When I'm feeling stressed out, I head for nature. I found myself driving to Old Rag Mountain in Virginia's Shenandoah range this weekend.
I've done a few amazing hikes in this region: Mary's Rock, Catoctin, Hawksbill, Big Schloss, sometimes with others and sometimes alone. The challenging eight-mile Old Rag hike has been calling out to me for a while. I'm planning to leave Virginia this summer and head north (whether to Washington DC or New York City is still unknown), so I decided the time had come for me to meet Old Rag, an Appalachian mountain famous for "the scramble", a popular and slightly dangerous trail over giant rocks, into tunnels, across crevices, under ponderous overhangs. The scramble leads directly to a set of peaks marked by improbable boulders that you can stand on to get a 360 degree view.
New York City has "the ramble" -- the most beautiful section of Central Park, joining Bethesda Fountain to Strawberry Fields. But Virginia has "the scramble", and I suppose one reason I needed to climb Old Rag before leaving this state is that I couldn't bear to not complete the rhyme.
A nature walk is always a literary experience, if you just allow it to be. "There Is a Mountain" by Donovan happened to come on my shuffle mode as I drove towards the beginning of the trail, and that felt like a good omen. This upbeat 1960s song finds Donovan at his most Zen:
First there is a mountain,
Then there is no mountain
Then there is.
Indeed, yes -- story of my life, in fact. This 3-minute tune from the height of the 1960s hippie era had a second life in 1971: the Allman Brothers loved it so much that they transformed it into "Mountain Jam", a 34-minute Duane Allman/Dickey Betts masterpiece in which they never bothered to sing the words at all. Now that's Zen.
The scramble was as exciting as I had hoped, and much of the excitement came from the spirit of community that necessarily occurs as hikers saunter up together to each new obstacle or wedge or overhang or tunnel, sometimes comparing different ideas about the best way to traverse, helping each other by holding backpacks, swapping camera phones for selfies. Many of the passages between and under rocks offered brilliant contrasts of shade and light. This tunnel made me think of Plato's cave, and of a Leonard Cohen song:
There is a crack in everything
It's how the light gets in.
"Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit," Edward Abbey once said. Hell yeah, though this is a necessity that many human beings probably get very little of at all. This is one of the narrow passages leading to the peak:
I wasn't sure what to expect from Old Rag, but nobody had told me I would see a giant overhanging rock that looms like Moby Dick, gliding through the ocean:
Ralph Waldo Emerson, striking a chord also found in the Tao Te Ching, once wrote: "Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience." He also once said this: "I found when I had finished my new lecture that it was a very good house, only the architect had unfortunately omitted the stairs.” Rock-hewn staircases tend to suddenly appear on the Old Rag trail at the points where they are most needed.
Nature is often hurtful. At one point I encountered a young woman on the ground worrying over a sprained ankle, surrounded by a large group of friends trying to figure out what the hell to do. I had a feeling she was going to walk it off, and if she couldn't walk it off she had enough friends to handle the situation, so I knew it'd be okay for me to walk on.
There's hazard in the hills, and there is melancholy too. Here's Bill Bryson in A Walk in the Woods, an enjoyable Appalachian Trail travelogue:
And thus I was to be found, in the first week of June, standing on the banks of the Shenandoah again, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, blinking at a grey sky and trying to pretend with all my heart that this was where I wanted to be.
My favorite mountain novel is probably Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, a romantic Civil War tale in which the North Carolina Smokies blooms with the fresh joyful abundance that echoes the miraculous love between the story's two heroes. The main traveller in Cold Mountain is a fugitive from the Confederate Army. He spends a lot of time hiding out and running from trouble, and doesn't have the luxury to sit and enjoy peak vistas like this one:
Old Rag is more exciting than dangerous, really, and I saw many teenagers and families with small kids on the trail. This family enjoyed a picnic on the peak. That's the way to do it.
So "Mountain Jam" is my favorite mountain song and Cold Mountain is my favorite mountain novel. My favorite single mountain quotation comes from Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums. The narrator is following his expert climber friend Japhy Ryder up a forbidding Sierra Nevada trail. When they reach the main peak, the exhausted narrator only wants to bask in pleasure and relief, but is disconcerted to discover that there are now peaks upon the peaks, and that to truly reach the very, very top of this mountain requires the most treacherous final short climb of all.
The narrator of Dharma Bums is exhausted and decides to refrain from the final difficult scramble to the very peak. He watches Japhy Ryder go up without him, and then has an epiphany when Japhy Ryder returns:
Then suddenly everything was just like jazz: it happened in one insane second or so: I looked up and saw Japhy running down the mountain in huge twenty-foot leaps, running, leaping, landing with a great drive of his booted heels, bouncing five feet or so, running, then taking another long crazy yelling yodelaying sail down the sides of the world and in that flash I realized it’s impossible to fall off mountains you fool and with a yodel of my own I suddenly got up and began running down the mountain after him doing exactly the same huge leaps, the same fantastic runs and jumps, and in the space of about five minutes I’d guess Japhy Ryder and I (in my sneakers, driving the heels of my sneakers right into sand, rock, boulders, I didn’t care any more I was so anxious to get down out of there) came leaping and yelling like mountain goats … It was great. I took off my sneakers and poured out a couple of buckets of lava dust and said “Ah Japhy you taught me the final lesson of them all, you can’t fall off a mountain.”
The slightly ironic corollary to this great scene is that in fact you can fall off a mountain. But, well, you probably won't. I think that's what Jack Keroauc was trying to say.
You reach Old Rag's peak early in the circular hike, and then follow the blazes onward for a long and relaxing downward jaunt.
I learned about blazes when I was a kid and joined my father and stepmother and siblings on Appalachian Trail hikes. These blazes constitute their own language, but the funny thing is that even though I like looking at them, I never bothered to learn what the different variations of stripes mean. Sometimes there are two blazes together, which signifies something. Sometimes there's a blaze in the shape of an arrow, or a blaze that isn't blue.
I could easily look up this language's rules, but I never do. I find it more exciting to hike dumbly along, knowing that the meaning of every blaze on every trail is really something more primal and immediate: "You are on a path. You are following something. You are not nowhere".
As I figure out where I'm going next, this is all the direction I want, and all the direction I need.
A literary visit to Old Rag in the Shenandoah Mountains.
How is it possible that a fairly obscure literary metaphor would inspire so many different songs? What makes the idea of a ship of fools so relevant to modern songwriters, and how do each of their songs imagine the idea? I will examine each song in detail below in search of an answer.
As I mentioned in my previous blog post, the notion of a ship of fools can describe several different specific situations. In Plato's original analogy from The Republic, the people on the ship are fools because they have no seamanship skills, and yet are far out at sea in a boat they do not know how to operate. This metaphor corresponds to the situation in several of the songs below.
In Sebastian Brant's 1494 popular satire Ship of Fools, the fools are disreputable and untrustworthy characters, depicted literally as jesters or clowns who represent various influential clerics, judges and rulers of the era. The idea of a ship of fools that symbolizes a debased and corrupt world also corresponds to several of the songs below.
In Katherine Anne Porter's 1962 novel Ship of Fools and the 1965 movie that followed, various characters are unintentionally foolish. They do not take over the ship as in Plato's Republic, nor do they rudely debase the ship as in Brant's satire. Instead, they try their hardest to make good decisions. They are fools in the most existential sense: they try to navigate their lives with intelligence and wisdom, but cannot seem to sail in a straight line. That situation is also captured several of the songs below.
After originally discovering that I owned six songs called "Ship of Fools" by the Doors, Grateful Dead, John Cale, Bob Seger, World Party and Robert Plant, I began searching iTunes for more songs with the same title, and was blown away by the variety I found. I ended up spending ten bucks buying ten more songs, thus creating a playlist that I listened to for several weeks. Remarkably, this playlist sounded great. Indeed, the musical and thematic consistency between the 16 different songs I found called "Ship of Fools" almost indicates some kind of nearly supernatural synchronicity across the deep blue sea of lyrical and musical creativity.
