The Crooked Path

You can’t do everything.

I look at Hokusai’s screen that encompasses the twelve months and recall a writing task—a prose poem a day—that I imagined and attempted when I was in my early thirties. It was another opportunity to write; I had just finished Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen and felt inspired to follow his example. I wrote a bunch of prose poems centered around Philadelphia, and when I showed them to a teacher, he dismissed them as being too much alike—“in one voice,” he said.

I took the criticism to heart, added some comedic pieces, and stopped. I never felt an urge to get back into it. Or I always felt the urge to get back into it. Writing can be like that. Merwin wrote, “my words are the garment of what I shall never be/Like the tucked sleeve of a one-armed boy.” In a world that values completion, so many stray projects end up feeling unfilled. Here is the life you laid out clothes for last night, and nothing fits in the morning. When you get to work, you notice that everyone else is walking around in well-tailored suits. Your jacket has four arms as if made for a horse or a dog. We won’t talk about your pants.

I attended a graduate writing program that required a full slate of academic courses, which meant that I read Shakespeare and Bussy D’Amboise, Woolf and Dickens, Heidegger and Gallop, Baudelaire and Blake. And I taught. And, oh yes, I wrote. I read work by classmates and writers who my classmates and professors recommended. “You should read—.” There was also a fair amount of “You should write—.” Both “shoulds” implied something about what was good for me and what I would be good for—as if there was a menswear shop that had something in just my style. If only I could figure out my style. With so much swirling around me—and not just “so much” but so much that was exciting and excellent—it was easy to lose track of what I wanted. Other people claimed greater knowledge. Two of my classmates thought I should wear leather pants—that’s how they saw me. Another friend insisted that I put on sweats and play in the Sunday morning touch football game. Later, the same friend castigated me for having a hard time with the “O” word. Obey. Good luck. The only call I had to obey was write. And read. And teach.

Of course, I was disobedient—even to my own calling because I did not know where I wanted to go or what I wanted to write. In the garden of earthly delights, who could choose one pleasure? I was complimented that I could learn from anyone, and this is true. Whether a professor or poet, a work of fiction or philosophy, every teacher had something valuable to add to my world. Even my worst teachers, whose habit ranged into anger and vindictiveness, displayed some small nugget of positive enthusiasm, even if the display was unwitting. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake wrote, “Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.” I read that during my first semester of college in 1978. It’s a damnably enticing bit of advice. Who wouldn’t aspire to genius?

But crooked roads don’t conform, and like it or not, conformity is a more guaranteed path. Improve! Improve! In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert wrote that the secret to uncovering happiness is following in others’ footsteps. If you want to know whether or not somewhere or something will make you happy, ask someone who has been there and done that. Obey the wisdom of the crowd—even if the crowd is relatively small and odd, as crowds of writers and artists tend to be. Or choose the Blake way and talk to imaginary friends. In the world of writers, there are iconoclasts—many who have disappeared from view, but a few who still hold our attention.

But. I cautiously add this proviso. Most iconoclasts we acknowledge as geniuses found a reasonably straight path, even if they wrote about the value of the crooked way. They dug trenches that ran long and deep. Many dug at their own peril. Some—a fortunate few—found acknowledgment early in their endeavors. Others—an even smaller few—were favored by enough fortune and privilege to sally forth in strange directions without fear. Many suffered. If you choose the crooked path, prepare for the worst and delight when the better comes.

I have a hard time advising blinders, but unless you have turned distraction to your advantage, avoid it. Figure out your ditch and get digging. I have repeatedly sung the praises of distraction in this blog, but I am also keenly aware of the price I paid for following a crooked path. Maybe you can do both. Maybe work (a job!), a relationship (spouse, partner, kids), and years of peripatetic exploration will not prevent you from piling up words. If you have succeeded, I venture that your work, partner(s), and exploration support your writing. Writing requires support. Virginia Woolf was right when she proclaimed that she—and any woman—needed a room of her own (and three guineas) to mine the creative ore. This is true of either gender. Time, space, and money must be managed. Mr. Micawber put it this way: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” If a writer does not build time and space for writing into that calculation: misery.

So, you can’t do everything. But you can write, which, if done well, will connect you to more of the world and to the essential everything you require. If the path is crooked, don’t worry, and take in the view. You are laying up treasures where it counts.

Hokusai’s Empty Spaces: a Lesson

Hokusai: Mad about Painting at the National Museum of Asian Art closes on January 9, 2022, so noting a few final thoughts on the exhibit seems fair. On Sundays, I pass these two paintings:       

This comparison is all but impossible—the two works connected by nothing other than personal preference—but let’s start easy. They are both paintings. They both have fairly restrained palettes, and each artist pays attention to line. After that, all bets are off.

These two works have more in common, although Corot’s Forest of Founatinebleau (1834) was painted within a dozen years of Hokusai’s Fisherman. Pollock’s Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist) culminates a move in western art toward a kind of purity of effort. The subject is the painting itself—not the woman reading ensconced in nature—or even nature itself. No “meaning” interposes between the viewer and the image. Or any (and every) meaning is available; whatever you bring, the painting will match. “Take that!” it declares and sticks a finger in your eye. Corot’s painting also fills the frame, and we can decide whether the young woman reading by the brook is ignoring the world or opening a world. Either way, Corot, like Pollock, presents a world.

