Apr 29 2016

Adventure Italia: Day 2 of 9

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(Palazzo Re EnzoBologna)

 

After sleeping through the late morning we were served a large breakfast/brunch that started with buttered toast on whole-wheat bread, black olive jam, slices of cheese (cut from what looked like a two-pound block of parmigiana), and Italian flatbread (piadina). The butter went well on both breads; the jam too tasted great on the breads as well as simply smeared on slices of parmigiana. Sometimes we glazed our morsels with a thicker form of balsamic vinegar–a cream–that, upon contact with our food, congealed like liquid fudge drizzled on ice cream. The main course was spaghetti from Tosco’s mother’s homemade sauce.

We drank lots of espresso and were also offered sparkling water, fruit juice, milk. After the meal, we were given a glass of Cosimo’s grandmother’s homemade cherry wine. We also had some sips of amarezza (bitters, liqueurs) “to settle the coffee.”

After our stomachs had relaxed, Cosimo and Chiara guided Scott and me on a walking tour through the 900-year-old city of Bologna. One of the first things we saw was the Porta Galliera (city gate) where in medieval times folks would pass through to enter this once-walled city. Nearby were a group of book stalls and stacks under a large white tent. We browsed these wares for a while. I found some specimens from the mid-1800s that were a good price but nothing in English. Scott found some old comic books and bought them.

We strolled through Bologna southward down Via dell’Indipendenza (Independence Avenue) until we came to Finestra sui Canali which reveal the ruins of Bologna’s canal system. Between the 1200s and the 1600s these canals, fed by the River Po, were used for travel and commerce from Bologna to Venice.

Next we came upon some of Bologna’s most famous and recognizable landmarks, the Due Torri (Two Towers), and while plenty of visitors shuffled about the bases of these towers, the scene was nothing like the infestation of tourists one finds at the one in Pisa. Bologna’s towers were built in the 1100s, and, like Pisa, they lean.

We continued south for a few blocks until encountering Palazzo Re Enzo, built in 1244. Some of the acoustics beneath the covered archways and porticos of this palace made for whispering galleries. Here under the arches, before the days of texting, Renaissance lads and lasses used to flirt and court each other by whispering back and forth.

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(whispering gallery at Palazzo Re Enzo)

On the east side of the Palazzo stands the Neptune fountain, a special place for Cosimo and Chiara because ’tis the spot in Bologna where they, our hosts, first met. Immediately to the south of the fountain spans the Piazza Maggiore, overlooked by the Basilica of San Petronio.

Our breakfast had been large, but by evening Scott and I needed a snack. So at a mini “food mall”––possibly a place called Eataly on Via Drapperie; right off Piazza Maggiore––Scott and I split a tuna steak sandwich over some pinot grigio.

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(Piazza Maggiore at night)

We walked back to our host’s apartment, then, got in their car and drove around before finding the “right” gelato place. We must’ve driven for over an hour, because lots of places close early on Mondays. Soon enough Scott and I found ourselves in a version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Cosimo and Chiara couldn’t decide where we should eat gelato: one saying, “No that place’s stuff is too soft, let’s go to so-in-so’s”; the other replying: “No, theirs is too hard––somewhere else.” Yet, like the porridge in the children’s tale, the gelato we ended up eating was “just right”––each of us trying three or four different flavors scooped, piled, and slathered atop petite cones. Specifically, I remember there being a lot of pistachio and strawberry cheesecake.

(Read “Adventure Italia: Day 1 of 9″ here)


Apr 26 2016

Adventure Italia: Day 1 of 9

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(porticos of Bologna in the wee morning hours)

After leaving Austin, Texas at 4:30 p.m. on a Saturday, we arrived in Bologna, Italy around 4:30 p.m. on Sunday. Our host Cosimo was waiting to pick us up. He lives about ten minutes from the airport, so after a short drive we were at his apartment. There we met his girlfriend Chiara and had some late afternoon snacks (almonds and spicy chip-cracker things) along with coffee.

