Lascaux and the Genius of Beauty
There is a Chagall window in Chicago. To me the blues are Caribbean, and within the blues float objects of other brilliant hues. They don’t tell a story, but spin something else, a direct appeal to emotion. I feel what I suppose is human yearning, a feeling of connecting, a drive for empathy and understanding. How do you do that with a window?
It’s not installed, of course, as a real window, but at The Art Institute, as three large display panels backing to a natural light source, Chicago’s lakefront. The three panels, each made of twelve rectangles, are said to represent literature, drama, and dance, and I suppose they’re in there somewhere too, but I feel primarily happiness. It’s not joy or giddy celebration, but the quiet happiness that comes when life brings about a small thing that makes your day better that you suspect you probably ever deserved. Picasso remarked: “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color is …” Marc Chagall (1887-1985) was from Belarus, but worked at Antibe in the South of France.
Chicago’s Art Institute, where the windows shimmer, is on Michigan Avenue just blocks off of Rt. 41. The museum is structured primarily out of beauty and surprise and demands wandering, but it’s OK to wander with an official brochure map in hand, and it’s even OK to wander with a taped lecture stuck in your ear buds, though I declined this pleasure. Admission of $20.00 entitles general wandering, with an additional surcharge for specific wandering into temporary exhibits. I stuck to the general wandering, because I only had about four hours and there is a lot of general collection to find.
Besides Chagall I visited Van Gogh. A Bedroom at Arles here was done while he was institutionalized (the ear incident), apparently from memory. The self-portrait shows carrot-colored hair with highlights in light green. What a strange beauty Van Gogh saw, and you can see the strangeness in the face, the strangeness of a man who I don’t believe would fit anywhere, certainly not in the world of polite social visits which is the world he happened to inhabit. Van Gogh (1853-1890) was Dutch, but worked at Arles in the South of France.
One thing about France is that it’s the center of the world, not easy to see on a map, though pretty obvious if you have a globe you can hold in your hands. You can angle the globe in a certain way as to see a water hemisphere (dominated by the Pacific and Indian Oceans) and a land hemisphere. Something like 95% of earth’s land lies within this land hemisphere, and you can center in on France. Seen this way the Mediterranean Sea really is in the middle of the world’s land, as the name implies and the ancients apparently believed. In fact, to the Greeks, Ocean meant an encircling river, which in a way it is.
Gaugain is here as well. He is one of the guys who got out of Europe to find beauty in the primitive, travelling the Pacific, especially Tahiti, where he may have arrived a little late, at least according to something I read. I imagine the island girls had already been told they were topless. Anyway it made him sad, though he still used colors in a joyful way. Maybe he arrived back realizing that a bad day in Tahiti is still better than a good day at work. Paul Gaugain was portrayed by Anthony Quinn in the Hollywood biopic Lust for Life which centered on Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas), but Quinn won an Academy Award showing Gaugain as a brawling enthusiast and bully. Gaugain (1848-1903) was French and worked some in the South of France.
Gaugain had several children, but strangely his oldest son, Emile, is buried in Florida at Lemon Bay. It’s less than ten miles off Rt. 41.
Amid wandering I took a long break to drink iced tea in one of the cafés at the Art Institute (there are several), mostly to sit for an hour, but I stood to chat with a retired guy who was a school trip chaperone for a couple classes of energetic high schoolers. (I know, redundant.) These kids were on break from their day as well, so they did what high schoolers do best, talk about each other. He said he’s usually a substitute teacher, but today just a chaperone. They were nice kids from a serious school who all had packets to fill in, and they appreciated their time off for good behavior.
The next day I’d saved for The Field Museum of Natural History, a place of dinosaurs and dioramas: specifically (yes, it cost a couple bucks extra on top of the $20 admission) to see the traveling exhibit on Lascaux, the cave where people recorded visuals. That’s in the South of France. Maybe these cave artists were the first geniuses, the first to take enough time to develop a way of using beauty to help others see the world that they saw. They were hunters and they had the technology of the hunt. By 20,000 years ago that was pretty well developed with razor-sharp points, accelerated spear-throwers, and organized strategies. Maybe the cave walls were partly instructional, like a driver’s ed simulator. I kind of think they may have started out utilitarian in some way but quickly morphed over into a celebration of the animals. All hunting cultures worship what they hunt.
