Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Looking for Eros Pellini

"Remember, what we are trying to do in this life is to shatter time and bring back the dead. ...Rise and see the whole world." --Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin

In a transient exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art, there is a small, bronze woman in a plexiglass case. The work, "A Girl from Lombardia" by Eros Pellini, was featured in the Kennedy's hotel room when John F. and Jackie visited the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. President Kennedy, of course, never left the city alive, and I'm told that his death sent Dallas into a steady economic decline for several years afterward. I imagine that this handful of paintings and sculptures--including Thomas Eakins' famous and (I find) humorous work Swimming--were some of the last objects the president ever really studied in this world. Surely he must have looked closely at them? Does an aura settle around the objects last seen by a dead man's eye the way Pellini's fingerprints can be traced in the thighs and belly of this relaxed and lounging girl, settled on one hip and looking past us? Does the ghost, not only of the artist but also of the viewer linger on with the work, perhaps building up in metaphysical concretions like memories do over the too-familiar objects of populating our common lives?

When I go to museums or the theater, as I did last night (Shakespeare in the Park's production of Pericles--excellent), at some point, if my mind is really on the matter at hand, I am inevitably struck that someone made these things. A man as mythical and therefore as inaccessible as Shakespeare or Eakins or (in a lesser way) Pellini put pen to paper, brush to canvas, fingers to clay, and conceived this.

There is a shield in the Dallas Museum of Art from Polynesia, owned by a Shaman, with the outlines of hands carved into it. The hands trace an ancestors'. The shield was passed on because of the bravery and prestige of this warrior, whose name the little plaque beneath does not record. I assume he is forgotten now, because once that name has slipped from memory, the shield is no longer of value. The virtue of the object is, apparently, imbued by the power of living memory rather than intrinsically present. To us, the shield is a work of art; to the Shaman, of magic. I'd argue, however, (and I have Mark Helprin, particularly in his magnificent Winter's Tale, to back me up here), that the function has remains essentially the same: "Magic...was all about time, and could stop it and hold it for the inquisitive eye to look through as if through cold and splendid ice." Surely this is why we collect photographs of our families and artifacts of distant times--to freeze them.

I wonder about art and memory. Does Pellini's little woman mean less to me than Eakins' painting nearby? Probably. I have only a brief and fading memory of who Pellini was, gained exclusively from the exhibition catalogue. Does the greatness of the object d'art dwindle with memory or does it become itself a testament to memory? Can a man be made immortal in molding what bears his memory even after his name is lost? Does a work wear its maker's handprints and endure according to the strength of the man? Or are the works we praise only survivors saved by accidents from the shipwreck of time? "O you gods," Pericles grieves in Shakespeare's eponymous play, "Why do you make us love your goodly gifts, and snatch them straight away."

Perhaps the muses play our Prometheus against the Fates, and instead of fire, give us memories incarnated and bulwarked in songs and images. Art, certainly, has always and through all ages taken time (figured, often, as death) and love as its themes. Art, perhaps, defies defacing time and bodies memory after the mothering mind passes, giving order to overwhelming experience. Or perhaps art is only the lovely, spinning beads of water which hang in the air after over a fountain.

Monday, July 22, 2013


By Andrew Hudgins

Storms of perfume lift from honeysuckle,
lilac, clover—and drift across the threshold,
outside reclaiming inside as its home.
Warm days whirl in a bright unnumberable blur,
a cup—a grail brimmed with delirium
and humbling boredom both.  I was a boy,
I thought I'd always be a boy, pell—mell,
mean, and gaily murderous one moment
as I decapitated daises with a stick,
then overcome with summer's opium,
numb—slumberous.  I thought I'd always be a boy,
each day its own millennium, each
one thousand years of daylight ending in
the night watch, summer's pervigilium,
which I could never keep because by sunset
I was an old man.  I was Methuselah,
the oldest man in the holy book.  I drowsed.
I nodded, slept—and without my watching, the world,
whose permanence I doubted, returned again,
bluebell and blue jay, speedwell and cardinal
still there when the light swept back,
and so was I, which I had also doubted.
I understood with horror then with joy,
dubious and luminous joy: it simply spins.
It doesn't need my feet to make it turn.
It doesn't even need my eyes to watch it,
and I, though a latecomer to its surface, I'd
be leaving early.  It was my duty to stay awake
and sing if I could keep my mind on singing,
not extinction, as blurred green summer, lifted
to its apex, succumbed to gravity and fell
to autumn, Ilium, and ashes.  In joy
we are our own uncomprehending mourners,
and more than joy I longed for understanding
and more than understanding I longed for joy.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Two Things on Four Books

