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It is a gray rainy day, cold and damp. I am standing at the glass door looking out. I am 70 years old. Yes, that is relevant.

Leaves on the ground, bare trees like leading against the sky, hands on the edge of being numb by the cold. I have my camera and decide to make photographs from where I stand behind the door. How many different images can I frame without moving my feet?

Each of the captures bears the weight of meaning. The leaves are dry, curled and brown. Some make patterns, but most are merely random scatterings. There is no avoiding the match between the internal and external worlds.

I am alone in the world. A lifetime of experience has built up a complex web of neurons in my brain, like interwoven roots. Those connections, alive with electricity, hold seven decades of memory, learning, disappointment, fears, joys and, perhaps more than anything, language. It is the means through which I most interact with the world.

Or so it seems. Yet, it is also imagery that carries meaning. I have been speaking since I was a toddler, reading since before kindergarten, but I didn’t begin making images until I was out of college. I don’t mean snapshots, but consciously trying to find visual analogs of emotional and mental states. Images as art, if that is not too fancy a word.

So, again, through the window, I see the tangle of vines that are axons and dendrites. I see the crisped leaves wet on the ground, their lives and usefulness complete. I see the trees as nudes against the colorless sky, a black-and-white photograph even while in full color. Naked we come into the world; naked we leave it.

The vines are not just a projection of brain-tangle. They are also the way I have come to understand the narrative of my existence. Once, it may have seemed like a simple story line — a plot with beginning, middle and an upcoming end. But the longer I live, the more the plot becomes muddied, clouded, balled like tangled yarn. What was linear becomes a Pollock painting. Where does my remembrance intersect with yours? Where does it knot, where disengage? We met once; which of us recalls? Or perhaps we didn’t.

There is more ahead. I write this as I perhaps begin a new adventure.

Someone, and I can’t remember who, once said that the best way to critique a photograph is to make another photograph. 

You can learn a great deal by the doing — a great deal more than by reading or hearing lectures. In the past, painters learned to paint by copying master paintings in museums (you can still take canvas and easel into the Louvre, with proper permission, to copy). 

If there’s any one thing that you discover by the process, it is that it ain’t easy. Things you hadn’t so far considered turn out to be crucial. I tried this many years ago, wishing to take black-and-white large-format photographs of waterlilies to find out what, besides the color, went into the structure of Monet’s paintings at Giverny. The color is so dominant in the images, that we too easily forget the form. 

There is form in them, but very like the harmonic structure of Debussy, it is subtle. The black-and-white photographs I made amplified form over color and made for very different results.

Years later, at Giverny, I made color photographs of the waterlilies and the resemblance to the paintings was much more overt.

This sort of copying, in order to learn, is something I have always done. I have a self-portrait, made in 1980, when my beard was still dark, that mimics Van Gogh’s portrait of Dr. Gachet. 

Of course, Van Gogh himself was well known for copying to learn, such as his oil-painted imitations of Japanese woodblock prints. The translation from Hiroshige to Van Gogh tells us a great deal about the Dutchman. 

A portrait I made of Sharon Vernon in the early 1970s patterned itself on Degas’ Woman with Chrysanthemums. 

In 2011, I extended the copy to a series. As art critic for the daily newspaper in Phoenix, Ariz., I spent a lot of time at the Arizona State University Art Museum. It was housed in the Nelson Fine Arts Center, which opened in 1989 on the university campus.

The building was designed by noted architect Antoine Predock and won many awards — although there was a significant backlash from more conservative commentators who thought the windowless building looked too much like a prison. 

The building itself was a labyrinth of stairways, running up past others descending. There was a barred gate at the underground entrance to the museum, and many sight-lines that seemed to defy logic.

The entire complex is immense, and includes a theater, an outdoor movie screen and staircase that goes nowhere. But it is the art museum and specifically the entry to the museum that I was concerned with.

Of course, my source material — the Piranesi etchings (Link here) — are quite dark and airless. They are dungeons, after all. 

In contrast, the Nelson Fine Arts Center burns in bright sunlight, with bright walls. So, it would not be the murk I was trying to recreate in the photos.

Instead, it was the hallucinatory perspective that I tried to capture, the sense that up wasn’t always completely up and that down wasn’t always clear. 

I must note that I am not claiming for these exercises the status of art. Whether or not they achieve that level is quite beside the point for me. 

The point was simple and direct: I had fun in the doing, fun in the editing, fun in the printing and in the collating. 

