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A page from “Winter Landscapes and Flowers” (album ca. 1770, Qian Weicheng) ink on silk

Here is a lovely little winter landscape from Qing Dynasty master landscape painter Qian Weicheng (錢維城). Qian was a proponent of the orthodox painting style, and, indeed, we can see that his simple, elegant calligraphic lines emulate the techniques of the Song and Ming artists who preceded him. Although he was perhaps not a master of bravura ink-wash realism to the unearthly degree of Fan Kuan or Guo Xi, Qian brings his own 18th century virtues to the art, and there is a delightful & unaffected simplicity to his work which captures the austere beauty of winter’s bare rocks, leafless trees, and frozen mud. In this little painting, flocks of geese glide through the overcast sky above a branching river which is swollen with melt water. The simplicity of the countryside must have been a dramatic contrast with the opulent splendor of court life in 1774 when this image was dated and inscribed. Of course Qian himself died in 1772, so the inscription and the date were added posthumously by Qian’s greatest fan, the Qianlong Emperor himself!

Qian Weicheng painted over 275 paintings during his time at court and he rose up through the imperial bureaucratic ranks to the exalted position of second-in-command of the Imperial Board of Works. Perhaps you are wondering how it is that Qian came to the capital from his native Jiansu to begin with. Any discussion of dynastic China includes mention of the famous, formidable imperial civil service exams, the great standardized test which was at the center of imperial China’s administrative system. In 1745, Qian came in first place on the exam, an academic feat which brought him to imperial attention and guaranteed his success as a mandarin and as a painter. This path to artistic greatness (acing a standardized test about Confucian principles!) brings up a variety of questions about meritocracy, politics, and aesthetics which we are still wrestling with!

There is one last daunting task for this miserable year. For Ferrebeekeeper’s annual 2021 obituaries, I promised to write an obituary for my grandfather, Robert Clarence Pierson Jr., who died on October 23rd, 2021…and the task has proved to be entirely daunting! When I was a child, Grandpa was my hero, since his far-flung James-Bond-style life seemed to so thoroughly epic and exotic–and characteristic of the triumphs and excesses of the 20th century. But now, in the squalor and waste of 2021, it seems equally impossible to write about him…for some of the same reasons. It is like writing about the career of some ancient Roman tribune or Chinese sage who accidentally crashed through into this debased era of social media and Kardassians and national disintegration…

Robert Clarence Pierson Jr. was born in 1924, at Blue Knob, a hamlet (if even that) in Clay County West Virginia. He was extremely premature, and his surprise arrival so discomfited all parties that the house ended up burning down! Great Grandma Virgie put the tiny baby in a drawer and he was almost stepped on by an anxious horse!

Thereafter Grandpa attended the one room school at Blue Knob and then the High School at Clay where he graduated as valedictorian in 1941. Since he grew up adjacent to West Virginia’s hunting, mining, drilling, and lumbering trades (with their sundry dangerous tools) his childhood adventures had an exciting frontier quality to them. Frankly, they sounded like a Fleischer cartoon (wherein a rocket powered sledge, cask of black powder, or steamer trunk filled with horseshoes is always on hand at exactly the right moment). Perhaps some of this was also thanks to Great Grandpa Clarence’s indulgence (Great Grandpa ran the local lumber mill and was becoming adept at the Democratic party politics) and also to Great Grandma, who was always willing to drop everything and bake a chocolate pie for him.

Grandpa attended West Virginia University until the war called to him. He began his army career as a paratrooper but, thanks to his foreign language and memorization skills, he quickly moved to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. In the European theater of World War II, Grandpa served in the peninsular campaign in Italy. Because of his facility with languages, communications, and codework, Grandpa flew behind enemy lines and he was in Rome when Rome was liberated by the allies (I asked him about the granular details of this operation and he said his outfit painted their airplane to look like a German airplane and then just landed at the airport…and all of the relevant Italians winked at them and looked the other way). After liberating Rome, Grandpa headed into the Balkans to help the Serbs with their anti-German activities. Then, once victory was achieved in Europe, he switched theaters and went to Burma, where he was impressed by the um, fervor of the Kachin resistance fighters.