Hokusai’s painting does not. There is more unpainted area than painted. I run screaming from declarations of “negative capability,” or the value of stillness in Japanese art. I appreciate that the Hokusai show features paintings not by Hokusai to show what set him apart. The other works are busier, neither empty nor still. Besides, not all of Hokusai’s paintings are as open as The Fisherman (the fully inked prints from the One Hundred Poets series surge with color). However, as a rule, Hokusai leaves us some space.

Sometimes that space echoes with the noise of a crowd.

Another time that space is ready to be filled with storm.

Writers play with time and space too. The easy examples are Hamlet, when Shakespeare skirts away months in the course of the play’s running, or Macbeth, when the vast awfulness of Macbeth’s reign of terror happens in some interstitial realm. And nothing, when it happens in Beckett, is the point, and it is a crushing kind of nothingness.

What Hokusai manages is different. In part, it’s because he is a draftsman and a painter, and his work feels drawn as much as painted. But that’s not all. Often the main subjects of his painting occupy only a part of the field of the picture—the Thunder God hovers high, a wave, as water must, is bound to the bottom of the frame.

(Artist) Katsushika Hokusai

Nonetheless, Hokusai allows an image to float on its own. I find that when I look at something—a tree or a bird—and decide to photograph it, the photo is a poor representation of what I thought I saw. The tree is diminished in a landscape, and the bird disappears in a sea of grass. Hokusai’s paintings are like the kind of selective vision we have when we look at the world. We focus on one thing and dismiss—visually tuning out—what does not catch our attention. The photograph gives the lie to our selective vision; Hokusai lets us focus.

When he portrays a man gazing at a pot of peonies, he includes the man, the .pot of peonies, and the bit of earth on which the pot rests. Was the rest of the world there? Yes, of course, it was. In the same way that his screened mural of the two parties—one raucous, one contemplative—shows how we want to focus and cannot, his paintings are an exercise in focusing on what we might miss. Unlike a still life by Cezanne or Van Gogh, Hokusai directs us to look at the man who looks at the flowers—and the flowers. The Fisherman looks out at the ocean. The girl holds a letter behind her back and looks away from the evidence of what? We don’t know.

Hokusai shows us how we look. We might categorize what he does as minimalist, but I think that is a missed assessment. He focuses on what he sees, and he engages us to help us focus.

When we write—and this was bound to get around to writing—we write in the tradition of Corot, building a world, and the reader (the subject of Corot’s painting) is often dwarfed by that world. The world can do that. Hokusai shows us the value of focus. Choose the detail, the significant relationship, the single gesture. We have enough to distract us already. Focus.

Wonder and Wildness

Breastplate Fragment, Northwestern Iran, 8th-7th century BCE; Finial probably Iran or Syria, 8th-7th century BCE; Plate, Iran or Central Asia, 7th century CE

You’ll notice the range here—about 1500 years between the gold breastplate fragment and the bronze plate. Winged guardian spirits persisted in Mesopotamia all the way into earliest Islam. Where did they come from? We don’t know, the same way we don’t know where Jinn originated—or Angels. We only know our domesticated, religion-ified versions. Islam did the Jinn no kindnesses—our vision of them as evil or demonic spirits postdates and is influenced by the Quran, delivered not so long ago. The gold breast piece is twice as old as the Quran.

When I write that we don’t know the origins of myths, I don’t mean that they once existed (either the myths or the creatures from the myths) and have disappeared. I only point to our genuine ignorance. Our past is not like science. New devices like those that have allowed the first crude forays into the brain’s working will not uncover why Inanna is the god of love and the god of war (who thought of that combination?) or why winged lions guarded the throne room of Ashurnasirpal II. Lions in Iraq? Winged lions? They persist—becoming a symbol of Mark the Evangelist and the emblem of NATO. How and why the image began is less interesting (if only because it is entirely unanswerable) than how and why they persist and change over our brief human history.

 One of the changes is a distillation of mythological figures into either good or evil characters.  The Jinn suffered this transformation into demonic beings—evil and then even more evil beings (avoid ‘Ifrit and Marid at all costs, even if you are Aladdin, even if they do sound like Robin Williams). In Greek and Roman myth, the gods of love are less complicated than Inanna, as are the gods of war (and, perhaps not surprisingly, the gods of love and war have an affair and are caught in a golden web). Athena, especially the Athena of Homer’s Odyssey, is tricky—the Ur-trickster, if you will—but even she pales compared to the brief glimpses we get of Inanna.

Stone Lion from the throne room of Ashurnasirpal II, Iraq, 9th century BCE

There was a wildness in our early stories and beliefs. We lost much of that wonder and made it make more sense, conforming to ideas of should and could. We read in amazement until the story wraps itself into a moral. Our relationship with God is all but legalistic, and He doesn’t even have to swear on the Stygian marshes to bind him to a promise; we have it in writing. The Torah, the Bible, and the Quran are one part history, one (big) part contract.

