Archive

Uncategorized

I started to write about philosophy, but realized I really wanted to talk about pears. Crisp, delicious succulent pears, the kind with small brown spots on the skin and a roly-poly bottom. Given a choice between reading Hegel (insert dry cough here) and slicing wedges off a Bartlett pear, the fruit wins hands down every time. 

I have been thinking about this because of philosophy. The intellectual world seems divided irrevocably between art and philosophy — image and word. One side deals with categories of thought, the other side deals with hubcaps, clouds, tight shoes and the sound of twigs snapping underfoot, to say nothing of pastrami sandwiches and corduroy trousers. 

I’m sorry if I value the one vastly over the other. I am a Dichter not a Denker. I have — this is my ideological burden — a congenital mistrust of language, particularly abstract language and language of categories. The world is too multifarious, indeed, infinite, and language by nature and requirement, simplifies and schematizes, ultimately to the point that language and reality split paths and go in separate directions. When one relies too much on  language, one misses the reality. 

The tragedy is, that language is all we have. We are stuck with it. We can try to write better, more clearly, use evocative metaphor when declarative words fail, use imagery rather than abstractions, and do our best — our absolute best — to avoid thinking categorically, and attempt to see freshly, with eye and mind unsullied by the words that have preceded us. It’s hard, but it is essential. To begin with the categories, and to attempt to wedge our experience into them, is to mangle and to mutilate the reality. 

The matter is only made worse by the impenetrable fustian written by so many philosophers — and especially the recent crop of Postmodern and Poststructuralist explainers. 

Take Hegel — please. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1839) is just the kind of philosopher who thinks thoughtful thoughts and writes incomprehensible prose. 

“Knowledge of the Idea of the absolute ethical order depends entirely on the establishment of perfect adequacy between intuition and concept, because the Idea itself is nothing other than the identity of the two. But if this identity is to be actually known, it must be thought as a made adequacy.”

A made adequacy?” That’s from his System of Ethical Life (1803-4). I’m sure if you spent an hour or two going over it again and again, you might be able to parse something out of it. But, jeez. It’s the kind of prose you get from academia all over the place: 

“As histories of excluded bodies, the bodies that made national Englishness possible, this counterpastoral challenged the politics of visibility that made the very modern English models of nature, society, and the individual visible through the invisibility of bodies that did not matter.”

That’s from Kathleen Biddick’s The Shock of Medievalism (1998). She is also the author of The Typological Imaginary: Circumcision, Technology, History

In such writing, individual abstract words are made to stand in as shorthand for long complex ideas, not always adequately explained. And the words are then categories, and the categories allow blanket statements that cover the world like Sherwin-Williams paint. 

The basic problem is that words are always about words. When Plato talks about “the Good,” he is talking about how we define the word, “good.” Plato is about language. The linguistic grammar and language has its own rules, its own logic, and they soon supersede what the philosophers call “the case.” 

There is a book out there now titled Why Fish Don’t Exist, by Lulu Miller. And taxonomists now largely agree that what we used to call the class of animals Pisces (fish), are really a bunch of increasingly unrelated classes or clades, in fact at least 12 of them, not counting subclasses. For example, a salmon is more closely related to a camel than to a hagfish. 

But, back in the 18th century, both whales and sea urchins were also classified as “fish.” That we distinguish them separately now has made no difference to either whales or urchins, but only to dictionaries. That a whale is not a fish but a mammal is a shift in language, not biology. Fish still swim in the sea, even if we hesitate to call them fish. 

And in the same way, the parsing of philosophers is mostly a shift of wordplay. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein made this the central issue of his later work. 

Meanwhile, as the philosophers mince language in their mental blenders, Gloucester fishermen keep pulling fish out of the oceans. When it comes to trust, I take the fishermen over the philosophers. The world is filled with sensible, seeable, feelable, hearable things. Things that give us pleasure and made the world we find ourselves cast into, like poached salmon. 

Our lives are filled with the things of this world and their shapes, colors, sounds, textures, smells and tastes. And so is our art, which makes images, poems, dances, music and theater from those shapes, colors, sounds, etc., is a direct connection with the things of this world — the “case” as it were. 

And I think of pears in art — those buttery layers of paint by Paul Cezanne — and the other still life art that singles out this bit or that of the physical presences of the world and shows them to us so we may notice them and appreciate them. 

Most of our art tends to be divided between people and things — “things” being mostly landscapes and still life. In our art, we privilege people over things and that is only fitting. I’m sure squirrels are most interested in other squirrels, too. 

But the non-human and non-living things things are so much a part of our lives, and a certain percentage of our art has been made about things. Like pears. 

I step outside into the sun and I hear distant traffic, the breeze hissing in the tree leaves, and, from several blocks away, the intermittent rattle of a chainsaw. In the morning, there are birds — mockingbirds and chickadees. There is the feel of the air and the sun on my skin. There is the smell of the grass, new mown, or maybe the oily resonance of diesel fumes. I stand and feel the temperature. I live in the welter of the world. 

And so, I am in love with the things of this world. I am mad for them to be in contact with me, to absorb them, to notice and appreciate them. To pay attention. To be alive. 

And I slice a pear. The insides are both pulpy and wet; the skin keeps the flesh from drying out. The stem at the top curves off. The nub at the bottom shows where the white flower had been. 

I take pears instead of apples here, because apples have too many words stuck to them, making them gummy with ideas, from Eve’s fruit of temptation to the computer on which I am writing these words. 

But a pear can be seen with less baggage. It bruises more easily than an apple, yet its pulp is firmer, stiffer, unless overripe, when it can go mushy. Nor is it as sweet as an apple, although we must point out that there are hundreds of different varieties of apple and that a red delicious is sweeter than a granny smith. (Yet the granny smith makes a better pie). 

There are varieties of pear, also, and they are perhaps more distinct than the apples. The lanky brown Bosc, the squat green Anjou, the nearly round Le Conte, the very sweet Seckel. In Japan, there is the ruddy, round Kosui, or russet apple pear. The Comice is great with ripe cheese. Yellow Huffcap for making perry — a cider made from pears. 

I believe the central fact of existence is variety, in infinite forms, which in contrast makes the categories of philosophers seem puerile and simplistic. And dry. Pears have juice. Derrida, none. 

These are smart people. I don’t begrudge them that. And perhaps we need people thinking such thoughts. But if we leave these words to the philosophers, I will have more time for myself with all the plants, rocks, fruit, animals, clouds, stars, cheeses and oceans. 

Ultimately, to experience things is more important — more rewarding — than explaining them. 

When it comes time to leave this planet and join oblivion, in those last moments left to my life, mostly, I will be thinking about the people I have loved and who have loved me. But beyond that, will I be thinking about Hegel or will I be remembering pears? My money is on the palpable. There is love there, too.

Click on any image to enlarge

I have been thinking of Paris a lot lately. It is the city I have felt most at home in, perhaps along with Manhattan. It has been a dozen years since I last went, and I will almost certainly never get back — I am too old to put up with the torture of airline travel. 

It is a great city, made up of many smaller neighborhoods, each with its individual character. You can walk almost anywhere, and if you need to go further than your feet feel comfortable, you can always grab the Metro. 

When Carole and I used to go, we would pick out a neighborhood (or arrondissement) and settle ourselves in it, as if we lived there. Each visit, we’d go to a different one. And we shopped in the local shops, ate in the local restaurants, and shared pleasantries with the people we came across. 

Parisians have a reputation for being rude, but we never found that. Everyone we came in contact with was unhesitatingly friendly and helpful. When I was sick one day, Carole went to the chocolatier at the end of the block, and when she told the sales person why she was buying some “get-well” candy, the bag was loaded with as much again, no charge. “Tell him we hope he gets better soon.” 

That was our constant experience in Paris. One day, I was walking by myself along rue Monge, near our hotel and the woman who ran the flower shop asked after Carole. “Is she not well?” “No, she’s just resting.” We had not talked with her before, but she had noticed we had been in the neighborhood and she worried about us. 

The city has been brought to mind in part because of a series of TV shows about Impressionist art, made by British art historian and TV presenter Waldemar Januszczac. (Yes, that’s seven consonants and only three vowels — a Scrabble nightmare). 

In the series, he makes the point that what defined the Impressionists was not all the flowers and flowery dresses, all the sunlight and paint daubs, but an interest in the daily lives of Parisians. The official painters of the day (second half of the 19th Century) were the academic painters and they painted elaborate historical, biblical or mythological paintings — subjects considered “important” enough for art.

But there was Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, Degas, Caillebotte, Sisley, Gauguin, or Marie Bracquemond — all painting what they saw on the streets, or the people they hung out with. The paintings captured the life of the bourgeoisie, the ordinary people of the city. 

And when I went looking back at the photographs I made while in Paris, I realized that so many of them were contemporary versions of the same things that featured in those canvases. 

This was “my” Impressionist Paris. 

The other reason Paris has been on my mind is that I am re-reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I first read it when it first came out and I was in high school. I had just been forced to read The Great Gatsby for class, and Hemingway gave me a very sour take on Fitzgerald. (I don’t know why they assign Gatsby to teenagers; there is no way in hell they can have any clue as to what is going on in the book — I know I didn’t. I have just re-read it and been blown away by the beauty of its prose — all that lost on me when I was a snot-nosed adolescent). 

But now, as I’m re-reading the Hemingway, I am hit with my own past. I know so many of the streets he names. He and Hadley first lived on rue Cardinal Lemoine; our first visit put us right at the bottom of the hill off Lemoine. We ate breakfast each morning at Le Petit Cardinal bistro. Our regular waitress, Lauren, a sandy-blond woman in her 30s, would have our regular breakfast for us even before we ordered. (And one morning, when I had ordered a pain au chocolat and they were out, she went across the street to the patissier and brought back a sack of them, so I wouldn’t be deprived.)

The cafe culture Hemingway writes of is one we became intimate with, each time we went (and we attempted to stay for a month at a time, each visit). 

At the cafe Etoile d’Or, at the bottom of the hill, we came late one night after a concert to have a demitasse and a dessert. Carole ordered a crème brûlée and when it came, she lightly tapped the hardened caramel crust on top, a rich glaze that she said reminded her of the stained glass of Notre Dame. She told this to the waiter, with his apron wrapped around his waist, and he smiled. We heard him in the kitchen telling the cook, who answered simply, “C’est vrai.” 

I first went to Paris when I was in high school. I had accompanied my grandmother on the transatlantic boat trip to Norway so she could visit her birthplace in the south of the country. I was also given a Cook’s Tour bus trip, by myself, across northern Europe. 

When we stayed in Paris, one night when the rest of the tour went to the Folies Bergere, I was deemed too young to go. So, as evening descended, I walked up the street stopping about a half-block from the hotel, at a boulangerie and bought a baguette. Next door was a charcuterie, where I bought a paper boat of wurst salad. Another door down, I bought a bottle of dry white wine and I took the bundle back to my room, where I had a private dinner that I know I enjoyed more than the poor slobs who had gone to the nightclub. Sausage, bread and wine — I was 16 and I have never again felt so grown-up. 

Paris made the biggest impression on me at that tender age, of all the places we visited across five nations. It was Paris before the cathedral of Notre Dame was cleaned, and so its facade was sooty with grime. The church of Sainte Chapelle was brilliant with stained glass. The Metro impressed me — an afficionado of New York subways — by riding on rubber tires and making almost no noise. 

But I didn’t get back to Paris until 2002, when Carole and I decided it was time. We had a hotel in the Fifth Arrondissement, just off rue Monge. On our first full day, we walked down the hill toward the river. 