After World War II, Grandpa married his university sweetheart, Constance Faye Wellen (better known as Grandma Connie). The OSS was disbanded a month after the war was over, but Grandpa took up a foreign career with its successor agency. He also brushed up on language and social sciences at the University of Chicago and Stanford, before heading abroad again. Language was grandpa’s greatest gift, and, as far as I could tell, he knew English, Latin, French, Javanese, Dutch, Vietnamese, Arabic, and maybe a bit of German.

The way the Cold War ended seems inevitable to us now, however in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, this was anything but true, and those decades were characterized by worldwide proxy conflicts between the United States and the Soviet Union which took place everywhere but burned brightest in portions of the world recovering from 19th and early 20th century European colonization.

Thus, while everyone else came back from the war to bobbysoxers, beach boys, and suburban ranches, Grandpa was first in India, and then in Egypt, Somalia (which he doubted could ever be welded together effectively), and Kenya. He was in the Belgian Congo during the independence crisis when it violently transformed into Zaire. Grandpa was a master of the cocktail niceties of the 60s and he told me that he would mix drinks for Patrice Lumumba and Lumumba’s cronies. In his cups, Lumumba would enthuse about glorious plans of pan-African unity and talk about how the movement would kill all Europeans, “but not you, Bob, since you make the drinks!” Grandpa would laugh, but, in reality, his closest Congolese friends were among the Baluba (a rival Congolese ethnicity which Lumumba had antagonized with violent crackdowns and pogroms). Later when the Congo blew apart in full-blown crisis, my grandmother, mother, and uncle all fled as refugees, but Grandpa stayed in the nation to ensure that it did not become a client state of the Soviet Union no matter what the cost.

From the Congo, Grandpa moved on to Indonesia which was also vacillating between the great cold war powers. One of my favorite stories involves how the United States built an elaborate new Washington embassy for the Indonesians which was filled with listening devices. As the only team man who could speak Javan fluently, Grandpa got to translate, but all they learned was Sukarno’s enthusiasm for the distaff charms of American actresses…particularly how much the Indonesian strongman wanted to sleep with Zsa Zsa Gabor. Sigh…

Grandpa left the foreign service for a time to work on local projects back in West Virginia, but he returned to the field to work in Vietnam during the sixties and seventies. Some of my favorite tales from Grandpa involve his stories of drinking out of great earthenware vessels with bronze straws and plotting with Hmong warlords (he was enormously impressed by the Hmong, and the North Vietnamese, but had some reservations about the South Vietnamese leadership)Although he tried as hard as he could to solve everyone’s problems in Vietnam I believe his proudest contribution was as a gardener. He said that in Saigon he was astonished by the markets filled with fruits and vegetables which he didn’t recognize, but that there were also things which were missing, so he took the State Department’s credit card and ordered a giant box of seeds. Thereafter he was always peddling squashes, pumpkins, gourds, maize, melons, and suchlike North American seeds to add to Vietnamese agriculture (and indeed they are now part of the culture and cuisine).

Speaking of culture, one of Grandpa’s early mentors, Arturo, was an intelligence officer in Southeast Asia who lived a flamboyant expat lifestyle and suggested to Grandpa that shrewd intelligence personnel in the foreign service should collect art. Not only did this pursuit require one to learn the culture, language, and perspective of new nations, but it also provided an automatic reason for being overseas, and a pretext for traveling to all sorts of strange locations to meet peculiar characters. Plus, as a sort of bonus, one would wind up with a collection of beautiful and interesting artworks. Grandpa collected Congolese and Indonesian oil paintings and, particularly, Chinese porcelain (so, if you have ever wandered why I am always trying to understand the glorious arts of China in this blog, I guess it is a cultural legacy from Arturo, some 1950s spy whom I never met).

