March 14, 2018

Imagination is more important than knowledge — it encircles the whole world.

—Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

—Hamlet (1601–∞)

By Stuart Mitchner

If you were to measure their relative value in light of Einstein’s statement, Shakespeare would have the advantage because the works of his imagination can be apprehended while Einstein’s require a knowledge of mathematics and physics most people don’t possess. Unfair and illogical though it may be, the wonders of Shakespeare’s language supercede the relatively impenetrable wonders of Einstein’s theory. more

March 7, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

In one film the lovers are a mute cleaning woman and an aquatic creature in a top-secret government research facility in Baltimore; in the other, they’re a young, socially retarded quality control inspector and an aging financial director at a slaughterhouse in Budapest. In the first, the lovers communicate by sign language; in the second they dream the same dreams. Which plot is the more improbable? Put another way, which requires a more willing suspension of disbelief? That a lonely mute cleaning woman finds love with a humanoid amphibian god who glows in the dark or that an autistic meat inspector finds it with a man who has a withered arm?  more

February 28, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House $17) and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (Anchor $16.95), both available now in paperback, appeared on either side of the “matterlightblooming phenomenon” that took place on November 8, 2016.

Instead of using “catastrophe” or “debacle” for the election, I’m borrowing Saunders’ term for the lightning-flash-and-crack explosion that catapults souls not-yet-dead from the Buddhist limbo of the bardo to their fate in the afterlife.  more

February 21, 2018

PATTERN OF LEAVES: This 1923 oil on canvas by Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986), from The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, was acquired in 1926. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

About suffering they were never wrong, The old Masters …. –W.H. Auden (1907-1973)

There are four artist’s statements writ large on the walls of the Princeton University Art Museum’s exhibit “The Artist Sees Differently: Modern Still Lifes from The Phillips Collection.” The first and catchiest is Cézanne’s “The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution.” The most technical is Braque’s “The goal is not to be concerned with the reconstruction of an anecdotal fact, but with the constitution of a pictorial fact.” More generally philosophical is Giorgio Morandi’s “To achieve understanding, it is necessary not to see many things, but to look hard at what you do see.” more

February 14, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

The phrase “labor of love” has been haunting me ever since I saw Anne Elliott’s drawings of her husband, Peter Gruen, who died in August. I’ve been an admirer of my former Town Topics colleague’s work for almost 15 years. Last week admiration gave way to awe. You know when you’re in the presence of what Henry James, among others, calls “the real thing.” The gallery attitude — you stop, you look, you move on, you go home, you think of other things — no longer pertains. Not this time, not when you’ve witnessed what happens when love and art become one. more

February 7, 2018

Atmosphere is radiance, glamour, warmth, mystery. It is what gives beauty a soul and makes it alive. — F. Scott Fitzgerald

By Stuart Mitchner

As the current news cycle has made clear, Dreamers is a word to be reckoned with, creating instant sympathy for the cause it represents. That’s why the State of the Union speechwriters made a feeble attempt to undermine the cause by having the president say “Dreamers are Americans, too” when it’s generally understood that the true heroes of the narrative of the American dream are the immigrants who came to this country looking for a new life.

There’s an echo of that narrative in the closing paragraphs of The Great Gatsby when F. Scott Fitzgerald writes of “the last and greatest of all human dreams,” and of “the enchanted moment” when “man held his breath in the presence of this continent … face to face with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” The narrator then thinks of “Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him. somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”  more

January 31, 2018

Man is like a ball, the plaything of Chance and Passion. —Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

God, how I hate it when somebody yells “Good luck!” at me when I’m leaving somewhere. It’s depressing. — J.D. Salinger (1919-2010)

By Stuart Mitchner

Schubert, whose remarks about “Chance and Passion” are from a journal he kept at 19, was born on the last day of January in Vienna. Salinger, who was born on the first day of January in New York City, is speaking in the voice of his creation Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, which came out in 1951. When his collection Nine Stories was published in 1953, Salinger prefaced it with a Zen Koan: “We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?” more

January 24, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner 

According to Susan Cheever’s biography of E.E. Cummings (1894-1962), his working title for The Enormous Room (Liveright 1922) was The Great War Seen from the Windows of Nowhere. Planning to write about World War I on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice year, I’ve been reading both book and biography along with Princeton University faculty member Susan Stewart’s Cinder: New and Collected Poems (Graywolf, paper, $18). Although a collection of contemporary poetry may seem an unlikely match, I found a window to the Great War in Stewart’s “Kingfisher Carol,” which comes with a prefatory note explaining that “the seven days following the shortest day of the year” is when “the halcyon, or kingfisher, builds her nest on the water and that in spite of the violent weather prevalent at this time, the gods grant a respite from all storms while she hatches and rears her young.” more

