The Ledger

January 2018

In the Odyssey, Homer first describes his protagonist as ‘polytropos’, a term often translated as ‘[a man] of many twists and turns’. In her fine new translation, Emily Wilson renders the epithet as ‘complicated’, and, speaking to the New York Times Magazine, weighs in on the underlying richness of the original word. It could, she says, suggest that Odysseus is at the whim of ‘...gods and goddesses and monsters turning him off the straight course that, ideally, he’d like to be on. Or, it could be that he’s this untrustworthy type who gets out of any situation by turning it to his advantage. It could be that he’s the turner’—in other words, a man not entirely bound to writhe within the limits of his fate. The menacing Scylla would of course favour the vulnerable—hero arrangement, as would the bewitching Sirens: ‘All that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!’ they sing, as Penelope weaves and unravels her tapestry, trying to lasso her man home. Meanwhile, we who aren’t characters in a work of art sometimes wonder about and worry over our own tapestries, the ones measured, woven and snipped by the Fates. How long, and how well, will we live? Nietzsche, with his thoroughly Greek cast of thought, counsels us not to fret about the bigger picture but to succumb to the moment—to find equanimity in embracing our individual fates. ‘One [should] want nothing to be different’, he writes, and one should ‘not merely bear what is necessary...but love it.’ Next time your destiny seems to falter, try luxuriating in the bad patch like an Übermensch before trying to turn your way out of it.



A voice from Cuba to resound worldwide

‘I started singing because I was born,’ says the irresistible Daymé Arocena, a 24-year-old Habanera of immense talent whose concerts in London, Paris and the US have garnered her an avid international fan base. At just 14, she became the lead singer with the big-band group Los Primos. It wasn’t long before she had the praise and support of various jazz greats—including Wynton Marsalis and Jane Bunnett. Her voice has a generous range, and so does her music, drawing on Cuba’s many cultural confluences to incorporate soul, scat, timba, rumba/guaguancó and jazz; strains of Santeria, changüí, and ballada; and classical standards from her time studying at a conservatorium. She has put out two albums, Nueva Era and Cubafonía, and both are well worth a listen for their entrancing confidence and momentum. As Arocena's voice takes her on ever more expansive journeys, it will not be surprising to see her syncretic brilliance make use of new and different sources. ‘We don’t have this native culture,’ she explains. ‘We don’t have indigenous people, like Maya or Quechua. [Cuba is] a country with people from everywhere.’




The dancer and the dance: ballet from both sides

How do you get to Lincoln Center? Practice, practice, practice. At 26, Lauren Lovette is the youngest Principal Dancer in the New York City Ballet, and in aspect resembles a spinning music-box ballerina come to life. Don’t let her storybook looks deceive you, though, about her huge and iconoclastic ambition. Lovette not only dances but also teaches and choreographs. Her first piece for NYCB, For Clara, was included in the company's 2016 Fall Gala; this May, the daring Not Our Fate opens in Manhattan with music by Michael Nyman. ‘As a ballerina, you're quiet most of the time. You're used to being the paint. To switch over and be the painter takes guts,’ Lovette says of being both a dancer and a choreographer. ‘Dear little Lovette,’ she wrote in a letter addressed to her teenage self, ‘Don't live your life to check things off the list... Let it happen and live it as hard and as intensely as you can.’ Passionate and unabashedly emotional, featuring a powerful pas de deux by two male dancers, Not Our Fate heralds a refreshingly unorthodox understanding of classical ballet.




Decent exposure: acknowledging centuries of injustice

The curators of ‘Blind Spots’, an exhibition at Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Library, focused on the theme of hard but hidden work in this assemblage of visual material marking 100 years since the sale of the Danish West Indies to the United States. These days, island life conjures swaying palm fronds, sugary beach sand and honeymooners holding hands. But such postcard snapshots whitewash the violent and complicated history of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John, which were Danish colonies for more than 250 years. ‘Blind Spots’ displays a wealth of maps, newspaper clippings, drawings and albums of family photographs alongside pieces by contemporary artists such as La Vaughn Belle, Jeannette Ehlers and Nanna Debois Buhl, whose work variously investigates the emotional afterlife of colonialism and its deleterious effect on political autonomy and personal agency. ‘RUN AWAY’, states one announcement in the Royal Danish American Gazette that ran in 1771, ‘from Mary Alletta Heyliger, a well-fet Creole Negroe fisherman, named Peter, formerly the property of Mrs. Harps.’ The headline reads as both a description of Peter and an imperative exhorting his flight.




A clear, unstinting gaze on the human condition

The moral philosopher Mary Midgely, born in 1919, grew up in the London suburb of Greenford and went on to read classics at Oxford’s Somerville College alongside Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe and Philippa Foot. That the years of World War II produced such a brilliant class of women philosophers was, to her, no coincidence: ‘I think the fact that there was not an endless gaggle of young men who were distracting helped us. There didn't seem to be a future, so nobody was thinking of careers.’ Despite this auspicious start, Midgley worked in obscurity for years before publishing her first book, Beast and Man, at age 59; she went on to write more than a dozen others. For the most part, her work is an investigation of how science has come to stand in for religion, which she believes shortchanges both: for her, to opine that morality, identity, ambition and free will can be explained by synapses and cells alone is to oversimplify. ‘Human life [is] like an enormous, ill-lit aquarium which we never see fully from above, but only through various small windows unevenly distributed around it,’ she writes. This admission of our limits comports with her foundational, common-sense defence of humility. Our prehistoric ancestors, she points out, ‘survived by using qualities that actually lie at the root of science itself—open-mindedness, versatility, realism, the willingness to learn.’




