Angela Moore, "Jasmin"
Art, Music, Books & Film

Imagined Cities

Imagine you are asked to collect a set of prompts that could conjure up your city for someone who has never been there. Think of it as an “inspiration box”. The only limit on your imagination is not to include any visual elements, no photographs or paintings, or visual elements expressed in form, either. That includes food– no croissants or meat pies or Currywurst.

The objects you will select will be just a subset of a vast number of sets of possible prompts, not only because your neighbor and every other resident of the city would submit a different set but also because you would probably select a different representation of your city each time you were asked. If I started the list after a bad day my box would contain sound bits of honking horns and surly shopkeepers, a menu from an overpriced restaurant, and a feuille volante exhorting the city’s residents to a rally in front of the Parliament. Give me a good day and I would include a recording of friends talking at a garden café and the clink of glasses raised in a toast, the sounds of a Hitchcock movie interspersed with the chirping of crickets, a nod to the open-air cinemas that are as much a part of the aural texture of summer in this city as the hum of air-conditioners. And perhaps a poem about jasmine—there are not many public gardens in the city but nearly everyone has a balcony, and its perfume accompanies summer nights as surely as moonlight and the conversation of friends.

Jasmine, in the form of a poem of the same title by Giorgos Seferis, was among the items in the “Inspiration Box” gathered by the organizers of the exhibition Strange Cities: Athens, which is sponsored by the Onassis Cultural Center and organized in cooperation with the curating agency Double Decker and the Athens-based architectural firm Spacelab Architecture. The boxes were given to 24 young photographers, graphic artists, sculptors, and painters from Europe and North America as a stimulus to imagine a city—Athens—that they had never visited.

Apart from the poem, the box also contained two chapters of a crime novelist’s account of the city, a recipe for stuffed vegetables, recordings of Manos Hatzidakis’ nostalgia-laden song “A Magic City” and an instrumental piece of electronic music by Konstantinos Vita, as well as sound bits recorded in the city.

Not surprisingly there were no visual elements in the box. The invitation was addressed to artists, and the organizers didn’t want to limit the imaginative field of the artists to whom the invitation was addressed. I was surprised, however, that there were no vials of aromas. I can’t imagine a place without its scents. If I were asked to make such a box of the resort town I summered at as a child, I would include sprigs of honeysuckle and a tube of suntan lotion, or the sickly sweet smell of the insecticide that the municipality used to spray our neighborhood with.

Though there were no pictures in the box and the brief specifically asked the artists not to look up anything about the city, this did not mean that the artists had no visual stimuli at hand. They already had their own treasury of images of Athens, accumulated from history classes or seen in the Corinthian columns adoring their own city’s banks and universities. They had probably also seen photos posted on Instagram and Facebook that chronicled a friend’s vacation in the city. And then the mosaic of images culled from articles in their newspapers, the stories of mass demonstrations, suicides in Constitution Square, and migrant detention camps, the tesserae of the crisis that has held the country in its grip the last six years. Athens teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

I have never been to Rotterdam or Genoa, but I can picture these cities vividly, drawing on my own trove of images culled from art and books and music (even if my reconstruction probably bears little resemblance to the actual city). I think of Rotterdam as a city of canals—this is Holland after all, why wouldn’t there be canals?—rebuilt on a modest and humane scale after the devastation wrought by the Nazi Luftwaffe, with ample green space, bike lanes and pedestrian walkways that is a mark of urban civility in the Dutch cities that I have visited. I imagine Genoa as a city of hills and grand maisons de ville built by prosperous merchants, but sprinkled with the osteria that bear witness to that life en plein air that I experienced in all the Mediterranean cities I have been to. I think of Genoa but my mind fills with images from Marseilles and Barcelona and Naples, and from the odd story my grandfather would recount, though he had never been there.

The sound bits were among the most interesting items of inspiration in the box. Some, such as the rattling of a subway train or the purring of a cat, could have been heard anywhere. Others, such as the music of a bouzouki and the smack of a butcher’s cleaver heard in a busy market hall, were unmistakably more Eastern. Still others would reveal their deeper meaning only to the initiated. The artists would have identified one of the sound bits as a conversation of friends at an outdoor café but none would have picked up on the word malakas, a peculiar and very common term of endearment used by younger Greek men, the equivalent, say, of dude. But malakas (in the vocative malaka, in case you’re tempted to use it, which I suggest you don’t) is also one of the most frequently used swear words. It literally means a wanker or jerkoff, but stands equally as well for asshole. This cannot be easily explained. 

Each of the objects evoked the city but also encrypted it in a way that only its residents could read. The recipe spoke of summer harvests and farmers’ markets but also of a culture that creates pleasure out of the most modest of ingredients. The subway sound clip could be heard as a mere statement of metropolitan fact, but it is more than that. Financed in large part from EU funds, the recently built lines are yet another juxtaposition of modernity and antiquity, the Teutonic austerity of its gleaning granite-clad stations relieved by works of art by Greek painters and sculptors but also display cases of the amphorae and statues found when the tunnels were built.

Understanding a city is a bit like learning a language. You visit the monuments and parks and bazaars, and take in a view of the city from a hill, just as you start with the building blocks of basic verbs and concrete nouns and the phrases for thank you and please. You become familiar with the menus and the opening hours of shops, as you would the conjugations of the commonest of irregular verbs. It takes much study and exposure before you begin to pick up the prosody of the language (it is only now after many months of studying Dutch do I realize how musical the language is), and many more hours before you understand, much less are in a position to use, the idioms that color the language and reflect the culture in which it is spoken.

I wasn’t surprised that some of the artists played with the notions of old and new in imaging a 2000-year-old city. But I was struck by the uneasy encounter between past and present that one sees in these works.

John Diebel presents a collage of the Odeon of Herodus Atticus, a Hellenistic theatre still in use, set against the backdrop of the sea and with a starry sky in place of the floor. He’s superimposed floating rectangles in primary colors over the composition, elements of the old and new but without any organic relation between the two. The red, blue and yellow blocks hover over the stone arches of the theater like invasive drones. In his series of “Concealed Portraits”. Thomas Robson has taken reproductions of 19th century portraits of affluent women and men posing before idealized ruins of Classical Antiquity, and covered their faces with splashes of shiny white or blue paint.

John Diebel, untitled

John Diebel, untitled

Myth, Metaphor and Imagination” by London-based illustrator Tom Radclyffe is a grid of twelve incredibly detailed drawings of buildings. Some of the panels depict flowing masses of monolithic concrete structures or the wrought-iron filigree of what could be railings or patio chairs. Other panels are a densely packed maze of vaguely neo-Classical buildings with pitched roofs and Greek letters inscribed on the entablature of their pediments. Unlike in the actual city, however, here the old and the new are segregated, the monolithic apartment blocks in one set of panels, the columned structures in another.

Tom Radclyffe, "Myth, Metaphor and Imagination"

Tom Radclyffe, “Myth, Metaphor and Imagination”

Swedish photographer Eva Stenram exhibits a black-and-white photograph of an arm lying on a lawn at night. The flash has left a haunting opalescent afterglow to the leaves of grass, making it more satiny comforter than sod. Indeed, the arm almost seems as if it were hanging out from under the earth’s bedcovers, where the rest of the body lay. Stenram tells us that the arm was digitally cut from a photograph of a 1950s pinup girl. “Lost parts,” she writes, and I think of the limbless statues of goddesses in the National Archaeological Museum. Not lost, but simply misplaced.

Eva Stenram, "Arm"

Eva Stenram, “Arm”

I was excited by the show and decided that the box had indeed worked its magic. I returned home eager to learn more about the artists.

When I visited Stenram’s site I discovered that she has been working with detached arms and legs in her photography for several years. In fact, her “Arm” had already been presented at the The Function Room in London in March 2014. (I didn’t feel cheated; sometimes the act of selection alone makes art). Much of the work on Radcylffe’s site featured precisely the kind of minutely detailed hand-drawn cityscapes I had seen in his grid in Athens. Robson’s site features an entire virtual gallery of smeared portraits. Diebel had earlier paired an archival print of a neo-Gothic cathedral with the brightly colored Malevich-like shards I had seen in his Odeon collage.

