The year I began teaching literature at the University of Minnesota in 1964, Leo Marx published his important book, The Machine in the Garden. Though Marx was teaching literature in the newly minted department of American Studies, I never met him. Because everyone spoke about him in hushed and reverential tones, however, I figured I should read this critical examination of the effects of machine technologies on the pastoral ideal that surrounded 19th century American literature. What Marx wanted to show was the loss of national innocence many critics decried. After all, when our Puritan fathers (and mothers, don’t forget) landed on the eastern shores of what would become North America, they believed they were coming to a virgin land, a “city on the hill” sort of place, even a paradise regained since many were fleeing repressive and corrupt systems across the Atlantic Ocean. Scholars studying those early settlers report that in many of their chests and bags, only two books were found: the Bible and John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Reality along that Eastern Seaboard probably looked a lot different from the idealized myth of unsullied and innocent nature, but by the 19th century the myth had taken hold in imaginations if not on the actual farms and in the emerging cities of this country. Yet Marx and many others after him insisted on a story in which an essentially agricultural country was being infected and sullied by rapidly developing technologies that began cutting people off from their natural settings. In England, a similar malaise developed around the Industrial Revolution. Poets like Oliver Goldsmith (“The Deserted Village”) and William Wordsworth (“London, 1802” or “The World Is Too Much With Us”) told us of how factories and noisy farm machines were destroying the tranquility of the country side even as they were alienating humans from their work. Well, in 2018, we’re a long way from any such bucolic ideal. Assembly lines have existed for over a century now, becoming more and more mechanized until today robots are doing more and more in many factories turning out cars and other necessities of today’s ultra-urbanized culture. And it is those very robots about which I want to speak briefly. A few days ago, I heard a long program on National Public Radio (NPR) about a recent decision in Los Vegas to begin using robots to do the work in some of the giant casinos and their accompanying hotels/restaurants. Already, a few mega-restaurants are using robotic salad choppers that can supply all the lettuce/cabbage/tomatoes and other ingredients for the thousands and thousands of salads served each day. The program described in great detail a robotic device that could make a perfect daikari or whiskey sour. This involves a large arm connected to supply sources holding the proper ingredients. A patron clicks on the drink of choice and the arm begins putting into the right kind of glass exactly the right amount of alcohol to produce that cocktail. The reporter involved interviewed some patrons who had used this arm and tasted the results. One woman was quite eloquent when she said “Well, yes, it tasted like what I ordered, but it was no fun. A big part of being at a bar is talking to the bar tender.” I suppose the industries involved will now have to find a version of Watson who can “talk” to the patron while it’s cranking out the drink punched into a computer grid.
Like so much of current technological advances that seem to be exploding into our consciences and environments, it seems to me no one is asking much about the human consequences of our increasing reliance on robotic devices to perform routine tasks. In the case of Los Vegas’ move toward using such machines to clean hotel rooms and allow restaurants to turn out food faster and more cheaply than is possible using human workers, what’s not being taken into serious account is the effects on a work force. The NPR investigative reporter made abundantly clear just who will be impacted by this move into robotics. He told us what we would would know if we thought about it for a few minutes: the two groups that will be affected immediately are women and Hispanics. Women and men from these populations currently perform the great bulk of this work in the casinos, so they will be the first to get pink slips as large metallic “arms” replace them in kitchens and bars and bedrooms. The same reporter was equally clear that no re-education or re-training programs are being mandated that might allow such displaced workers to apply for other jobs in order to provide them with the means to live with a modicum of self respect and to support families if they have them.
So, though few would call The Strip a “garden” of any kind, the new “machines” certainly will further alienate hard-working individuals from any serious guarantee of financial security. That denial will in turn exacerbate the already-present worries and fears surrounding the groups of low-income workers directly involved. And, not to be too pessimistic, already in place in some quarters, greedy corporations have their eyes on using appropriately designed robots to harvest this country’s dominant crops. We all know whom that mechanical advantage will permanently disadvantage. Leo Marx would be a lot sadder if he were breathing today.
