On Walden Pond

I caught the Amtrak north, making the journey in the company of an earnest young English physicist from MIT, who assured me that small scale nuclear reactors are not only safe, they are the generators of the future. Your local power station, he said. One for every 20,000 homes. His doctoral thesis, however, was a study of methodologies that might be used to accomplish nuclear disarmament. It addressed issues of trust, verification and sovereignty as crucial determinants of a nation state’s desire, willingness and ability to disarm. His girlfriend, like my nephew Louis, whom I’d seen in London, worked for McKinsey & Co.; they were part of a cohort of optimistic, highly-skilled, enthusiastic young people who are, I hope, re-making our world.

Big fluffy snowflakes drifted through the air as Michael and I crossed the campus towards the building in which his office is situated. They seemed three-dimensional, fractal, like items excerpted from the Julia Set. They were very beautiful. I remarked upon them but Michael didn’t seem to think they were anything out of the ordinary: typical Boston snow. It was suffocatingly warm inside the office building, which was modern and painted in bright colours, with décor that reminded me of an ashram or some other kind of spiritual retreat. Even though Michael Jackson is an anthropologist, he was currently employed as Distinguished Professor of World Religions at the Harvard School of Divinity.

I waited downstairs while he retrieved whatever he had come to get and then we drove out to his house, on a hill to the west, in Arlington. It was the upstairs of a duplex, spacious and elegant, without curtains, and looked over a concatenation of rooves disposed among snowy patches of ground and bare winter trees. I have known Michael for a long time: he came on section, as a student teacher, to the secondary school I attended when I was thirteen. Later he sent me a poem about my father, who was Deputy Principal at Kuranui College at the time; it was written for him after he had the first of his breakdowns and attesting to a rare degree of insight into what mental illness is like.

Our friendship in later years arose because we read and liked each other’s books. A curious coincidence: Michael is from Inglewood in Taranaki, where Harold Williams, as a young Methodist minister, experienced his dark night of the soul and thereby lost his vocation. He, Michael, has said to me on more than one occasion that he has always felt he was born in the wrong place and belonged somewhere else; that his peripatetic life—Africa, Australia, Europe, America—has been, in part, a search for the place of that belonging. Though it isn’t for me to say, I do not think he thinks that Cambridge, Massachusetts is it.

His wife Francine was away, settling their daughter into her residence at the beginning of a new college term. We talked, ate dinner, and talked some more. Because we don’t see each other often—usually on Michael’s yearly trip to Sydney, where another daughter lives—we always seem to have a lot to say to one another, most of which doesn’t in fact get said. Or that is my impression. Later we watched a movie: Night Train to Lisbon, based on the 2004 novel by Pascal Mercier. A Swiss professor of languages saves a woman in a red coat from jumping off a bridge in Geneva; and then must go to Lisbon to find out who she is and why she was trying to die. I haven’t read the novel; the film is good.

When I went to bed, in the spare room, I found a copy of Nay Rather by Anne Carson on the night table and read the whole book (it isn’t very long) before going to sleep. It begins with a discussion of the word cliché, derived from a French term for a block used in printing. Indeed, the word may originate, onomatopoeically, in the clicking sound made when blocks were poly-typed—that is, impressed into a bath of molten type-metal to form a matrix. A cliché, then, is a repetition that in time may wear out its ability to register.

~ ~ ~

Next day I encountered one of the astonishments of my gallery-going life. We’d gone up to the Harvard Art Museum because Michael wanted to show me a painting he loved, Gabrielle in a Red Dress (1908) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, a portrait of his long-term companion, Gabrielle Renard, whom he painted more than two hundred times. My astonishment occurred before we found this work: it was a view, through a square high opening, on the far wall of the adjoining room, of Max Beckmann’s triptych The Actors. It was the colour: an array of green, gold, pink, orange, red and grey made incandescent by the deep ebonies against which the painter staged this particular drama. Its intensity and strangeness, its radical glow; its emanation of light, like a chromatic cloud, from that flat surface into the air about us.

I knew the work already. The year before I had tried to write an ekphrastic sequence considering in detail each of Beckmann’s nine triptychs. I gathered images of all of them, from Departure (1932-5) to The Argonauts (1949-50), but only managed to write about the first one. It was, perhaps, unnecessary. The sheer richness of the works themselves defeated me: what could words possibly add to the grandeur they already possessed? The Actors was the first of the triptychs I had seen in the flesh; and it was a revelation. I walked toward it as if towards a blazing fire.

