P R A E S I D I U M
A Journal of Literate and Literary Analysis
4.4 (Fall 2004)
A quarterly publication of The Center for Literate Values
Board of Directors:
John R. Harris, Ph.D. (Executive Director)
Thomas F. Bertonneau, Ph.D. (Secretary)
Helen R. Andretta, Ph.D.; York College-CUNY
Ralph S. Carlson, Ph.D.; Azusa Pacific University
Kelly Ann Hampton
Michael H. Lythgoe, Lt. Col. USAF (Retd.)
The previous issue of Praesidium (Summer 2004) may be viewed by
© All contents of this journal (including poems, articles, fictional works, and short pieces by staff) are copyrighted by The Center for Literate Values of Tyler, Texas (2004), and may not be cited at length or reproduced without The Center's express permission.
Pensée de la Saison:
Das Recht muß nie der Politik, wohl aber die Politik jederzeit dem Recht angepaßt werden. "What is right must never be adapted to the political; on the contrary, the political must be adapted to what is right." ~ Immanuel Kant
This autumn’s strains have curtailed 4.4—but we trust that Praesidium remains an antidote to strain.
Can Glory Blaze from the Void? Thoughts on the Tenuous Connection between Painting and Literacy
John R. Harris
While it might be argued that oil painting and story-telling are sometimes antagonistic, both arts—and all the arts—are clearly under siege in a culture which hasn’t time to "waste" on thoughtful perception.
Putting a Period to the "Quote" Issue
We periodically pardon Praesidium’s placement of periods and other punctuation proximate to quotes.
Have Late Modern Values and Technology Made Great Art Impossible?
Fashion Art and the Moral Imagination
The historical conjunction of trend-based art with political mind-control is hardly a ringing endorsement of our own avant garde pretentious products.
"The Prize for the Race" (short story)
A black professor on a Southern black campus finds his energies constantly divided between fighting for high standards and brooding over chances withheld.
R. S. Carlson and Michael Lythgoe: Four Poems
These four brief poems move from Southeast Asia to the television studio to the canvases of expressionist painters.
Working, Walking, and Well-Being
John R. Harris
More neighborly neighborhoods where people could create and sell out of their own homes to people strolling in off the sidewalk would violate all kinds of local zoning codes... and they might also nourish a rebirth of taste for the arts.
Professor Chaves muses in verse over the graceful forms of women and children on canvas.
A Few Words from the Editor
When I read the following words in chapter 22 of Jules Romains’s Verdun a few days ago, I thought instantly of Praesidium and of the seemingly hopeless war which we who contribute to it are trying to wage:
Great words. Why do they leave me with a residue of misgiving as I recover them now? Perhaps because so many, especially in the contemporary academy, would hijack them to speak in defense of "progress", of the cultural meltdown which war in Iraq—they claim—is somehow interrupting or short-changing. If we weren’t wasting so much money in pursuit of child-killers all over the globe, we could devote our energies and resources more effectively to building the kind of campuses described in Tom Wolfe’s new novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons: refuges for the post-civilized who desire unlimited access to booze, drugs, hook-ups, and a self-contradictory PC/libertarian ideology bundling it all together. But that’s not the "culture" in defense of which Romains’s Jallez refuses to fight a fratricidal war. Jallez’s culture is the very one which today’s most strident anti-warriors have long since booted out of their classrooms.
Not that our effort against terrorism is, by default, advancing Western culture: it may do so—but the equation has a great many variables. Are we making the world free for conscientious self-expression and reflective, original analysis of life’s conditions—or for fast food, quick thrills, easy money, and a generally dumbed-down transit to a euthanized exit from four score meaningless years? The vulgarian ethos of the leftist campus, after all, merely complements (with shallow, sensual contrasts) the vulgarian ethos of the rightest marketplace. As we try to save school children from the slaughter of Beslan, we have yet to consider responsibly just what should go on in schools. The "No Child Left Behind" doctrine has us grinding out fledgling computer programmers, insurance agents, and sales reps without any recognition of the inexorable fact that people buy what they value, and value what taste (or lack thereof) has elevated in their lives. If we do not teach taste to some extent, then we shall end up with an economy which advances tastelessness. If we prepare students to create flashy websites and to balance ledgers without introducing them to the refined play of the human spirit in music, art, and letters, then we may expect a populace magnetized to sugar, porn, speed, and blood—to all the animal attractions. We have not yet demonstrated, as a culture, that we understand what "our way of life" is. Were we to answer the question by recurring to Western tradition, we would have plenty of ammunition to win angry young Muslim males away from bombs and rifles; but if the best we have to offer is a Big Mac and a Triple X website, then we shall not save our own males from choosing either fanaticism or nihilism.
I confess that I personally no longer have much confidence in the historical value of not drinking the victim’s blood. It isn’t something I choose to participate in; but my choice has far more to do with keeping a clear conscience than with declaring humanity’s destiny. Perhaps killing child-killers is the last noble gesture of which our decadent civilization is capable. Perhaps, having been saved, our precious children must look to the grace of God if they are to navigate between the shoals of sugar-coated consumerism and Shangri-La elitism—between the debauchery of summer vacation and the debauchery of freshman orientation.
But there is a kind of hope, after all, in just chipping away. I don’t like the image of refusing the spoonful of blood: I prefer that of striking a flake from the marble or of carrying a stone to the cairn. We who are involved as readers of and contributors to Praesidium must constantly remind ourselves that sincere intellectuals and devoted artists tend to get cut off from the mainstream. Hence we must constantly direct our cryptic gestures back to a crowd that seems to pass by unmoved. We have a moral obligation to do so—to declare, not destiny, but mankind’s present and eternal attraction to higher things, as well. Arrogance is as costly as despair for us, since we are the brethren of that puzzled crowd.
So I offer you one more issue of the journal. It’s shorter than I had wished: duties and indispositions have taken their toll among us this fall. Still, one can steer by a dim star as well as by a constellation, and these brief pages are not without sparkle. Read a story over the Christmas holidays, sketch a picture, or pick out a few tunes on the piano. Don’t simply refuse the inhuman draught offered by the naïve or the thoughtless: chip away at the marble.
Can Glory Blaze from the Void? Thoughts on the Tenuous Connection between Painting and Literacy
John R. Harris
Vocat lux ultima victos.
"A last blaze summons the vanquished."
Vergil, Aeneid 2.668
The incursion of last quarter’s Praesidium into musical territory was a great success, I think, if only because the discussion was actually sustained for most of the issue. I will not divulge any dark secret when I say that the current climate in academe does not favor the exploration of ties between the arts. Such an inquiry would smack of that loathsome contemporary bugbear, universalism. For if literary pleasure and musical pleasure have something significant in common, then it would seem that the human mind is deeply implicated in processing raw sense data into a more sophisticated state, so that even the reports of fully distinct senses end up leaving a similar fingerprint; and if this processing follows hard upon the reception of a raw datum (creating that instant-seeming sigh of aesthetic satisfaction), then the intellect’s intrusion must be so rapid and decisive that even the most thorough cultural conditioning (synonymous in academe with brainwashing) could scarcely anticipate it. We must be confronting something very like a bedrock level of constitutive, if not reflective, judgment in the human mind’s operations. And there’s the rub. Nothing is supposed to lie closer to the ground than cultural conditioning. The stratum beneath our common brainwashing (so goes the ivory-tower argument) is a near-chaos of "pure" animal drives and instincts. Might the tacit contradiction posed here be responsible for the literary professoriat’s general indifference to classical music? That is, besides dreading the elitist snobbery of appearing highbrow, might some of our professors also divine that pleasant resonance between music and literature raises a challenge to their simplistic explanations of human value?
I have pondered long and hard how the visual arts might be brought into this discussion. At least one strand already plucked for scrutiny runs all the way through music to visual creations. The literary academy, it seems to me, has the same curiously incurious attitude toward great painting as it displays toward great music. I’ve seen hundreds of literature professors’ offices in my time, and a few of their homes. The offices are decorated largely by the flotsam of pop culture: posters promoting movies and rock stars fill the rare spaces not consumed by book shelves and framed degrees. The homes are, if anything, yet more Spartan (or, I might also say, more Puritan). No landscapes or portraits, no reproductions of the masters, no amateur water colors… perhaps a few family photos. In this, of course, our typical professor is little different from our typical doctor or lawyer. Perhaps I am wrong to expect that things should be otherwise: perhaps there really is no painting/writing connection. Perhaps my mild shock that lifelong readers and writers do not place things of beauty on their walls indicts their oddity less than my own.
At any rate, academic indifference here seems less deliberate and inveterate. If literature professors openly disdain classical music, most of them simply don’t know anything about painting. In their defense, our educational system has never promoted visual art even to the paltry degree that it once favored music. High school students enjoy their time in band or choir. The occasion is gregarious, and successfully executing a piece inspires an irresistible exhilaration. Drawing, painting, and sculpting are, in contrast, deeply introverted activities, and they leave one exhausted even in triumph. The audience’s perception of the art work is also comparatively isolating rather than socializing. People will quietly knit their brows and purse their lips before a painting rather than collectively hold their breath during a crescendo and then burst into applause.1 They come away, not whistling Bolero’s theme, but feeling for their steps in the perplexing afterglow of Turner’s color orgies. Indeed, the essentially puzzling or indefinite nature of most great visual art is far more like poetry than are opera and symphony (though not more so, I think, than a classical piano étude). Time does not move to a metronome when you view a canvas or a colonnade. You can live with a painting for months and discover, all of a sudden, why it’s not quite right (as has happened to me several times with my own sophomoric efforts). I suppose musical composers might know similar blockages and liberations; but they, I suspect, know at once when something hasn’t worked and do not endure many weeks in the humiliating belief that it has. From a literary perspective, I can only relate the painter’s nagging uncertainty to the poet’s groping after just the right word.
The life of the painter, thanks to such groping, is so impervious to clock time that it can seem radically anti-social—and this, too, damages the cause of art among the general public. That is, the painter is not amenable to visiting Ms. James’s fifth grade with his tools and giving the class a whirlwind tour of his magical secrets (unless he is the late Bob Ross’s reincarnation). He can, on the contrary, be quite a bear. Those who have never painted cannot appreciate the truth behind such outlandish characters as Joyce Carol Oates’s Gully Jimpson. In my own puny endeavors, I have often noticed how irritating the clock can grow when one labors in the throes of inspiration—and even the sun. As the daylight vexatiously shifts, one discovers that a quadrant of the canvas quite satisfactorily covered a few hours ago looks flat and dull. Artificial lighting enhances nothing but problems: it throws everything into an improbable web of shadows—except for all those highlights which it suffuses in glare. Yet one works on after dark, concentrating on fine detail, every so often taking the canvas for a walk around the room to "average out" its appearance in various unfavorable streams of lamp light. One skips meals without noticing, misses sleep without noticing. Paint leeches into one’s clothes, one’s hair, one’s cup of tea. And at the end of it all, one collapses with the sickening suspicion that the canvas just may have looked better half a day earlier, about the time when one should have stopped for lunch.
The poet, in comparison, is perhaps more confidently progressive. He can preserve, after all, earlier morphoi of his goddess: he can always take a step back, or indeed retrace an entire meander. His attentions can be focused wholly on his poem’s future, on its further refinement. The painter is torn between contemplated improvements, possible compromises of an already-good-thing, and the transcendent misgiving that his vision may truly not be possible in any medium as it appears in his mind. For all their lupine bohemianism—their rudeness, their drunkenness, their mistresses, their unpaid rent—artists are, in the long run, whenever they acquire a public persona, rather more conservative than that prim tribe of dandies, the poets. Delacroix had a far less charitable view of human nature than Hugo, Turner could only gesture clumsily at Ruskin’s idealism, and even Millet was more a votary of the bucolic picturesque than an extension in oils of Maxim Gorky. Matisse, Picasso, and many of their generation were persecuted by fascism as decadents (though their rejected canvases were often squirreled away in some collector’s vault, "just in case"): one can hardly attribute their response to pure ideological fervor. Only as the visual art of our day has grown indigestibly politicized have its creators spoken and behaved liked card-carrying ideologues; and this "art", I hasten to observe, is of the sort that could not conceivably be compromised by any misuse or defacement, since chaos is its guide.
Of course, this relative lukewarmth of the great painters to slash-and-torch revolution may also explain why the literary elite is not more aware of them (or is aware, I should say, that no awareness is requisite). We may savor in this littérateur’s disdain the delicious irony—one of its umpteen academic varieties—of genuine class snobbery. For painters, besides being haunted by what carelessness may ruin and what the greatest genius may never reach, are also traditionally rendered somewhat plodding by their lack of liberal education: compared to the poets, they are a thoroughly blue-collar lot. From the Middle Ages to the dawn of the twentieth century, painters and sculptors were often children of the petit bourgeoisie, and even the proletariat. Legend held that Giotto was recruited from his goat-herding duties by the painter Cimabue. Holbein’s grandfather was a successful tanner. Leonardo enjoyed more educational advantages than most who pursued an artistic calling; yet his well-heeled father had adopted him after committing certain indiscretions with a peasant girl, and the boy’s social horizons would have allowed him to entertain more worldly aspirations but for these dubious origins. Titian was knighted—but only after his work had enchanted several noble patrons. (Renaissance Italy, let us note, was extraordinarily appreciative of fine art.) Goya was the son of a destitute peasant, Gainsborough of a poor rustic clothier, Turner of a barber, van Gogh of a country parson. Theirs was not the class of person who attended Eton or Harrow or the Sorbonne. Seldom were young artists packed off to conservatories or to quasi-monastic places of tutelage, as musicians frequently were. Instead, they were apprenticed to masters much as any other artisan or skilled laborer—the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker. Their preparation did not include reading the Greek and Latin classics, practicing rhetoric, composing sonnets, and learning the manners expected in heads of state.2
To be sure, painters were not uniformly boorish. Some appear to have acquired an estimable literary education more or less on their own. In settings like Renaissance Italy, this was perhaps made easier because a considerable degree of ecclesiastical fosterage was indeed present; and the Church, of course (by which most of the greatest art was commissioned), was the pipeline of Latin learning and the classical tradition. Rembrandt and Vermeer were also entirely presentable citizen-neighbors, their intellectual curiosity surely whetted and somewhat satisfied by the steady stream of foreign travelers who poured into an urbane Holland at the time. Delacroix was, according to Baudelaire, a dandy (a word I have already used of poets—but the poet intends it as a compliment).3 He enjoyed the unique, if unenviable, position of being the natural son of Tallyrand and of having been born among lavish wealth which was all gone when he came of age.
Nevertheless, there was no systematic infusion of the Western literary heritage into the lives of these men, if we take them as a group. Their performance was never part of a live liturgy, as was the musician’s, and they were not absolutely required to have the Latin competence and biblical erudition of the choirmaster or the organist. Their art seems to have ridden the same cultural wave as brought literate creativity to its crest in the nineteenth century, yet intense reading and writing clearly had no direct causative influence on their prolific activity (unless one considers Giotto and Goya to be second-raters). Such a relationship might far more readily be argued between literacy and music, even in the Protestant world of the Enlightenment—perhaps especially there. Protestantism of Reformation-vintage was far more suspicious of painting (as Islam has always been) than of music, and did not deign to encourage painting in its approved pedagogy. Playing a clavichord or a cello, in contrast, was eminently civilized. It allowed young women, in particular, to display their taste and talent in a wholesome manner before a public of chosen guests. Such study was deemed at least as important as learning to write an elegant hand.
Exactly what, then is, the literary/artistic connection, other than a certain whimsical resemblance between the poet’s abstraction and the painter’s absorption? I hope I may be pardoned a return to aesthetics, wherein I sought an objective orientation in my previous essay on music. Throughout my adult life, I have always found entirely plausible the proposition that literature and music and painting, sculpture, and architecture all achieve a sense of beauty by appealing to the same essential human faculties. Their appeal, I believe, is a playful one in that it enhances the opportunities for our judgment to "exercise" itself within a given perception. Our quantitative reason is stimulated by the greater prominence of pattern—form, rhythm, crescendo, purpose, etc.—built into the art object; and, in what may seem paradoxical at first (but the opposition here is merely superficial), our qualitative reason is likewise stimulated by the object’s enticing nuance—its shading, its tone, its mood, its timbre. I dedicated my doctoral dissertation to these ideas, which I cast in a neo-Kantian terminology so as to seek lucidity and avoid mysticism… and I thereupon watched my dissertation committee rubber-stamp the project with utter indifference. Even when I succeeded in publishing the overhauled thesis as a small book, it elicited no interest beyond one enthusiastic reviewer in San Francisco—who was not, of course, an academic.4 I had not simply trespassed into that forbidden realm of the universal whose dangers I recited in beginning the present essay: I had encamped bag and baggage smack in the middle of the universalist’s gleaming but deserted stoa. On my side was mere lucidity. The career-making politics of chasing after arcane trends with impenetrable jargon were fully against me. No wonder the dominant response which I drew from the ivory tower was not the rancor one would expect of "honest" doctrinaire opposition, but (as I have said) indifference. My ideas didn’t call for a rebuttal because they were too far off the "scholarly review" circuit for the most spirited rebuttal to be publishable. When every artisan in the city is being paid by a foolish king to make shoes, don’t argue for more hats: argue for a new kind of shoe.
In Praesidium, however, we "spoiled scholars" (if I may borrow the Irish phrase, "spoiled priest") are free to argue purely from lucidity. So I shall start from the obvious—and then, perhaps, surprise my readers. A painting must have form, in my view. I am altogether out of sympathy with visual art lacking entirely in formal composition. As I wrote of music, any genre which stirs to activity a bare minimum of judgments in the human intelligence must be considered debased art. A musical performance with unvarying volume and the least possible variation of a bland theme—a Heavy Metal number, say, whose only claim to success is an ear-splitting cacophony and a litany of obscene lyrics—is utter rubbish. So for the "art" of paint-splatter and dart-throw; though, indeed, I must add that natural chaos often conceals complex rhythms.5 The patterns left by raindrops in fine sand can be entrancing. When the human mind seeks to replicate chaos by tying a paintbrush to the proverbial turtle’s tail, the results may be less prepossessing… but at least nature, through the turtle, has a certain amount of sense.
The kind of art I fully reject is the gimmick: the canvas painted all in one color, the big green square, the portrait of a stop sign or a Coke bottle—and, for the most part, Cubism. I have heard and read enough accounts of Picasso’s objectives that I believe I "get it". I just don’t like it. I don’t like the parody of form through overstating constitutive formal elements any more than I like the absence of form in the blank canvas.6 I understand that others may "like" the intellectual commentary which abstract art implies about the artist and his material or the artist and the creative struggle. If I keep asserting my own "I like", it is because my response is an immediate one—an aesthetic one—which the avant garde has already refused to allow before the first tube is squeezed out on the palette. My "like" is pure liking. For that matter, what intellectual substance is there to observing that creation is hard, or to whistle-blowing that artistic tradition is really a confidence racket? At best, we have in cubism and its successors a lot of sharp-witted (if you wish) awakening to the foibles of the senses, but not a single beautiful object.
As I have said before in these pages when writing of literature and ethics, too much form is equivalent to no form at all: exaggerated formality is self-defeating.7 Surely this is nowhere more true than in art. I believe that the painting must posit recognizable forms in some coherent relationship precisely so that the perceiver’s eye may proceed to unravel them or to extend them into limbo. The snowy peak or the dense thicket in a Caspar David Friedrich landscape is so evocative because of the mists and chasms and shadows which haunt its edges. We are deceived into thinking that we behold form: more properly, we behold (in a mirror of the soul which no other art so cleanly polishes) our imagination’s assembly of form from obscurity, and its fascination with obscurity as a nursery for new form. The interplay of the defining judgment with the qualifying judgment is magically intricate: to distinguish one moment from the other would truly be to tear the wings off the butterfly. The moments involved in absorbing a great canvas cannot be counted for the very reason that they work toward no formal conclusion (as would a story or a symphony). The hypnotism of contemplating an artistic masterpiece sets a perfect poise between the world of solid substance and the world of lurking possibility.8
Hence the painter’s craft (I shall not venture into the architect’s, for all my temerity) begins in mastering form because it ends in the dissolution of form. I have discovered this the hard way over the years: i.e., by grinding out a lot of bad art myself. Like any autodidact, I came to painting by way of sketching. The sketch is not incapable of an alluring vagueness, but it has far fewer means of beckoning into the mist. Specifically, it lacks color, texture, and stroke. Its lines either exist, or they do not (as one realizes, often irately, in attempting to copy an ink sketch electronically). When I made the transition from paper to canvas, I naturally began every oil by sketching in the major formal elements with pencil. I continued as any kid would do in a paint-by-number exercise: I slapped down colors to correspond with my penciled boundaries, being very careful to preserve the borders between different shades. In fact, I must have sacrificed a good many hours on fine brushwork before I figured out that my efforts were not creating a pleasant effect. The forms were too clear. A child’s drawing in crayon could not have elicited less response from the perceiving eye. To be sure, some contours had to be just so—just this long curved in just such an arc. The way to achieve them, however, was decidedly not to work away at them as a sculptor might chip away at a brow or nose: it was to apply boldly a flick of color. The least leveling or redirecting of any bright little ridge would often utterly destroy my design rather than fulfill it. I also realized that this perfect fleck or dash (and how many such strokes had to be redone because my hand fearfully held back!) should almost never approximate the size of what it sought to intimate. The bright half-moon indicating a nostril must merely bend around the nostril’s highest ridge, and the dramatic slash of pure white indicating a distant peak’s snowy crest must follow my knife’s edge into the clouds—where it would fade into the canvas’s weave—rather than demarcating every centimeter of frost-affected real estate.
Even sections whose form required little molding could be "over-determined" by my dilettante simplicity. The cheek in a portrait’s study, for instance: the ingénu might believe, as I originally did, that you merely mix together something like flesh tone on your trusty palette (or perhaps open a tube labeled "flesh") and slap monochrome color on merrily until you reach the form’s boundary—an eyelash or a jaw-line. Such a section is indeed almost entirely color within form. Because of the specific form wherein the color lies, however, the perceiver expects to see delicate gradations of color. He may not know that he expects as much, but he certainly knows that something is wrong when he sees no shading. A cheek is distinctly more exposed to the light in some places than in others (especially a beautiful cheek). The painter is thus required, at the very least, to be working white into his concocted flesh tone up here and gray down there. I always do such blending now on the actual canvas, where I can see shades altering with every stroke and can even, if I wish, leave a "happy blemish". For the blemish, too, is desirable—and not, I think, because no human being has perfect complexion. I have sometimes (when I felt particularly daring) gone so far as to introduce a fleck of color which had no literal business being on a cheek: a bright yellow, maybe, or an orange. This is a trick often employed by Impressionist painters. Why? Because the perceiver’s eye will do the blending, and do it better! A viewer who stands at the distance necessary to perceive the form fully yet in detail (another contribution of form: it shows us where to stand) will not notice a minute point of "misplaced" color. He will notice (or not notice—notice as a mere whisper) a "hot point" which seems to make the surrounding color—quite inexplicably—come to life. Thanks to a recognizable form, he can enter into a purposeful interpretation of varying colors. The formal boundaries create a game of the qualifying judgment.