And for those who insist that our current beliefs are too unbelievable, it’s not because these neo-heretics are demanding something wilder but seek a more logical and ordered universe. It’s as if we believe that it should be possible to predict the weather right down to the last degree as we leave our homes for another day of work. I remember listening to the automated voice deliver the weather forecast while sailing on the ocean: wind speed, wave height. And then, I got to the business of the waves and wind along my route. The windy, watery world was enduringly unpredictable.

If I was a deist, I would shudder to think that a contract written 1500-5000 years ago had any hold on a being I acknowledged as omnipotent. Like Oliver Twist, I would hold my empty bowl and beseech, “Please, sir, I want some more.” The “more” is more gruel. Somedays, the wild is as unpalatable as gruel, but more often, it is ambrosial in its unpredictability.

We strip the winged lion of its essential weirdness and wildness and turn it into an emblem—an organizational standard bereft of history and wonder. The weirdness and wonder persist too, and they rattle outside the self-imposed cages of our lives. Even when as small and inconsequential as a virus, we logical, rational humans capitulate to what we cannot control. We fail in the face of the wild.

Child at Work

There is a scroll of Hokusai’s paintings/drawings. The curator’s note suggests that Jurojin, the aged figure at the left of the scroll, might be a stand-in for Hokusai, who was 80 when he painted this. Jurojin, it should be noted, is a god of longevity. The scroll, like the scroll Jurojin unrolls, may be a teaching tool. Hokusai made many manuals for his students, capturing and encoding the wisdom he accrued over decades.

May I suggest that if Hokusai is taking the part of Jurojin, he is also, at the very least, also acting as the young student sprawled out in front of the deity? Or, he is just the student.

Hokusai declared that “[w]hat [he] painted before the age of seventy does not capture the truth of things.” He kept learning and kept striving for legendary status. Imagine having such a lofty aspiration.

When we are younger and naive, we allow ourselves big dreams. We can foresee heroic possibilities. Time softens those dreams. We take a bite of the realist’s apple and learn to accept humbler goals. We even herald the value of those quieter moments: a well-laid table, an easy transit across town, a perfect fall leaf. All those things matter, yes.

And yet, I think of Monet, late in life, building lily ponds at Giverny, painting them, then draining them and remaking them so that they would match his vision. This was an act that combined impetuousness with determination.

Or, I look at Hokusai and see his determination to keep pushing his art to encapsulate his goal.

Such ambition is, at heart, naive. We let athletes off the hook for greatness when they reach their thirties. What second or third act waits for them? We learn to put away childish things and think and act like adults.

What I love most about Monet is his adult awareness of what he wanted and his adult design to create the very thing he wanted to paint. Wiser critics than I would suggest that Monet’s art was the result of cataracts. But then why build, then drain, and then rebuild those lily ponds? Like a child building with blocks, knocking down, and constructing something similar but better.

We come to creation with hard earned wisdom. Part of that wisdom is the knowledge that creation is a kind of play—play at its most ambitious and visionary. We may start with a pattern, some model from which to work, but then we expand and sharpen. Unlike the baseball player who throws with elegant precision to the strike zone, we toss the ball into the air, seeking a curve and arc that only physics limits. We make our rules and play harder.

As wise as you may grow, we stand astounded before the task ahead. Our propensity for astonishment sets us apart and keeps us in good stead. Here is where we learn, here where we reach for legends.

Gallery Walking

The clay pot from Syria and the stone head from Egypt. “Syria and Egypt are not so far apart,” you think. Shapes, after all, are shapes. I get a sense that Charles Freer would like this thought. He assembled his collection to bridge differences of time and space, to find unities and common threads. And yet, nearly three thousand years separate these objects.

Jackson Pollock, Going West

In the National Gallery, a few steps will take you a hundred years from Raphael to El Greco, and nobody’s confused by the differences between them. Gallery after gallery is organized by time, place, and artist. On one wall, Eakins, on another Whistler, and then two of Sargent. A row of Monet’s, each featuring a reflection in a body of water. We recognize the separate hands. We differentiate—pointedly so—Cassatt from Manet. We recognize that an early Pollock gets tossed upstairs in the glass cases of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Benton gets a wall in a room, and Lavender Mist has a bench in front of it at the National Gallery so you can sit and think about it.

Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1950

Walking the galleries can be a jolting experience. It should be a jolting experience. Even in the galleries designated “Arts of the Islamic World,” the shifts from one work to the next makes me question what any of the artists thought, and even more so, what any of the viewers thought. There is no monolith here—or there is, and it constantly fractures and fragments. Yes, of course, Islam, but also them, and me.

Some of my friends comment, “What a nice Sunday ritual you have,” hinting that the museums are peaceful places of reflection. I walk past two sets of angels (Mohammed and Mary, each surrounded by beings of glorious verve and color) listening to The Rolling Stones singing “Can You Hear Me Knocking.” Yeah, peace is my goal. I spend time every Sunday in the company of Monet and Calder—quieter voices after a fashion—at least they aren’t dissonant. The day is dissonant.

Entirely not to scale. The Minaj of the Prophet, by Jami, 1492; Mary, Queen of Heaven, by the Master of the Saint Lucy Legend, 1485/1500.