The unvisited city was envisioned with images inspired by books and song and poetry, not all of which were in the Inspiration Box or indeed of the city in question.  But it was also perceived through an interpretative framework already at hand, the web of meaning with which each of us interprets the world. There are no imaginary cities, save for the ones of novelists. The rest are imagined, but no less intriguing.

-/-

Featured image: Angela Moore, “Jasmine”.

Moore’s evening photograph of a tendril of jasmine that has slipped through a window, with its palette of gold and indigo-blushed white and the utter simplicity of the composition, evokes for me the city more than any of the other works exhibited. She said she was inspired by the poem, and rightfully imagined that the city was more enchanting, more seductive at night than at day. Perhaps that is true of all cities.

The exhibition is being held through June 28th in the Diplarios School (Pl. Theatrou 3), an imposing if aging structure in the heart of the old city, a couple of blocks from the Central Market in a neighborhood now dotted by the stockrooms of Chinese import businesses, Bangladeshi grocers and halal butchers. For almost a century the four-story building was the home to the largest trade school in the city—65,000 young students learned their trade at the school until its closure in 2010.Traces of the students’ graffiti are still to be seen, along with a few classroom wall maps and the marks in the floor where lathes and presses once stood. A bequest of Arisitdes Diplaris, the school points to a centuries-old tradition of civic philanthropy that has marked the countenance of the city as surely and discretely as its now canalized and covered rivers have. The story of the school could just as well have been an element of inspiration as the song or recipe.

More photographs from the exhibition at the LIFO review of Strange Cities. The text is in Greek, but the images speak for themselves.

 

"Young Men in the Garden Pavillion", Friedrish Ahlers-Hestermann
Brothers, Fathers, Friends and Lovers

Coach

A few months ago a friend of mine sent me an email, asking me to tell her where I felt stuck. She’s setting up a business as a life coach, and this, she said, was part of her preliminary research. “It should be a major change you’ve wanted to make in your life but haven’t been able to. And write down three reasons why,” she said.

In her flattering preface to the request Phoebe said she had sent the message only to a small group of acquaintances, who were, she claimed, the smartest people she knew. I wondered, assuming this was true, whether she was collecting examples of failures to pitch her business, as one might of a sharp detective unable to shake a cocaine addiction. You see, intelligence is not enough; you need a coach.

Judging from the number of resolutions, prosaic and life-changing alike, that keep reappearing on my bucket lists, as well as the fact that three months after her email I had not yet responded, I was an appropriate subject for the survey. The resolutions have lain dormant on the back of my will for years; like a skin cyst that occasionally flares under stress, they appear at rare intervals to prod me into doing something about them. Actually, one of my resolutions is to have the small cyst on my neck removed, though I think of it only when it has swollen and become intensely painful, exactly the time at which one cannot have it removed. Home treatment—ointments and very hot showers—coax the red excrescence into bursting on its own. Gradually it shrinks to the point where I can’t even feel the bump any longer, and with its retreat goes my determination to have it removed.

The classic problem of procrastinators and addicts. The resolution for change is never so firm, nor the confidence of success so great, as in the hours immediately before and after excess. All the rest is waiting.

I had never taken the idea of life-coaching seriously before—it seemed to me like therapy without the regulations and licenses—but Phoebe is an insightful, accomplished woman. If she was considering this career move, there must be something to it.

I had read somewhere that a manager makes sure you do something, a mentor shows by example how it can be done and a coach helps you acquire the set of skills to do it yourself. (I imagine the intersection of the three is what makes a good parent). Naturally, it’s encouraging to think that life, like cross-country or debating or personal finance, is a matter of skill development, something you get better at with the right kind of expert observation, training, and support.

But if coaching helps you win, what needs to be won?

Phoebe reminded me, however, that there are two kinds of coaches—those who focus on performance and winning, and the others whose mission is participation and staying in the game. The former train their charges for championships and medals, the latter, including my swimming coach, Ada, whom I’d engaged when I got serious about training for the triathlon, for the sense of accomplishment and the pleasure of playing. And to enjoy playing you’ve got to get better. Tennis only becomes fun when you don’t have to chase the ball every second volley.

Her method was no different from the one coaches have always used regardless of their subject. Set the goal. Break it down into a set of specific and progressively more complex skills that could be worked on. Observe, correct, encourage.

One of the first things Ada did was to video-record me swimming a few laps, not for her own use—she knew just by watching me swim what needed to be fixed—but for mine. The video served as illustration as she pointed out the inefficiencies in my stroke and kick, and analyzed the line and position of my body in the water. “It’s your elbow, mostly,” she said. “It should be higher during recovery, and closer to your body.”

Her comment might have remained nothing more than a helpful if abstract tip had it not been for the video, and the powerful, visual evidence of the inefficiencies in my stroke. “Wow, I do that?” I asked. The image of my elbow stayed with me during the drills Ada had me doing the next couple of months. There was no way of explaining it away, no rationalization at hand.

With Ada’s coaching and unfailing support I eventually got to the point where my elbow recovered high enough in drills so that my hand would dangle from my wrist as it glided up alongside my torso, my fingertips grazing the surface of the water.. “That was much better!” she’d exclaim. And I believed her. In the end I managed to shave a few strokes off a 25-meter lap.

Alas, life isn’t that simple, though I can imagine instances in which video documentation might be useful: the friend who turns obnoxious when drunk, the colleague who bullies his way through meetings, me when I slouch.

Though we know that videos can be manipulated as easily as photos are retouched, there’s something about the moving image on film that speaks of incontrovertible evidence. “No, it’s true, I saw it on television!” A friend tells you that you’ve been acting like an asshole recently and you say, “Really, you think so?” You watch a video of yourself being an asshole and you say, “Oh, shit.”

I wonder if a video would help me meet a man I could fall in love with, which is one of the three failed resolutions I’ve resolved to tell Phoebe about, the other two being to go to learn Dutch and to shape some of the stories in Breach of Close into a book. Am I not paying enough attention to the men I met, or am I paying too much? Am I looking the wrong way or not looking carefully enough?

Phoebe would say that coaching is a way of getting yourself to set up an internal camera, a means of fostering a heightened self-awareness as you practice the unnatural until it becomes second nature. But I wanted a real camera.

Maybe a video would help explain what wrong with David. I had met him through a mutual friend, who set up our first meeting. She told me that David was writing a blog and she thought I could help him.  “He’s a little disappointed that he’s not getting the followers he expected.” She thought I could give him a few tips.

I didn’t tell her my own blogs had only a handful of faithful and much appreciated readers (I’ve read their blogs and feel myself in exalted company), along with 10,000 followers, most of whom I suspected were bots. I didn’t tell her I do all the wrong things in a blog, that I’m not focused and my posts are way too long and erratically published. It surprises me that I still have any readers at all. I didn’t tell her this because I had clicked on his Facebook profile and was intrigued by the avatar photograph of this handsome hipsterish younger man, with his long thin face and wispy beard, his head tilted upwards in an air of seductive diffidence.

I read a bit of his blog. He seemed to be mostly doing the right things, except maybe for blogging on a somewhat esoteric platform that probably had fewer users than I had followers, even if they were bots. He wrote consistently and well about a subject he knew well, and his posts were headed by witty and masterfully executed reinterpretations of classic movie posters that served the political satire that was the mainstay of his blog.

We met up and spent an afternoon over coffee in an old quarter of the city, talking about writing but also of our lives and former lovers. I offered what little advice I could. I suggested switching platforms and told him about Tumblr, thinking that his photoshopped images were an art that deserved a showcase of its own and might lead others to his blog. I liked him immensely.

The next weekend I took him on a walk to a few galleries in an offbeat neighborhood of hookah parlors and bordellos. He had smart things to say about the works of art we saw, and was intrigued by the whorehouses. To a naïve passerby they are indistinguishable from the other modest, run-down 19th-century houses on the street, with their inner courtyards and pots of geraniums and jasmine. I pointed out the light above the entrance now burning midday, and the trickle of teenage boys and immigrant men entering and exiting the establishment, the only clues to what was happening inside. David was delighted at the discovery and made me feel as if I had given him a secret key to the city.

