Art as the greatest mirror.

Amtrak Reading
by Robert Garlitz

On the train from Philadelphia to Boston, I happened to have eleven books and three magazines and one notebook. I read a few pages of each of these in random rotation during the seven hour journey and began to make mental notes about various kinds of connections. Outside the day was gray and dim but not cold. A storm was coming from the west but not yet here. The unending landscape out the window provided a rich mix of warehouses and truck lots and the backs of malls, some nice houses, ponds, estuaries, stunning high bridges, old stone walls, steeples, townscapes, garbage, fields of dry dull golden grasses, cars galore, traffic, long stretches of empty solitary spaces, lines of trees along riverbanks. Gray clouds, gray to silver light. Often leaden shaded light. Offices. Ocean.

The first connection I’ll mention concerns my age - fifty-four. The Norwegian painter, Odd Nerdrum, whose paintings I have seen off and on over the years, some in Boston, some in other places, turns out to be just my age. His paintings are dark and somber, large, golden and usually feature figures who look like they have come out of Renaissance paintings but who are now in a much more desolate landscape of dark forms and dark golden lights. They always seem somewhat allegorical and foreboding, but the precise allegory or significance I was never that drawn enough to ponder for long. Something definitely off putting about the works and yet at the same time appealing and intriguing. The new issue of the magazine had a photo of Nerdrum looking straight at us in his studio and the headline question: "Prophet or Pariah, Odd Nerdrum, Controversial Classicist?"

I bought the magazine at the Penn campus Barnes and Noble, not for this article but because it was the latest issue of a magazine I often buy. The article by Alan Jolis, "Odd Man In," gave me a short, helpful introduction to Nerdrum and confirmed the impression I had had that he has gained some degree of fame and notoriety and standing and appears ready to gain some more. Overall I think the article gives you the sense that here might be an important painter for our times, as indeed the paintings themselves sufficiently convey in their own right. Jolis tells us he expected Nerdrum to look imposing as befits "a blue-eyed dandy virtuoso, a cocky self-proclaimed genius living in [a] Gothic mansion, which was built in the 1870s on a hill in the residential heart of Oslo, overlooking the royal castle." Later I realize that I am disappointed that while Jolis tells us a good deal about Nerdrum, from his Tourette’s syndrome to his "growing belly and Medusa-like hair," he doesn’t tell us how tall the man is and I would like to know that. The paintings are of a size grand enough that you want to visualize how they relate to the size of the their creator. Is the man a measure or module of his work? Is the work a measure of the man?

Jolis picks up on the painter’s appearance: "at 54, Odd Nerdrum has begun to look like one of the destitute pilgrims he often paints." "Avant-garde artists want to shock, want a dialogue with society. I don’t. I paint for eternity." "Modernism denies the human body. Many people don’t paint flesh any more, they refuse to." Self-Portrait in Golden Dress (1998) portrays the artist as partially nude. His critics have said that the work is not art. Nerdrum agrees. "I never use the word Oart." he says. "Art today has no meaning. It provides a service like an electrician does, or a baker. Since there are no rules in art, I am not an artist. So I say my work is anti-art - it is kitsch. I am a kitsch maker, yes, that is what I am." Being ridiculed by the mainstream is a role Nerdrum is used to and one to which he does not object. "Maybe I am a masochist, but I like it," he says.

Maybe that is why he has painted so many controversial paintings and not been shy of grandiosity or pretentiousness, cloaking his nudes in turbans and togas and other rich garbs of silks and taffetas. The magazine has two large ads by New York galleries showing other Nerdrum paintings. One is another self-portrait called Prophet of Painting in which Nerdrum is robed in a long golden velvet toga decorated with beads and pearls and holding his brush out in his right hand and his large palate and painting rags in his left. He looks anguished and the left hand page of the ad gives us his face in close-up so we can see the expression in detail and the richness of the paint and the painting process. "I paint over and over again," he says, "so the paint becomes transparent. I scrape down and layer up. A painting acquires a history that you can’t fabricate. You never succeed, you have to keep trying. I see my mistakes all the time - they scream out at me, like a soft mosaic requiring endless work."

