- He who troubles his own house will inherit the wind. [The Bible, Proverbs 11:29.]
The difficulties of someone’s early life may be insignificant, or they may be severe. Whatever the case, a spiritual master finds a way to embrace the past. If that means loving an abusive parent, then that is what is needed.
We cannot change the past. If we do not wish to be controlled by an unhappy past, then we must make peace with it. The best and most complete way to do that is to embrace it. This cannot be forced on anyone but anyone who embraces the challenge, and the past, makes peace with her life and ultimately with herself.
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Luck and Circumstance: Coming of Age in Hollywood, New York, and Points Beyond (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011). "By the end of Lindsay-Hogg's account of life with his father . . . you are left with a man . . . who can look at his deeply imperfect family and find something to love in each one."
- Eric Jaffe, The King's Best Highway: The Lost History of the Boston Post Road, the Route That Made America (Scribner, 2010).
- Mira Bartók, The Memory Palace (Free Press, 2011), a memoir about the author’s mother and her own childhood.
- Andre Dubus III, Townie: A Memoir (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011) recounting the author’s struggles to “dissolve his attachment to violence, and to come to terms with his famous father.”
- John Darnton, Almost a Family: A Memoir (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011): an “excruciatingly personal . . . hommage to the father John Darnton never knew,” a war journalist whose plane was shot down in 1942.
- Kathryn Harrison, On Sunset: A Memoir (Doubleday, 2018): “Happier Memories From Kathryn Harrison’s Childhood”
- Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things: Essays (Random House, 2016): “Teju Cole’s captivating and lauded novels . . . reflect his identity as a writer with a global perspective — born in the United States and raised in Nigeria. His international access as an author, art historian and photographer — one who also teaches and is a photography critic for The New York Times Magazine — shapes not only his obsessions but, in a chicken-and-egg sense, determines his gaze.”
- Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (Princeton University Press, 2010).
- Alexandra Fuller, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness (The Penguin Press, 2011): The book’s “two memoirsform a fascinating diptych of mirrors, one the reflection of a child’s mind, the other of an adult’s . . . the books transport us to a grand landscape of love, loss, longing and reconciliation.”
- Téa Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife (Random House, 2011): a tale of life in the Balkans, “a world . . . haunted by its past and struggling to sort out its future.”
- Toni Morrison, Home (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), asking: “What kind of selfhood is it possible to possess when we come from a spiritually impoverished home, one that fails to concede, let alone nourish, each inhabitant’s worth?”
- Marc Chagall, The Tribe of Levi (1964)
- Diego Rivera, The History of Mexico (1929-35)
- Salvador Dali, Atavism at Twilight (1934)
- Salvador Dali, Atavism at Twilight (1933-34)
- Marc Chagall, The Green Violinist (1923)
Monasticism, such as it existed in Spain, and such as it still exists in Thibet, is a sort of phthisis for civilization. It stops life short. It simply depopulates. Claustration, castration. It has been the scourge of Europe. Add to this the violence so often done to the conscience, the forced vocations, feudalism bolstered up by the cloister, the right of the first-born pouring the excess of the family into monasticism, the ferocities of which we have just spoken, the _in pace_, the closed mouths, the walled-up brains, so many unfortunate minds placed in the dungeon of eternal vows, the taking of the habit, the interment of living souls. Add individual tortures to national degradations, and, whoever you may be, you will shudder before the frock and the veil,--those two winding-sheets of human devising. Nevertheless, at certain points and in certain places, in spite of philosophy, in spite of progress, the spirit of the cloister persists in the midst of the nineteenth century, and a singular ascetic recrudescence is, at this moment, astonishing the civilized world. The obstinacy of antiquated institutions in perpetuating themselves resembles the stubbornness of the rancid perfume which should claim our hair, the pretensions of the spoiled fish which should persist in being eaten, the persecution of the child's garment which should insist on clothing the man, the tenderness of corpses which should return to embrace the living. "Ingrates!" says the garment, "I protected you in inclement weather. Why will you have nothing to do with me?" "I have just come from the deep sea," says the fish. "I have been a rose," says the perfume. "I have loved you," says the corpse. "I have civilized you," says the convent. To this there is but one reply: "In former days." To dream of the indefinite prolongation of defunct things, and of the government of men by embalming, to restore dogmas in a bad condition, to regild shrines, to patch up cloisters, to rebless reliquaries, to refurnish superstitions, to revictual fanaticisms, to put new handles on holy water brushes and militarism, to reconstitute monasticism and militarism, to believe in the salvation of society by the multiplication of parasites, to force the past on the present,--this seems strange. Still, there are theorists who hold such theories. These theorists, who are in other respects people of intelligence, have a very simple process; they apply to the past a glazing which they call social order, divine right, morality, family, the respect of elders, antique authority, sacred tradition, legitimacy, religion; and they go about shouting, "Look! take this, honest people." This logic was known to the ancients. The soothsayers practise it. They rubbed a black heifer over with chalk, and said, "She is white, _Bos cretatus_." As for us, we respect the past here and there, and we spare it, above all, provided that it consents to be dead. If it insists on being alive, we attack it, and we try to kill it. Superstitions, bigotries, affected devotion, prejudices, those forms, all forms as they are, are tenacious of life; they have teeth and nails in their smoke, and they must be clasped close, body to body, and war must be made on them, and that without truce; for it is one of the fatalities of humanity to be condemned to eternal combat with phantoms. It is difficult to seize darkness by the throat, and to hurl it to the earth. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume II – Cosette; Book Seventh – Parenthesis, Chapter III, On What Conditions One Can Respect the Past.]
- Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, House of Stone: A Novel (W.W. Norton & Company, 2019): “Zamani, the narrator of Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s remarkable first novel, ‘House of Stone,’ has a troubled relationship with the past. For him there is history, and then there is ‘hi-story,’ a subtle but important distinction for a man who wants more than the incomplete, fragmentary tale his uncle passed on to him before dying.”
Music: songs and other short pieces
Film and Stage
- Mother: about a difficult relationship
- Lady Bird: a high school senior struggles to free herself from a difficult home environment, and comes to realize that her family of origin provided her with many of her strengths.
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
As the new millennium approached in the late 1990s, jazz trumpeter and historian Wynton Marsalis conceived, recorded and released eight albums in a series entitled “swinging into the 21st.” These works draw on jazz traditions, so that for Marsalis they represent a union with the past, a value he strongly champions as a leading advocate of music. I present six of the albums here.
- A Fiddler’s Tale tells the story of a young artist who sells her soul to the devil (her record producer).
- At the Octoroon Balls; A Fiddler’s Tale Suite:
- Sweet Release & Ghost Story: “Sweet Release” draws on Charles Mingus’ experiments with jazz ensembles; “Ghost Story” is about being haunted by a melody.
- Jelly Lord, a tribute to Jelly Roll Morton
- Reeltime, focusing on jazz roots and byways
- The Marciac Suite, dedicated to the Jazz in Marciac Festival in France, where Marsalis has taught and performed for many years
Wynton Marsalis, "Soul Gestures in Southern Blues" series:
- “Thick in the South” (volume 1)
- “Uptown Ruler” (volume 2)
- “Levee Low Moan” (“So This Is Jazz Huh”) (volume 3)
España Eterna: Five Centuries of Music from Spain, 1200-1700 – an eleven-CD collection from Jordi Savall and his Hispèrion groups
- “Sugarloaf Mountain: An Appalachian Gathering” album is a collection of songs, played on Baroque instruments, which made their way to the United States and served as foundations for Appalachian music.
- Bob Berg, “Another Standard”
- James Carter, “Conversin’ With the Elders”
- In her presentation of Byzantine hymns, Nektaria Karantzi poignantly pays homage to a religious tradition, and to the culture in which it arose.
- Kenny Garrett, “Sounds from the Ancestors”
- Peggy Seeger, “First Farewell” (2021), “expresses Peggy’s indefatigable optimism, inquisitiveness and sheer lust for life. A deep love runs through it from start to finish, leavened with a healthy dose of wry self-knowledge.”
- Albéniz, Iberia (1909): reflections on and a celebration of a region in the composer’s native country (performances by de Larrocha in 1980, de Larrocha in 1962, Orozco, an orchestral version, and a version arranged for three guitars)
- Finzi, Cello Concerto, Op. 40 (1955), traces the composer’s mental journey after he was diagnosed with an incurable illness. The first movement (Allegro moderato) is filled with turmoil; the second (Andante quieto) is serene; the third (Rondo: Adagio – Allegro giocoso) is jocund.
- Getty, Ancestor Suite
- Åberg, I Folkton (Swedish Folktune)
- Åberg, Swedenborg Pieces: 1. The Clock; 2. Time Goes . . ..
- Le Jeu de Daniel (Ludus Danielis) (drama liturgique du XII Sicèle)
- White, Lanemtations de Jérémie: evocative choral music from the 16th century
There by the window in the old house / Perched on the bluff, overlooking miles of valley, / My days of labor closed, sitting out life’s decline, / Day by day did I look in my memory, / As one who gazes in an enchantress’ crystal globe, / And I saw the figures of the past, / As if in a pageant glassed by a shining dream, / Move through the incredible sphere of time. / And I saw a man arise from the soil like a fabled giant / And throw himself over a deathless destiny, / Master of great armies, head of the republic, / Bringing together into a dithyramb of recreative song / The epic hopes of a people; / At the same time Vulcan of sovereign fires, / Where imperishable shields and swords were beaten out / From spirits tempered in heaven. / Look in the crystal! See how he hastens on / To the place where his path comes up to the path / Of a child of Plutarch and Shakespeare.
O Lincoln, actor indeed, playing well your part, / And Booth, who strode in a mimic play within the play, / Often and often I saw you, / As the cawing crows winged their way to the wood / Over my house-top at solemn sunsets, / There by my window, / Alone.
[Edgar Lee Masters, “William H. Herndon”]