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It is 14 years after the assassination of Julius Caesar and three decades before the birth of Christ and the Greek queen of Egypt is about to die. The 39-year-old Cleopatra VII is the mother of four children by two fathers, both now dead. This much everyone seems to agree on. What happens next is romantic fairy tale, or conjecture, or cynical posturing — or all three.

The most widely believed version, used by Shakespeare in his tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra, has the queen, fearing to be taken captive to Rome by the conquering Octavian, has a basket of figs delivered to her, with a smuggled asp hidden under the fruit. She takes the venomous snake and applies it to her tender bosom and expires from the poison.

The problem is that there are conflicting stories told by the ancient writers.

The best known version, and the one Shakespeare cribbed from is that of Plutarch in his essay on Mark Antony.

The two rebellious lovers, having  been conquered by the young Octavian were at odds over what to do. Cleopatra had a false message sent to Antony that she is dead. Antony ran himself into his sword, but botched his suicide and was brought to Cleopatra, where he then expired. Cleopatra mourned and locked herself in her mausoleum. And then, according to Plutarch:

“Having made these lamentations, crowning the tomb with garlands and kissing it, she gave orders to prepare her a bath, and, coming out of the bath, she lay down and made a sumptuous meal.”

An old man came with a basket. The guards Octavian had sent to keep Cleopatra in check stopped him to examine the contents.

“The fellow put the leaves which lay uppermost aside, and showed them it was full of figs; and on their admiring the largeness and beauty of the figs, he laughed, and invited them to take some, which they refused, and, suspecting nothing, bade him carry them in.”

The queen then sent a letter to Octavian describing her intent to kill herself and locked herself in the monument with her two servants, Charmion and Eras. When Octavian got the note, which asked that she be buried next to Antony, he sent messengers to stop her from killing herself. But they found her already dead, “lying upon a bed of gold, set out in all her royal ornaments.”

Eras lay dying at her feet and Charmion, just ready to fall, barely able to hold up her head, was adjusting her mistress’s crown. And when the soldier that came in said angrily, “Was this well done of your lady, Charmion?”

“Extremely well,” she answered, “and as became the descendant of so many kings”; and as she said this, she fell down dead by the bedside.

“Some relate that an asp was brought in amongst those figs and covered with the leaves, and that Cleopatra had arranged that it might settle on her before she knew, but, when she took away some of the figs and saw it, she said, ‘So here it is,’ and held out her bare arm to be bitten. Others say that it was kept in a vase, and that she vexed and pricked it with a golden spindle till it seized her arm. But what really took place is known to no one.

“Since it was also said that she carried poison in a hollow hairpin, about which she wound her hair; yet there was not so much as a spot found, or any symptom of poison upon her body, nor was the asp seen within the monument; only something like the trail of it was said to have been noticed on the sand by the sea, on the part towards which the building faced and where the windows were. Some relate that two faint puncture-marks were found on Cleopatra’s arm, and to this account Caesar seems to have given credit; for in his triumph there was carried a figure of Cleopatra, with an asp clinging to her.

“Such are the various accounts. But Caesar, though much disappointed by her death, yet could not but admire the greatness of her spirit, and gave order that her body should he buried by Antony with royal splendor and magnificence. Her women, also, received honorable burial by his directions.

“Cleopatra had lived nine and thirty years, during twenty-two of which she had reigned as queen, and for fourteen had been Antony’s partner in his empire. Antony, according to some authorities, was fifty-three, according to others, fifty-six years old. His statues were all thrown down, but those of Cleopatra were left untouched.”

European asp

While Plutarch’s story has been repeated many times, it must be remembered that it was written 120 years after the events. Other historians and poets also told stories of Cleopatra’s death: Strabo, Velleius, Florus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius and Galen, Virgil, Horace and Propertius.

Of the historians, the only one who was alive at the time of Cleopatra’s death was Strabo, who wrote: “(Octavian) took the city at the first onset, and compelled Antony to put himself to death, but Cleopatra to surrender herself alive. A short time afterwards, however, she also put an end to her life secretly, in prison, by the bite of an asp, or (for there are two accounts) by the application of a poisonous ointment.”

Strabo was about 34 years old when Cleopatra died, but his account was written at least 10 years after that. It is thought he might have been in Alexandria at the time of the queen’s death.

The poet Horace wrote his ode, “Nunc est bibendum,” within a year or two of the queen’s death and mentioned it near the end of the poem: “Caesar came back to put the deadly monster in chains, but she, wanting to die more nobly had no feminine dread of the sword, and finding no way out of the situation, went to her palace lying in ruins and with a tranquil face was brave enough to handle vicious serpents and drink their black venom into her body. Having chosen death, she was fiercer still, unwilling to be taken back to Rome and led in a humiliating victory parade.”

The physician Galen (AD 130-200) wrote in De Theriaca ad Pisonem that “The queen had bit her arm and then rubbed the wound with poison.”

Virgil in the Aeneid says she died of “two fatal asps.”

Modern commentators tend to suspect that all the stories of Cleopatra’s suicide may very well be spin concocted by Octavian (by then Augustus Caesar) to cover up her murder at his orders. We know he had Cleopatra’s oldest son killed. Caesarion was the natural son of Julius Caesar and was 17 when Caesar’s adopted son had him quietly eliminated. “Too many Caesars is not a good idea,” he supposedly said.

So, Cleopatra either killed herself by taking poison, or by rubbing herself with poison ointment, or by stabbing herself with a sharp comb laced with poison, or held an asp to her arm to bite her, or scratched her arm up and rubbed it with venom from the smuggled asp, or — and the list goes on — it probably wasn’t an asp, since there are no actual asps in Egypt and if there were, their venom causes a very slow and painful death, and would more likely have been an Egyptian cobra, which is the sacred snake of the Egyptian pharaohs. Or she was killed by Caesar.

As Plutarch admits: “What really took place is known to no one.”

Among other accounts, Cleopatra tested various poisons on her slaves before picking the one that would cause her the least suffering. A good deal of the gloss on Cleo comes from the Romans, who had a vested interest in presenting her in the least flattering light. She was, after all, an enemy of Rome — at least after the disputed empire fell from the likely rule of Antony into the sure hand of Octavian.

Denouement: In addition to Caesarion, born to Julius Caesar, she had three children by Mark Antony. A son named for the sun and a daughter named for the moon survived her. Ptolemy Philadelphus was the youngest. Octavius spared them but gave them to his sister, the legal wife of Antony, to raise. The daughter, Cleopatra Selene, eventually married King Juba II of Numidia in north Africa. The son, Alexander Helios, is lost to history along with his brother.

Of course, you will have noticed that in none of the ancient stories of her death does Cleopatra apply the serpent to her firm but supple breast. That version comes later, especially as painters attempted to give us the version not so much of Plutarch as of Joseph L. Mankiewicz. There is a Cecil B. DeMille quality to most of the historical paintings of Cleopatra, who ranks second only to Eve as a ripe subject for images of naked women with snakes.

