Thursday, March 24, 2011


March 24, 2011:

The news clips accompanying the death of Elizabeth Taylor yesterday included a shot of the young Elizabeth playing opposite Anne Revere in National Velvet in 1944. Anne Revere was Elizabeth Taylor's mother in this movie and she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for it; but I cannot remember my own mother saying much about it at the time. In fact I may not even have known by then that they had been best friends when they were growing up. I was very young at the time, seven years old, and while we went to see the movie and I still remember one or two scenes from it, I don't remember her telling me anything about their relationship. What would you tell a seven-year-old about such a friendship in any case? Years later she mentioned it and there's a beautiful portrait photograph of Anne Revere, signed to my mother, in the box of family photographs I inherited, but she never told me much about their friendship. It was only later that I figured out that her silence probably had something to do with politics. Anne Revere was blacklisted for her left-leaning tendencies and her refusal to testify before one of those idiotic committees investigating communism in Hollywood, and my mother was a lifelong Republican.

What a shame that politics should divide old friends like that. But of course it does.My brother and I hardly dared talk politics with each other. He maintained, with determination, the family Republican tradition, and I turned Democrat in college. He insisted that his six children vote Republican. My children, on their own but no doubt partly under the influence of my wife and myself, grew up Democrats. For a time in our lives my brother and I had not much to do with each other. We weren't hostile, but my train ran one way and his another. And if the opportunity had arisen I would have wanted to know Anne Revere, and he probably wouldn't.

I've sometimes wondered whether there might have been such an opportunity if politics had not separated my mother and Anne Revere. I'm not much for fantasizing about alternative histories: what if the South had won the Civil War? what if Hitler had triumphed? what if Hillary Clinton were President? They seem pointless to me; what happens happens, what doesn't doesn't, and chance and fate play their eternal duet. But I could see where knowing Anne Revere--she comes back to the home town, has dinner with us, we get tickets to one of the many Broadway shows she acted in, and I dream of the theater instead of writing poetry and short stories and novels (poetry is the only one of these forms I really pursued) and she helps me break in--might have changed my life, and my mother's, in (can I say it?) dramatic ways. My mother had wanted a career, not just marriage, and she harbored a certain bitterness at the fact that her parents had prevented it. She wound up working for her father as his secretary, then marrying my father; and there was more to her than that, more than being able to type 120 words a minute. She had artistic talent, she was ambitious, and it all devolved on her husband and her two sons; she became ambitious for us. Just to have kept on knowing an active talented actress like Anne Revere might have enabled her to break away from those family constraints and done more with her life, and kept her mind more active, perhaps even made her a happier person.

Well, we can't know these things. Human life, it says in the I Ching, is limited and unfree, and it's true: circumstances constrain us, lead us down the path or paths that are available to us, and we make bad choices all the time. I sometimes wish I had not stopped writing poetry; I was good at it, I published poems in respectable places, I liked the feeling when I did it well. I wish my mother had maintained her friendship with Anne Revere, but wishes are useless things, little pangs of regret. Nevertheless I'm going to frame that portrait of Anne Revere and hang it up in my office in honor of my mother, and in gratitude for the fact that the road she did take led to a family that included me and my brother, and children and grandchildren in abundance. In her own way she was a great lady, too, a woman of character, and in her own setting, in her family and among her friends, she inspired a good deal of awe.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


March 19, 2011:

In about an hour the moon will be full.

I've finally finished reading Marco Polo and among the many strange stories he tells is his account of the Roc, a giant bird of Eastern mythology capable of lifting an elephant off the ground. In fact Rocs feed off elephants, flying up with them high into the sky and then dropping them on the rocks and picking at the remains. If I remember correctly Sinbad the Sailor flies on the back of one in the Arabian Nights. These stories once circulated throughout the known world, riding on the backs of old classical sources into the Middle Ages and surfacing in Medieval encyclopedias and traveler's accounts like Polo's. The "Boke" of Sir John Mandeville, which I'm reading now, has even more of them. In any case I was reminded of gryphons, which are creatures with the bodies of lions and the heads and wings of eagles, and then of the gryphon's head in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the Greek and Roman section, and how it struck me so many years ago when I first saw it. It's a small bronze head, basically an eagle's head with an open beak, part of the handle for a larger bronze cauldron that no longer survives. What I liked about it so much was the curve of the beak. I had never seen a curve so pure, so clean, and so savage at the same time, and I fell in love with it; I go back to visit it every time I'm there.

