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Quintessence ~ the essence of a thing in its purest and most concentrated form. Substance composing the celestial bodies.
The shoes that climbed Gonergrat, Switzerland
July 30, 2014
Prow of a Viking Ship, Norway
by Mary Oliver
"Six a.m. -
the small, pond turtle
lifts its head
into the air
like a green toe.
What it sees
is the whole world
swirling back from darkness:
a red sun
rising over the water,
over the pines,
and the wind lifting,
and the water-striders heading out,
and the white lilies
opening their happy bodies.
doesn't have a word for any of it -
the silky water
or the enormous blue morning,
or the curious affair of his own body.
On the shore
I'm so busy
scribbling and crossing out
I almost miss seeing him
through the wet, black forest.
More and more the moments come to me:
how much can the right word do?
Now a few of the lilies
are a faint flamingo inside
their white hearts,
and there is still time
to let the last roses of the sunrise
into my uplifted eyes."
I have been looking through old journals lately. On a mission to muck out my files, sort through my book shelves. Determined to pluck out unwanted books and notes, scribbles of ideas that never sparked any real writing... A surprising thing struck me in rereading a period of journals from around 1998-2001 - the mixture of notes, fragments of creative idea, the pen and pencil sketches. I was taken aback by the staleness of writing out of its own present context. The implacable boundaries time places on meaning. As Mary Oliver writes, "how much can the right word do?"
Instead I was drawn to the sketches I had made in the margins of my journals. Drawings of strangers in coffee shops, interesting hands, a peculiar face in a workshop. Some drawings were profiles, for example there were several of my daughter's cello teacher, and his centuries-old cello; all of them dashed off in ink on college-rule paper during a lesson. These sketches triggered a kind of memory muscle for me. Looking at a cello sketch, I remember sitting uncomfortably on the low sofa, the confines of the tiny practice room, the dim light from the drawn venetian blinds, the rustle of sheet music on the music stand, even the curious plastic wrap this old Jewish Russian refugee, who had once played in Leningrad with Rostropovich, had layered around the neck of his beautiful instrument to protect the wood from the sweat of his hands and forearms.
There was no "right word" I had used in my notebook to describe these scenes or events; instead I had made a drawing imbued with shape, mood, unusual detail. I was seeing
the thing or person before me, and seeing completely; translating everything imperfectly but somehow accurate to its essence. All too often as writers we glance, and then look away to think. Looking for le mot juste
, the perfect word; and in doing so, step away from the experience, and perhaps abandon our own innate presence in the moment.
Mary Oliver's turtle sees the morning rise around him, registers the universe with simple awareness. The poet knows her thoughts about this exchange are somehow stealing her from her own experience. She notes this distance, this distraction, and returns her thoughts to observing, to awareness without translation. A meditation on essence not story.
As I work my way through these old writings, I find myself keeping the pages with sketches and half-lines of poems; the penciled scenes from travels with my husband and children. All of us were keepers of travel notebooks then. We stayed in place; taking all the generous, unhurried time required to sketch something of what we saw. I was reminded of this pleasure on a recent trip to Scandinavia. There was a gentleman with our group, a painting conservator from a major museum, who did not dash off frenzied smartphone shots of ancient ruins and excavated pottery. He stepped aside as we hiked, opened his sketch book and freehanded a perspective, employing a few strong lines and shading to capture the heart of the object, the mood of the light. And then he moved on. His notebook of sketches a sensual, visual encounter with objects of mystery: the passage of time expressed in fallen stones, abandoned boats on the sand, whalebone, a rune obscured by moss. Looking over his shoulder I remembered my own experience of each of these places and objects. Our careless camera pictures offered neatly neutral two-dimensional replicas; these thoughtful sketches were experiences.
My first husband Ken, who was a black and white photographer, used to say that the reason a photographer lifts a camera is not in order to preserve what he sees, or to interpret the object his lens is focused on. The photographer photographs to see.
The photographer does not step outside the experience to think through how to describe it; he steps into it and lets it speak for itself. The photographer encounters the material world as it is
, shaped only by his own aesthetic, the light, and perhaps the accidental intrusion of the equipment or the development environment. There are zero expectations, only unexpressed truths. Through the lens, camera steady in his hand, the photographer addresses those elements he knows to be frank, honest. Only later in the darkroom, in its chemical bath, does the image knit itself whole. And so I think it is that these sketch notebooks carry more meaning for me than just my written notes. I am not stepping away from the experience to more meaningfully capture it in sentences and story; I am stepping into it to imprint what is there on paper, as it is.
