Ode on a Grecian vacation
To all my wonderful followers,
I shall be away on a vacation to Greece from today for about two weeks. I will have zero internet access as the plan is to go off grid.
I have to use up my remaining vacation days left to me at work or lose it. It’s been a tough year of long punishing hours on the corporate treadmill - and that’s not even counting the toll of Covid that has affected all of us in varying degrees of discomfort and despair. And so it’s a perfect opportunity to re-charge my batteries.
I’m going out to Greece with a couple of ex-army friends who, besides being extremely experienced and skilled mountaineers and hikers, are also good natured and fun loving company to be around.
We’re going to be climbing Mount Olympus which is the highest peak in Greece.
In Greek mythology, of course, it was the home of the Greek gods and the peak of Stefani was considered ‘Zeus’s Throne.’ Located in the Olympus Range between Thessaly and Macedonia, Mt. Olympus features 46 peaks exceeding 2,000 metres. The apex lies at Mytikas (2,917m), while ‘Zeus’s Throne,’ or Stefani (2,909m), is a notable summit for its role as the Greek God’s personal - you guessed it - throne. The second-highest peak, Skolio (2,911m), is a great place for rock climbing along its north face. We’ll be attempting over a few days to climb both peaks in under three days or less. It is estimated that roughly 5,000 climbers ascend Mt. Olympus each year, though the elusive top rock of Mytikas is never attained by all of them. Depending on which trail you choose it can be a moderately do-able climb to a tough hike. It’s classified as a Grade III climb near the summit and some routes require really experienced technical rock climbing skills.
Where would the fun be if we didn’t decide to undertake the toughest routes to the top, at well over 8 hours of climbing a day?
We’re also going on to do some serious trekking on hardcore trails.
One of which is over 75km. The Menalon Trail is a long-distance hiking route which runs from between Stemnitsa and Lagkadia, two mountain villages in Arcadia, on the Peloponnese peninsula, in the very south of Greece. It’s a route which is a lot more off the beaten track than a lot of hiking in Greece, and the 75km route is not only mountainous but also full of valleys, canyons, huge natural plateaus and bare peaks. It’s really a thing of beauty.
Other trails around Greece worth mentioning that we’re doing includes one to the Neda Waterfalls which is very much a untamed river trek off the beaten track. Neda is a river that passes through the Peloponnese region, in an area extremely well-known for its beautiful waterfalls. We’re also including a trek through the Vikos Gorge. It’s an insane gorge. The Guinness Book of World Records lists this gorge as the deepest in the world relative to its width. It lies on the slopes of Mount Tymfi and is half a kilometre at its deepest point. The hike is around 12km long, and the area is well known for stone bridges and old monasteries. Some of the pathways are narrow ledges on the sides of the gorge and so it’s considered dangerous in parts but that’s part of the adrenaline rush that we’re all fixated on.
I am going to spoil myself at the end by relaxing and seeing old friends in Athens. I have some Classicist friends who are doing fantastic research and excavation work in institutions based there.
All of which means I won’t be posting for the next two weeks on my blog. If you’ve sent me questions or mail to my inbox, please do forgive me if I don’t reply during this time. I will of course endeavour to reply as soon as I am able to.
I mean this sincerely when I say I am deeply appreciative of all of you who follow my blog. I wish I was more worthy of your support.
Meanwhile we would all do well to heed the words from my well worn copy of Herodotus that I’m taking with me:
Ει εθέλοι κατεσπουδάσθαι αιεί μηδέ ες παιγνίην το μέρος εωυτόν ανιέναι, λάθοι αν ήτοι μανείς ή ό γε απόπληκτος γενόμενος.
(If a man insisted always on being serious, and never allowed himself a bit of fun and relaxation, he would go mad or become unstable without knowing it.)
Black Swan Europa
Χαλεπόν άρχεσθαι υπό χερείονος.**
**It is hard to be ruled by an inferior.
Anonymous asked: I enjoy reading your essays on music and especially your very learned takes on opera. Maria Callas remains a favorite of mine. I was talking to my partner who professionally plays in an orchestra and he opined that for him Maria Callas ruined her voice by singing coloratura roles that were outside her natural range; things like Gilda and Butterfly. What is your take?
