Thursday, January 30, 2014

On the Museum Ghosts of Prague

And then into the museum, a shadowy foyer with a tightly spiraled boat's stair leading up to the exhibit. 
                Some travelers reviewed this place as "quirky"—a word I have come to hate, not only because it's been tagged to my work in the past as a kind of dismissal, but also because in general it condescends to the pure strangeness of things.  Here initial letters and manuscripts from Kafka's ancestors—of course the oppressive and intimidating father among them prominently—and a family tree illustrated with photographs and other portraits receding as you followed back to the family origins in the 17th century, obscure ancestors of Baroque Prague, the faces leading up to Kafka himself and the childhood portraits of his three lovely sisters—Ottla, Elli, and Valli, their lines ending abruptly at Chelmno and Auschwitz.  This display circles a small, makeshift theatre, a classroom screen, five folding chairs in front of it. 
                On the screen, early films of Prague cascade and ripple as though you were watching the city through water.  Recognizable buildings emerge from the light—St. Vitus', the Astronomical Clock, the buildings that frame the Old Town Square –but not in the light that we had been seeing them over the past three days, the beautiful architectural "sights" and "vistas".  Instead, they formed the circumference of an oppressive round followed by the child Kafka to and from school. 
I did a walk like that myself—or one of the same distance—but hardly through beautiful and narrow Baroque streets. Mine was over desolate, working-class suburban terrain., but the desolation was external for that time and for a few years following, a span in which I felt celebrated and loved, lacking the genius and insight of young Kafka, his nerve-end sense of the nuanced, atmospheric menace of his home life. Later he would write of this almost preternaturally beautiful city, in language that appeared on the provisional screen in front of me: Prague doesn’t let go of us. This mother has claws. We have to submit or –. We would have to set fire to it in two places, at Vyšehrad and at the Prague Castle, then we might get away
I wondered how anyone could want to burn this city in order to leave it entirely.  It seems impossible until you think of your own town, its particular pull and drain on its every inhabitant, no more or less in these cities than in any others, no more extraordinary because you are the young it has tried to eat, you are the one confined and injured by its custom.  Is it every city, every home, that celebrates the wrong children while wronging the ones it overlooks?  Or does it wrong the ones its celebrates, limning them in a tight circle whose outer edge is its own castles and high places?

And yes, I was thinking these things, weighed down by museum dark and ambiguous light, as I picked myself up to move to the next room on the journey.  ©2014 Michael Williams