Not that they are the only two: There are paintings and sculptures of the Roman goddess Hygea, goddess of health, which show her feeding a snake — the snake being the sacred animal of Asclepius, the god of medicine.

Lord Leighton, the English painter, gave us a grand tondo of the Hesperides, the home of the golden apples Hercules was to gather, which was protected by a serpent.

And there is the story of Harmonia and Cadmus. Cadmus, king of Illyria, had killed a serpent and the gods then turned Cadmus into a snake. His wife, Harmonia, stripped herself naked and begged Cadmus to come to her. As she embraced the snake the gods turned her also into a snake.

There is an obviously salacious element in these stories, especially as they are told, painted and sculpted by artists in the Victorian age, where they could be hypocritically sanctimonious about expressing the moral uplift of the glory that was Rome and the grandeur that was Greece while at the same time thinking “Look at the boobies on that one,” and, as the French say, “L.H.O.O.Q.”

But the crown of this Orientalizing prurience must be in Gustave Flaubert’s novel, Salammbo — his followup to the scandalous Madame Bovary. It is the tale of the daughter of a Carthaginian general, set shortly after the first Punic War (264-241 BC). The plot is silly enough for an opera or a Hollywood epic. But there are scenes of sex and lasciviousness, not the least when the priestess Salammbo enters the enemy camp to retrieve the MacGuffin and encounters a prophetic snake. It is hard to avoid the Freudian undertones. They can hardly be called undertones.

“The moon rose; then the cithara and the flute began to play together.

“Salammbo unfastened her earrings, her necklace, her bracelets, and her long white simar; she unknotted the band in her hair, shaking the latter for a few minutes softly over her shoulders to cool herself by thus scattering it. The music went on outside; it consisted of three notes ever the same, hurried and frenzied; the strings grated, the flute blew; Taanach kept time by striking her hands; Salammbo, with a swaying of her whole body, chanted prayers, and her garments fell one after another around her.

“The heavy tapestry trembled, and the python’s head appeared above the cord that supported it. The serpent descended slowly like a drop of water flowing along a wall, crawled among the scattered stuffs, and then, gluing its tail to the ground, rose perfectly erect; and his eyes, more brilliant than carbuncles, darted upon Salammbo.

“A horror of cold, or perhaps a feeling of shame, at first made her hesitate. But she recalled Schahabarim’s orders and advanced; the python turned downwards, and resting the centre of its body upon the nape of her neck, allowed its head and tail to hang like a broken necklace with both ends trailing to the ground. Salammbo rolled it around her sides, under her arms and between her knees; then taking it by the jaw she brought the little triangular mouth to the edge of her teeth, and half shutting her eyes, threw herself back beneath the rays of the moon. The white light seemed to envelop her in a silver mist, the prints of her humid steps shone upon the flag-stones, stars quivered in the depth of the water; it tightened upon her its black rings that were spotted with scales of gold.

“Salammbo panted beneath the excessive weight, her loins yielded, she felt herself dying, and with the tip of its tail the serpent gently beat her thigh; then the music becoming still it fell off again.”

Yes, Flaubert; Mr. Mot Juste. More like Mot Jeaux, i.e. mojo.

We’re not done yet with naked women and snakes. More anon.

Click on any image to enlarge

arrow earth
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” wrote John Keats. He may have intended that ironically, although it has been taken literally by many. Truth is beauty — well, at least in this: that artists have always sought to express the truth, at least as they have known it.John Keats

Art is, in large part, an attempt to discover truth in the welter of the chaos and confusion that is our lives. We write a play and test whether the ideas our characters believe can hold up under scrutiny. We paint canvasses in an attempt to discover what the world looks like. We write music to explore our emotional coherence.

In short, science is the test we give to hard fact; art is the test we give to everything else.

If you look at the broad expanse of cultural history (including art, literature, music, architecture — even politics and religion), you find each generation attempting to ameliorate the fallacies, misconceptions and naivete of their parents’. It is an ongoing march.

(The 20th century was deluded into thinking that there was a directional arrow to this process, and that they were the conclusion of the historical process, the end result of all that dialectic. That was their naivete.)

But the process continues: Our children see right through us. Their children will see through them.

The real “truth” is that our experience is too multifarious, to contradictory, ever to be summarized by a single cultural moment. This does nothing to minimize the efforts of all those generations before us to attempt to understand their lives. Each attempt is heroic in its own way. And each is truthful in its own way.

This constant shifting can be seen in the back-and-forth of certain cultural constants, which I call the pendulums. They swing back and forth. In gross outline, they are the classic and romantic ideas, the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses. But the pendulums are more complex than that simplicity implies. There are dozens, scores, hundreds of competing and repeating ideas that jostle each other out of the way temporarily, only to reappear in their turn and push back.

In the previous blog post, I discussed one of these ideas — the primacy in their turns of the generalized, universalized image, versus the individualized and particularized.

But there are many more oppositions, many more pendulums, swinging back and forth over our shared history.

(My survey encompasses primarily Western art tradition, because it is the one I know best, the one I swim in, but other cultures share the dynamic, albeit with differing permutations. Just consider the Chinese art that swings from the formality of Chen Honshou to the spontaneity of Mu-Ch’i or Pa-ta-shan-jen).chen hongshou and bada sharen

Society or Cosmos

I wanted to look at just a few of these other oppositions in Western culture.

A second large group of oppositions concerns the subject matter, and whether the artist is concerned with man as a social being, an individual set in a welter of humanity — or whether he is concerned with the individual against the background of nature or the cosmos.

In the 18th Century, for instance, Alexander Pope wrote that “The proper study of mankind is man.”

The novel, which investigates human activity in its social setting, came from the same century. Fielding and Defoe come from that century.Prometheus

The succeeding century is concerned more with man in nature, or man in his loneliness, or fighting the gods and elements. One thinks of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound or Byron’s Manfred.

Such poetry would have been considered utter nonsense 50 years earlier. One hundred years later, and they were taken for nonsense once again.

One only has to look at Pope and Wordsworth to see the difference.

I said these pendulums swing at different rates: After Romanticism in writing, we swing back to the social nature of Flaubert or Thackery or Dickens. The pendulum tends to remain social through the early part of this century. Eliot, despite his religious conversion, is eminently concerned with man and man, and sees religious conviction as a social good.

But when we hit the mid-century, the pent-up spirituality bursts out with the Beat writers, with the Abstract Expressionists, with Existential philosophy

The social-cosmic pendulum does not swing in synch with the general-particular pendulum.

Social — Cosmic

Limits — No limits

This world — The next world

Political — Apolitical

Regional — International

Active participation — Retreat from world

Rational — Magical

Emblem — Myth

Incarnation — Transcendence

Society — Nature

Nature as desert — Nature as cathedral

Dramatic — Lyric

Irony — Sincerity

Clarity and Ambiguity

The third large category is the fight between clarity and ambiguity. One age likes its art simple and direct; the next likes it textured, complex and busy.