The next day at home I check the Web for an image of the painting mentioned in the article and sure enough it is easily found on a site established by the New York Forum Gallery. In Self-Portrait in Golden Cape as this translation gives the title (not Dress as Jolis gives it), Nerdrum looks even more anguished. He wears a sort of light linen Rembrandesque night cap and stands before a canopied bed, his right hand hidden back in his sleeve or behind the cape. His belly is large and rotund and makes me think of Peter Greenaway’s movie The Belly of the Architect. Jolis ends his article with Nerdrum summing up his hard work and ambition: "Today you cannot just be another 17th-century master, another copy, a repetition. You have to be the best."

Nerdrum sounds interesting. His work is not the sort I would like to paint and I don’t think it will influence my own painting in any way, but I like what I’ve read about him and, as one 54 year old to another 54 year old, and in some vague and unclear ways I understand what he is doing. I would prefer that he do it with much more a Matissian style in terms of lightness, color, tone, line and spirit. But then Nerdrum doesn’t live on the Mediterranean and, as he’s done his best to show us, he’s not a Mediterranean by birth. The one piece of biographical detail we were told is that he did not know until he was fifty years old that his natural father was an architect living in another city in Norway. He went to meet him. "When I went to this man’s house, I saw him climbing a ladder in his library, and just seeing his body before he turned around, I knew at once that I was looking at my body, my hands, and my legs." His mother had never told him that the father he had grown up with and with whom he had had an "extremely difficult" relationship was not his real father. As a child, Nerdrum’s parents had discouraged his poetry and forbade him to play the piano. His father had once told him when they were looking at a beautiful sunset, "My son, never try and paint that sunset. If you do you will have a very difficult life before you." Nerdrum laughs, "But of course, I have been trying to paint that sunset ever since."

Nerdrum has three daughters from a previous marriage and two small sons with his wife, Turid, who, Jolis tells us, is a folksinger and violinist. "Her long blond hair gives her the appearance of a beautiful Nordic wood sprite or fairy queen." "Watching his naked boys" ages 4 and 3 "scream and run between his easels," Nerdrum says, "Some things are too beautiful to be painted!" I like Nerdrum. I like what he is doing. We are of the Same Age and I am glad he paints as he does, even while I am glad we are as well quite different.

For me, the father and son motif is, I hope, reversed somewhat. I have just driven my son back to Philadelphia for the second semester of his second year at Temple University. Virginia and I tried to encourage his interests in theater and music and he is studying jazz guitar. Whether he will have a difficult life ahead of him no one knows. I certainly try not to equate jazz with that prospect but his teachers have already tried to warn all of their students of that possibility. While my father did little to encourage me to pursue my early interest in being an architect or other interests in the arts, he did not forbid any of it and he did hand on his love of reading and he was my real father. He owned a grocery store and was a butcher and I’ve often thought in later years that it was in working in the store and in the butcher shop that I did indeed learn a great deal about architecture and painting, standing in the walk-in cooler and pondering the feel and touch and smell of cold carcasses of beef split in two and hung upside down.

A book I had with me on the train by HélĊne Cixous opens with mention of one of Rembrandt’s paintings of a butchered ox. The title of her book, Firstdays of the Year, sounds suitable enough indeed to read in January. In another newer book, Stigmata, Cixous has a full essay on a painting by Rembrandt, Bathsheba or the Interior Bible, and she concludes this meditation with the photo of and comments on Rembrandt’s The Slaughtered Ox (1655).

Firstdays opens with the narrative-lyrical voice trying to find its way into the text that it wants to write. Early on a few words begin to remind me of this slaughtered ox: at one point "I am like she who attempts to have the cello’s carcass rolled into an aviation hangar. Shelter for a broken flight" (8), and on the next page, "Just as the cello had been created to moan the animal music of our entrails and the oboe to give wings to the triumphal moods of our adolescences, so a Celan had been created for singing, his mouth full of earth, under the century’s cleaver [my italics], under the pickax, the only tiny slip of fleshy paper that will succeed in escaping the shovel of the Apocalypse" (9). In a few more pages Cixous talks about painting and the painting of Hokusai. His paintings, the whole curve of his life’s desire to paint Fujiyama and the impossibility of doing so "breathed serenity." All the paintings "were almost perfect. And they no longer suffered from their minimal, quivering imperfection. Not reaching the summit was, in the end, a delicate victory."