Here are a few notes on each of the sixteen songs. They are listed here in rough order from my least to most favorite. Videos are included for my top five.
16. "Ship of Fools" by Van Der Graaf Generator
"Ship of Fools" by the 1970s prog-rock outfit Van Der Graaf Generator is an instrumental, so it's hard to divine any themes. The tone and tenor of the song morphs from moody to bright to murky, which may describe an experience on a journey with a ship of fools. But it's hard to tell exactly what the title is supposed to indicate, if anything at all.
15. "Ship of Fools" by the Scorpions
The ship of fools
Keeps on rollin' through a deadly storm
It won't take long 'till we collide
The Scorpions of 1980s hair-metal fame are from Germany, so it's too bad they didn't find a way to properly channel the spirit of their countryman Sebastian Brant. I like the Scorpions best songs (like "Rock You Like a Hurricane", which would be an uncomfortable weather situation for a hapless boat). But their "Ship of Fools" comes off a bit limp. The lyrics are trite and unremarkable, and even the band's patented screaming twin-guitar attack fails to save the song.
14. "Ship of Fools" by Soul Asylum
Ship of fools, drunken hearts
Making yet another new start
Ain't it hard to play that part
When you've got a drunken heart
"Ship of Fools" by Soul Asylum adds an interesting twist to the question above: are the fools on our ship stupid, or crazy, or corrupt? In Soul Asylum's song, they are simply drunk, which is actually another reasonable interpretation of the phrase "ship of fools". The proverbial vessel in this song might be a frat bus or a party limo. The passengers claim to be looking for love -- "fool's gold" -- but are unlikely to find it. The lyrical equation is intriguing, but the track's power-punk rhythm could be better, and as one of only two punk songs on this list, Soul Asylum's "Ship of Fools" suffers badly in comparison to the track by Fucked Up (see below).
13. "Ship of Fools" by Sarah Brightman
Sarah Brightman's "Ship of Fools" is about a bittersweet love affair. I don't really go for her brand of sleekly produced pop vocal, but I do appreciate the sincerity in her voice as she yearns:
I'll do anything to get to you
Because we're riding on a ship of fools.
12. "Ship of Fools" by Echo and the Bunnymen
I'm not really sure what to think of "Ship of Fools" by Echo and the Bunnymen, which is entirely concerned with a woman who treats the narrator badly as herald angels beckon in the background with dark foreboding:
All aboard! Ship of fools ...
It's interesting that the narrator of this song, unlike those of most on this list, is not already on a ship of fools, but only hears angels calling him to come aboard. It's unclear what will happen if he does or does not answer their call. Overall, there is something here, but I wish Echo and the Bunnymen had developed the nautical theme more completely. This is a prototypical 80s song (like the superior Erasure track below), but it delivers an unexceptional journey.
11. "Ship of Fools" by Ron Sexsmith
I've never heard of Rox Sexsmith before, though I am pleased to find that he sounds a bit like Ray Davies of the Kinks. It's not clear if his "Ship of Fools" represents a love affair or the whole damned world, but it is clear that he sees no exit ramp on this unsteady vessel:
We are all on the same boat, darling
On the same rough sea
We are all on the same boat, darling
The ship of fools at sea
10. "Ship of Fools" by Harry Manx and Kevin Breit
Harry Manx is apparently the inventor of his own musical instrument, which adds resonating sympathetic strings like those of a sitar to an acoustic guitar. The effect is only subtly audible in this unique folky number, but it does give the musical setting a pleasing kick, and I also like it that this song goes meta with its theme, informing us that the narrator is only singing about a ship of fools because he heard a song on the radio.
Heard a song on the radio, growing dark
About the hard times coming down today
On a Ship of Fools ...
We must wonder, which "Ship of Fools" did he hear on the radio? And does he have a "Ship of Fools" playlist too?
9. "Ship of Fools" by Erasure
"Ship of Fools" by Erasure is the most painful love song on this list, and the best example of the dark synthesizer-driven 1980s musical genre that was once called "mope rock". In this song's tragic story, the fact that we are all stuck on a boat filled with idiots turns out to be the only shred of commonality that two lonely and isolated souls can connect about:
Ooooh, do we not sail on a ship of fools?
Oooooh, why is life so fragile and so cruel?
8. "Ship of Fools" by the Doors
The Doors deliver an apocalyptic "Ship of Fools" in late 1969, following the summer of Woodstock, the Manson murders and Apollo 11. Given Jim Morrison's bent for Jungian symbology, it's not surprising that the Doors were the first rock band (as far as I can find) to record a song called "Ship of Fools". But it is surprising that Morrison equates he proverbial ship with the USA space program, which had just succeeded in its greatest journey before the band recorded the song:
Evil walks on the moon ...
Is the Apollo 11 moonshot the ship of fools? I'm not sure if that's what this song is saying or not. I have huge respect for Jim Morrison and the Doors, and the main reason I don't fully love their "Ship of Fools" is that I sense it as a wasted opportunity. They could have opened it up into a ten-minute epic like "The End" or "When The Music's Over", and this would have given Morrison time to fully explore the literary potential of this song's title. Maybe this would have also allowed the usually brilliant Ray Manzarek and Robby Kreiger to perk up their riffs.
7. "Ship of Fools" by Fucked Up
Fucked Up delivers "Ship of Fools" as a straight punk rave-up, and blow Soul Asylum's besotted "Ship of Fools" out of the water with their Clash/Ramones-driven energy. The lyrics are enigmatic and fascinating, though the actual story about the boat gets lost in all the Rimbaud-esque symbolism:
The speaker and the spoke
The axle and the wheel
The teller and the tale
The flower and the bee
The sword and the steel
The beast and the yoke
The fish and the sea
he prisoner and the jail
Sinking on the ship of fools
6. "Ship of Fools" by Flyleaf
I was not aware of the "Christian band" Flyleaf, but Kristen May's sweet soprano voice is even more pleasing (to my untrained ears) than that of the grand Sarah Brightman. I'm also pleased by the lyrics, which fully develop the nautical theme and don't shy away from biblical connotations:
See them sailing away, singing on a ship of fools
When they tried to build a heaven, they always use the devil’s tools
Adam and Eve, now they’re putting on their clothes
Because they can’t undress the secret to make another garden grow
The following are my five favorite songs called "Ship of Fools".
5. "Ship of Fools" by the Grateful Dead
"Ship of Fools" by the Grateful Dead is a sublime slow ballad, and the lyrics tell a story of anger and defiance. This narrator intends to sink the ship of fools, though he rides on it while plotting his mutiny. I don't know how the song's story ends, but I hope the narrator wins. This is lyricist Robert Hunter at his very best:
Went to see the captain, strangest I could find,
Laid my proposition down, laid it on the line.
I won't slave for beggar's pay, likewise gold and jewels,
But I would slave to learn the way to sink your ship of fools.
I'm a huge Deadhead, though strangely this has never been my very favorite gentle-toned highly lyrical Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter ballad (that would be "Black Peter" or "China Doll"). But this is a well-loved song, and for good reason. The Dead's "Ship of Fools" has been notably recorded by Elvis Costello.
4. "Ship of Fools" by Robert Plant
Like a werewolf who finds himself infected, Robert Plant doesn't know how he wound up on his "Ship of Fools", but he knows he's on the ship and feels very little hope of finding a way to get off.
I built this ship, it is my making
And furthermore my self-control I can't rely on anymore.
This song recalls the original passage in Plato's Republic: the ship is desire, and the storm is the turbulence inside the human mind. Plant calls out meekly to "turn this boat around", but there doesn't seem to be anybody at the captain's wheel.
3. "Ship of Fools" by John Cale
"Ship of Fools" from John Cale's 1974 album Fear is one of the most haunting and beautiful songs on my playlist. I've raved before on Litkicks about John Cale's stunning work with Lou Reed, and "Ship of Fools" brings out the same qualities I've raved about before: that lilting, elegant voice, those chiming clockwork rhythms, the mysterious and complex musical undercurrents.
