Contradiction and Awe

In the Smithsonian American Art Museum, John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler hangs in a room on the second floor. The room features paintings of men and women from the Gilded Age—the last great flourishing of robber baron capitalism in the United States. Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler is a descendant of Peter Stuyvestant, a member of the Astor family,and became part of “the 400”—the unofficial roster of New York’s finest families.

Sargent painted her while she was in London for her brother’s wedding. She is 26, the eldest daughter, self-possessed—as she needed to be since both of her parents died by the time she was 11. The description on the museum website points to the juxtaposition between her controlled gaze and the turmoil of “[h]er arms, leg-of-mutton sleeves, and the pillows [as they] seem to wrestle with one another.” That’s fair enough. Her gaze, direct and at the viewer, is strident, almost an affront, “You think you see me?” she asks.

Museums are fabulous places, in no small part because of the juxtapositions of things. Across the mall this is made clear by the exhibit of Charles Lang Freer’s ideas about exhibiting like objects that were made hundreds if not thousands of years apart. Here at SAAM, the exhibitors have put the portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler in a place where her gaze extends out into and across the hall. Standing across the hall, one can still sense her stridency.

What’s in the room across the hall? Undine, Illusions, Spring Dance, An Eclogue, The White Parasol, and Woman with Red Hair.

None of the women depicted in these works stares fiercely at the viewer. They either stare off to the right or left, or are engaged in a closed unit—with other women, or in the case of “Illusions,” a child or putto. Several are naked, or draped to reveal their sensual forms. Or, as the titles suggest, are to be known for the attributes (hair, parasol). The women her are used as subject matter (“The White Parasol”) or at the service of allegory (“Illusions,” “The Eclogue”).

Spring Dance. Across the hall.

I cannot be certain what Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler felt about art and female representations. That she was part of a world that valued culture (her brother, Robert Wilson Chanler was a painter) is fairly certain. By 1893, sitting for a portrait by Sargent would not have been an inconsiderable achievement. But in this museum—in every museum—are countless works that transform the sitter into something at the service of the artist (who is often working at the service of another). She must have known that.

Sargent captures her singular defiance. She may be beautiful. She may be 26 (and years yet from marriage). She may be wealthy—or wealthy enough, say her rings and her brooch. She is not too young, not too self-aware as to hold our gaze with hers. Sargent said she had “the face of the Madonna and the eyes of a child,” but his painting reveals a fire that exceeds anything childish. She is determined.

“Match me,” she tells us. “I will not go quietly.”

I return to the SAAM—or the hall National Gallery, or the Freer and Sackler Galleries—because getting caught in the web of juxtapositions helps untangle me from whatever I am stuck in from the rest of the week. The juxtapositions reinvigorate me. Roethke writes in “The Waking,” “This shaking keeps me steady.” Do they contradict themselves? I hope so. I count on it.

How are the juxtapositions I find here, in these places and spaces, different from those in the world? There are a web of contradictions waiting around every corner—cocksure hypocrisies and beguiling changes of mind. Why do I need more? What’s the point of contradiction contained in or by art?

There is a difference. I am drawn to a world of things and ideas that acknowledge the diversity, that are not afraid to make contradiction and juxtaposition a large part of the message. Yes, just as there are people who insist on “I know the truth”—and then brook no contradiction—there are works that proclaim their own monolithic messages—“Look on ye mighty and despair.”

And yet like a cathedral, or like a mountain, a canyon, or an act of genuine kindness, they can awaken a sense of awe, and, if you are open to the experience, that sense of awe blasts away preconceptions. And unlike things found in nature—as awe-inspiring as those are—works of art made by human hands, perhaps because they were made by human hands, despite the petty hypocrisies and even the pointed cruelties awaken a human sized sense of awe. I can stand before the human sublime and feel the full terror (Jeder Engel ist schrecklich—Every angel is terrible, Rilke), but the terror is a tearing away of everything else, everything I thought I knew, and an opening to what is suddenly possible. I stand and proclaim, “I do not know!”

