Romeo and Juliet in frame
“All great love ends in death,” Stuart said.

“Maybe in literature, but not in real life,” I said.

“Yes. All love ends in death. On one hand, sometimes it’s love that dies and then you are stuck. But even if love doesn’t die, the lovers do.”

“You mean like Romeo and Juliet?” I asked.

“Yes, like Romeo and Juliet. Like Tristan and Isolde.”

“But can’t love end happily?” I put forward that possibility; I’ve been married 30 years.

“Yes, but even the most successful love ends in death,” Stuart said. “Either for one or the other and eventually, both. They may be 80 years old, but eventually, love ends in death.”

“Oh. I see what you mean. It’s a trick. Like a trick question.”

“No, it’s not a trick, except that it is a trick the universe plays on all of us. I don’t mean it as a trick.

“Romeo didn’t have to die the way he did,” Stuart went on, “but he had to die eventually. Even if they got married and lived long lives, he would have to die some time, and then, Juliet loses him anyway.”

It is the underlying metaphor of all tragic love stories, he thought. His own, for instance. Stuart had never seen a great gulf between literature and his own life. Others, well, they may be banal and ordinary, but his own life had all the electricity of a great book or epic myth.

The one thing that separated Stuart most from the accountants and dentists of the world was that he recognized in himself the hero of his own life — the sense that he was the main character in a story of infinite significance. When something happened to Stuart, it happened to the universe.

The joke was, of course, that this is true. But there was a stinger, too: Although it was true, the universe is so vast that no matter how big it was to Stuart, it added up to zilch in the big picture.

“That is truly depressing,” I made a sour face.

“But that is not the real issue,” Stuart said. “The real issue is the frame.”

“The frame?”

“Yes. This is something I’ve been wondering about for a while. Every comedy ends in a marriage, it is said. The curtain drops and the audience goes home enjoying the happy ending.

“But, if we followed Beatrice and Benedick after the end of the play, in a few years, at least, there would be divorce — or more likely, murder. Happy endings are always provisional. So, there is an artificiality to comedies that is ineradicable. The happiest comedy, if drawn out to the uttermost, ends in dissolution.”Raphael

“So, you’re saying that the frame — the curtain — reveals any art as an artifice.”

“Yes. And not just in theater. Take the photographs of Garry Winogrand. We are meant to see the frame — the edge of the photograph — as an arbitrary border drawn around some episode, but beyond the frame, there are other people doing other things. This has become something of a trope in photography.

“It used to be that we understood the frame in a painting — say a Renaissance crucifixion, or a Madonna — as merely the point at which our interest in the visual matter evaporates. It is the Christ or Virgin that sits in the middle that is meant as an object of contemplation. A frame could be larger or smaller and still contain the essential action.Tintoretto, La crocifissione, Sala dell'albergo, Scuola di San R

“In Baroque painting, there is often the growing sense that the frame cannot contain the action, but that there is something worth knowing just beyond the edge. That sense has become central in certain strains of contemporary photography. winograndA photograph may contain an image of someone looking back at the camera, over the photographer’s shoulder, at something behind him that we can never see.

“The first kind of frame serves as a kind of fence, or corral in which the important information is contained. The second is more like a cookie cutter, which sticks into the welter of existence and excises this small bit for us to consider.

“That is the frame, the ‘beginning, middle and end’ that gives us such satisfaction in a play or opera.”

My concern at this point is that I could see that Stuart was unwinding his own life from the bobbin, and holding it out in his fingers to examine, and what he was finding was deflating. What set Stuart apart from most people was about to be undone. siegfried

I had known Stuart since college, and what made him glow from the inside was not just his energy — or jittery intelligence — but his sense that he was the star in his own movie. Or rather, that he saw in himself a larger, mythological version of himself playing out among the chess pieces of the universe. He was Siegfried voyaging down the Rhine; he was Odysseus; he was stout Cortez.

Don’t misunderstand, please. He was never grandiose — in his exterior behavior, he was as normal as you or me. But inside, was something larger, bursting to get out. He saw the world swirling the way Van Gogh did. For Stuart, every bush was the burning bush. Take away that internal furnace, and what would be left of Stuart? He would have grown up. Not something that any of us who knew him would wish for.van gogh

“This is the fundamental fallacy of American conservatism,” he went on, making another 90-degree turn.

“They seek to enforce a static vision of society, of law, of human behavior. They keep telling us, that if only we would do things their way, everything would finally be peach-hunky, into eternity — the happy ending that we know (and they don’t admit) is always provisional. They see a — excuse me for the exaggeration — ‘final solution’ for something that has no finality to it.

“Politics — real politics — is always the flux of contending interests. You want this, I want that, and we wind up compromising. Conservatives see compromise as surrender, precisely because they see politics with a frame. Get the picture right, and then it is done. Deficits are erased; the wealthy get to keep what is rightfully theirs; order is established. It is the underlying metaphor of all Shakespeare’s plays: The establishment of lasting, legitimate order, final harmony. stew

“Only, we know that after Fortinbras takes over, there will be insurgencies, dynastic plots, other invasions, a claim by mainland Danes over island-dwelling Danes, or questions of where tax money is going. It is never ending. Fortinbras is only a temporary way-station.

