July 17, 2015
Gentle Reader: Start with Part One and, yes, it’s a long essay.
Flashback to the scene at the airport: the paperback book which I had stuffed into the side pocket of my carry-on bag remained there until I unpacked at my apartment in Galveston. I had not the heart to resurrect Trav and Meyer after the slight we had all suffered together. I would wait until my peace and privacy were completely restored before inviting them to come out and play once more. I had other books with me, a variety to suit my moods. They increased the weight of my luggage until I sometimes felt like an overburdened pack mule but I couldn’t do without them on business trips. They were my good company in strange hotel rooms and my solace during bouts of loneliness and insomnia when far from home. After the telling of the tale, after our flights had been called and Kodaly had departed for his destination and I for mine, after I was seated, buckled, with bag stowed at my feet, I had yet a long and weary wait while the accumulated airplanes waited on the ground for take-off clearance. I rummaged for another book, still peevish that my pleasure in McDonald had been momentarily dimmed. Well! Not even Mr. Humanities himself could object to Homer although he might sneer at my reading him in Lattimore’s translation rather than in the original Greek. I settled in with the Iliad. I had worked my way through the front matter, Book One, and the beginning of Book Two when the plane, which had been held at the gate and then again on the taxiway, finally lifted off the runway.
As it was to have been a southbound morning flight, now finally airborne at mid-afternoon, I had arranged for a seat on the right hand side to avoid the glare, a useless bit of prudence, regardless of the time of day, because we flew in clouds all the way back to Houston, never breaking out of them. I sat in my seat that should have been on the shady side if the flight had been on schedule, but wasn’t because it was now afternoon and the weather had changed causing both sides of the aisle to be equally dim and gloomy. I switched on the overhead light and read Homer. All of which, my sitting in a carefully chosen spot, the advantages of which had been rendered futile by the gods, the fates, the rulers of men and the universe, which may clue you in as to how many years I have been reading The New Yorker, the workings of El Nino, and my reading the old poet eloquent on the futility of all human precautions, the story I had just heard from Kodaly, the chief moral of which, if there be one, the operation of chance and the revolution of the wheel of fortune, the operator of which, if one exists, is blind, and, if God does not play dice with the universe, then it at least appears that the welfare of individuals, human and otherwise, on this planet, matters only to themselves and to no greater power, from which one could argue equally well that it is every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost or the other way around, that we had best hang together or assuredly we will all hang separately. At any rate I found myself in an elegiac and reminiscent frame of mind.
It is the second semester of graduate school, first class, first assignment…Homer. Dr. Alvis is at the lectern. I still have my notes wherein I faithfully wrote down his immortal words, “At the beginning of the Iliad the question is raised who is to be the more greatly honored–a king or a mighty warrior. By the end of the story this question has become completely irrelevant.”
Besides the message presented by the text there is another message presented by the long survival of this work, a message not stated but implicit; neither Agamemnon nor Achilles would have been remembered at all, if it had not been for Homer. The long survival of this work fulfills the prophecy of Achilles’ fame, but ironically. It does say something about the hold that a good story has on mankind. Like the cat without the tale, Homer’s is the last laugh. I read on. Nestor is recalling the events at Aulis prior to the launching of the fleet, “For I say to you, the son of all-powerful Kronos promised, on that day when we went in our fast-running vessels, we of Argos, carrying blood and death to the Trojans. He flashed lightning on our right, showing signs of favor.”
At that moment the cloudbank visible from my seat, the entire western sky, was lit up by an enormous flash. The airplane hit a bit of turbulence and bounced. A woman in the seat behind me gave a little scream and began to pray in Spanish, “Dios te salve, Maria, Ilena eres de gracia; el Senor es contigo: bendita tu eres entre todas las mujeres…” She suddenly became conscious that she was speaking aloud and her voice then dropped to a whisper. That part of the feminine condition, that part of the artist’s struggle, that aspect of the human experience, has not changed. We become self-conscious and we drop our voices. I think that is when I decided to write Kodaly’s story. If you tell your life history to a stranger in an airport then you must take your chances.
