Ishmael and Queequeg: the Original Pan-Cultural Odd Couple?

Ishamel, the narrator of Moby-Dick, and The Pequod’s first harpoonist Queequeg may be literature’s original odd couple. Illustration by Mark Summers from Moby-Dick (facing p 78) Barnes & Noble Books.

Readers of this blog will be aware of my Melville enthusiasms.  (Ahoy, another white whale sighting dead ahead!)

I recently responded to a discussion of Moby-Dick on the Goodreads website, and then decided to share my thoughts here, slightly enhanced.

I am very happy you’re giving Moby-Dick another chance. Each time I read the book I gain a fresh and amazing experience. I wonder why Ruth gave up after 50 pages – what she mainly read was the budding friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg. Is she put off by that? I find it the most humanly engaging relationship in the book, a rare and fascinating 19th-century example of a pan-cultural brotherhood, and what Leslie Fielder once called one of the great American love stories.

Ishmael reflects: “I began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. So the soothing savage had redeemed it. There he sat, his very indifference speaking a nature in which there lurked no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits.”1

Admirably homosocial dynamics aside, I see an almost mystical love hidden in Queequeg’s request for his coffin to be built.  He recovers from his fatalistic gloom, but he has intuited the demise of the ship. After all their bonding, Queequeg has also intuitively created the richly symbolic means for his best friend to survive. In the novel’s famous last scene, the wooden coffin pops up out of the water as the ship sinks and Ishmael grabs hold of it for dear life. That “orphan” survives alone, to tell the grand tale. We all have plenty to thank Queequeg for.

I recently read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and — as much as that book offers commendably provocative (but rhetorically heavy-handed, for a storyteller) portrayals of slavery’s evil — by comparison Melville’s handling of race is far more interesting and nuanced, and insightful about the complexities of multicultural relations.

Those examples range as broadly as the comic byplay of Stubb and Fleece the black cook over the hunger-crazed sharks (CH 64),* to the classic racial confrontation and masterful pan-cultural interplay of “Forecastle — Midnight” (Ch. 40), to the devastatingly cruel treatment of Pip followed by the stunningly unexpected paternal adopting of him by Ahab, even as the black cabin boy has become psychologically disabled by his trauma at the hands of his mates and the unfathomably indifferent ocean.
And of course, there’s the delightfully odd couple, Ishmael and Queequeg (who walked away from a cushy life as Polynesian royalty to adapt to Western culture while retaining his own traditions), and Ishmael’s visit to the black church service.

Nor does Melville shy from strong storytelling by avoiding possibly stereotyping characterization, with the mysterious and ominous Asian harpooner Fedallah. But Ahab’s covert hiring of him and his gang clearly reflects the captain’s deranged monomania. We all know today thugs come in all colors.

All this is amazing for a mid-19th century author, and set a cosmopolitan standard to this day and sociologically explains part of the book’s greatness.

Further, the novella Benito Cereno brilliantly demonstrates how Melville dramatizes the tragedy of slavery while demonstrating that no race is above savagery. One question he asks here is, to what ends savagery is used and when is it ever justified? Time has shown that perhaps no author of any color or gender did better on these topics and I’m not sure if any have since.

Another thing I love about Moby-Dick is Melville’s clear and complex fascination with (and love for?)  whales, which permeates most of his writing about them (e.g. “The Grand Armada”Ch. 87, or “Does the Whale Diminish?” Ch. 105 and “The Dying Whale” Ch. 116), even aside from the purely cetological material and his one chapter of defending the “glory and honor of whaling,” which seems almost obligatory and understandably a bit defensive. Thus, the powerful and moving vividness of the Man and/vs. Nature theme.

