Elaine, let’s get the hell out of here.

card_catalog_2I don’t like country music. The yodeling vocals, the whining guitars, the relentlessly predictable lyrics about faithless babes, abusive bubbas, pickup trucks, disreputable nightspots in the middle of nowhere … An hour of this, and a visitor from another planet would marvel that everything south of the Mason-Dixon line had not long since slid off into the Gulf of Mexico, crushed into slurry under the weight of all that drama and all those tears.

“Wait just a gosh-darned minute!” I hear someone shouting from the back row. “Yes, a lot of country music is like that, but it’s not all the same. You’re being unfair.”

As a matter of fact, you are absolutely correct, ma’am. I am being grossly unfair. Although the tropes that I’ve mentioned are common enough to have birthed the stereotype of the cowboy-hatted men and big-haired women that make up such a large part of the country music image, they are by no means the whole story. Isn’t it possible to loathe Porter Wagoner but love Willie Nelson? What do Jerry Jeff Walker and the Dixie Chicks really have in common except their Texas origins? Is Patsy Cline “country”? Is Kenny Rogers? Celine Dion has that breast-beating, sobbing delivery down to a science, but would anybody really put her on the same shelf as Tammy Wynette? Why is “Blue Bayou” a rock-n-roll ballad for Roy Orbison, a pop song when Linda Ronstadt sings it, but country when Martina McBride takes it on?

Elaine de Kooning once recalled a party where she and another painter, Joan Mitchell, were asked, “What do you WOMEN artists think … ?” Mitchell interrupted, “Elaine, let’s get the hell out of here.” Mitchell, de Kooning, and other female artists of their generation suffered mightily under that characterization by gender, which made it so easy for the male-dominated world of critics and collectors to dismiss them en masse, classifying them as nothing but muses or bedmates of the “real” artists: which is to say, of course, the men. Labels. Categories. Fences made of words.

In a previous life, I lived in Dallas, Texas, where there was, for some years, a Tower Records, where I could drop in and pick up a handful of CDs a couple of times a month. The store was carefully organized by genre: Country, World Music, Jazz, Pop/Rock, Classical (in the basement), Soundtracks, Children’s Music, and so on.

Even a casual perusal of the arrangement, however, betrayed serious shortcomings.

Take, for instance, the classic 1964 album Getz/Gilberto, with Philly native Stan Getz, Brazilian bossanova greats Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim, and vocals in both Portuguese and English by Gilberto’s German/Brazilian wife Astrud. Where did this music belong? Was this “Jazz”? Getz was, after all, a well-known tenor sax player in the New York jazz scene, and the album was recorded on Verve, a jazz-oriented label, in that city. Or was it “World Music”, as Gilberto and Jobim were already becoming legends in Brazil? Or maybe it was “Latin”, a category that embraced everything from mariachi to Andean flutes to Italian pop songs recorded in Madrid? All of the above? None?

According to music licensing service ASCAP, the most-recorded song in the history of copyrighted music is the aria “Summertime”, which appears a couple of times in Gershwin’s opera. ASCAP lists more than 25,000 different recordings of “Summertime”, by artists ranging from Billie Holiday and Sam Cooke to Janis Joplin and The Fun Boy Three. Operatic aria? Jazz standard? Pop classic? What difference, really, does it make?

Here’s another one for you: The first opera ever written by and about Americans was Porgy and Bess, with music by Jewish New Yorker George Gershwin and text by his brother Ira and poet DuBose Heyward. The work deals with love and death in Catfish Row, a dockside tenement in South Carolina; the characters are the children and grandchildren of slaves, and the style of the music is drawn from black worksongs, gospel, and other mostly African-American music forms. Critics for decades have wrestled with finding a convenient niche for this work: do we lump it in with The Barber of Seville and Wagner’s Ring Cycle, or do we call it jazz and stick it on the shelf between Ella Fitzgerald and Herbie Hancock? Is the music black, white, New York, South Carolina, jazz, pop, classical, lowbrow, highbrow … where the hell does it go?

Categories are the darlings of marketers, but the bane of creators. Nobel laureate Doris Lessing‘s five-volume Canopus in Argos: Archives is a vast and detailed analysis of a series of different social structures on several different planets, viewed over a span of millennia – nothing at all like her intimate, semi-autobiographical novels about life in mid-twentieth-century South Africa. Neither fish nor fowl, Lessing is impossible to place in any one category, but equally impossible to ignore. Charles Dodgson, better known to us as Lewis Carroll, the author of the immortal Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, was also the author of an comic poetry epic, a textbook on an abstruse branch of mathematical logic, and of a satire of Victorian English society disguised as a story about fairies. Is he a children’s book author, a poet, a mathematician, or a social commentator? Where do we put him, for crying out loud?

* * *

Let’s go back to the statement I began this essay with: “I don’t like country music.”

What I’m really saying is that because I don’t like certain music or musicians that happen to be classified within a certain (completely arbitrary) category, I can justify throwing out everybody else who might happen to end up in that same category without bothering to listen to them first. Since I don’t care for Travis Tritt, I can walk past that entire section of the record store without so much as glancing at what else is being offered. It’s like staying away from New York City because you once had a bad meal at a Greek restaurant in the East Village.

We like organizing things, sorting everything – and everybody – into structures that allow us to rely on generalizations to determine our attitudes and our behavior, without requiring us to examine the component parts on their own individual merits. “Country”, “Jazz”, “Classical”, “Grunge”, “Rap” … With a single word we can accept or dismiss vast swathes of creative effort. No muss, no fuss; no need to invest a lot of time listening to anything unfamiliar.

Why not take this a step further, and add a few more labels to our shelves: “Abstract”, “Impressionist”, “Minimalist”, “Pop”? Or how about “Mystery”, “Poetry”, “Sci-fi”, “Thriller”? Or maybe still a few more: “Liberal”, “Trumpster”, “Intellectual”, “Evangelical”? Neat little drawers, each with its own label. So convenient.

The attractions of this approach are undeniable. Everything is so simple when you can reduce the entire messy, random circus of human existence to just a few convenient tags, and walk right by the awkward bits without even turning your head.

 

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 Lies/Father of History: 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

 

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.

 

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: Tuesday, September 3

From “Mathios Paschalis among the Roses”, by George Seferis

...
Her aunt was a poor old body, -- veins in relief, 
Many wrinkles about her ears, a nose about to die;
Yet her words always full of wisdom.
One day I saw her touching Antigone's breast,
Like a child stealing an apple.

Will I perhaps meet the old woman as I keep descending?
When I left she said to me "Who knows when we shall meet again?"
Then I read of her death in some old newspapers
And of Antigone's wedding and the wedding of Antigone's daughter
Without an end of the steps or of my tobacco
Which imparts to me the taste of a haunted ship
With a mermaid crucified, when still beautiful, to the wheel.

(Excerpted from “George Seferis: Poems”, translated from the Greek by Rex Warner, Nonpareil Books, 1960)