Writing and the Plague Year

The year came and went. After having change imposed on me, all I could think of was, what could I change? What would match the upheavals of the past fifteen months? The pandemic, my mother’s death, the next round of the pandemic, my school’s response to the pandemic, the election, the pandemic, the insurrection. It felt as all I did amounted to little more than defensive maneuvers: wearing a mask, cleaning my mother’s house, writing words for her service, eating outside, voting, reading the news, and charting the waves, eating outside in cold weather, wearing two masks. All I could do was persist.

            I hate “persist.” Fuck resilience.

            And yet, I love to persist—to take the helm in a storm. But to go! To have a destination and a challenge in mind, and then to pursue it heroically. Listening to The Iliad (because what else does one do when one needs to be reminded of heroic persistence?), I am struck by the grinding effort of warfare, even heroic warfare. In among the shining moments of triumph, Ajax sweats. Idomeneus is wounded and then returns to battle. Achilles waits. Before we witness his mastery of battle, he is a master of brooding. A friend said, “But he’s a god.” He is the son of a god, but many sons of gods perish at Troy. War does not distinguish—or it did not.

            Over the past two years, I have learned the value of persisting at my work. This does not mean learning to put up with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or the stupid requirements of the day—of all the other things I must do. This year, everything that took away from that work became anathema. Returning to the slog and joy of persistent daily writing has reminded me that anything else is not enough. While I am willing to work and commit to the project, I also need to throw overboard everything—and everyone—who does not contribute to my journey.

            After all, writing is work. It isn’t something I do to make me feel better. I listened to a young man who said that his writing “picked up during the pandemic” that it helped bond him to his friends. These posts try to reveal some of the bones and muscles and nerves of the writing animal. And while I may feel connected to some of you when I write them, I am still at work. I may not sweat as much as Ajax, nonetheless I aspire.

            One of the clichés about writing is that it comes from inspiration. We focus on art and the ineffable merits of vision. Yes, some writers are more talented than others and have a scope and art that exceeds all others. If you don’t have a list of 10, or 100, then you haven’t really thought about the problem and challenge of excellence. It’s a worthwhile list to make, so long as you don’t turn that list into a wall or a fortress. Walled cities do fall, but the casualties are as numerous as specks of dust in the air. You would die counting them.

The Vision and Inspiration (Joan of Arc series: I)
Louis Maurice Boutet de Monvel

What sets most writers apart isn’t vision. Writers write. Yes, Harper Lee goes silent after her one great book, and after a flurry, so does Salinger. Dickens, Woolf, Rushdie, Mahfouz, Kawabata, Austen, Eliot, Morrison. Or consider Rowling, King, Grisham, Steel, Gabaldon—writers whose books edge others off the shelves in bookstores. If there is inspiration, then it is the inspiration to sit down (or stand up) and write. Success—often determined in monetary terms—helps fan that inspiration (You like me! You really like me!), but chances are that those writers already established a habit, a ritual, or, more likely, a regimen. They worked, and the work was their inspiration.

The Turmoil of Conflict (Joan of Arc series: IV)

Louis Maurice Boutet de Monvel

            I have the natural bent to slog but have lacked the discrimination to choose the slog that best suited me. It is so easy to fall into work that offers something like a reasonable remuneration. Except no amount—neither how little nor large—is enough to satisfy. I am reminded of the psychology experiment in which a rat is rewarded for performing a task—pressing a lever. The rat that received a reward each time it completed the task stopped; fat and happy rats will not work. The rat that received no reward gave up quickly. No shock there. However, the rat that received rare and random rewards pressed the lever feverishly. I have been that rat. Give me a task—any task—and watch me work for unpredictable and unsustainable reward.

            When I began writing in earnest three years ago, after a hiatus driven by all manner of tasks (worthy, meaningful tasks, I should add)—I knew that I was fighting against the idiot rat. Or that I was in the wrong experiment. Because I do not expect the rewards to be anything other than rare and random: someone from Senegal read my blog post; an agent sent a complimentary rejection; the audience at a reading sat enraptured and gasped in unison at the right place. There are moments when, after putting words on the page that I raise my arms in triumph. I delight myself, which is, fortunately, neither a rare or random occurrence.

            And I am not a rat. Neither am I an ape nor a proto-human. While those instincts and drives may be part of the first draft of my evolving consciousness, evolution has provided me with a brain that can reflect. My brain (and yours) produces an inner voice that can guide me out of danger or deep-seated dissatisfaction. So, back to resilience—while I can persist or, even better, thrive in less than ideal circumstances, I can see that if those circumstances can be changed, I can change them. I can rewrite the early draft of my life.

The challenge for the late writer is that unlike Dickens or Woolf or take your pick, I do not have habits so ingrained that an explosive event—or a persistent eroding series of nonproductive events—will not affect them. And so, I must make a way forward that limits time spent elsewhere. I have lessons—the Sailing Lessons included—for how to plot my course. I have completed my practice sails. It is time to go, leave this year behind, and count the words as they tumble down.

