Sunday, March 21, 2021

Worlds of Montaigne: Long Day's Reading into Night


When the uncle of an old friend passed away--most likely from drink, or complications therefrom--Alex kindly bequeathed to me works from the library of Leonard Mack Evans, the uncle. Quite a few books by and about Oscar Wilde, hardcover Modern Library editions of Faulkner novels, and a 1957 Stanford University Press hardcover edition of The Complete Works of Montaigne, Essays, Travel, Journal, Letters. I remember Alex handing me this in particular, knowing how touched I'd be, though unfamiliar with the 16th century writer but by name. I knew the newly deceased as Uncle, that's not right: I think Alex referred to him as my uncle, Len. His father's brother, and a great influence on the young Alex into adulthood. Classical music, theater, literature, philosophy. 

Len, droll, rather heavyset but carrying his bulk quietly and with restrained nobility, once announced to me, then a graduate student in Philosophy for chrissakes at San Francisco State University, that no one should read Nietzsche until at least forty years of age. I was twenty-eight years in 1989, my father had died that February, and Len's admonition thundering in the cold air of the apartment Alex and I rented on the border of Oakland and Berkeley may have been before or after a three-year love of my life of left my heart with no forwarding address or reason on a late afternoon Sunday, May 14th, two weeks before Finals, but I'm long past forty now and, yes, Len was right. The great German philosopher engaged with the historical and philosophical currents of his time, and of the philosophical systems that came before him. The eagerness of a youth in his 20s to pose defying and radical will easily misread Him. Twenty years of homework is needed. I see that now. 

During my hours of sorrow over love lost, Len quite sincerely and in tender confidence suggested as remedy to grab bottle of wine and sit on the beach, drink, and gaze out across the ocean. He said he often felt comforted at night hearing the far off whistle of a train.

Len would visit us in our apartment from time to time, and I would listen to Alex, a concert pianist, and he discuss literature and music. Len delighted in Delius. Other gay friends of Alex would drop by. Alex one afternoon declared "I feel like I'm in a Noel Coward play, someone should be mixing martinis!" Allusions, literary references, serious but loving engagement with the arts! An intellectual salon I didn't know I hungered for growing up in South Sacramento, but hungry and dissatisfied I escaped west. Or rather, I was pulled.

I believe I am older now then Len was when he died. I still remember my favorite quip Alex told me Len used for boorish guests at a gathering who've outstayed their welcome: "Forgotten, but not gone." Yesterday I grabbed Montaigne off the shelf, and began reading. The French essai means "an attempt". Let's read together, Len. This, my attempt at gratitude.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Selfie is Believing: Reflections on Narcissus's Waters - Part 3 - Parents and Tourists Edition

Fifteen minutes into the future, you will experience the real only if you remember to record it. Documented, posted, shared, gunning for the viral.  

Friend, let me join you at your daughter’s preschool performance of a mundane and flimsy-scripted Nutcracker, gazing proudly through viewfinder for later viewing on smaller and smaller screens. Your child in glorious pageantry dancing her sugar plum fairy across the stage will be a digital reproduction of an evening you won’t remember because you were there only to hold up your device to capture moments in her fleeting childhood. Why did you want to capture your daughter’s performance? Perhaps it was important to her, and therefore to you, because she had been practicing for weeks, telling you excitedly about her part, showing you her twirl and costume, sharing anew the tale of the Nutcracker and the Rat. She wanted to know that you and Daddy/Mommy would be there. When the lights dimmed and the magic commenced, dozens of devices held aloft, you and the gathered parents videoed this evening’s performance because it was an important event—but evidently not important enough to pay attention to the performance itself while it was unfolding before your eyes.  
You missed it.  
Or rather, you captured the performance, either partially or whole depending on your arm’s level of endurance holding up the device, so you could look forward to—well what, exactly? View it in the future in its greatly reduced capacity for reasons not strong enough then to sway you to experience it in the present?  
Perhaps you wanted to forward it to me, because surely I get as much delight watching your daughter perform as you did recording it. Perhaps you wanted to upload it to Facebook, and monitor your wall awaiting the “likes” and effusive comments. We agree: she is just too cute…my, how she’s grown.  
Perhaps years hence when she’s a teenager averting her gaze and mumbling listless responses to your humblest morning greetings, you’ll sift through your saved files to watch her more innocent and loving times—what you didn’t see the first time around. And under the clutter, this is the driving reason, isn’t it: to remember. To scoop from its ceaseless flow a cupful of time’s deluge. This is your daughter when she was young and beautiful and didn’t resent you. It was your daughter back then, too, when she was a sugar plum fairy, and that magical evening would never come again, though so many days and evenings were still to come, and many of these you recorded  as well—blessed technology!—but the flood kept rolling, didn’t it? Where did the time go? After receiving from your daughter a somewhat halfhearted goodbye hug—she fell limp, pulling away too soon, you thought—and waving as the Uber took her to the airport for her flight to Prague to live with an indie filmmaker, you return to your digital recordings. There she is/was. You did it: you captured that wonderful evening long ago. She loved you so. Look at her smile. How wonderful the real thing would have been.  

