Point Lobos, 1969

And if you had
What you thought you had
When the trees
Turned with you
And the times
Out of all time
Came
And you could see what they said
What they all of them said
Was true

No measuring here
No defense necessary
Sing with me now
No iron intrude between us

Break your vow here
And no fire burns
The way we burn already
The living and the dead
Together
Cold fire
Even when
the lot of us
are ash

I will tell you
Did you think that I’d
Forbear to tell you
How we are?
How
Broken by the knowledge
Broken
All the pieces find
Their voice here
Speak here
Thigh-deep in lupine
Dead-white
Cypress arms and fingers
Over us
And our eyes on the gull

Die Amis haben unser Unterbewusstsein kolonisiert*

*The Yanks have colonized our subconscious (A quote from Wim Wenders’ film Im Lauf der Zeit)

Well, you may be old now, I told myself at sixty, but at least you haven’t started reading obituaries. Now that I’m past seventy, I know damned well that it doesn’t matter whether we read them or not. We have Twitter, we have Facebook. Unwelcome news will get to us.

When the unwelcome news of Harry Dean Stanton’s passing arrived on my iPhone a few mornings ago, just ahead of the overnight summary of White House twitter atrocities, I did what we do — I winced and scrolled up to breathless estimates of impending nuclear war. That evening, though, I poured a second beer, dimmed the lights in my living room, dug Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas out of my essential films library, and watched it again after who knows how many years.

The Sam Shepard screenplay was as laconic, as precise as ever, Ry Cooder’s guitar licks were as haunting as ever, and there, at the center, the Old Man was as magnificently himself as ever, even though he wasn’t nearly as old as I’d remembered. When he died, I said to myself, something about what it means to be an American died with him.

But what is it about these Germans? Wim Wenders, Percy Adlon — who gave them permission to put Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinsky together in the lonesome American Southwest, or Jack Palance and Marianne Sägebrecht, for that matter? What kind of muse, what kind of genius is this?

Yeah, well…. It’s a long story. If you live in Arizona, as I do, it’s impossible to miss the German cousins in our midst. Go anywhere around here in the summer months and there they are, seemingly impervious to sunstroke, peering into their guidebooks for directions to the local Sehenswürdigkeiten, more familiar with our landmarks — even the ones they haven’t seen yet — than we are ourselves. I used to wonder, now and then, if there could possibly be as many Germans in all the other deserts of the world — the Sahara, the Gobi, the Kalahari, the Atacama, the Negev — as there were in the Sonora and Mojave.

With all due respect to the insatiable German curiosity about the world we share, I doubt it. For all sorts of historical reasons — never mind the two world wars — our national mythologies harbor semi-disclosed affinities that appeal to both our populations more or less equally. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we’re constantly in and out of each others’ pockets, sometimes with a pessimism bordering on the morbid, but more often than not with the kind of cross-cultural fertility that levels empires, confuses dialects, and assists in the birth of things no single individual could ever have dreamed of.

Case in point: Wim Wenders. The French famously lead the rest of Europe in complaining about us, but Wenders, who knows us far better, gives us the benefit of a doubt that admittedly we don’t always deserve. It’s not exactly a get-out-of-jail-free card, though, this Paris, Texas of his. It’s an admonishment, if a gentle and sympathetic one, of our chimerical American dreams. Fair play to him. Having colonized the German subconscious, as Wenders himself so elegantly put it, we can hardly complain when a German artist of his stature returns the favor.

Someone should arrange to show Paris, Texas to the pig currently posing as our president, not that it would do any good. He’s as American as I am, but he’ll never have any idea what that actually means, let alone honor it in his actions. How much better off would we be, do you think, if the qualities that Harry Dean Stanton embodied in his best performances informed the day-to-day actions of our politicians? In the meantime, all I can say is that I’ll miss that grand old man, and so will a lot of other people, Wim Wenders fans or not.

