July 27


An epigram for the Charter of Human Responsibilities (though personally I see no need to involve God in this when the whole point is Human Responsibility): “Who stands firm? Only the one for whom the final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these, when in faith and sole allegiance to God [substitute 'Humankind'] he is called to obedient and responsible action: the responsible person, whose life will be nothing but an answer to God's [substitute 'Humankind's] question and call.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Because I no longer have Pandora (it has no license to broadcast in the UK), and I can't listen to music on the radio while I'm working because it constantly goes to ads or news or simply the idle chatter of the anchor, all of which breaks my concentration, I have taken to calling up my favourite pieces on YouTube and listening that way. Or did, until I got bored hearing them for the hundredth time, and started randomly hitting those squares of cookie-generated pictures that come up at the end of a YouTube video, to try to drive you to pages with paid ads on them – I mean recommendations algorithmed to your taste. And then I discovered that my YouTube site tracks its own history, so I have a list of all these nameless pieces, and can listen to them again, or find more by the same composer – and guess what, just like the painters (see my blog for April 16), it turns out that there have actually been rather more first-rate composers in the world than just the couple of dozen in the Hall of Fame.

As I write this I am listening to one of them, Ernő Dohnányi to be precise, his Symphony No. 1, and liking it so much I want to know more about this man, of whom I have truthfully never even heard before. And so I look him up, yea, even on Wikipedia, and… why have I never heard of this man who deserves immediate membership of my Book of Days catalogue of the forgotten who should not have been forgotten?

My eastern European guess turns out to have been dead right; he was born in what was then Pozsony in Hungary, but is now Bratislava in Slovakia, on July 27th 1877, and made his name, using the German form of his name, Ernst von Dohnányi, as a pianist and conductor, as well as a composer – he died, for the information, on February 9th, 1960, of pneumonia mostly, in Florida. As a pianist, by all accounts, he was decidedly Lisztian; as a composer a devout follower of Brahms, who promoted his work in Vienna and supported him as a mentor; and as a conductor he became a key figure in the careers of both Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály; but it isn't his work in any of these three fields that makes him worthy of commemoration here. 

My criterion for membership of the Zero Positive Club automatically rejects people who are passively complicit in the events of life and history; black-lists those who, even worse, collaborate in their own victimhood; but selects for instant statuisation those who stand up to life and history when life and history indulge their tendency to bully; who seek, however haplessly, to make the Zero Positive, who pursue, however abjectly, the Immaculate Failure.

This litmus test Dohnányi passes, and I will explain why shortly; but first, equally unknown to me until I undertook this little piece of research, and even more meritorious of entry into this garden of the righteous, there is the separate tale of Hans von Dohnányi, Ernő’s son with his first wife Elisabeth (Elsa) Kunwald; Hans who became one of the leaders of the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany, a friend and collaborator, the boss and brother-in-law indeed, of that decidedly righteously-gentile anti-Semitic defender of Jewry Dietrich Bonhoeffer (I do love these paradoxes of the pulchrasauri!).

Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor, one of the founders of the Bekennende Kirche, or Confessing Church (whose anti-Semitism lay in its belief that Judaism had been rendered obsolete by the supersession of Christianity, and that Jews should therefore convert, or at the very least assimilate and become secular, like his good friend Hans von Dohnányi), and trained clergy at its seminary at Finkenwalde, until the Nazis closed it down and he spent two years in hiding.

So dissident was he in his opposition to the Nazis, so heroically unwise in his outspokenness against Hitler's euthanasia program, so foolishly derogatory in his public denunciation of the persecution of the Jews, that he was banned from Berlin in 1938, and prohibited from speaking in public anywhere in 1940. Finally, he was dragged from his metaphorical pulpit by the Gestapo in April 1943, accused with what at that time was his boss, Hans von Dohnányi, of embezzling funds for personal use from the Abwehr, the Office of Military Intelligence, which Dohnányi ran; supposedly the organisation that promoted the expansion of Nazism beyond the country's borders, Dohnányi was using it to create and fund an anti-Nazi resistance. Bonhoeffer was held at Tegel Prison for nearly eighteen months before being transferred to Buchenwald, with the additional charge of association in a plot to assassinate Hitler. His fellow defendants included several former members of the Abwehr, though ironically not yet Dohnányi, who was still considered loyal. Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging on April 9th 1945, just when the Nazi regime was getting ready for its own gallows.

