JOSEPH ESHERICK: CARY HOUSE
COMMON PLACE No. 1 | August 2008
QUOTES & THOUGHTS John Parman Preamble Essays and criticism especially can trigger thoughts which extend from a particular passage, whether an observation by the writer or her quoting of another. These quotes take on a life of their own, I find, but I rarely take the time to set out what I’ve thought. Rather than wait for an occasion that will bring them back to mind, often when the quote itself is long gone, I’ve opted to record the quotes and document my responses—an open-ended process, in that the quotes are sometimes multilayered, and my responses to them aren’t necessarily final. The great advantage of a journal format is its incremental nature, to be extended or revised at leisure. The ambush of desire In people, in families, in nations and in war, the unintended, the inexplicable, the groundless is for Tolstoy what instigates action and produces results; and we understand these results, if we understand them at all, only long after they are achieved and over. The unconscious rules Tolstoy’s world, but it is not Freud’s zone of repression: it is the realm of everything we don’t know about ourselves, about all the real, multifarious and inaccessible causes and effects we childishly simplify and pretend to understand, as if a plan could decide a battle, or a mere promise of virtue protect us from the ambush of desire – Michael Wood, London Review of Books, 22 May 2008, page 12 Each person has her own destiny, fundamentally different from my own. We fall through time, but it seems to me that when we land, we’re among a cohort of time travelers, some of which are clearer than others about the tumbling dice nature of this process. Something accumulated arrives with us, like luggage that someone else has packed. We spend our lives unpacking it. Our arrivals are plus or minus—it’s not an exact science, plunging through time, and it may take decades before we finally meet up. Yet there’s a kind of clustering of the cohort. Or perhaps the cluster that we encounter makes certain threads of time more important than the rest. Each person having her own destiny, paths inevitably cross more often than they join. The woods are full of paths and, like Dante in the Inferno, we can find ourselves lost in them “in the middle of our lives”. What we find is that a path we took proved to be diverging. The decision to take one path and not another can be “gut wrenching”, to quote a friend who just wrote me about his decision to leave an untenable situation for one that’s full of promise. He knows this, yet he’s torn apart by thoughts of the people he’s deserting. What he’s really experiencing is a path ending for them both, one they pursued together and believed in—until he didn’t. Many people seem to arrive finally at a vantage point that makes it possible to glimpse how destiny unfolded, and how each fold, whatever its nature and apparent result, was vitally necessary. Yet this necessity could be dismissed as mere survivorship, our human tendency to find meaning, even when we’ve been wandering in circles. It could be a delusion, or not, but wisdom may lie in accepting meaning wherever we can find it. Perhaps we have to detach the meaning from the person who provided it, acknowledging that when a path diverges, the meanings that went with it go their separate ways. My meaning can never be yours, but finding meaning in the encounter—this may be possible to acknowledge later on, and even to appreciate. 1
The realm of everything we don’t know about ourselves Recently, I had the chance to view in their entirety the 16mm films my father made from 1949 until 1956. I’m two and then eventually I’m nine. I’m not the star of the show—my sister gets more footage—but there I am, a small person who is nonetheless myself at different ages. My father filmed or photographed a great deal of what he experienced. I’m grateful to him for doing so, since it makes part of my life accessible to me. Of course, it’s really his life that I’m watching. He shows me what he wants me to see, but the characters have lives of their own. Almost every day, I make an entry in the diary I carry with me. The current one extends from mid-2005 until now. It has a few pages left, but it may take me two months more to finish it. There are other volumes. The one that covers 1998, among other years, is missing. Its absence has made it live in memory more than the others. I can see the terrible drawings I made on the terrace of the apartment in Rome where I stayed for a week, and can picture the patio at my friends’ house near Zurich where I wrote out my frustrations with that week and also recorded a memorable party on the lake, marking the wedding of two other friends there. I remember the quintet that played for them, and the relationship I intuited between the violinist, a 19thcentury figure, and the stunning cellist. All this is lost, diary-wise, but still with me. In 1998, I weighed 190 pounds. In 1999, I lost weight and found a different self, one that had emerged previously, in 1996, and was then allowed to slip away. There’s a line I could draw from the small boy who appears on film in Singapore and Europe and this reclaimed self. I could draw another line from the heftier kid of nine, back in the states, and me at 190 pounds. Several years ago, I tried to make a chronology of my life’s events. I found that whole parts of it could not be accurately placed. When exactly did I go to Orcas Island with the kids? I remembered the events themselves, but the years in which they took place escaped me. I didn’t try very hard, since the exercise struck me as pointless, even as I was doing it. I have an associative memory, which means that time lines up around specific people and I recall relevant things that pertain to them—not always, but often enough that this seems to be my memory’s main feature. In the absence of anyone to line things up, so much that I’ve experienced seems to fall away, and then someone reappears and it all comes pouring back. A mere promise of virtue protect us In France, a man was granted an annulment of his marriage based on his bride’s false claim of virginity. The ruling was roundly condemned as an intrusion of religion into civil life and an abrogation of the woman’s rights. The judge seems to have felt that a lie is a lie, and that the goods were not as advertised. Had it been me, I would have ruled that virginity is a state of mind. When women become pregnant, in my experience, they regain it. Most children are in some sense born of pure mothers, just like Jesus. This purity is not like the hypothetical one of virginity. If the bride had married with her virginity reconstructed, and this had emerged, say, four children later, what then? Does the bride get turned out of the house? The apple of carnal knowledge was handed to Eve by the serpent, not by Adam. Then she handed it to him, and they knew each other and knew mortality. We’re all damaged goods, and yet we lie daily on this topic, constantly reasserting our intact sense of own integrity against time’s depredations.
