Pushcart XLII: Anthony Wallace, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” from Southern Review 52:3

Reverse of a silver tetradrachma featuring the Owl of Athena; ca. 480–420 BC

Reverse of a silver tetradrachma featuring the Owl of Athena; ca. 480–420 BC

A well-dressed couple entered the lobby of the Hötel Saint-Dominique, the young woman first, pushing an expensive-looking pram, the muscles in her slender arms and legs taut with purpose. When they came to the hostess’s desk just outside the bar, the young woman recited their family name and the time of the reservation. She looked at her wristwatch to show that they were exactly on time. The hostess smiled and then the young woman added, “A corner table, private but with a view of the dining room. I don’t want to wake her.”

My reach is going to far exceed my grasp (R>G) on this one. I kept encountering Easter eggs – you know, those little surprise asides that stand out if you’re in on the joke, and otherwise pass unnoticed. Considering the ones I found, I’m thinking there must be dozens more that I just wasn’t equipped to see. I’d love to know about them. Or I can just keep taking moocs on philosophy and literature and art and see what happens.

And yes, there will be spoilers. But it’s ok, it’s the sort of story that isn’t in the reading, but in the finding, and the connecting, and I haven’t exhausted those avenues.

The basic plot is a little strange, but not complicated. A couple with a baby carriage come in to an elegant restaurant for dinner; the waiter notices the carriage contains not a baby, but a doll; the husband appears to overhear him telling this to a coworker; the couple leaves, with the mother tearing the doll apart as they go, scattering its limbs in the restaurant. The restaurant crew comments.

This in itself raises some questions beyond, who brings a baby to an elegant restaurant? She’s fairly disappointed with how dinner goes – minor details keep annoying her – but there’s no real explanation for her storming out. At one point she’s rocking and almost-nursing the doll; then she’s tearing it apart. What happened? Is it possible they didn’t know it was a doll until the husband overheard the waiter’s remarks, he told the wife, and she was enraged at being fooled? Or at being found out?

However, all of this needs to be considered in the larger context. The story bears the name of a Walter Benjamin essay on art, a reference I probably would have missed had I not just completed the Design Theory mooc just mentioned in my previous post. Given that the doll is a mechanical reproduction of a baby, this can’t be a casual coincidence.

As I said, I’m reaching a bit beyond my grasp here (R>G#1), but as I understand it, Benjamin’s essay sees a difference between art, and the reproduction of art (and what is a baby if not a work of art, and what is a doll if not a reproduction of a baby), in that the aura of the original, the contact with the artist, is lost in the reproduction, reversing the concentration that contact with art brings into the distraction that immersion in reproductions bring:

Distraction and concentration form an antithesis, which may be formulated as follows. A person who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it; he enters into the work, just as, according to legend, a Chinese painter entered his completed painting while beholding it. By contrast, the distracted masses absorb the work of art into themselves. Their waves lap around it; they encompass it with their tide.

~~ Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

If that feels like a stretch, don’t forget the essay and the story share the title, and by the way, the story specifically mentions Benjamin through the thoughts of the waiter:

The waiter had recognized the professor, had a few months before attended one of his lectures on the theory and practice of translation, a field in which he was an eminent authority—the man who some people said was the next Walter Benjamin in that he frequently discussed literary translation not in terms of what it got right but, more importantly, what it got wrong: the misreading or misinterpretation that led, strangely, to greater fidelity to living art and the possibilities for interpretation that implies.

This talk of misinterpretation, of fidelity to living art, seems to me to be somehow relevant to the events of the plot, but I can’t pin it down.

Benjamin’s essay is very concerned with film as a medium. And by the way, there’s at least one film reference in the story: “The couple sat together in silence, picking over their second course. The waiter arrived with a bottle of Chablis, that green-eyed goddess, uncorked the bottle in front of them….” In Marathon Man, there’s a similar scene at Lutèce, with the line “The great Chablis of the world are almost always green-eyed” just before Dustin Hoffman’s brother, an undercover spy, reveals Elsa’s suspected Nazi past to Hoffman (whose character is, guess what, a historian). No, I didn’t have this off the top of my head, but the “green-eyed” reference was so confusing – was it a typo, should have been grey-eyed? – I did some googling (R>G#2) and found the line.

