Shared Secrets

Within moments of having laid eyes on Schemselnihar, the Prince of Persia begins “swallow[ing] large draughts of the delicious poison of love.”

The blossoming romance perturbs Aboulhassan Ebn Thaher, a widely respected local druggist in whose shop the lovers’ initial encounter takes place. The Prince of Persia—or more precisely, Aboulhassan Ali Ebn Becar—is “of the blood royal of Persia”, to be sure, and a worthy match for Schemselnihar. It’s the latter’s relationship to the ruling Caliph Haroun Alraschid—she’s widely known as “the first favorite of our sovereign master”—that gives Ebn Thaher pause.

Ebn Thaher warns the prince against his “direful and fatal passion”, which “will plunge you in an abyss from which you can never again extricate yourself.” His warnings assume heightened exigency when a second rendezvous, in Schemselnihar’s personal palace, is cut short by the unexpected arrival of the caliph himself. The pair of visitors narrowly escape in a rowboat on the river Tigris.

The forlorn lovers begin sending each other letters, upon the violation of whose secrecy “the caliph’s anger will first fall on Schemselnihar; the prince will assuredly lose his life,” Ebn Thaher insists. Things become worse when the druggist, acutely perceiving the “dreadful consequences of their proceedings”, abandons Baghdad for Balsora, leaving the lovers without a trusted communication channel.

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A scene from Arabian Nights, illustrated by Anton Pieck.

From these events unfolds an intricate network of uncertainty, deception, and trust, bearing, moreover, vital import. Continue reading

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Proust’s Envelopes

Monsieur Charles Swann is artistically inclined (but primarily as a collector), musically gifted (though sharpest as a critic), and “a particular friend of the Comte de Paris”. The appearance of a painting from his collection (on loan at the Corot) in the pamphlet for the Figaro serves—en fin de compte—as nothing more than an occasion for his abasement at the hands of the narrator’s jealous great-aunt. His artistic talents are squandered on the decoration of old society ladies’ drawing rooms. In his occasional spare moments, he tinkers with an ever-unfinished essay on Vermeer of Delft.

Odette de Crécy, on the other hand, arouses in him—at least at first—nothing more than feelings of indifference.

It’s no wonder, then, that what finally moves Swann’s heart—what sets in motion a helpless, protracted infatuation—is Swann’s sudden recognition, in Odette, of a likeness to a figure with ancient significance: Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter, as she appears in Botticelli’s The Youth of Moses.

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Detail of Moses and Zipporah’s daughters, from Botticelli’s The Youth of Moses.

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Losing Count

Edmond Dantès is a promising young sailor growing up in the French fishing village of Marseilles. Just as he is preparing to accept the captainship of his vessel and to marry the love of his life, Dantès is framed as a Bonapartist, a heinous crime in the eyes of the Royalist regime of early 19th century France. The Count of Monte Cristo tells the epic tale of Dantès’s imprisonment within the grim Chateau D’If, his eventual escape, and his protracted revenge against the three men who plotted his downfall. We hear the stories of bandits, smugglers, and aristocrats; we’re taken from the southern coast of France to the mountain villages of the Orient to the raucous Roman Carnival. In the process, we’re faced with a challenge to our previously-held notions of good and evil, which are twisted and bent by the story of the Count.

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A depiction of Monte Cristo’s coat of arms (credit M. Gulin)

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Poison and Medicine

Anton Chekhov’s short stories tend to feature ordinary characters in commonplace situations. In spite of this, these stories proffer a palpable, though often intangible, profundity. On close inspection, this profundity seems to reflect the fact that Chekhov’s stories, though on their face commonplace, address issues which are deeply philosophical, and which strike upon fundamental questions of human nature. My Wife is no exception.

Middle-ranking official and former engineer Mr. Ansorin is married to Ms. Natalie Ansorin; their marriage has descended into cold indifference marked by only sporadic hostility. They, along with Bragin, a fat, oafish man who was once handsome, and Sable, a friendly country doctor with a taste for good food, and drink, organize a committee aimed at bringing relief to a local village struck by famine. Ansorin, however, encounters a pervasive malaise, which only gets worse as he, a man of means, funds the relief effort.