Ask an ambitious mountaineer why he (or she) desires to ascend Mount Everest, the mountaineer may cleverly remember to answer “Because it’s there” and we nod, grin admiringly, sharing the aptness of this stock response. But that’s not the reason to ascend Everest, is it? You could brush aside the mountaineer’s unintended evasion and lay scrutiny: No really, why? Next response might come “Because I want to” or “Because I’ve always dreamed of doing it” which are variations on the original evasion. You persist. If at this point the mountaineer isn’t annoyed at your dogged pursuit, you may get a shrug. He may not know the reason. Or he may. But because the mountain exists isn’t a reason to climb it. The chair I’m sitting on right now also exists, but I doubt the mountaineer wants to climb it. Giraffes exist. After his descent from Everest, will our brave mountaineer scale them?  
If we can record it, we should record it. By recording it, we don’t have to bother experiencing it in the boldly deemed real time. Recording it is certainly much less work. We don’t have to attend to what we’re seeing or hearing, just whether we’re getting the footage we want and whether the device has enough power. We are relieved of the dreaded responsibility of living in the present, and more importantly, reflecting on the meaning of the experience. Thank goodness. We can use our minds more constructively: putting the recorded footage on Facebook, for instance. 
Look, your daughter has sugar-plummed her way offstage! You may stop recording now, and continue watching the delightful play. You have missed seeing your daughter, but she’ll return soon. Here she comes again: stop experiencing and start recording, quick. Well done: you have succeeded in missing more cherished moments in your daughter’s life. 
I had a friend who, when asked by strangers if he would be so kind as to snap a photo of them standing in front of a waterfall, or statue of grave statesman on horseback, or slow melting sunset, would kindly refuse.  
Make sure you take photos! You will often hear this as you bid goodbye to friends and family before embarking on any adventure or vacation. They want to see what you’ll see. You may meet some really fun people. Let’s say you do. You have such a great time with them, you make sure to document the four of you together to commemorate the amazing time you had. One of you approaches a stranger to ask him to take a photo of the four of you (careful whom you ask). Click. You’re all captured smiling gleefully. Back home, showing the photo to friends, you try to convince them how absolutely cool and amazing these people were. It should be apparent from the photograph. It’s not. But we all nod heartily and say “Wow, sounds like you had a great time” which isn’t entirely insincere.   
I was in a bar in California. My friend and I had more than a few drinks. A young woman arrived with a hand-held video recorder and began filming another young woman behind the bar who busied herself wiping down the counters (her employment). I waited for the bartender to do something or say something, well, significant, or out of the ordinary, or flatly just worth recording. She didn’t. Excuse me, I slurred to the video recorder, why are you filming her? Unwavering in her concentration, the woman peer onward and replied, “Because she’s my friend.” I persisted, probably a little more impatient than a few drinks before—okay, she’s your friend, but why are you filming her? “Because I want her to be famous,” her tone annoyed that I didn’t grasp the obvious. Well, of course I persisted again (I suppose I should have just asked if she knew any giraffes). As my friend pulled me off the bar stool toward daylight, the woman finally looked away from the device. “God, what’s wrong with you!” 
I was simply trying to understand why people find it necessary to video-record the everyday. I walked along a North Carolina beach one afternoon and passed a father with iPhone recording his two daughters splashing in white foamy waves. They were too small and too young to evince any talent; they’d bend their squishy little legs and gather up water and let it drop, that’s pretty much it. When I returned direction twenty minutes later, young father was still there to record daughters repeating their fun. I suppose I shouldn’t be prejudicial: perhaps he wasn’t filming them, but watching porn. 
The Venus de Milo, or Aphrodite of Melos, graces the Louvre in Paris, solemn, demurring her gaze, a sensual masterpiece of ideal Hellenistic beauty. Famous, it is mobbed by visitors because they’ve read or heard it’s famous, and here they are, a family bubbly, finally in Paris after a long and expensive flight from Ohio. They’ve read the guide, planned their few hours, and behold! In the marble flesh in this hallowed room! A fawning wonder blooms on their faces, expectant, as if waiting for the Venus to dance. Father wobbles the camera to frame, cocking his gaze down to focus. Happy to oblige,  : a stranger offers to take a photo of the whole family in front of it. Duly documented, it is forgotten, and the family searches out the next famous work of art in the guide. They’ve got photographic evidence that they indeed saw this famous statue. Thank goodness, because they can’t really afford numerous trips to Paris on their salaries.  
When they get home, they can prove to their friends they were there—the Eiffel Tower, the padlock love adorning the bridges across the Seine, their affable French waiter—and verify that, in Susan Sontag’s words, fun was had.  
Gather round the laptop. Look here. Click. Enlarge the jpeg. Ohhh, we say reverentially. You narrate: yes, that’s the famous Venus. Wow, we say, you really saw it. Click. Hey, that’s you guys next to the Victory of Something. That proves beyond doubt that you saw this famous statue! I guess you liked it so much you also bought a large cardboard glossy reproduction of it. Fifteen dollars? Whoever took that photo is a real professional. No, I know you’re not a professional photographer, you’re an accountant. So why did you take the photo when you also bought this expertly glossy reproduction? You just wanted to. I see. Rest assured, I don’t doubt you actually visited the museum and saw first-hand this famous statue; no reason to lie about a thing like that. Although here on your bookshelf is an art book you grabbed from the bargain rack at Barnes & Noble before your trip. Doesn’t look like it’s been opened. But here’s the photo of the Venus. Another scintillating professional job. But hey, you now have your own photo of the famous statue. But tell me, the Venus is famous for its sensual expression of a Hellenistic ideal of beauty, so what did you notice about it specifically? But I thought you said you saw it, and this photo of you and the kids proves you were there. You just took the photo, is all. So you spent thousands of dollars and flew all the way to Paris and visited the Louvre which houses this famous statue which, let’s face it, you probably won’t visit again, and you were right there in the presence of this masterpiece of ancient sculpture, and you didn’t even look at the statue except to take the photo, the same photo you already own within this heavy art book you bought on the bargain rack at Barnes & Noble? The real work of art you simply ignored? 

Well, at least you have a memento... 

Selfie is Believing: Reflections on Narcissus's Waters - Part 2

 Maybe you’ve heard this one...

I’m not religious, but I am spiritual. Sincere people with little need for ego-promotion voice this banality. Approving nods will greet the speaker who, after a few glugs of wine, feels emboldened to stake a claim in that most serious of public territories. Religious, of course, reeks of adherence to orthodoxy propounded by ancestors, dull repetition of belief claims and Lord hear our prayers on Sunday mornings gathered in churches like penned herds, and the singing of hymns. Add to this sad litany the history of conversion of native peoples on sword point, the lack of fun, and knowing that religion is popular with conservative suburbanites, and religious lacks the means to express the charms of one’s unique self.

