Truth and lies.

My copy is somewhat more up to date than this one.

My copy is somewhat more up to date than this one.

I was poking around among the bookshelves a day or so ago, looking for something to entertain me as the first cool weather of the season settles in, when I spotted my rather tattered Penguin Classics copy of the Histories of Herodotus.

This is one of those books that I like to read once every decade or so. It’s long (over 620 pages in this edition), and the print gets smaller every time I pick it up, but there’s something cozy and comforting about it, like that sweater that you would never dream of wearing where people could see you, but that’s perfect for puttering around the house. There’s enough snob value in just having the book in your hand that you don’t have to slave over the really heavy parts; when the political stuff gets dull you can always skip to the stories about headless cannibals roaming the Libyan desert or the bedroom antics of the King of Lydia, his wife, and the palace guard.

Herotodus lived and worked during the decades on either side of about 450 BC, born in what is now Bodrum, Turkey, then a Greek town called Halicarnassus. We know that he traveled a lot and talked to a lot of people – although how much he traveled and how many people he actually talked to is a subject for some debate.

The Roman orator Cicero, some three and a half centuries later, called Herotodus the “Father of History”.

More recent commentators have called Herodotus the “Father of Lies”.

. . .

Every now and then somebody reading one of my blog posts takes exception to a bit of data – a statistic, a description, or some discreet character assassination – that I may have included without having identified my source.

If what I was doing was serious research, or scholarly investigation, or even journalism, this would be a valid and important concern, but these essays are just my personal ruminations on subjects that interest me: I strive for accuracy, and I am prepared to defend any factual data that I use, but I don’t think footnotes are really necessary.

And let’s face it: some of my posts are long enough as it is.

A few of the folks who worked with me during my years in television newsrooms will no doubt remember my obsession with factual accuracy. I’m a product of an era when the comments of “unnamed sources” did not make it into front page news, and phrases like “some experts have suggested” or “individuals close to the case have indicated” were systematically – and sometimes brutally – rooted out of the aspiring journalist’s repertoire by the time he or she graduated high school.

When I’m assembling information for a blog post, I usually begin with a topic with which I am already pretty conversant, and then fill in the blanks from there. I look for primary sources where I can find them – if I am going to quote from the book of Genesis, for example, I go get the Bible down and look up the chapter and verse: I don’t pull something from the collected wit and wisdom of Jimmy Swaggert and hope for the best – and if primary sources are not available, I make sure that whoever I’m relying upon has the right credentials.

I’m not trying to expand the scope of human knowledge: I’m looking for context and connections. I’m just an interested amateur talking about things that I think are worth talking about.

History, like political commentary, is one of those fields that attracts a lot of amateurs.

The chemist or the molecular biologist is not likely to feel any sort of innate personal affinity with a hydrogen nucleus or a molecule of adenosine triphosphate. The subject matter demands rigor and discipline; nobody just assumes that he’ll be able to pick it up by reading a couple of articles in Discover magazine. The history buff, on the other hand, is dealing with people just like himself, flesh-and-blood men and women who got up in the morning and ate breakfast and argued with their children and fed their pets and worried about the rent just like everybody else. It’s easy to feel that you know more than you really do. There’s something very subjective about history: once you get past the names and dates, there always seems to be a lot of room for interpretation.

. . .

Over the centuries Herodotus has drifted in and out of fashion. As more scientific methods of approaching historical research led to new insights in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, scholars began to downgrade the old personal-narrative style of historical writing; Herodotus, Procopius, Tacitus and others were increasingly viewed as, at best, commentators, and at worst, fabulists and liars, using history as a vehicle for political, social, religious or cultural illustration without any real commitment to objective facts. This did not necessarily diminish their popularity as authors, but their contributions to modern understanding of the times in which they had lived were viewed as less meaningful from a historical perspective.

History, like the sciences, had become focused on attempting to document an objective reality.

In practice, of course, there is no such thing, at least not in terms of our ability to observe and communicate what we are able to learn. Everyone filters reality through a prism of personal experience, cultural expectations, and social limitations. [see also House of Mirrors, a previous essay in this blog] In today’s information-saturated world, separating fact from fable has become so difficult that we often don’t even bother any more. We’re like ants standing in the path of an avalanche of sand.

Herodotus wrote of a race of ants the size of bobcats living in the deserts of what is now Afghanistan who dug  through the sand for gold with which to line their tunnels.

News outlets routinely present a view of reality that owes more to the expectations of sponsors and stockholders than to any commitment to documenting real events. In Colorado and Texas educational authorities are working at this very moment to rewrite history books in order to remove anything that offends their present-day political outlook. Everyone has an axe to grind, or a skeleton to hide.

Father of History/Father of Lies: who do we trust?

What really matters in the end is not what the writer is doing, but whether the reader has the critical capacity that will allow him or her to categorize and qualify what is being said, separating useful data from the distracting overlay of the writer’s intentions. We’re not just hollow vessels waiting to be filled with information: each of us has the ability to apply logic and reason to the information, developing a context, a matrix against which we can judge each new fact as it appears.

Father of History/Father of Lies: does it really matter?

It’s not up to the historian – or the politician, or the preacher, or the pundit – to decide what is fact and what is fiction. All they can do is explain their particular point of view, to build up that mountain of sand grain by grain.

It’s up to us to find the particles of gold in it.

 

The shape of words.

William Tyndale, c. 1490 - 1536.

William Tyndale, c. 1490 – 1536.

Anyone who knows me may be surprised to learn that I own three Bibles (the Revised Standard, the New English, and the King James), as well as the Book of Mormon, the Nag Hammadi Scriptures, the Apocrypha, and an English translation of the Qur’an. I know the difference between an Apostle and an Epistle, I can list the twelve sons of Jacob*, and I can whip out a quote from the four Gospels for just about any occasion.

