“Do you remember when you first bumped up against the real world?” Stuart was looking philosophical. “I mean, when you first came to the realization that all was not what it seemed?”

I thought about it for a moment, but then, of course, I realized that Stuart wasn’t so much asking a question about my life, as stating a prologue to his next monologue. 

“It was in high school,” he said. “It was in the 1960s and I was notoriously bored in school. The worst was study hall — really, a holding cell between classes where no one actually studied. I hated it. Where was Temple Grandin when you needed her? We were cattle in a pen. 

Vincent ‘the Chin’

“Mr. Taylor, the Latin teacher, took a liking to me. Not that many kids wanted to learn the ablative. And so, he managed to give me an entire pad of preprinted library passes, so I could spend my time among books, instead of among juvenile delinquents. Did I mention this was northern New Jersey and a large contingent of kids in class were the offspring of made men? Vincent ‘The Chin’ Gigante had a house not more than 200 yards from where I grew up — he was the famous ‘Oddfather,’ who feigned insanity to avoid criminal prosecution. (One day, years later, when I was in college, I heard on the radio that the entire police department from my town had been arrested for taking bribes.)

“Well, one day, for some reason, I had run out of library passes and was forced to go to study hall. I arrived early and the only other student was Artie Mangano. You have to remember that there is a pecking order in high school. I was a dyed-in-the-wool nerd. I liked books. Artie was the biggest thug around, both physically and in terms of where he ranked. I was his natural target. We had long established that fact.

“We sat near each other saying nothing. Artie may have been reading a comic book. When in walked Mrs. Fisk, the French teacher who was going to be prison guard for the next hour. Mrs. Fisk had a thick accent and no sense of humor.”

“I know the type,” I said. “They are the second lieutenants of the world, right out of OCS.”

“And on the blackboard — and in those days, the board was still slate and was still black — Mr. Taylor had drawn a map of the Roman Empire. There was Illyrium, there was Gallia Cisalpina. Of course, Mr. Taylor’s writing was nearly illegible. He was a scribbler and the map was rather squirrelly. When Mrs. Fisk looked at it, she turned and looked at Artie and me and asked angrily, ‘Who wrote this on the blackboard?’ 

“We didn’t know what she was talking about.

“She clapped her hands to keep our attention. ‘Who wrote this filth? These obscene things? I must have been one of you two.’

“We had no idea what she meant. It was a map of the Mediterranean, albeit, it looked a little like an unraveled ball of yarn. She glared at us, getting louder and more incensed. 

“You two — go down to the vice principal’s office. Now! And tell him what you have done!”

“Our school had the ultimate good cop-bad cop. The principal was the soft-spoken — and unfortunately named — Donald Duff. He took a lot of mocking for that name. The vice principal was the enforcer, the meter-outer of punishment, Mr. Garbaccio, a hard-hearted disciplinarian who resembled nothing so much as Luca Brasi. 

“We walked down the hall, down the stairs and into the office. Artie was used to this routine; I was not. I was both mortified and outraged and at the same time unseemly meek and cowed. We sat in the outer office waiting for Mr. Garbaccio to finish with the miscreants ahead of us in line.

“When it came our turn, I tried to explain to him what was the reality: Mr. Taylor’s map of the Roman world offended Mrs. Fisk, who mistook it for an obscene graffito. 

“ ‘She wouldn’t have sent you down here for nothing,’ he said. Yes, she would, I thought. She was always kind of goofy. I remonstrated and re-explained. Artie said nothing. Since I was a reputed ‘good kid’ and had never been in his office before, and because Mr. Taylor’s handwriting was so well known, Mr. Garbaccio let up the pressure, but that didn’t help and so he said, ‘I understand. But, I’m going to have to give you two points anyway.’

“Discipline for misdemeanors was given out in the form of points. Collect enough and you were suspended. Artie knew the process well. I was a novice. My sense of injustice was boiling. I knew I had done nothing wrong. There is nothing so pure in this world as the flame of outrage in a kid who knows he has been unfairly blamed. 

“Two things of note resulted from this episode. First was that somehow I had acquired an unearned respect from Artie. He no longer bullied me, and in fact, his presence meant that none of his fellow mouth-breathers molested me anymore, either. It was a kind of privileged existence, a pet-nerd. We had shared a visit to Mr. Garbaccio. 

“But the second thing was that I figured out something about the real world: that sometimes form required a knowing injustice for the purpose of maintaining order, that I would have to accept my two points so that Mrs. Fisk wouldn’t be publicly outed as the flibbertigibbet that we all knew she was. The world worked by its own gears and pulleys, and sometimes the innocent get ground up in the machine. 

“You know, when you are in high school and you are given required reading, it usually sails right over your head. You don’t have enough life experience to understand what is going on with Mr. Darcy or with Fagin. They are just cardboard cutouts moving through a plot that you know you will be quizzed on come Tuesday. Really, high school kids are so much unformed clay, unlicked whelps, thinking they are so wise; but they are really just pimply-faced dorks with breaking voices and enough social anxiety to fuel a nuclear sub. 

“I mention this because when we were assigned to read Melville’s Billy Budd, I was hit upside the head with recognition — alone in the class, I knew for the first time what was really going on. I knew why the ‘handsome sailor’ had to die. I had understood the lesson of Mr. Garbaccio’s office and I felt a deep surging of sympathy for Captain Vere. He was not the villain, after all. He was understanding the bigger picture. The lesson was sobering but has been reinforced many times through the years.