The classic example, of course, is the shift from Renaissance classicism to Baroque emotionalism.

In a Renaissance painting, the artist made sure everything could be seen clearly. He lined everything up with the picture frame, lit it with a general illumination so that confusing shadows would be minimized.

Look at this Last Supper by Andrea del Castagno.

castagno

See how clear it all is. But the Baroque painter Tintoretto had a different vision of the same biblical event. It is writhing, twisting out into deep space, with deep shadows and obscure happenings.

tintoretto

The Renaissance liked stability and clarity, the Baroque, motion and confusion.

Like the David of Michelangelo and the Bernini statue of Apollo and Daphne.

david and apollo and daphne

Or the Birth of Venus of Botticelli

botticelli

and the Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio.

caravaggio

In buildings, you can see the shift from the Gothic, with its infinite variety and crenelated detail, obscuring the larger structural designs to the clarity of ornament and design in Christopher Wren’s  St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.st pauls milan cathedrals

You can hardly see the actual walls of the Gothic cathedral, so overwhelmed are they by buttresses and sculptures.

But St. Paul’s is a monument to line and form, clearly seen and designed.

Clarity — Ambiguity

Limits — Freedom

Simplicity — Complexity

Unity — Diversity

Drawing — Painting

Stasis — Energy

Regulation — Impulse

Overall — Detail

Formal — Organic

Codify — Explore

Stability — Change

Rules — Anything goes

Clarity — Obscurity

Old form — New form

Discrete disciplines — Mix and match

Relevant or Isolated

Another shift concerns whether art should serve some wider function, like moral instruction or a search for scientific truth, or whether art has no purpose but to stimulate our esthetic tastes. Art for art’s sake.

Should the art hang on the wall to be looked at, or should it decorate the handle of the shovel or spoon? Should it remain outside the mores of its time, or should it be used as propaganda for a righteous cause? Is it merely to look at, or should a Madonna teach you something about your religion?

This is a concern that has become important in the art of our time. A whole herd of artists arose in the 1960s who saw art as divorced from life. Color Field painters preached the gospel: “Art can make nothing happen.”

noland kruger pair

But Postmodernism is largely about inserting political thought into the paintings. Art for art’s sake is declared “elitist” and “irrelevant” and the new art must be judged on its political truth.

 

Art as Art — Art for Function

Entertainment — Edification

Style — Content

Apolitical — Political

Ignore past — Embrace past

Retreat from world — Active participation

Art on wall — Art on implement

Technical — Visionary

Vocation — Inspiration

Contemplation — Propaganda

Ideal — Practical

Tribal or Cosmopolitan

The history of art also pulsates with the shift from nationalistic to international styles, from that which is specific to an ethnic or identity group, and that which seeks to transcends those limitations. The Gothic style as an international style, but the Renaissance is either Italian or Northern. The Baroque breaks up further into French, Dutch, Italian, Flemish.

In music, Bach imitated the national styles in his English and French suites and his Italian Concerto.

But the Galant and Classical styles that replaced it vary little from country to country. Perhaps the Italian is a little lighter and the German a little more complex, but you can’t get simpler or more direct than Mozart.

Nationalism reasserted itself in the next century, so that you have whole schools of Czech music, French, Russian.

In the early 20th Century, internationalism took charge once more and for a while, everybody was writing like Stravinsky.

The main architectural style of the first half of this century is even called “The International Style.”

But ethnic identity is back, and art is once again seen as a key to identity.

Exclusionary — Syncretic

Limits — No limits

Theocratic — Humanistic

Reinforce ethos — Challenge ethos

Regional — International

Nationalism — Cosmopolitanism

Discrete disciplines — Mix media

Ajax Defending Greek Ships Against Trojans

All of us or just me

One of the big shifts is between what I call “ethos” and “ego.”

That is, art that is meant to embody the beliefs of an age, thoughts and emotions that everyone is believed to share — or art that is the personal expression of the individual making it.

We have so long taken it for granted that an artist is supposed to “express himself,” that we forget it has not always been so. Did Homer express his inner feelings in the Iliad? Or are those emotions described the emotions he expected everyone would understand and share? He tells of what Achilles is feeling, or Ajax or Hector or Priam — and they are deep and profound emotions — but they give no clue to what Homer was feeling.

In music, Haydn’s symphonies were written about as being powerfully emotional. Nowadays, we think of Haydn as a rather cerebral composer. If we want emotion, we go to Beethoven or Schubert. You cannot listen to Schubert’s string quintet and not believe it expresses the deepest emotions that its composer was suffering at the time. It is his emotion. We may share it, but it is his.

Ethos — Ego

General — Particular

Investigate world — Investigate self

Chorus — Individual

Rectitude — Bohemianism

Anonymous creator — Signed art

Vocation — Inspiration

Atelier — Single creator

Talent — Genius

Depiction of emotion — Expression of emotion

Head or Heart

baudelaireThen, there is the fight between wit and sentiment.

To some generations, art needs to take a cool, ironic view of the world. Cervantes in his Quixote, or Pope in his Rape of the Lock.

To other generations, art is about human emotion. The more a person feels, the better the art.

Wit was the hallmark of the 18th century. Sentiment of the 19th. It was a common issue of discussion. Everyone knew just what you meant when you used the terms.

Did you wish to write “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed”? or did you want to release pent up emotions, creating something new, never felt before? That’s what Baudelaire did.

Wit — Sentiment

Irony — Sincerity

Universal — Particular

Intellect — Emotion

External — Internal

Reinforce ethos — Challenge ethos

Artifice — Naturalism

Social — Cosmic

Verbal — Sensuous

Society — Nature

Emblem or Myth

Penultimately, there is the swing from art which uses its symbols emblematically and that which uses it mythologically.

That is, if you use a symbol, does it stand “for” something else — as cupid stands easily for love in so much pastoral poetry — or does it partake of that which it expresses — that is, in photographer Minor White’s wonderful formulation: “what it is and what ELSE it is.”faerie queene

Cupid is an emblem. The Cross on the Knight’s shield in The Faerie Queene is an emblem. Moby Dick is a myth. One is easily translatable, the other is not and opens itself to investigating that which cannot be put in mere words or images.

A Classic age tends to be emblematic, a Baroque or Romantic age tends to be mythic. The one uses symbols as shorthand, the other as incredibly convoluted mental images that point at, but don’t touch, what it means. It is the opposite of shorthand.

Ovid is the acme of the emblematic. Homer of the mythic. Homer’s gods — for all their occasional silliness — are actual divinities. Ovid’s are puppets playacting for our amusement.