At the risk of wearing out this trope (or is it just obsessive pursuit?) let me connect Benjamin and film and Nazis a little more closely (R>G#3) via the last paragraph of his essay:

Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own alienation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art.

~~ Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

As far as the aestheticizing of politics, calling Leni Riefenstahl (his essay was published in 1936, three years after her first propaganda film), the marches, the rallies, and oh god, Wallace couldn’t have predicted that I’d be reading this in a time when we have a reality-TV star as President, while half of America is reading the juicy political tell-all released at midnight the other night to a buying frenzy usually associated with Harry Potter or teenage vampire novels. As for communism politicizing art: isn’t all art inherently political, whether it strives to be or not?

Benjamin was, by the way, part of the Frankfurt School, philosophical descendents of Hegel and Kant, a bunch of early 20th Century Marxists (including My Favorite Marxists Horkheimer and Adorno) hanging around in Germany when Jewish Marxists could still hang around in Germany and breathe at the same time; he tried to escape in 1940, got as far as France, and killed himself when it became apparent he would not make it into Spain.

But wait, there’s more: throughout, the mother is several times referenced in ways that bring to mind the Homeric depiction of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom:

….it was her eyes that one was irresistibly drawn to with their finely reticulated gray irises and luminous, overlarge pupils….

These musings occupied the waiter while he waited to go back into the dining room, to wheel in the dessert cart, to offer the gray-eyed goddess what was in his power to offer her. The gray-eyed goddess, ‘the trim-coifed goddess—

That’s the clearest reference to Athena this side of the 8th century BCE, especially the phrasing of that last sentence, the double-descriptor so common in Homeric poetry intended for oral recitation. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was buddy to both Achilles and Odysseus in their respective epics. But what does Athena have to do with any of this?

Consider another excerpt from the story:

The hostess, who had an MFA in screenwriting and who’d written two screenplays she was unable to sell, was just such a cynical product of the service industry. To her way of thinking, there were only two kinds of people in the world: those who’d had their screenplays optioned, and those who hadn’t…. For her, the important distinction was that the optioned got to live in the historical moment, and hence live real lives, while those not optioned were consigned to live at the end of history, like orphans stranded at the end of a dirt road. The hostess had remained in the second group far longer than she’d expected, and she was in the process of adjusting herself to that fact.

That also tweaked my antennae (R>G#4) due to the “Architectural Imagination” mooc
from last spring, which used some theory from Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics. Let me paraphrase and conflate some notes from the mooc lectures by Prof. Hayes: In the symbolic period, WeltGeist (world spirit) is outside the object (typified by Architecture of mud, stone, wood) looking in, and the object is pointing to it; In the classical period (typified by Greek and Roman sculpture), the WeltGeist shows forth from within the object; In the romantic period (post-Roman, typified by music and art), the WeltGeist has almost left the object. At the end of the Romantic period, the WeltGeist escapes the physical, and moves into thought (philosophy, theology) and no longer needs Art. Which may be why nobody likes modern art or music. But as this is a historical process, it can only be observed when it’s over, when it’s too late.

And it just so happens, Hegel (with whom I wrestled mightily this past summer in yet another mooc, “The Great War and Modern Philosophy”) had some ideas about Athena, though he used her Roman name Minerva:

Philosophy always arrives too late. As the thought of the world, it only makes its appearance after actuality has finished its process of development and is over. …Only in the maturation of actuality does the ideal appear to confront the real. Then the ideal reconstructs this world for itself in the form of an intellectual realm, comprehending in its substance. When philosophy paints its grey on grey then the form of life has grown old, and this grey on grey is not capable of rejuvenating it, merely of understanding it. The owl of Minerva only begins its flight when the twilight falls.

~~ G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right (1820), “Preface”

Nothing is as it seems. The baby in the pram is actually a doll. The hostess is actually a screenwriter (this is Paris, not Hollywood, where everyone’s a screenwriter). The waiter’s a philosopher. The restaurant seems empty except for the couple. The most un-Athena-like character in history is framed as Athena. What’s going on? Is it some kind of deconstruction of reality, a jumbling of images?

