Friday, June 27, 2008

The Mystical Nature Diary of Opal Whitely

My friend Lunden lent me the book The Mystical Nature Diary of Opal Whitely by Opal Stanley Whitely and Benjamin Hoff. It is amazing. Born in 1897, she lived in an Oregon logging camp, where she started composing a diary at the age of six. The diary chronicled her adventures with various animals (such as William Shakespeare the horse, Peter Paul Rubens the pig, Thomas Chatterton Jupiter Zeus the wood rat and Brave Horatius the dog) as well as flowers and trees, which she also imaginatively named. She established an animal and plant nursery in the forest, where she planted flowers, cared for sick mice and birds and held services in the forest "cathedral," where she would say prayers and sing. Unfortunately, this behavior garnered more punishment than praise from her mother, who was not generally impressed with Opal's shenanigans and explorations. Filled with sweetness and occasional tragedy, her diary is utterly unique.

"All those trees are my friends. I call them by names I have given to them. I call them Hugh Capet, and Saint Louise, and Good King Edward I--and the tallest one of all is Charlemagne, and the one around where the little flowers talk most is William Wordsworth; and there are Byron, and Keats, and Shelley."

"Aphrodite [a pig] has got a nice blue ribbon all her very own, to wear when we go walking down the lane, and to services in the cathedral. . . On yesterday, when I was coming my way home from school, I did meet with Sadie McKibben [a person]. It was nice to see her freckles, and the smiles in her eyes. She did have me to shut my eyes, and she did lay in my hand the new blue ribbon for Aphrodite that the man that wears gray neckties and is kind to mice did have her to get. I felt glad feels over. I gave her all our thanks. I did have knowing all my animal friends would be glad for the remembers of the needs of Aphrodite for a blue ribbon."

"I ran a quick run to the pig-pen, to show it to Aphrodite. I gave her little pats on the nose, and long rubs on the ears, and I did tell her all about it. I did hold it close to her eyes, so she could have well seeing of its beautiful blues, like the blues of the sky."

"When I did have her a nice bed for bracken fern, and some more all about her, I went goes to get the other folks. back with me came Brace Horatius [the dog], and Lars Porsena of Clusium [a pet crow], and Thomas Chatterton Jupiter Zeus [a velvety wood rat], and Lucian Horace Ovid Virgil [a toad], and Felix Mendelssohn [a pet mouse], and Louis II le Grand Conde [a pet mouse]. When we were all come, I did climb into the pig-pen and I did tie on Aphrodite's new ribbon, so they all might have seeing of its blues like the sky. I sang a little thank song, and we had prayers, and I gave Aphrodite little scratches on the back with a little stick, like she does so like to have me do. . .
"Now teacher is looking very straight looks at me. She says, 'Opal, put that away.' I so do."

As an adult, an edited version of the diary was published by The Atlantic and garnered accolades, followed by criticism, as reporters and critics questioned whether or not the diary was actually written by a child or Opal as an adult. Opal eventually traveled to England and India, but suffered from a mental illness (probably schizophrenia,) which grew worse as she grew older. She spent nearly the last 50 years of her life in an asylum in England. Benjamin Hoff has done a remarkable job of researching Opal's life and his book of her diary also includes rich historical background and photographs. This is a book I will never forget.

More info on Opal can be found at the Opal Whitely Memorial website and the Cottage Grove, Oregon website.

Sadly, Benjamin Hoff (he is also the author of The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet) had less than inspiring experiences with the multinational corporations who now own a large chunk of the publishing world. His essay, explaining why he decided to leave the book-writing profession, is quite interesting.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Rilke's Letters on Cézanne

The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters on Cézanne, aptly translated by Joel Agee, is a treatise on seeing that manages to remain startling. Rilke lived in the late 1800 and early 1900s and the letters, devoted largely to responses to Rilke's viewings of Cézanne's work at the Salon D'Automne in Paris in 1907, comprise a strange meandering essay that reflects Rilke's own unique brand of spirtual aesthetics refracted through a prism of meditations on Paris and the painting process.

Rilke's writing style is both old-fashioned and timeless. Above all there is a sense of intellectual acuity and innate innocence combined with a sense of adventurousness that it would be all but impossible to recapture in our overexposed, oversaturated, cynical times. Although at times the theme linking the letters together seems a tad too strained to engender a unified book, the letters create a fascinating window into another mind in another time that is worth cohabiting.

Some excerpts:

"Surely all art is the result of one's having been in danger,of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, where no one can go any further."

". . . all the summer flowers, the dahlia and the tall gladiolas and the long rows of geraniums shot the contradiction of their red into the mist."

"Perhaps one has to have a clearer insight into the nature of one's 'task,' get a more tangible hold on it, recognize it in a hundred details."

"If only one had nothing but work memories from the beginning: how firm the ground would be under one's feet, one would stand. But this way, there isn't a moment when one isn't sinking in somewhere. That it's this way inside, too: double world -- that's the worst thing of all."

". . . with this disposition, which was completely developed now, thanks to his strangeness and insularity, he turned to nature and knew how to swallow back his love for every apple and put it to rest in the painted apple forever. Can you imagine what that is like, and what it' like to experience this through him?"

"Although one of his idiosyncrasies is to use pure chrome yellow and burning lacquer red in his lemons and apples, he knows how to contain their loudness within the picture: cast into a listening blue, as if into an ear, it receives a silent response from within, so that no one outside needs to think himself addressed or accosted."

"To achieve the conviction and substantiality of things, a reality intensified and potentiated to the point of indestructibility by his experience of the object, this seemed to himto be the purpose of his innermost work. . . "

". . . it was Balzac who had foreseen or forefelt that in painting you can suddenly come upon something so huge that no one can deal with it."

"Landscapes, very light pencil outlines and, here and there, as if just for emphasis and confirmation, there's an accidental scattering of color, a row of spots, wonderfully arranged and with a security of touch: as if mirroring a melody --."

"The night cafe [by Van Gogh] I already wrote about; but a lot more could be said about its artificial wakefulness in wine red, lamp yellow, deep and utterly shallow green, with three mirrors, each of which contains a different emptiness. "

"Just as in the mouth of a dog various secretions will gather in anticipation at the approach of various things -- consenting ones for drawing out nutrients, and correcting ones to neutralize poisions: in the same way, various intensifications and dilutions take place in the core of every color, helping it to survive contact with others."

Post Mortem: I bought the hardcover volume for $2.00 at an annual local library booksale. The library does not retain a copy of the book. It was lightly marked with some pencil and probably hadn't been checked out in years. It is an excellent library, which I use all the time. Still, I wonder about the lack of a replacement copy and the decision to exile it in the first place.