Monday, November 30, 2015

From Mornings in a Cabin in the La Sal Mountains


The La Sals are one of a set of compact mountain ranges in southeastern Utah.  I'd always thought they were named because some of the snow-covered, volcanic peaks looked like they'd been dusted with salt.  However, the Escalante Expedition named them for the salty springs they discovered at the base.  The mountains are high for this part of the world, Mount Peel is 12,721 feet and the range, though relatively small, is rich with surprising glens and juniper forest.  The mountains also support populations of cougars and black bears.  I've been in a cabin in one of the deeper glens the last few days which included a highly localized but relatively heavy snow storm.  In the evenings I had the opportunity to finish Keith Basso's Wisdom Sits in Places.  It's the kind of book that reads well in a high, remote place.  Much of it is formal anthropology and ethnography yet it's also the kind of book that implicitly asks you to look at your own life, culture and personal pursuits from a different kind of high and remote place.

As I first mentioned some months ago, Basso's narrative - I think I prefer the word "story" in this context and will use it in the sequel. One should not infer a loss of precision or objectivity from this choice of diction, quite the opposite - Basso's story, then, begins as a hunt to map Apache place names near Cibeque, Arizona, but becomes so much more, a cultural map of the creation and uses of stories in Apache culture and how they are associated with unique and particular places.  Hunting is a seminal metaphor for them.  Telling a story can be "shooting an arrow" at someone.  Places, (and implicitly the specific stories associated with them) can be said to be "stalking" someone.  Yet, for all that, their purpose is not aggressive, or antagonistic but rather to facilitate respectful communication, help the listener develop wisdom, weather a period of personal difficulty or develop perspective.  A place can become so identified with a story that it can serve as a short hand for telling the story.  In one remarkable section, Basso, formally reports the conversation of some Apache women, one of whom is distressed over the hospitalization of her brother, which, initially, is totally opaque.  The short conversation consists of each woman naming a particular place, followed by an appellation suggesting it's importance.  At first reading it seems like a nonsensical exchange of static non-sequiturs, something mischievously devised by a very dry-witted Apache Lewis Carroll.  However, it is nothing of the sort.  Each of the particular places mentioned has a story associated with it and by naming those places, each speaker is respectfully encouraging the distressed woman to call the story to her imagination and consider its pertinence to her particular situation.  As a result, she is comforted, strengthened and gains perspective.  Her short, apparently casual and mildly comic comment to a dog sitting in the sun nearby at the conclusion of the short conversation is validation that the conversation has been successful.  Such a short, formal exchange, is known as "speaking in places."

The book concludes with an exploration of the Apache concept of wisdom which is remarkably concrete and pragmatic.  One step in achieving it is schooling one’s intuition in the stories of such places.  At the heart of Basso’s book is the unspoken question of how our minds understand place and, perhaps, given the particular architecture of our intelligence, how our ability to associate story, emotion, perception with individual places can best be used for our and our culture’s greater good.

Modern life is flooded with narratives of all kinds.  Recent events in Paris are, among many other things, a grim reminder of how important it is to consciously and conscientiously make culture well.  The modern liberal tradition eschews canonical texts for all, yet the cruelty and alienation of the perpetrators of terrorism is nothing if not proof of the need for commonly known, life-shaping stories affirming basic values, such as respect for human life, independent of religion or creed and perhaps unchanging, physical reminders, i.e. natural places, bound to those stories.

One morning, after a snow storm that wasn’t forecast, our family descended to visit Arches and explore one of our favorite natural labyrinths, “The Fiery Furnace.”  As we were uncovering the cars, one of the members of our little expedition noted that “only fools forecast mountain weather.”  It’s an aphorism I quite like.  As for the Fiery Furnace itself, the snow had only dusted the high sandstone fins and narrow passages so that we had all the aesthetic benefits of snow with little additional danger or difficulty.  The walk and scramble through the maze was, perhaps, more fun than I remembered.  For decades it’s been a minor rite of passage in our family to learn the way through though it’s an accomplishment less appreciated these days.  No doubt there are numbers of photo documented maps instantly available on the web, though I haven’t looked.  I’m not in the least surprised that the Fiery Furnace Minotaur with his terrible sandstone colored bull’s head and hunger for sacrificial human flesh is, perhaps, glimpsed less often these days.

When I was a child my grandmother used to read the Greek myths to me as bedtime stories.  The mountain just east of where I lived was and still is named “Mount Olympus” and I naturally conflated it with the more famous promontory in Thessaly.  I completely believed the stories, in part because they were associated with a real place I could see.  Theseus and the Minotaur was a particular favorite, that, somewhat like the Fiery Furnace, has only improved with time.  The story of a hero who undertakes to fight a monstrous creature while lost in an unknowable maze with only his intelligence, a sword and a thread to guide him in order to save 12 innocents is, perhaps, one of those stories all should have at heart.

