Monday, December 31, 2018
I wish all of my readers a Happy and Prosperous New Year!
2018 was a trying year for me and much more of an ordeal for legions of people around the world.
I expect 2019 will be another difficult year.
Here is a poem posted by my friend Jason Chappell today;
Imagine the Angels of Bread
This is the year that squatters evict landlords,
gazing like admirals from the rail
of the roofdeck
or levitating hands in praise
of steam in the shower;
this is the year
that shawled refugees deport judges
who stare at the floor
and their swollen feet
as files are stamped
with their destination;
this is the year that police revolvers,
stove-hot, blister the fingers
of raging cops,
and nightsticks splinter
in their palms;
this is the year that darkskinned men
lynched a century ago
return to sip coffee quietly
with the apologizing descendants
of their executioners.
This is the year that those
who swim the border’s undertow
and shiver in boxcars
are greeted with trumpets and drums
at the first railroad crossing
on the other side?
this is the year that the hands
pulling tomatoes from the vine
uproot the deed to the earth that sprouts the vine,
the hands canning tomatoes
are named in the will
that owns the bedlam of the cannery?
this is the year that the eyes
stinging from the poison that purifies toilets
awaken at last to the sight
of a rooster-loud hillside,
pilgrimage of immigrant birth?
this is the year that cockroaches
become extinct, that no doctor
finds a roach embedded
in the ear of an infant?
this is the year that the food stamps
of adolescent mothers
are auctioned like gold doubloons,
and no coin is given to buy machetes
for the next bouquet of severed heads
in coffee plantation country.
If the abolition of slave-manacles
began as a vision of hands without manacles,
then this is the year?
if the shutdown of extermination camps
began as imagination of a land
without barbed wire or the crematorium,
then this is the year?
if every rebellion begins with the idea
that conquerors on horseback
are not many-legged gods, that they too drown
if plunged in the river,
then this is the year.
So may every humiliated mouth,
teeth like desecrated headstones,
fill with the angels of bread.
-Martin Espada, 1996
Posted by Counterlight at Monday, December 31, 2018
Sunday, December 23, 2018
Christmas in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn
"From this high midtown hall, undecked with boughs, unfortified with mistletoe, we send forth our tinselled greetings as of old, to friends, to readers, to strangers of many conditions in many places. Merry Christmas to uncertified accountants, to tellers who have made a mistake in addition, to girls who have made a mistake in judgment, to grounded airline passengers, and to all those who can't eat clams! We greet with particular warmth people who wake and smell smoke. To captains of river boats on snowy mornings we send an answering toot at this holiday time. Merry Christmas to intellectuals and other despised minorities! Merry Christmas to the musicians of Muzak and men whose shoes don't fit! Greetings of the season to unemployed actors and the blacklisted everywhere who suffer for sins uncommitted; a holly thorn in the thumb of compilers of lists! Greetings to wives who can't find their glasses and to poets who can't find their rhymes! Merry Christmas to the unloved, the misunderstood, the overweight. Joy to the authors of books whose titles begin with the word "How" (as though they knew!). Greetings to people with a ringing in their ears; greetings to growers of gourds, to shearers of sheep, and to makers of change in the lonely underground booths! Merry Christmas to old men asleep in libraries! Merry Christmas to people who can't stay in the same room with a cat! We greet, too, the boarders in boarding houses on 25 December, the duennas in Central Park in fair weather and foul, and young lovers who got nothing in the mail. Merry Christmas to people who plant trees in city streets; merry Christmas to people who save prairie chickens from extinction! Greetings of a purely mechanical sort to machines that think--plus a sprig of artificial holly. Joyous Yule to Cadillac owners whose conduct is unworthy of their car! Merry Christmas to the defeated, the forgotten, the inept; joy to all dandiprats and bunglers! We send, most particularly and most hopefully, our greetings and our prayers to soldiers and guardsmen on land and sea and in the air--the young men doing the hardest things at the hardest time of life. To all such, Merry Christmas, blessings, and good luck! We greet the Secretaries-designate, the President-elect; Merry Christmas to our new leaders, peace on earth, good will, and good management! Merry Christmas to couples unhappy in doorways! Merry Christmas to all who think they are in love but aren't sure! Greetings to people waiting for trains that will take them in the wrong direction, to people doing up a bundle and the string is too short, to children with sleds and no snow! We greet ministers who can't think of a moral, gagmen who can't think of a joke. Greetings, too, to the inhabitants of other planets; see you soon! And last, we greet all skaters on small natural ponds at the edge of woods toward the end of afternoon. Merry Christmas, skaters! Ring, steel! Grow red, sky! Die down, wind! Merry Christmas to all and to all a good morrow!"
