Sleeping at Sermons

When Soul-melting Sermons are Preached about Christ the Saviour, about the pardon of sin, about the glory of Heaven, there are some that would sleep under them . . . . Yea, some will sit and sleep under the best Preaching in the World . . . . Some woeful Creatures, have been so wicked as to profess they have gone to hear Sermons on purpose, so that they might sleep . . . (Increase Mather, Sleeping at Sermons)

A dozing congregant in a small New England meeting house would be hard to missa finger in the clerical eye. It is easy to sympathize with a minister’s displeasure at the provocation. (Easy, too, to enjoy Mather’s unintended window onto an endearing unruliness in the Puritan heart.)

AA403632

Puritans attending service in Plymouth, Massachusetts (17th C.)

Please do not count me among the wicked if I confess to . . . no, not sleeping during homilies. Not that. But I do defend against the lure of a catnap by coming to Mass armed with a book. No novels, no journalism. Nothing profane. I only take reading that Mather himself would call soul-awakening. It is my safeguard against sermons that could not melt butter let alone a backsliding soul.

My most constant companion is Henri de Lubacs The Discovery of God. It is a 1960 translation of Sur les chemins de Dieu, itself a 1956 recasting of an earlier work written in the crucible of World War II. The first was published in 1945, the year the Reich surrendered. It was the year of the Battle of the Bulge Bataille de Ardennes to the French of the liberation of Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz. It was the year Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hung by Hitler’s order.

A slim handbook of thematically arranged quotations and reflections, the text is studded with passages to hold close in the spirit of prayer. These are deliberately fragmentary”marginal notes” the author calls them. De Lubac avoids all semblance of a theological treatise in order to prompt us toward an intimacy beyond the reach of systematic statements and analyses.

The text proceeds from Fnelon’s assertion: “What men lack most is knowledge of God.” De Lubac approaches the dual mystery of God and man from outside the conventional machinery of academic discourse. His own commentary interlaces with a treasury of observations the poetry of contemplative minds by Origen, Bernard, Hilary, Mircea Eliade, Paul Claudel, Anselm, Gabriel Marcel, John of the Cross, Aquinas, Martin Buber, many others. Each thread of utterances is self-contained, concentrated, and terse enough to grip wandering attention for the duration of a watery Sunday sermon.

AA376025

Artist Unkown. St. Ignatius Loyola Listening to a Sermon (late 16th C.). College St. Michel Fribourg, Switzerland

Simone Weil, her writing and her life engaged by history and politics, wrote the essays later published as Gravity and Grace at the onset of World War II. It is the book that brought her to prominence as a religious thinker and mystic. De Lubac cites it in a footnote, making use of her comment”We fly from the inner void since God might steal into it”to frame his own:

Man, alas, is above all frightened of God. He is afraid of being burned at his touch, like the Israelites who touched the Ark. That adds subtlety to his denials, cunning to his attempted escapes, and makes the pious inventive in devotional tricks to deaden the shock . . . . Whether incredulous, indifferent or believers, we compete with one another in ingeniously guarding ourselves against God.

Inventive in devotional tricks. That single phrase alone invites consideration. To accept the challenge of it is to leave oneself vulnerable to dismissal or angry dissent. I only wish de Lubac had risked answering his own summons.

His chosen extracts from Augustine are commanding in their brevity. The first, below, is exhilarating. The second and third could be taken as a chastisement against the assurance of theologians whose stock and trade is the discursive:

However far thought may rise, there is always further to go.

If you have understood, then this is not God. If you were able to understand, then you understood something else instead of God. If you were able to understand even partially, then you have deceived yourself with your own thoughts. ( Sermon  52)

Whatever is understood by knowledge is limited by the understanding of the knowledge . . . . If you have reached an end, then it is not God. ( De civitate Dei)

My favorite is a caution artists understand: that a certain clarity of thought can exist apart from language. Augustine, wary of the limits of language, phrased the intuition this way:

Have we said anything, uttered any sound, which is worthy of God? . . . A sort of battle with words ensues. Since if what is ineffable is what cannot be said, yet what can be called even ineffable is not ineffable. This battle with words is to be prevented by silence rather than stilled by speech. ( De Doctrina Christiana)

One aspect of this lovely book unsettles me. It is this: In all two hundred pages there is not a hint of the agony of its time. It was composed in Lyons during the years of devastating aerial bombardment by Allied forces over German-occupied France, between 1940 and 1945. (According to Andrew Knapps Forgotten Blitzes, a study of Allied bombing of Italy and France, Britain and the United States together dropped nearly eight times the tonnage of bombs on France as the Luftwaffe dropped on the United Kingdom.)

