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.
When I was 17, I read Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Not on my own—it was for an Ethics class in high school. We also read Plato, Aristotle, Bentham, Mill, Kant, Golding, Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment over Winter Break!), Mishima, and Descartes. And when I wrote “Not on my own,” I lied. I chose the class, and I gobbled down everything Fritz Marks put in front of us. I still refer to Hobbes (40+ years later). I expanded on my understanding of the rationale behind Descartes in grad school, when I pulled apart the “cogito ergo sum” as it applied to ideas in William Blake’s prophetic poems. We are never done.
Hobbes’s vision of mankind, based so much on what was observable—limited, one might say—was grim—is grim—and foreboding. The social contract—or some kind of explicit and implicit agreement—was all that stood between us and the enduring war of all against all. Kant threw us a life preserver—the notion of the sunnum bonnum—but tell me when in history that any group of people could agree on a greatest good for more than 26 minutes. Hobbes hangs around the same way that Thrasymachus is craftily ushered out of Plato’s Republic. We may move on from the dark vision, but it’s hard to wash that blood off your hands.
This essay will head in two directions, and I’ll get the weighty one off first. I’m not sure how you feel about the social contract. We give it more than a little bit of lip service—some implicit set of agreements that keeps us from (figuratively and literally) eating each other. I once pointed out the difficulty of claiming a moral high ground because of the numerous daily petit disruptions to the explicit contracts. In a sermon, I pointed out speed limits as an indication of a rule that was almost designed to be broken—and was taken to task for asserting that people knowingly violated laws. But what high moral ground can we claim? I lived in West Philadelphia when the mayor allowed the police to drop an incendiary device—a bomb—on a row home; the resulting fire consumed 61 homes and killed eleven. In the final days of the US evacuation from Afghanistan, a drone strike killed 10 Afghan citizens, in what the US military admitted was a “fatal mistake.” Yesterday, 2000 people died of COVID in the United States, and we will never know how many of those were infected by people who refused vaccines or masks. We are always living in the fog of the war. Is it the war of all against all? I don’t know, but I know that despite best intentions or assertions of individual freedoms, someone, somewhere, is getting served. Again.
The will to power, in whatever form it takes, is hard to set aside. Jack Merridew (from Golding’s Lord of the Flies) stands as a perpetual caution. We want meat (metaphorical and actual), and we have Roger to keep the boys in order. I know that some point to the schoolboys who disproved Golding’s fictional account of our race to destruction. I will point to the differences: the Tongan schoolboys were not British schoolboys; the boys were friends and not assembled hodgepodge to avoid an oncoming nuclear war; there were only 5 boys joined in a common purpose as opposed to the 20-50 in Golding’s novel. And one is true, and the other rings true. So yes, given the circumstances, we can avoid eating each other. If we are those boys. An obvious common purpose wrapped in the warm cloth of friendship creates the conditions for a reasonable implicit contract.
In the end, I suspect that the social contract is a useful fiction, but I also acknowledge the power of story in our lives. We need good stories. Linda Cron says that we are “Wired for Story,” and I show my students clips of Marlon Brando weaving the story of Caesar’s assassination. Do you want to win the argument? Tell a better story. A bloodied body helps. Of course, Brando has the advantage of Shakespeare, but who hasn’t been swayed by rhetoric as sharp and story-bound? The line will be short.
One story is that we are brutish, that we are only a few thousand years removed from a more animal existence, and we must acknowledge that former life and behave accordingly. Our inherent biology drives us to fuck and fight and eat (Paleo!). This kind of biological absolutism ignores that whatever we evolved from, we did evolve (if in fits and starts) and continue to evolve. We are, always, changing—from our guts to our brains. One startling aspect of Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary is how it posits an almost lightning-like speed of change.
Another story is that we are imbued with goodness or holiness. Or that at least a few of us have been chosen for such rewards. Can I not unpack the problems of us/them either/or here or the tribalism that religious fervor unleashes? The moment any group names itself “Select,” all those who do not face immediate peril. When a supreme being is the source of authority and man (any man) wields the will of God (any God), then disagreement and diversity become less than second thoughts. Or, to quote Hume, “[O]ne party by tracing up government to the DEITY, endeavor to render it so sacred and inviolate that it must be little less than sacrilege, however tyrannical it may become, to touch or invade it in the smallest article.” What you call Sharia, I call Texas.
It may seem as if misanthropy is the only safe harbor once one heaves the contract away. Still, this afternoon, I joked with complete strangers about the title of Tiepolo’s Wealth and Benefits of the Spanish Monarchy under Charles III. Beautiful painting. Hilarious title. I asked a guard about the signs surrounding parts of Sarah Cain’s installation. Huge single-colored circular inserts into stone benches have signs exhorting, “Please do not sit or stand on the colored circles.” As if. The guard laughed about the kids who could not help themselves. My daughter gets embarrassed by my exchanges, but they keep me sane. Without an esprit de corps, life becomes too ponderous. We are all in this together.