Mortem Confundit Magus*

Businessmen say going forward instead of in the future. Our Secretary of State says that Muammar al-Qaddafi must acknowledge what the International Community requires of him. A respected liberal economist, defending the necessity of nuclear power plants, remarks that it’s unlikely that the Chernobyl accident produced more than 50,000 excess deaths world-wide. He seems to take it for granted that this simple statistic will rekindle our faith in Atoms for Peace.

Why does no one in public life sound like this any more?

It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

The wizard can bare his breast to the assassin’s dagger without blinking, and the Son of God can carry his own cross with confidence to Calvary because their mortal forms are mere teaching points. Abraham Lincoln understood this in a way that our present leaders do not. Secure in the vast powers at their disposal, they seem to have forgotten that they’re nevertheless as mortal as the rest of us, and that, in the end, their powers are only on loan to them. We can’t afford such a luxurious forgetfulness; we have to deal with the consequences of their actions every day. It wouldn’t hurt, I think, to remind them of that fact from time to time.

*The wizard confounds death — from the 1981 fantasy film, Dragonslayer — a wonderful bit of whimsy, part Sorcerer’s Apprentice, part Arthurian legend. This line is spoken by no less grand a thespian than Sir Ralph Richardson himself, in the role of an old wizard with a flair for Shakespearean declamation even in Latin.

Luxe, Calme, et Volupté

This blogging stuff is hard work, especially when you’re trying to force your way uphill against what Paul Rosenberg calls our hegemonic discourse. For myself, I’d just like to recover a little of the America that an earnest young teacher once told me about in a junior high civics class, and my parents still believed in after ten years of depression and five more of world war. I hate seeing it sneered at by morons and sadists like Rush Limbaugh, or turned into a right-wing Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by shrunken souls like John Yoo and Dick Cheney.

I need to go look at some art. Not Delacroix, I think…especially not La Liberté guidant le peuple. Not today, anyway. Maybe Manet — I always liked Un bar aux Folies Bergère. I actually got to see it once, when I was in New York some twenty or so years ago. An older couple, friends-of-friends who had tickets to the VIP opening of the retrospective at the Met, found themselves with a prior commitment, and so sent me instead.

The exhibition filled a very large hall. Every painting by Manet that I’d ever seen in a book was hanging there, along with many I hadn’t known about at all. And there I was, just me and twenty or so other art lovers, walking from station to station with our eyes bugged out. It was one of those rare occasions when you understand what privileges are actually available to the privileged.

Beautiful refractions of a very mundane world, made all the more beautiful when you can see the actual brushstrokes which composed them — that’s what I thought once I was standing in front of it. And that black, that radiant black…the color that Manet claimed wasn’t one. I felt sorry for the young woman behind the bar, though — trapped, distracted, unaware that the painter is making her less beautiful, and the world more, as though to prove that the dignity of labor is overrated.

Once upon a time, I might have asked her what time she got off work. Now, I think of myself as one of her less-favored customers — old, fat, loud, and overly fond of pastis. Still male, though, unfortunately. Maybe I should consider pastis the old man’s virtue rather than his vice. That would be acceptable, I think, especially if I could sit at the back of the room and see what Manet saw.

But no, not the bar after all. When all is said and done, it does the woman an injustice, perhaps because Manet went to such lengths to disguise his reverence for her.

Matisse, I think. You know the one. Women unencumbered. Women and light. I think I might have caught a glimpse of Digby there, out of the corner of my eye, but not a sign of Ann Coulter, or Michelle Malkin. They don’t show up anywhere unless they’re paid.

Ninety-nine Cents Worth

Compared to the gaseous diffusions of our political discourse these days, the offerings of our songwriters are often a marvel of directness.

If you want to know what I mean, do yourself a favor and go listen to John Mayer’s gem Gravity, from his album Continuum. I won’t quote the lyrics here — fair use and all that — but if you’re in need of a blues hymn to shelter you for a couple of minutes from the storms of bloviation whipped up by our on-all-the-time media, you can’t do any better.

Trust me.