Cale narrates this song in the voice of a rustic, a dumb provincial traveler. In this song, "fool" refers not to madness or stupidity but just to a lack of brightness, an emptiness of the spirit. All the passengers on this gloomy boat seem to be in dire need of some kind of spiritual awakening. The places and names in the song hint at some kind of spaghetti Western locale, but Dracula shows up in Memphis, and the overalltone of the song appears medieval, as if inspired directly by Sebastian Brant's 1494 book of verse.
2. "Ship of Fools" by World Party
"Ship of Fools" by World Party was a big hit on MTV and FM radio in 1987. I liked the song then and I like it now. The catchy lyrics always struck me as a protest against the prevailing conservatism of President Ronald Reagan's America and Margaret Thatcher's Great Britain -- a howl of rage against policies that were pitting wealthy against poor and increasing the powers of corporations against the rights of individuals:
Avarice and greed are gonna
drive you over the endless sea
They will leave you drifting in the shallows
or drowning in the oceans of history
Traveling the world
you're in search of no good
but I'm sure you'll build your Sodom
like you knew you would
Using all the good people
for your galley slaves
as you're little boat struggles
through the warning waves
Unlike John Cale's meek journeyman, who only leaves his gloomy ship to stumble ashore and find something to eat, the narrator of World Party's "Ship of Fools" hates being stuck on an infernal vessel bound for oblivion, and begs to be released. "Save me!" the singer yells. World Party's "Ship of Fools" seems most likely to have been inspired by the Heironymous Bosch painting on the top of this page.
1. "Ship of Fools" by Bob Seger
After listening for several weeks to 16 different songs called "Ship of Fools", it came time to choose my favorite song on the list. The decision I arrived at surprised me, because I've never been a huge Bob Seger fan. But I can't deny that this was the song that gave me the most pleasure whenever it came on.
Bob Seger's "Ship of Fools" is a deceptively simple guitar-strummin' ballad that appeared on Seger's breakthrough 1976 album "Night Moves". It features an achingly gorgeous vocal line sung by Seger with suave sensitivity and real conviction, especially as the story ends:
I alone ... survived the sinking.
This calls to mind Ishmael at the end of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which is not a bad connotation for a song called "Ship of Fools". It's interesting that Bob Seger's "Ship of Fools" is one of very few on this playlist in which the ship of fools actually goes down. (Another is the Grateful Dead's, and in several songs it's not clear what the hell is happening to the ship. Interestingly, the Ship of Fools does not sink in the books by Sebastian Brant or Katharine Anne Porter.)
Despite the Melville shout-out, Bob Seger clearly seems to have based his "Ship of Fools" on the 1965 movie. He indicates this with his opening line:
Tell me quick, said old McFee
What's this all have to do with me?
But i's funny that he hands this line to a person named McFee, since the character who speaks the words in the movie is Carl Glocken. It's a well-chosen line, though, since Glocken stands as a representative narrator -- an eternal passenger, ironic and philosophical -- for every possible idea of a ship of fools.
Glocken in Katharine Anne Porter's novel Ship of Fools is a small person with no wife or children or career, apparently supported by a wealthy family somewhere on dry land. He spends his lonely life going back and forth over the Atlantic ocean on cruise ships. It's how he finds an endless stream of new superficial friends with which to strike up fascinating conversations. Glocken has developed a tough skin and a keen sense of sarcasm after many voyages.
Glocken is often insulted for being small, and is always banished to the "misfits" table in the cruise ship dining room. In one of the movie's climactic scenes, a dignified German Jew finds himself banished from the Captain's table to the "misfits" table after a Nazi bigwig complains. All the misfits at this table eventually become friends with Glocken, who observes all their dramas and is the conscience of the film.
Michael Dunn was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Glocken, the character who inspired Bob Seger's song. This seems suitable, since Glocken's ironic and dread-filled attitude deftly ties Katherine Anne Porter's "Ship of Fools" back to Sebastian Brant's "Ship of Fools", and Plato's, especially when he faces the camera to speak to all of us. "What's this all got to do with me?" Glocken asks.
Indeed, what? Well, don't you know ... we're all stuck together on this ship of fools.
The image of the "Ship of Fools" has appeared in several books, a movie, and sixteen songs by artists like the Doors, Grateful Dead, John Cale, Robert Plant, Soul Asylum, Sarah Brightman, Bob Seger, the Scorpions, Echo and the Bunnymen ...
I stumbled upon our society's most fascinating enduring metaphor by chance. Clicking around on iTunes, I noticed that I owned six different songs called "Ship of Fools".
But these weren't six different versions of one song. "Ship of Fools" was not a classic cover song, like "Dancing in the Streets" or "Hallelujah". Rather, six different songs called "Ship of Fools" were written and performed between the 1960s and 1980s by the Doors, the Grateful Dead, John Cale, Bob Seger, World Party and Robert Plant.
Strangely, all six were good songs, which seemed to me as significant as the fact that all six had the same title. How often do six good songs show up in a row on a random playlist? What on earth, I wondered, was going on with this ship of fools? What was this meme about?
I knew that the concept of a ship of fools can be traced back to Book Six of Plato's Republic. Socrates and Adeimantus are discussing the different models by which a government can rule wisely, and Socrates offers this analogy to Adeimantus:
Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarreling with one another about the steering -- every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary.
They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain's senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores; thus, eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such a manner as might be expected of them. Him who is their partisan and cleverly kaids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain's hands into their own whether by force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not-the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer's art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling.
Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?
Socrates is suggesting that we cannot always listen to our mob mind when we make decisions as a community; we must discern our smarter instincts and repress our dumber ones. On a political level, Socrates appears to be suggesting that a simple democracy may descend to dysfunction and chaos. Indeed, one of the main ideas of The Republic is that a wise captain must guide the ship of fools.
Plato's analogy of a boat filled with stupid people (interestingly, no translation of The Republic actually includes the phrase "ship of fools") resembles the same philosopher's famous analogy of the cave, which appears in the same book. The cave-dwellers who cannot see the light are the fools on Plato's ship.
Socrates and Plato are pointing to something beyond the political here, though. We've mentioned before on this site that The Republic is a a work of psychology over all. The ship of fools that most concerns Socrates and Plato in The Republic is the clamor of stupid voices inside each of our own stormy minds. To thrive and live well, each human soul must appoint a wise captain for itself.
The metaphor of a ship filled with fools emerged anew in 1494 when a German theologian named Sebastian Brant wrote a popular book of verse called The Ship of Fools, known as Narrenschiff in German or Stultifera Navis in Latin. A satire on various aspects of contemporary society, the book was translated into several languages and was a gigantic hit all over north and central Europe.
Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools poked fun at judges, politicians, clerics, academics and merchants by satirizing them as characters on a small ship crowded with questionable characters. The "fools", who apparently like to wear comical pointed hats in various illustrations for the book, were understood at the time to correspond to well-known or influential people in European church, government, commerce or royalty. The fact that the book dared to confront powerful targets for their foolish or immoral ways probably explains its popularity with all levels of readers.
Like Erasmus's similarly-titled In Praise of Folly, Brant's book gave Gutenberg's newly invented printing machines a workout in the 16th century. A modified English language version by Alexander Barclay spread the book's popularity even further by adding new verses mocking British celebrities and archetypes of the era. Various editions of the book inspired artists like Albrecht Durer, whose woodcut images of a boat crowded with fools became popular on their own.
A famous painting by Heironymous Bosch (seen at the top of this page) is believed to have been inspired by the Durer woodcuts. Despite its once vast popularity, Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools is not often read or discussed today. The topical references make the satire hard to penetrate five centuries later, and it doesn't help that you need to know your classical Greek and Roman mythology to get many of the jokes. The archaic medieval language also provides a rough reading experience, yet it is possible to read and enjoy Brant's book, and often the meaning of a verse shines through:
We are full lade and yet forsoth I thynke
A thousand are behynde, whom we may not receyue
For if we do, our nauy clene shall synke
He oft all lesys that coueytes all to haue
From London Rockes Almyghty God vs saue
For if we there anker, outher bote or barge
There be so many that they vs wyll ouercharge.
