I have spent hours in Gallery 69 at the National Gallery of Art over the past three years. The conversation between the Sargents, the Whistlers, and the Eakins inspires me. The seminal Whistler Painting Symphony in White, a portrait of Joanna Hiffernan, is currently in London, along with other paintings Whistler made with Hiffernan as a model. It will return along with those other paintings in July 2022. However, I have always been drawn to Sargent’s portrait of Margaret Stuyvesant Rutherfurd White. My first impression was that she was a bit imperious, and this was highlighted by the painting hanging across the gallery from the wistful, uncertain, and expectant Joanna Hiffernan. Over time, “Daisy’s” exquisite assertiveness won me over.
While I noticed that Eakins’ somber men held one wall, that Whistler’s presentation was more idiosyncratic, and that, one way or another, the curators selected Sargents that displayed women as they aged from childhood to sagacity, my attention was drawn to the two women in white.
Or, to put it another way, I missed something. Sargent’s 1901 painting of Ellen Peabody Endicott (Mrs. William Crowninshield Endicott) portrays a prominent “society hostess” from Massachusetts and later Washington DC; her husband served as Secretary of War for President Cleveland. The curator notes the sitter’s “melancholy expression,” which seems to mistake control for sadness. We have a more challenging time recognizing the depth of reserve—that chillier Spartan virtue. We live in warmer times.
We perform emotions with operatic range—if it’s felt, it must be loud. Compliments must be modified with “fucking” as in “fucking excellent!” as if excellent wasn’t already, well, excellent. Sadness unaccompanied by an ugly cry isn’t sad enough. In part, I believe that we have inured ourselves to parsing the ordinary everyday emotional life, and also because we have conflated reserved with sterile, or worse, sad. If we aren’t in the full bursting bloom of performative positivity, we must be bereft.
I was playing Max Richter’s The Blue Notebooks, which, besides being blue, is contemplative and revelatory. You may recognize “On the Nature of Daylight,” featured in Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 film Arrival. Frankly, I don’t trust constant revelation and proclamation. The drift from light to dark (and dark to light) puts revelation on a steady simmer. It’s a fleeting experience but perpetual. I think we prefer the experience of Archimedes shouting “Eureka!” and running from the bath to proclaim that he had discerned that the king’s crown was not pure gold (and that he had discovered displacement). At any rate, Richter eschews “Eureka” for a more diaphanous experience of revelation. One of my colleagues passed by and said, “Could you play something happy? That sounds like a funeral.” So much for the slow boil.
Ellen Peabody Endicott may have been melancholy—her husband died in May of 1900, months before she sat for Sargent. She is dressed in black (but that white lace!). Or she may be contained and self-controlled. We don’t have much good to say about control. We celebrate the romantic impulse of the barbaric yawp. YOLO! All in! We seek peak experiences. Maybe I’m overselling. Maybe I’m not taking Mrs. Endicott’s privilege into account; she lived life on the social mountaintop. Peak experience, indeed. She could afford—actually afford—self-control.
As an educator, I engage in discussions about students who lack self-control, but even at the level of “Friedrich lacks self-control,” we acknowledge his authenticity. Chaotic and unrestrained is how and who he is. We also recognize the authenticity of our more controlled students—in their own ways, not in some made to fit a prescribed mold. But we wouldn’t recommend our students forgo individual expression for something more staid. That would seem too controlled as if we were fitting them for muzzles.
Ellen Peabody Endicott’s self-possession would not fit. Perhaps the Southern affect that permeates my school makes monied New England restraint that masks stern and savage conviction seem so foreign. Terse condescending retort contrasts with the snide deference of charm. When some older member of my community says, “Bless your heart,” we all know by the tone exactly which epithetic calumny was meant. And we all know that it was meant. The young play at the clumsier “Let’s go, Brandon!” It’s not that offense was not given by those of Endicott’s ilk, but it was not coded. They played by the dictum that “a gentleman [or lady] never gives offense unintentionally.”