Sunday, January 26, 2014

On the Kafka Museum: Getting There

Like many a flawed pilgrim, I had decided the meaning of this journey before I took it.  I would end up in the Kafka museum, after a trip that confirmed something I had expected in the first place.  There I would see things to reaffirm my comfort and my confident position in the universe. 
                But this is what happened on the journey.  My task is to set down the process, to suspend some judgment even now, until I have it on the page.
                We emerged from the Underground into the cold Prague sunlight at the Malestranska Station, at once faced with yet another slippery tangle of streets, an overpass leading me (as Google Maps had promised and as I had planned) along a street running parallel to the Vltava River.  So far, so good: the turns written down in my little notebook leading to the destination, I guessed, within two city blocks or so, one way or another.
                And it was haywire from there, I'm afraid.  Unmapped or unreckoned, roads sprouted from the seminary street that was my directional plumb line, then the Charles Bridge (our second and, for me, secondary destination of the day) loomed straight in front of us.  It meant that we were past the museum, and no matter the most celebrated bridge in a city of bridges—and no matter my desire to see it—the search for the museum was not over.
                So around the labyrinth of side roads and alleys and cul-de-sacs we wandered, as I found other landmarks—ones to which I had listed directions from the yet-to-be-visible Kafka Museum.  I tried reversing those directions, figuring that you could reach the Kafka Museum from Shakespeare & Sons Bookstore by simply flipping the directions to Shakespeare & Sons from the Kafka Museum, but it wasn't happening: like the old Vermont farmer said, "You can't get there from here," and somewhere in ghostly Prague the Master had to be smiling.  I found myself back at the foot of bridge, increasingly irritated at Rhonda's calm and kindly suggestion that we might be able to see something (the museum, perhaps?) over its span.
                You see where this is heading.  If you don't, you are as clueless as I was, when I consented to the bridge, climbed up among the subversive and Baroque statues lining its cobblestoned arch, to discover if you walked about 100 feet up its arch, moving toward the eastern side, you could look over the railing and see the big red-and-white sign for the Kafka Museum hard against the western bank of the Vltava.
                Was it a version of John Lennon's saying that "life is what happens when you're thinking about something else"?   So I was thinking as I congratulated myself on resolutions, like a plot line in a story clicking into place, the answer somewhere between the Lennon quote and the setting aside of my bull-headed masculine refusal to ask directions—in short, listening to Rhonda in matters of logistics and simple compass sense, where, quite frankly, she is definitely superior to me when all is said and done.  Such could have marked the story's end, were it not for our losing our way the instant we came down from the bridge.
                Because without the distance, all Prague closed in, towered over us.  Our expected path by the riverside was cut off by a fenced-in canal, and an alternate route was blocked by friendly but insistent waiter, standing in a restaurant courtyard we were trying to cross and directing us, with no negotiation permitted, around to the front side of the building.
                We ended up beside Shakespeare & Sons, full circle from an earlier route and, frankly, no less sure of our destination, no matter how clearly we had glimpsed it from the bridge.  I felt like Joseph K. in The Trial, lost in the maze of the city's plan and my own suppositions.  Here we were, no longer certain of where we stood, as though the compass points themselves were moving.
                Then I saw a queue of tourists, their line crossing the sidewalk, spilling into the street, and ending on the opposite curb. I'm thinking, "wouldn't they all line up for Kafka?"  But given our luck over the last hour, I took nothing for granted, circled the line, and found it led to a narrow passage between buildings, too narrow even for an alley, that ended in a little alcove where someone had placed a crossing light, flashing "walk" to "don't walk" and back again, a young woman striking poses in front of it for the benefit of passers-by and their cameras.  And I was thinking that now I'd seen everything until Rhonda jostled me out of stupor and disappointment by calling out that here it was, that, yes, there was a sign ahead, and an archway, it turned out, that opened into a court ringed with two cafes, a gift shop, the pissing statue, and the museum we'd been hunting for two hours.  She took the picture of me by the statue, urging me to remove my hat for the shot, because obviously a bedraggled, half-old and ankle-tired man standing between two urinating statues should preserve his dignity by going hatless, am I right?
                And still, the odd pride I felt in having stumbled upon the place.  I had set aside the directions I had taken down carefully and mapped at home, had walked every street in Malastranska (including, I am sure, this one several times), had seen the destination from the height of the famous bridge and then across a narrow canal, only to get there by accident.  Peace, resolution, and complacency were my brief reward.  
But the museum lay in front of me.  And the journey darkens from here.  ©2014 Michael Williams

