Monday, December 30, 2013

On a Wanfukkit Funling

On a Wanfukkit Funling

“The Flyting between Dunbar and Kennedy” is a writing as pointless and profuse as reality. It belongs to a genre that I have invented: it is fractal literature.

Some works of literature aspire to nature’s reckless abundance. Natural energy is exuberance, profligate creation of too much of the same. Venture into any forest and see a thousand trees, all more or less copies of one another, all relentlessly scuffed and scabbed, leaves gnawed into lacework by a million beetles also, more or less, duplicates of one another. Nature hurls off copies: forms endlessly, and absurdly, reproducing themselves, an infinity of mirrors in which slight distortions replicate images that are slightly imperfect copies of the original which was itself a slightly imperfect copy of another original and so on, ad infinitum. And there are books written after nature’s model, fractal compositions in which each page seems, more or less, identical with every other page, although no page, indeed, no sentence, exactly reproduces what preceded it, or what comes after. Finnegans Wake has this form: every sentence contains the DNA from which the entire book is generated: all sections are variations on a theme that remains maddeningly constant throughout the entire colossal edifice. The Old Testament, particularly its poetry, is another example of the Mandelbrot equation enacted as a series of utterances that are uniquely beautiful and intensely meaningful, while seeming to remain essentially tautological. In Hebrew verse, God’s greatness tolerates no argument – X is always equal to X and there is neither plot nor progression, neither crescendo nor decrescendo, not even any acceleration or tarrying in the rhythm of praise or lamentation. Isaiah is splendid and it is all, more or less, the same – not to mention the Psalms or the prophetic books or the Beckett-like drone of temple specifications in Ezekial or God’s statutes enumerated in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. As literature, the Old Testament is like the world: a nightmarish superfluity.

Other literary works have this same quality. Don Quixote has the character of the natural world. The novel is an enormous eco-system of endlessly proliferating narratives, most of them duplicating one another. Rabelais and the ornate filigree-work comprising Spenser’s Faerie Queen also present an impenetrable fractal labyrinth to the reader: an inscrutable abundance that, from page to page offers no traction to the mind. Where the surface of a text is like ice, a crystalline excess endlessly repeated, there is no place to stand – viewed in all directions, the semantic terrain is the same, a monotonous perfection.

Around 1500, two Scottish poets, William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy, insulted one another in verse in poetry called The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy. Apparently, the epic exchange of insults was immensely popular; the work is one of the first texts to be published in Scottish, dating to 1507. The Flyting has the character of a natural phenomenon: it is so expansive and vast that this encyclopedia of vituperation has the quality of swarm of bees or a flock of starlings squatting in their hundreds in a tree befouled by their droppings, emitting a cacophony of indignant shrieks. There are more than 530 lines to the poem and, to a modern reader, the verbal joust resembles Finnegans Wake, exotic or grotesque words and phrases displayed in grotesque abundance – it is all wonderful, all great, and all the same, a sprawling featureless midden of abuse.

Not much is known about the original context of The Flyting. William Dunbar was a court poet associated with James IV and a couple of his verses, most notably “The Lament for the Makaris” are still sometimes anthologized. Kennedy is less well-known – indeed, we are aware of him primarily through Dunbar’s “Lament,” a litany itemizing the great Medieval poets lost to death.

Gud Maister Walter Kennedy
In poynt of dede lyis veraly “Truly lies at the point of death”
Gret reuth it wer that so suld be “reuth” – pity / “suld” - should
“Timor mortis conturbat me.”

The verbal combat embodied in The Flyting seems to have involved some kind of public performance. Certainly, the verse, which is alliterative with a complex rhyme scheme, could not have been improvised, but must have been carefully composed in advance of the public joust. The two Makars, that is Scottish poets, address their arias of vituperation to presiding officials characterized as “Commissars” and, presumably, there were rules by which the ingenuity of the baroque insults could be judged. But it’s anyone’s guess how this Scottish version of “The Dozens” was actually played.

Set in type in 1507, The Flyting contains the first published use of the verb “fuck”. This word appears at line 38 in the 553 line performance. Kennedy is castigating Kennedy in exchange of three preliminary stanzas from each poet that sets the scene as it were for the Flyting:

Fantastik fule, trest weil thow sal be fleyit.
Ignorant elf, aip, owll irregular,
Skaldit skaitbird and commoun skamelar,
Wanfukkit funling that Natour maid ane yrle...

(Fantastic fool, trust well that thou shall be flayed,
Ignorant elf, ape, owl irregular,
Scabby scavenger and common sponger, – for “scabby scavenger” read “scalded shitbird”
Wanfukkit funling that Nature made a dwarf.)

John Conlee, the editor of Dunbar’s “Complete Works” (TEAMS – Middle English Texts, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo 2004) notes that “wanfukkit funling” means something like “ill-conceived foundling.” An integral part of the insult-exhibition seems to have been the physical contrast between the two poets: Dunbar was apparently short and squat, hence insults describing him as an “elf” and a “dwarf”; Kennedy seems to have lean and long-shanked – Dunbar likens him to a ragged, half-mummified corpse stretched on the gallows and, then, somehow reanimated. A staple of an entertainment of this kind, of course, is aspersions on the other combatant’s parentage – Dunbar’s physical deformity and short stature arise from the coupling that is literally “ill-begotten”. (Elsewhere in the poem, Kennedy says that Dunbar is a “devil bear” – that is, the offspring of the devil and a she-bear, an insult that arises from an elaborate false etymology alleged as the origin of Dunbar’s name.) Kennedy’s phrase “wanfukkit funling” suggests that when Dunbar’s parents saw the hideous result of their sexual congress, they put the dwarfish creature up for adoption – hence, Dunbar is a “funling” (“foundling.”)

How does “wanfukkit” mean “ill-conceived”? “Wan” is cognate with our modern word for pale, leaden, sickly. Thus, the adjective means “wan-fucked”. To a medieval Scotsman, corpses had a “wan” complexion – that is, their features were dark, congested with pooling blood, dim and leaden. This would be particularly true of the face of a cadaver displayed on the gallows, a favorite insult both poets repeatedly trade. In this application, “wan” seems to result from the intersection of two related word-systems. “(Th)ann” is an Old English word for dark. Linguists divide color words into two broad semantic categories: hue and saturation. (Th)ann means dark in the sense of a color visualized in dim light – it is a term for light-saturation. (Conjectured prototype languages, root source tongues such as Indo-European, are imagined as making only the distinction between light/warm and dark/cold – that is, on a primordial, and, probably, mythical level, primitive languages differentiate colors only on the basis of saturation. This seems unlikely to me: have you met any Indo-European speakers recently?) “(Th)ann” fuses with a complex of astronomical words relating to the phases of the moon. The most notable, modern usage of this kind is “wane” to refer to a “waning” moon. When the moon wanes, lunar light diminishes – there is a “want” or absence of light. “Want” meaning “lack,” accordingly, is rooted in the notion of darkness and gloom associated with the waning of the moon. When the moon wanes, objects are perceived only dimly – that is, they appear to be “wan,” lacking color or desaturated. Therefore, “wan” in the word “wanfukkit” combines two meanings: the sexual act resulting in the dwarfish Dunbar took place in dim light, under a waning moon, a desaturated and relatively colorless copulation.

At line 101 in the Flyting, Dunbar says that Kennedy is “a wan-visaged widdefow”. A “widdefow” is a corpse, at least, according to Conlee’s notes on the poem; he glosses the expression as a “dark-faced corpse”. (I am not so certain that “widdefow” means corpse – “widde” seems to me “withy,” referring to fetters made from “withers” or stranded rope; “fow” seems to mean “fool,” but is conflated with ‘full” to denote a “fool who is drunk”. In fact, from context, I’m convinced that “wan-visaged widdefow” refers to a tethered drunkard – the entire line is “Wan-visaged widdefow, out of thy wit gane wyld,” that is, “wan-visaged and fettered drunkard, gone wild and out of your wits.”) Here the meaning of “wan” seems to be something like “congested,” bruised-looking, the livid gin-blossomed complexion of a drunkard. “Wan” occurs again at line 195 in a particularly nasty passage:

Wan wraiglane wasp, ma wormis hes thow beschittin
Nor thair is gers on grund or leif on lind.

(Wan wriggling wasp, you’ve shit more worms
Than there is grass on the ground or leaves on the trees.)

“Wan” as it relates to “want” or something that is lacking is also intrinsic to the notion of a “wanfukkit funling”. At line 489, Kennedy tells Dunbar that he is a “monstir” (“monster”) because “thou was consavit in the grete eclipse” – “conceived in the great eclipse.” Underlying these insults is the notion that a sex act performed under particularly inauspicious astrological influences results in defective progeny. A child conceived when the moon has waned due to the earth’s impingement, that is during an eclipse, is particularly “wanfukkit” – and, therefore, will likely be born as a monster. From the concept of dimness and gloom, we derive an idea of desaturated and colorless hue. Desaturated colorlessness, faint or pale hue is bland and uninteresting. Accordingly, “wan” evolves from a term meaning “dark” into an abstraction: something that is “wan” is bland, a bit vague and undecided, and uninteresting. This is the final, and, perhaps, most damning aspect of being the result of “wanfukkit” intercourse – “wan” fucking is sexual congress in which the participants are only vaguely interested in one another. “Wanfukkit,” in this context, means something like sex without passion, a mechanical, indifferent operation performed in a dull and uninteresting way. Medieval Scottish physiology suggests that a child born from “wanfukkit” copulation will be missing something vital – it is not surprising that the “wanfukkit funling” Dunbar is a dwarf. In this respect, Kennedy’s insult seems to echo the physiology implicit in Edmund’s boast in “King Lear” that as a bastard, the product of lusty copulation, he possesses

More composition and fierce quality
Than doth within a dull, stale, tired bed
Go to creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got ‘tween sleep and waking.

Someone produced by sexual intercourse involving partners “‘tween sleep and waking” might be characterized as a “wanfukkit funling.”

Of course, “wanfukkit funling” is but one corpuscle in the mighty torrent of abuse comprising the poem. We might turn our exegetical magnifyng glass on other equally amusing or bizarre epithets: Kennedy is said to be “cuntbitten” – meaning, perhaps, “pussy-whipped,” but, also, probably, afflicted with syphilis. He is also, according to Dunbar,

(A) muttoun dryver, girnall ryver, yardswyvar...

That is, one who herds old sheep (mutton), a grain thief, and mare-humper (“yadswyvar” means “jade-fucker,” where “jade” is a term for an enfeebled female horse.) This sequence of epithets illustrates a pattern in the “Flyting”: at the climax of each denunciation, the poet’s virtuosity exceeds the complex metrical pattern of the rhymed, alliterating stanzas and each line is built from internally rhymed insults that follow an end-rhyme pattern as well). Dunbar tells us that Kennedy is a petty thief, a gallow’s bird, a scabby, incontinent Gaelic-muttering vagabond. Kennedy’s slanging bites deeper: he accuses Dunbar of treason, alleging that he is a Judas who has sold the Scottish nation to the English heirs of “Edward Langshanks” (Edward I) who “twelf thowsand trew Scottismen...keild”. More prosaically, both poets accuse the other of suffering from the “hurle” – that is, explosive diarrhea. With Rabelaisian excess, Dunbar says that Kennedy’s “hostand hippis lattis never (his) hos go dry” (“spewing hips that never allow his pants to dry.”) Not to be outdone, Kennedy claims that Dunbar’s “dok of dirt drepis will never dry / to tume (his) tone it has tyrit carlingis ten” – that is, “(his) asshole drips with filth and will never dry / to scrub his bottom has tired-out ten old women.” Each man says that the other is filthy, drunken, sexually perverse, cowardly, and in league with the devil. And so it goes, the two opposing parts of the poem self-canceling, more than 550 lines that sum to exactly zero.

