Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays have appeared in various publications, among them: The Nation, Crisis, Commonweal, Hudson Review, Arts, The New Criterion, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a columnist for The New York Sun.
The maudlin 1970 movie made from Erich Segal’s chart-busting novel Love Story passed into blessed memory. All that remains is Ali MacGraw’s line to Ryan O’Neal: “Love means never having to say you are sorry.” On the list of the American Film Institute’s top movie quotes of all time, it is up there with Casablanca’s “We’ll always have Paris” and “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
Love Story’s one-liner became one of the most referenced chestnuts in post-Woodstock popular culture. Winding its way into song lyrics and subsequent movie dialogue, it was also one of most parodied. Even John Lennon took a swing at it: “Love means having to say you’re sorry every five minutes.” Sodden with bathos, it remains the pitch-perfect epigram for a popular culture that dictates sentimentality as a you-gotta-have-it fashion accessory.
Unhappily, popular culture is inhaled by more than the daytime audience for Real Housewives and reruns of Downton Abbey. Fumes seep under chancery doors, even into papal apartments, including Pope Francis’ business-class one.
What brings this to mind is the spiraling catastrophe in the Middle East. Things have worsened in the wake of Francis’ imprudent kiss of the graffitied security fence and follow-up theatrics in the Vatican garden. The magic olive tree planted for the cameras by Mahmoud Abbas, Shimon Peres and the pope did not work. All that thaumaturgical shoveling could not break the spell of Palestinian hatred for Israel and for Jews.
The life-sized M-75 rocket monument erected three months earlier in Gaza City to showcase Palestinian intentions toward “the Zionist entity” still stands. Within a week of Francis’ ceremony under the boxwoods, Hamas kidnapped and murdered three teenage boys in the West Bank. While Israelis mourned their sons, Palestinians gloated over their deaths. Fatah’s own Facebook page posted this:
Also this three-fingered version of the victory sign. Its meaning unmistakable, Fatah coyly offered it as open to interpretation:
Repercussions have been harrowing. The rogue retaliatory killing of an innocent Palestinian teen has been seized as justification for a renewed intifada. In brief, since the prayer fest, the rot has deepened and spread. You would think Francis might be embarrassed.
But no. Love means never having to say you are sorry. Especially if you never intended to have a measurable effect. It is apparently enough that the chimera of peace-and-love, like Shelley’s skylark (“bird thou never wert”), be hailed while it sings and soars above concrete realities on the ground.
On June 14, two days after the kidnapping, Fox News Latino published a curious article stating that the prayer summit was not aimed at restoring talks. It was “merely to serve as a symbol of mutual coexistence and respect.” The article quotes from Francis’ interview with Barcelona’s La Vanguardia in which he acknowledged that his idea was “completely novel” and that he had but one aim: “to open a window to the world.”
In other words, an impulse for novelty, that prized media commodity, eclipsed concern for efficacy. Put plainly, the unspoken object of so much ostentatious piety was to showcase Francis’ personality. Not for nothing is the term “a personality” our synonym for “a celebrity.” Idiosyncrasynoveltyis the lifeblood of celebrity. It distinguishes.
The only casement opened that sunny day in the garden was one that gave a view onto the papal ego. Francis admitted that “ninety-nine percent of the Vatican said we shouldn’t do it.” Faced with a reluctant Vatican, the pope pulled rank. What he achieved was a window of opportunity for an emboldened Hamas.
What we need to ask is this: What has Francis to sayclearly and in publicnow that the staging has gone, the blue shovels put away, and the runic tree, a sustainable prop, is back in the hands of Vatican gardeners who dropped it in the ground to begin with?
Francis is fond of symbolic gestures. But symbols have their consequences. Why else employ them? In this instance, they are all the more mischievous for exempting the symbol-shaper from responsibility for the way his signs are interpreted and used. To borrow a maxim from Flannery O’Connor, if it’s only a symbol, to hell with it.
To what extent might Francis share, at some level, prevailing European hostility toward the Israeli state? It is feasible to wonder. For all the hype about him being the first Latino pope, he really is not. We still have an Italian pope, one raised in a white collar home in the most affluent and Europeanized city in South America. His father was an accountant, not a laborer. During Bergolio’s youth, Argentina was closer to Rome and Madrid than to any third-world Latin American country.
An in-law of mine was born and raised in Buenos Aires. Now an American citizen, he has familyall ethnic Russians and Germansstill in Argentina. He writes me this:
“I don’t like the label “Latino”, it’s an American catch-all. Francis is just another first-generation European refugee in South America, a full-blooded Italian who grew up speaking Spanish. Just like other middle-class professionals in my parents’ generation he was born in an essentially prosperous country, with great public health and education, that was starkly different than its neighbors from Mexico on down. Alas, that is very much not the case now. Maybe the current generation in Argentina is better described as “Latino,” but not Francis, my parents, even me, or anyone else in the educated urban middle classes who is older than about 40.”
Media-induced romance, whether about the first Latino pope or the first black president, is a synthetic obscurant. It hides more than it reveals. And there are pitfalls in the dark.
I am fond of vintage American history textbooks. Rifling through dumpsters, library discards, and second-hand bookstores, I cannot resist bringing them home when I find them. I am drawn to the temper of older histories, particularly ones written for students. Prior to the revisionist animus of the Sixties, school texts shared a sympathy for the American experiment, the fragility and genius of it. Sins were acknowledged but without the rancor that scours the past for new sources of accusation, new means of destruction.
