Rain_Steam_and_Speed_the_Great_Western_RailwayI grew up in an age when there was a distinct category called “Modern Art.” It was reviled by many and championed by the rest, and it was taken to be a complete break with the past — which is why it was both reviled and championed.

It may be hard to imagine now, but in the 1950s and ’60s, a large portion of the population actually believed “My kid could paint better than that.” In response, proselytizers mounted campaigns in support of Picasso and Kandinsky. When Life magazine ran a story on Jackson Pollock, it was an intentionally provocative act. “Is this the greatest living painter in the United States?” the story asked, daring its middle-class readers to argue back.pollock life magazine

Indeed, as late as the 1980s, a particularly condescending gallery owner in Scottsdale, Ariz., attempted to persuade me that abstract art was the wave of the future. He made the assumption that since I lived in Arizona, my tastes ran to cowboys. He wanted to “deprovincialize” me.

Modern Art was subsequently eclipsed by “Contemporary Art,” and after that the whole thing fell apart in a Postmodern disintegration. What we have now is “the trendy stuff at the gallery.”

But in my time, when I was a teenager whose personality was being forged, I had the immense privilege of living an easy trip to New York City and a subway ride away from the Museum of Modern Art, where my initial sense of taste was formed. I absorbed whole Picasso’s Guernica — which I always thought would be forever available to me — Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, and Van Gogh’s Starry Nightpollack 1

Turner catalogThe biggest single contribution to my growth, however, and the nudge that eased me into a life as an art critic, was the show in the spring of 1966 at MOMA of JMW Turner’s late paintings, called, “Turner: Imagination and Reality.” I was still a high school student and knew that there must certainly be a bigger, more impressive and powerful world out there than the one I knew in suburban New Jersey.

In that show, the English painter was dressed up as the precursor not only to Impressionism, but to such High Modernist painters as Mark Rothko. Turner’s watercolor washes were mere gestures with a loaded brush and implied an early morning sunrise barely seen through a frosty fog — hardly an edge or line in sight. turner rothko pair

Left: Turner “Pink Sky”               Right: Rothko detail

The show kicked off a resurgence in Turner’s reputation at the same time Vivaldi was getting a boost from the Baroque revival. It isn’t that either the Red Priest or the shaggy Brit were unknown or unappreciated, at least by those with their acquaintance, but that the wider world had largely — if not forgotten them, had relegated them to a “yes-them-too” sub-paragraph in the catalog. Turner emerged as not just a major artist, but a springboard for all the upcoming progress in art that resulted in — hooray — the glorious moment that is us.

That view seems quite laughable now, but we should instruct those X-ers and Millennials that came after us that the idea was that all of history was an inevitable march toward a single goal, and that in 1966, we had achieved it. The Age of Aquarius meant more than a bogarted doobie and a flower in the barrel of a National Guard rifle. We had reached some sort of checkered flag, some tape we had breasted.

Our history since then seems like a winded generation bent over with hands on knees, trying to catch a sweaty breath. It was Francis Fukuyama who was gasping.

Yet, if I can no longer see Modernism as some target bulls-eyed, I can still look back on that time, and that show, with a special fondness. It hit at just the right moment: my adolescence. I was ripe to be picked. turner cuyp pair

Left: Turner, “Calais Pier”               Right: Cuyp, “The Maas at Dordrecht 

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For Joseph Mallord William Turner kept two plates spinning. On one hand, he does seem to prefigure the Impressionist fascination with light and color. But on the other hand, Turner was yet one more British huckster of the Sublime. He began as primarily a marine painter of ships, sea and clouds, patterned after so many earlier Dutch painters, like Aelbert Cuyp, but soon joined those painters of vast and menacing landscapes based on biblical or classical themes. Plagues of Egypt, destruction of Babylon, Noah’s flood, the Trojan War — they all show up.

Compare, for instance, Turner’s first entry into the Royal Academy, in 1800, with John Martin’s painting of the same subject: The Seventh Plague of Egypt (although, Turner, not a religious man and a desultory reader of the Bible at best, mislabled his plague as the Fifth). Turner Martin Seventh (fifth) plague

Turner, left; Martin, right

(Just for fun, let’s see Martin’s trilogy of paintings on the Flood: Eve of the Deluge, The Deluge, and The Assuaging of the Waters. The last was bought by Prince Albert for his Queen.)Martin Deluge trilogy copy

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Martin’s grandiose paintings — clearly the inspiration for reels of Sword and Sandals epics by the likes of de Mille, Griffith and Giovanni Pastrone — are less competently painted and tend toward a darker palette of blues and blacks, while Turner’s paintbox veered increasingly to gamboge and flake white. Yet, his salability in the first half of the 19th century was based on his ability to provide the epic subject matter.

Consider the pair of paintings Turner made on The Deluge: Shadow and Darkness — The Evening of the Deluge, and Light and Colour — The Morning After the Deluge, from 1843.Shade and Darkness - the Evening of the Deluge exhibited 1843 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

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 So there I was, at the ripe, pimply age of 17, with all the world before me, and an ambition in my heart that transcended the possible, and there was Turner. I was being told he was the seed from which something important grew, but my primary and adolescent response was to the sublime — that sense that the world — nay, the universe — was grander, more intense and more alive than what I knew of Bergen County, New Jersey.