I wanted to properly write about Grandpa’s foreign service career which was extensive and illustrious, but all of this makes him sound like some dark puppetmaster (his Indonesian sobriquet was “Wayang” since he had the same handsome sharp features as the Indonesian version of the hero Arjuna). However Grandpa retired from statecraft and the affairs of nations in 1974, the same year I was born.

He and grandma lived in suburban Maryland by the Chesapeake Bay and their cat Pharaoh (AKA Faro), a magnificent predator of the Chesapeake Bay swamp (who was, hilariously as white as an arctic fox). Grandpa was always trying to feed or heal various strays and mongrels and plant his own paradisiacal garden to rival the beauties of South East Asia (although hurricanes of ever growing frequency would always blow down his beautiful trees). Some of my happiest memories of childhood involve exploring the Bay with Grandpa in his rowboat and catching blue crabs, or having plum battles with the tiny Italian prune plums from his little orchard.

It was fun to look at his art collection (and his collection of exotic weaponry from Africa and Asia) but it was even more fun to spend summer vacation puttering around the Chesapeake or driving around Washington and Baltimore in his preposterous vehicle, an enormous Chevrolet Impala station wagon of the late seventies which was about 45 feet long and which looked like a hearse the color of a raincloud. Sadly, in that era, GM lavished minimal attention on frivolous details like engines, and so his new car’s motor exploded not long after purchase. Undeterred, Grandpa took the hulk over to a chopshop in Glen Burnie and told them to put “something powerful” in it, which is how he had a powder blue bulldozer in the unlikely form of a station wagon.

Grandpa loved religion and was drawn to it, and when I was growing up, he would beguile me by telling me the stories of what was happening in the paintings on his wall–epic tales from the Mahabharata or from ancient China. Yet it was clear he could see through the dogmatic aspects of faith and was most attracted to spirituality as a furtherance of human concerns through sophisticated allegorical confabulation. To be more plain, I think he was astonished that while nation-states were always desperately struggling to coerce people to do things, holy men could come along with a beautiful story which would cause people to eagerly participate in ridiculous ventures which ran contrary to their own self-interest. I would like to write about how he understood animals and people and was always surprising the Amish by speaking to them in their own tongue (it is basically a weird German, he confided), or befriending salty myna birds or rescuing addled baby animals or what-have-you, but I will instead end with his bees. Although he liked honey, it was obvious that he kept bees because they combined all of his true interests–communication, nation-building, animals, farming, warfare, family, and making things. All of this came in a little white box which he said was like having your own miniature city-state of 50,000 flying Spartans in yellow and black striped tunics. Of course sometimes West Virginia bears would come out of the forest and eat your civilization, or varroa mites would cause everyone to sicken and die, or the young queen would murder the old one (or vice versa) but it was all part of an even larger picture and just meant you had to rebuild better.

Now that Grandpa is dead, the world which he and his contemporaries made is swiftly coming apart. Beekeeping, arm-twisting, and politics have never much interested me, but if we want any honey (or simply not to be a sad addled province in Putin’s new Russia or a client state to Xi’s imperial China), perhaps we need to think about some of the lessons of his life of service to the Republic.

Under the Flounder Moon (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink on paper

Here are two more works from the series of pen-and-ink drawings in black and white ink on colored French paper which i have been working on. I apologize that the sienna one (above) is arguably Halloween themed (although, come to think of it, it seems unfair that carved pumpkins are so profoundly seasonal). To me, the drawing also suits the time of winter darkness which we have entered. In terms of subject matter, the drawing portrays a puritan in a cemetery gasping at the appearance of a black rabbit. Various little elves fall prey to insects and spiders as a ghoul and a ghost look on. In the background a nightjar flies past; while the extreme foreground features some fallen store-bought candies. The entire scene takes place under a great glistening flounder moon which illuminates the Jacobean manor on the hill and casts a fishy light upon the entire troubling scene.