Effects we childishly simplify and pretend to understand In a letter written in the early spring of 2005, I explained to a Manichean correspondent that I see the world in color, not in black and white. You once saw it this way, too, I could have added. To see the world in color means seeing it as it is, complex and contradictory, a mystery. It’s also to see that the boundaries that man puts up are arbitrary, although God’s revelation may be cited as their source. Perhaps the black and white view of life is a vow, like deciding not to drink. Its adherents are a bit fanatical in consequence. No backsliding, they tell themselves. Fold the universe into a matchbox [Louis Zukofsky] would take the idea of economy to a radical extreme, and it is this, along with the scrambling of syntax and confusion of parts of speech, that makes for most of the difficulty in his work—this attempt to fold the universe into a matchbox, as [Hugh] Kenner somewhere puts it. – August Kleinzahler, London Review of Books, 22 May 2008, page 26 Reading the Odes of Horace, in an edition that combined the Latin original with a freewheeling translation into English, I was struck by the condensed nature of Latin, which appeared to pack a huge amount into relatively few words. How is it, I wondered, that French, Italian, or Spanish takes up more space than English, typically, to convey the same thoughts? When Horace is unfolded, the meaning is intact, so the packing must have been done carefully, omitting nothing. Take the idea of economy to a radical extreme Seeing in black and white is also too radical an economy, a matchbox with the heads left off. These effects are almost cinematic As in a private journal (and his Sonnets do speak of journals, given and received as gifts), the poems allude to time lived through. Thus, from 104, comes this extraordinary writing: Three winters cold Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride, Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned In process of the seasons have I seen, Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned, Since I saw you fresh These effects are almost cinematic, the product of a modern awareness of the feeling of life, the way external change alters or fails to alter the internal mind. – Barbara Everett, “Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Sonnet,” London Review of Books, 8 May 2008, page 14 Actually, no film can so quickly summarize what Shakespeare depicts here. He’s only folded three years into this matchbox, but there’s so much heat that it could peel paint off a barn. “Time lived through” is time in specific, time that cuts a path through a larger landscape. The subject is the beloved, both present and absent. These are the seasons, their procession, but the sonnet’s force is from its unfolding present: snows build up and melt, fields flood and dry out, a torch is set to them—this is a procession, but it circles back on itself, often tail in mouth.
In process of the seasons have I seen The truism suggests that time passes faster as we grow older. Yet time still slows down when events pull us off to the side. The world outside flows at its usual pace and we fall behind. That falling behind is part of the pleasure of these events, to take a brief vacation from the march. Mostly, we move distractedly through time, aware of the seasons but only briefly open to their particular beauty. When we’re living in time, beauty is called forth from everything. (So when someone next objects that beauty is ephemeral, I can point to this.) The Pillow Book is the record of a woman who lived within and wrote about the “process of the seasons” and noted beauty whenever or wherever she saw it. When you read it, you live in it at her pace. The notes by the translator, Ivan Morris, fill in the blanks: how the empress she serves is supplanted by a younger favorite and then dies tragically in childbirth, age 24. How the author admires the uncle of the empress, even as he betrays her, seeing something grand about him and understanding his motives in putting his own daughter forward. In the peculiar society of that era, when the power of the dominant family depended on marrying daughters to the emperors, his feelings for his sister were necessarily down the list. The author’s capacious mind accepts this, even as she deplores its effects on the empress she loves. All of this plays out against the seasons of the court, which are meant to be unchanging. Births and deaths are accidents of fate, while the beauty of the moment, regularly reenacted, is a talisman, like taking a lover for a night, experiencing the ritually delayed departure, and getting the poem. The ephemeral is also the cyclical. The real unfolds randomly, heightening the effect or crushing it. Three hot Junes burned, since I saw you fresh The Odes include memorable lines about a half-drowned sailor hanging his soaked clothes up to dry in a temple, having once more risked that glittering sea. What sets the ode in motion is a love gone south, burning April’s perfumes with someone else. To be left high and dry is to be wrung out, left for dead. Shakespeare is writing from another angle, but both poems are as much about now as then. Despite the centuries passing, there’s no actual distance. The lover— present, absent, or gone—is still with us. So is the one who loves, waits, or is betrayed. They only hurt you when they love you [My father] never mentions an even more horrible aspect of separation, that one can get used to it. His conclusion is ironical, considering their decline in the post-war years. “We’ve had the best, let us not put up with anything else. I would, I believe, sooner call it a day. I don’t think I could endure the agony and ignominy of a decaying passion. Maybe, as you told me the other day, your whole sex life is dormant. Maybe you’ve had a lover whom I must make you forget. These are questions I want answers to.” He must have been truly deranged by separation to have expected an answer to that. One thinks of the terrifying maxim “Jealousy wants proof”. It is now that he writes the words that my brother and I quote to one another in times of trouble: “I know very little about women, but I know they only hurt you when they love you. It’s when they’re kind that you know you’ve had it.” – Hugo Williams, Times Literary Supplement, 20 June 2008, page 16 In his book, The Point of Existence, A.H. Almaas makes the point that love approximates the experience of being and is for that reason a potential distraction from genuinely achieving it.
