Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Travelogue 773 – October 10
The Scales

So we leave Somerset Maugham and his anti-hero in the shadow of their shadows. Maugham scented archetype, and went in pursuit. Shadows are elusive game, and the author can be excused for losing track of his motives. Was it a search for meaning or just a quest to tame nature? In any case, the story is done.

Baby has become a story-teller. Her language is incomplete. She has some of our words, and she has words of her own. When she is moved to tell a story, she mixes them readily. She doesn’t hesitate. I admire her her fluency. She tells stories about what happens around the house, about blowing bubbles, about the time her little sister took a fall and bumped her head. She tells about her visit to the zwembad. She stands in front of me with wide eyes. She recounts how she jumped into the water, and she performs a little jump to illustrate. She tells me how surprised she was when she ducked her head under the water. She tells me how she learned how to kick. When she runs out of things to say, she tilts her head to one side and she purses her lips. She starts over. And I am so honoured that she wants to share with papa.

We search for meaning, and we tell stories. One day, about a month ago, I spotted a rainbow. It stretched over my apartment complex, and it stopped me in my tracks. The rainbow was a messenger for the ancient Greeks. I wait for the message.

I’ll tell a story I heard once. A friend told a group of us about his search for meaning, and how it led to the libraries. He was seduced by the idea of all that knowledge on the shelves. He read and read. But the more he read, the more disillusioned he became. He found the knowledge unsatisfying. Looking at the shelves again, he saw false comfort. Abundance had become famine and falsehood. He turned to spirituality and said he saw in death and in the other world the abundance and hope he had initially seen on the shelves of the libraries.

Once I realized how different my friend and I were, the story became a touchstone. I saw how there were two types of passion. There’s the passion that sees in the world a desert, and there is a passion that sees fertile valleys. Each view inspires a kind of exaltation, and each can inspire its own species of depression.

One question has occupied me for a long time: how do you take it all in? It’s one question with many variations: How do you hold everything? How do you love it? How do you appreciate it? I appropriate the word, ‘appreciate’, and I make it carry more than bland gratitude. It has to mean some deep evaluation of its object.

My parallel to the story of my friend would take longer to tell. It would take a lifetime. It would be the story of each book in succession, none of them the secret to all knowledge, but each a piece.

So one day, about a month ago, I spotted a rainbow. It hung over my apartment complex. It stopped me in my tracks. There was no message, but it was beautiful nonetheless. It hung above us, iridescent, insubstantial, colour made of dew. It was made of nothing but light, but it was real as rain.

I tell the story in much the way that Baby might, with some made-up words, halting and searching, pouting in thought, pouting in the slow trickle of thoughts, wishing I could say more while I have papa’s attention.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Travelogue 772 – October 3
Artist for the Parlour

I’m left with a few final observations about Mr. Maugham’s ‘The Moon and Sixpence’. Despite the darker edge to my impressions after this latter-day reading, impressions that never would have occurred to me in sunny youth, I enjoyed the visit to the Maugham’s charming old-world style. It’s been a pleasant reminiscence. If there is disappointment, it’s in the dry fact of reminiscence itself. I may have no further crack at the old book, and that’s a factor in the value of art that we often neglect to calculate. Who has time to make that calculation, let alone re-visit all the great reads of a lifetime?

Almost a third of the narrator’s tale in ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ recounts his research after the painter has already died, specifically on a chance trip to Tahiti. (Here’s a glimpse into Maugham’s charmed life, that he should imagine a chance trip to Tahiti as plausible.) He encounters people who knew the artist, and he pieces together the last few years of his life, a story that makes of his raw material – the life of Gauguin – something more picturesque and morally satisfying. Strickland, Gauguin’s fictional stand-in, is redeemed by love and then is taken by a disease appropriately horrific, leprosy. It’s a demise gauged to show Nature’s capacity for cruelty, commensurate to Strickland’s own penchant for the primitive. There were rumours that Gauguin died of leprosy, but it’s more likely to have been something more prosaic, perhaps syphilis, a common fate of artists and writers in the nineteenth century. And the love in Gauguin’s last days? More likely to have been a series of tawdry and abusive affairs.

Interestingly, the narrator discovers one of his sources in Tahiti while searching for a black pearl. This detail, revealed once and in passing, seems very revealing. The narrator would like to set himself apart from the collectors circling like buzzards over the corpse of the great painter. He offers several stories about the small fortunes made off Strickland’s work, about the jaded opportunism of the European arts market. He rather too casually lets slip that he is in the market for a black pearl to take home, dark genius condensed into a very portable state. But it’s too expensive.