Rembrandt provides the contrast. For Cixous a great contrast. And if you like Cixous, as I do, her discussion of the contrast gives us Cixous at her best:

       Whereas Rembrandt’s paintings breathe rage. Disgust for wisdom. The urgent need to seize the sky by its hair, the gods by their feet, to unseal the sun, to drag the whole of nature along in his triumphal procession. The need, at any price, to paint the forbidden. And the truth, if found: he would go so far as to slaughter it in order to contemplate it more truly still. The truth is what he sought, in the depths. "The world is a chest, and I want to paint its living heart, paint with one’s heart equally naked." So that’s what he did.
       Rembrandt’s horrible joy before his canvas, she could see his agony: there he was, painting away like a mad fool, in a silence bursting with all its might, for he was painting with all his might; every nerve ending, every bough, every rib, drawn arched stretched to breaking, his vibrating body unbearable to see, like the awful body of Atlas vibrating under the massive weight, keeping a mad fool’s silence about his madness, in a breathless hand-to-hand battle - legs shackled, gripping himself with each brush stroke, wrenching his arm from his arm, his chest crushed by his chest, himself turned against himself, and, in an extenuating effort ridding himself of his irons, releasing his throat from his own hysterical grasp, and straightening himself up all bloody, skinned, his teeth clenched upon the cry, victorious, having conquered, having wrenched victory from himself - he was painting beyond painting, painting his prey, painting astride a foaming steed, pursuing an army in retreat, with sword blows overtaking and pricking and pinning every escaped detail, and in the end racing over the battlefield that was fast become a famous canvas beneath his feet, he burst out laughing, drunk with his own genius. "I conquered Rembrandt," he told his wife, "and I led him to victory."
       "One day I’ll end up painting astride my own corpse," he murmured at dinner.
       At night, eyes open in the dark, lying in his boat, he wondered who, at daybreak, would come to shore. Awaiting, with a dead man’s impotence, his resurrection.
       If it ever comes about, he thought, I will paint a self-portrait, I will paint all, I will tell all, I will make my secret shine, I will dazzle the whole world with horror. And if I cannot do it directly, from the very first stroke, then I will approach it sideways, I’ll start by painting an ox.

Jolis, I recall, had told us that Nerdrum’s "energy is prodigious: he never takes vacation, and works every day from noon to 5:30 and then, after dinner and a nap, from eight to well past midnight."

On the back cover of Cixous’s book I look over the quotations and blurbs to take a break from her intensity and to get that sort of overview of what is going on in Firstdays of the Year. The Minnesota Press copy writer says "like all of Cixous’s profoundly original works, it seductively leads the reader into a new way of thinking by disrupting fixed ideas of psychic identity, subjectivity, and language."

Fine, but since I am on the train, I look out at the passing landscape and like better the blurb above that one: "An inner journey across space and time linking the 'author’ to other poets, this lyrical essay-poem continues … Cixous’s exhilarating rewriting of notions of boundary, self, other, and author." Yes, I like this too. I want more lyrical.

Last night David and I and his friend Taleigh went to see Benigni’s Life is Beautiful. It is very funny and very good, but still a holocaust movie. I like the first part best because it shows a beautiful Italian village and the same sort of light that appears in the still life paintings of bottles and jars by Giorgio Morandi, who is my current hero-model painter. Nerdrum’s mysteriously heroic fleshy figures inhabit the sex-and-death dark landscape of post-war, anguished Europe that writers like Cioran write about so well. Benigni tried to learn from Chaplin and others how to do anguish in a different way from this. Cixous shares part of Nerdrum’s kind of dark world. But she has also learned from Clarice Lispector and others to allow for other worlds, to allow words to move her through and beyond suffering into other worlds and other times:

         And what this book [this one she is writing and we are reading - and perhaps all books and by my extension all paintings] and a poem had in common was the physical sensation, the cardiac certainty, of their both belonging to a wholly other time from our time to us all. A poem merely passes, coming from elsewhere then moving on. Signifying to us, in passing, at its passage, this elsewhere.
         Well, this book was from elsewhere.
         There has always been this forlorn, far-off song, this music from a native land not found on any map, and that we all believe to be, by definition, lost, that we will never go back to, where we have never even been except one time, the first time and the last.