I called him a few times afterwards and messaged him on Facebook, but the enthusiasm I felt for our encounters was not reciprocated. David seemed to be happy in my company, but in the way, I realized, one might enjoy a summer movie or a meal in an ethnic restaurant, a pleasant enough diversion but not the stuff of daily fare.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling that if I had been a little more or a little less forward (probably the former), something might have happened. I wonder if I’ve gotten so out of practice that perhaps I do need a coach.

-/-

Featured image: “Young men in the garden pavilion”, Friedrich Ahlers-Hestermann, 1904.

A former student of the Matisse Studio Ahlers-Hestermann was a founder of the Hamburger Secession. The artists of the movement was noted not only for their reaction to the conservative art scene in Hamburg but also for their public lectures, and their annual exhibitions of contemporary art, in which they exhibited works by Picasso, Kandinsky and Braque. With the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, the group was ordered to expel their Jewish members. Instead, the Secession agreed to disband their union, devoting their last reserves to a champagne party. Ahlers-Hestermann was soon relieved of his teaching post in Cologne. After the restoration of democracy at the end of the war, the artist became the founding director of the Landeskunstschule Hamburg.

Pablo Picasso, "Nus masculins (les trois âges de l'homme), 1942
Sexuality and Identity

Daddy Isn’t Here

Marcus didn’t moan much during sex.  It was only in the last few minutes before he climaxed that I could hear him in my apartment, late at night as I lay in bed reading.

Odd, really. In other circumstances his voice boomed through the apartment, especially when he laughed. People would have called it a hearty laugh, but I think it was all gut, a resounding crackle and thunder.

I was embarrassed to hear it, and even more so to tell Marcus that I had. The moan of lovemaking may be the most intimate sound of all, laden with entreaty and abandonment and gratitude, and is never even vaguely approximated in the post-production dubbed moans of porn, which are more like props and sets and lighting, the theater of sex without its intimacy.

I was new in the city and he had taken me under his wings, not, I think, from neighborliness but from an innate generosity and curiosity to meet new people. I had arrived with just a suitcase and didn’t even have a proper stove yet, just a hotplate on which I’d fix the omelets and stir-fries that were my standard fare. The apartment was missing that skin of comfort, the drapes and rugs, pillows and coverlets that one accumulates through the years and that invite friends to linger. I soon started taking my shoes off as soon as I got into the apartment so as not to hear the echo of my heels striking the cold terrazzo floor.

He cooked for me and introduced me to his friends, a good number of whom were my age, a couple of decades his junior, and some of whom would find their way to his bed, and one to mine. I wasn’t surprised that guys my age would find him attractive. I had seen pictures of him in his apartment when he was younger. He’d put on a lot of weight since then and grown a salt-and-pepper beard, and he never looked sexier. Fat Marcus was the body he was born to grow into. He had a large head, thick neck and big hands, all of which looked out of place in the photographs of his earlier, thinner self, as if they had been stuck onto his body from a set of appendages destined for another torso.

His apartment was one I imagined a grand-aunt from a once prosperous family that had fallen on hard times might have. It was a roomy high-ceiling space outfitted with solid and elaborately carved furniture passed down in the family from an earlier century. The dining room boasted a vintage chandelier and a sideboard that spanned most of one wall, with upper cabinets through whose glass doors one could see Marcus’ service of gold-rimmed ruby-tinted wine glasses and his collection of marionettes, artfully lit with small spotlights. The ochre-walled living room was host to a gallery of vintage theatre posters and cluttered with a wealth of places to sit: a pair of comfortable sofas and armchairs, a bergère and a pair of footrests that doubled as stools for guests, of which he had many. I’d never met anyone who had so many friends.

Marcus was large in more ways than his girth. He entertained often, fixing hearty meals of food as reminiscent of the last century as his furniture, the food his grandmother cooked, Sunday roasts and after-theatre suppers. My apartment would fill with the aroma of oven-baked lamb and braised okra, the comfort food of bean soup and fried meatballs.

The traces of Marcus’ food and sex visited me in the late evenings when I lay in bed. They seemed to me like the lights of a prosperous city that lay just beyond the borders.

“Of course they adore you,” I told Marcus one evening when talk turned to his boyfriends. “You’re witty and charming and know half the people in the theatre.”

It was true. Not only was he was the funniest person I knew, he made others feel witty as well, the way some people make you feel smart or loved.

“Oh, they’re not interested in the theatre. They just want to be told what to do,” he said.

I knew he was being modest, playing down his charm for my benefit, as old money refrains from speaking of its wealth in the presence of the less fortunate.

Marcus was a daddy, long before hirsute hefty men became a trope in gay discourse and a genre in porn.

 

I’m now Marcus’ age, and though I haven’t put on weight, I’ve grown a beard. Like the one he sported, it’s sprinkled with grey hairs, more so than I expected would appear. Having shaved my head for the last decade, the only indication of the color that might emerge were my eyebrows and public hair, and those were decidedly more pepper.

Apart from the color, it looks pretty much like the beard I had in graduate school, full above the lips and patchy in the cheeks. I’d expected a bushier growth now that I’m older, seeing that hair had started growing in all sorts of places where it hadn’t before, like of all places on my fingers. Apparently the geography of aging is as variegated as a field of rye; some patches prosper, others grow to weed more quickly than others.

A few friends said the beard added a few years to my face, but most said it made me look distinguished. I thought I had too much gravitas already, and another ounce of seriousness would make me all but unapproachable, but all this talk about seriousness made me wonder if I indeed lacked it. Nobody said it made me look cool, which was what I was secretly hoping for. Apparently there’s an upper bound to hip and I had long exceeded it.

I’ve not yet made full peace with growing older as Marcus had. My age is like the suit I’m uncomfortable wearing and only do so on those occasions at work when I’m invited to a meeting with a “very important person,” or the pajamas and slippers I’ve stored in my closet in case I need to go into surgery.

I haven’t shaved off my beard, though. I suppose that’s progress of a sort.

“You can’t imagine how many younger guys are attracted to older men,” Marcus once told me.”

I couldn’t. As I said, I was always attracted to men my own age, and still am, though they are harder to find. Where have they all gone? Have they gone into hibernation, like aging knights who have retreated to a monastery?

If I was going to be a daddy, since I have gradually realized this was the only currency I have left, I’d have to get used to being called sir. Not the word, really, but its equivalent in the informal-formal division of forms of address in the language of my adopted land. Like French and German and Dutch and I imagine practically every other language except English, there are different verb forms that mark formality and informality. Greek has them too. You use the second person plural form when speaking to anyone other one than friends, lovers, family and animals.

Or maybe I would actually be called sir. Are daddies expected to top, I wondered. I wish Marcus were still around to ask.

Knowing the moment to shift from esis to esi, or tu to vous, or Sie to du can’t be taught, not in the way the words to say at a funeral or christening can, or how locals eat watermelon (here with a fork and knife) or fried pickerel (with your fingers). It’s like a combination lock that natives can pick because they have a kind of fingertip sensitivity that non-native speakers don’t. We usually err on one side or the other. My friend Natalie addresses everyone with the familiar, bank clerks, doctors, even the provost of the university she teaches at. I tend to overuse the formal form, deploying it when rank and age would entitle me to the familiar.

I used to tutor the younger cousins or nephews of friends preparing for tests like the GMAT, and I always used the formal, though they were twenty years my junior. I figured anyone who was at the age of conscription deserved some kind of formality. If anyone warranted a sir, it was a man in uniform holding a gun. But I suspect my students were confused.

The choice of formal/informal is determined by all sorts of factors that can’t be quantified exactly. It’s like a single equation for four unknowns. Age, rank, familiarity, and setting come to mind.

After much persuasion, a younger, brilliant and impressively competent colleague of mine now speaks to me in the familiar when we’re à deux, though she persists with the formal when we’re not. All the secretaries at work use esis, except the ones who work for the CEO, prestige apparently a commodity that is easily borrowed. My fishmonger uses the familiar, the butcher the formal. But then again I buy fish more often than meat.

Of the four factors, age is perhaps the most decisive. (My friend Sofia still addresses her mother with the formal form). Even more so than the grey wisps of hair on my face, being addressed with esis is a proclamation of my seniority.

