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Filtering by Tag: J- Mark Bertrand

The Portraits Look Back

J Mark Bertrand

5 FayumFayum mummy portraits

 Greco-Romans in Egypt during the first few centuries after Christ commissioned artists to paint their portraits, often in encaustic, on wood panels that were then affixed to their mummified bodies. These mummy portraits, though painted after death, depicted living subjects, their closed eyes re-opened (and in some cases, mightily enlarged) by the artist’s brush. Comparative studies suggest that, while the paintings are somewhat stylized, they bore a strong resemblance to the people they represented. The old were depicted as old, the young as young, and a facial reconstruction of at least one mummy is a dead ringer for the man in the portrait. The Fayum mummy portraits, in other words, are fairly accurate pictures of people who lived nearly two millennia ago, painted in a style that could pass for contemporary.

The most striking thing about them? They look like us.

There’s only so much enthusiasm I can muster for landscapes and still life, though I realize some people can stare for hours at a lovely field or some artfully posed pieces of fruit. Only portraits hold my attention that way, and I think I know why. When you gaze at a portrait, the portrait looks back at you.

The most haunting artifacts of the ancient world are the human forms cast from hollows in Pompeii’s volcanic rock. The victims of Vesuvius, trapped in molten amber, emerge as rounded fetal abstractions, anthropomorphic depictions of raw emotion. Those hunched, cocooning forms preserve not just a horrific moment in time but also a universal feeling of helplessness in the face of death.

If the death portraits of Pompeii speak through abstraction, the power of the mummy portraits of Fayum comes from their particularity. They didn’t catch their subjects unaware in a moment of time. They depict people as they were in life, a host of individuals making eye contact over the span of centuries. These paintings preserve not just the form of the ancient men and women, but also their gaze.

When I put myself into the place of the Fayum artists, it’s hard to imagine them thinking in terms of “doing art for the ages.” Their work seems to have been part of the ritual surrounding funeral preparation. They were craftsmen adjusting set visual rubrics to resemble as closely as possible the features of the deceased. Like the embalmers and the makers of death masks, they had more in common with today’s mortuary cosmetician than with a painter exhibiting work in a gallery. And yet, uncannily preserved by the dry Egyptian climate, their work turned out to be for the ages after all. We do not know their names, yet they gave their subjects a kind of immortality.

Envy of Angels

J Mark Bertrand

Untitled What God must have told Adam makes no sense to us now. The problem, as Robert Farrar Capon saw it around the time of writing An Offering of Uncles, was that we had a sense of space but no sense of place, we always knew what time it was without realizing what it was time for, and we were content to be told what had happened never asking what it had happened for –– never even grasping this was a question that could be asked, let alone answered.

Capon summed up the dilemma with a kind of metaphor. A gray flannel man cruising down the turnpike in his automobile, stopping at one service plaza after another, each of them as identical as it was artificial, on a journey to nowhere through a manufactured landscape.

The solution, Capon figured, or at least the beginning of one, was to go for a little walk.

When you travel by foot the space you’re accustomed to traversing becomes a place again, a landscape you cannot pass through without first entering. This enlarged ground throws up challenges in the form of hills your car would flatten. It slows you down. It tests you. Scenic vistas yield themselves, spots you never would have suspected the existence of when speeding by, but their unanticipated beauties must be earned. On foot, you learn that the best views are only visible to those who arrive at them winded and aching.

My own recent habit of walking has born out most of this advice, though my landscape hasn’t yielded any marsh reeds. Yet. After a month on foot I knew my neighborhood better than I did after six years’ acquaintance from behind the wheel.

Along the way, Capon advises, you should pluck a marsh reed and bring it home with you. Tall as it is, the reed can only be carried like a prophet’s staff, or a king’s scepter. You will feel silly, which seems to be the point. How you get where you’re going matters. It matters, too, what you carry. In surprising ways the journey forms you.

Unlike us, the salaryman of Capon’s imagining still had somewhere to go. His places-become-spaces retained a physical presence at least. They could be found on a map. (And after half a century, if you travel from the generic chain store suburbs of one city to the next, Capon’s critique has lost none of its power.) Our spaces are becoming more ephemeral, though, as they become more virtual.

We travel them without feet and without cars, too. Without bodies of any kind, we find ourselves “present” in places which have no actual location or landscape, places that exist nowhere but the server farm, where they are as apparent to the eye as thoughts are when you gaze at a brain. I’m not sure where the marsh reeds are to be found.

The power of the reed, by the way, isn’t the embarrassment it causes, the make-believe prince or priest you become while forced to carry it. No, the power comes from realizing that there is no cause for embarrassment at all. A priest, a king is what you are. It’s what human beings were made to be.

Dominion over the land is ours by right, and whatever blinds us to the existence of the land, whatever makes us forget it exists or that we exist — that we are more, much more than disembodied desire — whatever does this to us is a usurper. That’s what God was telling Adam, more or less. “Do what you like; it’s yours,” Capon has him say. “Only look at its real shape, love it for itself, and lift it into the exchanges you and I shall have. You will make a garden the envy of angels.”

What we’ve made the land is anything but that, which might explain why we seem to measure progress in terms of removing ourselves from the landscape, even removing ourselves from our selves. The staff and the scepter are as embarrassing to us as the marsh reed would be, perhaps more so. It makes no sense that it was ever otherwise.

(Cover art from the first edition of An Offering of Uncles )

Angry at Andalusia

J Mark Bertrand

Untitled All my pilgrimages are improvised en route –– last minute treks to hallowed sites I never expected to discover along the way. The pilgrimage to Milledgeville, conceived while passing through Georgia the instant I glimpsed the town’s name on a highway sign ––“That’s where Flannery O’Connor lived. We’ve got to go!”–– couldn’t be researched adequately during the twenty-minute detour owing to a weak cellular signal, but no matter. There would be a bronze statue, I figured, probably in the town square, and a bookstore in which to purchase yet another copy of the collected works. Would there be souvenirs, trinkets –– a Misfit t-shirt, peacock keychains, Made in China ball caps bearing the author’s image? I certainly hoped so. Kitsch is not my thing, but for O’Connor kitsch I will make an exception.

We arrived in the rain and had to scour the city for any sign of her. Up and down the stately streets, through downtown and across the glistening cobbles and genteel columned buildings of the university campus, we could discover no indication, however minor, that Flannery O’Connor had ever set foot in the place. No statue, no square, no cottage industry catering to literary tourists. What Milledgeville wants you to know is that it was once the state capitol. That it was once home to the state’s greatest author appears to be a matter of relative indifference.

Eventually we came across Andalusia, the O’Connor homestead, out on a highway across from a car dealership, its location pinpointed by several mismatched signs. By now it was past six and the front gate was locked, so we contented ourselves standing on the muddy drive, gazing down the curved path until it disappeared in the trees.

Ours was the sort of pilgrimage that might have pleased Flannery, I suppose. She might have made a story of it, with myself the object lesson. Still, I grew frustrated, resenting the town for not taking more decided measures to honor the great writer’s memory.

“If this is what she gets,” I told myself, “you can’t hold out much hope for yourself.”

In a parking lot a week later, still unsettled by the abortive pilgrimage, I sat with the engine running and listened to a recording of O’Connor reading her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Her accent is divine, and the 1950s audience laughs in the right places, a comedy club crowd right up to the moment the story takes its turn, at which point an awkward silence descends. Police sirens echo in the background of the recording, and I felt annoyed (as Flannery herself must have at the time). Couldn’t they have been more considerate, these cops? Bank robbery or not, it was hardly worth spoiling a rare recording of the author’s voice.

