From Lonely to Alone: One Sentence from the Definitive Edition of Anne Frank’s Diary

8 Mar

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. The Definitive Edition. Edited by Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler. Translated by Susan Massotty. (New York: Everyman’s Library/Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).

“The best remedy for those who are frightened, lonely or unhappy,” Anne Frank tells us in her diary, “is to go outside, somewhere they can be alone, alone with the sky, nature and God” (p. 163). To retrace the words of Anne’s sentence is to travel a path from lonely to alone and arrive nonetheless healed. It’s one of the many striking moments of therapeutic longing that can be found in The Diary. And heartbreaking too, of course — for when Anne finally did manage to go outside, after more than two years of confinement, she was decidedly not alone. In fact, from the time of her arrest on August 4, 1944 to the time of her death from typhus and starvation in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp sometime in the winter of 1944–45, Anne Frank was probably never completely alone for one single moment. Nor even in death did Anne manage to fulfill the remedy that she had prescribed for herself one Wednesday morning in an Amsterdam attic: After Anne died, her body was dumped in a mass grave where even her unprivate bones could decay without particularity or uniqueness.

The phrase “I don’t want to die alone” has become almost a cliché in our culture. The announcement likely carries with it memories of darkly humorous conversations among friends (“Whenever I take that horse pill, I imagine choking and dying alone” — or a million similar riffs). The television show Six Feet Under made something of a career out of this type of narrative. Every episode began with an ironic way to die — not always alone — but versions of dying alone certainly played a principal role in the show’s opening teasers. And although we live surrounded by people — millions more every year — the demon of isolation remains vivid in our imaginations. The more we invent ways to “connect” — think Twitter and Facebook of course, but think also of and “spontaneous crowd” events — the more stubborn isolation’s specter seems to prove. Anne’s distinction between lonely and alone is a distinction that has a particular resonance in our time: The more we touch-pad ourselves together every second of the day the more we can feel the oppositional quality of the two words. Perhaps young Mark Zuckerberg constructed a large chunk of the platform upon which we now live out our lives, but I’d give it all back in a second if Mr. Social Network could just program the monster of loneliness into extinction.

And to read The Diary is also to understand a kind of privilege inherent in “I don’t want to die alone”–type announcements. We live our lives, most of us at least, with the blessings of aloneness: we can walk alone; we can think alone; we can read and write alone. And then we have the privilege of being able to end this privacy and seek the pleasures of company. To be fully human is to enjoy the differences between public and private spaces — between social modes and solitary ones. Anne’s confinement makes her pine not for the girl she once was, who had “five admirers on every street corner” (p. 171), but rather for the pleasures of being alone in an open space, for a solitary walk under the gray skies of Holland.

Last Sunday evening I walked from my apartment, where I live alone, to a housewarming party that some friends of mine were hosting. A completely unremarkable journey and yet to walk even a moderate distance (three miles in this case) is to pass through an evocative gallery of human activity. Unlike a car trip, a long walk gives us time to stitch together the variety of spaces through which we travel. (Train trips are often romanticized using similar reasoning. The late Tony Judt, for example, wrote beautifully and urgently about the glories of rail travel.)

And what of my unremarkable trip? What particularities did I notice as I moved through the world in the course of an hour’s walk? About ten minutes into my walk, I stopped at a home-furnishings store to buy a gift card for the new homeowners. The store’s perfumed candle-smells lingered in my nose long after I had exited. Later, I passed two different dance studios. In the first, a ball-room class — music-less for me as I watched for a moment from the street. Behind the glass wall, a dozen or so older couples waltzing, or almost waltzing, or merely linked in a vaguely dance-like embrace, smiling and moving their knees slightly, the actual motion of the dance, I’d like to think, happening perfectly somewhere in their imaginations. In the second studio, a girl in black tights, alone. A portable, 80s-style boom box was balanced on a folding metal chair. The girl pushed a button on the tape deck and started moving. She danced awkwardly but with a focused determination.

Earlier in my walk, I had passed a woman whom I had seen many times before: a short, heavy, Black woman with an abnormally childlike, squeaky voice. She seemed to own only one outfit: purple nursing scrubs. She’d ask me for change and I would seldom give it — for no good reason other than I was put off by her manner, the oddity of her voice. But on this Sunday evening, she stood — almost frozen really, an empty Styrofoam coffee cup in her hands — outside a Mexican restaurant. She was dressed in jeans and a blue top — her nursing costume had been replaced. The woman’s back was to me and I didn’t hear her voice as I walked by.

