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gabin 1I love French films; I own well over 200 of them on DVD. And not just the New Wave films we all know, but the pre-war films of Julien Duvivier, Jacques Becker, Marcel Carne, Sacha Guitry — and above all, those of Jean Renoir and Marcel Pagnol.

I am afraid that under the influence of such films as “Le jour se leve,” “La bete humaine,” and “Quai des brumes,” I am guilty of writing a pastiche short story Which I here present to you. Please read it in black and white. 

L’echafaud de mon desir
ou
Mon desir pour l’echafaud

My name is Etienne Duford and I am the chef de cuisine of a small restaurant in the town of _________. It is hardly more than a village, near Orleans, and a stopping place for truck drivers hauling cargo from Bourges to Paris.

And my restaurant cannot be called haute cuisine. It is only irony that causes me to name myself “chef.” Mostly I serve the truckers blanquette and gigot along with vin de table and rather a lot of digestif. I guess there was a lot of digestion needed to process the food I served. Next door is a small six-room auberge called the relais de St. Pierre. The restaurant is part of the St. Pierre, and its owner is my boss.

St. Pierre. It makes me laugh. “On this rock I build my church,” said Jesus. Well, we grow sugar beets in this corner of the world, and they are hard as rocks. Farmer, I joke, do you really need to plant the beets, can’t you just plow up the rocks that are already in the ground?

The beets pile up in the autumn in little pyramids beside the fields and along the roads, waiting to be picked up and brought to the factory. That paysage is the only thing that gives our region anything you might claim to be distinctif. Otherwise, this is flat country, both as geography and as culture.

Yes, I am married, to la belle Helene, as I like to say, a farmer’s daughter. No, she is not really all that belle anymore, although, for 47, she still has a decent figure and I can’t complain. We still sleep together, although I seldom touch her. Not that she doesn’t have her own affairs to keep in order. Affairs. I can’t really call them amours. That would be much too grand a word. I don’t mind them, and it leaves her a little extra spending money.

But it is the other one you want to know about — my Juliette. Daughter of old Ambroise, owner of the St. Pierre. Julie, ma jolie. The perfect ideal of womanhood. Une vierge de 28 ans, and the main reason I have never left this dusty town. I knew her when she was a child and I was in my 20s, just opening my restaurant. I watched her grow up. She is the only pinpoint of grace in this town, or in my existence.

I would see her sweeping the dirt in front of the auberge every morning and see her shake the laundry out back. No, I didn’t pay much attention to  her when she was young. It’s strange, now that I think about it. This isn’t something that happened those many years ago. I really thought of her as a child, at least until she was in her mid 20s. Then, I realized how beautiful she was, how graceful, and how she was a door to un monde plus gentil, more refined. Too refined for me, helas. I watched her, but I could never approach her.

Then, there was Jean. If a movie were to be made, he would be Gabin. He was one of the truckers who stopped regularly at the St. Pierre. He ate at my place, and perhaps drank a bit more of the vin ordinaire than was good for him. I loathed him.

Why? Because of the attention he paid Julie, ma jolie.  She deserved better. He smiled at her. I wanted to paste him one. This was no belle et la bete. There was no prince buried underneath the coarse skin.

Twice a month he came through with his truck, spent the night at the St. Pierre and ate my rillons with mashed potatoes and mustard sauce. He smacked his lips. In others I would have taken that as a compliment.

“What do you think,” he said one evening. “Great piece of meat, no?”

Surely, he wasn’t talking about the cutlet, which should have been turned into a shoe.

“I would love to get me some of that.” And he indicated, by a rude gesture, he was referring to his nether regions in contact with something soft and feminine. “She’s really something.”
Loathing doesn’t accurately describe my feelings; I hated him. He was a pig.

That Thursday, he came to dinner. I remember, he had only oeufs and some vin rouge. There was pomade in his hair and the smell of the barber shop. His suit hadn’t exactly been pressed, but it was cleaner than usual and I assumed that he had steamed it in his room.

“She gave me the high sign.”

“She?”

“The morsel. I’ve been after her for years, and I think she’s finally ready to give in.”