BDIC001

The evacuation of these young bombed out evacuees was sponsored by the Comit Ouvrier de Secours Immeddiat, financed largely by the confiscation of Jewish-owned goods.

The absence of all recognition of the nature of the times in which de Lubac wrote both awes and confounds me in equal measure. The roads that run from God to man and from man to God pass through the killing fields of the day, through all the days before and those yet to come. Blood drips on the philosophia perennis. No theologian knew this better than de Lubac. Wounded during battle in World War I and active in the French Resistance, the man did not live detached from the broken moment to which he was called. Reading The Discovery of God , I regret his omission of any reference to the multitude of experiences, the demonic and contradictory context, in which these reflections were shaped and ordered.

BDIC19

Rouen after Allied bombing in the spring of 1944

De Lubac admits only the confident complaint religious men are fond of invoking : “Man without God is dehumanized.” But does that hold quite so well as we think? History, including Christendom’s own, demonstrates that man with God is no stranger to dehumanizing impulses. Man in the name of God, man sealed with fervor for God, is poised to kill no less than console. Man, called into being by a God Who both loves and judges, hunts the infidel, hounds the reprobate. Made in the image of God from the dust of the planet, he distinguishes between the damned and the saved, discernment variable according to cultural preference. Man-with-God holds a double-edged blade, one side as ineluctable, lethal, as the other.What de Lubac so gracefully calls “the mark of God upon us” is, perhaps, a more fearsome thing than we permit ourselves to think.

ART410019

Yahya ben Mahmoud al-Wasiti. Teaching in a Madrasa before men and veiled women. Manuscript from Baghdad (1237). Bibliotheque National, Paris

It gets wearying, these pulpit and podium appeals to Love-and-Beauty. They point to the single keyhole through which we are counseled to view terrible enormities. The vacant and the monstrous. The horror of the void. Where is there room for the necessity the candor of dread?

I am left carrying my books.

Jihadist headhunters

El Greco, Messiah of Modernism

Among Platonists, man is mind, intellect, above all else. Man is ordained to think. His province is learning and true wisdom. The rest is flesh and appetite, or, in the phrasing of Timaeus , an Eros of begetting. A common, ignoble thing that resides in the lower precincts of the body and pulls us earthenward, away from our celestial affinity.

Christopher Johnson, in the comment section to the previous post, alludes to that ancient polarity. Speaking of El Greco’s St. Martin and the Beggar, he notes that the painting transports the scene from a mere act of charity to an encounter between the mortal and the divine.

El_Greco_1597_1599_XX_St._Martin_and_the_Beggar_(St._Martin)

El Greco. St. Martin and the Beggar (1597-99). National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

Frank Gonzalez-Crussi, a practicing pathologist and a graceful essayist, comments on the way that thematic polarity, between mortal and divine, informs the visual structure of El Greco’s work:

Having learned his art from the Venetians, El Greco painted bodies that naturally experience all the gravitational pull that earthly beings suffer. Living in the rigidly dogmatic society of Catholic Toledo, they are equally subject to an elevating impulse that would drag them toward the firmament, like disembodied souls that left behind their corporeal sheaths, just as the famed Toledan sword blades . . . used to leave their leather encasements with a deadly hissing sound.

Caught between irresistible terrestrial and heavenly pulls, El Greco’s bodies stretch beyond anything credible. As his angels grow in length, it occurs to him that they need huge wings to be supported in flight. Officers of the Inquisition, not well versed in aerodynamics, we are to assume, object to the wing size as contrary to prescribed canons and must be persuaded: functional wings or none at all! His kneeling worshippers, his standing figures, stretch to a degree that seemed objectionable to most of his contemporaries and, in the saying of Maurice Barrs, repugnant to many, who expected to be presented with butterflies transmuted in worship, and are instead presented with long larvae in vivid colors.

1b-annunciation-el-greco-1

El Greco. The Annunciation (c. 1595-1600). El Greco painted several versions of the theme. This replica belongs to the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio. Made by El Greco, it is his own copy of the painting that hangs in the Museum of Fine Art, Budapest.