Perhaps I should not call Ellen Peabody Endicott “reserved” as much as “intentional.”
So, what did I miss? What does she teach me? For one, there is a value in being intentional. I tend to get distracted by the beautiful and magnificent. Who doesn’t? Daisy and Joanna would eclipse roomfuls of women. As a writer, I chase the beautiful—the elegant run-on sentence describing the transformation of a Jinn into a pillar of basalt, the frenetic conversation between a group of friends at dinner. But I must also be attentive to intent. I must get the words on the page in as straightforwardly (and, please, as often) as possible.
Are there hazards to chasing beauty? Yes. Are there perils in control? Yes, again. I learn to balance, to somehow manage the dual impulses of wild beauty and patient, controlled effort—what Adrienne Rich called “a wild patience.”
But the real hazard is failing to see what was right there all the time. I recognized the name earlier–Crowninshield is an old New England name that Washington Irving uses as one of the names that the devil harvests in “The Devil and Tom Walker.” I borrowed it for a minor character, even modeling her on the portrait. I hadn’t realized that she was more. She is, and that realization surprised and delighted me.
This is the second time I missed a Sargent painting, falling back on the too generic label “mannered society portraiture” that dogs Sargent. Whether the women he painted had the kind of intensity that his portraits reveal, or whether he imbued them with some kind of mannered focus, I cannot tell. I know that not all his portraits share the focused intensity of Ellen Peabody Endicott, Margaret Stuyvesant Rutherfurd White, or Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler. The painting of Marie Buloz Pailleron (Madame Édouard Pailleron)) catches a woman mid-scowl. There is more emotional distance between her, the painter, and the audience. The paintings in Gallery 70 also show an artist who will show other markedly less intense attitudes.
So, I sharpen my eye and sharpen my pencil (figuratively). There are characters to uncover, and surprises to come. Onward.mm
When I was in grad school, one of my teachers told me that swimming (I was doing 3000-4000 yards, 3 times a week) benefited my writing. I understood why. Putting one’s head down and churning away for an hour compares well with writing. You pile up the painful laps the same way you pile up the words, and there is no immediate end. You just have to do it every (other) day.
Sometime in my thirties, I decided that I had worked out enough for the rest of my life, that all those miles had inoculated me against the exigencies of time. After all, I was averaging 24,000 meters a day at my peak. You might wonder, “What is 24,000 meters, really?” The fastest runner ran a mile in a bit under four minutes, and the fastest swimmer swam four hundred meters in just under four minutes, so 24,000 meters in the pool is a rough equivalent of sixty miles. 6-0. Six days a week. Even the piddling 3000-4000 yard workouts I managed later in life amounted to five to eight mile runs. All those miles earned me something besides shoulder and knee injuries. Whether this is what I learned from swimming or if something already inside me made all those laps possible, I cannot be sure. All I know was that afterward, I knuckled down to a world of tasks, whether unpacking a truckload of books, driving all night to a funeral in Maine, or doing the daily work of marriage.
But no matter how hard I worked, no matter how much thinking or interacting I did, eventually, my body let me know that the actual workouts had to start again. By my middle forties, I was back in the pool, gobbling down yards. After one knee surgery, another looming on the horizon, and rotator cuffs that kept me up at night, I decided to stick to dry land training (weights, elliptical). I’m still at it.
Maybe it’s no surprise that I struggled with writing when I stopped working out. There were a dozen other reasons for my hiatus, but the lack of steady physical movement played a part. When I furiously wrote and read in grad school, I swam, then ran, and always took long walks in the middle of the night. I never taught sitting at a desk but prowled in the classroom, even, at one point, doing the backstroke across the length of several tables to demonstrate the power of metaphor.