And this, I repeat (more comprehensibly now, I hope), is the highest function of painting: to elicit a qualitative play. Music might be said to offer us formality without clear and distinct form. We play its game by pursuing well-ordered sounds with imaginatively volunteered images. In this regard, painting is music’s opposite. Of clear, identifiable images, we are given an abundance—but within and between those images, we are released to explore indefinite possibilities. The age-old insistence that visual art must mimic reality (and the ancients had their portrait-painters, too9) is thus misleading. The painting must confront us with recognizable forms in order to set our imagination measuring the qualitative range of experience within familiar objects. Observers talk about a portrait springing to life because, unwittingly, their minds have been enlisted in modulating the flow of light and shadow around the face. Painters are more likely to talk about a higher reality or a greater vibrancy which lies latent in quotidian objects, because they are more aware of what visual detonations they must prime in order to stir the perceiver’s mind.
Sometimes, indeed, the painter’s genius outdistances the public’s taste. A van Gogh or a Matisse requires such an effort of synthesis from the perceiver that "lazier" viewers cannot quite make the transit from intensity to palpable shape. (Some of the problem, it must be said, rests in the inadequacy of reproductions: an automatic copier never fully matches the original’s colors, nor can paper replicate the texture of paint smoothed wet-ice fine—as for a cheek—or caked on dried-mud rough—as for a row of frothing waves.)10 One must almost enter into a state of intoxication to appreciate the great colorists. The moment of perception when reds and greens dominate before resolving themselves into familiar forms is that of first awakening, or perhaps of emerging from chaos’s vortex. We might as easily be looking at one of Vermeer’s parlors as at one of Gauguin’s exotic islands: the red could be a cushion as well as a fruit or a rare bird. In that moment, before we are quite sure, the parlor is an island paradise, and the island is a bowl of fruit back home. Call this a higher or deeper reality, if you will: i.e., that the exotic and the homespun suffuse every corner of the earth, and that only sober classification exiles one from the other. I myself think such an insight well deserving of a certain mystical prestige.11
If I might beg a brief digression… I believe this primarily qualitative operation of the perceiver’s mind in enjoying a painting also explains the well-known artistic prohibition against locating the most important object square in the canvas’s center. The defining judgment automatically wants to center the primary form or forms (which is why novice painters must be warned against doing so). A tug-of-war arises, therefore, between the defining judgment’s fixation with the primary form and its respectful awareness of the canvas’s geometric focal point—which the primary form does not quite occupy. The tension is fertile. The eye is forced to acknowledge surrounding objects and background as it unconsciously struggles to "relocate" the primary object, and the delightful comparison/contrast of shades, colors, vectors, and textures begins. If the primary form—the face of a portrait, most obviously—is planted in the exact center, on the other hand, the eye has no formal encouragement to wander. The background may be ever so intriguing, yet the painting’s lay-out has banished it to a position of irremediable uninterest as surely as the tide distances two drifting vessels from each other.
Having now accomplished a very cursory and tentative review of painting from my neo-Kantian perspective, what bridge may I build back to literature? I find that the task has scarcely been elucidated for me. I retain a firm belief that an already literate person may refine his or her sensitivity to qualitative difference by studying art, and specifically painting. A poet would perhaps learn better, not just how to look at clouds, but how to veil all of his descriptions in a stimulating haze of soft edges. At the same time, I cannot adduce examples of such a symbiosis occurring.12 The Duque de Rivas (Ángel de Saavedra) was an accomplished painter, and yet the ambitious quasi-historical vignettes of Romances Históricos seem to me sadly short of poetic triumph. Worse still, I find that they grow heaviest precisely where a painter’s eye for detail has lured Saavedra into paralyzing his narrative’s action with colorful stage props or lavish finery, as in what follows.
What, I ask, is the purpose of pondering the proper name for the receptacle—"un zarrón, saco, o mochila"—which the young Christopher Columbus carries under his arm? The poet cannot plead that distance throws such detail into obscurity, for he has posed himself close enough to notice the threadbare quality of the garments. Surely the sole reason for this copious overflow of sincere prolixity is to linger over the object as the painter’s smoothing brush would do. And what does it mean to have finished the last step of a journey ("en aquel punto acababa / de llegar allí")? The fatuous phrase ushers Columbus neither into a waiting armchair nor across a familiar threshold. It does nothing more than freeze him for the portrait-painter—who will entitle the canvas, no doubt, "Traveler After a Long Journey."
That most disciplined stylist of Spanish letters, Antonio Azorín, once observed, "The Duke of Rivas is an artist who sees his work in a single plane, in a manner devoid of evolution or dynamism if not entirely static. All his [literary] works are visions of a single moment, or rather of a series of independent moments."14 The editor who reproduces this remark disagrees with it, but I find it all too apt.15 Like the sumptuous furniture in their palaces, Rivas’s characters are forever standing petrified in grand (or grandiose) rigidity. Could this—rueful thought!—be the influence of painting? In other words, is painting inimical to the dynamic flow of narrative events? I realize that I am now denigrating Rivas, not strictly in his poetic abilities (his metaphors, his versification, etc.—though the choice of a popular genre to display these is dubious enough), but in his skill as a raconteur. Might his painter’s infatuation with bright, exotic forms not have detracted from his competence in stringing events together? Could it be that all poetry except the most lyrical sort is in fact somewhat impeded by close attention to detail? After all, the painter’s brush can so color and nuance these details as to make them keys which unlock a world of possibility beyond them… but the poet is limited to words, and (if I may paraphrase Callimachus) a great many words make for a great ordeal.
My rueful assertion that a literary training may somewhat detract from an appreciation of painting by forcing images into narratives was confirmed when I consulted Schiller’s Über das Pathetische (1793) on the advice of a friend. I had read the work much earlier, and I renewed my acquaintance with it in eager expectation of finding profound insight. Schiller reprises and extends the Kantian sublime by stressing the struggle between the individual will and physical events of intimidating power. His analysis of Laocoon’s futile but heroic contest with the serpent in Aeneid 2, for instance, persuades us that the father’s will to save his sons blinds him to the endeavor’s physical impossibility, and thereby creates a truly noble literary moment. As a key to understanding visual art, however (and Schiller quotes lengthily Lessing’s meticulous scrutiny of the ancient Roman sculpture in the Vatican Museum which commemorates Vergil’s scene), this technique risks being as digressive as Saavedra’s. Much as he stresses the art work’s primacy, Schiller invites us away from the immediate object and into a contemplation of literary narrative. Where no such narrative exists, he invites us to imagine one. The effect of a face portrayed in oils, according to him, is to draw from us a quasi-moral judgment about the subject’s character: "We label a facial structure common when it does not reveal human intelligence through anything in particular; we label it expressive when the spirit influences the features, and noble when a refined spirit shapes these features."16 In other words, the portrait is already a program intimating how its subject will act in any given set of circumstances—and in enjoying that portrait, we implicitly project it into our preferred set of circumstances.
I confess that I find all this a bit too distant from the canvas. The va-et-vient which stirs ceaselessly from represented form to suggested context could, without doubt, take a moral turn: it almost certainly will, for any interesting face implies an action, and every action implies a moral choice. Faces, that is, exude drama in their arrested animation or their rigid inflexibility: a furrowed brow, a set jaw, an opened mouth, wayward locks of hair, etc. Yet the drama, I would argue, always circles back to its point of origin. The portrait is not somehow adequately assessed once its features have been classed as stalwart or lascivious or long-suffering. The drama is always upstaged, one might say, by that eternal instant of indeterminacy which it has sparked. The figures on Keats’s urn are not so much always chasing and always fleeing as they are always enigmatically fulfilled without having either captured or escaped—a view which Keats seems to endorse, by the way. Vermeer’s girl in a scarf (who has inspired a very recent best-selling narrative, though little to my taste) is not so much surprised in an unguarded moment or lured naively to a familiar voice’s call as she is fixed forever in a kind of naiveté which melts away all stiff poses. Her virtue—if it be such in someone’s narrative—is not that she has heeded the call: it is that her face does not compose itself before heeding. This is a minutely intimate quality, the very soul of the girl, and it may indeed be no virtue at all. It precedes virtue, as temperament precedes character. Vermeer allows light to roll across the maiden’s parted lips, which as yet describe neither gasp nor smile, and then to settle uniformly along her far cheek, as if the two features had no material connection but were, perhaps, a speechless angel’s mouth eclipsing a full moon. Such absence of self-awareness can be perfect innocence—but it can also be gullibility awaiting seduction. The paints do not prescribe a story. They model and incarnate, rather, the mystery of a face friendly to light, of a temperament faithful to sense impressions. We all know what a dubious blessing such a heart as that may be!
Any poignantly painted face lends itself to a million and one poetic fables or moralistic anecdotes; but it precedes them all, and poets and moralists are wrong to claim its evocative power for their realm. The resolute jaw line suits the brave captain—but also the beleaguered lunatic. The lowered eyes draped by round, pallid lids befit the modest virgin or chaste matron—but also the scheming coquette. These are genuine mysteries of the human soul, of the sort which novelists may strive unsuccessfully for decades to unlock. Canvas and oil are not more astute than Tolstoy: they are, precisely, more obtuse. The mystery lives in them, because it readily eases itself behind curtains of vague light and of gestures never completed. It turns painting into a representation of that vital element which the story-teller must always seek vainly in his pages.
Some may object that the kind of style I have just vilified—a moralistic style, top-heavy with bold-faced cues of intent—is characteristic of nineteenth-century narrative, and that Saavedra just happens to have dabbled in painting, as well. The protest would be just. Balzac and Dickens never imagined a room without bringing its settees and mantelpieces into focus; and whatever their authorial eye managed to focus on became fair game for their pen. To be sure, a settee’s style and state of wear and tear can divulge something of the proprietor’s tastes, habits, and finances. Where one settee would have sufficed to make the point, however, the florid style of "romantic realism" (for it has tendencies of both, this style, and belongs to the historical seam) gives us an inventory of furniture and dry-walling. The author of this period whose work strikes me as least inclined to such verbosity and most "painterly" is none other than Edgar Allan Poe—who not only did no painting, as far as I know, but inhabited a part of the world far away from any fine museums or collections. (The concept of the museum indeed lay a few decades down the road, in Victorianism’s rise of the middle class.) Poe does not smother his readers with detail.17 What forms he chooses to bring forward from the surrounding chiaroscuro are often highlighted, for good measure, in a fashion so colorful as to border on the lurid. Washington Irving, and Hawthorne at his best, also partake of this style, in my opinion. There is in such description a minimalist selection of detail which dwells paradoxically with a colorist, almost surrealist love of embellishment. I can think of few other respects in which the New World’s literature so trumped the Old World’s.
And here, once again, the question is begged: for one asset which the Old World certainly possessed in abundance when compared to the New was fine painting. There was more such painting at this historical juncture than ever before, and perhaps more than there would ever be again. David and Corot and Delacroix, Leighton and Constable and Turner, Goya and Friedrich and El Greco… writers like Balzac and Dickens and Manzoni were surrounded by burgeoning artistic productivity in every genre, even if they themselves never picked up a brush. Were they "infected" by the proximity? Did landscape-painting and portraiture inspire in them an artist’s attention to detail without infusing in them a true artist’s respect for the play of shadow between forms? Would they have been better off in the Alleghenies, privy to real thickets and real mountain ridges at their doorstep?
Consider the matter from another perspective. Contemporary cinema is more savvy in the manipulation of visual images than any postmodern tormentor of canvases. Here, perhaps, is our contemporary world’s highest claim to visual artistry: in the state-of-the-art. When I was writing about music and literature (Praesidium 4.3), I noted similarly that the healthy survival of a certain classical strain in many scores composed for the screen is reason for optimism as we watch our culture’s tastes enter full decline elsewhere. May the same be said of the cinema’s stunning special effects and visual representation? Or dismiss the special effects, and simply ponder the contemporary cinematographer’s genius for coloring and framing. The industry has made vast strides since the days when a director, harried by an impossible schedule and a shoestring budget, ordered the lone camera to roll atop its tripod and waved actors on and off the set.
Yet our movies, as narratives, range from the childishly amusing to the tiresomely predictable to the insipid ad nauseam. The old films, for all their technical crudity, offered complex characters and credible dialogue. It would almost seem, then, that narrative finesse is inversely proportional to visual artistry. Is this disturbing correlation mere illusion—or, if real, is it mere accident?
Personally, I believe the connection here to be both genuine and, in some meaningful way, causal. I believe that our filmmakers have increasingly regarded dialogue (with its vital clues about motivation) as a frill to be added in afterthought around their parade of beautiful faces, apocalyptic explosions, converging planets, and salivating tyrannosaurs. To some extent, the eye disengages the ear. (The phenomenon is well known: when two young people are smitten with each other, they seldom remember conversational details—and a witness to a shocking catastrophe is unlikely to recall what words he or she screamed out at the time.) The image now leads the script about by the nose in Hollywood. This is surely one of the reasons why scripts are so miserably clichéed: colorful, full-bodied figures deploy their signature moves in gorgeous settings, and the words which eventually trail from their mouths have all the profundity of a balloon in a comic strip. I also believe that script-writing would be stale and trite, in any case, given the current state of literacy: our short stories and novels are usually ground out nowadays with the same kind of hip-shot babble, both in and out of quote. Yet it is entirely possible that such writing by cue and token itself results largely from two generations of rearing by that universal nanny, the television.
All the same, I cannot further conclude from film culture that visual art actually dulls our literary taste and aptitude. The reason I resist so grim a conclusion is because I find the evidence tainted. Photographed images, after all, are not paint on canvas. Especially today, they are too meticulously accurate, too vividly colored. They do not partially emerge from shadow or mist to begin half a gesture: they burst floridly upon us like fireworks and dance through their entire routine. They are over-determined (if I may return to a word of my own coinage). They impose their forms upon us insistently and irresistibly, so that all we can do is rear back in search of a space for our beleaguered nose. Even if there might occasionally be something unfinished about an actor’s face or a building’s façade—the heavy shadow of a hat or the thin veil of a rain shower—today’s editing-room techniques do not allow us sufficient time to be invited into the no-man’s-land for exploration. Our vision is forced to hop about from object to object in frenetic impatience, while the sound track does everything aurally possible to dissuade any inclination to intense study. If the script belongs in the balloons of a comic strip, the characters themselves—splendid, refulgent, energetic to the bursting point—belong in a cartoon. The Roger Rabbits and Scooby-Doos who pose beside them ever more frequently are, after all, right at home. The miracle is not that cutting-edge technology should have been able to super-impose a penned caricature upon a "live" scene: the miracle is that it should have taken us this long to recognize how sympathetically the latest techniques of visual representation veer back toward the two-dimensional, reducing human actors, for all their lingering air of kinship with us viewers, to glittering icons.
Who will honestly maintain that the recent color re-makes of black-and-white film classics possess the same evocative quality as their predecessors? Cape Fear in its second incarnation was tasteless hyperbole, overplayed in every direction—dialogue, editing, composition—to the point of grotesquerie. The chilling original was immensely superior. Indeed, whenever contemporary films try to recreate the gray-flannel fifties, or to better them through "updating" the drama, they succeed only in producing something like a video game: flashy, raucous, and in the perpetual motion of frenzy. They are the artistic opus of the Attention Deficit Disorder generation. It is impossible, perhaps, to compare color with black-and-white on merely one level, since intrusive over-editing plays so prominent a role in impeding the viewer’s study; but I cannot rid myself of the inkling that color itself must bear much of the blame. The dreary urban shadows of Odd Man Out are unequaled by any production of our time. The film noir mysticism of Cat People would simply be incaptable in color. When Michael Rennie’s Stoical extra-terrestrial peers down upon Patricia Neal in a stalled elevator, The Day the Earth Stood Still evoked a higher-than-human intelligence in ways that outlandish state-of-the-art make-up and computer enhancement have never approximated. A documentary which aired lately on PBS sang the praises persistently of Chinatown. The color composition was awarded special laurels by all commentators—for the life of me, I know not why. While whiteness may signify withering heat in black –and-white, it signifies purity—and even festivity—when surrounded with color: the tone to choose would have been yellow. The reds should have turned more orange, the browns more gray. No woman in bright red lipstick can ever look one-tenth as sultry as a black-and-white Gene Tierney in Laura. Chinatown’s excessively broad-brimmed fedoras and excessively wide lapels (even for the time: a little rumpling would have helped) only solidified the impression already transmitted with a heavy hand by the coloring—the impression of kids dressing as adults, of an empire’s aristocrats dressing as pastoral figures: of unwitting parody, of comical exaggeration. Of the icon (as we all call it now in unnoticed irony) on our computer screen.
I purchased for a friend’s birthday a while back the off-print of a black-and-white photo showing baseball slugger Ted Williams in full stride. The original shot must have been taken half a century ago. One can stand spellbound before such images, just as before a painting. The soft edges, the minutely subtle gradations of gray and silver, the shady definition at crucial points… if this is not the stuff that ghosts are made of, it is surely the technique of making ghosts. The qualitative judgement is incalculably more active in playing among the dusky waves and snowy beaches of such visions than in the typical color photograph. A great painting uses colors to enhance the qualitative experience—but electronic means of coloring almost always vitiate it. Perhaps always. I do not wish to rule against the genius of directors like David Lean, Werner Herzog, and Sergio Leone. Yet the tendency of all electronic technology, let us admit, is toward greater definition. The cinematic genius of the future must be precisely he or she who resists this tendency with conscious, tireless obstinacy. Films have grown far too "cool", in Marshal McLuhan’s terms. Their images are so assertively defined that the perceiver’s mind is by no means invited to assist in their formation—is, if anything, turned away. An imagination which thus "cools" like a motor in neutral gear is not a very happy prospect to exponents of literate culture. Literacy, of course, requires an intense heat of activity: the reader’s mind is offered only descriptions, and is forced to generate its own picture. What scant works in print are widely read nowadays, however, tend to describe only those icons which the movies churn out for mass consumption. Neither reading nor viewing remains a very warm activity in our culture, and the temperature drops infinitesimally every day.18
Notice, at least, that the culprit here is not visual art—and certainly not painting. It is "high definition" electronic technology. As for Saavedra, Balzac, and that "romantic realist" love of counting the number of buttons on a gilet or the number of nails in an ivy-laced gate, we may surely attribute it as readily to the ever more domesticated, sedentary, bourgeois thrust of narrative as to the influence of painting (which was itself, of course, responding to the same pressures and inducements). Drama in the mid-nineteenth century, after a brief romantic resurgence of the heroic, was in headlong pursuit of the ordinary. Bourgeois tedium was perhaps Ibsen’s favorite theme.
Yet having exonerated my beloved canvases of complicity in our decline, I cannot hold out much hope to others who love them that visual art is not lumbering down the same slope as literate creation. The movies may at last revive taste in music: stranger things have happened, and the aural equivalent of strep throat cannot very well accompany the sinking Titanic, even in our present twilight of degeneracy. If musical taste revives, then perhaps literary taste follow suit—and then, finally, perhaps artistic taste will do the same. No other progression of rebirth, however, makes much sense to me. I myself discovered painting because the literary life had already inured me to hours of silent sequestration. I rather doubt that today’s talented youth would be able to withstand the sheer intensity of the experience, its demands upon one’s concentration. That the great painters of yesteryear were seldom literati is irrelevant. The clientele which made their existence possible—wealthy bourgeois bankers in quest of a portrait, otiose aristocrats with a thoroughbred to commemorate or a mantelpiece to adorn, priests with a church wall to be frescoed—has gone state-of-the-art. Our budding Raphael now learns the intricacies of PhotoShop.
It would be poetic justice if literacy could replenish the ranks of painters. From what little I know of art history in the early twentieth century, I gather that Cubists and Conists and various other abstractionists—Picasso, Duchamps, Mondrian—took their cue from literary movements. What Ferdinand de Saussure said (or was thought to have said) about verbal signifiers could be applied uncritically to the visual realm. Even the Kantian distinction of the aesthetic object as a purposive construct without a purpose was seized upon as an unqualified endorsement of l’art pour l’art. Precisely because painters do not parse the written word very finely, this group seemed to talk itself out of creating beauty rather easily for the dubious pleasure of shocking the respectable citizen. Guillaume Apollinaire cheered on among his many paint-stained admirers the same chaos as he unleashed into poetry. André Breton’s fatuous Surrealist mill made grist of the painters’ bohemian community—more so, perhaps, than it ever did of Breton’s fellow writers. As I have often said, literacy was deeply implicated in its own demise.19 He who is excessively adroit with words, it seems, will eventually talk himself into suicide.
And here I return to where I began: the similarity of art and music. The two have this in common, also—and it apparently distances them somewhat from literature. One may say of a piece of music or a painting, "Non te amo. I’m sorry, I just don’t like it. I know all the bright people like it. I know that I herein confess to not being bright. But more than anything, I know that I cannot stomach this." A visceral reaction tends to hold us to a kind of honesty in music and art which we willingly disavow in literature. Ph.D.s have built entire careers on extolling the virtues of texts which they secretly detest, and social parvenus have libraries full of authors whom they actually read (to what extent and depth, who knows?) without the least real pleasure, sympathy, or recognition. Now, not every art collector or symphony-booster is a connoisseur, to be sure; but I suspect that the false among these latter at least know themselves to be poseurs. There has to be an unobserved moment when they linger before a certain canvas or over a certain CD and murmur, "I really like that one." The literary poseur, on the other hand, seeks respite from the tomes of indigestible parlor-play he so often pretends to masticate by reading, in his "spare time", absolutely nothing at all.
Maybe, then, a new generation of painters will spring up sua sponte. They may not be very good painters; they may just be people like me, people who love painting. (What else is an amateur?) For the great disadvantage of painting in this age of the quick fix and the mass-endorsed icon—its radical isolation from the world’s bustle and chatter—is also its great asset. Anyone can grab a canvas, some tubes of paint, and the key to an empty room. Anyone can start painting at any time. One can achieve far less satisfaction picking out notes on a guitar or a penny-whistle, and such novice efforts are often painful to endure. Literate creation requires even more of an apprenticeship to yield results of a tolerable nature. But painting… if you do no more than squeeze several tubes onto a palette, one or two of the colors is sure to please you. If you do no more than try to represent a cloudbank or a mountain range with those colors, some stroke or blend of colliding colors—some accidental effect of untutored "clumsiness", perhaps—is sure to catch your eye.
