Johns Hopkins Magazine - November 1994 Issue

Humanities and the Arts

Yearning for home, etc.

The last of Providence?

When Jean McGarry published Airs of Providence nine years ago, she thought she had finished with stories set in working-class Providence, Rhode Island. But seated at a small table in the Caf‚ Diana across from the Homewood campus, McGarry picks up a copy of her newest book, Home at Last, and says, "This is like Airs of Providence redux."

The dozen stories in Home at Last (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), like their counterparts in Airs, came out of her memories and contemplation of growing up in the blue-collar Irish-Catholic city. To the extent that a common theme runs through them, they examine characters who yearn for home--but the metaphorical home, that ideal sanctuary of warmth and security and love. Their real homes are the messy domiciles of everyday life, with secrets, shame, loss, mysteries, rivalries, deeply buried tensions, and complex relationships that defy most attempts to smooth them out.

In "The Sacrifice," for example, an aging mother moves in with one of her three daughters, who is now 40 years old and living with her boyfriend. As mom settles in, their roles and identities subtly reverse: the daughter begins to seem old and conservative and burdened, while the mother begins to act younger, getting her hair permed, inspecting herself nude in the mirror, trying new recipes, and realizing that although she'd been married, she'd never really had a boyfriend. When the younger woman finds her mother playfully standing in an open upstairs window, letting rain blow in to soak herself and the floor, she loses her temper. Out pours her previously suppressed and perhaps unacknowledged resentment at being the "good" daughter, the one who has made the sacrifice of inviting her mother to move in.

Says McGarry, an associate professor in The Writing Seminars, "These stories are all an attempt to understand the other point of view."

Sometimes, McGarry says, creation begins for her with a phrase or a sentence. "The Raft," for example, began with her writing the cryptic opening line, "First his father died by falling out of a window in his feathered hat." Why had he fallen, she asked herself, and what was he doing wearing a feathered hat? The story grew into an account of a young boy's memories of his father's suicide after a Memorial Day parade.

Lately, though, objects have inspired some of her works. McGarry says, "A certain remembered object seems to contain a family problem. Or maybe doesn't contain it, but starts me on a pathway."

McGarry began writing about working-class Providence, she says, because after she left the city at age 18, "I could never explain to anyone what that life had been like." She notes that her Rhode Island stories have not always been well-received in her hometown. She says some people there consider it arrogant of her to write about Providence after having lived her adult life somewhere else. She responds, "I think it's easier to write about a place that you have intimate knowledge of from childhood, and then only sporadic contact with from then on."

When she finished Home at Last, McGarry again believed she was through with this material. Now she's not so sure; more short stories keep emerging from her years in Rhode Island. Her next published work, though, will be a novel about the newspaper business. The book is finished and in the hands of her agent. It's her second novel, and she's also published a couple of novellas, but she says, "I think I like the short story better. Stories can be works of art. I don't think novels are."

She pauses, stirring her iced coffee, then adds, "Except maybe Virginia Woolf's novels."--Dale Keiger

Spellcheck humor

Computers may not possess genuine human intelligence, but at least one computer at Hopkins seems to have strong opinions regarding philosophy. A Hopkins writer recently completed a draft of a story and ran it through a spellcheck program. When the program came to the name of French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, it stopped on "Jacques," which it did not recognize as a correctly spelled word.

Then it suggested an alternative: "Jackass."--DK

Medieval sex from five perspectives

Professor of history John Baldwin has been working for some time on a study of the chivalric ethos of medieval knights. But when he came to a planned chapter on love, he ended up taking a detour and writing a separate book about medieval discourses on sexuality.

The Language of Sex: Five Voices from Northern France around 1200 (University of Chicago Press, 1994) examines a quintet of discourses on sexuality from 13th-century France. Baldwin's approach is unique in that it combines clerical and lay perspectives. "Up to this point, medieval sexuality has been studied exclusively from the clerical point of view," says the author. "This book changes that."

Baldwin takes for his texts five forms that were contemporaneous in 13th-century France. "I didn't want people talking to each other over centuries, but people talking at the same time."

To present the theologic tradition of Augustine, Baldwin examines the writings of Pierre the Chanter, chanter of the cathedral of Notre-Dame, and two of his students. An anonymous medical text, Prose Salernitan Questions, articulates the medical perspective derived from Galen. The third voice is that of Andr‚, chaplain to the French king, who wrote a Latin treatise on love in the classical tradition of Ovid for clerics who frequented the schools and aristocratic courts.

