Arts and Culture
I'll read anything as long as it's a good yarn. During a recent vacation, I tore through a potboiler about a jogger attacked by a genetically altered polar bear. I wouldn't recommend it. Then I read an adventure novel from a dollar store. The experience supports the adage, “You get what you pay for.”
But on the same trip I discovered The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (Europa, 2006.) Translated from the original French by Alison Anderson, the novel presents two characters whose needs and wants converge.
Stout, ugly Renee is a concierge in a Parisian hotel where she poses as a witless soap opera fan. But behind closed doors, she's addicted to art, music, philosophy, and Japanese culture. She hides her passions until a subtle slip involving two cats and Anna Karenina reveals her secret.
The second major character is a resident of the same hotel. Brilliant, twelve year-old Paloma observes adults and decides they all lead lives of quiet desperation. She resolves to end her life on her thirteenth birthday.
Sounds grim, but I often laughed out loud. It's funny. Each chapter advances the plot, and some offer marvelous nuggets about art and music.
Renee studies a still life by Pieter Claesz depicting a table set for a light meal of bread and oysters. A half-pared lemon shines on a silver plate.
“We cannot cease desiring, and this is our glory and our doom,” Renee reflects. “but when we gaze at a still life . . . we delight in its beauty . . . we find pleasure in the fact that there was no need for desire.”
“Art is emotion without desire,” she thinks.
Later, she listens to a recording of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. When she hears the bit at the death of Dido, she thinks this is the most stunning music on earth.
“There is a beauty in these sounds no animal cry can ever attain, a beauty born of the subversion of phonetic articulation and the transgression of the careful verbal language that ordinarily creates distinct sounds. Broken sounds, melting sounds.”
Such sounds break our defenses.
Muriel Barbery's novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog brushes deep mysteries with a light touch. I loved it.
Well, I missed the whole thing. The historical significance of the event was beyond my comprehension. Consequently, the iconic image of the earth rising over the dusty moonscape never struck me as unusual or bizarre. Years later, when I was in my teens, fiction writer James Michener opened my eyes to the marvel of it all, the risks, and the fact that until they landed, the crew of Apollo 11 half-expected to sink into six feet of powdery dust.
In this Sunday's New York Times, Tom Wolfe argues that since the first landing on the moon on July 20, 1969, NASA has sunk itself into a metaphorical pit with no vision for the future.
“NASA never understood the need for a philosopher corps,” Wolfe writes. With all of its smarts, the American space program lacks a poet, someone able to spark enough general enthusiasm for building a bridge to the stars.
Such a philosopher would find his work cut out for him. My generation is hard to impress. When was the last time you were truly floored by a scientific discovery or piece of technology? We expect daily, small-scale marvels. Turn on the news. There they are.
The last time I felt fullblown wonder at a scientific advance was in 1992. I was sitting in front of a computer, and my husband was explaining the Internet terms “gopher,” “archie” and “veronica.” He punched the return key. A tiny green star whirled on the black screen.
“Your computer is making another computer in Denmark look something up,” he said. I hardly believed him. Then text appeared, in Danish, pre-Google, like primitive paintings on the cave walls near Lascaux, France.
New Yorker writer Alex Ross argues that the Internet is The Best Thing Ever for classical music lovers. You have, at this moment, immediate access to some of Western culture's most iconic musical figures. Richard Strauss. Leonard Bernstein. Arnold Schoenberg. John Cage's 4'33. The choir of Westminster Abby singing Tavener's Song for Athene at Princess Diana's funeral.
With such a resource, it was pretty simple to whip up a morning of lunar-inspired classical music for you on the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's small step.
Long before people walked on the moon, composers looked up to dream.