What do we make of Dunbar and Kennedy’s Flyting, a linguistic universe comprised entirely of malediction? My conjecture is that this symphony of invective was, indeed, composed for public performance. And it is also my surmise that the point of this abuse-oratorio was not, so much, the recitation of outrageous slander, but, rather, the passive reception of those insults by the person to whom they were directed. The actor spewing invective at his opponent is uninteresting, merely a contorted mouth and lips with tongue spitting abuse. Far more fascinating would have been the demeanor of the victim of that abuse. How did the person upon whom the maledictions were heaped respond? Did he writhe in real or pretended discomfort? Did veins in throat and brow bulge with rage? Did the victim of the obscene peroration blush with shame? Or rather did he sit with poker-face, bland and immobile, the serene center of the typhoon of insults? My suspicion is the latter – that is, that the Flyting was intended ultimately as a demonstration of the ancient truism that “sticks and stones may break my bones / but words will never hurt me.” There is no way to prove this conjecture but, I think, that the genre of Flyting was devised to demonstrate the equipoise, dignity, and restraint of the person undergoing verbal assault. The contest illustrated a gentleman’s proper response to scurrilous insult – not a duel or a lawsuit or, even, indignation, but a cool and amused indifference.

The endlessly inventive and completely tedious proliferation of insults in The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy illustrates the same melancholy point impressed upon the reader of Isaiah or Finnegans Wake. Words comprise the human universe. Our world is inevitably made of words. But words, in themselves, aren’t really anything at all.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

On an Arch


The story is something like one of those jokes about a priest and a rabbi and Lutheran pastor walking into a bar together:

You say to a brick: ‘What do you want, brick?’ And brick says: ‘I like an arch.’ And, then, you say: ‘Arches are expensive and I can use a concrete lintel. What do you say to that, brick?’ And brick says: ‘I want an arch.’

Louis Kahn, the great architect, made up this story and told it to his students. What if you said to an arch: “What do you want, arch?” How would the arch respond?

Arch’s answer, I suppose, might be something on the order of Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler’s Auditorium Theatre looming over the intersection of Congress and South Michigan on Chicago’s lakefront. The dominant form in the colossal auditorium is the proscenium arch, echoed by other concentric arches radiating like mighty waves away from the black void of the stage. The arches are gilded and lit by hundreds of bulbs and the glow like the treasure of Tutankhamen in the cavernous hall. The geometry of these arches and their glittering rigor impose a symbolic form on the structure’s interior.

Arches are less voluble than bricks. Bricks are talkative, persistent, stubborn. We will have to tease out the significance of an arch, a form that stands proudly silent.


A man named Peck lived in Chicago at the time of the great fire. Peck was an industrialist. When the fire burned much of Chicago to the ground, a kind of Emersonian idealism took root in the ashes. Chicago’s fire cleared away the teeming and congested city and offered an opportunity to rebuild in a rational, modern, and scientific way. The city was to be the laboratory of the future and, in those days, all of Chicago’s luminaries were utopian idealists: Jane Addams and the railroad car magnate, George Pullman, with his model industrial city in the south suburbs, Carl Sandburg and Corinne True, the woman who brought the immense Bahai Temple to Wilmette, Sullivan and Adler, and, later, Frank Lloyd Wright. Ferdinand Peck must be counted among this number. Peck is the father of Auditorium Theater.

Peck was a businessman. He was concerned that Chicago-style capitalism was driving a wedge between workers and management, that the concentration of money in the hands of industrial technocrats was creating two different classes of humanity – the educated managers and the uneducated disgruntled workers. The Haymarket riots seemed to Peck to evidence this dangerous division in society. Like many 19th century dreamers, Peck thought that art, and our response to art displayed a common humanity between the working classes and their bosses. Therefore, Peck’s solution was to construct a grandiose temple to art, an enormous space in which people of all beliefs and social classes would be united in their appreciation of beauty. The temple to art was to be the Auditorium Theater, a venue for the performance of grand opera, and the largest auditorium in the world. Peck’s solution to social fragmentation, a malaise that he saw as leading to anarchy, was grandiose, Wagnerian, and, characteristically, simple and optimistic: he would underwrite construction of the huge theater and make it possible for workers to rub shoulders with industrialists in a single heroic space dedicated to artistic truth and beauty.

The great engineer, Dankmar Adler, was hired for the project. Adler’s chief architect was Louis Sullivan, then thirty years old. The plan was to erect an entire block containing the auditorium as its core, but producing rental income at street level by an arcade of shops. The great cavity of the auditorium was installed within a grand hotel with enormous banqueting halls, winter gardens, and lounges radiant with skylights and bright enough to grow palm trees in alabaster pots.

The lake-front site was swampy. Adler and Sullivan’s building was a remarkable combination of new and old construction methods. The exterior walls of the structure were Richardsonian Romanesque, hulking walls with cavernous archways built from cyclopean rusticated blocks of Minnesota (St. Cloud) granite. The cavity within this fortress-like shell was airy and light, supported by a grid of structural steel members. But the ensemble was immensely heavy, particularly since Adler and Sullivan planned a six-story masonry tower, a separate skyscraper, perched improbably on the vast cube of quarried stone. All of this weight had to be supported and this posed serious technical challenges since there was no bedrock anywhere on the site. Ultimately, Adler excavated a deep pit in the blue-clay marsh, filling the hole with a crisscross weave of railroad ties coated with pitch. On top of the mesh of tarry timber, Adler built a steel platform. This entire structure formed a barge, floating on the wet clay and, as the building was constructed on top of this foundation, the immense weight of the auditorium forced the support system deeper and deeper into the emulsion of clay silt and water below. Thus, we encounter the first great symbolic aspect of the Auditorium Theater – this gargantuan structure, so heavy that it compresses your chest and makes it hard for you to breathe when you behold the building at street-level (those house-sized rough blocks! those squat, shiny columns bulging with compressive weight! those heavy-lidded half-eye-shaped arches!), this whole immense building floats, like Cleopatra on the Nile, on a subterranean barge, a motionless buoyant vessel tethered in the mud and borne-up by the black, secret waters of the lake below.

After the building’s perimeter walls were set in place, Adler left Chicago and traveled to Europe. Sullivan supervised the adornment of the structure with his vegetal filigree fantasies and raised the mighty concentric arches in the auditorium. He configured a cooling system that used 15 tons of salted ice hacked from the nearby lake and stashed in the auditorium’s ceiling, chilly mist emerging from bulbous fixtures between the lights on the concentric arch-rings overhead. Thousands of the latest carbon filament light bulbs were set in the arches to illuminate the place. By present-day standards, the cavernous interior of the auditorium seems dim and the array of lights defining the concentric overhead arches doesn’t read as source of illumination but rather as ornamentation, an universe of glowing golden gems imparting a semi-mystical Pythagorean aura to the half-circles outlining the stage and the vaulted space. But to 19th century visitors, unused to Edison’s new electric light bulbs, the interior of the auditorium was positively radiant, a temple of light. Sullivan wanted the tower atop the auditorium to be the highest point in Chicago and so, without consulting Adler, the engineer on the structure, he added another floor to that skyscraper. This hubris proved to be almost catastrophic.

Adler said that he had spent five years in computations, calculating the weight-bearing capacity of the floating barge, to determine how much it was likely to settle under the downward thrust of the auditorium block. Sullivan’s impetuous decision to add an additional level to the skyscraper tower, a place to be occupied proudly by the architectural firm of Adler and Sullivan, imposed additional weight on the foundation. The building was supposed to settle about nine to eleven inches – this was taken into account by Adler’s computations. In fact, the building settled for a number of years, ultimately sinking into the earth at its perimeter more than thirty inches. As a result, the building has a peculiarly bowed floor – the auditorium’s center is higher than its edges and the perimeter aisles are almost yard lower than the seats in the middle of the orchestra section. The great and carefully designed overhead arches, accordingly, are mirrored by an accidental arch, flatter and more sinister, the middle of the auditorium forming a low crown that slips downward on all sides to where the heavy perimeter walls bear down on the submerged barge.

Sullivan’s hubris provides us with the second symbolic aspect of the building. It was, in effect, almost a ruin from the day that it was completed. Cracks threatened to unzip the side-walls of the auditorium block and some of those fissures zigzagged like lightning across the facade of the skyscraper tower atop the structure. Sullivan and Adler’s own office was imperilled and the crevasses in the building were said to be visible within their suite of rooms. With each passing year, the structure settled a little more and, for a time, it was surmised that the entire building might simply collapse into the voracious blue clay on which it was built. Some writers, half-seriously, I think, impute Sullivan’s lifelong alcoholism to his attempt to allay with whisky anxiety that his magnum opus was fatally flawed and destined to fail, that the mighty structure lacked Vitruvian “firmness,” primarily due to his own arrogance. Like the house of Usher, Sullivan and Adler’s Auditorium Theater contains a rift that may one day be its undoing.

The auditorium is acoustically superb, transmitting sound outward from the stage through the megaphone-shaped arches, a kind of huge conch-shell. Out of egalitarian considerations, Sullivan disdained the notion of box-seats for elite audience members. He was advised, however, that integral to the experience of 19th century Grand Opera was the display of glittering friezes of society women in low-cut and elegant gowns, their throats and bosoms bedecked with expensive gems. Working class people wanted to see these women on display just as surely as did members of the haute bourgeoise. Accordingly, Sullivan was moved to compromise – he reluctantly installed box-seats but positioned them so that their sight-lines were inferior to the general admission seating in the center of the auditorium. Sullivan’s notion was that if you came to see the opera and were more concerned with the music and art than the social occasion, you would elect to sit in the middle of auditorium and avoid the box seats. The conceptual distinction between seeing and being seen remains to this day. When I toured the auditorium in early November 2013, the guide showed us where Michelle Obama and her daughters sits when the Joffrey Ballet and the Alvin Ailey Dance Company come to town. Mrs. Obama eschews the box-seats and sits in the center of the orchestra section.

The auditorium was complete in 1889. The room seated 4300 people. Before the seats were installed, Benjamin Harrison, a Republican nominee for president, spoke in the half-finished building at his party’s national convention. It is said that 11,000 people crowded into the space to hear his oration. Almost from the outset, the theater was an economic failure – the place was simply too large, too much a white elephant to support itself. Not only displaying structural fissures portending failure, the auditorium enterprise collapsed economically under its own weight.

