May 2019

The Ledger

When the prolific writer and director Alejandro Jodorowsky was 20 and still living in Chile, he saw a naked woman give a tarot reading and was hooked. In Paris, he joined Marcel Marceau’s mime company, which took him to Tokyo, where he bought his first tarot deck. He bought a new one in every place they visited and soon amassed a major collection. In the 1960s, the Surrealist writer André Breton told Jodorowsky that the only legitimate tarot was the Camoin Tarot de Marseille; its 22 major-arcana cards have been in Jodorowsky’s chest pocket ever since (and in 1997, he began collaborating with the heir of the Camoin card-manufacturing family, Philippe Camoin, on a painstaking, complex redesign of the cards). Jodorowsky told the New York Times in 2011 that the deck is a point of reference, reflection and divination. His curiosity and extravagant, polymathic talent have taken him all over the world, and what anchors him is the ritual of tarot. Now 90, he still loves giving readings to strangers. While this may sound rather bold, many of us can relate to the thrilling acquisition of treasures that forever conjure the place of purchase, whether the lovely salmon-coloured leather sandals found in a market in Tlaquepaque or the intricate Uzbek platter that reminds you of a delicious palov you ate, even if it now displays steamed broccoli. Then, too, we travel partly to remind ourselves that life is unpredictable and there is a lot we do not know—it’s an act of reading the world through signs and symbols, rediscovering old ones and creating new ones. And often, we undertake this travel with totems that bring us home in some way, whether the Tarot de Marseille or a ziplock bag of rooibos tea. In this month’s issue you’ll find inspiration to travel far and wide: a gorgeous English-style garden in the Italian countryside, the monomaniac quest of the nature writer J. A. Baker, the passionate imaginations of Samuel Delany and Vincent van Gogh and the 2019 Venice Biennale.



Insights into the life and work of a passionate, idiosyncratic author

My House of Sky, Hetty Saunders’ biography of the English naturalist J. A. Baker, offers a tender, warts-inclusive portrait of a man both brilliant and peculiar, best known for his 1967 book The Peregrine (a lyrical recounting of his ten-year obsession with the peregrine falcons he observed near his home in Chelmsford). The Peregrine’s admirers are a fervent bunch—Werner Herzog once declared that every aspiring writer or filmmaker ought to memorise the whole thing—and the book acquired a cult following, shaping a generation of nature writers. Saunders plumbs archival material gathered after the death of Baker’s widow, Doreen, to form a composite account of Baker’s life. My House of Sky includes weather reports, detailed descriptions of scenery, background on the history of birdwatching and a patient excavation of Baker’s obsessive ways. In 1945, he had a nervous breakdown. In 1946, he read 60 books in three months. Subsequent stints at the Oxford University Press and the British Museum didn’t end well, with Baker rejecting what he called the ‘accepted standard of mundane vacuity’ of the workplace, though he did enjoy going up to the roof of the OUP building for a bird’s-eye view of London. In truth, Baker was a pretty inept birdwatcher—his diaries constantly muddled the identification of many of the species he spotted in the wild—and The Peregrine was less a field guide than a love letter to the vanishing countryside. It was possible at the time that DDT might kill off the peregrine, and Baker sought to capture the creature’s nobility of spirit while he still could. In later life, arthritis crippled his fingers and he became, if not housebound, more house-tethered than he’d ever been. Since he could no longer venture into nature, he absorbed as much of it as he could through the pages of books and glossy magazines. Ever the systematist, he noted the titles of fictional works he was reading under the headings Great Novels, Very Good Novels and Acceptable Novels.



A vibrant passageway honouring a celebrated Dutch master

While living with his parents in the Netherlands town of Nuenen between 1883 and 1885, Vincent van Gogh produced nearly 200 oil paintings of the locale and its people, characterised by a reverent attention to the everyday and the sombre tone-on-tone palette then favoured by most Dutch-trained artists. These works include The Potato Eaters, often regarded as his first important painting. By the late 1880s, Van Gogh’s muted canvases had given way to riotous engagement with colour: Café Terrace at Night, Irises and The Starry Night. In 2014 in the city of Eindhoven, just southwest of Nuenen, the artist Daan Roosegaarde paid tribute to that unforgettable roiling night sky by creating the Van Gogh Path. Using blue and green solar-powered LEDs, he created a sinuous, sparkly marvel that echoes Starry Night’s sense of wonder; the path absorbs sunlight during the day, then twinkles for hours after sunset. The project is part of Studio Roosegaarde’s collaborative Smart Highway initiative, which seeks to imagine (and realise) a broader deployment of art and technology in upgrading transport infrastructure. Cycling or walking the route in the evening, as the flat landscape spreads out in shadowy beauty, one has a newfound appreciation not only for Van Gogh’s masterpiece but also for the earthy, subdued hues of his Nuenen studies.