But like our poet, who has made a poem of her observations on the failures of observation and still managed to convey what essence is lost in translation, the notebooks I will keep will most definitely offer stories. Creative writing may be impressionist, subjective, symbolic, abstract - all these things. Narratives knotted together by insight and imagination. But first comes simply being present.
July 24, 2014
Cottage, Faroe Islands, North Sea.
by Billy Collins
You are turning me
like someone turning a globe in her hand,
and yes, I have another side
like a China no one,
not even me, has ever seen.
So describe to me what's there,
say what you are looking at
and I will close my eyes
so I can see it too,
the oxcarts and all the lively flags.
I love the sound of your voice
like a little saxophone
telling me what I could never know
unless I dug a hole all the way down
through the core of my self.
Why do we read poetry? Because a poem tells us something about ourselves or the world that we sense to be true but have not found or known to express. A poem is a gift of language. Someone hands us a poem to read, and as the words settle into our brains and senses, the poetry transforms our understanding. New language. Language that carries the odors and tastes of tinny regret, shining cities, old earth, briny sea, hot love, or wet winds. Poetry gives us a way to speak about the world beyond the limitations of our native tongue.
This small poem ORIENT by Billy Collins is both a nugget of insight and a love note. I appreciate the way Billy Collins spins the word "orient" in his poem, a double entendre. He speaks of mysterious Asia, from where he stands a distant land, and yet the meaning delves inward, invoking the distances traveled toward deeper self-knowledge, "down through the core of my self." This poem offers an appreciation of the other
- for that fresh truth, that unknown knowledge of the self found in the eyes of our familiars. His friend, lover perhaps, turns him like "a globe in her hand," examining the hidden side, the shadowed side. Digging straight through to China as we used to say as kids, hand-shovels churning the beach in search of treasure.
All too frequently we undervalue what we cannot see, dismiss aspects of ourselves reflected in the observations of others. And we sometimes undervalue those who know us this well; those who see us intimately, honestly. We possess strange mysteries within us, as Collins imagines - foreign lands, stranger times, exotic ways. Those who love us know these secret festivals. Those who love us best celebrate our mystery, "telling me what I could never know." For it will always and forever be true that each of us sees the world and our selves from inside
the room, looking out on what is not us
, while our beloved "other" observes us from beyond those limits, watches us from the street, peeking in our windows. We are voyeurs to one another always, and this is both why and how we love. We color in our private invisible and faraway lands from the brightly-colored postcards and humorous travel notes our lovers post on their journeys beside us, hearing ourselves in their words, "voice like a little saxophone."
It's a good day to tell someone you are close to, Thank you for the way you see me. And maybe an opportunity to send a postcard of marvels
of your own.
July 16, 2014
Published sixty-two years ago today, July 16, 1951, J.D. Salinger penned a novel about a rebellious teenage boy dismissed from prep school, drifting through Manhattan. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE is today a 20th-century classic, a story that has been translated into nearly every major languages. As a personal fan of Salinger, and to celebrate the 52nd anniversary of "The Catcher in the Rye," I offer a small tribute with a few of my favorite "Catcher" quotes.
"What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though."
- Holden Caulfield reflecting on his favorite authors, among them Isak Dinesen and Thomas Hardy. Interesting, in that as an author, Salinger was a famous recluse.
"Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it's a game, all right – I'll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren't any hot-shots, then what's a game about it? Nothing. No game."
– Holden's response to his headmaster's remark, "life is a game." A telling glimpse of the raw, blunt yet witty rebelliousness Holden displays to the given "rules of life." Young readers readily connect with the novel's undercurrents of teenage angst.
"A lot of people, especially this one psychoanalyst guy they have here, keeps asking me if I'm going to apply myself when I go back to school next September. It's such a stupid question, in my opinion. I mean how do you know what you're going to do till you do it?"
– Holden speaks his piece as a patient in the sanitarium he alludes to at the end of the novel and from which he relates his story as he contemplates a return to school the following term.
"The mark of an immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one."