Emblem — Myth

Universal — Particular

Intellectual — Emotional0 R

Simplicity — Complexity

Unity — Diversity

Stasis — Energy

Regulation — Impulse

External — Internal

Secular — Religious

Style — Content

Synthetic — Organic

Miniature — Epic

Ironic — Sincere

Mimesis or Poiesis

And finally, there is the issue of whether art should imitate the appearance of nature, or should imitate the processes of nature. That is, whether art is mimetic or poetic. Should it copy or create from whole cloth?

We have seen in our century the change from abstract art to images. Abstraction once seemed unassailable. It was the serious art; anything else was trivial.

kandinsky mondrian pair

lichtenstein 2Well, we got over that. From the time of Pop Art, art has increasingly attempted to look, in some form or other, like the world.

It hasn’t done this in imitation of the look of paintings from earlier centuries. That look cannot come back, or cannot be used without irony.

But artists today paint images of people and things. They are identifiable. Some are almost like the old paintings.

Richard Diebenkorn was hailed as an abstract artist in the 60s.

When he began returning to the figure, he was at first castigated.

diebenkorn before and afterNow he is seen as a prophet.

Abstraction wasn’t only in painting. Waiting for Godot is an abstract play. Gertrude Stein wrote abstract prose. Carl Andre wrote abstract poetry.

Mimesis — Poiesis

Imitation — Abstraction

Particular — General

Individual — Universal

Observed –Stylized

Detail — Overall

Edification — Entertainment

Content — Style

Naturalism — Artifice

Investigate world — Investigate self

Scientific realism — Emotional realism

Stretching the frame

Before we leave the subject, we should point out that oppositions are entirely dependent on context. Baptists and Lutherans are opposites until we pair them as Protestants against Catholics, and we pair those against, say, Islam as the opposite of Christianity, or those paired as religions of the book against, let’s pick, Hinduism, but then we can pair those as religions against atheism, and pair them as belief systems against thoughtlessness, and pair them as philosophies against — well, whatever is the opposite of philosophy.

There are an uncounted number of oppositions; I have listed a few I have considered. I could elaborate blogs about each of pair them.

But you get the picture.

 

Romeo and Juliet in frame
“All great love ends in death,” Stuart said.

“Maybe in literature, but not in real life,” I said.

“Yes. All love ends in death. On one hand, sometimes it’s love that dies and then you are stuck. But even if love doesn’t die, the lovers do.”

“You mean like Romeo and Juliet?” I asked.

“Yes, like Romeo and Juliet. Like Tristan and Isolde.”

“But can’t love end happily?” I put forward that possibility; I’ve been married 30 years.

“Yes, but even the most successful love ends in death,” Stuart said. “Either for one or the other and eventually, both. They may be 80 years old, but eventually, love ends in death.”

“Oh. I see what you mean. It’s a trick. Like a trick question.”

“No, it’s not a trick, except that it is a trick the universe plays on all of us. I don’t mean it as a trick.

“Romeo didn’t have to die the way he did,” Stuart went on, “but he had to die eventually. Even if they got married and lived long lives, he would have to die some time, and then, Juliet loses him anyway.”

It is the underlying metaphor of all tragic love stories, he thought. His own, for instance. Stuart had never seen a great gulf between literature and his own life. Others, well, they may be banal and ordinary, but his own life had all the electricity of a great book or epic myth.

The one thing that separated Stuart most from the accountants and dentists of the world was that he recognized in himself the hero of his own life — the sense that he was the main character in a story of infinite significance. When something happened to Stuart, it happened to the universe.

The joke was, of course, that this is true. But there was a stinger, too: Although it was true, the universe is so vast that no matter how big it was to Stuart, it added up to zilch in the big picture.

“That is truly depressing,” I made a sour face.

“But that is not the real issue,” Stuart said. “The real issue is the frame.”

“The frame?”

“Yes. This is something I’ve been wondering about for a while. Every comedy ends in a marriage, it is said. The curtain drops and the audience goes home enjoying the happy ending.

“But, if we followed Beatrice and Benedick after the end of the play, in a few years, at least, there would be divorce — or more likely, murder. Happy endings are always provisional. So, there is an artificiality to comedies that is ineradicable. The happiest comedy, if drawn out to the uttermost, ends in dissolution.”Raphael

“So, you’re saying that the frame — the curtain — reveals any art as an artifice.”

“Yes. And not just in theater. Take the photographs of Garry Winogrand. We are meant to see the frame — the edge of the photograph — as an arbitrary border drawn around some episode, but beyond the frame, there are other people doing other things. This has become something of a trope in photography.

“It used to be that we understood the frame in a painting — say a Renaissance crucifixion, or a Madonna — as merely the point at which our interest in the visual matter evaporates. It is the Christ or Virgin that sits in the middle that is meant as an object of contemplation. A frame could be larger or smaller and still contain the essential action.Tintoretto, La crocifissione, Sala dell'albergo, Scuola di San R

“In Baroque painting, there is often the growing sense that the frame cannot contain the action, but that there is something worth knowing just beyond the edge. That sense has become central in certain strains of contemporary photography. winograndA photograph may contain an image of someone looking back at the camera, over the photographer’s shoulder, at something behind him that we can never see.

“The first kind of frame serves as a kind of fence, or corral in which the important information is contained. The second is more like a cookie cutter, which sticks into the welter of existence and excises this small bit for us to consider.

“That is the frame, the ‘beginning, middle and end’ that gives us such satisfaction in a play or opera.”

My concern at this point is that I could see that Stuart was unwinding his own life from the bobbin, and holding it out in his fingers to examine, and what he was finding was deflating. What set Stuart apart from most people was about to be undone. siegfried

I had known Stuart since college, and what made him glow from the inside was not just his energy — or jittery intelligence — but his sense that he was the star in his own movie. Or rather, that he saw in himself a larger, mythological version of himself playing out among the chess pieces of the universe. He was Siegfried voyaging down the Rhine; he was Odysseus; he was stout Cortez.

Don’t misunderstand, please. He was never grandiose — in his exterior behavior, he was as normal as you or me. But inside, was something larger, bursting to get out. He saw the world swirling the way Van Gogh did. For Stuart, every bush was the burning bush. Take away that internal furnace, and what would be left of Stuart? He would have grown up. Not something that any of us who knew him would wish for.van gogh

“This is the fundamental fallacy of American conservatism,” he went on, making another 90-degree turn.

“They seek to enforce a static vision of society, of law, of human behavior. They keep telling us, that if only we would do things their way, everything would finally be peach-hunky, into eternity — the happy ending that we know (and they don’t admit) is always provisional. They see a — excuse me for the exaggeration — ‘final solution’ for something that has no finality to it.

“Politics — real politics — is always the flux of contending interests. You want this, I want that, and we wind up compromising. Conservatives see compromise as surrender, precisely because they see politics with a frame. Get the picture right, and then it is done. Deficits are erased; the wealthy get to keep what is rightfully theirs; order is established. It is the underlying metaphor of all Shakespeare’s plays: The establishment of lasting, legitimate order, final harmony. stew

“Only, we know that after Fortinbras takes over, there will be insurgencies, dynastic plots, other invasions, a claim by mainland Danes over island-dwelling Danes, or questions of where tax money is going. It is never ending. Fortinbras is only a temporary way-station.