“Deranged” is one response to separation, and dormancy, the walling off of feeling, is another. What we call “hurting another” could also be understood as both an expression of the pain of separation and an attempt to break through it, specifically to get back to a state of being in which there’s no sense of separation. Hurt is inflicted because the person inflicting it has no other means, from his perspective, to accomplish this. Yet in fact this is the strategy of ego, which is that part of us that feels the separation from being most acutely, and which uniquely lacks a suitable means for ending it. The ego can make us murderous in consequence. In its grip, we don’t hesitate to inflict pain or to contemplate putting an end to one life or another. The critique Almaas makes of love is that it is being’s counterfeit, and thus a drug rather than enlightenment. Love so described is not the only form of love, but it’s the most common, the one we encounter early, usually, with its stages of infatuation and disillusionment. Sometimes there’s symmetry to this and both parties are happy to break it off; other times, someone gets the short end of the stick, is left hanging. That’s when the carapace of ego gets torn apart and one’s assumptions are exposed as illusions. Life as one has known it empties out. Almaas calls this a hole, and our awareness of it is devastating. He only hints about what to do, unwilling to reveal his methods, but it seems to involve allowing yourself to fall, trusting in life itself. The image of a riptide comes to mind. “Don’t fight it!” is the received advice, although that must be extremely hard to follow in the moment, when you may end up 400 feet from where you started, may be underwater most of the time, wondering if you’ll still be breathing when you surface. In the throes of separation, in what I called “the ravines” that followed it, I visited the Clark Institute of Art in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and encountered Winslow Homer’s painting, “Undertow”, which I took to be an allegory. The image repeats in a different form a dream I had in which I came up spiraling stairs, like the inside of a stone tower, emerging on a pebble beach where I saw a wrecked wooden sailing ship from which my naked self emerged and I flew over to rescue him. Self rescues self. Is the ego this ruined ship, from which the self emerges, free of it, and rejoins his twin? (Buddhism makes an analogy to a raft that’s discarded once one reaches the other shore.) Seeing one’s beloved as a twin is called mirroring, Almaas says, citing the literature of narcissism. The beloved is so like us it’s uncanny—then she isn’t. The corollary may be that real love involves seeing the other as other, even as you share a path. The beloved is not my self. More importantly, the beloved is not mine, she’s on the path voluntarily; hence the futility of the questions—ego’s questions—that Hugo Williams’ father poses. The agony and ignominy of a decaying passion Penelope is the archetype of the woman who waits. When her lover finally returns, she allows her desire to pour out like a torrent. We’ve tracked Odysseus from one end of the world to the other, so we know he didn’t stint when it came to women. Yet he made his way back, slew her many suitors, and embraced her. We don’t hear any complaints from him along the way about decaying passion. Hugo Williams’ mother wrote that her sex life was dormant in her husband’s absence, but Penelope cultivated her desire, not least from all the attention she received while waiting. Odysseus eliminated his rivals, but he also benefited from them. Penelope subsumed all their fine words and good looks. All that was lacking to transform them was the spark, and she was content to wait for it. Odysseus was confident he possessed it. Williams’ father wasn’t. 5
Life is never apprehended with such fullness My problem was less making a novel than in doing what I thought I’d achieved in short stories, so my novel would have the virtues of a short story, just as a story should have the virtues of a poem. The density, the speed, and the sort of depth you can get in a short story, which I don’t believe you see in most novels. The short story is less obligated to tell a great big lie about life. I’m trying to get at something very particular. It’s the idea that life is never apprehended with such fullness, and such consistency of feeling over a long period of time, as you typically find in novels. Maybe that’s because novels want to tell you how to live, but people only live from one day to the next. They don’t generally care about this great apprehension of the flow of things. They aren’t so acquisitive of sheer being, so devouring. But that is what one tends to take away from a novel. – “Leonard Michaels: The Lost Interview,” by David Reid and Ernest Machen, Paris Review 184, Spring 2008, page 159 The Leopard, which was written by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa late and drawn empathetically from life, isn’t really a big novel. It’s more like The Catcher in the Rye in length. What makes it more true than false is a trajectory that’s accurately seen. By this, I don’t mean the parabola of a cannonball, but the vagaries of a life that still manage to add up to something expressible and even coherent about the protagonist’s character—how it held up as life threw things at it. In the telling, there’s density, speed, and depth, too. Lesser novels derail you somewhere, but with The Leopard, you’re prepared to stay with the protagonist to the end. Lampedusa isn’t trying to tell us how to live. Rather, he’s drawing on a human type—his grandfather, Don Fabrizio—and a relevant slice of his life. The Leopard depicts a world that’s vanished. Lampedusa, among