El Greco’s dematerialized, Mannerist forms articulate the mystical ideals of Spain’s Golden Age. Yet the painter, born in the capital of Crete, his eye ripened and hand perfected in Venice and Rome, grappled with accusations of insanity in life and afterwards. The fevered attenuation of El Greco’s bodies became greater as time went on; the opposing pulls, simultaneously earthward and skyward, were felt more keenly as his work progressed. Surely, the painter was mad?

The argument of Spanish erudite Germn Beritens, writing in 1914 on why El Greco painted as he did, influenced reception of El Greco’s work for decades. Entitled El Astigmatismo del Greco, Berens theory of progressive astigmatism lingers on even now in popular discussions of El Greco. Gonzalez-Crussi remarks:

Through the use of glasses that correct this defect, a counter-proof is offered: if one looks at his paintings through such lenses, lo and behold! The proportions will suddenly appear normal. Thus, if we are to believe this thesis, a bad case of genius could have been averted by an opportune visit to the ophthalmologist.

Composition itself is expression. El Greco’s protracted figures exhibit the simultaneous upward and downward pressure of the mind’s aspirations and Plato’s “ploughland of the womb.” Call it a mystic dialogue. The painter’s swirl of exaggerated, even histrionic, forms embody the drama of salvation. To see in them some material, visual or neurological, disorder is not to see them at all.

greco.5th-seal

El Greco. The Opening of the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse, or The Vision of St. John (1608-14). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Stay awhile with El Greco. It is one of the oddities of cultural history that this non-Spaniard, buried in an unknown grave and neglected for nearly three centuries, should have arisen in the late nineteenth century to displace even Velasquez as the glory of Spanish painting. While Spain is splendidly possessive of him today, that was not always so. Art historian Thomas Craven, writing in 1931, summarizes:

More profoundly than any artist of her [Spain’s] own blood does he express the ghastly passions and interpret the tragedy of her mystic soul. But while he lived and worked and quarreled in Toledo, she watched his movements with suspicion, eager to bring him before the Inquisition, never thinking of him but as a foreigner, and calling him The Greek .

He, in turn, was neither soft-spoken nor agreeable; prouder even than the Spaniards, he did not fear them, but held them off with high indifference and scorn, telling them they were below the Italians, and adding that the Italians were inferior to his own people, the Greeks. He was, he said, descended from the greatest of all races, and to remind the Castillians of his classical origin, he retained his eastern name, Domenikos Theotokopoulos. Thus, in Greek characters, did he sign his pictures.

Although he could boast of neither the king’s favor nor popular acclaim, El Greco must have been adept at moving his work. He was reported to have lived elegantly in a twenty-four room house. It is known that he was able to hire musicians from Venice to entertain his dining; that he took pride in his cultivated tastes and his erudition. And he was painstaking in his working methods:

. . . he was an extremely deliberate, scrupulous and systematic painter, working from clay models and making smaller and carefully finished versions of all his pictures . . . . Hence the many extant versions of the same subjects showing the growth of his designs and how he worked them over and over again, pruning transposing and accentuating until he had arrived at the maximum of expressiveness.

Little else is known about him except that his only heir was a mistress, not a wife, and that they had one son, an undistinguished painter. What, then, finally awarded El Greco the Breeders’ Cup in Spain’s art historical sweepstakes?

It was Modernism. The early moderns broke the tenacity of realism, and, with it, the ascendency of Velasquez. Impatient with naturalistic standards of depiction, the new movement went in search of an Old Master to call its own. Suddenly, El Greco’s distortions looked prophetically avant-garde. It is hard to pinpoint who were the first to re-evaluate his work as a needed cudgel against the authority of verisimilitude. Cezanne? Unamuno, who declared El Greco “the first apostle of Impressionism”? Others of the Generation of Ninety Eight? Art historian Manuel Casso or Julius Meier-Graefe?

El Greco was on the cusp of revival when that other Spaniard, Picasso, studied The Opening of the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse while he was at work on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

PicasBrothel

Pablo Picasso. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Museum of Modern Art, New York.

By now it is agreed that Les Demoiselles (originally intended to be titled The Brothel on Avignon Street ) owes as much to El Greco as to Cezanne. What matters here is that branching lines of descent from the primacy of realism to the fracturings of Modernism share a major point of origin in the work of one audacious religious painter. Art, a careless courtesan, is such that its favors can attend incandescent devotion or serve, in Picasso’s phrase, as “an instrument of war.”