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

On the Kafka Museum: A Prologue

 One example of Prague's translucency (and, for me, at first an uncomfortable one, by no means as charming as the circuitry and misdirection around the big squares like Old Town and Wenceslas) is the route to the Kafka museum, over on the west side of the river in Malastranska, just north of the Charles Bridge,
                The whole experience of the place—and, most importantly, of getting to the place—spanned several hours of a Friday, and felt like something from the stories of the Master himself, that shadowy presence you can see everywhere in the city if you just attend to shadows.  Setting off on the underground, our chief goal was my personal pilgrimage, because those who know me know that, perhaps next to Yeats, Franz Kafka is my patron saint.  Perhaps even more than Yeats these days, because though Yeats continued to blossom as an artist into his 70s (a last act that looks increasingly attractive to me these days, when physical weariness alone can weigh down the course of a book's coming into being), he remains a young man's poet, filled with gauzy idealism and enormous ambitions.  Kafka, on the other hand, didn't live to 45.  He has other lessons for me—lessons, oddly, for my late middle age, ones I haven't faced until recently and, once discovered, pretty hard to learn.
                Humility is difficult for all of us.  It contains the dangerous trap of priding yourself on your humility.  I have had little danger of falling into that trap, because I've managed to avoid humility at its deepest level, always thinking that the "big break" was right over the horizon, just ahead of my own idealism and aspiration.  Of late, though, some things have changed: I approach the increasing awareness that at my age I am unlikely to see my "name made", that I'm not that special, not really.  It's time to set down the nagging hunger for celebrity that I inherited and am shaking off of me late, to own up that the most important remaining task is the one I have always professed without really, deep down, believing with the faith I should believe it: that you must find peace in the process of the work, find the joy there and perhaps its larger good.  To be more than constant with that, to grow up and own up, to see the process as the best one can do, without the glamour and lure of fame or understanding (the readers who "get" you), or even of earned respect.  Because you can earn respect and not get it, and what matters when that happens is not the fata morgana of acclaim, nor even your self-respect, but a deep and abiding passion for the undertaking, for the process of moving from one point to the next in a love of doing your best at what you do.
              It is Kafka, more than any other artist,  who reminds me of this truth.  His relentless devotion to his art is paired with a temperament so free of vanity that he could set aside not only all amenities, but all of what we would call necessities—a personal life, health, even, ultimately, a sense of identity, to lose himself in his art.  “All I am is literature," he said, "and I am not able or willing to be anything else.”  He is not the only artist who asked that his unfinished work be burned after his death; he is, however, the only one who I believe meant it.  His devotion to his art was so intent that he was willing to sacrifice its immortality or its endurance, like a saint who gives up eternal life out of love for God. In short, the price was nothing short of everything, and a cost too steep for ordinary mortals to pay.  He sets a bar so high that we can't see it, much less clear it, weighed down by our own egos, our blinding self-images as we congratulate ourselves for "being authors." 
                That's why the notorious statue outside the Kafka Museum struck me as especially appropriate and funny. Two men streaming water into the pool, facing one another.  You must leave behind the "pissing contest"—a good old American phrase for useless competition—in order to enter the sanctuary.  But passing by the statue is symbolic.  You can do it in front of the museum, for here it is a ritual gesture, far safer than Kafka's wild and holy abandonment.
                But I'm getting ahead of myself.  I was talking about the path to this point, to the little arch through which you walk, past the statue and to the museum.  I have to tell you how we got there, and what we would find.  And why Kafka would have enjoyed the story of our journey. 
                That will be the next entry in this tale of pilgrimage.  ©2014 Michael Williams

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

On Wandering Through Prague

Prague the most beautiful of the cities we visited, and by far the most interesting to navigate.  Unlike Budapest and Vienna, it was relatively unharmed by World War II's bombings and shellings—the damage inflicted on Prague by the Nazis and Soviets was deep, lingering, and thoroughgoing, but the architecture remains intact. 

So finding your way from spot to spot in the city is, I would imagine, not far from what it was like in early Modern Prague—1910-1930 or so, when there was adequate streetlighting and trams.  Full bus service was introduced in the '20s, so the assertion of my friend Mark Blum that traveling Prague is "like walking through a silent movie" has a great deal of truth in it.  But the buildings, of course, are much older. The side streets 17th-century narrow, renaming and vanishing into each other, so that a novice traveler guides himself by sound and steeple (sometimes by smell in the Christmas season, because the Winter Markets are glorious not only with light, but also the whiff of mulled wine, kolbasa, and trdelnik—a amazingly good, if touristy, pastry, made with grilled rolled dough flavored with sugar and walnut). 

I planned too much for each day, but early on surrendered to the passion for side road and distraction we had found in Budapest and Vienna.  Where Budapest is taken in through a slow emergence from fog, and Vienna through the unveilings of alleys and architecture, Prague seduces you along narrow streets: eventually you just give in and enjoy.  This city inveigles you in a kind of retrospect: a destination you reach by backtracking and accident, by an hour's journey egged on by the hieroglyphics of Czech signs and a street map you're always tilting and turning about, never certain of its accuracy or whether you're holding it in the right direction, turns out to be scarcely three blocks from your starting point, visible as you return by familiar spires or Baroque towers.  So you go further back in time, past the UFA lights and Studio-Babelsberg sets, back to the other heyday of this beautiful city, its 18th century blossoming, and you steer by landmark. 

