Nov. 21, 2012

Every Land

by Ursula Le Guin

            The holy land is everywhere. —Black Elk

Watch where the branches of the willows bend
See where the waters of the rivers tend
Graves in the rock, cradles in the sand
Every land is the holy land.

Here was the battle to the bitter end
Here's where the enemy killed the friend
Blood on the rock, tears on the sand
Every land is the holy land.

Willow by the water bending in the wind
Bent till it's broken and it cannot stand
Listen to the word the messengers send
Life from the living rock, death in the sand
Every land is the holy land.

"Every Land" by Ursula K. Le Guin, from Finding My Elegy. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man who helped spark the Enlightenment in France, writing under the name Voltaire (books by this author), born François-Marie Arouet in Paris (1694). He wrote so much in his lifetime that his collected works are still being assembled and edited by French scholars. He's known to us for a single short novel: Candide (1760), about a young man who follows the philosophy of Doctor Pangloss that no matter what misfortunes befall us, this is the best of all possible worlds. Candide eventually decides that this philosophy is nonsense, and he comes to the conclusion that the secret of happiness is to cultivate one's own garden.

Voltaire grew up at a time when Louis XIV had instituted the persecution of Protestants, turning France into a ferociously intolerant society, with little freedom of speech or religion. Voltaire began his writing career just a few years after Louis XIV had died, and Voltaire was one of the first writers to challenge the restrictions of society by writing satirical poems about the new king. He was sent into exile for the first series of these poems, and then, in May of 1717, he was thrown into prison in the Bastille for 11 months. At the time, he wasn't particularly well known, and his imprisonment only served to make him famous. It was when he got out of prison that he began using the pen name Voltaire. No one is sure how or why he picked the name.

He became a well-known playwright and poet, but in 1725, he got into an argument with a nobleman. A few days later, that nobleman hired a group of men to surround Voltaire in the street and beat him with cudgels. The nobleman stood by and watched.

Voltaire was outraged when none of his political friends came to his aid in trying to get retribution for the incident. He had thought that his stature as a poet made him the equal of the aristocrats he spent all his time with, but this incident made him realize that he was still a second-class citizen. He began publicizing the incident and calling for justice, and he was eventually exiled to England. He spent the rest of his life crusading for human rights.

Voltaire said: "Let us read and let us dance — two amusements that will never do any harm to the world."

It's the birthday of jazz saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, born in Saint Joseph, Missouri (1904). In 1940, Hawkins had just finished recording several songs when a producer convinced him to do one more song, "Body and Soul." Hawkins had no arrangement, but he agreed to try just one take, with no rehearsal. It became his most famous record. Gary Giddins, in The Antioch Review, said, "If Hawkins's 'Body and Soul' isn't the single most acclaimed improvisation in jazz's first hundred years, it is unquestionably a leading contender." The pianist Teddy Wilson told Down Beat that it was "the best solo record I ever heard in jazz."

It's the birthday of writer Marilyn French (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1929), who wrote her first book on James Joyce and then switched her focus to women's history and radical literary feminism. She had earned a Ph.D. at Harvard and was a nearly 50-year-old college English professor when she published her novel The Women's Room (1977), about a middle-aged housewife who divorces her husband and starts a Ph.D. in literature at Harvard. It sold more than 20 million copies and was translated into 20 languages, and it's considered one of the most influential novels of the second-wave feminist movement. Marilyn French also published a four-volume work on women's history, From Eve to Dawn (vols. 1-3 in 2002 and vol. 4 in 2008), and a memoir that talked about her time battling esophageal cancer called A Season in Hell (1998).

French said: "One thing that makes art different from life is that in art things have a shape [...] it allows us to fix our emotions on events at the moment they occur, it permits a union of heart and mind and tongue and tear."

It was on this day in 1877 that Thomas Edison announced that he had invented a new device for recording and playing back sound, which he called the phonograph. He had been working on a device to record telephone communication when he stumbled upon the right design, using a stylus and a tinfoil cylinder. The first thing he recorded was himself reciting the poem "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

For the first 10 years or so, most people remained uneasy with the phonograph. Bram Stoker included the invention as a plot device in his gothic novel Dracula (1897). In order to help American customers feel more comfortable with the idea of playing back sound, the Columbia Phonograph Company commissioned a recording of marching music by John Philip Sousa's U.S. Marine Band. The idea was that Americans couldn't be spooked by patriotic music, and those recordings became some of the first successful musical recordings ever sold.

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