#ChoralMarch, March 15th: “Bogoroditse Devo” from All Night Vigil, Sergei Rachmaninov performed by St Petersburg Chamber Choir

On this day in 1915 Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil was first performed. Back in 2013, I conceived of a grandiose plan that performances of this piece could be held contemporaneously on March 15th 2015. I went to the extent of setting up a Gmail address and cold-emailing various choirs worldwide. Most did not reply, understandably, but many did very graciously and even with some intrigue. However, as I had no infrastructure or experience or contacts whatsoever to bring to the enterprise, it predictably fizzled out.

I have posted already about  UCD Choral Scholars and their influence on my sensibility when it comes to choral music. One of the most memorable musical moments of my life was their performance of “Bogoroditse Devo” from the All Night Vigil at a concert in the Belfield Church in 2000. Magically, the vast panorama of Russian history and culture, the Russian land itself,  and beyond that the world of communion with that which is beyond the finite opened up. I travelled since to Birmingham and Limerick to see live performances of this piece, by the Bolshoi Choir and the Lege Artis Choir respectively, both of which were excellent, but the impact of that day in Belfield stays with me.

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Review of “Homesickness: An American History” by Susan Matt, Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 2012

Review of “Homesickness: An American History” by Susan Matt, Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 2012

This is a wonderful book I heartily recommend, indeed re-reading the review I hope the warmth of my recommendation is clear. The balance  Susan Mat strikes between mastery of the academic and theoretical framework and what could best be called common sense (and readability) is highly impressive.

9780195371857

In this review I didn’t have space to expand on the parallels between the State Associations Mat describes (for instance Minnesota or Wisconsin Societites in Chicago or New York) and County Association in Ireland. My father was active in the Sligo Association in Dublin, and at his funeral I was very touched by the many who came to me having been involved in it and also the Galway or Mayo Associations (evidently Connacht folk stick together!) with fond memories of him.

Here is the original link

 