Beckmann painted it in occupied Amsterdam during World War Two; between 1941 and 1942, in the old tobacco warehouse he used as a studio. Its central figure, in the middle panel, a self-portrait, is a king dressed in a green suit, with high red boots, wearing a golden crown and a long golden cloak; and holding a dagger to his breast so that blood spills like insignia down his front. His queen, in pink, blindfolded and with a piece of sheet music in her hand, stands before him; while behind them courtiers gather and beneath the stage, rude mechanicals contend as if brawling in a ratskeller. There is a young girl, blonde, in a blue coat and orange tights, holding a spotted cat, sitting below the blindfolded queen, with a look of surpassing sweetness on her face. You cannot see that in reproductions.

The side panels are theatrical too: a woman with a mirror before a classical bust; horn-players; a telegraph boy; two girls with flowers; a midget waving. And, in the left hand panel, some plot being hatched between a soldier, a prophet and a woman in a white headscarf; while a crouching man reads the New York Times and another figure from antiquity looms behind. There are five legs with golden bands about their ankles below the boards; they belong to divers, which is what the Dutch called Jewish people they hid from the Nazis during the war. And maybe after all this is why I wanted to write about the triptychs: each of them encodes enigmas, which may be explicable in words. Or not: in the face of visual imagery, language cannot help but approximate, reducing unspoken mysteries to the banalities of sense. Fail better? The problem is, I think, insoluble.

Oddly enough, standing before The Actors, we fell into conversation with a fellow who designed the light boxes for the Hieronymus Bosch show I had seen at the Noordbrabants. He was giving a lecture on the subject that afternoon and invited us to attend; but we had other things to do and couldn’t go. When we found the Renoir portrait I said to Michael that Gabrielle looked like Francine; and it was his turn to be astonished: such a resemblance had not occurred to him. We wandered on, past paintings by Max Ernst, Kandinsky, Matisse, Rousseau, van Gogh, Gauguin and Corot.

There were two other Beckmanns: Self Portrait in a Tuxedo (1927), in which the smoke that he’s holding in his right hand, up close, is just a stroke of white with a red dab at the end; which transforms into an image of a lighted, fuming cigarette as you move away; and a small still life, called The Fire (1945), which memorialises the freestanding circular brazier he used to keep himself warm in the tobacco warehouse during the freezing winter of 1941-2 when he painted The Actors. It has the gravitas and presence of a Russian icon.

~ ~ ~

Many years ago, in the early 1980s, when I was working at the Redfern Mail Exchange in Sydney, an older man, another employee, befriended me. He was a Russian-Chilean anarchist called Cornelius Kavanagh and I still remember some of the things he used to say to me. Of our supervisors, for example, who were sombre men in grey dust coats, unceasingly punitive towards us, he would hiss, his eyes wide with outrage: It ees as eef they come from another planet! It was. They did. And after all, they had been trained according to the protocols of the nineteenth century English prison system.

When my stint as a Christmas Casual was over Cornelius gave me a book: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, or, Life in the Woods. It is a Signet Classic, has his name written neatly on the flyleaf, and includes, in the back, some mysterious notes evidently addressed to someone he knew, a woman probably, who was in some kind of trouble. One of them reads: I hate to see you ache & to see some kind of crystallized wall in front of your eyes. And I know I have no lotions to soothe your soul but can only give you the frangi panis in my veins.

I’ve hung onto this book through the years but, although I’ve dipped into it many times, I’ve never read it cover to cover; which makes it a repository of guilt as well as the testament of a shared faith it was meant to be. So when Michael asked me if I would like to go out to see Walden Pond itself I said: Yes, of course, I would love to! I had no idea it was so close: if I thought about it at all, I imagined it to be far away in the deep woods, beyond the reach of anyone who did not have hiking boots and a tent. Some Gary Snyder-esque refuge in the back country; some remote haven where pristine nature continued its immemorial rhythms undisturbed.

It was in fact just a short drive away, outside of Concord, off the Cambridge Turnpike. We went out there in the afternoon, and again the following day, circumambulating in alternate directions on successive visits. It’s a lake rather than a pond: a kettle hole made by ice scouring out a depression in the earth as a glacier retreated. More or less round, not especially deep, with no river running into or out of it. Spring-fed, the only unpolluted lake / for miles around. People go there in summer to swim; in winter, it ices over but not in this unseasonably warm year. The path around the lake leads under pines and oaks, or else along an open shore. There were hazel nuts and acorns strewn upon the ground. I saw a wren harvesting insects from the bark of a birch tree. The air was fresh and cold, and a walk such as this could not fail to raise your spirits.