There were wind and waves, fire and brimstone, death and destruction, rocky precipices and roaring cataracts — Blow you hurricanoes, etc., etc. I was electrified at the idea that Turner had tied himself to a ship’s mast in a snowstorm to experience — like Odysseus — the siren call of destruction and death.snowstorm steamboat

Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth, 1843

Author Lawrence Gowing, curator of the MOMA Turner show had written about the premonitory Impressionism in Turner, but in my saladgreen youth, that early seed was proof of Turner’s artistic heroism the same as his bodily courage he shows on the ship. Gowing was making an art-historical point; I was swept by the mythology. sharknado

Sharknado (2013)

It is the same impulse, I believe, that turns so many young men these days on to superheroes and supervillains and that whole genre of film where the planet is doomed by ice, fire, green monsters or evil multinational corporations. The FX movies that shake the separating walls of our cineplexes are the modern replacement for Byron’s Manfred and Shelley’s Prometheus.turner in studio movie still

I mention all this now because I have just seen Mike Leigh’s film, Mr. Turner, with Timothy Spall playing the painter, in a movie that advances with exactly the same pace and precision as paint drying. It is not a movie for the X-men crowd. Nothing blows up, no one turns the equator into an iceberg, and the earth doesn’t split into two.

Now as an adult, and with some 50 years under my belt since my exposure, I have a more sedate view of JMW Turner and his paintings. The film resonated with that: Turner had a living to make and catastrophe painting was his niche. Disaster was his shtick. That “vortex of obscurity,” those paint daubs. An avid public bought them up, and if some, such as John Ruskin, could see the work as the art of the future, most saw them as great, ecstatic expressions of the Romantic sensibility that was already passing into sedate and sententious Victorianism.  frosty morning

What MOMA chose to emphasize were the watercolors, primarily sketches for oil paintings. They were vague and washy and could more easily be seen as proto-Impressionism. The exhibit rather ignored the ships and sails of Turner’s more ordinary output. It also conveniently brushed aside that part of Impressionism that didn’t stoke the fires of Modernism: That Impressionism wasn’t just about paint and color, but about depicting the daily life of ordinary people rather than the grand mythology of the Academy painters. The present always chooses its past. At Petworth: Morning Light through the Windows 1827 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

And what one sees in Leigh’s film is not some spiritual visionary, but a Cockney artist, largely inarticulate, who has found a way to turn a little trick of paint daubs into a lucrative industry. Yet, I don’t mean to denigrate Turner: There was some level of genius in his ability to elevate the Mad-Martin extravaganza into something personal, idiosyncratic and, yes, forward looking. Turner was no revolutionary; he was bourgeois to the core, yet, that combination of conventional and ecstatic give his work that extra boost into the pages of art history textbooks. It’s what separates him from Martin, Samuel Palmer, Henry Fuseli and the rest of that forgotten ilk.

madison lede pix
The 1930s remain in our visual imagination with a vividness that hardly exists from other eras — at least eras we didn’t actually live through. And it is through the photography of the period that this happens: It is hard to recognize how many of the canonized photographers from that era gave us documentary and quasi-documentary images of the times. Elsewhen, artists — and the photographers — often sought something more universal, or general, or eternal, but the quota of work from the 1930s screams out the time of its birth. madison color quad

Think of them: Brassai, Bill Brandt, Walker Evans, Cartier-Bresson, the whole army of photographers working for the Works Project Administration under Roy Stryker — our image trove from the 1930s is a stuffed portfolio. Madison bw quad 1

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If we tend to distinguish between photography as journalism and photography as art — art with its formal concerns — then the work of Life magazine photographers falls into the first camp and the more elevated work of photographers such as Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham or Frederick Sommer would seem to be of another genus. But especially in the prewar decade, the photographers we honor as artists often were the ones who left us with a chronicle of their times. It is hard to picture America during the Depression without the black and white images of breadlines, dustbowl farms, iron workers and iron-willed matriarchs reigning over raw wood kitchen tables in unelectrified Appalachian cabins.madison bw quad 2

(I am not forgetting later movements of “street photography,” and certainly not forgetting Robert Frank, William Klein or Garry Winogrand, but their work on one hand also seems like a throwback to an earlier era, and on the other, is more consciously concerned with formal problems, like composition, lighting and contrast — and often with even more Postmodern concerns, such as how photography makes the world look. In the ’30s, the primary concern was sociological: These people we have been privileged to look at.)madison bw quad 3

I bring all this up because a friend sent me a link to an unusual archive at Duke University of old documents, photographs and films, primarily from North Carolina. In it, there is a set of three films, or rather three reels of randomly edited home movies, from Madison, N.C., taken between 1939 and 1941 and available for download. You can find them at:

http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/hleewaters/Spatial_Coverage/Madison%20%28N.C.%29

madison bw quad 4These films appear to have been taken by a single person, who filmed schoolkids, class by class, streaming out of the schoolhouse, workers leaving the factory and pedestrians walking down the streets of Madison and neighboring Mayodan. At times, he attempts trick photography, and they are not always in perfect focus. The first reel is in color, the remaining two reels are black and white. It is clear he (or she) favors framing with the subject in the right half of the picture, but it seems less like a formal concern and more like a idiosyncratic tic.

madison bw quad 5Madison particularly interests me because it is where my wife grew up. She was born in 1941 and so, the images in these movies pretty closely approximates the town she knew as a little girl. A few of the teachers shown in them are teachers she knew in school. madison bw quad 6

