Foreword | May 07, 2016
Relics and Wonders
Giving tribute to the past is older than the pyramids. We can safely guess that it’s older than the most ancient known treasure-laden burials. Since the beginnings of civilized life we have collected relics and contemplated our relationship to the past. True histories, in which an effort was made not just to record important human events but to understand them, came as early as the fifth century BCE, when Herodotus and Thucydides described Greece’s triumph and its self-destruction in their vivid depictions of the Persian and Peloponnesian wars.
The knowledge of history, and the interest in it, fell to a low point after the decline of Rome. Early and Medieval Christian art showed only occasional effort at historical accuracy, partly because there were so few resources for pursuing it. However, the chronicle form of recording events did survive and even became necessary in certain fields. By the thirteenth century, for example, English law depended on collected records of previous legal decisions. In Italy, with the Renaissance in full force by the fourteenth century, several writers went beyond record-keeping and antiquarianism with the rediscovery of the Classics and their own writing of local histories—for example in Leonardo Bruni’s History of the Florentine People, a narrative portrayal of the civic development and rise of Florence.
The spreading regard for the subject is apparent in the fact that over twenty of Shakespeare’s plays were historically set, covering the twelfth century BCE (Troilus and Cressida) to 1570 (Othello). Shakespeare was cannily using historical settings partly to avoid political censorship of his plays, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that he and fellow playwrights had a passion for the subjects of Classical and English histories such as those of Livy, Plutarch, Ovid, and Holinshed.
However, few writers of the Renaissance were concerned with what we now consider to be essential historical methods. By the time of the French Enlightenment, intellectuals were fascinated by history and skeptical of previous historians yet still unable to come up with clear new approaches to its study. It wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that a memorably broad, detailed, synthetic history appeared in England. Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covered classical Rome and the Eastern Empire, its several volumes published during the same years when Americans were fighting for our own Enlightenment- and Classically inspired republic.
Over the next seventy-five years, German scholars gave definite form to what we now think of as modern scholarship, demanding comprehensive research, along with clear views about how to approach and interpret subjects. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a prodigiously knowledgeable scholar of the Classics and classical history, as well as the Bible and economics. His dialectic view of history is now mostly remembered as the inspiration for Marx’s scheme of economic development based on methods of production. But it came from Hegel’s revolt against the then-dominant skeptical theories of Kant, who believed that we are limited to understanding a finite world of appearances and that any effort to reach some higher understanding is quickly lost in inconsistencies. Hegel’s dialectic theory was a hard-earned idealistic expression of faith in the broad progress of history and the power of the mind to understand it. Following Hegel in Germany was Leopold von Ranke, whose Zur Kritik neuerer Geschichtschreiber (Critique of Modern Historians) became the foundation of modern historiography, with its emphasis on detailed and comprehensive research using primary documents such as diaries and letters.
While German thinkers established the standard for modern scholarship, France was the home of sociology, which in the nineteenth century became one of several new directions in historical study. August Comte believed that two phases of history were already past—the theological and philosophical—and that we had now entered a human phase when the focus should be on the observable forces in social history. This turn toward broader human history led to the development and—especially after World War II—the dominance of sociological approaches, such as that of the Annales School. Annales historians Mark Bloch and Lucien Febvre emphasized the significance of psychology or “mentalities” in all levels of society. In his two-volume Feudal Society, Bloch looked at several areas, including persistent myths and beliefs (for instance, the conviction that a king’s touch could remedy illness), as well as local facts and forces and technological influences—the invention and importance of the water wheel, to name one example. The pragmatism and human focus of this approach led not just to a wider view of history but to some of the most readable and fascinating histories of the last hundred years.
In this issue’s Jeffrey E. Smith prize-winning essay “Portals: Cabinets of Curiosity, Reliquaries, and Colonialism,” Genese Grill discusses, among other things, the earliest examples of museums in Western culture. “Why have some people been mad to collect and accumulate, to capture the variety and vastness of the world in their drawing rooms and Schatzkammer, while others have urgently preached against avarice, materialism and clutter? Why has Christianity, a religion with such a complex relationship with the physical, spent so much time, money and energy creating elaborately ornamented objects (reliquaries) to house the physical remains of saints who are often honored for their transcendence of physical needs?” Her ambitious essay looks at both the damage wrought by civilization and our relationship to objects, which she sees as “portals” connecting our present experience to the past—and which connect us in space as well.
Among the fiction in this issue, Emma Torsz’s Smith Prize-winning “The Wall” is partly about the importance of relics in our connection with our own pasts. The American Jewish narrator is mourning the death of her brother, Jonah, who joined the Israeli army and fell in love with a lesbian woman soldier, Eva. Jonah died in a noncombat-related accident, and as the narrator tries to make sense of his death, she sleeps with Eva and learns that shortly before his death Jonah placed a written prayer in a crevice of the Western Wall in Jerusalem according to a hundreds-of-years-old custom. She becomes obsessed with finding and reading the prayer note, and Eva helps her cross-dress as a man so that she can gain admittance to the men’s side of the wall to attempt to find the last key relic from her brother.
