Today we mark the first anniversary of The Berkshire Review for the Arts. Our group of writers and critics has grown considerably since then, and so has our traffic. While we were fortunate to attract a sizable group of readers from the beginning, it has grown over the course of 2008 to an average of over 103,000 “hits” and 72,000 pages read per month, peaking at over twice that in June. While I am celebrating the anniversary by redesigning the site to handle our increasing flow of “content” (Very little of this change will be visible to readers, although it will be possible to respond, blog-fashion, to each and every article and review we post.), it is also fitting to reflect on some of the issues that were in the air back then.
In my first commentary (still accessible on The Berkshire Artsblog) I commented on a number of local and larger issues. The Berkshire Eagle had started the summer of 2007 with a critique of Tanglewood, preaching doom over a relatively minor deficit in the BSO’s books and flagging attendance, and urging the management to open the grounds to pop bands. A highly respected young British scholar who was employed by an American institution was denied entrance to the US for unstated reasons—a gesture typical of our government’s opaque modus operandi and an outrage to the musical and academic communities. The conflict between the Swiss installation artist, Christoph Büchel, and Mass MoCA was growing uglier and uglier, as the gallery decided to display his unfinished work under tarps, supposedly avoiding liability that way. Neither party looked good. On the world stage, President Bush took the moral high ground over a MoveOn.org ad, which was more juvenile than subversive. Most of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, followed suit, revealing that Americans’ unquestioning reverence for military brass is as much a subconscious fixation as a shibboleth. Like the Commander in Chief, I was disgusted, but for different reasons.
In 2007 Tanglewood offered a brilliant festival, rich in period instrument groups (thanks primarily to NL, an important Dutch cultural initiative in the Berkshires), which was also well-attended. They have followed it with an equally fine season this year, disappointing in historical performance, but deeply rewarding in the Elliott Carter hundredth birthday celebrations and two magnificent opera performances, Berlioz’ Les Troyens under James Levine, and Eugene Onegin under Andrew Davis. Tanglewood, although its long history has made it prone to nostalgia, continues to become more vital. If the Eagle mounted an attack this summer, I missed it. (Although I often wondered if the seemingly endless street fairs which in the hours before Tanglewood concerts obstructed North Street, the most convenient passage through Pittsfield from the north, weren’t a surreptitious form of hostile action.) Nalini Ghuman’s border problems were straightened out, and she is back at her post at Mills College. Some say that Mass MoCA’s reputation has been permanently damaged by the Büchel fiasco, but their doors remain open and the quality of their exhibitions remains their own responsibility. Today the disasters in Afganistan and Iraq stumble on, as things get worse in Pakistan and Iran. The debate about the success of the “surge” is stalemated, because the news that gets out is restricted, and the American attention span get weaker by the month. The much-longed-for election also appears stalemated, as both presidential candidates bicker at each other without showing any convincing outline of policy. The epicenter of the present emergency is civil, that is, economic, rather than military. The president is now trying to get the candidates to knuckle under in support of the Treasury Secretary’s outrageous bailout program, showing as much of a grasp of reality as last year. The fragments I heard of the Republican convention revealed a surreal fantasyland, in which the most extreme absurdity and falsehood, if stated in the right cheerleader’s twang, appear—to the republican faithful, at least—to be not only true, but transcendant. Go figger.
It may be time to saunter back to Walden Pond, or to park one’s vehicle—a frugal one, we hope—in the appointed lot, walk across the street and follow the paths laid out for visitors to the reconstructed cabin of H. D. Thoreau. Tom Slayton’s fine Thoreau book, Searching for Thoreau: On the Trails and Shores of Wild New England, which I reviewed in February, followed Thoreau’s saunterings as far north as Katahdin, as far west as Greylock, and as far south as the Harvard College Library, but this month, the poet and Bioneer Nathan Smith remains in Concord safely within the confines of the Lyceum, as his Thoreau reflects on his night in Concord jail, when he was arrested for refusing to pay his $1 poll tax, because it would fund the war against Mexico. It was fortuitous that Mr. Smith’s monologue appeared around the same time as Rebecca Lepkoff’s photographs of the Pikes Falls community in Jamaica, Vermont, which congregated around Scott and Helen Nearing, students of Thoreau and kindred spirits, who faced similar issues. Scott also found himself behind bars. Like Thoreau, Nearing viewed World War I as both a pacifist and an economist. It was natural for him to ask the questions, who was to pay for the war and who would profit from it. The same questions are in the air today, and not only in regard to war. The Nearings’ papers now reside, most appropriately, at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods. Among the electronically published texts are Helen Nearing’s lecture, “Thoreau: Judged in his own Time,” and Scott Nearing’s pamphlets, “Who Should Pay for the War?” and “A Humanist Approach to Economics,” which is in many respects as fresh today as it was in 1943, when it was first published. We might easily hear his ideas about production, nutrition, and the quality of life from a person not too deeply enmeshed in alternative ideas, but speaking more from environmental rather than economic premises, assuming