Sunday, June 18, 2017

On a Motionless Sky



 

 

Life is motion. If something moves, we instinctively think that it is alive. Anyone who has walked a dog will understand that canine eyes perceive the world in two categories – things that move on their own and things that don’t. Small children have the same perception: I have heard children say that clouds are alive because they move under their own power. And are we sure that this naive perspective is necessarily wrong? The avalanche that sweeps down a mountainside and destroys a village seems to move with malice aforethought. And so does the tsunami, the waterfall, and the tornado. Such forces seem to be living agents. We know that they are alive because they move.

A powerful storm advanced on the small city where I live. At that time, I was working in my law office, below grade, with a concrete-walled window-well behind the glass panes over my computer. My view upward through the basement window is half concrete and half-sky. The lower part of window opens onto the concrete box, an open vault with the marks of the forms that framed the box still visible as ridges and shallow cracks in the concrete. Sometimes, a squirrel will run along the top of those three walls enclosing my window and I will see the rodent as a strange, unfamiliar apparition, from a low angle with the beast poised against the sky and, therefore, seeming a colossus. The upper-half of my window shows the sky, an open expanse cleft in two by the furrowed brown pillar of a tree. In this season, the tree’s branches make a fringe at the top of the view defined by my window, an elegant lace of twigs heavily laden with green leaf, some dead limbs like claws also extending down from above, like a sort of memento mori.

The blinds on my window were open and I looked up above the concrete well to the sky. Everything had ceased to move. I saw that the sky was angry and congested: a black wall was thrust forward ahead of the approaching storm, a prow of dark cloud like the iron cowcatcher on the front of an old locomotive and, at the edges of that dense wedge, the cloud had broken apart, unfurling little pennants of tattered grey. But the remarkable aspect of this aerial landscape was that it was wholly motionless – no part of the mass of clouds seemed to move at all. The immobility of the storm toppling forward out of the sky was all the more incongruous because the shapes of the clouds were streamlined, cut and sculpted so that they could fly at high-speed, screeching like banshees, across the sky. I looked from the motionless clouds to the limbs of the tree and its branches – nothing moved at all, there wasn’t even the faint vibration that you sense in living vegetation, the tiny aura of life that surges faintly through the veins of a leaf. All was stationary, frozen, petrified.

For a moment, I felt panic. Perhaps, I was the one who had died. It didn’t seem possible that all of this evidence of wild, frenzied motion –the clefts in the clouds, the rifts in the sky through which, undoubtedly, gale winds were pouring, even the solid rays of falling rain – could be wholly still, frigid statuary occupying the lofty heights of the sky. I rose from my desk, felt myself to be alive, but who knows – perhaps, in their last instants, the dying and dead feel themselves able to move robustly through an earth that has turned to marble. Perhaps, this is the grave and immense thing itself. Before consciousness flickers out, perhaps, it pins the world to the mind as a last snapshot, a final motionless panorama that only gradually fades away.

I went into the hallway to see if there were other living beings in the office. Everyone on the lower level had left for the day. The doors into the silent offices were open. Where there were windows, I saw the stolid stone vault of the window well, the striated and deadly-looking sky still entirely motionless and the edges of trees and bushes completely becalmed.

Upstairs, a couple of secretaries had gathered in the lobby. They were inspecting the sky through the windows.

"Do you see how still it is?" I said.

I went outside and stood on the sidewalk. The sky overhead was a wild canvas, motionless as a painted picture. The air was heavy, humid, bearing little veins of dry, bright air that were not yet moving. Not a leaf stirred. The silence was immense and imponderable and the stillness in the sky was like an announcement of the end of things.

Then, the storm went off like a bomb. The sky vanished in a white downpour. The trees twisted and bent and the dead limbs snapped off them and skittered like spiders across the parking lot.

It was over in 20 minutes. The intersections were flooded. The river was engorged and flowed between its corridor of trees as a sullen, impenetrable flood, a kind of viscous syrup moving with the speed of a freight train but betraying no sign of its motion other than froth and spray where a low-hanging branch cut a white furrow in the current. At each intersection, parts of trees had fallen to the ground. The big branches were shrouded in leaves and they sat decorously on the sidewalk, like girls in emerald green ballroom gowns reposing on the grass. A brown litter of twigs and fallen boughs was scattered across the lawns. The sky was now vivid with fragments of storm hurtling this way and that, sunlight tunneling down through provisional clouds that were fleeing to the horizon.

The smaller limbs fallen from the tree will wither in a day and the leaves will wilt and turn brown. But the bigger branches, the green debris the size of a car or larger – these torsos and limbs of trees will remain green for half a week, sap still coursing through the branches and invigorating the leaves so that these will remain bright green for a week or more. Birds will see the leaves and branches rippling on those broken-away parts of trees, leaves moving in the wind, and they will try to build nests in the toppled limbs. Squirrels will chatter and, perhaps, mistake the last vibrant color in those leafy branches for sustaining life and work to re-establish their nests in the fallen limbs. And the breezes will blow and the trees standing along the lanes, intact, or mostly intact, will glitter in the wind.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

On "Scaffold" at the Walker Art Center

These remarks relate to the recent imbroglio at the Walker Art Center (WAC) involving an outdoor installation -- I hesitate to use the word "sculpture" -- called "Scaffold."  The WAC, along with the Minneapolis Department of Parks, upgraded the sculpture garden, the gravel courtyards among neatly groomed trees to the north of the museum across the busy boulevard from Loring Park – this is the promenade leading toward the Basilica among heaps of sculpted wood and burnished pillars of vaguely anthropomorphic bronze, amidst slabs of Corten steel, a path among outdoor art-works culminating with the giant spoon and cherry resting flamboyantly within the basin of fountain where jets of water decorate the massive assembly. As part of this renovation, the WAC bought 18 new sculptures, including a work from an artist called Sam Durant. This artist’s work is called "Scaffold" and it has been exhibited to much acclaim in the capitols of Europe. "Scaffold" is massive -- a huge assembly of wood and steel, about 20 feet high. It looks something like a playground "Jungle Gym" except on a massive scale. The object isn’t pretty but its not excessively rebarbative either – it’s something like a tower that you might find overlooking some scenic vista in the mountains, a viewing platform of some kind. In fact, Durant and his "Scaffold" has a concealed agenda – the big platform with its various walkways and overhead beams is a facsimile of seven scaffolds used for historically famous hangings. For instance, the scaffold contains as an element a simulation of the gallows on which John Brown was hanged – there are also mock-ups of the two gallows on which the Lincoln conspirators were executed. Most notably, however, the size of the structure is warranted by the concept that the installation’s outer dimensions be established by the measurements of the huge scaffold on which the 38 Dakota Indians were executed in Mankato in 1862.

Durant’s "Scaffold" was painstakingly assembled in May, completed, and tested for safety in advance of the swarms of people, including mostly I suppose children and drunken homosexuals wandered over from their cruising territory at Loring Park, expected to clamber all over the thing. Apparently, most of the people who climbed on the object’s maze of platforms and steps enjoyed themselves and didn’t take much note of the fact that they were frolicking, as it were, on a kind of infernal machine, simulacra accurate to scale of various hanging scaffolds – for instance, the gallows on which Saddam Hussein met his Maker. Then, someone noticed that the gallows contained within itself elements referring to the incident in Mankato. This information was conveyed to the Tribes who, of course, are wealthy with casino money and, increasingly, active politically and whose demands, whether they be for recuperative historical monuments, apologetic for previous racism, or enhanced spear-fishing on Mille Lacs will not be denied. Immediately, a cadre of time-worn Elders were deployed to denounce the art work and demand that it be torn down. The Elders gathered a crowd of activists and picketed the front entry to the WAC. This was not good: throughout my lifetime, the WAC has vehemently and continuously denounced the racism of people exactly like you and me – that is, the White phallocentric bastards who have spoiled much of the world with our sexism,colonialism or imperialism – and the WAC has always stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the courageous avant-garde artists of the world to combat every form of political injustice and discrimination. And, yet, now the aggressively liberal, even Marxist WAC was hoisted on its own petard, accused of disseminating a particularly heartless form of racism.  Even worse, the WAC and its tame artist were indicted of "misappropriating someone else's story", an initial justification for the demands made by the Tribes but one that was soon enough considered to have sufficiently sinister implications to be abandoned -- at least in public.  At the demonstration, the Indians commandeered the microphones and said that the WAC was insulting and demeaning their Grandfathers (Grandfathers who perished 150 years ago, mind you) and that it was appalling, shocking, astounding that the Native American community had not been consulted before the erection of this provocative monument, advertised as a critique of capitol punishment in the United States but, in fact, a deadly assault on the blessed memory of the 38 heroes who gave their lives on the day after Christmas in 1862 in defense of their families and sacred lands.

It was generally thought that the WAC would resist the onslaught – after all, a lot was at stake: the integrity of the artist, First Amendment freedoms, and, most importantly, the opening date for the Sculpture Garden on Saturday, June 3, 2017. One prominent Native American artist-in-residence at the WAC immediately resigned his commission in order to arm himself for the long conflict with his former employer. But, to everyone’s surprise, the WAC capitulated almost instantly. The opening for the Sculpture Garden was delayed by a week, the museum agreed to tear down the offending art object and, even, render its fragments up to the Tribes so that they could be incinerated at some suitably momentous and solemn ceremony. The WAC officials with the Minneapolis Park commissioners in attendance congratulated themselves for their political correctness, apologized profusely for offending the Tribes, and, even, sponsored a touching ceremony complete with pow-wow drums and burning sage in which an Elder made a garbled speech about the need for more cultural respect and better education and positive energy as opposed to "negativity" and how we should all be cogniscent of the sensitivities of Native people, this peroration uttered before some rivets in the huge platform were ceremonially removed. You can’t find any pictures of the most grave and holy aspects of this ceremony because the media were told to shutter their cameras and not use their vile "shadowcatchers" to steal the souls of the shaman administering the blessing to the vandals howling for the destruction of this supposed art object.