“Existence is a seething, roiling cauldron and sometimes this bit of onion and carrot comes to the surface, and sometimes it is something else. It is never finished, there is no frame, no beginning, middle and end.”

“So, where does this leave poor Juliet?”

“Juliet?”

“Yes, where does this leave us all, we who are all bits of carrot. We who are married for 30 years, we who entered the field of contention, worked for our required decades and left the battlefield to become Nestors — or Poloniuses. All this washes over us and we see that, in fact, we have a frame. Existence may not have one, but I do. I am getting old. 67th birthdayI just turned 67 and I feel it. And I know that my Juliet will die, or I will go before her. We do have, in fact, a frame, a curtain that draws down and leaves us — as Homer says — in darkness.”

“Exactly,” Stuart said, “and this is my point. Every one of us lives two very different lives. You can call them the external and internal lives. The first is the life in which we share the planet with 7 billion others. We are a tiny, insignificant cog in the giant machine. The second is the mythic life, the life we see ourselves as central to, in which we are the heroes of our own novels or movies, and everyone we know is a supporting actor. If we live only in the first life, we are crushed and spit out. But if we live only in the second life, we are solipsists. Sane people manage to balance the two lives. A beautiful counterpoint.

“We are most engulfed by that second life when we fall in love. We are certain that we invented this condition. No one else has ever felt what we feel. It’s comic, of course, but it is also profound. Without this feeling, life is unbearable. We have to have meaning, and meaning is created by how we imagine ourselves.

“Politics hovers oddly in the intersection of these two worlds. We need to sober up and consider the other 7 billion people if we are to create useful policy, but we mythologize those who lead us, and those who lead do so most effectively when they mirror back some version of mythology. The most extreme example I can think of is Nazism in Germany. A whole nation bought into the fantasy. Disaster follows.

“But all ideology is ultimately built on mythology: on a version of the world with one or two simple dimensions, when existence is multi-dimensional. The political myth is always a myth of Utopia, whether right-wing or left-wing. And it is always a static myth: Racism ends and everything is great, or government spending is curtailed and everything is great. That simply isn’t the way existence is.”

“The world is always bigger and more varied than our understanding of it, and it will always come back to whack us upside the haid.”

“Right. The conservative sees the world only with his ego eyes, not from outside himself. That frame — his death — is something he cannot see beyond. There is something egoistic about conservatism. Often selfish, also, but the selfishness isn’t the problem, it is the egoism — the frame they put around the world, the static sense of what is finally right — the so-called end of history. In this, the conservative — or at least the tin-foil-hat variety — is no different from the dyed-in-the-wool Communist. Both see the establishment of their Utopia as the endgame of human existence.” hubert robert

“You’ve been reading Ovid again.”

“How did you know?”

“The Pythagoras chapter.”

“Right again. Panta Horein, as Heraclitus said: ‘Everything is flowing.’ As Ovid has it, even landscapes change over time, and Hercules’ brawn withers and Helen’s breasts sag. Cities grow and are demolished; Mycenae gives way to Athens, to Alexandria, to Rome, to Byzantium and Baghdad, then to London and now to Washington, with Beijing waiting in the hopper. ‘Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?’ “

“How’s that?”

In saecula saeculorum: World without frame.”

 

O and E movie

I had doubts.

You don’t disturb a smooth-running bureaucracy with impunity. There are reasons for all those regulations.O and E Rodin

What is more, I was not unhappy down here. I was not happy, either — such words don’t mean anything here, except as memory.  To be roused by his request from the grayness was too much like being awakened on a chilly morning when you just want to stay in bed under the covers.O and E pina bausch

But there it was. He had come down here, asking to take me back.

It wasn’t that I really wanted to go. But he wanted it so much, how could I refuse him. I never could refuse him.

I remember that. Memory here is so precise, so exact, so complete.

I remember him, too, with that same clarity that no one topside can even imagine. We have the talent for memory here, but we never use it. There is no need. It is a steady state. O and E Egyptian textileNeither happy nor unhappy, neither awake nor aware. You can pass eons without ever knowing it, not that it would matter if you did.

But I remember his wide shoulders, the twin sinews behind each knee. I could never refuse him.

So, I was awakened. We did not speak. He was not allowed to look at me. Never mind: It suited the way he loved me. He never really looked at me, even when we were both able to breathe. He is thought a demigod, but he was really just a man. And like all men, he stared, but he never really looked. I know now what I didn’t know then: I know what he saw when he stared at me with such soft eyes. If you think age brings wisdom, wait till you discover death.O and E bas relief

I looked at him, though, when we were above ground, the first time —  alive. I looked at him often. He didn’t know when I watched him sleep, or watched him stringing his lyre, or feeding the horse. I could see him like he was an X-ray, all the bones and joints, but also the fevers and melodies.

You think it was the music that devoured me? No. The music was beautiful, but I could have heard the music without loving him. Anyone could have. The music was played for everyone.

No, it was that he wanted me. How many women have fallen in love because they were simply asked? And now, he wanted me again.

There is a difference between Orpheus and the rest of us. We love the living people, the fickle, feckless people we share life with. One to one. That is what our love is.

He did not love that way. No. O and E corot

Orpheus had the double vision of a four-eyed fish, half above, half below the surface, and everything he saw came in two images: O and E 35mmthe one he saw above the water, and the second he saw in his imagination. Always, the things he knew came as real and image, and the two were, for him, the same thing.

You overlook a lot in a man. You have to. It’s not forgiveness so much; it is more like learning to ignore that your clock is always running fast. You make allowances.

So, he came back for me. We walked up the rocky path. I saw his back, the nape of his neck under his curls. The circles of fleshfold around his elbow points. His head was haloed by the bright light at the cave entrance. When we got near the light, he reached one arm back for me to hold as we picked our way up past the boulders.O and E Bartolozzi

These memories are in focus sharper than any lens can provide, but I don’t remember them anymore.

He turned to look at me.

I could see in his eyes that double vision for the second before he disappeared, or I disappeared. It’s all the same thing.

When he had me, flesh and blood, he saw only an image of me. Now that I no longer breathed, and exist only as image, he wanted the flesh and blood. Perhaps you never really want it until you know you are losing it.O and E etching

In those eyes I could see genuine pain for losing me a second time. But I also saw a glint that told me he knew he now had a good story to tell, a new song to sing.

”The American West was not only a land of new beginnings, it was also one of bad endings.”

— Albert Castel, historian

"Badlands"

“Badlands”

People talk about the ”Myth of the West,” yet there are really two myths.

The old Western myth was that of the cowboys and Indians. It was the myth of Manifest Destiny, of expansion, growth and nation building.

