Thursday, 30 April 2009
Incidentally, if there is any American assumption that the European finds silly, even infantile, it's this City on the Hill obsession of being the greatest, to put it in the 1957 formulation of adman Fairfax Cone, "the All-Time Number One Hit on Humanity's Hit Parade". "Gratuitously gratingest" yes. Greatest? Ridiculous. Greatest number of murders. Greatest number of guns. Greatest porno industry. Greatest defection of eligible voters. Euros like to play the Greatest Game. It keeps them humble.
Let me begin with the greatest media. I no longer watch ABC, CBS, and NBC when I visit my home in Philadelphia. I've been spoiled by five years of Euro Media. I watch Deutsche Welle at 6:30 p.m. on Channel 35. And as my German improves, newscasts in that language, also on Channel 35.
I talk about TV because it is where I watched up close the playpenification of American Culture. As a cadet teacher in East Lansing in 1952 I was fired with enthusiasm for the new medium. I had my tenth grade watch Paddy Chayefsky's "The Catered Affair", about a Bronx taxi driver caught up in the conflicts of throwing a big wedding for his favorite daughter that he couldn't afford. The students were thrilled at the liveliness of this live TV performance. So was I, having grown up in a virtual lower middle class Michigan cultural ghetto. And my twelfth graders glowed as well watching Maurice Evans on the Hallmark Hall of Fame do "Macbeth".
I was so moved I wrote my first "national" article for Scholastic Teacher in 1954, "Everyman in Saddle Shoes" about my successes as a TV teacher. I even started a high school weekly TV program, "Everyman Is a Critic", following my mentor Gilbert Seldes in addressing the seven livelier arts. For Michigan State's fledgling UHF channel.It was a great place to learn a new medium.
This led to a Fund for the Republic year in New York where I devised "Teleguides" for the nation's high school teachers as the radio-TV editor of Scholastic Teacher. Which led to a Carnegie Postdoctoral fellowship at Penn to create a course on "The Mass Society" for their American Civilization department, which I then taught, as I helped organize the Annenberg School of Communication, where having nominated Seldes as the first dean, I became his gofer. And wrote the first curriculum.
Later I became the BBC acquisitions adviser for Time-Life Films, and NBC adviser for Films, Inc. I mention these details to show how much II wanted TV to succeed, especially commercial TV, for whom I eventually did weekend filmed cultural reports (shot, edited, and audio) for the evening news(on the weekends when it wouldn't depress the ratings too much!).
But what a mess it became. In this last election, vile. One moderate Democrat was accused of supporting the Taliban who were described as kidnappers and rapists of young girls. Remember it was Saint Ronald of Santa Barbara who destroyed the Fairness Doctrine by arrogant edict, in his noisome plan to undo the New Deal.
It was Karl Rove who gave a week-long canonization for a burial as an election ploy. Whatever works in the world of Big Bucks, Bush is willing to stoop to. This corrupt commercialization has destroyed every sector of American life. America's motto might as well be: MONEY TALKS. BIG MONEY TRUMPS ALL CRITICISM.
It's no lie. We were all Two Americas. The Ancien Regime where the powerful get away with everything and the poor pay twice through the nose. Note Bush's bio. Multiple drunk driving charges unpunished. AWOL from Air National Guard, for early entry into Harvard Biz Ad mill. One of his professors there remarks that this compassionate Christian conservative found "Grapes of Wrath" corny. As a business man, he was a serial bankrupt, in his last failure punishing his stockholders by dumping his shares in egregious insider training which the SEC punished him by a tap on his little finger.
Note that the grubby little stake he had in the Texas Rangers was stolen from his clients. And little wonder he believes in miracles because that grubby little share swelled to a humungous share, the sale of which made him a Crawford TX millionaire rancher, where he likes to clear the brush. Nice non-work if you can get, and you can if you are part of the Skull and Bones Ancien Regime. Remember, America was started as an antonym to the Ancien Regime. And the gratingest governor Texas ever had established a new record in prisoner execution. Two systems of justice. Just Us justice.
And there are two systems of education, based on property taxes. The affluent worry about getting into an Ivy. The effluent worry about their children not getting shot to,in, or returning from school. NIMBY prevails. Give the blessed the most help. Give the deprived more depravity. The biggest laugh in the First Bush term is his "Leave no Child Behind" farce. Declare it, but don't fund it.And set a perverse example in your own intellectual life. Don't be caught reading anything. And smirk, when you return to your Alma Mater, that gentlemanly C's don't do too bad, to speak phony demotic as he so often does. "Leave no First Moron behind" would be my motto, given the chance.
I finally psyched out the "greatest nation" gambit. Americans are so (logically) guilt ridden by how far their historical and contemporary performances fall short of their Fourth of July rhetoric that they whistle a merry tune as they stumble in their own dumbocratic darkness. Dumbocracy is a formula for self-deception. In the Bible Bubble, they're beginning to dump Darwin. Texas purges its biology textbooks of any allusion that might be construed as be fair to Dick Cheney's daughter. And Rove, the dimestore Machiavelli, prowls the crowds looking for another lie he can hornswoggle the dumbocrats (of both parties) with.
I used to talk with David Riesman about the failure of the American elite to lead. He relished talking with a guy who had worked his way to a Ph.D.in the automobile factories or Detroit and Cleveland. Especially at Penn, I noticed how the fledgling elites learned to fly high. No doubt about it. They were bright. And they were ambitious. Nothing wrong with that. But it was absolutely dedicated to individual success.
Communal responsibilities simply never figured. Even during the Free Speech era. The best student I ever had at Penn, Harvard Law of course, ended up wealthy in a law firm, oddly, that bears the name of one Ivy who was communal, Richardson Dilworth. He writes glib speeches for Arlen Spector, that archetypal doubletalker, and wistfully wonders whether his beautiful blonde TV reporter is a credit to his family.
Only a country with such moral sloppiness could tolerate executives "earning" 500 times their workers, who too often work for less than a living wage, without health insurance, and about to lose "overtime". How can any sane person call this great. It's shabby. It's disgusting. It's a crime against humanity.
Imagine how healthier the world would now be had our leaders throughout the twentieth century not played footsie with dictators and sheiks. Imagine a CIA that didn't engage in Ivy League promotion rituals, but had learned enough Arabic to understand the Osama phenomenon before it was too late. And imagine how much more creative the twentieth first century could have been if the First Smirker had not been playing Schoolyard Bully diplomacy. Dear old Molly Ivins, opening the 40th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement at Zellerbach Hall, recalled such antics as Freedom Fries in the First World War. Brave souls started kicking dachshunds. She noticed they never seemed to take on German Shepherds!
So the old Greeks were right. Hubris precedes disaster. Bushleaguer George W. has hubris from top to toe, not bothering to read when Jesus talks right straight to him, as he takes Dumbocracy to the Middle Eastern heathens as he never did to his fellow Texans. We dumbed ourselves down. And now we're all going to pay for it.
Wednesday, 29 April 2009
I have always been a bargain hunter traveler. Save me enough money, and even a mediocre journey begins to sound congenial! But I’m also a canny splurger. I make it a point that every night I spend on a moving vehicle (e.g. Greyhounding), or at a Youth Hostel earns me one star towards a four star stay, which I generally need in the bath department! Suddenly I become the Duke de Visa, that fiscally beleaguered duchy in the South of France.
But it was really curiosity rather than canniness which led me to my recently concluded fifteen day Ameripass, which as a senior I bought for $283. I have been living in Germany for the past five years writing a book on the social idealism of the Bauhaus. I wondered what the post election RED and BLUE states looked like up close. I had spent many days in my fifties and sixties studying American architecture in situ. So I was no Greyhound neophyte. I learned that you can send on your swelling luggage (say the magic words, SPECIAL HANDLING); and a ratpacker like me can guard against hernia by shipping parts or all of what he’s amassed ahead to an intermediate or final destination.
I learned this the hard way in Boston where my trolley broke and was fixing to put me down. It cost me $32. to ship that trolley back to Philly, my home town. I also learned that hard boiled eggs and boiled chicken legs (a week’s supply) can get rank and ultimately inedible if kept in the warm interior instead of outside in the “refrigerated” luggage compartment. I wouldn’t recommend saving money this way at all in tropical temperatures.
Let’s begin where I did—at the Nation’s Capital, where I had used the usual dodge of the pennypincher by crashing overnight with friends. I was in a state of elation, having just made my first visit to the new Smithsonian American Indian Museum, filling the last slot in Mall. (A new meaning for the Biblical bromide that the First shall be Last!) It is a glory, the second big museum (the other is the Canadian Museum of Civilisation in Hull, Ontario, after ten years the most visited building in Canada) of the part Blackfoot Indian Douglas Cardinal.
But my uplifting sentiments were brought roughly back to earth as I awaited an express bus to Philadelphia. A sudden commotion turned out to be two DC cops trying unsuccessfully (for almost a half hour) to cuff a PCP emboldened suspect. The taser doesn’t work on people using that drug, and as I saw the cops on the floor, instead of the suspect, I began to fear that gun play was imminent. To add to my anxiety was the fact that the mostly black work force and travelers began to cheer the felon in the deathly tussle! I quietly slipped out into the street where the only menace was hobos bugging you for small change. The cops finally cuffed and routine returned to DC Greyhound.
The next morning I was downtown at Greyhound bright and early to push off for Portland, Maine, where an old friend lives, and where there were a range of interesting sounding art shows to view. You got to get the hang of the gigantic Port of New York Authority Terminal to go, for example, from Gate 68 from Philly to Gate 89 to Boston and points north. The cops were more useful and succinct in their directions than the officially appointed info flow-ers of Greyhound, an anomaly, until you consider their different wage scales! I wanted to review the ART DECO show at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts so I had to time my visit there to the museum’s opening hours. So I decided to press on to Portland the first day. Arriving in darkness about six p.m. I was anxious about finding a hotel room nearby.