A big grin covered his face like the wrong sauce on a magret de canard. He wiped his mouth with his forearm.

“Another glass, s’il vous plait,” and he slammed the empty glass down on the table.

When he left, I pulled the towel from my belt, put it on the bar, and followed him. I kept a ways behind, and ducked behind the corner of the St. Pierre as he went in. Looking in the window, I saw him laugh his greasy laugh, slap the concierge’s desk and yell out, “Juliette!” I had an instant chunk of ice coagulate in my gut.

I went back to the restaurant, closed up for the day, and went upstairs. Helene was sitting by the door.

“I’m going out tonight,” she said. “Don’t wait up.”

I’m a man with some small education, although I claim no sophistication. I never finished school. But, I have a tolerant nature. I was not going to make a fuss over this habitual betrayal. I haven’t been the best husband to Helene, and she hasn’t been the best wife to me. It’s a little compromise we both make with life. I don’t ask and she doesn’t rub my nose in it.

But that wasn’t a good night to hear it one more time. I put my coat on, went back downstairs and out the door. I walked down the street and out of the village, out into the fields. I could see only black. It was still twilight and I could make out the hills of beets by the roadside, and the windbreak of trees at the far end of the fields. I could see the windows of the village light up behind me. But inside, it was all black. I wasn’t thinking about Helene. My thoughts passed instead to Julie. “How could such a gem exist even in the same dimension as that slug? How could she abide his barbarity?”

By the time I got to the trees just to the west of the village, I sat on the ground, looking back at the houses, silhouettes now against the graying sky. I’m a grown man, but I sobbed, wiped my nose and took a deep breath. I pulled my knees up to my chest, wrapped my arms around them and sat still, continuing to look back at the cluster of homes.

Homes? What is a home? What is one supposed to expect from life? Is there anything like a good marriage? Is it all accommodation? All a matter of giving up? In those books, there are great love affairs, but how do they all end? They all end in death. Anna and Vronsky, Romeo, Juliet. Juliette?

If they end in marriage, they are Charles and Emma. Helene.

The air was unseasonably warm that night. Thursday. The day of the week with the least character. It is a bland day. An empty day.

I heard something in the woods to my left, a shifting of branches and leaves.

I hoped Helene had found more in existence than I had. I had looked for foie gras and found turnips. No sauce helps the turnips.

What’s that?

I was certainly feeling sorry for myself. The son of man knows not where to lay his head.

Again?

I wiped my nose and took a deep breath. Then there was a giggle. There was no doubting that voice.

I got up and walked quietly down to the noise.

There she was on the ground, with her legs split open and the beast wedged between, grunting and rooting. She giggled again. I yelled out. I picked up a beet, hard as stone and took a whack at the beast’s head. He rolled off his prize and looked up at me with the slack uncomprehension of a farm animal. I lifted my arm for a second sally when he pushed me off, grabbed his trousers from around his ankles, yanked them up, rolled away from me, got up and began running off into the beet field, leaving the astonished Julie on her back, white and naked from the waist down, and her tuft of pubic hair, smoke above the fire, a punctuating point in the whiteness where the two legs met, downhill from her upraised knees. I yelled a second time and brought my arm down on her head. I did it again. And again, and again. Her head split open, it was gummy with blood. Her eyes looked up, but they didn’t see anything anymore. I dropped the beet and yelled a third time.

“Julie, ma jolie!” And I cried. I cried like a baby and collapsed next to the slab of meat that used to be the girl I loved.

Now my only assignation is with la veuve, the “widow.” Its blade will will take my best part — my mind — and slice it from my gross part, and the division will be the end of me. No great loss to the world, I fear, but rather a disappointment to myself.

Signed on this 30th day of November, 1937
Etienne Duford

treblinka sign

I’m wearing a virtual foam collar around my brain stem, suffering from a kind of whiplash, having finished one book, so devastating and depressing, and having begun another so invigorating and life-affirming — really, brain-affirming — that my poor psyche feels like Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, slapped back and forth by Jack Nicholson.

I recommend both.

