Memory

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of trying to remember something just beyond reach — an obscure word, the title of a painting, the name of a character in an old novel. You try hard to bring it up but it’s not a thing that yields to effort; indeed, the effort may drive it farther down.

I had an distressing instance of this just a few days ago. I happened to look at a scroll depicting songbirds on a branch with ripe persimmons — a scroll acquired forty-some years ago in Seoul. Like most calligraphic paintings, it has just above the artist’s name a short title in Chinese: Autumn Day, Fragrant Fruit. Looking at this, I stopped at the Chinese character signifying autumn. Of course I knew the meaning, and I knew the pure Korean word, ka’ul, but I could not remember the Sino-Korean monosyllable for the character. Absurdly, I even remembered the Japanese word for this character, aki, but the simple syllable in Sino-Korean would not come to me, even though I certainly learned it years before I knew any Japanese. How could this be?

After staring at it for a minute, waiting for it to come to the surface and waiting in vain, I turned to the bookshelf and took down the okp’yŏn, the one I bought fifty years ago at the bookstore by the Peace Corps office in Seoul, near Kwanghwamun. Using the method I learned so long ago, the method that came without thinking, I counted the strokes in the radical and then the strokes after it, and quickly found the page with the autumn character and saw the pronunciation written in the Korean phonemic alphabet, 추,  and said aloud, ch’u. Of course!

How could I have forgotten this? It’s baffling. I thought of all the surrounding elements I did remember: the wonderfully simple and consistent Korean alphabet; the method of looking up a Chinese character in an okp’yŏn; that the radical for the autumn character is itself a character, one of several meaning rice, in this case rice still unharvested; that the four strokes after the radical also made a distinct character, the one meaning fire, how I first learned this decades ago and that it stayed in memory because the idea of rice unharvested together with fire was a conjunction of ideas creating an easily comprehensible pictogram for autumn. I remembered all these things —  but the sound of the syllable ch’u had somehow fled. This did not seem possible. Ch’u appears in common vocabulary contexts: in the holiday Ch’usok, the Korean analog for our Thanksgiving; in ipch’u, the word for the autumn equinox; in the elegantly polite way to ask an older person’s age: Grandfather, how many springs and autumns have you passed? Well, somehow I had lost ch’u, but now I had it back, and looking again at the scroll, I could now read aloud the title, 추일향과, Ch’u Il Hyang Kwa, with a sense of life not quite so disordered.

But then I thought, what else do I not recall, what else has dropped down the memory hole? Of course the answer to this question is intrinsically unknowable, so I turned the question around: what do I remember? What far-off event or circumstance is still clear in my memory, however distant in the past? My childhood and teens do not invite close scrutiny, for they were never a source of happy thoughts, but could I remember anything altogether positive; or alternatively, was there a negative memory whose impression stays vivid?

Two such corresponding memories — one bad, one good — have always been with me, both of them from the earliest time I can recall with anything like detail. I was five years old and just about to begin my formal education in the first grade at Saint Stephen’s, a Catholic school in Canada. One memory of that time was freighted with bitterness. My first grade class was crowded — I believe around forty children or more — and all of us under the harsh eye of a diminutive nun, a woman whose ill temper more than made up for her short stature. She wore the severe habit usual in those times, the deep black of her serge tunic and veil scarcely relieved by the white of her coif and guimpe, and from her cincture hung her rosary and a stout leather strap. The strap had near daily use. In her considered judgement, one child’s misstep could be imputed to all the others, and punishment earned by one might be given to every child with salutary effect. I have a vivid memory of one such instance. Our daily work included memorizing questions and responses in the Catholic Catechism, and on this particular day, one of the boys could not answer correctly, so we were all punished with a lash across our palms from her leather strap. I still recall the sharp sting on my little hand. A teacher should deserve our respect, but clearly this teacher preferred our fear.

Is it the nature of memory that negative experience has more impact and thus lasts longer and with more detail? Does a corresponding positive memory have any chance? Yes, it seems that it does. Because the other experience from that time was something that happened the day before my first day at school. In this vivid memory, my older brother taught me how to tie my shoes. There was no Velcro then, and only well-tied laces could keep shoes on a boy’s feet. Sean sat with me on the bottom bunk bed and showed me how to do it, then made me keep doing it until I had it right. It was understood that no one at school would help me if my laces came undone, that I was on my own and entering a somewhat hostile environment. Sean was a year older than I and already a scarred and hardened veteran of the first grade at Saint Stephen’s. His help in this moment has always stayed with me, and this memory still evokes a strong sense of affection for him, that feeling which the old Greeks called philia

Well, despite the dark episodes of my early childhood and the decade and more that followed, I came through it all with a sense of humor, for there was nothing to gain from bitterness, and tears got you nothing but scorn. And anyway, it was always more fun to laugh. I try never to think of the nun, and I always recall with a warm feeling the essential life skill I learned from my brother, together with the undeniable moral precept that we are each responsible for keeping our shoes on our feet.

And something else I may keep in mind — the pronunciation of certain Chinese characters may temporarily slip away now and then, but I’ve never forgotten how to tie my shoes.

October 23, 2020

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Un Homme de la Gauche

Recently I saw these words in a New York Times piece by Binyamin Appelbaum: “A nation is a collection of people; the first job of government is to keep people from harm.” While many Americans would certainly agree with this, there are also many others who would not, who would object to the word “first.”.

This brings to mind the times when I talked with my sons about our democracy. They both studied American history and government in their high school days, and each in his time asked me about the meaning of liberal and conservative, and how the Democratic and Republican parties differed. It’s easy to answer these questions with more certainty than the facts allow, so I tried to be careful. I wanted to speak in the broad terms of a framework of ideas and then let them evaluate what they saw and heard in class and in each day’s events. And yet I confess my own perspective tilted what I said. 

I spoke of the great names of Enlightenment Europe who had written on this subject in times when the authority of various governments had been challenged by tumultuous events, going back to the English Civil War and before. I spoke of John Locke, who asserted that government’s purpose was to protect property by enforcing laws to ensure property could not be taken away without due process. And I spoke of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s idea of the Social Contract whereby the people’s loyalty to the government was conditioned on the government’s protection of the people and the people’s rights. On this basis I explained that conservatives and liberals differed on substantial issues; a conservative believes that government’s first duty is to protect property while a liberal insists the essential role is to protect the people. To be sure, all agree that both roles are important, but which is more important than the other? Where is the priority? In contemporary American politics, conservative policy is focused on property, especially money; thus, tax cuts and corporate welfare in the guise of deregulation is paramount for conservatives. Liberals, on the other hand, emphasize the importance of protecting the rights of all persons, and protecting all persons from the accidents of life, and promoting the potential of each person; moreover, liberals believe the government must pursue these goals regardless of race, gender or zip code. Both Democrats and Republicans insist on the importance of both functions of government, but their actions make clear their priorities. 