We went out later that night, probably around 8:00 or 9:00, to meet some of Cosimo’s friends: Tosco “The Tuscan” and Giovanni, “the Yugoslavian,” who isn’t really Yugoslavian. We met them at a café on the corner of Via del Partello and Via Paradiso, just across from the Tribunale per i minorenni di Bologna (the juvenile court of Bologna). The entire length of the street of Via del Partello appeared to be located in a bar district with lots of foot traffic. The cafe served pizza and craft beer.

Tosco and Giovanni were not impressed by either the beer or the pizza. And soon enough I spilled the first half of my second beer on the last slices of pizza; so we finished our grub and moved on.

Giovanni said something like: “Texas, eh? Tony Lama boots, right?” and I replied with something like: “Yeah, those are the Gucci of cowboy boots.”

We made our way down Via del Partello for a few blocks until its intersection with Via San Rocco. Here we entered a techno music club–combination record store called Quattro Quarti (Four-by-Four).

I tried ordering a beer at the club, but it was cash only and I had yet to exchange any dollars for euros. So I thanked the bartender but declined the drink, then, about five minutes later, the bartender enters the dance floor (where I was standing, not dancing), hands me a free beer. Cosimo says: “It’s probably because you’re a tourist.”

Later at that same club we were all given a glass of champagne by one of a group of folks celebrating someone’s birthday. We were also offered a spliff outside the club, and later walking home Cosimo noted that, in terms of the crowd and enthusiasm at club Quattro Quarti, tonight was exceptionally festive.

We got home around two or three in the morning, and began a pattern of ending each evening (or morning) in Italy with a cup of tea.

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(club Quattro Quarti)

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(Vinyl from Quattro QuartiI don’t remember a suicide scene in “Rocky”)

 (Read “Adventure Italia: Day 2 of 9″ here)


Oct 5 2015

Beyond Flimsy; Beyond Fundamentalism

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Today at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher gives readers a pop quiz:

How do we find the middle path between these two extremes? The Benedict Option is, of course, in part a reaction against loosey-goosey Christianity, so I don’t have a big worry that versions of the Ben Op would be at risk of being too lax and liberal. The real concern I have is that we would go too far, and create institutions or communities that would be too controlling or otherwise unhealthy. A secondary, lesser concern is that fear of fundamentalism would be so overwhelming that the nascent Ben Op community would fail to create the practices and structures that would be effective in accomplishing what the Ben Op is supposed to do.

He then issues a call for ideas and suggestions. My response is that perhaps consulting Chaim Potok’s novel “The Chosen” (1967) would provide some understanding of the balance necessary for the BenOp. The book, and later a terrific movie (1981) adaptation, show the balancing act of friendship between two boys, one Orthodox Jewish, the other a Hassidic. Various cultural conflicts and misunderstandings between the more “liberal” Orthodox way of life and the more”fundamentalist” way of the Hassidim are explored and explained.

 

Actual Jewish readers and filmgoers may rightly criticize Poktok’s art as utterly middlebrow and overly sentimental–but for a post-churchgoing millennial from rural Central Texas, I found much to learn and think about in Potok’s book and the movie based upon it.

 


Aug 14 2015

Requiem for Chivalry

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Chivalry didn’t die in France–like Burke bemoaned–because chivalry had been dead for well over a hundred years prior to the Revolution. If chivalry hadn’t died, Cervantes could not have written Don Quixote (1605). But hundreds of years after Cervantes and Burke, people are still chasing windmills. Over at The American Conservative, Gracey Olmsted writes:

This is what the “spirit of the gentleman” used to provide: a reasoned, courteous atmosphere in which public discourse could take place—where opinions could be stated without savagery, and received without rancor. The problem is that gentlemen are out of popularity on left and right—for reasons [Mark] Mitchell makes clear in another FPR post.

The gentleman is unpopular with the left and “PC” crowd because, in Mitchell’s words, he “is one who is willing and able to judge well. He is discriminating in his judgments and does not shy away from making hard distinctions even when they cause him discomfort and even when he is forced to stand alone [emphasis added].” Such discriminatory value judgments will not be honored on the modern university campus, nor even in the larger political world.

