Sunday, November 15, 2015

Brooks's Epistle to the Anhedonians

Rembrandt self-portrait, 1658, at The Frick Collection. Note the size of the left hand holding the cane.

I don't think @sulliview has any power over there where Brooks's travel piece ran, in T, "The Times Style Magazine", devoted to journalistic corruption on a Vogue-like scale, but free of news, which is what makes it OK, more or less. Four Seasons Travel, the company that sells the trip he junketed on, certainly paid for it, out of their PR budget. Brooks will have gotten a fairly fat freelance fee (from T, not Four Seasons) as well, for his pains; the magazine is not his employer. [Wrong on most counts, apparently, per Margaret Sullivan (thanks, Driftglass): T is administratively part of the Times and subject to its ethical rules, and the Times paid for the trip; I suppose there wasn't a writer's fee either. The errors are regretted.]

Four Seasons doesn't have an ad in this issue, which shows pretty good taste (not like Comedy Central, which runs a movie ad during the Daily Show every day of the week the movie's star gets interviewed). And they'd be advertising in T in any case, in the course of the year, because why would they not be, and I'm pretty sure the company is among the partners in Times Journeys, where you take trips "inspired by Times content" accompanied by John Burns, Jeffrey Gettleman, Serge Schmemann or David Shipler. Or Maureen Dowd or Steven Erlanger. God help me I could go to Pakistan with Carlotta Gall?

No, I'm not finding her trip, and they don't do Pakistan, but Dowd and/or Joe Nocera would be there if you went to Idyllic Sri Lanka, India, and Arabia. Sixteen days from Singapore to Abu Dhabi on the Celebrity Constellation at $4,427, which is a steal, with Maureen telling her anecdotes about all-night partying with the Jaipur cricket 11, or the Saudi royal family, on your turn at the captain's table, no, I made that bit up, but all the rest is literally true.

David F. Brooks is not on the roster of celebrity friends for Times Journeys, which is probably a good thing, because the man is such a negative Nancy, I mean honestly, he's complaining that he gets too much champagne:
There was already one ice-bucketed bottle of champagne on the dining room table when the door chime rang. I ignored it, continuing my [long-distance telephone] conversation. It rang a few more times. Then there were knocks. I eventually opened the door. A kind, young, liveried man stood there, beaming, with a second bottle. I tried to protest that this one was superfluous, but in a whisper he was past me. Left in the vapor trail of his hospitality, I watched him glide into the room and busy himself on the other side of the floral display, placing two fresh flutes between a second ice bucket and a tray of figs.
I can't help thinking—it's the detail of the two flutes—that they might have been expecting him to chat up some of the paying guests, but didn't know how to tell him. Or perhaps knowing everything about him, as the expensive help generally does in these best-hotel-in-the-world stories, they're aware that he's recently single and noodging him toward a little fling with one of the traveling companions, maybe the "divorce coach who’d worked in finance [or] a woman who’d started a telecom business with her ex-husband."

This is an air trip, from Seattle to New York in the wrong direction, on a private Four Seasons–denominated jet, or rather just its third week, so it was actually just a $35,000 vacation for Brooks himself, Istanbul to Marrakesh. And there's a lot to do:
The pace of the trip is frenetic — three continents in a single day at one point.... I’m generally a frenetic traveler, but there were moments when I was frustrated we couldn’t stop for even three minutes to really look at what we were seeing. There were several moments when I was frustrated at how little time was set aside for solitary contemplation. 
Note to staff: Mr. Brooks requires time for solitary contemplation. Ask if he wishes a yoga mat.

He actually spent three nights in Istanbul, but visited a variety of places during the day, and he can't get over that three-continents thing:
If you wake up in Tanzania in the morning, take a dinner cruise along the Bosphorus in the evening and jet off a few days later to tour Catherine the Great’s palace in Russia, are you really seeing the world? ... 
The worst is, as you can well imagine, there's no time to have yourself a spiritual experience. "The money I paid for this trip, I mean somebody paid for this trip, and I can't even have a spiritual experience?"

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, ca. 1668. Via Wikipedia.