Painting, it seems to me, is the most obvious, most accessible retreat from a highly efficient, murderously over-determined world. And though there may, after all, be no benign concatenation of cultural revivals (e.g., from musical to literary to artistic) which can credibly transport us back to a love of painting, the mere loathing of our shallow, up-front, drive-thru environment may achieve the same effect far better. Painters may start popping up all over the place in silent, introverted rebellion as an alternative to going numb or insane.
1 Nevertheless, legend has it that Delacroix once executed a painting within two hours at a soirée given by Alexandre Duman père, and that his triumphant labors wrung a spontaneous burst of applause from the gathering.
2 A colleague specializing in art history has recommended to me Bruce Cole, The Renaissance Artist at Work (New York: Harper and Row, 1983) for a detailed view of this milieu, and I willingly pass along the recommendation.
3 Cf. p. 756 of Charles Baudelaire, "L’Oeuvre et la vie de Delacroix" (Oeuvres Complètes, v. 2 of Editions Pléiades [Paris: Gallimard, 1976], 742-770): "Eugène Delacroix was a curious mixture of skepticism, politeness, dandyism, ardent volition, guile, despotism, and—in fine—a kind of eccentric goodness and controlled tenderness which always accompanies genius" (my translation).
4 The book is Accidental Grandeur: A Defense of Narrative Vagueness in Ancient Epic Literature (Peter Lang: New York, 1989). I recall that the front office conveyed a rather caustic comment to me which originated with Lang Classical Studies editor Daniel Garrison. Although this oblique, one-sentence remark was the extent of my contact with Mr. Garrison, I have little doubt that he considered the book’s flaws not worth an explicit denunciation because they lay, in his view, at the fundamental level. In fairness, I will add that a prominent name on my dissertation committee effectively summarized his reservations by asking, "And whom do you expect to read this?" Had I known of the response which Heinrich Böll once made to the same question, I would have borrowed it: "I write for everyone who knows how to read, just as a painter paints for everyone who knows how to see."
5 James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (New York: Penguin, 1988), began the "rehabilitating" of naturally random systems as in fact possessing complex designs or purposes. A certain visual complexity, even if it may have no concealed regularity, at least suffices to keep the eye seeking after a pattern. The "blank canvas" approach, in contrast, overtly refuses to involve the eye (and the mind behind it) in any sort of quest or amusement.
6 Abstract Expressionist Barrett Newman, for instance, executed a virtually monochrome canvas with a single white line dividing its two panels which he called Cathedra. "We are completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it," Newman declared (cited in Michele Cone, The Roots and Routes of Art in the Twentieth Century [New York: Horizon, 1975], 194). My own opinion is that beauty poses no problem at all—only perverse thinking which stands judgment on its ear. In this, I freely confess that I have something in common with Vladimir Lenin, who once protested, "I cannot value the works of Expressionism, Futurism, Cubism and any other ism as the highest expression of artistic genius.. I don’t understand them. They give me no pleasure" (cited in Joseph Freedman and Louis Lozowick, Voices of October [New York: Vanguard, 1930], 55). I suppose this just goes to show that art must indeed have something of the universal, since an unregenerate rationalist can join a dialectical materialist in denouncing a ghastly mess.
7 See "Daggerpoints and Loggerheads: A Sad Time’s Taste for Perverse Oppositions," Praesidium 3.2 (Spring 2003), 23-32.
8 It seems to me that Baudelaire conceived of painting’s aesthetics similarly (if I may cite a literary figure who also happened to be one of his day’s preeminent art critics). He is keenly aware, for instance, of the role played by color in Delacroix—a role of such power that the viewer’s eye would already be deeply engaged by a canvas before it was close enough to distinguish represented forms. Furthermore, Baudelaire is plainly aware that form is not the wellspring of universal beauty when he writes the following: "The beautiful is made of an eternal, invariable element, whose quality is excessively difficult to determine, and of a relative, circumstantial element, which would be, if one wishes—in succession or altogether—a period effect, a trend, mores, or a dominant passion" (685 in "Le Peintre de la vie moderne," op.cit., 683-724). More common in Baudelaire’s time—or in the classicism of any time—would have been a consigning of color and style to trend and conditioning. Baudelaire’s reversing the polarities accounts much better for why most of us can admire Titian or Rembrandt (or, for that matter, Chinese vase painting or Japanese water colors) even though the represented forms may seem archaic or alien.
9 Cf. Plutarch’s "How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend” 53.D, where, in a simile, the author compares sycophants who copy shameful behavior to “inferior painters” (οι φαύλοι ζωγράφοι—the final word literally means “life-writers”) who seek to vivify their subjects by throwing in many wrinkles and scars.
10 I recommend Philip Ball’s recent book, Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2002), in passing. It is quite astonishing—and, in a way, exhilarating—to learn repeatedly from Ball’s study that certain colors await discovery, and that their sudden arrival on the scene can enthrall an artist or an entire culture. This is yet more proof that qualitative play lies at the heart of the artistic experience: i.e., that a mere color can captivate an audience. I should also remark that only the museum, given the limitations of copies, can make such an experience generally available. As our cities have grown ever less navigable in their dense and dangerous sprawl, art museums have become ever more remote from the education of the typical young person.
11 My zeal for the French novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupéry naturally brings him to mind in this context, though there are many other authors who have shown us how the most improbable experiences spill over into one another if our rational mind does not impose boundaries. The novel Pilote de Guerre, for example, while concerned with France’s futile resistance of the Nazi blitz in 1939, is almost as devoted to dredging up memories from Saint-Ex’s childhood. Chapter 14 not only gains access to the forgotten world of innocence through the mortal menace of combat: it recognizes in the flashback—an occasion when little Antoine hid on a console as his uncles talked politics—an intricately crafted Newtonian universe where the boy himself was a magnetically guided planet! Though the painting of his day was already far too abstract to excite Saint-Exupéry’s sympathy (he had no use whatever for Breton and his Surrealist crew), such passages suggest to me that the novelist possessed a genuine painter’s alertness to harmonious shades within quite unrelated forms.
12 Michael Lythgoe, scholar, poet, and faithful contributor to Praesidium, has mercifully supplemented my ignorance in a detailed response to this essay. He writes: "W C. Williams wrote a series of poems on the paintings of a Dutch Master, including one on Icarus. I have heard the contemporary poet Mark Strand speak to the painting of Hopper at an art museum in DC—using visuals. As I studied some painters and sought inspiration for my own writing I discovered [that] Wallace Stevens’ ‘Man with the Blue Guitar’ seems to have been influenced by Picasso—but shares the idea of the guitar as the instrument of creativity, both [in ]music and poetry. Strand has painted. John Haines started as a sculptor and then took up poetry. My essay on his poems about paintings and sculpture was published in A Gradual Twilight by Cavan Kerry Press (NJ 2003). I called my essay ‘Night of Painted Iron.’ Michelangelo wrote sonnets and discussed (agonized over?) the creative process. I have read the bilingual edition of poems by the Spanish poet Rafael Alberti entitled ‘To Painting.’ Kandinsky had his theories of color and some of his work appears like musical notes on the canvas. Degas wrote poems along with his paintings. I am fond of the poetry of Nobel writer Derek Walcott, who grew up in the Caribbean. He is a painter as well as a playwright and has a book called Tiepolo's Hound (FSG: NY, 2000) based on two artistic journeys—Camile Pissarro’s travel from the island of St. Thomas to Paris and Walcott’s own journey through Europe in his mind’s eye after seeing a Venetian painting in New York. Finally, I discovered a series of essays by poets on paintings several years ago edited by J.D. McClatchy… and The Glazer’s Spirit edited by John Hollander (Poems Speaking to Silent Works of Art [U. of Chicago, 1995]). I have been citing recently the ecphrastic idea of how poets have been inspired since Homer first described Achilles’s shield and Keats wrote his ode to the Grecian Urn…. I have tried to write on El Greco, Kandinsky, Bonnard, Degas, a Cuban primitive painter in Key West/Tampa, an American painter in Spain who was also a bull fighter (John Fulton), John Haines, Cezanne, Matisse.… David Lehman, poet and essayist, editor of the Best American Poetry series, did a book on The Last Avant Garde and documented the New York School of poets who in the 1950s were so connected to painting and jazz…."
This is an impressive bibliography from a person who, very probably, should be writing the present essay instead of me! Of course, it remains to be seen (and is quite possibly indemonstrable) whether exposure to painting actually makes for a better poet, or vice versa. That so many of the figures cited by Mr. Lythgoe belong to the beleaguered twentieth century may give rise to suspicions about the link’s wholesomeness; and, after all, ecphrasis is a species of digression, and some cruel hearts judge Achilles’ shield as uncharitably as I shall do Saavedra’s descriptions. On the other, perhaps our cultural degeneracy would have accelerated if a certain interdisciplinary residue of taste had not been applying the brakes. Who knows?
13 From Recuerdos de un grand hombre, 1.25-40, in Romances Históricos, ed. Salvador García Castañeda (Madrid: Catedra, 1987), p. 175. The translation is mine.
14 Cited by Castañeda on p. 40 of his introduction to Romances Históricos (ibid.), pp. 15-70; my translation.
15 See Castañeda’s remarks on p. 41 (ibid.).
16 See p. 60 of Über das Pathetische in Friedrich Schiller, Vom Pathetischen und Erhabenen (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1970), 55-82. The translation from German is mine.
17 Cf. Poe’s counsel in the fourth paragraph of "The Philosophy of Composition": "I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view—for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest—I say to myself, in the first place, ‘Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, or intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?’" Notice that Poe, while clearly emphasizing a qualitative response to the art work ("impression", "heart", "soul"), is laboring toward a formula of composition involving careful calculation.
18 I might add that the connection between print culture and visual perception drawn by Walter Ong is misleading (cf. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word [London and New York: Routledge, 1989], 117-138). McLuhan’s enthusiastic anticipation that electronic media will return us to the vicinity of oral tradition implies the same belief that "the shift from oral to written is essentially a shift from sound to visual space" (Ong 117). The literate life, in fact, is not more visually aware than the oral life in any profound respect. The cues for visualization have simply shifted from spoken to written ones. The shift crucially slows down the communicant’s choice of terms, however, making them more accurate and less formulaic. From this perspective, electronic culture does indeed resemble orality in speeding up the choice of terms and thereby depriving them of discrimination. Yet neither the new media’s visual nor their aural transmissions have the upper hand in inspiring this revived opposition to analysis. The dominant sense (whichever that may be) in electronic life is irrelevant to the break-neck rapidity of sensations.
19 Cf. "Daggerpoints and Loggerheads: Intellectualism and the Decline of the West," Praesidium 3.4 (Fall 2003), 5-18; and also "Proteus Surrenders: The Life and Death of the Death-and-Rebirth Myth," Renascence 49.2 (Winter 1997): 121-138.
Putting a Period to the "Quote" Issue
Periodically, a friend or contributor raises the issue of the "closed quote" with us, since our editorial policy on this matter does not agree with the ruling of the Modern Language Association. Now is probably a good time to reiterate a defense which we have not made publicly in several years.
The MLA has determined that all punctuation should typically be included within the closing quotation mark, even if the quoted matter consists of no more than one word. There are obvious exceptions. A question mark, exclamation point, or parenthesis is not to be included in the quotation unless it represents part of the matter cited. For instance, we write, "It is incredible that he would use the word ‘penniless’!" The exclamation point belongs to the complete statement we have quoted, but not to the specific word "penniless" quoted within the statement. So for the following: "Would anyone consider resigning in these circumstances (at least during a ‘meltdown’)?" The word "meltdown" has presumably been lifted from another context familiar to the audience: part of that context is clearly not a closing parenthesis or question mark right after the word. To close the quotation of "meltdown" after one or both of these points of punctuation would indeed be utterly absurd.
We fully accept this reasoning. In fact, we applaud it and extend it to cases where the absurdity is not so transparent. The MLA insists that the period must fall within the closing quotation mark in the following: "He is resigning ‘to avoid later embarrassment.’" It insists the same, even, of the following: "He is resigning to avoid ‘embarrassment.’" Yet the reasoning in the previous paragraph should apply equally to these examples: in a phrase lacking the essential parts of a clause, to include the final stop as integral to the quoted matter is sheer whimsy. (The period would be just as MLA-mandatory within quotes, we hasten to add, even if a comma followed "embarrassment" in the original material.) That the determination of absurdity is a little harder to make in such examples, nevertheless, seems to supply the MLA with sufficient cause to herd everything within the quotation mark. By all means, preempt the appearance of very hard determinations—some of which might be argued either way—by promulgating an inflexible rule! Better that common sense should die than that professors should ever have to say before their classes, "I’m not sure."
No linguistic Caiaphas has succeeded in persuading us of this view. Hence Praesidium will continue (unless otherwise directed by contributors) to be published with single words or short phrases in exclusive quotes, beyond which commas and periods float unconfined on the greater sentence’s swell. Some battles are not worth fighting, and some traditions should be observed even though illogical. The MLA’s case, however, has little tradition on its side—only a generation of ignorance and indolence; and the logic of the logos itself must always be defended assertively.
Have Late Modern Values and Technology Made Great Art Impossible?
Mark Wegierski is an independent Canadian journalist who is particularly interested in how technology shapes our cultural future. His views stem from his own creative assessment of our world rather than from allegiance to any party or ideology. Mr. Wegierski has contributed several pieces to Praesidium in recent months.
Massive advances in technology have by now given us such superb instruments as the word processor, graphics arts programs, music composition
tools, and Internet multimedia—which could have, theoretically speaking, increased the prevalence of great art today. However, the cumulative social, cultural, and spiritual effects of multifarious technological advances have, it could be argued, corrosively dissolved or smashed to bits the more traditional social, cultural, and spiritual contexts which could produce and nourish great art and great artists—such as, archetypically, Renaissance England and William Shakespeare.
Today, it could be argued that the vast mass of people are reduced to unreflective, history-less "vidiots"—passive consumers of stupefying television programs, films, Internet images, videogames, sports events, and popular music that is "racing to the bottom". The mass-education system, rather than offering a salutary "counter-ethic" to the mass-media, in most cases reinforces it.
As for so-called high art, one could argue that it indulges today in excessively frequent portrayals of evil, ugliness, and perversity; in nearly infinite variations and explorations of designated minority consciousness; in expressions of hatred or self-hatred of white, Western, Christian civilization; and in multifarious techniques for rendering virtually the whole Western and European past to appear as utterly hideous to decent human sensibilities.
The near-infinite reproducibility of photographic and video images, as well as raising the disturbing question of what can possibly be seen as "authentic" today, has made mass pornography into a huge industry and social phenomenon. Today, mass pornography is part of the societal background field, probably for the first time in history. Certainly, the rendering of erotic pictorial images in premodern societies required substantial amounts of time and artistic skill, thus inherently limiting them to a comparatively small audience.
It can be argued that Western societies are mostly in the grip of a "toxic" culture. It is possible that certain stand-up comedy acts and late-night talk-shows, or almost every one of the newer sitcoms, as well as many relentlessly violent and gruesome movies, films, and videogames (not to mention the hideous works on display in some art galleries, with their non-stop, sneering contempt for the old verities) can be far more socially, culturally, and spiritually corrosive than the images found in Playboy or Penthouse magazines. What is particularly troubling about most forms of pop-culture—sports, films and television, popular music, and the fashion-industry (now especially renowned for its decadence)—is the near-total exclusion of a more traditionalist vision from them. Ted Nugent is about the only rock-star who has openly declared himself to be a conservative. One supposes that Country and Western Music and NASCAR racing (both of them largely concentrated in the South) are two pop-culture subgenres with a semi-traditionalist element. There is also a fairly large subgenre of Christian music and Christian fiction, but its profile outside of its segment-market is nugatory. Most music and publishing industry moguls treat it with disdain. In Canada today, the love of hockey is one of the last unifying elements of the country. Some less obvious foci in the social and cultural landscape of civil society with traditionalist implications might include the following: local historical and architectural preservation societies; historical and battlefield re-enactors (such as those focussing on the American Civil War, American Revolutionary War, or the Medieval/Renaissance eras); classical music, folk music, book, and Classics, Medieval, or Renaissance enthusiasts; some ecological and conservation organizations; and railroad and historical board-games hobbyists.
Following to a certain extent the arguments made by Anthony Gancarski, one might argue that Eighties’ alternative, New Wave, technopop, and some ballad-type music—such as that represented by groups and artists like The Smiths, Bryan Ferry, Joy Division/New Order, David Bowie, The Police (and Sting in his solo career), ABC, The Cure, Sade (sharday), and Christopher Cross—can be seen as having Romantic, aesthetic, and definitely "Eurocentric" aspects. Such music often seems to have an "orchestral" or "symphonic" feel to it. Called "Eighties’ retro", "retro-alternative", or simply "retro", it can be favorably contrasted today with such currently popular music subgenres as rap, hip-hop, and grunge.
It could be argued that the artist who seeks to create great art today should try to enter into a spirit of thought and reflection about the nature of late modern society. Insofar as it aims for greatness, outstanding art today must largely move towards a rejection of the current-day atmosphere of political correctness, designated minorities, and relativist aesthetics. While great art must be careful of not falling into kitsch, it should at the same time aspire to some fragment of "the true, the good, and the beautiful"—often including elements of history, religion, and the heroic. In some cases, of course, the portrayal of evil, ugliness, and perversity can be artistically brilliant—but the project must be deftly handled. And let us say openly that some kind of salutary, positive "counter-ethic" is emphatically needed in today’s society, as we are at almost every point overwhelmed by the relentless portrayal and evocation of evil, ugliness, and perversity—as well as by the mind-numbing strictures of political correctness. In current-day society, a piece of carefully-crafted, representational art by a European artist, patriotically celebrating some part of his or her nation’s heroic history, may be the most truly radical work of art possible. Mel Gibson’s reverential film on the Passion of Christ—whose potential power to move hearts and minds is attested to by the smear-campaign against it—is also likely to stand as very great art. Another recent outstanding film is Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Quo Vadis? (based on the Nobel-winning historical novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz).
On a more mundane level, one can enjoy the still-practised popular artforms of historical and battlefield painting (which often focusses on the American Civil War) as well as much of the art associated with fantasy and science fiction subgenres—such as that of Boris Vallejo and Frank Frazetta. Much of the fantasy subgenre today continues in the directions set by J.R.R. Tolkien’s monumental Lord of the Rings (recently rendered magnificently in film by Peter Jackson, and having its two current, best-known illustrators in John Howe and Ted Nasmith). Certain elements of science fiction such as those represented in Frank Herbert’s DUNE and Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, have distinctly neo-traditionalist elements, as does George Lucas’ Star Wars, albeit to a limited extent. The highly "progressive" Star Trek future gives a possible place to semi-traditionalist impulses only through "dissident" identifications such as those with the alien Klingon, Romulan, or Bajoran cultures. Given the producers’ biases, these portrayals of "traditionalism" can be seen, to a large extent, as manifest parodies.
Dystopian science fiction movies such as Blade Runner (based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) can certainly be interpreted in a traditionalist way. And Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, if carefully looked at, is indeed a very sharp critique of many trends and directions of our current-day society. Although it may have escaped the attention of most professional critics, the posited abolition of God, history, and family in Huxley’s dystopic society points to the book as a conservative classic. At the same time, while Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four appears prima facie as a critique of coercive, violent totalitarianism (of the Soviet or Nazi type), it also draws brilliant attention to the critical role of language and manipulation of language and thought in maintaining tyranny—or, as Orwell puts it: "Newspeak is Ingsoc, Ingsoc is Newspeak."
It could be argued that the unrelenting advance of technology in Western societies—resulting in the creation of a mass, lowest-common-denominator society driven by advertising, consumption, notions of designated victimhood, and political-correctness—has attenuated the possibilities of the creation and reception of great art, which depends on the valorization of "the high". The late modern society is
indeed an extraordinarily harsh climate for the nourishing of the what the Ancient Greeks called the megapsychlos—"the great-souled man". In the sprawling and multifarious social and cultural landscape of late modern society, which is at places entirely barren, and in others choked with luxuriant weeds, there are only a few niches where more elevated art and culture can exist.
It would be the task of a rooted social and cultural criticism to try to portray accurately the near-dystopic configurations of late modern society, to try to identify the few remaining foci of resistance, and to endeavor to coalesce these (to the extent it is possible) into a broader social, cultural, and spiritual resistance movement. Pointing to the thinness, even barrenness, of late modernity brings into high relief how much has been lost of human experience, despite the enormous gains in physical wealth by which North America is characterized—a wealth which, though unevenly distributed, far exceeds that available to any premodern society. Ours is indeed a materially very wealthy society, but one of extreme social, cultural, spiritual, religious, moral, psychological—and hence artistic—impoverishment.
War on a Rainy Afternoon: Boardgames and Myth-Making
Mr. Wegierski and I both entertained reservations about whether or not the following descriptions and reviews of a favorite national pastime would be appropriate in Praesidium. I ultimately decided in the affirmative, since these portraits of a culture at play at least imply (when they do not explicitly remark) that the games’ designers bring curiously skewed political and cultural assumptions to their fantasies about North America’s future. Readers can smile or fume at such assumptions, or shrug them off; but it bears emphasis, I believe, that a kind of utopian revisionism (from whose view Western culture always appears dystopic) has bled deeply into the marketplace’s heart of capitalist darkness. In other words, PC, while it may not sell merchandise, is now commonly sold with merchandise. If this is a surprise to you, then we are delighted to have lifted the veil. ~ J.H.
What Are Historical Boardgames or Wargames? An Introduction
Historical boardgames are called by various names: wargames, conflict-simulation games (or simply, conflict-simulations), historical adventure games, military history games, simulation games, etc. There are various near and distant relations of historical boardgames, such as military boardgames on hypothetical near-future or science fictional conflicts. The typical wargame situation places the players at the beginning of major historical battle or campaign, e.g. the battle of Waterloo (Napoleon vs. Wellington), or Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa). The opposing players have forces corresponding to the historical situation, which they then move around and engage in combat according to an established set of procedures and rules. A preponderance of historical boardgames deals with land battles or campaigns, where air or sea elements play little or no part.