The first intimations of economic failure accompanied the “White City,” that is, the Columbian World’s Fair Exposition of 1893. The Exposition broke Sullivan’s heart and began his downward professional trajectory. Sullivan had hoped to win the commission to design the lavish pavilions and exhibition halls to be built in Hyde Park, a hundred blocks south of the Auditorium. But the job was awarded to the New York firm headed by Daniel Burnham. Burnham erected a complex of wedding-cake-white beaux arts palaces around the artificial lagoons gouged from Lake Michigan, the array of carytid-infested pavilions oozing ornament – a spectacle that Frank Lloyd Wright claimed “set back American architecture a whole generation.” Adler and Sullivan had hoped to design the entire ensemble of temporary stucco buildings but, instead, were limited to a commission for a single exhibition hall, the Transportation Building. This disappointment is often portrayed as devastating to Sullivan. In fact, the Transportation Building was no mean project – the structure was the length of three football fields and photographs show that the pavilion was impressive, equipped with an awe-inspiring portal featuring gilded concentric arches, a form similar to the great radiating arches in the Auditorium at Michigan and Congress.

Probably more damaging was the fact that the Columbian Exposition heralded a new era in hotel design. Erected to accommodate the flood of visitors to the exposition, the Congress Hotel occupies an entire city block directly to the south of the Auditorium Building. The Congress Hotel was modern, built with all amenities then-existing and, most importantly, the building’s design was innovative with respect to toilets and baths – each room in the hotel had its own private bathroom and WC. By contrast, the Auditorium Hotel followed the continental model: it was a luxury hotel with elaborate, Pompeian-styled common baths and toilets. Of course, visitors preferred the Congress Hotel and, within, a dozen years, the Auditorium Hotel was bankrupt. The Hotel at the Auditorium occupied the west elevation of the building, rooms overlooking Lake Michigan, and was equipped with lavish ballrooms and reception galleries, as well as an ornate and expensive restaurant. All of these facilities were shuttered when the hotel failed. Later, Congress Street was widened and this project carved away some of the Auditorium’s south elevation, apparently resulting in the demolition of some elaborate, marble lounge facilities and an enclosed greenhouse or Winter Garden.

The hotel enterprise was fundamental to the building’s cash-flow. So the deficit had to be made up elsewhere. The owners of the building increased the rent to the store-front businesses and tenants occupying the west (Wabash) side of the complex. Most of those tenants fled the building, leaving the commercial half of the block vacant. The Chicago Lyric Opera, for whom the building had been erected, found the huge auditorium too difficult to fill and the stage with its massive and unwieldy hydraulic lifts and machinery too large and complex. The great proscenium arch dwarfed most productions and made them seem comically small in the context of the auditorium’s grandiose space. (When the building was resurrected for theater in the late seventies and early eighties, the only shows that comfortably fit the stage were arena rock acts, some of them with laser-light shows, and spectacle musicals like Miss Saigon and Les Miserables.) Although touring companies, particularly the Metropolitan Opera, rented the room for annual road-show appearances, the local opera company departed – by 1910, the Chicago Lyric Opera was at home in a smaller, more custom-built venue. For a dozen or so years, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played subscription concerts in the hall. The size of the place made it impossible to fill the hall, however, and musicians complained that there was no reverberation in the auditorium – the notes that they played departed upward and outward into the vastness of the hall and “did not return”; it was said to be like playing all concerts outdoors and the effect was unsettling to musicians who expected to hear the echo of their playing within the room. So the Symphony Orchestra built a concert hall a couple blocks north on Michigan Avenue and also departed from the Auditorium. Accordingly, by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, when the Auditorium was 21 years old, it had lost the musical tenants that were its raison d’etre.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, the Auditorium had been insolvent for many years. The City of Chicago determined that the empty hulk should be torn down. A few desultory attempts at demolition were attempted, but the structure was too heavy, too colossal to be readily destroyed – indeed, since real estate values in Chicago had collapsed due to the Great Depression, anticipated demolition expenses far exceeded the value of the property and the place was left abandoned, quietly decaying at the south end of the Loop. The skylights over the auditorium theater ruptured and water poured in from outside. Snow drifts were sometimes found among the moldering chairs in the darkened auditorium. Adler and Sullivan were long gone – Adler long dead and buried and Sullivan with Peck dying five years before the Crash in 1924.

During World War Two, the USO commandeered the structure and established offices in some of less dilapidated parts of the hotel complex. Some of the rooms were renovated to serve as temporary housing for troops. Photographs show 12 bowling lanes erected on a false-floor in the auditorium. Soldiers rolled their bowling balls from above the 20th row of seats in the auditorium toward the gaping black void of the stage where pin-handling equipment was mounted on a low scaffold. Elderly women recall that there was a dance-floor in the complex and that they took the El downtown to the USO so that they could dance with lonely GI’s in the chilly gloom of the auditorium – but there don’t seem to be any pictures of the dance-hall.

After the war, African-American servicemen were entitled to GI Bill college benefits. But, frequently, they found that institutions of higher learning were segregated and that they were denied admission at many colleges and universities. Responding to this injustice, Eleanor Roosevelt founded a college called Washington University and the school was located in the Auditorium Building. The school’s initial Board of Directors included Mrs. Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and the Black operatic singer, Marian Anderson. Washington University was a success and, later, was renamed Roosevelt University. The university continues to occupy the building today and, in fact, has constructed a gleaming skyscraper on an annex next to Sullivan and Adler’s vast granite cube – from south Wabash, a block away from the Auditorium on the corner where Buddy Guy’s Blues Club now stands, the big blue-glass skyscraper, it’s outline fashionably crumpled like a piece of cerulean-bright paper, frames the stocky tower built atop the Theater. It is a very pretty effect and clearly one intended to complement the rather medieval-looking turret rising over the powerful flanks and shoulders of the auditorium.

From my room on the 12th floor of the Congress Hotel, I could see across the street and into the upper stories of the Auditorium Building. Students sat at long tables in a dark-paneled hall, probably a library, and to accommodate their work schedules, the place stayed open until the early hours of the morning. The lights were on and students bending over their books after midnight on most evenings – a row of lantern-like lights shining atop the heavy, dark structure. On the weekend, the study hall, apparently, can be converted into some kind of banqueting facility or reception hall – I saw men in elegant suits and women in ball-room gowns outlined in the bright windows across the street. I think that the top floor of the auditorium is occupied by the hotel’s old banquet hall, now remodeled into a facility called the Rudolf Ganz Memorial Hall.


When I toured the Auditorium Theater on the first day of November, Chicago’s weather was a little unseemly, just slightly indelicate – a warm, humid wind blowing off the lake, the smell of earthworms and dead fish faintly sexual between the buildings. At this time of year, it is supposed to be cold and crisp, football weather and beyond, mint-Christmas glittering in the air, festive ozone where the wheels of the elevated trains spark like a welder’s torch on the big curve eastbound to Wabash. But the big grid felt sweaty and the rain that painted the streets with reflections was blood-warm. This kind of weather in the Midwest in late autumn usually presages a sudden, drop in the temperature, a gale, an ice-storm that turns into a blizzard howling across the lake. That calamity also didn’t occur – the weather was stuck in grey holding pattern.
The interior of the Auditorium building was steamy. Fog seemed to drift in the distances. The tour-guide was an elegant woman with a silk scarf tossed across her shoulder, a neat, calm person just about to enter old age. She led us from place to place, reciting facts about the auditorium. When there were steps to be climbed, she pointed us to the cast-iron stairs and took the elevator herself to the structure’s higher levels.

At the outset of the tour, the woman asked us to tell the others where we were from. I wanted to mention that I had come from Austin, only forty miles from Sullivan’s last masterpiece, the bank at Owatonna, but I wondered if the woman would know about that structure and expected that I would, then, have to explain what I meant before the group and that my explanation would sound pretentious and self-absorbed and so I simply named my hometown, saw the people blink a little at me, wondering, I suppose, whether I knew Willy Nelson or George Bush or other politicians in the Texas capitol. The other people on the tour were from Florida, Santa Monica, and there was a female architect from Vienna who spoke with a slight accent that sounded Transylvanian from me – at least, if old horror movies are any indication.

The lobby to the Auditorium is a tiled crypt with a low ceiling supported by a forest of plump columns. The space is gloomy, the entrance on Congress guarded by six stained glass muses, women with pillars of blonde hair heaped up atop featureless pink faces. For some reason, the stained glass goddesses seemed to be eyeless with only the faintest trace of a mouth, lips and jaw probably nonfunctional in any event – like cicadas and butterflies, muses don’t eat. The light in the crypt is orangish and the low crouching vaults, like the inside of the knuckles of a hand, are dim and also orangish and so the experience of walking through the foyer is claustrophobic, something like being confined within a carved pumpkin.

The ascent to the auditorium is dramatic. You walk up a shallow flight of stairs and enter the vast hollow of the theater, impassive armies of seats looming overhead, and high above, the universe of huge concentric arches, pricked out by the dim yellow-orange light bulbs each orbited by one of those carbuncle-shaped bronze-colored air-conditioning vents. Floral arabesques scale the walls and two huge medallions, covered in gold and bearing the profiles of Wagner and Shakespeare, Hayden and Demosthenes like postage stamps at their corners, flank the stage. Gold covers all exposed surfaces at the front of the auditorium and the effect is like a mellow sunburst, an expanse of radiating energy like light propagating in orderly concentric waves away from the cavernous black abyss of the stage.

On the sides of the auditorium, two huge landscapes slumber, half-shrouded in the upper darkness. One of them shows an image of Spring, a young woman in a Grecian tunic wandering a meadow painted in the silvery, wind-swept colors that you find in a Corot canvas. The woman has entered the landscape but stands apart from it, a stranger in the chilly vacancy that still seems icy with the winter that has just departed. Across from the Spring landscape, another mural shows a gloomy landscape, rocks and stubby cliffs, a mourner departing through a maze of fallen timber – the image is distinctly funereal, an impression furthered by the motto inscribed beneath the painting said to show a “dell in Wisconsin”:
A great life has passed into the tomb
And there awaits the requiem of Winter snows.

Nature, Sullivan thought, was the fundamental inspiration for all artistic expression and provided forms in which we express our creativity. The energies of nature are birth, death, and change: Spring brings new life; Autumn decimates the landscape and opens into the grave of Winter. Above the proscenium, a frieze decorates the first of the great half-circles, the arch immediately over the stage. The mural is elongated, like a ribbon, both heroic and morose. At the right, where the arch springs upward, a muscular angel, sinews taut like a flexed bow about to fire an arrow, gestures upward some half-naked women, girls dancing on a meadow, youths prancing in procession behind an infant riding barebacked on a leopard. At the apex of the arch, a statuesque angel with the wings of condor and a spiky halo presides over a scroll that reads: THE UTTERANCE OF LIFE IS A SONG / THE SYMPHONY OF NATURE – a peculiarly awkward motto. To the left of the domineering angel, the arch declines through a dark-robed mob of priests to some naked girls, apparently, grief-stricken and comforting one another with ambiguous caresses, falling toward another angel, this heavily winged creature leaning forward to scatter the ashes of a great man on the dim and flowery turf. The angel at the right, aimed like a bow and arrow upward, is the angel of birth; her sister on the left, where the arch dives down to the ground, is the angel of death. The entire program represents the stages of human life: birth, childhood, the glory of youth, and, then, the religious regrets of middle-age, death depicted in the mourning girls and the corpse reduced to ashes strewn into the flowers in which the great arch is rooted.

