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.