And that's the mystery I'm visiting here, these odd experiences that seem to come out of nowhere and attach themselves to us like a kind of fate almost, and we feel then that we have to pursue them wherever they find us. I tried to write a short story about a gryphon and an art dealer and his wife and her lover, who owned one just like the one in the Met--they're not that uncommon-- and how the art dealer in revenge decided to steal the lover's gryphon head while the lover was elsewhere in the apartment making love to the dealer's wife; but it never quite came off. And then there was the women and parrots theme, first encountered in another museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where there's a Tiepolo--the elder Tiepolo--painting of "Time Revealing Truth," an old art historical subject in which an elderly father Time unveils the naked body of Truth, who is always a woman with a sun shining over her head, thus illustrating the idea that the light of Truth shines everywhere and Truth is always naked. We still use the phrase, the naked truth, although the object itself becomes harder and harder to find.

At the foot of Truth in this painting stood a globe, also an obvious symbol, and then a richly conceived and colored parrot. What, I thought, was the parrot doing there? Apparently it was a symbol of luxury, and of course luxury and Truth can hardly coexist, so the placement is no doubt symbolic. But there it was; the subject intrigued me and once again I became committed to the pursuit of it and found it in paintings elsewhere, in Courbet, in Manet, in Italian Renaissance and Baroque masters; in a postcard collage by the poet John Ashbery; and in magazine ads. Here, surely, was another subject worthy of being fictionalized, and I tried to write a story about this one, too, and failed again. But these things stay with you, something in them attracts you, answers to a question, a theme, running through your mind that you're not even aware of, and so these objects seem meant for you, and you don't know why. Women and parrots. I'm under the impression that it is mostly women who keep parrots. In Courbet's painting a naked woman--definitely not Truth; she's a courtesan--leans back in a bed with her parrot perched on her upheld arm.

Well: my son finds me, he says, "infinitely strange." And I suppose I am, to be so carried away by these encounters; but the mind is a strange place, not too many steps away from the Medieval willingness to believe in very odd things like rocs and gryphons, not to mention ants the size of dogs that dig gold out of the ground with their paws, if what an ant has at the end of its legs are paws. (Let me add that I once met a tracker who claimed to be able to track an ant across a gravel driveway; but that's another story.) It is strange, the mind, and curious; and there is pleasure to be had in tracking experiences like these with works of art through the culture, following a trail to see where it leads. I won't be writing fictional stories about these things, but I am planning an essay on the Stendhal Syndrome, which is the mental "illness" that some people suffer when confronted with works of art, when they faint before them or suffer a catatonic shock. That hasn't happened to me, but I have trembled before them. The common people of ancient Greece used to chain the statues of their gods to the temples, to prevent them from walking away. The mind is strange, weird, full of wonders. There are no gryphons, true, but there have been dinosaurs; and children remain enthralled by them.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


The Ides of March:

Something I might usefully do from time to time is to try to figure out what's wrong, and whether there's anything we can do about it. That there is a great deal wrong, that we in America, and the world at large, are in more than usual trouble, is not an argument I think I need to make, even as an historian with a long view of these things who's seen, thankfully from the proper physical and historical distance, a whole lot of trouble. I was a child during World War II and WW II was bad, really bad, and I was too old for Vietnam even though I had the proper skill set as an ex-artillery officer, and that was bad, too, though not as bad; but the turmoil now seems more basic in a way, more threatening; there are more fundamentals involved. It's a fundamental for instance that there are too many people in the world--far too many already, 6,906,773,912 to be precise (as of this minute; tomorrow it will be more), and projected to reach 10 billion by the time my grandchildren are middle-aged. That in fact is the first thing, the primary thing, that's wrong:



It leads to poverty, starvation, overfishing and the resulting species extinction, overhunting and the same, pollution of all kinds, the depletion of every kind of resource; it exacerbates the problem of illiteracy and lack of education (we'll get to that later); it creates political turmoil which in turn creates dictatorships; it is virtually synonymous with suffering on a truly massive scale. It also raises all kinds of difficult philosophical questions about the purpose of life. Are we here merely to breed? Is more better? How do we convince the Catholic Church that they have it wrong, that even the Church fathers didn't think life began at conception? And what if it does, what kind of difference does that make and when does that difference reach its tipping point? How do we explain to the poor, living in a world where the more children they have the better the chance that at least some of them will survive, that this is not a healthy situation for Planet Earth?

How, to put it another way, do we get human beings to think farther ahead than their next meal, beyond their own neighborhood, to think in century lengths and see the Earth as an organism, now getting sicker by the minute?

The only answer is, one by one. By which time it will be too late.

This can get you down, this business of thinking big.

But we have no other choice. The hardest thing is to think outside our own boxes, to get past the proscenium arch behind which our own little dramas take place, our own little lives to resign, even, from our political party of choice, or else think larger than it thinks and see things over a time frame of more than one or two presidential terms. Very few people in politics or in life are capable of doing that, but we all have to learn or we're sunk as a species; the world will shrug us off.

