essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
I started reading about the age of four. I can still remember a collection of books my parents gave me when I was five. There was a copy of Aesop’s Fables which made a big impression, while another, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, I didn’t like, and found a bit scary (I also remember a nightmare I had about that time featuring the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood). Even since I’ve loved to read. Some stories I’ve read I always carry about in my memory, some of them not knowing where they came from. They are not particularly great stories: I just remember them. Perhaps I am telling myself stories to entertain or reassure myself. Here are just a few of them.
1. Picasso at the beach
This came from a magazine story I read in a doctor’s waiting room. I don’t know who wrote it or what it was actually about. Only this fragment remained with me.
William and Glenda Beeker were from Florida, Bill a realtor from Jacksonville. They were in France on their annual holiday, staying at Cannes. It was 1961, life was prosperous for the Beekers. They had no children, having married late in life, but shared a lot of cultural interests and a love of travel. Late one morning in April, with a strong wind blowing from the sea but a lovely sunny day despite it, Glenda took a walk along the beach while Bill was in the town getting some photos processed. She saw a short, thickset man walking backwards and forwards along the sand in a deserted area. He had a stick, a branch from a tree he must have found among debris washed up by the tide. Glenda forgot him, but soon noticed the man again because his movements became quite peculiar. He knelt and scratched at the sand with his stick, then rose upright and walked backwards and forwards vigorously, dragging the stick behind him. Once he got down on hands and knees and scrubbed energetically at the sand with his fingers. Idly she thought, what can he be doing? Glenda had just about decided the man was a cretin, a simpleton playing some silly game. Then, for no particular reason, she recalled that the painter Pablo Picasso lived at Mougins, not far away in the hills above the town. Wouldn’t it be funny if it was Picasso on the sand! She walked closer. As she approached, she saw the man was very old. He was wrinkled and bent, not at all like the handsome man whose photo she had seen in magazines and art books. Then she looked at the sand. And there, etched in the sand, was a Picasso painting! There was no mistaking it. At first she just wondered. While she looked at details of line and shape, the old man grunted with satisfaction, threw the stick back into the sea, and walked up to the promenade above. Glenda walked around the sand painting, marvelling. She had seen Picasso paint a picture. Then she noticed she was standing in a pool of water. The tide was rising. Little eddies of salt water nibbled at the edge of the painting. Some of the grooves in the sand were smoothed out. Appalled, Glenda realised the painting was going to be obliterated by the incoming tide. Like a fool she ran ineffectively backwards and forwards. If she left, the painting would vanish. But how could she stop the tide? Rather belatedly she thought to take a photo. To do that she would have to get her camera from the hotel. It would only take a minute. Glenda rushed up the beach, across the promenade and down the busy streets to her hotel. Up the stairs because the elevator was slow in coming, into her suite. There was no camera in sight. Glenda opened and emptied drawers and suitcases, but wherever she looked was in vain. She suddenly realised Bill must have taken both cameras with him. He was always worried about buying the wrong sort of film. Glenda rushed back to the beach, hoping to find someone who would take a photo of Picasso’s beach painting for her. The spot where she had seen it was gone. It was covered with little wavelets coloured a beautiful aqua. A storm cloud had piled up out to sea, a milky russet colour that hid the crimson sun in its centre. The painting was gone. She had owned a Picasso for a few minutes, then lost it. Glenda felt quite devastated. She felt a great sadness, and even cried a little. When she told Bill later that evening he refused to believe her. Picasso wouldn’t come to Cannes, he said. Why would he draw in the sand, he also said. Glenda didn’t speak to him for a week. But they got over it. Neither saw it, but a Paris paper carried an article for Picasso’s last exhibition. In it was a painting the reviewer singled out for praise. It was called Incoming Tide. When asked to comment on the painting by a critic, Picasso said he couldn’t really recall painting it. He was lost in wonder, he said, at the beauty of a rising storm he saw, and the way light reflected off the waves and seemed to slip into the sea. He wanted to paint it but didn’t know if he could.
2. The juggler and the Queen of Heaven
I first saw this story at the movies when I was a child, as a cartoon. It must have belonged to the days when you saw a few films in a program, there was always at least one cartoon. But it was originally a medieval fable.