The narration is what some writers call head-hopping – third person through various characters as the story progresses – so it seems there’s a disembodied narrator – the WeltGeist, Philosophy, Art freed from material form? – floating outside of it all. Maybe that’s a working theory (R>G#5): the narrator/WeltGeist follows the progression outlined by Hegel, moving from outside looking in (the initial entry into the restaurant), to inside looking out (in the mother’s head), to being freed (the doll-dismemberment) to ending with philosophy and thought via the hostess and waiter. That doesn’t quite track, but it’s the best I can do.

[Addendum 1/14/18: I’ve been thinking about this story for the past week, and I have a new working theory: The key is in how the waiter, representing Art as it matures into Philosophy and absorbs the partaker, and the hostess, representing the reproduced Art that distracts the partaker, react differently to the scenario they’ve just witnessed. He is “forever changed by his encounter”, though he isn’t sure exactly how, like Paul on the road to Damascus; she sees the event as a screenplay, to be reproduced as a movie.

Addendum 2/4/18: One of my neighbors is an accomplished artist (and a big reader); I attended a local exhibition of his work, and discovered he has a fondness for Walter Benjamin so I immediately foisted this story on him and asked if he had any relevant points to add that might give me a bit more insight. And of course, he did:

The one thing that first stands out in your commentary to consider is that Benjamin is not necessarily identifying what translation gets “wrong”, but what sometimes must be changed because there are times when the original “meaning” of words or phrases cannot be fully conveyed from the translated language to the new language of the translation. He sees this as a positive influence on the original.

~~ Gregg Harper

After I finished hanging my head in shame over my automatic judgmental instinct, I wondered if this makes the piece more like a tracing of the historical evolution of art: the original, the escape into philosophy, and the translation into screenplay, without any implication that one is more “authentic” than another. This is something else that was brought up in the History of Architecture course: much Greek and Roman statuary was originally painted in bright colors, but we’re used to seeing it in white marble. If it’s being presented as authentic, shouldn’t the paint be added to the restorations? And what about cleaning art, does that make them more authentic, or less? The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi embraces time’s changes, but in the West, we want to keep everything shiny and new.

Another thing is that Athena/Minerva is also a goddess of art, craft and war; which is interesting in view of your reading about politicizing art. Aside from domestic needs, craft developed around making implements of war – and art to commemorate the mythologies as well as the warriors whose achievement bring wealth and status to the victor society.

~~ Gregg Harper

This makes it easier to incorporate Athena into the piece; I should have remembered that the Greek deities often had multiple functions. I’m very grateful for these additional notes.]

I still wish some philosophy professor would do a mooc, a lecture, a podcast, a Medium article, whatever, on this story; if I could find so many Easter eggs, imagine what someone who actually knows what they’re talking about could do with it.

Pushcart 2013: Anthony Wallace, “The Old Priest” from The Republic of Letters

The Republic of Letters story art

The Republic of Letters story art

The old priest is a Jesuit, brainy and fey. He smokes Pall Malls fixed bayonet-style in an onyx and silver cigarette holder, and he crosses his legs at the knee. He tells stories as if he is being interviewed for a Public Television special on old priests. A small, guttural chuckle serves to launch one of his very interesting anecdotes: it’s a kind of punctuation that serves as transition, like a colon or dash. You bring your latest girl to see the old priest, you always bring your latest girl to see the old priest.

The good news: the story’s terrific, and it’s available online. The bad news: it’s surprisingly long for an online story – 12,000 words. And, oh, it’s in second person, both primary characters unnamed. To cap it off, the protagonist is, among other things, a writer. Given all those no-no’s, I’m surprised anyone anywhere ever published it, let alone that it ended up with a Pushcart prize, but that should tell you something: namely, it’s a damn fine story. And isn’t that always the point?

It’s a story about exactly what you think it’s about but it’s couched in the lifelong relationship between a wannabe-writer with no stories to tell, and a priest overflowing with stories – he once flamenco’d the night away in Spain, saw Ava Gardner at a bullfight. But it’s really at its heart about what we carry with us and how we finally lay it down: love in all its destructive glory.