Religious is earthly and dogmatic, while spiritual is airy and accepting.

Near as I can figure, attaining spirituality in this incarnation means being really nice to everyone, remaining attentive when an acquaintance is aggrieved about something and holding court on a plastic chair on the screened-in porch during a friend’s party, offering encouragement when another friend (same party) is mildly boasting about his own vaunted spirituality, and giving the old college try reading Buddhist or Hindu scriptures while ethereal ragas undulate from the dank living room into that screened-in porch.

Or perhaps you’re agnostic (which sounds less committed than atheist), merely questioning the existence of God, when really you don’t spend much time questioning anything. But you’ll generally find acceptance in polite company.

Narcissism is the strength of this personal conviction where little commitment is demanded or expected. Emanating from this passion within and for oneself glows a mild contempt for the religiously gathered, although Buddhist monks colorfully assembled get a pass, so smiling and gentle they seem. This contempt hasn’t grown after a sustained, charitable study of founding texts, let alone learned commentaries. Indeed, hearsay and selected snippets pieced together make up the dismissal of the traditionally religious.

And being “spiritual” requires as much self-sacrifice as helping clean up after your friend’s party.

Selfie is Believing: Reflecting on Narcissus’s Waters - Part I

Imagine: Christ apocalyptically returns to gather the chosen. Crowds gather where’er he roams. Clouds part, golden rays lighting upon the last word in love, the faithful rush into outspread arms but pause midleap, twirling around while whipping out their iPhone 7s, pose cheek to softly bearded cheek, and snap a photo, only to walk away and immediately post to Facebook with the caption: "Saved!"

The thought may alternatively repel or seduce depending on one's faith in humanity, but the holiest of photo ops needn't be taken as irreverence. We capture moments to remember. Recording special moments digitally is as natural today as crying with Molly when Sam ascends to heaven at the end of Ghost. But in earlier times we had fewer choices to "capture" a scene or event: painting, poetry, story, song. Each required a certain talent--not to mention time and labor--to render the experience memorable. Even with photography's advent, the thing captured either seemed worth capturing, (Yosemite Falls in winter) or creative expertise rendered it worth seeing (Mapplethorpe's calla lilies). Perhaps you wanted to immortalize little Cindy's birthday, or her graduation, or her wedding: into the photo album it's glued. Photography memorializes the unique. With iPhones--hand-carried, packed in purses, or tucked into back pockets like pistols--recording the experience goes hand in hand with living it. More than that. We don't record to remember: we record to post. More than that. Posting is performing for an audience. Exhibitionists need voyeurs.

Recall a cringe worthy Oscar night gambit: during the 2017 awards the hapless Jimmy Kimmel hushes the crowd, dims the Dolby Theater lights, and ushers in from side stage door unsuspecting tourists who believed they were visiting yet another Hollywood landmark. When the lights flood the theater, the audience erupts in applause, and the tourists file in eyes wide, mouths agape, led by their camera phones in hand or mounted on selfie sticks. At this point, ushered by Kimmel into the presence of those front row Hollywood stars in the flesh, they who offer so much delight onscreen to inspire a costly bus tour in hopes of catching a passing glimpse of one ducking into a Starbucks, you’d think the cameras would drop. No, the tourists kept their camera phones aimed like lasers on the politely smiling celebrities, choosing to record this dreamed-of moment over the actual experience of the stars in their glittering presence. Through the magical medium of film these actors charm and inspire, and now the veil is rent. Ecce homo, Denzel Washington! But the camera phones continue panning and jostling for posterity. Perhaps the sheer unreality of being thrust into the presence of celebrity triggered the need for digitally recorded proof. More likely, any experience beyond the mundane gains validity only if posted on social media (even the mundane often makes the cut).

A reality mystifies and saddens: in early December 2016 CNN news online reported on an 18-year old Texas teenager, Brandy Vela, who committed suicide in her bedroom after suffering from a long history of cyberbullying. They targeted her weight, called her fat and ugly. She was neither, quite beautiful with sparkling sky blue eyes and welcoming smile. Partway through the video, Brandy’s 22-year old sister painfully, tearfully recalls confronting Brandy in her bedroom, finding her against the wall with a gun pointed at her chest, and pleading “Brandy no, Brandy no!” The video jumps from delightful photos of a cheerful Brandy to an interview with the sister, a brother, and an unidentified young woman. At one point, the camera has panned out to show the three sitting in a front yard. In a dull tone emptied by grief, the brother offers to the imagined bullies, perhaps following the story, an eerie and confounding “I’m glad you got what you wanted…I hope this makes you happy.” Then with a voiceover naming Victor Vela as Brandy’s older brother, the camera zooms on the two young women on a bench. Both are scroll thumbing iPhones while the brother gazes blankly downward.

It’s entirely possible the women are cherishing the many social media memorials and posts of condolences, and their shock and grieving buoys them sadly along. But the all too familiar faces bowing into flashing screens for the next entertaining moment seemed an unsettling reminder of the terrible draw. Having undergone such an immense tragedy spearheaded by trolling bullies on social media, one wonders how the women could bring themselves only days later to sail again those pirated seas. More distressing, how did this bright and well-liked high school senior succumb to the ubiquitous trolls? Anonymous, faceless, hiding behind fake identities, cowardly—the angry epithets are always tossed, imagining the perpetrators tuning in here and everywhere to feel the sting of the barbs. But why did Brandy believe the taunts of people she most likely didn’t know? Why didn’t she turn the machine off? Easier said than done, comes the retort, but that only cuts ice with earlier generations. The emotional lives of Brandy’s generation flow imperceptibly between unrecorded (“real”) life and a many-windowed recording interface of social media: messaged, Instagrammed, Snapchatted, tweeted and retweeted, a swirling hyperreal “life”.