– Holden Caulfield's former English teacher, Mr. Antolini, cites the poet and psychoanalyst Wilhelm Steckel in a late night discussion with Holden - words at odds with Holden's rebellious distrust, his idea of becoming a "catcher in the rye," symbolically saving children from the evils of adulthood by showing the virtues and freedoms of nonconformity.
CATCHER IN THE RYE subtly explores complex issues of identity, belonging, connection, and alienation. In the process of unburdening himself of his story, Holden Caulfield discovers the contradictions and surprises of his own experience. Thrown out of one world and not yet mature enough for the other, Holden crashes over the boundaries of teen and adult society, rejecting structure, misinterpreting freedoms, discovering things are not as he assumed. His taste of "unfettered life" plummets Holden into dizzying paradoxical misadventures. He is curious and baffled by the inconsistencies in what moves him, what he misinterprets about school and adult behavior, by the complexities of meshing his insecurities with his ambitions. By the end of "Catcher," Holden doesn't want to continue with his tale as he discovers he misses two of his former classmates, Stradlater and Ackley. He even misses the pimp Maurice, who hit him. He warns the reader that telling others about personal experiences will lead to missing the people who shared them.
This anniversary of "The Catcher in the Rye" marks a perfect time to pick up Joanna Rakoff's "My Salinger Year," reviewed last month on this blog. And if like the young Joanna of her memoir, you aren't familiar with the books of J. D. Salinger, check them out. See where the stories take you. Happy anniversary, "Catcher."
July 9, 2014
Mesa Verde, Colorado
Viking settlement ruins, Skara Brae, Orkney Island
Life is point on a journey, it seems generally agreed. Between the apriorities howl strong winds. Yet the traveler, once in a long while, comes to a place he is sure, without a doubt in his mind, never having seen it before, is the one he was seeking. He enters. At first everything inside is so saturated with strangeness it is hard to breathe - but look now: already it is drying in from the edges like rainwater in the March wind and he will in fact never be able to recover that blankness in which he saw it first, the surgery of first look. That moment of pure anthropology.
- "The Anthropology of Water," from Plainwater, Essays and Poetry
, Anne Carson
I am moving back into writing mode again, after a hiatus readying my last novel for market and doing the work that lengthy process entails. [Mostly the kind of promotional writing every writer likes least: casting a book synopsis and an updated bio, gathering blurbs and past reviews.] Now it is time to begin a new book. I am crackling like a live wire with anticipation. The pleasurable part of writing comes at the beginning and at the end of the work. The beginning of the process is, as Anne Carson describes so beautifully above, rooted in the impressionable "first look." One glimpse of a nascent essay or novel, the unannounced narrative flickering like film behind your eyelids. This chimera gels in the attic of your brain, awake and dreaming; sentences and details and dialogue leak onto the kitchen counter, slide across the dash of the car, stick like gum every place your thoughts find you until - at last! - you sit down and begin to write it. Beginnings are a whirl of seduction and false leads, doggedness and free-fall. They are stunning.
The ending of the process arrives in a concrete way. Ending a writing project brings the pleasure of completion. The idea has become dimensional. The outline colored in, the paper doll stands in her paper attire, ready to take the stage in a reader's imagination. You plucked your story out of the vault of heaven and scribed it to terra firma. Savor it. The thing you have made.
How do we find the catalyst of successful creative beginnings? Exploration. In the surgery of first look. That moment of pure anthropology. What stays.
Carson, in her inimitable way, deftly defines for us "unexpected awareness": the moment shift occurs. Our minds imprint the essence
of a thing, opening to simultaneous impressions and intuition. Who are you? Where is this place? What is this thing? Can I? Should I? Why? We respond to the authentic power of origins, the genuineness of difference, the curiosity of strangeness, the poetry of reflection. Encounter the unfamiliar.
Invite in creativity with a clean look: a moment of unfiltered, pure anthropology. Let ideas rise, untouched, give voice. Our best work is seeded in that first awareness. How we shape this creative genesis or craft the work is less important than giving this moment its full due. Let the unfamiliar present itself without judgment or expectation. If surprised, it will be for good reasons. If deeply familiar, create room. Hope for the indescribably new.
There we begin.
July 2, 2014
THE LITERARY LIFE
by Billy Collins
I woke up this morning,
as the blues singers like to boast,
and the first thing to enter my mind,
as the dog was licking my face, was Coventry Patmore.
was Coventry Patmore?
