Ivanhoe

Ivanhoe is not the star of the story that bears his name. Neither is Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, or Richard the Lionheart, who all have significant parts to play in the tale. The star is Rebecca, the “jewess.” That term, like “negress,” sounds not only old-fashioned to our 21st Century ears but racist, and there is plenty of anti-semitism in Ivanhoe, so much that I felt a little queasy in the early pages, afraid I had unwittingly begun reading a racist tract, until I remembered that it was recommended to me by a Jewish woman.

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The character called Ivanhoe is injured in an early scene and spends most of the novel bed-ridden and weak. So the heavy lifting of the story is left up to the character of Rebecca whose beauty, strength, humility, and grace form the backbone of the book.

Written in the 19th Century but set in the 12th, Ivanhoe is considered the world’s first historical novel. Sir Walter Scott’s devotion to accurate portrayal of the language, costumes, and customs of the age extends to the bigotries of the time.

In this scene, Ivanhoe wakes from the injuries of battle to find himself being tended by a beautiful doctor. Scott uses this scene to lay bare the ignorance of 12th Century prejudices which he must have seen reflected in his own time, and we can recognize in ours:

“Gentle maiden,” he began in the Arabian tongue, with which his Eastern travels had rendered him familiar, and which he thought most likely to be understood by the turbaned and caftaned damsel who stood before him – “I pray you, gentle maiden, of your courtesy – ”
But here he was interrupted by his fair physician, a smile which she could scarce suppress dimpling for an instant a face whose general expression was that of contemplative melancholy. “I am of England, sir Knight, and speak the English tongue, although my dress and my lineage belong to another climate.”
“Noble damsel – “ again the Knight of Ivanhoe began, and again Rebecca hastened to interrupt him.
“Bestow not on me, Sir Knight,” she said, “ the epithet of nobles. It is well you should speedily know that your handmaiden is a poor Jewess.”
I know not whether the fair Rowena would have been altogether satisfied with the species of emotion with which her devoted knight had hitherto gazed on the beautiful features, and fair form, and lustrous eyes of the lovely Rebecca – eyes whose brilliancy was shaded and, as it were, mellowed, by the fringe of her long silken eyelashes, and which a minstrel would have compared to the evening star darting its rays through a bower of jessamine. But Ivanhoe was too good a Catholic to retain the same class of feelings for a Jewess. This Rebecca had foreseen, and for this very purpose she had hastened to mention her father’s name and lineage; yet – for the fair and wise daughter of Isaac was not without a touch of female weakness – she could not but sigh internally when the glace of respectful admiration, not altogether unmixed with tenderness, with which Ivanhoe had hitherto regarded his unknown benefactress, was exchanged at once for a manner cold, composed, and collected, and fraught with no deeper feeling than that which expressed a grateful sense of courtesy received from and unexpected quarter, and from one of an inferior race. It was not devotional homage which youth always pays to beauty; yet it was mortifying that one word should operate as a spell to remove poor Rebecca, who could not be supposed altogether ignorant of her title to such homage, into a degraded class, to whom it could not be honourably rendered.

I don’t know why Sir Walter Scott devoted his masterpiece to an exposé of anti-semitism disguised as a swashbuckling adventure. Perhaps he fell in love with a jewess.

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Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca in the 1952 film version of Ivanhoe

Robert Hunter 1941-2019

Fare you well my honey
Fare you well my only true love
All the birds that were singing
have flown, except you alone

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Photo by Jay Blakesberg

I am not qualified to call myself a Deadhead in the same way that I am not qualified to call myself a Christian. To be a Christian you need to believe in the divinity of Christ, and to be a Deadhead your favorite band needs to be the Grateful Dead. Still, I am a great admirer of both entities and in part due to the same thing: their words. Jesus wrote The Lord’s Prayer and The Sermon on the Mount, stone cold classics in any book. Many, if not most, of the greatest lyrics of the Grateful Dead were written by Robert Hunter.

In the early days of rock music when artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly did something that set them apart from most popular music of their time. They played and sang songs that they also wrote. For the next few decades most of rock’s lyricists were also musicians and/or singers. Robert Hunter, along with a few notable contemporaries like Eddie Holland and Bernie Taupin, left his mark on music history through words alone.

On the Dead’s third album, Aoxomoxoa, there are listings for The Band, The Supporting Musicians, and The Crew. Under the last heading is the line “The Words – Robert Hunter.” By their sixth album, American Beauty, seven names are listed as The Dead – the six musicians in the band and “Robert Hunter – songwriter.”