its traces, was about to disappear himself. “The dog is the key”—I believe that Wendy Lesser quotes Lampedusa to this effect in a recent essay. Don Fabrizio’s Great Dane mirrors his vitality and self-license; as the era ends, the dog’s stuffed, moth-eaten remains are thrown out. Our world is singular and ends with us, the Buddhists say. It belongs to us and no one else. The Leopard moves it to another medium and winnows it down to coherence. Lampedusa’s novel isn’t true, as Michaels says, but it’s close enough. Without it, we’d lose this world completely. It may be brief, but it demands and relies upon personal investment Writing a short story presents its own specific challenges. One aspect I appreciate is the economy of the form; the story must create a world, a mood, a plot, wholly real characters, an exploration of life and its complexities, and all within the space of only a few pages. There’s something beautifully mathematical and precise about it, and what you leave out is as important as what you leave in. For that reason, your safety net is taken away, because when you write a short story you’re relying on an unknown quantity: your reader. With a novel you have the space to fill in all the gaps, with a short story you’re forced to leave these for your reader to complete—the difficulty for the author is getting the balance perfectly right, creating something that will satisfy. This is probably what makes short stories— when they’re written well—such an intellectually demanding form of literature. A great short story may be brief, but it demands and relies upon personal investment from the reader. The very best short stories can haunt you long after you’ve read the concluding line, because so much of the experience is not just about the words on the page, but is individual to you and the way your own brain interprets and digests what you’ve read. – Interview with Clare Wigfall by Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee, Good Books Guide blog, 18 May 2008 6
An article written with the San Francisco architect Joseph Esherick in the early 1980s described his Cary House as being “intentionally anti-material and anti-focal.” It “exposes people to the passing of the day, using light rather than form as the main medium of the design, refusing to let form predominate,” and “gets away from form as something to see.”* Houses are the short stories of architecture, and the best ones are intellectually demanding—not by forcing dwellers to come to terms with an overlay of theory, but by acknowledging their participation in the house’s unfolding as settings within settings whose meaning shifts constantly as they are inhabited and experienced. With Cary House, the design is deliberately spare and open-ended, making what it looks out on (the setting) as important as what it is (the building) and what it contains (the rooms and furnishings). The house is about particular things, the larger setting most of all, yet that setting also changes. The design acknowledges that one moment gives way to the next, yet we stitch these moments together to make a world and live in it. We are still the measure of all things, still the ones who endow them with meaning—an ongoing process. [*: Esherick and Parman, “The Pursuit of the Ordinary,” Space & Society, June 1983, page 52] What you leave out is as important as what you leave in Somewhere in Stendhal’s Life of Henri Brulard, he says plainly that waiting for genius to strike is a waste of time for a writer. Stendhal spent his adult life writing a mix of novels, memoirs, and traveler’s journals, some for money and some for the drawer. Like The Leopard, his Charterhouse of Parma was written late in life. He wrote at a fast clip, drawing on experience. The novel pulls in the Napoleonic Wars, but its hero is an Italian who goes to France, the opposite of Stendhal himself. The clock was ticking, we can imagine, when he wrote it. Lampedusa similarly waited until the eleventh hour before writing his great novel. Did he wait for genius to strike, or for the kind of deadline that takes away your inhibitions? Although they were both minor diplomats, Stendhal was a man of action who sought to make a mark in the world and came close enough to get in trouble, both with women and with the law. He lacked inhibition—that’s obvious when you read what he wrote for the drawer. While his memoirs address an eventual readership, they were written in order to work out what his life meant, by setting it down and looking at it. This happens in real time, with Stendhal noting in the margins how fast he’s writing, how his hand aches, how he can’t put his pen down. With Lampedusa, there seem to have been many distractions. Eventually, though, he sets them aside and writes his manuscript. He dies before it’s even been accepted for publication. For all he knows, it won’t be—the novel is at odds with the prevailing sense of what a novel should be, and is rejected by one editor after another for this reason. Finally, an editor reads it and sees what’s in front him—a masterpiece, whatever the contemporary conventions of the novel form say to the contrary. “Then the law is an ass” is how a judge might put it. The book is published. Lampedusa’s article of faith is that the story he recounts, the world of The Leopard, is sufficiently interesting to find readers. Stendhal has the same faith about his memoirs—a sense of his life being of future interest, both because he writes about it compellingly and because his own character is proto-modern, anticipating a world in which he will finally feel at home. That world is not so much modern, though, as cosmopolitan. We recognize in Stendhal a type that makes his or her way through the decades, sometimes out in the open, but more often not.