Both fragile and yet seemingly unshakeable on stage, Maria Callas is unquestionably an operatic diva and legend of the 20th century. Love it or hate it, her voice leaves no listener indifferent.
I have been pondering on your question for over a couple of months now to see if there is any truth to what your musician partner believed. So I went back to listen to what Callas collection I have (it’s a lot) and even watched some clips of her performances. I even talked it over with some musician friends of mine who are more knowledgeable about these sort of things than I could hope to be. But I still made up my own mind after debating things over with them.
In truth, I came away in two minds. I think, with respect, your musician partner is half-right.
Maria Callas did do damage to her voice, but that's not how. If your technique is good enough, you can sing anything that doesn't require you to "force." A relaxed vocal production with ample breath support is good. "Forcing" is bad. (This is precisely analagous to any other physical activity. Certain kinds of straining hurt the muscles.) There is no "forcing" from Callas in the upper register in performances of these coloratura roles. Indeed it was on the other end of her range that she did damage to her voice.
Callas had a nearly flawless vocal technique including considerable power and agility throughout a wide range, and in the very earliest recordings live or studio (e.g., the 1949 Cetra Liebestod and "Casta diva") there is scarcely a trace of the pronounced wobble that gradually took over in the upper register.
Unfortunately, she did damage to her instrument by abusing what is referred to as "chest voice," the use of forcing in the lower register for expressive effect that makes a soprano sound not unlike a baritone. Listen to Callas singing "Suicidio!" in the early Cetra Gioconda. You will notice that she uses "chest voice" whenever she descends to the lower register, and that she carries the use of chest register fairly high up at the end of the aria. You can all put feel her tearing up her instrument with the final "dentro l'avel." She really bores into the final sustained syllable of the aria forcing for all she's worth. Had she done this more sparingly like many another singer of Italian opera, no harm would have been done. But Callas was addicted to this effect.
It is often said that singers damage their voices by singing roles too heavy for them, and this is true. What makes a role too heavy? A role that is too heavy is a role that requires you to force. Callas had a large voice and a superlative technique. She didn't ever need to force. Had she not abused her voice by making excessive use of "chest voice," the wobble would not have become a problem and her career would have lasted much longer.
Needless to say, other factors contributed to the state of Callas' physical health: growing older, emotional stress, the diet she went on in the 50's (which may or may not have involved swallowing a tape worm), etc. etc. etc. But the immediate and principal cause of Callas's vocal problems was something she did with her voice, despite all the mythology.
Thanks for your question.
She wouldn't climb out of the bed for her sister, but she had climbed into a crater. She wouldn't cross a room, but she had crossed a continent.
- Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Sisters. That’s what we do.
There is a difference between Catholic and Protestant attitudes to painting," he explained as he worked, "but it is not necessarily as great as you may think. Paintings may serve a spiritual purpose for Catholics, but remember too that Protestants see God everywhere, in everything. By painting everyday things-tables and chairs, bowls and pitchers, soldiers and maids-are they not celebrating God's creation as well?
- Tracy Chevalier, Girl with a Pearl Earring
Johannes Vermeer was the greatest of the Dutch genre painters, who took his subject matter from everyday life. However, Vermeer did not simply record the world around him, but he carefully crafted poetic constructions based on what he observed.
Estimated to have been painted around 1665, Girl with a Pearl Earring is the Dutch artist's most famous painting.
The painting has become as intriguing in its modest way as the Mona Lisa. Ineed it is often refered to as ‘The Mona Lisa of the North’. The girl's face turned toward us from centuries ago demands that we ask, who was she? What was the thinking? What was the artist thinking about her?
It is not a portrait but a tronie - the head of an ideal type, it depicts a young beautiful woman in an exotic dress, wearing an oriental turban and an improbably large pearl in her ear. Even though a girl possibly sat and posed for this painting, it displays too few distinctive features - there are no moles, scars or freckles to be seen.