Poster. Art Project of the WPA (c.1936
A civilized sense of national identityto be distinguished from the ideology of nationalismis hard to find in contemporary texts. Howard Zinn’s anti-American harangue, A People’s History of the United States, is one of the most widely used and influential texts. It has incapacitated a generation of readers for living gracefully with our singular past. In the selection process necessary to the historian, Zinn and his disciples shrank the historical enterprise to a story of grievances and outrages.
I am spending this Independence Day with a yellowed, water-stained copy of the second volume of E. Benjamin Andrews’ History of the United States). It is a 1928 edition, the sixth reprinting after its publication in 1894. The succession of reprints signals its popularity at the beginning of the twentieth century. Historian and once chancellor of the University of Nebraska, Andrews wrote about the American Revolution with an affection no longer fashionable. He approached the Revolution through the lens of the French and Indian War (1754-63), emphasizing its role in framing colonial preparedness to secede from England:
“The results of the French and Indian War were out of all proportion to the scale of its military operations. Contrasted with the campaigns which were then shaking all Europe [the Seven Years’ War], it sank into insignificance; and the world, its eyes strained to see the magnitude . . . of those European wars, little surmised that they would dictate the course of history far less than yonder desultory campaigning in America.”
It seemed a minor theatre in the global conflict between the great colonial powers. Yet it had momentous consequences. Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, French envoy to the Ottoman Empire, prophesied from his post in Constantinople: “England will erelong repent of having removed the only check that could keep her colonies in awe. They no longer stand in need of her protection.”
Philip Dawe. Tarring and Feathering the Excise Man (1774). Lithograph published in London.
The French and Indian War gave rag-tag colonists battle field training side by side with the British, a daunting fighting force. It provided experience in establishing camps and enduring a march. It set a standard, however difficult to maintain, for organization and discipline. The value of that tutelage was inestimable.
“If the outbreak of the Revolution had found the Americans a generation of civilians, if the colonial cause had lacked the privates who had seen hard service at Lake George and Louisburg, or the officers . . . who had learned to fight successfully against British regulars by fighting with them, it is a question whether the uprising would not have been stamped out . . . almost at its inception.”
What is interesting about the following passage is the knowledge Andrews takes for granted in the reader. Nowhere does Andrews identify Fort Necessity as the battleground on which Washington suffered his firstand onlysurrender. Neither is Braddock identified as the British general under whom colonists, young Washington among them, fought with the British against the French. Braddock died at the outset of battle; the campaign proved a disaster for the British. Andrews could trust his readers’ ability to fill in the backstory by themselves. To audiences unaided by Google, the historian need state only this:
“Without the Washington of Fort Necessity and of Braddock’s Defeat, we could in all likelihood never have had the Washington of Trenton and Yorktown. Besides Washington, to say nothing of Gates, Gage, and Mercer, and also there Dan Morgan of Virginia, began to learn war in the Braddock campaign. Again, the war prepared the colonists for the Revolution by revealing to them their own rare fighting quality, and by showing that the dreaded British regulars were not invincible.”
German Battalion Fighting for the British in the American War of Independence (19th C.).
Pennsylvania Historical Society, Philadelphia.
But another necessity loomed, one even more crucial than skill at arms. That was a sense of union, a “community of sentiment” that fueled the cooperation needed to carry the fledgling nation through the bloody trials and deprivations of secession. The only hope of successful resistance lay in concerted action derived from grasp of a mutual cause, a perception which Andrews reminds us was “still none too intense” in the colonies:
“It is important to remember not only that the war built up this conviction of a common interest, but that nothing except the [French and Indian] war could have done it. The great forces of nineteenth-century civilizationthe locomotive, the telegraph, the modern daily newspaperwhich now bind sixty millions of people, spread over half a continent, into one nation, were then unknown. The means of communication and transportation between the colonies were very primitive. Roads were rough, full of steeps and cuts, and in many places . . . almost impassable with mire. It took seven days to go by stage from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, four days from Boston to New York. The mail service was correspondingly inadequate and slow. At times in winter a letter would be five weeks in going from Philadelphia to Virginia.
“Newspapers were few, contained little news and the circulation necessarily confined to a very limited area. It has been estimated that the reading matter in all the forty-three papers which existed at the close of the Revolution would not fill ten pages of the New York Herald now. In connection with this state of things consider the fact that the idea of colonial solidarity . . . had to be created outright. Local pride and jealousy were still strong. Each colony thought of itself as a complete and isolated political body . . . . Plainly a lifetime of peace would not have begotten the same degree of consolidation among the colonies which the war, with its common danger and common purpose, called into being in a half-dozen years.”
Common purpose. How we represent ourselves to ourselves, to our young, makes the difference between our survival as one people or suicide by balkanization. So I gather around me old texts like Andrews’ as talismans against the grinning executioners waiting to garrote defense of our shared history. They are frail things, these books. But while they remain intact, they defy the frenzied schoolmen determined to suffocate gratitude for the shared human project that is our legacy.
Homosexual behavior has been with us forever. Homosexuals elevated to an ethnicity separate from the rest of usa Queer Nationare recent phenomena. The successful fashioning of homosexuals as minorities, its members akin to a racial group or a protected species like pandas and black rhinos, trumps what is left of a normative approach to sexuality and sexual ethics.
