Monday, August 26, 2013

“Ten thousand brazen voices”

And if you would receive an impression from the old city which the modern one can never give you, climb, some holiday morning, say at sunrise on Easter or Whitsunday, —climb to some high point whence you overlook the whole town, and listen to the call of the chimes.

See, at a signal from the sky, — for it is the sun that gives it, —those countless churches quiver simultaneously. At first a scattered tolling passes from church to church, as when musicians give notice that they are about to begin. Then, all at once, see, —for at certain moments it seems as if the ear had also its vision, —see as it were a column of sound, a vapour of harmony rise at one and the same moment from every tower. At first the vibrations of each bell ascend straight, pure, and as it were apart from the rest, into the clear morning sky ; then, little by little, as they increase, they melt into one another, are blended, united, and combined into one magnificent harmony. It ceases to be anything but a mass of sonorous vibrations incessantly set loose from countless spires, floating, undulating, bounding, whirling over the city, and prolonging the deafening circle of its oscillations far beyond the horizon.

Yet that sea of harmonies is not a chaos. Deep and wide as it may be, it has not lost its transparency ; you may see each group of notes, as it escapes from the several chimes of bells, take its own meandering course. You may follow the dialogue, by turns solemn and shrill, between the small bell and the big bell ; you may see the octaves bound from spire to spire ; you watch them spring winged, light, and sibilant from the silver bell, fall maimed and halting from the wooden bell ; you admire in their midst the rich gamut perpetually running up and down the seven bells of Saint-Eustache ; you behold quick, clear notes dart through the whole in three or four luminous zig-zags, and then vanish like lightning flashes. Yonder is the Abbey of Saint-Martin, shrill and cracked of voice ; here is the surly, ominous voice of the Bastille ; at the other end the great tower of the Louvre, with its counter- tenor. The royal peal of the Palace flings resplendent trills on every hand, without a pause ; and upon them fall at regular intervals dull strokes from the belfry of Notre-Dame, which strike sparks from them as the hammer from the anvil. At intervals you see passing tones of every form, coming from the triple peal of Saint-Germain des Pres. Then again, from time to time this mass of sublime sounds half opens and makes way for the stretto of the Ave-Maria, which twinkles and flashes like a starry plume. Below, in the very heart of the harmony, you vaguely catch the inner music of the churches as it escapes through the vibrating pores of their vaulted roofs. Certainly, this is an opera worth hearing.

Usually, the noise which rises up from Paris by day is the talking of the city ; by night, it is the breathing of the city ; but this, this is the singing of the city. Hearken then to this tutti of the steeples ; over all diffuse the murmur of half a million men, the never-ending murmur of the river, the endless sighing of the wind, the grave and distant quartet of the four forests ranged upon the hills in the horizon like huge organ- cases ; drown, as in a demi-tint, all that would otherwise be too harsh and shrill in the central chime, —and then say if you know of anything on earth richer, more joyous, more mellow, more enchanting than this tumult of bells and chimes ; than this furnace of music ; than these ten thousand brazen voices singing together through stone flutes three hundred feet in length ; than this city which is but an orchestra ; than this symphony which roars like a tempest

—Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame de Paris, 1831

Monday, August 19, 2013

“A Sentiment … to Keep Dark About”

Last evening one of our neighbors, who has just completed a costly house and front yard, the most showy in the village, illuminated in honor of the Atlantic telegraph. I read in great letters before the house the sentence “Glory to God in the highest.” But it seemed to me that that was not a sentiment to be illuminated, but to keep dark about. A simple and genuine sentiment of reverence would not emblazon these words as on a signboard in the streets. They were exploding countless crackers beneath it, and gay company, passing in and out, made it a kind of housewarming. I felt a kind of shame for [it], and was inclined to pass quickly by, the ideas of indecent exposure and cant being suggested. What is religion? That which is never spoken.

—From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), August 18, 1858.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

“Vestal fire”

“May I love and revere myself above all the gods that men have ever invented. May I never let the vestal fire go out in my recesses.”

—From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), August 15, 1851.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Atomics for the Millions

In a recent article in the New York Times about Maurice Sendak’s art, there was mention of his first illustrated work, “Atomics for the Millions,” which he created at the age of 18. The story is here, along with a few illustrations:

Here’s a link to the New York Times item:

If you search “atomics for the millions” in google images, you will see many more images from the book – they are delightful. They are probably protected by copyright, so I won’t include any here, but do go and look at them.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Cotton Candy

This essay in today’s New York Times caught my eye:

It’s the latest essay in a series from an anthropologist who writes about religion. As I read, I became increasingly irritated. I posted this comment:

As a writer interested in matters of religion and culture, I’ve read each essay in this series hoping for objective discussion from an informed academic perspective, but time after time the author presents an apologia for religion, with an underlying assumption that religious belief is a rational and constructive condition.

The essays themselves are bits of fluff, without substance. In today's essay, for example, we have an anecdote, which prompts the author to recall another anecdote, followed by speculation and assumption, which is propped up by a comparison to someone else’s tangentially-related research, followed by another assumption. She balances her weighty thesis on two uneven anecdotes.

The title promises a thoughtful essay about addiction. But the concept of “addiction” is mentioned only twice, and anecdotally, at that. In the first case, the author merely observes that “people…engrossed with prayer …seemed almost addicted.” The second instance is from an anecdote, wherein a woman says, “It’s like we’re addicted.” The author does not introduce findings of any research -- by herself or by others -- to show why or how "seems" "almost" and "like" might be representative of a larger trend.

If I subscribed to the print edition of the New York Times rather than the digital edition, I’d be tempted to write a letter to the editor pleading that valuable space not be wasted on this series. Instead, I suggest that the series would benefit from more rigorous editorial review.
Though writers are responsible for their own writing, the editorial staff bears responsibility for what is published. A good editor would have questioned the author: “What’s your point? Can you offer more than two anecdotes and your own assumptions? What will your readers take away from this essay, other than annoyance that they wasted three minutes of their time?”

This essay was like cotton candy: Fluffly, sickly sweet, and without nutrititive value, and sure to leave you feeling regret that you consumed it.

Postscript August 5: I'm glad I cross-posted this comment here, since the NYT chose not to publish it.

Friday, August 2, 2013

“I must cultivate privacy”

“I feel the necessity of deepening the stream of my life; I must cultivate privacy. It is very dissipating to be with people too much. As C. says, it takes the edge off a man’s thoughts to have been too much in society. I cannot spare my moonlight and my mountains for the best of man I am likely to get in exchange.”

—From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), August 2, 1854.