The cute young barista at the café I sometimes hang out in on the weekend has been serving me for a couple of years and still uses the formal esis, though we’ve exchanged stories of movies and books and city politics, nothing too personal but enough for me to think we’ve slipped into a familiarity that justified the less formal form of address. I liked him. If he were serving me in Boston, we’d already be on a first-name basis, the American equivalent of the familiar esi. Actually the café follows the practice of its mother company in which the barista writes down the customer’s first name to be called out when the order is ready, but Giorgos’ partner at the espresso bar adds a Mister to the name. “Freddo espresso for Mr. Stephen.”

I used the formal form for a while with Giorgos. “How was your vacation?” I asked, and he said, “We had a great time.”

I expect esis in shops and demand it at public agencies (this is not a given—maybe power is the fifth element), but Giorgos’ insistence on esis bothered me. It was a line of demarcation that pointed to my location on the other side of a border as marked as the difference between Marcus’ and my apartments. You are different, it said.

I eventually gave up and started addressing him in the familiar, as he expected me to. I could have ventured the equivalent of “call me Stephen”, but I sensed he would have found it creepy, as if I were asking to be friends with him, which I was hoping we would be. My use of the familiar and his retention of the formal kept our relations comfortably enclosed in the transactional language of a chain coffee shop. He’d smile and joke with me, but I was still esis.

Marcus would have been comfortable with it and bedded him by now, but I wasn’t. My chances of being a daddy, I realized, was as spare as the beard hair on my cheek.

I look like a daddy, minus the girth, and have the markings of one: a nice place to live, though much less imposing than Marcus’s but with coverlets and pillows, a rewarding job and good friends, if fewer in number than Marcus had. If I am not wise, I have survived break-ups, friendships gone awry and an operation or two. I’ve lost and found jobs, settled into and left homes and cities, recovered from grave mistakes. These are not accomplishments in themselves, but merely a record of a life lived to the point where a beard becomes streaked with grey. Experience, some would say. I have what it takes to be a daddy, except the will to be one.

-/-

Featured image: Pablo Picasso, “Nus masculins (les trois âges de l’homme), 1942

Blessed Podiven Following in the Footsteps of St. Vaclav
Memory

A Spring Carol

With its seasonal timeliness and surfeit of roles, including those for which no lines need be uttered, the Nativity is not surprisingly a favorite vehicle to showcase the talents of the young members of boy choirs and Cub Scout dens. Save for the Virgin Mary and, if she appears at all, the innkeeper’s wife, all the roles are men and boys: Joseph, the Wise Men, the shepherds, Herod and his guards. But alas, some boy must take on the role of Mary.

The den mother of my troop, who happened to be my own mother, had written the names of the characters on slips of paper and put them into my father’s fedora. Holding the hat above our heads she asked us to draw out our roles. My friend Anthony went first and pulled out a shepherd. Bobby, a classmate who had a denture for a missing front tooth that he’d sometimes slide out for our entertainment, was Joseph. By the time my turn came, the only strips of paper left in the hat were for Balthazar, the innkeeper, and the Virgin Mary.

I unfolded the paper, hoping it would bear the name of the young scholar from Arabia but instead discovered I was to play the mother of God. Immediately, I pictured my father and uncles in the audience. I feared that they’d think I wanted the part, that I had even auditioned for it, which was far from the truth; even though I sensed I was different from my brothers and  cousins, I never had the slightest urge to dress up in my mother’s clothes. But they wouldn’t know that. They’d laugh. Not to my face, of course, but later after the show, after I’d gone to bed, when they’d be sitting around the dining room table with their beer and sandwiches, then they’d laugh at me.

I could say nothing. The roles had been given fairly, and I had been unlucky. I tried to put the play out of mind. But the next day, when I came home from school, I saw my mother sewing the costume I would wear and the image of myself on stage returned. A white robe hung on a hangar perched on the half-opened door to the living room, and she was stitching the long blue veil I would wear on top of it. I recognized the costume; she had modeled it on the statuette of the Virgin Mary that stood on top of our buffet. I saw myself in these robes, the spotlight shining on my face as I clasped my hands kneeling before the infant Jesus with my uncles smirking at me in the audience, and knew then I couldn’t do it.

“I don’t want to be Mary.” I said. “I don’t want to wear girl’s clothes.”

“It’s the theater, sweetheart, you’re just playing a role,” she said

“But I don’t want to.”

“Really, Stephen, it’s a costume. It’s like the cassock you wear when you’re serving mass,” she said. My mother, never a religious woman, had little truck with the Church, which she viewed with the suspicion of a mother who feared it would claim her son for the priesthood.

“It’s not the same!” I said. I liked being an altar boy. I liked the pageantry and ringing of bells, the smells of incense, though I was still too young to wield a censer, the prayers and responsories Anthony had helped me learn. None of the public school kids who hung out in the park near the church would say a word when I walked out in the procession, dressed in my cassock and holding high the banner of Christ. Father Aniello, who looked more like a boxer than a priest, made sure of that. It wasn’t the same as playing the Virgin Mary.

“Please don’t make me.” I said.

Eventually my mother relented. She called Anthony’s mother and asked if he could switch parts with me. “He’s afraid he won’t learn the lines,” she said by way of excuse.

She insisted on finishing the costume, though. In the days that followed, it was a constant reminder of the shame I felt for making my mother lie for me. Even after she had brought the costume over to Anthony’s mother, the statuette remained, a talisman in reverse that instead of safeguarding me reminded me of my unworthiness to be saved. “That could have been me,” I thought with relief as I looked at the painted plaster figurine, and then realized, “that should have been me.”

Blond and tall for his age, with blue-gray eyes that attested to his Slavic ancestry, Anthony made an unusual Mary, but played his role well and without complaint. I watched him on stage from my shepherd’s corner, his glasses sticking out from under the veil my mother had sewn, and remembered sitting in his room as he walked me through the paces of the liturgy I was preparing to serve.

“The most important thing is ringing the bell,” he’d said. “The priest won’t care if you mumble the prayers, but he’ll be pissed off if you screw up the bells. Everybody notices the bells.”

Anthony lived on the other side of the city, where the buildings were sheathed in asphalt shingles instead of sandstone, and the stoops were low and bracketed with spindly iron railings. He was a year older than me but had been an altar boy long enough to be serving at weddings and funerals, big jobs where you’d get tips, he said.

“That was kind of fun,” he said when we met up the day after for another coaching session.

I thought he’d ask me how I had managed to learn all the words for the prayers at Mass but hadn’t t been able to master the less taxing lines of Mary. But he didn’t.

“Yeah, it was,” I said, but it was a lie. I was too immersed in my shame to enjoy the show. The only part I liked were the carols, though I was disappointed that we didn’t sing, “Good King Wenceslaus.” It was my favorite carol, and not only because it mentioned my name.

Most know the story up to the point where the Duke—as I learned later the title of king was only posthumously bestowed on him—calls for his page to gather food and wine that they take to a poor man who’s out on the bitterly cold night gathering wood and kindling.

The page falters as they make their way over the snow-covered field, Over the “rude wind’s wild lament”, he tells the Duke he fears he can go no further. And the Duke says to him:

Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.

In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod.

I loved the image of the page walking barefoot in the warmth of the Duke’s footsteps. As I only later discovered, he had a name, Podiven. He is described in an early 11th century account as the Duke’s beloved chamber valet, a young man who remained at his lord’s side until the Duke was murdered by his brother in a coup. The grief-stricken Podiven was eventually murdered as well. Both are buried in St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague.

I had no Duke in whose footsteps I could tread. The sexual landscape of my early adolescence was as barren as the heath on which Wenceslaus and Podiven set out on. I had countless role models of giving and devoted men, my father being one of them, of brave men who sacrificed their lives for others, knights and poets and great thinkers. I had the heroes of comics and A Tale of Two Cities, whose deeds I could admire and whose lives I could seek to emulate.

But  I had no hero or protector, no Father Aniello for this other part of me, the one I had not yet come to understand, other than to realize it set me apart from my cousins who roughhoused with their fathers and played football and talked about girls in a way that baffled me. I could ask for no one’s protection without revealing myself, even if I did not fully know what that revelation meant. But there was something about me, I knew: the way I liked hanging around my young rebel uncle, and the pleasure I felt playing when Ricky held me in his arms as we wrestled and played king of the stoop.

