The Director’s Chair – April 2017

How close can we get to life? What can get us there? Prayer? Meditation? Drugs? Why do we make the assumption that there is something standing between us and the experience of living? How many of us are aware of every moment of our day?

Lots of questions to start the month off with. However, the books I read in April are all about these questions, though not by design. Gerald Durrell was a keen observer of the world around him and it shows spectacularly in his writing. Victor Frankl’s classic book is an analytical addition to holocaust literature and to psychology. Ocean Vuong’s poetry was, perhaps, the best way for me to get closer to life, but then words, words, words don’t always do it for everyone. And Oratorio for Prague was a unique way of looking at the past to remind us of our possible future. All of these can be found in the library’s collection.

A list of material read, listened to or watched:

My Family and Other Animals   [FICTION DURRELL]
Durrell, Gerald

Man’s Search for Meaning    [SOCIAL SCIENCE 150.198 FRA]
Frankl, Viktor E.

Night Sky With Exit Wounds   [NEW BOOK POETRY 811.6 VUE]
Vuong, Ocean

Oratorio for Prague   [DVD 943.7104 ORA]
Nemec, Jan, director

Rough Guide to English Folk   [Available through HOOPLA]

My Family and Other Animals

 

Last year PBS aired a series called The Durrells in Corfu. The series is a dramatization of a trilogy written by Gerald Durrell, the first book of which is My Family and Other Animals (there is a movie of that name that was made in 2005 that was very entertaining and a TV series that aired in 1987). It tells the story of a family that moves from England to the Greek island of Corfu in 1935, all the while going from a cranky, frustrated group blossoming into an actual, caring family. It is an entertaining six episodes that you should watch (especially since it has been renewed for another season).

Gerald Durrell’s book is worth reading, even if you have seen the series or any of the other dramatizations. My Family and Other Animals is rich in characterizations and the poetry of living in this, for the Durrells, exotic location. Durrell writes with a naturalist’s eye and a poet’s sensibility.

“With March came the spring, and the island was flower-filled, scented and a-flutter with new leaves. The cypress trees that had tossed and hissed during the winds of winter now stood straight and sleek against the sky, covered with a misty coat of greenish-white cones. Waxy yellow crocuses appeared in great clusters, bubbling out among the tree-roots and tumbling down the banks. Under the myrtles, the grape-hyacinths lifted buds like magenta sugar-drops, and the gloom of the oak-thickets was filled with the dim smoke of a thousand blue day-irises. Anemones, delicate and easily wind-bruised, lifted ivory flowers the petals of which seemed to have been dipped in wine…”

It is also full of humor and the obvious appreciation of Gerald for his often exceedingly eccentric family. As the story begins, Louisa, the matriarch of the family, has been widowed for eight years and is struggling to keep her family afloat financially. Lawrence, the eldest son, is a self-absorbed, opinionated would-be writer, who will actually become a famous author in time. Margo, the only daughter, is looking for herself and love; and Leslie is a gun-enthusiast also looking for fulfillment. Finally, there is Gerald, the ten-year-old son obsessed with ‘critters’ and bringing home copious quantities of fauna in all sizes and shapes.

Their world was inhabited by all manner of personalities: Spiro the helpful anglophile; Theo the aristocratic amateur naturalist; Lugaretzia, the long-suffering domestic, and a succession of tutors and artists all brightly outlined by Durrell. As for the natural world, there is one epic struggle between a gecko named Geronimo and a mantis named Cicely that highlights Gerald’s passion for the natural world. One has to wonder what would have become of him if the family had stayed in England.

 

Man’s Search for Meaning

Victor Frankl was a philosopher, neurologist and psychiatrist who developed the theory of logotherapy, which “focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man’s search for such a meaning.” In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl spends the first two-thirds of the book outlining some of his experiences while caught up in the Nazi concentration camps. After reading that, it might be easy to see how someone could be concerned with looking for meaning in life. “Under the influence of a world which no longer recognized the value of human life and human dignity, which had robbed man of his will and had made him an object to be exterminated (having planned, however, to make full use of him first—to the last ounce of his physical resources)—under this influence the personal ego finally suffered a loss of values.”

How do we lose site of the value of an individual life? Larger events sometimes overtake us. People often need something to believe in or to blame in order to take their minds off of reality. So whether it is racial or religious differences, nationalism, economic fears, or something else, we look outside ourselves to explain our inherent powerlessness in the face of life’s seeming arbitrariness. Those caught up in these larger events are often helpless, bewildered, defiant, or lost. You can see this in pictures taken since the American Civil War, in World War I, in pictures from the Armenian genocide, the Bosnian and Serbian genocides, what is going on now in Syria, and certainly pictures from the Holocaust, among others. These show people caught up in events beyond their control, and it is those events that expose the blackness of the human condition: “Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil? The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp.”