Of course, the WAC would like to move on, but inconvenient questions linger. When the Minneapolis Park Commissioners enthusiastically participating in sage cleansing ceremonies and when holy tobacco was shared (to be transmitted post-haste for the top of Bear Butte in South Dakota the very next day) didn’t anyone consider whether this festival of destruction traduced the separation of Church and State – what if, for instance, a Catholic priest had been brought in to exorcize the demons apparently inhabiting this Devil’s Jungle Gym? And if the art work was valid, important, worthy of admiration, and aesthetically effective in Holland or Germany or the Pompidou Centre in Paris, what happened in Minneapolis? How did it suddenly lose its "aura" of importance and artist significance? What mysterious thing happened? What about the First Amendment and censorship? I vividly recall touring an exhibition of Mapplethorpe photographs featuring someone sticking his little finger up to the second joint into the urethral meatus of another’s guy’s impressively massive penis, another memorable image of Mapplethorpe himself waggling a bullwhip at his camera’s lens with the handle of that instrument stuck up the artist’s rectum about 8 inches. Although there had been a hue and cry about these pictures in Cincinnati, I think, no one protested in Minneapolis. What about the works of Cara Walker? I recall her retrospective at the WAC: it was a Sunday and all the hip, well-groomed liberal MPR-listening, environmentally-aware garbage-recycling Starbucks-frequenting, card-carrying Dems in their Paul Wellstone bumper-stickered Volvos and Saabs had come to the museum with their perfect, blonde and tousle-headed toddlers in tow to enjoy some modern art. The galleries were filled with silhouettes of southern-fried colonels and maidens in flounce dresses, all magnolias and moonbeams, roasting live picaninnies over open fires – in the corners of the images, there were various rapes and castrations underway, while other unfortunate slaves were being crucified or lynched from the limbs of old, haggard-looking trees. The suburban Democrats skittered though the huge show, walking as if on eggshells though gallery after gallery of the most lurid atrocities, always maintaining a reverent silence. Now and then, a moppet would say: "Daddy, what is that fat man doing to the baby?" "We’ll talk about it in the car," Daddy responded, wondering, I suppose, exactly how to explain the concept of oral sodomy to a four-year old. What if Evangelical Christians were to oppose a show like this? Would the WAC bow to their wishes and, not just repress, but destroy, the offending objects within the scope of 48 hours? (Needless to say the poor Dakota artist-in-residence who quit the institution in a huff when the controversy first erupted is, now, probably negotiating for his job back – and if he’s not employed, I assume he’ll sue on the basis of racial discrimination.) And, of course, out of morbid interest, members who pay annually for a membership in the WAC, such as yours truly, might want to know exactly what did this education in political correctness cost the Walker? What did they pay to Durrant for "Scaffold" in the first place to purchase his work that undoubtedly was politically vibrant and esthetically valid under all relevant criteria in Europe but, somehow, not in Minneapolis? Did they get a warranty on the art object – full refund if protesters require the deconstruction (not in a metaphoric but literal way) of the sculpture before it is even formally exhibited? One hopes the WAC got their money back although this seems doubtful to me. And what about the cost of erecting the thing and, then, a week later, taking it down? The cost of hauling the fragments to Fort Snelling? The cost of burning and incinerating the massive structure, including many metal parts? What exactly has this cost the WAC and should members of that art institution consider the profligate and wasteful spending of the Center next time they are asked to donate? Shouldn’t members of the ACLU, for instance, refuse to renew their memberships?

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) interviewed a young woman artist who is a member of the Dakota Community. She rejoiced at the removal of the Durrant "Scaffold" from the sculpture garden. But she couldn’t explain exactly why this was a good thing. She spoke a little about sensitivity to the local community and pointed out that 1862 wasn’t that long ago and seemed to confuse the atrocity (or whatever it was that happened in Mankato) with the representation of the atrocity. In some respect, she seemed to imply that showing the hanging or even referring to it somehow made it happen all over and this wounded the sensibilities of the Indians and filled them with sorrow and art, of course, should never trouble anyone, it should be limited to flowers and lovely naked women and landscapes with much blue sky and blue water in them with, maybe, a small human figure to show scale – no, of course, she didn’t say this latter part and didn’t even believe this, but by her position she was endorsing a naive view about esthetics that no one believes anymore except for those people who buy their picture frames at Walmart or Shopko. The interviewer asked the young woman a few softball questions – undoubtedly she was both charming and attractive – and she really couldn’t explain her position; indeed, everything she said was incoherent and logically inconsistent.

The interviewer asked her if she agreed that the jumble of steel plates and girders with the wooden planking of "Scaffold" should be hauled by truck to Fort Snelling, dragged ceremonially to a location at the center of the historic site, and there incinerated, proffered as a burn offering to the spirits of the ancestral Dakota who perished in that concentration camp, as it is called, during the icy winter of 1862 to 1863. The girl paused: "I’m gonna go way out on a limb here, but I would say I can’t endorse burning or destroying a work of art. That’s going too far. So I don’t think the art work should be destroyed."

No doubt, the young woman dimly recalled some foreign country, maybe a hundred or two-hundred years ago – perhaps, she thought of some image in black and white, before people had even invented color film, way, way, way back before TV, a crowd of pasty-faced White men somewhere on the dark continent of Europe, a mob of men in shirts with swastika armbands busily shoveling books into a great bonfire flaring against the immense and impenetrable darkness of human ignorance.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

On La Salle



 

1.

We had trouble with the telephone conference call. I sat next to the director of human resources for the City. The City Manager was present as well as the Chief of Police. Finally, a HR manager succeeded in reaching the workers compensation supervisor. A cop employed by my client, the City of Austin, was off-work due to a fatal shooting in which he had been involved and we were concerned that this leave had morphed from administrative absence, pending a prosecutor’s verification that the shooting was lawful, into sick leave or, even, temporary total disability under the worker’s compensation law. The conversation involved some complex legal questions and took longer than I expected and so I didn’t depart Austin for Minneapolis until 5:30 pm. I was scheduled to attend a seminar the next day and had decided to travel to Minneapolis after work so as to avoid the hassle of morning traffic delaying my way to the downtown classroom.

I stopped in Owatonna for gas and bought some Fritos to eat in the car. The skies were gloomy in southern Minnesota and I could see little fragments of cloud ripped from the main mass of the storm blowing by overhead – the torn, fleeing clouds seemed panic-stricken It had been a rainy spring and some of the places where the fields were flooded were still underwater, nasty-looking ponds in the furrows lingering long enough to grow mats of yellow-green algae.

The sky cleared at Northfield and the roads were wet but there was no more rain. In downtown Minneapolis, the horizons were open and clear and the sky had a washed look – the pale blue had been scoured until it had thinned to reveal yellow underneath. It was mid-May and, in this latitude, the sun lingers for a long time overhead and the streets were still sunlit at 7:30 pm when I made my way through the skyway from the Target Center ramp to the hotel. Across from my room, there was a huge image of a climber on the Needles in South Dakota’s Black Hills, a handsome-looking fellow gazing across the mountaintop crowned by sheer pillars eroded into the shape of pawns and other chess pieces. The picture was an advertisement encouraging tourism to South Dakota and its green and blue colors were refreshing above the blocks of drab-looking concrete and the dirty streets where crowds of people were waiting for buses and teasing one another with displays of minor-league criminality – men catcalled at women and girls fought among themselves and everyone was cursing or drinking from cans in paper sacks or spitting on the sidewalk.

I was hungry and so I went down onto the street and walked across Hennepin, looking for a place to eat. I had the sense that I was momentarily free, liberated from wife and children, left to my own devices in the hustle and excitement of the city. I could do anything I wanted, get into all sorts of mischief, carouse and feast and howl like a wolf at the big new moon that would shortly be impaled on the glass lances of the skyscrapers. I didn’t have any agenda, no place that I had to go, and so I wandered along the sidewalks, enjoying the mild breeze and the sweet-smelling air and the seemingly limitless light lingering in the sky over the city. I was an explorer crossing virgin territory, approaching the rapids on an unnamed river where the falling water had ionized the air with fragrant ozone.

After a couple blocks, I found myself on a silent street. It was 9th and I came to the intersection with La Salle, a place that I have known all my life. The big buildings were becoming obtuse, incommunicative, dense, as the shadows began to fall onto them. Across the street, the old YMCA building extended its brick walls pierced with innumerable windows up to pale frieze capping the tower. The frieze was also porous with several vaulting arches and had a vaguely Gothic appearance and, above that height, the sky was vast and silent. I gazed up at all the windows at the YMCA overlooking the intersection at 9th and La Salle and saw that they were dark and that they revealed nothing of the interior of the old building. Down the street, I saw the square block of the old Dayton’s department store, closed now and, perhaps, even unoccupied. La Salle was still as always, the lanes of road vacant and empty and, next to the sidewalk, I saw the old parking ramp, about five or six decks supported by concrete pylons and rising up above me, the edges of each level barricaded by the kind of wood post and steel guardrails that you used to encounter defending canyon depths or deep and precipitous river gorges from cars driving in the mountain. I remember that my father had always parked in that ramp when I was a child and that I knew it very well and the odd thing was that I had thought the ramp closed and demolished at least a dozen years before. I rubbed my eyes and looked more closely and the ramp was still there, just about exactly as it had always been, resurrected it seemed but still filthy-looking and humble, something raised up above ground that we have now been taught to regard as more properly buried beneath the surface. I had been an anxious child, easily frightened, and I recall that when my father parked in that lot with the nose of his car facing out over the street, I was always afraid that he would lose control, hit the accelerator when he intended the brake, and drive us through the wood and metal guardrail to crash down to destruction from the modest heights of the ramp.

I stood for a moment looking at the parking ramp. I felt eyes on me from overhead. Someone was looking down on me from the YMCA building across the street. This sense of being under aerial surveillance made me nervous and I felt hungry, peckish, and so I hurried down the street. Several of the intersections had been ripped open and, in the yellow clay ditches, I could see some old tiles, a lead pipe capped-off, a bundle of wires.

I ate at Hell’s Kitchen. The restaurant was in a basement about a block from the old Foshay Tower, once the tallest building in the Northwest. I had a 15 dollar hamburger cooked medium rare with bacon on it and a big knuckle-sized daub of peanut butter. For some reason, the cole slaw was unpleasantly spicy – I felt the pepper burning on my lips and tongue. The waitress had a dragon tattooed on her forearm. A basketball game was playing on ESPN in the next room and I idly watched and tried to eavesdrop on the conversations nearby.

It was dark on the street after I finished my supper. My feeling of festive isolation had faded. The President had just fired FBI director, James Comey. The young people at the bus stop gossiping and insulting one another no longer seemed amusing to me. In place of my former feelings of adventure and excitement, I now felt a very faint and poignant loneliness. As I passed the YMCA, again I felt eyes on me once more, someone staring down with a burning gaze at the sidewalk over which I was walking.