"Map" was my coincidence word here! In another book I read during the same train ride, "map" had figured importantly. The young tennis players at Enfield Tennis Academy just outside Boston in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest like to play a war fantasy game they call Eschaton, as in End of the World. They also use "map" in a slightly more personal sense, but first the game.

They are playing it on an outdoor tennis court, various sectors marked off to signify various locations in the global nuclear endgame. Then snow starts to fall and they discuss whether the snow is affecting the nature and play of the game:

         "The real world’s what the map here stands for!" Lord lifts his head from the Yushityu and cries over at Axhandle, trying to please Pemulis.
         "Kind of looks like real-world-type snow from here, M.P.," Axford calls out. His forehead’s still maroon from the coughing fit. Troeltsch is trying to describe the distinction between the symbolic map of the gear-littered courts and the global strategic theater it stands for using all and only sports-broadcasting clichés. Hal looks from Axhandle to Pemulis to Lord. (334)

Pemulis is the fellow who most clearly understands the game and its symbolic grandeur and implications and as the snow falls and confusion increases among other players he is driven to an eloquent defense of the difference between the real and the symbolic and of the game itself:

Players aren’t inside the goddamn game. Players are part of the apparatus of the game. They’re part of the map. It’s snowing on the players but not on the territory. They’re part of the map, not the cluster-fucking territory. You can only launch against the territory. Not against the map. It’s like the one ground-rule boundary that keeps Eschaton from degenerating into chaos. Eschaton gentlemen is about logic and axiom and mathematical probity and discipline and verity and order. You do not get points for hitting anybody real. Only the gear that maps what’s real. Pemulis keeps looking back over his shoulder to the pavilion and screaming, "Jaysus!"

The figurative sense in which the characters in this story also use the word "map" is to mean a person’s whole identity, the self. Later in the book we are in a scene at an AA meeting in Boston and we learn that in the despair of addiction

when you get to this jumping-off place at the Finish of your Substance-career you can either take up the Luger or blade and eliminate your own personal map [my italics] - this can be at age sixty, or twenty-seven, or seventeen - or you can get out the very beginning of the Yellow Pages or InterNet Psych-Svce File and make a blubbering 0200h. phone call and admit to a gentle grandparentish voice that you’re in trouble, deadly serious trouble, and the voice will try to soothe you into hanging on until a couple of hours go by and two pleasantly earnest, weirdly calm guys in conservative attire appear smiling at your door sometime before dawn and speak quietly to you for hours and leave you not remembering anything from what they said except the sense that they used to be eerily like you, just where you are, utterly fucked, and but now somehow aren’t anymore, fucked like you, at least they didn’t seem like they were, unless the whole thing’s some incredibly involved scam, this AA thing, and so but anyway you sit there on what’s left of your furniture in the lavender daylight and realize that by now you literally have no other choices besides trying this AA thing or else eliminating your map, so you spend the day killing every last bit of Substance you’ve got in one last joyless bitter farewell binge and resolve, the next day, to go ahead and swallow your pride and maybe your common sense too and try these meetings of this "Program" that at best is probably just Unitarian happy horseshit and at worst is a cover for some glazed and canny cult-type thing where they’ll keep you sober by making you spend twenty hours a day selling cellophane cones of artificial flowers on the median strips of heavy-flow roads. (348)

Map was one of those verbal coincidences I enjoyed as I read a little from each of the books I had with me and after a passage such as this, I don’t claim totally accurate memory here, of course, but I probably paused and looked out the train window at the scene passing by to see if in the distance there might be a person closing his car door or pushing a shopping cart to the cart stall who might enjoy Infinite Jest as much as I was enjoying it, reading it slowly to savor the dense but spirited prose. Now, in typing it up, I makes me wonder if Nerdrum would not understand Foster Wallace’s book quite well and Foster Wallace would see just what Nerdrum’s paintings try to do even though they are separated by a generation. David Foster Wallace is thirty-something. This was his third book. It runs to a thousand and seventy-nine pages. The last 96 pages are Notes and Errata in a font size noticeable smaller than the regular but not overly large font size of the text itself. And would Cixous want to link them both as artists to her vision, her empathetic reading of Rembrandt’s slaughtered ox?