It's been a pretty big month; Serena got the Internet and I got air conditioning, so I'd say together, we're basically living all the way in the 21st century for the first time in a while. High-fives all around.

I don't have anything super in-depth to say about any one thing I've read lately, but here's a drive-by of the last four books I've read (one of which I'm only halfway through) and two things that I've liked about them:

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan, and The Liars' Club, by Mary Karr

First, Mary Karr is fantastic. I'll probably write more on that later, but for now, just trust me. She really is. You should go read "Disgraceland" if you need to be sure. Anyway, she had a pretty unfortunate childhood (her mom tried to shoot her dad, stuff like that) and wrote a memoir about it. Karr's book essentially posits that really horrible things can happen to you and you can overcome them and eventually have a normal, healthy life. Egan's book (which is a novel) touches on the same issue. Pretty simple. I find it heartening. Is this lame? Is it lame that sometimes I just want to read about how you can move on from really awful things that happen to you? Anyway, if you want the case to be made for the possibility of normalcy, you should read these two books back-to-back.

Last, Dakota by Kathleen Norris and My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman (which I'm only halfway through) both lean heavily on others' writings. Norris has an epigraph at the beginning of each of her chapters and constantly cites the Desert Fathers. And Wiman's book almost feels more like a scrapbook or an anthology than an essay collection. The great thing about that is that you get quick little exposures to people like Randall Jarrell, Patrick Kavanagh, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Robert Bringhurst, and lots of others. His book almost feels more like a synthesis of others' thought than anything else; it's really honest and see-through. It feels very rich, and I like it.

Friday, July 19, 2013

On Marilynne Robinson

Humility and charity rarely find themselves heading the list of American virtues. Marilynne Robinson, however, in her recent essay collection When I was a Child I Read Books, finds in them the soul of democracy. As she writes in the introduction, “to identify sacred mystery with every individual experience…is to arrive at democracy as an ideal, and to accept the difficult obligation to honor others and oneself with something approaching reverence.”

As the quote suggests, and Robinson subsequently explains, she grounds this collection of musings on civic virtue and the state of American public life with reflection on human nature. Rather than offering a positive formulation, however, she attempts this apophatically—to “make inroads on the vast terrain or what cannot be said,” as she defines later in the book.  Rather than metaphysical concerns, she takes the mystery of consciousness as the most primal fact of human life. Because of this, Robinson celebrates the very feature of democracy which its detractors criticize as destabilizing: the heterogeneity of democratic society. Consciousness, Robinson insists, is fundamentally heterogeneous, varying not only between individuals but also between regions and nations, and therefore democracy is descriptive of the human condition rather than prescriptive. Democratic virtue, not conformity, makes coherence possible in a truly free society.

By democratic virtue, Robinson means those habits of soul which cultivate “imaginative identification . . . with [the] shared humanity” of others. Without this imagination, “[it] is simply not possible to act in good faith toward people one does not respect, or to entertain hopes for them that are appropriate to their gifts.” Civil conversation would because impossible because it requires imputing good intention to those who hold differing views from ones’ own.

Though the book is a collection of independent essays, as a whole it certainly makes a central argument, which deserves some summary here. For Robinson, rigorous education cultivates this imagination which democratic virtue requires. Fiction and poetry opens children to their own unique inner lives, and it allows them to identify and sympathize with the inner lives of others.  Literature teaches humility before the complexity of human experience which escapes circumscription and yet submits itself to those who would approach it slant-ways in poetry and fiction. Only such literary habits of mind protect a person against ideological attempts to define and limit the purpose and meaning of human life.  