Four and a half centuries later, Katherine Anne Porter set the great metaphor afloat again when she wrote a novel called Ship of Fools in 1962. Like Sebastian Brant's Narranschiff, Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools was a huge commercial success and a #1 bestseller.
This book took place on a German luxury cruiser heading across the Atlantic Ocean in the portentous 1930s, just as Hitler's Nazi Party was beginning to threaten the weak democracy of the Weimar Republic. This ship's passenger list includes both proud Jews and harumphing Nazis, along with various other unsettled souls, angry lovers, lonely has-beens, ruined businessmen, rebellious children, and one wise small person named Glocken who spends his life crossing the ocean back and forth, as if searching there for the home he's never found.
Katharine Anne Porter is said to have spent 30 years writing "Ship of Fools", basing it on the memory of a boat trip she took herself in 1931. The popular novel was transformed into a successful 1965 movie directed by Stanley Kramer and starring Vivien Leigh (in what would be her final performance), Jose Ferrer, Lee Marvin, Simone Signoret, George Segal and Oskar Werner.
Like Brant's book of verses, this movie doesn't appear to have wide currency today, but it was a big international blockbuster in its own time. One Spanish version was called El Barco De Los Locos.
The use of "locos" in this translation of the title raises a question, though. Is a ship of fools a ship filled with crazy people, or stupid people, or professional clowns? This particular title indicates a ship filled with crazy people, but that's only one of several possible interpretations of the phrase.
In Plato's original analogy from The Republic, the ship is filled with stupid people. These people may begin to act insane once the results of their stupid decisions begin to reap disaster, but the core of their problem is that they are too dumb to operate a ship.
However, the Ship of Fools described by Sebastian Brant and illustrated by Albrecht Durer appears to depict a ship filled with rude and disreputable characters who may be professional clowns.
These characters wear funny pointed hats like those worn by theater clowns or court jesters, who were also known as fools. Interestingly, the hats in Durer's "Ship of Fools" woodcuts resemble the hat worn by Max on his boat ride in Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Maurice Sendak knew his Albrecht Durer; maybe he was trying to suggest that being a fool on a ship can be fun, especially on a solo voyage.
As I pondered the enduring cultural significance of an ancient anecdote about a boat packed with dumb and/or crazy people, I ended up spending nearly ten bucks buying every song I could find on iTunes called "Ship of Fools". It turned out there were several more to find.
I still hadn't discovered even half of the artists who'd created distinct songs titled "Ship of Fools" -- Erasure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Sara Brightman, Ron Sexsmith, Flyleaf, Fucked Up, the Scorpions, Soul Asylum. I obsessively bought every one of these songs, and this act of faith paid off well when I found several gems in the playlist of sixteen songs I eventually created from this binge.
Here, for your enjoyment, is a detailed rundown and analysis of sixteen songs called "Ship of Fools", listed in order from my least favorite to my most favorite, with videos of what I consider the best five songs on the list: Sixteen Songs About A Ship of Fools.
From Plato's Republic to Sebastian Brant medieval satire to Katherine Anne Porter's bestselling novel, the idea that we are sailing on a ship of fools has intrigued many minds.
In about four months we're going to hear a few news blips about the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte's final defeat at Waterloo, which went down on June 18, 1815. It's a good guess that the tone of these news blips will be apathetic and comical, that few attempts will be made at serious understanding or insight.
The lack of public interest in Napoleon represents a great fall in reputation for the French leader who was for his entire adult life the most famous and important person in the world. His reputation was once so gigantic that he remained the most famous and important person in the world long after his death in 1821. His cult of personality outlived him, and "Napoleonic" wars and revolutions would roil Europe and the Americas for at least another 100 years.
Opinions about Napoleon during this long era of emerging nationalism and revolution verged towards extremes: his memory was worshipped in rock-star fashion by progressives and Romantics, and he was vilified as a near-Satanic destroyer of civilization by conservatives and traditionalists. Napoleon was most beloved among aspiring citizens of emerging nations who yearned for liberation from ancient regimes. He was most despised in the countries that were his military enemies, particularly England and Russia. Perhaps it's because his name provoked such an unbearable level of divisiveness that he was eventually passed into history not as an important figure at all, but as a buffoon, a cartoon, a subject of delusion, the punchline to a forgettable joke.
If I search back for my own early sense impressions of the name "Napoleon", I picture a cross-eyed guy in an insane asylum with a three-cornered hat, his hand tucked inside his shirt or strait jacket. This is not Napoleon himself, but rather somebody pretending to be him. The idea of a "Napoleon Delusion" has become such a popular meme that it merits a page on TV Tropes. An article at Straight Dope traces the idea that crazy people thought they were Napoleon to early mentions by William James and William De Morgan. It's worth asking: why would so many crazy people claim to be Napoleon Bonaparte? It seems to be a sign of his once-great renown, of the stunning power -- for good or evil -- his image once evoked.
To modern minds like mine, though, the image of a crazy person ranting as Napoleon has merged with the persona of the historical figure so completely that it becomes surprising to learn that Napoleon Bonaparte himself never went crazy at all -- -not even in his final years of lonely exile. He probably did rant from time to time, but no more than any other grand dictator ever did.
So why has Napoleon's name sunk so low that he is now only remembered as a joke? A world leader who was once widely hated and widely loved has been reduced to a silly cartoon, and today the silly cartoon is all we remember.
A "Napoleon" is also a dessert pastry, and "Waterloo" is a song by ABBA. This trivialization would certainly annoy the Emperor himself, and he would probably interpret the phenomenon as a sign that the anti-Napoleon propaganda of 19th Century England and Russia has dominated over the pro-Napoleon propaganda of France and its allies. Their propaganda was certainly immense in scale. For both England and Russia, Napoleon was the human incarnation of the bloody and anarchic French Revolution. The pitying and damning portrait of revolutionary Paris found in Charles Dickens's Tale of Two Cities shows the intensity of condemnation the mention of revolutionary France once evoked on the British isles.
Literature's cruelest blow to Napoleonic glory was Leo Tolstoy's masterpiece War and Peace, which captures the boastful Emperor at his peak of arrogance and folly. War and Peace was a great literary drubbing, but a sensitive reader should consider that the sublime mind of Leo Tolstoy did not choose easy targets. The fact that Tolstoy considered the grand image of Napoleon Bonaparte to be worth taking down in 1869, fifty years after Bonaparte's death, proves again how important the French Emperor's image remained, even in faraway Russia, throughout the turbulent century that followed his defeat.
The level of Napoleon's rock-star celebrity can blind us to the fact that it was not actually the individual human being but rather the political impulses this human being personified that were the main topic of discussion in 19th Century Europe. The fact that Napoleon may have been prideful or yearned for imperial glory shows a human failing, but one person's human flaws reveal far less about history than the phenomenon that so many millions of other people found this one person inspiring. To a stunning degree, they did.
As the incarnation of the French Revolution, as a personification of the ideals of Rousseau and Voltaire, the people of Europe sanctified Napoleon as the representative of modernism, progressivism, egalitarianism, universal suffrage, "people power". He was appreciated as a breath of fresh air on a stale continent: an anti-cleric, a philo-semite, a breaker of racial and religious and ethnic and economic boundaries.
Whether this persona accurately represented the faulty human being or not, it was the persona itself that stood as a symbolic model of pure concentrated change and made him a hero to generations of intellectuals and artists and scientists. He was the fount of heroism in the modern age, the engine of political dynamism in a world stuck in the past. Charles Dickens could not appreciate Napoleon, but Lord Byron was certainly following a Napoleonic calling when he joined a military mission to liberate Greece from the Ottoman Empire and died at Missolonghi in 1824, as close to a battlefield as he could get. And it's impossible to fully understand Nietzsche's notion of the "ubermensch" without considering that Napoleon had once been Europe's "ubermensch".