 

2.

Old Minneapolis, north of where it is plugged into the freeway, is a grid of streets running southwest to northeast. The grid is rectilinear but tilted because the north side of this street system parallels the Mississippi River. Minneapolis was founded at a place where waterfalls could support grain mills by providing hydroelectric power. The waterfalls chaotically plunged – they have now been tamed by locks and concrete aprons – down a course of the river that flows from northwest to southeast and the city streets where Minneapolis was founded mirror those directions.

For some reason, unclear to me, Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis’ Broadway, approaches the river from the south at a diagonal that is less acute. This means that the distance between Hennepin and the adjacent streets increases south of about 7th Street (First Street parallels the river). At 9th Street, the distance between Hennepin and the grid has broadened to the point that an extra street can be inserted between Hennepin and the street system that parallels Hennepin in the old riverfront part of town, that grid bounded on its west by Nicollet Avenue. La Salle names the street interposed in this location.

(It should be observed that the French - Belgian priest, Father Hennepin, was the first White man to enter the terrifying and trackless forests of Minnesota and that he discovered the great falls on the Mississippi, a natural phenomenon that he named after St. Anthony. Since Minneapolis’ principal north-south avenue crosses the Mississippi just above St. Anthony Falls, the thoroughfare is named after Father Hennepin. The westernmost north-south street in the old grid system in Nicollet, named after a much later French explorer who mapped the upper basin of the Mississippi and parts of North and South Dakota in the 1830's. To the east of Nicollet, we encounter Marquette Avenue – this city street is named after Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit who explored and mapped many places in Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. Marquette died of dysentery in what is now Ludington, Michigan at age 37 – this was during the second half of the 17th century. Rene-Robert Cavalier de La Salle, another 17th century French explorer, gives his name to the street inserted between Hennepin and Nicollet, the first north-south avenue to fit within the triangular-shaped sector between those two streets. La Salle claimed the center of what is now the United States for France and deposited his name all over the the country from the Gulf of Mexico to Ontario. Exploring was a notoriously tough business – Father Hennepin discovered the falls on the Mississippi during a forced march when he was a prisoner of a Lakota war party; Nicollet died in bed in Washington in 1843, but Marquette and de La Salle were both victims of their explorations – de La Salle was murdered by one of his own men somewhere in Texas in the wake of a mutiny. It would be a useful mnemonic if the Minneapolis avenues were ordered from west to east according to the historical chronology of the explorers honored by those street names – but, unfortunately, this is not the case. Rather, the streets are ranked according to the historical impact of the figures on the old Northwest territory: Hennepin comes first because he found the falls on which the city is based; Nicollet is second for mapping the region. It’s not clear to me that the other two Frenchmen even reached this part of the country, but I may be mistaken.)

This is all an elaborate, and superfluous, digression my real concern – my memories of La Salle Avenue and most particularly the La Salle avenue parking ramp. Everyone is an explorer for their first 30 years, everyone treks the lonesome wilderness of the city when they are young, learning the unfamiliar streets and making a mental map of the passages through the tall buildings, avoiding ambushes in the alleys and Apaches on the street corners. We’re all La Salle and Marquette, Hennepin and Nicollet in some humble sense when we first come to Minneapolis and first traverse it and, then, return later for work or to explore its bars and theaters. Discovering a new place is always an adventure and this is true no less of Mary Richards as played by Mary Tyler Moore venturing onto Nicollet Avenue and famously throwing her hat into the air in sheer jubilation at the brave new world opening its arms to her as Father Hennepin standing in the frozen mist of the Falls and celebrating Mass on New Years’s Day atop the rude altar of a boulder next to the thunderous din of the river. For reasons I will explain shortly, La Salle was my place of first and most reliable ingress into the city – it was my first trail hacked into the darkness of the metropolis.

When I was young, my family lived in the suburbs but every couple months we would go down into Minneapolis to shop or visit the Public Library where there was a small museum with a ragged-looking mummy and a small planetarium. Our shopping trips always ended at Dayton’s, a department store at the corner of 8th and Hennepin Avenue. My father seemed to know only one place to park in Minneapolis and this was the La Salle ramp, an unobtrusive five or six story stack of concrete decks a block from 9th Street where La Salle avenue dead-ended. The La Salle ramp was easy to reach – for some reason, most of the routes from the freeways accessing the city came within a block or two of that parking lot. And, unlike almost all of the other surrounding streets, La Salle allowed two-way traffic. This meant it was equally easy to come and go from the ramp on that avenue.

More well-heeled people, or those simply less thrifty, parked in the Dayton’s ramp, a dark subterranean maze tucked under the department store. Indeed, the Dayton’s ramp was probably the ne plus ultra in convenience. The entrance to the ramp disgorged directly onto La Salle – it was a straight shot from the bowels of the building onto La Salle with an option to turn west (NW really) on the one way at 9th or east (SE really) on the one-way at 8th. In other words, traffic routes abounded and, better yet, La Salle was a backwater – since the avenue dead-ended at the Dayton’s department store on 8th, the street was generally deserted. But we never ventured into that ramp – it was too claustrophobic and the cars were too shiny and new and expensive in those underground corridors and my father wasn’t willing to pay the extra dollar-fifty an hour required to put your car in that place. We could walk a block from the La Salle ramp to Dayton’s – this was fine and reasonable and, further, allowed for some discipline, merited by sibling squabbles in the car as we walked the intervening block. La Salle led to busy places, but was not busy itself – rather, it was (and remains) a kind of oasis apart from the insistent and heavy traffic on the surrounding streets. One-ways preclude turns and, in downtown Minneapolis, at many times of the day, a left turn, if allowed is functionally impossible – but this has never been the case on becalmed and placid La Salle.

My father was born in a tiny town in central Nebraska and he was never comfortable driving in a big city. But he knew his way to the La Salle ramp and could reach that place unerringly and, so, that was where we always parked when we came downtown. I would like to say that I have many memories of the La Salle ramp, but this isn’t true. In fact, all my memories have blurred together into a single composite.

Before Christmas, the store windows at Dayton’s were lavishly decorated. People stood on the sidewalk admiring the displays: white sparkling sheets of snow draped over little cottages with lit windows, Santa and his reindeer sweeping across a sky of twinkling stars like a red and white comet. Mechanized gnomes loafing the artificial snow grinned and gestured and, in still comfortable rooms, stockings were hung by the fireside with care in hopes that Saint Nick soon would be there and, as we pressed our faces close to the glass, gawking at the displays, we saw our own reflections, our avid eyes, the ghostly fog of our breath on the cold pane, and hanging behind our winter coats and stocking caps, brightly lit and gaudy decorations decking the street lamps and suspended on wires hanging over the avenues. Christmas music was piped onto the sidewalks and people were caroling at the corners and the big jewel box of the department store was all outlined in Christmas tree bulbs. The ice in the air shimmered and it was very cold and the streets ran black and slushy between grey ramparts of filthy snow.

In Dayton’s, books were sold on the third or fourth floor, among men’s tailored suits and near glass cases that displayed fine watches and cuff-links. A couple of cases held numismatic curiosities, expensive sets of old stamps and gold coins and specially minted commemorative medallions and, then, there were trays of pipes sculpted from beautiful polished wood, pocket-knives and Swiss-army knives with blades extended like the glistening many arms of a Hindu goddess, portfolios of autographs for sale and old rare books resting on cushions of velvet. Beyond several featureless mannequins, a sort of library occupied a dim and shadowy niche – the books stood upright on shelves made from rosewood or mahogany and there were easy chairs and old men, exhausted by their Christmas shopping, were sitting there, sweating under their great-coats, paging idly through books like Kon Tiki or a folio-sized edition reproducing paintings by Van Gogh or Raphael. Supercilious clerks glided through the shelves of books and their faces were painted masks, as if the mannequins had mysteriously come to life to act as your valet, your librarian, your tobacconist.

Elsewhere chaos reigned and the air smelled of perfume and shop girls with immense dark eyes that were all outlined in charcoal leaned forward to show their holiday decolletage over trays of gems and necklaces. The floor was all sooty and slick with black slush by the doorways to the outside but deeper into the building, the tiles on the floor were clean and, by the time you reached the escalators, there was no trace of the grime or dirty snow or the cold from outside, winter was completely absent except in the coats and hats and scarves worn by the customers and it was strange to seem people dressed that way, stolidly plodding between headless mannequins wearing only the slightest and most lacy negligees. On the fifth or sixth floor of the Dayton’s department store, there was a cafĂ© – really a very fine restaurant – where you could sit and enjoy champagne and eat grilled walleye for lunch. We never patronized that restaurant because it was too expensive and too highfalutin’ . Instead, my mother took me to the Nanking, an immense Chinese cafeteria with gilded dragons carved into wall-posts and mirrored alcoves and, even a sort of choir loft, a balcony where you could eat in splendor overlooking the vast dining room filled with people and their coats and black rubber boots. It was a true treat and novelty to eat at a table suspended in air, above the multitude, on that balcony. The waitresses were all tiny Chinese girls wearing silk blouses and skirts and with their hair up and held in place by diamond-headed stickpins.

At the door into Dayton’s, entering from the sidewalk where La Salle dead-ended, there was a small area within the store that sold gourmet foods. You could buy shortbread in a long box wrapped in Scottish tartan, escargot in tins and sardines canned in Norway; there were English crackers and several types of German mustard, Spanish octopus in red wine sauce and chocolate-dipped crickets and ants. Beyond the gourmet grocery, there was a long and narrow arcade stretching from through the center of the block and occupied by a sort of bazaar, booths and tiny stores with macrame or beaded curtains at the entrances, carpet salesmen and dark-skinned women selling gypsy scarves, a corridor where you had to pass through each merchant’s store to make your way between the cold and icy streets outside – here you could buy gag tee-shirts and ties, snow-globes and Minneapolis souvenirs, risque magazines and calenders, all sorts of ephemeral stuff that couldn’t be classified and that didn’t really belong to any well-recognized category of merchandise, household furnishings for brothels or Victorian mansions, hookahs, and pet-sweaters, African masks, and ornamental samurai swords for your walls, everything garish and over-priced, all those goods that Dayton’s, the dignified dowager on the Nicollet Mall was unwilling to carry in its inventory.

