French philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s essay on money wends around through the roots of weath and our complex and often contradictory relationship with it. Bruckner shows us personal and cultural attitudes about the value and danger of money. The section on gift-giving and Christmas reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Gifts essay.
Money implies, first of all, confidence…It is not only a unit of exchange and receptacle of value, but above all a barometer of our desires…To talk about money is always to talk about ourselves. p. 3
In France, one has to seem humble to avoid arousing the envy of the disadvantaged. In the United States, wealth is flaunted…In America, the taboo on sex is predominant, in France it is the taboo on money. These two countries, incarnate in a chemically pure state, would be diametrically opposed archetypes. p. 42
America is in danger of reliving, in the capitalist mode, Europe’s experience of feudalism, the financial barons being the new aristocrats, without manners or blue blood…the American educational and health-care systems, which are expensive and easily accessible only to the wealthiest, and the incestuous proximity of Wall Street to Congress and the White House constitute a scandal and an enigma. p. 70
Giving should be taught like table manners and politeness. A gift has nothing to do with its price; it consists entirely in the intention and beauty of the act of giving it. No matter how humble it may be, it is like an emissary from the giver and bears his imprint on it. p. 217
The genius of a great culture is primarily and above all the development of beauty, the feeling of an endless exuberance from which we cannot escape without suffering grave damage. That is the secret of a good life: Never run out of things to wonder at.
Just once I knew what life was for.
In Boston, quite suddenly, I understood;
walked there along the Charles River,
watched the lights copying themselves,
all neoned and strobe-hearted, opening
their mouths as wide as opera singers;
counted the stars, my little campaigners,
my scar daisies, and knew that I walked my love
on the night green side of it and cried
my heart to the eastbound cars and cried
my heart to the westbound cars and took
my truth across a small humped bridge
and hurried my truth, the charm of it, home
and hoarded these constants into morning
only to find them gone.
The same points of historical reference, and the same spirit of change and social evolution, return in variations in the museums and faces of Montreal. The Archeology and History museum is a place to hear those themes of native inhabitation, French fur trade activity, immigrant jostling, war and the aftermaths, industrial development, forward-looking optimism . The 1967 Expo and its exhibits of progress, international cooperation and change, still throw bright light on this progressive city.
The Museum of Fine Arts features two special shows. Revolution shows the new music, consumption patterns, social assumptions and humane ideas that blossomed in the late 60’s. There was Woodstock, The Beatles, Vietnam and the protests that followed from it, convenient and fast food, the age of television, etc. Montreal is still reacting to and recovering from the 60’s and the Expo that showcased so much of it there.
It’s probably past time for young people of North America to let their hair down again, and try to bring in the Age of Aquarius, with sympathy and love abounding.
Love is Love is an admission by Barak Obama in support of same-sex marriage and the title of the second special exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Installations at the Museum of Contemporary Art invite visitors to enter and explore Olafur Eliasson’s simple sensory playgrounds. Water, light, images, recorded and visual media, are offered in stark and dramatic interactive modules.
Just outside the front door of the Museum of Contemporary Art, the city made room for its annual jazz festival. Right in the urban center, music and happy crowds appeared.
I was surprised by the prairie and western feel of Montreal, connecting more with the great plains in the center of the continent than with American-urban-east, just to the south.
This borrowed lake,
still as a bored counselor,
barely returns a reaction
to my tone and twitch.
Green minnows of mind
rest in grooves of gold sand.
Opaque tails flutter, lips pop
leisurely, gills wave like red
threaded dragon wings.
Simple thoughts are small fish,
resting until, up they go,
like their train of bubbles,
rising to disappear in air.
My family spent a week in California, camping in a vintage Volkswagen. On two nights we searched past dark for a campground. We walked under the giant trees in the national parks, drove into Yosemite Valley on a bright morning, and stood at Glacier Point at sunset.
Planting a Sequoia by Dana Gioia
All afternoon my brothers and I have worked in the orchard,
Digging this hole, laying you into it, carefully packing the soil.
Rain blackened the horizon, but cold winds kept it over the Pacific,
And the sky above us stayed the dull gray
Of an old year coming to an end.
In Sicily a father plants a tree to celebrate his first son’s birth–
An olive or a fig tree–a sign that the earth has one more life to bear.
I would have done the same, proudly laying new stock into my father’s orchard,
A green sapling rising among the twisted apple boughs,
A promise of new fruit in other autumns.
