My Art in San Francisco, part 2

This is the concluding part of “My Art in San Francisco,” but it’s not the end of the story. My art will go on. (I’m only punning. I’m not trying to evoke the image of Celine Dion singing the Titanic theme in a French accent.)

Like the unnamed protagonist of “Some Sunny Day,” the story I read at Milpitas Library on June 17, my former classmates and I lost track of time while catching up when we met for a girls’ night out last Friday. In fact, we didn’t even go out of Geeta’s house until it was (well past) time to drop Neeraja back. Next morning, grateful that I didn’t have an early flight to New York or Vegas like my friends, I drove to Oakland, where I was spending the weekend. En route I visited the main branch of San Francisco Public Library, which has two copies of my book.

I call myself a writer, but words cannot describe my disappointment to find both copies sitting on the shelf. I thank SFPL for ordering my book, of course, but the copies don’t belong on the shelf. They belong in the hands of readers! I removed duplicate copies of Pioneer Boulevard and every book near it (to make it fair), and took a photo.

Pioneer Boulevard SFPL

To get my books from where they were to where they belong, I considered making an announcement over the PA offering an autographed business card to anyone who’d be willing to borrow my book, but I quickly decided against it. With my luck, everyone would step forward, only to tell me to be quiet.

I returned the duplicate copies to the shelf and began strolling through the E–F aisle in search of a better idea. I tried to make it appear as though I was searching for a book, not a book promo idea. The aisle was deserted so it’s not like anyone was watching me, but I sometimes get this feeling when I’m in a deserted aisle (which would never happen on a deserted isle) that I’m being watched by a hidden camera. I have no kleptomanic tendencies, and the feeling only comes upon me in a library or bookstore, so I must have a subliminal desire to acquire books. Actually, anyone who has helped me move will tell you it’s not subliminal. And now that I’ve given my psychoanalytical reader something to think about (which I try to do in every post), let me finish my story (which, believe it or not, I also try to do in every post).

Before I could reach the G–H aisle, this inspired thought reached me: Why not ask someone to read my book? It would be more personal (and less humiliating) than a PA announcement. I’d attempt to tempt them with a smile and if that didn’t work, I’d use the business card trick.

Sharon Edwards business card

I had only three or four minutes to do the deed because the parking meter was dangerously close to running out, and much as I wanted a reader, I didn’t want a ticket. The parking was steep enough on its own. But everyone in the neighborhood of the fiction aisles was hunched over a newspaper or staring at a computer or snoozing in a comfy chair. No potential reader there. I was about to give up when I saw him standing there. He had headphones on and was browsing through a thick book. The headphones were a bad sign, but the thick book was a very good sign. It meant he was a reader. And it seemed that Dame Luck was smiling at me, because he looked like the kind of guy who’d be tempted by a smile.

Maybe it was the smile. Maybe I convinced him that his life was incomplete without my book. Maybe he felt sorry for me. Either way, when I asked if he’d be willing to check out my book (no pun intended), he said yes, so I led him to the deserted E–F aisleHe was kind enough to pose for a photo while taking a copy off the shelf and also give me permission to post it. And he graciously accepted the autographed business card.

SFPL Patron

His name is Matt. Thanks to him, the shelf had only one copy of my book when I deserted the E–F aisle. And hopefully that’s in another reader’s hands by now.

As I was leaving the library, it occurred to me that my GPS might to not know how to get me out of the downtown maze (it gets lost even in DTLA), so I asked someone for directions. He walked me to my car as he explained the lefts and rights (three times), and since I didn’t have a parking ticket, I asked him to take a photo on my phone. He got down on his knees (because he was as tall as an SF Giant, not because he wanted to give me a ring), and said “Smile big.”

I smiled big. My art was in a San Francisco reader’s hands, and I was on the verge of leaving my heart behind.

Sharon Edwards outside SFPL

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My Art in San Francisco, part 1

During my first visit to the US a well-traveled American told me that the two prettiest cities in this country are Washington and San Francisco. I saw the capital that summer and I saw the City by the Bay last week, and the capital doesn’t even come close. I’m sure the capital won’t mind my saying this. It’s where freedom of speech is upheld, after all.