--E.B. White, 12/20/52
Posted by Counterlight at Sunday, December 23, 2018
Thursday, December 20, 2018
The conventional view these days sees the world as an arena of struggle for power, that life is about domination and submission, that language is a weapon, and all other aspects of life are weaponized. This concept appears to be shared across the spectrum.
The left accepts this view of the world with a prosecutorial zeal. The world is divided between aggressors and victims; predation and defense against it is the law of life. The world is a battleground strewn with innocent casualties. Wrongs must be righted and justice done; and indeed they must. By what authority we are obliged to do so remains obscure. Religion marginalized itself by its rejection of modernity and the hypocrisy of its practices. Jacques Derrida among others demolished the philosophical foundations of secular liberal humanitarianism quite thoroughly. So, what is left other than personal instinctive sympathy? Ta-nehisi Coates writing from very painful personal experience comments on this prevailing order of the world with anguished despair. He suggests that we are doomed to live in a world shaped by struggles for power that are never fair and always rigged whether we like it or not.
The right positively embraces this concept of the world as an endless battle for power with a determination to win. They want to dominate, and to force all the rest of the world to submit. Derrida is among Steve Bannon’s favorite philosophers precisely because he demolished the foundations of liberalism; a liberalism that Derrida himself continued to practice despite his own philosophical claims. Bannon and his fellow ethno-nationalists/racists proclaim the most radical of all modern politics. They reject all the Enlightenment ideas that form the foundation of the modern constitutional state; the law as social contract, the supremacy of law, human dignity, equality, democracy, education, internationalism in trade and treaties. What matters to them is national/racial identity and loyalty above all else. The only true peace is through victory and domination. Bannon professes to be a devout Catholic. I wonder if what appeals to him is Catholic Christianity; or if like another of his favorite thinkers Charles Maurras, he’s more interested in the Catholic Church’s authoritarianism.
I am the worst kind of religious believer; one who is loyal not because I am convinced that any of this obscure mishegoss is in any way literally true, but because I wish to. I want it to be true. That pleases neither the orthodox nor the anticlerical. But that is the best that I can do. What keeps me in the Christian faith is its radicalism. It is not a radical worship of identity and power, but a radical hopefulness that takes that whole idea of life as “who may” versus “who must” and throws it out the window. Christianity at its worst is an imperial religion; another identity, another nation – Christendom -- determined to dominate all others. Christ challenged all concepts of identity, power, and domination by which we always find our way through the world. No more nationalism. No more compulsion. Instead, a universal human family, each member a unique unrepeatable image of God. What could be a more radical rejection of the whole formula of power versus powerlessness than God arriving on earth not in some glorious theophany making everything right with the sweep of his irresistibly powerful hand, but as a helpless infant; and more, as a bastard child born to poor migrants forced to travel by some edict from a distant imperial capital. God wants to win the one thing from us that he cannot command, our love.
Luca della Robbia, one of the "Bambini" from the facade of the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence from the 15th century. The "'Spedale" was an orphanage and the world's first hospital exclusively for the care of children. The institution still exists, though no longer in this building. The original building designed by Filippo Brunelleschi now houses a museum and offices of UNICEF, The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund.
Posted by Counterlight at Thursday, December 20, 2018
Thursday, December 6, 2018
During this period of national mourning, I remember Charles Bewick. He was a native of England, from Kingswood in Surrey. He was from an affluent background, what he called "the gin and jaguars set." He knew personally a lot of musicians and dancers including Michael Tilson Thomas, Lynn Fonteyn, and Rudolf Nureyev. He told remarkable stories about some very wild parties he attended with all those folks both famous and not so famous. I remember one story he told about a party where 6 people shared a bed and passed champagne bottles across the bed. The bottles each ended up empty by the time they got to the other side. All six were very drunk, but had presence of mind to suddenly realize that they had to go to a wedding at St. Martin in the Fields by a certain hour. Among the revelers in the bed were the bride and groom. They were all so drunk they could barely stand, and yet they made it to their wedding on time. At the time, Charles was a young City stock broker who made and fortune and lost a fortune, as he described it.
