Thursday, May 31, 2012


What follows is a small section out of my manuscript called “The Molten Chalice” in which, roughly, the chalice is the structure, the container, and communitas is the fiery wine.  It owes a great deal to another one of my key resource books, “The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure,” by Victor Turner.  In case you should think this is some left over “trip” from seminary, consider that old age can be very much a liminal time, without roles or obligations prescribed by society unless one is embedded in a family,  which I am not.  “Liminal” means a special sort of state that is undefined.  At 73 I am neither frail nor robust.  My income puts me right at the poverty line.   I am at the margins, beneath consciousness.   I was a little startled to attend a Jack Gladstone benefit concert and have it interpreted as an “agenda.”  
As Victor Turner works it out in “The Ritual Process, Structure and Anti-Structure” (1969), there are two interacting forces in human society, in tension but always co-existing.  One is the tendency to want to organize and codify experience, to guarantee predictability and justice by passing rules and requiring certain practices, to assign status and require duties.  (This can be either “right wing” or “left wing.”)  The other is what can exist during liminality: the suspension of all the social structure so that compassion and equality join everyone in openness and trust.  I take liturgy to be a way of guiding a group, or possibly an individual, between chaos and paralysis.  
The liturgist guides the congregation into liminal space either to reconsider oppressive structure as a communitas OR to reconfirm necessary order.  Since this concept developed from observing rites of passage, it may seem a little over-dramatic for regular Sunday services.  Nevertheless, it is a useful way to think and even done subtly it is effective.
Much of the trouble in the world about religion is not about this level of what we might call spirituality, but rather about the dogmatic institutions that have claimed territory through history, often the same territory.  If one can go to the deeper levels of meaning through liturgy, it might help to reach back to the time before the schism arose and find the human commonality before the competition for resources, power, and identity ever arose in the first place.  At that level contradictions between church and state also dissolve, because they are again institutional, not spiritual.
But Victor Turner’s idea of liminality does not oppose structure.  He says, “The moment a digging stick is set in the earth, a colt broken in, a pack of wolves defended against, or a human enemy set by his heels, we have the germs of a social structure.” 
Still, the structure is at interplay with liminal sources:  “Communitas breaks in through the interstices of structure, in liminality; at the edges of structure, in marginality; and from beneath structure, in inferiority.  it is almost everywhere held to be sacred or “holy,” possibly because it transgresses or dissolves the norms that govern structured and institutionalized relationships and is accompanied by experiences of unprecedented potency.  The processes of “leveling” and “stripping” to which Goffman has drawn our attention, often appear to flood their subjects with affect.”
This part is in the blog but not the manuscript:
Some people have taken “Lord of the Flies” to be an account of the failure of structure.  I would rather interpret it as an account of boys thrown into a state of liminality -- plane wrecked on an island -- and the struggle between their impulses to form communitas and their impulses to replicate what they knew back in England.  In the process they discard the humanities (Piggy) and go to the military for their model.  The only way they could be rescued then was through military means.  This is an indictment of England and their elite schools.
Contrast the older boys of the Andean plane crash where it became necessary to resort to cannibalism.  They used their poetic understanding of Christianity -- the images and devotions -- to maintain hope and order.  In the end they saved themselves through their own extraordinary exertions.
Resolving structure versus communitas often seems to be a male problem.  Military, governmental, corporation, industrial agriculture and resource development are necessarily so structured that only exceptional circumstances allow the communitas to break through.  Some male roles -- the artist, the poet, the monk, the sex worker --  must invent their own internal structure.  They are exposed more intensely to poverty, other humans in need, and their own internal life.  They may form their own structured community, like a monastic order, or ghetto gangs.  Turner suggests Hell’s Angels, who embrace their outcast stigma and use the power of being liminal and therefore scary.  He has many other anthropological examples from India and Africa that are not known to many of us.
But he is not naive about how mainstream empowered structures will feel threatened by those who are low-prestige, such as the naked, the hippie, the folk-singer, the mendicant, the perennial student and will try to use them as scapegoats.  Or else, since they are not part of the buying and selling commodified world, simply let them die of want.  Authorities do not understand the power of solidarity with such outliers, and this is always the source of their eventual destruction, which is more likely to come from within -- the Pope’s butler -- than from without -- the Vatican’s bank examiners.
But it is possible to become so stuck in liminality, so fluid and disorganized, as to lose a grip on simple maintenance and slip outside sanity or even identity.  This is the Dionysian (we might say) that is so deranged as to tear apart the poets, the artists, in a rock-star mosh-pit frenzy.  The groups who are portrayed as doing this in the originating myths are usually women, often drunk.  A cult.  I think of the watchdog women around the nation who pursue like Maenads whomever they think has not told them the truth or complied with their standards, like the supposedly educated and liberal women who demand all books be absolutely true and all animals be treated like human children.
My interest in liturgy is on one level the belief that properly conducted liturgy is an aid to sanity, bringing balance to communitas versus structure.  I feel it is one of the uses of old age.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