But today we kneel in the cold planting you, our native giant,
Defying the practical custom of our fathers,
Wrapping in your roots a lock of hair, a piece of an infant’s birth cord,
All that remains above earth of a first-born son,
A few stray atoms brought back to the elements.
We will give you what we can — our labor and our soil,
Water drawn from the earth when the skies fail,
Nights scented with the ocean fog, days softened by the circuit of bees.
We plant you in the corner of the grove, bathed in western light,
A slender shoot against the sunset.
And when our family is no more, all of his unborn brothers dead,
Every niece and nephew scattered, the house torn down,
His mother’s beauty ashes in the air,
I want you to stand among strangers, all young and ephemeral to you,
Silently keeping the secret of your birth.
Reading this book will change the way you see trees. In folktales and childhood stories, sometimes trees are characters with personalities and relationships, not merely commodities for the mill. Wohlleben tells a story of science that enchants our giant neighbors again.
It turns out that as trees breathe, they communicate with each other, turn their arms to the rain, resist threats, and face danger together. Trees shelter their young, hold hands (sort of) and are faithful to fallen neighbors, feeding the stumps of missing friends with their own roots. Trees exhibit individual differences, adapt to the seasons and to local environments, share resources and protect their own kind.
This is another new nature book in which a scientist/naturalist presents her/his biology and chemistry results, from years of careful observation and sympathetic analysis, giving his subjects the gift of deep thought and imaginative narration. Wohlleben describes our neighbors, the trees, not as “other” but as fellow, related creatures of earth. In their apparent impassive stillness, trees alter our human sense of time and of the span of generations. They might even stun us, and quiet us, into a new kind of humility and wonder.
When we look back on our lives, it’s tempting to seek out paths, patterns, influential figures and standout moments of revelation…Something I’ve learned from literature is that trajectories appear only in retrospect. In the present all we see are the ordinary ups and downs of everyday affairs. p. 61
As I drove home that day, I figured most of the men hadn’t really been able to follow much of the text [Macbeth], but I wasn’t worried. When I’d first read the play myself, I remember being fascinated by the images conjured up b the strange words on the page. I had the feeling I was somehow reading through the language to the direct emotion beneath. p. 115
It’s pure 15th century spirit, Catholic Florentine faith on display in the special exhibit of Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) at the MFA. Centering myths and big faith narratives that wrapped around Botticelli’s world, and the lives of his patrons, were his themes. Augustine and Venus and Mary are featured in giant, gorgeous panels and canvasses.
One floor below Botticelli is a special show of Henri Matisse (1869-1954) in his studio. Here there are no myths or faith-stories to be seen, only chosen and picked-up pieces of ordinary life. We see his beautiful and quirky collection of objects–vases and vessels, faces and bodies, rearranged, and posed, so that the spirit of the shapes and colors interact and emerge in combination and contrast.
The Origin of the Species was published in 1859 and taken up by naturalists, social reformers and writers. The book was read and discussed with enthusiasm by the free-thinking transcendentalists in and around Concord, and it nearly blew Henry David Thoreau’s mind. Randall Fuller tells a good story of a big idea taking root in America.
For example, he shows how the book effected Louisa May Alcott.
…she was interested in Darwin’s work for the same reason the Concord transcendentalists were: because it provided a rigorous scientific argument that suggested that all people were linked by inheritance and destined for progressive improvement. These ideas are at the heart of Louisa’s abolitionist party. p. 123
Thoreau inhaled it.
…no American read the Origin of the Species with as much care and insight as Henry David Thoreau…Throughout the first week of February, he copied extracts from the Origin. Those notes…comprise six notebook pages in a nearly illegible scrawl. They tell the story of someone who must have read with hushed attention, someone attuned to every nuance and involution in the book. p. 136
The Sun This March
The exceeding brightness of this early sun
Makes me conceive how dark I have become,
And re-illumines things that used to turn
To gold in broadest blue, and be a part
Of a turning spirit in an earlier self.
That, too, returns from out the winter’s air,
Like an hallucination come to daze
The corner of the eye. Our element,
Cold is our element and winter’s air
Brings voices as of lions coming down.
Oh! Rabbi, rabbi, fend my soul for me
And true savant of the this dark nature be.
–Wallace Stevens 1879-1955
My review of Paul Mariani’s biography of Wallace Stevens is in the current issue of The Christian Century.