I feel rather a bit like Scrooge when he declares: “I don’t know what day of the month it is!… I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby…” Imagine that, being 18, 25, 38, or 60 and being like a baby, ready to learn everything as if for the first time. To be wise and to be willing to be surprised.

So, I return, and step between Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler and whatever it was she held in her gaze, and I let myself be cast into the room across the hall, and all the rooms across all the halls, and find, once again, some awe and uncertainty. I can match that.

Into the Dark: What I watched about evil

Two years ago, I rekindled this blog with reflections about what I learned about love from movies I watched in my youth. Love—in all its tangled brilliant forms—is the flame for this moth. Contemplating that light allows me to see through the darkness. Over 40 years ago, my cinema professor, Kaori Kitao, asked us what cinema was—the big question—to which she supplied the final answer after we had all tried our hands. “Cinema,” she said, “is light.”

Of course. What we saw on the screen was light obscured at 24 frames per second—light shaded and shaped into colors (or not) and accompanied by sound (or not). In our Wednesday afternoon classes, we sat and watched—over and over, for 3-6 hours—film projected onto a small white screen. Professor Kitao would speedily rewind reels of film so she could point out—over and over—the traces of light on the screen. There were secrets to be found.

I found love—or at very least, desire. The opening scenes of Bergman’s Persona spelled out what the light could do. I was too shy at 20 to comment on the erect penis that flashed oh so briefly (not that briefly!) on the screen in the opening montage. Love and sex. Desire and death. The devil that dances in that opening sequence reminded me of a childhood dream I had of a green-skinned devil who hopped about in our living room. Cinema is a dream—all dreams—distilled by light. And dreams take place in the dark.

If love is my light, there is also darkness. I struggle with darkness—with seeing it too much. In Peter Chelsom’s underrated Funny Bones, one of the characters remarks that Jack Parker—the comic genius of the film—sees the dark side of comedy too clearly. I saw that movie on my 35th birthday, and it crystallized my thoughts about comedy and tragedy. There are things that some of us see too clearly, that most of us just laugh or cry away. We turn our faces to what suits us best and call what does not please us “the other” in one of its many names.

However, the dark is not merely the absence of light or its easily demonized opposite. It is a vital source of energy. How long did it take me to accept that? I’m still working on it.

I saw the movies that taught me those first lessons about love when I was a teenager—or younger. With a few exceptions, the films that helped me grapple with the dark were part of my twenties—the lost years after I graduated from college and before I began graduate school. With few exceptions, I saw all these in movie theaters (or I have seen them all in theaters). I was fortunate that there was a revival house in Philadelphia (the TLA) that showed old movies. And, while Philadelphia had no cable TV, one of the UHF stations played classic films late at night. I watched. And dreamed.

Unlike the movies that taught me love lessons, these are uniformly great films. There are no April Fools or Hotel here. Maybe that’s because after taking Kaori’s class, I had learned to turn my eyes to more serious work, or maybe that’s because darkness instigates a different kind of art—more obviously profound, more apparent attempts at art. The distinction matters and does not matter. What we see in the dark is a dream. Great or not, these are no more real—or just as real—than the films I wrote about two years ago, the same way that my dreams are neither better nor worse than when I was a boy. Out of the light and into the dark.

Evil. What is evil in these films? Inhumanity. Failure. Fatal inevitability. Some incredible compunction on the part of the characters to launch headfirst into harm, and to take large swaths of their world with them. I saw these at a time when I became more starkly aware of the evil that was at once accepted and codified in the world around me. Sure, I had warnings along the way, and sure, these films are not life—any more than the movies that taught me about love ever substituted for the harder lessons that life delivered. Still, they offer up the contradiction: darkness painted with light. And each one provided a lesson that stuck, even if I disagreed with its premise.

I’ve been wrong before. I will be wrong again.

