Monday, May 4, 2015

The Great Sense (& Purpose) Of Humour


“Humor is just another defense against the universe. Look at Jewish history: Unrelieved lamenting would be intolerable. So, for every ten Jews beating their breast, God designated one to be crazy and amuse the breast-beaters. By the time I was five I knew I was that one.”
Mel Brooks

“A good laugh makes any interview, or any conversation, so much better”
Barbara Walters

“I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That’s the two categories. The horrible are like, I don’t know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don't know how they get through life. It’s amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you’re miserable, because that’s very lucky, to be miserable.”
Woody Allen, Annie Hall: Screenplay  

A Trojan Pig?
Credit & Source
: Pinterest
Humour is important and too serious to ignore; it has an essential place in the history of civilization. Yet, we have all met such types: those who lack a sense of humour, those who take themselves too seriously and view life in the same way. It’s not that life can’t be serious, but it is not always serious. And it is often funny, it is often ironic, it is often comic. Humour makes life more bearable, as Mel Brooks says. And a good belly laugh helps grease the wheels of human relationships, helping to get to know people better, as Barbara Walters says. (Btw, she is a fabulous interviewer.)

The humourless fail to see this; and to a great degree they are not only untrustworthy observers of human nature, they are poor company and hostile companions. They consider their view as right and correct, and everyone else’s as wrong. Humour rarely penetrates their armor of seriousness. I sense that humour escapes them, evaporating into thin air like a black cloud of bile. They don't get it. Poor souls, living a life of misery. Their limitations compel them to restrict laughter and fun and, equally important, to make the world small. Very small. Some would call them public scolds; some would call them unhappy; some pendants. There is truth to this; a sad and miserable truth.

When I encounter such a person, and I unfortunately do from time to time, my impulse is to give them a wide berth and run far away from them. My experience informs me that I have every good reason to do so. This might seem harsh to some, but to spend even five minutes with such a person is to endure a kind of suffering similar to that of listening to an insurance salesman or an IT professional talk about computer code. I have had enough suffering. Who wants more? Not me, by any means.

The Jewish People have been sustained by humour; and some of the best jokes in modern times have been written by Jews during dark periods. (A good many blog posts on this site are dedicated to humour and Jewish humour in particular). As a modern example, Prof. Justin E.H. Smith writes (“Satire Is A Serious Matter”; March 4, 2015) that in repressive regimes, as during Stalinist Russia, humour thrives as a necessary counterweight to political absurdity:
Outside of the meeting halls, of course, humor thrived, as samizdat, as oral culture, as the irrepressible truth beyond the pretense. The transmission of anekdoty—jokes, but literally anecdotes—remained a crucial form of resistance. Not surprisingly, many of these jokes focused on the sort of humor beloved by Jews, typically embodied in the figure of a certain Rabinovich. It is existential humor: tragic and hilarious. One joke in particular tells the whole story of the idiocy of regimes of seriousness, and of the redemptive power of humor as a response. An Odessa census taker knocks at Rabinovich’s door. “Does Rabinovich live here?" he asks. Rabin­ovich replies: "You call this living?” (Razve eto zhizn’?)”
You get the point; there is some hint of truth in good humour. Then there is the gold standard of self-deprecating jokes that zeroes-in on another dark period in human history, Nazi Germany:
Rabbi Altmann and his secretary were sitting in a coffeehouse in Berlin in 1935. "Herr Altmann," said his secretary, "I notice you're reading Der Stürmer! I can't understand why. A Nazi libel sheet! Are you some kind of masochist, or, God forbid, a self-hating Jew?"

"On the contrary, Frau Epstein. When I used to read the Jewish papers, all I learned about were pogroms, riots in Palestine, and assimilation in America. But now that I read Der Stürmer, I see so much more: that the Jews control all the banks, that we dominate in the arts, and that we're on the verge of taking over the entire world. You know – it makes me feel a whole lot better!"
Self-deprecating humour says a lot about the confidence and points of view of the person making such jokes. Irony and satire are wonderful survival tools. One of my favourite American comedians is Woody Allen, who made a number of good films that look at the absurdity of the world in which we reside; he says: “I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” And if it's a nice apartment with a good view, so much the better.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Henryk Szeryng & Israel Philharmonic Orchestra: Tchaikovsky's Concerto For Violin & Orchestra

Henryk Szeryng and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, with Zubin Mehta conducting, perform Tchaikovsky Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, opus 35, at The Huberman Festival, 1983. Szeryng’s life shows to a large degree that music is international, transcending both time and space: a Jew born in Poland (1918) who lived and was a citizen of Mexico from 1946 until his death in 1988, age 69, playing a Russian composition in Israel. To add further to the international scope of this performance, Tchaikovsky wrote this piece in Switzerland in 1878.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Confessions Of A Bibliophile

For the Love of Books
A Few Books: Our two-bedroom apartment has seven bookshelves; there are boxes of books in our storage closet. A few more bookshelves would give them all a place to reside, but that would mean a further sacrifice of space that even I am not willing to undertake. Many of these books have been packed and lugged around from residence to residence during my many moves. I have gotten rid of books during past moves, donating these to individuals and to local libraries.
Photo Credit & Source
: © Perry J. Greenbaum, 2015

An article, by William Giraldi, in The New Republic gives a rather good explanation of why certain people love to read and collect books—the physical kind. It often starts at an early age and is a life-long affair of the mind and of the heart. Obsession and inconvenience often mark this kind of life, but it matters little to the lover of books.

