A Boat to Japan, a Dream, and Herzog, Flaubert, and Stravinsky
Years ago, I read about a man who died in a small boat while sailing from Japan to the United States.
He had started in the US, arriving in Japan after a long, difficult journey with a precious cargo: The ashes of his wife, who wanted to be buried in her native country. He faithfully carried out her wish, and did so by sea, as the two of them had loved to sail when she was alive.
She perhaps was so overjoyed by his posthumous gift to her that she couldn't bear being away from him for the few years left to him here, and as he had fulfilled her final wish before death, so did he bring to pass what she desired from the next world, and he went to her.
What a perfect love story the two of them have written.
I once spent a New Year’s Eve in Manhattan. To be more precise, on 7th Avenue, between 54th and 55th, with about fifty trillion other people.
All of them and me stood jammed together in a writhing, yammering mob. Probably 75% or so of those who made up the huge mass of humanity had their phones out and were preserving the moments of our mutual presence technologically. Every detail of the non-event was converted to video and zipped off through the ether to their friends and families instantaneously.
Maybe this is the miracle of immortality made real, though in a way none of us imagined it would come to be. Eventually—very soon at the pace at which the phones are evolving and our brains are becoming more and more inescapably and completely addicted to them—the day arrives when everything that ever happens, anywhere, is videotaped by someone trying to preserve tourist memories or generate material for one or another of his social media forms of self, and we thereby all live on forever online and in the cloud storage accounts of people in another country.
The Singularity emerges from our mindless, alienated fascination with videotaping everything that happens to us.
A few decades ago, the French clothing chain La City did an ad campaign that featured huge posters in Paris metro stations with naked female models strategically covering themselves with placards reading “La City Habille Les Femmes Nues” (La City Clothes Nude Women).
On one of the ads at a station I frequented, some wise guy had written “Dommage!” (Too Bad!) in huge Sharpied letters.
I dreamed I saw my friend a few days ago.
He looked young and full of life, his sardonic smile and devilish laugh fully intact. He told me how much he liked and admired me. It was the single most wonderful thing I can imagine hearing because I so admire and like him. I felt as happy as I’ve been in a very long time. I awoke beaming.
And slowly, inexorably, in a process that occurs anew every time I have this recurring dream, the horrible facts trickled back into my memory. I remembered my friend as I had seen him last, looking 30 years older than he was, falling apart before my eyes with an incurable, inoperable, terminal cancer, telling me on that last day I saw him alive, with a resignation that made tears well up in my eyes: “It is over.”
When I was a college student, I found three volumes of the Durant's The Story of Civilization at a public library sale, each volume priced at 50 cents.
Elated at my find, as they were just the missing volumes I needed to complete my set, I carried them to the cashier practically floating. There, a man told me: "I just brought those in today. My wife kept telling me: “You're 75 years old and you're never going to read them”' I finally figured she was right."
He smiled beneficently.
I picked up my books to take them home. They were a bit heavier with the weight of mortality he had added as an unexpected tax.
Gustave Flaubert, perhaps the greatest novelist of them all, had trouble learning to read as a child. Later, somewhere, he would write: “How wise one would be if he only knew five or six books well.” I would go further: How wise one would be if he only knew Flaubert’s Sentimental Education well.
Igor Stravinsky: “One has only to look for a moment at those “faces gray with boredom” as Claude Debussy put it to measure the power music has of inducing a sort of stupidity in those unfortunate persons who listen to it without hearing it.”
Also: “The capacity for melody is a gift. This means that it is not within our power to develop it by study.”
I have long believed that deep love of music is something that evades all education. It is in you already when you emerge into the world, or it will never come.
Some film directors (Scorsese, Tarantino) are obsessed with film and watch it constantly. By contrast, Werner Herzog sees maybe four films a year, and spends the rest of his time breathing other air. Among other classics, he has never seen Gone with the Wind or Metropolis.
I submit this is one of the reasons why his work is so much more original and compelling than that of most of his colleagues.
Schopenhauer noted how important it is for writers as well not to read too much, lest one become incapable of writing anything but the ideas of other writers one has read. I suppose I am flouting his rule in writing this…
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