Day 264: WWEGD?

The 20th edition of the 10,000 Days newsletter goes out tomorrow. Here is the essay from No. 19.



The wonderful, exquisitely weird Edward Gorey once addressed the clutter in his house by noting, “I can’t go out without buying a book.”

Perhaps the only thing he and I have in common. Alas.

For the last two months, I have been working on a piece about a subversive chef who has provocative ideas about local food economies, farming as stewardship, and the relationship between climate change and how we eat. I’ve spent hours hanging out with him and other food people and could write the story based on those conversations. But I seized on the assignment as an excuse to buy four books. It would have been five, but I already owned Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

In October, my wife and I will venture to Churchill, Manitoba, to watch and photograph polar bears. The tour company sent a suggested reading list. I bought every book on it. Maybe I skipped one; I don’t remember.

When we travel, I always look for independent booksellers and keep a mental list of landmarks. Bookmarks. Booklandmarks. McNally Jackson in New York. Tattered Cover in Denver. Eliot Bay Books in Seattle and Powell’s to the south in Portland. Sundial Books in Chincoteague, Scuppernong in Greensboro, Labyrinth Books in Princeton. Baltimore? The Ivy. Washington? Politics and Prose or Kramerbooks, depending on the day. Lenox, Massachusetts? The Bookstore, “Serving the Community Since Last Tuesday.” I almost always buy a book or two when I’m in any of them, justifying my purchases as support for indie shops against Amazonian hegemony.

Sometimes I accumulate books with more purpose. Or more purposeful excuses. I own a couple of translations of Homer and have shelved with them seven more Homer-related works. Barry Unsworth, Christopher Logue, Alberto Manguel, M.I. Finley, Simone Weil. Two more lurk on my iPad. I harbor the woozy notion of someday writing an essay on books that orbit The Iliad and The Odyssey. When the time comes, I shall be ready. For a similar reason, I've been collecting works on walking. I have five unread novels by David Mitchell, witness to my intention to read all his work in chronological order. (He keeps writing them, so you see the pitfall there.) The inventory of books on quantum physics is a sign of another future project. That one might be a novel. A really nerdy novel. Or I might end up just knowing an odd assortment of things about string theory.

I have books I bought 25 years ago that I haven’t read yet. New York Review Books sent me five volumes last week—they just had a big sale—and I haven’t gotten to those, either. At least twice I’ve bought books, only to come home and find that I already owned them. I hope this happens to other people.

You’ve heard of those bracelets that say WWJD? At troublesome moments, you are supposed to look at them and hear an inner voice counsel, What would Jesus do? I should have one engraved WWEGD. What would Edward Gorey do?

I’ve bought books ever since I was a teenager, but I used to be better about not buying new ones until I’d read all those I had on hand. When I was in my early 20s, I brought a date home. She looked at the books stacked everywhere in my apartment and asked, “Have you read all of those?” I said, “Most of them.” She said, “You must be smarter than you look.” I stopped seeing her.

The only thing to conclude here is I just love buying books. I never buy anything that I don’t intend to read, and now that I’m a pensioner and man-of-leisure, I’m starting to work down some of my back stock. But if I stopped buying today, I’d be years reading all that I’ve accumulated. That’s okay. I might be sentenced to five years of house arrest someday; if it happens, I’m ready.

Next week, I travel to visit kin in Cambridge, Ohio. I have sworn not to return with any new books. Not one. You may doubt my resolve, but I don’t. I can do this.

It will help that Cambridge doesn’t have a bookshop.

Day 246: Coming in a month, The Man Who Signed the City

I have growing confidence that The Man Who Signed the City will publish on September 1. (Please don't be snarky and point out how often that date has shifted.) I'm about to start the final proofing, and I'm dying to show you some cover design concepts, but the designer would kill me. Suffice to say it's going to look great.

Twenty-one profiles comprise the contents, and one of my favorites features the Baltimore painter Raoul Middleman. Here's a taste.

Raoul Middleman scoops paint out of a film can onto a palette. It is a November mid-afternoon in Baltimore, and the remaining daylight is making a run for it. If he is to paint a picture today, Middleman will have to work fast, but that is okay with him. He likes getting his hands going before his head has time to intervene. "If you get too analytical, you lose it," he says. "I try to see things before language. The painting has to have its own inscrutability, like the world itself. I'm not saying I get that—it's an aim."

Middleman has been painting full time, day in and day out, for 37 years. When he can paint seven days a week, he does. He has two studios in Baltimore; one serves as a warehouse for his work. He does not know how many canvases he has stashed there, but he guesses anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000. When representatives of The Ice Collection in New York came to select pictures for his recent one-man show, they gave up in exhaustion before they could survey the entire trove. The painter Paul Resika once said of Middleman, “I remember thinking, when I first met Raoul 30 years ago, that he had this enormous energy, like John Marin or Jackson Pollock. And that he had painted more pictures, of every subject and every mood, than anyone I had ever seen.” He paints portraits, nudes, still lifes, kitschy narratives, landscapes, seascapes, and cityscapes. He has painted in Scotland, France, Wales, New Mexico, the countryside around his farmhouse near Havre de Grace, Maryland, and the rusting industrial underbelly of Baltimore. He paints women in black bras and boots, woodland streams, rocky shorelines, grumpy self-portraits, horses, crab houses, carryouts, and, on one recent occasion, a writer who had come to interview him. He paints with bold color and vigorous brushwork. He likes to talk, he likes to eat, and mostly he likes to see what happens when he puts one color next to another.