The vase from Syria and the head from Egypt. 1100 kilometers between them–roughly the distance from Washington DC to Alabama, Illinois, or Maine. So yes, I can see the confusion. Add 3000 years. 3000 years ago, Greece was beginning to lose Mycenaen writing. The New Kingdom in Egypt was collapsing. Babylon was in decline. Celts had started migrating from central Europe—Ireland was still in the future. Turn your head and watch the world change.

Perhaps we think that it changes more slowly now. The leaps from Stone Age to Bronze to Iron seem so slow and so enormous. Now we are cocooned in steel and silicon. Everything is instantaneous and, almost by magic, eternal. Time has stopped. Travel and commerce brought every place within our grasp. Disney helped us imagine a small world, but how quickly it fragmented over my lifetime. Maybe the differences were always there.

from The Wonders of Creation by al-Qazvini

Even walking through the Art of the Islamic World at the Freer, there is an early 15th Century folio from al-Qazvini’s Wonders of Creation. From 100 years earlier, a page of the Shahnameh includes an illustration of Gushtasp slaying a dragon. I don’t know how these stories were received.

It is a commonplace to claim that people have universally enjoyed, even hungered for, stories. I don’t know how each of these audiences spread over 100 years, a thousand years, longer, came to story or to art. I cannot simply state that what I feel, they must have felt. I walk the galleries and try to imagine across time and space how those who came before felt.

Art and Time

My Sunday walks take me from 3000 BCE to just a few months ago. All in the span of some five miles or so—less if I just walked a straight line. From the oldest—the Neolithic Chinese jades at the Freer—to the most recent—Kay Rosen’s Sorry—each reflects a moment in time. These are not the rings of a tree, grown without intent, just as evidence of growth. Each made thing encapsulates its time and drops out of time—enduring over centuries. In another city, my walk would be longer (Washington DC has an advantageous clot of museums) and reach back further, if only by a few thousand years.

Eleven-tier tube (cong 琮) with masks
Late Neolithic period, ca. 3300-2250 BCE
China, Lake Tai region
Jade (nephrite)

I’m not as interested in the stones that are older—so much older—but I am aware that they tell a story that predates existence as we know it. What struck me most about the Grand Canyon was not the majesty of the view—the views—but the exposed rock that told half the history of the earth. There are two billion years of rock on view in the walls of the canyon. And that’s just half the history of our planet.

I live in the small, human slice. As noisy as it is, compared to the roar of 4 billion years, it is barely a whisper. If it lasts another 4 billion years—and it will, with us, or if history any guide, without us—then this—writing, art, music—is somewhat less than futile.

Except, it isn’t. We have stopped time as long as we have occupied the earth. We have some evidence, and we know that so much evidence is lost. The placard that explains the Cong declares, “While their original meaning and function remain unknown….” We don’t even know ourselves, and we have only been here for a moment.

It may seem grandiose, but we evolved to mark time—to stop it and extend it. We did not evolve to chase girls across the plain or club each other into submission to get more girls. We are aware of time in a profound way—our prefrontal cortex allows us to plan and reminisce (perhaps about girls, if that is our particular bent). At the other side of the Freer, Hokusai conjectures about living until he is 110–and imagines what his art will be like. My cats, as far as I know, and as much as I love them, are not wondering about much beyond the next meal or cheek scratch.

Someone will object, making a claim for elephant art or bird nests or whale songs, but, over and over again, not as the exception but as the rule, we alone make art.

I’m listening to Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold’s When Brains Dream. Part of their query engages what we get from dreaming—how (and if) it functions in an evolutionary schema. It’s a helpful book, and alongside Mark Solms’s The Hidden Spring, it offers some genuine insight into what our brains do.

One of the things our brains routinely do is make art. Rather than dismiss it as a spandrel or simply a flourish of peacock feathers, perhaps it points to something else. For the moment, I suggest it shows an engagement with time that is exceptional (from other living creatures) and functional. Each work reveals something about its making, even if we can only decode some technique connected to a particular time and place. But each work also punches out a hole through which it falls out of time—or rather falls into time. It exists in the past—a then, several thens—a now, and the future—a time, like the present, that will become the past. Sometime and forever.

Art’s subject matter is always time. “In these lines to time,” Shakespeare wrote. Philip Glass’s “The Grid” moves us through space at several paces, propelling us through time. Monet’s Houses of Parliament at Sunset is an impression of a place and an impression of a time. It shimmers from one moment to the next, and in its shimmer, it opens a moment.

I surmise that like the cong (or dreams), we do not know the function. But there was, there is, and there will be a function.

Noise and the Weight of Silence

In a matched pair of screens, Hokusai depicts two groups who are out enjoying an afternoon. I imagine that it is afternoon—it could be morning or early evening. One group of people—larger, closer to us—turns to notice the other group. They are in the distance, smaller, but whatever noise they are making is enough to draw their attention.

Some of the quiet group seem curious about their noisy almost neighbors, and some are clearly annoyed, aggrieved, really. The woman playing the shamisen looks over her shoulder. “What is that ruckus.”