Hemingway begins his fourth chapter: “There were many ways of walking down to the river from the top of the rue Cardinal Lemoine where we lived.” It was the same route Carole and I took, although we didn’t know it at the time. We could see the spire of Notre Dame at the end of the road, less than a half-mile off. Along the way, we past a thousand cafes, bistros, tea bars and restaurants. In between were shops, fruit stands, book stores and churches.

The river divides the city in half, and along its banks you still can find the fishermen that Hemingway wrote of: “The good spots to fish changed with the height of the river and the fishermen used long, jointed, cane poles but fished with the very fine leaders and the light gear and quill floats and baited the piece of water that they fished expertly. They always caught some fish.” 

It’s a working river, still. 

When in A Moveable Feast he writes: “With the fishermen and the life on the river, the beautiful barges with their own life on board, the tugs with their smokestacks that folded back to pass under the bridges, pulling a tow of barges, the great plane trees on the stone banks of the river, the elms and sometimes the poplars, I could never be lonely along the river.” 

Paris is an oddly layered city, with the newest on the bottom and the oldest above. Almost every building houses some modern shop on the ground floor, with neon lights, plate glass and corporate logo. While from the second floor upwards, you see the old wrought-iron balconies to the small casement windows, peeling paint, rotting plaster or concrete, and surmounted by a gaggle of chimneys, each with a half dozen flues poking out the top.

How they got those modern shops underneath the old apartments, I don’t know. It looks like they jacked the buildings up and constructed a shopping mall underneath.

For dinner, we tried a little Italian restaurant and had a opening course of mortadella, which Carole called “the worlds best bologna.” Then we had the lasagne boulognese, and a chocolate mousse for dessert. My notes of our trip are filled with descriptions of our meals. I believe I cataloged every one of them in my notes. 

At La Aubergeade, on the rue de Chaligny, two men were sitting at a table across the room. One short and sandy haired who was making a point in the air with his hands. He was about 55 and wearing a wool suit. The other man was tall with a de Gaulle nose and mustache, bald with a crew cut. He was so gangly and angular that his knee, crossed over his other leg, poked high above the table level. He was skeptical and showed it with a raised eyebrow and a pursed lip. He also sawed the air with his right hand palm inward, fingers extended, in a slow and deliberate fashion, in total contrast to the energy of his friend. Momentarily, they stopped, cut their steak or potato, put it to mouth and then began their counterpoint gesticulation again.

It was like watching a Tati movie, live. In fact, the tall man might as well have been M. Hulot on one of the moments when he was dragged into the cafe by his friend, accordion music playing as soundtrack. Vielle France.

At the restaurant across the street from our hotel, we had one of the best meals of my life: A steak with grilled fois gras. A small dog wandered from table to table looking for scraps and a good pat on the head. Eventually, he climbed up into my lap and stayed there contentedly, while I finished my dessert. 

It feels silly writing about our food every day, but it is truly a highlight. Paris is a city where your lunchtime conversation is likely to be about where you will eat dinner. The promise of Christian salvation has little value compared with the presence of a good French meal.

“I’m not sure it does us honor, but if I had to admit it to myself, the real reason for coming back to Paris is the food,” I said.

On our first visit together, in 2002, we ate at Le Physicien, a Basque restaurant at the far end of rue Monge. It was group seating, and we were at a long table with a bunch of students. They had such a ball, it was infectious. They sang and drank and ate. Carole shared her braised kidneys with them. They shared shrimp with her. We had a piperade — a Basque specialty with garlic, onion, peppers and egg — that was the highlight. Daniel, the chef and owner, smiled on us all with his aged, whiskered smile. 

Two years later, we came back for more on a bright, sunny Tuesday afternoon at lunchtime. But when we entered, a woman there was trying to shoo us away. I wasn’t  sure why. I couldn’t understand her French.

But then the old man came in — the one we remember from last visit — and he immediately calmed the woman down and offered us seats.

Carole explained in French that we had been there two years ago and loved the piperade and that we wanted piperade again, with ham and egg and pepper and — well, garlic.

He was enthusiastic and hit the kitchen right off. 

We had ordered two glasses of wine, but the woman brought us a whole bottle and made an apology for trying to send us away.

The piperade was wonderful — along with the vin rouge and the basket full of baguette chunks. For dessert, we had the gatteau basquaise with crème anglais.

When we left, the woman took both of Carole’s hands in her hands, and then Daniel, took both my hands and put them inside of his hands and said thank you. So, they both understood what we had been trying to tell them in our pidgin French.

It was a perfect experience, but when we walked out the door, I noticed a sign I had missed on the way in: Fermé le mardi — “Closed Tuesdays.” 

That has always been our experience of Paris and Parisians. 

Yes, we went to the Louvre, and other must-sees, but we didn’t spend a lot of time on the usual things. We never, for instance, went to the Eiffel Tower. Why? You can see it from pretty much any point in the city, and if you spend your day climbing the tower, well, you cannot see the tower. 

On our second trip, in 2004, we stayed on the Boulevard St. Marcel and a couple of doors down from the hotel was the Pizza Lino, where we ate a couple of times. On the third time, our waiter greeted us as old friends. He wouldn’t let us order. He had made cous-cous. 

“I am from Algeria,” he said. “I made it myself.” 

He brought out a tagine and plates of white cous-cous and we covered them with a ladle or two of a rich red sauce filled with vegetables — potato, squash, tomato, chick peas, carrots — and a selection of meat, including meatballs, an anise flavored sausage and the best lump of lamb meat I’ve ever had. He brought it with wine and told us the wine was part of the deal. It was.

The food was wonderful, but it paled in comparison to the human interaction we had with our friend, Madjid. “I am not Arab,” he tells us, “I am Berber.” He has been in France for three years, he says. He and a friend own the restaurant. Madjid is married to a Brazilian woman and has a 14-year-old son. (the boy must now be in his 30s.)

Madjid expressed that he felt an instant sympatico with us, and we told him we felt it toward him, too. He brought us a free pichet of wine, which we felt compelled to drink.

“It is good,” he said, “when you have something to give” — like his food — “that someone truly knows how to enjoy and accept it. A gift is best when it works both ways.” I am paraphrasing his macaronic French and English. (He speaks French perfectly well, but tries to add enough English to help us understand. His English is imperfect, but better than our French.)

Two years later, we were walking up the Boulevard St. Marcel, late in the afternoon and I heard a voice: “Reeshard? Reeshard, No?” It was Madjid, in front of Pizza Lino.

“Yes, bon jour.”

“I have good memory,” he says, understating the case. 

And he pulled us in and told us he had cous-cous and hardly gave us a chance to assent, but sat us down at the same table we used to sit in. “Your place, yes?”

And he set before us a bowl of white fluffy cous-cous with white raisins swollen plump, and then a great big white Normandy bowl of vegetables and soup, with big chunks of carrots, onions and turnips. While we were spooning the veggies and soup over the couscous, he brought another plate full of braised lamb, meatballs and andouille sausage, bright red with white chunks of fat.

We added the meat to our bowls and chowed down. We couldn’t possibly finish everything he brought us, and he showed the same grinning pride in his cooking that he did last time.

Our bellies were bursting, our warm-spot in our hearts were glowing and we promised to come back the next day. And, of course, we did. 

At the Luxembourg Gardens, we walked among the statues and horse-chestnut trees and were in the middle of a living city. People all around were walking dogs, sitting under trees and reading, or cuddling or smoking. Teenagers rolled past on their inline skates and joggers puffed around corners. All I heard was French.

What never fails to give us pleasure is just walking around the streets. We walked along the quai, or even up the Rue Monge near our hotel, and look in the shop windows, drool at the patisserie, see what French vacuum cleaners look like, watch the people sitting at the round tables in the cafes sipping their cafe au laits. The cars are different; the way people walk or cross streets is different. It is all utterly and completely fascinating. 

Throughout the city, street markets pop up on their regular days. I found the Thursday street market, spread out along Avenue Lendru Rollin from the rue de Lyon all the way to the rue de Bercy. I started to walk along it, past fish and fowl.

The market sits under canvas tent-roofs along the sidewalk, with the territory divided up between vendors. One was a fishmonger, with heaps of silvery dace and mackeral, red-fleshed, skinned flatfish, piles of oysters, boxes of shrimp and langoustini. The next had meat, with freshly butchered shanks and steaks, and platters of livers, kidneys and other oddments. More than one stall was end to end vegetables and fruits, with cauliflowers, tomatoes, leeks, cabbages, peaches, apples, pears. 

A few meters down the road, the food gave way to junk jewelry and hairpins. Further, there were clothing stalls, shoes, jackets.

Then, more food. One great-smelling stall had whole chickens on rotisserie racks, about 6 skewers high, over a trough with golden roasted new potatoes. He called to us in English, “Take home a half chicken, only 3 Euro.” I shrugged my shoulder: We had nowhere to take such a succulent morsel.

At the end of the line, we kept walking for a bit, down to the river and halfway across the bridge to the Gare de Austerlitz. It was chilly that morning and the sun, barely a glare through the grey sky, broke into crystals on the sharp-edged little waves of the Seine.

A few years before that, we had been staying in a hotel off the rue Claude Bernard and one morning, we heard a crowd outside. It was market day on the rue Mouffetard. 

It was like something from a movie, or a travel poster, with hundreds of vendors selling vegetables, fruits, meats, fish and all kinds of viands. Up and down the narrow street, shops offered oysters, coffee, bread and beer. On shop had freshly-dead rabbits hanging in the window. “Lapin — 8 Euro, Lievre — 10 Euro.” The hare was about 20 percent larger than the rabbit. 

The street was mobbed. It was a hive of activity, and at the bottom of the hill, by the Saint-Médard Square, there was a small band, with accordion, playing music. The crowd sang along and gathered in a circle around the musicians and two or three couples would move to the center and begin dancing, all with great smiles on their faces. 

By about noon, the marché came to an end, and the band signaled the end of their performance with an elegiac La Vie en Rose — the whole thing could not have been more French. I’m sorry if it all sounds corny, but it also felt very real. 

We knew then that we had to come back, and we did so every other year, when we could afford it. 

Click on any image to enlarge

“Manfred on the Jungfrau” John Martin, 1837

From the last half of the Eighteenth Century through the last quarter of the Nineteenth, an idea permeated popular and intellectual culture and showed itself in literature, art and music, although no one could quite agree on its definition. Like wit in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, which also defied simple definition, the sublime was something no one couldn’t quite pin down, but like Justice Potter Stewart said, you knew it when you saw it. 

The Sublime features representations of vast spaces, horrifying disasters and universal chaos. Anything dark, scary, awe inspiring or supernatural. 

“Alpine Avalanche,” Philip James de Loutherbourg, 1803

Of course, the idea isn’t limited to the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. It has been around as long as there has been art and literature. There is The Sublime in the epic of Gilgamesh and it is all over the Bible. 

There had always been a subspecies of The Sublime in art. It is in Shakespeare, in Titian, in Rubens. It runs throughout John Milton’s Paradise Lost, especially in those parts describing Satan and his acts. 

But The Sublime steps into the spotlight with the advent of Romanticism. It is in the poetry of Byron, the novels of Victor Hugo, the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. It is behind the fad for Gothic novels and the nature poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge. 

The first clear enunciation of The Sublime in literature was set down in the First Century by an anonymous author, usually called Longinus. His treatise, usually called On the Sublime, is primarily a guidebook to rhetoric, with all the usual tropes, but he also discusses how great writing — as opposed to the merely good — overwhelms us, and it is great subjects that lend themselves to great writing. 

In the climactic 35th chapter, he writes: “What was it they saw, those godlike writers who in their work aim at what is greatest and overlook precision in every detail? … (W)e are by nature led to marvel, not, indeed, at little streams, clear and useful though they be, but at the Nile, the Danube, or the Rhine, and still more at the Ocean.  … nor do we consider out little hearthfire more worthy of admiration than the craters of Etna whose eruptions throw up rocks and boulders or at times pour forth rivers of lava from that single fire within the earth.