Which brings us back to Hans, a lawyer at the Ministry of Justice since 1929, where he served first as an aide to State Secretary Curt Jöel, himself a decidedly conservative Jew, and then, after Hitler came to power, as assistant to Minister of Justice Franz Gürtner, a conservative non-Nazi lawyer whom Hitler kept on to reassure people that the "law" remained in non-Nazi hands. Both detested the Nazis, and Gürtner supported Dohnányi's clandestine cataloguing of the records of Nazi "crimes" for which his office was the principal archive.
By 1937 Dohnányi had established close friendships with a number of Wehrmacht officers, led by Chief of Staff Ludwig Beck, Colonel Hans Oster of the Abwehr, and the head of the Abwehr itself, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. All three were opposed to the planned Anschluss of Czechoslovakia, wished to overthrow Hitler, and were working towards a post-Hitler arrangement with the British that would not punish Germany, a deal scuppered when Chamberlain and the French went to Munich to use "appeasement" as a euphemism for "grovelling before a nasty bully you're too scared to stand up to".  

With his privileged access to all this information (including, after the Wannsee Conference of January 1942, certain knowledge of the Final Solution), and his promotion as Oster's deputy in the Abwehr (a position, incidentally, which would have included some level of familiarity with another senior Abwehr officer, the man who would serve as agent provocateur for the invasion of Poland, that other falsely-named righteous gentile Major Oscar Schindler), Dohnányi now became the effective leader of the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler, and was specifically instructed by Canaris to seek out former politicians who had been victimised by Hitler, and prepare them for a post-Nazi government. But what Canaris did not know was Operation 7, which later became Operation 14 – seven Jews who he had learned were designated for the death-camps, who he informed the Gestapo were "Abwehr agents" - which meant "informers" in a land where every third person really was an informer, but almost none of those were Jewish - and therefore protected. The Gestapo sent them to the safety of Switzerland, imagining they would report on Nazi enemies there.

Dohnányi's fall came as a consequence of Stalingrad, where the Nazis suffered their first defeat, and blamed it on the Abwehr. His connection with Bonhoeffer didn't help much either, and the two were named together when military prosecutor Manfred Roeder executed his arrest warrants on April 5th 1943. The official charge was embezzlement, but the word "traitor" was also in the air. While Bonhoeffer was at the Tegel, Dohnány was taken to Das Zellengefängnis, the prison for officers on Lehrterstraße, and Christine Dohnány-Bonhoeffer, sister of the one and wife of the other, to the women's prison in Charlottenburg, from where she was released after just a week.

Dohnány and Bonhoeffer spent three months under interrogation, mostly in solitary confinement, until the charge of treason was dropped, embezzlement was replaced by "currency violations", and a new charge was added, that of "Wehrkraftzersetzung" – sedition and defeatism.

You'll see that I've only linked or illustrated the heroes;
the other characters you can look up for yourself
Already dealing with phlebitis from the unhygienic conditions in which he was living, Hans suffered a brain embolism in November of that year, when an Allied bomb effectively destroyed the Lehrterstraße prison. But what destroyed him finally was the last attempt to assassinate Hitler, which saw his close allies Beck and Canaris, along with Claus von Stauffenberg, Werner von Haeften, General Friedrich Olbricht, and many others, murdered on July 20th, 1944 as a punishment for their failed attempt on the Reichsfuhrer's life. Oster was arrested the following day. Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Himmler's deputy, was appointed to hunt down more suspects, of which some six thousand were eventually arrested, sham-tried, and executed; Dohnány's supposed "loyalty" now found out in the process. 

On August 22nd he was transferred to the hospital at Sachsenhausen, which was so well maintained against disease that he quickly contracted scarlet fever. In September the "catalogue of crimes" was discovered among his papers, and Hitler became personally involved in the prosecution of what the Gestapo had now named "the spiritual head of the conspiracy against Hitler"; probably accurately; he had twice attempted to assassinate Hitler – the first time with Canaris in Smolensk, with a British-made bomb that sadly failed to detonate. 

When he was taken for execution in April 1945, he was so sick they had to carry him to the gallows on a stretcher. He left behind one son, Christoph von Dohnányi, who would follow his grandfather into music and become Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra, and another, Klaus von Dohnányi, who would become a German politician in the years of apology and rebuilding.