Across the way, two men dance—or fight—with fans. A child rides on his parent’s shoulders. They seem of a lower class than those spread out on a red blanket on the hill above them. They seem unaware of their neighbors or the disturbance they have created. So small, so far away, and yet, so loud. And so fun.

Some of the quiet group seem to look with a kind of longing. “We could be having that fun if we were over there.” The annoyance comes at once from the disturbance and the awareness that a woman in the quiet group (it is a man in Hokusai’s painting that is particularly aggrieved) might want to be with someone else who offers more fun. Pardon me while I engage the metaphorical: beauty wants a little riot.

The museums are, generally, quiet spaces. Most people use the most indoor of indoor voices, except for tour guides and children. In the sculpture garden this morning, one youngster offered a delighted “Wow” when he turned the corner on a Calder. Kids played on the walkway between the East and West buildings of the National Gallery (which is a work of art), amazed by the softness of the walkway and the glistening lights above their heads. A woman gives an impromptu explication of The Feast of the Gods, explaining the cast of characters in Bellini and Titian’s painting.

There are other less quiet conversations. Sometimes about lunch. Sometimes about a musical composition and performance. Phone conversations are always louder than imagined. In a museum? Always. I eavesdrop, and sometimes I ask questions.

Besides all that, the paintings are noisy. Wait, what? No, of course, they aren’t. And then you hear the visceral click-click of Keith Sonnier’s Go Between, but let’s be honest, stone and paint are silent. Except, who cannot hear the snigger behind the kerchief in Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Two Women at a Window? Or the bawdy laughter in Quentin Massys’s The Ill-Matched Lovers? Or who thinks that the animals gathered for Circe’s lesson in Circe and her Lovers in a Landscape attend her in silence? Or that she is silent? Or the squeezebox playing angel in Mary, Queen of Heaven? Even the idyllic scenes contain the rush of wind over a field.

from Mary, Queen of Heaven

Still lives and portraits test this, but once again, if you cannot hear the voice of Cardinal Pietro Bembo, it’s your fault and not Titian’s.

Then there is abstract art, which seems to want to put a cork in art’s ample mouth. It’s hard to hear Rothko or Louis or Andre; there may be a note or a chord playing in your mind’s ear yet, these pieces wrestle elsewhere. They are either loud or static-filled or, like Oldenburg’s Clarinet Bridge, just out and out messing with you.

Claes Oldenburg, Clarinet Bridge

I spend my Sundays surrounded by noise—the art and the people—and it rejuvenates me. I reflect on a time in my life when I was surrounded by people who preferred silence during their slice of Sunday. I wish I did not think about this. I do not enjoy thinking about people who complained about the noises children made in church or griped how a fellow congregant beat a tambourine during hymns. While I write this, a child shrieks in a Smithsonian American Art Museum gallery in a full gale. Life happens.

Of course there is a value to spending time in the field or forest, the mountain or ocean, but none of these are silent at all. There is a generous cacophony in nature. But silence has come to dominate spirituality. People gather and decide to subdue noise for ostensibly spiritual reasons. I wonder at how fragile one’s spiritual life must be to suffer from human noise. I watched Barak Obama’s Eulogy for Reverend Pinckney with my Speech students, and it was a noisy event. People chipped in with “yes,” “that’s right,” and dozen other verbal nods; they would have earned hard stares at my church.

The valorization of silence imposes a purity narrative on the spiritual. Like all purity narratives, this only serves to control an otherwise uncontrollable experience. And it places the blame for distraction someplace else—the same way that some faiths require the covering of women to prevent men from being distracted. We all are so easily distracted.

Perhaps we wrestle with distraction because is a piece of our evolutionary puzzle: we had to be easily distracted to avoid danger. Our senses are always on alert. But maybe the problem isn’t so much about distraction as focus. For instance, when I attended Quaker Meeting, we all sat silently. But we listened—not for our thoughts or ideas, but for the spirit. Silence was a way of severing us from not just the world but from ourselves, so that we could listen—attend—more closely.

I’m not sure that we are listening the right way anymore. We try to “hear ourselves think,” and then replicate that strain of thought everywhere around us. We listen to confirm our biases, and it is almost impossible to do anything else. Our brains strive for homeostasis—not just of temperature, but attitude. The more we listen to the “still strong voice,” the less we hear the clarinet blast—or the tone of the angelic pipe organ squeezebox—that calls us to what we, fortunately,  do not know.

Misanthropy

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me. (Moby Dick, Herman Melville)

We all know “Call me Ishmael,” but there is a reason that the narrator of Melville’s Moby Dick wants to be acknowledged as such. He has left the tribe. Or been summarily cast aside, born of the wrong parent, and replaced by Isaac—he who laughs. Today, I woke up at Ishmael’s side: no laughter, all asunder.

Whether you look to the ocean or not, who hasn’t woken up not just on the wrong side of the bed, but the side that leads you to swear at the news (It’s marginally better these days), then at the car (who designed doors that are guaranteed to make spilling my coffee a near impossibility?), then at the fellow travelers on the road (you cut me off when there was no one behind me to make a left hand turn?) , then at the people clogging the door at Un je ne sais Quois (In or out; I have croissants to buy), or at the spell check that insists on who the fuck knows what for “Un je ne sais Quois.” Yeah, and there it is: “fuck.” Everything is one long variation on that theme, culminating, without effort, in “I fucking hate people.”