There’s an old expression once used by John Kennedy: A rising tide lifts all boats. Liberals see this as an ideal, a belief that the nation’s prosperity should benefit all Americans. But a conservative sees this differently and believes that prosperity is supposed to lift his yacht, and he’s distressed to see the same tide lift the poor family’s rowboat, and he is convinced that the upward thrust that lifts the rowboat can only be at the expense of his yacht. Thinking this, he trembles with indignation.

I used the examples of revolutionary movements or similar events in our country and others, because these events typically arise from a government failing in one or both functions. I explained that, strictly speaking, the American Revolution was no revolution at all, instead there was an outpouring of resentment among a minority of white men owning property — property that included slaves. These men rejected Britain’s assertion that the colonies should help pay the great cost of the recent war which Britain had fought against French expansion, and that a modest increase in commodity taxes was justified. The conflict lasted for years until the new United States, greatly aided by — who else? — the French, won a victory at Yorktown, where the American army pipers played The World Turned Upside Down, when the world, in fact, was mostly unchanged. White men still owned their property, and now they had the chance to gain far more by expanding to the west, pushing aside the people already living there. And certainly the slaves had seen no revolution, for their servitude was intact. The true result of this conflict was a victory for property rights, which was, from the American point of view, the whole reason for the conflict. And in the broadest sense, this has been the primary underlying theme of the U.S. government for most of the past two hundred years, and it’s certainly true today. One need look no farther than the tax code to see who is most privileged, most protected. Yachts are doing just fine; rowboats, not so much.

For comparison, I looked to the example of the French Revolution, a years-long struggle to throw off the  long-established regime which had lost its legitimacy because of its guarantees of special privileges for a landed aristocracy and the clergy, and its widely perceived failure to protect the broad mass of the people who bore the cost of a government which gave them no protection in return. This was a true revolution, with a startling promise of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité. True, these high-minded ideals excluded women, (although a few like Manon Roland and Charlotte Corday played significant roles at the cost of their lives), but the underlying concept of a Social Contract carried the promise of a government to serve all the people. Even African slaves in France were freed and given the citizenship, an honor which was — even more astonishing — also extended to Jews! In contrast to the earlier political events across the Atlantic, in the span of a few years France saw its world turned upside down as the aristocracy was stripped of its property, their traditional role as the Army officer class was handed over to any soldier who showed true merit, and the clergy was deprived of both its land and its privileged role in society. To be sure, some of these changes were reversed in the following decades, but the struggle continued through the next century with periodic revolutionary movements and open warfare at the barricades. The following decades saw 147  Communards go to the wall at Pére Lachaise, and the strife between the Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards which led to the death of Zola and others, and they played an essential role in the Resistance to Nazi Occupation, and the conflict which continues in France today between the left and the right. And all through this, the ideals of 1789 have never faded away, they live still and are given person in the expression, “a man of the left’ (un homme de la gauche), meaning an idealist not inclined to compromise principles, one who is committed to the idea that government must be in the form of a Social Contract. People believe this and are prepared to sacrifice for it, and some have made the greatest sacrifice of all.

And what did two young boys, now grown and gone, make of all this talk, with their father prosing away on things long past? Well, some seeds once planted will grow beyond expectations. They took their curiosity on this subject all through their education, and although each followed a different path, they carried their ideals with them. One of them makes his way in the corporate world and the other follows his path in the law, and while both these worlds have enough ambiguities to test anyone’s principles, I like to think they do very well. They each show every sign of steadfastness in their view that the government exists not to protect the wealthy yachtsman and his life of ease, but to protect and indeed encourage the poor boaters plying their oars. Their ideals are firm, and while they may differ in their small ways, I am proud to say that each is, in his own way, un homme de la gauche.

October 12, 2020

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Pragma

Language has its limits, and we cannot always say what we wish, especially if the word isn’t there. English, like other languages, lacks equivalents for words with distinct meaning in other tongues. One such word is the Greek word pragma. It’s one of several Greek words which, when translated, all get folded into the English word love. Indeed, our English love means so many things it’s a wonder it means anything at all. Love for parents, children, spouse, close friends, the love of God — all these kinds of love are distinguished in Greek and some other languages, but in English it’s all one, even when it clearly isn’t. 

Setting aside most of these, and giving thought to only one kind of love, let’s consider pragma, the love that comes late in life to those fortunate to gain it. It’s not the kind of love most know in their early years, the love that leads to bliss, calamity, strong desire, poems both sublime and silly, and — too often — heartache. This kind of love is all too common, but then, late in life, ‘the heyday in the blood is tame and waits upon the reason,’ and the far horizon draws near and then too near, and people may discover that they’ve been sharing life with the same person for more years than they ever passed before meeting, and in this moment they may understand this particular bond. When the Greeks spoke of this, they used the word pragma. It stands for the companionable, long-settled connection of two people who have shared life over a long time. It’s the bond between people who have, in many cases, raised children and sent them into the world, who have cared for each other through hardships and illness and the rough vicissitudes of life in a world of jagged edges and cruel blows, and now they share these last waning days and wish fervently that the days will wane slowly, so slowly, no hurry, all in good time.

Pragma reveals itself in those moments which now need few or no words at all. Two people sharing pragma may communicate with no more than a glance, a furrowed brow, a knowing smile, a wince, a shrug, a raised eyebrow, a laugh — all is understood. Indeed, a spoken word might break the moment’s spell.

Such things they’ve seen and shared! People who feel pragma have known the astonishing miracle of a child brought into the world; the profound anxiety of a childhood illness, followed by the ineffable relief of recovery; the immense pride over children’s achievements as they master balance on a bicycle, make a perfect grade, play a Mozart sonata, are first across a finish line, and then graduate from high school.  

And then they are grown and gone. Perhaps only gone to college, and for a time they still share summers and winter holidays, and then these, too, become less frequent, until a holiday comes and we find ourselves no more than two alone, and in this we must create our own contentment. To be sure, there are still moments to share with pride, like graduations in Providence and Annapolis, and the many shared family moments to come, and each is treasured as our children grow into commitments and share their lives with others and begin making their own way in the world, and then the day comes when the first grandchild is born, a fresh joy that echos the joy of birth decades ago. And then that child is joined by another!