Historical boardgames typically include the following components: a map of geographical terrain divided into hexagons ("hexes") to regularize movement and combat procedures; one-hundred to four-hundred colour-coded, die-cut, ¼" x ¼" "counters", some of which represent the "units" which fought in battle or campaign (e.g. regiments or divisions) and others which serve as game-markers with different functions; and the above-mentioned set
of rules. A "unit" will typically have a "combat factor", a numerical quantification of its strength (e.g. "4") in comparison to all other units that fought in the battle or campaign, and a "movement factor", a numerical quantification of how far it can move in a given turn (e.g. "5"). There are various of types of terrain, some of which cost extra movement points to
enter or cross. The terrain scale chosen is usually such that no more than two or three units can occupy the same hex at the end of the player’s movement, thus rewarding effective dispersal and concentration of forces.
The typical wargame is played sequentially, in "phases". Generally, one player gets to move any or all of his units and attack eligible enemy units if he wishes, and then the other player moves his units and attacks eligible enemy units, and so forth. Combat is resolved via the Combat Results Table and the roll of a six-sided or ten-sided die. First, the player calculates the number of combat factors he can bring to bear on adjacent enemy units. The general objective is to get the best odds possible while making the most effective series of attacks. Combat results usually require a retreat of one or two hexes in a certain direction, an "exchange" (at least one unit of both players is eliminated), or the elimination of all of either players’ units involved in this particular combat. Elimination represents the shattering of the effective operational structure of a military unit, not the killing of every single soldier in the unit. 8 combat factors attacking 3 combat factors makes 2:1 odds (rounding is generally done in favour of the "non-active" player who is "defending" in that phase, regardless of the over-all situation on the board). These are usually fairly poor odds, with some chance of a negative result for the attack. Experienced players can utilize the various capabilities of their units, e.g. the ability of units representing armoured formations to advance 1 hex after combat, to maximum effect, thus creating situations where weaker attacks can achieve better results.
An important feature of many games are the rules for units’ Zones of Control (ZOC’s), the six hexagons surrounding the hex the unit is on, which typically block the retreat paths of the opposing player’s units during combat as well as forcing the other player’s units to stop during their movement phase. Typically, a unit which is required to retreat as a result of combat, but which cannot do so because it is surrounded by hostile ZOC’s, is eliminated instead. ZOC’s are crucial for constructing successful defensive perimetres because of their ability to interdict opponent’s movement. Sometimes ZOC rules require that all friendly units adjacent to enemy units must attack all of those enemy units, which makes the distribution of units’ attacks crucial to success. (The combat factors of individual units are generally indivisible.)
The variation and layering on of more complex rules and combat mechanisms is virtually endless (e.g. ranged combat—the delivery of combat factors beyond adjacent hexes; an additional movement segment for armoured units; or in-hex combat, where strong attacking units try to "over-run" weak defenders). This complexity requires an increasing level of skill from the players, and increases the demands on making a truly skillful use of the forces and capabilities one has available. (A simple example of such skill is the landing of a German paratroop division in Paris in a game on the 1940 Battle of France campaign, thus ending the game immediately, if the French player has been so stupid as to leave Paris open.) Another complicating rule is logistics and supply effects, which means that if units cannot meet certain supply criteria—e.g., the tracing of a line free of enemy ZOC’s to a supply centre (usually a hex on the map representing a city)—their combat and movement abilities are more or less severely downgraded. (For example, they cannot move or attack.) Once a person has grasped the basic dynamic of the sequence of play, the play follows easily for the ten or so turns an average simple game lasts. (Viz., you move as many of your eligible units as you wish; you set up a series of attacks on your opponent’s units; you execute those attacks and carry out their effects—then your opponent moves his eligible units; he sets up a series of attacks; and he carries out their effects—before passing the baton to you again as a second game-turn begins)
One of the interesting aspects of the game is that movement, generally speaking, is never compulsory (and attacks on adjacent enemy units are not usually compulsory, either), so a player is open to try a wide variety of strategies in a game where forces are more-or-less evenly balanced. In a game of unbalanced forces, for example, on the 1939 invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, the Polish player’s skill would consist in an adroit placement and fall-back of his army rather than in making a large number of successful attacks. Victory in game terms would be this player’s if the Germans failed to achieve their historical result of a complete victory.
However, many historical boardgames are set up so that both players get a chance to make big attacks at some point in the game; for example, where a large force is attacking a small force which is quickly being reinforced. The interweave of different unit capabilities, different aspects of warfare simulated (such as supply, morale, and command control considerations), and a plethora of different historical settings (World War II; Napoleonic; American Civil War, etc.), as well as different levels of war (tactical, operational, and strategic, to name the main three), allows for an enormous amount of variety in the atmosphere, flavour, and particular stratagems or tactics used to secure victory in these games.
If a person finds these games difficult even at the most introductory level, or lacks interest in military history, or vehemently feels that conflict-simulation is immoral, or simply views these games as a useless waste of time, he or she not likely to find enjoyment in the hobby.
Paleocons vs. Neocons in Board Wargames
There is in America and Canada today a large number of what could be called "geek subgenres". Apart from a more general interest in some of these areas by a larger proportion of the population, they are also followed by dedicated fan communities. These would include science fiction (such as Star Trek and Star Wars); fantasy (which was pioneered by J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings); role-playing games (such as Dungeons & Dragons); comic-books; and multifarious types of gaming, including historical boardgames (also called wargames, strategy games, or conflict simulations). Historical boardgames could be seen as a more reality-based alternative in relation to most forms of gaming and fan identifications today. Having attended the same high school—University of Toronto Schools (UTS), a unique "model" school affiliated with the University of Toronto—as David Frum in the late 1970s, I knew him to be a fairly avid wargame player.
Among the games popular at that time was Invasion: America, a wargame portraying a hypothetical future invasion of the United States and Canada by three hostile powers—the "European Socialist Coalition", the "South American Union" and the "Pan-Asiatic League". Another very popular game was Sinai, a depiction of the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1956, 1967, and 1973. There was also a game called Oil War, which portrayed a "near-future" attempt by the United States to seize control of virtually the entire oil supplies of the Middle East (in the wake of a new OPEC embargo) by the launching of a simultaneous attack against Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the smaller Gulf countries. The play of the game usually resulted in easy American victories, as the swarms of "nifty-looking" counters representing air force and naval aviation units—supported by airborne infantry and amphibiously landing Marines—blasted away the Arab and Iranian armies. There was no inkling that massive guerilla resistance to the American assault might occur. The Soviets were also conspicuously absent.
While there certainly was an element of gamers who enjoyed playing Nazi Germany in World War II East Front games a bit too much, there were also many young neocons who were drawn to the hobby. As a young, traditionalist-leaning student, I was repelled by the "Nazi worship" elements of the hobby, but the main concerns of the young neocons were to some extent remote to me. In any case, I appreciated their willingness at that time to confront Soviet imperialism. Looking back at a shared interest in wargames by persons of varying outlooks (most of which would be conventionally considered as being "on the Right"), I must say a number of contrasts have emerged.
David Frum is today one of the most important persons in the United States—who, it could be sharply said, is currently "playing wargames for real". It could be asked, however, if his interest in the hobby ever actually imparted a genuine historical sense to him—or any sense of the real suffering entailed by war. Perhaps it is subliminally just a feeling of pushing colorful cardboard counters around on a finely designed map, in search of "the perfect offensive".
Persons of "paleo" persuasions usually have their understanding of war leavened by a more careful study of history and culture. They understand, for example, that the program of a "global democratic revolution" cannot be considered as any kind of "conservatism"; and that the defense of America’s heartland "base" is more important than imperial engagements half a world away. So an adolescent interest in wargaming can lead one along various paths.
The interest in historical board wargames can be seen, nevertheless, as among the most "conservative" of the "geek subgenres" mentioned above. Indeed, one can highlight the contrast between historical board wargames vs. role-playing games and electronic shoot-’em-ups. Historical wargamers and players of Dungeons & Dragons are often considered "mortal enemies" in the broader gaming hobby. Historical boardgames have been commercially marketed in the U.S. since the late 1950s. Codified rules for playing with historical miniatures (i.e., so-called "toy soldiers") are one of the origins of historical boardgaming. Abstract military boardgames such as RISK, Tactics II, and Diplomacy are also close cousins. Diplomacy was one of the favorite pastimes of many university students, especially those studying political science. Avalon Hill pioneered the genre in the late 1950s, with its game on the battle of Gettysburg. The company moved through decades of varying success, bringing out such titles as PanzerBlitz (World War II tactical armored combat), Third Reich (strategic WWII), and the Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) system of tactical WWII combat. The firm was acquired in the late-1990s by toys and games giant Hasbro, resulting in the abandonment of nearly all of its game lines, deemed far too complex for the current-day audience.
Wargaming’s Golden Age was the late 1970s, the heyday of its second major company, SPI (Simulations Publications, Inc.). Historical board-games were heavily undermined by the Dungeons & Dragons company, TSR, which took over SPI in the early 1980s and let historical games languish in favor of building up the fantasy role-playing games (RPG’s) market. Arcade-style electronic games and collectible card games (CCG’s— now called trading card games, or TCG’s—such as Magic: The Gathering and, most spectacularly, Pokemon, both controlled by Wizards of the Coast) now challenged what remained of board wargaming in the late 1980s and the 1990s. TSR was itself taken over by WOTC, which in turn has been bought out by Hasbro.
Today, board wargaming (as well as playing games of the wargame type in electronic format) might be seen as a more reality-grounded alternative to currently prevalent gaming genres. Fantasy RPG’s (especially of the newer, darker variety, such as those in X-Files-type settings), might tend to encourage an excess of florid and disorienting imaginings in some people. The mostly arcade-style electronic games (typically, the so-called First Person Shooters such as DOOM) are centered around grotesquely individualized, very graphic killing, and are in most cases entirely history-less. While there are of course more abstract, electronic, arcade-type games (typified by the 1980s PAC-MAN and TETRIS), the addictive element of repetitive hand and eye movements is certainly present in most of them. In CCG’s, one finds, apart from the commonly seen occult aspects, a combination of collecting and gambling impulses, which are often extremely addictive.
The concrete facts—the historical situation, the game-board, and the counters representing military units—may help a person playing a boardgame to avoid falling into the overwrought fantasizing sometimes found in RPG’s, and the excessively addictive aspects of FPS’s and CCG’s. Even when one plays ahistorical board wargames (such as those based on near-future, alternative-history, or sci-fi situations, or those set in Tolkien-style fantasy worlds), or plays strategy games electronically, there might be a certain residual concreteness, a shielding from being overwhelmed by what is in other cases the often highly lurid "virtual reality" of the game. This concreteness is also present in historical miniatures, but the financial costs of these elaborately painted historical "figures" are clearly much greater, particularly if one wants to play out such great battles as Waterloo.
One should mention, also, the rather lurid subgenre of miniatures gaming represented by the Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000 A.D. systems; as well as the existence of other fantasy and sci-fi miniatures systems. Chatham Hill Games produces a number of small, simple, inexpensive games, suitable for children (not all of which are strictly wargames) and based on American history. Gamewright Games produces a series of mostly young children’s games, most of which are not military-related.
The main Internet portals for wargaming are www.grognard.com and www.consimworld.com. The major printed historical gaming magazine (which
includes a game with each issue) is Strategy & Tactics (published by Decision Games, which has acquired what remained of the old SPI). In December 2001, the other major gaming magazine, COMMAND, and its parent company, XTR, declared bankruptcy, after having produced fifty-four issues packed with military history (with one or two games in each issue) and several games outside of the magazine.
Some other extant boardgame companies include GMT, Avalanche Press, Clash of Arms, Columbia Games, Critical Hit/Moments in History, L2 Design Group, and Eagle Games. There have also arisen companies that produce, through desk-top publishing, games on often obscure topics, such as Schutze and Microgame Design Group. One should also mention the family-oriented boardgames imported from Germany, such as the very popular Settlers of Catan. These games, which typically have very high-quality components, are also less explicitly military. In Europe, there are also, among other enterprises, Azure Wish, Phalanx Games, and the French gaming magazine Vae Victis. The Australian Design Group is known for its massive World War II games. While they too, can sometimes be very obsessive, historical boardgames could be seen as more grounded in reality and in somewhat useful knowledge (about military history, strategy, and real geography) than role-playing games and most electronic-based games.
It could be argued that most board wargames can usually harness some commonly occurring "armchair general" desires to relatively positive ends. In some cases, however, the impact of the "wargame mentality" may be less salutary.
Exploring Social Alternatives through Eclectic Media
Review of the Magazine: GameFix: The Forum of Ideas and of "Near-Future Conflict" boardgame Crisis 2000: Insurrection in the United States!
Magazine: GameFix: The Forum of Ideas
(Sacramento: Game Publications Group no. 2 [November 1994])
Game: Crisis 2000: Insurrection in the United States!
(enclosed in GameFix)
N.B.: The subtitle, "The Forum of Ideas," was dropped in issue 8; the publication was renamed Competitive Edge starting with issue 10. The company has renamed itself One Small Step.
GameFix/Competitive Edge markets itself as producing "wargames for people who don’t like wargames." The conflict simulation games they offer with every issue of their magazine are deliberately designed to be simple to play (at least by wargame standards) and to be relatively quick and easy to finish (often less than an hour). GameFix/ Competitive Edge had also intended to feature non-military games dealing with mountain-climbing, various major-league sports, etc. In the last few years, the publication schedule of the magazine has slowed to a crawl, and it is doubtless going through difficulties.
In tune with the aimed-for simplicity, Crisis 2000 has a map of the U.S. consisting of 14 regions in total. They are of three types—metroplex, developed, and wilderness. (The numerous black dots representing cities and military bases play no role in the actual game.) There are also three boxes on the map representing U.S. overseas deployment areas. The game has a hundred counters, of which fifty-five represent military and political forces or "units", seventeen represent "infrastructures", and thirty-seven are "crisis" markers used to augment the strength of one’s forces in different ways.
There are two notable things about the units/infrastructure counters. First of all, they are printed on both sides, showing the same formation (e.g. High-Tech Arms Division) in different colors, on different sides of the counter. This economizing measure is useful in terms of indicating immediate "defections" of military and political units as well as infrastructures to the other side, which is one of the main aspects of so-called "Data Conflict". Secondly, the units have two values apart from their movement allowance: their ratings for "Data Conflict" and for "Armed Conflict". There are special rules for certain units, e.g. the "Cybernauts" usually cannot be attacked through "Armed Conflict", as they are presumed to be clandestine, while federal police forces can in some circumstances use their higher "Armed Conflict" rating against the "Cybernauts". Ultimately, however, the game often simply amounts to "move in with your units and try to bash your opponent," although the use of randomly drawn "Crisis" markers to weaken your opponent or augment your own offensive is critical to success. (The three numbers on a typical Crisis marker represent its conflict-augmentation values when committed to metroplex, developed, or wilderness regions for Data or Armed Conflict.) The more combat and political forces are committed to a given battle, the greater the chance of "Collateral Damage", which impacts on the winner of the battle as well.
The magazine’s background material to the game is highly interesting (pp. 6-8, 22-24), although written from a very libertarian slant. It is a good beginning for speculations about possible future civil conflicts in the U.S., and for further analysis of the sociopolitical impact of the Internet. Game designer Joe Miranda points to the "Clipper Chip" controversy—the attempt to create a microchip standard for all e-mail encryption, which would also allow for the decryption of all electronic messages through special "keys" held by government agencies. (The current "standard" is a plethora of commercially available encryption programs, which may often be virtually inaccessible to government monitoring.) Miranda also writes about Operation Sun Devil, launched by the U.S. Secret Service in 1990. Among the targets was a gaming company, Steve Jackson Games, whose "cyberpunk" role-playing game—although dealing with fictional hardware and software—was considered to possess such verisimilitude as to constitute a "how-to" guide. The company faced great difficulties, since all its computer equipment and files contained therein were impounded; however, it was eventually vindicated in court, while gaining great publicity on behalf of its products. One of the results of Operation Sun Devil was the formation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is one of the chief groups fighting for complete freedom of communication on the Internet (although it has itself sometimes been criticized by more radical groups for neglecting its mission).
The magazine also mentions a provocative article published in the Winter 1992-93 issue of Parameters, the U.S. Army War College’s journal, by Lt. Colonel Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., entitled, "The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012." The article’s main purpose appeared to be to critique the very deep cuts under Clinton to the U.S. military, but especially to protest the increasing use of the U.S. armed forces for political ends, both at home and abroad. In the future, both these trends are seen as sapping U.S. morale and combat effectiveness—to the point where a major U.S. defeat in the Persian Gulf-area causes the military to turn against its inept political masters, supposedly cheered on by much of the civilian sector.
Among the eclectic mixture of other references listed are James Burnham’s political classic, The Managerial Revolution, and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The game offers seven scenarios, with differing force-mixes for the two opposing players (unlike many political games like Diplomacy, this is strictly a two-player game).
The seven main scenarios (p. 20) are:
In GameFix no. 9 (p. 26), a further scenario is added, "The Militia War": The trend of the 1990s was toward forming local militias to protect the citizenry from real or imagined threats from criminals and government interference. By the year 2000, the Feds, deciding that the movement is too large and dangerous, launch an operation to disarm the militias.
Many of these scenarios are clearly rooted in a specifically American experience of the world. Although all of them point to identifiable social and political realities, the U.S. fortunately seems rather distant from a scenario where any of these would metamorphose into an actual "shooting" civil war (both the game and this review of course being somewhat ironic exercises).
One questionable aspect of the game would be what could be seen as its huge overrating of the impact of "the Cybernauts" and Internet. In the reviewer’s opinion, "Cybernaut" units should be re-interpreted as representing the media in general (or at least its most senior and activist persons). If a "Cybernaut" unit was seen as standing for a massive agglomeration of media-leaders—such as film producers and directors, key television network people, hundreds of newspaper, book or magazine publishers, and the best-known investigative journalists, as well as the Internet activists themselves—then such a projection of power would seem more warranted. The merger of AOL with Time Warner showed the hunger for "hard content" as part of a successful Internet strategy, albeit much of what Time Warner offers is, admittedly, "mere entertainment". Very many people today, however, fundamentally live and define themselves by their varied entertainments.
Another game inaccuracy, in the reviewer’s opinion, is the zero ratings of military units in ‘Data Conflict". While the military might find it difficult to initiate political struggle, it is certainly among the most cohesive groups in society. Propaganda might degrade a military unit somewhat, but never to the point where it comes over to another side, with fully intact combat and movement capabilities. It would probably "break" completely before changing sides. The strengths of irregular fighting formations also seem rather overvalued in relation to disciplined, cohesive military units with heavy equipment.
It may be seen that the onset of a period of high prosperity and low unemployment in the 1990s put to rest (at least for the time being) the dangers of major civil upheaval in the U.S. However, the developments in social and cultural matters are more troubling. Indeed, the U.S. continues to be engulfed by a series of bitter and highly divisive "culture wars". At the same time, the U.S. is now heavily engaged abroad in an increasingly unpopular war, and the economic signs today are at best mixed.
Review of the "Near-Future Conflict" Boardgame, Minuteman: The Second American Revolution
Minuteman: The Second American Revolution
Designer: James F. Dunnigan
Graphics: Redmond A. Simonsen
Development: Joseph Balkoski, Edward Curran
Simulations Publications, Inc., 1976
Minuteman: The Second American Revolution is a conflict simulation or wargame of relatively moderate complexity, published by Simulations Publications Incorporated (SPI), then the premiere company in the field, in 1976 (the U.S. Bicentennial Year). It is today a collector’s item, though Decision Games, which has recently acquired rights to most of the SPI game-line, might bring out a revamped edition at some point. Although certain game-mechanics are discussed in this review, most of the focus will be on the conceptual framework animating the game, especially in terms of its possible predictive aspects.
The game is played on a map which represents most of North America and on which terrain is regularized into hexes. The main terrain and hex types are "clear", "rough brush", "south winter cover", "north winter cover", and Major and Minor Population areas. These are meant to represent the main types of terrain significant to conducting insurgency and counterinsurgency in North America. (For example, units in severe terrain types during a Winter turn are sometimes eliminated because of lack of supply.) There are 400 counters of various types in this game, though, fortunately, not all of them are on the map at the same time. Most of the counters represent "units", which include army divisions and brigades; counterintelligence groups (CIG’s); government agents; government informers; rebel minutemen (small, select revolutionary leadership teams); rebel networks; and rebel militia. There are also about 130 other types of counters. These include 40 "special events" markers, which are randomly picked throughout the game and can be used to enhance one’s efforts. "Special events" include enhanced movement for one of your units; increased mobilization efforts; betrayals; and assassination attempts. Other markers represent "riots" (which is one of the main ways for the Rebel Player to augment his forces), "unrest", (which has weaker effects than a riot), "pins" (which is one of the main effects of rebel activity on government military forces), and markers denoting rebel units which "go underground" (meaning they are doubled in defense strength when attacked by government forces, but cannot move or carry out attacks themselves).
The units have several notable characteristics. First of all, in contrast to many wargames, the movement allowances do not appear on the units, as they are standardized for different types of formations. For the high-intensity-combat units, which include U.S. army divisions, Canadian army brigades, Mexican army brigades, and Rebel Militia, the two printed values represent attack and defense strength. For government agents, CIG’s, rebel minutemen, and rebel networks, the three printed values represent attack strength, defense strength, and build strength, the third value being a quantification of that unit’s ability to place new friendly units on the map. Finally, informers have only one value printed on their counter, which can only be used in one defined way against rebels.
The second notable feature of the units is that they are printed on both sides. For high-intensity combat units, this means that they are initially selected as "untried": that is, neither player knows their actual strength until they are committed to combat. For the political units, it means they have a weaker (unaugmented) and stronger (augmented) side, which economizes on the number of counters needed and also affords an improved build and conflict-outcome procedure: i.e., flipping the unit up or down. (Informers are blank on the reverse side.)
A third feature is the rather curious use of some well-known names of individuals and organizations for the informers, agents, minutemen, rebel nets, and rebel militia unit designations. The designer rather disingenuously claims that this "simulates the employment of these names as code-names (i.e. the units do not actually represent the named organizations and individuals)." While the pseudo-appearance of various famous fictional, and even contemporary, figures as well as of well-known (and currently-existing!) organizations such as the "K of C" (Knights of Columbus) might have some novelty value, it is also often in exceedingly poor taste. Apart from the use of the names of many
actually-existing organizations and living persons, four famous Star Trek names are used for informers, while government agents include the names of a number of comic-book heroes. Fortunately for the designer, the product was probably considered too marginal to bring lawsuits from any of the concerned fictional properties, or from actual individuals and actually existing organizations.