When I set out to write about Jesmyn Ward’s novel, Salvage the Bones, I meant to speak about several aspects that have moved me and driven me to deep thought. I became so wrapped up in talking about Skeetah’s relationship with his white pit bull, China, however, that I never ventured beyond that thread. There is one more theme that I simply can’t let go unremarked, so I’m adding this coda to my initial entry about the book. Very early in the story, Esch is talking about her efforts to appear sexy to a boy she fancies, Manny. She tells us: “I’d let boys have it [her “girly heart”] because they wanted it, amd not because I wanted to give it. I’d let boys have it because for a moment, I was Psyche or Eurydice or Daphne. I was beloved…. I was bold as a Greek….” Though I puzzled over this unprepared for and unexplained reference to classical Greek women, I didn’t pay much attention until later Ward has Esch remind us of her tendency to identify with such characters out of mythology. She says “I could be Eurydice walking through the underworld to dissolve, unseen.” Then about midway into the story, Esch begins to limit her Greek identifications to Medea the character who killed her own brother. This story, occurring in the middle of her mythology text that she has vowed to read in its entirety, fascinates Esch, and Medea will come to her psychological aid several times as the hurricane strengthens and hits her family and community hard, and she struggles to figure out how to survive. She goes on to recount the two versions of how Medea’s brother dies–one has her deliver her brother to Jason who kills him while Medea watches; the other has Medea herself do the deed: “she chops him into bits….and throws each part overboard so that her father, who is chasing them, slows down to pick up each part of his son.” Esch reads this account repeatedly in order to get away “from the smell of Manny still on me a night and morning” after Manny has deserted her when he learns she’s pregnant.
A few scenes later, when Manny shows up, Esch attacks him yelling “I loved you!” followed by her immediate retreat into Greek mythology: “This is Medea wielding the knife. This is Medea cutting.” And then a few more moments into this scene in which Esch becomes like Hurricane Katrina as well as her Greek alter ego, she muses: “When Jason betrayed Medea to exile so he could marry another woman, she killed his bride, the bride’s father, and last her own children, and then flew away into the wind on dragons. She shrieked; Jason heard.”
Ward’s final joining of her central female character to the powerful woman of Greek myth comes as the water from Katrina moves inexorably closer to Esch and her family in their vulnerable house. Determined to believe they can weather the storm, Esch is drifting off to sleep, reading her book: “In ancient Greece, for all her heroes, for Medea and her mutilated brother and her devastated father, water meant death. In the bathroom on the toilet, I heard the clanking of metal against metal outside, some broken machine tilting like a sinking headstone against another, and I knew it was the wind pushing a heavy rain.” On their last day to be able to be safe inside their house, Esch again is “trying to read by the oil lamp, but the sound of the words are not coming together over the sound of the wind and the rain relentlessly bearing down on the house; they are fragments. Jason has remarried, and Medea is wailing. An exile, oh God, oh God, alone. And then By death, oh, by death, shall the conflict be decided. Life’s little day ended. I shut the book, don’t even mark my place, and sit on it.” Finally, art and the old Greek story cannot help Esch and her family, so there are no more moments in which she relies on comparing herself to Medea. Something stronger has attacked them all–the force and aftermath of Katrina–and surely Esch’s book, like Sheetah’s beloved dog, is washed away to join all the other debris, pieces of human life lost.
Not content to let the Medea parallels go completely, however, Ward has Esch make a final comparison, though this time not of her to the Greek murdering mother/wife. She imagines an amazing connection between Medea and Katrina: “Her [Katrina’s} chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She [Katrina] was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone, but let us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes…. She [Katrina] left us to learn to crawl. She [Katrina]left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.” So Ward has tied this contemporary black family to one of Greek tragedy’s grimmest episodes. She has equated the hurricane named for a woman to the maddened Greek woman who cannot stop herself from exacting mortal revenge on those who have ignored and betrayed her. And the young Esch has the imagination to see this conflation and use the past to help her make minimal sense out of her present.