I feel like Basso’s book has given my intellect a good shaking and given me some new intellectual tools and perspectives.  As I return to Thomas Malory, I’m curious to see what effect it has on my view of Le Morte d’Arthur and the period of it’s probable composition.  Most certainly, I’ll be looking at Armstong and Hodges’ book Mapping Malory from a new critical perspective.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

New York - New York


Apologies to Betty Comden and Adolf Green,

New York, New York, a serendipitous town.
Cloisters are up but the Red Fish is way down.
So much now and so much past going around.

We’ve been in Manhattan this week to see some friends and do some favorite things:  see a lot of art, see some performance art/theatre, hear some live music in a Village club and walk.  It was darkly serendipitous as the recent attacks in Paris had just happened and whilst we were there the terrorist group ISIS publically threatened New York City as well.  I say serendipitous as the implicit response of New Yorkers was simply to carry on.  We happened to be having breakfast at Pain Quotidian off 5th when a fire alarm went off and everyone simply behaved rationally.  For a moment everyone was  particularly observant, the alarm stopped and everyone went on talking passionately, eating and laughing.  It’s a kind of sensible, implicit everyday bravery which goes with the territory of living there anyway.

Even without those events I would have found myself remembering flying on September 11, 2001 and the subsequent late December immediately after.  Early in the morning on a bitterly cold and windy day, Lynn and I took a cab downtown to see the World Trade Center site.  In the midst of the great makeshift memorial adjacent to St. Paul’s Chapel someone had posted a small Welsh flag, which was more than a welcome reminder not only of others’ compassion but the grace of gentler times.

This trip we made the essential pilgrimage to the 911 memorial.  It is devastating public art, almost too much too bear, which is sadly appropriate.  Next to one of the nearly 3,000 names was a small French flag.  Dark waters flow steadily into oblivion.

Our first morning we did our best to be among the first that day into the Picasso sculpture exhibition at the MOMA.  When I first read about it I thought it would be nice to see.  Having seen it, I now wonder how I could have lived without seeing it.  The older I get, the more I love Picasso’s work, the more immediate and visceral it seems and the more I find it full of ideas.  A modest wire-frame construction elegantly conveys the idea of interpolation between an ellipse and a rectangle and the pyramidal frame surmounting is an almost gothic commentary on the Pythagorean beauty of the idea.  It took me so far that I found myself musing about the related meaning of arches in gothic architecture and the interpolation of physical and social forces.  And that’s just one, relatively minor, though exquisite, piece.  Then there are his sculptures and portraits of women.  I deeply love how he uses dimension and perspective to discover character beyond the physical force of his portrayal of their physicality and sensuality.  You wouldn’t think it’s possible.

One evening we took in “Sleep No More,” a kind of asynchronous, mostly silent portrayal of Macbeth in a 1920’s hotel by the Punch Drunk theatre company.  We were with friends and the four of us are haunted house veterans so the immersive experience was less novel for us than it might be for others.   Nevertheless, I found myself particularly fond of angel statuary (which reminded me of the weeping angels in “Blink”) and the way Birnam wood came, in this case, to the ball room.  I also found myself naturally contrary to joining groups of spectators following the characters racing through the rooms and so missed a couple of major set pieces, such as the witches’ Sabbath.   In retrospect, I think it’s best described as a kind of literal jigsaw puzzle of the play.

The Cloisters, the Met’s small and curious museum of medieval art in upper Manhattan, is an old friend that is always better than I remember.  There is something about the quiet, suggestive architecture that enables you to engage personally with the art in a way you just can’t in a more traditional museum, like the Met itself. There were a couple of school groups and you could see that proven in the response of the kids and the looks on their faces.

Trixie Whitley at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village was particularly good fun.  I barely remember the last time I was at a rock concert in which the audience was more interested in listening than in screaming louder than the performers and/or dancing.  The civility of her audience was more than welcome.  Maybe it had something to do with chocolate chip cookies with mugs of cold milk that the club served.  Her music was raucous, focused and occasionally ironic.

We finished with a walk through a mostly empty central park on a blustery day and a visit to the Chelsea Market.  Automobile traffic in New York has grown ridiculous; I’m reminded of Paris in the 90’s.  When you consider the wicked cool engineering of the World One Trade Center, the weak engineering of the city’s transportation system seems silly.  The city, everyone in that great city, deserves better.

But I have to come back to Central Park.  A solitary saxophonist played as we walked along the nearly empty Mall just past the statues of literary figures.   The last of autumn was being blown from the trees by the unsettled weather.  I have so many memories of the city now: not just that bitter winter.  I walked in a shower of all my days remembering everything from meetings with venture capitalists in the Rockefeller Center to Ricky Jay’s performances of the miraculous in the exquisitely small and unassuming Second Stage Theater.

Another image from an old movie I first saw as a child came to mind, too:  a distant shot of fourteen year-old Tippy Walker walking alone through the same part of Central Park in the middle of winter.  In the movie her character is impetuous, intelligent, passionate and unique.  That image is my personal icon for the city.  One could do worse.