Another magazine I had on the seat next to me was the January issue of Artforum. No doubt I skimmed through it more than once during the day, reading a bit of this and that but nothing in it drew great attention and nothing chimed with any of the other readings of the afternoon’s journey. Bomb: The Contemporary Culture Magazine yielded nothing either even though I did read about half of it, finding a number of its interviews and articles of more interest than those in Artforum which I didn’t read. One interview was with Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman, the book about the mad American doctor who contributed greatly to the Oxford English Dictionary. Other interviews of interest featured English writer Jenny Diski, actor Gary Sinise, artist Yayoi Kusama and jazz guitarist Marc Ribot. I had only just heard of Ribot when David brought home with him for Christmas vacation Ribot’s new CD called Los Cubanos Postizos - The Prosthetic Cubans. A very witty and intelligent album of fascinating music. Ribot says he and his band played this music at a recent Texaco Jazz Festival and a portion of the Cuban musicians in the audience rejected it while "a bunch of others hung around and laughed their heads off. Most of these songs [by Arsenio Rodriguez] are immediately recognizable but the cultural divide is still huge. I can’t imagine how it would seem to a Cuban: like a band of pygmies playing the Beatles."

I have not read any of Isabel Allende’s novels and my wife, Virginia, likes her work very much so at the Penn Bookstore I bought a copy of the novel The Infinite Plan. The title echoes Infinite Jest of course but somehow I did not take conscious note of that until this moment, if you can believe it. What I did notice was a passage on the main character named Charles Reeves who is a wandering painter and who had "been born in Australia and shipped half around the world in boats captained by smugglers and drug dealers." He stopped in San Francisco and decided to stay in the States and began wandering the land.

         His own father, a horse thief who had been shipped to a penal colony in Sidney, had passed on to his son his passion for that animal and for open spaces: the outdoors is in my blood he had always said. Enamored of the wide-open country and of the heroic legend of the winning of the West, Reeves painted its vast panoramas, its Indians and cowboys. With his small trade in paintings and Olga’s fortune-telling, the family scratched out a living. ( 15)

I am interested to see what becomes of this painter and I took another little pleasure in the history given to him, that his father had been a horse thief. My father’s family has a tale in the family history that the first of the line to settle in Maryland back in the days of the Hessian soldiers who fought in the French and Indian wars was hung as a horse thief. I don’t know if there is any traditional link between horses and painting unless Allende is simply allowing her imagination to go back to the paintings on the cave walls at places like Altamira.

Another novel I was just beginning to read and one that I had brought with me is The Goldhawk Variations by the British writer, Brian Louis Pearce. While I was reading in this book on the train, the nice and easy coincidence that popped up was that one of the characters is riding on a train and looking out its windows.

         He saw himself peering out of the train, at the spot where they had once seen a fox crossing a field. It might have been twenty years ago, yet still he peered out, expectantly, wistfully, whenever he passed the place, hoping to see something marvellous happen again.
         You never knew when it would. (22)


A few pages before there had been another passage, one that connected to Cixous’s book on just one incidental phrase and yet a large one at that. In fact it was this passage in Pearce that first made me think of noticing to see if there would be any other interesting overlaps in a random stroll through the pile of readable matters on the train seat next to me.

         "You’ve been here a while, Lawrence."
         "Over thirty years, Mark. Doesn’t seem a day since we came."
         "I know. I feel the same."
         "It goes like a rocket, time does. You don’t hear it or see it...till there’s the final biff."
         "That’s it in a nutshell."

         That was it.

         Thirty years in a phrase.

         . . . . . . . His passions could still be roused. With that north light he should have been a painter. As it was, he was a craftsman with time. In time? At least, for a bit longer. No, too late by a good thirty years. (17)

This year, I thought, we will celebrate our thirtieth anniversary. Our son is twenty. Time. On the first page of Cixous’s novel the narrator sounded the same note.

