Category Archives: Summer reading

Summer reading: Escape from Hell

Back in 1976, I read Inferno, a science fiction novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, which tells the story of an atheistic science fiction author named Allen Carpenter who, much to his surprise, finds himself in a place that very much resembles Dante’s vision of hell in the first book of The Divine Comedy. Carpentier tries to find a rational explanation for what he experiences in his tour through hell, and spends much of the book convinced that he’s in a sort of bizarre amusement park (call it “Infernoland”) created by sadistic aliens with a very high technology. But by the end of the book, Carpenter is finally convinced that he is indeed in hell.

I read Inferno when I was a senior in high school, and I loved the book; I didn’t pay any attention to the theology, I was captured by thinking about what a twentieth century person would do upon finding himself in Dante’s version of hell. Allen Carpenter builds a glider to try to fly over some of the circles of hell, and this is not unlike the heroes of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island using their nineteenth century technology to address the problem of being stranded on a desert island. In my freshman year of college, I went out and bought a bilingual edition of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (trans. by John D. Sinclair), and started to read the Inferno; I got about three quarters of the way through, but got tired of Dante getting revenge on people he didn’t like by placing them into his vision of hell.

Last year, Niven and Pournelle came out with a sequel to their Inferno, another science fiction novel titled Escape from Hell. At the end of the earlier book, Allen Carpenter learned that you can get out of hell, so he goes back to try to help lots more people escape from eternal damnation. Niven and Pournelle come up with enough new ideas to make this second book worth reading — their depiction of Hell’s bureaucracy is funny and entertaining — but there are major problems with the book. One big problem is that Sylvia Plath is a major character in this book, but Niven and Pournelle’s characterization doesn’t convince me: their character named Sylvia Plath is just another interchangeable female character, and you simply don’t believe that character is capable of writing great poetry. A second big problem is that rather than actually resolving their plot, they end the book with the ridiculous plot device of having a hydrogen bomb explode in hell.

But the biggest problem I had with Escape from Hell is the theology behind the book. Allen Carpenter discovers that anyone can escape from hell, as long as they’re willing to go through a process of confronting the bad things they did in life — there’s a sort of pseudo-psychotherapeutic element in this process. Even though Niven and Pournelle don’t use the psychobabble jargon of “denial” and “acceptance” and so on, it’s the sort of thing you’d expect from mediocre self-help books.

Niven and Pournelle’s understanding of God is about as interesting as their theological psychology. Their God is probably pleasant rather than definitely good, distant and unimaginable rather than immanent and present, and vague rather than awe-inspiring. Their God-concept feels like it’s straight out of the mid-twentieth century when people presented God as either nice or dead, but when God was rarely presented as something compelling enough to believe in. From a literary point of view, if a writer is going to talk about hell as a reality, I’d take the stern yet interesting God of Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” — or, for that matter, the God of Dante who invents such creative tortures for damned souls — over the the namby-pamby, wishy-washy, exceedingly boring God imagined by Niven and Pournelle. They make hell seem much more interesting and even attractive than God.

Then there’s the purpose of hell, as the authors understand it. When I think of Dante’s conception of hell, I think of a place of eternal torment; if you’re talking about punishment for sins over a limited time, then you’re talking about the subject of Dante’s second book, Purgatorio, purgatory. Niven and Pournelle borrow Dante’s hell, and turn it into purgatory. So then what’s the purpose of purgatory? I admit my bias: I’m a Universalist, and I know hell is a mistaken concept to begin with; nevertheless, within the limits of their theological logic, their conception of hell simply doesn’t make sense.

So I find Niven and Pournelle’s theology problematic. But that was actually part of the fun of the book: I not only enjoyed the adventure, I argued with their problematic theology the whole way through, and enjoyed every minute of the argument. Unlike the liberal Christian apologists who dodge the whole issue, Niven and Pournelle confront hell head on. In the end Allen Carpenter admits that he can’t really make complete sense out of hell; it’s beyond human understanding; but this didn’t feel like a cop-out to me so much as a literary excuse for a pretty good adventure story.

Many Middle Passages

Many Middle Passages: Forced Migration and the Making of the Modern World, ed. Emma Christopher, Cassandra Pybus, and Marcus Rediker (Berkeley: Univ. of Calif., 2007) takes some of its inspiration from the 2000 Beacon Press book Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, which argued in part that the Atlantic slave trade could be used as a way to understand other slave trades. The editors of Many Middle Passages felt that the Atlantic slave trade’s infamous middle passage — the disorientation, the violence, the occasional resistance — could help us understand other slave trades, in other parts of the world and in other eras. Eleven independent essays explore this idea further.

