Can we picture the major monuments of our lives as the forgotten fragments of a culture that has ostensibly disappeared? For example, imagine the famed Mount Rushmore with the faces so eroded with time that Abraham Lincoln’s nose looks as if it were smashed into cauliflower in a wrestling match. Imagine the names on the Vietnam memorial faded and buried in centuries of silt and debris. Imagine the Gateway Arch in St. Louis as it may appear to future generations: a massive melted- down umlaut or an accent circonflex over a desolate terrain…
And, just for the sake of localism (my own localism), try to picture the Bulldog statue outside of McCarthy stadium on the campus of Gonzaga University, home of Zags B-ball–not to mention a great Jesuit school of higher learning, etcetera… I mention this collegiate icon, not because of the team’s NCAA ranking, and not because its shape or substance compares to the aforementioned marvels of historical architecture, but because, if there happened to be a huge catastrophe and if Spokane, Washington became a distant memory, that Bulldog, known now as “Spike” to the alumnae, would not even be known. In fact, a society that has devolved may regard the statue as some sort of deity… or maybe a petrified species of canine that we hunted to extinction like the sabertooth tiger. And isn’t that terribly sad?
And if you think that Gonzaga and other prominent universities are exempt from such lapses in cultural memory… that surely some narrative will be passed down from admissions office to admissions office through the brute, indifferent centuries, well, I think you’re fooling yourself. You may even be guilty of Gonzaga-centrism!
But, learn the lesson of Gilgamesh…
According to the Norton Anthology of Western Literature, the epic tale of Gilgamesh had once thoroughly saturated the Akkadian/Assyrian world view. Nearly every corner and every curb of every street had an allusion to the tale of Enkidu, the wild man, and Utanapishtim, the demigod, and of course the G-man, who bounced in between them… The story, of course, is a story of human nature, a narrative of a human being who aspires to greatness and ends up dealing with loss and mortality. Gilgamesh, like the narrative of nearly every basketball program, had been told and re-told orally for years… And then the Mesopotamian PR department got involved and started carving the legend on clay tablets. It related the events of Great Flood, long before Noah and his family moved into the neighborhood. It observed the construction of the great city of Uruk and the slaying of a giant. It rehearsed, as we often do, the mystery of creation and worried about the on-going chaos that keeps erupting through the surface of suburban Ninevah.
“Only in 1844 were the ruins of the palaces and library uncovered through chance excavation, and thousands of tablets in cuneiform–a language that would not be deciphered until 1857–shipped to the British Museum…” (p. 15).
And so, Gonzaga… You got a taste of that same thing last week. Last week, we learned from renovations on campus about a wall-sized mural that had been commissioned and crafted in the 1960’s. Richard Ingalls, a former art instructor at the institution, was responsible for the work, which detailed imagistically the rich history of the Jesuits’ early connections with the indigenous people along the river. It’s a dubious tale for sure. But the mosaic, made from small pieces of ceramic glass, had been covered over in the 1990’s to make way for a Taco Bell… That’s right. And you can see how easily the cultural amnesia creeps in. A humble librarian had apparently been among the parsimonious people who recalled the existence of this picture-story; and for now it will be preserved. For now it will be reverenced.
For now… but the semesters of time are upon us, and bright minds still grow dim, and dimmer still. (Many of them have tenure!)
Be Still, the Affliction Said
Be still, the affliction said.
It spread in oozing boils.
It spread by leafy oil
until I died. And in the afterlife
I took a butcher knife
to skinless ecstasy.
I peeled back leprosy
and soaked in my gout
an itch that’s spiking
has anyone been hiking,
truly, through oblivion?
I envy the Epicurean
with a lush view.
Contagions come to you
with their California rides,
and with vines that elide
the centipedes on the crotch.
Shall we slough off that blotch
of little landscaped red?
Be still, the affliction said.
The Burr in theCamouflage
A burr penetrates
the perimeter, having latched onto Virgil’s hunting jacket.