Though he damaged his reputation for radicalism once he declared himself an emperor and established his various relatives as hereditary rulers all over Europe, the ideologies perceived as Napoleonic formed a point of origination for various radical movements, most notably Karl Marx's Communism, which was understood in its own time to be built upon the structure of French revolutionary doctrine. Virtually every brand of nationalist or internationalist progressivism of the 19th century would evoke Napoleon's name one way or another, and many powerful leaders would go on to consciously emulate his pursuit of moral greatness through military conquest: Napoleon III in France, Bismarck in Prussia, Simon Bolivar in South America, Andrew Jackson and then Teddy Roosevelt in the USA. We many not naturally think of these distinct historical figures as consciously emulating Napoleon when we remember them today. But if we wish to understand these leaders in the contexts of their own times, we must recognize the shadows they stood in.
The era of glorious Napoleonic warfare began its ugly end in August 1914. The Great War began with Napoleonic fervor on all sides, but quickly descended into depressing and murderous stalemate. A sick new brand of militarism would dominate the 20th Century, with a new cast of characters whose cults of personality had sharper edges. Times had changed -- and yet even so, contemporary records indicate that when Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Winston Churchill, Charles DeGaulle, Douglas McArthur and George S. Patton looked in the mirror, they each saw Napoleon Bonaparte in the glass.
We often think of Communism and Fascism as opposites today, but Fascism emerged from the same Napoleonic fervor as Communism, now flavored with powerful appeals to racial separatism and ethnic hatred. It's no coincidence that both Communism and Fascism thrived in the German, Italian, Slavic and Russian lands that had hosted all of Napoleon's great battles.
It was only after the final tragedy of World War II ended that Europe's last Napoleons began to fade away. This was clearly good riddance all around, but it's a concerning fact that much of the intense intellectual ferment that the name of Napoleon once evoked has been lost to modern understanding, and replaced with cliches of broad comedy.
Our Napoleonic amnesia seems to represent some kind of short circuiting of our shared historical mind. We giggle with bored familiarity at the image of a person whose power of persuasion once shook the earth. It's a lazy way of avoiding the fact that we still don't understand how to process the legacy that impacted our world so much, and not so long ago.
Even in 2015, as ill-begotten notions of military nobility and glory continue to roil our world, the grand contradiction that ended at Waterloo 200 years ago seems still to hold us in its grip, though we still fail to understand it.
Napoleon is barely remembered today, except as a joke. But his influence over the disastrous wars and revolutionary movements of the 20th Century was immense.
GET RID OF MEANING. YOUR MIND IS A NIGHTMARE THAT HAS BEEN EATING YOU: NOW EAT YOUR MIND.
I saw Kathy Acker's name fly by in a tweet yesterday. Her name carries power for those who remember it. Alternative and transgressive literature blossoms in today's Internet-powered cultural scene, but there was a time (back when Ronald Reagan was President and a lot of things were lamer than they are today) when Kathy Acker was the only young punk writer in the world with any amount of fame. That was a lonely era for a serious indie voice of the streets, but Kathy Acker played her role with style and class.
She died of cancer in 1997, when she was only 50 years old and had a lot more writing to do. Looking back at her body of work today, it seems clear that empowerment was always her mission. Her literary role models were men -- William S. Burroughs, Charles Olsen, Jerome Rothenberg -- but her influence seems to be most strongly felt among woman writers who heard her call for empowerment via unapologetic self-expression. Her influence can be traced through many voices that have dared to be brash over the years, from Patti Smith, Mary Gaitskill, Tama Janowitz and Maggie Estep to JT Leroy, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Porochista Khakpour, Paula Bomer. Every one of these controversial writers must have had to dig deep within to find the confidence to write without fear. They may not have followed Kathy Acker's direction, but they did walk in her trail.
Acker may be best remembered for writing very frankly about painful topics like child rape and prostitution. But she was also a blazingly original theorist with a constant urge to liberate classic fiction/poetry texts from any sense of ownership, property or meaning. She called herself a "pirate" and freely spliced together texts belonging to other writers, acting decisively upon the impulse that would eventually find expression in David Shields' Reality Hunger. One example of a literary cut-up that did not get Kathy Acker into trouble was her novel Don Quixote, in which a terrified young woman lying on a bed in an abortion clinic transforms herself into the knight Don Quixote, and eventually selects a dog as her Sancho Panza. This book didn't get Kathy Acker into trouble because Miguel de Cervantes was long dead.
But she did get in trouble when she cut up a comically commercial sex scene from a Harold Robbins bestselling potboiler into her own transgressive novel, and her account of the agony she went through when Harold Robbins demanded an apology (and her own publisher refused to stand behind her) stands today as a vivid, pained document of the agony of a struggling writer drowning in a world of misunderstanding. This account, titled Dead Doll Humility, may be the most accessible thing she ever wrote. If somebody wants to read one thing by Kathy Acker, this piece would be a good choice. It begins in screaming caps:
IN ANY SOCIETY BASED ON CLASS, HUMILIATION IS A POLITICAL REALITY. HUMILIATION IS ONE METHOD BY WHICH POLITICAL POWER IS TRANSFORMED INTO SOCIAL OR PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS. THE PERSONAL INTERIORIZATION OF THE PRACTICE OF HUMILIATION IS CALLED 'HUMILITY'.
CAPITOL IS AN ARTIST WHO MAKES DOLLS. MAKES, DAMAGES, TRANSFORMS, SMASHES. ONE OF HER DOLLS IS A WRITER DOLL. THE WRITER DOLL ISN'T VERY LARGE AND IS ALL HAIR, HORSE MANE HAIR, RAT FUR, DIRTY HUMAN HAIR, PUSSY.
As the piece progresses, the author's voice becomes tentative and weak following the repeated application of public disapproval and apathy. Dead Doll Humility presents the losing struggle of a writer clinging desperately to the right to write, against all opposition:
Want to play. Be left alone to play. Want to be a sailor who journeys at every edge and even into the unknown. See strange sights, see. If I can't keep on seeing wonders, I'm in prison. Claustrophobia's sister to my worst nightmare: lobotomy, the total loss of perceptual power, of seeing new. If had to force language to be uni-directional, I'd be helping my own prison to be constructed.
There are enough prisons outside, outside language.
The Los Angeles Times article by Carolyn Kellogg that caused Kathy Acker's name to fly happily before my eyes yesterday offers some good news: a new book of letters between Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark called I'm Very into You: Correspondence 1995--1996 has just been published by Semiotext(e), which describes the correspondence as "a Plato's Symposium for the twenty-first century, but written for queers, transsexuals, nerds, and book geeks".
A Plato's Symposium for the twenty-first century is a tall order. But there's no doubt that our current epoch can use more Kathy Acker.
Kathy Acker's "Dead Doll Humility" presents the struggle of a writer to persevere against all opposition.
Twenty-five centuries ago, a Hindu scholar named Panini produced an analysis of the Sanskrit language so remarkable that later language theorists such as Ferdinand de Saussure would eventually cite it as the foundation of linguistics itself. Panini shows up in Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty, a new book by novelist and computer programmer Vikram Chandra, who describes the ancient scholar's achievement thus:
His objects of study were both the spoken language of his time, and the language of the Vedas, already a thousand years before him. He systemized both of these variations by formulating 3,976 rules that -- over eight chapters -- allow the generation of Sanskrit words and sentences from roots, which are in turn derived from phonemes and morphemes ...
The rules are of four types: (1) rules that function as definitions; (2) metarules -- that is, rules that apply to other rules; (3) headings -- rules that form the bases for other rules; and (4) operational rules. Some rules are universal while others are context sensitive; the sequence of rule application is clearly defined. Some rules can override others. Rules can call other rules, recursively. The application of one rule to a linguistic form can cause the application of other rule, which may in turn trigger other rules, until no more rules are applicable. The operational rules "carry out four basic types of operations on strings: replacement, affixation, augmentation, and compounding."
This is interesting on its own, but a reader who shares Vikram Chandra's familiarity with technology will probably notice how much fun Vikram Chandra is having here with words that have become standard computer programming jargon: "rules" and "metarules", "override", "recursion", "trigger", "operations on strings". The problems that concerned Panini as he read the Rig Veda in 400 BCE are apparently the same problems that concern software developers around the world today.