“English teachers as a whole are a scary lot. You can’t really blame people for flinching when you start talking about sin taxes, offering possessives and splitting infinitives. Outliers know all too well that interrogatives lead to tense, past perfect situations and eventual capitalization. “
The above came in as a comment on another post, but as I begin working on the novel I call “Prairie Gladiators,” I thought it was worth some reflection.  It’s a clever play on words that demonstrates how closely linked “English” is to violence and oppression.  Among Indigenous Americans it is notorious that the forbidding of their own languages was equated to sinful cussing and punished with pain and soap-in-the-mouth.  But I’m not sure that many see through that obvious and quite truthful fact to the purposes underlying them, which were to make the improper speaking of English a marker of possible subversion deserving violence repression and an indicator of the lesser nature of the non-English speakers.
The big joke is that the English themselves had this point of view thrust upon them by conquerers:  the Continent-based proto-French speakers versus the Anglo-Saxon Brit barbarians.  And before that it was the Romans who named the Barbarians by mocking their language as amounting to “barbarbar” or blahblahblah.  The patronizing virtues of saying “venison” instead of deer meat and other fanciness were markers of class.  “I’m better than you because I speak fancier than you and my way is the right way.”
Of course, we all know that plain four-letter Anglo-Saxon words like shit, fart and fuck will get one’s mouth washed out with soap.  I used to tell my students (this was in the Sixties when you could still tell students things) that they could name all those functions IF they went to the Latinate designations:  defecate, flatulate and copulate.  But here I am at over seventy still learning new-to-me traditional words about ancient sexual modes.  
I sometimes think of a day in animal control court when our most handsome-but-dumb officer said loudly about a witness in a quiet lull,  “What a dildo!”  I think he meant dork.  He couldn’t understand why the other officers hit him from all sides.  Or the principal’s wife who kept addressing one of the teachers, a really nice guy with a name that started with “sch,” as “Mr. Schmuck.”  Be very careful about using Yiddish words.
This sort of “proper language” is what some people think is the subject matter of English, because proper English is expected of people who are LIKE the English.  Of course, you’ll have to dress like them and live in their kind of a house and read their kind of books.  Much of what we think of as “bourgeois” is simply English Victorian, so no wonder the French dislike the mode.  It is a form of empire-building, the conviction that only this sort of person is qualified to dictate who gets published, whose Ph.D. thesis is acceptable, who can be elected to office,  The American Revolution only proved that we wanted to be English-style people on our own turf, but we kept their terms.
The trouble is that they were terms that went back to the Roman Empire, passed along by the Vatican.  Not terms of engagement but terms of domination, meant to prevent change or deviation from norms.  Ukrainian kids got the ruler for speaking their own language as much as NA kids did.  The only difference is that the Ukrainian kids were used to it.  And so were the Irish, but they had learned long ago that if you are stubborn and secretive, you can preserve yourself and what you love.  And so they have.  And so have many Native Americans.
So how does one teach “English” to such people in all their bloody assortment?  One goes behind the words to the ideas.  One teaches NOT to write until one has thought.  NOT to speak until one has listened.  Very subversive.  One teaches culture and vocabulary and great books and . . .
But I discovered that of the two other English teachers this last time around, one was actually a science teacher -- though she made the most of it by discovering Greek mythology alongside the kids.  The other one, who was conversant with the theories of the Algerian French-speaking post-structuralists, could not correct the grammar and usage worksheets of her students.  She had to get the former English teacher, now a business teacher, to make a key for her.  That man had been transferred to teaching business because he kept flunking athletes, which was to some minds the real purpose of organizing a school -- to sponsor athletics.  He had tenure and therefore could not be fired.  In 1961 my superintendent was a former English teacher.  In this school the superintendent was an old coach.  This is the common pattern now, I think.
Remarkably, while these small town people wrestle with the dynamics of making youngsters conform to traditional standards (which the educators themselves cannot meet), the actual language of the country -- indeed, the world -- has jumped to the Internet where it mixes tech jargon, foreign languages (much French, not much Latin), wild metaphor and common  media experience (especially music) in a pidgin vernacular of great power and color.  Forget spelling, usage, or eschewing alliteration.  Revel in rhyme.
The assumptions under language, which some people “get” and other people can’t understand as existing at all, are what really count.   It is often invisible to power, small town power, cocooned rich power, legislative power.  And that’s the reason it manages to persist, so that today people speak Gaelic despite all attempts to stamp it out.  It’s an attitude.  Interrogative outliers, always wanting to know why and how and always testing the barriers, ignoring the stipulated goals.
This sort of “English” teacher is probably not very English, not employed by any institution, not certified by the state.  More likely on YouTube, at the pool hall, in a studio somewhere, using the language of line and color and being highly “improper” but intensely liminal, in the Victor Turner sense.  They do not lack for students.
A reader of this blog suggests this video as an example.  He didn’t intend the revision of “Snow White” trailer, but maybe it’s also a relevant look at what many kids consider a contemporary sci-fi “Dark Ages.”