The inspiration behind songwriting is as close to divinity as anything I have experienced. As it was for Hunter, who remembers one sacred afternoon holed up in a hotel room with a bottle of booze and his muse this way:

Once in a while something would sort of pop out of nowhere. The sunny London afternoon I wrote ‘Brokedown Palace,’ ‘To Lay Me Down,’ and ‘Ripple,’ all keepers, was in no way typical, but it remains in my mind as the personal quintessence of the union between writer and Muse, a promising past and bright future prospects melding into one great glowing apocatastasis in South Kensington, writing words that seemed to flow like molten gold onto parchment paper.

In the swirling events of this season from the global (climate disasters) to the national (impeachment) to the local (Yankee playoffs) to the personal (some heavy shit), it is easy to lose track of the radar blip that was the news of Robert Hunter’s death. Lyricists of his caliber are so rare that those of us who love this music will be doing ourselves a favor if we block out the rest of the distractions in our life for a few minutes and meditate on the work of this man’s life.

Fare you well, my honey,
fare you well my only true one.
All the birds that were singing
are flown, except you alone.
Going to leave this brokedown palace,
On my hand and knees, i will roll, roll, roll
Make myself a bed by the waterside,
In my time, in my time I will roll, roll roll
In a bed, in a bed,
by the waterside I will lay my head.
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
to rock my soul
River going to take me
sing me sweet and sleepy
sing me sweet and sleepy all the way back home
Sing a lullaby beside the water
Lovers come and go, the river roll, roll, roll
Fare you well, fare you well
I love you more than words can tell
Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul
Going to plant a weeping willow
On the bank’s green edge it will grow, grow, grow
It’s a far gone lullaby, sung many years ago
Mama, mama many worlds I’ve come since i first left home
Going home, going home, by the riverside i will rest my bones
Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul
Fare you well, fare you well
I love you more than words can tell
Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul

 

Threes and Sevens are Magic Numbers

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There is something beautiful and mysterious about the number three. To the ancient Greeks, 1 stood for unity and 2 for chaos. The combination of the two – the numeral 3 – stood for harmony. In the Christian church, God is a trinity – the father, son, and Holy Spirit – and Jesus spent three days in the tomb before his resurrection. Other civilizations also divided their divinity in threes. For the Egyptians they were Osiris, Isis, and Horus. To the Greeks it was Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. The magical properties of our third number is universally recognized.

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Seven is the only other number that can rival the magic of three. We divide our week into seven days, and the notes of a musical scale, almost infinite in variation of pitch, are divided into sevens, with every eighth note repeating as an octave. To those who find a path to enlightenment through meditation there are seven human chakras, corresponding to the 7 colors of the rainbow represented in the anagram ROYGBIV, and to the body parts that align in the lotus position, from the root to the crown. When I meditate today, I will be thinking of your inspiration.

These two numbers have an almost sacred power. In combination, their force is multiplied. To anyone entering one of those most special ages, turning 37 or 73, I hope you have the most magical year of your life.

The Presence of the Past

History is the process of the past negotiating its terms of surrender to the future.

Although the past cannot defeat the future, it will do, and is currently doing, all it can, to break as many hearts as possible in the present. Cruelty seems to be the guiding principle of those in power, in the USA and across the globe, as they confront the horror of knowing that their power will soon be gone forever.

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This is nothing new. In 19th Century Europe, monarchies crumbled under a rising tide of democracy. In the 21st, with a little courage and devotion to honesty and justice, we might see white male privilege go the way of kings, kaisers, and czars.

See if you recognize our current situation in these words that Victor Hugo wrote in 1862:

The past, it is true, is very strong right now. It is reviving. This revivification of a corpse is surprising. Here it is walking and advancing. It seems victorious; this dead man is a conqueror. He comes with his legion, superstitions, with his sword, despotism, with his banner, ignorance; within a little time he has won ten battles. He advances, he threatens, he laughs, he is at our doors. As for us, we will not despair.

We who believe, what can we fear?

There is no backward flow of ideas any more than of rivers.

But those who do not want the future should think it over. In saying no to progress, it is not the future they condemn, but themselves…There is only one way of refusing tomorrow and that is to die.

He concludes that chapter of Les Miserables with this observation of the relative powers of the hopes of the future and the fears of the past:

The ideal…thus lost in the depths – minute, isolated, imperceptible, shining, but surrounded by all those great black menaces monstrously amassed around it, yet no more in danger than a star in the jaws of the clouds.

