Saturday, August 31, 2013
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 Café 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.
Sunday, August 25, 2013
After traveling in Oaxaca, my interest in pre-Columbian art revived. Most of my life, I have been intermittently interested in the subject, but, after seeing Monte Alban and Mitla,, fascination urged me to buy some expensive books on the Zapotecs and Maya. One volume that I ordered was by Mary Miller and Claudia Brittenham, "The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court – Reflections on the Murals at Bonampak". I bought the book online, before it was published. Several times, messages appeared on my computer indicating that the publication of the volume had been delayed. Something was wrong with the project. Perhaps, some long-slumbering Mayan deity with many legs and the mandibles of an onyx-colored panther had been roused to seize the manuscript in its teeth and had shaken the brightly colored images out of the book so that they lay scattered on the ground like the feathers of a Quetzal bird.
At last, Amazon emailed me a message that the book was available and that I should certify whether I still wanted it. Although I remained interested in the book, my obsession had faded a bit and, with a certain reluctance, I signified willingness to take delivery – it was quite expensive. I’m glad that I elected to purchase the volume. Miller and Brittenham’s book is vast – I think it must be a yard across when opened. There are hundreds of pictures showing the mural, reconstructions of the paintings, infra-red schematics, and other images that correlate to subjects depicted in the fresco. The book is organized by conceptual topics and the text, voluminous and detailed, is densely, if lucidly written, a spiraling web of references to the pictures that requires the reader to backtrack or accelerate his or her reading ahead to examine the many figures and plates. The colossal book is like a vortex – it doesn’t really advance forward, but rather spirals slowly, and redundantly in vast circles around the same subjects. The organization of the text is occult: certain themes are glimpsed, then, developed at length, then, retroactively re- assessed, then, revised, then, bracketed by other themes that are subjected to the same slow, digestive rumination. Miller and Brittenham aim to document as thoroughly as possible the physical condition of the mural and its associated bas-relief carvings as well as the glyphs and cartouches labeling the images. The project is akin to certain work that I have seen documenting the condition of the paleolithic murals at Lascaux and Altamira. There is a certain undeniable urgency to Brittenham and Miller’s efforts – the fresco’s present condition is appalling and the images painted on the walls at Bonampak are mostly indecipherable. It has not always been thus – earlier, in the late forties and, even, just before the turn of this millenium, the painted wall’s figures were vaguely visible, plumage and spear-points and the profiles of Mayan nobility, their craniums pulled like taffy, looming through the mural’s greasy murk. In recent years, the pictures have deteriorated to the point that they are, to use an irrevocable term, “lost” – the white of an eye staring from the dark gloom of decomposing pigments.
Brittenham and Miller’s book, intended to recuperate the mural, by “digital stitching” and containing huge panoramic reconstructions of the paintings unfolded on poster-paper, is quixotic, like a project imagined by Borges. It is probably the last book of this kind that the world will ever produce. I suppose the debate upon publication was whether the text and images should be reproduced on paper bound into a cardboard spine or whether the entire project should be committed to a web-page in cyber-space, a password-protected zone where the pictures could be accessed for all time on a point-and-click basis. I have Luddite tendencies and so, of course, I am happy that the book exists and that the pictures are printed on glossy paper. But, I suppose, projects of this kind in the future will be prohibitively expensive and relegated to the domain of computer imagery – ultimately, everything becomes a version of the dark mazes of Doom or the lost island paradise of Myst, an excursion through a fog of glowing electrons.
The only way to peruse "The Spectacle of the Maya Court" is to lay the huge book out on a table in front of you and, then, carefully turn the large pages, flipping back and forth between the descriptive and interpretive essay and the pictures. This is not a book you could read on an airplane without crushing your seat mate’s elbows and lap and, certainly, the volume is not something with which you can snuggle up in bed. Nonetheless, it has been my habit to study the book before retiring, reading a dozen pages or so, at the kitchen table before going upstairs to sleep. The murals at Bonampak are enormously intricate and embody a entire strange world, a parallel universe that intersects only very slightly with our reality. (Encountering the images unscrolling before you in cyber-space would be an intensely disorienting experience.) As is usually the case with pre-Columbian art, the murals document relentless, savage and grotesque violence. The effect is often like looking at photographs by Joel-Peter Witkin or certain pictures of traffic accident scenes – you turn the image upside-down or rotate it, asking yourself “What in the world is that?” And, then, when a label explains the image, you are aghast; the picture can’t possibly be showing what the label purports to represent. Even aspects of the murals that seem to be benign haunt the imagination – nightmare processions of courtiers with plumage like peacocks, strange promenades under the jaws of ghastly insect gods serenaded by orchestras of deformed dwarfs. It is difficult to assimilate the pictures to your imagination and, after looking at them intensely, just before bedtime, the structure with its weird murals embeds itself in your dreams. Curious, obsessive thoughts occur and re-occur, not so much dreams as ideas that you can’t quite shake, pre-dawn reveries that twist and contort like serpents when you try to seize hold of them. Where do I appear in this mural? How am I represented? These are crucial questions in Bonampak’s interpretation since Miller and Brittenham argue that the images are radically de-centered, that is is impossible to determine the mural’s protagonist: who is it about? The void at the heart of the mural summons the spectator into the imagery. The pictures swallow their viewer. Perhaps, the paintings are about me. And since the mural oozes from the walls of dark chambers that seem, once inside, to be deep underground, there is something of the sense that the images are buried in a dark mine, miles beneath the earth’s surface, hidden except to fellow miners who are marching through the gloom in search of treasures that can’t exactly be named.