I suppose a rather ungentlemanly act would be to point at that last line from Olmsted–“Such discriminatory value judgments will not be honored on the modern university campus, nor even in the larger political world“–and say, yes, that may be true, but that is also a very narrow and reductive Weltanschauung. There is plenty more to life than universities and politics, particularly if you’re too poor and/or live under a gerrymandered regime.

Plenty of Americans live their day-to-day lives in a brave new world beyond the constraints of chivalry and bureaucracy.


Jul 31 2015

The Benedict Option: Cheerleading from the Sideline

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Over at The American Conservative Rod Dreher, who has previously written how the upcoming generations have lost faith and trust in all institutions, has now written a post showing that some inside the clergy and clerisy can properly diagnose their own symptoms, so perhaps the Benedict Option is the proper remedy for cleaning house.

As part of the under-40 crowd, I confess to being completely weary of all bureaucracy, a weariness I suspect comes from being institutionalized in childhood by small town Texas teachers, preachers, and coaches.

The feeling of graduating university made me understand the lines from the old time hymn “like a bird from prison bars has flown, I’ll fly away”—it was (and remains) particularly refreshing to be able to read books of one’s own choosing—at one’s own pace––rather than being assigned a text on the whims of a bureaucrat and having to rush through it.

Now as an adult (or at least one in disguise) I choose to opt out of the idolatry of religion (in its old, etymological sense of “binding” as well as its modern meanings of “just another bureaucracy” and “authority-for-authority’s-sake”) and am attempting to opt in to authentic encounters in the I-You mode of discourse used by individuals while, at the same time, attempting to resist the I-It mode of “discord” practiced by all modern institutions (schools, religions, hospitals, sports, national media).

The BenOp may not be for me, but from the sidelines I’m willing to cheer for anything that actively deconstructs any kind of bureaucracy in its resistance to that bureaucracy.


Jul 16 2015

5 Benedict Options for Single Folk: an Open Reply to Rod Dreher

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Rod Dreher of The American Conservative has tirelessly been exploring for himself and imploring other orthodox (or authentic?) American Christians to consider the Benedict Option–yet for all his efforts he continues to be hounded by friendly and hostile readers to explain, explain, explain what such an Option might mean.

 

Dreher keeping writing and writing; yet among him and his scattered supporters, scant attention has been directed toward what a Benedict Option might mean for single folks in America. In the optimistic-secularist spirit of David Hume, I offer five suggestions that I have been trying to implement in my own life for the past several years:

 

  1. Opting out of the idolatry of all pet husbandry, adoption, and ownership and opting in for compassion and caretaking for stray and needy human beings in my community.

 

  1. Opting out of the idolatry of professional, collegiate, and local sports; opting in to binge-reading and other library labors.

 

  1. Opting out of the idolatry of religion (in its old, etymological sense of “binding” as well as its modern meanings of “just another bureaucracy” and “authority-for-authority’s-sake”) and opting in to authentic encounters in the I-You mode of discourse used by individuals while resisting the I-It mode of “discord” practiced by all modern institutions.

 

  1. Opting out of the idolatry of the telescopic view of national politics and celebrity (and media thereof) and opting in toward a radical, microscopic focus on politics, law, and arts-&-entertainment strictly at state and local levels.

 

  1. Opting out of being a proactive consumer of Big Pharma and Big Farming and Big Business Dieting; opting in for cooking my own food when I can; fasting when I should; and giving radically generous gratuities when eating out.

 

While man cannot live in a continual Sabbath, he should not resign himself to a flat two-dimensional life from which he escapes on rare occasions. The place of the sacred is not a house of God, nor church, synagogue, or seminary, nor one day in seven, and the span of the sacred is much shorter than twenty-four hours. The Sabbath is every day, several times a day.

–Walter Kaufmann, “Prologue to I and Thou p. 30.