Brassaï. Male Couple Dancing at a Ball in Montagne Sainte-Genevieve (c.1932).
The roots of our Foucaultian “reverse discourse” are deep and tangled. Civil society has a critical stake in recognizing their origins and implications. Robert Reilly’s most recent book, Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Gay Behavior is Changing Everything, attempts to unbraid the snarl we are in. I attended his lecture and book signing at First Things editorial offices to support the intention. To my own surprise, I came away nonplussed, even disheartened, by the evening.
I will try to explain. Where to start?
Reilly is a polished speaker. His talk was elegant and informed. Instruction, however, was partial and designed for receptive ears. A reprise of much material that has appeared before (e.g. Jeffrey Satinover’s Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth, 1996) it was the kind of talk that, in political circles, is called rallying the base.
The lecture took for granted audience distaste for homosexual behavior, particularly male homosexuality. (Lesbian practices are less risky and lesbians are less promiscuous than gay men.) It also assumed sympathy for natural law arguments. Neither assumption holds sway outside the choir loft.
Painting on wine cup of two pentathletes (550 - 500 BC). J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Pockets of residual aversion are irrelevant in a commercial culture which has made explicit sex, gay or straight, into a currency with proven market value. (Calvin Klein come-ons are on midtown kiosks; gay movies stream on Netflix.) And appeals to Aristotelian tradition and virtue-based ethics are incoherent to the contemporary temper. It is a discourse without persuasive power; the word chastity no longer resonates. For good reason did Alistair MacIntyre entitled his study in moral theory After Virtue.
The adjustment of our moral sensibilities to accommodatethen affirm and, finally, advantagehomosexuality traces back well before the 1960s. Just how far back, and over which terrain, makes for a long night’s parlor game. The devolution is cultural and derives from far more than court cases. Still, Reilly is right to reference them. Each successive decision has been a bellwether of the brave new world toward which we are hurtling. And which, in part, we already occupy.
The courts have been pivotal, not only institutionalizing homosexuality but enforcing guardianship of it as well. An unintended consequence of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, bias crime statutes relating to sexual orientation began working their way through the states in California in 1984. Momentum culminated a quarter century later in the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed by President Obama in 2009. Homosexuals are now a federally protected class.
It is a short walk from safeguarding homosexuals to consecrating homosexual activity.
Gustave Courbet. The Two Friends (1867). Musee du Petite Palais, Paris.
Now, as Reilly aptly stated, court approval of gay marriage “sanctifies” homosexuality. Nevertheless, the courts do not function in a vacuum. Decisions are made within the context of a fluid culture subject to myriad pressures from factors distinct from homosexuality itself.
Chief among these is abandonment of the term “disorder” by the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association in the 1970s. Removal of homosexuality from the list of diagnoses was not mandated by the courts. Rather, the erasure informed legal opinion. Like you and I, the courts function within a climate dominated by reverence for experts. Legal opinions incorporate the trusted testimony of mental health professionals and social workers. Some of them activists themselves, these are the front-line standard bearers for the redefinition of homosexuality on which the politics of affirmation rests.
Homosexuality was excluded from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of psychiatric disorders on ideological grounds alone. A mix of activist politics and good intentions, not new clinical evidence, drove the revision. That abandoned word disorder, with its dreary medicinal odor and cry for treatment, violates professional ethics among the therapeutic crowd. By now, an entire generation has been raised to understand disorder as the vocabulary of ignorance and bigotry. Yet that is the word on which Reilly stakes his argument. It is a rational place to drive a stake only within a communal milieu which finds natural law intelligible.
Taddeo di Bartolo. Lust or Sodomite and Adulterer (detail of The Last Judgment, 1394. San Gimignano.
The old medical category was a compassionate alternative to criminalization. Homosexuals ceased to be sexual outlaws and became, instead, victims of a condition. But conditions can mutate. Today, any suggestion of what was once called “perversion” is out the window. It has been dead on the sidewalk for longer than today’s college studentscopies of Foucault’s The History of Sexuality in their backpackshave been alive.
Philip Rieff’s Psychological Man triumphed by endorsing an anti-culture immune to the claims of natural law. Nowadays, Jean Genet, with his craving for “a derangement of all the senses,” would be just another guy next door.
What the analyst’s couch unbuckled spilled into popular culture. Antique distinctions between natural and unnatural acts dissolve in the liberating exchange of virtues for values. Dennis Altman had it right in The Homosexualization of America (1982): “. . . the affirmation of being gay is the affirmation of sexual desire.” Follow your bliss. Whatever works. Love reigns.
The genie is out of the bottle. Disapproval will not put it back.
Straightaway, let me clarify. In the previous post I quoted Ron Hubbard as saying: “The one super-secret sentence that Scientology is built on is ‘Do as thou wiltthat is the whole of the law.’” The words belong to L. Ron Hubbard, Jr., not Sr.. Speaking of Scientology, the son added: “It came from the black magic, from Crowley.”
Hubbard Sr. was a confessed admirer of Crowley, calling him “my very good friend.” According to Hubbard Jr., his father prepared for his Philadelphia Doctorate Course lecture series, taped in 1952, by reading Crowley. The title of the son’s book, L. Ron Hubbard: Messiah or Madman?, indicates a certain filial tension. But let us take that as a healthy response to having grown up with Hubbard’s attraction to Crowley’s occult system.