I’d like to say I left my heart in San Francisco, but in one of my favorite posts to date, “Morley, Morley, and More” (February 25), I had said that as a writer I must remain above clichés so let me not stoop now. And anyway, this post is not about my heart. There being no he, I must stick to my art.

Pioneer Boulevard Golden Gate

After months of trying to make the Bay Area trip happen, it worked out suddenly, as these things sometimes happen. On the morning of June 2 I received a message from my friend Neeraja (to whom the post of April 16 is addressed), giving me her Bay Area itinerary. She lives in New Delhi and she’d told me about the trip some months ago, but we didn’t know if our dates would match. Happily they did, so as soon as the clock struck ten (that auspicious hour when libraries open), I began making calls in an attempt to land a reading between June 17 and 21. Being a true friend, Neeraja has often expressed the desire to attend a library reading, and I felt it would make a good gift.

Since becoming an author I have discovered that landing a library reading is, cliché or no cliché, a Herculean feat. It was only love for a childhood friend that compelled me to dial another number whenever a librarian hung up saying “Sorry, we don’t have anything available. Good luck.”

As Dame Luck (that lame duck) would have it, Milpitas was the only library that had something available that week. Naturally I took it. A bird in hand is better than no bird. The same holds true of a nerd, but given the number of Indian techies in the Bay Area, it was disappointing that not one of them showed up at the reading on the 17th. Perhaps this has to do with how the event had been publicized. Or perhaps Indian nerds in the Bay Area don’t want to read about the Indian community of So Cal.

A nerd in hand

Absent nerds notwithstanding, the Milpitas Library reading was special for these reasons:
(i) It was the first reading at which all members of the audience were, like my protagonists, Indian women.
(ii) It was the first time an Indian publisher was present: Neeta Gupta of Yatra Books, New Delhi, who has given me some invaluable help with publishing matters this past year. I had come up with an inscription for her copy in LA, but blanked out while signing it. In the end, I had to ask Neeta for help – and of course she gave it.
(iii) It was the first time I had two former classmates from St. Mary’s, Pune, in the audience. In honor of Neeraja and Geeta, I read an excerpt from “Some Sunny Day,” in which two former classmates from Poona meet again after many years.

Milpitas Library

Some Sunny Day p1

Some Sunny Day p2

Diderot and The Last Judgment

Since both H.W. and F.G. Fowler have shuffled off this mortal coil, they won’t be mortified to know I think they included the Morley quote in the Trite Quotations section of The King’s English to show off. Someone is always quoting from literature’s most famous speech, and the Brothers Fowler could have opened any newspaper on any given day and found “to be” or “not to be” on any page. Or, had they wanted something less trite, they could have turned to the Obits. and found a phrase from the “To die, to sleep” bit. But it’s as though they were trying to say, You see, reader, we’ve read our Morley.

I am not sufficiently interested in the Encyclopedists to want to read both volumes of Diderot and the Encyclopædists, but I did read the chapter in which the Fowlers Howlers quote appears (“Pictures Made Poetry”). I am quoting more than they did because in my opinion, Morley’s error is more than triteness. 

It is impossible, in reading how deeply Diderot was affected by fifth-rate paintings and sculpture, not to count it among the great losses of literature that he saw few masterpieces. . . . A journey to Italy was once planned, in which Grimm and Rousseau were to have been his travelling companions; the project was not realised, and the strongest critic of art that his country produced, never saw the greatest glories of art. If Diderot had visited Florence and Rome, even the mighty painter of the Last Judgment and the creator of those sublime figures in the New Sacristy at San Lorenzo would have found an interpreter worthy of him. But it was not to be.

Diderot_et_Grimm

In this drawing of Diderot and Baron von Grimm by Louis Carrogis Carmontelle (whose watercolors include the young Mozart and the middle-aged Laurence Sterne), the Encyclodpédie contributors look like twins, even they were born in different countries and ten years apart. My guess is that Diderot, being older, is the one seated. And this is even more of a conjecture, but perhaps the trip to Italy didn’t materialize because Rousseau and Grimm had their falling-out, and that it was over Madame d’Épinay, the saloniste with whom both men had affairs.

In the passage from which I have quoted above, immediately after quoting Hamlet, Morley quotes Diderot expressing his regret at not having visited Italy: “It is rare for an artist to excel without having seen Italy, just as a man seldom becomes a great writer, or a man of real taste, without having given severe study to the ancients.” That’s a remarkably shortsighted statement coming from someone who wanted to do away with traditional knowledge. Which brings us to Morley’s error. 

