Saturday, December 27, 2014
Rain fell in Palermo, a sticky syrup spat from the sky and the fluid sloshed against gutters and eroded curbs like hot broth. The tour guide was marching us to the palace of a Sicilian countess. We walked single-file in narrow alleyways, passages like grottos, pressed against the slimy ancient walls so that cars could creep by. In some places, the alleys were blocked with rubble or clogged with garbage, pallets slumped against walls and barricading the lane next to over-turned bushel-baskets full of rotting produce, bloody mattresses that looked as if pigs had been slaughtered on them, a strange hush in the maze of narrow bricked-in passages – the traffic noise was muffled and, from adjacent openings in the walls, we heard domestic sighs and moans, a disheveled cat on the prowl among flowerpots, the respiration of the city deep and stentorous, a sort of snoring sound as the warm rain fell, pelting us as we hiked through the puddles.
In this quarter of Palermo, the streets are not merely medieval. Rather, they are ancient, a tangle of cobblestone lanes once adjacent to the ancient Carthaginian port, now receded to the docks and piers a mile away. These alleys were old when the Greeks captured the city and renamed it Panormus, ancient when this city was the capital of a Roman province, more than ancient when the Normans came here to build their fortified churches with dark interiors sheathed with gold and azure mosaics. Walking these stony alleys in the rain takes vigilance: you must use more than simple care or the wet, irregular cobbles underfoot will pitch you forward and knock you into a puddle of filthy water sloshing obscenely in a pothole or a crater left-over from the War. Berbers in frocks like butchers watched us from within cavernous, half-ruined buildings, dark eyes peering out of the gloom. Julie was muttering under her breath: "You’ve got to be fucking kidding! You’ve got to be kidding!" – a complaint about the rain, the uneven streets treacherously slicked with dog shit, the ancient ghetto pressing around us on all sides, cars and Vespas sluicing through the wet tunnels and casting water knee-high against our trousers and slacks.
We stopped in a narrow pit in front of big barn-like structure, a long, high windowless wall rising overhead to a tiled roof from which rain slid, splashing onto our heads. Around us, the neighborhood was ruinous: collapsing structures dissolving into piles of gravel and pits lined with fallen walls, half-ruined tenements like ancient quarries, full of big, incommunicative rocks, and windows like the openings into caves, sheds built in the wreckage of other sheds, an onion-dome of a church hovering over the chaos where we could hear women shouting at their children, music playing, voices coming from nests of broken tile and timber. An abandoned, porcelain toilet stood against the wall, the rain sullenly pissing into its pot. "This is the Pallazzo Federico," the tour-guide announced. She rang a door bell and we waited in the rain for a long time for a reply. A buzzer sounded and the tour-guide leaned against the massive wooden door to admit us to the palace.
The big door tilted us inward to a courtyard where some expensive cars were parked in the gloom. On a balcony overlooking the courtyard, we saw a slender, blonde woman, haloed by the amber light behind her, waving and wearing a sort of sarong. The woman was far above us, posing in the frame of the arched opening into the palace. She gestured to us casually, lifting a delicate hand from the marble balustrade against which she was lounging and, then, said something to the tour-guide in Italian. It was a curiously breathtaking spectacle: the svelte blonde model, supernaturally youthful in appearance, standing like an idol in a shrine forty-feet above the dark and moldering courtyard.
To reach the woman, we climbed a long flight of marble stairs, really more of a ramp since the steps were very shallow, rising to landings where there were battered statues and bas-relief carvings in the high, damp-looking walls. The palace was stifling, ghastly with humidity, a series of long rooms that somehow managed to seem narrow, although each of the halls were probably wider than the house in which I live, an effect, I suppose, of the proportions within the palace – the spaces all ceremonial and open at their sides to the crumbling tenements around the palace, a sort of terrace hanging over the badly damaged neighborhood. The woman who had greeted us seemed cool enough, her slender shoulders bare and her neatly manicured feet displayed like precious jewelry in her open sandals. This was her home. She was the Contessa Alwine Federico, the wife of Count Federico, an heir to the Hohenstauffen dynasty that had ruled Sicily from this palace in the 13th century.
The Palazzo Federico is a bed and breakfast. Nobility doesn’t pay well anymore and royalty in Sicily lives from the produce of their estates, harvesting olives and grapes for wine, hosting banquets for tourists at their farms, and renting out rooms in their castles and palaces. The cost of maintaining a vast palace of this sort must be astonishing and so brutal economic necessity requires that the remnants of Sicily’s feudal past make their homes available for a fee to the public. The aspect of this arrangement that makes everyone uncomfortable, or, that, at least, bothered me, was the fact that the Palazzo Federico is not a museum – it is, in fact, very much a home and, indeed, a home in the most prosaic way. I am always irritated when I go to a historic site in Minnesota and am met by some fool in period costume, a ham-actor aggressively imitating the long dead occupants of the place – a charade that is all the more annoying because completely inauthentic and insincere. (In such places, I generally feel it would be better to be left alone with the fading traces of the past, a sense of the inevitable distance between today and yesteryear, than to be hectored by someone impersonating a 19th century maid or butler or, worse, the sutler at a frontier army post, smarmy with jests about rum and whiskey and trading with the Indians, or a famous personage mimicked by some fat youth who looks as if he spends his weekends playing Dungeons and Dragons.) At the Palazzo Federico, everything is authentic enough, but in a way that feels invasive, improper, overly intimate – the past and present is all intertwined in an unseemly way and Contessa is actual nobility who is, nonetheless, acting the part of what nobility should be like in the modern world and the whole thing is just a tiny bit unseemly. Alwine Federico is a real countess and, I suppose, enjoys certain privileges, but the economies of the situation also require that she teach German in the schools (she was born in Salzburg, Austria) and open her home so that people can gawk at her appliances, the books on the night-stand next to her bed, family photos of her children arrayed on the wall underneath grimacing, gargoyle faces in sickly green-tinted sepia of the old Count and Countess, Federico’s parents. Everything in the palace looks uncomfortable and the proportions, as I have earlier suggested, are all wrong – the rooms vast as neighborhoods, somehow, seem cramped and narrow and they are dark notwithstanding the enormous chandeliers poised overhead and, of course, decay and ruin are ubiquitous, the inevitable assault of time on walls and ceilings that were built eight-hundred or more years ago. Modern furniture, even cumbrous Victorian couches and chairs, seems too small and inconsequential for the vast spaces and the ceilings frescoed with plump and naked gods and goddesses, allegorical figures surfacing and diving through roseate clouds like so many pink dolphins. In one corner of a vast hall lined with wooden chairs, I see a small love-seat, a coffee-table strewn with magazines, periodicals devoted to fashion and motor-sports, some opera programs, and a Bose wave-machine CD-player, a couple of stacks of discs pushed against the stucco and timber wall. The countess gestures in that direction. She tells us that she is an opera singer and says that this is her music hall, but also a medieval ballroom, and that in that corner of the room, she sits to listen to CDs and, of course, I wonder what the sound is like, echoing through this huge space the size of a bowling alley.
Countess Alwine briskly leads us through the principal rooms of her castle, takes us upstairs to see her bedroom and a medieval kitchen full of burnished pots big enough to boil a saint in, and, all the while, she keeps up a brittle, merry patter, her schtick mostly about the miseries of living in an early medieval palace – one of the towers looming dark and inaccessible over the palace was built in the tenth-century and the castle’s foundations go down to cyclopean stone blocks pounded into the muck at the harbor’s edge by the Phoenicians four-thousand years ago. In one chamber, Countess Alwine’s computer is pushed against a wall (the screensaver shows a late-model Ferrari) and there are stacks of German books on a table– here is where she grades her students’ papers and, since the palace is steamy hot for six months and terribly cold for the other half of the year, she has mittens and gloves next to her computer keyboard: "I wear those in the winter to keep my hands warm,"she says, noting in the next breath that the structure is too vast to air-condition. She waves her hand at an open window and a vista of ruinous slums nearby: "Mafiosi," she says, "on house arrest. Terrible people." Children are crying outside and chorus of dogs barks, an irritating sound like a hacking cough.
We climb more stairs, passing trophies of various kinds, suits of armor, and pikes and halberds stapled into the stone walls. The place is enormous and reminds me a of a line from Lampedusa’s The Leopard – the old count said: "What is the good of a palace with so few rooms that you can enter into all of them in a lifetime?" In one bedroom, the ceiling is coffered, an ornate wooden assembly like storm clouds over the bed that is dwarfed by the huge chamber. Recent restoration has uncovered a fresco, painted like a frieze under the gloomy, oppressive ceiling: Judith and Holofernes, the plucky maid holding the King’s severed head like a bucket in her strong grasp and, across the room, more paintings – an assassination scene showing men plunging daggers into another man at the center of their dark-clad assembly, an image from Plutarch, I suppose, but grim, macabre, violent in an involuted sort of way. What would it be like to sleep in this room, under a leprous-looking fresco of a headless torso oozing blood and an assassination in the Roman forum? Of course, there is a ghost, a man in green tights who was interred alive in one of the walls, and the Countess says that he comes to visit her sometimes in bed and is, perhaps, more affectionate than her husband. Other rooms are equally bizarre: the Count is a professional race-car driver and, in his trophy room, he keeps the tires from formula-one racers that he has driven successfully to win races at the Grand Prix. The tires stand in columns in each of the rooms four corners, sullen and brooding towers of battered rubber, and the walls are spiky with scimitars, fencing swords, sabers, and arrays of daggers. Someone asks the Countess if her two sons drive race-cars: "No. I won’t allow it," she says, bristling, it seems, at the suggestion. One of her sons has a Brazilian girlfriend and she lives in an upper story in the palace, a place to which we don’t have access, and the Countess says that the girl is pampered because there are window air-conditioners inserted into the wall in those rooms – we can see them across the courtyard – and the young woman has brightened the grim, medieval windowsills with trays of bright, blooming flowers.
In another room, the Count himself stands, avuncular behind a table on which there is perched a creamy-looking, sleek cat. The Count pets the cat and the cat purrs and, on a silver tray, on another table, I can see the family’s bills, envelopes from the utilities or for garbage removal or for magazine subscriptions and car payments, a still life of invoices in half-opened envelopes next to spray of coins on the counter, car keys, business cards. We nod to the count and he nods to us and, despite his nobility, he is a rather unsightly man, a strongly built fellow with a knobby face and flaring eyebrows, a bit overweight, particularly in comparison to his wife who has the physique of a fashion model – she was a world-champion swimmer in her youth. Earlier, the Contessa gestured to the grimacing pictures of the Count’s parents, dour and menacing high on the wall, and, then, pointed to her blonde and handsome children – "you can see," she said, "that I have improved this family’s genes. Look at how beautiful my boys are." And, indeed, they are beautiful, Teutonic, blonde and bright as freshly minted gold coins, smiling cheerfully down from the ancient mortar and brick walls.
Later, in our hotel room, the entire experience seems surreal to me, like entering into the dream of a stranger and walking the corridors of someone else’s imagination. My memories feel remote and baffling, as if surgically inserted into my brain – someone else walked in those great halls and hot, suffocating chambers. The Countess is welcoming and kind, casual and hospitable, and the other tourists are impressed by how natural she was and how unassuming, but there was, I think, also an undercurrent of resentment, the faintest scarlet thread in the tapestry of hospitality, perhaps, in the encounter, and my wife, who is sensitive to such things, detected animosity in the countess toward her husband, a kind of sour and unresolved anger, something menacing, perhaps, in this display of friendly graciousness – after all, being royal means, on some level, being better than others and three-hundred years of egalitarian ideology can’t displace that notion entirely, and so, why should such an accomplished woman and a man who is heir to Frederick Barbarossa himself, the redbearded demi-god waiting under the mountain of Kyffhauser to redeem the German people, why should such people consort with American tourists and, indeed, pose for cell-phone pictures with them and serve them wine and cheese, both from the family estates it is said, in a six-hundred year old room filled with antique weapons? Writing these words seems to me, somehow, ungracious, like an act of lese-majesty, and these feelings seem also strange to me: after all, the Contessa is a public figure, not a private person, more of an idea than a real flesh-and-blood human being, and she has voluntarily opened her house to the likes of me, and, I presume, that I am entitled to my ideas about her, however, inaccurate and ungrateful they might be. But it’s all eerie and I will tell you one thing with complete conviction: internet pictures of the Pallazzo Federio show it to be bright and airy, shimmering with white walls and lovely frescos that seem to have been transplanted from the enlightened rococo corridors of Versailles, but, in fact, the palace is nothing like those picture – it is dark and gloomy and wet and dank, the interior of someone’s fantasy that should not be shown to anyone else at all.