Aleister Crowley. Self Portrait as The Sun (1920).
For scholars of scientology, the series is available used on Amazon for under one dollar. If you are more fastidious, you can purchase it spanking new from Bridge Publications for $1,150. The publisher offers this synopsis:
“This renowned series stands as the largest single body of work on the anatomy, behavior and potentials of the spirit of Man ever assembled, providing the very fundamentals which underlie the route to Operating Thetan. Here it is in complete detailthe thetan’s relationship to the creation, maintenance and destruction of universes. In just those terms, here is the anatomy of matter, energy, space and time, and postulating universes into existence. Here, too, is the thetan’s fall from whole track abilities and the universal laws by which they are restored.”
Bridge continues with a quote from Hubbard, Sr.:
“What can a thetan do? Now, we’ll say a Cleared Theta Clear. You couldn’t put down such a goal, because that’s the postulated, outer-line, unattainable absolute. Probably anything we understand it to be is probably attainable already, but what is the outermost limit of it? Lord knows. Haven’t got any idea and you haven’t either.”
If you are unsympathetic to Scientology, you will find that comment incoherent, even desolate. If you entertain some tenderness toward occult quests for a theory of everything, you will stand on Nietzsche’s assertion in Beyond Good and Evil that every “profound thinker is more afraid of being understood than of being misunderstood.”
A Witch and Her Familiars, a Cat and a Demon (17th C.). British Library, London.
Intuition of unseen forces and attempts to control them have been with us forever. The systems of belief that we call the occult are various in origin and implication. But throughout the long history of the occult, there ran a consistent thread of concern for the causes of misfortune and ways to relieve it. Helplessness in the face of eventsdisease, debility, fire, childbirth, crop failure, or the luck of a bad drawwas a crucial element. Witchcraft, astrology, divination, ghosts, fairies, reliance on ancient auguries or apocalyptic prophecies offered means of making sense of the inexplicable.
More recent mystico-magical systems, fermenting since the eighteenth century, are different. Whatever else they might contain, they are fueled by ambitionphrased and costumed in variegated ways to divinize oneself. Here are Icarus’ wings to fly us toward new possibilities of becoming. Or, as Scientologists would phrase it, to reach the “upper echelon of theta beingness and behavior.”
What the Crowleys and the Hubbards of our times represent is a quasi-spiritualized individualism. Here is David Riesman’s autonomous man in fancy dress. Or devil’s gear. The insignia of this new autonomous individual is his heightened self-consciousness, and a de-socialized will that transcends the virtues of the old bourgeois individual still tethered to civil society.
Our new individualism comes wrapped in the exotic, like Crowley’s cult of Thelema or Hubbard’s Scientology, to suggest evermore extravagant and hallucinatory understandings of the self. And the Self so discovered is, inevitably, superior to the restraints and formalities of ordinary life. If Crowley’s squalid end is any gauge, that is hell enough.
Dr. Alfred Kinsey and Kenneth Auger viewing Crowley’s Satanic Frescoes in Thelema Abbey, Sicily.
Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.
Aleister Crowley (1875 1947) and the nineteenth century’s enchantment with esoterica grew up together. Born in the year the Theosophical Society was founded, he was an Oxford educated, pansexual playboy, rock-climber, Swinburnian poet, yogi, cabalist, and something of a monster. He was also a born sorcerer, a natural magus given over to the enthusiasms of his era: narcotics, the unconscious, and the occult.
Once dubbed “the wickedest man in the world” by the British press, Crowley is often called a Satanist. Technically, he was not. But he might as well have been. The demonic character of the aphorism for which he is still celebrated is a variant, in biblical cadence, of Lucifer’s cry: “I will not serve.”
Self-invented, he fashioned himself as a kind of Übermensch destined to transcend and destroy what Nietzsche termed “slave morality.” Crowley warred against “the oppressors of the human soul, the blasphemers who denied the supremacy of the will of man.” He venerated and invoked those deep, supra-rational forces that awaken “the creative genius which is the inalienable heirloom of every son of man.” Self-idolatry is only a short walk on from there. The instinctive will must rise, become a law unto itself, and acknowledge no other.
Crowley is not dead yet. If anything, he is more alive today than he was when he claimed to have created the “V for Victory” sign as a magical talisman against the Nazi swastika.
If you are a connoisseur of old Beatles LPs, you have Crowley’s portrait on the album cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. If you are a Tom Cruise fan you know that the Church of Scientology hatched from Ron Hubbard’s attraction to Crowley’s vision. Hubbard made no bones about it: “The one super-secret sentence that Scientology is built on is ‘Do as thou wiltthat is the whole of the law.’”
Crowley’s conjured eidolon holds particular appeal for the individualistic egos of musicians (most notably John Lennon) and actors. It suits the quest for gnosis, the pearl prized by assorted bohemians and New Agers as they tap into their own higher selves. Considered outré and eccentric in Victorian England, Crowleyiana all is pretty mainstream by now.
I was reminded of just how mainstream while I was standing in line at the local farmer’s market on Saturday. In front of me was a young woman with Crowley’s maxim tattooed on her shoulder. We were queued at my favorite stall, waiting for the same artisanal cheeses and brick-oven baked breads.
