Thursday, December 17, 2015
The world is indifferent to the meanings that writers impose upon it. There is an enormous inertia in the silence, or, more accurately the confused babble of voices and sounds, that precedes the spoken word aspiring to meaning. Utterance defies the white noise emitted by world. This white noise is the equivalent of the blank page on which the writer inscribes his words. The first problem that the artist faces is how to rouse himself from the torpor of existence, the dull, inconsequential inertia of meaninglessness.
Franz Xavier Schoenwerth (1810 - 1886) was a Bavarian civil servant, private secretary to King Maxmillian II. (King Maximillian was the father of Ludwig, the Mad King of Bavaria, Wagner’s patron and the great castle-builder). Schoenwerth, who was made a Knight of the Realm for his services, was a typical German polymath, a type ubiquitous in the 19th century. He knew all modern European languages as well as Gothic, Latin, and Greek. Near the end of his life, Schoenwerth was close to mastering Babylonian cuneiform and Sanskrit. Most importantly, Schoenwerth was a great collector of folktales, proverbs, and customs in the Upper Palatine region of Bavaria. In this regard, Schoenwerth followed the lead of the Grimm brothers. Indeed, Jacob Grimm told King Maximillian that if there was "anyone who could replace me (with respect to the collection of folklore), it would be Schoenwerth." His magnum opus is Aus der Oberpfalz– Sitten und Sagen (From the Oberpfalz – Customs and Legends), a three-volume compendium of Palatine folklore published between 1857 and 1859 that was lavishly praised by Jacob Grimm.
When Schoenwerth died, 46 fascicles of handwritten notes were left in the possession of his wife Maria. At her death, this Nachlass was transferred to the historical society for Oberpfalz and Regensburg where it was duly catalogued, filed, and forgotten. In the mid-1980's, the formidable Erika Eichenseer, a folklore specialist in Regensburg, discovered Schoenwerth’s notebooks, a cache of materials that contained more than 500 unpublished Maerchen (or fairy-tales). (Frau Eichenseer is a robust white-haired woman often photographed in a traditional Dirndl; she has flaming red lipstick and startlingly blue eyes.) Eichenseer published 136 of these stories from Schoenwerth’s trove in 2010 in a book entitled Prinz Rosszwifl und andere Maerchen (Prince Dungbeetle and other Fairy Tales). The book was immediately hailed as an important addition to the Maerchen literature, translated into many languages (a Penguin edition in English is forthcoming), and, already, the source of several new operas and children’s theater plays based on the tales.
One of the stories collected by Schoenwerth from a place called Neuenhammer, a small town in Bavaria, is called "The Enchanted Crow". Here is how that story begins:
In a meadow, a knight sat on a horse and slept. Then, a crow came and pecked at the horse so that it kicked with its hooves, awakening the knight. "Why are you troubling my horse?" the knight cried. "So that you’ll wake up again," the crow said, "since you have been sleeping now for three years." The knight noticed that his beard was a yard long and that what the crow said was true. He said to the crow: "Tell me how I can thank you." "By giving me one of your three sisters for my wife," the crow said. "Here is my picture," he added.
After this extraordinary introduction, the rest of the fairy tale is fairly conventional. The knight has three sisters – the two older girls reject the crow’s advances with horror, but the youngest sister receives the crow (who is, of course, a handsome, bewitched prince) as her suitor. The crow sends his fiancee to the nearby village, dressed in rags and assigned menial tasks, an ordeal that the girl must undergo in order to reverse the evil spell enchanting the prince. The crow offers the girl a magic feather, plucked from his breast, to use as a quill. Anything that the girl writes with this quill immediately happens. And, so, armed with the magic quill, the maiden resists several attempts at seduction inflicted on her by a gardener, a huntsman, and a Taubennarr ("the fool who cares for the doves in the dovecote"). Predictably, the story ends with the crow’s arrival as a handsome young prince who sweeps up in his arms the bedraggled girl, working as a cook in the king’s kitchen, departing with her to his own palace.
But what fascinates me about this story is its opening, the narrator’s understanding that something extraordinary is required to rouse the listener from an indifference and torpor that is the equivalent of sleep. This introduction embodies for me the magic gesture that initiates a narrative, the decision to rouse the world from its slumber. And, I think, it is significant that the story is about writing – the vehicle of the heroine’s salvation is, in fact, a magic quill that makes what is written come true. Certainly, it is the wish of any writer to be vested with a magic writing instrument of this kind, a quill that can inscribe words to rouse the world to action.
There is a wonderful and tiny poem I know by heart. The poem is my talisman and I recite it to myself once a day. The little verse is by the German Romantic poet and novelist Josef von Eichendorff.
Schlaeft ein Lied in aller Dingen
Die da traeumen fort und fort
Und die Welt hebt an zu singen
Treffst du nur das Zauberwort.
This poem is called Wuenschelsrute ("The Divining Rod") and the German may be translated
A song sleeps in all things
Dreaming on and on,
And the world begins to sing
If you find the magic word.
This quatrain seems prefatory to me. It is the introduction to all work of art. Everything is sleeping, inert and silent, until the artist finds the magical phrase or expression to revive the world and give it voice.
Sunday, December 13, 2015
Paracas names a peninsula in the northern Atacama desert. I have seen this place: the landscape is unearthly, a featureless beige desert absolutely without life edged by the icy, blue-green surf of the Pacific Ocean. Winds have abraded the desert to rounded knolls and hillocks, porpoise-smooth mountains that dip down to the sea. The water of the ocean is not life-giving but rather seems toxic because the slopes above the coast are made of grey-brown pebbles devoid of anything green as if the sea exuded poisonous mists. In some place, the slumps between the hills are filled with inert-looking glaciers of sand. The sea and sky are vivid, but the earth remains a blur – you can’t focus your eyes because there is nothing on which to fix them.
No one has ever been able to live on the Paracas peninsula. Two-thousand years ago, seasonal fishing villages, more like encampments than villages, may have sometimes occupied the barren coves on the coast. Middens mark these sites and, at one place, someone has inscribed three great tree-shaped glyphs into the side of beige mountain of sand – this is the Paracas "Candelabra," an emblem that is 595 feet tall and visible 12 miles out at sea. The Candelabra is aimed like an arrow toward the sky that is always as dry as a bone. Perhaps, the glyph points the way to some place inland, on the other side of massive hump of desert sand, or, maybe, the mark suggests that mariners continue down the coast line. Either the glyph was made by ancient people who left pottery that is 1800 years old in the two-foot deep groove incised in the sand or it was constructed by Freemasons to signify the arrival of the enlightenment in South America or it marks a pirate treasure or a landing pad for alien space vessels or represents the World-Tree or, most likely, means nothing at all.
Two vaguely breast-shaped hillocks overlook the dead grey slope rolling down to the vacant and monstrous sea. This is the Cerro Colorado. Two cemeteries occupy a terrace overlooking the sea below the crest of the gently rounded peaks. These are the necropolises of Wari Kaya and Paracas Cavernas. Wari Kaya is a series of small, cell-like huts half-submerged in the sand pockmarking the side of the hill – mummy bundles were found in the little mud-brick huts of an abandoned ceremonial center. Paracas Cavernas, a thousand meters away, is a roughly jointed stone retaining wall with the lintel of low door visible in its base. The door opens into several small underground rooms that were also crammed with mummy bundles.
These mortuary complexes were discovered by a local vaquero and excavated with scrupulous technique by Julio Tello, the father of Peruvian archaeology. Tello was a remarkable figure, a poor Quechua-speaking "mountain Indian" from the Andes who rose from poverty to earn a doctoral degree from Harvard. In 1915, Tello, who was then studying the practice of trepanation among the Nazca, acquired several superbly woven textiles at Pisco, a resort town a bit like Palm Springs in the Atacama desert. (Trepanation was a form of primitive neuro-surgery that involved chipping away a portion of the skull to expose the brain – no one knows why the Nazca performed this procedure, although many skulls excavated from their cemeteries show evidence of this surgery.) Tello investigated the source of these textiles, met the cowboy who had stumbled onto the Cerro Colorado burial sites, and, ultimately, extracted 429 of the huge mummy bundles from the graves. The mummy bundles were transported by truck to Lima where about 150 of them were painstakingly unwrapped to document their contents.
Julio Tello understood the significance of the discovery, but tragically was not able to protect the site. In 1930, political developments resulted in the archeologist’s ouster from the state anthropological museum at Lima. No one was appointed to act as custodian of the two cemeteries on Cerro Colorado with the result that local peasants looted the graveyards. Many of the bundles were ripped to pieces in situ by looters looking for jewelry, pots, and other artifacts wrapped in the textiles. Witnesses speak of shreds of richly covered cloth lying among the smashed shards of pots on the terraces overlooking the ocean. Over a hundred, mostly intact textiles made their way to Gothenberg, Sweden – these artifacts were the subject of contentious reparation litigation about five years ago in 2010. (Sweden returned most of the Paracas textiles although expressing doubt that the Peruvian government had resources adequate to care for the ancient cloth.) One fully intact mummy bundle is on display in Hildesheim, Germany.
The mummy bundles are impressive artifacts with an intense and charismatic aura. Many of them are very large – at first sight, the bundles seem to be wrapping the corpses of giants, colossal men and women. Most of the bundles are vaguely anthropomorphic in their unwrapped condition – they look like huge slumped figures and rise to conical protuberances shaped like enigmatic and massive burkha-clad heads. Some archaeologists imagine the bundles to simulate gigantic seeds – the corpses seem to have been set in the earth with the notion that they would somehow sprout or grow up out of the barren, pebbly desert.
A corpse occupies the core of each large bundle. The body is naturally mummified by the dry climate, seated upright with knees bound tightly against the chest by rope wrapped around the naked cadaver. The textile shell erected around the corpse consists of as many as four-hundred layers of cloth, all of them woven in the form of some kind of garment. The types of garments comprising the mummy bundle include wrap-around dresses, loin-cloths, ponchos, cloaks, and shawls. Remarkably, each mummy bundle includes garments in a variety of sizes – some of them are perfect miniatures, the size of a handkerchief and made as if dolls; other shawls and ponchos have been designed for giants – one of them is 35 feet wide and 9 feet tall. The garments do not appear to have been worn. Indeed, many of the textiles are too small to be worn – some of the loin cloths for instance are too tiny to fit around the hips of any human being, even a new born baby. Some of head-shaped protuberances on the bundles are densely packed knobs of cloth, tied with headbands or embroidered with images of mask-like eyes and feline creatures. The "shoulders" of the huge mummy bundles are sometimes clad with fox-pelt stoles or great fan-shaped bouquets of condor feathers.
The Paracas textiles are made of colorfully dyed wool or cotton fabric. (The wool is camelid, combed from vicunas, alpaca, and llamas.) The intricately patterned textiles show exquisite craftsmanship – indeed, some of the single-needle triple-loop weaving is without parallel, as fine as the finest textiles produced anywhere in the world. The garments are so carefully made that there is no distinction between the front and back side of the weave – both surfaces are crafted to an equal degree of perfection. Some of the garments are extraordinarily complex in their design and patterning. An example is a 2 x 4 foot mantle in the Brooklyn museum – the center of the shawl is geometric pattern, very finely woven and colorful, a repetitive motif that seems to illustrate some kind of supernatural being although stylized into merely eyes and mouth, that is ovals and a curved maw within a grid, perhaps representing legs or waves on the sea. An unbelievably complex fringe makes an edge to the mantle – the fringe consists of ninety figures, tiny monsters and animals arranged in a bas-relief procession encircling the garment. The figures are worked in low relief and so have three-dimensions and they are intricately fused together – the colors are dense blacks, reds, blues, greens and yellows.
Considered as a whole the fardos, or mummy bundles, constitute a cultural achievement on the order of the Sistine Chapel, or William Blake’s illuminated books – these textiles made between 800 BC and 100 AD are among the greatest of accomplishments in the history of human art. (Fardo is the Spanish word for "mummy" – the word is alive in the urban lexicon; in some Latin contexts, a fardo is a dull person, a man or woman who can’t dance, a wallflower at the edges of an otherwise lively party.) The millions and millions of precise needlepoint strokes necessary to weave these objects signifies an investment of human capital on the order of the creation of the pyramids. By any measure, the Paracas textiles are remarkable. And, yet, they are also inexplicably weird, alien, and bizarre. Many of the textiles are decorated with an unearthly apparition that archaeologists have dubbed the "backbent figure." This creature is intrinsically sinister and disturbing – I am unable to look at representations of the "backbent" personage without being transfixed by an uneasy chill. The image induces in me a vertiginous mixture in which revulsion blurs into fascination, a disquieting sensation that increases with more precise observation of these figures.
