Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Quote of the Day (Mary McCarthy, on a Man With a ‘Gift for Being His Own Sympathizer’)

“Hen has a remarkable gift, a gift for being his own sympathizer. It’s a rare asset; it could be useful to him in politics or religion….He's capable of commanding great loyalty, because he's unswervingly loyal to himself. I'm not being sarcastic. Very few of us have that. It’s a species of self-alienation. He’s loyal to himself, objectively, as if he were another person, with that feeling of sacrifice and blind obedience that we give to a leader or a cause.” —American novelist, critic, and political activist Mary McCarthy (1912-1989), The Groves of Academe (1952)

Monday, October 16, 2017

Video of the Day: George Harrison, ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie,’ From the ‘Bobfest’

At Madison Square Garden 25 years ago today, a galaxy of rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, country, and folk music stars gathered for what one of them, Neil Young, termed “The Bobfest”—a tribute to Bob Dylan on the 30th anniversary of his recording career.

While the most unusual performers might have been The Clancy Brothers, Tommy Makem, and Robbie O'Connell on  "When the Ship Comes In" (“Hello, you never thought you'd hear Dylan with an Irish accent, did you?” they joked) and the most ferocious one Neil Young on "All Along the Watchtower," my favorite was George Harrison, on “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” 

Sadly, this YouTube clip does not feature Chrissie Hynde’s ecstatic introduction of the “guitar hero” (“Let me give you a little clue: hallelujah, hare Krishna, yeah yeah yeah!”), because that was on his prior song at the show, “If Not for You.”

The ex-Beatle’s aversion to live performing had kept him off the stage for most of the last 18 years, and he had given what turned out to be his last full-length concert in the U.K. the prior spring, so it was natural that, even for a song he had recorded successfully yours ago like “If Not for You,” he might have played a big tentatively.

But “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” one of Dylan’s most humorous songs (“Well, anybody can be just like me, obviously/But then, now again, not too many can be like you, fortunately”), loosened Harrison up considerably, and I can swear he’s having fun with Dylan’s—how shall I say it?—distinctive emphases of words (“all these promises you left for me”). (Harrison, reputedly “the quiet Beatle,” may also have been the one with the slyest sense of humor.)

It’s easy to overlook “Absolutely Sweet Marie” on the teeming double-album Dylan masterpiece Blonde on Blonde, which made all the more welcome Harrison’s spotlight on the tune. It’s impossible not to get caught up in Harrison’s infectious appreciation of the tune. Certainly G.E. Smith, the musical director of the show, did, as he unleashed a fun guitar solo, trading licks with one of the rock ‘n’ roll masters of the instrument.

I’m not sure why Harrison wore this violet jacket during his appearance. If it was meant to attract attention, it was unnecessary. His terrific performance took care of that, with no other visual aids needed.

Quote of the Day (Stephen Leacock, on Advertising and Intelligence)

"Advertising may be described as the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it."—Canadian economist and humorist Stephen Leacock (1869-1944), The Garden of Folly (1924)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Quote of the Day (St. Paul, on Putting Into Practice Anything ‘Excellent or Praiseworthy’)

"Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”—St. Paul, Philippians 4:8-9 (New International Version)

(The image of St. Paul accompanying this post was painted by El Greco.)

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Quote of the Day (‘Dilbert’s Scott Adams, on What Always Strikes Him in NYC)

“No matter how many times I visit this great city [New York], I'm always struck by the same thing: a yellow taxi cab.”— Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams quoted in The Little Red Book of New York Wisdom, edited by Gregg Stebben and Jason Katzman (2011)

Thursday, October 12, 2017

This Day in Exploration History (Columbus Begins Fateful Contact Between Old and New Worlds)

Oct. 12, 1492—When he set foot in the Bahamas after two months across a largely unknown Atlantic Ocean, Christopher Columbus initiated the long-term contact with the natives that fundamentally altered both Europe and the “New World.”