As all this happens, years pass, the bond matures, and through those years they have seen each other’s quirks and eccentricities become less irritating, then acceptable, then normal, and at last amusing, a source of fun, until finally either one might say to the other, ‘I live to make you laugh.’ And yet, by this time we also insist the years must slow down, stand still, because we find ourselves gradually, slightly altered by time’s flow — we wish it were not so, insist we will live our lives just as we will, without end. And if some illness or affliction breaks rudely into this settled life, then together we must push back, resist with all the fierceness we can muster. 

Still, age taps our shoulder, reminds us that the time will come when we will find ourselves ‘sans eyes, sans teeth, sans nose, sans everything.’  

But no. Not sans everything! Vision may be dimmed, our steps may falter, our strength may weaken, but one thing we will never be without. Even at the very end as the darkness closes in, we will still have pragma.

September 8, 2020

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1968

The present year has been calamitous in ways we have not seen in a long time. Most Americans cannot recall a span of months when so much has gone so wrong, but I remember well such a year — 1968.

It all began badly with Tet, a new year celebration on the other side of the world where, many believed, the U.S. had no business being so deeply involved in another country’s politics.The North Vietnamese army marked the new year with attacks on our military forces, which led even more Americans to question our presence there. While this controversy played out, Lyndon Johnson, seen by many as responsible for this prolonged disaster, astonished us all by announcing he would not seek another term. As we absorbed this, we were shocked in a very different way by the death of Martin Luther King, shot by a white racist. But one senseless death was not enough that wretched year; in June, Robert Kennedy was gunned down just as he won the California primary which would have assured his nomination and very likely his succession to the White House. The ensuing disarray at the Democratic convention in Chicago was suppressed by police violence against anti-war protestors, The public reaction was certainly a factor in Nixon’s victory in November. All this was still not enough, and the end of this year found our country struggling with the Hong Kong flu epidemic which ultimately killed over 100,000 Americans, a heartbreaking dénouement in the wake of all that had come before. 

And yet all these were public events which everyone could follow in the newspapers and on the radio. As it happened, I was dealing with my own torments that year, and looking forward to the end of my last year of college and moving on to — what? I didn’t know yet, but this was not the greatest problem as I faced the end of this year. Before anything else I had to endure the worst illness I’d ever known, this terrible flu.

And I endured it completely alone in the most peculiar circumstance. I lived in a dormitory that year, a vast building, a place ordinarily alive with boisterous shouts and voices raised in laughter, or inebriated contention, or whatever might be the case. But now, with students gone for a two week break, it was an empty, silent sepulcher where I lived alone day after day during the Christmas and New Year holidays. I had the entire building to myself. The stillness and quiet were unnerving, and in the night I could hear faint echos and the small, secret sounds of an old building still settling, just enough sound to make a fellow think, am I really alone? But when I walked to the bathroom at the end of the hallway, I passed door after door, all locked and lifeless, and I easily imagined myself as the last forgotten sentinel of an ancient abandoned fortress, standing guard over ghosts.

To make it worse, I was missing work. In my college years, I took whatever odd jobs I could to make money, and despite this I was always next door to broke. As the holidays began, I had enough cash to last a week or so, but really needed to recover so I could work again. As I was coming down with the flu and heard on the radio that the symptoms could be severe — worse than any cold — I used what I had in my pocket to lay in a store of canned soup, tea and crackers. I had an electric hot plate in my room (a violation of widely disdained dormitory rules), and could heat up soup, but in fact I had little appetite and passed the days in bed in a fog of misery with a persistent cough and a fever.

This terrible flu caught me alone because two years before my parents had gone to Asia, my father working for the US government and my mother following along. When they left at the end of my sophomore year, their departure had been precipitous. They had sold the house, packed their things and left. Their letters were infrequent and came from unpredictable places, and I seldom knew where they were — in Taipei? in Singapore? — I learned only later that they had been in Saigon for Tet. True, there was my older brother, but he was already engaged and spending this holiday season with his fiancee and her parents. Was there no one else to take me in at this time of year? In fact, there wasn’t. My mother grew up an only child, and her parents had died years before. My father’s parents had also passed, and he was, for reasons I never learned, estranged from his only sister. Had this been otherwise, I would have spent the holidays with my aunt, but when my parents left Virginia the year before, they never mentioned her, and they gave me no address or phone number. They had left me to my own devices which, in this moment, meant I had to care for myself and get through this illness.

How strange, but I had not thought of this experience for many years, until the Trump virus began to afflict so many Americans. To be sure, this time the virus is ‘novel’ and far more fatal, and will take a higher toll still until it is gone. But looking back on the last days of 1968, I believe that when I finally recovered from the Hong Kong flu in the days after New Years, I crossed a meridian. The new semester would be my last, and I longed to graduate and leave Williamsburg for a wider world, even though I didn’t know where I might go. But then this problem, too, cleared away in late spring when I learned that the Peace Corps would send me to Korea.

Yes, 1968 and all its awfulness was past, and 1969, beginning with my recovery from this terrible flu, gave reason to expect better. Aside from my graduation, 1969 was a meridian year for other reasons, too, and in one way this was marked by the high spirits of a Woodstock summer. On a personal level, it was the year I left behind high school and college, that span of years when nothing seemed to go well. (Parenthetically, I have no photos of those years, no unwanted memories preserved, no mementoes to call up unsought nostalgia.) This was the year I said goodbye to all that. Aside from my personal circumstance, the country, too, gave evidence of moving on, leaving behind a terribly misguided war that did us no credit. The year began with a new president, Richard Nixon, who had campaigned on a promise that he had a ‘plan to end the war.’ This was years before Watergate, so we had no notion of his capacity for dishonesty, and the very idea of a ‘plan’ gave hope. And so, even though the war continued through that year, it seemed apparent that it would end, and perhaps soon, a hope reinforced by the nation-wide Moratorium March to end the war in Vietnam, an event I witnessed in Boston in October of that year, the week I joined the Peace Corps. This transition drew a line through my life, led me to a country and a continent where I would spend not just two years, but two decades and more and have experiences that would make me “the hero of my own life.” 

Will the fall of 2020 see our country once again cross a meridian? Will we have a collective sense of leaving behind a terribly dark episode and moving on to a brighter future? The first inescapable fact is the pandemic. We have a consensus of expert advice telling us a vaccine is unlikely until next year, regardless of official falsehoods before Election Day, and the fall will perhaps see the dreaded ‘second wave’ of Trump virus. But surely the time will one when the U.S. finally puts COVID 19 behind us. Then there will be the enormous task of rebuilding the economy. How long will this take, and will the process lead to a more equal distribution of wealth, or will we simply return to the status quo ante? This will depend on the result of the election.