"Backbent" figures are generally arrayed in a kind of macabre procession. At first, the eye grasps them as a kind of blocky abstraction, a matrix of interlocking Lego blocks, as it were, very brightly colored and distributed with a thudding rhythm across the cloth. On more close inspection, the little marching monsters are revealed as human beings, sometimes wearing skirts across their loins, figures that have their backs bent into a right angle in the region of their cervical spine. This 90 degree crook at the top of the body results in the figures’ heads, generally trailing comet-like locks of hair, being rotated into an upside down orientation. The "backbent" figures are portrayed in a dizzying rotation that combines aspects of silhouette and full frontal representation – you can’t identify whether you are seeing the figures from the side or gazing at them frontally. This ambiguity in perception causes the figures to inhabit a space that is subtly different from ours. The dangling heads of the "backbent" marchers look vaguely like archaic Gorgons displayed on prehistoric Greek shields –two staring eyes gaze from the D-shaped heads beneath the twin slits of a de-fleshed and skeletal nose; at the top of the inverted head, teeth are displayed in taut grimace. The "backbent" figures are most certainly dead – indeed, it is hard to imagine anything "deader" than these little contorted corpse-dancers. In some instances, a little triangular goatee juts from their upraised chin – this is a representation of an amputated cervical vertebrate exposed at the place where an incision has cut through the "backbent" figure’s lower throat. (The "backbent" posture is that of a body splayed across an altar to be sliced open as part of a sacrifice, the chest upthrust so that the beating heart can be more readily removed.) Within this general pattern, these revenants show considerable, indeed, immense variation – some of the ghost-dancers brandish feathers or spondylos shells; others hold crescent-shaped knives with which they seem to be mutilating themselves. Many of them hold their own hearts in their stringy tentacular arms, gouged places in their torsos shedding fountains of blood that erupt into tendrils of trees or serpents at the distal ends. The creatures’ eyes are wide open and glaring and some of them are singing, or, perhaps, merely spewing blood from their bony jaws – red scrolls blossom there with oval involutions like stylized waves or the petals of flowers. Theorists of the disgust observe that this emotion arises when categories that we ordinarily separate are forced into such close proximity that delineating boundaries are blurred and indistinct. The "bentback" figures are shown in profile and full-frontally, they seem to be androgynous, neither clearly female nor male, and are both dead and alive – the scrolls of bodily fluids that they eject are either semen or excretions or blood and it is impossible to determine which. Even more uncanny, the "backbent" figures are designed to be viewed as vertically reversible – this is a characteristic of a pattern woven into a garment: it is anticipated that persons using the textile will see the image from different angles. The "backbent" figures are intrinsically unstable in their vertical dimension – since the heads are dangling at right angles or, even, upside-down and parallel to the upright torsos, the images can be interpreted spatially in two ways – either the heads are upright with their long hair standing erect as if with horripiliation and trailing schematized bodies at a right angle or the bodies are vertical pillars with the heads wagging upside-down below. Some of the figures equipped with elaborate fan-shaped feather headdresses can be interpreted as either macabre dancers or monstrous sharks with gaping jaws – the images have the quality that they can be made cohere either right-side-up or completely inverted; indeed, this kind of anatropic figure makes mockery of the notion of "up" and "down" – the figure can not be rotated into an "upside down" orientation without displaying another aspect, another form legible in the picture like engravings of hideous hags that when reversed reveal the profile of beautiful young woman. In this respect, the negative spaces in the image as viewed in one orientation turn into positive spaces when the picture is inverted. Thus, a "backbent" figure with an elaborate panoply of feathers, earrings, gorgets, and other personal adornments when rotated becomes a lethal-looking shark about to devour a drowning human body.
The weird unearthly geometries of the anatropic figures are mirrored in other scenes of transformation. Rows of "backbent" figures gradually recline into feline creatures, man-cougars with bristling fur and fangs. Other figures are modified in successive iterations in which blood-scrolls gradually become feathers which, in turn, slowly morph as if in iterated animation cells, into condor’s wings. Jaguars feed on "backbent" figures; sharks devour marching corpses and other ghost-dancers turn into uncanny masks suspended on flowering trees. No one knows what any of this means. In the context of pre-literate Peruvian cultures, tribes and city-states that had been extinct for fifteen-hundred years before the conquistadors arrived, all analysis is a kind of dream interpretation, the reconstruction of a theology and world-view so utterly vanished that no traces remained at all when the first Europeans reached these desolate shores. The cosmopolitan and theocratic Inca, then, the administrators of a great empire, didn’t themselves know of the existence of the strange mortuary complexes and vast mud pyramids in the howling wilderness of Peru’s northern coast. Thus, we have no basis of any kind to reliably determine what the ancient people who lived inland from the inhospitable and lunar Paracas peninsula believed or what they meant when they wove the awe-inspiring tapestries in which they draped their dead. All that we can say is that they viewed the kingdom of the dead as a place of transformation, that the seeds of corpses might either grow or shrink in all dimensions and that a dead body might turn into a mannikin or, unpredictably, assume the dimensions of a giant – the dead had to be clad in any event and so it was best to wrap them in garments of varying dimensions: tiny loin-cloths for the seed-corpses thrust into the earth and vast shawls and cloaks for the colossal dead. An ancestor might become a shark or the Master of Fishes or a mountain cougar. If an ancestor became a condor, then, perhaps, that dead person might visit the mountain tops and bring the rain clouds from those places, bearing the lifegiving water on vast grey and brown wings. To be dead, it seems, was to be more fully and vibrantly alive then mere mortals, more prone to change, more ephemeral with respect to fundamental identity – to be dead was to enter an ancestral place where all shapes and forms were fluid, where bodies spilled into one another like water mixing with water so that an insect might be a fish and a ferocious mountain-lion and a condor all at the same time.
Peruvian archaeology, like the study of Mayan and Aztec and Oaxacan antiquity, is the most fascinating and inexhaustible subject that I know. At Caral, 90 miles north of Lima, vast stepped pyramids rise above the desert. The pyramids are five-thousand years old, built by people described as the Norte Chico culture. Although armies of workers were required to build the vast clay terraces constructed around cores of packed boulders, these people were pre-ceramic – they had not pottery and cooked their food by dropping hot stones into water-filled pits excavated into the desert. Without pottery, these people also seem to have lived in a world without pictures – there is no evidence that they made representations of their world, no sculptures, no paintings, no geometric patterns on walls, only great, austere and towering mounds of densely packed earth. It was, some now argue, a wholly peaceful culture – among the graves there is no evidence of any death by violence. Perhaps, war is somehow related to the principle of representation, the idea that one thing can stand for another, a faculty that these people may not have possessed. In the highlands, a grass grew that could be woven into strands of rope and this material was made into loose nets that were used to transport the rocks and boulders quarried to make the pyramids. We can imagine long columns of workers carrying mesh nets each containing a half-dozen skull-sized boulders. Quipu, or computational knots, have been found on the site, suggesting that communication over distance involved interpretation of arrays of knots – if your only technology consists of earthmoving and strings, it would seem that certain distinct limitations would exist on what you could make. But this didn’t preclude the Norte Chico people from erecting enormous pyramids that still tower over the deserts of northern Peru.
And, of course, there is the sacrificial site at the Huaca de Luna, a Moche site also on the Peruvian northern coast. The structures at this place pre-date the Inca empire by a thousand years, but are three-thousand years after the peaceful Norte Chico culture. Huaca de Luna is a hillside plaza lined with mud-brick buildings occupying a terrace at the base of a perfectly conical mountain, the Cerro Blanco. At one end of the great plaza, floored with mud-brick tiles, outcroppings of natural stone thrust themselves up through the gravel of the desert. At this place, the Moche buried a dozen children, most of them slightly deformed, and, then, seem to have slaughtered war-captives above these tombs. The presence of pupa casings show that the corpses, about twelve or fifteen men, were left to rot on the edge of the plaza among the boulders and ribs of shattered stone extruded above the desert sand. Apparently, the shattered skeletons, half buried in mud washed down from the heights in storms remained a fixture of the complex for several hundred years. Curiously, the victims seem to have been clubbed and hacked to death during a torrential rainstorm in a kind of muddy pool among the out-thrust boulders. When el Nino disrupts the Pacific currents, cold mists sometimes wander like specters among the craters and stony ridges of the coastal desert. Where the mists meet the escarpments, sometimes layers of moss grow on those barren height, thin bands of green suspended like ribbons over the waterless basins and seaside mountains where neither tree nor shrub nor grass has ever taken root. These banners of green on the stony hillsides signify the coming of catastrophe, turbulent seas in which the great sea lions that live on the rock islands dotting the coast become agitated and warlike. The sea lions can not find their ordinary prey when el Nino afflicts the coast and so they take to the water and hunt close to shore, tearing apart the nets that the Moche people used to snare fish. Moche ceramics show fearsome priests with great cudgels doing battle with long-toothed walruses and sea-lions. Attendants play flutes and cornets made from human femurs. The massacre in the children’s graveyard at Huaca de Luna may have been construed as a battle in the war with the marauding sea lions caused by the el Nino – the sacrificial victims were, perhaps, butchered in lieu of the great aquatic mammals shredding the nets on which the people relied for much of their food. In a violent downpour, with lightning flashing on the wasteland of gravel mountains, priests cut apart their victims while the people stood in the rain, thousands of them in the plaza between the big ziggurats decorated with murals showing the Spider God and the Decapitator, an animate flint blade with eyes and a tongue like a dragon.
Human civilization begins when a man says that this stands for that and another man, or men, understands him. This is the fundamental basis for all culture, the principle of sacrifice arising in the context of symbolic substitution. Peruvian and Meso-American archaeology is fascinating because it shows us the inception of meaning, the beginnings of a semantics of representation, and the grammar of sacrifice – this is the beginning of culture, but it is, most remarkably, not our culture, but another, a different culture and, therefore, a radically different way of being human.
Sunday, December 6, 2015
Pagliacci is an Italian opera by Ruggero Leoncavallo. The opera’s name may be translated in the plural as "clowns." In the show, a jealous husband suspects his wife of infidelity and stabs her to death on stage during a commedia dell’arte performance. The opera, an example of the verismo style pioneered by Puccini, embodies esthetic problems involving realism and the representation of the truth in art. The climactic series of killings occurs as a result of confusion between reality and the representation of reality by an artwork – in this case, the harlequin play stages a comedy of infidelity that turns out tragic when actually enacted.
A single clown is pagliaccio. However, in my imagination, Pagliaccio is the name of a character, the protagonist of an anecdote that I seem to have known since early childhood. In the story, an unnamed man goes to see a priest, complaining that he is terribly depressed and tempted to commit suicde. The priest tells the man to go to the circus where a famous clown named Pagliaccio performs nightly. "He is the merriest fellow in the world," the priest says. "Watching him will raise your spirits and make you happy." The man is distressed by this advice but says nothing. The next day, he goes to a brothel and tells one of the whores that he has lost his desire to live and that the world has become a grey, cold, and merciless place to him. The whore says that she went to the circus recently and saw a great clown, Pagliaccio. "I have had a hard life," the whore says, " but watching him perform, I forgot all my miseries and was happy for, at least, a time." The man shrugs his shoulders and seems to be disappointed by her advice. A day later, the man goes to his doctor, a psychiatrist, and unburdens himself: "I am oppressed by terrible fear and anxiety," the man says. "I need something to distract my mind from my sorrows. Do you have a medicine that I can take?" "Laughter is the best medicine," the doctor says. Then, he tells his patient to buy a ticket to the circus. "The funniest man in the world is performing in the circus," the doctor says, "the incomparable Pagliaccio. When you see him, you will forget all of your sorrows and laugh like a child." At this advice, the patient bursts into tears and cries: "But doctor, I am Pagliaccio."
My father told me this tale when I was very young. Perhaps, he acted it out. In high school, my father had won some distinction in the theater and I recall that he declaimed the final lines of the story with great passion. Perhaps, he was sad at the time he told me the story. For some reason, I have always thought that the anecdote disguised a certain melancholy afflicting my father, although this is purely speculation on my part. In the version of the story that my father told me, there is only one consultation between the patient and the psychiatrist. The whore and the priest are my innovations, my contribution to a tale that undoubtedly dates back to the Romans or before.
It would be interesting to know who first told this story. Internet sources suggest that the anecdote may have been true with respect to a certain George L. Fox, a famous comedian on Broadway in the years following the Civil War. Fox was a small, sinewy man who appeared in stark white-face. A photograph from the era shows a sinister-looking clown with something of the appearance of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films. Fox had fought with distinction in the Civil War. After he broke his nose in an accident on stage in 1875, his behavior became increasingly erratic – it was thought that the accident had affected his optic nerve. He died in that year at age 52. I find no accounts, however, linking him to the anecdote that my father told.
Another candidate for the original of the mournful clown is said to be Joseph Grimaldi. Grimaldi was famous for performing the role of Harlequin in pantomimes at Covent Garden, Drury Lane, and Sadlers Wells in London. A contemporary print shows Grimaldi in white-face with great scarlet wings painted over his cheeks. He was so famous that for many years that "Joe" or "Joey" (derived from his surname) was another term for a clown who performed the role of the jealous, and cuckolded lover, Harlequin, in pantomime comedies. Grimaldi, who died in the 1830's, suffered from depression and punning on his name once said: "I am not happy, no, very grim-am-I." But, although Grimaldi undoubtedly influenced the American clown, George L. Fox, I can find no account suggesting that the Pagliaccio story was ever told about him.
In modern times, depression dogged many great comedians: one need only consider the lives of Robin Williams and Jonathon Winters. Someone once remarked that Groucho Marx’ sadness was incurable because he had "no Groucho Marx to cheer him up with funny stories." The idea of the inconsolable clown appears in Watchmen, the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. In Watchmen, the anecdote that my father told me appears as a tale recounted by a character called the Comedian to someone bearing the sinister name Rorschach. In that comic book account, the sorrowful clown is called "Pagliacci". I have read Watchmen and this may be the source of my calling the protagonist of the anecdote "Pagliaccio". However, I also believe that my father used that name when he told me the story, probably sometime in the sixties.
This anecdote has a curious gender identity. I have found several accounts of fathers telling this story to their sons. But I find no narrative of a mother ever recounting this anecdote to her son. Similarly, I find no account of a father telling the story to his daughter or daughters. Try this thought-experiment: can you readily imagine a woman telling this anecdote to her son or daughter? I believe that you will find this concept highly implausible, if not, exactly, unthinkable. Why should this be so? I think it is because men and women have a very different relationship to artistic creativity. All women are, at least, potentially biologically creative. Men, often, make the mistake of imagining that the creative impulse is born of rage or sexual frustration – that is, men regard artistic creativity as arising from the frustration of other more fundamental impulses. Great masculine art arises from suffering. The art produced by great female writers is, often, not considered in this way. (In my generation, of course, there was an exception granted for poetesses – both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were regarded as producing their art from suffering and, therefore, considered in the lineage of the great Emily Dickinson.) No one is likely to think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein arising from the author’s personal suffering; similarly, I have never heard anyone argue that Jane Austen created her novels out of personal misery. The entire linkage between unrequited passion, suffering, and art is questionable in my view. But the anecdote of poor Pagliaccio implies that the great clown’s brilliance may have been rooted, somehow, in his agony – an idea that appeals to male hysterics.
Sunday, October 18, 2015
It will not be so easy for you to find the grave of Tom Donnelly.
My friend is buried in St. Mary’s cemetery in Newry Township. People will tell you to take 251 from State Highway 218. They will say that you must drive past the old creamery at the four-way intersection at Corning and, then, after a few additional intersections, make your way north on the gravel roads. Then, you must watch for a green hill where there are some graves flung across an incline and a cross bearing a plaster Jesus.