I wondered, as I rose
and set out on my journey to the encyclopedia
passing some children and a bottle cap on the way.
Everything seemed more life-size than usual.
Light in the shape of windows
hung on the walls next to the paintings
of birds and horses, flowers and fish.
I'm coming to get you, I hissed,
as I entered the library like a man stepping
into a freight elevator of science and wisdom.
How many things have I looked up
in a lifetime of looking things up?
I wondered, as I set the book on the piano
and began turning its large, weightless pages.
How would the world look
if all of its things were neatly arranged
in alphabetical order? I wondered,
as I found the
P section and began zeroing in.
How long before I would forget Coventry Patmore's
dates and the title of his long poem
on the sanctity of married love?
I asked myself as I closed the door to that room
and stood for a moment in the kitchen,
taking in the silvery toaster, the bowl of lemons,
and the white cat, looking as if
he had just finished his autobiography.
This poem spoke to me this morning for the simple reason I, too, woke up with an odd question occupying my mind. Not about a poet, but about the boundaries of autonomy. Is it possible, I wondered, for independence (the state of being independent) to nest in dependence or codependence, like so many Russian nesting dolls that symbolize the various degrees of autonomy and community? When we speak of personal independence
do we mean the standard dictionary meaning - "freedom from the control, influence, support, aid, or the like of others" - or sweep all that definition of the body-politic and more into a proclamation of self-thinking? A cultural salute to the "solitary intelligence"?
The world itself is a loosely-stitched global quilt of independencies and co-dependencies, and intermingled, shifting national states between the two. Hearts and boxes. In some ways happily delineated, organized, and in others roughly folded, crunched at the corners. In my house for the next twelve weeks we will practice our own independent-comingling as my daughter, a third year medical student, takes up her old room, now guest room
, for a brief set of clinical rotations at nearby hospitals, all part of her required medical training. I am beyond thrilled. It is a gift to have her home. It is also my challenge to respect and observe the shift in borders in the shadow of the old. Is she wary behind that easy smile? Does she wonder if her sturdy independence will wobble as she takes up her old seat at the family dinner table? Will she miss her personal space and newly adult world, however short the time home or respectful the daily routine? I suspect so. I would. But we love time together, and this can be an opportunity to invent a new degree of "us."
The sun this morning seems more brilliant in her presence, the kitchen tomatoes red and ripe in the bowl. The sauvignon blanc I pour for the two of us as we share the wide rocker and discuss the day under the shade of the cherry tree, ever more sweet and satisfying on the tongue. Here's to Independence
, my friends. Of whatever varietal you celebrate this weekend, personal or national. It's all good.
June 26, 2014
Which is to say,
The Gratitude Stole
mi corazon, drink up the sunlight you can and stop feeding the good fruit to the goat. Tell me you believe the world is made of more than all its stupid, stubborn, small refusals, that anything, everything is still possible. I wait for word here where the snow is falling, the solitaires are calling, and I am, as always, your M.
- from "To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary," Incarnadine
by Mary Syzbist
The Gratitude Stole is a tradition at Stanford University. The stole's only decoration is the University logo in gold thread at the bottom. Graduating seniors who choose to do so, wear this red silk stole through commencement. After commencement, the new graduate removes the stole and places it around the shoulders of that one person the student feels supported him or her most significantly, mentored their success, or inspired them toward their life calling.
My son placed the Gratitude Stole on me.
He didn't need to. I was forever and always his number one fan, yet other fine men and women had a hand in his success. We'd been though a lot together as a family. I knew he was thinking not just of me at that moment, but of his absent father, who passed away in 2003. I knew he was reflecting on the unexpected challenges and struggles he endured to grow into a young adult, a confident man, and today a university graduate. We both knew the accomplishment was entirely his; his alone that core of courage and determination. I was simply that someone who believed in him. I offered faith. Faith in his ability to meet his challenges, faith in his intelligence and talents, faith in his chosen dreams, and faith in our resilience and love as a family. I believed in my son, because that's what parents do. But I was believing for two: his father and me.