Usually, that feeling is evanescent—gone with the glint of sun off a pane of glass. But—my big but—it is always there. The opposite is present as well—gloriously so, necessarily so. The world holds too much that is joyful, whimsical, and beautiful not to be shared and smiled over. I share a few thoughts about Dewing with a woman photographing his The Lute. A man and I share thoughts on Hokusai, and he gives me an added incentive to travel to Tokyo. I keep the persistent disdain and disgust to myself. Who needs more of that?

The Lute, Thomas Dewing

Even now, as I shared with you, I am writing my way out of it, careening toward something constructive. Ugh. Why does everything need to run aground on the shoals of constructive? There is rarely anything constructive in “Fuck you!” or “Fuck off!” Does that make it any less, what? energizing? It is not just an escape of steam but an increase in indignation. “I see your selfishness and raise you my rage.” Why wait for the dying of a light?

Except.

A year or so ago, I started writing about evil and had to put it aside. The news was too full of people accusing each other of evil. The moral high ground wasn’t a hill, rounded and easily climbed or rolled down; it was a mile high pinhead, with more angels crowded on it than can be counted. Except it wasn’t one pinhead. It was two, maybe three, but always two: good and evil, us and them. The clamor from one pinhead to the other was deafening. But, if we stood angel shoulder to angel shoulder on the head of our respective pins, the anger we wielded was a broad mallet. Brickbats of “fuck” dispatched with full flail—forget about nuance and contradiction. Unlike Ishmael, no one knew to run to the sea, and hats went flying.

Now, with lives on the line, people ally themselves with justified rage. Some conflate their rage at wearing a mask or getting a vaccine with the annihilation of 6 million Jewish people by the Nazis. When over 700,000 people have died of COVID in the United States and nearly 5 million in the world, what matters is me, and I will use the rhetorical and emotional arguments I need to make my case. The lack of perspective is mind-blowing. But we have clamored to such extremes for years. We borrow rage when it suits us, when we need to enhance and emphasize how right we are, and diminish and demean those who oppose us.

How hilarious that 4 years ago, people on the right chanted, “Jews will not replace us,” and now people in the same political galaxy are claiming a kind of solidarity with Holocaust victims; we are replacing Jews with us. And the late-breaking news is that Israelis with vaccine passports and will require the booster to be considered fully vaccinated. But, what do they know? Rage knows no shame.

The funny thing is, when Ishmael gets in his moods, he gets on a boat and heads to the ocean—the beautiful open sea. However, on a boat human contact is not just unavoidable but necessary. There are few places as confined as a boat on the ocean. You put aside differences in a hurry when you stand watch through the dog hours. This is a stirring contradiction. Ishmael feels misanthropic, so he goes where he cannot avoid contact.

I spent a chunk of my morning at “high fuck,” then settled in among strangers who are unified only by the call of free art and time to enjoy it. A man stares up at Calder’s Rearing Stallion, and I cannot help but assert how I think it is so cool that the shadow makes a second work of art. We both smile, and you can tell, even though we are both masked, and he tells me what he sees and likes. “It is so cool.” We are on the boat together, looking at the amazing world.

Rearing Stallion, Alexander Calder

I am honest with myself: I will not stop feeling rage. And love, the sweet balm of human contact in all its brilliant and unbearable forms. I lack a middle ground. I try to put myself in front of things that inspire love and unbridled delight. I will still mutter, “I fucking hate people,” and the angel on my shoulder will buzz in my ear, “Liar.” To borrow from Whitman again, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” I am back on the boat, sailing once again, to you.

Bi and the Dream

A placard on the wall of Gallery 19 at the Smithsonian Asian Art Museum announces that thousands of bi were found at “elite burial sites” dating from the Liangzhu culture (3300-2300 BCE). They are jade: nephrite colored richly by strains of iron and other ores over millions of years. Craftsmen sliced the discs with string saws.

The bi are displayed face on—almost perfect circles. Suspended in midair, they appear perfect: several circular discs floating behind plexiglass enclosures. This is, in part, a trick of the eye; we see what we expect (or want) to see. Actually, their shapes vary. While definitely circular, many are lumpy or lopsided. A long look from the side shows even more irregularities—thicknesses vary, and some of the bi undulate like warped records.

Some of the bi have barely intelligible marks. The note on one display explains that markings were “extremely rare.” What does that mean? 1 out of 100? 1 out of 1000? The marked bi are neither more nor less perfect than the others.

Nowadays, we mark everything. Like it or not, we even leave a faint digital signature on what we wish to be anonymous. Mostly. At my school, we check drafts of student essays for plagiarism, and when they come back with unnamed and unnecessary sources, it is an embarrassment of unoriginality. 5000 years ago, anonymous discs went to the grave and into eternity. We have them now—disturbed from rest—because of a construction boom at the beginning of the previous century. They could have slept longer.