In “The Other Middle Passage: The African Slave Trade in the Indian Ocean,” Edward A. Alpers sheds some light on the lesser-known slave trade on the other side of the African continent. Alpers raises the obvious point that “it is a mistake to restrict analyses of the middle passage only to oceanic passages, assuming that enslaved Africans embarked from the African coast as if they were leaving their native country, when in fact their passage from freedom into slavery actually began with the moment they were swept up by the economic forces that drove the slave trade deep into the African interior.” [p. 21] Based on this assumption, Alpers traces the Indian Ocean slave trade into the interior of Africa. Relying primarily on freed-slave narratives, Alpers presents us with the horrors of the slave trade on land and by sea. The ocean passages were as horrible on the Indian Ocean as they were on the Atlantic Ocean, with the same high mortality rates and the same dehumanizing conditions. The commodification of human beings seems to take similar forms no matter where it springs up.

In “‘The Slave Trade Is Merciful Compared to This’: Slave Traders, Convict Transportation, and the Abolitionists,” Emma Christopher examines how England transported the earliest convicts to Australia. Some captains of the early ships that carried convicts to the penal colony in Australia had been slave traders previously. As slave traders, they had some financial incentive to keep as many slaves alive as possible. On the trip to Australia, however, there was no financial incentive to keep the convicts alive: “the captains could actually gain financially from the death of the convicts, as the food of the deceased was saved and could be sold once the ship reached its destination.” [p. 110]

Emma Christopher quotes from a letter sent to England by a soldier stationed in Australia at the time who said, “the slave trade is merciful compared to what I have seen in this fleet.” She then goes on to point out that whereas the incredible suffering on slave traders resulted from the commoditization of human beings, the absence of financial incentives helped create the incredible suffering on the convict transports: “Inured to the kind of cruelty that pervaded the trade in slaves, and with no financial incentive to check their behavior, [the ship’s officers] cared little for their charges.” [p. 122] Once back in England, the ship’s officers were tried and quickly acquitted, yet pressure from abolitionists and others forced the government to make sure the convicts were treated better thereafter. The real point, left unspoken, is that it would have been better if we hadn’t commodified human beings to begin with.

In “La Traite des Jaunes: Trafficking in Women and Children across the China Sea,” Julia Martinez studies the trade in sex slaves in and around the China Sea. This slave trade came to prominence in the late 19th C., peaked in the first half of the 20th C., and continues today. Many of the victims of this trade were children — some from destitute families who may even have sold their children out of desperation, but some kidnapped from prosperous families. The children sere sold as young as eight years old, and girls would be forced into selling sex at about age thirteen; they might be released from “debt bondage” at age eighteen [p. 214]; it is horrible to think that children treated as commodities, not as human beings, even if they were eventually released from bondage.

The China Sea sex slave trade was partially repressed through the middle 20th C., but there was a resurgence in the 1980’s as the times brought increased prosperity to the region. The sex slave trade continues today throughout the region. The final chapter of the book, titled “Afterword: ‘All of It Is Now'”, points out that more people are enslaved today (27 million) than at any previous point in history. The good news is that a smaller percentage of the world’s population is enslaved now than in earlier centuries, and that slavery is now illegal everywhere. But still — there are 27 million people enslaved even as I write this.

I was expecting this to be the usual boring academic book, but it wasn’t. Not all of the eleven essays were as powerful as the ones I have discussed, but all the essays are worth reading. The subject matter is so shocking and fascinating (in a horrible kind of way) that it overcomes even the occasional turgid academic prose. And the book is particularly compelling because several of the writers go out of the way to provide lengthy excerpts from first-person freed-slave narratives, so we get to hear the voices of slaves firsthand — at least, we get to hear the voices of those lucky slaves who somehow made it to freedom.

The Tatler

Before there were blogs, there were other periodicals with writing that ranged from the profound to the distinctly ephemeral. In 1709, Sir Richard Steele brought out the Tatler. According the Lewish Gibb, his motives were far from idealistic, which led him to create something new in literature:

Steele brought out the Tatler because he wanted money, and the result was something new in literature. Not that a periodical publication was in itself a new thing, but this one had unusual qualities. In accordance with its motto it took the whole range of social activity — quincquid agunt homines — for its province. [The Tatler, Richard Steele, ed. Lewis Gibbs. London: J. M. Dent (Everyman’s Library), 1953, p. vi.]