“Existence is a seething, roiling cauldron and sometimes this bit of onion and carrot comes to the surface, and sometimes it is something else. It is never finished, there is no frame, no beginning, middle and end.”

“So, where does this leave poor Juliet?”

“Juliet?”

“Yes, where does this leave us all, we who are all bits of carrot. We who are married for 30 years, we who entered the field of contention, worked for our required decades and left the battlefield to become Nestors — or Poloniuses. All this washes over us and we see that, in fact, we have a frame. Existence may not have one, but I do. I am getting old. 67th birthdayI just turned 67 and I feel it. And I know that my Juliet will die, or I will go before her. We do have, in fact, a frame, a curtain that draws down and leaves us — as Homer says — in darkness.”

“Exactly,” Stuart said, “and this is my point. Every one of us lives two very different lives. You can call them the external and internal lives. The first is the life in which we share the planet with 7 billion others. We are a tiny, insignificant cog in the giant machine. The second is the mythic life, the life we see ourselves as central to, in which we are the heroes of our own novels or movies, and everyone we know is a supporting actor. If we live only in the first life, we are crushed and spit out. But if we live only in the second life, we are solipsists. Sane people manage to balance the two lives. A beautiful counterpoint.

“We are most engulfed by that second life when we fall in love. We are certain that we invented this condition. No one else has ever felt what we feel. It’s comic, of course, but it is also profound. Without this feeling, life is unbearable. We have to have meaning, and meaning is created by how we imagine ourselves.

“Politics hovers oddly in the intersection of these two worlds. We need to sober up and consider the other 7 billion people if we are to create useful policy, but we mythologize those who lead us, and those who lead do so most effectively when they mirror back some version of mythology. The most extreme example I can think of is Nazism in Germany. A whole nation bought into the fantasy. Disaster follows.

“But all ideology is ultimately built on mythology: on a version of the world with one or two simple dimensions, when existence is multi-dimensional. The political myth is always a myth of Utopia, whether right-wing or left-wing. And it is always a static myth: Racism ends and everything is great, or government spending is curtailed and everything is great. That simply isn’t the way existence is.”

“The world is always bigger and more varied than our understanding of it, and it will always come back to whack us upside the haid.”

“Right. The conservative sees the world only with his ego eyes, not from outside himself. That frame — his death — is something he cannot see beyond. There is something egoistic about conservatism. Often selfish, also, but the selfishness isn’t the problem, it is the egoism — the frame they put around the world, the static sense of what is finally right — the so-called end of history. In this, the conservative — or at least the tin-foil-hat variety — is no different from the dyed-in-the-wool Communist. Both see the establishment of their Utopia as the endgame of human existence.” hubert robert

“You’ve been reading Ovid again.”

“How did you know?”

“The Pythagoras chapter.”

“Right again. Panta Horein, as Heraclitus said: ‘Everything is flowing.’ As Ovid has it, even landscapes change over time, and Hercules’ brawn withers and Helen’s breasts sag. Cities grow and are demolished; Mycenae gives way to Athens, to Alexandria, to Rome, to Byzantium and Baghdad, then to London and now to Washington, with Beijing waiting in the hopper. ‘Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?’ “

“How’s that?”

In saecula saeculorum: World without frame.”

 

ITR-PCL-00051429
If one takes the long view of history, recent events often turn out to be part of larger patterns, or “themes” of history. Nowadays, for instance, we can see World War II as the completion of World War I. And we can see World War I as the natural continuation — a flare up — of the same thing that caused the Thirty Years War of the 17th Century. These things can smolder for centuries, like a peat fire, and flare up when local events add oxygen.

It is important to understand the long view on history if you want to find a lasting solution to current problems. You don’t treat heart disease by prescribing an aspirin for chest pain.

I don’t want to make unrealistic claims for this. The local symptoms do need to be addressed and the current situation needs to be handled in a way that deals with the contemporary realities of the case.

But we will only make things worse if we act in a knee-jerk fashion with no understanding of the complexity of events.

The underlying mistrust between the European or Western world and the Islamic world can be traced back at least as far as the 11th Century, when Pope Urban II called for a crusade to wrest the Holy Land from the infidel.

It was the European version of a jihad or holy war. In calling for the war to “liberate” Jerusalem, the Pope declared, “It is the will of God.”

Over the next several centuries, European armies contended with “pagan” armies over the region, winning some and losing some. The horrors of that time, and the crimes of the crusaders are well recorded and nowadays would certainly be understood as war crimes, even terrorism.Ninth Crusade

When they first conquered Jerusalem in 1099, the crusaders slaughtered some 40,000 Muslims and Jews who lived in the city.

Yet, the Moslem defenders don’t get off the hook, either. They committed their own series of atrocities. It was a time that didn’t reflect well on the humanity of either side.

Each side was certain of its rectitude and each side knew that divinity was backing them against the unbelievers.

