Monday, September 11, 2006

On a grey, rainy 11 September

A poem that I love for its ambiguity-- I've seen it used as a statement of faith in the face of everything, but today it strikes me as bleak and terrible.


with the night falling we are saying thank you

we are stopping on the bridge to bow from the railings
we are running out of glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging

after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you

in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you

in the banks that use us we are saying thank you

with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank thank you

with the animals dying around us

our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth

we are saying thank you faster and faster

with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is.

- W.S. Merwin

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Resurrexit (Anselm Kiefer)

The gallery card accompanying this painting says that the title, Resurrexit, is a melding of "resurrection" and "exit". The word is, of course, also Latin: "Christus resurrexit," we sing on Easter. But this painting doesn't fit into a morning of incense, lilies, and bells. Here, a snake slithers over flame-colored leaves, down an alley of bare trees toward a smoky sky. The stairs leading up and out are tacked onto the top, the transition from forest to indoors unclear. They resemble the stairs to the attic Kiefer was using for a studio at the time. Do exit and resurrection take place through art? Or is the painting saying that the way to resurrection/exit-- like any death, despite our hope for rebirth-- is narrow and difficult, with the end result unclear?

It's a rather bizarre juxtaposition of two quite different artists, but looking at this, I'm reminded of Flannery O'Connor's short story "The Lame Shall Enter First," in which a widowed father anxious to pursue good works does so at the expense of a relationship with his own son. The boy takes to reading the Bible and studying the stars from an attic room, and believes he has seen his dead mother in the heavens. One evening, his father has a moment of radical clarity and realizes he's neglected the one person he loves the most. He rushes up the stairs to him, throwing open the door to find the "image of his salvation" has hung himself, an act O'Connor calls his "flight into space". Who knows what kind of resurrection/exit lurks behind the door to Kiefer's attic?

The Drowned and the Saved (Primo Levi)

Primo Levi's first book was published in the United States under the title Survival in Auschwitz, and everywhere else under the title If This Is a Man. (It's absolutely infuriating--this flattening and simplifying of titles for the U.S. market. For example, the film Regeneration based on Pat Barker's excellent novel of the same name is called here Behind the Lines. And Levi's second book The Truce was called here The Reawakening. Can Americans not comprehend ambiguous or allusive titles? Must we have optimism smiling up from every bookcover?)

If This Is a Man is the perfect title for Levi's account of his imprisonment in Auschwitz. He describes the stripping away of anything that resembles humanity, telling his story and those of others in spare words whose muted intensity makes them all the more compelling. He ends the book with the arrival of the Russians at Auschwitz, told in one sentence between a description of emptying the latrines and carrying out a man who had died in the night. No light at the end of the tunnel, no sense that survival was preordained in any way. It's the immediacy of the book that stands out the most for me: in his preface, Levi describes his motivation in writing as "interior liberation" and notes that the chapters were written in order of urgency, not necessarily of chronology. His direct prose reflects his need to provide a precise, honest accounting of what happened.

The Drowned and the Saved, Levi's last book, is a series of essays examining aspects of the Holocaust forty years later. While he uses himself as an example at times, Levi's concern is with the univers concentrationnaire and all its inhabitants, living and dead. He begins with the problem of memory, truth, and the many ways in which they are simultaneously unearthed and obscured: through denial and mendacity to be sure, but also through the more natural stylizing of memories on the part of those who have done things which they do not care to remember, and those who cannot bear to remember the events they have lived through.

Levi recreates step by painstaking step the stratification of the Lager and the useless violence that the camp's authorities employed, violence that seemed to serve no point but to inflict pain, "occasionally having a purpose, yet always redundant, always disproportionate to the purpose itself." Yet it seems that inflicting such extreme pain and degradation served a purpose after all: dehumanizing the victims to the point where the murderer's job is easy. And the masters of the univers concentrationnaire managed to dehumanize and murder their victims while keeping their hands clean. The acts of beating and controlling prisoners was delegated to Kapos selected from among their ranks, and gassing was carried out by special details of prisoners, Sonderkommandos, in order to underscore just how subhuman the victims were. Levi states baldly the ultimate effect this useless/useful violence has, an effect other Holocaust writers sometimes seem to ignore: ''It is naive, absurd, and historically false to believe that an infernal system sanctifies its victims: on the contrary, it degrades them, it makes them resemble itself.''

Levi examines the inner workings of degraded victims: Chaim Rumkowski (head of the Judenrat in the Łódź ghetto), the prisoners who served as barracks heads, clerks, Kapos-- all people we might like to condemn for accepting favor or power from their oppressors. He probes their decisions, actions, and excuses calmly and thoroughly-- not justifying or absolving them, but allowing these men and women their unavoidable humanity. We can still judge them-- and in some cases, Levi does--but we cannot refuse to understand them. Witness his words on Rumkowski:

His folly is that of presumptuous and mortal Man as he is described by Isabella in Measure for Measure, the Man who,

Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assured
His glassy essence, like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep.

