Monday, April 29, 2013

Manhattan's Hills

Manhattan seems flat to casual visitors, and it is flat,  more or less.  The grid layout of the streets certainly reinforces this impression.  But those of us who live here and walk extensively through the city notice the hills, not like those of Boston and San Francisco, to be sure, but there are inclines that betray the presence of gentle hillsides.

When the first settlers arrived at the island’s southern end, there were hills beyond it; as they extended the settlement northward they razed down the rising terrain but they did not flattened all the hills totally, and some names stayed.  There is Lenox Hill in the area around 70th Street and Park Avenue, which I notice on my walk up from 1st Avenue to the Lenox Post Office, where I sometimes have to go to pick up packages.  Further up Park Avenue there is Carnegie Hill near 92nd Street where streets incline up noticeably from all directions; I’m made aware of it when I go to 92nd St. Y.  Murray Hill to the south, around 36th Street, makes a trip to the Morgan Library from the south an uphill climb.  San Juan Hill was where Lincoln Center stands now; Tenth Avenue is an incline up northward from 54th Street, and the crossstreets toward Hudson River is a very steep slope down, which I experience when I walk along CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice to get to its Gerald W. Lynch Theater.

In Upper Manhattan, the topography is more varied.  There is Morningside Heights, the site of the Columbia University, Hamilton Heights further up in West Harlem (with Sugar Hill to the east), and finally Washington Heights in the northern reaches of Manhattan, which marks the highest point of the island; I associate it with the Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters in it, and it is rugged. Finally, there is Marble Hill but it is today across the rerouted Harlem River. 

Rome has seven hills, and so does Manhattan, humbly.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

さつき - alazea

窓際の 小鉢のさつきも 花盛り
    日差しまぶしい アパートの春。

On the window sill,
     the little potted azalea
           is now in full bloom.
The sunshine is oh so bright --
     Spring’s come to the apartment.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Knowledge - 知識


Making a clear distinction between what one knows and does not know is knowledge.  Making an effort to know what one does not know is learning. Making a statement unknowingly about what one does not know as if one does is ignorance. Making a statement knowingly about what one does not know as if one knows is shamelessness.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Bongevity - 福寿

Living into old age is considered felicitous in all cultures. Life is precious and to have it cut short is no doubt a great misfortune, even though in long perspective one can not really be sure that is so.  There are those who die before 40 and accomplish much, while others live to 100 and leave behind little they can be proud of.  People are certainly living longer today than, say, a century ago.  To some extent modern medicine has been aiding longevity but too often for its own sake with tubes and various mechanical devices without regard for its quality.  What is really to be celebrated is a prolonged good life -- fukuju rather than mere chôju in Japanese or bongevity in my coinage, as distinct from longevity.

A happy long life or bongevity requires, first of all, good health, naturally, and a modestly comfortable fund to insure it.  But in my pursuit of bongevity, I also attend to these five disciplines: setting a clear purpose in living day by day, finding joy in the immediate world, avoiding unnecessary worries, exercising compassion, and surrounding myself with a circle of good friends.

To insure good health, one must be kind to one’s own body. This does not mean engaging in rigorous exercises, but developing a habit of simple diligence in doing anything, that is, making effort in everyday affairs where effort is called for, like walking, climbing up and down the stairs, keeping house, running errands and carrying stuff; strictly to be avoided are slacking and slouching.  Then, one must eat well, that is, choose simple but wholesome food and eat lightly and mindfully.  Physical well-being is to an extent promised by a comfortable finance, and this has to be planned long ahead; living frugally with minimal luxury and saving from early in one’s working years assure a comfortable asset in retirement, which in turn removes material worries in day-to-day living in old age; but the habit of saving also trains us to continue living thriftily, that is, simply but not parsimoniously.

Setting willfully a full agenda of satisfying activities day by day gives a focus and purpose in living and sharpens our awareness of our own good life in the making and provides an enormous source of happiness.  Living with a purpose and in contentment naturally disposes us to stop worrying where worrying is futile and helps us to observe more attentively every little thing that goes around us, and enjoy it. Through my life I trained myself to enjoy work as best as I can, and in retirement I am enjoying not working even more, doing what I like to do and doing little of what I don’t like, or else training myself to like doing what I cannot avoid doing even though it’s not what I prefer to do.  A happy disposition is an aura that often brings happiness to others but also makes one irresistibly generous and compassionate and makes us find gratification in giving.  One can be happy alone and I am not gregarious by nature; still, a circle of good friends, not acquaintances but true friends, is a huge solace, aside from a pet at home and, not to be underrated, ghosts from the past, that is to say, the wealth of happy memories. 

Misfortune could befall anyone at any place and any time.  But, so far, putting in practice what I preach, I find myself at 80 thoroughly fulfilled in the state of bongevity.

長生きをするのは何処の文化でもおめでたい事とされています。命は尊いもの,短い人生は確かにに不幸な事ですけど,長い目で見ると必ずしもそうとは云えないみたいです。40才前にこの世を去っても,偉大な業績を残す人もあれば,又100迄生きても特に誇らしいものなく一生を終える人もいます。一世紀前と比べて今近の一生はずっと長くなっています。これはある程度,近代の医学によるものですが、しばしば 器械や管を体に入れて 命を保つのみで,生き甲斐というものは考慮に入れてない場合が多い様です。本当に祝うべきは,生きる幸福感を長引かせる事でしょう。つまり,単なる長寿よりも福寿、英語には適当な言葉がありませんけど,私なりの新造語で,longevityに対してbongevityとでも云いましょうか。


健康を保つには,自分の体に親切である事,ただしこれは激しい運動に夢中になるのではなくて,何事をするにもまめに体を動かす習慣を養う事,つまり,徒歩,階段の上り下り, 家事、用足し,ものの持ち運び、といった、毎日の努力を必要とする仕事をするのに手を抜かないこと,なにより避けるべきは無精怠慢。それから、簡素なりとも健康な食べ物を選び,軽い食事を良く味わって楽しむ事。健康を得るには、ある程度の金融に頼らなければなりませんが,これには長期間の計画が必要です。職業に就いたら早くから,贅沢を避けつましい生活を保って貯金する事によって,引退後の財源を作り、老後の毎日の生活の不安を取り除く事になります。それに,倹約の習慣は,後々迄つましい生き方を養います。つましいというのは,簡素な事で,けちけちする事ではありません。

生活の目標を立てるというのは,日毎,  意図して充実した日程を立てる事、つまりその日に成し遂げる仕事を十分計画して実行する事で、そうすると,生き甲斐のある毎日が鋭く意識され、幸福感をもたらせる様になります。目的と満足感のある生活を得ると,自然、心配しても無駄な取り越し苦労が無意味になって,身の回りの世界を,仔細な事迄,深く観察する様になり,それが楽しくなるものです。私は,職についていた時から常に出来るだけ仕事を楽しむ様に努めて来ましたので,引退後は無職の状態をより増して楽しみ,やりたいことをやり、やりたくないことはやらないという訳です。幸福感の状態は他人に影響する香気の様なものがあり,それ故に寛大さ,同情の気持ちが強く働き,ひとに与える喜びとか満足感が出て来ます。私は元々, 社交的とは云えない方で,一人の生活でも満足ですけど,友人,単なる知り合いではなくて,本当の親しい友人、に囲まれている事は何よりの慰みです。飼っている動物もいいし,それに過去の亡霊,つまり多くの楽しい思い出も無視出来ません。


PS.  By coincidence, two weeks after writing this commentary, I encountered a quotation by one Philodemus, a disciple of Epicurus, who, summarizing the true principle of Epicurianism as simple living rather than life of indulgent luxury, wrote that it is impossible to live pleasurably “without living prudently and honourably and justly, and also without living courageously and temperately and magnanimously, and without making friends, and without being philanthropic.”
(Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, W. W. Norton, 2011, p. 77)

追記。偶然,この一文を書いて二週間のち、エピクロスの弟子、フィロデモスの引用に遭遇しましたが,エピクロスの快楽主義の真髄は、贅沢散漫ではなくて素朴な生活である事を論じて,「慎重な、そして公正、率直な,尊敬を得るような生き方をせずに、勇気,節制,鷹揚雅量にも欠け、又友人を持たず,慈善を施す事を知らずに過ごしては」快楽に満ちた一生は不可能なことである、と。(スティーヴン グリーンブラット著,一四一七年,その一冊がすべてを変えた,柏書房、2012)

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Kafka's Monkey

A solo performance this is, TFANA’s production, Kafka’s Monkey, now at Baryshnikov Arts Center, portraying one character, an ape trained to be a man addressing the Academy, but Kathryn Hunter’s tour-de-force is beyond description, in the range of emotional expression no less than in daring acrobatics and in mimetic persuasion. Seeing is believing.

A well regulated Militia

This is the opening phrase of the Second Amendment to our Constitution.  “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  In my naiveté, regarding law and politics, I question how essential is a Militia in modern metropolises and wonder why it is not more prominently, if at all, brought up in the current debate on gun control. See also Random Shooting and Violent Society.

The Play's the Thing, Really

Play is basically frivolous.  Children play.  We stop work and we play.  We are playing when we are not working. Those who fool around are playboys and playgirls.  Those who are idle play cards, games, and sports, or with each other, or just ducks and drakes.  One can play hooky, play fast and loose, play the field, or play havoc.  One goes to a theater to see a play by and large to be entertained; theater-going is generally understood to be a leisure activity, and enjoyment means freedom from seriousness.  Le roi s’amuse, et nous aussi.  I go to all kinds of performance -- opera, ballet, modern dance, concert, movies sometimes, and plays, these mostly Off-Broadway, rarely on Broadway.