The contested borders of Christianity and Islam continued long after.

Indeed, the problems in the Balkans recapitulated the battles in Kosovo during the 14th and 15th centuries between the Muslim Turks and the Christian Serbs. acropolis mosque

The World Trade Center isn’t even the first well-known building to be destroyed by the enmity. In 1687, the Venetians were fighting the Ottoman Turks when they managed to blow up the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens. Before then the old temple had survived relatively intact for more than 2,000 years.

It is important to recognize that it isn’t merely a battle for territory, like many intra-European disagreements.

The two sides have fundamentally different world views.

Which means that in another sense, the roots of the current attack go back well before the Crusades and begin in the Persian Wars of the Aegean in the Fifth Century B.C.

It was during those conflicts between ancient Greece and Persia that the defining difference between East and West was first, and principally defined.

Up until then, wars were largely fought between sides claiming to be bigger and better than their foes. The biggest monkey kept the banana.

But the Greeks defined themselves against the Persians as an idea. The Greeks — and their historical progeny in Europe — have tended to think of themselves as free, as democratic and as rational and have seen their counterparts in the East as despotic, uncivilized slave societies.

We’re not claiming that this is literally true. There is barbarity and nobility to go around.

But the West has largely thought of itself in these terms, even when in fact it didn’t measure up. Persia is now Iran.

We still see this battle with terrorism as one of “freedom and democracy” against the blind superstition of unreasoning fanatics.

And when Vice President Joe Biden was still a senator, and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, put it even more directly.

“This is not a struggle over ideology. This is not a struggle over religion. This is a struggle between civilization and barbarity.”

These are the very terms the Greeks used in describing their war with Darius and Xerxes.

I am not suggesting that the Islamic world is barbaric, but that we have set up the terms of the argument in this old language, learned from the Fifth Century B.C.

But there is this kernel of truth to the matter: The West has come largely to believe that the purpose of government is the well-ordered organization of society — a belief they hold even in its breach. Meanwhile, the East has seen government as settling the issue of “who’s in charge.”

For the West, the theoretical end of political desirability is “benevolent anarchy” — such as that called for by Libertarians and “shrunken-government” Republicans, while for the East, the same theoretical end is the “benevolent theocracy,” centralized rule that preserves societal order.

The two systems are at such fundamental loggerheads that we mistake the meaning of such words as “democracy” when uttered from across the cultural divide. They mean something different by the word.

It is this difference, cooked long and slow by history, that must be taken into account when we seek to solve global problems.

It is what worries me when I hear even university presidents declare the obsolescence of the humanities, and when I hear the appalling lack of historical knowledge held by American students — to say nothing of a political leadership that has no more historical memory than last week’s car bombing. Those who refuse to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

And it is what worries me when I hear increasingly bludgeoned rhetoric from our lower-grade politicians — “the windiest militant trash” — looking for quick and easy revenge.

They are missing the point. I am reminded of the lines by W.H. Auden:

I and the public know/ What all schoolchildren learn,/ Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return.”

 

TS Eliot
This year is the centennial of the publication of T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” And the long view is that Eliot was the greatest, most influential poet of the 20th century, at least, in the English language.poetry june 1915 2

But oddly, he seems to have written only seven poems.

Along with “Prufrock” and “The Wasteland,” there are the “Four Quartets” and “The Hollow Men” — the last surely one of his weakest poems, whose popularity appeals to the shallow cynicism of pimpled adolescence. Beyond that — and not counting the ubiquity of the “Old Pussum” poems, for which the posthumous Eliot must be sorely embarrassed — the rest of his oeuvre is something read by graduate students. How many, after all, have actually read “Ash Wednesday” or the Choruses from “The Rock?”

It isn’t that these poems aren’t good, or aren’t worth studying or reading, but they haven’t stuck with us, while everyone can quote or misquote, “not with a bang but a whimper” and “April is the cruelest month.”

This isn’t to denigrate Eliot or his importance. I love reading through “Burnt Norton” over and over, or “The Dry Salvages.” But rather to illustrate a common point of art and culture.

After all, we hold William Wordsworth up to be one of English literature’s most exulted poets, maybe the greatest since Milton, yet, beyond the “Intimations Ode” and “Tintern Abbey,” and a few sonnets and Lucy poems, and maybe some notable passages from the interminable “Prelude,” how much of the vast output of that poet ever gets read outside of class?

I have a special place in my heart for Coleridge. I read and reread with intense pleasure a handful of his poems. “This Lime Tree Bower My Prison,” “Kubla Khan,” “Frost at Midnight,” “Tale of the Ancient Mariner” — but beyond that, how much of his work comes off as fustian.

Even Shakespeare, who wrote some 40 plays, is known to most of us through the “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth” we studied in high school, and the “Hamlet,” “Lear,” or “Henry IV, Part I” we read in college. And perhaps there was that “Twelfth Night” put on by the college drama department. The bulk of his output languisheth in obscurity.