But I also found that if I excised individual frames from the motion, I could see them almost as a new source of FSA photos, or undiscovered images of Walker Evans. I have included a bunch of them with this blog post. madison bw quad 7

One has to forgive the lower quality of focus or color, taken as they are from what must be a 16mm original, but what strikes me most in them is the quality of individual human beings, the person behind the eyes that stares out at us from the pictures. It is the same face — or the same kind of face — that we see in Dorothea Lange’s California agriculture photos. There is joy, suspicion, hope, hopelessness, anger, privilege, satisfaction and shyness in these faces (sometimes as the film progresses, the same suspicious face turns friendly).

madison bw quad 8And I come to see them not so much as impersonal esthetic constructs, but as a doorway into each of them as people. Individuals, shining lights of the cosmos bound in skin. madison bw quad 9

And then, by way of looking back at the old, familiar pictures of Jack Delano, Russell Lee, Marion Post Wolcott, John Vachon, Ben Shahn and others, you come to the realization that what makes them special — what, indeed, makes them important — is not their photographic quality, not their compositional innovations or formal intent, but that through those rectangular frames burn the lives of actual beings. What brings them alive for us esthetically is exactly the quotient of compassion, of empathy, we bring to them. Do we see them as esthetic exercises? Certainly that aspect exists in them, but such aspect exists in abstract torn-paper collages, too. No, what gives them power is that connection they enable between us in our age, and those people in the pictures, in their age and we see they are us. madison color quad 2

 

Sunset
Stuart and I were sitting on the roof, outside the dormer window, and sipping a little Drambuie. Cigars were for later.

“A beautiful evening, isn’t it?” he said.

“Yeah, the sunset is so orange.”

“You call it orange, but really, how many different colors are there in that sky — even a band of green in it.”

“Where?”

“There, see, above that reddish cloud. Perhaps it’s only a trick of simultaneous contrast, but that green has always fascinated me.”

“I see it now, rather a pale green, almost opal, but green.”

“How much better to see the whole thing, instead of just the calendar version. You know, I always wonder why pretty magazine pictures look so cliched, while the sky in front of us doesn’t. I guess there is a difference between pretty and beautiful.”

“Or, maybe beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

“Yeah, well, I used to think that.”

I could see Stuart had something on his mind. He usually did.

“Used to?” I asked. “OK, so what is beauty? Personally, I tend to think of Scarlett Johansson.”scarlett and hedy

“Really? I kind of favor Hedy Lamarr, but then, I’m always a little behind the times. But really, first we have to agree on what kind of beauty we’re talking about. Erotic attractiveness is a completely different thing from esthetic beauty. You could even say they are opposites.”

“How’s that?”

“Because erotic beauty draws us to possess it, while esthetic beauty doesn’t — it fascinates us, but leaves us disinterested, involved but motionless.

“This is the essential difference between art and pornography. If you look at a picture and say, ‘I want that,’ or ‘I wish I were there, seeing that sunset,’ you’re reacting as if to pornography, whether it’s a picture of a naked human or a brazen sunset. Erotic beauty impels you forward into time and history, while esthetic beauty draws you upward and out of the mad stream of time.”

“So you’re saying beauty comes in two categories?”

“Oh, there are lots of other divisions to make. For instance, there’s that ‘eye of the beholder’ question.

“Well, that’s what they say.”

“But it’s an easy way out. It doesn’t really answer anything. Actually, it seems to me that beauty is either internal or external. That is, either it is in the eye of the beholder, or it exists objectively, outside the accident of perception.”

“What do you mean, ‘objective’ beauty? How can that be?”

“Look at it historically. Centuries ago, it was mostly thought that beauty was an objective quality. You had it or you didn’t. Those who say beauty is external to human perception fall into two camps: the transcendent and the inherent. The second camp says that something is beautiful because elements of the physical world are by nature so. The first camp looks beyond the physical world to something metaphysical.

“You mean God?”

“Right. It could be a god or the gods. On the other hand, it could be an unnameable, ineffable mystery at the center of the universe. If a god has made something beautiful, it is then our recognition of that divine intention that is external to our psychologies. It really is beautiful, whether we recognize or not.”

“But what if you don’t believe in any of that supernatural stuff? Where does beauty come from then?”

“Again, two ways. It might simply exist as mathematics does, in its proportions and harmonies; some things may be beautiful the way a triangle has three sides. Such qualities are inherent in the objects we recognize as beautiful. Or, as another possibility, it might be biological, or based on evolution: Certain things may have emerged as ‘beautiful’ in the development of the universe because their beauty promotes evolutionary goals. Thus, a bright, beautiful flower attracts bees — which ensure the survival of the flower species through pollination.

“That’s all fine. But what if beauty really is internal — only the eye of the beholder?”

“Then again we face two choices: If beauty is only found inside us, it is either cultural or acultural.”

“Wait. I thought it was all cultural.”

“You hear that a lot on university campuses nowadays. It’s a popular point of view currently. But it is not the only way of understanding it. A good portion of the academic community has jumped on the bandwagon of cultural identity. Art, for instance, is seen as a way of establishing ethnic pride. It certainly may do this, but it is not the only thing art can or should do. Deconstructionists, for instance, like to look under the rock and find the bugs — what we really mean when we write or talk — and they show us that race, ethnicity, class or power is often at the bottom of things. Powerful White European men, for instance, have tended historically to value powerful White European male art.