Last Friday while
he traipsed through a Palouse hedgerow the bristle first clung
amid camouflage fibers,
the seminar in progress.
No one spotted it but Willamina who sat nearest in the pew and who
told him a thousand
times to watch wearing to church the clothing he’d always torn shooting
those starlings, which
never harmed a soul and tasted too gamey for stew. Virgil never felt shame
when it came to burrs,
rapt as he was with being raptured away. And here he’d just bought those new
soft-mouthed bitches and
none of ‘em trained to suit post-tribulation pagans, who wouldn’t know the second
of Christ coming if it’d swoop
down vulture-like upon road kill… and who wouldn’t know they wouldn’t know, even
that there is a thing to know…
And that’s the point! He’s seen this timeline before. It’s the banner he hung himself from the loft
where the soloist sits on Sundays.
Plus, Willa will never let up about the burr, which is now lost amid the earth tones of her frock.
What happens to things so
ignored? Are they found in the Lord… or simply flicked away as by the Father’s tensive
he’s not counting after all
the birds, hairs and lilies that fall. And with regard to that burr, will the prophesy
Well, it’s happened.
It’s happened again.
It was bound to happen, given the calendar and the nature of the earth’s rotation around the sun. Given the history of both Christendom and Secularism.
Palm Sunday, the very day on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, has collided with April Fools…
Talk about your signs of the apocalypse. Talk about your ironic danger zone. Talk about the very word that the carpenter from Nazareth uses in mixed company for those who put on the pious and pompous costume, but who nonetheless refrain from the risk and the sacrifice their “faith” espouses.
Talk. Talk. Talk.
Today, I had my first Palm Sunday since (I don’t really know) my sophomore year in college… my first Palm Sunday without waving a palm. I did, of course, watch the Philadelphia Flyers beat the Pittsburg Penguins for supremacy of the state of Pennsylvania. And when the game was done and the penalties and goals had been tallied for posterity, I said to myself, “Self, you are a fool…”
I’m a fool, you see, because it has taken me this long to find my place in the crowd.
By crowd I mean primarily that metaphysical hodgepodge of perspectives that cheered for the wonder-worker to save Israel… only to jeer him and spit upon him in less than a week. Talk about fickle. And this is where I belong. I no longer belong among the Sanhedrin who felt as if Jesus may pose a threat to their special status with the Roman government. I no longer belong with a troop of believers who construe belief as mere ascent to certain propositional statements. I no longer belong among the pure partiers and prostitutes (too many commitments to spouse, family and friends are at stake). I belong, by contrast, to those members of the crowd who understand themselves as witnesses to a strange and surreal redemption.
Namely, this redemption requires–you guessed it–a fool, or an consortium of fools, who hide beneath the veneer of foolishness. Truly, what’s foolish is the very notion that a mere creature, a human being, a singularly unique person, could in fact be the fullness of God. Go figure. You really can’t. You may line up a series of creedal clauses. You may rest your weary bones on the ritual of Easter and the solace of eternity. But, in terms of the way we are hard-wired and genetically pre-disposed, the claim that Jesus of Nazareth is simply too simple to say and not be utterly changed into someone that you’re clearly not. That is, a creature among others whose intended for a different sort of world and a different sort of existence.
Foolish. The apostle Paul (bless his foolish heart) tried to explain. He said something to the effect… (we can’t be sure exactly the effect he was going for)… something to the effect of “the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of human beings.” He said this and even wrote it down, which is idiotic, because when something like this metaphysical assertion is scribed on parchment, it’s always available for parsing and for pedestrian interpretations.
And so, I won’t play dumb. I am dumb. Dumb to believe that in the particular (the particular flesh and blood, embodied persona, a Palestinian Jew if there ever was one) there dwells the universal. There even dwells that wild and wooly possibility of One who is non-existent, in the way that we categorize existence. Talk about confusing. Talk about non-sensical. Talk about sheer, unadulterated childishness… It’s possible. It’s at least possible that a child born to Mary of Galilee grew up and had acne and got bunions AND that he is the very embodiment of One who called creation into existence!!!