It’s not just in poetry. How many of us have read Melville’s “White Jacket” or “Israel Potter?” Or Thoreau’s “Week on the Concord and Merrimac?” Vitruvian Man

And not just in literature. Leonardo drew and painted many things, but the “Mona Lisa” and the Vitruvian Man outweigh all the ladies in Ermine or Madonnas of the rock.

Beethoven has his Fifth Symphony and his “Ode to Joy.” Warhol has his soup cans and his Marilyns. Even Springsteen has his “Born to Run” and “Born in the USA.”

The life and work of almost everyone gets boiled down to a few most characteristic and often the few best works. The rest, like the Latin poems of John Milton, are left to specialists.

In the preface to his “Collected Poems,” Wystan Auden makes this point with some clarity and poignancy.

The work of every author falls into four classes, he wrote. In the first is “pure rubbish,” which he regrets ever having conceived. (Although, I would say from experience, he doesn’t always recognize this at the time). auden

Second, Auden says, are the good ideas that come to naught through incompetence or impatience.

Third, are “those pieces he has nothing against except their lack of importance: these must inevitably form the bulk of any collection.”

This is the journeyman work, competent, even pleasing, and certainly better than lesser talents could accomplish, but still, it is the “filler” portion of a life’s work.

Finally, there are “those poems for which he is honestly grateful,” which, if he were to limit his publication to these alone, “his volume would be too depressingly slim.”

And, I would add, an impoverishment to doctoral students everywhere.

There are higher and lower batting averages among artists and writers, but, even the best hitters fail seven out of 10 tries. It is humbling.

More to the point, it isn’t just the author who feels gratitude for the home runs of his or her production, but we readers, listeners, seers and participants. We are those who feel our inner lives buoyed by the “Intimations Ode” or Chaucer’s prologue, or Van Gogh’s wheatfields.van gogh wheatfield

house
The Seine  river loops northwest out of Paris into the rich, green French countryside of Normandy. The river is contained by low parallel ridges of hills on either side that form a kind of geologic sluice guiding the flow of the river toward Le Havre  and the ocean.

Some 50  miles from Paris, near the provincial town of Vernon,  the River Epte joins the Seine, although to call the Epte a river is to exaggerate.

It is hardly more than a creek.

Nothing would make one notice this tiny riverine junction, if it were not that Claude Monet chose this area to live, to paint, and to create one of the most celebrated gardens in the world.path

The great Impressionist painter moved to the hamlet of Giverny (Zhee-vair-nee) in 1883, and from then until his death in 1926,  he cultivated the kind of garden that made his home a modern Eden. Even now it is as much pilgrimage destination as tourist attraction.giverny village street

“Once settled, I hope to produce masterpieces,” Monet wrote his dealer when he first came to Giverny, “because I like the countryside very much.”

Monet settled on a two-acre parcel of land that sloped from the center of the village down toward the small branch of the Epte that runs parallel to the road. There he set up house with his second wife, Alice Hoschedé, and their combined brood. It was a bustling bourgeois home, full of bustles and lace, children and cakes.flower 1

The house still exists: an odd old farmhouse, it is only one room wide and long as a barn, made of pink stucco, with forest green shutters and doors.

Each room is painted in its special color – the kitchen is blue and the dining room is brilliant yellow. Monet had little use for beige.clos normande from window

Outside is the “clos Normand,”  or the Norman enclosure, where Monet immediately began planting his garden, “so that there would be flowers to paint on rainy days,” he wrote.

But the garden took over. By the time he set to work on the great waterlily paintings that he gave to the nation as a gift, he had six gardeners on his staff.flower 2

Thousands each year make the pilgrimage to Giverny. They want to see where Monet worked; they want to see the waterlilies that he made into icons of art. But the gardens still retain their independence: There are those who visit not because of the painter, but because of the flowers themselves.

Monet’s property has become one of the greatest gardens in the world.

In the summer, the place is crowded, but in the spring and fall, the tourists fade away and you can have the grounds to yourself, or nearly so.flowers against wall

One would think that in the middle of October, when the rains are already cold on your skin, the flowers would have died away, but it is not true.

Even then, the clos Normand is riot with the yellows of sunflowers, the reds of dahlias, the blues of asters and the pinks of cosmos. The garden paths are choked with flowers.clos normande

It was an effect that Monet sought: that weedy nature should take over the place, luxuriant in growth.

The formal French garden, as you find it in Versailles or the Tuileries, is orderly and tamed. Square and round plots, with a grid of garden path between. Every flower marches in rank and file, as if their gardeners were drill sergeants.clutter

In distinction, the English garden gives us a different vision of nature.

There, the meandering forest paths take us past informally planted shrubbery and flower beds, to provide the illusion that we are not in a garden at all, but rather walking through some especially lush bit of wildness.flower 3

Monet’s garden is a hybrid of these: The paths are rectilinear and formal, but the plants have taken over, spreading out over the footways, up into the air and intertwined with each other. There is a formal layout, but a rich chaos of growth defeating the formality. It creates the illusion of a patch of garden left untended so the flowers grow rampant.