These feelings are all encapsulated in a moment that occurred in the Contessa’s music room. The place has a high ceiling lunging up into the darkness and blue walls that seem to be made of velvet. In a glass case, there is a garment that Verdi once wore, a kind of plush jacket. The countess tells us that on one night in the second half of the 19th century Verdi visited the palace. The very next night, Wagner came. (Verdi was shy and felt inferior to Wagner and so contrived to attend upon the nobility in the palace the day before the German visited.) Countess Alwine Federico shows us a big, black Pleyel piano, dark as a sarcophagus, and says that Wagner sat at that keyboard and played on that piano. In our tour, there are three Korean doctors, all of them distinguished gentlemen, cosmopolitan, and well-educated. The Korean doctors are accompanied by their wives who are gracious and kindly women. The Korean doctors have practiced medicine in the United States for all of their professional careers and they are, in fact, a kind of royalty themselves, impressive men who live in beautiful places with beautiful wives, exquisitely refined in their own way, but, also, self-confident, because, after all, they are self-made counts and countesses themselves, peers of the realm in which they live. One of the doctors gestures to the Countess and she bows slightly and the man seats himself at the famous piano on the very piano stool once impressed by Wagner’s buttocks, and, then, after a moment of silence, the Korean gentleman, from Southern California or Manhattan (I’m not sure which place) begins to play the piano, striking hard at the keyboard from which thunderous notes emerge and echo – I don’t know what the man is playing, perhaps, a Mazurka by Chopin, but the music that he makes is competent enough, the notes hammered from the big, black piano and, at the threshold of the room, the Countess leans forward toward the renowned instrument that Wagner once played, and shakes her head in time to the music, and the grimace on her face is supposed to mean that she approves of the performance, and, perhaps, indeed, she does, in fact, approve because a piano is made to played, and music is composed to be performed, and she has been an opera singer herself and there is nothing sadder than a famous instrument on which no one is allowed to play...
Friday, December 26, 2014
A week before Christmas, misfortune befell my family. My youngest son was hospitalized. My wife’s misery caused her to cancel Christmas. But Christmas is an ancient and profound celebration and it does not allow itself to be so readily ignored. The glass bulbs suspended from a Christmas tree are hung with sharp arcs of wire that resemble fish-hooks. Once the hook has been set, it does not readily release.
I promised myself that I would write about these misfortunes, but not today or, even, tomorrow but, later, when time had assuaged some of the sorrow. Perhaps, I will write an account of these misfortunes 20 years from now, which means, of course, that I will not live to complete this task. About twenty-five years ago, I suffered some wounds that I vowed I would turn into literature. I invented metaphors and objective correlatives for the experience and, even, wrote a few unsatisfactory paragraphs. Then, I set the project aside to ripen. I have never returned to that work and, of course, today would hesitate to open an old wound that has healed more or less.
For most of the week surrounding Christmas, a peculiar meteorological condition prevailed in southern Minnesota where this story is set. Night-time temperatures were almost precisely the same as the temperature during the daytime. At midnight or three a.m., it was 33 degrees Fahrenheit; at noon, the temperature was 35 degrees. Fog clung to the earth and the sidewalks were wet, but not icy. Meteorologists in the Twin Cities commented on the peculiar equivalence between daytime and night temperatures. What did this mean? And is there a name for such a phenomenon – the winter solstice isotherm?
On Christmas morning, I took the dog out into my backyard as is my custom at the start of each day. For some reason, my vision had become extraordinarily acute and clear. It seemed to me that there was no limitation to the detail that my eyes could see and the landscape around me assumed a visionary aspect. At first, I noticed patterns on the houses and garages clustered around my backyard: the soffit of a home a half-block away was edged with many grooves and my eye recorded that alteration between light and dark made by those grooves; shingles formed a dense, but articulate, pattern on adjacent roofs and, everywhere that I turned, I saw intricate, regular designs – repeating lattices, parallel lathe posts comprising a fence, elaborate cross-hatching on walls or siding, all the more poignant because my eye also caught the deviations in those patterns, the places where mold or rot were at work, the storm-damaged edges of things, discolorations and bruises in the material jointed together to make the labyrinth of my neighborhood. There was no limit to what I could see: where curtains were slightly parted, my eye probed the interior of houses and saw floral wallpaper, mirrors like goblets full of quicksilver, family photographs in cheap frames, a burnt-out candle on a window-sill, the frayed edge of documents stacked on a far-away half-glimpsed desk. Normally, I saw a house as one form, a hulking thing labeled by the mind as "house," surrounded by skeletal things that the mind called "trees." But this morning, I saw each surface of the nearby houses as textured, imprinted upon space, cross-hatched with the exquisite refinement that one might cherish in an old lithograph or wood cut and the trees nearby branched and surged upward, a circulatory system of twigs and branches incised by an engraver’s burin against the featureless sky. I felt as if I were hallucinating and I wondered if there would some reprisal for this excessive and unexpected accretion to my sense of sight.
I stood motionless in the backyard, watching some Christmas lights flickering in a tree across the street and, with my new-found perception, I desired to count those little lights and was engaged in that process when my wife came to the back door and looked at me quizzically and, then, said: "Have you had a stroke?" I was vividly aware of my exact position in space and, suddenly, noticed that I could see in three-dimensions, that the world was no longer a flat frieze, but was a series of planes defined by objects occupying those planes at varying dimensions from my eyes – a grey iron-colored branch from a tree nearby reached forward to me. It was as if I were watching a three-dimensional movie: the branch of the tree was vivid, a sign delineating space, a portal to distances that it framed for me. "Something is wrong with my eyes," I said to my wife. The dog was romping in circles around the gazebo on this Christmas morning. "I can see too much, too much of everything," I said.
With my daughter, Angelica, later that morning, I drove to Faribault to a family Christmas at the home of my brother, David. My vision remained preternaturally acute. The patterns of snow dusting the edges of the fields and the lean shelter-belt comprised of black palisades of bare branch and trunk exercised a particular fascination over me. It was a lightless day, the temperature stuck at 34 degrees and the sky overhead grey with peculiarly featureless clouds. My daughter was listening on the car stereo to songs by the Norwegian band Gothminister, loud ominous music that made a hammering sound. The singer growled the lyrics to the music and they were idiotic: "We always fear what we can’t relate to," was one of the lines that I heard the singer repeat several times. I said to my daughter: "It’s pretty clear that this singer doesn’t have English as his native language." "He’s from Norway," Angelica told me. The disc that Angelica had slipped into my car’s CD-player was called Happiness in Darkness. The fourth song on the disc was called "Freak" and began with a sample from the soundtrack of Tod Browning’s movie Freaks – a carnival barker cried: "But for an accident of birth, you would be as they are. They did not ask to be brought into this world and, yet, they have come."
The grain storage tanks that I passed seemed to diagram logical or grammatical propositions. Two great cylinders linked overhead by a tracery of millwork signified "either/or". A more distant array of storage bins, also bound together by overhead brackets of metal, illustrated the concept of "if/then." The big row of storage tanks comprising the granary at Hope was more complex, a theorem with greater and lesser parts, a decision tree posted between the unforgiving sky and the equally unforgiving horizon.
It seemed that this Christmas day would be lightless, that it would be dusk all day long.
I stopped at the Straight River Rest Stop to go to the toilet. The people that I met called out "Merry Christmas!" to me. A man and weary-looking woman were unloading crates of candy bars and soda pop from a panel van drawn up into one of the handicap parking spaces next to the rest stop building. They were replenishing the vending machines in the lobby adjacent to the rest rooms. From that lobby, I could look down into a beautiful, dark, and deep ravine, a crease in the prairie studded with trees leading down to the river below. The ravine was outlined in snow and seemed to have been carefully inscribed in the plain. I thought that it was a very beautiful thing.
After the rest-stop, Angelica removed her Gothminister CD and I put a Herb Alpert disc in the machine. I had thought that Herb Alpert was long-dead but, apparently, this is not so. My daughter asked me: "What is this music? It sounds like something that you would hear in an elevator." "I suppose you are right," I said. In his old age, Herb Alpert’s trumpet whispers; he is beginning to sound tentative and indecisive, more than a little like, Chet Baker. "It’s some kind of Latin-American jazz," I said to my daughter. I recalled the album cover for the mid-sixties Tijuana Brass record Whipped Cream – a beautiful young woman, naked and slathered with whipped cream; she mischievously licks some of the cream from her fingers. How was it that Herb Alpert, the contemporary of Bill Dana ("Jose Jimenez") and Don Adams was still alive? I looked at the record, produced by something called Shout! Factory – it was copyrighted 2014.
There is a limb of high-prairie immediately to the south of Faribault, a sort of altar that the freeway crosses, and, from there, you can look across to the grove of battered trees sheltering the ruins of the old hospital for the insane, one of the most haunted spots in Minnesota. On the car stereo, Herb Alpert played "Spanish Harlem," but the song was not complete, merely an allusion to the tune, a citation, as it were – his trumpet overdubbed to double itself, Alpert played the theme and, then, voices chanted "There is a rose in Spanish Harlem". The voices repeated those words about a half-dozen times and, then, the trumpet sounded again and the song was over.
The words "There is a rose in Spanish Harlem" reminded me of my father. His favorite Christmas hymn was Es ist ein Ros entsprungen ("Lo, how a rose e’er blooming"). When I was young, we owned a record with that hymn as adapted by Michael Praetorius. My father loved Christmas and he played that record incessantly during the holidays. My father has been dead for many years and I haven’t heard that hymn for a long time and this year, 2014, Christmas, in fact, had been canceled due to misfortune. But I thought about the song and my father as we entered Faribault and crossed the river on the high viaduct and, then, came to a crossroads where the signs say "BLIND" with an arrow pointing in one direction and "DEAF" with an arrow aimed the opposite way and a third arrow directing the traveler to the prison located among the ravines overlooking the Cannon River.
At my brother’s house, I played with some small children and pet the hounds prancing around underfoot. I drank some of my brother’s home-brewed beer, drank wine with my meal, as well, and, then, went outside to smoke a cigar. My cigar was called a "Green Iguana". I told my brother and his son that there had been an article published in a Twin Cities newspaper about the ruinous and haunted asylum at the edge of town. "Many young people go there to commit suicide," my brother told me.
We ate cheesecake for dessert. A tiny girl sat next to me. She was three years old and, surprisingly, talkative. Her grandmother said: "You’re pretty brave now, but you don’t like the Ghost of Christmas Past do you?" "Oh, no," the small child replied, wrinkling her face with worry. A rich goat cheese was served. My brother said that the cheese went well with popcorn. "If you don’t believe me," he said, "try this." I ate a few kernels of popcorn and, then, nibbled on the cheese. He was right; the flavors complemented one another.