Write Club: at a funky old-school neighborhood place with a suspended Old Style sign called The Hideout at 1354 Wabensia near Chicago’s Goose Island, a funky old-school emcee with a brash attitude and a string of biting ironically-clever quips (name: Ian Belknap) holds rein over a melee. Almost. The format is fun and involving for a motley crew of an audience most of whom seem to have some connections with all things writerly in Chicago.By the 7 pm start time the place is standing-room only. This is going to be a beat-down for Beats.
It’s a Tuesday evening just after Tax Day, when the faithful faithless gather in a darkly cavernous back room to hear six brave souls, two at a time, stand and deliver. The mood is subdued, yet raucus; the procedures convoluted, yet systematic; the voices foul, yet sublime. They’ll meet in yin-and-yang fashion on familiar battlegrounds: Blessed vs. Damned; Saint vs. Sinner; God vs. Devil. The tone is not as ecclesiastical as might seem, mostly due to the four-letter words, seemingly required for this lubricated occasion. Humor is on demand, but it isn’t a comedy competition; though performance is required, writing reigns supreme over wit. The word’s the thing: let the words flow.
There are rules:
The first rule of Write Club is you talk about Write Club. To five to ten people. You spread the word, get the thing going, grow the beast. It’s already in seven cities, counting Evanston, a concept almost ready for syndication.
The most telling rule: readings are timed with a severe 7-minute limit, enforced by an unforgiving audience-generated, enthusiastically-voiced, nasally-toned buzzer noise over which it is impossible to continue. Seven minutes, it is explained, works more smoothly than ten as it’s able to save many in the audience from hoping for an early death.
There is a motto: “Eats trouble, shits money.”
This refers to the point of the whole thing which is to have a good time while promoting a good cause. Each competitor arms himself with a favorite charitable cause, bringing to the fray hopes of a share of winnings: the gate divided up after each visitor has paid $10 admission. The winners this night all support various local groups trying to invigorate an artistic or literary cause, usually with kids involved. Winners are decided by audience applause, and this night’s bouts pitted:
Belknap as host is enough of a stage-hogging lord and master that he not only runs the show but gets to crown his favorite lines including outright jokes, tight cultural references, twisted memories, and biting observations: mauled by a cow; shopping IKEA with Jerry Sandusky; and owning up to a LiveJournal account all made his short list this night.
Write Club seems destined for greatness.
The real Whiskey Rebellion occurred in western Pennsylvania. Tax guys were none too popular, this back when a “tar and feathering” didn’t just mean everybody making fun of you, it meant that, yep, scalding hot tar would be slathered all over your body and real chicken feathers applied to give it a sort of glued-in effect hard to duplicate by only using viral YouTube videos.
Eventually, Washington intervened–not the city, I’m talking actual George, thus giving birth to the federal tax structure, as we know it (i.e. pay up or else, even if you’re the most noted “Furniture Dealer” in Prohibition-era Chicago).
I restricted my own whiskey rebellion to North State Street in Chicago, mere steps from Rt. 41. On an uneventful (i.e., no special occasion) Wednesday I declared independence from the Republic of Bourbon in favor of the Wearin’ o’ the Plaid.
OK, basically I ordered four Scotches. This is a departure from tradition for me, and this tradition dates back to 1975 when I first met Mr. Scotch and he got the better of me. I won’t say he tarred me, but maybe I did get a little feathered, because when it came to ordering Scotch I turned chicken. My favorite whiskey choice, Maker’s Mark, is fine straight up, usually though with an ice cube—yes, I know it’s not recommended, thanks—and even a nice twist of orange rind, and if an errant little drip of squeezed orange does happen to fall into my glass, well, I don’t rinse it out and start over.
Cocktail time? I do like me a whiskey sour on occasion—the occasion being, “Anybody want a whiskey sour?”—with, yep, the obligatory orange slice, the entire circle please, plus a full-stem Maraschino (let’s just do the thing right, OK?). And for this I prefer a plain old Canadian whiskey. Seven Crown is just fine by me.
What happened back in 1975, you ask? Nothing spectacular, so don’t get your hopes up.