A tireless anti-Modernist polemicist, Thomas Craven, in 1931, dubbed El Greco the “Messiah of Modernism.” Although he located in El Greco the seeds of a movement he despised, he nonetheless embraced the painter with the ardor of a revivalist preacher:

[El Greco] retains the strong Spanish savor of the environment that preyed upon his spirit; thus he saves himself from the emptiness of abstractions, communicating his experiences in forms which are not merely mathematical units of design but receptacles of human meanings . . . .

The world of El Greco is a furnace in which the soul, hating the heat of the body, struggles in an unearthly passion to release itself. In the convulsive duel, the resisting body is pulled out of joint and elongated into a fiery apparition. His gaunt figures, suffering from some burning malaise of the flesh, are preternaturally tall; their eyes are fixed on God; they throw their arms upward, in the agony of living, to clutch at the celestial throne.

Reading Craven now, some eighty years after he wrote, is a great romp. Sturdy in his likes and dislikes, he was convinced that laymen had been scarred by the aesthetes. Public faculties were pocked and blistered by jargon, by theory, by whatever sacred apparatus sought to sift a self-selected minority from the gross herd. Craven, personal friend of the American regionalists and influential advocate of American Scene painting, argued to reclaim art from the specialists. And he did it with gusto. Read him for his prose, his pungence, and the ease of his erudition. You needn’t share his antagonism toward the School of Paris or the European moderns in general.

Craven was writing at roughly the same time, a few scant years in advance, of Chaplin’s Modern Times and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis . Mistrust of the machine, of industrialization’s material productiveness, was a shared theme of the moment he inhabited. In retrospect, it seems almost quaint. But that is a minor point. Craven’s scholarship and the vigor of his insight stands.

His Men of Art is a sparkling place to begin acquaintance. It is long out of print but available for pennies on the internet. “Have Painters Minds?” is a Menckenesque essay published in The American Mercury , 1927. Harder to find, it rewards the hunt.

Idolatry of Devout Ideas

The name of Hans Urs von Balthasar has become a kind of a code word among Catholics. Like the password to a speakeasy, it signals membership in a confidential circle on sequestered ground. Nonmembers have to tread carefully. Signs to “Keep Off the Grass” are everywhere. The lawn is beautifully kept.

At the risk of tripping over those staked warnings, I have to admit a high degree of nonplussment over the writings of Adrienne von Speyr and Balthasar’s drive to promote them. I spent the summer with Balthasar’s First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr , her Book of All Saints , her Confession , and The World of Prayer, each with an introduction by Balthasar. A curious phenomenon, von Speyr. Curiouser still is the aura of mimicry—Simone Weil speeds to mind—and nineteenth century spiritualism that accompanies her story. Equally nonplussing is the hagiographic obscurantism that marks Balthasar’s presentation of his protégée and alter ego.

 

ART117594
Anonymous. Franz Mesmer’s “assistant magnetizer” practices Animal Magetism—or Mesmerism—on a patient. From Ebenezer Sibley’s A Key to Physic and the Occult Sciences. London (c. 1798)

 

What triggered interest in von Speyr was a passage from Balthasar’s own book on prayer which sets on a mantle shelf next to Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer . Of the two, it is Merton I turn to with any frequency. Merton wrote for wayfarers on their knees; Balthasar, for the podium. Despite occasional passages of true loveliness (“All faith is resurrection faith.”), particularly welcome allusions to Martin Buber’s I and Thou , his Prayer is more lecture than companion. Merton’s lyrical acclamation—“Alleluia is the song of the desert”—finds faint echo in Balthasar’s prose.

After stating, rightly, that contemplation must not “get stuck in the intellect,” but instead should result in “a touching,” Balthasar adopts a marital analogy. A strange one:

Love for her husband means that the woman can put up with weeks of loneliness at home while he has to be away on business; it may be that, as the years go by, her love for him enables her to bear bodily contact with him without revealing the effort it costs her.