I know Ken would have been incredibly proud of David on this day. I know he would have been proud not only for the completion of his education, but for the character and integrity his son exemplified every step of his journey. I felt the twinness of their beauty, the father and the son. The light of the man gone illumined the sparkle of the younger man before me. Receiving the Gratitude Stole from my son made visible the love and faith carried forward by a long line of strong shoulders. The father. Grandparents no longer here. Our closest friends. All of us bearing witness to one young man's quiet triumph on this day.
I think symbolic ceremonies set apart life's important moments and teach us about continuity. These ceremonies mark one journey's end and embrace turning forward to the next. Symbols of recognition and accomplishment, while certainly cultural or institutional, live
within the deeply personal. Behind a graduation or diploma stand the dreams and struggles every such achievement signifies. Years, perhaps entire lifetimes embroider the borders of ceremony. I like to think even the presence of those no longer with us.
We see ourselves in these moments, and I know that I saw myself in David's eyes.
June 20, 2014
The worst that being an artist could do to you would be that it would make you slightly unhappy constantly.
- J. D. Salinger
But right now I needed to be slightly unhappy constantly.
Slightly unhappy constantly alone.
- Joanna Rakoff
MY SALINGER YEAR by the writer Joanna Rakoff (A Fortunate Age
) is a curious, engaging memoir reflecting on the year the author apprenticed as a literary assistant at a venerable New York literary agency. At this respected, decidedly "old school" firm, one of Rakoff's tasks was that of answering fan mail sent to the agency addressed to their long-time client J. D. Salinger. The letters on Rakoff's desk, from fans of all ages and nationalities, became the narrative echo of her own adjustment to adulthood, the city, a difficult relationship. As she painstakingly answers each letter, as no letters are ever forwarded to Salinger (by his own edict), Rakoff begins to engage with both the author as well as his fans. For devotees of J. D. Salinger, these shared bits of "Salingeriana" as Rakoff calls them, are interesting in their own right: Salinger remains to this day one of America's enduring literary giants, and forever a mystery to his fans and critics. As she works her way through the letters Rakoff begins to treasure her handful of conversations with the reclusive writer, even assisting her boss, Salinger's devoted literary agent, on a secretive book project. But what makes MY SALINGER YEAR a satisfying read is the slow opening on the page of Rakoff's awareness of herself. This is a tale not of Salinger but the coming of age of a young woman and poet.
Rakoff's memoir is set in the New York high-rises of publishing at the cusp of the digital age. This twilight of "the genteel agency" is evoked beautifully on the page in Rakoff's confident descriptive language:
"We were girls, of course, all of us girls, emerging from the 6 Train at Fifty-First Street and walking past the Waldorf-Astoria, the Seagram Building on Park, all of us clad in variations on a theme - the neat skirt and sweater, redolent of Sylvia Plath at Smith - each element purchased by parents in some comfortable suburb, for our salaries were so low we could barely afford our rent, much less lunch... All day we sat, our legs crossed at the knee, on our swivel chairs, answering the call of our bosses, ushering in writers with the correct mixture of enthusiasm and remove, never belying the fact that we got into this business not because we wanted to fetch glasses of water for visiting writers but because we wanted to be writers ourselves..."
The heady literary spice woven through the memoir is of course J. D. Salinger's work - his beloved stories and novels. The author comes to treasure certain of Salinger's characters as they reflect back to her her own life. She is moved by the way Salinger's fans write to the author, sharing the raw, intimate, and oftentimes confused moments of their lives. She finds company in these letters and answers to her own questions as she crafts answers to theirs. MY SALINGER YEAR is finally also a love letter to literature. The way books and writers accompany us in the quotidian trenches of our uncertainties and misery; how they light the unknowable. The way we keep in our hearts that line from a story that somehow finds resonance when nothing else can.
I recommend Joanna Rakoff's memoir. I know you will enjoy its subtle splendor as greatly as I did.
June 11, 2014
I saw the heron
like a branch of white petals
in the swamp,
in the mud that lies
like a glaze,
in the water
that swirls its pale panels
of reflected clouds;
I saw the heron shaking
its damp wings -
and then I felt
an explosion -
a pain -
also a happiness
I can hardly mention
as I slid free -
as I saw the world
through those yellow eyes -
as I stood like that, rippling,
under the mottled sky
of the evening
that was beginning to throw
its dense shadows.
No! said my heart, and drew back.