With an assist from teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, he has made a living as a figurative painter, no small accomplishment in the latter half of the American 20th century. His asking price at a recent show was $1,400 for a framed figure drawing. For some canvases, the tab ran to $28,000. Gerrit Henri, writing in Art News, said, “Where Middleman’s deep painterly energies are coming from is, considering the present art situation, something of a mystery, but the evidence of his powers is undeniable.” Other painters have been generous in their praise. Eugene Leake, president emeritus of the Maryland Institute, calls Middleman “a born painter,” and adds, “Everything is big, including his talent and ambitions.” In a letter, the late landscape painter Fairfield Porter once gave Middleman what could be considered the highest praise, painter to painter: “I envy your paintings. I wish I could paint like that.”

The object of all this laudation is a slouchy, baggy figure, age 61, with a gray woolly beard, thinning gray hair that is sometimes combed but usually not, an ever-present pipe clenched between his teeth, and stained fingers that could get him mistaken for an auto mechanic. No matter what he is doing—painting, teaching, greeting guests at a jacket-and-tie gallery reception—he latches a ring of 23 keys to his belt loop, like a night watchman. He has long forgotten what most of them unlock. Garrulous and hammy, he is a storyteller who can joke with a genteel, Chardonnay-sipping audience about painting pigeon shit on a rock, offending no one. He cheerfully describes himself as a vulgarian, a “Jew-boy from Ashburton” who misses strip joint burlesque and admires Rembrandt and other giants of representational painting for how they rendered life in all its earthy, fleshy rawness.

His primary studio, like the rest of his house in downtown Baltimore, is a remarkable jumble. His wife, Ruth Middleman, is a painter too, and neither seems inclined toward housekeeping. Stuff is piled, stacked, shelved, stashed, and tossed everywhere. Tubs of pigment with evocative names—alizarine crimson, burnt sienna, cadmium yellow. Shopping bags chock-full of the film cans he uses to hold the paints he grinds himself. Bottles of linseed oil, turpentine, and walnut oil. Tins of Rattrav’s Black Mallory and Dunhill Nightcap pipe tobacco. An old but indestructible dial phone. A paint-spattered stereo system beside a stack of CDs that include Bach, Mozart, Handel, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk. A human skull with badly bucked teeth and no lower jaw. Framing wood. A cart full of brushes. A couple of easels. A big circular mirror. Stools so encrusted with paint their original surfaces have not been glimpsed in years. Tacked to the walls are paintings of fish, landscapes, self-portraits. “Cultivate mess,” he likes to say. “For me, art comes out of mess. Disorder is crucial to discovery.”

Today’s painting will be a still life: a few lemons, one of them halved, a plate, a silver teapot, and some whole fish just purchased from Baltimore's Lexington Market. He works out the arrangement he wants, then begins the underpainting, sketching the basic composition in brown tones, laying in darks that will underlie the color. "This is like setting up scaffolding," he says. "You can just paint direct. There's more freshness that way. But there's more richness this way." He doesn't talk much while he works. The only sounds are the moist sucking noises of his pipe and the scrape of his brushes against the canvas.

Day 245: Yeah, we haven't got this

These are not easy questions. Who am I? Why am I here? They’re not easy because the human being isn’t wired to function as an individual. We’re wired tribally, to act as part of a group. Our psyches are programmed by millions of years of hunter-gatherer evolution. We know what the clan is; we know how to fit into the band and the tribe. What we don’t know is how to be alone. We don’t know how to be free individuals.

… It may be that the human race is not ready for freedom.

— Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

Populist demagogues like the petulant adolescent now ensconced in the White House rise to power by casting themselves as the only ones who can preserve the rights and freedom and security of the true people, the people of the blood and the soil. Societies and cultures are ever in flux as they respond to economic change and environmental change and new knowledge and human imagination and migrating populations. This flux forces on us those uneasy questions of identity and purpose. Artists and social critics and professional thinkers see burgeoning opportunity to produce new creative and social capital. But most people are not artists, social critics, or professional thinkers. Their response to change is vague disquiet that becomes apprehension that becomes anxiety that becomes fear.

Cynical and ruthless and unencumbered by any sort of moral grounding, preening punks like Trump, Orbán, Bolsonaro, Le Pen, and Farage prey on this fear and promise a return to greatness that never existed but has to be conjured so the demagogues can invent a narrative of the fall. Who is the one destined to lead the true people out of their fallen state? Three guesses.

Populism does nothing to preserve freedom and liberty because it’s a calculated reversion to tribalism. It’s a play on our worst instincts when we’re rattled by the profound questions that true freedom and individual liberty put right before our eyes, confronting us with how little in life is ever stable or certain. Being free is not free. It levies a stiff tax. It requires us to be ever attentive, to face constant hard questions with never enough information, to always confront how little we really know about anything that matters. All we can do is make our best guesses with the only lives we’ve got, but we’d really rather not deal with that. Millions of us prefer to pull on the armbands or put on the red hats or form up for the parade with our torches and our matching polo shirts. It’s way fucking easier than thinking.

A few days ago I decided that the next time I’m asked to designate my religion, I’m going to write “Stoic Pessimist.” Day by day, I mean to keep going, but I have less faith that we can handle freedom or democracy or a republic governed by law and bending toward justice. As a species we may have a fatal flaw, and a fatal propensity for breeding people happy to exploit that flaw. I hope I’m wrong.