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February: An Aesthete Travels in Middle Age

Many of our common social dictums, however hoary they may in fact be, contain at least partial truth as much as they do falsity.

One saying I have been thinking about is the advice to "write what you know." I take this advice to travel much farther than the medium of prose to include all sorts of artistic expression. It is an ambiguous saying and it raises all sort of philosophic questions and mysteries.

It is also a saying that is anchored in a particular time - our own - with certain biases, biases in favor of the natural and authentic for example, and suspicious - rightfully so in our contemporary context - of deceit and manipulation. Looked at in this way each of us can always say, "I don't know much but at least THIS I do know" and so on.

It is actually not that different than an old master performing or making something very well: the bond between the past of learning and the present of known and regular practice is most strong.

Speaking as a musician I have been playing and writing what I know for practically my entire life. As I have said probably too many times, I trained in certain styles of musical expression that have their own traditions. Now the reason for this is simply that I loved them. These styles are familiar to me; they are interwoven into my relationship to music. But they became familiar to me because of an initial love. I do not know any other word for it. Yet, because I am an improvising musician, no matter how known my language is I am literally creating completely new things every time I do music, none of it identical to anything done before.

This newness is built into the entire equation.

Thus you can say that in the arts, artists are always already learning initially unknown things - new skills, often of a technical nature for example, or learning a new style that has not been practiced before. Indeed a lot of the history of modern art, and going even further contemporary or so-called Postmodern art, consist of these literal revolutions in style where novels and movies are intentionally made to be unlike anything that had been done before.

All of us are in negotiation with not only that which is for us repeated and repeatable and "known" but also that which is new and unanticipated or unexpected. To make it all more complicated still, some people reject the known or "their" known as actually toxic and needing to be discarded. For these people, I am guessing, change is most welcome, not a description of ultimate or proximate reality but something like a synonym for progress. And of course there are the fearful and incurious, for whom, I am guessing, the past is synonymous with paradise, whether actually lived in this lifetime or not.

In truth the entire past is always a mixture of the very best and the very worst, including all sorts of gradations in between. And sometimes it might be close to an equal ratio and at other times heavily balanced on one or the other side. Works of art exist to help us be truthful about all of this. They do not and should not exist as a specific instruction for any kind of action: they are, as I always say, a snapshot of who and what we were or are for a time, always with the implication that it can be communicated to potential audiences of a different and other time. Looked at in this way works of art are about as far as is possible from the DMV or a zoning commission.

It is the aesthete's eternal frustration that it feels as if the majority of the world's people take art as a sort of driver's manual; this is doubtless connected historically to the close proximity of religious faiths and the art making impulse.

Connecting the most personal observations with the admittedly more abstract and philosophical (yet, to me, deeply interesting) ones that I just mentioned I recently had the opportunity to return to the place I had lived for my entire adult life until late middle age - the city of Boston.

This was a decidedly post-Pandemic, long overdue trip.

One large reason for this reunion with the home of my adult life was to finally empty out a safety deposit box which contained things that I wanted to protect from the vagaries of life. The process of scheduling the time to end this safety deposit box took about three years for reasons unique to our historical moment: I am now living outside of Massachusetts and thus had to comply with extra measures to get my items out of Massachusetts.

This particular bank did not take into account any grace period due to Covid. Thus they were penalizing me for not having come in 2020 or 2021 and, because I was in "violation" of a due date. In addition they had shut down the particular physical bank where my safety deposit box was located and of course decided to do this around the time of the Pandemic.

They stored all the safety deposit boxes in some warehouse in Dorchester.

Naturally they assumed I could come and sign the necessary documents within those two years, and pick up my items. Living in North Carolina made this not possible. Luckily the bank finally grasped the uniqueness of my situation and actually agreed to allow me to show up in person at the warehouse, a location normally off limits to anybody not employed by the bank.

Thus what had been an incredible frustrating nuisance turned into a joyous opportunity to indulge my interest in all kinds of aesthetics, in this instance to visit this obscure location! I was strangely happy about this. As can be seen here this location looks like hundred of thousands like it in our country, an architectural style that they used to call brutalist.

Among the items I retrieved were some odd cassette tapes, some old photographs of my considerable travels in Eastern and Western Europe in the 1990s, and some of gigs I had done at one time in Boston in the late 90s. They are essentially documents of my life in my 20s and 30s. There was also some sheet music as well as personal correspondence that had important meaning for me.

Here are a couple of photographs of where I used to live.

Mitch's Casa in Boston

Mitch's Boston Casa and Park

Mitch's Boston Casa

I went back there to take these but I would not enter this building.

I really loved living here. I am astonished and incredulous when I meet people now who consider living in any kind of high rise and sharing walls with other people who you don't know as some kind of a wounding privation as if any home that is not a single family house with a yard is a form of poverty. (I have been told this in these words by some folks)

The kinds of loss we humans experience are as manifold as are the kinds of loves.