I wound up with 24 prints, compared with Piranesi’s 16. The set, printed out on archival paper, I gave to the director of the art museum as a gift. 

I kept another set for myself, and I had the digital versions to arrange here for this presentation. At least, here are 16 of them, to match the number of the Carceri. 

I am also not the only one to consider the Nelson Fine Arts Center as a photographic subject. 

Arizona photographer Johnny Kerr has also attacked the building for a series; his series, however, is more consciously graphic, and sees the shapes and shadows as a form of Minimalist art.

You can see his version at: (Link here). 

Imitation, such as my meager attempt, is a great way to learn what you cannot just through cogitation. You get to engage with the physical world and see how it becomes transformed in the act of having its picture made.

It reminds me of Garry Winogrand’s manifesto: “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.”

But it goes beyond that. It makes the three-way connection between the subject, the photograph, and the long art history that stretches out behind us. Each photograph is a hinge between the real, physical world we wish to capture and its echo in the accumulated culture. 

Click any image to enlarge


Before the pot boils, it simmers. Between the conception and the creation falls the shadow. The cusp of something about to be born. A rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem. It is the ambiguous time between the discrete textbook ages of history that we name that is most interesting.

We generally name Romanticism in art as something that thrived in the first half of the 19th century. If it has a birth date, it is usually given as 1798, when William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge first published their Lyrical Ballads, a book of poems that seemed to be a clean break with the past.

Certainly there are other dates we could choose. In music, we often give 1805 and the first performance of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. In politics, it might be 1789 and the fall of the Bastille in Paris. Or Goya’s Caprichos, published in 1799. Picking a single date is absurd, because Romanticism wasn’t born like Athena, burst instantly from the head of Zeus. It wasn’t born at all; rather, it accumulated. 

And in the 50 or so years before we gave the movement a name, it kept popping its head up above the surface in odd moments, letting us know it was coming. 

Before Beethoven, there were the Sturm und Drang symphonies of Joseph Haydn, beginning with his Symphony No. 39 in G-minor of 1765. There was Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther of 1774, that set all of Europe to sympathetic weeping and toward a penchant for suicide. In English, there was Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, from 1764 that began a craze for Gothic novels, with their attendant gloom, rattling chains and ghosts in dungeons. There were the faux Celtic sagas that James McPherson published in 1765 as The Works of Ossian. All these, and many more came as a sort of antidote to the rationality of the Enlightenment. 

And, there are the prisons of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. These 16 etchings are sui generis in Piranesi’s vast output, and a fierce eruption rising to the surface of the simmering pot. 

Piranesi (1729-1778) was an architect, archeologist and printmaker who was fascinated by the ruins of Ancient Rome. While his architectural work consisted of a single building, and his archeology was more of a sideline, it is as an etcher and engraver that he became famous. One of the best printmakers of his time, his intricate detail and exacting craftsmanship were exceptional. 

Half his work functioned as a record of archeological evidence, cataloguing ancient architectural detail; the other half was as a profitable creator of souvenirs for European aristocracy, mainly British, who were taking the “Grand Tour” of Europe to flesh out their educations. 

These prints, known as Vedute, or “Views,” were in the Picturesque tradition — ruins covered in vines and under the arches of which lived peasants. It was a rich tradition in the second half of the 18th Century, and a bankable genre for artists wishing to make a good living. 

During this time, the rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum prompted an interest in the past, including Ancient Greece, Egypt and the Gothic.  Johann Joachim Winckelmann was writing ecstatically about the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. Piranesi rode this rising tide and published hundreds of vedute engravings. 

Many of these transcended the reality of the ruins left in Rome and the Campagna and were pure fantasies of what might have been. The more extravagant the fantasy, the better. 

In the midst of these popular prints, in the late 1740s, Piranesi began making a series of fantasy prints of imaginary prisons, or carceri, built of immense dank spaces and torture devices. Each of the original 14 prints was roughly the size of a 16-by-20 photograph, large by most etching standards. But they were an anomaly, and didn’t sell well. Surely, they came a decade too early.

For, in 1761, Piranesi reworked the original plates, adding two new ones, and republished them as Carceri d’invenzione, or “imaginary prisons.” According to Belgian writer, Marguerite Yourcenar, they represent “negation of time, incoherence of space, suggested levitation, intoxication of the impossible reconciled or transcended.” And can best be understood as externalizations of internal mental and emotional states. Nightmares, even.