Giraldi, an author, writes in “Object Lesson” (April 19, 2015):
Those of us who dwell within mounts of books—a sierra of them in one room, an Everest in another; hulks in the kitchen, heaps in the hallway—can tell you that, in addition to the special bliss of having and holding them, it’s a hefty, crowded, inconvenient life that’s also an affront to the average bank account. (New hardback books are expensive to buy and economically neutered the second you do.) What’s more, your collection is a fatal Niagara if it falls. Every collector knows the probably apocryphal story of the nineteenth-century composer and bibliophile Charles-Valentin Alkan, found dead in an avalanche of his own books, crushed when his shelves upended onto him. Like the sex addict who suffers an aortic catastrophe during coitus, Alkan, at least, died smiling.

Although some see a distinction between the bibliophile and the collector, your Merriam Webster’s nicely insists that “bibliophile” means both one who loves books and one who collects them, which makes supreme sense to me—I can’t conceive of one who loves books but doesn’t collect them, or one who collects books but doesn’t love them. I employ “collector” as Robertson Davies does in his essay “Book Collecting”: not as a quester after books both rare and valuable, but as a gatherer of all books that match his interests. If you have lots of interests, you better have lots of rooms, and mighty floorboards to boot.2

What does it mean when what you own is essential to who you are? In our everyday grasp of owning things, we tag it materialism, consumerism, consumption. But I trust you’ll agree that the possession of books is not identical to the possession of shoes: Someone with a thousand books is someone you want to talk to; someone with a thousand shoes is someone you suspect of belonging to the Kardashian clan. Books are not objects in the same way that shoes are objects. This is what Milton means in his sublime “Areopagitica,” as necessary now as it was in 1644, when he asserted that “books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.” Potency of life, purest efficacy, living intellect: These are the world-enhancing elements you have in any well-made book worth reading.

For many of us, our book collections are, in at least one major way, tantamount to our children—they are manifestations of our identity, embodiments of our selfhood; they are a dynamic interior heftily externalized, a sensibility, a worldview defined and objectified. For readers, what they read is where they’ve been, and their collections are evidence of the trek. For writers, the personal library is the toolbox which contains the day’s necessary implements of construction—there’s no such thing as a skillful writer who is not also a dedicated reader—as well as a towering reminder of the task at hand: to build something worthy of being bound and occupying a space on those shelves, on all shelves. The personal library also heaves in reproach each time you’re tempted to grab the laptop and gypsy from one half-witted Web page to another. If you aren’t suspicious of a writer who isn’t a bibliophile, you should be.3
To say that I identity quite positively and happily with this sentiment is to say the obvious, a thought quickly affirmed and given assent to those who know me. A new book is always a welcome gift. What joy there is to discover a new author? or a work previously unknown? or to wander in the stacks of a library or used bookstore in search of something unexpected? If I had more space and more money, my inclination is to quickly purchase a few more books; but my rational mind says, “Perhaps, this is a foolish gesture.” My wife, who enjoys reading as much as I do, already thinks our two-bedroom apartment contains too many books; perhaps she is right.  I confess that even I am not willing to sacrifice space for books. Inconvenience has its limits, as does obsession, despite its beauty and earnest pursuit of knowledge and enjoyment.

Even so, I see things in a different way, at least in the abstract and romantic sense: can you have too many books? The answer depends on many factors, which returns to the notions of inconvenience and space. There is also the necessary physical stamina to pack and unpack books, and to place them on shelves in accordance with certain rules: by author, by genre, by period, etc. At least most of mine are neatly shelved; the rest are in boxes in a storage closet, where they will remain until I have more space. A wise accommodation on my part.

Some have suggested that I ought to forgo physical books altogether, that I pursue the electronic route—a convenient and sensible idea. It is true that I, too, own an e-reader, a gift, but I have yet to take it seriously. I understand and can even appreciate what it represents, a nod to efficiency and engineering, but something in me prevents me from using it. (The touch, the smell, the look, among other characteristics, of physical books.) Perhaps my reluctance will cede, over time, when my views on books and what they represent, become less important in my mind’s eye, in my databank of memory. It would be the practical thing to do, I guess.