But none of this is exactly helpful and so I should revert to mere facts. At the end of the common era’s eighth century, Bonampak was a principality in central Chiapas. The murals occupy the entire interior of a nondescript building called “Structure 1" at the architectural site. Structure 1 is a long, narrow edifice with a vaulted roof rising up to a stone vertex. The building’s roof-line seems to simulate, in stylized form, the thatched roof of a Mayan palace or, indeed, a commoner’s hut. Structure 1 is made of stone, has alcoves in its facade once occupied by stucco figures, and has three entries, each really just an opening into a niche entirely decorated with fresco. Rooms 1 and 3 show the royal court and show processions of nobility and courtiers as well as preparations for ritual dancing in a place like Bonampak. The central room (2) is decorated from floor to ceiling with an astounding battle-scene, a writhing tapestry of warriors slashing and stabbing at one another and, above the entry, there is a scene of captives being tortured on the steps of a pyramid – again, a structure similar, it seems, to the step-pyramid at Bonampak where the building occupies a ramp in the foothills of that monument. The three chambers do not interconnect and each must be entered separately from the building’s exterior. There is very little natural light in the bunker-like structure and no evidence that torches were ever used to illumine the murals, so the pictures were probably very difficult to see even when the paint was new and fresh and bright. Bore-holes in the wall were used to suspend curtains that apparently veiled the murals when they were not in use. This last phrase “not in use” is particularly problematic – no one knows how the structure was used or what it was for. Within the Mayan world, there seem to be no other extant examples of a pictorial program inside of a fortress-like building of this sort. The three niches are equipped with what the authors call “benches” – in fact, the benches occupy most of the interior alcoves and are, perhaps, better visualized as raised floors. The sides of the benches are decorated with bas-reliefs of bound captives and the lintels to the entries show noblemen seizing prisoners. Miller and Brittenham surmise that, at least, the central room with the battle and torture scenes was used for the “sexual abuse” of prisoners. Central American art in the last thirty years seems primarily interpreted through the lens of Robert Mapplethorpe – and this seems appropriate.
The murals were painted in bright, organic pigments. We know the work of the famous Greek painter, supposedly the greatest artist of the ancient world, Apelles, from a single accidentally surviving work – the mosaic copy of an Apelles’ fresco of Alexander the Great in battle against the Persians found near Naples. The situation is similar with respect to the Bonampak mural. It is the sole exemplar of this kind of art remaining and has survived by pure accident. Clearly, Mayan mural painting at the horizon of the late Classical was a highly developed and sophisticated art but climactic factors – these things were installed in humid jungles – and the region’s incessant warfare have eradicated all other examples of this art. Furthermore, the Bonampuk mural represents the final flowering of a civilization that was to inexplicably, and suddenly, simply melt away into the green web of the forests within a few decades. At Bonampak, the ceiling of Structure 1 leaked and the water drizzling down over the mural was impregnated with calcite in the plaster comprising the building’s roof. Water flowing over the surface of the mural deposited calcite on top of the fragile pigments and, thereby, preserved them under a translucent layer of crystal, a sort of natural vitrine that embalmed the image so that it could still be seen, at least, seventy years ago.
To a naive viewer, the Bonampak mural’s most remarkable aspect is the artists’ perseverance in depicting figures in profile. Clearly, a powerful prohibition exists, either stylistic or ideological, against showing human beings frontally. This is most striking in the Room 2 battle scenes, a tangle of figures reminiscent of Uccello, but ingeniously contorted so that the visages and upper torsos of the warriors are shown calligraphically, as elegantly stylized profiles. Curiously, this stylistic convention creates more tension in the battle imagery than might exist if the figures were rotated through a variety of perspectives – that is, if the painters were liberated to show the warriors frontally or, even, from behind. The necessity that each figure, no matter how interlocked with its neighbors, be twisted, or wrenched into a contrapposto stance, this serpentine sense of torsion, makes the violence of the combat seem even more intense that would be the case if the warriors were depicted more naturalistically. In some sense, the combat on the walls of Room 2 represents an agon or struggle between two competing methods of representation – the writhing figures are twisted between profile and frontal postures; the combat is a stylistic wrestling match between the vivid, and realistically observed, gestures made by the bodies of the men and their hieratic, emblematic profiles.
Something uncanny, a peculiar confrontational aura, accompanies full-frontal representation of human beings. It is as if the encounter with a person depicted as facing us directly is too violent, too disarming, too potentially devastating to the spectator. Ancient artists in the Middle East seem to have reserved full-frontal representation for deities – an example is the so-called Queen of the Night tablet in the British Museum, a naked woman glaring out at us flanked by totemic animals, as blithe, indifferent and threatening as Manet’s Olympia. “Mistress of the Animals” ceramics bas-relief from second and third century Asia Minor are similarly aggressive and full-frontal in their representations. But these figures represent goddesses of some sort and are intended to be fearsome and assertively alien. The curious fact is that full-frontal representation, somehow, seems unnatural. A characteristic tendency to avoid showing men and women fronting the viewer is evident in Egyptian art and Assyrian reliefs. Even god-kings like Sargon and Ashurbanipal are shown in profile, surrounded by their gorgeously costumed retainers – the programs of royal Assyrian bas-relief, static processions of ambassadors, soldiers, charioteers, in fact, seem startlingly similar to the mural imagery at Bonampak. Indeed, in the famous lion-hunting reliefs from the temple of Ashurbanipal, an effect similar to the furious twisting and serpentine contrapposto of the Mayan mural’s battle scene occurs. Some of the lions, as they die, actually rotate into a full frontal perspective, although, as in the Mexican mural, the images retain a very powerful tendency toward profile representation. As at Bonampak, the Assyrian lion-hunting reliefs seem to exist so that a torsion toward the full frontal can be achieved – among other features, this wrenching away from profile toward frontal representation seems to be the stylistic raison d’etre of the imagery.