The first is a recounting of the inhumanity humanity deals to itself; it is a tale of humankind seen not as individuals, but as an aggregate of categories. The second is a memoir of humans seen as individuals, with all their flaws and foibles. It is the macro view vs. the micro view.

The most distressing thing is that we all have to live in both worlds; we have our families and friends, but we also cannot escape the things our governments, our religions and our employers do in our name.

bloodlandsThe first book is Bloodlands, by Timothy Snyder, which recasts the central story of World War II — really from 1933 to 1948 — in a way which finally makes sense to me, and is a needed antidote for all the triumphalist D-Day feel-goodism you are weighed down by in endless TV documentaries about the war.

We are too often deluded into thinking that World War II was a time in which America waged a “good war” against Nazism and won. I had always found this view indefensible, simple minded and ultimately jingoistic. The U.S. certainly had its part to play — and I don’t mean to denigrate the sacrifice of our soldiers, sailors and those on the homefront —  but when I looked at the figures, it was hard to reconcile the idea that we were the major player when our war dead totaled half a million but the Soviet Union’s dead exceeded 12 million. Either they were terrible soldiers and ours were magnificently efficient, or the real war was not in Normandy, but in the Eastern Front.

But even my own prejudice about the war really being between Germany and Russia turns out to be a gross simplification.

The book is an accounting of all the dying that took place in the shifting-border areas between Germany and Russia — the areas that were sometimes Poland, sometimes Ukraine, Belarus and parts of the Baltic states, Romania and Hungary — death caused by the political choices and policies first of Stalin in the Soviet Union and then Hitler in Germany.Jew_Killings_in_Ivangorod_(1942)

By the accounting of the author, they are culpable in the deaths of 14 million civilians. This is above and beyond the military deaths caused by the war itself. This was the deliberate starvation of Ukrainian farmers in the 1933, the “Great Terror” of 1938, in which Stalin wiped out his political enemies, rivals and phantoms of his paranoia, followed by the mass shootings in occupied Poland from 1939 to 1941, the starvation policy used by the Germans on 3.1 million Soviet prisoners of war and the intended extermination of Jews by Germans from 1941 to 1945. It is a dismal story of humanity’s inhumanity. These were not accidental deaths, but deaths of central planning and political purpose.

The overwhelming bulk of death during those years took place between the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop line that divided pre-war Poland in half, and the eastern borders of Ukraine and Belarus.

Snyder footnotes the exact counts, often village by village, with anecdotal horror stories of those shot, burned, gassed and garroted. One hardly turns the pages without choking and weeping.

From Snyder’s view, the war in Europe was not merely one between Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union, but rather one in which Hitler and Stalin colluded in first wiping Poland off the map, splitting it between them in 1939 (the aforesaid Molotov-Ribbentrop line), and then, when Hitler’s plan to evict all the Poles and Jews from what was formerly western Poland got bogged down in difficulty (the plan to deport them all to the east, vaguely somewhere in the Soviet Union, perhaps Kazakhstan was nixed by Stalin), it turned into a plan to murder them all.

It should be noted that in Russia, the official dates of World War II are 1941 to 1945. They don’t acknowledge the invasion of Poland by Germany on Sept. 1, 1939 as the start of the war, because they were equally culpable in that dissolution of the state of Poland. But they start the conflict in 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Except, of course, that Hitler didn’t first invade the Soviet Union. He invaded what used to be eastern Poland, on the other side of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, but had since been declared to be part of the Soviet Union — the formerly Polish part. For Stalin it made no difference that this was formerly Poland; now it was de facto part of his Soviet Union.

When Hitler’s army failed to take Moscow quickly, as his Blitzkrieg model had planned, the war turned into a protracted and mass slaughter of German and Soviet armies.

While we in the West call World War II “the good war,” in Russia they remember it as the Great Patriotic War, but in reality the whole thing should be called the Soviet-German war over the dismemberment of Poland.

