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The Ironic Order

When Ed Flynn died midway through his term as Agincourt’s mayor, few were in a position to claim the emperor had died stark naked. Only gradually did we learn how empty his administration had been. Yes, there was much talk of making Agincourt great again; returning Agincourt to the imagined prosperity of bubble after economic bubble that had bloomed and burst since its founding in 1853. I was about to note how selective our memory can be, but you already knew that: Half the population seem to believe that a fictional past trumps a future which seems all too real, even perilous.

Edmund FitzGerald Flynn and his considerably younger bride, Amity Burroughs Flynn, had arrived with much self-generated fanfare and matching letters of credit. Within a matter of months, they were A-list invitees for dinners and other social gatherings. And they reciprocated with catered meals for our One Percent in private dining rooms at The Blenheim, where they had taken apartments.

Local commerce was never quite sufficient for their elevated taste, so Miller’s Tobacco special-ordered an aromatic blend for Ed’s pipe and a large stock of Nicaraguan cigars Distributed like business cards. Meanwhile, gowns, dresses and lingerie from Marshall Field supplemented Mrs Flynn’s eastern wardrobe [they claimed to have come from Boston]. It seemed to those she met on the street that Mrs Flynn never wore the same dress twice, though it was actually her ability to combine, permute, transpose and otherwise rearrange a few carefully chosen pieces to create that illusion.

Likewise with Ed and his letters of credit. Once deposited, his strategic “investments” attracted interest from newfound friends, then shifted  to other projects dressed for success. Today, I suppose we’d call it kiting: one check always in the air to keep others from bouncing; a technique that functioned well in the era of snail-mail but would be worthless in the computer age. Their uncanny ability to play that game — ponzi-like, yet not; the Flynns never made off with any cash — netted them prestige, social standing, and being swept into office as Agincourt’s mayor. All of which might have gone on uninterrupted, if Ed hadn’t overindulged at the Commercial Club monthly meeting. For on that fateful November evening in the Blenheim’s largest private dining room, Ed gurgled something authoritative, clutched his overly-starched shirt, and slumped forward into a chocolate-mint mousse; more dead than the scheme he’d been promoting earlier in the evening to privatize the municipal power plant.

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אתה אולטרה סגול מנא מנא מונופול

Belshazzar found some writing on his wall. Edmund FitzGerald Flynn, too, may have sensed the curtain descending on his foreshortened play. What else but that and hubris could have motivated construction of a private mausoleum. Hastily completed for the interment, FitzGerald-Flynn took up residence on the bottom shelf five months after his actual death.

The Ionic-ordered tomb at The Shades is considerably smaller than even a “tiny house” you might see on HGTV. Essentially it’s a granite garden shed — with more pretension than Donald Trump — measuring 8’–9″ by 12’–3″ and less that one hundred square feet, with “seating” for two. Its most distinctive feature: a single eight-foot Ionic column, Ed’s metaphoric middle finger to the world. Distinctive? Because we usually see classical columns in pairs. Turns out Ed got a deal on this one: Its twin had been damaged in transit, so the marble works let it go cheap.

You might say it’s an ironic iconic ionic.

[#792]

Julian Gordon Mitchell [born 1968]

avisualtreat

[From the Community Collection, a public gallery for art in Agincourt, Iowa]

MITCHELL, Julian Gordon (born 1968)

“A Visual Treat”

c2000

oil on canvas / 18 inches by 24 inches

Julian Gordon Mitchell is a contemporary British artist who, in his own words, “uses painting as a window into an imaginary, dreamlike world” which might be labeled surreal — perhaps not unlike Agincourt itself. This is one of very few works in the Community Collection purchased by the acquisitions committee from an English gallery.

Cecil (on contemporary architecture)

Once or twice a week Cecil Elliott’s name surfaces in the context of the department (teaching and administrative issues) but also the odd connection with cooking, drinking (alcohol, that is), popular culture, politics, and most recently religion. Cecil may have been the most intensely anti-religious person in my acquaintance. It’s one thing to be irreligious — “not religious; not practicing a religion and feeling no religious impulses or emotions” — and another to be openly, actively, and enthusiastically hostile to it. What do you suppose he’d make of Citizen Trump?

I spent part of today tracking down a quotation about architecture that Cecil invoked when he was researching Book Number Three on the history of the architectural profession during the last two centuries. After more than fifteen years, my recollection is faulty, but I think it came from a German participant in the Expressionist movement of the 1920s; someone like Hugo Häring. I’ll paraphrase the heck out of the quote and butcher its ironic snark:

There are but three major divisions in Art: Painting, Sculpture, and Cake Decorating, of which Architecture is but a subsection.

There are a great many architects of the late 20th century for whom Elliott had only scorn. Chief among them may have been Philip Johnson, both notable and notorious. In the 1930s, for example, Johnson flirted with Fascism. I have my own axe to grind about the considerable delay in his coming out, when his admission might have made a difference in the Gay Rights movement. But the thing Cecil despised more than any of Johnson’s many foibles was his stylistic changeability: far more egregious than simply being fickle, Phil ran after every stylistic train chugging from the depot, shouting “Wait for me! I’m your leader.” Miesian, Neo-Neo-Classicist, Post-Modernist, De-Constructivist; he couldn’t make up his mind.

When Johnson got the commission for the building that would house the  University of Houston’s architecture program, he found a nifty drawing by Claude-Nicholas Ledoux, (when Boullée, Ledoux and Lequeue were being rehabilitated by architectural historians).

PJ@houston Ledoux@houston

Modernist that he was — remember that Elliott was one of Walter Gropius’ students at Harvard — the abuse of history as a Post-Modernist grab bag offended him. And when students were even the slightest bit guilty of imitation, he saw a double standard in chastising students for the same behavior that Johnson received adulation. It’s that fine line betwixt inspiration and imitation that interests me at present and brings Cecil’s cake decorating quote to mind.

One of William Halsey Wood’s unsuccessful competitive designs — his scheme for St Agnes’ Chapel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — was an inspired piece of work and far superior to the designs of three other competitors that I’ve been able to locate. It’s futile to second guess the jury of any architectural competition and doubly so when it all transpired one hundred and twenty-five years ago. As with others of his unsuccessful designs, it may well have been budget that bit him in the ass. I’m reacting only to their aesthetics.

While researching another issue with regard to Halsey Wood’s career — his entry in the competition for St John the Divine — I stumbled on another late 19th century competition (which shall remain hidden for the time being), one of whose entries was clearly related to Wood’s concept for St Agnes; the plans are nearly interchangeable. Yet further analysis demonstrates what distinguishes few architects from the majority of practitioners: Wood, like his near-contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright (just a dozen years separate them), was fully capable of absorbing an iconic architectural idea and making it entirely his own. I’m not suggesting that Wood and Wright have more in common than being toward the end of the alphabet. But I am oddly reassured that my interest in rehabilitating Wood’s memory is not entirely misplaced.

ἅπαξ λεγόμενον

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Sarah Ruden’s introduction to her new translation of Apuleius’s The Golden Ass mentions the hapax legomenon, the thing said only once. Oh, would that I could claim as much for telling the Agincourt story, which, if anything can be said of it, is repetitive.

Translators of literature are the most admirable of writers: their indelible imprint is in the translated text, yet they themselves do not stand between author and audience. “Catalyst” is the wrong word, because the chemical reaction it sets in motion leaves the catalyst intact; it changes but is unchanged. Surely, for translators this can not be true — though as a monolinguist how would I know.

Ruden’s introduction reminds us that language has its quirks — idiom, figures of speech, dozens of them — and of the difficulty maintaining that quirkiness through translation. My first conscious encounter with the translator’s art was Andrew Bromfield’s masterful conversion of the novels of Georgian author Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili (a.k.a., Boris Akunin), where Bromfield somehow manages to retain the vernacular of a Japanese accent heard by a fictional Russian ear, then written by a Georgian and rendered into English. Might I prefer a meeting with Bromfield over one with Akunin? Perhaps.

The hapax legomenon, the thing said only once, is infrequent in my experience. A case decades ago became the wound that never healed until, that is, words like acid reflux issued from my mouth — a thing said only once — that ended our “möbius friendship,” the kind that have just one side. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, for that was a moment of difference between theatre and drama; the act and the actual have rarely been more clear.

Teaching (that thing I do for money) is hardly hapax-atory. Each academic season for forty-five years finds me saying again for the first time the highlights of architectural history from Pharaonic Egypt to the present; from the dawn of recorded history to what may very well be its dusk. Despite so many years in the metaphoric saddle of academe, however, I know that each class is unique; each class meeting will be like none other because both they and I are not who we were on Tuesday last. Did the Greeks have a phrase for the thing said often but never quite the same?

In the final tally, I will have said few things only once: “Will you marry me?” and “I do.” “You can put this job some place dark and moist!” or “I quit.”  And, of course, those few words that will be said as my eyes close for the last time. What do you suppose they’ll be?