The Mayan stylistic law avoiding full-frontal depictions of people, although rigorously and, even, perversely, applied in the Bonampak mural, is not unnatural in itself. Indeed, many relatively recent works of art, representations that we would characterize as modern, apply the same prohibition. In classical narrative cinema, characters are typically deployed in three-quarter view, turned toward other figures in the frame. Most close-ups rely upon an angle that retains an element of the profile. We can sense the force of this stylistic convention most powerfully when it is violated. I have already mentioned Manet in this context – another example, is the powerfully confrontational completely frontal image of the bar-maid in The Bar at the Folies Bergere, a painting that seems vaguely minatory and uncanny to most viewers. Similarly, in the films of Yasujiro Ozu, characters are frequently shown facing directly into the camera lens and, seemingly, talking straight to the audience – although these images are usually motivated by dialogue with off-screen interlocutors. Staging of dialogue with full-frontal images of the participants in the colloquy creates an unsettling effect, a sense of almost unbearable candor that is absent from sequences more conventionally framed in angles tending toward the profile. Bonampak’s murals remind us that the full-frontal presence of a human being is an uncanny thing – the figures that visit us with their wings outstretched and both eyes glaring like headlights are either gods or monsters. Miller and Brittenham acknowledge these principles in discussion of an image of sacrifice in the third room. The surface of the mural is eroded so that the corpse of a captive sacrificed atop a pyramid is mostly indecipherable – we can see hands and feet being handled by dancers but the body, represented in schematic images of the mural as an arch-like white lacuna, is too abraded to be visible. The authors note: “(The figure’s placement) insists that we look. Would the viewer have faced his dead frontal stare, like that of the dead captive on a pot in the Dallas Museum of Art...It is hard to turn away from the frontal face of a captive: such a face would have owned the wall, perhaps explaining why it did not survive.”
The Bonampak figures of courtiers, warriors, royal consorts, and captives are painted three-quarters life-size. The images are outlined, like personages in a George Rouault canvas, by solid black lines, drawn with fluent ductus of a master draftsman. Before succumbing to time’s assault, the figures must have possessed an uncanny, and powerful, presence. Indeed, Miller and Brittenham argue that the mural is not merely a depiction of important events, but, in fact, an enactment of the bloodshed and rituals that it portrays. A spectator entering the battle niche crosses the threshold over glyphs and images of captured enemies, thus, performing anew the defeat and abject humiliation of those adversaries. Small bound captives appear in bas relief on the front of the bench in the second room of Structure 1. Hence, a person sitting on that bench is, in effect, placing himself on top the defeated victims dragged from the battlefield to Bonampak for sacrifice. The processions and ritual auto-sacrifice (blood-letting), the torture and the human sacrifices shown in the murals are all proposed as performative in the eyes of the viewer. To the Maya, Miller and Brittenham argue, to see these images is to participate in the enactment of the events portrayed – there is no looking without somehow also acting. The murals energizing space in the gloomy niches exist in a perpetual present-tense – they are an encounter with a present reality that compresses space inside Structure 1 into a densely wrought system of meanings that were relevant to contemporary Mayan viewers.
Two dominant aspects of the murals, their performative power and sinuous, choreographed contrapostto, combine in the figure of a dead prisoner sprawled across the pyramid steps painted inside the second room in the building. Heroically muscular, and twisted like one of Michelangelo’s slaves, the corpse seems to writhe transfixed by a great lord’s spear. This figure exuding eerie terribilita, hovers over the entry into the artificial grotto where the battle scene and its grisly aftermath are portrayed. The blocky square opening into the room, in fact, functions as a sort of altar-shaped void on which the dead man is racked. This figure, unavoidably poignant to modern eyes, and the ranks of cringing mutilated captives awaiting torture and death, signify to Miller and Brittenham the mural’s “hidden transcript.” The mural, they argue, subverts the authority of the Mayan lords presiding over the massacre on the temple steps. The authors go so far as to argue that the artisans who created this image may well have been defeated captives themselves, coerced to record the humiliating deaths of their compatriots under threat of torture – probably disarticulation or amputation of their fingers. The images in Room 2, accordingly, seem tragic to us. This aspect of the mural represents a counter-program undercutting the triumphalist imagery distributed throughout the entirety of Structure 1. Although Brittenham and Miller don’t use the word “tragedy,” clearly they feel that there is something almost Shakespearian about this depiction of death and mutilation – the image stirs in us powerful emotions of “terror and pity,” the Aristotelian diagnostic for tragedy.
I find these arguments unpersuasive. The notion of a “hidden transcript” motivating certain parts of the mural seems implausible to me for this simple reason: we don’t know what the mural’s “overt transcript” means. In fact, the authors are at pains to observe that the frescos, taken as a whole, are decentered, discursive, and self-contradictory. It is hard to excavate an esoteric meaning from a text, or pictorial system, whose exoteric significance can not be established. The beginning of interpretation, in my view, is paraphrase. And Miller and Brittenham acknowledge that a paraphrase of the significance of the murals can not be established. Hence, secondary meanings subverting a naive or simplistic reading of the imagery are also inaccessible to us.
