January 22: It was never my plan to wake up at 5:30 this morning, but I did. Opening the bedroom curtains, a gentle post-rain fog hovered over the street, blurring the street and occasional headlights. Last night I was in the middle of reading a Calvin Tomkins 1970s essay on the Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.)-designed pavilion for Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan. That geodesic-dome architecture was perennially surrounded by Fujiko Nakaya’s installation of artificial water vapor – a thing I would have loved to see.
Being awake in the fog at 5:30 this morning, there seemed no better time to finish the Tomkins essay, so I retrieved the Tomkins book, took a seat by the open window looking over the foggy road, and began to finish the essay as the fog dispersed and the sun eventually shone. The ground was white grey, the trees were frosted, and the mist was frozen.
Eventually the sun broke through with a golden light. A bright red cardinal, lurking in the bushes, flew onto a tree branch. He was transformed, for a moment, into a brilliant golden glow. In the past year, cardinals have become, for me, some kind of omen.
Such contemplative moments are a luxury always, but today – at the beginning of a welcome new administration in the Oval Office – they are especially cherished.
I think that most of us have taken on a more philosophical mindset during these months of relative isolation. “Look around you and pay attention” was a directive I often gave to acting and directing students and it’s a directive I find myself following closely in this challenging period of an early COVID-driven retirement.
It seems that, in these moments of privation, I am drawn to things that try to make sense of our challenges. I seek escapism, but also those things that make sense of this current moment in time.
COVID19 SUTRAS, by Hank Lazer, is a new book of poems and sutra-like meditations that deals with our cultural isolation, division, and longing in ways that inspire, incite, and calm the soul.
Intimations, the new book of COVID-inspired essays by Zadie Smith, gives a sort of skeptical hope. Smith — intuitively – knows the landscape, but approaches it with humor, acid, and civility. She remains among my favorite living authors. Her thoughts on our current time lend strength.
Don DeLillo’s The Silence is a brief and pointed novel – written before the pandemic – about a time when social entitlements are suddenly, inexplicably, withdrawn. What happens, DeLillo wonders, when electronic assumptions fail and society is left to wander, cluelessly? It is significant, I think, that DeLillo’s cultural deprivation occurs on a Super Bowl Sunday.
The Silence was most evocative, to me, of Edward Albee’s 1966 play, A Delicate Balance. In Albee’s play, a group of individuals comes together in incomprehensible fear of something existential and undefined.
In a recent New Yorker, Lawrence Wright’s intense investigation of COVID19 and the American response – “The Plague Year” – provides insight into a real-life crisis of existence and our current moment that can’t be wished away.
The bookshelf landscape is not completely bleak, however. One grey morning this week, I was reading Verlyn Klinkenborg and Calvin Tomkins near the bank of the Flint River in southeast Madison County.
There is strength in the essays of Verlyn Klinkenborg. His essays on “The Rural Life” in the New York Times were an anticipated feature in my readings of that newspaper through the years and I am now making my way through the sequel, More Scenes from the Rural Life. I also look forward to reading Klinkenborg’s The Last Fine Time, the chronicle of a family-owned tavern in Buffalo and, especially, Several Short Sentences about Writing, his tome of advice for all writers.
The aforementioned six-volume collection by Calvin Tomkins, The Lives of Artists, is making me most happy. Starting with a profile of Marcel Duchamp in 1962, Tomkins’s essays, spanning seven decades, present a very personal history of art in the second half of the 20th Century and beyond.
This crucible year of the 21st Century challenges our strength and stamina. Great writing currently explores it; great writing also provides an escape from the day-to-day obstacles it offers.
At one point in Intimations, Smith writes, “The people sometimes demand change. They almost never demand art.” That might be true, but in times of stress and change, we often look to the artists for sustenance, understanding, and courage.