Inside the Idol’s Cave (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink on paper

This second work shows what may or may not be an Easter scene featuring sacred eggs and yet another rabbit (is that guy really a rabbit?). The snapping turtle looks like it is about to snap up that little elf (which is maybe fair since another kobald is making off with her eggs). The entire scene takes place inside a cave where worshipers pray and present offerings to a Dagon-type idol. A bright flatfish shines an otherworldly light on the proceedings and put one in mind of the famous platonic allegory. Likewise the tapir (a famous dream-beast) indicates that this image has something to do with the vantage point from which one approaches reality. The nun (center) reminds us that faith will otherwise help smooth over any deficiencies in perception for those trapped in a cave.

The drawings are meant as companion pieces and it is interesting to see how the same elements reoccur in differing forms. There are two elves (one about to be eaten) in each piece. There is a rabbit in each work. Both works focus on a central religious-type woman in plain garb, and both works are illuminated by fishlight and by the stars. More than that, they are compositionally similar, with a big white scary thing to the immediate right and a field of stone obstacles (gravestones and stalagmites). Yet at a bigger level they are opposite. One work is about reality within the unreal and the other is about the unreal within reality. One work is about life in death and the other is about death in life.

Perhaps I should make some summer and winter companion pieces to make a complete set (assuming that all of these drawings aren’t one weird set of some sort).

Every December, Pantone announces its “Color of the Year”. A secret cabal of Illuminati-style color influencers meet up and project aesthetic trends for the coming year. All sorts of fashion houses, paint companies, and consumer goods companies utilize Pantone’s announcements to select the color for their wares, so the choice does reflect in the look of the coming year. By the dark magic of emotional association (and the cunning and/or oracular magic of the color guild), the color of the year often does capture the zeitgeist with disturbing canniness. For example, 2021’s two colors, sunny yellow and depression gray, captured the year’s “best of times/worst of times” dualism wherein the the stock market reached all-time highs and the country was awash in cash and jobs yet huge segments of society felt like the economy was in the doldrums. Oh! Also, the 2021 construction-worker colors predicted the huge new infrastructure bill which is putting backhoes and concrete mixers to work across the continent to build back crumbling bridges and roads.

Here is a list of past colors/years if you want to see how the color augurs have done in other years (or at least read my humorous barbs about their choices (although, secretly, I think they do a pretty fine job of finding pretty colors and mixing things up).

2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021

But enough of about the past, let’s gaze into the future! The color of the year for 2022 will be “veri-peri” a mid-tone blue hue which is sliding towards violet. Pantone describes it as “a dynamic periwinkle-blue hue with a vivifying violet-red undertone.” An oil painter would probably say “French ultramarine and flake white with a dash of alizarin crimson and a bit of black”. The more I look at it, the less it seems blue and the more it seems purple. Perhaps it properly sits equidistant between the two. Pantone’s press release says ““Blending the faithfulness and constancy of blue with the energy and excitement of red, this happiest and warmest of all the blue hues introduces an empowering mix of newness.” Hmm, it sounds like they are once again trying to hew a middle passage between the red world of reactionary ethno-nationalism and the blue world of fundamental enlightenment values (both sides need consumer goods).

Pantone also claims this color reflects the growing interdependence between the internet and the dull world of, you know, actual reality. Maybe they are trying to expand their chromo-empire from waffle-makers and cocktail dresses into online games and media (this blog already loves you, Pantone!).

As for me, I like all purples–even this somewhat conservative and official-looking violet blue. One of my coworkers said that Veri-Peri looks like a passport from a country where you might not have all of your freedoms but they probably would not just grab you off the street and send you to a re-education camp (a color-description which reveals much about the growing political tensions in our world). I would describe it as the color of dusk in winter: not warm or comforting but beautiful and elegant nonetheless.