To venture into deeper waters implicit in this theme, Melville may have chosen a white sperm whale as a symbol of what Edmund Burke called “the dynamic sublime,” and “in Ahab, Ishmael and others we see different human reactions to it,”  according to a Harper’s magazine essay written after the BP oil spill, which treatened and may have harmed, among many other creatures, the endangered sperm whale, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Modern man of power fears the whale, feels threatened by it, and is obsessed with his destruction. Modern man is driven by the desire to dominate his environment and chafes at those aspects of the world cannot control…The vision of Melville’s narration,  however, appreciates the beauty and majesty of the forces of nature even as he reckons with their power and unpredictability.” 2

Unlike Ahab, Ishmael and Queequeg especially appreciate these forces because their daunting task to kill these gigantic, magnificent creatures, for the sake of the precious oil that lights lamps and street lights. This is part of what Ishmael, a fledgling whaler as the story begins, learns from Queequeg.

Only a master harpoonist like Queequeg knows truly what a great creature he is grappling with. In one extraordinary scene ( which no filmmaker has ever managed to stage) he literally dives into the water and crawls inside a fresh whale carcass to pull out a crew member who has accidentally fallen into a cavity cut into the whale. So he’s also a sort of Jonah turned hero.

All I can say is, dive in someday yourself– say, during a damp, drizzly November in your soul or a sun-blessed August afternoon on your shoulders.

(For those who feel the need to get their feet wet first, or for a wonderful young person’s illustrated condensation of the book, I recommend Moby-Dick presented by Jan Needle and illustrated by Patrick Benson, Candlewick Press 2006. The book offers marvelously evocative artwork and a reasonably good condensation [down to 33 chapters] with explanatory chapter intros by Needle, who has been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian children’s fiction prize. See book cover below)

 In the novel, it is Fedallah, not Ahab, who gets accidentally entangled in the harpoon lines on Moby Dick.



1 Chapter 10 – “A Bosom Friend” Moby-Dick  or, The Whale, Herman Melville,  A Longman Critical Edition, Ed. John Bryant and Haskell Springer, Pearson Longman 2007, 62

*a good discussion of Fleece’s black dialect is in the”revision narrative” footnote (p 265) to the Longman Critical Edition, mentioned in my footnote above.

2  Melville — What the Whale Teaches Us —

You Doubt Ryan Thinks of Humans as Mathematical Digits?

Paul Ryan practices his squeeze-the-money-out handshake with a Republican in a Chicago fund-raising event. Courtesy Publius Forum 

Below is a little exchange for those who think my first post about Paul Ryan was simplistically reductive by characterizing him as a right-wing ideologue budget geek who sees humanity in terms of mathematical digits

Take a look at this You tube chat with Bill Clinton. The ex-president somewhat disingenuously says he hopes the Democratic win in New York won’t be “an excuse to do nothing ” about Medicare. He’s surely well aware of the The Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan.

Ryan paints himself as the hero rising to save America from the morass of political paralysis, then adds: “We know the math, but we had to put ourselves out there,” pumping Clinton’s hand. “It’s all about the math. The ex-prez may have met his match as a political schmoozer, with this blue-eyed, iron-pumping bizarrely friendly, Ayn Rand-reading Catholic family man.

The Simpson-Bowles plan has as accurate and effective mathematics as anything proposed, but it doesn’t drain the blood of the middle and lower class and the sick and disabled, so that the superrich 1% can gorge themselves into utter grotesqueness. The Ryan Republicans have cravenly fought the proposal into paralysis, at every turn. Even reflexively moderate met Mitt Romney told Sean Hannity recently “My plan is very similar to the Simpson-Bowles plan.” It won’t be when his VP-candidate gets his mitts on it.

As Joe Klein of Time rhetorically asks, should Pres. Obama make a make a strong case for the Simpson-Bowles plan, perhaps in his convention speech?

“Absolutely. It’s called leadership.”

Otherwise we may be doomed to the horrors of “Mittamorphosis” (see previous posting), a president transformed into right-wing, bloodsucking creepy crawly that Kafka never quite dreamed of.


As Mittor Romsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams…

The literary geek in me couldn’t resist this posting — a devilishly ingenious mockup from the Pragmatic Progressive Facebook page.

And to go to the source of the inspiration I offer this:

“What about sleeping a little longer and forgetting all this nonsense, he thought, but it could not be done, for he was accustomed to sleeping on his right side and in his present condition he could not turn himself over…”

Now, poor Mittor had Paul Ryan lying on top of him. He could no longer even budge!

