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87th Birthday Blog: A Big Up and Long Down.

87th Birthday Blog: A Big Up and Long Down.

On August 13th I celebrated by 87th birthday with a big celebration organized by my daughter Sarah and Julia White. Sarah made a cake with candles which her daughter Miranda and Abigail, one of Nick and Kay’s girls who is here visiting, blew out in my place-- I was in no shape for blowing. About thirty people came, from all over, near and far. Julia did the inviting, and was amazingly successful in persuading people to come to the event. There was Peihua Lee from Hong Kong-- she was one of my advanced grad students near the end of my teaching, but didn’t proceed to a doctorate and got married instead.  There was Hong Zaixin from up near Seattle. There was Dessa Goddard, who heads the Asian art section of Bonham’s Auction House in San Francisco. There was Judy Andrews, from Ohio State University, bringing a copy of the new book by herself and her husband about recent Chinese art. People brought flowers and a lot of cards with inscriptions. I mostly received the visitors by ones and twos beside my bed and talked to them, but I also got up and joined the group in the kitchen and gave a talk about how smart I had been in deciding to come back to Berkeley on several occasions when I could have made other choices.
The first of these was in 1965, when I had left the Freer Gallery-- I could have become the director-- to become a Berkeley professor. Another was in 1978, when I was Norton Lecturer at Harvard for a year, and then turned down a Harvard University Professorship, which is thought of as the loftiest position in academia, and not something one turns down. Again, I returned to Berkeley to be an ordinary professor, with no chair or student support money, or perks. The special seminar stocked with the books we use, which I had been promised when I came, never quite materialized, except for makeshift versions in basements-- the real thing became available, in the new East Asian Library building, only after I retired. But, as I explained in my talk, all of this didn’t matter. Having the students that I had, and doing the teaching I did, was the best choice I could have made. Most of my best students were women-- as I have explained several times already, male students tend to go where the money is, and that’s the East Coast Ivies, certainly not Berkeley. So my students came because they wanted to work with me, and because of the nature of our program (Richard Vinograd, who became professor at Stanford, is the single major male exception).

The morning after my birthday, I was taken by Sarah and one of my helpers in a wheelchair to the Berkeley Heart Center, where after long waits, I had a sample of my blood taken, as always, for analysis. Then after another long wait in a different room we were visited by Dr. Cecci (pronounced “Checky”) who is was my doctor for my recent illness. He is a formidable man, with a tall, bald head.  He certainly a very good doctor, to whom I probably owe my life, since he managed to get rid of the prostate cancer that had pervaded my bones, by a series of radiations.  He is also, however, known to be more activist and aggressive than most other doctors, with a tendency to prescribe treatments and hospitalizations more than most.  When he saw the analysis of my blood, which showed it to be low in calcium and other things, he immediately sent me off again to Alta Bates hospital, where I stayed for three days, returning only yesterday.  It was not a pleasant time-- although Alta Bates is a fine hospital, I have had more than enough of lying in beds there and watching their TV, which has only a limited number of channels, with no full-length movies or others of the ones I particularly enjoy.  (The only news and discussion channel is Fox News, which is far right politically, on which the participants all find reasons for criticizing Obama and suggesting his impeachment.)
Then I had a colonoscopy, the results of which were so positive, I was allowed to return home yesterday.  I’m now in my own bed, feeling much more comfortable, able to watch my large TV and movies on Turner Classic Movies, my favorite channel, and enjoy the attentions of my full-time helpers. This seems to be, for a while, the life I will have to put up with, since I don’t walk easily.

More on Salinger; and more Salinger?
A New York Times article, followed the next day by a review by Michiko Kakutani, announces a book titled simply Salinger that will be appearing next month. The authors apparently discovered new materials, and promise that there are no less than five books by Salinger still to be published, making available new materials, or old materials that were neglected before. They include a volume of stories about the Glass Family, who were the subject of most of Salinger’s late writings, Frannie and Zooey, etc.
I will of course be buying a copy, probably on Ebook, since I don’t read real books easily any more. And I will look first of all at the back, at the bibliography, to see if my name appears. As some of you know, I contributed an essay titled “Thoughts on the Death of Salinger”, which is on this website as Responses and Reminiscences 81. In it, I make an informed and (I believe) an important attempt to account for the big mystery of Salinger’s life: why he retired to become a recluse just as he was at his most successful. I would like to know whether the authors of the new book found my article, and used it. If not, I will hope that someone who has contacts with them can bring it to their attention. I would like to have it noticed, while I am still here to receive the credit.