What does Veri-Peri predict for the economy and for society? It seems like a cautious color but one with some optimism as well. In our blue/red world Pantone really does favor purple–and other purple years (2014, 2018) haven’t been so bad (although there were some admitted setbacks). I say, if you want to go ahead and buy a bunch of purple turbans and purple flounder art, go ahead: the good times, such as they are, will keep on rolling. Yet, just as winter twilight indicates that you might need to get your act together and find shelter for the cold dark times, there is an anxious edge to veri-peri. Keep your wits about you and don’t be taken in by things you see on the internet: 2022 will present opportunities both for progress and for calamity…

Happy Thanksgiving! Hopefully you are not tired of turkey yet (my mother said that the buff turkeys gathered under the bay window and gobbled evocatively while she and Dad had their holiday meal). Uhh…anyway, in this spirit, here is a little drawing to celebrate. As I mentioned, lately I have been working with black and white inks on autumn colored paper. This is a drawing from that series which explores the mysterious connections between various entities crossing paths in the forest at night. The main dramatic tension in the composition comes from the unknown relationship between the fashionable woman with long antennae and the blank-eyed peasant pursuing her with an adorable young larva in a wicker basket. Who knows what is up with people like that? In the foreground there are some frogs, flatfish, and spiders…and a being of some sort who has somehow gotten stuck inside a chianti bottle. Tsk tsk! An anthropomorphized cat troubadour is hopefully proffering his mandolin to the fashion-moth-woman, but, alas, she seems too distracted for night music. In the background fat white moths fly through the intertwined branches as a nightjar flies off and a great barred owl swoops in. Deep inside the forest a phantom desperately tries to share a frantic message from the world beyond.

Most importantly, there are some pretty turkeys in the middle of the square drawing. Honestly, you should probably just pay attention to them today. Oh, also, that tenacious critter pursuing the snake is a Sunda stink badger. This hardly seems like the tropical rainforest of Sunda, but, frankly, it is hard to pin down the location or the time of this enigmatic tableau with any true certainty.

The Rapacious Frog Among the Wee Folk (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink on paper

Happy Halloween! I’m afraid that I didn’t write all of the posts I meant to write about graveyards, tombs, and memorial gardens. We will circle back to them later (if ever), but for the present moment–as the Halloween candles burn down low–there is, indeed, a final treat for you: these ink drawings I made for the season. I have been working on building more dimensional forms and more elaborate textures by using multiple tones of ink on colored paper. Here are two of the test images. The top image, which shows a giant hungry frog rampaging through a churchyard came out especially well. The poor little elves and goblins are trying to escape the rapacious amphibian, only to discover that not all carnivores are from the animal kingdom! (The woodcock flying by in the sky is indeed a nocturnal bird, but is otherwise uninvolved with the elf carnage). Presumably these elves, goblins, and fairies are members of the aos sí–the mythical mound folk who dwell in barrows and tombs in Irish folklore.

The second image, below, is in a similar vein, however the relentless frog has been replaced by a much friendlier-looking bear. This ursine goofball scarcely seems interested in eating anyone–even the strange elf pickled in a jar by his paw. The puritan and the mummy who are with the bear likewise seem fairly friendly (all things considered). Despite all of these friendly monsters and animals, this world is not without peril. Roving extraterrestrials (or somebody with a weird spaceship) are in the picture and they are up to their old tricks of making off with bystanders.

As always, the flounders represent the ambiguities of trying to live together in an ecosystem where everyone is hungrily jockeying for resources. There were supposed to be some more pictures (on purple, brown, and moss green papers) but I did not have time to finish them all. The real horror of the churchyard is that everyone there has so much time, whereas we poor folk who are still among the living never have enough to get anything done! Kindly let me know what you think of my pictures and enjoy the rest of your Halloween!