that the two can be separated. The very elements of Nearing’s message which seemed most alien in 1943—his vegetarianism, his Ruskinian appreciation of the economic and and social importance of craft, for example—are familiar enough today, while his ideas about economic equality and detestation of plutocracy, in which he had plenty of company in his time, are out of place in our own time. One might think that they haven’t been so much forgotten, as bled dry, so that they are little more than pious clichés to be invoked at expedient moments. The way in which the current economic crisis is handled will reveal whether this statement is true, or—we hope—not. If Congress had not uncheracteristically stood up to Bush’s pressure to pass Paulson’s bailout plan, there would have hardly been any consideration for troubled homeowners or the taxpayers at large who would be funding the bailout. It has taken some time for these concerns to emerge, but now they are forcefully stated in such diverse quarters as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and even Barack Obama
The way in which the interpretation and ownership of Scott Nearing’s ideas have evolved over sixty-five years—that is, two generations—is an object lesson in the evolution of consciousness. If we read his essay carefully, we will see much that is familiar today, but it will look quite different to us. Some of it will seem shocking, other parts will seem quaint, even historical. We also speak differently, carry ourselves differently, dress differently, and our manners have changed. Artistic work which seemed timely or daring—Ulysses, Citizen Kane, or Guernica—can be found in a 101 college textbook today. Christoph Büchel’s installations would have seemed totally ridiculous back then. André Duchamp or Max Ernst might have enjoyed them and might have admired their scale, but even they would have found too much ugliness and banality in them. Besides, Ernst and Duchamp created small works, which could draw a few people into the macrocosm they created at the tops of their pedestals. To turn them inside out and expect viewers to enter into them would be to make the artwork into an exhibition or an exhibition into a work of art. Our relation to space has changed, just like everything else.
Just as I was getting The Berkshire Review for the Arts ready to go, I learned of the passing of my teacher and friend, Konrad Oberhuber. Last week, just after the first anniversary of his death, his students and colleagues at Harvard, where he taught and worked as a curator between 1975 and 1987, honored his career—that is, the twelve years most of us had shared with him. It was a sincere tribute from students and colleagues who were genuinely grateful for his inspiring teaching and his generosity with his extraordinary knowledge and insight. On the other hand, certain themes kept coming back…his youthfulness and warmth, his informality—so surprising in an Austrian—his wild hair, his old pea green suit with its vast lapels. In retrospect it all seemed more eccentric than it actually was at the time, although it certainly stood out as much in Cambridge as it did in Vienna or even Rome.
There was also mention of his absorption in the thought of Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher and spiritual leader who initiated Waldorf education and Biodynamic farming, to name only two of his most generally familiar creations. (Before founding his own movement, Anthoposophy, Steiner was attached to Theosophy, in which Helen Knothe Nearing had been brought up.) In particular Konrad’s theory of seven-year cycles was remembered. According to this system, human development evolves in periods of seven years, beginning with birth. This has crucial implications in Waldorf education in determining what kind of learning is appropriate for particular ages, because it recognizes the development of feeling and the will as well as intellectual processes. The Dutch physician, psychiatrist, and educator Bernard Lievegoed refined this theory in practical detail, as he pursued a long career working with major corporations, establishing personnel policies as well as working with individual employees. In this Konrad found an intriguing extension of the art historical methods he had learned in Vienna from Otto Pächt and others. Viennese art historians practised a sort of inward, organic analysis of artistic development and of regional styles, another subject on which Konrad had much to say.
Of course the idea of seven-year cycles smacks of medieval psychology, and humanistic education—that is, what Thomas Mann and his generation revered as Bildung—cherished a healthy suspicion of holistic systems that favor organic coherence and unity over empirical observation. Harvard, with its roots in nineteenth century German positivism, was not a receptive environment for this. Clairvoyance is not taught at Harvard, not even Goethe’s more respectable variety. On the other hand, I think Konrad and William James might have understood one another and enjoyed years of fruitful conversations. Coming to art history from my five years’ immersion in ancient Greek religion, during which I developed a fascination and a fondness for the ways in which ancient beliefs and practices could survive and assimilate themselves into later forms. I found I had less resistance to many Steinerian ideas than some others, although I did in fact resist. Some months after my first exposure to them, I paid a visit to the Morgan Library, where the collection of Rembrandt prints of the life of Christ were on view in chronological order. I had come with the objective of studying Rembrandt’s printmaking techniques, but in spite of my efforts at resistance, I began to see the patterns of development in the artist’s treatment of space. Three hours later I emerged from the Library with a better understanding of what Konrad had been saying, entirely by using my eyes. I thought this a particularly rewarding use of the Morgan’s collection, although entirely different from the premise of the exhibition.