“These people have a point, but it isn’t the totality. Beauty isn’t just that powerful White European men, for instance, have tended historically to value powerful White European male art.

“Right. The famous dead White men.”

“The trend is to say that beauty is culturally determined. But I would argue that culture doesn’t define what is beautiful, but what is not beautiful.”

“What is not beautiful?”

“Yeah. For example, the ‘dominant culture’ told a lot of White Americans for a very long time that ‘nappy hair’ wasn’t beautiful. The culture excluded what it wanted to exclude. What was left was deemed beautiful. Various ethnic groups are now turning that same exclusion around on those who formerly excluded them.”

“Oh, White men walk like this, but Black men walk like this, that sort of thing. But you’re saying there’s another way to look at it?”violon d'ingres

“Yes, there may be factors at work that range across cultures. Scientists have discovered that there are some things that seem to be universally recognized as beautiful — certain color combinations, or even aspect ratios. In physical beauty — if we want to get back to Scarlett and Hedy — for example, a certain mathematical proportion between hip and waist size seems to transcend culture. Some cultures may value thin women while others like the Rubenesque, but the hip-waist ratio remains constant. Some underlying principles seem to be at work.

“Their work is still new, and their results are fragmentary, but it may be that evolution has hardwired certain esthetic receptors into the human mind.”

“Like a bee before a flower?”

“Right: Does the flower become beautiful to attract the bee? Or does the bee develop a love of beauty to discover the flower? It blurs the distinction between the perceived and the perceiver.”

“Still, I’m not getting it. What sorts of things do we see as beautiful?”

Sometimes, I forget that Stuart is really highly educated. He’s lived his life as some kind of bohemian, shifting cities, or jobs, or lady friends, never settling, and never — this is always discouraging — never writing anything down. But every once in a while, he dredges out some bit of arcana that I might once have studied, but never kept up with.aquinas in glass

“Thomas Aquinas,” he started, “the famous 13th Century Christian scholar, said the beautiful has ‘integritas, consonantia and claritas.’ James Joyce’s translation of that from the Latin gives us ‘wholeness, harmony and radiance.’ ”

“Hey — I remember reading Joyce’s comments about a butcher’s basket: To see it apart from its surroundings, as a separate thing, is to see its integritas, its wholeness. As something distinct and not a part of something else.”

“Exactly.”

“Then you look at its parts — the handle, the weave of the reeds, the roundness of the bottom — and you see how those parts interact in the design.

“That is the harmony, or consonantia. But, you know, I’ve never quite accepted his definition of claritas.”

“It’s the tricky one. Joyce claims that once you’ve seen the whole and the parts, both together may join to excite your esthetic appreciation. They become larger, brighter, more meaningful than their simple existence as a basket. They have radiance. But the Latin of Aquinas is less clear.”

“I remember looking it up. My Latin dictionary translates claritas as ‘clearness or brightness’ — words less charged than Joyce’s ‘radiance.’ It also implies a clearness of mind, a plainness and directness of argument.”

“Yes. Meanwhile, there are other qualities we expect from beauty. It should surprise us, but once past the surprise it should feel inevitable.”

“Say, maybe that’s like a good murder mystery: The end should be a surprise, but it shouldn’t be arbitrary. We want to be satisfied, after our astonishment, that this solution to the mystery is the only possible one.”

“As when a Haydn symphony veers off into a strange key, or when the Beatles back a song with a string quartet. You are taken aback at first. Then you realize the perfection of it.”

“But wait,” said. “We still haven’t said what exactly is beauty. Is it a noun? Is it an adjective? — a quality that other nouns possess?”

“Or is it a verb?” Stuart was getting to the crux of the matter, as he saw it. “I’ve worried about the question for years, and I finally decided that if you want to know what beauty is, you must look at it as an event, not a thing. It is an occurrence, a transaction.”

“Hmmm. Sounds like you’re combining the external definition of beauty with the ‘eye of the beholder’ thing?”

“Right. You have the two blades of a scissors. The scissors itself is neither the one blade nor the other, but the two working together: Beauty is your active participation in the perception of the things of the world.”

“So it’s like this: The world is capable of being seen as beautiful — that’s the objective part — and we’re capable of perceiving that beauty — that’s the subjective.

“And where the two things come together, that is beauty.”

“That would make beauty an active thing,” Stuart said, “not a passive observation. You have to pay attention.

“To become part of the event, you must be awake, aware, alive. You must see or hear or feel more intensely than you do in the ordinary world of driving your car or cooking your burger.”

“So that’s why a photo of the sunset is a cliché.”sunset cliche 2

“The photo becomes a commonly accepted image of beauty, a shorthand for doing the actual work. It becomes a ‘word’ or symbol for the beauty, rather than the event of the beauty itself.”

“That reminds me of what James Agee was writing about in And Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: ‘For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned, for him who can discern it, and centrally and simply, without either dissection into science, or digestion into art, but with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands: so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar in the heart of itself as a symphony, perhaps as no symphony can: and all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.’ ”

“Or as Blake has it, ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is …”

“Infinite.”

“Yes. In a way, beauty is the act of paying attention, deeply and committedly.

“When the commitment isn’t there, the beauty isn’t.”

“So, you’re saying the world is full of things that we habitually think of as beautiful — certain categories of nature or certain subject matter in art — but that our acceptance of them short circuits our actual involvement?”

“The ‘warm bath’ school of beauty. They keep us from participating in the beauty.”