More and more Greyhound stations are located in marginal neighborhoods (and I majored in Yellow at the University of Detroit!) Luckily, in Portland, the old “Union Station” (now sadly demolished) spawned a perfectly lovely four strorey hotel kitty korner from the now Greyhound Union Station called the Inn at St.John’s. For $50 (no pokey tourism taxes to quietly escalate the price!) I had a commodious room, cable TV, and a bountiful breakfast. True, the john at St. Johns was detached so to speak. But it was soley mine, with a key to prove it.
I highly recommend it even though it will cost you more in the prime summer season, and it is not right by the seaside attractions. A cute little bonus is one free ride on the public transportation system which is cheap and will take you most anywhere. I relished the “Americana” exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art (the State Department’s collections for garnishing our embassies all across the world), and a surprisingly rich collection of German expressionism thrown in to whet my appetite. Next door is the discovery oriented Children’s Museum where they were just opening a display on the most popular children’s book illustrator in the region. I had walked up the street from the bus station, gawking for buildings (yes, Virginia, I’ve become an architecture critic in my senile years).
An astonishing one is the Richardsonian Romanesque former library that now houses the brass of the Maine College of Art as well as the design and architecture faculty. Anne Wadleigh, the president’s secretary, was particularly generous in stopping what looked like a harassed schedule to get me the details on the building’s history. The college’s main “campus” is the former Porteus department store, where they were running a splendid take on sustainability in the environment, with ten very diverse examples illustrating their main contentions. I climbed back on the two p.m. bus to Boston a very satisfied Greyhounder.
At the Boston Transportation Center, a vast new metroplex where buses, subways and commerce cohabitate, I met my first defeat. You can check a bag (for a stiff $4 per item). BUT YOU MUST PICK IT UP BEFORE TEN P:M: THEIR CINDERELLA HOUR: NO OVERNIGHT LOCKERS: I swallowed the thirty two dollar charge to ship the broken trolley back to Philly while I sought the Youth Hostel. It’s actually duck soup getting to 10 Hemenway, Red line, Green line and you’re there. But the unhostile but under-informed man at the reception blew the directions and a good natured Irish cop put me back on the track.
The hostel is cheap ($28 with a International Hostel Card), clean, and full of interesting international travelers. I’ve never palavered so intensely for two days in my life, and believe me I’ve palavered hard since youth. The Museum of Fine Arts was a bracing fifteen minute walk right up Hemenway Street. And the ART DECO show is all that is promised. As a certified ART DECO-DENT(a very exclusive club, based on self-selection) I can assure you a brilliant gloss on a fascinating episode in Euro-American art history.
My next stop was Williams College in Williamstown, MA where they were highlighting another first, a show on the architectural photographer Ezra Stoller. At one point in early modenrist history, to get Stollerized was a sign you were considered a contender. It was the photographical Pritzker Prize. It was worth the effort—which meant pit stops at the Peter Pan HQ in Springfield, another uselessly long connection in Pittsfield where an underinformed driver forced me to buy a $9.55 ticket to Williamstown! (Peter Pan just merged with Greyhound.)
The next day that meant I couldn’t stop in Stockbridge to see a David Macaulay graphics exhibition. Grrrr. Pan has the highest tech gear in the business, the creation of a recently deceased Italian immigrant who also wanted his company to excel. (It began in the 1930’s as a simple charter company and gradually dominated the North of Boston region.)
The Stoller show had a curious incident: the 89 year old photographer who lived in Williamstown died shortly after the show opened! The curator Deborah Rothschild deployed six major architectural talents to show the Ezra’s range: Louis Kahn’s Salk Center and Dacca complex, Wright’s Falling Water, Eero Saarinen’s TWA and Dulles Terminals, and so on. A great tribute to a great eye.
I bypassed New York City (more about the new MOMA later) as I hurried back to Philly for a pit stop—and to collect the broken trolley! Bright and Early the next day I was on the express bus to St. Louis, where I arrived, somewhat hassled, but content. I had arranged at the Philly Greyhound to get permission to sit in the right front jump seat to facilitate better photos and talk/talk with the drivers. For some time those have been reserved for the driver and/or crippled, handicapped customers. I salute the Philly brass for making my ride more instructive.
Alas, one must face some depressing truths about the company’s aging and under-serviced fleet. We took no fewer than five buses to Little Rock—one abandoned from an excess of cockroaches and the others from diverse mechanical problems. But we got as promised to Little Rock late in the afternoon before Clinton’s Library was to be dedicated. There is no Youth Hostel in Little Rock. (As in so many Southern cities they were abandoned during the integration crisis.) And there was no room for me at any Inn! Ouch.
I went to the Chamber of Commerce office in the dazzling new Convention Center, and, lo and be held, a compassionate conservative got me a last minute cancellation at the Radisson several blocks away. The spirits were jovial and high. There were shuttles to the Library.
Snarlo, since the Secret Service insists on 24 hours for clearance I could only stand on the periphery. But I first walked across the Arkansas bridge from Greyhound in North Little Rock and returned with their cute newly revived 25cent streetcar shuttle. And I went to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to pay my respects to their internationally regarded editorial page editor, Paul Greenberg (he’s the satirical voice that concocted the devastating sobriquet, SLICK WILLIE) and to get obits and features on the greatest architect Arkansas has so far had, Fay Jones who had just died.
That ‘s when I learned how to take it easy on the luggage. A great bus driver who regaled me through the night with interesting Greyhound stories told me to play weak at the ticket counter and use the magic words SPECIAL HANDLING: I’m a pro at playing weak, to get preboarding on aircraft. The older I get the more Pre I board. I claim it’s only fair since I’m clearly entering my Second Childhood! Amazing. $5 for a cartoon and WHOOSH off went what the Roman legions called impedimenta (literally in the way of your feet!).
That freed me to psych out a cheap way to get the Love Field so I could fly Southwest to LAX via El Paso. Easy. Behind the Hampton Inn on the square is a bus terminal with a direct link to Love for a measly fifty cents. Aboard the El Paso-Lax leg I sat kitty korner from an Okinawa Marine, one Richardo Suarez, a seventy nine year old shot to smithereens, lost one eye from shrapnel, got a rotten back from a shoot out there. Not a whimper of complaint from this elegant human being. In pain all his life, he blessed being alive. WOW. My routine service as a radar tech in the Navy looked playpennish by comparison.
When the flight attendant offered him free drinks, he passed them on to me! He’s too shot up (and shot from decades injury-induced alcoholism) to drink any more. I amused him by my story of my first drunk ever in the French Quarter as a lad of seventeen. Before you could say Jean LaFitte I was off mine, in a gutter. The Shore Patrol threw such near cadavers into a Paddy Wagon and drove them to the City Morgue in the basement of Huey Long’s Charity Hospital. I awakened Sunday morning on a stone slab—and needless to say never had a drinking problem. (Both my father and brother were alcoholics.)
LAX had a problem in store for me. I had been using Best Western hotels all summer when I showed my German wife New Orleans and North Texas and surroundings, gunning for a freebie. So I called their 800 number at LAX and gave them my Visa to guarantee the reservation. And ten waited, and waited, and waited—for an hour, half asleep from accumulated Greyhound sleeplessness. Finally, after the fifth Hilton shuttle started to pass me.
I opted for Hilton, where I always used to stay anyway as a Honors gold card holder. I called Best Western to complain about their defective shuttle schedule and got boilerplate platitudes for my pains. It’s in Visa contention right now. Best prides itself on being the biggest chain in the world. Based on such experiences this summer it may be the worst organized on earth as well. I recently got a form letter acknowledging one stay—when there have been five!! Oh well, Ameripassing is no sport for the weak and irresolute.
LAX: Frank Lloyd Wright used to sneer that LA was formed (or deformed) when someone titled the country and all the debris ran into the San Fernando Valley! Still I never leave under-satisfied. Not this time either although there was one big frustration. Which I’ll get into later. I shot a roll of film of the new Gehry designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, took in lunch at MOCA and reviewed two mediocre hot shot shows at the Geffen. But the peak experience of the entire Ameripassing was the George Nakashima furniture show at the new Japan American Museum. He is superb.
One big pain: I spent over two hours on the 61 bus which services Greyhound yet never got to Long Beach where there was a major exhibition on African American painters Later I learned I could have avoided this snarl by taking the new Light Rail to Long Beach. Damn.. I did find out that the 117 bus took you back to LAX where I collected my luggage and retraced my frustrated steps to Greyhound where I took the overnight bus to San Francisco, where my best friend had just been reelected as a County Supervisor.
(There was another cache of my luggage there from the month of October when I had helped him get reelected!)I had booked a Southwest flight to Oakland, but canceled it because of the luggage problem. Greyhound in San Fran is at the TransBay Terminal outside of which is the 38 Geary bus which leads directly to my friend’s home in the Richmond District. Portages are the biggest problem with my kind of traveling. And the young man at Greyhound/San Fran responded to my special pleading for SPECIAL HANDLING and sent most of my gear to Philly free. (There was a little anxiety about whether it would get there in time for my flight back to Europe the day after Thanksgiving, but it did. The carton ($4 this time) broke open and somehow I ended up with a back pack from Bangor, Maine, which I had to deliver back to Greyhound early Friday morning. Incidentally, I flew back to Philly Sunday night on the red eye, a freebie ticket from frequently flying USAirways, Frankfurt to Philly.