“Vesuvius Erupting,” Pierre-Jacques Volaire, 1877

“We might say of all such matters that man can easily understand what is useful or necessary, but he admires what passes his understanding.”

What happened between the century of Voltaire and that of Shelley is the cultural shift from Neo-classicism to Romanticism. It is a shift from a concern for society and relations of humans to humans to a different frame of reference — to the relation of the individual to the cosmos. 

Relations between people are between roughly equal, similar size entities; relations with the cosmos pit the infinitesimal human being against the infinite. There is no satisfactory reaction but awe, terror, and admiration: That is The Sublime. 

 

“The Deluge” William Westall, 1848

Coleridge describes a Sublime experience in his 1818 lecture on “European Literature” by recalling: “My whole being expands into the infinite; earth and air, nature and art, all swell up into eternity, and the only sensible expression left is, ‘that I am nothing!’ which concludes that his ultimate realization of The Sublime was of his own human insignificance.” 

In 1757, a young Edmund Burke wrote an influential treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. He wrote: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

He sorted The Sublime into seven constituents: darkness; obscurity; deprivation; vastness; magnificence; loudness; and suddenness. When used in art or literature, The Sublime reminds us of things we find frightening in the world, but by being framed in art, lets us contemplate it in safety, and thus we find pleasure in it. 

“Chamounix, Mont Blanc and the Arve Valley” JMW Turner 1803

The next generation sought out The Sublime in reality as well as in literature. When Mary and Percy Shelley visited the valley of the Arve River in the Alps, they noted in their History of a Six Weeks Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland: “Mont Blanc was before us, but it was covered with cloud; its base, furrowed with dreadful gaps, was seen above. Pinnacles of snow intolerably bright, part of the chain connected with Mont Blanc, shone through the clouds at intervals on high. I never knew — I never imagined what mountains were before. The immensity of these aerial summits excited, when they suddenly burst upon the sight, a sentiment of ecstatic wonder, not unallied to madness.”

Shelley transformed this into his poem, Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni:

In her 1794 gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe has her heroine face the Alps: 

“They quitted their carriages and began to ascend the Alps. And here such scenes of Sublimity opened upon them as no colors of language must dare to paint … Emily seemed to have arisen in another world, and to have left every trifling thought, every trifling sentiment, in that below: those only of grandeur and sublimity now dilated her mind and elevated the affections of her heart.”

“Hannibal Crossing the Alps in Snowstorm” JMW Turner 1812

And Byron is nothing without The Sublime. He takes his doomed hero to the Jungfrau in Manfred and used it in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage over and over, as in the lines, “Roll on thou deep and dark blue Ocean — roll!”

In Canto 3 of Childe Harold, he takes his hero to the Alps: 

Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancyent Marinere (1798) is all about The Sublime and its terror — and ultimately, its beauty. 

Its hero, aboard a death ship is surrounded by a sea of monsters: “The very deep did rot: O Christ!/ That ever this should be!/ Yea slimy things did crawl with legs/ Upon a slimy sea.” But our mariner has a transformation of heart:

 Certain artists and painters became transfixed by The Sublime. First comes Joseph Wright of Derby (he is always referred to this way, apparently to distinguish him from other Joseph Wrights, including an American artist of the same time, who designed the Liberty Hat penny). 

In many of the English Wright’s paintings, a bright light glows in the darkness. He painted multiple canvasses of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in the 1770s. 

“Vesuvius in Eruption, With a View of the Bay of Naples,” Joseph Wright of Derby, 1776

Although he didn’t have to travel that far. Many of his landscapes feature brooding moonlight scenes, or images of fire in the darkness, such as

“Cottage on Fire,” Joseph Wright of Derby 1786

This fascination with The Sublime is primarily a northern European thing. You find it in British art, in German art and Scandinavian art, but less so in Italian or Spanish (Goya excepted). 

Germany produced Caspar David Friedrich, who specialized in images of the contemplation of vast nature.

The arctic inspired a good deal of Sublime art, as in Friederich’s Sea of Ice, with its barely noticeable shipwreck.

“Das Eismeer” Caspar David Friedrich, 1823

The ice of the arctic is where Mary Shelley had her Frankenstein creature float away on an ice raft to his death.

“We are still surrounded by mountains of ice, still in imminent danger of being crushed in their conflict. The cold is excessive, and many of my unfortunate comrades have already found a grave amidst this scene of desolation.”

And the final words of the novel:

“He sprang from the cabin-window as he said this, upon the ice raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.”

Later in the century, American painter Frederick Edwin Church painted a dozen or so studies of icebergs. 

“Floating Iceberg,” Frederick Edwin Church 1859

Church also painted volcanoes, such as Cotopaxi in Ecuador.

“Cotopaxi,” Frederick Edwin Church 1862

Church’s most famous painting, now at the National Gallery in Washington DC, is his Niagara, a nearly 8-foot across panorama of the falls. It was shown in New York in 1857, where visitors could pay 25 cents to view the painting in a darkened art gallery (for best effect). The painting went on a cross-Atlantic tour, shown the same way. 

“Niagara,” Frederick Edwin Church 1857

Its effect was stunning for the time. Even a century later, writer David Harrington could say “Niagara is the American’s mythical Deluge which washes away the memory of an Old World so that man may live at home in a New World. The painting is an icon of psychic natural purgation and rebirth. Poetically a New World emerges as the waters of a flood subside. The rainbow, sign of the ‘God of Nature’s’ covenant with man, transfixes the beholder. … Niagara is a revelation of the cosmos to each and every man.”

The biblical reference is apposite. Much of the imagery of The Sublime in the 19th Century comes from the Bible. Painters loved to depict certain scenes from the Old Testament: the Deluge; the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; Balshazzar’s Feast; Samson destroying the temple of the Philistines; the Plagues of Egypt — anything that would have delighted Cecil B. Demille.

In such paintings, you can see the difference between earlier ages and the rise of The Sublime. In Renaissance and Baroque paintings, the action centers on the people involved. Landscape is mere backdrop. But in the century and a half I’m writing about, the people shrink to insignificance and the landscape takes over, full of rocky climes, lightning bolts, hurtling boulders, spewing volcanoes and roiling stormclouds. You can almost make a stop-action movie, like watching a flower unfold in a nature film, showing the people getting smaller and smaller and the landscape becoming ever more menacing. 

 

“Gordale Scar, Yorkshire,” James Ward 1812

It is clear that as you go later into the 19th Century, The Sublime verges all too often at the edge of kitsch. The sense of cosmic overload funnels into a kind of religious sentimentality. Where you draw the line, personally, depends very much on your willingness to accept the underlying metaphor of the vastness and impenetrability of the universe. 

There are two British artists who straddle that line. John Martin and Joseph Mallord William Turner. Martin was very popular in the early years of the century, but is largely forgotten now. Turner was popular then and even more so today. Still, I have to admit a soft spot in my head for John Martin and his extravagance. 

“Pandemonium,” John Martin 1841

I first learned of him and his large painting (now in the St. Louis Art Museum) called Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion. First painted in 1812, it exists in several forms, both in paint and as print. In it, the Persian prince, Sadak, must fulfill a quest for the legendary Waters of Oblivion, in order to save his kidnapped wife. It is based on one of the Tales of the Genii, by English author James Ridley and was a huge success when first exhibited. 

Martin turned to printmaking to make his work available to a wider audience and published, in 1824, an enormously popular series of illustrations to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. (These were, in part, the inspiration for the later Gustave Dore to make his own series for the epic poem). 

“The Bridge Over Chaos” from “Paradise Lost,” John Martin 1826

Biblical subjects became Martin’s bread and butter. The more grandiose the image, the more popular became his prints. They include The Fall of Babylon

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:

The Seventh Plague of Egypt:

And Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still Upon Gideon:

And my favorite — The Great Day of His Wrath:

He ventured out of his biblical Fach for the historical:

“The Destruction of Pompeii,” John Martin 1822

And even the prehistorical — on of my favorite for its goofiness. It was the frontispiece illustration for Gideon Mantell’s book, The Wonders of Geology:

“The Country of the Iguanodon,” John Martin 1837

Martin’s appeal was to vastness and number. His Balshazzar’s Feast prompted Charles Lamb to deem it “vulgar and bombastic.” 

“Balshazzar’s Feast,” John Martin 1821

In contrast, JMW Turner also painted one of the plagues of Egypt, and it has its share of grandiosity, but Turner’s shtick was mist and fog, indistinct outlines — and uncertain scholarship (It is titled the Fifth Plague, but actually illustrates the biblical Seventh Plague). 

 “The Fifth Plague of Egypt,” JMW Turner 1800

In 1840, Turner exhibited a painting called Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhoon Coming On. It depicts an event from 1781 when the captain of the slave ship Zong threw overboard 132 of his captives when drinking water was running low. Since insurance would not cover the cost of slaves dying of natural causes, he drowned them instead, so he could collect. Turner seems to have added the typhoon for effect.  

“Slave Ship,” JMW Turner 1840

The storm, the swirling air and sea, the lurid color and the loose brushwork all contribute to the sense of disaster. While the painting had an abolitionist intent, it is its forward-looking esthetics that appealed to critic John Ruskin. Turner is often seen as a precursor to the Impressionists. But while they tended to paint everyday scenes, Turner favored turmoil and disaster. 

“Disaster at Sea,” JMW Turner 1835

The circular swirl was a trademark of the later Turner. In 1842, he had himself lashed to the mast of a ship in a snowstorm in order to paint Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead. The Author was in this Storm on the Night the “Ariel” left Harwich. Yes, that was its full title when first exhibited. 

“Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth,” JMW Turner 1842

He also did a snow storm in the Alps. 

“Valley of Aosta: Snowstorm, Avalanche and Thunderstorm,” JMW Turner 1836

In the United States, The Sublime was a natural. The American West lent itself to large paintings of vast landscape, often in mist or early sunrise. An entire school of artists, usually called the Hudson River School, latched onto The Sublime, beginning with Thomas Cole.

“The Expulsion from Eden,” Thomas Cole 1828

Cole’s most famous protege was Frederic Edwin Church, whose paintings of South America brought the exotic landscape to the U.S.

“Rainy Season in the Tropics,” Frederic Edwin Church 1866

And Martin Johnson Heade verged on the surreal in many of his paintings.

“Approaching Storm — Beach Near Newport,” Martin Johnson Heade 1859

But it was the West that threw open the gates of heaven, with any number of painters, first among them, German-born Albert Bierstadt. 

“Among the Sierra Nevada, California,” Albert Bierstadt 1858

Latterly among them was Thomas Moran, whose huge and colorful canvases persuaded Congress to create our first national parks. 

“Shoshone Falls,” Thomas Moran 1900

These painters are the clear progenitors of the landscape photographs of Ansel Adams. 

“Clearing Storm, Yosemite,” Ansel Adams 1944

But The Sublime had pretty well worked itself out by the end of the 19th Century. It was harder to believe in the awesome beauty of Providence after the First World War, to say nothing of the horrors that followed. Post-Traumatic Stress wasn’t quite the same thing. Still, The Sublime hung on in the paintings of Jackson Pollock, and especially Mark Rothko, whose mysterious canvases of hovering colors evoke the same sort of awe among those willing to be seduced by them. 

“Black on Maroon,” Mark Rothko 1958

I’ve covered literature and painting, but The Sublime appears in music, also. The first sound depiction of it occurred when Franz Joseph Haydn depicted biblical Chaos as the prelude to his oratorio The Creation, which premiered in 1803. 

