Transylvanian Dreams

by D. L. Pughe

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The Transylvania I love has Nothing to do with vampires. It is an area of steep Carpathian mountains with lush fir forests, remote villages and towns, and steeped in legends and centuries-old customs and myths.  Tran-sylvania (literally ‘across the forest”) is the ancient mountainous region of what was once Hungary and now is in Romania, captured best by Patrick Leigh Fermor in his book Between the Woods and the Water:

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“All through the afternoon the hills had been growing in height and now they rolled into the distance behind a steep and solitary hemisphere clad to the summit with vineyards. We turned into the tall gates at the foot of it and a long sweep of grass brought us to a Palladian façade just as night was falling. Two herons rose as we approached; the shadows were full of the scent of lilac. Beyond the french windows, a coifed and barefoot maid with spill was lighting lamps down a long room, and, with each new pool of light, Biedermeier furniture took shape and chairs and sofas where only a few strands of the original fabric still lingered; there were faded plum-coloured curtains and a grand piano laden with framed photographs and old family albums with brass clasps; antlers branched, a stuffed lynx pricked its ears, ancestors with swords and furred tunics dimly postured. A white stove soared between bookcases, bear-skins spread underfoot: and, as at Kövecsespuszta, a sideboard carried an array of silver cigarette-cases with the arms and monograms of friends who had bestowed them for standing godfather or being best man at a wedding or second in a duel. There was a polished shellcase from some Silesian battle, a congeries of thimble-sized goblets, a scimitar with turquoise-encrusted scabbard, folded newspapers—Az Ujság and Pesti Hirlap sent from Budapest, and the Wiener Salonblatt, an Austrian Tatler full of pictures of shooting parties, equestrian events and smart balls far away, posted from Vienna. Among the silver frames was a daguerrotype of the Empress Elizabeth—Queen, rather, in this lost province of the formerKingdom—another of the Regent dressed as admiral of a vanished fleet, and a third of Archduke Otto in the pelts and the plumes of a Hungarian magnate. Red, green and blue, the squat volumes of the Almanach de Gotha were ready to pounce. A glittering folio volume, sumptuously bound in green leather, almost covered a small table and its name, Az ember tragediája, was embossed in gold: The Tragedy of Man, by Imre Madács. It is a long nineteenth-century dramatic poem of philosophic and contemplative temper, and no Hungarian house, even the least bookish—like English houses with the velllum-bound Omar Khayyám illustrated by Edmund Dulac—seemed complete without it. Finally, a rack in the corner was filled with long Turkish pipes. This catalogue of detail composes an archetype of which every other country-house I saw in Transylvania seemed to be a variation. At the other end, beyond the double doors of a room which was half-study and half-gunroom, more antlers proliferated; figures moved in the lamplight and the voices of guests sounded, as I hastened upstairs to wash and get some of the dust off before meeting them…
Next morning revealed the front of a late eighteenth-century building. Between the wings, four wide-spaced Tuscan columns advanced and ascended both floors to form a splendid loggia. White louvred shutters continued the line of windows on either side, each leaf touching its neighbour on the façade when they were open while indoors the light poured across the floors; closed, with their slats ajar when the sun became too hot, they striped the wide polished beams underfoot with bars of light and dark,. There was a wheel with a handle which cranked out an enormous slant of white awning and, looking out, one might have been on the deck of a schooner painted by Tissot with tree-tops for waves. Beyond, the vine-clad hemispherical hill of Mokra soared like a volcanic island against snowy heaps of cloud and a pale sky. The smells of lilac, box and lavender drifted in, goldfinches moved about the branches, and now and then house-martins from the nests clustering along the pediment strayed indoors and flew in desperate circles or swept clean through the house and out the other side.”

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Transylvania is ‘Erdély,’ the land of forests and dreams….

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TransylvaniaMaramaros_borsafured  TransylvaniaMaramaros_kilatas_a_borsa_hagorol          BorszekInFogMorning

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Connecting with Nature in Forster’s Forests

by D. L. Pughe

In Chapter 14 of Howard’s End, the lovely novel by E. M. Forster, the young clerk named Mr. Bast reveals that he has walked all night through forests in a feverish state to comprehend nature, humanity, all of life.

allegheny-national-forest_pennsylvania He confesses this to his new acquaintances, the Schlegel sisters, and a rapid literary conversation ensues in which George Meredith’s – The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Robert Louis Stevenson’s – Prince Otto, and Richard Jefferies – The Story of My Heart are among the books mentioned as testaments to nature writing and the meaning of life.