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


A few years ago the Great Falls ran an ad for a “school” guaranteed to cure “oppositional defiance syndrome.”  It was scary, esp the photo of the guy who ran it, who looked pretty oppositional and defiant to me.  Then I read a recent article in the New York Times Magazine about a new “syndrome” equally sensational:  “callous-unemotional” children — those who exhibit a distinctive lack of affect, remorse or empathy — and who are considered at risk of becoming psychopaths as adults. To evaluate his example, Waschbusch used a combination of psychological exams and teacher- and family-rating scales, including the Inventory of Callous-Unemotional Traits, the Child Psychopathy Scale and a modified version of the Antisocial Process Screening Device — all tools designed to measure the cold, predatory conduct most closely associated with adult psychopathy.
What “cold predatory” psychologist developed these “instruments” and by what means and for what purposes?  It sounds to me like the return of the Spanish Inquisition.  Like the Taliban, including the American versions.  I suspect that the tests turned on the tester would diagnose psychopathy.  I was taught a better way -- where has it gone?  Why are the oppositions of our modern lives always between unequals?  
Agonism (Wikipedia)  is “a political theory that emphasizes the potentially positive aspects of certain (but not all) forms of political conflict. It accepts a permanent place for such conflicts but seeks to show how we might accept and channel this positively.”
Recently there was a conference in Minneapolis at the Walker investigating this premise.  A quote:
“Inherent in the idea of conflict is the existence of an opponent, or multiple opponents. And at the symposium there was mention of what it means to be a worthy opponent. We all have had opponents whose conflicts with us do not strengthen our thinking or improve our ideas, who offer no insights and do not change our minds. But sometime, I’m sure, you’ve had a conflict with someone who did expand your mind and make your ideas bigger and better. What qualities existed in that situation and what was your interaction like?

And now allow me to date myself with this quote from The Teachings of Don Juan: “Without the aid of a worthy opponent, who’s not really an enemy but a thoroughly dedicated adversary, the apprentice has no possibility of continuing on the path of knowledge.
-- Sarah Lutman  via Arts Journal
The only time I’ve been in the Walker Art Gallery was the year of the Big Flood in 1965.  Since there were NO tourists (every bridge was out), Bob and I went to St. Paul to learn how to patine bronze.  Our teacher was Richard Randall, a dynamic character who seems to have sunk beneath the waves of fame.  At the time his work was much praised.  His show was up at the Walker which had the high white walls, spotlights and vast floors it required.  He had taken the doors off old boxcars, run over them with bulldozers, riddled them with bullets, and slashed them with graffiti.  They were meant to be a comment on war and violence.  No one was expected to hang them in their dining room.  It was supposed to be a deterrent, not a goal.
When I taught briefly at a small town high school -- not Valier -- about ten years ago, the faculty received a list of kids on medication.  It was a small school, but there were two pages of kids on ritalin or anti-depressants and so on.  Of course, none of the stuff the kids used for self-medication was included.   If a list of the faculty and administrators on meds had been handed out, the outcry would have been intense.  This is a town with “extreme fighting” in the back alleys among kids.  The adults go to Great Falls to watch “cage fighting.”
Sarah Lutman continues her reflections on the Walker symposium:
“The Walker symposium convened artists, architects, urban planners, and scholars who are taking the conceptual framework of agonism and exploring it in their work. Some of the questions they ask are: Is the design of public space (real and virtual) conducive for dialogue and discourse? If disagreement and conflict will always be with us (and are in fact essential to the democratic process) how do we plan (create physical and intellectual space) for conflict? How can conflict be made most constructive? Most imaginative? And, in what state of preparedness and engagement should one approach conflict given the expectation that through conflict, ideas are often improved?
“Among the artworks related to the symposium that you can see online, check these out: Marisa Jahn’s Pro+agonist: The Art of Opposition (available for free download, Jahn’s work is a book and set of playing cards that “explore the productive possibilities of .. a relationship built on mutual incitement and struggle”); and Carl Skelton’s Betaville,  an “open-source multiplayer environment for real cities, in which ideas for new works of public art, architecture, urban design, and development can be shared, discussed, tweaked, and brought to maturity in context, and with the kind of broad participation people take for granted in open source software development.” The Walker’s laudable commitment to digital access means that detailed links to all of the participants’ work is easily found through links to the main symposium web page. . . 
“So what I’ve been thinking about is how this relates to advocacy and civic discourse, about public positions and changing minds. It seems to me that the practice of public and political advocacy is mainly focused on clarifying what you are for, and spending most if not all of your time thinking about how to be for your position. Usually this is done by talking to other people who think just like you do and who already agree with your position. And we excel at this in the cultural sector.

Agon is the core of theatre and court trials are a kind of theatre.  But theatre is not real and the adversarial hearings in court must stay within limits.  It is “cage fighting.”  Among the extremes that are supposed to be contained are lying, slander, emotionalism, offenses not included in the charge, lack of proof, and so on.  There are real consequences: lives at stake almost literally, though we don’t tie people up and burn them any more.  Politics has dispensed with the cage.  One gets the feeling they would like to go back to the stake.
In my School of Speech days at NU, I took classes in discussion and since that time I’ve participated in many workshops about “getting to yes,” or finding common ground.  Sometimes these ideas take hold for a while but then they fall apart.  Maybe it’s too hard to be constructively agonistic.  Maybe extreme alley fighting is just more fun.  But if it's so much fun, why do so many people fail to vote?