We all know this, especially after the past year. The virus ignored all divisions: class, race, gender, religion. The virus—as viruses always have—leaped across boundaries as nimbly as a 9-year-old leaping over hopscotch squares. COVID could have (should have?) been an occasion for recognizing our togetherness. After all, viruses have happened before and will happen again. Calling it a name or blaming someone (an animal, a person, a city, a nation) ignores history and biology. Viruses don’t mean to do anything; they have neither will nor strategy. Like the lilies of the field, they neither reap nor toil. You cannot go to war with a virus. We tried. And on a war footing, we—and this “we” is a particularly American “we”— got angry—and not at life in general or some god, but at each other. Perhaps, in our relatively comfortable lives, we forget that life is hard, that living in the world requires work and alteration.
A friend texted me Sunday morning with news of his family’s encounter with COVID. His daughter’s classmate brought the virus to school from her infected parents, and you can guess the rest. My initial response was anger, disgust, relief, and commiseration. I am a parent, and I teach.
I understand why we want our kids in school. Students do better when energized by each other and by teachers. Teachers also get more from the verbal and nonverbal give and take of the classroom. But schools, private schools too, are confluences of race, class, gender, religion, and now, attitude. We now claim attitude (I don’t like masks. What?) as a fundamental right, which strains even the fictional social contract. The virus has no attitude and no philosophy. Take a lesson.
I began this essay by explaining my first encounter with Hobbes. One of the initial contracts I entered into was a student. Throughout my life, I was an enthusiastic student, save for a few unfortunate cases. I never took to Mr. Ewell in chemistry, and as much as astronomy holds a charm for me today, I failed Wulff Henitz’s class at Swarthmore. Otherwise, I chased rabbits down the deepest holes, and learning never felt like a chore. Call me crazy (or seriously misguided), but I expected my students to feel the same way. I quickly recognized that I would need to persuade many of my students to my way of thinking, and I did. I cajoled. I amused. I swam across desks to demonstrate the power of metaphor. I taught for 25 years at various levels and enjoyed much of the task. This past year, when the pandemic tore the school year to shreds and sent us to zoom screens, I felt as if the implicit contract between my students and me—in fact, most of the unspoken agreements between administrators and teachers and parents—got tossed in the shredder. Contract, my foot.
Teaching English has always been a matter of teaching about humans. Writers may care about structure and grammar, but what matters most is the human condition. As a writer, the only thing that matters is getting a fully human experience onto the page. When I write “fully human experience,” I mean one that grapples with our brightest gifts and most dreadful failings. We live our lives veering from one to the other in some vast internal and external landscape. Mountain ranges and inward seas. Admirable struggles await.
Several years ago, I worked as a principal at an Orthodox Jewish Boys’ School, a Yeshiva. One of the Rabbis called me “The Warden,” and at that moment, I knew my time at that helm was short. I do not blindly accept authority, even my own, and I know there is so much that I do not know, and this goads me on to learn more, think harder, and dig deeper into this loamy life. The Cuban writer Virgilio Piñera has a story about a man who devours a mountain. If I am going to do the impossible, I will need to focus my efforts. This work will not devour itself.
I have chosen my mountain, and my ocean, my desert, and my city. I will write about what I find there, but I am no longer interested in standing at some imaginary gate telling students they didn’t qualify—either for entrance or escape. Not to put too fine a point on it, I am absolutely not interested in being the warden. I will wrestle with existential “no’s” in my work—and the existential “yes’s.” Always the Yes! I choose to cheer in my life among the young. They have hills enough to chew (read the Piñera). That is my contract. For now.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you wait for inspiration, the right moment, the formulated phrase, then all you will do is wait.
Writing is like getting on the boat. No matter what the weather is when you leave the marina, you don’t know what you will encounter in three or four days. And so you get on the boat and sail. Something will happen, maybe something similar to what happened yesterday, or five years ago—an ocean rolled out flat as plate glass that reflects no clouds, only the hot yellow eye of the sun. You will sweat and pray for anything, any change. If you were lucky, you brought a book onboard, and you charge through half of The Pickwick Papers in an afternoon. You will read fast to make up for the blazingly windless day. Or, you will not—you don’t know. You will find out as you go.
You are on the boat, so you dream of dry land and a woman who writes you love letters. The scopolamine patch behind your left ear gives you visions that will haunt you into your sixties: a black-bearded fat man pretending to have a heart attack, but you have discovered his lie, and he winks at you, knowing, somehow, that you will keep his secret, and in doing so, will enter a world of lies. Of course, you didn’t ask for this vision; you didn’t know what was coming. You thought you were sailing to Bermuda—the island of The Tempest—and would find stories of Sycorax and Caliban (you will: she serves breakfast at a restaurant in Hamilton, and he rents mopeds that break down on the winding North Shore Road).
