Search the Synapse

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Seasons of Reading in 2019


Middlemarch at The Strand's rare books room!

If books have seasons, then spring is democratic, summer is feminist, fall is poetic, and winter is nostalgic, at least, that was the literary calendar of my 2019. Books are also a more enjoyable way of measuring time as I take stock of the year. It’s like reminiscing on characters in a familiar village, except the village is your mind, and most of the time, its inhabitants are rather observant and chatty friends.

I’ll start with an old one who kept me company throughout the seasons: I first read George Eliot's Middlemarch five years ago, and since then it has been like a best friend who won't shy from revealing your own ridiculousness, capaciously. This time around, I saw more clearly my own misbeliefs in Lydgate’s conviction of submissive loveliness as the ideal of femininity and Dorothea’s glorification of the mind of man and his doomed "Key to All Mythologies.” I found some fates (Ladislaw’s, Mary’s) more admirable; others (Lydgate’s, Rosamund’s) more tragic.

Like the youthful idealism and somber realism that runs through Middlemarch, Jedediah Purdy's For Common Things brought a springtime restlessness that said: You are not alone in your desire for authenticity, sincerity, caring. Politics is how we make decisions together to build our world. It took me to Purdy's A Tolerable Anarchy which asks what we mean when we employ American freedom. How is freedom personal and political? How is it traditional and radical? These practical and utopian dimensions of freedom, along with the matriculation of a sweep of women and minorities in Congress, roused an energy in me that oftentimes felt misplaced against the backdrop of gentle Hudson waters and delicate cherries outside my window.

Monday, April 15, 2019

What Debussy and Sibelius Teach Us About Patriotism



Program notes written for Columbia University Medical Center Symphony Orchestra's Spring concert.

Both Debussy and Sibelius shared a tendency to decry nationalism in their music. Sibelius described his Symphony No. 2 as strictly non-programmatic. Debussy was known to be "without ideology and without convention."

But to what extent are composers, or, for that matter, any of us, impervious to the patriotic sentiments of the time? For Sibelius and Debussy, nationalism—the kind grounded in natural landscape, poetic voice, and shared commonality—permeated their music.