Set against a black background, the young woman features the striking blue and yellow turban and a glistening pearl. Vermeer's mastery of light and shade can be seen on her luminous skin, while subtle glimmers of white on her parted red lips make them appear moist. Although we don't know the identity of the girl, she looks familiar, mostly due to the intimacy of her gaze. However, by leaving the corners of her eyes undefined, the artist offers no clue of her emotional state. Her expression is pleasingly ambiguous, contributing to the work being an iconic masterpiece.
I think there are three qualities that make Girl with a Pearl Earring so seductive. It is very beautiful, for one thing. The striking blue and yellow of the girl’s headscarf, set against a black background, the glistening pearl created in a few swift strokes, the expert capturing of light and shade on her luminous skin, the liquid pools of her eyes: all add up to a work of sublime beauty.
But beauty is not enough to sustain the sort of attention Girl with a Pearl Earring receives. I’ve been looking at this painting for over 30 years, and I’m still not bored of it. Why?
Its second seductive characteristic is that the girl looks familiar. We may not know who she is, but we feel we know her because she is looking at us with such intimacy. We mistake this look for familiarity. I’ve had readers tell me that their daughter or their friend or their neighbor resembles the girl. I’ve seen many women online dressed up as her. Someone once told me that I look like the girl, and that must be why I wrote about the painting.
However, we don’t really know what she looks like – not even the basics like hair or eye color. With her face turned partially away, we can’t really discern its shape. The line of her nose blends into her check so we don’t know if it’s wide, snub, or round. Her look is universal rather than specific. In fact, the painting is not actually a portrait of a particular person, but what the Dutch called a tronie – the head of an ideal “type,” like “a soldier” or “a musician” – or, in this case, “a young beauty.”
This leads to the third and most powerful quality of the painting: its mystery. We don’t know who the girl is or what she’s thinking. Indeed, we know very little about Vermeer. He lived his whole life in the Dutch town of Delft. He married a Catholic woman and probably converted, he lived at his mother-in-law’s, and had 11 children. He was in debt several times. He was an art dealer as well as an artist – and that’s about the extent of our knowledge, apart from his work.
The girl’s expression is pleasingly ambiguous. Is she happy or sad? Is she pushing us away or yearning to look at us? And who is “us,” anyway? I had been studying the painting for years when one day it dawned on me: of course she’s not looking at me like that – I wasn’t there! She’s looking at the painter with that curious wide-eyed gaze. It made me wonder what Vermeer did to her to make her look like that at him. That curiosity was what led me to write a novel about the painting: I wanted to explore the mystery of her gaze. To me Girl with a Pearl Earring is neither a universal tronie, nor a portrait of a specific person. It is a portrait of a relationship.
In considering the painting, there is an immediate beauty that draws us in, and a familiarity that satisfies us. But in the end, it is the mystery that keeps us coming back to it again and again, looking for answers that we never find.
Beauty, familiarity, mystery. These are the qualities of Girl with a Pearl Earring that make it an iconic masterpiece. The painting is like a song that ends on the second-to-last chord: we are drawn to look at it again in the hope that this time the last chord will be played, the painting will resolve itself, the mystery will dissipate, and we can leave the girl alone at last.
Vermeer created 36 paintings that we’re aware of, many of them depicting women on their own, doing everyday things like pouring milk, writing letters, playing lutes. We have no idea who these women are, though they are likely to be members of the family household. This means we don’t know what the relationship is between the girl wearing the pearl earring and the painter.
Tracy Chevalier's story shares some of the striking qualities of Vermeer's paintings. Her subject is a single woman caught in a private moment. Like the Dutch master, she's fascinated by the play of light, the suggestive power of small details, and the subtle thoughts beneath placid expressions.
The story is told by Griet, a young woman in Delft. Her family, never prosperous, has been thrown into desperate circumstances by a recent kiln accident that blinded her father. While her young brother is sent to a harsh tile factory, Griet finds work as a maid in the home of Johannes Vermeer.