Bodily contact is a squeamish euphemism. A woman’s sexual embrace of her husband—the irreducible heart of marriage—is depicted as something costly that requires “stamina.” It is a form of “humble service.” In other words, male desire is tolerated, not welcomed, by a wife. The depiction is wondrously close to the popular trope (“Lie back . . . .”) spun from an entry in Lady Hillingdon’s 1912 journal entry:
“When I hear his steps outside my door I lie down on my bed, open my legs and think of England.”

Is this what the theologian learned about married love by living with von Speyr and her second husband Werner Kaegi? Apparently so. Judging from First Glance, it is possible to hazard a guess that the mystic’s sufferance, like that of Lady Hillingdon’s, might not have been tested often.

Von Speyrs’s first marriage was to Emile Dürr, a history professor and widower with two young sons. Balthasar’s depiction suggests a narrative by the Victorian Mrs. Gaskell. Adrienne entered medical school aware that a man a woman had something to do with making a baby. Still, “in some inexplicable way, she remained unenlightened until her clinical semester.” Von Speyr met Dürr while she was a medical student. He was attracted. Friends, aware of her nescience, conspired to make a match. Von Speyr gave in to friendly pressure, less out of reciprocal feeling than “sympathy” for a good man and his children.

The physical aspects of marriage proved “distressing” and “strange” to her. It could hardly have been otherwise for a woman convinced that she had been marked by Mary and that “physically, she belonged to God.” Nevertheless, Dürr was “kindness itself.” (Too kind to press himself on a disinclined wife?) We are told that as the years went by—there were not many of them—she came to love him. Undoubtedly, she did. But did they share a bed? Had the good man been cheated, perhaps, by the nature of his wife’s sympathy? We are told only that they lived “harmoniously,” spoke together of God and, on vacation in Italy, prayed together in local churches.

Dürr died suddenly in 1934, leaving her with two stepsons. Her motherhood disappears summarily from Balthasar’s précis of her life. The boys plummet from sight, unnamed. Only their grandfather—Professor Adolf Baumgartner—earns a name by virtue of his acquaintance with more prominent names: Nietzche and Burckhardt. In 1936, Von Speyr married Werner Kaegi, who replaced Dürr at the University of Basel. Although Balthasar spent over fifteen years living under the same roof with Kaegi, he dispatches the mystic’s husband, his own housemate, in two scant lines: “His multi-volume work about Jacob Burckhardt is famous. He died in 1979.”

Never erased is the initial impression of von Speyr’s sexual reluctance. That, in addition to a fervent, not to say morbid, religious sensibility escorted by a pietistic disposition toward submission (her “Marian” character), begets the image of a woman exquisitely poised to fill the role of medium to Balthasar’s dominant spellbinder. Balthasar quotes admiringly the statement of one of Adrienne’s friends: “You are made for obedience.” Obey she did, producing two autobiographies at his request plus a flood of additional works dictated to him while in a dazed reverie. (In his forward to the 1981 re-edition of First Glance , Balthasar cites thirty seven in print at the time; Ignatius Press sets a total at sixty.)

The first autobiography was written by herself in longhand. The second appears to have been orated. In Balthasar’s delicate obfuscation, it was “very different” and “entirely charismatic in character.” His comment on the circumstances of this second narration merits attention:

My command enabled her under obedience to recount her life from the level of consciousness of her childhood and youth. She writes then about some of the same events [as those in the first autobiography], but also about other matters which she herself had completely forgotten.

Completely forgotten until under command of an authority figure and in a somnolent state? This points us toward the territory of recovered memory syndrome. Readers are left standing at the permeable boundary between fantasy and reality. Were certain of von Speyr’s memories reconstructed or invented? Her visions inspired or induced?

The impression of something insalubrious, askew, hovers over what is proffered as mystical insight. It is impossible to close Book of All Saints— which includes Balthasar’s verbal prompts to Adrienne in her visionary state without gratitude that the Church does not require assent to private visions. The sensus fidelium is granted latitude for good reason. Credulity does faith no service. And skepticism, too, can be a gift of the Spirit. An astringent grace.

A hyper-suggestible female susceptible to the ascendent will of an authoritative male is the classic stuff of the literature of parapsychology. In this instance, it is also an invitation to consider the power of theology to seduce and the ways of an eminent theologian to mesmerize. At the same time, it beckons a glance at the corresponding fascination of a theologian with a living mirror of—and prod to—his own transformative ambitions.