Charterhouse of Parma is both a great novel and a reminder to his contemporaries that he, Stendhal, is someone who matters much more than his station in life would suggest. Left to languish in a peripheral Italian city by a French government that regards him as a has been, he takes immense license with the terms of his employment, absenting himself to better climes to write a life for the drawer and a valedictory novel for publication that draws renewed attention. Lampedusa, writing in the shadow of his ancestor, is more like Herodotus in his desire to convey to later generations the ephemeral texture of a man, family, and place, experienced at a distance so that he had to supplement to imagine and recreate. Stendhal writes from life. The texture is ephemeral, but he lived it. The remove is one of time, and Stendhal constantly retraces his steps to understand the past and what it says about him. What to leave in or out is a problem for novels, too—Marguerite Yourcenar’s manuscript of Memoirs of Hadrian ran much longer than the book, and Lampedusa also worried about leaving in or taking out certain chapters, decisions that his editor had to make. We try to imagine The Leopard without the chapter focusing on the priest who attends the Prince. Given its large canvas, the omission would be less crucial than in a story. Lampedusa pares down, whereas Stendhal writes what he has to say (the manuscripts of his memoirs suggest). Thus for Lampedusa, novels have to stop in time, avoiding the extraneous. For Stendhal, they have to give the story the room it needs to be told fully—no more, no less. And he’ll be the judge of that. There’s something beautifully mathematical and precise about it Architects periodically turn to methods in an effort to increase the odds of beauty, commodity, and delight. Vitruvius is credited with starting this, and subsequent generations of architects have regularly driven the idea into the ground. In the 1970s, Horst Rittel debunked the latest incarnation of this tendency by separating wicked from tame problems, noting that most of architecture falls in the former category, where “anything goes”—as his contemporary, Paul Feyerabend, put it. Feyerabend was discussing the scientific method, but the point is similar. It’s not that methods go out the window, but, as Rittel used to say, the creative leaps on which architecture depends always happen offstage—in a way that methods can’t begin to describe. Clare Wigfall looks at great short stories and sees their gorgeous balance. We can imagine that Palladio saw something equally beautiful and precise, “like mathematics”, and then sat down to write his treatise, like so many architects before and after. I don’t think Clare Wigfall would do so. The architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri told Richard Ingersoll* that architects should just build, and not write about their work. Then he made this analogy: when Reagan met with Gorbachev he wasn’t carrying a copy of Machiavelli in his pocket. No safety net there, either. [*: “There is no Criticism, only History”, Design Book Review 9, Spring 1986, pages 8-11] What remains tangible is a sensation of profound mutual sympathy When I recall this scene—myself in the throes of childbirth reading about Tolstoy’s little princess in the throes of childbirth—the memory has a play-within-a-play quality. What remains tangible is a sensation of profound mutual sympathy. I was, at that instant, enduring with this familiar yet imaginary woman the dance of torment and reprieve, torment and reprieve. We were, at each paroxysm, in the talons of death; at each release seized again by life. It was an accident and strange miracle to read it and suffer it simultaneously. – Dawn Potter, “Self-Portrait with War and Peace,” Threepenny Review, Summer 2008, page 21.