Insistence of Memory

I got chickenpox, mumps, and measles. I had my tonsils out—an operation that required an overnight stay –when I was in 3rd grade because they had been the source of repeated infections. I bounced through cases of flu and other passing illnesses. Years later, I had mononucleosis during the first semester of college. Nothing keeps us from bumping into some microscopic problem. And forget about the web of mysteriously genetic and environmental causes that lead to Parkinson’s Disease or Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma—the two illnesses that plagued my parents—but that was on the distant horizon.

I read Alistair MacLean’s novel The Satan Bug—in which a mutant virus threatens to wipe out humanity—in the 7th grade. In a world that lived under the menace of nuclear war, a biological threat was quieter and almost less tangible, and therefore more insidious. I traced these threats through films and books like The Andromeda Strain, Pursuit, and Rage. Even Close Encounters of the Third Kind used the possibility of a gas or disease outbreak to move the plot along. The insidious unseen nature of these gaseous or microscopic adversaries held my interest.

In my 20s, the HIV-AIDS epidemic galvanized my attention. How could it not? The emergence of a disease that would kill you after sexual intimacy staggered all of us who enjoyed the freedom afforded by birth control and an unshackled moral climate. We felt screwed (and not).

Whether fear or mordant curiosity drove me, I began to study viruses and epidemics with fury. The sudden spread of hemorrhagic fevers that Richard Preston (The Hot Zone) and Laurie Garrett (The Coming Plague) wrote about exacerbated my concern. It was impossible to moralize about what was coming—this wasn’t about sex. Deadly diseases lurked. Diseases have always been half a hair away. In Norfolk, a small park memorializes those who died during an outbreak of Yellow Fever in 1855. I lived a block away.

Still, in my 30s, I read Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.  And then, almost by accident, stumbled on reports of the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918. I read Alfred W. Crosby’s America’s Forgotten Pandemic at some point in the late ’90s and then John Barry’s The Great Influenza when it came out in 2004. How could it be that we all knew about the Great War, but not the pandemic that occurred at the same time? We know about this now; Barry’s book made it to the bestseller list in 2020, but the memory of the pandemic faded in popular culture. I was surprised this past year when I realized that Mr. Gower’s son dies of influenza in It’s a Wonderful Life; it was the Spanish Flu. Where else was the pandemic?

So when COVID emerged in the winter of 2020, I was not surprised. After all, SARS and MERS had already flourished in their own specific ways. When it became clear that this would be more serious, I bought masks as soon as possible, kept my distance, washed my hands even more assiduously than usual, and settled in for the count. History provided stern warnings; I knew that a count—of cases and deaths—was coming.

We like to predict what will happen, and strangely enough, we tend to think that the future is unwritten. It is, and yet, for a good indication, look to the past. This is true whether you want to know what the weather will be like on May 14th or if there will be traffic on I-95 tomorrow morning. Yes, there are exceptions and random occurrences that will skew the numbers, but the past is all too reliable a guide. Fifty Million people have not died from COVID as died in the last great pandemic, nor have half a billion people contracted the disease. But our imagination does not need to stretch far to encompass those numbers. 675,000 United States citizens died in the influenza pandemic; that number is all too close to where we are headed this year. Yes, the population was smaller in 1918-19, but did anyone expect this to happen?

Over the past year, I gobbled down the numbers. I felt a strange intoxication with having a sense of where things were headed and seeing them move, painfully, sadly in that direction. Anthony Fauci, and most of the medical community, played Cassandra to a population that wished for another outcome. As if wishing could make it so. But what good did it do to know? What effect did my knowing have on anyone other than me? The numbers were a despairing gruel that neither nourished nor encouraged me. I had to wait them out. Eventually, I stopped reloading the numbers every hour and settled on the grim results that appeared each morning in the New York Times.

So what’s the point? Partly this: when you see it coming, get ready: hurricane, pandemic, or whatever is on the horizon of time and place. Get ready before you see it. You have been sick before; people have been sick around you. We should have known better, and our ignorance cost lives. The obvious is always right there. Yes, while knowledge can be overwhelming, there must be a sweet spot: enough information to teach us and lead us into productive discomfort without flooding us into anxious inaction The only way we learn is by exposure.

But there’s something more.

There must be a reason that the pandemic of 1918-19 disappeared from memory. Why and what do we forget? We forget, or remember selectively, and not just about events like pandemics. I’m not aiming at what we don’t retain. As a teacher, I am too aware that students do not retain everything. I wonder why do we forget some things and not others? This is not a reflection just on this pandemic or the last or the run of diseases.  What else have I forgotten? I scramble to instill new habits and new awarenesses or avoid falling down the well of past practices. To borrow from Robert Creely, “[w]hat am I to myself that must be remembered, insisted upon so often”? But more, what have I failed to remember and insist upon?

We resume the remembered rhythms of our lives and return to our old habits and anxieties as if they were never interrupted. Repetition has essential gravity and draws us back. Except sometimes some things should interrupt us. The persistent nudge of discomfort—that we do have something new to learn and some new way to behave—should goad us onto a new course. Except, we stay the course and return to the known, even if it is a life half-lived.