Indeed, many things dramatically depicted in the murals seem to me wholly incomprehensible. In the third room, ten dancers strike postures on the steps of a huge step-pyramid. The men are girdled with great lateral wings, something like the iridescent wings of a huge dragonfly. This sort of imagery is apparently very rare – a few ceramics correlating to these winged dancers seem to show that the great flapping appendages girded to the loins of the men may relate to genital bloodletting. On pots, the men with wings extending from their groins seem to have loin clothes conspicuously spotted with blood, a feature that leads to various malign surmises as to exactly how the winged apparatus is attached to the dancers. Across the vault, other dancers dressed as crocodiles and crustacean monsters flap huge pincers at one another. Even more remarkable, are micro-images interspersed among the half-life-size dancers – these are small cartoons sketched in black-line calligraphy showing more personages, some of them vividly specific, hovering between the elaborately dressed dancers. The faces are like incompletely developed photographic images, half-formed in the frenzy of blood and music portrayed in the mural. These micro-images relate in some way to the embroidered garments that the dancers wear and their towering headdresses – these textiles swarm with tiny images themselves seeming to depict the dance on the mural as if between opposing mirrors, a corridor of images referring to themselves diminishing in infinite regression. For instance, the conical headdress of one ocarina player is decorated with an image of a drummer and that headdress is crowned with effigy of a weird long-nosed beast, possibly an anteater, also playing the drums, “a sequence within a sequence – a painted gesture to infinity,” the authors tell us. The problem with imputing meaning to what we can’t see in this mural is that we don’t even know exactly what we are seeing.
Sometimes, I think, naked sadism must be acknowledged for what it is. The sheer ferocity of the imagery in the Bonampak structure is staggering. In the battle scene, people are clubbed and skewered by spears. One man seems to have his heart ripped-out and dangling between his knees in its pericardial sack. In Room 3, men and women prepare to transfix their tongues (and possibly genitals) with razor shards of obsidian or sting-ray spines. The captives huddled atop the pyramid steps in the room containing the battle murals appear to have had the tips of their fingers ripped off – blood spills from their mangled hands. The mural shows one warrior in the process of mutilating the hand of a victim; arterial blood sprays up from the ruined fingers drizzling down toward a severed head, lying like a soccer ball on a lower step. The head’s skull is shattered and brains are drooping through the cranium onto a salad of leaves. The head’s eyes have been sewn shut. A half-dozen or more captives raise their heads to howl at the huge glyphs hanging like over-ripe fruit above them. The captives have had their teeth extracted and, in some cases, their upper and lower jaws and their mouths are toothless slack sphincters. In the vault, ancestor figures hover like bodhissatva, cushioned on centipede cartouches. Between those apparitions, a hieroglyph proclaims “ – is thrown down”. The ancestors squatting in the jaws of sky-centipede seem aligned with certain cosmological symbols – they are, somehow, both furies and the morning and evening stars.
Homer imagined the Trojan war as a catastrophe for both victors and defeated. Aeschylus portrays the defeated Persians as noble and allows us to sympathize with them – although it was the ambition of the Asiatic invaders to raze Athens to the ground and sell its women into slavery. The echoes of Greek tragedy animate Roman theater and, ultimately, we can sense the DNA of Euripides and Sophocles in Shakespeare and Ibsen and Beckett. To stare at the Bonampak murals is to be astounded at their sheer “otherness’. These images arise from a world without Homer and Oedipus, a world that did not know Socrates or Plato or Kant, a world in which there was no tradition of Osiris and Isis, no Moses, no Isaiah, no Ishtar nor Aphrodite, no Jesus nor Muhammed. Ultimately, the category of tragedy, an invention of Greco-Roman, Judaeo-Christian culture, does not apply to these images – they are, in my view, relentlessly sadistic and pitiless.
But it is also easy to be overly emphatic about how radically “other” the Bonampak murals appear to be. In fact, the frescos comprise a great and profound work of art. And art, in some ways, is a constant across all cultures. Moved to rhapsody by the mural, Miller and Brittenham say:
"...(T)ime is rendered as if within a single human breath, and it can only be understood that way as well. It is specifically not photographic in which the moment is frozen; rather, time unfolds and then closes, as if the artist can capture the experience of time and space within the blink of the human eye. Yet this blink is not brief but expanded, extended in ways that modern time has come to think of as cinematic. Time spirals inward in a clockwise direction, until it comes to the dead center and the dead stop."
This is not anthropology, not archaeology, not art criticism, but a species of mysticism, although, nonetheless, profound and important. I’m not sure what Miller and Brittenham mean by this ecstatic effusion. In a later paragraph, they note that the mural is completed by the “very act of sitting and looking” and the observer is rendered “complicit.” One interpretation of the authors’ rapturous looking is that time can not be frozen, although it is “stopped” by the observer’s obsessive contemplation of the mural. This theme is poignant and essential to the book: the concept repeatedly expressed that the viewer activates the mural.