The buzzword often used to brand the draw of pervasive social media is narcissism. Even “buzzword” is apt, connoting information frantically exchanged. It's true a  mild whiff of narcissism emanates from Brandy Vela’s (or any other teenager’s) updated Facebook cover photo every month or so, her candy-colored lips puckered teasingly. But it seems prudish to point a finger. Narcissism is normalized, as Brandy and everyone else got swept up in the unrelenting demands for self-validation. Notice that her legion of faceless bullies hounding her to suicide practiced a sinister strain of narcissism: emboldened to derive malicious pleasure from verbally attacking another anonymously without consequences. No doubt desire for the mirrored image is old as myth. Yet it is worth remembering that Narcissus, tired and sweaty from hunting (in Thomas Bulfinch’s retelling), had come upon the clear fountain

with water like silver, to which the shepherds never drove their flocks, nor the mountain goats resorted, nor any of the beasts of the forest; neither was it defaced with fallen leaves or branches; but the grass grew fresh around it, and the rocks sheltered it from the sun.

Narcissus had stumbled upon a backpacker’s idyllic spot in the wilderness. When the youth bends over to lap from the waters, he suddenly sees a beautiful water spirit living in the fountain. Gorgeous locks of hair, ivory neck, rounded cheeks, “the glow of health and exercise.” Reaching out to embrace the spirit, Narcissus discovers the crystal lover also reaching out to him. So enthralled is the beguiled lover, he forsakes any other nourishment except devotion. Kept from embracing his beloved, he sheds tears, ruffling the mirrored surface and causing the spirit’s presence to fade. Narcissus entreats it, “Stay… Let me at least gaze upon you, if I may not touch you.” Meditating on this divine vision, Narcissus’s body pales, loses its strength, and he dies a husk. Even unto death, his shade crossing the Stygian waters gazes over the side of the boat. The water nymphs mourned his passing, yet when they came for his body to burn upon a funeral pyre, it was gone. Narcissus is transformed into a flower by the water’s edge, its heart purple, gathering round itself white leaves.

One could suggest Narcissus’s faith never wavers after his initial glance at the beautiful vision. As the myth is given, the youth never realizes he gazes upon his own reflection. Recall Kahlil Gibran’s tale of the mirrored sphere hanging in the heavens: when the earth was born it fell and shattered into millions of pieces, such that when any man picks up a shard, he can look into it and rightfully claim I have found the true religion. Perhaps the myth of Narcissus speaks to the folly of ever catching sight of the divine beyond projecting our images in space and time, as John Lennon noted.

A long cultural moment arose a few generations back when narcissism gained legitimacy as accepted social norm. Christopher Lasch in his acclaimed and controversial 1979 “The Culture of Narcissism: America in the Age of Diminishing Expectations” noted the American identity’s shift away from a romantic but laudable American sense in “historical continuity,” the idea of belonging to a succession of American generations evolving from a deeper past giving birth to a future. When Lasch was writing, the Me Generation was thriving. He saw American liberalism/Progressivism chipping away at the long-standing pillars of patriarchal authority (weakening the Freudian inspired “social superego”) which into the 19th century manifested collectively as fathers, teachers, and ministers.

Breaking from those traditional overseers one could foster organic egalitarian communities. Instead, groupings splintered into self-absorbed strivings for the merely personal and permissive: self-realization instead of social responsibility. Individualism saw the world as a wilderness through which a path is carved and society built. Narcissism gazes upon the world as mirror. The advent of social media, and the devices that keep its blood flowing, fosters the illusion of community, but a community skewed: performers awaiting applause. But because so little time, interest, or effort is invested in the performance—one can anywhere record and post anything on social media—so the gratification, no matter how superficial, must be immediate, occurring in and relevant to only the present, like a soap balloon rising on a breath. Only the fleeting moment sacred. Lasch’s prognosis of the culture of narcissism was lives in a state of restless, ongoing, unsatisfied desire. And the man died before Facebook.

But gazing enraptured at our own image isn’t the current narcissism. Consider a common strategy most often employed by young women shooting for Instagram model stardom. A profile pic showing the profiler taking a pic of herself while looking into a (usually) full body mirror in their bathroom. Nearly out the door on a Saturday night, she pauses, captivated, at the mirror. The background: shower curtain and toilet. The image we see is the person looking intently into the face of her device, which is pointed at her own reflection in the mirror. The shot is snapped and quickly uploaded onto her chosen site(s). Scrolling late one evening, we find ourselves gazing on a photographic image of the person looking into the face of her device through which she is gazing at her own reflection in the full length mirror. She is not looking at us, her supposed intended audience, but admiringly at her own image which is reduced in her device and which itself gazes into the mirror. So we are given her posed photographic image only as she poses for a device snapping an image in the mirror of herself posing in front of that mirror. And she wants everybody to acknowledge it with likes, an act of effortless validation. One can forgive Narcissus in the end, truly alone, enchanted...

...Is the selfie a longing for a lost aura, that inner presence of self-respect abiding when no one is looking? Experiences worth having have always been worth recording, the journal, the photo album, but these were usually reserved for one’s own remembrances. Now it seems experiences aren’t valid unless recorded and shared. Fans live-stream blurry and shaky footage of a U2 show from their nosebleed seats to bask in our admiration that they scored tickets and attended. Upload your Cobb salad and mimosa to Tumblr and Sunday brunch is proven. Can I just meet an old friend for coffee, or must I capture a smiling selfie to demonstrate to friends that I have an old friend? Recording and uploading to social media is now required if experiences are to wear the aura of authenticity.