I can (and I suspect that I will) point to the world and shout, “J’accuse! You forgot!” I shout at myself. I must insist that I remember—or that I remember to insist. I write in the face of forgetting, in the face, to borrow once more from Creely, of “the tiredness, the fatuousness, [and] the semi-lust of intentional indifference.” I must return to the hard work of insistence.

The pandemic passes, the lessons must not.

Certainty, News, and the Way Ahead

I grew up reading the news. We did not watch it in my house; my mother felt that the news, which included reporting from Vietnam, was too ugly (her word) for her sons. Keep in mind, this was the same mother who read Edgar Allan Poe to us at bedtime. However, my father brought home the Philadelphia Bulletin every night—back when the Bulletin was Philadelphia’s evening newspaper. He also had Time magazine delivered weekly, and my brothers’ names were often on the subscription. Whether my father was honoring us or getting a new subscriber’s bonus, who knows? I read both.

Later in life, I listened to Philadelphia’s all-news radio station KYW-1060 and grew inured to the rhythm of repeated stories. If they were updated over the course of hours, I noticed. Even later, when I was a night owl, I would slot in my 35 cents for a freshly delivered morning paper. A newspaper and breakfast before bed was near to heaven.

Cable news in its early iteration varied little from the repeated scroll of radio news. That was no matter in Philadelphia, which delayed the spread of cable TV until I was on my way to grad school and other obsessions. Nowadays, whatever used to be journalism has faded out of reportage to be replaced by a carnival barker’s promotion of something like the news. Reporting is more about the changing opinions than the changing facts. The internet does better, providing repeated updates of the day’s events: everything from the stock market to an ambassador arriving in Bahgdad to a 3-2 count on a hitter in the fourth inning of a baseball game in Seattle. Information pours out. At first, it came through the box on my desk, but then it glimmered miraculously from my phone. I pay attention.

I get obsessive. I chase the news with the same intensity that I once chased down sources in the library. And worse. I sit as rapt as I had when I churned through drafts of stories until 7 o’clock in the morning—if I slept at all.

I recognize that I had fallen into the trap that Henry David Thoreau noted back in 1854 when he claimed that “[h]ardly a man takes a half hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘What’s the news?’ as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels.” I felt that if I knew, then I could be one of life’s sentinels. On guard, on the post, always. There was no radio, no television, and no internet, and still, he bemoaned the obsession with “news.” Go figure, our national illness.

I tried to know everything. When my family gathered, we were all expected to hold forth on any topic of the day: popular music, politics, foreign affairs, movies, the weather. Our knowledge was expected to be sweeping and insightful. I could not understand people who did not consume—and comment on—news as we did. My father spent hours wringing information from the Wall Street Journal and passed that fervor onto his sons. My mother, despite herself, had some news station, finally settling on NPR, blaring in the background.

It was too much. This past year’s perpetual blast of breaking news—the fires, the politics, the case numbers—drove me to distraction. And I realized that I had been distracted for years. I don’t believe that “ [a]s for Spain, for instance, if you know how to throw in Don Carlos and the Infanta, and Don Pedro and Seville and Granada, from time to time in the right proportions…  it will be true to the letter, and give us as good an idea of the exact state or ruin of things in Spain.” While there are recognizable patterns to history—and history’s first draft—the distinguishable differences are meaningful and worth noticing. And yet, the news can pile up.

Thoreau was on to something, if only that our drive to know masks another deficit: a feeling that life is out of our control. Information is the salve to uncertainty, but it’s snake oil, especially when opinion is disguised as fact.

Writing, for all my appreciation of the uncertainty, is about control. At the very least, and perhaps the very most, I control when I write and that I write. As for the what, well, I take a gentle hand, relying on surprise and a fair amount of chance. Yet, I am aware that no writer, short of a few Dadaists, Postmodernists, or Pornographers, slaps words on the page and waves, “Voila!” I avoid Prufrock’s “hundred visions and revisions”; I don’t have time for such nonsense. The work needs to be done.

During the first draft, I write to discover—just as I listen to the news to find out what is happening in the world. I research my subject the same way I study how the new vaccines work. I have learned (painfully and too slowly) that I must write to the point where I do not know what will happen next; there must be surprises. I go back, organize the words, and develop the surprises, letting them, and not all my preplanned ideas, serve as guides. The writing must be out of control for me to find control. Otherwise, it all falls flat. That was not an easy lesson. No one can stand that—not the reader and not the writer. Not this writer.

This past year, while everything felt out of control: the fires in Australia, the pandemic, my mother, the election, and its aftermath, I charged back into the news. Did knowing all about it help me? Maybe. But knowing got in the way of the creative uncertainty that I needed to engage. I have spent years wielding some kind of authority, and like it or not, that has been the death of my creative life. I do not know how other writers do it. So, for now, I am backing away from the news, cutting the cable, and heading back into the unknown.