“I memorized a lot of facts and dates in high school, was introduced to Shakespeare and Spanish pronouns, but all that is just information — confetti. It didn’t actually mean anything. True, I have drawn on that information a lot, but it is just the boards and nails I can use to construct a sense of the world. What I got from my two points was the only thing I can claim to have genuinely learned in high school.” 

Our education is judged as much by the books we haven’t read as those we have. It’s a sad fact that no matter how well-read we try to be, we simply cannot read everything. Not even close. 

My reading includes many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore. I have read Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around my Room, Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis of the Deified Claudius (Alternately, the Pumkinification of the Divine Claudius, antedating the apocolocyntosis of Donald Trump by two millennia), Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho.  

That tendency to seek out so many obscure books has meant that I read Melville’s Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile long before I ever finished Moby Dick. In fact, I have read almost all of Melville, from Typee to The Confidence Man to John Marr and Other Sailors, and his poetry, in Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War. The problem with Moby Dick was not the book, but me. I love the style of Melville so much, that every time I picked up Moby Dick, I started again from the beginning. Over and over. I must have read “Loomings” 50 times. I have since gotten through the whole thing, and I love the book dearly. Reading Melville is like eating a meal as rich as foie gras. 

I mention all this because, while I have read Xenophon’s Anabasis, and enjoyed the hell out of it, I have to confess, I have never quite been able to finish Thucydides. Herodotus charms the heck out of me; I can’t count the number of times I have gone back to his Histories, but old Thucydides always feels a bit turgid, dense and humorless. I feel I gain as much from reading a summary of his Peloponnesian Wars as from trudging through the full-length. I may be mistaken in that belief, I grant. But the fact is, I have limited time on this planet, and of the making of books there is no end. 

The number of books I know I should have read is immense. Yes, I have read Tristram Shandy (the funniest book I have ever read), but I have never read Jane Austen. I hope to get around to it some day. I have read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but I have not yet read Proust. (I have a similar problem with Swann’s Way that I had with Moby Dick: I have read the first 50 pages several times, and each time, I start anew.) 

I only got around to Tolstoy’s War and Peace last year. I don’t know why it took me so long. It may be the greatest book I’ve ever read. I still haven’t tackled Anna Karenina, although many years ago I read The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Kreutzer Sonata. 

The holes in my erudition are wide enough to sail an icebreaker through. Yet, I count in this world, as a fairly well-read man. 

Sometimes we feel guilty for things we should not. The guilt hangs over us like a dark cloud, and we live our lives believing that everyone knows. I am confessing my guilt here, and the obvious fact that I am a fraud. 

Among the books I haven’t read are: The Aeneid (it bores me every time I pick it up); Don Quixote (I’ve tried, believe me, but it just goes on and on and never seems to get anywhere); Les Miserables; Sons and Lovers; The Tin Drum; Lord Jim; Rabbit, Run; Orlando; The Handmaid’s Tale; Dr. Zhivago; Jude the Obscure. I could go on. 

There are whole authors I have managed to avoid: Aside from Austen, there are: Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Wolfe, Henry James, J.R.R. Tolkien. All of them worthy and important. Among the writers I have avoided because of being forced to read them in high school, and therefore destroying my ability to even bear them are Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. Forcing kids to read books well beyond their ability to understand them can only ruin those books for life. 

From the list of the so-called greatest books on the website thegreatestbooks.org, I have read 19 of the top 25 volumes on the list and 31 of the first 50. That seems decent, but it leaves off too many books that I should have read. 

Prominent among them are more recent writings. I have read the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Tao Te Ching and Beowulf many times in different translations, I have somehow managed to miss Jonathan Franzen, Joan Didion, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Khaled Hosseini, Annie Proulx, and Jeffrey Eugenides. 

Shakespeare & Co., Paris

I swear, I know this is a horrible confession. I am one ignorant S.O.B. Yes to Suetonius, no to Dio Cassius; Yes to Longinus and Lucretius, not so much for Josephus or Livy. 

What I blame is not so much my waywardness, but the fact that it is impossible to read everything. The last person to do that, according to his biography, was John Milton, who took several years off after university to read everything ever written in a language he could read, and that included Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, German, Italian and, of course, English. But much has been published since then, and even a specialist cannot read everything just in his or her own field. So, we pick and choose.

And if, like me, you choose not to be a specialist, and not get a post-doctoral degree in the subspecies of Malagasy dung beetle, so as to become the world expert in such, the purpose of reading is not to master a particular field, but to take as wide a view of everything as possible. 

One could certainly find a list — such as the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf — of those books deemed by consent of the educated to be the most important and slog your way through them one by one so as to round out your erudition. But I have chosen a more desultory strategy, picking those books that appealed to me. After all, I read primarily for pleasure, not by obligation.

And let’s face it, the five-foot shelf of a hundred years ago is now rather dated and fails to include much that would now be considered mandatory. Things change. 

So, I make my own list, and if it includes H.L. Mencken and doesn’t include Fenimore Cooper, so be it. Although I did get huge pleasure from reading Mark Twain’s exploration of Cooper’s “literary offenses.” I recommend it. 