Angelica and I left my brother’s house in Faribault at 3:00 pm. We drove south on the freeway to Albert Lea. Angelica is going with her grandmother to Texas for a week or so. Julie’s mother, Beverly, sometimes spends the cold months in Texas and she planned to drive to Houston with her sister-in-law on the 26th of December. At Beverly’s house, I helped Angelica carry her bags from my car. Inside, I stood at the place where Beverly’s husband, Angelica’s grandfather, had been sprawled dead on the floor near his easy chair. We had stepped over his corpse in the preceding February when we came to the home in the immediate aftermath of his death. An ineradicable darkness filled that room. I asked Beverly how far she intended to travel on the first day of the trip to Texas. "We will stop in Osceolo, Iowa," she said. "Then, the next day?" I asked. "I don’t know," she said, "we go through Kansas City and Oklahoma City. We’ll just have to stop when we get tired." "Okay," I said. I have never left on a road trip without reservations at motels where I intend to stop and so, I admired her courage, but also thought it folly. "It’s 35 all the way down to Dallas and Fort Worth," she said. I agreed with her. "That’s the way that Dick always went," Beverly said. "Grandpa Dick knew the way," I said. I glanced away from her to the wall where Grandpa Dick’s great fish, caught in the icy waters of an Alaskan river, was mounted over the fireplace.
Driving back home, between Austin and Albert Lea, the sun burst through the clouds and sprayed light all over the landscape, but it was a dying light, the light of sunset for Christmas day was now ending. The trees cast immense shadows in the oblique light and the concrete overpasses shone like gold in the rays of the setting sun. The fields brown with frost-killed grass and stubble were gilded and glowed like honey in the radiance pouring out of the west.
When the Sun (appears) do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea O no no I see an innumerable Company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God almighty. (William Blake).
When I reached my home, I found Julie sitting in the darkness. The house was gloomy. She said that terrible thoughts were afflicting her.
I walked the dog. The brief moment of brightness in the sky had ended. Although it was dark and the sun had set, a strip of grey-white light remained along the horizon. The ribbon of grey-white had the dull color of the belly of a dead fish. Of course, I knew that it was an opening in the pervasive cloud cover, a momentary rift in the overcast skies and the last remnant of the blaze of glory over the eastbound freeway that I experienced for a couple minutes as I drove home from Albert Lea. My eyes were still preternaturally acute and each capillary of twig reaching into the sky from the trees seemed incised into my vision, etched, as it were, upon my retina. In the early morning, I had read an essay about Mimbres’ pottery and how the designs on those ceramics exploit negative space – a figure painted in a Mimbres’ bowl a thousand years old might be interpreted either as advancing toward the eye or receding, that is, as a positive figure or a negative void. Looking skyward, I tried to experiment with the band of grey over the horizon: it was either a hole in the sky or a pale white wall, the faded marble of Zion, approaching from the heavens above.
The excess of vision from which I suffer is evidence of that which is refractory in the world. Things are obstinately present and unnecessarily intricate in their details. A tree should be a trunk like a Doric column and one or two limbs, bifurcating once or twice to a stubby terminus. But, instead, a tree is vastly elaborate assembly of surfaces, lines, textures, a cloud of twigs in an orb-shape, a trunk embedded in mats of grass rippling up over roots that clutch at the earth, a haven and repository for black birds of a hooded mien that brood over the intricacy of existence.
In an essay on the Olmecs, I encountered this quotation from Mircea Eliade:
The imagination imitates the exemplary models – the Images – reproduces, re-actualizes, and repeats them without end. To have imagination is to be able to see the world in its totality, for the power, and the mission of images is to show all that remains refractory to the concept...
Wednesday, December 24, 2014
Louis Kahn, the great architect, conducted a master class in his art at University of Pennsylvania in the early seventies. Students reported that Kahn lectured on the materials used in building and spoke these words: "You think about Brick. You say to Brick: What do you want Brick? Brick says: I like an arch. You tell Brick that arches are expensive. I can use a concrete lintel over you. What do you think of that Brick? Brick says: I like an arch. And, it’s important, you see, that you honor the material that you use. You can only do it if you honor the brick and glorify the brick instead of shortchanging it."
I live in southern Minnesota amidst vast fields of corn. So I wonder: What do you want Corn?
In 1993, archaeologist, Stephen Lekson, wrote an essay entitled "The Architecture of the Ancient Southwest." (The essay appears in a catalog for an exhibition at the Chicago Institute of Art: Art from Sacred Landscapes.) Lekson argues:
Culturally, the ancient southwest was a northern extension of the Meso-american world. Ideology, culture, art and the all the numberless elements that identify the high civilizations of central Mexico ran north as far corn, their economic base, could sustain them.
Pre-columbian Mexico defines the characteristics of corn’s kingdom. If we interrogate anthropological evidence as to the cultures that first developed corn and were, then, sustained by that crop, we may understand what it is that the corn surrounding our villages and cities desires from us.
For hundreds of years, botanists had no idea how corn originated. These botanists lived in a scientific age and so, perhaps, were at a disadvantage with respect to this problem. (Our epoch is post-scientific.) The Mayans knew that corn, maiz zea, was a mighty god who had concealed himself for many millennia in caverns honeycombing the earth. Twin-born heroes entered the maize god’s kingdom. The god decapitated was angry and decapitated the two young warriors. In some versions of the myth, their severed heads were used to play ball in sacred L-shaped courts excavated in clearings carved from the green and cacophonous jungle. The ricochet of the heads from the sloping masonry sides of the ball-courts and the thumping of the feet of the ball-players awoke the sleepy corn god and enraged him. To stop the racket, the corn god ascended from his subterranean grottos and appeared on the surface of the earth. The twin heroes, now miraculously reborn, ambushed the corn-god and severed his head. When the god’s head was buried in the rich, black volcanic soil, green plumes like the feathers of the Quetzalcoatl bird emerged from the earth and were, then, borne skyward by lance-like shafts until the seed-cobs were golden and bearded like men and could be harvested to feed all the nations of the world. The Mayans knew that the origin of corn was sacred, that this precious food was the gift of a god that died and was reborn. As far as the Victorian scientists were concerned, the Mayan priests may well have been right – botanists claimed that corn bore no resemblance to any other species of plant. Nowhere in the world does "wild" corn grow. As far as the botanists were concerned, corn was unique, comprising a taxonomy of one.
The riddle of corn’s origin was solved provisionally in the early 20th century. DNA studies have confirmed the hypothesis framed in the 1930's that maiz is closely related to a central-American grass, teosinte – indeed, agricultural corn differs from teosinte by only five genes. Teosinte is an origin for corn, perhaps, more improbable than the plumed Maize God in his cavernous jadestone palace. Teosinte grass is a fibrous woody stalk surmounted by a six to twelve seeds braided around a kind of thorn. The seeds are encased in husks that are impenetrable to jungle insects – that is, rock-hard, tooth-fracturing pellets. Taxonomically, teosinte is more closely related to certain kinds of rice than it is to beans or other agricultural plants. Because it is a noxious weed, useless, prolific, and difficult to eradicate, most central American farmers destroy teosinte when it appears in their fields. Efforts at eradicating teosinte have been so successful in some areas, that this ancestral corn is endangered and almost extinct – and no one seems to be shedding any tears over the extermination of this herbal pest. One species of teosinte is now confined a swampy plantation only 200 meters long, a stretch of marsh in a flooded estuarine river in northern Nicaragua.
Kernels of something that looks approximately like modern corn were found in Xihuatoxtla rock shelter along the Rio Balsas in the Mexican state of Michoacan. These kernels have been carbon-dated to 8700 BC. The best current evidence suggests that teosinte was domesticated by farmers in the central Balsas river valley almost 11,000 years ago. The Rio Balsas is a river that flows from tributaries sluicing down through dry, basalt valleys. The river’s origin is both fire and ice – glaciers on the volcanoes standing sentinel over the Vale of Mexico are the source of the Rio Balsas. Semi-nomadic farmers genetically modified teosinte to produce a cob to support naked seed-kernels – somehow, the fecal-colored, impenetrable dozen seeds braided around a spine of hard thorn were hybridized and cross-bred to produce agricultural maize. This is startling accomplishment, a feat of genetic engineering that is completely inexplicable – teosinte is a rebarbative, vicious-looking plant that seems completely unsuitable for human consumption. Scientific study merely redefines the enigma: how and why prehistoric farmers converted teosinte into corn remains an unsolved mystery. At some point in prehistory, someone must have perceived that the potential to feed a family and, then, a village, and, then, a city, and, then, more than one-fifth of the world’s population was concealed within a spiny, inedible, and thorn-like grass. But how this achievement occurred – surely one of the greatest accomplishments in human history – is unknown. Viewed in this light, the hypothesis of a divine origin to corn remains persuasive.
Corn has evolved with mankind. Corn is man-made; human beings invented corn (although, perhaps, with the help of deities). Once corn was invented, it shaped men and women and their societies to its requirements. The relationship between maiz and human culture is synergistic: ancient Indians invented corn and, then, their invention, in turn, invented their cultures and religions. Culture and agriculture are entwined around a common fibrous stalk, the lance of corn growing from the earth to greet the sun.
So, what does corn want? On the most basic, material level, corn requires soil, sun, and water. The central highlands of Mexico are volcanic. The earth is so fertile that the dead, creosote-smeared stump of a utility pole, planted in the right place, can be resurrected, can rise from the dead like Lazarus and sprout green tendrils and jade buds. The sun is both plentiful and hot. Water is the component of the equation that is most problematic. Much of Mexico is arid and the climate can be unpredictable: droughts can last for decades, even for a hundred years. But mountains grope at the sky and massage rain from the clouds and the high volcanoes are mantled in snowfields always melting to irrigate the valleys. So the corn yearns for the mountains and stands in a certain, necessitous relationship to those summits and peaks, the high places from which water flows. The corn imagines the mountains as pyramids glazed with lime at their vertices, fringed with skirts of heavy stucco from which flamboyant, feathered serpents emerge. The feathered serpents symbolize life-giving springs, columns of water confined in the mountains that are squeezed out of the stony bases of the sierra to moisten the land and bring succor to growing things. The corn looks to the mountains for the water that it requires and causes its people to worship those high places upon which their crops are dependant, even to the extent of building artificial mountains in the form of great pyramids in the center of their cities.
Irrigation is costly and depends upon a centralized authority to design water-bearing ditches linked to mountain springs and rivers. A ditch that runs like a brown-green serpent between fields of growing corn is a complex thing, a feat implicating both engineering as well as law for the rights and obligations of those dependant upon that irrigation must be established, mediated, managed. So corn, requiring irrigation, also desires a centralized authority, both legal and ritual, to manage water and the rights associated with water. Thus corn establishes its priesthood and its judiciary and its temples built like mountains and its cities to administer those temples and courts of law, an infrastructure devised to circulate water to the thirsty fields to the extent that in the Aztec language, Nahuatl, a city was called "a water-mountain." Corn wants government and government wants war and so corn, also, desires war: in Bonampuk, painted on a wall, we can see Mayan warlords, their hair intricate with flowers and the feathers of bright jungle birds, noblemen with towering headdresses that are shaped like ears of ripe corn aimed like golden rockets at the sun. The war lords are torturing prisoners of war, snipping off their fingers and yanking loose their fingernails. This is what corn desires.
Corn knows that it is man-made and that it can’t survive in the wilderness of desert or arid alti-plano or jungle without its human servants. Corn dies each year and must be beheaded and its kernels must be carefully buried in the soil for it to arise again – the tasks of harvest and seed selection and planting all human activities. This cycle, running from year to year and decade to decade for hundreds and thousands of years, is dependant on the work of farmers. Corn establishes time that is not linear but cyclical, calenders that are as round as globes and disks and spheres with no end and no beginning, or, at least, no end and no beginning so long as the human agents continue to perform their appointed tasks and say their prayers to the water-bearing mountains and perform those rituals necessary to maintaining the flow of time which is the same as the cycle by which corn lives and dies and, then, lives again. Corn conceives of time as both cyclical but, also, subject to the desiccating, unpredictable calamity of drought. Time is not linear but a cycle. This cycle is prone to catastrophe, however, and can be broken, thereby ending time. Corn’s people are obliged to maintain time’s cycle by aggressive means – prisoners must be captured, tortured, flayed alive, or eviscerated. Thorns and slivers of obsidian and the stings of sting-rays must be used to open veins and spill the most precious of all fluids, human blood, onto the smoking altars of the temples. Ultimately, corn and human flesh are one and the same thing – man made corn in his image; corn makes man in his image. This reciprocal relationship is celebrated by priests who skin their victims and, then, wear human pelts as stinking, cracked masks and waistcoats. Fat and blood and skin dried by the sun and splitting open, molting the way a snake sheds its skin, symbolizes the sacred moment when the corn seed breaks through its shell, splits its husk so that the dead thing begins to live again. In their noisome temples, the priests enact this ritual to ensure that the fragile cycle of time, the rotation of days and months under the slowly spinning spiral of the sky, will continue. Corn is a divine being, but one that men made and that men must keep alive by their exertions.