The Films

Out of the Past

The Draughtsman’s Contract

Brazil

Ran

House of Games

Lawrence of Arabia

Dr. Strangelove

Brokeworld

In 2016 HBO aired a radical revisioning of Michael Crichton’s clunky trash science fiction thriller, Westworld. The old movie issued a direct threat and moral: technology combined with profit motives is bad. Nothing new here, just a variation on the muck-racking novels of late 19th century America or a schlockier version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The series that launched in 2016 delved into deeper issues: consciousness formation, the nature of humanity, and, yes, the moral bankruptcy of late capitalist culture.  There was more if you wanted to find it, all wrapped up in a glossy, sexy, and violent package. Quintessential HBO.

The drive for climactic set-pieces led to a gruesome and fairly well-earned massacre at the end of the first season. However, gruesome massacres are not easy to build on. The second season stumbled through the aftermath of all that death—even if many of the dead were robots. The rest of the dead were the rich—or servants of the rich—and, as such, were easy prey. The third season addressed the “real world” (such as it was portrayed in the show) consequences of those deaths and added human characters whose lives were made robotic by, yes, you guessed it, the rich.

I teach creative writing. When I started teaching, I forbade my students from killing characters in their stories. Yes, the presence of death galvanizes fiction, bestowing instant importance on what might otherwise be a mundane series of events. When I think of some of my favorite short pieces, death abounds. Think of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” or J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bannafish.” At least the threat of death—real complete annihilation—hovers around the characters. However, when it does, it has weight. Great—and most good—writers acknowledge mortality as a meaningful limit.

The first season of Westworld used cavalier attitudes about murder and violence to make a point—all the while delighting viewers with plenty of simulated death (the show walked on a sneaky edge) The point was that the cavalier attitude about death and violence revealed a moral failing in the characters. Even when the violence was simulated. That edge has become more and more blunted with each new season, finally becoming little more than a heavy and dumbly wielded club.

Halfway through the third season, the main antagonist, Serac, reveals that he and his brother built the monstrous AI, Rehoboam, after witnessing the nuclear bombing of Paris. The bombing is not explained. It exists only to justify Serac’s desire to prevent either another such event or series of such events. Boom! goes Paris. And Boom! Westworld tottered off into the realm of irretrievably bad writing.

I teach my students that anything can happen in their fiction. I try not to put false limits on their work (no fantasy, no science fiction, no romance). I only ask that whatever they do, they must avoid cliché, which is hard for young writers because everything seems so new to them. And this is hard for older writers too, because everything seems to have been done. How many ways can two people arrive at “I love you”?  Or “I hate you” for that matter? And everything in between. Make it your own, and find the surprise.

Also, I advise that they treat their fiction as if it is true, that they should consider themselves magicians of a sort, wielding magic words to create reality.  They must be responsible for the world they create, not just for the beetles that scurry across the floors of the houses they build with words, but for the vision of the world they invent. If someone falls in love in one of their stories, then they are nothing less than Eros, conferring love on the world. If someone dies in one of their stories, then they wear the grim reaper’s long black robes. No, not all writing is made with such high purpose. Plenty of successful prose falls back on sheer entertainment. Love and death are little more than emotional levers that the writer pushes and pulls to keep the reader reading. So does plenty of literary fiction—thank goodness.

Sometimes writers break the compact with the reader. They pull the levers without any concern for what they have made. A friend once asked whether I could just do what I wanted in my work. I can, of course, I can, but I must grapple with the repercussions of what I write. Does what I want to happen fit the world which I have created? Not just, “Does it make sense?” but does that sense bear up to moral, emotional, and intellectual scrutiny? Not only must there be a feeling of necessity in the work, but that necessity must be guided by an inner logic that binds all the images, all the ideas, all the characters, and all the vision. That is no easy objective.

One way to guarantee that a work will miss that mark is to play fast and loose with life, to use death as a plot enhancement. By its own logic—by the claims it made in its first season—Westworld has fallen off the horse. Yes, the show remains pretty (sexy and gruesome) picture, but the writing no longer cares to do anything but sling gore and blow up cities. Nothing matters. Time to move on.