To be clear: Balthasar’s theological project is the concern of theologians. It is not mine. My own interest—unease, really— is with the selling of Adrienne von Speyr. It will take a posting or two to explore why von Speyr’s “mission” to restore and renew the prayer life of the Church earns a certain suspension of confidence. For now, it is enough to heed Merton’s warning against “the idolatry of devout ideas and imaginings . . . the smug assurance of the devout ones who know all the answers in advance, and possess all the clichés of the inner life . . . .”

 

An Aesthetical Conundrum

Decadence was brought about by the easy way of producing works and laziness in doing it, by the surfeit of fine art and the love of the bizarre.

—Voltaire, The Princess of Babylon (1748)


Voltaire’s linkage of decadence to an overabundance of fine art earns consideration, perhaps now more than ever. Art stuffs pile up around us; and we live, increasingly, with an overemphasis on—even reverence for—aesthetics that is less a sign of refinement than a malaise. It is an unhealthy condition, all the more precarious for exalting aesthetics, a strutting Enlightenment product, up, up into the embrace of theology.

Designated carrier of the True and the Beautiful, art has a baneful way of veiling history. It works to displace it or render it inconsequential beside the sweeter fruits of historical inquiry. Traditional history might as well be bunk. Only art history is redemptive. It is salvation history brought up to date for an over-ripe culture with no taste for the character and complexities of its own past .

This occurs to me whenever I am at the Frick. The complex gives no hint of Henry Clay Frick’s provocative, iron-fisted role in the bloody strike at the Carnegie Steel plant
in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892. A consequential setback to workers in dangerous heavy industries in the early days of the labor movement, it cries for acknowledgment. Yet nothing disturbs the patrician calm of the Gilded Age mansion that houses the Frick Collection. If anyone had occasion to benefit from the presumed moral powers of art, it was Frick himself. But that is another matter. What counts here is that he left us the glittering yield of his purchasing power. He had intended his collection to be his monument. And so it is.

 

mp144
Illustration of the armed combat at the Carnegie Steel plant. Published by National Police Gazette in July, 1982.

 

Duveen , S.N. Behrman’s 1955 biography of Frick’s dealer, includes comments on the entrepreneurial prodigy who had vowed to become a millionaire by the age of thirty. The paragraph extends to nearly all standard commentary on Robber Baron collectors and their wares:

The article on Frick in the Encyclopedia Britannica runs to twenty three lines. Ten are devoted to his career as an industrialist, and thirteen to his collecting of art. In these thirteen lines, he mingles freely with Titian and Vermeer, with El Greco and Goya, with Gainsborough and Velásquez. Steel strikes and armed Pinkerton guards [300 of them] vanish, and he basks in another, more felicitous aura.


That leads us to the Garden Court, a grand Roman atrium added to the Frick mansion a tad more than a decade after the owner’s death. In a seamless act of aesthetic genius, architect John Russell Pope linked the original mansion to the posthumous extension by means of an atrium that filled what had been an alley for cars and carriages between 70th and 71st Street. [You can take a virtual tour of the dazzling Garden Court here .]

 

GardenCourt_2005


  I love the Garden Court. I love to sit on the stone benches and listen to the measured gurgle of water spilling from the mouths of two bronze frogs at either end of the pool. It is a sound out of time, a lovely, liquid undersong that calms, consoles, and in some untellable way, transports. It is a place to brood on the voice Tennyson gave to a bubbling brook: “For men may come and men may go,/But I go on forever.” Within listening distance of those steadfast frogs, I can cruise to altitudes unattainable at home.

Days after my last visit to the Frick, I heard the identical sound again. There was no mistaking it. Trust me. There was the same aqueous fluency, flowing at the same pace and babbling at the same modulated decibel level. This time, though, I was home.

The toilet was running. A mundane, repellant little noise, it stirred ugly visions of dollar bills swirling down the drain to Bell Plumbing. I hated it.

But wait. The connoisseurship of the listening ear has standing, yes? Then why not just close my eyes and take pleasure in the sound until it is fixed? Why not extract something agreeable out this of damned nuisance? While I waited for a new flapper, rubber gasket, or spud washer for a tank manufactured in the same decade as the Garden Court, I should relax and let the sound conjure up another spot of poetry.

I tried to. I failed. But that is beside the point. What matters is the identical character of the sound, the chatter of the Frick’s fountain interchangeable with—indistinguishable from—that of my treacherous toilet. Surely the equivalence and my disparate responses to it signify something about that cagey pretender, the aesthetic sense.