None of which, in my case, has anything to do with religion. I am not religious: I am, however, a student of history, and as such I can hardly ignore the profound impact that organized religion has had on human culture over the last few thousand years.

I mentioned that I own three different English translations of the Bible: In fact, there exist approximately 450 English-language Bibles, ranging from partial transcriptions into Old English appearing only a couple of centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire all the way to Eugene Peterson’s The Message, completed in 2002.

Why so many?

As with any document so deeply embedded in a culture, control of one can imply control of the other: shades of meaning can support one political faction, one viewpoint, one set of social mores, over the competitors. Influence over the words translates to influence over the people. In modern times we have but to look at the vast differences between various interpretations of the second amendment to the US Constitution to see how divisive these nuances can be – an entire branch of our government exists for the sole purpose of resolving ambiguities in our written body of law.

On October 4, 1535 – 479 years ago today – William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale printed the first complete Bible in English translation. The book was published somewhere on the European continent, financed by various members of a wealthy Dutch family.

When that first edition of what came to be known as the Coverdale Bible was printed, Henry VIII was king of England, and was in the process of rearranging his own relationship to organized Christianity. The question of what language the Bible should appear in was not uppermost in Henry’s mind; an acceptable English translation was something he was prepared to deal with later. Much later.

For the Mother Church, on the other hand, these were difficult and complicated times, and any drift from official dogma was the thin end of the wedge.

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 turned out to be a very good thing for much of the rest of Europe, as highly sophisticated Byzantine Greeks fled the Turks and scattered into the West. This shot in the arm stimulated thinkers like William Tyndale into examining their own cultures more objectively, and many realized that the medieval worldview had created a cultural desert in places like England and France, stifling ideas and retarding development. Tyndale — among others — began to absorb classical thought and intellectual tools and to use the lessons they learned to reorganize the clumsy and limited Middle English of their day into a newer and more responsive tongue. The fertile language of Shakespeare and Marlowe and the other writers and thinkers of England’s Renaissance was a direct result of this much-needed overhaul.

In fourteenth century England, John Wycliffe had translated chunks of scripture into Middle English, triggering a backlash by the Church against any rendition of the Biblical texts into a language other than Latin. Greek and Hebrew texts existed, of course, as sources of the Latin canon, but English and German were the languages of peasants and shopkeepers rather than scholars and priests, and were not considered acceptable vehicles for Scripture.

In 1517 Martin Luther began stirring the pot more vigorously, and the rift between Lutherans and Catholics was cemented in 1521 with the Edict of Worms. Luther’s translation of the Bible from Latin into everyday German had effectively cut out the middleman in the search for salvation. Now anyone who could read could get his religion directly from the source: the vast and expensive machinery of the Church at Rome was no longer a necessary intermediary.

By the time Tyndale and Coverdale produced their translation, Pope Paul III was not in a mood for polite discussion. To add insult to injury, Tyndale was not merely a translator: he was a scholar who had relied not only on the official Latin Bible for his source material, but also older Hebrew and Greek texts, correcting what he saw as mistakes that had crept into the Latin works.

Tyndale survived the publication of his Bible by only a year: with the ink still wet, he was arrested, tried and condemned for his efforts, and in 1536 he was strangled, then his body burned at the stake. His dying wish was that King Henry would adopt his translation for the English church and two years later Henry commissioned what would come to be known as the Great Bible, based on Tyndale’s work. In 1604 James Stuart, King of Scotland and England, the grandson of King Henry’s older sister, would commission yet another English Bible, a tweak of the Great Bible designed to appease the Puritans, a faction within the English church who had objected to what they perceived as errors in the previous versions; this is the book we now know as the King James Bible.

Since the days of James I, an enormous array of scholars, dogmatists, swindlers, mystics and true believers have revisited the job. Some translators have returned to the earliest verifiable sources to recreate something they hoped would more closely resemble the scriptures of the Church’s first centuries. Others have rewritten the King James version into a modern idiom, appealing to a less-erudite audience bewildered by the intricacies of Jacobean English. Still others have applied the filters of their own cultural outlook – discarding or obscuring some passages, amplifying others – in order to confirm the supremacy of a specific view of society.

In the end, of course, we’re all still a very long way from home. Even by Tyndale’s day, patriarchs and popes, kings and committees had all reworked and rearranged the available material to fit what they believed it was meant to say. Over time the preconceptions and assumptions of every age were imposed on the text, leaving us with a palimpsest of history, something that would be unrecognizable by the authors of the earliest contributions.

In the end, this confusion is part and parcel of both history and faith. For the scholar, the Bible is a core sample reaching down through layers of time, taking away random bits of each era and bringing them up where we can examine them with our modern eyes; for the believer, the whole process, with all its twists and turns, is part of a divine plan, resulting in a finished product that could not have come into existence any other way.

My grandfather, a Baptist minister of the old hellfire and brimstone school, saw the Bible as the divine word, replete and eternal, but he was not afraid to ask questions, to dig into the maps and the scholarly concordances in search of context and perspective.

I, on the other hand, even without the added dimension of religious faith, can still appreciate the passion and devotion of the work, and from my own perspective, I don’t think it has to be the Good Book to still be a good book.

 

*Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin

 

When in danger, When in doubt

Doktorschnabel

The appropriate protective gear makes all the difference in the world.

In the year 2000, the first full reporting year after West Nile Virus in the US was first identified, two people in the New York City area (total population just over 8 million) died from illnesses associated with the disease. News outlets went a little crazy: dead blue jays became more popular as establishing video on the nightly news than the Empire State Building or Rudy Giuliani or even the standard crowd-of-people-hurrying-down-the-sidewalk video that had been the staple of news stories about NYC since the invention of television.