The wonderfully named French physician Louis-Alexandre-
Hippolyte Leroy-Dupré wrote that acute homesickness “becomes
more rare each day thanks to rapid communications which modern
industry is beginning to establish among people who will soon be
nothing more than one big happy family.” One might imagine that
this observation was written for the age of Facebook, Skype and
Twitter, but it is fact over one hundred and fifty years old, dating
from 1846.
Susan J Matt is a historian at Weber State University in Utah; her
specialty is the history of the emotions (a previous book is entitled
“Keeping Up With The Joneses: Envy in American Consumer
Society 1890-1930”) This admirably lucid book, based on primary
sources such as diaries, letters and personal interviews, is an
overview of the history of a particular emotion, homesickness.
American society is famously built on the archetype of the pioneer,
the rugged individualist, cheerfully moving on from place to place
without demur. This archetype finds different forms; the
immigrant, the cowboy, the “Organisation Man”, the pilgrim
settler, but all have in common a sense of perpetual motion and
freedom from ties.
As with all archetypes and grand narratives, the details of reality
were very different. Very many pioneers and immigrants returned,
despite the social pressures to remain. Matt places centre stage
the men and women who actually lived these experiences, and
who were often beset by overwhelming homesickness. This was
especially so for women, less in control of their destiny than men.
From the first settlers on, thoughts of home contended with the
various religious, political and economic motives for perpetual
motion. While official rhetoric emphasised the importance of
forging on with the pioneer spirit, diaries and letters allow Matt to
reconstruct the emotional lives often lost to history.
In 1865, twenty –four Union soldiers officially died of nostalgia [2019 note – I should have said “the official cause of death for 24 Union soldiers was nostalgia].
Among the American forces in World War 1, only one casualty had
a cause of death listed as nostalgia. Matt records the varying
opinions of psychiatrists, alienists on physicians on the causes and
management of nostalgia-as-an-illness. Contemporary concerns
such as racial and ethnic purity (“weaker” ethnicities such as the
Irish and Southern Europeans were often held to be more
susceptible) and venereal disease were implicated as risk factors
for nostalgia cases.
Over the later nineteenth century and into the twentieth, public
attitudes to homesickness hardened. Once, children who crossed
thousands of miles to return from boarding schools to families
were celebrated. Their attachment to home was seen as evidence
of a tender sensibility. How homesickness was addressed by the
military in the various wars in the era Matt’s history covers is
revealing. Armies have to balance the motivating power of
attachment to country with the demotivating power of separation
from that same country. In the American Civil War, homesickness
among soldiers was seen as evidence of a nobility of nature. This
attitude persisted through the century. The sole nostalgia fatality of
the Spanish-American War of 1898 was treated with great
sympathy bordering on glorification by the contemporary media.
The inter-war years saw the cultural shift gain momentum. This
was the era where the child rearing “expert” began to opine in
the popular press; no less a figure than the seminal behaviourist
John Watson weighs in on the importance of avoiding excessive
affection with one’s children. The following fifty years saw the
denigration of homesickness gain pace. Where the home-loving
children of previous eras were celebrated, now over attachment to
parents and to home was seen as “sissifying” and a manifestation
of “Momism.” An ethic of universal cheerfulness which celebrated
the “can-do” spirit further cast homesickness into disrepute. The
interests of corporate America were in creating a mobile workforce,
ready to cross the continent at short notice. While this is not a
matter that Matt discusses, this aspect did get me thinking how
the anti-family jeremiads of R D Laing and David Cooper ironically
dovetailed neatly with this corporate imperative. Perhaps, as the
Marxists say, there are no accidents.
Anti-homesickness rhetoric persists today, although the picture is
complicated by the rise of technologies which allow instantaneous
communication, and the global availability of familiar brands. Yet
these developments are palliatives for homesickness, not cures.
Skype, Facebook and similar technologies allow a certain abolition
of distance, and Matt shows how they have perhaps helped in the
rehabilitation of homesickness as a valid public emotion. Indeed,
one of her themes is “the surprising persistence of the extended
family” and how emotions and their expression can be moulded
and shaped by social forces, but are also strangely resistant to them
Indeed, this is a history of the resilience of homesickness, despite
everything. So many approaches in contemporary humanities
emphasise the contingent and socially constructed nature of
things; what Matt manages to do is to acknowledge the role of
social and economic pressures while making a strong case that
emotions are less fungible than theorists, pundits and social
engineers of all political hues would believe. There is also very little
of the jargon and theoretical ballast which many contemporary
historians freight their work
Matt’s title clearly indicates that this is an American history of
homesickness, but the book is of great interest to an Irish
readership too. The Irish immigrant experience abroad is of course
familiar to most of us; a sizable chunk of Irish popular music is
eloquent testimony to the force of homesickness. More
fundamentally, homesickness is a universal emotion; all readers will
find someone to identify with among the lives Matt describes. We
may not always go through the same social transformations as
America at the same time, but we always seem to get round to
them sooner or later. In our age of ghost estates and resurgent
emigration, many of the concerns of the book seem all too
relevant.
Academic careers rival medical careers in demanding frequent
moves (and in requiring a certain insouciance as the proper
response.) In her acknowledgements, Matt salutes her husband
and observes “since we met in Ithaca, New York, in 1990, we have
lived in six different states and travelled many places, but no matter
where we are, when I am with him, I am home.” It is a poignant
note, and one which sets the tone for a humane and thought-
provoking work.
firstpage-s0790966700017663a-1

“Shopping Centre” – a poem from September 2007

Came across this rather randomly lately, will leave it as is, with its hilariously unsubtle allusions to this and that intact, as  a memorial of pre-bust Ireland:

Shopping Centre.

Time outside time is still time.

Clean floors shine. Clean escalators, eternal
As they disappear and reappear, shine. Screens
Shine. Shops shine. Glass and air shine. As in a casino, no
Sign of time here.

Try and avoid anything as obvious as disdain. Try and accept
This shining universe as all that is the case.
These clean floors, these clean escalators, eternally
Dis- and Re-appearing, this timeless void, this void
Filled with sales and selling, shining.

