Sunday, May 22, 2011


I have often wondered about graffiti, the spray-painted writs on walls I perceive from the windows of my commuter train. What person or persons can be responsible for them? How do their perpetrators remain unseen and unknown? Why do they all look so alike? What are these inscriptions saying? Is there a possible argument on behalf of them?

Norman Mailer published an article in the New York Times Magazine praising their beauty and defending them as art. He may not be their only champion, though I myself know nobody who endorses them. I consider them eyesores.

To be sure, they appear on the drab walls of dreary, often uninhabited, buildings. I don’t know that any reputable architect ever built an edifice along these train routes and begging for such bedizening. And if there were a Gropius or Le Corbusier, a Van der Rohe or Alto by the tracks, the scribbler’s hand, awe-struck, might spare it.  The question is whether even dilapidation is improved by graffiti.

The train goes by too fast for me to decipher these inscriptions. The proud names of the scribes may be displayed. As my father used to say about names cut into the bark of trees, “Nomina stultorum . . .” (the names of fools), but he always ended in aposiopesis, and I was never able to track down the rest of that Latin adage. However, injuring a living thing like a tree is far worse than spraying a wall. Still, these amoral muralists probably prefer anonymity to avoid apprehension.

But are graffiti truly eyesores? Those large, loping, motley letters, usually in wavy lines, have a conceivable claim to be abstract art, or, at the very least, conceptual art, where whatever the perpetrator proclaims to be art, ipso facto becomes it. To me, saying so doesn’t make it so; indeed, I have trouble even with some established abstract artists, whose work is arbitrary, pleasing some, but boring others. Yet few people have the gumption to call a daub a daub. Obsolete or philistine, I prefer representation, however academic or unoriginal.

The curious thing, though, is the mysterious invisibility of the graffitists. Why is the script always more or less the same, and not just in size, which, granted, the spray gun could not make smaller. Why such uniformity? Is there a school that turns out regimented graffitists, or is this the evenhanded hand of God, which, you’ll recall, did write out a warning on the wall of an Assyrian king. Neither seems likely. Then how do the graffitists remain unobserved, even if they work in the wee hours? It is clearly a mystery, but it shouldn’t become a mystique.

To be sure, there is a human yearning for testimony: I lived, I was there, I deserve my bit of immortality. But is every bequest to posterity of equal, indeed any, value? Especially when it can readily be erased or painted over. Still, it may no be a plea for afterlife; it may be there simply for the delectation of the living culprit, who may keep anonymously revisiting the site of his crime and relishing his achievement.

It is not as if writing on walls were ipso fact unsightly. Egyptian hieroglyphs are very easy on the eye even if meaningless to those who can’t read them. They are decorative in their delicacy, something that the modern graffitist cannot claim for his sprawling, heavy, gross and monotonous doodling. To be sure, repetitiousness is earning millions for Warhol, or his heirs; but then, I wouldn’t want a Warhol on my wall either.

Perhaps one of these days my train will break down (it is known to happen) alongside one of these graffiti-bedecked walls, and I’ll be able to decipher its message. Could it be as momentous as the texts in Chinese fortune cookies, which, by the way, have become less pertinent than they used to be.

By a curious coincidence, the day after I wrote this the Times came out (5/19/11) with an article about another kind of “cozy, feminine” graffiti known as yarn bombing, and popping up internationally. We read: “It takes that most matronly craft (knitting) and that most maternal of gestures (wrapping something cold in a warm blanket) and transfers it to the concrete and steel wilds of the urban streetscape. Hydrants, lampposts, mailboxes, bicycles, cars—even objects as big as buses and bridges—have all been bombed in recent years, ever so softly and usually at night.” A yarn bomber, Jessie Hemmons, age 24, is quoted as saying, “Street art and graffiti are usually so male dominated. Yarn bombing is more feminine. It’s like graffiti with grandma sweaters.”

There are evidently no lengths to which would-be artists won’t go to invent arts that can be practiced by the talentless. But you have to hand it to these women that their undertakings are more difficult and gutsy than the spray-painted male version. To see the Hemmons fuchsia-colored, hooded, woolly vest on the bronze Rocky statue near the Philadelphia Museum of Art is at the very least amusing. Which is more than you can say for those charmless male graffiti that are no laughing matter.

Monday, May 16, 2011


Almost as old as the debate about which comes first, the words or the music, is the question of what music means. Otherwise put, is the music saying something specific that the listener can apprehend?