To that bloody conflict, D-Day, Sicily, North Africa, Dunkirk, the Battle of Brittain were all basically a side-show. Our propaganda portrayed Hitler as seeking “world domination,” but that was never more than a comic-book arch-villain sort of plot. France and England were brought into the war because they had a defense treaty with Poland. Hitler would have preferred to avoid war with England and France. His beef was with Stalin over the land he wanted in Poland for German expansion — primarily to provide farming land and food for an expanding and industrialized Germany. Having to deal with England and France in the west was a pesky bother to him.

(The war in the Pacific, which happened concurrently, can be seen as primarily a separate war, beginning with Japanese invasions of Manchuria and China in the 1930s and ending after the war in Europe. The Pacific war was essentially America’s war, unlike the war in Europe.)

Back to the book: What makes it so dismal is not just the magnitude of the statistics — how many million shot in the back of the head here, so many million run through the death camps there — but the documented stories of individual deaths, or whole villages prisoned in churches that were then burned down, or men required to dig pits the length of two football fields, and then told to lie down in the graves, where they were shot, and layered like lasagne with another pile of bodies, shot, and another, and another, then covered up with dirt.

One fears turning the page in Bloodlands to find more starvation, more cold-blooded planning of mass murder, more mothers torn from their babies, more husbands worked to death in labor camps, while their parents were shipped off to Treblinka or Chelmno.

We too often think of the concentration camps as the place of the Holocaust, but Snyder makes clear that as many Jews were killed by bullets as by gas, and that the version of camp death we most often think of — say Auschwitz or Buchenwald — were not actually death camps, but rather holding camps in which death was a too-common byproduct. The real death camps were small facilities with no barracks, just changing rooms. The victims arrived by train, stripped of clothing and possessions and were herded directly into gas chambers where internal combustion engines piped carbon monoxide in, killing all in about 20 minutes of terror, and then the corpses were carried out an burned in huge pyres, kept fired up like so many charcoal grills. Treblinka was built exclusively to empty out the Warsaw ghetto. When that was accomplished, Treblinka was closed down. The extermination camp at Chelmno did the same thing for the Jews of the Lodz ghetto. The industrialized purposefulness of such factories is all the more chilling. deportation to treblinka 1942

We tend to think of Hitler’s atrocities as being 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. And in terms of ethnic cleansing, it is one of the most ghastly in human history, but the suffering was also spread out in the period Snyder covers, from so-called kulaks in Ukraine to Polish officers massacred after the division of Poland in 1939, to dissidents and potential dissidents in the Soviet Union. Some 60 million people died in those years from political violence, less than half of them were military. That was 3 percent of the world’s population at the time.

One of the arguments one hears from the so-called Holocaust deniers, is that the Shoah was simply too vast to be believed. No humans could possibly have exterminated that many people in that short a time. Yes, they say, Hitler had anti-Semitic policies and maybe a few were killed, but the vast numbers were not believable. One has to laugh at this argument, not only in the face of Snyder’s careful accounting, but in the long view of history, and the slaughter of conquered peoples from the dawn of time. The Holocaust was not a singular event, but something like the standard order of things. This is what people do to each other, over and over and over. One must remember the wholesale extermination of city populations by Genghis Khan, the pyramids of skulls of Tamerlane. The slaughter of Cathars in the 13th century, or earlier, of the Wu Hu in China in the Fourth Century. One voice echoes through history: Carthago delenda est. So, ethnic cleansing continues in our own time, whether in Rwanda or Sudan or Cambodia.

I have gone on is rather more length than I had intended. The book is overwhelming, the pessimism it engenders is oppressive. I do not hope for a brighter future; I cannot knowing the lessons of history.

But I can put the book down when finished, and pick up another, one that gives me as much pleasure as Bloodlands gives me pain.

And here’s where the whiplash may hit you, too.

trilogyBecause the next tome I picked up was H.L. Mencken’s three autobiographical books, published as a single volume by the Library of America. I cannot convey to you quite the pleasure to be had by reading Mencken. His writing is full of the vigor and intellectual energy of a man in love with life and in love with the way language can convey that love.

It is not that everything is wonderful in Mencken’s life, but rather that the failings of human existence — seen as the acts of individuals, rather than classes of people — are at bottom so entertaining.