The roads in this part of the county have been given numbers correlating, I think, to their distance from the nearest village, Blooming Prairie and the farms have addresses within that town. But the street and avenue numbers seem arbitrary: How do you find 680th Avenue in country where there is no regular grid of streets and avenues? And Google Maps won’t help you – the gravel roads sometimes carry three or four different names or change their identification every 100 rods.
Perhaps, you will meet a farmer mowing the ditch of his land or someone dressed for hunting standing with his labradors at a field drive that goes nowhere. But I should warn you – don’t count upon encountering anyone in this part of Newry Township. The vicinity of the cemetery feels wild and lonely. Here the land is broken by ridges of gravel left by ancient glaciers and there are steep hills and potholes full of marsh and lagoon, not good terrain for farming. The land has been emptied-out and the old farmsteads plowed under and some of the fields seem to be reverting to wilderness and the trees in their old shelter belts planted by pioneers have grown wild, lush jungles of underbrush where feral cats hunt. My wife’s grandmother lived in this township, but her house is long-gone, bulldozed into a ravine where lathe and joists are heaped among rusty, abandoned harrows and cultivators. The ravine is lavish with vines and wild flowers and poison ivy, deadly with tangles of barbed wire, and the only thing remaining at the old homestead is a half-collapsed trailer towed there to rot in peace a dozen years ago.
The cast-iron gates to St. Mary’s cemetery stand a hundred yards west of the gravel road. The driveway is serviceable and curves around the tract of old stone columns set on limestone piers, gravestones like broken and decayed teeth jutting up from the grass, and implacably carved granite markers embedded in the turf. At the highest point on the hill, a deathly white Jesus hangs on his cross. The graves all have Irish names. The shelter belt that divides the cemetery from the pasture-land on its west is an impenetrable forest full of thorns and bird-calls.
It is not so easy to find the grave of my friend Tom Donnelly. But if, by chance, you reach that cemetery, enter through the gates and walk south along the bottom of the slope, and there you will see the gentle incline where the earth covers Tom Donnelly, a place where the sod has been replaced like pieces of a green jigsaw puzzle over the five foot deep trench where the body is buried.
On an unseasonably warm Saturday in the second week of October, 2015, a crowd of people has gathered to dig Tom Donnelly’s grave. Donnelly was a grave-digger himself and, so, his associates have special rights and privileges with respect to 14 country cemeteries among the farm land comprising Steele, Mower and Freeborn counties. A cooler full of beer sits under a tree and people are passing around a bottle of Jameson whiskey and, if you want to step down into the trench and scoop out a few shovelfuls of dark earth, veined with clay (one of the other professional gravediggers tells me) you are welcome to try your hand at Tom’s profession or just as welcome to lean against a tree or sit on the sod and watch the others at work.
The slight incline where the grave is being dug has been selected because the soil is relatively soft, but not too sandy, and the ground unlikely to resist with root or stone. About a third of the dark soil cast out of the grave is kept on a wooden piece of plywood lying flat against the grass. The majority of the earth excavated from the hillside is thrown into the flatbed of a pick-up truck parked next to the pit. The amateur grave-diggers, mostly Tom’s children and grandchildren, aren’t strong enough to fling the soil all the way to the back of the pick-up truck’s bed and so a windrow accumulates over the tail-gate. Now and then, one of Tom’s colleagues, partners with whom he dug graves for many years, will clamber up onto the truck and shovel the earth back into a neat heap against the vehicle’s cab. When the trench is about three-feet deep, Tom’s grave-digging partner drives the truck slowly away and down the gravel road to dump the soil somewhere. The people lined-up to descend into the pit and shovel earth there disperse for a few minutes and the bottle of whiskey is passed around again. The space between the nearby graves, most of them made a hundred years ago, gradually fills with empty beer bottles and cans. The gathering is pleasant under the warm sun and most of the people are smiling, laughing with one another, although voices are subdued, even a bit hushed.
Jimmy McDermott, Tom’s long-time friend, takes me to the grave of John O’Leary. He wants me to see the stone marker inset in the sod and marked with the lightning bolt insignia of The Grateful Dead. McDermott has been a close friend of mine for 36 years. He says that when he is driving back from the Twin Cities sometimes he will get off the freeway at Geneva and stop here to drink a beer at this graveside. John O’Leary was Tom’s brother-in-law, a immigration lawyer of some repute in Washington D.C. before his death in 2002. I knew him slightly and went to his funeral, primarily because I was close to Tom Donnelly and his wife, Sheila, John’s sister. The funeral was held in a Catholic Church in Albert Lea and, after the ceremony, we went into the church basement for sandwiches and potato salad with brownies for dessert. It was mid-week and I had to return to my office and I remember leaving the crowded gathering in the basement before most of the people had departed. John O’Leary’s casket sat alone, shoved into a corner of the narthex by a group of folding chairs and a stack of service bulletin pamphlets. I felt a momentary pang of deep distress – what an awful thing to be dead and sitting in the corner of empty hallway among folded chairs and neglected furniture, waiting for the living people to arise from the basement and form the cavalcade to take you across the open country to your grave...
We go back to the shade of the trees closest to the flurry of activity where the grave is being made. A pretty girl is standing in the grave that is, now, breast-deep, flinging some dirt over her shoulder onto the plywood planking. The girl’s hair is red. This country is where the boats of Irish and Norwegian immigrants unloaded their cargos, forming two separate communities more than a little suspicious of one another. The Norwegian Lutherans suspected the Catholic Irish of enjoying life too much and, for a long time, the groups didn’t socialize much and didn’t inter-marry. Tom’s four daughters, all of them beautiful, stand around the pit, drinking beer that is rapidly warming in the sun. His eldest son supervises but doesn’t do much digging. The youngest son is happy to jump into the grave as if it were a swimming pool or a pleasant hot spring warm as a sauna bath. The pick-up truck returns.
The bottle of Jameson whiskey is passed around again. Lady bugs flicker in the air and graze gently on ankles and wrists. One of the men who dug graves with Tom tells me that it is always windy at this cemetery. He says that Tom Donnelly’s father-in-law, who also dug graves from time to time, lost two fingers to frostbite on this hill. "How do you burn the graves to dig them in the winter?" I ask. "We’d use 300 pounds of charcoal and a gallon of lighter fluid," the man told me. He had a red face and a fringe of whiskers around his mouth. "It’s freeze and melt and freeze and melt, a terrible mess," he added. "But, then, we got a big burner, a propane torch on wheels, that works better."
Winter is purely hypothetical on this warm afternoon. And there’s no casket, no one weeping or sniffling – death and burial is also hypothetical in this bright sunshine with a merry riotous wind tousling people’s hair and rolling the spent beer cans down the hill into the tall grass.
The shadows lengthen, The grave is deep enough. I think of Tolstoy’s short story "How much land does a man need." Someone covers the craggy heap of dirt on the plywood board with green carpet. People are unwilling to leave the party. They sit in little groups under the trees passing around spirits.
A few months ago, I awoke in an unfamiliar darkness filled with the roar of water. An early morning thunderstorm drowned the city, overwhelming the storm sewers so that all the intersections were pond-deep with flood water. In the course of the downpour, one of my legal secretaries lost her home. Water saturating the earth under the lawn behind her house made an emulsion of the soil and changed its consistency and resistence to sheer forces so that the pressure of the earth burst the concrete-block backwall of my secretary’s home. Blocks were flung across the basement and gas lines severed and a great avalanche of mud and broken stone poured into the structure. The entire rear wall of the house was not merely collapsed, but blown inward, hurled down so forcefully as to imperil the home’s support. When I saw the house, it was perched precariously on some jerry-rigged beams, condemned, a half-dozen contractors and city building officials huddled together discussing the situation in terms of cautious horror.
Calamity is sudden and ubiquitous and, by and large, there is no insurance against such events. My secretary quicky discovered that her homeowner’s policy was cleverly written to exclude coverage for this catastrophe and, so, at least on first analysis, without compensation or recourse. All was lost. The storm-shattered home could not be repaired, the pit full of broken stones and ruined utility connections and smashed appliances was not to be salvaged. In any event, the cost of repairing the house was greater than the value of the structure before the disaster.
After watching people dig Tom Donnelly’s grave, I drove back to Austin and the VFW where a benefit was underway to raise money for my secretary whose home had been destroyed. The town was still and empty. Perhaps, some people had availed themselves of this last preternaturally warm weekend of the year to travel north to their lake cabins. The city streets were deserted and the evening fell without consequence at silent intersections and across empty parking lots and, even, the downtown bars seemed to be empty, a few solitary patrons, standing like sentries by their back doors puffing on cigarettes.
Most of the people at the VFW post were associated with my law firm. A silent auction was underway. I opened a tab and charged as many drinks as I could for my staff gathered around several tables near the steam trays from which food was being served. We bought ten dollar dinner plates, white bread soaked in gravy with some bedraggled, stringy fragments of beef – an unappetizing-looking mess, but, surprisingly, good, I thought. A singer mismanaged the tavern’s sound system to create deafening squalls of feedback. We moved to a table at the opposite end of the room under a flag and glass-fronted cabinets listing the names of post members who had died. I swallowed a purple and, then, a green jello-shot and had some more whiskey. My paralegal and her husband drove me home – they said I looked too tired to drive, but, apparently, thought I was obviously drunk. My house is only twelve or fifteen blocks from downtown and so it didn’t matter – I could walk back to the side-street near the Post in the morning to retrieve my car.
Although some money was raised to repair the house destroyed in the rainstorm, it will not be enough. In the end, I presume the house will be destroyed, bulldozed into the grave of its ruined basement and the earth smoothed and tamped down in that place, and, then, sod laid over the rectangular site where the building once stood.
Life is not a novel and there is a danger in indulging in jovial Dickensian descriptions of real people. Description, particularly of a person’s physiognomy, can be readily misinterpreted, or regarded as condescending or critical or, even, racist to the extent that a person’s appearance conforms to certain caricatures or parodies of the type. These hazards loom unavoidably when discussing Tom Donnelly. Simply put, the man was a veritable cartoon of an Irishman, and, indeed, a cartoon of a particular kind of feisty, bantamweight Irishman – without exaggeration, one must concede that Tom Donnelly had the exact appearance of leprechaun, at least as this mythical creature is imagined to exist in the popular media. Imagine the diminutive mascot for Notre Dame’s sports teams, "the fighting Irish" wearing a green cap and a waistcoat, his chin festooned with a fringe of beard, a scrawny, scraggly, bony little fellow with a pipe in his jaw, and his dukes raised to threaten a fistfight with all oncomers. This was Tom Donnelly’s bodily habitus in sum and substance.
It’s possible at some earlier time in his life, Tom Donnelly might have resisted the destiny that poured his great and noble soul into the tiny body of a leprechaun. But, when I knew him, he had embraced his appearance and, indeed, seemed to rejoice in it. From time to time, he consulted with me about incorporating himself as a living leprechaun and, in fact, trademarking his particular attributes – his scraggly beard like moss on his lower jaw, his pale, regular features as delicate as those of a girl all scribbled over with freckles, his hard, bony, tubular body, mostly gristle and sinew wrapped around spine and ribs and shoulders rising to a height of about five feet tall. If I were to show you a photograph of Tom Donnelly, you would think it altered by computer, photo-shopped, manipulated to present a image of tough, ageless little mannequin, a mythical being, but, in fact, that was the way the man looked and there is nothing more, I think to say about Tom’s physical attributes than this: although he was tiny, Tom was immensely strong and, until his death ten days before his 64th year, dug graves for a living, and, when you saw a picture of him without scale, that is, a photograph that did not show him with other people and, therefore, dwarfed by them – such a picture hangs on the wall at Lucky’s Pub at Harmony park – you would notice that the man was perfectly, indeed, exquisitely proportioned, built like a professional basketball player or a major-league pitcher but merely on a tiny scale.
He guarded his thoughts and did not make them common currency. Although I suppose that certain episodes in Tom Donnelly’s life evinced strong opinions, I never heard those opinions expressed. A friend of mine, also Irish by background, once said to me: "Opinions are like assholes; everyone has one." Perhaps, Tom thought something similar.
In the early 1980's, someone told me that there was an Irishman living in the rolling farm country between State Highway 218 and the Interstate, a corridor of land 18 miles wide at its south but narrowing in the north where the two highways joined at Owatonna. The Irishman was said to farm with immense draft horses much to the discomfiture and disdain of neighbors. Presumably, some sort of strong ideology, some zealotry with respect to ecology or chemicals or the internal combustion engine supported the decision to use horses in his fields and not tractors, but no one knew exactly what his teams of colossal draft horses meant – if they were an emblem or symbol, it was one that was not readily deciphered. (I know that Tom was trained as a macrobiotic chef, whatever that means and that, in fact, he met his wife, Sheila, the mother of his six children, in Boston; she was working at the same restaurant where Tom cooked – but whether this had any significance with respect to the horses and Donnelly’s subsistence farming was never clear to me.) Undoubtedly, Tom held certain convictions and, unlike most of us, actually lived in accord with those beliefs, but I must say that I have never known anyone with less of the proselytizing or missionary spirit.
Through mutual friends, I came to know Tom and toured his farm and saw the immense horses in their stalls in his disheveled, ancient barn. Chickens scattered underfoot and small dogs barked and, on a sunny shelf, a cat regarded the livestock and the green fields and the sloping hills where Sheila collected medicinal herbs with savage and divine indifference. After some years, the horses yielded, as we all knew that they must, to tractors and other mechanized implements and the big barn with its cavernous stalls upholstered with straw and alfalfa declined into ruin. The family grew up and the children left for spouses and careers and, then, Sheila and Tom divorced. Sheila went to northern California via Las Vegas. Tom moved into town and was living in the village of Geneva when he died. One of his children told me that she had gone to the farm-house where Tom and Sheila had lived and found that it was still standing, the doors open, and pictures on the walls that Sheila had hung years before (I wondered whether the picture of the Pope that Sheila kept in the kitchen was still near the big cast-iron stove.) The old house was wet inside and smelled of rot and mildew and this was offensive to the woman who reported this to me – either the place should be repaired and allowed to house another family or someone should bulldoze the structure, knock it flat into its basement, and, then, bury the ruins so that golden-rod and hollyhock and thistles with purple tassels could grow there once more.