Writing requires resilience. You have to be able to face down the blank page and the open ended-ness of your project. Most of us do not write with a guarantee of publication (or adoration). We write, compelled to add word to word, stringing together sentences, scenes, and scraps of dialogue, until something like a novel accrues. Some writers don’t need the physical analog to bear them forward in their pursuit of words on the page. Their minds take flight and find their ways through the canyons of words without having to ride the rapids through them.
We think of the imagination as free of physical constraint, even when we write scenes replete with physical—sensed—detail. It’s pretty to think that this works. I can write a depiction of flight even if I can’t fly because I can imagine it. My mind is not bound by what I cannot do.
I am reminded of a movie I saw ages ago. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda castigates Luke about the force. He grabs Luke’s arm with his claw-like hand and insists, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” And that’s the whole point: what’s inside you matters. Of course, this appealed to me when I was a sophomore in college. What does imagination—the expression of the soul—have to do with “crude matter”?
My belief in an inner self separate from bodily suffering—or ecstasy—was fundamental to my worldview. I wasn’t alone. Whether in theology or philosophy, the notion of something like a soul runs deep. Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (the first principle of his philosophy) locates being in the process of thinking—rigorous and effortful thinking, but thinking and certainly not feeling, and definitely not tasting, seeing, smelling, hearing, or touching. There is a longstanding division between the spiritual (the imagination included) and the physical. The mind is that “luminous being” within or around us. I learned to ignore the crude matter while I swam—playing songs in my mind while lactic acid built up in my muscles and my body cried out for oxygen. I was happy to engage in the separation of body and mind.
Except they are not separated.
While neurobiologists distinguish between the brain—a profoundly physical, almost mechanical thing—and the mind, which arises (or descends) from the machinery, they see the connections between the brain/body and the mind. Caroline Williams’ recent book Move tracks current science about movement—whether dancing or walking or crawling about—and how it impacts our mind. Reading her book alongside Anil Seth’s Being You, Mark Solms’The Hidden Spring, and Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary, I find it hard not to see our minds as a product of evolution—much in the same way that our brains and bodies evolved. We got opposable thumbs, eyes, and consciousness. Our thoughts—even the most abstract thoughts—are grounded in the dynamic range of physical existence. This thing we imagine as a brain-based entity is formed in concert with sensory signals from our bodies. We are made up of our smell, sight, taste, touch, and hearing. Our minds did not blossom while we sat at a desk and contemplated, but as we moved through and sensed the world.
Whatever else we are, we are sensory data collectors. Maybe the dog does a better job of sniffing or the bat of hearing. Our brains are tuned to the sensual world—it seeks and expects constant sensory stimuli. Mark Solms argues that our consciousness results from the perpetual influx of information coming into the brain. Our consciousness checks that flood of information against our brains’ equally endless sets of predictions. Whether we are regulating the temperature of our bodies or the emotional tenor of our workplaces, our brains and minds (I am using “mind” almost interchangeably with “consciousness”) govern unconscious and unspoken expectations. Stimuli that occur outside the narrow predictions trigger error messages, and our minds leap into action—defending the status quo with alacrity.
However, what happens when our minds expect smells, sounds, and sights (and the occasional taste and touch), and there are none? What happens when we remove the wealth of stimulation? I hypothesize that the lack of signals about the world creates an error message in our brains akin to the kinds of error messages about our temperature. Our body-brain-mind system adjusts for too much heat or too much cold, but it adjusts because it constantly surveying for information; the system expects information. Without that information, it must (I surmise) recalibrate the sensory array and how the information is processed. Our brains don’t atrophy—that’s what you would guess, yes?—but reach out in new overexaggerated ways.
However, I do not suggest stimulating children in expanded versions of Skinner boxes. Our body-brain-mind systems develop through self-directed use. We are designed to move through a world of sensation—to process on the fly and on foot. We learn to think, read, and imagine—we write—by moving through the world. Williams cites the work of Kyung Hee Kim on the value of movement. Kim states that “[c]reative thinking is stimulated by physical activity, whether walking, running or active playing”—all of which run counter to the dictum of “writing=ass in chair.”