Leave aside for a minute, if you can, and try to reframe that epochal meeting between Native Americans and the Genoese-born navigator in the service of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. This was not really a “discovery” of America: Not only had Scandinavian Leif Ericson come to the Western Hemisphere four centuries before (not to mention, if the Irish are to be believed, St. Brendan the Navigator even before that), but, as Washington Irving chuckled, the Indians never knew they were lost.

The word “exploration” comes closer to what happened, but it only takes into account one side involved in the event.

Instead, historians have come up with other phrases that fit: the “Columbian Encounter” or “Columbian Exchange”--the transatlantic movement and mingling of living organisms, with convulsive impacts on the people and landscapes of the New and Old Worlds.

When I was a schoolboy, Columbus was not seen as a harbinger of imperialism or a perpetrator of genocide. Instead, he was regarded, in his determination, willingness to risk all, and courage, as a forerunner of American patriotism. That link was made explicit in Joaquin Miller’s “Columbus,” written for the 400th anniversary of the sighting of San Salvador:

Then pale and worn, he kept his deck,
 And peered through darkness. Ah, that night
Of all dark nights! And then a speck --
 A light! a light! at last a light!
It grew, a starlit flag unfurled!
 It grew to be Time's burst of dawn.
He gained a world; he gave that world
 Its grandest lesson: "On! sail on!"

Perceptions of Columbus have changed markedly since I was a schoolboy. Back then, controversy swirled, after discovery of the “Vineland Map” detailing Ericson’s voyage, on whether the “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” could really be called the discoverer of America. Now, it is the very moral character of Columbus that is at issue. In enslaving inhabitants of the West Indies and forcibly converting them to Christianity, he introduced practices that haunted the Western Hemisphere for the next four centuries and let loose the even longer-lived virus of slavery.

More so than Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jefferson, and other figures who have sparked monumental (if you’ll pardon the pun) controversies, Columbus was the original Dead White European Male. As such, he’s been made to bear the weight of outrage over several centuries of atrocities, much of which cannot even be traced back to him with any elemental fairness.

There are three titles that illustrate our evolving understanding of Columbus:

*Admiral of the Ocean Sea, by Samuel Eliot Morison: Befitting the author’s penchant for retracing the voyages of his subjects, this 1942 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography is far more concerned with Columbus’ prowess as a mariner than his shortcomings as a human-rights violator. Perhaps this is unsurprising for someone who several years later, in his textbook co-written with Henry Steele Commager, The Growth of the American Republic, refers to a typical black slave as “Sambo.” Morison, then, could hardly be counted on as particularly sensitive toward nonwhites. But even he faulted Columbus as a colonial administrator out of his depth, and could not overlook "the monstrous expedient" that he perpetrated in enslaving the natives and bringing them to Spain as proof that he had indeed found something very different on his voyages.

*The Mysterious History of Columbus, by John Noble Wilford. This shorter bio, published nearly 50 years after Morison’s, took account of the revisionism that had occurred in the interim.  “The burden of the practices Columbus initiated or condoned weighs heavily on his reputation in history,'' Wilford stated bluntly. This is an especially acute examination of just how much responsibility (more than his admirers care to admit, less than his detractors charge) that the explorer bore for the Black Legend, Spain's ``burden of violence and destructive greed.''

* Seeds of Change, edited by Herman J. Viola and Carolyn Margolis. This beautifully illustrated companion to a Smithsonian exhibit 25 years ago examines the wider legacy of Columbus, with contributor essays focusing on five areas: sugar, maize, disease, the horse, and the potato. It also analyzes, in often painful detail, the destructive impact that Columbus’ ethnocentricism would have on whites’ relations with Native-Americans over the next few centuries. At the same time, Viola gives a succinct summary of why the explorer  cannot be forgotten by history:

``Columbus did more than force the cartographers of Europe to revise their maps of the Earth. His voyages of discovery were pivotal in world history. The Western Hemisphere was rapidly and profoundly transformed biologically and culturally by seeds of change--plants, animals and diseases--that were introduced, sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally, by Columbus and those who followed him.

``Eventually the processes of encounter and exchange that Columbus initiated affected the Old World as well, altering flora and fauna, reordering the ethnic composition of the countries, changing the diet and health of peoples everywhere. They continue to this day.``