Monday, May 28, 2012


Babies born on the Blackfeet reservation just before, during and after World War II, more or less “Boomers,” became a cohort that produced a particular kind of Indian, not so much defined by blood quantum as by aspiration.  Maybe it was because of their fathers being soldiers (though not all of them were) or because for economic reasons they moved around off the reservation, but mostly it was because they had the idea that if they got “educations,” they would have good lives.  And society agreed with them, supported that, egged them on until they had Doctor of Education degrees and found jobs for them as curriculum specialists or counselors or even as writers.  They tended not to be classroom teachers nor principals.
This observation leads me to a self-published book by Murton McCluskey“The McCluskey Boys’ Adventures in an Indian Boarding School.”  You can order it on Amazon.  It’s the most straightforward account that I’ve read: warts, laughs and lumps on heads.  Now I finally know what happened to Terry Whitwright’s eye in boyhood.  It didn’t hold him back much -- he went to Harvard and raised some formidably intelligent daughters.  This cohort has begun to “go on ahead,” so it’s a good thing for McCluskey to tell us how it was. 
The McCluskey boys were orphans in a loose network of relatives spread over several tribes and the boarding school is the one I have known,  Blackfeet Boarding School just outside Browning a few miles.  Technically it was only a dorm since the kids attended classes in Browning.  For high school the boys finagled themselves into Fort Totten Indian School in North Dakota, Sioux country, but they were enrolled with the Blackfeet.  I’m three years younger than Murt, but I remember much of what he tells about from when I came in 1961, one of those totally unprepared outsider school teachers.
Besides Terry Whitwright, I would name Darrell Kipp, James Kipp, Bill Kennedy, Mary Lynn Lukin, Mary McKay Johnson, Robey Clark. JR Clark and JoAnn Johnson  and others .   Quiet, self-contained, not political, protective, bookish.  Roughly the generation of James Welch, Jr. (my generation as well) but not James Welch Sr. (who was Bob Scriver’s classmate).  They were a sort of Peace Corps in their homeland, quietly doing things for the common good.  Easy to misunderstand or even not notice, but thoroughly Indian in a down-home, familiar, family-network way.
Murt tells about using Fitch hair oil to achieve a slicked down ducktail.  He explains how to use a copper wire loop to snag trout out of Cut Bank Creek.  Or maybe bending the wire into a little rodeo cowboy that could ride the side of a hand.  There is the constant search for food that is natural to every boy when he grows an inch a day.  He hints at the despair over a certain unmanageable appendage common to all boys.  I mean pride.
Where he is most eloquent is in explaining the pecking order in such a place.  Worse than roosters, the boys were preoccupied with who was toughest and enforced their opinions in a way we would all consider bullying today.  That is, fist-fighting, nicknames, control over the food supply (a “head boy” sat at each table at meals to keep order), and a constant trafficking in marbles -- all with an eye peeled to see what the girls thought about it.  The constant invention of new exploits like sledding on the upside-down hoods off old cars (there went Terry’s eye) or walking a 2” wide ledge around one of the old brick Victorian buildings -- a ledge that was only two feet off the ground on one side, but got higher as the ground fell away on the other sides until it was four or five feet up.  Most of the boys could squiggle along the low side, but only one could make it around all four sides.
Pratt and his slogans (“Kill the Indian, save the man”) fall by the wayside as it becomes clear that boys are everywhere the same and it’s a wonder that any of them survive at all.  Family is of enormous survival value, both if they manage to drop off goodies now and then or can provide a slightly better grade of clothing,  and if they have strong reputations that will cause enemies to think twice before doing real damage.
Some versions of boarding school days either demonize the teachers or make them into saints with the power to inspire.  But Murt makes it clear (and I think this is quite true) that the adults barely mattered to the boys, which is one of the reasons it was so hard to discipline them.  The one strong exception is the cook.  A cook at a boarding school must be obeyed even while one is sitting at the table eating.  Too much disorder and out she comes brandishing a ladle.  I’ve seen it myself!
Today’s top Indian students are very different than they were in the Fifties and Sixties and it is partly due to these transitional people who have made it their business to pull the next generation along.  Many of these graduating kids are brilliant and bold, not so much political, very technological.  The writers among them are quiet, watching, but any videographers who can get to some money are on YouTube if you look.
Murt McCluskey’s cohort is nothing like the kind of Indian education “expert” who is NOT Indian and has all sorts of theories about how they should be taught, usually arcane notions about some minor ability.  Murt just is what he is.  I’ve never met him, but he’s always quietly been there.  His military service was as a Hospital Corpsman and Operating Room Technician, so the GI Bill must have helped put him through college to the Doctor of Education degree from the North Dakota Center of Teaching and Learning.  His age group served in the Korean War, but I don’t know whether he went overseas.
One of the major differences between traditional white and traditional Indian standards is that the latter considers what is best for the tribe rather than the individual.  This is also one of the differences between civilian and military thinking -- the latter is aiming to do what is best for the group.  Murt’s life, a good and honorable one, makes a major contribution to the small group of people his age who dedicated their lives to their people and to the many Native American individuals who followed the trail they made in order to become effectively self-determined high achievers.  When the two goals merge, everyone everywhere benefits.
Murt says that at boarding school the criticism by kids included “He’s trying to act too good.”  But they sometimes made an offer:  “I’ll take up for you.”  Good thing he only heard the second one.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