Somehow, you had walked miles and icy cold had seeped up into their limbs and you couldn’t feel your feet at all and, somewhere, Santa was cackling merrily and the storefronts all oozed lights and Christmas decorations, and the sun was setting so that the streets were shadowy and you limped along – it was only a block on La Salle, a quiet street compared to the crowds in Daytons, and, then, you be at the ramp elevator and a minute later in your car. But, first, someone always had to go to the bathroom and there were two toilets, men and women, behind rusting metal doors in a tiny lounge in the parking place, next to the booth where a kid sat chainsmoking and taking money from the drivers who were lined-up to exit the ramp. The tiny lounge had the kind of harsh-looking utilitarian chairs that you associate with a bus station, metal ashtrays on stanchions that were always full of ash and butts, stacks of menu flyers for Chinese take-out places, glass walls that looked out onto the dark and colonnaded grey acreage of parking ramp’s first level – a couple of front-end loaders for snow-removal parked next to the lounge and, then, the cars, each sitting in a congealing puddle of slush and snow fallen off its bumpers and grill, the pavement and the columns supporting the decks all grey with road-salt and grime. It was a no-color place even though the cars, of course, had been sold in many colors, but the dirt in the snow and the salt on the highway had reduced all of the vehicles to the same sad and somber hue. Your feet were always cold and the lobby was 45 degrees, maybe, only scarcely heated and it smelled of spilled beer and cigarettes and cheap cologne and, on one wall, there was a big mirror where you could survey yourself, head to toe, to see if your zipper was zipped and whether your were, more or less, properly accoutered to venture out into the great world.

Then, it was dark and we drove back to New Brighton, pausing in a neighborhood where the homes all were in competition with another for the most lavish Christmas decorations. We cruised the snowy streets – in my childhood, I misremember that it was always snowing – and the display-houses were on a sort of hill, occupying terraces that rose up toward the sky, their lights ascending in ladders of many colors up the slopes to where there was a vast cemetery, buried in midnight blue drifts and no light at all. Then, we were at home and my mother took the Christmas presents in their Dayton’s shopping bags to hide and the old dachshund sleeping on the couch growled to warn us that her repose should not be interrupted. Like almost everything else in the world, she bit.

Later, we lived in another quadrant of the city suburbs, far to the southwest, but my father still faithfully used the La Salle parking ramp when we went downtown. In the summer after high school, I finally dared asked a girl in my class out on a date and, after a few exercises driving to movies in the suburbs, I invited her to go with me to see an orchestra concert downtown. This would require that I navigate the freeways to Minneapolis and, then, locate a place to park and, of course, my father didn’t think much of my driving ability – in fact, he was pretty much convinced that I was utterly without a clue when it came to anything involving hand - eye coordination. And, so, before I was authorized to take the family stationwagon downtown on this excursion, I had to first demonstrate that I could successfully make my way from the suburbs into the city and, then, upon exiting the freeway, that I could reliably find my way to the La Salle ramp, because, of course, that was where I was instructed to park. With my father hectoring me the whole way, I drove the big lumbering station wagon downtown, entered the city itself and following directions that my father bellowed in my ear, piloted my way through the one-way streets and the crowded intersections to the ramp. We entered the ramp and I parked successfully and, then, I walked the distance to the orchestra hall, my father pointing out to me a few ice-cream parlors where my date and I could enjoy a treat after the show. We calculated the walking time to the orchestra hall – only six or seven minutes, located the best route, and, then, back at the ramp I had to demonstrate that I could back successfully, find the concrete exit sluicing down to the booth next to the little filthy lobby, pay my way out and, then, find the access to the freeway that would take me home. The exercise was, more or less, successful and so I was permitted to use the car to take my girlfriend to the concert and, I suppose, that I did so, although I remember nothing at all about that experience. All that remains for me is my father’s instructions as to how to reach the La Salle ramp, his admonitions about safety, his warnings about parking in the lot so as not to become "boxed-in" and, then, the way back from the parking ramp, through the streets to reach the freeway home.

Dayton’s doesn’t exist any more. The statue of Mary Tyler Moore joyously throwing her hat in the air still stands at the intersection but the department store is long gone. The IDS tower, its glass skin the color of a Minnesota lake, still stands across the street and its crystal court, although in disrepair still opens upward as a box of glass embedded in another box of glass, next to the humming banks of elevators. The network of streets is the same, of course, although now many of the commercial buildings are occupied by hotels and not businesses. The city doesn’t make anything any more nor does it really trade anything – the people who come downtown are looking for entertainment: restaurants, bars, theaters, the big baseball field green under its lights and the football stadium. Some of the visitors want to get drunk and don’t wish to drive home intoxicated and so there are hotels downtown today, places for the tourists to stay – the buildings are the same but they have been re-purposed. What was once a bank is now an expensive hotel and the big bas-relief carved in the Depression on the facade – noble-looking yeoman farmers with Aryan features and their oxen and mechanics with sweaty brow carrying heavy wrenches and sledge-hammers, all of those stone workmen, now still march in procession across the pale yellow walls, but they seem as archaic as the processions of archers and charioteers on the half-ruined walls at Ninevah.

One day, fifteen years ago, I had business in Minneapolis near Hennepin Avenue and so I looked for the La Salle ramp. It wasn’t hard to find – all roads in central Minneapolis seem to converge on that area. But the ramp was closed. The entire structure was wrapped in visquine, shrouded in plastic as if the ramp had become a project by Christo. Barricades precluded access to the ramp and, nearby, I saw implements of destruction, a wrecking ball on a vast chain and a half-dozen graders and dump trucks. It seemed to me that the ramp’s days were numbered. A year later, I looked for the parking lot but it wasn’t there. I don’t know what had taken its place, but the ramp had gone missing. It didn’t matter as far as I was concerned. There were other places more convenient to park in downtown Minneapolis.

 

 

3.

My father was committed to the ramp on La Salle for this reason: in 1961, when he came to Minneapolis as a new employee of Honeywell, he took a room in the YMCA across the street. He lived in that place until he could find a house suitable for his wife and three children. I don’t have a clear recollection of any of this but believe that he probably stayed at the YMCA for two or three months before returning to New Jersey to bring us west. When I was little, my father never parked in the La Salle ramp without gesturing over the guard-rail to the impassive dark, brick facade of the building across the street and mentioning that he had lived there for several months. In those days, my father drove an unpredictable and ancient Rambler and I suppose he had parked that car in the ramp overnight each evening when he came downtown after working at the Honeywell plant north of Minneapolis on Stinson Boulevard.

My father was a preacher’s son from Albion, Nebraska, a county seat on the edge of the sand hills wilderness in central Nebraska. He was married at 18 and came to Minnesota after working at a military base, Fort Monmouth near Asbury Park, New Jersey. (At Fort Monmouth, his work was tending very early versions of IBM computers.) He loved jazz and modern art and dreamed of being a beatnik in New York City, but the crush and noise and stench of the East Coast was too much for him and, so, he retreated to the more familiar prairies and corn fields of the upper Midwest. He wore black horn-rimmed glasses and had a neatly trimmed goatee.

I suppose that when he first came to Minneapolis and found a room at the YMCA, he was excited to be away from his wife and the three children, one of them a baby and the other two only five and six years old. They were poor like most people in the late fifties, just starting out, and we had lived in cramped quarters in New Jersey, at a trailer court for some of the time, and I’m sure it was a trial for a vigorous man in his mid-twenties to be trapped with women and children for much of the time. It must have been an adventure to be footless and fancy-free in Minneapolis, working in the day but with his nights free and solitary, living downtown in the very midst of things. One of my fathers’ favorite TV shows was The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the YMCA was only a block away from the corner of Nicollet and 8th where the actress would later be filmed (and immortalized) throwing her hat high in the air in front of the Dayton’s Department Store, a spontaneous gesture of freedom and jubilation at being free: as the theme song had it – "Love is all around, no need to waste it/ You can have the town, why don’t you take it? / You’re gonna make it on your own." During that hiatus from paternal obligations, I suspect my father was happy and felt liberated, ready to get into mischief and carouse and howl at the moon, except that, as a preacher’s son, and, then, married at 18, he really didn’t know how to carouse and would have had to take training and, then, make a practice of that art. And, in any event, when you’re away from wife and children, you don’t really do too much in the way of howling at the moon – instead, I suppose, you mostly feel isolated and lonely with a great sense of responsibility too heavy for your slim shoulders bearing you down.

I’m sure my father didn’t have much money and had to save to make a down payment on the house. He probably didn’t go out much at night when he lived in the YMCA. Instead, I suppose that he looked out the window, surveying the La Salle parking lot below, watching as the shadows on the streets lengthened, observing the pedestrians on the sidewalk. And, perhaps, one evening, he read his Gideon Bible for a few minutes, just long enough to feel the familiar blasphemy obligatory to him as a Lutheran pastor’s son returning, and, then, he opened his window to let the breeze into his airless room and gazing down toward the La Salle ramp, saw an old man on the sidewalk, a geezer with a bald spot visible from his vantage above in the YMCA. The old man paused and seemed to look for a long time at the La Salle ramp and I wonder if my father thought: this old guy looks somehow familiar to me but it can’t be that I know him because I don’t have any family or kin in this city, and, anyway, I’m not acquainted with anyone as old as this man who seems to be surveying the parking ramp with a bemused sort of amazement and wonder. And, as he watched, the old man turned and looked up at the YMCA and my father thought, I wonder if he can see me here, in this dark room – it’s getting to be night-time and I should turn on the lamp – but can he see me? because he is peering up here as if gazing into very deep darkness and I wonder if he sees me looking down on him.

My father died when he was 58. I am now 62.


Addendum:
My mother read this essay and observed that I had taken license with the facts.  At the time that my father lived in the downtown YMCA, there were four kids in the family.  She also recalls the house in Asbury Park, actually the adjacent suburb, Wannamassa, as "quite roomy." 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

On Dairy Diarrhea



 

 

 

In an episode of Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s eccentric TV program broadcast in the early 1990's, someone mentions a "dairy" maintained by Laura Palmer. As everyone knows, Laura Palmer is the Twin Peaks’ homecoming queen whose murder initiates the 30 episodes of the show. Laura Palmer kept a secret diary in which she chronicled her degradation as a secret cocaine addict and prostitute. The diary contains clues as to the identity of her killer and, so, that writing is significant to the story. One of the show’s characters, apparently, mishears a reference to her "diary", translating the word into its almost identical anagram, "dairy". Thus, the dead girl is imagined to be operating a "dairy".