It’s at least possible.
And I realize that if I believe this, I’m probably a fool. April Fools everybody! April Fools!
The film, Melancholia, directed by Lars Von Trier, has a strange aura about it. I’m convinced that part of that glow emanates from the shimmering bare breasts of Kirsten Dunst, who plays a depressed bride in the screenplay which has just won further acclaim from the National Society of Film Critics. But the other part — the bulk of the ethereal luminescence in this end of the world scenario — corresponds to the peculiar psychologies which are brought to bear on the potential collision of planets. How will each character respond to impending doom? [Hint: Will the most brave and optimistic of the cast be the first to commit suicide?]
We don’t ordinarily think of these terms as categories by which motion pictures might be evaluated. Is it a Romantic Comedy or a Suspense Thriller? Is it a Science-Fiction blockbuster like Star Wars? Is it fantasy as in the trilogy of Tolkien stories about the dreaded ring of power or The Hobbit, which will prequel them all? Melancholia purports to be none of the above as the Danish director uses his imagination to explore a very concise notion: Are those who suffer with certain modes of depression perhaps more attune to the world as it truly exists? And, if so, will they ostensibly turn the tables on the social hierarchy in which the well-adjusted and the well-healed make pious use of their upper-hands?
I love these questions and I recommend this film for anyone who cries cosmic foul over their blood chemistry or family of origin.
And likewise I stand in awe of the imaginative freedom that Von Trier seems to share with Wallace Stevens.
Once upon a time — Stevens penned this obscure poem, Gubbinal, and placed it among his collection of esoteric works in Harmonium. [Have it your way has nothing to do with the Burger King motto of a few years back.]
That strange flower, the sun,
Is just what you say.
Have it your way.
The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.
That tuft of jungle feathers,
That animal eye,
Is just what you say.
That savage of fire,
Have it your way.
The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.
Even as I re-read and carefully reflected on these words I cast about the recent political debates among Republican Presidential Nominees. Essentially they orchestrate their talking-points upon whether or not an organization of representatives — the elected leaders of the American People — can create the conditions in which families and individuals can avoid as much pain (largely economic pain) as possible.
Newt Gingrich insists that it should be the crooks or the criminals who suffer and that government ought not to punish the affluent for the hard-earned success. He must have forgotten the ethics violations that got him tossed from the House of Representatives back in the late ’90’s.
Mitt Romney, the likely candidate to face Barak Obama, says that he has grown more and more conservative over the years primarily because of his vast experience with running businesses, many of which made money for the share-holders by downsizing and eliminating jobs for the blue-collar middle-class…
You see, “The world is ugly…” And what’s most ugly is often sponsored by the anonymous donations to Super-Pacs. What’s most ugly are those who deny their own existential pain, who gloss over their own fears, who feel as if there’s scarcely enough to go around, who avoid at all costs their own anxieties as to not getting their fair share of what’s coming.
Stevens makes no bones about it: “And the people are sad.” They are sad in either a dignified and courageous way. Or they are sad in the worst way imaginable — in a way that makes them lash out and try to control the lives of others. One way or the other — poems like Gubbinal can save the days and turn the nights into dark pearls of sacred wisdom. “Have it your way,” says the speaker… Imagine the sun as a strange flower. A dynamic component of what the sun means now involves that fragrant and beautiful image.
At times I despair over the money that’s being wasted on films and entertainment which rehash the same ol’ happy-ending, morally symmetrical storyline that we’ve seen and heard for generations. On the other side of the spectrum, I think it’s too easy that to paint the world with broad strokes and carp about the wretchedness of the human condition. Melancholia and virtually any phrase of Wallace Stevens works on so many compelling levels, it’s important to stay alive and awake. With the imagination, the possibilities of honest redemption, of salvaging something from even the bleakest of experiences, are abundant.