I’m reading through Gibbs’s selection from the Tatler. It sounds surprisingly contemporary. There’s a short piece on what will happen to the news-writers if the war with France should end. Speaking of a news-writer named Boyer (who sounds as if he could be a pundit on Fox News), Steele says, “Where Prince Eugene has slain his thousands, Boyer has slain his ten thousands….He has laid about him with an inexpressible fury; and made such havoc among his countrymen as must be the work of two or three ages to repair.” And so the war must continue in order to give the news-writers and pundits worthy subjects. Perhaps this is why on July 5th, 2007, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Associated Press didn’t question George Bush’s unsubstantiated claim that the Al Qaeda operating in Iraq today is the same Al Qaeda that leveled the World Trade Centers, as reported in Media Matters, for if the Iraq War should end, consumption of the news media would drop. Updating Steele for today’s world: “It being therefore visible that our society will be greater sufferers by the peace than the soldiery itself, insomuch that the New York Times is in danger of being broken, and the very best of the whole band of journalists of being reduced to half-pay; I would humbly move that proper apartments, furnished with laptops, Internet connections, and other necessaries of life, should be added to the Veterans Administration hospitals, for the relief of such decayed journalists and pundits as have served their country by reporting and commenting on the war.”

Of particular interest to the readers of this blog, the Tatler commented on the clergy of the day. Steele commented on a certain clergyman who spoke a little too harshly and gesticulated a little too wildly in the pulpit: “As harsh and irregular sound is not harmony, so neither is banging on a cushion, oratory; and therefore, in my humble opinion, a certain divine of the first order, would do well to leave this off; for I think his sermons would be more persuasive if he gave his auditory less disturbance.” Such sweet viciousness! Would that Steele were still alive to comment on early 21st C. preaching, which has sunk to lower levels than even early 18th C. preaching. But Steele commented on more than preaching, he also commented on the sloppy prayers offered by a certain vicar — “In reading prayers, he has such a careless loll, that people are justly offended at his irreverent posture; besides the extraordinary charge they are put to in sending their children to dance, to bring them off of those ill gestures.” What would Steele have said about some of the Unitarian Universalist prayers I have heard uttered? –to think of it makes me shiver with delicious imaginings.

“Cultural politics and the question of the existence of God”

by Richard Rorty, in Philosophy as Cultural Politics: Philosophical Papers, vol. 4. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007

When the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty died a month or so ago, I decided to add some of his writing to my summer reading list. The fourth volume of his selected essays, Philosophy as Cultural Politics: Philosophical Papers, vol. 4, contains the essay “Cultural politics and the question of the existence of God,” and this essay seemed like a good place for a minister like to me start reading.

If you’re hoping for a definitive answer to the question, “Does God exist?” Rorty will not only disappoint you, he will also tell you (fairly gently) that it’s a bad question. There are better questions to ask, and these better questions have to do with what Rorty calls “cultural politics.”

So what is “cultural politics”? Citing philosopher Robert Brandom, Rorty says that the social world is prior to anything else. There isn’t some larger authority out to which we can appeal to set norms for society. This in turn means that societies, and the people who live in societies, cannot make appeals to God, or Truth, or Reality that trump all other appeals or claims. Your God, or Truth, or Reality can’t be considered an ultimate norm, any more than my God or Truth or Reality. Cultural politics, says Rorty, “is the least norm-governed human activity. It is the site of generational revolt, and thus the growing point of culture.” If you want a good example of how things grow in cultural politics, think about the U.S. Supreme Court decisions of Plessy vs. Ferguson on the one hand, and Brown vs. Board of Education on the other hand. Forget appeals to some transcendent Justice — we’re stuck with “the ontological priority of the social” (really a misnomer, since there is no ontology) — i.e., society, the social world, comes before anything else.

This being the case, rather than ask, “Does God exist?”, it would be better to ask, as Rorty phrases the question, “Do we want to weave one or more of the various religious traditions (with their accompanying pantheons) together with our deliberation over moral dilemmas, our deepest hopes, and our need to be rescued from despair?” Another way to make the same point is to say that, instead of having some kind of public religion ( “All U.S. citizens shall believe in the God of the Christian scriptures, as interpreted by the Southern Baptist Conference”), it would be better to have only private religion that stays out of the public sphere.

To me, as a Unitarian Universalist minister, all this makes good sense. I usually do not choose to play the language game that asks whether God exists or not. Continue reading

The Keeper of Sheep

by Fernando Pessoa. Bilingual edition (English/Portuguese), trans. Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown.Sheep Meadow Press, Riverdale-on-Hudson, N.Y., 1985.

Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) was the greatest Portuguese poet of the 20th C., the greatest Portuguese poet in 400 years, and indeed one of the great modernist poets of Western literature. Because he wrote in Portuguese, there aren’t many translations of his work and most English speakers have never heard of him — even though, curiously, Pessoa himself was fully bilingual in English and Portuguese and even wrote some early poems in English. Actually, he was trilingual, and also published poetry in French.

Pessoa wrote his poetry in several voices, and even published his poetry under different names — not pseudonyms, but rather heteronyms:

Having accustomed myself to have no beliefs and no opinions, lest my aesthetic feeling should be weakened, I grew soon to have no personality at all except an expressive one. I grew to be a mere apt machine for the expression of moods with became so intense that they grew into personalities and made my very soul the mere shell of their casual appearance…. p. xvi

One of his heteronyms was named Alberto Caeiro, the heteronymic author of the book The Keeper of Sheep, who “exists solely in what he sees, in the diversity of nature, and not in his mind reflecting the outer world” (p. xvii). Take, for example, this poem:

The moonlight behind the tall branches
The poets all say is more
Than the moonlight behind the tall branches

But for me, who do not know what I think,–
What the moonlight behind the tall branches
Is, beyond its being
The moonlight behind the tall branches
Is its not being more
Than the moonlight behind the tall branches.

This is not to say that Caeiro/Pessoa is a mystic, asserting some direct connection with a divine reality inaccessible to most. Continue reading

Meet Jesus: The Life and Lessons of a Beloved Teacher

This past year at First Unitarian in New Bedford, we gave the book Hide and Seek with God to every Sunday school family with children aged 5 to 8. Hide and Seek with God has twenty or so stories that present the concept of God from a variety of vantage points — feminist vantage points, non-Western vantage points, earth-centered vantage points, as well as various Western Christian (usually heretical Christian) vantage points. Having this book in the home proved to be very helpful to families, as they figure out how to engage in nuanced talk about religion with their children while immersed in a culture that doesn’t value nuanced talk about religion.

In looking for a new book to send home with families for this year, I came across Meet Jesus: The Life and Lessons of a Beloved Teacher, written by Lynn Tuttle Gunney, and published by Skinner House, the Unitarian Universalist denominational publishing house. It may turn out to be the book we send home this year.

As the subtitle implies, Gunney emphasizes the life and the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’s crucifixion and death take up only two pages out of the first twenty-two pages. Most of the text on those twenty-two pages simply tells the story of Jesus’s life, interspersed with examples of his teachings. We get two parables:– the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the parable of the lost sheep. We get some other teachings:– a snippet from the Sermon on the Mount, and of course the Golden Rule.

On page 23, we get a short summary of how different people interpret Jesus’s death, in the form of: “Some people say… [but] Some people say….” When reading this book for the intended age group, parents (and Sunday school teachers) will want to be ready to say say, “We believe that…” — and then either pick one of the options in the book, or present yet another option. Children aged 4-8 tend to be concrete thinkers, and they don’t particularly want to hear adults hemming and hawing about theological abstractions.

The prose is clear, uncluttered, and straightforward — perfect for children in preschool and up. In fact, the prose is good enough that I would feel comfortable using excerpts from this book in a worship service. The illustrations are fine, particularly for younger children.

The book is good enough that I will show it to our new Director of Religious Education, and if she approves we will find the money to send it out to every Sunday school family with children aged 4-8. My only complaint is that the book is pretty short, too short to satisfy a family for a whole year.

Pickwick Papers

I’m in the midst of reading Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers. For years, I couldn’t stand Dickens’s wordiness — he makes it all too obvious that he got paid by the word — and I refused to even try to read his books. But there’s no real plot in Pickwick Papers, which means I don’t have to suffer through a hundred pages to find out how and if a character dies. And the wordiness of Pickwick Papers is devoted to anecdote, not to unbearably long descriptions of, say, the road from London to Paris. In short, unlike some of Dickens’s other books, Pickwick Papers doesn’t drag.

Not only that, but this is precisely the kind of book that I believe would make a good blog: memorable characters having episodic adventures, adventures which appear in a serialized format. I’ve seen something like this trying to emerge in a few of the more adventurous blogs, but so far bloggers seem to think that blogging can only be non-fiction; or perhaps more to the point, no one with Dickens’s immense talent is yet writing a blog.