 

Balance

About a year ago, I wrote about the patterns that I had noticed in my life. I have tended to trust the signs that the universe provides for me—much of what I have written about my current book project attests to that. I can admit that there are times that I have misinterpreted the signs, or that the universe has played an awful game of three card Monte with me. And yet, what other choice do I have?

I walk the line between an abundant trust in my muse—or the universe—and a willfulness that is singular and purposeful. This comes with risks. There is a song by Coldplay, in which the singer challenges, “Go on and tear me apart.” It is a brave dare, and echoes a bit of Emerson that was shared with me recently: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” What if all I get is torn apart and unsettled? I have lived too long under that flag to feel continued comfort in the “torn apart” life.

As I approach the end of this book, all the patterns (all right, most of the patterns—I am writing about a part of the world that eschews ideas of perfect resolution for a reason) come together. As the revision process takes hold, I rejigger, rip out, and rewrite scenes and conversations so that the whole points, gently and not too obviously (I hope) to the overarching pattern. The book is, finally, about patterns (Is it? Really?).

But life is not a book. Life does not (really) contain messages and patterns that point us toward happiness and success (Are you so sure about that?). Yes, there are patterns, but there are also many, many random occurrences and, perhaps even more challenging, patterns that unsettle us in ways that are distractions, that may even be injurious. At the moment, I simply cannot accept the notion that absolutely everything helps us grow and thrive. Some stuff, as my father pointed out on a particularly egregious day on the ocean, is just shitty. I throw shitty books across the room—the shitty life cannot be so easily flung into some other corner.

So, why feel hopeful? Because I am balancing between an awareness—too keenly felt this past several months—of the capriciousness and, well, shittiness of the universe, and the other more generous and affirming aspects of the exact same universe. Balance is not a passive activity. It may become seemingly involuntary, the way that holding your head—or a glass—level on a churning sea becomes second nature (your muscles are working all the time). I do not veer from happy to sad, celebratory to angry; they are all there, all the time, and for now, that is good enough. Of course, I seek—and will continue to seek—to tilt the balance to the more favorable side of things—and I am (Shut up, Doc!)—and that is because I feel that my purpose is to add to the balance of light.

Back to the tightrope.

London Again

Think of London, a small city
It’s dark, dark in the daytime
The people sleep, sleep in the daytime
If they want to, if they want to

Cities, The Talking Heads

The sun rose at 8:04 am in London on the shortest day of the year. It set at 3:53 pm. A shorter day than Fort Fairfield in northern Maine. Add clouds and rain, and the day seems shorter. Is it any wonder that people on their ways home from work find their way into pubs lit with fireplaces? Our days in London were marginally longer, and after walking through the city each afternoon, we found our way to a pub. The Paternoster, The Old Red Lion, Punch and Judy’s, The Swan, Lady Abercorn’s, The George. Some of these were easy to find, others required a turn down a slender lane. Each was bustling.

The charm of London is found in its strange alleyways, endlessly curled streets, and tucked away history. If there is a grid, and in some way, there is, it is bent around the past and the ox bow turns of the Thames, and everything attached to it has been attached in a haphazard fashion. For instance, the coagulation of insurance buildings in central London: the gherkin, the cheese-grater, the scalpel, and the inside-out building; defy any sense of a rational aesthetic plan. Or the juxtaposition of the Tower on one side of the Thames and the glass pineapple of the City Hall just across the river.

I have wandered down the narrow canyons of New York City, through low slung neighborhoods in San Francisco, across broad avenues in Chicago, in and out of fish stalls in Seattle. Even my home city, Philadelphia, built as it once was, on squares, in spite of the Schuylkill river turning into the Delaware, and the oddly oblong expanse of Fairmount Park, makes easy sense. Get oriented and go. London seems to double back on itself, and in doing so, has folds and torn edges through which a body can slip out of any regular order.

And so London’s history is oddly folded into the cityscape as well. A tour through the city—you cannot tour the whole city, or tour it on a bus; you must walk it—folds two thousand years of history, creased around a Roman occupation, a French conquest in 1066, and a fire that destroyed 80% of the city in 1666. And the city is just the square mile that had been walled and gated, but is now open and underlaced with a rail system that carries you quickly to nearly every point beyond the old wall.