At Tom’s burial, a man came up to me and said that he had driven Tom and Sheila back from Boston in 1978. At that time, the couple had a son, Dan, who is now an eminent lawyer in Austin. (Dan was born in rural Ireland when Tom and Sheila lived there, apparently, after his stint as a macrobiotic cook in Boston.) The man was good-natured and said that he recalled the huge horses on the farm, grey and colossal, with blonde manes. The man said that once he was visiting Tom and was standing by the barn when a full-grown and shaggy sheep flew forty feet through the air. The sheep that had become a projectile was bleating frantically before it dropped into a mud puddle. "The sheep would bother the horses," the man told me, "and they would pick them up with their teeth by the wool and just pitch them high in the air." "
Tom was a witty fellow with the soul of a poet. Once, I read to him some prose that I had written, or, perhaps it was a few pages of rhymed couplets that I made for New Year’s Eve. He told me that the work showed promise but that in old Ireland no one was accounted a poet who was less than seventy years old – "It takes years to learn the craft," Tom told me.
Tom’s wit was bone-dry and most people that he mocked, or satirized with his words, never knew that they were being teased. He was courteous and tactful and his wit, though generally ironic in character, could be easily mistaken for mere acquiescence or indifferent commentary. Once, I invited people to a party and prepared as one of the hors d’ouevres boiled cauliflower that was supposed to be dipped in an elaborate sauce that I had contrived. The sauce contained different kinds of honeys and mustards, ginger with sage and other herbs. But, of course, in the hustle and bustle of the party, the bowl of boiled cauliflower florets became separated from the dip that was supposed to make the vegetable special and memorable. As we drank beer, Tom carried the big bowl full of soft-boiled cauliflower from person to person. With a twinkle in his eye, he held the bowl beneath the partygoer’s nose, asking: "Cauliflower anyone? Have some cauliflower?" Of course, people recoiled from the offer with dismay. With a single gesture, the pretentiousness of the dish, the stupidity of presenting boiled cauliflower as finger-food at a party was exposed. For a moment, I saw myself from a different and unflattering angle – but there was nothing unjust in the critique and, in fact, I had to concede that the whole thing was pretty funny.
Later, I wrote a Noh play on the subject of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians at Waco. For the play, I inflated balloons and used them to model masks that I devised from paper-mache. One of the masks depicted Koresh, not as he actually looked, but as an Old Testament prophet, a figure like God in William Blake’s engravings illustrating the book of Job. Other masks were supposed to represent prairie dogs, small animal faces painted brown with brown whiskers – if I recall correctly, Sheila and Tom’s children played the role of the gophers. (In the play, the destruction of the Branch Davidians by Janet Reno’s FBI was symbolized by 19th century campaigns conducted by ranchers against prairie dogs that had once lived in million-member villages on the plains near Waco.) Under the influence of Yeats’ plays made for the Abbey Theater, and after reading a half-dozen Japanese Noh plays, I wrote a one-act verse theater-piece. The verse was recited by a panel of readers and masked figures acted the parts of the ghosts and solitary wanderers in the Texas desert. We staged the play in an abandoned youth drop-in center, a huge dark space above a pizza joint that reeked of stale water and pepperoni, tin roof-tiles displaced by leaks and hanging down like stalactites over the big ruinous dance-floor. The play was lit by candles and another friend played percussion while a panel of readers intoned verse attributed to the masked figures, but, which, of course, they were unable to speak. For some reason, Tom Donnelly was cast as David Koresh and I recall him standing in the flickering candle-light, draped in an Old Testament shawl and wearing the mask of Jehovah as he slowly raised a staff, brandishing it like a shilleleigh at the mob of white-clad prairie dog ghosts come to harass him. To gain admission to the play, each audience member was supposed bring a bone and the floor where the masked actors danced and strutted was strewn with skeletal fragments and several half-burned Gideon Bibles as well. Flashlights cut through the gloom, illumining the bone-white masks and the real yellow and brown vertebrae and rib bones scattered about on the tile floor. In the corners of the room, where old legal files were warehoused, you could see traces of wallpaper showing the Fab Five, the Beatles, singing on a bandstand – this was a remnant of the days when the place had been city-sponsored teen hang-out. Voices echoed in the big room and the guttering candles recast each gesture in a dozen uncanny shadows and a cow-bell was rung to signify the appearance of the ghosts to the wanderer on the Waco plains. After the performance, everyone drank beer and congratulated one another on a job well-done and, after a half-hour or so, the candles were extinguished and the beer cans swept together and put in a black garbage sack and we departed, leaving some of the props still strewn about – it was my plan to come back with some more garbage bags in a day or two to clean up the remains of the Noh play.
But, of course, I didn’t get around to the final phase of the clean-up. And about six months later, someone from the pizza place was deputized to go upstairs to warehouse some damaged or outmoded chairs and so stumbled across the detritus of the play. It was always spooky to climb the long steps leading to the old teen drop-in center and the walls of old legal files seemed to whisper either with disfigured plaintiffs or vermin and, when you came into the dark space, black even at midday because the windows had been boarded shut, you sensed that someone or something had been there just a moment before you, and had now departed – those were footsteps, weren’t they, that you heard faintly retreating into another, even, more inaccessible room? The person from the pizza place set down the chairs but saw that the floor was covered with bones, a fragment of a cow’s skull and some thick vertebrae beside two or three Gideon Bibles that seemed to have been half-consumed by flame. The pizza worker shuddered at the blasphemous display and, then, found on the floor a Polaroid photograph. In the Polaroid, a masked figure dressed in strange garments brandished a stick over a crowd of cowering pygmies, the features of all of the smaller figures concealed by featureless plaster masks simulating some kind of animal. Of course, the police were called and an investigation was undertaken as to the activities of a strange and sinister death-cult in Austin, a hitherto-unknown challenge to the forces of decency in town. In the end, the mystery was solved when I confessed that the debris in the drop-in center was the result of a theatrical endeavor, a Noh play to be specific – an account that no one even bothered to believe. Of course, the authorities were vastly disappointed and no amount of explanation could persuade them that the teen center ballroom had not been the site for Druidic cult activities, possibly tending toward human sacrifice, and, certainly, sexually deviant in character.
What Tom Donnelly thought of the whole escapade was never made known to me and, I believe, he was too politic to say anything later when questioned about the incident.
On the Sunday morning that Tom was buried, I hiked across town to retrieve my car from the VFW Post. Ordinarily, I walk my dog in the evening, after coming home from work at about 5:30, but this morning I decided that the dog would accompany me. The weather was fine and startlingly warm, blue, cloudless skies stretching up to infinity overhead. In the fields, I knew that the great harvesting machines were operating in amber clouds of dust, gravity boxes full of grain slowly tugged along the roads to the elevators. The sky was so blue and empty that when you looked upward into it, you felt vertigo and a sense of being drawn into the heavens.
I walked to the post-office and, then, past the old Courthouse and the jail to the VFW. No one was around. Sometimes, church bells sounded, although tentatively – it was as if this oppressively beautiful weather had, perhaps, dampened them and their intimations of mortality. At one intersection, I looked into the distance, down an avenue shaded by big trees, and saw a man crossing the street, two or three blocks away. The man was completely ordinary, nothing noteworthy about him at all, but his setting was grandiose and theatrical – behind the man a maple tree displayed leaves more golden than the gold tesserae that I had seen in Byzantine basilicas in Rome and Sicily. The tree seemed to be lit from within and glowing with an intense inner radiance. Oblivious to the beauty behind him, the man hustled across the asphalt and climbed into his pick-up truck and, then, drove away. The tree remained, brilliant as the dome of a cathedral clad entirely in gold mosaic, shining with God’s own particular radiance.
For ten or twelve years, Tom and Sheila were part of group of four couples who spent New Years Eve together. Julie and I were also part of that group. Men and women are happy together only intermittently and marriages are mostly disastrous and so, I recall, that each New Years Eve, one or the other of the couples were fighting, and, possibly, even threatening divorce and, thus, there was always tension at these gatherings. Usually, we went to a restaurant and drank, eating prime rib or shrimp for supper, then, drinking some more before retiring to one of the group member’s houses in town for champagne at midnight and a pass at slow-dancing to the music of Leonard Cohen or Ry Cooder. At one of those gatherings, we had some kind of contest and I won a small framed picture shoeing Tom and Sheila Donnelly glaring at one another suspiciously. "This is so you can remember us when we get divorced," Sheila said. Tom looked at her with indifferent disbelief; he was skeptical, I think, about her words. The picture frame was garish with rhinestones – it looked like something a child had made in a craft class at school.
A few years later, Sheila left. This was a loss to the community because she wrote a much-admired weekly column in the Austin Herald about the activities on her farm. She is a vibrant and beautiful woman, seemingly indestructible – a few years ago, I heard that she was gravely ill, but, later, learned that she had recovered. When I saw her a year ago, she looked, if anything, even younger and prettier than I remembered her. Sheila moved to northern California where one or more of her brothers lives and, apparently, has prospered there.
Tom moved from the farm into the town of Geneva. He became a habitue of the Geneva liquor store, a place that installed Guiness on-tap in Tom’s honor. Every day, I am told, Tom came into the bar mid-morning, ordered a Guinness and, then, solved a crossword puzzle from one of the local papers. At Tom’s burial, a man told me that a candle was burning in the bar at the place where Tom customarily sat to solve the crossword puzzle, that a sharpened pencil was resting next to the puzzle displayed on the folded newspaper, and that a mug of Guinness was there as well to comfort Tom’s spirit were it restless or wandering.
When Tom was sixty, a gathering was held at the Geneva municipal liquor store in celebration of that auspicious occasion. I bought a bottle of Jameson’s whisky for Tom, the booze that James Joyce celebrated as being as murky and turf-ridden as the Liffey River itself. I was hesitant to bring the bottle into the bar, although my reservations on that account were groundless. The booth where Tom was sitting was packed with gifts, all of them booze, and it seemed that Tom’s beer that night was on the house and people came and went, some of them taking long draughts from another bottle of Jameson’s that had already been opened. There was a cake with lavish green icing and Tom was wearing a baseball cap if I recall correctly and, also, possibly a baseball jersey although this is not clear to me. Tom smiled broadly, showing us his mostly toothless gums and he seemed to be very happy. I stayed for an hour or so, leaving not because I wanted to, but because I knew that if I lingered too long, I would get very drunk and, then, be faced with a dangerous trip home. The bar was a typical southeastern Minnesota municipal liquor store, windowless gloom lit here and there by beer advertisements – some great drayhorses towing a wagon of Budweiser beer in a murky circular diorama over the taps, a juke box playing intermittently, some loud and fat women teasing the bartender, old farmers in feed caps sitting solitary and aloof under TV sets burning like fireplaces to which no one had to pay much attention. At that time, Tom had become famous in this part of the world. He served as the bartender at Harmony Park, a place where outdoor music festivals were conducted during the ice-free months, and had been dubbed "the Mayor" at that place. In St. Paul, he was a living legend, the mascot for a female Roller-Derby team, "Tom, Tom, the Leprechaun" – not only his appellation, but, also, a fight chant used to inspire the girls to more intense mayhem. In the bar, he sat like a State Senator or a Roman tribune, dignified and a sort of caricature of himself, and people came to him as if he were the Pope, bowing as if to kiss his ring, although he had no ring to kiss and, although, he greeted each supplicant as his equal. Nonetheless, there was a sense that we were in the presence of someone august and unique, the sort of person from whom you should obtain a souvenir, perhaps, an autograph or something that he had touched or used. I talked to Tom about digging graves and he said that although he felt the cold now more in his bones and that the work seemed harder and more arduous, he was still in the business four seasons a year. Tom told me that I should go with him some time to St. Paul to see the Roller Derby girls in their splendid and beautiful combat. "I will get you laid for sure," Tom said. "With a roller-derby girl. They will do anything I tell them."
A little later, I left the bar. I drove north past Harmony Park to 251 and, then, took the country roads to Austin, aiming to avoid encounters with police. The air smelled very crisp and clean. It made me a little uncomfortable to see Tom without Sheila. In my imagination, they were always a couple – one could not exist without the other. I passed farm land that had once belonged to my wife’s family, saw the old barns and fields, craning my neck to look down the gravel roads where pickups were moving slowy in shrouds of yellow dust. At Corning, the old creamery buildings were heaped in a sanitary stack, apparently an enterprise that now had nothing to do with milk, but instead sold seed corn. On occasions, like this I think back to the fact that I was raised in the suburbs and lived there until I was 24 and that this entire world that I now inhabit is so completely improbable that sometimes, it takes away my breath.
Tom must not have been a Catholic, at least at any time that I knew him. Sheila kept a picture of the current Pope in her kitchen, but I had the sense that it was a talisman, with not much more significance to her than an image of a four-leaf clover or a lucky rabbit’s foot. Sheila ran a troupe of belly-dancers and had enlisted her daughters, all of them beautiful girls, in that enterprise. On that basis, she was in perpetual conflict with the Catholic church. Sheila was a feminist to the point of gleefully strangling her rooster because he "pestered" her hens and, of course, the patriarchal characteristics of the Catholic church were anathema to her.
Once, I attended a pagan ritual that some members of our group had invented. The ritual occurred around Easter but was correlated to the seasons – an equinoctial ceremony. We met at dawn in a field near Plunkett’s horse ranch and some libations were poured and some poems read. It seemed fairly ridiculous to me. After all, I am the grandson of a Lutheran pastor and recognize that it takes five-hundred years for a home-made sacrament to develop the patina of age that endears that ceremony to its participants. It was cold and the dew was half-frozen and I think we had to drink whisky later to warm ourselves up.
In any event, there were no ministers and no priests anywhere in evidence at Tom’s burial. The day had become almost oppressively bright and warm – 85 degrees, a temperature unprecedented for a day in Minnesota in mid-October. I joked with people at the burial that I hoped that they had Tom on ice because of this inordinate warmth and people nodded to me as if I had spoken words of wisdom. The cemetery was thronged with people and we all gathered around the grave, hot wind blowing off the soybean and corn fields beyond the shelter belt, con-trails adorning the limitless blue sky high overhead. Hordes of little lady-bugs crept up our ankles and crawled around our wrists like living necklaces. Tim O’Leary, Tom’s brother-in-law, and Sheila’s brother, spoke a few words; he recited the poem by ee cummings that begins "buffalo bill’s defunct..." I read a short speech and Jim McDermott told a story and read a poem. I concluded my speech with words from Yeats’ "Under Ben Bulben":
Whether a man dies in bed
Or a rifle knocks him dead
A brief parting from those dear
Is the worst we have to fear
And though gravedigger’s toil is long
Sharp their spades, their muscles strong,
They but thrust their buried men
Into the human mind again.