A native speaker of English hears the similarity between "diary" and "dairy" as a fait accompli, a coincidence that doesn’t have any significance. We don’t jump to the conclusion that there is any relationship between the words other than one that is purely accidental and fortuitous. And, indeed, the two words are wholly unrelated and have completely different historical sources. The etymology of "dairy" is the Old English word daeg (that is, a "kneader of bread", "female servant" or "housekeeper") combined with the Norman French suffix signifying a place "–erie." Thus, a "dairy" is a place where milkmaids (who knead a cow’s teats as they might knead bread) ply their trade. By contrast, "diary" derives from the Latin diarium, a word for a "book of days" that has its origin in the word dies, also Latin, for day – in a "diary" we record the events of our days.

One reading in a foreign language lacks the nuanced ability to understand similar looking words as wholly dissimilar. If I see two German words that look like one another, lacking a daily, spoken sense for the context of these words’ usage, I am prone to confuse them. At minimum, I will likely believe that the two words have similar meaning, a concord based upon their etymological history. An interesting example of this problem arises in Viktor Frankl’s concentration camp memoir. Trotzdem Ja zum Leben Sagen – ein Psycholog erlebt das Konzentrationslager (Nevertheless saying "Yes" to Life – a Psychologist experiences the Concentration Camp). Frankl’s book is well-known in English under the title Man’s Search for Meaning. In his book, Frankl uses the word Jauche. Hence:

Wenn dann bei der Abfuhr ueber holprige Felder die Jauche – wie gewoehnlich – ins Gesicht spritzt, wird ein Zusammenzucken oder derVersuch des Wegwischens sicher nur mit einem Stockhieb seitens des Capo quittiert werden, der sich ueber die "Zimperlichkeit" seines Arbeiters aufregt.


When liquid manure transported over the bumpy fields sprayed (as it did usually) into a worker’s face, the man’s reflexive repulsion or his attempt to wipe it off would certainly be met with a blow from the Capo upset by his worker’s "delicacy".
Translation in Man’s Search for Meaning (Ilse Lasch): If, as usually happened, some of the excrement splashed into his face during transport over bumpy fields, any sign of disgust by the prisoner or an attempt to wipe off the filth would only be punished by a blow from the "Capo."

The word Jauche was unfamiliar to me. However, the word looks similar to the German verb Jauchzen. Jauchzen means to express one’s jubilation with audible cries of happiness. This meaning is startlingly different from the nasty excremental meaning of Jauche and, so, I was interested to see if there might be any relationship historically between the two words.

Not surprisingly, nothing links the two similar-looking words. Jauche is a technical term for manure slurry – it has an agricultural origin. The word originates in Slavic terms – jecha in Lower Sorbian and juha in Croatian. These words are etymologically related to the German Bruehe – that is, "soup." The terms mean a foul smelling combination of liquid dung and stall detritus such as straw bedding and feed. This slurry has the consistency of "soup" and, hence, the Slavic words were imported into German, probably by eastern European (Slavic) agricultural workers resulting in the German term Jauche for liquid manure.

(The echt-High German word for manure slurry is Guelle this means the same as Jauche and derives from the German word Pfuetze or "puddle". Again the nasty substance is named for the fact that it has liquefied – at a farm with animals in stalls, the Pfuetze are treacherous with puddles of liquid manure.)

The German term for "cries of jubilation," jauchzen derives from a German exclamation Juch! Juch! is an ejaculation taken to signify joy and happiness. Juch!, Germans are reputed to cry when they are so jubilant that mere words no longer express their joy.

My equation of Jauche with jauchzen is naive and completely false. A native-speaking German would no more confuse the words than I would mistake "diary" for "diarrhea." ("Diarrhea" is derived from the Greek dia – that is, to "flow through". The Greek word initially meant "funnel." Thus, Diarrhea is related to Diabetes – the latter term meaning that the body has become a mere "funnel" or "conduit" for urine.)

Sunday, April 9, 2017

On the Firing of 59 Tomahawk Missiles into Syria in Reponse to a Chemical Attack



 

1.

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, with the connivance of his Russian henchmen, has managed a feat hitherto thought impossible: he has made Donald Trump seem presidential and, even, problematically, heroic. Assad accomplished this prodigy by barrel-bombing Idlib, a city north of Damascus, with weapons laced with poison gas. As a result, recognizably human victims, most of them children, were left strewn all around the site of the atrocity. The carnage converted to TV news and run in continuous loop under warnings about its graphic content, created cartoonish, almost comically vivid, evidence of Assad’s villainy. In effect, Assad created an advertisement arguing in the strongest possible terms for his ouster.

Assad’s crime was not to massacre infants and toddlers. His real offense was to deploy a weapon that left intact relatively unmutilated bodies at the scene of the engagement. Conventional barrel-bombing leaves human beings looking like the scrapings of a slaughterhouse floor after a particularly long and profitable shift. Sarin nerve gas, by contrast, leaves its victims limp, palpably dead, but, nonetheless, human in shape and surface – it transforms its victims into objects of sympathy and not revulsion. By bad luck, Assad’s weapons struck what appears to have been a day-care center for pre-school children in rebellious Idlib. The babies died with soulful eyes wide-open. Pictures of them with mourning parents, or an assembly of the pint-sized corpses lying pathetically like discarded Raggedy Ann dolls in the back of an SUV was too much for the public to bear. Assad’s offense was that he had created scores of highly photogenic corpses.

Ever attuned to the vagaries of PR, Trump was able to distract attention from the paralysis of his legislative agenda, and the partisan cries that he is, in fact, an imposter President, the puppet of Vladimir Putin, by a thunderous riposte about the barbarism of al-Assad in choking out the life of such "beautiful babies." An air strike predictably followed, acclaimed by all but the nay-sayers of the radical right (Rand Paul) and left (Bernie Sanders). Although no one believes Trump, of course, here the evidence supporting his actions was a clear as the proverbial nose on your face – the 24-7 coverage showing the pathetic remains of the murdered moppets. It is ironic, of course, that Mr. Trump’s ordered his military forces into action over little boys and girls that he would have gladly left to die by inanition, fire, and shrapnel without any recourse to haven in the United States – those very same tykes transformed into photogenic corpses and exploited as a basis for the US air strike would have been barred entry into this country as both Muslims and mini-terrorists.

 

2.

Afficionados of the deeper game may speculate about the timing of Assad’s Sarin-laden barrel bomb strike, a sortie emanating from an air-base on which Russians act as a kind of concierge-service to the tyrant. As rumor has it, Trump is the Siberian candidate, a creature of Moscow. Perhaps, Vladimir Putin perceived his asset careening down the slippery slope to complete fecklessness, even, perhaps, impeachment. The lineaments of Trump’s triumph have long since been submerged in a sea of partisan bickering, his nominations imperilled, and, even, his allies in a state of disarray. A friend fatally gored is no help in time of trial. So, perhaps, something had to be done to shore up the floundering Trump regime. Thus, Assad’s attack and Trump’s response, carefully calibrated to avoid harming any Russian men or material in the theater of engagement.

 

3.

After the air strike, Nikki Haley, our representative to the United Nations, appeared on the Sunday morning talk shows to praise President Trump’s indomitable fighting spirit. She told her interlocutors that the Tomahawk missiles were hurled into Syria with "rock star" aplomb. I thought this choice of words was peculiar and, even, puzzling.

Based on my experience with rock stars and their performances, I assume she meant that the air strike took the stage an hour or, even, hour-and-a-half late. No doubt the performance had pyrotechnics and was deafening. Was she also hinting that message conveyed by the air strike was drowned out by the decibels just as the lyrics to rock and roll anthems are customarily inaudible when performed? And did she also mean that the military acted in a haze of drugs, more or less indifferent to the consequences of its fusillade of Cruise missiles? A "rock star"-executed air strike would undoubtedly result in civilian casualties not only in Syria, but, also, Kurdistan, Tel Aviv, and, probably, Istanbul.

Why were only 59 missiles fired? I have difficulty believing that Donald Trump called up his generals and said: "Shoot 59 Tomahawks at Syria!" "How about sixty, Mr. President?" "No, a measured response is necessary, use only 59." Isn’t it more likely that the sixtieth missile deployed in this "rock star" attack went seriously awry? But it is unlikely that we will hear about that misfire any time soon.  


April 9, 2017 (Palm Sunday)

Thursday, April 6, 2017

On the Two Americas



 

 

1.

There are one-and-a-half million people in Phoenix, the so-called "Valley of the Sun", and, probably three million cars. The city has swallowed the belt-line freeway loops and the bypasses and the highways are always clogged with traffic. For several hours each day, the roads are impassable. No longer remote, the airport is surrounded by skyscrapers and the State Hospital for the Insane, once exiled to the very edges of the desert wasteland, now occupies a central location in the sprawling metropolis. It seems improbable that so many people can live in a place by nature so inhospitable – the miserable Salt River is a causeway of sand for most of the year.

Near downtown, there are strange box-car sized globules of wind-sculpted sandstone – this is Papago Park, some artificial water features among the ornamental cactus gardens in that place and, at intervals, a couple stark mountains jab up above the suburbs: the ravines on those mountains are the color of gravel and treeless even around the pale alluvial washes and the tops of the peaks are all festooned with blinking, winking, leering and jeering transmission towers and, to the north, where there are lava flows, shattered dykes of basalt cut through the neighborhoods and the stones, that seem to be broken by the implacable chisel of the sun, are covered with a black patina readily pecked away to make pictographs, whole fields of jagged rock decorated with obscure circles and rectangular torsos with little claw feet and solar emblems with radiant beams, marks left the Indians who inhabited these parts and who were slaughtered at first, beat to death by the early pioneers because it wasn’t worth a cartridge to shoot them, then, transported to the edges of the town, to Indian School and Indian Mission Road out on the desert where there are now casino resorts and golf courses with bunkers full of limpid water and weeping willow trees along the artificial streams and, in the distance, the impregnable fortress of the Superstition Mountains with its claws fixed in the face of the day...