The fact that the mortality rate from West Nile is fairly low (usually only between 3 – 7% of cases result in death) did little to deaden the media roar, and West Nile white noise very effectively drowned out the fact that, during the same year, more than 2,700 New Yorkers had died of the flu.

When in danger,
When in doubt,
Run in circles
Scream and shout!

– Anonymous source, U.S. military, Infantry Journal, Vol. 35, (1929), p. 369.

West Nile was, after all, a tropical disease, first identified in Africa, that had jumped the pond and landed on our shores. It was from over there – Pat Robertson and Bill O’Reilly were right: the long-awaited African Armageddon was upon us. Suburban mothers who had claimed for years that minute doses of fluoride in the drinking water were injuring their children now began slathering those same kids in enough N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide (otherwise known as DEET) to stun a brontosaurus. Even though West Nile was not in the top 10 causes of death in the US – or the top 100, or the top 500 – it received more air time on the news than any other illness during the first few years after its appearance here. The higher death rate from people being crushed by falling furniture just didn’t have the same breathless, stay-tuned immediacy.

The flu, meanwhile, was … well, just the flu: it didn’t have anything African in its title, and you didn’t have the handy dead-bird video for your intro every night.

As the new milennium took hold, so did the new disease: the number of deaths nationwide passed two hundred per annum within only two years. When the first suspected cases were reported in Texas, some communities even rescheduled high-school football games – and in Texas, there is no more graphic indicator of public concern. From one year to the next West Nile Virus infections waxed and waned, dropping to 32 deaths in 2009, while ramping up again to an all-time high of 286 in 2012 – respectable, but still never quite making it past the “other causes” category in US mortality lists.

In 2010, firearms killed just over 31,000 Americans (not including combat deaths). West Nile Virus killed 57. Our elected officials promised to address the scourge of West Nile with all the resources at their disposal – presumably by giving everyone a handgun to shoot the virus with. Lawmakers made it clear that West Nile was threatening our way of life, while unregulated handguns had nothing to do with shooting deaths and sedentary sugar-heavy diets had nothing to do with childhood obesity. Nitric oxide and sulphuric acid plumes in the atmosphere over North Texas in 2010 were not in any way the result of unregulated manufacturing facilities in Ellis County but were instead attributed by politicians to the 2009 Gay Pride parade in Dallas.

This week saw the first home-grown case of Ebola hemorrhagic fever, in – of course – Texas, the state that gave us such giants of scientific and medical insight as Louie Gohmert and Joe Barton. (The patient appears to have contracted the disease while traveling in West Africa.) Unlike West Nile, which is only transmitted by blood-to-blood contact, such as through the bite of a female mosquito, Ebola can be transmitted by ingesting any of the bodily fluids of an infected individual, such as vomit, the effluent from diarrhoea, or particles of mucus released in a sneeze. An person infected with Ebola can be a significant source of further spread of the disease, if he or she is not isolated and treated promptly and properly.

That said, the odds of any one individual in the United States contracting the disease from the Dallas patient are slim, especially given that the patient is currently in treatment and does not appear to have passed on his infection.

In fact, the greatest danger in any disease occurence is, and always has been, that posed by populations reacting in irrational or uninformed ways. Polio has been eradicated in most of the world – except in parts of Nigeria and Pakistan where vaccination is resisted by people who have been convinced by unscrupulous political leaders that the whole thing is just an American plot to sterilize their children; as a result, those children are being subjected to one of the most devastating illnesses known to man. During the various plagues that bedeviled medieval Europe, Jews and Muslims were often blamed for the outbreaks simply because those populations seemed to be mysteriously less susceptible: that immunity was, of course, not due to some sort of satanic conspiracy, but because Jewish and Islamic cultural traditions required regular bathing, hand-washing before meals, and careful storage and handling of food, limiting exposure to rats, insects, and infected people. Even in modern America, many people in farming communities kill snakes, foxes, coyotes and other predators on sight, allowing rats and other rodents to infest pastures, barns and feed bins; it’s no accident that modern outbreaks of bubonic plague occur exclusively in these places.

If I were going to be traveling to Sierra Leone over the next few weeks, would I be worried? You bet. Am I going to start wearing surgical gloves and a filter mask in the grocery store? I don’t think so.

Is Ebola a terrible disease. You bet it is. This year’s outbreak in west Africa is wiping out entire families, decimating entire towns — without proper care and control efforts, a lot of people die. Is this likely to be what kills me when my number is up? Probably not: so far this year, US injuries and death resulting from tipping over vending machines trying to get a snack without paying for it outnumber Ebola hospitalizations here by over 50 to 1.

I’ll lay off the free Moon Pies and Cheezits for a while and take my chances with the rest.

 

The Wild Blue

Jerrie Mock

Jerrie Mock

Jerrie Mock died yesterday, at the age of 88.

Don’t know who that is? Join the club: unlike Amelia Earhart, Mock has never acheived mythic status in American life.  This is an unfortunate statement about what captures our attention, since she, in 1964, succeeded in doing what Earhart had tried and failed to do 27 years previously: She became the first woman to fly around the world solo.

Unlike Earhart, Mock was not a glamorous and begoggled action hero. In a movie of her life, she would probably not be played by Angelina Jolie, or Scarlett Johansson. She was a housewife from Columbus, Ohio: mother of three, five feet tall and a hundred pounds; she had dimples. Looking at pictures of her, it would not be hard to imagine her serving home-made banana-nut bread to the bridge club, or knitting baby clothes for a friend.  An aeronautical engineering student in college, she learned to fly at age 32, and made her 29-day round-the-world voyage six years later.

