With Koons, it’s as though we’re seeing objects from our own everyday world transported to a distant place where they have been transformed and reused to vastly different ends, then brought back down to us again without a key to their repurposing, leaving us with no choice but to use them as art.” —Blake Gopnik on Jeff Koons’s “unearthly sensibility”
The years slip from me and have not fulfilled
The aspirations of my youth, to build
Some tower of song with lofty parapet.
Not indolence, nor pleasure, nor the fret
Of restless passions that would not be stilled,
But sorrow, and a care that almost killed,
Kept me from what I may accomplish yet;
Though, half-way up the hill, I see the Past
Lying beneath me with its sounds and sights,—
A city in the twilight dim and vast,
With smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights,—
And hear above me on the autumnal blast
The cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.” —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Mezzo Cummin”
This poem’s not as well-garnished as Keats’s “When I have fears that I may cease to be,” but bonus points for “a care that almost killed.” Well put.
A letter Patton wrote to Eisenhower in July 1926 illustrated the difference between the two men. ‘Ike’ had just spent a year at the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth. He had applied himself with almost monastic diligence to his studies and had graduated first in his class. Patton, fearful that his friend had concentrated too hard on such subjects as transportation, staff functioning, and how to draft a memo, decided to set him straight. After congratulating Eisenhower on his achievement, Patton declared, ‘We talk a hell of a lot about tactics and stuff and we never get to brass tacks. Namely what is it that makes the poor S.O.B. who constitutes the casualty list fight.’ Leadership was Patton’s answer. Officers had to get out and inspire the men, keep them moving. One or two superheroes would not do; Patton thought any such notion was ‘bull.’ Finally, he concisely summed up the difference between his and Eisenhower’s approach to battle. ‘Victory in the next war will depend on EXECUTION not PLANS.’ By execution, Patton said, he meant keeping the infantry advancing under fire.
Eisenhower disagreed. Plans, he said, meant that food and ammunition and gasoline would continue to reach the men at the front lines, that pressure would be applied where it hurt the enemy the most, that supreme effort would not be wasted. The most difficult tasks in the next war, Eisenhower believed, would be raising, training, arming, and transporting the men; getting them ashore in the right places; maintaining good liaison with allied forces. Execution would matter, of course, but it was only one part of the total picture.” —Stephen Ambrose, Americans at War
Say by force of magic or technology I find myself teleported back in time to the early European Middle Ages. We’ll settle on rural Britain, though speaking the local dialect might be a problem. And we’ll pretend I find some proper breeches to wear and that my smallpox shots are up to date. The question is whether there’s anything I could actually contribute to the world.
And the answer is: No, probably not.
Start with the things I know that my medieval friends wouldn’t. Well, a great deal about Galois Theory and algebraic topology. In a jam, I could probably explain, step by step, why there are no algorithms that can determine whether a polynomial Diophantine equation with integer coefficients has an integer solution. Which would just earn me a whack in the throat with a poleaxe, or worse.
Okay, think harder… think practically. I’ve got nothing on the engineering front. I’d know what gravity is, if anyone cared. But I surely couldn’t “generate” electricity for them or teach these sorry folks the principles of bridge building. No amount of fiddling on my part would ever produce a light-bulb, steam engine, or telephone. With the help of the town blacksmith I might, perhaps, beat Gutenberg to the punch on the printing press.
So, now that we have ourselves a printing press, I may as well go down in history as a famous poet of sorts, maybe palming off some passages of King Lear as my own. Set them down, hide them from the village philistines, instead go pass the pages off to some cloistered monk to preserve and hand down to posterity, praying that one day, centuries hence, some medievalist uncovers this stuff, pronounces it grand, and gives me all the credit. Trouble is, poor Shakespeare would then get dinged for plagiarism…
Okay, now that that’s taken care of, I’ll go engage in a little medieval political activism… No, I will not do that. First, it’s not like I’m going to create a democratic polity from scratch. Plus, I’d rather not irk the local feudal lord. And I’d be wise to keep whatever Enlightenment-type ideas I have about the Catholic Church to myself. The same goes for lecturing the villagers on the virtues of usury. You know, when all’s said and done, I actually might end up devoting my life to public health—after all, understanding the germ theory of disease is no minor thing.
That’s a bit deflating. The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was a big hit, as I recall, because he knew all sorts of oddly useful facts of the sort you find in Poor Richard’s Almanack (being able to “predict” exactly when solar eclipses will occur can be handy when it comes time to demonstrate that you’re an all-powerful sorcerer). Educational standards, I’m afraid, have fallen markedly since his day.
whose blossoms touch the sky.
Which sky? The sky
where Watteau hung a lady’s
slipper. Your knees
are a southern breeze—or
a gust of snow. Agh! what
sort of man was Fragonard?
—as if that answered
anything. Ah, yes—below
the knees, since the tune
drops that way, it is
one of those white summer days,
the tall grass of your ankles
flickers upon the shore—
the sand clings to my lips—
Agh, petals maybe. How
should I know?
Which shore? Which shore?
I said petals from an appletree.” —William Carlos Williams, “Portrait of a Lady”
When I was younger, I thought this was a comic poem about a painter whose subject won’t stop asking annoying questions (“Which sky? Fragonard? Who dat?”). But it turns out the speaker’s just daydreaming to himself about “breaching” the “shore” by the “thighs,” which… yeah, yeah… I get it. Still like my old version better.
Luit dans les bois
De chaque branche
Part une voix
Sous la ramée…
Du saule noir
Où le vent pleure…
Rêvons, c’est l’heure.
Un vaste et tendre
Que l’astre irise…
C’est l’heure exquise.” —Paul Verlaine, “La Lune Blanche”