The Unexamined Life in Cleveland

I finished A Thread of Years by John Lukacs while in Cleveland. Lukacs’s book is a series of imagined historical situations which he then discusses with his skeptical alter ego. He does all of this in order to convey to the reader a sense of the loss of faith and civilization that characterized the 20th century. I think the point of the discussion, after the imagined part, is to give credibility to his method of imagining something in order to explain what really happened—he debates himself, challenges things and so is conveniently provided with occasion to rebut and expand. History is supposed to rest on factual evidence, after all; something that really happened must back it up. At the same time, history is the business of interpreting that evidence and all interpretation requires imagination. History is not just the recitation of dates and events, but it is the arranging (both selecting and ordering) of what is remembered. What a historian wants to achieve is a sort of consent from his reader, persuading him of his interpretations: what these events mean.

* * *

He said many thought-provoking things. He always says thought-provoking things: he’s a thoughtful person and a trained observer. But he said one thing particularly about an older woman. He said that she had learned to see herself for who she was without including what she expected to become. All my self-respect is bound up in becoming a Science Fiction writer. If I am not that (in other words, if I do not include what I would like to become) what am I? There is a thought to stop one cold.

* * *

I am in Cleveland, and Cleveland is two things. On the one hand Cleveland is impressive. During the guilded age, many, many wealthy people lived and worked in Cleveland. They built impressive towers, churches, homes, bridges and assorted buildings. The curious thing is how much remains after so much has been demolished. One of the reasons the art museum is so fine and free is that it is superabundantly endowed, as is the orchestra, the botanical garden, and several other things. That art museum is worth living near to in and of itself, never mind the kind of music that comes through here, the public library and the architecture you can regularly enjoy. The other thing Cleveland is is a decaying place. The roads are bad, and a lot of this place is the unadulterated hood. The roads at this point are emerging from a winter of salt and plows, but they are truly awful, and on the highways the medians are crumbling, and I had to stop under a very ancient railway bridge while the train thundered overhead and I wondered if concrete and steel from a hundred years ago (at least it looked that old) would make it a few more minutes. That is not all of Cleveland–but how much of Cleveland is it?

Art Museum Observations

If you go to an art museum you’re going to have a more-or-less chronological experience. When you talk about painting, you’re talking about some 500 years of western cultural life–from dawn to decadence. And you can see it in the paintings: the loss of faith and then on the canvas itself something happening that is not unlike a loss of vision until you are left with the anarchy of present art.

* * *

There is always–because where else in the world would it even be–the early American painters’ work. It tends to be rough and crude, mostly, and perhaps of value more historical than artistic, but have you noticed how many of the women in those paintings have strikingly masculine features? Living in the age we do, perhaps you can but I can’t help thinking they look like transvestites–only they wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of painting them back then. So, how does one account for that?

* * *

This is not so much an art museum observation, but coming out of the place both times (indeed we did go twice) it started snowing. Maybe it’s part of the whole lake effect but we got snow in little balls, like fuzzy styrofoam. Now I’ve had experience of the snow in many varieties, but never altogether such–that I can remember. Maybe because I’ve never really looked at snow while coming out of an art museum in daylight? At the MIA we usually went after dark in winter. Anyway, this snow blew through the city several times, cutting off visibility and sticking to things, before giving way (we found a nice Italian place in it though). The sun shone too, near the end of the day, and set in splendor–as in many paintings in the art museum–behind the towers of Cleveland.

Speaking of the lake effect, we went down to the shores of that great body. It was the first time, I think, I’ve ever worn my pea coat near a body of water. It was warranted, the surface of lake Erie being troubled by a steady wind. On the windward side of the rocks there was a good rime of ice from the waves and spray. On the shores of the lake, there were a lot of dead fish the overhead fowl disdained to investigate. Caught in the water between the rocks on the lee side of things, one even seemed to swim though it was dead. Which reminded me that we had started the day at the West Market–a true market–where many such fish I had seen, but in neat rows and stacked up, like sausages.

Here is an art museum observation: I saw a painting with two herrings hung in it, and I thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, may he rest in peace. Didn’t he end up choking on a herring at the end?

Speaking of that and of becoming, there’s a guy in our church who just got accepted for a full ride to the Ph.D. program at CUA to study Aquinas. It is like a dream come true, he said to me. When, I wonder, will my application to the Science Fiction writers’ guild be filled and be accepted?

* * *

You know what is interesting? though the paintings of our age on display in the museum are mostly hostile in one way or another, not all the recent art was. One thing to consider is that artists keep their work or sell it privately, and another is surely that curators have other fish to fry what with artifacts going back to days of Egypt and them trying to make sure collections are robust enough to fill a gallery enough to delight and interest. In other words: I’m not sure I should expect to see the best of our age, whatever it is, on display in a museum at this point. But among other things there were sculptures made with glass with curious things going on inside not unpleasant. And there were some jugs or jars after some ancient Egyptian pattern and in memory of 09-11-2001 which even made sense.

In one gallery they had the whole of a rug made specially for a 17th Century French monarch’s dining room. When they start picking through our age, what will they end up with at a museum near you (if there’s any)? The wondrous dashboard of one of those cars recently on display in the Geneva auto show? It will look oddly reduced, don’t you think, in a glass case attached to nothing else.

* * *

So without what I expect to become, is what I am more than the fragment of an unreconstructed pot such as you see on display in the art museum? A fragment of an unreconstructed pot–but, and here’s the key, recovered on a different planet. I should try and get these things etched on something so they end up somewhere . . . like a museum  . . . where they put things the future of which is clearly done.

 

Oh Cleveland! I will believe in you if you will believe in me.

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