I was twenty years old and visiting London, an American exchange student on my first international trip. I could legally drink hard liquor. Back home, I had been living in a state of suspended imbibe-ation: Illinois was 19-for-beer-and-wine, and I was not the type who drove to Wisconsin like a lot of people would have (OK, did) just to be able to drink more harder. I was the type who wasn’t especially even fond of American beers, because back in the 70s if you wanted a premium beer, you ordered Michelob. (Fortunately for my beer education, although I definitely do not want to get ahead of myself here, by the mid-70s the Real Ale movement was already started in Britain. The British Real Ale movement, kind of like a whiskey rebellion without the 90-proof, was the precursor, and probably the pre-curser, of the microbrew explosion here in the US. It takes a while, but people do get tired of bad beer).
However, as you surely are suspecting and probably rooting for, once I was in the British Isles (to be entirely truthful I was actually only in one British Isle; namely the actual British one, Britain) things began to slowly evolve, i.e., within hours of landing at Heathrow I was ensconced in a bottle of Scotch.
This was not my idea. I did not touch down craning my neck for the Duty-Free shops. Instead I was just really, really tired and jet-lagged, thus lowering my resistance, thus causing me to think it would be a novel idea to stay up for a second night in a row (counting the pond-hop as night one of the ordeal), thus causing me to join right in with two respected and good-hearted University of Illinois professors (my faculty advisors), and their annual ritual: yes, you guessed it I’m sure, to sit up in the hotel lounge until the bottle was emptied. I was just helping.
We had glasses, we had the alluded-to Duty-Free bottle of amber evil, we could get ice about six cubes at a time, and there were girls there for a while. I resolved to dig in for the long haul, figuring I could probably outlast professorial types in their fifties. I hadn’t counted on them being ex-Marine-buddies. I didn’t stand a chance, especially when they ganged up on me.
By 2 a.m., though, it was three on one, us against the bottle, and I won’t say I was an honorary ex-Marine or anything (even after a half-dozen Scotches I knew better than that), but a certain camaraderie develops in which even if I was willing to forgive and forget that the roommate assigned to me was a high school kid, I still didn’t want to cash it in and go upstairs.
I think I lasted until 4. I ended up stumbling along a winding British old-school funky stairway, or maybe I ascended in the wee lift, I honestly don’t remember anything except sleeping in until almost tea (that’d be supper to you Yanks) the next day.
Ever since then? I’m not that fond of Scotch. Yet . . . on a given Wednesday, faced with a small menu titled “Whiskey Wednesdays” at Sable Kitchen & Bar on North State, and the possibility of ordering an entire flight (yes, the term did bring me back subliminally at least to the thrilling days of Heathrow): sherry-cask-finished Scotches. They numbered four:
My companions-in-error were two of my sons, and we utilized the sophisticated gustatory technique of passing the glass from one hand to the next (ending of course with the guy “coming down with something”). It was easy to detect the sherry notes, but I have to admit that my palate was clueless when it came to finding cinnamon, vanilla, sugared dates (as opposed, I guessed, to normal dates?) stewed fruit, and thick clover honey. I couldn’t find the honey much less the thick clover.
It was nice that each serving came with a little description of what the drinking experience was supposed to taste like, so if you got confused you could easily resort to things like, “The palate is rich with spice, ripe banana, mango, and hazelnut,” instead of just going, “Tastes like Scotch.” And only the last one was described as peated, (rhymes with fetid) which was important in that I know I wouldn’t have ordered two “Peats” out of four, and it automatically limited me to one bad joke about Peat Rosé (that’s a blush wine mixed with Scotch). It was also fortunate that the peat-infused Scotch was last in flight order, because by the time Flight 4 was cleared for take-off I knew I’d be sufficiently primed to weather any kind of “finish.” The clear winner was Number Three, because not only did it have the best name, but also the best batting average. Not to be snooty, but I would describe the sensation like this: it tasted real good.
How’d the whole flight go, you ask? Delicious, if by delicious you mean, gone. I enjoyed the experience, but I won’t be trading, one-for-one, Kentucky for Loch Ness or anything. The experience was more fun than the whiskey was delectable, but my palate is now a lot more educated. In fact, on the way home I was able to have a conversation with my palate. It started with him asking, “What the hell was that?” Then the Marine Hymn started playing.