I live in the American South and it seems you cannot drive more than two blocks in any direction without coming across a church. In fact, I have seen a crossroads where all four corners each features a different church. They come in all varieties, from the most sedate Episcopalian, to the most frenetic Holiness. There are so many different types of Baptist, that I wonder that anyone can be confident that he has chosen the right one and not by accident found the shortcut to Hell. 

Church is so completely built into the culture, that it is taken for granted. The first time I visited my barber here in Asheville, N.C., he made for casual conversation by asking me which church I went to. I had to squirm a little and let on that I don’t go to any. “I am not religious,” I said, understating the case rather diplomatically. 

I have no religion; I’m not even an atheist. Being an atheist seems like wasting your time angrily proving that Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist. I haven’t had a religious impulse since I was 9 years old. 

Anyway, the South must be the only place in America where churches outnumber convenience stores. You find them everywhere and in every economic register, from the banal brick churches with large parking lots that minister to the bourgeoise, to the strip-mall storefronts that cater to the more out-there fringe-element evangelicals. In one, the parking lot is filled with Buicks and in the other, with pickup trucks and aging Datsun hatchbacks. 

My favorite is a church just north of Greensboro, N.C., that looks something like a high school pre-fab gymtorium with words in large letters on its front that can be read two ways. I’m sure its believers only see “God Can” as a profession of the capabilities of the deity. But I prefer to think of it as a place of canned piety. The tin roof only reinforces the image of a  kippered divinity. 

The newest pestilence among the churches is the clever changing sign out front, advertising either a Bible verse or bad pun. These can be entertaining, although I wonder what a real old fire-and-brimstone preacher man would have thought of them. Not much, I suspect. 

I know of two such preachers, one on my side of the family, and the other on my wife’s. I grew up in New Jersey among Norwegians, and the first church I ever went to, as barely more than a toddler, was Trinity Evangelical Free Church in Teaneck, N.J., where the presiding minister, Pastor Anderson, gave his sermons in Norwegian and although I didn’t understand the language, there was no mistaking the import of his message: He was a hellfire and damnation sort, who poked his finger at the congregation, wagging it as he scolded them at the top of his voice. We were all damned, for sure. I have been told that away from the pulpit, E.W. Anderson was a kind and mild man with a good sense of humor. It’s a side of him I never saw. 

(Pastor Anderson may have been ahead of his time in at least one regard: From 1931 to 1936, he broadcast a weekly radio program — in Norwegian — every Sunday. His religion may have been old-fashioned, but he took advantage of emerging technologies.)

RD Bell preaching

The other is my wife’s grandfather on her mother’s side, a wiry and contentious old man named Rhudy Dolphus Bell. No one seems to know where he earned his ordination, but he was a severe and unforgiving man, always ready to consign the sinner to an eternal rain of fire. He was known in his time to padlock churches where offending parishioners had been caught in — or suspected of — sinful behavior, and he would post a sign on the door: “Because brother so-and-so was seen at the dance hall with sister so-and-so, who is not his wife, this church is officially closed.” Of course, he had no official authority to do such things, and was thus rather taken for a crank. 

RD Bell baptizing

That old-fashioned Old Testament fire-in-the-eyes preaching was much more common in the past than it is now, outside of televangelists ranting and weeping on the airwaves. R.D. Bell regularly took part in so-called camp meetings, aka tent meetings, aka revivals, when the preaching went on all day long, with preachers spelling each other as they wore down, like tag-team wrestlers. 

Of course, the king of the revival circuit was Billy Graham, who ran things on an industrial scale. 

The Cove

I live in Asheville off Exit 55 of Interstate 40. That is also the exit for the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove, which is fashionably set upslope on the mountain on the far side of the highway. This is Billy Graham country. The bypass around downtown is the Billy Graham Expressway; there is a bronze statue of the man in Ridgecrest, just east of Black Mountain at Exit 66, and Graham’s home in Montreat, just north of Black Mountain; Montreat is a religious retreat community that looks like the vacation home of old money. The houses tend to be cobbled from stone set among the trees, and Lake Susan sits in the center of town, surrounded by mountains on all sides. Real estate values are astronomical. 

Lake Susan, Montreat


Graham is an interesting case. Less Old Testament than many evangelists, he preached against racial segregation and even allowed, in some moments, that even good non-Christians might be saved. 

A few things you might not know about Graham. When he was a boy, he loved reading Tarzan books and, according to his father, would hang on trees and try out the old Tarzan yell. “I think that yelling helped develop his voice,” his father said later.

St. Anthony of Padua

And, after he received the calling in 1937, while a student at the Florida Bible Institute near Tampa, he was known to paddle to an island in the Hillsborough River where, like St. Anthony of Padua preaching to the fishes, he would practice his sermons and “preach to the birds, alligators, and cypress stumps.”

By the way, Graham’s college degree, from Wheaton College in Illinois, is in anthropology. Who knew? 

I mention Graham because I have a personal confession to make. No, not that kind. 

My parents were relaxed when it came to religion. They both grew up in religious households, but seemed to have taken the lesson away from their upbringing that they would not force church on their children. My father, especially suffered from religion. His father — my Pop-pop — had been a successful homebuilder in New Jersey and quite well off, but lost it all in 1929, when my father was 10 years old. The old man tipped into the religious mania, banning dancing, radio, music, and anything that might be considered fun, from the home. They went to church two or three times a week, and all day Sunday. It was quite a constrictive childhood for my father and his five siblings. 

