Some time in mid May 2011, David Crutchfield and I were at the airport in Fargo, waiting for the plane that would take us to South America. In the departure lounge, there was a fellow who looked and acted perfectly normal; he was well groomed [compared to me, that’s pretty much everyone else] and wearing one of those satin “team” jackets with lots of embroidery. More stitching than you’d expect for the Fennimore Co. High School “Muskrats.”
I usually don’t bother reading that stuff but for some reason this time I did. “May 21st, 2011” stretched across his back, with a query if I was ready for the Rapture — which I’m not, incidentally. Please, please let him be Denver-bound, I thought, since most Fargo flights are destined for MSP. But, no, there he was, two rows in front of Dave and me.
Dave and I split at Minneapolis-St Paul and, sure enough, he was on the Newark flight. You have to wonder, Is New Jersey a place to wait for The End? Five or six days later, we were in Brasilia, and I’d given no thought to it.
On the mall near the Plaza of the Three Powers late one afternoon, we were planning where to have dinner. Then I recalled Harold Camping’s prediction (which actually got down to the hour, though I wasn’t sure which time zone he meant). At any rate, I glanced at the time and realized we had only fifteen minutes to the Rapture; alerted our group that we should prepare. In my case, it was preparation to be left behind, while everyone else was Raptured out of their shoes. Well, it didn’t happen as predicted and we all went in search of dinner instead, hoping to find feijoada [fezh-wada], the Brazilian national dish.
Thinking about that afternoon in 2011, I see around me all sorts of signs and signals that something is up, but wish this time I could escape this lunacy. I pretty much could give a shit whether it’s Heaven or Mars or an abandoned island off the west coast of Scotland (e.g., St Kilda). In the words of Captain Kirk, “Beam me up, Scotty, ’cause there’s no intelligent life down here.” I am at an absolute loss for how to cope, where to be, what to do.
Dr Bob believed Agincourt was therapeutic; that the working out of its characters and their relationships enabled me to work through my own issues. “Call me when you start packing to move there,” he joked. Now I’m not so sure it was a joke.
What real-time issues — the abominations issuing from the mouths of Kellyanne Conway, Jason Miller, Prince Rebus, Paul Ryan, or the tweets of the President-Elect — can spur me to explore the history and current events in Agincourt?
I’ve tried to imagine a community that actually is a community. A place where people watch out for and, sometimes, over one another. Where food, shelter and health care are accessible, not luxuries. Where women of childbearing age don’t find themselves regulated by old white men who are either sanctimonious or satyrs. Where knowledge is valued above ignorance and superstition: i.e., where we won’t be afraid of the dark. Where curiosity and honest inquiry are neither a nuisance nor a threat to the State. Is that just too fucking much to ask?
[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]
Artemisia Castiglioni [active 1930s]
Woman Waiting in a Chair
oil on canvas
26 inches by 35 inches
During the winter of 1935-1936 Phyllis Tabor enrolled as a part-time evening student at the Art Institute of Chicago. Among the eight or ten fellow students in her painting class, she met and was befriended by Chicago native Artemisia Castiglioni.
One of the class assignments was an exercise involving pairs of students, each required to paint a portrait of the other, which led naturally to extended conversations on topics far beyond the fundamentals of painting in oil. It is likely that the work we know as “Woman Waiting in a Chair” is the product of that exercise and that the hazy dark-haired subject is Phyllis Tabor herself.
Castiglioni’s work compares well with another piece in the collection, an Impressionist work by Antonio Aspettati, both in style and subject matter: an indistinctly rendered woman sits alone in what may be the corner of a painting studio, as though waiting for someone who may never arrive; Aspettati’s woman sits alone in a park.
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Candace Varenhorst’s sermon yesterday took me back to a class I’d taken as a freshman. Most of my college experience has worked that way: without application or meaning at the time, but, now and then, massively useful in the most obtuse situations. And so it was Sunday morning. I don’t think she’ll mind being called a small-C catholic.¹
Education occurs at three scales: 1) wholesale (large-lecture classes delivered to undergraduate throngs in drafty lecture barns); 2) retail (classes of 25-40 where it was far more difficult to remain anonymous and you might actually learn something); and 3) boutique (the advanced seminar of fewer than ten students; classes taught by real faculty, rather than grad students more intent on passing their orals and finding a suitably obscure dissertation topic, approval guaranteed).
Uncertain of a path in the world of work, my freshman year happened in those barns (where you were told, the first day, that persons to your left and right would likely be gone by mid-term). And one of those classes of 300+ was Intro to Anthropology, which I took because it wasn’t Econ 101. And so, one foggy morning at 8:00, I was captivated by fifty minutes devoted to the religion of ancient Egypt.² What I recall — and remember this was in 1963 or 1964 — was rekindled through the sermon of Rev Candace Varenhorst.³
Ma’at is the Egyptian concept of truth, balance, order, harmony, law, morality, and justice, and in her personification she regulated the stars, seasons, and the actions of both mortals and the deities, and established the order of the universe out of chaos at the moment of creation. Each Egyptian, from Pharaohs to farmers harvesting onions from the fields, conducted their lives according to ma’at, which lacks a convenient English translation. Perhaps it is precisely that vagueness (to us in the 21st century, at least) which gave ma’at its utility, for each Egyptian knew that, at death, they would confront the Assessors of Ma’at in Duat (the Egyptian underworld) to answer the Forty-two Negative Confessions. Moses might have got a double hernia lugging these down from Mount Sinai; ten was sufficient for Yahweh, thank you.
Just half of the Judeo-Christian commandments guide our relationships with one another. Not so for ancient Egypt: Only two of the forty-two concern the gods; the other forty are practical tools for daily living and dealing with one another. By Egyptian standards, I wouldn’t measure up.
It’s probably a good thing they had no Hell. Your heart was the measure of your truthfulness: Successfully weighed against the Feather of Ma’at, the deceased was granted passage to the Fields of Bullrushes. But a heavy heart — now there’s a notion we might all take note — was devoured by Ammit and its owner simply ceased to exist. Is that a worse fate than the Lake of Fire and eternal damnation? I’m not sure.
This cycle of Rev Varenhorst’s sermons challenge us; they’re an invitation to reëvaluate our behavior as members of the community — no idle task in the current political environment. In my case, the message was clear.
¹ cath·o·lic (adjective) — 1. (especially of a person’s tastes) including a wide variety of things; all-embracing. synonyms: universal, diverse, wide, broad, eclectic, liberal, latitudinarian.
² In the 60s we didn’t have Jan Assmann’s book Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. That wasn’t available in English until 2005.
³ While I’m nominally an Agnostic, Rowan comes from Methodist stock, so we alternate between St Joseph-the-Carpenter and Asbury UMC. Frankly, the coffee is better at St Joe but one of those Methodist ladies makes a killer snickerdoodle.
[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]
SPAT, Gabriel [1890-1967]
“Portrait une famille”
oil on canvas / 12 inches by 9 inches
This family portrait is only loosely connected with Agincourt. Its subjects—Peter and Clara Sobieski and two of their three children—were expatriates, part of Poland’s “Great Migration” which brought many Poles to western Europe, especially France. Settled in the Alsace-Lorraine for at least two generations, the Sobieskis were vintners of modest means. Shown here seated in the open air among their vines, Peter (Piotr) is seated with Clothilde on his lap, Irena stands supported by his knee, while Clara stands behind his left shoulder. Their son Adam is absent, perhaps no longer living at home. Little Clothilde grew to womanhood and married Kurt Bernhard, but died in 1943 during the German occupation of Paris. Bernhard and his infant son managed an escape to London and then to New York where he met and married Mary Grace Tabor. Of his first wife’s family, he was able to bring little more than this painting and many memories.
Painted in a loose late Impressionist style, it is a work by Gabriel Spat, a shadowy artist with scant biographical information—one of those cases where a sketchy biography replicates itself in gallery catalogues and on-line websites, with seemingly little interest in correcting past errors. Sources suggest he was born in both America and France, though genealogical records hint at Russian origins and a birth name Salomon Patlajan. Whatever his beginnings, Spat spent most of this productive years as an artist in France. As an art student in the 1920s, he learned to paint on small scraps of canvas begged from other artists; later, during the German occupation that caused Clothilde Sobieska’s death, he fled to southern France and ultimately returned to New York, where he died in 1967. Despite the small size of this intimate family portrait, the stature of Spat as a late impressionist warrants further investigation of his life.
Framing is usually intended to reinforce a work of art; to complement rather than supplement; certainly not to compete. This case is a rare exception. The frame may be as many as fifty years older than the art it features, in a style called “The Aesthetic Movement”, influenced by both the Arts & Crafts and the phenomenon called Japonisme. Though of wildly different dates, art and frame work well together. The inner liner was added so that the art could fit the frame without gaps.
“Clothilde” is a girls name meaning “famous in battle”.
As an aside, there is a remarkable parallel in a 1907 painting by Austrian Richard Gerstl [1883-1908], a work with its own sad story.“The Schönberg Family” was painted by Gerstl, often called the Van Gogh of Vienna, the year before his death at age twenty-five. His affair with Mathilde, Mrs Schönberg, had been discovered and caused him to take his own life. Here, the artist’s style has even more abandon than Spat’s portrait of the Sobieskis. It’s doubtful that the younger artist would have known Gerstl.
Risk and Reward
At the end of February 2017, the second conference of the Historical Fictions Research Network will occur in London. Agincourt made a cameo appearance at the 2016 conference at Cambridge (one twenty-minute presentation) to an exceptionally supportive audience. Mr Vandervort and I met several wonderful people who validated what we’ve been trying to do. In light of some recent criticism (however limited), everyone who’s been involved shares the good will we brought back from London.
I discovered the first conference by the accidental flick of a finger (which took me to the NEH website) and found the call for papers. The very idea of presenting to academics at Cambridge intimidated the hell out of me. But the invitation was so inclusive that there had to be a place at the table for the likes of us:
We welcome people working on prose, drama, visual art, reception studies, musicology, museum displays, film, tv, gaming, war gaming, graphic novels, transformative works and any other areas engaged in the narrative construction of the fictional past.
Whatever “risk” I may have anticipated was happily rewarded.
Playing in the sandbox of history
With next February’s conference in mind and the memory of a history-based architecture design studio behind me, this week’s mail brought the latest New York Review of Books, with an article by Lydia Davis [look for a collection of her short stories; you’ll thank me] entitled “Eleven Pleasures of Translating.” Number eleven resonated in a way that seemed more than coincidental:
(11) And for translators who are also engaged in writing of their own, here is another great pleasure, as well as a great difference from one’s own writing and an effective complement to it: just as you can enter another person and speak in his voice, you are also no longer confined, as a writer, to writing in your own style and with your won sensibility, but can write in the style of Proust, for instance, with his elaborated syntactic pyramids, and then, a few years later, in the style of Flaubert, with his clipped clauses and fondness for semicolons. You are at the same time clothing yourself, for a time, in the sensibility of the original author: Proust’s affectionate portrait of the grandmother in Swann’s Way becomes my own affectionate portrait, in Proustian sentences. Flaubert’s moment of compassion for the dying Emma becomes my own compassion in English, though I may privately feel more for the often derided Charles, quietly meeting his end in the sunlight, on a garden bench, as he is being called to lunch.
This phenomenon, of slipping into the style of another writer, gives you great freedom and joy, as a writer. You are ventriloquist and chameleon. And while you comply with this alien style, you may also positively, react against it: it was while I was translating, with such pleasure, Proust’s very long and ingenuity-taxing sentences that I began, in contrary motion, to write the very shortest stories I could compose.
Would that I had had Ms Davis’s insights several years earlier.
In the summer of 2006 several of us were in Istanbul, enjoying a few days of “free time” between legs of that summer’s foreign study tours. Several of our group headed for Greek beaches on their way to Venice, our next stop, but seven of our group found the atmosphere of Istanbul too cosmopolitan to give up. Late one morning Lisa Jorgenson passed by our room, asking if we wanted to join her for lunch. Our objective: Wagamama, a Japanese noodle bar, part of a chain that Lisa had experienced in London. And finding its Turkish outpost was an adventure in itself. [I suspect the company was better than the meal, but it usually is.]
Wagamama (我がまま) means an unruly child but the fuller meaning of the word didn’t come to me until today:
(Sometimes written 我が侭, but it’s most commonly written as all hiragana or 我がまま）
It means to be selfish, demanding, care only about yourself, and so on. It is a word that can have a negative or positive connotation, but mostly it’s negative. A wagamama child (我がままな子供) is synonymous with a spoiled/bad child.
I haven’t yet met that spoiled, unruly child but we’ve all felt his tantrums.
Wagamama occurred to me this morning in the context of civil disobedience, the sort we’re likely to see in coming months — “sanctuary cities,” for example, such as New York City and Seattle, who have promised to shelter potential deportees from Federal authority. It wasn’t disobedience that caught my attention but its presumed opposite obedience, a word with mostly negative connotations for those of us of a certain age and inclination. Merriam-Webster has this to say of obedience:
- a bending to the authority or control of another obedience from the recruits>
- a readiness or willingness to yield to the wishes of others obedience with which the dictator’s henchmen followed his every command>
And then a somewhat less onerous meaning: 3. the following of a custom, rule, or law obedience to the guidelines were soon dashed>
I don’t easily yield (except at traffic intersections). But bending is downright unnatural for me, made all the more difficult by a stiffening of the joints that has arrived with age.
Years ago — long before the President-Elect was even a candidate, serious or otherwise — I wrote something about the impact of President Roosevelt’s Executive Order #9066 on nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans, a shameful episode in our history that has been suggested as “precedent” for doing something similar with Muslim-Americans or LGBTQ-Americans and, no doubt, other hyphenated groups who’ve failed the litmus test for genuine citizenship.
Spurred by Gordon Olschlager’s back-story for his 1966 Fennimore county courthouse, I wanted to say more about that period, seen from another side. Tadao Ito’s story was that vehicle, though I wonder if other stories remain to be told; other echoes from the wagamama’s tantrums in the white House.
Photographed above is Miss Eldred Scott (1902-1939) at the time of her engagement to young Ben Hosmer in 1919. She was about seventeen.
Those familiar with the Community Collection will recognize Scott’s name, if not her face: her painting “Gnostic Bridge” records the site of an accident that took her fianceé Ben Hosmer. I can’t look at this photo without recalling the final line of a poem by Edna St Vincent Millay: “Life, looking out attentive from the eyes of the doe.”
The Buck in the Snow
by Edna St Vincent Millay
White sky, over the hemlocks bowed with snow,
Saw you not at the beginning of evening the antlered buck and his doe
Standing in the apple orchard? I saw them. I saw them suddenly go,
Tails up, with long leaps lovely and slow,
Over the stone wall into the wood of hemlocks bowed with snow.
Now lies he here, his wild blood scalding the snow.
How strange a thing is death, bringing to his knees, bringing to his antlers
The buck in the snow.
How strange a thing, a mile away by now, it may be,
Under the heavy hemlocks, that as the moments pass,
Shift their loads a little, letting fall a feather of snow —
Life, looking out attentive from the eyes of the doe.