Unlike C. S. Lewis, who encountered Anthroposophy through his Oxford friends A. C. Harwood and Owen Barfield, I was never shocked or hurt by it. Even before Harwood and Barfield took it up, Lewis in his memoir, Surprised by Joy, described Barfield as his “Second Friend.” His First Friend was A. K. Hamilton Jenkin, whose wholesome English “serious, yet gleeful, determination to rub one’s nose in the quiddity of each thing, to rejoice in its being (so magnificently) what it was” was in full harmony with Lewis’ own nature, as if they were alter egos. The Second Friend is, according to Lewis, the antiself. “…he shares your interests…but he has approached them all at a different angle…How can he be so nearly right, and yet, invariably, just not right?” In spite of his profound temperamental differences with Barfield and Harwood, he was not prepared for their conversion, and he felt abandoned by “not only my best friends but those whom I would have thought safest.” As Lewis understood more his “horror turned into disgust and resentment. For here, apparently,were all the abominations…Here were gods, spirits, after-life and pre-existence, initiates, occult knowledge, meditation. ‘Why—damn it—its medieval,’ I exclaimed; for I still had all the chronological snobbery my period and used the names of earlier periods as terms of abuse. Here was everything which the New Look had been designed to exclude.” Lewis and Barfield remained friends, but their relationship became what Lewis described as their Great War, which became “one of the turning points of my life.”
I have recounted Lewis’ narrative in such detail, because it explains the common dilemma we, Konrad’s students, all shared some sixty years after Lewis’ contentious walks through the the environs of Oxford, which often lasted several days (Yes, they sauntered, too.); and it shows the path to a resolution. Lewis continues, “Barfield never made me into an Anthroposophist, but his counterattacks destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my ‘chronological snobbery’ the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so, by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as customs do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.” Lewis’ second instance is even more important and interesting, having to do with epistemology itself, which Barfield later discussed with such elegance in Saving the Appearances but it leads us away from Konrad’s seven-year cycles, which he extended to reflect on longer periods of time, centuries (or rather “long” centuries, as we understand them today), and more.
Whether one is open-minded towards ideas which appear medieval or not, or whether one is able to see some validity in a certain defined period of time, this approach gives one a powerful sense, the capability of savoring the character of a period, or appreciating the connections and attractions, which make a period of history or of a lifetime unique. In this way we can gain fuller admittance into, say, the strange mind of Sir Thomas Browne, and, as we read Religio Medici, allow that honest and beautiful work to life in our imaginations. As for Hume, Johnson, or Wordsworth, so for Thoreau, the Nearings, Nate Smith, and so on. Lewis developed a profound sense of period and evolution, and it is as much a part of his work as it is of Barfield’s. If The Chronicles of Narnia are about change, so are works like The Discarded Image and his Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century, in which he showed such a exquisite sense for the character of a literary moment. In this Barfield taught him well.
This thought brings me in conclusion to a valuable contribution by another new writer for The Berkshire Review for the Arts, Richard Harrington, who has reviewed Dialogues on Perception a memoir by Béla Julesz, a brilliant epigone of the generation of his fellow Hungarians, Leo Szilard and Edward Teller, who worked on the Manhattan Project. Julesz became interested in perception and developed concepts which are still influencing our theoretical understanding of three-dimensionality, as our cognition of space continues to evolve, just as it did for Raphael, Matisse, and Rothko. I don’t know whether Konrad ever read Dialogues in Perception, but I’m sure he would have been fascinated with it. If any review is able make a reader eager to pick up a particular book, Richard Harrington’s surely will.
Some creative people live productively within the systems of belief which have nurtured them, for example Aquinas, Cardinal Newman, or His Holiness Pope John Paul II. Others must live outside them to flourish, although of necessity (but by free choice) in a less “safe” environment, to adopt Lewis’ word. But which group does Lewis really fit into? And, even more interestingly, what about Eliot? Both strove valiantly to fit into the first, but what was possible for Newman was within the reach of the twentieth century, except perhaps for a gifted but lesser figure like Avery Dulles. (Wojtyła, as a Pole, was essentially born into the Church.) Konrad clearly fit into the latter. Just as Anthroposophy had made him an outsider in the academic world, he moved on in life and immersed himself in other worlds of belief—a fact his Anthroposophical associates and people who knew him in later years know well, but of which those of us who were in his circle primarily between 1975 and 1987 are less aware. Nothing could have made me more keenly conscious of how we evolve along with our changing activities and human connections than looking back into our shared past.