When my oldest son was in high school, he was assigned The Odyssey to read. Finding it lying around, I read it, too, and was stunned to find a completely different book than the one I remembered, with a long prologue that suddenly stood out for me, because it described the son’s search for his father, a totally forgotten part of the book, and also laid out, as a preface to the fantastic tales that Odysseus tells about his journey, the much more true-to-life reporting of the care with which he handles his first encounter with the princess Nausicaä—honoring her on every level, thus ensuring that he will live to tell those tales to her and her father, and also preserving himself as a potential lover by respecting her privacy and remaining hidden. The passage makes it clear that while Odysseus appreciates the striking beauty of the princess, there’s no voyeurism. He encounters her and intuits her nature. What he intuits is told to us, and we also grasp the nuances of his response—his sensitivity to a woman who’s caught his interest without knowing it. In a way, his response is a savoring of what he senses. None of this meant anything to me when I read the book in high school. Twenty-four years later, they were the meaning. I recognized the territory, stripped of its mythic trappings. We were, at each paroxysm, in the talons of death A woman should be honored forever for having children. She should receive medals and wear them proudly on a special day set aside solely to recognize her role in keeping the human species going. She should receive a soldier’s pension for the pain and suffering she endured. I write this knowing that women often have children because they love the men who father them and want that love to be embodied, to take it in and transform it into another human being. They have children because they love children and love mothering them, because they believe in something beyond themselves and children are part of it. They have children because they forget the torment once it’s over, or they manage to put it aside and have another. For all of these reasons, or any one of them, women should be honored even more. In the US workplace, there is a certain jealousy, impatience, or resentment of working mothers of young children. There’s a tendency to point to rules or assumptions that were put in place by men for the immediate benefit of the enterprise. Today, they are less frontally stated, but still very much in place: have a child and watch your career suffer and possibly die. Yet the women, with children or without them, that accept the rules as given often don’t get the brass ring that’s promised them, or they get it and it’s snatched away. The whole edifice needs to be rethought. Women should be able to have children if they want them, and to raise them well, with or without a father or family to support them. That support should be unplugged from marriage and redefined as responsibilities that people take on, but that are shared with society and geared to their individual circumstances and potentialities. The survival of marriage is wrapped up in property and inheritance, issues that can be sorted out in many other ways. Father and mother are more durable traits than husband and wife. In this regard, men should be encouraged to become fathers by other means than fathering. The tradition of godparents could play into this—men and women who make parenting a vocation. Work also needs to be rethought. Too much is wrapped up in it, and society—US society—gets off easily. As a result, there’s more money to spend waging pointless wars and building bridges to nowhere. The things that really matter, that are truly fundamental to society’s well being— like raising and educating children—are starved for funds. Women and children bear the burden of this disproportionately. Perhaps, as in Lysistrata, it’s time for the women to go on strike. 9
It is up to the reader’s imagination to supply the missing body parts For someone whose preoccupation in much of what he wrote was with the erotic, Cavafy is a strangely chaste poet. He was a sensualist who left unmentioned what he was most excited about. His descriptions of lovemaking never get specific. It is up to the reader’s imagination to supply the missing body parts. He used words in their primary meaning and was perfectly satisfied in calling a naked body young and beautiful and leaving it at that. In his view, this is not an issue. Art doesn’t represent reality, imitate life or copy nature. Experience is primarily an aesthetic matter. It imposes its own will on the subject, removing it from the contingencies of the natural and social worlds. – Charles Simic, London Review of Books, 20 March 2008, page 33 Before this, Simic quotes Cavafy’s poem, “Has Come to Rest” (as translated by Stratis Haviaras in The Canon). An excerpt goes, “No one could actually see us, But we’d / already provoked ourselves so thoroughly / that we were incapable of restraint. / Our clothing half-opened—not much to begin with, / that month of July being so divinely sultry.” This transcends gender, a measure of its cosmopolitanism. I’m not sure I agree with Simic that this poem is detached from reality or from the contingencies of the larger world. We know the month, the weather, how they might have dressed, and the state of their arousal. What the poet found is left to us. I doubt that “experience is primarily an aesthetic matter.” It can be—sometimes we are entirely sensory, but more often we’re putting the world we move through into context. Lovemaking can shift our plane of relating, enabling a purely bodily connection that triggers our responses, an instinctual dance that unfolds partly of its own accord. The body “imposes its own will,” but it does this to us in the interest of the dance, and because it also desires the one who strokes it. Pure sensory experience is exceptional, a peak. Mostly, we’re on other, more contingent planes. It’s possible that men are never really in the realm of pure experience anyway. A colleague once told me that male animals, men among them, are hardwired to be on the alert. Females, he said, can switch that off in lovemaking. Is it true? Cavafy’s poem indicates an awareness of context. When lovemaking is memorable, everything about where it happened also figures. Sometimes the dissipation of love causes the lover to recede from the scene, yet Eros’ traces linger in the setting itself. It retains its potency, long after. The lover who steams up the café needs that context, which Eros provides. From then on, cafés will always be among the god’s venues. Simic’s statement about art is modern. Elsewhere in the review, he calls Cavafy a modern poet. He goes on, though, to point to Cavafy’s self-description: poet-historian. “If he hadn’t been a poet, Cavafy said, he would have been a historian. The historical periods that interested him were the Hellenic Age and the late Byzantine, with their cosmopolitan way of life, their high civilization and the political and religious turmoil that eventually did them in.” Cavafy writes about what resonates, whether it’s a fragment of vanished high civilization or examples in his own life of the pleasures that link him to those eras and their exemplars—are in that tradition. What Simic observes about these poems—that the reader has to supply what Cavafy leaves out—relates to Clare Wigfall and Leonard Michaels’ comments about short stories. Michaels actually mentions poems, suggesting that short stories are closer to them than to novels. In leaving certain things to our imagination, it’s not clear to me that Cavafy is asking us to work. Rather, he’s asking us to draw from our own experience, if we have it, to find an equivalent to what he declines to name, not wishing to preclude our own erotic impulse by imposing his own. 10