Or by a knowing guide.  Conducted by a dramatic young woman on a Christmas Night ghost tour, we slipped down passages into damp courtyards, the music from the squares muffled behind us as we surrendered to Prague's intricacies and shadows.  So many of the stories she told ended with the soon-to-be ghost's tumble or leap from a window—part of Prague's eternal fascination with a particular form of dying that, in its readiness to blur execution with possible suicide, reflects the city's history of being under the control of oppressive and often secretive foreign powers ( I think not only of Jan Masaryk, but of Costa-Gavras' film Z, in which a character "falls from a 4th story window while being interrogated").   Cafes carefully hidden from public view, clean and safe alleys (one homeless man sleeping it off in an alcove was the only one we saw in Prague), and the music from the squares (sometimes jazz, other times a strangely Celtic Bohemian folk music) drifting in and out depending on the way a courtyard was set or the turn of a narrow lane, we passed through Prague's ghosts and emerged into modern streetlight, making our way back to lodgings as we steered by a skyline that Kafka, Dvorak, or Mozart would have found familiar, our imaginations haunted and historical.  ©2014 Michael Williams

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Of Connections to Prague, and Connections Therein

He considered it a work of God's will.
Rhonda agrees with him whole-heartedly. And though I'm not inclined to think in those terms, if I were, this would be a time I did.
We boarded the train from Vienna to Prague, wrestling our bags into one of those wonderful European train compartments—seats facing each other with considerable leg room rather than the packed rank-and-file of airlines, an arrangement that encouraged conversation and community, rather than simply getting from one place to another.  Facing your fellow passengers fosters a form of kindness: you are stuck with each other for the duration (this trip promised to be five hours), so any civilized person makes the best of it.  Nodding, smiles, all the amenities.  And there is nothing wrong with courtesy.  It is an additional comfort on a long sedentary trip where the body wants to stir and stand and stretch.
And the first encounter was charmingly polite.  A man I would guess to be in his mid-forties helped us hoist the luggage into the racks above our seat.  I thought it was a very gracious gesture from a fellow passenger, murmured my thanks, and was pleased to be addressed in fluent English.
This had become one of the real amenities of our trip.  The Hungarians and Austrians had been largely English-speaking (much to my relief, for as I mentioned in a previous entry, a spotty acquaintance with Romance languages didn't get you far in this part of Europe). Our good fortune continued with these travelers to Prague.  Vlado, the man I have mentioned, was a businessman who, it seems, had a particular focus in communications, in bringing together divergent interests—sort of the thing he would do on the train that evening.  With him was his nephew David, a shrewd, witty young man of 17, and also the quiet Mojca, who was reading Haruki Murakami (which made me like her immediately) and drowsing a little: she was on her way to see her boyfriend, Vlado's son, Jan, who was pursuing graduate study at Charles University in Prague.  Already it was a kind of unexpected group we were meeting—I began by assuming that David and Mojca were brother and sister, Vlado's son and daughter—but there was a different set of relationships, those involving outreach and extended family among the three of them, we discovered at once.
Once we found ourselves among English-speakers and saw that we could talk with them, the question remained whether we would talk with them.  Vlado and I initiated a polite back-and-forth: facing seats on a train may offer the chance for long conversation, but it's still up to the passengers to take the offer, and I think we both were mindful of honoring the other's privacy, if privacy was wanted.