In the upper galleries, the highest heights seem to shudder a little. The aisles are steep and descend precipitously to the cliff-edge of balconies. Iron columns are stuck like lances into the ceiling and the seats here are ancient, the original auditorium furniture embossed with floral initials A and T, naming the place, ranks of cream-colored tiny chairs hanging from dark roof, the steps tilting downward uneven and terrifying. For some reason, the structure quivers and you can feel the weight and immensity of the building in this place, its exuberant too-much-ness, the power of abundance that seems over-ripe and about to fall, like half-rotten fruit, from the tree. The funereal motifs inscribed into the walls and the melancholy procession of the mural over the proscenium creates the impression that one is touring a vast mausoleum, the tomb of some oriental despot like Halicarnassus or Sardanapalus, an enormous ornate sarcophagus. The air is ancient in these heights, among the Gods as the British would say. Periodically, footfalls are heard, something shudders and creaks in some mysterious recess of the huge vault, and a man as small as a figure lost in a Brueghel landscape navigates across the deep black void of the stage. Apparently, crossing the stage is the shortest route from one place to another in Roosevelt university and, every five minutes or so, someone appears, wandering across the stage, pausing, perhaps, to look out over the great echoing hall. Merely by appearing on the stage, these figures become allegorical –they are minute, unheralded Magellans traversing the great blankness, the tiny figure of a man or woman poised against the encompassing dark.

It is inevitable that I see the arch, particularly the huge half-circle over the proscenium with its parades of naked figures and its shrouded holy men, as representing Louis Sullivan’s life. Springing from the earth, he was young and vibrant and created great works – the auditorium is one of the apogees of his art. Then, fissures sliced through the masonry and Sullivan began to drink heavily and, in the end, after years of failure, he built a small bank in Owatonna, a brick mastaba like the final resting place for a minor pharaoh, that structure designed as a jewel-box sepulcher with another great arch within a square of masonry.

So what does an arch want? An arch wants to embody the course of human life. It wants to spring from the earth and rise proudly to heights that are lofty, but, nonetheless, precisely constrained by its specific geometry – neither too high nor too low – and, then, curve sinuously downward to be buried in the earth

Friday, October 11, 2013

On an Instance of the Monstrous in Literature

A nasty bipedal daddy longlegs, Sut Lovingood is built to skitter away from foes and wreak havoc. The fictional creation of the Southern humorist, George Washington Harris, Sut is the protagonist of some 30 or so short stories and fables set in the dismal hollows and impoverished forests of the western Appalachian mountains. Harris was an unrepenitent Secessionist and he deployed Sut to arraign Abe Lincoln on various charges in several stories published during the Civil War. Union authorities took notice and pursued Harris, a newspaper man and general jack-of-all-trades, from his home territory near Knoxville across the deep South. Harris eluded capture, survived the war, and continued to pen diatribes against the Union. In 1867, he published a collection 29 tales featuring the vicious Sut Lovingood, most of the stories previously printed in Tennessee newspapers – the book is called Yarns Spun by a Natural-born durn’d Fool, and it is wholly extraordinary, alarming, and grotesque. Two years later, Harris had another book finished, a manuscript that he called High Times and Hard Times. While traveling by train to meet his publisher in Virginia, Harris became gravely ill. He died in a hotel near a train station in Knoxville, apparently whispering the word “poisoned.” The manuscript vanished never to be seen again. With Bruno Schulz’ lost novel, The Messiah, George Washington Harris’ vanished manuscript, represents one of the great mysteries and tragic lost opportunities in literary history.

It is probably blasphemous to refer to the pro-slavery George Washington Harris in the same sentence as the poor murdered Jewish fabulist, Bruno Schulz. (Schulz was a Jewish writer who composed his stories in Polish living in Drohobych, a provincial city now in the Ukraine – he was murdered by the SS in 1942) But, in several ways, the two men are similar. Both men were masters of a bizarre and baroque style. Both writers were strangers to the literary culture of their day and lived in remote provincial outposts. Each spoke a language that seemed barbarous to the literary establishment – Polish and Yiddish in the case of Schulz and Midlands-inflected Appalachian dialect by Harris. Both writers worked primarily in the genre of the short story and created works primarily noteworthy for their macabre and grotesque humor. In terms made famous by Deleuze in reference to Kafka, Schulz and Harris are both the practitioners of a “minor literature – that is, a kind of writing that defines itself against the prevailing literary traditions. Writers of “minor literature” are secretive, hermetic, they cloak their themes in esoteric language and seem to regard the diction and norms of conventional literature as a foreign language.

Savage and lethal, Harris’ creation, Sut Lovingood, is a poor “white trash” trickster whose pranks assume wildly exaggerated and mythic dimensions. Lovingood is the sworn enemy of all authority, beginning, most notably, with his own father – throughout the short stories, he seems intent on humiliating, maiming, and possibly assassinating his own father. He marshals cadavers, fragments of butchered animals, cow-tripe, small African-American boys, hornets and wild-cats and biting serpents to punish and abase his enemies, defined to be just about anyone who crosses his path. Lovingood lives at the center of a madly vicious Hobbesian universe – it is the war of each against all. He mutilates stuffed-shirts, circuit riding preachers, and various agents of the law including sheriffs and judges. Lovingood spends most of his time drunk on moonshine whisky, stuff that he variously describes as “scrimmage seed” since it starts fights, or “split-skull” or “kill-devil” whiskey. Imitating Satan, Sut disrupts judicial proceedings, church meetings, funerals and weddings. Harris’ frames his stories as tall-tales told to “George,” a backwoods newspaperman and obviously a surrogate for the author. The stories are relentlessly similar: Sut selects a target, prepares an elaborate and vicious practical joke, and, then, inflicts the prank on his victim. Each tale climaxes in a kind of wild rampage – someone running amuck either maddened by pain or rage. The portrait of backwoods life that emerges from these stories is too grim for utterance, a filthy, impoverished existence in which the only pleasures are sadistic ones.

“Contempt of Court – Almost” is a specimen of Harris’ literary art. Sut tells George that he often feel a hankering to kick helpless baby animals or small children. He describes planting his boot in the rear-end of a dandy that he met in a “doggery (tavern) whar I wer buzy a-raisin steam, ‘an had got hit a few poun abuv a bladder bustin pint.” This last phrase, characteristic of Harris, means that the protagonist had been drinking and had elevated his ever-present homicidal rage “a few pounds above bladder-busting point.” (Fascinated by machines of all kinds, Sut favors up-to-the-date metaphors that involve steam engines, threshing equipment and boilers.) In this state of mind, Sut kicks a well-dressed man who, then, threatens to gun him down with a derringer loaded with a bullet as big as a hen’s egg. Sut uses his spindly long legs to run away and this anecdote triggers another recollection in the storyteller – a tale about a blacksmith who gets drunk, attacks the courthouse with a leg of venison in one hand and a “ten-year-old nigger” boy in his other, and, generally, “ruinates” the county seat. The ensuing rampage results in the destruction of a watchmaker’s shop and a window shattered in the courthouse. Pitching the “mortul buck’s hine leg” (the venison haunch) through the window, the enraged blacksmith bellows “that’s a dried subpener fur yu.” An inkwell is spilled and Judge Smarty is spattered with a “rain-storm ove ink.”

The most extraordinary aspect of Harris’ writing is the bizarre dialect in which his stories are presented. A longer quotation is necessary to demonstrate the sinister force of Harris’ prose:

...that’s human nater the yeath over, an’ yere’s more universal onregenerit human nater: ef ever yu dus enything tu enybody wifout cause, yu hates hem allers arterwards, an’ sorter wants tu hurt em agin. An’ yere’s another human nater: ef enything happens sum feller, I don’t keer ef he’s yure bes’ frien, an’ I don’t keer how sorry yu is fur him, thar’s a streak ove satisfackshun ‘about like asowin thread a-runnin all thru yer sorrer. Yu may be shamed ove hit, but durn me ef hit ain’t thar. Hit will show like the white cottin chain in mean cassinett; brushin hit onder only hides hit. An’ yere’s a little more: no odds how good yu is tu yung things, ur how kine yu is in treatin em, when yu sees a littil long laiged lamb a-shakin hits tail, an’ a-dancin staggerinly onder hits mam a-huntin fur the tit, ontu hits knees, yer fingers will itch tu seize that ar tail, an’ fling the little ankshus son ove a mutton over the fence amung the blackberry briars, not tu hurt hit, but jis’ tu disapint hit. Ur say, a littil calf, a-buttin fas’ under the cow’s fore-laigs, an’ then the hine, wif the pint ove hits tung stuck out, makin suckin moshuns, not yet old enuf tu know the bag aind ove mam from its hookin aind, don’t yu want tu kick hit on the snout, hard enough tu send hit backwards, say fifteen foot, jis’ tu show hit that buttin won’t allers fetch milk? Ur a baby even, rubbin hits heels apes’ one each uther, a-rootin an’ a-snifflin arter the breas’, an’ the mam duin her bess’ tu git hit out, over the hem ove her clothes, don’t yu feel hungry tu gin hit jis’ one ‘cussion cap slap, rit e ontu the palce what sum day’ll fit a saddil, ur a sowin cheer, tu show hit what’s atwixt hit an’ the grave; that hit stans a pow’ful chance not tu be fed every time hits hungry, ur in a hurry?
(“Cassinett – cassinette – is a cloth with a cotton warp and a wool woof.)

Now, I submit to you that this text is monstrous. This montrosity is expressed in four dimensions. The meaning of the passage is morally monstrous. The tenor of the quotation is politically monstrous. The writing is a textural monstrosity. And the monstrous nature of the discourse can be well-measured by the response that others have to the proponent of these words.

Harris’ view of existence seems to be that it is a hideous mistake. Although it may seem pretentious to compare this obscure Southern humorist to Arthur Schopenhauer, I think, the two writers cast light on one another. Schopenhauer also regarded human existence as an irremediable error. He makes this point dramatically in the essay “On the Suffering in the World” published in the German philosopher’s Studies in Pessimism. Schopenhauer also invokes a lamb to make his gloomy points about the ubiquity of suffering: “We like lambs in a field, disporting themselves under the eyes of the butcher who chooses first one and, then, another for his prey.” Life, in Schopenhauer’s view, “is a disappointment, a cheat – a perspective that echoes Sut’s justification of his torture of the baby lamb; he flings the “son ove mutton” into the thornbush not to hurt it but “jis tu disapint hit.” But Schopenhauer draws a very different conclusion from his perception that the world is a sadistic slaughterhouse. To the German writer, the cruelty of world requires that human beings respond with “tolerance, patience, regard, and love of neighbor.” Instead of greeting others with honorifics like “Herr, Monsieur or Mister,” we should salute one another as “fellow sufferers.” In Schopenhauer’s view, the suffering intrinsic in the world compels us to “compassion” and “pardon all.” Indeed, Schopenhauer extends this doctrine beyond the sphere of human ethics into application to domestic and wild animals – being truly human requires that we endeavor to lessen the suffering of our fellow beings and this imperative is most powerful with respect to animals.