"The Persian Boy" by Mary Renault

Mary Renault (which she did not give a French spin but pronounced “Renolt”) was once a major author in American eyes though she was born in England and lived in South Africa.  John Kennedy claimed she was his favorite author, which may have been true, but at the time she represented the idea that Americans were somehow the inheritors of the ancient Greeks, a notion cherished by my high school teachers in the Fifties.  She had not been identified as lesbian.  (My teachers, some of whom were lesbians, may have known.)  “The Persian Boy” by Mary Renault presents many ironies.  It purports to be merely a history of Alexander the Great’s last years.
“The Persian Boy” is a study in devotion justified by greatness, based on the historical evidence of a slave boy, Bagoas, who was the personal attendant and lover of Alexander the Great.  It is, therefore, an historical romance,  If it had been written by a gay man, there might have been uproar, but it was written by a gay woman.  If it had been “American,” there might have been outcry and, in fact, there was enough tsuris in England to indicate a move to South Africa was wise.  It’s a strange phenomenon that the most uptight and righteous cultures are often the safest for outliers, because there’s little recognition of what they are.  (It took me weeks as a teenager in Portland, Oregon, to find out what sodomy was.  Of course, then I had to look up pederasty and catamite.  Consult Wikipedia.  They’ll tell you anything.  But only males can be pederasts.)   If something that would be attacked if it were contemporary is displaced into history or plainly labeled sci-fi or myth, it seems to be tolerated.  So “catamite” is derived from “Ganymede” who was the boy lover of Zeus.  I’ll bet they didn’t tell you that in high school. 
There is a spectrum.  At the lowest end is brute use of force to enslave and victimize boys.  At the highest end is the aesthetic and high-value singer, the dancer, the subject of beautiful paintings.  Strangely, it is at this end that castration enters.  The castrati opera singers, the eunuch court members.  It seems almost an attempt to escape gender, but there is no equivalent on the female side.  Perhaps some consider them already castrated.  There is also a religious valuing of castrati, considered an attempt to escape flesh and fleshly desire, a denial of animal nature.  And there is a nonsexual version, like Batman and Robin.  But no Batwoman and Robinette.  (Wonder Woman?  Maybe.  Renault put some Amazons in this novel, but only briefly.)
The Persian Boy” -- whom I suppose would be “The Iranian Boy” today -- is high-born, captured, castrated, trained by a pimp, sold and resold, and though he never reaches anything like control of his own destiny in this book, he achieves intimacy and protection in as luxurious a setting as might have been possible in circumstances often determined by war.  He IS one of the luxuries.
Mary Renault writes without any of this context, simply assuming that the reader won’t need explanation, and mostly we don’t because everything is in human terms, though they are extreme.  Heads roll as much as they do in modern sword and sandal epics.  No one has filmed “The Persian Boy” and one rather dreads any attempt, given the tastes of the film public today.  This is not “Conan” or “Spartacus,” but more like “Quo Vadis” in the Fifies.  Beyond that, this is a sensual recreation of a world still thrust up against unforgiving environment.  Those terms of survival, much of which hinges on loyalty or betrayal, still return whenever and wherever there is enough stress or strife to force us back to human bones, as in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan.
Renault is a fine writer in a way that seems to have gone out of fashion.  Her sentences are gracefully clear, her descriptions are tellingly terse.  She never lectures or over-informs or obsesses.  The second paragraph at the beginning is as good an illustration as any:  “Our hill-fort was as old as our family, weathered-in with the rocks, its watchtower built up against a crag.  From there my father used to show me the river winding through the green plain to Susa, city of lilies.  He pointed out the Palace, shining on its broad terrace, and promised I should be presented, when I was sixteen.”  He is ten when he is captured, castrated, and enslaved.  But he never loses his sense of being nobility, of taking a “high” attitude towards life.  And he is most definitely not asexual.
I don’t think his conviction of being superior is what attracts us, though he even patronizes his patron, Alexander, now and then.  He really isn’t THAT superior, since he does a bit of maneuvering and is plainly jealous.  But he never loses his faithfulness, human-bound though it is.  (In spite of Alexander’s aspirations to godhood.)  It is this wholeness, this freedom from doubt, that is so rare and appealing today.
Born in 1905, Mary Renault must have been thunderstruck by WWI.  “The Persian Boy” was published in 1972, a time of world uproar and challenge to the status quo.  She was faithful to her female partner her entire life and looked quite boyish.  When she sold a novel (“Return to Night”) in 1948 for a lot of money, she and Julie Mullard emigrated to Durban, South Africa, where they became part of a small colony of people like themselves, the kind of eclectic port city sophisticates who can tolerate differences.  
Both women had been nurses at Dunkirk, Renault specializing in brain injuries.  This concern for injury, tending to loved ones, permeates “The Persian Boy.”  This is the center of value that makes life possible -- not inhuman strength and dominance in spite of the context of war.  Alexander is portrayed as a leader heroic in his concern for others, especially those lesser, and we see how his compassion “pays off” in terms of forming relationships, eventually an empire. 
There is no equivalent “Persian girl” tale, is there?  Not today’s heterosexual bodice-rippers.  Short of Elizabeth I, who would have had the worldly power within which to demonstrate deep understanding and the power to protect in the way that Alexander did?  Maybe some of the modern female leaders.  Renault didn’t much like women per se and wasn’t very happy with the Gay Pride movement either.  She wanted to get away from physical gender assignment roles, I think, and was interested in either men too young to be defined yet or men too powerful to be confined.  The problem is always how to resolve violence without being weak, how to be intimate without sacrificing identity.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


