Jan. 9, 2013

Secret of Life

by Diana Der-Hovanessian

Once during the war
on a bus going to Portsmouth
a navy yard worker
told me the secret of life.

The secret of life, he said,
can never be passed down
one generation to the other.

The secret of life, he said,
is hunger. It makes an open hand.

The secret of life is money.
But only the small coins.

The secret of life, he said,
is love. You become what you lose.

The secret of life, he said,
is water. The world will end
in flood.

The secret of life, he said,
is circumstance.

If you catch the right bus
at the right time
you will sit next
to the secret teller

who will whisper it
in your ear.

"Secret of Life" by Diana Der-Hovanessian, from Selected Poems of Diana Der-Hovanessian. © Sheep Meadow Press, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Irish playwright Brian Friel (books by this author), born in Omagh, County Tyrone (1929). He went to seminary to become a Catholic priest, decided it conflicted with his pagan ideas, dropped out, and instead followed his father's steps into schoolteaching. In his spare time, he wrote short stories, and the year he turned 30, one of his stories appeared overseas, in The New Yorker magazine. He was so encouraged that he quit his teaching job to write full time.

He wrote some short plays for radio, and he began to write plays for the stage as well. Tyrone Guthrie, a famous theater director in Ireland, had read one of Friel's stories in The New Yorker and was so impressed that he wrote him a fan letter. The two met up, became friends, and when the Guthrie Theater had its grand opening in Minneapolis in 1963, Guthrie invited Brian Friel to come along to America, to Minneapolis, and hang out at the theater observing the rehearsal and production process of Hamlet.

Within a year, Friel had written his first stage play for production, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, which brought him international renown. He'd broken from the stale mold of Irish peasant plays and instead written a play about exile. Philadelphia, Here I Come! is about a young man named Gareth O'Donnell who is leaving his small village in County Donegal and heading for America, and the whole play takes place the night before and morning of his departure. The play had its premiere in Dublin in 1964, then moved to London and to Broadway, where it was very popular.

He wrote several more plays in the '70s, adapted a Chekhov story for stage, and then, in the mid-1980s, he had a terrible spell of writer's block. He went to see the London opening of his Chekhov adaptation, and afterward, late at night, he went for a walk along the banks of the River Thames with a friend of his. They saw several different homeless people huddled up in the cold sleeping along the river banks, and they started to wonder about the lives of these men and women and what had led them to be homeless in London. Friel mentioned to his friend that two of his spinster aunts had left the Glenties of Ireland to go to London and had ended up alone and homeless. His friend encouraged him to write about his aunts.

Friel did write about his aunts from the Glenties, and he wrote quickly and brilliantly. Dancing at Lughnasa — about five sisters from the Glenties of Donegal, all of them spinsters — was the most commercially successful play of his life. It had its premiere at the Abbey Theatre almost 23 years ago, in 1990; and after it came to Broadway, it won a 1992 Tony Award for Best Play. In 1998, it was made into a film starring Meryl Streep.

It's the birthday of the novelist and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (books by this author), born in Paris, France (1908). She entered the Sorbonne, and it was there that she met another philosophy student, Jean-Paul Sartre. He was five feet tall, had lost his sight in one eye, wore baggy clothes, and seemed to have no interest in hygiene. But he loved to talk, and he was both funny and brilliant. Beauvoir later said, "It was the first time in my life that I felt intellectually inferior to anyone else."

Sartre was equally impressed by Beauvoir's intellect, especially when she finished her philosophy degree in one year, after it had taken Sartre three years to finish his own. She was the youngest person to receive the degree in French history. They fell in love, but instead of getting married, they decided to form a pact. They would both have affairs with other people, but they would tell each other everything. That basic arrangement of their relationship would last for the rest of their lives.

They didn't even live together, but every evening they would meet in a café and show each other what they were working on. They each edited the other's work, and they gave each other ideas, and together they helped formulate the school of philosophy known as existentialism, which was the idea that human beings should consider themselves completely free to define their own existence, without regard to religion, culture, or society.

Sartre wrote his book Being and Nothingness (1943) about the new philosophy, and Beauvoir followed with a book of ethics based on the same ideas called The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947). But one of her most famous books was inspired by an offhand comment Sartre made one day. They were talking about the differences in the ways men and women were treated, and Beauvoir claimed that she'd never been adversely affected by this treatment. Sartre said, "All the same, you weren't brought up the same way a boy would have been; you should look into it further."

So Beauvoir did look into it. She spent weeks at the National Library in Paris researching the way women had been treated throughout history. The result was her book The Second Sex (1949), in which she wrote, "One is not born a woman, one becomes one." It was one of the first comprehensive arguments that the difference between the sexes was the result of culture, not nature, and it helped found the modern feminist movement.

Beauvoir went on to write many more books, including several volumes of autobiography, such as Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), about her childhood, and The Prime of Life (1960), which tells the story of her relationship with Sartre and the years they spent together during World War II.

Simone de Beauvoir said, "The writer of originality, unless dead, is always shocking, scandalous; novelty disturbs and repels."

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