Emily Dickinson writes about the “Route of Evanescence”—the road of fleeting possibility. Take her advice. This way can be daunting, especially for someone who likes—no, loves to know. You too write to be in control, except, finally, we are not. But the route Dickinson so briefly and beautifully delineates is one way to uncover the mysteries that wait: “Some mail from Tunis, soon.” So must it be. The unknown and fleeting. Get there.

What I Watched About Evil: Out of the Past

Out of the Past (1947)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Starring
Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey (Markham)
Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat
Kirk Douglas as Whit Sterling
Virginia Huston as Ann Miller

“Think we ought to go home?

“Do you want to?”

“No.”

Out of the Past begins with a montage of shots of the Sierras. It looks like a series of Anselm Adams’ photographs: stark snow-peaked mountains and high skies cast in rich, sharp grays. The music is sweeping; it befits the landscape. The camera pans down to a small town, Bridgeport, in the shadow of the mountains, and follows a black car as it drives in among the white buildings. The good world, the one we wish for, may be severe in its beauty, but it is beautiful—and natural. Evil, when it comes, comes in human form, wearing a black coat and black gloves.

None of this is surprising or unexpected. It’s almost too easy and too obvious. Out of the Past is a movie that continually works between the obvious and the hidden. The main character, Jeff Bailey, is hiding in Bridgeport, a sleepy little California town with a diner owner who knows everyone’s business. Jeff is the wild card, which draws the attention of the town’s beautiful Ann Miller. She is straight out of a fairy tale. We first meet her fishing in secret with Jeff, he declares, “You see that cove over there? Well, I’d like to build a house right there, marry you, live in it, and never go anywhere else.” She answers, “I wish you would.” Ann comes from a world where wishes come true. Jeff does not.

Jeff Bailey is a marked man—his actual name is “Markham,” and we learn the details of his past promptly as the story progresses. The black-gloved driver has come with a summons for Jeff from a gangster named Whit Sterling. The gangster and Jeff share a past: Whit hired Jeff to find a woman, Kathie Moffat, who stole forty thousand dollars and his heart (although the gangster never admits this); Jeff found the woman and fell in love with her. In simplest terms, Whit is evil.

In simpler terms than that, so is Kathie. Essays about film noir identify Kathie Moffat as the femme fatale par excellence. She is bad. After hearing her story, Ann states, “She can’t be all bad. No one is.” Jeff responds, “Well, she comes the closest.” Before the story of the movie begins, Kathie shot Whit—three times with his own gun. She shoots and kills Jeff’s partner (after Jeff pummels him in a fistfight). She finishes off Whit. And finally, she shoots Jeff. She is bad; she is a killer. But so are most of the male characters in the film—even the “innocent” deaf-mute boy who works for Jeff causes the death of Whit’s black-coated muscleman. Kathie acts out of self-interest, and unlike Jeff, who naively believes that his roughed-up partner will not cause further trouble, Kathie understands what men will do. Jeff barely understands himself.

Jeff is repeatedly called “smart” in this film. It reminds me of how often Iago is called “honest” in Othello. Mitchum plays Jeff with languid rakish charm, and it’s an act so good that it convinces nearly everyone, even himself. Jeff is tough enough to claim, “I’m afraid of half the things I ever did,” but toughness and charm simply ease his way into disaster. His actions lead to the deaths of six characters, including his own. He kills none of them. Joe Stefanos, Whit’s muscle, kills a man to frame Jeff. “The Kid”—who works for Jeff—hooks Joe with a well-placed cast and pulls him from a precipice and to his death. Kathie kills three. And the police kill Kathie. But all six deaths begin with Jeff’s admission, “I saw her—coming out of the sun. And I knew why Whit didn’t care about that 40 grand.” “I saw her.”

Some critics will let Jeff off the hook—an appropriate metaphor in this film because we are introduced to Ann and Jeff while they are fishing—and claim that the film frames Kathie. After all, Jeff acts nobly at the end of the movie, when the Kid tells Ann, in unspoken accordance with Jeff, that Jeff was leaving with Kathie. This clears the way for Ann to return to her old reliable beau. And Kathie did kill three men.

Still, Jeff’s naïveté—the kind of naïveté fostered by an over-sentimental macho ethos—never takes into account the consequences of his actions. He’s halfway smart and gets the lion’s share of great lines, but he doesn’t actually know what he’s saying. The lines just sound good. When he chides Whit, “I sell gasoline, I make a small profit. We call it earning a living. You may have heard of it somewhere,” he doesn’t really believe it, no matter what he tells Ann or anyone else.

“You’re no good, and neither am I,” Kathie insists to Jeff. We may have been charmed by Jeff. She may have found him charming, she may even love him, but most of all, she knows him and knows that the good act that he puts on is his weakness. He is evil—as bad as her, worse because he can neither admit it nor make it work to his advantage. It’s a crushing realization.

