Monthly Archives: November 2012

Movies for list

With the end of the year coming up, everyone’s already getting into the list-making game. Top 10 lists are about to descend on us like an asteroid descending on the dinosaurs.

Sometimes, it seems as if lists are the central cultural form of the nation. We’d rather scan a list than read the book. Untold significant conversations are prompted by the idea that Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo might be the alltime greatest movie ever made, and whether something is seriously wrong in the cultural ethos if Citizen Kane is bumped down a few pegs.

So far, James Joyce’s Ulysses seems to be holding onto its rank as the Number One novel of the 20th Century, although there are enough quibbles to warrant the opinion that the only thing they all seem to agree on is that Ulysses is hard to read.

Of course, lists have been around a long time. They predate writing. Some of the first evidence we have of human existence are the odd scratchings on bone or stone that anthropologists believe are calendar listings. Prehistoric people notched their medicine sticks to remind them of significant events — they were memory aids.

And the ancient Incas communicated with a knotted string, a “quipu,” each knot standing for an item the messenger was required to remember.

So, why not cut to the chase. It is lists that matter in the new century, so let’s forget the long difficult novels, or the subtitled films, and decide what are the 50 Best Lists of All Time.

It is no surprise that the 10 Commandments come in at No. 1. It is a consensus choice. There were a few rumblings among the more erudite judges that perhaps Hammurabi’s Law should displace the Decalogue, but finally, the conciseness of the Torah beats out the comprehensiveness of the Babylonian ruler.

The list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, compiled by the Byzantine mathematician Philon, one of the oldest and most venerable in the world. In his De Septem Orbis Spectaculis, he listed the Pyramids, the Hanging Gardens, the Olympian Zeus, The Ephesian temple of Diana, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse of Pharos.

His list was so influential, that when they made King Kong in 1933, they called the big ape, the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” And everyone in the audience knew what the reference was.

The Bill of Rights comes in at No. 3, although it is a list of amendments to the Constitution that many Americans are vague about, except for their favorite one, whether it be the First and Larry Flynt, the Second and Wayne LaPierre or the Seventh and David Petraeus — No, wait, sorry: That last one is the 10 Commandments.

Fourth is the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or the “Index of Prohibited Books” first published by the Vatican in 1557. At one time, it listed 5,000 books that were bad for you, and undoubtedly more lively than many of the moldy classics on the Modern Library list.

Index for list

And rounding out the top five is the Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., perhaps the most moving of the lists and the only one that people actually make a pilgrimage to.

This last proves that lists need not be trivial.

Vietnamvet for list

The 50 top lists of all time

1. The 10 Commandments

2. The Seven Wonders of the World

3. The Bill of Rights

4. Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books.

5. The Vietnam Memorial, Washington DC.

6. FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List

7. Billboard’s Top 40

8. New York Times’ Bestseller List

9. Nixon’s Enemies List

10. The Periodic Table of the Elements.

11. The Seven Deadly Sins.

12. National Register of Historic Places.

13. AFI’s 100 Best American Movies.

14. The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace and Amy Wallace.

15. Joe McCarthy’s list of Communists in the State Department

16. 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover by Paul Simon

17. Elizabeth Taylor’s husbands

18. AP’s Top 20 College Football list

19. The zodiac

20. The Fortune 500

21. Schindler’s List

22. Charles Messier’s catalog of astronomical nebulae

23. The Koechel catalog of Mozart’s works

24. TV Guide

25. People magazine’s list of the 50 most fascinating people.

26. Butler’s Lives of the Saints

27. Standard and Poor index

29. Dow Jones Industrials

30. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses.

31. The Arbitron Ratings.

33. Oxford English Dictionary

34. USA Today Weather Page

35. Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature


37. The “catalog of ships” in the Iliad.

38. The notches in Wild Bill Hickock’s revolver handle

39. End credits of Airplane  

40. Money magazine’s Best Places to Live in the U.S.

41. Military Manual of Arms.

42. David Letterman’s list of “Top Ten Things That Sound Good When Said by James Earl Jones.”

43. The list of uses for WD-40.

44. Mr. Blackwell’s “worst-dressed” list.

45. The List of Adrian Messenger

46. Franz Liszt

47. Martha Stewart’s “To-Do” list.

48. Santa’s list of those who are naughty and nice.

49. JFK’s little black book.

50. 50 Top Lists of All Time.