I was the first to arrive at the party — a disappointment, as I had managed, during the span of my journey, a daydream about my solitary walk being broken by the comforting noises of a party in full swing. Nevertheless the new house was beautiful and eventually filled up with friends and strangers and children, the younger children running around with stuffed pandas, while the slightly older ones argued about Phineas and Ferb and threatened to investigate patches of the new house from which they had been prohibited. What more could a man who lives alone desire? By the end, I sat exhausted on the cavernous white sofa and contented myself with blood-orange lemonade and the feeling that, because I had walked there, my own residence was now, in some perhaps insignificant but nevertheless organic way, connected to Jake and Sam’s new house.

What Anne longed for at the end of her lonelyalone sentence was, quite simply, absolutely everything: “the sky, nature and God.” There’s not much to imagine that isn’t under the aegis of one of those three categories. In syntactical terms, this everything becomes the way Anne balances the three words of desperation that occupy her first clause: “frightened, lonely, or unhappy.” After nearly 16 months of confinement with seven other people, the desire for a solitary observation of the world’s variety had taken root in Anne’s imagination. And more than 60 years after that confinement, the statement of a frustrated, energetic, petty, and thoughtful teenage girl can still be read as a powerful affirmation of the world that awaits us, for better and for worse, just beyond our doorsteps.


Walking Brooklyn: A Caretaker’s Notebook

26 Feb



Full disclosure: The title is a ruse. One does not walk Brooklyn; one accompanies Brooklyn outside while he smells things and pees. For about five minutes that is, ten at the most. Then — after five minutes, ten at the most — Brooklyn still does not walk, but Brooklyn does then run, or gallop really: a big, white German Shepherd and your almost-arthritic knees crack-crack-cracking along after him as the snow-colored beast darts back to his den. Brooklyn’s den is actually a lovely house in the lovely city of Pasadena — a house that I have been caretaker of for a week because its normal occupants were called away on a secret government mission (or to a family reunion in Florida, whichever you prefer).

Biophilia — let’s start there — Edmund O. Wilson’s term for the “distinctive bond between humans and other living systems,” (to quote Prof. WikiPedia). In other words, the living are drawn to the living. Wilson studied, most famously, ants. (Scientists who study ants are sometimes called ant-thropologists.) I remember a Nova episode that detailed Wilson’s career. The most memorable bit for me was when the great man bent down to scoop up a handful of dirt and then proceeded to explain how a staggering abundance of life could be found in this seemingly lifeless palmful of soil. Moving, isn’t it? Well, I thought it was. I still do.

There’s a kind of flip side to biophilia though. It’s the biophilia of the city-dweller. We know nature’s out there. We’ve seen pictures after all. Some of us have even experienced, once or twice (or was it only a dream?), the utopia of a concrete-free expansion of earth. These experiences and pictures take root in our bio souls and, as we drive to work and microwave our dinners and reshingle our leaky roofs, a yearning builds up inside of us. In desperation, we go online and visit the REI store and make a vague plan to go camping in the summer. We must go camping! We must climb a mountain! Maybe we’ll go with our partner, our children, but maybe we’ll just go it alone — just our one unique bio soul, solitaire-style, in the big, unknown bio wilderness.

And if you’re allergic to most animals — as I am (only the kinds with fur though! reptiles are fine!) — then there is an added layer of unfulfilled biophilia. Those fortunate people who have the ability to care for fur-covered creatures: what lucky sons-of-bitches. I hate them and their puppy dogs and their kittens and their Nigerian dwarf goats. I hate them all, every last one of them, those lucky SOBs. For what did I have as a pet when I was a child, dear reader? Yes, that’s right: if you guessed Olaf, the red newt, then you, madame, have won a completely unresponsive and marginally-brained prize. (Which is not to say that Olaf was not mourned to an embarrassing extent when he died after five years of life in his smelly, semiaquatic glass prison.)

At any rate: Brooklyn. He’s sleeping behind me at this very moment, all four limbs stretched out to the side, his right front paw pushing slightly against the small rise that separates dining area from children’s play room.

