A Lean Knife Between the Ribs of Time

To Hugo, the cathedral, with its heavy towers and its soaring spire leaping weightlessly heavenwards, was a book in which, over the course of two centuries of construction, builders and masons and architects and worshipers had inscribed their thoughts. Passersby and worshipers could read their hopes and see the spots that marked their transit from birth to oblivion. Their labor wrote sentences in the stone, paragraphs; it built a cathedral. It was not merely a sermon in stone; it was a symphony, made up of innumerable voices. Yet, as it turned out, it was not simply the act of building it that consecrated it, but that people continued to read it and inscribe stories in it…

bosieThis article, from Alexandra Petri in The Washington Post, on Notre Dame de Paris as “a great stone book” had me thinking again about art as a desire to speak across time.

It reminded me of Lord Alfred Douglas’s City of the Soul, written while Douglas was living with Oscar Wilde in Naples.

Each new hour’s passage is the acolyte

Of inarticulate song and syllable,

And every passing moment is a bell,

To mourn the death of undiscerned delight.

Where is the sun that made the noon-day bright,

And where the midnight moon? O let us tell,

In long carved line and painted parable,

How the white road curves down into the night.

Only to build one crystal barrier

Against this sea which beats upon our days ;

To ransom one lost moment with a rhyme

Or if fate cries and grudging gods demur,

To clutch Life’s hair, and thrust one naked phrase

Like a lean knife between the ribs of Time.

Naples, 1897.


A Post-Cathedral World

I have edited this post a number of times over the past couple of days because something has been eating at me. It has taken me a while to process why I have been feeling so dispirited and to put it in words.

Today I did some reading of articles posted on blogs by other people who were grieving over the fire at Notre Dame de Paris– fortunately the damage was not as devastating as we feared it might be, but it was a loss none the less.

“There are few events these days that garners the same response from everyone. In a hyper-polarized culture, there are often several interpretations of events and even tragedies rather than a collective response,” wrote Karina Reddy-Brooks. “When the 850 year old Notre Dame de Paris caught fire Monday night, we saw one of these events that united us in our grief.”

It reminded us, wrote Brendan O’Neil, of the importance of human legacy.

What the widespread humanist concern for the fate of Notre Dame spoke to is people’s continued attachment to the ideal of legacy, to what is in many ways the founding principle of human civilisation: that we transmit culture and knowledge and art from one generation to the next. We recognised that the flames were consuming more than wood and stone; they were consuming tradition, the past itself. And for all of today’s cult of the new, most people recognise that our societies and our lives only make sense as a result of the gains of the past transmitted to us by our elders, which we then transmit to the next generation.

It was, wrote John Pavlovitz, “a reminder that we belong to one another.”

This, I think, is the crux of my ennui.  If we did have that feeling, I wish we could have held it longer.

For most Americans, Notre Dame is distant. It is a vacation destination. And perhaps this is why a burning French cathedral didn’t pull us together for as long as it might have. The feeling of unity lasted a few hours, maybe, before we went back to our regular causes and narratives and made the fire at Notre Dame a symbol of them.

Inevitably, these kinds of posts emerged on Twitter and Facebook from people I follow because I value their diverse points of view.

“Why are you grieving Notre Dame when you didn’t grieve… the burning of African-American churches, the victims of colonialism, this mosque that was destroyed, the victims of the worst crimes of the Catholic church…”

If you feel a connection to that place, to Paris and to Notre Dame, and if you have a long time interest in history and preservation, and the “angels in the architecture” of churches, (see my earlier article on the damage to the steeple of a Detroit church) then of course you grieve the loss of irreplaceable art, architecture, places of cultural and historical significance. Of course you do.

But suddenly in the funhouse mirror, being  moved by something outside of your daily life and concerns becomes evidence that you are not sufficiently compassionate or deep.

I am not the only one who has expressed this feeling.

A fellow Unitarian Universalist who I follow on twitter, Adrian L.H. Graham wrote:

“I can, and often do, hold many sadnesses within me in any given moment. I don’t share all of them; that would be tedious and exhausting. Some of my sadnesses are numbing. Some of them so sudden and unexpected that they cannot be contained and they pour out from me. I am not going to apologize for being sad about the fire at Notre Dame; and I’m not going to be bullied into feeling shame about it, either.”

Kim at Traveling with Books also felt compelled to defend her grief and to post a list of other tragedies and destruction of artifacts from other cultures and recognize that they also matter.