January 17, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

In his 1915-1936 prime, Charlie Chaplin, who died 40 years ago this past Christmas, wasn’t just the most celebrated film personality of his time, he was an international icon. With his derby, his mustache, his baggy pants, and his cane, the Tramp became a secular deity; the sainted spirit of laughter; comedy and humanity incarnate. He was also exposed to a tabloid-driven version of the Hollywood dynamic of sex and power that surfaced last fall with the Harvey Weinstein revelations.  more

January 10, 2018

What shocks the virtuous Philosopher delights the chameleon poet. — John Keats

By Stuart Mitchner

Richard Starkey and Paul Muldoon have a rendezvous with the Queen. Some time in the new year, the Beatles’ drummer Ringo Starr will be knighted by Elizabeth II and the Princeton professor will receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect Her Majesty to dub the Beatle “Sir Ringo,” a pairing of extremes that would surely delight the chameleon poet being honored for his “restless, playful brilliance.”  more

January 3, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

At the dawn of a new year in American popular culture it’s time to remember the losses of 2017 and pay tribute to the gains of 1917. Major deaths in the world of rock were legends Fats Domino and Chuck Berry, along with Tom Petty, Greg Allman, John Wetton, among others, and in the grey area between rock and jazz, Allan Holdsworth and Larry Coryell. Jazz losses included pianist Horace Parlan, bop vocalist Jon Hendricks of the premiere word-jazz group, Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, and Buddy Greco who began his jazz, pop, and country career at 16 playing piano, singing, arranging, and touring the world with the Benny Goodman band. The jazz world also lost columnist and social critic Nat Hentoff, who wrote for Down Beat and the Village Voice, and was listening to Billie Holiday when he died. more

December 27, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

Some years before Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) became as cherished a Christmas tradition as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, film-buff friends of mine smirked when I dared to suggest that it was a great movie. Admittedly, it beggared belief that anyone could be as noble as James Stewart’s good banker George Bailey or as evil as Lionel Barrymore’s bad banker Mr. Potter. What really made the cynics sneer was that the whole enterprise depended on a tipsy angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), who offers homilies like “Each man’s life touches so many other lives” as he gives a suicidal George Bailey a tour of Pottersville, the mean-spirited, lawless nightmare his town Bedford Falls would have become had he never existed. more

December 20, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

When Doug Jones beat Roy Moore in Alabama’s special election last week, viewers who had lived and died, thrilled and chilled, yawned and dreamed through all 18 episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return felt a transcendental connection to the happy outcome. If we were smiling it was not only because a principled man defeated a scoundrel, it was knowing that a miracle was in the stars even before the allegations against Moore saturated the news. Given the power of the narratives and counter narratives circulating on television and the internet, we knew the impossible was possible.  more

December 13, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

In the unlikely event that the New York Times Book Review or anyone else ever asks me what books are on my night stand, the tome that’s been there for years waiting for me to write about it is Carl Van Vechten’s The Tiger in the House: A Cultural History of the Cat (Knopf 1920), which has been called “the best single treatise on the cat” and “a treasure house of literary gossip.” Like so many of my books, this one, the 1936 edition, has passed through the secondhand bookstores of Manhattan and therefore embodies three of my favorite things — cats, used bookstores, and New York City. more

December 6, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner 

Imagine a literary theme park, a Disneyland for readers and their kids where you can ride a raft with Huck and Jim, or climb aboard the Pequod with Ishmael, or fish the Big Two-Hearted River with Hemingway. Since the former Soviet Union is ever more massively imminent as we approach the moment of truth about Russian involvement in last year’s election, let’s say you could also visit a Chekhov pavilion complete with cherry orchard or tour Tolstoy’s estate where little Natashas can enjoy horseback rides and make-believe balls, or better yet you could take your chances in a fun house of existential chills dedicated to the work of Dostoevsky. Given the American public’s undying fascination with the dark side, the Dostoevsky House would draw the biggest crowds.  more

November 29, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

I was still in my teens when I read Dostoevsky for the first time. Going from Holden Caulfield in New York to a Russian student plotting an act of murder in St. Petersburg seemed like growing up. Crime and Punishment was electric, fascinating, a new world.

I was 20 when I read The Possessed, older but not much wiser. I was out of my depth, unprepared for the upgrade from a philosophical axe murderer named Raskolnikov to a charismatic child molestor named Stavrogin. It would have helped if I’d been able to read the chapter in which Stavrogin describes his crime, but it was considered too shocking to print in 1872 no matter how often Dostoevsky tried to tone it down.  more

November 22, 2017

Great writers and artists ought to take part in politics only so far as they protect themselves from politics.  — Anton Chekhov

By Stuart Mitchner

Almost exactly 80 years ago, November 21, 1937, the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra gave the premiere performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. According to Laurel Fay’s Shostakovich: A Life, the audience was aware that the 31-year-old composer’s “fate was at stake.” Two of his most recent works, an opera and music for a ballet, had been attacked at Stalin’s behest in Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party’s Central Committee; in effect, he had been “cast down overnight from the summit among the brightest stars of young Soviet composers to the abyss as pernicious purveyor of cultural depravity.” Meanwhile friends and colleagues were “disappearing.” Members of his family had been arrested, exiled, sent to labor camps. One of his foremost supporters had been charged with treason and executed. In case he doubted how dangerously close he was to being labeled an enemy of the state, the Fourth Symphony, his most ambitious work to date, was forcibly withdrawn on the eve of its debut performance because instead of following the party line, it appeared to be an even more extreme expression of his “depraved, difficult, formalist Western” values.  more

November 15, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

So, with the crash of artillery, in the dark, with hatred, and fear, and reckless daring, new Russia was being born.