But my bones knew something wonderful
about the darkness-
and they thrashed in their cords,
they fought, they wanted
to lie down in that silky mash
of the swamp, the sooner
- Mary Oliver
There is something about the delicacy of the transitions into early summer and late fall that always remind me of the poems of Mary Oliver. The way in which she captures the voice and imprint of the unseen, the song of the living things, the guardian silence of the skies. When I read this poem, it reminded me of my late husband Ken, who passed away in 2003. His presence among us is the heron at the water's edge below the cliffs of the place he is buried. For a week after his death, this single gray heron waited there at the river's elbow, braced against the rushing waters. Still and tranquil, he watched us. Eventually, as twilight fell to its deepest hue, our heron would spread its feathered wings and lift into the sky, lost in the dark.
This weekend, our son, David, our youngest, graduates from Stanford University. Ken would be so proud. He understood dreams, and struggle, disappointment, integrity, and determination. He experienced the accomplishment of great ambitions, and the loss of things the heart can only imagine. I will be celebrating David's accomplishment for him, and for us. For what that beautiful man did not live to see. Yet I know he will be there beside us - in that great silky mash
of life, memory, love. David thrives, brilliant in his passion for life, rooted in the deep strength of his father. His commencement this weekend marks something wonderful; a milestone in a great and terrible journey of his own, through experiences a young man should not have to weather at such a tender age. All of us sing from an unknown song sheet when it comes to life. We receive, we give. We begin to hear the melody in our song as we progress through the years.
I celebrate life. I celebrate family, love, the accomplishment of big dreams, and yes, the reflecting clouds. The presence of the heron.
To you, my son, shining so bright this moment.
June 5, 2014
Ring of Brodgar, Orkney Island, Scotland
Deciphering prehistory is the ultimate conjecture. I am instantly drawn into the imaginary possibilities of mute objects and ruins. Without a written or decipherable symbolic language, the humans of prehistory leave no record behind but these found objects. No record that we might use to correctly interpret fireside story retellings, or the adaptations of later generations to their own current morals and politics. Prehistory is the story of archeological finds. If a rune fragment or a decorative design is found on something as symbolic as a temple site or humble as pot, that bit of intentional marking represents a leap forward from the interpretation of found items without any frame of reference beyond other similar finds. To make interpretation of these early human settlements all the more challenging, the detritus of a civilization is not always found in context but scattered by time, weather, destruction or looting. What do we make of a carved stone ball at the buttress of a presumed gathering space, of intentional niches in stone walls, the placement of a hearth or a doorway?
On the heels of prehistory, the medieval Nordic lands - where I am now - give us Norse history interpreted through the two major eddas (poetic works) and sagas (about a hundred spoken, sung, and written stories). These later language records give us magnificent stepping-stones to understanding how these past cultures identified their roots and history, tell of migration, evasion or incorporation, and are important to developing a collective literature as well as art, frequently embellished by fabulist elements of religious and mythic belief incorporated from earlier periods or nonnative cultures.
Archeologists and anthropologists, along with their compatriots in culture studies and the arts, conjoin expertise to postulate explanations for earlier mute cultures of prehistoric times. There is now evidence of thriving communities that may have functioned in situ for as long as a millennia; a contradiction of past assumptions our ancestors were nomadic, their settlements of short duration. On islands such as mainland Orkney, the stone Ring of Brodgar, Stones of Stenness, the Ness of Brodgar excavations, the burial mound of Maes Howe, and the early settlement of Skara Brae gives us hints Norse prehistoric cultures had shared stories, rituals and ways communicated down the generations - we have only to discover how.
From the development of tradition-based songs and ballads, carved symbols began to record community history. Early runes, mostly in the form of early Viking graffiti (“Thor, whose mighty sword killed Hagar the Ugly, was here.”) provide valuable records of war and migration. Early Christians, spreading outward on the heels of the Vikings and Romans, brought with them the Latin word. Christianity was a religion of the book. And the spreading of literacy, of written histories, introduced a cultural medieval record rich in detail, tracing entwined ethnicities and themes, and imagery taken from pagan Nordic folk tales incorporated into Christian traditions. We begin to see how ancient peoples thought, and how they organized their lives. They put their faith and parables down in beautifully embellished altar books, hand-lettered in brilliant inks of native dyes recorded on vellum. The first “author pictures” introduced human figures in monastery records; in the form of images of the evangelists, drawn in the act of writing their testimonies of faith. Entwined in the art that adorned the pages of these books – the incipit page, catalogue of canons, intricate carpet motifs, letter adornments - lay a geographic migration of cultures. Animal designs and rune symbols, the inclusion of ancient Greek, the surprise of a Celtic symbol.