Time outside time is still time.
The shopping centre is on still time.
Amidst the repetition of escalators, elevators, shoppers, sales
You achieve a kind of eternity.

Geoffrey Langlands RIP: major, Dieppe Raid survivor, educationalist, 97 year old coup leader

I had never heard of Geoffrey Langlands, who has died in Lahore aged 101, until coming across his death on Wikipedia’s Recent Deaths page.  His Wikipedia page has been subjected to a fair bit of editing since I first read it, with some of the more colourful phrasing being removed.

Like many long-lived folk, Langlands lived a full life. Aged one, his father died in the flu pandemic of 1918, like a son of Drangan (who also lost his mother) HIs mother died of cancer ten years later. Ultimately he became a teacher, and on the outbreak of World War II joined the army, surviving the disastrous Dieppe Raid (one wonders how many other survivors are left) and receiving an emergency commission in the then British Indian Army. Electing to remain in Pakistan on Independence (and Partition) as a military trainer, he began a storied educational career at firstly the “Eton of Pakistan”, Aitchison College, and later started his own school. Current Prime Minister, cricket legend and reformed playboy Imran Khan, is among the many elite pupils of Langlands over the years.

This story in the Daily Telegraph (where else?)  marked his retirement at 95:

Five years separate Major Geoffrey Langlands from his centenary, so it was to be expected that he would remain in his chair during the show marking his retirement from the school high in the Hindu Kush that bears his name. Yet, even at the age of 95, the old boy is far too wily to let a photo opportunity slip by. When pupils of Langlands School and College broke into a folk dance from their native Chitral, he was up, walking stick discarded, twirling around, hands raised above his head. The boys and girls of the school whooped with delight as their old principal temporarily abolished the passing years, mobbing him as he danced. Langlands, last survivor of the Raj, certainly knows how to work a crowd. “How do you follow that?” asks Carey Schofield, the woman who arranged the surprise party in Langlands’ honour on Tuesday. “It is very hard to take over from the Major. He is quite literally irreplaceable.”

Carey Schofield was to discover just how literally irreplaceable he was. In  2013 however it was all going so well:

In post for only a few weeks, Miss Schofield has forsaken her home near London’s fashionable Sloane Square for a mountain fastness. So why, at the age of 59, has she abandoned an enviable lifestyle in Britain to come here?

“Because it would be nice to make a difference,” she says, speaking for the first time about her new job. “It is good in middle age to be able to do something useful. The College and its associated primary schools educate a thousand pupils. If we can turn them around it will improve a thousand young lives. The job is daunting but worth doing.”

And the Taliban? “Chitral is safer than Chelsea. There have been a few incidents but most of them involve goat rustling, not terrorism. There was a bad incident in 2011 when members of the Chitral Scouts were killed during an attack from Afghanistan but that was further south. Chitral is unlike the rest of the North-West Frontier, more tranquil. The risk is very slight.”

.

The risk from the Taliban might have been very slight, but from another source the risk was more substantial. Fast forward to another Telegraph article two years later:

Pakistan is rather used to military coups, but even by its standards the attempted putsch at one of its leading schools is somewhat unusual.

 

The protagonists are Major Geoffrey Langlands, who stepped down from his post as the school’s principal in 2013 and his anointed successor, Carey Schofield.

 

Whether he was unhappy in retirement or displeased at how the school was being run, Major Langlands, 97, decided he should resume control of the institution which bears his name and numbers a number of the country’s leading pupils among its alumni.

 

The old boys include Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the interior minister, who was enlisted by the major in his attempt to oust Miss Schofield.

With Miss Schofield, 61, in London, Mr Khan was persuaded to revoke her visa, effectively preventing her from resuming her post.

Believing he had ousted his rival Major Langlands returned to the school at Chitral in the North West Province to resume control.

In case you are feeling Torygraphed-out, we can turn to The Grauniad for the resolution of this episode:

Carey Schofield was greeted by crowds of parents and teachers when she finally flew into the former princely state of Chitral last week after a spectacular falling out with Geoffrey Langlands, a celebrated Raj-era army officer who taught a generation of Pakistan’s political leaders.