On another day, her tattoo might have left me either indifferent or amused. Just as likely, it might have nettled, gotten under my skin in some irksome way. This time, though, it simply made me sad. Needled into her skin, the words struck me as infinitely sorrowful. So smug and cocksure, they seemed as bleak as a shroud. The woman had branded herself like livestock, a heifer steered by a genie riding herd on a culture that had lost its compass and its dignity.
Non serviam is the world’s siren call. It has been with us from the beginning and will accompany us to our end. Dare I tell her? After all, she was making a public announcement, was she not? For a fraction of a nanosecond, I fantasized leaning over and whispering: “Oh, sweetheart, may all that thou wilt be graceful.” Had she been anyone I knew I might even have kissed her shouldera benediction to mute the curse implicit in those tattooed words.
But she was a stranger. Besides, I wanted my cheese. I had come for a week’s worth of cave-aged cheddar, a quarter pound of Amish schmearkase, and a glorious roasted garlic ciabatta. Why disturb the universe? I felt like Prufrock; but that bread smelled so good.
In the end, I kept my impulse to myself. Perhaps the Spirit would bend to kiss her for me.
Burke, the Great Orator. Illustration from Pictures of English History (published 1850).
Edmund Burke was the greatest Parliamentary speaker during the reign of George III. He was a passionate defender of the colonies in their grievances against the king. Here in my hand is a tiny 1908 edition of Burke’s Speech for Conciliation, delivered March 22, 1775. It is one of the treasures from last week’s dumpster dive at my local recycling center.
I could not leave it for the shredder. In a sane culture, this slim little hardcover would be showcased in a vitrine at the local library, on display as both an honored testament to the colonial character and a jewel of argumentation. In literary style and logical structure it stands as one of the most restrained and dignified of Burke’s speeches. An education in diction for any polemical writer, there is never the half-word, never ambiguous approximations. He uses none of what we today call weasel words. There is only the tempered, lucid handling of facts delivered with great calm.
But it is not his rhetoric that bears attention just now. Instead, it is his depiction of the American character, the attributes and mettle of the colonists. We can hardly recognize ourselves in his description of our predecessors. Listen:
“The temper and character which prevail in our Colonies are, I am afraid, unalterable by any human art. We cannot, I fear, falsify the pedigree of this fierce people, and persuade them that they are not sprung from a nation in whose veins the blood of freedom circulates. The language in which they would hear you tell them this tale [of keeping them obedient to the crown under unjust circumstances] would detect the imposition; your speech would betray you. An Englishman is the unfittest person on earth to argue another Englishman into slavery.”
After surveying the achievement of the colonies in agriculture, industry, and commerce, Burke returns to the colonial spirit:
“In this character of the Americans, a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole: and . . . your Colonies become suspicious, restive, and untractable, whenever they see the least attempt to wrest them by force, or shuffle from them by chicane [sic], what they think the only advantage worth living for. This fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English Colonies probably than in any other people of the earth . . . .”
What Burke was certain could not be done, has been accomplished. Not by other Englishmen, but by ourselves. It has taken little more than a century but by now only an imbecile or a lunatic could refer to us as “a fierce people.” The turn-of-the-century generation that troubled to publish this speech could see in it a reflection of themselves. Not ours. In our entitlements and entertainments, in the degradation of our public discourse, we have flattened ourselves, grown flaccid, sentimental, and gullible. We have slowly, inexorably, exchanged the crown for the state.
Out of all the reasons for this diminished and diminishing transaction, one falls more readily than others within my grasp. I cannot help wondering about the contribution of our hastening reliance on imagesthe Trojan horse of consumer technologyto the trivialization of public information that prompts corrosive sentimentality and distorts history. Add to that warp the reigning paradigm of our concept of information: sound and sight bites, including the grunts we call tweets and text messages. Taken together, they insure the abolition of our attention span. Popular understanding, once honed on the primacy of print literacy, buckles under the pressure of media-enduced enthusiasms that make Mad Hatters of us all.
Meaning requires content; content takes time. Yet what we accept as the truth of things are fragments that flit past the eye in numbing succession. It is always tea-time and we want a clean cup. In the spectators we have become, Edmund Burke would never recognize the people on whom he showered his admiration.
Why did the snapping turtle cross the road? To lay eggs, of course. But you knew that.
I had started the Subaru and was releasing the clutch before I saw a carapace big as my steering wheel in the rear view mirror. The town turtle was resting in the middle of the driveway, blocking me from backing up.
Please do not mind if I talk turtle for a little while. It has been three years since I saw her last. It touched me to have a glimpse of her again yesterday. Snapping turtles live thirty five to forty years; so she is likely the same one who passed by in previous Junes. She was on her way home this time, hiking back to the pond where her clan has lived for as long as anyone remembers.
A snapping turtle pair has lived in the town pond since it was dug, many decades ago, to channel the Saw Mill River away from town center. Less a river than a shallow, winding tributary of the Hudson, the Saw Mill meanders through local marshes. But the pond is dammed, making it deep enough to satisfy summering geese, an occasional heron, black crappies, sunfish, and the resident turtles.
The Tortoise and the Hare. Illustration for The Fables of Jean de la Fontaine (1880 edition).
Every spring the female makes the long, grueling trek uphill and beyond to find a suitable nesting place. No one knows precisely how far she travels. All we know is that the Chelydra serpentina sisterhood has stamina. My neighbor will migrate as much as a mile away from home for her accouchement.