Hector Berlioz assayed The Sublime in several of his works, but none more grippingly than in the Tuba Mirum section of the Dies Irae of his Requiem Mass of 1837, which requires, in addition to a huge orchestra and chorus, four extra brass bands, set into the four corners of the concert hall, and 20 tympani, which roll doom out in the Dies Irae. 

Another Dies Irae with the power to blow you away is Giuseppe Verdi’s, from his Requiem Mass, which whacks the bass drum in alternation of staccato blasts from the strings and brass. 

Perhaps the cake is taken by Gustav Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand — his Symphony No. 8, which in an ideal performance has an orchestra of about 200 and a chorus of 800. It is gargantuan, and the opening Veni Creator Spiritus is as close to manic insanity as music can probably sustain. 

There are moments in Wagner, in Liszt, Bruckner and many in Mahler’s other symphonies. 

Then, there’s The Ninth. I don’t need to mention whose. The Sublime makes itself present in each of the four movements, but rises to a climax in the choral finale, where voices and instruments poise at the limits of their abilities and hold those notes as they sing, “Seid umschlungen, Millionen!” — “Be embraced, you millions” and then “Ahnest du den Schopfer… — hold it, and then belt out — “Welt?” There follows a coda of ecstasy bringing home the central message of the symphony: “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” — “Joy, beautiful spark of divinity.” 

But perhaps the greatest moment of The Sublime, as terror and grandeur, comes with the recapitulation section of the first movement. The theme that began the symphony in uncertainty and mist — we don’t even know originally what key it is in — comes back forte underlined by two solid minutes of rolling tympani thunder. Some conductors downplay this moment, letting the tympani merely enforce the bass line, but done right, the drums are an earthquake of apocalyptic rumble. 

Perhaps I have been fascinated by The Sublime in art and poetry so much because I have experienced in life — probably a dozen times or so, maybe a score if I catalogued them — a moment when you don’t merely feel the joy of beauty found in nature, but experience a cosmic tingle, a sense of life magnified, intensified, made mythic. A body-sense of the vastness of existence and my minuscule place in it. 

It tends to come, as it does in art, in mountains or deserts or at sea. I recall the sense while crossing the Atlantic on a ship and walking the deck after midnight and seeing in the vast emptiness of the ocean a twinkle of a light on a ship many miles off, heading in the opposite direction. The sea swells were rocking the boat and I could make out the shifting facets of waves in the dark, where some starlight was caught in the reflection of the water.  

Or the Grand Canyon at five in the morning just before the sun broke the horizon. 

Once, driving east in North Carolina on my way to Cape Hatteras, it was near sunset and in front of me in the windshield was a sooty-dark thunderhead and rain on the road perhaps a mile in front of me, obscuring the road and any horizon. It was a canyon of charcoal cloud climbing up to the stratosphere, with spikes of lightning, while in the rear window, the sun was brilliant and red in a clear sky. It was the definition of The Sublime. 

Click any image to enlarge

Hello, my name is Richard and I am a Tarkovsky addict. As usual, the first fix was free: I watched Andrei Rublev on Turner Classic Movies a number of years ago. 

Rublev (1966) is a three-hour black-and-white epic about a 15th century Russian icon painter, which isn’t quite the selling point that it may sound. But it is also complicated by the problem that there is no discernible plot, and that large chunks of the movie are not about Rublev at all. And also, what story there is moves at the pace of paint drying. I was hooked. 

As New Yorker writer Alex Ross said, “Some art works impress us so deeply on first encounter that they become events in our lives.” 

Andrei Rublev is one of the most visually stunning films I have ever seen, black and white, with more black than white, lots of murky weather and nighttime scenes. It is divided into eight tableau, with a prologue and an epilogue. 

It begins with a crowd of Russian peasants watching a man attempt an early hot-air balloon ascent. A lot of commotion, not a lot of clarity. He manages to get aloft and from his point of view, we watch the landscape beneath him as he screams with joy — until he crashes. Then a horse rolls over on his back and we move on to the first official scene. 

This prologue has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. 

Each of the next eight scenes documents episodes from the life of the painter, although we are not at first clear which of the characters we see actually might be Rublev. There are three of them taking off from a monastery. Tarkovsky doesn’t spend a lot of effort differentiating them. 

I can’t relay the plot, because there really isn’t one. And any attempt would be interminable. Suffice it to say that the film is hypnotic rather than active. It seems to make time stand still. 

This is a virtue of all of the films of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, who made only seven feature films in his short life, each of them more enigmatic than the last. He was born in 1932 and died of cancer in 1986, a cancer he most likely acquired making his 1979 film, Stalker. (Two others from that film, including its star, also died of cancer). 

I saw my second Tarkovsky on Turner Classics also. It was also three hours long, but was a space epic. Sort of. Solaris (1972) was Tarkovsky’s response to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is about a Russian scientist visiting a space station around a planet names Solaris. While there, he encounters his dead wife, and she dies again. It turns out the planet can create mental reality for anyone nearby. 

A lot more happens, of course, but again, the plot is hardly the point of the film. Tarkovsky seems to view plot as an unpleasant necessity for filmmaking, which he is willing to put up with, but not if it requires too much of his thought and energy. He is more interested, like his planet, in creating a mental reality for anyone nearby. 

Solaris was remade in Hollywood in 2002 by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney. The films was shortened, tightened and made sense, and therefore was a complete botch. 

The Tarkovsky original begins with a half-hour scene set on Earth, with some of the most stunningly beautiful photography I’ve ever seen in a film, outside a Terrence Malick movie. Watching it breaks my heart, it is so beautiful. I have often watched just this beginning, just for the sheer pleasure of it. 

Solaris is less successful than Rublev, and precisely to the extent that it tries to actually tell a story. But it is still a great film.

(In an almost comic bit, Tarkovsky seems to be making fun of Kubrick’s film by inserting a five-minute long, nearly unedited segment from the point of view of someone driving a car along streets into a city. It makes no plot sense, but does seem to mock the “star journey” from 2001). 

Then, these “free samples” began costing me money. I bought DVD versions of both films and watched Rublev many times. Each time, confusions became clearer; this is what happens with Tarkovsky. Other filmmakers lead you through their plots by the nose, so you don’t miss anything. You get a passive experience, sitting back and letting the story wash over you. Tarkovsky forces you to participate actively in the film, joining him in making meaning as you go. 

Several people had recommended Stalker as the Tarkovsky film I really had to see. And so, I hit Amazon for another DVD. 

In Stalker, a guide leads two other men on an illicit expedition to “The Zone,” where an unnamed disaster has rendered the land out-of-bounds. They have to elude the authorities and make their way through a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape, littered with trash, abandoned tanks, overgrown weeds and industrial waste. The destination is to reach a room where a person’s deepest wish will be fulfilled. 

But this retelling of the storyline implies that the plot is the point, and it is not. The film is all atmosphere and poetry. It was seeing Stalker that first clued me in to the fact that Tarkovsky’s films are about a series of symbols very personal to the filmmaker and not explicable in ordinary terms. We just have to recognize their meaning, the way we recognize meaning in a dream. One thing does not “mean” another thing as in semiotics, but rather these are projected obsessions of the filmmaker. 

In almost every Tarkovsky film, you will find these obsessions repeated: horses; 

you will find ceilings dripping with water; 

puddles of shallow water that actors have to trudge through; 

wind rippling through grass; houses burning; 

action seen through a screen of forest trees; 

and over and over, someone looking at reproductions of art. 

(The influence of art is obvious in many of Tarkovsky’s compositions, such as this one from Zerkalo):

There are also an extraordinary number of people viewed from behind their heads. 

And mothers and children. 

More than one levitation;

 and lots of symmetrical compositions. 

These pieces are assembled and reassembled through all seven films.

Stalker is now imprinted on my own imagination. It is unforgettable, even if you never have a clue what it is about. Forget “about.” It is not “about” anything. It is an experience. If you visit Niagara Falls and stand under its torrent, it isn’t “about” something; it is an experience. A Tarkovsky film is the same. It is something you absorb and it stays with you for the rest of your life. 

If you attempt to find meaning, you will be sidetracked, and you may very well decide the effort is not worth it. 

Susan Sontag wrote a book called Against Interpretation, and Tarkovsky is Exhibit A. He is providing you with the same kind of gift that you get from the changing of seasons, a great snowfall, the night sky, the loss of love. 

Earlier this year, I set myself a Tarkovsky marathon (not all in one day — I’m not a masochist) and watched all seven features in order, beginning with Tarkovsky’s first film, Ivan’s Childhood (1962), which is the most conventional film he made, coming in at just 95 minutes. 

It tells the story of 12-year-old Ivan during World War II, who serves as a spy for the Soviet army, and comes under the protection of a captain who wants to send him back to school. Ivan runs away to join partisans and eventually winds up leading a raiding party into the German occupied area. Flashbacks show us Ivan in happier times, before his mother and father were killed by the Nazis, and there are dream sequences and a wonderful interpolation of a flirtation between the captain and a beautiful nurse. 

That scene, set in a forest of white birch trees, is extraneous to the story, but the image of the captain holding the nurse over gulley, her feet dangling as they embrace, is unforgettable, even if you never know why. 

There is a horse, there are puddles, there is action in trees, mother and child — a host of images that will reoccur in subsequent films. 

Ivan’s Childhood is a good place to start with Tarkovsky. It is almost a normal film, and has a story that can be followed. It is also an indictment of war rather than the usual Soviet glorification of their victory. 

Next came Rublev and Solaris.

In 1975, he made Mirror (in Russian, Zerkalo), a semi-autobiographical film set in three time periods: pre-war, wartime, and the present. It shifts back and forth with no explanation, and also switches from color to black-and-white and to sepia. There are dream sequences, and it all seems to flow more like a stream of poetic images than like a story. 

It has been called the “most beautiful movie ever made” and is almost always included in lists of the “greatest movies.” 

But explaining it is as difficult as explaining a dream. 

Then comes Stalker, which is as gritty and filthy as Zerkalo is intensely beautiful. 

By this time, any viewer has come to realize that all these films are not only about an intense engagement with life, but the subjective life of the filmmaker himself. 

To paraphrase Anais Nin, Tarkovsky didn’t see things as they are, but as he was. 

His films are often called “spiritual,” but only in the sense that Tarkovsky seems to be trying to figure out what spirit really is. 

The films are often about faith, but not in advocacy, but in exploration. In Andrei Rublev, the crisis is that the painter has lost, not his faith in God, but his faith in humankind. 

In other films, the faith is either formal, as with the Russian Orthodox Church, or pagan. 

The filmmaker’s belief that the Orthodox Church is central to the Russian soul made things squirmy for Tarkovsky during the officially atheist Soviet era. Many of his films were either censored or cut by censors to tone down the religion. The three-hour Rublev was first withheld and then shown in a 90-minute version, with all the offending parts excised. 

Eventually, Tarkovsky felt he could no longer work under the Soviet system and moved to the West. 

In Italy, he made Nostalghia (1983), about a Russian writer (named Andre) who visits Italy for research, fails to have a relationship with his beautiful guide, meets an unbalanced man who has kept his family indoors for seven years, becomes sick, remembers many things, and finally attempt to carry a lit candle across an empty pool, in order to save the world. 

It is probably Tarkovsky’s least watched film, which is a shame, because it worms into your psyche and never leaves it. Again, its logic is not linear, but moves more like music. Scenes follow each other like themes in a sonata. 

The film also features Bergman regular Erland Josephson as the crazy man. In the end, he mounts a statue in Rome and preaches a sermon about connecting with the real things of life, then sets himself on fire in protest. 

The film has its share of dripping ceilings and walking through puddles. 

