Heart of Joseph Conrad

Joseph ConradOn this day in 1755, the great American painter Gilbert Stuart was born. He was mostly a portrait painter, but he did a lot of stuff and his work is really beautiful. Unfortunately, he is known for what I consider a pretty boring unfinished painting. I’m sure you know it. If you are my age, it hung in your grammar school principal’s office. It is the painting of George Washington, also known as The Athenaeum.

The Austrian composer Anton Webern was born in 1883. He was the most important student of Arnold Schoenberg and his twelve-tone technique. But Webern took it further into what we now call “total serialism.” If anything, I like Webern better than later Schoenberg. But I like early Schoenberg a lot more than Webern. Twelve-tone technique is interesting. But it rarely if ever works for a whole piece. Take, for example, Opus 27: Variations for Piano. The third (last) movement is based upon the following tone row:

Variations for Piano - Webern - Tone Row

Having played around with it a bit on the guitar, I find that I can actually make it work in pleasant ways. But I’m no music genius. What Webern does with it is make it as difficult as possible for the listener. At this point, I’m quite familiar with the tone row, and I barely hear it. See if you can:

The great cinematographer Sven Nykvist was born in 1922. He is most associated with Ingmar Bergman, most notably in Cries and Whispers, which has a very distinct look to it. Americans are more familiar with his work on things like Bob Fosse’s Star 80 and Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Interestingly, I just picked up Through a Glass Darkly to watch, most likely later today.

Other birthdays: activist Octavia Hill (1838); overrated direct Jean-Luc Godard (83); disgusting human being Ozzy Osbourne is retiring today; actor Daryl Hannah (53); and actor Julianne Moore is (53).

The day, however, belongs to Joseph Conrad who was born on this day in 1857. In my mind, he is so mixed up with Herman Melville. Of course, there really is no comparison. For one thing, they are two generations removed from each other. Although I tend to prefer Melville with his alcoholic strangeness, there is no doubt that Conrad is the better writer. While I would never call Milville sentimental, his work was old fashioned and labored. Conrad is in many ways the first American modernist novelist. Writing really didn’t change much from him until the publication of Naked Lunch.

Of course, it is hard for me to love Conrad too much. He was something of a philosophical whiner. A fatalist to the core, he couldn’t see any way for society to be organized correctly. I respect that sentiment. But in him, it took a nasty turn against democracy. The basic tendency was typical of men of his time. But a practical approach is always the best and I tire of people who think the only solutions to our woes are perfect theoretical constructs. Still, he left us a lot of good literature.

Happy birthday Joseph Conrad!

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