Surface Narratives

Count the layers:

“The right to pursue happiness sends me and other Americans, even here where we are meant to resist outside temptation, on a hunt for it. If I’m not hungry, I might seek other forms of happiness, or pleasure, which is part of my American birthright, though the most misconceived notion of them or the most difficult to realize; I can pursue several means and ways to be happy, if I am able to forget what makes me habitually sad. The woman who hates me or may not hate me, since she abandoned all of her friends, must believe she has embarked upon a truly new life, but I wonder how she narrates its many divorces, more than just from her first and second husbands, by whom she had several children, since she has excised the past as if she were an immigrant and in the old country, with a language she no longer speaks. She was an expert horsewoman. Does she still ride? My own scale is teased by such questions, which I can’t restrain, and then, overtaken by cloudy intangibles, I might walk to my bedroom and go to sleep after breakfast, feeling smaller. Without looking at it, I easily forget my appearance, and my body can feel gigantic, but also not sturdy enough, or when I feel small, my scale reduced by puny conjecture, I could be a mole, my skin pulling and drawing, prickly, demanding that I shed it and everything else, too, to begin again in a common but unique American fantasy of life as an entirely different person with a virgin’s body, whose hymen, a membrane of thin skin protecting an essential orifice that, once penetrated, effects a change whose connotations defy it a single definition, and is also just another frontier. Frederick Jackson Turner theorized that ‘waves’ of human movement westward defined the character of the American nation, an idea mostly disputed if not discredited now, but which held sway for a time, though when teaching it, I focused mostly on a single aspect: ‘In this advance, the frontier is the outer edge of the wave, the meeting point between savagery and civilization.’ I told my high school seniors, after I’d banished myself from college teaching, that our American civilization can be treated as a series of periods of its individual colonists or members overcoming their own savagery, and because of this the American character retains a roughness and crudeness unlike the European or other civilizations. The students didn’t like my interpretation of the Frontier Thesis, and felt indicted by it, but I included myself, I told them, and didn’t mind being compared with so-called savages or animals, which we were, too, and insisted on a nation’s theoretical similarity to a fetus’s development, in which ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, except, in the case of the American political and social body, the fetus is born over or born again, and the infant introduced into a new context, but without advancement, repeats it all. Not long after Turner published his paper, which he delivered first as a lecture in the 1893 World’s Fair, the Viennese architect and designer Adolf Loos, in his essay ‘Crime and Ornament,’ used a similar ontological argument: ‘In the womb the human embryo goes through all phases of development the animal kingdom has passed through.’ Loos compared ornamentation with criminality and degeneracy: ‘The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornamentation from objects of everyday use.’ The relationship between Turner and Loos marked a moment when thinking about American history and international art and design collided, at least domestically, at the beginning of the 20th century, often called the American century, and is the subject of another of my partially written essays, ‘Backward Movements in the Modern.’ ‘We,’ Loos wrote, ‘have the art that superseded ornament.’ And, ‘those who go about in velvet jackets today are not artists, but clowns and housepainters.’ I like velvet. Hubris and vanity hold hands with so-called progress, as well as with advances, innovation, and invention, so Loos’s words haunt me, as do Turner’s, because a mistake or failed idea can also detonate the imagination, since it may explode a period’s codes or unconscious habits and actions better than its successes, and much erupts from the erroneous. In Vienna, a city I visited with a friend whose accidental death I still can’t accept, often I stare at him in photographs, but also, more often, I don’t let myself and, instead, walk to the main house, fancying he will be waiting like a letter, though I know he won’t, just one of the disconsolate women, who vacillates as I do and doesn’t get done what she should, or the woman with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, who will be reclining on a couch reading or sleeping, my dead friend and I took an archtiectural tour. Walking about in the old, stately city, with its terrible, grand history, we hung on the words of our impassioned guide, while snow fell, the city’s first snowstorm in years, which coated us and it in white, my friend, whose mother’s ancestors had been slaves in Mississippi, pointed to the blizzarded sky and whispered impishly into my ear, ‘I think it’s telling us something.’ The gentlemanly guide tutored us on Vienna’s place in architecture, art, and design, which reached its apex during the time Freud also lived there, at the start of the 20th century, and much of what the guide taught — dates and times — I’ve forgotten, though I remember we took him for pastries and coffee in a capacious coffeehouse where he sipped from a white cup, and my friend tipped him generously. Our guide accepted the money modestly, but most of what my dead friend said to me during those days is lost.”

— Lynne Tillman, American Genius, A Comedy








6 Responses to “Surface Narratives”

  1. mike davis riffs off frederick jackson turner too! he is one of those obscure characters who is somehow so misaligned with american history that he’s totally trendy to reference. but only in a piebald and prophetic fashion.

    your first picture link doesn’t work, thereby breaking up the visual narrative. it seems like crazy horse is the lone guard of american self-culturation; and what is he but gaudy and made out of tyvek.

  2. Well, I’m not with Loos. cutting away all variability is not culture, it is stripping of all what is not presumed useful to find out there is no reason left to live. And this is a deeply worrisom attitude towards life. It makes me think of Fromm, not of Rubens. Of toilet brushes, not of life. It is not life. Life is insects, molecules, organic shapes, colour, smell, struggling with paint, with thoughts, feeling dirt under your feet when you walk in mud and overgrowing this stage when everything is ridicule.

  3. traxus4420 Says:

    “Well, I’m not with Loos…”

    Then you’ll be pleased to know that the theroies of Loos and the modernists who were influenced by him and others have come back around to bite them in the ass. I can’t find the article right now, but a couple months ago there was a piece in the NY Times about how great modernist buildings are being torn down all over the U.S. — and their aggressive ‘modernity’ (unornamented blockiness) makes them much harder for conservation groups to protect. Modernism is history, and becoming outdated just like the Art Nouveau stuff Loos was criticizing.

    c-lime –
    Turner’s version of the American West was actually pretty mainstream at one point, you can still see it in the movies and probably some high school textbooks. That’s too bad about the first photo (does anyone else have this prob?).

    Also, I like that you used the word ‘piebald.’

  4. My friend -a Dutch woman and mom just like me – visited America a week ago. She said it was more pleasant than she imagined. I think you’re right that modernism is worth conserving too.
    Art Nouveau, Amsterdam school, Art Deco, I wish it would come back.

  5. traxus4420 Says:

    “Art Nouveau, Amsterdam school, Art Deco, I wish it would come back.”

    well, *sniff*, there’s always new york.

    glad to hear she had a good time.

  6. lol:
    well, *sniff*, there’s always new york.

    One more reason for me to consider ever visiting…
    But my favorite travel is in the mind.

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