She digs a hole, lays her eggs, scratches a bit of covering over them, and leaves. After so much toil and travel, she has no interest left for the nursery. Eggs are abandoned to the kindness of ravens, raccoons, coyotes and snakes. The sex of her hatchlingsif any eggs make it that faris determined by the caprices of atmospheric temperature.
Our turtle’s route is limited by the pond’s location at the very edge of town. If she heads east, she lands on concrete by Starbucks or Citibank. Going north, she would be taking too high a chance on a two-lane truck route. To the south, the odds are only slightly less lethal. A sensible turtle would travel west, toward the secluded wetlands that feed the pond. So she does.
Her reptilian GPS points uphill, across my neighbor’s septic field, over rocks, and through dense tangles of hydrangea, pachysandra, barberry and forsythia roots. By the time she reaches the top of my driveway, she has already journeyed several hundred yards up from her ancestral home. It is a placid, deliberate creep that prompted the anthropomorphic generosity of Fontaine’s version of the sturdy Aesop fable:
Let the tortoise go her gait
In solemn, senatorial state.
She starts; she moils on, modestly and lowly.
And with a prudent wisdom hastens slowly.
When we met this time, she faced downhill. She was homeward bound on a trajectory that would take her, if she held a straight line, to a drop over a eight-foot stone wall. But navigating was her problem. Mine was different: How to drive past her to make an appointment?
I thought of putting on work gloves and moving her by hand. It was a very quick thought, hastened along by the nasty look of those claws and the long, flexible neck (retracted when I came close to take a photo). She was quite capable of reaching around to sink a sharp beak into me if I picked her up.
There was nothing to do but let the engine idle until she decided to get up and keep walking. While I sat in the car she did not move. So I ducked into the house to busy myself with odds and ends for a few minutes. I came back outside just in time to see her disappearing into the hedges, still on track for a tumble over the wall.
It was getting late. No time to wait to see if she had managed a detour. I backed up, turned the car around and drove off. But I left with vague regret, a shiver of rue. A descendant from the age of dinosaurs had stopped outside my door. Had she waited on the asphalt, in full view, to mock the novelty of my race? Taunt me for the pity of my own brief span?
Her species emerged tens, possibly hundreds, of millions of years ago. Her kind is so much older than mine and might wellwho knows how? outlast it. She rose from ponds immemorial. Her stock will endure down the ages in settings too cruel for my own. Divested of conscience, of maternal scruple, fellow feeling, and all religious presuppositions, she embodies the terrible beauty of creation. The hidden God manifests himself in the genius of chelonian longevity.
The Giver of life is a fearsome Lord.
We are too accustomed to prefacing the word scandal with the modifier sex. We lose sight of scandal’s insidious range. What we witness in Sunday’s carnival of prayer at the Vatican is scandal of a different stripe: the abuse of prayer.
Israeli President Peres, Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas (nom de guerre Abu Mazen) will meet in the Vatican garden. Imams will read selectively from the Quran, rabbis will read from the Tanakh. Christians will flourish the New Testament. All will conspire to ignore the elephant in the topiary: Islamand Islam alonecontains a theological imperative to violence.
Daniel Mauch. Two Popes, a Bishop, a Canon, and 7 Monks in Prayer (c.1505). Louvre, Paris.
Heads will bow. Peace will be kissed on all four cheeks. Abbas, co-founder of Fatah, will walk away with the sheen of a man of prayer. Terror attacks against Israel will begin anew tomorrow or the next day, just as they did after Francis’ visit two weeks ago.
Jew hatred does not submit to interfaith dialogue. Marquis of Queensbury rules do not obtain here. Race hatred is too visceral, too primitive even for politics, though political processes must keep on. Abbas knows that. And while the occasion pressures Peres to make the obligatory anodyne noises, he also knows it. Apparently, Francis does not. Or he chooses to forget.
Yet Francis is the one ordained in testimony to the grievous truth that the peace that passeth all understanding is an eschatological one. Jesus did not promise peace between the Hatfields and McCoys. Nor in the Middle East. That would be peace as the world knows it. He told us himself that he does not give as the world gives.
Frederic Lix. Ottoman Turks Quell Cretan Uprising of 1896. Le Petit Journal, 1896.
But let us pretend Jesus did not quite mean it. Papal theater is a soothing opiate to lull the dread and anguish of the complexities of the Palestinian-Israeli condition. Francis’ interfaith pageant soothes because it posits a moral equivalence between the Palestinian Authority with its newly sworn in unity governmentHamas and Fatah conjoinedand the state of Israel. Who benefits from that equivalence? To this day, Fatah’s charter commits to the destruction of Israel. This new alliance of the two terrorist groups fulfills Abbas’ 2007 statement: “We must unite Hamas and Fatah blood in the struggle against Israel as we did at the beginning of the Intifada.”
Prayerful performance in the Vatican garden will not erase those words. What goes on in the dazzle of international media is not prayer. It is circus. It is a pious, image enhancing spectacle that lends luster to the false narrative of Abbas as a political moderate.
To Israel, peace means being left alone. To the Palestinians, it means a Judenrein Middle East with Israel gone from the map. On March 15, 2013, Abbas told Russia Today TV: “As far as I’m concerned there is no difference between the policies of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.” This is not the peace that Francis seeks.
Palma il Giovane. First Turkish Attack on Constantinople in 1453 (late 16th C.). Ducal Palace, Venice.
What is Francis to do?