Very unexpectedly, Charles became an Anglican priest. He was very close to his father, but his father tried to talk him out of it. Charles persisted and he did his first tour of duty as a priest among auto-manufacturing factory workers living among them and taking a job at the plant. While serving as a priest on the staff of Southwark Cathedral in London, Michael Marshall the Bishop of Woolwich hired Charles to be a chaplain. In 1983, Charles accompanied the bishop to Saint Louis, MO in the USA to found The Anglican Institute at the Church of St. Michael and St. George. While there, Charles became seriously ill and was diagnosed with AIDS. Bishop Marshall immediately fired him and tried to have him defrocked (only the intervention of William Jones the local Episcopal bishop in St. Louis prevented Bishop Marshall from defrocking Charles) Charles Bewick found himself seriously ill, unemployed, and marooned in the USA. Trinity Episcopal Church in St. Louis hired him as an assisting priest where he lived out the rest of his days.
Charles was a founder and served on the board of directors of Doorways, an interfaith organization that provided housing for AIDS sufferers facing eviction in St. Louis. Most of them were people of color. Charles faced down very hostile racist landlords in order to find housing for AIDS victims at the height of the panic and hysteria over the disease. He found himself often a target of verbal abuse and threats of violence, but calmly persisted in his work. Landlords and hostile neighbors described his clients with the N word and the F word, and frequently addressed Charles as the "N word loving F word" and ended their rants with something like "... and you call yourself a priest!" Charles would usually let them rant on and on, and when they were finished or exhausted, he would calmly continue with "this is what we are looking for and this is what we are willing to pay, do you have anything available?" Sometimes they would storm out of the room, but greed plus the expense of maintaining vacant units would usually overcome their bigotry.
Charles died of AIDS in 1989 at age 42. On his deathbed, he forgave a very penitent Bishop Marshall, and asked him to preside at his funeral, which he did.
I was very privileged to know Charles in the last years of his life. He now rests in peace with the saints in light.
Posted by Counterlight at Thursday, December 06, 2018
Sunday, December 2, 2018
Flowers by Henri Fantin-Latour
Former President George Herbert Walker Bush died yesterday at the age of 94.
I remember today a whole lot of people who didn't live to be 94. Over 507,000 people died of AIDS in the USA between 1987 and 2015; over half a million people, more than the entire population of Kansas City, MO.
Most of those people never lived to see 50. A lot didn't live to see 30.
Posted by Counterlight at Sunday, December 02, 2018
Friday, November 30, 2018
Painting by Mark Rothko
We all will die, and so will everything else; even the space that contains us. Everything we have down to our own bodies is ultimately on loan and will be paid back. Like most other gay men of my generation, I’ve seen too many people die before their time. Life is short and uncertain, and the absurd and the arbitrary happen. We never know how much time we have left, so how we spend it matters. The people we love and who love us are not forever and should be enjoyed, cared for, and cherished now.
I have no idea if there really is anything beyond the horizon of death. The afterlife may all be a big nothing. Much of the ancient world thought so. Hades, Sheol, and Abzu are all places of shadows where all the dead go regardless of virtue or wickedness; all exist in eternal darkness cut off from the living and the gods. These places seem to me not very far removed from the state of oblivion. They may be simply poetic metaphors for extinction. The Egyptians with their elaborate afterlife were the exception, not the rule in the ancient world. If the afterlife is all a big nothing, then there won’t be any conscious entity left to know it, or to regret it. Still, I treasure the hope that extinction is not our ultimate destiny.
Even so, as a friend of mine said, “It doesn’t matter if you believe in God or not; you don’t want to lie on your death bed knowing you’re an asshole.” Somehow in some way we are accountable for our lives and how we spend them. God’s mercy is infinite, and his justice is perfect.