In Columbus, she’s something of a local hero — there’s even a statue about 30 miles outside of town. Everywhere else, her achievement has always been overshadowed by the more flamboyant failure that preceded her.

The drone of flying engines
Is a song so wild and blue
It scrambles time and seasons
if it gets through to you

Then your life becomes a travelogue
Of picture-post-card-charms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm.

— Joni Mitchell, “Amelia”

Oddly enough, Mock’s lack of fame never bothered her: she did not want the kind of publicity that Earhart had courted, and she remained a shy, perky little woman who eventually wrote a book about her adventure, but otherwise maintained her privacy and lived the balance of her life without fanfare.

Perhaps, now that she’s gone, Mock’s story will begin to accumulate the glamor that she refused to accept during her lifetime, and new generations of children will learn who she was, and think about what she did, and take hope that there are still opportunities for excellence in our shrinking world, still ways for a young woman (or man, why not?) to take a moment out of her life to just go, and be, and fly.

 

Bam. Pow. Kablooie.

How to spot the bad guys? Great vocabulary. Terrible fashion sense.

How to spot the bad guys? Great vocabulary. Terrible fashion sense.

Anguish. Antagonist. Annihilate. Adept.

What do all these words have in common?

Venerable. Veritable. Volcanic. Variable.

I’ll give you a hint: I had learned to use all of them in a sentence by the time I reached the third grade.

Sinister. Selfless. Stygian. Saga.

Where does a kid who can barely reach doorknobs pick up a vocabulary like this?

Rickshaw. Radioactive. Restitution. Relativity.

Why, comic books, of course.

Like many boys my age, every time I could scrape up twelve cents (or even better, a quarter for the Giant Size Annuals) I ran downtown to the drugstore and bought the latest copy of “Journey into Mystery”, or “Strange Tales”, or the “Fantastic Four”, or “Superboy and the Legion of Super Heroes”.

Since those nickels and dimes were not always easy to come by, I could rarely indulge in the luxury of following one hero, one title, from month to month. The resulting story lines were fragmented to the point of meaninglessness, but I didn’t care: the images jumped off the page – vivid and exotic in those days before color television – and the writing was extravagant and overwrought, filled with words and ideas that Dick and Jane and their silly little dog had never even imagined. Every sentence ended in an exclamation mark, every thought, every utterance was gravid with significance.

When the evil Mano annihilated his own home world in the ultimate act of rebellion, the word was wedded to an image that made it impossible to misunderstand. When Doctor Strange’s ghostly spirit form left his body to go roaming, passing through walls and even mountains as if they didn’t exist, it didn’t take a genius to figure out what the writer meant by describing that transparent figure as ethereal. When the Mighty Thor pissed off his dad by falling in love with a mortal, there could hardly have been a better showcase for the meaning of wrath.

I saw in this morning’s news that a north Texas school had banned – and then un-banned – seven books, by authors that included two Nobel Prize laureates, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a prominent Native American diarist, among others. The books were banned because some parents were concerned about depictions of sexuality, of abuse, of racial injustice, and of philosophical self-examination that overstepped the conceptual boundaries they had set for their teen-aged children; un-banned, because the school authorities realized how meaningless that effort was. How many kids reach their teens without having been exposed – at least indirectly – to the weakness and wickedness that the human race is prey to? Red Riding Hood could have covered her eyes when the wolf approached her, but that certainly wouldn’t have prevented him making a meal of her; Rapunzel in her doorless stone tower was just about as safe from the influence of the outside world as she could be – right up until she let down her hair for the very first man who thought to ask her to do so.

This was not immortal literature. This was a handful of guys in smoke-filled rooms hunched over drafting tables, cobbling together outrageous tales of heroism and derring-do riddled with misspellings, continuity errors, and mind-bogglingly bad science.

What mattered was not the quality of the art form, but the fact that the heroism and the science — such as they were — were couched in a way that made them accessible and acceptable to the minds of children being inexorably conditioned to filter knowledge, discarding the unprofitable, the unpalatable, and the improbable on their way toward adulthood.

Foreboding. Felicitous. Fictitious. Feral.

And even more importantly, it was an unedited glimpse into the world of conflict and existential threat that we kids were about to inherit.

In the comics, nobody was sending us out of the room before the subject of nuclear armageddon was discussed; nobody told us that we were too young to worry about what pollution was capable of doing to our bodies; the conversations about racial tension didn’t suddenly slam to a halt every time we strolled in to ask for a cookie. Superman was saving the world, again and again, every month – which could only be happening if the world were at risk of being destroyed. In Dick and Jane’s universe there was no war, no violence, no murder, so there was no need for a Batman, an Iron Man, or an Invisible Woman to deal with those problems. We didn’t have to understand the social and economic pressures wrenching at the fabric of our society to know that Dick and Jane – and probably the dog, too – would not have lasted long in the world our parents were passing along to us.

Obviously there was a downside to this kind of back-door education. Problems, no matter how intractible, were always solved within a few pages, and usually by the convenient deux-ex-machina of super-powers, or super-science, or the application by the hero of an even greater level of violence than the bad guys could bring to bear. Those were examples that did not translate well into the “real” world of guerilla warfare, of the Kennedy assassination, of overpopulation, of the breakdown of traditional social structures. They did, on the other hand, demonstrate that ordinary people could be one radioactive spider-bite, one dose of cosmic rays, one science experiment gone awry, from becoming people who could save the world. They gave us an alternative to despair, and a list of new words to clothe the terrors that the best of parental intentions could not keep from us.

Ethereal. Elongated. Ectoplasm. Entomologist.