Now and then Chevalier's style seems self-consciously rich. Her poor, illiterate narrator sounds at times as though she's earned a master's degree in creative writing, as the author has. But, that aside, Chevalier re-creates common life in Delft with fascinating authenticity. The smells of the marketplace, the drudgery of laundry, the subtle tensions between servants – it all comes across here viscerally.
Vermeer's house is full of his own children and other people's paintings. Griet finds it something of a land mine. Their Roman Catholic faith is an unsettling mystery to her. The painter's daughters are eager to test her authority. His wife resents the competition for her husband's attention. And the careful old mother-in-law is willing to do anything to increase Vermeer's meager artistic output.
With wonderfully effective restraint, Chevalier captures the glances and brief comments that gradually lead Griet into her master's studio, his painting, and finally his heart.
Any sign of intimacy with Vermeer's work would mean certain dismissal by the painter's captious, continually pregnant wife, but Griet can't help but stare at his haunting portraits when everyone else has gone to bed.
Though they're very quiet moments, the most exciting scenes are those of Griet slowly learning to see with greater perception and understand the nature of light and shadow. Soon, she's making crucial recommendations to the master about shading, composition, and color.
When Vermeer's raunchy patron insists on a portrait of Griet, he forces a crisis that exposes the thicket of affections and jealousies coursing below the surface of this house.
"I wanted to know the man who painted like that," Griet thinks one day while dusting Vermeer's studio. That knowledge is ultimately denied her - and us - but his elusive quality seems as accurate as the rest of this luminous novel.
Tracy Chevalier's novel speculating about the painting was of course filmed by Peter Webber, who casts Scarlett Johansson as the girl and Colin Firth as Vermeer. I can think of many ways the film could have gone wrong, but it goes right, because it doesn't cook up melodrama and romantic intrigue but tells a story that's content with its simplicity. The painting is contemplative, reflective, subdued, and the film must be, too: We don't want lurid revelations breaking into its mood.
Sometimes two people will regard each other over a gulf too wide to ever be bridged, and know immediately what could have happened, and that it never will. That is essentially the message of this quiet lush film.
On peut vaincre avec une épée et être vaincu par un baiser.
- Daniel Heinsius
If you don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you're mis-informed.
- Mark Twain
Πάντες άνθρωποι φύσει ορέγονται του ειδέναι.
All men by nature desire to know.
Τους πόνους γαρ αγαθοί τολμώσι, δειλοί δ’ εισίν ουδέν ουδαμού.
- Euripides, Iphigeneia in Tauris
The brave will dare the effort (of war), cowards are nothing nowhere.
Je suis en train de suivre la nature sans être capable de la saisir, je dois peut-être aux fleurs d'être devenu un peintre.
- Claude Monet
Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.
- Arthur Schopenhauer
**Photo: Sophia Loren by Franco Fedelli
We're after the drawing-room type. An English girl, looking like a schoolteacher, is apt to get into a cab with you and, to your surprise, she'll probably pull a man's pants open.
- Alfred Hitchcock on his infamous ‘Hitchcock blonde’ typecasting as told to Francois Truffaut
Alfred Hitchcock relished placing his ice blonde heroines in jeopardy. He broke them down emotionally, and even physically. Preoccupied with manipulating their screen images - dictating the tiniest details of costume, coiffure, makeup and shoes - Hitchcock eventually strove to control their private lives as well.
"I always believe in following the advice of the playwright (Victorien) Sardou," Hitchcock once confessed. "He said, 'Torture the women!' The trouble today is that we don't torture women enough."
The Hitchcock Blonde reached her apex in three films with Grace Kelly (Dial 'M' for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief). Kelly epitomized his idée fixe: the ice goddess who could unleash unexpected flames of passion. The camera, standing in for Hitchcock, clearly worships her.
Alfred Hitchcock was obsessed with possession. A reoccurring motif throughout his films is of a man possessing a woman, or in the case of Vertigo: a spirit possessing a woman, ending up with a male trying to possess her.
Hitchcock's attitude toward this ideal darkened after what he perceived as betrayals: Kelly's abandoning acting to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco; and Vera Miles' opting for pregnancy rather than starring in Vertigo, which Hitchcock had planned as her breakthrough role.