Yet why not? Why wouldn’t a modern-day Dickens write a blog instead of a print-based book? It is worth considering that technology allowed Dickens to write the way he did. Technical advances leading to cheaper printing and binding, and a more efficient distribution system, led to the serialized writing at which Dickens excelled. Perhaps in time the World Wide Web will produce its own literary geniuses to equal Dickens; though it seems to me that we have a long way to go.

In the mean time, I’m reading Pickwick Papers. While I’m reading it I’m not reading much of anything on the Web. Dickens’s book scratches whatever itch of mine was getting scratched by reading blogs.

Fishing Guide to Middlesex County Rivers

If you want to know about a river or stream, and you can only ask one person, best to ask an angler who fishes it regularly. Anglers will know what fish live in the river, and a good angler will know what those fish feed on. A good angler can tell you about water quality, vegetation, and the extent of annual flooding as well as how low the river gets in dry months. Best of all, an angler will know how to access the river or stream: where you can put in a boat or carry in a canoe, where you can walk along the bank or wade.

David S. Kaplan has fished every river in Middlesex County himself, and talked to experienced anglers who really know certain parts of each river. Even you you’re not an angler yourself, his book, Fishing Guide to Middlesex County Rivers, can tell you things you should know about the Assabet, the Charles, the Concord, the Merrimack, the Mystic, the Nashua, the Nissitissit, the Shawsheen, the Squannacook, and the Sudbury.

Take the Sudbury and Assabet Rivers, which I was canoeing on just a few days ago. “The Sudbury has fertile, brown water stained with tannin from decaying vegetation,” Kaplan writes. “Water transparency averages about 2 to 3 feet but varies from 1 foot over muddy bottoms after a rain to over 8 feet at the stony headwaters.” I was canoeing over muddy bottoms in the Sudbury, and could see barely a foot into the water. Turning into the Assabet from the Sudbury led to a distinct change in the water: stained more heavily with tannin, but because of the sandy bottom the water was fairly clear and I could see down as much as six feet.

I paddled up the Assabet towards Spencer Brook, and passed the outlet from Macone’s Pond. In one of his rare errors, Kaplan misspells it “Macoun’s Pond,” like the apple — Peanut Macone, who used to live next to the pond, probably would have been amused. Kaplan says this about the river at this point: “Fish-holding cover includes deadfalls, islands, a brush island, some big midstream boulders and undercut banks.” The water level was high enough that I had a hard time seeing the boulders and deadfalls, but I knew they were there, not just from years of experience but from the turbulence disturbing the surface of the water. I had to dodge several downed trees and submerged logs, and circled the one main island in the Assabet. Even though I wasn’t fishing that day, Kaplan’s 16-word description covered much of what I saw, although it missed the Kingfisher who flew within twenty feet of me, and the two kayakers beached in a backwater, and the deer fly. A little further upstream on the Assabet Kaplan describes as “lightly fished,” and indeed I didn’t see another soul although I spent a quarter of an hour pulled up to the bank of the river.

Kaplan also describes things I couldn’t see. Larry Thorlton of Billerica once caught a Northern Pike which weighed in at 18 pounds and 2 ounces. I never caught one that big, but once I did catch (and release) a big pike in the Sudbury that I knew was a solid 36 inches long because it stretched from gunwale to gunwale of my old canoe, which had a 36 inch beam. Its teeth were impressive, and you bet I used long-nosed pliers to release the hook from inside its mouth.

Worse things than ferocious Northern Pike lurk in the Sudbury’s waters:

Water chestnut infestation grows more severe every year, as in so many of our local rivers. Boaters must inspect trailers, boats, and motors to avoid spreading the nutlets of this plant and small pieces of fanwort that could introduce these virulent, exotic plants to other waters.

Water chestnut has gotten so bad that it has to be removed periodically, or it would choke out the entire ecosystem of the river.

Tragically, environmental clean-up of the Sudbury cannot boast the success of the Charles or Nashua. Toxic chemical pollutants still leach through the south bank at the infamous Nyanza site in Ashland. Despite enormous efforts to clean up this toxic mess, dangerous levels of mercury continue to contaminate the water…. The remaining 25 miles of the Sudbury suffer mercury contamination that makes their fish unfit for human consumption.

And there is not much that can be done about the toxic chemicals: the rivers may be permanently damaged.

The book is now ten years old, and has become outdated in places: for one example, when I went canoeing a few days ago I found the Town of Concord had upgraded the Lowell Road boat ramp with hard-packed stone dust, the ramp about which Kaplan writes: “During low water or when rain has softened the bank, you may need a 4WD tow vehicle to take out a trailer.”