For the lay point of view, Baldwin turned to the vernacular romances of Jean Renart, composed for the entertainment of aristocratic ladies and courtiers. But he found that Renart offered a strictly romantic vision of sexuality that Baldwin likens to pre-World War II Hollywood movies. He wanted an additional, more earthy voice, and found that in the fabliaux, the raunchy stories used to entertain townsfolk and the lower aristocracy.

Baldwin found fascinating convergences and divergences. The Catholic church, of course, regarded sex strictly in terms of procreation; desire was concupiscience, therefore sinful. The clergy tried to exert control over the sex lives of their parishioners, but could not control discourse about sex. "The Church failed completely in that," Baldwin says. As evidence he cites the popular fabliaux, ribald tales in which not only the parishioners were randy--so were the priests. And he points out that the medical text, though it does not come right out and disagree with the church, presents as an alternative the idea that sexual desire is natural and necessary. Without fail, each discourse, lay or clerical, expresses disdain or condemnation for homosexuality, he says.

Something that surprised Baldwin is the measure of equality women enjoyed in matters of sexuality. French society in the 1200s was pervasively patriarchal. But Baldwin says these discourses portray women on equal footing with men in the bedroom. "In the period before 1215, I found an unusual willingness to consider a sort of equilibrium between the sexes in sexual matters," he says. "I believe that as the century wore on, this equality disappeared." He notes that Aristotle's idea of the woman as merely the nourisher of the male seed gradually won out over Galen's theory that male and female seed combined to create a child; as Aristotle gained ground, Baldwin says, women lost.

"This sort of book would not have been written 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago," says Baldwin. "History has broadened its scope. We used to write mainly about politics and economics. It's only in recent years that we've approached matters of sexuality directly."--DK

Queer theory on the Internet

PhD candidate Tyler Stevens, who is teaching a course this semester on "Problematics of Identity in Lesbian, Gay and Straight Sexuality," has founded an Internet newsgroup to conduct some aspects of the class electronically.

Stevens, a Dean's Teaching Fellow in the English department, says the newsgroup is in part an administrative convenience, allowing him to post homework assignments, class schedules, and other information. But he hopes for more than that. His class is examining issues of gender and identity, and he says the Internet has prompted people to consider identity in a new light. On the Net, he points out, there is no face-to-face contact, no revealing voice on a telephone. If they choose to, men can pass themselves off as women, gays as straights, straight women as gay men. Stevens expects his students, through their use of the Net, to think about and discuss how computers are changing ideas about what constitutes a person's identity. "We're starting to lose the idea that we have definite identities," he says.

"I also want to use the Internet to develop critical skills," he says. An electronic newsgroup is a purely written form of interaction, one that places a premium on linear thought presented in concise written paragraphs, he notes. "It's interaction, but at a much slower pace than in a classroom."

An additional benefit: anyone wired into the university's network can drop in on the group, which is designated jhu.class.queer_theory. Says Stevens, "I expect people will be reading and perhaps responding from other classes."-- DK

Profile: Finding the Fire

At age 31, Peabody Prep alumnus Cyrus Chestnut has embarked on a career as a major jazz pianist--something he isn't taking for granted.

As Cyrus Chestnut ambled across the auditorium stage of the Brooklyn Museum one Sunday afternoon last August, he must have been aware that he had a situation on his hands. Some 400 people had gathered for what was to be an open-air performance, part of the museum's summer jazz series. But they had been herded inside when the sky turned a fiendish gray and a downpour seemed imminent. In the half hour that elapsed while the stage crew readied things for the relocated show, the mood in the auditorium had grown tense. All seats were filled; people leaned against walls and sat in the aisles. The air was uncomfortably warm.

When Chestnut finally appeared, preceded by bassist Steve Kirby and drummer Clarence Penn, he nodded humbly to the crowd and walked toward the piano, where he deposited his large, elegant form on the bench. Tapping his microphone sheepishly, he said, "I guess I better do some playing, huh?"

Ten seconds later, the trio was on fire. "Kattin," the first song of the set, found Chestnut weaving line upon line of perfectly constructed melodic runs with his right hand, often at astonishing speed, which he offset with the nimble oomph of his left, all the while building and unraveling tensions with an easy, unstudied sophistication. As the three players communicated with smiles and bits of sly body language, the room at times felt as if it were changing shape to accommodate the rich, protean sounds that poured from the stage. At the conclusion of the next piece, during which Chestnut had overwhelmed the keyboard as if it were a vicious animal he were attempting to subdue, the room erupted into applause, a virtual tornado of sound. Chestnut looked up in surprise, then smiled. This crowd was hooked.

At 31, Cyrus Chestnut already appears to have embarked on a career as a major jazz pianist. For several years after graduating from Boston's Berklee School (this following nine years in Peabody's Prep Program), he found work wherever he could, playing lounges at night and holding day jobs in and around Baltimore--at the Sewell Plastics bottle factory, or delivering flowers. Eventually he started to get gigs with headline acts: Wynton Marsalis, drummer Carl Allen, and trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Then, in 1990, he received one of the most coveted telephone calls in jazz: an invitation to audition with Betty Carter, the virtuoso jazz singer known both for launching careers and for her formidable reputation as a taskmaster on stage. ("She knows exactly what she wants," Chestnut observes, "and she'll get it from you one way or the other.") He worked with her for three years, appeared on her outstanding 1992 album It's Not About the Melody (Verve), and formed his own trio in between gigs.

That experience done, Chestnut decided to move full time into the world of bandleaders. His first American solo album, Revelation (Atlantic), appeared earlier this year (he has recorded two in Japan), and quickly launched him into a sort of prominence. Comprised of trios and solo performances, most of them his own compositions, Revelation has enjoyed airplay at jazz stations around the country and consistently high postings on Billboard's list of bestselling jazz albums. It has also evoked praise from influential jazz critics: down beat gave it a four-star review. Peter Watrous of The New York Times recently called Chestnut "an overwhelming soloist" and "an exciting improviser," and The Village Voice's Gary Giddins wrote that the agile pianist's "trajectory will be well worth following." All told, not a bad showing for a first record.

Chestnut sees things differently. Less than an hour after the museum performance ended in a standing ovation, he is driving his small Ford station wagon through the streets of Brooklyn, explaining the shakiness of his position in the jazz community. "You hear about it all the time with young musicians," he says. "People say, 'Okay, he's done one record. He can play a little bit, he can write a little. But is he for real?' The first record is good, it's done, but now I've got to prove myself."

Watching Chestnut, listening to him talk, it is difficult to see any of the awkwardness of his musical youth--the boy prodigy from Baltimore who played four instruments in the North Harford High School band only because the band director snagged him before he could try out for the football team. Beginning with piano lessons from his father (on an unusual 64-key piano), Chestnut started playing at the Mount Calgary Star Baptist Church--piano at age 7, organ at 9 (once his feet could reach the pedals). Though he had an excellent local piano teacher, Ada Jenkins, he says his parents (both accomplished church musicians) played a central part in his musical education, particularly in church.

"It was great ear training," he recalls, "because I had to play the opening service, the testimony service. Everyone would get up and sing, speak about the week, speak about their trials and tribulations, and tell how the good Lord had brought them through. When anybody started singing, I had to start playing. I had to pick it out, and I had to listen. If they changed tunes, if they changed time, I had to do it."

Wasn't that a little unnerving for a 7-year-old? "If I didn't do it," he recalls, "oh Lord, would I get it." Here Chestnut knots up his face and delivers a scolding imitation of his mother: "'Why weren't you playing behind her? You're supposed to be there playing, so play the piano. Don't just sit there.'" With a chuckle, he adds, "It was fun, great fun."

Chestnut's years at Peabody Prep gave him a grounding in fundamentals--he played his way through works by Beethoven, Chopin, and Bach, as well as those of Debussy and Couperin-- and also made him realize that he wanted to be an improviser, more in control of the performance. "Music is powerful," he says, "and don't let anybody tell you that it isn't. It can make an impact on humankind. On any night, maybe there's somebody in the audience having a bad time--they're upset, they're disgruntled. If we go out there and work hard, and we work real hard, we can lift up their spirits. What happens? Maybe some guy doesn't go home and beat on his wife. He'll go home with a smile on his face."

In the face of such idealism, practical matters still linger. Just two days after his museum concert, Chestnut was to begin a weeklong stand at the Village Vanguard--preparation for the recording of his second album the following week. He is determined to make this one stand out. "I'm glad people liked the first record," he says. "But I wasn't crazy about a lot of my playing on it. I made it during the end of my time with Betty, and you can hear a lot of Betty on it. This next one's going to have more of me in it, and this time it's going to go forward. I'm looking for that fire that builds up, when you don't know what is going to happen."

Chuckling, then serious, he adds, "I really hope to be able to play five minutes of piano before I die, just five minutes when I can be totally satisfied. But I hope it doesn't happen anytime soon."--T.H. Kern '92

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