“…His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared with the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.” (from The METAMORPHOSIS — Franz Kafka)!/PragProgPage

Franz Kafka “The Metamorphosis” from Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, 1883-1924  Schocken Classics  p. 89


Paul Ryan: The Story of the Peanut Butter-munching Automaton and his Granny

The Wisconsin recall election was really “all about courage.” – Rep. Paul Ryan.Ready for another heaping helping of courage? It’s truly bizarre, this new species of corn-fed Republican extremist being grown in progressive Wisconsin, home of Fighting Bob La Follette. Presumptive Republican Vice President-nominee Paul Ryan (right, above) and Gov. Scott Walker seem to earn half their votes with their disingenuous boyish charm.

It’s partly because they’ve never really grown up. Life is still a game of Monopoly, for them. Both strategize by masterfully manipulating numbers — dollars and statistics — as if abstract numbers are all that count in the world any more. What strikes me most about Paul Ryan is that this self-described geek (who, gee whiz, loves his peanut butter and honey sandwiches) is a pure numbers man, a weird sort of breathing automaton.

Yes, we need to do something about the deficit, but virtually every effective administration has functioned with a deficit. And this most extreme shortfall is courtesy, of course, of the last Republican administration, which went hog-wild with defense spending, and then dawdled while New Orleans drowned.

Of course, unlike even many mainstream Republicans today, hawk-boy Ryan still thinks if we keep throwing incalculable numbers of young Americans into harms way on the other side of the world, we can solve all the problems of ancient societies and cultures which we understand poorly, and have no right to to attack, unless they have attacked us. It’s a demonstrably outmoded mega-military mentality.

Now comes Ryan, posturing as if the deficit is all President Obama’s fault, and threatening to gut or eliminate Medicare, Social Security, food stamps and virtually all the social safety nets of our civil society.

The problem is, as a budget geek legislator, all he seems to know and understand is numbers. People are merely big, cumbersome numbers to him — to be jiggered around and preferably away, because they complicate his brilliant computations with their unpredictable (and predictable) human needs to survive. He is the essence of the contemporary technocrat geek, divorced from human reality.

Well, surprise, Rep. Ryan, any way you slice or dice these numbers, most of them represent vital support for living human beings — who work (or try to), procreate (like pro-life Republicans insist they should), bleed suddenly or suffer slowly, grow old, or die before their time.

Meet America, Congressman.

So Ryan keeps smiling and arguing about numbers, as if his god, Math-is Maximus, will solve all our problems.

Oh, we now know he’s a workout fanatic because his father and grandfather both died before age 55 from heart attacks.

But what if his heart genetically fails him at age 52 — disabling him? Well, he can probably afford his own private health care. But most other 52-year-olds in the same situation – or a myriad of disastrous other ones — who end up losing their jobs couldn’t afford care under his plan, because they will have no disability safety net.

Just take a voucher, he’d say, and good luck. But you should’ve worked out even harder!

Survival of the Fittest, the Luckiest and the Richest, who pay nothing extra to cut the deficit — that’s Ryan’s plan.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the top ranking Democrat on the House budget committee, says Ryan still refuses any compromise. We want to improve the quality of programs not cut the quantity, Van Hollen says.

Ryan wants a neat, streamlined, mathematical, cold-blooded policy. Pure genius, Congressman.

I can imagine what he’d do if his own grandmother’s wheelchair failed and she rolled screaming down a hill.

How convenient. He’d scratch his head for a moment, and continue tabulating and subtracting. And now, smiling for the cameras.

That takes real “courage.” I can think of other words for it.

Is She Safe Because Buddha is on the Smart Phone?

A test of “total recall.” Do you recall this scene from “Night of the Living Dead”?

A Sunday op-ed page essay and a blog post got me thinking a bit more about my recent “smart phone zombie” post, because I’d been debating with myself whether I was too much of a scold — even given the very scary car-death statistics and the troubling societal research.

