O errant traveler, by your spirit of adventure that has caused you from tenderest years to leave behind father and mother…by the dignity man gains through voyages over distant territories and uncharted seas…
— Lautréamont, Maldoror
Pour us your poison wine that makes us feel like gods! Our brains are burning up! — there’s nothing left to do But plunge into the void! — hell? heaven? — what’s the odds? We’re bound for the Unknown, in search of something new! — Baudelaire, “Travel,” Flowers of Evil
In late 2015, I was one of the 1,900,000 visitors to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, its busiest year yet. I don’t know the attendance figures in the early years after it opened in 1973, but only a trickle of people were evident on my first visit to the museum in 1976. What a difference between then and now. I recall being a bit embarrassed for the place at the time, such a sad and forlorn little museum, much like the painter himself, forever destined to be misunderstood and ignored. The 2015 museum had undergone extensive remodeling and expansion, and I didn’t recognize it. The first floor, previously displaying Van Gogh’s early “potato eaters” paintings and a series of biographical displays, now served primarily to orient visitors to the two upper floors. I had no recollection of the upper floors on my previous visit. This was due to the many museums around the world I had seen over the decades since, not a few of them with Van Goghs of their own. His paintings had coalesced into a montage detached from time and place in my mind. I needed factual confirmation from the staff that it was indeed the very spot in the same building where I had stood forty years ago. Meanwhile, a new wing for temporary exhibits (one pairing Van Gogh and Edvard Munch on my visit) had risen behind the original building; the two structures were joined by an airy atrium and an elegant cafeteria.
I have to say Alec Ash and Tom Pellman’s recent collection of expat writings on China, While We’re Here (Earnshaw Books, 2015), has a catchy cover. It shows a street in what appears to be the popular Nanluoguxiang neighborhood of Beijing, a favored spot for the bohemian set along with hordes of tourists. A foreigner with a clown’s face looks a bit out of place as he stands in the street holding a bunch of balloons. The clown image conveys the irony that we foreigners cannot but avoid being buffoons in China no matter how cool and hip we think we are. We might as well accept our hapless role as objects of amusement and have a laugh at our own expense. But then I considered it from another angle. Is this merely the proverbial sad clown’s self-mockery? Or is there an implicit taunt or tease lurking in that face? Is the clown’s gaze an appeal, or a challenge? The title too carries a double meaning. Is it: we’ll be out of your way soon, but while we’re here please don’t be too hard on us; you will miss us bumbling foreigners. Or is it: we’ll be out of your way soon, but while we’re here we plan to cause some trouble. Treat us like clowns at your peril.
In 2006, Sting came out with Songs from the Labyrinth, an album devoted to the Elizabethan composer John Dowland. It was an unlikely choice of musical material for a rock star, yet Sting approached Dowland with enthusiasm and respect, refraining from rendering his songs into pop or setting them to a rock beat (as Richard Thompson for example has done with Renaissance tunes and Italian madrigals). He employed a professional lutenist, Edin Karamazov, and accompanied some of the pieces on the lute himself, one of his recent passions. Showing restraint and taste, Sting did not attempt to sing the songs in the stylized “classical” manner but used his voice’s natural register to adopt at times a relaxed and conversational, at times a more hushed or emphatic tone to suit each song’s occasion.
The result was oddly compelling and delightful. In the decade since the recording was released, the album’s Amazon page has accumulated over 200 largely favorable customer reviews. The handful of negative reviews were not, as one might suspect, from Sting fans baffled by his newfound classical preoccupation but rather finicky classical purists taking issue with his vocal incompetence, his nerve in attempting something out of his league. Yet they miss the point. The rocker’s homespun approach reveals the music’s texture in a fresh way, and moreover reflects the actual conditions in which Dowland’s music was often performed, namely by musician friends in a relaxed and intimate setting.
Dowland appeals to us in that he shares certain affinities with the modern notion of the artist—the artist as alienated, rebellious iconoclast, misunderstood by society, striking out on his own in proud defiance of convention. The English long for a Caravaggio, Beethoven or Van Gogh to call their own (they do have one in fact: Shakespeare, but he’s not neurotic enough). Dowland can, partially at any rate, be said to fit the bill. He is indeed an enigmatic and somewhat tragic figure, in the Greek sense, his fate largely self-inflicted. Before we investigate the reasons for this, and what it all has to do with the point of this essay, we need to slip a few decades back in time to the start of Queen Elizabeth’s reign and the extraordinary story of her chief court musician, Alfonso Ferrabosco.