"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, August 5, 2017

‘Signore, Ascolta’–The Arts As Balm For The Ragged Modern Soul

Arthur Parsons was on his way to Dewey Beach to spend a weekend with his lover - a surprise at 65 when he had given up all hope of any further sexual liaisons.  A bad, predictable, operatic episode on daytime television – a young woman who is irresistibly attracted to an older man for his sophistication, irony, sexual patience, lined good looks and silver hair, and interest in her.

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An older man who cannot believe his luck to have a girl of 32  fall in love with him just at the moment when his wheels are going wobbly.

A September-May affair.  Common, predictable, a story as old as the hills; but yet and still a surprising rejuvenation, impossibly unlikely but as perfect as an unexpected Christmas present.

Mara had been reluctant to go on a long weekend with Arthur.  When all was said and done, and despite her love for him, he was an old man, disreputable for that fact alone but especially so because he signified money, a bought relationship, dependency, and shame.

They had never gone out together.  They both preferred afternoons alone in her Cleveland Park walkup – unnoticed, unbothered, removed from any conditions of propriety or right behavior, and given the limited time they had together (he was married) happy for six hours of lovemaking.

Their relationship had been a willing suspension of disbelief for both.  Neither could believe their good fortune and both knew it would end, made their trysts so much more intense.  Others were watching – his wife, her parents, their colleagues – and sooner rather than later the insistence of how-it-should-be would seep into the cracks and end it all.

They drank champagne, ate carry out, kept the blinds closed and the curtains pulled.  Twenty-four hours without daylight, no rising time, a perfect, uninterrupted interlude with no segments, no parcels or markers.

Which was why going to Dewey Beach was such an adventure. Tennessee Williams' Laura admitted her Gentleman Caller, left the glass menagerie, but retreated into a world which might have been falsely illuminated but was consoling at the very least, and would be hurt and certainly diminished for the rest of her life.  Mara was of no such fine, delicate, and sensitive spirit; but she knew that leaving her apartment with her aging lover might be a bad idea.

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Arthur took no particular pride in holding hands with Mara in Dewey, nor registering at the hotel, nor calling for room service, nor eating at Dewey’s only fine restaurant.  He was not smitten by Mara, nor proud of his ascribed sexual prowess, but riding a Mistral.  He was happy.  Happier than he had ever been; and happy because he had cheated (his wife, life, time) and gotten away with it.

And so it was that Mara and Arthur drove from Dewey Beach to Ocean City for a chance outing, an experiment, a risky, fun thing to do.

As they pulled out of Dewey onto the main thoroughfare, the traffic was congested.  Within five minutes they went from a quiet, clapboard preserve into something else.  Fast food, beach access, liquor stores, BBQs, Seven-Elevens, Exxon, Shell, and Sinclair.

It was not as though this was a surprise.  Rockville Pike and Rt. 1 had been tied up and commercial for decades.  Strip malls were as common as MacDonald’s and were in every US town over five-thousand. inhabitants

It was the contrast that was so befuddling.   The contrast between the intimate, closed, sealed, personal and sexual world of Dewey and the  cultural attack of Route 108.  It was unsettling and disturbing.  He felt anxious, fearful, and timid.

It was then that Arthur put Jessye Norman’s Signore, Ascolta into the CD drive.  With the first, sublime phrases of the aria, Route 108, eastern Maryland, and the censorious concerns of Greater Washington disappeared.

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The music was impossibly moving.  It baffled the noise of the street.  It transposed and resettled. It replaced every annoying, distracting, ragged bit of Eastern Maryland.

All of which is to say that the arts are more than intellectual pastimes.  They are unique, essential, and intimate.  There is no way to look at Francis Bacon’s distortions without reflecting on human nature; or view Anselm Kiefer’s panels without thinking about Revelations, extinction, or humanity.

Art is informative – no journal  can assess the cultural foundations of belief as El Greco, Picasso, or Caravaggio.  No tabloid image can possibly express Giotto’s faith or Rembrandt’s solemnity.
No factual chronicler of history can capture the zeitgeist of America like Dreiser, Dos Passos, Faulkner, McCullers ,Williams, Miller, or Ford.

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Jessye Norman may attract thousands of listeners at the Met but hundreds of thousands more listen to her as they are travelling between Dewey Beach and Ocean City.

One must be of right  mind for Jessye Norman – either totally distracted or purely sympathetic. Art can be purely intellectual or applied; but at its finest it is transformative. It can take a poor, disoriented, desirous, and romantic man like Arthur Parsons and make him a Shelley or Wordsworth – defensive perhaps, afraid of Route 108 and environs – but still hopeful, desirous, and susceptible.

There is no way to look ta the tableaux of Anselm Kiefer without reflections. Is  the end of the world imminent? Am I contributing to its demise? Am I an ineluctable part of the end of history? Or Francis Bacon – who ami I, really? Or Hopper – what am I?

How can anyone read Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or the Comedies of Shakespeare without wondering about the nature and purpose of marriage.  Or read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock without questioning individual meaning and legitimacy within society? Or Paradise Lost and not wonder about the Devil, Jesus Christ, and Christianity?

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Can anyone listen to The Rite Spring without questioning traditional wisdom; or not feel the irrepressible power of sexual expression?

The world is in fact divided as Plato suggested - the real world, and the world of ideals.  Mired, rooted in the latter, forever aspiring to the former.  A necessary  idealism of the masses, a conundrum for the rest.

The ‘arts’ – whether expressed by Jessye Norman, Aeschylus, Shakespeare, or Stravinsky – will always give a clue to human behavior; but more importantly suggest ways around it. For every expression of human behavior there is always a circumvention – marketing, public relations, smoke-and-mirrors –and there will always be a novel, play, tableau, or dance number to suggest its relevance.

Facts are overrated and overvalued. They offer nothing.  No clues about origins, purpose, and intent.  They never calm or orient.  They are fictions as much as deliberate fiction.

The arts with no presumption of fact or reality are ironically more real, for they address the meaning behind the action; the sense behind the presentation.

We say we rely on facts but cannot do without fiction, abstraction, and dissonance to make any sense and to figure out what's what.

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