Geek Sublime is subtitled "The Beauty of Code, The Code of Beauty". I suspect this catchy subtitle was suggested by the publisher's marketing department, because it promises a much simpler equation than this unique work actually delivers. There's nothing very original about finding beauty in computer programs, which have aspired to be "elegant" since the days of FORTRAN and COBOL. Geek Sublime does touch upon the familiar topic of beauty in its first chapter, "Hello World!", but only as the starting point for a series of independent explorations that refuse to combine and intersect in predictable ways. I expected Geek Sublime to be an extroverted book, an accessible work of non-fiction, but in fact I'm now sure that Vikram Chandra wrote it with a novelist's mind, and even with a novelist's refusal to tie up loose ends.
Geek Sublime turns out to be a work of imagination and suggestion, a core dump of various ideas that have obsessed its author as he writes fiction and codes algorithms on the same keyboard. This is not a book that can be described by a flowchart, but it delivers something more worthwhile than a pat message: an invitation into the author's own peculiar ideas about language and logic as they manifest themselves in our everyday lives.
The topics Chandra touches upon here include:
The Soul of the Indian Programmer: In the early 1950s, India's government had the bright idea to start setting up the IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) system and importing mainframe computers for its fledgling computer scientists to learn on. This program was, obviously, a gigantic success, even though the soul of the Indian programmer remains mysterious to others, techie and non-techie alike. As a member of this global community, Chandra explains its contradictions, such as an alleged attitude of humility that masks a competitive intensity strangely invisible to outsiders. As an American-born techie who has often had the pleasure of being outnumbered by Desis in cubicle farms, I particularly enjoyed Chandra's point of view about the meaning of technology in the life of a modern Indian immigrant to America. I also enjoyed learning a few new words -- like jugaad, a creative workaround designed to solve a tough problem -- that I've never actually heard in any office, since the Indian programmers I work with (unlike Vikram Chandra) communicate with me exclusively in English. The richness of this vocabulary makes me wish they wouldn't always do so.
Gender and Ethnicity in the Workplace. Vikram Chandra recognizes the character of Raj in the TV comedy "The Big Bang Theory" all too well: an Indian "brain", awkward and unconfident, lacking the bull-headed masculinity of another techie stereotype: the superhero invincible programmer who can handle the toughest languages and debug the worst disasters with ease. This leads Chandra into a topic he has less first-hand knowledge of: the difficulties female programmers face in the overwhelmingly male world of software development.
This is a very relevant topic today, but like the book's subtitle it may have been grafted onto this book in an appeal for sales-worthy relevance, as Vikram Chandra really doesn't have anything new to add to this much-discussed controversy, except to point out that Indian programmers also sometimes struggle to fit into raucous American workplaces. These sections of the book are less successful than others also because Chandra seems to lack firsthand observation: while this novelist certainly is a real computer programmer, he does not appear to have held a full-time job in a technology department for a long time, and does not have his own stories to tell.
The Search for Elemental Roots of Language: modern programming languages are designed to be expressive and readable, which means they are abstracted by several layers from the actual physical instructions that are executed by the computer processor itself. These physical instructions are called "machine code" and are written in machine language, which is expressed in hexadecimal expressions that correlate to a more readable format known as "assembly code" written in assembly language.
In describing the work of the ancient linguist Panini, Chandra points out the traditional belief that Sanskrit words have roots in primal sounds that actually express the true nature of the universe. This is a lovely belief (of course, for all we know it may be true), especially when considered alongside the primal electronic structures known as logic gates, the tiny physical circuits that actually run machine code instructions on the processor chips that live deep inside each computer.
Like Chandra, I am also a longtime admirer of logic gates, and I can sense the novelist's true techie nature as he obsesses over the psychological metaphors these circuits provide, and when he provides photos of actual logic gates built with Lego blocks, movable by gears and dials.
The search for a physical corollary to language may be closer to Geek Sublime's elusive core than anything else. The book is much more about rootedness than about beauty -- though I guess "The Rootedness of Code, the Code of Rootedness" would not have worked as a subtitle.
This section unintentionally reveals how rapidly the field of software technology is changing, because the examples Chandra uses in this section would have made more sense twenty years ago than they do today. (Like me, Chandra became a computer programmer in the 1980s, though unlike me he was able to make enough money writing to stop coding full-time.) In the chapter titled "The Language of Logic" Chandra implies that C# programs are compiled into machine language instructions that run directly on a processor's circuits. While this might be true if he were writing in C++, a language that has stubbornly resisted virtualization, Vikram Chandra is actually simplifying a much more complex story here, since modern computer languages like C#, Java and PHP tend to run in virtual environments that sever the programmer's direction connection with the computer's physical circuitry. If a computer is like a film projector, it's a simple fact that C# and Java and PHP programmers do not get to ever create the film that runs on the spool. In the age of cloud computing and virtual machines, we are much farther away from the physical chip than we were twenty years ago when Chandra was actively hacking for a living.
Dhvani and Rasa: along with new Sanskrit words for various flavors of technological frustration and revelation, I'm happy to learn from Geek Sublime a new vocabulary for artistic expression. Dhvani and rasa appear to represent the full appreciation of the meaning of a work in both an objective and subjective sense, and that's as much as I can confidently explain about these fascinating words, which I did not know before I read Geek Sublime. I may need to read the book a second time -- or follow up on some of the Sanskrit texts it beguilingly teases -- before I can try to explain these terms better. Till then, though, I'm happy to have them in my toolkit, where they may find some use.
Like the fascinating vocabulary it presents, Geek Sublime is certainly a work of depth and serious purpose. It's not the trendy nonfiction book it pretends to be, which is why I suspect it may actually be a novelist's latest novel in disguise. It works well enough that I'm looking forward to checking out the author's earlier ones.
A novelist and computer programmer explores the intersection of the two worlds.
There are some days when only a very old poem will do. Sometimes a 2600-year-old poem. Here are a few selections from the Tao Te Ching, apropos of a hard day at work. -- Levi
The softest things of the world
Override the hardest things of the world
That which has no substance
Enters into that which has no openings
From this I know the benefits of unattached actions
The teaching without words
The benefits of actions without attachment
Are rarely matched in the world
Fame or the self, which is dearer?
The self or wealth, which is greater?
Gain or loss, which is more painful?
Thus excessive love must lead to great spending
Excessive hoarding must lead to heavy loss
Knowing contentment avoids disgrace
Knowing when to stop avoids danger
Thus one can endure indefinitely
Cease learning, no more worries
Respectful response and scornful response
How much is the difference?
Goodness and evil
How much do they differ?
What the people fear, I cannot be unafraid
So desolate! How limitless it is!
The people are excited
As if enjoying a great feast
As if climbing up to the terrace in spring
I alone am quiet and uninvolved
Like an infant not yet smiling
So weary, like having no place to return
The people all have surplus
While I alone seem lacking
I have the heart of a fool indeed – so ignorant!
Ordinary people are bright
I alone am muddled
Ordinary people are scrutinizing
I alone am obtuse
Such tranquility, like the ocean
Such high wind, as if without limits
The people all have goals
And I alone am stubborn and lowly
I alone am different from them
And value the nourishing mother
Those who wish to take the world and control it
I see that they cannot succeed
The world is a sacred instrument
One cannot control it
The one who controls it will fail
The one who grasps it will lose
Because all things:
Either lead or follow
Either blow hot or cold
Either have strength or weakness
Either have ownership or take by force
Therefore the sage:
Yield and remain whole
Bend and remain straight
Be low and become filled
Be worn out and become renewed
Have little and receive
Have much and be confused
Therefore the sages hold to the one as an example for the world
Without flaunting themselves – and so are seen clearly
Without presuming themselves – and so are distinguished
Without praising themselves – and so have merit
Without boasting about themselves – and so are lasting
Because they do not contend, the world cannot contend with them
What the ancients called "the one who yields and remains whole"
Were they speaking empty words?
Sincerity becoming whole, and returning to oneself
Five verses from the Tao Te Ching, apropos of a hard day at work.