         "It has been thirty years now," resounded the thought. And the author heard the phrase, and it was the first time. She was, then, today, a person, a woman, who could say: "It has been thirty years now . . ."
         So I have a thirty-year old now. This is what has happened to her on this day already so chock-full of birthdays and anniversaries.
         A thirty-year-old now had summed itself up. Suddenly she found herself in possession of thirty years she could fit wholly inside her hands like a book. And it was a book, she thought. A lost book.
         Writing had indeed just returned, the promise, the force, the source that knows only pulsation, retreat, return. I’m going to write, she had thought at first, in the comfortable triumph of a boat lifted anew by the arms of the tide.
         But I am thirty years old, sense the boat, I weight thirty years, feeling the enormity of this number for a boat, and the light, limitless power of the tide. Writing is eternal, it knows neither weight nor time. It’s going to lift and carry me as it has already thirty times, effortlessly, she thought. (4)

Another book I brought with me to Philadelphia in the thought of going further in it if there had been time is Jean Giono’s Angelo, in part the basis of the movie Horseman on the Roof. Earlier this year I read that book by Giono and liked it, although not as much as other of his books such as Blue Boy and Joy of Man’s Desiring. Horseman turns out to be a great good deal about the cholera epidemic and less about Angelo and his lovely countess, played by Juliette Binoche in the film. Angelo sounds his heroic theme by page 8: "Yet, unless I can believe that noble souls may dwell in the simplest of men, how can I preserve my own integrity and keep my zest for living?"

The third book by a French author that I had with me was Fragments: Cool Memories III, 1991-95 by Jean Baudrillard. David had been exasperatedly amused by my usual style of getting to 30th Street Station about an hour before the train was scheduled to leave. I enjoyed later coming upon Baudrillard’s cool pensée on that:

         The subtle pleasure of arriving early and gauging, by the empty period which separates us from the precise time, what we are before we are there. But those who arrive late are doubtless also lingering over an equally perverse pleasure, having taken the time not to be there before they are.

Baudrillard has a few passages on deafness and I wondered if he is starting to lose a little bit of his hearing in the mid-ranges as I am and as is normal, so my doctor assured me.

         Deafness is a lesser affliction than not being about to see. Because seeing is a constant marvel, and there is a sort of perfection of the visible. Vision enchants what it touches. . . Hearing is more visceral and dramatic, and hence closer to fear. Closer to language and meaning and thus closer also to stupidity. For the absurdity of language is more penetrative, more poignant, more laden with meaning, than that of the spectacle and sight. This is why I would be more prepared to accept being cut off from the world by deafness, which spares us from its absurdity, than to be deprived of the sight of the world, even if the scene presented were an obscenity.
         Hearing has more to do with the sexual, and deafness with sexual impotence, whereas sight and the gaze have to do with seduction. To live without seeing is to live without being seen - even if this does not prevent blind women from putting on make-up, and indeed doing so in front of a mirror. It is to live without seduction. A world without watching eyes is like a sleepless night, peopled with inner nightmares.
         It is clear that deafness is the product of the obscure desire no longer to hear, to cut off the sound out of resistance to the harassment of the voice and messages. For the world is basically a wonderful visual reportage. It is the commentary that is unbearable.

How much to agree with in reading this kind of book of notebook entries is not much of a problem. That doesn’t really matter. There is simply the pleasure of the company of the writer - to see if he can make even his unbearable commentary somewhat pleasant and bearable! - and to imagine perhaps how much fun it would be if you were in conversation with him to challenge him on any number of such places as where he says with such private assurance in his notes - "It is clear…"

I know little about the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard but at least I now know that whereas Cixous likes his work a great deal, Baudrillard does not.

Why this infatuation with a flabby blaspheming, entirely on a par with the flabby deflatedness of the age? His hatred of Austria is also on a par with that country: it is provincial. His spiteful parody of awards ceremonies (Wittgenstein) is as heavy-handed as the ceremonies themselves. . . There is in him, quite simply, an imposter. And naturally, the infatuation of his doting admirers is part of the imposture.

Such a delight when one is not involved, like attending a wedding or a funeral of a large family when you are in the outer outer circle of acquaintances and can enjoy the whole panoply of familial wars going on in the inner circles and you can simply say with pleasure, Ah, the French! Or Ah, the Austrians.