On writing as if in a trance, self-aware all the while

Italo Calvino (1923–1985) was born on the outskirts of Havana and raised in Italy. His father, an agronomist, grew avocados and grapefruit in the hills of Liguria, and Calvino started out studying agriculture. When World War II got in the way, he joined the partisan resistance. His experiences during the war informed his first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders (1947), a neo-realist work that in no way foretold the many forms and genres he would go on to experiment in and with. Calvino was restlessly innovative, writing fables and science fiction, autobiography and essays, all of them marked by a ferocious intelligence and a playful streak. The story collection Cosmicomics (1965), novels such as Invisible Cities (1972) and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979), and his historical Our Ancestors trilogy are among his best-cherished books. The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1969), a lesser known novel, began as an exegesis of a Renaissance Tarot deck. ‘Every morning I tell myself, “Today has to be productive”—and then something happens that prevents me from writing,’ Calvino told The Paris Review. There is ‘always some bureaucratic tangle I have to deal with. Eventually I get down to writing and then the real problems begin.’ Calvino intuitively understood that unfussy, natural-sounding prose is the result of much internal burnishing. ‘I could try to improvise,’ he wrote in advance of a meeting with a journalist, ‘but I believe an interview needs to be prepared ahead of time to sound spontaneous.’




Beware circus performers bearing unearthly gifts

Until the 1950s, Sri Lankan cinema was essentially Srollywood—song-and-dance routines and romantic narratives somewhat sloppily refashioned for a Sinhalese audience. Lester James Peries’s 1956 drama Rekava (The Line of Destiny), however, is meditative and organic where its precursors were slick and derivative. The film is a vivid portrait of rural life pulsing with magic real and imagined. Stilt-walker Miguel visits a village with his pet monkey to perform tricks for money. When two thieves try to rob him, a young boy named Sena intervenes, and the circus-man reads his palm in return. It seems Sena’s future holds more of the same: his lot is to bring healing and dignity to the village. Later, when a girl named Anula loses her eyesight, the village doctor’s ministrations do nothing, but Sena’s touch miraculously restores her ability to see. He is hailed as a hero, and his father, a moneylender, tries to hawk the boy’s services. This turn toward exploitation breaks the spell of Sena’s magic, with disastrous consequences. Nominated for a Palme d’Or, Rekava was not a box-office success in Sri Lanka, but it has since been recognised as a classic. Keep an ear out for a remarkable soundtrack by the Sinhalese composer Sunil Santha.




Characters mired in compelling discontent

Seven out of the fourteen stories in Ottessa Moshfegh’s collection Homesick for Another World were published in The Paris Review, which suggests the extent to which this electrifying young writer is seen as a bright light of contemporary fiction, a voice of and for her generation. Moshfegh’s mother is Croatian, her father Iranian, and she was born in Boston. Her fiction is full of scruffiness, dissolution and humour, with startlingly direct prose marked by a wry impolitesse. Her characters are typically in a muddle about which way they are meant to be going. ‘Eileen was born, as I was, in New England,’ Moshfegh says of the titular anti-heroine of her 2016 novel. ‘Her character and her obsessions are familiar to me although my family is nothing like hers. She suffers from existential dissonance, the idea you should be happy because you are an American.’ Reading Homesick for Another World, writes the critic Dwight Garner, is ‘like watching someone grin with a mouthful of blood.’ Moshfegh doles out lumps her characters have no choice but to take and bear with a grin.




A Japanese ruin brought strikingly (back) to life

Fukuoka Castle, in southern Japan, typically draws tourists intrigued by military history: the fortress was built by Kuroda Nagamasa, lord of the Chikuzen feudal domain, in tribute to Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose shogunate ruled Japan from 1600 until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, after which the edifice fell into serious disrepair. In the laconically direct summary of one Kyushu sightseeing website, ‘Fukuoka Castle used to be the best castle. Nowadays only ruined walls and a few turrets remain.’ The art collective TeamLab has invaded this majestic wreck and revived it with several interactive outdoor installations. Animals of Flowers, Symbiotic Lives in the Stone Wall is as it sounds: animal silhouettes and colourful flowers are projected onto the 8.5-metre-high stone walls. In Resisting and Resonating Ovoids and Trees, egg-shaped objects nestle in tree branches in the surrounding forest, emitting noise and changing colours according to human presence. Ancient history is thereby rendered newly vibrant, fragile and contingent—and surely light years from anything Lord Nagamasa could have foreseen.



Illustrations by Jeffrey Cheung.

‘If you believe in fate, believe in it, at least, for your good.’

Ralph Waldo Emerson