When Brooklyn is sleeping, or almost sleeping, or when you rub both his ears in a very particular way, he makes an incredibly comforting low, growling sound. I wish I could make such a sound to signify a similarly deep feeling of peace or relaxation. We humans go on and on about language, our unique one-up on the animal kingdom, and yet even a short visit with a tiny fraction of all-creatures-great-and-small reveals sounds that no human can satisfyingly mimic.

Next up: the corkscrew. Brooklyn suffers from a relatively common inbred Shepherd malady: hip dysplasia. He can get around just fine, but the malformation (ugly word — sorry, Brook, you malformed loveable monster!) asserts itself when Brooklyn wants to lie down. Thus will commence the corkscrew maneuver (patent pending). The pain is coming; Brooklyn knows it. But sleep and rest can also not be denied. Brooklyn finds a suitable place — preferably on carpet or grass — and he turns completely around two or three times. The movement is slow and careful. I’ve never actually measured the circumferences, but the first twist seems minutely wider than the second, the second slightly larger than the third. Imagine a tapered wine opener with only a trio of revolutions and you will have described the corkscrew of Brooklyn’s nap preparations. And thus he layeth himself down, spinning slowly into the earth from whence he came, from whence he shall return.

Finally, for now at least: The Way of The Eating, according to Brooklyn, the Shepherd dog.

Step 1: Lie on your belly, your front paws around your dish.

Step 2: Do nothing, just sit there and perhaps think about the immense and particular quandaries inherent in dogginess.

Step 3: More nothing, more thinking. If a human is looking at you, look back at him or her, your eyes expressing an acute and mysterious sense of anxiety.

Why does God allow suffering?

Step 4: Begin licking. Always lick your dry dog food first. Always. Did I mention you should always lick your dry dog food before eating it? Well, you should. Don’t be an idiot, lick your dog food before you eat it. Sure, some of the nuggets will spill on the surrounding carpet, but that’s to be expected. They will eventually be placed, magically, back in your dish anyways so why not lick to your heart’s content? To eat without licking is to experience joy without wagging one’s tail. Which is to say that the pleasures of life must be appreciated and anticipation (often finding a corporeal form in “the lick”) is a form of appreciation.

Step 5: Eat. Food goes into mouth. Mouth is raised. Chewing commences. Repeat. Variations are allowed. Sometimes chew while jaw remains lowered, several inches over food; sometimes turn head and chew.

The Eating

Step 6: There is no step 6. The first rule of the eating is to eat. (Though only after the licking.) When you have finished the eating (after the licking), then the eating is finished. When you have finished the writing about the eating, then the writing is finished.

Three-City Walk: Photographic Evidence Only, Please

21 Feb

One of WiP’s standard walks takes us through three cities: Pasadena, San Marino, and South Pasadena. Here are the photographic relics of a recent three-city ramble.

Sometimes a boy just needs to scrawl his heart's true feelings for all the world to see.

Free opinions and junk: sound familiar, blogosphere?

Open Trench Warfare.

Quotes from Lennon and Camus used to sell Valentine's Day crap. Well done, America. Well done.

"I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway . . . seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness." - Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Part 3

Something tells me that little Meggie was destined from birth for some kind of brokerage career.

All fruit, no tree.

And we end where we we started: at my humble abode. Please note: neither humble, nor my abode.

  • Ramble date: Saturday, February 19th, 2011
  • Number of miles rambled: 6
  • Places visited during ramble: Heirloom Cafe (South Pasadena); The Battery Books & Music (South Pasadena; highly recommended, small but meticulously selected stock of used books at reasonable prices)

Pasadena: City of Roses, Rain, Rapture

19 Feb

When you live in Pasadena, a mere cumulus can seem filled with theological import: All praise to the fluffy white vapor forms, to the infinite blessings of a blue-sky eternity mercifully broken. And rain of course can never be merely rain. Rain — that throwaway word that Easterners and Seattle coffeeniks and Kansan storm-yawners understand as one of the most basic components of everyday existence — rain, in this sense, does not exist for Southern Californians. We here in the City of Roses next to the City of Angels understand that rain — even one drop of the precious material, even the mere cloudy hint of it — must always be greeted as an event, as the lead story on the news, as perhaps even — no, as certainly even — the first wet proofs of a coming rapture. Yes, it’s true, we go about our lives, on the surface at least — we take our children to school; we shop; we fornicate — but it is raining. That knowledge lies deep within us at every moment. We are existing in a time of rain. The day of the rain is upon us.