At another place in his book, Baudrillard has this distillation:

         Epicurus: chance.
         The Stoics: destiny.
         The Sceptics: illusion.
         The Cynics: irony.
         Basic figures of ancient thought which have become heretical in the eyes of our modern - realistic and redemptive - thought, but are still as much alive. We have simply added two additional heresies to them: the principle of Evil and that of perfection (the Cathars and Manichees).

So it would line up

         Epicurus: chance.
         Stoics: destiny.
         Skeptics: illusion.
         Cynics: irony.
         Moderns [postChristian]: realism & redemption.
         Cathars: Evil.
         Manichees: perfection.
         And did he leave out  Greeks: Beauty.   ?

I wish Baudrillard had taken his little chart and circled it into a wheel of motives or states of soul in general and suggested that we are all destined to embody all of the basic figures in dialogue with each other - or at least to bounce around within two or three. Our positions changing every so often. Hence the unending market for identification, hence the search for it, for what will mesh with one’s place at the moment as well as lead and push and draw one onward to what constitutes growth in the next moment and next phase. If you go with evil or illusion or destiny no one is surprised if you one day convert to perfection or irony or realism & redemption or one of the others and so forth.

In Penn’s bookstore I bought three books by Bohumil Hrabal. A young Argentine friend named Iván had recommended him to me earlier in the year when I first met him in Argentina and, by a wonderful set of circumstances this friend had just visited us a week or so ago while on his first trip to the States, so when I saw so many of Hrabal’s books there on the shelf I could not pass up the chance to buy them out of some desire to continue the good will and good spirit of this new friendship. Closely Watched Trains I recall as the title of a famous movie when I was in college and which I must have seen but now have no memory of. I Served the King of England earned distinction by the third page by virtue of having right there in black and white a reference to the by now magical "thirty years":

         Every evening this select group would show up - the notary public and the stationmaster and the vet and the director of the music school and a factory owner named Jína - and I’d help them all out of their coats, and when I served them beer, the proper glass had to go into the proper hand, and I was amazed at how rich people could sit around for a whole evening talking about how just outside town there was a footbridge and right beside the footbridge, thirty years back, there was a poplar tree and then they’d really get going.

They would yell and shout insults about whether the tree was there or the footbridge and much else. Then "they’d sit down again and everything was all right, and you could see they’d only been yelling at one another like that to make the beer taste better."

That might be the key I never caught on to for I’ve long felt it a basic flaw in my character or my genetic programming, especially given the Germanic and British names on both sides of the family, that I’ve never developed the deep love of beer, not the sort that I do have for things like black forest cake or raspberry tarts. In fact, the closest I came was a spell during college when I found a place in the Georgetown section of Washington, a bar called Old Europe, that introduced me to a kind of beer that featured a dollop of raspberry syrup and I would take girls I was dating there to try that along with the famous German-style apple pie. Too sweet a combination and a strange kind of after effect, that beer and pie. Not enough arguing or shouting it seems. And not enough time under the bridge.

The third Hrabal book, Too Loud a Solitude, is the title that Iván had especially recommended to me when we first met in Córdoba. It had influenced his book, Junkyard of Men (Desarmadero de hombres). The narrator of Solitude opens, "For thirty-five years now I’ve been in wastepaper, and it’s my love story. For thirty-five years I’ve been compacting wastepaper and books, smearing myself with letters until I’ve come to look like my encyclopedias - and a good three tons of them I’ve compacted over the years." But I was chagrined to realize as soon as I started reading it that I had bought it in expensive (very) hardback form last fall and had it still somewhere in the house as yet unfinished. So now I have two copies. Baudrillard may be right in the way he found to recycle some notable ideas about Repetition:

         There is never any definitive end to a relationship. All that has not been resolved, all that has not been said, must be there again in a second existence. It is in this "reprise," as Kierkegaard would put it, that the deepest pleasure lies: that of vanquishing time by play of the second meeting.
         All essential events play a second time (death alone happens only once, and is not replayable). But this second time is also the last, and every event "reprised," symbolically replayed, brings us closer to death. Once all events have been recapitulated in memory and cancelled by that evocation, one’s destiny is sealed and the end is nigh.

But, no, I take back what I just said, surely this is too much to lay upon the simple act so often repeated by people who buy a lot of books of buying more than one copy of the same book. Still, Hegel must show up somewhere later in this essay because in Too Loud a Solitude I have circled his name: "I share with Hegel the view that a noble-hearted man is not yet a nobleman, or a criminal a murderer." Well, so there at least, is Angelo’s concern for nobility of heart and soul.