If there is a Heaven, then I don’t believe that anyone pulls themselves up by their own bootstraps to get in it. Heaven is the free gift of God to all of us. No one earns their way into it. No one “deserves” to go to heaven or is “worthy” of it. It’s not an apotheosis. We’re not heroes winning admission to Olympus and immortality. I’ve never believed golden harps and clouds. I don’t believe in any celestial brothel as some believe. I don’t believe in any warriors’ Valhalla either. I don’t believe in anything like that changeless realm of disembodied light that Dante described. I believe that if there is a Heaven, then it is a place where we will indeed live again; live in every sense of that word. If we go there, we go there because God wants us to be there, not because we earned it or won the lottery. Heaven is like the return of the Prodigal; no matter what reason or where or for how long we wandered, Our Parents are always there waiting and are so happy that we’ve come back. Heaven is like the Wedding at Cana; joy like the best wine anyone has ever tasted, and more of it than all the guests can possibly drink. Heaven is the Bosom of Abraham where everyone belongs and is welcome. In Heaven, no one is lonely and no one is without. As Mahalia Jackson described Heaven “It’s always ‘Howdy! Howdy!’ and never ‘good bye.’”
Posted by Counterlight at Friday, November 30, 2018
Sunday, November 11, 2018
The First World War ended a century ago today.
I wrote a post about The Great War four years ago for the centennial of its beginning.
Posted by Counterlight at Sunday, November 11, 2018
Sunday, November 4, 2018
The color blue begins with the sky. The nitrogen and oxygen that make up much of the atmosphere absorb the long light waves of red and scatter and reflect back the short light waves of blue. We live at the bottom of a sea of blue air. Sunlight that comes through that air at mid day is very cool and bluish in color.
At sunrise and sunset, sunlight passes over the surface of the earth at a tangent and through much more atmosphere. The air does the opposite at this time of day absorbing the short light waves of blue and reflecting back the long waves of red.
The same effect is true of water, especially over tropical seas.
The combination of air and water make ours a blue world.
And yet, blue remains an exceptional color in the natural world of life and minerals. Warm colors of reds, browns, umbers, and ochers dominate the colors of the land. The colors of life are primarily greens, reds, and browns.
The Egyptians made the first synthetic color, a blue that the Romans later called Egyptian Blue. The ingredients were simple, but the process of making it was demanding and difficult. The Egyptians used chalk or limestone together with a blue mineral such as malachite or azurite, and sand. These were melted together at very high temperatures. Not only temperature, but the amount of oxygen used in the firing determined the resulting color from deep dark ultramarine blues to bright almost greenish turquoise colors. Making this pigment required great skill.
The Egyptians loved blue associating it with the sky and the waters of the Nile.
For many centuries, ultramarine blue was the most expensive and sought after pigment in the world. Throughout much of history, artists made ultramarine blue out of lapis lazuli mined from Sar-e-Sang in the Hindu Kush mountains in what is now Afghanistan near the famous Buddhist site of Bamiyan along the Silk Road. Merchants transported lapis on the backs of camels and donkeys along the silk road to sea ports in Syria. From there, ships carried the mineral to Venice. Ultramarine blue made from this lapis lazuli came from over ("ultra-") the sea ("-marine).
Not only was ultramarine blue made from very costly lapis lazuli imported from Central Asia, but it was extremely difficult to make. Lapis lazuli contains numerous mineral impurities from calcite to pyrite. Grinding up lapis lazuli makes a disappointing grey. Cenino Cennini in his famous 14th century artists' handbook describes a lengthy process of refinement involving mixing wax, linseed oil, and mastic into the powder, soaking it in an alkaline lye solution, and pressing it repeatedly to extract the bright blue lazulite from the matrix of mineral impurities.
The material and the process were so expensive and demanding that artists required an initial down payment from patrons in order to afford the pigment.
Enrico Scrovegni, among the richest bankers in Europe in the early 14th century, contracted the artist Giotto to make liberal use of extremely expensive ultramarine blue in the Arena Chapel in Padua. Giotto used gallons of it, applied a secco, over dry plaster so that it would not chemically react with wet plaster. Banker that he was, Enrico Scrovegni wanted to impress God and the neighbors with how much money he could afford to set on fire for this project.
By the 19th century, industrialism created new and brilliant colors that could be sold cheaply. In 1824, a French industrial society put out an award of 6000 francs for the first person to come up with a cheap synthetic way of producing ultramarine blue. In 1828, two people claimed the prize, a German chemist Gmelin who claimed to have invented a synthetic process earlier, and French chemist Jean Baptiste Guimet. Guimet walked away with the prize money and the patent rights to a process of extracting the color from coal tar. Not only was the new ultramarine blue cheap to make in large quantities, but it was more uniform in quality than the old ultramarine made from lapis lazuli.
Some artists were not impressed. They argued that the new industrial synthetic lacked the depth of the old blue precisely because it was so uniform. The new synthetic color became known as French ultramarine blue to distinguish it from the older "true" ultramarine blue.