Nor is this book any literary marvel. If you’re not an angler yourself, you won’t buy or read this book. But for those of us who are anglers, we can travel the entire length of a dozen small but remarkable rivers and streams in our imaginations; I’d rather read about the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in this book than in Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell

Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell by Deborah Solomon (Boston: MFA Publications, 1997).

Unfortunately, I was introduced to the artist Joseph Cornell by Rick, foundrymaster at the college where I worked as factotum for the fine arts department for a year. Rick’s take on Joseph Cornell was that he was this guy who lived with his mother in a house in one of the outer boroughs of New York City, and he had a workshop in the basement filled with all kinds of junk and found objects, and he would hire young women as nude models and after he drew them he would try to sleep with them. The sculptors I hung out with at that time liked to dwell on the odd personalities and sexual proclivities of famous artists.

Nina, a Chicago socialite whom I got to know at college and who went to work for one of the New York galleries before moving back to Chicago and opening her own sculpture gallery, was the one who introduced me to Cornell’s art work. She invited me to visit her in the New York gallery where she worked. I dropped in on one of my weekly trips to the city, and there stood a bunch of Cornell’s boxes in one of the back rooms. I remember I actually got to touch one or two, but I no longer remember which boxes I saw. Nina’s Chicago gallery lasted a few years, then she dropped out of the art world entirely, opting to work in the “hospitality industry” — which is to say she began working for one of the big hotel chains.

Since then, I’ve grown fond of Cornell’s assemblages and collages. I was never particularly interested in Cornell’s life, but when I ran across Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, I idly read a few pages and was instantly hooked:– Cornell led a far stranger life than I could have imagined from Rick the foundrmaster’s distorted account.

Idle facts about the artist Joseph Cornell:

(1) He couldn’t draw. Late in life he audited a life drawing class at Queens College of the CUNY system, taught by Mary Frank…

…Cornell attended her class five or six times, and apparently made an effort at drawing. He would sit on a stool at the side of the classroom with a sketchbook in hand — “the kind you buy in Woolworth’s,” Frank said, “smaller and cheaper than everyone else’s.” As students passed the session sketching from a male or female model, Cornell appeared to do the same. However, when Frank glanced at his page one day, there was nothing inscribed on it beyond “a curving line that crossed over itself.” Cornell insisted she keep the drawing as a gift.

(2) In the latter part of his life, he appeared to subsist entirely on sweets: those cheap supermarket cakes with the thick heavy frosting, bags of cookies, boxes of glazed doughnuts, etc. Solomon reports that “in later life, he was rumored to subsist on nothing but doughnuts.”

(3) Despite what Rick the foundrymaster told me, Cornell did not engage in sexual intercourse with the young women whom he cultivated. Solomon said one of those young women, Leila Hadley, was willing to have sex with Cornell, but he wouldn’t:

…[He offered] a rather quaint reason for his abstinence from intercourse. “He felt he would lose his ability to be an artist if he had sex,” she said, adding that he made this remark to her several times.


The oddness of Cornell’s life seems to have had something to do with the way he perceived reality. In letters, he described the back yard of his house in Flushing as a sort of pastoral haven where he could sit under a quince tree and watch the birds. But, Solomon reports, the back yard does not look so idyllic in photographs taken in 1971…

It [the back yard] looks scruffier than one had imagined: an empty patch of grass enclosed by a chain-link fence, with an ugly apartment complex rising up behind it. Tacky garden statues — a squirrel, a frog, and a rabbit accompanied by four little bunnies — rest on the lawn. How many hours had Cornell spent here daydreaming?

It might be safe to say that Cornell’s pastoral idyll in his back yard was more a result of his imaginative and spiritual journeyings than any reflection of reality. Part of his gift was that Cornell managed to find something transcendent in the ordinary hum-drum life of Flushing. Writing about Cornell’s experimental movies made in the 1950’s, Solomon says:

There are a dozen movies from the fifties altogether. They tend to be short, from three to ten minutes in duration, and most are set in the streets and parks of New York. If they share a theme, it is the yearning for transcendence played off against the grubbiness of city life.

If that’s true, I differ from Cornell in looking for transcendence in everyday life, rather than seeing them as separate. Or you might argue that the fact that Cornell made physical art objects meant that he remained involved with the physical world — perhaps so, but I’d have to say that his involvement was a fairly strange involvement.