More than a fifth of the people in the world are dependant on corn. As a mono-culture, corn destroys the natural diversity of the world – King Corn annihilates competing species. But the more human beings depend upon this monarch, the more capricious and fragile our existence. If our only food is corn, a drought, or a series of droughts, or blight or hail, may starve us all to death. Corn is apocalyptic, thirsty for blood, a colossus that feeds on human beings. Corn makes it possible for men to live in vast cities and sustains multitudes that would otherwise be unimaginable. But as corn increases our numbers and drives our population beyond rationally sustainable limits, this tyrant of the plains and prairies threatens us also with extinction.
One winter morning, several hours before dawn, I drove south. At the Iowa border, I saw fire and great scarlet clouds containing that fire. Columns of steam and marble-white vapor rose into the sky and made a kind of baldacchino, a turbulent canopy heaped over towers of steel and zinc. I had not driven this road for several years and the spectacle ahead of me was theatrical, even, operatic: pillars of smoke and steam, steel shrines full of fire, turrets wrapped in a scaffolding of fragile-looking millwork. As I approached the border, I understood that I was looking upon an ethanol plant, a place where corn was converted into a volatile fuel for cars and trucks. Pillars of cloud lit from flames within columns of steam climbed skyward and made all the heavens livid like an infected wound.
A few days later, I drove north. Near Hope, a tiny village on the flat and featureless prairie, immense steel bins rose from the earth like a stark, columnar cathedral. Augers and conveyors in metal tubes scaled the sides of the towers and capped their heights with dizzying catwalks and iron balconies. Perhaps, a man stood on those heights, far and away the tallest structure visible on these plains, gazing like a sentinel from that lofty watchtower on the fields of corn marching in endless succession to the far horizons.
Once, I stopped my car on a gravel road in the heart of the country. Corn shadowed the road on both sides, a green wall much taller than my head over which I could not see. The corn was odorless and it saluted the sky with a million ears raised like the arms of Germans hailing Hitler at Nuremberg. It was hot and there was a slight breeze and the corn whispered to me: I want your love. I want your love and your beating human heart.
Thursday, November 20, 2014
In the morning, I make my wife’s sandwich for her lunch at work. The sandwich is made with Miracle Whip, two slices of cheddar cheese, and hard salami on wheat bread. I cut the sandwich into two halves for her and put it in a zip-lock baggy. This morning, I noticed that the tray container holding the salami was labeled: Same Great Taste! New Convenient Container!
My custom is to use the sandwich knife to slice a Fun Dogs wiener into nine pieces. (Fundogs cost $1.08 for ten wieners.) Five slices of the wiener are used as treats to urge my dog to perform her simple repertory of tricks: she sits, shakes, comes, rolls-over and stays motionless with the wiener slice on the floor between her paws until I give her the command to eat it. I take the remaining four wiener slices into the back yard and hide them. Then, I shout "nose" and the dog searches for the little pieces of appalling pinkish-brown meat.
For some reason, this morning, I deviated from my habit. I used four pieces of wiener to reward the dog for her tricks, omitting the command "roll-over" from her performance. This meant that I had five pieces of wiener meat to conceal in my snowy backyard. The dog quickly found the first four pieces, impaled on twigs from vines sere and dead now, dangling from the daisy-yellow siding of my garage. But she didn’t expect me to hide a fifth wiener piece, embedded in the snow next to the empty peanut butter jar that she likes to nuzzle in the back yard. The dog scrutinized me with her big dark eyes. ""Nose!" I said, meaning: "Use your nose to find the treat!" But the dog was no fool: she knew that I only hid four treats in the backyard and not five and so she simply looked at me with a faintly accusatory expression, sorrow at my betrayal of her expectations. "Nose!" I said again. The dog looked at me as if I had gone mad.
A couple weeks ago, two of my partners came to my office in the basement of the law firm where I practice. The visit was obligatory. One of my partners was moving to a large corner office in the building that my firm owns. Since I am senior to the partner moving into that sunny corner office upstairs, courtesy required that I grant my permission. "Do you want to move?" my younger partner asked me. "No," I said. "I have my stuff down here. I am happy in the basement. I guess I will stay here until I die." "You can have the corner office," my younger partner told me. "I’ll stay down here," I said. "This is where I have my stuff."
Until you are forty, or, even, perhaps fifty-years old, all change seems positive to you. Change means progress. Even bad change and harmful events can be interpreted optimistically: if it doesn’t kill me, it makes me stronger. And: you must learn from bad experiences.
From your fiftieth year onward, change is all bad. It represents deterioration and a kind of waning; the idea of progress has proven to be a cruel illusion. The pipes become clogged; the sidewalk is covered with snow with no one to shovel it away. The odometer on your car is inching upward to the fatal mileage when the engine will fail.
My law firm has hired a new associate. She is a helpful young woman. I asked her to go to Albert Lea to investigate an accident involving a woman who had fallen and broken her shoulder at a convenience store. I told the young associate: "Look around Albert Lea. It is a pretty town." I told her to go to Fountain Lake to see the delicately arched footbridge leading from the shore to a miniature island forty or fifty feet away. Near the footbridge, there is a big glacial boulder on the edge of the lake. A bronze mermaid sits on that boulder. She has a pensive expression on her face. "You must see the ‘little mermaid’," I told her.
We met with a new client, a 23-year old woman who had been injured in a car crash. The young woman was very serene and she had symmetrical features. Her skin was extraordinarily pale. The young woman spoke with the faintest accent, a tiny click and snap in some of the words that she used. I asked my paralegal if she could recognize the accent. "I thought it was some kind of speech impediment," my paralegal said. The woman’s mother had a Finnish name. "She is a Finn," I said. "That explains the porcelain complexion." But are Finns as pale as the moon rising over dunes of snow?
Before going to bed, I read "Caput 3" of Heine’s The Winter’s Tale. Usually I encounter two or three German words on each page that I don’t know. I mark the words with a pencil and, then, look them up in my Casell’s German-English dictionary. But I can’t ever remember the meaning of the words after I have read their definition and, even, written the English equivalent in the book’s margin. It seems that I have been unable to learn any new German vocabulary for the last twenty years. This disturbs me. In the middle of the night, I woke up, my mind afflicted by worry. I tried to assuage my worries by recalling the German words that I had noted in the margin of my volume of Heine. One word in particular came to mind: geschniegelt. I had looked that word up in my dictionary. But what did it mean? I had no idea. I tried to recall the context of the word, but couldn’t place it in the poem. In fact, it seemed that I had almost no recollection of the verses that I had read before going to my cold bed. Tormenting thoughts made me anxious. The darkness seemed poised to pounce and crush me.
In my law firm, there is a suite of offices in the center of the building. This is the law firm within the law firm, a place where attorneys with impressive resumes and important clients work. In the law firm within the law firm, transactions involving skyscrapers and factories are negotiated. This interior suite is different from the outer offices – it has cherry-wood paneling and oriental carpets brightening the floors and the secretaries are beautiful and expensively dressed. There is a discrete hush in the corridors and, among the conferences rooms with their vast circular tables, there is a feasting hall, a place where the law firm’s victories are celebrated with lavish banquets. Although I don’t have my office in the suites comprising the law firm within the law firm, I have been there many times and have even, (if I may be bold enough to say so) been feted in the banqueting hall.
On this late afternoon, with the sun setting outside beyond the stockade of barren and leafless trees, I went to the law firm within the law firm. An attractive blonde receptionist with a quizzical half-smile met me at the entry. "You can’t come in here," she said. "Why is that?" "You are not authorized." She was exquisitely polite and her enigmatic half-smile seemed to taunt me. "But I have been a member of this firm for 35 years," I said. "I’ve been a partner for thirty years," I added. "I don’t make the rules," she said. "You can’t come in here." I began to weep. My face was wet with greasy tears and I closed my eyes with shame. "I feel so sorry for you," the attractive receptionist said. She took me by the hand and led me into the basement of the building. Some desks were set up in a corner of a big room and a skylight overhead made the place bright and, almost cheery. Between the desks, there were porcelain and zinc basins. They were conveniently placed in case one of the workers at the small desks had to vomit or began to bleed or suffered from diarrhea or urinary incontinence. "You see," the young woman said. "It’s all set up for you."
I worked at my small desk for a couple hours and was quite content. Then, I went to my car and drove downtown to another law firm where I had some friends. I knew that there was an aquarium in that law firm and I thought it would be relaxing to see the fish swimming in their prisons of glass. The receptionist at the downtown law firm was attractive, with very pale skin, and she recognized me as soon as I came through the door. "Welcome!" she said. "I’ve come to see the fish," I replied. She took my coat and hung it in a closet next to her desk. Then, she beckoned for me to follow her to a narrow escalator leading down to the aquarium.
I toured the dimly lit galleries peering at the strange sea creatures in their tanks. No one else was there. One corridor led to rock-girt pool where two dolphins were frolicking in the water. Water splashed and made puddles on the concrete terraces next to the lagoon. I thought that it was cruel for such large and playful animals to be confined within that small pool of water. But, then, I understood that the law firm was employing the concept of "animal friends" to ease the captivity of their larger animals. For instance, the thoroughbred horses had small goats living in their pens to keep them company and reduce their anxiety. Similarly, the law firm had put an elephant in the lagoon with the dolphins so that the big mammals could play together in the water. As I watched the elephant swimming with the dolphin, the animals came close to the glass window at which I was standing. The dolphin reached out and opened the window. She asked me for a treat. I noticed that there was porcelain basin next to the window on an iron pedestal. In the basin, there were bloody hunks of raw tuna. I took the tongs leaning against the side of the basin and removed a piece or tuna. The dolphin reached out to me with her slender hand and greedily seized the tuna. She had a very pale face, as white as snow. Suddenly, the elephant had come to the side of the lagoon, next to the open window where I was standing. "He eats hamburgers," the dolphin told me. "But I only have tuna," I said. "Look more closely," the dolphin said, her words slightly accented with mermaid inflections. I examined the basin and found some sliders among the big pieces of tuna. With the tongs, I retrieved a slider from the basin. The elephant’s serpentine trunk wrapped around me and, then, the mermaid was pressing her fishy body close to mine and I felt as if I were being dragged into the cold lagoon, pulled from the viewing gallery into the tank.
A little later, the receptionist took my hand and led me to the escalator that ascended to the front desk. She removed my coat from the closet and handed it to me. My checkbook was missing from the pocket of my coat. I reached in my pant’s pocket for my wallet, but it was missing also. Apparently, the elephant or the mermaid had picked my pocket. I couldn’t find my car keys either in my pant’s pockets or my coat. But it didn’t matter. I had no memory as to where I had parked my car in the busy city stretching to the horizon on all sides of this great and powerful law firm.
I am drowned in a sea of worries.
At noon, I will go home and make beef borscht according to a simple recipe that I have developed myself. I will chop onion and cook a pound of stewing beef with the onion until it is browned. Then, I will put the beef and onion into a crock pot that I have prepared with a slow-cooker liner – this makes cleaning the crock pot after the borscht has cooked much easier. I will pour a can of julienne beets into the crock pot together with fresh, raw beets that I have chopped into small pieces. I will add a can of beef broth and a jaw of pickled cabbage. Then, I will turn the crock pot to "low" and cook for five or six hours.
