Ephemeris by Norm Sibum

I gave up on Sebald’s Vertigo. That I bailed on the book is not due to any exasperation on my part with the writer – far from it. Another urge, you see, muscled in to claim what remains of my attention span. So then, my first love: history. Or that which, in the minds of some critics, is every bit as much fiction, say, as Gone With the Wind or any other extravaganza that expects to have the bedroom’s reading lamp all to itself. In any case, I have taken up a hefty enough tome, one entitled Men of Art. Oh dear. The book was, for all that, published in the 30s of the previous century; it purports to present an overview of Western art from Giotto right on through to French modernism. I wanted to see how much of the author’s ‘knowledge’, locked as it was in the prejudices of his time, could withstand the inevitable dissing of the contemporary hour. At the get-go, it was clear that Mr Craven (the book’s author) read his Guicciardini and Machiavelli, but himself was no deep ponderer. If he had a penchant for Gibbon-like sentences, there are worse sentences for which to have a penchant. To wit: of Ezzelino da Romano, the first and perhaps the worst of all ‘modern’ despots, we are told that this cadaverous, ratty little monster had a passion for torture. Well, perhaps not all that Gibbon-like. But just as Romans, after a while, got to like the idea of Nero and his depravities, so too, Italians developed a soft spot in their hearts for old Ezzelino despite his cruelties. But that his cruelties were, indeed, vicious. Yes, and given time enough, and George W. Bush’s callow wit will have all the sanctity of George B. Shaw’s—Alright then, more Gibbon-like: Florence is one of the oldest Italian cities, tracing her descent from a garrison-town founded by Julius Caesar. Materially her early history is much the same as that of her sister commonwealths, but in the malignancy and permanency of her quarrels she is without peer. She could neither preserve liberty nor endure slavery, and Dante, disgusted by her instinctive restlessness, likened his city to a sick man continually changing his posture to escape pain—Moreover, the author seemed to truck with this bizarre notion that the practice of  art in Florence’s heyday was primarily a business venture, not a soul-seeking enterprise. That it looked for profits did not mean art should excuse itself from questing after spiritual and aesthestic values. Well, art is, perhaps, no less a business now, just that all too often it is, in these parts, a business of the ‘state’ at the tax-payer’s expense, and ‘art’ and ‘spirituality’ are but words one mouths so as to make it all snug and smug and legit—Would Giotto have admired our ingenious caveats in respect to what’s truly what or would he have cringed and made the sign of the cross? The apparent paradox, in the mind of a contrarian of the 1930s (who looked approvingly on Cezanne, Picasso, perhaps, another matter altogether) seems to be that the craven profit-motive produced an art so much greater than the spiritually-shrivelled goods of his day. Artists used to have something to say that could cut across the generations. Well, if the contrarian was only mildly censorious then, he would be positively rabid now, stamping a petulant foot on what was once sacred, now defiled ground—I was otherwise at a ‘do’ presided over by Juniper and his dog and cohorts such as were reading aloud passages from Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. For a moment I thought I had unaccountably wandered into a clandestine prayer meeting of early Christians and mutts able to palaver in tongues. Even more bewildering: that a certain JP caterwauled I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow in a doxological fashion. The ritual repast consisted of pizza and sauerkraut. As I lacked the courage of conviction, I passed on the body of the host. But would that I had recorded for posterity the true particulars of McGravitas’s adventures in some massage parlour—Even so, a discussion was got up as to whether the real tension in poetry’s so-called modernist phase was not so much between Eliot and Pound but rather between Yeats and Rilke. Why? I cannot now remember why, having been ambushed by the picaresque as was foisted upon a gathering of solemnities by, whom else, McGravitas, my brain etherized. But this might explain it, or that, at a certain period of my life, Yeats’s version of guarda e passa began to trump Rilke’s endless and ever-expanding soul-life. It was as if Rilke was always seeing angels, and it was getting a bit lurid. What, had that freeloader of a poet prefigured Andy Warhol and Paradise Mislaid? Even so, Juniper’s tumbledown kitchen was fairly rank with youthful erudition for a brief but heartening spell. The effers have actually read a book or three. I am, needless to say, a barbarian. Guitar Teach will testify to those credentials. Another barbarian of my acquaintance says there is nothing like an evening’s worth of bad art to attract glamour to the latest must-see exhibition. Yes, London Lunar has been having a time of it in old London town, what with his thumbs-up attendance at The Minotaur, which it is contemporary opera devoted to an old Greek myth; what with, thumbs down, the flu-bug; what with helicopters dropping from the sky; what with various Savanarolas going the rounds of various neighbourhoods, confiscating drinks, imposing the unimposable by way of ad hoc legislation of morality—I made the mistake of tuning in to the ‘inaugural’. It is that ceremony by which an American president accepts the Brass Ring he has either bought or has had bought and then thrust upon him. The bombastic trumpets, the sea of flags, the speeches of the speechifiers who, in their persons, bespeak the latest political pecking order, the official poem that would measure all measures – I might have been in Byzantium in its glory days when power, apart from the imperial soldiery, was theology. (It is still maintained that a democracy has no need of that most deeply ritualistic ascendancy of empress and emperor to a throne under God’s approving gaze, numberless courtiers and lackeys looking over their shoulders—) So that by the time one arrived at the presidential words, at last, words, all words, were long since ringing hollow. Ah, wanted: a revival of the collective spirit that made the country great. And so forth and so on. History has had this sort of request presented to it before. And the argument persists, and a political rainbow of a thousand hues continues to feed it: what manner of fellow is Current President? A pragmatist and nothing but? Closet idealist? An out-and-out puppet-attached-to-strings? P.M. Carpenter, Distinguished Political Commentator down that way, no doubt, will continue to apply his runny Cyclopic eye to the ongoing drama. He will say, in respect to the inaugural address: “Ah, good words, but watch your back, good gentle man-person and good gentle woman-person, while you decide whether or not to get behind your Chief Executive. Dastardly Republicans don’t much care how any number of stale old cookies crumble, so long as it gets them uppermost with power.” A few friends of mine, witness to the same January spectacle, the Washington Monument brooding in the camera’s eye, were uplifted a while by the presidential speech and could say they had reason for optimism. For a little while, at least—

—Note: I have a weakness for forgotten works of history. Old assumptions that only seem risible now, by some weird dialectic process, or through the agencies of sheer chance, sometimes lets one see with more clarity the current state of things than any Johnny-or-Jane-on-the-spot, stats at the ready. Sometimes. A certain Thomas Craven, Kansas-born in 1889, authored the book of art history in question above. To his credit, though he strikes me as pretty conservative, he knows the difference between a Cezanne and a hack mindlessly copying nature or the Old Masters without contributing one jot to any conversation worth having. An author’s note at the back of his book says this about the man: ‘He arrived in New York in 1912, determined to become a poet, and at once sold two poems to the American Magazine. During the next eight years he placed not a single manuscript. Mr Craven also confesses that he has proved a failure at the following occupations: newspaper reporting in Denver, school-teaching in California, night-clerking for the Santa Fe Railroad in Las Vegas, sailing before the mast into the West Indies and teaching English in Porto Rico’—I think I might have liked the guy