The realization that the hero—even the louche antihero played so well by Mitchum—is, in fact, the villain, is not easy to accept. We like the cool character, the slow-eyed machismo wins us over, even while he threatens the fairy tale princess at the heart of the story. Maybe we like him for the same reason that we like the stark gray landscape: the Sierras are neither moral nor immoral. The landscape is beyond good and evil. If the mountain stream can be sublime even though it may be dangerous, then why can’t a person be beautiful even if she—or he—is villainous?

Iago claims that “When devils will the blackest sins put on,/ They do suggest at first with heavenly shows” (2.3.371-2), he points out how we may be fooled by evil. There’s something else though, a willingness to set aside our judgment when the “Divinity of Hell” wanders into our midst. We want to understand, to analyze, and to rationalize, thus casting evil into a knowable and, therefore, acceptable quality. We value our ability to sympathize, no matter what. Do we sympathize with Whit? Or his blunt right hand, Joe Stefanos? Or even the femme fatale, Kathie? I suspect that we do not. But Jeff elicits sympathy. Because he is cool, and maybe, because we want a little of that coolness to rub off on us. No matter the cost.

It’s what we wish for.

“Think we ought to go home?” Ann asks Jeff when we meet them. He answers with a question, “Do you want to?” She says, “No.” Home, this country founded on a beautiful idea that there is no evil—or if there is, it is outside whatever we define as home: the four walls, the property lined with a stone wall, the land we call our own. We wish for home and cousin up to the idea that evil exists outside, that it is a black-gloved interloper, that it doesn’t know how to fish, that it doesn’t hire the innocent deaf-mute boy to pump gas and repair tires. And that if evil does exist at home, it comes in the form of nosiness, petty jealousies and provincial attitudes. It doesn’t look or sound like Jeff Bailey.

Macho (Masked) Man

“In that immense crowd which throngs the avenues to power in the United States I found very few men who displayed any of that manly candor and that masculine independence of opinion which frequently distinguished the Americans in former times, and which constitutes the leading feature in distinguished characters, wheresoever they may be found.” from Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville.

At some point, the whole point of “being a man” was to live a life that was, in de Tocqueville’s words, full of “candor” and “independence of opinion.” Sadly, even when he was surveying our country in the first half of the 19th century, de Tocqueville noticed that such characteristics had waned. People were more likely to follow popular opinions and desired little else than to be part of the herd. “The Tyranny of the Majority” was worse than the tyranny of a monarch, in part because it was a refutation of those manly virtues.

I’m inspired to take up this theme again, because Daniel Victor published an article on masculinity and masks in today’s New York Times. Men have made masks a political issue—or rather, they let masks become a marker of their masculinity and let the jeering hoard determine their idea of what it means to be manly.

Set aside the absurdity of going to the mattresses over masks. One might as well complain about wearing shoes (A real man would walk about with bloody mangled feet). But some tide has turned, and real men need to take another stand. No purses. No speed limits. No two-drink minimum. No masks.

What stands out is that men need to gather together in groups to assert this.

I understand that fraternité—brotherhood—has in ineffable and intoxicating power. I delight in the time I spend among my brothers—both of birth and choice.

fraternité

However, part of “being a man”—and whether this is a good or a bad thing I will engage at a later time—is being alone. I relished nights on the ocean when I was at the helm, and my crewmates were either in their bunks or asleep with their backs to the cabin. The years of study and writing I did and do, while they may have their end in a classroom or manuscript, were valuable in and of themselves. I built a kitchen on my own. I pulled the clutch from my VW alone. I made Bastille Day dinner alone. Sure, I looked up the directions, but the bloodied knuckles, thick callouses, and genuine pride belonged to me.

I actually have a more challenging time in company because of the lack of candor that others show—men especially so. Candor: not just honesty, but straightforwardness and a thoroughgoing willingness to shine a light. How many times have I heard someone couch what they were going to say in “This is my opinion…” and then blather on in seriously unexamined directions? How many times each day?

Even this writing results from my natural predilection to push my opinions—and not just about masculinity—and see where they are rooted, and explore their limits and my own. I demand the same from any.

One night on the Chesapeake Bay, my father had charted a course for us to follow. It was the first night of our sail, the ocean and a gale were ahead of us, and my brother Peter and I had the late watch. First, we ran through a set of nets set out just off the channel. They were hoisted between temporary thin posts driven deep enough to hold them and catch fish. But then I noticed that our course, such as it was, would also take us across the land.

My father did not always explain where we were going or share course details. For most of us, that was fine; my father was “the captain,” and we were on his boat—that was enough. This drove me crazy. I wanted to know, to break out a chart, and to mark our progress. I wanted to associate what my eyes told me in the bay—at night with a sky partly lit by stars—with some larger picture.

That night I woke my father—not a dauntless act: besides his distemper at being awakened, he was on medication for Parkinson’s Disease that made his sleep thicker. He groggily looked at the waypoints he had mapped out, looked at the horizon, then handed me a chart zipped into a waterproof plastic jacket. “Get us here,” he grumbled and pointed at a point well to our South and East. Then he returned to his bunk.