So Ameripassing through is a kick. Sometimes it’s little tacky, with too many squalling overnight kids. And sometimes the person behind you gets to kicking the back of your seat. But most folks realize that’s not acceptable behavior. And if things really get rough, just take it up with the driver. They’re a great bunch of hard workers. Leaving the driving to them for ten hours a day is no joke. If you’re an art/architecture nut like I am, there’s no cheaper way to cover a Big Country. Don’t let a few cockroaches (and the occasional cocky kid) keep you from your appointed fifteen day rounds. And leave the palavering to them.
Tuesday, 28 April 2009
First is the Hamburg a la Card. It gives you free access to the entire mass transport system, one of the easiest to get around in. And it gives you reduced admission to most museums and many other attractions. The price varies with the number of days you use it. But believe me we got our full price back just from using the S and U Bahns.
Second is the free handy monthly guides to what’s going on. You’ll find them in the brochure racks most hotels have.
Our first bargain was an hour-long boat ride around the Harbor. I have never seen such vitality before. Not in Shanghai. Not in Hong Kong. Not in New York. I can honestly say I never understood globalization before we saw the docks loading and unloading cargo 24/7, and dry docks where ships were being repaired.
And at Bridge Five you can descend in a handsome Jugendstil head house (1907-11) to walk under the Elbe River. Save some film for the end of your ten minute trek. The view of Hamburg from the other side of the Elbe is breathtaking.
And the quays where you board your ship are dotted with every level of restaurant. We picked The Captain’s Dinner because it was shielded from the sun (but not from the fresh breezes off the Elbe). I’m a fish nut so I chose number 77, called Nordischer Fischertopf—Seelachs, Steinbeisser, Fjordlachs, Muschels, Shrimps, and Mushrooms. Served on a base of Siamese rice. Man, big chunks of fish, all mushy in a rich sauce. My wife claims I’m a superlativizer, but I still have to say that it was the best fish dinner I ever had, even at the stiff price of 14.50 Euros.
In my guide I read that there was a free jazz concert that night in the public gardens called “Plants and Flowers” in Plattdeutsch. Man was there ever. The walk through the gardens from the subway was a visual treat in itself, the Japanese configurations most pleasing to my eyes. But the featured act was a German woman vocalist who had spent a lot of time in Senegal and the Cameroons—and it showed in her rendition of a mix of evergreens and originals with an African ambience.
Her singing was surging because of an extraordinary rhythm section—piano, marimba, bass, regular drums, and African drums. An interesting angle was a patio to the right of the stage where every kind of jazz lover, from babies to senile couples, were allowed to dance together or by themselves. All of this ended by what I can only call a water/fireworks—Duke Ellington and Count Basie sound tracks accompanied by synchronized water works illuminated by color lights. I have never seen anything like it. What a way to spend a Saturday night.
Sunday morning was Fish Market time, a ten minute walk from our Altona Ibis hotel. It gets more than a little jammed on the river bank level where the people were giving in to the wiles of the fruit peddlers, so we stayed on the street level, finally running into the 78 settees that led to the Grun und Jahn HQ which was sponsoring the show with “Wohnen”, one of its magazines.
Then we ambled over to the Altona Museum where there was a fascinating show on the “Heidi” phenomenon. As well as many outstanding exhibits on the history of design in Germany. We took the subway to the Museum of Work to see a show with a strange title, “Architecture for the Homeless”. The serious point was that they had no architecture other than the cardboard mini-shacks.
My wife hated the painful photos of the poor and homeless, but I responded to their pathos. The museum has recycled an old factory for New York/Hamburg Rubber, where damn near everything was made from hard rubber. Now they’ve limited themselves to making rubber combs. Strangely bizarre on their grounds was the great machine used to bore the fourth Elbe tunnel. It looked like a huge sculpture until you got close enough to read its story.
Heh, what about Art with a capital A. No problem, baby. At the Kunsthalle, there was a show on the Max Liebermann paintings about his garden on the Wannsee. At the Applied Art Museum a glorious celebration of the House of Wettin in Dresden in the year 1600. All the glamourous appurtenances of the Duke’s retinue. This museum is always an exhausting experience: you go to see the main show, and you’re eventually overwhelmed by subsidiary exhibits, especially this time by “Pictures that Lie”, a lively explorations of how the media are used to divert viewers from the truth. Don’t go to this museum at the end of a hard day. It will take every bit of your energy to survive the visit!
And then there was the Bucerius Forum kitty korner from City Hall. It was a first class exploration of how CLOUDS entered the vocabulary of Western painters especially during the Baroque period, and particularly in expressing the Christian phenomenon of an ascent into Heaven, but also examining the nineteenth century experiments of painters like Turner and Monet.
And finally, there was the Gourmet Fest next door, in front of City Hall. We chose Indian Cuisine for our splurge into uninhibited eating. For 9 Euros we got a mixed plate of all the hot stuff they were peddling. If you can curry favor with curry, it was heavenly.
Since we are regular DB hounds, we hold a Comfort Bahn card which entitles us to visit their Lounge whether we’re riding that day or not. So we used their facilities to relax in when the pressure of 24/7 Hamburg. Our final sortie was in the so-called Speicher district which had all the nineteenth century warehouses needed for global trade. They have been gentrified in a variety of ways, just as the nearby Deichtorhalle have been turned into art museums. We climbed exhaustedly onto our ICE back to Weimar, whipped but delirious with having survived so dynamic a city.
Monday, 27 April 2009
I was pooped, and wanted to go to my German wife in my second home in Weimar and unlax. But I didn’t want to pay a fortune to get there quickly. KLM wanted 270 euros for a flight to Berlin. Lufthansa wanted more. And I’ll be damned if I could get anyone to tell me where the cheap airlines were in that great airdrome.
Finally, after scores had tried to steer me back to the oligolis pair, Lufthansa and KLM, a man had pity on me and pointed to Terminals 1 and 2 where the charters were and uttered the magic word, “Basiq Air”.Quicker than you could say “misleading the public” I had a 102 euro ticket for the next day from Rotterdam’s miniairport to Berlin/Schoenefeld, leaving at 15:30 and arriving an hour later. How to get to Rotterdam? No problem a 15 euro shuttle left from where you book the canal boats across from the Victoria Hotel. Heavy luggage portage was solved by offering a taxi driver 10 euros to drive me across the wide plaza to wait for the shuttle. Inexplicably, Amsterdam Central Station has no trolleys.
I spell this transaction out in detail because it clear that the major airlines do their dirty damnedest to divert customers from the cheapies. Now let me expatiate on some problems I have had recently with the cheapies. Take Ryanair which prides itself on bringing Southwest Airlines mode to Europe. I wanted to go from Erfurt (25 km from Weimar) to Dublin via London/Stansted to attend the James Joyce Ulysses Centennial on June 6. Somehow (I think their computer slipped the date after I had chosen it) my leg to Stansted came after my leg to Dublin. Cost me 15 pounds to correct the error, whoever’s it was. I was in too good a mood to hassle about it.
Next I bought on the flight a telephone card that worked a third of the time and finally fell wholly useless because the pin number disappeared. Too small a thing to complain about. Right?
Now the big swindle. I was in Helsinki writing architectural reviews. I wanted to get to London for the press opening at the V&A of an exhibition on the first industrial designer in history, one Christopher Dresser (1834-1904). I checked into an Internet Café and booked a cheap flight from Stockholm to London and back. After I had paid with my Visa, they curtly announced that the cheap fare was no longer available. There was one was for over $300.
I passed and went across the street to the main train station and booked a 21 hour rail ferry/rail journey that got me to the museum on time. After the opening, I flew back to Germany on Ryanair to Lubeck. Imagine my amazement when my next Visa shows the $300 plus flight. I rose in wrath at this bait and switch. A long condescending letter from CEO Michael O’Leary accused me of trying to scam the airline. Talk about projection. He said there was an email sent to show I had bought the fare. No way.
Now take Easy Jet. I booked a round trip Berlin-Copenhagen-Berlin. A family matter at the last moment forced me to not use the return leg. Four hours before flight time (two are required) I sent an e-mail explaining my predicament. There was no telephone number. And in their sanctimonious refusal to let me fly later, they told me I should have used my password. Except I never had one! Soft swindling. Compare that with their touted model Southwest.
When I had a cardiac incident on the way to Charles de Gaulle that prevented me from flying Southwest as planned on to Oakland, they told me by phone to save my locater number and when I was well again to either ask for a refund (doctor’s letter required) or use the fare on another flight with the agent carefully explaining how much my refund would be.I actually booked a flight from LAX to Oakland on the last day of my Ameripass. But my luggage was too heavy, and portage through Dart to BART plus dragging to the Geary bus to my friend’s home was too foreboding. So I called Southwest to cancel. No problem. And took the overnight Greyhound. It is housed in the same Transbay Terminal as the Geary bus.
I go at length to warn European travelers that they can be hassled and lose Big Bucks with the so-called Cheapies. I also am trying to shame Ryanair and EasyJet into behaving more civilly like their purported grandfather airline, Southwest. I will continue to use the cheapies (BasiqAir was a marvel, with a very effective and affordable snack service, and lockers at Berlin Schoenefeld for leaving the heavy stuff with them until the next morning, as I went on to crash at my friends on the Hackester Market stop on S9.)
Sunday, 26 April 2009
He mocked a reporter with fluent French speaking to Jacques Chirac, while his own illiterate English is sprinkled with fakely demotic Cowboy Speak, dropping final “g”’s to sound demotic, all the while faking fluent Spanish as a cynical ploy for the Hispanic vote.