For more, go to [NewRepub]

Monday, April 27, 2015

Individual Happiness

Human Nature

“A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one's neighbor — such is my idea of happiness.”
Leo Tolstoy, Family Happiness, 1859
Happy Childhood by Gustave Doyon, a French painter born in 1837: The painting, “A Young Girl Holding a Bouquet,” suggests beauty and innocence and perhaps happiness. Is childhood happiness a good and reliable predictor of adult happiness? Not always, but questions on an unhappy childhood might be the more interesting of the two, as it is often the catalyst for positive change in adults. Unhappy persons often would like to forget their formative years, and thus take great pains to re-invent themselves into something else more happy, more productive. Are the most driven people the product of an unhappy childhood?
Credit: Gustave Doyon, artist; L. Prang & Co., publisher; 1861-97. From a photo taken at the Boston Public Library.
Source: Wikipedia

All individuals would like to be happy; this statement is common knowledge and accepted as common wisdom. It is also accepted truth that happiness is related to individual freedom, namely, the freedom of the individual to pursue his or her goals and ambitions in accordance with his or her individuality or individualism; it often follow that this means without restraint. It often follows that this means that in some cases laws need changing. So far so good; most persons would not find anything here with which to disagree. Nothing disagreeable; nothing offensive.

This makes me “happy” for some reason that has to do with social acceptance. But before I pursue this line of inquiry, I would like to bring up a few words that are often used similarly in speech and in writing, their simple unadorned definitions below:
Individual: A separate human being;
: the qualities of characteristics that makes one person different from another;
; a philosophical belief where the needs of a human being are greater than that of the collective or society where that person resides; also called egoism
It would follow that all humans generally subscribe to the first two, but not necessarily to the third word on the list. Individualism is a fairly modern idea, dating to the writings of  English philosopher, John Stuart Mills, and in particular, to his 1859 essay, On Liberty. In terms of political thought and theory, classical liberalism is viewed as a milder and socially acceptable form of the practice of individualism; there are many others, including libertarianism and anarchy, and subsets and variations of both, which in their most extreme forms view the state and collective rights as unnecessary, if not punitive and anti-individual.

At the heart of the matter are the working out of ways of thought, of living and of being. Living together on the same planet, while meeting individual needs. This is not easy, and it is getting harder, as the needs become greater, more varied.

For example, one central question is how an individual is supposed to live in a society of other individuals, each who has particular views, ideas and thoughts on living that confer meaning, hope, and happiness. How does a society accept or, rather, tolerate and, in some cases, affirm a person’s individuality and individualism? When do the rights of one individual negate the rights of another? Or to put in the language of our definitions: When does one individual's view on individualism bump against another individual's view, which is diametrically opposite to his or hers. This can and does happen today, and it is a thorny issue that has no easy resolution. It leads to unhappiness for some individuals.

Consider the family, which is many cases is a microcosm, a small ecosystem of the larger society in which it resides or exists. Families share many things in common, but they also do not, hence the arguments, the hurt feelings, the resentments. When Tolstoy said one of the most famous lines in literature about unhappy families in Anna Karenina (“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”), he spoke from an experience and, might I add, about an experience that escapes no one. There is an insightful 1989 article on Tolstoy in Commentary (“Tolstoy and the Pursuit of Happiness”) that you might find time to read.

Not everyone can be happy at the same time, including couples who are generally happy with each other, co-workers, colleagues, and life-long friends; while someone you know might be happy, you might not. Does this make you a downer? Does this make you bad company? someone to avoid? Most persons will find themselves in periods of unhappiness and struggle through these, often alone, but more often than not with the help and support of other individuals. In biology, when two different groups help each other, it is called symbiosis. We use the term here in its most liberal sense; what is understood is that a lone-wolf approach is no healthy or happy way to live. There is a connection among us, even if we do not see it or admit it.

This calls to mind another famous literary term, “No Man is An Island,“ written by John Donne, the 17th century metaphysical English poet, in his 1624 work, “Devotions”:
No Man is an Island
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Eventually it does, and all individuals, whether they thought themselves as the full expression of individualism, or not, have to consider what mark they left on others. The individual's importance is only as important, it seems, as how others measure it. Children are often the harshest critics, sometimes cruel in their criticism of their parents’ vices and virtues, notwithstanding any personal accomplishments or notable achievements—they, the children, always say with sincere conviction that theirs will be better record, that they understand better the rules of happiness. This equates to freedom to pursue all wants, with little understanding that this is not happiness. But they speak then as children, and not as mature adults, and not as parents with a lot of history. (Later on, they might forgive.)

The willful pursuit of happiness might be as easy as chasing the wind, which is given to changing direction and force; it’s difficult if not disconcerting life’s work, with the possibility of little reward. Personal happiness and the determined pursuit of it might not be as important a goal as many today say it is; there are others, less individual, less self-aggrandizing, that might indirectly lead to happiness, including the pursuit of justice, of liberty, of peace, of knowledge, of kindness and of generosity of spirit. It might well be that the moderate but serious pursuit of a life of giving and of helping others might eventually lead to the kind of quiet and steady happiness that eludes many individuals today.