“Someone at the newspaper once wrote about it as ‘paying attention as if you were defusing a bomb.’ ”

chardin 3“Bingo. Beauty is not for the faint of heart. When you pay attention, the music of Arnold Schoenberg becomes ineffably beautiful. It’s the point of John Cage’s 4’33″ where the ambient sounds you hear while the pianist is not playing are presented to you as beautiful. And they are, if you engage with it properly. Paying attention. What is beauty? Beauty is paying attention. It’s the simplest definition there is.

“And this finally gives us the key to the claritas of Aquinas and Joyce. When seen, truly seen van gogh cypress— or by analogy, felt, or ‘apprehended’ in that Joycean locution — your object takes on a mythic significance, as if it glows from within. It is indeed ‘bright.’ It is the crockery of Chardin and the cypresses of Van Gogh. A clarity that glows from within.”

“As you’ve said many times, ‘Every bush is the burning bush.'”

“Wholeness, harmony and radiance,” Stuart said, paraphrasing St. Paul, “and the greatest of these is radiance.”

Claritas charitas est,” I said, making a lame play on words, in Latin, no less.

“Put that on your T-shirt and see who salutes.”

 

worth livingWhat is politics and why do so many people think that it matters?

After all, if I make a list of things that make life worth living, politics is not on it.

It can be a very long list, with love, marriage, music, literature on it. It could include winter, red maples, crisp apples and oak floors. Neon signs. Travel. Work, and the sense that you are creating something worthwhile.

Louis Armstrong playing “Potato Head Blues.”

Even beer, Letterman and The New York Times crossword puzzle. I could make a list of a hundred items, even 200, but politics doesn’t even make the cut.

That is because politics is a means to an end and not an end itself.

But tell that to Ted Cruz on one hand, or on the other, any committed member of the Communist Workers Party.

These are people who do to politics what the miser does to money.

After all, money has no value whatsoever. It is paper, metal and plastic. You can’t eat money, you can’t wear it, you can’t sleep in it. I suppose if you taped enough bills together, you could wrap fish.

Money is only worthwhile because it can be traded to gullible people for some things that are worth having, like food, clothing, shelter or cable TV.

But all around the world, there are people who would rather have money. And there are people who are committed to politics as if it mattered.

But really, politics answers no question worth asking.

‘Platypus’ law

By “politics” I mean two different things. On one hand, there is the practical side, which is the interrelationship of people and the friction of their conflicting desires. It is a constantly shifting game board of power, image, manipulation, blackmail and compromise.

Politics on this level is the jostle of competing self-interests. It is why legislation that enters committee looking like a lion always leaves looking like a platypus.

Politicians would have us believe that they work for the public good, but the reality is much messier, the results of their professed altruism much more equivocal.

For the politicians themselves, it is power, money, the fun of trading favors, gaining approval, trouncing opponents that may make life worth living. The politics involved is again only a means to that end.

The other version of politics is much more scary. Practical politics may be sloppy as mud-wrestling, but it is frequently benign. Fanatically held ideas, on the other hand, can be positively malignant.

These are the people who ruined Russia in 1917 and are ruining the Republican Party now. Idealogues are what fueled the Chinese cultural revolution under Mao, what ignited the McCarthy era, what reduced Pol Pot’s Cambodia to human cinders and what threw gasoline on the book piles in Hitler’s Germany.

Ideology always has a human cost. In my 67 years on this planet, the one thing I have come to be certain of: Certainty is the very devil.

Answers aren’t solution

What unites both camps is their interest in answers rather than questions. Questions muddy the waters and make action more difficult. It is much easier to do something when you are convinced you are right.

The irony is that answers always create more problems than they solve.

The interstate highway system was a wonderful transportation solution that contributed to the dissolution of small-town America and the attendant family structure. Civil-rights laws addressed a very real evil — discrimination on the basis of race, gender, national origin — and have left us with regulations that require us to discriminate on the basis of race, gender and national origin.

So we enter the fray once more and come up with new legislation to fix the mess we made last time. It’s like cutting the grass: There is no end to it.

Meanwhile, we live our lives despite politics. It is true some political systems allow us more freedom to do as we wish, some are more just and equitable, some are more benign. But, in the end, it is how we comport ourselves as individuals that counts, not how we vote en masse.

And it is the things of the inner life that make the top of our list and provide a satisfying reason to live and grow. You must look deeper than the politics to find the humanity.

vegas pyramidI know my idea of hell: eternity in Las Vegas. Heck, even a weekend.

Now, I am aware that many people love Vegas, and I’m not here to quarrel with them: De gustibus non est disputandum, as they say. You can’t argue about tastes.

However, I have been to Vegas once too often and my skin shrivels at the thought of the place.

There once was a certain Sodom-and-Gomorrah charm to it when it seemed to be run by the Mob, back when Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. turned the city into a glamorous, empty metaphor of high-hat cymbals, scotch on the rocks and gleaming silk tuxedos. Back then, gambling wasn’t something that retirees wearing plaid pants with white belts and matching brogans did on organized bus tours. It actually had the edge of transgression. It was bookies, hookers, cigarette smoke and more incandescent light and neon than in all of France.

However, the city no longer has the Mob feel. It’s much worse: Now it’s run by corporations.

This isn’t just a question of good and bad taste. Bad taste has its appeal, and the old Vegas was a monument to bad taste. Bad taste can be fun.