Perhaps, I will stop at the grocery store where my daughter bags food and purchase some dark rye or pumpernickel. Perhaps, I will buy a small bottle of vodka and put it into my freezer so that shots of the liquor go to the brain like a spike of cold iron driven into your skull. I have some excellent pickles that my secretary, Susan, made and gave to me for my birthday. I’ll cut the pickles into slivers to eat with my borscht and dark bread. I will put honey on the dark bread and drink shots of vodka as I drink the bread and eat the pickles. This is self-indulgence on my part. No one else in my family will enjoy this meal as much as me.
A wise man reported this to me: He had gone to a place in one of the Carolinas to assist an elderly woman in moving from her apartment. After doing this work, the man and his wife went to a restaurant. There was a Black waiter who was extremely gregarious, friendly, and cheerful. The man asked him for his secret recipe for happiness. The waiter said: "I treat each day as if it were my new bride. That is with joy, respect, and love."
Another friend told me this: "Stay away from people who are unhappy. Unhappy people do mean and unpredictable things. Spend your time with happy people. Life is too short to spend it with those who are angry or embittered." This is good advice.
Sunday, November 16, 2014
The Greek word for nightmare is "ephialtes." This word also names the famous traitor who led Persian forces through the mountains above Thermopylae to ambush the Spartans defending that pass. Our only source for the history of the Persian wars with the Hellenes is Herodotus and all accounts of the battle of Thermopylae derive from his Histories. When evaluating historical evidence, it is well to consider the maxim "uno testis non testis" – that is, "one witness is no witness." And, indeed, I think there are other reasons to regard Herodotus’ story of the battle at Thermopylae as mythos, that is, more legendary than factual.
First, commentators observe that Herodotus introduces his narrative about Leonidas’ last stand at Themopylae with the word "gnome" – a Greek term related to gnomen, that is "opinion." With this term, Herodotus suggests that what follows is less a sober account of military history, than speculation. Since all but one of the Spartans fighting at Thermopylae died in the battle, Herodotus’ source materials is limited and questionable. (The Spartan survivor of the battle, Aristodemus, suffered disgrace and calumny as a result of returning alive from the fray. He seems to have been unbalanced and tried to kill himself by mounting a berserk suicide charge in the later fighting at Plataea - an attempt that failed and, only, resulted in more blame being attached to his name.) Accordingly, it seems that Herodotus suggests that he is reconstructing the battle on the basis of unreliable evidence.
Second, accounts of the battle don’t make much sense. The Spartans successfully held the narrow pass, a few hundred feet between a mountainous escarpment and the sea, for two days against Persian attacks. Although the Persian army greatly outnumbered the Greeks, the narrow strait of the "hot gates," as the place is called because of its thermal springs, prevented the Asians from encircling the defenders – thus, Persian forces had to meet the Spartans head-on and could not shove enough troops through the pass to overrun their fortified position. The traitor, Ephialtes, led a Persian force through the mountains on a rugged trail that has never been identified in the topography adjacent to the battlefield – I don’t know Greek, but the trail’s name Anopaea, after a nearby mountain, seems suspicious to me: I see "an" in the word, a negative, that means "without," such as anencephalitic ("without a brain"). Ephialtes’ treachery seems to have caused the Spartan’s Phocian allies, assigned the defense of the mountain trails, to withdraw from their sentinel duty. But Herodotus does not describe the Spartans as ambushed or attacked from the rear. Indeed, from Herodotus’ account it is hard to ascertain the effect of the Persian flanking maneuver on the Spartan defenders. The motif of Greek against Greek conflict is vital to Herodotus’ History – in his view, the triumph of the Hellenes over the Persians is all the more miraculous because of the severe political fragmentation and disunity of the Greek city states. It is important to Herodotus to show that a Greek acting against other Greeks was instrumental in the defeat of Leonidas and his Spartans, although exactly how Ephialtes’ treachery figured in the final destruction of the 300 is obscure.
Herodotus tells us that the outflanked Spartans for their last stand sallied-forth and were driven back by overwhelming numbers to small hill where they fought the Persians with swords, knives, fists, and teeth until all of them were killed. There are many reasons to doubt this account. First, Herodotus is obviously influenced by Homer and pauses in his narrative to describe a fierce struggle over the corpse of the Spartan commander, Leonidas. This part of his story is clearly a nod to similar duels over the bodies of dead heroes in the Iliad. Further, Herodotus’ narration seems fanciful when compared with what we know of actual "last stands".
In American history, three "last stands" come readily to mind: two of them incidents in the wars with the Plains’ Indians and, of course, the battle at the Alamo. Both the Fetterman fight and Custer’s last stand involved groups of soldiers defending hilltops against large enemy forces and these battles are nothing like the struggle described by Herodotus. Colonel Fetterman with 80 men was wiped-out by Lakota and Cheyenne forces on December 21, 1861. Fetterman was lured from Fort Laramie by a decoy force of 50 Indians, caught in the open by a massive counter-attack and tried to withdraw to a defensive position on a knoll, now bearing the sinister name "Massacre Hill." Almost none of the Indians were armed with firearms and they fought this battle with arrows, spears, and war-clubs. Red Cloud and other Indian commanders recalled that less that 12 warriors perished in the affair. The troops were surrounded and shot down by hails of arrows. When the soldiers were mostly wounded or disabled by panic, the Indian cavalry swept down on their defensive position from the side and rear and killed everyone in a matter of minutes. Indian witnesses estimate that the entire fight lasted less than forty minutes.
George Armstrong Custer with about 260 soldiers was rubbed-out at the Little Big Horn in June 1876. In this battle, Custer’s adversaries, Arapahoe, Northern Cheyenne, and Lakota warriors, were well-armed with 1860 Henry rifles as well as Winchester 66 rifles – long guns that could fire between 13 and 15 rounds (.52 caliber) before being reloaded. Custer advanced on a massive Indian village, met resistance at a ford on the river, and, then, withdrew under heavy fire to a ridge of hills, gathering his troops at the summit of "Last Stand Hill." The Indians destroyed Custer’s force with accurate, long-range rifle fire and, then, overran the position with a flanking cavalry charge. The battle resulted in very few Indian casualties and was over, according to Lakota informants, in about the time "it takes a hungry man to eat a meal." There was no battle over Custer’s corpse, no heroic defense, and no organized resistance to the Indian onslaught. The Indians said the white soldiers’ bodies were scattered across the battlefield like a handful of corn thrown up into the wind.
The 1836 battle at the Alamo seems more similar to Herodotus’ account of the fight at Thermopylae. But at the Alamo, Texan forces occupied a heavily fortified position and had no avenue of retreat. The Texans did have artillery and were able to fire canister into the ranks of the advancing Mexican troops. The Mexican army was poorly trained, advanced in tight formations, and, apparently, troops in the rear of the attacking army fired volley after volley into the backs of the soldiers ahead of them. Ultimately, of course, the Mexicans prevailed, although at a heavy cost. Presumably, the heroic tenor of this siege was primarily an outcome of the Mexican general’s bad strategy and tactics – instead of mounting a frontal attack, he would have been better advised to besiege the Alamo and use long-range bombardment to reduce its defenses. By contrast, Leonidas advanced from within a fortified position for reasons that are now inscrutable to me – it seems likely that his fate, and that of the 300 Spartans, would have been similar to the outcomes of the battles involving Fetterman and Custer. (Probably, the Texans defended the Alamo with vigor because many of them, presumably, had some classical education and had read their Herodotus.)
The final factor that persuades me that Herodotus’ account of the fighting at Thermopylae is primarily a romantic legend is the names that he provides with respect to the combatants. As previously noted, the traitor’s name is "Nightmare" – although there is some question about whether that name originates in the events of the battle or arises as a result of that fight. "Aristodemus," the sole Spartan survivor, means "best of the people." An earlier Aristodemus was instrumental in the conquest of the Peloponnesus; this warrior is also associated with a battle conducted in a narrow strait – an oracle told the Greeks to attack by sea through a narrow channel. Aristodemus followed the advice of the oracle but died when struck by a lightning bolt during the sea-assault. The commander of the Spartans, Leonidas, has a suitably leonine name. Earlier in Herodotus’ History, we are told that the Persian army was much harassed by lion attacks as it moved through the mountainous terrain of Greece. Both Aristodemus and Leonidas boast a distinguished pedigree – according to Herodotus, they are Heraclids, that is, men who trace their descent from the demi-god, Heracles. The location of battle at the "hot gates" also seems significant. The toponym signifies that the battle was fought on terrain thought to be adjacent to Hades itself – the "hot gates" were an opening to the Underworld.
I don’t dispute that some kind of military action occurred at Thermopylae. Modern historians suggest that the 300 Spartans were an advance guard of a Greek army that was cut-off by Persian forces somewhere near the "hot gates" and wiped-out. The burden of my note is to suggest that Herodotus’ account of the fighting is thematically organized to support aspects of his narrative that are more mythological in character than coldly factual.
As if in revenge for my skepticism, Ephialtes – that is, "nightmare" – has visited me repeatedly in the past few days. I attribute these nightmares to sleeping in a room that is colder than I am used to. The first really cold spell has descended upon Minnesota and the sidewalks are deadly with ice and, in the gloomy dawn, powdery snow filters down from grey skies like the precipitate of some immense and uncommunicative sorrow. The first snow and the first serious cold of the season induces a kind of furious restlessness – it’s as if we sense that we are about to be confined for another four months, perhaps, five, and the soul yearns for warmth and beauty, but encounters everywhere the prison walls of this season of discontent and frigid paralysis. You pace the rooms of your house or walk the circuit of your office afraid to venture out to where the ice is lurking in inevitable ambuscade. Certainly, before this cold season ends, you will have fallen, not once but several times, and been bruised by the frozen ground or suffered worse injury. And, in my house, the radiator’s burp and fart – the water in them is stagnant and smells like sewage, an odor of rotten eggs permeating the house, although, perhaps, this is also attributable to imperfect combustion in the gas-fired furnace in the dank basement. The radiator in our bedroom has long since ceased to function. It’s hidden under a cabinet, an icy monument to disutility, and the cold wind seeps into the room around the air-conditioner notwithstanding the duct tape sealing the gap between the metal box (also icy to the touch and as useless as a cube by Donald Judd) and the window’s sill and frame. Little birds, probably sparrows, have made a nest in a nook under the air conditioner and there is nothing more cold and desolate than the sounds that they make trying to stay warm in their tiny, hidden nest. Winter is savage and it’s cruelty can not be over-estimated.
When the cold comes into your bedroom and lingers over your pillow and blankets, you are at risk for nightmares. Here is the mechanism causing these bad dreams. A leg or an arm or shoulder protrudes from the cocoon of bedclothes. The body senses a chill but, because it is paralyzed during REM sleep, can not move to remedy this problem. A vague sense of threat and menace is transmitted to the brain. The risk of hypothermia translates into sinister imagery, coloring the dream that you are experiencing and, ultimately, frightening you into consciousness. You awake and feel cold and you pull the covers that have been disarranged up under your chin and, if you are aroused around the time of the lightless dawn, you will hear the little, fragile birds twitching with their own nightmares in their nest outside the window.