As Mike Leigh's majestic new movie Mr. Turner begins, the famous British artist J. M. W. Turner's father buys pigments for his son in a dusty London shop. The vast psychedelic arrays of glass jars filled with powders of viridian, chrome, cobalt, barium and ultramarine seem as magical as Diagon Alley in Harry Potter or the Cheese Shop in Monty Python. The pure pleasure of this visual moment is a happy indication that Mike Leigh intends to luxuriate in the beauty of 19th Century England as joyously as he did in Topsy-Turvy, his previous biographical epic, and for Mike Leigh fans this is very good news.
It's a telling fact that as I settled in to watch a movie starring the great actor Timothy Spall as the influential British painter J. M. W. Turner, the artist I was mostly thinking about was Mike Leigh. He is one of my favorite living film directors, but he mostly turns out sensitive modest-budget films about regular people in contemporary settings (I wrote about one of these, Happy Go Lucky, last year). He is known for a low-key natural style, but when he delves into grand history (as he did in Topsy-Turvy, in which Gilbert and Sullivan debut The Mikado at the Savoy) he spares no expense on sets, costumes and period detail. I can think of no other historical film director who achieves such a convincing sensation of realism. When Mr. Turner strolls the riverfront at Margate, we can practically feel the refreshing spray on our cheeks.
But even when Mike Leigh delves into British history it's his emotional intensity that is really epic, and every Mike Leigh film will eventually (after much charming misdirection and improvisation) offer a clash and a resolution. Mr. Turner's affective axis turns on the gruff artist's impulsive and secretive love life. He cruelly manipulates and ignores several women, but eventually manages to find his home in a quiet arrangement with a sea salt's widow, played by Marion Bailey.
Like W. S. Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy, it's clear that the dyspeptic J. M. W. Turner craves the companionship of a loving woman, though he never manages to come to terms with the moral implications of a caring relationship. Turner the celebrity artist is far more confident with his adoring public than with any of the odd human beings he is forced to interact with, and it's impossible not to imagine that Mike Leigh must be painting a portrait of himself with this vision of a stumbling famous artist who lives for his visionary work, while somehow barely managing to survive his everyday life.
Mr. Turner features performances by several regulars in the Mike Leigh acting troupe, like Martin Savage, whose failed-artist character unfortunately doesn't have the dimensionality of his unforgettable George Grossmith in Topsy-Turvy, and Dorothy Atkinson, who played Jessie Bond in Topsy-Turvy and here nearly steals the show as a sickly and silent housekeeper who allows Turner to molest her whenever the impulse strikes. Timothy Spall is also a longtime member of the Mike Leigh troupe (though many film viewers will only recognize him as Peter Pettigrew in Harry Potter), and when he paints by violently stabbing his canvas with a thick brush in Mr. Turner he recalls the dumb London punk he played decades ago in Leigh's Life Is Sweet.
These fine actors appear here as tiny objects in a gigantic world: gorgeous skyscapes and mountain surfaces, railway apparitions, marine infinities. Mike Leigh the cinematic painter is certainly competing with J. M. W. Turner the oil painter in Mr. Turner, and since we're on Mike Leigh's home field he very nearly wins the battle.
I came to this film with no special interest in J. M. W. Turner's art. Like most people today, I am more familiar with the French Impressionists than their British predecessors, and I also find Turner's blues, grays, browns and yellows a difficult palette to love. (I learned in my post-viewing research that Turner's paintings were made with inferior crimsons that have badly faded, which may be why many modern art lovers like myself have trouble feeling as rapturous about Turner's paintings as did critics of his era like John Ruskin, who is portrayed in this film as an eager fanboy with a hilarious upper-class English drawl.)
Turner's paintings have faded, but Mike Leigh's film will certainly give his legacy new life. It occurred to me last year as I wrote about the American director Richard Linklater's remarkable Boyhood that Richard Linklater may be the closest thing the USA has to the genius of Mike Leigh, and I thought about Boyhood again as I watched Mr. Turner. Linklater and Leigh have a special quality in common: neither director is afraid to present a simply happy film.
Like Boyhood, Mr. Turner is a happy film not because it ignores tragedy and cruelty and pathos, but because it incorporates them into a stunning grand vision of redemption and love in an uncaring natural world.
Timothy Spall plays the artist J. M. W. Turner in a beautiful new film directed by Mike Leigh.
A strange kind of anxiety can occur when attending a concert by an artist like Bob Dylan. I was struck by a sense of this anxiety as I stepped into Constitution Hall in Washington DC last night. I began to worry that it would impact my enjoyment of the show.
This can happen. A few years ago I attended an amazing Ralph Stanley show in a smoky nightclub in Virginia. All night long, I felt so overwhelmed by the fact that I was sitting there staring at one of the very inventors of modern bluegrass style, the small craggy old man calmly shredding his banjo strings in front of my eyes, that I forgot to tap my feet.
I think of this sensation as a form of anxiety because it's a self-disturbance, an unwanted reaction. When I have the privilege to hear a musical genius in person, I want to simply sit there and enjoy the music. I want my brain to be quiet while the sound waves soak in. Instead, I sit there pondering the significance to musical history. This happened to me in an especially bad way in 2006 where I luckily found myself at the famous Jay-Z concert in New Jersey where Nas came out to end his beef with Jay, and to share the mic with him on "Dead Presidents".
I was already very pumped at this point in the show, especially since Jadakiss, Sheek Louch, P Diddy, T.I., Freeway, Young Jeezy and Kanye had already been on stage -- so when Nas showed up, what did I do? I pulled out my phone and texted Caryn, and since this was 2006 and I wasn’t very handy with texting yet, this ended up taking a while, which distracted me from living in the moment itself. (Caryn later told me that she never saw the text anyway, as she had already gone to sleep).
I knew it was unlikely that Bob Dylan would say anything spontaneous this evening, as his onstage demeanor tends to be opaque. He does not engage with audiences, and he does not strive to put on a crowd-pleasing show. As we all entered the hall -- people of all ages, and many parents with children -- I had a strong sense that this crowd would be expecting a sermon, or maybe a rendition of "The Death of Emmett Till".
Well, that's not how Bob Dylan runs his show, and I have seen him enough times now now that I always set my expectations at "whatever" before I walk in the door. Happily, he put on a wonderful show in Washington DC last night, exceeding expectations for both Caryn and myself.
He had selected a bunch of songs with a narrative thread vaguely about sweet love, tragic heartbreak and eventual peaceful reconciliation: "Things Have Changed", "She Belongs To Me", "Waiting For You", "Pay In Blood", "Love Sick", "High Water", "Spirit In The Water", "Scarlet Town". He changed the words to "Tangled Up In Blue" and "Simple Twist of Fate". He closed the show with a beautiful and melodic performance of a Frank Sinatra song, "Stay With Me", that seemed to hush the crowd with the same power as "Forever Young" or "To Make You Feel My Love".
Dylan plays with a crackerjack blues/country band including a standup bass, a pedal steel guitar, and a lot of hollow-body six-strings. His voice is in fine sandpaper-y form, and he even seemed to be attempting to dance at some points during the evening's second set.
The show was more rehearsed than the looser sets of recent years, which can be both good and bad. He's moved away from the jamband concept of rotating setlists, but in exchange is providing a coherent and meaningful arrangement of songs that actually tells a story.
"Workingman's Blues" and "Early Roman Kings" provided some of the heavy messages for the night, and a pre-closer encore of "Blowin' In The Wind" was the closest thing we had at Constitution Hall for the Ferguson, Missouri moment of recognition many of us in the audience frankly felt we needed. I'm glad Bob Dylan played that song.
This was my fifteenth Bob Dylan concert, and easily one of the very best. I do recommend his shows to others, even though I am cautious about this after having heard from many people (including several close friends and family members) who saw Bob Dylan in concert and absolutely hated it. You have to show up for a Bob Dylan concert with an open mind, and it helps if you can sit and simply enjoy some hard-hitting country jamming and blues shoutin', because that's the main thing a Bob Dylan concert delivers.