They never said it, but I believe my parents decided they would never visit that on their children. 

My mother’s mother wasn’t quite so bonkers, but she was pious, and her apartment was filled with religious trinkets and devotional pictures. When I was young, she lived with us. And when I was 9 years old, she took me to Billy Graham’s 1957 Crusade at Madison Square Garden in New York, where he preached to sold-out crowds nightly for 16 weeks. I was young and impressionable; Graham was riveting and inspiring.

I had been to the Garden for Rangers hockey games and the Ringling Brothers circus, so I knew the venue. But I had never seen so many people packed into it. At first, I wasn’t sure who was talking. Graham sideman Cliff Barrows did most of it, acting as an emcee for the show, but I thought at first he was Graham. After all, he was as far from me as home plate is from the outfield bleachers. The choir sang, and George Beverly Shea dropped his pear-shaped baritone down into the depths of what I now recognize as bathos. 
But when Graham finally came out and began sermonizing, he was electric. It was my introduction in crowd psychology, and the power of oratory over the masses. My friend, the late Dimitri Drobatschewsky, who fled Nazi Germany told me how he had listened to Adolf Hitler speak when he was a teenager and how, he said, even as a Jew, “I could hardly keep my arm from raising in the Nazi salute.” Hitler had that effect on his audience. There must be something to that. I would never otherwise compare Billy Graham to Hitler, but Graham had that kind of hypnotic effect on his listeners. And when it came time, at the end of his speaking, to “come forward and accept Jesus,” I was ready to go. Let me go down. But my grandmother said I was too young, and wouldn’t let me go. I rankled, but I stayed up in the bleachers. The mood soon passed. I never had a religious moment again. 

There may have been something in Graham’s relentless activity, because his minion, Cliff Barrows lived till he was 94; Graham till he was 99 and Shea until he was 104. 

But then, famous atheist Bertrand Russell lived to be 97. 

Is murder a real thing? That is, does it exist in the world, separate from the language that describes it?

This is an important question, because it illustrates one of the central issues hindering our politics. Has always hindered politics. 

Certainly, there are humans who have caused the death of other humans, but at what point do we draw the line and call it murder? It is a line that shifts over time and culture. When we kill someone during war, we generally do not call it murder, even if it a civilian who is dead. It might be “collateral damage.” When we execute a convicted killer, we do not call it murder — or at least most people don’t. And if we accidentally run over a pedestrian who steps in front of our car, we don’t call it murder, either. 

The results are the same in all cases: Someone stops being alive. 

But we make legal distinctions between murder and manslaughter. There are shades and subsets of homicide. First- or second-degree murder, felony homicide, unlawful death, voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, justifiable homicide, parricide, suicide, infanticide, fratricide, assassination, euthanasia, regicide, honor killing, revenge killing, human sacrifice, self immolation, suicide by cop, extrajudicial killing, genocide. 

The words used and the lines drawn are different, not only in different countries and cultures, but in different states in the U.S. Some states recognize third-degree murder. A few have legalized voluntary assisted suicide. There is no uniform, worldwide, universal definition of what constitutes “murder.” 

So, again, is murder a real thing, outside of language? Or is it just a word? 

So, when we argue that abortion is murder, we are not really talking about anything real, but about language: We are arguing about the dictionary. 

I do not mean here to minimize the moral concerns over abortion, which are quite troubling, and I have no intention of changing anyone’s mind on the issue. People on both sides are intractably dug in. My concern is rather to point out the way we tend to use language as if it were a one-to-one depiction of reality. When we call abortion “murder,” we are using a conditional and contextual term as if it were categorical. 

When we name something, what is the relationship between that tag and the thing itself? Not only is it arbitrary, it is constantly shifting.

Let’s take Jonah and the whale. The King James Bible says the prophet was swallowed by a “great fish.” Does that mean it wasn’t a whale? Well, before the early 19th century, a whale was a fish. It was so categorized in books and dictionaries. In his popular History of the Earth and Animated Nature, from 1774 and reprinted well into the 19th century, Oliver Goldsmith divided the fish into “spinous fishes,” “cartilaginous fishes,” “testaceous and crustaceous fishes” and “cetaceous fishes.” A mackerel, a sand dollar and Moby Dick were all kinds of fish. After Linnaeus rearranged the orders of living things, did any of the actual animals change? Of course not. The change was linguistic, not biological. 

The logic of language and the chaos of experience are sometimes parallel, but never coexistent. Language has, for instance, nouns and verbs. Things and actions. But in experience, all things are always in action and all actions occur in things. They are a single entity; splitting them is part of the logic of language. Language consequently splits into discrete bits what cannot in life be divided. 

Sentences are written in a certain word order. Subject and predicate; modifiers and conjunctives; relative and independent clauses; semicolons and hyphens. None of these things find matches in the real world. Their logic is the logic of language. Life is other. 

And we too often (in fact, almost always) come to believe that our words match our lives. They don’t. 

I say this with some perturbation, having made my living with words. I love words. I love language. But the older I get, the more obvious it becomes that language is the “other.” It is a simulacrum of reality, but far removed. 

Take Zeno’s paradox. Here is a prime example. For millennia, logicians have argued over it. Give a tortoise a head start in a race and Achilles can never catch it. Logic proves it. Before catching the tortoise, Achilles has to go halfway to catching it. But before he goes halfway, he has to go a quarter of the way. You keep fractioning it out, and it becomes obvious, there will always be a fraction that Achilles has not yet overcome. 