Not surprisingly—or entirely a surprise—we have few records of the Liangzhu Culture. Evidence of the once-thriving culture ends abruptly. The people who lived in the region around Lake Tai seem to have disappeared. We don’t know why. We know that they thrived primarily because we discovered their funerary deposits: jade bi for the rich and pottery for the others. We build an idea of their lives on what they took to death.

We do not know why they prized their bi. Nor why a few of the bi have marks.

We do not know. Those words can feel intractable, like a dead end. Or like a challenge, a kind of epistemological “try harder.” But how can you know what you cannot know?

●●●

We coined the word “Kafkaesque” to describe the nightmarish world circumscribed by a bureaucracy of the soul. Franz Kafka, who repeatedly depicted such a world in his fiction, also told us how to escape. In his short story “An Imperial Message,” the emperor is dying. Before he dies, he sends a message for you. Sadly, or predictably, his messenger cannot get it to you. This is genuinely Kafkaesque—the emperor is at the center of a thicket of throne rooms, attendants, imperial bureaucrats, and cities within cities. Even though he is the emperor and his messenger bears the imprimatur of the emperor, the message will never arrive. However the story ends, “Du aber sitzt an deinem Fenster und erträumst sie dir, wenn der Abend kommt.” (Roughly, “But you sit at your window and dream it to yourself when evening comes.”).

Of course, the emperor is god—something or someone with absolute power. Except, once enthroned, the emperor’s power is circumscribed, in no small part by the same apparatuses of the power he wields. How often do we mistake the apparatus for the thing, imbuing that which is meant to do little more than act for or transmit with more? How often do we mistake laws for actual authority? We create limits (I can, or I can’t) because we cede control—and the attendant responsibility. Our current idea of self-authorized action is little more than lust and gluttony on steroids; to be the emperor, we must grapple with the full repercussions of having authority (read Shakespeare for a full gloss on the weight of the crown).

But, in Kafka, a dream cuts to the quick. You already know the message. You are the emperor.

In our dreams, we build worlds. A few nights ago, I dreamed of traffic patterns, and police, and cul de sacs. There were merge lanes and scofflaws who drove on the shoulder. I was looking for a purple Jeep. I didn’t make any effort; the world bloomed in my mind—a mind profoundly(and subconsciously) at work. So must it be as we sit by the window (a liminal space) in the evening (another liminal space). Dreams are no time for laziness but a bursting forth of our full power.

If I want to know what I cannot know, then I must dream.

●●●

We have found thousands of bi. Each one cut from a long round piece of jade. I wrote “craftsmen” earlier, but how did this not become domestic work—foisted, as much domestic work is, on women?  Or children? I think of the scene from Parasite when the family folds pizza boxes. Instead of sewing circles, sawing circles. Who did the repetitive work that wore down fingers, hands, and arms for hours at a time? Not a crew of slaves hoisting blocks into pyramids alongside the Nile, but an army of hands slowing sawing through stone.

Does this mean that the Liangzhu people had slaves? I don’t know, but I think about the tech factories outfitted with nets so that the workers do not find relief from their toil. Bone crushing construction or endless hours of grunting agriculture? Slaves, over and over again. Did they sing while they sawed? I try to imagine songs that keep to that frantic beat. Did they race each other to cut their slice first? We compete everywhere. Why not? Imagine a John Henry of the Neolithic Yangtze River delta, whipping a string bereft of crushed quartz through jade as if it was mashed rice paste.

We know that they did not speak Chinese. We know (from genetic analysis of remains) that they shared genes with Austronesian and Tai-Kadai people. But what we don’t know renders what we know into little more than conjecture and guess. Our knowledge is imperfect. In the same way that the bi have imperfect shapes and imperfect history, our understanding is imperfect. The message—the truth—is never coming from the emperor. All we can do is imagine.

More often than we would like to admit, we straddle the worlds of the known and not-known. We lead essentially liminal lives—caught between knowing and not-knowing. Too often, we trade hard-won ignorance (the awareness that as hard as we try—and we must try—our effort will not provide a satisfyingly clear answer) for arrogant correctness. We cannot admit that we do not know. We have a mechanical reflex against unpredictability—whether we read the past, present, or future. We value prediction over genuine discovery. “I was right!” supplants “I found out!”

If we are going to model reading on dreaming, part of the task is to recognize that we are out of control. We will predict—it’s what we do—but surprise will derail our predictions. Surprise is an error message in the infinitely predicting machine of our brains. However, if we substitute rigid certainty for precise and imaginative uncertainty, our interpretations will fail even if they are clear.

●●●

I’m going to make a leap here. Reading is prediction directed to the past; the words are already written. Even though it is past, we still try to fit what we read into models of everything else we have read. When my students assert, “I can relate to X, Y, or Z,” what they are saying is, “This fits with a model that I already know.” And those of us who teach know the living hell of relatability. Anything outside that narrow ravine threatens to stop the students in their tracks—already when they are 16. Earlier.

In the same way, when we encounter new situations, when a circumstance calls on us to genuinely predict, we predict following models we already know. It is nearly impossible to get someone to predict beyond what they expect to happen beyond the known. Happily, most things in our lives adhere to patterns. Until they don’t. Fortunately, most of us are not making predictions that will affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, but some are, and they fall prey to the same internal mechanisms. The results are too often catastrophic.

