October. Venice, San Michele. The Russian section has been cleared of weeds and tall grass, revealing a stretch of unused ground large enough to contradict Auden’s “Island Cemetery”—
though new guests keep crowding in,
Must stay the size it’s always been.
—though not the poem’s best couplet:
Wherever our personalities go
(And, to tell the truth, we do not know)
Next to the discolored marble, the blackened lazuli, and the tarnished gold of I.S.’s stone, V.’s looks sadly new. Pound’s grave, near the rows of filing-cabinet tombs, is marked by a small disk flush with the ground. His wishes—
Where I lie let the thyme rise and basilicum
Let the herbs rise in April abundant
—are not fulfilled, but this is the wrong season.
At the Las Vegas airport, slot machines line the walls between the ramp of the arriving airplane and the sign at the entrance to the escalator: “No bare feet, no pets.” Trouble with discalced Carmelites? Do many passengers fly barefoot nowadays, and bring their favorite birds and beasts aboard unbagged? At three-second intervals during the automated walk to the baggage-claim area, alternating soprano, tenor, and bass voices loudspeak the line: “Hi, my name is… Welcome to paradise. Meanwhile, stand to the right, pass to the left.”
At midnight, in the Tropicana Hotel, I join one of five queues backed up from the reception counter. Young female to older male behind me: “I’m not really a hooker.” Too tired to carry my book-filled bags, I ask for a bellhop. A small girl appears, lifts them as if they were empty, calls me “honey” and “darling” en route, having classified me as in all senses “beyond it.” The walls of the rococo bed-room display copies of risqué eighteenth-century paintings.
Breakfast, sent up COD, includes a rose floating in a snifter and the Las Vegas Sun, of which Section Two is dominated by an ad for the “Fabulous Fanny Contest: If you are an admirer of la derrière fantastique, Sam’s Town is the place to be next Wednesday.”
October 18. After my lecture at the University of Nevada, I go as a railbird (spectator) to the hotel casino, a combination purgatory (no clock, no difference between night and day), bordello (ceiling mirrors), and Nibelung underworld (the smithy-like jangle of the slot machines). For a moment I feel self-conscious in my suit and tie, but no eye strays from the blue baize of the baccarat, blackjack, craps, poker, and roulette tables.
Most of the players are elderly, several are in wheelchairs, some ambulate by means of frame walkers, and one man pumping a one-armed bandit is blind (white cane and seeing-eye dog). No one looks prosperous, and no one seems to be having a good time. I worry that some of them may be staking pension and Social Security checks. Everybody, young and old, is in tight jeans. Most women sport high heels and bleached beehives or perms; most men wear boots, shirts with plastic name tags, and Stetsons.
Why do I watch? Because of the hypnotizing speed and perfect aim with which the dealers slide cards across the tables to the bettors and because of the drama of the losers, unsuccessfully feigning indifference: a young cowpoke kisses the dice before tossing them, wins three times, then goes broke. Was his goad the mystique of a “winning streak”? Doesn’t he know that “Un coup de dés…n’abolira jamais le hasard“?
Glitter Gulch, the Horseshoe, and the Golden Nugget. The Strip advertises $100 slot machines, played with silver chips, and the ghastly double-entendre, “hottest slots in town.” Next to the smaller casinos are pawnshops, bail-bond brokers, and chapels for “Immediate Weddings! Licenses, Rings, Flowers, All you need under one roof.” The “in” thing here is to have your automobile fixed to tilt forward and backward by hydraulic suspension, thanks to which many cars in the slower-moving lanes look like bucking broncos—the movements are galvanic—the front or rear of a car being only an inch from the pavement at one moment and, at the next, three feet in the air.
For enlightenment on the concept of play, since gambling seems like hard labor, I go to bed reading A. Alvarez’s The Biggest Game in Town. His subjects, however, are the professionals, and the immortals. One of his descriptions of a defeated player borrows a comparison by Nietzsche: “Timid, ashamed, awkward, like a tiger whose leap has failed.” One wonders just how ashamed of themselves tigers can get.
With Barbara E. to The Rake at the New York State Theatre. “In carefree May” and “Laughter and light” have never sounded so effortful, partly because the singers are only sporadically in sync with the always too-loud orchestra. Shadow’s “The Progress of a Rake Begins” is followed by the lowering of the curtain in the totally dark house for seven minutes of backstage hammering and the crash of falling props. “Is it for this I left the country?” the Rake asks, and the apartment-weary New York audience explodes with laughter. When Anne and Tom meet in the street, neither shows the slightest surprise, despite their exclamations about being startled. The bread machine, instead of a baroque contraption with wheels, funnels, pipes, pistons, is a miserable pushcart. But the zenith of zero is not attained until Shadow, prostrating himself in a suitcase for his infernal exit, is obliged to struggle with its resisting lid.
Three decades have not helped to conceal the embarrassing discrepancy between the Baba nonsense (Falstaff, in drag: “I like it not when a ‘oman has a great peart”) and the Bedlam scene, which is musically, dramatically, and verbally (“In a foolish dream/In a gloomy labyrinth”) great opera.
Channel J’s “Midnight Blue,” known hereabouts as “the children’s hour” (Mommy and Daddy are asleep by that time), pretends to promote “sexual freedom” while exploiting white and off-white slavery electronically packaged. “Telephone for a discreet appointment on our exclusive out-call service” a bedroom voice invites the voyeur, while a maroon stretch-limo Fugazy is shown delivering one of the service’s overbuilt—boobs like boxing gloves—layabouts. The slack between these commercials is taken up with old striptease films, which remind us that fashions in bodies change as rapidly as those in clothes, and with interviews, from which I learn that a girl trussed in chains is referred to as “gift-wrapped.”
February. Jacksonville. To Mandarin, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s town, and Solano Grove, Frederick Delius’s 1880s orange plantation and the proposed site of the utopian colony planned by Bertrand Russell, D.H. Lawrence, and Aldous Huxley during World War I. All that remains of Solano Grove today are rows of dead shriveled orange trees on the bleached ground and a brick fireplace and chimney standing in the ashes of a house. The state of Florida owes the place a marker, if only because The Grandissimes, on which Delius based an opera, was written by the American George Washington Cable, and because the horrifying slave quarters of the Zephaniah Kingsley plantation draw about thirty thousand tourists a year.
The blight of roadside advertisements worsens further south in proximity to the Gold Coast. A restaurant sign says, “Chile today, hot tomale.” At the Pompano exit, the most popular bumper sticker says: “Nuclear War Now We’re Tired of Waiting.” Char’s line comes involuntarily to mind: “Tu as bien fait de partir Arthur Rimbaud.”
June. Tokyo. The manager of the Kunitachi Orchestra drives me from Narita airport to the city in two hours of silence, since neither of us knows more than a few words of the other’s language. Most billboards include English, however, and the faces in them are distinctly “Western”—no almond-shaped eyes. The only notable building on the way is the bogus medieval castle in the local replica of Disneyworld.
In the Okura Hotel, girls in kimonos and obis, with pillows, stand by the elevators on each floor to greet arriving and departing guests; all of which involves a great deal of bowing. I unpack soiled clothes, and anxiously fill out a list stamped with the warning: “Garments badly worn out will be returned unlaundered.” Will my frayed shirts and frazzled undergarments be rejected? The room maids trot, rather than walk, and bow low both before and after turning down the bed. In the restaurant, a chorus of waiters at the next table sings, “Hoppy buthday to you, hoppy buthday to you, hoppy buthday dear Mister Yamashitahakamashi….”
The drive to Kunitachi Hall, in Tsuyama, takes two and a half hours on roads even more clogged than Manhattan’s with Isuzus, Hondas, Toyotas. The Kanitachi Orchestra is a world-class phenomenon. Young—the average age is twenty—good-looking, well-dressed, naturally polite, the players are master instrumentalists and lightning learners, harder working than American and European orchestra musicians are capable of imagining: we rehearse for four hours without any intermission or break. More than half of the personnel is female, young women scarcely larger than their cellos and horns and considerably smaller than their basses, tam-tam, and drums: the percussion section is entirely manned by girls. What amazes me is that with no experience of shifting-meter modern music, and after only a few rehearsals, the orchestra performs the Sacre almost perfectly and without apparent effort. But this is also the rub: a robotlike Sacre strips the music of its power.
Dinner with Herr Renicke, the orchestra’s permanent conductor. He has been invited to the US to give an Amadeus program, meaning a Salieri overture followed by two of the Mozart pieces fractured in the film. Should this gimmick be taken seriously, he asks, and I can only answer that London’s “Mostly Mozart” programmed a Salieri sinfonia next to Mozart’s Jupiter, which is a cruelty that even the movie villain does not deserve.
At Narita airport again, I wait two hours for the security check, a harrowing experience, with gauntlets of electronic hardware and invasion-of-privacy frisking. Most of the other passengers on my Thai Airlines flight to Bangkok are hippies headed for Katmandu. When the pilot announces that Hiroshima is to the right of the airplane, talk stops in the cabin. Five hours later we turn inland north of Da Nang and cruise over Vietnam, Laos, Kampuchea, the Mekong River—in pampered luxury, as if all memory of what happened and is still happening below had been erased. At Bangkok’s Don Muang airport: “Welcome to the Kingdom of Thailand,” then customs, and ranks of competing taxis. The fare, three hundred bahts, twelve dollars, must be paid in advance and a contract signed with the driver.
Traffic is left side, English style, and directions are in English as well as Thai. (Why does “Keep Left” require about eighty-five letters and diacritical marks in the native language?) Near the airport are stilt-style Corbusier apartment houses,then miles of slums only partly hidden by advertisements for Mitsubishi,IBM, Dairy Queen, and Dunkin’ Donuts. Of home-grown industries, the largest is indicated in Times Square-size neon in the center of the city: “V.D. INTERNATIONAL CLINIC FREE CHECK-UP.” The “city of temples and brothels” does “smell of sex,” as Paul Theroux wrote, just as Calcutta “smells of death.” Tonight marks the conclusion of Visakha Puja, the festival of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and passage into Nirvana—all, and it seems the best way, in one day. We pass a festooned enclosure in which the faithful, like Russians at Easter midnight, circumambulate a temple carrying lighted candles and joss sticks.
The porters and lift boys at the Oriental Hotel are dolled up in the white jackets and black sarongs of the Royal Guard. Assistant manager Pornthem Hantrakarnpong (a difficult name to drop) escorts me to the fifteenth floor and a vast apartment overlooking the Chao Phraya. One wall is inlaid with glass shelves containing jewel-encrusted gold jars. Another displays a silk-screen picture and a mural of nineteenth-century Siam, framed in red with gold borders. At the far end of the room stands a slightly smaller-than-life-size courtier, carved in teak and richly robed. The tables are heaped with orchids and fruit—smangoes, papayas, lichees, pomelos, pineapples—with a note attached: “Thais eat pineapple with salt.” A note in the bar asks the guest to “Fill out the honesty check,” and one above the bidet advises him that “Massages are available from a professionally trained staff.”
The bedroom is gory with red-lacquer tables and chairs, wardrobe, desk and bed, this last with matching silk curtains, pleated headrest, filigreed canopy. All handles are gold, as are the furniture legs and feet—“claws” rather, since they are dragon-shaped. Suddenly I notice my name embossed on the writing paper atop the desk. How is this possible? Though I arrived on schedule, am I here before my time?
The balconies, doors, and windows are locked—against scorpions, giant roaches, spiders, lizards, and rats most unappetizingly pictured on a card. I plump like an Oriental potentate onto the pile of pillows in the living room and try to study Thai grammar. In principle, this could hardly be simpler, each word being usable as noun, verb, adjective, or adverb. There are no genders, no articles, no conjugations of verbs, no conjunctions, no plurals, no prefixes and no suffixes, and tenses can be ignored. Though word order follows the pattern subject, verb, object, modifier, one word can simply be placed after another. Unfortunately, communicable pronunciation is utterly impossible, owing to the lack of equivalent English vowel sounds—and the letters to spell them—for the tones by which identical words are differentiated.
June 3. At 6 AM, the Chao Phraya, muddy, thick with palm fronds and clumps of drifting vegetation, is already teeming with sampans, bamboo rafts, houseboats with rounded tin roofs, ferries shaped like Mississippi steamboats, sharp-pronged passenger boats so narrow that their roofs provide no shelter, and low-in-the-water barges both single and linked together like railroad cars. Beyond the huts on the opposite shore is a lush landscape with eucalyptus now in orange flame.
Today’s Bangkok Post features a photo of the float on which a Buddha relic was taken yesterday to Sanam Luang for veneration; photos of barefoot and ragged children from the north who have been subsisting on a diet of dried lizards; and a story about monkeys pickpocketing tourists and snapping television antennas in the vicinity of the summer palace of King Rama IV (Yul Brynner). It seems that an attempt was made to entice the marauders into banana-baited cages, and that the ruse failed when a long-tailed macaque succeeded in ejecting a clump of bananas before the trap had sprung. A parliament of monkeys was then held on the palace roof, after which none of the cages was ever approached again.
Mr. Niloubel, who comes for me at 8 AM, spends most of my temple-visiting time praying. At the Golden Buddha, we climb steep staircases in stifling heat, humidity, and incense. The five-and-a-half-ton solid gold statue has been draped over the left shoulder with the saffron scarf of peace. At its feet are offerings of elephant tusks, wilting flowers, and spoiling food. Outside and below, in the monastery compound, saffron-robed monks wander vacantly about, their heads so closely cropped that shearing must be a daily ritual.
The grounds of Wat Pho, with the temple of the recumbent Buddha, cover an immense area. I begin to reel on the unshaded paths, and am fearful of sunstroke. (Thai pilgrims sensibly traipse through under large parasols.) Against the inner walls are 108 nearly identical Buddha statues, all brightly shimmering, their gold-leaf skins having started to peel. Further inside are tin figures depicting yoga positions, and ninety-nine Eiffel-shaped spires (chedi, stupas) containing relics and royal ashes and encrusted with bits of colored glass and blue and green Chinese porcelain. The Chinese stone sculptures here include camels, horses, dragon-tailed lions, Marco Polos, and more than one Confucius. The stovepipe hats of the Marco Polos are nineteenth century, however, and if this really is meant to be Confucius, what is he doing here? A great sage is desirable anywhere, no doubt, but isn’t Master K’ung’s pragmatic humanism in conflict with sannyasa (the elimination of self)?
The sides of Wat Pho’s sloping roof are in the form of mythical serpents whose jeweled coils represent steps to heaven. The temple fits the giant reclining figure (160 feet long, forty-five feet high) as snugly as a coffin, head almost touching one end, feet—the soles inlaid with mother-of-pearl pictures of the 108 reincarnations—the other. Except that the deity’s eyes are open and his head is propped on his right arm, he could be in a grave—or warehouse junk room, for he needs regilding. I am reminded of an illustration of Gulliver tied down by Lilliputians, no doubt because of the numerous diminutive Buddhas on the periphery of the mammoth one, some holding the palms of their hands outward to pacify the seas, some assuring the annual return of the rains. In an adjoining temple, a smaller bronze Buddha has been fitted with branches, newly cut from a Pho (Bo) tree and made to look like wings.
At midnight I go to an outdoor shrine of Vishnu, whose image is enthroned on a dais piled high all around with flowers. “Very scared ground,” Mr. Niloubel says, pronouncing the typographical error for “sacred.” From each corner of the enclosure, small girls in skintight, heavily gilt costumes slink forward, performing slow dance movements, and, it might be claimed, singing. They are barefoot, but bedizened from ankles to chados, the Thai crown with the spiked-Prussian-helmet superstructure. A small orchestra plays between the dances and, before starting, the musicians bow over their instruments—bamboo flute, wood xylophones, drums, small cymbals, a high-pitched double reed—and pray to the spirits of their teachers. Tuning up is another ritual, but the equidistant system sounds excruciatingly “off.” The music, half threnody, half concert for cobras, is low in volume and only fleetingly audible above the street noise. Swooning from the candle smoke, incense, odors of flowers, decaying food, and perspiration, I retreat.
Greatly overestimating the erotic effect of the dancers on me, Mr. Niloubel tries to steer me to one of the Patpong Road massage parlors, a “very private house, very nice lady, good friend of me.” Bangkok guides, it seems, are pimps primarily, and sex is the lower backbone of the economy. The chapter “Bangkok at Night,” in the latest Thailand Insight Guide is both comprehensive, what with paragraphs on price ranges (“120 bahts per hour depending on how elaborate a massage you require”) and explicit: the editors boast that their “menu of vices,” which includes the services of transvestites (Kra-toeys), “is not couched in innuendoes.” What Insight and Mr. Niloubel do not say is that today’s sex traffic includes chartered flights from London and New York and is based on child prostitution. We watch as a bus pulls up in front of a brothel and about thirty middle-aged Americans step from the one transport into the promise of others.
June 4. In Yaowaraj (Chinatown), old wooden buildings survive, most of them with gem-cutting and money-changing establishments, and in the streets, vendors still balance shoulder-poles with baskets suspended from the ends. We go to the zoo to see the white elephants. The mother of Buddha having dreamed of a white elephant during her pregnancy, these off-pink albinos are holy and can belong only to the king. Mr. Niloubel says that most of the reptiles in the zoo are also encountered in Bangkok’s parks and canals. Near the entrance of the zoo is a pet shop advertising “Newly-Whelped Tigers.”
For me, the main attractions of the Emerald Buddha and the Dusit Palace are the electric fans. In any case, the emerald-and-jade idol is small and at a squinting elevation, while the novelty of the palace’s royal audience room will be lost on anyone who has seen the Oriental Hotel first. But this is niggling: the gold statues of mythical man-animals, of warriors with roosters’ tails, and the sounds of golden bells windblown under temple eaves, are dazzling.
I drive to Nakorn Pathom province and watch elephants lifting teak logs, much as cranes hoist girders in New York. Though still found in the northern jungles in herds of two to three hundred, and given priority on Thai roads, the elephant is an endangered species, largely because the bulls easily mistake tuskless males for females, and trappers have learned to use the edentates as decoys. The mahouts here, young boys in black turbans and loincloths, ride the elephants standing on their backs or seated on the lowered tusks, like chauffeurs in the open front seats of ancient roadsters. Droppings are quickly scooped up, still steaming, like precious lava.
On the return, between rice paddies, banana plantations, watery fields of lotus, I try to engage Mr. Niloubel on the Pathet Lao and the refugees now crossing a border only 150 miles away. All he will say is that Thais were deeply embarrassed by the “exaggerations” in the movie The Killing Fields, meaning, I suppose, that he prefers the Khmer Rouge to the Vietnamese, or that he thinks most Americans follow this official US preference. But why should this believer in the supreme desirability of ultimate extinction bother with the come-and-go of politics? He talks instead about cholera, still the main killer in Thailand, and the shortage of crematoriums: “Many corpses have to be left under trees until the bones have been cleaned by birds and animals. Even for cremation, the Buddhist body must wait seven days, by which time is not smelling so good.”
Copenhagen. Windowsill geraniums. Bicycles. Flaxen hair and pigtails (reminders of the marlok). Cobblestones. Equestrian statues and, on high pedestals, statues of kings, Fredericks and Christians alternating. Canals. The masts and rigging of fishing boats showing at street level. The eponymous name Hans Christian Andersen. Gleaming spires. Copper roofs. Tall gables. Eighteenth-century architecture and seventeenth-century Dutch architecture transmuted. Nothing of Berlin but something of St. Petersburg.
The foyer of the Thorwaldsen Museum, housing Brobdingnagian humans and horses, might be a replica of the sculptor’s huge Rome studio, except for the thick dust, or dandruff, on high-elevation heads, shoulders, and backs. The light in the enfiladed small rooms, shed through single windows in the centers, rarely extends to more than one object—the wrong one in the case of Byron, where the fine neoclassic head, which he disliked (too much focus on the dimpled chin?), is at the limen of the visible, whereas the risibly romanticized full figure, seated, basks in the comparative glare of the occasional break in the Scandinavian weather.
The Three Graces, smaller than expected, are in a room to themselves. Their most carefully observed anatomical features are the buttocks, especially those contracted by the muscular pull of the weight-bearing leg—though “the bottom line” of the flaccid partners is scarcely less well done. Danish purchasers of post cards are not shy in showing their preference for close-ups (furrow only).
Thorwaldsen’s collection of antique erotica is on display in the basement, under guard and behind glass. Here are cameos, coins, medallions, sculptures, pottery painting, and—the cynosure, attracting far more viewers than any opus by the sculptor himself—a plaster priapus, gargantuanly engorged and shaped like an allantoid provolone.