Well shoot, up late looking for information. You might recall I told you of summers spent surveying and living on the Smith River down North of White Sulphur Springs, and being taken under the wings of a couple old-timers there. Looks like I first told you about him 6/10:

"Scotty was the name of the feller in the sheep wagon I mentioned. I was probably 13 when we got that place on Smith River in trade for surveying. It was only an acre, but sat on a hill overlooking Smith River.  The reason we picked it is because it had a small natural rock arch with some petroglyphs and smoke patina.
Anyway, I made a deal with my dad (step-father) for an old camp trailer and got the guy I did the road work for, to level a little spot for my camper. When I got that set up I undertook to introduce myself to the locals who consisted of Scotty, the sheep wagon guy, and Mr. Cope, the one who went hunting his nephew and the guy splitting up the property and putting in the only road to the area.
Neither one of the old-timers were thrilled with developments. They'd both lived there a half mile apart for many years doing what good neighbors do, leave each other alone for the most part, but there if either needed help or occasional company. Both were kind to the kid that was me, as long as I understood the terms...don't be a pest.
Smith River was excellent fishing and my favorite deep hole was within sight of Scotty's wagon across the river, so if he was up to company, he'd come out and wave me across the river. Scotty was in his mid 70's then. A tiny little Scotsman who lived in the wagon during the summer and moved into his cabin a mile up river for the winter. Don't know why he didn't do the cabin all year, and no idea how he got that sheep wagon in there because there was no obvious road.
Scotty was in both world wars and had some kind of pension, and supplemented it with trapping. He was married to a gal in Great Falls, where his checks went, but only spent about a week at a time with her, twice a year when he walked out and hitched a ride. He was very self-sufficient and the only thing he bought were big bags of oats for his horse and his breakfast, that he kept in garbage barrels under the wagon. His only other company besides the horse was his old sheep dog and a USFS guy that would ride through occasionally to check on folks and maybe drop off mail if there was any.
The first time he invited me to dinner was a bit of an eye-opener. The wagon was surprisingly spacious inside, and I imagine set up the same as sheep wagons everywhere. Bed across the back, small stove by the door, a shelf or two and a small table. The canvas top was a double layered affair, which I discovered that night when a packrat found his way between the canvas and Scotty pulled out an old .308 and blew a hole right through both layers and the packrat. He was plagued with packrats and hated them with a passion.
I think Scotty really liked me because I always brought piles of old newspapers. He valued them not only for reading, but to use as a table cloth. Of course his belongings were simple, he only had a couple tin plates and a cup or two. His dish washing method consisted of letting the dog lick them clean, then he'd carefully spread a new piece of newspaper on the table and put the clean tinsels upside down so they didn't get dirty again.
He was ever so proud of his homemade "medicine", which was a vile tasting wild rhubarb wine, from a big patch of rhubarb he tended up by his cabin. He used it externally and internally in liberal doses. He was always worried about my health and would insist I drink it with him, though I never acquired a taste for it.
Don't know if you have ever been in the Smith River country, but the river itself, alternates with sheer cliff faces on one side of the river and opening on the opposite side. The mountains surrounding are full of caves, many of them former dwellings. It's obvious the area was heavily utilized because of all the petroglyphs in many of the caves. Scotty was a great resource in that, while he was too crippled to get to most of them on foot, he wasn't averse to pointing them out or telling me how to find them, along with what I might find in each one. Some of those places were really inaccessible and it's a wonder I'm here to talk about them today! I don't know how many times I climbed to a place, then was too afraid to come back down. I sometimes had to sit there 'till it was going to get dark on me before I worked up the courage to go for it."
Anyway, I started out on Google Earth trying to locate various spots, then came across a PDF of the rock art in the area and lo and behold, at the end of the paper, they mentioned Scotty with information I never had, his last name Allen.
It even has a couple photos of one of his garbage can caches!
Anyway, I undertook to search google for more info on Scotty and Mr. Cope and didn't come up with anything else. The PDF report mentioned a resource book, The Smith River Journal: A History from Lewis & Clark to 1979 (Cascade & Meagher Counties, Montana) the only one I can locate is on Amazon for $170
Short of headed over that way and searching through second hand stores for another copy, I got to thinking maybe your librarian friend might be able to locate a  library copy I could borrow through my library here or some other way. Would you mind very much inquiring for me when you think of it?
I wish I was more savvy in those days of the potential of oral histories, because both those gents were full of stories and local knowledge and didn't mind sharing with a curious whippersnapper. I wish I knew more about them.

Friday, May 25, 2012



These are the bronzes that were held in Edmonton at the Royal Alberta Museum.  The collection is so large that it requires a good deal of space and so valuable that it must be in a secured environment.  Neither the Montana Historical Society nor the Royal Alberta Provincial Museum had the space, though the latter borrowed the collection to exhibit with the Scriver Artifact Collection, which they bought before Bob’s death.  It includes much material from Canada, including an overview of Mountie uniforms through the ages.  The “Medicine Bundles” have gone back to the Blackfoot tribes in Alberta.  
I was in Fort Benton last summer to remind them about the biography of Bob Scriver, “Bronze Inside and Out” (available on Amazon or any other good bookstore), and was given a personal tour of the new Bourgeois House and the Starr Gallery, which was not quite finished at the time.  It’s a remarkable space with authentic fireplaces (which will be useful this weekend since we’re in the Montana Monsoon season) and more modern windows and security systems.  I particularly  enjoyed the recreation of a Trading Post and the greatly enlarged historical photos of people I knew in extreme old age.
If you attend this ceremony, you could also drop by the Lewis & Clark Expedition monument at the leveee as well as giving that famous dog a pat.  Both are the work of Bob Scriver.
From the Great Falls Tribune,  May 23, 2012
The Bourgeois House and the Starr Gallery of Western Art will be dedicated during a public ceremony in Fort Benton at 1 p.m. Saturday, May 26. Admission is free to the public, who also can visit all other Fort Benton museums and historic landmarks that day for free, all courtesy of the River and Plains Society, which oversees the fort's restoration.
Funding for the reconstruction of the Bourgeois House and the Starr Gallery was provided by the Montana Office of Tourism's Tourism Infrastructure Investment Program, Fay Todd and family and the Starr Foundation.
Fort Benton "saw more romance, tragedy and vigorous life than many a city a hundred times its size and ten times its age" wrote historian Hiram Chittenden in his 1903 book on the Missouri River steamboat era.
The fur trappers, Native Americans, river boats, buffalo hunters, gold miners and whiskey traders who made Fort Benton a center of commerce and culture in the Rocky Mountain West have long ago faded from living memory. But next Saturday, May 26, a new addition to the museum complex at old Fort Benton will be dedicated, faithfully restoring some of the sights and imagery of what was once the innermost port in the world.
The public is invited to attend opening ceremonies for the Bourgeois House, a historical re-creation of what served as the headquarters and living area for the American Fur Company's chief trader at the remote Montana Territory outpost.
"That's what the American Fur Company called the chief traders at all their forts — the Bourgeois," explained Sharalee Smith, director of the River and Plains Society Fort Restoration Committee.
Built from brick modeled on artifacts preserved from the original 1850s adobe fort, the Bourgeois House is the first structure to be added to the Old Fort's re-creation in 10 years.
"When we first started out back in 1995, we built the trade store and then the warehouse and the blacksmith's/carpenter's shop," said Smith.
The old fort also includes the original 1847 blockhouse, the oldest building in Montana still on its original foundation. According to Smith, the original two-story Bourgeois House was designed to impress upon its visitors the wealth and prestige of the American Fur Company.
"The far left of the building's ground floor was the Bourgeois' office," she said. "The remaining two-thirds of the ground floor was a huge room they called 'The Council Room.' When Indian chiefs and other important people would visit, that's where the American Fur Company officials would entertain them.
"Upstairs, going up the fancy porch, was the Bourgeois' living quarters. Then the other rooms going down the other two-thirds of the upper story were apartments for the clerks. The educated guys got to live in nice little apartments, each with their own doorway."
While the re-creations of the Bourgeois' office and living quarters are impressive in their own right, the Bourgeois House is far more than simply an interpretive center for a bygone fur trading post. Also on the main floor of the Bourgeois House is the new Starr Gallery of Western Art. The inaugural exhibition for this important addition to Montana's cultural legacy is called "The Land, The People, The Artists' Vision."
Headlining the new exhibit are 18 statues by Bob Scriver. Cast during a 20-year period beginning in 1959, the "No More Buffalo" series represents some of the Montana sculptor's most important work.
According to a 1998 interview with Scriver by the Los Angeles Times, in 1959 the chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council asked Scriver to create 12 statues illustrating tribal culture. The challenge prompted him to fashion 53 statues in bronze, plaster or fiberglass depicting 1,200 years of Blackfeet history. The Provincial Museum for Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, stored the works for more than a decade, and they have rarely been displayed publicly.
"The whole collection was returned to the Montana State Historical Society last fall," explained Smith. "Some of these statues are huge and weigh well over 700 pounds."
Over the coming years, the Starr Gallery intends to rotate through the remaining pieces of the "No More Buffalo" collection, eventually displaying all 53 works in the series.
Also on display starting Saturday will be a collection of rare Karl Bodmer prints detailing Montana's scenery and Indian cultures of the 1830s, and an original portrait of Fort Benton's founder, Alexander Culbertson, likely painted in the 1870s by western artist John Mix Stanley.
"The Stanley portrait is the only original work by that famous western painter known to exist in Montana," said John G. Lepley, executive director and curator for the River and Plains Society. "And the prints from Swiss painter Bodmer's travels with Prince Maximilian to the interior of North America still stand today as the most accurate and detailed pictures of Native American life during that era."