Tom’s daughters and their husbands carried his plain wood box to the grave. The mortician gestured mysteriously and performed some passes with his hands as if performing some kind of trick or sacrament and, then, the casket bearing a cap and a bottle of Jameson’s whiskey with a dirt-encrusted spade was lowered into the vault. The mortician and his assistant yanked their ropes out from under the casket and coiled them by the edge of the grave. Then, the lid of the vault was set over the casket and a burly young man jumped into the grave, standing on top of Tom and using a big two-by-four to lever the vault into a position exactly centered in the grave – it was precise work and I wondered about its significance, because, of course, the whole thing was simply going to be buried in a moment. When the vault was centered, Dan Donnelly handed me a spade and I lifted two shovelfuls of earth and dropped them onto the vault. I expected there to be a hollow ringing sound, some kind of thud, but there was no noise at all – the earth slipped back into its place in the ground soundlessly. Then, I passed the spade to others and a queue of people took the shovels, four or five old spades now having materialized, and filled the grave. It took a long time – perhaps, forty minutes.
At the end, Dan Donnelly stood alone over the patch of abraded earth. He stabbed violently at the dirt remaining on the plywood panel, forcefully lifting the clods with his glittering shovel, but, then, becoming very gentle, and, even, graceful, as he put the earth on the grave and, raking it the way a monk might rake a Zen garden, using exceptional care and discretion to precisely level the soil above his father. I could see that his face was contorted by private and unspeakable grief.
When my father died, many years ago, my wife invited people to our house a few days after the funeral. We sat around the kitchen table and drank some whiskey and beer. A couple weeks earlier I had undergone a vasectomy. When I explained the procedure, I recall Sheila Donnelly looking at me with austere disapproval – "You must never try to defeat life," she said. "Life comes when it wants to come and that’s just the way it is." Tom nodded in agreement.
Later, Sheila asked me to tell the story of how my father had died. She said: "The very best stories are about how people have died. There’s no better story." And so I told her the story, conscious, I suppose, of the fact that it really wasn’t a story at all because there was, perhaps, no point in it but the telling.
Someone said that Tom had been found lying on the floor, cold and unconscious, an exhausted inhaler in his hand. In the autumn with the trees dusting the world with golden pollen, Tom’s allergies troubled him and he had asthma. Perhaps, the inhaler had not helped the asthma attack or, maybe, there had been no vapor in the inhaler to medicate him. In any event, Tom had suffered a cardiac arrest and was deemed brain-dead when transported to the hospital in Albert Lea. A respirator kept him alive until his daughters could reach town from where they lived in the Twin Cities. After they said their farewells, the respirator was turned off. I am told that Tom’s heart was so strong that it beat persistently for more than six hours before stopping.
A friend of mine who is a doctor, one of the couples with whom we used to celebrate New Year’s Eve, said to me that if he had known that Tom needed an inhaler, he would have got him a dozen, a hundred even. "I hope he didn’t die because he didn’t have an inhaler," the doctor said. None of us were willing to accpet that possibility.
As the casket was being lowered into the hole, someone said in a stage-whisper: "I hope that bottle of Jameson’s is empty." And someone else responded, "it better be or Tom’s hand will come out of the grave and fling it at you."
The cars formed a caravan and drove from the cemetery in Newry township along the gravel roads to Geneva and, then, Harmony Park. On the gravel roads, the vehicles moved in yellow plumes of hot, bright dust, raising a golden cloud above them parallel to the lanes on which they traveled.
At Harmony Park, the old tall trees were still green with leaf, vegetation deceived by the unseasonably warm weather and the meadows beside the shallow, marshy lake were shady as the Elysian fields, mottled patterns of sunlight playing on the trampled grass. The big sea-shell-shaped music stages sat deserted and only a few people were camping in the pastoral distance, sitting around fire-pits marked by the rusty wheels of big agricultural vehicles. It’s a private park where you can go to indulge in substances that might be deemed sufficiently illicit in a State Park campground to get you arrested, or, at least, ticketed, and the campers who had preceded us to the place seemed to be pleasantly stoned. It’s hard for me to convey the exact quality of the light in the big park, something muted but, nonetheless, with a glittering edge, trees overhead bushy and soft as if daubed on a canvas by Corot.
The signs for the park showed an immense oak in silhouette against a starry night. In the oak tree, music notes, quavers and semi-quavers, were hung like ripe apples. The toilets were a row of aquamarine porta-potties shoved against a place where you could take a shower – a concrete block building with the shower stalls that was named Katharsis for some reason, the letters written in an exuberant scroll. I had been to the park a couple times before but always at night. In the dark, places seem much larger and I recall the army of people bivouacked in the meadows under the trees, the cold, ominous presence of the shallow lake nearby, and the bright lights on the stages lit for the musicians as if they were movie sets. On one occasion, I recall being with Leroy, one of Tom’s cronies from Mankato, and helped him set up his kiosk to sell barbecue chicken. (Leroy’s barbecue chicken is famous in this part of the world.) We got drunk and some women distracted Leroy and, then, Jimmy McDermott’s son, Dennis, who had Down syndrome got lost and we had to search for him --he was with some friendly High School girls playing in the cattails by the cold, marshy lake – and, so, the chicken didn’t get on the grill until well after ten-thirty at night. Leroy is fastidious about his chicken and unwilling to serve the meat until it is cooked through and through and so I recall an hour or two passed and when the chicken was ready to be sold, it was after midnight and, although the music was still underway, no one had much inclination to eat at that late hour. We wandered back to Lucky’s Pub in the middle of the park and there was Tom Donnelly, the mayor of Harmony Park, dressed as if for a baseball game, serving Guinness stout in plastic cups, one of his beautiful daughters, I think, at his side to help with the line of customers standing in front of the wooden shack. I don’t recall what kind of music was being played that night – perhaps, it was a blue grass festival with mandolins and banjos sounding sweetly in the darkness. Tom shouted last call, served the final customers, and, then, we walked back to where Leroy’s chicken was sizzling on the grill. The sky between the trees was full of stars. Nothing that night seemed very extraordinary to me then, but, now, years later, I know that every night of that kind, indeed, every night, without exception, is remarkable.
At Lucky’s Pub on the day of his burial, there was a picture of Tom Donnelly with a demonic look on his face; a sign called-out his dates under the name: Digger. The picture was set in the center of the bar pub, beneath the wooden awning marked with huge green shamrocks. Tom looked like banshee in that picture, like an improbable supernatural being. The Guinness was poured from black cans and was very cold. Across the meadow, there was ham and potato salad, little buns with which to make sandwiches, and another caked, buried in green icing.
On my way back from the food tables, a lady bug suddenly flared in front of me. The little creatures seem inert as pebbles until you touch them and, then, they brandish wings and flutter into the air like tiny, predatory helicopters. The lady bug’s wings caught a ray of sunshine and the insect seemed to blaze like a match lit in the center of the bright landscape, propounding some kind of truth to me. The sunbeam made the bug gold, a globe of whirring flickering gold – it seemed impossible to me that something so small could be so beautiful.
Tuesday, September 29, 2015
Once every year, happy Africans appear at the Lutheran Church. I am almost 61, have attended church for almost as many years, and this has occurred all my life.
The happy Africans are often from Tanzania. They wear pajama-like garments emblazoned with colorful batik patterns. The garments are loose so that they can move freely. Generally, the Africans comprise an a capella singing group. With broad grins, they greet congregation members sullenly taking their accustomed places in the pews. The leader of the Africans announces that in his country people dance and sway and clap their hands when they worship. "Here in Minnesota," the leader says, "I understand that people are more reserved." The man teaches the people in the congregation a few phrases in Swahili – the old men and ladies and the earnest young couples with their babies repeat the words several times until the band leader says that they have spoken them correctly. Then, the singing group begins to snap their fingers in unison and they sway back and forth rhythmically and, somehow, manage to sing through the enormous grins decorating their dark faces. At certain points in the song, the congregation members are supposed to triumphally clap hands with their pew-mates and, then, spin in a circle while ululating. The lead singer demonstrates ululation: the high-pitched whinnying sound fills the church. "It’s like saying ‘yee-haw’ in Texas," the band leader tells us.
Of course, the Lutherans are always embarrassed by their dusky brethren. Most of them can barely clap their hands rhythmically and the swaying, the wiggling of the hips, the high-fives with one’s neighbor, the spins on heel and sole – all of these gestures are, more or less, beyond their capacity both physically and emotionally. Those who are exertionally capable of such motions refuse to perform them. Many of the old ladies, who are good sports, are incapable of dancing in that way – to move with the lithe precision commanded by the band leader would result in a fall and broken hip, but they try unsuccessfully to imitate the singers. The happy Africans have the gift of song and dance: God’s grace causes them to whirl and prance like James Brown. The Lutherans trapped in their pews and their sluggish, obese bodies gaze at them with something like adoration.
Of course, the happy Africans have not come to occupy the pulpit. They don’t espouse doctrine or debate social policy. They don’t quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther, for that matter, and aren’t deputized to read the scripture to us. When they speak, the happy Africans talk with nostalgia about their churches made of white-washed plaster in Tanzania, their church-schools just recently opened for girls, and, then, they ask for money. The happy Africans always ask for money because they are poor and wish to continue their missionary work but resources are scarce on the Dark Continent and they are dependant upon the largesse of this Christian community in icy Minnesota.
As to their performance, the happy Africans are comprised of a chorus of wholesome-looking men who shimmy rhythmically and sing in wonderfully close harmony. Sometimes, a man steps forth and cries out, singing a phrase in a high voice that verges on falsetto. Then, someone responds, repeating the phrase, and, for a minute or so, the jagged, high-pitched cry is passed back and forth, while those not echoing the call, sway back and forth singing a refrain that scarcely varies or progresses. Sometimes, enthusiasm causes the happy Africans to clap their hands together or high-five one another over their heads or shout out: "Gee - Gee - Gee - Sus!"
Their singing is very beautiful and, because of repetition and their rhythmic shuffling back and forth, hypnotic – at first, the songs made by the happy Africans are the most beautiful thing you have ever heard but, like the music of J. S. Bach, it all sounds alike after awhile and goes on too long. Their women, who are dressed like tropical sunflowers or orchids, squeal with delight as their men sing and dance – the women wear bright bandanas over their heads and their wrists and throats and breasts are covered with silver and gold bangles and, on their fingers, they wear bright carbuncles of turquoise.
The presence of the happy Africans in our Church is a rebuke to us, a demonstration that our faith is pallid, timorous, and unenthusiastic. For this reason, it seems we must pay the happy Africans to depart so that our worship practices are not subjected to invidious comparison. I am happy to give them 20 dollars for their efforts with the wish that they never appear again before our altar and in our church – but, of course, they (or someone like them) will return in another four or five years.
It seems impossible to me that the Africans are actually as happy as they seem. How can this be? I am reminded of a famous poem by Charles Simic called "County Fair." At the fair, the poet sees a six-legged dog. The dog’s trainer throws a stick and the dog retrieves it while a drunken man kisses a girl. Commenting on the poem, Simic once remarked that he felt that poets are like the six-legged dog – not only are they strange, malformed, and freakishly different from other people, but they also have to perform. These Africans are peculiarly, freakishly happy; they exude a monstrous joi de vivre – it is enough for them to simply exist within this state of blessedness, but they also have to perform. They must sing and dance and clap their hands and wiggle their hips and shoulders for our entertainment.
But can they really be so happy? Three possibilities suggest themselves to me. First, the Africans are like all other people – they are neither happier nor sadder than the rest of us. In this case, their performance is dishonest; it is a lie intended to deceive us. Or, it may be, that the Africans are happy because they are child-like, ignorant, too stupid to perceive the darkness that has gathered around us in our pews, too innocent for despair. (I think that more than a few people in the congregation condescend to the African’s happiness – the singers from Tanzania are happy because they are inferior to us.) Or, as a third possibility, the Africans are happy because they experience in their hearts and souls the grace of God and that this makes them unafraid, courageous, zealous, and graceful in their expression of their faith. Most probably, I suppose, the Africans are happy because they have felt the presence of God in their lives and that this presence is not merely a subject for contemplation but an energy that impels them to action. Many people have read their Bibles carefully and have studied theology and know the poems of Dante and George Herbert and John Donne and have attended church scrupulously week after week and year after year and have had their children baptized and, then, confirmed in the Faith and supported the mission of the Church in all ways and, yet, have never felt a single particle of God’s grace. There are many who have hoped and prayed for God to show them a sign, for God to succor them in their grief and misery, who have spent their whole lives waiting and watching, in continuous vigil, for some proof of God’s existence and mercy. But no sign is given and no help rendered, not a scintilla of proof extended – a silence that is consistent with the Protestant doctrine of faith by grace, that is, faith by God’s election; if God has not designated your for salvation, then, your receptors for the divine are occluded, dysfunctional and broken. But the spirit has descended upon these happy Africans and filled them with joy and, now, they are manifesting vividly the signs of their election, waving their hands in the air, harmonizing, clapping hands together in a display that embarrasses and, ultimately, terrifies those to whom God has not extended his grace. Perhaps, the basis for some of the persecutions of the faithful was precisely this sense of bereavement, the idea that the obscene joy of the happy Christians should be eradicated so that it does not continue to taunt us.