Vertigo was his most autobiographical work. James Stewart played Scottie, a man obsessed with Kim Novak's Madeleine, who was herself haunted. After her death, Scottie forces an unwilling second woman (Judy, also played by Novak) to duplicate every aspect of the dead woman's attire and hairstyle. The plot creepily echoed Hitchcock's domination of his female stars. Vertigo's recurring shot of a tightly wound coil of ash-blonde hair atop Novak's head encapsulates the theme of obsession. It's a hypnotic vortex into which Stewart (or Hitchcock) could fall and disappear forever.
In Psycho, Hitchcock treated his blonde viciously, killing off Janet Leigh's pert embezzler less than halfway through the film. The shower murder was widely regarded as the most shocking act in film history up to that point.
With Tippi Hedren, star of The Birds and Marnie, his obsession finally spun out of control, like the berserk carousel at the climax of Strangers on a Train. He discovered Hedren in a TV commercial. A model, she had no plans for an acting career. Signing her to an exclusive contract, he launched his most intensive and intrusive campaign to play Pygmalion, as detailed in Donald Spoto's biography The Dark Side of Genius.
Hitchcockian men would go to any length to gain possession of their female leads. In Marnie, where Mark (Sean Connery) blackmails Marnie (Tippi Hedren) into marriage and rapes her during their honeymoon. In her memoir, Hedren writes that it was a widespread belief that, “the rape scene that had driven Hitchcock to make Marnie in the first place, that a man taking his frigid, unattainable bride by force was Hitchcock’s fantasy about me.”
Hitchcock’s need to control Hedren extended the instructions he gave on set: “Do not touch The Girl.” A simple conversation with a male cast or crew member would result in Hedren receiving an icy reaction from Hitchcock, or vulgar limerick recited. And when Hedren rejected Hitchock’s touch, he answered in two ways: forcing himself on her and then refusing to let her work.
“I’ve never gone into detail about this, and I never will. I’ll simply say that he suddenly grabbed me and put his hands on me. It was sexual, it was perverse, and it was ugly, and I couldn’t have been more shocked and more repulsed. The harder I fought him, the more aggressive he became. Then he started adding threats, as if he could do anything to me that was worse than what he was trying to do at that moment.”
Hitchcock followed through with his threat of trying to ruin her career by not casting her in any more of his films after Marnie, while at the same time not letting her out of her contract. A classic case of a rejected man: if he couldn’t have her, no one could.
More so than any other artist, Hitchcock isn’t only given possession of the themes and actors inside the frames of his own films, but also other peoples’ films, real life events, and actual people. I expect Hitchcock would be very happy about his ability to possess, even if it’s only grammatical. His birds. His suspense. His Marnie. But also: Hitchcockian suspense; a Hitchcockian conspiracy; Hitchcockian composition. Hitchcock blondes. It would make sense to refer to hair dyed an Yves Klein blue a Klein blue, but a Hitchcock blonde? Hmmm. Many film historians and critics would say that Hitchcock did not invent the blonde; Jean Harlow did.
**Photos: Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren, two of the archetypal ‘Hitchcock blonde’.
In politics, If you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.
- Rt Hon Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister 1979-1990
L'instruction pour les femmes, c'est le luxe ; le nécessaire, c'est la séduction.
- Delphine de Girardin, author and literary salon hostess to Balzac and Hugo
Une belle femme a tout de même quelque chose de commun avec la vérité : toutes deux donnent plus de bonheur lorsqu'on les désire que lorsqu'on les possède.
- Friedrich Nietzsche
Non nobis solum nati sumus ortusque nostri partem patria vindicat, partem amici.
- Cicero, De Officiis (On Duties)
We are not born for ourselves alone; a part of us is claimed by our nation, another part by our friends.
Photo: Gunner prior to inspection for duties Queen's Life Guard
A reactionary is fixed on the past and wanting to return to it; a conservative wishes to adapt what is best in the past to the changing circumstances of the present.
- Sir Roger Scruton