Looking at this mish-mash carefully, one finds that the 1st Rebel faction is mostly led by American Revolutionary War names; its nets are either American patriotic or far-left organizations; and its militia units use WASP names. The 2nd Rebel faction is led mostly by names associated with African-American history; its nets consist mostly of well-known union organization names (e.g. AFL); and its militia units are designated by common American names, two of which are non-WASP. The 3rd Rebel faction consists mostly of names of American labor leaders, while most of its nets are named after African-American organizations; and its militia designations are all WASP, with the curious exception of "Nagy" (referring, of course, to one of the leaders of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising). The Canadian rebel militia is named, if one can believe it, after Trudeau, Pearson, and four prominent hockey players, as well as "Loup Gru" and "Dieppe"! It is too bad that the game-designer did not attempt to put some method in this madness, eliminating some rather offensive "borrowings" and perhaps identifying three main Rebel factions: "American patriots", "American labor", and "the Rainbow Coalition".
Let us now turn to the main scenarios of the game. The basic scenario is entitled, "The Enemy Within". It has some fairly interesting speculation about a period of diminished (and diminishing) expectations, to take place in the U.S. after about 2015. It sounds in some respects like the period of "early Nineties’ retrenchment" in Canada (although not in the United States): e.g., "Some 50% [of people] were either unemployed or vastly underemployed." At the same time, the idea of the military practically becoming the most important and most prestigious social sector in American society seems a little strained, and certainly has no applicability to Canada. The designer’s conceptualization ignored the possibility that tyranny in the U.S. is far more likely to emerge from managerial-therapeutic agendas of big-government and big-business, or perhaps from the pronounced tendency to social-engineering of "political correctness", which might well create "the tyranny of `the just'". Potential lines of conflict along ethnic lines, as well as between the rural hinterland/periphery vs. the urban nodes, are also ignored. It could be argued that the U.S. today is, generally speaking, moving in a left-liberal rather than rightwing direction. Political conflict in the former situation would be highly unlikely to emerge into outright and massive armed struggle.
One additional notable element of this game scenario is the possibility of either player calling in up to six foreign intervention divisions, which are provided in the countermix. There are three main "Alternative Scenarios". The first of these is the "Partisan" Scenario, which is based on the now laughable premise of the invasion of America by a "European Socialist Coalition" (shades of that famous movie, Red Dawn!). The scenario is played on the east side of the map (which is considered "under occupation" after a successful amphibious and airborne ESC invasion of the East Coast). For the purposes of this scenario, the 24 U.S. army divisions in the countermix are used to represent the occupation forces divisions. The ESC gets to use four security divisions, as well. Since sixteen ESC divisions are tied to garrisoning "the Front Line" along the Mississippi, one suspects the American Partisans are rather likely to achieve their objective of cutting these divisions’ Lines of Communication to the East Coast ports.
The second "Occupation" scenario portrays "North American" resistance to a "European" occupation. There is certainly some kind of American phobia expressed in explicitly referring to "the Europeans" as villains—reflected, for example, in the following phrase: "most Americans seemed willing to submit their continent to the satellite that Europe wished to make of her." Not only is there a nonchalant presumption of the co-identity of American, Canadian, and Mexican interests; in actuality, many people in Europe today feel that it is precisely the U.S. that is imposing its will and way of life on Europe (and on the planet as a whole), albeit through cultural rather than military means.
The final scenario, "Civil War", is the endpoint of this rather curious future-history. Who could make sense out of this mish-mash: "The...partisan leaders... began to exert strong pressure on the President for an isolationist foreign policy and a dramatically reduced Defense budget. The new Progressive Party—formed by the former Partisan leaders—expressed strong Socialist ideals [which they had supposedly just fought against—see above] that were entirely rejected by most Army officers. Many of these officers (and government officials) formed the Constitutionalist Party, which called for the reinstitution of the Constitution of 1787 along traditionalist lines [in the 21st century?]." The curious figure of a "General Albert Sanchez" who launches a coup on October 1 is introduced. About the best thing that can be said about the scenario is that it points to the growing influence of Hispanics in
America! The main feature of the scenario as a game is that initially deployed units can change allegiance, with army divisions possibly converting to rebel militia, rebel networks possibly converting to weak CIG’s, and minutemen possibly converting to weak government agents. In other words, the situation is highly chaotic.
The fourth scenario, which has been alluded to above in discussing the three Rebel factions, concerns three or four-player games. In the four-player game, there is an interesting option for a player to become "federalized" for one or more turns: i.e., to collaborate with the government player in attacking other rebels. Also rather interesting is the procedure by which, if the Government player is eliminated, the Rebel player with the most nets becomes the Government player: every Militia unit becomes an army division; every minuteman becomes an agent (to the corresponding strength); and every Net becomes a CIG (to the corresponding strength). The permutations of achieving victory in this kind of multi-cornered struggle become interesting indeed.
Minuteman offers some rather innovative mechanics to simulate unconventional warfare. One obvious omission in the game was air power, which could have easily been incorporated by the use of air-points augmenting government attack or defense strengths. The helicopter forces for which Americans are so well-known do not explicitly appear, either. Another obvious omission, naval power, could have easily been simulated by naval bombardment points available to the government player in hexes adjacent to the sea. Naval-based air power could also have been easily represented, by having air-points with a limited range of use from sea-hexes. The land-based Government nuclear arsenal, which Rebels would certainly try to sabotage and/or take over, if not actually use, is completely ignored. There are also no provisions for the struggle for U.S. diplomatic and commercial resources abroad which would undoubtedly take place.
It was certainly a major oversimplification of the game-design not to take any of these factors into account. Perhaps, however, the whole posited scenario would collapse into complete improbability when taking into consideration the vast preponderance of military force available to the U.S. government. For example, virtually all personnel in the U.S. military, regardless of which branch or support service they occupy, probably have sufficient training to fight as land-infantry if necessary—certainly well enough to defeat the average rural "patriot militiaman" or "urban guerilla". All this suggests a re-design would do well to move the game onto the tracks of social/political/economic, as opposed to military conflict.
It seems that the enormous build-up of ponderous military and bureaucratic infrastructures in the late-twentieth century Western societies forever precludes in those societies successful "barricade revolutions" of the nineteenth or early-twentieth century type; or the kinds of military coups typical of Latin American "banana republics". Current-day social/political/ economic conflict can certainly be very destructive to society; yet, while it is accompanied by a degree of what could sardonically be called "street-theatre", it is not destructive in the obvious way of dissidents being rounded up, people being shot in the streets, etc. The excruciatingly high pitch of programmatic, systematized, coercive/violent totalitarianism in the "Western world" was probably reached in the regimes of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. The dangers of late modernity in current Western societies are of an entirely different nature. Some would say that, because such dangers are not immediately obvious, they are in some senses even more pernicious.
There is certainly more than one way of "skinning the cat", i.e., of ruining or destroying a society. One aspect of the game-mechanics that could be debated is the extent to which major urban centers—as opposed to the hinterland—constitute the strong points of the revolution. While urban centers are difficult to police and control in the context of late modern liberal democracies (i.e., from the standpoint of legitimate law enforcement); it would seem that an authoritarian, and especially a totalitarian regime, would find control of the cities comparatively far easier to effect. The countryside has always appeared to be the natural locale for partisan or guerilla resistance against any oppressive or semi-oppressive regimes.
In recent times in America, there has been a current of speculation about a "second American revolution". It could be argued that the American Civil War was itself "a second American Revolution", both in terms of the South’s attempted secession and in terms of the subsequent birth of a new America. Michael Lind’s recent book, The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution, raises these kinds of questions. It also argues that the New Deal and the Sixties could be interpreted as two other profoundly revolutionary periods. Some might have seen Newt Gingrich and his followers as trying to launch another revolution (or, really, counter-revolution). However, one of the major characteristics of the more recent "new American revolutions" has been the fact that they never developed into armed struggle on a massive scale, although the social transformations engendered have probably been no less wrenching and far-reaching as a result of their somewhat more pacific natures.
Although Minuteman may still function reasonably well as a game, its background concept and its premises are today clearly severely flawed and utterly outdated. Should Decision Games consider re-issuing the game, major work would be required on reconfiguring a coherent background. How is the game to mirror the authentic ideological, cultural, economic, regional, ethnic, and other lines of division of North America today—or possibly, tomorrow? Should the game attempt to show only purely political—as opposed to military—actions? The kind of massive, large-scale military conflict shown in Minuteman appears too hypothetical. If the situation had really gotten to the point where the Government was authoritarian or semi-authoritarian (which would imply a rather unlikely neutering of media criticism), then no patriot militias in the woods or urban guerillas in the inner-cities could constitute much of a challenge to it, given the modern military realities. A line of future development where a military invasion of America from Europe (or Asia, or anywhere else) would become possible also seems rather hypothetical.
A re-design of the game Minuteman should therefore probably focus on social/political/economic struggle, with few military aspects, or perhaps be set somewhat further in the future. One way of reducing what would certainly be the incredible military power of the Government would be to conceive the conflict along a dichotomy other than Government vs. Rebels, and have all of the starting military, police, intelligence, and bureaucratic resources and assets both appropriately weakened and "divvied up" between the two or more different factions. The very idea that an entity called "the U.S. Government", in all of its multifarious and many-splendored variety, could ever achieve a single-minded unity of purpose, seems extremely remote. The pinnacle structures of formal political national-level leadership—the Federal Presidency, Cabinet, Congress, and the Supreme Court—are in themselves extremely labyrinthine, yet they constitute only a fraction of the persons and possible interests represented in the U.S. Government.
Although there is no "shooting civil war" in the U.S. today, the fact is that social/political/economic conflict can often take on a highly sharp edge, with the losing side’s outlook condemned to near-oblivion in the society. As Professor John Gray (formerly at Oxford, now at LSE) has written, Machiavelli understood everyday politics as at the same time an extension as well as sublimation of war. Can it be hoped that truly democratic politics will maintain an extensive range of models and options for a given population to choose from?
Fashion Art and the Moral Imagination
Gary Inbinder is an attorney specializing in healthcare law. He holds a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and a J.D. from the University of La Verne (California). We have been fortunate to publish two of his previous essays: "The Judgment of Paris," Praesidium 4.2 (Spring 2004), 16-21; and "Cosmic Dualism, Moral Freedom, Teleology, and Natural Rights," Praesidium 4.3 (Summer 2004), 39-42. Mr. Inbinder resides in Woodland Hills, California.
In his recent Art, A New History, English historian Paul Johnson writes the following about what he calls "Fashion Art": "Fashion plays a useful but necessarily subordinate part in art. When it usurps order and tries to become art itself, the result, sooner or later, is a culture war, and culture wars are perhaps the cruelest and most demoralizing of all wars".1
In this essay, I discuss one particular example of "Fashion Art" by the Turner Prize winning contemporary English artist Damien Hirst. I briefly survey the history of Western aesthetics, paying attention to ideas and political and socio-economic changes that have impacted both art and the artist. I then place contemporary "Fashion Art" within its historical and cultural context, attempting to show how such "art" became a weapon in the culture wars. Finally, I will discuss how such "art" is evidence of a failure of the moral imagination among the cognoscenti of the postmodern cultural elite.
I first became acquainted with Mr. Hirst’s work through a typically insightful article by Roger Kimball appearing in the December 4, 2001, volume of the New Criterion. The article was entitled "Wrong Turns", and recounts a delightful "Emperor’s New Clothes" story about an incident involving one of Mr. Hirst’s "installations" at London’s Eyestorm Gallery. The Gallery’s janitor "mistook" the work of "art", which consisted of a pile of beer bottles, coffee cups, and overflowing ashtrays, for what it appeared to be: a pile of rubbish. Like the little boy who saw that the Emperor had no clothes, and therefore spoke the truth about what he observed, the janitor saw that rubbish is rubbish, and therefore did his job and cleaned up the mess.
Mr. Kimball found this incident aesthetically enlightening and, in recognition of the janitor’s display of good judgment and taste in the efficient performance of his duties, Kimball proposed the janitor be offered a position as art critic at one of the eminent London Newspapers. Alas, that was not to be; the "installation" which the Gallery gathered together and reassembled was valued in the six figures, and therefore regained its dubious place of honor on display, rather than being left to the rubbish heap where it belonged, and the janitor’s career as "art critic" was apparently short lived.
Mr. Hirst, however, did get a good laugh out of this incident, enjoying the publicity, and that cynical laughter of a clever and skillful artist turned meretricious trickster, is the gist of Kimball’s article. When Mr. Kimball writes about the wrong turns of twentieth-century art, a major wrong turn has been toward the fashionable practical joke. Transgressing the boundaries of bourgeois taste by offending it with apparent hoaxes disguised as fine "art", such as a six-figure heap of rubbish, is de rigueur among the trendy elites of the art world. People get away with this nonsense because there are few art critics who, like Roger Kimball, have the honesty and guts to say that the "emperor has no clothes."
From the Dada "Art" of the 1920s, exemplified by Marcel Duchamp’s famous, or should I say infamous, gallery display of a urinal and Salvador Dali’s mustached Mona Lisa, through Andy Warhol’s Pop Art of the 1960s and 1970s, to the postmodern heaps of rubbish, photographs of sadomasochist homoerotica, crucifixes in bottles of urine and dung-smeared "Madonnas", contemporary "Fashion Art" has taken a wrong turn, indeed. It has, in the words of Paul Johnson, become a weapon of the culture wars, the cultural equivalent of biological or chemical Weapons of Mass Destruction. Further, while many who play this game have a dubious underlying political agenda, all who profit from it have an equally dubious socio-economic motive: wealth, fame and acceptance within the trendy circle, with no concern for the culturally corrosive and toxic effects such "art" produces.
So why do contemporary Western artists who are free from the constraints of Church, state, and aristocratic and bourgeois tastes produce rubbish and call it art? And why do well-educated critics promote rubbish and wealthy patrons collect it? Could it be that Western civilization and culture have produced new constraints, the constraints of postmodern fashion, to which artists must adhere if they are to achieve the recognition, status and success, both critical and financial, they naturally desire? And what are the potential consequences to a culture that is being undermined from within while simultaneously being attacked from without? To attempt an answer to these questions, we must first briefly review the history of Western aesthetics, the impact of Western ideas, and the political and socio-economic forces acting on the artist and the art he or she produces.
When discussing the aesthetics of Western culture and civilization there is no better place to begin than the ideas of Plato and Aristotle. Plato is known for a mimetic, or imitative theory of art. In Plato’s philosophy, "time is the moving image of eternity," and the fine arts are, at best, "an imitation of an imitation." Beauty, on the other hand, refers to the symmetry and proportion of form that transcends time and space, and is found primarily in abstract ideas after which the world is patterned. Therefore, in my understanding of the Platonic aesthetic, a great artist would be one whose art came as close as possible to an expression of the ideal form. The artist would reach the ideal beauty of form through a process of anamnesis, or the recollection of ideas known to the soul in a previous existence. The artist would then produce a material imitation of the ideal form in space-time; the greater the artist’s wisdom and depth in understanding and the greater his skill in execution, the closer the work of art to the ideal.
Aristotle modified Plato’s mimetic theory so that the work of art was not an imitation of an actual ideal form, but of a possible or potential thing; and beauty depended on organic unity, a unity in which every part contributes to the quality of the whole. Therefore, we can see the practical side to an Aristotelian aesthetic; art is an ordering process, and the "final cause" or purpose of art ought to be the achievement of a beautiful, orderly creation which enriches us all. Further, in Aristotle’s ethics we see the operation of moral reasoning and judgment in the production of a work of art: "Art, then… is a productive state which is truly reasoned, while its contrary non-art is a productive state that is falsely reasoned; both operate in the sphere of the variable".2 So for Aristotle, the work of art, to achieve its potential, its telos or natural end—to be a good and beautiful object that enriches our lives—must be truly reasoned. That is to say, it must be developed and produced according to some true theory or principle. "Non-art" would, in its productive state, be developed according to some false theory or principle subversive of beauty and order: for example the postmodern theories that produced Mr. Hirst’s heap of rubbish.
The Classical aesthetic best exemplified by Plato and Aristotle was carried forward in Christendom—most notably by the great Doctors of the Church such as Augustine, who followed and expounded the Platonic (or neo-Platonic) view, and Thomas Aquinas, who was a noted Aristotelian. The Church considered salvation the highest purpose of Art. A beautiful work of Art was supposed to draw the soul upward toward God according to the Doctrines of the Church. Perhaps the greatest expression of this Church approved-aesthetic is the majestic vaulting and stained glass lighting of Western medieval Cathedrals, and the icons and mosaics of the East which seem to exude a holy and eternal light. In the words of Michelangelo, "If it be true that any beautiful thing raises the pure and just desire of man from earth to God, the eternal fount of all, such I believe my love."
The Church also approved the didactic purposes of art in a pre-literate era, where works of art became visual representations of Biblical teachings, just as morality plays were their verbal expression.
The Renascence heralded a re-examination of the Classics, unfiltered by Church doctrine. Great secular patrons of the Arts, such as the Florentine Medici, sponsored translations of Plato and Aristotle into Latin by scholars such as Ficino, and also sponsored the works of the greatest artists of the era such as Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael. The Church remained a great patron of the arts, and the Inquisition monitored works of art for form and content. This was especially true during and after the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent Counter Reformation.
With the Reformation came translations of both the Bible and the Classics into the vernacular and wide dissemination through the printed medium, courtesy of the newly invented printing press. The spread of learning among a growing middle class, social and economic change nourishing a re-distribution of wealth, and the concomitant development of bourgeois taste were best exemplified by the development, in the Protestant Low Countries, of a new bourgeois aesthetic. This seventeenth-century cultural milieu produced great masters of genre painting, portraiture and landscape like Rembrandt and Hals, and minor masters like Terborch, Hobbema, and the van Ruisdaels. The new Protestant bourgeoisie promoted different styles, tastes, ends and purposes from the art of Church, emperors, kings and nobles, but great art none the less: art with a humane purpose that enriched the culture and which still inspires today.
Another sea change in art came with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic Imperium. The great neo-Classicist Jacques Louis David intended his art to serve the ends of the new Revolutionary state. The neo-Classical style of David and his most distinguished pupil Ingres, which emphasized Republican virtue, moral seriousness, and a dulce et decorum pro patria mori commitment to civic duty, set the tone of one main line of French academic taste for more than a century.
Another new style of painting, best exemplified by Delacroix and Gericault, appealed more to Romantic emotion and exoticism à la Rousseau. Today we can admire and enjoy such painting for its visual beauty and the great artistic skill with which it was executed, rather than succumbing to the Romantic emotional excess drawn forth by contemplating the "sublime powers of nature". At this distance from nineteenth-century Romanticism, one might question what higher purpose or ethical principle is served by a picture of a woman being devoured by wild beasts, or a picture of the survivors of a shipwreck driven to madness and cannibalism by hunger and thirst. Of course, one can say the same of all the erotic nudes and scenes of sadistic violence, drawn from both the classics and the Bible, which for centuries covered the walls of European palaces. For example, many of the paintings of François Boucher, a favorite of King Louis XV, could easily be dismissed as "brothel art" if not for the great painterly skill and taste with which they were executed. The fact that such art, which is obviously not "rubbish", also arguably does not appear to serve some great transcendent purpose, leads me to a discussion of the modern "art for arts sake" aesthetic that took hold in the nineteenth century. In From Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun limns the social and economic changes that underlie the new aesthetic, and it is worth quoting Barzun at length:
The question remains whether or not, in making a critical judgment about art, both the critic’s and the artist’s moral responsibility must be considered correlative to their individual autonomy, for individual autonomy, free from the constraints of Church, state, aristocratic or bourgeois tastes, is the hallmark of the modern artist.
The remainder of this essay will discuss the twentieth-century rise of "Fashion Art" in which "connoisseurs" and "experts" have taken sides in the culture wars. They have become fashion arbiters who, rather than promoting fine art, now usurp the cultural order by promoting non-art "rubbish" like the Damien Hirst "installation". What this produces is not "art for arts sake", nor art for a humane or higher purpose, but non-art, for the sake of fashion, reputation and financial gain.
Before proceeding, I want to make a distinction between the role fashion has always played in the fine arts, and "Fashion Art". To make this distinction, I will return to Paul Johnson. Earlier in this essay, I discussed the nineteenth-century French academic style best exemplified by the neo-Classicism of David and Ingres, and the Romanticism of Delacroix and Gericault. By the time of the Second Empire in France, 1852-1870, these styles of painting—as taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, exhibited at the Paris salons, and marketed at galleries in Paris, London, New York, etc.—had become stilted and mannered. Such Salon art was exemplified by the works of Adolphe William Bouguereau and Jean Louis Ernest Meisonnier; artists whose names and canvases once commanded great respect and large sticker prices throughout the West, and who are now largely forgotten except as historical footnotes. Such art was well made, appealing, and fashionable at the time; it still has some aesthetic value and appeal, and is not what Johnson refers to as "Fashion Art". As Johnson writes, throughout history we see how systems of art become over-elaborate, provoking a change in fashion in an attempt to restore order and simplicity, and such change occurred dramatically in Paris, the world’s fashion center at the time of the Second Empire and the early years of the Third Republic (ca. 1871-1900). The art of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and Salon was first challenged by the contemporary realism of Courbet and Manet, followed by Impressionists like Pisarro, Degas, and Monet, and the late Impressionists and post-Impressionists like Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat, Gauguin, Cezanne, and van Gogh. The end of this era saw the rise of Cubism, Futurism, and other forms of abstract and non-traditional art.
What distinguishes the often necessary and salutary changes in artistic fashion from "Fashion Art" is, according to Johnson, "when changes in art are forced through not by the quest for order but simply the desire for novelty, itself enhanced by the needs of commerce."4 Thus art becomes a marketable commodity driven by the desire for novelty, like the creations of the Parisian dress designers who seasonally raise and lower the hems of women’s skirts. What is "in" is good, not because it is good, but because it is "in" this season.
It is here that I want briefly to discuss 1920s art fads in the socio-economic and political context of their time, and conclude by relating those expressions of artistic nihilism with our own, contemporary forms of non- art.
Of Dada, Paul Johnson is typically dismissive: "Dada was pretentious, contemptuous, destructive, very chic, publicity seeking and ultimately pointless". Of the more marketable Surrealism, which itself was an outgrowth of Cubism, Futurism, and Dada, Johnson writes, "Like Dada it was originally a literary movement… a bastard compound of the new Freudian theories about the unconscious, then becoming popular among the rich, oriental mysticism, a current craze called automatic writing and other fads."5 This non-art was born amid the cynicism and nihilism, of decadent, trendy, elite counterculture following the First World War. It was a reaction to, and rejection of, Western values which were fashionably blamed as root causes of capitalist socio-economic oppression and imperialism, and which in turn were fashionably seen as root causes of the war. However, during this same period, the new radical (many among the 1920s elite would say "progressive") politics of Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler were transforming Europe and leading it toward the inevitable catastrophe of the Second World War.