The old myth was optimistic. It gave us wide-open spaces in which anything was possible and in which a civilization could be created. It was a myth in which a single determined man could make a difference.

It is the myth represented in Randolph Scott Westerns, Frederic Remington paintings — and all its sad modern-day imitators — and even the common rhetoric of patriotic politicians.

Frederic Remington, "Dash for the Timbers"

Frederic Remington, “Dash for the Timbers”

But there has grown a second myth, a yin to the former yang: the modern myth of the Great Plains as an existential hell where the flatness of the wide-open spaces closes in on you, offering no options. It is dry, dusty, vacant and soulless. In it, no one has a future and there is no escape.

Neither of these myths is necessarily true, but each has developed an aesthetic tradition around it. The new myth became dominant after the Second World War: In mass culture it gave us spaghetti Westerns, TV’s adult Westerns and Sam Peckinpah.

On a higher aesthetic plane it is the raw emptiness of Terrence Malick’s Badlands, the Kansas of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It is the theme of the Bruce Springsteen album, Nebraska, and the place where Larry Clark took the photos in his legendary book Tulsa, with its drug addicts and domestic violence.

springsteen nebraska

In this pessimistic West, we want redemption, and there is none to be had.

”Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world,” Springsteen sings.

It is a landscape populated by incipient Charles Starkweathers and Richard Hickockses, people who work in dead-end mill jobs and meet each night after work in filthy dives for beer and fistfights.

They are a generation with no purpose in life, no reason for living past the next cigarette and Budweiser, drunk from a quart bottle with the screw-top thrown on the floor.

It is a world of incredible sensory deprivation. The houses they occupy — for they cannot be said to be living in them — have no pictures on the walls. The furniture is from Goodwill and the blank eye of the television is the center of the room.

Their eyes are as dead as ball bearings.

They have no inner lives, and the only way they can express themselves is with a knife or a penis.

Larry Clark, "Tulsa"

Larry Clark, “Tulsa”

The Old West was a landscape in which all things were possible; the new, affectless West is where all things are permitted.

You can see the new mythology building in the Eisenhower years. All the optimism of the new suburbs was subverted in the photographs of Robert Frank, whose book The Americans was published in 1958.

In that book, a disturbing underside of American chamber-of-commerce idealism was pictured. Frank’s photographs are populated with poverty, desperation, brutishness and lonesome highways leading nowhere.

In the book, the only divinity is the glare from the jukebox.

frank jukebox with baby

Frank’s off-the-cuff style was a revelation in the stylized, artificial ’50s of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.

Avedon himself later used this second Western myth in his powerful book The American West. It was roundly criticized when it came out for its alleged ”West bashing,” but the photographs were as honest and direct as they could be. You can see any of the people in them walking the streets of Phoenix or Albuquerque on any given day.

avedon

The old myth shines from the images of Ansel Adams; the new, bleaker myth informs the photos of Robert Adams, Frank Gohlke, Lewis Baltz and Richard Misrach.

Robert Adams, "Colorado Springs, Colo. 1968"

Robert Adams, “Colorado Springs, Colo. 1968”

Those who have a romantic notion of America’s Beat generation have not really paid attention to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, for it is a book about this second Western myth. Instead of a panegyric to youth and poetry, it is really an elegy to spiritual emptiness and hunger.

The book is the prose equivalent of Frank’s pictures. Indeed, Kerouac wrote the introduction to The Americans when it was published.

Clark’s Tulsa fills out the image with dirty heroin needles and pregnant girlfriends with black eyes.

Malick made the landscape beautiful in his film Badlands, but he filled the film with senseless, ugly violence.

It is a Hobbesian world: nasty, brutish and short.

It’s there in director Kimberly Peirce’s desolate film, Boys Don’t Cry.

"Boys Don't Cry"

“Boys Don’t Cry”

Yet, the film does imply an answer. And it is found in the landscape itself.

Peirce periodically interrupts the action with stop-motion footage of the Nebraska sky both day and night. In the day, the clouds speed across the face of the blankness; at night, the cars speeding down the highways make smears of light along the bottom of the picture while the stars spiral across the blue-blackness.

The lives portrayed in Boys Don’t Cry are squalid at best, but your heart breaks to see such smallness lived out in a landscape so sublimely vast.

So many scenes in the film are shot at night, where the tiny area of land illuminated by a car’s headlights is a metaphor for the limited vision of the landscape’s inhabitants.

Ultimately, the new Western myth is one of disappointment, that, as the gnostic gospel of Thomas says: ”The kingdom of God is spread out before us, and yet men do not see it.”

rackhambookcovervalkyrie

We live two lives. Everyone does, although we seldom acknowledge it.

The first is the life we know daily, the ordinary life filled with people and things. It is the life of work and fast foods, traffic and journalism. It is a loud, swarming stage, with 7 billion competing egos jostling for their air.

In such a life, it is easy to become submerged, easy to lose our way. The demands of survival and success blind us to the larger, more important issues.

Which is why that second life is so very important. That is the life we recognize when we are alone at night under the starry sky. In this second life, the 7 billion disappear, and we are conscious of only two players: ourselves and the universe — the single, moving, conscious point on the infinite ground.

We become aware in a way we cannot during busier times, that the universe we live in is intensely beautiful and awesome and is driven by a power we cannot conceive of — and what is more, we are a part of it and have been given the chance to participate.

In the first life, we are never more than an extra in a crowd scene, but in the second life, we are each the protagonist in our own autobiography.

Or more exactly, we are each the hero of our own existence.

It is this second life that animates one of the most extraordinary works of art ever conceived, one so huge, multifarious, demanding and overwhelming, that only a few people are willing to invest themselves in it. Those who do, tend to become unbearable to those who have not. They become Wagnerites.

In one way of looking at it, the history of art is a vast pendulum that swings back and forth between works created out of the friction between peoples, on a personal, familial, tribal or national level. The individual and his place among human society. The other extreme is art that examines the individual and his place in nature and the universe. We move from Alexander Pope to William Wordsworth, from The Marriage of Figaro to the Symphonie Fantastique. One shouldn’t have to choose, but the fact is, one’s Zeitgeist chooses for you which paradigm will be most valued during your lifetime.

It is this second life that animates Richard Wagner’s 15-hour quartet of music dramas, The Ring of the Nibelungs. The massive theater-and-music work tells the story of the creation and death of the universe, and the human actions that animate it. If you are looking for a concise story with a coherent plot, turn instead to Bizet or Puccini; Wagner focuses directly on that inner life that pivots under the constellations.

That is why so many people love his music, and why just as many hate it. The Ring is populated with gods and heroes. La Boheme is populated with people. La Boheme is — on the surface, at least — about the first life; The Ring is unapologetically about the second.

There is, in some cultures, the idea of ”The Long Man,” that is, the individual seen as the summation of history: ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny — the one life contains all life.