Part of this feeling, of course, springs (pours! bursts forth!) from our area’s objectively biblical events. Our wildfires (not just forest fires for us, thank you very much) have now become an almost annual event. Our mudslides follow in the Springly wake of the fires. And not one seismologist we ever let blab to us via television or newspaper or blogsite has ever been able to resist the one warning that unites every Southern Californian, regardless of chosen faith or ethnicity or station in life: the “big one,” they tell us, is coming. These math-juiced prophets cry out to us from their number-crunched wilderness: we have built it — our houses on hillsides, our cities of poverty and movie stars, our megalopolis of freeways —we have built it all and it, they assure us, is surely coming for us. The Big One shall not be denied.

Growing up in western Pennsylvania, I would sometimes take a kitchen chair out to the front porch to watch a summer thunderstorm. The way the rain sheeted over the black pavement of our neighborhood road; the rips of lightening through the sky; the way we children were taught to count between the lightning and the subsequent thunderclap — the less time between sight and sound, the closer the storm; the glass of lemonade or mug of hot chocolate in my hand as the storm wind blew against my scrawny body. What a pleasure to witness such violence in such a safe space. What a sense of coziness that dichotomy worked to create.

And then inside the house, on several particular days, though I haven’t a clue exactly which ones anymore, I watched Bogart movies and perhaps even Chinatown, and Los Angeles solidified itself in my mind as a city of rain and gloom. Romantic rain and gloom, of course. Did the city seem romantically gloomy because it was raining, or was the rain simply an expression of the city’s beautifully poisoned soul? Whatever the answer, what a shock it was to me when I arrived in the City of Angels with my cardboard suitcase full of dreams and my just-so fedora and my spit-shined wingtips only to discover that, in reality, it never fucking rains here. Which is equally untrue of course, but that’s the living feeling of the area, and it’s the main reason we Pasadenians greet every spit of precipitation as something of a major event. (In celebration of these rain-events, we particularly like to drive erratically in the hopes that our local freeways can be lathered into an ultimate celebratory frenzy of rubbernecking and rage.)

I chose a rather more modest and less aggravating celebration this evening: a simple walk in the rain. I put on my warm but light Patagonia jacket and I grabbed my umbrella, the smallish one that was bought for me last month at the Santa Ana zoo. I wouldn’t say it’s exactly a child’s umbrella, though I also wouldn’t make many extravagant claims for its status as an adult’s umbrella. When extended, a colorful array of small animals protected at least the greater parts of my person from the evening’s rain event. As I walked, I thought of myself as the boy sitting on that kitchen chair on that front porch in western Pennsylvania. What a long time ago, it seemed, and what a joy too — to be out in the rain in my rainless city, in my weatherless world.

  • Ramble date: February 18th, 2011
  • Number of miles rambled: about 4.5
  • Places visited during ramble: Norton Simon museum; the Heffernan–Longennecker compound

Race-ing at the AWP

17 Feb


A series of exchanges between the poets Tony Hoagland and Claudia Rankine has recently come to wider attention. During a reading at this month’s AWP conference in Washington, D.C., Rankine presented a critique of Hoagland’s poem “The Change” (as well as going into some detail about previous exchanges with Hoagland himself). Hoagland responded, via email, though the content of this response, as far as WiP knows, has not officially been released publicly. Subsequently, Rankine has posted on her website an invitation for open letters — letters which would “attempt to move the conversation away from the he said–she said vibe toward a discussion about the creative imagination, creative writing and race.” (Please visit Rankine’s website to view both her statement at the AWP and her open-letter invitation.)

What follows is the first part of what I hope will be a multi-part consideration of the topic, as identified in Rankine’s invitation.

1. The Ambitions of “Could”

To begin a consideration of how ideas and feelings about race intersect with the creative imagination and the creative writing community requires an assessment — as cold as possible — of one’s own role in such a landscape. The eye of every storm is the I, and to deny this when one begins writing is to set out on the road toward homily or diatribe. So here I sit, in my Pasadena-comfortable home: an almost completely unknown white, male poet. (Note the desperate qualifier there, hanging on for dear life; note the anxious, reflexive use of the racial and gender identifiers.) My first book of poems will be published in April by a small university press.

