Cultural diversity: yoga, Gambia, Lucretius, hockey, and Wagner

by Rob Tiller

Looking west from the balcony

Daylight savings time ended this morning, and so we gained back the hour we lost in the spring. It’s strange that hours can be moved from one season to another. Anyhow, the leaves are changing, with yellows, oranges, and reds, and the temperatures are cooler. It’s fall.

Tuesday is my usual day for the Early Bird Yoga class at Blue Lotus with Suzanne. I normally get up at 5:30, do half an hour of interval work on the elliptical machine in my building, change out of my sweaty tee shirt into a fresh one, grab my yoga mat, and get to the 6:30 class in good time. Some yoga breathing, lowering, lifting, balancing and stretching is a good way to start the day.

Suzanne’s instructions are direct and clear, and her strength and grace are beautiful and inspiring. Each class is different, and lately she’s been taking us noticeably beyond our comfort zone. She seemed really pleased last week when she got us all up in tripod headstands. This week she had us all try side crow. This did not work at all for anyone (except her). Lately I’ve been working on front crow, and making progress, so perhaps we’ll do side crow one day.

Early Wednesday morning (5:40) I got in a cab to go to the airport. The cab driver was winded, and said he’d been doing jumping jacks to stay awake while waiting for me. It was better, he said, not to drink too much coffee. I agreed. He asked me where I was going, and I told him the bare fact (Boston), thinking I’d rather not get involved in a chat. There’s effort involved, and no guaranteed reward. But after a couple of minutes of silence, I relented. I figured I would try to be a decent chap and throw a lifeline to a lonely soul, so I asked him where he was from. Answer: Gambia, a tiny country in west Africa which I knew almost nothing about, and which he dearly loved.

He was a lively guy, and much more interesting than NPR. He described the government in terms that sounded benign though authoritarian, and improvements in roads, schools, and hospitals. He said that most people were at least part-time farmers and described how they stored crops in their own warehouses. When I asked him about his languages, he said he spoke seven, including three from Gambia and French, Spanish, and German. His English was accented but just fine.

The weather was clear and mild in northern Massachusetts, but there was still snow on the ground from an early season storm that had left many thousands without power. I did a bunch of meetings in Westford and then went down to Cambridge for more. On the flight back I read How to Read Montaigne by Terence Cave. Montaigne (1533-1592) is a startlingly original, modern thinker.

I was inspired to start exploring Montaigne by a few comments in an excellent book I finished a couple of weeks back: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. The Swerve recounts the discovery in a monastery in 1417 of a copy of an ancient Roman manuscript, and explains how that discovery changed history. The discoverer, Poggio Bracciolini, was a former apostolic secretary for a deposed Pope with a classical education and passion for finding and saving ancient books. The book that was almost lost, On the Nature of Things, was written by Lucretius about 50 BCE. It’s an epic poem that describes the philosophy of Epicureanism. Greenblatt covers a lot of ground, from the philosophers of Greece and Rome, the creation of libraries, the fanaticism of early Christianity, the preservation of books in medieval monasteries, the intrigues of the popes, religious wars, the intellectuals of the Renaissance (including Montaigne), and onward.

In addition to a lot of lively history, there’s a pithy account of the ideas of Epicurus (b. 342 BCE), including the notion that the entire universe is constructed of tiny indivisible building blocks called atoms. This carried with it a view of the world as a natural phenomenon, not something magical created and controlled by gods. Epicurus espoused freedom from superstition and the pursuit of pleasure.

By pleasure he meant not pursuit of wealth or debauchery, but something more nuanced that included a sense of wonder at the beauty of the natural world.. According to Philodemus, a follower of Epicurus, “It is impossible to live pleasurably … without living prudently and honourably and justly, and also without living courageously and temperately and magnanimously, and without making friends, and without being philanthropic.” The Epicureans celebrated friendship, emphasized charity and forgiveness, and were suspicious of worldly ambition.

According to Greenblatt, Epicureans, including Lucretius, believed that the gods existed, but that they couldn’t possibly be concerned with human beings. Along with atoms, Lucretius’s ideas encompassed the notion that living beings have evolved through a long process of trial and error, that the world exists for reasons that have nothing to do with humans, that humans are not unique but rather linked to all other life forms and to inorganic matter, there is no afterlife, that religions are superstitious delusions based on longings, fears, and ignorance, and that by fashioning gods humans became enslaved to their own dreams. Happiness could be attained through discarding delusions through reasons, looking squarely at the true nature of things, and discovering a sense of wonder.

These ideas were, of course, not congenial to early Christians, who almost succeeded in stamping them out. But somehow a copy survived, which Poggio discovered and copied, and which is recopied many times, and ultimately influenced thinkers in subsequent generations up to our own. Greenblatt’s book is a true pleasure.

We saw some professional hockey on Friday night: the Caroline Hurricanes vs. the Washington Capitols. I’d learned from my new assistant about a free bus that runs between downtown and the hockey games, and it turned out that it made a stop right at our building. The bus arrived on time, with many cheerful fans dressed in Hurricanes red and white. We had a good view from box seats.

The Hurricanes started strong but collapsed in the third period and got trounced. As long as the game was close, it was fun. As with soccer, the more hockey I watch, the more I see and appreciate the incredible athleticism. The drama is simple, but effective: there’s a surge of great joy at every goal our team makes, and stab of pain at a goal of the opponents. The bus trip back home seemed slower and much less cheerful.

On Saturday we saw quite a different sort of drama, Siegfried, the third opera of Wager’s Ring cycle, broadcast live from the Metropolitan Opera to all over the world, including the North Hills Cinema. I know the music well from CDs, and love it, but had some qualms about the amount of sitting required: five and a half hours. Wagner is musically dense, and that’s a lot of Wagner. It was, it turned out, for us, incredibly powerful.

The story is about courage. Siegfried is a callow young hero who forges a magic sword and uses it to slay a dragon and an evil dwarf, then travels though a ring of fire to save and win a beautiful maiden. In pre-broadcast comments, Renee Fleming (a great soprano who would know) described Siegfried as the most difficult tenor role in the world. Our Siegfried was Jay Hunter Morris, a relative unknown who subbed in at the last moment and had a total of three performances under his belt when he performed before a worldwide audience of many thousands yesterday. This took true courage. Morris gave a performance for the ages, vocally powerful but nuanced throughout. The entire cast was superb, and the technical effects (especially the ring of fire) were impressive. Fabio Luisi conducted brilliantly. The famous horn solo, the exciting few bars that horn players test and polish their whole lives, was perfect.

This Siegfried, the opera, moved me deeply (tears). Driving home afterwards, I felt wrung out but exhilarated. Sally also loved it, and announced that she was now a Wagnerian. I found this very cheering.