I had no stories that could give shape to my differentness and help me understand it. It was all fuzzy at the time, like the Holy Spirit. The stories would come a few years later in books I read, and a Wenceslaus of sorts would appear with the arrival of a distant cousin at our summer house, a young man who lived on his own in the city.

It was safer to remain in the background, a shepherd with a bit part. The role suited me at the time. I was already a sort of detached observer and I embraced the role. I had books instead of goats to return to, and had found friends among the other shepherds at school, Anthony included.

To my good fortune this subterfuge didn’t last. The fuzziness of my differentness lifted when I became aware that it lay not in some quality of mind but was instead inscribed in my very body. Desire was incarnate.

Neither Father Aniello nor the nuns at school told us of the story behind my favorite carol. I doubt if they knew it. Nor did they know that the melody of Wenceslaus’ song that we sing at Christmas was in fact taken from Tempus adest floridum,  a 13th century carol celebrating spring, the “awakening season.”

It is a song that speaks to our need for revival, In its own way, this spring carol is a hymn of coming out, the time when “reason learns the heart’s decrees”:

Spring has now unwrapped the flowers,
Day is fast reviving
Life in all her growing powers
Towards the light is striving:
Gone the iron touch of cold,
Winter time and frost time,
Seedlings, working through the mould,
Now make up for lost time

-/-

I’ve relied on Kittredge Cherry’s account of Wenceslaus and Podiven that is posted on her wonderful “Jesus in Love” blog. Podiven’s burial at St. Vaclav is not mentioned in the tourist guides to Prague, though an account of the burial is provided in Lisa Wolverton’s translation of The Chronicle of the Czechs by Cosmas of Prague.

Readers may be interested in hearing a recording of the original spring carol. The Latin text is on the Cyber Hymnal, the English translation on the Sing with Emily blog, a treasure trove of illustrated song.

Featured image: Detail of Blessed Podiven following in the footsteps of St. Vaclav, Museum of the Bohemian Karst, photograph by Patrik Pařízek, published on Novinky.cz.

Syntagma metro station, Athens
Art, Music, Books & Film

Julia

I am in the last room in the museum, the final destination confirmed by the section label on the wall. It reads “The End of the Ancient World”. They could have called it “Late Antiquity” or “A World in Transformation”, for even in those crisis-wracked times of decline and gathering impoverishment, of barbarian incursions and a failing state, there was always a next room, but “the end” gives you a better sense of accomplishment. It’s like the band across the finish line. “Bravo, you’ve done it!” it seems to say.

The last is relative, of course; it could just as well be the first room if one started here, but I doubt if anyone does. We duly follow the chronological path that the curators have arranged and start at the beginning at the Hall of Good Intentions.

Every museum has one and it is always the first. It may feature frescos of elongated Gothic madonnas and languid Christs on the cross, or the precursors to the shimmering pastel landscapes of the Impressionists, or, as in this museum, the figurines of the Neolithic and Cycladic civilizations. This first hall may not be the most studied of rooms or the one in which visitors linger the longest, but it is the room that is visited in the greatest earnestness, the one in which the visitors, buoyed by the hope of revelation, set off to see art with the enthusiasm of novice runners at the start of their first race and the same overestimation of their endurance. They look at every exhibit in the room.

By the time they get to this last room, their senses numbed by a surfeit of grave steles, armless nymphs and naked gods, they want nothing more than the gift shop or a cup of coffee. The airy well-light atrium of the museum’s entrance hall beckons with its promise of release from the burdens of art.

I can hear them already making plans. They think there is little reason to pause here, and indeed, there are no heroes or Olympian deities in this room, no youths on horseback to be seen here, no achingly beautiful athletes. It is a room of unassuming marble effigies and grave steles, a room of ghosts. At the back end sits a large sarcophagus that originally had been sculpted for a couple but reused years later in this century of crisis and slow decline to house the remains of a man alone. Most of the male figure that once stood alongside his wife has been chopped off, except for its legs, which were reshaped into reeds; the head of the female figure that had reclined atop the sarcophagus had been chiseled away, and its place stood, rather awkwardly, the marble head of its new male occupant.

Re-used sarcophagus, 230-240 AD, National Archaeological Museum of Athens

Re-used sarcophagus, 230-240 AD, National Archaeological Museum of Athens

Few of the visitors filing past the room will have noticed the bronze portrait statue of the empress Julia Aquila Severa, wedged on a side wall amid the busts of nameless patricians. It is a flat, almost depthless statue, like the steel duck targets in a shooting gallery, and an unsettling one. The figure’s chiton is rent at the left hip, exposing a jagged-edged slit that gapes like an open wound. Her face is caved in, the nose hardly visible, one eye left looking at the other, the distorted visage of a Cubist mask. Yet there is grace to be seen in her delicate upturned lips and the rhythmic sweeping folds of her garment. Her right arm stretches out toward the viewer, the palm slightly cupped and facing upwards in a gesture of offering. I resist the thought that her pose could have been as stylized as the imperial coiffure that, along with her likeness on coins and a marble portrait bust in a Florence museum, helped curators date and identify her.

The damage is worse than the absence of a head or nose or arm, more disturbing than the pitted disfigurement of sunken treasures. A void leaves more to the imagination; here one encounters the act of violation itself, captured and set for centuries. One can easily imagine the rage and pleasure that the officer, vandal or cleric who wielded the hammer must have felt as he swung it into the statue’s face.

I dimly remember from a college course in Greek and Roman Civilization—like the antsy museum visitors, we had rushed through the chapter on Late Antiquity as the semester drew to an end—that Julia would have been a likely candidate for damnatio memoriae, as I knew her husband was. A consul’s daughter and Vestal Virgin, she married, or more likely, was coerced into marrying the 15-year old emperor Elagabalus, despite her vow of celibacy and the threat of death by interment that awaited her if she violated it. The marriage scandalized Rome, as did the young monarch’s installation of the sun god Elagabal, whose high priest he was in Syria, at the head of the Roman pantheon. What I do not remember, but this I am sure is because I was never taught it, was Elagabalus’ relationship with his lover and charioteer, Hierocles and the accounts of his marriage to an athlete from Asia Minor.

Unsurprisingly, the exhibit label recounts none of the sexual controversy surrounding the emperor’s life. I do learn, however, that Julia’s bludgeoned face was not the result of an attempt to expunge her memory. The statue was damaged when the building on which it stood collapsed.

 

Portrait statue of Julia Aquila Severa in the National Archaeological Museum of Greece

Portrait statue of Julia Aquila Severa in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens

I go back to the museum on the following Sunday to revisit Julia, but the room is closed to visitors. Personnel cutbacks, apparently. I’m told the room would reopen in a few days.

I go back again the following Sunday. There is an acrid smell in the air as I approach the museum. The previous night a few hundred yards from the museum grounds a group of young anarchists clashed with the riot police, leaving behind smoldering garbage of dumpsters, shattered shop windows and trashed bus stops.

Closed again.

“I really need to see the room,” I tell the woman at the ticket counter. “This is my third time here.”

“Why don’t you to ask at Information? Maybe they could help,” she says, and points to a vestibule at the side of the main entrance.

I do. I tell the woman at the desk that I need to see the room for something I am writing, but I keep coming back to find the room closed. I only need 20 minutes, I say, and just one room. She makes a call.

I notice a sign of sorts on the side of the wall, printed in all caps in the ubiquitous Times New Roman font of the Greek bureaucracy. It’s an announcement to the non-permanent staff that due to funding cuts they should not expect to take all their scheduled leave.

She arranges the visit. A guard comes, unlocks the padlock and slides the heavy bolt to let me in. He turns on the lights and ushers me into the room.

“I don’t need more than 15 minutes,” I tell him, though I would like an hour.

“Take as much time as you need,” he says, turns on the lights, and goes to sit on a folding chair in the next room.

I’m aware of the imposition I’m making on him, but he seems not to mind. I’ve never been given a private showing before, though I’ve often found myself alone in galleries. I feel uncomfortable in this privilege, as though I were dressed in much better clothes I could afford.

