It was on this day in 1916 that James Joyce published his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man in a single volume in New York. Ezra Pound had already published a serialized version of the book in his review, The Egoist.
If you were forced to read this novel in school, then you may have missed its relevance with respect to your own relationship to pornography.
It's in this novel that Joyce's literary alter-ego, Stephen Dedalus, takes on Aquinas and Aristotle and even the Catholic Church. But he also says what Art is. Even if you were not floored by his later, more highly developed innovations with stream-of-consciousness, you've got to care about his definition of pornographic art, kinetic and didactic art, and esthetic arrest.
Much of the damage we do in life is because we don't know better. We're unconscious. Joyce lays it out for us in Portrait, and if you get what he's trying to tell you, it's possible that you may awaken - become conscious - and therefore free.
It is for this reason that I've called on world-renowned mythologist, Joseph Campbell, to break it down for us. Sit tight. The video, which is really audio covered by stills, lasts 16 minutes. But if you've never heard Campbell speak in person, as I did several years before his death in 1987, or experienced one of his lectures on video, you are in for a treat. He taught comparative literature at Sarah Lawrence for over 30 years before being "discovered" by the rest of the world, most notably Bill Moyers who dedicated an entire TV series to his work (The Power of Myth) and a little known film director who credits his reading of Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces with the main idea behind Star Wars.
When I heard Campbell speak about James Joyce that day, Robert Bly, Helen Frankenthaler, and Rollo May were also on the program. Each one contributed something to my understanding of art in contemporary society. But it was Campbell who knocked me over with his discussion of Joyce and his phenomenal understanding of Portrait. And get this - not once did he rely on notes. Much of what he said that day is contained in the 16-minute clip below. (You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free - right? Let's hope so.)
TAGS: Writers & Writing, Ideas Worth Thinking About
Lt. Uhura & the Historic Star Trek Kiss; Happy Birthday, Nichelle Nichols, Maggie Smith & Denzel Washington
She was hot, she was classy, she was black - and prime-time TV had never seen anything like her. I once had the pleasure of meeting the beautiful Nichelle Nichols when she spoke at the Fifth Annual Awards Luncheon for Distinguished Women, sponsored by the Girls Club of the Mid-peninsula (near Stanford University), Raychem and the Saga Corporation. The year was 1977, and I was still working as an ambivalent, if not entirely reluctant, TV news anchor at KPIX-TV, Channel 5, in San Francisco. By this time, I had already seen and interviewed a celebrity or two, so why was my heart thrumming at the thought of introducing the actress from a TV science fiction drama?
Because this particular actress was Lt. Uhura from the early days of Star Trek, and she was right up there with St. Theresa of Avila and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as role models during my upbringing - the kind of person one might not only aspire to be but actually become in the new world that was unfolding in the 1960's. On the day of that luncheon, I was not yet the writer I had always dreamed of being. My HIDDEN CROW novel series was still a long way off. So was the voice I would need to write it. During that time, I took advantage of close encounters with stellar individuals like Nichelle Nichols to feel their authenticity in hopes of one day finding my own. If the mask you've created for yourself is making you wagon-loads of money, taking it off can seem pretty risky. I realize I'm talking about an actress here, someone for whom artifice is livelihood. So maybe I was fooled by her kindness, but I don't think so. Like an over-aged Holden Caulfield, I had seen my share of phonies. I don't think I'd be remembering Nichelle Nichols today if she had been one of them.
The following clip puts her historic presence on TV - and the provocative kiss with Capt. Kirk - into a thimbleful of historical perspective. I will only add here that any nervousness I felt quickly dissipated when Ms. Nichols and I shook hands. She was warm, she was kind, she was genuine. And at 81 years young (today), from all available accounts, she still is. Happy Birthday, Lt. Uhura, you heart-throb!
As long as I'm dredging up memories of meeting remarkable people, I might as well confess to doing something I probably would not do today. This also happened in the late 1970's (I must have been time-traveling. This can't possibly have happened in chronological time). I had been wanting an Irish knit cardigan for a while and finally made my way to the Kilkenny Shop in San Francisco to peruse the offerings. And there she was, the lovely Maggie Smith, quietly shopping alone. No cameras, no entourage, no fake anything. To say that I was an admirer in those days was to put it mildly. She was, it seemed to me, a cross between Brigitte Bardot and every nun under the age of 50 who had ever taught me in school. I know, sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it? But you can't for a moment think that the women who gave up their sentient lives in order to pound some schooling into my head did not also exude an energy that might be repressed but never fully eliminated.
