Our spirits may run free but that is only a way of looking at life. We inhabit physical bodies, which break down, in a physical world, does not always conform to our desires.
Though the Earth gives us life and the body is the sine qua non of every experience we will ever have, still people are tempted to view material things as constraints. The biblical story of the fall of man, from an imaginary world into the real world in which toil and suffering challenge our quest to live joyfully, is brilliantly expressed in Picasso’s La Vie.
We Humanists try not to take that view but we understand why the mind seeks to free itself from what it sees as the shackles of physical restriction. Having the ability to imagine ourselves flying, we do not always accept the reality of constraint. But if we are to approach life objectively and life honestly and responsibly, then we must acknowledge that limitation, suffering and the boundaries of the physical world are natural and often inescapable aspects of the human condition.
But about this time I had an experience which taught me that nature is not always kind. One day my teacher and I were returning from a long ramble. The morning had been fine, but it was growing warm and sultry when at last we turned our faces homeward. Two or three times we stopped to rest under a tree by the wayside. Our last halt was under a wild cherry tree a short distance from the house. The shade was grateful, and the tree was so easy to climb that with my teacher's assistance I was able to scramble to a seat in the branches. It was so cool up in the tree that Miss Sullivan proposed that we have our luncheon there. I promised to keep still while she went to the house to fetch it. Suddenly a change passed over the tree. All the sun's warmth left the air. I knew the sky was black, because all the heat, which meant light to me, had died out of the atmosphere. A strange odour came up from the earth. I knew it, it was the odour that always precedes a thunderstorm, and a nameless fear clutched at my heart. I felt absolutely alone, cut off from my friends and the firm earth. The immense, the unknown, enfolded me. I remained still and expectant; a chilling terror crept over me. I longed for my teacher's return; but above all things I wanted to get down from that tree. There was a moment of sinister silence, then a multitudinous stirring of the leaves. A shiver ran through the tree, and the wind sent forth a blast that would have knocked me off had I not clung to the branch with might and main. The tree swayed and strained. The small twigs snapped and fell about me in showers. A wild impulse to jump seized me, but terror held me fast. I crouched down in the fork of the tree. The branches lashed about me. I felt the intermittent jarring that came now and then, as if something heavy had fallen and the shock had traveled up till it reached the limb I sat on. It worked my suspense up to the highest point, and just as I was thinking the tree and I should fall together, my teacher seized my hand and helped me down. I clung to her, trembling with joy to feel the earth under my feet once more. I had learned a new lesson--that nature "wages open war against her children, and under softest touch hides treacherous claws.” [Helen Keller, The Story of My Life (1904), Chapter V.]
- Richard Rhodes, Energy: A Human History (Simon & Schuster, 2018): “As societies mature, tolerance for environmental damage diminishes.”
- Sarah M. Broom, The Yellow House: A Memoir (Grove Press, 2019): “Her memoir isn’t just a Katrina story — it has a lot more on its mind. But the storm and the way it scattered her large family across America give this book both its grease and its gravitas.”
- Phaidon Editors, Anatomy: Exploring the Human Body (Phaidon, 2019): “ . . . one of two new books that explore the blend of fascination and panic that has long attended our relationships with our physical selves.”
- Siddharth Kara, Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives (St. Martin’s Press, 2023), “takes a deep dive into the horrors of mining the valuable mineral — and the many who benefit from others’ suffering.”
Pivotal events often shape the world, as in these narratives:
- Stephen R. Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012): “Perhaps instability is ingrained in China’s political culture, but a century and a half ago there seemed to be a moment when the Chinese might have changed that pattern. As Platt notes, the Taiping movement came close to overwhelming traditional ways and bringing China into the modern world.”
- Charlie Savage, Power Wars: The Relentless Rise of Presidential Authority and Secrecy (Little, Brown & Company, 2015): “ . . . Savage provides a comprehensive, authoritative history of the legal side of national security policy making during the Obama years.”