Barnabas was once a friar of St Francis. But his faith was weak, and he found the prayers and the fasting too hard to carry out, winter and spring, as the years rolled by. He lived then in Antwerp and went, every time he was asked to carry a message from his Abbott to the town, to visit the great cathedral of Our Lady which was then being built. It was the year 1500, but the cathedral would not be completed for another 20 years. Before that time had elapsed Barnabas had run away, despairing of ever being a good friar. He had committed a great sin in abandoning his vows. He knew Hell awaited him when he died, and he wandered through France and Germany scraping a living as best he could. One old man he met under a bridge in Paris was a juggler, and taught him the tricks of the trade, and Barnabas began to prosper. He was a good juggler. He took risks, juggling while on a line stretched between two posts, high above the crowd. One bitter winter night Barnabas found himself in Antwerp again. The snow was on the ground and falling. It was dark and no people were about, and Barnabas went to visit the Cathedral of Our Lady as he had in the days when he was a friar. The building was vast and beautiful, soaring away into the heavens where Our Lady had ascended to be with her holy son Jesus. Barnabas would have liked to enter and pray, yet he knew his sins barred him from such a holy place. It was the night before the first of January, a great feast day of Our Lady, and Barnabas prayed to her for forgiveness for his sins, as he had many times before. Perhaps because he was standing before the cathedral he remembered watching being built when he was a friar, Barnabas felt more hope than he usually did when he prayed. He wanted to make an offering. Unusually for him, he had money, and thought to put it in the collection box for the poor inside the church. But he was a sinner. How could he enter Our Lady’s cathedral? Barnabas yearned for forgiveness, yet his sins were too great. If Our Lady were to intercede for him he would have hope. Barnabas cast about in his mind for an offering. All he had was some coins he could not offer. And his juggling balls. At first he thought of offering these, leaving the weighted leather balls of sand and shot behind and going back to life as a beggar. He felt despair at being so poor, at having so little to offer Our Lady. All he could do was juggle. And then, standing alone in the falling snow, moon and stars his only audience, Barnabas began to juggle. He juggled for Our Lady. He performed as he had never done before, moving through the snow covered pavement in a graceful dance he didn’t realise he knew, never dropping his jugglers’ balls, sending them higher and higher till they glittered in the starlight with crystals of ice. He juggled until he sank from exhaustion, and lay there getting wet in the snow that melted beneath his body. All was still. The Cathedral still soared before him. Barnabas heard a slight sound and looked up. Very slowly the great doors of oak swung open, and Barnabas saw a great altar inside the cathedral. To one side of the altar stood a statue of Our Lady. She was holding the child Jesus in her arms, and Barnabas prayed to her for forgiveness one more time. She was lit only by candlelight inside the cathedral, a great candelabra made of brass and with dozens of candles flickering in the gloom. And then Barnabas saw her smile. She smiled with such gentleness. Barnabas thought, she is such a young lady. And I have pleased her with my juggling. She held her baby with one hand, and beckoned with the other, calling Barnabas inside the cathedral to pray. And he was forgiven.
3. The widow of Ephesos
This one is a famous story, and I know where it comes from, Petronius’ Satyricon. That book was written in the first century, one of the world’s greatest novels, sadly surviving only in fragments. The story reveals the salty, rueful humour the ancient Romans had.