This is a world made by men for men, nothing like the mountains and basins extending one after another in all directions. Here is the strip mall and the fast food places and the sidewalks running along the edges of busy thoroughfares, the office towers and the clinics, the car dealerships and insurance agencies and the small atriums in small commercial buildings with people in glass walled cells bending to their computers and elevators ascending and descending and a small fountain burbling merrily amidst all the coming and going, the smell of pizza in the corridors, the carpet cleaners upstairs, your ex at the Wok and Roll for the lunch buffet, a dumpster in the alley where birds of prey roost, pay at the register where she will swipe her debit card, the baby needing her diaper changed, the cars free-range in the rain with windshield wipers ticking off the seconds of your life, people on skype or internet, the hyper-links, the sniper in the tower, time to pay the piper, viper or not here in this garden plot...

In the this world of people made by people and remote from nature, plenty of things are mass-produced and, therefore, rhyme. Every Coke rhymes with every other Coke and the merchandise on the shelf is reliably mass-produced; the golden arches are always the golden arches and so on from fast food place to fast food place, everything franchised, and the signs rhyme with one another, same or similar words reoccurring over and over again; identical makes and models of cars caught up in the traffic, three helicopters working the junction between the interstates in the heat-haze and each a duplicate of the other, copying machines spitting out copies, a xeroxed world replete with exact rhymes, nothing at all like the forest and rocks and desert cactus and the lizards scurrying in and out of the sun and various scorpions their yellow armor variously dented by the adventures life has dealt them, missing legs here and there and every leaf on every tree monotonously the same and yet monotonously dissimilar as well – all of this nature is either without rhyme, or comprised of only the most approximate slant rhymes, a language like Italian where everything is assonant on one vowel or another, but the words all sound a little bit different –

So I am in the casino at Talking Stick on one of the Pima – no that’s a derogatory term – on one of the Hohokam – no that’s not right: it just means "vanished ones" and these Indians aren’t by any means dead and gone...no, it’s the Papago – no, don’t use that word, it’s also disrespectful ("chatterbox"? or "bean-eater"?) – no better to call the people by their proper and approved name, the Tohono Oo’dham ("the desert dwellers") – got to get these words right: a chipmunk or a gila monster doesn’t care what you call him or her, but a man, a human being, that’s a different matter entirely, attention must be paid... so here I am at the casino east of Phoenix, the Talking Stick resort managed by the Tohono Oo’dham nation and we are talking, over dinner, about climate change. Ostensibly, it’s a business meeting, but the agenda has long since been abandoned, obscured by cocktails and talk of professional sports, hunting, the afternoon’s golf scores, and, predictably, most of the men are Trump supporters and, therefore, climate change skeptics. Someone says that there is no reason to exercise waste, no reason to be a bad steward of the environment, but a glacier and a mountain, the sea and the desert, are not easily swayed to human ends and, therefore, no reason exists to believe that our feeble activity affects the climate.

We are seated in a swank restaurant called Orange Skies so named because the big windows clad in Venetian blinds can be opened when the sun is setting to reveal the brilliant hues decorating the sky over Camelback Mountain. The elite side of the restaurant, requiring a couple weeks advance dinner reservations, overlooks the city, the great basin charged with the vibrating energy of the freeways and the commercial strips leaking their neon upward into the warm, dry air and the mountain, reduced by sunset’s shadows to a mere profile, a zigzag pointy thing that blocks our view of the downtown skyscrapers and the rest of the city. On the other side of this restaurant perched in the sky, the land is already in the gloaming, an elbow-shaped water-hazard luxuriating under some worried-looking willows and, far away, in this aquarium-light, the massif of the Superstition Mountains brooding over the wilderness.

I’m not argumentative by nature. You go along to get along. So I didn’t feel any need to enter into the debate about climate change. But I listened to the talk at the table and, from what I heard, it was apparent that there are two Americas exactly as pundits have observed. People from rural areas are conservative and they like Trump’s machismo and they don’t think that human beings have any real influence on the climate. Others, primarily from bigger cities, are more liberal – or, I guess, the term du jour is "progressive" – and they despise Trump and are concerned that we are killing our planet by changing its climate. Thus, two Americas exist that can barely find words to talk with one another. This observation is a cliche and, like many banalities, undoubtedly true. The question, of course, is why should this division exist.

 

 

 

2.

Climate is an aspect of nature that is both familiar and inscrutable. Our relationship to nature is always complex and problematic. In The Future of an Illusion, Freud considers man’s intrinsic fear of natural forces as the origin of religion. Nature makes an "overwhelming impression" on us – a lightning strike on our lawn reduces us to quivering shock. Human beings personify nature, imagining natural forces as gods which are, in turn, surrogates for our parents. Our climate (or a discharge of static electricity) didn’t deliver the awe-inspiring lightning bolt searing the tree in the front yard – this visitation came from our angry and brutal Father, a figure like Zeus. Culture or civilization, Freud maintains, exists as a defense against nature. And, yet, culture "leaves...(a) large number of its participants unsatisfied and drives them into revolt."

Since our vision of nature is colored with aspects of the divine, and personalized for each of us as our enraged father and, perhaps, our gentle long-suffering mother, we are necessarily ambivalent about the climate. In some of its manifestations, we hate nature and the climate, a hatred that is complicated by the love that we bear to those who stand in loco parentis. It seems that there is something childish intrinsic to the debate about climate change. This is because an element of infantile neurosis (or "religion" as Freud defined it) underlies the discussion. Thus, the climate debate seems to reel unsteadily between delusions of omnipotence and fantasies of complete, and abject, helplessness.

Here is another division between the two Americas – some think themselves to be immensely powerful; others imagine themselves as helpless. Those who feel helpless often deny climate change – human beings are too insignificant to affect the climate. Those who feel powerful tend to accept climate change but their inherent arrogance renders their opinions always questionable to the other moiety comprising our population.

 

3.

While driving, I listened to public radio. The question posed by the talk show host was whether Donald Trump was successfully achieving the objectives of those people who had supported him. A caller from an upper middle-class suburb was invited on-air with her question. The woman’s voice was velvety and her articulation excellent. It seemed as if she had written her question neatly on a 3 x 5 card, although she read the words expressively. Although the question was polite, it was "loaded" to elicit consensus that President Trump had violated the trust of his constituents, a conclusion that the radio host and her panel reached almost immediately. The next person on-air was calling from some small town in the north woods of Minnesota. A pack of hounds bayed in the background. The man’s voice was gravely with age: he muttered something about Hilary Clinton selling off America’s uranium to the Russians. The host took advantage of the howling dogs to cut the call short. Another couple of callers spoke sweetly, delighted, it seemed, by their own reasonableness. They also seemed to have written their tendentious questions on a pad of paper so that they could perform them with sufficient eloquence when called upon by the radio host. Each of these callers seemed to making his or her phone call from a sealed studio somewhere – there was no background sound of any kind. The fourth caller was from a little farming community – the man seemed to be riding in a tractor open to the elements. The wind hissed and burbled under the man’s words which were halting. He spent a long time asking if he was on the air and, then, repeated himself several times as to the place from which he was calling. The background noise increased in intensity. The man stammered out some invective against Hilary Clinton. "This is not really our subject today," the host declared, cutting him off. The next call was from one of the more expensive suburbs on the edge of the city. The woman stated her question succinctly and, then, said that "(she) would take the answer off-the-air." The host and panel praised her. After some discussion, another caller was invited to speak: his radio was playing loudly in the background and seemed to create an echo-chamber effect and it also seemed that he had his television turned-on, tuned to Fox, because I could hear some kind of harangue underlying his words. The man’s voice was hesitant but angry. "What about Hilary Clinton?" he cried. "She lied about Benghazi." The radio host said it was hard to hear him because of the background noise and the bad connection. The man said that he was calling from the North Shore, on the edge of Lake Superior. A dog began to bark as well. "We can’t hear you clearly," the radio host said and she cut off the call.

The two Americas occupy different locales. Rural people supported Donald Trump. They are angry, so enraged that they can’t stay on point, perturbed to the point that rage fractures their grammar. The people from cities supported Mrs. Clinton. They write their questions, carefully phrased on cards and seem to occupy sound-proof booths when calling the talk radio shows. The Trump supporters are always exposed to the weather, standing knee-deep in swamps, or atop deer-stands and the icy wind whips around them while sinister hounds bay in the distance.

 

 

4.

A roadside attraction called The Thing? is displayed at a run-down gas station at mile-marker 331 on I-10, the highway between Tucson and El Paso. The gas station accompanied by a decaying house and some pre-fabricated metal sheds stands on a barren knoll commanding a view across forty miles of desert to the blue redoubt of Cochise Stronghold, a Madrean sky-island mountain range. (Southern Arizona is welted with mountains, really long ridges between 7,000 and 10,000 feet high. These ridge systems are uplifted fault ranges running for 25 to 50 miles in length, but only the width of a single peak – that is, just as broad as some brown and stony foothills pierced by dry canyons and, then, rising steeply to a serrated summit clad in Douglas fir and Engleman spruce, some rock domes exposed along the ridge-line like a row of incisors, the mountains, then, falling away to a similar escarpment on the other side of the ridge. The term Madrean sky-island refers the mountains as fragments of the Sierra Madre ecosystem, the southern extension of the Rocky Mountains in Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico.)

I stopped at The Thing? on a chilly morning in February, primarily to use the toilet. To the west, there is a rest stop among the wind-polished hoodoos at the Texas Canyon pass, but the place is a necessary amenity for the truckdrivers running the route from El Paso to Los Angeles, a great corral of rigs buzzing and humming and hissing amidst the stony monoliths, and every stall in the restrooms occupied, as well, by constipated teamsters coughing and gasping and farting forlornly, the uni-sex or family toilets being swabbed down by some Latino women wearing bandanas, the women’s toilets taped off due to some kind of broken pipes, and the whole place so sulphurous with fumes of all kinds that I retreated to my car, drove down from the pass, and, then, in the basin below saw that it was only 20 miles to the next exit where I could couple my trip to the restroom with a visit to the famous roadside attraction as well. The gas station at The Thing? boasts a great cantilevered white metal awning over the pumps, an archaic design that is picturesque enough as to be featured in many examples of American Pop Art as an instance of streamlined modernist design. Here the awning is like a plane’s wing mounted on stilts, a comparison that is apt because of the wind roaring over the stony rock hill three- or four-hundred feet above the desert.

