Thursday, May 19, 2011


May 19, 2011:

I came across this remark from the Earl of Shaftesbury the other day while reading a review in TLS: "The most ingenious way of becoming foolish is by a system." And was reminded of a trip I took many years ago for Conde Nast Traveler for a story on what some editor had decided was the North American "cultural crescent," which ran, in his mind, from Toronto to Montreal to Boston to New York to Washington, D. C. And you ought to be able to trace this crescent by train, he told me, and that's what I want you to do. Well, you can't, but I took the assignment anyway and, living on the East End of Long Island, I decided to start in Boston and took the ferry from Orient Point on Long Island to New London, to catch the train to Boston there. And it was a cold wintry day in January, and starting to snow. I stood on deck for a while and watched the snow fall on the water and the water itself, which showed flashes of aluminum as it reflected the gray light, and a deep green, and black, all in a kind of wild disarray, with no pattern, no fix to it, if you know what I mean, nothing you could retain in your mind.

So, to Boston, where they don't plow the roads or shovel the sidewalks. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, a play, or was it two plays, maybe a concert--I can't remember it all. And then the train to New York, where they do shovel the sidewalks. And a visit to the Museum of Modern Art. And here I came upon "Full Fathom Five," Jackson Pollock's great painting, and it was the same surface, the dark water, the flashes of aluminum, the green, the black, that I had seen from the deck of the ferry on my way to New London. Pollock did not paint representational pictures, but there it was. He had caught something I didn't think could be caught. Something with no pattern, a wild disarray, he had fixed it in paint. I was amazed. I stood there for five minutes, staring at it.

Years later I was talking about this experience with my friend Jeffrey Potter, who knew Pollock and had written a book about him, at a party at Jeffrey's house, or maybe somebody else's house: does it matter? We were standing in a kitchen, I remember that. And I told him how Pollock had caught something that couldn't be caught and had uncharacteristically painted something that looked like the thing it was called, for "Full Fathom Five" refers, of course, to the sea, and the line in Shakespeare, "Full fathom five thy father lies," from the song Ariel sings in the first act of The Tempest, which--by the by-- follows the line, "This music crept by me upon the waters," a line that breaks your heart. And how could this be? I wanted to know. How could a purely abstract painting with no representational ambitions represent so well the thing it was named after?

And he said, without any preamble, "Truth is liquid."

Oh, Jeffrey. He's in his nineties now, and deaf, so you can't talk to him any more; and he's frail. But I will treasure him forever for that line.

"The most ingeniuous way of becoming foolish is by a system."

Let us imagine, then, that truth is liquid, like the sea, and vast like the sea, and what would a system constitute in relation to it? How about a plastic bottle, or a bathtub, maybe, or somethng so small as a shotglass, which takes a little portion of it and contains it. And we come to think as believers in this system that it is enough. That it says it all. Thereby we miss the great waves, the tides, the depths, the Gulf Stream, storms both large and small, the way the light plays upon the water: those flashes of aluminum. We miss most of all the music that creeps over it. Truth cannot be fixed, cannot be pinned down; no system, no religion, no philosophy can encompass it. No science even.

We sense this, too. Robert Frost caught it in his great poem "Neither Out Far Nor in Deep," where "The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day."
Because that is where it may emerge, as John Keats put it, like "the whale's back in a sea of prose," that glimpse of the way things are, that insight rising from the deep, and we sit there and stare out at the waves and the horizon beyond, not really knowing what we're looking for but waiting for it to appear nevertheless.

The Traveler story proved to be hopeless. It depended on following this imaginary cultural crescent by rail,--I should add that the editor was British, and you can do this sort of thing in Europe, where the railroads are really good--but to get from Montreal to Boston requires a 24-hour stopover in Albany to make a connection, and who on earth would want to spend 24 hours in Albany? I took the train from Boston to New York to Washington, then flew to Toronto and took a nice Canadian train from Toronto to Montreal, where the temperature was in the sub-zero range. In Montreal I caught the flu and walked out of a badly sung opera. The train ride from Montreal to New York City is notorious for delays, and the heating apparatus broke. When I peed in the toilet on that train my pee froze when it hit the bowl.

But I did get to stay in the Willard Hotel in Washington, and that's a great one. There are always compensations. And there's always the beach. Whenever I'm tempted to believe in a system I take a walk there. Usually I catch a glimpse of a ship hull down on the horizon, and once, on the Long Beach Peninsula in the state of Washington, at ten in the evening in the late, dim light, I was half drunk and walking north when a seal suddenly raised its head out of the surf and stared at me, and a rush of joy swept me up. Think what I might have felt if it had been a whale.