Obviously, a sonata or a string quartet is pure, nonspeaking form. But can’t a tone poem that calls itself Death and Transfiguration say something verbal about death and whatever transfiguration means to the composer, Richard Strauss? Or can another of his tone poems, Thus Spake Zarathustra, convey in music, word for word, what Nietzsche wrote?

The evident answer is No. I recall reading long ago about an experiment conducted with a tone poem played to an audience unacquainted with it, then being asked to write down what it said to them. No two listeners heard the same thing, and no one got from it what the composer thought he had said with it.

We may, of course, ask why a piece of music should “say” anything. Why it should do the work of another art, poetry or drama. But are there perhaps things felt and meant to be expressed in words, which prove, however, ineffable? Can you, for instance, put an orgasm into spoken words? But then again, can you say it in notes?

Or consider “pride”? Can you put into precise words your pride in something your children have accomplished, or in a novel you have written? Can that pride be specifically conveyed to someone else by a certain number of tones in a specified order? You can suggest that it makes you feel good, but then how to convey the quiddity of a good feeling? It makes you happy, but what exactly is “happy”? And how does it differ between having a loved someone return your love and enjoying a rich serving of delicious ice cream?

A piece of music may, granted, be cheerful or mournful, induce a certain mood in you, captivate or repel you, even have you exclaim, “It speaks to me”; but what does it really mean, i.e., say?

It is largely opined that Wagner’s love music in Tristan is erotic. It is said, perhaps accurately, that it arouses erotic feelings, especially in young people, and even provokes masturbation. But surely it does not say, “Go masturbate!” Even that once celebrated pop song, “Gloomy Sunday,” supposedly inducing an international wave of suicides, did not say, “Go kill yourself!” At the utmost, it may have been adopted as a sort of anthem of farewell by those about to die by their own hand. Music may perhaps suggest something, but that is not tantamount to saying it in so many words. Eliciting is not the same as verbalizing.

Certainly music may, somehow, convey or corroborate something. If a character in an opera sings of his love in eloquent words, the music may well confirm his affirmation, make it incomparably more powerful. But would the music say the same thing without being attached to those particular words? Let us assume it could somehow convey the wonder of love. But love of what? A person? A sport? Broccoli?

Still, a stunning edifice by a major architect would seem to say, “Wouldn’t you like to live inside me?” An exquisite painting of a beautiful woman may seem to say, “Don’t you want to make love to me?” Those are meanings of sorts. Then why shouldn’t music have them too? Well, even if a piece of music is called “serenade,” does it necessarily say “I am being played at night by a lover under the beloved’s window”?  It doesn’t. It could just as easily be titled “impromptu” or “intermezzo” or ”meditation.” It is the word “serenade” that can convey the situation, not the same music without that name. A hymn in praise of Bacchus may sound just like the music for a saint’s feast; a dirge may just as easily evoke yearning for a dead lover as an exile’s longing for his homeland. Wedding-procession music may serve as well at halftime in a World Cup soccer match.

A string quartet, however, without a title, is about three or four contrasting movements; beyond that it says nothing in words. The march from The Love for Three Oranges could just as easily be for four oranges or two grapefruits. If we heard it at a time when we were happy, it can remind us of the occasion, wordlessly. That, however, is association, not assertion. You can compare the pleasure it gives to winning a game of tennis. Fun without meaning.

Music, to be sure, can imitate—thunder, a cannonade, funeral bells, or hammering in a smithy. But that is not saying anything about how hard work in a smithy is, or the danger of a hammer blow to your thumb. The music for Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus” affects your senses, but bypasses your mind and, by itself, says nothing. It merely simulates and stimulates the emotions. It is the words to it that speak.

We would like it to say things, though, because speech is a noble utterance when it is not inane babble, wherefore we would wish beloved music to have similarly specific, verbalizable effect. In other words, to mean inarguable things. Yet we have it on no lesser authority than Stravinsky’s declaration that his music, in and of itself, has no meaning whatsoever.

Then again, why should music really mean? It enormously collaborates, indeed stars, in song of every kind, from an operatic aria to a pop song, from a lied to a musical comedy number. That easily absolves it from speaking in any other kind of music. Wordless classical music does, however, speak after a fashion to music critics and scholars who write intricate analytical essays, even books, about it, some of them actually quite readable. As for us laymen, to quote the title of Alex Ross’s valuable book, the rest is noise. But music, to all of us is not mere noise, but wonderful communication without verbal meaning. Or, if you will, meaningless magnificence.