David Zane Mairowitz’s “Greek Tragedy” is about a maker of relics and displays—a famous French stage sculptor whose career and life are on the rocks because of his alcoholism. He would rather hang out, drink, and fall into absurd altercations in his vacation home in a French hamlet than return to Paris and make a last-ditch effort to resume his position with the Comédie Francaise. It’s up to his teenaged daughter Amandine to try to get him out of a bar and to Paris, while he resists, picks another fight with a beefy local man and suffers the consequences. While Mairowitz’s story plays with the conventions and paraphernalia of classical tragedy, R.T. Smith’s “The Satans” is a brilliant relic in itself—an outright Appalachian folk tale concerning Jack, a trickster who proves to be more than a match in lovemaking to the Devil himself, not to mention all the women in the Devil’s family.
Alastair Daniel’s “Sade” tells the story of David, a mixed-race boy who is trying to find an identity and sense of belonging in England. His African father was imprisoned in apartheid-era South Africa while he and his white mother have returned to England. David is a talented soccer player who is harassed mercilessly by his white classmates and looked down upon by his grandmother for his race. His close companion is his sick, aged dog, a gift from his father. The story takes place on the day of the Live Aid concert in July, 1985, as David tries to find a TV where he can watch the show. He especially wants to see and hear Sade, whose early family history is a lot like his own. Finally he does get to see her perform in the televised concert, a moment that resonates even after he again has to deal with the brutality of his racist classmates.
E.J. Levy’s “I Spy” tells the story of an artist whose work imitates the wonders of nineteenth-century spirit photographs. However, she has fallen into the trap of her own past by becoming obsessed by the comings and goings of her ex, Geoff. She knows Geoff so well that she is able to guess his passwords and spy on his cell phone and email. The technology that allows even ordinary individuals to surveil each other is a modern echo of the photographic technology that allowed Victorian photographers to create spirit photos, as the former boyfriend becomes a cross between a living spirit and a demon due to the protagonist’s obsession.
John W. Evans’s wonderful essay “The Polish Prince” looks at the curiosity and inexplicable power of characters in pro wrestling. He tells about his Polish Granny Wiskowski, who sold bootleg gin during Prohibition and was a pro-wrestling fan. He also chronicles the career of his father’s second cousin, Ed Wiskowski, the “Polish Prince,” who adopted the persona of a South African racist, Colonel De Beers, for his famous wrestling act. Of the curiosity of the spectacle itself, Evans says, “Wrestling is not an enjoyable aesthetic experience. It can only be loved in sequences that are rampant with cruelty, violence, and sexism (less so now, homophobia and racism), which might account for the waxing and waning affections of wrestling fans themselves.”
Our Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize poetry winner Phillip B. Williams’s expansive poems probe such large issues as race, faith and our human capacity to empathize and to hurt and destroy. In these poems, the sense of alienation and wonderment, loneliness and compassion, go hand in hand. In a field of death and barrenness, we’re also led to see that “the world’s revision of itself roils through the sky.” On a T-shirt the speaker wears, we see not only the names of lives lost because of racism but also the speaker’s effort to gather these names and resist the erasure of an unjust history.
Allison Davis’s poems seek the intersection between personal, familial, and public histories. “My mother is a bookkeeper, / my father is an innkeeper. / I’m a keeper of a language,” the speaker tells us. Through language, both Yiddish and English, she takes us back to her grandparents’ migration to North America, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and her father’s lonely years working at a Youngstown motel. In addition, the speaker contemplates her connection with other Jewish writers such as Charles Reznikoff and Dahlia Ravikovitch, speculating whether poetry is capable of preserving the facts of the past and making them fully present again.
Patricia Hooper’s poems meditate on the cyclical nature of the world, in which the present moment is saturated with memories of the past and possibilities of the future. A junco’s death is “another of the world’s / beautiful ideas / lost, / but nourishing the next one.” A man and woman gaze into a lake, see a silver boat and wonder whether its occupants are their future selves. In this malleable world, autumn leaves are “wings of flame,” a mockingbird sings “against the signs of brightness vanishing” and one’s grief rises as two sandhill cranes take to the air.
This issue’s “Curio Cabinet” offers a look at the world of gallerist Julien Levy, who had an eye for discovering artistic wonders. In 1927 he returned to New York from his first trip to Paris, having purchased Salvador Dali’s iconic painting The Persistence of Memory. His gallery would become the major purveyor of Surrealism, making it instrumental in moving the avant-garde from Europe to the United States. His 1932 exhibit Surréalisme showcased the movement’s leading figures—Dalí, Max Ernst, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Frieda Kahlo, Alexander Calder and Joseph Cornell—before they were part of the art world’s pantheon.
In this issue TMR is also proud to present as a found text, published for the first time, the manuscript that would become the prequel to Tennessee Williams’s iconic and first successful play The Glass Menagerie. In 1943, the newly christened “Tennessee” Williams was living hand to mouth—sleeping on friends’ couches, picking up night jobs that allowed him to write during the day and cadging meals wherever he could get them—when he received a telegram from his agent, Audrey Wood: “Come to New York at once. Arranged writing deal.” The new job eventually took him to Hollywood, where he was a scriptwriter for MGM for $250 a week. While he was supposed to be working on star vehicles, he was in fact typing away on the screen treatment that he called “The Gentleman Caller.” Fans of Williams’s work will notice in this rough but intriguing treatment the lyrical language that would ultimately become Williams’s poetic or “sculptural” theater.
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