The Puritan Elf Explains Terrestrial Morality (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink on paper

Oh no! I just noticed that I published an incomplete version of the special Halloween post about “Spoon River” I mow cannot find the full post so, I guess, don’t read that post until I go back and rewrite it (at some time in the future! Right now I am too weak to wrestle any more with the larger themes of that dark cross sectional diagram of American society). Speaking of dark views of society, our Halloween-theme weeks invariably feature a post about Gothic aesthetics. It would be unconscionable not to have a post about Gothic tombs–but there are so many contenders! Where do I even start?

The answer is…Portugal? Above is the exquisite sarcophagus of Pedro I of Portugal who ruled the Iberian nation from 1357 until his death in 1367. The magnificent royal coffin is located in the Royal Monastery of Alcobaça right next to the equally splendid matching sarcophagus of Inês de Castro, a Gallician noblewoman whose life and death was the central story of Pedro’s life and career. The full horrible story of their cursed love has been told in numerous operas and was universally known in Portugal in the 14th century, however since there are few 14th century Portuguese gossip mongers still around, we will have to outline the story here. This is bad news since not only is the story a full-on “Game of Thrones style” disaster, but many of the parties involved shared similar names (which I guess were common to all Iberian princes and princesses).

Pedro I was the son of Afonso IV of Portugal (1291 –1357) an important king who kicked off the age of exploration (and made Portugal a world power), but Afonso IV struggled mightily against his powerful neighbors, the Kings of Castile. In 1325 Alfonso XI of Castile entered a child-marriage with Constanza Manuel of Castile, the daughter of Juan Manuel, Prince of Villena (and great granddaughter of Ferdinand I of Castile) . Two years later, Alfonzo XI of Castile annulled this marriage to Constanza Manuel in order to marry Afonso IV of Portugal’s daughter Maria of Portugal (Pedro’s sister). Unfortunately (but perhaps unsurprisingly) Alfonzo XI of Castile mistreated Maria of Portugal (who would have expected such behavior from a man who threw his child bride to the curb to grasp for more power?)

Anyway, Afonso IV of Portugal reached out to the equally aggrieved Juan Manuel (the powerful father of Constanza Manuel) and Constanza Manuel was married to Prince Pedro (later to become King Pedro I, whose sarcophagus we are writing about). Alas, Constanza Manuel brought the noblewoman Inês de Castro with her to Portugal as a lady-in-waiting. Pedro married Constanza Manuel, but he began a love affair with Inês de Castro which scandalized the nation. In 1345, Constanza Manuel bore Peter a son, Ferdinand, and then died. Afonso IV banished Inês de Castro to a convent, but Pedro kept seeing her (and she kept bearing him children). Fearing Castilian influence (and worried that Pedro’s sickly legitimate son would fall prey to the multitudinous illegitimate ones), Afonso IV sent three courtly assassins to deal with Inês de Castro. In 1355, the king’s goons beheaded her in the convent in front of her children. Afonso IV believed this would solve the problem, but, for some reason, it instead sent Pedro into a towering rage. Prince Pedro rebelled against his father and begin to ravage the heartlands of Portugal. Afonso IV martialed his army and defeated Pedro in battle, but as soon as he was victorious, he died and Prince Pedro became Pedro I, King of Portugal.

“The Death of Inês de Castro”, Karl Pavlovic Brjullov

Two of the assassins who had executed Inês de Castro fled to Castile, but King Pedro I offered Alfonzo XI various hostages in exchange for the fugitives. Once he had the killers back in Portugal he tried them for murder and when they were convicted, he personally, physically, literally ripped their hearts out (although the third killer, Diogo Lopes Pacheco, got away and after many adventures returned to die as an elderly prosperous Portuguese nobleman with his heart in its proper place).

A historical re-enactment

According to legend, Pedro I had a magnificent throne made for the mummified body of Inês de Castro and would force courtiers to kiss her leathery hand. Actual primary sources from 14th century Portugal do not corroborate this detail (although they also don’t explicitly say that Pedro I didn’t build a throne for his mummified posthumous wife). However what is certain is that he arranged for exquisite matching coffins so that she would be the first person he saw after resurrecting (excepting Jesus or super angels or whatever).