Part 2 of 2


What was there about the Normans? That they covered the countryside in forts, castles, abbeys, churches, all with heavy, heavy stone architecture that says, in no uncertain terms, “I’m not here for fun. I mean business.”

The architecture feels almost Protestant in its brutal directness and lack of ornament. Like the dragon in its determination not to move, but squat on a hill, glowering.

Is there something about this rainy, gray countryside that made the Normans that way? Is it a residue of their Nordic blood? Is it a response to the brutality of the Dark Ages, when every duke or king had to defend his kingdom at every season?

Surely, Mont-St.-Michel is an interesting case: Part monastery, part fortress.

Who but a Norman, it seems, would build a monastery on the top of a giant rock out in the middle of a bay whose feature is killer tides?

You can see Mont-St.-Michel from the other side of the bay, 20 miles or so off. It hovers over the water like a mountain in the distance, with a needle spire pointing up at God.

The island — it was once an island, even if now it is connected to the mainland by a causeway, and the bay has so silted up that scientists say that soon, there will be no way for water to surround the place, even at high tide — the island is a rock.

In 708, Aubert, bishop of Avranches, had a vision of the sword-bearing St. Michael and built a sanctuary on the rock. It later became an abbey. The monastery grew, burned down, grew some more, caught the interest of a king, grew even bigger, and the monastery became surrounded by a fortress wall. Was the king interested in protecting the monks, or was he more interested in co-opting the island as a coastal defense under the disguise of peaceful religious orders?

At any rate, the result is a merveille — a marvel.

In England and Normandy, they call this stony style of building “Norman.” Elsewhere it is Romanesque, with arches like the Romans built.

The Romanesque is a heavy style, with thick walls and tiny windows. It can be claustrophobic, unlike the open Gothic style that followed it.

The Gothic cathedrals are famous for height: As you walk through them, your eye is drawn toward heaven.

The older Mont-St.-Michel is also vertical, but it is an external verticality: something you see from a distance, and becomes more imposing the closer you come, until, after you reach the island, the stonework rises over you in ways that make you feel not just small, but powerless. Is there any way you can climb to the peak, where God is, or where religious dispensation is? The monastery towers over you, ever upward, reaching its finish in the spire of the topmost church and the golden statue of St. Michael on top of that.

This is a Sisyphean hill that you clamber up and slide back down over and over. It is an impossible thing to master. It is Lurch the Butler looking down at you. It is the model for Citizen Kane’s Xanadu and King Kong’s Skull Island.

Around the base of the island, running higher or lower as the rock underneath decrees, is a rampart, with towers and loopholes. At its highest point, it intersects with the stone stairways that lead even higher, into the lamasery of the abbey. For the pilgrim, or for the tourist, the stairs seem endless. Each time you reach a landing, you look up and the buildings seem higher, and looking down, the earth seems farther away. The stairs actually exaggerate the verticality of the place.

The engineering was state-of-the-art for the time: They managed to build a functioning monastery on top of and around a pinnacle of rock, so that all you see from the outside is human stonework. The core of rock is concealed inside.

But the rock shapes the rooms, chambers, dungeons, refectories, chapels, meeting halls and workrooms that had to be built not simply on the stone, but around it.

The result is a warren of buildings, a hodgepodge, so split-level that you never can tell where you are in the compound. You move from one side of the rock to the other, while traveling up staircases and down staircases, through vaulted rooms and up more staircases, so that when you reach the other side, you cannot tell if you are on the same level, have gone down one or two levels, or a level and a half. Blueprints are no help. They seem to regularize what on the ground is chaos. The confusion is increased by the mess of architectural styles.

Take the abbey church at the very top. Its nave is Romanesque, with a barrel vaulted ceiling lined with wood, spread out like the wooden bars of a Japanese suit of armor. It is the oldest part remaining from the original construction.

The middle of the church — the transept — is Gothic, but of an early sort, with coarse vaulting and dirt-plain stone walls.

The apse at the far end, however, is later Gothic, with all the lightness that implies: complex stone tracery, windows piled on windows.

One end, dead weight — although the sternness of it also reflects a basic majesty — at the other end, all filigree and sunlight. The halves cannot mesh, but somehow they do: It is the magic of the Gothic style that it can accept any number of stylistic additions and just wear them like a great patchwork.

When you leave the church and head down a staircase and up another, and around a passageway, you come to a Romanesque room, dark and somber, in the bowels of the complex.

Pass through that and you eventually find your way to the three-story section called “La Merveille,” the marvel, an astonishing piece of engineering and construction. There, primitive fan vaulting spreads out from graceful piers, and you see the obvious aesthetic superiority of the Gothic. This is what the Middle Ages mean to most people.