- Niall Ferguson, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe (Penguin Press, 2021): examining “Disasters of the Past and Disasters Still To Come”
- Salvador Dali, Nummularii de templo eiecti (1964)
- Salvador Dali, Labyrinth II (1941)
- Salvador Dali, The Trinity
- Diego Rivera, Subterranean Forces (1926)
- Umberto Boccioni, Materia (1912)
- Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Field with Crows (1890)
- Ivan Aivazofsky, Sailing in a Storm (1881)
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Gustav Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) (1909) (approx. 100-110’) (lyrics), is a one-of-its-kind masterpiece, perhaps a six-song cycle, perhaps a symphony. It reflects Mahler’s inner core at the time of its composition, and speaks for us all. “Death was no stranger to Mahler. In childhood it visited his home and took away brothers and sisters. In adult life he faced it down by pinning it all over his creative work in the form of funeral marches, settings of songs about more children dying, of drummer boys going to battlefields, of soldiers facing execution. Death was personal. It drank in the taverns, it stared back in the reflections of mountain streams, it glowered from the trees in the forests. Nearer the end of his own short life, however, death lost its sting and the composition of 'Das Lied Von der Erde' ('The Song of The Earth') could be looked on as the drawing of that sting.” “A chronicle of the weariness of body and soul, an embracing of death, then, finally, an exquisitely lyrical outpouring of faith in life’s renewal in a huge C-major coda, concluding with the previously-quoted passage, fading into the distance... 'Everywhere, forever... forever and ever....'” Top performances on disc are by Svanhom, Ferrier and Walter in 1948; Ferrier, Patzak and Walter in 1952; Merriman, Haefliger and Beinum in 1956; Ludwig, Wunderlich and Klemperer in 1964-66; King, Fischer-Dieskau and Bernstein in 1966 ***; Baker, Kmentt and Kubelik in 1970; Hodgson, Mitchinson and Horenstein in 1972; Hodgson, Mitchinson and Gibson in 1974; Baltsa, Winkler and Karajan in 1978; Finnilä, Schreier and Sanderling in 1983; and Smith, Connolly and Jurowski in 2018.
- Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of Earth's Misery)
- Der Einsame im Herbst (Autumn Loneliness)
- Von der Jugend (Youth)
- Von der Schönheit (Beauty)
- Der Trunken im Frühling (The Drunkard In Spring)
- Der Abscheid (The Farewell)
- Klas Torstensson, Lantern Lectures (2002) (approx. 71’): “. . . the title suggests a cosy gathering by lantern light, but composer Klas Torstensson (1951) places you right in the middle of the mighty nature of the far north.” “The four lectures portray fundamental elements and phenomena in Nordic nature: bedrock with stratified memories of its violent origins (Solid Rocks I & II), traces of the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) and potholes, cylindrical holes drilled into the bedrock under glaciers (Giant’s Cauldron).”
- Humans and other animals stay alive by killing and eating living things. Such are the world’s demands. An opera by Tobias Picker, Fantastic Mr. Fox (1998) (approx. 83’), tells this tale with some humor. “A modern fable, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a story about good vs. evil, animal vs. human, and nature vs. technology. With the help of the other creatures of the forest, Mr. Fox must outwit his enemies to keep his family safe. Mr. Fox finds that he may have stolen one hen too many from the henhouse, as the meanest farmers anywhere — Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (one fat, one short, one lean) — conspire to rid their lands of the Fox family once and for all. The Foxes are able to evade capture with the help of some woodland friends, leaving the farmers laying in wait while the animals help themselves to the fruit of the farmers’ lands.”
- Aleksandr Glazunov, From the Middle Ages, Suite in E Major for orchestra, Op. 79 (1902) (approx. 26’), is a symphonic poem following the joys and sorrows of two young lovers living in a difficult time and place.
- Wilhelm Furtwängler, Symphony No. 1 in B Minor (1941) (approx. 83-88’): In the notes to this album, Sebastian Krahner writes that this symphony reminds him of Michelangelo’s sculpture “Four Slaves.” “The struggle of the bodies laboring to free themselves from the stone seems to continue before the eyes of the beholder. Man as part of and in conflict with the world is here both stony reality and living vision.”
- Paul Moravec, The Blizzard Voices (2008) (approx. 61’), “chronicles a snowstorm that suddenly struck across the upper Midwest in 1888 and killed hundreds, including a large number of children returning home from school. It is a secular oratorio . . .” The storm was called “The Children’s Blizzard”.
- George Enescu, Vox maris (Voice of the Sea) in G major, symphonic poem for tenor, three-part choir and orchestra, Op. 31 (1954) (approx. 27-31’): the sea claims a victim, then sings of its catch.
- Hugo Alfvén, Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 11 (1898) (approx. 53-63’): “My original intention was that the entire symphony should well forth in a flood of light and harmony. But Fate decreed otherwise. As soon as the first movement is over, the sun is hidden by the clouds, and twilight sets in. There follows a stormy night during which, figuratively speaking, I had to fight for my life in order not to be defeated by the inner conflicts that were at that time close to destroying me completely.” [Hugo Alfvén]
- Jonathan Dove, The Flight (1988) (approx. 135’), is a contemporary opera about a “refugee who lives in the airport – inspired by the true-life story of an Iranian refugee who lived at Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris, for 18 years – unfolds around the different characters who find themselves delayed in the terminal.” The refugee’s travails, and those of airline passengers, serve as metaphors for life’s travails.