I employ aura here slightly modified from Walter Benjamin’s use in his often referenced if archaically titled “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” from 1936. He defined it as what surrounds an object viewed at a distance, or how we experience an object’s uniqueness. In the natural world, we gaze in erotic wonder upon a beautiful face. Children are drawn to the aura of the starfish at low tide upon a barnacled rock buffeted by briny sea winds in summers, delighting in the creature’s five-pointed iconic geometry, and with terrible difficulty try to pry it from its home (how tenaciously the creature holds onto the rock, abiding in the tidal rhythms, suggests the necessary embedding of the starfish’s unique place in its natural context; kids, leave the damn thing alone).

The aura’s fate in a work of art in the era of technical reproduction was Benjamin’s interest. Ancient cave paintings possess auras suggesting their shamanic power, so deeply in the earth were they drawn and difficult to access. Animals were sketched to capture their spirit for a successful hunt, not to spice up the prehistoric hovel. An idol’s aura possessed authoritative power which the devoted worshiped and marauding usurpers defaced. Witness headless statues littering ancient sites. Iconoclastic paintings of saints were veiled, the power of their aura witnessed only by the holy, or those in charge of the temple. Indeed, in 2010 I knelt before the icon of the Virgin, the Shaghoura, reportedly painted by St. Luke the Evangelist, housed in the Our Lady of the Patriarchal Monastery in Saydnaya, Syria. Its beauty, however, was curtained off with a stern nun keeping the line moving. To dissolve the power of the iconic saintly image, the eyes are scratched from the face. Think of the negation of female power in the 6th century image of St Paul and St Thecla in the Grotto near Ephesus, Turkey. As John Dominic Crossan notes in his study of the Apostle Paul, both male and female figures iconographically depicted on the cave’s wall were of equal height, therefore of equal importance. Paul and Thecla were painted right hands raised in a gesture signaling their authority (also equal) as teachers. But through the centuries Paul’s figure remained untouched, whereas Thecla’s raised hand was erased, and her eyes scraped white, her spiritual authority silenced and blinded.

In his essay, Benjamin reflected on the unprecedented change in works of art that were reproduced technically rather than manually, noting what he called “the decay of the aura” of authenticity. Works of art have always been reproducible for various reasons, whether creating replicas, woodcuts, printing, or lithography. But pictorial reproduction—photography—was something entirely different. In every other work of art reproduced, the original exists from which copies were made, and so retains an aura of authenticity—that enduring presence in a specific time and place, its unique cultural and historical tradition in which it was created, leaving traces when it deteriorates, ages, or changes ownership. One can manually reproduce a painting and attempt to pass it off as the original, but close analysis can unearth the forgery—and so the original maintains is authentic heritage in and by that difference.

But Benjamin argues that with photography, “the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.” If one can reproduce from the negative any number of copies, all identical depending on the technology, it’s pointless to ask for the “original” photograph—the original is the negative, the shadowy brown chrysalis awaiting wings. Photographs can still retain aesthetic value, of course, considered works of art.

The blurry and shaky footage of U2 rocking out on a tiny stage a hundred yards away with negligible sound quality will have few tuning in for the duration. The Cobb salad looks like a salad. And it’s your old friend with whom you’ve reacquainted: why bring us into the picture? Posting brings us delight, and the likes, thumbs up, red hearts, and laughing tears streaming emojis garnered keep the fiber optic strands of friendship humming. Or that's what we tell ourselves. The aura of authenticity slipping away seems to be the inherent value of lived experience. Our moments lack validity unless we record and share, shimmer with meaning only when we assure ourselves that others can view the posts.

Selfie is believing...

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Heaven and Vienna and A Cold Dry Wind (from 2009)

You may have ideas of heaven, and however vague they float like wispy clouds in your mind, they probably coalesce to paint a happy destination of general good will and relaxed anxiety. Popular western notions concerning this utopia will, if tapped, include an endless expanse of puffy cloud upon which one reclines and catches up with friends and loved ones who’ve arrived earlier in the season. So it’ll be like Fort Lauderdale, Florida with your aunt, uncle and stray cousins. If your imagination never developed much past early childhood—or if you cherish as literal fact the vast painted representations adorning the world’s great galleries—you’ll visualize ducking the heavy swooping wings of angels, refraining from admonishing the cherubs about caloric intake, and participating in mandatory harp circles sans campfire.

I once read a fundamentalist Christian tract that invoked the glorious rewards of the afterlife by insisting that true believers will invest their time praising God and judging angels, which to me veers frighteningly close to sucking up to the boss and burying yourself in endless clerical work. Imagine spending the afterlife at the DMV. If you’re of the jihadist hue and are, for better or worse, martyred in a holy war, heaven awaiting you will include seventy or so…well, here’s where meanings muddy up in translation. The fashionable reading in western mainstream media has Islamic martyrs encountering virgins. Young, unmarried women, flowers intact. As I like taunting my students, unless footnotes offer specifics, a recently martyred sauntering through heaven’s pearly gates could very well stumble upon seventy spinsters pitching back in forth in a chorus line of rocking chairs vying to darn his socks and knit him a sweater. Actually, my 12th graders will occasionally get into arguments over interpretations of Muslim culture and Koranic scripture; it’s all wonderfully entertaining, as there exist different ideas of exact wording, and you can tell when the arguments gets overheated when their exchange retreats from English into a fiery Arabic. One of my brightest 11th graders, a devout Muslim, claims—quite astutely—that the Arabic or Koranic word we take as “virgin” has no exact translation. The closest he offers is “one who gives pleasure.” So if you arrive unexpectedly in Paradise, and didn’t pack a sweater, a gray-haired and hunched spinster with an impish grin twirling sewing needles might be heaven indeed.