The job of a man is to wake his father and tell him when he is wrong. And then get back on course. If you don’t know how to read a chart, learn. If you don’t know how to sail, learn, or stay home.

When de Tocqueville remarked about the flagging “manly candor” and “masculine independence of opinion” in the 1800s, it was because the United States began with strident truth-telling and was born out of a series of acts that took responsibility for the truth. Small groups set out to make a life—a new life—outside the comfortable known world. Those first colonists’ decisions were rooted in hope and vision, and, because they were someplace strange, caution and practicality. To rephrase William Carlos Williams, there were no ideals but in things.  And all those ideals and things needed to be tested and checked for their utility as well as any unnecessary or ornamental value. Think of Puritans and Quakers, both in spare meeting houses—trying, and in some cases failing, to discern the truth. But trying.

What struck de Tocqueville—and strikes me now—is not that truth has become less critical, but the ability to distinguish between the necessity and the ornament of truth has dimmed. This is nothing new. De Tocqueville wrote Democracy In America 150 years ago, and after Thoreau noted that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Maybe its the “quiet desperation” that confounds us and makes us valorize the freedom to breathe and speak without a mask over the responsibility to ensure the safety of those around us. Discomfort outweighs obligation.

And obligation becomes what it has never been before—unmanly. I wonder how that happened, how the more Spartan values of sacrifice and duty have been replaced by a fierce desire to get to the front of the beer line? How did we get so far off course? Yeats wrote, “The best have no conviction. The worst/ are full of passionate intensity.” Why cheer against obligation? This is not why we are here, not what we fought for, not what men do.

Contradiction and Awe

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

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

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

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

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

Spring Dance. Across the hall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the Dark: What I watched about evil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Films

Out of the Past

The Draughtsman’s Contract

Brazil

Ran

House of Games

Lawrence of Arabia

Dr. Strangelove

At War with the Virus

Say, you live in Maine, far from the coast, in the softly rolling hills in the part of the state known as “The County.” In Winter, the days are short and bitter with cold. You are not at war with the dark, and the winter wind is not your enemy. You may decide to move someplace warmer, where the sun rises earlier and warms the world even in January, but no matter where you go, The County will be cold in January.

Say, you live in Florida, and for four months each year, you pay special attention to the weather forecast in the morning. You have sheets of plywood stowed away in your garage, just in case. In Winter, the streets fill with license plates from places up North. Hurricanes and snowbirds are the limits of your life, but you aren’t ready to chuck it all and move to Tempe. You aren’t at war with hurricanes—what a futile battle that would be. They pass through, soaking the earth and knocking down trees. At least they aren’t earthquakes—unpredictable and worse than ornery.

My father planned his trips to Bermuda in late May and early June—when the weather was usually warm enough and before hurricane season roared into full flower. Only once did a tropical depression explode into hurricane force. We were still inside the reef, making our way from Hamilton to the customs house in St. George. One of the ferries veered off its routine course to check on us as we were about to depart Hamilton Harbor. My father’s stubbornness was as unrelenting as the weather. It took us a day to power around the island’s northern passage—a trip that usually took scant happy hours. I held the helm as we motored inch by inch into idiot winds. I slept well in an uneasy anchorage that night. By morning, most of the cell had crawled on, slowly dissipating in the pan of the chilly Atlantic.

A sailor, a Floridian, or a Down Easter all understand that weather comes and keeps on coming. Some cycles are reasonably predictable, but day by day, if you are planning a day sail, a picnic, or a ski trip, you better check ahead.

There’s a lesson here, and it’s full of holes. Not everything is like the weather. When we describe people as walking hurricanes or icicles, we make metaphors to explain their character. We know that their behavior did not originate as the result of cold air spinning over warm water, or that they are actually frozen. We alert ourselves to the difficulty of such people because we know that grappling with rain and wind or freezing cold is a fool’s errand.

The coronavirus is more like weather than some “invisible enemy.” We will not “contain it,” or “defeat it,” as much as adapt to it—the way that we put on a heavy coat in the Winter, or attach plywood outside our windows when the storm heads toward us. Yes, the virus can kill us, but it’s not a willful assailant. It did not attack us or declare war on us. It has no strategy learned at war college. The virus just is.

We think of the world in terms of stories. Even the way I began this—weather—is just a story based on my experiences, although I have never sealed a window behind plywood or hunkered out to check fields in the brief sun of Winter. I can imagine such things because I have seen them depicted in the news or heard these stories from people who have done them. Or because my life has brushed close enough to these places and that weather. Besides, these are common enough stories.

But war? A friend reminded me—over and over—how poorly the military was depicted in film and television. The military and war are described to conform to our sense of what they are—to fit the stories we already have. I recall Henry in The Red Badge of Courage, marching off to war with heroic accounts of the Greeks dancing in his mind. And then the battle happens.