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Conservatives and Liberals and Soccer and Religion

We live in societies that have lost the ability to clearly communicate across the divides we have created for ourselves. Or so I thought yesterday. Today, laid up with a bum back, I got to watch the American soccer team’s celebration in my home town, and I heard one of its captains, Megan Rapinoe, say this:

“We have to be better. We have to love more. Hate less. We got to listen more and talk less. We got to know that this is everybody’s responsibility. Every single person here. Every single person’s who’s not here. Every single person who doesn’t want to be here. Every single person who agrees and doesn’t agree. It’s our responsibility to make this world a better place.”

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Megan Rapinoe

I have been thinking a lot lately about how we have divided our nation into conservatives and liberals, with a ferocity you can feel by just looking at the labels. In truth, I think both sides want the same basic thing – to make this world a better place.

Conservatives main impulse is to preserve what they see as good in society. Liberals main impulse is to change what they see is bad in society. These are not antagonistic impulses. Good people of any political persuasion should aspire to both of those things. We can disagree about what is good and bad in society and we should honestly and constructively talk about those disagreements, but we should be careful not to demonize people and create straw creatures to argue with and set on fire.

One of the things that is seen as good and bad in society is religion. The number of horrors that have been committed in its name are beyond counting. The number of lives that have been saved, or fulfilled, or made kinder in its name are equally incalculable.

In the 19th Century, Victor Hugo said this:

Religion is undergoing a crisis. We are unlearning certain things, and that is good, provided that while unlearning one thing we are learning another. No vacuum in the human heart! Certain forms are torn down, and so they should be, but on condition that they are followed by reconstructions.

In the meantime let us study things that are no more. It is necessary to understand them, if only to avoid them. The counterfeits of the past take assumed names, and are fond of calling themselves the future. That eternally returning specter, the past, not infrequently falsifies its passport. Let us be ready for the snare. Let us beware. The past has a face, superstition, and a mask, hypocrisy. Let us denounce the face and tear off the mask.

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Victor Hugo

The Richness We Gain…

I didn’t know I could be happier to be a Yankees fan until they unveiled this plaque tonight in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium:

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In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the events at New York City’s Stonewall Inn, which sparked the modern LGBTQ movement.

This plaque serves to honor the struggle for equality and is a reminder of the richness we gain by nurturing inclusion and diversity.

Acceptance forms the bedrock of our community, let it be known that Yankee Stadium welcomes everyone as a gathering place for all.

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Victor Hugo and the French Aesthetic

I have long admired, even loved, the French but I don’t think I ever quite understood why until I read Victor Hugo. Their commitment to liberty inspired two revolutions – America’s and their own – that created the best of the world we live in today. They are more responsible than anyone for the evolution of government from hereditary monarchy to a system that exists to serve its people, not the other way around.

Their culture, their devotion to beauty, their appreciation of romance inspires artists and lovers everywhere. Their lust is not simple desire, but desires, eternally mingled with playful affection. In addition to their reverence for fine wine, cheese, and bread, they have an appreciation for the peculiar wonders of femininity and masculinity that aren’t chained to rigid concepts of gender. Makeup, wigs, and high heels were always for men as well as women.

Love is not a rigid concept either. It flows. It mutates. It entices. It satisfies a hunger that even the finest meals cannot. In this passage from Les Miserables, Victor Hugo produces a fine reduction of the love between an old blind bishop and his adoring sister that could easily translate into the love between parent and child, or between lovers:

To have continually at your side a woman, a girl, a sister, a charming being, who is there because you need her, and because she cannot do without you, to know you are indispensable to someone necessary to you, to be able at all times to measure her affection by the degree of her presence that she gives you, and to say to yourself: She dedicates all her time to me, because I possess her whole love; to see the thought if not the face; to be sure of the fidelity of one being in a total eclipse of the world; to imagine the rustling of her dress as the rustling of wings; to hear her moving to and fro, going out, coming in, talking, singing, and to think that you are the cause of those steps, those words, that song; to show your personal attraction at every moment; to feel even more powerful as your infirmity increases; to become in darkness, and by reason of darkness, the star around which this angel gravitates; few joys can equal that. The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves – say rather, loved in spite of ourselves; this conviction the blind have. Are they deprived of anything? No. Light is not lost where love enters. And what a love! A love wholly founded in purity. There is no blindness where there is certainty. The soul gropes in search of a soul, and finds it. And that soul, found and proven, is a woman. A hand sustains you, it is hers; lips lightly touch your forehead, they are her lips; you hear breathing near you, it is she. To have her wholly, from her devotion to her pity, never to be left alone, to have that sweet shyness as your aid, to lean on that unbending reed, to touch Providence with your hands and be able to grasp it in your arms; God made palpable, what transport!

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