John of Damascus defined s ense as “a faculty of the soul by which material things are perceived, or distinguished.” My hearing is fine. Could my soul, then, be at fault for cherishing the sound in one place and loathing it in another? Or does the aesthetic sense share something with real estate—a critical dependence on location, location, location?

 

Pax Domini and a High-Five

A pang of desolation runs through me during that spasm of glad-handing at Mass called the Kiss of Peace. The High-Five of Peace, as often as not. All the Rotarian hand-shaking, wigwagging, and waving toward every possible compass point makes me lonely. Congregants two generations removed from Woodstock have taken to raising that old two-fingered, tie-dyed peace sign. The sight of it dispirits me. (Who was it who said that the Sixties, like the poor, will be with us always?)

What the hubbub brings to mind is not the pax tecum , an eschatological promise to a community linked by the same faith and the same love. Not one bit. Any gravity intended to prepare receivers of the pax for the Eucharist has disappeared down the rabbit hole. Amid the surrounding bustle and compulsive camaraderie, my memory fills the void with the final lines of a short story by Stringfellow Barr.

 

AA336080
Charles H. Bennett. The Dog and the Wolf. Illustration for The Fables of Aesop and Others, published by W. Kent & Co (1857).

 

“The Little Yellow Dog,” first published in the Virginia Quarterly Review, 1928 , was a staple in high school anthologies of American literature until the multi-culti ethos rolled like a Panzer division over curricula. The story unsettled me in girlhood; it unsettles me still, if for different reasons. Quite brief, it appears in its entirety below.

The images here are not specifically related to the text, though a case might be made for them. I simply delight in them. Maybe you will, too.

 

ART416164
Chapin Bower. “Mr. Barker” at the Dog Pound (1926). Washington State Historical Society.

 

Little Yellow Dog

F. Stringfellow Barr



On the white road that leads out of Mirebeau toward Nantes, between slender wavering poplars, I met a very small yellow dog. He trotted slowly up to me, halted, and spoke.

“Of course,” he said, “I am only a dog, and a yellow one at that. But I am sure you will help me. I am looking for my master.”

“I will do what I can,” I answered. “I like your courage. Frankly, I never expected a dog to speak to me, least of all a yellow one. Where do you think your master is?”

The little dog wagged his tail gratefully; and it was not until he showed this sign of cheerfulness that I realized by contrast how very sad were his yellow eyes.

“I do not know where he is. I have gone South as far as Poitiers and northward to Tours and I could find him nowhere. I live in Mirebeau; but as it is certain he is not there, I am on my way to Nantes to see if he comes off the ships.”

“But did he put to sea?”

“I do not know. But I fancy he loved the straight masts against evening skies. They would remind him of the poplars along the road-side. He was restless and always liked roads and ships. He always smelt of travel, even in his best clothes. Yes, I think I had best try Nantes.”

“What does your master look like?”

The dog turned his head quickly, and a far look came into his melancholy eyes. I thought at first that he could not speak for pain; but suddenly his gaze softened and he seemed to be smiling serenely at some old recollection.

 

ART451624
Guido Guidi. St. Roch Discovered in the Woods by the Nobleman Gottardo (1869). Fresco in Sant’Andrea della Valle, Rome. [According to legend, St. Roch was tended in illness by a dog who brought him bread and licked his sores.]

//
“Ah,” he said, “it is not so much how he looks, or even how he smells; but the things he does. He is always strong and calm and sure of himself. So that one aches to follow him and serve him. You don’t know how we little dogs do ache to serve and follow someone. You may think, because we are restless and keep running into the fields on either side of the road and back again, that we would gladly be independent and free to come and go as we please. Never believe it. We are indeed restless, but how we crave someone to come back to from our strayings. Every morning at dawn I want my master to lead me off. And I can scarcely sleep by day or night for seeking him.”


I noticed then that the little fellow was indeed gaunt and unkempt, with that haunted look in his eyes that some men get. One or two sleek tidy dogs, who came trotting by at the heels of their masters, never even stopped to make his acquaintance. He seemed, by his gentle manner, used to this treatment. But I reflected that his enthusiastic and, I confess, somewhat bombastic description of this marvellous master of his was really not of the least value in a search. So I turned to him sharply.


“Come,” I cried, “when and where did you last see your master?”