But, try it empirically, and it takes Achilles only a single stride to pass the tortoise. The structure of the proposition has a self-referential reality that does not mirror the reality of experience. Two completely different things. 

This has been my beef with Plato. His idealism is only possible in language. His bed is a definition of bed. His good is a definition of good. He is writing a dictionary. If the Greeks had a fault, it is their hubris over their language. They never understood the difference between word and fact; they believed that, if the Greeks had a word for it, everything was covered. 

The voluntary or unwitting confusion of language and reality has been used by political factions for as long as there are records of language. It is how Mesopotamian kings explained their reigns, how Spartans and Athenians justified killing each other, how secessionists recruited soldiers in 1861, how the Cold War was sustained. And it is how Donald Trump herds his believers. 

I hope you noticed how I just used language to characterize what, in fact, is a heterogeneous accumulation of voters who probably each had his or her own reason for picking the Great Orange Pumpkin. Some of those reasons were poltroonish, some ignorant, some hopeful, some rebellious, some genuinely patriotic. Probably as many reasons as there were reasoners. But with language, I can imply they were both bovine and religiously zealous. Thus language can be dismissive. 

Trump uses language this way constantly, setting up dichotomies that don’t exist in reality, creating categories that only function linguistically, using insults to stick labels into opponents with a pin. “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted Cruz,” “Little Mario.” This is language shrinking reality. Reality is vast, multifarious, undefinable; language is a door slammed in the face of possibility.  

The very model of the world that Trump lives by — us vs. them and the sense of everything being a zero-sum game — are linguistic in origin, not reality-driven. They do not match experience. 

I clearly have my own political preferences, but I am not here trying to change votes, but to persuade that our understanding of the world is constricted by our faith in language. Language is not the only means of engaging the world. There is sound, sight, spatial reasoning, mathematics. Each with its own structure and meaning.

Consider how you decide whether to pass a car on the road. You do neither arithmetical calculation, nor verbal argument, but rather, you have a spatial sense of objects moving in time and space and you can judge quite accurately if there is time and space to get around the geezer driving 25 in a 45 zone. This is not verbal, but it is thought nonetheless. 

The life we experience is continuous and contiguous; it is not parceled into tiny bits, each distinct and definable. It is one huge swirl and swathe. Language cannot ever encompass it. Beware.

When you are young, it is easy to be in love with art. You may love its artifice, you may love the colors or the rhymes or the great blaring sounds of the music you listen to. Art is vibrant; it seems so alive. But most of all, you are in love with the sense of importance art brings: It seems to validate the belief we all have when we are young that our own lives matter, that we count in the larger scheme of things.

We are all Tristan or Holden Caulfield.

Perhaps that is why the young make so much art. They are not yet unhappy with it, not yet dissatisfied at the lies that art creates, not yet disgusted with the prettiness of it all.

Most of all, the art we make when we are young imitates the art we have come to love: Art most often imitates art, not life. There is so much bad imitation T.S. Eliot written in college, so much abstract painting of no consequence, so much herd instinct.

I have been as guilty as anyone. In 50 years of photography, the bulk of my work has been imitation Ansel Adams or Edward Weston or Irving Penn. I was learning to make images that I could recognize as art, because it looked like the art I knew. 

Big mistake.

Go to any art gallery and you see the same process unfolding. Imitation Monet here, imitation Duchamp there, imitation Robert Longo there. Whatever the current trend in art is, there are acolytes and epigones. 

At some point, as you age and if you are lucky, you let all this shed off you, and you no longer care about art. What takes its place is caring about the world, caring about the experience of being alive. It isn’t going to last long, so you begin paying attention: close attention to soak in as much as you can before you die. 

And if you are inclined toward art, you give up caring whether you are making “great” art, or whether you are part of the great parade of art history, and you care only about what you see hear, touch, smell and taste. The world becomes alive and art fades to pathetic simulacrum.

When you reach this point, then you can begin making art. And you make it for yourself, not for posterity. You make it to attempt to capture and hold the world you love, or to understand the world, or to transcend it, when it becomes too difficult to endure or accept. 

2.

The first garden I made was a vegetable garden in the front yard of the North Carolina house I was renting in the early 1970s. I grew the usual tomatoes and peppers, beans and spinach. I also ventured into eggplant, which turned into the most successful part of the garden, to my surprise.

But what I really learning from my garden is the difference between the neat, orderly photographs in the seed catalogs, and the rampant, weedy, dirt-clod messiness of the real thing. Gardens, I discovered, were not military rows of uniform plants, but a vegetative chaos. 

The stupid thing was that I should have known this going in. All around me trees, vines, shrubs, roadside flowers and Bermuda grass were telling me one single thing, over and over: Profusion is the order of nature. Variety, profligacy, energy, expediency, growth.

Whether it is a kudzu shell over a stand of trees, or the tangle of saplings that close over an abandoned farm field, or the know of rhizomes that run under the turf, the rule of nature is clutter.

The walnut tree outside the front door was old, and its bark was stratified with moss, lichen, beads of sap, and a highway of ants running up and down. From a distance, it was just a tree, but up close, it was a city.

When I was a boy, there was an abandoned farm beside our property. An old, unpainted barn and farmhouse stood in the center of a field of grass and weeds. When I was maybe eight years old, those building burnt down one night in a glory of flame.

In the years that followed, the course of plant succession took over. I learned my lessons from the Boy Scout merit badges I earned, but even there, the story of succession seemed much more orderly than what I saw out my window. Plant successions wasn’t a clear progression from annuals to perennials to shrubs and through a clearly delineated march of one kind of tree into another till we reached climax growth. It was instead a tangle of saplings through which it was nearly impossible to walk. There was not a “baby forest” that we saw, but an overpopulated struggle for sunlight, every plant elbowing its neighbor for survival. In a forest, the trees stand a certain distance apart, their crowns touching to make a roof. But this young version was more like a thick head of hair; there was no distance between the shoots.

Everything in nature told me the same thing: busyness, struggle and chaos. It was all exhilarating, and I loved the tangle of it all, the textures, the smells, loam and rot, the mud and dew.

And yet, that isn’t what I saw when I looked at art about nature, whether it was glossy calendar photos or Arizona Highways’ covers on the low end, or whether it was  Raphael and Delacroix on the high end. 

The nature I saw in most art was tame as a housecat. And the art wasn’t really about nature at all, but about order. It wasn’t made to see the world we saunter through, but to see how our minds organize and codify it.

Whether it was 18th century paintings or Ansel Adams’ photographs, the art was all about order. In fact, you could say that the point of the art wasn’t to make us see nature, but to understand order.

I was unsatisfied with it, and with my own art. I wanted to make an art that would look at the natural world and make images that spoke to me about what I was really seeing and feeling.

3.

I recognized something of what I wanted in the arts of the Gothic, Baroque and Romantic periods, eras in art that glorified the energy and visual confusion of the world. They are arts that responded to the profuse variety of experience. They were also arts that were devalued by the mainstream art world of the 20th Century. Eliot deprecated Milton; Stravinsky insulted Berlioz; Mies van der Rohe is the anti-Gothic architect. 

Yet, I loved Shelley, Schumann, Chartres. And I wanted to find a way to make that art over in our new century, in a new way, and reattach art to the world around me. It had been untethered too long; too long it had been its own reason for being. Art for art’s sake? Not any more.

It can be hard — it is probably impossible — to make art completely divorced from one’s time. The visual universe is too persuasive. We cannot even know how deeply we are affected by the stylistic twitches of our own age, and I am not saying my own work is sui generis. It certainly is not.

The light that knocked me off my horse on my own way to Damascus was a single book of photographs — still a fairly obscure book — by Lee Friedlander, titled Flowers and Trees, from 1981. It was spiral bound, printed in a matte finish, and had virtually no text. Inside, I found a mirror of the nature I knew and felt. Nothing was framed neatly, nothing was glorified by the light poured on it, nothing was reified into monumentality. Instead, there was the profusion, confusion and organicim that I recognized from my own experience.

And I realized that I had been working in that same direction for years, but had buried the photographs among the more conventional mountainscapes and detail photographs. I had several series of images that were my own immediate response to nature and they were all photographs I had made in the gardens of friends. 

I gathered them together and looked. The conventional photographs seemed to have no value whatsoever and these others, almost random, usually confused, and always ad hoc, seemed to breathe the life I had been looking for.

Since that time, and with the advent of digital photography, I have been liberated. I take my camera with me, point it at something I want to feed it, and let it do the chewing. I never look through the viewfinder anymore, but instead look at the larger shapes, darks and lights, that show in the digital screen on the back of my camera. I see how I see and click the shutter. 

Over the years, I have made many of these sets of photographs, usually 15 to 35 pictures in a group, and printed together to be seen as a “book,” that is, a print cabinet, where my audience can spend as much or as little time as they wish and shuffle to the next.

And the unit of my work is the book, not the individual photo. Each chapter in this volume is a single look at a single place, with all the images usually taken in a very short amount of time, a single visit.

For the pictures here, selected from those loose leaves, I have managed to edit them down to a manageable few. Here are a couple, maybe three, images from each of several of those “books.” I hope they still give a flavor of what I have attempted.

4.

If I have succeeded, I have also failed.

For in the end, my attempt to wrestle with the world has turned into an art that is also about order, about how the mind engages with the things around it. I have wound up doing exactly what my predecessors have done.

It isn’t surprising. After all, when I turn on my elders and find their efforts insufficient, I am doing nothing different from what they did when they turned on their elders. It is how art grows. Wordsworth rebels against Pope, Eliot rebels against Wordsworth, Ginsberg rebels against Eliot. One generation finds its parents lacking and tries on its own to finally express the truth.

And I can only be happy when a generation after mine points its own finger backward and wiggles it in reproach at me.

It seems we never get closer to what we are all after. Value is all in the trying.

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Yo-Yo Ma is god. I don’t know anyone with an informed opinion who would disagree with the assessment, even atheists. There are some excellent cellists out there today, and who I would give good money to hear, but Yo-Yo is in a class by himself.

But even a god has his gods, and Yo-Yo Ma has now recorded the words of his own god three times; the first in 1983, when he was 28, and said himself at the time that he was too young; the second in 1998, when he was 43; and finally (he says) in a new version released this week, when he is 63. That music is Johann Sebastian Bach’s, six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, which are the words god might speak to you in a still small voice inside your soul. 