 

Plate I Title; Plate II Man on the rack

Plate III The round tower; Plate IV The piazza

Plate V The lion bas-reliefs; Plate VI The smoking fire

Plate VII The drawbridge; Plate VIII The staircase with trophies

 

Plate IX The giant wheel

 

Plate X Prisoners on the projecting platform

 

Plate XI Arch with a shell ornament

 

Plate XII The sawhorse

 

Plate XIII The well

 

Plate XIV The Gothic arch

Plate XV Pier with a lamp

 

Plate XVI Pier with chains

 

Comparing the first and second states of the series, one sees them change from rather sketchy drawings to richly inked, dark and menacing spaces, with architecture and geometry that are often physically impossible — almost Escher like. 

The 1761 version of the plates were enormously popular and were reprinted many times. They leave behind the comfort and orderliness of the 18th Century and look ahead to the Byronic, irrational and psychologically disturbing Zeitgeist of the early 19th Century. They are a harbinger, a precursor, a herald. 

They are a manifestation of the sublime — a concept fresh in the culture, with a translation, in French, by Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux of the Perihypsos (“On the Sublime”) of the Roman author Longinus, and a book-length essay on the subject by English writer and politician Edmund Burke. 

The sublime is the profound psychological awareness of the immensity of the cosmos and vastness of nature compared with the puny insignificance of humans, but seen not simply as depressing or frightening, but as unbearably beautiful. Joseph Addison called it “an agreeable kind of horror.” It is awe, in the sense the word had before it became cant among American teenagers for whom a peanut-butter sandwich might casually be called “awesome.” 

In Longinus, we read: “We are by nature led to marvel, not, indeed, at little streams, clear and useful though they be, but at the Nile, the Danube, of the Rhine, and still more at the Ocean. A little fire which we have lit may keep pits flame pure and constant, but it does not awe us more than the fires of heaven, through these may often be obscured; nor do we consider our little fire more worthy of admiration than the craters of Etna whose eruptions throw up rocks and mighty boulders or at times pour fourth rivers of lava from that single fire within the earth. We might say of all such matters that man can easily understand what is useful or necessary, but he admires what passes his understanding.”

And so, the Carceri cannot be made coherent and understandable. The prisons expand outward into unseen spaces that open again into other unseen spaces. There are stairs to nowhere, torture devices in the shadows, catwalks over bottomless pits, stones overgrown with moss — and many tiny, nearly unseeable figures, caught in this Kafka-esque labyrinth. 

—You can find a wonderful animated tour through Piranesi’s prison on YouTube (link here). 

And you can get some of the effect in reality in the actual Medieval prison, the Conciergerie, in Paris, where Marie Antoinette was held before her beheading.

Mt. St. Michel

Or the rambling stairs and arches of Mont St. Michel at the border of Normandy and Brittany.

 

The Carceri are not anomalous for their subject alone: Unlike Piranesi’s usual draftsmanlike exactitude in his drawings, the prisons are nearly scribbled onto the etching plate. They imply a kind of fury in their creation, as if Piranesi were trying to get his vision down into line before they evaporated from his boiling imagination. Shelley once described the moment of creation as an ember rapidly cooling that needs be indited before the glow darkens. You can see Piranesi frantic not to lose the hallucination. 

The change from Classicism to Romanticism — like the change from the Renaissance to the Baroque — is not simply one of rationalism curdled to emotionalism, but of clarity as a virtue lost into a fog of ambiguity and incoherence. It is Racine metamorphosed to Rousseau. 

Beethoven’s “Fidelio”

The subject matter had enormous influence as the 19th Century was born. It is the Venetian prison and escape described by Giocomo Casanova in his 1787 Story of My Flight and later in his memoirs. Prisons and dungeons are everywhere to be found in literature, art and music. It is the prison where Florestan is rescued by Leonora in Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio. It is the dungeon where François Bonivard meditated in Byron’s Prisoner of Chillon. It is the prison that Alexandre Dumas, père, put The Man in the Iron Mask. It is the torture site of the Inquisition in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum. Not the least, it is, historically, the Bastille in Paris and its siege and fall that set off the French Revolution. 

“Dracula”

It is a trope that continues into the 20th and 21st centuries. It is Carfax Abbey in Tod Browning’s 1931 film, Dracula. 

The very gantry ways and bridges make their way into Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. 

Now, that same spacious gothic sublime turns up in fantasy films, such as Lord of the Rings, on TV in Game of Thrones and in nerd games, like Dungeons and Dragons. 

You can find its inception in 1761 with Piranesi. 

Awesome. 

Click on any image to enlarge

“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.