Certainly, there is a great deal of bad taste in Tijuana, for instance. But it is a wonderful place to visit. In Tijuana, the bad taste is — excuse the term — life affirming. The bad taste comes from poverty and its attempt to enrich life with gaudy colors and garish extravagance.

In Vegas, the bad taste comes not from poverty, but from excess of money, which is deadening. Its spectacle does not enrich life, but gluts our senses so we no longer see, no longer hear. Vegas makes zombies.

On the hotel-room TV, there is a channel that promotes the hotel’s attractions. It features pictures of bubbly families enjoying themselves with the reckless grins of a chewing gum commercial. But when I go down to the casinos, I don’t see those people.

Instead, I see aging women in teardrop eyeglasses and stretched-to-the-limit polyester sitting in front of the electronic slot machines with not a muscle flexed in their flaccid faces and their eyes turned to pig iron, hypnotized by the whirring of the dials.

A constant, mechanical drop of coin, pull of lever, spin of wheel, clang of bells, drop of coin, pull of lever, etc., for hours on end. No expression on the faces and an ash-tipped cigarette hanging on their dry, creased lips. It is just such scenes that make me think of Dante.

Children, of course, are not permitted in the casinos. They have their own computer screens to stare into in the video-game arcades that are hardly more than training wheels for the real thing downstairs.

Adult or offspring, they have put their lives on hold in order to partake of a droning synthetic reality that has no meaningful connection to them.

Everything in that town is synthetic, from the phony castles in Excalibur, to the “hologram” of Celine Dion, singing a duet with herself, to the surgically enhanced hood ornaments of the chorus girls. There is not a genuine experience to be had, with the possible exception of the pleasure one gets at seeing just how seedy and run-down the old parts of town have become. In their dusty storefronts and cheesy wedding chapels, there is a patina of reality that invades the fantasy.

The new Vegas of phony pyramids, skyscrapers and medieval castles has no reality. It lets you kill time without enriching your life. It is to life what Twinkies are to fresh, homemade bread.

In that, it is a concentrated dose of what America is becoming.

And that is why I hate Las Vegas all the more: The real experiences of life are being supplanted by the plastic-fruit version — the difference between going fishing and playing computer fishing games — and we aren’t complaining about it loudly enough. Quite the contrary, we are flocking to this city in the desert to experience ersatz New York and theme-park reality, simplified, repeatable, soulless — dulled down and tarted up at the same time.

You can see the same thing happening in our political campaigns, our publishing industry, our corporate-slogan clothes.

We are presented with a kind of corporate parallel universe, where everything has a brand name and a price. We are seduced into forgetting the messier, chaotic and infinitely more rewarding world we were born into.

It’s the modern version of the Faustian bargain, and we’re losing more than our money.

paris night 01jpgThe first time my wife remembers being aware of the night was when she was a little girl and thought the darkness was a liquid, a flood tide overtaking the world.

“I was afraid I would drown in it,” she says.

If she wasn’t careful, it might seep under the window sash and fill her bedroom while she slept.paris night 02x

My experience was different. I grew up outside New York City, and for me, night was an empty container to fill with light. It wasn’t night that flowed, but rather the lights that were like opened faucets draining into the darkness, to be diluted by it. The view of the Manhattan skyline at night, seen from the New Jersey Palisades, was the most beautiful thing I knew. It glowed like embers. paris night 03x

Either way, night was something poetic, although we would never have used the term. When you are a kid, when everything is new, and everything is poetic, there is no humdrum, no banality, against which the poetic, the beautiful, can be offset. It is just the way things are.

Now, as a grown up, chastened and wary, night is the black velvet on which we place the emerald ring, to show off its brilliance. And night is the time that gives the day its mythic resonance. We do our work during the day, so that night can work on us. paris night 04x

I go walking in Paris at night, because that is when I feel most completely there. Paris becomes itself when the streets are dark, with storefront windows and the streetlamps pour forth their fluid light, diluted on the curbs and parked cars. I am washed in that thin light. paris night 05x

One feels most deeply the difference between Paris and New York. At night, Manhattan seems just as busy as it was earlier. Traffic is dense, pedestrians fill the streets. You can ride the subway at 2 in the morning and still see a car full of faces.paris night 06x

But, Paris at night is oddly empty, and what people you see are clustered around the steamed windows of cafes and bistros, or on the front steps of the opera house as it lets out, or waiting to get into the disco. It is almost as if these were the campfires that draw the bodies turned from the darkness. paris night 07x

You can walk down the streets and peer into the shop windows, with their wares lit and forgotten, as if the Rapture had occurred last week, and left behind the kitchen furnishings, or the bicycles, or books, and behind the glass, there is a humanless simulacrum of the world we know. paris night 08x

Or you follow some old man in a long coat as he turns the corner and walks down a dark street toward the next streetlight.

Paris is made more magical by the night. In October there is the slight bite to the air, and the rain makes pointillist mirrors of the pavement, redoubling all that dissipating light.paris night 09x

You wander into a Turkish souvlaki restaurant, a cheap storefront halfway down the street, and the man behind the counter is on the phone speaking some language you don’t know — it isn’t French — and he smiles at you as you sit on the molded plastic chair with the rocking table between you and your wife. The wall is bright yellow behind the glass counter, with garish purple writing offering the usual fare, lit with a glare. Gyros, souvlaki, pilaf. It is warm inside, and humid and the food is comforting.paris night 10x

Even the sound is different at night. Like the campfire, the sound is huddled, localized. In this restaurant, the sound is held in by the walls and front window. Outside it is silent once again.paris night 11x

There is cheer in the contact, and when you leave, there is an alive aloneness in the night street. paris night 12x

When I think of Paris, I think of it at night. I hear the voices and see the maitre pulling the Stella Artois from the tap. Most of the seat are empty and those filled are on the way home after a night at the cinema or theater. They may stop at the 8 a Huit for a pack of cigarettes. (Say it like “wee-a-wee,” it is the French equivalent of a 7-Eleven, only tighter packed and with one wall covered with wine bottles. The man sitting by the cash register is Algerian and tired after spending 12 hours in his shop.)paris night 13x

Compared to anything American, Paris is small. You can walk almost anywhere inside the Peripherique, and all the familiar signposts of the city are visible — Montmartre lit by floodlights on the hill, the Eiffel Tower turned into a fireworks display, the Palais Garnier pinned down by its own lights in the darkened city. paris night 14x

I love to get out into that night, and walk those streets, nodding to the proprietor of the flower shop as he stands by the door, stopping by the patisserie for the last pain au chocolate of the day, and finally passing the concierge of my hotel as he sits behind the desk, reading an Arab newspaper and drinking a small glass of Kirsch, not noticing me as I go through the lobby. Up the elevator, hardly bigger than a phone booth, and flipping on the timed hall light that busts open the darkness on my way to my room. paris night 17x

Out the window when I draw back the curtain, the city street is black, with highlights drawn by the lamps and the trees beneath my room shimmer in the light. paris night 18x

 

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bonesFor the centuries between the conversion of Constantine and the advent of the Enlightenment, the world and the cosmos was held to maintain a strict hierarchical order, which Alexander Pope once called “the great chain of being.”

At the top sat the Deity and all things below him hung pendant in creation. And along this chain, each link had something above it and something below it. It made for a neat organization: plants were higher than stones, but lower than animals. Human beings were above animals, but below angels.

The chain could be divided and subdivided, very like a fractal, and always there was something above and below. So, among humans, a king was above a duke, who was above a yeoman. Below the yeoman was a serf. Each category had its primate: The king in political order, the lion among animals, the rose among plants and incorruptible gold among minerals.

Of course, there was always some disagreement among scholars. For some, the elephant was the head animal. But no one disagreed there was a “king of the beasts.”

Above humans were angels, and they had their own hierarchy: nine ranks from lowest to highest as set down by (Pseudo-) Dionysius the Areopagite — angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, dominations, thrones, cherubim, and seraphim. It was all rather like the army, with first and second lieutenants, majors and colonels.

This hierarchy governed much of the Medieval and Renaissance world in Europe, and gave a sense of divine order to the social happenstance.

And oh, they loved arguing. Arguing whether moss was higher than fungus, or whether an earl or a marquis had priority — different nations shuffled the suits of cards into different patterns, so a French marquis might outrank an English baron. Or vice versa.

And so, a silver fox outranks a red fox. Or a wine merchant with a royal contract outranks one without such a seal. Lawsuits might teeter on such issues.

It was a surprisingly durable schema. We still hold on to bits of it. Whenever you hear someone talk about something being higher on the evolutionary ladder, he is grasping a vestige of the great chain of being. In evolution nothing is “higher” or “lower.” That is the old vocabulary used for the new science. There are no higher life forms, only more complex forms adapted to more complex environments.

Yet, it seems we cannot ever completely give up our sense of hierarchy, even despite our lip service to democracy in America.

Of course, such a micromanaged structure could not possibly avoid ironies and disconnects. The biggest was between church and state. Each had its hierarchy: king, prince, duke, earl on one hand; pope, cardinal, bishop on the other. But the problem of whether a cardinal outranked a prince, or a king outranked the pontiff was never satisfactorily worked out. Wars were fought; people were killed.

I mention all this because one of the cogs in this philosophical machine implied that there was a ranking at mealtime, too. Higher in the chain gave license to ingest lower in the chain. Plants digest the dirt they grow in, cattle eat the plants, and men eat steak. When the order is reversed, it denotes the system in failure — as when a bear eats a man or worms eat corpses. Eating up the chain instead of down is “unnatural,” or was seen that way, despite the naturalness of death.

And the final implication of the system is that angels eat human beings. You cannot get around it: Angels survive on the life form below them in the hierarchy the same way we survive on meat. Obviously, it would be held that angels, whatever their rank, do not dine on the corporality of humankind, but as angels are spiritual beings, they gobble up our souls. It is the best explanation for Alzheimers and for the general and increasing debility of age.

2.

We’ve talked about the death of God for a century, but I don’t think anyone ever expected to find the grave site, least of all E. B. Fischer.

Fischer was a petroleum geologist who had made remarkable discoveries in the Himalayas. he had found petroleum in an area thought, geologically, to be incapable of producing it. Indeed, it was really only a low grade tar he had found: It was nothing to get too excited about. But a number of corporate and governmental powers had found the discoveries interesting enough to put money down on.

And it was in the course of his research on the world’s highest mountain range that he began to turn up unusual patterns in microcrystal structure and magnetic orientation. At first, the information made only an interesting checkering on his geological map, but the more complete his survey became, the more obvious it was that not only a pattern, but a recognizable pattern was emerging.