Much has been said about art in bourgeois Europe, its role as object and collectible. The narrator has inserted himself into a different market, one more refined and high-stakes, the market for artists and their souls. This grows into quite a lucrative market in the twentieth century. Whether Maugham intended this final twist or not, I cannot say. If he set this up consciously, lens upon lens, Gauguin as refracted through public distortions of his own myth-making, as interpreted by a narrator with mixed motives of his own, then hats off to him. Playing with this many layers takes a certain type of genius, and that achievement would indeed make ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ a great satirical work.

But I’m guessing that the author’s intentions, if they matter at all, were more modest. I would say they more or less reflect the narrator’s, and reflect a real fascination. The book has the feel of a Jungian quest, a shadowy pursuit of archetypes, doomed and, finally, significant in its failure. The narrator declares himself content with every polished sentence, and yet there is too much lost in the end to allow that. The English imperturbability is strained.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Travelogue 771 – September 27
Faust in Tahiti

I’m reading the last bits of ‘Moon and Sixpence’. I read when I can, mostly during short trips on the metro and train. It’s rare that I get the time to stop and read over a pint, like I have been used to doing. And so my sense of continuity in the narrative is broken. My schedule isn’t the only factor. There’s something in the fashioning of the story that conveys a sense of fragmentation. It’s offered as a collection of disjointed memories, first the narrator’s own and then those the narrator has collected in Tahiti. By the end of the book, the connection between the narrator and the ghostly protagonist is so attenuated that his, the narrator’s, seems an increasingly lonely voice.

And this problem of the narrator becomes the central one of the book, finally. His insistent presence is the knot to be untied. If the book were a biography, why isn’t it narrated from the heavens, as is usually done? If it’s a salacious re-telling of the Gauguin of legend, why not simply bang out a lurid novel about the bad-boy artist? No, I believe the book quite self-consciously re-directs away from the painter. I’ve seen the book characterized as satirical, but that assumes that the book is about the painter. I would say it’s more of a lament, and more central than the painter’s story is what lies just below the narrator’s apparent equanimity.

I’ve noted the persistent theme of apology through the work, as the narrator apologizes for himself and how little he knows. He apologizes for his failures as a writer. He apologizes for being a mediocrity. It might seem as though the apologies grow more anxious as he realizes the contrast he provides to the alluring figure of Strickland, a comparison increasingly embarrassing, as though he were the stunted boy introducing the school’s basketball star before the whole assembly.

The deeper anxiety, overriding his self-consciousness, is the moral riddle that Strickland presents. It’s hard to say whether the narrator discovers or invents the riddle, but it clearly claims all his attention.

He says of Strickland, ‘There was in him something primitive.’ He says, ‘I had again the feeling that he was possessed of a devil; but you could not say that it was a devil of evil, for it was a primitive force that existed before good and ill.’ And the quality matched with ‘primitive’, the quality cited with almost irritating regularity, is ‘genius’. This combination of qualities troubles the narrator. Is it wedded to the perception of his own inadequacy? Does he lament his sophistication and morality as much as he does his lack of genius? Is it a deal with the devil that he is wishing he might have been offered? He says of the writer, ultimately of himself, that he ‘recognizes in himself an artistic satisfaction in the contemplation of evil which a little startles him.’

This is what we inherit from those times, the fin de siècle and the beginning of modernism, its complicated stars in arts and literature, contemporaries of Freud: we inherit a troubling ambivalence about our powers. We wish for genius, but we are anxious. We have a suspicion that genius emerges from darkness, the way the Greeks saw Creation as emergent from Chaos. Hell is a place in the psyche and genius is granted by the devil.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Travelogue 770 – September 20
Nothing Could be More Ordinary

There are many things we say we can’t help. It’s a common disclaimer during the course of our days. One thing I’m sure we can’t help is our wisdom. When I first read ‘Moon and Sixpence’, many years ago, I was quite taken with the romance of the story, and I would that I could surrender to that innocence again.

Instead what communicates itself most insistently is the regret. There is a lot of apology in this book, apology for mediocrity. The narrator is a writer, and one who confesses his style is dated and limited. ‘I am on the shelf now,’ he admits. Of the younger generation of writers, he says, ‘[T]heir passion seems to me a little anemic and their dreams a trifle dull.’ When he finally sees the artwork of the book’s hero, Charles Strickland, he admits he has no faculty to see the brilliance. He experiences no thrill, though his painter friend, Dirk Stroeve, another mediocrity, has repeatedly asserted the genius.

The contrast to mediocrity is concentrated in the experimental character of Strickland. He’s a force of nature, possessed by creativity, having no choice but to paint. Nominally, Strickland is a sketch or a caricature of Paul Gauguin, who has passed away only sixteen years before the publication of Maugham’s book. But perhaps Strickland is even further removed from Gauguin: a caricature of the myth collaboratively drawn by Gauguin and his public. The narrator prepares us in the first pages. ‘The faculty for myth is innate in the human race,’ he writes. ‘It is the protest of romance against the commonplace of life.’

