Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Massachusetts Line

The Prince of Poets: In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king

This Wednesday it will mainly be all about last Wednesday when, loyal readers will recall, we drove to the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, the site of a notable Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture, where I delivered a lecture on Luís de Camões. The Director of the Center, Professor Frank Sousa, an affable and energetic Azorean, and his colleague Victor Mendes, a cosmopolitan peninsular, then regaled us at dinner at Sagres, a restaurant in nearby Fall River. While I cannot claim to have visited all three Azorean-Portuguese restaurants in North America, I will be bold enough to say without fear of successful contradiction that this is the best one. Until last week I had known Fall River only in two connections. The first, of course, is that of a famous murder case in 1892, when everybody but the jury knows that

Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks.
And when she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.

The second is more personal. About twenty years ago, two middle-aged sisters, the daughters of a deceased Fall River printer, got in touch with me. They were attempting, perhaps somewhat tardily, to tidy up their father’s estate by cleaning out his letterpress workshop. It was a sizable building that had apparently been standing idle for about two decades. Its roof had in one place collapsed, and water had ruined a good deal of the equipment, including most of the type holdings. Nonetheless I was able to rescue several tons of foundry type, one nice old Pearl Press, and (the greatest prizes) two fabulous stone-topped oak composing tables. But now, at last, I have found something worthy to set atop them: a dish of baked stuff squid from Sagres!

Two specialties of Sagres: the windrose (Portugal); stuffed squid (Massachusetts)

Driving to the South Shore, as they seem to call it, had not been all beer and skittles. We left soon after first light, but even so there was already a fair mess awaiting us by the time we got to the George Washington Bridge. We had to make our way through toney but congested Fairfield County, and past darkest New Haven and Bridgeport, home of our latest jihadist, before we got to the handsome fields and waterways of the Rhode Island coast. The return trip, by way of contrast, was pure pleasure. We had decided to make a kind of mini-vacation of it by driving all the way across Massachusetts on the turnpike to visit our good friends Steve and Andrea White in Hancock, a hamlet on the outskirts of Williamstown, in the extreme northwest corner of the state.

Steve was for some years the superb Episcopal chaplain at Princeton, where Joan worked with him as a colleague and I as a sometime auxiliary in his flock. He typifies in his multiple competences a growing segment of the clergy of our church. He went into the priesthood only after a successful career as a business executive. He is also a fine carpenter—which gives the concept of the “imitation of Christ” a wholly new resonance—so that in addition to his clerical duties on the staff of the parish church in Pittsfield he has on the side been busy rehabilitating country houses, in a particularly stunning example of which the Whites themselves reside.

We had a mellow evening dinner with our friends, but what I will tell you about now is our busy day in Hancock and North Adams that preceded it. It happens that the “town” of Hancock includes one of the most impressive of extant Shaker archaeological sites . As most of you already know, the Shakers were one of the more admirable and impressive religious groups to flourish in New England and upstate New York (then the western frontier) in the early and mid- nineteenth century. Their communities were in effect mixed-sex Protestant monastic houses. Though the fact was probably unknown to them, the Hancock Shakers lived rather in the spirit of the pre-Benedictine house at Whitby in which the poet Cædmon composed (orally) the first known English poem—“Nu sculon herian”, to the considerable admiration of the monastery’s head-woman, Saint Hilda.

Shaker stone barn: Hancock MA

I should perhaps stoop to the phrase “mixed-gender” to avoid “mixed-sex”, since the Shakers avoided mixing sex so assiduously that they managed to become extinct. But during their heyday they were quite successful in replenishing their communities with converts willing to adopt celibacy. The term “Shaker”, like the “Quaker” that it followed and the “Holy Roller” it antedated began as a semi-insult; but then so did the term “Christian”, which, aided by various soi-disant Christians and the national press, is rapidly reclaiming that status. All Shaker communes housed remarkable craftsmen, designers, carpenters, and architects; but the one in Hancock has left an unusually impressive number of relics, including a huge brick residence hall and a vast stone barn, the likes of which I had never before seen. Original Shaker furniture is still to be found in the upper reaches of the antique market. Even the modern reproductions are out of my price range.

We then trundled over to nearby North Adams to visit the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art , known in those parts at the MASSMoCA, which only sounds like the blend of the week at Starbuck’s. If you have never been there, as I never had, you must seize any proximate opportunity for a visit. The museum is housed in a vast, sprawling, old brick industrial building, as intrinsically ungainly as the great brick dormitory of the Shakers is elegant. I have never actually been in the execution cellars of the Lubyanka, but they probably would now be anti-climactic. Yet at a certain point heroic ugliness achieves majesty and even magnificence, rather like the Luna Moth eventually fights its way through its dung-colored cocoon. The fantastic show that is “up” at the moment features the vast wall paintings, several square miles of them, I would guess, by the late Sol Lewitt.

My first reaction was that no two tourist “attractions” could have been more different that the Shaker Village and the Lewitt murals, but one of the chief functions of college professors is to find spurious but momentarily plausible overarching field theories. It seemed to me then that the Shakers had reformed the complexity of communal living to an admirable simplicity. Sol Lewitt, for his part, had in the alembic of his genius distilled from the simplicity of geometrical units a mind-boggling complexity of effect. Another way to think about the two is in terms of the line. Both Sol and the Shakers were partial to the line dance.

Lines dancing