I knew her mainly from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Travels with My Aunt, and Olivier's Othello, in which she was fated to be loved not wisely but too well. It was amazing to me that an actor of her caliber should be without a coterie of adoring fans. But then she is English, and this was San Francisco. Although I knew better, I could not resist the urge to ask for an autograph. And she obliged, ever so kindly, with those eyes and that voice, acting quite surprised that anyone should notice her at all. (It was, as the saying goes, the kind of encounter I was more likely to remember than she.)
Which psychologist was it who said every communication is a transaction? (Eric Berne, Games People Play. That's right.) In our brief "transaction," Maggie Smith gave me something money can't buy. The handmade Irish sweater I bought that day has disappeared along with so many other material possessions. But you see, I was at a turning point in my own life at the time. And this encounter, away from the TV cameras that captured my usual celebrity interviews, felt like a moment of authenticity. (There's that word again.) I had come to see that people really do behave differently when no one is watching.
How very gracious, patient, and generous Maggie Smith was that day. This is how one wants to be, I thought. Really good at your craft, kind, and not the least bit puffed up when someone pays you a compliment or distracts you from your solitude to beg an autograph.
What I said above about acting easily applies here too. So I must amend what I say about authenticity with this caveat about uncertainty. You never really know another person. You can never really tell if (like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally) she's faking it. And despite my wish for authenticity, I say that's okay.
The question is whether she's faking it to make you feel bad, or to make you feel appreciated. The actor, like the writer, must have a diverse lot of characters at her disposal. So if there's doubt as to whether she's being "real" at any given moment, let's err on the side of kindness and intention - and give her the benefit of the doubt.
For those who question my assessment of Maggie Smith as half-nun/half French sex symbol, consider the following scene from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. She may be better known these days as the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey and Professor Minerva McGonnagall in the Harry Potter films, but you don't get all the best lines in the most popular TV drama in PBS history without knowing the value of every word in every role you play. Happy 79th birthday, Maggie Smith, and many happy returns of the day.
Talk about being really good at something - look no further than the great Denzel Washington. I don't have any stories of meeting this awesome performer. But that doesn't stop me from admiring his work. It's not easy to take on the mantle once owned by Sidney Poitier and bring it to another level. While Poitier's challenge was to present to mainstream audiences an image of decency, Denzel's has been to represent a broad panoply of personalities and characters - both good and bad, strong and weak - and he has pulled it off beautifully. Here's a list of his Top 10 performances put together by mojo users on YouTube. Of this actor, it can be said without hesitation - "He got game." Happy Birthday, Denzel Washington, born this day, 1954.
TAGS: Famous Birthdays
Two Good Reasons to Celebrate December 14 - Shirley Jackson ("The Lottery" Author) & Clark Terry (Montreux Jazz Festival)
On July 29th of this year, the New Yorker magazine published "Paranoia," a recently discovered short story by Shirley Jackson, who was born on this date in 1916. By now, just about every high school student since the 1960's has read, "The Lottery," her most famous story, which the New Yorker published in 1948.
According to shirleyjackson.org, that story generated the "largest volume of mail ever received by the magazine - before or since - almost all of it hateful."
I re-read the story before penning this blog, and it still gives me chills. Of course, I'm predisposed to feel that way, given news reports pouring in from Centennial, Colorado, where a high school student took his own life after critically shooting another student, an innocent who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
What makes me think of Jackson in this context is that everyone who knew the shooter said what a "nice" guy he was. That's exactly how you might describe any of the characters in "The Lottery." They're this neighborly, smiling group of small-town folk, gathered in the town square as if for a concert. You'd never know from all this "niceness" that they're about to stone a woman to death.
"Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon," the story's oldest character says nonchalantly. That's our clue that the poor victim is a scapegoat. In the Bible, a scapegoat was an actual animal upon whom the collective sins of the people had been placed. It strikes me that this is what our children have become. In last year's Newtown shootings and in Columbine, and now Centennial, to name the few that come quickly to mind, the children have been made to carry the sin of internalized violence about which we are largely unconscious.
Carl Jung wrote that "unconsciousness is sin," and that may be why we see the same dumfounded expressions - the same mindless search for answers, the same entrenched debate about guns - after each of these once unthinkable catastrophes. We're unconscious of how the acceptance of violence in our culture has separated us from sanity. We accept violent movies, TV shows, and video games. We agree to it in song lyrics. We watch it on the news while eating pizza and gulping soft drinks. We accept it the way Jackson's characters in "The Lottery" accept the terrible thing they are about to do. And it's anybody guess - the luck of the draw - which school-age child will become the next scapegoat, the bearer of our collective sin.