But the long silence of the prehistory peoples continues to haunt me as I stand in awe before these carefully constructed stone houses. I stand before immense pillars of basalt, still standing these thousands of years against the assault of wind, ice, earthquake, and pounding rain. Pillars of rock that weigh more than men can move yet somehow have. I wonder at the reason for the positioning of such immense stones. To catch the light at solstice? And the intentional shaping of workrooms – what were they for? Here there are earth-mounded repositories: stone chambers with pivot-stone entrances, dug in the earth to house the bones of ancestors. Clearly these long ago people cared for their dead, their engineering has lasted centuries. And yet what was the effort involved, the purpose of Nordic bog burials of entire
ships and animals and human sacrifice? The meaning of a rock scraped with intertwined triangles? The spoken poetry, the songs, keep old languages alive; the sagas bring to life the myths and heroic journeys. But the unanswered silent mysteries of prehistory haunt us.
My thanks to the knowledge shared by Yale Professors Roberta Frank and Walter Goffart, Harvard Professor Stephen Mitchell, and Dr. Wendy Stein of The Metropolitan Museum of Art for their many inspiring remarks and text and art samples of Old Norse culture.
May 27, 2014
Viking Ship Museum: Oslo, Norway
The Vikings are a trendy topic in museum circles these days. The British Museum has a summer exhibition open now, with Viking runes, relics, ships, and cultural and military exhibits gathered from the Scandinavian and Celtic north. Viking culture is known to us from Viking era relics found in bog and mound burials (sometimes entire ships with their deceased owners and belongings), sacrifices of weaponry and wealth (and sometimes people), and of course Viking coins and decorative animal iconography dispersed by way of trade around the world. The Danish National Museum has a tremendous permanent exhibit, and the Danes view Viking culture as a somewhat artificial bracket around a greater timeline of Paleolithic development and anthropological phases of Nordic exploration and settlement.
A point of Nordic pride, the Viking period from 832 to roughly 1100 was a period of fierce raids, astounding technical seafaring exploration, tribal domination and strategic expansion. Viking shipbuilding during this period was distinctive and well-adapted to sudden raids and rapid escapes, enabling Vikings to mount terrifying and indefensible attacks on coastal settlements from the outlier North Sea islands to Ireland and Great Britain, even down into the Franc (French, Germanic, and Belgian) lands by river channel. Vikings represent that part of the human psyche that thrills and glories in adventure, dangerous raids and strategic conquest.
Having spent the last few days aboard the Sea Explorer, a ship designed for Arctic exploration, and roughly speaking, a wide-bottomed rubber ducky pitching on the seas, I can tell you I now fully appreciate the construction of a good seafaring boat. Viking ships were bellowed in the middle for stability in the harsh seas and the ability to navigate shallow coastal waters and rivers, high-prowed at both ends for maneuverability, and equipped with both oars and sails - the better to depart in any direction as strategic attack required. Indeed, the words associated with early monastery records of attacks by Vikings describe them as fierce, indomitable, “hoardes of thunderous heathen evil,” etc.. History admires Viking seamanship and boat design (watertight, stable and fast). And in the face of risk, a fearless lust for the unknown, for opportunities beyond the horizon.
I think what I most admire about the Vikings is this latter outlook: that what lies undiscovered is sight-unseen worth the risk. That discovery is inherently profitable to spirit and community. That the gods favor the brave, and success rewards the undaunted. Vikings were the pioneers of the Nordic seas. The spirited designs and relics of their era speaks to human wanderlust. When I think of our domesticated modern lives in sequestered urban/suburban structures, I can’t help but look at these high seas crashing outside the potholes and wonder at what we lose when we cease to boldly explore. Yes we explore intellectually – through the questions and necessities of science. But space is our last geographic horizon; our remaining frontier. I hope that we continue to say yes to our inner Viking and keep on with the quest. Less raiding, more discovery.
(And as I am now dizzy from using a keyboard on a swelling sea, time to post. Back on the satellite Internet when I can, friends.)