The effect is still overpowering. Instead of looking down at patches of roses or dahlia, they instead grow up to nose-height, so they force their aroma into your nostrils. They rise to eye level as you walk the paths.

They hang overhead and dangle down at you.greenhouse

One cannot help but recall the stanza by Andrew Marvell:

“What wondrous life is this I lead!

Ripe apples drop about my head;

The luscious clusters of the vine

Upon my mouth do crush their wine;

The nectarine and curious peach

Into my hands themselves do reach;

Stumbling on melons as I pass,

Insnared  with flowers, I fall on grass.”flower 4

The present gardens are a miracle. After Monet’s death, his family dispersed and eventually left the old homestead to ruin. The gardens fell untended, the house sprung leaks.

As the great art critic John Rewald  wrote, “Rodents – as undernourished as the local inhabitants (at the end of World War II) – had gnawed away the roots of the plants in and around the pond. The waters had stopped flowing – it was a dried-out, devastated, heartbreaking site. Nothing was left but the memory of past glories and the paintings of Monet, of which quite a few were still in the house and others in the studios, where some of the skylights were broken.”house 2

The artist’s son, Michel,  hadn’t lived there for decades and showed little interest in keeping the place up. When he died, in 1966,  he bequeathed both estate and paintings to the French Academy of Fine Arts.  The grounds were slowly restored and the gardens replanted, taking as their guides the many paintings and photographs that had documented the place.flower 5

And in 1980,  the gardens were opened to the public, nearly 100 years after Monet first started planting bulbs.

Modern visitors find a large parking lot south of the gardens, within easy walking distance. The entrance to the garden takes them first through the large studio Monet had built to paint his large waterlilies in. It is now also the gift shop. Through that and into the clos Normand, you get your first view of the long shotgun house, covered in vines and flowers.red flowers

The clos is gridded with pathways, skied-in with trellises and arches and splattered with the petal-dots of color.bridge 2

As Monet himself wrote of them, “The overall effect is endlessly varied.

Not just from one season to the next, but from one minute to the next, for rather than making up the whole spectacle, the flowers are only the accompaniment to it.”waterlilies

In the water garden across the road, he noted, “the heart of everything is the reflecting mirror of the water, whose appearance fluctuates endlessly according as it catches the teeming life and movement of the every-changing sky. A passing cloud, a freshening breeze, a squall that looms then strikes, the gale that comes without warning, the light that fades then intensifies anew – all these things transform the color and texture.”Bingo

“How could such sweet and wholesome hours/Be reckoned but with herbs and flowers?”

old manse with wallThe Old Manse is one of the most extraordinary houses in America. It saw the birth of two revolutions and was lived in by a string of some of the most exceptional Americans every to grace a town noted for exceptional people.
rw emerson

Concord is that town, a small, suburban Massachussets community, only 15 miles west of Boston. There is a grassy town square with its monument, a hillside cemetery, a single street lined with shops and several venerable old churches with  white, pointy steeples.

Concord was also, for a time in the center of the last century, the intellectual center of the young nation. Among its residents were writers, preachers, lecturers, editors and abolitionists. Some of their names are still current: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Daniel Chester French — sometimes it seems you have to have three names to live in Concord — and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who broke the three-name rule. Others were once as eminent, but are now remembered mostly by scholars and readers of history books: Amos Bronson Alcott, William Ellery Channing the younger, and Ezra Ripley among them.old manse 1930s

The Manse sits on a wooded rise on Monument Street north of the town center. It is a two story wood frame, gambrel center-entrance twin chimney Colonial house, now with gable windows in the roof and most of its paint gone, leaving a gray, old weathered building in the arbor of trees and vines. It is notable for its many tiny rooms, unusual for an eminent house of that time.old north bridge from manse

Its back yard slopes off toward the Concord River and the Old North Bridge, where American Minutemen fought British regulars on April 19, 1775 and “fired the shot heard round the world.”

That was the first revolution the house presided over.

Mary Moody Emerson, who was an infant at the time, used to say that she, too was “in arms” that day, because she was held up by her mother to the second-floor window of the Old Manse to witness the battle.

Her father, Reverend William Emerson, built the Manse in 1770.

“It was all mother’s fault that the Manse was cut up into so many small rooms,” she later wrote. “My father built it just according to her ideas and she used to say, ‘she was tired of great barns of rooms’ so he had all the rooms little boxes to please her.”ezra ripley silhouette

When William Emerson died in 1776, from disease contracted at Fort Ticonderoga, his widow tried to carry on by herself, but then, in 1780, she married the formidable Reverend Ezra Ripley. He preached up a thunder for 63 years as minister of Concord.

Ripley’s step-grandson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, remembered him this way: “Dr. Ripley prays for rain with great explicitness on Sunday, and on Monday the showers fell. When I spoke of the speed with which his prayers were answered, the good man looked modest.”

And when he died, he was laid out “Majestic and noble,” recalled Ralph’s older sister, Ellen.