Which tale leads back to the father, and to Berlin, and to Brahms' friend the violinist Joseph Joachim, who invited Erno to teach at the Hochschule there, which he did from 1905 to 1915, and where he met the actress, singer and ballet dancer Elza Galafrés, wife  of the Polish Jewish violinist Bronisław Huberman, who he would marry in 1919. 

In those days it wasn't yet Nazism that did the serious bullying; it was Communism, and quite probably it was the father's experience that later inspired the son. When Hungary went Communist in 1919, Ernő was appointed director of the Budapest Academy, only to be fired shortly afterwards for refusing to fire Zoltán Kodály for being a leftist. The following year, when Communism temporarily failed and Admiral Horthy was made Regent, Ernő became music director of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, where among others he taught Sir Georg Solti and, in 1933, organised the first International Franz Liszt Piano Competition.

Then, in 1934, he was reappointed as Director of the Budapest Academy, a post he held until 1943, and which has given rise to comments that he "collaborated" with the Nazis – a charge lodged in much the same manner, and equally falsely, against Richard Strauss. Because there is the small-scale resistance of father Ernő, and there is the large-scale resistance of son Hans, but both are nonetheless resistance, and both, in the circumstances of Nazi Germany, were utterly heroic. So I read in Grove's Dictionary how, from 1939, "much of his time was devoted to the fight against growing Nazi influences". By 1941 he had resigned his directorial post at the Academy, rather than submit to the anti-Jewish legislation. In his orchestra he succeeded in keeping on all Jewish members until two months after the German occupation of Hungary [on March 12th 1944, in Operation Margarethe], when he disbanded the ensemble as an act of John-Galtian protest. In November 1944 he went to Austria, a decision which has added further criticism.

And yet, in March 2014, at a conference entitled "The Holocaust in Hungary, 70 Years On: New Perspectives" held at the Center for Judaic, Holocaust, & Genocide Studies at Florida Gulf Coast University, the musicologist James A. Grymes presented research based on archival evidence he had gathered in Budapest, in a paper entitled "Ernst von Dohnányi: A Forgotten Hero of the Holocaust Resistance." Ernst (Ernő), not Hans. He credits Ernst with (in the author's summary):

1) "blocking the creation of a Hungarian Chamber of Music that would have excluded Jews from the music profession, just as the infamous Reichsmusikkammer did in Nazi Germany";

2) resigning "from his position as Director General of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, rather than carry out orders to fire Jewish instructors";

3) "As the conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic, Dohnányi disbanded the ensemble rather than dismiss its Jewish members";

4) Assisting "a number of individual Jewish musicians".

These included impresario Andrew Schulhof, whom Dohnányi helped emigrate from Germany to the U.S. in 1939. When the pianist Lajos Hernádi had been discharged from the labour service, Dohnányi wrote a letter declaring Hernádi and his hands to be irreplaceable national treasures. When the violinist Carl Flesch and his wife were threatened with deportation to a concentration camp, Dohnányi helped to reinstate their Hungarian nationalities, enabling them to travel through Germany, back to Hungary, and ultimately to Switzerland. He also personally saved the pianist György Ferenczy, Ferenczy's wife, and several other Jewish musicians from the death trains. Zoltán Kodály later reported that Dohnányi had signed dozens of documents that had saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust. In "Ernst von Dohnányi: A Song of Life", Dohnányi’s widow Ilona placed that number in the hundreds. Jewish violinist, violist, and composer Tibor Serly went so far as to credit Dohnányi's frequent interventions for the fact that "Not one Jewish musician of any reputation living in Hungary lost his life or perished during the entire period of World War II". (Of those he was unable to save, one was a relative of Andrew Schulhof: the composer Erwin Schulhof - what happened to him, and what would have happened to those that Dohnányi saved, can be read on April 1 of this blog-book)

Grymes notes the fact that after the war, Dohnányi "was investigated and cleared several times by the U.S. Military Government", as a precondition of his post-war move to Florida. Grymes also notes that he was "repeatedly defended by prominent Jewish musicians who had worked closely with him in Hungary, including violist Egon Kenton [Kornstein], pianist Edward Kilenyi, musicologist Bence Szabolcsi, and composer Leó Weiner. The latter wrote at least two testimonials pointing out that the majority of Dohnányi's students had been Jewish and that Dohnányi had consistently programmed Weiner's own compositions, even during the Nazi regime".