The leaders of Communism and Fascism had very definite ideas about art—most particularly Adolph Hitler, himself an erstwhile artist of modest ability. I recall reading a story told by one of Hitler’s childhood friends who remembered an outing with the nascent dictator. Viewing the Austrian city of Linz from the prospect of a nearby hill, the young Hitler portentously proclaimed he would some day tear down this symbol of turn-of-the-century Austrian bourgeois provincialism and rebuild it according to his own shining, progressive, and heroic ideals. The story may be apocryphal, but it has about it the ring of truth, for it was in Linz that the twelve-year-old Hitler attended his first Wagner opera, Lohengrin. The adolescent Hitler was "swept away by an enthusiasm knowing no bounds… by those ferocious passages of nationalism erupting throughout—the German king’s impassioned call to end ‘the need of the Reich’ through a crusade against the eastern villains menacing German soil, and the blood-curdling cry of the armed men in the final act… ‘A German sword for the German land! Thus will the power of the Reich be established.’"6 Understanding Hitler as both artist and politician is illuminating, because I think no other individual better illustrates the disastrous consequences that arise from a failure of the moral imagination, where the willful assertion of the "artist’s" warped vision of the world is loosed from all constraints of individual moral responsibility.
The "arts" mandated by the totalitarian National Socialist, Fascist, and Communist states are often seen as a reaction to the decadence of "modern art". Further, it is commonly understood that under a totalitarian regime art is made to serve the most evil of ends, including the promotion of unjust and aggressive war, the enslavement of nations, and the unjust imprisonment and genocide of those held to be enemies of the state. However, not much is written or said about how the producers and promoters of the more specious forms of modern art, or "Fashion Art", became the collaborators—willing, or unwilling—of totalitarianism. We must consider the fact that both the totalitarian regimes and the trendy elites who produced, promoted, and marketed the "Fashion Art" of the 1920s had an ostensibly common enemy, which is often referred to as the "establishment", that is to say the organic civil society which was the natural product of millennia of Western civilization and culture. That "establishment" was comprised of many free natural associations, including the nuclear family; community groups; organizations; religious institutions, which are the foundations of the social structure; and the free market capitalist system, which is the foundation of the economic structure.
The trendy 1920s counter-culture which produced, promoted, marketed, and consumed "Fashion Art" contributed, during the period between the two World Wars, to the subversion and usurpation of the Western European establishment while simultaneously benefiting from the socio-economic freedom and artistic autonomy created by the established order it sought to usurp. Concurrently, in the political sphere, the Communists, National Socialists, and Fascists could point to the trendy counter-culture as a product of capitalist bourgeois decadence: a "rubbish heap" that must be swept away by a "progressive" movement toward a new world order—which brings us full circle to Mr. Hirst’s recent London Gallery "installation".
When we consider the fact that the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century would have thought Mr. Hirst’s artwork prima facie evidence of capitalist bourgeois decadence and corruption, we should also consider the old adage that two wrongs don’t make a right. With great individual freedom and moral autonomy goes great individual moral responsibility, and moral responsibility applies to artists just as it applies to the rest of us. Those artists who take advantage of our liberty and the free market economy to cynically perpetrate their trendy hoaxes, while laughing up their sleeve at "conventional morality" and making money into the bargain, are no better than those who prostitute themselves to the evil ends of a totalitarian regime. As Aristotle wrote, non-art, in its productive state, is that which is developed according to some false theory or principle, and that applies equally to the non-art that glorified the false theories and principles of Communism and National Socialism and the non-art rubbish heap of postmodernism.
So what is a true theory or principle of art? First, from my perspective, art should not be used as propaganda or a weapon in the culture wars. Art should be for the sake of humanity, and therefore it should have a humane purpose, which requires, in the creative process, balancing the artist’s intuitive sense and perception of his or her world with the controlling force of a higher intuition. In Will, Imagination and Reason: Babbitt, Croce and the Problem of Reality, Claes Ryn relies on the aesthetic theories of the early twentieth century American scholar Irving Babbitt, who wrote, "if art is to have humane purpose, these intuitions of sense must come under the control of the higher intuitions." Dr. Ryn elaborates on Babbitt’s statement as follows:
The above I take to be a true theory or principle, in the Aristotelian sense, to guide us in our appreciation, evaluation, and judgment of art. When we look at Mr. Hirst’s pile of rubbish, or a propaganda piece of the Stalin or Hitler era, we see how the artistic intuitive sense which contemplates the world as it is has warped and twisted reality through the filter of a distorted artistic imagination, and has carried this warped vision to material fruition by the bad will of the artist. Whether it is the "deeply pessimistic, cynical" work of a postmodernist like Hirst, or the "utopian view" of a Communist or Fascist propagandist, such art reflects the "self-serving, confusing orientation of the will" of the artist. Such art is not produced for the sake of humanity, but as an anti-human Weapon of Mass Destruction in the seemingly unending culture wars. True art is an ordering process, and that ordering must be aligned with moral responsibility if the work of art is to achieve its humane purpose.
I would like to end this piece on an optimistic note, and to do so I end as I began, with a quotation from Paul Johnson: "The human need for art is greater than ever, for the world is more chaotic, and the demand for the ordering process which art supplies is rising. All the mistakes made in the last century can be corrected. In many ways the process has already started. The human race is in its infancy. The story of art has only just begun. Human life is short but the life of art is long and the best is yet to come."8 Ars longa, vita brevis.
1 Art, A New History, Paul Johnson (New York: Harper Collins 2003), 6.
2 Aristotle Ethics, trans. J.A.K. Thomson (London: Penguin Books rev. ed. 1973), 208.
3 From Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun (New York: Harper Collins 2000), 71.
4 Johnson, op. cit., 651.
5 Johnson, op. cit., 669-670.
6 Richard Wagner, The Man, His Mind, and His Music, Robert W. Gutman (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1968), 426.
7 Will, Imagination and Reason: Babbitt, Croce and the Problem of Reality, Claes G. Ryn (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers 1997), 200-201.
8 Johnson, op. cit., 752.
The Prize for the Race
Mr. Davies’ stories about academe have become a very pleasant fixture in Praesidium.
"She’s almost as smart as I am, Walter!"
Big laugh. Loleen’s big laugh, head thrown back in a tingle of earrings, upper lip stretched till it glistened, three husky rhythmic shouts. The rite duly performed, she resumed pouring words over Walter’s paper-strewn desk in a voluble cascade. A cascade that was one decibel short of either mirth or wrath—he could never be sure which. A fearful cascade.
"She’s my oldest sister’s oldest child, so hell, we pra-ticly grew up playing together. I helped her do her math in high school when she was a freshman and I was a senior. You know how that went! Come to find out, it wasn’t neither one of us gonna be a rocket scientist, you know. But I did the literary magazine that year, I was the editor, and Toriqua she was already giving me things like… you know, the most beautiful little poems she’d be writing. Do you gotta answer that phone, Walter? ’Cause I’m just wanting to put her resumé just right here where you can see it."
And Loleen proceeded not only to plant a couple of stapled pages squarely on top of the Dean’s confidential memo, but to cut Walter’s fingers off from the buzzing, blinking phone carriage with a slender chocolate arm a-rattle in bracelets. The buzzes and red blinks died simultaneously, just before his itching fingers could reach the goal.
"There, now. That couldn’t have been nobody. See, you don’t even got a blink on your voice mail there. Just some student gonna be late, or something. Now this Torique I’m telling you about, the students is where she’ll come into her own. They’ll understand her, you know what I mean? Fresh blood and all. She’s like their age group, you know? She’ll talk their talk."
If the Dean’s memo had announced massive lay-offs prior to a bulldozing of Crawford Hall, Walter could not have looked more distressed… but his painfully twisted brow, though pointed at what remained visible of the official letterhead, covered a blind gaze. Did Loleen chatter this jive, he pondered for the umpteenth time, to annoy him, or could she really not control herself? Surely it was the latter. She would hardly set about dealing multiple knife wounds to the English language on an occasion when she wished a serious favor of him. But that made it worse. That meant, at the very least, that she could not comprehend the gravity of the situation. At worst, it meant that she had no idea how… how down-in-the-Delta she sounded. She was herself far, far too close to the students’ level, too apt to revert to their speech habits rather than to set them a proper example. And what, after all, could he say to her? "Talk like you got an education, girl!" That would go over well with all the crackpots and grandstanders in the African-American Forum (every fourth Wednesday… to think that the VP accepted their antics as committee work!), even if he could bring himself to be so rude.
"… but by then she was working on her Master’s, and she didn’t need no man like that holding her back, anyway. Am I right? You got two daughters, Walter. Would you want some doped-up—"
Irresistibly, he found himself groping after the longest words, the stuffiest phraseology, as if this might remind Loleen that she was employed by a college English department. He always ended up despising the postures he assumed in these exchanges, yet he always reprised the role on the next occasion.
"Umm… so are you giving me to understand that your… your niece has terminated her Master’s thesis?"
"I didn’t say that, Walter. What I said was, she only likes the thesis hours, that’s all."
Walter couldn’t suppress a little groan. In the early going, when Loleen was just an ebullient recruit from a respected state university in Tennessee, he and she had had a knock-down-drag-out over the unfortunate coalescence, through Southern drawling, of "lack" and "like". He had thumped the dictionary, while she had called him an assimilationist and very nearly a patriarchal flunky—proving, by the way, that she was entirely capable of grasping abstract principles and articulating intricate polysyllabic slurs. He tried very hard not to look at her. He looked, instead, at the photo of his two daughters whose costly frame Loleen’s bracelets had almost raked from his desk. (Now that would have set some real fur to flying, he mused acidly as his jaws worked. The younger child was dark like him—about as dark as Loleen’s arm—and, like him, would be wedded to her glasses permanently; but the elder child was as fair as his wife Patrice, and perhaps even more lovely.) What did this chit of a soapbox rebel, with her mock-African ornamentation and her solecism-friendly ideology, know of misery, of oppression? Could he have stopped the steady spate of drivel pouring from her mouth if he had shouted, "Why do you think my name is Walter Walter? Because my mother misunderstood the form at the hospital. Because I couldn’t bring myself to change it later and remind her forever of her shame by taking a new name. And you want me to honor that shame? You want us to send more girls out to misname their babies?"
"I’ll look at it later," he said quietly. "I’ll look at her… your niece’s resumé… when I have a chance."
"S’all I ask, brother."
Brother. Yes, that was the most curious thing about the irritation Loleen always inspired in him. He was ashamed for her, too. In some unfathomable way, she too belonged in that frame—she whose color was closer to his younger daughter’s (and to his own) than was his wife’s. He was not only embarrassed by Loleen, he was embarrassed for her. Why did she have to play the fool? He had seen ample evidence of her writing ability: she could spell "lack" and avoid double negatives when she wrote a conference paper. How could she possibly take pride in promulgating the stereotype that Americans of African descent were too dense to master proper English? What dishonor—what folly—to have hoodwinked oneself into believing that incoherent blabber was a blow for freedom!
The rattle of the bracelets at his desk’s edge roused Walter. Loleen was leaning so far toward him that her face was a blur above his glasses. Had she read his thoughts? Her tone had softened dramatically, and her grammar was miraculously healed.
"You’ve got something on your mind, don’t you? Something big."
He made a dismissive gesture. "Things are only as big as we make them—"
"Then something you’ve made big." She would not relent. "Something big for you."
Walter was both touched by this unexpected intimacy and prickled by it. The warmth which swept up his shirtsleeves and collar would make him start sweating in another moment. He leaned back in his chair, struggling for distance as a drowning man struggles for air, and cleared his throat.
"I’ve got a candidate coming in this morning."
"For the composition job? For Toriqua’s…."
Even before Loleen straightened up from his desk, her tone had already shattered the spell. There had been no complex grammatical construction in the brief outburst for it to violate, that brassy, sassy tone which could erupt into a laugh or a curse with equal ease. But the next bit of hypotaxis which came within range would be machine-gunned. If only she had been able to swallow her indignation that her own petty, unethical designs were in jeopardy, Loleen might have heard his full confession: how this white man on whose vita Yale and Purdue and MIT appeared prominently (where could names like that hide on a vita?) frightened the hell out of him. How the gross incongruity of the occasion—a spectacularly successful academic applying for an entry-level position at a Southern, predominantly black community college—made him seethe with the certainty that he was the brunt of a joke, and then with shame for feeling such certainty? How he had dreaded for three days the mere notion of that first encounter, when he must introduce himself—absurdly, comically, disgracefully—as Walter Walter.
If only Loleen hadn’t moved a muscle, he probably would have spilled his guts out to her in some way which she could understand, perhaps, far better than Patrice. A close call. Good thing Loleen was invincibly self-interested, twenty-four hours a day. And yet, Walter was surprised to glimpse, within the gray clouds which immediately repaired the rift over his anxiety, a longing regret.
"There’s his c.v.," he nodded dryly, almost haughtily, indicating with his chin a sheet all-but-hidden beneath the Dean’s memo and, now, the famous niece’s resumé. He well knew that Loleen could see nothing useful of the document, and he wondered if she would have the nerve to reach over and fish it out. When she failed to do so (probably not for want of nerve, but in disdain: he observed her fingertips growing almost white where they pressed her elbows in a pugnacious arm lock), he continued.
"A Ph.D. Two of his degrees are from Yale, where he also taught briefly. I managed to check out his book on the Enlightenment last night—not from our library, of course; I had to go down to Tuscaloola—and, I must say…" (Walter eased back in his chair now, strangely enjoying himself) "he’s a very learned man."
"Bull!" Loleen writhed back on her spiked heels so as not to have to look at him. "An African man driving across town to a campus named by the native people they stole it from to check out a book about their Enlightenment, when they did all their best stealing and slaving—I bet your great man’s book didn’t say nothing about that!"
She was double-negativing again, and the last syllable of "Enlightenment" was a drawled mit as long as all three preceding syllables… but Walter was deeply impressed. The irony, he admitted, was real, and the grasp of historical events astonishing in one so generally hostile to "picky details". Nevertheless, he corrected very quietly, peering over his glasses, "I’m not an African, Loleen. Neither are you."
"And who d’we have to thank for that, Walter?" she burst out in lilting fury which, with a fine tune, could have been merriment. "Anyway, to them you are! One drop, Walter—and you’ve got a hell of a lot more ’n that, brother!"
How he would eventually have responded to the glower which she unleashed upon him at that instant—whether he could even have met her eyes for five seconds running—remained an unsolved mystery for Walter. A gentle knock on the slightly ajar door shocked them both like a gunshot. Yet the mystery, Walter knew painfully, would settle somewhere in his soul’s most hidden places and fester there with other mysteries of its kind.
The face which peered through the door at them vaguely resembled a rising moon—a full moon rising. The bald pate shone splendidly in the office’s neon light; and the tiny orifices of mouth, eyes, nostrils, and ears, though all plainly visible against the smooth, pale surface, had the distant uncertainty of definition belonging to lunar craters on a calm night.
"Vesperie. Xavier Vesperie. I had an appointment… at nine o’clock. It is now… by the clock out here, it’s nine o’clock. I can come back later. I just didn’t want you to… to think that I had arrived late. Please excuse… I can come back…."
The face’s incipient retreat drew Walter from his chair. "Not at all, Mr…. Dr. Vesperie. Come right in." He studied Loleen’s downcast expression while feeling his way around the desk. She was no doubt sharing his thought: How much had he heard? For he had probably arrived early, so as to knock exactly at nine. What was that he’d said? "I had an appointment"—not "I have"—as if acknowledging the likelihood that he had been nudged to another hour. Walter knew that traitorous "had" as he knew the assassin signals of his rising blood pressure. He would not have expected to find such gremlins in the man who owned the curriculum vitae buried on his desk.
"Come right in. Yes, that’s it. Loleen, this is… Dr. Xavier Vesperie. Dr. Vesperie, this is our leading nineteenth-century Americanist, Dr. Loleen Doucey."
"Listen to him—as if I don’t spend all my time teaching freshman comp!"
Except for drawling "time" and dropping the "g" from "teaching", Loleen’s elocution was suddenly flawless. She virtually launched a lovely long-fingered hand into Dr. Vesperie’s somewhat convex blue tie, and held it there like a weapon until the visitor pressed it deferentially. Deference? Walter watched the anemic, stubby fingers feel their way around the back of the lean black hand. Curiosity, perhaps? Flirtation with otherness?
""I have a class, Walter… Dr. Walter. In fact, I’m going to be late now."
"Pleased to meet you, Dr. Vesperie."
"I… yes. I hope our paths will cross later."
Suddenly, it was here: the moment he had dreaded for three days. Loleen had vanished, and the two of them were standing around looking at each other’s lapels like a couple of butlers waiting for a bell to ring. He realized that he didn’t really have to cross one of the most unpleasant bridges: in fact, the time to cross properly had come and gone. But in a surge of something like defiance, Walter thrust out his right hand—a thick spear to Loleen’s supple dart—and looked his man dead in the eye.
"I’m Walter Walter."
The watery blue eyes lowered, perhaps to the hand that he felt being pressed lightly. The smile… it seemed legitimate enough, a thin show of teeth to release the "e’s" of "pleased to meet you". He realized that he was staring. It would have been so much easier to say "Walt Walter", or even "Wally Walter". But no, he would never do that again; he had done it in graduate school, but he would never do it again. Not for anyone. ("Wally" was not an option, anyway, even in grad school. The bullies had called him "Wally" when he was a kid, along with "Wawa" and "Dub-dub" [for "double-double-u"]. One of them had left him with a pinkie that wouldn’t close all the way on occasions such as this handshake. The twelve-year-old Walter, already slammed to the floor, had raised the hand to avoid having his teeth kicked in.)
"You know what they called me in high school?" smirked Vesperie irrelevantly—or with incredibly perceptive relevance—letting the hand slide free. Walter felt his jaw falling. "They called me ‘Fifteen’" he laughed openly, jovially. "My initials… ‘XV’. The Roman numerals for ‘fifteen’!"
Something in Walter snapped back, "We didn’t study the Romans in my high school"… but his jaw, all the while, was re-fastening itself.
"Well," resumed Vesperie, his watery eyes growing round like little blue marbles. "You need a composition teacher, and I need a job. Maybe I could take some of the load off of Ms…. off of Dr. Doucey so that she could teach the nineteenth century."
With an effort, Walter wrested his stare from the man and looked about his office. Chairs, perhaps? The two of them sitting, he pretending to scour the c.v. while the other juggled patented answers? He didn’t think he could do it. He already felt himself suffocating. How much pussy-footing could you do around the only real question: Why the hell does a man of your credentials want to work in a dump like this? Whose daughter did you rape—or whose son?
""You know what?" he said slowly, deliberately. "I have a class, too, at eleven o’clock. We have less than two hours. Why don’t we talk while we walk? A lot of your interest in this job, it seems to me, might be affected by what you see with your own eyes."
"Capital!" piped Vesperie. Sweet Jesus… capital!
Walter didn’t even bother to take the vita. Wrestling with the dead bolt after he had pulled the door behind them, he made sure that the man from Yale had a good look at his fungal-green key.
They took a left and exited Crawford Hall quickly (might as well save the worst for the last—or maybe, Walter mused, he just needed fresher air than a century-old rat trap could offer). Groups of students, practically each member a head taller than either professor, parted for the two dignitaries on the sidewalks without so much as interrupting their animated conversations. There were many such groups: the main parking lot was immediately adjacent. Either they were all late for class, or they had all arrived almost an hour early for their next class, or they were enjoying the fine fall weather in good company, or they were moseying over to the Commons for a middling late breakfast, or… Walter nervously eyed one or two hands that slid into pockets just before he and his guest passed—and then, no less nervously, he glanced behind his glasses at the bald, slightly rotund, enigmatically smiling white man beside him. The closest thing to his color they met on these walkways was some fair-skinned Asians—Iranians, Syrians, a few Palestinians (one of them, Hafiz, always beaming except when announcing to the world that he was going home soon to strap a bomb around himself). What did the man from Yale make of this overly spiced melting pot? What exactly was Yale like, in comparison, Walter wondered? When they became distinctly mired behind a clique of sweat-shirted basketball players (from the altitude of whose ambling shoulders, presumably, their Lilliputian figures could not be detected), he almost yielded to blurting out, "What’s it like at Yale?" He longed to know, but… but he didn’t trust himself. He didn’t trust his tongue, his heart, his chained demons. ("At Yale, you have to lower standards to achieve a degree of diversity," one demon was already whispering. "Here we have to double security to keep our diversity from blowing up the dorms."
"The bookstore and the Student Commons are in that building," he said.
Vesperie nodded behind his moonbeam smile.
"We won’t go in. It’s just… students."
The funereal basketball procession did go in, liberating them to accelerate and share the sunlight.
"The dorms are to your right, beyond the parking lot. All of this that you’ve seen so far is the older section of campus. [‘Old’ doesn’t mean ‘scenic’ here, as it does at Yale.] The Commons has been renovated, but… it sits along the border, so to speak. The dormitories are… in some cases, quite decrepit. One of them burned down last year. Two students died. [Lloyd Calloway—one of my best freshmen, always ready with a joke—and his cousin.] I believe the state opted not to prosecute for building code violations if the county would undertake to… to renovate the whole section [to dispose of the whole big death trap] within three years. As you can see over there, new construction had already been completed elsewhere—right there between the hedges, the new Administration Building. [The bureaucrats had to park their asses in a place without rats and window units before they could think about that rusty, seventy-year-old fire escape half-falling off the wall.] And just before the tragedy, the Permi-Tech Group—our biggest local employer—had donated the money for the Permi-Tech Building, where the science and business classes meet. [You must have read about that in the paper: why am I speaking to you as if you just got off a plane from New Haven?] It caused quite a stir locally… a very generous donation [most of which reached the pocket of the Group’s president’s nephew, who owns a construction company]."
"Yes. Yes, I read about it in the paper."
"I’ll… I’ll take you over there. It’s really a wonder of the world, that building. They say that the humanities will come next, though… [though not after the fire] though I don’t expect we’ll have anything quite so grand."
Why was he steering a course for the Permi-Tech Building? The whole point of this odyssey had been to rub the fellow’s clean white face in the facts of life—and here he was, taking the man from Yale to the P-T Building as if afraid that he might see rodent droppings elsewhere.