As some of you already noticed, a number of new GIPs have been posted on my website. They were finished by my new collaborator Skip Sweeney and his helpers, and reviewed by myself to make sure they used the right pictures, etc. They include a long lecture on the great Japanese artist Sesshu in three parts, which I think is of real importance for the study of Japanese painting. In it I spend a lot of time-- the whole of the second part-- looking at what I take to be an extremely important but somehow neglected album of 22 landscapes with figures by Sesshu, in which he takes up motifs and compositional types etc., from Southern Song paintings that he saw during his two years in China (some of which he copied in extant copies that are shown and discussed in the other two lectures). And, I think, somehow makes more effective use of these materials and a more effective continuation of this great development than any artist that I know of in the Ming dynasty could do. In other words, if I am right, we have the curious phenomenon of a tradition of painting skipping over two centuries and across the water to a different culture to be continued there more than it was on its own home ground.

As with all such speculation, this one could be proved wrong if we find more Chinese material that has been neglected or unnoticed. Another of the lectures, the one on continuations of Song traditional landscape paintings, makes this point strongly-- that what we know about Chinese painting is based only on the survival, much of it chance survival, of a tiny fraction of what was really produced. And, as in so much of my late writing, I blame the Literati artists and critics for much of this neglect-- they have encouraged us to concentrate on a small fraction of Chinese painting as it was in fact produced, and neglect all the rest. As I have written elsewhere, the second half of my career has been attempts devoted to recover and reassess what we can pull together of this “lost” material.

Still another of the new GIPs deals with the question of whether, and how, Chan (Zen) painting continued in China after the Yuan dynasty, and if it did, where did it continue. My tentative conclusion, based on evidence and arguments made and presented in the lecture, is it probably survived in Chan monasteries, and was seen there by other artists such as Shen Zhou, Chen Shun, and Xu Wei, on their visits to the monasteries. And we can observe motifs from it and images from it appearing in their works-- I present several sequences of this kind. And the end product, for the purpose of this lecture, is the great individualist master Zhu Da, or Bada Shanren, who inherited this tradition in ways that I am able to show. His early handscrolls, for instance, can be closely paralleled in the handscrolls of images by Muqi that survive only in two early Ming copies, and in fragments preserved in Japan, where his paintings were properly appreciated in ways that they were not in China.
Since I am now largely confined to my bed and cannot spend long periods sitting at my computer, I am forced to continue working on this series by using a laptop computer. Sarah has provided me with one, with earphones, and I will gradually become accustomed to using it-- not so much for writing messages, since I find it difficult to type on a horizontal laptop on my bed, but rather to review drafts of the videos made by Skip Sweeney and dictate comments and corrections. I will also be viewing my emails on this laptop, and dictating responses to them.

Sincerely yours,
James Cahill

Transcendental Blog

Transcendental Blog


Regular readers of my writings-- and blessings on the few of you-- will be aware that the previous blog, the one announcing my hospitalization and illness, has been up for a very long time, and needs to be replaced. The problem has been that I haven’t been able to sit at the computer and type for long periods in my usual way. I have spent most of the time lying in bed, waited on by hired helpers, rising only occasionally to make my way, pushing my walker, into the study to sit for brief periods at the computer. I am no longer able to type long texts-- I never did master the skill of doing it with a laptop while lying down, and sitting up for long periods isn’t possible. So I have taken to dictating responses to emails and other materials into a small dictating machine that my daughter Sarah purchased for me, and then having them typed up by an assistant. Now I will try to do the same thing with this blog-- a first attempt at a dictated blog. 


A Dark Night of the Soul 


I am not sure what that phrase means, but I think I know when it happens to me, and one of them happened during one of my nights spent in Alta Bates Hospital, where I was for three nights and four days. Lying awake in the middle of the night, with no nurse there and only distant sounds audible, and after hearing some alarming news about my condition and my future, had left me in a very dark mood indeed. And then there came into my head, for some reason, of all the odd texts, a short German poem that I must have learned back in the 1940s when I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley and studying German. It is by Goethe, and goes this way:


Über allen Gipfein

Ist Ruh

In Allen Wipfein

Spürest du

Kaum einen Hauch;

Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.

Warte nur, balde

Ruhest du auch.


On all hilltops

There is peace,

In all treetops

You will hear

Hardly a breath.

Birds in the woods are silent.

Just wait, soon

You too will rest.


I remember hearing it spoken of, perhaps by my German instructor of the time, as one of the really perfect pieces of writing in the language, and indeed it is, evoking a great deal in its few words. And what it is about, and what it roused in my head, is a sense of sound, and how much my whole existence is bound up with hearing sounds in the head.

My passion for classical music began all the way back in Berkeley High School, when I spent a great deal of time listening to records along with my friends Gordon Cyr and others. But even more than music as such, it was the sound of the human voice, or the sound of a musical instrument-- the texture of the sound more than simple pitch and sequence of notes. My passion, that is, has been for certain recordings: Maggie Teyte singing Debussy songs with Alfred Cortot at the piano, or Charles Panzera signing Faure; Joseph Szigeti playing the violin; Conchita Supervia singing the “Seven Popular Spanish Songs” of De Falla. These were the high points in my musical life, and they still ring in my head. 


Unless I improve in health more than looks likely, future blogs that will appear here will have to be dictated like this one. How that will change their character, we will have to wait and see. Meanwhile, I remain hopeful.


James Cahill



Further Down Blog

This blog will be unlike any of the previous ones in that I will have to dictate it, and have it typed up, and have it posted from the corrected text.  I am no longer able to sit for long periods at my computer typing blogs and other texts, and I have never been able to use a laptop computer in bed effectively.  So this one will be dictated, and posted from the corrected typed text.

The title of this blog indicates its content: I am again quite a bit worse off than I was before.  Without going into details--I don’t want to be one of those people who entertain others with endless accounts of their health problems--I spent three nights and four days in Alta Bates Hospital here in Berkeley, and was taken to other hospitals in the East Bay to be run through, or placed under, huge machines like those in science fiction movies--when I came out, after excruciating periods within or under one of them, I almost expected the doctor to shout, “It’s alive!”  All this was to diagnose what’s wrong with me, and without relating that in detail, I have a mild form of prostate cancer that has invaded my bones.  And, while I will go on living for a while, it will keep me pretty much bedridden from here on.  I can get up and go to my computer for limited times, but I can’t sit in front of it for long periods and type the way I used to.

I am still continuing with producing and eventually posting the video lectures in the new series, the GIPs, or “Gazing into the Past” series.  Six of them were posted already under the icon at left, the one showing the man gazing down into the fog, and lots more will be posted in the near future.  They won’t necessarily be in proper numerical order--some of the later ones will be finished and posted before the earlier ones.  There are still seven or eight of the ones I did in Vancouver with Rand Chatterjee that I don’t have, and I’m waiting for him to send down in postable form.  This has been a long and complicated matter, which still isn’t over.  Meanwhile, I’m working with another filmmaker, Skip Sweeney whose company in San Francisco is called “Video Free America”.  I will continue to produce these-- another dozen or so are in progress and some close to completion--as long as my voice and mobility allow it.

For friends and former students and others who want more information about my situation, send an email and I will try to answer it--again by dictating answers and having them typed up by someone.   The bright side is that I am not in any real pain, except a certain exasperation over declining mobility and the necessity of staying in bed much of the time.

And I enjoy the services of a number of people: notably my daughter Sarah, but also my helper Katie Coffey, and full time helpers from an agency.  So I must continue to count my blessings.  I should add that my twin sons Julian and Benedict were down here for a brief time before flying back to Vancouver and on to China to join their mother there.  They will be coming back for a longer period later in the summer, and perhaps be here for my birthday.  They have now graduated from St. George’s School in Vancouver, the very good (and very expensive) school to which they have been going from fourth grade on.  Julian will be enrolling at NYU in New York to study to be a film technician--not a director, but someone who works with the sound and lighting aspects of film.  Benedict will be in a pre-med program here at UC Berkeley, living in a dormitory, but visiting me more often. He means to be some kind of doctor.

So in the long run, as I say, I continue to count my blessings: progeny and grandchildren who are all healthy, smart and interesting people; lots of help; and other blessings too many to enumerate.

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