In last week’s New Yorker…

April 21, 2011

I seem to be running a week behind at this point. But in the “Journeys” issue I enjoyed reading Evan Osnos’s report about travelling through Europe with Chinese tourists. Hilton Als’ review of the new revival of Anything Goes starring Sutton Foster was so interesting it made me want to see the production, which otherwise I’ve been ignoring since the Lincoln Center production is still so fresh in my mind. Sasha Frere-Jones astonishes me by repeatedly writing interesting pieces about pop musicians I’ve never heard of who have already made 13 albums already! The latest is Bill Callahan, whom he makes sound quite intriguing. Since he turned me on to Of Montreal and Bon Iver, I tend to pay attention whenever Frere-Jones writes about music.

But my favorite piece in this issue is by Geoff Dyer, the novelist whose Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi impressed me very much. He writes about a pilgrimage he made to two famous earthworks, Walter De Maria’s “The Lightning Field” in New Mexico and Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” in Utah. Dyer is a fantastic writer, and his observations are worth reading. In passing, he refers to an essay D.H. Lawrence wrote about Taos, which he compares to the monasteries of Europe. I was particularly struck by this passage because Andy and I recently watched Into Great Silence, the engrossing documentary about the very austere Carthusian monastery in the French Alsp called the Grand Chartreuse, which made us question what purpose such isolated temples of worship and study serve in the bigger picture. Lawrence provides a very interesting perspective on that question:

“You cannot come upon the ruins of the old great monasteries of England, beside their waters, in some lovely valley, now remote, without feeling that here is one of the choice spots of the earth, where the spirit dwelt. To me it is so important to remember that when Rome collapsed, when the great Roman Empire fell into smoking ruins, and bears roamed in the streets of Lyon and wolves howled in the deserted streets of Rome, and Europe really was a dark ruin, then, it was not in castles or manors or cottages that life remained vivid. Then those whose souls were still alive withdrew together and gradually built monasteries, and these monasteries and convents, little communities of quiet labour and courage, isolated, helpless, and yet never overcome in a  world flooded with devastation, these alone kept the human spirit from disintegration, from going quite dark, in the Dark Ages. These men made the Church, which again made Europe, inspiring the martial faith of the Middle Ages.”

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