Whatever our dreams of heaven, we rarely lay scrutiny to the implications of our assumptions. If we think heaven at all, we usually imagine ourselves somehow there, in a place, not quite believing that all will forever be well but trembling in our heart at the joyous approach of a loved one running toward us, a welcoming and familiar smile, tears in the eyes sparkling off celestial light, a hand reaching for ours, reunion at last. And your first words will be: “Why, you haven’t aged a bit.” The problem with this pastoral is time. As in a long time. As in a windy, heaving bellow of eternity. Imagine, if you will, living another hundred years upon this airy glorious landscape (I’m granting all readers a healthy and happy longevity). You’ll catch up each other with family goings-on. You’ll have to deal with omniscient loved ones long deceased who’ve been watching and waiting all these years, and all under heaven will be known. “I distinctly remember telling you before I died not to sell granny’s china. And what do you do? I’m not in the ground two days before granny’s china appears on Ebay....” Your grandfather—somehow looking exactly how you last saw him—escorts you to meet John F. Kennedy, or Genghis Khan, or Queen Elizabeth, or Rasputin, or John the Baptist, or John the barber, or Bette Davis, or Miles Davis, or point out the brownstone flat where Jesus composes string quartets under the furrow-browed eyes of Beethoven, or even meet commoners who never made the front page but can regale with tales of toga parties in ancient Greece, and are damn good listeners to boot. Meeting and greeting the luminaries could soak up a good hundred years easy. Then what? You can spend many hours ironing out thorny metaphysical problems once and for all, as answers should most likely be forthcoming; if the answers don’t dissolve the questions, then I don’t know what you’re going to do. If you’ve been martyred, your troubles are far from over. Besides the obvious, what else are you going to do with seventy virgins? Set up Scrabble tournament leagues?

Furthermore, whatever you do in life, either here or the hereafter, it’ll eventually get boring. So let’s imagine: another lifetime passes in heaven. Let’s ramp it up. A thousand years roll by. How about another thousand? By this time you’ve discussed every topic under the sun with everyone in the peaceful region. You’ve come to grips with the unpleasant reality that death does not, as assumed, exempt you from taxes. You can’t bear to hear another rendition of Handel’s “Messiah,” and, having written forty-seven incredibly intricate symphonies yourself, mastered every musical instrument, learned Dutch, French, Armenian, Persian, Greek, Latin and various Inuit dialects, and can recite lengthy passages from the Koran, Shakespeare, and Homer in your sleep, your passions are long fulfilled, your cup runneth over. Well, buck up, as a thousand years, ten thousand years, a million years await you…ten million years is a drop in the sloshing bucket of eternity. You’ve still a long, long way to go, longer than you can imagine. It is taking this thought into your gut, the squishy marrow of bone, your dark and icy soul, that you’ll understand the necessity of death. Paradoxically, you need to know the journey will end, for life pulses with meaning only when death towers over the shimmering horizon. Better, then, to cast off notions of heaven with its looming eternity, let the dead bury the dead; instead, scoop up a handful of clear mountain stream and drink, smile at a glowering stranger, pick up a guitar and play, give that homeless guy a twenty, read your Shakespeare, and if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.

For me, heaven is a small, fleeting affair. Heaven occurred on a cold night in Vienna, Austria, around Christmas Eve. Carrie and I had wandered out of the stony gray, weathered and soaring Romanesque St. Stephan’s Cathedral, the cornerstone of which was laid in 1137. The old cobbled streets were teeming with tourists and shoppers and families and friends bundled in heavy coats, wrapped in thick wool scarves, gloved hands tucked in pockets, puffing icy breath and leaning into the cold. Sparkling lights were strewn festively between buildings. Performers played the violin in mittens. Vendors stood behind steaming grills of sausage, chestnuts and salty thick wedges of fried potatoes. We’d spent the day walking, having rented an apartment a few blocks from the Danube for the two weeks over Christmas break, a week after that in Salzburg. We awake, fix breakfast, sip coffee and check the park beyond the windows of our forth story flat for snow on the rooftops and grass and hoods of parked cars. Then we’d wander the glorious, refined and clean Vienna.

This particular evening found us at one of the Christmas markets that seasonally bloom in Germany and Austria. Temporary dark small buildings, like shacks, similar to the hamlets set up for Renaissance fairs, where you can buy crafts for presents, glass ornaments, dried meats and cheeses, gigantic pretzels, more pork sausages…I bought a dapper hat for my nappy head. Christmas lights glowed and glittered in the trees, songs wafted between buildings. Heaven, for me, came in a ceramic mug. One of our dear friends here in Aleppo, Andrea, is from Germany and works for the ICARDA research center at Tel Hadiya, twenty minutes outside of the city toward Damascus, “the farm” as it’s called. She told us about gluvien, the hot spiced wine that appears during the holiday season. So here we were. We shuffle up to the stall, order a gluvien, the vendor warms blue ceramic mugs then dispenses the elixir from a steel canister, steam billows as the dark liquid fills the holy vessel, we throw down euros and take our mugs in both hands to where a high table stands empty. The coral reef spires of distant cathedrals silently watch over the city, the celebration of Christmas tingles in the frosty air, proud horse-drawn carriages amble down the avenues as of old amidst the cars and buses, the folks around you smile and laugh, Vienna sings with the memories of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and we huddle close and feel the warmth of the gluvien soak through our gloves into our hands, and then drink. Hot wine against the chill, the spice of winter life. That’s my idea of heaven, let’s hear yours….