His professor at the Harvard School of Business Administration asserts that Bush found the movies “Grapes of Wrath” corny. Yet Jesus is his “favorite philosopher”. How much of this incoherence is due to the putative brain damage from decades of excessive drinking and snorting as opposed to callow Karl Rove maneuvers is hard to determine.
But we’re beginning to see just how compassionate his conservatism is, say 99 and 44/100ths percentage conservatism and a pinch of tactical “compassion” palaver. Molly Ivins has footnoted this hypocrisy from his days as a Governor to his ploy as President to promise the world and finance little if anything specific. We are beginning to understand what his tax cut for the rich deficit spending means.
Just as his avatar Ronald Reagan set out to dismantle the New Deal heritage of Social Security by spending billions on Space War fantasies all the while mocking Welfare Queens being driven in their Cadillacs to pick up their welfare checks. From outrageously unfair gerrymandering to blank checks for Defense, Bush’s ploy of a “privatized” Social Security system is strictly a ruse to destroy the social safety net.
Here, alas, one must confront the political innocence of most of the American electorate. The late Neal Postman argued that Americans were “amusing themselves to death”. The infantilization of our electorate began in earnest in the 1920’s when the newest media of movies, radio and tabloid journalism began to create diversionary worlds of sports heroes, movie stars, and other systematic distractions—the infrastructure of a hypercommercial society.
This so-called Jazz Age also created the structurally double education system, plenty of money for the suburbs, less and less for those who needed education most in the center cities. The vulnerability of the poor and inadequately prepared began then, and has deepened ever since. And the exploitation of religion as a legitimization of the defective status quo is the greatest corruption of Christianity in the history of that faith. Dorothy Day exemplified true compassion. Bushies don’t have a clue to the meaning of compassion.
The vulnerability of America to its own excesses did not begin on 9/11. Its absurd dependence on oil stems from the sanctification of the automobile as an emblem of “success”, the GM tactic of creating an automotive status ladder from Chevvie to Caddie embodies it all. Our profligate waste of our own resources since the beginning of country we can blame on nothing other than our freely chosen bad habits. The enduring fascination of a tiny aware minority for Ralph Nader is an earnest of how hard it will be for a majority to eschew the bad habits of two centuries.
George W. Bush is gravely disqualified to lead such a renaissance. He hustled his way into the Champagne Squadron of the Texas Air National Guard, blithely abandoning his post as an aviator, to help a friend of his father run for Senator in Alabama. A legacy Yalie, he returns as President to smirk about how far a “gentleman C” student can go. And he blew almost all the free rides his powerful father provided for him. Take his stake in the Texas Ranger.
It began as a tiny gift, suddenly transformed into a down payment on becoming a millionaire. And this great partisan of privatization had Arlington TX pay for its new stadium. With his suddenly miraculously inflated grub stake, he entered the oil business. He created a putative world record for serial bankruptcies, culminating in SEC officially disapproved “insider trading”. Poor Polish peasant Martha Stewart goes to the pokey, suggesting what uppity feminists deserve, while the Enron and other megabucksters fiddle with high priced lawyers to avoid just punishment. Bush is complacent about such outrages.
We face a much deeper, more pervasive problem if we are to successful in rehabbing a shabby electorate (generally complacent at the multiple frauds of the Florida 2000 “election”). And our media are manned by arrivistes from our best universities who dream of doing a Woodward rather than cleanse their own Augean stables. And, to the incredible consternation of our advanced peers in Europe, our executives earn up to 500 times our workers. (The European ratio is closer to 50.)
Globalization, it turns out, is the last step in the destruction of the American union movement. Wal-Marting our economy means calling workers “associates” and denying them a living wage, health insurance, and pension rights. Wal-Marting is the destruction of the American Dream of egalitarian opportunity for all. It substitutes the tacky goal of creating a few more billionaires. The Wall Street Journal recently went ga ga over the “encouraging” fact that we created 14% more millionaires this year than last.
America should be leading the world’s fight for a decent life for all six billions of our race. Instead it doubles, triples, quadruples its defense budgets, and scorns the rest of the world with impunity. We spend thirty times as much on defense than we do for education. Wonderful, eh? We destroy Iraq while our own country falls apart, outside its privileged gated communities. So even if enlightened voters change the false direction of this country, it will not be easy to compensate for the past century of eroding egalitarianism.
But God help us if we don’t soon begin to recover our heritage of true compassion, i.e.,the truly egalitarian American Dream. As long as the poor die anywhere in the world from disease and disaster, the American Dream will not have been fulfilled. And when SUV comes to shove, we are much more vulnerable to our own bad habits than from any Tom Ridge authenticated threat. At this point, we’re merely whistling in the gathering darkness, unaware of how badly we have gotten off track with our bad habits.
Saturday, 25 April 2009
Stuttgart: Oh, those wealthy Baden-Wurtemburgers! When they collect art, it’s only the best, and their nearest and dearest they choose. Their current Hit Parade at their James Stirling designed State Gallery has the anomalous title, “Munch, Nolde, Beckmann...”, those three dots implying that “We don’t play favorites down here in the richest part of Germany”.
Talk about humble elegance. But as a Detroiter (Denby High 1944, U.S.Navy, 1944-46, University of Detroit 1949), it wasn’t the Big Names that first boggled my eyes. It was rather the first time my eyes had seen an image of my artistic godfather, the man who put the Detroit Insitute of Arts on the world Culture Map, and who thus made it possible for me to have a first class art education in my own home town. There He Was;Ludwig Meidner (1884-1966)’s “Bildnis Dr. Wilhelm R. Valentiner” (1920), the man who singlehandedly, with the support of a lot of new Auto Money, made my art education possible.
It is a pencil drawing of the then 70 year old man, living in L.A. as the director of the Los Angeles County Museum, tousled hair, dour mien, left hand sprawled to side of face, looking off to the middle distance. So that’s my artistic grandfather, I thought grandly, breathless in surprise at confronting him visually for the first time in my own years, 77 now myself, and only recently having set out to “discover” my maternal grandfather, Edward G. Fitzpatrick, a successful Northern Michigan (Oscoda) lumberman, immigrant from Ireland in the 1880’s, who died before I was born in 1927, my mother May being the last of his eight children, all of them university educated, itself unusual in those days. Finally, I settled to savor what these “new vieux rich automakers” had done with their money. Damn! Lots.
It was strange that they began with Munch, the Norwegian, however much he shook up art categories in the North. We know him mostly as the guy whose straitened (to put it mildly) relations with women were a shrieking failure! Alas, he was psychoanalyzed in Copenhagen in 1904, and his last work in the University of Oslo Aula is more Thomas Hart Benton than his angst-ridden early paintings. With all due respect to Sigmund Freud, it may rather have been the gay-friendly beaches of the Baltic that transformed Munch.
In Wernigeroda, the small seaport outside Rostock, there is a small Munch museum founded by the retired head of the German equivalent of our Annapolis--in Flensburg on the Danish border. His career is significant. The son of a Berlin butcher, he explained his rapid rise to the top of the German Navy as having more to due with too many Nazis in the Weimar Republic Navy than his special talents. By the way he got his itch for Munch while serving NATO in Norway! What this did to the interior decoration of ships in the fleet is interesting. No more stodgy Admiral portraits. Marine landscapes instead. And finally, modernist classics.
There are no fewer than seventeen Munchs, the earliest being “Vampire” (1893/1894), and the latest being the same name in 1917! (Old fears die hard, even with shrinks at hand!) God be praised, there is no Shriek, that excellent image in all its variations that came to too abruptly epitomize Munch who was much more than a one image artist.
Moving right along, as the docents were instructing a full Sunday house, we visit Fauvism and Cubism, with adequate examples from Matisse, Marquet, Bonnard, Gris, and Leger.This,of course, being mere foreplay to the emergence of “Die Bruecke”, that strange movement that grew out of the boredom of architecture students in Dresden.
Their fifteen second sketches were their way of relaxing from the rigors of architecture school! Imagine how more humane Modernism might have been if these loose feelers rather than the abysmally tight Mies and Gropius had flourished in the 1920’s. This segment is dominated by Kirchner, as it should be, with space and attention left for Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Max Pechstein, and Otto Mueller.
There’s a Kirchner new to me, “The Wannsee station seen from the window of the artist’s atelier” (1914/26), where the intersecting planes of the tracks and bridges and station house glow ominously in red, orange, blue, green, and yellow, all the colors in blocks that suggest an architect who has flunked his mechanical drawing class but having a ball losing it!
Erich Heckel has “A Quick Look at People Bathing” (1913), nude, in the way that liberated Munch, from where perhaps it was too cold to bathe without suits! My favorite Heckel story concerns the Anger Museum in Erfurt, near where I live in Weimar. He had done a room full of murals there, when the Nazis starting looking ever more closely for “degenerate art” for which category these fully qualified. But a canny directress built over the door to that chamber, put a statue of St.Michael guarding where the door had been. Now you can relish his Garden of Eden type walls. Bless that gutsy lady, eh?
Pechstein has a stunning overview of “Boys Bathing” (around 1917) which flaunts their agilely active bronzed bodies against the blue green sea and the yellow sands. Otto Mueller closes this chapter with two very closely joined “Two Negro Girls” (around 1928). Their lithe bodies are just simply gorgeous.
The next episode in this Stuttgart Collectors Odyssey is entitled, “Nolde, Beckmann, Meidner—three Loners”. I won’t comment on his delicious female portraits, deferring to “Peaceful See”(1936), which is hardly peaceful, its threatening black and ochre skies suggesting an imminent storm, literally the calm before the storm. It is stunning in its deployment of minimal means to a powerful effect. Alas, I’m no big Beckmann fan, but I’ve got to admit that his “Workers on the Roof” (1937) gives you the sense of hyperactivity as they repair it.
Meidner is all in black and white, his “Bridge Explosion” (1914), an earnest of the harried life he led as a Jew. Born in 1884 in Bernstadt, he studied art in Breslau as a nineteen to twenty-one year old, then he worked for two years in Berlin as a fashion designer.Then he spent two years in Paris where he became pals with Modigliani. Returning to Berlin in 1908 he helped found the group, “Die Pathetiker”. He moved to Dresden in 1914 before serving in the war, 1916-18. He moved to Cologne in 1935 where he taught in a Jewish school. He fled to London in 1939, but returned to Germany in 1953, died in Darmstadt.
The next episode centers around Murnau where Muenter and Kandinsky set up house. The so called Blue Knights. (It is now a museum you must visit before you pack it in. I love Gabriele’s work and have trouble keeping from smirking at Wassily’s breakthrough Urabstract expressionism. But he painted the furniture in this house with Russian folkthemes of unsurpassed funkiness. He shudda kept to this theme.)
Jawlensky, before he went nutsy over heads, is repped by a fine snow landscape (1912): Franz Marc scores with “The Red Dog” (1911), and his co-victim in World War I, August Macke, not only has the catalog cover, but “In front of the hat store” (1913), a splendid consideration of the newly emerging activity of shopping. It makes me sad when I consider how cruelly their war service ended their careers before they had hardly begun. What a loss to painting their death at the front were.
There are four Klees, but none that I fancy. Which is odd because I love him most of all, mainly. Heh, even geniuses have bad days, eh? There aren’t nearly enough Muenter’s to please my committed eye. (She’s my favorite German painter! So there.) But I’ll settle for “Straight Street” (1910) in which you see the street dominating a village scene, with a warm yellow dominating the scene, except for a red tile roof on a starkly white house. (Not unlike the place she and Wassily cohabited.) Incidentally, I’ve never forgiven WK for dumping GM during World War I, leaving her stranded in Stockholm where they were to foregather during the war.
Instead he opted for Nina, with whom he was terminally miserable, showing that God sometimes does the Work He assigned Himself. And boo that there is not a single square or Marianne Werefkind in this show. She coddled Jawlensky when he was a mere calvary officer in St. Petersburg, took him to Munich, all of which blessings he repaid by getting her fifteen year old charge, Helena, pregnant. Damn those patriarchal days.
Marianne didn’t have a large ouvre, but a recent exhibition at the SchlossMuseum/Murnau shows it was worth remembering, especially the one with the nuns out walking their students. I only stumbled on her in Ascona, where they summered, and where 50 years after her death, the local museum did her justice with a retrospective. Artistic reputations are a mystery I don’t even pretend to understand.
The next chapter was on Abstraction, which I found too abstruse to fiddle with. Not so,the next, on Oskar Schlemmer and his Bauhustling friends. I have just spent six years in Weimar writing a book which explains (I hope) why the Bauhaus was ultimately an overhyped flop. So I love Oskar. His staircase sculptural murals in van de Velde’s Applied Art School (now HQ for Bauhaus Uni) is one of my favorite pit stops in all Weimar. So dawdle over this chapter. And on Lyonel Feininger too.
This German American whose artistic life began in Chicago doing comic strips for the Tribune fell in love with the tiny churches in Thuringia, especially the one in Gelmeroda, 3 km south of Weimar. And architect Peter Mittmann fell in love with Feininger, so that there is a Light Sculpture on its steeple every summer night. You must visit PM’s Blue Box, his twelve story exhibition space across the road from the church, in which Peter praises the most important architect of the twentieth century, Ernst Neufert (1900-79), who lived and worked here, writing the guide to the industrialization of architecture (1938) which is still in print in thirteen languages.
And, finally, the Neue Sachlichkeit, that post-war acknowledgment that Expressionism wasn’t all there was to painting. I’m a certified Christian Schad zealot, so if there isn’t enough NS for you here, I suggest you travel to his home town, Aschaffenburg, where they guard with pride his whole ball of wax, experimental photography to boot. I got hooked on CS in Emden, where the hometown boy, Henri Nannen, founder of “Stern” magazine, the “Newsweek” of Germany, founded a museum which his widow runs, along with an art school. There some good Otto Dix in this sector, but I don’t see him as particularly NS. Incidentally, his home town of Gera, has a fine museum in his name.
Finally, a word about the James Stirling museum complex which began with the State Gallery. Latest is a History Museum, using the same eye-POPping architecture. In it is the most up to date take on a local state’s history I have ever seen anywhere in the world. A high tech interview, for example, with a Bangalore IT immigrant talking about why his likes immigrate to Germany, and why not. Its short term exhibition was on the deployment of Pershing Missiles during Ronald Reagan’s tenure as President. The kind of show we never have in America, alas. And I love the fact that their restaurant is called “TEMPUS”.
In Latin illiterate America, we’re not likely to have that kind of wit in our museology. Just musing, about being amusing! If you can’t afford the plane fare, the catalog is a ridiculous steal at 40 euros. Or Google them, and read it on the Web. And thanks, Dr. Valentiner, for turning me on to German art in an era where French and English dominated art history/criticism kept most of America ignorant of what you promoted.
Friday, 24 April 2009
The issues Mr. McChesney raises are still crucial, after all these years. In my teaching years (1952-82) I was happily split between my Ph.D. in American Lit and my eagerness to influence the popular media for the better.
My first published article,"Everyman in Saddle Shoes" Scholastic Teacher (1954),was a plea to fellow high school teachers to assign Paddy Chayefsky and other authentic new TV voices.That led to a Ford Fellowship in New York in 1955-56 where I followed up my college curiosity about Marshall McLuhan (his "Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial Man" had appeared in pieces in Commonweal, the Catholic layman's weekly that a Jesuit University introduced me to.) Marshall began his tenure at TC, Columbia that year and we plotted new maneuvers together. He explained to me that "Mechanical Bride" was his anthropological foray in teaching Freshman English.
I became the radio TV editor of Scholastic Teacher for six years, devising the Teleguide to make it practical for a teacher, say, in East Lansing, Michigan, to assign Edward R. Murrow's "Harvest of Shame" or Maurice Evans' Hallmark "Macbeth".
In 1957 I got a Carnegie Postdoctoral Fellowship to create a course at Penn on "The Mass Society" (first semester, Print, Graphics, Broadcasting, second, Industrial Design, Architecture, and Urban Planning),basically how to be an alert patron in the new mass society. Fortuitously, Walter Annenberg gave Penn two million dollars in 1958 to found a graduate school of communication, and faute de mieux, I became Gilbert Seldes' gofer.
I had recommended him for Dean because in my essay,"The Public Arts and the Private Sensibility" in Lewis Leary,ed., "Contemporary Literary Scholarship" (1958) I pointed out that he was the first critic to take American popular culture seriously, in "The Seven Lively Arts" (1924).
I organized a TV festival in 1964 for the NCTE and edited a book of essays by the participants, "TV as Art: Some Essays in Criticism" (1966). I brought TV and films to MLA conventions.One such was David Meyer's luminous take on the poet Theodore Roethke. Dave wanted to accept Marianne Moore's permission to make a similar film for her, but when I asked Mike Shugrue if I could raise funds for it, he demurred:"This has been a bad year in the stock market for our members, Pat." She died the next year!
But I remember most of all the Daedalus Conference on Mass Culture in the Poconos in 1960. The New York eggheads gathered there had come not to praise Mass Culture, but to bury it.Gilbert asked me to be the one "pro" voice heard in this unseemingly uniform gaggle of neo-cons, basically reporting my "Mass Society" course as a civilized response to our common predicament.
The conference literally ended with the poet Randall Jarrell waggling his prophet's beard at me and intoning,"You're the man of the future, Mr.Hazard, and I'm glad I'm not going to be there!" Shortly thereafter, (sadly, I liked to teach his poems) he committed suicide.
As have our clerisy when it comes to their ignorant reactions to mass culture. The rules of academic promotion means you have to convince your peers you're verbose enough to join them! There was therefore little time left to tutor the masses on living in their new world. Easier to sneer, and rail at the boobs.
One final anecdote. Newton (TV is a vast wasteland) Minow wanted academic advice on revising the TV station renewal forms. So he invited Bernard Berelson (Columbia), Ithiel de Sola Pool (M.I.T.), Gary Becker (Chicago) and me (Penn, subbing for Gilbert, who couldn't be bothered!) for a discussion. As the polysyllabic day progressed, it slowly dawned on me that these pre-eminents were blithely unaware of the central truth about TV renewals: TV execs always promised the moon, and ignored their false promises until the next renewal process!
I had been shooting weekend TV clips for WFIL-TV's Tom Jones, a canny tutor who could discuss T.S.Eliot as intelligently as he promoted sports features on his station. (Not to forget Dick Clark who was just then also getting started there.) At the end of that boring day, Minow stuck his head in the door and thanked us for "our wisdom". From that day forward, I would have almost total skepticism about social science savants as well as fatuous bureaucrats.
Thursday, 23 April 2009
When the London Economist sneered that the longish glass structure poised at the very edge of the Arkansas River reminded them of an RV, Clinton parried on "Larry King Live" that it just goes to show that he was part RED and part BLUE. Take my word for it, the Center and its surroundings are absolutely glorious, the first such Prexy Library to have any architectural distinction.
James Polashek, the same long ball hitter who gave us the Rose Planetarium at New York's American Museum of Natural History, paid Clinton the ultimate client praise, that he was a Renaissance client, even sending Chelsea to check out Polashek's new museum at Stanford. Especially tasty is a grove of trees native to Arkansas. Polashek is also my kind of Detroit proley: their office door lists the six partners alphabetically, putting James' P surname far down the list.
Clinton is utterly truthful when he stresses that the $168 millions Center is his personal thank you to the city that gave him access to the Presidency. Instead of hunting for a leafy suburb, Clinton chose a run down stretch of the river front adjacent to downtown. What pleases him most is that his Center has already spun off $800 millions of development in the formerly tacky neighborhood.
Hillary talked on Larry King tonight about the warts and all historiography of the displays, insisting he wouldn't have it any other way. And he's releases the 80 million items in the archival collections earlier than legally protected. That is, right away! And the director of the Archive, Dr. David Alsobrook (born in Eufaula, Alabama in 1946), is also a blue collar riser.
I should say that my Ameripass didn't start this amiably. It began in Washington where I paid my first visit to Canadian Blackfoot architect Douglas Cardinal's Museum of the American Indian, where the first Americans were finally accorded the last open space on the Smithsonian Mall.
As I awaited the express bus to Philadelphia, a commotion broke out in the restaurant. It turned out that two DC cops were trying to cuff a young black man on PCP. For almost a half hour, the threesome rolled around on the floor, with the black Greyhound workers and travellers cheering on the felon! Since I majored in Yellow at the University of Detroit, with a minor in timidity, the quietly slipped out onto the street--where black hobos pestered me for change.
Now the irony. The black Greyhound driver from St. Louis to Little Rock was a dead ringer for the PCP emboldened felon: strikingly handsome deeply dark young men. Except the driver was as Red as the felon was Blue. He was born again at age 25, attends a Pentacostal church, and waned the travellers not so much as use the word hell! He shamed me for being a fallen away Catholic! Finally, our talk turned to the election (the supervisor at Greyhound/Philly authorized my sitting in the usually off limits right front jump seat, to get better pictures and palaver the drivers).
Our talk turned to 2008, where I offered my first theory: that Condi Rice would oppose Hillary Clinton for the presidency. And that no matter who won, America would be guided by an intelligent, good-looking woman. After several hours of mulling that suggestion, the driver Mr. Coty allowed as how he had been thinking about my speculation. And liked the idea. See: we're not a Red or a Blue country: We're fated to turn Purple, as the Reds and the Blues start mixing, as me and Mr. Coty did on our trip yesterday from St. Louis to Little Rock.
Wednesday, 22 April 2009
Philadelphia: It was a family scandal. Thirty years ago, driving my son Michael off to Carleton College, I secretly detoured for over 400 miles so I could savor Louis Sullivan's Norwest Bank in Owatonna, Minnesota. When my three teens realized the deception that Sunday morning, there was a flaming revolt in the rear of our Toyota station wagon.
Happily, Michael soon shared my passion for the architect Frank Lloyd Wright called his "dear Master". And soon we were fantasizing about doing a film about the eight banks Sullivan called his "jewel boxes". (Michael is a filmmaker now, having down a dozen videos on Minnesota writers and thinkers). They give a certain glory to the small towns and cities they embellish--Columbus, Wisconsin; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Grinnel, Iowa; Sidney, Ohio; Newark, Ohio. Places most people would never had heard of, were it not for Sullivan's creativity.
So when I flew in from Germany to spend Easter with his family, I was puzzled that he hadn't met me at the airport in Minneapolis. U. S. Airways had bumped me onto Northwest, but he's used to handling such stuff. When I called, he explained: "I'll be there in fifteen minutes with Sonia (my granddaughter). We're going to shoot the Owatonna bank." Finally. I was elated, anticipating.
It's about an hour drive to the little O. I had been there once, about ten years ago, since that fateful September Sunday morning in l969. Then, those careful custodians of "their" Jewel Box, had displayed memorabilia about Sullivan and his patron, banker's son David Bennett, in old fashioned glass cases. Now they were mounted on museum quality wall boards. As a former literature professor, I believe deeply in the way you test a masterpiece: the more you attend to it, the more you see; the more you see, the more pleasure it gives.
I couldn't believe I had missed so much on my first two visits! The incredibly lovely red sandstone with striations that meant that each tough Minnesota winter left the outside of the bank with a "new" facade, the weather gradually abrading the soft material to reveal new colors and patterns underneath. And the ceramic decorations on the facade. What wonders to the eye. And the deeply brown bricks. And that's just the outside.
Inside, there are the humongous ceramic lighting standards, the amazing Frank Lloyd Wright-like , geometrically patterned stained glass windows, the glorious skylight, the banking desks, the offices, the great clock on the balcony, the furniture on the balcony (in the old days--1908, there was a separate place for wives and children to rest while their men did the business), the huge Holstein murals by Oskar Gross--the only thing I don't relish about the building and its decorations. Heh, nothing's perfect.
And by the front door, a little historical archive, with take away copies of the Owatonna newspaper the day the latest (of four) renewals formally opened. The international world of architects regards the bank as a masterpiece that must be visited. The locals regard it as their treasure which must be protected against the ravages of time and carelessness.
Michael has just mailed me a dub of the two hours of footage he shot of me poking my nose into all the corners of the bank. It's superb stuff, even if I do say so myself, and even, seeing it, realizing what an old man I've become--stooped shoulders, hesitant gait. Boy, is that an epiphany!
And for the first time I took a good gander at other buildings around the square. The best is the insurance building (1924, by two proteges of Sullivan) across the street. Close in quality is the 1893 County Court House. And not far behind that is the former Opera House, 1905.
What a lovely town, with its New England type village green--which was being occupied at the moment by tykes playing fiercely around the central ornamental pool.
So, finally, we're fulfilling our fantasy. I wrote Michael that when I come home between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we should Greyhound around to film the other seven jewel boxes. That's how I had first visited all of them fifteen years ago. I'll never forget seeing the Sidney, Ohio bank, with THRIFT emblazoned across its facade in delicious Art Nouveau script.
I had crashed with my graduate school roommate who taught history at the University of Dayton, and had taken the first bus, arriving in Sidney at 6:30 a.m., the only customer on the bus. I asked the driver if I could take a few minutes to get a good look. He said sure he wanted to take a smoke break. When I climbed back on the bus, he said something I've never forgotten: "You know, mister, I've driven by that bank a hundred times but I never noticed until now how beautiful it was." Just an ordinary guy, the scales falling off his eyes, seeing part of his heritage for the first time.
And I'll never forget my first visit to the Pawshiek County Bank in Grinnel, Iowa. I got there at night, fearful it might be closed at 8:00 p.m. But no, it was a Friday night, and that's when the local farmers do their banking business. But as I walked down the dark street from the bus station, I saw what appeared to be a gutted building. Getting closer I realized it was an addition to the original bank so respectful of the original that I had mistaken it for the jewel box itself.
I was on my way to Chicago so I didn't want to be carrying around a lot of cash so I asked the teller if I could make a symbolic Visa withdrawal for $5. "No sir, but how would you like a souvenir Sullivan brick from the basement where we just put in a new safety vault." A BRICK OF LOUIE'S!!! Zowie. And that's why on the fireplace mantel in my home in Philadelphia guests are puzzled to see a reddish brown brick in a place of honor. "It's a Sullivan," I say cryptically, unless they happen to be an architectural groupie like me. Then I tell them what I've just told you.
You may never luck out with a brick, but you can get a kick from Greyhounding around after the sites where Louie left us his jewel boxes. Try an Ameripass.
Tuesday, 21 April 2009
Taking the train from Frankfurt to Mainz last Friday (2004), I was alternately impressed and depressed by the lead story on the 9/11 Commission's recommendation that the West contrive more positive ways of dealing with an Islam on the march. Impressed because I'm convinced 99&44/100ths of our problems in that sector derive from our abysmal ignorance of those believers. Depressed by the unlikelihood that the smugly ignorant American would make significantly fresh initiatives in that direction.
Well, the German Catholics have. In their Diocesan museum, the Catholic city of Mainz, with its liberal Cardinal Karl Lehmann, has mounted a stunning exhibition so popular that it has been extended two more months, through September 29th, called "No War Is Holy", an outright declaration that the Catholic Church was on the wrong ethical side of those several Crusades.
Did you know that Barbarossa began the Crusade in the Cathedral in Mainz? I didn't. And if there was oil in the Iraq picture, then landless minor dukes were seeking to get more land, in the Holy Land! The fortunes and misfortunes of one such German aspiring landowner are traced.
And it's a populist exhibition. (You can try on chain mail to see how it was to fight in those good old days.) No problem with English speakers. A smaller version of the substantial scholarly catalog (29 euros) can be had by mail for 7 euros. The whole enterprise is an astonishment.
Since living in Germany for the past five years, as a so-called "fallen away" Catholic, I've been silently cheering the discretely discreet maneuvers Lehmann, as head of the German Catholic Bishops Conference, has been making to counter the right wing tendencies of Cardinal Ratzinger formerly of Munich, now the virtual if not virtuous Pope. Lehmann, God Bless Him, is holding more than his own. And this real Pope John Paull II pleas to the Muslim world for forgiveness could forecast a New Dawn.
The day before in Berlin, I learned that Marc Chagall had finished his artistic career with a sequence of stained glass windows. And that the height of this achievement was at St. Stephan's in Mainz. So my German artist friend and I started a little pilgrimage in search of the church. It was not easy. The medieval street plan had more dead ends to navigate than I'd ever before encountered. I was reminded of T.S.Eliot's figure in "Prufrock" of streets with insidious intent! It began to dawn on us that many other visitors strange to Mainz were having the same problem! We pooled our ignorances, and ultimately found the Chagall windows. They were conversation stopping. Brilliant in their blue and white simplicities. And our neighbors in this passage prayed at the end like true pilgrims.