What follows is something complex. The surface layer is a story about Gauguin. There are grains of truth among all the exotic colours – Gauguin was somewhat wild, after all, -- but the caricature begins to stand free of its source, and the second layer is indulgent. We venture unashamed into the racy tale told by the gossips. Strickland is abominable, but his genius redeems him. ‘His faults are accepted as the necessary complement to his merits,’ the narrator says of popular opinion. We are very familiar with this story template by now.

In this second layer of the story is revealed some loathing for the ordinary. ‘Nothing could be more ordinary,’ the narrator says about the Strickland family on his first observation. He goes on to comment, without provocation, ‘… I felt in such an existence, the share of the majority, something amiss. I recognized its social value. I saw its ordered happiness, but a fever in my blood asked for a wilder course. There seemed to me something alarming in such easy delights.’

Conveniently, Strickland immediately runs amok. He leaves his family without warning and moves to Paris to paint. The real Gauguin did indeed leave his family and paint. But the real Gauguin had already been painting and exhibiting before he left his job and family. Moreover, the stock market hadn’t been treating him so well in his final days there. Maybe the decision wasn’t as impulsive and precipitate as legend had it.

The narrator catches up with Strickland soon afterward. ‘I tell you I’ve got to paint,’ the man says. ‘I can’t help myself.’ The narrator asks him pointedly what would happen if he simply wasn’t any good. The painter replies, ‘A man falls into the water it doesn’t matter how he swims, well or badly: he’s got to get out or else he’ll drown.’

It’s heady stuff, and this could be said to be the theme of the second layer to the book, the intoxication in strong myth.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Travelogue 769 – September 11

I’m re-reading ‘Moon and Sixpence’, and it’s something of a guilty pleasure. This is Maugham’s famous novel based on the life of Paul Gauguin. More accurately, it’s based on the romanticized version of Gauguin’s life, popularized after his death in 1903. The book was published in 1919. I’m sure that Maugham knew the difference between myth and reality. He even travelled to the South Pacific to research. I think his point was to explore, (perhaps to exploit), the mythology of the great artist. It was more of a French phenomenon at the time, the lionizing of writers and painters. Since Maugham was born and raised until ten in Paris, bridging the Channel came naturally. Titillating England with the spectre of the rogue genius must have been good fun.

It’s a guilty pleasure. I’ve described before how I discovered a cache of Maugham at the Oudemanhuispoort book market in Amsterdam, and I couldn’t help indulging. I read him without critical judgement when I was young. Now I’m saddled with some perspective. The disparaging words of one of my heroes, Christopher Hitchens, echoes in my mind. He called him ‘Poor Old Willie’ in an article in the Atlantic, and said his prose was clumsy and banal. Yeah, well, I still the old man. I like the understated romanticism, the reassuring rhythm of his prose.

This morning I’m standing at the door to the stairwell down to the street, standing outside on the first-floor balcony extending around the inside of my apartment complex. It’s early. The sun has risen only within the last hour. Low clouds are flying: the weather has been so consistently inconsistent that I barely register it anymore. If it’s not raining, it just has, and just will. The grounds are wet and the sky is grey. But there, suddenly, arcing above the roofs of the compound, shimmers the full rainbow. It stops me, as a rainbow will. It interrupts routine thoughts and opens a door to something fresh, perhaps even some perspective. This must be the reason the Greeks called the rainbow a messenger from the gods. It has the authority to halt the mundane.

If ‘Poor Old Willie’ – not so old when he wrote ‘Moon and Sixpence’ – was moved to pick among the debris left by Gauguin and pick among the fables Gauguin inspired, wasn’t he just making a record of the appearance of a Greek rainbow, an appearance of the Sublime? That much may seem obvious. The riddle is in deciding what the message may have been. Or, even more intriguing, whether the prism at work is Gauguin himself, his paintings, his persona, his story, shrewd exploitation of the exotic, or the impersonal machinery of myth-making.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Travelogue 768 – September 7
There’s a Wobble

There’s a wobble in my back wheel, and I have to take the bike in to the shop today. I don’t need any further drag as I resume my long commute to work, crossing the full diameter of Rotterdam, along the arcing line of the Nieuwe Maas River. I’m out of shape, after the month of sitting on trains and sitting in the classroom. I don’t need the extra work of a bad wheel. The seasons are changing, and fall brings steady winds from the west. The winds carry in showers. The ride is a long one.

The transition from certification course back to work hasn’t been too bad. It’s just a change in the lessons I’m writing. I’m writing mostly for the first-year students, fresh and both bold and timid. Many are eager to learn. It inspires me to work hard so as not to let them down. I know about the disillusionment built into systems of higher education.