He can pray for the conversion of Abbas. He can pray on his knees in private, off camera, and away from the seductions of press attention. Detached from hubris, he can pray for the nullification of Hamas and Fatah. In the solitude of his bedroom he can plead, in charity, for the dissolution of Islamic ambitions for a universal caliphate. He might even suggest to bishoprics around the world that they add such pertinent lines to their petitionary prayers from the Sunday pulpit.
If that proves too unwieldy, perhaps Francis could pray simply for the courage to admit which side he is on. The future of the West has a huge stake in that.
Note: This was written hours ahead of the scheduled event. Nothing to change but verb tenses.
Anyone thinking of taking the L or G train to the fated Domino Sugar Refinery to see Kara Walker’s installation should keep in mind literary critic Hugh Kenner’s words about conceptual art. In his definition, it is art that only needs to be described. It does not need to be experienced.
Destined to melt in a heat wave, Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety” was not meant as a permanent work of art. It is a temporary conceptual project fashioned from software that permits artists to replicate their creations in real space and in almost any scale desired. Walker created the concept; the rest was an industrial process that you can get a glimpse of here.
The sugar daddy behind Walker’s Sugar Baby is Creative Time, a non-profit with a deep-pocket board and the obligatory dedication to making the world a better place. Their mission statement explains:
Creative Time commissions, produces, and presents art that engages history, breaks new ground, challenges the status quo, and infiltrates the public realm while engaging millions of people in New York City and across the globe. We are guided by a passionate belief in the power of art to create inspiring personal experiences as well as foster social progress. We privilege artists’ ideas. We get excited about their dreams and respond to them by providing big opportunities to expand their practices and take bold new risks that value process, content, and possibilities.
How fine that sounds, a high-minded echo of older utopian impulses in the arts. Like an aging torch singer, the temper keeps staging comebacks, playing to audiences that never heard it in previous voice. Creative Time’s mission statement should bring to mind Italian Futurism and the incentives of the Russian and German avant-gardes of the 1910s and 1920s. Instead, adjusted for our times and scheduled plans for the Domino property, it raises visions of bike paths, lattes on the grass, and such upscale amenities as an urban farm (organic, for sure) and a yoga studio.
Utopia has gone soft, gluten-free, and green. And it sells real estate.
On the board of Creative Time is Jed Walentas, real estate macher and co-developer, with his father David, of DUMBO. Father and son are the principals of Two Trees Management Company which owns the landmark refinery and surrounding acreage. Scheduled plans for the waterfront site include a Dubai-like high-rise complex with a gentrifying mix of luxury rentals, affordable housing, shops, office towers and public park.
I have no comment on the development itself. What matters to me here is the synthetic significance of art commissioned as a public relations gesture meant to sweeten a real estate deal.
Here, the Two Trees development earns cultural caché in an extravagant effort to defuse strong local opposition to both the demolition of the factoryonce the lifeblood of blue collar Williamsburgand the scale of the development itself. Meanwhile, Creative Time board members who collect as well as promote contemporary art see the value of their Walker pieces enhanced. It is not going out on a limb to suppose that any trustee who might not have owned Ms. Walker’s work earlier did the sensible thing and added it to their portfolio once Creative Time decided to grant her the Domino commission. This is simply the reality of museums and of arts organizations similar to Creative Time. Their boards are filled with collectors of contemporary art
Stay with that thought a few minutes. The curtained interrelations of the kind of blue-ribbon philanthropy in the arts that Creative Time represents is of far greater cultural import than Kara Walker’s installation. A sampling of the board is illustrative.
Board members Elizabeth Swig and Ellen Taubman rank high in property circles. Ms. Swig is both an heiress of the Macklowe real estate clan and ex-wife of Kent Swig, New York realtor and son of San Francisco developer Melvin Swig. In their divorce, Liz was awarded close to $12 million dollars worth of contemporary art.
Ellen Taubman, a curator in her own right, is the wife of shopping center developer William Taubman. His father, Albert, was the former owner of Sotheby’s and trustee of the Whitney. Dad was convicted in 2001 of price fixing artworks. Both Taubmans know their way around the contemporary market.
Trustee Renee Rockefeller is married to Mark, son of Nelson and Happy. This past December, The New York Times did a spread on Renee which included photo credits of the contemporary art that fills their Park Avenue maisonette. Renee acts as a consultant to the Frieze art fairs, prime movers in the contemporary market.
Suzanne Cochran lives with husband Robert on Fifth Avenue. In 2007 they bought a 5,000 square foot pied-à-terre in Tribecca to display the contemporary art they were beginning to collect. And collect they have done. With a vengeance, going by the number of times Ms. Cochran appears in the archives of Patrick McMullan’s full-service feeder of images to national and international society pages. Since March of this year, Suzanne has been photographed at The Drawing Center Gala, at Ross Bleckner’s swank opening at Mary Boone; the New York Academy of the Arts’ Tribecca Ball; and the Brooklyn Museum’s 4th Annual Brooklyn Artists Ball.
Trusteeship, couched in the aura of public service, is a potent instrument of investment. It places the trustee-collectors on the inside where they know ahead of time who is buying what. They know which artists will receive coveted prizes (e.g. the Whitney’s Bucksbaum Award, instituted by trustee Melva Bucksbaum), which will be exhibited or acquired by a museum. In short, they have all the advantages that in the financial world comprise insider trading.