The smartly serene Buddha sightings by the blogger Myth Girl in her review of the remake of Total Recall

got me pondering about how that great Buddhist wisdom of being “in the moment” is more pressing the more we accumulate memories over time. Not to devalue history, which I hunger to know and understand with every passing day, as humanity seems to not heed its lessons. I argued that such healthy mindfulness of the moment seems compromised these days by an over-involvement with personal electronic devices while out in society and in nature. The Buddha may have known we’d consequently endanger ourselves while operating lethal weapons– like cars. So her foot is perpetually off the pedal while doing what she does best — meditate and transmit wisdom.

Certainly there’s plenty of wisdom to be found on the Internet but I fear all too often that people are gleaning information at best on their mini porta-brains. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as the Seinfeld gang might say.

But it begs the question of how much these things are really helping our intelligence, and guiding us into a future of unlimited human potential. Naysayers have been telling us for a while that “Google may be making us stupid.” That’s debatable. Harvard professor of psychology Daniel Wegner gravitates to a reassuring standpoint in his New York Times Sunday Review column of August 5.

The illustration accompanying his column shows smart phone users walking around with their heads in one big shared cloud.

That alludes of course to the “cloud” of “linked people and specialized information field devices” that makes Internet sharing so intoxicatingly empowering, as we seem to be drawing from intelligence of virtually anyone and anything online.

. Of course the head-in-the-clouds metaphor can drift a different way, with an older meaning, depending on how the person is actually using their smart phone.

Wegner points out that the more forward-looking view is to accept the role of the Web as a mind expander and “wonder not at the bad but at the good it can do us.”

You know how full of a glass he’s drinking on this subject. He says that each time we learn who knows something or where (his italics) we can find information we are expanding our mental reach. This is the basic idea behind so-called transactive memory, he explains, a psychological theory that provides a way to understand “the group mind.”

That term makes me nervous in itself, of course, recalling Orwellian  “group think.” But  to illustrate the value of the “group mind,” the professor tells us of sharing “domestic memory duties” with his wife. I did that when I was married and certainly as a bookish single person I draw from many books and other sources I have not committed to memory, partly through my personal but hardly unique method of page-numbered note taking in the backs of books I read, and my messy files of underlined article clippings ( and yes, my seemingly bursting electronic “Favorites” file).

So I hope I can happily be among those who stay “plugged in,” rather than fall behind with what he terms the cowering “neo-Luddites.”

Nevertheless Dr. Wegner’s column fails to address all the people killing themselves and others while texting in cars and seemingly becoming socially atrophied by their self-involvement with their computers, whether at home or in public. I love the idea of social media, or I wouldn’t be Facebooking, friending and blogging (and trying, though not very successfully, to get people to respond to my posts:)).

But might we wonder how much all our digital social interaction is truly present “in the moment” rather than virtual, as the Buddha might say. After all, we never really know — except on Skype — whether there is a genuinely Buddha-like smile on the face of an electronic respondent, or whether it is a more calculated expression, that reflects our vulnerability to online manipulation.  When we’re all basically doing Skype online this concern may seem silly neo-Luddite hand wringing, so I’ll end (almost) with that hopeful “when and if.”

But I still want smarter-than-me smart-phone embracers to address those troubling issues not related to mind expanding.

After all, to aid your partial recall of my original posting, as a baby boomer, I’ve been a proponent of mind expansion for decades (and here I should insert a slightly stoned smiley face, although these days I would only use herb for pain management.)

So what you think? Is there little to worry about in the smart phone cloud?

Will we learn how to use our rampant, amazing technology for all the power and promise it seems to offer? Or will this morph into the manufactured Godzilla from Night of the Living Dead (see photo) that finally does turn and devour us because we are helpless to resist, as individuals, as a society and a culture?


Why Gore Vidal (1925-2012) Still Matters

Gore Vidal: Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Gore Vidal: John Lennon was a born enemy of those who control the United States, which I always say was admirable. Lennon came to represent life, while Mr. Nixon… and Mr. Bush… represent death.