Now on a flight from Austin to Houston one barely attains cruising altitude before one begins to descend. Just as well; mortals trespassing in the realm of Zeus are perhaps pushing their luck. Lightning bolts illuminated the cabin, emanating from the right side, just as I was reading the matching passage in Homer. A good omen, but for what? My life, my writing, my safety in the air, my hope of a long life? Far more probable that it was a matter of pure coincidence, however enchanting. I was clueless then and I am clueless now.
In his conversational musings, Kodaly told me one incident that displayed both his wife’s character and something of their lives together. At some point he raised an ordinary question at the breakfast table as to which of certain household bills had been paid, including the house mortgage payment. His wife replied airily and on her way out the door that she had paid none of them. Kodaly then spent the next few hours scrambling to cover this domestic deficit. He made the house payment, but he had to sell his prized and very expensive camera in order to do it. He still regretted the sale of the camera.
As I write this, due to a long and tedious series of personal reversals, my library is packed, stored, and unavailable. It is a huge nuisance. There are only three books on my computer table, an ill assorted group that landed there partly by chance and partly as a result of my interests. They are: The Knitter’s Handbook, Forshaw’s Parrots of the World, and Taleb’s The Black Swan. My second edition of Taleb in paperback runs 444 pages plus the separately numbered 33 page prologue. It is a favorite of mine. Here is Taleb’s thesis in a nutshell, but presented in the form of a joke. I have no way of knowing the age of this story, but I’d be willing to bet it had whiskers when Hector was a pup. I have a hunch it was an old story when Herodotus wrote it down.
This was told to me by a friend a great many years ago.
A man was taken prisoner by a king. Maybe he was a war captive. Maybe he was a criminal. The details do not matter. He was sentenced to die, but before he was executed he was permitted to appear before the king, in case he had anything to say for himself.
The man made the king an offer. If the king would delay his execution for a year, the captive would teach the king’s horse to talk. If he proved successful, he would go free. If he failed, the king could go ahead and execute him.
The king thought this over. It seemed very unlikely that a horse could be taught to talk. But, if the horse did learn to talk, then he would be the only man in the world with a talking horse. It would insure his fame forever.
So, the king agreed to the bargain. He had nothing to lose.
A fellow prisoner castigated the man and told him he was just plain crazy. No one could teach a horse to talk. The prisoner was not concerned by this bit of pessimism.
“A lot of things can happen in a year.” he said. “The king might die. I might die. The horse might die. Or, the horse might learn to talk.”
This guy certainly grasped the principle of exposing oneself to positive Black Swans. Obviously, at the common level, at the level of jokes and folklore, there have always been quite a lot of people who understood the event that is unlooked for and outside all our previous experience. That is the heart of fairy tales and romances.
A lot of things can happen in a year.
That brings us to the conclusion of Kodaly’s story.
In the Biblical phrase, it all changed in the twinkling of an eye. Kodaly’s wife suffered a stroke. Eventually, after months of hospitalization and rehabilitation, she recovered to the point that she could dress herself and feed herself. But she could not hold any job much less continue as a dean and a scholar. As the saying goes, when women attain the corner office with the window they also inherit the stress and the heart attack. As for the Kodalys, their rise had been meteoric; their downfall was a free fall without a parachute. Money, reputation, friends, house all disappeared. At the time Kodaly was relating this to me in the Austin airport he was serving as the director of a library on a small campus in a small town in west Texas. The care of his wife was a constant concern; he had no family or close friends to lend a hand. He said frankly that he hated the job, the staff, and the community. He was accustomed to a large university in a cosmopolitan setting. He was confined. He was miserable. He also needed money. He mentioned that he was hoping to sell his wife’s personal research library–a collection of scholarly books about Shakespeare.