So, how do we avoid the quotidian and useful process of prediction? How do we read the exceptional? How do we incorporate the genuinely new and surprising into our homeostatically driven lives?

When I look at the bi, I can guess (which is not to say that I take incoherent swipes at possibilities) at their significance, but I realize that even my best guesses are circumscribed by the limits of my experience. I know there is something that I do not know, and I realize that ignorance will stymie me over and over. I return to the bi to marvel at them and to marvel at my ignorance. They remind me that despite my reasonably well-trained intelligence, that something as simple and elegant as a jade disc will remain out of bounds. I experience hubris in the face of the unknown. This drives me to consider the undiscovered countries. And consider them I must.

How then do we confront systems that are quantitatively more complex? We try to bridle wild horses (mistaking tigers for horses—they both have four legs!) with prediction and end up eaten. Our imaginations must be more thoroughly engaged.

When Kafka exhorts us to “erträumen,” I do not believe he is suggesting anything passive, or for that matter, lazy. The truth is like a message from the emperor. When we dream that message to ourselves, when we imagine it, our imagination must be fully engaged because it is not as simple as a dream for snack cakes or even a dream of bedding a fantasy partner.  Truth may be a dream, but it is, fortunately, a demanding and difficult dream. But if we do not dream the big dream, our thoughts will be confined to the palace’s myriad chambers and infinite passageways. Our imagination will take us to a place we do not yet know.

The Play of Light

Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge, Gray Day, 1903

People at the National Gallery walk past Waterloo Bridge, Gray Day, and stop in front of The Houses of Parliament, Sunset, or The Seine at Giverny. I get it; those paintings are suffused with light—even the sun setting in the West behind the shadowy edifice of the Houses of Parliament gives the evening painting an elegant aura. The sun is barely present in Waterloo Bridge, Gray Day, which should not be a surprise in smoke throttled London. But there is no shine—instead of the billows of white smoke in a train yard, or the reflected sun in a lily pond, this is just gray. Another typical London afternoon.

The painting bears all the hallmarks of Impressionism: surfaces broken into brushstrokes, a scene captured with immediacy and revealing a moment. If it were not flanked by brighter canvases, would you stop? Who knows? This painting is gray—the day was gray—and Monet mutes his palette. People move on.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Philemon and Baucis, 1658

We are drawn to light. In a wood-paneled room of Rembrandts (Gallery 51), the glints and swaths of light in the dark paintings stand out. There may be details in those dour portraits; still, our gaze focuses on those bright patches. Rembrandt uses light to command our eyes toward the centers of the works—or in the case of Philemon and Baucis, to the right side of the painting, where a nimbus flares up behind Philemon—as it should, she received Zeus and Hermes when other, wealthier neighbors turned the gods away. Rembrandt does not play with light like De La Tour (The Repentant Magdalen, with the skull—a memento mori—only seen reflected in a mirror, shows off his use of light). He lights what matters most—this is key lighting, not bravura technique. But this is how we see, and this is what he (or his patrons) wants you to see. He knows that our gaze is like a moth, drawn inexorably to the flame.

John Singer Sargent, Margaret Stuyvesant Rutherford White, 1883

In Gallery 69, Whistler’s Symphony in White uses the bright cuff of Joanna Hiffernan’s dress not to focus the viewer but to prevent our look from settling here or there. Even the wolf rug’s gaping mouth—in and of itself a supreme irony—does not fix us. We can apply some meaning, but the painting fights against allegory and symbolism. It’s white, only white. Across the room, Sargent uses a flash of white to guide our gaze from the transfixing stare of Margaret Stuyvesant Rutherford White to a point just at her left hip. Sargent’s portait has other work to do. The flash of white is a sleight of hand—and it is Mrs. White’s left hand, in the shadow formed by the folds of her dress, that holds a small bottle. We cannot smell her perfume—it’s a painting, just a painting—but Whistler lets us know that she is not above such enticement. She is not a painting or symphony or play of light.

Claude Monet, The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil, 1881

I tease my students while making a point. I wave my fingers in the air up and to my right, “Bright and shiny! Bright and shiny!” We are eminently distractible—they are; I am. A short woman in a pink shirt and a mask fashioned from a blue bandanna puts her hand on the shoulder of the short man with whom she walks through the museum, stopping for a moment in front of the sunset in one of Monet’s paintings. One part of my mind leaves the gallery room with them. A family—two boys and a dad trailing behind mom, who pauses in front of Redon’s Pandora—enters. I don’t know whether they are from out of town and making the fleeting pilgrimage or revisiting. They leave too quickly for me to ask. Instead, I talk to the couple on the bench beside me, and a woman confesses that she fell in love with Monet’s The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil when she was 8. “It was everything,” she says. She paints.

I am jealous of painters and their use of color and light to direct the audience’s gaze around their work. Like a symphony, they speed our eyes and slow them down, distract us with flourishes, and satisfy us with thematic or chromatic resonances and unities. Yes, we will “read” the subject, but the paintings open in a dozen other ways, all at once, convincing us and vexing our expectations. I seek to do as much. The galleries inspire me.