Feb. 10, 2014

Gratitude to Old Teachers

by Robert Bly

When we stride or stroll across the frozen lake,
We place our feet where they have never been.
We walk upon the unwalked. But we are uneasy.
Who is down there but our old teachers?

Water that once could take no human weight—
We were students then—holds up our feet,
And goes on ahead of us for a mile.
Beneath us the teachers, and around us the stillness.

"Gratitude to Old Teachers" by Robert Bly, from Eating the Honey of Words. © Harper Collins, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht (books by this author), born Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht in Augsburg, Bavaria (1898). He studied philosophy, drama and medicine at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich where he first experimented with writing poetry and plays.

Following the death of his mother in 1920, he began writing plays in earnest. His first major runaway success was The Threepenny Opera (1928), a creative collaboration with composer Kurt Weill. The Threepenny Opera was an adaptation of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, and it offered a harsh critique of capitalism from a Socialist perspective. It was during this time that Brecht developed his theory of "epic theater," which asks the audience to acknowledge the stage as a stage, the actors as actors, and not some make-believe world of real people.

With Hitler's rise to power in 1933, Brecht sought asylum in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, and journeyed across Russia and Persia. He produced some of his most famous anti-war works during that time, including Mother Courage and Her Children (1941). He eventually settled in Santa Monica, where he wrote more than 50 screenplays in six years, but only one of them was accepted: Hangmen Also Die (1943), an anti-Nazi film that came out in the middle of World War II. He later said: "The intellectual isolation [in Hollywood] is enormous. Compared to Hollywood, Svendborg is a world center."

In 1947, he was blacklisted by the studios when he was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, who accused him of being a Communist sympathizer. Brecht stated in front of the HUAC: "We are living in a dangerous world. Our state of civilization is such that mankind already is capable of becoming enormously wealthy but, as a whole, is still poverty-ridden. Great wars have been suffered, greater ones are imminent, we are told. One of them might well wipe out mankind, as a whole. We might be the last generation of the specimen man on this earth. The ideas about how to make use of the new capabilities of production have not been developed much since the days when the horse had to do what man could not do. Do you not think that, in such a predicament, every new idea should be examined carefully and freely? Art can present clear and even make nobler such ideas."

He made his way to East Germany in 1949, and went on to run the Berliner Ensemble, which soon became the country's most famous theater company.

Brecht died of a heart attack in 1956 at the age of 58, and is buried in Berlin.

He wrote: "Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it."

It's the birthday of Fleur Adcock (books by this author), born in Papakura, New Zealand (1934), who is the author of the poetry collections The Eye of the Hurricane (1964), High Tide in the Garden (1971), Time Zones (1991), and Looking Back (1997).

It's the birthday of the novelist Mary McGarry Morris (books by this author), born in Meriden, Connecticut (1943). She's the author of the big best-seller Songs in Ordinary Time (1995).

It's the birthday of the man who wrote Doctor Zhivago (1957), Boris Pasternak (books by this author), born in Moscow (1890). His father was a painter and his mother was a famous pianist, and they encouraged his love of literature from a young age. He spent hours alone in his bedroom reading the classics of Russian literature — Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Pushkin.

His first two books were collections of poetry, A Twin in the Clouds (1914) and Over the Barriers (1917). After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, he decided that prose could better address the nation's problems, and so he started writing fiction. In the early '30s, he began work on his masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago, an epic novel that follows the lives of more than 60 characters through the first half of 20th-century Russia. He wrote, "I always dreamt of a novel in which, as in an explosion, I would erupt with all the wonderful things I saw and understood in this world."

He finally finished it in 1955 and smuggled it out of the Soviet Union to a publisher in Italy. Pasternak said at the time that he knew he was signing his own death warrant, but he felt he had to go through with it. The novel came out in 1957. It was immediately banned in the Soviet Union, but it became an international best-seller, selling 7 million copies worldwide. The next year, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, but he was forced to refuse it. He spent the last two years of his life living in a writers' colony, satisfied with the knowledge that his novel had been published, even if he couldn't see a printed copy. He died in 1960. In 1989, his son finally accepted the Nobel Prize on his behalf.

On this date in 1846, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — also known as the Mormons — left Illinois for the West. Their journey had begun in New York, where Joseph Smith reported that he had been visited by an angel named Moroni in 1823. Moroni had directed him to a buried cache of gold plates, on which were written the history of the Israelites. He retrieved these, and translated them with the help of two seer stones that were with them, and so wrote the Book of Mormon, on which he based a new sect of Christianity.

Smith and his followers moved to Kirtland, Ohio, in 1831, and later to Jackson County, Missouri. They were expelled from Missouri by the settlers there, and moved on again, this time to Commerce, Illinois. There they had founded their "New Zion," a town they named Nauvoo. Smith and the Mormons presented themselves to the locals as refugees and oppressed minorities, but it wasn't long before they ran into trouble with those that distrusted their views on polygamy and other matters. Smith petitioned Congress to make Nauvoo an independent territory. Then he declared martial law and named himself king of a theocracy. The governor ordered his arrest, but before he could go to trial, a mob broke into the jail and shot him to death in June 1844.

The Church's new leader, Brigham Young, believed that the saints would never be accepted in the United States, and he set his sights on the Southwest, which was at that time still part of Mexico. He had originally planned to leave Nauvoo later in the spring, but the continued strife with the surrounding communities, coupled with the rumor that federal troops were headed their way, motivated him to leave earlier. Twenty-five men were appointed to lead about a hundred families each on the journey westward from Illinois, across Iowa, to Winter Quarters, Nebraska. From there, they would cross the Rocky Mountains. Young had no fixed destination in mind; he believed that God would tell him when he had arrived. Young intended the migration to occur in several stages, with "camps" throughout Iowa, and he sent scouts ahead to dig wells and plant some crops to sustain the travelers on their journey. Conditions were rough: bad roads, harsh winter weather, and diseases like tuberculosis, typhoid, cholera, and "black scurvy" discouraged many families, most of which returned to Nauvoo. But by the autumn of 1846, some 12,000 Mormons were making their temporary home in Winter Quarters.

While in Nebraska, Young did his research. He talked to any trappers or traders passing through Winter Quarters and found out all he could about the West. Mountain man Jim Bridger was particularly enthusiastic about the Great Basin area in what is now Utah. Young organized a vanguard to break the trail through the Rockies and report back on the conditions they found. As before, they would plant crops and build basic infrastructure along their way for the benefit of the pioneers that would follow. The first wagon train left Winter Quarters in April 1847, and the first vanguard reached the Salt Lake Valley that July. One of the scouts wrote, "We could not refrain from a shout of joy, which almost involuntarily escaped from our lips the moment this grand and lovely scenery was within our view." Young himself first glimpsed the valley three days later, and said, "This is the right place." Within a week, he had preliminary plans for the layout of a city, and had chosen a location on which to build a new temple. But the goal of escaping to Mexico to get away from American interference was only briefly met; Utah became a U.S. territory in February 1848. For his role in the exodus of the Latter-day Saints, Brigham Young is sometimes called "the American Moses."

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