Like Rumkowski, we too are so dazzled by power and prestige as to forget our essential fragility. Willingly or not we come to terms with power, forgetting that we are all in the ghetto, that the ghetto is walled in, that outside the ghetto reign the lords of death, and that close by the train is waiting.

Levi writes about the past, but he is writing for the present and future. The book ends with a call for the wisdom and action needed to end current violence and the threat of nuclear annihilation, dangers whose genealogy Levi traces back to the violence of Hitler's Germany in a fascinating passage (pp. 200-201.) Interestingly, this makes the book feel more dated, not less, perhaps because the threat of nuclear war and world war has faded. The world seems as much on the brink as ever, but there are many brinks and many prescriptions for action (and many blind eyes), making his language of "we" and "our" and "men of goodwill" seem like what it is, an exhortation from a different era.

In writing The Drowned and the Saved, Levi is trying to erect a dike against the trend of simplification and stereotype and the widening gap between "things as they were 'down there' and things as they are represented by the current imagination, fed by approximate books, films and myths." Levi's tone and his method of inquiry serve his efforts well: scrupulous, precise, analytical, but (and some of his critics miss this) also full of passion, compassion, and condemnation. This clear-eyed vision is what remains with the reader long after Levi’s book is put aside.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth

Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth at the Hirshhorn is awesome, in the way the word is meant to be used. The exhibition is dominated by Kiefer's enormous canvases, with paint caked on and built up; lead and wire elements hanging from them; nuclear submarines, sunflowers, cages, window frames, skis attached. Kiefer's usual palette of blacks, browns, and greys sets a consistently somber tone, as do the now-expected lines (furrows, railroad tracks) that draw the eye up to high, dark horizons. The paintings are complemented by similarly imposing, mysterious sculptures-- a massive book with wings that's rooted to the ground, a bookshelf with its volumes crushed by meteorites, books made of lead whose pages are as tall as a man.

The show spans several decades of Kiefer's output and fits a vast array of sub-themes under its broad heading. An exhibit of Kiefer's star paintings and would be enough to delve into for hours, but they are broken up among paintings of his studio, representations of odd Godheads, palettes superimposed over landscapes, sunflowers displayed in books and ruined halls. There's so much on offer, and yet it's an incomplete picture of his art: the recurring images of charred, cracked and riven earth refer back to his earlier works on the Holocaust and post-Holocaust Germany, which are barely touched on. How does one get from the suffocating earth pictures to the evocative but mysterious heaven pictures? When did Kiefer make the leap and begin discussing the cosmos, and why? What is it exactly that he's saying about heaven? His heaven is even darker and more distant than his earth-- there is little escape there, and a lot of doom. The exhibition guide says that Kiefer's images "intertwine a complex range of sources, including alchemical treatises; Nordic, Greek, Egyptian and early Christian mythology; and mystical Jewish texts, often relating these subjects to modern history." So much is clear. But how and why he's moved from recent German history to the sweep of human history and beyond remains a mystery.

The final room has more light and buoyancy than the rest of the exhibition put together: in "Leviathan", a model of a nuclear submarine crests a purple wave on a sunny day; in "Nigredo, Albedo, Rubedo", golden metal sunflowers emerge from red, white, and lead books, on which the white crests against the red clay like waves breaking over rocks. While the sea is a turbulent, destructive force in some of the other works, here one thinks of the early days of creation and the forming of the earth from the void. And yet there is no commentary on what appears to be a new mood from Kiefer. I don't mind the artist and the art being a mystery, but I do mind the curators not bothering to tease it out a bit.

All that said, I loved the chance to see all these Kiefers in one place together, as I'd seen mostly prints and those a couple at a time. I went with an artist friend, and hearing her explain his techniques and delight in them added a whole new dimension to the experience. The Hirshhorn puts on some of the best exhibitions in town: the 2002-2003 Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera is still one of my all-time favorites, the 2003 Gerhard Richter show had an intriguingly different feel from its stop at MoMa, and Gyroscope, the exhibition of pieces from the permanent collection was just a hoot.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Jerusalem (Anselm Kiefer)

We Journey towards a Home

We journey towards a home not of our flesh. Its chestnut trees are not of our bones.
Its rocks are not like goats in the mountain hymn. The pebbles' eyes are not lilies.
We journey towards a home that does not halo our heads with a special sun.
Mythical women applaud us. A sea for us, a sea against us.
When water and wheat are not at hand, eat our love and drink our tears . . .
There are mourning scarves for poets. A row of marble statues will lift our voice.
And an urn to keep the dust of time away from our souls. Roses for us and against us.
You have your glory, we have ours. Of our home we see only the unseen: our mystery.
Glory is ours: a throne carried on feet torn by roads that led to every home but our own!
The soul must recognize itself in its very soul, or die here.

– Mahmoud Darwish

In which I apologize to Thomas Hardy

In high school, I read and scorned The Mayor of Casterbridge and by extension its author. I don't really remember why-- maybe I wasn't in the mood for its grimness, maybe it's what the kids were doing those days. I never picked up Hardy again, even when my friend Mike of excellent and discerning taste praised him to the heavens.