“Waldo, taken to see him, walked round and round the couch and at last asked, ‘Why don’t they keep him for a statue?’ ”

Mary Moody Emerson became an eccentric, herself. She was witty, bright and well-read and was Ralph Waldo’s favorite aunt. “For years,” he wrote, “she had her bed made in the form of a coffin. … She made up her shroud, and death still refusing to come, and she thinking it a pity to let it die idle, wore it as a night-gown, or a day-gown, nay, went out to ride in it, on horseback, in her mountain roads, until it was worn out. Then she had another made up. …. I believe she wore out a great many.”old manse dining room

Ralph Waldo only lived at the Manse for a single year, but it was for him and important year. It was at the Manse that he wrote his first, and most influential essay, “Nature,” which spelled out the tenets of Transcendentalism.

That was the second revolution. It altered the intellectual direction of the country and was the first genuinely American philosophical venture. Its effects can still be seen in American culture, from the photographs of Ansel Adams to the American national park system.sophia peabody 2

In July 1842, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his bride, Sophia Peabody (that’s “So-FYE-uh PEEB-iddy”), became tenants at the Old Manse. They stayed three years “in Eden,” he wrote.

He wrote many of his best known short stories in the Old Manse and also the introductory essay for the volume of stories known as Mosses from an Old Manse.

Ralph Waldo, recently married and removed to his own house, had suggested the Old Manse to Hawthorne. Henry Thoreau became Hawthorne’s gardener. The couple was transcendently happy.nathaniel hawthorne

“We seem to have been translated to the other state of being, without having passed through death,” he wrote.

The house had always before reflected the dour Puritan esthetic of its builder, but the young couple redecorated it, brightening it up and modernizing.

“It required some energy of imagination to conceive the idea of transforming this musty edifice, where the good old minister had been writing sleepy sermons for more than a half-century, into a comfortable modern residence,” he wrote. By the aid of cheerful paint and (wall)paper, a gladsome carpet, pictures and engravings, new furniture, bijouterie and a daily supply of flowers, it has become one of the prettiest and pleasantest rooms in the whole world.”

In the north window of the upstairs study, Hawthorne and his wife scribed sweet nothings into the glass.old manse window

“Man’s accidents are God’s purposes. Sophia A. Hawthorne, 1843.”

“Nathaniel Hawthorne. This is his study, 1843.”

“The smallest twig leans clear against the sky.”

“Composed by my wife and written with her diamond.”

“Inscribed by my husband at sunset, April 3, 1843. On the gold light. S.A.H.”

The scratchings are still there to be seen. We think them immeasurably romantic. Their landlord looked at it something more like vandalism and they were asked to move out.sarah ripley

Samuel Ripley and his wife, Sarah, then moved in.

Sarah was perhaps the brightest light ever to live in the Old Manse. She was exceptional in any age, and a miracle in her own.

With only a year and a half of formal schooling, Sarah went on to teach herself botony, calculus, Greek, Latin, and most modern European languages. When she was in her 60s, she took up Sanskrit.

She apologized to one visitor that she still needed a Sanskrit dictionary to help her, implying that she could read the Odyssey or the Aeneid the way some people read the daily newspaper.

She sighed, “I cannot think in Sanskrit,” recalls her grandson, Edward Simmons.

Another visitor records a trip to the Old Manse and seeing Sarah rock the cradle with one leg while cooking dinner with her hands and tutoring one student in German and another in geometry.

Ralph Waldo wrote of her, “Mrs. Ripley is superior to all she knows. She reminds one of a steam-mill of great activity and power which must be fed, and she grinds German, Italian, Greek, Chemistry, Metaphysics, Theology, with utter indifference which, — something she must have to keep the machine from tearing itself.”old manse kitchen

The Manse remained in the Emerson-Ripley-Ames family until 1939, when the family transferred the property to the Trustees of Reservations, a non-profit organization that maintains historic properties in Massachussets.

“The Concord literati are gone,” wrote Simmons, “the town has completely changed, but the Old Manse is still there, holding many secrets.”

skull heartTen years ago, the Paris police discovered an outlaw movie theater, complete with bar and restaurant, hidden in a sealed-off old quarry tunnel under the 16th Arrondissement, just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower.

“The whole thing ran off a professionally installed electricity system and there were at least three phone lines down there,” police were reported to say.

Three days later, when they came back to dismantle the illegal theater, it had all been packed up and shipped out, leaving only a single note for the police: “Do not try to find us.”

Every city has an underground.

But in Paris, the underground is literal. Ten percent  of the city is built above underground caves, tunnels and medieval limestone quarries. When building foundations are constructed, the tunnels have to be taken into account, and since no one in Paris has a complete and accurate map of the tunnels, it sometimes becomes a problem.

It is estimated that there are some 180 miles  of tunnel beneath the streets of Paris – and that’s not counting the 1,300 miles of sewers or 125 miles  of subways.old paris tunnel

Access to most of the tunnels has been illegal for civilians since 1955, but hordes of young people have been using them for recreation – of various sorts – since they were constructed. Even now, everything from rock concerts to picnics are held in the limestone tunnels by those called “cataphiles,” after the catacombs of the city. Less innocently, they are also the site of many drug deals and other underworld activity.