The Coffin of Inês de Castro, Portugal’s posthumous queen

It is a terrible story…but they really are beautiful fancy coffins. I don’t know, though, something about this story makes me wonder if it is actually worth it to be King of Portugal. Maybe supremely high social status is not the panacea we imagine it to be. I guess we can ask King Pedro I.

Sometimes you have to rip out a few hearts

Spoon River Anthology is a series of interwoven poems about a fictional cemetery in the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois (a non-existent hamlet which somehow bears more than a passing resemblance to author Edgar Lee Masters’ home town of Lewistown, Illinois). While actual cemeteries are not especially chilling or haunting (other than for inducing thoughts about the very limited continuity of the things of this world), the fictional cemetery of Spoon River is a truly disquieting place. Masters utilizes the dark harrow of art to plough up flinty truths about human life–and these are the sorts of truths which are so honest as to be forbidden–unspeakable by anyone not already dead. It is one of the more haunting works of American fiction–an epic puzzle about how our lives are marred by our attempts to grasp our dreams and desires–and how the real arc of our destiny is hidden from us by the illusions, lies, and stratagems which come into being as other people strive to to grasp their dreams and desires.

The anthology features the voices of 212 characters speaking from beneath the hill about the true circumstances of their lives and deaths. They speak honestly about loneliness, need, and failure. They speak about belief, knowledge, and love. Although the anthology is entirely written in the unearthly voice of the departed, it is not a series of poem about the afterlife (indeed, I would be stunned if Edgar Lee Masters believed in any such thing), instead the poem is about adultery, ludicrous colonial wars, small-town politics, romance novels, addiction, sadness, and America’s siren song of success at any cost. Much of this involves the constant jostling for social ascendancy which (sigh) is the principle feature of human society. Perhaps it will shock, shock, shock you to learn that most of the wealthy and powerful elite of Spoon River obtained their high standing by standing on top of other people.

Spoon River Anthology was published in 1914–a date when America stood balanced between field and factory, between war and peace, and between innocence and disillusionment. You can (and should) read the whole thing for free anywhere on the internet. In many respects the poems work better today than when they were first written since they are non-linear networked pieces very much suited to hyperlinks and indexes.

Since you can easily read them yourself, I do not need to quote the poems extensively, but, it would be shame not to give you a taste to get you hooked. The metaphor for how to obtain success in the rat race of the capitalist world is to “build a better mousetrap” Here is the poem of Robert Fulton Tanner, one of several feverish inventors in Spoon River. It is a bit uncertain, but it seems like he died of sepsis after being bitten by a rat…

If a man could bite the giant hand
That catches and destroys him,
As I was bitten by a rat
While demonstrating my patent trap,
In my hardware store that day.
But a man can never avenge himself
On the monstrous ogre Life.
You enter the room—that’s being born;
And then you must live—work out your soul,
Aha! the bait that you crave is in view:
A woman with money you want to marry,
Prestige, place, or power in the world.
But there’s work to do and things to conquer—
Oh, yes! the wires that screen the bait.
At last you get in—but you hear a step:
The ogre, Life, comes into the room,
(He was waiting and heard the clang of the spring)
To watch you nibble the wondrous cheese,
And stare with his burning eyes at you,
And scowl and laugh, and mock and curse you,
Running up and down in the trap,
Until your misery bores him.

Do you perhaps feel a pang of sympathy for the poor trapped rat?

I have made Spoon River Anthology sound monstrous…and it is. The poems do not hide national sins of racism (look what happens to the poor Chinese American student), sexism, oppression, and cruelty. The dark work of whitecapping the neighbors, propping up the rotten bank, and putting the fix in for the masters is all there, along with SO much hypocrisy.