 


Apr 1 2014

Nabokov’s “Lolita” (a second reading)

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I read Lolita for the first time about five years ago and was overwhelmed by the style but thought it lacked substance in terms of plot and character. Upon a second reading I would concede the book has substance, and my initial sense of something lacking was really a reflection of my belief that the novel contains no likeable characters. I find nothing to like or sympathize in Humbert, Lolita, or Quilty.

Lolita’s name is Dolores—“pain” in Spanish––Lolita is a “pain” and painful for Humbert.

The book is setup as a confession: Humbert is definitely no St. Augustine, though he may have read some Rousseau. I have not read Rousseau’s Confessions (1782), but as a reader, I find the company of the literary children of James Joyce more tolerable than that of their father. In other words, the linguistic acrobatics of Nabokov’s Lolita, as well as Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962), work in ways Joyce never mastered. The Irish Oscar Wilde taught art-for-art’s-sake, and later Irish James Joyce believed in style-for-style’s-sake—but Nabokov and Burgess both know that the best formula is style-for-story’s-sake.

It’s quite a writer’s trick for Nabokov to make the narrator a professor of French poetry. Throughout my reading this trick made it difficult for me not to confuse Nabokov-the-author-poet for Humbert-the narrator-poet.

Early on Humbert confesses: “I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita,” (Part I, Ch. 15). This line might be compared to a reflection made by the character of Thomas Buddenbrook:

“I know that the external, visible, tangible tokens and symbols of happiness and success first appear only after things have in reality gone into decline already.” (Buddenbrooks, VII, vi, 378–79)

Later Humbert dreams of eventually impregnating Lolita (Part II, Ch. 3), so that he can have a second Lolita, somewhat like the character of Manfred in Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), P. B. Shelley’s remark that incest is the most poetic of all circumstances, and sentiments of the villain Noah Cross at the climax of the film Chinatown (1974). Nabokov’s line “my impossible daughter” (Part I, Ch. 29) is brimming with multiple meanings and interpretations.

I remain ambivalent but more accepting of Lolita after this second reading, but Nabokov has thought about the idea of re-reading, as found in his lectures on literature:

“I use the word reader very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot read a book:  one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” (“Good Readers and Good Writers,” 3)

For Nabokov, a writer is a storyteller, a teacher, and an enchanter:

“There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer…. The three facets of the great writer—magic, story, lesson—are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought.” (“Good Readers and Good Writers,” 5–6)

Finally, here’s Nabokov on artists and morality:

“I never could admit that a writer’s job was to improve the morals of his country, and point out lofty ideals from the tremendous height of a soapbox, and administer first aid by dashing off second-rate books. The writer’s pulpit is dangerously close to the pulp romance, and what reviewers call a strong novel is generally a precarious heap of platitudes or a sand castle on a populated beach, and there are few things sadder than to see its muddy mat dissolve when the holiday makers are gone and the cold mousy waves are nibbling at the solitary sands.” (“The Art of Literature and Commonsense” 376)

 

NOTES

Mann, Thomas Buddenbrooks, Verfall einer Familie. Berlin: S. Fischer. 1901. Translation by John E. Woods published as Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family, 1993.

Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1982.


Oct 11 2010

What drew me to Harold Bloom

I never knew until now just what it was that drew me towards Bloom. But after reading his 1991 interview with the Paris Review I think I know why:

INTERVIEWER

Are there [literary, fictional] characters you would like to have known?

BLOOM

No, no. The only person I would like to have known, whom I have never known, but it’s just as well, is Sophia Loren. I have been in love with Sophia Loren for at least a third of a century. But undoubtedly it would be better never to meet her. I’m not sure I ever shall, though my late friend Bart Giamatti had breakfast with her. Judging by photographs and recent film appearances, she has held up quite well, though a little too slender now—no longer the same gorgeous Neapolitan beauty, now a much more sleek beauty.


Oct 8 2010

Paradise Lost in His Head (First Thoughts)

Paradise Lost in His Head » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog.


Sep 10 2010

“The Philosophers Song” (Monty Python)

Monty Python’s  “The Philosophers Song”: