More Jane Smiley: Henry and the Cathars

Hello, readers, hello! My summers are often quite wild, so I haven’t written in a while. But not for lack of thinking.

What I want to do today is pick up on my last post, about Jane Smiley’s twentieth-century trilogy, composed of 3 novels, Some Luck, Early Warning, and The Golden Age. In my last post, I talked about Smiley’s use of the everyday as metaphor.

Today, though, I want to touch on another aspect of the books, one quite removed from the everyday. I want to explore the relationship between the meditations and work of Henry, the academic member of the fictional family at the heart of the trilogy, with the family’s place in time and with Smiley’s project.golden age, smiley

Henry is a bookish Midwestern boy who goes on to become a professor, specializing in Old English. There are touchpoints where he seems to be pointing to the older roots of the characters — older than their provenance in America and even their provenance in 18th and 19th century Europe.

How? Well, early in Early Warning, he thinks of their nearest place of twentieth-century commerce, Denby, as “village of the Danes.” That’s what it means according to his studies. And, that’s what it still means, if you notice that many of Smiley’s characters in Iowa farm country are of Scandinavian or German extraction, and take “Danes” broadly and maybe even metaphorically.

Later, though, Henry begins to think more broadly, about the Cathars. The Cathars,  for those not up on medieval history, were a sect in the medieval period. Henry’s ruminations on them have to do with their sexual equality (women could be leaders), their plague-filled time (there is talk of bloody fluxes), their beliefs (vegetarian), and their persecution (many were ultimately killed rather gruesomely as heretics against the Catholic church).

When Henry thinks of the Cathars, he clearly thinks of touchpoints between their time and our own. Sexuality equality; a mark of our time. Vegetarianism; ditto. Bloody fluxes; several of Henry’s friends die of AIDS. The only outlier is persecution.

So are we supposed to read “the Cathars are us” as one of the meanings, given those commonalities? If so, what about that persecution?

Well, possibly that too, since the trilogy spans a time of religious divides.

rue des catharsI don’t think, though, that is intended to be the ultimate meaning. We are distanced from the Cathars much more than from Smiley’s multitude of Scandinavian/German/Northern European extraction Iowa-born characters.

I think it is intended to deepen her references to current events. All three books are a welter of contemporary-for-the-time references, and at times, for all my admiration of these books, the decades-by-decades references lend the books a cartoonish quality. In Early Warning alone, McGeorge Bundy drops in on a brother-in-law to discuss CIA policy and San Francisco poet Gary Snyder helps a sister in a motorcycle accident on the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s references like this that make critics like NPR’s book critic Maureen Corrigan say things like it “occasionally feels like a flipbook of history-on-the-fly.”

However, there is a longer arc by century rather than decades. In the broad sweep of 100 years, the family in Smiley’s trilogy win and go ever upward. Once a local farm family, they end up bestriding the world, so to speak. Even with economic depressions, recessions, wars, and environmental concerns, the overall arc of their history is ascendant.

And, indeed, Americans often think of their history altogether as one of ascendancy.

With the Cathars, the book introduces a group that couldn’t, didn’t, meet every challenge. They weren’t ascendant. Perhaps it’s an intimation that empires rise and fall, and if the period of the 100 Years Trilogy is clearly a rise, the Cathars shadow a potential fall.

A Tale of Two Empires

So, recently I began to talk about my idea that two of the regions of the United States are replicating the pattern of Rome and Byzantium/Constantinople. New York is Rome. California is Constantinople. New York is strong, but being caught up to and surpassed by other, newer centers of culture and power, such as California. In this, California is like Byzantium, which was apparently the place to be when the Roman Empire went into eclipse. Much better than Rome, for a long while. (For more on this, see my posts here and here.)

I want to say two things about this before proceeding. First, when I say “California,” I am also referring to trends among the western states, really. I am in a way using “California” for the capital and cultural flows that can also certainly be seen in the entire Pacific Northwest, although the two regions also exhibit profound differences. One difference? The Northwest doesn’t really want to be seen as a capital, whereas California embraces the idea.

Second, I don’t mean, of course, that California is “Byzantine” as that word is generally understood. If anything, the West is more transparent and open than the northeast, and easier for outsiders to understand, not harder. The analogy is the analogy of capital and cultural flows, not of specific characteristics.

However, I do think there is an analogue of the pejorative “Byzantine”—sneaky, convoluted–in the characterization of California as flaky and unsubstantial—which seems to be fading away now, but used to be a fairly common way to characterize it. In Disney concert hallboth cases, the fading capital is still strong enough to try to lob criticisms toward the new one. Perhaps part of the fade-away is, as the author M.G. Lord notes on the evolving dignity of Los Angeles as a cultural capital, it is simply that, as time goes on, Los Angeles has more of a history to be dignified about.

I can name several factors that made me think of California as the new seat of empire. At the time, I had been powerfully influenced by an Amtrak trip from the Pacific Northwest to the San Francisco Bay area. The cars were simply full of wealth. Train travel is not particularly luxury travel, usually, but this was a trip in which passengers were given complimentary wine, cheese, and fruit nearly every hour on the hour. And this wasn’t a particular first class travel compartment: it was the train generally. There was simply more wealth and ease and pleasure in it than Amtrak in the northeast states would ever have.

A friend and I who lived in Boston were equally fascinated by the idea that our living in the East had meant that we were part of the national story. In California, where we had met, you were part of a regional story. This—like the grocery store in my recent post—is part of the significant tells in daily life.

One can think of news programs reporting national election results, for example, that speak of “the results” and “the results from [for example] California.” “The results” is the entire election, often viewed predominantly through when the precincts of the northeast close and report. “The results from California” are from a subsidiary, whereas results from Boston and New York combined are it.

And yet California is where trends start and the West is increasingly where monetary, business, and population power are. They are not exclusively there, of course. But more and more, the areas that set themselves up for expansion versus constriction are where, well, people expand.


Sailing to Byzantium: On West Versus East

So, reader, yesterday I talked about the spatial arrangements of the northeastern and western United States. Today’s post is a continuation, and I want to talk about the growing power of the western United States vis-à-vis the northeast in recent decades.

archangel michaelSo, to begin. A number of years ago, I went to an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the art of Byzantium (Constantinople)—and it was beautiful, large, and stuffed with art. Icons, primarily, and artifacts of daily life.

It was also, of course, a nicely curated exhibit with plenty of informational items on the relationship of Rome and Byzantium. (Unfortunately, no record of this exhibit survives online, so I can only give a thumbnail sketch of what I remember.) Briefly: Rome had a host of problems; Constantine became emperor; he converted to Christianity; he established the seat of empire in Byzantium/Constantinople. That city, once the eastern-most satellite of the Roman Empire, eventually took over Rome’s place as the largest and most powerful capital.

Essentially, the exhibit was arguing that Constantinople was the art capital, the cultural capital, and the political capital as Rome became far less powerful. I also remember thinking that the exhibit was trying to remove the art of Byzantium from the effects of the word “Byzantine,” which is pejorative. It means subterranean, or unduly, treacherously complicated. Not trustworthy. It was seeking a place for Constantinople as a strong capital of empire.

As I recall, Constantinople was presented as a lovely place, full of beauty and ease. The overall idea was that, rather than being “Byzantine,” with everything that connotes about up-to-no-good complexity, it was the best place to be in the Roman Empire of the period, whereas Rome was, well, fallen upon hard times. “Byzantine” was a political attack by Rome upon Byzantium, not a full representation of the place.

(I might add that, in searching for the exhibit I saw and not being able to find it, I did come across a record of a talk at the Smithsonian’s web site that has something of the same points. I quote: “The Byzantine Empire shone with intellectual and artistic brilliance at a time when Western Europe was deep in the Dark Ages and flourished long after the first stirrings of the Renaissance. When the Roman Empire was divided between east and west, Emperor Constantine chose Byzantium as the new eastern capital and renamed it Constantinople in 330 A.D. The empire was one of the longest that has ever existed, and its arts continued to influence other cultures long after it came to an end.”)