Claudius was a Roman soldier from Spain on assignment from his legion keeping the peace in Ephesos in Asia. He had been detailed to guard the crucified bodies of four thieves as they hung upon their crosses outside the town. One of the most dreaded of punishments, crucified men were denied burial, their bodies scavenged by birds and jackals, and so their souls were dispersed to the winds and could never find judgment in the afterlife. The crucifixion site was near a burial ground, and Claudius’ sergeant suspected the parents of the executed men would try to retrieve their bodies and bury them. He urged Claudius to be vigilant. The long night watches were tedious, with only an occasional wolf sniffing around the decomposing corpses, and howling mournfully at the smell. So Claudius was surprised to hear the wailing of mourners, and candlelight flickering from an expensive mausoleum in the graveyard nearby. Venturing nearer, Claudius saw that inside the mausoleum was a grieving widow, clothed in black, her face covered by a veil, sobbing bitterly over the tomb of a man, husband or father he knew not. Beside her was her maid, who raised a warning finger for silence, and went outside to talk with the soldier. Her mistress’ name was Helena, wife of one of the first citizens of Ephesos who had died suddenly and it was thought through an infection carried by one of his slaves. He had been famous for his justice and uprightness, and was sorely missed by his friends and fellow officials. His wife was a model of faithfulness and probity, who loved her husband devoutly and was devastated by his loss. Claudius was moved by the story. He saw how emaciated both Helena and her servant were, for they went daily to mourn at the tomb, and Helena would take no food, and had not eaten for almost a week. Claudius went back to the crosses, where he had left his cloak and satchel, and emptied out his remaining provisions, wine, figs and bread, and brought them back to the tomb. He urged both women to eat. The maid did so gladly, but Helena cried and grieved the more and would not touch the food. Claudius pleaded with her, telling her her fasting would never bring back the dead man, and only hasten her own end. Finally, after almost an hour of alternately pleading and offering his humble provisions, Claudius prevailed on Helena to eat. They talked together about the dead man, and Claudius heard how fine, generous and just a man he was. Claudius was a young man of only thirty years, tall and muscular, tanned and fit, a soldier in peak condition. He could not help but notice that Helena was a strikingly beautiful women, now red eyed and dishevelled, but young and attractive. On one occasion she stooped to take a cup of wine and Claudius saw a glimpse of her breasts, full and rounded. Without at first realising it, he began to desire her, and asked her to make love with him. Helena was shocked and offended at first, but Claudius persisted. She on her part saw how handsome Claudius was, and she began to be attracted to him, and eventually, after two nights of his pleading, she submitted, and they made love. Meanwhile, the thieves’ relatives saw that the bodied of the thieves were left unattended on their crosses, and the parents of one of them raised enough courage to take their son’s body down and bury it. When Claudius returned to his station and saw a body was missing, he was in despair. He would be flogged to within an inch of his life. He might even have to take the thief’s place if his commanding officer thought he deserved death. He had no money to bribe him. He told Helena of what would happen. And she comforted him. Take my husband’s body, and place it on the cross instead of the missing man. No one will know. When he demurred, she said, it is better I lose one man than two. My husband is dead, and I cannot bring him back. He cares not what happens to his body now. But I have you to love, and I would not see you punished or killed. Take my husband’s body, and I will be responsible. Claudius did so, and the missing body on the cross was not detected. The story does not say what happened to Helena and Claudius. Perhaps they lived happily ever after.
4. Li Po and the moon
This is another story I can trace. It came from Ivar Lissner’s The Living Past, and is about Li Po, often called China’s greatest poet, a lyrical genius able to portray moods and scenes with astonishing conciseness.
Li Po (or, in another transliteration, Li Bai) was a poet and a drunkard, though it is not certain if it was wine or beauty which made him drunk. He was also a great traveller, and roamed the length and breadth of eastern China. He lived in the eighth century AD, when the T’ang kings ruled China. The T’ang Dynasty was a strong and militarily successful regime that united the kingdom and kept the northern Mongols at bay, but its greatest achievement is in poetry. It is the great age of Chinese poetry and one of the great ages of poetry in world history, and Li Po was its supreme poet. It was a time when a literate minority ruled the country, very much as in 18th century England, and when formality and politeness, as in the England of Alexander Pope, was the prevalent form of social intercourse. Li Po was not like that. He was like a Romantic poet on opium, or a rock star on LSD, someone who came and went as he would. The amazing thing was that he had hundreds of friends, friends who let him visit, let him disorder their lives, who drank too much with him, for no-one ever outdrank him, then sent him on his way, having listened to insights and revelations that sometimes transformed their lives. He was like a Chinese Sokrates, someone whom you weren’t quite sure of, someone who nevertheless charmed you, and then who gave you a poem that broke your heart. Many of his poems are about meetings with friends. Li Po went ever on, and always cast a backward look at friends he remembered and longed for but saw no more. He made his way to the Court of the Emperor, was given a post, was conspired against by a jealous eunuch, and went on his way again. He married, had children, and again moved on. He gave the impression of searching for something, and we know what it was. It was a bird’s silhouette against the full moon, it was a pattern in wind blown leaves, it was young hares bounding in the grass or fish leaping in a pond., a tranquil lake at sunset or a friend’s peaceful garden. It was beauty, and beauty is always out of reach. Many of Li Po’s poems are written to himself. He is alone in a field chasing his hat which the wind has blown away. He is rowing across a lake at sunset as the cranes fly in to roost. He is always precise, vividly pictorial, always moving. And so one day Li Po came to Dangtu, whose beautiful mountains and rivers he had loved and visited so many times before. At evening he was in a shallow bottomed boat drifting on the Yangtse River. He had a leathern flask of wine and his writing tablet and ink stick and brush as he always did. The moon was low in the sky and full, the moon he had celebrated in his poetry often before, the moon he danced with in lonely glades. Slowly the moon rose in the river, pale and mysterious, the water rippling across its surface. There was not a sound, not a bird cry, not a movement of wind in tree, not a chuckle of water against stone. So many years of searching, so many moments found and lost again. Li Po knew at last that what he searched for was only in the moment, and then gone. And he was old. Yet the moon was so beautiful in the water. The water rippled across her surface and he thought she smiled at him. To have this beauty in his heart at last, to be at peace. Li Po reached out over the gunwale, reached out to the lovely, unreachable moon, and let himself sink in the clear water leaving not a ripple behind. Poor Li Po, his search eluded him, but his moments remain for us to read in his poems.