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So begins Mr. Bast’s account of his night walking:

“I took the Underground to Wimbledon. As I came out of the office I said to myself, ‘I must have a walk once in a way. If I don’t take this walk now, I shall never take it.’ I had a bit of dinner at Wimbledon, and then–”

“But not good country there, is it?”

“It was gas-lamps for hours. Still, I had all the night, and being out was the great thing. I did get into woods, too, presently.”

“Yes, go on,” said Helen.

“You’ve no idea how difficult uneven ground is when it’s dark.”

“Did you actually go off the roads?”

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“Oh yes. I always meant to go off the roads, but the worst of it is that it’s more difficult to find one’s way.

“Mr. Bast, you’re a born adventurer,” laughed Margaret. “No professional athlete would have attempted what you’ve done. It’s a wonder your walk didn’t end in a broken neck. Whatever did your wife say?”

“Professional athletes never move without lanterns and compasses,” said Helen. “Besides, they can’t walk. It tires them. Go on.”

“I felt like R. L. S. You probably remember how in Virginibus.”

“Yes, but the wood. This ‘ere wood. How did you get out of it?”

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“I managed one wood, and found a road the other side which went a good bit uphill. I rather fancy it was those North Downs, for the road went off into grass, and I got into another wood. That was awful, with gorse bushes. I did wish I’d never come, but suddenly it got light–just while I seemed going under one tree. Then I found a road down to a station, and took the first train I could back to London.”

“But was the dawn wonderful?” asked Helen.

With unforgettable sincerity he replied, “No.” The word flew again like a pebble from the sling. Down toppled all that had seemed ignoble or literary in his talk, down toppled tiresome R. L. S. and the “love of the earth” and his silk top-hat. In the presence of these women Leonard had arrived, and he spoke with a flow, an exultation, that he had seldom known.

“The dawn was only grey, it was nothing to mention.”

“Just a grey evening turned upside down. I know.”

“–and I was too tired to lift up my head to look at it, and so cold too. I’m glad I did it, and yet at the time it bored me more than I can say. And besides–you can believe me or not as you choose–I was very hungry. That dinner at Wimbledon–I meant it to last me all night like other dinners. I never thought that walking would make such a difference. Why, when you’re walking you want, as it were, a breakfast and luncheon and tea during the night as well, and I’d nothing but a packet of Woodbines. Lord, I did feel bad! Looking back, it wasn’t what you may call enjoyment. It was more a case of sticking to it. I did stick. I–I was determined. Oh, hang it all! what’s the good–I mean, the good of living in a room for ever? There one goes on day after day, same old game, same up and down to town, until you forget there is any other game. You ought to see once in a way what’s going on outside, if it’s only nothing particular after all.”

“I should just think you ought,” said Helen, sitting–on the edge of the table.

The sound of a lady’s voice recalled him from sincerity, and he said: “Curious it should all come about from reading something of Richard Jefferies.”

“Excuse  me, Mr. Bast, but you’re wrong there. It didn’t. It came from something far greater.”

But she could not stop him. Borrow was imminent after Jefferies– Borrow,  Thoreau, and sorrow. R. L. S. brought up the rear, and the outburst ended in a swamp of books. No disrespect to these great names. The fault is ours, not theirs. They mean us to use them for sign-posts we mistake the sign-post for the destination. And Leonard had reached the destination. He had visited the county of Surrey when darkness covered its amenities, and its cosy villas had re-entered ancient night. Every twelve hours this miracle happens, but he had troubled to go and see for himself. Within his cramped little mind dwelt something that was greater than Jefferies’ books–the spirit that led Jefferies to write them; and his dawn, though revealing nothing but monotones, was part of the eternal sunrise that shows George Borrow Stonehenge.

“Then you don’t think I was foolish?” he asked becoming again the naive and sweet-tempered boy for whom Nature intended him.

“Heavens, no!” replied Margaret.

“Heaven help us if we do!” replied Helen.

“I’m very glad you say that. Now, my wife would never understand –not if I explained for days.”