Frankl must have been an extraordinary man to have been able to look into that darkness and to have climbed out again with both logic and reason intact. Man’s Search for Meaning tells of Frankl’s experiences as a prelude to his outline of logotherapy (and it is only an outline, consisting of just over thirty pages). Logotherapy, in many ways, reminds me of Buddhism: “Logotherapy in neither teaching nor preaching. It is as far removed from logical reasoning as it is from moral exhortation…The logotherapist’s role consists of widening and broadening the visual field of the patient so that the whole spectrum of potential meaning becomes conscious and visible to him.” Is this not enlightenment?

I can see why Frankl’s book was popular. It is short and has a conversational tone. He looks at the human condition, not as one would look at a rat in a maze but, as a result of free will and free choice. “A human being is not one thing among other; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining….Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.” It is an attractive philosophy.

 

Oratorio for Prague

The year 1968 was a particularly ugly one. The Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, TN on April 4 and Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles in June; Chicago was rocked by a clash of wills between the infamous Mayor Richard J. Daley and Viet Nam war protestors at the Democratic National Convention; earlier in the year a North Korean patrol seized the USS Pueblo. May 6 saw violent protests in Paris, the same month that saw the flowering of the Prague Spring.

 

Czechoslovakia had been a Soviet satellite country for twenty years, but in 1968 the government of Alexander Dubcek began to steer the country towards democratization, much to the displeasure of Moscow. Ironically, Russia was coming to the end of its own experiment in the loosening of government controls that followed the death of Stalin and renewing censorship of writers and filmmakers.

 

Dubcek enacted reforms on April 5 in order to bring more political and social freedom to his country, bring a greater popular enthusiasm to Czechoslovakians. However, it only lasted about four months. During that time, Jan Nemec and his crew were in Prague filming what would become known as the Prague Spring: people enjoying themselves, dancing, students listening to speeches—what looks like optimism. The cameras were also there when, on August 20th, the first Soviet tanks rolled through the city to reassert the authority of the Kremlin.

 

The official word from Moscow was that the Russians had been invited in by the Czech government to avert what Moscow claimed was an imminent invasion of the Sudetenland by West Germany. In reality, Moscow was simply its sphere of influence represented by the Warsaw Pact (the Soviet counterpart to NATO). Nemec’s film turned out to be the only film of the invasion. It would be seen, when televised, by over 600 million people. Still, the world did not react. America was deeply embroiled in its own war in Southeast Asia and had just had a standoff with Moscow over missiles in Cuba that seemed to bring the world perilously close to nuclear war. Cooler heads prevailed.

 

The images are disturbing, though they are not as graphic as we have come to expect. There is blood on the pavement, bodies covered by a flag, distraught residents of the city arguing with Russian soldiers. Ultimately, the Czechs were powerless to resist the collective might of the Soviet troops. Dubcek capitulated, was arrested and eventually expelled from the Communist Party and sent into exile.

Oratorio for Prague is a document of 1968 told in images. There is a simplicity to the film that makes it all the more powerful. This is a tale subtly told, but it is not an unusual one. It happened in Hungary in 1956, in Ukraine in 2014, and can easily happen tomorrow.

 

Night Sky With Exit Wounds

Some people get their altered perceptions through drugs or alcohol. The Chinese sages and the Greeks were profuse in their praise of wine for being able to show them truths, in vino veritas (yes, I know this is Latin, but do you know the Greek? I don’t.) While I have an appreciation for wine that goes beyond the pedestrian, I prefer to have my eyes opened by words, especially in the hands of a good poet.

“……I didn’t know the cost

of entering a song—was to lose

your way back.”

His poetry is uncompromising, like most good poetry. And like most good poetry, it needs to be read slowly and painfully, slowing the reader’s heartbeat like a meditation. Each beat an accent of the line in front of you. The breath slows. The head clears, if only for a moment, making you more aware of your surroundings. It can be a shock to the system, realizing how unaware we are of our life.

“…If you must know anything, know that the hardest task is to live only once.”

I think more people would read poetry or listen to it if they knew it could clean out the inherent mediocrity of constant noise that passes for culture but is, in reality, politico-commercial flatulence of the age.

“…There is so much

I need to tell you—but I only earned

one life. & I took nothing.”

As for the author, Ocean Vuong was born in Viet Nam in 1988. He came to America two years later. He now lives in New York City, in Brooklyn. Born Vinh Quoc Vuong, his mother renamed him Ocean.

 

Rough Guide to English Folk

For such a small island, Great Britain has a really lively folk music scene, as can be attested to with this audio file [available through Hoopla]. The selections go from contemporary to traditional, so there should be something here for everyone who appreciates unique music. It features one of my favorite performers, Northumbrian piper Katherine Tickell, playing “The Wedding/Because He Was a Bonny Lad.” There is also a rousing rendition of “Yarmouth Town” by the recently defunct band Bellowhead.

A great find was the music of Coope Boyes & Simpson, an a capella group currently touring the UK in their final tour. Their music has a real authentic feel to it with close harmonies and songs of the sea, and the file is very generous with 14 tracks of their music.

The Rough Guide music series can be an effective introduction to world music. I have enjoyed both the Hungarian music CD and the Arabic music download. There is a world of music out there. Hoopla (found under our “Digital Library” sources) can be a good place to explore.

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