I’m definitely a cat person when we are dividing the world into cat people or dog people. So when I began Jesmyn Ward’s 2010 novel, Salvage the Bones, I was not immediately drawn in. The opening scene depicts a female pit bull named China as she gives birth. I’m being told this by Esch, the sister of Sheetah who at sixteen is the owner and adorer of China. Esch tells a vivid story of how China as a pup stole everyone’s shoes, hid them, and then eventually took them outside where she put them in “shallow ditches under the house.” The opening paragraph ends with this: “Now China is giving like she once took away, bestowing where she once stole. She is birthing puppies.” As Esch unfolds her story about Skeetah and his dog, Ward magically overcomes my inherent preference for cats and by the end of the first chapter I am wanting to read about how the puppies fare.
Knowing what I now know about Ward’s own childhood experience with a pit bull, I’m amazed that she is able to tell of the elemental love and loyalty that exists between Skeetah and China. Here’s a brief description of her terrifying encounter: “When I was six, a pit bull tried to rip out my throat. I was walking down my parents’ oystershell driveway when the dog attacked me, probably because another dog, brown and shaggy in my memory was nearby and in heat. My attacker was white, muscled, wide across the chest, and tall; brandishing his weapon of a mouth, he blocked my path and sidled close to me. He was so still, and his back bumped my waist. ‘Move,’ I told him. ‘Get.’ Instead, he growled and jumped, and I fell beneath him. His growl rose to a pulsing grind. He sliced my scalp. My ear. My back. I curled in on myself, collapsed the target, and fought him. Beat his ribs with my fists. Kicked his soft underbelly. I screamed so loudly that my aunt ran down the street with a broom and beat him off of me, and then she walked me home. I wailed, covered in blood. On the way to the hospital, my mother put my head in her lap. I don’t remember crying in the car. I was in shock.”
As this story develops, I see Skeetah take China to a well-known clearing in the woods where a group of black men fight their dogs. Ward spares no graphic details of these brutal contests but she also presents them with no judgment. I’m simply to understand that this activity is a way for men undervalued by the larger world in which they try to function to step away from white prejudice and feel like humans with agency, even if it is not they themselves exercising that self-determination. I’m struck by the fact that these fights are always called and a winner declared by common consent before any animal is killed. And, even though some of Skeetah’s family feel he is fighting China too soon after her first delivery of puppies, the dog throws herself into the fray and comes away the winner because she senses how important it is to her owner that they both can hold their heads up high as they leave the arena.
This novel won the National Book Award in 2011, bringing Ward to the attention of lots of readers. As is often the case, I came to her rather late but once her language began to work its magic on my imagination, I find myself unable to let go of the sheer energy and force of her prose. Ward is 41 years old and is emerging as one of this country’s finest black authors, often echoing both themes and styles of her giant predecessor, Toni Morrison. Both authors care fiercely about finding exactly the right word/phrase/figure of speech in which to implant her seering analysis of racism in America. Both authors work to create complex characters who act both nobly and badly, who struggle with internal demons even as they maneuver their way through the minefields thrown onto their paths by white prejudice, white fear, and a system rigged against them at most every turn. Ward was a born in DeLisle, Mississippi, a census-designated part of Gulfport-Biloxi on the Mississippi gulf. Ward continues to live in the house where she was born, saying to friends who ask why she wants to live in such a small town, “It’s home.” She may live modestly, but her awards are mounting up as she continues to publish. She has even been given a MacArthur “genius grant” in recognition of all she has already done to progress American letters into fresh corners of this country’s life as it is lived every day by black people with no glitter but lots of persistence and heart.