Morley’s error is in the sentence in which he says Diderot would have made an interpreter worthy of “the mighty painter of the Last Judgment.” The phrase is not the error; Morley is merely using the literary device of metonymy. Just as in “the villains in Shakespeare” the name represents the plays and not the playwright, when Morley speaks of Diderot interpreting “the mighty painter,” it is understood that he is referring to Michelangelo’s works, not Michelangelo the man. For Diderot to have been “an interpreter worthy of” the mighty painter of The Last Judgment, he would have had to interpret The Last Judgment in a worthy manner – and Morley’s error is in his use of the word worthy

Michelangelo_Last_Judgment

As an art critic worth his salt, Diderot would not have wanted to interpret any painting, let alone the fresco that adorns the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, at a superficial, descriptive level, discussing only texture, palette, contours, and other technical aspects. He would have wanted to arrive at the work’s meaning, and to do this he would have had to ask the question, Who is the central figure, and what is he doing? The central figure of this painting is, of course, Christ, who has returned to judge the earth. The saved are ascending to heaven and the damned are descending to hell.

Diderot’s views on the afterlife come through in one of his most quoted quotes: It is very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley, but to believe or not believe in God is not important at all.” For him, this life was the be-all and the end-all, and God was not important enough to believe in. Within such a worldview there can be no such thing as the last judgment, so Diderot would never have arrived at the true meaning of The Last Judgment, his strengths as an art critic notwithstanding. Somewhere in his immense vocabulary, Morley could surely have found a more suitable adjective than worthy. And based on what I have read of Diderot and what I have read of literature, I doubt it is among “the great losses of literature” that his trip to Italy was not to be.

———————
John Viscount Morley, Diderot and the Encyclopædists, Vol. II, in The Works of Lord Morley: in fifteen volumes, Vol. XI(London: Macmillan, 1921), 48–49.

Dark Enlightenment

John Morley, whose first term as Secretary of State for India began two months after the partition of Bengal took effect in October 1905, seems to have quickly perceived that the partition sounded a death knell for the British Raj. “Reforms may not save the Raj,” he told the viceroy, “but if they don’t, nothing else will.” The Earl of Minto, whose great-grandpa had served as Governor-General of India a century before, was naturally dismissive of such unpatriotic sentiments. “The Raj will not disappear in India as long as the British race remains what it is,” he retorted. 

Minto died in March 1914, with his notions of the superiority of the British race and the permanence of the Raj intact. He never knew that the man who made the Raj disappear would return to India the following January, but Morley lived long enough to see Gandhi successfully establish the non-cooperation movement he had launched in South Africa, and perhaps when he died in 1923 he had an inkling that the Raj would soon be consigned to history. But for all his perspicacity about India, Morley made an error of judgment about Diderot, about whom he knew much more (having written a book called Diderot and the Encyclopædists).  

Encyclopedie

The French philosopher and art critic Denis Diderot (1713–1784) is best known for co-founding and serving as chief editor of the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. The encyclopedia, published in France between 1751 and 1772, is significant not only as a work of reference but especially because it embodied Enlightenment thought. In an article of the same name, Diderot said that the aim of the Encyclopédie was to “change the way people think.” Which, for Enlightenment philosophers, primarily meant replacing religion with reason.

I won’t apologize for saying that I think enlightenment is the wrong word for the Age of Reason. Like everyone else, I have a set of beliefs and experiences and personality traits through which I respond to the world, and my cultural heritage is also part of the mix. I am from India, where enlightenment refers to spiritual revelation, not the acquisition of knowledge by reason and logic. And if you think I should then be speaking an Indian language, please take the matter up with whoever came to India for tea and left three hundred and forty-seven years later, leaving behind a language that has such disparate words as reason and enlightenment

Wrong religious practices needed to be reformed in the eighteenth century, as they must be reformed today – in established religion and especially in our individual lives –but doing away with traditional religion and replacing it with reason cannot be called enlightenmentDismissing as irrelevant something that had been held as true by so many for so long, something so many had been willing to become martyrs for, shows a blindness about an important dimension of human existence. In fact, the spiritual is the most important dimension of human existence, because it deals with the apprehension of truth. Knowledge is temporal – what was “the latest technology” a decade ago is now obsolete, and la dernière in the Age of Reason might well have belonged to the Dark Ages where we’re concerned – but truth is eternal. To seek to rid humanity of that which endures forever is both arrogance and folly.  