It turned out that conversation was welcome.  Rhonda, who has a more attuned and welcoming social sense than I do, joined in, and it looked like there was going to be talk along the way from Vienna to Prague.  I hoped it would entertain us: Rhonda brings out the best in people she talks with, so I had confidence that if we met the same kind of open regard from our companions, this would be pleasant travel.  So while she and Vlado talked, I struck up a conversation with David—you can't teach in university as long as I have without liking smart young people and being curious about what they have to say.  David, it turned out, was interested in film—Mamet and Tarantino were people he mentioned—and the talk ranged over Peter Jackson, Tolkien, Tarentino's Inglourious Basterds, while Vlado listened, contributed occasionally, then listened and smiled.  Mojca and I talked about Murakami, which led me to Kafka and the part of my trip to Prague that was pilgrimage, a journey to the presence of one of the world's great writers (and, of course, one of my favorites).  Rhonda talked travel experience (and a little politics) with our community, and the exchange moved readily and comfortably through a number of topics.
What I noticed through all of this was Vlado's benign presence.  He had smart things to say, mind you, but the smartest thing he seemed to do was listen.  You could see that he enjoyed the talk, that this was his home country—in the company of stories and ideas.  It would make me think later that those of us in education fail when we don't listen, that the lectern isn't always a place to hold forth but often just as much a place of exchange.  My best experiences in classrooms and in conversations
With David
 have come when I remember the art of listening, but I'm afraid I forget it more often than I should.
When we reached the Praha hlavní nádraží (the "main station"--I just like spelling it out in Czech), Vlado gave me his email address and phone number, offering any kind of favor or assistance we would need during our stay in the city.  You don't presume on that hospitality, but I decided to email him when I returned to the States (which I did, beginning what I think will be a good correspondence) and figured that if our friendship continued, it would continue over the miles and through letters to each other.
This is where God's will comes in.  Or dependent arising, that Buddhist concept of the unfathomable and profound interconnection of all people and things.  Christmas night, after we had eaten at a wonderful, small Czech restaurant not far from the Old Town Square, Rhonda and I walked over to the Winter Markets, the Astronomical Clock, and a promised tour of Haunted Prague, one of the more touristy attractions we had anticipated.  More of the clock and the tour later: this entry is about the wonderful synchronous texture of things.
With Vlado
Standing before one of the booths, contemplating souvenirs and taking in the smells of Czech food and mulled wine (yes, the stomach can be full while the nose indulges) I felt a hand on my shoulder, a voice proclaiming, "This time we need to take a picture".  Vlado had spotted us in a crowded square, in a city whose population swells to two million during the Markets, and we enjoyed the reunion for over an hour of real camaraderie, of picking up the conversation where we left it.  This time we met Vlado's son Jan, an amiable, extremely bright young man with whom I tried to keep pace during a rangy dialogue in which it was gratifying, as it always is, to find a young scholar still taken with ideas rather than careerism—a quality I love to find (and find more than outsiders would expect to find) in our own graduate students, that reminded me how much I love doing what I do.   And all the while Vlado smiled, listened, spoke occasionally and always shrewdly, and treated us to mulled wine that settled well when we said goodbye to our friends and walked to the Astronomical Clock, to our journey through the back streets of Prague among its many ghosts.

In our exchange of emails that followed my return to the States, Vlado has offered his help on a project I'm considering for the future—a travel seminar to Prague, a trip for students preceded by a term-long study of modern fiction and film rising out of this beautiful city.  The spirit of Prague moves through its stories and their profound interconnections that center on the city itself.  Vlado and his family have offered their services as guides, but over the Christmas season this year in Prague they began that guidance, into the bright and welcoming soul of this splendid place.  ©2014 Michael Williams