So that Wagner’s retelling of all of history is also the birth and death of each individual consciousness.

Das Rheingold, the first of the four operas, begins with Eden, a perfect paradise in which the creatures who inhabit it are perpetually in touch with the radiance of nature. The beginning of the opera — and of the cycle — is unprecedented in music history.

alberichandrhinemaidens

It begins with the watery creation of the world, and the composer wrote it in the key of E-flat. The opening of the first of the Ring operas is one of the most astonishing stretches of music in all of history. Wagner holds onto a single E-flat major chord for a full four-and-a-half minutes — 136 bars, longer than some Mozart symphony movements. That is an eternity in music without a change.

It begins in the basses with a deep fundamental note, which breaks slowly into a rising arpeggio on the E-flat chord and slowly speeds up to a crescendo of runs and arpeggios — an immense pile of busy-ness, but without any of the forward sense of motion that harmonic progression provides.

In this, Wagner has provided a musical metaphor of the Hindu concept of maya, or illusion. He had been reading Indian philosophy — albeit in the very German version of Schopenhauer — and his illustration of the idea is perhaps the clearest in art.

Before consciousness, it is said, the mind is like a placid lake reflecting the sky perfectly. But such a state is impossible, for a breeze is inevitable, and it breaks up the surface into ripples and waves, and the sky — eternity — is then reflected individually in every wavelet. Such is creation in Hindu philosophy, where we are all fragmented into individuals by the accident of the animating wind. But the fragmentation is an illusion — maya. The busy play of the world is just a trick; eternity itself is unchanged.

So Wagner shows the indestructible and unmoving E-flat spinning out into a busy surge of notes, building the world into existence.

The idea came to Wagner while he was drowsing, dreaming he had fallen into a rushing stream of water.

”The rushing sound formed itself in my brain into a musical sound, the chord of E-flat major, which continually re-echoed in broken forms,” he wrote. ”These broken chords seemed to be melodic passages of increasing motion, yet the pure triad of E-flat never changed, but seemed by its continuance to impart infinite significance to the element in which I was sinking.

”I awoke in sudden terror from my doze, feeling as though the waves were rushing high above my head. I at once recognized that the orchestral overture to the Rheingold, which must long have lain latent within me, though it had been unable to find definite form, had at last been revealed to me. I then quickly realized my own nature; the stream of life was not to flow to me from without, but from within.”

“Within” — That’s the second life.

rackhamvalkyrieglyph

In one of the most prodigious imaginative feats in history, Wagner then managed to create most of the remaining 15 hours of music in his Ring from the initial 4 1/2 minutes of arpeggio — fragmenting it further, turning it upside down and inside out, to generate most of the melodic ideas in his epic.

So that, just as all scales and harmony in Western music are generated through overtones of the fundamental bass note, so all of Wagner’s universe likewise grows from that one, deep vibration.

That “radiance of nature” is also the gold at the bottom of the Rhine river. The three nixies who ”guard” the gold sing its glories.


rackhamrhinemaidens and ring

It is the ”visionary gleam” of childhood that Wordsworth elegized in his Intimations ode.

It is Nature, unsullied by greed and striving, which is the philosophical ground of The Ring. And it is Nature that is disturbed by the theft of the gold by a dwarf, who gives up any hope of love in order to possess the treasure and its power.

rackham rhinegolddwarf

So, love and power are the two poles of the moral universe in The Ring, and they play out against each other for the remaining three operas.

And in the end, the gods die and the world is engulfed in fire and flood. All that survives, at the final notes of the fourth opera, Goetterdaemerung, is the high, hanging violin melody that we have come, in all those hours of music, to associate with the redemptive power of love. It is the final word on life, history and the cosmos, and just as the world is destroyed it provides the hope of the next creation, just as our children provide a hope against our own deaths.

This is more than an entertainment: Wagner is trying to say something genuine about existence and to the extent we are open to his music and ideas, we will value them.

In the second life we all lead, the same two forces play out: career versus family, law versus justice, greed versus generosity, selfishness versus universal love. In each case, the first binds us in pain and frustration and the second redeems us through a connection to the transcendent.

Such an ambitious aim in art is held in great suspicion these days, where too easy a transcendence turns quickly into sentimentality. And a great deal of what followed Wagner is mawkish. We are much more comfortable now with a skeptical irony. After all, Wagner’s grandiosity fed into the rise of Nazism in Germany. Wagner was, after all, Hitler’s favorite composer.

wagnerphoto

(Wagner, himself, was an awful man. A ridiculous anti-Semite, a ruthless user of women and patrons, and more than comfortable living the high life on other peoples’ money. Take my word, you wouldn’t have liked him.)

But Hitler looked for the Germanness in The Ring and ignored the humanness. The narrowness of his ideology is the very thing Wotan, the chief god in the operas, comes slowly to understand is the cause of human misery.

We are all, if we are truly sentient beings, on something like Wotan’s learning curve.

There is a great deal in The Ring. It is the single most compendious work of art in European history. Wagner manages to take on rapacious capitalism, national identity, Schopenhauer, Hinduism, mythology and the role of the artist, among other things. There are as many interpretations of The Ring as there are hearers. And that is as it should be.

There are Freudian interpretations, Jungian ones, Marxist readings and neo-Feminist glosses.

Yet, it all comes down, in the end, to an awakened awareness of our second life.

The Ring has its faults; it is not a perfect work of art. It is sometimes dull for stretches as bits of plot are rehashed. Like Rossini said, there are some great moments and some tedious quarter-hours.

And in some sense, it is quite silly to take all this seriously. With its dragons and horn-helmeted Valkyries, its gods and dwarfs — to say nothing of its 200-pound sopranos — it can be hard to see past the adult fairy tale aspect. To some, it is as tedious as a musical version of Tolkien.

Fritz Feinhals Wotan

Yet, the music itself, underlying and amplifying the experience of The Ring, reawakens in us our awareness of our second life, which is ultimately the source of all that is good in life for ourselves and those we love.

Finally, as the critic Longinus says, all great works of art are flawed and we should always prefer flawed greatness to perfect mediocrity.