I look at Julia and am again intrigued by the way eyes look into each other, a result no doubt of the damage the statue suffered when it smashed to the ground but a cast of features that nonetheless looks oddly modern, beautiful in her Picasso-esque distortion. It is impossible to see Julia only through the parade of statues in the rooms that preceded hers and not in the art that followed centuries later. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter that we start at the beginning, because in some way we have already seen the rooms to come.

The statue was found in what was then the Roman province of Achaia, not quite a distant outpost of the Empire but far enough from the center of power to be something of a provincial backwater. Still, news of imperial intrigue and scandal are likely to have reached the city.

I wonder what the men and women who passed below thought of their new statue. Were they affronted by the enthronement of the woman who broke her vows to marry a Syrian-born young emperor who set an Eastern sun-god at the head of the Olympian deities? Whatever the indignation, it could not have lasted long.

The statue must have been commissioned, executed and installed rather quickly, perhaps, I think, on the initiative of a provincial official eager to ingratiate himself with the new order. Julia’s marriage was soon revoked, purportedly at the instigation of Elagabalus’ grandmother. The couple married again a few years later, but even that, the young emperor’s fourth and final marriage, lasted only a short time before members of the Praetorian Guard beheaded him at the age of eighteen.

No sooner had the statue been raised to the roof of whatever building it stood on than her currency faded. Over generations the face of the graceful bronze figure would become as unrecognizable as the statues of statesmen and generals and philanthropists that adorn our parks and the names of the side-streets and lesser squares of our cities today. The past is not weighty as much as it is obscure.

As befits a city as old as Athens there are numerous emblematic monuments of its ancient past—the Theatre of Herodus Atticus, now used for summer concerts and dance performances of the Athens Festival, Hadrian’s Library, the few towering columns of what remain of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, and rising above all the citadel temple of the Parthenon. But most of the distant past in the city peeks in on us from below.

We enter a downtown department store over a glass-covered floor set above ruins of the ancient city, and exit the subway along a glass-encased wall in which a two-millennia-old duct has been revealed in the brick like an artery during surgery. Ancient fortification walls, baths, cemeteries, cisterns, houses, workshops—they lay unearthed, gated fields of history, in the excavated pits that pocket the city.

Few, though, pause to inspect the finds. They are merely part of the seamless fabric of the city, as unprepossessing as Julia’s statue must have been decades after it was raised to its perch in Achaia. Few are burdened by the heavy consciousness of the glory that preceded them, the past made incarnate in the now anonymous figures that populate city squares or appear in the portraits hanging on the walls of libraries and city halls, or indeed in museums.

“Thank you for letting me in,” I say to the guard as I stuff my notebook in my knapsack.

“Don’t you want to see the rest of the wing?” he asks, disappointed, as if I were a guest at a family celebration who ate from only one of the dishes on the table.

I tell him I’ll be back when the wing reopens, trying to say it as if it will happen next week.

-/-

Featured image: “Syntagma Metro Station, Athens”, Dario Sušanj, used under CC by 2.0, cropped from original.

 

Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg
Brothers, Fathers, Friends and Lovers

Set Piece

Last night I watched a man seduce a woman in my apartment.

He had fixed a light supper in advance of her arrival, a salad and a quick beef sauté that he artfully arranged on the square porcelain plates Matthew and I had bought during a close-out sale. The man was tall and had to stoop over the chopping board as he prepped the salad. I hadn’t realized that even this, the height of the work surfaces in the kitchen, Matthew had designed in such detail to fit us.

The roomy open kitchen in which the man prepared his seduction dinner had been built with other inhabitants and other purposes in mind. Like every good architect, Matthew had designed the renovations of the apartment with a keen sense of how we would live in it. He imagined us entertaining and outfitted the generous kitchen with its own fireplace and an eating nook that could double as a space in which friends would keep me company while I cooked. It was the room in which we celebrated the liturgy of our relationship, whether alone or with friends. But there was no seduction in this room. Though even at the end of our relationship I cooked for us as if I wanted to bed him, by then we dined as if we had already made love.

It was the woman’s first time in the apartment. She knew when he invited her that they might wind up in bed but though she was flattered by his courtship, having sex with the man she worked for would be complicated; it could ruin their friendship and their work together, and both brought order and comfort to her life. She told herself she was content with the small but certain daily pleasures of their hours together. But she came nonetheless.

Though I didn’t know the man, I recognized him from television and remembered that Matthew had had a brief affair with him before we met. Now with salt-and-pepper hair, the man was graced with a runner’s build and a rough yet symmetrical cast of features that brought to mind Hollywood’s leading men of the 50s, the handsome square-jawed hero who rarely laughs. I was glad Matthew had had such a beautiful lover—it always seemed to me a great hubris to be jealous of one’s lover’s former lovers, akin to wishing that he had not had a happy childhood or success at school—and I found myself imagining the scene with Matthew as the host and the tall man the object of his affection. He would have been just as charming and attentive, clear about his intentions but patient with his interlocutor’s uncertainty, just as he had that first time we met. As he did that day—and as the man did for the woman at his table—he would have poured his guest another glass of wine and waited for the evening to unfold.

The table the man had set for supper was graced by a small bouquet of white tulips set in the vase which I had bought on a trip to Dublin but which Matthew and I never used. It was decorated with fans and roses and berries in shades of coral and pine green, and sported a gold-crested rim.

“Do you think that really fits here?” Matthew asked me when I had shown him the vase, with a tone in his voice that suggested that it didn’t.

The rhythmic repetition of petals and stamens that had so pleased me in the store suddenly seemed busy, the golden ovaries and fan ribs too gaudy.

I consigned it to a closet where we kept the misfits that had lost their utility or never had one—cruets and vials that had lost their corks, pepper mills from which only a fine dust of spice could be ground, novelty mugs we had been given as a lark. I couldn’t figure out whether Matthew disliked the vase because it was so much out of character for me or because I had bought it on my own. Home décor was Matthew’s purview.

The tasks of our common life were divided in accordance with an unspoken calculus in which first skill, then inclination and character and finally chance determined our assignments. I cooked, he did the dishes. When we cleaned house, I did the bathroom, he the living room. We did the grocery shopping together and took turns walking the dog.

Matthew did the laundry. Unlike fixing a leaky faucet or carving a turkey, this chore required no skill for its execution, so whoever first noticed that the hamper was full or whose notion of full was less forgiving than the other’s wound up doing it. Matthew always noticed first and I soon stopped looking at the hamper as something that needed to be taken care of. It was the first in a series of things I began to take for granted.

Nearly everything we bought for the house, from tea-towels to the veranda chairs, we bought together. We did so in an elaborate ritual in which each of us would rein in his own aesthetic proclivities for the sake of the other, Matthew tempering his wish for more rebellion and color and fantasy, I my desire for an even more austere minimalism, each silently asking the question, will he like this?

Without realizing it we forged a common aesthetic, and over time the question we asked ourselves became, will we like it, until in the end we didn’t need to even ask. Eventually the skin of our apartment acquired the signs of each of our lives. My books and music filled the shelves, and the floors received the prayer rugs Matthew bought on his business trips to the Gulf. On the wall we hung the prints we acquired during our travels. Cupboards filled with woks and ramekins and muffin tins, zesters and graters, tools to scale fish and pots to poach them in, the batterie de cuisine that chartered our long life together as tellingly as photographs could.

Still, as an architect and the man who had fashioned this beautiful house, Matthew remained the final arbiter in matters of design. To his credit, he rarely made use of this privilege, though perhaps it was just that he rarely needed to do so. The vase, however, was one of those times. Matthew’s displeasure at my surprise find from Ireland made me feel as if I had shown up at a dinner party with a bad bottle of wine. It wasn’t a we vase, it was a me one, and in the end, not really me at all.

There wasn’t much sex to be seen. I saw the man dance the woman into the bedroom, wine glasses in hand and their supper untouched, and then there was a gap and I next saw them in bed under a navy blue sheet. The man lit a cigarette—something Matthew and I had never done in the bedroom—, took a drag and gave it to the woman.