My silly anger spilled over onto Milledgeville, which could also stand a lesson in consideration, then spread to encompass the whole state of Georgia past and present, then the nation. (“This country doesn’t honor its literary greats. Those sirens would never have sounded in France.”) Eventually I was mad at the world.

“Why are you so worked up?” I asked myself, but myself was not forthcoming. It had nothing to do with the sirens, anyway, or with the closed gate or the statue that isn’t in the town square. I suppose I was angry at history more than anything, the way the marks we leave –– regardless of how large they loom in the mind –– don’t make much of an impression on the actual world. They’re as easy to miss as a sign opposite a used car lot marking a muddy path down which, an hour earlier, you had no intention of traveling.

What is writing for?

J Mark Bertrand

7 Untitled Is the purpose of writing to communicate something to readers, or to mystify them? It’s been almost fifteen years, and James Miller’s article in the now-defunct Lingua Franca pitting clear communication (personified by George Orwell) against mystification-as-profundity (poster boy: Theodor Adorno) has stuck with me. First reading it fresh from grad school, where both perspectives were drilled into me with equal vigor, I’ve seen this either/or proposition reproduced in almost every argument over the goal of good writing that I’ve been dragged into since then. Whatever battle lines are drawn — literary vs. commercial, spiritual vs. secular — the old antagonists return to fight. Advocates of clarity are accused of dumbing ideas down, while advocates of mystery are chided for hiding their confused or commonplace thoughts behind a curtain of obfuscation.

I wish I could claim to have kept above the fray, but I’ve been a partisan more often than not — and for both sides, too, my allegiances shifting with the context. If I’ve switched sides back and forth, it’s not for lack of conviction. It’s just that neither side embodies what I’m actually attempting to do when I write fiction.

To me an unread story is a gesture of love left unconsummated.

Unrequited might seem a better word, but it’s not: there are books you haven’t read but for which you still feel affection. (Consider the American love affair with the Bible.) In some cases not having read the story keeps the love alive. The pages do not always contain what we’ve been led to believe.

As a reader I don’t seek consummation for reasons of clarity or mystification, although both sensations are part of the experience. What I look for is something closer to communion.

To me an unread story is like bread and wine left untasted on the table, an author’s gifts placed before readers out of a thwarted desire to know and be known.

Some of us don’t like to think of readers at all. We write for ourselves, telling the stories we’d like to hear. Art for art’s sake, with no hint of accommodating the audience. Mystification for its own sake, feeding your inner Adorno while your inner Orwell starves. This is a pose I’ve sometimes adopted, yet it seems more and more to be a mere shield against rejection: “You didn’t love me? That’s because you didn’t get me. This was never meant for you; you couldn’t have understood it.”

A story must communicate, or so they tell me. The question is, how? Must we follow the expected patterns, tap out only the approved rhythms, and keep culling the word horde until all the mystery is gone? Start thinking of what we do as mere communication and before long you find the reader can be quantified, reduced, understood –– and that a better term than reader is consumer. If writing for myself was a dead end, writing for consumers is even worse.

This is why, instead of communicating with readers, I want to commune.

I’m not aiming at blasphemy here, or even irreverence. It seems important to me that the creative act be understood in terms of incarnation, and the Christian Eucharist provides an apt metaphor. In spite of Walker Percy's belief that “the incarnational and sacramental dimensions of Catholic Christianity are the greatest natural assets of a novelist,” here I find Calvin’s notion of spiritual presence helpful. The author’s presence in the paper and ink or the pixel, though not physical, is nevertheless real in a way that can only be impoverished by ascribing it only to symbolism. Entering into the story is, at least for “worthy receivers,” to commune with an author who is actually, though spiritually, present in the work.

Somewhere between demystification and mystification for its own sake –– or perhaps I should say, somewhere above them –– there is a place for something both mystical and substantial, an experience of one another through words that has become almost a secret, a guilty pleasure none who know it feel entirely comfortable talking about. It does not always happen, but when it does, we remember why we read and write to begin with, just as there are moments in church with the taste of bread on the tongue and wine on the lips when we, for an instant, recover the true urge that brought us there.