Thus in the art collection of Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg (I remember catching him in Petersburg anhedonia, in his September 11 column, wondering what the hell he was doing there; so now we know it was wandering around the Hermitage kvetching), he's given no time to stare at Rembrandt's last huge masterpiece, the Return of the Prodigal Son:
 (The writer Henri Nouwen once spent four hours staring at this painting.) The central focus of the work is the hands of the father as he cradles his once proud but now humiliated son. The hands are the hands of mercy, forgiveness and unconditional love. One of the father’s hands is notably masculine, one is notably feminine — Rembrandt’s signal, perhaps, that parental love, like God’s love, is equally strong and tender.
Oh, Brooksie! You mean strong and tender in equal degrees? Or as Focus on the Family puts it,
Henri Nouwen, in his wonderful devotional on this painting, asks a question about these hands which are distinctly different from one another. One, the left, is large, strong and masculine. The right is smaller, more slender. Perhaps feminine? Could they represent both fathering and mothering nature of God? 
Because it was the Belgian theologian Nouwen (1932-96) who did that analysis of the painting; Brooks is up to his usual trick of pretending he made something up while sneaking the credit in an apparently casual aside. Also it's a horrible, perverted analysis, like something out of The Da Vinci Code, and a hideously wrong way of looking at art, as some kind of theological cryptogram, detaching the message from the painterliness of the painting. (You could write a really exhaustive discussion of the iconographical significance of the father's hands in the picture, as Robert Baldwin of Connecticut College did, in terms just of their position, with no mention of the size or shape of the left hand at all.) Most writers think the left hand is knotted and swollen with arthritis, or, in the words of one prim critic cited-but-not-named all over the place, "not free from the stiffness of old age."
The painting is a masterpiece, emotionally gripping and morally complex. But on this tour, we talked about none of its meanings. The guide did not tell the story. There was no time to really pause before the passion. The painting was just another notable thing to notice on the way to a dozen more notable things. It left no mark.
Well, if you already know all about what a gripping and complex masterpiece it is, maybe you don't really need to look at it, as Henri Nouwen has looked at it for you.

And then there were the ruins of Ephesus on the Ionian coast of Turkey, where myth says Mary the mother of Jesus lived after the death of her son, and where some of the highest-class tourists have flocked:
Three popes have visited this place and there was an epic stillness. Whether she really lived there or not, you can feel the weight of prayers that pilgrims have said there over the centuries.
What really interests him is the visit of St. Paul, the 13th disciple:
It would have been nice to stand amid these ruins reading Paul, or to talk about how to reconcile material happiness with spiritual joy as we were on the very spot where Paul preached, where the ethos of Athens met the ethos of Jerusalem [in the conceptualization of Alvin C. Dueck, which Brooks is particularly fond of claiming as his own] . But our guide never really told us Paul’s story. He spent most of his time instead taking us through the royal palaces, with the grand chambers, frescoes and meeting halls...
Just as he would have been happier in the Hermitage talking about the views of a 20th-century theologian than looking at the gorgeous picture, so he'd have liked to spend his time at Ephesus looking at nothing, with his nose in a copy of the New Testament.

What's idiotic about this to me is that Paul never in his writings betrays any interest in architecture or sense of place or sign that he even knows the difference between Corinth and Ephesus, Philippi and Colossus (that's Rhodes! "Hey Paul, look over there starboard, that's the statue of Zeus, one of the wonders of the world!"* "Shut up, Barnabas, I have to get this letter to the Romans done."). He might as well have been in Cleveland. And I don't believe he had a lot of advice on reconciling material happiness with spiritual joy, either. But there's no reason to go to Ephesus to think about it; all those royal palaces would be just a distraction.

*Update: Sadly, no, it was a statue of Helios, and it only went up to the knees at that point; an earthquake toppled it in 226 B.C.E., after it had existed just 54 years, and the rest of the statue was on the ground. It was still a big tourist attraction, though.

The cult of the Virgin at Ephesus, on the other hand, which Brooks dismisses a little, because Mary probably never really did live there, must have really impregnated the stones, because the city was built in the pre-Christian era as the center of the cult of another virgin goddess, Artemis, and this was where the Third Ecumenical Council was held in 431, declaring that Mary was not merely the "bearer of Christ", Christotokos, as in the formulation of the heretic Nestorius, but the "bearer of God", Theotokos. This is the geographical focal point of how the Church appropriated the old pagan religion into its practice and made itself lowercase catholic. If he'd listened to the guide instead of moping over the vanishing figure of St. Paul, he might have learned something about that, or, more important, felt the frisson of the Goddess-presence in the sea air.

Of course it doesn't occur to him to blame himself in any way for the spiritual deficit in the $120,000 holiday. No, it's the other passengers' fault! Millionaires, yes, but not of the better sort:
even within the top 1 percent there are differences between the single-digit millionaires and the double- or triple-digit millionaires. The people on this trip were by and large on the lower end of the upper class.... They treated the crew as friends and equals and not as staff. Nobody was trying to prove they were better informed or more sophisticated than anybody else. There were times, in fact, when I almost wished there had been a little more pretense and a little more intellectual and spiritual ambition.
And so you really couldn't have a lofty conversation with them:
The guests were delighted by the intricate wall carvings in the Royal Harem building in Istanbul, by the vegetables in a Turkish restaurant, by 15 minutes of opera in a Russian palace. But over dinner, they mostly spoke with their new friends about their kids and lives back home, not about the meaning and depth of what they had just seen.
Because how can you even tell whether you've had a profound experience or not if you can't lecture your table about it? No wonder he couldn't find any use for that second champagne flute.

Why is Aristotle's left hand bigger than his right? Via University of Michigan One theory: Rembrandt's dad was a lobster.

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