There are no visions if you do not get on the boat. There is no hard, stupid sea, no Bermuda, no gingerbread at a restaurant in Flatts. Your father does not tell you to take the helm and hold it until the mountainous sea subsides. “I can’t do it anymore,” he tells you. “I will send your brother up, but you have to hold the helm. He can’t sail in this.” So you become the necessary sailor.
Writing is not like getting on the boat. Writing is getting on the boat. As much as you prepared, you discover, adapt, and grow. You don’t become a better sailor by reading about sailing—although, of course, reading can help. But remember Antonio Machado’s advice: “Mankind owns for things that are no good at sea: rudder, anchor, oars, and the fear of going down.” What you read is the rudder—an idea of where you should (or could) go. The rest is sailing.
I spend my Sundays wandering through the galleries of Washington DC and writing while I wander. That’s not true. I spend my Sundays writing in the galleries of Washington DC, and when I pause, I wander. I spend 8-10 hours resetting my writing brain for the week and return each week to reset again. The shadows on the walls of the Calder room remind me that there is the thing—the made thing (art, literature, as you will)—and then the accident of the moment—the way the mobile turns above my head and the light casts its silhouette against the wall. I watch as people stand in front of his Birdsong, and the one photographs the sculpture and shadow while his companion kisses him on the cheek. A 10-year-old girl asks the docent, “Are we allowed to take pictures of the sculptures?” She walks around the room with a small camera, recording everything she wants to remember.
I sit beneath a wire armature horse and write.
I write in galleries because I am surrounded by finished work. The artists painted or sculpted every day. Monet? There are ten paintings by Monet in Gallery 80. 2500 works have been attributed to Monet. Alongside the Calder sculptures, there is a photograph of his studio. It is work to create works. They were all, always, on the boat.
I love to write surrounded by people in the galleries because of their response to the art. Yes, there are people on their phones. Some walk through the National Gallery and do not see that in Gallery 81, on the wall opposite Constant’s The Favorite of the Emir, the three Renoir paintings (Young Spanish Woman with a Guitar, Odalisque, and Bather Arranging her Hair) reflect the figures in the Constant: musician, dark-haired woman, red-haired woman. Accidents and intentions abound. Unless you go and pay attention, you do not see. Write and pay attention.
But write. Write every day. Find a space that energizes your writing. Annie Dillard claims that she needs a blank wall and no distractions. Who can argue? Know what works for you. But write. Write for hours every day.
When you sail, unless you are in one of the science fiction yachts of the America’s Cup, you cross the ocean at an absurd 5-7 knots. Except you proceed, like the tortoise, every hour of every day. You may read 400 pages of Dickens in an afternoon, but you cannot write 400 pages in an afternoon. Well, maybe Dickens could. Get used to the steady, inexorable pace of the work, knowing that the words and pages will pile up as you write. Don’t be afraid to count the miles, the hours, the days, or the words. If you set out each day, they will accumulate. Get on the boat and go.
You need to become the necessary writer. Do not wait for inspiration or rely on that inner voice that weaves stories and does not write (I know I have a novel in me if only I had time to write). You have the helm—on dreary, monotonous days when the Iron Genoa churns out diesel fumes and artificial speed and for the hours when your mastery balances your life on the crest of swells. You are the only one who can fulfill the wishes you make walking past fountains, rubbing strange lamps. You are the djinn, the captain, the writer. So get on the boat, and don’t look back.
A woman reads in the lower left-hand corner of the painting. She reads at the side of the bend in the brook under the shadow of a tree growing on the opposite bank. In the center, a patch of light bursts from the sky off in the distance, and two figures—are they fauns?—sit in the shadows underneath trees. She is smaller than the trees in the Forest of Fontainebleau, smaller even than the stone that juts out over the stream. Because she is human, she draws our attention. She is not nude. Her gaze does not capture ours; she is reading.
She is reading, and perhaps we would scold her for not paying attention to nature. “Look at the trees!” we might exhort, much in the same way that we scold friends on cellphones. “Look up!” How little things change in 200 years.
And yet, that rock that the stream has not worn away is like a fulcrum; it balances the reading woman and the rest of the world. Literature vs. Nature. Or maybe a portrayal of nature balanced against nature itself. Much like me, today, at the museum. I could be walking on a trail, along a beach, or on a sidewalk that borders the Thames. I am not. I am in the National Gallery, looking at paintings and writing about what I see.
Perhaps you could read the painting as a dream: the forest is what the woman reads about. Everything above the thin sward of grass where she reads is the thought ignited by the words in her book. Or perhaps Corot wants to tell us that a book has the same weight as everything else in the painting. That may be a warning as well—literature (what kind of literature? genre fiction? epic poetry? something Pynchon hasn’t written yet?) is going to replace nature.
I think of it as a challenge. Write something that can match nature. I love the made thing, the work of hands, whether it is an almond croissant or a cathedral. When we make beautiful things, we transcend the ingredients of our craft. And this: write something that keeps her reading. Yes, writing is about me—my words! my vision!—but what else matters more than that woman by the brook? I write for you.