A lush paradise for flower fanciers, birdwatchers and frolicsome others

The Giardino di Ninfa (Garden of Ninfa), an hour southeast of Rome by road in Italy’s Latina province, begins to unfurl in slow splendour in April, with the show mostly over by November. Visitors behold antique bridges, the tenth-century church of Santa Maria Maggiore with its twelfth-century frescoes and the saint’s relics and a gorgeous plenitude of plant life—orchids, lavender, miniature pomegranates, Japanese maples, roses rambling over crumbling stone walls, cherry trees and yellow begonia. The gardens were named after the nymphs once rumoured to frolic in the surrounding grottoes and groves—Pliny the Younger described a temple on the site that was dedicated to naiads (water nymphs). Under the seigniory of the Caetani family, Ninfa got its first grand garden in the sixteenth century. After the death of Cardinal Niccolò III Caetani in 1585, the garden fell into neglect, and the region became depopulated during the seventeenth century because of its malarial marshes. Ninfa became an English garden in 1921 thanks to the green thumbs of Gelasio Caetani and his mother, celebrated horticulturist Ada Bootle-Wilbraham. Today, the nonprofit Roffredo Caetani Foundation oversees the 20-acre site. In 1976, one fifth of its expanse was designated a wildlife sanctuary by the World Wildlife Fund, and visitors can spot herons, raptors, lapwings, gadwalls, teals and mallards therein. Ninfa is also a heavily trafficked flyway for birds migrating from Africa to Europe. However, birdwatchers and phytophiles take note: opening days are limited, so consult the calendar well in advance.


Looking into the lives of others: a filmmaker’s quandary

Kaori Oda grew up in Osaka and studied film in Virginia. After completing Thus a Noise Speaks (2010), a moving short about coming out as gay to her family, she enrolled in Béla Tarr’s film.factory workshop in Sarajevo and made her first feature, Aragane (2015), an impressionistic film about workers in a coal mine. In her latest documentary, Toward a Common Tenderness (2017), we hear Oda’s gentle, anchoring voice throughout, narrating from the opening shot to the final one as she variously explores her memories and recites selections from Rosemary Menzies’ Poems for Bosnia and Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer. Toward a Common Tenderness is interested in—and concerned about—the influence of the camera on a subject. Oda recycles some footage from Thus a Noise Speaks in which her mother is crying; the camera lingers, capturing for an uncomfortably long moment the raw intensity of a loved one who is distraught—a transgressive act. In her narration, Oda says she wouldn’t do it again. The question of what she should or shouldn’t train her camera on hovers ever-present as we follow Oda on a journey through Sarajevo. She revisits the coal miners, treks to remote mountain villages, encounters Roma who describe their lives and confess their secrets. As a Japanese filmmaker lugging equipment and a dictionary to little-seen corners of Europe—an outsider, and a relatively privileged one at that—Oda ponders the ethics of filming people from cultural and economic backgrounds different from her own. When she decides to screen Aragane for the miners, she films the reaction of the audience, of which she is now a part, at once auteur, narrator and spectator.


A fair to remember, not least for its spotlight on Inuit art

This year’s Venice Biennale—a.k.a. the 58th International Art Exhibition and the art world’s Cannes, launched in early May—is titled ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’. Curated by Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery in London, it has some standout contenders. Canada chose as its representative the Inuit video collective Isuma, which has a mission ‘to preserve Inuit culture and language and to present Inuit stories to Inuit and non-Inuit audiences around the world.’ Their past projects include the acclaimed dramatic feature Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001) and The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006). Co-founded in 1990 by Zacharias Kunuk, Norman Cohn, Paul Apak Angilirq (1954–1998) and Pauloosie Qulitalik (1939–2012), Isuma has been championed by the independent curator Candice Hopkins, a citizen of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation. ‘In our first ten years, whole families worked on our films’, said Cohn. ‘Over three decades, hundreds of people came together to fill our films with artfulness through handmade clothing and tools, igloos and songs, and actors reliving their ancestors’ memories in experimental storytelling through video.’ Kunuk was raised in a settlement that had no television; elders felt that English-language programs would not be a good influence. Yet Kunuk thinks that video technology can preserve the oral traditions he grew up hearing. The group is currently producing Edge of the Knife, the world’s first feature to be shot in Haida, an indigenous language spoken on the Pacific coast. Other artists to look out for include Turner Prize winner Laure Prouvost, representing France; Renate Bertlmann for Austria; Cathy Wilkes for Great Britain; Finland’s Miracle Workers Collective; and Australia’s Angelica Mesiti, a filmmaker who travelled deep into Turkey, Greece and the Canary Islands to record an ancient whistling language.