Ironically, Kim and Adrian and I are probably feeling this way precisely because we have tried to fill our feeds with diverse voices. It is because we actually do care that we are feeling shamed for caring about this particular thing.

And to be quite honest, while I am horrified whenever I hear about the destruction of an irreplaceable object from some other culture– a statue, a library, a Mosque, a Buddhist shrine–I do not experience it as the same visceral gut punch because I am not as close to it. I lived outside Paris for a short but significant time in my life. Notre Dame was the first place I experienced that sense of the mystic nature of places. Even though I am not Catholic, those European works of devotional art are part of my own cultural heritage. I experience the loss of it in a different way. How could it be otherwise?

This issue came up before in the wake of terrorist attacks in France and this is what I said at the time:

I am saddened when someone in my city dies. I am more saddened when someone in my neighborhood dies. I actively grieve and mourn when a friend dies. And when a member of my family dies, a part of me dies with him. How would you feel, then, if someone told you your mourning for your friend was misplaced because you were not equally mourning for everyone who had died that day in a similar fashion?

Today it seems clear that the damage at Notre Dame was not as extensive as we originally feared, and as the hope of what can be rebuilt starts to displace the grieving over what was lost, I find that I am mourning something else.

I am mourning the sense that the cathedral united us.

“…modern people are disinclined to pay for the past,” wrote Steve A. Wiggins, “and some analysts are saying that lack of funds for regular upkeep of the cathedral over many years are at least partially behind the tragedy.  Monuments that have stood for centuries require constant care, but it’s so easy to take them for granted.  Cathedrals aren’t just religious buildings.  They are humanistic in the sense that they stand for our natural tendency to create great markers of our time on earth.  So very human.  Many human acts we wish to erase, but some represent a loss to the very soul of our species when they’re gone…Symbols of the unity of a nation, demanding resources beyond what could really be afforded, cathedrals served to unite.”

Today we live “in a post-cathedral world.”

I wish we’d held on to that sense of common purpose a little bit longer.

The Mystic Nature of Places

Years ago, long before I’d written any books, I was walking in London. A stranger came up to me and he said he could see my aura. He said the spirits were talking to him and they had a message for me. They said I should be writing and I wasn’t. They said that “the mystic nature of places” was how I would connect.

Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

My first novel was all about the mystic nature of places. It was about mountains and cathedrals, spaces of such grandeur that they inspire awe. The grand cathedrals, like the mountains, are ancient enough to inspire temporal as well as spatial awe. In their presence you become small and for a moment you are reminded of your proper relationship to the forces of the universe– humility, reverence, wonder, gratitude. There is an interruption. A call to contemplation and silence.

Do you remember the first time you experienced that sense of displacement and image1wonder? I do. I was a 16 year old exchange student and my host family took me to Notre Dame. I had not toured Europe or seen great stone cathedrals. I was not Catholic. So the power of the space surprised me.

I lived outside Paris in 1985 and 86, before the days of ubiquitous photography. This fading snapshot is the only picture I got. Looking at this picture, I see that there must have been crowds, but I don’t remember them. I remember the negative space, the silence, the sunlight streaming through the rose window, the candles lit for memory. I wondered, “How didn’t I know this? That a building could do this?”

I tried to look back on my old diaries from the period and realized quickly that at 16 I would not have had the language for what I remember feeling. But perhaps I had to be that age to experience the fullness of that moment and to remember it as transformative.

There are utilitarian places–places created to be filled by people who are busy doing things. Then there are places that are created for people to experience. The architecture itself defines the mood and the spirit you are supposed to have inside. The spirit is waiting for you before you enter.

A grand cathedral is different from a mountain. It is the embodiment of history, culture and values. As you stand in your smallness, you realize that you only hold this splendid torch of life for a moment and you have a responsibility to pass the torch, to breathe in all that the walls contain, the years of art and culture, all we have said and painted and sung; our baptisms, weddings, funerals. You are small, but the weight of all of these fleeting moments is huge.

No one knows who first built Notre Dame de Paris. But whoever they are, they are there centuries later.

I must have carried that moment with me when I traveled to Mount Rainier and found myself wondering what a mountain and a church have in common. I must have carried it with me over the years that I made that my main writing exercise.

Paul knew that there was a value in architecture, in arts, in beautiful things. Why do those things matter? Because they do. The only way to make a convincing argument for architecture is with poetry, and people who don’t care for art are immune to poetic language as well. You either understand it in your soul or you don’t.”

I heard someone today say that he was not feeling emotional about the fire at Notre Dame. He said that he was sure the French would rebuild. I believe that is true. But there is a time to every purpose under heaven. There is a time to rebuild and rise from the ashes and there is a time to mourn what is lost. At this moment it is a time to mourn.


Robert Ross Celebration Dinner

On May 24, the Oscar Wilde Society is holding a dinner to celebrate Robert Ross‘s 150th birthday. (The sound you just heard was Lord Alfred Douglas screaming in his grave.)

I happen to have recently come across a report originally printed the Boston Transcript on the first celebratory dinner in recognition of Ross’s handling of the Wilde estate.  (These excerpts are actually from the Nebraska State Journal, which on January 14, 1909, printed the wire piece.)

The 1909 dinner celebrating Ross was the spark that finally exploded the friendship between Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas. When we see such a bitter feud, we instinctively look for a profound cause. Often, in life, a small thing is enough. In this case, it was Douglas’s ungraciousness when Ross finally achieved his goal of putting out Wilde’s complete works and paying off his bankruptcy.

Douglas was frustrated that Robert Ross was increasingly celebrated for his friendship with Wilde, while he was still viewed as a scandalous figure for his own friendship with him. Douglas had always been proud of how he stood by Wilde, and he was jealous at how people were now talking about Ross as if he was Wilde’s only true friend. (This seems to have been mutual. It always rubbed Ross the wrong way when Douglas claimed to be Wilde’s truest friend.) He was frustrated that Ross was able to remain respectable in society while maintaining the type of secret life that Douglas had renounced and gotten no credit for. The celebratory dinner brought out all of these unpleasant emotions. Douglas became peevish and unpleasant.

He publicly criticized Ross’s handling of the Wilde estate in his literary journal The Academy. Ross might have been able to put up with that, but Douglas’s decision not to attend the celebratory dinner at all (and to grumble to mutual friends about it) was the final straw.  Knowing this context, you can read between the lines and see that the slight was still bothering Ross on his big night.

It was the only blemish on an otherwise wonderful evening. There were about 200 luminaries in attendance.


Ross gave a gracious speech full of self-depreciating humor.


The friend that Ross is about to mention in this next passage is undoubtedly Lord Alfred Douglas.


After a brief discussion of the work he did, and making it clear that he did not pay off Wilde’s debts from his own pocket (and a long defense of German art and culture) he went on to clarify that he was not the only person who had stood by Wilde in his hour of need. A perceptive and prophetic line here is “…it is only an accident which made me the symbol of their friendship…”

Finally, the Boston Transcript reporter spoke to Ross after the event.


The Happy End Male vs. Female II

I have frequently written here about what is considered to be an appropriate ending for a story. Five years ago I first wrote about my observation that what counted as a happy ending varied depending on whether the character was male or female.

The male character faces daunting obstacles and overcomes them and the story ends with his victory. The female character faces obstacles and has a victory by deciding “I don’t need this. I am fine jut as I am.” Like Dorothy waking up in Kansas, “there is no place like home.” Whatever journey the female character takes in the world, it is really an inner journey to find self-esteem and emotional support.

The writer Catherine Nichols summed up the state of things by saying “…I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition.”

We have learned from our stories to be like the betas Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”

“I’m awfully glad I am a beta.”

Today I was thinking about a film that came out my freshman year of college. “Punchline” starring Sally Field and Tom Hanks. It did not receive good reviews, but I remember enjoying it at the time.


As I am talking about endings, what follows will contain spoilers.

When I saw the movie back then I gave the ending very little thought.  What stuck with me more was how Taylor Negron said “area rug.” (This joke has not aged well.)


Looking back though I realized that “Punchline” does something fairly unusual. It tries to wrap things up with both the male and the female happy end in a single story. All it needs is a little self-sacrifice on the part of the female character.

Tom Hanks plays Steve, a gifted but struggling comic who works in a mid-level comedy club. He tells an agent that if she is going to bring in someone to discover him, she’d better do it soon because “funny Steve is going under.”

Sally Fields is Lilah a New Jersey housewife who has long harbored a secret dream of being a comedian. It is an ambition her husband does not understand. Her desire to be on stage, and her time away from the family, puts a strain on her marriage. Lilah asks funny Steve to teach her the ropes. He helps her to develop her comic voice and to gain confidence and self-esteem. (So she’s already won!) She helps him to be more stable emotionally.