Bob Dylan has matured very well, and in his later years he seems to be affecting a gentle, Hank Williams-like affability on stage, even as his bitter lyrics to songs like "High Water" and "Scarlet Town" undercut the sincere smile. The more he manages to escape the anxiety of influence, the prison of expectation, the better a performer Bob Dylan seems to become.
Why do we come to Bob Dylan concerts so overladen with expectation, only to allow it to interfere with our enjoyment? Well, I think it’s because Dylan’s historical significance really is that impressive that we can’t help but be disappointed when he shows up as a mere human. We don’t want to be this close to genius. If any of us were to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we’d be happy to look at an exhibit of Bob Dylan’s boots inside a glass case. But when you go to a Bob Dylan concert in 2014, you are standing there looking at Bob Dylan’s boots, and Bob Dylan is in them. Sometimes that’s too much Bob Dylan.
If you only know the (great) movie version of Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone With The Wind, you might think Atlanta was burned in a day. But a city as big as Atlanta can't be burned down that easily. It took General Sherman's army nearly three months, from September 1864 to November, to reduce the entire city and railroad center to ashes. The first of the three months was exactly 150 years ago.
150 years ago: the conflagration blazes around us. Of course, the clever journalist turned fiction writer Margaret Mitchell was not there for the original burning. It would take several generations before the young lady began typing her manuscript from a quaint room on Peachtree Street, imagining Scarlett O'Hara moving in to Aunt Pittypat's house on the same uptown corner.
Margaret Mitchell researched her book well, and her skill for brisk and vivid description made her telling of Atlanta's agonizing fall the one that stuck. Here is a passage from Margaret Mitchell's masterwork, her one and only book, the epic poem of the Confederate South.
Note: I tried to select a brief sequence of the burning of Atlanta from Gone With The Wind, but prose this elegant must be allowed to breathe, so here's a long section. Here we find Scarlett O'Hara and her refugee friends hearing the news from the city they'd just fled.
The Confederates, he told them, had retaken Atlanta after Sherman marched out, but it was a valueless prize as Sherman had burned it completely.
"But I thought Atlanta burned the night I left," cried Scarlett, bewildered. "I thought our boys burned it!"
"Oh, no, Miss Scarlett!" cried Frank, shocked. "We'd never burn one of our own towns with our own folks in it! What you saw burning was the warehouses and the supplies we didn't want the Yankees to capture and the foundries and the ammunition. But that was all. When Sherman took the town the houses and stores were standing there as pretty as you please. And he quartered his men
"But what happened to the people? Did he--did he kill them?"
"He killed some--but not with bullets," said the one-eyed soldier grimly. "Soon's he marched into Atlanta he told the mayor that all the people in town would have to move out, every living soul. And there were plenty of old folks that couldn't stand the trip and sick folks that ought not to have been moved and ladies who were -- well, ladies who hadn't ought to be moved either. And he moved them out in the biggest rainstorm you ever saw, hundreds and hundreds of them, and dumped them in the woods near Rough and Ready and sent word to General Hood to come and get them. And a plenty of the folks died of pneumonia and not being able to stand that sort of treatment."
"Oh, but why did he do that? They couldn't have done him any harm," cried Melanie.
"He said he wanted the town to rest his men and horses in," said Frank. "And he rested them there till the middle of November and then he lit out. And he set fire to the whole town when he left and burned everything."
"Oh, surely not everything!" cried the girls in dismay.
It was inconceivable that the bustling town they knew, so full of people, so crowded with soldiers, was gone. All the lovely homes beneath shady trees, all the big stores and the fine hotels -- surely they couldn't be gone! Melanie seemed ready to burst into tears, for she had been born there and knew no other home. Scarlett's heart sank because she had come to love the place second only to Tara.
"Well, almost everything," Frank amended hastily, disturbed by the expressions on their faces. He tried to look cheerful, for he did not believe in upsetting ladies. Upset ladies always upset him and made him feel helpless. He could not bring himself to tell them the worst. Let them find out from some one else.
He could not tell them what the army saw when it marched back into Atlanta, the acres and acres of chimneys standing blackly above ashes, piles of half-burned rubbish and tumbled heaps of brick clogging the streets, old trees dying from fire, their charred limbs tumbling to the ground in the cold wind. He remembered how the sight had turned him sick, remembered the bitter curses of the Confederates when they saw the remains of the town. He hoped the ladies would never hear of the horrors of the looted cemetery, for they'd never get over that. Charlie Hamilton and Melanie's mother and father were buried there. The sight of that cemetery still gave Frank nightmares. Hoping to find jewelry buried with the dead, the Yankee soldiers had broken open vaults, dug up graves. They had robbed the bodies, stripped from the coffins gold and silver name plates, silver trimmings and silver handles. The skeletons and corpses, flung helterskelter among their splintered caskets, lay exposed and so pitiful.
And Frank couldn't tell them about the dogs and the cats. Ladies set such a store by pets. But the thousands of starving animals, left homeless when their masters had been so rudely evacuated, had shocked him almost as much as the cemetery, for Frank loved cats and dogs. The animals had been frightened, cold, ravenous, wild as forest creatures, the strong attacking the weak, the weak waiting for the weaker to die so they could eat them. And, above the ruined town, the buzzards splotched the wintry sky with graceful, sinister bodies.
Frank cast about in his mind for some mitigating information that would make the ladies feel better.
"There's some houses still standing," he said, "houses that set on big lots away from other houses and didn't catch fire. And the churches and the Masonic hall are left. And a few stores too. But the business section and all along the railroad tracks and at Five Points--well, ladies, that part of town is flat on the ground."
"Then," cried Scarlett bitterly, "that warehouse Charlie left me, down on the tracks, it's gone too?"
"If it was near the tracks, it's gone, but--" Suddenly he smiled. Why hadn't he thought of it before? "Cheer up, ladies! Your Aunt Pitty's house is still standing. It's kind of damaged but there it is ..."
There it is, indeed. We often think of Gone With The Wind as a story about a young girl with a crush, but it was also the story of a mature woman who became a powerful businesswoman and a proud rulebreaker in post-Civil War Atlanta. Margaret Mitchell based Scarlett O'Hara on herself, and indeed both of them had the knack for rising up from ashes, and inspiring others to do the same.
I have spent 2014 working on an website project for a federal health agency based in Atlanta, and I had an opportunity to spend a week in this glimmering city earlier this year. I visited Margaret Mitchell's simple apartment house on Peachtree Street. I also tried to visit some Civil War battlefields, but I discovered to my dismay that Atlanta doesn't like to remember the Civil War very much. Battle memorials for this city are few and far between.
This conforms to a general principle of battlefield preservation that I've observed: if the region that owns the battlefield is proud of the battle, there will be a great battlefield park. This explains Gettsyburg, Antietam, Manassas, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, Shiloh and Chickamauga.
But Atlanta doesn't like its battlefields, and hasn't done much to honor them. There's a small Civil War museum east of the city, near one of many spots where the Confederates entrenched around the city in the summer of 1864 in a hopeless attempt to hold Sherman's army back. There are occasional reenactments of the major battles that took place around these entrenchments: Peachtree Creek, East Atlanta, Jonesborough, Ezra Church.
But there's not a battlefield park to be found. The locations at Peachtree Creek, East Atlanta, Jonesborough and Ezra Church are completely paved over, developed into houses and golf courses and shopping centers, unknown and forgotten.
Atlanta wasn't kidding around when it obliterated its battlefields. They actually built a highway cloverleaf directly on top of Bald Hill, the site of the shooting of Union General James McPherson. This was one of the most climactic and dramatic moments of the battle for Atlanta. Here's a picture of the spot today.
No respect at all! This only proves how deeply painful and offensive it must have been for the people of Georgia to see their brightest city destroyed with such enthusiasm by invading enemies. The lack of public recognition for the traumas of 1864 indicates a need for healing that has still never taken place.
This is another reason we can all treasure Gone With The Wind: Margaret Mitchell's novel turned out to be the war memorial that the city could not create for itself.
A dull highway cloverleaf decorates an honored but forgotten battlefield in the proud Southern city that burned 150 years ago.