I cite Schopenhauer’s wisdom on this point to demonstrate the moral monstrosity of Harris’ demonic Sut Lovingood. Lovingood entertains himself by torturing animals – many of his stories feature the crucifixion of domestic beasts, including man’s best friend, the dog. Lovingood’s sermon tells us that human nature is so unregenerate that it necessarily expresses itself in perverse fits of sadistic violence. The little lamb is clawed from its mother’s teat and hurled into a bramble bush; the calf, after a deceptively sympathetic description, should be kicked in the snout so hard as to be hurled a full fifteen feet. And, not excluding human beings from his rampage, Sut longs to spank the baby hard enough to show the child that the course of human existence is defined by pain and disappointment. Instead of exercising compassion to reduce the suffering of sentient beings, Sut Lovingood desires to impose more suffering, more disappointment, more pain on those around him. The horror in this morally monstrous point of view is that we can recognize Sut’s perverse motives as being common in the world and, in fact, concealed in our own hearts.

The political monstrosity of Sut’s discourse on human nature arises in the context of the Civil War. A popular justification for federal participation in the War between the States was that the conflict was fought to preserve the Union. Although this “Union” can be imagined in any number of ways, it seems fundamental that the United States is a polity sharing a common language. Americans speak English and our laws and institutions rely upon that language as affording a common basis for understanding. So what do we make of Sut’s almost impenetrable dialect? Sut’s words establish a limit as to what can be considered English, the common Mother Tongue. Harris character’s argot, his barbarous-seeming, if supple, speech is an insult to the very notion of unity. Harris’s hero doesn’t speak English of the kind used by the Yankee carpetbaggers. The texture of Sut’s speech is perplexing, intensely local, “pagan” is the root sense of that word – stemming from the customs and mores and folk wisdom of an isolated rural people. Sut can’t interact with Northerners – or, at least, can’t interact civilly with them – because he speaks a different language. His manner of speech is a political insult to the Union for which so much blood was spilled, a private regional dialect essentially secretive, hermetic, indecipherable to outsiders.

The political monstrosity associated with Sut’s dialect is closely associated with the fact that, as it appears on the page, the Lovingood narratives are a textural monstrosity. Standard literary discourse is transparent – the marks on the page comprising letters and words are not meant to stand in the way of an understanding of the meanings presented. Modern people read to themselves and the speech on the page that they translate into their thoughts is ordinarily designed to be fluent, simple to grasp, a system of arbitrary signs that does not rely in an integral way on the sound or shape of those words. I recognize that 19th century reading was different in some ways from the way that we experience a text – printed material was relatively rare, shared by being read out loud, and the “performance” of the written word as a spoken utterance was more important than it is today. Hence, it was common for some forms of comic writing to be presented in dialect. But Harris’ Sut is represented as speaking in a way that defies common dialect practice and that represents the horizon of intelligibility with respect portraying the sound of words as actually spoken. As in other categories, the textural monstrosity of Harris’ prose is an outcome of its extremity, that is, the really severe distortion that the diction in the Lovingood stories demonstrates by reason of the writer’s obsessive attempt to showing how words sound as actually massaged into sonic vibrations by the action of tongue and lip and palate. The silent utterances of the written word are projected into actual speech. The text is typographically monstrous, a wild melange of puns, misspellings, and bizarre words that make sense only when they are spoken aloud. This textural grotesquerie foregrounds what is ordinarily assumed and implicit in the background of our reading – we are forced to focus on the spelling of the words, their literal shape on the page, and on the way they sound when we phonetically pronounce’s Sut’s speech. The monstrosity of the Harris stories lies in the fact that they are neither fish nor fowl – that is, neither speech nor the printed word, but a horrific hybrid: print pretending to be speech. This characteristic of the text explains Harris’ weird opacity – we see the antics of his characters through a thick, syrupy veil of obstruction, the transcription of the dialect forcing us into a realization that there is a distinction between written discourse and the spoken word, a distinction that ordinary literary practice systematically effaces.

Monsters are fearsome and threatening. A mob of frightened peasants bearing torches and pitchforks typically harry the poor and hideous monster to his death – at least, this is what happens in Frankenstein movies. We can identify the monstrous by our response to it. And that response is typically a loathing approaching the homicidal. We either flee from a monster or try to kill it.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

On the Smell of Napalm in the Morning

On the Smell of Napalm in the Morning

It is ironic that the gun-enthusiast and tough-guy John Milius, one of the writers credited on Apocalypse Now, never served in Vietnam. Like his hero, Teddy Roosevelt, Milius suffers from asthma and this ailment disqualified from joining the Marines. Milius spent the war surfing off Long Beach and Malibu, a strenuous activity that his asthma apparently didn’t adversely affect. These biographical details motivate the curious sequence in Coppola’s war film in which Air Cavalry troops, commanded by the gung-ho Lieutenant Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall) are ordered to surf waves rolling toward a hostile village and enemy-occupied coastline. Reluctantly, the soldiers slip into the surf, mounting their boards as bombs burst around them. After, the area is secured as a consequence of a spectacular helicopter assault, Major Kilgore justifies the bloody sea-side engagement grunting laconically “Charley don’t surf.”

Although there is some scant historical evidence for escapades of this sort during the Vietnam war, this episode in Apocalypse Now is the outcome of a graft. In this case, the graft extends in two directions, a fantasy that fuses several disparate sources. The helicopter assault and the surfing scene culminate in a beach-party complete with bonfires and cases of beer airlifted to the festivities. The beach-party looks like an all-male version of similar celebrations populating American surfer films made in the early sixties, the kind of gathering that Annette Funicello might grace. Milius grafts together his fantasies of a utopian community of tough, strong, and handsome surfers with his thwarted dream of serving in the United States Marine Corps during the Vietnam war. The result is a cinematic fusion between two genres – the war movie and beach party comedy.

In an interview, Milius described the source for the episode as an anecdote in a memoir by an Israeli general, Ariel Sharon. After clearing a seaside village of Palestinian soldiers, the Israeli soldiers entertained themselves by fishing in the waters near the devastated burning town. The troops roasted their catch on the beach, the general announcing triumphantly “We blew the shit out of them and now we’re eating their fish.” This fish-fry, and the boast associated with it, are transformed in Apocalypse Now to the famous line: “Charley don’t surf.” The surfing scenes in Milius screenplay, accordingly, originate in a graft that fuses the writer’s guilt that he spent the Vietnam war surfing instead of fighting with a bellicose anecdote by an Israeli military leader – the connections extend inward toward personal fantasy and outward toward a historical anecdote.

The most famous dialogue in Apocalypse Now is arguably Lieutenant Kilgore’s napalm-revery, a contemplative soliloquy delivered on the same surf-girt beach. After a massive napalm strike on a treeline across the lagoon, Kilgore says:

Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, once we had a hill bombed for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ‘em. Not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell, you know, that gasoline smell, the whole hill...Smelled like...victory.

(Despite it’s fame, there is some dispute about what Kilgore actually says in this speech. Some transcripts describe the assault as “hail bombing” – that is, “once we had hail-bombed for 12 hours.” Apparently, “hail bombing” is a term for “carpet bombing”. Most versions, however, quote the speech as above.)

Milius claims to have written these words in a flash, a sudden inspiration. I presume this is true. However, I have located a speech expressing a similar sentiment in an obscure German novel, Vergeltung by Gerd Ledig. Vergeltung, meaning “retribution,” was translated by Michael Hoffmann into English under the title Payback, but not until long after the release of Apocalypse Now. Ledig’s book, a harrowing account of the “hail bombing” of an unnamed German city, was first published in 1956. The book was initially praised in Germany, but, then, forgotten. Too ferocious and uncompromising for the German public, then, occupied with rebuilding their ravaged cities, the novel stirred horrific memories and was shunned. Not until the 1999 publication of W. G. Sebald’s account of Germany’s fire-bombing in World War II, Luftkrieg und Literatur (“Air War and Literature”) was the book revived. Since that time, Ledig’s Vergeltung has become a standard literary text taught in German Gymnasium and widely read. I have no evidence that Milius knew, or knows, of the book.

Vergeltung is disturbing because of its lack of any moral center. Initially, the reader expects the novel to depict sympathetically the sufferings of a German civilian population decimated by incendiary bombing. This impression is fostered by the book’s appalling first chapter. The unburied corpses of dead children, killed in a raid on the preceding day, are stacked in a cemetery. The concussion of the first bomb falling on the city hurls the dead bodies against the cemetery wall. The small corpses of the children, suffocated in the cellar, were awaiting burial – the childrens’ father is described as fighting on the Eastern Front and rescue-parties are searching for their mother. The father is missing-in-action. The mother is found zerquetscht unter der Truemmern – “crushed under the rubble.” Two women see the children smashed against the wall. But, a moment later, they “burn like torches” when the asphalt street is ignited by a fire-bomb.

From this prologue, the reader anticipates an account of hapless German civilians slaughtered by aerial assault. And, indeed, much of the book has this tenor. But the disturbing aspect of the novel is that Ledig presents the massacre of innocents as justified, a kind of legitimate retribution. And, further, the fire-bombing doesn’t force the city’s population into acts of generosity and kindness – a fantasy typical to post-9-11 America. Our press and writers assure us that terrorist attacks backfire because they inspire their victims to become heroic, self-sacrificing, and generous to one another. Of course, this is a nauseatingly pious fiction. Ledig is far more realistic and unsparing. In his novel, the attack on the city causes its inhabitants to become greedy, vicious, half-mad with fear and selfishness. The collapse of law and order in the aftermath of the bombing licenses people to commit all sorts of terrible acts. Instead of becoming noble, self-sacrificing heroes, the inhabitants of Ledig’s burning city becomes criminals, bullying one another and committing crimes of opportunity such as rape. Suffering doesn’t ennoble. Instead, misery transforms ordinary law-abiding Germans into mobs of crazed murderers. The book is relentlessly cynical, cruel, and nasty – everyone is starving covered with filth and abscessed boils; when the bombs fall and start dismembering the boy flak-gunners, most of the soldiers shit their pants. The whole thing is a nightmare and it is easy to see why the novel was read, admired, and, then, immediately banished to a part of the imagination that’s not activated except in the dismal melancholy of pre-dawn insomnia.

The passage in Vergeltung that echoes Kilgore’s famous lines in Apocalypse Now occurs in the book’s final chapter. Just before the novel’s epilogue, two of Ledig’s unpleasant characters, the “Faehnrich” (“Ensign”) and a military doctor, meet in a field dressing station buried beneath a fortified bunker. To understand their encounter it’s necessary to know a little of the action preceeding their dialogue.