The first quote by Vidal is one of the most famous by a person who was still living this week. It’s just fame derives from its pithy characterization of how deviously politicians, preachers and other influence-peddlers can rhetorically wrap themselves up in the Stars & Stripes, and become Teflon disparagers and demonizers of anyone who expresses political dissent, especially regarding the policies and institutions of United States.

I have a great love of America in the great, broad sense of the name, which implicitly includes the whole New World — North, Central and South America. I have a far more uneasy emotional and intellectual relationship with the United States, per se. I understand and love America especially for its indigenous culture and the way that  culture has inherently informed and shaped our society and our democratic politics, although this is a still-underexplored relationship, which I have attempted to deal with in my hopefully forthcoming book Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy.

But today I commemorate Gore Vidal, who died Tuesday, August 2, 2012, and who may have been the greatest living essayist in America, as his definitive collection United States: Essays 1952 to 1992 will demonstrate to anyone who dips into it. This monumental anthology ought to be instructive to anyone today who strives to communicate articulately through writing, especially in the no-holds-barred electronic media. So yes, I’m talking about bloggers, like myself. Vidal’s writing helps to give me pause, to reflect how much craft went into his essay writing. Whereas one must wonder how much care, deliberation and craft goes into blogging these days, when the pressure is always to churn out something new and maybe flashy, provocative or trendy that Internet browsers might just latch onto.

That’s not all bad, of course. Vidal was a brilliant provocateur. Note that Vidal’s comments about John Lennon suggest that the most outspoken of the Beatles implicitly criticized the United States for using its then-supreme post-Cold War political and military power as a warring empire. Lennon, by contrast came to represent life, as epitomized in this great song of societal idealism “Imagine.”

So I choose to commemorate Vidal for the critical thinking that permeates the magnificent volume of essays. Thus, he titled it United States rather than America — had it been titled the latter, I suspect it would’ve been a more celebratory collection.

Rather in the volume’s “State of the Union” section, various essays critique the political nation-state that elided or institutionalized oppression at home and whose main international presence has been its military muscle — and the emotional and quasi-intellectual trait that most often buttresses and informs it: patriotism.

Accordingly, I quote from his essay “Patriotism,” written originally for The Nation July 15 – 22, 1991.

Vidal — though he could sometimes adopt a patrician tone of superiority — began in self-deprecating style, recounting when he attended a Gore family reunion in Mississippi, as former Vice President Al Gore is a cousin of his:

“I knew no one at the gathering but I was at home. Who would not be when confronted with 200 variations of one’s own nose and elephantine ears? These clan reunions that are taking place all over the country are not a WASP phenomenon. Blacks have been searching out their roots for some time, while the original “Americans” never ceased to honor their tribal ghosts, just about all that we have left of them. Hispanics now live in blithe unassimilated enclaves in what Mexicans still refer to as the occupied lands seized by us from Mexico. Meanwhile, American Jews gaze raptly upon the recently exhumed ‘homeland’ half a world away from North America, and though most of them sensibly refused to go there to live, they allow the rest of us to finance (officially at a cost thus far of over $50 billion [as of 1991]) this land other Jews have occupied.

“Is it any wonder that, in the absence of an agreed-upon nation, our many tribes are unfurling their standards and casting even wider the webs of kinship for mutual support and defense against the state that no one loves? If the Vice President and Secretary of Defense chose not to fight for their country in Vietnam,* why should anyone fight for their country?

“Suddenly all our turkeys are coming home to roost; and the skies are dark with their unlovely wings while the noise of their gobbling makes hideous Sunday television… We can do nothing at all. Jefferson foresaw the eventual degradation or her system and he suggested that we hold a constitutional convention once a generation. But neither our rulers nor their hapless critics will allow such a thing (“You see, they will take away the Bill of Rights”); plainly it is more seemly to allow the Supreme Court to take it away…

“In due course, the idea of the nation-state may become as obsolete as the nation-state, in fact, already is…In any case, it will be the collapse of the world’s already skewed economy that will make for great change, not the firing of a patriot’s gun at some national security fort.”2

You begin to see how uncannily prescient Vidal was — commenting on the transformational disaster of the world economy collapse, 17 years after he predicted it. And he certainly is provocative in questioning why anyone should fight for their country. This would seem to devalue the heroic efforts of veterans, but they, as individual soldiers, should be valorized and supported, even if most of America’s 20 and 21st century military exploits for which they were used (save World War II) remain eminently worthy of criticism. That is Vidal’s point, how the nation-state asserts its will and righteousness militarily, and now preemptively — often in the name of democracy.