Thursday, May 24, 2012


Too often I sit drinking coffee while planning, then jump into the pickiup and rush off someplace without waiting for the excess liquid to need off-loading.  Yesterday I did this when I went for groceries in Conrad, so I stopped at the laundromat to use their facilities.  The bathroom was busy.  I waited.  
Out came a man I didn’t know, but a type I know very well -- an anachronism.  In the Sixties there were many like him.  A high quantum Blackfeet afflicted with alcoholism, poor nutrition, poverty, and a particular style.  When I say poor nutrition, I mean childhood malnutrition bad enough to stunt and twist growth and development.  He looked to be in his thirties but might have been a little younger.  Coming out to find me there frightened him.  Clearly he expected a rebuke, possibly even an attack -- not words, blows.  He flinched away from me, stuttered conciliation, appeasement, while moving towards the door.  I thought of Gollum in “Lord of the Rings.”  
The shorthand for him in Browning has become “street person,” though they are actually more “alley persons” in the shelter of the board fences at the backs of yards.  Faces burned and pocked, bodies reduced to almost bone except for the swollen middle that gives away a failing liver.  In the Sixties we often hired them at Scriver Studio for day labor but also a line of them appeared daily for Bob to try as the city magistrate.  Their crimes were mostly public drunkenness, rarely anything that would rise to the level of felony.  I was the de facto bailiff, though an officer brought them and stayed with them.  “Stand over there -- keep your hands in your pockets.”
Few of them had been students I had taught.  They would have done their best to escape any institution and therefore were often illiterate.  That’s why they didn’t get the nutrition supplements distributed through the schools.  You could say they were “feral” except that they weren’t really wild.  Except that they ran and hid if they could.  (They don’t actually run because they know that can trigger the impulse to shoot them.)  They had no family except each other, so they were what I call “interstitial.”  That is, they lived in the spaces between families and they interpreted that as freedom.
Some of my students were also afraid of random blows.  They would flinch away from me if I walked down the aisle between desks, even if I were not angry.  These guys (mostly guys) were not just interstitial: they were pariahs, like the notorious “py-dogs” of the Third World that lurk everywhere even in Hollywood movies of the Middle East wars.  Explosions, gunfire, tanks rumbling, and quickly a bony mutt crosses the road.  Hollywood removes the carcasses.  We don’t like carcasses.  In fact, the whole premise of pariahs is that they are to be despised, excluded, even killed with impunity -- not where anyone can see it, of course.
Why do I get interested in these characters?  Why don’t I think of them as a danger, if not violent then thieving?  Is it a missionary impulse?  Or is that when we were working together in the shop at some tedious messy stinky job, we visited and I learned a little bit about them.  They stopped being “other.”
The whole idea of the “Other” is big in philosophical circles: animals as other than human, other genders or nationalities, and so on.  Maybe attractively exotic, maybe terrifyingly alien.  Not many people want to think about “other” in terms of pariahs, but “otherness” is certainly the definition of pariahs, who are not just different because they are different but also because they are deliberately excluded from the category of “human,” the category of “salvageable,”  the category of “virtuous.”  “Deserving.”  They don't get much help.
As I left town, the man was sitting at the side of the road, hitchhiking back to the rez, I assume.  I have an absolute and ironclad rule NEVER to pick up hitchhikers -- male or female, prosperous or not, maybe not even people I know.  So I went on by, but it’s still bothering me.  He rose eagerly when he recognized my pickup, his thumb up high.  Then sank back when I went on.
One very hot day decades ago I was sitting in a restaurant in Spokane.  The doors to outside were open not far from my table.  “Pssst, psst!”  It was a ragged thin man.  “Can I have five bucks?  I’m starving!”  I made him come in, sit at the table and order a meal, over the objections of the management who knew the guy (which was oddly reassuring).  He wasn’t rum-dumb, just way out there in moneyless land.  He didn’t stink of alcohol.  His dirt was road-dirt.  He was interesting -- I forget the particulars.  He was white and literate.  A little money and he would not be a pariah.  This was not true of the man along the road.  He was marked by his own body.
When I was living in Browning, I kept a can of soup by the door so that when the py-people came begging for “food money” which I figured they would spend on booze, I would give the soup to them with a cheap can-opener.  Then I found out they were selling my soup cans (AND the opener) for booze money.  I couldn’t get them to come in and sit down to eat soup warmed up.  Their eyes showed white all around -- they figured I might trap them, beat them or rape them.  Maybe it had happened before.  I was so “other,” this English teacher, that they were afraid.  They had no idea what I might do.
When all humans lived in tribes and were in turf wars with each other, this sort of thing was natural, even inevitable, so it must have grown into us, even into our genes.  People who claimed territory and defended it were, after all, the ones who survived.  But now?  Part of the trouble is that if a person begins to hand out soup to pariahs, pretty soon there is a line of them.  Then what?
Or the py-people themselves become jealous and punish anyone among them who is getting an advantage.  Or the other people, the Alpha ones, criticize and maybe suggest that a person who would help such people is probably up to no good.  But the strongest reaction is people who are so afraid that they might slip down into that category, that they split within themselves between hatred and terror.  They keep guns.  They watch for the people with targets on their backs, the untouchables.