Sunday, May 8, 2011


The current issue of  Harvard Magazine contains the following quotations:

            “In any battle between the literati and the philistines,
            the philistines invariably win.” –- Harry T. Levin, professor
            of comparative literature, following the 1961 court
            ruling adverse to Grove Press, in the Boston censorship
            trial having published Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.
            “I am a professor of comparative literature, not of com-
            parative lust.”— Harry T. Levin, testifying in the same
            trial, responding to the prosecutor’s question: “Profes-
            sor Levin, which do you think would more excite lewd
            and libidinous desires in the mind of a young girl—
            Shakespeare’s ‘Rape of Lucrece’ or Henry Miller’s
            Tropic of Cancer?’”

This perfectly illustrates the wit and wisdom of Harry Levin, chairman of Harvard’s Comp. Lit. department, in which I was a student and, later, assistant in his course “Proust, Mann and Joyce.”  Harry Levin, author of several important books, was also a great scholar and teacher without ever acquiring an advanced degree. He had, however, been one of Harvard’s prestigious Junior Fellows.

Levin was a subtle ironist, a consummate stylist and lecturer, a strict grader, and somebody with whose approval it was unsafe to gamble. I say this as one who had both enjoyed his favor and, on one occasion, incurred his hostility. He and Renato Poggioli were two of my Ph.D. thesis directors, and though alike in brilliance, they couldn’t have been more unlike in temperament. On Levin’s precision and sharpness you could cut yourself; Poggioli was a practitioner of laissez-faire toward both his students and himself. Harry never made the slightest factual error; Renato cheerfully admitted to vagueness concerning such things as exact dates.

About Levin, a famous colleague said, “A dangerous man—you cannot even count on his enmity.” So I experienced in the Lillian Hellman affair, as I dubbed it, in which I incurred his wrath. A fellow graduate student, Richard Defendini, had contracted to supply Hellman with ample specimen passages from Jean Anouilh’s The Lark, which she was adapting for Broadway. The task was to submit translations of chunks of each major character’s speech, so that Hellman (who claimed to know French!) would get a feel for each individual’s language. For a mere hundred dollars, Defendini agreed to a good many pages, but then enlisted my collaboration. We did it, clearly, not for profit, but for prestige.

When Hellman would pay only $50, because the typing was, as she put it, double-spaced, Dick was so disgusted that he left demurring to me. On the phone, I facetiously referred to Hellman’s Calvinism, to which she earnestly replied that she was Jewish. And she remained adamant.  Harry summoned me to his office and reduced me to tears, demanding, on the threat of expulsion, a letter of apology to be overseen by him. He let the letter pass, however, despite a certain irony in its tone.

I go into this to show that nobody is perfect; in this case Levin’s excessive awe as a mere academic vis-a-vis an artist. Still, Levin was a great teacher, though that was in a very different time and, I suspect, at a very different Harvard. I do firmly believe that beyond thorough knowledge of his field and a good deal of general culture, a teacher should be simultaneously instructive and entertaining. Students tend to be an unruly audience, and a bit of humor is an invaluable teaching tool. But there should be no jokes about the grading.

Today, things have come to a pretty pass. Students arrive in college equipped with a well-nourished ignorance, and propose to graduate without any serious tampering with it. I have heard a graduate of an Ivy League institution boast of earning his degree without cracking a single piece of assigned reading. This can be partly the fault of teachers, but as often of administrations, expecting for financial reasons the smallest number of flunkings. Which is where I feel defeated, having my employment at more than one institution of higher learning dropped , stated or unstated, for grading too stiffly.

Even more dispiriting is something else. I was reprimanded by a female department co-chairman for making too many corrections in student papers. I had spent roughly an hour-and-a-half on each, only to be told I should have corrected the major mistakes (whatever those might be), leaving the others alone. Too many corrections were depressing and counterproductive.

So it would seem that our teachers need as much educating as our students. A daunting situation, as is the passing of the buck from grade school to high school to college for such basic skills as grammar and spelling. And that does not even account for dealing with copying from Wikipedia or other, subtler forms of plagiarism.

Can there be a solution for all this? I am sorry to say I don’t know.