I have spent the past four days listening to his performances, and have gone through the newest set three times, and individual pieces more than that. No current cellist has such a personal take on the music as Yo-Yo Ma.

(I’m going to continue with his full name. The Associated Press stylebook says that on second reference, I should just call him “Ma,” but that seems too perfunctory; “Mr. Ma,” as The New York Times would use it, sounds too much like a Bond villain, and “Yo-Yo” is out of the question, being too familiar — would a Christian call Jehovah “Joe?”)

There is something that sometimes happens with a master artist, who has so mastered his craft, that he feels free to take his work into new and personal spaces. Anne-Sophie Mutter recorded the Beethoven Violin Concerto in 1980 with the Berlin Phil and Herbert von Karajan, when she was 17; and again in 2002 with the New York Phil and Kurt Masur, when she was nearly 40. The first is a nearly pitch-perfect mainstream performance — the standard recording for anyone — and has seldom been done as well, not to say bettered. The second is so idiosyncratic that it almost seems like a different concerto. The second is deeply personal.

So, when Yo-Yo Ma made his first attempt at the Bach Unaccompanieds (I don’t mind using the nickname for the music) he seemed to want to make sure he dotted all the eyes and crossed all the tees. It is a note-perfect recording that would be a fine set for anyone who only wanted or needed one, but to me, it is oddly unsatisfying. It lacks personality. What can I say? He was young. 

I have heard Yo-Yo Ma play all six live in concert twice, and both times, the concert is deeply remembered as one of the pinnacles of my concert-going career. Live, Yo-Yo Ma earns his godhead. No one I have ever heard has come close to the depth and interiority of his interpretations. The audience sat rapt for two-and-a-half hours hearing the music, not as entertainment, but as their very personal insides brought out to see and hear. 

I have heard him live on other occasions where he would play one of the Bach Suites as an encore. Each time, they brought the house to a reverent stand-still.

Alex Ross — former music critic for The New Yorker — wrote this about a 2017 performance by Yo-Yo Ma of all six Suites at the Hollywood Bowl — a venue not known for the attention spans of its patrons: “Almost no one made a sound. Almost no one moved. When a large audience is listening intently, it creates an atmosphere that cannot be measured or recorded, only remembered. Here, it was as if music had stilled the world … he was following his natural musical rhythms, to the point that it felt less like a performance than like an interior monologue … [The audience] was under the spell of a solitary searcher in the dark.”

That is the Yo-Yo Ma I know from hearing him in person. 

(An aside: Yo-Yo Ma in person and on recording are very different. This happens sometimes. In the studio, he seems to want to be note-perfect and thought-out. His studio recordings are models of propriety and elegance, but they lack the electric presence and risk-taking of his live performances. I remember hearing him play the Dvorak concerto in Phoenix in the 1990s, and the performance nearly destroyed me, it was so deeply emotional. His studio recording is tremendous, but cannot bring me to the same tears. Yo-Yo Ma is not alone in this. For years I thought of conductor Bernard Haitink as a mere Kappelmeister, plodding along competently. I had only heard recordings. But when I heard him do the Eroica with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, he blew me away with the most powerful Eroica I ever heard live. And Kurt Masur had something of the same reputation. On CD, his performances can be competent but routine. But I heard him live with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall in the Verklaerte Nacht and Beethoven’s Eighth that were soul-searing. Sometimes the recording is a miserable liar.)

But what about this new recording. It is not the one for a beginner: It is too idiosyncratic. But for anyone familiar with the music, the latest version provides almost constant new insight into the music — and not only into the music, but into human existence; into the cosmos. 

One aspect of the recording merits special mention: its engineering. One reviewer said it sounds as if we are hearing the music from inside the cello. There is a presence to the sound that is closer to having the performance in the room, live with you, than any recording I have come across before. You can feel the buzz of the low notes in your very sternum. It is body-feel as well as ear-sound. 

There are details to mention. In the Prelude of the first suite, about two-thirds of the way through, the music climbs the scale up to a fermata — a held note — which is usually played as the top of a crescendo. It is the climax of the movement. Here, Yo-Yo Ma gives us instead a diminuendo, so the final held note is a hush. In the Courente of the second suite, he takes off like a house on fire, twice the speed I’m used to. He brings a sense of spontaneity to his performance that can only come from having played the music since he was four years old (yes, he began, taught by his father, from before he even began school). 

No music I know is more interior than these suites, and the older Yo-Yo Ma gets, the more Innigkeit his performance. 

His second two sets each has a gimmick. In 1989, it was a series of six short videos made in collaboration with six different film directors and various other collaborators. In some, the suites are not even heard in their entirety. (The CD release is complete, however). 

In this new set, Yo-Yo Ma makes the case for understanding the six suites as a single artistic entity, a kind of through-composed drama, over two-and-a-half hours. There’s playfulness in the first suite, grief in the second, celebration in the third, contemplation in the fourth, the weight of the world in the fifth, and in the sixth, written in a higher tessitura (originally for a smaller, five-string instrument) what can only be called transcendence. Over those two-and-a-half hours, we are given not a potpourri or melange, but a psychic and emotional journey. 

The crux of this journey is the Sarabande of the fifth suite. Only 20 bars long, it is the bearer of all the weight, the moment the tenor of the music changes. Cellist Paul Tortelier called it “an extension of silence.” Yo-Yo Ma played this movement on September 11, 2002 at the site of the World Trade Center, while the first of the names of the dead were read in remembrance on the first anniversary of the attack. 