Maybe we lose philosophies and entire lifestyles as much as we do people and places. One of the ways in which we are human is that such things can be FELT and are never matters of indifference. I think a part of humanity now longs or dreams of a life freed from these internal combustions; it is as if some of want to not have to undergo things, like the figure of a Dr. Spock. This is all a part of the myth or fallacy of AI, inextricable from the falsehood that AI itself is a conscious being that experiences, that if we could just be more rational than we have been or currently are and not subject to having experiences of our special considerations and preferences then our lives would be better or fairer in some way.

One problem with this dream of course is that it assumes that all of these internal states aren't the very definition of our humanity.

Going back to Boston brought up the Thomas Wolfe saying about not being able to go home again; itself connected to that great Heraclitus quote:

Heraclitus deserves his own blog post or episode of course.

I won't be coy about this experience of revisiting Boston.

The Boston to which I returned was a Boston in which about forty of my favorite places over the past thirty odd years had all permanently closed. The visual landscape too had radically changed, a result of not only the Pandemic but the political and economic real estate crises of our current period of capitalism. Yet other things were intractable and constant.

Here are two photos of the Harvard Square train station.

In Boston we call the train system we call the "T":

1975 Harvard Square

December 2022 Harvard Square

The first is from the around 1975, the latter from December of 2022. One of the things you are seeing is the end of physical newspapers.

A lot of the color and beauty of this train location was a function of the centrality of street newsstands over the 20th century.

Also telling is that the city simply leaves the "ruins" character as is, as if they do not know or perhaps even care what to do with the space other than to announce what train station it is. I do not need to tell the reader that boarded up storefronts of all kinds are the most common features dotting all landscapes in the United States today regardless of region of the country.

This particular example was once the world famous Out Of Town Newsstand.

I have so many memories of those years. But my memories are pretty much like the dreamy images that interrupt in a Nicholas Roeg film: they are from things I have experienced but don't constitute a backstory. They are moods based on events and facts without beginnings or conclusions. They are not flashbacks in that they do not define something, rather they associate.

One that came back on this trips when I found myself striking up a conversation with MIT philosopher Irving Singer at Harvard Book Store. I remembered Singer climbing off of a bicycle to enter one of my favorite independent bookstores in the whole United States (and in which they held an Obama inauguration watch party).

He told me he was excited to buy his friend's new book Political Liberalism, that friend being John Rawls.

Because of that one meeting with Singer I finally read John Rawls for the first time. During that time I had been auditing a lot of classes at Harvard University, mainly during the Summer months. Singer was an older man at that point and was considered the central philosopher of Love in the late twentieth century. (His The Nature of Love is a must read). I consider those liberal arts courses I took from the 80s until the early 00s as important to my intellectual development as any of the music I studied and for which received degrees. Now I spent all of fifteen minutes speaking with Singer on that early 1990s afternoon.

In place of all those incredible independent business that were central to my life over those decades and that were now gone forever, there are now a lot of massive and ubiquitous chains and franchises.

Unlike the Jimmy Johns and Bojangles chains that are most common where I live now, these were businesses like Life Alive where there is incredible concern to feature vegan, organic or healthy oriented food and beverages. When I was living there these were just beginning to emerge but now had multiplied around the city.

I can only write what I know and in this case they are observations of one particular man, someone motivated chiefly by aesthetics and ideas of all kinds.

Yet the very subject of this writing is all change, as much for the worse as for the better. That is, they are things that I won't pretend to know as I did know the life I lived so predictably and regularly for many decades. I was most happy with this period: it was what life was to me. Returning to my home after this brief new home I have now been in for five years is confronting a new reality, a reality that I not only never anticipated but never had the powers of attention - or most importantly, imagination - to determine what would be any response were any of this to end.

My favorite museum in the entire world happens to be in Boston, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It is chiefly the vision of a singular woman, a woman who contend among her many friends John Singer Sargent, Henry James, and Bernard Berenson.

You could say she was one of the first people to take the concept of installation most seriously.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

She was an aesthete.

I think this house that she transformed into a museum for the visiting world is a place so unspeakably beautiful I know that it is quite possible I will experience other kinds of beauty that might equal what I found there in the decades I was able to visit when I wanted, but that it is impossible that will be surpassed.

Yet beauty is or should be a capacious attitude. I also find beauty in the figures in Fred Wiseman's masterpiece Welfare from 1975.

Or Shirley Clarke's Portrait of Jason from 1968 is a beautiful portrait of a beautiful person.

And as far as where I live now, I live with one of the most beautiful pianos I have ever played, and I have played a Bosendorfer at Lincoln Center - long ago. And the trees and sky are not bad.

All of this is to say that these are human perceptions and they what keep us alive. And maybe that is the real point, after all.


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