When I was a child, adults frequently objected to my reading material, comic books included. So much fantasy, so much violence, so much unreality – could this possibly be helpful or useful for the child?

The irony, of course, is that all this unreality, this fantasy, is sometimes the only tool a child has with which to make a meaningful connection with the “real” world. Without it, we would be forced to try to cope with the ills that beset our civilization armed with nothing but a spotted dog and a red ball. “A bunch of fairy tales,” goes the argument — oblivous to the fact that fairy tales of any given age are frequently a window into the terrible world that awaits a child, and in posing awful questions, sometimes suggest hopeful answers.

 

The price of pretty

wilgefortis

No, it’s not what you think.

Until the Church removed her from the calendar in 1969, July 20 long had the distinction of being the feast day of Saint Wilgefortis the Liberator, the protector and patroness of women suffering in relationships with abusive husbands.

As with many medieval saints, the origins of Wilgefortis are vague and contradictory. The simplest backstory makes her the young daughter of a Portuguese nobleman, promised by her father in marriage to a pagan barbarian. In her desperation to evade this trap, Wilgefortis took a sacred vow of virginity; when this by itself was not sufficient to dampen the ardor of the proposed bridegroom she then prayed for some sort of disfigurement that would make her unfit for marriage.

Her prayers were answered: the young lady grew a full beard, and her husband-to-be took his interest elsewhere.

Wilgefortis’ father was not amused. Deprived of what had promised to be a profitable and useful political alliance, he turned his anger and disappointment on his recalcitrant offspring. He had her dressed in her finest clothes, as if for a wedding, and then crucified her and left her to die.

.   .   .

In the social environment that prevailed in Europe during the late Middle Ages women had not fared well. Salic Law, introduced by the Franks during the sixth and seventh centuries and adopted widely throughout Europe, did not allow women to inherit property or titles, and in many places local customs prohibited women from owning businesses or land without male oversight.  Marriage, especially among the nobility, was a matter of political expediency, and girls were used by their male kin as a form of currency to buy alliances with other factions and families.

The incomparable Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI, was married off three times in schemes to benefit the political ambitions of her father and older brother.  Her first marriage was annulled when her husband came to be of no further use to the Borgia plans; her second husband was murdered, most likely at the instigation of her brother Cesare, having likewise outlived his usefulness; her third marriage, while loveless, was a material success, and Lucrezia’s own wealth and power survived the death of both her brother and her father.

 

The rights and interests of the young women involved were irrelevant. Peasants could marry for love, because there was nothing else at stake, but the nobility had obligations to dynasty, to tradition, and to political position that trumped any other concerns. Predictably, such marriages were often little more than business arrangements; apart from the need to produce heirs, there was rarely any emotional contact between the partners. The girl was simply a means to an end, and her feelings were of no importance as long as she played her part.

.  .  .

Depictions of Saint Wilgefortis traditionally show a young woman with a beard, often wearing only one shoe, crucified on a wooden cross. Frequently there is a fiddler or a beggar at her feet: according to legend, when a starving man once came to the feet of the saint’s statue to pray, a silver shoe dropped off into his hands (a story that I would find a bit suspicious under the best of circumstances, but I guess sometimes you just have to accept things on trust.)

In different traditions Saint Wilgefortis is referred to as “The Escaper”, “The Strong Virgin”, “Grief”, “The Liberated” — in England she was called “Uncumber”, as in “unencumbered”.  As is often the case with female saints in the Catholic hagiography, Wilgefortis represented defiance, personal integrity, freedom from oppression, but the message was a mixed one: a woman could exercise her freedom, yes, but she had to be prepared to pay the price.

Even now, in the second decade of the 21st century, women and girls frequently face terrible decisions and terrible consequences, decisions forced upon them by circumstances beyond their control: the victims of rape or incest dealing with the resulting pregnancy; five-year-olds dressed up like Vegas showgirls and trained to parade their bodies before adult audiences who judge their value as human beings on the basis of how effectively they mimic adult sexuality; victims of “honor killings”, genital mutilation, and acid attacks; abused wives and daughters urged by ministers or relatives to stay with their abusers — or simply unable to escape. The world today is a better place in many, many ways than that of five hundred years ago, but ancient evils persist.

I don’t know why the Church chose to remove Wilgefortis from the calendar. More than likely it was due to the confusion that surrounds her origins and the tendency to conflate her with another female saint whose feast day was also July 20. To add to the confusion, a representation of Jesus on the cross, the androgynous Volto Santo of Lucca, has sometimes been mistaken for a that of a woman due to the long dress-like tunic the figure wears.

In any event, in a church that has not always been known for its embrace of originality, the bearded lady on the cross exercises a certain side-show hilarity, while at the same time the tabloid story of her life and terrible death evokes modern echoes that are not nearly so amusing.

 

 

Unintelligible at any speed

Satan's little helpers? The Kingsmen, 1965.

Satan’s little helpers? The Kingsmen, 1965.

In my younger days, my father often expressed concern that I was becoming prey to a languid intellectualism that he feared would leave me ill-equipped for life in the Real World in the unlikely event that I should ever shamble into it. In retrospect, he was probably correct: fortunately, he had a plan to address the problem.

Jobs. Lots of jobs.

No job was too small, too filthy, or too ill-suited to my temperament (which was, admittedly, opposed to work in almost any form) as long as it paid. From the moment I was old enough to get a work permit, Dad was unsparing in his efforts to get the most out of the twenty-dollar fee. Loading hay, working on a garbage truck, cleaning offices, flipping burgers: I was a busy boy.