Her return was made possible by the decision of the school’s entire staff to travel more than a thousand miles on a rickety school bus to lobby Langlands to drop his opposition to Schofield, whom he accused of mismanagement and overspending.

I am glad to report that Carey Schofield is evidently of a forgiving disposition, if her contribution to Langland’s subsequent 100th Birthday party is any guide:

Principal Langlands School Ms. Carey Scholfield spoke of Langlands’ services to the country.

Review of Robert Pogue Harrison’s “Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition”, Nthposition 2009

Another review of mine from the departed nthposition.com. I quite enjoyed this from Robert Pogue Harrison. And  I am now even further along my immersion in the “dull adult world”, ten years later.

 

Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition

Robert Pogue Harrison

University of Chicago Press.

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In adolescence, gardening seems to embody the dull adult world. Why waste time weeding and pruning and mowing when you could be listening to some angry young band or other convince you that the world is there for the easy changing, or wrapping you in a comically soggy blanket of miserabilism? As you get older gardening begins to gain some appeal, though if you need some convincing of the value of it Robert Pogue Harrison’s book is invaluable.

 

Harrison is the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature at Stanford University, and has previously written on forests and on graves. He is poetic, digressive, discursive – with some respect for the sciences of botany and horticulture, but ultimately siding with poets (especially female ones).  “When it comes to speculation about origins we would do better to credit the intuition of poets rather than the conventional wisdom.”

 

Harrison begins with Voltaire’s injunction at the end of Candide  that “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” and ends with Firmin in Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano haunted in his alcoholic despair by his own mistranslation of a sign encouraging us not to destroy este jardín  on a neighbouring municipal garden. Firmin believes the sign is really a statement of threat, and one of Harrson’s themes is the Western perception of life as being all about force and purpose. We are “driven but aimless” in his conception, and he writes well and passionately about our times of goal-setting and to-do lists but of nothing beyond narcissism to do.

 

Harrrison rather grudgingly gives us a note on Versailles, which for him is incarnates “highly refined vice…The cultivation of envy, spite, pride or greed does not transform those vices into virtues: on the contrary, by submitting them to extremely regimented rules and protocols, it gives them a style that renders them sublime while leaving their vicious essence intact.” The majesty of Versailles is exactly that, majesty, and for Harrison the vast scale and order of the place incarnate a certain evil.

 

He writes of the magic gardens of Gilgamesh and the Garden of Eden, ideal pleasure gardens perhaps but ones which humankind could not bear for very long. Think of Odysseus desperate to leave Circe’s idyll. For Harrison, humanity was shaped by Care (personified in an ancient fable as moulding and naming humanity) and needs to exercise Care to achieve fulfillment. Gardening is the epitome of care taking –  all gardeners are constant gardeners. The Czech author Karel Capek (who coined the word “robot”) is a particular favourite. His “The Gardeners Year” is the source of some of Harrison’s most impressive and thought-provoking reflections. For Capek, before becoming a real gardener, “a certain maturity, or let us say paternity, is necessary” – in youth, one “eats the fruits of life which one has not produced oneself” and one believes a flower is “what one carries in a buttonhole, or presents a girl with.” The gardener is concerned with long time, with the future in the broadest sense.

 

Gardens and thought are closely related. A garden can be the most exciting place in the world, a place suspended in time, away from the world and yet part of the world. For Harrison, a garden should not be isolated from the world around it, for to be a “still centre of the world” requires the tension that comes from the presence of the world. He writes about Plato’s Academy, a garden for training future leaders, and contrasts it with Epicurus’ Garden School with its principled “idiocy” or withdrawal from public life and competition, and cultivation of gardening and friendship.