What’s to become of all the convenience stores? You know, all the little consumer-venues at busy intersections, selling six-packs of Bud for $4.99, compact cases of chewing tobacco, plus all the beef-jerky you might ever need for the road… All the Qwik-Marts, all the Gas-n-Go‘s… all the WaWa‘s with the barricaded booths for employees who speak through vents in the Plexiglas… What’s going to happen when the zombies take over?
I don’t want to alarm anyone with 30 days to go before Halloween, but let me invite you to ponder what may be even more frightening than the possibility of a pandemic or the detonation of a dirty, nuclear bomb or any other catastrophe of which a Hollywood blockbuster may conceive. And that is, of course, the aftermath of such an occurrence.
Visually speaking, you see, the landscape will be laden with boxy, nondescript buildings with lots of computerized cash registers that no longer work — not to mention rack upon rack of foul-smelling cartons of expired milk. It’s going to be ugly. Much of the remaining population will grieve the loss of life and the degradation to the environment in which surviving generations must make a new “go” of it. But, if you ask me, one thing we might do for them while we have the imagination is to jettison the whole category of “quick and easy” architecture. Once this category is dumped we might then replace it with a renewal of concern for aesthetics, community and spirituality. The essential criteria here would involve beauty. We’d want whatever remains (after the plague or after the radioactive flash) to be almost bucolic and somewhat quaint.
How beautiful and vast and bright and empty
inside the quick-stop’s inextinguishable glow.
Night has just begun to have its say.
The being in the checkered frock is free
to read the tabloids with a face like a broken window
and dream of being known and extraordinary
and towel the handprints off a jar of murdered jerky
and feel like a moviegoer in the very last row.
Night has just begun to have its say,
the pickled eggs seem older than all creation this Monday
or Tuesday or Wednesday, and years from now
how beautiful and vast and bright and empty
it may feel to be alive and mildly happy,
to walk between the aisles of a brand-new Stop-N-Go.
And when the century has its final say
may the tiny motels of our voices pray
that all the neon sings and wonders so
beautiful and vast and bright and empty
won’t even have begun to have their say.
Yes, this is admittedly disturbing. But the earth’s ecosystems have always been very resilient. And I have every confidence that what might be one age’s graffiti might be another’s sacred artifact or retro-kitsch. The point is, when we uncover the seedier locales of the first century they always appear more wholesome with the years of erosion, corrosion and sediment piled against it.
I’m thinking now about the Life After People series and how its viewers evidently find the human population of zero extremely fascinating. I don’t. What’s more fascinating to me is that human consciousness will survive with a vague sort of memory. It would be sad for future enclaves of people, however, to remember our ethic of convenience and try to emulate it again. And again. And again.
I would, therefore, argue that architects owe us something when it comes to those generic places where we spend most of our lives. What they owe is ironic, isn’t it? They must create and leave behind a milieu that speaks of specific mountains and specific rivers and specific kinds of grass and maybe a little dew on each blade of grass to boot.
Mark Wallace, in his poem, “Prediction,” makes some wondrous turns:
In the future, we’ll plan the future better.
In the future, you can just become your TV.
In the future, your sexual partners will meet all the qualities on your checklist.
And this anxiety you’re feeling now? In the future you won’t feel it.
In the future, technology will always work, and there won’t even be weekend downtime for systems repair.
In the future, Friday night parties will never be boring.
In the future there will be less deadlines and they’ll be easier to meet.
In the future, all pollution will contain its own self-cleaning element.
In the future, if your house burns down, you’ll have another house by the time you get home.
In the future, your insurance policy will actually pay.
In the future, your friends won’t talk so constantly about everything they think they should already have.
In the future, no good deed will go unrewarded.
In the future people will like you just for who you are.
In the future, everyone will have their own sky marshal.
In the future, fires and floods made worse by ecologically damaging overpopulation will lead to photo-ops for everyone.
In the future, that eleventh-rate doctor you married who’s seeing a nurse in Oceanside behind your back will stay home more often and cut the grass.
In the future, people will fart less.
In the future, corporations will pay you for gas. …