Perhaps the first thing that impressed me about Ward’s style is her heavy reliance on similes and metaphors to carry her ideas and to force us deeper and deeper into her created worlds. With this I started out keeping a list of particularly striking figures of speech–something I routinely do when I’m reading someone whose language delights me. By about page 50, however, I realized I was writing down almost every page as having one such trope, so I just decided all I needed to do was open the book at random, read a few sentences, and I’d find a gem. Here’s just a tiny sampling to show how Ward chooses to make abstractions tangible: “The terrible truth of what I am flares like dry fall fire in my stomach, eating all the fallen pine needles” or “he wipes away the droplets of blood that have gathered on my legs like summer gnats” or “We were a pile of wet, cold branches.” Ward’s prose stops me with these kinds of comparisons until I am emotionally exhausted but hungry to stumble upon the next one.
The human interactions among Esch and her family take place under the shadow of news from their radio about a possible hurricane. No one in their community is worried, however, since “Most don’t even hit us head-on anymore; most turn right to Florida or take a left for Texas.” The cruel irony hovers over me as I keep reading, since I know what the characters do not. By the middle of the novel, this putatively harmless storm has worsened, causing Esch’s Daddy to start dismantling their chicken coop to use the lumber to board up their own windows. Ward brings home just how serious things are becoming by saying “The storm, it has a name now. Like the worst, she’s a woman. Katrina.” Since Ward’s own family was affected by the storm and its ensuing flooding, her descriptions of just how devastating such an event can be are almost unbearable to read. I kept flashing to images from Beonce’s powerful video, “Formations,” in one of which we see her draped along the hood of a car that is slowly sinking into the flood waters. Similarly, Esch and her family huddle inside their house. Ward describes the encroaching water as a “wide-nosed snake” whose tail keeps getting wider. Just before they break the door into their attic, “There is something long and dark blue between the trees. It is a boat. Someone has come to save us. But then I squint and the wind lags clear for one second, and it is not a boat, and no one has come to save us. It is Daddy’s truck…. The snake has come to eat and play.”
Skeetah’s whole purpose, of course, is to protect China, so he takes off his pants and makes a crude but protective cradle into which he puts his beloved dog. Esch helps tie the pants leg around her brother’s neck and thinks “She is his baby in a sling, and she is shaking.” China is lost to the flood waters, devastating Skeetah, making him wish he could “shed his human shape, in the dark, be hatched a great gleaming pit [bull], black to China’s white, and run off into what is left of the woods.” As this powerful story of survival and destruction ends, the family is going to go elsewhere to try and recover. But Skeetah will not leave because he believes so fiercely that China will find him: “He will look into the future and see her emerge into the circle of his fire, beaten dirty by the hurricane so she doesn’t gleam anymore, so she is the color of his teeth, of the white of his eyes, of the bone bounded by his blood, dull but alive, alive, alive, and when he sees her, his face will break and run water, and it will wear away, like water does, the heart of stone left by her leaving.” Ward isn’t writing a white myth in which Lassie comes home. Rather the man who loves his very different animal completely suspends his own life out of a faith that flies in the face of all realities, a faith grounded in unbreakable love and profound empathy.
I think its that kind of faith and empathy that Ward is writing about, whether it’s between the man and his dog or Esch and her soon-to-be-born child or the whole family and their connectedness with each other. This is a kind of faith and empathy to which I aspire but about which I need someone like Jesmyn Ward to write a stunning story that reminds me that it is possible even for a set of characters easily seen as “throw-aways” by a crass world founded in fear of the “other.”
An old friend of mine generously provides me with clippings from magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic because she knows I don’t subscribe to them but will want to have read parts of them. She also sends me links to articles from The New York Times for the same reason. I’m currently working my way through a thick sheaf of tangible clippings and, as choice would have it, just read two fascinating pieces about male painters. One article is about Balthasar Klossowski de Rosa (AKA Balthus) while the other speaks about the work of Henry Taylor. Balthus lived from 1908 until 2001 while Taylor is still painting at age 60. Balthus is white European while Taylor is American black. Because I found both long treatments of their paintings powerfully engaging, I want to talk about the cosmic differences in their art, differences stemming from their politics broadly defined.