“No, it wasn’t foolish!” cried Helen, her eyes aflame. “You’ve pushed back the boundaries; I think it splendid of you.”

“You’ve not been content to dream as we have–”

 

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The Fictions of Kleist

by D. L. Pughe

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The great Swiss writer Robert Walser captured the difficulties of writing in his perfect short story ‘Kleist in Thün’ about the writer Heinrich von Kleist and the summer he spent trying to write on an island in the Thünersee.

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W. G. Sebald in turn wrote about Walser and his own struggle with writing and sensitivity and showed us the antique postcard Walser had of Kleist’s Thün retreat in his possessions when he died.

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What is it about Kleist that draws so many writers to him? Christa Wolf has also written a near perfect slim book “No Place On Earth” about an imaginary meeting between Kleist (1777-1811) and the poet Karoline von Günderrode (1780-1806), a meeting devoid of romance but instead the confessional conversation of two souls who struggle with living day to day, with pulling the words from themselves that can keep them alive. And sadly, Günderrode killed herself at age 26. 

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Kleist followed suit at age 34, both casualties to the pain that sometimes comes in the rush of images and emotion and that could overwhelm them at times, pinning them down and unable to embrace life. How lucky we are that they were with us as long as they could, and that we hold and read and treasure the works they left behind.

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Hearing The Stream of Thought

By D. L. Pughe

Elliott Carter’s String Quartet No. 1

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Elliott Carter

Two paths emerged in 20th century music, each of which echoed earlier traditions. One was a style of Neoclassicism prevalent in pre-World War II Europe that was intent on revitalizing the forms and techniques of Romantic music. The other was Expressionism, followed by twelve-tone Serialism, both of which grew out of the Romantic interest in exploring harmonic patterns and a completely abstract language of music. Elliot Carter began his career as a composer under the influence of the Neoclassic movement, and, while he was drawn to the emotional explorations of Expressionism, he explains its ominous undertones:

Many people felt—and I certainly was one of them (perhaps not rightly) that the whole German cult of hypertrophic emotion could have been held responsible for the kind of disaster we were witnessing then in front of our noses (certainly Brecht came to hold this view). This is why, in my opinion, many of us became interested for a time in neoclassicism as a way of “returning to reason” and to a more moderate point of view about expression, as well as to a more accessible vocabulary.

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Ludwig Meidner – Berlin, 1916-1917

 Later, after studying Sigmund Freud’s works, Carter conceded that mental and physical violence were deeper problems of the 20th century than those found solely within Expressionism. And he also realized the Neoclassic aesthetic he had been pursuing was a reaction similar to sweeping things under the rug.

 

Serialism was not the logical solution for Carter. Where Serial composers focused on mathematical grounding and were heading toward electronic means to achieve their thoughts in sound, Carter wanted to go in a very different direction. He felt that European Serialism led to an arbitrariness that was emotionally remote. Serial music, he said:

resembles the turning of a kaleidoscope and usually produces not much more—or less—interesting results. Indeed it can be fascinating to listen to the total repertory of pitches, note-values, timbres, registers, and dynamics being touched on in rapid succession and from a point of view we are unaccustomed to. But the cumulative effect of this is self-defeating since neither the attention nor memory is appealed to. For who can decipher, by ear, the complexities of total serialism in most works of the sort?

By the early fifties Carter had moved away from Neoclassicism and felt the need for a creative breakthrough. He wanted to fuse the emotional with the intellectual in a new musical aesthetic. His String Quartet No. 1 became this transition point in his early works, and offers multiple views from which to understand the complexities of his music.

 

While in Paris studying with Nadia Boulanger, Carter had seriously explored counterpoint and became fascinated by the ways the voices crossed, combined or sang antithetical lines.

 

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Nadia Boulanger

He began to experiment with various compositional forms based on counterpoint, unusual time markings, and drew on his experience with philosophical studies of temporal awareness. He wanted to find or rather regain his own distinct style amid a confluence of 20th century trends and in order to do so, he decided to remove himself entirely from the urban artistic milieu.

 

Elliott Carter fled to the Lower Sonoran Desert in Arizona. It was there, in isolation from the buzz of the metropolis, from the musical community and also from audience expectations, that he found what he considered his own true voice.