When writing he could surprise himself being himself One of the catastrophes of alcoholism is that it arrests the growth of personality, and Lowry’s relationships with his wives, friends and family were often marked by childlike rages and startling abreactions. It is hard not to see his writing as an attempt to reintegrate himself. When writing he could surprise himself being himself, and it seems he could approach a sense of wholeness only by translating the experience into the written word. (The painter Julian Trevelyan once told Lowry that he didn’t need therapy; he needed to write.) – Elizabeth Lowry, London Review of Books, 1 November 2007, page 14 In his book, Dōgen on meditation and thinking: a reflection on his view of Zen, Hee-Jin Kim writes that Dōgen—the 13th-century founder of Soto Zen—“offers what I would call a ‘realizational’ view of language, in contrast to the ‘instrumental’ view that is epitomized in the Zen adage ‘the finger pointing to the moon.’ … Inasmuch as language is the core of discriminative thought, it has the power—perhaps the only power there is—to liberate it.” He goes on to say, “Enlightenment, from Dōgen’s perspective, consists of clarifying and penetrating one’s muddled, discriminative thought in and through our language to attain clarity, depth, and precision in the discriminative thought itself. This is enlightenment or vision.”* [*: The quotes are from chapter four, “The Reason of Words and Letters”, pages 62-63] Only in Triestine could he tell the truth Svevo disparaged Triestine as a dialettaccio, a petty dialect, or a linguetta, a sub-language, but he was not being sincere. Much more from the heart is Zeno’s lament that outsiders ‘don’t know what it entails for those of us who speak dialect (il dialetto) to write in Italian. With every Tuscan word of ours, we lie!’ Here Svevo treats the step from the one dialect to the other, from the Triestine in which he thought to the Italian in which he wrote, as inherently treacherous (traditore taduttore). Only in Triestine could he tell the truth. The question for non-Italians as well as Italians to ponder is whether there might have been Triestine truths that Svevo felt he could never get down on the Italian page. – J.M. Coetzee, “Italo Svevo”, Inner Workings, pages 5-6 The preponderance of architecture today speaks in a kind of global patois or pidgin. The high moments, as proclaimed by design critics and the design press that follows their lead, play with form by riffing on new materials and the structural derring-do that computer analysis makes possible (or doesn’t, as the Charles de Gaulle Airport terminal’s partial collapse suggests). Very little that’s designed is recognizably speaking in a voice that’s idiosyncratically local, “Triestine”. What truths could be spoken by an architecture that’s genuinely of this place or another? Are there instances, even now, of architects who could be said to work with this goal in mind? In the early 1980s, George Homsey told me that it was his ambition to move the architecture of the region forward, and his work, or some of it, seems rooted in local history and culture. His Garfield Elementary School in San Francisco’s North Beach is an example of a building that relates to its past on a psychological level, invoking the history of elementary schools in that city as a building type. It manages to combine this with a great sensitivity to a streetscape that is mainly residential in scale and nature. Because of these choices, the voice in which the new school speaks is idiomatic, of that place, and tied to a larger history that’s unique to the city.
Stanley Saitowitz’s Congregation Beth Shalom at 14th Avenue and Clement in San Francisco riffs on synagogues as he experienced them as a boy growing up in South Africa. It also takes in the neighborhood—low and tightly packed Richmond district houses—in which it rises, imposing a slightly larger scale and a definitely different look, but one that’s accessible rather than defiant, a kind of Noah’s Ark that floats serenely above the ground, visually reassuring. Beth Sholom, its different parts arrayed around a street-like entry court, is a separate and yet semiporous world, with a gate-like but transparent entry to mediate open and closed. Up the road, Temple Emanuel uses a more mosque-like strategy of surrounding walls and gardens, but Beth Sholom is modern and urban, part of its neighborhood, even when it’s not. The rabbi who commissioned Saitowitz is a Zen Buddhist who returned to Judaism and became a rabbi without abandoning Zen. As a client, he encouraged his architect to investigate the history of synagogues and their meaning in Judaism, and to design the different parts in light of what he discovered. Not all of it has been carried out, but the big moves are there—compelling in their straightforward expression. To me, there’s something vernacular and local about it, a voice that’s appropriate for a congregation in the avenues that takes its Judaism straight up. What is it that we desire to be cured of? Like any good bourgeois of his time, Svevo fretted about his health: what constituted good health, how was it to be acquired, how maintained? In his writings health comes to take on a range of meanings, from the physical and psychic to the social and ethical. Where does the discontented feeling come from, unique to mankind, that we are not well, and what is it that we desire to be cured of? Is cure possible? If cure entails making our peace with the way things are, is it necessarily a good thing to be cured? – J.M. Coetzee, “Italo Svevo”, Inner Workings, page 4 We’d like to be cured of death—isn’t this really what we want? We’d like to be the gods that we resemble, in our own minds, but are not. Instead, we’ve done a reasonable job of extending life, eliminating the short order deaths like heart attacks and strokes, so that now we can survive to succumb to the slower ones, with their greater agony and expense. It’s enough to make you start smoking cigars and buttering your steaks with lard. If cure entails making our peace with the way things are In the summer of 2007, I ran into a neighbor who was suffering from a particularly virulent illness. Steadied by his wife, he was out walking on the main shopping street near my house. I greeted them—surprised actually to see him walking, as I’d heard he was wheelchair-bound. “I’m cured,” he announced. Last winter, I went to his memorial. At the get-together afterward, I heard that he was bitter in the last few months of his life. Yes, I thought, it’s that word “cure”. Better to have told him that the treatment had bought him a bit more time, “so use it well!” Part of the “waking up” that George Gurdjieff urged on his followers was awareness of death, “the terror of the situation”, which should be a constant prod to live fully, but often isn’t. In his memoirs, he quotes his grandmother’s admonition to live consciously—conscious of who and where he is. Life is a unique opportunity, and we squander it in neurosis, laziness, and timidity. Despite our self-regard, we never actually take our lives seriously. We are mostly less then fully human in consequence, holding back, walling our selves off from life. This gets us nowhere in the end. Death takes us anyway, slipping all to easily through every single one of our defenses.