The Encyclopédie, being an encyclopedia, aimed to cover all branches of knowledge, and therefore the Encyclopedists should have done away with all traditional knowledge and started from scratch in every field, not just religion. But they didn’t. They picked and chose as they pleased. Religion was chosen to be unchosen because they had a reason for wanting to reject it. But what if we did away with all traditional knowledge? If we in the 21st century decided to take Enlightenment philosophy to its logical conclusion by rejecting all that is traditional, we would have to discard their views on everything, including their views on religion! Enlightenment philosophy is ultimately self-defeating. So much for Reason

Diderot PrankMorley’s error about Diderot has spawned so many thoughts on art and life that it deserves a post of its own on Collected Thoughts. And I think it is fitting to conclude this post with photos of Diderot statues in the places where he was born (Langres) and died (Paris). In both he is shown in his dressing gown, made famous by the whimsical essay, “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown, or A warning to those who have more taste than fortune.” In the old garment he says he was “picturesque and handsome;” its long lines announced the litterateur, the man who worked. The starchy new robe, by contrast, lent him “the air of a rich good for nothing,” and it made everything in his study look humble, so he replaced each item at considerable expense. The cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken has based his theory of upward mobility, the Diderot effect, on this essay.

Diderot

The traffic cone and wineglass in the hand of the Paris statue are obviously the work of pranksters, but the ribbon on the Langres statue might be a coded message between gangsters or perhaps clandestine lovers. Or it might be an allusion to the dressing gown, which Diderot had described in his essay as “the scarlet intruder.” But the ribbon was not the first thing I noticed in this picture. What first drew my attention was the chimney in the background, which brought to mind a couple couplets from the dirge in Cymbeline:

      Golden lads and girls all must,
      As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
             The scepter, learning, physic, must,
             All follow this, and come to dust.

Morley, Morley, and More

The title might make it seem like this post is no more than more wordplay, but there’s more to it than wordplay. One Morley will lead to another, and he will lead to someone associated with the beginning of the end of the British Raj. And he will lead to someone associated with the end of the British Raj. 

But let me begin with the ones who started it all: the Brothers Fowler. In the Fowlers Howlers post on trite quotations, I had quoted them quoting Morley quoting Hamlet.

If Diderot had visited . . . Rome, even the mighty painter of the Last Judgment . . . would have found an interpreter worthy of him. But it was not to be.— MORLEY. 

In thus rebuking the writer for rebuking the reader’s ignorance, the Fowlers inadvertently made the same mistake themselves. When they attributed a “trivial quotation” to Morley, they assumed that everyone would know who they meant and therefore did not feel the need to add a first name. No doubt the early readers of The King’s English would have known who Morley was, but Henry Watson and Francis George didn’t count on the ignorance of certain future readers.

Since I didn’t recognize the name, I typed “writer morley” into my search engine and the first result was Christopher Morley, the American journalist, novelist, anessayist whose penchant for quotations is apparent from the fact that he served as editor on two editions of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (1937 and 1948). But halfway through the Wikipedia entry I knew this was not the Morley I was looking for. How did I figure this out? Elementary, my dear Henry Watson.  

Christopher Morley is the author of Kitty Foyle, the 1939 novel that had critics debating about his “sexual sensationalism.” So even though he was a writer with a penchant for quotations, and he had the right surname, I knew that a man who had written about the exploits of a white-collar girl when he was 49 could not have written about Diderot in his teens. (The Morley example appears in the second edition of The King’s English, published in 1908, and Christopher Morley was born in 1890.)

Morley-John-Viscount (2)

So I returned to my search engine and, more sensibly, typed “morley diderot.” This time I had my man: John Morley, the British Liberal statesman who would have become a clergyman had he not quarreled with his father over religion and opted for law. He was called to the bar but refused to drink. Instead, he chose a career in journalism and eventually joined politics. But this comes later in the Wikipedia article (as does the Diderot connection). When I read in the third line that Morley had served as Secretary of State for India between 1905 and 1910, I remembered him from history. This was the Morley of the Minto-Morley Reforms!