Education, however, has been in a decline for decades, Robinson claims, and she sees a direct causality between the loss of literary education and the impoverishment and polarization of civil discourse. She spends a majority of the book calling upon an impressive breadth of historical sources to root out this mole in the garden of American civil life. To her credit the rant rarely becomes self-indulgent, either for her or for the reader. She treats the disintegration of public discourse as a public responsibility—and this includes both her and her reader. She requires her audience to examine itself for every form of a bad faith, denouncing the “bright line between an ‘us’ and a ‘them’”: the American public is lazy and undisciplined, whereas I and my friends work hard; the other party’s ideals just conceal a ruthless will to power.

Despite the breadth and force of Robinson’s argument, however, the book falters. Her attempt to establish the mystery of consciousness as the rallying cry of democracy fails to produce any clear positive vision of American civil life. By banishing from the conversation any ultimate commitments, the book ends with a brittle aestheticism.  The apophatic proves a bit too radiant a fog for the robust needs of human life, and the reader wonders if a some of the Protestant and American voices Robinson draws up in her defense didn’t offer a rather better field book of the “vast terrain” of the unsayable which Robinson equates with human nature. For instance, I doubt whether John Calvin—Robinson’s personal favorite on whose behalf she launched an admirable defense in her book The Death of Adam—would have approved of her praise for American intellectuals like Walt Whitman for whom “creeds fall away and consciousness has the character of revelation.” Perhaps we can call this a certain aestheticism of the soul: “A man must not mean but be.”

The problem with aestheticism of all stripes, however, is that it is essentially reductionist. After all, one of the progenitors of literary aestheticism, Oscar Wilde, also wrote “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” and The Portrait of Dorian Gray, two deeply moral works. Robinson, perhaps, forgets that though literature certainly teaches inwardness and sympathy, it often does so by impressing the reader with the moral weight of choice. The variety of human choices, four millennia of world literature teaches us, often end tragically. The best laid plans of mice and men, and all that.

Likewise, while Robinson laments the loss of “soul” from American vocabulary, her aesthetic appreciation of religion belies its obnoxious and perennial tendency to insist on firm and clear ends to human life, and therefore public life. Given the broad knowledge of Protestant intellectual history demonstrated here and elsewhere, her failure to note its tendencies to meddle socially and politically seems puzzling. If religion is the heart of Robinson’s America, it seems missing from its backbone and biceps, a troubling absence in light of its historical force.

Of course, it is pretty hard to give an exact outline of what “Robinson’s America” would be in its ideal, or at least improved, form, and there’s the unfortunate failure of a really delightful and insightful book. Sometimes it’s almost too easy to just accuse her of nostalgia, particularly when she laments the starvation of “our great public education system” which is largely the offspring of John Dewey and an experiment of the kind of capitalistic labor mill Robinson abhors.  
Nostalgia aside, she doesn’t seem to have a telos for American virtue, and though she lambastes the political Right for its cramped individualism, it’s hard to see how her lovely articulation of the mystery of conscious gives much direction for communal life.  A negative formulation of freedom as respect for the mysterious unknown just isn’t a strong enough peg to hang a nation’s public life upon. She talks a lot of about cooperation and sympathy, but with little indication of the end toward which we strive.

This aimlessness also wrinkles up the book’s generally starched style. While her admirers will appreciate here her characteristic economy and vigor, When I was a Child I Read Books lacks the precision and polish of Robinson’s earlier work. The diction tends a bit toward abstraction, while the essays have an unsettling habit of spiraling around one another. Unlike the best of her previous essays, many lack clear internal structure and are prone to unsubstantiated claims. Several times, I was even sure I had read nearly an identical sentence a few dozen pages before.

Those who already appreciate the probity of Marilynne Robinson’s thought and the weightiness of her prose style will find When I was a Child I Read Books rewarding. It isn’t, however, the best introduction to her work. The essays rarely obtain the necessary internal momentum to arrive at that elusive place of almost reading themselves—a quality she achieves so well in the best of her fictional and discursive work. It is certainly the kind of book read best with a pen in hand, and a second skim after a preliminary read will reveal patterns in what before appeared scattered threads.  Even at its low points, however, the book deserves and requires the reader’s robust attention, and Marilynne Robinson never fails to reward the humility and charity of her readers.