Thursday, January 16, 2014

On Klimt and Schiele, Schiele and Klimt

The Leopold Art Museum in Vienna is a monumental, classical building in the midst of monumental classical buildings, solid and imposing among Vienna's tributes to the Hapsburgs, to the Enlightenment, to itself.  The square asserts its calm power, but inside the Leopold the less respectable paintings of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele are on display.
Klimt, Death and Life
Klimt, The Kiss
          In the first two decades of the 20th century, a span of time that ended disastrously for Austria with the Great War and collapse of the Hapsburg Dynasty, Klimt and Schiele painted their unsettling body of work.  Klimt was the older by almost 30 years, Schiele his brilliant protégé.  They died within ten months of each other, in a 1918 that marked the vanishing of a generation, the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and a change in temperament and world-view that one might say ushered in the Modern Age.  At any rate, the world changed forever, and Klimt and Schiele did not survive the change. The paintings, of course, survived magnificently.  Klimt's work is a triumph of composition and repose, of the filled canvas and disturbing undercurrent—sometimes hardly an undercurrent, as in his 1915 Death and Life, which you can see at the Leopold.  There is a compression in his imagery that is almost claustrophobic: his Kiss (at the Belvedere rather than the Leopold, but famous in his body of work) seems to flatten the image of its couple, calling attention to its own two-dimensionality and rendering the kissing couple bunched and uncomfortably tangled.  In both cases there's hardly a space to breathe in the composition: Klimt smothers the eyes with pattern and paint, and standing in front of these paintings feels like a surfeit, as though it is all too much, as though Klimt is trying to strike the beholder with a decadent abundance.  The paintings are beautiful in design, color, and form, but it is uncanny beauty in that the familiar images are made strange by their sheer lushness.

          Schiele's paintings, on the other hand, are aggressive,  confrontational.  Imprisoned for "pornographic drawings at the height of a controversial career, he strikes alliance with the marginal, the outcast, the insane.
He has as many self-portraits as, say, Rembrandt (who is famous for self-portraiture), but where Rembrandt mercilessly records his own decline from strapping young man to a paunchy old age, Schiele doesn't live long enough to show us an aging artist.  Not that such a subject would interest him, his portraits glaring at you with a kind of sudden, surprising menace, as though his head has just popped into the frame to look at you in defiance.  Self-absorption?  Hardly.  It's more a mapping of the inner landscape, a projection of raw emotional menace. There's almost the Taxi Driver challenge ("You talking to me?") in his expressions, like his gaze is disrupting the "fourth wall" of the painting and staring back at you like some peeping tom, some intruder perched at the edge of your soul's privacy.

Schiele, Self-Portrait, 1912
         They're at poles, Klimt and Schiele, mentor and student, friend and friend.  Klimt takes what you expect of painterly beauty—color, form, composition—and makes it subversive, undermines it by making it too much.  Schiele challenges the eye, dares a response, looks right back at you.  Subversion and defiance, then.  Things that I like for art to do.  Because, to me, art shouldn't necessarily affirm our best images of ourselves.  Shouldn't show us just what we wanted to see all along—whether what we wanted to see is a hipster conformed non-conformity or Neo-Classical buildings congratulating themselves for their solidity and balance and power.  My favorite art is uncomfortable.  It teases you, undermines your easy intentions, cusses in church and looks right back at you so that you can't hide the fact that you're looking.  It's the disrespectable painting on the second floor of that most respectable building, drawing the light into itself and making the still air of the museum quiver with its energy, or yours.  Text ©2014 Michael Williams