Yet Spoon River Anthology is about life and so it is also about love and hope. Luminous transcendent ideals are always present in this work, even among the most debased of the dead. Many of the poems (or maybe most of them) are about loving an idea or another person so much that one’s self is annihilated. Spoon River is filled with places where it is always spring, or where the most transcendent song can be heard, or where someone first found the love of their life. Sometimes such ineffable stuff leads souls to lives of meaning and beauty–in other cases it is the bit of cheese on the spring catch mechanism.

I said cemeteries are not haunted–but I meant Greenwood and Cypress Hills–I might say different things about Pleasant Hill and Blue Knob. It is impossible to avoid the feeling that if the little cemetery in your hometown were properly cross-referenced and indexed it would be very much like Spoon River.

The Sphinx in the Carthaginian Charnel Yard (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor on paper

Today’s post features a little watercolor from the tiny moleskine sketchbook which I carry around with me all the time—but it is also a teaser for Ferrebeekeeper’s annual Halloween feature topic (previous topics have included the undead, the children of Echidna, flowers of the underworld, evil clowns, and flaying).  Anyway, the painting shows a Carthaginian cemetery with a great sinister oven in the background in the shape of Baal or Tanit.  Some officious Carthaginian priest is running around the monuments with a sinister wavy ceremonial knife and weird shrouded forms writhe in the background.  In the foreground is a disgruntled sphinx wearing the same expression as my housecat before she stalks out of the room or disappears to hide in her undisclosed secure location.   In the extreme foreground is a nightjar hidden among the weeds and wildflowers.   Glowing pink flowers of a numinous character hover in the stormy sky.  It is unclear whether they are ornamental or somehow connected with whatever story is being told.  

There is something which I don’t understand at all. Its worldview is completely alien to me. Its language is the ancient, polysyllabic epic tongue of south Asia–high Sanskrit. Its moral philosophy is incomprehensible–weird asceticism and strict non-harm. I am speaking about Jainism–arguably the most ancient of the world’s major religions which are still practiced (although who can even say how old Jainism actually is?). Whenever I try to understand Jainism, my brain slips right off of it, like a crab trying to climb a frictionless diamond stupa.

So why am I even writing about Jainism, if I don’t (and maybe can’t) understand it? Why bring up an abstruse faith which has deflated down till it is only practiced by a thousandth of the world’s human population (if even that)? Well Jainism’s central tenant is breathtakingly sublime. Of all of the religious concepts I have come across, it is the most inhuman and numinous. This concept is known as Ahimsa (non-harm). Since everything I write about it keeps obtaining strange qualifiers and weasel words I will just steal Wikipedia’s excellent description:

The principle of ahimsa (non-violence or non-injury) is a fundamental tenet of Jainism. It holds that one must abandon all violent activity and that without such a commitment to non-violence all religious behavior is worthless. In Jain theology, it does not matter how correct or defensible the violence may be, one must not kill or harm any being, and non-violence is the highest religious duty. Jain texts…state that one must renounce all killing of living beings, whether tiny or large, movable or immovable. Its theology teaches that one must neither kill another living being, nor cause another to kill, nor consent to any killing directly or indirectly. Furthermore, Jainism emphasizes non-violence against all beings not only in action but also in speech and in thought

If you read this and thought about it, and then your brain went “BUT!!!” then congratulations, we are on the same page. I don’t see how Jains can even eat, much less stay alive in a world of ceaseless competition (although in bygone eras Jains have actually known great prosperity as successful bankers and merchants). Yet the doctrine of Ahimsa also strikes me as ineffably beautiful (and not unrelated to the religious principles of noteworthy figures like Jesus and Guan Yin).

Anyway, I am not converting to Jainism or anything, but I dislike the profound ignorance that I have concerning this important faith. I amhttps://ferrebeekeeper.wordpress.com/tag/kwan-yin/ therefore going to try to sneak in a few short studies about what Jainism is and where it comes from. We will also look at Jain mythology (although Jainism also seems to lack the creator deities and dark gods which make other faiths so narratively satisfying). Maybe if we keep working on it, we can figure out what is happening in religious art like this:

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