If you don't have a published copy of "The Lottery" handy, I've included a 10-minute film version (released in 2007) below. If little Davy looks familiar, it's Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, from The Omen. Be forewarned - the filmmakers changed it a little. But the basic idea is there. Also, the New Yorker published quite an interesting interview with Jackson's son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, in the same issue as "Paranoia," and you can find that here.
Moving on to a happier subject, jazz great Clark Terry turns 93 today. Born December 14th in Saint Louis, MO, he is best known as an innovator of flugelhorn jazz. But his work with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Quincy Jones has taken him through swing, hard bebop and eventually to the Jazz Masters Hall of Fame. The clip below features the birthday boy himself at the 1977 Montreux Jazz Festival in a performance of "Samba de Orfeu." Jazz fans will recognize Oscar Peterson on piano, Milt Jackson of the Modern Jazz Quartet on vibes. Ronnie Scott, Joe Pass (guitar), Niels Pedersen (bass), and Bobby Durham (drums). It's fourteen minutes of fun. Makes you feel like dancing, don't it? So go ahead, why don't you? There's nobody here but us chickens.
Reading Solzhenitsyn Is Like Watching "12 Years a Slave"; That's Why We Need "Young Frankenstein" Too.
As we continue to reflect on the life of Nelson Mandela and arrive today at the birth anniversary of Nobel Laureate, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, we can't help but wonder if their might be some relationship between limitation and greatness. Surely, the Mandela who emerged from prison to lead the richest country in Africa was different from the one who entered it 27 years before. Could it be that the Solzhenitsyn who wrote Gulag Archipelago and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch also could not have existed had he not been arrested for writing that criticized Stalin? Consider Dostoevsky's imprisonment. Or even Stephen Hawkings' physical one, for instance. T.S. Eliot working as a bank clerk. Jonah in the whale (even metaphorically). These are great men, all. As was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but would he be the King we celebrate today were it not for the segregation he helped overthrow. Some characters are formed by adversity. Maybe we all are.
Anyway, Solzhenitsyn was born this day in 1918. He studied mathematics in school and learned to write through correspondence courses. But in the end, he had an important story to tell. Gulag Archipelago can be tough slogging at times, but we are grateful he wrote it. In its way, it is as necessary as 12 Years a Slave, a reality we don't like to think about but must if only to cherish our own hard-won freedom all the more. Below is a documentary on today's birthday laureate (who died in 2008 at the age of 89) from the Solzhenitsyn Center. If you want to know what courage looks like, this is it.
We're not really sure if this delightful and talented actor was born on this day in 1944 or 1949. She says the latter, but the Internet puts her at 69 today. It hardly matters.
Regardless of how long she’s been here, what we care about most is her wonderful contribution to our lives in such films as Tootsie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and of course, Young Frankenstein.
On December 21, 2006, she suffered a brain aneurysm, but through courage and hard work, she managed to free herself from the wheelchair and even made a film, Twins, in 2007, which she promoted on the Dave letterman Show in 2008.
Woody Allen used to berate himself for writing comedy (before he wrote all that dark, heavy stuff) because he felt it was insignificant. But there is a reason theaters display two masks side by side – one smiling, the other near tears. We need them both. If we are to read Gulag and revisit the horrors of slavery – if we are to face dark truths – then we need what Teri gave us too. Thank you so much, Teri, for coming to the planet and making us laugh. Here are a few very funny bloopers from the always hilarious Young Frankenstein.
Escaping the Unintended Life - with a Little Help from Willa Cather and Harry Chapin - Born This Day
You wake up one day, and suddenly you find yourself living somebody’s else’s life. You think back to how it started and realize that the events leading from then to now have been a seamless flow of things you did not want but agreed to anyway. For expedience. For money. For an ego-driven belief that seeming to be important in the eyes of others was, in fact, important.
Then you move to California, where no one from the past can get to you. Not easily anyway. In your spare time, you start reading books and listening to music with a free and questioning mind – so different from the have-to, must-get-a-good-grade mindset of high school and college. Instead of looking for the “smart” thing, you start looking for the true thing. You come across Willa Cather’s My Antonia, and you think, My God, how beautiful.