The Good Apocalypse

J Mark Bertrand


When doomsday literature goes highbrow, you might expect real-life survivalists to cheer. My favorite criticism of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, however, comes from a popular survivalist forum, where the book and film were taken to task for presenting an apocalypse with “no hope for the future.”

But wait––Isn’t hopelessness the whole point of the apocalypse? Doesn’t the popularity of end-of-the-world stories (whether the end is brought about by zombies, nukes, aliens, or melting ice caps) draw back the curtain on a bleak cultural death wish? If you’re one of those cultural critics always looking to trace our pleasures back to our pathologies, the answer is probably yes. Threatened by the pace of change, powerless to adapt, we find solace in fantasies of apocalypse, misanthropy writ large.

Maybe so.

I’ve always been fascinated by these stories, however, and find them shot through with a perverse optimism. They appeal to people who, for whatever reason, want the end to come. Environmentalists cheer as nature takes out the human trash in The Day After Tomorrow. Social Darwinists cheer as the niceties of so-called civilization are stripped away in favor of survival-of-the-fittest reality. Religious conservatives cheer the punishment of the wicked. After the cataclysm a better––or at any rate, more honest––world emerges. The coming fire, as it destroys, will also cleanse. Once the decadence of the old order is purged, the apocalypse, paradoxically, brings hope. We envision an end of the world which does not encompass our own end.

Survivalists may daydream about living in their own version of 1990s Bosnia or modern-day Syria, but they don’t move to such places, or to Haiti, to live the fantasy. The dream is not to suffer, but rather to live in a world better suited to people like you. It’s important for such dreams that the disaster befall your world, not someone else’s.

The society you want to see destroyed by the good apocalypse is your own.

The greatest apocalypse is that of St John, which has had Christians longing for the world’s end since the inception of the faith. In some ways the anticipation of a final reckoning that persists in our culture seems like a distorted echo of that ancient eschatology, which might explain why hand-in-hand with the orgy of destruction comes a ray of light.

“The end is nigh,” proclaims the street preacher’s placard in so many doomsday films, leaving this question unanswered: the end of what? What Christians long for is not the end of the world but the end of the world under sin. Not an end to existence, but an end to captivity. The rule of sin is creation’s ruin, but the Savior’s reign restores the world.

(Photo is a still from the film The Road)

Horror and Resurrection

J Mark Bertrand


Johann August Nahl, The Tomb of Madame Langhans

First impressions are too revealing, especially mistaken ones. When I first laid eyes on this porcelain copy of Johann August Nahl’s The Tomb of Madame Langhans at the Getty, my eyes over-saturated with snapshot impressions, I registered the gowned Gothic lady breaking through the crust of her marble tomb, saw the swaddling infant at her breast, and thought: horror. She’s dressed like a Mary Shelley character, but it was Bram Stoker’s Lucy who sprung to mind, the nocturnal lady in white creeping from her crypt in search of children to devour. Puzzled, I stood by the plexiglass case to take in all the details. What was I looking at? Night of the Living Dead: Sturm und Drang Edition?

Reading art through the lens of genre is not so unusual. The established patterns and precedents give us a leg up in making sense of new experiences. When we get the genre cues wrong, though, the miscategorization can result in surreal unintelligibility, as in my case. I wasn’t misreading The Tomb of Madame Langhans. That’s not a strong enough term. It was as if I were reading an alternate, wholly different work––and even now, studying the photograph, it doesn’t line up with my memory at all. The Tomb in my head is more macabre, reimagined to better fit the assigned pigeonhole.

My mistake is too revealing because it shows that, in my mind, the best fit for a work like Nahl’s is in the horror genre. This is strange because I am a Christian, and The Tomb of Madame Langhans is in fact a depiction of the Christian hope of bodily resurrection.

