I might die younger because of Israel Zangwill, given his penchant for sneaking up behind and startling. I never know what to expect when I pick him up in a new genre. This time it is Italian Fantasies,  which so far is sort of a combination of travelogue, (un)religious experience, and blabbering acid trip, appropriately begun with the shiny gold “Italian Fantasy” of Stefano da Zevio (click the pic to see it bigger Gutenberg doesn’t allow linking to pictures).

    What I get from the first essay in the book — I have to put the emphasis on “I” so that I don’t presume on Zangwill’s hospitality by making him say something quite other than he intends — is about a pleasure in life that would be blocked for most of us (at least most anybody who would dip into this non-blog blog) by (mainly Christian) religious traditions. And, since this is Zangwill, he says that’s too bad.

    Sometimes it is a matter of our traditions settling on us a very different sort of worldliness: “Behold the idolatrous smoke rising to Mammon from the factory altars of Christendom. We have sacrificed our glad sense of the world-miracle to worldly miracles of loaves and fishes.” Sometimes it is a refusal to look that leads to a failure to see: “Grasping after the unseen, we have lost the divinity of the seen. Ah me! shall we ever recapture that first lyric rapture?” At any rate, it seems, at least in the mood Zangwill has provoked (or startled) me into, that there is a joy in worldly things that we — even Christians! — could feel but that must, because we have misread our obligations (dare I say, misread the Bible), look to us like paganism.

    There is, indeed, a pagan tinge to Zangwill here, somewhat akin to Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” (not Henry van Dyke’s flimsy Christianization, sung to the same tune). Even a tinge of the animal: like the worm in Schiller’s Ode, who “has been granted sensuality,” for Zangwill “even an ape in the great virgin forests will express by solemn capers some sense of the glory and freshness of the morning.” But humans can also dance. We can draw lines wherever we need to in order to separate ourselves from the animal or the primitive or the savage or the child, whoever dances for and out of sheer enjoyment, where there is no flirtation to be pursued or prize to be won, but why?

    We kill ourselves with efficiency. We slam ourselves against a wall because we have our eyes on multiple goals rather than on the road we travel. In Italy at the time Zangwill writes about being there, Italy struggling to become modern in the early twentieth century, past art and natural beauty are challenged by inhuman efficiency in a struggle for the attention of the people.

Alas for the ape’s degenerate cousin, the townsman shot to business through a tube!

    I grant him that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, yet ’tis with the curve that beauty commences…. Who would demand an austere, unbending route ’twixt Sorrento and Amalfi instead of the white road that winds and winds round that great amphitheatre of hills, doubling on itself as in a mountain duet, and circumvoluting again and yet again, till the intertangled melody of peaks becomes a great choral burst, and all the hills sing as in the Psalmist, crag answering crag! Do you grow impatient when chines yawn at your feet and to skirt them the road turns inland half a mile, bringing you back on the other side of the chasm, as to your mere starting-point? Do you crave for an iron-trestled American bridge to span the gap? Nay; science is the shortest distance between two points, but beauty, like art, is long.

    Why do we measure our humanness by our production? We can certainly build more cars than any number of worms or apes, but is it that that makes us human? And, since the gospel restores us to possibilities of true humanness, does efficiency or productivity characterize the Christian? ”Science is the shortest distance between two points, but beauty, like art, is long.”

    Two kinds of life-sapping puritanism come to mind here. One cannot enjoy. Period. It cannot enjoy because enjoyment is not the short road, and, apparently, the efficiency of the short road has been thought of as the way to get to heaven, to which all pleasure is postponed. There is also a secular version: science might reveal beauty to the scientist, but culturally it has been an excuse for giving up belief in beauty, for measuring what we see by usefulness. Pearls become “but a disease of the oyster.”

    The other puritanism would exclude any human construction from “natural beauty,” thus condemning humans as some sort of hated occupying army and making it impossible to hear God’s “it is good” spoken over us.

    Instead, we can, with Zangwill, enjoy the winding road as part of the scene and see the view through the window or over the balcony in works of late medieval sacred painters as creation joining in the sacred events, “the spaces of the outer world shining through doors or windows or marble porticoes, vistas of earthly loveliness fusing with the holy beauty.”

    There is far more, some rather vociferous, but I’ll leave it to you whether to read what Zangwill has to say.

    Two things that happened while I was partway through writing this post:

  1. I was at a New Year’s Eve church service (a regular Sunday morning service, but it was New Year’s Eve) that included two opportunities for repenting from “wasting time.” The service was based on a borrowed litany, so I can’t entirely pin this on anyone in the congregation.
  2. I was wasting time on YouTube, which has figured out that I like an occasional late Soviet film, especially with English subtitles. This time it was a classic called Carnival Night, the story of which is centered around a factory New Year’s Eve party and stage show put on by a group of workers.  At about twelve minutes into the story, the uncultured, toe-the-party-line bureaucrat (the suit, if you like), after a (really wonderful) rehearsal of a ballet, has this conversation (at least according to the subtitles) with the dancers and the show’s director:

him: “You do understand what you’re doing?”

them: “I don’t follow you.”

him: “Exactly. Are we at the beach here? What’s going on here?”

them: “What? My legs?”

him: “Yes. Where do you usually work?”

them: “I’m an economist.”

him: “Really? You don’t meet them like this every day. Naked legs aren’t going to educate our audience. It’s like this. Change the costumes. Cover the legs. About the dance…. What’s the dance about?”

them: “About youth, love.”

him: “I’m married. I understand. This is your version? Young man in love must throw his girlfriend around?”

them: “It’s modern dance — the nature of dance.”

him: “Comrade Krylova! You understand we’re not spending money on education to throw economists around that way.”

them: “It’s the choreography!”

him: “Imagine.”

People might have complicated reasons for watching ballet or movies, but it’s usually best not to get too analytic about it.

  • Italian Fantasies  is here.
  • Schiller’s Ode to Joy is here in German and English. Van Dyke’s hymn (“Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”) is here. It makes a great clawhammer banjo tune.

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