SonoranDesertThe Quartet was begun, he tells us, for his own satisfaction and out of an effort to understand himself.  One of the significant qualities of the Quartet No. 1 is it’s emotional range, the tangled evidence of Carter’s exploration of his feelings. In contrast to a formalist statement of musical concepts, it is full of vibrant expression as well as complex intellectual associations and ideas.

 

Prior to his time in Europe, Elliott Carter had grown disillusioned by the conservative mood in the music department at Harvard.   He turned to literature, philosophy, mathematics and the Classics, all of which came to influence his music in unique ways. And he became one of the very few university-based composers to have taught Greek, philosophy and mathematics as well as music.  He is eloquent in describing his own creative process, particularly how the underlying images in the String Quartet No. 1 are drawn from his literary and philosophical background. The piece has been referred to as the first musical composition of the 20th century which rivals the formal daring of Eliot, Joyce, Proust and Eisenstein.

It was Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain which provided the first powerful undercurrent to the String Quartet No. 1. As a Zeitroman, or novel about the passage of time, Mann wove a spellbinding allegorical tale that takes place in a remote alpine setting. Mann describes how the isolation and the natural rhythm of daily time change the characters notion of duration, and in particular how the phenomenon of a snowstorm can compress hours into minutes of experience. In the Sonoran Desert, Carter discovered a similar enchanted terrain, and began explorations of the natural habitat with his colleague Joseph Wood Krutch:

It was indeed a kind of ‘magic mountain’ and its specialness (for me) certainly encouraged the specialness of the Quartet as I worked on it during the fall and winter of ’50 and the spring of ‘51

The chapter of Mann’s novel that Carter found most compelling is called “By The Ocean of Time” where Mann writes:

It would not be hard to imagine the existence of creatures, perhaps upon smaller planets than ours, practicing a miniature time-economy…And, contrariwise, one can conceive of a world so spacious that its time system too has a majestic stride…

Carter’s String Quartet No. 1 embodies these complex and contrasting ideas of time. First, in designing the sections of the piece, Carter designates four movements (Fantasia, Allegro scorrevole, Adagio, and Variations) but only three are discernible.  Often the pauses within the movements themselves are longer than those between movements, disorienting the normal expectations for the flow of the piece. Then, utilizing his background in counterpoint which he acquired in Europe, Carter built the first movement as a contrapuntal fantasy of four main and several subsidiary themes each of which is in a different speed and character. He explains that the first violin has intervals of the minor third, perfect fifth, major ninth and major tenth which is in contrast to the rhythm. The second violin is more regular with metronome markings of 140, 70 and occasionally 280. The viola has rhythmic relationships in 2:3 and 3:5 ratio. And the cello has no predicable tempo but has what Carter calls ‘accelerandos and ritards built in.’

 

Jean Cocteau, the Surrealist artist and filmmaker, also played an influential role in Carter’s notions of time in the Quartet. His film Le Sang d’un Poète (The Blood of A Poet) shows the repetitive slow-motion image of a tall brick chimney being demolished from an explosion set below. In the film, the action is repeated again and again, but suspended in mid-fall and only at the end of the film do you see the chimney collapse finally on the ground.

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Jean Cocteau – The Blood of A Poet

The concept of suspended time is a fascinating one, and in the String Quartet No. 1., Elliott Carter explores the difference between external time and the dream time of the repeated image. Instead of a chimney, Carter opens with a cadenza that leads to others and then the original reappears as a flashback at the end to create a circular rather than linear sense of time. He was also interested in how the speeding up or slowing down on themes would affect the piece. In the last movement he uses a set of variations consisting of several ideas that become slightly faster with each repetition until they reach the ‘vanishing point,’ or as Carter writers, “Until they can no longer be perceived as the same idea.”

 

Of the philosophers influential to Carter’s Quartet, Alfred North Whitehead, helped to form his ideas about the organic patterns of thought. When experiencing the natural ecology of the Sonoran Desert, he grew fascinated by the interconnected web of natural life there. The complexity of the number of creatures and forces of nature is echoed in Carter’s layered approach to his composition. William James’ concept of the ‘stream of consciousness,’ as it is employed in the controlled manner of James Joyce, was also an important aim of the String Quartet No. 1. as Carter explains:

…whereas a painter is dealing with a flat, static surface, the musician is working with a constantly flowing stream of sound—so that how you make the stream flow and what obstacles you put in to stop it from flowing or to modify the flow, and so on, become fundamental, and this is what I’m trying to deal with.

 

As a precursor to phenomenology, William James was fascinated by the perceptual possibilities beyond those predicated on reason alone.

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William James – Streams and Fringes of Consciousness on the Horizon

And James notion of ‘fringes of awareness’ ties both to Carter’s ‘vanishing point’ and to the phenomenological concept of the ‘horizon’ of all thought. When Carter was composing his string quartet on the Sonoran Desert, the horizon became an important metaphor in his work:

Like the desert horizons I saw daily while it was being written, the First Quartet presents a continuous unfolding and changing of expressive characters—one woven into the other or emerging from it—on a large scale.

The literal phenomenon of the horizon corresponds to the more abstract concepts of horizontal and vertical composition developed by Carter. He describes how this grew to a creative strategy:

What began to interest me was the possibility of a texture in which, say, massive vertical sounds would be entirely composed of simultaneous elements having a direct and individual horizontal relation to the whole progress or history of the piece—that is, simultaneous elements, each of which has its own way of leading from the previous moment to the following one, maintaining its identity as part of one of a number of distinct, simultaneously evolving, contributory thought-processes or musical characters.

Carter achieves this effect in his String Quartet No. 1 with an ‘all-interval’ four-note chord which he uses:

vertically to join all the intervals of the work into a characteristic sound whose presence is felt “through” all the very different kinds of linear intervallic writing. This chord functions as a harmonic ‘frame’ for the work…(like) a linguistic frame which makes all the events and details of a piece of music feel as if they belong together and constitute a convincing and unified musical continuity.

Carter also borrowed musical ideas from fellow contemporary composers Conlon Nancarrow and Charles Ives. Nancarrow’s rhythmic idea from his First Rhythmic Study is quoted at the beginning of the Variations movement of the String Quartet No. 1. And Charles Ive’s opening theme from his First Violin Sonata is played on the lowest register of the cello after each of the other instruments has entered near the beginning of the Quartet.[vi] Similar to Schumann’s quotations of Beethoven, Carter quotes his colleagues works as a homage to their music and with respect to the conversations they shared during his writing of the piece.

Another significant feature of Elliott Carter’s approach to this works is that each instrument has its own character, or ‘character-structures’ as he calls them.[18] Unlike Serial and Minimal composers who might deny the quality of sound implied by certain instruments, Carter acknowledges their tendencies. He believes that each instrument is suggestive of musical sonorities and musical behavior. He conceives of his works as a dialogue between the instruments, and, similar to all discourse:

there must be areas of overlap and interchange as well as points of divergence. Thus in my music there is a kind of ongoing dialectic of affirming and contradicting the character of the instruments involved, which nonetheless have an organic relation to the character of the musical ideas and to the formal-dramatic conception of the whole work in each case.

Where the warmth of the strings in Mozart’s Minuet implies a consonant family, Carter’s dissonant strings in his String Quartet No. 1 portray a family of richly complex characters, each with their own accumulated experience. Their conversation is full of discontinuity and divergence. And you find, rather than an imagined group of individuals, each instrument blurs into threads of thought within your head. Similar to Joyce’s convergence of subconscious inner language and outer speech in Ulysses, Carter captures the interplay of stimulus as it forms pre-introspective thoughts which then melt into each other like dissolving views. He describes for us William James’ ‘felt time’ in which moments coexist and overlap.  And the instruments, rather than collaborating in a discussion with question and answer, instead interrupt, override, exclaim and disappear. The Quartet suggests the modernist fragmentation and thirst for meaning forever complicated by alternating hopefulness and despair.

 

The Quartet opens with deep mournful descriptions of the cello full of exclamatory remarks, interrupted by the plucked violin, which is more absently going about a repetitive task. Then the second violin floods in with its own lamenting high-pitched narrative, while the viola separately rushes around offering fleeting comfort. From this beginning one realizes that these are thoughts rather than personalities, and they change so rapidly you recognize the ‘felt time.’ Challenging ideas appear followed by nagging worries. Hopeful glimpses of color and light arise alongside dismaying everydayness, and then everything is shot through with slow bullets of doubt. Contradictions abound and merge: the urgency of passion coalesces into the hurriedness of deadlines, and an unexpected moment of insight arises within a banal gesture. Collisions of feeling are collapsed into sound where you reach for an eloquent quote and grasp a childhood rhyme, where you ache for meaning, a moment of truth, and find instead a fleeting instant of regret.

These are unfiltered and uncertain thoughts and emotions. Sometimes they resemble the creeping images of hypnagogic silence, crawling towards you shadowy and indistinct, luring you to sleep. Then dark, strident and insistent shapes of sound invade your dreams. There are singular moments of abjectly beautiful harmony, a collective recognition, sometimes followed by tender by almost painful reminisces. The palpable tension created by the different speeds and rhythm of each instrument grows and grows in the high strings and punctuated by the heavier voices, it becomes more urgent, grasping and then languorous, slowly forgetful. You find you are being held by the music for a split second of time: illusionary arms captivate you in the rush of sounds. In the final movement, the variations illustrate how an idea will unthinkingly repeat itself, turning over, twisting, transforming, and becoming something else. There are very few moments of stability where one can regain a foothold or clue. Instead you find yourself clinging by your teeth. The seemingly casual trills find you fumbling for coherency just as a new insect-like swirling onslaught of sound encircles your thoughts. Then presto they’re gone. Carter has wholly captured the ‘blooming buzzing confusion’ of unmediated experience described by William James.  The piece ends with a slow high-pitched sigh which hints that nothing truly stops: the sounds simply subside and recede to the back of your mind. They linger there and could return again. And again.

 

Elliott Carter tried to give his dramatic musical events no decipherable exterior shape: The end result is a complex assembly of facets of experience. They are deeply personal but as they involve us in their messages, we find instants we recognize. The seams between moments, between movements and between ourselves and the music are obscured to the point that all our barriers are drawn down. It allows us to dwell for a time not on our consciousness, but within it.

 

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Two Poets of the Street

Originally published in Serpentine Magazine

by D. L. Pughe

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Vivian Maier – Night in the City

Maeve Brennan and Vivian Maier shared a lifelong rummage for meaning in the corners of their solitary lives. In the continuous bustle of urban existence, they each paused not to stare but to capture what is usually overlooked in timeless and haunting images.  Their poetry remains in how they transformed ‘the seemingly banal into the arresting and beautiful.’

Vivian Maier, whose photography has only recently come to wide attention, was born just 9 years after Brennan in 1926. Both were emigrants—Brennan grew up in Dublin then Washington D. C. and came to New York in the 1940s. Maier spent much of her childhood in a haut alpine village in the South of France and returned to New York, where she had been born, also in the 40’s. Was it their foreignness, in an era when America floated bright promises abroad, that made the gritty realities of the street so hypnotizing when they arrived?

Brennan found work writing, first for the Irish press, and then producing vignettes for The New Yorker under the byline: the Long-Winded Lady. If anything, her writing was breathless and brief, able to capture volumes in just a few paragraphs. Brennan explained it best: “Moments of kindness, moments of recognition—if there is a difference, it is a faint one. I think the long-winded lady is real when she writes, here, about some of the sights she saw in the city that she loves.”

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Maeve Brennan in the 1940s

Week after week, in a rented room in one hotel or another, Brennan looked down on the street below and captured what the crowds rushing by did not see. In I Look Down From the Windows of This Old Broadway Hotel, she describes the rooftops of Times Square and a trombone player working a Broadway show who, in between performances, often came to the roof.

“One evening he turned up on the roof at seven, clearly visible in the azure autumn air. He took his stand at the roof’s edge and began to play, and at that moment an extremely tall young man stood up between the two blue-painted water towers of the Flanders Hotel (twelve stories high, to my left) and began playing the clarinet. They both seemed to be playing “A Gypsy Told Me.” The trombonist, a few stories above the crowded street faced east, and the clarinetist, half a block away from him and twelve stories up in the air, also faced east, and all around them, above and below, on both sides, and in all directions, far and near and high and low, they were surrounded by walls of windows—hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of windows—and all the windows were blind, because there was not a face to be seen in any of them.”

Brennan had a vantage point that many shared but, apart from Hitchcock’s Rear Window, few managed to capture so well. While staying in her friend Howard’s apartment in Greenwich Village of the 1960’s, Brennan took pains to describe the sounds of a nearby cocktail party and of her solitary room some doors away:

“The rain is falling fast and black as ever. The windows of the front apartment where the party is must be steaming with rain—frothing, almost—and Tenth Street must be streaming, too, and frothing black. But a cocktail party has to expand, if it can, and now the people in front have opened their door and left it open. What a lot of noise they are making with glasses and bottles and music and voices! They must have hundreds of people in there. Once in a while, over the low roar of conversation, there is a loud laugh, and once in a while a little shriek. Outside all the noise in the world is being hammered into the earth by the rain, and inside, all the noise there is effervescing at the cocktail party. Only in this room there is stillness, and the stillness has gone tense. The room is waiting for something to happen. I could light the fire, but my friend forgot to leave me any logs. I could turn on a lamp, but there is no animal feeling in electricity. I stand up again and walk over to the phonograph and switch it on without changing the record that I played this morning. The music strengthens and moves about, catching the pictures, the books, and the discolored white marble mantelpiece as firelight might have done. Now the place is no longer a cave but a room with walls that listen in peace. I hear the music and I watch the voice. I can see it. It is a voice to follow with your mind’s eye. “La Brave, c’est elle.” There is no other. Billie Holiday is singing.”

Brennan lived first in rented rooms, then increasingly cheap hotels and, when friends offered, apartments like Howard’s where she could hole up for awhile. The chance sightings she reported were as a witness for the unnoticed:

“One evening lately I saw the old lady sitting at her window, facing west or, rather, facing the west wall of her room. Her hair is completely white. She was reading what appeared to be a letter, holding it an angle in front of her as you would a newspaper. It was one of those lucky evenings when the white summer day turns to amber before it begins to break up into the separate shades of twilight, and in the strange glow the towering outline of the city to the south turned monumental and lonely. The Empire State changed color suddenly, and lost its air of self-satisfaction. Nothing was really certain anymore, except the row of pigeons standing motionless on the western wall of the pink terrace, and beneath, the old lady calmly reading her letter. Without turning her head she put her right hand with the sheet of paper in it out the window, stretched her arm to full length, and let the paper go. It fluttered down and away, and she went on reading. There was a second sheet to the letter. She did not look out. She did not see the amber air, and she did not notice the violet blue vapor that drifted in transparency across her window, carried on a very timid little eastern breeze. A second time she stretched out her arm and let a sheet of paper go, and she continued to read. The third sheet followed the first two uncertainly down the wall of the hotel, and then she stood up and vanished at once into the dimness of her room. There was something very housewifely about the decisive way she left her window and her geraniums. She is on the tenth floor, but she might just as well have been leaving her ground floor window after having spent an hour gossiping with her neighbors and watching the market bags to see who was having what for dinner. A good many of the ordinary ways of living go when people begin to live up in the air.”

The year of the falling letters was 1969, and Brennan’s assignments from the New Yorker were declining. She began to be seen as a ghost at their offices near Broadway and 43rd St. Brennan had entered New York literary circles as a petite and chic Irishwoman in the 1940s. Photos from her early years show the bright intelligence with upswept hair, the steady eyes. Then,  beginning to look seriously over her shoulder.

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Maeve Brennan

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Maeve Brennan, 1948 by Karl Bissinger

In 1954 she briefly married the wrong man, an alcoholic womanizer and fellow writer. By the 1970s Brennan herself suffered from alcoholism and increasing paranoia and was rumored to sleep in the restrooms of The New Yorker. Colleagues and friends tried to rescue her from time to time offering funds and occasional refuge. Her homeless state ended at a nursing home in Queens where she died in 1981.

Brennan had written stories and The Visitor, a novella which hint at cruel family treatment at home in Dublin. She shares these mysteries of an abusive past with Vivian Maier who returned to New York from France in the 1940’s. The documentary film Finding Vivian Maier suggests a troubled childhood recorded only in the recurring themes of Maier’s obsessive collection of newspaper clippings.  When she left France she was armed with a camera and had been taught photography by her mother. Back in the States Maier found work as a nanny and enjoyed the freedom it gave her to walk the city, first New York and then for 40 years the streets of Chicago. The viewfinder of her Rolleflex allowed her to take street portraits unnoticed and include herself in reflective surfaces and shadows. Like Brennan, these early self-portraits convey Maier’s innocence and curiosity adapting itself to the craft.

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The life of the city caught in Maier’s poignant split-second compositions are as accomplished as the ‘decisive moments’ of Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank.

