In our occasional feature we invite guests to select the six cultural links that might sustain them if, by some mischance, they were forced to spend eternity in a succession of airport departure lounges with only an iPad or similar device for company.
Today’s voyager is Frank Wilson, former book review editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Frank’s blog Books Inq: The Epilogue is one of the internet’s key bookish hubs; and he also writes an essential weekly column at When Falls the Coliseum.
I have always been strangely fond of impersonal surroundings — motel rooms, airport lounges, office buildings after most of those who work there have left for home. I think it has something to do with the delicious sense of aloneness and anonymity they afford. I suppose, though, that having to shunt from one airport to another would soon grow tedious. Even given that I would start out optimistically enough, it would probably be wise to fortify myself right from the outset. That will explain my first click.
1. Ohio Impromptu.
I can’t begin to explain, even to myself, why I find this playlet of Beckett’s so exhilarating. I had the same feeling years ago when I saw Jack MacGowren’s one-man Beckett show Begginning to End. Come to think of it, it is also how some of Bergman’s films — Winter Light, for example — make me feel. I suppose it has something to do with looking at the abyss and not blinking or turning away, facing despair and discovering that, hell, it isn’t so bad after all. Anyway, going from “little is left to tell” to “nothing is left to tell” seems an appropriate overture to a life confined to airports.
Eliot’s conclusion, that:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
may not seem at first to take us much beyond Beckett, but actually it takes us far beyond. His lines can be read over and over, pondered again and again, without their music ever growing insipid or their sentiments any less profound. These poems are the perfect companions for someone “suspended in time” from airport to airport…
3. Heinrich Isaac (c.1450-1517) – Quis Dabit Capiti Meo Aquam.
Years ago, I worked in Washington, D.C. My job for a while left me a lot of free time, which I spent visiting the city’s museums. One work that I found immensely compelling was a terracotta bust of Lorenzo the Magnifcent. I would stand in front of it long and long and began to feel I had almost come to know that most interesting Florentine. Years before I had come to know the lamentation Heinrich Isaac wrote shortly after Lorenzo’s death. The first time I heard it, I thought it one of the most beautiful and most deeply felt pieces of music I had ever heard. I still think that.
I remember when John Boorman’s screen adaptation of Malory first came out. A good many critics — at least in the U.S. — seemed down on it because it was so different from Camelot as they thought they knew it. T.H. White it definitely is not. But it has a wonderfully mythic and tragic quality not often found in films. Nigel Terry’s performance as Arthur is especially noteworthy, a rare instance of an actor growing into a role: The young man at the beginning and the utterly weary one at the end seem hardly the same person. It looks as if you can see just about the whole film on YouTube, but it is the final scene that encapsulates its mood, reminding one (perhaps tormentingly) that there is great deal more to life than airport terminals.
Gustave Caillebotte seems to have had the idea (unusual among artists these days) of using art less as a vehicle for self-expression than as a means of recording the world and life about him intensely and lovingly. I think it is impossible to look at his work and not feel the urge to run outside and see if the world really is that wonderful. He makes you pay attention to workmen, to people strolling the sidewalks, to shadows on water, to just about everything your eye can light upon. Thanks to him, you can take the world with you to the airport.
6. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
No, not the Pink Floyd album. Chapter 7 of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is far more interesting than that. In it, Rat and Mole, searching for Otter’s missing son, encounter the Great God Pan. It is one of the finest representations of what Rudolf Otto called the numinous and the Mysterium tremendum at its core. Retaining a lively sense of that would be essential for anyone confined to one airport after another.