And creative thinking does not contribute to just writing or sculpting; it’s a matter of finding solutions that don’t plop themselves down in front of your nose. Or just behind your nose in your prefrontal cortex—although this too is vital. Creative thinking must veer from the straight-ahead planning that our prefrontal cortices make so fabulously possible. Planning in a straight line—our preferred method—bound by the powerful predicting mechanisms in our minds does not always lead to the best outcomes. We discover solutions by getting lost, encountering (and embracing) the unexpected, then adapting. We have to trigger error messages in our brains and become comfortable with the inevitable mistakes. I think of my students who more and more routinely fight against reading because they “do not relate” to a particular text. What is “do not relate” other than a self-reflective (“It’s not me”; “It’s not something I already know”; “It’s not something I can easily predict”) error message?
Every Sunday, I rely on long walks through museums to help reset and reinvigorate my mind. I walk through space (about five miles) and time. I proceed on a well-worn route: garden to museum to garden to museum to lunch to museum, and within the museums, I travel from Neolithic China to Philadelphia in 1984. In one display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art, objects displaying nearly identical winged protectors encompass fifteen hundred years. It’s a visual echo that resonates over millennia.
More than that—if that wasn’t enough—the walk takes me gradations of the unknown. We don’t know why the jade bi were sliced from jade. I return every week to them to revel in not-knowing—not ignorance per se, but engaged wonder. The bi remind me that some wonderful human-made things have no explanation. We can guess—we should guess—but our guesses should always be acknowledged as such. Precise and well-informed whenever possible. However, we must never let our desire to know ONE answer outstrip our willingness to learn as we go. Remember that you don’t know. I sit in front of a row of paintings by Monet, and I listen as someone explains how he had cataracts, which was why he painted like that. I do my best not to correct or alter the assumption, but it’s hard. Borofsky put the number “3277542 ” on his Man with Briefcase, and I may know how he numbered his work and why he said that he counted into the millions (these are documented facts), but as far as what motivated the artist, well, that’s an educated guess.
I constantly compile lists of things I know. People congregate in doorways. The left lane holds an uncanny attraction for slower drivers. Most people have not noticed that in Gallery 81 of the National Gallery of Art, the figures in the three paintings on the westward wall mirror those in the painting on the eastern wall. Children sometimes fall asleep in their parent’s laps. A man will ask, “Are you writing the great American novel?” (Answer, yes.) Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler sometimes looks strident, sometimes annoyed, but rarely befuddled. People take photographs of themselves that feature Mercury’s bottom, and I am sure that often this is an oversight. The people who work at the Courtyard Cafe will put aside the last napoleon for you. After that, mystery is certain. And necessary.
To return to movement: swimming was always a venture into the known—the well-loved, effortful known. I swam with my head down and eyes focused on the line on the bottom of the lane, chasing yards and time, sure that neither would fundamentally change. Fifty yards is always fifty yards, and a minute is always a minute. Yes, I filled those minutes with more yards (or spent fewer minutes swimming more yards), And, most of all, pain is always pain. Variations in the depth and texture of pain were a cause for concern (the knees, the shoulders), but pain was always a given.
While writing requires sustained effort, one must also embrace the unknown. Moving helps.
I became a better reader (which helped me become a better writer) by moving between tables in various restaurant jobs. I wasn’t a bad reader in college, but that was because I could do the determined slog of three hundred pages between a Tuesday and Thursday class. I read with my committed swimmer’s mind. Whatever brilliance I glimpsed only came into full view after turning my head in seventeen directions and delivering service, hot food, and cold drinks, all in the proper order. And because I moved in a dozen other, unexpected ways. Words on the page became easier and more ecstatic. And no, I don’t think one needs to wait on tables to be a better reader (or thinker). However, learning to think on my feet and realizing that the persistent thrum of “I, me, mine” became more powerful when it moved through the music of “him, her, them,” helped me become a better reader and writer.