In 1946, Ernő was made an honorary member of the Epsilon Iota Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity at the Florida State University in Tallahassee, and went on to teach at the School of Music there from 1949 to 1959. He and his third wife Ilona became American citizens in 1955. His last public performance was held there, on January 30th 1960, conducting the university orchestra in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, with his doctoral student, Edward R. Thaden, as soloist. He then went to New York to record several Beethoven piano pieces for Everest Records, the only surviving recordings of his work besides a Mozart concerto (No. 17, in G major, K. 453) which was made in the early 1930s, in Hungary, with the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, his own "Variations on a Nursery Tune", the second movement of his "Ruralia Hungarica" all of which are on 78 rpm, and therefore unlikely to be played by anyone ever again; he died in New York shortly after that recording session.

By such few accounts as there are of his playing, his rendition of Beethoven's Tempest Sonata and Haydn's Fminor Variations were particularly good, as are the recordings of his compositions made by LSU Professor Milton Hallman, who was a student of Dohnányi's  before eventually taking over his professorship. You can find his CD of Dohnányi's compositions, "Works For Piano", at Centaur Records. The Hungarian government posthumously awarded him its highest civilian honour, the Kossuth Prize, in 1990. An International Ernst von Dohnányi Festival was held at Florida State University in 2002. 

Dohnányi's gravesite at Roselawn Cemetery, Tallahassee, Florida, USA

My special thanks to Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern, who unknowingly provided much of the research data on Hans and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from their book "The Tragedy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi".

You can find David Prashker at:

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The Argaman Press

April 16


Hunting for births, deaths and events of significance in the universal history of June 27th, for my novel "A Journey In Time", the names of obscure, minor composers came up so repeatedly that it began to seem the date had been dedicated among the zodiacal signs as "Composers' Day", save only for the fact that it did not claim any composer of real merit – Mozart and Beethoven, for example, had scrupulously avoided it, while Haydn's third cousin who got married on that date cannot be said to count. 

But minor composers a-plenty. June 27th 1829, for example, was the date on which Louis-Sebastien Lebrun died, at the age of sixty-four. In the novel, the narrator, whose obsessive search for these names, dates and events is the satirical core of the tale, becomes particularly fixated over Lebrun, and eventually falls out with his girlfriend altogether over the subject. There is, as he discovers – or fails to discover – no known information about Louis-Sebastien; what he finds instead are Charles Lebrun (1619-1690), a French painter "whose ornate, Baroque designs dominated French art for two generations"; a French statesman of the 19th century named Albert Lebrun; and that splendid rarity, a woman painter who was not forced to take a man's name or restrict herself to the convent of nursery-painting, Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842). In the novel, Marie-Louise is no more than a passing mention; but she remained in my notebooks as a potential return-to-one-day, provided that a suitable excuse arose.

And so it did, almost twenty years later, when I finally got around to visiting the Wallace Collection, a splendid museum of the arts at Hertford House in Manchester Square in London, the former townhouse of the Seymour family, the Marquesses of Hertford – yes, those Seymours, of whom Edward was Lord Protector of England during Edward VI's reign, and Jane was one of Henry VIII's six wives, and her brother Thomas was the man with whom Princess Elizabeth may or may not have had an affair before she became the Virgin Queen. Dukes of Somerset as well, but Hertford House was specifically the London residence of the Marquesses of that county, and its collection of very fine arts essentially the 18th and 19th century achievement of the first four Marquesses, completed by Sir Richard Wallace, the son of the fourth though not himself the fifth, and bequeathed to the nation after his death in 1897.

So I found myself, one early spring afternoon of 2016, wandering among porcelain and furniture and gold boxes, strolling between Titian and Velazquez and Franz Hals, from Watteau to Rubens to Fragonard, looking at Limoges enamels and majolica, when there on the wall was the most splendid portrait, and if I stopped to look more closely, both at it and at its label, it was in part the majestic splendour of the work,  and also a vague notion that I had walked past a very similar painting at the National Gallery just a few days earlier, but at that stage of my visit where I had been reduced by its infinitudes to merely browsing, while truthfully searching for the sign that led down to the coffee bar.

The painting in question at the Wallace was "Madame Perregaux, France, 1789, Oil on oak panel, Louise. Vigee. Le Brun. f. 1789", a sort of middle-ageing Juliet looking over the balcony railings hopeful of the arrival of her Romeo, or is she at the Opera and has noticed something unusual in a nearby box? Something in the style of the painting triggered that vague memory, perhaps the rosy pinkness of the cheeks, perhaps simply the manner in which the background had been created, an emptiness of cloudy, Turneresque skies that belied the interior nature of the remainder of the portrait.