The novel is constructed as a series of 12 interlocked narratives all taking place within the course of a 69 minute bombing raid that occurs between 1:01 and 2:10 pm. The Ensign has the command of a half-dozen soldiers, apparently ordered to prevent looting in a mercantile quarter of the city. With his men, the Ensign has been defending a liquor store and, of course, everyone gets riotously drunk. A civilian who is trying to make his way to the railway station to meet his family is accused of looting and bullied mercilessly by the drunken soldiers. Later, the Ensign and his men venture through the streets buzzing with shrapnel and deadly with collapsing buildings. They shelter for a time in a bakery where a Russian prisoner of war, emaciated from forced labor is also hiding. The Ensign shoots the Russian and continues his aimless progress through the city, losing the rest of troops in the chaos of the aerial assault. Meanwhile, the doctor is bullying shell-shocked boys carried from the roof of the “Hochbunker” where he is stationed. To the horror of his nurse, the doctor, Egon Michael, orders the terrified teenage boys back to the roof of the bunker where they are ineffectually manning flak cannons. An American airman, shot down over the city, staggers into the doctor’s cellar under the bunker. The American’s clothing has been ripped off in the course of his escape from the burning airplane and he is naked. Despite the protests of the nurse, the doctor beats the American with a poker, wraps a little apron around the wounded man’s waist to humiliate him, and, then, expels him into an adjacent bombshelter. A mob of civilians gathers around the American and tears him to pieces.

The Ensign enters the field hospital under the bunker and, at first, almost shoots the doctor. But the two men know one another. They decide to celebrate the events of the day with a few more drinks:

“The doctor went to he wall, opened a little cupboard, removed a bottle with two glasses. He handed one of them to the Ensign.
The doctor laughed: “My house-wine.”
He poured. A dueling scar ran across his cheek.
“If only you knew --” the Ensign said.
“How much I’ve already guzzled down today.”
The doctor replied merrily: “Hair of the dog that bit you. So what are we drinking to?”
“To the safe return of old comrades!”
The doctor picked up his glass and prepared to drain it.
“Prost!” He drank the wine as if it were water.
“Prost!” The Ensign swallowed, wiped his mouth and laughed. He said: “you haven’t changed.”
“Me?” The doctor poured another glass. “I don’t ever change.” A little wine splashed on the ground.
“So what are we drinking to now?” asked the Ensign.
“To the way a battlefield looks at dawn!”
The Ensign staggered a little. He screwed-up his eyes.
A blush climbed to his face. “That’s shit.”
“No.” The doctor emptied his glass and seemed happy.
“So you’ve already seen a thing like that?”
“On the contrary,” the Ensign said. “But I don’t see the dawn just the battlefield.” He slurped from his glass and, then, began to tremble.
“Drink up!”
“Prost!” Since he didn’t think he could toast the doctor, the Ensign clicked his finger against his glass.
“For me,” the doctor shouted, holding his glass up against the light,” war is the father of a
Again, he poured until his glass was full.
“War crystalizes my values. For me, it is both validation and authentic experience. Politics by another means, necessity arising from the circumstances. Courage overcomes my fear. I find the sight of a battlefield at dawn inspiring.”

The German phrase cognate to Kilgore’s “the smell of napalm in the morning” is Anblick
eines Schlachtfeldes im Morgengrauen!” “Anblick” means “appearance” or “look” –the
way something looks to the eye, a “sight.” A “Schlachtfeld” is a battlefield, but with
more macabre and sinister overtones – “Schlacht” is a word known in English as
“slaughter” and the doctor’s toast proposes that the field of combat is something like an
abbatoir, a “killing field.” “Morgengrauen” means literally “the grey of morning” – that
is, not exactly dawn but “pre-dawn”. Dawn itself in German is “Morgenroete” - that is,
“rosy morning”. The doctor’s toast, accordingly, is to the way thata battlefield, identified as a place where human’s are butchered, looks just before the sun
rises. Like Kilgore’s “napalm in the morning,” the toast is insanely “gung-ho” – and
ironically so, since the doctor has spent the entire novel cringing in
his burrow while the boy-soldiers overhead are ripped to shreds by the falling bombs. Indeed, the implications of the doctor’s toast to the “battlefield at dawn” are worse than Kilgore’s olfactory reverie – Kilgore is quick to mention the fact that the napalm strike doesn’t seem to have killed any “dinks” or, in the alternative, has vaporized them to extent that the smell of charred flesh doesn’t interfere with the purity of the “smell of gasoline.” By contrast, the doctor’s toast seems to require the presences of slaughtered bodies, corpses, on the battlefield. Notice, as well, that both Kilgore and Dr. Egon Michael are philosophical – Kilgore is a figure derived from a perverse misreading of Nietzsche; Michael cites Heraclitus for the proposition that War is the father of all things.

No rational claim can be made that Milius knew this passage from Vergeltung when he wrote Apocalypse Now. The novel was unknown even to German audiences in the early seventies and there’s no evidence that Milius could read German, although he has expressed, from time to time, an affinity for Nietzsche. The connection that I fuse between Ledig’s book and Milius’ famous lines in Coppola’s Hollywood movie is based on similarity alone, not influence. My grafting of these two linguistic events is arbitrary, I suppose, probably, nothing more than happenstance. But I think it is curious, and, even, illuminating that two writers would independently create texts that seem to echo one another on the same general subject. Why does this occur? It seems that there is something about the structure of our viewpoint on battle, some sort of semi-ironic, yet celebratory, perspective on war that is intrinsic to the subject. In this context, I must point out that unlike Milius, whose only experience with napalm was on the location of the movie, Ledig knew in his marrow what he was writing about. Having survived the Eastern Front with severe wounds, Ledig was repatriated to work in factories in Leipzig and Munich. In those places, he endured repeated and deadly bombing attacks.

Another kind of graft is visible in Ledig’s book. This is the appropriation of words from a foreign language to express realities incommensurate with the tenor of the host language. Several interesting examples can be cited in Vergeltung, locations in the writing where English (even American) words are embedded like splinters in the prose. Hitler’s Germany was based on notions of tribal purity. But language is inherently impure, always a compound of invasive foreign words grafted to native diction.

A mob of boys and shell-shocked young soldiers surrounds the doomed American airman, Strenehan, in the bomb-shelter. Someone shouts “Schlaegt den Gangster tot!” – that is, “Beat the gangster to death!” The word “gangster” is loaned to the Germans to be applied by the homicidal mob. Presumably, the people kicking and thrashing Strenehan to death have seen American crime films from the thirties – pictures like Scarface and Public Enemy. In this context, it seems that “gangster” is a term applied to those committing crimes against German civilians – that is, the American pilots and their crews dropping incendiary bombs on the city. It is curious that the rabble is roused against an American by a word that seems intrinsically American – a term that we would apply to the tough-talking, nattily dressed mobsters populating cinema screens in the Depression.

Earlier, the Germans huddled in the bomb-shelter use another loan-word to describe how they feel about the Americans dropping fire onto their homes. An explosion has just rocked the bunker and caused the metal flaps on the ventilation system to snap hard against the air-slits. One of the flaps has been blown off and falls to the ground alarming the people in the shelter.

“The concussion tore the flap off. That’s all,” (The young man) shook his head. The ventilators hummed. The people were embarrassed and looked at the floor. Everyone was silent, then a man cried: “The damned Americans are responsible for this!”
A woman rasped: “You’re right!”
“Lynching,” a voice from the corner assured them: “Every terrorist who is shot down must be lynched.”

The German is interesting: “Lynchen,” versicherte aus der Ecke eine Stimme, “Jeder abgeschossene Terrorflieger muss gelyncht werden.” Every “terror-flier” shot down “muss gelyncht werden” – “will have to be lynched.” The verb lynched has been assimilated to German and equipped with a prefix “ge-lyncht” (and a final “t”) – that is, the German past participle of an imagined German verb “lynchen”. The “ge-“ suffix signifies completed action and, originally, may have also conveyed subtle “aspectual” features of the thing that has happened. But, of course, linguistic analysis is beside the point in this application – the German speakers in the bombshelters have appropriated to their use an American word and grammatically transformed it into a German verb.

Presumably, the Germans thought of America, with its troubled race relations, as the locus classicus of lynching. An irony lurks in the application of the word to a white Texan, the stranded airman Strenehan. We know that an African-American was on Strenehan’s plane when it was shot down over the city. This man is named Sam Ohm and his corpse makes a cameo appearance on the last page of Ledig’s novel:

Sam Ohm was found later, in the afternoon. In his case, they maintained that his skin had been charred. Someone saw the rosy palms on the inside of his hands and designated the man as a nigger. A young man with pimples on his chin put his foot on the corpse’s head.

Normally, people like Sam Ohm are lynched, not the middle-class white Texan, Strenehan. The inferno, it seems, eliminates racial distinctions that would otherwise be significant.

An interesting, if rather technical, essay might be written about the peregrinations of the verb “lynched,” particularly in German. We know that sophisticated German-speaking artists were very interested in American lynchings. The Viennese Fritz Lang’s first film made in Hollywood, Fury (1936) concerned mob violence and a lynching – somehow, a white man played by Spencer Tracy almost gets himself hanged by a crowd of vicious yokels. Brecht uses the phrase with relish in his entr’acte to Mann ist Mann (“A Man is a Man”), the short farce “The Elephant Calf”. In that playlet, a character declares: “Es handelt sich jetzt schon um Gelyncht-oder-Nicht-gelyncht werden, das ist hier die Frage, die Sache ist in ein ungeheuer ernstes Studium getreten.” Brecht motivates the use of verb forms for “lynching” by the fact that his characters are British soldiers – hence, the word would be native to them. Brecht’s soldiers have sold tickets to their comrades granting them admission to see an “elephant calf”. But, unfortunately, they don’t have an actual elephant calf, but only a man simulating such an animal. Fearful that the mob of ticketholders will take revenge on them for the fraud, one of the men says: “Lynched or not-to-be-lynched, that’s what concerns us now, that is the question, the matter has developed into a monstrously serious subject of study.” (Brecht is also toying with Shakespeare’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy – echoes of Shakespeare are always present in the German playwright’s dramaturgy.)

Indeed, the word “lynched” is a loan into English from British or British-American usage. Most etymologists think that the word derives from a proper name. History discloses an Irish jurist, James Lynch Fitzstephen from Galway who hanged his own son from a balcony after convicting him of murdering a Spanish visitor. In America during the revolutionary war, a Virginia plantation owner, Charles Lynch, presided over semi-judicial proceedings that resulted in the imprisonment of several of his neighbors suspected of being Loyalist sympathizers. Lynch was concerned that he would suffer reprisals due to these actions and so persuaded a local legislature to pass a law specifically exonerating him from any offenses committed in the course of the Revolutionary War. These enactments were called “Lynch Laws” and were thought to be extra-judicial and irregular in nature – hence, the term “to lynch” meant to insist upon measures designed to circumvent and evade existing laws. In its original application, “Lynch Laws” had nothing to do with race – in fact, Charles Lynch seems to have been sympathetic to the interests of plantation slaves that appeared before him.