One of the famous market streets in Vienna is on a narrow island between two busy streets, Naschemarkt. Long booths and vendor stands line the strip, and shuffling down the center you are assailed with aromas of strong cheeses, fresh vegetables, meats, gluvien, breads, chocolates, sweetly soaked barrels of wine, salty fish, roasting nuts, spices, kebabs, samosas, sauerkraut, fruits. Passing by a shack—probably half the size of an average bedroom—we saw four people huddled and standing around a small round table out front, their faces sheltered and hidden under an awning. On the table was a large platter of sliced meats and cheeses, like a sample tray. Through a small window a proprietor was standing in shadow. A small door stood on one side. It was rather spooky, and daunting, as though a portal to another sinister dimension. Brave, Carrie and I opened and entered. Warmth breathed on our chilled bones. On our right stood a narrow counter six feet long, and inside was what amounted to a foyer, large enough to hold five people standing close. Six people huddled in the small space, and we made two more. Behind the counter, a father and two twenty-something sons, all looked healthy and strong like woodsmen. Behind them, before them, all around them, were meats and cheeses, dried, smoked, cured, the works. Aromas were heavy, spicy, damp, sour, sweet, oily, salty, dark, severe, and delicious. A few standing patrons shared a platter of meats and cheeses. One of the sons spotted us, offered a wide happy smile, and asked if we’d like to share a plate. He’d slice off a sampling of faire. We agreed. Then he spoke the most beautiful words one can hear on an early afternoon coming out of the winter into a warm room: “How about a couple glasses of wine?” A minute later Austrian wine drifted into our hands. The woodsman sliced and shaved and soon a platter arrived on the counter to linger over. We turned, but there was nowhere to go, a packed house. “That’s fine,” he said, “just stay there, no problem. Enjoy!”….

What has become of the traditional café? I remember a café in downtown Sacramento when I was in college, can’t remember the name, 20th between H and I streets, my Sacto friends? A small faded red brick building with an alley alongside. Late afternoon, rain lightly splattering the sidewalk and dancing off the huge trees, but inside faint, diffused light poured through the front glass and illuminated the quiet space, light that seemed to have soaked through a dusty curtain in the sky. The tables and chairs were thin and rickety. I remember the guy behind the counter, elderly with shaggy wild gray beard, sitting on a stool, head bowed scanning a newspaper. From behind him came lilting strings from a classical station on his small radio. Coffee was strong, real mugs and saucers, plain, simple lines along the ceiling and modest black and white photographs on the walls. It was a clean, quiet café, and glancing up now and again from your book to see the rain haze the afternoon into blue evening, the room preserved a kind of sanctuary for the soul. Weatherstones, that was the name. My favorite café, and I’ve never found another like it. Walk into cafes now, and everyone sports a laptop, bulwarks standing ready to rebuff unwanted social encounters like guards before a citadel. Or, laptops as drawbridges perpetually drawn up, over which fire deadly sharp glares if you happen to approach and cross into the owner’s protected realm. Leave your cramped, dark, isolated apartment to isolate yourself and glower at petty emails. A book can start conversations. I had a friend who told me how he met a woman he dated for awhile. He was in the Pig & Whistle Irish pub off Geary and Masonic in San Francisco. He had a pint of Guinness, and the woman watching him was intrigued by the sight of this guy laughing out loud reading passages from Joyce’s Ulysses. Can you imagine siding up to someone and saying “So, what email are you reading?” A philosophy professor once told us about being a student in France, sitting with his friends at the feet of Sartre and Camus as they held forth in cafes of Paris. And now? Cafes have become antisocial. Where once they were places to enjoin conversations and share ideas, cafes have become shiny, soulless boutiques. And why do the young people behind the counter think their blaring repetitive house electronica creates an appropriate mood? I hereby declare that only jazz or classical shall be at quiet volumes allowed in cafes. And don’t get me started on sweet flavored seasonal crappacinos and the like. Lord have mercy, folks, grow up. All good things must end, ‘tis true. But good cafes are few, and it’s hard to witness their vanishing.

We found one in Vienna. There are restaurants, there are cafes, and often mixing the two invites disaster. Not so at Café Westend. High ceilings fading an elegant, soft turquoise, inlaid wood of vines and branches. Dull white curtains hung in the window. We took a booth in the center and ordered goulash and bratwurst and a couple of tall dark beers. At one table a large laughing family shared a late lunch. Over my shoulder in a booth sat a young man with shaved head in a leather brown jacket, accompanied by two young women in short skirts and heels who seemed bored, sitting gracefully rigid, proud of their cleavage. The young man was talking quietly, but emphatically, hands on the table, in an earnest soliloquy, glancing up at the women occasionally as though fishing for admiration of his accomplishments. The women shot glances at one another, delicate quick smiles, mildly entertained at the young man’s self-absorbed charm. I couldn’t figure out their deal. Were they prostitutes from Eastern Europe getting the scoop on their employer’s competitive healthcare plan? Fans overhead swung slowly, gallantly. The light had the hue of pale golden sand, and the presence of a good waiter: rarely glimpsed but essentially present. The waiters here are all old men in dark suits and ties. Near the windows at a corner table, two young people were chatting, leaning toward one another in the easy thrall of early love. Comfortable and trusting, they’d inch closer to whisper, and then exchange kisses. The kisses were not wet and passionate, but seemed to serve as punctuation marks in their conversation. Next booth over was an old man’s head hunching out of a dark plaid jacket, wisps of gray hair spraying in a riot from his oval, blemished skull. A pipe veered into view every few minutes as he turned to scan the right side of his newspaper, while snowy blue smoke rose in splashes around his sagging face. Somewhere, music, a waltz begins. A woman at a table alone looks through the window and lingers on the day. She pulls her hair back and binds it with a rubber band, her blond strands dangling loosely on a Sunday in Vienna. ….