From Manchester Square to Trafalgar Square is no great walking distance, and so I went back to the National Gallery, and there, on the second floor, in room 33 (and at the top of this blog-page), was the very lady who had painted "Madame Perregaux", a self-portrait of elegance in a straw hat, styled on Rubens' "Chapeau de Paille" which, as I have since learned, she saw in Antwerp although Rubens actually painted it in Brussels. So this was what she looked like; rather plain in fact, the eyes too intense, the face too oval, the mouth decidedly not the sort one yearns to kiss, but get beyond the instinctive male response to everyfemale and there is deep intelligence in those features; the intensity of those eyes is actually what makes them so appealing, because their vision is enormous, their capacity to read other human faces, and present them to the world with style and grace and elegance. A very great second-tier painter was Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.

But yet virtually unknown, or at least demoted to the B-list, that terrible foolishness of the cultural decision-makers, who leave us with such a tiny catalogue of "greats-to-be-remembered" when it is really those exhausting infinitudes that define us humans as an intelligent life-form. 

Nor was she merely somebody wealthy's wife or daughter, who filled the empty time between baby-making and maidservant-hiring by dabbling water-colours on a sheet of gesso-coated cotton. Her mother was a hairdresser. Her father, Louis, was a professional portrait-painter, who would no doubt have gone on teaching the craft to his daughter, only poverty forced him to place her in a convent at the age of six; she stayed there for five years; and the following year her father died. For the next three years she supported herself as a painter of portraits, only for her studio to be closed down by the gendarmerie for the crime of painting without a license. She responded by applying for membership of the Academie de St-Luc, which saw the name Vigée, assumed it was the father, accepted several of her pictures for exhibition at their Salon, and then discovered that she was a woman, but admitted her anyway, because, let's be honest, elle n'est pas sans talent, at the age of only nineteen, in 1774. Two years later she married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, a painter and art dealer, who turned their home, the Hôtel de Lubert in Paris, into a Salon of its own, and the rest is a period of history which the Chinese would describe as "interesting".

Her mother having, in the meanwhile, married a wealthy jeweller and established her own home close to the Palais Royal, was not unhelpful. Le Brun's pedigree likewise gave access to the nobility, and Madame Lebrun, as she now styled herself, became the portrait painter to go to for anyone who wished to be counted. Which eventually, perhaps inevitably, included the Royal Consort, Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen, or more simply Marie-Antoinette. Her very first portrait of la première dame des gâteaux, painted in 1779 at the Palais de Versailles, consolidated her reputation. By 1783 she had transferred from St-Luc to the Académie Royale, and while France was cutting off royal heads and Terrorising its own subjects and proclaiming Napoleon as the unelected King of Democracy, Madame Lebrun was wisely travelling around Europe, still painting the nobility, but now enlarging her reputation to the international, leaving behind a staggering eight hundred canvases and a deep attachment to the word rococo.

The version of the straw hat at the National Gallery turned out to be a mere replica, autographed but not original. Where exactly the original is remains unknown, but probably in a private collection somewhere in France, which is to say, confined in some bourgeois space where only the family who owns it can know of its greatness, and the eyes of the world never be permitted to pry on it – the fate of most 18th and 19th century French women; though not Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.

November 30

1935, 1667

The deaths - I am confident that I am correct in employing the plural - of Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa, a disquieting number of individuals who may actually have written just four books (more than eighty are ascribed to him, directly or indirectly, but "scribed by" and "ascribed to" are not necessarily the same thing), three of them collections of poetry in English ("Antinous" and "Sonnets" in 1918, as well as "English Poems" in 1921), a fourth in his native Portuguese ("Mensagem" in 1933).

The heteronymity of languages results from Pessoa's father having died when Fernando was just five, and his mother taking him to live in Durban, South Africa, where he exacerbated the unhappiness of grief for just eight years, returning to Lisbon in 1905, and dying there, of cirrhosis of the liver, in 1935, virtually unknown even by his neighbours, and totally unknown in the world of literature. And yet, in "The Western Canon", Harold Bloom lists two versions of Pessoa among the twenty-six writers of "the democratic age" responsible for establishing the parameters of contemporary western literature. A remarkable achievement!