One job that occupied me for a long winter when I was about sixteen involved working in the concession stand of a drive-in movie theater.  The owner of this particular picture-palace was our next-door neighbor, a gentleman with the unlikely name of Goggins. Three nights a week I would pile into the car with Mr Goggins and his son (a classmate of mine, although not someone I associated with otherwise) and we would go pop popcorn and serve up syrupy Cokes and Sprites to the masses who came out to shiver in their cars for such epics as “Reflection of Fear” and “The Candy Snatchers”.

Mr Goggins was an odd duck. He was convinced that the permissive sixties had left a stain on society that was going to overwhelm us all (rather like the skin that oozed out of the satanic skeleton upon exposure to water in “The Creeping Flesh”) without the constant vigilance of right-minded folk. His children (all of whose names, like those of both parents, began with the letter “R”) were at tremendous risk due to the hours every day that the older ones spent in school, away from the security of the family nest; every word, every gesture they made while at home were carefully scrutinized for signs of moral rot.

This attitude was a bit difficult to reconcile with the material being screened at the drive-in. The buxom stars of such titles as “Ginger” and “Sabrina in Prison”, while popular with audiences, were rarely more than lightly burdened with dialogue or clothing, and the moral import of “White Cannibal Queen” was totally lost on me.

One Saturday night that December, as we made our way out to the theater in Mr Goggins’ dusty Chevy Caprice, Goggins (Junior) turned on the car radio, perhaps not realizing that the AM radio station that played Gospel music throughout the week devoted two hours every Saturday evening to popular music of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

The song that leaped out of the dashboard speaker was “Louie, Louie”.

The ensuing brouhaha was easily on a par with the pie-eating scene from the second reel of “I Drink Your Blood”. Goggins (Senior) flew into a frothing condemnation of the pornographic/satanic/communist nature of the Kingsmen’s quirky hit, while his son — never articulate even at the best of times — grunted and hissed like Professor Saxton’s alien anthropoid in “Horror Express”.

Obviously there was a significance to “Louie, Louie” that had somehow escaped me over the years.  What Mr Goggins knew and I did not was that in 1964 the FBI had launched a full-bore investigation of the song, J Edgar Hoover and company having become concerned that the song was, indeed, some kind of Trojan Horse by means of which free love and drug use — and probably Communist ideology — was being delivered to America’s impressionable young people.

In 1963 the Kingsmen, a garage band from Portland, Oregon, recorded the song under less than optimal conditions, playing and singing into a single microphone hanging from the studio ceiling, the lead singer wearing new braces that prevented him from speaking clearly, and no one able to quite recall which verses went where. The band was allowed only one take. The result was a disaster that became one of the most popular songs ever recorded.

Federal agents talked to a bewildered Richard Berry, the man who had written and recorded the song in the mid-fifties, only to have it come and go without a ripple. They interviewed executives from the record label that released the 1963 remake. FBI laboratories spent 31 months playing the song at varying speeds and backward, searching for the pornography or propaganda that had so horrified dozens of parents.

 There is an apocryphal story that during the recording of “Louie, Louie” the drummer dropped one of his sticks at a critical moment and blurted an expletive that might — had anyone been able to distinguish it from the background noise — have provided some justification for the excitement surrounding the song. It certainly would have kept it off the air for at least a decade or so.

Forty-nine years ago today, on May 17, 1965, the FBI released their report: Although there may or may not have been something pernicious hidden in the song, they certainly couldn’t make it out. They concluded that the lyrics were “unintelligible at any speed”, and therefore posed no threat to the children of America.This did not prevent the governor of Indiana from banning the song anyway, but in the eyes of the law there was nothing more to be done.

Shortly after the “Louie, Louie” debate was so dramatically brought to my attention I gave up my job at the drive-in to take up a somewhat less hectic post stocking shelves in a mom-and-pop hardware store. I listened to the Kingsmen’s one and only hit several times after that, and found it catchy but, indeed, unintelligible.

What, exactly, was all the fuss about? We’ll probably never really know. Sudden erratic distractions are a part of our national identity — sometimes manufactured for a purpose, sometimes not. A lot was going on in the middle of that decade: the number of US troops in Vietnam was ramped up by two-thirds; the 1965 Voting Rights Act was enacted; Malcom X was assassinated; a Unitarian Universalist minister was beaten to death in Birmingham by white supremacists; the Watts riots devastated Los Angeles; a nuclear device was detonated in a weapons test in Alaska… the list goes on.

And all the while, the collective consciousness of the men and women of America was riveted on the dangers of allowing their sons and daughters to hear:

Three nights and days I sail the sea
Think of girl, constantly
On that ship, I dream she’s there
I smell the rose in her hair.”

— Richard Berry, “Louie, Louie”, 1955

 

 

Arrival from always, departure to forever

David and Pam In 1966, just as the war in Vietnam was hitting its stride, my father retired from the US Air Force.

Packing up the wife and three small children (the oldest — me — having just completed the second grade) he returned to the town of his own childhood, a place in the Appalachian foothills of northern Alabama with the peculiar name of Boaz.

Moving was nothing new for us: by that time I had lived in military bases in Montgomery, Alabama (twice); Biloxi, Mississippi; Syracuse, New York; and had even spent a short spell in Boaz while my father was serving a stint in Vietnam. I knew that stability was fragile, possessions a burden, and that friendships had to be quick to form and shallow enough to walk away from without pain.

The final move to Boaz, however, was different. A military base is a special world for a small child, safe and vivid and full of excitement and mystery; Boaz was … well, quiet. No recruits double-timing down the street in front of the apartment; no decommissioned fighter jets parked in vacant lots, swarming with small children (for whom a chain-link fence was more an invitation than a barrier); no Commissary; no PX; no movie theater just around the corner; no library.