Robert Bly’s Selected Poems have been along for the ride and I read in them from time to time. When I get to "Six Winter Privacy Poems" I glance at the gray Connecticut landscape and think I could do an imitation poem like Bly’s. Something like "Six Winter Privacy Stations on the Train" and I jot down in the back flyleaf of the book the six best names that could fit each section: Trenton, Newark, New York, New Haven, New London, Boston; but maybe replace New London with Providence, or maybe leave out Boston since Philadelphia is not mentioned and if "Privacy" is the key then the places of departure and arrival would suit less. Trenton. Newark. New York. New Haven. New London. Providence. I could lift Bly’s section IV "On Meditation" wholesale:

There is a solitude like black mud!
Sitting in this darkness singing,
I can’t tell if this joy
Is from the body, or the soul, or a third place!

Section II I try re-phrasing to fit my situation:

This car has forty seats; I use one.
The lamplight falls on my fold-out tray,
And I fall into one of my books -
I can’t tell you where -
As if I appeared where I am now,
In a moving train, snow falling.

This is as far as I get in composing this lifted poem. Later, at home, I look at the names written in the flyleaf and think well, clearly this is not a poem that I needed to write but imagining it took me further on the journey.

The only thing I read carefully in Doubletake, the quarterly magazine, was a four-page spread by the New Yorker cartoonist, or humorous drawings artist, Roz Chast. She reported on a trip she had taken last spring to an all-day conference in Boston on Alien Abduction. "Aliens, Ahoy! A Meeting of Abductees, U.F.O. Buffs, and the Curious: A True Story." It was full of her great drawings of weird people and weird drawings of aliens as imagined and reported by those who had been abducted. The photographs in the magazine are usually striking but I don’t have a great track record with this magazine. Somehow it is so daunting, it makes me feel overwhelmed with the duties and burdens of culture and social thought that I never read it. It uses such beautifully heavy paper and is very serious in every fine detail of design and tone. I usually buy a copy, leaf through it once or twice and then it sits around the house for a while until I finally throw it out or drop it in some conspicuous place on the nearby college campus in hopes that some thirsty student will devour most of the articles and the money and my guilt will have not been wholly without meaning. There is an album of poems by L.E. Sissman, a poet whose work I don’t know and one sequence on Edward Hopper paintings. I hereby make a note to myself to really read those before the end of the month.

A similar pattern usually follows each purchase of American Poetry Review and somewhere in the train ride I pick it up and make a similar resolution to really read most of it this time before throwing it away. So I dive into the first ten pages, read well and appreciatively the poems of four poets. The poems of the fourth, Bob King, are so seamless it feels impossible to quote a short passage but here I am, it seems, in the business of yanking whatever I want into the present context so I do locate some grist and throw it into the final turns of this mill:

                     I tend
to be less talkative when I’m hungry.
You get louder. Like yelling at a blind man.
I don’t have a problem with my ears. My problem
is agitation. My problem is talking for talking’s sake.
I know how I get when I’m not hungry,
sleep deprived, well-rested, stressed, drunk,
and under or over-sexed. I know how
to communicate with myself clearly
and clarity is the soul of communication.
I’m not trying to be stoic. It’s just,
I don’t know what I don’t know. I’m restless
until the mail comes and more restless in line,
in traffic, waiting for the seasons to change.
I feel like I’m backing into this. I feel like a sissy.
People who say there are no dumb questions are liars.
Because at least sixty-five percent of all questions
can be answered with introspection, deduction
or even an educated guess. A couple does not entail
the destruction of the two individuals.
We drive separate cars. I can handle quiet.

When we arrive in Boston, the train actually a little ahead of schedule, I am happy to find there was a bus within ten minutes. I call home. An hour’s ride and Virginia will meet the bus, and then a forty-minute drive. I settle into the bus seat, my small heavy bag next to me, glad that even with the little overhead lights it really is too dark to read.

Robert Garlitz is a contributor to Robert Lax: Speaking into Silence (Stride, 2001), which is reviewed in the spring 2002 issue of Chicago Review.