When you read up on her – because no one is born writing like that – you find out that she used to be a journalist too. That she reached a moment when she saw there was no point continuing to write in that way because there was so little truth in it. Her realization so like the one Matisse is known for, his so-called revelation in the post office, “Facts are not the truth.” And you think, “Well if she did it, maybe I can too.” You don’t know a thing about writing. Not really. Except the inverted pyramid and how to chase facts (history on the run) and get them out before your competitors do.
And then one day, the radio, tuned to an FM station, begins to play Harry Chapin’s “Taxi,” and you are so moved you think, I wish I could do that. You can’t play the guitar, and you don’t want to learn. It’s the story you care about. You’ve lived long enough by now to know what it feels like when the love you once believed in is transformed into some other illusion. Or possibly something nearer the truth.
Hard to say, but you know now that you must make some effort to get from where you are to where you were meant to be. To extricate yourself from the unintended life before it is too late.
When you finally get yourself moving toward who you really are, what you feel in your heart you were meant to do, you are so grateful for those who left tracks for you to follow. People like Willa Cather and Harry Chapin, born this day - she in 1873; he in 1942. There were lots of others, too. But not all of them were born on December 7th. So here are a couple of clips to celebrate the day and offer a small bit of thanks to each of them.
My Antonia - Film Intro with Neil Patrick Harris
My Antonia - Annotated eBook
Harry Chapin - Taxi, a Short Story Set to Music
Harry Chapin - A Better Place to Be
"At any given moment, you are either adding to the love in this world or subtracting from it." This is the philosophy shared by the wonderful Alexandra Franzen in her workshops and seminars. I am reminded of it now as I recall the life of Nelson Mandela and remember the birthdays of Dave Brubeck and photographer Alfred Eisenstadt.
About Mandela, it seems that nothing can be said here, which has not already been said by others. Only silence and reflection seem most appropriate. Any life that spans 95 years deserves at least this much. Even more so then the incomparable presence whose passing the world now mourns. The following portrait put together by Charlayne Hunter-Gault on the PBS News Hour provides a historical context for Mandela's life. It is particularly gratifying that Charlayne, a victim of American apartheid who became the first African-American woman to attend the University of Georgia, is the one telling the story here. She is herself a symbol of the universal struggle for freedom, though perhaps many by now have no idea what she went through in order to become the renowned journalist whose coverage of South Africa and other noteworthy events has kept us informed and enlightened over the years.
As I look at this clip and reflect on the universal outpouring of grief and love on the occasion of Mandela's passing, I am reminded that the man who went into prison for advocating violent opposition to apartheid was not the same man who left it many years later. A transformation occurred that bears some resemblance to Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces. This man's ego died so that the universal hero might inhabit him. His great accomplishments would not have been possible had that important spiritual event not occurred.
As we give thanks for Mandela's life, it seems a good idea to avoid "sacralization" of his identity, that process by which we put off this transformative process in ourselves by saying, "Oh, well of course he did it. He was Mandela. He was different." As Gandhi often pointed out, "I am just an average man. Anyone can do what I have done." Let us take this lesson with us as we move into our daily lives - adding to the love in the world and never, ever subtracting from it.
In the video clip below, you will see an old man with white hair sit down at the piano and play the renowned hit known as “Take Five.” The piece was composed by his lifelong friend and musical colleague, Paul Desmond, who died in 1977. The white-haired gentleman is Dave Brubeck (born this day in 1920) as he looked in 2007 at the age of 87. Listen to the piano solo in the song’s opening. Everything that can be said about Brubeck’s deep feeling for music, and for his friend, and for the great gifts their collaboration produced can be heard in this solo. For some reason, the microphone was not turned on for the saxophone during this performance, which seems annoying until you realize how appropriate it is. After Brubeck’s musical statement, there can only be Desmond’s response. Without the mike, the saxophone solo seems to come from a long way off, as far back as 1977 and beyond. If you know the piece, you can hear that saxophone the way Beethoven heard the late symphonies – in your heart and in your soul. But we are sentient beings, after all. Which is why I have included an audio version of the complete piece immediately following.
Born this day in 1898, this man's ability to sum up an entire history in a single, candid moment is unmatched. If you can spare nine minutes and fifty-six seconds, the following clip provides a nice introduction and/or reflection on his life and work. His camera of choice - the Leica. Ain't it great?