Darkness had fallen when our driver picked us up at the small airport in Gazientap just across the Turkish border for our drive to what is home. Our driver is Turkish, but lives in Aleppo and spoke Arabic as well, so for a fee we were driven to and from the airport and had his assistance getting through the border crossings, a bureaucratic nightmare worthy of Kafka. The roads were dark. From the back seat we watch the oncoming cars and listened to Turkish music on the radio. I kept noticing the oncoming cars turning on their brights as they approached. Nearly every car! I couldn’t understand it, and immediately felt disdain for the drivers. Was that how Syrians drove, finding different ways to annoy? Already their weaving in and out of traffic and trying to squeeze between our Volvo and a large truck earned my middle finger a few times, although the offenders probably interpreted it as wishing Syria the best in next year’s World Cup. But how completely asinine was it to shoot your brights at us! Immediately I deemed them culturally inferior. We knew the right way to drive. We’d gone another five or so miles when I realized that our driver had his brights on, and of course the other cars were warning him, to which he paid no attention. It was a good lesson learned: how quickly we assume our view is the correct one, that how we see things is exactly how they are, in other words, reality. But in truth, we first and foremost have perspectives; we see and interpret events through a lens crafted by and for our own culture. So one could hear me sneer and complain about the trash I witness daily on Aleppo’s streets, comparing life here with clean California. But though litter piles in gutters here, people don’t, human litter, the tragedy of the homeless men, women and children in the world’s richest empire. What’s worse, more appalling to my sight? I’m reminded too of how far away Iraq seemed when living in the States. I think I’ll not be accused of hyperbole when estimating that when the United States invaded Iraq (for the first time) in 1991, only a tiny percentage of my fellow citizens, myself included, could point to Iraq on a map. There's something sinister about that. How far away does 1991 seem today, and ironic that now I’m in a country that borders that troubled land. Both Syria and Iraq share the same vast desert. And never could I have imagined walking with my wife to school, and as we begin parting toward our respective classrooms have Carrie say over her shoulder, “Oh and remember, I’m going to the Euphrates River today, class field trip….” The Euphrates! And for five days in March, a holiday, the Prophet's birthday, we'll visit Beirut and hike the Bekka Valley in Lebanon. But here we are, and though we’ve only been here a little over five months, we are becoming aware that there are other perspectives to unfolding events, and of history. People here are very much aware of the double standards that seem to apply: Iraq refusing to abide by U.N resolutions and getting bombed by the west; Israel refusing to abide by U.N. resolutions (specifically 242) and getting bombers from the west, as well as financial aid and political support. The people living here are Arab, as the people of Iraq are Arab. So the people I see daily here in Syria could very well resemble the people in the villages, towns and cities of Iraq. By 1996 an estimated half a million Iraqi children died as the result of U.S. supported and imposed sanctions, but I was still so far away, and the sanctions failed to get the sexy press coverage; it became old news there. Not here. The suffering was shown and reported, and resentment simmered. On the weekends, if I’m not hunched over papers to grade or readings to prep, I sometimes take a walk, a pure walk, without any planned destination in mind, just some neighborhood in Aleppo.

I wander around and watch people living their lives, going about their business. I see teenage girls sitting side-by-side on a bench laughing. I see men opening up their shutters of their shops. I see families in dilapidated playgrounds, children running for the slide as children everywhere do. I see young men in shiny shirts and slicked black hair spitting nut shells into the gutter. I see a rambling bus spewing dark exhaust, and in the windows bounce students going to school. I see old men and young men ambling into a mosque for prayer. Today on my walk something extraordinary happened. On a dark mountain far in the distance I saw the silhouette of man, his face glimmering in and out of shadow. I was once friends with him and supported him with money and other items, but now I didn’t like him, and wanted him off the mountain. So I wandered into a neighborhood and found families coming out of their houses. I dropped sanctions on them, and immediately they fell to the ground. Others tried to help them, but I had made the necessary medicines disappear, because the man on the mountain could perhaps find a way to use the medicines for other evil purposes. Some women were crying and pleading with me to stop what I was doing, but I explained I wanted that man to get off the mountain. It seemed obvious, but maybe they didn’t understand English. I then found other families and distributed depleted uranium shells at their feet. Cancer rates soared, and young people were dying at higher rates all over the region. Again I explained I wanted that man off the mountain. My walk found me approaching the little liquor store in the Armenian quarter where we buy our booze. A tall handsome young man, George, works there, and we greet each other warmly (shows how often we visit). Inside, too, was the boy, probably eight years old, who smiles and waves happily when he sees us, enjoys helping us out with our heavy sacks of wine and beer, and refuses to let me carry one of the bags (he’s thin, but somehow quite strong). I purchase a few bottles, then order a Tomahawk cruise missile into the neighborhood, because I suspect someone lives there that is helping the man on the mountain. Pieces of George and the little boy—who is not smiling anymore—scatter in the blast. I explain the same thing to the people who’ve gathered, that I’m trying to get that man off the mountain. I point to the summit, but the man has retreated into his shadowy palace. I see the four laughing teenage girls in a bus coming back from a wedding. A cluster bomb splinters the windows and slices the girls and drops them on the hot asphalt. I apologize to the gathered crowd (who are now murmuring revenge), and explain that I didn’t intend to hurt them, but it’s the man on the mountain I was after, and anyway, why didn’t the bus see the guarded checkpoint I installed? If you invaded my country and put up a guarded checkpoint, I told them, I’d happily oblige and stop. I walk up one street to destroy a water treatment plant. That way, women and children cannot drink clean water, and disease will spread. But I want that man off that mountain, I don’t care at what cost. For one thing, that man used weapons of mass destruction on his own people, and I want him gone (he used the same weapons on his own people when he was my friend, but that was different). In the evening I am walking home when a white pigeon like a winged angel swoops down and perches on my shoulder. I feed her sunflower seeds from my flak-jacket pocket, and mention the weapons of mass destruction the man on the mountain possesses, or I believe possesses, or tell people he possesses whether I believe it or not, that worry me. What if he uses them against me? The pigeon ponders this, and then asks if I am Christian. I say, well, yes, I suppose so, if she insists on labels. I wait for her point, but she doesn’t respond, perhaps because I’m fresh out of seeds. We walk awhile in silence. The pigeon then tells me to turn around. I do, and see a valley littered with countless tiny slips of paper. I cringe at the trash. The pigeon tells me on each piece of paper, written in Arabic, are the names of each of the 500,000 children who died because of my sanctions. She asks me if that’s the weapons of mass destruction I was referring to. I turn around to reply, but she has flown away, leaving me alone. A cold dry wind rises from the darkening valley. In the shadowy distance people are fighting, and more explosions, more death. It’s amazing how far I could see. Then I realize I’m on top of the mountain, and the man is gone.