The dream of being a comic causes strain between both protagonists and their families. In Steve’s case, his choice has disappointed his father, who has been paying for him to attend medical school. In Lilah’s case, it puts strain on her marriage because she is not home as often as she was before. So two people with variations on the same problem.

The rule for how a conflict between relationships and dream/duty is resolved differs according to the gender of the character. The male character, when faced with disapproval from his parents or spouse is supposed to rebel against those constraints, follow his true path, and by succeeding gain the respect of his family. The female character is supposed to chose happy relationships over the goal. And this is how we get to the “double happy ending” of Punch Line.

The story leads up to a big comedy competition between the regulars at the club. The prize is discovery and a chance for a slot on a big time talk show. Even though all the comedians think Steve had the best set, the judges split three to two in favor of Lilah. Lilah, on learning this, decides to walk away and not accept the prize allowing the person who needs comedy more (Steve) to live his dream. Lilah decides that her dream is really to focus on her family and to maintain a hobby working at a mid-level comedy club from time to time. Steve’s happy end is having his genius and hard work finally rewarded. Lilah’s is discovering that she is good, and that she doesn’t need worldly success to confirm it. Her choice is presented as wise and noble.

“Alpha children… work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta…”

There is nothing essentially wrong with either narrative. In life, there are times when it is wise to go against the world in order to fulfill a duty or follow a dream. There are other times when it is wise to surrender those goals and prioritize things like relationships or emotional well-being.  The problem is that each gender has limited choices and responses in our stories.





Can Women Assemble Furniture?

Pocket EncyclopediaI have a theory that blogs all consist of people responding to their social media feeds.  Mine seems to be.

Today I was browsing my Twitter feed, and I came across an article that said “New research has found that more than 1 in 5 female students have previously been told that they cannot or should not do something because they are a woman.”

The number one thing that the survey respondents reported they’d been discouraged from doing (73% gave this answer) was “build flat-pack furniture.”

As it happens, I wrote a bit about gender differences in assembling furniture in the new edition of The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation.  So I thought I would share it with you:

Some Assembly Required

When you walked through the clean, stylish Swedish furniture store, you imagined yourself living in the perfectly decorated mini-rooms with pleasure and optimism. Then you took home a box of wooden slats, metal bolts and a diagram. Your future began to seem much less rosy very fast. If figuring out how to get part A into slot B has driven you to utter choice four letter words, throw things around the room; even threatened to derail your marriage, you are not alone.

It seems that IKEA related complaints come up frequently in couples therapy. “Couples tend to extrapolate from the small conflicts that arise while shopping for and building furniture that perhaps they aren’t so made for one another after all,” Maisie Chou Chaffin, a London-based clinical psychologist told The Atlantic.

There are real gender differences, and gendered cultural expectations, about the assembly of furniture. A few years ago after Norway’s prime minister accused IKEA of sexism for showing only men in its instruction manuals, the company responded by adding more women and arguing that, in fact, women were better at assembling their products than men were. Petra Hesser, who was then the head of IKEA’s Germany division said “A woman will neatly lay out all the screws while a man will throw them in a pile,” Hesser said. “Something always goes missing.”

So researchers set out to test the hypothesis and found 1. There is something to Hesser’s description of how men and women approach “some assembly required” tasks and 2. Her conclusion that women do a better job was entirely wrong. A Norweigan research team asked 40 men and 40 women in their twenties to assemble a kitchen cart. Some people got the instructions, others only received a a drawing of what the end product should look like. When they had the instructions, men and women took the same amount of time (about 23 minutes) to put the thing together, and both had equally impressive, or unimpressive results.

When they had to figure things out from the drawing, there was a 20 percent difference between men and women in terms of how long it took to complete the task. The women also assembled more faulty carts with missing shelves or railings. In all, men with no instructions did about as well as the men with the instructions, finishing only a minute slower and not making enough mistakes to make the difference statistically meaningful. So Hesser was right, women do take a more systematic approach, because they need to. Men’s habit of throwing the instructions aside can be a source of frustration and argument.

