Tuesday, December 02, 2008


When I was working for the City of Portland Bureau of Buildings, we would occasionally get a certain kind of faxed puzzle that architects liked. It was a composite of famous buildings in various cities around the planet. The Empire State Building next to the Space Needle next to the Eiffel Tower next to Big Ben. They had been carefully Photoshopped together to form a sort of meta-city.

Although when conscious I deny much interest in cities, when I dream in “second sleep” after I've been up for a while at 3AM, I dream of them consistently. Almost always on a hillside, always with a river, sometimes with me driving and sometimes walking through. I know where some of the images come from: early Sunday morning drives to preach in Oregon City and lunchtime walks through the streets of downtown Portland, cutting through the big fabulous department stores like Nordstroms or the downtown malls like Pioneer Square -- either the tiered plaza with the waterfall or the glassed atrium. Sometimes I’m remembering The Galleria, an old rebuilt department store with a slightly funkier atrium edged by a coffee shop that was a favorite refuge. Or 23th in NorthWest Portland where the upscale young Californians prevail, or SW Hawthorne where hippies run the shops and sidewalks. I liked them all. I passed through them and they passed through me.

Many of the images are from movies, esp. the BBC productions that I mostly watch and that always begin with a person hurrying down a corridor or a street -- maybe empty at night or maybe crowded in Dickensian detail. (They like to start with a car driving in the country, too, but that doesn’t fit my essay.) So the rooms I walk through in my head at night tend to be in motion, or at least the eye is moving. You know -- it’s life and all that.

I rove though blogs that way, too, but now and then I’m stopped for a long time. This has been the case with Barrus. “Stopping” hardly describes it, though, because he provokes explorations on paths through Google, finding places and books and people and ideas. Strangely, these paths often lead me into clearings or rooms where I’ve been before. So, looking for references to Barrus led me to Jack Fritscher, who was attending Loyola University a little later than I finished Northwestern University with a BS in Theatre. (‘61) Fritscher’s doctoral thesis (‘67) was one of the first on the work of Tennessee Williams. Williams was the dramatist I had loved the most since high school when I read “Summer and Smoke.” In the NU years I was in a production of “Suddenly Last Summer,” which I saw on the stage with Diana Barrymore, and I used scenes from “Summer and Smoke” for acting class. I saw “Sweet Bird of Youth” on the stage with Rip Torn and either Geraldine Page or Vivien Leigh. When I was teaching in Browning, I staged “The Glass Menagerie.

So I read Fritscher’s thesis, which is posted on his website (www.jackfritscher.com), very carefully. Much of it concerns religion, which I am prepared to address because of my U of Chicago MA in Religious Studies. This is not easy reading. But there were two ideas that really struck me.

Fritscher sets up opposition between Puritan and Cavalier -- I’m not used to the Cavalier point of view being represented as anything but being an un-Puritan. Marty points out an ecological tension between the northern American colonies -- which tended to be small, barricaded settlements on peninsulas, highly defended against Indians, Satan and disorder and not particularly sympathetic to women -- and the Southern plantations of America which were riverside stretches of fertile land, long strips traversed in boats or on horseback, and eased by the labor of slaves and a tradition of gallantry.

When William Ellery Channing went down South from Boston to make a little money as a young man by tutoring, he was so shocked by the crystal, silver and fine furniture that he slept on the floor to keep in touch with reality. Another young Unitarian woman under the same circumstances came around the corner and confronted the overseer whipping a slave man. She nearly went mad trying to reconcile the seeming kindness of these people with the horror of such an act.

Tennesse Williams
, born in St. Louis where things could go either way, had a genteel but impecunious mother and a cavalier father, who rode off into the sunset. His life was a struggle to find reconciliation that would allow him a place to live and love. His media was the theatre, which is an “animal” of the city. Written work does not allow the embodiment of dynamic symbolism that is at the heart of a Williams play.

This is quite interesting and I appreciate the insights. I can easily see how the claustrophobic and guarded world of a small cold-weather village closely supervised by church authorities on rigid terms could be both a jail and a safe place. (Valier!) But as the village grows into a true city with niches and labyrinths and neighborhoods, it becomes more graceful and possible for more kinds of people. It can support with population density the audiences necessary for theatre, opera, ballet, fine museums.

But then Jack Fritscher proposed that Christianity has been from the beginning a religion of cities, that Jesus and the apostles wasted little time along the road but went from one city to another to spread their word. I’ve always thought of primitive Christianity as a creature of individual households, gradually developing into small rural congregations, but maybe that’s just because this is the way the American frontier unfolded into denominations. Maybe Jesus was not thinking in terms of baptizing John in a country stream, but rather going into the Temple and driving out the money-changers, then becoming a rabbi in that very temple. Maybe he would have LIKED a Crystal Cathedral full of lambs.

The other striking idea proposed by Jack Fritscher is that a culture begins with intimate communication between two people. This is, of course, in the context of the gay community that formed in San Francisco in the Sixties and Seventies. Two men found each other, became more or less permanently bonded, pulled in others until there was a little circle, enough people self-identified as “belonging” to support a cafe or bar, and it grew from there. Pretty soon it was a movement, a counter-culture, with its signals and symbols, its theatre and publications.

Something similar must have happened in the art world, in the music world, in the religious world, and so on. There is now a burgeoning culture of liberals (or neo-puritans) who form foundations that can support conferences, monitoring, websites, and databases for environment, immigration, health, justice and a host of other issues. The need and justification for a gay community is weakening and, anyway, it has gotten to be a city that has neighborhoods for the burly guys in leather, the benign and funny bears, the monastics, the married with children and so on. It’s not enough to be gay -- what KIND of gay?

If I could really manage Photoshop, I’d love to attempt a montage of those neighborhoods, all gathered into one complex, gorgeous city whose river has lots of bridges.

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