“What’s the second one for?” she asked, pointing to the two bathrobes that lay on a stool next to the bed.

“I was waiting for you,” he said.

The seduction scene was one of several the TV production company had shot in our apartment. I hadn’t expected to see it again, so many years after Matthew and I had watched the episode on its first airing, but a friend had sent me the internet link. “Look what I found on YouTube!” he wrote.

I told him about the fight Matthew and I had had about the filming. I remember shouting to him, “Do you know how much a dolly weighs? And the scratches it will leave on the floor?” Matthew assured me they’d be careful. “They do this all the time.” he told me. “They even signed a contract. They’ll repair any damage they cause.”

The apartment was both home and calling card to Matthew. A year earlier it had been featured in a local design magazine, in the interview of which he had never once mentioned the man he had shared it with. No mention of the relationship for which he had designed this wonderful, airy and sunlit space. “It’s just business,” he told me. “No one’s interested in my personal life.”

“I am,” I said, but didn’t press the matter. It seemed to me mean and selfish to deprive him of this recognition. Still, his  reluctance to name me rankeled me; it was a me vase.

The crew, a dozen in number, came with their cameras and lighting stands, their wardrobe rack and make-up kits, and the navy blue sheets with which they made up the bed. As they set up their equipment the apartment that had once seemed so large to me shrank into a small-scale gallery installation of a home in a box. I showed them where the plates and glasses were and left before the man who had briefly been Matthew’s lover arrived.

The eight-minute segment didn’t reveal whether the man and woman made love in the shower the next morning, but I imagined they could have.  Up a step from the rest of the bathroom and reached through a sliding glass door, the shower had a wooden deck and room for four. A glass door opened out from the shower onto a grate in the lightwell. Though we had set out a large and leafy faux weeping fig on the landing, a neighbor standing a few steps down on his fire-escape could probably make out our bodies in the shower. It wasn’t a place to make love in, I told myself at the time —too much glass and too many eyes—nor with its absence of a bathtub in which to soak aching ligaments, a place to grow old in.

I was wrong, of course. I have grown older in this place, and Wacław and I made love in the shower. But it is still a house without seduction. The men who came here after Matthew left wanted no supper. With them, but especially with Wacław, the challenge lay in the opposition direction, from bed to table, and no one has yet taken Matthew’s place in the kitchen.

-/-

Featured image: Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. It will strike the reader as presumptuous that I have borrowed this image of two artists for this post. Though they were lovers for six years, there is no parallel in their lives together to Matthew’s and mine, other than perhaps the influence they exerted on each other and this tender scene of a meal together. For more on this remarkable relationship, see Jonathan Katz’s enlightening article, “The Art of Code”.

Caravaggio, San Gerolamo Scrivente
Language

Keeping Company

Translators have not often been subjects of painting, and when they have, they are usually the translators of the Bible. The Hebrew scholars of the Septuagint appear in a few, together with the man who commissioned the translation, Ptolemy II. Another Bible translator, William Tyndale, is depicted in a couple of paintings, including one in which he is shown translating in his prison cell.

It is St. Jerome, however, who appears most often. Domenico Ghirlandaio, Claude Vignon, Bartolomeo Cavarozzi, Jan van Eyck and Antonello da Messina all painted the saint-translator. None of the paintings, however, captures for me the act of translation more revealingly than the one Caravaggio made for Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1605-06. (It is known as San Gerolame Scrivente to distinguish it from two other paintings the artist made of the saint).

Caravaggio depicts the translator saint in relatively advanced age, his emaciated body clad in a cardinal red robe, seated alone at a table in a darkly lit room. Jerome’s head is bowed down to a large book  before him—his source text, the Hebrew Bible. He seems transfixed by the page he holds in the fingers of his hand, oblivious to his surroundings.

His other arm, with pen in hand, extends across the table to end at another book, on which a skull sits and which is opened to page that appears to be only partially filled with script. If that is true, one could assume that this the target text of the Latin translation. Curiously, the pen is held not an angle on the page, ready to write, but a few inches from the edge of the book, upright, as if suspended in space.

The long horizontal described by the saint’s protracted arm heightens the sense of distance between the source and target texts. Here the arm is both a measure of the void between the two and the bridge that connects them. At the halfway point between the two texts, the saint’s slightly bent elbow parallels the fold in the volume on which it rests. A vertical line drawn down through the vertex of the  fold would divide the panting into two panels. On the one side, the saint, the source text and the cardinal’s robe, on the other the skull, target text, and a white shroud.  On the one side, the translator’s intense concentration, on the other, distraction. The translator is both here and not here, absorbed and displaced at the same time.

It is a fitting depiction of the act of translation, I think. Translating dislodges us from the world we know and draws us into another, less familiar one, the milieu and culture of the author whose text we are translating. Like all journeys made in good faith, this encounter with the world of the source text must in some way affect us, when it does not change us. It certainly dislocates us.

We do not just enter our author’s world and culture, we move in with him or her. Their company may charm or fascinate or disturb us, but we are always their captive. We are shackled to the text in a way other readers, save for exegetes, are not. We sense this bondage most vividly with badly written texts. However much we want to skip over the clumsily rendered sentence or the chaff of jargon that substitute for thought, we must pay attention.

At times I am privileged with the company of good writers. They are all people I wish to spend time with, even when they confound me. The majority of texts that I work, however, with are unremarkable but competently written. Manuals, websites, business proposals, the soulless prose equivalent of hospital corridors and office cubicles—these are dispatched quickly and painlessly, and the claims on self and soul that they exact are no more than what one would pay working with a capable but rather boring colleague. Luckily I am spared the noxious company who enter into the lives of more heroic translators, the men and women who are saddled with the task of rendering into their native language the propaganda of hate and intolerance, the intercepted texts of jihadists and the modern-day versions of Mein Kampf. 

On a few rare occasions I will be given a badly written text to translate.  Their ugliness eludes definition, but it is easily recognized. One will be fraught with endless nominalizations, clichés and jargon, the other will be a mash of incoherent passages riddled with needless words and non-sequiturs. Each is ugly in its own way.

Their authors do not make for good company. Some are sloppy, others pretentious, but nearly all are slightly lazy and self-absorbed (if they had a better appreciation of their readers, they would have edited their texts more carefully). Translating their texts sometimes feels like spending time confined in an isolated ramshackle cabin as the guest—or hostage—of a self-important Orwellian bureaucrat or dimwitted bully.

The ugliness of text has little to do with “difficulty”. A text may be “difficult” and its author very interesting company because it is semantically dense or riddled with elliptical cultural referents and untranslatable puns. It may even have been written with the intent to conceal meaning or at least require the reader’s devoted engagement (and in turn that of the translator as well, whose challenge here is to decode and re-encode that opacity. Most translators I know delight in this challenge.) Difficulty, in this respect, is a matter of style and reflects deliberate choices that the author has made.

The only choice the author of a badly written text has made, when he had made one at all, is not to have written it more carefully. A text is ugly not because the thoughts it seeks to convey are unwieldy but because it has so few of them.

“It’s just a job,” my father would say. “You distance yourself and do the best you can.” A deeply pious man who worked in the movies as a negative cutter, he was sometimes confronted with material he found indecent. Though the films were not what we would think of as pornography (especially now)—they were all destined for mainstream cinemas—they were not good company for him. I imagine him going to work during those assignments, knowing he would spend his day with a movie that carried him across—translated him, in as sense—into a world he wanted no part of.

Distance. It’s something a therapist with a surly, unlikable patient might say, or an architect when asked to design an unlivable house. How is the translator of badly written text different from the glazier obliged to lay down gaudy tile? Or the hairdresser asked to coif a head of frizzled, spare hair. You work with what you have.

The architect, however, has much more interpretive freedom in the (considerable) gap from desire to built space. The hairdresser is expected to intervene. “I didn’t have much to work with,” she might say, but in most cases the end result is better than what she began with. Translators, on the other hand, are expected to retain the deformity of the original; they must become as awkward, trite or verbose as their authors.

It is crap, however, with your name on it. No one faults actors for the lines they deliver on stage (though how they are delivered is another matter.). The glazier’s success is judged by the trueness of the grouting, not the patterns on the tiles. On stage and in the shower, performance and authorship are more or less distinct. In translation, however, without access to the source text, the reader will never be sure whether the ugliness lay in the original or was introduced by the translator.