“I, me, mine” are necessary, especially when writing. You cannot hope to enchant some unknown “them” until you find a way to please yourself as you slog away hour after hour. And then you may fall into a rut. That’s not always the worst thing. There are plenty of creative and successful people who hew to the ditch they dig. Their neural pathways run straight and certain down deep gulleys. Helpful habits will keep you returning, chairbound, to the work.
And yet, stuck happens, and sometimes banging our heads in the mud only makes it worse. Seat of pants dully applied to seat of chair risks stagnation. And no amount of instruction (this is the structure of plot; this is the value of metaphor) and mental exercise (write a paragraph in another character’s voice; write a story about an animal) will return you to the light. Go for a walk, breathing through your nose so you can smell the world. Take out your headphones and listen to the world as you pass through it. Dance in a crowd. Break a sweat, and forget your brilliant, luminous mind. You don’t have to go to the woods, the mountains, or the ocean. You are a wild animal wherever you are if you just remember to be one.
There is a wildness to writing, and not just a wildness of mind, although, please, a wildness of mind. But our minds, we forget, are grounded in the crude animal matter of our bodies. The glorious, perfectly imperfect body will help us move the words, ounce by ounce, page by page, and pound by pound into the world. What happens next is a mystery, but by moving my body and mind, I have learned the value of mystery. It’s what comes next.
My friends ask what I have planned for the weekend; it’s part of the Friday small talk. “Oh, you know,” I answer, and they do. Every Sunday, I go to museums in Washington DC. They comment, “How nice,” or “How peaceful,” or “How beautiful.” I think they believe that I am some kind of sybarite, grabbing my croissant, then luxuriating in the presence of beautiful things. Maybe there’s a bit of that. Maybe.
It’s not just the company of beautiful things; I could just as easily take a walk in the woods—on occasion I do—or on the beach. With all its complexity and contradiction, nature puts me back in my place in the world; these britches won’t get too big. I’m only one part of the play. As far as it goes, I’m reminded of the Bible passages about the birds of the air that neither reap nor sow—nature strikes me that way. Yes, of course, great energies are expended—the gazelle dashing away from the lion’s maw; the salmon casting itself against the rapids; the seedling bursting through fire-charred earth—but reaping and sowing implies a plan. Nature happens without a plan, gods aside. It just does, even if it finds a way.
Yes, there are accidents in museums—unplanned gestures captured in stone or on canvas. Pollock surely didn’t know where those drips would land, and when they landed, I suspect that he did not know precisely what shape they would take. But he knew they would land. Art is an intention, even when the artist trusts the random and accidental events surrounding their art. Some artists play with that idea.
An active line on a walk, moving freely, without goal. A walk for a walk’s sake. The mobility agent is a point, shifting its position forward.
The line may not have a goal—the curve of the jib, the abrupt stop at the end of a nose, a bare limb of a tree in winter—but the artist does. Draw. Write. Make something.
We keep making things. Their history is the history of intention.
A friend once commented that I never listened to the news, that I always had music playing in the car. I wish. I think I have paid inordinate attention to the news. In the morning, the first thing I do is rummage through the New York Times, as attentive as the man Thoreau criticizes for waking up after a half hour nap to exclaim, “What’s the news?” My rest is longer; my curiosity is commensurate with my rest. “History’s first draft” is a bleak reminder of how rarely intentions meet their desired ends in the world. It is a record of the misguided and misconstrued: proving how poorly we make decisions, how willing we are to follow some unexamined narrative. Music is another made-thing—Bach or Joni Mitchell, Radiohead or Michael Nyman—and stands in counterpoint to the news.
You may argue that some art is misguided and driven by poor decisions. I have friends who railed against Laurie Anderson, Morris Louis, and the Pixies on those grounds. Answers directed by personal preference (But I wanted Donald Trump to win re-election; But the CDC changed its guidelines; But I don’t like how beets look) can lead to all sorts of misguided conclusions. The repercussions vary from the grave (insurrection) to the frivolous (missing out on Chez Panisse’s borscht). Once you get over those prejudices, you see the pattern, and if you are of the mind to, you see your place in that pattern.