Up and down stairs, through dark corridors, through stone doors, past arched windows, beyond a cloister with a double-columned colonnade.

The towering mass of stone and glass is like nothing else in Christendom.

Certainly, Notre Dame de Chartres has an imposing exterior, but it is the interior that carries its essential message. At Mont-Saint-Michel, it is the opposite: While the interiors are certainly interesting, it is the exterior that carries the central message of the warrior Christian saint.


Part 1 of 2


West of Paris in northern France are two monuments of the Middle Ages: the cathedral at Chartres and the abbey at Mont-St.-Michel.

In 1904, American historian Henry Adams privately printed a classic book that he called “Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres,” after the two signature sites of his thesis: that the older Romanesque architecture celebrated the masculine, martial virtues of St. Michael, while the newer Gothic style worshiped the “eternal feminine” of the Virgin Mary. Most of the major cathedrals of northern France are called “Notre Dame” — “our Lady.”

Notre Dame de Chartres is the ur-cathedral, the one used everywhere as the prototype cathedral. Mont-St.-Michel is less clear: It is a palimpsest of styles, bunched one over the other.

A trip to both still can be the best way to experience the art and culture of the Middle Ages.

And it is a very personal experience.


 Visiting the Gothic cathedrals of northern France is a kind of spelunking.

You enter the cavernous, dark spaces of the cathedral at Chartres and you hardly can avoid thinking of Carlsbad or Luray. The spaces defined by those stone walls and stained glass are always cooler than the weather and dimmer than the day, and the oldest, damp churches even can show you a stalactite or two in a draftier corner.

In the cathedrals you also descend, but you descend into the past, a darker past, barely recognized, of a Europe 700 years ago, when the church was the center of town and the source of political as well as spiritual power.

Expression of civic pride

Most of the famous cathedrals are built at the highest point in town, and can be seen for many miles, declaring their hegemony.

The churches were built as an expression of civic pride: In Chartres, it was primarily textile merchants who paid for the cathedral. They wanted to attract pilgrims — tourists — to spend money.

But the descent into the past is matched with another — a voyage into your own psyche, your sense of spirit.

The church takes you out of the daily world of business and family, and plops you down into a kind of eternity, a place where time and effort, gain and loss disappear and you are left face to face with what really counts.

Outside the cathedral, people are hawking postcards, souvenirs and crepes. Cars buzz by; the pompiers — France’s emergency workers — pass a block or two away to the sound of their tritone sirens.

But step inside, and you are blasted by the quiet. Even the tourists tend to whisper.

It has nothing to do with whether you are a believer. It is such an extraordinary experience, it can knock the breath out of you.

Spare in the extreme 

Notre Dame de Chartres is a veritable Spartan of cathedrals. Her west facade, for instance, is spare in the extreme, with only a few decorations, not counting the portals and their sculpture. But the portals are small and restrained, unlike their cousins at Notre Dame in Paris. You almost get the idea of a facade that isn’t yet finished, that it is waiting for someone to come along and add the finials, Hebrew kings, garlands of trefoils and quatrefoils.

Instead, it almost looks like the Gothic cathedral equivalent of plywood.

The proportions of the nave seem almost primitive. The large side-aisle arcades take up almost half the height of the central nave. The small triforium leaves room for a rather scaled-down clerestory — those windows at the upper edge of the walls. The result of these odd proportions is that not much light drifts down to the nave floor. It takes quite a while for your eyes to adjust.

When they do, there is a good deal of wear to be seen. Not only is the stone floor worn wobbly, but the vaulting in places is peeled or exfoliated, showing brickwork behind the stone.

Attend Sunday Mass 

The interior almost gives you the feeling of an empty apartment. Where are the paintings, the furniture, the curtains? In Chartres, where are the windows, the interior carving, the elaborate bosses in the vaulting?

One of the reasons Chartres is so highly prized is that so much of it is original. The statuary at Notre Dame de Paris is cleaner and more neatly featured, but then, it is only 150 years old, having been restored by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century. Viollet-le-Duc was a magnificent man, and his restoration work at Paris is convincingly original looking. You don’t sense much of the 19th century in it.

But it is still pristine and new looking. At Chartres, the statuary is weathered. You can see the lichen growing on the stone. Even the walls of the cathedral sport tufts of daisies high up, in unlikely places, growing straight out of the masonry.

