Marlowe, of course. Caravaggio, of course. Gauguin. Rimbaud. Rilke and Brecht; Dylan Thomas and Robert Lowell; Alexander Alekhine and Robert J. Fischer; Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Indifferent to moral convention, some artists live as if they are beyond good and evil, and we who live by the light of their art sometimes accept their claim. We may not credit it as doctrine, but we take it in by eye. The artists’ biographies may ask us to disregard and stop reading, but we keep looking at the pictures.
Of course biography will sometimes direct us away from itself to matters of life and death. Handsome bad Byron had a weight problem throughout his short life, and if he had only lived long enough (nags biography, poking us with censorious finger) he might have developed into a double of his obese, card-playing king, George IV. A book about those later years, supplemented with additional pictures of the former poet, might disenchant. Nevertheless, Don Juan would still be standing by to dive into the biography and recover the life. Its comic rhymes would have the agility to keep meaning, nevertheless! what they sang for the first time over the tomb of their creator’s flesh. In words and music, they would be one more performance of life self-creating.
Two centuries after Byron and one month after the American presidential election of 2016, Sotheby’s posted news in France of a rarely seen painting created in the nineteenth century. The artist was the Christian allegorist James Ensor, he of the masks, and the election marked a change of aspect for the United States. What was to create the change turned out to be a rolypoly daubed orange, but Ensor had titled his composition Squelette arrêtant masques and Sotheby’s catalog took note of what it called its chromatic qualities.
By 2019, state and church in the United States were beginning to slap images of Rolypoly over the previously polychrome icons of the Christian trinity. By then too, however, the Christian masks of James Ensor had begun to receive and transmit again. As they filled with light for almost the first time since their creation in 1891, something they had concealed behind themselves began intimating itself once again against a re-illumined sky. Almost ready now to reveal itself above its Ensor-blue surface, it seems to be summoning the creatures within the image frame and us other creatures outside it to open our eyes and understand. Its name is Squelette, it wears the colorful uniform and livid mask of death, and it comes wavelength by wavelength into our lives to say that we can enter and see the full spectrum of ourselves only by unmasking.
For on the breast of one of the masked is the image’s warning to us not to delay the unmasking: a death-symbol ace of spades, overlaid with a mask of rolypoly-color. No longer the black of pious mourning and its “sure and certain hope,” it threatens the masked with a sentence of eternity in livid terminal bronzer.
Here, dating from 1854, is a view of downtown Honolulu.
Here’s a detail from the lower right of the image.
And here’s a double description of what your eyes have just beheld. One half of the description comes from the 1847 second edition of Herman Melville’s first book, Typee; the other half comes from an 1835 translation of what appears to have been Melville’s source, an 1834 account of an expedition around the world by the German botanist F. J. F. Meyen.
And here are two more pages of Meyen which Melville didn’t use.
As I write, a group of Hawaiian monarchist protesters are holding up construction of the great Thirty Meter Telescope atop the Big Island’s Mauna Kea. They call themselves cultural practitioners, and what they claim to be practicing is the animist religion of pre-contact Hawaii. In this they are supported with money and public relations by Kamehameha Schools / Bishop Estate, the combined successor power of Hawaii’s nineteenth-century puppet kings and their Christian missionary puppeteers.
Typee is partially non-fiction, partially fiction. For a start, Melville’s “four months’ residence” in the Marquesas was only three weeks. As Hawaii’s history is generally taught, it too is partially fiction. But look at that illustration again. Look at that woman with her parasol and her Hawaiian slave.
It tells you that the things called history and culture are complicated, but sometimes they show us things that are true. So please: before you click away, look one more time at the man towing his missionary burden. He wasn’t a king or a priest. None of the people blocking progress on Mauna Kea today would claim descent from him. Still, he did exist, and perhaps he’s worth trying to remember.
while the inauthentic look upward.
In 2015, at
I posted a note about what then appeared to be the impending construction of a great astronomical telescope atop Hawaii’s 14,000-foot Mauna Kea. The construction was opposed with chants and picket lines by native Hawaiian shamans and University of Hawaii theoreticians interested in laying cultural groundwork for the dictatorship of the proletariat, but Barack Obama was President and I was optimistic. Optimistically, I illustrated my note with this fantasy of the telescope towering over the Black Forest ski hut where Martin Heidegger dressed up in peasant garb and went shrooming for the Authentic.
Two years later, it’s obvious that my Photoshopped optimism was incoherent. I had appropriated an architect’s rendering of the telescope in its rightful elemental night, but during the hours of his waking Martin Heidegger oversaw from the windows of his squat sturdy hut a mountain landscape brimming with illumined fog. Because I had left the night unmodified as a single layer of dark around the telescope, the image I manipulated couldn’t withstand the next two years. Image-fogging light overspread, innuendos of divinity took effect, and as of 2017 the sky has repopulated itself with horoscopic cartoons and there is a real possibility that the telescope never will be built.
But Photoshop offers everyone who sees an image the opportunity to resee it. Accepting the second chance, I will try to reimagine the telescope as if seen at sunset, when the shamans retire to watch Fox News. As dark flows up the flank of the mountain, the dome beginning its nightly labor of vision may serve thought as an emblem of hope: an eye opening to receive light from a not yet visible star.
According to an article by Tad Walch in the August 8, 2017, Deseret News, a high-ranking member of the hierarchy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was recently excommunicated. The reason hasn’t been made public, but
The church also confirmed that Tuesday’s action was not due to disillusionment or apostasy.
To the waste land he goes, a scarlet thread tied to his horns. But his faith remains unsullied and his illusions still work their sleight of heart.
O Cigar, dispeller of holy Illusion in a cloud of smoke.
I feel very strongly that as governor, I need to protect the basic expectations of privacy that all individuals should be allowed to have, especially in the sanctity of a restroom.
— Governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina. Colin Campbell, “Politicians seek to score points after NC nondiscrimination bill.” Miami Herald 25 March 2016. http://www.miamiherald.com/news/politics-government/article68212887.html
The word means “holiness.” Ultimately it derives from the Latin verb sancio, to make inviolable.
And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God.
— Exodus 3.5-6
Source of the illustration: “View of Honolulu. No. 1. From the Harbor.” Sketched by Paul Emmert, lithographed by G. H. Burgess. San Francisco: Britton & Rey, 1854. Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003681551/. Photoshopped.
Source: “Suffragettes posting bills,” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/item/ggb2004010578/. Photoshopped. The Library dates the image only between 1910 and 1915, but the Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0175659/?ref_=fn_al_tt_10, lets us narrow the range specifically to 1911, when The Crusaders (an Italian movie based on Tasso) was released in the United States.