Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Richmond and art, same as it ever was

Richmonders simply must read Don Harrison’s crisp piece, “Mr. Cabell's Richmond,” which deftly ties the revealing words of Richmond author James Branch Cabell (1879-1958) to the modern brouhaha over the performing arts center folly. It was Harrison's Weekend Without Echoes offering at SaveRichmond.

“The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds;
and the pessimist fears this is true.”

-- James Branch Cabell
from The Silver Stallion


Mosquito said...

I went over and read this piece. I'm "frustrated" he doesn't have a place for comments on his blog.

He used a word I'm unfamiliar with Octodecalogy and I couldn't find it in the dictionary. I'm sure it does NOT mean the study of high octane in Denmark..

I got his point but he sure used a lot of words and what I would call "high falutin" language to get there. It was a tad long but I get his point and I agree with him.

I guess that's why I prefer the "indie" artists that are creating their own movement sans corporate control and alleged benefits. They aren't trying to be "entertainers" or tailoring their stuff to the tastes of the elites.

Good morning R.T.....buzz buzz M

HEK said...

R.T.: So good to see Mr. Cabell (rhymes with 'rabble' as he put it) surface again to present his prescient wit against a town that, in so many fundamental ways, simply has refused to change.

I've long enjoyed Cabell's commentary even though as one critic charged that he wrote "as though English was a dead language" and his enjoyment of puns, anagrams and the deliberate use of obscure words make reading him an acquired taste of a discerning reader.

Cabell was merrily writing "perfectly of beautiful happenings" when in 1919 his "Jurgen" got itself banned by, of all things, the New York Commission for the Suppression of Vice, led by one Mr. Comstock.

The picaresque story concerns a pawnbroker, Jurgen. (And I have to wonder if Cabell didn' swipe the name of a Broad Street department store, Jurgen's, whose painted glass name is visible today, revealed due to renovations).

His wife is abducted by the Devil. Jurgen out of obligatory duty adventures to fetch her from His Dark Majesty and along the way, has numerous encounters. During his descent into the infernal regions, Jurgen discovers that Satan's demons are rather tired of ceaslessly punishing those who've come there seeking their eternal damnation. The younger demons--the neo-cons of Hades-- want to join in the final conflict with Heaven, if for nothing else, to just have it done with. Jurgen observes that "the religion of Hell is patriotism, and its government an enlightened democracy.'

In the 18 books mentioned Cabell traces the lineage of Dom Manuel the so-called Redeemer, a simple swineherd in the Medieval French duchy of Poictesme, who, rather Chauncy Gardner-like, rises to rule the land then wanders off, perhaps into the Lands Beyond Common Sense in "Figures of Earth." Due to his remarkable rise and strange disappearance he is revered as a messianic figure and his "knights" cross the world either in searchof him, or someone who has heard something of him.

In the volume, "The Silver Stallion," it is the great Coth of the Rocks, who in conversation with a droll sphinx, utters the Bartlett's-worthy an opimist is one who believes we live in the best of all possible worlds, the pessimist fears this to be true."

Toward the end of the book, Manuel's former wives and lovers approach the great monument erected to honor him, it is, as Cabell describes it, "a perjury against architecture." The structure is a tomb--but without a body to place within it. Each visitor sees something in the statue that reminds him or her of some aspect of Jurgen or his story. But it is the aged Jurgen who sees the statue for what it is: a fake honoring a fraud.

"Jurgen, thus left alone, fortwith ascended the side of the great tomb. He stood now at the top of it, holding to the neck of the horse upon which sat the sculptured effigy of Manuel. The stone face, above and looking beyond Jurgen, when seen at such close quarters, was blotched and grotesquely coarse, the blank eyeballs gave it a repellant air of crass idiocy."

It isn't the aesthetic quality that the aged pawnbroker cares so much about, but the supposed gems and precious stones that adorn the Redeemer's sculpted rainments.

"Then, without any deep surprise, Jurgen whistled. To his trained eye it was apparent enough that these gems with which Madame Niafer had prodigally adorned her husband's statue were one and all, and had been from the first, bright bits of variously colored glass...
He climbed down to the pavement afterward...cocked his grey head, looking upward with a remarkable blending of the quizzical and of the regretful. Now, seen at an appropriate distance, now Manuel of Poictesme appeared again resplendent and in everything majestic. He sat there, wary and confident and superb, it seemed, perpetually to guard the country which he had redeemed; and to which, men said, he was to return...
...No: you could never, shruggingly, dismiss this tomb as, upon the whole, a malefic fraud which emanated only folly and intolerance and a persecution of the short-sighted by the blind. That was, in fact, a relatively unimportant aspect,in that it was an aspect that need never trouble you personally, if you were careful...
Meanwhile, you knew the shining thing to have been, also, the begetter of so much charity, and of forebearance, and of bravery, and of self-denial,--and of its devotees' so strange, so troublingly inomprehensible, contentment.--that it somewhat frightened Jurgen."

Yes, people do gain strength from the inauthentic, by investing it with qualities that the person or thing never possessed. This isn't always a bad thing, Cabell is saying, but a condition of human existence: as he said elsewhere, describing Manuel's heraldic crest: "The World Wishes To Be Deceived."

Just look at the newspaper lately, or watch CNN for 10 minutes, and you tell me that Cabell-- our very own -- isn't relevant in our wired world.--HEK