- César Franck, Le Chasseur Maudit (The Accursed Horseman), M44 (1882) (approx. 14-15’): “Though the work is through-composed (meaning there are no breaks between sections), there are four distinct scenes: The Peaceful Sunday Morning, The Hunt, The Curse, and The Demons’ Chase.”
- Nicholas Flagello, Symphony No. 1 (1968) (approx. 37’), is a complicated work, with no clear thematic intent from the composer.
- György Ligeti, Le Grand Macabre (1977, revised 1996) (approx. 120-150’), is an opera about life’s dark side. “The story is straightforward enough: Nekrotzar, a Death-like figure, travels around the world of Breughelland warning its citizens of impending doom – a giant comet will destroy Earth at midnight. He gathers various companions as he travels the land; Piet the Pot, a drunk, and Astradamors, the Astronomer Royal. They all travel to the royal palace, the end of the world getting ever closer. But in the end, we don’t know if the world ended or not.” ^ Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Photoptosis (Incidence of Light), Prélude für großes Orchester (Prelude for Large Orchestra) (1968) (approx. 13-14’), inspired by monochromatic art.
- Rued Langgaard, Symphony No. 15, “Søstormen” (The Sea Storm), BVN 375 (1937/1945) (approx. 14-18’)
- Fred Frith, “Stick Figures” (1991) (approx. 18’)
- Joel Feigin, “Surging Seas” (2012) (approx. 21’), “was inspired by the devastation wrought by the tsunamis of 2004 and 2011.”
- Chinese composer Xiaoyang Ye has composed his own “Song of the Earth”, for soprano, baritone & orchestra, Op. 47 (2004) (approx. 41’), using the original Chinese texts, on which Mahler had relied.
- KAZE & Ikue Mori, “Sand Storm" (2020) (64’): “Sounds exist as they are and provide life and breath to a world its own. Contrasts and complements create the same harmony as the ebb and flow through time, free from what we often think of as traditional structures. Strained sounds shift from uncomfortable events to beautifully vibrant sonorities, while the most basic building blocks in Western harmony and melodic contour may feel invasive.”
- Lina Nyberg, “Terrestrial” (2017) (90’)
- Ra Kalam Bob Moses, “The Skies of Copenhagen” (2019) (132’)
- Dedekind Cut, “Tahoe” (2018) (52’), “is music for travelling beyond, informed by a deeply honest sense of what it’s like to be alive right now in this weird world. . . Tahoe is a industrial synth tsunami, devouring and incorporating everything along its path.” “Even at its most beautiful, as with the elegant ‘Virtues,’ an aural mass of pink and purple clouds move over the expanse of the sky.”
- Jacob Cooper & Steven Bradshaw, “Sunrise” (2021) (32’) – a dreary depiction of an event that supports life itself
- Warsaw Village Band (Kapela ze wsi Warszawa), “Waterduction” (Uwodzenie) (2020) (41’): “The album name makes reference to the feeling of seduction caused by rivers and water, specifically the Vistula and the Urzecze region.”
Film and Stage
- Dersu Uzala, a metaphorical tale about the powers of nature and civilization
- The Big Clock: the clock symbolizes what Carl Orff called fate
- Lifeboat, a Hitchcock film that tests the idea of justice in a world of scarce resources
- An Andalusian Dog (Un Chien Andalou): a surrealistic trip through violent and graphic images, courtesy of Luis Buñuel, with assistance from Salvador Dali
If there is anything terrible, if there exists a reality which surpasses dreams, it is this: to live, to see the sun; to be in full possession of virile force; to possess health and joy; to laugh valiantly; to rush towards a glory which one sees dazzling in front of one; to feel in one's breast lungs which breathe, a heart which beats, a will which reasons; to speak, think, hope, love; to have a mother, to have a wife, to have children; to have the light--and all at once, in the space of a shout, in less than a minute, to sink into an abyss; to fall, to roll, to crush, to be crushed; to see ears of wheat, flowers, leaves, branches; not to be able to catch hold of anything; to feel one's sword useless, men beneath one, horses on top of one; to struggle in vain, since one's bones have been broken by some kick in the darkness; to feel a heel which makes one's eyes start from their sockets; to bite horses' shoes in one's rage; to stifle, to yell, to writhe; to be beneath, and to say to one's self, "But just a little while ago I was a living man!" [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume II – Cosette; Book First – Waterloo, Chapter XIX, The Battle-Field at Night.]