John Reed (1887-1920)

Here he is again, George Kennan, our Hodge Road landlord in the 1980s. It can’t be helped. When the overriding subject of the hour is Russia, Kennan is always there. If he were alive today, he would be the guest of choice on cable and network news, whether the subject were Russian “meddling,” or the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, or even the admirable Fox series The Americans with its bizarre bromances — FBI agent Stan and his neighbor Philip, a Russian spy, and Stan and the KGB’s Oleg, who have bonded in spite of themselves over love of the same Russian woman.  more

November 8, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

With Russian hacking, Russian interference, and the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution dominating the news, it’s a time to look at another, less insidious side of the U.S.-Russia dynamic. If you extend the possibilities inherent in “hacking” and tweak “interference” as “influence,” then anyone in this or any other country who has been susceptible to the work of Russian writers, artists, and composers has been “hacked.” At 18, I was drunk on the novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and the symphonies of Shostakovich, fascinated, thrilled, exalted, under the influence. A lifetime later one of my most trusted sources of positive influence is a Russian whose work was of little interest to me then. more

November 1, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

The New York bus stops outside the building I work in. Several times a day I see it idling in front, waiting for the light to change. In the car last week listening to a CD of live jazz from May 1953, I hear the announcer say “We’re coming to you from Birdland, Broadway at 52nd Street, the heart of Manhattan” and I know it’s time to get on that bus. I’m thinking of the lost city of automats and movie palaces when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn and I was allowed into jazz clubs in my mid-teens. more

October 25, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

Writing about Twin Peaks in May of 2014, I made special mention of Angelo Badalamenti’s score, how from the first note, the mood created by his music is warm, mellow, musing, inviting, dreamily beautiful, with a subtle undercurrent of menace and dread that comes into play whenever the scene shifts to the interior of Laura Palmer’s home. Above all the music is about Laura Palmer, whose murder is what sets the machinery of the Twin Peaks project in motion with the simplistic but effective tag-line Who killed Laura Palmer? and the answer delivered toward the end of the series’ second season: her father.  more

October 18, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

One thing to be said for living in a country led by a deranged narcissicist is how it heightens your appreciation for explosive poets; it also exposes your stressed senses to outrageous fantasies. For days now I’ve been reading Rimbaud’s Season in Hell with special pleasure (“Alas! there were days when all active men seemed to him playthings of grotesque madness”) while enjoying a twisted vision out of Disney’s Snow White where an evil queen with an orange pompadour is staring in the mirror shouting, “Mirror Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest ruler of them all?” and being told time after time in an icky sweet sugar-plum fairy voice, “Snobama! Snobama! Snobama!” And when Snobama’s face actually appears in the mirror grinning that ear to ear grin, the queen begins screaming. Once she’s calmed down she sends a troupe of rogues and jesters out to destroy everything Snobama created, a futile task because the documents of destruction have no substance, it’s like writing in water.


October 11, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

Movie actors are not always the most quotable beings. The value of their words depends not on substance or style so much as gossip potential, career-advancement, otherwise known as the publicity quotient. Then you have one-of-a-kind people like Robert Mitchum, who was born 100 years ago, August 6, 1917. Unless Mitchum has a ghostwriter named Hemingway slipping him gems, what he says fits perfectly with the big man dwarfing the screen at the Garden two summers ago in Out of the Past. Anyone who has seen Mitchum in that film or in other RKO noirs like Where Danger Lives will recognize him in these words — “Listen. I got three expressions: looking left, looking right, and looking straight ahead.” I hope Hemingway read that line before he died.  more

October 4, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner 

On one of last week’s unseasonably hot heavy days, deep in the late-afternoon do-nothing know-nothing blahs, I tried to pull out by reading the latest New Yorker and only felt worse. Next I tried King Lear, usually a reliable energy source, but this is the play that begins when Lear tells Cordelia “Nothing will come of nothing,” which dooms them both and is the word at the dead center of my ennui. more

September 27, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

Fifty years ago this week at EMI’s Abbey Road studios, the Beatles were recording John Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus,” a rock and roll tour de force unlike anything in popular music before it, including other Beatles pinnacles like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “A Day in the Life” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Lennon has claimed on numerous occasions that the bizarre, unabashedly nonsensical lyrics were written to baffle listeners looking for hidden meanings, including in particular the English teacher at Lennon’s old school whose class was studying Beatles lyrics.  more