Thoughts on the spark and promise of speculative fiction

In the introduction to an interview with Samuel R. Delany, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah describes a few of the writer’s complexities: ‘He is a gay man who was married to a woman for twelve years; he is a black man who, because of his light complexion, is regularly asked to identify his ethnicity.’ Born in 1942 in Harlem, Delany was a precocious child. His father ran a funeral home that features in a couple of Langston Hughes stories. Delany first attended the élite Dalton School, then tested into the Bronx High School of Science, where he met the poet Marilyn Hacker, who became his wife. At 19, Delany wrote his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor, a work of science fiction; by the age of 25, he had completed eight more. In 1971, he finished writing Dhalgren (1975), which follows a character named the Kid on his wanderings through a Midwestern city riven by violence, and which sold over a million copies. (William Gibson wrote that he believed the book’s ‘“riddle” was never meant to be “solved.”’) In the course of the interview Delany ranges from his learning disability to the unflattering expectation that genre writers like him must be prolific, a telltale sign of lesser art. Of the role science fiction might play in thorny questions about race, Delany offers that ‘Science fiction isn’t just thinking about the world out there. It’s also thinking about how that world might be—a particularly important exercise for those who are oppressed, because if they’re going to change the world we live in, they—and all of us—have to be able to think about a world that works differently.’


Addressing Einstein’s loose ends, and associated challenges

Emmy Noether, born in 1882, was a German mathematician known for her groundbreaking explorations in abstract algebra and theoretical physics. Girls of her time were not permitted to attend college preparatory schools, so Noether went to finishing school, seemingly destined to teach English and French to her upper-middle-class contemporaries. Then she decided to audit classes at the University of Erlangen—which made her one of two women in a cohort of a thousand—and passed the entrance exam. In 1904, Erlangen allowed women to enrol; Noether earned her Ph.D. in 1907, then stayed on at the Mathematical Institute of Erlangen without pay until 1915, working alongside the algebraist Ernst Otto Fischer. In a paper published three years later (and four years before she was finally allowed to lecture), she proved two theorems—known today as Noether’s first and second theorems—that were integral to the theories of general relativity and elementary particle physics. In particular, a fundamental connection established by the first theorem has seen ubiquitous applications in the years since, and proved crucial to the development of the Standard Model of particle physics, which anticipated the existence of the Higgs boson, a particle finally proven to exist in 2012. Norther continued to break new ground in algebra, and in 1932, she won the Ackermann–Teubner Memorial Award in mathematics. In April 1933, the Nazi government banned Jews from holding teaching positions, and Noether moved to Pennsylvania to teach at Bryn Mawr. When she died following a routine surgery at the age of 53, Albert Einstein wrote in a letter to the New York Times, ‘Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.’


Unique musical excursions into hallowed halls

The American flautist and composer Paul Horn, who died in 2014 at the age of 84, had a career that took him from preeminence in the jazz world to more minimalist work—labelled ‘New Age’ but free of the inanity that term now connotes. In the 1950s he played tenor sax in the Eddie Sauter–Bill Finegan big band, made a musical appearance in Alexander Mackendrick’s wry, caustic thriller Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and was one of the four flutes in Buddy Collette’s Swinging Shepherds. He had cemented his reputation as a high-profile mainstream jazz star by the time he visited India in 1967 as part of a spiritual exploration; the journey led him into fresh musical terrain as well. When his study group shifted from Rishikesh to Srinagar, Horn met Kashmiri musicians with whom he found much common ground—to the extent that he recorded an album with them (he had also recorded earlier with students of Ravi Shankar). The following year, he was captivated by the hypnotically slow echo of his flute in the Taj Mahal: ‘I started to play a couple notes and stopped and the sound went up… and just hung there forever’. The experience inspired Inside (1968), and inaugurated an approach he would follow for the rest of his working life. In 1985 Horn released Inside the Great Pyramid, a double album recorded—by bizarre good fortune—in various chambers of the Egyptian landmark. Solemn and haunting, it contains a series of ‘psalms’ grouped under titles indicative of a seeker’s path: ‘Initiation’, ‘Meditation’, ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘Fulfillment’. An alto flute prevails throughout, complemented by the high, clear energy of a C flute and piccolo, and occasional vocal improvisations, in what feels like an extended invitation to let the outside world fade away. Later works in a similar mode include a recording in Vilnius’ Kazimieras Cathedral, various projects in Tibet and a wonderful collaboration with the American Navajo/Ute flautist R. Carlos Nakai.

Illustrations by Audrey Helen Weber

‘Now more than ever do I realise that I will never be content with a sedentary life…’

Isabelle Eberhardt