Then began the ultimate irony. We had passed an open air restaurant on our flight from the Diocesan Museum where they made their own beer. As we sat down at a long table we noticed about twenty other young men loudly carousing. Slowly it dawned on us that they formed a company that had just flown in from Iraq that very morning. When I told them, in a friendly gesture, that I had been a seventeen year sailor in World War in 1944, they started reeling off their grandfathers' military credits. At first they were hostile to us. But this biographizing eased their tightness.
The first thing I noticed was that the few dead drunk soldiers were what we called "crackers" back in 1944, i.e., poor white Southerners. The second thing I noticed was the percentage of blacks was about twice what one would expect in a normal population. Even more interesting was that this cadre of sober blacks were comforting their drunken mates, even cleaning up after one who had soiled himself in the john, another who kindly and competently extricated a white comrade who had fallen in a clump of bushes. Finally, it was clear from their instant verbal autobiographies that they uniformly came from small, poor towns (West Virginia, South Carolina, Texas, Arkansas).
Finally, they were uniformly and deeply pissed at the Iraqis who had been trying to kill them, one and all, for the last year. 19,20,22,25. Just kids really. Caught up in a terrible debacle. It remains to be seen if the Christian compassion of Cardinal Lehmann and his German parishioners can convince other Christians at the monstrousness, unChristianlike behavior of Catholics vis a vis Islam for the last millennium. Better later than never. Kein Krieg ist heilig.
Monday, 20 April 2009
No architects to be need apply! With supreme irony, as the architectural reputation of the Bauhaus sinks yearly deeper and deeper into the septic tank of scorn, those weavers (think Gunta Stoezl and Anni Albers) are now being finally hailed as the artists for the ages they always really were. Just last month the new female head of the Berlin Bauhaus Archiv, the Swiss miss Dr. Anni Ogghi, opened her first exhibition on the recently repossessed Afrika Stuhl, a Marcel Breuer/Gunta Stoezl collaboration of 1921, the first masterpiece of the Bauhaus, so to speak.
Now two bright young freshly minted Ph.D.’s in art history, Ute Maasberg and Regina Prinz, have pounded the final nail in the coffin of German patriarchalism with a brilliant show at the Klee/Kandinsky MeisterHaus in Dessau, “Die Neuen Kommen!: Weibliche Avantgarde in der Architektur der zwangziger Jahre”(Junius, 2004), 29 women who were carrying the load of creativity anonymously.
It wasn’t just Mies exploiting Lillian Reich or Corbu occluding the reputation of his “lady helpers or Moholy-Nagy implying that Luci was just a photographer. The Party’s over, for good now. It reminds me that Folkwang/Essen almost ten years ago assembled a galaxy of female 1920 photographers (all a girl needed to break free from the KKK Krowd was a Leica and a big heart).I knew only three of the 53 so celebrated—and I study photography a lot! So shamefully distorted has our patriarchal art history been.
If you want to see how prescient a Urfeminist like Dr. Marie-Elisabeth Lueders was about Mies, catch her 1927 “Form” essay about his Weissenhof warehouse, in which she posits how a mother with children should react to his Platonic joke of a domicile. (It’s reprinted in the Weimar Republic Reader, University of California Press). It took til December, 2003 for the Federal Republic of Germany to finally honor her by naming its new Bundestag Library, beautifully deployed along the Spree, after her.
She was the first Ph.D. in Politics at the University of Berlin (1905), she directed woman’s work and child abuse programs during the First World War, was elected to the Weimar Parlement, until Hitler gave her a Beruf Verbot (and jailed her twice, to boot), whereupon she ran a woman’s academy in Dusseldorf. Her memoirs are entitled “Never Fear!” What a lady. What a politician. What a visionary.
In this tradition Drs. Maasberg and Prinz are the newest, proudest arrivals. And Dr. Omar Akbar once again proves he’s the only Bauhaus leader now who really comprehends what Gropius meant by fusing art and technology to make better things for lesser people.
Sunday, 19 April 2009
Seven photographers and one famous photographic couple make "Reconstructing Space: Architecture in Recent German Photography" at the Architectural Association, 36 Bedford Square, London a tasty collection. I'm not predisposed to savor this exhibition because all but one of the photographers indulge in what I call the Ezra Stoller Syndrome--unpopulated pictures, exacerbating the deplorable trend in modern architecture to create walk through sculptures rather than habitable fully functioning human environments.
Not that all photography of built environments must be populated: Susanne Bruegger's suite of four large format sky views of an urban neighborhood analyzes relationships among buildings and open land from a helicopter or tv tower angle. One is reminded of war damage reconnaissance photos. And indeed the juxtaposition of delicious old Jugendstil apartments and business block cheek by jowl with depressingly bland plattenbau post war construction remind you indeed of the architectural costs of war.
And if you wondered what Bernd and Hilla Becher would shoot when and if they ran out of their marvelously idiosyncratic water towers, wonder no more: here are twenty-one industrial facades, head on, no fancy angles, sharp focus to let your eye relish the singularities of two centuries of factory buildings. Most are Wilhemine, with bricks simulating elegance in craggy low budget decoration. But there's a quirky Bauhausey facade with a lot of symmetrically deployed glass and a fine Jugendstil front.
One doesn't demand from the Bechers anything more (or less) than an unendingly roving eye. They are the Eugene Atgets of industrialization. One is reminded of the French pioneer's insistence to Man Ray that he was not an artist, only a reporter.
Saturday, 18 April 2009
My favorite Am Lit teacher at the Jesuit University of Detroit added to his meagre earnings as a professor by running the pro club at the Detroit City Golf Course. We used to feign an interest in golf just to palaver with him. He liked the extra attention but was an overworked man so one Saturday he suggested we visit nearby Cranbrook. He thought it would slake our rapidly deepening cultural thirsts (as well as give him some freedom from Higher Pestering.)
We were fascinated by what turned out to be the architecture of the Finnish immigrant, Eliel Saarinen. We later learned that George W. Booth, publisher of the Detroit News, concerned about the spiritual aridity of the leaders of the booming new Automotive Capital of the world, had urged the new nabobs to seek deeper meanings in their lives in the cultural center which came to be called Cranbrook. Saarinen had attracted national attention in 1922 with his second place winner in the international competition to create a new Chicago Tribune Tower.
(A new generation of architects generally scorned the pretentious of the NeoGothic high rise that won the contest, and were exhilirated by the sleek modernism of the Finn's design preceding by several years the PSFS building in Philadelphia generally conceded to be the first modern skyscraper on this continent.) Saarinen had the good sense to hire the Swedish sculptor to head the sculptor department.
And his own wife was a gifted textile designer. So what you had in effect was an American Bauhaus paralleling the German one, with a more substantial Social Democratic tradition of training artists to serve the general public with good dlesign. Until the GI Bill fueled the ambitions of other institutions of higther elducation to expand their design programs, Cranbrook was the most important such scfhool in America for 50 years. (It still has very high standards, as I noted on a recent nostalgic trip, but it now has much competition in the field.
Friday, 17 April 2009
Fifty-seven years ago this day, the mayor pointed out, three young airmen parachuted from their stricken B-17 navigator Lieutenant Owen H. Jorgenson, radio operator John S. Spirodex, and tail gunner Donald H. Smidley. The second lieutenant got snagged in a tree as he fell and died. The radio operator and the tail gunner were shot to death by a Gauleiter trying to confirm his Nazi credentials.
All these people assembled because of the dedication of a former U-boat steersman, a retired 75 year old construction supervisor, one Hans Stadelmann who has been investing his retirement by honoring the American soldiers who helped defeat the Nazis in his native state of Thuringia. Ironically, the day the airmen were shot down was the same July 20, 1944 when Count Klaus von Staufenberg tried to assassinate Hitler.
General Gregory S. Martin quoted General Eisenhower’s credo that those who live under freedom must be eternally grateful to the young men they were honoring today. They are the ultimate victims who made the free lives we live possible. But Mayor Peter Thomas told of the reality that surrounded the death of those aviators.
Germany was in a hopeless situation. Economically and in manpower terms she was bleeding to death, and all reserves were used up. Women, children and men over the age of 60 years were all that remained in order to keep industry and agriculture alive. Millions of so-called foreign workers from enemy territory were forced to work under inhuman conditions. On all fronts enemies were approaching the German border. Day and night American and British Bomber Wings attacked German rear areas.
The people, who were frequently unable to protect themselves, were frightened. They were frightened about every day. They were frightened about news of the death of a father, a brother, or a son. They were frightened that public order would disintegrate and the foreign workers would take revenge on the population for the horrors they had suffered.
The Nazi Government and the Nazi Party reacted to this situation, both within Germany and against Germany’s enemies with increased terror tactics. Allied air crews were especially targeted to feel the People's Anger, as Goebbels called it. This encouragement to lynch so-called Air Pirates was not normally taken up by the civil population. When allied air crews were murdered, it was normally due to the actions of staunch Nazis.
In the incident at Wohlsborn, several eyewitnesses (their testimony collected by Hans Stadelmann) reported that the District Leader, a certain Hoffmann, shot the prisoners and they were buried without ceremony in Weimar. This ritual was an act of expiation for those American soldiers. Pastor Therese Rinecker gave a moving prayer about how she wished she could say we now lived in an era of peace, but there is Macedonia, among many other conflicts.
Christine Lieberknecht, president of the state legislature, thanked these young men for helping save us from the horrors of the concentration camps. For Thuringians the surcease from sorrow began with the liberation by American soldiers in April 1945 and ended six weeks later when the Russians assumed sovereignty. Then there were forty years of propaganda painting America as the Great Monster. Now only after the Fall of the Wall were we able to fully appreciate what those American soldiers did for us.