It has many a symmetrical composition,

and it moves from time and place with no warning and ultimately ends by splicing together dual times and places in a single uncanny image. 

The film could be seen as an exploration of Tarkovsky’s nostalgia for his lost homeland, but it is more widely about the loss of the entirety of a life that has been lived through and lost to the irrecoverable past. 

It is also, again, about faith. Not a specific faith — indeed the belief that carrying a candle could “save the world” is on the surface an absurdity — but mere faith, separate from any belief. 

Tarkovsky’s final film, The Sacrifice (1986), also features Josephson, this time speaking his native Swedish. 

Set on a very Bergman-like Swedish island, Josephson plays a writer who, on his birthday, is faced with world-ending nuclear holocaust, makes a bargain with God: Take us back to yesterday and start over with no war and I will sacrifice my house and family. He also hedges his bet, by making a pact with a witch to do the same thing. When he wakes up, it is the previous morning. 

He then single-mindedly prepares to burn down his house while the family is out. 

We never know if it is God or the witch who changes things, or if it all takes place in the writer’s mind. (At the end of the film, we see him carted away in an ambulance, as if he is being taken to an asylum. This is never explained, and it is up to the viewer to make sense of a good deal that doesn’t make sense.)

Like all of Tarkovsky’s films, it moves very slowly, with very long single takes, uninterrupted by edits, and long moments where no one talks and we are forced to break past our own boredom by noticing every tiny detail of the scene. 

This technique makes us either dismiss the film as boring, or spend the effort to discover some of the richest material in any movie ever. I’m of the second school.

But I understand why anyone might not find Tarkovsky — and especially his last film — riveting. I do. I am never so awake as I am soaking in all the stimulus from a Tarkovsky film. I find them overwhelming. 

I sometimes visit my brother- and sister-in-law. He is an artist and they are both brilliant and intellectual. And I bring a bag of movies to watch together. When I showed them Andrei Rublev, I wasn’t sure how they would react, but they loved it. 

Some visits later, I showed them Stalker and he liked it even more. I was feeling confident. 

Two down and a third one this last visit: I showed The Sacrifice, and that was too much. They sat through it patiently, but it was uncomfortable watching them watch the movie. I could sense their boredom. The Sacrifice is a test of anyone’s patience. I don’t think I’ll venture Nostalghia

To be overwhelmed, though, you have to have patience. The films move at the pace of a glacier. Or rather, their stories do. As for visual information, you are being assaulted in a shower of imagery. 

In his book, Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky quotes several letter writers with approval. “Accustomed to films as story-line, action, characters and the usual ‘happy ending,’ the audience looks for these things in Tarkovsky’s films, and often enough leaves disappointed.” Instead, you should watch “as one watches the stars, or the sea, as one admires a landscape. There is no mathematical logic here, for it cannot explain what man is or what is the meaning of life.”

In most of the world’s movies there is cause and effect moving the story ever forward. A woman is kidnapped causing the police to search for her, causing a rise in tension before the ultimate resolution. Cause and effect. Each part of the film explains the rest. In Tarkovsky, it begins with effect and what follows is the emotional. We don’t need to understand why, only that

Another writer comments, “How many words does a person know? … How many does he use in his everyday vocabulary? One hundred, two, three? We wrap our feelings up in words, try to express in words sorrow and joy and any sort of emotion, the very things that can’t in fact be expressed. … There’s another kind of language, another form of communication: by means of feeling, and images.”

When words fail, images, like music, can express. It is in this sense I mean Tarkovsky’s films are musical. He prefers to call it poetry. 

“When I speak of poetry,” he says, “I am not thinking of it as a genre. Poetry is an awareness of the world, a particular was of relating to reality.” 

In another place: “Art, like science, is a means of assimilating the world.” 

He quotes Nikolai Gogol from 1848: “It’s not my job to preach a sermon. Art is anyhow a homily. My job is to speak in living images, not in arguments. I must exhibit life full-face, not discuss life.’

Often, his characters look directly into the camera, making you, the viewer, a connected part of the filmic world Tarkovsky is giving us. 

And finally, “If not to explain, at least to pose the question.”

Andrei Tarkovsky made only seven features, but life only gives us so many years. 

Is there anything left to say? After 5,000 years of putting it all down on clay, stone, parchment and paper, is there anything that hasn’t been said? It is something every writer faces when putting pen to paper, or fingertip to keyboard. Or even thumbs to smartphone.

And it is something I face, after having written more than four million words in my professional lifetime. Where will the new words come from?

It is also something newlyweds often fear: Will they have anything to say to each other after 20 years of marriage? Forty years? Surely they will have talked each other out.

What we write comes from a deep well, a well of experience and emotion and sometimes we have drawn so much water so quickly, it dries, but give it time and it will recharge. If no new experience enters our lives, our wells remain dry.

One friend has offered this: “That each generation thinks they know more than anybody else who has ever lived.  In a way, that’s a good thing because it allows for new ideas.”

But how new are those ideas? “I guess we have to live with a certain amount of repetition under that system,” she says. “Relying on what previous generations wrote would be so boring. Our ego demands that we pick and choose from past works if we heed them at all.”

I have a different interpretation. We never quite hit the target of what we mean; words are imprecise, concepts are misunderstood. One generation values family, the next understands family in a different way and builds its family from scratch with friends.

As T.S. Eliot says in East Coker:

Every time I put word to word, I come up short, leave things out, use phrases sure to be misinterpreted, have my motives doubted, and — as I learned many times from my readers, they read what they think I wrote and not always what I actually wrote.

And so, there is the possibility of endless clarification, endless rewriting, endless apologizing. And new words to be written.

As someone once said, all philosophy is but a footnote to Plato (who, by the way, is a footnote to the pre-Socratics), and all writing is an attempt to get right what was inartfully expressed in the past. It is a great churn.

All writing is an attempt to express the wordless. The words are never sufficient; we are all wider, broader, deeper, fuzzier, more puzzling and more contradictory than any words, sentences or paragraphs can encompass.

Heck, even the words are fuzzier. Consider “dog.” It seems simple enough, but includes great Danes and chihuahuas, Scotties and dobermans.  As a genus, it includes wolves and foxes. It also describes our feet when we’ve walked too much; the iron rack that holds up fire logs; the woman that male chauvinist pigs consider unattractive; a worthless and contemptible person. You can “put on the dog,” and show off; you can “dog it,” by being half-assed; you can call a bad movie a “dog;” at the ballpark, you can buy a couple of “dogs” with mustard; if you only partly speak a language, you are said to speak “dog French,” or “dog German;” past failures can “dog” you; if you are suspicious, you can “dog” his every move. “Dog” can be an anagram of “God.”

Imagine, then, how loose are the bounds of “good” or “bad,” or “conservative,” or when someone tries to tar a candidate as a “socialist.” Sometimes, a word loses meaning altogether. What, exactly do we mean when we talk of morality or memory, or nationality or the cosmos?

And so, every time we pick up pen to write, we are trying our hardest to scrape up a liquid into a bundle.

And so we rework those words, from Gilgamesh through James Joyce and into Toni Morrison. We rework them on the New York Times editorial page and in the high school history textbook. We rehash them even in such mundane things as our shopping lists or our FaceBook entries.

We will never run out of things to write or say, because we have never yet gotten it quite right.

An earlier version of this essay originally appeared on the Spirit of the Senses webpage on  Aug. 2, 2020. 

I was once or twice asked to speak to a writing class at a local community college. When you write for the daily newspaper, you get such invitations. I always tried to oblige.

As I spoke to the students, who ranged in age from teens to retirees — that is the way it often is in two-year schools — it became clear that I wasn’t saying what the course teacher had wanted me to say. She was clearly tapping her nails on her desk and looking more an more consternated. 

I wasn’t trying to undermine her curriculum, but it was obvious from her comments that she had hoped I would talk about writing outlines, topic sentences, supporting arguments and perorations, all the usual paraphernalia of learning how to put words in order so as not to embarrass yourself to your reader.

But, I’m afraid I had something different in mind. In fact, I started out by laying out only one rule for good writing. And it had nothing to do with not ending a sentence with a preposition; nothing to do with making notes and organizing your thought; nothing to do with spell-check or grammar.

“The most important requirement for good writing,” I told them, “is having something to say.”

It is surprising how many people sit down in front of their computer keyboard and assume that writing is somehow a substitute for having something to say, as if fancy words would bamboozle your readers with flash and mist. It is not hard to imagine where they might get this notion: So much public discourse, from political speech to blathering 24-hour news, is filled with verbiage meant to fill time and space without divulging anything meaningful. Rhetoric, which once meant effective speaking, now is an insult meant to expose empty speechifying. 

You can read online the two-hour speech that Edward Everett gave on Nov. 19, 1863 at the dedication of the soldiers’ cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa. It is a 13,000-word behemoth of rhetoric and panegyric. It was carefully wrought, organized in just such a way as to make impressive points at calculated intervals, rising to climaxes, falling back and rising even higher. It was a masterpiece of construction; unfortunately, all that great scaffolding rather hid the edifice behind.

“Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies  dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed; — grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.”

Two hours of this. Geez. 

There were references to Ancient Greece, the glory of war and the bravery of soldiers, and a good deal of mention of blue skies and rolling green fields.

It was a memorable performance — at least, that is what people thought at the time, although almost no one remembers it now, except in dim contrast with the words Abraham Lincoln then spoke, with a ratio of words, compared with Everett, of 1-to-50. Lincoln’s words barely fill half a page of typescript.

The difference: Lincoln has something to say.

What is surprising is how few people actually have anything to say. Oh, they jabber on endlessly, but it is mostly prattle. And it is mostly rehash of what others have already said. Original thought is a rare commodity.

What does it mean, having something to say? It can be the recounting of a meaningful experience, it can be a fresh insight, it can be an opinion.

There is a lie that is a cliche (how often they are twins), that opinions are like (I’ll use the word “noses” here to be polite, but you know the familiar wording) noses: everyone has one. But this simply glosses over the fact that almost no one has a true opinion, but rather restates some glib bromide that has been heard from someone else. These are not opinions, they are bumper stickers; they are T-shirt slogans.

A genuine opinion comes from deep experience, probing consideration and formulation of thought within a coherent world view. You can tell the difference easily: If you imagine a meme on Facebook printed in fancy text over a picture of a cat, it is not an opinion. If it a quote questionably ascribed to Mark Twain or Albert Einstein or Mahatma Gandhi, it is not an opinion. If it favors one political party or candidate over another, it is not an opinion. Sorry. 

But I am overplaying opinion. Having something to say is much greater than merely weighing options in a dilemma and reaching a conclusion. In many ways, having something to say is more compelling when it is not trying to persuade us of anything, but to convey to us the experience of something. Or telling us a story. Or discovering something you had not previously known and now feel compelled to share. The compulsion is the all.

Writing is a compulsion. You have something to say; it needs to get out, get down on paper (the legacy version — now we get it down in bits on a laptop screen). Good writing is an overflowing, like a fountain. Questions of creating an outline, or fretting over sentences with prepositions as the ending of, simply don’t come into play.

When you have something to say, the order with which it spills out onto the page will almost certainly be the most effective order. Yes, you can arrange ideas rhetorically, and certainly, if you are not a natural writer, you may be helped by a course in creative writing. But writers are born, not made. Some people have a talent for mathematics, some for music, some for sports. You can teach people the rote version of any of these, but those with the inbred talent will find the best expression for any of these fields. I know that no matter how much I study trigonometry, I will never be a mathematician. I may get the gist, but never the pith.

I suppose you can teach enough rudiments to non-writers so they will not humiliate themselves when they are required to write something down, but you cannot make them writers. And I suppose you can take a raw, unformed writer and make him or her aware of things they hadn’t considered and help them develop their natural ability, but you cannot take a lump and turn it into a gem.

