Sunday, May 31, 2009

white blossom

What a wonderful orchard! Masses of white blossom, the blue sky . . .

-- Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard, trans. Elisaveta Fen

Her childhood home would at last be sold, her beloved cherry trees chopped down. . . . Why, exactly, were we supposed to be weeping?

-- Wallace Shawn, The Fever

In my prep school they taught us every week to read and write. They taught us literature and history, math and science, languages contemporary and classical. They taught us Ethics and Comparative Religion. They taught us, in a course named “Humanities,” philosophy and classical music. They thought they were forming our characters, for our own good and for the good of others. They turned me – a day-boy of genteel poverty, shoe-horned into a boarding school for the elite – into a “cultured” person. I was eager to be so turned.

From schools like mine came leaders of business, scions of the professions, people notable for accomplishment or for being just plain rich. A fifth of us went to Harvard or Yale, with hefty percentages for the other Ivies. President Kennedy came from a school like ours; we played their teams in all the sports. (Even the Irish could now be civilized, when exposed by descendents of the Mayflower to the values of Anglo-Saxon culture.)

I presume that in four decades there have been changes in the content. By now, I hope, “History” includes some mention of Asia, Africa and South America. Toni Morrison and W. E. B. du Bois and Garcia Marquez will have displaced somebody or other in the canon; and as long as the casualties do not include Shakespeare, Milton or the King James Bible, that’s all right with me. But these issues are mere quibbles compared to the larger question: what do I think now of the project called “culture”?

Our costly masters provided us a “liberal education” by the age of eighteen. They weren’t teaching us how to do things but rather how to decide what must be done. They molded us into people of broad mind. We would not make our living by moving heavy objects from place to place. We would be the ones who after due deliberation – paid on a higher scale and enjoying better perks – told other people which heavy objects to move, when and where. They trained us to defer gratification, to lift ourselves above the circumstance of the moment, to imagine ourselves elsewhere, in other times, places and circumstances. Though a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant man does not, of course, weep, it was understood that one should feel compassion at the portrayal of Ranyevskaia, bidding adieu to her cherry orchard -- and when we grew up, our wives would do the weeping for us.

Did Chekhov weep with his aristocrats, or laugh at them, or indict them? There was a place and a time when you lived or died by your answer to that question. Chekhov and his authorized director Stanislavsky survived (while so many artists did not) in the Soviet charnel-house, saved not for their pity but for their social criticism. The Ranyevskeys are broken guitars. They can neither play in tune nor feed themselves. Just down the road and round a bend of history is the mob who would gladly kill them and cut their trees for an evening’s firewood. The apocalypse of Lopakhin the serf, who buys the estate to turn it into housing lots, is a gentler one than that. But either way, the orchard must go. It’s unsustainable. What is beauty’s place in the world, when people are homeless? The lady weeps for ornamental blossoms she can no longer support, and people of culture weep for a lady of long ago, far away, living only on a stage.

Why, Shawn asks, should we weep for Ranyevskaia? Because she has a tender heart, and gives away money she does not have, and mourns for an orchard? Because she is cultured, and doesn’t smell of patchouli? Liberals don’t do well when the revolution comes. While I learned to weep for Ranyevskaia, blood was spilled on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and children died in a Birmingham church. Robespierre, or Zhdanov, or Mao, or Pol Pot would absolutely have her head, and mine.

Yeshua told us to feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked and free the unjustly imprisoned. Can I go to the museum when there is murder in Darfur? Can I listen to Bach while children in my city go without their dinner tonight? My seminary professors would ask themselves, can I live here in a medieval cloister, while Harlem suffers outside the walls? But I go to the museum, and I listen to Bach -- and my teachers continued to live within the walls.

The place of beauty in the world is a hard question. The problem of my education, I say to myself, is not that I was given a key to pleasure, but that so many have no access to it. Everybody wants their own vine and fig tree, not just so they can drink and eat but so they can afterward sit in the shade, smell the blossom and feel a breeze on the cheek. My grandpa, who thought that shows and plays weren't "worth a doodle," would sit on his porch of a summer evening and listen to the corn grow. But some esthetics require a concentration of wealth and power. A pyramid is not the sum of private crypts. A symphony is not a jam of soloists. An orchard is not a concentration of trees. When everybody comes to get their piece of cherry orchard, it’s not an orchard any more.

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