 

We read of princely gardens intended to embody state power, of university gardens, of Japanese gardens, of the convent gardens profaned by Boccacio’s heroes, of the gardens of the homeless in New York City. The book is wide ranging, allusive, and erudite, but it is not authoritative or definitive. There is no Montaigne, or Shakespeare. There is no Garden of Forking Paths. Harrison deals with monastic gardens incredibly briefly and dismissively. His big ideas are at times fascinating, at times tendentious. He devotes much energy to suggesting that the faultline between Islam and the “west” is partly due to the specificity of the Islamic conception of paradise as a pleasure garden of fulfillment, versus the vagueness of the Christian, which may indeed involve further yearning. More profitable is his use of Orlando Furioso as a key text to understand the chaotic nihilism of modernism.

 

We stray quite far from the garden in the later pages of the essay, and one is relieved to get back to the firm earth. If the gardener is opposed to anything, it is to nihilism. The garden is life-affirming because of its very insistence on care and need for care. Care is what makes life worthwhile, and in Harrison’s reading it was Eve who agitated to get out of the Garden of Eden because everything there was provided all too easily.

 

 

 

Against the inspirational

A while back I posted about what I called the Inspirational Imperative; the pressure to craft suffering and distress and setbacks into more-easily-digestible, feelgood stories of “inspiration.”

The need to be “inspirational” can become like the “the success-failure whiplash”, wherein our identities become caught up in how inspirational and positive we can be.

An addiction, not unlike that to being busy or being responsible for others’ pain.

A pressure.

“The pilgrimage is not all plain sailing, not all peak experience.” Hype breeds disillusion. Most of all, our own internal hype, one that is pumped up and primed and built up by technology and our media-saturated lives – but is also something perpetual in human life.

 

We reach for quick fixes,  practice solutionism, search for the new New Thing.

We are continually being asked, “what then?”:

His chosen comrades thought at school
He must grow a famous man;
He thought the same and lived by rule,
All his twenties crammed with toil;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘What then?’

Everything he wrote was read,
After certain years he won
Sufficient money for his need,
Friends that have been friends indeed;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘ What then?’

All his happier dreams came true —
A small old house, wife, daughter, son,
Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,
poets and Wits about him drew;
‘What then.?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘What then?’

The work is done,’ grown old he thought,
‘According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
Something to perfection brought’;
But louder sang that ghost, ‘What then?’ 

When the viral video’s hits have plateaued, when the few seconds rush of Inspiration is gone, when any “success” has been achieved, there is always a “what then?”

I’ll end this post by simply saying that we all have our own Plato’s Ghost. But who is yours?

Here is a post on my other blog “A Medical Education” inspired by a passage in Helen Pearson’s “The Life Project”, which I reviewed in the TLS.

An understandable tendency to include as much potentially useful information as possible seemed to have created massive, and ultimately unworkable cohorts. The Life Study would have generated vast data sets: “80,000 babies, warehouses of stool samples of placentas, gigabytes of video clips, several hundred thousand questionnaires and much more” (the history of the 1982 study repeated itself, perhaps.) Then there is the recruitment issue. Pregnant women volunteering for the Life Study would “travel to special recruitment centres set up for the study and then spend two hours there, answering questions and giving their samples of urine and blood.” Perhaps the surprise is that 249 pregnant women actually did volunteer for this.

This passage has come back to me. Aside from the methodological issue of study design, there is a wider issue of trying to do too much of a (seemingly) good thing.

I am brought back to another brief snatch of a book I have stolen for a post, from “The Monks of Tibhirine” by John W Kiser:

I also began to better understand why my exposure to the Trappist culture had a certain resonance for me. Simplicity is one reason. Doing less, not more, and doing those fewer things more intensely, are values in perpetual struggle in a world that is always offering more – more activities, more choices, more means of communication, things that distract and require decisions. Trappists have stripped their lives down to a simple triad of prayer, study and manual labour. They have made only one decision: to love and praise God in the  Trappist way.

And, a more recent post here featuring the holiday thoughts of David Mamet:

I thought: we are an Urban people, and the Urban solution to most any problem is to do more: to find something new to eat in order to lose weight; to add a sound in order to relax, to upgrade your living arrangements in order to be comfortable, to buy more, to eat more, to do more business