Maria Magdelena Langhans, a pastor’s wife, died in childbirth on Easter Sunday. The death of mother and child on the day Christians celebrate Christ’s victory over death inspired the hopeful vision commemorated on the tomb. Together they are raised on the last day in triumph. The pathos of the scene struck a chord with eighteenth century audiences, too: porcelain copies like the one in the Getty circulated far and wide, exercising an influence on the budding Romantic Movement reminiscent of the craze inspired by Goethe’s Werther. The original audience, Enlightened though they were, did not see the tomb and think of Mary Shelley but rather St. Paul. They possessed a cultural category by which they could properly assess the cues, one that over time has come to be overshadowed even in the minds of those of us who still believe in the doctrine of resurrection.

Can the doctrine alone constitute a hope? Can I call it hope in the fullest sense if it is incapable of recognizing its own reflection in art? Perhaps more is required.

I take a perverse delight in introducing the topics of bodily resurrection and St. John’s vision of a new heaven and new earth by first assuring Christian audiences that “you will not spend eternity in heaven.” Their eyes flare in astonishment. Yet the disembodied future we’ve been taught to anticipate would have been thin gruel to early believers, who expected a future in the flesh. Am I much farther down the path of understanding, if my mistaken my first impression of Madame Langhans’ tomb is anything to go by? Perhaps not. I have eyes that see horror when they look on hope, when I’d be better served with eyes that can see hope when they look on horror.

Reading Milton. Out Loud. In the Car.

J Mark Bertrand


The journey began as many tandem road trips in the modern world do, with two husbands behind the wheel of their respective vehicles and each wife beside him texting back and forth and pinning images to Pinterest. At a roadside Starbucks near Austin, the configuration changed. My wife Laurie and Mike’s wife Lisa hopped in my station wagon, freeing me to sit in the passenger seat of Mike’s rental car with a paperback edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I started reading aloud. Bumper stickers in the Texas capitol encourage passersby to “Keep Austin Weird.” That January afternoon, we did our part.

Mike would be teaching Books 1 and 2 to a group of thirty-odd students the next morning, and while he’d taught the poem before, a refresher never hurts. For me this was the first reading since a hasty grad school skim. Paradise Lost is much better than I remember. For one thing, I actually follow most of his references. (Half of them, anyway.) All my reading life was preparation, it seems. I’ve been training for Milton the way runners train for a marathon.

Milton is bold. Virgil appropriated Greek culture for The Aeneid, and Milton does likewise, claiming the whole of the classical world for his epic––only in place of Odysseus or Aeneas he casts none other than Satan, that bad eminence, and treats him very much like a hero. Book 2’s council in Pandaemonium, the city of devils, is straight out of Homer––or perhaps Tolkein, ending as it does with Satan embarking on a quest none of his peers have the courage to undertake. (When we reach that part of the story, I actually substitute Frodo’s words for Milton’s: “I will take the ring, though I do not know the way.” It works.) This sleight-of-hero calls into question so many ideas that resonate: The desire to be free, to be captain of our souls, to rule rather than serve, and to make a name for ourselves. These are noble virtues, but coming from Lucifer, you have to wonder.

The next morning in class the story of our drive-time reading comes out. The students are embarrassed for us. They worry, too, that this pair of middle aged men is a warning: continue down the path of literature, and this is what you will become, a declaimer of verse, out loud and unashamed.

Somewhere toward the end of the class discussion, Mike puts me on the spot. Do I have any thoughts to share? “Maybe Milton is giving us a reason to ask whether the things we admire most,” I say, “are a testament to the fact that something’s gone wrong with us.” The story of the fall, in other words, is written in the tales not just of our sinners, but of our heroes.

And then I tell them to read next week’s assignment out loud the way blind Milton intended. They look back at me, doubtful. Twenty years from now they’ll understand.

(Art by William Blake, Satan Addressing His Potentates)