Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Blogger on the Roof

Luke and Melanie with flower-girl Lulu (Photo credit: Mother of the Groom)

Well, the previously undisclosed location was Greenville, South Carolina, and the significant event was the wedding of Melanie Allison Dean to Luke Owles Fleming on July 31, 2010. The pseudo-mystery was an indulgence granted to the groom by his bloguiste father. When I touched upon this blessed event in an earlier blog posting the nervous groom became a little skittish. As an anthropologist he was aware of numerous cultures in which such a blatant advertisement of future happiness might be considered rash; and without quite invoking the concept of taboo, he preferred that I exercise discretion. But now that the happiness is no longer potential and prospective but actual and operative, let me shout, or even fiddle it from the cybernetic rooftop.

The bride and groom are two of the finest and, in every sense of the word, the most beautiful young people I have been honored to know in a long career spent among fine young people; and that’s a judgment that can survive an obligatory parental-pride reduction of fifty percent. I can mention one quite objective criterion, and that is the quality of their close friends in attendance. Many of them were fellow Ph.D’s in anthropology or South Asian Studies. All of them were alert, morally engaged, fascinating conversationalists. If you spend a certain amount of time worrying about the Decline of Practically Everything, as I tend to do, a weekend spent among some of America’s finest youth is a salutary tonic!

I had last been in Greenville in 1952. Needless to say a lot has changed. A slightly seedy mill town in decline has been transformed by civic imagination and a spectacular architectural intervention into a very happening downtown. It centers upon the waterfalls of the Reedy River, anciently used as a source of mill power, around which a nearly perfect mix of green space and tasteful commercial development offers a variety of attractions from the cultural to the gastronomic. And speaking of the gastronomic Rita and Phil Dean, parents of the bride, regaled us with a seemingly endless sequence of Southern feasts. I had a good hint of what was in store when I opened my gift bag at the hotel. Prominent among the goodies were a bottle of RC Cola and a Moon Pie. There were other distinctive touches, such as


The actual ceremony took place on the large stone terrace behind the old Falls Cottage. From that prospect one looks down upon the greensward below. W
hile we were there that view included the temporary stage set for an open-air production of The Merry Wives of Windsor! I recalled, imperfectly, one of the final speeches of the play:
In love, the heavens themselves do guide the state...
And, thank Heaven, the heavens guide also the heavens. The weather was hot and steamy—I mentioned perhaps the venue, South Carolina?—but the faint menace of rain, which gave us a moment or two of anxiety earlier in the day, receded the moment the minister marched in with the groom.

A view of Falls Cottage, site of the wedding, from below

I suppose I owe it to my faithful readers to make a few remarks more general in nature than gloating about my son and wonderful new daughter-in-law. There would be a good deal to say. The Greenville County Museum has several splendid collections, including a large gallery full of Wyeths and several devoted to southern art. Timing problems kept us from seeing the extensive collection of Old Masters at Bob Jones University, though we did manage a visit to a smaller satellite housing an impressive cameo sampling of their holdings. I could touch upon other topics of sign
ificance, but allow me to make a beeline for the peripheral, as is my wont. I can report that Upcountry South Carolina is conspicuous for its high rate of tattooed females. This fact, obvious from even a stroll in the public streets, was confirmed by my visit to the Otter Creek Water Park, where the bathing attire allowed for more complete appreciation. The pictorial quality of the body art varies, as does the sophistication of the iconography. Melanie herself sports a beautifully understated dragonfly on her shoulder, much to be preferred to either the Death’s Head or Cross-in-Crown alternatives on view at Otter Creek. I have long been interested in the relationship between text and image in medieval manuscripts. I therefore noted with particular interest that many of the tattooed limbs and torsos were textual as well as pictorial, with the onomatological motiv prominent.

Bloody old Queen Mary, grieving over the loss of the last British possession on the Continent, claimed that when she died an autopsy would reveal the word “Calais” written on her heart. Of the names written upon the Carolinian ladies’ hearts (or nearby) I was able to make a rough-and-ready calculation:

Name of bearer: 21%
Name of boyfriend/husband of bearer: 34%
Name of Son of God and Savior of the World: 41%
Too cryptic to guess: 4%

Name of French town: 0%

Our visit to Greenville also leads me to meditate upon the Bliss Gap in western art. Why is nasty usually more interesting than nice? How can it be that most readers regard Satan as the most appealing character in Paradise Lost? Why does the tragic sense of life so frequently trump the comic? I remember the terror that struck my heart when I first came upon a remarkable image in Beowulf, in which the poet presents as the ne plus ultra of misery the circumstance of an old man forced to view the execution of his son. This cannot have been common even in brutal Old Germanic society, and it struck me as gratuitously grotesque as well as horrible.

Swa bið geomorlic gomelum ceorle
to gebidanne, þæt his byre ride
giong on galgan, þonne he gyd wrece,
sarigne sang, þonne his sunu hangað
hrefne to hroðre, ond he him helpe ne mæg,
eald ond infrod, ænige gefremman.

[In such fashion is it wretched for an old man to see his young son “ride” the gallows. Then he utters a sorrowing song, when his son hangs as a morsel for the ravens while he himself, ancient, stricken in years, can offer no help.]

But I was in my early twenties, unmarried, inexperienced—quite the opposite of eald ond infrod. My reaction was actually rather shallow. Oscar Wilde quipped that youth is too good a thing to waste on the young. I sometimes feel the same way about literature. I have spent my life in the probably vain attempt to teach Hamlet to adolescents. How can one know what is tragedy until one has oneself ingested some small portion of it?

Fortunately, there are also joys that can be savored to the full only by those who have spent many years preparing for them unawares. The parents who stand in attendance at the wedding of their beloved youngest child to a lovely, brilliant young woman, and hear the fervor in their voices as they unite themselves to each other, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health—these parents experience a joy I have found adequately described nowhere even in our greatest literature. The newlyweds are now in some vegetarian paradise for bird-watchers in Costa Rica, but while I was writing I was interrupted by the door-bell. A florist arrived with a bright bouquet. An accompanying note identified it as a token of thanks for our help with the wedding. Never has a gift been more pleasing or more superfluous. May the Lord bless you and keep you, Luke and and Melanie. May he lift up the light of his countenance upon you.

Sophia and her Abba Zvi, with marginalized Uncle Rich, get serious on the dance floor