But even talented writers have to have something to say, or they are just spinning their wheels. Think of Hemingway’s later books. 

Something to say requires a life paying attention, a life with an open chest, willing to soak things in. This is filling the well so it may be drawn on later. In the old days, writers like Thomas Wolfe or Hemingway sought out adventures, signing on to merchant ships; or taking cross-country road trips, like Jack Kerouac; or shooting lions; or stabbing a wife, like Norman Mailer (this is not recommended); or leaving America and living out of trash bins in Paris like Henry Miller; in order to gain material for books. Not so much for autobiography, as for the sheer volume of experience that could inform their prose.

The larger you are on the inside, the more pressure for the accumulated steam to escape in words, precious words, delicious words, excited words, needful words.

That is having something to say.

Like so much else, this is something I learned from my late wife, who taught art for so many years to first-, second-, and third-graders. Too many art teachers spent their classes with the color wheel, or with masterworks of art history, or — much, much worse — project art, such as outlining your hand to make Thanksgiving turkeys, or with golden-macaroni Parthenons.

But what my wife did was bring live animals to class and let the children play with them for 20 minutes or a half hour, asking them to sit quiet and observe the bunny or the hermit crab or the turtle; to feel their fur or carapace; to look them in the eye; even to talk to them. She might have them sit in a circle on the floor and put the rabbit in the middle of them and ask them to sit still and try to draw the bunny to them.

Children respond to the animals so strongly that all you have to do is put a piece of paper in front of them after their exposure to the beasts, and give them some paint and brush, and they will be mad to paint their response to the experience. You cannot stop them from making masterpieces. You do not teach them technique, you fill their insides with something real, and they transmute it into utter expressivity. It is a miraculous thing to see.

Educator Viktor Lowenfeld said that given sufficient motivation by experience, the children will find their “adequate means of expression.”

It is the same with writing. You don’t need topic sentences (I snooze at the prospect), you need content. You need enough life in you that you become a conduit for it. It is written because it needs to be written.

An earlier version of this essay originally appeared on the Spirit of the Senses webpage on  Aug. 1, 2017. 

The more I learn the less I know; the more I know the less I learn.

I have existed on this planet for seven decades and if there’s anything I have had to discover for myself — despite so many others knowing it before me and telling me over and over — it is that the more I learn, the less I know and its corollary, the more I know, the less I learn. 

And I say that as someone who has always been prideful of how much I knew — or thought I knew. By the time I was four, I could ID any car on the road, including Kaisers and LaSalles. My uncle would parade me around as a curiosity, like Mozart before Maria Theresa. By third grade, I could name any dinosaur known to science. By 13, I could name everything my parents did wrong and by college I could tell the president how many kids he killed today and further, I instructed the dean on changes to the curriculum. God, I was a prat. 

In my 20s, my girlfriend took bets from coworkers that when I came to pick her up after her shift, I could answer any question. “Who was the first secretary general of the U.N.?” “Trygve Lie.” And she would collect her winnings and we’d go home. What a racket. 

At any rate, my ambition in life was to know everything. I can’t say I came even close. 

It is distressing how much we have to discover for ourselves. Libraries are filled with books overflowing with wisdom, but even if you were to read everyone of them, what you gather is only book-learning. Your parents and grandparents tried to tell you what they had learned, to try to save you from the pain, frustration and humiliation that is everyone’s birthright. But being told is the equivalent of book-learning — it cannot really teach you to swim or ride a bicycle; you have to learn by doing. And these two truths of knowing and learning have come hard and slow to me. Hard to acknowledge because I have spent so much of my life being smart and knowing stuff (ask anyone who has had to listen to me), and slow because I have spent so much of my life being dumb as a pumpkin. 

The Firesign Theatre produced an LP in 1974 titled Everything You Know is Wrong. (Weird Al Yankovic put out a song in 1996 with the same title, and more recently, in 2004, British band Chumbawamba released their song with the selfsame name.) How right they all are. 

Everyone knows that Socrates once claimed to be the wisest man of all, because, he said, he knew nothing. Except, of course, he never said that. In the Apology, Plato has him saying that Socrates queried a wise man  but came away disappointed. “Although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know” (Benjamin Jowett translation). Close, maybe, but no cigar.

Life is full of things we all know but that ain’t so. Napoleon was not short. Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball. Mrs. O’Leary’s cow did not start the Chicago Fire. Einstein did not flunk math and John Kennedy never said he was a German pastry. Anti-war protesters never spat on returning Vietnam War vets. Sugar does not cause hyperactivity in children (that doesn’t make it OK, although my wife used to say eating cake is good for you because “sugar is a preservative.”) The Great Wall of China is not visible from the moon. All that right-brain, left-brain stuff is mostly hooey. And water does not circle the drain the other way in Australia. Everything you know is wrong.

Some is wrong because the common knowledge is just a story someone made up; some because we used to think so, but science has progressed and now we know better; and some is wrong because we misunderstood something. But most is wrong because things are just more complicated than that.

I grew up with an image of the atom being like a tiny solar system, with electrons spinning in orbit around the nucleus. Turns out that is a bad analogy. Maybe like a cloud of possible electrons, but can’t quite put your finger on them. It is only understood mathematically, the quantum physicists tell us. Too complicated to make a simple picture. 

We tend to fit our facts into a coherent whole that we take as our “Umwelt,” that picture of reality we manufacture from experience. But these things can become ossified. When we learn more, we discover we know less — we were mistaken, or only half right, or maybe just confused.

And now that I am old, I am confronted by the fact that learning only lets me know how much more there is I don’t know. As I say, my knowledge grows arithmetically but my ignorance grows exponentially. 

I like to take the example of the common tomato. When I was two or three, a tomato was just something we ate in a salad or on a burger; I gave it no more thought. But when a little older I learned to classify. A tomato was a vegetable. The world was divided into animal, mineral and vegetable and the tomato fit the third category. 

A little later I learned — was told, by some pedant — that a tomato is not a vegetable, but a fruit. I scratched my head, but then went about repeating this Cliff Clavinism. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. 

Well, it isn’t animal and it isn’t mineral, so a tomato must be vegetable. Simply put, a fruit is a vegetable, isn’t it? This turned into a lesson in philology. The word “vegetable” has multiple meanings. Our definitions must be examined. I learned the difficulty of matching language and reality. This came as an uncomfortable truth to me as a writer, whose faith in words was, at one time, unshakeable. Now, I say, like Sergeant Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes, “I know nothing.” 

Of the things of this world, those that are vegetable can be divided into the edible and the inedible. The botanist can divide comestible plants into those with seeds and those without. One we call fruits and the other, vegetables. The cook divides the same into those sweet and those savory. There is no single “right” way to think of them. The knowledge changes as we learn more. It doesn’t matter how many facts I warehouse in the noggin, they are likely to be superseded or just plain wrong.

But those facts can be mulish, which explains my corollary: What you know prevents learning. That Umwelt is hard to nudge. If your sense has been for millennia that the sun revolves around the Earth, then you cannot accept what Copernicus tells us. If you know that continents are fixed and permanent, then Alfred Wegener comes across as an unmoored screwball. If you are used to bleeding ill patients, then Joseph Lister is a crackpot. 

Isaac Newton’s physics ruled the world until Albert Einstein gave us relativity, but even Einstein could not fully accept probabilistic quantum physics, saying God “does not play dice.” 

If we still think of all history in sequential steps, then progress makes sense. But experience proves that we don’t keep heading for a Utopia. Rather we lose just as much as we gain. Art historians used to think that they could predict where art would go next by analogizing what had gone before. Arnold Schoenberg knew that the line of musical harmony went from diatonic to chromatic to atonal. It had to: History teaches. He almost made it work, but no one still writes dodecaphonic music anymore; what was produced in academia through the 1960s was barely even music; no one wanted to listen. Karl Marx assumed history had a rightful completion in true Communism. Francis Fukuyama gave us a different “end of history.” 

We are a stubborn people; we know what we know until we don’t. The only way to see what is in front of us is to forget what we already know about it. I call this “volitional ignorance” — trying to forget what I know — or believe I know — in order to see with fresh eyes, with baby eyes. Of course, I’m not in favor of actual ignorance: Let Shiva dance over its body. (According to Hindu mythology, Apasmara — Ignorance — must be subdued, not killed.) But you can attempt to forget temporarily what seems fixed and certain in order to see what doesn’t fit into the accepted schema — the odd bits that contradict your assumptions.

That’s how Einstein saw the holes in Newtonian physics. It’s how Mary MacLane broke the impenetrable “fourth wall” by speaking directly to her audience (in title cards) in her 1918 film Men Who Have Made Love to Me (now lost). It’s how Bobby Lee came to divide his army against all accepted principles of war and beat the pants off the Union forces. 

It’s the only decent way to overcome the sad premise that: “What you know prevents learning.” .And so my two assertions are mirror images. The more I learn the less I know; the more I know the less I learn. 

This essay originally appeared on the Spirit of the Senses webpage on  Oct. 5, 2020. 

What do we talk about when we talk about color? Too often we talk at cross purposes. The fact is, color isn’t a thing. It is several things, and we often stir them all up into a single confection — all of which leads to avoidable confusions. And arguments. 

One of the greatest arguments my late wife and I had was over the color blue. The fight lasted three days. We didn’t sleep the first night, but kept trying to persuade the other of our righteousness. 

“Isn’t that a blue you could fall into?” she asked.

“I know what you mean, but of course, you’re talking metaphorically, not literally.” 

“No, I mean it literally. You can fall into it.”

And we were off to the races. Of course, at the end of the third day, I capitulated. She was right. She was always right, and it was a lesson I finally learned, after years of not recognizing the fact of it. And now, I can fall into blue. 

But before I got sidetracked there, I meant to say that when we discuss color, we are really talking about at least three separate things, and the three don’t play well together. 

The three separate color discussions come from science, from art, and from language. 

SCIENCE

The first begins with Isaac Newton. He proved experimentally that white light is actually composed of a spectrum of colors, ranging from blue on the short end and red on the long end. Short and long wavelengths, that is. For, scientifically, color is a function of light’s electromagnetic wave construction. 

The problem is that there is no forest green in the spectrum. No magenta, either. The spectrum — which we see in a rainbow — contains only a single version of a wide range of hue, but none of the subtlety of actual color. 

And so, you can talk about blue being at a place on the electromagnetic band measured in wavelengths of 450 to 500 nanometers and red at the other end, at 700 nanometers. 

But these are numbers, not colors. 

Science also causes issues when it comes to color perception: How do we see the colors we do? 

Humans don’t see spectral color. That is, human color perception is not dictated by wavelength, but rather by the mechanisms of color vision. What the eye sees and the brain interprets is only marginally related to the color defined by wavelength. 

There are three color sensors in the eye, one tripped by red light, another tripped by green light, and a third by blue light. The ratios of how much each is stimulated governs what colors we see. (Yes, I know this is a grossly simplified version, but it is basically correct). 

When both blue and red are tickled, we see violet; when blue and green are set off together, we see blue-green or aqua; when green and red are stimulated, we see yellow. 

Yellow is particularly interesting. While there is a wavelength on the spectrum that is yellow, we almost never see that wavelength. It is rare in nature. 

What we call “white” light, or sunlight, contains all the hues, which can be separated by a prism into its component parts. But when this white light hits something red, the blues, yellows, greens, etc., are absorbed by the object and the red is reflected, and so it is only red that hits our eyes. The blues, yellows and greens are digested by the object and turned into heat, which is why the sun makes things hot. 

But if an object absorbs blue and reflects both red and green — this may seem bizarre, but it’s true — we see those colors combined and our brains interpret them as yellow.