The Thing? occupies a cinder-block mortuary within a maze of gloomy chambers contained inside several interconnected pre-fab corrugated metal buildings. When I was in the maze, I head voices ahead of me and behind, but never saw a living soul. The treasures heaped around the main exhibit’s glass casket include rusty firearms, a dilapidated Conestoga wagon, one of Hitler’s cars, some ineptly carved wooden Indians, a war bonnet and scalps, sepia-tinted photographs of old Indian fighters and pioneers glaring down from the walls. The toilets were serviceable with a strong disinfectant stink like Irish Spring soap or deodorant. You enter the exhibit through a store retailing turquoise jewelry, follow phosphorescent and clawed monster footprints pasted to the floor as decals, pay your homage to The Thing? and, then, emerge in another store where postcards are available as well as hard-candy and Indian pottery.

I had left Tucson at dawn, uncertain as to the distance that I had to traverse to reach the Pinaleno Mountains, my destination. The freeway was silent and mostly vacant – it was a Sunday morning – and, when I exited to drive north on Arizona 191 east of Wilcox, I encountered a broad, freshly paved four-lane highway complete with a median strip two cars wide, aimed straight as an arrow toward Safford forty miles away. There was no traffic coming, none going and the road ran unerringly through rolling foothills to the Pinaleno ridge, a high green wall dabbed with white snow along its saw-toothed heights. It happens infrequently, and, yet, it happens: a road opens up before you smooth and empty and perfect, a sort of magic carpet ride and I glided north, the shadow of the mountains always at my left, the smooth wall of the ridge cut through here and there by canyons with forbidding rock buttes like sentinels at their outlets, the peaks rising up to a dome that marked the very center of the upraised welt, the whip-mark, of the thirty-mile long ridge. The dome, a brow of rock pushed up above the high, smooth shoulders of fir and spruce, was Mount Graham, the longitudinal middle point of the range – indeed, to the people in the valley up at Safford, the entire ridge system is sometimes simply called Mount Graham as if the ridge were really only one formation, a description of the Pinalenos as they are otherwise called that is, more or less, accurate. The mountain heights were dusted with snow and the land that I traversed was devoid of any human habitation, the only sign of man’s presence an electrical transmission line borne by steel-frame towers striding inexorably to the north. The east in a rift valley, I could see, a sliver of water probably impounded behind a dam hidden in the beige and maroon badlands.

The Pinaleno (or Graham) mountains are imposing because of their vertical relief. The main ridge rises more than 7000 feet above the basins on their eastern flank. The high country can be accessed by a two-lane black top road, the so-called Swift Trail, a winding and steep mountain highway that climbs to the summit of the ridge, and, then, traverses a pass to the west-facing flank of the Pinalenos. A366, as the Swift Trail, is called angles toward the high wall of the mountains from an intersection where the traveler encounters several shacks selling rocks and curios, a desolate corral offering trail rides (although no horses were in sight when I passed), a taxidermy business and some hand-lettered signs suggesting that a therapeutic massage is just the thing for someone bound to, or from, the sierra.

In the intermountain west, most highways run sensibly parallel to ranges of mountains. So it is always exhilarating to turn from the main way and aim your car uphill at the peaks. This is particularly the case in Arizona where the basins are flat and treeless and the way to the heights commences by ascending great tilted ramps of desert. You can see in all directions and the foothills are crumbling badlands that decorate the crest of the rising land and, since the grade is modest (at least, at first), you can drive fast up the straight way to the summit. The land-ramp narrows and drops off on both sides of the highway and, in your rear-view mirror, you see the flat, featureless terrain falling away below something like the way landscapes recedes under an airplane that is taking off. The distances turn blue and foggy green and, after a couple miles, you have climbed two-thousand feet, all in the open so that your height is apparent and dramatic, great raw canyons gaping on both sides of the narrowing arrow of causeway rising into the mountains. The desert yields to grassland and, then, small, crooked trees dotting the chaparral become more dense, speed limit signs warn you to slow down, and, then, you reach the first of the curves, so sharp that it can’t be navigated at any speed exceeding 35, more curves, now marked to 25 and, at last, 10 and 15 miles per hour, the grade increasing so that the car seems to labor under you as it swivels its way upward among tawny banks of broken rock and groves of trees that have now become a squat and tormented forest. The highway welts the bluffs overhead like the mark of a whiplash and you can see the asphalt above you riding shelves of exposed cliff.

The curves become incessant and dizzying, but the trees are now straight, a forest of fir and pine with little clearings littered with deadfall. At an elbow in the road, a tongue of asphalt licks uphill, a parking place where the motorist can rest from the curves and look at a picturesque field-stone bridge built by the WPA and marking the original track of the Swift Trail. The bridge is single-lane but rugged – it arches a twisting gorge that is dry at this time of the morning: the sun has not yet begun to melt the snow lodged in the woods uphill.

For a couple ascending miles, the road seems to mark the edge of the trees and there are exposed places plunging down into canyons. Then, at about 7,500 feet (the snow-line on this weekend is at 7,200 feet), the slope decreases a little and the road is on the shoulder of the mountain, a place that is not exactly flat but less steep, a lonely collection of summer cottages, all of them sealed for the winter, at Turkey Flats, although there is nothing level here at all, the forest rising gently upward through its meadows, a series of shadowy, snow-dusted chambers rising to heights that are now invisible because you are among them.

The road, then, makes a surprising move, turning sharply and flattening out to follow the contour of the mountain around its side, a long elegant curve that transports you to the backside of the mountain, the reverse of the ridge. A marker tells you that the road is now 9000 feet above sea-level. The west-facing ridge is very steep dropping vertiginously down to the desert. A single truck, longer than a bus, carrying a clutch of big logs chained together roars down the road. Where did this come from? Otherwise, there has been no other traffic of any kind, coming or going on the Swift Trail.

On the west side of the ridge, the road slopes gently upward, cut across a terrace just below the high-peaks. The snow is knee-deep on both sides of the highway but the road is completely clear. In the valley it was 54 degrees – here the temperature is 29. I roll the window down. The silence is complete. After a couple of miles leisurely traversing the woodlands, the road reaches a place forking upward as wet, rutted gravel, an ATV path, the main highway marked with a sign that "Pavement Ends" and a locked gate. An elevation marker reads 9600 feet. I back up and turn around.

A quarter mile from the end of the road, a turn-off marks a vista over the desert basin to the west of the mountain range. I park and get out of the car, shuddering a little in the cold. On the west side of the mountain, it’s still shadowy – the sun isn’t sufficiently vertical to illumine the woods and the diving slope of the ridge falling away to the desert below. Two mule-deer amble across the road, seemingly not too concerned by my presence. A smaller deer, a calf it seems, follows, too shy to look at me directly. I can see 100 miles maybe more, down between a couple of tall, dead trees, pale as the columns of an ancient Athenian temple – the wind has stripped both the bark and the limbs from these old fellows and they stand upright, thorned with the places where their branches have broken, marmoreal, making a foreground to a panorama that seems to show the entire earth, but the earth as it was before climate change, before the cities, before the Apaches, before any human being walked these heights. Across the enormous expanse of yellowish desert, I can see no cultivated land, no roads except, perhaps, a couple of inconsequential scuffs in the basin, bald patches that start nowhere and go nowhere. Looking straight down, I can see a flat between small hills capped with eroding pinnacles. On the flat, there seems to be a trailer, although at this distance, I can’t see for sure, and, perhaps, a wrecked earth mover. Here and there, greenish ribbons mark water, although you can’t actually see the lake or stream or the seep, just the gradient of burnt brown to yellow to a pale green. At least, five mountain ranges are visible from here – all of them enigmatic, impenetrable, remote. This is the other America, a world that seems to be entirely devoid of any humans and any trace of the human, except of course the road from which I am viewing this spectacle. The deserts and the blue archipelago of mountain ranges run out to the limit of my vision and I can see nothing marking the presence of man.

It’s a frightening prospect in a way. I feel very lonely and cold. Of course, these heights that I occupy are well-known. People have scrambled to the top of every peak. Indeed, Mount Graham, the highest point in the ridge, is capped with a famous astronomical observation point, a solar laboratory and, during the Apache Wars, the cavalry communicated by way of a heliotrope, a sun-catching mirror, at that summit – trails lead to a lake twenty miles away and all the shallow, dancing creeks falling down the hillside have names. In fact, every crest in the ridge has been named. But what about the desert basin, the innumerable small knolls and valleys – have these broiling, featureless places been named? What about the slashes I can see between low bluffs seventy miles away, the striated plain? Have those badlands been named? The small hillocks wearing broken rock like crowns? Has someone visited those miniature peaks of gravel? It seems to me that I am overlooking hundreds of square miles never trodden upon by the foot of man.

And I am also watching the weather: far out on the desert, a dust storm is ploughing up the sand and dirt – I can see plumes of dust rising toward grey, shuttered-looking clouds danging fringes of rain that will never reach the earth. A mountain range at the limit of what I can see has attracted gloomy clouds that arc up into the sky. Patches of slate-grey sky alternate with open oculus of blue heavens. From over the diffraction grating of the mountain, long greenish rays pierce the distance.

How can man have any influence over all of this? In one of Gary Snyder’s books, there’s a moment when a hiker looks across a blue and white sea of peaks alternating with snowfields and remarks: "And this all has a senator." Except as Snyder is quick to point out: "not really." Who speaks for this immeasurable distance, these weather systems, the clouds overhead, the cactus crouching below me, the columns of sepulchral dead white trees? From this perspective, the notion that man could have any impact on climate seems improbable, not to say ludicrous.

Two things happened. Rocks fell from a cut over the road behind me. The rocks were loosened by the snow-melt. Some sun was now burning over the wooded forest top and a drizzle of downhill rivulets began to sing and some of this moisture caught in the face of the stone over the highway, riveted I now saw against collapse, but chiseling out a hundred pounds of so of debris to spalsh down on the asphalt. The noise was unnerving and abrupt and I jumped about a foot in the air. Then, I heard something rustle and I looked to my right – a powerfully built hindquarters of some sort of feline flashed a white underbelly at me for an instance as the animal swiftly descended from the edge of road down the steep drop toward the desert. I didn’t see the front half of the creature, only its rear: two powerful limbs anchoring the beast and a great tail ringed in white and fox-brown. This also unnerved me and, so, I hurried to my car and began the trip through the saddle in the peaks to the east-side of the mountain and the switchbacks curving down into the valley.