During World War II, the tunnels provided shelter for the Resistance. In the 1950s, there were underground jazz clubs. A fascination with the underworld is hardly a new thing.

From Ulysses to Dante, we have been deeply curious about a world that seems mysterious and dark, dangerous and illicit. And even for some tourists, a visit to the sunless portions of a city is an irresistible draw.

Luckily, there are legal ways to visit the subterranean Paris.

catacombs 1

CATACOMBS

When Paris was young and the Romans gave the orders, many of its important buildings were constructed of limestone quarried in the local hills. As the city grew, the quarries dug deeper into the hills, and the beige limestone city overtook its suburbs and their quarries, which now honeycomb the hills of Montparnasse and Montmartre.

By 1786,  Paris had grown to more than a half-million people, and there was need for fresh real estate. The city council decided it could empty out the cemeteries and use the land to build on, and so, from 1786 to 1860, graveyards were dug up and their bones transported to the tunnels under Montparnasse. In all, more than 5 million bodies made the move.

They are an eerie sight in the dark. All that death, all those bones, all that underworld, Avernus, Chiron, Cerberus.

The trip through the catacombs is long and arduous, with stairs going down six stories into the bedrock of Paris, then a good half mile of twisting narrow tunnels before you ever even get to the bones.catacombs halt sign

“Stop!” said the sign above the final door. “You are entering the empire of the dead.”

The tunnel contorts around in the underworld, with niches to right and left piled with the bones torn up from Paris graveyards.catacombs 2 - skulls

Millions of the dead from Paris’s past are piled here, with a wall of tibias and skulls making a kind of bone-dike, holding the remaining body parts behind it. Usually, the bones are assembled almost like masonry, with the knob-ends of the tibia bones left end out, and a line of skulls across them, like strata in rocks, or ornament in brickwork.

The tunnels are never higher than about 6-feet and maybe 2 inches high, and only one person wide. Their floors are often damp or wet with cave-drizzle.

Electric lights are placed on the walls every 10 or 15 feet, but with fairly low wattage bulbs.

catacomb cornerSigns were left with the bones describing what cemetery they were disinterred from, almost like regimental monuments in a battlefield.

After snaking through the underworld for perhaps a mile, you came to an even narrower spiral stone staircase with 84 steps, as the sign says, bringing you those six stories up from Hades, and you open out into a side street from a nondescript stone building-front with no markings to warn anyone this is the exit from Tartarus.

The trip is a genuine experience, an encounter with history.

Going through the tunnels is a completely alimentary experience. The bowels of the earth. Expelled into sunlight.

paris sewer 5

THE SEWERS

The sewer system of Paris is one of the world’s wonders. If straightened out, they could run from Paris to Istanbul.

They have a place in fable and lore far exceeding that of any other sewer system in the world: They are the tunnels through which Jean Valjean carried the wounded Marius in Les Miserables.

“By degrees, we will admit, a certain horror seized upon him. The gloom which enveloped him penetrated his spirit. He walked in an enigma. … How was he to get out? Would he find an exit? Would he find it in time? Would that colossal subterranean sponge with its stone cavities, allow itself to be penetrated and pierced? …Would they end by both getting lost, and by furnishing two skeletons in a nook of that night? He did not know. He put all these questions to himself without replying to them. The intestines of Paris form a precipice. Like the prophet, he was in the belly of the monster.”

The “intestines,” is the right word. They are called in French, Des Egouts — the “guts.”paris sewer 9

The entrance to the portion open to the public is like a tiny lemonade stand beside the bridge over the Seine. You buy tickets and descend into the depths, where a very faint odor of sewage wafts up — so faint that in a few moments, you no longer notice it.

What first hits you in the darkness of the sewer tunnels is the sound, the thunderous sound of water, like a torrent over a waterfall. Part of this is the sound amplification of the tunnels, but most is the enormous quantity of water passing through the system. As you walk down one wide tunnel – more like an extended garage — the water passes underneath you as you walk over a steel mesh walkway.paris sewer 3

There are signs along the way explaining not only the sewers, but the history of the sewers, beginning in Roman times. The current system is a gift of Baron Haussmann from his city rebuilding plan of the mid 1800s.

There is a kind of pulse, or bloodflow, that the system implies, a circulation system for the city.

One looks at a city from above ground and sees the traffic, the shops, the restaurants, the pedestrians, the apartments above the stores, the metro stations, the statuary and monuments, but they are all just the skin of the city.

Under it run the subways, the catacombs, the sewers, the remains of hundreds of years of quarrying, the abandoned tunnels of previous water and sewer lines, abandoned subway tunnels, and millions of miles of cable.