Thoreau’s cottage isn’t there anymore but a replica stands on the site where it once was, a little way up a slope above the runnels of a dry, stony water course. Open to tourists some days but not on this one. We peered in through the window at the stark interior: desk, chair, pot belly stove and cot. People bring stones, mark them with their name and leave them in cairns around the hut. I was astonished to hear, in the woods above the replica hut, the sound of a train rattling by. Michael said the railway line was here before Thoreau was. So that, while it must have been wilderness once, by the mid-nineteenth century it was not. Mind you, that doesn’t invalidate Thoreau’s enterprise, does it? Days when idleness was the most attractive and productive industry. His advocacy of the unique healing qualities of the water. His conviction that the mirror lake reflected back something ineffable in the soul of a woman or a man.

I picked up a speckled, triangular stone from among the pebbles on the shore and put it in my pocket. Walden Pond had the unexpected effect of making me feel homesick, not for my flat in Sydney, but for a lake outside of Ohakune in the King Country of New Zealand. Rotokura, like Walden Pond, is more or less circular and you may circumambulate if you wish, taking a path through beech forest around the lake. It is volcanic in origin: a crater, not a scour hole left by a glacier. No river runs into it but one runs out of it.

In his poem Midwinter at Walden Pond, Michael remembers another remote landscape, where he did fieldwork among the Warlpiri last century. In Central Australia / Those who take stones from a sacred site / Are cursed. To bring them here is to be blessed. The stone I took is sitting on my desk as I write, next to one I picked up at St Margaret’s Bay on England’s Kentish coast, not far from the white cliffs of Dover, on a walking excursion with my cousin Rod, who lives in Deal. And another speckled one, which a friend found on Cradle Mountain in Tasmania and gave to me. I do not believe that I am cursed.

~ ~ ~

I woke in the night and saw a sickle moon shining golden in the cold sky through the uncurtained windows of my room. My mobile phone rang: it was my son Jesse, calling from Melbourne, to see how I was going. He did not realise, or had forgotten, how far away I was in time and space. Next morning Michael drove me into town and dropped me off at Harvard Square, where I caught the Red Line to Boston South; then the Amtrak to Penn Station in New York.

The endless ruin of industrial America, where every act of consumption is also one of destruction, where waste is ubiquitous and unrestrained, passed by outside the window. After we arrived in The Bronx, while the railway line still ran above ground, I saw a Circus Train backed up on a siding, with the joint Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey logo emblazoned on the rolling stock. The Greatest Show on Earth, it said and then we plunged down into the darkness of the Manhattan underground.

I took the LIRR (Long Island Rail Road) train to Babylon, stopping at Jamaica along the way. And then the Airtrain, which was driverless, a robot, to JFK Airport. My Qantas flight to Los Angeles was delayed so I sat in a café in Terminal Seven, where the wait staff were all dressed in black, like cops, and the chefs all in white, reading a manuscript Michael had given me. It was called The Work of Art: Rethinking the Elementary Forms of Religious Life, and has since been published by Columbia University Press. The publishers wanted an encomium from me; but rather than quoting what I gave them, here instead is Michael:

In writing about art, I have drawn inspiration from my family history as well as from my ethnographic fieldwork in West Africa and Central Australia, focusing not on art as an expression of individual genius or as an aesthetic, but on the work of art, where ‘work’ is to be read as a verb rather than a noun and understood as a technê for making life more meaningful, enjoyable, and manageable. Art opens up an artificial—one might say a ritual or utopian—space for getting around or beyond the mundane difficulties that beset us and the tragedies that befall us. Crucial to this point of view is the pragmatist assumption that art (ars) and technê are intimately linked, and that the work of art is a matter of making, acting, and doing before it is a form of knowledge, an object of contemplation, or a thing of beauty. The same might be said of religion.

It was a shock to hear the broad flat nasal tones of the Qantas pilot welcoming us aboard. In the middle of the night, in Los Angeles, we had to change planes. There was an eclipse of the moon as we crossed the Pacific Ocean but, having taken a sleeping pill, I was not awake to see it. I do not remember what, if any, movies I watched. After the soft grey monochromes of those northern cities, their muted, glowing reds and golds, the bare antipodean morning light outside the terminal in Sydney was so bright it hurt my eyes. The colours barbarous in their intensity, the birds raucous in the trees. Azure sky above. The pleasant air of the south / all about me / like a promise of freedom / honoured.

Images: Max Beckmann, The Actors, 1942; Thoreau’s Cove, Walden Pond, 1905

2 Comments

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2 responses to “On Walden Pond

  1. Anonymous

    Three of my favourite things – Beckmann, Thoreau and circumambulation – in one essay. How do you do it? I shall return. And a small footnote: Gerard told me once, he rang you while you were circumambulating Walden Pond – a slightly surreal moment? It was for him, anyway. I shall communicate at greater length on e-mail. Regards and cheers, Stephen Smithyman

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