Rankine’s invitation is meant to foster a congenial atmosphere where differing opinions are expressed in a thoughtful format. In the end, we emerge with a clearer picture of the views of our community (the creative writing community) on the subject of race. An unobjectionable project to be sure, and yet upon reading the invitation, the thought that I might actually accept was driven largely by a personality trait whose blessings are decidedly mixed. Enter ambition. For me, the question became not what do I have, if anything, to add to this debate? The question became what could I add? The shift is a troublesome one, I think, though perhaps familiar to most of us: How much we swim in a world of our own wanting, our own ambitions: what will get me noticed? What will sell my book? What will help my career? And this blog post is no better; its deflections should be granted no leniency: I want, I want, I want.

Of course, my could isn’t all bad. With a subject of significant cultural importance, quantity does in some respect trump quality: we widen the conversation to widen the conversation. The means, in other words, becomes the ends. (Responses to tragedies work along similar grounds. We didn’t talk about the Arizona shooting with any real belief that we could come up with a satisfactory answer to the ever-present Why [did this happen]? We talked about the shooting to talk about the shooting. We talked about it because we’re humans and we’re comforted by the act of spilling out what’s inside us through our unique gift of language.) In this respect, the shift to the could allows our ambitions to lead us toward catharsis. And not just catharsis. Ambition can prod new voices to speak, and without new voices our conversations about complex subjects would inevitably windup in a stalemate of tiresome arguments.

But what of the more prosaic aspects of my shift to “what could I say”? What happens when we focus our creative attentions on the subject of “race” because our ambition also understands “race” (the subject as a whole, no matter which angle one approaches it from) as a commodity that has a high value — for better and worse — within our marketplace? Obviously, most of us aren’t so cynical as to be motivated exclusively by such concerns. We write what we honestly feel — we think we do — we try to, at least — and yet the prosaic concerns remain: How can I position myself to get ahead in such a competitive landscape?

These two motivations for talking about race (the “cathartic,” let’s rather sloppily call it for now, and the “prosaic”) continually intersect in our subsequent conversations. To talk about the ways we see racial attitudes expressed and examined in the work of our colleagues, should, one would hope, focus on the work itself. But often our focus shifts away from the work itself and becomes a way to express our frustrations with what we perceive to be inequities in the marketplace. And arguments about the marketplace — especially about markets as tiny as ours — tend to fill with gossip and descend rapidly into bitterness. We see this dynamic at work in the internecine fighting that seems to continually erupt within the poetry world.

Yet this conjoining of the two motivations is not very often acknowledged, at least beyond a perfunctory genuflection at the altar of subjectivity. Most of us — myself included — are loathe to admit that our critical opinions are significantly shaped by anything other than a clear-headed examination of the writer’s writing. We tell ourselves that we can keep the writer’s public persona — as well as our own career frustrations, friendships, enmities, etc. — separate from the work under our review. But then again we human beings tell ourselves a lot of things, and nearly all of these sweet-nothings are laced with some measure of rationalization.

Ambiguous Rapture: Saint Cecilia at the Norton Simon

11 Feb

Entrance to the Norton Simon

WiP has been working on an essay about Guido Reni’s Saint Cecilia, a painting which can be found at the Norton Simon museum. As the essay came about specifically because of numerous walking trips to the Simon, it seems appropriate to post at least the first two sections of the piece. The essay is still very much under construction; it’s a slow hike, but it’s moving forward resolutely.

Local Masterpieces

I’ve walked to the Norton Simon museum to read and drink a beer and spend a few minutes with Saint Cecilia, the early Baroque masterpiece by the Bolognese artist Guido Reni. The Norton Simon is of course flush with the usual suspects — van Gogh, Degas, Rembrandt, Picasso — artists that are, in a way, part of our general landscape. We know their works from textbooks and restaurant walls, from college campus print sales, from and, from screensavers and stickers and fridge magnets.

But suddenly there it is, up on a wall in front of you, an arm’s reach away, the shock of the actual. You could blindfold the guard; you could add the oils from your fingertips to the oils of the painting. If we’re lucky, we react to this punch of the thing-itself by rising to the challenge. We set aside, for a blessedly calm moment, the cacophonies of our own lives. We concentrate until we’re able to see through the scrim of the artist’s commodified packaging — until we can stand alone with the artist’s creation to discover a familiar masterpiece anew.