But the election itself will be a crisis in its own right, with the incumbent claiming a false victory before all the votes are counted. On much reflection it strikes me that the true nature of this election will be the decision of the voters — using a deeply flawed process — on the central issue: will the U.S. finally have the possibility of true majority rule, or will we continue in the same contrived system of minority rule — the electoral college, a chaotic patchwork of voting laws depending on where you live, overt rigging of election districts, voter suppression, Senate filibuster, disenfranchised citizens in certain places like D.C and Puerto Rico — the same grotesqueries that we’ve had since the Founders came together to construct a system of government that empowered a propertied class, entitled a faction of slave owners, and allowed the growth of a landed aristocracy in a process which led to the oligarchy which now has its knee on America’s neck? Are we stuck with this?

Or will enough Americans come out to vote — and actually have their votes counted? Will we collectively solve these problems which have plagued this country since the beginning, which have been exploited and exacerbated for the past four decades and led to the travesty of this corrupt administration? Will we finally solve this?

Will we cross this meridian?

September 6, 2020

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Monsters

American foreign policy was not always arrogant and driven by ideology; indeed, from the outset there have always been leaders who voiced concern about stepping out into the world in a forceful way. When Washington said we must “avoid entangling alliances,” he was speaking of a new country with significant foreign powers on its immediate borders. With British Canada to the north, French Louisiana to the west and Spanish Florida to the south, an alliance with any of these nations would potentially antagonize the others. Not many years later, in a famous 1821 essay, John Quincy Adams wrote that the US “is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all….. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” He insisted we must avoid “all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.” The same idea was reflected in the opinions of many who opposed the Mexican War and the notion of manifest destiny. Among these was a freshman congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, who spoke against the war even though it had support among his constituents; he became a one term Congressman, but his principled stand helped make possible a future political role.

In the mid-twentieth century, isolationism gained a bad name, partly because the candid anti-semitism of isolationists like Charles Lindbergh in 1940 appeared in a different light in 1945 when America’s hometown newspapers carried the first photographs from Auschwitz. In the aftermath of that war, our generation grew up in a political environment that took for granted that the US must have a role in protecting what was widely viewed as the positive function of democratic values in the world beyond our shores.

But too often in the 1950s and 1960s and even into the new century, our entanglements meant supporting dictators — until they became fractious, in which case they might be felled by a well-funded coup; or we supported a putative patriot for no other reason than his command of English, or his nominal adherence to some Christian sect; or we might begin an ill-advised war because we were under the delusion that we were in danger of another country’s weapons, a danger which might be purely hypothetical, unfounded in fact.

Our misadventures have been numerous and too, too prolonged, in large measure because the people who most enthusiastically embrace these conflicts are the same people who can never, never, never admit error. They are infallible, they are our foreign policy popes.

But perhaps we can now say that we’ve seen the last of all these adventurers, and hope the world will now ignore us and no longer take us seriously when we talk of supporting democracy around the world. How can an American president ever again tell another country, “Tear down this wall!” when our current president wants to build his own? Given the deplorable course of American health policy of the past months and our horrendous failures, why would any other country pay us heed? Indeed, even twenty years ago, after the Florida recount fiasco exposed the frailty of our elections, it was astonishing to see US officials criticize elections anywhere else in the world, but they did. Now, having shown the world that a 3,000,000 popular vote majority is rendered meaningless by the baroque idiocy of our electoral college, will Americans now hesitate before condemning any other country’s election? Will we now have second thoughts about getting involved in any other country’s political process?

After all, how can “we go abroad, in search of monsters to destroy” when we have a far worse monster destroying us right here at home?

August 11, 2020

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Weary Days

When will these weary days be done? Not soon, at the time of this writing. We are worn down and heartsick from what has happened to us, and we long for an end to this terrible version of our country, a version wrought by a monster and the drones who surround and enable him. But before we can believe this terrible time is behind us, we must have a national election, a vaccine for the Trump virus that we can trust, and a sense that we have rounded a corner and left the worst behind.

The sequence of these things is still unknown at this point in midsummer, but the only event with a known date is the election, and it’s reasonable to think that the election will come before a vaccine, or any hope that the worst is past. The November election will actually begin in October, when some states start early voting.  Before then, we will see some predictable events. Attorney General Barr will announce the findings of his months-long review of the investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election, a report aimed at giving credence to Trump’s claims of a “hoax,” and adding support to his insistence that crimes were committed by the Deep State to delegitimize his election. And then, before Election Day, Trump will announce a “cure” for the Trump virus, but he won’t use the world “vaccine” because his supporters include the anti-vaccine fantasists. There will, of course, be no actual cure, but there will be a media event — for Trump, the only reality that matters — and he will look to ride this tide of false hope. In advance of the election, Trump will do everything possible to delegitimize the voting. In some states with Republican governors, he’ll have their cooperation in suppressing and undercounting the ethnic vote, and Barr’s Department of Justice will studiously look the other way.

Because the pandemic will bring a significant increase in mail-in ballots, and because many states allow ballots postmarked up to Election Day, the final vote count will not be known until a week later. If Trump ekes out a win similar to 2016 — a popular vote loss but an electoral college win, however narrow — he will declare victory, and the country as we have always known it will be finished. Our polity cannot survive four more years of this, and this election may prove to be our last.

But even if Trump appears to have lost both the popular and electoral vote, he will declare the election a fraud in any swing state with a close count on Election Day and Biden in the lead. This claim will be based on no evidence at all but will rally his supporters around the country, and we must remember that many of these people are armed and belligerent. We can anticipate prolonged turmoil in the period between Election Day and year-end. Trump has never shown any regard for norms and traditions, so we have no reason to anticipate that he will accept his loss graciously and make a concession speech. This is not his style at all. He will cause delay and foment dissension far worse than anything we saw in the 2000 Florida recount, and there is certainly the potential for violence; indeed, Trump will encourage it. Current episodes of armed and anonymous Federal enforcement agents in Portland, Oregon are a sign that Trump is already preparing for a civil struggle.

The only way to prevent this interregnum of doubt and danger will be a massive turnout, and we may now be seeing the first hints of this in early polling numbers. The country needs not so much an overwhelming vote for Biden; it needs an unequivocal, vehement rejection of Trump, especially in those states he won in 2016. The swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina may be less worrisome because they now have Democratic governors, but these states also lack a history of widespread absentee mail-in voting. In Florida and Georgia, with Republican governors putting their thumbs on the scale, Trump and his adherents will have every incentive to cheat, with support from Republicans terrified at the risk of losing their place at the trough.

 Moreover, based on previous experience, Trump will once again welcome help from Vladimir Putin, who has gained far more than any American from Trump’s misrule.