After its depths, everything to come is a dawning of light. That Sarabande is a single line of melody, arpeggiated  and coming to rest after every phrase in a note dropped deep into a well of sadness. It is a movement that requires the uttermost from a musician. It is so simple that underplaying it will let all the power out of it, but overplaying it can sound mawkish. Yo-Yo Ma invests it with such mournful simplicity, varying his tempo by minute amounts, hardly measurable, but carrying all the expressivity. I dare you to hear this movement without weighing your life in the balance and weeping. 

His only competition for this is the man who resurrected the suites after finding a copy in a junk shop in Barcelona in 1890. Pablo Casals made the suites the core of cello repertoire; they had been before that considered mere practice etudes. Casals recorded all six between 1936 and 1939 and set the mark rather high, expressively. For me, they have never been bested, not even by Yo-Yo Ma. They are old, scratchy recordings and allowances have to be made, not only for the engineering shortcomings, but also for Casals’ technique; it was the best, even brilliant for its time, but decades of cellists working out fingerings and bowings have made later performances more natural under the fingers. But for profundity and emotion, Casals has never been bested.

Yo-Yo Ma, live, plays them in such a way that they break any separation between musician and audience. The thoughts expressed in the music are the not so much conveyed to the listener as momently co-experienced by performer and audience. It is something they discover deep in themselves, and for the moment, there is no difference between audience, cellist and Bach himself. They are at one.

When Casals plays, however, it is as if he is playing for God alone. He is alone in the room with the paraclete, discussing the Cosmos. 

Surely no real music lover can live with only one set of performances. I have Casals, all three Yo-Yo Mas, Pierre Fournier, Anner Bylsma, Janos Starker, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Jaap ter Linden. There are also many performances on YouTube, including a video of Yo-Yo Ma playing all six at the Proms in London in 2015 (link here). 

For those for whom one version is sufficient, I recommend Yo-Yo Ma’s second set. They are deep but not idiosyncratic. If you want to dive deeper, get Casals (remastered by Ward Marston on Naxos) and Yo-Yo Ma’s newest set. You cannot go wrong with Fournier or Rostropovich. There are almost no bad recordings. 

But excuse me now, I’m going back into my fourth listening to the new set. I don’t think it is possible to get tired of this music. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, to do so would be to tire of life. 

I am a retired writer, although a writer never really retires, he just stops getting paid for it. 

In the six years since I left The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Ariz., I have written 532 blog posts and another 35 monthly essays for the Spirit of the Senses salon group there (link here). That works out to just under two blog entries per week since I stopped getting paid. That is not many fewer than my weekly average while working. 

I have also taken and published countless photographs, usually in series, mostly in my blog. (One advantage of writing for the Web instead of for print, is that I can run as many images as I need. At the paper, I was frequently frustrated by the lack of space for photos along with my writing. Unlike most reporters, I usually took my own photographs.)

In 25 years in Phoenix, I wrote more than two-and-a-half million words and had four exhibitions of my photographs (catalog of the most recent: Link here) and produced 14 self-published books of my photographs (link here).  

I just can’t seem to stop working. Huff, puff. 

Yet, I have always had one nagging fear: that I am lazy. That I am just not doing enough. I have proof that I have been productive, but underneath, it always feels as if I’m slacking. I blame the PWE — the Protestant Work Ethic. It is something I don’t believe in, but it is so deeply buried in there, that it simply doesn’t matter if I believe in it or not. 

It is a disease, like an STD or PTSD; the dreaded PWE. It makes it a moral failing if I don’t match my self-imposed quota of productivity. Even a vacation is just another opportunity to create new stuff.

I am reminded of William Blake’s mythical deity, Los. Blake’s poetic universe is filled with mythic beings, each a projection of some psychological state. Los is a blacksmith (among other things — Blake is hardly consistent) and he is pictured as eternally forging a chain, one link after another. It is not clear there is any reason for the chain, but that doesn’t stop Los. It is his metaphorical job to produce. It is creativity unlinked to any other purpose. Make, make, make. 

So it is, during a time of Hurricane Florence, I was visiting my brother- and sister-in-law in Reidsville, in central North Carolina, and made yet another series of photographs. These.

I usually work in series. I cannot count the number of them I have made; I often think of them as “books,” that is, a group of photographs that work together as a single statement. I have photographed dozens of gardens, public and private, that way, with anywhere from a dozen to 40 images intended to be seen together. 

These are not meant to be seen as records of places I have been, but for their own esthetic pleasure. I have done clouds above Phoenix (link here), the interior of a house in Maine (link here), and the view from an airplane window seat (link here). On an earlier visit to Reidsville, I found a trove of abstract patterns in little things (link here). 

This time, I looked at the ceiling, and then, the floor. Humble subjects, without much intrinsic interest, but with shapes, shadows and subtle colors in which I found a visual tickle. 

Make no mistake, I do not present these with any pretense that they are important, or even that they might count as art. They are more like simple exercises in seeing. I believe they are of sufficient interest to award a quick gaze. 

But I didn’t make them because I wanted to add to my “ouevre” — my “corpus” — but because if I am sitting around not doing anything, I feel I am being insufficiently productive. That damned PWE infection that I can’t seem to shake. 

That is also why I keep making these blogs. Please accept my apologies. 

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