Sadly, I’m not usually that lucky. Usually a childish mantra repeats idiotically in my head — a van Gogh, a van Gogh, an actual van Gogh — and I walk away with a vapid feeling of accomplishment (another ballerina statuette by Degas — check); and my heart on these occasions, I’m sorry to admit, remains firmly unmoved and no more the wiser.

However, to claim now that Saint Cecilia’s power over me derives primarily from my previous ignorance of its existence would only complete the second half of a particularly shallow equation: familiar is boring; new is good. To follow this equation is to imagine a museum patron puppy–dog, sniffing out every new art-bone or -dropping, licking its surfaces, moving on happily, the universe reduced to one question only: what’s next? Certainly, Saint Cecilia was a thing that I noticed immediately, a new thing over which my eyes enjoyed lingering. But quickly an inverse proportion took shape, a proportion familiar to any fan or scholar: as the newness wore off, my interest only intensified.

For me, Reni’s creation offers glimpses of a distinct yet uncatchable presence underneath the artist’s meticulous mixtures of linseed and turpentine, a presence conjured mysteriously by nothing more mysterious than materials and technique. And so I keep coming back to Saint Cecilia — on every visit to the Norton Simon, without fail. Not a friend exactly — the anthropomorphism feels too sentimental a description — but Reni’s painting does manage to move me consistently and complexly and that’s hardly a small thing either in this world.

Saint Cecilia (1606), by Guido Reni



How to adequately describe Cecilia’s red dress, both its color and fabric sumptuous yet somehow also completely devoid of ostentation? Are we to live, marooned, on an island of adjectives? Would it help to mention the diaphanous band of fabric cinched loosely above the saint’s waist? And the varying shades of gold that unite the painting — how exactly to reassemble them here on the page with any sense of satisfaction? I could begin above the painting’s focal point — the saint’s eye’s, that ambiguous, arresting look on her face — where we would find a gold-embroidered headscarf with golden tassels. The relative brightness of these golds echoes the faint halo that disappears in all but the most pristine of reproductions. Further down, the gold trim of a chemise modestly negates any possibility of cleavage. (We needn’t know one word of the saint’s legend to guess at Cecilia’s chastity.) And in the lower half of the picture we discover that our heavenly golds have come under the influence of brown: Find the scarf wrapped around the white ruffled sleeve that covers Cecilia’s left arm; notice the light yellowing the wood of the violin. These lower-half golds are darker and more subdued — golds of the earth and of the natural, mortal world.

We might pause then for a moment to note the violin’s peculiar position. Is Cecilia merely about to begin playing or is there something more ritualistic in the strange angle of her fiddle and bow? Is she making to the Lord an offering of her instrument? Or perhaps there’s even a third possibility (or at least a third possibility): Please, God, take this gift of yours away. I’ve had enough, thank you very much. It’s an ambiguity that mirrors the ambiguity of Cecilia’s rapturous gaze, just as the violin’s position of dominance in the bottom half of the frame reflects the overall dominance of the saint’s heaven-locked eyes.