Here’s what I thought, walking out. California is Constantinople. New York is Rome. transamerican new vs oldPowerful, and putting an imprimatur on things. But suffering such constriction that it will never again be able to genuinely lead. What I have been witnessing in my own life is a turning from one major capital to another. And the other was once thought lesser, but now has far more resources.

Next: more on the western states as emergent capitals.


Patti Smith’s New York

One of the things that really interests me in life is U.S. regionalism. So today, reader, I’m going to talk about that.

The first part of this blog is about the New York of the late 1960s and 1970s, as viewed through the prism of Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids. I have to say that, when I was a young woman, I never particularly liked Patti Smith.  (Well, I do like “Because the Night.” But not so much her oeuvre in general.) She seemed like a poseur of major proportions, and, frankly, not particularly musical.

So it was that I had never read Just Kids, about her time as friend, lover, and muse to the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1960s and 1970s. Just Kids has been lauded, certainly—it won a National Book award—but I stayed far away.

Until recently. I grabbed it from my local library’s shelves and have read it with some degree of absorption. I ended up with a lot more respect for Patti Smith, who becomes a person of substance as she goes through her life.just kids book jacket

I want to talk about, though, what hit me most forcefully about her recounting of that period, and that was, how crappy New York was to live in during the 1970s. A lot of Just Kids is Patti Smith recounting how poor she and Robert Mapplethorpe were. Literally, not a lot of money—rationing themselves to a shared hot dog. Partly, this is because they were starving artists. But partly, it is because New York took a lot of money to live even in at the time, and they didn’t have it.

I was particularly struck by one anecdote, on their first apartment in Brooklyn. (Which was, at the time, considered cheap compared to Manhattan. It still is, but no longer the place where people restricted to sharing one hot dog can even think about living.) Their first apartment had been used by junkies, and it had used syringes nearly filling the oven and blood on the walls.

This turned my stomach—there’s something about the warmth and comfort of a kitchen being turned inside out this way that’s quite chilling. (I might also add that I just watched the movie CBGB recently, in honor of Alan Rickman, who plays the owner. The time period of CBGB occurs at the tail end of the Just Kids, of course, but the same “incredible and upsetting filth” motif runs through it: huge roaches, overflowing toilets, and so on and on.)

But the anecdote also caused me to start to meditate on New York and the West Coast, because a lot of my own life in New York City at a later period was being shocked that it was so different from the western states I’d come from.

I was completely fascinated by these differences, which manifested in every conceivable way. For one thing, I had grown up on the West Coast and had never really seen a lot of stuff that was really old. And dirty. Which a lot of the apartments I looked at in searching for rentals were. Not as bad as Smith and Mapplethorpe’s rentals, but still.

But also, I was fascinated with the different ways of using space. In both Oregon and California, for example, you found stuff in a grocery store by finding a long horizontal display. Corn flakes, for example, would be in a row left to right.

In New York City grocery stores, by contrast, corn flakes took up the space of one corn flakes box, and the multiple boxes lined up behind it. To a West Coast kid, it was genuinely difficult to see what you were looking for, because your eye was so oriented toward looking for a display that was an expanse.

So that has remained an orienting idea of NY/West Coast; the first is restricted and vaguely crummy in its space (unless you are quite rich); the second is expansive. This idea is one of the reasons I became very comfortable in suburbia. Expansion—spread out houses, spread out parking lots, spread out vehicles—is the animating spatial idea of suburbia, just as it is the animating idea of the West.

That people were expected to put up with so little space, and such crummy space, seemed very bad to me. It seemed bad for art, actually, which is partly about outreach and not constriction. Which is one of the reasons I’m so fascinated with Smith’s narrative, because she accepts the crappiness and the overall idea that artists starve for art completely.

So tomorrow, readers, I’m going to talk about space restriction and space expansion as two separate kingdoms in the US, and further, where we are in these two kingdoms!