By hypothesis, Mayan images, particularly those of the king embodied on stelae, were magically imbued with the royal presence. Students of Mayan art believe that these stelae were not only visual representations of the ruler but invested with his or her actual authority – presumably one bowed before such images, according them the same respect granted their original (although, in this context, the distinction between original and copy becomes blurred). Under this interpretation, the Bonampak murals don’t merely show sacrifice, blood-letting, and battle – they somehow are these things. Thus, contemplation of the paintings retrieves the events represented and extrudes them into the present tense. The political meaning of the murals, significance that Miller and Brittenham struggle to excavate – unsuccessfully in my view – in the penultimate chapter of their book, is theatrically enacted as an exercise of power on the person looking at the images. The murals display, and enforce, their powerful presence in part by the contorted posture that the spectator must adopt to see certain of the more remote and gloomy parts of the painted walls and vaults. (Although Miller and Brittenham don’t follow some of their ideas to their logical conclusion, it would seem to me that difficulties imposed on the viewer with respect to perceiving and construing certain parts of the image – particularly those in dark overhanging recesses of the vault – figuratively restrict access to aspects of the picture that are intimate to royal power and not, perhaps, for profane eyes. This feature in the murals would be cognate with pre-Columbian architectural practice in many cultures systematically dividing the high-born from the laboring classes of peasants and artisans – intricate hierarchies of space enforced by increasingly enclosed and labyrinthine plazas and courtyards. It is not an accident that you can’t clearly see the royal women preparing to pierce themselves in auto-sacrifice, an image half-concealed on a slanting overhang surface near the dark vertex of Building One – you aren’t supposed to be able to clearly see that picture.) In their analysis of the murals as a power transaction, the authors follow closely on the academically fashionable doctrines of Derrida and Foucault – and, in this respect, I think their implicit reliance on those ideas is warranted.
A second aspect of the murals political meaning argued by Miller and Brittenham is that they contains clues as to the imminent collapse of Mayan urban civilization. These arguments are not persuasive to me for several reasons. First, Miller and Brittenham seem to have fallen prey to the “last works” fallacy. It is claimed, for instance, that some of Schubert’s final song cycles, for instance, his Schwanengesang, contain premonitions of his death. Shelley and Keats are thought to have embodied portents of their untimely deaths in the last poems that they wrote. There is a small painting by Paul Klee said to be a memento mori because finished just before the artist died and some claim Mozart’s final compositions to be eerily prescient of the doom hanging over his head. But, of course, these interpretations of final works are all constructed post hoc, that is, retroactively, by viewers and critics with knowledge that the painting or text or musical composition was the last thing that the artist created before his death. Although history interprets events retroactively, all of us, Maya included, are compelled to lead our lives prospectively, without reliable knowledge of the future. Miller and Brittenham think the sheer opulence of wealth, feathers, and precious textiles displayed in the murals is decadent, the sign of an unsustainable economic system – but, of course, that same evidence might be equally argued to support the proposition that the Bonampak Mayans were confident, prosperous, and self-sustaining enough to use their resources in such a profligate manner. It is tricky to forecast the future. Many processes occur in exponential increments – this means, that factors showing collapse are not manifest until it is too late. Even if the people who made the murals suspected that something was amiss in their world, no doubt, many of them were optimistic that these problems could be corrected, that disaster would be averted, and that all would be well in the future. Accordingly, I think it is questionable to interpet the Bonampak paintings as diagnostic of the looming collapse of the late classical Mayan polity.
Miller and Brittenham’s claims for the “performative” aspect of the murals express the fundamental objective of their book. For most practical purposes, the murals are now illegible, faint shadows invisible to the naked eye. Contemporary pictures show a welter of decomposing colors like fading bruises on the Bonampak walls. From the outset, the jungle and its people have abused the murals. High humidity and torrential rains have scoured the pictures and someone has taken a pick-axe to the mural, cratering the surface to peck away faces and eyes. For many years, tour-guides brightened the decaying images by dowsing them in kerosene. As a result, the Bonampak murals don’t really exist any longer except in the imagination of the scholars who have devoted their lives to studying the faint traces now remaining. The authors acknowledge that, by 1997, the murals were declared “lost.” In a very real sense, the most powerfully “performative” act evidenced by The Spectacle of the Late Mayan Court is the book’s recuperative function: in the future, the Bonampak murals will exist in its most definitive and visible form within this magisterial book. The book “performs” the task of saving the murals. Carefully documenting the appearance of the murals both now and at various times in the past, Miller and Brittenham’s volume reconstitutes the pictures – it makes them whole again, conjectures their original color scheme and design, and, then, establishes as it were the canon with respect to these paintings. At the back of the book, there are images of every part of the mural and each glyph is painstakingly recorded. Further, the volume contains a series of pocket-parts depicting the complete mural in the form of folded posters, images painstakingly reconstructed at a scale about one-fourth the size of the original. In the future, scholars wishing to study the mural will necessarily consult Miller and Brittenham’s book – it is this book that will “perform” the mural for future viewers. Most books about art history concern a work that the reader can, at least, theoretically consult in the original. Here, the original is damaged beyond recognition – thus, in a very real sense, the Miller and Brittenham’s reconstruction is the mural. The book, and its pictures, is all that reliably remains.
Great art seems to exist outside of time. We say that masterpieces are timeless. This means both that such works seem evergreen, always fresh and new whatever the human season in which encounter them, but, also, that a masterpiece acts to preserve a moment of time. Great paintings act like gravitational fields warping and distorting time into meanings consistent with the artist’s intentions. As observed by Brittenham and Miller, the artists that made the Bonampak murals somehow manage to both dilate time, distributing events across space the way that immensely distant stars transmit their light from different eons, while, at the same time, compressing duration, flattening the tick-tock of existence into simultaneity. Brittenham and Miller make great claims for their mural and succeed in persuading the reader that the Bonampak paintings have an immense world-historical meaning. But there is nothing particularly unique about how the paintings work to achieve their effects. All great works of art, I think, induce a similar effect on their viewers.
As evidence, I conclude by citing someone as remote as possible from the Bonampak murals, the underground filmmaker, Kenneth Anger. In a preface to a recent book about his movies, Anger writes rhapsodically about how his films outwit time. His thoughts apply equally to the Bonampak murals and the way that these images reach across an abyss of time and culture to us.
"The present is “the ultimate freeze frame...in our Cosmic Cutting Room we must cut it up into instants and must keep on cutting it up until we get an instant so small that it has no fractional part of a Past or Future remaining in it...A true atom of Time must have no duration whatever. It must have no Past or Future in it or it will not be a pure NOW...A true atom of Time – one cell of the body of God Chronos – must have no Time-dimension at all...neither the Past, the Present, nor the Future exist NOW...TIME MUST HAVE A STOP."
(Introduction by Kenneth Anger to Alice L. Hutchison’s Kenneth Anger, 2011)
Saturday, August 3, 2013
On the Happiness of the Poets
What is happiness? I suppose those that are truly happy don’t ask this question. It never occurs to them. Indeed, perhaps, one definition of being happy is not being concerned to limit the experience with thoughtful definitions and semantic boundaries.
As I grow older and find that more and more of the life around me seems stale and faded and listless, I find myself thinking about happiness frequently. This is a bad sign. In particular, I wonder about happiness as described by the poets. Three poems explicitly consider this subject. Two of them, I have known for most of my life – a little “Salutation” by Ezra Pound and some lines by Carl Sandburg in his first published volume, Chicago Poems. The third poem, by the German writer, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, I discovered a couple weeks ago. What can they tell us about this subject?
Among my father’s books was a heavy grey volume edited by Louis Untermeyer called Modern American Poetry - Modern British Poetry, Combined Mid-century Volume. It is my impression that the book was assigned as reading for a literature course in which my father was enrolled at Iowa State University, apparently in 1957 – the book bears a tiny sticker indicating that my father purchased it for $5.95, a substantial sum of money then, in August of that year at the College Book Store, Ames, Iowa. I was born in 1954 and so, the book is, more or less, my contemporary. It was on the book shelf in our home and, when I was in High School, I remember perusing its contents and reading many of Untermeyer’s introductions to the poets presented in the text. In his fine, precise handwriting, my father annotated a dozen or so of the poems, writing one or two words in mechanical pencil – he was an engineering student and carried such pencils in his breast pocket all of his life – near the verse’s title or at the margin. Several of the poems he graded, marking them A or A+ or B or B-. Predictably, the poems that he seems to have read closely were several by T. S. Eliot (“The Wasteland” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”) and Robert Frost. Whether he read, or was assigned any of the verse by Ezra Pound is unclear to me – none of those poems are annotated.
In 1957, Pound was under a cloud due to his activities on behalf of the Italian fascists during World War Two. I suppose that some of the students, and, probably, more than a few of the teachers were former soldiers who had fought in the Pacific or Italy and attended college on the GI Bill. Like Untermeyer, I would guess that they had contempt for Pound. Certainly, Untermeyer is not an admirer – he accuses Pound of “obfuscation” and “confusion”, notes his confinement in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Criminally Insane and says that he is “too special, too arrogant, too erudite...” I skimmed the poems representing Pound in the textbook when I was a junior or senior in High School and, looking at the book now, I see that I imitated my father – making small, spidery notes in pencil in the margin next to the first poem of the selection, “Salutation.” Beside the verse, I wrote “The Mad Doktor of Modern Poetry” – a phrase that I recall deploying in an essay I composed for a high school English class. For some reason, I was very proud of that appellation and have remembered it all my life. In the white space beside the poem, now tawny yellow with age, I wrote: “the joke makes me feel happy” – and I drew a bracket to show what I meant, the last couple lines of the verse.
Here is the poem:
O Generation of the thoroughly smug
and thoroughly uncomfortable,
I have seen fishermen picknicking in the sun,
I have seen them with untidy families,
I have seen their smiles full of teeth
and heard ungainly laughter.
And I am happier than you are,
And they were happier than I am;
And the fish swim in the lake
and do not even own clothing.
This poem, “Salutation”, was probably written around 1916 and published in volume called Lustra. At this time in his life, Pound was experimenting with various verse forms and poetic personae, and the volume contains imitations of poets that the young man admired, particularly Swinburne and Browning. Although I have known this verse all my life, until recently I remembered the poem as one of Carl Sandburg’s. In fact, I conflate the poem with Sandburg’s “Happiness” which it closely resembles and that I will quote below. Certainly, both the poem and the sentiment that it expresses are not characteristic for Ezra Pound – there is nothing of the “mad Doktor” about this little verse.
As always, Pound is condescending – the stance of the poet is against both his “Generation” and the “untidy” and “ungainly” fisher-folk “picknicking in the sun.” Certainly, the initial salutation lodged behind the poetic “O” is itself smug – why is the poet so certain that he is not to be numbered among the “thoroughly smug” and “thoroughly uncomfortable?” On the evidence of the poem he seems to be both. The fishermen seem to inspire “uncomfortable” feelings in him – they are too vivid, too loud, too easily accommodated to their lives and there is, perhaps, a dark side to their happiness. Note that the hierarchy of happiness may also enact a predator-prey relationship. The fishermen prey on the fish implied to be “happier than” they are. The poet makes his verse from his observations about the fisherfolk – in a sense, they are his prey, at least grist for his mill. And Pound’s verse is directed to the Generation of the smug and uncomfortable – presumably, the mercantile and bourgeois classes for whom the poet produces his work. In some sense, he and his smug Generation are parasitic upon one another – the poet puts his happiness on display to be preyed upon by his unhappy readers. In one sense, happiness is “picknicking,” that is, eating, and the display of “ungainly teeth” in the context of fishermen and their prey makes emblematic the notion that the joy of the fisherman is the death of the fish.
To pursue this unsettling interpretation too far, however, is to traduce the poem. The diction is plain and, on the simplest level, the verse is merely a gloss on the Gospel text at Matthew 6:28 – “And why do you worry about clothes? Consider the lilies of the field...” Happiness is defined as taking pleasure in simple things and not worrying about the future or the economy in which one is embedded. Fundamentally, the happiest are those with the least and those that do not think about their poverty – the fish in the lake have nothing and they are the happiest, and most thoughtless, of all. But to state the poem’s meanings in these terms (and poetry can never be reduced to its paraphrase) is to demonstrate exactly the smug and self-satisfied tenor of the verse and its reactionary implications. Of course, a wealthy well-educated young man, the scion of well-to-do mining family, has the leisure to regard the poor as truly happy, and, indeed, even has the chutzpah to assert that their poverty makes them glad. Such thought excuses the poet from concern about the social order. If beggars and paupers are happier than merchants and poets, then, surely we live in the best of all possible worlds – the more poor and stupid that you are, the happier. Pound doesn’t believe this, of course, and, for that reason, I think codes the verse with flashing (and threatening) teeth implying that the round “O” of the world is comprised of predators and prey, a world in which the tigers and raptors rationalize their tooth and claw as pleasurable to their victims.
For many years, I remembered this poem as written by Carl Sandburg. The reason for this confusion is clear enough – the verse sounds like Sandburg when read aloud and, in fact, the repetition of the phrase “I have seen...” echoes the Illinois poet’s famous poem “Chicago” – a verse that was once read in every High School classroom in every year of High School. Sandburg was influenced by Whitman and, in fact, when I was in College was generally denigrated as “Whitman lite”. And it is clear that like Sandburg, Pound also found Whitman’s influence inescapable. Pound’s anxiety about Whitman’s massive influence on him and American poetry is the subject of “A Pact.” In that poem, Pound tells us:
I made a pact with you, Walt Whitman –
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has a pig-headed father.
I am old enough to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood.
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root –
Let there be commerce between us.
Long before making this pact, in the early poem “Salutation,” we can see unmistakably the “commerce’ between Pound and his “pig-headed father.”
In my father’s college anthology, Untermeyer clearly prefers Sandburg to Pound: Ezra gets eight pages of verse; Sandburg is accorded twenty pages. This situation was reversed, however, when I attended college in the Fall of 1972. The anthology of modern poetry taught to me by my professors contained fifteen or twenty pages of Pound’s poems and not a single specimen by Carl Sandburg. This seemed unjust and implausible to me. I had grown up with Sandburg, including a copy of the Chicago Poems, and had read them many times when I was young. So I was surprised that Carl Sandburg no longer seemed to be of any significance – at least, in the Academe. (The same thing was true of Edgar Lee Masters, regarded as a great vernacular poet by my father, and highly recommended to me – no one at college seemed to know anything about The Spoon River Anthology.)
Carl Sandburg’s little poem about “happiness” has that word as its name – it is number 17 in the Chicago Poems, written between 1912 and 1916, and, coincidentally, published in the same year as Pound’s “Salutation.” Here is what Sandburg tells us about happiness:
I asked professors who teach the meaning of life to
tell me what is happiness.
Then, I went famous executives who boss the work
of thousands of men.
They all shook their hands and gave me a smile as
though I was trying to fool with them.
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along
the Desplaines River.
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with
their women and children and a keg of beer
and an accordion.
Very popular on the internet, this little verse doesn’t require much explication. The poet’s “wander(ing)...out along the Desplaines River” (I preserve Sandburg’s spelling for “Des Plaines”) seems to be part of his search for the meaning of happiness. Men deemed wise by the world don’t know. Neither do men who are powerful, those “who boss the work of thousands.” In fact, savants and captains of industry don’t even understand the question – they think the poet is jesting with them. The “Hungarians,” apparently gathered in a park for a picnic (like Pound’s fisher-folk) have everything, as it turns out, necessary for happiness: women, children, a river with shade trees, music, and a keg of beer. Sandburg’s verse is sunny and didactic. There is none of Pound’s Schadenfreude. No one is exploiting anyone here although, of course, the “famous executives” probably “boss” the Hungarians at factories on the outskirts of Chicago. “Happiness” is refreshingly direct: no beating about the bush for Sandburg – he gives you the ingredients for happiness in simple, clear terms and doesn’t complicate the issue with sociology or aesthetics.
Hans Magnus Enzensberger is a well-known German poet and novelist. Born in 1929, he’s one of the last German authors to have experienced the Hitler era as a young adult – he was 16 when the war ended. (Enzensberger was a member of a Hitler youth group but expelled for disobedience. The notorious Julius Streicher, editor of Der Stuermer, was a next-door neighbor.) Enzensberger writes in clear, idiomatic German without elaborate syntax or metaphors. His lucid, rhetorically streamlined, and unrhymed verse is a bit like Carl Sandburg’s poetry, although the German tends toward irony and bitter humor. Enzensberger’s poem, Fuer Karajan and andere (“For Karajan and others”) seems to me related to Sandburg’s “Happiness,” although a bit obliquely. Both poems feature music, a speaker who disdains the privileged and the elite, and Eastern Europeans with an accordion. Read Enzensberger’s poem, translated below, and see if you think it is about happiness:
Three men in stiff hats
Outside Kiev’s main Bahnhof –
Trombone, accordion, saxophone –
in an October night’s mist
they hesitate between two trains,
between catastrophe and catastrophe:
playing for tired travelers, who ponder
as they bite into their warm pierogies
and wait and wait.
poignant melodies, worn-out
like their jackets and as greasy
as their hats, and if you stood
shivering there among the drunks,
the old veterans, the pickpockets,
you would have to admit to me:
Salzburg, Bayreuth and La Scala
have little, very little, more to offer
than the train-station at Kiev.
This is my translation, accurate, but not eloquent, perhaps. A few notes on the German are in order. The buskers in this poem stand in the “Dunst” of the October night –"Dunst" means vapors, such as steam, and suggests an archaic image of the locomotives puffing clouds of water vapor from their engines. Of course, the term also has sinister overtones inescapably present in German post-war poetry – "Dunst" may also suggest the “fog of war”. And, of course, the setting, a railway station in the “bloodlands” of Eastern Europe invokes other journeys by train: soldiers transported to the Eastern Front and Jews hauled to the gas chambers of the Shoah. Indeed, Enzensberger sees a few of those old soldiers, Veteranen, waiting in the station, living emblems of Kiev’s tragic history. The travelers are “Ermuedete” – that is, tired to the point of exhaustion – and listen “voll Andacht,” that is, with an almost prayerful concentration. The smell of the pierogies is conveyed in the adjective “speckig”used to describe the street-musician’s hat – “Speck” is “bacon” or “bacon fat.” Enzensberger uses the formal Sie to address his readers – by employing this formal diction he designates his readers, like Pound, as members of the generation of “the thoroughly smug and thoroughly uncomfortable,” that is, well-educated, cultured Germans who would, of course, prefer Bayreuth or La Scala to the serenade of some grubby Russian (or, worse, gypsy) street musicians. Of course, “Karajan” in the poem’s title refers to the famous director of the Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, a conductor alleged to have been a Nazi during the Third Reich.
The music played by the street musicians is curiously orchestrated – you don’t normally associate a trombone with an accordion and saxophone. The German word for trombones, that is, "Posaune", carries apocalyptic meanings – trombones, "Posaune", sound the ‘last trump,’ a blaring fanfare that proclaims the end of the world. This reading is supported by the reference to the roar and tumult of the arriving and departing trains as “catastrophes”. The threadbare and schmaltzy (probably a good translation of "speckig") tunes played by the buskers are an intermission, an entr’acte between catastrophic historical events. Art consoles. It is a moment of disinterested beauty in the midst of history’s thunderous squalor. Salzburg, Wagner’s Bayreuth, and La Scala, places where the former Nazi Herbert von Karajan conducted orchestras, are all contaminated by the “catastrophe” of history. Music makes us happy, but as a distraction from the various historical nightmares that have convulsed Eastern Europe. We have arrived at a formulation of happiness that is mostly, although not all, negative – happiness is the absence of war and catastrophe and suffering.
Have our poets helped us to better understand happiness? Happiness, it seems, is a condition elusive to the rich, privileged, powerful, or the culturally elite. Apparently, the presence of a river with shade-trees or a lake makes people happy. It helps to picnic – whether with a keg of beer or a pierogi snack. Eating is pleasant. The poor take pleasure in their families, presumably, because they have few other things about which to be happy. Music, preferably performed on an accordion, makes people happy. Simple pleasures are better than sophisticated ones. This is what a Martian reading these poems might conclude. And, perhaps, the Martian would not be far wrong.
Of course, people differ in what makes them happy and, probably, there is no such thing as abstract happiness, that is, generic happiness – being happy seems to me to be highly specific and circumstantial. I am haunted, sometimes, by the memory of a weekend afternoon, my children small at that time and gathered tightly around the dinner table, someone’s birthday being celebrated, someone teased and crying, candles lit, my wife singing “Happy Birthday,” a strange sense in my heart almost like a feeling of suffocation – let this moment, let this instant, linger forever! I had the sense that I would stop time if I could, that, if possible, I would will that instant to become an eternity and, that at the same time, the expansion of that moment across time would extinguish forever all future happiness. Each joy somehow strives to become absolute, to fill eternity with its radiance to the exclusion of all other moments of happiness. To capture happiness requires that you embalm yourself in the moment, that you forbid yourself from any change. An experience that pleases you one day, may seem cloying or dull or, even, unpleasant in other circumstances.
And, our hypothetical Martian might also have trouble comprehending the notion that representations of happiness may make us more joyful than the actual experience depicted As I grow older, it seems to me that I take more and more pleasure in writing essays like this one. I don’t know if this is wisdom or folly or mere incapacity. But now I seem to like writing more about happiness than seeking, or experiencing, it.