Among the spectators in a theater, there are, of course, those who are serious about the plays they go to see: scholars, critics, playwrights, and directors and actors, for whom theater is a profession.  Asked what is the best thing about being an actor, Audrey Brisson, who recently portrayed the Girl in The Wild Bride at St. Ann’s Warehouse,  answered: We get to play for a living.  Play is play, work is work; but for professionals play is work. 

So, when I say that I go to theater almost every night, as I have been doing in New York since my retirement from college teaching (instead of carrying on research in my special field of art history), I give an unfortunate impression that I am wasting my life in debauchery. There is a bit more respectability if I spent most of my time in a concert hall; it would be decidedly respectable if I spent my retirement in a library reading novels.  Sitting in a theater is seemingly a passive activity, like being a couch potato away from home, in contrast to playing golf or tennis, or piano or kazoo, or even painting or throwing pots or puttering in the garden. 

I am serious in my theater-going, however. I go to see a play to study it -- critically and analytically, not very differently from what I did in my art history.  I read or re-read the play, if it is available in print, and prepare myself in advance for a fuller experience; I think, above all, how it might be staged and, after the play, how differently it might have been directed and performed. For this purpose, I take a seat near the stage, where suspension of disbelief is hampered by the proximity to the action, and, precisely for that reason, I can observe and scrutinize the staged play in the making. I take a particular pleasure seeing the actor and the role together. in one person. All plays I choose to go to see, good or bad or middling,therefore interest me.  They make me think. But since I don’t make a profession of my play-going, I remain a dilettante, the word that is sadly as misleading as the word ‘play.’ which suggests frivolity.  So, it is still hard to convey my seriousness even to my friends who, I am afraid, claim to understand but not really, unless I write reviews for publication, especially if I admit that, yes, I enjoy watching a play in a theater totally, precisely because I don’t make it into work.  So far as I am concerned, play is play, oh but it’s serious.

All through my life, I was hard put to make a categorical opposition between work and play, as though work is all onus and play all amusement -- a common presupposition.  I took my teaching and scholarly career seriously and worked hard on my job; but I tried to make sure that I enjoyed what I was doing.  As is true of any employment, mine, too, was not free of less pleasant aspects; but I learned to make the best of them to lighten their burden by finding some way of making them amusing.  During my working career, I made work into play, like old-style craftspeople who take pride in what they make and enjoy their work totally.  Playfulness made my life a happy one.  So, in my life of retirement, attending theater, play is my work which I turn into play. 

Indeed, to think of it, play-making, whether putting down on paper or putting on stage, requires in its germination a playful mind, unfettered by reason and, therefore, let open and free to doodle, even to run amok. Playfulness is where imagination is engaged and creativity nurtured.  This is, of course, true of all forms of art-making, as has been amply explained by Johan Huizinga in his book Homo Ludens, subtitled A Study of the Play-Element in Culture.  Art, visual, musical, theatrical, or literary is essentially playfulness in all its seriousness.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Jackie and Bhutto


Jackie, recently staged by the Women’s Project Theater, is a one-woman show that purported to be an impressionistic portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy/Onassis from inside out, that is, from her own personal self, an interesting proposition.  It was penned by the 2004 Nobel Prize winning writer Elfriede Jelinek.  Despite this prestige, the play was a disappointment.  It was a shimmering reflection that was more of blur under which Jackie’s person was barely revealed. Limiting my observation strictly to this work, I would say that Jelineck’s writing strains to naturalism with a jumble of colloquial language, a conceit without more than a sprinkle of humor, without irony, and certainly with no dramatic drive so that even at 80 minutes the play felt tirelessly repetitive.  The same day, in the evening, I went to Culture Project to see a portrait of another prominent woman dear to me: Shaheed: The Dream and Death of Benazir Bhutto, written and performed by Anna Khaja.  Rather than a self-portrayal, realized by a dangling series of monologues, Khaja’s was a clear cubist portrait composed of reminiscences by several observers, ranging from a professor to a pushcart vendor and students and journalists.  The scenes were welded tightly together with each scene containing a reference to another.  The author Khaja played all the eight characters including Benazir Butto (with a quick change from one to the next behind a latticework screen); she inhabited them with such conviction that even from the first row it was hard to believe it was one actor in all the roles, a tour-de-force reminiscent of Sarah Jones who played thirteen roles in Bridge and Tunnel, nine years ago, an anthropological portrait of multiethnic New York boroughs which addressed a larger cultural issues and therefore more dramatically satisfying rather than one individual, however complex a figure.