A sneaky sort of self-regard influenced my thoughts about the Tanzanian gospel singers, the so-called New Life Band from Arusha in that country. One of my grandfathers was a Lutheran pastor, a man who died before I was able to form any memories of him. My grandfather’s uncles and brothers-in-law had been missionaries to East Africa, workers in the vineyard in the country called Tanganyika when I was a child. When I was small, I recall fearsome tribal masks on the walls and long spears made of iron-hard, black wood, and a bullroarer that howled impressively when it was spun around overhead on its raffia fiber rope. These objects were souvenirs of East Africa, together with tattered photo-albums full of small black-and-white pictures taken in Tanganyika. In some of those pictures, men with spears stood proudly over dead lions and there were pictures of small, squat churches with walls made of white plaster as bright and pale as the snows of Kilmanjaro hovering like a cloud over the barren, thorny plains. The missionary preachers wore clerical collars and frock coats, absurdly heavy garments in the equatorial heat, and their lady-wives looked even more uncomfortable and ridiculous in their layered Victorian blouses and corsets and broad ankle-length skirts made from some plush fabric that absorbed the sunlight like velvet. The missionary couples stood among almost naked people, the native men’s genitals covered by leaves held in place on their hips by string and the women bare-breasted, most of them with swollen, pregnant bellies, black skin glistening like an ooze of oil in the blinding light. Apparently, their mission work was successful – I think there are now more Lutherans in Tanzania than in Western Europe, more Lutherans on that tropical savannah than among the lakes and prairies of Minnesota. And say what you might about missionaries and their work, efforts now disapproved by many right-thinking people, one thing is indisputably true: those absurd, censorious preachers with their tight lips and Bibles written in German wanted the Black Africans to go to heaven, that is, wanted for them the same celestial delights and joys that they desired for themselves and their children buried under the blazing African skies and their long-suffering, homesick wives. Their heaven wasn’t segregated. Those old Lutheran preachers expected to fall asleep and, then, awake in Jesus’ bosom surrounded by their Black brothers and sisters baptized in the faith that their mission had brought to the Dark Continent. (And, looking at the New Life Band’s website, I observe that the clothing worn by band-members in concert in Africa looks a lot more like the frocks and gowns worn by the old missionaries than the bright Batik dashikis sported in Lutheran churches in Minnesota. In Africa, when the band performs the men appear in dark brown suits with black dress-shirts and pink ties.)
During the offering, the New Life Band sang "How Great Thou Art" in Swahili. The close harmony was otter-smooth, suede-smooth, a tight sealed fabric insulating the tune from all insult and indignity. Earlier, band members had performed a song named with the Swahili phrase "Don’t give up" – the song was slow and very beautiful and I wrote the phrase on my service bulletin, a word or words that sounded to me like "Foo - mee - lee - ah." The band leader repeated this phrase and said that when you hear those words, the singer is admonishing someone to not despair, to continue striving and not to abandon hope. The phrase was repeated against a dark, throbbing background, an impassioned cry like a scarlet thread extending through the church sanctuary, and, when this song was performed, perhaps, the Africans did not seem so irrationally happy. But their optimism returned in their final song, the hymn "We are marching in the light of God," a congregational favorite, performed by the Band in several languages – I think the tune is originally Zulu. The singers didn’t merely march out of the sanctuary – they made a parade like a New Orleans "second line", they strutted, they took long strides, "truckin" like figures in a Robert Crumb cartoon, swiveling their hips with the regal demeanor of those born to wear the purple vestments of a great emperor.
Thursday, September 24, 2015
For reasons that I can no longer recall, I didn’t study German in High School until I was in 11th grade. I was a straight-A student, obviously college-bound and so it doesn’t make sense that I deferred study of a foreign language, typically commenced in 9th grade, for two years. As I reconstruct circumstances, I remember that my father, who was a mathematician and systems analyst for Honeywell, wanted me to become an engineer, or, even, perhaps, a research scientist. In 9th grade, when my contemporaries were beginning their study of German or Spanish, the only two languages offered in my school, I elected to take industrial arts courses – something about fiber glass and plastics, and, a woodworking class. In those days, industrial arts classes were strictly gender segregated – girls took homemaking and cooking courses and boys went to Shop. The shop classes involved lots of hectoring about safety and some horrific movies featuring amputations and enucleated eyes. The shop teacher was an earnest fellow with thick hornrimmed safety glasses and a clip-on tie so that he wouldn’t be strangled by the spinning lathes. I had less than no aptitude for the subject – I couldn’t measure a board, let alone safely cut it, and the power tools terrified me. The teacher felt sorry for me and, I think, actually did the projects assigned to me as part of the class – he worked surreptitiously, pretending to show me woodworking techniques, but, in fact, actually cutting the wood and suturing it together with glue so that he wouldn’t have to fail me. (I think I was given a generous C minus in the course – I should have been failed.) My peers in the class made beautiful cherry and mahogany wood chess-boards, beveled boxes with secret compartments in which to store their stashes of marijuana, elaborate lazy-susans rotating on cleverly contrived wooden spindles. I produced with the aid of the teacher a nasty-looking bookshelf cut from two-by sixes with a particle-board back. The teacher cut the wood and assembled it for me when the other students weren’t looking. He entrusted the task of painting and varnishing the bookcase to me and, as a result the book case had a dowdy smeared appearance – it’s edges were uneven, the result of some attempts I had made to cut the wood pieces from which the thing was assembled and my application of paint and varnish was inept. When you looked at the bookcase, you couldn’t quite focus your eyes on it.
The next year, I took a half-year course in mechanical drawing and, then, later a course to teach me how to type business letters. I did okay at the touch-typing class but the mechanical drawing course was completely baffling to me. We were supposed to draw scale images of screws and small metal brackets so that these pieces could be properly fabricated in a machine shop. I found the instruction completely incomprehensible, couldn’t figure out the various perspectives and views required, and, discovered, to my dismay, that I wasn’t even able to sharpen my pencils to the specifications established by the teacher. I had a T-square and recall sliding it hopelessly over my paper, but every mark that I made was wrong and, even, with the T-square in place, I couldn’t inscribe a right-angle to save my soul. That year, 10th grade for me, was 1970, memorable because the political unrest in the country had infiltrated the schools by that time to the effect that the entire educational system collapsed. No one believes me when I tell them this now, but it is true although implausible – in 1970, our teachers in Eden Prairie simply stopped teaching, no classes were scheduled in a regular or coherent way, and the students were left to wander the halls aimlessly, passing between study halls that had the name of courses like geometry, English, and biology, but in which no instruction of any kind occurred. The teachers, who had withdrawn to their lounge to smoke and debate the war in Vietnam, provided us with stacks of worksheets and told us to complete these, working at our own pace, since it was politically suspect to command anyone to do anything at that time. This bizarre pedagogical system was call the "mods", meaning I think both "modular" and "modern" education – there was an elaborate theory supporting this kind of teaching which didn’t involve any teaching at all and we were issued complex, even byzantine, schedules: the mods rotated so that one day, we would start with a geometry class that wasn’t a geometry class followed by Phy.ed (where we were bullied and abused by embittered ex-Marines who despised all their colleagues), the P.E. followed by life science, then, health, then, English and so on. This schedule changed daily in a bewildering way so that at the end of the week, the geometry class that wasn’t a geometry class was the last course offered in the afternoon before the buses assembled to take us home. There were no assignments, no home-work – everything was supposed to be completed during the school day – and, of course, no testing. Collaborative work – that is cheating – was strongly encouraged. Good students did their worksheets quickly and, then, simply passed them on to other more lazy, and less scholarly kids. Grades were abolished, everything was pass-fail, and no one was allowed to be any better than anyone else at anything. An entire year passed in this way with no one learning anything at all with one exception – a lot of the boys with farm background used the mods to play poker. Each class had a poker game always underway and, since farming has always been a form of gambling, the farm kids excelled at gambling and lots of dimes and quarters and, even, dollar bills changed hands. An example of how this worked in practice from an education instructional point of view was my geometry class. We were supposed to work out a series of theorems and proofs using Euclid’s axioms. Each week, we were assigned five or six theorems to formally prove. The teacher handed us mimeographs of the theorems we were supposed to prove at the start of the week. We kept the mimeographs in our notebooks and pretended to look at them between poker games and drawing elaborate, satirical images on the chalk board. At the end of the week, the teacher handed-out the proofs and asked us how we had done and we advised that we were making good progress and that we had, in fact, almost achieved the proofs that the teacher required, although, of course, not only had we not attempted the proofs, we hadn’t even tried to figure out the meaning or significance of the theorems that we were trying prove.
By the end of my tenth grade, the High School had become increasingly dilapidated, disheveled, and chaotic. Graffiti marked all the inner courtyards. Someone used black paint to scribble: Zappa Crappa on the wall outside the biology lab. The experiment had failed. The next year, 11th grade for me, classes still rotated in the schedule but the teachers were required to conduct those classes and there were textbooks again and tests and grades given. (As a result of this lost year, I never learned anything about cell biology or evolution or genetics – people are always surprised by my utter ignorance on those subjects.) By the start of 11th grade, I had learned that I did not have masculine hands. My hands were tiny with fragile wrists and I had girlishly smooth knuckles and short, slender fingers. My hands were not big paws, covered with scabs from misplaced hammer blows, fingers burnt from welding, a thumbnail crushed and showing purple-black, the big, heavy club-like hands that men have, hard appendages that can be used for fighting or wresting things out of the ground or building shelters or furniture. My hands were entirely useless, feckless as it were, and I knew that I had better devote myself to reading and writing since anything requiring manipulation of the real world would be impossible for me. So, on that basis, I belatedly enrolled in German and began my study of that language as the sole 11th grade student in a class of 9th grade girls.
To my surprise, the German class was very easy. I had no difficulty with parroting phrases like Wir gehen ins Kino and Wir putzen das Auto. Once I progressed beyond an initial hesitancy with pronouncing the word "fahrt," one of the verb conjugations of "fahren" ("to go" or "to travel"), I had no difficulty with the sound of the language – I even learned to roll "r’s" something that was initially a problem for me since I had spent five or six years in remedial speech classes in elementary school primarily because I could not reliably form the "r" or "s" sounds. In my freshman year at the University, I took another year of German grammar, a course that I also found reasonably easy. Early in the course of my college education, I made a fateful decision about German that has haunted me the rest of my life – I determined that there was no real need to learn to effectively speak the language – after all, I had never met a native-speaking German – and, so, focused my efforts on reading. My goal was to become sufficiently fluent reading Deutsch so that I could study Kafka and Goethe in the original. In those days, the University had a protracted Winter holiday – it lasts from the end of November until the second week of January. I decided to devote that holiday to learning to read German. Accordingly, each day I went to the University library, sat a few yards from the stacks where German literature was shelved and read, more or less, at random in Kafka and Thomas Mann. After six weeks of this effort, I had achieved reasonable proficiency reading German, but, of course, had no ability to speak or write or form sentences, even, in the language.
(My foolish decision to study the written language in derogation of the spoken word afflicted me later when I visited Germany. I was in Dresden on Easter morning in the Hotel Merkur near the Elbe River. Julie and I went into the dining hall where there was a buffet under way. There were big steam-trays of white fish, potatoes, sausage, and rabbit stew – "you are eating the Easter Bunny, " my wife said, when I returned to the table with plate of Hasenpfeffer. When we entered the room, the waitress showed us to our table and said something in German. I responded "Wir moechten der Buffet." The waitress, a plump girl with dishwater-colored hair, sniffed contemptuously at me: "It is "das Buffet," she said. "Buffet is neuter in German." This exchange taught me to avoid speaking German at all costs when traveling in that country.)
In my sophomore year at the University, I took a mid-level course in German and read novellas written in the language. I excelled at interpreting the texts and had no difficulty earning A grades in all of these courses. In the Spring of my Sophomore year, I took a course in which the teacher, a wizened old Kraut named Gerhard Weiss, lectured in German. I assume that his lectures were delivered using very simple diction and were conceptually elementary, but, in any event, I didn’t have any difficulty with that class either and, indeed, could stammer a few simple answers in German when called-upon to recite. I recall that in Professor Weiss’ course, we read Modern High German translations of medieval poems by Hartmann von Aue and Wolfram von Eschenbach as well as a translation from Tacitus into Deutsch about the ancient Germanic tribes. We also read, if memory serves correctly, a short book about Charlemagne in which the emperor was called Karl der Grosse. Weiss was trained in the philological school of Germanistik studies and I recall him emphasizing that medieval German words, often, had no correlates in the modern language because society and the human imagination were now both radically different.
During the next year, I spent two semesters reading German lyric poetry under the instruction of Dr. Wolfgang Taraba, a man that I greatly admired. Taraba was from East Prussia, the plains and fens of what is now Poland and he didn’t look German – he was a heavy-set man with big purplish lips, an unruly tangle of hair like Beethoven, swarthy and Moorish as Pushkin. When the Russians overran East Prussia, Taraba fled, escaping as a refugee to New York City, where I think he attended Columbia. He smoked big, flabby, olive-colored cigars that were remarkably foul-smelling. In those days, people smoked in graduate seminars and the air was bluish with the stench of his cigar. I had impressed Dr. Taraba with my exegesis of Rilke’s Orpheus und Eurydike and to accommodate my poor command of spoken German, the professor allowed students to speak in English in the seminar – thus, I think, damaging the utility of the course for the education majors who were planning to travel in Bavaria, acquire German paramours to better learn the language, "on the pillow" as it were, and, then, return to teach German in the public schools to 14 year old girls.