That is what I'm going to try to do here, think a little longer than usual, and do it from time to time, and see where it leads. This is just a kind of introduction. I have to go cook dinner now. We have a guest coming. More later, when I'm not working on my book, which, by the way, is another attempt to think longer than usual.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


March 13, 2011:

Last night we went to a dinner party and several of my closest friends fell into an argument about whether Hillary Clinton would have made a better president than Barack Obama. I was at the other end of the table and couldn't join in, and didn't want to in any case. I've had enough of that one. In 2008 Lorraine and I supported Hillary for the job over Barack, on the grounds that she had more experience, was tougher mentally, had been through the fire and knew how to fight for what she wanted, how to wield power. We almost lost friends because we took this stand; people we knew very well just could not believe we would support Hillary, who had voted for the Iraq war (as had 80 plus other Senators), and they were rather insulting about it. As it has turned out, many of those same people are now deeply disappointed by Barack. He is not the person his speeches persuaded them he was, not a savior from the left but a centrist still trying to find his balance in the midst of the current mindless chaos of American political life, and he has trouble connecting. He is, in fact, very much my kind of person: intellectual, somewhat aloof, and cautious. But I never thought my kind of person would make a good president. Jefferson was my kind of person, and he did not make a very good president and virtually retired from the job in his second term, spending a good deal of it at Monticello.

It makes for an interesting dilemma in any case, both for me personally and for the nation. For me, it becomes a question of finding my own balance between liking the man for the way he thinks and wanting someone stronger, more decisive, more impassioned. Presidents are always in the position of doing what they can, not what they want, and there's very little he can do faced with a loud, radical anti-Obama majority in the House and a tiny pro-Obama majority in the Senate. But he can't seem to make clear, or doesn't want to, what exactly he does stand for and hopes to accomplish; or when he does try to do that, he lacks the common touch that would sell it. He's rational, and politics is not. Politics is about feelings, desires, fear of the future, fear of the present. So I like him, but I don't approve of him. He's the flag fluttering in the wind, not the force of the wind itself. Maybe nobody could be such a force in the current environment, and it's hard to find a politician in any case who would do anything--stand on principle, for example--to jeopardize a second term. And for this nation, at this time, a second term for Obama is essential to our future. Nevertheless I wish he would make more mistakes, go out on a limb once in a while, take real risks. Risk is the dark forest where leaders become great.

As for the nation and its dilemma, I remain skeptical. The nation was formed in the first place out of a loose cantankerous federation of individual states, each with its own interests, some with slaves and some without, some predominantly mercantile, some agricultural, and to a degree it has not progressed very far from that situation. The slave states still resent their losses and insist on celebrating what is essentially a criminal past (in the sense of crimes against humanity), the heartland states still claim a specious moral superiority over the coastal states, which are, thank God, far more cosmopolitan and sophisticated, and there is very little common ground to stand on. Each party claims to represent the "real" America, which of course is the home of innocence, natural grandeur, and "freedom," and don't you forget it. We can't seem to grow up. We fight wars for "freedom" without acknowledging to ourselves--and that's the worst of it; it's one thing to lie to others, but to lie to ourselves is truly dangerous--that these wars are actually about our economic interests, most recently about oil, and about maintaining world power. Obama is at least clear on that subject; he is himself a realist and seems to understand that it's one thing to speak to the people of Egypt about freedom and tolerance and quite another to declare a no-fly zone over Libya.

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Americans of one sort continue to cling passionately to their nostalgia for a simpler, more straightforward world where the rights of gay people or blacks or women were never an issue and white men could expect to get a good job and raise a family and retire with enough money for a house on the lake; while those of another cling to the ideal of a constantly progressing society where everybody's rights are respected, the poor are given a fair chance and the country as a whole is dedicated to caring for its disadvantaged. Neither sort has much tolerance for the other any more, and zero understanding. The flood waters are rising and each sort struggles for the high ground. Who, indeed, could possibly run such a country? Meanwhile by all the standards by which nations are judged--crime rates; economic mobility; high school and college graduation rates; achievement levels in math and science; health care; infant death rates; obesity levels--we are failing. We stand close to the bottom of the industrialized modern nations on every one of these scales. Yet we continue to deceive ourselves about who we really are. We continue to sleep through this profound and possibly fatal crisis. What we need, I believe, is a leader who is willing to take that risk and speak truth to our inner complacencies, to challenge the self-righteousness we have for too many centuries hidden behind. To wake us up. And I doubt Obama has the stomach for it.