//

ART334989
Gisberto Ceracchini. Two Sleeping Men and a Dog (1930. National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, Rome.

 

“I have never seen him,” said the little dog simply. “Maybe that is why he is so hard to find. No, if I had once found him, you may be sure I would not have lost him again. But I have never seen him.”

He was standing very rigidly before me, with his head on one side, and he seemed so confident of my understanding his trouble, that I could not laugh at the absurdity of his quest.

“But, my dear fellow,” I exclaimed as gently as I knew how, “how can you find a master you have never seen? And if he exists only as your ideal, you have but to keep hunting until you find him in the flesh.”

“I have,” said the little dog ruefully. “I have hunted ever since I knew what my ideal was like. Though, to tell the truth, it is not so much a question of what my master must be like, as of what he must not. There are no men that I have seen in Poitiers or Tours that I could follow.”

“But other dogs seem to find masters.”

 

AA563876
Henry Matthew Brock. Illustration for Bell’s New French Picture Cards (c. 1930)

 

“I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that better dogs than I find masters in these places. You are thinking that I am a most conceited pup, a most—”

“No, no!” I cried. “I am thinking nothing of the sort. I understand what you mean.”

I sat down suddenly beside him on the dusty bank and drew his head against mine. A plump peasant who was driving by, looked amusedly at us while his cart covered us with white dust. The peasant’s great black dog paid us not even the attention of a glance.

 

AA343260
Jurriaen Andriessen. Sleeping Boy and Dog (late 18th C.) Detail of mural at Huis te Manpad, Holland.

 

“No, no,” I murmured again in his ear. “I understand how you feel. You cannot follow the fat butcher in Mirebeau, or the sleek pharmacist, or the inn-keeper with his well-kept dogs. They would take good care of you, but you cannot follow them. A pup must follow whom he can, not whomever he will. And none of these men in Mirebeau or Tours is the man you are searching for.—Poor devil, I understand.”

The little pup’s body stiffened; he drew his head back; and a strange, troubled, joyful look came into his eyes.

“No, not that,” I cried, pushing him away and leaping to my feet in a panic, and starting down the road. “No, not me! Courage. Keep a good heart. You will surely find him at Nantes. Or at Rochelle. You did not think of Rochelle, did you? He will surely come off the ships there. —But not me! No, no, not me! There is no strength or sureness in me—no strength.”

 

ART331454
Kazimir Malevich. Running Man (1933). Pompidou Centre, Paris.

 

• • • • •

//
Why does this story come to me, unbidden, at Sunday Mass? The search for a master does not apply, but something else does.

The handshake is a social gesture, not a liturgical one. Shalom drains out of it before it enters the pew. In context, it is convivial, a protocol of sociability; it signals ordinary neighborliness, not communion. Bereft of solemnity, it is crippled in its function as a seal and pledge of the prayers that went before it. Instead, it suggests a quotidian comity that stylized ritual is designed to mute.

Rarely am I within greeting distance of a familiar face with whom the neighborly gesture might resonate. My pew-mates and I are usually strangers to each other. After that brief, isolated burst of obligatory good cheer, we return—gladly, I suspect—to our anonymity. For that reason, the smiling handshake becomes a vacant gesture. Perhaps even a dishonest one.

Each week my fantasy is the same: After Mass, I approach one of the strangers who put their hand out—and who listened reverently to that week’s canned intercession for whichever faceless victims of distant disaster made the evening news. Please, my brother, my sister, would you stay just five minutes more to pray with me? Recite the Last Gospel with me for a dying friend? For the suffering of a lost beloved? For the peace of heart that escapes me?

My fellow parishioner would bolt. A mental note would be made to steer clear of me next week. Embarrassed excuses would come in a rush: So sorry. If only I could but I am running late as it is. Another time, perhaps. But really, it is not necessary. God bless.

“No, not me! Courage! Keep a good heart . . . . No, no, not me.”

• • • • •

Somewhere within the chill Barr’s story induces lurks the fear that I might, myself, turn and flee if a wandering stray stopped me along my own road to Nantes.


//

ART374436
Jacopo Bassano. The Good Samaritan (c. 1550-70).National Gallery, London

 

Note: F. Stringfellow Barr was editor of Virginia Quarterly Review in the 1930s and co-founder, in the ’40s, of the Great Books Program at St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland.