Monday, October 23, 2006

Fort Kahn

The Yale University Art Gallery has been undergoing renovation for years, and a banner that hung across the building this summer affirmed the necessity of the project (and ennobled the tardiness of its completion) with a quotation from the Gallery’s architect, Louis Kahn: Every time a student walks past a really urgent, expressive piece of architecture that belongs to his college, it can help reassure him that he does have that mind, does have that soul.

This weekend was Parents’ Weekend, a carnival vision of class mobility, in several senses (one of which nearly killed us as a coed steered her black Lexus SUV across our lane toward an open parking spot), and a suitable occasion for reflection on a subject broached by Kahn’s slogan: the conditions and scope of ownership of whatever cast of mind or soul is insured by official participation in a high-value educational brand, and the need to review and (especially) display the evidence of that participation. Some, the truest bearers of the soul-shape, walked the campus with the sort of pained and twisted hang of face that takes years of willful indifference and restraint to learn in that deep-muscular, even dermatological way that signifies serious quality, the stony, gray immobility of eyes bred not to respond to basic mammalian red flags. Some unself-conscious, lucky interlopers showed pride, awe, gratitude, and other human emotions appropriate to their child or grandchild’s attendance at a highly exclusive and by many measures objectively really good school, but such bumpkins were few; mutual class suspicion was the prevailing attitude among visiting parents. Moms especially—ladies checked out each other’s handbags with a fierceness unmatched by sneaker-peepers on the L-train.

As Hilary and I toured the Sterling Memorial Library with her parents, it occurred to me that the most “expressive” aspects of the architecture of Yale—those features most reflective of the activity of the mind—were not determined top-down by the high-concept architects who drafted out the shapes of things, but by the craftsmen who filled them with life: the vinework carved into the oaken doors, the little odd-angled castles and dwarfish men who pop out over doorways, the interlocking mahogany quatrefoils of impossibly high, arched ceilings. Kahn is interested in how the mind can meet itself in the world; I would argue that the hard, precise geometry enforced by modernist architecture—the stuff that an architect can really tightly control—is less suited to the natural tendencies/aspirations/images/movements of the soul than the ornaments shaped by nameless artisans whose architect-bosses allowed them, if not freedom of thought, freedom of gesture—the freedom of the eye and hand to follow an internal rule. One could argue that the soul the school’s more modernist architecture aims to reflect is itself determined to dominate, negate, and exclude, but I would rather believe that the truest students, anywhere, are those who would see themselves in, for example, the statue-figures carved into stone columns in one of the Sterling Library’s corridors: squashed, doughy-faced, Breugelesque men, each of whom personifies a different scholarly type: a sound-archivist laboring under the weight of his recording equipment; an obsessive collector of literary arcana breaking his brain over the mysterious “U. R. A.” in the text “U. R. A. JOKE”; a desperate reader gripping an open book as the Grim Reaper gently fingers his shoulder, the reader just glimpsing the crudely hewn Owl of Minerva perched at the edge of his vision.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Where I've been

July 12

Tonight I’ve been reading on the bed, golden orange ocean layers, rain mist glowing in; tea and chocolate. The reading has been successful: the sentences were improbable, lucky events in the universe, singularities, wellings-up into a present, the crests of a rush of time; more than that: owl-glassing to other headfuls of reading, the mind-space of other books visible down the big glasses, skimming like film unreeling down the side-caverns of looking: these glances seem to catch the infinite, the death desire of the hop between worlds, a pleasure promise fulfilled and felt but outside of knowing; nameless happiness; a reach of mind to which everything is present, every soul knowable in slow, private silence. There is, too, the gesture of will’s internalizing the means of this pleasure, shaping the props that support the visions, reasoning, forming the triggers, creating the conditions for lucky accidents: a room of one’s own, mine preferably open, rest, jobs done, no plans, reliable privacy, tea, book, paper and pen, no thematized readiness or strict course of action, just being somehow already guided. And where it goes: this self-space arena of wall imagery bending, motion spreads of pink and white Korean letters on bounded nightscapes unfolding, letter chains dealphabetizing in radiophonic scatter plots, fine mesh dotscapes of simple sound, where friends really meet friends, faceless, the mind knowing itself in action, visible in the color-banded trace trail of its movement.

July 17

I am thinking about the purity of the lucky accident unamplified, allowed to burst brightly and die, a luminous moment of connection left alone, not used or applied or extended or transferred; unrepresented, unresearched, unexcavated; grasped once in inarticulate fullness and never again approached in confused half measures, never wrongly remembered in insatiable desire, never pictured as an emissary from some greater kingdom, never discounted in future desperate flashing groping for the most distant evidence, the barest mention or crudest mock-up in decaying matter; you never have to mention it to people who wouldn’t understand, or to someone who would too enthusiastically assent; no merchandise bears its mark; there is no repetition of its circumstances. A whole science of human behavior could study the desperation of recall, all the false incantations, all the rituals drained dry, the objects of their prayer never again to come to presence, all the collectors of scraps, the hoarders hoping their fragments might be made whole in some future constellation shining out of the trash; all the dream visions from one’s past, every uncomprehending fantasy of absorption, every failure to grasp the thing whole, every object that radiated some inaccessible world, every walled-off source of knowledge, every picture of meaning and presence elsewhere, every gesture of faith in coherence, sun-shaped sense; the crass worship of the artifacts of this trust, the discarded outer forms of the thing that flees; the sadness of being older and trying to pull the same trigger, trying to make real the object of some impossible fantasy (actually falling asleep now