Whether or not Pessoa wrote the book for which he is now best known is a matter of academic dispute. Certainly most of the words belong to him, though many also, or instead, may be attributed to Bernardo Soares, who shared Pessoa's life, insofar as any other human can be said to have shared Pessoa's life, for many years; other fragments have been attributed to one Vicente Guedes, though this name does not appear on any electoral roll or census document for the city of Lisbon at that epoch. The book, however, known in Portuguese as "Livro do Desassossego: Composto por Bernardo Soares, ajudante de guarda-livros na cidade de Lisboa", was not published until forty-seven years after both Pessoa and Soares' deaths, and required the organisational skills of several editors to give it the multiple forms in which multiple very different versions of it may be read today, some even by the same editor, twice.

All this, however, is mere biography; what interests me, what draws me back again and again to re-read him, are the particular combinations of ordinary words which he constructs into phrases, clauses and sentences, and which are known among the cultural and intellectual snobs as Literature. Forgive me if I do not give page numbers for the citations that follow; there are now so many versions of the book, each of a different physical size and therefore heteronymously paginated, each numbering its own choice of fragments in its own disorder; you are much encouraged to acquire a copy and find them for yourself. I personally recommend Richard Zenith's 1991 translation, though it is entirely possible that Iain Watson, Alfred MacAdam and Margaret Jull Costa, who have allegedly published alternative translations, are in fact merely noms de plume employed by Zenith, or indeed that Zenith is one of them.

"I was born in a time when the majority of young people had lost faith in God, for the same reason that their elders had had it - without knowing why." 

The expression of what I call "Zeitgeist Opinions" or "Quondam Opinions", those views we hold, and believe to be our own, independently arrived at, by what we delude ourselves into thinking is critical judgement, but which are in fact the delineations of the narrow box of currently permitted views known as "free speech".

"I see life as a roadside inn where I have to stay until the coach from the abyss pulls up. I don't know where it will take me, because I don't know anything. I could see this inn as a prison, for I am compelled to wait in it; I could see it as a social centre, for it is here that I meet others. But I am neither impatient nor common. I leave who will to stay shut up in their rooms, sprawled out on beds where they sleeplessly wait, and I leave who will to chat in the parlours, from where their songs and voices conveniently drift out here to me. I am sitting at the door, feasting my eyes and ears on the colours and sounds of the landscape, and I softly sing - for myself alone - wispy songs I compose while waiting."

The Zero Positive incarnate! As is this:

"The way I see it, plagues, storms and wars are products of the same blind force, sometimes operating through unconscious microbes, sometimes through unconscious waters and thunderbolts, and sometimes through unconscious men... such is the world - a dunghill of instinctive forces that nevertheless shines in the sun with pale shades of light and dark gold."

"Inch by inch I conquered the inner terrain I was born with. Bit by bit I reclaimed the swamp in which I had languished. I gave birth to my infinite being, but I had to wrench myself out with forceps."

(There is a link from this to several passages in Kafka's diaries - click here)

"The grand, tarnished panorama of History amounts, as I see it, to a flow of interpretations, a confused consensus of unreliable eyewitness accounts."

I have to dispute with you, on this occasion: "consensus"? what consensus?

"Blessed are those who entrust their lives to no one."

"The contemplative person, without ever leaving his village, will nevertheless have the whole universe at his disposal. There is infinity in a cell or in a desert. One can sleep cosmically against a rock."

I only came upon Pessoa in 2004, and yet I feel I have known him all my life, can find every one of these phrases in my own stories, poems, aphorisms, diaries, even from many decades prior to that encounter. Perhaps I too am merely one more anagram of the destiny of Pessoa.

"Revolutionary or reformer - the error is the same. Unable to dominate and reform his own attitude towards life, which is everything, or his own being, which is almost everything, he flees, devoting himself to modifying others and the outside world. Every revolutionary and reformer is a fugitive. To fight for change is to be incapable of changing oneself. To reform is to be beyond repair...a sensitive and honest-minded man, if he is concerned about evil in the world, will naturally begin his campaign against them by eliminating them at their nearest source: his own person. This task will take his entire life."

The next I have slightly modified, because I think Pessoa has missed a trick. His version reads: 

"Only one thing astonishes me more than the stupidity with which most people live their lives, and that's the intelligence of this stupidity." 

My re-phrasing: "Only one thing astonishes me more than the stupidity with which most people live their lives, and that's the amount of education that has been poured into this stupidity."