I stopped at the elbow in the road where the WPA bridge was located. Now the gulch was musical with waterfalls. On a boulder, there was a tribute to the Safford businessman who had "visioned" this trail and the "recreational area" at Turkey Flats. The boulder had been iced like a cake with snow and the letters seemed to weep. The Safford Rotary club was responsible for the plaque.

 

 

 

 

Additional note: Bassariscus Astutus or the ringtail cat is the Arizona State animal. Sometimes, this mammal is called a "civet" cat. The animal looks something like a powerfully built fox with a long ringed tail.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

On Shasako Endo's novel Silence




 

 

Shusako Endo was a Japanese writer from Nagasaki. He is unique because he was a practicing Catholic throughout most of his life. Endo’s novel Silence is reputed to be his masterpiece. The book was published in the late-1960's. Throughout his life, Endo suffered from respiratory illnesses – in this regard, he is similar to Thomas Bernhard, the great Austrian writer. Like Bernhard, Endo’s themes involve extreme suffering (either physical or emotional) as a kind of test or agon that affords a means of perception and underwrites a system of morality. In his novel Silence, three young Portuguese priests learn that their beloved mentor, Father Ferraira, a Jesuit missionary to Japan, has abandoned h is faith under torture. Unwilling to accept this as truth, the young men travel to Macau where one of them dies by disease. The two survivors, Fathers Garrpe and Rodrigues, are, then, smuggled into Japan. Among the impoverished fishing communities on the seashore, the two priests find congregations of peasants who are Christian but practicing their faith underground – the official penalty for refusing to renounce Catholicism is death by torture. The two priests are haunted by a Japanese Christian, Kikijiro, who is a drunk and has been driven half-way to madness by the destruction of his family members, burned to death on pyres of green faggots. Kikijiro reappears throughout the book as evidence of human weaknesses – he apostatizes repeatedly, then, seeks confession and forgiveness from the priests who are said to be the last pastors surviving in all of Japan. Ultimately, both priests are captured. One of them, Garppe, dies by drowning as he seeks to rescue Christians who have been wrapped in rugs and executed by being tossed into the sea The hero, Rodrigues, survives in captivity. He renounces his faith to save Christians who are being tortured to death by being hung upside down over a filthy excrement-laden pit – he recognizes that is justified for him to offer himself as a martyr but that he can not make others suffer martyrdom on his behalf. After apostatizing, Rodrigues lives out the rest of his life in Nagasaki, acting as a kind of expert at censoring Christian images brought covertly into the land by traders. Rodrigues is given the wife and children of an executed man and lives, apparently serenely and without complaint, until his death by natural causes.

Endo’s novel is certainly powerful and effective. As with most Japanese writers, there is an essential kernel that, I think, doesn’t translate. (This is sometimes manifest in abrupt and inexplicable changes in verb tense.) I always feel a vague sense of tentative incomplete-ness in Japanese prose – the reader has the sense that there is something indefinable lurking in the limpid and self-explanatory text that doesn’t quite make it into English. (I feel this even with writers who are strongly influenced by Americans or European novelists – for instance, Murakami; for that matter, I assume that Endo was strongly influenced by Graham Greene’s Catholic-themed novels.)

I was surprised how closely Scorsese follows the novel in his 2016 film adaptation. There are no real deviations between the book and the script that Scorsese filmed. It’s also interesting to me that the book poses an intractable challenge to a film-maker in that almost all the action is interior to the book’s principal character, Sebastian Rodrigues. After the departure of Garppe in the first third of the book, Rodrigues has no one with whom to engage in dialogue until the colloquies with the inquisitor Inoue and Father Ferraira near the end of the novel – these are powerful, if theatrical, debates that seemed derived from Dostoevski. For most of the book, Rodrigues sits in a cage awaiting his fate. In the early part of the novel, Rodrigues with Garppe are trapped in a kind of cell as well. (Interestingly, the book traffics in a paradox – Rodrigues is relieved to be captured; he is anxious that his martyrdom begin and feels a peace that passes understanding when he is imprisoned. Rodrigues is nowhere more free when then when he is jailed.) At the end of the novel, Rodrigues inhabits the prison of his apostasy and is closely watched by the Japanese authorities around him. In Endo’s grim universe, everyone is either a prisoner or heretic hiding from detection; similarly, his world divides into torturers and the tortured. There is no trace of adventure in the novel and no real sense of wonder at encountering a completely foreign culture – we don’t ever see imperial Japan: it is all a remote echo heard from inside of a prison cell or the squalid fishing villages in which the first third of the novel takes place. The most powerful scene in all Scorsese’s films is the sequence in Raging Bull in which Jake LaMotta is arrested, confined in a prison cell, and pounds his fists into pulp punching at the wall. This scene must bear within it something integral to Scorsese’s imagination because Silence is essentially a prison drama, a film about waiting for torture in a dirty cell. In Scorsese’s conception, I think, human beings are entrapped, prisoners of their own selves, and, ultimately, must confront who it is they have become from within their solitary confinement.

The "grotesque irony" that suffuses Endo’s novel – this is how Rodrigues imagines his mission – arises from a series of misunderstandings. Rodrigues has come to Japan to "to lay down (his) life for (the Japanese Christians.) But, in fact, they are laying down their lives for (him)." (Taplinger Publishing edition at 136). Rodrigues is told by Ferraira that Christianity can not take root in Japan’s "mud-swamp" because the Japanese perceive God as a "beautiful exalted man" (150). But this is not so different from Father Rodrigues’ obsession with the beautiful, shining face of Christ, a visage that sometimes merges with his own features. If the Japanese are heretical in their understanding of God so is Rodrigues. Clearly, the emphasis of the book is not on God the Father, nor on the Holy Spirit – Endo’s book is about the mission of Jesus Christ in the world – and Rodrigues’ progress toward ultimately beholding Christ’s face. In this regard, the book’s "grotesque irony" is that so much suffering must occur before Rodrigues’ grasps a fundamental element in his own theology – Christ doesn’t always come as the King in triumph, converting and refuting the pagans; in fact, Christ is best understood as an aspect of God that has come to suffer what we must suffer. One can argue that in his apostasy, Rodrigues has achieved a more abundant and profound faith: he is joined to the aspect of Christ that is humbled to the human condition, scourged or trampled under foot, the man of sorrows who bears our misery with us. Endo’s novel makes this point and, then, moves away from it in a plethora of intentionally bland, incommunicative official documents with which the book ends. Scorsese dramatizes this more vividly with the image of the cross hidden within the garments of Rodrigues’ corpse as he is cremated. The notion that a triumphant Christ the King should be subsumed within the humiliated and suffering Man of Sorrows is consistent, and harmonizes, with a perverse strain of the Japanese imagination – there is a willful interest in torture and sadism in Japanese art. This is visible more acutely in Mishima who imagined himself as Saint Sebastian, naked and pierced by innumerable arrows and who wrote out in gory advance detail the circumstances of his own hara kiri; even the mild Murakami is not immune from this tendency – consider, the horrific war scenes in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles including the passage where a man is flayed alive, an episode recounted in loving detail. British horror films always were produced in three versions: a relatively sedate U.K. edition of the film in which the physical torture was suggested and not dramatized, a more brutal version showing obliquely the torture for the Americans, and a Japanese version with the violence amped-up and performed in gruesome close-ups.

Scorsese’s film counts, I think, as a "late work." In "late work", an artist often simplifies and denies the very qualities that have earned him fame. Scorsese always has had a "late work" or hyper-simplified style – an example is The King of Comedy, the extremely restrained film with which the director followed the baroque flourishes in Raging Bull. But, I think, the selection of Endo’s novel by Scorsese signifies a repudiation – in fact, a kind of renunciation and penance in the theological sense – of the flashy camera technique and spectacular pictorial design that made him famous. Endo’s novel focuses extensively on things that are heard or sensed but not seen. This is integral to a novel about faith. From his prison cell, Rodrigues hears Nagasaki but can’t see it. (139). The book’s sensory cues are mostly non-visual sensations with three notable exceptions: first, there are many images of nature, the sea, and nature generally deployed to suggest the indifference of the natural world to human suffering – this theme has an auditory correlate as well, the sound of cicada ubiquitous throughout the book; Rodrigues fixates on the blood trail left by the decapitated corpse of one of the Christians (the old man with the "decayed eye"), and he also imagines Garrpe’s "black head" swallowed up by the sea when the Japanese Christians are drowned. But other than these cues, most of the texture of the novel is smell and sound – the cell where Rodrigues is confined before apostasizing is foul with urine, Kikijiro’s treachery is signified by the taste of the salted dried fish, there is a memorable bowl of "sweaty" half-decayed pumpkin, and innumerable references to the rotten fishy smell coming from the Japanese – see, for instance, 160 and 164. At one point, hearing a confession, the stench from the Japanese’s peasant’s mouth makes the hero want to vomit (141). Most notably, the climax in the book involves sound only – Rodrigues hears what he thinks is someone snoring. Then, he is informed that the sound is that of the Japanese Christians’ dying as they suspended over the pits full of offal and excrement (165). (Scorsese shows the torture albeit from a restrained and remote point-of-view.) Endo never portrays the torture visually. The sensory impression of this agony that persuades Rodrigues to apostatize is entirely auditory. In fact, the form of the book is mostly non-visual – the text begins with letters purportedly despatched by Rodrigues and follows this epistolary model, a type of writing that is not primarily pictorial or descriptive, through the fifth chapter. As noted above, the novel ends in the citation of a variety of Kafkaesque bureaucratic documents, again eschewing any kind of description. Remarkably, Scorsese, perhaps the greatest living exponent of a vivid pictorial story-telling, elects to direct a film made from a novel that seems to be resolutely unfilmable – it is like Beethoven’s late sonatas that seem to renounce musicality and that use the piano like a device for torture, a sort of rack on which musical forms are twisted and destroyed.

The novel is the Western sense is not a form that is rooted in traditional Japanese esthetics. The emphasis on the travails of the individual self is inconsistent with aspects of Japanese culture that emphasize communal values. In one sense, Endo’s Silence is a novel broken on the wheel of Japanese traditional values – just as Christianity could not thrive in Japan’s "mud-swamp", there is a sense that the kind of novel that Endo is writing can not really exist in Japanese. Hence, I think a certain blankness in the text, a kind of indifference, the way that the gaze of the writer turns away from human suffering to the great thunder clouds hanging over the ocean or the mechanical cry of the cicada.