The magazine Copenhagen This Week advertises more palpable gluteal and mammary forms, as well as the promise of satisfying convulsions—but then, guidebooks for escort services are now as much a part of hotel room equipment as Gideon bibles. The name of one of the agencies leasing out “understanding Aphrodites” is—H.C. Andersen must be turning in his tomb—“The Little Mermaid.”
August 6. Trescore (Bergamo), the Suardi chapel. Vines are the principal motive in Lorenzo Lotto’s Legend of Santa Barbara. Between the rafters, chubby cherubs romp in vineyards, clutch clusters of grapes, and make a show of hiding their immodesty behind the leaves. At the center of the fresco, vine stalks, extending from the outstretched fingers of a colossal Christ, frame portraits of saints and angels across the top of the picture. But the effect is eerie, as if He had overlong fingernails.
The gory events of the narrative are placed in left-to-right succession, as well as in crudely perspectivized backgrounds and in spatial limbos—a Brueghel-like circle of children playing in an area separated from other space by radically unrelated scale. In one sequence, a terrier, sharing the same plane as the martyr, upstages her for no reason except, possibly, to prove that every dog has its day.
Barbara’s expression is not agonized (as Mantegna might have portrayed it), and her body shows only minor bruises after flagellation, burning by torches, and sledgehammering—in contrast to the realistic way, when she is suspended upside down, in which her hair hangs toward her halo. For the beheading, in a faded scene opposite the altar, the artist has imagined her in the raiment of a queen.
August 7. Venice. Long before the home stretch of the Futurism and Futurisms exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi, the visitor wonders about the techniques by which a fringe movement, more pamphlet and poster than artistic accomplishment, is presented as the vortex of early twentieth-century modernism. And soon after the first laps, slogging past a batch of Balla’s “Iridescent Compenetrations” (and in one case grumbling “Je m’en fousturism”), he begins to ask what Futurism is not. Seurat, Munch, Picasso, and Kandinsky are here, as ancestors, or like-minded contemporaries. But this is insidious. And so is the heading “Toward Futurism.” Was Seurat on a road leading to this?
The exhibition exploits claims of kinship and interaction with numerous artists of modernist tendency, many of whom have been tied in with little justification Apollinaire, for one, dismissed the Futurists as “childish”; Duchamp never locked arms with any movement for long; and as for Léger and Delaunay, the only connection was in protesting that they had any. The truth is the other way around: the Futurists fed on more artists than they nourished.
The Grassi show enforces the Futurists’ restriction against the Surrealists. But the two movements resemble each other, and nowhere more conspicuously than in their intolerances, the Futurists as antifeminist Fascists, the Surrealists as anti-queer Communists. Where they are most unlike is in the quality of their artists, the Surrealists having produced several, the Futurists no estimable ones. Chirico, inspirer of the mystery in Surrealism, and the only great Italian painter of the Futurist period, is not represented in the exhibition. So, too, Pirandello and Svevo, contemporaries of Marinetti and incomparably superior writers, are, like Chirico, as unfindable in the exhibition catalogue as Trotsky in Soviet history books. (Another unaccountable omission: any reference to the 50th anniversary reconstruction and performance of Balla’s Fireworks, originally presented by Diaghilev in 1917.)
The exhibition confines Futurist music to the visible: a Pratella manuscript, opened to a page-long and most un-Futurist B-flat major chord; an “enharmonic keyboard instrument” (as if all equal-tuning pianos were not enharmonic). Edgard Varèse, the only significant composer who used some of the same instruments as the Futurists, and who shared some of the same notions, is not mentioned.
Où sont nos amoureux?
Elles sont aux tombeaux…
A shock at San Michele: the gold cross from I.S.’s tombstone has been stolen, apparently chiseled out. But why am I so surprised? Tombs have always been prime targets for robbers, after all, and very likely the thief never heard of I.S. I will provide a replacement only if it can be protected; but on second look, a refill might not be the most desirable solution. The amount of the gold always seemed miserly in proportion to the rest of the monument. And the empty, sculpted frame makes the grave a part of the ruins of Venice, the desecration part of its and I.S.’s history.
December 4, 1986