My weekly wanders are not just a journey through a forest of intentions—I walk through orchards of fulfilled intentions. Oh, you did it this way. Butterfield, Monet, or some unnamed ironworker in China. Thousands of made things—intricately intended things made by human hands—each blaze like a beacon: “Here, find me here.” I learn by going where I have to go.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
On Sundays, I wander. Truth is, I wander most days. My colleagues and students see me in the halls, going no place in particular. When I attend baseball games in the spring, I do not take a seat in the stands, but pace, eyes focused on some part of the game, feet constantly moving. And yet, I have read 600-page novels in a sitting and watched Lawrence of Arabia in the theater, begrudging the roadshow intermission—and delighting in Maurice Jarre’s intermezzo.
I wander because my mind wanders. A problematic admission for a novelist. Yes, there are touchpoints in each of my Sunday rambles. Monet’s Houses of Parliament, Sunset, the Calder Room in the East Building of the National Gallery, Dosso Dossi’s Circe and her Lovers in a Landscape, all the Dewing at the Freer, all the Sargent everywhere, when the space is open at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Butterfield’s Monekana, Thayer’s Stevenson Memorial. But my attention is drawn elsewhere. A piece of blue tape on the bottom of the pedestal supporting Houdon’s Diana. All the other Dianas. Ingres’s Madame Moitessier. A man sporting a yellow “YINZ” emblazoned on a black t-shirt (Okay, “gold”). An older man walks gingerly with a cane—his halting, carousel-like step revealing that one leg is three inches shorter than the other. A woman who is too beautiful for her date. Wait, am I her date? Is it today?
Wait. It’s not her date; he’s her husband, and they hold hands as they walk through the galleries. Definitely not me. And definitely today. Again.
As I make my way to the stairs that rise in the National Gallery’s East Building tower, I note that Edward Hopper’s Ground Swell is lovely, but who sails parallel to the swell? We sail through or across, never with. Pattern eclipses subject. Same with Ingres’s Madame Moitessier. She stands in front of a wall adorned with patterned red wallpaper. It turns her into part of the pattern. Compare this with Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Madame d’Aguesseau de Fresnes hanging in the same room. Madame d’Aguesseau de Fresnes is the subject and the background Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun gave her is tantamount to a brown tarp. What matters to the artist is the woman, her dress, and her hat. Of course, these, too, are part of a pattern. What isn’t? But Ingres makes it obvious: there is no escape from pattern.
My Sundays—all my days—have a pattern. On Sundays: Coffee, almond croissant, Freer/Sackler, National Gallery, lunch, Smithsonian American, and then home. Some days I add the Hirshhorn. Within each museum, I have a particular path. But I diverge. Today I skipped the Flemish paintings and headed downstairs to walk past Louis Maurice Boutet de Monvel’sJoan of Arc series. Just a glimpse. I recalled when I walked through the galleries almost too distracted to pay attention to Daumier’s heads. Almost.
And even if I did take the exact same route, the people around me would be different. Today, a man broke into impromptu yoga in front of Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/ Cock. On the cement. In the Courtyard Café, a woman at a neighboring table talked about workers complaining about having to go back to the office. “With teachers back in classrooms, it’s hard to argue,” she said. “But teachers knew what they were getting into.” People change everything.
The secret is that even if I took precisely the same route—if the coffee was just as hot, if the croissant was just as flaky, and if the day were as perfect for jeans and a flannel shirt as today was, all the guards standing in the same places—it would still be different because I am different. Whatever has happened during the week, whoever I met, whatever words I put on the page, all these things and more changed me.
