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

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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The 20 greatest breakup songs ever – ranked! — Music | The Guardian

On the 40th anniversary of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive topping the charts – and as the UK blunders towards its own acrimonious divorce – here’s the definitive list of tear-stained stonkersHip-hop isn’t big on romantic heartbreak, but this is a particularly fine example. There’s a lot of bragging from Guru about how he’s so…

via The 20 greatest breakup songs ever – ranked! — Music | The Guardian

It’s a nice list – well worth a look and listen – even if it almost criminal to leave off the greatest breakup song ever – Carole King’s “It’s Too Late.”

Uncle Kurt

Of all the people in the world who I don’t know personally, there is no person who has had a more profound and long-lasting impact on me than the author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. His novel Slaughterhouse Five is one of the first novels I read and whenever I am asked to name my favorite book it is the first one that comes to mind. I found it, or it found me, at the time in my life when I was changing from a dependent boy to an independent man. I was becoming many things – atheist, pacifist, vegetarian, musician, writer, lover, pothead, drunk, and left-winger – that I still am today, more or less.

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The latest addition to the Vonnegut library, and one them I am up to my eyeballs in, is called Letters. It is a fascinating glimpse into a life deeply marked by tragedy and humor. His mother committed suicide while he was home on leave before being shipped off to fight in the second world war, where he would become a POW. The thoughts he shares about these incidents with those closest to him, as well as reflections on his marriage, fatherhood, divorce, depression, infidelity, professional accomplishments, and the deaths of those he loves, including himself, make for reading as satisfying as his novels.

My understanding is that I am so odd emotionally and socially that I had better live alone for the rest of my days. During my last years with Jan, there was a formless anger in me which I could deal with only in solitude. Jane did not like it. There is no reason why she should. Nobody likes it. What is it? Well – if I had to guess, I would say that it was caused by a combination of bad chemicals in my bloodstream and the fact that my mother committed suicide. I have finally dealt with that suicide, by the way, in the book I just finished. My mother appears briefly at the end, but keeps her distance – because she is embarrassed by the suicide. And so she should be.

The great appeal of Vonnegut’s writing goes beyond his direct style that reads like a letter from an intimate friend. The simplicity of his humanist message, like Christ’s, makes the truth impossible to deny: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Christ’s came with the promise of heaven; Kurt’s did not.

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of reward or punishment after I’m dead.

Kurt Vonnegut, like me, was a white man. People who aren’t white, and a lot of us who are, want to hear new stories from other perspectives. Fair enough. We have hogged the cultural conversation for centuries. But the greatest artists in any field illuminate eternal truths that transcend gender, nationality, “race”/culture, sexuality, income level, and age. Finding and sharing those universal truths is the artist’s only job.

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One of those truths is the great equalizer, Death. Kurt died in 2007, and left this thought behind for the end of his days:

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: ‘The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.

If, instead of carving messages in stone at the end of our lives, we were given little gold plaques at the beginning, with a message for the lives ahead of us, this one from Uncle Kurt might be a good place to start:

Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’