Despite having spent most of my life up to that point in the deepest Deep South, I did not have a southern accent — my mother, a transplanted New Englander, had bequeathed me her more precise grammar and neutral delivery. I was fairly well-read for my age (thanks to the easy access to books on base) and my previous schools had been somewhat more advanced that the one I now found myself attending. Teachers seemed irritated, even antagonized, by my efforts to please. Classmates were suspicious, sometimes hostile. The transition went from awkward to uncomfortable to excruciating in no time at all.

The adaptability that goes with being a military brat assumes certain preconditions — an urban environment, a population of other kids with equally shallow roots, and the levelling effect of never being exposed to the same group of people for more than a year or two at a time. Boaz had none of these things. This was an environment where cliques had long since been sealed, newcomers remained newcomers for years, and everyone spoke with the same accent. I felt, sounded, looked alien. The only thing that kept me from diving under the bed and never coming out again was the idea, despite being told otherwise, that we would move again before too long, return to the real world, the world of tanks and books and soldiers singing rude songs as they trotted down the street.

“… Look down through the five senses like stars/To where our lives lie small and equal like two grains/Before Chance — the hawk’s eye or the pilot’s/Round and shining on the open sky,/Reflecting back the innocent world in it.”

 

— Lawrence Durrell, “The Pilot”

Within a matter of months, just as the terrors of the new reality were taking firm hold, a family with a daughter my age moved in next door.

They were also from elsewhere, they were Air Force, they were also well-travelled, and Pam talked just like me. Naturally, we became friends — not in school, oddly enough, we were rarely in the same classes — but we spent much of our free time together, riding bikes, climbing trees, romping around in the cornfields (long since built over) behind our houses, tormenting our younger siblings, and talking, talking, talking.

After a year or so, Pam and her family moved around the corner, but remained within shouting distance. As time passed, we drifted in different directions — Pam was athletic, bright, heedless, the sort of person who excelled without obvious effort, while I was shy, small for my age, brainy, but an underachiever, irrationally terrified of my classmates and my teachers — but our bond endured.

By high school we had moved almost entirely into different worlds: apart from band (characteristically, I played clarinet while Pam played trumpet) we had little in common, and we each spent more and more time pursuing our separate interests.

College brought us together again, closer than ever, for a couple of years. We became almost inseparable. Teachers referred to us as brother and sister, and classified us as bright, but doomed.

Despite that renewal of our friendship, the separation that followed was more than just a relocation around the corner: Pam moved to Huntsville, fifty miles north, married, divorced; I moved to Birmingham, ninety miles south, stumbled through two more years of college, and then wandered off into a long and labyrinthine passage to adult life.

In the decades that followed we both moved, and moved again, changing as we went, putting ever more distance between us. By the time we reached our thirties, I had washed up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Pam had come to ground in San Diego, California — we had finally managed to place an entire continent between us.

We still met, at widely spaced intervals, almost always in Boaz, on neutral ground. Pam had remarried, with stepchildren to look after, and I was building a career, so the visits were often brief.

At our twenty-fifth-anniversary high-school reunion, we made up for lost time, spending the last few days of the holiday in New Orleans, reliving the past, lying to each other about the future. Pam drank a bit, and smoked a lot — these were habits she developed early on, and polished as time went by. (I smoked for some years, but finally gave it up as simply requiring too much effort, and never had much capacity for alcohol.) By our mid-forties the differences in our lifestyles had become deep, but even on Bourbon Street at four a.m. I still kept seeing the girl next door behind the haze of jello-shots and nicotine.

A few years ago Pam and I saw each other — for the last time, as it happened — while she waited for a connecting flight at DFW Airport in Dallas. I drove out to the airport to meet her and we sat on a bench in the Texas sun for a couple of hours and chatted, just as we always had. Despite the heat, she was cold, bundled up in a jacket and furry boots; thinner than I had seen her, smoking one cigarette after another, her conversation wandering, clicking, sometimes stumbling, sometimes dancing. She was ill, but I did not understand that — perhaps I refused to understand that: I believed that she wasn’t taking care of herself, that she was over-tired, under-eating, typical Pam. For me, nothing else was possible. I avoided looking too closely, asking questions.

In the years that followed I failed to keep up, to maintain contact, more concerned with sustaining my illusions than with the person who wore them.

This week Pam moved again, moved even further away, and the continent that lies between us is one that can only be crossed once, and then only in one direction. She’s gone further from me than I ever thought possible, and I am less now than I was.

We spent more time apart than we did together over the last forty-eight years, but that means that there was little time for bad memories — our moments together were precious and important.

Even there on that airport bench, sitting in the sun watching the taxicabs creep past us, the shouting men, loaded with luggage, shrill women in uncomfortable shoes — even there, I remember clearly that, different as she was –as different as I was — one thing had not changed: I could hear forty years of echoes every time she laughed, and with every smile we were children again, strangers in a strange land, sharing.

 

Journal: Friday, January 18

I’m currently working my way through a series of critical biographies of American painters of the mid-twentieth-century: I’ve finished Rothko and Arshile Gorky, and now I’ve begun Willem de Kooning. Two suicides and an Alzheimer’s victim — compared to the Abstract Expressionists, the Surrealists were a stroll in the park.

The one unifying characteristic that seemed to prevail in American painting mid-century was the prevalence of European immigrants struggling against very difficult personal legacies: Rothko was a Latvian Jew at a time when Jews were being blamed for the upheavals tearing the Russian Empire apart; Gorky was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey; the Dutch de Kooning survived a terrible childhood of poverty and emotional stress only to succumb to alcoholism and eventually dementia in his adult life. Jackson Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming, but his Western upbringing left him little better prepared for life as a New York artist: he was struggling with alcoholism before his career had even begun.