Two times certainly, I suffered this dream. I may have had the dream on several other occasions but I don’t know whether I actually dreamed or merely dreamed that I was dreaming. I was walking on a high, barren ridge and saw a village on a mountain above me. The village was a Sicilian hill town clinging to the sides of a stony butte rising like a battered and sore thumb into the bright sky. The town armored the mountain slope below an escarpment where the rock rose so steeply that it was impossible to build on that surface. To my eyes, the town seemed prismatic, a cubist collage of walls and roof surfaces, a kind of flat shingling that girdled the base of the tower. The hill town was picturesque and it delighted my eyes, but, then, I noticed that the entire landscape was sagging. The town was not where I had first noticed it, but rather drooped like a slack piece of rope or chain suspended between two opposing supports. The shape of the village had assumed a caternary geometry, a slumped curve. The tile roofs of the village houses seemed to have become detached and they were gathered like a talus field in the cup made by the caternary arch. This seemed very logical to me and exact, an outcome of the geometry governing the heights above where I was hiking. When I looked again, I noticed that the orange tiles of the roofs accumulating in the lowest part of the inverted arch had turned brown and assumed a chitinous form. The slumped inverted arch now held a mass of scales like the wings of cockroaches or beetles. The spectacle was vaguely disgusting to me and I looked away. Everything was now near at hand and, although the hill-town had been far above me at first, it had come very close and I could hear it buzzing and humming with insect activity. Then, the hill town reached out to me and took my shoulder, loudly pronouncing my name. The icy touch of the village on my skin and the sound of my name reverberating across the empty landscape terrified me. I woke up and found that I was shivering with cold, having kicked aside my covers, and exposed myself to the chilly air in the bedroom. Outside, a siren howled and, somewhere, a snow plow had put its iron snout to the cement and was grinding its way through the ice to the surface of the road. It is a frightening thing to be touched when you are asleep and the place where the hill-town made from cockroach wings had seized me was like a brand on my flesh. I was transfixed with a sense of guilt and horror: what have I done? What have I done?
The winter, it seems, will be long.
The cold is a nightmare. It comes by a path through the grim and rocky mountains called Anopaea. The path is so slender and well-concealed that no one can find the way except bad dreams. The traitor descends the dark escarpment and you are flanked, attacked from the rear, and there is no hope of escape.
Friday, October 24, 2014
The flight from Palermo to Rome departed Sicily at 6:20 am. Julie and I left our hotel in Palermo’s city center at 3:45. The streets around the hotel were crowded with young people – apparently, downtown bars had just closed. Boys lounged around smoking cigarettes and posing nonchalantly on motorbikes that they didn’t own. Pairs of girls, each supporting the other, staggered down the sidewalk. Arched over the streets, frameworks of wire and lathe supported arrays of Christmas tree lights – the illuminated archways had been built for a religious festival and they crowned the narrow roadways like candles on a birthday cake. A girl and boy were kissing on the sidewalk, oblivious to the people going in both directions around them. The bar crowd looked like a defeated army, bruised and battered and in reluctant retreat.
Ten blocks away, the streets were empty and dark. The taxi-cab coursed swiftly through suburbs, gliding beneath huge apartment buildings and, then, hurrying toward the black sea. We passed through tunnels and under hill-towns perched on high buttes overlooking the Tyrhhenian Sea, a couple lights sparkling on the edge of the big, barren cliffs. The airport was empty. At the ticket counter, Julie, who was suffering from a very bad cold, proclaimed that she was sick and that she wanted to check a second bag. "Is not possible," the ticket clerk replied. "I’m sick and I don’t want to carry it," Julie said. The woman working for the airlines shook her head. "No, is not possible," she repeated. "I’ll pay," Julie said. "Is 75 Euros," the woman said sadly. Julie dug in her purse for her credit card. "Oh, no, no," the woman said. She looked drowsy, tired, irritated. Apparently, she didn’t want to process the credit card payment for the additional bag. "Is okay,’ she said, "I approve it. Is okay. No charge."
The plane took off at its appointed time and deposited us in Rome at Fiumocino Airport around dawn. We didn’t have seat assignments for the ten-hour flight from Rome to Chicago and so had to locate the Alitalia desk to obtain our tickets. This search was daunting. The airport in Rome is only incidentally a transportation hub. Indeed, from within the airport’s glittering corridors, there is no visible evidence that the place is even an airport. Rather, Fiumocino is a vast and maze-like shopping mall, a series of endless walkways conveying travelers between expensive shops and restaurants – there is MaxMara, Dolce and Gabbano, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and a host of other shops, vacant, of course, at 7:30 in the morning, but, nonetheless, open,dark-eyed women enigmatic as sphinxes lurking among the precious items on sale. At intervals, the traveler, defined in these quarters primarily as a consumer, a shopper en route between shopping malls in the great bright world, encounters eateries: places with names like the Mercedes Benz café, a sandwich shop despite its pretentious name. While the women max-out their credit cards, the men, stylish as well, are supposed to enjoy cocktails and a panini in restaurants named after Grand Prix races or Monaco or svelte sports cars. You walk and walk between luxury boutiques but there is no sign of any gates or airplanes, no vistas opening out onto runways or showing the horizon, whether stormy or clear, just an endless array of stores and dining rooms, here and there, a clubroom for premium frequent fliers discretely tucked among the merchandise emporiums.
It turns out that the gates and the airport infrastructure is located above or below the concourses lined with fashionable shops. At last, we limped to a promising escalator rode, the wave of metal and rubber to the business level of the airport, and located an Alitalia desk. There was a single female agent involved in an interminable and complicated dispute with a huge family of American hillbillies. The hillbillies were dressed in a curious combination of beach clothing and winter coats and several members of the family, despairing it seems of ever sorting out the problem with the clerk, were squatting glumly on the floor. We stood in line overhearing the controversy, but too tired to understand what it meant to us but another, apparently, endless delay. At last, a second young woman appeared as a reinforcement to her beleagured colleague. With feline insoucience, she gazed at her computer, gently stroked its keys, then, feeling herself slightly too warm, divested herself of her blue blazer, very carefully arranging the garment over the back of the chair on which she had been sitting. She rummaged in her purse for some trinket, studied the screen of her cell-phone with studied indifference, and, at last, stretching and rubbing her eyes, announced in a soft, remote-sounding voice that she was available to help us. Julie asked for the seat assignments for the flight to Chicago. "May I see your luggage claims and the receipt for your bags?" the young woman asked. This was, of course, a problem. Julie said that the gate agent in Palermo had waived the fee for the third bag. "But there is a third bag?" the young woman asked with a kind of strained remorse. "Yes," Julie said. "Then, I must charge you 80 Euros for the bag," the young woman said. "80 Euros?" Julie said with outrage. "It was only 75 Euros in Palermo." The young woman brightened: "But this is Rome," she said. "Is 80 Euros here." She grinned at us. Of course, this was Rome and she was from the north of Italy, perhaps even Piedmontese, and it was obvious that she thought her colleagues in Palermo were indolent, perhaps, even criminal and here, at this airport at the center of the civilized world, she was not about to accede to what someone had done in Sicily. "Must pay 80 Euros," the young woman said insistently. Julie clawed through her purse and found a credit card. At the station next to her, the dispute with the hillbillies continued and one of them burst into tears.
It turns out that the gate for our flight is hidden somewhere above the shopping mall, perched atop upscale souvenir shops and perfumeries. The waiting area is cramped and inadequate, the toilets ludicrously limited, but it doesn’t much matter because Italians are last-minute people, whistle-splitters as they are termed in industry, and the great majority of passengers scheduled for the flight arrive at the very last minute, breathless and damp with sweat. Boarding is according to prestige (First Class, Platinum and Gold Members), disability, maternity, and, then, by groups identified numerically. But every Italian older than 35 claims incapacity, a limp or a stagger, and most of the women younger than that age are toting bambini and so there is a general rush to exit the waiting area and descend to the gate as soon as boarding is announced. The staff are extraordinarily solicitous, continuously calling for wheelchairs on their walkie-talkies, half-carrying people hors de combat toward the gate. One stylish woman lugging huge cartons of duty-free cigarettes, points to what looks like stubbed toe, argues melodramatically that she can scarcely walk, and is waved forward to the gate as an early boarder on the basis of injury. In only a few moments, the waiting area is vacant; Julie and I dutifully waiting to board according to our group number are, more or less, left alone among the empty chairs and discarded water bottles. Through the window, it is uncertain as to where the plane is concealed. Wide-body buses are crawling around under the terminal, apparently hauling people to planes that remotely located. Below us, we can see small jets and panel trucks scooting about and crowds of men and women in florescent vests waving at one another, shaking hands, kissing on the cheeks. The scene is one of merry chaos.
At last, we are authorized to board and so we pass the gate agents who look at us quizzically, and, then, are directed across an oil-stained parking lot to stand in the crowd of travelers crammed into a waiting bus. Wheezing apologetically, the bus rolls through a maze of planes and fuel truck to find the jet that we are supposed to board. The entire protocol of boarding by sections and, according to rank, turns out to be meaningless. All of the passengers are reduced to a common mob, standing on the lurching bus like commuters on a subway train.
On the other side of the terminal, the planes are parked haphazardly, as if their pilots were drunk when they brought the big craft to a halt, located at all angles next to a roadway where various service vehicles are scuttling along, zigzagging to avoid one another, there being, apparently, no clearly delineated lanes on the roadways. The travelers disgorge from the buses and, then, shoving and pushing, crowd around wide portable staircases mounted on little wheels and set like nursing puppies against the teats of the plane. The hatch into the plane is smaller than the top of the portable steps creating a bottle-neck and as we stall on the steps, a vertical mob dragging luggage upward toward the sleek steel flank of the jet, I wonder whether the flimsy-looking metal structure can bear all of this static weight. Step by step, we proceed, packed elbow to elbow on the steps, any distinction between ranks or groups long since completely obliterated – the only difference between passengers now is whether you enter the plane at its head or rectum. (We come in through the rectum).
Inside, the plane is also crammed with passengers, hot and uncomfortable, the aisles an obstacle course of people stretching, quarreling, slinging heavy bags here and there. The pilot has to drive the huge craft along a winding path to reach the runway. Then, we are aloft on the ten hour flight to Chicago.
At Chicago, passengers disembark and walk long corridors that turn at the corners of the big enigmatic terminal its interior hidden behind provisional-looking walls, a passageway that seems completely anonymous and sinister, and that emerges at Customs. Welcome to the home of the free and the land of the brave! U.S. Customs are like the entrance to a Maximum Security prison, long, plodding lines of people huddled together between steel stanchions linked by elastic tape, dense congregations of travelers forced into lines folded accordion-style into one another while great expanses of the people-maze are empty, entirely vacant, steppes and prairies of floor where no one is standing. Signs warn us not to take pictures or make recordings of any kind and there is an aura of menace that discourages conversation. No one moves. The stationary queues seem to lead nowhere at all. Then, suddenly, some kind of people-weir opens and the crowd lurches ahead, but this also is illusory – you simply move from one motionless crowd to another, hustled quickly forward only to wait some more. United States Customs has ostensibly expedited processing by establishing electronic kiosks that read the traveler’s passport and, then, pose a series of questions as to the contents of your luggage and any freight, or currency, that you are carrying with you. Of course, everyone answers those questions dishonestly. Indeed, dishonesty, it seems, is encouraged and your entry into America costs you a half-dozen lies and the kiosks are equipped with cameras that take hideous-looking pictures weirdly foreshortened by the angle at which the lens is pointed: images that show the exhausted, jet-lagged, and foul-smelling passengers looking down into the camera as if peering into a cistern or inspecting a dead body inexplicably dropped at your feet. These kiosks, supposedly designed to speed the process of entry, merely add an additional layer of bureaucracy to an ordeal that is already inscrutable and Kafkaesque. No one knows how to operate the kiosks and so irritated agents circulate, slapping the passports of travelers into the devices and urging people to cooperate, pay attention, press forward with these procedures intended to categorize and catalog persons seeking entry into the United States. Armed with the pictures taken by the kiosks, carrying them like badges of approval, the traveler joins yet another line, is nudged forward to wait some more, and, then, bleary-eyed, dragged before the high-bench of a sort of minimum-wage judge who must decide whether you are to be granted entrance or, instead, cast into outer darkness. The judge is a man or woman obviously disgruntled and ignorant, a civil servant who regards him- or herself, as grossly overworked, wearing latex gloves so as to avoid any kind of contact with the miserable crowds of travelers, most of them fellow countrymen, supplicant before their bench. A few insulting questions are hurled your way, most of them like quips, like the punchlines of jokes that you can’t quite understand, and, then, you are approved to enter our land of liberty. At the edges of the crowd, dark-skinned people are being hassled, stripped, detained, their luggage searched, their children howling in misery. Welcome to the United States!
Of course, Julie’s third bag, for which she paid an 80 Euro transportation fee, is lost.