There was a singular absence of heroic poses. The men bending and surging in their haste and rage were in every impossible attitude. The steel ramrods clanked and clanged with incessant din as the men pounded them furiously into the hot rifle barrels. The flaps of the cartridge boxes were all unfastened, and bobbed idiotically with each movement. The rifles, once loaded, were jerked to the shoulder and fired without apparent aim into the smoke or at one of the blurred and shifting forms which upon the field before the regiment had been growing larger and larger like puppets under a magician’s hand. (Crane, The Red Badge of Courage)

Of course, this is a little too poetic. Crane gets at the chaos and absence. The overall effect of his novel is the persistent shift from order to chaos and back again. He did not experience war but learned by listening to veterans as he prepared to write. We can learn new stories.

We fall back on stories that we already know. The gravity of the familiar is too powerful for most to escape. We repeat and replicate the stories from our lives with tidal regularity. We do it automatically and insensibly. And that is fine and sensible when what we already know helps guide us back to familiar places. However, when faced with the exceptional, we must learn, quickly, to adapt and revise those familiar stories into something that will suit the present moment. “Must”? Why “must”? We do well enough with the old ways.

Metaphors, which are all that stories are, helpful tools that can open and expand our understanding. In Range, David Epstein writes how Kepler used metaphors to help him discern the motion of the planets. However, metaphors come imbued with values and can ensconce our judgment with moral values that impede clear vision. In Illness of a Metaphor, Susan Sontag points how “[i]llnesses have always been used to enliven charges that a society was corrupt or unjust.”

So, if we are at war with the virus, it must be a foe with corrupt and evil origins. We demonize the virus to create a familiar story of us vs them. We go to war with the virus to stir a sense of urgency; war is the epitome of urgency. The evil enemy must be defeated. Leave out the chaos and unpredictability. The slip of genetic information becomes an “invisible enemy,” the President takes on the mantle of “War President.” Except this enemy does not stand on a field and fight, does not snipe at us from a jungle blind, does not line up or plan or have a General in charge of strategy. There is no Rommel, no Lee, no Hannibal directing the forces. No more than some angry, vengeful force directs the cold wind to gnaw off the fingers of your left hand, or tears trees up by their roots and smashes them down through your roof.

The man who attacks the wind is worse than a fool and doomed to fail. Even if the wind abates, and the serene sun returns like a balm, he did not defeat the wind, and he did not bring the sun.

Still, we feel the need to play the useful if futile part. We must do something. During the pandemic, many will do—and should do— much, as we slowly find out a way to live with this next new virus. There have been other illnesses, and there will be others. We can be sure of that. We will learn this lesson, or forget it and retreat to the familiar old story. The story was there before and will wait for us, as it always has.

Howl

Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. 

                                    King Lear V.III

My father and I traded knowing looks when one of our crewmates complained about the weather. Anyone who heads out onto the ocean for anything more than a day sail should understand that the weather will change and, then, change again.

My father, my brother Peter, and me

There is nothing a sailor can do to change the weather. You can alter course when conditions make the way forward nonsensically impassable. You should. Otherwise, onward.

That said, there are days on the ocean when all you want is weather of any sort, when the sea is glassy in every direction, and the horizon is a long uninterrupted line in the distance. The only wind blows in your memory, and even there, it is nothing more than a hot, lazy zephyr. If you chose to complain, your voice would rise only up to an endless and cloudless blue sky.

If you sail to find perfect weather, you waste your effort. Each day—whether bound with boredom or rapt with terror—is a test to match intention (your course) to the conditions. If you really are a sailor, the weather is always already perfect—such as it is. The same holds true for your vessel: the quality of your sails, the weight of your keel, the hull speed. Once you take the helm, you—your intentions, your ability, your fitness–are the only genuine, imperfect variable.

Complaint becomes, therefore, a reflection of the one thing that you can change: yourself.

When Lear unleashes his “Howl,” it demonstrates the dissonance between his internal state—his intellect and emotions—and the external state. He seeks to crack the vault of heaven not only to mourn Cordelia but because Cordelia died as a result of his inability to match his intentions to the world around him.  He rails against God because he cannot reconcile the failure of his plan.

So too, the sailor who complains, “The rain sucks.” Or, “I hate this rain.” No, it’s not quite a “howl,” but what that sailor really means is that she—or he—does not like rain. The rain, in and of itself, does not suck. The lack of proper heavy weather gear sucks (Be prepared, the old Boy Scout proviso). The desire for sunny weather sucks (the Buddhist approach). The pink beaches at our destination would be better (A quick visit to the deeper tangles of Epicurus). But complaint is not grief.

When I drove home after identifying my father’s body on the dock of the Tolchester Marina, I howled in the car as I drove west over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It was a rainy Wednesday night, and a cat had wandered onto the dock while the emergency crew arranged his body between two pylons. They pulled the tarp back, and there he was, sodden and swollen from 36 hours in the water, and torn from where the hook found his body on the silty bottom of the boatyard.

As I drove over the bridge under which I ended my first glorious sail home—making 8 knots on a firm beam reach, nearly a perfect sail in that old Cape Dory—I let loose one long howl, holding it for the length of the span, tears flowing freely. While we, my brothers and mother, all anticipated his death, we still mourned his passing. He was, as we continued to toast him in his absence, “the founder of the feast.”