"All of us in this world are living on board a ship that is sailing from one unknown part to another, and we should treat each other with a traveller's cordiality."

This final one is very tough - I doubt even Nietzsche could have gone this far:

"I see humanity as merely one of Nature's latest schools of decorative painting. I do not distinguish in any fundamental way between a man and a tree, and I naturally prefer whichever is more decorative, whichever interests my thinking eyes. If the tree is more interesting to me than the man, I am sorrier to see the tree felled than to see the man die. There are departing sunsets that grieve me more than the deaths of children."

More splendid sentences, as well as more background and commentary, can be found in my piece about Pessoa in "Private Collection"; and more about the man in a "Book of Days" piece about Pseudonyms, here.


I am confident that Jonathan Swift was not one of Fernando Pessoa's heteronyms, though I would be amazed if Pessoa had not read him, and been massively influenced by him; and even, in some elements of his deeply solitary journeys into reality by way of the imagination, conceived of himself as a latter-day Gulliver on many an occasion. 

Their goals though were quite different. In a letter to Alexander Pope (29th September 1725) Swift wrote:

"... the chief end I propose to myself in all my labours is to vex the world rather than to divert it, and if I could compass that design without hurting my own person or fortune I would be the most indefatigable writer you have ever seen..."

Lemuel said much the same thing in the Travels (4:12):

"my principal design was to Inform, and not to amuse thee";

while back in his own persona he gave this advice to a young poet:

"... once kick the world, and the world and you will live together at a reasonable good understanding."

But there are so many memorable phrases:

"It is impossible that anything so natural, so necessary, and so universal as death, should ever have been designed by providence as an evil to mankind."

"Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after; so that when men come to be undeceived it is too late; the jest is over and the tale has had its effect."

"Old men and comets have been reverenced for the same reason: their long beards, and pretences to foretell events."

I am also intrigued to discover that Swift was the coiner of certain now clichéd phrases, including:

“A penny for your thoughts.” (Introduction to "Polite Conversation")

"The sight of you is good for sore eyes" (Ibid. Dialogue 1)

"She looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth" (Ibid)

"rain cats and dogs" (Ibid. Dialogue 2)

"you and he were hand-in-glove" (Ibid)

“all the world and his wife” (Ibid)

Swift was born today, November 30th 1667

You can find David Prashker at:

Copyright © 2016 David Prashker
All rights reserved
The Argaman Press

April 7


This page is 'borrowed' form my Songs&Poem blog, because it belongs in both places. If this blog is, at least in part, a catalogue of some of my heroes of "The Immaculate Failure", there are few who more deserve a place in that particular Hall of Fame than does Robert Edwin Peary, of whom I am absolutely certain you have never heard, but should have done.

To listen to an audio recital of the poem, click here.

Ninety Degrees North

The form is known as a "dramatic monologue". No one ever did it better than Robert Browning, though Max Sebald made several wonderful attempts. The problem with a dramatic monologue, when you read it anyway, is that you have to get the accent right. I'm a Brit, Peary was an American - what more can I say! I also realise that "realised" in line 7 should have been spelled "realized", and I guess that "parlours" should have gone without its "u".


The name’s Peary, Robert Edwin Peary,
and no you haven’t heard of me,
despite the fact you should have done,
because I, not Cook, not Amundsen, not Scott,
I was the first to reach the geographical North Pole,
which used to be the last frontier of human exploration,
till scientists realised there are more than three dimensions,
such as inwards to the nucleus of the atom,
and outwards to the ice below the crust of Mars,
and upwards to the mount of knowledge,
yes and downwards too,
into the darkest depths of human calumny.
I hope they’ve got the guts they’ll need to find those poles.

Not that you need to know,
but I was born in Cresson,
which lies 40o 58' north and 78o 58' west,
80 miles from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,
in 1856, but moved to Maine,
the toughest journey of my life,
where I attended Bowdoin College
(the natives pronounce it Beau-din),
where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a student.
I graduated as a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity –
which means, I understand, a gentleman, in Inuit -
and was commissioned as a Civil Engineer Corps Officer
in the United States Navy in October, 1881.
I married the very lovely Josephine Diebitsch Peary,
and had two children with her: Marie and Robert Junior.
I should also tell you, since I’m always honest,
that Matthew Henson and I
both fathered children on Inuit women,
mine was called Ally,
while we were on our Arctic expeditions.