And, of course, the people milling around on the surface, drinking their cafe cremes, could not exist in the city without the subsurface infrastructure.

cimetiere montparnasse

THE CEMETERIES

It says something about Charles Baudelaire that he is buried in a grave listed under his despised step-father’s name. It is odd, that someone as famous and accomplished as the poet was, of course, baudelaire 1someone’s son, and part of a family, and all the wretched dynamics that implies: Charles was Petit Charles  to his mom and step-dad, and even after he grew up, he seemed to remain their little boy, so that, unlike other more pompous and be-medalled Frenchmen, with their giant sepulture, with statues and trumpeting angels, he gets second billing on a plain headstone in the cimetiere Montparnasse, with his mother — who outlived him by two or three years — billed third.

It is her revenge on her wayward child.

There are three large cemeteries in Paris, and they each have their celebrity tombs.

Most famous is the grave of Jim Morrison of The Doors at the cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise near Montmartre.

There, you can also discover Apollinaire, Balzac, Beaumarchais, Sarah Bernhardt and Frederic Chopin.

At the cimetiere de Passy you find Debussy, Manet and Joan of Arc.three graves

Visiting the cimetiere Montparnasse leads one to discover things about personages that one might not have guessed: Henri Langlois, who ran the Cinémathèque Française, has a gravestone filled with publicity photos from scores of movies; Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir share a headstone with only their names and dates; actress Jean Seberg has a simple flat stone grave with a tiny headstone with her name in a badly written script, as though done by an amateur. Many small stones had been left on the sarcophagus lid.

It is no surprise that composer Camille Saint-Saens has a sepulcher with sculpture carved inside. He was an honored figure from the French intelligentsia, but all his pomp doesn’t say as much as the one grave, with no name, and the only thing written on it, in elegant letters is “Le paradis c’est Paris.”le paradis c'est paris

Paradise, but also the underworld.

nj pizza
I stepped into the Nanuet Hotel in New York’s Rockland County because I hadn’t had a real pizza in 15 years.

I’m not un-American: I’ve eaten my share of Super Bowl delivery pizzas and to this day, when both my wife and I have had tiring days at work, we phone in pizza from one of the standard brands.

But they aren’t real pizza. Like most people, I grew up in a region of America with an identifiable cuisine. Philadelphia has its scrapple and cheese steaks; North Carolina has its barbecue; Texas has its chili. New Jersey’s cuisine is pizza.

I know there are Chicagoans who say they know what real pizza is, but they are misguided. I grant they know something about kielbasa, but real pizza can only be found in New Jersey and portions of New York. It is different from the populist menu item in that it is almost Calvinist. It has no frills. There is no such thing as a real pizza with ham and pineapple, for instance, to say nothing of the crime against nature advertised as a “taco pizza.”

The real item has a thin, biscuity crust, lots of spicy, garlicky tomato sauce and a thin covering of mozzarella that bakes into a papery crust over a stretchy, palate-burning stratus. It can be dusted with some grated Parmesan and sprinkled with some ground hot pepper. And if you are in a daring mood, it can come with pepperoni. But that’s the limit.

It also takes 30 minutes from order to table — unless you are buying it by the slice, that is.Nanuet Hotel

Well, the Nanuet Hotel is a seedy bar and grill in a tiny, decaying town just north of the New York/New Jersey boundary. The narrow street is lined with cars along both curbs, some sit with two wheels up on the sidewalk. The storefronts are bars, laundromats, video stores and the occasional Korean grocery. There are no Starbucks on this street; no sushi bars; no upscale sandwich shops with outdoor tables under awnings.

The hotel has tilting white clapboard walls and a door whose sill is worn down to a hollow of splinters. Inside, it is dark and — unfortunately — smoky. Along one wall are shelves of Johnny Walker and Jim Beam; along the other are tables with paper place mats and paper napkins.

The man behind the counter is in his late 50s with a serviceable gut and balding head: He could be Peter Boyle’s brother.

There are two TVs playing with their sound down. One carries a soap opera, the other a Yankee game, but with a twist: it is a game the Yankees played against the Detroit Tigers in June of 1976. Ron LeFlore and Mark “The Bird”  Fydrich on one side, Oscar Gamble and Graig Nettles on the other.

“This is great,” Peter Boyle tells another aging customer. “I found this channel the other day and they were showing that Roberto Duran fight, you know, ‘No mas, no mas.’ ”

There is a Keno board with flashing numbers on one wall and a tumbler full of entry forms at each table: You pick numbers and give the card to the barkeep and wait for your numbers to show up and win big bucks. Your number never shows. Glasses clank and the spritz of beer bottles being twisted open gives the place the feel an old Jerseyite like me can call nostalgic.nanuet hotel customer

The pizza is thin, hot and scarifying and I drink a brew along with it. I tell the barkeep that I have come all the way from Arizona to taste the real pizza once again. He knows what I mean.

“It’s the water, I found out. My nephew tried to open a pizza place in Denver, but he couldn’t make a go of it. It wasn’t the sauce, you can import that from here if you need to. But the dough won’t come out right. It’s the crust.

“Now when he comes home, he buys a load of bread and rolls and packs them up with dry ice to take back with him. Bottom line is, it’s the water.”new york pizza

Everyone has a theory, but none of them has proved sufficient to export the Tri-State national pizza. You gotta go to New Jersey, New York, or southern Connecticut.

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