I've never tried to make the pigment, but I did try once to make my own ultramarine blue oil paint from powdered pigment. The pigment that I bought was definitely the "French" kind and reeked of coal tar. I ground the pigment as fine as I could, mixed it with linseed oil, and put it in a paint tube. The paint dried out in the tube within an hour. Ultramarine blue remains a frustrating pigment to mix for one's self. I just buy tubes of it at the art supply store now, and thank God that I live in the 21st century.
The search for a good ultramarine blue continued into the 20th century. The artist Yves Klein became obsessed with the color. Like many artists, Klein noticed that the dry blue pigment lost its original intensity when it was mixed with linseed oil and other ingredients to make it into paint. He collaborated with Edouard Adam, an art supplier to find a suitable medium that would not diminish the brilliance of the original pigment. In 1960, Klein patented what he called International Klein Blue (IKB). Above is a painting by Klein made with the new blue, L'accord bleu from 1960.
The Blue of the Virgin Mary
As early as the 12th century, the Church hierarchy decreed that the color associated with the Virgin Mary would be the color of Heaven, blue; and not just any blue, but the purest and most expensive of blues, ultramarine. The growing and burgeoning cult of the Virgin Mary created a lasting demand for her image.
In the beginning, a light safe and chemically stable ultramarine blue pigment remained elusive to Western panel painters working in egg tempera on gessoed panels. Over time, the colors in panels from the 13th and early 14th centuries frequently decayed into a greenish black as in the example above; an otherwise very fine late 13th century painting by the Badi a Isola Master.
I'm not a fan of Guido's work, but the brilliant luscious colors are hard to resist.
Cobalt blue made from an oxide of cobalt has been used for centuries to color ceramics and glass first in China, and then in the West as early as the 12th century.
Cobalt blue the artist's pigment appeared in 1802 - 1807 in France, created as an alumina based pigment by Louis Jacques Thenard.
Iznik ware tiles from the Rustem Pasha Mosque, Istanbul, 16th century
Iznik tile work from the Mehmet Sokollu Mosque, Istanbul, 16th century
The South Rose Window, Chartres Cathedral, 13th century
The Berlin paint manufacturer Johann Jacob Diesbach made Prussian Blue, the first modern synthetic pigment by accident around 1704 to 1706. He tried to make his signature brilliant lake red when something went wrong with the mixture that turned first pink, then violet, and then a deep dark blue. Diesbach suspected his materials supplier, a chemist and pharmacist named Johann Konrad Dippel sold him some adulterated potash. It turned out that the potash contained animal oil that transformed what was supposed to be a brilliant scarlet into ferrocyanide, or Prussian blue.
Dippel began making and selling the color as a cheap substitute for ultramarine blue that had no green in it unlike smalt, azurite, and other inexpensive blues of the time, and had great tinting strength to stand up to being mixed with other colors.
The most notable use of Prussian blue was not in oil paint, but in colored inks by the great Ukiyo-e print makers of the early 19th century, in particular Hokusai and Hiroshige who made the color famous.
Stable light fast blue colors were very scarce in Japan, so these print makers turned to imported Prussian blue inks from the West.
The Swiss chemist Albrecht Höpfner first made Cerulean blue pigment in 1789, but it did not become widely available to artists as oil paint until the 1870s.
The French call the color bleu celeste, in English it is sometimes known as "sky blue."
Claude Monet was among the first artists to take advantage of the new broad range of inexpensive brilliant colors created by industrialism. Cerulean blue forms the basis for the brilliant light filled skies in his paintings.
Claude Monet, The Four Trees (Poplars by the Canal, Evening Effect), 1891
He used those brilliant colors to make paintings based on the optical science of the day. He created a new palette of bright colors based on the spectrum as first described by Newton.
Cerulean is the "heavenly" blue. It colors the houses of Brahmans in the city of Rajasthan in India.
The flag of the United Nations adopted in December, 1946. The architect Donal McLaughlin of New York designed the symbol, a projection of the entire earth from the north pole showing all of the continents. The committee responsible for designing the flag chose cerulean blue for the color, a blue that was as far away as possible from the brilliant red so favored by the ideological tyrants of the Second World War. Cerulean is the color of the same sky seen by all of humankind.
Posted by Counterlight at Sunday, November 04, 2018