Sunday, December 4, 2011


The other day I took my son to the local history museum. We wandered around for a while, and then, drawn by the sounds of some really lovely harp-and-whistle music, found our way into a large, empty room, where middle-aged couples were weaving through and around each other with bashful good cheer and not a little gracelessness while one of their number called out moves. This, as I learned from a handout, was English Country Dancing. I have to admit, wretched music nerd and, let's face it, frightful snob that I am, to being reminded of a famous eighteenth-century review of an appearance of the great castrato Farinelli in London:

Farinelli drew every Body to the Haymarket. What a Pipe ! What Modulation! What Extasy to the Ear ! But, Heavens ! What Clumsiness ! What Stupidity! What Offence to the Eye! Reader, if of the City, thou mayest probably have seen in the Fields of Islington or Mile-End or, If thou art in the environs of St James', thou must have observed in the Park with what Ease and Agility a cow, heavy with calf, has rose up at the command of the milkwoman's foot: thus from the mossy bank sprang the DIVINE FARINELLI.

But the women were gorgeously dressed -- not in period costume, but in shimmering, jewel-colored tea-length skirts; I wanted what they were wearing -- and everyone seemed to be having a blast. It occurred to me that in the past, my heart would have been wrenched with sympathy for these dancing folk, and that I would have seen the invisible patterns left in the air through which they moved and the beautiful dresses on the fading ladies as a metaphor for the fleetingness of life, a "Now the leaves are falling fast" kind of moment. But the other day, I really just thought it was nice and that it looked like fun.

I had a college friend who roomed with me briefly in Brooklyn one summer, in a neighborhood that was on the verge of gentrification. We used to walk down to what may have been one of the last Italian fruit-and-vegetable markets left in the five boroughs, where the owner's wife in her black dress would choose for you from the piles of string beans and eggplants that you pointed at, while her husband would tot up what you owed in pencil on the back of a paper bag. My friend, a philosophy major who was in love with the young rising-star philosopher on the teaching staff (who I believe later actually married another one of his students), would sigh and say, "I love living the unmediated life."

I wonder whether it's actually possible to live a life unmediated by our own philosophies, our own aesthetic codes, our own expectations, and, perhaps most compelling of all, our own pasts. Sometimes I think we construct our entire lives out of nostalgia, even if it's nostalgia for a place we have never been and to which we will never go.

(On that note, I read a novel recently which I loved, All Shall Be Well, And All Shall Be Well, And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well [the title taken from Blessed Julian of Norwich's famous locutions]. It's a sort of black comedy about a medieval re-enactor from upstate New York who goes to Europe, ostensibly on a Hildegard von Bingen pilgrimage, to try to repair his own past. Some of you might like it.)


Enbrethiliel said...


There was a time when beautiful dresses on young women in the prime of life would have inspired "Now the leaves are falling fast" thoughts in me. =P

It seems to me that the rich and well-lived lives that seem so unmediated are the "art" of people who just translate their philosophies and their pasts into living more smoothly than the rest of us do. But it would be too much of a parody of G.K. Chesterton (or Ayn Rand?) for me to wax lyrical about the courageous convictions embodied in the jewel-coloured skirts of the English Country dancers . . . or the hundreds of years of religious tradition still alive in the Italian market.

Pentimento said...

Absolutely well said, E. It seems to me that the current attempts of the highly-educated (at least in this country) to live the unmediated life can never really be successful, though, because real "unmediation" would require us to empty ourselves with a kind of radical kenosis, as the hermit saints did, and that's pretty rare nowadays.

Rodak said...

The novel sounds interesting. I'll give it a try.
Btw, one can't even talk about "radical kenosis" in polite company, I find.

Pentimento said...

Yeah, probably not, Rodak. ; )