5. The phantom hitchhiker
Yet another story I can trace to source: it’s from Jan Harold Brunvand’s book The Vanishing Hitchhiker, which taught me that we never stop making myths, just by collecting a book full of modern ones. The story is usually given as factual so I’ve made up a context.
When I was about twelve years old I went with my mother to stay on a station at Pokataroo, up north in New South Wales near Walgett and Lightning Ridge and the state boundary. I went to its little one room school, learned to ride a horse and generally adapted to a new way of life. The story that follows comes from some friends my mother made in the town, Charles and Lucy Skinner, who one evening invited my mother and myself to their house for dinner. I don’t remember the meal, but afterwards can recall being a bit dismayed at the hordes of moths hurling themselves against the wire screens of the verandah where we were sitting to get some cool air. Charlie began by talking of a recent tragedy in the area, a couple of girls up from Sydney, one British, one Australian, “seeing the country”. One, I didn’t understand which, was hitching a ride into the nearest town, Collarenebri, walking without looking behind her, and, when a car that didn’t want to give her a lift accelerated to get past her, stepped accidentally in its path and was hit and killed. Anyway, it seems Charlie and Luce (of course I called them Mr and Mrs Skinner to their faces) had gone in to Colle the last Saturday to the pictures, and along the way had picked up a hitchhiker. She was standing by the side of the road, looking forlorn and covered in dust, and had obviously been walking a while, past the Derwent Farm which saw the dirt track join up with the sealed road to town. Luce learned back and opened the rear door for her from the inside, and she got in. Luce thought she looked a bit funny, but I don’t know if that was because of what happened after. She said the girl was white, and didn’t seem all there. She “seemed to flicker” was the way Luce put it, which I thought was a funny way to talk. Once in the car the girl didn’t say a word. There was only one place she could be going, the same place that Charlie and Luce were, so Charlie didn’t even ask. And as for not saying a word, that was no problem I remember when Luce was around. She usually spoke for everybody so as to save them the trouble. They rattled off down the road for about 10 miles, and then Charlie gave an odd jerk and slowed the car. Seems he’d just glanced in the rear vision mirror, and couldn’t see the girl. Luce asked him why he was stopping and Charlie was at a loss for words, not common for him. Luce looked back to complain about her stupid husband to the girl in the back seat. And she wasn’t there. The Skinners were really alarmed. They thought the girl must have opened the back door while the car was moving and fallen on the road. They turned the car around and went back all the way to Derwents, but saw no sign of the hitchhiker. Luce said she felt all around the back of the car, checked the floor, looked for anything belonging to the girl, but found nothing. She said one funny thing. She said the seat where the girl had been sitting was warm. The Skinners drove into Collarenebri and went and saw Bill Piper the old policeman who looked after law matters for the town. But there was nothing Bill could do. The Skinners had no name to post, and not much of a description. Luce said she just knew the mysterious hitchhiker was the girl that had been killed. Bill took a while to agree, but he did so in the end. But why would that happen? How could you have a ghost standing by the side of the road on a hot day hitching a ride? Weren’t ghosts meant to be eerie things that you saw at night? Well, the Skinners asked around. No one else had reported or seen a vanishing hitchhiker. Charlie had to put up with a bit of “are you sure you’re not imagining it?” raillery. But the Skinners were certain. They had given a lift to a girl. And she had disappeared while they were driving along the road to Colle. No-one could explain it.