The European Surrealists, such as Max Ernst, Paul Eluard, Andre Breton, Yves Tanguy, and Andre Masson, were also uprooted by war and economic turmoil, and all seemed to share a profound emotional instability that left them incapable of lasting emotional attachments, but they seemed to be able to externalize their problems, making life difficult for those around them but leaving themselves relatively unscathed.

Was it the nature of each group’s work that had such deep, but different, effects on their emotional lives, or were they all drawn into their respective universes because of each individual’s personal charactistics? In other words, did Abstract Expressionism make artists self-destructive, or did only self-destructive artists become involved in Abstract Expressionism?

 

Journal: Sunday, December 15

Art exhibit at Nadine Baum Studios, Fayetteville, Arkansas

Art everywhere!

My friend Erin and I spent all day yesterday at a holiday art function, milling back and forth in front of a display of our respective work, shaking hands, smiling and nodding, chatting with the visitors whenever the opportunity presented itself, generally being sociable. The word, I believe, is schmoozing.

This sort of thing is not something I’m particularly good at: my recent works include a very precisely-rendered pen and ink representation of a carnivorous beetle, shown eleven times natural size; a realistically-modeled life-sized human heart studded with shards of broken glass; a trilobite fossil built up out of trash; and a large acrylic painting of the serpent lurking in the Garden of Eden. Light cocktail conversation about my artworks is sometimes a bit difficult to bring off.

That said, the event was fun. Sometimes you get lucky and you find yourself facing a crowd that is interested in the plastic arts not just as decor but also as a form of expression, no less valid than a novel or a film; this was that kind of audience. They asked the right questions, and they were interested in the answers. There were other artists there whose work I admired, and whose opinions of my work I solicited and valued.

Tiring? You bet. Worth it? Definitely. Very slowly, step by step, I’m beginning to learn how to go beyond just producing the art to actually presenting it effectively to people who might appreciate what I’ve done. I still have a long way to go, but I feel as though this weekend has taken me an appreciable distance down that road.

 

Journal: Thursday, December 5

I’ve had a string of good luck over the last few days: a package of artwork that had gone astray in New York City finally found its way to the intended recipient, who is delighted with the pictures; a possible complication to Hartley’s spay surgery cleared up on its own; I was able to get a fresh supply of propane for the cabin heater mere hours before the roads closed and the truck would have been unable to reach me; we’ve had no interruption in our electricity all day, despite the ice storm outside … All in all, it’s been a good week so far.

Despite that, I find that the sleet and freezing rain outside, the darkness, the sense of isolation, is wearing on me today. Winter storms like the one we’re experiencing tonight and tomorrow seem to increase the distance between towns, between houses, between people, between the lighted windows in the dark.

Snow I can handle: snow is different, lighter, more like a natural expression of natural forces; but ice … ice is sinister, destructive. Snow reflects the light, ice absorbs it; snow shelters the birds and beasts, ice paralyses them, crushes them, smothers the spark.

We have tonight and tomorrow to contend with — that’s all — and then the sky will begin to clear. Temperatures will still be brutally cold, but at least there won’t be all this ice falling everywhere. Another week after that, and temps will work their way back above freezing.

I think I’m just going to pull the covers over my head and hibernate until then.

Journal: Friday, November 22

classroomOn a whim yesterday I wasted twenty minutes on a quiz on the Christian Science Monitor website: it was a condensed version of a test that 8th graders in a Kentucky school district had to take in 1912 to determine whether they were fit to proceed to high school.

How hard could this be, right? This is test aimed at kids who are — what? Thirteen? In Kentucky, in 1912.

It was a humbling experience.

The only area in which I can say I excelled was geography; everything else was a struggle. Math? I produced pages of meandering calculations resulting in lame guesses. English? I didn’t know my adverbs from my adenoids. American history? You would have thought I was born and raised in Latvia. (I know that the Civil War took place somewhere in between the War of 1812 and World War One, but questions about individual battles? Individual generals? Forget about it.)

A study presented at an American Heart Association conference last Tuesday suggests that kids are less physically capable than their parents were at that age: slower, weaker, less agile. This comes as no real surprise to most people, since we’ve long been aware that children are becoming more sedentary as video games and the internet — coupled with more parental anxiety about allowing kids to run around outside — replace bicycles and baseball. The question of intellectual achievement, however, has always been measured between and among groups of children contemporary with each other: we worry that American students don’t perform as well on math tests as Korean students, or on geography as well as German kids, but we aren’t comparing American students of 2013 with their American counterparts of a century ago, possibly because we know that it’s a contest they can’t win.

I’m a long way from the eight grade. At my age there is a certain “I’m sure I used to know this, but …” factor, but that’s a slim excuse at best. I should be able to compete with my grandfather as a child — I’ve had more time to forget, true, but I’ve also had more time to learn.

Another excuse we often hear is that there is just so much more to know now than in previous generations. This also is a pretty weak argument: yes, we have things like the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the personal computer to keep up with, but our ancestors in 1912 were coping with the invention of the telephone and motion pictures, the electrification of the cities, the arrival of the automobile, and with the collapse of the Ottoman and Hapsburg and British Empires. Keeping up with current events was no easy task then, either.

I scored 86% on the test — not bad, but hardly stellar. The average score for visitors to the CSM website? In the mid fifties, a definite failing grade.

What does all this mean? Are conservatives right when they tell us that the more sophisticated curricula and powerful teachers’ unions of today are diluting the value of education? Or is it that we aren’t going far enough to empower teachers and upgrade materials, as progressives insist?

I certainly don’t know the answer, but after struggling through that test yesterday, I’m definitely thinking more about the question.