Even if, despite all this, we somehow survive with a clear consensus of a Democratic win and Biden assumes the office in January, there will yet be the enormous task of rebuilding the country, beginning with the validation of science in our national health policy. In due time, and certainly sooner than in our present environment, there will be a vaccine we can trust, a vaccine produced to make the public safe, and not one aimed solely at quick profits and further riches for oligarchs and shareholders.

We all know Churchill’s comment that the United States always does the right thing, but only after it tries everything else. In the present Trump pandemic and under his malevolent leadership, we have been trying everything else for too long now, but from January 2021, we may be able to do the right thing.

Only then will these weary days be done. Only then will Americans feel truly safe sending their children to school, and only then will fond grandparents once more take young children by the hand and walk out into a safer world.

July 22, 2020

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Fillide Melandroni

Paintings tell stories, and some of these stories are not the ones before our eyes, staring back from the museum wall.

Imagine if you will, a momentous event depicted on canvas — a battle scene, an anecdote from the Greek myths or a Biblical legend — and this is the story we see on the canvas. But many paintings also have other stories, the stories that are part of the act of creation, the tales that underlie the paint, the canvas, the frame. Some of the best stories come from the provenance of a painting, the long and winding tale of ownership, everything that happened after the last strokes, the vernissage. But apart from these tales of provenance, an equally compelling subject concerns the people in the paintings — not the characters depicted, but the actual men and women, the models. Aside from portraits and self-portraits, (itself a subject of compelling interest), in most paintings with a human form there is also the story of a model, that one person chosen by the artist to represent another, a person chosen for a face and a form or whatever else — perhaps even charisma — whatever the artist used to represent another person. Most of these models are unknown, especially for older works, but a very few are clearly identified and documented, and one of these is Fillide Melandroni.

She was the daughter of a family that fell on hard times. Her father died when she was a young girl, and her family left Siena hoping for a better life in Rome and found instead desperation. We can easily imagine the hardships she faced in these early years and the destitution — even hunger — that compelled her mother’s decision to send the fourteen year old girl out on the streets of Rome to make her living in the oldest way. By 1597, when only sixteen, she appeared in Caravaggio’s Portrait of a Courtesan. (It may be noted that we only know this work from photographs because the original was lost in the Allied bombing raids of Berlin in 1945.) By all accounts, Fellide was already making a name for herself in Rome, and, as the title suggests, it was not the best reputation. The word courtesan is a euphemism for a woman who grants her favor in a transaction, but only to a particular clientele. In Fillide’s case, these included the sons of Rome’s best families, certain well-placed and discerning clergy, and, it would seem, the rising, young artist Caravaggio. In her portrait, she looks at us askance, as if doubting our intentions, and the look says a lot about her. She shows a maturity that would surprise us in one so young, were it not for the way she was making her way in the world. Her maturity was gained in exchange for her virtue, and this, I believe, Caravaggio has captured in her portrait. The artist’s relationship with Fillide is open to speculation. Perhaps they were lovers — or something like it — but any relationship was not exclusive. Whatever the case, he painted her again and again.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was the great ruffian of the late Renaissance and early Baroque period, ready at any moment to draw the sword which he had no legal right to carry. Apart from having a genius with paint, brush and canvas, he was a brawler, quick to perceive an offense and quicker still to avenge it, a man whose enemies were well-earned, and this partly explains why, for centuries, he was not well regarded. When creating his paintings, Caravaggio was famous for the swiftness of his composition, creating directly on the canvas with no preliminary sketches. His use of light and shadow influenced generations of painters, and he was widely imitated. But he was also notorious for using street people and even prostitutes as models — even for the Madonna and other saintly women who appear in the Gospels. An early example is Martha and Mary, in which Fillide appears as Mary Magdalene, while Martha borrows the face and form of Anna Bianchini,  Fillide’s childhood friend from Siena and, as it were, her working colleague in Rome.  The painting shows the moment when Martha is persuading Mary Magdalene to abandon a life of sin and follow the teachings of Jesus.

From this same period, Caravaggio also used Fillide’s face and form in Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a painting on view at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. Catherine was a fourth century saint whose life story blossomed in the imaginations of early hagiographers. According to the legend, she was born to a prominent Roman family in Alexandria, and at the age of fourteen and in the time before Emperor Constantine recognized the faith, she converted to Christianity and thus came into conflict with authority when she refused to abandon the new religion. She was scourged  and imprisoned but refused to give up her faith, then was led out to be broken on a wheel but the wheel shattered at her touch, and so, in frustration, the executioner beheaded her. (This hagiography was probably based on the death of another woman who died a century later, Hypatia of Alexandria, a famous mathematician and astronomer. She was a pagan Greek, and was murdered by a Christian mob.) We also see displayed in this painting the palm frond, a common symbol of martyrdom, and the sword used to behead her. These, together with the wheel, were symbols necessary to identify the Christian saint to contemporary Romans viewing the painting, many of whom might have recognized Fillide from her other, very different public role. Fillide’s eyes look at us aside, she is enigmatic, but I like to imagine she says to us: “Do they really need all of this to kill me?” I look long at her face and I see a survivor, someone who has seen much and perhaps endured worse.

Another painting in which Fillide appears is Judith Beheading Holofernes, a work no less shocking today than in its own time. Depicting an especially lurid episode in the Old Testament, (of which there are many), the work shows the moment when Judith takes the sword of the drunken Assyrian general and begins to saw away at his neck, which — no surprise — wakens him from his stupor. Fillide’s expression draws our attention; she is understandably repulsed by her act and yet determined to see it through. Very likely this was not the first or last time she was so involved in something both distasteful yet necessary in the moment. Fillide was no stranger to violence; in 1600, vivid court testimony records her using a knife to assault another woman in a fit of jealousy. This painting is notable for another reason. It clearly made a profound impression on Artemisia Gentilischi, the foremost woman artist of Italy in the seventeenth century. Like many other painters in those decades, she was strongly influenced by Caravaggio, and she painted the Judith and Holofernes scene multiple times, using his techniques.

What became of Fillide? Her fate and Caravaggio’s intertwined off and on, and she appeared again in The Entombment of Christ as both Mary Magdalene and Mary of Clopas. Then, in 1606 the artist killed a man in a duel, a man who may have been Fillide’s procurer, and there has been some speculation that she may have been one reason for the quarrel and duel. Caravaggio fled Rome to escape the authorities, and Fillide never saw him again. The artist spent his last years as a fugitive in Naples, Sicily, Malta and Naples again, all along making his way with paint and brush, and in Malta making more enemies, too. We know he was desperate for the papal pardon that would allow his return to Rome, but was she one of the reasons he yearned to take up his life in the city again? Whatever the case, he never made it back, and in 1610 he died on the road back to Rome in ambiguous circumstances, very likely dying of wounds inflicted by a Maltese Knight.