Agnes Gund, president emeritus of MoMa’s board of trustees, phrased it quite nicely some years ago to Andrew Decker of ArtNews: “Why should they [trustees] give something, and get one day of parties and a champagne toast and that’s it?”
Art is serious business. And that is okay. Art’s collusion with the marketplace restores to artists their own humanity. It permits them to be what they have been all alongnot priests or seers but skilled workers like any others, morally indistinguishable from their neighbors. What is not okay is the smug aura of high-mindedness, the vanguard posturing of a media event like “A Subtlety” that wants to have it both ways.
How many beholders does it take to declare something objectively beautiful? Or not?
Kara Walker. “A Subtlety” (2014).
That is a stumper. The riddle becomes easier to solve if you lower the register and ask how many are needed to declare a thing significant. The answer comes immediately: Not many, just so long as they are equipped to finance the project and generate tactical promotion. In short, those with the assets and affiliations to create both an image and the yardstick by which it is measured.
Kara Walker. “A Subtlety” 2014.
Who might be those blessed few? One way to find out is to look behind the funding curtain of Kara Walker’s colossal installation, “A Subtlety:The Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World,” currently on view in Williamsburg’s doomed Domino Sugar Refinery.
First, though, let us stay with the project itself. That is the thing that is making the news. The backstage stuff can wait until later.
In keeping with Walker’s signature allusions to race and slavery, her sententious subtitle promises a critiquethat is the chichi term of the sugar trade. The sculpted piece itself conjures up old, postbellum caricatures of black women. Part Sphinx, part black mammy, “Subtlety” is a 35-foot high minstrel effigy, constructed of styrofoam, and coated in 160,000 pounds of sugar. There are reports of people flying into New York for a day trip to gaze at a trumpeted exposé of America’s squalid past, its ill gotten addiction to sugar, and its historic objectification of the black female body. And, truth to tell, for the fun of being mooned by Aunt Jemima.
“A Subtlety” is a clever, brassy, soft-core diversion. Before anything else, it is an out-sized tchotchke too big for its pretensions, most of them resident in the sphinx’s bare rump. Frédéric Bartholdi, commenting on the height of his monumental Liberty Enlightening the World, insisted that the size of an artwork should be scaled to the size of the idea behind it. Critics are out in force inflating the idea behind Walker’s installation, ready to shake a finger at anyone who snickers. Roberta Smith is a reliable guide to the preferred interpretation of whatever removes itself from criticism by referencing race or sex. Her New York Times review strikes the desired note of sanctimony. She looks the sphinx straight in its proffered genitalia and sees the origins of the world:
A powerful personification of the most beleaguered demographic in this country the black woman shows us where we all come from, innocent and unrefined.
Awakened by the sight, she rises to jeremiad in loathing of the stigma still on us:
Which brings us to our own self-destructing present, where sugar is something of a scourge, its excessive consumption linked to diseases like obesity and diabetes that disproportionately affect the poor. The circle of exploitation and degradation is in many ways unbroken. No longer a luxury, sugar has become a birthright and the opiate of the masses. We look on it like money, with greed. Heavily promoted, it keeps millions of Americans of all races from fulfilling their potential an inestimable loss in terms of talent, health and happiness.
Sphinx on the grounds of Belvedere Palace, Vienna. Photo by David Monneax.
If the pundits had come down sooner from their sugar high, they might have recognized in Walker’s mammy a 3-D variant of an old literary trope: the loathly lady motif that gives us the Wife of Bath. Echoes of Dame Alys and the beastly bride are as resident in Walker’s installation as Al Jolson’s Mammy. If there is any surprise in the righteous reviews of the installation, it is the absence of all reference to the art history Walker draws on without mention. The sphinx is an ancientin company with the gorgons, harpies, and griffins of Iron Age Greeceemblem of the tease. And teasing is Walker’s metier. Her mammy sphinx is the latest version, suitably vulgarized for its time, of a rich device: the elusive man-eater Hegel recommended as a symbol of symbolism itself.
Gustave Moreau. Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Busty female sphinxes made cameo appearances among the Romantics; they were popular with the Symbolists as well. Sphinxes are famous for their tricks. No reason, then, Walkerwho invokes African charms and whatnots as inspirationshould not play a few herself. Personally engaging, Kara Walker is a canny inheritor of both the accusations of the feminist art movement and the fashion for victim art. Her mock heroic public stance of never “kowtowing to the dominant culture” is as much a put-on as this mammy sphinx. Blatant bias for art that presents itself as a socially conscious statement about the condition of the world is the keynote of the dominant culture of arts bureaucracies. Add a bit of shock valuehere, mammy’s upturned hindquartersand you have a complete repertory of cutting edge conventions.
Lead sphinx possibly by Pietro Tacca (17th C.). Parc d’Enghien, Belgium. Photo by Jean-Pol Grandmont.
In the end, Walker’s installation is as orthodox as it is dishonest. It relies on the reigning politics of identity to provide meanings that are not there. The content of the piece hovers somewhere between vague sympathies and the eye, settling nowhere. Devoid of information, this is entertainment packaged as labor history and cultural commentary. In place of historical knowledge, the installation substitutes a knowing stance, an image of content where very little exists. Posture without substance dissolves the capacity to understand the past on its own terms. Therein lies the obscenity of “A Subtlety.” One more bare backside in our face won’t harm us. The descent of history, including recent history, into image will.