Twelve days earlier, we landed in Palermo. Flying over the sea, I saw the surface of the water marked with strange passageways, a patchwork of different textures like an aquatic version of cultivated fields seen from the air. Sicily’s northern coast seemed to be a bank of volcanic dust and gravel, dropping forty feet into the Mediterranean. A huge mountain stood guard on the island’s cape, studded with lava dikes like the spine of a stegosaurus. At the aeroporto, we had to clear Italian customs. Dragging our bags, we walked down a short warm hall to a station where two young men, each of them cutting a bella figura in their uniforms, occupied an elevated cubicle. Ahead of us were two German girls wearing shorts and tank-tops, apparently, dressed for an afternoon at the beach. The customs officers were delighted to see the girls and exchanged some witticisms with them, happily gesturing that they should make themselves at home in beautiful Sicily. Both of the young men turned to appraise the girls from behind as they strolled toward the airport parking lot and, since their attention was distracted, they didn’t even bother to look at the passports that Julie and I presented to them – with an irritated gesture, they waved us through customs and into their country, all the time ogling the German girls who had gone before.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
What is the purpose of suffering?
If you are considering this question while on vacation, among pleasant people in a beautiful place, of course, something is seriously wrong. In Sicily, I didn’t attend to the news, didn’t follow the spread and progression of Ebola or the course of the various wars and rebellions and insurgencies raging in the world. Intelligence of a sex scandal back in my hometown reached me, but only remotely and as an abstraction. Traveling immerses you in immediacy: the taste of certain foods, weather, the relative hardness of mattresses, the efficacy of air conditioning, humidity, traffic, the logistics of passing from one place to another, the location of toilets. If you are fortunate, you are blissfully unaware of the larger significance of events or experiences. The world presents itself as a buffet wonderfully replete and close at hand. Later, if you reflect upon your travel, however, other questions arise and, although those questions may be unanswered – all truly important questions have no single answer – patterns, perhaps, are discernible.
For instance: once upon a time, in Siracusa, a husband and wife yearned for a child, but they were infertile. At last, the wife became pregnant. But, as her pregnancy progressed, she suffered from toxemia and convulsions. One of these convulsions left her totally blind. After many hours of blindness, the pregnant woman’s sight returned and she saw an image of the Madonna on the wall of her bedroom shedding tears. The Madonna was a cheap terra cotta plaque, bas relief, from Tuscany, a devotional image that had been mass-produced, painted in blue and white with a garish sacred heart clutched like a tumor under breast. The plaque had been a wedding gift to the couple, Antonin and Angelo Iannuso. The little statue protruding from the plaque wept for four days, although she withheld her tears when in the custody of the police summoned to investigate the phenomenon. The priest of the local parish in Siracusa collected a vial of tears, one of several samples taken. It was said that the tears accumulated in a hollow above the sacred heart displayed on the figure’s chest. Tests on the fluid in the vial supposedly demonstrated that the liquid was comprised of human tears. Pope Pius XII declared that the miracle was authentic and asked rhetorically: When will men come to understand the Madonna’s mysterious language of tears? The woman was cured of her convulsions and, apparently, delivered a healthy child.
One might imagine this story to be something told about the Age of Faith, a miracle from the Middle Ages. But, in fact, the plaster-cast Madonna shed her tears in late August, 1953 and the Pope confirmed the miracle in a radio address broadcast on September 9, 1953.
The miracle’s location was a humble street in Siracusa, the Via Deggli Orti II. In 1967, a great church was built at that site, a construction project that lasted many years. The church is called the Cathedral of the Lachrymosa and it towers over the skyline of the white city of Siracusa. The church was built next to the ruins of a Byzantine chapel, a broken facade and some stone walls squatting over a large and labyrinthine catacomb. The new cathedral is supposed to look like a teardrop falling from heaven to moisten the earth, but the architectural style is Brutalist and the structure, if conceived as a falling object, crashes earthward like a meteorite, seeming to obliterate the humble neighborhood in which it is located. Curiously, the church is impressive when viewed at close quarters – the interlocking piers of pre-stressed concrete rise like folded hands above an intricate pedestal of ramps and terraces – but its scale is all wrong and its silhouette risible: to me, the church looks like a Plains Indian teepee, a wigwam twenty stories tall, and incongruously plopped into the elegant old Mediterranean-style apartments encircling the building.
In the church, a vitrine holds the holy relic: a vial of tears. They have crystallized and glisten like a dust of silica and salt. When will men learn the mysterious language of tears?
Residents of Palermo (Palermitans) call the intersection dividing their city into four quadrants, "the Theater of the Sun." This name identifies a characteristic of the monumental architecture at that intersection: as the day progresses, the sun illuminates, in turn, each of the four Baroque facades forming an amphitheater around the intersection between Via Roma and Via Vittorio Emmanuel. The crossroads is a busy place at the bottom of a sort of cistern or well made by the curved facades frowning down upon the intersection. Each facade forms an arc of about 90 degrees, towering over the meeting of the streets: a sculptural ensemble of columns and figures – at eye-level the feet of four patron saints, all of them women, stepping forth from deep, dirty-looking niches over a fountains that vomit water from the flayed faces of giants; above the impassive saints, there are more columns and pediments, architraves over pedestals where heroes in armor survey their city, and, then, yet higher, against the sky, four more women, allegorical figures representing the four seasons, swathed in swirling drapery and arms bearing baskets of flowers or fruit, staring at one another across space framed by the Sun-theater. Traffic and smoke has soiled this Baroque city-center and, at the street-level, it is gloomy within the amphitheater where lost trucks are making u-turns and Vespas spinning in tight, spiral pattens, and the architecture has been stained grey with grime, the color of an old, battered metal garbage-can.
One of the Palermo neighborhood, a quadrant to the northeast, is called Kalsa and this is where I walked, a day before the guided tour began, looking the Palazzo Abatellis. This renaissance palace houses an art collection and a notable work, a great and maleficent fresco called the The Triumph of Death. In Kalsa, some of the streets dead-end at the harbor where the claustrophobic maze of narrow alleyways and small, filthy piazzas opens to the sea entrapped in the harbor, under beetling cliffs across the bay. I passed some ancient churches, more like geological phenomena than buildings, tiers of gesturing martyrs and stone torches, palms cut into the stone and vases holding big pine-cones, grimy rock encrusted with battered-looking ornamentation that seemed to have grown in place like the formations in a limestone cavern. Some of the alleys were scarcely wide enough for a single car to pass and the buildings seem to nod together overhead to roof the passages so that they were like underground tunnels. Africans stood in small suspicious-looking groups on the corners of the rubbish-filled plazas – the men were either resplendently clean in white smocks and tunics or filthy, wearing stained soccer shirts and torn jeans. I passed a miserable-looking little obelisk in an piazza the size of a small bowling alley, an old church squatting in a corner like a mangy dog, some taverns with men standing in front of them operatically waving their hands at one another and crying out in tones of histrionic abuse and grievance. The high walls of the palazzos were windowless, festooned at their cornices with grotesque animal spouts and gutters. I came to a kind of college or high school and young men stood bickering on the street and, behind them, there was the sea, caught under a kind of mud-colored stone curb.
I found the building that I thought to be the Palazzo Abatellis but was afraid to approach too closely. Six or seven men in casual clothing were standing at the threshold, engaged in some kind of bellicose disputation. I couldn’t tell who was defending the door and who was just visiting for the purpose of the debate. The men embraced one another and, then, pushed apart and someone’s voice sang out like the tenor in an opera, a high crying sound with laughter fluttering around it. Although it looked to me like a fist-fight was about to erupt, in fact, the men were merely entertaining one another with arias of discontent and abuse and they were all friends. At last, I screwed-up my courage and pressed through them to the door – one of the men blocked me, said something in Italian, and, then, slapped a ticket into my hand. Inside, it was hot and sweltering as is the case with all public buildings in Palermo – there is no motion of air and the confined atmosphere is muggy and smells of plaster dust and effort of climbing the clammy marble stairs is enough to drench your hair and ribs in sweat. The place was completely inscrutable, empty rooms with fading frescos decorating the walls between 12 foot high windows, an interior courtyard filled with rubbish, a tower like the structure from which Jimmy Stewart fell in Vertigo, open colonnades looking down on the maze of tenements and alleyways. Some teenage girls were picking at the scabs on limestone figures lying recumbent on sarcophagi and fans were whirling, pushing hot air around in the room – it seemed to be some sort of high-school project involving the restoration of medieval tombs, dragged out of the crypts and lining the wall of the 18th century ballroom. Putti leered at me and big mirrors all foamy with dust cast distorted reflections. If this was the Palazzo Abatellis, there was no art inside, just fragments of sculptures, tombs with abscessed figures carved into eroded limestone, vaguely salacious gods and goddesses roving the tops of walls and the ceilings that were painted as if to open upon the faded blue of the sky. After ten minutes in the stifling building, entirely ignored by the teenage girls bent over the dead princes and princesses, I fled the place. I went to a church on the waterfront, a little mound of statuary and pillars under a crescent-shaped dome. I thought to sit down on the steps of the church and look across the water to the cliffs, big escarpments such as I imagine the Rock Gibralter to be. But there was a woman at a desk sitting in front of the church, well-dressed and with a friendly smile, and she beckoned me to approach her. She sold me a ticket to the church interior and I went inside.
Again, it was hot and the air was motionless and suffused with water – my face was soaking with sweat and my eyes stung with that moisture. The inside of the church was white with freshly cleansed marble walls, but plain. Some big sarcophagi mounted on porphyry clawed-feet stood along the sides of the nave. Putti incongruously slumbering on skulls like pillows sat atop the sarcophagi. After a couple minutes, I wanted to leave and so I went to the door and pushed on it, but it didn’t budge. It was like pushing against the marble wall. An complex sort of lock with various latches and levers and handles presented itself to my touch – it was dark by the door and the lock seemed to present an insoluble problem. I rattled the lock and pushed at the latches, shoved levers up and down and between, but the door didn’t open and the great wooden panels at the threshold were immobile. Panic overcame me briefly. I was trapped in the empty, suffocating church where innumerable marble skulls were grinning at me and there was no way out. I slumped in an uncomfortable pew and, at last, I saw a sort of armoire shoved against the back of the nave, a kind of closet with a small wooden door like the entrance to a confessional. I went to the dark cherry-wood box and pushed on the door and it creaked inward and, then, I saw that the woman at the desk was sitting outside, guarding the door and so I was freed from my confinement.
Later, with the tour, we were guided through some of these same airless alleyways, slot canyons in the ancient masses of buildings. Of course, with a guide leading us we saw more and better. In one small piazza, we stood on irregular, ankle-cracking cobble-stones in front of a Baroque church, a dowdy affair like decomposing wedding cake, studded with handless and noseless martyrs. The church was the color of concrete stained by road kill and a modest obelisk on a fat, grafitti-smeared pillar of stone thrust its thumb up to the sky. Storm clouds, blue and intense with watery shadow, were scudding over the domes and spires of the city. Ms. Accardi told us that more than 3,000 Frenchmen were buried in a mass grave under the unprepossessing monument. The French were the victims of an episode called the Sicilian Vespers, a massacre that occurred on Easter evening in 1282.
At that time, Sicily was ruled by the Normans and the king was Charles of Anjou. After evening mass, some French soldiers groped Sicilian women in front of a church on the outskirts of Palermo. One of women’s husband used his dagger to kill the Frenchman pawing his wife. This triggered a general slaughter – mobs churned through the narrow medieval streets hacking to death any French-speaking person that they encountered. A shibboleth was used to discern who should be killed – the Sicilian word ciciri means chickpea. French tongues and lips can’t pronounce that word; there is something about the repetition of the "c’s" and the "r" embedded in the word that thwarts proper pronunciation, at least when ciciri is voiced by a Norman. People who pronounced the word incorrectly were summarily butchered. In the end, as is always the case, the savagery proved contagious – not only men, but, also, Norman women and children were killed and, at last, Sicilian women, as well, known to have consorted with the French were slaughtered. One woman, it is said, had her womb ripped open by a knife-thrust so that the fetus protected within, claimed to be half-French, could be dashed against a wall.
In the neighborhood of the monument to the dead French, bomb craters from World War Two were visible. Atrocity, it seems, is eternal. On some of the shops and taverns, there were orange-yellow stickers announcing that the proprietors did not pay pizzo – that is, protection money to the Mafia. The window decals said Addiopizzo. (Pizzo means "a beak-full.) Verdi composed an opera on the subject of the massacre of the French. In The Siclian Vespers, a princess of Austria, Helene, sings an aria Sorte fata! Oh, fier cimento ("Fatal destiny! Oh fierce conflict!). The French governor of Sicily, Monfort, announces that Helene may be married to her beloved, the Sicilian rebel, Procido. As bells toll, Sicilians storm into the garden of the Monfort’s and kill the French.
At Siracusa, the ancient Greeks chiseled their theater into living rock, limestone benches stepping down an arid sunbaked hill from low cliffs crowning a stony ridge over the harbor. Silt accumulates with time and the theater was erected above a stream flowing down to the water and so the sea is now remote from the theater, a quarter-mile away, beyond an ugly industrial development of small metal buildings and fuel tanks. The theater is large – crowded, it would have held 18,000 people and, from this capacity, a census can be established for ancient Syracuse: assuming a ratio of seven slaves for each free citizen, the city was probably inhabited by about 125,000 people, the second largest city-state in the Greek world.
Greek theaters are remarkably beautiful and elegant, although they must have been miserable places to attend: uncomfortable and exposed to the glare of the sun. A great semi-circular of elegantly sculpted benches forms a huge curved stairway leading up to the white cliffs. In the center of the cliffs, a round cave overlooks the theater, an empty socket like the Cyclops’ ruined eye glaring down at the pale tiers of seats and the stage and the blue sheet of sea beyond. The cave seems to be artificial, a grotto excavated into the cliff above the center of the last, and highest, row of seats. A spring is captured within the grotto, held within the deep, wet rocky niche, and water surges from stone, then, spills downhill beneath the theater. The top of the cliff is musical with flowing water and, indeed, the center of the theater also whispers with stream flowing through cool channels under the hot white benches. This theater sighs with mysterious rippling water, concealed in the rock, a sort of literal inspiration for the plays that were presented here, a sort of divine afflatus. Along the hilltop, the cliff has been hollowed into arched openings for Christian burials, and ten yards from the cave overflowing with water, a tiny cascade sluices down the escarpment, the stream embedded in a shaggy emerald growth of moss. The sun is hot and it glares against the white benches and the stage undercut with deep, rectangular pits – these were innovations of the Romans who later occupied the site and favored spectacular effects in their blood-and-thunder productions, animals and ghosts and monsters arising on elevators from underground. But despite the heat and the blinding light, the air in the theater is fresh with the scent of flowing water and its remote music tremulous under the chiseled benches.
Next to the theater, there is a quarry, now abandoned, with spikes and pillars of rock swathed in vine, cup-shaped hollows filled with water and flowers, luxuriant shade for the paths that wind over the irregular terrain, ground that seems toppled and tumbled as if from rockfalls and landslides from the sheer cliff backing the garden. Solemn, sacred-looking cats prowl the green corridors of the garden. There is a kind of monumental calm about the garden, great monoliths of stone rising from the dim, verdant shadows, pillars left half-carved in situ. A large cave, forty-five feet high and opening into a lofty L-shaped space within the rock, stands like a colossal, shadowy presence at the rear of the park. A rippling fold in the stone at the peaked vault of the cave seems vaguely anthropoid, human-shaped, the color of flesh, like the ear of Dr. Spock on Star Trek or a satyr. And, in fact, the cave is dubbed "the Ear of Dionysius," named after one of the tyrants of ancient Siracusa, a potentate said to have imprisoned political dissidents in the big, echoing cavity in the escarpment, poising his spies overhead to listen to the whispers below funneled up from the darkness under the cliff. In the Ear of Dionysius, tour groups are engaged in competitive singing: German and French and English voices all intermingled, the echoes reverberating endlessy against the stone-walls textured with innumerable chisel marks.
During the Peloponnesian War, Athenian forces attacked Siracusa. The background for the conflict in complicated: the city-state of Segesta, another Sicilian kingdom, was allied with Sparta and the Athenians threatened them. The inhabitants of Segesta successfully petitioned Siracusa for assistance. An Athenian armada was launched against Siracusa to punish that city for supporting Segesta, an ally of Sparta. Alcibiades led the expedition, a military adventure inaugarated under bad auspices – someone, it seems, had mutilated the phallic herms defending Athens and the Greek general was accused of that wrongdoing and, indeed, later sentenced to death in absentia for treachery. (Indeed, when Alcibiades was summoned back to Athens on charges of having desecrated the herms, he blithely switched sides and began to assist the Sicilians against his home-city.) The Athenian army fought the Syracusans for several years and there were several bloody battles. At least, the Athenians were routed and seven-thousand prisoners were taken. The prisoners were dragged in fetters to the quarry at Siracusa and forced to labor there in appalling conditions – they were granted one cup of water and one bowl of rice a day. Within a few months, almost all of the Athenians were dead, killed by starvation, thirst, and over-work. A dozen or so escaped to bring the news of the catastrophe to Athens.
The quarry is now a beautiful garden, lush with flowers and fruit trees and vine-entangled piers of unfinished columns. "This place," the guide says, "was a kind of concentration camp." On a pathway, a cat has maimed a small lizard. The lizard’s back is broken and, it seems, only one of the little creature’s legs is still sufficiently articulated to move. The cat is smooth, silky, inscrutable. The cat drops the lizard on the hot stones, lets it scuttle helplessly slinking sideways and spinning on its one intact leg. Then, the cat bats the lizard, lifts it gently in its teeth and carries it another twelve or so feet, before dropping the animal so that it can again attempt escape. Several German tourists film the cat torturing the lizard with their elaborate cameras, clever optical instruments that they brandish.
Each Spring, before it becomes too hot, Greek tragedies are presented in the ancient theater. The tragedies are about atrocities so remote and grotesque that they have become the occasion for art. The Greeks displayed no violence in their theater, although every horrific act was lovingly and graphically described by actors or the chorus. The tour guide at Siracusa notes that Greek plays arose in a matrix of civic responsibility and that they educated citizens in the values of their city. "When the chorus denounces Medea for butchering her children," the guide said in her sweetly accented and reasonable voice, "they are explaining that the heroine is a bad mother." This seemed a bit of an oversimplification to me.
Beyond the Greek theater, a Roman amphitheater is gouged into the stony soil. The amphitheater is a caldera and the site still seethes with implicit violence – at the center of the crater, there are pits where gladiators and wild animals were concealed before making their entrance in the sand-covered arena. The Romans, by contrast, showed every form of violence on stage as realistically as possible – it is said that they killed criminals in the course of plays by Seneca to mimic the murders enacted in his tragedies. The law-abiding, totalitarian, spectacle-seeking Romans, hypocrites all, are our forebears – the Greeks are too remote, too religious, too weirdly abstract and, even, oriental for us to claim as ancestors.
A glad was a short sword used in gladiatorial spectacles. When a gladiator was wounded, the victor turned to the audience and the imperial box for advice as to whether the disabled man should be killed. People held out their hands – if their thumbs were aligned with their forefingers, this meant that the losing gladiator was to die. If the thumb was curled back into the palm, this gesture signified sheathing a blade: in that case, the verdict was mercy.
In the evening, I wandered alone the hot streets of Siracusa. I became completely lost. The alleyways narrowed to tiny passageways, stifling and hundreds of feet long, wormholes between malodorous tenements, balconies almost touching overhead, wet laundry dripping onto my head, bleach-scented, like the limestone-infused water sliding from overhead stalactites in a cave. The passageways were strewn with trash and damaged-looking dogs trotted here and there and, sometimes, I encountered groups of women who glared at me as an outsider, an intruder in this subterranean labyrinth. A couple of men shoved past me. They had the bruised and sorrowful faces of gladiators. I felt the same panic that I experienced in the church – there seemed no way out of this stony and dark maze. But, then, the narrow passage opened on a street wide enough for cars to be parked along the curb and I saw a restaurant with tables set under an awning and the city’s fortified mole thrust out into the sea and, from these landmarks, I could navigate my way home.
The Museo Mandralisco occupies a nondescript structure built into the stucco wall of a street in Cefalu. The place was originally the home of a 19th century nobleman, Enrico de Mandralisco, and it displays his collections. The walls are white and the galleries small and airless, opening into a tiny courtyard concealed within the closely-packed houses comprising the block.
Mandralisco was an indefatigable antiquarian and naturalist. There are cases crowded with small, embalmed songbirds. The bright feathers of the little creatures have faded into a uniform and dowdy drabness. Most of the birds look alike as do the ancient coins, no longer glittering but scuffed and abraded, the tyrants adorning the little irregular and twisted shields of metal disfigured, noses rubbed away and crowns (or, perhaps, laurel-wreaths) worn to indistinct filth on their brows and in their curly hair. In this museum, everything is fading and half-erased. The hot picture galleries are full of martyrdoms and tortures, but the pictures are so eroded and dark that the horrors displayed in them are close to illegible. A shadowy figure flays a howling satyr; his blood has darkened to a trail of grey-brown slime extruded from his faded yellow wounds. St. Lucy with dark craters where her eyes should be displays her eyeballs on a silver tray. In another faded picture, St. Agatha richly dressed presents her amputated breasts, presented like hors de ouevres on a platter that she holds in a slender white hand. (In Catania, under Aetna’s peak, Sicilians eat minne di virgine – Virgin’s breasts, a dense sugary cake armored in white frosting with a maraschino cherry nipple.) Antiquity has blurred the paintings and you see them as if from a great distance.
The museum’s greatest treasure is an enigmatic portrait of a man, apparently a seafarer. The picture is small, gemlike, and it has been lovingly restored – the flesh tones on the little canvas glow as if lit from within. The canvas is by Antonella de Messina. The man smirks very slightly. The smile on his lips is very faint, but his eyes, which seem cruel and remote, are merry. The martyrs, with their palms, were tortured and died so that pictures could be painted of their sufferings. The unknown sailors indecipherable smile is indistinguishable from a grimace.
Example: Herodotus recounts that the Persians punished the rebellion of the Ionian Greeks by dispatching an army to destroy the city of Miletus, a large and beautiful Greek city built where the River Maeander flows down from the mountains of Asia Minor to the sea. The inhabitants of Miletus defended their city courageously, but the Persian army was persistent, undermined the city’s defensive walls, and destroyed it. The men were killed, the strongest and handsome boys were castrated and sent to serve as eunuchs in the imperial courts of the Persians, and the women and girls were deported as slaves.
A Greek poet, Phrynicus composed a tragedy called The Sack of Miletus, presented in Athens only a couple of years after the city was destroyed. Miletus was a patron of Athens and the Athenians thought of the city as a colony. Phrynicus was an innovator – he is said to be the first writer of Greek tragedies to deploy female masks in this theater. Before Phrynicus, the choir commented and a single actor declaimed the play’s narrative. Phryinicus established a second character in the presentation, thereby, in effect, inventing dialogue. Greek tragedy was intended to achieve catharsis – that is, the purgation of powerful emotions of pity and fear by the representation of terrible events. Phryincus seems to have succeeded all to well with his productin of The Sack of Miletus. The Athenian audience was moved to tears to the extent that Phrynicus, who won the Olympiad competition for playwriting, was also fined 1000 drachmas for disturbing the peace. After Phrynicus, Athenian theater shifted largely to mythological themes, eschewing historical events from the recent past.
Suffering, it seems, is an occasion for art. Tragedy and grand opera are a kind of remote and abstract mourning. The meaning of suffering is that it provides the raw material for a certain kind of artistic endeavor important to human beings.
This answer is insufficient to the question.