Intoxicating chant 

The limestone is mossy, lichened and eroded. Paris looks fresher than her matronly cousin in Chartres. Paris recently has been sandblasted.

For some, the best time to visit is off-season on a weekday, when you can have the place nearly to yourself. But a cathedral wasn’t built to be empty. You should try to take in a Sunday Mass.

A machine is always more beautiful when it is running, and a cathedral is a machine to take you someplace. It’s best to see that machine with all its gears rotating and its cylinders pumping.

The church is packed. At the altar, spotlighted as if on a theater stage, there are priests and a choir, which is chanting plainsong that echoes through the building like surf.

Grasping the metaphor 

A priest is swinging a censer around the altar, spreading smoke through the crossing of the transept. It is intoxicating to hear the chant, melismatically floating like the censer smoke, under the brilliant blues and reds of the rose window, high above.

One doesn’t have to be a believer to appreciate how the Mass, spoken and sung in the space built for it 700 years ago, addresses the magnum misterium.

The vaulting, the lights, the stained glass, the church spread out in it is cruciform, that is also the diagrammatic shape of my body and your body, with the vast ceiling, which is metaphorical of the inner dome of the skull. You can see how the priest at the crossing of the transept — the place that counts as the heart of the cruciform homunculus — is casting us out into the cosmos, out into the mystery, out into an intense beauty we only rarely let ourselves become aware of.

One listens to the choir, now taking on a descant from the 15th or 16th century, with the soprano floating her melos out over an alto’s lower harmony, and look up, and on raising eyes, one sees the axis of the rose window, with all the light pouring through the interstices in the tracery, very like the angels dancing around the divine center of Dante’s mystical rose.

The vastness of the cathedral interior became the vastness of the universe, the singing became the music of the spheres.

That melisma becomes something completely separate from music as an aesthetic event. It becomes the closest thing we can hear — outside the sounds of children playing — to the human equivalent of a bird’s song, a sound beautiful beyond its need to be beautiful, uttered out of instinct and joy.

The doctrine doesn’t matter, except to the faithful. The metaphor behind the doctrine — the metaphor truer than the sometimes unknowing doctrine — takes over.

And you will be privileged to witness the building doing what it was designed to do, like a jet breaking the sound barrier, or the dynamos at Hoover Dam spinning out electrical power.

Let there be Light

From our vantage point, eight centuries later, Gothic architecture looks as old as dirt, but it is important to remember that it was once as new as the iPhone. It was innovative, and a craze for the new style of building spread across France and the rest of Europe.

People get taught about Gothic and Romanesque architecture in schools in the most boring way: a list of arcane terms and concepts.

But in reality, you can grasp the difference if you recognize the difference between a brownstone apartment building and the Empire State Building. It’s exactly the same difference, really.

Think of it: The brownstone is built brick on brick. You can build your edifice only so high, or the weight of the brick will crush your foundation.

In the late 19th century, they figured out that you didn’t have to make your walls hold the weight of the building. You could build a steel frame and hang your bricks on it, so the steel carries the weight, not the wall.

In fact, that led to the modern buildings of glass and steel with no walls at all, only windows.

It was the same thing in the 12th century. The older buildings, called Romanesque, were built brick on brick, or stone on stone, and in order to support the great weight of the stone, the walls had to be thick and strong, and windows tiny.

But builders realized that you really didn’t need the wall to hold up your roof. You could put your roof on stilts — columns or piers — and fill in the space between them with glass — stained glass.

This is the Gothic: vast open spaces instead of heavy walls. To strengthen the columns and distribute the thrust of the roof weight, buttresses were added. They didn’t need to be so heavy, either, if they were placed in the right place at the correct angle, so they were opened up the same, and you had the flying buttress, the arch of stone to help hold up the roof.

The stained glass let streams of light enter the building.

This wasn’t just practical. Abbot Suger, the head of the church in Paris in the mid-12th century, was part of an intellectual renaissance, a Gothic renaissance, and had read the Classical and early Christian authors, Aristotle and Plotinus, and believed that light was the primary metaphor of divinity. God dispels darkness. So, he wanted his new church, now called the Basilica of St. Denis, in northern Paris, to be bright and well-lighted. The new architecture was just what he needed.

Now, the church wouldn’t seem heavy and dismal, but brilliant and airy. It was perfect, and within 20 years, everyone who was building a church used the new style, which lasted for 300 years before being rivaled by the Italian Renaissance and the Baroque.