Fantine was one of those beings who blossom, so to speak, from the dregs of the people. Though she had emerged from the most unfathomable depths of social shadow, she bore on her brow the sign of the anonymous and the unknown. She was born at M. sur M. Of what parents? Who can say? She had never known father or mother. She was called Fantine. Why Fantine? She had never borne any other name. At the epoch of her birth the Directory still existed. She had no family name; she had no family; no baptismal name; the Church no longer existed. She bore the name which pleased the first random passer-by, who had encountered her, when a very small child, running bare-legged in the street. She received the name as she received the water from the clouds upon her brow when it rained. She was called little Fantine. No one knew more than that. This human creature had entered life in just this way. At the age of ten, Fantine quitted the town and went to service with some farmers in the neighborhood. At fifteen she came to Paris "to seek her fortune." Fantine was beautiful, and remained pure as long as she could. She was a lovely blonde, with fine teeth. She had gold and pearls for her dowry; but her gold was on her head, and her pearls were in her mouth. She worked for her living; then, still for the sake of her living,--for the heart, also, has its hunger,--she loved. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume I – Fantine; Book Third – In the Year 1817, Chapter II, “A Double Quartette”.]
Novels and stories:
- Han Kang, The Vegetarian: A Novel (Hogarth, 2016): “ . . . Yeong-hye’s vegetarian journey is far from a happy one. Abstaining from eating living things doesn’t lead to enlightenment. As Yeong-hye fades further and further from the living, our author, like a true god, lets us struggle with the question of whether we should root for our hero to survive or to die.”
- Tom Lin, The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu: A Novel (Little, Brown, 2021): “. . . Lin’s prose captures the terrifying, repetitive power of nature.”
- Violet Kupersmith, Build Your House Around My Body: A Novel (Random House, 2021): “. . . the novel’s primary preoccupation (is) with the body and its violations, both the sexual trauma experienced by the female characters and the ravages of colonial occupation and war upon the body of Vietnam.”
- Mieko Kawakami, Breasts and Eggs: A Novel (Europa, 2020): “Kawakami writes with unsettling precision about the body — its discomforts, its appetites, its smells and secretions. And she is especially good at capturing its longings, those in this novel being at once obsessive and inchoate, and in one way or another about transformation.”
- May-lee Chai, Tomorrow in Shanghai: And Other Stories (Blair, 2022), “follows Yu, a teenage boy who immigrates from China to Colorado to attend school and work at a white-owned restaurant with his uncle. . . . Just as Yu feels the pressure to get into an American college and marry an American girl to provide for his parents back in China, Anping too must work hard in New Shanghai Colony to pay off her family’s debts back in Original China, on Earth.”
One ship drives east and another drives west / With the self-same winds that blow; / 'Tis the set of the sails / And not the gales / That tells them the way to go.
Like the winds of the sea are the winds of fate / As we voyage along through life; / 'Tis the set of the soul / That decides its goal / And not the calm or the strife.
[Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “The Winds of Fate”]
In cabin'd ships at sea, / The boundless blue on every side expanding, / With whistling winds and music of the waves, the large imperious waves, / Or some lone bark buoy'd on the dense marine, / Where joyous full of faith, spreading white sails, / She cleaves the ether mid the sparkle and the foam of day, or under many a star at night, / By sailors young and old haply will I, a reminiscence of the land, be read, / In full rapport at last.
Here are our thoughts, voyagers' thoughts, / Here not the land, firm land, alone appears, may then by them be said, / The sky o'erarches here, we feel the undulating deck beneath our feet, / We feel the long pulsation, ebb and flow of endless motion, / The tones of unseen mystery, the vague and vast suggestions of the briny world, the liquid-flowing syllables, / The perfume, the faint creaking of the cordage, the melancholy rhythm, / The boundless vista and the horizon far and dim are all here, / And this is ocean's poem.
Then falter not O book, fulfil your destiny, / You not a reminiscence of the land alone, / You too as a lone bark cleaving the ether, purpos'd I know not whither, yet ever full of faith, / Consort to every ship that sails, sail you! / Bear forth to them folded my love, (dear mariners, for you I fold it here in every leaf;) / Speed on my book! spread your white sails my little bark athwart the imperious waves, / Chant on, sail on, bear o'er the boundless blue from me to every sea, / This song for mariners and all their ships.
- Pablo Neruda, “Enigmas”
- Theodore Roethke, “Meditation at Oyster River”
- Edgar Lee Masters, “Dr. Siegfried Iseman”
- Edgar Lee Masters, “Tom Beatty”
- Seamus Heaney, “The Early Purges”
- Roger McGough, “Q”