Mutations of the verb “lynched” dramatize a point that I have earlier made: language is inherently impure and porous to outside influences. Like the notion of race, the concept of any specific language as a discrete, well-defined, and clearly bounded entity seems highly questionable. Languages are built from grafts. English is a hybrid of Norman French and Anglo-Saxon. German is a compound of Latin, Gothic, and Scandinavian languages. The genetics of every language contain the DNA of adjacent Sprache, the tongues spoken in contiguous territories or by populations embedded within the Muttersprache (the “Mother Tongue”). Ultimately, every language is a kind of Yiddish – that is, a dialect of several other languages that are, themselves, dialects of dialects. The structure of language mirrors discourse on the world wide web, the internet, at last, fashioning a vast system of correspondences, an engine of correlations, similarities, and associations. Before our current era, geographical space and historical time intervened between racial and ethnic groups and suggested an illusory separation of languages from one another. Computing machines have torn down the boundaries to communication although without, unfortunately, ameliorating old biases, hatreds, and suspicions. Nonetheless, the internet is an infinite series of bridges. But where do the bridges lead? The question is framed imprecisely, based upon a teleological assumption that the purpose for communication is the discovery of truth or the establishment of some utopian order. But this seems to me to be wrong. The bridges merely lead to other bridges. Communication is not necessarily proof of anything. Words are like people. People exist to breed more people. Words exist to breed more words. There is no end to communication and no ultimate objective, no final and decisive message. The links simply proliferate. In William Burroughs words, “language is a virus...” Originally, Burroughs claimed that the virus came from outer space. But such a statement presupposes that there is an inside and an outside to linguistic space. Perhaps, the definition of a linguistic space is that it is a terrain that is paradoxically all inside with nothing outside of it at all.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

On a Sudden Gust of Hot, Whirling Wind

On a Sudden Gust of Hot, Whirling Wind

Memories frighten me. There is something alien and intrusive about memory. It is like a piece of shrapnel embedded in the flesh of the present. Bad memories are bad; the good ones worse. Happy memories measure the distance between then and now in inches and feet and miles of regret.

Let me clarify: this fear does not originate in the content of those memories – I have led an uneventful life, and nothing particularly dire has befallen me. My griefs (and joys also) have been mostly quotidian, moderate, readily assimilated into an orderly, normal-seeming life. But there is something of the icy clarity of three a.m. about many of my memories, an element that disturbs the imagination with a sense of failure and hapless regret.

I have always eschewed nostalgia. I don’t like looking at old pictures and avoid sentimental excursions into the past. For better or worse, I have always regarded myself as propelled into the future, someone blasted forward by the fuel of a past that is consumed entirely as it drives me into tomorrow. Imagined in this way, the memories of the past cease to exist. They are wholly consumed, burnt to ashes, in the furnace of the future. But, as I grow older, I sense that this view is naive and unsustainable: some residue, some deposit of the past always remains and it intrudes upon our lives in an unseemly way.

Regret and disappointment rule memory. I don’t see how it can be otherwise. If one lives for the future, then, the present is only an education for the day after tomorrow – a day that, of course, doesn’t really exist. As a young man, I imagined that I was training my genius, shaping it to my will, making my sensibility into a vehicle for wonderful achievements that I would venture, and accomplish, at some unknown time in the future. Necessarily, this perspective on the present moment – that it is mere tutelage for a glorious future – diminishes the present. This hour, this instant, was hollowed-out to build a future that I hoped would occur later, when I was grown and my education complete. Hence, my sense of disappointment in thinking about the past: there is always lurking in my memories the notion that I didn’t attend enough to what was current, to what was actually happening in the instant and that too much emotional and imaginative energy was invested in a future that never occurred. Regret, of course, arises from the sense that every memory represents an uncanny intersection between the path that I have taken and innumerable and other branching avenues and routes. What would have happened if I had come to that crossroads, met the devil there, and taken his counsel as to another road? At three in the morning, the hour of the wolf, the devil enters the mind, no longer as a tempter, but as the spirit that whispers: “You fool! Why didn’t you do otherwise?”

And, so, it was with some trepidation that I anticipated the Austin Artworks Festival. I knew that I would meet people that, perhaps, I had not encountered for many years. In the galleries of the old power-plant repurposed to show ceramics and paintings, memories might be revived that I would find disturbing. The past that I have always imagined as mere cinders and ash would appear before me, unavoidable and threatening, a presence embodied in certain encounters that I anticipated with a dull sense of fear. It is the return of the repressed, the door opening into a certain rooms that I have long forbidden to my imagination.

I came to Austin to practice law when I was 24. It was 1979 and I had spent almost all of my life in Minneapolis and its suburbs, a hundred miles to the north. Like most people in the Twin Cities, I didn’t even know where Austin was located – I confused the city with Albert Lea, a place more accessible to travelers from the Metro because stapled to the far end of a freeway that we used for our morning commute. Austin was somewhere else, looming like a dismal thundercloud over the flat horizon of the Iowa border.

Brad Zellar, now a well-known and much-lauded writer, was one of the people that I met during the first few years that I lived in Austin. Zellar had just graduated from High School and, I think, was making the first tentative steps into the general vicinity of the vocation that he has successfully followed during the last thirty years. I recall him as a young man, gifted and ambitious, plotting, as it were, his own special assault on the citadel. He had the courage to do something that I envied – he aimed to be a professional writer and was willing to endure hardship and uncertainty to pursue that goal. I was less courageous and tenacious – the practice of law paid my bills and, although I yearned to be a writer, I didn’t have the guts to invest myself in that enterprise in any irrevocable way. I always imagined my work as a lawyer as a retreat from what I really wanted to be. In that respect, of course, I misled myself – what you really want to be, you become. There are no thwarted existences: everyone grows into the form of life that he or she most secretly desires.

Zellar spoke about his recent work with the photographer, Alec Soth. He was avuncular and witty, speaking from a platform installed in an alcove under the great masonry heap of the power-plant. The niche in the red-brick edifice had been some kind of service-bay – metal pumps, compressor apparatus, hitches for big machines projected from the walls behind the platform from which Zellar made his remarks. He showed a number of slides from recent explorations with Soth: images of half-mad isolates, abandoned buildings, curious lodge rituals, eccentrics reposing on the frozen earth. Zellar told us that he had been anxious to escape Austin but that memories of his hometown informed much of his later work. His love for books and music had been nourished at the old Carnegie Library in town. And his recent quests, with Soth, across the country, were, in some ways, a search for this lost community, the guilelessness and naivety and uninformed optimism, that characterize people who live closely with one another in small cities spiked with church steeples and grain elevators standing proudly apart from one another on the great thunderstorm-scoured plains. This is another aspect of how memory works: we are forever seeking the idealized version of a childhood and youth that we couldn’t tolerate when, in fact, we were young. For Zellar growing up, Austin was a wasteland, a dull, mediocre and featureless place – in his speech, Zellar noted that he recalled several librarians but couldn’t remember any of his teachers. We flee places like this as uninspiring, but, later, spend much of our life trying to reconstitute the landscapes of our childhood – but improved by our imagination, with an additional ingredient of spirit and joy that seemed conspicuously lacking when we were younger. My father, a beatnik aficionado of jazz, fled the small central Nebraska village where he was raised. But he didn’t like big cities and spent much of his life gardening in his orchard, making his home into an idealized version of the parsonage where he lived with his father, a Lutheran pastor, and mother and sisters when he was a small boy in Albion, Nebraska. Some famous writers have made a career from recapturing youthful memories, not realistically, but idealized, all the dispiriting stupidity and monotony excised – Garrison Keillor is an example of a writer whose principal work represents a memory palace that is a refined, and beautified, version of an existence from which, as a young man, he fled in horror.

One of Zellar’s books is a collection of photographs called Suburban World – The Norling Photographs. This book is culturally significant in a number of ways. The visual style of the pictures presented in the volume is said to have been a decisive influence on the Coen brothers’ film, A Simple Man. In his remarks in the industrial porch to the Power Plant, Zellar explained how he had stumbled upon the treasure trove of photographs at the Bloomington Historical Society. The photo-horde was the life work of a man named Irwin Norling. After discovering the collection, Zellar tracked the old photographer down and met him in a nursing home shortly before he died. Suburban World is Zellar’s private Norling museum; he is Norling’s curator, apologist, and most perceptive patron. The photographs chronicle the growth of the south suburbs of Minneapolis and St. Paul, particularly Bloomington, and the pictures are astonishing in their diversity – they range from stark Weegee-style crime scenes and car-crashes through the gaucherie of parades, beauty contests, award’s ceremonies at VFW posts, as well as tawdry fancy-dress balls to portraits of sporting events and local big shots. Many of the pictures are inadvertently ironic: photographs taken for civic booster purposes and celebrating accomplishments that the camera’s supremely indifferent eye reveals as petty and unimpressive, curiously inert, a glossy and banal kingdom occupying the anteroom to oblivion.

As Roland Barthes has observed, all photographs have death as an implicit subject. The photographic shows us people and places that have ceased to exist. And, in fact, Zellar’s discovery of Norling’s pictures arose in a somewhat funereal context: he was searching for images of the old Bloomington strip, the 494 corridor as it once existed in the days of the outdoor stadium and the old ice arena. Zellar’s quest for pictures of something that had largely vanished brought him to the basement of the Bloomington Historical Society. Norling’s images embody a kind of Underworld, an Elysian field of silver-grey chemicals lingering as patterns of shadow and light in a cellar chamber – the stadium is gone and the ice arena at the edge of the city, out beyond the airport, no longer exists, but the pictures remain. Images write the epitaph for people and places that are gone.

And my own memories remain, as well, triggered by Zellar’s remarks and by perusing the book of images that he has edited. I went to elementary school in New Brighton, a working class suburb poised between north Minneapolis and St. Paul, but I attended High School, and lived for most of my college years in Eden Praire – in those days, the terminus of 494, the place where the south belt-line freeway petered-out in raspberry fields and gravel pits that were gradually devouring the old, morose dairy farms pitched among the steep wooded hills and the swamps. Eden Prairie had no main street, no commerce except for a gas station that sold groceries from a few shelves and its residents were scattered across the rolling countryside in small, tightly knotted suburban enclaves surrounded by stony fields cultivated by hillbilly truck-farmers. Southdale, a famous shopping mall in Edina, was fifteen minutes away by freeway that rose, like the headwaters of a mighty concrete river, from raw, oozing construction sites on the edge of the suburbs. We bought our groceries in Hopkins. Lake Minnetonka was to the north, its shoreline curiously ornate, mansions alternating with plantations of trailer houses and shacks beside the murky, green water, an ancient roller-coaster like a stack of kindling for some colossal bonfire quivering over a shallow, algae-draped bay. But to the east, there was all the specious glamor of the 494 strip, the Twin Cities’ “mini-Las Vegas” to use Zellar’s phrase and that was where the action was.

For me, I suppose, the 494 corridor will always linger as it was in 1972, the year I graduated from High School. That Fall, I would be 18 and could vote in the national election. I was a member of the local Republican party and, during the summer of my senior year, I canvassed the cul-de-sacs, hiking door-to-door collecting money for Richard Nixon. For some reason, I was a youth liaison to a local southwest-suburban Kiwanis club that met every Tuesday in a dank, subterranean banqueting hall, buried beneath the Radisson South. The men in the club were local lawyers and realtors, big men with square faces polished to a red sheen by their morning shave, with oblong heavy bodies and crumpled suits that smelled of nicotine, and we sat at round tables and sang songs like “Home on the Range” and the Gopher rouser and the Kiwanis congratulated me effusively on my plans to attend the University of Minnesota, debating among themselves prospects for the football season. The edges of the banquet room never seemed completely clean to me – it seemed that morsels of fallen food were lurking somewhere in the carpet -- and, although the big hotel tower overhead was brand-new, it had been built quickly, and negligently, the way the Soviets supposedly erected things, with cracked and mismatching pylons of prestressed concrete.