But even now, you find new churches in America with their Gothic pointed-arch windows and their naves and aisles.

The style persists in our cultural memory.

To be continued

I have never been in even the meanest, lowest streetside cafe in Paris — or anywhere in France — and gotten anything but the most perfect omelet. Smooth, creamy, buttery and eggy. There’s magic in a perfect omelet.

The most bored counterman in the least prepossessing dive in the 13th arrondissement knows how to do it to a T.

On the other hand, I’ve never had an omelet made in the U.S. that wasn’t a close cousin to a vinyl floor tile. Overcooked, dry, tough and tasteless.

“It’s the law,” my wife says. “They have to cook it to a certain temperature to kill the germs.”

I’m sure she’s right, but that’s only part of the problem: Most Americans have never tasted what an omelet can be, and therefore, don’t miss it. Our idea of an omelet over on this side of the waters is an arid eggy mass filled with onions, bell peppers, ham and orange cheese. The more compost that you can stuff into the poor thing, the better — mostly to mask the miserable taste of the desiccated egg.

One can lament our health laws that make it nearly impossible to find unpasteurized milk and make it impossible to import European cheeses. And I’m sure there are laws that require the refrigeration of raw eggs in American restaurants. No Frenchman would refrigerate his eggs. Ruins them.

We fear germs too much, despite the increasing scientific evidence that germs — even pathogens — play an important part in maintaining the health of the human organism.

But more important than our fetish for antisepsis is the lack of regard most Americans seem to have for the pleasures of the senses. Food with actual flavor is not an important consideration for appetites dulled by too much salt, too much sugar and almost no sense on the palate of texture.

Hence, our plastic omelets.

And it isn’t just our eggs we ruin, of course. I recently had the misfortune to taste some packaged macaroni and cheese that my granddaughters were eating. Mac and cheese is one of the most popular lunches found in the average teenage menu. Why this should be is a mystery: The food was appalling. The so-called “cheese” was a chemical yellow powder dumped into the hot, cooked noodles. It tasted like something excreted from one of those cancer factories along the lower Mississippi just south of Baton Rouge. I’m sure it would have glowed a science-fiction green under ultra-violet light. Never again.

Our steaks are chemically tenderized, our bread is gummy and flavorless — best used as a pencil eraser — our beer is yellow seltzer, and our gigantic chicken breasts have had all their flavor bred out of them.

If you have your flavor buds trained at the local franchise restaurant, it is no wonder you think American food is food the way it is supposed to be. It is not.

There is a trend toward better food, at least among the suburban and city affluent, and you can find more varieties of fruit and vegetable at the local supermarket than you ever could before, but a good deal of this is indeed just trendiness. The locovore movement, the raw food movement, the organic food movement.

But mostly it has just meant that you have even more diced veggies stuffed into your inedible omelet. The folded vinyl tile is bursting with exotic ingredients.

It isn’t fancy filling that makes an omelet good; it is the omelet itself, and failing that, nothing will help.

On a recent “Top Chef” TV program I came across while channel surfing, chef Wolfgang Puck gave a task to his contestants: Make an omelet.

He explained that when he had been 18 and beginning in the kitchen, his master of cuisine had given him this test and he had failed. He practiced and practiced until he could make an acceptable omelet. He was now using the same test on the new aspirants.

But no. Not really. Instead, the contestants spent the 45 minutes alloted to them not on making a good omelet, but on coming up with an unbelievable variety of complicated fillings to tart the omelets up, leaving almost not a thought to the egg itself. The results looked like a nouveau riche idea of haute cuisine.

And that is the problem. With the rise of a foodie culture, the result is not better food, but rather a lusting after exotic ingredients, a desire to make a tart with medlar fruit and Cambozola blue cheese, topped with macadamia nuts and matsutake mushrooms macerated in rainwater Madeira.

While it is a delight to see so many new varieties of food available at the supermarket, I suspect the result is not better food, but rather a modern recreation of Trimalchio’s feast. Where are the sparrow tongues and live birds sewn into roast pork?

It is the gastronomic version of thinking that hookers are the model for beauty and fashion.

So, we become caught as a culture between jello salad with mayonnaise and tournedos Rossini. In either case, little thought is given to the gout, the taste, the pleasure for the tongue and palate.

And so back to the humble omelet. A good omelet is simple food made well. It is a lesson: Incredible dinners can still be made from potatoes, chuck roast and cabbage. Prepared well with care and thought, our food should not only nourish, but delight the senses and make us happy to be alive for this meal in front of us.