Until I read Under the Greenwood Tree (admittedly a lesser Hardy) this weekend. I would like now to offer a formal retraction of my high school scorn.

Under the Greenwood Tree is lovely-- a light tale of a village church choir who are asked to cease performing in the church and make way for the new fashion of organ music, and also of a young carrier's son in love with the village schoolmistress who toys with him a bit before the inevitable happy ending. As one of Hardy's earlier works, it presages many of the themes he develops more deeply and darkly elsewhere: the profound, irreversible shifts in village life that break down old ways of relating, the way secrets corrode one from the inside, and more. Only by reading back from his famous works can we really apprehend this, though. As Simon Gattrell says in his introduction, this novel represents "the relative innocence which in his later fiction becomes blighted with knowledge" but in which we can still believe in a future "in which Tess Durbeyfield will not be violated, deserted, and hanged, and Jude Fawley will not be seduced, frustrated, and abandoned to die."

The novel runs from winter through a year to another spring, and Hardy's descriptions of nature and the natural cycles of village life confirm that, while this is a pastoral narrated for a wider and more sophisticated readership, the narrator's sympathies are fully engaged with the village and its characters. And he is keen to make clear just how good life in the country can be. Take this passage:

The last day of the story is dated just subsequent to that point in the development of the seasons when country people go to bed among nearly naked trees, are lulled to sleep by a fall of rain, and awake next morning among green ones; when the landscape appears by the sudden weight and brilliancy of its leaves; when the night-jar comes and strikes up for the summer his tune of one note: when the apple-trees have bloomed and the roads and orchard grass become spotted with fallen petals; when the faces of the delicate flowers are darkened and their heads weighed down by the throng of honey-bees, which increase their humming till humming is too mild a term for the all-pervading sound; and when cuckoos, blackbirds, and sparrows that have hitherto been merry and respectful neighbors become noisy and persistent intimates.

Just reading this, I feel refreshed. And motivated to read more Hardy, despite the guarantee that whatever I read next will be far more bleak. What fun it is to change one's mind on an author, and for the better.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Vermont Journal 2

While in Vermont, I scribbled down a list of things I wanted to remember, things that a week or two later already seem very far away. They include:

Vermont Journal 2
  • Sitting on the porch of our cabin, looking across the pond at the hill on the left. Seeing loons paddle and dive and hearing their calls to each other. Shivering a bit in the breeze, clutching the coffee mug ever tighter. Watching B swim to the floating platform in the mornings and sun herself on it against the backdrop of tall hills and sky. Reading Primo Levi, Martin Buber, Michela Wrong, Rory Stewart, and the older pages in this journal, dogearing them all, mind buzzing with bits to remember and record. After writing about the need to move on to a place unknown, looking out at a tree right in front of the pond, its branches backlit in bright sun, and finding it suddenly so easy to pray: "Help me to know." "Help me to know."
  • Canoeing with A up to and across the beaver dams. Beating out the others, fording the dams in record time and with suitable panache. That habit of turning everything into an expedition or a deed of derring-do. Where did that come from? The family and I have been doing it as long as I remember. Paddling past water lilies and the waxy, firm yellow flowers that often accompany them. Heading into Upper Symes Pond and seeing it open up into a deep V of near green hills, distant blue ones, and wide, bright sky. Looking over into the clear rippling water at the bottom several feet below, and watching tiny fish darting everywhere. The sun hot on my back, face and shoulders. Coming back into our pond, glancing up at the sky and seeing a huge, thin cloud, fissured into fragments like clay that's been baked by the sun.
  • The plants along the road - goldenrod, Queen Anne's lace, black-eyed Susans, tiger lilies, day lilies, a mauve flower that looked something like a rose, an anemone, or a mallow. Blackberries and what might in a different season show themselves to be blueberries or cranberries. Fallen trees with new plants springing up around them, growing all over them. The thin white birches. Small, horn-shaped orange flowers on short bushes. Ferns everywhere.
  • A's excellent cooking, G's bowel-disturbing yet delicious chili, corn roasted on the cob. Breakfasts of muesli and coffee on the porch. Wine at dinner, with the candles lit. Tipsy Trivial Pursuit (may the most sober win!) Watching Rushmore, or at least trying to. Getting texts from N far away in Cambridge at midnight and six in the morning. Sitting around a wonderful fire and having absolutely nothing to say, resorting to campfire stories and dirty games.
  • The snatches of poetry and prose that keep coming back. "Hashivenu" running through my head at odd, frequent intervals. Hashivenu Adonai Elecha, V'na-shuvah, Chadesh yameynu K'kedem. "Turn us to you, O Lord, and we shall return. Renew us as in the ancient days."
  • Another half-remembered quote: this time, the psalm that begins "I shall lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help." According to the BCP, it's actually a question: "I shall lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help? My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth." I do love the idea of help coming from the hills, of lifting one's eyes in expectation of assistance or blessing from these wise, ancient, lovely forms. Maybe, like the Van Doren poem, I'll keep on misremembering this one.