Ray Carney Moment of the Day #15

July 19, 2011

Richard Pryor

Dear Prof. Carney,

Several months ago in the mailbag, back on page 43, you posted the following:

I love something Freeman Dyson once wrote. He was asked about SETI, the project to communicate with alien intelligences, extraterrestrials, and what we should beam back if we ever heard a signal from out there. He said something like: “If we want to get their attention, we should stream Bach, all of Bach, out into the universe. Of course, we would be bragging.”

I’m curious, hypothetically, what examples you would beam up in the way of film, writing, painting, and dance to show the range of human emotion on Earth (of course, Bach is a given). I know you’re not into favorites or top tens, but I’m interested in how you would communicate the range of “humanness” through our works of art by our best artists. How to best communicate to an alien intelligence what it means to be human? Maybe this is an impossible-to-answer question, but I’m asking and wondering about it anyway. What does it mean to be “human?”


RC replies:

Dear M,

A delightful cheesecake of a question. I mean it’s like contemplating the dessert menu at a French restaurant, and being told you can order everything you want at the same time. The usual disclaimers apply of course: Any selection I suggest will be partial and unfair and subject to all sorts of spur-of-the-moment biases – but here’s a quick, top-of-the-head, tip-of-the-tongue go at a “Top Ten” list of the ages for you.

1. Rembrandt’s self-portraits, including and climaxing with the Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul. (A postscript: Regular site visitor Marty thoughtfully sent in this url for readers who are interested in looking at some of the self-portraits on the internet. If you can’t see the paintings in person, I recommend spending some time clicking around on this web page, or better yet, buying a book that contains reproductions of these paintings. There are several available. The 100 Rembrandt self-portraits tell the story of a life, a culture, and a soul, as deeply as it has ever been depicted. They represent one of the most profound and searching studies of the human spirit ever conducted by a human being.)

2. J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Keyboard Concertos, Violin Concertos, Well-Tempered Clavier, and Goldberg Variations.

3. George Balanchine’s Jewels (Emeralds, Rubies, Diamonds), Serenade, Agon, The Four Temperaments, and Stravinsky Violin Concerto.

4. Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy, Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring, Robert Bresson’s Femme Douce and Lancelot of the Lake, Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath and Ordet, John Cassavetes’ Faces, Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, and Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky.

5. Mozart’s piano concertos, everything from K.271 on, and his late symphonies, from number 35, the “Haffner” on.

6. All of the novels and short stories Henry James wrote between 1896 and 1909.

7. Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu.

8. Shakespeare’s Othello, Hamlet, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest, and Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, and The Three Sisters.

9. Verdi’s operas (no time to choose which ones).

10. Emerson’s Essays.

Oh, I’m so sorry, I’m doing a terrible job at this. I just can’t limit myself to ten entries. I’ve left out some of the most amazing stuff! So here are a few more things that have to be broadcast into eternity, a few more genius-level performances to be preserved forever and ever:

11. Haydn’s String Quartets, from around Opus 33 on.

12. All of Louis Armstrong’s work with “The Hot Sevens” and “The Hot Fives.”

13. Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements and Symphony in C.

14. Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Euclid’s Elements (less for its truth than its beauty, its content than its form).

15. The complete stand-up comedy recordings of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor.

Well, I’ve still not really finished. Too many other masterworks remain. But I better stop before I can’t. Gives new meaning to “Ars longa, vita brevis!” But regarding your reference to the “others” out there: Don’t worry. They have already read, viewed, listened to, all of this and more. They’re not so stupid as the NASA/JPL scientists suppose. They don’t need a Carl Sagan etch-a-sketch drawing of a man and a woman sent in their direction to know what makes the world go round.
– R.C.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: