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Visiting the churches, basilicas and cathedrals of Gothic northern Europe can be an intoxicating experience, and one can find oneself drugged into excessive panegyric. One recalls the excessive gushing of early 19th century writers and artists over the Romantic Middle Ages, with their knights in shining armor, courteous chivalry, and ladies in distress: Strawberry Hill, La Belle Dame sans Merci, Ivanhoe, et al.

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Certainly, a visit to Chartres or Sainte-Chapelle leaves one almost breathless in the sublimity of the interior space, the vaulting of heaven, the light through the stained glass. It is easy to become drunk with love for such buildings. But you should be careful not to fall into idolatry. They were, after all, built by human beings, and like their makers, can be imperfect.

Rouen Cathedral as seen from Gros HorlogeThe antidote to such architectural genuflection can be a visit to a Gothic cathedral that fails to rise completely to such admiration. For me, that moment came on seeing the monster at the heart of Rouen in Normandy. Rouen cathedral bullies the town, dominating the city with its giant spire, so out of proportion.

There is a perfectly good cathedral in the middle of it all, but it is buttressed on both shoulders by giant towers so out of scale as to seem like prison guards hectoring the poor dwarf between them, and then topped with a Victorian-era cast-iron steeple that is twice the height of the church itself. It is this Gothic designed taffy-pulled into parody.

Inside, the cathedral is spare. It was badly damaged by bombs during World War II, and most of the stained glass has been replaced by clear frosted glass. This makes the interior brighter than in most cathedrals, but also makes it look, as Rick Steves says, “like the largest mens’ room ever.”

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It is hard to recognize just what the Victorian critic John Ruskin was thinking when he wrote of Rouen, “It is the most exquisite piece of pure Flamboyant work existing. There is not one cusp, one finial, that is useless, not a stroke of the chisel is in vain; the grace and luxuriance of it all are visible — sensible, rather, even to the un-inquiring eye; and all its minuteness does not diminish the majesty, while it increases the mystery of the noble and unbroken vault.” Ruskin may have been smoking something.

That is the kind of gushing I believe a modern visitor to Rouen will find quelled by simply looking at what is in front of him. Ruskin, it seems, was still blotto on the overkill of breathy Victorian enthusiasm.

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Historians like to divide the Gothic idea into subsets, early, high, rayonnant and flamboyant styles. Rouen, as it exists now, is primarily the last, gauded up with all kinds of filigree and tracery. Its west facade (aka, its front), is so detailed as to make it impossible to take it all in as a single entity. This is made worse by the twin towers muscling the central building into a cowering detainee. The older tower, the Tour St. Romain, sits to the left (to the south), and rises on decaying brick and stone. The newer one, the so-called Butter Tower, was added much later to balance the earlier one, and re-establish symmetry. The result is that the building’s footprint is wider than it is tall (not counting the spire, but just the actual nave and aisles huddled below) and therefore negating the whole upthrusting heavenward leap most characteristic of Gothic church architecture. Instead of reaching for the heavens, it seems as wide as a warehouse.

Most of the Medieval churches were constructed piecemeal over centuries, and in almost every case, styles changed over that time, and so Gothic architecture is an especially heterogeneous one: unity out of difference. Rouen takes that idea and runs with it. It was begun in 1035 on the ruins of a previous Romanesque site that had burnt down. Since then, the history of Rouen is one of calamity and rebuild. This constant reboot has made it a less harmonious jumble than one finds elsewhere, of ad hoc fixes, misguided redesigns and megalomaniac civic striving.

spire-destroyed-by-fire-in-1822It is the Peter Abelard of cathedrals, and a book could be written on the history of its misfortunes. The previous cathedral was struck by lightning in 1110, and construction began on the current building. The new one burnt again in 1200, destroying all but the nave arcades, the Saint-Romain tower and the left portal, with work ending in 1250. It was struck again by lightning in 1284, was partially taken down and rebuilt in 1302, the spire was blown down in a wind storm in 1353. The construction of the Butter Tower in the 16th century led to disturbances in the facade, which had to be reinforced (finished 1530). The original Gothic spire had burned down in 1514 and was finally replaced by a wooden spire covered in gold-plated lead in 1580, paid for, in part, by the selling of indulgences. In 1562, it was damaged by rebelling Calvinists  during the Wars of Religion, when much of the statuary and windows were destroyed. The cathedral was struck again by lightning in 1625 and 1642, damaged by a hurricane in 1683. The choir burnt in 1727 and a bell broke in 1786. During the French Revolution, the church, like many in France, was deconsecrated and turned into a civic building and metal parts of the church were melted down to make cannons and cannonballs. The spire was again blasted by lightning in 1822 and a new one made from cast iron added in 1876 (making it the tallest building in the world until displaced from atop the list four years later by the cathedral at Cologne. (Then to the Eiffel Tower in 1889).

rouen-wwii-2The misfortunes continued. In 1940, a fire damaged the building’s structure and burned that part of the city from the church to the Seine river, and later during World War II, the cathedral was bombed twice, first by the British, then by the Americans, just before D-Day. Parts of the south aisle were destroyed and the south tower burned. Much of the remaining stained glass was blown out, leading to the current situation with frosted glass in many of the windows.

Then, in 1999, a cyclone named Lothar destroyed one of the four wooden turrets surrounding the central lantern tower was blasted and fell crashing into the choir. The history of Rouen’s cathedral is one of constant upkeep and rebuilding, like trying to sustain a sand castle against the tide.

Yet, if the building seems a disappointment after Notre Dame de Paris, after Chartres or St. Denis, perhaps I am being too hard on it. It still has many redeeming details, and some very ancient survivors, like the north portal, or St. John the Baptist Portal. In its tympanum one sees the story of the prophet, Salome’s dance (more an gymnastics exhibition), the beheading of John and the presentation of his head on a platter. It was created in the 12th century and has survived fire, storm and the ravages of war.

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Then, there is the Booksellers’ Stairway (Escalier de la Librairie), which once led to the archives of the chapter, begun in 1479 and completed in 1788. And also on the north side is the only rose window that retains its stained glass, over the Portail des Libraires, created in the late 14th century by the artist Guillaume Nouel. The rose is partially blocked, but still can be seen. (The opposite rose window, above the Calende Portal in the south transept, is clear glass).

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There are some delightful tapestries hanging in the arcade between nave and aisle.

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Also, there is the Lady Chapel, growing out of the apse, like an elongated caterpillar, are some excellent windows and a huge 17th century altarpiece dedicated to the Virgin. The Lady Chapel (that is Our Lady — the Virgin Mary) was built in rayonnant style beginning in 1302 to replace an earlier, smaller chapel.

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And rising from the crossing of the transept is the opening in the ceiling that leads upward to the spire. While the vaulting is impressive enough, it is ever more striking to see the empty space defined by the interior of the nave opened up even higher, as if the incense and prayers could escape heavenward through it, like smoke through a chimney hole in Medieval dwelling. The vast spire tower and the godawful cast-iron spire are supported by four grand pillars marking the crossing of nave and transept, but even with those giant supports, the ceiling and the hole in it inspire an exceptional sense of what you could call “spiritual uplift,” as if the chimney had an efficient updraft.

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Nowadays, the parvis (plaza in front of the cathedral) is notably commercial, with an underwear store across from the triple portals —

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the western exterior of the church has nevertheless inspired one of the great painting series of the Impressionist era. Claude Monet painted that cathedral front something like 30 times, in sun, shade, rain, moonlight and in morning, afternoon, and night. The paintings are now spread around the world in various museums.

The painter would set up his easel — sometimes easels — across from the church and paint on one canvas in the morning to catch the first glow of light, then switch to another canvas later on to paint the afternoon light. He might switch canvases many times, over days and weeks, to catch the various effects.

I couldn’t do that in my short visit to Rouen, but I did photograph the cathedral throughout the day to make my own mini-Monet spread.

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Some years ago, we knew we wanted to see Europe. But we weren’t sure where we wanted to go. This was at the beginning of our new century. Friends had just visited Rome and brought back exciting video, photographs, watercolors they had made, and most of all, stories. It whetted our appetite.

But once we made the decision to go to Europe, we stopped to wonder if Rome was our only option. Perhaps we should think carefully if there might be some other destination that might call us.

We thought of Prague, Paris, London, Florence, Budapest.

London we ruled out because we wanted the experience of being somewhere that doesn’t speak English. We agonized for some months, fantasizing this place or that. We finally narrowed it down to Paris or Rome.

Rome — Baroque palaces, Classical ruins. Paris — Gothic cathedrals.  Do we want the classical experience, or the Medieval?

Yes, that’s what it came down to. Ultimately, the gray stone of the 11th century was more appealing to us than the sunnier marble of the Mediterranean.

nd-fruiting-branch-sculptureWe decided on Paris, with the plan to avoid all standard tourist fare and attempt to feel what it might be like to live in the city. We would eat in the neighborhood, shop in the neighborhood and walk up and down its streets. In addition, we would try to see as many Gothic churches as possible. In each subsequent visit to France, we managed to add to our life list of important architectural sites, and we developed a growing appreciation for both their beauty and their ability to inspire a profound inward-looking sense of the infinite.

I hope the reason for all this will be clear as I write about them. We kept a journal of our visits, over the years, and alternated portions written by me and often more personal portions written by my wife, Carole. There is an immediacy to these journals that cannot be recaptured in a more finished ready-for-print version and I hope you can enjoy them.

Over the years I have visited Notre Dame de Paris maybe a dozen times — multiple occasions each time we ventured to France. It was a lodestone that drew us back over and over for that glimpse into eternity that only an 800-year-old empty space can provide. The first time I went, was in 1964 and I was a teen ager, barely able to grasp what I had seen. It was before the cathedral was cleaned, and was a giant sooty briquette on the Île de la Cité. The second time was our first trip together in 2002, which was covered in an earlier series of blog entries (see: Paris 2002 Part 1). That included accidentally participating in an Easter Mass; we did not realize it was Easter. (See: Paris 2002 Part 5).

This new series of entries begins two years later when we went back. The photographs for each of these entries were taken at the time we wrote the journals.

Here is our return to Notre Dame in 2004, first my entry, then Carole’s (she puts me to shame).

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Richard’s entry:

We walked to the river and down the quai to the cathedral.

“This is why we came here,” said Carole.

And we walked in and the building did not disappoint us: The space remains magic. The rose windows remain the most beautiful art I have ever seen.

“Most buildings are constructed to contain something,” she said. “Most contain furniture, or people, or warehouses that contain lumber or dry goods. This building is constructed to contain the space itself.”

nd-vaulting-diagonalShe is certainly right about that. The space itself, the negative, if it were turned positive, is the shape of — what — infinity. The shape of the interior of our “souls.” The shape of the inner dome of our skulls projected out into space.

It was early in the morning and the rising sun poured directly in through the apse windows. A small mass was being said in the choir and the light shone down on them.

I went around making photographs, mostly of the sculpture at the west portals. Carole sat still inside and soaked up the ambiance.

We stayed most of the morning. We will go back.

Notre Dame is the reason we visit: There is nothing in the U.S. that gives quite this same spiritual sense. One begins to understand the appeal of Christianity to the Medieval mind. There is something mythological rather than ethical to the religion engendered by such a building, something theatrical rather than pious.

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Carole’s entry:

Oh. Notre Dame was just the place, just the room, just the building.

nd-chandelier-2This time, I spent most of my time looking at the windows from the center of the cathedral. And I especially loved the trees around Notre Dame, because they have grown in a special environment. They haven’t been treated like ordinary trees and they’re just a short distance from trees of their same species, but they’ve been treated like sacred statues because they’re part of Notre Dame.

Something else I loved, was the wood in Notre Dame. It reminded very much of the logs in Aunt Donie’s house in Wilkes County (North Carolina). Aunt Donie’s cabin was very old and there is something about the wood in both places that is the same.

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This time, the part of Notre Dame that became very real for me is the empty space above my head and it was like the empty space around a still life that I drew a long time ago on the day I realized that the empty space was not empty.

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Today I thought the most beautiful window was the one at floor level behind the altar because the sun was coming in and the leading in that window looked like a tree with branches and it gave me the very human feeling of sun behind trees in the evening.

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Oh, the sculpture outside Notre Dame is a different color now and it is so smooth it looks like modeled clay.

I think maybe Notre Dame is the most important art that I’ve ever seen. I wanted to sit so I could line up the top of my head with the part of the ceiling that had a curve most like the top of my head.

I truly felt in a human attitude that I share with people who lived centuries ago, or maybe thousands of years ago. I was frustrated by knowing anything that I do know about architecture or art or history or Christianity and I kept trying to clear my mind so that I could put myself in the right relationship with the room that I was in and the same with the outside of the building.

nd-scenes-of-hellI almost got to the point where the demons on the outside of the cathedral were comprehended by me on a completely visual level. I wanted very much to have the experience of an ordinary person who was seeing Notre Dame for the very first time centuries ago and would have been able to read the building visually. Today the cathedral worked on me profoundly in a visual and spacial way, but I regret that I am not one of those who participated with that architecture with innocence and terror and devotion.

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And all of that is the part of today I don’t ever want to forget.

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I feel like I don’t understand the windows yet, even though I did sit there and look, not at the side windows, but the three rose windows and they were beautiful, but I couldn’t make them work on me the way the window behind the altar began to work. I want that kind of thing to happen with the rose windows. But I do understand the rose windows at a level now that is not just intellectual and I think they’re very mysterious and that they must work but that I haven’t been able to get them turned on yet.

The sculptures of the actual humans and the idealized humans — the saints and the kings — and the symbolic humans suffering in hell, and the other worldly figures of angels and little grinning devils affect me in a way that is really beyond language except that if I try to describe it it would be like going on one of our trips out West and seeing really massive places of stone that nature had created naturally, and seeing how it was made completely by the mighty forces of time and weight and heat and wind and water, but especially time, and that those big outcroppings of rock, faces of rock, are completely indifferent to being perceived by any kind of intelligence, but are profound and affecting faces of rock and the statues affect me in almost the very same way, amazing and profound to me, and because they have been affected through time, they seem mighty to me.

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Not just that they show the evidence of time, but most of all that they testify to the mystery that is inside our minds. I love the silence of Notre Dame, the silence of the architecture.

When we go to sleep at night here knowing that Notre Dame is there, it is a lot like going to sleep in the Blue Ridge knowing the mountains are there.

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I have avoided writing about current politics for several reasons. Firstly, because the situation so quickly changes, nothing you write today may hold for tomorrow. Secondly, because it is so touchy a subject, you risk alienating your reader for minor offenses that can be taken as index markers for major disagreements. Thirdly, because politics is such a minor part of what makes a difference in our individual lives; so many other things are more important and more interesting.

Nevertheless, the chaos of the current American situation calls for some small clarification. Arguments muddy when thinking is unclear.

To begin, there is the issue of Donald Trump, which is a great squirt of squid juice, obscuring more lasting problems. It is easy to make fun of the Great Pumpkin, he practically satirizes himself. While he has fervent supporters, it is hard to know exactly what he stands for, because his words are so vague in application, no matter how blunt in expression. It is always possible to assume he is your ally, because you only listen to those words that honk your horn. Is he conservative? Conservatives value free trade. Is he pro-business? Business has told him they need an immigrant workforce. What does he stand for besides ignorance?

He is an obfuscation on the surface, a chaos beyond that because, of course, he has no ideology, other than Trumpism. It is not his supposed conservatism that I object to; there have been many thoughtful conservatives. Trump is not one of them; he isn’t even a conservative at all. What scares the bejeezus out of me about him is that he is so clearly unbalanced mentally. The word Andrew Sullivan has used is “bonkers,” and that can hardly be improved for accuracy. The constant wheezing about his vote count, poll numbers, inauguration crowd, all spouted against obvious and visual evidence, is a clear indication that he is unmoored from reality.

Then, there are the speeches, barely in English. They are really just sentence fragments thrown together with unattached adjectives. Yuge, sad, unbelievable, disgusting. They, as Philip Roth has counted them, are constructed from a vocabulary of a mere 77 words, reused and rearranged ad hoc. They jump around from topic to topic with little or no segue. And then, they are filled with things that are demonstrably untrue. One watches over an over when Trump says he never said this or that, followed by the videotape of him saying exactly what he now says he never said. Does he not know that his words have been recorded?

It cannot be easily said that Trump is a liar, because a liar knows what he is saying is untrue. Others manipulate statistics to make their arguments; Trump just pulls stuff out of his ass. Evidence is irrelevant.

Further, he uses these exanus pronouncements to support his chaotic policy pronouncements, which tend to be simple-minded in the extreme. Problems are usually complex and systemic; his solutions are simple-minded and blunt as a cudgel. He shows contempt for subtlety. If the problem is illegal immigration, his solution is not to consider the cause of the immigration, but to build a wall, despite the fact that the majority of the illegal immigration does not cross the desert border, but flies into our airports. My favorite joke about the wall: “Wall — cost: $12 billion; ladder — cost: $35.”

But this is not meant to be a jab at Trump, who is clearly unhinged, not very bright, not at all subtle, and basically a bully at heart. It is too easy to target him; he is a joke. A dangerous joke, who may very well destroy the world at the push of a button, but a joke nonetheless.

No, what I want to point out is that there is, beyond Trump, a basic misunderstanding of the political divisions in the country.

The divisions are very real. Between urban and rural, between liberal and conservative, between Republican and Democrat. But I want to point out that these may overlap, like Venn diagrams, the dipoles are not identical. We too often confuse conservative with Republican and liberal with Democrat. There may be overlap, but more important, their goals are different.

There is a clear difference between liberal and conservative. As they are defined nowadays (very different from when they originated and when conservatism favored a strong central government), the conservative now seeks a smaller central government and the liberal, an activist government working for the betterment of its citizens. The one favors the individual, the other, the community. The one is exclusionary, the other inclusive. And it is clear that as the political scene is currently deployed, Republicans tend to favor conservatism and Democrats tend to the liberal, although Republicans are more extremely weighted to the far-end of conservatism than the Democrats are to the left wing.

But, such thoughts of political philosophy are largely irrelevant to the actualities of politics. One should never conflate Republican with conservative, nor Democrat with liberal. The aims of ideology are to promote a world view and an action plan to enforce that world view. But that is not the aim of the Republican party. Certainly, it will use conservative ideas to further its ends when it can, but its primary driving aim is the accrual and preservation of power. This is central and should never be forgotten: Republicans will do whatever they need to to gain and keep power. Democrats have a similar, but weaker drive. Many Democrats join the party because they think they can make the world a better place. Some Republicans do that, too, but the aim of the party on the whole is not the improvement of society, but the exercise of power. It is King of the Hill on a hemispheric playing field.

This is not to say that most Republicans don’t believe, by and large, that conservative policies would help the nation, but that whether or not they do is secondary to the accretion of political power. Hence, the contorted, serpentine Congressional districts, gerrymandered into silliness in order to ensure Republican supremacy. (Yes, Democrats have done the same — in fact, they invented the procedure in the 19th century — but they were pikers compared to the modern attempt to engineer a “permanent Republican majority.”) Hence, the bald-faced hypocrisy of choosing sides on an issue solely on the basis of whether a Republican or Democrat is offering it for a vote (as with the Republican-designed Affordable Care Act, which became an unswallowable “disaster” when recycled by the Obama administration. Hence, the use of arcane Senate or House rules, or the threat of the “nuclear option,” when it favors them, and outrage when used against them.

And it is why Republicans were gulled into supporting Trump when it looked like he might win the White House back for the party, despite the problem of Trump espousing ideas contrary to longstanding Republican policies. Trump is, after all, not a Republican, except in name, and not a conservative, as it is usually defined. He is sui generis, a propounder of Trump now, Trump tomorrow, Trump forever.

One area in which Trump and Republican world views agree is that the primary lens through which to view policy is economic. Money is the gravity that holds that world together. Whether it’s tax cuts, deregulation or fear of unions and a raise in minimum wage, the heart and soul of the conservative world view is money. The very idea of “running government like a business” is a consequence of this Weltanschauung. But across the world, this idea is changing. Governments are not businesses.

There is a historical storyline here. In the feudal past, with the king at the top of the pile, government was essentially a protection racket, with each level of vassalage “wetting its beak” in the next level down, and everyone feeding on the peasants. The general welfare of the populace was not even an empty platitude. As nation states developed from the Medieval sense of monarchal real estate, the idea of decent governance took hold. Since the New Deal in the U.S., and post-war in the better part of the rest of the world, governments have assumed the duty of protecting the welfare of its populace. All through Europe, governments guarantee health care, safety, minimum living wages, shorter work weeks and longer vacations. The U.S. has resisted such things. For Republicans (distinct from conservatives, who also have many social issues) and Trump see the world through dollar-tinted glasses. It is a reversion to the Medieval model, where all wealth floats upward like a bubble in the champagne. And it is power that guarantees the income. The goal of the Republican party is not so much the institution of conservative ideas, rather it is the use of conservative ideas to protect and increase individual wealth.

The problem is, that while money can make life easier to navigate, money cannot make life worth living. For that, you need the other aspects of life that Democrats — and most of the rest of the world — embrace. Freedom from oppression, sufficient means for living, cooperative communities, aid for the less fortunate, an even playing field for all. Among the things that make life worth living are family, love, art, religion, good health, and shared interests and shared mythology.

For Trump and the Republican party both, the world they see is transactional. It is also a zero-sum game, and the winning is all. We need to recall that when we let ourselves be gulled into arguing over conservative and liberal. Those labels are merely the masks worn in the more brutal fight over who will be the alpha dog.

fellini-3I was watching Fellini’s 8½ the other night and found myself weeping uncontrollably at the end. The last 20 minutes of the film make little or no literal sense, and works on purely emotional level — I wanted to say symbolic, but it isn’t really symbol that works here; rather it is a dreamlike series of images that cannot be rationally explicated. They simply add up. One can see the final dance as a riposte to the end of Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal, where there is a line of dancers following death silhouetted on the hillside; in Fellini, it is rather a circus dance of life, to the rhythm of Nino Rota’s music, which somehow manages to mix sadness with ebullience. In Bergman, the queue is linear and headed to oblivion; in Fellini, it is circular and continuous.

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But what was important wasn’t meaning but effect. There I was with hot wet cheeks and full heart, profoundly moved, although I could not explain exactly why. In some ways, the finale of the movie is silly, even childish. Somehow, though, it hit some resonant note. I was a wet rag, drained and filled at the same time.

I bring it up because so often our response to art is too little; we are trained — especially if we are professional critics, as I was — to make notes, consider intellectual points, compare and contrast, bring context and place the experience in a historical moment. Yet, if I were to say truly, none of that really matters; what matters is whether I am moved. Art, whether literature, movie, music, architecture or painting, needs to do more than divert us, to entertain or tickle our pleasure centers. It should change our lives. This is not easy; this is rare.

emily-dickinson-daguerreotypeI remember reading a quote by Emily Dickinson, in a letter she wrote to her patron Thomas Wentworth Higginson: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”

When I was younger, this struck me as schoolgirl hyperbole. Now I am an old man, and I am poorly satisfied with anything that doesn’t take the top of my head off. Through a lifetime of concerts, theater and galleries, I must report that very little displayed therein reaches that bar. Most of the time, art gives us pleasure enough — we enjoy the tunes or the colors — but it does not rip us up, tear us apart and reassemble us in new ways. To justify art in terms of its prettiness diminishes the importance it plays in life and in culture. We must consider it in terms of how it changes us, leaves us weeping and hollowed out.

I have attended hundreds, perhaps thousands of concerts in my life. I have enjoyed most of them, and even in those that have been disastrous, there is almost always some moment of pleasure. (I remember a concert of amateurs attempting to play some Dvorak; they were godawful, out of tune, out of rhythm, unbalanced, a horrendous squawk — but they played with such obvious gusto and enthusiasm, and were enjoying themselves so much, I found I considered myself truly lucky to have heard them). But I can also count a few score times in seven decades, the number of times I was actually transported by a performance. Yet, those few times bring me back over and over in hopes of once again entering that heaven to hear those angels.

I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch blow the hell out of Richard Strauss’ Don Juan, with a chorus of eight horns sounding the great heroic horn call. There was a physicality to that blast that cannot be captured in a recording. I felt the music through the seat of my pants as much as through my ears. It made me believe.

Early in my career, in 1964, I heard Emil Gilels at the Brooklyn Academy of Music play the Liszt B-minor sonata. I can still remember it, even to the seat where I was sitting and the angle I viewed the pianist from.

Twice, I have heard Yo-Yo Ma play the Bach Unaccompanied Suites for cello, and twice I have visited Elysium. He has recorded those suites three times in the course of his career, and none of them captures the lightning of the live performance. Not even close.

apollo-1It isn’t just music, though. I can read and reread Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode and every time, I break down and weep. I have stood beneath the north rose window at Chartres and each time I have done so, I have been transfixed, even transfigured. It is the most beautiful manmade thing I have ever seen — a lens to focus a vision of paradise directly into my hypothalamus. I had a similar reaction the first time (and each time) I saw George Balanchine’s Apollo. It is pure sorcery, magic, unalloyed beauty. Not beauty so much as reason-to-live.

I could go on, making a list. But that would be futile, and also misleading. Because the fact I was transported to some ring of heaven beyond the seventh by the Cezannes at the National Gallery in Washington DC, that does nothing to guarantee you will have the same experience. Making a list of the “great works of art” is pointless, because what matters is not the “objective” quality of a piece of art, but rather its resonance in the psyche and like any physical object, we resonate at different frequencies. What opens the floodgates in one set of eyes can leave the next pair unmoved. Chaucer’s short poem, Trouthe, has been a touchstone for me. For others, it may be a jumble of archaic vocabulary. You may melt to a puddle at Musetta’s waltz from La Boheme, and I might think it a catchy tune. De gustibus.

king-learWhat matters, however, is that we find in whatever art that moves us, some special shattering of the veil of everydayness, a bursting out into the glory, the recognition that the night sky is infinite, that there is some web, some complex knot of emotional string that ties us together as human beings. It may be Michelangelo’s Pieta, Picasso’s Guernica, Brahms’ German Requiem, that moment at the end of King Lear when he carries the dead Cordelia back on stage and we realize his splintered ignorance and madness is our own —  it gives lie to all the feel-good rah-rah about “the arts,” and the chamber-of-commerce support for cultural institutions. It isn’t that the arts are some charming little ornament to our civic lives, but that when that spark ignites in the rare cases it happens, our entire beings are set on fire. There is nothing “nice” about it. It is disruptive, challenging, destructive in the way destruction can lead to new birth. I never want to be subjected to pleasant art. I want to be battered by it (pace John Donne).

What makes it all more frustrating, however, is that it can never be just the piece of art. If I was profoundly moved by Balanchine’s Prodigal Son the first time I saw it, that is no guarantee that I will have the same experience the next time, and not because of a variability in performance, but because the art can seep in and work its power on us only when we are receptive. I may have had a overcooked pork chop before heading to the concert hall, or a disturbing letter in the mail, and cannot receive the gift of the performance. I may just not be in the mood for Sam Beckett that night; or the memory of one conductor’s Beethoven may deafen me to the new one being offered. A thousand distractions block the missive from the gods.

There is also our age: What moves us at 20 may not at 65. We find new depths in things we were once blind to, and outgrow early enthusiasms. This is natural and if it didn’t happen, something would be wrong.

So, we should be all the more grateful when we can open our chests to the lash of what is being gifted us.

everymans-library-lede-pic

As I’ve become older, I have become less tolerant of badly-designed, -printed and or -bound books. When I was younger, often I didn’t really know the difference, or thought there was nothing I could do about it — I would just have to read whatever volume came to hand.

These days, however, if a book is the wrong size, has print too tiny, or margins to slender, or its binding cracks when opened too often, I simply put it aside and pick up another book.

It helps that the books I read are primarily classics — that is, books that come in various published versions. Best sellers tend to come only in the version their publishers produce, but when it comes to Lucretius or Melville, you can find a choice of version. You don’t have to put up with yellowing paper or brittle glued bindings.

I bring this up, because I have settled on a prodigy of good book production. The paper is acid free, the type is neither too small or too big, the ink is solidly black, the margins adequate for scribbling, the bindings tight and the covers covered in a beautiful linen. As a bonus, each book comes with its own ribbon bookmark attached to the spine. They are sold under the name Everyman’s Library and in the U.S. are an imprint of Knopf.modern-library-2

The current editions are not the same as the classic Everyman’s Library books that are the hidden treasure dug up in every excavation of a dusty old used bookstore in an off-the-way road in rural America. In the past, avid prospectors of used books to read (as opposed to the more modern perversion of seeking first-editions and rare books for a “collection” shown off to visitors and seldom actually read) would seek out Everyman’s books and their American equivalent, Modern Library books. They were cheap, well made and gave you access to all the classic novels and poetry you craved. You can still uncover Modern Library books on the swayback shelves of those bookstores, but some of them have actually become “collectible,” and therefore unaffordable.

everyman-old-style

everyman-old-style-stackThe original Everyman’s Library was devised in 1905 by J.M. Dent and Company in London, with the idea of creating a 1,000 book library of world literature affordable to the ordinary man (and woman). The books originally sold for a shilling apiece (roughly $5 in current U.S. dollars). The books were beautifully designed, in imitation of the books of the Kelmscott Press, and were pocket size and hard cover. I still own several titles, including the entire Spectator series written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, from the 18th century. Four volumes of enameled prose.

The current Everyman’s Library books are full size, with nice curved spines, clean linen hard covers, color coded by which century a book was written in, and offer more than 300 titles. They also produce a series of pocket-sized volumes of poetry that you can carry around with you without tearing open the corners of your jacket pockets.

The first of the new Everyman’s Library I became aware of was when I looked for a version of Tristram Shandy I could read. The one I had was a lousy paperback in dense print with insufficient leading between lines. It was an offset print version poorly inked, meaning the letters often grayed out on the yellowed pages. Pfui. But I found a used copy of the Everyman’s Library version and it was as if the sun shone from behind the clouds and the angels’ sang. I read it cover to cover, enjoyed the hell out of it and realized how much the book design helped me navigate it.

library-of-america-shelf

There is another excellent series of books published as the Library of America, which reprints American classics in beautiful editions. Compared with the Everyman’s Library, the Library of America suffers from slightly smaller type and thinner paper. They are excellently edited and offer many tomes not even available elsewhere (such as William Bartram’s Travels and Francis Parkman’s histories). As I gaze to my left at the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf in my office, I count 49 Library of America book spines. I seek them out in used bookstores to save a few bucks — another advantage of the Everyman’s Library books is that, while they are no longer a shilling apiece, they do run an average of a third less than the Library of America offerings.

best-of-wodehouse-coverI bring all this up because I am presently reading the Everyman’s Library edition of P.G. Wodehouse. It is 840 pages of Jeeves, Bertie Wooster, Blandings Castle and Mr. Mulliner in prose as frothy as the foam above a double latte. Friends who know me well knot their eyebrows and wonder what’s going on with Nilsen. Where is the man who would rather collate translations of Vergil than dive into a chocolate sundae?

As it turns out, one needs some balance in a life. As I consider my recent reading history I see the obvious pattern. After diving deep (and I mean deep) into Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, I needed to blow off the louring clouds, and took on John Updike’s Bech books — collected, as it turned out, in an Everyman’s Library volume. Enjoyed the heck out of them.

After that I took on Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. It is three giant volumes long of depression, depravity, injustice, sadism and totalitarianism. I got through the first volume and a half before I had to put it down for a spell. In the interim, I took up Jean Renoir’s memoir of his father. It was a joy to read. I am not a big fan of Pierre Auguste’s paintings, but his son is an excellent writer and I came to value Renoir pere as a man, even if the book didn’t change my thinking about him as an artist.

It felt like diving into the sea, coming up for air, diving down once again, and coming up into the sunlight for relief.

After Renoir, I got back into the Gulag, but soon needed more oxygen, so before I even finished Vol. 2, I headed off to reread Melville’s I and My Chimney — my favorite of his Piazza Tales, and then into A Mencken Chrestomathy, for a good draught of cynicism and cold water before returning to the Solzhenitsyn. But I got sidetracked by another Everyman’s Library book: The Book of Common Prayer.

I don’t know if it was the recent election or what, but I felt I needed the cleansing of some very pure language. You may ask, why would a hardened atheist decide to read Thomas Cranmer’s iconic prayer book? It certainly wasn’t for the theology; it was for the words, so familiar to us, speaking to us of hundreds of years of linguistic tradition, a source of all we take as serious and dignified in the English language. It is hard to turn the page and not find some phrase that is our mother tongue’s subconscious. There is comfort in those cadences.

After that, I took on D.H. Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico. I enjoy his travel books more than his fiction. He is one odd fellow, idiosyncratic, often wrong-headed in the extreme, but always fun to read.

Other palate-cleansers I have dipped into include Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey and James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.

war-and-peaceWhen I have done with Wodehouse, the next in the queue is War and Peace. It is a book that if I were to go to a Roman Catholic confession, I would have to admit, “Father forgive me, for I have sinned. I have never read War and Peace.” I know it is on the list of books that one should have read, but although I had begun the thing several times over the years, I had never found a volume comfortable enough to read. The thing is immense. One version I bought came with a complimentary hydraulic lift to help lug it around.

Then I discovered the Everyman’s Library edition — in three easily handled volumes, breaking up the density into digestible bits. It comes in its own box, with small wheels attached to help roll it around. (Actually, I’m making up the wheels, but it does have its own box.)

It sits there staring at me, waiting for me to finish with Bertie Wooster and challenging me with Pierre Bezukhov. If I make it through — like trudging from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok — I will find something a little lighter to serve as a sherbet dessert before taking up Vol. 3 of the Gulag.

carnac-alignment

We went to see the stones. They stretched for miles, each stone like an  upright soldier in a formation. They are called “menhirs,” and they populate the area around the seaside town of Carnac in Brittany.

When we drove up to the first formation, the sun was low in the sky and shadows stretching long. We stopped by a field filled with menhir and dolmen, the ancient stones erected some 7,000 years ago for god knows what purpose. Thousands of the stones in stripes across fields, and made of a type of granite that is not local. No one knows how they were made nor why. Carole was especially worried about why.

“Maybe they were religious,” she said. That is the most common supposition. But that didn’t really satisfy her.

“I know,” she said, “they must have been used for some sport. If something was important enough for men to exert this much communal effort to transport tons of stones over miles and miles, there must be a stick and a ball involved.”

We’d drive for a few more miles and she’d pop out with, “Or maybe they were the foundation for some kind of building,” and then, after not saying anything for a long while, “Maybe they were meant to line up like soldiers; maybe they scared off an enemy.” She seemed obsessed with the stones.

tourists-at-the-menhir

Click on any photo to enlarge

 

The next day, we went out to explore. Some 4,000 menhirs, or upright granite stones, from about three feet high to almost 20 feet, are striped across the landscape in three or four major “alignments,” as they are called.

Erected some 5 thousand years ago, or maybe 7 thousand — it all seems lost in the haze of prehistory — the Celtic forebears of the Bretons hauled these logs of granite from their origin, miles away, and lined them up over the rolling meadows just north of town.

No one knows that they were erected for. The usual theories of religious meaning are trotted out, but no one really knows. Carole persists for a while that they must have been used for some sort of sport or game, going on the theory that only a Superbowl or the Olympics can bring that much commitment out of a guy, let alone a lot of guys.

menhir-3

We talked about it at lunch, in Locmariaquer, the site of some other megaliths.

Over the oysters, I said, “I think that it is just as likely that someone in the old days went crazy, heard voices in his head telling him to to this, and he then, through the intensity of his insanity, persuaded the community to erect the menhirs. Like a sachem in an Indian tribe. ”

Carole dislike the idea that this might reflect badly on shamans. She maintains there is a difference between visions and psychosis. She has her own reasons for holding this distinction.

“That’s not quite what I mean,” I said. “I mean that someone genuinely nutso hears voices, like Son of Sam — ‘My dog told me to do it’ — and because to ordinary people a shaman and a nutjob are very hard to tell apart, they might have signed on to follow him, the way the Germans signed on to follow Hitler to Valhalla.”

“But the shaman’s vision is always one to help the people, never to harm them,” Carole said.

“Well, Hitler certainly thought he was helping Germany, but we’re getting off on a tangent,” I said. “I just mean that, well, like Moses in the desert, perhaps touched by the sun and heat, came up with a lot of crazy ideas, maybe some prehistoric Celt went off the deep end and the voices in his head told him they needed to build a field of giant upright granite stones.

“It makes as much sense as any of the other ideas,” I said.

Of course, we’ll never know. Carole is obsessed with them right now, wanting to have an answer.

“Don’t you want to know?” She asked.

“But I can’t know.”

“But doesn’t it eat at you?”

“No, I can’t say so,” I said.

“It’s driving me nuts,” she said.

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Later, in the evening, after supper, sitting in the hotel room, she started up once more.

“I thought they might be made as a display to the stars, or a sighting device to line up with stars or the sun or the moon seasonally,” she said. She sat for a moment and then began a litany of possible explanations.

“Maybe people stood on them and covered their bodies and the rocks with some sort of long garment that made them look like thousands of extremely tall and powerful people.

“Maybe they were set up to baffle a stampeding herd of animals.

“Maybe they were set up to make it difficult for an enemy to advance.”

I imagined them like some prefiguration of pachinko, used as a military tactic. Ingenious, I thought.

“Maybe,” she went on, “they were put in the ground so that if one were far, far from home, one could climb up into the mountains and look down and find these stones as a marker for home.”

The only problem with that: No mountains here.

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“Maybe they were part of corrals and used for the beginning domestication of animals.

“Maybe they were racetrack lanes for racing animals.

“Maybe they used to be part of another kind of a structure that included wood and animal hides.

“Maybe they were part of ancient stalls filled with trade goods.

“Maybe they were an arduous maze a person had to thread through like the meditation mazes in cathedrals.

“Maybe they had something to do with cognitive development — a step between concrete thinking and abstract thinking. Maybe they used them to learn to count from one to a thousand.”

After worrying about this for two days, she continued as we drove out of town, on to Concarneau.

“I need to know what they were for,” she said. “I still think my best guess is that they were for some sort of ball game. You know men are fascinated by a combination of sticks and balls and counting. The counting is important.”

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A woman we met, who was from Great Britain, said that she read that the rocks at Stonehenge were transported from far away, also, and that there is a theory that they came from a site powerfully effective in healing.

“But I don’t think that is what these stones were for,” Carole said after we drove on. “They must have been for something massive, because there were thousands of them. They must have been very important for the people who arranged them, because the second group we looked at were actually stone paths, completely straight, leading toward the horizon for many many many miles. So I thought maybe this part of the stone arrangement is a runway for souls. Souls taking off to their journey to the afterlife on foot, that is.

“Maybe they were foundation stones upon which wooden logs were placed for some type of a floor and another structure made of wood came up higher. If they were used as foundation, the equidistant placing of them makes sense, because they are about as far apart as an ordinary tree trunk.

“Or maybe creatures with immense strength arrived from outer space and used some sort of anti-gravity device to pick the rocks up and put them down again in this part of France.

“Maybe they are thousands of monoliths like the black rectangle in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“Maybe they were a huge dentist office and each person had his own stone to come to and bang his head against until he was senseless and no longer could feel the toothache.”

She was beginning to get a little punchy.

“I also think my first impression of them might be worth something —  that was that they were the earth’s teeth.”

cairn-frontispiece

Part 2

I am a reasonable man and my goals are reasonable. Some burn for the challenge of climbing great peaks; my more modest goals involve the less famous ones. They can have their Everest, their K-2, their Matterhorn or Aconcagua. I have Tucker Mountain.

It sits in Hancock County, on the coast of Maine, north of where any tourists go. From its summit, there is a great view to the south and Cadillac Mountain and Mt. Desert Isle. Its summit, by the way, tops out at 394 feet above sea level. More my style. Still, in places, it is a rugged enough hike.

My friend Alexander wanted to show me the view, and we walked through the mossy woods up past rocky outcrops and on to the goal. Along the way, we kept passing cairns — piles of rock set up by hikers. Some were simply rock-piles, but others showed more ambition, and could easily have passed for sculpture in any trendy art gallery. The more of them we passed, the more it seemed as if something cultural were going on — that there must be some compulsion to make these stony reminders that Kilroy was here.

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I photographed them as we walked, and by the end of the day, I had something like 50 or 60 images of them, and that counts having given up on cataloging every single instance; I did not photograph many of the more mundane piles.

I don’t know if such things litter the tops of all the local mountains. I don’t remember seeing so many cairns when Alexander and I climbed the summit of the more daunting Schoodic Mountain nearby (summit: 1,069 feet). Perhaps the cairns on Tucker Mountain (I should call it Tucker Hill) are the work of a single artist, or a single obsessive personality, or a small group of people wanting to make a statement. Usually cairns are left either to mark the trail, or to commemorate some important event. These seemed to exist for their own sake.

But they certainly brought to mind the dolmens, cromlechs and menhirs of Celtic Europe. They don’t have the permanence of those menhirs, which have survived thousands of years; these cairns are just rock set on rock, so the first hard frost could topple them. But I had to wonder if the impulse might have been the same: Make my mark — the X on the dotted line — the proof that someone was here.

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There is a resistance to cairns; many dedicated hikers despise them for being unnatural, and for being the equivalent of vandalism. I can’t join their ranks. The best of these cairns are genuine works of art and should be appreciated for such. Their artifice can hardly be a valid source of complaint when the hikers are marching along equally artificial trails through the woods, marked with paint blazes or diamond-shaped route markers stapled to tree trunks.

The cairn-makers may well think of themselves as being clever, postmodern, or snarky, but the bottom line, on which their “X” resides, is that the cairns are the universal cry of the one among the many, like the opening wail of the newborn baby: I am here.

1948-1949-1953

Who are you?

I don’t mean your name or your job or your nationality or ethnicity. But who and what are you? I should like you to think about that for a moment.

Many people believe in a heaven after death where they will meet their loved ones again. But what will they look like? For that matter, in heaven, what will you look like? If you have an internal sense of who you are, what does that person look like? This is not a random question, but a way of considering one of the fundamental issues of existence and of our way of understanding that existence. If you had an entry in the dictionary, what would the picture look like next to your name? Is there even a single image that captures the totality of your existence. When Alfred Stieglitz proposed to create a portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe, he took a bookload of photographs, since one could not ever be enough.

The problem is in thinking of existence as a noun.

For most of us, the cosmos is made up of things; indeed it is the sum total of things. This is a misunderstanding of the reality we live in. It is also a misunderstanding caused by our reliance on language as a way of dealing with that reality. Language leads us astray.

1956-1959-1962

When most people consider what the world is made of, they expect to encounter nouns — that is, things. When they consider themselves, they either think of how they look in the mirror now, but more often of an idealized version of them at the peak of their existence, perhaps when they were 25 or 30 years old. It’s how we will appear in heaven. We have this peculiar idea that nouns are a static identity, that a horse is a horse, a flower is a flower and a bed is a bed. Webster’s dictionary is a catalog of reality.

I bring up beds because of Plato and his damnable idealism. He posited that all earthly beds are but a misbegotten imitation of the “ideal” bed, which does not exist in this world, but in some idealized non-material realm. There is an ideal bed, he says, and an ideal chair, ideal tortoise, ideal apple pie, ideal human, compared to which the earthly item is a knock-off. These ideals are perfect and unchanging, whereas the world we know is sublunary and corrupt.

1966-1969-1977

I’ve written before about this blindness in the ancient Greeks, that they conflated language with reality, that they truly believed that the word they knew was a perfect and complete representation in language of the reality they lived in, and further, that the logic of language replicated identically the order of the universe. Language and reality had a one-to-one relationship. It was a naive belief, of course, but one that led them to believe that nouns were a real thing, not merely a linguistic marker. We still suffer from vestiges of this superstition.

(There was at least one Greek who demurred. Heraclitus recognized that all existence was movement. “Panta Horein,” he said. “Everything flows.” It is why, he said, you cannot ever put your foot into the same river twice. Heraclitus is my hero.)

1984-1996-2015

plant-life-cycleFor in the real world, there are no nouns, there are only verbs. It is all process. A noun is just a snapshot of a verb, freezing it in a particular time and place. But the one ineluctable thing is the verb — the process, the motion, the growth, the dissolution and re-formation. A flower is not a thing, but a motion. It begins as a seed, sprouts beneath the soil and breaks its surface, grows upward, pushing out leaves, swelling into a bud at its apex, popping open the bud to a blossom, which fertilized by a moving bee, dries and drops, leaving a fruit encapsulating a new seed, which falls into the soil once more. The whole is a process, not a thing.

It is the same for you or me. When we were conceived, we were a zygote turning into a fetus, into an infant, a toddler, a boy or girl, an adolescent, a young adult, a grown-up (when we set the seed once more for the next birth) and then accept middle age and senescence, old age and death. We are not any of the snapshots we have in our albums, but the motion forward in time, always pushing up and outward.

“I am inclined to speak of things changed into other things,” writes Ovid at the beginning of his Metamorphoses. Indeed, Plato’s bed began as a seed, a tree turned into lumber, the lumber into a bedframe. Eventually the bed will rot away into the soil once more. Just because the movement is slow doesn’t mean it isn’t happening and isn’t constant. Fie on Plato. (Plato that proto-fascist — I despise the man).

 
This brings us to the recent election. I never intended to write about it, but I cannot avoid it. Plato is a fascist not merely because of the deplorable blueprint for totalitarianism in his Republic, but because that very belief in a noun-world leads to a belief that there is a stasis, a final solution, a political order that will finally and forever settle all the problems we face. Current American conservatives have this sense that if we would only do things their way, we would finally solve the problem of crime, of a stable economy, a balanced budget, of creating a smooth-running order. Oddly they share this teleological view with Marxists. They do not see politics as the constant give-and-take of contending interests, but rather as a kind of machine that could remain static and ever-functioning. They see a noun, not a verb, but politics is a verb. Panta horein.

the-whole_edited-1Just as every flower leads to a seed, so every solution leads to a new problem. There is no ultimate order, no final stasis. It is perpetual churn. Contending interests constantly change, upsetting the received order, and anyone who believes that if we only did this, or did that, everything would be hunky-peachy — well, good luck with that. But there is no end to labor; we keep working, moving, changing until we are no longer aware of the changes that will take over when we die.

I see this clearly looking at the series of pictures of myself from when I was an infant to now, when I am an old man. In between come the student, the husband, the ex-, the career, the exhaustion, the grayed hairs, the grandfather. Which is me? Instead, what I see are frames from a continuous movie and the only reality that counts is the movement, the constant flux from one being into another, no boundaries, no scene changes, no new chapter headings, but one continuous wipe, from beginning to an end now approaching close enough almost to touch. copepod

Further, I can look backward to my parents and their parents, and forward to my daughter and her children and can easily imagine their offspring and those following — all one continuous sweep. My wife had her DNA tested and that allowed her to see her background past sweep from North Carolina back through Ireland, the Mediterranean, the Levant and into Africa, mutation by slow mutation. If there were tests sophisticated enough, I’m sure we could peer back through microscopes at that same DNA to lemurs, crocodiles, placoderm fish, hydrae, algae, and various spirochetes.

And then the planet back through the accretive dust, into the exploding novae, back to the plasmic hydrogen to the Big Bang. From then, it is always moving forward in a cosmic rush, skating through space-time — the long verb.

A noun is just a snapshot of a verb.