Ansorin eventually finds that his discomfort stems not from his actions, which are, no doubt, admirable, but from his motives. Continue reading

Art Songs

\begin{array}{l l} \text{Parlo d'amor vegliando,} & \text{Whatsoe'er I am doing,} \\ \text{Parlo d'amor sognando,} & \text{Whatsoe'er I'm pursuing,} \\ \text{All' acqua, all' ombra, ai monti,} & \text{In sunshine or in showers,} \\ \text{Ai fiori, all' erbe, ai fonti, ...} & \text{At home or midst the flowers, ...} \\ \text{All' ecco---all' aria---a venti,} & \text{I sigh---I pant---I languish,} \\ \text{Che il suon de vani accenti, ...} & \text{In bliss that throbs like anguish, ...} \\ \end{array}

Sung by the pubescent, flirtatious Cherubino (he’s played by a soprano), these words are notable for their arresting meter and rhyme, the heavenly beauty of their melody, and, well, their humor. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro—recently performed fantastically by the Peabody Opera Theater—presents such an explosive combination of theatricality, musicality, and hilarity as to make Mozart come across as a supernatural genius.

Only later did I learn that Mozart did not work alone [1]. The Felix Krull-esque French man-of-the-world Pierre Beaumarchais originally wrote the French play Le Mariage de Figaro in 1784; only then did Lorenzo Da Ponte, an equally fascinating Italian librettist, translate the play into Italian, excise a tirade against inherited nobility (thus making the play acceptable to the censors), and set certain of its passages to meter and rhyme. These developments, finally, prepared the way for Mozart to set music to the entire work, which premiered in 1786. The libretto’s rhymed passages became the opera’s arias.

This realization, in fact, placed Mozart into a long tradition within classical music. Continue reading

Blurred Lines

The mere word Lolita immediately conjures unsavory images of pedophilia, incest and murder. I was surprised, then, upon reading Nabokov’s classic, to find that it was one of the best books I had ever read, but often for banal reasons.

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Renoir’s Girl with Pink Bonnet, displayed at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, which I just had the pleasure of visiting last week.

It’s often the sunlit scenes, not the sordid ones, which stick out most in my memory. Describing her tennis game:

My Lolita had a way of raising her bent left knee at the ample and springy start of the service cycle when there would develop and hang in the sun for a second a vital web of balance between toed foot, pristine armpit, burnished arm and far back-flung racket, as she smiled up with gleaming teeth at the small globe suspended so high in the zenith of the powerful and graceful cosmos she had created for the express purpose of falling upon it with a clean resounding crack of her golden whip.

He describes chess the way only a chess player could.

In my chess sessions with Gaston I saw the board as a square pool of limpid water with rare shells and stratagems rosily visible upon the smooth tessellated bottom, which to my confused adversary was all ooze and squid-cloud.

“I suppose,” he adds, “I am especially susceptible to the magic of games.”

It all sounds so natural, so reasonable. Only when the reader recalls the appalling content of some of the book’s other pages does the cruel flippancy of the author’s testament come into focus. Games? How, at a time like this, could he be talking about games? Continue reading

The Philosopher

“I know dusk / And dawn, rising like a multitude of doves. / What men have only thought they’d seen, I’ve seen,” [1, p. 89] writes the late-1800s French poet Arthur Rimbaud, in a quote elevated by his latest translators, Jeremy Harding and John Sturrock, to their edition’s back cover.

It is telling that Harding and Sturrock choose this quote. These scholars characterize Rimbaud’s style as one infused by “a disordering of all the senses” (Rimbaud’s words) “often with the aid of alcohol and drugs” (their words). Rimbaud was only 15 when he abandoned his native Charleville for Paris, where he was arrested for not paying his train fare. By 17, he had been taken in more stably by Paul Verlaine, a young leader of Paris’ so-called Parnassian school of poets, whose wife and in-laws Rimbaud then taunted by demanding the removal of a picture from one of their walls and by “vandalizing an ivory Christ” [1, p. xxv], and, later, through the developing homosexuality of his relationship with Verlaine. Under the protection of another poet, Théodore de Banville, Rimbaud allegedly “slept in his boots, smashed the china and sold the furniture” [1, p. xxvi], and also stripped in front of an open window and threw his clothes onto the roof. Rimbaud later joined the avant-garde Zutistes’ circle, who “convened for regular drinking sessions in a hotel overlooking the Boulevard St Michel” [1, pp. xxvi-xxvii]. By 21, famously, Rimbaud had abandoned poetry forever, travelling around Europe and eventually settling as a colonial trader in Africa. He died at 37.

Rimbaud’s “disordering”, Harding and Sturrock write, was most of all one of the self itself, which in his poetry “is wilfully distended and distressed, offering the maximum surface area to which unusual information… can adhere” [1, p. xxiv].

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This “meme” used to be visible in the library’s basement floor outside the darkened, locked door of a graduate student carrell.

Just how Rimbaud’s poetry achieves its striking character is perhaps too subtle to write down. Surprising insight, though, might be gained through the eliminative materialist ideas of the modern philosopher Paul Churchland. Continue reading