And if ambiguity can be seen as a kind of positive multiplicity — an accretion of possible meanings that work together to express the mysterious complexity of being — then Reni’s brushwork itself could be said to travel an ambiguous, branching pathway. The halo’s perfect arc, as if compass-drawn, is a gesture toward an ideal, heavenly form. But this purity of line contrasts with the majority of the painting’s style. Reni’s brush strokes often provide crisp edges and meticulous detailing to the painting’s objects and yet always manage to maintain an overall flowing and entirely organic feel. Cecilia’s headdress, for example, exhibits, in addition to its delicate tassel work, the meticulous gold leaf details that are visible most clearly above the saint’s forehead, a last mortal stop between Cecilia’s gaze and the heavens. And yet, overall, the headdress is a twisting, almost living presence. It begins wrapped around Cecilia’s hair in a practical, workaday way — unfussy and modest. Does it disappear then just beyond Cecilia’s right eye only to reappear in a more somber-colored gold? Or is the scarf wrapped around the saint’s left arm a separate piece of accessorizing? In either case, the carefully constructed diagonal from right brow to left shoulder links the point of disappearance and the point of reemergence and allows a viewer to easily imagine the unseen line of fabric. This linkage heightens the organic quality of the headdress/scarf, which comes to rest finally by winding itself around Cecilia’s arm — a kind of pet serpent, tamed, perhaps even neutered, and yet still a serpent nonetheless. Even for a saint, temptation can never be fully extinguished. (Though whether Reni meant this winding scarf as a full-throated allusion, I’m not sure. Perhaps the painter was purposely riffing on images of The Fall that he had seen. After all, Eve’s left side is often illustrated as the side nearest to temptation: she picks the apple with her left hand; nearby, also to Eve’s left, the serpent hovers. But other paintings arrange the biblical scene differently — including Reni’s own Adam and Eve in Paradise, painted more than a decade after Saint Cecilia — and so it seems more appropriate to say that Reni was an artist of his time and, as such, must have absorbed the Genesis story deeply and through a variety of sources. This absorption then expresses itself — purposely or not — as Reni works on Saint Cecilia.)

And finally — finally being an operative word now — it seems necessary to mention the rich black nothingness that fills nearly half the canvas — not quite a warning this black, but certainly at least a reminder. Only the shadowy form of a pipe organ — a symbol of the recently uncatholicized Catholic Church — interrupts the background black. (To perceive a Catholic painting from the Baroque and Counter-Reformation eras involves an appreciation of the fiercely propagandistic framework under which the Church expected all of its artists to operate.) This uniformly black background was indeed common in Baroque portraiture, but Reni’s reminding-darkness achieves a more intense metaphorical power by insinuating itself into the material world of the painting: the bow’s strings blacken; the violin’s f-cut sound openings offer a glimpse of the instrument’s interior lightlessness; the instrument’s leather “comfort” strap becomes a snug curve of darkness around Cecilia’s left shoulder. And though, upon close inspection, the diaphanous band of fabric above Cecilia’s waist as well as the neck ribbon supporting a gold broach are actually a lively blue, this color proves to be yet another shifting ambiguity of the painting. Viewed at a distance of more than six or seven feet, the overwhelming blackness of the background subsumes the blue until all that remains is a subtle, dark shimmering. At even this modest distance, our finally washes in from its eternal void to occupy the diaphanous belt and the broach’s neck ribbon, which, along with various shadows and dark folds, work to balance out the gold costuming accents and give shape and meaning — both historical and figurative — to Cecilia’s clothing.

For me, the world of ekphrasis is a clumsy but loving world — loving in the way that a portion of love is a fine regarding, a close attention. Ekphrasis is the all-too-human attempt to transcribe visual into linguistic — which, in its wider sense, is what we always do with language. We subject the world to our description of it (to paraphrase nearly every philosopher who’s ever lived). But here in the stricter sense of the term — in the sense of an “intense pictorial description of … [an] art-object,” as The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory defines it — ekphrasis contains more than a measure of the devotional within it. And what, after all — think again of love, think again of faith — inspires devotion if not a mystery, an ambiguity, a presence that we feel keenly — distinctly and clearly even — and yet so often, time after time, stumble to explain?

Ministry of Unsilly Walks

8 Feb

Parody of a parody.

WiP recently came across this bit of walking qua walking in Terry Eagelton’s On Evil:

But evil is also boring because it is without real substance. It has, for example, no notion of emotional intricacies. Like a Nazi rally, it appears spectacular but is secretly hollow. It is as much a parody of genuine life as the goosestep is a parody of walking.

And it turns out that recent research has suggested that goosestepping is, surprisingly enough, not the favored form of circumambulation for radicals and iconoclasts. But the study goes further, beyond the mere goosestep, to root out the normalizing effects of practices whose nefarious qualities are less obvious:

Researchers have found that if groups perform tasks in unison, such as marching, dancing and chanting, they show more loyalty towards each other and are less likely to go against the norm.

Which, obviously, leaves WiP with one question: Is America’s Best Dance Crew, in fact, part of a secret plot to eradicate youth rebellion?