"We could turn here and go up to the Administration Building [where you will also see no cobwebs or gnawed chairs], but I’m afraid no one is scheduled to meet with you. You understand… the appointment is just a renewable year’s contract. With no benefits to speak of. That’s how we could [how we can, damn it!] afford to offer as much as… or, at any rate, the amount that we’re offering in salary."
"Of course! I’ll be eligible for Medicare pretty soon, anyway. I just need to pay some bills."
"Don’t we all! [So why don’t you get a real job at a real college?] Well, then… do you… shall we visit the Admin Building, or go on to the P-T Building?"
"It’s entirely up to you."
"But I… I’m willing to give you the entire tour [minus the rats]."
"Of course! Well…"
"Although it is getting on toward… almost nine-thirty [a mere ten minutes from now. Am I afraid that the VP might see my man from Yale and have the bright idea of giving him my job?]."
"Well, then. Perhaps we should…"
Such an operatic rendition of his name could only have come from the ample lungs of Augustine. Walter, curiously, discovered that he was not sorry to feel the flowing, rainbow-colored robe spill sensuously through his glasses as he turned. Augustine had spread both arms broadly from his polychromatic poncho (whatever they called it in Nigeria), but he made no further effort to grab Walter by the shoulders after spying his guest. On the other hand, neither did his arms sink one centimeter—a measurement by which his glistening smile probably broadened behind a flattering "ah".
"Umm… Augustine Nge, Xavier Vesperie. Dr. Vesperie is interviewing for an English position. Dr. Vesperie, Professor Nge is our…"
"Enchanté, Doctah Vespah-rie! We are most fortunate to have you among us!"
Walter sighed over his aborted introduction, admiring in almost hypnotized abstraction the Nigerian’s utterly flawless chocolate hand gripping the white man’s. It dawned on him that "Vesperie" would have been a French name, and yet Augustine had drawled the middle syllable just as he dropped English "r’s" in his mission-school version of an Oxford accent. Everyone about campus obligingly accepted that Augustine was a native French-speaker, since that language was one of the two colonial grafts forced upon his culture. He certainly spoke a kind of French… but was it, perhaps, as idiosyncratic as Loleen’s English? Would anyone have cared, even though he taught French along with several Business courses? Did the colonial outrage allow him the same unlimited free pass in pronunciation as it allowed Loleen in double negatives? Odd, that the two of them…
"Isn’t that so, Waltah?"
"Yes, quite so. Er… what?"
Augustine’s musical mirth could probably be heard from the parking lot. People from that far away were probably already charting a course that would spare them a close encounter.
"I was saying that the place needs a touch of class, you know. An atmosphee-uh of scholah-ship." The final word’s "o" rhymed with "go", and "ship" very nearly came out "sheep". "We have too much ball-playing, you know. Play ball when you are a keed, fine. But college is to learn. Walter is one of the few who day-uh to admeet this."
It struck Walter that this was quite true. In fact, it struck him that Augustine was generally, if rather covertly, disliked about campus for no other reason than that he went around saying such things quite openly. True things. As if stifling true utterances in his homeland had caused some valve to burst fatefully, he went about in his adoptive Land of the Free terrorizing the population with his frankness. Not that anyone would admit as much. Loleen belonged to the clique which reviled him—absurdly, and with manifest racism—for buying a nice house in a white neighborhood. In that pair, verily (as Walter had been musing before), lay the paradox in a nutshell: Loleen Call-Me-African Doucey with her knick-knacks and baubles out of a catalogue and her incorrigible Delta slang, Augustine Nge with his unblemished black skin and Igbo-prince wardrobe speaking Oxford English and expostulating à haute voix that he was an American—just an American! Was everybody insane in this place?
"They-uh now, Waltah, I will leave you alone with your companion and the poem that is in your heart. Did you know, Doctah Vespah-rie, that Waltah is an accomplished poet? He is unappreciated around hee-uh, of course. But you will read his boook and see for yourself."
Walter was now hopelessly tongue-tied. At least Vesperie didn’t ask for further explanation as the splendidly plumed figure swayed toward the P-T Building, where they themselves hesitated to follow until the distance was politely safe.
"Capital fellow! I’ll bet he has some fascinating stories to tell."
Stories? Like the time the traffic cop beat him up in Lagos? Walter peeked at his "companion".
"You’ll have to ask him some time."
As if by common consent, they at last began to drift after Augustine’s concrete wake, and to lengthen their strides more comfortably when his coiled rainbow finally melted into the glass doors of the P-T Building like Iris returning to Olympus. Glass and steel vaulted skyward over the vanished figure, perhaps more of the former than the latter (if glass, then not quite transparent; if steel, then almost transparent). Anyone would naturally feel like a god stepping into such a space—far more than when browbeaten by the Admin Building’s columns, still visible over a hedge. White forearms with white fists on top, Walter had sometimes mused, never with any racial undercurrent (always puzzled that some part of his mind explicitly remarked the absence of racial undercurrent)… what an image! Was he a good poet? Would the man from Yale ask for a copy of his book? Some of the poems rhymed—what would a Yalee think of that? Wasn’t rhyme dead? Was modern architecture superior to classical, in the same way—shouldn’t a poet who favored rhyme enjoy soaring white columns? Shouldn’t a teacher who insisted on paradigm over patois regard the P-T Building as the Tower of Babel rather than Olympus?
His head began to buzz. With every step, it buzzed more, and the "fresh air" of his physical surroundings only seemed to disorient him worse than ever. Madness, all madness.
"I love the names the Nigerians have," said the voice at his side, as if in memory or from a great distance. "Their Christian names, I mean. Ambrose… Godwin… Valentine…"
"My mother was going to name me Ezekiel," said some subtle thief of tongues in Walter’s voice. "Ezekiel Lazarus."
"Names of… of resurrection. Of new birth."
Yes—and instead, she got stuck in a circle of paperwork. Walter fought to regain his earthly footing, literally clenching his fists. Already the P-T Building was looming over them like a benign iceberg. He had just time enough to nod toward the gym.
"Um… the Foster Calligrew Gymnasium, to your left."
"Yes, I noticed that a while back. Very state-of-the-art, compared to the English building. And I’ll bet you didn’t need either a wealthy donor or an impending lawsuit to have it funded."
What did he mean by that? "What… what do you mean?"
"Oh, you know… what your friend Augustine was talking about. The inverted priorities."
Walter hardly felt himself more master of his tongue than a minute earlier when he grumbled back, "Our basketball team won the conference three years running, just… just recently." How recently? He had always ignored that particular campus laurel before.
"And that’s good—it’s good that young people should learn discipline, in any pursuit. But the knees will give out, sooner rather than later, and then what do you do from your chair or your desk?"
"Write poetry," murmured Walter more morosely than ever, yet content to let reality slide through his fingertips rather than persist in this absurd sparring. He thought of his high school coach, one of the few faculty figures he had actually liked in those days… and liked, no doubt, because the man regarded him as athletically hopeless and took it easy on him. With the others, it was, "Move your butt, Smith!" and, "Get the lead out, Jones!" But the mild, wearily sarcastic, "Come on, now, Walter!" always seemed to evoke his first name—though, of course, this was an entirely fanciful conclusion on the spectacled boy’s part. Would the boy have run faster if he had been Zeke Walter ("Shake it, Walter—hit it, ZW!")? Would he have grown taller? Exactly how much of his life’s misery had been preordained by a stupid mistake in the maternity ward?
The Permi-Tech Building received them just as Walter was entertaining this thought, its uniformly cooled air and oddly splendid penumbra (admitted, perhaps, by the not-quite-transparent glass or steel) swallowing them in fantasy as if poetic whimsy had indeed suddenly triumphed over reality. For Walter was now completely disarmed, as he always was in these corridors. The rumination, "What if I were Ezekiel Walter?" merged seamlessly with the blossoming of this Space Age biosphere around his person. Resurrection… rebirth… yes, he might have been an engineer or architect instead of a rhyming poet and pettifogging academic, with just a little courage. He might have been able to afford a house where Augustine lived. Everything might have been different, for Ezekiel Lazarus Walter.
He was almost startled to re-discover Vesperie at his side. Almost. But the almost-transparency of the carpeted, glue-scented, high-vaulted promenade before them muted his discomfort now as well as his footsteps. Vesperie felt it, too, he could tell. The man from Yale was gaping at the two decks of classrooms which ran up and down the great corridor, their inner walls fully glassed and revealing teacher-student combinations in a softly lit action yet in unbroken silence. He and his charge might have been in a cathedral—in a nave the size of an aircraft carrier’s flight deck, its stained glass updated to dozens of panels where live figures mimed dramas of arcane significance.
Think of the money, Walter mused to himself in awe rather than bitterness. He must have exhaled the words audibly, for Vesperie responded in a kind of gasp.
"I had not thought that death had undone so many souls."
"Oh, a bit of Dante."
"Ah… Dante." So their outpost of progress was Inferno’s gate… he should have said that, with his rhymed poetry. But without progress, where was there hope?
Vesperie laughed nervously and resumed. "It’s like a… a shopping mall constructed by NASA. Think what kind of theater you could have built at a fraction of the cost… what kind of art gallery."
"Think on. I come here sometimes, just to think."
"Like a church."
"Yeah… yes, exactly. Like a church. Like a church I don’t belong to, a church in a foreign land I’m visiting. I don’t even know what the order of worship is, and I’m half afraid of committing some sacrilege."
"Even the students who pass us seem…"
"Yes, they keep their voices down in here, for some reason."
"Is that a fountain I hear?"
They were approaching an oasis of potted ferns. The radiance which shimmered through the immense double skylights (running the length of the corridor’s vaulted ceiling in their ballistic-quality glass or steel or plastic) appeared to settle rather more luxuriously upon this display-case paradise, as if through some sympathetic magnetism of slender rays and purling water.
"Look inside there," pointed Walter.
"A child-care center for employees and students. It virtually runs itself, since the Early Childhood people staff it with qualified students—a kind of practicum, with credit hours."
"Yes. Very progressive."
Walter was aware that these were his finest moments as a tour-guide: aware, and somewhat frustrated. What on earth were they doing here? They were at this instant—geographically, financially, and culturally—at the antipodes from Crawford Hall. He had effectively hurried Vesperie past every wreck and ruin on campus (the dormitories, the music building) along with every sumptuous setting which was sabotaged by openly venal maneuvering (the Admin Building, the gym). Was this any way to warn the man from Yale about just what he would be up against, or to observe his expression when he came up against it? Were they here because he himself felt more comfortable in this progressive module, spoke more easily in this interplanetary stop-over? They had already spent the bulk of their first hour together wandering around a… a hi-tech mall, as Vesperie had rightly dubbed it. This edu-techno-mall. Was he ashamed to show the man his campus’s other side—its real side, as far as humanities professors were concerned? Or did the company of someone with a killer c.v. make him, in some treacherous fashion, indulge his eternal fantasy of a better life—a world where you could read poetry in paradise?
"That must be the student lounge. Wide-screen TV… billiard tables!"
"Yes," drawled Walter, recovering a touch of acerbity with some effort. "One of those tables would have refurbished the ancient computers in our writing lab [another tinder box waiting to ignite]. I really should be showing you that. In fact… we should be getting back. But look, since we’re here… here’s the faculty lounge, on the other side. We might as well get a cup of drinkable coffee."
The faculty lounge was the one room in the building (as it always was in all buildings) without any glass facing a promiscuously traveled hallway. Walter once again played the part of magician/escort, easing open a door which promised no more than a janitor’s mops (not that this carpeted wonderland needed a mop). Inside, a flood of genuine, unfiltered sunlight streamed at them through an outside window, almost as thrilling as the scent of coffee. They both staggered briefly. Then Walter led his charge by the elbow (he hadn’t touched him since shaking hands) to the left, navigating him around a sofa’s arm, until they were safely back in relative obscurity.
"Someone needs to shut that blind," said a husky female voice in faintly maternal tones, and a form turned its back to them and went about the task before either could acknowledge the now unnecessary favor.
"If the isotope is there, then why wouldn’t that be conclusive?"
"But how do they know that it wasn’t there before?"
"By testing for it, Earl!"
"And there’s the flaw. Read the methodology. Under those conditions, two miles under the surface…"
"This," whispered Walter, smiling, "is when it truly hits you that you’re in the science building. Sugar?"
Why had he smiled? It was the first time he had done so today, hand-shaking included. Loleen and the Dean included. Patrice and the girls included, probably. As he peered into his own steaming coffee mug, Walter’s lips parted reflexively to sip—but he was in fact marveling that this fragmentary conversation, which would have been nonsense to him even had he observed the opening volley, could bring the smile to his face which he had begrudged his own daughters that morning. He glanced almost guiltily at the skirmishers: Jessup of Chemistry, and the other a hot-shot just brought in to teach Physics… Harlan had called him Earl. They were both of about his age, both white, and both paid perhaps three or four times what anyone in Crawford Hall made. Absorbed in their controversy, they did not so much as wave from their cushions at him or his guest or anyone else. And he had smiled. Was it because he was proud of them in front of his Yale man? Would he have smiled, anyway, if he had entered alone? Probably not… but he hadn’t smiled now in the spirit of showing off. He most certainly would not have smiled if Loleen’s niece had been his companion. He had smiled because he felt himself in the presence of a man who was as impressed as he himself was—a true intellectual, someone who could appreciate the heat of purely disinterested argument. The antithesis of Loleen.
Was there a racial overtone to this delight—was he ingratiating himself…
"Sorry, yes. Let’s sit over there."
… ingratiating himself to the superior race? What perfect crap! It wasn’t his fault if he and Loleen couldn’t sit about arguing over the referential qualities of a symbol. If practically everyone in the sciences was either Caucasian or Asian, it wasn’t their fault that this very campus had pumped its budget into basketball—that it took a donation from a bunch of fat white guys to construct a science building (a project which just happened to resurrect one or more of their nephews’ companies). To hell with it…
"Thank you, Letitia. That’s much better—the sun hasn’t gone far south for he winter, has it? Um, this is Dr. Xavier Vesperie…"
"Vesperie, yes, I know. So pleased to meet you, sir!"
… to hell with it all, if he had been with Augustine, the Nigerian would have beat him to the smile—would have boomed out, "Scholah-sheep is coming to our world, Waltah!"
"You mustn’t let this building blind you to the charms of Crawford Hall, Mr. Vesperie. My office was there for thirty years. Frankly, I miss the old place. It just needs a little tender loving care. It was constructed in 1892, you know—the main wing, at least. Yes, in 1892. Another wing was added in 1908…."
Letitia was off and running, very much sounding as though she had witnessed every stage of the campus’s evolution personally. And perhaps she had. She must have been seventy if she was a day. Yet she held her head of steel-wool hair as erect as ever, and her high, bare forehead still reached Walter’s hairline when the two of them stood together. He had no trouble imagining her a kind of Zulu princess, even in her silver years. He had been told (in confidential whispers that he never sought out or encouraged) that her grasp of accounting methods was somewhat antiquated; but she continued to teach a full load in that department, as she had for almost four decades, and the most swaggering basketball player or bejewelled bad boy grew sullenly submissive under her stare.
"It was I who opened the blinds when I put on the coffee early this morning," Letitia was chirping on, having doubled back on an earlier subject while Walter was musing. Though lately exiled from her beloved Crawford Hall, she had already adopted the new building as her special charge. "The temperature is growing quite cold at about sunrise. They say we will have a mild winter, but my peach trees have already shed their leaves."
Walter passively admired the perfectly manicured quality of her English. There used to be teachers like this in his department, too. Miss Devonport… Miss Paisley… and they always called you "Miss" or "Mister", whether or not you had a Ph.D. That had driven Loleen crazy about Ornella Paisley, who had retired just two years ago. No, those two hadn’t gotten along at all.
Only at that moment did Walter recall that he hadn’t properly introduced Letitia to Vesperie. It was far too late now. He could only peer uneasily over his glasses at the candidate, hoping that they knew better at Yale than to blurt, "I didn’t catch your name."
"I would be starting the semester a bit late," Vesperie was saying in answer to a question. "That is, if Dr. Walter should choose to take me on."
"The freshman enrollment figures…." Walter had to clear his throat. "This year’s freshman class turned out to be much larger than we had projected."
"Well, sign him on, for heaven’s sake!" commanded Letitia impassively. "It isn’t every day that we have a chance to acquire an Ivy League gentleman."
Walter was about to say something suitably placatory when his thoughts were interrupted by a quick mathematical calculation. Ivy League gentleman? He had confided that information about the candidate to no one but Loleen, and to her just this morning. Almost ten o’clock… but Letitia had clearly been sitting in the lounge several minutes before they entered. If Loleen had already been late for her nine o’clock class when she left his office, how had she found the time to go spilling gossip all over campus? Had she used one of those cell phones that all the kids owned?
"I thought you were going to cut back on coffee. Your blood pressure, you know. High blood pressure is the curse of our race, Mr. Vesperie, especially our males. My late husband, who died in 1967…."
By the time they were wandering back toward Crawford Hall, the ten o’clock change of the guard had come and gone some minutes ago. There was scarcely time left for the "special exercise" which Walter had to administer before his own class. Was that, perhaps, why he had been dragging his heels all morning—to avoid giving Vesperie the writing test? But give it he would… and, anyway, that was far too easy an explanation of his official incompetence today. Blaming his inferiority complex—his race, his name, his field, his age, his height, his bad eyes, his unlucky star—had become almost habitual with him, as he mulled now in bittersweet comfort. Good God, was that it? Did he actually enjoy the company of this patent failure, this Man from Yale who was begging for a crummy job at the crummiest of schools? Did he feel… not the satisfied envy of seeing the high brought low, but the camaraderie of having found Fortune’s second-most hated stepchild?
They said virtually nothing on their way back along the network of sidewalks; but now it was a comfortable nothing, as of two men who could sense the profound buzz within each other’s interior world. And even the writing test, Walter realized, could not rupture this strange fraternity—because administering the test was Walter’s duty, and Vesperie would understand it as a duty. He would probably even like him a little more for it—if, in some peculiar way, one could imagine liking between two such mismatched creatures.
Was there any last desperate chance to warn this man off? That was his real duty, his solemn moral duty (as Mother would have said—or Letitia, or Miss Paisley), and Walter had truly dodged, ducked, and evaded it all morning long. Was there still time to grab Vesperie’s arm and hiss, "We had two homicides on campus last year, and six or eight rapes. And none of them was ever reported as such. We have our own little reality here, and the official line—no, the unofficial line: that’s the whole point, because people like Loleen swallow it hook, line, and sinker—is that the police, the outside world, wouldn’t understand! They might call a murder a murder. They wouldn’t understand that we don’t really let it bother us that much—not to where we’re going to ruin our lives over it. Do you get it now? Do you see what you’re doing?"
Walter opened his mouth with every intention of speaking. A heavy exhalation came out, and all he could do was grind his teeth after its departure.
But the most remarkable thing happened just then—the most appalling thing (for the violent crime rate, after all, wasn’t their special reality: Walter had never meant to conjure up physical violence, even in his imagination). As they neared the front corner of Crawford Hall, which now barely hid the small portico at its entrance, they heard shouting. Briefly, Walter hoped it might erupt into laughter. It had that mocking tone he so often detected in Loleen’s voice, midway between hatching a classic punch-line and delivering a mortal insult. He glanced nervously at Vesperie, then averted his eyes when the other glanced at him. He would have liked to be able to reflect wryly, "There, now—he doesn’t even understand that those girls are just horsing around. How’s he ever going to make it around here?" But he was not very reassured himself. Perhaps the very absence of an audience to play to made these vying shouts sound blood-curdling.
Then the obscenities came in full spate. Practically every word—chain after chain of them, sustained with something like genius, one lithely hooking into another like the paper links school kids used to build into Christmas-tree decorations.
As they rounded the corner into a pocket of dense shadow under the extended eave, a large book cracked gunshot-crisp on the pavement at their feet, and a broad-shouldered girl in a pink silk blouse came reeling into their arms.
"Hey!" shouted a new voice—a man’s voice, louder than anything yet heard on the scene. It commanded instant silence; for though it had nothing to say, its tone carried an indignation which seemed to come from the clouds. It was Walter’s.
He wrestled to lift the girl out of the staggering Vesperie’s arms. The slick mousse all over her hair left a coolness in his hot cheek. When he could, he readjusted his glasses and found the other girl under the portico.
"Take this somewhere else!" he ordered, not so loudly but with precisely the same dose of indignation.
The other figure hesitated a moment, then charged. Walter could see the murder in her bent brow and huge eyes. He took a step to meet it—not her, but the murder—feeling his molars press themselves deep into his skull.
His response had been instinctive. That the girl’s charge might be a feint had never flickered through his mind. She stopped just short of an arm’s reach, however, and pointed with her fist. He watched her ivory teeth flash lightning behind her gymnastically flexing lips.
"You come near my man again and… you dead, ho!"
And then she was gone. Vesperie had picked up the first girl’s book. She waited till her assailant was halfway to the parking lot before she burst out—in that same old ambiguous sing-song, and turning (Walter noticed) to the white man:
"Shit! You see that?"
Walter quickly convinced the girl that they had no interest in her side of the incident. (When she persisted, he simply countered, "Good! I’ll go call campus security, and you can press charges." He received little more than a farewell "Shit!" which was not half so caressing as the one lavished upon Vesperie.) Then he hustled his guest safely through the small crowd of about a dozen which had gathered, fumbled with his door key once they were through the entrance, waved the plodding little man inside, and made sure to impart a modest slam to the faces of the most clinging gawkers.
"There, now! That was exciting! Have a seat."
Chairs. Verbal fencing, cliché-swapping, rattling of the curriculum vitae… then the writing test. Just as planned. Business as usual. No more evasions, and no more distractions.
So he would have wished: but Walter found himself tapping out a pill and reaching for his thermos. The blood which had surged through his brain and his arms seemed unwilling to shuffle back to his feet, like a crowd that wouldn’t go home.
"You handled that quite well."
"Handled? Handled!" He laughed heartily—like Augustine—and turned on Vesperie. What a way for it all to come out—and here it came! "You can’t handle that, man! You just react. It happens so fast, all you can do is just react! Like life on the savanna. Like a bunch of animals."
Yeah, there it was. A bunch of animals.
He turned away again: he began screwing the cup back on his thermos. "Why do you want to teach in a place like this, Dr. Vesperie?"
"No, sir, don’t answer me verbally."
