long gone).

Untitled

For the first 275 pages, Ratner’s Star didn’t seem impenetrable at all. It’s about a 14-year old math genius who (coincidentally) has won the Nobel Prize. He is invited to a secretive, well-funded installation where lots of brilliant, generally strange people are trying to decipher what appears to be a message from an alien civilization. DeLillo writes beautifully and the plot is interesting. Will young Billy Twillig (formerly “Terwilliger”) from The Bronx (where DeLillo is from) figure out what the message means? Does it mean anything at all? I liked this part of the book and its amusing conversations and technical explanations and foresaw no problem reading the rest.

Then the plot takes a detour. Billy descends into a cavern far beneath the installation with a small group whose purpose is to create a purely logical, universal language. They hope to use this new language to communicate with the alien civilization (assuming there are aliens out there). Since the little group’s purpose makes no sense, the novel’s suspense disappears. There is frequent stream of consciousness. The point of view suddenly changes from one character to another. There are tangents and long passages that feel pointless, as if DeLillo is treading water. Billy becomes a secondary character.

Something eventually happens in a section called “A Lot Happens”. Something else happens in the next section, “I Sit A While Longer”. But between those two developments, a peripheral character spends several pages exploring a cave because he’s fascinated by bats and a journalist decides her manuscript’s many blank pages are fine because she knows what words belong there. The plot resumes in the final pages; before that there’s rough going. Anybody interested in DeLillo’s work should start elsewhere, maybe with one of the four novels that would justify giving him the Nobel Prize.