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That Maier never chose to share her photos or even develop some of her film suggests that it was the second of capture which gave her pleasure. She wore the camera everywhere, always alert to what might transpire.

Maier recorded subtleties of affection with respectful distance but not, perhaps, without longing.

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And she had an apparent fascination with aspects of personality, how a single look can convey a whole world view—how the God in details places us in the spectrum of fortune and fate.

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For all her reputed shyness, many of Maier’s subjects gaze back with a complicated but open trust.

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In a photo from her early period, in the mirror a man is removing from a truck, there is Maier—smiling. She’s caught the rare moment that only she noticed, and captured herself too. While a testament to her talent, it is the best clue to her satisfaction.

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Like Brennan, Maier’s eccentricities grew exponentially over the years and became more isolating. The kindness of past employers kept her from being homeless, and a fall on ice also led to a nursing home in her last days. She died in 2009 at age 83, having outlived Brennan by just a few years.

Maier and Brennan mined city life for the sorts of meaning that make humanity a shared experience.  Like Emily Dickenson, their thoughtful observations were made in isolation.  The path of their lives, the challenges age poses to sensitive creative souls, can hopefully enlarge our understanding and care for everyone we encounter, especially those who are the easiest to overlook. And their works, the collections of Maier and Brennan, encourage us to pause and consider, to take the time and have the courage to make sense of what we see.

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Note:  This essay is copyright 2014, D. L. Pughe. The quote defining poetry at the end of the first paragraph is by my dear friend, Margaretta Lovell.  

All photos except for the 3 of Maeve Brennan are by Vivian Maier and copyright is primarily with:   John Maloof’, who purchased a large portion of Maier’s work at auction, Jeffery Goldstein also controls a substantial number of images and Ron Slattery, who bought a smaller collection of Maier’s negatives and prints in 2007, before her death.  

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Black Narcissus

by D. L. Pughe

Well before CGI made spectacular vistas so common, there was the 1947 technicolor film Black Narcissus. Based on the novel by Rumer Godden, it is about the passions of nuns in the high Himalayas.  Their convent is a remote cliff-side palace near Darjeeling that was once used to house the concubines of a princely general.

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In this remote setting, Sister Clodagh, played by Deborah Kerr, is tasked with bringing a community of nuns to set up their convent, teach the children English and convert the locals to their religion.DeborahKerr-BlackNarcissus

She brings with her several willing sisters and one who they suspect is mentally ill, Sister Ruth (the amazing Kathleen Byron), hoping the alpine air will heal her.

blacknarcissus.SisterRuth3In spectacular flashbacks and dissolves we learn of Sister Clodagh’s earlier life in Scotland and what led her turn from her youthful lover to become a nun. The local young general, who studies with the girls in their school, brings with him jewels and scents, and the wind up the sheer mountainside also carries with it memories of passion.

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Into this mix comes a Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the British raconteur who becomes their not so trusted local advisor as he makes his lust for life well known.

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At his suggestion the nuns take in an outcast girl who attracts the eye of the young general. Played by Jean Simmons, Kanchi is a character so far from her role of Ophelia the next year, and her dance is captivating.

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In the most lush color Director Michael Powell and the British-Hungarian producer Emerich Pressberger (known together as The Archers) worked with cinematographer Jack Cardiff to draw this exotic, mystical and passionate world into vivid reality. The scenes on the cliffside, the sheer verticality, the way that the wind flaps the habits of the nuns and disturbs their calm is unlike any other film before or since.

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The essence of the place works on everyone and culminates in desperate acts.

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The most fascinating thing is that the film was made at Pinewood Studios in London, using scale models and sets.  A few scenes were shot at an Indian garden in West Sussex.  Many contemporary filmmakers like Scorcese and Spielberg refer to it as a landmark in technicolor film and cinematography, a film creating a whole exotic world in the studio.  It is a film that casts a spell, encouraging one to keep thinking for a long time.

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The Criterion version is wonderful, and I highly recommend the extras:  the analysis by French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, the short about the making of the film, and the commentary including Scorcese and Powell. One of the most satisfying recent experiences of  cinema I’ve had.

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The Miniature Natural History Museum and Laboratory has its own site now!

You can reach it here:
http://theminiaturenaturalhistorymuseumandlaboratory.com/

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