We made them all together, Matt and I,
explored Greenland by dog sled in 1886 and 1891;
returned to the island three times in the 1890s;
twice attempted to cross northwest Greenland over the ice cap;
discovered Navy Cliff.
How did we do it and survive?
By studying Inuit survival techniques, that’s how,
by building igloos,
dressing in furs in the native fashion,
both for heat preservation
and to get rid of the extra weight of tents and sleeping bags
when on the march.
Used Inuit hunters and dog-drivers too,
invented my Peary system
of having support teams and supply caches for Arctic travel.
Josephine came too sometimes.
Lost eight of my ten toes from frost bite.

Now people are envious sons of bitches
who never leave their front parlours
unless someone’s sent a chauffeured limousine,
and like to deny you your achievements
cause they can’t stand the thought that someone
struggled to achieve something worth the trouble
while they were fiddling their tax returns
and wondering who won the baseball,
so all I’ll say about the Jesup Land controversy
is that we found it,
and we saw Axel Heiberg too,
long before that Norwegian Sverdrup’s expedition,
and the men as give me the gold medals
from the American Geographical Society
and the Royal Geographical Society of London
stated that they honored my tenacity,
and they were damned right,
because it took tenacity to get to Jesup,
and they haven’t yet invented a word for what it took
to get the farthest north there is to get,
which was north of Ellesmere Island.

Now I gotta take a moment to say thanks to George Crocker,
who put up $50,000 to acquire the Roosevelt,
and cut a way through all that ice
between Greenland and Ellesmere Island,
and attain a Farthest North world record at 87° 06';
though the deniers deny me that achievement too,
from the comfort of their stone igloos
in the frozen tundra of Yale and Washington and Harvard,
where the only degrees they know are Law degrees,
certainly not ones of longitude nor latitude
(they give no latitude at all, these academic pedants),
- so many childless bachelorhoods at the Smithsonian.

87° 06' I say it was,
and get yourself out in the ice, and starve,
and lose your toes, and prove me wrong –
I challenge you.
87° 06' and returned to 86° 30' without camping,
72 nautical miles,
83 statute miles,
between sleeps,
and not a single detour.

We got back to the Roosevelt in May,
then weeks of agonizing travel,
west along the shore of Ellesmere
where we found Cape Colgate
and sighted a previously undiscovered farther-north,
named it “Crocker Land”.
People say I made the place up,
but folks at the National Geographic Society
don’t give you the Hubbard Gold Medal
for something they reckon you made up.

But I came here to tell you about the north pole,
because I found it first, whatever others say.
Me and 23 men set off from New York City on the Roosevelt
under the command of Captain Robert Bartlett, July 6, 1908.
Wintered near Cape Sheridan on Ellesmere Island,
then set out for the pole on February 28, 1909.
Sent the last support party back from “Bartlett Camp”
on April 1, latitude 87° 45' north.
That left just six of us,
Matt Henson and me and four Inuit,
Ootah, Egigingwah, Seegloo and Ooqueah.
Set up “Camp Jesup” in honour of my greatest sponsor,
on April 6 it was, not five miles from the pole.
Hit the point on April 7.
90o dead.
We nearly were too, from hunger, and exhaustion.

Now, all these years later,
it’s as much as I can do to make an expedition
to the liquor store on Eagle Island
and pick up a newspaper
to read all my detractors saying
I never done this and I never done that,
and Congress wanting to send an expedition to prove it,
like as if the footprints haven’t blown away.
Or if not me then Freddie Cook,
who was my surgeon on the 1891 expedition,
and if he says he made it to the Pole,
then I trust his instruments
more than I trust those jealous stay-at-homes
at the Smithsonian,
and I couldn’t care a monument in Greenland
whether he discovered it and I attained it,
or the other way around,
or both, or neither,
and whether you can prove it or you can’t,
cause the whole point ain’t the North Pole anyway,
that’s just a round number you stake out in eternity
like an igloo in the ice or a triangle in spherical trigonometry.

No point telling that to Congressmen and academics though.
They’d say there isn’t a north pole,
if they thought it would win them votes or research fellowships.

My toes hurt.

"Ninety Degrees North" is published in "Welcome To My World, Selected Poems 1973-2013", The Argaman Press. Click here to purchase the book.

You can find David Prashker at:

Copyright © 2016 David Prashker
All rights reserved
The Argaman Press