And as a gay man, he surely spoke from first-hand experience as a member of an oppressed minority group driven to self-protective identity tribalism. He helped open the door to mainstream discourse for other gays — a testament to his creative powers, shrewdness and rhetorical skills — and perhaps his privileged background. But Vidal is not all gloom and doom. He ends the essay hopefully and yet with a characteristic provocation that shows you could never pin him down politically:

“From the one many. That could be our happy fate in a single, interdependent world, with no flags to burn, no guns to be shot in anger, no—dare I propose so dangerous proposition? — Taxation without representation? In short a new world disorder. Freedom, justice for all. CNN too. In hoc signo… (“in this sign you will conquer”.)

I would not have been so struck by Vidal’s early ’90s insights and critical acumen if I had not just read an essay by Nathaniel Berman in the Summer 2012 issue of Tikkun, the excellent and courageous magazine of “politics spirituality and culture.”

Berman’s article is Statism and Anti-statism: Reflections on Israel’s Legitimacy Crisis. And it delineates the complicated array of small groups, movements and sentiments that question the legitimacy of the state of Israel, which has increasingly used its U.S. – supported nation-states militia power in an oppressive and belligerent manner. Berman quotes provocatively lines “certain to shock American Zionists in the year 2012 “: ‘…For we preach anarchism. That is, we do not want a state, but rather a free society… We as Jews know enough of the dreadful idolatry of the state.. To pray to it and to offer our children as a willing sacrifice to its unquenchable greed and lust for power. We Jews are not Staatsvolk.’”  The quote is from the young Gershom Scholem in 1915, a passionate Zionist who Berman asserts “would become (though without retaining his youthful political radicalism) arguably the most important Jewish scholar past hundred years.”

Like the elder Scholem, I hardly see myself as a radical, but these ideas — commingling among Vidal, Berman and Scholem — make eminent sense in the chaotic world we live in today. The way we learn to co-exist in ”a single interdependent world, with no flags to burn, no guns to be shot in anger,” as Vidal put it, may be key to avoiding Armageddon, or the survival of the planet, if it does not fall to uninhabitable ruin from environmental abuse.

I would hardly advocate dismantling of our government — especially for all the domestic social good for the sick and needy, and the business empowerment it historically has provided. But perhaps a constitutional convention, as Vidal and Jefferson suggested, would help us remove such archaic albatrosses as the Electoral College, for example. (Talk about disproportionate taxation without representation!).

And note that Vidal also predicted in 1991 how the Supreme Court has become a political entity far more than a true judiciary one. One could argue our Bill of Rights has been undermined by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. In deeming that a corporation is an individual with the right to spend unlimited money on political influence, the court fabricated, out of sheer judicial hubris, a gargantuan mock American citizen. What corporation has ever, or will ever cast a vote in an election? How many persons of a corporation truly represent “citizens united,” apart from the one CEOs and shareholders  at the top one per cent? And yet, with that Supreme ruling, we now watch many millions of dollars influence a presidential election (and in my own state of Wisconsin, a gubernatorial recall election) far, far more than any individual citizen’s vote ever will. So our right to cast a vote as a citizen has been profoundly undermined.

So I do begin to see why a Vidal was worthy of the National Book Award for his collection of astonishingly trenchant critical writing about literature, culture and The United States. The deeply erudite Vidal was also a penetrating historical novelist, as he proved in such books as Burr and Lincoln (virtually definitive on their subjects) among others, and a brilliant social satirist, as in Myra Breckenridge.