Walter’s "sir", far from sounding deferential, emerged more like one of the icily formal syllables which Letitia would have launched at a big kid curled up in a distant desk under a headset. His back still turned on the man from Yale, he fought to slow his pulse, and to find the right register. His eyes fell on the flourishing, artificially gilded frame (Wal-Mart’s top of the line) which held his daughters’ faces. He couldn’t see them: he could only see the frame.
"I want you to write me an essay," he said very slowly, very calmly. "I want you to tell me why you—why you, a man who has reached the peak of his profession—want to teach basic English to freshmen who never should have gotten a high school diploma. Who could hardly attend class, even in high school, because they had one or two infants at home. Who don’t give a damn about metal detectors, because a pencil is a deadly weapon in their hands. Who view college as the next step to pro ball and the life of a millionaire—or to a lucrative paternity suit against a millionaire playing pro ball. Who wouldn’t lift a finger against someone like you, because you’re white—and whatever urban myths you may have been fed, they have the time of their life putting on little shows for you, looking for your sympathy, your approval…." He drew a handkerchief from his pants pocket and wiped the mousse in light taps from his cheek. "Write it down for me. Make me understand. I know it’s a humiliating exercise… but it’s policy. It’s my policy. I made it because I got so damn sick of young people with Master’s degrees coming through here and—as it turned out—not being able to construct one intelligible sentence. Some of them fail it now, my test, when they show up with that look in their eye: that ‘at least I can work here’ look. I catch them before they reach the classroom... and I shake them out of my net, and send them to lay their eggs in some other carcass."
There was a new commotion at his back, muffled by the wall but almost certainly at the building’s entrance again. Running his eyes down the frame as if in a parting stroke, Walter turned once more toward Vesperie with a heavy sigh—heavy, but almost smiling. He could feel his glasses slip up the bridge of his nose as his brows lifted.
"Evidently, I need to put it another appearance outside. There’s some paper… and a pen, if you need one. You can write at my desk. Uh… there’s no way of knowing how long this may take. If you finish before I get back… well, I’ll be in touch." It was a pleasure to… sorry about the…. "I’ll be in touch."
The assailant of the burning eyes had, according to bystanders’ reports, come back from the parking lot with a screwdriver in her hand. The other girl had fortunately wandered off in the opposite direction by then (perhaps toward the P-T Building: violence almost never broke out over there, as if the site’s dumbfounding expenditures imposed a kind of safe haven on all who entered); but a friend of this second girl had exchanged words with the Fury, while three large male observers laughed and egged them on. Walter heard conflicting versions of where the armed girl then proceeded. He was shocked that she had already passed from sight, and he ran to the Commons to alert the first security guard he could find. The guard had detained him while drawling monotonously into his cell phone (a grossly overweight white man, retired from the police force, who seemed to think that a professor’s testimony was no more reliable than a vagrant’s: would it have helped, Walter winced, if he had been a white professor?).
By the time Walter had extricated himself from the crisis and returned to his office, Vesperie was indeed gone. Three sheets of paper filled with very small handwriting were neatly stacked on a student’s desk in the corner—not his own. Walter frowned briefly. Was this another sign of unwholesome diffidence, or just a fine display of discretion? The Dean’s confidential memo (about the necessity of freezing humanities salaries while raising those in the sciences still higher) remained peeking out under The Niece’s skimpy resumé. If the Dean wouldn’t label these missives "confidential" in red capital letters, they might not attract such notice.
Walter took the pages to his desk and sat down with a plop. His knees were hurting: he had walked too much this morning, and the sprint to the Commons hadn’t helped.
Walter stared at the last page, unblinking, as if in wait for some invisible stylus to write more. He actually found his index and thumb dryly rasping the page’s corner, prepared by long rehearsal to unveil a new page, to breathe more speech-giving life upon the flat, encrypted sheets. He could hear Vesperie’s voice in his ears above the shuffling feet out in the corridor. Though the volume of the shuffles told him precisely that his eleven o’clock class was less than ten minutes away, what he saw through his thick glasses was the face accompanying the voice—a face whose Caucasian qualities age had magnified, its lips smaller than ever, its hair thinner and paler than ever, its eyes smaller and paler than ever. Except that the eyes sparkled. If he was studying that face in the abysm between his lenses and the last page’s blank bottom inch, it was because the eyes now sparkled.
Without leaning back in his chair, he allowed a very long, very smooth sigh to lift his gaze as a mid-oceanic swell might roll a raft. The transit to his two daughters in their swirling plastic frame—that was rehearsed, too. Perhaps as rehearsed for him as turning a page. He wondered vaguely at this moment—but quite consciously, for the thought had never occurred to him before—how many times a day his look went straight to the photo after putting his signature to a provocative memo or replacing the phone upon the Dean’s, "We’ll have to see, Walter… we’ll just have to see." What would they do without him, those two girls—without his steady paycheck? Patrice couldn’t send them to private school and college. If his blood pressure suddenly went sky-high and his face were never again seen in a frame with theirs… well, they would survive nicely enough. Patrice’s job was good for the essentials, if not for private school. But college? Would Portia and Vanessa end up in a place like this? And what if he lingered on after a stroke? What if he couldn’t work—or what if no one would give him work? Blood pressure aside, what if he made one unpopular move too many? What if Loleen was appointed departmental chair, and he was demoted to the classroom full-time, and she made his life there a living hell… the b.p. up again, Patrice saying, "Find another job, Walter—it ain’t worth your life," after one of his "I am not a slave!" tirades… and he sifting through the ads again, updating his resumé (it wouldn’t be styled a vita at most of the places where he’d apply), waiting and waiting and waiting for a call instead of a letter….
Portia had his weak eyes, bless her heart, and also his introverted personality. He worried for her. But perhaps he worried for Vanessa even more. She was too cute by half, and too outgoing. He could already see the enemy in some of the bucks who sauntered and sashayed into his classroom. Perhaps the purchase of a shotgun was in his future… or the frightful tuition of a Catholic girls’ school….
He gazed back down at the papers under his thumb—not at their written contents, but at the paper itself. The idea of paper. The idea of intimate voices speaking intimate thoughts. He was probably a lousy teacher. He probably came across as too gruff, not enough of a "people person". He had always wanted to write a novel: he had always felt that writing one would vindicate him, would show before God that he… that he loved. That he loved mankind enough to weep. But God didn’t buy novels, mankind wasn’t in a novelish mood, and he no longer even had the time. Nothing of his vindication had a real presence except for… except for this paper. This secret stash of whispering tongues.
As he was struggling to coax a tarnished key into a moldy lock, his books pressed left-handed up against his chest, Walter was accosted just outside his office by Loleen.
"Got a class, huh, Dr. Walter!" she drawled in a loud purr. It wasn’t a question. (Was it a sneer, beneath the purr—as in, "Are you actually going to do some work, Dr. Walter?")
Walter dealt her all of one glance over his glasses as he laboriously extracted his key.
"Say, uh… so how’s that coming? With the new composition person?"
This deserved all of another glance as he fought to keep his grade book from sliding out along his silk tie. "Swimmingly."
"Oh. Well good, good. Hey Walter, I know you in a hurry to get to all those bright-eyed, bushy-tailed students of yours. But Toriqua—you remember my niece Toriqua? Remember my mentioning her?"
"I seem to recall…"
"Well she just called me to say she just happened to have this afternoon free and clear, and wondering could she maybe come in and talk to you."
"I’m here till four." He had counted on using this walk down the hall to chase nepotism, racism, blood pressure, office politics, violent crime, and the art of writing from his soul while preparing for mortal combat with dangling modifiers. It wasn’t going to happen.
"Well good. I’ll just tell her to come on in, then."
He bowed to the neon lighting’s reflection in the smutty linoleum.
"So that position… it’s still…."
Loleen, horn-hided though she surely was, had an instinctive acuity when it came to catching her prey. She must have sensed that this morsel was not firmly under her power, for she was back in the corner of his eye within an instant of receding from it.
Walter inhaled heavily, stopped in his tracks, and hung his head to face his adversary over his glasses. "I have a class, Loleen. I’m late."
"Yeah, but… just so we know we on the same page here, Walter… that job’s still open, am I right?"
"The advertised position in composition has been filled."
"Damn, Walter! You went off and hired that raggedy-ass white man from Harvard! You let that Ivy League slick-talking honky sucker you into a job! I knew it—I knew it!"
Loleen’s voice lowered almost to a whisper as she grew angrier, but its hisses drew attention which a mild shout would not have distracted from the far-flung greetings of soul brothers up and down the hall. Fortunately, the traffic had thinned to a trickle. One of Walter’s routinely late students burrowed behind him as if in hopes of propping up a claim that he had in fact been on time today.
Loleen backed off after bellicosely shaking her head so that her three-inch spiral earrings merrily chattered. She didn’t give a damn about overstepping the bounds with him—but she must not be observed by others to do so. (She had already officially accused him of harassing her when he had assigned her an eight o’clock class one semester.)
Late as it was (not too bad: 11:05 by the clock poised meekly over Loleen’s head), Walter stared and waited. He refused to give her a verbal shot at his shoulders in retreat.
"I don’t suppose… I don’t suppose we could let the depart-mit vote on this. We do still have a depart-mit, don’t we? In name only, I mean?"
"The appointment is for a renewable year’s contract. It falls, as such, to the discretion of the chair. Read the faculty handbook."
"Discretion! Yeah, I guess we know what that means! Don’t give anybody else a say when you don’t have to, Walter!"
To his surprise, Walter found that his blood pressure was not rising: no heat around the collar, no misting around the eyes. He noticed, even, that Loleen looked curiously attractive when her sarcastic smile unveiled her bright front teeth. (Odd, that he had never noticed that before, in years of receiving sarcastic responses: maybe he had turned away from her too much, before now.)
"Here’s the score, Loleen." And Walter faced her fully, pushing his glasses up with his index. "If we had voted, you would have twisted every arm within grabbing distance. The department would have been further divided, and you—let me finish, please—you would have further damaged your own prospects on this campus. The spectacle you made would have been very visible. This is, after all, your own niece, as you keep reminding everyone. You are not chair, and you’re never going to be chair, talented though you are, as long as you keep over-playing your hand. Stop trying to look for leverage in every situation that evolves. Stop threatening and protesting and flailing about for hot-button issues to exploit. Just stop the pushing. It’s not how things get done. Wherever you learned that, it’s wrong. It may get you fear—but the people who fear you will destroy you one day."
Loleen’s face was as blank (and perhaps as meek) as the clock’s above her glistening head of braided hair: her glazed lips held a million crinkles, and her earrings might have been sculpted for all they moved. Almost 11:10.
Yet Walter found time to call conversationally over a shoulder, "Don’t forget to have your… to have Toriqua come in this afternoon."
"What?" Her arms gave a reflexive lurch after him. "Why?"
"She might as well take the writing test. In case something opens up."
R. S. Carlson and Michael Lythgoe: Four Poems
Dr. Ralph Carlson and Lt. Col. Michael H. Lythgoe (USAF, Rtd.) have contributed their work to Praesidium for several years now. Both serve on the board of The Center for Literate Values. Professor Carlson teaches at Azusa Pacific University in southern California.
Working, Walking, and Well-Being
In order to allow Professor Chaves’s poems to face their pictures in our hard-copy version, I thrust in at the last possible moment the slight condensation of a column written first for my online "blog". My apologies for whatever dissonance is thereby created. ~ J.H.
How do we make our communities into places more compatible with the "family values" we espouse collectively? It seems naive to suppose that we might ever return to a nineteen-fiftyish, proto-automobile style of living: sidewalks, picket fences, playgrounds, corner drug stores and bakeries, minimal traffic driving at responsible speeds.... We now seem so brick-and-mortared into our various suburban auto-accessible-only compartments—residential, commercial, recreational—that everything would have to be plowed under and reconstructed if we were actually to be able to walk somewhere.
Would that be a bad thing—plowing it all under? A complete suburban facelift would employ construction crews, architects, designers, plumbers, electricians, and a host of supporting services for decades. Naturally, the first remodeled communities would be experimental, and hence costly to buy into: only the well-off could afford to live in them. But prices would eventually fall as such neighborhoods became more common (an eventuality which could be accelerated by government through—for instance—tax breaks or low-interest loans). A certain amount of low-income housing could also be built into the community. Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck portray this strategy as a desideratum in their book, Suburban Nation (North Point Press, 2000). Think of all the really charming communities you’ve ever seen. They’re not block upon block of mansions, are they? (I said charm, not shock and awe.) Residences of all sizes are pleasantly intermingled. The smaller ones, far from undermining the market value of the larger ones, increase it, because they render the neighborhood as a whole a scene of clean, peaceful, harmonious diversity. That all homes should be well-maintained and built in styles not pledged to mortal enmity is, of course, the responsibility of residents and their architects.
The idea which I most wish to advance, though, concerns doing business in such neighborhoods. We cannot now sell paintings from our dens or milkshakes from our kitchens because oppressively over-protective laws will not let us. The culprit is not so much Big Brother, our federal government (although OSHA sabotages more than its fair share of tiny enterprises), but irritating local statutes which we have eagerly heaped upon ourselves. Why don’t we break these shackles? Because too many cars might park in front of the artist’s home? Then pass an ordinance imposing a limit of one car per house-front curb. Or because too many roaches might collect around the milkshake-maker’s garbage? Then pass an ordinance forbidding the amassment of garbage beyond so many cans. Force the artist and the chef to make whatever adjustments the community’s health and taste demand—but give them a chance to create fine art and good food without crossing their doorstep. The essential idea behind this vibrant community is that many people will walk to partake of such riches. They presently venture forth on foot very seldom because there is simply no place to go.
Critics have objected to me that such paltry businesses as might be run out of the house would not supply anyone with a significant source of income. How many paintings can a neighborhood Vermeer grind out in a month? Is the demand for milkshakes high enough to pay for the blender’s electricity? Such criticism, I respond, misses the point. Without doubt, most households would still have to send forth one member in some fuel-hungry conveyance every day to serve dreary hours where the city’s businesses are clustered. The halving of this tally, however, would in itself be extremely significant. Think first of the money not spent: day care for the children, fuel for a second auto’s distant adventures, lower insurance premiums in a less car-crazy community, lower taxes to maintain less battered roads. Then think of the money saved on wholesome local diversions as opposed to costly on-the-town or hi--tech distractions: Gina’s Italian Home Cooking across the street ($5 a plate) over La Cucina del Conte downtown ($20 a plate), evening walks over health club memberships, softball at the park over GameBoy and PlayStation. The neighborhood life is simply a more frugal life as well as a more satisfying one. If you then add to all this the five or six thousand bucks a year that your teenager might earn by renting time on the basement pool tables and serving refreshments, you begin to approach a respectable lower rung income. And as more people spend more time in the neighborhoods, these incomes would go up even as the staples and modest pleasures of life carried ever lower price tags. The biggest problem might well be that Gina wants to cook while John wants to paint; someone, for the time being, must still take the dreaded commute.
We can back away from the ghastly precipice of machine-dominated swarm and sprawl. We’re not slaves, and we are not yet lobotomized drones abjectly pledged to serve those same machines. Our economy will not collapse if we reassert the life of the neighborhood: quite possibly, it will boom. But we have to think differently from the way we have been programmed to think all our lives. We have to show some originality, and some guts.
Four Poems in Paint
Dr. Jonathan Chaves is professor of Chinese language and literature at The George Washington University (Washington, D.C.). He has published books and articles on classical Chinese poetry, and traditional Chinese literary theory. His essay, "Kicking the Stone and Viewing the Icon: Realist Epistemology Between Heaven and Earth," appeared in Praesidium 3.2 (Spring 2003), 5-22.
In the Waiting Room
Jennifer and Sarah, Jane and Sue:
You're lovely all, in white! Enjoy the view,
Enjoy the conversation, and the breeze
That wafts from ocean islands through the trees.
Somewhere in Massachusetts, or in Maine?
Did you arrive by carriage, or by train?
Are you four cousins, sisters, maybe friends?
You stand or sit on one of our land's ends,
Four flowers beautifying barren rock,
And here defying time's inexorable clock.
It seems that Jennifer and Jane discourse
About the latest scandal, or race-horse,
Or maybe something elevated: art?
Or music? Or religion? Or the heart
That one of them has given to a wooer?
Their words were earnest, but they now grow fewer.
Meanwhile, Sue looks on, and tries to follow
The dancing of their thoughts; she will not wallow
Any further into their conversation;
She merely watches Jane's peregrination
From topic on to topic. Sarah, though,
Is interested not at all. Winds blow
Directly through her hair as she alone
Fronts ocean--and well matches ocean's tone:
So far she gazes, at the islands there?
Or further, does she follow ships that glare,
Points of white fire upon the deepest blue?
I cannot tell, and neither, friend, can you.
We cannot question them, they're not in time,
Their moment lifted, caught in paint and rhyme,
And by a hand that even might have touched
The soft white dresses that it has here brushed.
Frank Weston Benson signed and dated it,
1909, which makes a perfect fit
With what they wear; in 1951
The painter died, but these girls had begun
A journey that would lift them from the plane
Of ordinary life, against the grain
Of time's procession season unto season,
As artistry has given us a reason
To ponder this: A brief epiphany,
A moment of the purest harmony
Of self with self or self with ocean, earth,
Or tree or rock gives transience rebirth,
All unanticipated. Someone sees
The lovely ladies, feels the lovely breeze,
And paints them, though themselves they're unaware,
So they now sit or stand forever there.
How real are they? Did they in fact exist
At all? Or was the painter's soul impressed
By images like dreams, or memories
Of other pictures, which by faint degrees
Became a part of his own inner world
Until upon the canvas they unfurled?
Who knows? The painter too might be confused
About the source. Perhaps he too was used
In turn by someone else, one yet above
Himself, and motivated by a love
So great that it would wish to take what passes--
The ocean breezes, and the flowers and grasses,
The pristine dresses, fluttering in air,
The maidens, oh so beautiful! who are there
Just for the afternoon--and to translate
These signs of something more where temporal fate
Can't harvest them for death with his grim scythe!
Where they forever can ascend, not writhe
In agony once moment's glory's gone,
Ascend where all of this we look upon
Becomes a stage for all of us who burn
With longing for pure beauty, we who yearn
To walk forever on the sacred sod
That's being painted for us by our God.
Two angels playing music—one the cello,
The other heavenly creature is a fellow
Who likes to pluck his strings, and not to bow them,
And thus they entertain those down below them.
For theirs is music leading us mere mortals
To climb the ladder leading to the portals
Of Heaven. When we get there, let’s say, "Thanks!
Our real treasure never sat in banks,
But here, where our heart is!" And my heart
Has been touched by them both. Their heavenly art
Has reached in different ways my fallen soul
And played some role in rendering it whole.
The cello is the instrument of choice
Of my granddaughter—it becomes her voice
As she begins life’s journey, and the song
Of her young heart I pray will linger long.
As for the harp, the one who played for me
Was one of those whose young minds are set free
Or are imprisoned by the way we teach:
I am a teacher, and my goal to reach
The hearts of those who sit in class each year,
To arm them to encounter pain or fear
Of emptiness with weapons never failing
Against the falsehood constantly assailing
Us all: such things as truth, and goodness, beauty—
To witness to them is my real duty.
And once in a great while, in the eyes
Of someone there I see what never dies,
A deep-set light, the sign of inner life,
That will not be extinguished by the strife
Inevitable here; Victoria, one
Of this rare number, had that inner sun,
And it shone when she played the harp that day!
Danses sacrées et profanes ! Yes, either way,
Through children or through students, there’s rebirth
And we see some of heaven here on earth.
Two Girls at the Beach
--For Valerie Browne Lester
Time’s curtain lifts and, once beyond our reach,
A memory we hardly knew we had—
That makes us feel happy, also sad—
Returns revealing two girls at the beach.
One lifts her long dress carefully, afraid
The water that she steps in might disrupt
The careful world she dresses for, abrupt
With sudden rippling motion to invade
Her privacy. Not so the Other, friend
Or sister, who stands boldly past the rock
Which guards the First from open sea, no clock
Recording tiny moments which may end
Quite soon, no, sea breezes from distant lands
Caress to rippling folds her fluent dress,
A mermaid version of Tom Hardy’s Tess,
Her toes beneath the water tickling sands.
This lass’s golden hair floats loose, a heart
About to fall from tip of one long strand,
Perhaps an ornament, unneeded hand
Upon this ocean nymph of human art.
She feels no fear, her gaze goes deep to wonder
What treasure will come up inside the net
She drags along the bottom—never yet
Has Mystery its secret pried asunder
For her, revealing final, hidden pearl—
And yet she knows it’s there, she hears the song
Of what will come to her before too long. . .
To her, and to the Other: they’re one Girl,
The yang and yin of person, light and dark,
The voyager and landlubber in One,
Lover of hats, lover of free-haired fun,
Lover of ocean, lover of garden park!
Ah, Phiz, you saw it, one day at the beach,
The double-sided mystery of us,
Yearning for freedom, fearing to make a fuss,
No quirk of human nature past your reach!
And now your great-great granddaughter, Miss Browne
Has kept alive your insight, black and white,
Both you and she have gotten it just right:
May both be robed in one great angel’s gown!
"I’ll draw a lovely picture for you, Valerie!"
"Oh, thank you! It will hang in some great gallery!
Oh, thank you, love! I love your drawings so,
Like Papa’s—into books they all should go!"
"No, darling, Papa’s drawings are the best
In any book! Our Uncle Charles confessed
That no one else could draw his people well;
Our Papa’s drawings help his books to sell!"
"Well I don’t care, some day you will be famed
For drawing! And although I now am blamed
For drawing terribly, I know my daughter
Or niece will be an artist of first-water
Or someone in our family, some girl
Will be a treasure, will be known a pearl
Of artistry! Our Papa’s blood will bloom
Into a really lovely rose of whom
The world will say, 'She’s got a certain style
In what she does that always brings a smile!
It certainly must be because it is
A gift bequeathed to her by Papa Phiz.'"
"Oh Valerie, you do know how to dream!
I sit and sketch and you think, `Here’s a beam
Of light prophetical!’ But I’m quite boring!
I do assure you it is just a drawing."
Which girl is right? Which vision shows the future?
The one pragmatical, the one who’d nurture
A gift artistic down the generations
Which would emerge in notable creations?
There is a woman now who paints and writes
And teaches students of the greatest heights
Of poetic artistry, her salary
Is much too low, her name? Browne Lester, Valerie.
One girl, the little dreamer, saw her coming,
Maybe knew she’d help to stop the dumbing-
Down of education in our time!
Would help convict our age of its main crime,
Which is to mock the lovely and the good,
The true and the transcendent. If she could
Return today she’d say, "Ah, Valerie!
In you our Papa Hablot I do see."
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