The Radisson South represented the City’s farthest outpost, a pale skyscraper looming over the freeway interchange between Normandale and 494. Dwarfed by the big slab of the hotel, there was a tiny ma-and-pa motor-court, at the edge of the parking lot, a place killed by the Radisson, and posthumously converted to a liquor store with a shop called Alaskan Fur operating from the motel’s former lobby. I suppose that the lawyers and realtors bought their mistresses mink stoles and muffs at Alaskan Fur and fortified their courage for their afternoon sexual trysts with bottles of booze that they smuggled across the parking lot and through the hotel lobby to their rooms. Across Normandale, also known as Highway 100, there was a Bridgeman’s ice-cream parlor, in those days a famous enterprise in Minnesota, and the orange roofs of a Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge, a color like a warning about a road-hazard to the cars roaring by on the freeway. A deep moat separated the Howard Johnson’s motel from the pygmy castle of a medieval-themed restaurant, stone turrets ranged along the nondescript frontage road behind the dike of the freeway levered up to pass over Highway 100. Tacked precariously to a shaggy hill beyond the freeway was a big J-shaped ski-jump, a place that no one knew how to reach and that, accordingly, was never used by anyone, even though it hovered nearby as a constant threat and admonition – this is adventure, the ski-jump seemed to proclaim, look upon me, mount my inaccessible and lofty heights and die.

Huge restaurants occupied terraces to the south of 494, the route to the gleaming utopia of the airport. The restaurants were too expensive for most people in Eden Prairie and we never visited them. Sometimes, we heard that boys took their dates to these restaurants on the eve of Senior Prom and, perhaps, once a year, someone would get to dine in one of those places on the special occasion of a fifieth birthday or retirement party. We thought that the restaurants were patronized by high-rollers from downtown, the kind of people who had season tickets to the Guthrie Theater or the Vikings, folks who could afford to eat at the Waikiki Room at the Hotel Nicollet or Charle’s CafĂ© Exceptional or, even, the Blue Horse in St. Paul. Perhaps, businessmen traveling on lavish expense accounts also took their customers to those places. The restaurants were windowless bunkers made from concrete block, one-story elongated sheds decorated with Tudor timbers representing Merry Olde England or nautically-themed complete with stubby cornice-lighthouses and tiny round portals on the doors. The waitresses wore costumes, pretending to be Dutch maidens or sailor’s whores or, in the Elizabethan-themed chop houses, lusty wenches. Near the intersection with I-35, there was an immense Chinese restaurant guarded by a forty-foot long fiber-glass dragon, a beast equipped with the face of a scowling Pekinese that spouted flames in orange gouts over the icy parking lot. Straight as an arrow, the freeway passed France Avenue where there was a towering outdoor movie theater, the huge screen encased in an elaborate frame like the fragment of a vast, broken wall at Babylon or Ninevah. Huddled under the big screen was a Perkin’s Cake and Steak place that seemed curiously beleagured – it had some sort of weird turret turned suspiciously toward the screen looming overhead dancing with monstrous figures of cowboys or spacemen. Southdale was beyond, moored among raspberry fields, a brick ziggurat flanked by glass towers.

Farther along the freeway, the traveler passed Southtown. There was a big movie palace in that Mall, it’s lobby plush with red velvet, toilets styled futuristically like something from The Jetson’s and strange terraces and plateaus buried in wall-to-wall carpet where sophisticated people could be imagined lounging, on display like precious objects in a museum, except that there were no sophisticates ever at that theater, only crowds of children, harried mothers, belligerent teenagers with long stringy hair. Then, the freeway skirted the sports complex, the big open-air stadium like a broken shell upturned among huge, barren steppes of parking lots, the hockey arena bluish white as a chunk of glacier calved from the rivers of ice that had once gouged down the hills and bluffs of Bloomington and made the place all one level. The Thunderbird Lodge was slung along the edge of the highway, an exotic mirage against the playa of parking lots either baking in the sun or dotted with buttes of jagged snow and ice scraped off the acres of winter-time asphalt. The carpets in the Thunderbird were patterned like Navajo rugs, similar to the sinister decor in the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick’s The Shining and there were ersatz Hopi sand paintings and headdresses and glass cases full of sulking, desecrated Kachina dolls. Then, the freeway turned north the river-bluff where planes were angling down out of the stormy skies, hanging big and bulbous over the lanes of moving traffic, descending on a flight-path marked by corridors of ruby-red lights. In those days, the freeways were much greater than the traffic on them, empty and impossibly swift and you changed lanes as if you were dancing on a ballroom floor and the road catapulted you irresistably toward the airport – it was all one breathless rush of motion and neon, a gaudy spectacle that lifted the heart into the sky where the jets were ceaselessly rising and falling.

This is what I remember now. And, something else, as well: a night in the spring of 1972, before I graduated from High School when my picture was taken for a local newspaper. For reasons that are now unclear to me, an American Legion Post located in Hopkins bestowed an award on me – something like Young Citizen of the Year. I wasn’t alone. I think there were half-dozen other senior boys, students from other west suburban high schools receiving this honor.

The award ceremony took place in the airless, lightless core of the Legion Post, a dimly lit bunker designed, it seemed, to withstand heavy bombing with its fortified front door opening onto Main Street, the back exit swinging out into a tiny cheerless parking lot edged by garbage bins. The place was mainly an arena for heroic drinking – the old soldiers had faces like swollen over-ripe fruit. We genuflected before a flag, recited the pledge of allegiance, and after a dinner of chicken on rice pilaf amidst a scattering of spring vegetables, the Young Citizen medallions were distributed. I know I stood briefly at the podium and, even, spoke a few words, but I have no idea what I said.

The room smelled of spilt beer and mildew and the carpet underfoot felt slick with grease. Columns of smoke rose from the tables where the old soldiers had made their bivouac. Unseen women laughed loudly in the adjacent bar and I suppose a TV set in that tavern intoned sotto voce sports statistics and advertising.. Clutching my medallion and certificate, I stood in the corner of the hall on a small riser, where polka bands played at weekend dances. The Legion commander approached and shook my hand. The smoky air jerked bright white with flashbulbs illumining the scene. Irwin Norling, the photographer posthumously published in Brad Zellar’s book was undoubtedly in the room, snapping my picture.

One of the newspaper photographers wanted a group shot. The 1972 recipients of the Young Citizen of the Year award crowded together on the band riser. Grinning, the Post Commander stood among us. We were all wearing ill-fitting suits and ties, dressed as if for a funeral. Several of the young men were talking to one another. “It’s really an honor,” one of the boys said. “Yes,” the other boy replied, “probably the greatest night of my whole life.” “Mine too,” another boy said. The Commander corrected them: “What about the night of your wedding?” he asked. “Well, I’m sure that will be memorable too,” a Young Citizen said. I agreed with that sentiment.

I wonder what has become of the medal and the award certificate inscribed on parchment paper suitable for framing.

The Spring evening was already stretching itself out, lissome, moist and languid against the dark alleyway and the gloomy back-doors to the Main Street businesses. The remnants of sunset, watery pale green suffused with derelict orangish-yellow light, decorated the western sky. I remember that the parking lot behind the Legion Post was strangely soft underfoot, the spaces between cars surfaced with thousands of asphalt shingles all crushed into a pillowy, yielding carpet.

I don’t think they make parking lots that way anymore.

A few hours before I heard Brad Zellar speak about his recent projects, I sat in the sunlight at the Artworks festival listening to J Keyser and his band. J Keyser was once my brother-in-law, although the marriage which made us “in-laws” ended half a lifetime ago. Keyser played acoustic guitar into a microphone and sang, accompanied by three other musicians. The band stood under the hot aluminum awning of the Austin Park and Rec stage, a platform mounted on the chassis of semi-trailer. Behind them, the Power Plant rose in great piers of brick, a palisade of corrugated steel walls atop the masonry that soared upward toward the pillar of the great smoke-stack. A skirt of fabric the color of red velvet underlined the stage and the warm, humid wind stirred there, making the bunting ripple and writhe like a living thing.

A third of a century ago, I walked into a bar kitty-corner to the Courthouse in Austin and saw J Keyser standing on a stage made from plywood painted black and shoved against the corner of the saloon. Keyser was playing guitar and singing alongside a young woman who held a fiddle against her hip, leaning toward a microphone and harmonizing with him. For some reason, Keyser looked familiar to me – in his black Stetson hat, he seemed to have come from a dream that I couldn’t quite recall. In those days, public radio didn’t reach Austin. People in town had never heard of Garrison Keillor or the Prairie Home Companion show. But, when the musicians took a break in the saloon, I approached the stage and shook hands with my future brother-in-law. I said: “Your band sounds a lot like the music that you hear on Garrison Keillor’s radio show.” Keyser thanked me. I told him that I admired his musical work. He was gracious and we talked for awhile. Keyser told me that he was studying Plato with some friends and invited me to his home for these discussions. Later, I married the sister of his girlfriend. All of this was a long, long time ago.

At the Artworks festival, Keyser turned toward the middle-aged woman playing fiddle at his side. He leaned into the microphone to sing harmony with her and she tapped her foot, holding the violin against her hip. In that instant, a third of a century materialized like an apparition, a presence that briefly held the stage, somehow both real and unreal. Keyser said: “It’s been thirty years.” He nodded, his black Stetson hat dipping toward the woman. “Thirty years but it passed like nothing at all.”

Flanking Keyser was a man who had played electric guitar in his bands in the early eighties, Mark C–. Mark looked like a character actor from an old-time Western – haggard and gaunt from too much range-riding, his hair gone white. Mark’s wife, Paulette stood at the other end of the stage, clutching a mandolin to her belly but not playing. She had a spiral notebook with photocopies of lyrics folded into its pages and she sometimes rummaged among those pages. Strangely, Paulette had not aged at all – she was slender and her pale kewpie-doll, Betty Boop-shaped face was unlined. Mark C– had found religion and he kept shouting: “Praise Jesus!” and, sometimes, Paulette lifted her right hand into the air, holding it up like a white flag. Perhaps, this gesture meant that she was praying.

The band played some old gospel tunes and, then, a couple songs by J Keyser.

Just before the end of the set, Paulette took a tambourine from atop a speaker and stuck it against her thigh and the woman with the fiddle was playing and J Keyser was singing and Mark C– had lifted his ruined, handsome face up to shine in the sun. The spiral notebook slipped from Paulette’s hand and the lyrics fluttered from within its pages and, suddenly, a gust of hot wind caught the white sheets of paper, whirling them around and around like a flock of doves. The papers swooped down and, then, were flung upward in a chimney of hot air, lyrics spouting up above the stage and, then, sailing far away over the parking lot.

It was beautiful and heartbreaking and all over in an instant.