Sunday, January 12, 2014

On the Sala Terrena, Freud's Study, and the Dissonances of Mythical Realism

Yes, Vienna unveils itself to the traveler.  Sometimes the revelations are subtle—hardly revelations at all—and other times they slap you in the face and make you wonder what you were thinking before they slapped you.  In my own experience, though, insight comes in a kind of cloudy middle ground: there are things to see, but you have to be expecting them to see them with any clarity.
Two small buildings, then, in Vienna.  The Sala Terrena and the Freud Museum.  Two different kinds of pilgrimage brought us to two different places, and the results are some thoughts on "mythical realism" as well as the places themselves.
The Sala Terrena is in central Vienna, nested off a little courtyard and difficult to find.  It was part of the Monastery of the German Teutonic Order, a name that conjured unsettling associations to me—like anschluss or lebensraum—but turned out to be more innocent, an 18th century chamber in the House of the Teutonic Knights.  Mozart lived on the premises, and performed in the Sala Terrena, when he was first brought to Vienna by his Salzburg employer, Archbishop Colloredo.  It was a prelude to the two men's falling out, as Mozart's sizable ego (not uncommon in artists, and apparently pretty extravagant in Mozart) ran up against the Archbishop's paternalism and condescension (not uncommon in the way patrons treated the artists they employed, and especially the case with Colloredo, it seems).  The falling-out that ensued (Mozart lived there only two months) unmoored the young composer and turned him loose in Vienna's almost infinite range of musical possibilities, and the rest is cultural history.  The Sala Terrena still hosts chamber music concerts, which is what brought us there on that December night.  Dionysus, Liebe Augustin, and pseudo-Renaissance nudes in their 18th-century versions look down on you as you listen to a good but uneven quartet (in Vienna, better-than-average musicians are excellent for other cities in the world), dressed in cheesy Enlightenment costumes, playing Mozart and (on the night we attended) a little Bach
The Freud Museum is a little further from the older city center, easy to find and clearly marked on the Berggasse.  It has a simpler story, being the home of Freud's Vienna offices from 1891 until he left for London in 1938 under the specter of the approaching Nazis (this time Anschluss applies).  He wrote almost all of his major works while housed on Berggasse, and conducted his private practice from these rooms.
You would think the places had little in common, and in many ways, you would not be wrong. The exuberant Venetian Renaissance excesses of the Sala Terrena contrast strikingly with Freud's now-spare, almost minimalist offices.  But compare my photograph (taken surreptitiously at the Sala, where photos were discouraged) and this old picture of Freud's desk as it appeared in the 1930s, taken by Hungarian photographer George Brassai.

The old gods are impossible to shake.  Nietzsche held that the gods were the shapes we gave to the blind, inscrutable forces of the Will.  Jung wasn't really that far from reaching the same conclusions: for him, the gods were the shape we gave to large, irresistible forces in our subconscious—impulses, syndromes, psychological complexes (yes, I know Freud is probably spinning that I would bring in Jung to talk about his offices, but there you go!).  In both cases, side by side with established orthodoxies—Dionysus dancing in the consecrated premises of the Sala Terrena, totems and statues of the gods on Freud's desk in his offices—the ancient figure underlie, critique and mock the religion du jour.  The old gods persist, because they are the keepers of story, and story is a way (perhaps the way, but maybe that's just a writer talking) we define our theologies.  In the chairs of the Sala Terrena, listening to Mozart's "Dissonanzen Quartett", or seated in Freud's waiting room amid the stripped-down monuments to the religion of the subconscious, mining the dissonances of our own souls, the gods watch us as we watch other things, and it's only now and then that we have a glimpse of how, in the very depths of ourselves, all these worlds connect.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

On the Veils of Vienna

Vienna imposes upon your eyes, a cityscape that weds beauty with a raw display of Enlightenment power.  Its core architecture is all about the Hapsburgs, from the imposing buildings at the city center all the way out to the Schonbrunn Palace (see the photo), which is by far the most ostentatious private residence I can imagine.  All to do with Austria's ruling family and their centuries-long display of manufactured majesty.
        Vienna is a city, then, nested in cities, with a lengthy history of spilling over its walls, then rebuilding walls to accommodate its growth.  What this did in Vienna was transform a central city into a kind of warren,  where alleys that are more tunnels than alleys open into squares small or grand, ringed by Italianate buildings, magnificent ones from the 18th and 19th centuries side by side will more approximate ones—reconstructions from Vienna's post-WWII salvage, when the housing need was great and the finances strapped, and yet the city's mind, still deeply conservative as Vienna almost always is, tended toward facsimiles of the older structures that were still standing, distinguishable from the older counterparts by a kind of inattention to detail and nuance, settling for living spaces over architecture because they had to, because the finery of the old things didn't make sense like it used to.

And therein lies Vienna, dragged kicking and screaming into each century, embodiment of that simple but great conservative insight that moving forward leaves not only bad things behind but good ones.  That the impossible family ego that accounts for the size of Schonbrunn and its rooms on rooms within rooms accounts also for the impossible grandeur and beauty of the place.  I was thankful that the politics of post-war Vienna were so fluid and chaotic, so that Soviet architecture did not create a drab "workers' paradise" like the ones on the Budapest outskirts.  Between and among its elegant older buildings and its well-intentioned but more pale restorations, Vienna lifts curtains and reveals itself like a graceful, aging, fairly decadent fan-dancer.  The steeple of St. Stephen's (perhaps Vienna's central church) vaulted up into the darkness, half-obscured by December fog, impossible to photograph, as though it promised only a temporary glimpse into the past that shaped this city, as though the camera was only allowed to catch the play of light along its edges like an enormous and guttering torch in the night sky.  At one time, no doubt, that steeple was introduced to a city skeptical of change; it was resisted, maligned according to standards of ugliness we would no longer recognize, then somehow the city grew accustomed to it.  It is the way things were and are in Vienna, and I wonder what the inevitable objections were, but also what the church replaced in a city that changes so slowly, but changes nevertheless.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

On silence and slow time in Budapest

We spent the first 24 hours or so in Budapest without seeing a clock—at least one that worked.  There were no clocks in the hotel room, and only when we were checking out at the end of our stay did Rhonda notice the clock above the hotel desk, cleverly disguised as a red satin pillow, as though subordinated to some kind of Late Bordello décor.
                In the meantime, the one clock we had seen clearly was the one in this photo, far up on the Castle Hill in Buda, right across from the Matthias Church and atop one of the few buildings not leveled by the firefight between the Nazis and the Soviets in the siege of the city.  According to our guide, the Hungarians loved this clock not only for its survival,  but also because until several years ago it had stopped running entirely.  There it was, a frozen relic of the city's endurance, described with a kind of amused affection by this smart, educated Hungarian who was showing us around the town.
                So, why the fuss over a stopped clock?  Or better yet, why the delight in its "silence and slow time"—a phrase from Keats about his Grecian Urn, also famous for its pause and stillness?  Are there ways, perhaps, in which the clock was not silent at all, that it gave us a take on both time and survival and how they fit together?  More than once, our guide waxed humorous over Hungarian, Russian, and (most acidly) Soviet time-wasting and disorganization.  No doubt he was playing to the crowd in assuming our dislike for the Soviets (his own was deep, and given his country's history, understandable), but it was interesting how charitable he was to what he saw as Hungarian inefficiency.  It was a kind of, "we're casual, but that's the way we are" attitude, and the Soviets were far worse—both inefficient and authoritarian.
                I've read somewhere that the minute hands on clocks were added late in the 15th century at the insistence of merchants' guilds in order to determine more precise times for work hours, deliveries, and meetings.  But the first working clock we saw in Budapest was in a place where it would seem that relaxation trumped efficiency—the city's famous Szechenyi Baths, atop the Art Nouveau locker room/community building, clearly visible from the middle of the hot springs pools.  Rhonda and I went there on a frigid Thursday, mainly because so many people had encouraged us to do so, though I thought that hopping out of 90 degree water into 30 degree temperatures sounded like a terrible idea at the time.  You'd wonder why a clock was so prominent in a place of relaxation until you read the signs—in English, French, and German, as well as the Hungarian—cautioning that it was wise to stay no more than twenty minutes in the hot water. 
                 A clock, then, whose operation was not only crucial but medicinal.
                Of course we overstayed the water's welcome, not only seduced by the heat, but also welcoming the contrast to Budapest's prevailing December damps, made more dismal, it seemed, because you got the readings in Celsius, and single digits are by nature colder than double.  We were teased out of thought, as Keats would say in the same poem. Duly warned, though, by numbers we could understand atop the functional clock, we were seduced by a kind of eternal present, knowing that time was dutifully passing as we lay in hot water doing nothing.  We emerged from the baths weak-kneed and good for nothing else that evening, having lulled ourselves into holiday, but reassured by the security of measurements that there was still a time we were passing, perhaps wasting, but that the numbers on the clock were little more than abstractions by which we steadied ourselves in uncertain country.