I read history as a minor for my BA so I am supposed to know this and a whole lot more, but even a high school student in India could tell you that 1905 is one of the most significant dates in British Indian history. It is next in importance only to 1757, 1857, and 1947 because it’s the year the first bell tolled for the British Raj, the bell being Curzon’s partition of Bengal. (An Indian historian would have added the adjective “infamous,” but as a writer I must remain above clichés, true though they be.)     

George_Curzon (2)The viceroy had mandated the partition ostensibly to make the administration of that large province more manageable, but that it was done along religious lines proves that the real reason was to Divide and Rule, the policy adopted not long after the Revolt of 1857. Curzon concludes the proclamation of partition on a curiously casual note: “The outcry will be loud and very fierce, but as a native gentleman said to me – ‘my countrymen always howl until a thing is settled; then they accept it’.” It sounds as though he might be ending a letter to a friend, not the viceregal proclamation that set in motion the chain of events that would cause the sun to set on the British Empire. 

Contrary to what the native gentleman had told the viceroy, the hue and cry did not die down and a month after the partition took effect, Curzon was replaced by the Earl of Minto. My man Morley followed weeks later, as Secretary of State. M & M were the architects of the Indian Councils Act 1909, which came to be known as the Minto-Morley Reforms. The partition of Bengal was revoked in 1911, but by then the damage had been done. It had thrown India into the kind of turmoil that fueled the rising national movement as a less radical political act would not have done, sounding the first death knell for the British Raj.

And that knell reverberated from Calcutta – now in its final years as India’s capital – all the way to South Africa, where an expatriate barrister heard it and began preparing to take on the case of a lifetime. Or, as his future colleague might have put it, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had begun preparing for a tryst with destiny.

Gandhi_S_Africa (2)

———————
H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, The King’s English, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1931), 321.

Blog Improper: What’s in the Name?

Before I write my blog proper, as I’d have called my first official blog had I still been using British English, a word or two about why I picked this name. (And a word to those who might be tempted to take “a word or two” literally: Don’t.)

As one who has started blogging so long after blog became a word and WordPress the world’s most populous blogging site, I could come up with only three domain names that hadn’t been taken. I’m glad consonantbooks.wordpress.com was available, but obviously the blog couldn’t be called Consonant Books. Like everyone else, I wanted a unique title (making me like everyone else and everyone else like me and therefore none of us unique), but I couldn’t find a single title that I liked that hadn’t been taken. The plot was thickening, and my patience was wearing thin.

I settled for Collected Thoughts because of the layers of meaning and because it works well with the subtitle I’d already come up with (and was not going to change). I’m sure there are other “Collected Thoughts” floating about in blogosphere, but I hope my thoughts will be sufficiently original, and sufficiently interesting, to make my readers return. “Collected” has a double meaning, of course. My thoughts will be collected in the sense of being gathered in this blog and hopefully also in the sense of being composed. And yes, “composed” has a double meaning too. Now if I could only think of another meaning for “thoughts,” there would be three double meanings . . .

I’m glad WordPress lets us use our own header because nothing they have comes close to my favorite painting. I could find a better quality image on the internet, but I like this one because it’s a photo I took myself at the Getty some years ago. It seems to me that the gorgeous blues in this masterpiece redeem what Van Gogh called “the blues” in childhood, which were to plague him all his life. “The more ugly, old, vicious, ill, poor I get,” he wrote to his sister from Arles, “the more I want to take my revenge by producing a brilliant color, well arranged, resplendent.” He certainly did that with Irises, painted not long before his death in 1890.

I have thanked Van Gogh by mentioning him in my favorite story in Pioneer Boulevard: Los Angeles Stories. Though not an artist myself, I love art and art history and would live at the Getty if parking were free, but the “art” in this blog’s subtitle is more than visual art. As a reader, writer, and student of literature, most of what I blog about will be about the written word – and I can guarantee that, one way or the other, everything will be connected to life. I am not like the hermit to whom the hippie said, “I climbed 4,000 feet and you tell me that life is a noun?” No, dear reader, I am not so detached. Neither am I so brief.

cropped-irises1