When I’m not writing new lessons, I’m finishing my summer reading. ‘Points of View’ is one of the books I picked up last month in Amsterdam. During lunch breaks in the certification program, I walked toward the old university buildings along the Oudezijds Achterburgwal. I strolled down the narrow Oudemanhuispoort, where the old book market has operated daily since the nineteenth century.

It’s not surprising I found some Somerset Maugham. There’s the whiff of the forgotten about him these days, and yet he’s always there, in every second-hand collection. I discovered him many years ago, and he had his impact on me. His prose was always a pleasure, calm and self-assured. Mr. Maugham knew how to tell a story. With time, the stories came to seem over-ripe, too sentimental for my tastes, but I could still find the prose soothing. It seemed to be composed of common sense. And he was rarely as sensible as he was in his last collection of essays. He wrote about Goethe and about Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi. He wrote about the short story, praising Chekhov and Mansfield, and sniping at James. He wrote about the Goncourts and the French authors of public journals. Maugham had a rare sympathy for the writer, always reminding the reader that the writer had to make a living. That didn’t corrupt the art, but surely gave it shape. And this from an author as famous in his day for his riches as his art.

I’m not an author, but I live the poverty of an author. I live some of the joys, too. Last night, we held first auditions for my new play. These we staged at my college. It’s amateur theatre. Two of the people auditioning were students. Two more were more serious, managing the patchwork lives of actors, juggling work with rehearsal and performance. The actors were better, but still I enjoyed the performances of the amateurs more. There’s something spontaneous happening. There’s more communication.

The guy in my cycle shop expresses surprise that I haven’t noticed four broken spokes in my back wheel. He asks if I’ve been carrying something heavy. I say myself. I say my backpack, always stuffed with as much as it can carry. I say sometimes my baby girl, big for her age. My neighbour has donated a seat that sits right above the back tire. The cycle guy shrugs. He asks if I travel over rough roads. I say always.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Travelogue 767 – August 21
Tile and Brick

The Oxford House is an unassuming façade on the curving Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal in Amsterdam, forgivably modern in the midst of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century beauties, built in the 1920s. But it is functional, and it does make some nominal efforts at design. The façade may seem at first to aspire to little beauty, but it has a few touches of near-elegance. The lowest level features a layer of dark stone, grey that’s almost black and almost green. Above it, the exterior brick is a brighter red than in conventional Dutch houses, reminding me of London brick. On the left side, a row of rooms juts slightly outward from the façade, rising from the first floor up to the fifth, in a section with round edges, the width of one office. One enters the building under this overhang of only one metre or so.

The interior is more interesting. I’ve mentioned the Jugendstil tiling on the walls of the steep staircase and flooring of the staircase. It squiggles at the base of the stairs, in white tiles cut into curving patterns, broken with grey spear-like shapes pointing to the stairs. The steps are themselves slabs of tan marble. Underneath them are black tiles with Mondrianesque touches of yellow.

Around the base of the banisters of each landing are laid some nice, small tiles of various colours, some like the iridescent colours of shells or pearl. It’s nice to think someone thought about us, the generations of office workers, students and teachers, climbing this stairway every day, hungering for some colour to the routine.

There are two tiny elevators on either side of the staircase. You enter through wooden doorways, framed so tightly you have to turn sideways to enter. There are tall slits of windows in the door, so you can see people rising in boxes of yellow light. A classmate of mine says he’s been stuck in one twice already. It’s only two storeys so I always use the stairs. I’ve caught sight of his smiling face passing as I’ve climbed.

The centre of the staircase is open, and you can see up to the skylight. Each floor is sunnier than the one below, until one reaches the top floor, where the white walls radiate with the light of summer. The windows look out over the Spui district, revealing the roofs of a city could only be Amsterdam, or certainly could only be Dutch, sharp peaking roofs covered in tin and tile, each at a different height, each in rows turned to their own orientation. Attached to all the roofs, the gables. Amsterdam is a city of gables, steeped and curved and pointed, decorated with white frosting in every variety of theme, with waves and shells and crowns, fish and angels and the faces of burghers. There is heraldry. Nearby, one coat of arms displays a castle surrounded by swans.

There are many buildings in the neighbourhood to love. There is one across the street, dating back only one hundred thirty years, but old, a specimen of nineteenth-century neo-Renaissance, with bay window and chapel-like arched windows, each sectioned into medieval-like small panes. There are two medallions set in the wall with sculpted profiles of two Amsterdam heroes, Vondel and Marius. I think this building is actually attached to the Begijnhof, beautiful inner court remaining from the Catholic city, accessed by the Spui square.