Dr. Taraba was melancholy and spoke very softly. He radiated great and profound sorrow, the grief of a man who sees those things that he loves most always misunderstood and maligned. Certain aspects of German lyric poetry are inextricably entangled in the savagery of German history and Taraba, I think, had been permanently wounded by that entanglement – he always wore black and had a funereal aspect, attending, it seemed, to the inevitable burial of everything that was meaningful and moving to him. Most of all, I suppose, he regretted the debasement of the doves and nightingales of the German language into homicidal imperatives. We studied several poems by the Austrian Josef Weinheber, a writer who had been a member of the Nazi party, and Taraba declaimed his lyrics with an immense mournful intensity; his huge eyes were wet with tears. "So beautiful," he sighed. Weinheber died a suicide in 1945 as the Red Army approached the suburbs of Vienna. "Is it tainted somehow?" Dr. Taraba asked, exhaling a cloud of cigar smoke. The smoke was poison to some of the girls in the class and they gasped and choked and Taraba declined to answer the question that he had posed. When my roommate read one of Gottfried Benn’s poems (O Nacht, Ich nahm schon Kokain...), Dr. Taraba commented that the reading was "exquisite, but with only one flaw." "What is that flaw?" my roommate asked. "You are too young to express the great sorrow in those words," Dr. Taraba said. "I hope you are never able to really understand that suffering." I attended the seminar in Winter, when we began the course reading and debating Hoelderlin’s Brot und Wein. Spring arrived and the snow melted and we went down among the ruins of the old mills to pitch bonfires on promontories extending into the Mississippi – the great concrete funnels of Victorian sluices and spillways trenched the steep wooded banks of the river gorge and there were obscure pits and cisterns brimming with glacially cold water and a shantytown of squatters occupied the industrial ruins beneath the big freeway bridge. The river churned over its concrete apron, a perpetual white phosphorescent wave among the locks and dams splashing spray upward to smear the city skyline on the other shore. One of the girls in our German lyric poetry class attended the party and she had made a rum-cake that was too densely impregnated with booze to be edible. Someone set the rum-cake on fire and we shoved it out toward the main channel on a little cardboard raft, the cake flaring with bluish, spectral flames as it was caught, whirling around and around, in the current. The moon rose and music came from the shanty camp under the shadow of the towering bridge – the same span that famously collapsed thirty years later.
The final poem that Dr. Taraba asked me to explicate was something by the East Prussian poet Johannes Bobrowski. I explained the poem to the class and said that the verse invoked a landscape that was gone and, now, inaccessible, its people scattered and humiliated – "these words are all that remains of the world in which the poet grew up." Dr. Taraba beamed at me through his great and profound sorrow and said that I should apply for a fellowship to study German in Berlin. Later, he invited class members to his home, a nice place on the wooded heights overlooking the Mississippi River. Taraba served us home-made potato salad – "it has no fewer than 60 ingredients," he boasted. It was a bright and sunny day. Before I left his home, Dr. Taraba took me aside. We went into the house and I recall that it was cool and dark there, like a cave. He showed me his office with its death mask of Friedrich Nietzsche pallid and moon-like suspended in the gloom among the innumerable books. Dr. Taraba took a volume from the shelf – it was a big folio-sized picture book, printed in the late forties, it seemed, showing photographs of East Prussia. The pictures were in black and white and depicted prairies on which there were little, ancient villages with tree-lined cobblestone streets and fortress-like towers of old churches. I recall pictures of the sea and sandy beaches, the kind of harbor where the hero of Grass’ book Katz und Maus went diving from a wrecked vessel, images of lakes and swamps, vast empty landscapes extending to horizons where great thunderheads were rising above the plains. "It’s all lost now," Dr. Taraba said. "All lost." He offered me cognac in a snifter and smoked a cigar.
A couple years after beginning my practice of law, I went to the University and found Dr. Taraba in his office in Folwell Hall. We talked for a half-hour. Taraba was lively and cheerful. He was doing consulting work for a Minneapolis lawyer that I knew, translating documents about the crashworthiness of Volkswagen vans – he was strangely happy, even manic, it seemed. We agreed to keep in touch. I thanked him for his example and teaching. Later, I planned to write a letter to him. I wrote a draft but thought it was unacceptable. Taraba was married to a much younger woman, probably someone who had worked for him as graduate student, and a mutual friend tole me they had divorced. I learned that he was mostly retired, a professor emeritus. I revised my letter and planned to send it but had no reliable address. When I called the university to obtain an address, I was told that Dr. Wolfgang Taraba had gone to Germany to visit family members and died suddenly there.
A few years earlier, in one of my classes, I was assigned Guenter Grass’ Katz und Maus ("Cat and Mouse"), a novella about the writer’s childhood in Danzig. The little book stirred my imagination and I was immensely impressed by Grass’ ornate and vehement prose style – I think he influenced my own prose, not necessarily to its advantage, for many years. Required to write an essay on the novella, I wrote twenty pages on Grass’ book. As it happened, I had just finished reading Wolfgang Kayser’s criticism on the Grotesque as a literary genre. It seemed obvious to me that Grass, an avowed admirer of Jean Paul, was working within the traditions of the Grotesque, an anti-enlightenment and gloomy mode of German romanticism. I developed this thesis in my essay. My teacher was a young graduate student who wore black suits. The man had a courtly manner and was remarkably cadaverous – his head was like a pale, blonde skull on a stake. (I wonder now if that teacher was not ill with AIDS.) I met him in his office and he lavishly praised my analysis of Grass’ novella. In fact, the instructor told me that I should revise the essay and send it to the University of Wisconsin at Madison where there was a scholarly journal devoted to contemporary German literature. I did as my instructor suggested and, carefully, rewrote my text so that it would comply with MLA (Modern Language Association) editorial guidelines. I recall my shame at misspelling "penis" – I wrote "penus" to rhyme with "Venus". (In the book, Grass spends several pages describing the protagonist’s highly mobile and protuberant "adam’s apple", a cartilaginous appendage that the author clearly correlates to the hero’s phallus.) After a couple months work, I sent the text to Wisconsin. It was never published and I don’t recall receiving acknowledgment that the writing was even received.
I had no car and worked in south Minneapolis and, on weekends, I traveled by bus to Hopkins to visit my girlfriend. I spent many hours on the bus, jolting from stop to stop. Sometimes, I took the last bus from downtown to my parent’s home in Eden Prairie – a ninety-minute ride, an endless time when you are young and vigorous. On the bus, I improved my time by reading German novels – Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg, and the other two books in Grass famous Danzig trilogy, Der Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) and Hundejahre (Dog Years). I read the books carefully, underlining passages and writing abstracts in tiny letters in the margin. Because I was on the bus and had no German dictionary at hand, I read only approximately and many passages in those writings were obscure to me because I didn’t know the exact meanings of words and had to guess them from context. Grass’ Treffen in Telgte, a book about a congress of German poets at the time of the 30 years war, was too highly specialized and defeated me. Although I later bought hardcover copies of Grass’ The Rat and The Flounder, I was living in Austin at that time, practicing law and my life was very busy so that I didn’t have time to invest in reading long and difficult novels in German. Grass had become more avowedly political and John Updike, if I recall correctly, criticized him by saying that he should "stop making speeches and return to writing novels." I didn’t read him for a quarter of a century, returning to the writer about ten years ago to read Crabwalk and, then, the memoir Peeling the Onion. By this time, German books were readily available on the internet and I was happy to buy Krebsgang and Haeuten der Zweibel in beautiful hardcover editions from Steidl, Grass’ German publisher. As Grass observes in his last book, Steidl prints the text in clear and beautiful type, adorns the cover of the volumes with Grass’ own somewhat macabre artwork, and, even, provides a little blue velvet ribbon to help you find the place that you were reading when you set the book aside.
Perhaps, this history explains my affection for Guenter Grass’ last book, Grimms Woerter (Grimm’s Words) published by Steidl in 2011. I don’t know if Grass’ book is great or, even, good, but it is eccentric, moving, and wise, unclassifiable in genre, part memoir, part essay, and part fiction. Grass subtitles the book "Eine Liebeserklaerung" – "a declaration of love" – and this caption is accurate to the writing’s generosity of spirit, tenderness, and delicacy. Grass wrote the book in his eighties and its subject is his life-long relationship to the German language and its most famous students, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Although Grass casts some sidelong glances at the Grimm’s work as folklorists, their famous Maerchen or fairy tale collection is not central to the book. (Most likely this is because Grass exploited the Maerchen in several earlier books that were, in essence, beast fables – Dog Years (1963) and The Rat (1986); furthermore, one of Grass’ most controversial novels, The Flounder (1977) is based on a fairy tale called "The Fisherman and his Wife", most famously recounted in a Low-German version written by the romantic painter Philip Otto Runge – although later printed as part of Grimm’s fairytales). Grass’ focus is on the brothers’ work instituting the great dictionary that bears their name and that is identified in the title of the book.
Grimms Woerter tours the German language alphabetically. Each of the nine chapters is devoted to a letter, or a series of letters, in the alphabet. The first chapter entitled Im Asyl ("Seeking Asylum") features key words beginning with the letter "A" and includes several poems, some of them composed almost entirely from words and idiomatic expressions initiated with that letter. Similarly, the final chapter "Am Ziel" ("Reaching the Goal"), is largely built from words starting with "Z". (The book’s formal structures bears a passing resemblance to experimental works like Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa, an English-language exemplar of the Ouilipo school of literature, or Georges Perec’s infamous A Void, a novel that eschews the use of the letter "e". Grass, however, is a humanist and not dogmatic about the formal devices structuring his novel – in other words, he controls the formal alphabetical device organizing his book; that device doesn’t control him and he not only tolerates, but luxuriates in, exceptions to this structural method.) In broadest terms, the book narrates the biographies of the Grimm brothers more or less chronologically – thus, a sequential narrative of events in the lives of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm runs as a counter-pattern to the arbitrary and formalistic alphabetical structure for the diction used to narrate those events. Within this framework, Grass develops three additional systems of discourse: first, he presents essays on various linguistic subjects relevant to German – this is the book’s linguistic or philological aspect. Second, Grass writes a memoir of his own life and times – this is autobiographical element of the book, subject matter that aligns the writing with Grass’ two previous memoirs Peeling the Onion and The Box. The third strand to the book is Grass’ idiosyncratic recital of events in German history between 1837 and 2010. All of this is accomplished in prose that is nimble and playful – by and large, Grass accomplishes his ambitious project with considerable agility deploying his trademark irony with dry, and effective, wit.
At "A", the book begins in media res in 1837 – Grass is concerned with the Grimm brother’s dictionary, not really the Maerchen first published in 1812 or their other works on folklore and mythology. Accordingly, Grimms Woerter commences with event that Grass construes as instrumental to the inauguration of the dictionary project – Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s expulsion from the Kingdom of Hesse, where they had been teaching and pursuing their scholarship into proto-Indo-European word-roots. In 1837, Hessian King Ernst August demanded that professors at the University of Goettinger swear an oath of fealty to him. The Grimm brothers were supporters of constitutional monarchy and refused to take the oath, resulting in their deportation and exile, with a number of other scholars, from the Kingdom. (Grass includes the defiant letter of protest signed by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm as well as the other members of the so-called "Goettingen Seven" in facsimile at the end of his book.) In Grass’ view, the exile of the Grimm brothers from Hesse was a kind of "fortunate fall," an event that triggered their agreement to edit a vast and exhaustive dictionary of the German language.
The enormous edifice of the Grimm’s dictionary is erected by Zettelkram – that is, "tedious labor with scraps of paper." The dictionary is built on the principle that words should be defined by usage. Like the equally magisterial Oxford English Dictionary, the Grimm’s Deutsches Woerterbuch is of the descriptive as opposed to proscriptive type – it doesn’t undertake to prescribe how words should be used, but, rather, describes how they have been used in the past. Accordingly, the Grimm brothers, and their correspondents and assistants, undertook to identify exemplary quotations employing the word under consideration. These usage examples were noted on Zettel, that is, scraps of paper – apparently, note cards. Chronologically arranged citations, accordingly, chart the history of a word’s meanings by illustrating how it has been spelled and used, beginning either with Greek/Latin roots or old Gothic antecedents. Definitions are supported by voluminous citations, sometimes running to many pages of text. The Grimm brothers’ Woeterbuch aspired to capture the entirety of the German language, past and present, in its pages. As a result the labor was exhausting, involving obsessive concern for detail, and, ultimately, Sisyphean – self-defeating in the sense that during the 120 years gestation of the project, the language had changed sufficiently to require constant new editions of early volumes in the encyclopedia-sized dictionary. The first edition of the Grimm brothers Woerterbuch was compiled between 1838 and 1961. The last surviving brother, Jacob, died in 1863 – he was working on usage examples for the word "Frucht" (fruit) at the time of his death.
In the memoir component of the book, Grass’ notes the fractious character of German politics, a field of endeavor in which he was, himself famously, and vociferously, involved on behalf of Willy Brandt and the Social Democrats. Against a background of political upheaval, some of it catastrophic, Grass asserts that the only reliably unifying factor is the German language: ueber Wortbruecken sind wir verbunden, Lustwandler auf eingetretenem Wegen –that is, "We are bound together by word-bridges, happy wanderers on well-trodden paths". The paths that lead between the monuments and landmarks in Grass’ world are linguistic, "word-bridges" that connect people and places and ideas together. Ultimately, for Grass, the German "fatherland" is its language. The Grimm brothers are true patriots because their work is the foundation upon which an authentic national identity can be constructed.
Grass’ book is static and repetitive – it circles certain events and locations obsessively. During their final years, the Grimm brothers lived in Berlin and they took refuge from their linguistic studies by strolling in the public gardens near their lodgings, the so-called Tiergarten. During the last half of the book, and periodically in early passages as well, Grass imagines himself stalking the Grimm brothers as they walk through this park – he eavesdrops on their scholarly conversations and, near the end of the book, imagines them covered with dust and filth from buildings smashed by bombs, seated side-by-side in a wrecked jeep as if on a park bench, discussing issues of philological interest to them, oblivious of the ruin made of their city by Hitler and the Russian army. Grass narrates various his various political campaigns and encounters, generally adopting an avuncular and self-aggrandizing tone – he is always launching prophetic jeremiads or lamentations. These anecdotes are interspersed with thumbnail biographies of publishers and editors involved in the dictionary projects – publishers hounding the Grimm brothers, who were often sick, for additional dictionary entries are contrasted (or compared) with the various editors and publishers with whom Grass has worked. Sometimes, key-words will trigger cascades of associations leading Grass to allude to the inspiration for the literary works that made him famous and, sometimes, notorious. For instance, the words Daumling ("Tom Thumb") and Daumesdick ("Thumb-size") cause Grass to reflect on the dwarf hero, Oskar Matzerath, in The Tin Drum, the book that made him famous. Reflections on the dwarf lead Grass to address philological issues such as the use of diminutives in German. Considering thumbs, and pricking thumbs, Grass muses on Macbeth; he considers the idea of the "green thumb" – a concept that leads him back to the book’s central topography, the Tiergarten in Berlin, where Grass imagines himself hiding in the shrubbery to listen to the brothers on their promenades. Since the letter "d" may be associated with German words used to signify the gender of German nouns (der – die – das), Grass considers the difficulties that Turkish immigrants have learning his language – in fact, he writes a poem on this subject beginning with the notion that it is unfair to penalize Turkish immigrant children for not knowing the gender of the word "yoghurt"; after all, Grass observes that the term isn’t German at all, but a Turkish loan-word. This reverie leads Grass to recollections of conversations with Turkish novelists, the East German regime’s foreign relations with Turkey, the origin of the word "Deutsch –originally Teutsch, a fact that causes the author to deliberate on the "t" to "d" shift in the transition from Old German and Gothic to modern German. Along the way, Grass describes the assistants hired by the brothers Grimm to classify and index their collections of word notations. Poverty, always feared by the Grimm brothers, leads Grass to think about "debt" and "debt" recalls to mind the writer’s seminar conducted once with working-class people on subject of Hauptmann’s political play about the Silesian Weaver’s rebellion. Interspersed among these subjects is narrative about the composition of the anthem Deutschland ueber alles, an analysis of Grimm’s fairytale Dornroeschen ("Sleeping Beauty"), and, at last, some remarks on the fact that German has no native word for "Democracy". This incomplete description of a dozen or so pages in the section of Grass’ book on the letter "D" epitomizes the associative structure of the book.