The famous Kodak-yellow film box isn’t really yellow. It is red and green together, but our brains stir them together and see yellow. Indeed, most of the colors we see are impure mixes and what our brains see are the interpretations, not the wavelengths. 

Take purple, or violet, or magenta (the names for this section of the so-called “color wheel” are terribly imprecise; more on that later). It is a color that does not have a wavelength. That is, it doesn’t exist on the spectrum. It exists solely in our brains as the combination of blue and red. 

All color, or what we call color, is subjective. That is, it is a phenomenon created in our brain as a way to code the visual information of the world, very like the so-called “false color” of Hubble space photographs. It is an interpretive trick our brains play, useful for deciding which berries are ripe. The wavelengths may be real, but the redness is a figment. 

ART

For a painter, all the stuff about wavelengths and spectrums is dryly theoretical and idealized, which is to say, lies. Painters work with paint, not theory, and the pigments that make those paints are cantankerous. No blue is spectrum-blue, no green is pure green. The paints are made from dirt, or ground up stones, or plant dyes (or, nowadays, from alchemically manipulated petroleum), and all are amalgams of various ingredients. Probably 95 percent of the colors used by painters don’t occur in the spectrum. Real paint is impure. 

One yellow might mix with black to make a dun, another yellow that looks the same, might turn greenish when mixed. An artist has to know not merely color theory, but the individual nature of his paints. Some greens are bluer than others; some reds are more orangey, some more violet. A tomato is one red, a stop sign, another. Lighten tomato-red and you get an orange. Lighten stop-sign red and you get a pink.

For artists, colors don’t come in a lineup, like a spectrum, but a wheel. And on that wheel, there are three “primary” colors — red, blue and yellow — from which all the other colors can be mixed. Theoretically, that is. 

There are painters who have used only four tubes of paint for their work, usually a blue, a red and a yellow and the ubiquitous titanium white. You can’t paint without a white: the colors themselves are too dark to make a bright sky or a tawny lion. 

But there are limitations to this. You can mix a blue and yellow to get a green, but it will never be quite as bright and pure as a dedicated green paint. If you want the deepest, richest greens, you will buy a tube of green paint. 

The problem is, that there are at least three sets of primary colors. There’s the painter’s set, of red, blue and yellow. But now that much art and design is made on a computer, another set of primary colors is common, called the “additive primaries” of red, blue and green. Then, there is the printer’s primaries, known as “subtractive, made of cyan, magenta and yellow (with black added in, making it often called “CYMK,” with the “K” standing for black.)

But there are other issues, too. The spectrum exists theoretically, but real-world color has a physical presence, and so the same hue will appear different whether glossy or matte. And there are metallic colors, with specular reflections. Some paints are opaque and others transparent. Then, too, colors on one wall, which gets sunlight, will appear different from colors on the opposite wall, in the shade. 

And there is something called “simultaneous contrast,” which means that colors are affected by the colors around them.

There’s a lot to keep track of, and the ability to do so is one of the things that marks a professional from an amateur. 

LANGUAGE

In the English language, there are really ten primary colors, that is, color names that are distinct and cover generic territories of color. They are: red, blue, green, yellow, violet, orange, brown, black, white and gray. All other color names are either shades or tints of these main color names (such as “tan” being a variety of “brown”) or metaphorical and named after some object of that color (such as “fuchsia” being named after the flower). 

There are hundreds, probably thousands of variations of the primary colors, and designers and marketers keep coming up with fresh, new names, usually for the same old colors. Marketers try to make their color names more appealing (would you rather buy a fabric that was a yellow called “morning haze,” or the same one, but called “piss yellow?”)

But beyond that, there is the problem of the squishiness of color names. The boundaries between colors is indistinct. Where, for instance, does blue become green? There is a greenish blue, and a bluish green. Where do you draw the line? We each have our judgement, but that changes with context. Against a red background, even a greenish blue will appear bluer. 

Where does red become magenta? Where does purple merge into a deep, dark blue? 

Even more problematic are all those tertiary colors. Is Turquoise green or blue? The stones for which the color is named comes in both forms, and also a version in between. One person’s “amber” is another’s “golden.” Vermilion is also cinnabar. What the Roman’s called “royal purple” is to our eyes closer to red. These names shift over time and by individual perception. It makes it very hard to talk about color between two people with different color palettes in their brains. 

Of course, that hardly accounts for the various color organizations across different languages. Many languages had only words for black, white and red. Blue, for them, was a variety of black. The Ancient Greeks talked about the “wine-dark sea,” but the Mediterranean was never ruby colored. In traditional Japanese, the same word, “ao,” covered both green and blue (modern Japanese has, after WWII, added the word “gurin” as an English cognate). In Russian light blue (“goluboy”) is considered a separate color from dark blue (“siniy”), just as in English, we distinguish “pink” from “red.” 

Here’s an alphabet of English color names, and please feel free to argue over what they each mean: azure; burgundy; coral; dun; ecru; fulvous; gules; heather; ivory; jasper; lavender; mustard; navy; oxblood; periwinkle; quimper; rose; sapphire; topaz; umber; viridian, watchet; xylous; yapan; zaffre. 

So, you see, any discussion of color needs to take into account which sort of color system you mean. Pedants will complain that white isn’t a color, but the absence of color, but then, why do you need to buy a tube of white paint? And, of course, in the additive system, white is not the absence, but the combination of all the colors. So, which is it? Well, they are three distinct ways of talking about white. You need to be clear.

And even white isn’t just one thing: It comes in alabaster, in ivory, in cream, bone white, snow white, chalk white, Chinese white, eggshell white, vanilla and off-white. No doubt, interior designers and marketers could come up with a hundred new shades and names. There are warm whites and cool whites. You can paint with zinc white, titanium white and flake white, aka white lead or lead white. The range in any color is nearly infinite. 

All of which makes talking about color difficult and misunderstanding almost inevitable. 

At the end of the 1951 classic sci-fi film, The Thing, the newspaperman, Scotty, warns the world, over the radio, to “Keep looking up. Keep watching the skies.” It was a fictional response to the “flying saucer” that brought the scary vegetable man to Earth. But it was also —- in retrospect — a kind of metaphorical reaction to the fear of Soviet bombers or missiles that might drop death out of the skies. A whole class of cheapie Hollywood science fiction film depended on mythologizing our Cold War fears. 

It’s one of the things Hollywood does. So the current fad for zombie movies, with the undead traipsing across the landscape, is an obvious metaphor for our xenophobia and fear of immigration. As for what the twinkly vegetarian vampires are about — your guess is as good as mine.

But that Cold War fear certainly that played into the rise, from 1947 on, when the first modern flying saucer sighting was reported, of extraterrestrial possibilities that became ever more numerous. Like the division of aliens into whites, grays and lizards, there developed three general camps in response to the sightings. 

The first are the true believers, those who think — yea, they know — that these sightings are visitations from alien species brought across the cosmos from outer space. For this group, there is no doubt. And further, they are sure the government — a generic term that may refer to the civilian authorities, the military, the CIA, or some trans-national shadow group — is hiding from us the “truth.” They may all have different versions of what this truth is, but they know it is being withheld. 

The second group are the scoffers, the unbelievers, the rationalists, who believe — yea, they know — that all the sightings can be dismissed as hoaxes, hallucinations, or the rantings of cranks. The number of cranks and charlatans that come out of the woodwork only provides evidence for the unbelievers. So many of the true-believers seem to be poorly educated and so many of the sightings and abductions seem to take place in back-woods Arkansas or Arizona. 

A friend has a nephew, a chubby adolescent whose mother worked in a massage parlor, and who was fascinated with the phenomenon, told us one day, with not a whit of irony, that something had been “positively identified as a UFO.” What can you do but laugh?

Then, of course, there is the namby-pamby middle group that says, these are probably not little green men in space ships, but surely there is something behind all the reports. Perhaps, they say, it is some secret military program, or perhaps it is Russian spy missions. 

Let me confess out the outset that I am pretty well ensconced in the non-believer faction, although I will certainly allow that UFOs exist. That is, that there may be things that are unexplained and even perhaps unexplainable. This, to me, is hardly surprising. There is a great deal that human beings don’t know. But space ships from Mars, or Venus, or Tralfamador, are so unlikely as to be dismissible out of hand. Yes, there is an infinitesimal possibility that they exist, but until we have better evidence, I’m happy to ignore them. 

And I say that despite having experienced UFOs, at least twice. At least for a while, each time. Once, in Phoenix (of course, it’s Arizona again), I was driving along Van Buren Avenue, west to east, on a Friday before a big basketball playoff game. And to the south, I saw a large glowing object, almost as large as the moon in the sky, but in the wrong place. And I continued to drive, it moved in ways that mystified me. It seemed to be a long way off, but was moving faster than I could have expected from anything hovering, say, over South Mountain or, further south, the Gila River Indian Reservation. 

I continued to keep an eye on the glowing sphere as it moved to the west. It left me with an eerie feeling. Perhaps I had been wrong about UFOs. I could feel a kind of electricity buzzing in my spine at the uncanny vision. But then, as I continued and the UFO began to drift behind me, I finally saw “Geico” blazoned on its side as the sphere elongated into the Goodyear blimp. It was illuminated from the inside as an aerial billboard. 

It moved faster than I had expected because it was closer than I had thought. Once I knew what it was, I laughed at myself for being taken so easily in. Surely a good deal of sightings must be simple misinterpretations. 

My second experience was also in Arizona. Please, no snide remarks. We were invited by some friends to their home in Coolidge, about 40 miles south of Phoenix. They had a house in the desert with almost nothing around them but greasewood, cactus and javalinas. It was a lovely evening with a cookout on an outdoor grill, and some pleasant conversation. 

But around 9 p.m., when it had become dark out, my host, a writer and photographer I knew, began to tell me about the mysterious lights in the desert just north of his home. He took me out back of the house and pointed them out. 

“They seem to be coming from the old General Motors test grounds,” he said. There is an abandoned facility about halfway between Phoenix and Coolidge, where the car company had a test track. “Notice,” he said, “how the lights move from right to left and left to right and then sometimes, they stop altogether and hover.” He wondered what kind of secret project the government was conducting on the old site. “Nothing moves like that,” he said. “Just stopping and starting.”

Indeed, the dots of light did move one way and then the other, and halting altogether. The mood of unworldliness settled in, and he began talking about how the government had supposedly captured an alien spacecraft — I believe he was talking about Roswell, N.M. — and that he believed the government (again a hazy generality) had reconstructed these craft and were testing them out secretly.

I had a grand laugh. “Those are airplanes landing and taking off from Sky Harbor,” I said. The Phoenix airport.

“No, they can’t be,” he said. They are right over the old proving ground.” 

I pointed out that Sky Harbor was in a straight line from where we were in Coolidge, over the proving ground. The planes moved from left to right taking off, right to left landing, and “hovered” motionless when they were flying directly toward us. He was not convinced. I didn’t want to press the issue, so I let it drop. But as we drove home later that night, my wife and I watched those fireflies moving in the air in front of us, and continue to remain in front as we passed the old GM facility and stayed in the north until we reached Phoenix and Sky Harbor, where, of course, they landed and took off. 

Belief is the kind of thing that doesn’t necessarily depend on evidence or on mere fact. Mysterious lights are a whole lot more satisfying than Southwest Flight 94 coming in from Toledo. 

Sight depends on at least two factors: what the eye sees; and what the brain interprets. Uncounted experiments have shown the unreliability of “eye-witness” accounts and the tricks our brains play on our eyes — as in the video of some jugglers tossing Indian clubs back and forth, during which a man in a gorilla suit passes behind them. Almost no viewers of the video ever notice the gorilla. Invisible, partly because it is too far out of context. 