Gore Vidal was not a patriot in the conventional sense because, as he notes in the beginning of the essay, that term is etymologically patriarchal and contributed to devaluing the role of women in shaping America, and thus devaluing their power and rights. Yet, Vidal was a great American in the best sense, capable of insightful dissent and constructive and, against bleak odds, hopeful criticism, inspired by all that he understood America has become and might still be.

May his writing, and the high standard it forged, live on for all who strive to essay in any medium.


*Vidal was referring — to under George HW Bush — Dan Quayle and Dick Cheney, who despite getting five draft deferments to avoid serving in Vietnam, became perhaps the most war-mongering administration member in modern American history, both as Secretary of Defense and then as Vice President under George W. Bush. As Melville wrote:

youth must its ignorant impulse lend —

Age finds place in the rear.

all wars are boyish, and are fought by boys

the champions and enthusiasts of the state.

— from “The March to Virginia” in Battle Pieces



2 Gore Vidal, United States: Essays 1952 – 1992 Broadway Books 1993, p. 1046-47

First Photo of Gore Vidal, courtesy of Two Roads Diverged: Gay Men and Women Who’ve Made a Difference.

Second Vidal photo courtesy of blog at


Rediscovering a Cezanne Chateau in my Basement

In celebration of the new home and PBS documentary of the extraordinary Barnes art collection (see below) I offer my humble rendering of a Cézanne painting, which he did in oil on canvas c. 1898, and I drew in pencil (and charcoal) originally in 2003. This is actually a detail — the actual drawing is several inches taller and wider than my scanner screen.

I rediscovered this drawing a few days ago, tucked away in an old sketchbook in my basement and dragged it upstairs. After enduring several of my residence moves and incalculable jostlings of the sketchbook (which spent quite a while in the trunk of my car), the drawing had become somewhat smudged, and I realized it needed stronger dynamic contrasts. I had originally done the whole thing in pencil. So now I pulled out and sharpened a charcoal pencil and began to dig into the drawing with it. I also added significant pencil detail to what I had done in 2003 and provided contrast highlights through erasures.

The original painting is titled In the Park at Château Noir and it is in the Louvre in Paris. You can see a reproduction of it on page 253, plate 49 in the catalog Cézanne: The Late Work published by the Museum of Modern Art.

So I had suddenly rekindled my interest and passion for Cézanne. I had gone to New York to see the exhibit Cézanne: The Late Work in 1977. There I also saw the jazz guitarist John Abercrombie wandering wide-eyed through the crowd with a female companion, which seemed entirely apropos, given his highly textural and oddly lyrical impressionist playing style, extensively documented on ECM Records.

I began reworking my drawing ”after Cezanne,” one day before discovering the news about the Barnes collection, which is to be housed in a brand-new museum in Philadelphia and will be subject of a PBS documentary telecast for the first time tonight August 3, 2012.

Among its other distinctions, the Barnes collection claims to have more works by Cézanne than does the Louvre. But it’s a wide ranging collection of both impressionist and post-impressionist painters and artists.

Like many others, I consider Cézanne the father of modern art in that he opened the door to abstraction while delving as deeply into physical reality in a “deconstructive” mode as one could possibly imagine. One can easily see how this work led to Cubism but what truly impressed and moved me was the struggle contained within his art, which many people have commented on. It was an internal dialectic of visual tension what Hans Hoffman called the “push pull.” It was like Cézanne was trying to break the physical world down into its atomic parts and reassemble it again.

But his technology was merely the timeless oils and canvas done en plein air in the rough-hewn hills and valleys and peaks of France, especially his obsession, Mount St. Victoire.

His work always captured that rough-and-tumble quality of the rural French landscape; and because of that some people questioned his technical abilities, as they often did another modern art genius, jazzman Thelonious Monk. Actually a Cézanne painting would fit perfectly as the cover art for a Monk album, with the painter’s highly charged, asymmetric brushstrokes, echoing Monk’s inimitable attack of the keyboard and wonderfully woozy and ragged-jagged melodies. Both Cézanne and Monk were absolute originals and visionaries who transformed their art forms and thus will be remembered long after countless artistic and musical technicians are forgotten.