A younger captain

He was also, over the last decades of his life, a sailor. He had his flaws—there were times when we should not have left port, despite the sacrosanct schedule that he typed up and kept in a folder on the navigator’s desk. But who’s perfect?

We looked at each other and then turned our vision to the horizon, grey and wet in every direction, as of no matter where we sailed, the rain would find us. We were wet beneath our foul weather gear. What did it matter? We are made of water. We never said as much, but we knew. It was perfect.

In the British Virgin Islands, 1972

I was not always a sailor, even though I learned when I was 11. Sailing on the Bay bored me;  even the crystalline beauty of the British Virgin Islands failed to hold my attention until we dropped anchor and snorkeled our way through schools of brilliant fish down to fans of coral 30 feet below the surface. I did not find my way until I was in my thirties, and we were on the ocean in heavy weather. Because I am not perfect, I left those lessons on the ocean for too long. Memory is a boon and a bounty—with each remembered hurt, there is a corresponding gift.

There is a time for grief, and for some, a time for complaint. For sailors, once the course has been settled, there is only the sail and a wish for steady wind. And then, an acceptance of whatever comes. There will be howls.

Intention

IMG_3667

“A Swarm of Bi

Thousands of jade bi (pronounced bee) have been unearthed in elite Liangzhu culture burial sites, varying in size, quality of stone, level of workmanship, and finish. Yet the meaning, purpose, and ritual significance of bi remain unknown.”—from display text at the Freer Gallery of Art

 

The bi in the Smithsonian National Museum of Asia Art (The Freer/Sackler Galleries) are 4000-4500 years old. Some of the other jades are a thousand years older. I like that bi are so old, and among the earliest pieces of art in all the museums in Washington DC. I also like that we do not know the significance of the bi—that over 4000 years, their meanings have gone missing. They had a significance; we just don’t know what it was.

What matters is what we leave behind.

IMG_3336In the other corner of the Freer Gallery, an exhibit of Hokusai’s paintings and illustrations includes quotations from the artist about what he intended—not just in the specific works, but as an artist. He wrote about discovering himself as an artist late in life. He was already an artist, but he claims to come into his own in his 50s and thought that he might attain his most complete vision if he lived to 110. He died at 90. His work is sweeping and intimate—monumental nature and quiet personal moments—fantastic and humorous—heroes wrestling demons and uproarious coworkers. Whatever else he meant to last in his work—why that hero wrestled that demon (as if one could easily answer such a question)?—he meant it to last. He aspired to capture a vision that would last long after he died.

 

What matters is what we leave behind.

 

My students struggle with knowing what writers meant when they wrote a particular poem or piece of fiction. I try to help them understand that the question is nearly impossible to answer, that the writer’s intention is a mystery even to him or her self. There’s a parcel of psychology served with that lesson—the ineffable subconscious meets the unruly and unpredictable conscious mind. They get confused when I make assertions about what is in James Joyce’s fiction—and, honestly, I have no idea what the human being writing his stories intended, but I can perform some intertextual acrobatics that will catch many of the ideas that spin through his work—thinking that I am implying that Joyce intended one thing or another. I’m just making connections informed by study and a willingness to play with and without a net.

 

What matters is what we leave behind.

https://archive.asia.si.edu/publications/jades/object.php?q=F1917.79#scroll-down
Bi, ca. 3300-2250 BCE

 

Of course, I tell my young writers to align their intentions with what is on the page. It is nearly impossible to write without a sense of the outcome. We, quite naturally, want our ideas and images to catch fire in the mind of our readers. I cannot help but think of the artist who chiseled an image into the side of a bi. The images are so faint that one can easily overlook them. Were they only meant for decoration? Someone, sometime knew. We can only guess. What excites me is that someone did know, once, 5300-4250 years ago. Imagine making a mark and that it lasts long enough to cause some stranger to wonder thousands of years in the future.

What matters is what we leave behind.

When I write about the djinn, I am aware that I do not know how or why they were called into being. What made us need or want an order of magical creatures separate from gods and angels? I am aware that our perception of the djinn changed over time, in some part, due to the influence of Islam. But Islam—as a formal religion—is only 1400 years old. Only. Djinn and gods existed in Mesopotamia for thousands of years before Islam gripped the region—and a quarter of the world. But, for the most part, they are a mystery—as are the gods and goddesses I call into my fiction. While there are fragments of stories, the past has swallowed them.

What matters is what we leave behind.

I wonder, if in 5000 years, whether I will be a mystery. A friend commented that writing and reading are escapes, and I disagree. I read to reclaim the past and reframe the present. Knowledge of the past makes our understanding of the present more complex, more nuanced, and more true. I write to give life more weight, more depth, more of what the past holds, and what the present should hold. After all, that is what makes a good story a good story—a vision that makes us stop and take account of our present moment and our lives. If I have any intention that lasts past the next three months, let alone 300 years, or 5000 (5000 years?), that is it.

What matters is what we leave behind.