And make no mistake, The Ring is truly great.

rackham ring circle

A SHORT RETELLING OF THE RING — SO FAR

Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is a four-opera monument to myth, history and psychology. First performed in 1876, The Ring was designed to be played on consecutive days as a single, 15-hour unit, broken up into these four operas, or ”music dramas” as Wagner called them:

rheingoldalbum

Das Rheingold — In this prelude to the main story, Wotan, the chief of the Viking gods, gains and loses the gold stolen from the Rhine River. The gold confers power on its possessor; unfortunately, it has been cursed and it also confers death. To retrieve the gold for himself, Wotan concocts an elaborate scheme, which plays out in the subsequent operas.

walkurealbum

Die Walkuere — Because he is bound by his own laws not to get the gold himself, Wotan fathers a hero, Siegmund, to do it for him. Siegmund falls in love with his own sister, Sieglinde, and Wotan, again bound by law, is forced to kill Siegmund, but Wotan’s daughter, Brunnhilde — who is a Valkyrie, or divine warrior maiden — saves Sieglinde and her unborn child. For her disobedience, Wotan puts Brunnhilde to sleep on a mountain surrounded by fire.

siegfriedalbum

Siegfried — Sieglinde’s child, Siegfried, is raised in the forest by a dwarf. The hero kills the dragon that guards the gold and climbs the mountain and awakens Brunnhilde. Wotan’s plan seems to be working, except that Siegfried isn’t really interested in the gold.

gotterdammerungalbum2

Goetterdaemmerung — The title translates as ”The Twilight of the Gods” and shows the sad end of Wotan’s plan. Siegfried is drugged by the evil half-dwarf Hagen — who also wants the gold — so that he forgets Brunnhilde and plans to marry Hagen’s sister. Brunnhilde feels betrayed and joins with Hagen to kill Siegfried. When she realizes that Siegfried had been tricked, she sings one of the most difficult 20 minutes in opera, and in remorse for her part in the murder, rides her horse into the hero’s funeral pyre, igniting the final conflagration that destroys both the world and the gods. Wotan’s plan has failed, but Wotan has achieved something more valuable than the gold: Wisdom. As the opera closes, hints of the redemptive power of love suggest that the world can start over again with a fresh beginning.

leitmotifs

To unify the sprawling story, Wagner used repeated musical phrases — called leitmotivs, or leading musical ideas — and developed them symphonically over the 15 hours. The music expresses the emotions and thoughts of the characters — sometimes hidden — and the music changes as the characters grow and the plot thickens, helping the audience keep track of what is happening.

rackhambookcoverdragon

Nixon birthplace

”I was born in a house my father built.”

It is one of the great first lines in American literature and says more than perhaps the entire rest of the book toward explaining Richard M. Nixon. It is an expression of the politician’s essentially mythological sense of his own life.

Others might have written, “I was born in Yorba Linda, Calif.,” or “I was born a month before the 16th Amendment was ratified, creating the income tax.” But no, Nixon goes for the archetypes: birth, father, home.

The little white clapboard house that Nixon’s father built, and that opens his memoirs, still can be found, at the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda.

The house, shaded under a grove, is rather dwarfed by the huge, impersonal marble and glass library, with its parking lot and fountains.

Nixon Library and Gardens

But the house is the only real reason to visit. Inside the tiny cottage, which Nixon’s father had ordered from a catalog, is the niche of a bedroom and the bed on which the future president was born.

Richard Nixon's birth bed

Richard Nixon’s birth bed

It makes Nixon feel almost human.

You can get a sense of the small-town bourgeois life that he sprang from, the piano in the parlor and the small bookshelf with the equivalent of the Harvard Classics that must have given Nixon his early sense of education and culture.

I have to admit, I never much liked Nixon — more accurately, I despised him and his politics — until Watergate. My reaction is probably the opposite of most of those who lived through those times: Nixon was elected in a landslide in 1972 and after his resignation, widely denounced. For me, I hated him until his crimes and venality humanized him.

Politics tends to flatten its heroes, to turn them into one-dimensional factional puppets. We don’t like to find out that our presidents are mere people, that they have faults, fudge the truth, create political lists, philander.

It was only after Watergate that the more complicated, vast, conflicted, confusing, contradictory Nixon became widely known and written about. Nixon, the contemporary Richard III, the one candidate who could deal with evil in foreign affairs because he was conversant with it in himself.

He was surely the only 20th-century politician who plausibly can star in his own opera: John Adams’ Nixon in China.

The real Nixon won my respect because he was larger than life, or, more precisely, he was as big as life.

So, it was a huge disappointment to discover that the Nixon Library, and the museum attached, do their best to turn Nixon back into a plaster bust, denying him all the richness that made him so fascinating.

It is a sanitized Richard Nixon that shows up at the library, one who doesn’t use expletives, deleted or otherwise. The old newspaper clippings glorify his career without ever mentioning his pink-paper campaign tactics, his smearing of Helen Gahagan Douglas, his ”enemies” list.

The real Nixon was Shakespearean, the enshrined Nixon is as polyethylene as Reagan.

The real Nixon saw himself mythologically, and like myth, is open to various, equally defensible interpretations. He was not coherent, but multifarious. There is something in his life for everyone, whether they want to hate or admire.

Which is why the Oliver Stone movie seems so true, no matter how loose he plays with fact. Stone recognizes the essentially mythic quality of Nixon’s personality, which is why he built his entire movie as a gloss on Nixon’s farewell speech to his staff, which is concocted of archetype: ”I remember my old man. I think that they would have called him sort of a little man, common man. He didn’t consider himself that way.” And, ”Nobody will ever write a book, probably, about my mother. Well, I guess all of you would say this about your mother: My mother was a saint.”

It was a gloriously bathetic speech, mawkish and sentimental, but it summed up the essential Nixon, not as one man in a planet full of its congested billions, but as the single Shakespearean king, the central player, not only in history, but in his own life story, as in each of our lives, where we are all the king.

One glorious piece of mythologizing snuck in, although the museum staff doesn’t seem to recognize it for the glorious kitsch it is.

There is a large painting of Nixon by the Hungarian-American artist Ferenc Daday. In 1956, Eisenhower sent Vice-President Nixon on a fact-finding tour of Europe. He made an unscheduled late-night visit with refugees of the Hungarian Revolt at the Austrian border town of Andau.

One can imagine Nixon in reality, getting out of his limo, stopping to talk with a few people, as awkward as he was with the anti-war protesters at the Lincoln Memorial. But the painting doesn’t show that; it shows a heroic Nixon in a white trench coat under an anagogic sky — it could be a leftover from Gone With the Wind. The refugees plead with him for succor.

nixon painting

The whole thing is a wild sendup of the great history paintings of art history, populated with suffering masses, a man on crutches, another with a Hungarian flag unfurled in the wind. The vast plains of Hungary spread out in the background like the landscape in an Altdorfer painting.

And standing next to one poor woman, her arm in a sling, is a shaggy Puli hound, its tongue hanging out. It is such a piece of deflating silliness, the artist surely must have put it there satirically. But if so, the Nixon Library staffers are not in on the joke. Apparently, they have since taken the painting down, perhaps embarrassed by its schmaltz. They should reconsider; the painting says more about Nixon than all the official policy papers and bronze statuary.

When I asked about the painting, many years ago, when I first visited, I got only the party-line response, almost as if the staffer were reading off a TelePrompTer.

The only one who got it was the young man at the gift shop.

”What’s the kitschiest thing you have here?” I asked him.

”This is our bestseller,” he told me, and dragged me with a smile over to the shelf with the coffee mug on which is printed a photograph of Nixon and Elvis.

nixon and elvis with mug

Now, that’s mythology.