We are left to wonder, what was their relationship; were they in fact intimate or was she only his model? We have no certain answer, for although both their names appear in court records, typically in sordid circumstances, there is  no correspondence, no diary. For my part, I’m always ready to imagine what I cannot know, and in a world where so much is so profoundly wrong and wounding, I prefer to imagine something better. Fillide lived several years beyond the artist’s death, and in her brief remaining years she fell in with other patrons, including the Venetian poet and librettist Giulio Strozzi, whose family, scandalized by the young poet’s liaison, compelled her to leave Rome for a time until she returned in 1614. Four years later, she died. We know a little beyond this for she left a will and this has survived in the Roman archives, and the very existence of this will confirms that her last days were not sunk in poverty. Indeed, the will includes a household inventory which tells us she lived in comfort, even comparative wealth for one who came to Rome as a pauper. In her will, she left to Strozzi Caravaggio’s portrait of her as a young courtesan, the painting lost in the Berlin bombing. We may never learn anything more of her, but we can always hope other old letters or documents will turn up in an archive or an ancient attic.

Her life was shadowed by misfortune, and her reputation was not what anyone would wish. Regardless of the circumstances in which she earned her daily bread, her face and form are still preserved for us to see, centuries later, in these magnificent paintings from the hand of one of the great artists of that or any other time. But in those days not everyone could countenance the facts of her life.  Upon her death, the Catholic Church chose to disregard Fillide’s appearance in several paintings as one Mary or another, or as a venerated saint, or as an Old Testament Furiosa. Instead, the authorities insisted on condemning her as a cortigiana scandalosa. She was denied a Christian funeral and her body was buried in unconsecrated ground in a place now unknown.

But she lives forever in these paintings.

June 22, 2020

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Emigration

James Baldwin, speaking in 1985 in Ken Burns’ documentary about the Statue of Liberty, said that to black Americans the statue was “a bitter joke.” Baldwin spoke these words not long before he passed away, but they have the same impact today. I first read Baldwin when I was a college student in Williamsburg, Virginia, where the Greyhound bus station had two water fountains and four public bathrooms, and everyone knew which one they were supposed to use. It’s not the same these days, and the more grotesque signs of our fevered past have been swept away, but these terrible murders by police, followed by a more intense BLM movement, make clear that the underlying issue remains. I’m especially struck by the way these incidents and the consciousness of the problem has spread to other shores. 

For most of our lives until very recently, our country was, to borrow words from John of Gaunt, the envy of less happy lands. We Americans all learn this idea of our exceptionalism, and we also see in our daily lives some proof that we are, indeed, not like other countries. Most of us can point to our own family histories, because some of those less happy lands were the origins of our parents and grandparents, and most of our friends can say they same. We readily believe other countries envy us. Why else would so many people come from so many places, speaking so many other languages, believing so many other faiths? Would they come here if they were happy where they were? 

In the early American centuries, many people came for religious reasons, because they wanted to be free to practice their faith and, if possible, force others to accept the same beliefs. Many more came looking for land, something not available in their home countries but abundant here in America where you might, without too much trouble and with the help of the Army, take your land by force from those who had a prior claim. Since those early years and up to recently, many other immigrants came here escaping elsewhere but knowing little about this place, and what they knew might be far from true. But most believed that if you worked hard, you might succeed, or your children would have a better chance of doing so. And there was some truth in this — at least for some people.

It’s harder to believe this now. In these past few years, fewer people have come — and those still coming must be pretty desperate. Our government has made it far more difficult to come and harder still to stay. Those who used to come to study at our universities, or build a business with their savings, or use their special skills to prosper in a more open setting — surely they will now have second thoughts. Why hazard on chance? Why risk the United States? Instead, they might try Canada, or Australia, or — with a bit of real luck — they might find a new home in New Zealand. 

The U.S. claims to be the land of opportunity but now that claim can only be made in irony. Any country with a political system capable of raising up a malignant imbecile like Trump — and a country which may even lengthen his time in office long after he has proven himself utterly corrupt and incompetent — can hardly hold itself up as a beacon to the world. Indeed, the country is not even a beacon to the people already here. People of color have always known this, but now they have it confirmed each time the President stands up and brays before a crowd of bigots.

Our small children and grandchildren will someday wonder, How did this happen? It happened because our government fell into the hands of people who didn’t believe in it, people who swallowed whole the imbecile notion that the American people and their government were two separate and distinct things, and one of them was good and the other was evil. One party began preaching this notion forty-plus years ago, and they sold the idea by promising tax cuts — in effect, buying people’s votes with the people’s own money — which slowly destroyed our nations’ public schools and weakened the social safety net slowly built up in the decades after the Great Depression.

Now, in this new crisis, Americans look upon the countries we rebuilt after the mid-twentieth century wars and we see them excel us in every way. The enemies we defeated long ago now look at us in disdain, and our oldest allies wonder how they ever depended on us. In self-defense we can say that most American voters did not vote for the villain, but this only serves to confirm the idiocy of a political system which permits a malignant minority’s sovereignty over the clear election majority.

At some point — and certainly if the fool contrives to cheat his way to four more years — the only rational response is to look for the exit. Yes, emigration may be the way out some may choose if they see no hope of improvement. Those of us in the latter half of life may believe it’s too late for so radical a change, but who can say? The web has no end of options for overseas destinations for American retirees with a sense of adventure. Many places have a lower cost of living and pretty much anywhere has less expensive health care.

Younger Americans born and growing up in this current, deeply troubled version of our country seem to be starting out with less hope and fewer delusions, so they may approach the question with an open mind. One clear option is higher education in another country and a diploma unburdened by horrendous debt. Imagine, if you will, that you, descended from grandparents who came here from Ireland or Italy or Germany, may one day see your grandchildren graduate from a university in Europe, and that grandchild might stay to build a career there rather than risk coming back to a country where another vicious scoundrel might sit behind the Resolute desk. 

And if any of our grandchildren did so, they would not be the first to emigrate. After all, Baldwin left this country at the age of 24 and lived out his days in France.