“That’s the way it is in the original!” the translator cries out. “I was there, I know”, but who will hear this voice of protest? Vox clamantis in deserto, as Jerome once wrote.

-/-

Featured image: Caravaggio, “St. Jerome Writing”, 1605-06

Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew
Brothers, Fathers, Friends and Lovers

He Could Have Been in Pictures

The men in my family were good providers or drifters to be pitied. They could be brave, like the uncle who was an Army paratrooper, or successful, like Uncle Pete, a businessman with a thriving tax business, a funeral parlor and a small convoy of hotdog carts. Some, like my father, were called decent and hard-working. The rare few who remained unmarried and childless and left the area of the three counties in which all my other relatives lived were rarely spoken of, but when they were, it was in that tone of anxious sympathy my aunts reserved for acquaintances who had gone bankrupt or lost a finger in an accident.

But no one ever called any of my uncles or cousins or any of the more numerous and distant relatives who appeared at weddings and funerals beautiful. With the phrase’s disturbing undercurrent of femininity, a beautiful man was someone to be feared instead of admired: a man with a trace of softness. Real men were supposed to be rough, scarred by the world and furrowed with responsibility. They could be handsome, in the way a well-crafted oak desk or leather-upholstered sofa might be, but not beautiful.

The men in my family did not ordinarily talk about the way other men looked. Even if they had, and even if they had been comfortable with the word, no one would have called any of the men in my family beautiful because, in fact, none really was. Except my Uncle Ricky.

He was the youngest of my uncles, only fifteen years my senior. I have a picture of him taken at the reception following his wedding to my aunt, retrieved from a box of photographs my mother had kept; my brother gave it to me because I’m standing in the background, a tiny figure half-hidden in the shadow of an elm tree.

It didn’t occur to me at first to wonder why I was standing under the tree a few yards from him. There are likely explanations. I was waiting for the barbecue or for my father to bring the car around. I was bored with the games of catch my cousins were playing. I had spotted and followed a box turtle waddling onto the lawn. But I know now. Before I dared to think of men as beautiful, I looked at him in a way I didn’t look at my cousins or other uncles.

In the picture Ricky is standing in contrapposto with his hands in the pockets of a size-too-small rented tuxedo, a cowboy lounging around in borrowed Sunday clothes. He looks like a dark-haired James Dean, with a broad forehead and a strong jaw still free of the sash of flesh that hung below my other uncles’ chins. I see his pale, unblemished skin taut against the relief of his high cheekbones and the shadow caught in the slight hollow in his cheek. The sharp angularity of his face is relieved only by his large brown eyes, each crowned by a thin perfect arc of brow, and his thick well-formed lips.

I could not have noticed these details at the time, but I see him now for the beautiful man he was. As I boy I only thought he looked like one of the superheroes in the comic books I read, or the figures in a book of paintings my Uncle Leonard had.

Many years later during a trip to Rome I would see the painting that made the greatest impression on me and in which I had recognized Ricky. He was the young Christ in Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew. This is a spare and swarthy Messiah, younger than the Jesus depicted in The Taking of Christ, less muscular than the one in the Entombment, but more darkly attractive than either.

Ricky hadn’t been born; he’d been drawn by an artist with a love of the male body, and given life.

I look at the photograph and wonder how the other women in my mothers’ family saw him as they sat at their tables for the reception later that evening, whether they envied my aunt for the seductive, beautiful man she had married or thanked God for the dependable, beer-bellied one who sat at their side, even when later in their lives they would chafe at this same dependability, as one does in a woolen shirt worn in warm weather. Did they imagine him making love to them, or did they think of her reckless, the sister with the most education who had married a man with the least promising prospects?

Ricky and I never talked very much. The longest conversation we had was when he drove me back home once after I had cycled down to see them in high school.

“Your father says you’re smart,” he asked in the car on the way back.

“I guess,” I said.

“What’s it like?” he asked.

“What?”

“Being smart.”

“I don’t know, I never thought about it,” I said.  “It just happens. I can see the way to the answer.”

I wanted to ask him what it was like being beautiful, but I knew this was a question I dare not pose. Why would I have noticed what a man looks like?

But I thought about it the rest of the trip back and for a long time afterwards.

I wonder now what it would be like to be as beautiful as Ricky was. Not just good-looking or attractive, but devastatingly beautiful, a black hole of desire that would make strangers turn on the street to look at you, mindless of the upcoming fissure in the sidewalk, entranced, incapacitated. What would it feel like to know that the sight of you alone would cause their pulse to quicken slightly and a sudden, almost imperceptible wave of warmth to flush their groin?

If Ricky was aware of his beauty, he gave no sign of it. It was as if he hand’t realized how much at variance he was with the physical ordinariness of the men and women around him. Perhaps he had always known he was different, but had grown impervious to the way that women (and a few men, too) looked at him, as burned-out teachers might to the look of boredom or inquisitiveness in their students’ faces. This is what I do. I turn heads.

If he had thrived on the attention, the way a performer is charged by the attention and applause of the audience, he dazzled without rehearsal. He had no lines to recite or song to sing. Nor did he have any of the qualities we ordinarily think of when we imagine an attractive man: charisma, wit, self-confidence, a way with telling stories, elegance, success. Ricky didn’t need to do anything, except be Ricky.

If beauty provokes awe in a way that intelligence or athletic prowess does, it enjoys a different, less overt kind of affirmation. In school, skill, strength and speed were judged and scored in each race or game. Intelligence was tested, graded and ranked. If beauty was praised, it was obliquely so.

Ricky had no record of achievements. His was a different kind of daily recognition, as I noticed when I got older. People smiled at him more readily than they would at others. Women perked up when they saw him, straightened their backs and fixed their hair, as if subconsciously preening themselves for his audience. They wanted to do things for him. I was no different.

He warmed to them, though it was only out of good manners. Down to earth and devoid of any note of pretension, Ricky made others feel welcome in his presence. There was no artifice to his affability, but no substance either, for at heart Ricky was detached from those around him.

He seemed genuinely pleased to see you, but in the way one is friendly to the barista or the passenger sitting next to you on a long train ride. He was comfortable in the others’ company because he had so few demands of it. He said little, but people seemed more than willing to fill in the gaps.

As I was to learn much later, his reticence was the mark of an overwhelming sadness. I was too young at the time, too peripheral and infrequent a visitor to be able to read his unhappiness, though an older, wiser eye, my aunt’s or mother’s perhaps, would have seen it, as a mason might notice the faint yellow stain that reveals the dampness seeping into the wall.

I cannot know what lay at the root of Ricky’s depression, not what would have rescued him from it. He had the makings of a happy, if modest and ordinary life: a loving wife, his own house, and a more or less regular, if poorly paying job. He had no calling, as far as I could tell, nor was he exceptionally good at anything, though he knew his way around car engines. But many have lived a contented life with less.

He was extraordinary in a way that his brothers-in-law could never be, despite their bravery and success, for these are virtues shared by many men. Ricky was an outlier because of his beauty. If it was a gift, it was one that did not come with the expectations that come with the bestowal of extraordinary talent, or so I imagine, since I have never been beautiful and have no idea what it was like for Ricky to be so desired.

In another world, one in which Ricky would have left the scrubland and small town of his birthplace and moved to the city, he might have been discovered. Had he hung out in certain bars and clubs, or drank his morning coffee in the cafés of the Village or uptown Manhattan, he might have been seen by those in search of beauty. He wasn’t tall enough to be a runway model, but his face could easily have graced advertisements for cologne or eyeglasses or a button-down shirt. He could have been a model, when not a muse, for a painter or photographer. He was not much different from the man who modeled for Caravaggio’s Christ figure whom he so resembled—a commoner, a swordsman, a drinking buddy. He could have been in pictures.

I don’t know if the knowledge that he gave pleasure to countless women and men who would have seen him in photographs and films would have relieved his innate sadness. I am just sad that he is remembered among us only for his tragedy.

-/-

Featured image: Caravaggio, “The Calling of St. Matthew”, 1599