Studies have long identified differences in spatial ability between men and women. The science is still out, however, as to whether this is the result of nature or nurture. In one study, researchers had subjects from two genetically similar but culturally distinct tribes in Northeast India complete a visual puzzle. One of the tribes as patriarchal. There women performed more slowly than the men. In the tribe where women ruled, there were no gender differences in performance. In another study, women were asked to imagine that they were men when doing a mental rotation test. When they did, they performed just as well as the men did. They also did better when they were told ahead of time that women usually outperformed the men. So women’s slower times and reliance on instructions might be the result of conditioning and a lack of confidence.

Of course, individual results vary, and not every man who thinks he can do a great job without the instructions actually can. As writer Jon Tevlin said, “I know from personal experience that using only pictures of men assembling IKEA furniture can lead some to believe… that men actually CAN assemble IKEA furniture.”

The expectation that every man should be able to creates tension. It doesn’t take a lot of tension to drive a wedge between members of a couple. In a 2014 study, researchers at Monmouth University and Ursinus College studied the affect of frustration on romantic feelings. They split 120 subjects into two groups. One was given the simple, stress-free task– writing down numbers chronologically; the other, a set of difficult math problems. When they had finished both groups were asked to make a list of compliments about their partner. The stressed group identified 15% fewer admirable traits in their beloveds.

The main way to avoid furniture assembly frustration, say the experts, is to go easy on yourself and allow plenty of time to get the job done. Walk away and come back if you have to. If that doesn’t work, maybe you need to buy pre-assembled furniture. No one wants to have a half-assembled vanity listed as an asset in a divorce proceeding.

Oscar and Bosie’s Sex Life

PhotoFunia-1553098252Let’s talk about sex, baby…

Oscar Wilde never spoke publicly about the nature of his physical relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas– except to deny in court that one existed. Therefore the only account we have comes from Bosie. For want of any other information, biographers have generally accepted his version of things.

Bosie’s story is that Oscar pursued him, and after a long, ardent seduction, Bosie finally gave in to him but never really liked sex with him. The sex, he says, did not consist of much anyway– certainly not anything that would amount to sodomy. After a short time they stopped and never continued after Wilde got out of prison. What interests me is that this story has been largely accepted even among people who are inclined to view Douglas as a liar.

I don’t know if Bosie’s story is true, and neither does anyone else. In Oscar’s Ghost, I explain how Bosie’s account of his sex life with Wilde corresponds to a Platonic ideal of love that was current at the time. The ideal love that Wilde described was between an older man and a younger. (In an era of strict gender roles, all relationships were expected to be asymmetrical, with a strong man in the role of protector.) The older man would act as a mentor to the younger. The younger was expected to have little sexual interest in the older and if the relationship truly blossomed it transcended its sexual beginning and led to a creative partnership and “pregnancy of the soul.” This ideal is exactly what Bosie described and it would, in those terms, be an ideal love story. Maybe that alone is a reason to take it with a grain of salt.

To our way of thinking, a sexless relationship is a loveless one. I’ve been wondering lately how this story about Oscar and Bosie’s sex life might affect how we as modern readers feel about their relationship and what other assumptions it might lead to.

In Richard Ellmann’s biography (the source material for the movie Wilde, where most people with casual interest probably get their information on the Wilde/Douglas relationship) the fact that Douglas was lukewarm about sex with Oscar is used to bolster the premise that Douglas was only attracted to Wilde for his money and fame.

Was Bosie lying about the nature of his relationship with Wilde? It is certainly possible. He had a great deal of incentive to do so. Gay men of the era could be counted upon to lie about their sex lives when they became public knowledge. Bosie initially tried to claim that nothing of the sort had happened between him and Oscar. No one believed him. After Frank Harris persuaded him that no one would listen to anything he said until he came clean, he told the story that is generally accepted today. Yes, there were “familiarities” but very little of that, and not for long. There is no one who can prove anything different.

In recent years a number of depositions taken for Wilde’s trials and not used in court came to light. One of the interesting tid bits was the testimony of a housekeeper who found a letter from Douglas to Wilde in which Bosie signed off “your darling boy to do whatever you like with.” Maybe Bosie wasn’t quite as ambivalent about sex with Wilde as he would have people believe.

In De Profundis, Wilde remembers how Bosie’s cheeks would flush “with wine or pleasure,” which implies that Wilde had a certain, fond familiarity with how Bosie looked on occasions in which he was experiencing the kind of pleasure that gets the blood pumping.

We never really know what goes on with anyone behind closed doors. In the long run it isn’t very important. But it is an interesting exercise to think about how our feelings about that relationship might shift if we imagine them as having a full active sex life.