This happened to my wife and me while visiting the Washita massacre site in Oklahoma. It is an out-of-the-way site, visited by almost no one. We pulled into the gravel parking lot and saw in front of us, in the grassy dunes, something that looked like a dinosaur — a huge beast, maybe 20 feet tall, judging by the phone pole next to it. It was lurking there, moving slowly in front of us. We both asked each other what it might be, we both were frightened that it might spot us and head our way. When we turned back to look a second time, it shrunken down to be a cow. Ordinary cow. Ordinary size. How had we been so mistaken? Both of us? A mistake in our perception of the distance, the unusual cream color of the beast and its lumbering gait had tricked our brains into interpreting what our eyes saw as a monster.

Eyes and brains, working together. Seeing is believing? Don’t you believe it. 

Further, we believe what we want to believe. We can interpret ambiguous data in a way that reinforces what we expect. 

One early fall, when my granddaughters were visiting us in Phoenix, Tallulah Rose, then about 12 years old, was into her UFO phase and wanted me to take her to the Dreamy Draw, a spot near North Mountain that had been built up with a 455-foot long flood dam to keep storm wash from cascading down into the Sunny Slope region of town. There is a park there beneath the earthworks and a long slough where, according to urban legend, a spacecraft had crash landed in 1947. Two versions of the story: In one, it skipped like a stone on a pond and then came down a second time in Cave Creek, about 10 mile north of Phoenix; in the more common version, it was left wrecked at the Dreamy Draw and the government — that hazy nefarious entity, covered the site up with the dam to hide the evidence. Of course, the dam wasn’t built until 1973, but perhaps you put that down to government inefficiency.

To me, the draw, sitting beside the freeway over the mountain, was a fairly ordinary gash in the landscape. But to T-Rose, it held much greater significance. “You can see it,” she said. “That’s where it landed. It’s clear as can be.” 

Belief is what it is.

In 1956, psychologist Benjamin Bloom published his Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, a hierarchical ranking of thought processes, often recast as “Bloom’s Taxonomy.” It has been often revised and recast, but most often, at the bottom were simple tasks such as memorizing, at the top came creativity. 

My late wife, who was at least as smart as Bloom, had her own version of this taxonomy, and for her, the lowest level was “naming.” She taught school for more than 30 years and saw brain-burn at the individual level. Being able to say, “Horsie” or “Duckie” is naming. This is simple rote. Learn the name and repeat it when appropriate. 

Naming also shades into the second level — the level most people get stuck in — that of sorting. Finding categories and shunting the names into silos to contain them. As if that explained anything. 

The greater part of what we do with our brains is to sort things out. To put cats over here and dogs over there. When we learn, most of what we mean by that is to understand that Claude Monet was an Impressionist and that Luis Buñuel was a Surrealist. These are mere sortings. Important for a file clerk, perhaps, but more a form of busy work than of actual thinking. 

We learn a whale is not a fish, and that a spider is not an insect. We have separate categories for them, and when we recognize the categories, we believe we have actually said something meaningful about our whale or spider, when really, all we have done is play with words. 

Categories, are, after all, quite fugitive, quite fungible — squishy. When zoologists first tried to classify lions, for instance, they placed them in the genus “Felis,” for they are some kind of cat. But later, it was decided they were big cats, not small ones, and so they became “Panthera.” Oh, but that wasn’t good enough, and so a new genus was established, dividing them from tigers and leopards, making them “Leo.” New category, new silo. 

For a brief time, I worked at a zoo, and had the opportunity to walk behind the cages and get up close to many of the animals and I can tell you that standing with his zookeeper two feet from a male lion to feed him,(separated from Leo by the cage bars), the lion’s head seemed to be the biggest thing I had ever seen, shaggy and furry, with a very particular smell, and a sense that this beast could swallow my head as if it were an M&M. And then it “purred.” A low, gutteral roar expressing satisfaction at the afternoon meal, that made the ground rumble under my feet. It was one of the most impressive things I have ever witnessed and it mattered not a whit whether I was seeing a Felis or a Panthera or a Leo. The name was rather beside the point. The experience had a physical existence and it didn’t need a name. 

Language is not reality. And the experience — the feel of it in the palm of your hand, or in your nostrils, or under your feet — is worth all the words in the world. Words can be a barrier keeping us from what is real. 

And yet, we spend so much of our time arguing over these categories, as if they mean anything. As if they were a reality. Is Joe Biden a Socialist? Did Elon Musk actually reach outer space? Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? So much thought and energy to such meaningless ends. Think of all the dark money spent in political campaigns to paint the opposition into a category-corner that makes the opponent a one-dimensional boogeyman. The world and its things are infinite. 

My late wife took animals to class with her so her pupils would have actual experiences — the twitching nose of a bunny, the blank stare of a hen, the brittle carapace of a hermit crab — and then gave the kids paper and paints and let them express what they had experienced. If names were mentioned, they were the names the kids gave the animals — a rabbit named Tiffany Evelyn or a crab named Eloise. What mattered was physical reality of the experience. Anything else is just language. Names. Categories. 

Historians like to take big chunks of time and give them names: Classical, Postclassical, Late Medieval, Romantic, and so on. Then they argue over it all, because these categories are misleading and constantly changing — being redefined. But, as they say, whatcha gonna do?

Take the Middle Ages. Middle of what? Homo sapiens developed something like — in a common low-end estimate — 300,000 years ago, putting the start of the Middle Ages somewhere approximately in the last 15/3000ths of human history. Not exactly the middle.

But the dates we give the Middle Ages vary widely. It came after the Roman Empire. When did the Roman Empire fall? Well, you can say that the final collapse came in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople. For some people, that is already the Renaissance, squeezing out the Middle Ages entirely. But no one really believes the Byzantine Empire was genuinely Roman. They spoke Greek, for god’s sake. They were Christian.

Usually, when we talk of the fall of Rome, we mean the Western Roman Empire and the sad reign of Romulus Augustulus, which came to an end in AD 476. But really, the Western Roman empire at the time consisted only of most of Italy and Dalmatia (later aka Yugoslavia) and a tiny bit of southern France.

And you could easily argue that Rome ceased to be Roman after Constantine converted to Christianity and legalized it in AD 313. After that, the slow slide from Roman imperialism into Medieval feudalism began its ambiguous transubstantiation.

It is the great paradox of scholarship: The more you read, the more your ignorance grows: The more you learn about something, the more you discover how little you know.

Are Picasso’s paintings Modern art? His first big Cubist painting, Les Damoiselles d’Avignon was painted in 1907. That is closer in time to the reign of Catherine the Great in Russia than it is to us. Closer to George Washington’s Farewell Address. To the Louisiana Purchase. 

So, what do we mean by “modern?” and when did modernity take over? It is a slippery question. And really it is simply an issue of definition — words, not experience. We let the words stand in for reality and then let the debates begin. Reality flows uninterrupted and continuous. Categories are discrete and they start and stop. 

The more you attempt to define the categories, the more they slip away. The history of academic scholarship is often the history of proving the categories wrong. It is historians who argue over the dates of the Renaissance. Or the fall of Rome, or the birth of Modernism. 

Categories are a convenience only. They are a name for the nameless.

I am reminded of the time, some 40 years ago, when I first drove west from North Carolina with my genius wife. We had never seen the great American West and eagerly anticipated finding it. It must be so different, we thought, so distinct. The West is a category. 

We were living in Boone, N.C., named for Daniel, who trod those mountains in the 1700s, when the Blue Ridge was the West. When George Washington surveyed the Northwest Territory in the late 1740s, he was measuring out what became Ohio.

So, when I was driving, I knew I had already pushed my own frontier past such things, and knew in my heart that the West began on the other side of the Mississippi River. But, when I crossed the river into Arkansas, it hardly seemed western. It didn’t look much different from Tennessee, in my rear view mirror. Yet, Arkansas was home to the “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker and where Jesse James robbed trains. Surely that must be the West. But no, James looked more like a hillbilly than a cowboy. 

Then came Texas, which was the real West, but driving through flat, bland Amarillo on I-40 was as exciting as oatmeal. The first time we felt as if we had hit the West was at the New Mexico line, when we first saw a landscape of buttes and mesas. Surely this was the West.

Maybe, but we hadn’t yet crossed the Continental Divide. All the waters of all the rivers we crossed emptied into the Atlantic Ocean. Finally, crossing the Divide near Thoreau, N.M.,  we felt we had finally made it.

Yet, even when we made it to Arizona, we knew that for most of the pioneers who crossed this country a century and a half ago, the desert was just one more obstacle on the way to California. In some sense it still wasn’t the West.

When we got as far as we could in a Chevy, and stared out at the Pacific Ocean, we knew that there was still something farther: Hawaii, Japan, China, India, Africa — and eventually back to North Carolina.

So, the West wasn’t a place you could ever really reach, but a destination beyond the horizon: Every point on the planet is the West to somewhere else.

When we look to find the beginnings of Modernity, the horizon recedes from us the same way. Perhaps it began with World War I, when we entered a non-heroic world and faced a more sober reality.

Modern Art began before that, however, perhaps with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913, perhaps with Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun in 1894. Some begin with the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874.

Politically, maybe it begins with Bismarck and the establishment of a new order of nations and the rise of the “balance of power.”

You can make a case that Modernism begins with the Enlightenment in the 18th century, when a rising Middle Class began to fill concert halls and Mozart became an entrepreneur instead of an employee of the aristocracy.

Or before that, in 1648, with the Treaty of Westphalia, and the first recognition of national boundaries as something more than real estate owned by the crown.

You can set your marker down with Luther, with Gutenberg, with Thomas Browne, Montaigne, Caravaggio — or Giotto.

For many, Modernism began with the Renaissance, but when did the Renaissance begin? 15th century? The Trecento? Or did it begin further north with the Gothic, which is really the first sparking of a modern way of thinking.

Perhaps, though, the Roman republic divides modern political organization from more tribal eras before. Or you could vote for the democracy and philosophy of ancient Greece. Surely the time before that and the the time after are distinctly different. We recognize the near side of each of these divides as more familiar than the distant side.

You might as well put the starting line with the discovery of agriculture in the steppes of Anatolia and the river plains of Iraq. An argument can be made for any of these points on the timeline — and arguments could be made for many I haven’t room to mention.

Perhaps the horizon should be recognized for what it is: an ever-moving phantasm. For those peasants digging in the manorial dirt in the Ninth Century, the times they were living in were modern. The first person recorded to use the term “modern” for his own age was the Roman writer Cassiodorus in the 6th Century. Each moment is the new modern.

These are all just categories, and spending our time sorting things into their file folders should not be mistaken for actual knowledge. It is words about the knowledge. 

Now, I will concede that the words help us discuss the real things, and that it is probably useful to know the difference between cats and dogs, or butterflies and moths. But categories and sorting are just a second level of thinking. After these baby steps, there is so much more that the human brain can begin working on, much more grist to be ground. And a good deal of thought that outreaches the ability of words to capture. 

The level I have been most thinking about recently is that of observing, of paying attention. Not deciding anything, or sorting anything, but just noticing. The world opens up like a day lily; so much that was invisible is made visible — things that the rush of daily life, moving things from in-box to out-box, have made too inconsequential to waste time with. There is a richness to the world that becomes a glowing glory when attention is paid. 

In the days before the transcontinental railroad, a Cheyenne father would take his 10- or 11-year-old son out into the prairie and have him lie down on his belly. “Just look,” he would say. “Don’t talk, don’t decide, don’t name, just look.” And he would leave his son there for the day, not moving a whit. And when he came back to retrieve the boy he would not ask, “What did you see.” He would say nothing. He would not need to. 

So much of value is beyond words, beyond category.