The people who live there are folded too. The streets are packed with diverse faces—a variety of eyes and ears and cheeks and chins that make them all different, and so different from the faces in American cities—and sounds. Their voices carry languages from Europe, Africa, and Asia—all of which are easy (and relatively cheap) to get to, even from this island nation. It is as if a map of the world has been folded and brought all these people here. Scarves are the only nearly universal banner, and men tie theirs tightly around their necks. Women walk down streets in shoes ill made for walking—but that is, sadly more universal than naught.

There is an orderliness to the whole affair. Announcements in the Underground direct people where to walk down hallways and on escalators. Advertisements along the walls of the stations counsel caution with wallets and and advise care with alcohol. “Mind the Gap” is stenciled on the ground where the trains stop, and cheeky announcers corral riders whose fancy Italian made shoes have strayed over the yellow safety line. Cross walks show a green walker when it’s time to cross—around Trafalgar Square the walkers take on a variety of LGBT friendly forms: couples and symbols. Just remember to cross when the green light comes!

In so many ways, walking through London was like walking through my mind–folded and full of associations and reveries. My fellow traveler asked what surprised me most, and I answered, nothing. Of course, the fact of a place like London is a surprise all by itself. Are there more surprises to come, more cities to inhabit, that will fill my mind with visions—or somehow, match my visions? Yes. And, yes.

Critical Thinking

I’m taking the older daughter to the movies tomorrow night for a little daughter-daddy time away from the rest of the family (read new little sister). We are choosing between X-Men: Days of Future Passed, and The Amazing Spiderman 2.   K wants to see both of them, which provides an immediate quandary: how do we choose?

I tried to explain to K the law of super-villains in super-hero films (fewer is better), to which she responded, “I like more bad guys.  It (sic) makes it more interesting.” Then I pointed out the Rotten Tomato scores of each movie (AS2: 53%; XMDFP: 91%), to which she rejoindered the  “Lone Ranger Exemption”–a movie universally panned that we all enjoyed (except for the heart eating). In the end it will come down between a “J Law”/”A Gar” choice (pop heroine/hot guy), and Daddy’s vote (3 Villains vs Peter Dinklage).

And so the question: what makes it good?

I went to see Godzilla last week.  How could I not?  I have a familial obligation to watch these sorts of movies, and fondly remember watching many of the original “Showa” series on Channel 17 with my father and brother.  Was the new one any good.  Well, no.  It was fairly awful.  Anthony Lane in The New Yorker summed it up when he wrote: “[Here’s] what the perfect “Godzilla” should be: no character development, no backstory, no winsome kids, just hints and glimpses of immeasurable power—enough to make you jump and twitch and leave you sweating for more. ” This Godzilla was ponderous and full of kids (and even a dog) who were threatened by the “immeasurable power.”  Nonetheless, the critics graced it with more positive reviews than negative (RT 73%). Let the Kaiju roar and destroy and thrill; we can apply the allegory ourselves, thank you.

I went to see Celtic Woman last night, and by all accounts this is a profitable franchise, right up there with various “Tenors” traveling shows.  It is, in the main, schmaltz and ersatz Irish-ness.  That said, the majority of popular performance rarely rises above the level of schmaltz and ersatz authenticity.  I mean, go ahead, pitch “Amazing Grace,” “Danny Boy,” and “You Raise Me Up” in one show and the crowd will moisten appropriately and come back in two years for more of the same. I get it, and I’m a little glad that the rousing barroom ballads of my middle youth (Carnsie’s, Binghamton) were exempt from the CW  treatment. No Tim Finnegan (which is just as schmaltzy and ersatz in its own bawdy, jaundiced way as well–and this may be the heart of true Irish-ness). Nonetheless there was enough bare-footed fiddling and dancing to satisfy the family.

Still I can’t help but wonder how we decide what is good.  A former colleague bowed to vox populi, and can understand that in theory.  In practice I get a bit more insistent.  But that is for another day.