What appeared was a skeleton, or rather, the evidence of a skeleton, for it existed only as a magnetic pattern. And the skeleton was 800 miles long.

It wasn’t exactly a human skeleton that appeared on the map; there were too many ribs by a score, and the fingers seemed branched at the tips and the head was missing. But the overall shape was so distinct as to make the map look like an X-ray.

The missing head caused Fischer not nearly so much consternation as the fact that he wondered where it had gone. He couldn’t, as a scientist, believe there really was an 800-mile skeleton, but he couldn’t, as a human, believe such a shape would occur by coincidence. His instincts demanded a head.

He went back over the area in Nepal where he could expect to find the head, but there were no magnetic anomalies, no crystal changes, not even in unfamiliar patterns.

But even without a skull, this skeleton was a monumental discovery and the publication of its existence caused all the row you might expect. Initial surmise was that it might have been ancient earth art, similar to the effigy mounds in Ohio, where one is a snake a quarter of a mile long, whose substance can only be seen from the air. Of course, objection was immediately made to this theory, since no human technology was known that could recrystalize 800 miles of rock and alter its magnetic structure. The difference in size alone, between a quarter of a mile and 800 miles could eliminate the effigy theory.

Another was that it was a buried prehistoric animal. Such frivolous theories were shot down at once by biologists, who countered that nothing that large would need or could use knees.

Yet a third popular belief was that Fischer had found the remains of an alien life form. Popular though this theory proved, no self-respecting scientist would believe that evolution, anywhere else in the universe, would mimic that on earth in such trivial particulars as the number of fingers or the existence of a patella.

Scientists were no more prepared to accept the fourth theory, though neither were they able to discount it, falling as it did outside their area of expertise. And that was that they had discovered the burial plot of the Almighty.

Fischer himself was quoted as saying, “Ask the theologians, don’t ask me.”

The theologians, of course, were stuck in a dilemma. If God were dead, they had no reason to persist in their jobs, so they unanimously denied the proposition.

“The very thought is ludicrous,” they said. “God made the universe: He preexists it. It is completely illogical to imagine a God that preexists creation but does not survive it.”

That argument didn’t sit too well with many women, who pointed out that for millennia, women have preexisted their children, and usually don’t survive them.

Perhaps, thought Fischer, after all, it really is just a coincidence.

Statisticians worked out the probability at 1 to 47 to the three trillionth power, making it so unlikely as to be less likely than the chance of finding Captain Kidd on Mars in a hot tub with the Queen of Sheba.

For the moment, they were all stumped. The only thing they all agreed on was that it was a mystery.  A Great Mystery.

The discovery led to foundation money being given to further research in other locations on the planet. Corporate money dried up as the petroleum deposits were both too small and too remote to be commercially viable. So, nonprofit money took over. Either looking for a mate for the anomaly, or for the missing head.

Some felt that if God had fallen from the sky, perhaps his head had been the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs. Fischer had a good laugh over that, but came up short when he realized that the vast mountain range had begun its life at just about the same time the dinosaurs ended theirs.

No, it couldn’t be, he thought. But again, he was surprised he was even taking the question seriously.

3.

One of the joys of writing fiction is that you can know unknowable things in this made-up world. As author of it, I can actually give you the answer to E.B. Fischer’s conundrum. I made him up; I made up the world in which he lives; I made up even the Himalaya Mountains where the giant skeleton was found. It is a mountain range identical to the real one, except for the fact that it does not exist. Identical down to the last prayer flag and Tibetan village.

Since at least the middle of the 19th century, we have been talking about the death of God. But hardly anyone asks the question, how did He die? Old age? an assassination by German positivists? Perhaps it was the salmon mousse?

The fact is, history is often misremembered as it is passed down, especially in pre-literate societies. Things get changed, chronologies alter, insignificant events take on mythic importance. The story of Satan’s rebellion in Heaven is one of those things. The version that has come down to us says that a battalion of angels rebelled against the deity; a war was fought; Satan and his conspirators were thrown down into hell. John Milton tells a ripping version of this story, but you can forget it.

Remember, if you will, that we said that when the great chain of being goes into reverse, bad things happen. Like reverse peristalsis. In this case the bear ate the camper: The angels, wondering if there were any comestibles more delectable than the spiritual effulgencies of humankind, turned their attention to the head of the table and wondered if the radiance of God might not be better eating than the standard diet of cor hominis. In fact, compared with this new idea of eating upwards on the chain, the mere spiritual gristle of the human was as about as appealing as cold haggis.

And so, like a corp of flesh-eating zombies, a band of principalities, supported by a platoon of thrones and a single archangel, walked slowly toward the Lord and began tearing Him to pieces. Others soon joined in and like a turkey after a great Thanksgiving dinner, nothing was left of the carcass but the bones, which the angels soon threw over the gunnels of Heaven, when they drifted down and landed athwart the cordillera we call the Himalayas. Being what they call “subtle substance” — or at least what the Hindus call subtle substance — rather than the gross concrete substance of this sublunary world, they became fossilized not as actual bone or stone, but as a magnetic anomaly in the rock. This is what Fischer had discovered.

But the head, you ask. What about the head? Where did it wind up?

It ended up where such things usually wind up after the barbarians have taken the city: Outside the gate on a pike.

And even now, if you were to approach Heaven, beside the Pearly entrance you will see the grizzly bearded head of Providence, a warning to all who chance to enter.

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