Grimms Woerter clings so tenaciously to the German language that it is probably untranslatable. A similar text could be made in English, but it could not be a literal translation, but rather an approximation based on substitution. This can be demonstrated by a passage in the second chapter of the book, Briefwechsel ("Correspondence"). Grass proceeds by Leitwoerter, that is, "key words" or "leading words" – in this section of the book, the "key word" is Brief, the German word for "letter". (Briefwechsel means literally "exchange of letters" and, in broad terms, the subject of the chapter is letters written by the formidable doyenne of the German Romantics, Bettina von Arnim, summoning the brothers Grimm to live near her in Berlin.) The letter "B" has reminded Grass of his friend and fellow author, Heinrich Boell. After describing Boell’s funeral (Beerdigung – literally "putting in the earth" or "burial") in 1985, Grass writes this:
Ich haette Jacob mit Boellzitaten fuettern moegen, waere vom Befehlsnotstand zur Befehlsverweigerung, von der Beichte zum Beichtsgeheimnis, vom stillen Gebet auf die scheinheiligen Betschwestern gekommen und haette sprunghaft mit der ihn bis aufs Krankenlager boesartig verfolgenden Bild-Zeitung ein Stichwort mehr mitsamt Zitaten liefern koennen; dann aber ist es wohl Wilhelm gewesen, der mich zur Seite schob, an meiner Stelle dem Bruder ueber die Schulter schaute, meinen Wortbetrag "Beerdigung" ueberging und maerchenkundig, wie es sien Ruf verlangte, von althochdeutschen pesamo ueber das mittelhochdeutschen beseme auf den bis heute gebraeuchlichen Besen kam. Von ihm liess sich Besenbinder ableiten. Und Bettines hexisch anmutendes Wesen wird ihm den Besenstiel nahegelegt haben. Hatte sich dessen Flugtauglichkeit doch bei besondererem Anlass bewiesen: auf Walpurgis zum Beispiel, wenn von Goettingen aus nur einen Luftsprung weit ins Harzgebirge.
This paragraph is based on the consonance of "b" sounds.
I would have liked to nourish Jacob Grimm with quotation from Heinrich Boell, quotes illustrating the words "Befehlsnotstand" ("compulsion to obey orders") through "Befehlsverweigerung" ("refusal to follow orders"), from "Beichte" ("Confession") through "Beichtgeheimniss" ("secret of the Confessional’), from the serene "Gebet" ("prayer") leading to the seemingly pious "Betschwestern" ("praying nuns") and would have leaped, thence, to "Bild-Zeitung" ("Illustrated Tabloid") prying into the dying man’s sickroom – this last definition richly supported with many citations; but, then, it is Wilhelm Grimm who elbows me aside, looking back over his shoulder at his brother, and making the transition from the word that I have contributed "Beerdigung" ("burial") to another word, well-known in fairytales in accord with Wilhelm’s avocation, the old German "pesamo" and its correlate in Middle-High-German "beseme," which has become the word we use today "Besen" – that is, "broom." From this word, we are led to "Besenbinder" ("broom-maker"). And Bettine’s bewitching presence will, then, bring him into close proximity with "Besenstiel" ("broomstick.") This broomstick might, for this particular reason, then, have proven its capacity for flight – on Walpurgis Night, for example, since Goettingen is only an aerial hop, skip, and a jump from the Harz Mountains (and the Brocken summit)...
Grass refers to Heinrich Boell’s novels, extracting key expressions from them that he would like to submit to Jacob Grimm as quotations for use in the dictionary. In particular, Grass would like to use Boell’s words, probably from The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum, a book that attacks the tabloid journalism of the day, to illustrate the word Bild-Zeitung ("Illustrated Tabloid"). But Wilhelm intervenes forcing the work of definition forward from "Beerdigung" where Grass is stuck to the etymology of the word for "broom". The idea of a broomstick directs Grass’ stream-of-consciousness back to Bettina von Arnim. Frau von Arnim has been imploring the brothers Grimm to come and live near her in Berlin. Bettina von Arnim is connected to the world of the fairy-tales – in fact, the first collection of Maerchen were made under her influence. (In 1808, she and her husband had gathered a number of folk songs into the collection Das Knabens Wunderhorn" – Bettina’s work as curator of these songs encouraged Wilhelm Grimm to try his hand at collecting folk tales.) Bettina von Arnim, as the archetypical Romantic muse, is "bewitching", or "enchanting" – this notion, in turn, leads Grass to recall that the Brocken summit, the location, according to folklore, of an annual witch’s sabbath, is near Goettingen in the Harz Mountains. The principle narrative in the chapter addresses the Grimm Brothers return from exile and their ultimate decision, fostered by Bettina von Arnim’s assiduous efforts, to take up residence in Berlin. Grass follows this paragraph with a poem constructed around words beginning with "b"– a festival on the Brocken attended by the devils Belial and Beelzebub.
From this account of Grimms Woerter, it may not be apparent that book is neither pedantic nor, particularly, difficult to read. To the contrary, the memoir gives an impression of great ease and facility – Grass skips from subject to subject in a way that is intuitively clear. Furthermore, the relatively static and immobile quality of the narrative, the way that the text keeps reverting to central concepts or landscapes (for instance, the Berlin Tiergarten) tames the book’s unruly subject matter – just as we feel that we are about to lose the thread of association, Grass will bring his prose back to one of the central leit motifs in the writing. And, as the book advances, Grass must confront the troubled destiny of Germany, the deaths of his heroes, and, then, of course, his own mortality. The work assumes an autumnal majesty – Grass’ monument to the Grimm brothers reminds us that our true Fatherland is the language that we speak. For Grass, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm saved Germany by preserving its language. In the final chapters, we learn that work on the great dictionary progresses under the aegis of two professors, Frings in East Berlin and Neumann in Goettingen. Despite the Cold War, the dictionary is completed with cooperation between the two regimes. Ultimately, Grass implies that the reunification of Germany was possible because the Grimm brothers had built a bridge between otherwise hostile polities. Grass calls the dictionary a Staffettenlauf ("relay race") in which one generation passes the baton to the next. Although individual editors and philologists die, the language is immortal – it goes on forever.
Here is my translation of the last couple pages of the book:
(Grass begins with a reference to his 1995 novel, Ein Weites Feld, translated as a A Field too Far. This novel addresses Grass’ opposition to German reunification – the merging of East and West Germany is a kind of Anschluss, that is, a calamity resulting in a new wholly materialistic and soulless Deutschland ironically equated to Hitler’s seizure of Austria. Grass imagines himself walking in Tiergarten in Berlin:)
"After a long wandering stroll, I find myself at the New Lake and there rent a rowboot, just as I did when, at last, the Wall fell so that the hero of my novel, Fonty, always a refugee from his own times could take on board the delicately bitter Madeleine, his granddaughter recently arrived in Berlin from France, so as to engage her in a retrospective conversation about the dark days of the Huguenot persecution.
But, now, I hoped to sit with Jacob and Wilhelm in a row-boot so that we could peruse words from Abschiednehmen ("leave-taking") all the way to "Z" our goal ("Ziel") and, once again, celebrate the vowels and scorn the Derdiedas, satisfying ourselves with exclamations and interjections.
And already they are seated across from me, since I occupy the rower’s bench. In keeping with the late afternoon, the sun is low. Mild light flatters both of them. With frugal strokes, I search the middle of the lake, dragonflies dancing over its scarcely disturbed surface. The few boats on the lake keep their distance. Because silence invites speech, I commence upon a long discourse that, I fear, will not be free from pathos.
"It is complete," I cry and, then, improve my words: "It is done."
Then, I mention with approval the achievement finally done in the year 1960. "Even the officials in the DDR found words of praise for the work that ‘despite differences between our social organization could be accomplished in the interest of our nation’."
Here on the water, my voice carried. The brothers sat stiffly on the other bench in the rowboat, just as they must have posed for Ludwig Emil Grimm’s sketched portrait. The banks of the New Lake mirrored themselves in the water, bushy or wooded. Nothing, not even the young man repeatedly attempting a handstand in the meadow by the shore distracted their gaze away from me. Here and there, diverging currents tried to mislead me into other channels that in their course would flow to other histories. But I kept to my course, did not yield to temptation, and with parsimonious strokes of the oar, reached the center of the lake where I brought my discourse to a festive tone: "Rejoice with me! What a miracle! From A to Z, thirty-two volumes in its ultimate form – Grimm’s German dictionary."
They turned to the side, offering their profile.
I flattered them: "Now is the time. Don’t fail to erect a monument of carved stone. The Tiergarten lacks that tribute. Now, that the dictionary is complete!"
They didn’t even blink or whisper among themselves.
I repeated: "Completed! It is complete!"
"Nothing is complete," It was Jacob who spoke, without relinquishing his stiff pose.
"Nothing is complete." That had to be Wilhelm’s contribution.
Although both were right – because what in the world is ever fully finished? – but I responded: "Nonetheless, up to the very end, from work-stations in the East and West, and from all parts of the Fatherland, the common (or dare I say "unified") German was interrogated, word for word, as to its origins, each usage confirmed with profligate citations, their variants annotated, often too profusely, and an end discovered with Zypressenwald ("cypress forest") from which, according to a quote from Novalis, a Zypresszweig ("Cypress twig") could be taken.
"But there is no end," responded the two-voices in answer, a sound echoing from the lake’s bank: "No end."
And, now, I had to admit that in East Berlin and also in Goettingen plans were already underway to revise each of the volumes and issue new editions at ten-year intervals – they received this information, nodding simultaneously.
(In order to spare the brothers, I was silent about the fact that, in particular, A through F, their contributions, were urgent need of remodeling.)
Before they responded, and while I rotated the boat with two, three strokes of the oar so that the sun was to their back, I said: "In any case, a few minor improvements will be required."
And I mentioned tersely that in our era, as in their time when the dictionary was attacked by Daniel Sanders, another critic, Walter Boehlich, condemned the entire project of a comprehensive German lexicon – "But Hans Neuman, writing in Monat, answered him and took the sting out of Boehlich’s polemic..." – keeping mum about the fact that during my life, Grimm’s Dictionary had been digitalized and dumped into the Worldwide Web, so that anyone with an I-PAD or Mac notebook could...
But, instead of this, I spoke about linguists and their contradictory hypotheses, the newest research, the need to continuously question received wisdom, always, always.
And, as soon as I became silent – because by that time everything had been said – and had turned the boat around and rowed it toward the shore and the rental kiosk, I heard the brother’s voices in alternate song.
"No dam is adequate" Jacob said, quoting himself, "to restrain the languages."
Wilhelm agreed: "Words wander, acquire new meanings, dissolve into one another."
And the older Grimm brother said this about language: " It flows, it floods over its banks, particularly the German language."
Which of the two of them began to adduce usage examples for the key-word "Wahn" ("delusion"), many quotations progressing from waehnen ("to imagine") through luminous Wahnsinn ("madness"), ending with something from Wieland: ‘Wahnwitz ("craziness") is the point where the greatest spirits and the greatest fools sometimes intersect’?
But now they had shifted away from "W", venturing upon "Z" with a citation from Eichendorff:
"We’re impelled from the proudest objectives (Ziele) duly attained to seek out a new goal (Ziel) by a sense of new restlessness."
But what’s the meaning of the word "objective" or "goal" – that is, "Ziel"?
"In the beginning it was tilarids, the Gothic name of a spear, a lance-point that strives to reach its target (Ziel) – that’s the reason, we say something is "motivated" ("zielstrebig" – that is, striving for a target)."
"So til becomes Ziel."
"The spatial becomes temporal."
"Wilhelm Tell, as Schiller reminds us, ‘let fly a fleeting dart (Ziel)’."
"And for the word Schnaps I’ve heard common folk say ‘Zielwasser’."
"And our friend when we were young, Clemans von Brentano was one of those great spirits, ‘achieving a holy object (Ziel) by the right roll of the dice’..."
"And Gryphius well knew that ‘here we reach the limit and tombstone of all power, the objective (zielpunkt) of all striving’..."
"In the end, ‘pointless’ (ziellos)."
As I rowed up to the dock, nothing more to say, I found myself sitting alone in the boat, but in my ear the words of the Grimm brothers remained. Although my unremitting declaration of love required more than a hundred years, my hour oar-rental was only 12 minutes overdue, and the present now gripped me: it was time to pay my bill."
I entitled this essay "On Guenter Grass’ last book," but, of course, the tireless writer outsmarted me. In the end of August 2015, Grass’ longtime publisher, Steidl, issued posthumously a book called Vonne Endlichkait – that is, "On Mortality." Reverting to his east Prussian origins, Grass spells the German word "Endlichkeit" (as well as Von) in Caschubian dialect, the language of his grandmother, a great billowy skirted woman associated with the earth and the potatoes grown in the dark soil where plains of Poland meet the steppes of the Ukraine. Always tempted toward the polemical, the book contains a celebrated poem "What has to be said" that rendered Grass a persona non grata in Israel. Grass illustrated the book with beautiful and morbid pencil drawings. Apparently, it is a slender volume containing many pictures, short essays and stories, and verse. I will have to acquire this book.