June 23, 2020

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Together Again

This has happened before and now it happens again. A visit to a museum that was originally a private collection leads to something wholly unexpected. Three years ago, it was the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, where I saw Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of a Young Woman and thought, how did this come to be here in Lisbon and not in Rome or Florence, or somewhere in Italy, or perhaps in the Louvre? And now, visiting the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, I find myself wondering the same thing, and this time it’s a painting I would expect to find at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

I see it across the room at a distance of several meters, and yet I seem to feel its effect before I can begin to take in any detail. Can it be that a Holbein portrait draws one in, pulls one forward? The painting is Holbein’s 1536 portrait of Henry VIII. In his role as a court artist, Holbein painted Henry several times, but all the other surviving images of Henry are copies made from Holbein’s original works. It was a common practice then; courtiers wishing to demonstrate their fealty to the monarch commissioned other artists to make a copy of any portrait favored by the king, and displayed this copy in their homes in anticipation of a royal visit, so that the king might see his own image on display. This painting here in Madrid is unique because it’s the only surviving portrait of Henry from Holbein’s own hand. It’s commonly understood that this portrait was a preparatory study for a larger full-length portrait for which we now have only a copy because the original was lost in the great Whitehall fire in 1698.

HOLBEIN, Hans El Joven_Retrato de Enrique VIII de Inglaterra, c. 1536

It’s an arresting portrait. Henry’s clothing is rich in texture and depicted in great detail — the fine silk and the intricate embroidery, and each hand showing a precious jewel. But all this is beside the point; it’s his face that draws us in, and we stare at him and he stares right back. He is forty-five years old and has already been injured in a fall from his horse, an injury that will plague him for the rest of his life and which, by some historical speculation, gave him a concussion from which he never recovered and which accounted for his increasing irascibility and unpredictable temper, a temper evident in his stare, almost a glower. The jeweled hat hides his increasing baldness, and the fullness of his face, the incipient jowls, have perhaps been minimized. Holbein knew how to flatter but not too much.

Holbein’s Henry VIII portrait makes a striking impression for another reason, a rather subtle reason which I would have missed completely if I had neglected the adjacent portrait along the wall with its brief description card. This next portrait shows a young girl with red hair, a fresh complexion, and a serious mien, as if she were thinking of the afterlife, or perhaps simply contemplating a fate beyond her control. Scholars believe this is the work of Holbein’s near contemporary, Juan de Flanders. It’s his 1496 portrait of a young girl, Catherine of Aragon, aged eleven and already engaged to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales. Arthur’s early death and Catherine’s subsequent marriage to his younger brother, Henry, and their marital life of twenty-some years with its turbulent end in the most consequential divorce of its time is a tale that needs no re-telling here. But it may be noted that her Hapsburg uncle Carlos V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, insisted on the legitimacy of Catherine’s marriage to Henry. And so the juxtaposition of Catherine’s portrait with Henry’s here in a museum in Madrid is a statement that brims with wit and irony, because Henry’s portrait was painted in 1536, the same year he ordered the execution of Anne Boleyn, the woman for whom he cast aside his Spanish queen.

How did these two paintings come to be here, next to each other? Fortunately, the provenance of both paintings is well established. Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza acquired the de Flanders portrait of Catherine from the Duque del Infantado in 1930, at the beginning of the Great Depression, a time when financial distress resulted in the sale and transfer of many works of art. As for the Holbein painting of Henry, this hung on the wall for many years at Althorp House in Northamptonshire, the Spencer family home. Then in 1934, Thyssen- Bornemisza acquired Holbein’s portrait of Henry when the 7th Earl of Spencer, needing cash, decided to sell some of the family’s art collection. And so these acquisitions were separate events, and we cannot confidently say they were purchased with the intent of hanging them together so that visitors familiar with the controversial marriage and divorce might contemplate Carlos V having the last word. But I like to think some Spanish curator with an impish sense of humor saw the possibility of making a statement. 

But surely some British patron of the arts must have seen the portrait of Henry as a work of national significance, a worthy candidate for the National Portrait Gallery. Has no one raised the notion of asking the Spanish authorities to intercede in recognition of its British patrimony and bring about its return? True, the possession of the Elgin marbles at the British Museum  puts the British in a poor position to demand the return of a national treasure, but couldn’t the British at least make a decent offer? Spain might not necessarily hand it back as a beau geste, but perhaps a financial inducement commensurate to its worth might bring about its return.

On the other hand, reflecting on the underlying unfortunate episode in Anglo-Spanish relations and Henry’s ill treatment of the long-suffering Catherine, and in recognition of the rightness of Catherine’s cause, perhaps the Spanish might prefer to have the last word and keep both paintings where they are, side by side.  Politics, bitterness, arrogance and anger and a disregard for common justice may have torn these two lives apart, but these two paintings can place them where they ought to be  — together again.

April 12, 2020

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Seville

Based on my reading, I was predisposed to enjoy Seville, one of the great cultural destinations of Europe, and thus I expected a city to please the eye. There was reason enough to anticipate the city’s grandeur. It was one of the wealthiest taifas of the Moorish period until 1248 when it fell to the Catholic Reconquista.  And then for centuries the Guadalquivir River, navigable all the way to Seville, made the city a major entrepôt for trade with the Americas and Asia, and so it prospered as one of the wealthiest cities of Europe. Artists, too, prospered in Seville as the nobility, churchmen and merchants poured out their wealth to build a great metropolis with magnificent structures.

Perhaps we chose a less appealing, too recent neighborhood for our stay, or perhaps the reason lies in this half-hearted drizzle that darkens the sky as I take my morning walk, but it seems I look in vain for the charms of Seville, and find instead a rather scruffy city. Walking the streets in the direction of the old quarter, I pass any number of undistinguished buildings and see a surprising number of pawnshops and lawyers’ offices and I wonder, does the one business provide money for the other? Even the public parks are run-down. Towering palm trees shed their scabrous bark to the pathways far below, where it lies uncollected, and the orange trees litter their unwanted fruit on the ground. True, we may be here at the least opportune time of year. Seville’s notorious, implacable summer heat persuaded us to visit the city in mid-winter, when the rain comes down and the air is chilly but breathable. 

But later in the day, walking out together, we discover one of the most famous sights of the city, the Plaza de Español, an imposing semi-circular edifice with its arms stretching out from its Puerta de Aragon, embracing a wide area with decorative pools around a space broad enough to review an army. Around the semi-circle are separate sections for each of the principal cities of Spain, each one with its unique azulejo art depicting historic scenes of Spain’s defeat of foreign invaders, mostly Moorish and French. We take photos of some of these — Granada, Cádiz, Malaga, Seville, Toledo — places we have visited. We also see a public performance of flamenco, and I begin to think we must give the city its due and perhaps allow for the fact that the rain may have dampened our appreciation of the city’s finer points. 

Nearby is the Alcazar, where we enjoy ourselves even before we enter. Reaching the head of the line to buy our tickets, we ask for the senior discount which most places offer to anyone over sixty. The young man behind the counter smiles, greets us in English, and asks my wife if she has her passport as proof of her age. Having passed sixty a decade ago, she’s delighted by the request and gladly shows her passport, which he examines, then pretends astonishment at seeing 1948, which delights her again. But when I offer my passport he waves it away, there’s clearly no need to see mine. This makes Kyongsook laugh even more, but then I see he’s having a joke with us, which he proves by giving her a smile, a wink, and an antic thumb’s-up. Later in the day, we still laugh about this.