TAGS: Muses & Music; Famous Birthdays; Historical Moments, Figures & Events; Truth & Beauty
Andrew Stanton on How to Tell Great Stories; A Great Writer Who Never Heard of Him & Julianne Moore-All Born Today
If you want to write great stories, you could do much worse than listen to the advice of the Oscar winning creator of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and A Bug's Life at Pixar Animation Studios. Born this day in 1965, he is famous enough and his work loved enough that you don't need me to tell you details you can pick up elsewhere. But if you care about how he learned to tell these great stories, you will want to visit (or revisit) the phenomenal talk he gave at Ted.com in February of 2012. It's called "The Clues to a Great Story," and even if you have no intention of writing stories yourself, it's worth hanging out with Stanton for this talk because it's...well, a darn good story. Thanks so much to Ted.com for permission to share it here.
Flannery O'Connor once said she wished she could read all of Conrad - and then forget him. Because she knew that when she sat down to write her own stories, that great work would be inside unconsciously feeding her own work. You've heard the expression, "You are what you eat?" Well, O'Connor understood that "you write what you read," too.
Conrad was born in Poland on this day in 1857. This means he grew up speaking Polish. At 21, he got a job working as a deck hand on a British freighter. That's when he began to learn English. He learned it so well that he was able to write Lord Jim, The Nigger of the Narcissus, Typhoon, The Secret Agent, and perhaps his best known work, Heart of Darkness.
The great Nigerian novelist, critic and professor, Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart) felt Heart of Darkness could not be considered a great novel because of racist and dehumanizing descriptions of the indigenous people in the story. Others disagree, claiming that it is Conrad's characters and not the author himself who are racist. Let others debate this. We will note here only that Conrad left behind a legacy that influenced Hemingway, Faulkner, V.S. Naipal, Philip Roth, and D.H. Lawrence, to name but a few. Here's a clip from Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film restatement of Heart of Darkness, with Marlon Brando.
Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Chloe, Short Cuts - these are just a few of the films we've seen her in since the mid-1990's. To mark her 53rd birthday, here are clips from two of my favorites: The Hours and Vanya on 42nd Street.
Ann Patchett , Julie Harris, Georges Seurat & Maria Callas Give December 2nd a Good Name - Happy Birthday
Born this day in 1963, she is NOT the author of Bird by Bird, though Ann Patchett says she is sometimes mistaken for Anne Lamott at book signings. The reason people line up to see her is that she made them fall in love by turning out one beautiful novel after another. Best known for the prize-winning Bel Canto, she has also given us The Patron Saint of Liars, Run, State of Wonder, and (one of my favorites) The Magician's Assistant. It was just a few weeks ago on November 19th, that she spoke at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, where her warmth, intelligence and insights left no doubt as to why her fans wait for her latest book and line up outside bookstores for her autograph. Here she is in a YouTube reprise of that delightful event.
In her 87 years on the planet, this actor gave us many memorable performances, which have set the bar for any others who attempt roles she made her own. It is difficult to imagine anyone else in The Belle of Amherst, for instance. When I wonder what poet Emily Dickinson looked and sounded like, it's Harris who comes to mind. The year she spent studying theater at the Yale School of Drama served her well. She moved easily from Tony Award-winning performances on Broadway to film adaptations of the same material. Carson McCullers' A Member of the Wedding and The Last of Mrs. Lincoln come readily to mind. Nominated ten times for a Tony, she won five of them and received many other awards during her brilliant career. Here she is with James Dean in the screen adaptation of John Steinbeck's East of Eden.
Even if you've seen Sunday in the Park with George a zillion times or tacked posters of his pointillist paintings to your dorm-room wall, you will not be prepared for the way Seurat's work envelops you. It's a little like falling in love the way it happens one dot at a time until all of a sudden you're completely involved. If I could bear the winters, I would move to Illinois to be near the Chicago Art Institute for the pleasure of seeing his massive A Sunday on La Grande Jatte at least once a week. Here's one of those delightful 7-minute clips from SmartHistory with more. Thanks again to Drs. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker. By the way, Seurat was born this day in 1859.
Listen to the following recording of "Ave Maria," and you will understand why this soprano was known as La Divina (The Divine One). It is a matter of record that she gave up her career in opera after falling in love with shipping magnate Aristotle Onasis, who basically dumped her some time later for Jacqueline Kennedy, whom he eventually married. But that is not the record that will stand when we think of Callas, who would have turned 90 on this day. Thanks to the fine art of digital remastering, some of her best recordings are now accessible and can be fully appreciated on decent stereo equipment. My personal favorite is "Casta Diva" from Bellini's Norma. So what the heck - I've been on vacation for a few days - why not throw that in too. Enjoy!
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