It’s a story that’s difficult to discuss without spoiling it; the effect is in the reading. The structure is a spiral built around the protagonist’s friendship with the priest, his teacher in high school. The emotional ride, brought to a devastatingly perfect touch-down by the last paragraph, is spectacular, as the writer “circles the airport” throughout the story, getting closer with each pass but not landing until the final sentences.

Throughout the first half of the story, the priest tells his wild tales (come on, seeing Ava Gardner at a bullfight in Barcelona? That sounds like something borrowed from Hemingway) while the wannabe-writer bemoans his lack of life experience, the paucity of stories he has to tell. He eventually realizes he does, in fact, have stories to tell: the priest’s stories:

You call the book The Old Priest and you get an agent interested, and he gets a publisher interested. Priests old and otherwise are hot news that year because of the sex abuse scandal that is in all the headlines… It is written in the second person; it is “mannered, overstylized, derivative,” to quote one reviewer. As a writer you have some talent, most people seem to agree, but you also have an odd quirk that has proven a fairly severe limitation: you are only truly comfortable writing in the second person.
In fact, you wanted to change the title of your book to The Second Person, but the publisher didn’t want to do it and the book went out into the world as The Old Priest. “Old priests are what sells,” the editor told you, “not witty references to grammar books and Graham Greene. Let your character be the sap and you be the smart one.” He was smart, that editor, but he missed the reference to Jesus, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Also perhaps the second person as the conscience or moral self, now that you think of it. All the same, you liked that: “Grammar Books and Graham Greene” should really be the title of something, though nothing you will ever write.

Being a bit of a second-person fan, of course I loved this. But the theological reference, not to mention Graham Greene, are just for show: second person is necessary to distance the wannabe-writer from himself. It’s explicitly stated in that explanation about second person as moral self. I’m also reminded of Marko Fong’s term for this use of second person: “alienated first person.” I’m especially fond of this term applied to this story because the wannabe has all the experience he needs. But he can’t face his own experience, he’s still trying to process it throughout his life, so he keeps circling the airport.

I wasn’t optimistic when I started this story, seeing as I haven’t had a lot of luck with stories featuring priests; but within a page, I was hooked, and stayed there. Part of that is the ramping of tension throughout: did he, or didn’t he? I also found some great scene work: priest and writer getting stoned on magic mushrooms with the priest hallucinatorially turning into a goat-man in a section that reminds me of the Bolaño story I just read; it’s great imagery with amazing symbolism built in, and just the right touch of bizarre ambiguity.

In another great scene, the protagonist recollects the role of priests in his family:

At a certain time of the year the parish priest came to bless the house. You remember your grandmother kneeling down in the cramped living room, her head bowed, the priest intoning the words and sending sprinklets of holy water flying from a small, occult-looking bottle drawn from his inside pocket. You like to remember his black suit, his black hat with its short brim, his small black cigar balanced nimbly on the railing just beyond the open doorway. The priest reeking of cigar smoke and spewing holy water on the dated furniture. Your grandmother kneeling on the spinach-colored carpet, kerchiefed head bowed low. Years later this memory or set of memories was triggered by the climactic scene in The Exorcist: the two priests standing in the room with the possessed girl, throwing holy water and chanting, “The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!”

Again, the subtext of that in the context of the story is spectacular.

I’m very fond of the telescoping of levels of story – the writer in the second-person story writing the second-person book that is the story, or part of it at least, and even extending into reality: the writer of the story shares a few autobiographical traits with the protagonist: he was a casino dealer and is now a university professor, and based the old priest on “an influential Jesuit he met in his schooling.” And come on, though I rather dismissed it just a couple of paragraphs ago, the Graham Greene reference and theological nature of “The Second Person” is very clever, yet it fits in completely naturally, without that tacked-on feeling of a writer out to prove how clever he is. Incidental cleverness, organic to the story. And finally, at the very end, all the cleverness breaks down into honesty. No wonder a 12,000-word online story in second person about a writer won a Pushcart.

I guess my bad-luck streak with priest stories is officially broken.