As for the Alcazar itself, this old fortress was built by the Moors to defend their position here. Clearly it failed this purpose, but as a statement of Moorish art and architecture it has much to say. It calls to mind the Alhambra in Granada, but on a somewhat larger scale, and yet on reflection this only serves to prove that more can indeed be less. The Alhambra in Granada is situated on top of a hill overlooking the city below and the broad plain beyond, while Sevilla’s fortress is on a low, flat space at a bend in the river, with no more view than the rooftops of the city that grew and spread in more recent eras. Seville’s Alcazar is well enough in its way but we both prefer the Alhambra and the city of Granada where, I might add, it didn’t rain.

The Cathedral is far more impressive, a grandiose statement in Spanish Gothic. Like other cathedrals in Andalusia, its construction incorporated existing elements of a Moorish mosque, including the Giralda, the tall minaret from which the muezzin sang out the greatness of his deity and summoned the faithful to come and pray. Conquering Christians ended all that and capped the minaret with a bell tower to call a different faithful to worship an earlier version of the same deity in a very different rite. These high towers always beckon to me as a challenge, and so I make the ascent, just as I did the week before at a similar tower at the Cadiz Cathedral. The two towers have more in common than Moorish antecedents; the steep way up both of these towers is not by steps but rather by a gently sloping walkway with a high arched ceiling all along, a ceiling high enough for a man on horseback, (or a priest on a donkey.) The Giralda of Seville is far more demanding at 104 meters, more than double the height of the Cadiz tower. By the time I reach the top I’m, well, knackered, and I tell myself, next time bring a horse. 

The interior of the cathedral is more impressive, a vast chasm of space broken up by an array of columns holding up the ceiling high overhead, a ceiling partly lost in shadows. And yet for me the most memorable feature on view is the elaborate monument to Columbus, his body entombed in a coffin held aloft on the shoulders of four allegorical figures representing the four kingdoms of Spain in the time of the explorer — Castile, Aragon, Navarre and León. But the style of his tomb is, to put it bluntly, altogether discordant with its architectural surroundings. The design, the materials, the period reflected by this monument — none of it really fits. The tomb clearly came long after its surroundings; indeed, it seems comparatively recent.

But wait, there’s more to this story, and we can hardly turn away from his tomb without noting that Columbus may have travelled farther after his death than he did as an explorer. Indeed, his peripatetic afterlife is a metaphor for Spain’s imperial grandeur and also for its gradual eclipse as a world power. It takes very little research to discover that this resting place is one of a series, and perhaps not the last. The great man was first buried where he died, in Valladolid in 1506, but soon thereafter his body was moved to Seville, where he stayed until 1542 when he crossed the Atlantic again, and then was enshrined in Santo Domingo in recognition of his role in the discovery of the Americas. In 1795, Spain surrendered its rule over the Dominican Republic, and so the body was moved again to Havana, where it rested for a scant hundred years before Cuba, too, was lost, and so his body recrossed the ocean to Seville where it ended in this tomb in 1898. Well, we can only hope that Spain will now keep the old fellow and let him requiescat in pace at last.

This all makes me reflect: perhaps what I’ve learned upon seeing his tomb is more significant that seeing the tomb itself. I have, in effect, made my sight-seeing personal, I’ve internalized it in an unanticipated way. And really, shouldn’t our experience be more than the sum of all the sights of monuments, edifices, and sites of grandeur? May we not also consider the effect of personal experiences on a more intimate scale? A few come to mind in this city.

One of my solitary early morning walks takes me past the Church of San Pedro where the door is open, so I go in. Mass has not yet begun and there are few people, so I make my way around the nave. I see a very finely carved confessional made of severely dark mahogany, certainly from trees cut down by slaves long ago in the American colonies, which makes me wonder, were the sins whispered in this confessional worse than the sins which brought this wood to Spain? Moving farther along the nave I see a large marble plaque set into the wall and, slowly deciphering the text, I discover that Spain’s great artist, Diego Velasquez, was baptized in this church in 1599, an event commemorated 300 years later by these chiseled words. I’m struck by the coincidence, for Velasquez is an artist whose work I look forward to seeing a few days from now at the Prado in Madrid.

The next day, returning together from the Alcazar and walking through the Juderia district where Velasquez spent his early years, (some scholars believe the artist’s parents were conversos), we walk past the San Pedro church and come to a place which by reputation is the oldest café in Seville and perhaps in Spain, El Rinconcillo. As the name suggests, it’s on a corner, and as we step inside we see a long L-shaped bar, and set into one wall we see an azulejo artwork informing us this place has served the neighborhood since fundada año 1670. It’s a bustling, somewhat noisy place, even in mid-afternoon, and it’s standing room only, but we manage to make a place for ourselves at the end of the bar and are served by a cheerful waiter who soon brings our tapas with a racione of fried fish together with wine and, of course, a dish of olives. The crowd seems mostly from the neighborhood but the café is so famous that we’re not surprised to see a nearby group of people who my wife believes may be American, but when she speaks to them (and why not?), she learns they are German tourists. One seems less than pleased to be taken for an American, (a sign of the president’s deep unpopularity in Europe), but they recover quickly, and Kyongsook has some conversation with them, and then we do each other the favor of taking photographs to mark the moment. Aside from the photos, I would remember the place anyway because of the impression which lingers in my thoughts. To mark the moment, before we leave we have a glass of manzanilla, a fine dry sherry which, despite the name, is not made from little apples.

On reflection, it’s anecdotes like these — previously unknown things we now come to learn, or small moments of personal experience — that fix a place in memory. To be sure, we may retain the sight of monuments which we’ve seen before only in books or films, and photographs also have their role in capturing the experience of a place, preserving it so that we may relive a moment at a later time. But for my part, I like to build on memories by seeking out some unusual facts, even if trivial, or setting down some anecdote of what I saw or did in a place worth remembering. Columbus’s tomb means more to me because I now know how his body wandered widely before it settled in Seville’s cathedral, and when I recall the Giralda, my memory of climbing all the way up the bell tower — with no horse — will matter more to me than the photograph of the tower I took from outside, and when I see a Velasquez painting I will remember the small, intimate neighborhood church where he was baptized, and when we next have a glass of manzanilla, we’ll both recall standing at the same bar where others have stood since 1670. 

And of course we’ll certainly remember the Alcazar and the young man selling tickets who could easily believe that I was well past sixty, but insisted that Kyongsook must prove it.

2/29/2020

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