It is particularly his volume on his early newspaper work that fills me with joy. Newspaper Days covers the years from about 1899 to 1906, and lets me know that journalism hadn’t changed much from his day to mine (that it is now nearly extinct is another sorrow I feel).

Just as I dreaded each new chapter in Bloodlands, I check to see how many more pages I have left of Mencken and dread instead the final page, when my pleasure will come to its end. Prejudices

The Library of America had previously published his six series of  Prejudices, which were collected essays, always a joy to read, even when what he says might be outrageous and, well, prejudiced. At bottom, Mencken is clear-eyed and unbowed, and we value his fellowship, even in print, as we might value it sitting on a barstool next to him, sharing banter over a foamy beer. You might not agree with Mencken’s opinions, but they were always magnificently expressed, in a kind of journalistic language raised to the level of poetry.

I have his three volume The American Language, which is about as entertaining a scholarly book as you could find. Thorough, amused and amusing, it is indispensable.

The best way I can convey to you the qualities of Mencken’s writing, and of his mind, is to quote him. Here is a section from Newspaper Days, in which he talks about the artists employed back at the turn of the century to illustrate newspaper stories, before the days when photographs could be easily reproduced. As editor, he had to deal with their eccentricities.

After a few anecdotes about artists getting themselves into trouble and drink, he reminds us that:

“The cops of those days, in so far as they were aware of artists at all, accepted them at their own valuation, and thus regarded them with suspicion. If they were not actually on the level of water-front crimps, dope-pedlars and piano-players in houses of shame, they at least belonged somewhere south of sporty doctors, professional bondsmen and handbooks [obsolete slang clarification: bookies]. This attitude once cost an artist of my acquaintance his liberty for three weeks, though he was innocent of any misdemeanor. On a cold Winter night he and his girl lifted four or five ash-boxes, made a roaring wood-fire in the fireplace of his fourth-floor studio, and settled down to listen to a phonograph, then a novelty in the world. The glare of the blaze, shinning red through the cobwebbed windows, led a rookie cop to assume that the house was afire, and he turned in an alarm. When the firemen came roaring up, only to discover that the fire was in a fireplace, the poor cop sought to cover his chagrin by collaring the artist, and charging him with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. There was, of course, no truth in this, for the lady was nearly forty years old and had served at least two terms in a reformatory for soliciting on the street, but the lieutenant at the station-house, on learning that the culprit was an artist, ordered him locked up for investigation and he had been in the cooler three weeks before his girl managed to round up a committee of social-minded saloonkeepers to demand his release. The cops finally let him go with a warning, and for the rest of that Winter no artist in Baltimore dared to make a fire.”

mencken 3The book moves forward with speed and irony, full of vivid expressions and entertaining stories. Mencken recalls cops and judges, editors and pressmen, drummers for patent medicines and press agents of dubious veracity, kindly murderers and scapegrace yobs of all descriptions, many of which Mencken counted as his special angels of the kind of humanity he most valued. He detested all cant and corporate or governmental doublethink, and anyone who would put life into a file cabinet alphabetically.

It is the pleasure of coming across his book after reading Bloodlands that restores the oxygen to a world otherwise noisome with the mephitic stench of death. And reminds us that it is a grace that we live in a world of individuals rather than in the statistical world of categories and proscription lists. Grace is what keeps us alive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Left: Turner “Pink Sky”               Right: Rothko detail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turner, left; Martin, right

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

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

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

 Click to enlarge

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

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

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

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

Sharknado (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click to enlarge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

“Yeah, the sunset is so orange.”

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

“Where?”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, well, I used to think that.”

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

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

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

“How’s that?”

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

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

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

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

“Well, that’s what they say.”

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

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

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

“You mean God?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait. I thought it was all cultural.”

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

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

“Right. The famous dead White men.”

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

“What is not beautiful?”

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

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

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

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

“Like a bee before a flower?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Infinite.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Louis Armstrong playing “Potato Head Blues.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But really, politics answers no question worth asking.

‘Platypus’ law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answers aren’t solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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