This final twist was entirely unexpected. I was transfixed and speechless. But at the mention of the collection of Shakespearean materials I came to my senses. I broke in and said, “Maybe I can help.”
I said, “The professor who teaches Shakespeare on our campus has said that he would be able to teach the course very differently if he had the appropriate library support. There are literally no books on Shakespeare in our collection. That undergraduate Shakespeare course is offered only every other semester. Our library is small; its chief focus is the marine sciences because that’s what we do. I don’t know whether or not I can persuade the administration to purchase this collection but I can certainly ask. Go home and make a list of the books and send it to me.” I scribbled my name, title, and the university address on a scrap of paper. I didn’t have a business card. At our humble institution only the library director rated business cards. He looked surprised and grateful. That was our last exchange before our flights were called. I never saw him again.
In due course, after I had given up hope of ever hearing from Kodaly, I received a manila envelope with several pages of bibliography of about two hundred standard scholarly studies on Shakespeare. Kodaly also stated an asking price. He wanted $3,000.00 for the collection. I photocopied the whole thing and sent it to Bill, the head of the English Department, the professor who taught Shakespeare. In due course I crossed paths with him and he was delighted. “I never thought I would have a collection like this supporting Shakespeare studies in our library.” he said. “Hold your horses.” I answered. “It’s by no means a done deal, but if you approve of the titles I will go talk to Dean McClellan.” I had no intention of discussing this particular purchase with my library head.
I made an appointment to see the dean. I took the list in hand and walked over to his office. I had never spoken with the man before. I presented the matter in a few words. He said yes without any hesitation.
“Heavens,” I said, a bit startled, “are you always this easy?”
He glared at me.
“No, I am not.” He said he was willing to pay $2,500.00.
I wrote Kodaly. He wrote back, holding out for $3,000.00. I mulled this over and then I wrote the most persuasive letter I could manage. I told him that I did not expect to be in my present position or on this campus more than a few more months and that no one else here, besides Bill, was the slightest bit interested in pursuing this purchase. I advised him that he would be much better off selling the collection as a whole and that if he chose to market the books one by one it would be an enormous hassle for him. He wrote back accepting our offer.
No, that’s not the end of the story. There’s more. Eventually the boxes of books arrived. Bill was ecstatic. He also had hung around the library sufficiently to understand at least parts of our operation. “How soon can you get them processed?” he asked. “We can get it done before the beginning of the next semester,” I said, “It’s straight copy cataloging; it will all be on OCLC. I’ll ask Elizabeth to make it top priority.” I then talked to my senior clerk. “Let me finish the book truck I’m working on.” she said. “I’ll start on the Shakespeare collection first thing Monday morning.”
About the middle of Monday morning Elizabeth came to the door of my office. “Alice, this is very odd. I think you need to come and take a look.” I walked over to her work station. She was surrounded by cardboard boxes of books from Kodaly. She had unpacked several of them. She showed me one. She said, “I think every one of them is damaged like this.” It turned out that she was right. Every single book had the first few pages slashed. It looked as if it had been done with a razor blade. Someone had systematically mutilated the first few pages of every book. Luckily I had a lot of acid free reversible tape on hand. It won’t damage pages and it can be easily removed if that becomes necessary. I had undergone quite a tussle with my library director before I was allowed to purchase it because the darned stuff is expensive. I sat at one of the big worktables and spent days repairing those books while Elizabeth cataloged. I thought about Shakespeare and about Woolf’s imaginary character who was Shakespeare’s sister. I also chewed on the idea that it is almost impossible to read Shakespeare purely, to come to the experience without the burden of his great reputation. He is an icon, an institution, and an industry, all of which does tend to get in the way mightily.
At the end of the first week of repairing and cataloging the Kodaly collection we all took a break and went home. Technical Services does not work weekends. That’s one of the few advantages of a job in cataloging. We are the people in the back room the public never sees. On Sunday night I got a phone call from one of my daughters. “Honey,” I said, “I’ve got an interesting story to tell you.” I related, in brief, the story Kodaly had told me and the story of our purchase of the Shakespeare collection. I made no surmises; I presented the facts as I knew them.
“How awful,” she said. “How terribly frustrated she must have been to have attacked the books she loved.”
“It’s very interesting that you said that.” I said. “Neither of us knows exactly what happened, but your supposition agrees with what I have been thinking.”
During Christmas break I married George, having known him for years. A few months later I left Galveston. I have never been back.
So then Highway 88, black-hearted, asphalted step-mother. I am now retired. I live in rural Arkansas. I am old; George is older. When we drive the miles to town he goes slowly. Eyes, ears, reflexes are not what they once were. George pulls off the road occasionally to let the hot shots pass. We are both amused by this because generally we pull up right behind the pickup, driven by the young man who passed us ten miles back, when we get to the stop sign at the outskirts of our small town. It’s emblematic. The American Dream has run out of steam. No matter how fast we bowl along the highways there is always a stop sign.
“At the beginning of the Iliad the question is raised, who is to be more greatly honored, a king or a mighty warrior. By the end of the story this question has become completely irrelevant.”
We are none of us going to get out of this mess alive.
A university is a collection of books. We have the Epic of Gilgamesh; it’s the jstory of two buddies on a road trip. Sound familiar? We have Beowulf because one copy survived, although scorched by a library fire, Cotton Vitellius Axv. We have a few scraps of Sappho. It is estimated we have maybe one-tenth of ancient Greek literature. And, on the subject of tenths, that is the estimated percentage of books in Europe destroyed during World War II. We have the Tain Bo Cuailnge, a cattle rustling and range war story written centuries before the American West. We have those amazing Icelandic sagas.
What we do not have eighty plus years after A Room of One’s Own is economic parity between men and women and it now looks as if that is only one small piece of our huge and growing problems with regard to equal opportunity.
Here’s another story about a horse. No, the horse doesn’t talk.
When I first met George, I owned horses. He was intensely interested in the horses and asked innumerable questions. At some point I made the mistake of mentioning dressage. He immediately pounced on this new word and asked what it was. Now I was in difficulties. I was in over my head. I said, “I don’t know enough to answer that in any detail and it would not mean much to you anyway at this point. But occasionally we do have either a presentation by a Lipizzaner troop or a dressage demonstration in this part of the world and, if that happens, I will take you. It will make a lot more sense after you see it for yourself.”
It so happened that a few months after that conversation I heard, through the stable grapevine, that a dressage trained horse named High Jinks and his rider would give a demonstration at a certain riding arena in our area. There was no admission charge. I went and took George. I had never seen High Jinks but I had heard the name.
The audience was not large; we got good seats. Presently the announcer introduced himself and made someremarks about High Jinks and his show career. Then he said, “High Jinks and two other horses will enter the ring for the first part of this demonstration.” He named the other two horses and their riders.
George said, “Be sure and point out High Jinks. I don’t know anything about horses.”
I said, “High Jinks is a world champion. You will know him when you see him.” George continued to demand in an urgent whisper that I finger the horse.
Three horses and their riders rode into the ring abreast at a walk.
Without the slightest hesitation George said, “The one in the middle is High Jinks.” I don’t think I need to tell you that he was right.
The first part of the demonstration involved all three horses executing various maneuvers. After a short break the second part was presented by High Jinks and his rider solo, with no other horses in the ring. Now, in dressage, the rider is conspicuous by being inconspicuous. Cues to the horse are virtually invisible. The attention of the average observer is on the horse. High Jinks very prettily executed a series on moves on the diagonal. It was perfection. Then his rider brought him to the center of the ring where he did a classical piaffe. The announcer had stopped talking. The audience had fallen silent.
Then the announcer spoke, “What we are watching, ladies and gentlemen, is the difference between craft and art.”
Guys, we’re talking about a horse.
But at that moment in time, watching that animal, I think that most, of not all, of the people in the audience would have agreed with him.
Years ago I took a car trip, traveling by myself. There is only one incident that I remember clearly from that particular junket. My itinerary took me close to Hammond, Louisiana, where my first cousin, Lucienne, was teaching art at the grade school level. I phoned. No she couldn’t take a day off, but I was welcome to visit at her classroom. It was perhaps the oddest family visit I have known. It was fall. The art lesson of the day involved pumpkins. I handed out materials, collected finished work, and generally acted as a teaching assistant. During a lull in the buzz of the kids Lucienne looked over at me and said, completely out of the blue, “What is art?” I said the first thing that came into my head. I answered, “Art is life.” Lucienne said, “That’s a cliche, but, well, maybe there’s some truth to it.”
First thought, right thought? Hell, no. What I said was idiotic. If I were to attempt to answer that question now what I would say would be different altogether. Virginia Woolf postulated that there is no poetry by Judith Shakespeare because women lacked access to education and economic opportunity and because of the drain of domestic responsibilities. That’s one way of looking at the problem. But it’s thinking inside the box. Another way is to consider how we define art. Is it what we ordinarily think it is or are we tap dancing in order to keep certain parties conveniently beyond the pale? Aye, there’s the rub
Is art a symphony played by a full orchestra in an acoustically grand building and attended by those who can afford the tickets? Is it a painting that is so prized that it hangs on the wall at a museum? Maybe, you reply, but it’s also a matter of aesthetics and great skill. And, unfortunately, it’s also about who is allowed access to the fame and the money in a winner takes all system.
All of this is well plowed ground in the art world, but it was a new way of thinking for me. That’s me–reinventing the wheel.
On Fridays I meet with a group of women at a local coffee shop. This group defines itself as women who enjoy doing crafts. We have knitters, crocheters, weavers, quilters, beaded jewelry makers, doll specialists, and painters. It’s a lively group and our conversations cover the waterfront. One day I told them the High Jinks story. They got the point immediately and in the discussion that followed the general consensus of opinion was that when craft, any craft, is carried to a certain point of extraordinary skill, exceeding our usual expectations of excellence, it becomes art. They didn’t boggle in the least at the fact that the performer in this instance had four feet.
I think it was in Introduction to Anthropology as a freshman that I first encountered the concept of culture as being everything that is man made from language and baskets to Il Nozze di Figaro. That is what first planted the seed of thinking about culture, craft, and art, not as distinct things, but as a continuum every part of which was important. Still later I realized that the act of creation extended beyond the human realm.
That brings us to Frostie. No, not the snowman, this is Frostie the cockatoo, the internet star. Go and Google “Frostie the cockatoo grooving to Ray Charles,” if you have not already seen it, and you will bring up a dancer who literally has wings. If dance is the movement of the body in time to music to express mood or emotion and to provide aesthetic pleasure then Frostie certainly meets those criteria. If you can watch Frostie without being moved to laughter then likely there is nothing on the planet that you will find funny. He is an entertainer par excellence.
So, what is art?
Consider the knotty problem of the work of Elsebeth Lavold. Unless you are a knitter you have probably never heard of her. She is a knitwear designer and one of the finest in the world. Her work is exhibited in museums. Is it art? The government of Sweden says no. Lavold was irritated by this assessment to the point of naming her company “Ingen Konst” which means “Not Art” in Swedish. This is a quotation from her website at www.ingenkonst.se/: “Should Elsebeth decide to design a sweater with three arms, size 352, and drape it on the Statue of Liberty, she would have created an object of art – or…? In Sweden, sales tax for the sweater would thereby be reduced, whereas a normal, fully usable sweater is regarded as craft, and subject to full sales tax. Can you believe it? Regardless of this the usable sweater could still be artistic in composition.”
Does it matter? It matters a great deal if you are, at least in your own mind, an artist. For quilters inclusion in the annual show of the American Quilters Society in Paducah, Kentucky is the ultimate achievement. This show is the Mecca of the quilting world. Thousands make the pilgrimage to view this exhibit. Both quilts and viewers come from all over the world. But it is presently defined as ingen konst, not art, and is unlikely to rate a review in The New Yorker. That is reserved for The Lightning Field and Spiral Jetty.
In the case of Elsebeth Lavold, the chief consequence of the government’s decision had to to with sales tax. It’s the money; it’s always the money. It is explicit in Woolf and implicit in Austen. It matters hugely. In the words of Auden:
“You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass,
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass,’
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.”
During Van Gogh’s lifetime, when paintings from his sunflowers series were considered by most to be ugly daubs, it mattered. When, many years later, those same paintings sold at the famous auction houses for gazillions, it mattered, although it certainly did not benefit Van Gogh. And how can one painting be both an ugly outrageous daub and a masterpiece of the painter’s art? If that is not arbitrary, what is? Apparently art is as subject to paradigm shifts as science.
Art is what we define it to be and that definition often does not make much sense. It’s a matter of fashion or, to use Taleb’s word, contagion. Who gets the fame and the money? Which group benefits, to use Woolf’s phrase, from the “unending stream of silver and gold?”
At some point I decided that doublethink was not such a bad word after all. To quote Taleb, “Clearly you cannot doubt everything and function; you cannot believe everything and survive.” For years now I have tried to practice a split vision of the world–the conventional way and the way necessary for my sanity as both an artist and an outlier. Money is vastly important and, at the same time, inconsequential. Art is what we ordinarily think it is and it is also a great many other things. The minute we think we’ve got it figured out along comes, if not a Black Swan, then at least a platypus, a creature that bombed the previous distinction between what was a mammal and what was not. We need categories but they are a highly inaccurate way of viewing the world–a platitude we need to repeat to ourselves daily because otherwise we forget. Success cannot be measured solely by money or reputation as agreeable as those things are. I’ve sat in just one too many writers’ workshops in which the accepted opinion was that a great book meant one that was a best seller and made a ton of money. I guarangoddamntee that is no proper measure, but we all fall into this trap; it’s part of being human and living in the world.
I am doubtful of the separation between fiction and non-fiction. I strongly suspect that it is all fiction.
I now live halfway between Ink and Mt. Ida, very close to the Serendipity Trail. Yes, it really exists. I did not seek out such a fortuitous literary address; I ended up here completely by divine chance.
Last year on another perfect day in October, when the trees were putting on a fine show of color and the hickory nuts were thick on the ground, we took a rare break from never ending chores and went for a walk in the woods, with Star, our farm guard dog. It was that season in Arkansas when the mornings are cool with mists lying close to the ground in the valleys. The afternoons are warm and sunny. Our destination was a spring that lies high up on the side of one of the Ouachita Mountains. After a drive down a properly dusty country road we parked at a locked gate. On the other side we waded through some high weeds and struck into a trail that meandered back and forth over the side of the mountain but headed steadily uphill. We encountered no obstacles greater than spider webs across the path, but they were everywhere. Part way up the mountain we saw a tumble of huge boulders that looked like prime habitat for bears, but we saw no wildlife. Even the birds were quiet, except for a lone rain crow, which is what country people call the yellow-bellied cuckoo. Eventually, after a winding ramble, nearly to the top of the mountain, we arrived at a pool of water, almost circular and about thirty feet across, edged with rock and closely fringed by the forest. The sky above was a deep vibrant blue. The leaves and the sunlight danced together throwing prancing shadows on the ground. Cardinal flowers and a few grasses nodded at the margin of the water. At the far side there was a small waterfall, about three feet high, coming down from a rocky ledge. Star plunged into the water up to her belly and began to drink. After the shade of the trail the sunshine sparkles reflected off the surface of the water were blinding. Curious as to the source of the waterfall I clambered over fallen wood and more rocks. There were no traces of people, not even the remains of old campfires, such as one often finds in such spots. Above the waterfall there was a second pool, similar to the one lower down, but smaller, about fifteen feet across, and equally lovely. Above that there was no sign of water other than a few small seeps. We were at the headwaters of one of the numerous creeks that feed the Ouachita River. I sat down on a large rock. It was not a Wordsworthian rock designed for quiet contemplation of this staggeringly beautiful spot. It was a good Arkansas rock, uncomfortable, pointed, and knobby. I had come to this country from the city for largely practical reasons and I unexpectedly found myself in a place of wonders. If Pegasus or a satyr had wandered out of the trees I would hardly have been surprised. It is natural that springs and wells have so often been held sacred. It was truly magical.
There are good aerial photographs and accurate maps of Mt. Helicon on the internet, including photos of the Hippocrene spring. The area has been criss-crossed by both Greeks and tourists for centuries so that no inch remains unexplored. If Pegasus is hiding out there still then he must be even more wary than our mountain lions. He has not been nailed by any critter cam to my knowledge. If anything survives from the Golden Age then it is as lucky as the Beowulf manuscript and must have more lives than Pangar Ban, that sublunary tomcat immortalized by an Irish monk who was understandably weary of copying out the Pauline epistles. You might say that he, like Herrick, trifled his way from light verse to greatness. I can’t remember the source of that one. If artists survive and work it is miraculous. If the work survives it is against long odds.
This is a true story. No shit. I do, at present, have a cat without a tail living with me, name of Sally Bob. I still carry a knife.
“A great book is the lifeblood of a master spirit and stored up for a life beyond life.” As a child, before I had any idea who Milton was I read those words carved in stone and embellished with gold leaf around the frieze of the reading room in the downtown public library in St. Louis. They are still there.
I went to visit a friend. One evening, after several glasses of wine, although not the true, the blushful Hippocrene, we were sufficiently blown of course to embark on a discussion of what defines great art. In defense of my thesis that it is more comprehensive than generally thought I launched into a doubtless none to lucid description of my first husband’s father. To say that Hamer was a Ford mechanic does not begin to do justice to the man. His was a dedicated life. This was a man who could pull the block of the largest truck in twenty minutes. Among other things, he prided himself on never looking up a parts number. He knew them all. Repeat. All. He knew them for every vehicle Ford made up until the day he died. I went on to say that for one subset of people art was Anna Pavlova dancing Fokine’s dying swan and for another group it was a sweetly purring engine.
Wine or no wine my friend extinguished this particular flame of rational intercourse neatly and completely. “Auto mechanics?” she said, “I’m just not interested.” She said it so decisively and dismissively that I was immediately reminded of my mother. If there was one thing of which my mother was a complete master it was the art of the sneer. As a matter of fact in seventy odd years I’ve never seen anyone else do it half as well.
That ended that conversational thread. We went on to other matters. Months later I was struggling feebly, haltingly, maladroitly, to build a website. Three score and ten years ago I learned to read with less grief. Hell, learning to knit a sock was a piece of cake in comparison. I was scrambling for tutorials and manuals. While careening about, completely disoriented, in the internet thicket, where Pan reigns as much as he does in the Ouachita National Forest, and where one can get lost in a heartbeat, I stumbled over a reference to WordPress. I pulled up their home page and began to read. I scrolled to the bottom, following the text, and encountered this footnote:
Code is poetry.
Code is poetry? Who knew?
I’ve written code, just once, years ago, as a library school assignment, I completed a short exercise. My bit was clumsy and inelegant; it got the job done, but just barely. The professor pointed out that I emphatically had not exceeded the required minimum. I hated every minute of it. Fortunately everyone does not feel that way. Obviously lots of good people at WordPress adore writing code and that is a very good thing for the rest of us.
These guys get it. They dig it. Art is where you find it. It is whatever we decide it is collectively and, at least equally importantly, individually. Ars longa, vita brevis.
Code is poetry. I know no reason why not; at least it can be when it is written by a master spirit and read by those who know.