It was a fitting occasion, with a handsome travertine (the sacred stone of Thuringia) slab with the three aviators names carved on the broad face of the monument. At the gate, there was 71 year old Rolf Lange, retired machine engineer, with a hand made sign. How about the 1945 bombing victims in Weimar. Who will remember them? Why spit on their memory. Yes, Germany is a free country. And even at a solemn ceremony, the opposition was able to be heard.
How much different from Japanese prime minister visiting the war shrine. Allowing mendacious history books to prevail. Pretending, still, that Japan was really the victim in World War II. Just yesterday, a San Francisco supervisor was approached by the Japanese Consul to try to play down all the local Chinese clamor about the Rape of Nanking. Never happened. Didn’t do that. Alas, the Germans, and Mr. Stadelmann, veteran of three years as a steersman in a U-Boat, is pointing the way.
Thursday, 16 April 2009
And quirky old Albuquerque figures into the construction of the so-called Mother Road in a bizarre way that trumps all piddling details. It seems that the incumbent governor of New Mexico was miffed that the extant highway put his home town at a distinct disadvantage to Encino, the hometown of the man who would unseat him in the gubernatorial race of 1926: to get to Santa Rosa from the Big A, you had to take either of two circuitous routes, one to the mountains to the North, the other through Encino in the South.
When the A-residing governor lost to the E-residing opponents, Mr. A put into plan a last minute insult to his winning opponents. He ordered two construction teams to start off from A and Santa Rosa, with the challenge to meet each other before he went out of office January 1, 1927. Thirty days to build 62 miles of road. They fell a few miles short, but a serendipitous snow storm kept the new governor from serving papers stopping the construction.
Talk about highway soap opera. That road now includes Central Avenue, the main drag of A and the main focus of the celebrations--with Old Towne, a gloriously spruced up Theater District,with huge world class tiles on the sidewalk explicating the historic buildings, at one end and the Fairgrounds at the other, where most of the Hoopla centered.
Half way between is the 66 Diner, a splendid little abandoned gas station (1934) into a tasty collocation of memorabilia--the front end of the car Jimmy Dean died in, Phillips 66 signs of every ilk (the Tulsa based oil company cashed in on the publicity by staging an auto race in which the winner was alleged to have achieved the then astonishing speed of 66 miles per hour). The decor includes a chrestomathy of hub caps hanging from the ceiling. I chatted up two documentary makers from RAI, and ended up giving them an interview for Italian TV. (They wanted to know more about the Italian section of Philadelphia where I live.)
Halfway between Old Towne and the State Fair lies the University of New Mexico, which entered the lists of attention attracting with a swim in filmathon, including naturally the Henry Fonda version of "Grapes of Wrath" (1940), and a radio series by UNM professor David Donahue on the history and people of the road. Overdosing, anyone? The high point of the weekend was the Steinbeck dinner, where the writer who made the Mother Road notorious and memorable was honored.
A prelude to the dinner was an outdoor reception for the scores of writers and painters and photographers who have made a specialty of the lore of the road, principal among them being Mike Wallis (yes, he despises the cheapshot allusions to his otherwise differently spelled TV celeb) the 75th anniversary edition of whose classic book on the road was on sale for $23.95 in paper.
But there were cookbooks on the road, memoirs on the road, garden books on the road. And a friendlier bunch of schmoozers you've never run into, heady in their transient moments of triumph. The lead celebrity was the 74 year old barber from Seligman, AZ whose father founded the shop in 1926, who has created a minimuseum on the Road.
But let us not forget what made the Road great, viz., the automobile that took the Okies from their desert Hell to the putative Heaven of California. If ever our country was an auto-cracy, it was in Albuquerque that glorious weekend. Take the Noe's, she an art teacher at Gallup NM High, he the mechanic for "over 200 vehicles for the School District" as he proudly put. They were sitting regally in camp chairs next to their 1929 Model A, a bronze-tinted masterpiece.
Henry Ford would have been elated to see their pride. And they were but two of hundreds of happy couples talking to interested visitors about how they came to refurbish their antiques. For God's sake, there was a contingent of 40 Packard lovers from Canada, brandishing their Golden Oldies. And a gaggle of Germans had shipped their Old Glories over by freighters at a cost that could keep a school district in gas and oil for a decade.
Especially interesting to me was a claque of primitive trailer lovers. They made their primitive overnighters from scratch, the contemporaries of the first auto hotels before some marketing genius dreamt up the term motel. One sported a Grandma-derived patch quilt of astonishing beauty.
And there was an entire flea market selling with remarkable diversity every conceivable variant on an auto-centric culture, including highly motivated groups like historic preservationists, state tourism authorities, and simply good old floggers of transient trash. Never have I seen more benignly obsessed sweeties going about their self-appointed rounds. If only our politics displayed similar commitment and intensity. We wouldn't then be facing a society slowly being torn apart by the unanticipated results of an uncritical automotive mall society.
As Steve Lopez, the peripatetic Diogenes of American journalism, put it in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, commenting on the horrendous incident of teen violence against other visiting teeners,we have been raising a generation of latch key children, entirely bereft of moral values, whose de facto church is the automotive mall, the dark side of Route 66. A side those celebrators appeared to have not the least awareness of, as they flogged their idiosyncratic shticks onto the increasingly potholed Route 66.
(Incidentally, I learned at this fete that Ike Eisenhower started the Interstate Defense Highway System, which chopped up and bypassed the old Route 66, because he was impressed by the German Autobahn Hitler had bestowed in the 1930's as a stimulant to an ailing economy.) Roads lead sometimes in unanticipated directions.
There is no doubt that the advanced West is basically an AUTOcracy. Every recession begins with barely subdued terror that auto sales are lagging. It's a fiscal treadmill kept running by rebates and leasing and other forms of giving the auto economy a boost. Shortly after participating in the Route 66 Hoopla in Albuquerque, I found myself in Baden-Baden for a show at their Kunsthalle entitled "ICH BIN MEIN AUTO", an exhibition that promised much more than it actually delivered. It really amounted only to an agglomeration of auto-related images, most of them as mediocre as the aspirations by which AUTOcrats position themselves psychologically on a continuum from Model T Ford to the latest Mercedes.
No analysis of the urban chaos spawned by our car-dominated cultures. No evaluation of the fatuity of analyzing one's character by its auto buying habits. In short, just a hip but meaningless collection of "Art" tangentially connected with the automobile. There wasn't even the visual satisfaction of seeing, say, Sonia Delaunay's synchromatically bedizened Flivver, the center piece (literally) in the atrium of the Zurich museum touting her achievements in multiple media over seven decades.
And so on to the largest auto show in the world, the 59th running of the IAA in Frankfurt, where 1100 exhibitors from 40 countries will try to beguile an expected million visitors to opt for their frills. DU BIST DEIN AUTO is the most pathetic slogan of an "advanced" industrial capitalism. Even the egghead weekly, Die Woche, runs a photo of four beguiling moppets with their model cars, getting in the act of defining themselves by their automotive habits.
There are all kinds of unfilled needs in the world. A capitalism fixated on creating fantasy desires will just exacerbate the gap between real needs and artificially created desires. We need some industrial statesmen who can make these obvious failures into a political agenda. Meanwhile, autos are in the saddle, so to speak, and really ride mankind.
Wednesday, 15 April 2009
When you get right down to it, Brendan himself hadn't made the voyage entire between the superstitious vindictive life of the Druids to the forgiving ethos of Christianity. That's is the book's magic, making clear (and moving) how arduous that transition really was. It's written in a marvelous literary dialect that I can only call Book of Kells English, Kenglish, a faux archaic peasanty way of speaking that is a perfect metaphor for the tricky voyage of discovery the new Christians are engaged in.
For example, Brendan believes he can sail in a primitive boat with a crew of five to find the Land of the Blessed. (There is growing evidence that Celtic monks did in fact make landfall at Newfoundland and later maybe Florida.) They do find a monk whose isolation has forced him over the hill, and when they ask him if St. Patrick is here in this Land of the Blessed, he has them taken to a red-haired monkey. When they see small children miming coupling in this false Eden, he knows his life as a "blue martyr" (one who has dedicated his life to isolation on the endless sea as opposed to the more traditional "white martyr" who is a hermit of the desert).
In a fit of pique he sends another monk to save one who is drowning. That monk's guilt at his loss of the friend triggers a spiritual voyage for both Brendan and Malo when the saint makes that monk his confessor. That relationship becomes a daily hell on earth for both of them until they "discover" the meaning of Christian forgiveness. It retrieves the cliches of Christian living to a newer and deeper truth as they learn to implement the insights of the Faith in the brutal and unforgiving land of Irish paganism.
The narrator for most of the book is Brendan's childhood friend, Finn, so that we see the saint at a close distance as he wrestles with his own demons--his own sense of worthlessness in the face of those who need more than he can give them, his own doubts about the validity of his Faith, capital F. For ever gain there is a loss that never fades. Brendan is taken as a prodigy from his parents in infancy to be devoted to the new Faith. He is a natural leader and hundreds and hundreds sign up for the monastic centers he founds.
Then he gets off on a cockamammy scheme to find the Land of the Blessed, and subjects his closest friends to the most intimidating perils. It is a weird world in which a candidate for king who has only one testicle is disqualified and the Amazonian Maeve agrees to risk her virginity to check him out.
It is a world of magic power in which Brendan saves his friends from hostile enemies on the road by doing and knowing things only the supernaturally gifted could do. His charisma converts the Bard MacLennin to the counselor (and later saint) Colman.