6. The man without sin
This one is a story I can attribute generally. It’s my favourite bible story. But I haven’t read the bible I don’t think, so where I actually heard it I don’t know. The story is a short passage at the start of the Gospel of John chapter 8, generally thought to have been added to John in the fourth century, though the story itself may be part of an authentic tradition about Jesus (there were many such traditions outside the four gospels). The story has three peculiar elements. 1. Jesus champions a woman. 2. Jesus is attacked by a group John calls “Scribes, Sadducees and or Pharisees” but whom he is otherwise vague about (these bear little relation to the sects of these names). 3. Jesus writes mysteriously in the sand on the ground before answering. Jewish Law was very concerned about inheritance and family relationships, and adultery was taken seriously as a crime. However, the Law was very precise: the woman and her lover had to be warned against the crime beforehand, and two witnesses had to testify that it had taken place. The case then went before the Supreme Torah Court, which then carried out the sentence in Deuteronomy 22. The woman must be taken outside her father’s city walls and stoned to death by its citizens. It was common practice in Jesus’ day for scholars to gather in the Temple grounds and argue the Law and its interpretation, and that looks like what is happening in John’s story. Jesus is shown to be like many rabbis, able to read and write (though the carpenter and fisherman from rural Galilee would likely not have been literate). In John’s story Jesus argues the lenient case, that as no witnesses have been produced, the Law said the woman cannot be punished with stoning. When some rabbis object, Jesus writes in the dust what must be another passage from Deuteronomy which reinforces his argument. Far from being attacked by “scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees”, Jesus is shown as a Pharisee himself. There is no antagonism from the “Jews” against Jesus. I think it likely the story came from the Talmud, or commentary on the Jewish scriptures, and concerned an enlightened rabbi and his sayings, like the elder Hillel, and was later transferred to Jesus in John’s gospel. It is indeed a very enlightened message.
He came to Jerusalem for the Passover as most Jewish people tried to do. To celebrate in the Temple was a sign of submission and earned much respect. As he moved from house to house of his friends and disciples he was followed by many women, because he was one who seemed to single them out for special consideration, while other rabbis bade them be obedient to their husbands or fathers. One of these woman had had five husbands, and was living with another man she was not married to, in defiance of the Law. Other women moved to one side when she passed and hissed a curse at her, and she had sought comfort in Jesus’ words, though his disciples had at first pushed her away. Her name was Miriam, from the town of Magdala, once a rich woman, but defrauded by the men she had taken up with, and now devoted to the only man who had held her up, listened to her story, and given her guidance. But this woman had now been taken before the Sanhedrin and charged as an adulteress. The Law was strict in these matters. If convicted the woman must die, must be stoned outside the city walls and left unburied. The first stones must be thrown by the witnesses who had discovered her crime and brought the charges. The man argued with those who sought the woman’s death. He came before the court as a witness. The Law is not merely just, he said. The Law is also merciful. He wrote in the sand that there must be two witnesses. Here there were none. Some of the other rabbis still argued. Some hoped to force him to speak against the Law. He looked at them, a direct look that saw more than they wanted him to see. The rabbis all looked away. And then he said to them, “You, and you, and you, if you be without any sin, let you throw the stone”. And he knew their sins. Slowly they fell silent, and drifted away, as did the crowd when they saw the dispute was ended. The woman remained. “Why do you stay?” the man asked, “I will not condemn you”. Then he added, “Try to sin no more. The Law is merciful, but it is just”. This is the man the Romans crucified when he was arraigned before them as seditious.
I wonder why these stories have endured in my mind for so long? Not the wording of the original writing, but the situations described seem to strike a chord within me. Even when I know the source of the story it is my own version I remember. These are stories I tell myself. It has been said by someone (I can’t remember who. I forget quite as much as I remember things) that we are what we remember. I can’t quite decide what these stories reveal about me. Probably not much.
©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.