Schwartzman’s Simulacrum

6 Feb

Schwartzman/On Evil/Bubbleness

At Intelligentsia, the DJ looks like a shaggy version of Jason Schwartzman — who, come to think of it, is a fairly shaggy human creature himself. I order a red ale. Nine dollars. It’s good though, so why complain. I read. Terry Eagleton’s On Evil. I’m in love with this book. It fills my brain with ideas. The marginalia multiplies.

Then beside me the bubbleness. A young guy on his iPhone, texting. He works there, apparently, though maybe it’s his day off. It seems like his day off. He goes behind the bar to order himself a meal from the touchscreen ordering machine or whatever you call it that the bartenders and baristas use. It’s the only time he looks up from his iPhone and then it’s merely to shift to a bigger touchscreen. Then he talks to the bartender and they’re friends and I like them both because they’re comfortable in their own skins and because there’s that aura of things are definitely/probably/ maybe happening for them.

“We have a show in Palm Springs,” the bartender says and somehow just from the tone I know that he’s not talking about a band, as one might expect. More like some kind of film event. Or maybe I haven’t gleaned this insight just from his tone. Maybe my ears heard something but it didn’t register in my conscious mind. But it feels like I’ve picked up this fact just from the tone — and this, in turn, makes me feel minutely proud of my ability to decode social clues. But maybe it actually means the opposite: that we’re all sponges and everything washes through us but precious little is processed with any meaning.

Anyways, bubbleness. A friend recently bought a car that enables him to sync up his iPhone in a way that the car’s stereo will continue playing whatever song he was just listening to on his mobile device. All he has to do is plug in and turn on the car. Bubble house, bubble car, effortless transfer. No chaos or germs.

There’s an inverse proportion between this kind of thing and the romance we attach to, say, ham radio operators. Aren’t ham radio operators now the exclusive domain of movies in which they pick up the sounds of ghosts or past lives or alien lifeforms? That’s not a well-crafted thought but I’m convinced there’s a profound connection in there somewhere. The old technologies: once we have no use for them in the real world they tend to live on in our popular culture as clunky links to ephemeral, supernatural worlds. Although I guess at an opposite end, we see the same thing: techno-anxiety monsters its share of monsters too. The TV in Poltergeist, etc., etc.

These gentlemen can put you in touch with alien lifeforms. Extra charges apply.


Later, I try to get my favorite lamb roast wrap at Pita Pita but it’s closed and so I end up at Rubio’s, ordering a chicken quesadilla. This is the serendipity part. “I Shot the Sheriff” is playing in the restaurant and an actual sheriff is waiting for his burrito. I see his actual badge. I mean this guy is truly a sheriff and Bob Marley is truly singing his song of violence and freedom. I want to ask him if he hates the song, but of course I don’t. Instead I read a few more On Evil paragraphs.

And then — and really, it happens in the moment when I think: “I should write about this” — because that thought makes me check again, look closer and of course he’s not a sheriff at all. CHP instead. Which I take to mean that serendipities, examined, usually turn out to be works of the imagination — a thought that seems both depressing and comforting. Serendipity as a simulacrum of God? Well, that’s a pretty phrase. Wonder if it has any sense to it.

Better to stick to my wheelhouse and end with this: I think there’s a comfort in knowing that our minds construct such connections as serendipity. The busy narrative-machines of our brains (another kind of old technology in its way, often romanticized). You could say that my story of the doubled sheriff was a kind of company or companionship that I constructed for myself using my imagination. As too, I guess, this little written rambling here.

Ramble date: Friday, February 4th, 2011

Number of miles rambled: 4

Places visited during ramble: Intelligentsia, Vroman’s, Rubio’s

House Jargon: Ramblings

5 Feb

I'm not sure how I feel about blogging. Am I just adding to the noise of the world?

Ramblings shall hereby accord to the following guidelines:

1. Rambling, first meaning, as a wandering in the actual world (remember the actual world?): the post is generated by a walk, usually in Pasadena, usually a solitary walk.

2. Rambling, second meaning, as a piece of discursive writing: the post shall be thoughtful but swiftly composed and minimally revised. Tangents are encouraged.

3. There shall be pictures. Like the one included here, of a rather anxious-looking gibbon.

4. There shall be statistics. (WiP loves statistics, their fixed states like little lighthouses on the shores of chaos, like succinct testaments of a lived life.) Ramblings shall have the following stat stamp:

  • Date of Ramble
  • Number of Miles Rambled
  • Places Visited During Ramble