Twenty years ago, I stood up in Quaker Meeting at the opening meeting of my old school and praised the opportunity for change. In my hubris—I was 40, I thought I knew better—I called it “the blessing of change.” I had moved to Baltimore and started a career that would sustain me for 20 years. And then a series of unwelcome changes began: my mother got cancer; my relationship ended; my father died. The annus horribilis. Oh, so you like change? Here it comes.
Maybe because my life has taken enough (one can be enough, but who keeps track?) turns (expected, unexpected, this makes no difference), I feel ready to make a few proclamations. At the very least, I proclaim for me, but like Whitman (“And what I assume you shall assume,/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”), I proclaim for you.
I recognize that in our self-driven culture, we value inward focus. I had a minister who emphasized, ala Jack Palance in City Slickers, “one thing.” On a more profound level, this impulse is driven by thinkers like Buddha or Henry David Thoreau. As for the Buddha, I have (not authoritatively) commented on suffering. Here in the United States, we celebrate Thoreau without knowing him. We acknowledge and follow his desire “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” But we forget that he “left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves .” Two years is enough. More lives wait.
Pattern and habit are as intractable as gravity, and this is not always a bad thing. If I was ever put in charge of a Creative Writing curriculum, I would insist on teaching the creation and maintenance of habit. What about artistic standards? Figure out what you need to do in any circumstance—in every place and weather—to keep a daily writing habit, and then worry about quality. Develop a practice that will survive against the “slings and arrows”; they are coming. The routine will help you improve. Words (writing and reading and listening) beget better words. Repetition begets mastery.
Except when it doesn’t. The rest of the time, habits get in the way. Habits become ruts. While a good groove can speed one on their way, how many times does expedience swallow excellence? Other than races, speed is overrated. And yes, this is the novelist talking. Endurance counts. There will be sprints along the way, but this is an ultra-ultra marathon.
Let me extend the sports metaphor one step further. We do not improve based on our intuition; we need a coach to help us succeed. Once upon a time, I was a recently separated father, and I researched how other recently split families managed the transition. I bought books. A friend teased me, “Don’t be silly. You know what to do.” Except, I didn’t. I did not know a thing about managing a split household—let alone a married household, but that’s another story.
In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert concludes that our lives are not all that unique; no matter how much we protest, “No one knows how I feel!” If you want to know whether something will make you happy—divorce or infertility regimens, for instance—ask someone else who has done it. “How did you feel when you divorced your spouse? How did your kids feel?” “How did it feel going through infertility treatments for a year?” Nobody has lived your exact life, but experiences start with incredibly similar foundations.
Intuition is an illusion. We do what we did yesterday, and we do it for a reason. “Wash, rinse, repeat” isn’t just a cheeky mantra. The brain loves to predict and then demands that we adhere tightly to its predictions. When we don’t, the brain sends error messages to our bodies, triggering all sorts of responses, most of which are angled to get us back on track—back into the predictable rut. We only learn when we err. Modern psychobiology is for the feint of head.
Wandering helps trick the brain. Surprises, collisions, and near misses open gaps in the “I-already-know-that” mental processes that keep us on course. “I-did-not-know-that” is the gold. Even if you look inward, if you want to learn yourself, then you will need to make yourself strange and surprising. You will need to interrupt the predicting mechanisms that perpetuate a kind of mental and emotional homeostasis.
Let me revise. I wander because my mind does not wander enough. The brain cannot; that is not how it evolved, not how it works. I seek out error messages—“This is not what I predicted”—lots of little ones to jostle the mechanism as gently as possible. Gently does not always do the trick—at least not if I am going to write.
Look, most people do not write. Why would they? It is hard work and requires tenacity and wildness—two qualities that do not play well together. A writer must be able to apply ass to chair (the commonplace starting point) and want to destroy—and re-create!—every chair that every ass occupies everywhere. I wander and re-create the world with every step, or I do when I finally stop and write. And then, and this is the big secret, let your writing wander. Find the thing that breaks all predictions and deal with it.
Do you want to write? Sit down and wander. Or wander, then sit down. Either way. Wander.