CAUCASIA John Parman
1 Some opening remarks I often picture my father in his two-door Jaguar, one hand draped outside the window, holding a cigarette. This would have been in the second half of the 1950s—he quit smoking in 1960, when he was 45. He still has the car, along with his tortoiseshell glasses. He’s quite elegant, even with the wrinkles. An early taste for bespoke suits continues. Despite his age, despite having made a ton of money, or perhaps because of it, he still drives himself to the station three days a week, down from five, rides into Penn Station, and makes his way to his desk. That desk is the one he had made from the teak crates he shipped from Singapore in 1953. The walls, too, attest to his past—a childhood in Hanoi, student days in Paris and London, wartime service in Malaya, a trader’s life in Singapore, the decades in New York, and all the travel backand-forth to Asia when China and Indochina opened up. Despite that focus, my father is a Europhile—having spent his formative years on that continent and in its colonies. At my age, I’m lucky that he’s still alive. When your father dies, turning that corner must bring the wall of your own life into view. That, at any rate, is what my father notes in his journal. He was just 37 when his own father died, age 76. “Borrowed time” is how he’s described every birthday he’s had since 1991. So far, he owes someone 17 years. When he turned 90, my father invited me to lunch. “I’m not really immortal,” he said, adding that when he looked back at the totality of his life, it seemed like a story worth telling. “Yet, having lived most of it, it’s hard for me to know where to begin. And I would be tempted to leave things out. You know—you don’t want to hurt people, and yet there they were, smack bang in the middle of your life, or vice versa.” In short, he needed someone to get the broad outline from conversations and then read the letters and the journals, all of which he’d somehow managed to keep despite the war, the moves, and my mother. Apparently, that was me.
I should say a few things about my family. Although born in Hanoi, my father was of Chinese descent, the son of a wealthy merchant who traded with France and China. My mother was Vietnamese, but they first met in Paris. According to the family legend, he knew immediately that they would marry. Despite provocations on both sides, they still are. My mother is more or less the opposite of my father, who is happiest at his desk or in intimate company. My mother likes to socialize. She also enjoys sticking her nose in everyone’s business except my father’s. That’s their pact—each asks no questions of the other. Roughly once a day, they talk about topics of mutual interest. For every trip they take together, there are five or six they make alone. Yet they discuss every potential destination. “You should go,” he tells her. He’s been saying that all their married life, beginning in 1940 when he presciently sent her to New York to spend the war out of the line of fire. Neither of them wasted much time being lonely, but my sister—born in 1942—was the more tangible evidence of this. My father loved her the instant he learned of her existence. Her father, a Japanese expatriate, is still with us, living in New York. Decades later, my mother still has herself driven to the city to be with him. “We aren’t very alike,” my father commented at lunch. “For some reason, marriage throws you together with another whose differences become clearer as you grow older. Yet you have these ties—family, property, and the ease of long familiarity.” Then there was the war and their years of separation. “I was in the jungle, out of reach. There was literally no way for her to know what would happen. In a situation like that, you have to be very tactful when you reenter the world you left. And besides, I had my own life to consider.” Our lunch opened the door to my father’s private papers. There are letters, personal poems, and the diaries he’s kept since he was a student. The letters are voluminous. When motivated, he’ll write five or six times a day. The diaries are difficult to read, written in his tiny script. They sometimes overlap the letters, but mostly they comment on things that the letters address in the moment, creating a kind of double reflection. When will you retire? When people ask this of my father, he always smiles. “When there’s no more reason to head into town” is what he thinks. (To be continued.)
COMMON PLACE Commentary and story © 2008 by John Parman Credits: Cover photo of Cary House, Mill Valley, by Roy Flamm; photo of 1955 Jaguar XK-140 from Phil Seed’s Virtual Car Museum (www.philseed.com). Website: http://complace.j2parman.com Contact: email@example.com