Balthus was a confirmed aesthete, one of whose obsessions was with prepubescent female girls, one of whom is the subject of some of his most famous paintings. One canvas is simply entitled “Therese” and the other, even more famous, is called “Terese Dreaming.” (You may want to pause here and Google these titles so you can see what I’ll be speaking about.). Controversy has flourished around him and these paintings for years. Some call him a voyeur who sexualizes his subjects in the vein of Lewis Carroll and Sally Mann. Defenders argue that artists transcend their fixations even as they ask us viewers to move out of comfort zones to consider the complexities of our own psycho-sexual feelings.
What I always think about when I encounter someone, usually male, who is comfortable being seen as an aesthete is a story I first learned about many years ago in graduate school when I was reading works and looking at paintings by late Victorian/early 20th century writers who called themselves aesthetes. Walter Pater, a spokesperson for the group, recounts a story about how one such man bought a turtle into whose shell he carved out hollows. Into each he placed a different gemstone. He and his fellow artists would gather mid-afternoon at his dwelling and watch the clearly pained turtle move slowly across the man’s elaborate carpet. The aesthetic experience involved the play of sunlight on the turtle’s mutilated back and was much relished by the male artists in attendance. Though I no longer can bring up the artist’s name, I can feel again how sickened I felt upon first reading about this story. My teacher used it to impress upon us the theory of “art for art’s sake.” Clearly I was not supposed to grant the turtle any feelings at all; s/he was simply a platform upon which the “artist” installed something to give him and his pals sensory pleasure. Balthus’ defenders surely want me to do the same when I look at paintings of Terese. Like the turtle, she has been turned into an object upon whom Balthus has imposed his own strange and, for some of us, unhealthy, “take” on young girls on the cusp of womanhood but still entirely girls unless viewed through a lens that robs them of that fading childhood.
Henry Taylor is an entirely different story. He paints furiously and refuses genre classifications. His “canvases” are wonderfully varied–cereal boxes, suitcases, cigarette packs, furniture, traditional canvas. His subjects are as catholic as his media–celebrities, homeless people, friends, historical figures, himself, sports stars, politicians, and people he likes who appear in other people’s photographs. Many of his paintings feature black people and one in particular is a striking work showing Cecily Tyson and her lover Miles Davis in the foreground and the Obama White House in the background. In this painting, Taylor is working off a black-and-white papparazzi photograph of the couple at a society gala. By transporting them onto the White House lawn during the tenure of the country’s first black president and First Lady, however, Taylor changes the valence significantly. Suddenly something relatively frivolous (though the original photograph was taken at the 1968 premiere of “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” in which Tyson had a supporting role) becomes fiercely political because of context.
If you were to ask Balthus what his politics were, he’d most likely disavow any connection to politics. Searching for the next moment that can give him aesthetic pleasure would be his stated preference. But I believe such a position is political because it assumes that such events are magically neutral in terms of realities like race, class, gender and other intersectional identities. If you were to ask Henry Taylor what his politics were, he’d just as likely spill out energetic words about how art can record, validate, question and alter those very realities. He’d also insist that art exists within a broader world in which it matters both to its creator and its audiences.
In the article about Henry Taylor’s life and work that I just read (July 30, 2018 issue of The New Yorker), the author Zadie Smith says “Other people look; Taylor sees.” Surely Balthus “looked” at young girls on the cusp of womanhood; just as surely Taylor “sees” his myriad subjects as individuals with agency and personhood. Since the personal is so often political, these two artists, put in my path on the same day, help me see what kinds of “art” I may acknowledge along formalistic lines but which I cannot embrace.