Ivanhoe

Ivanhoe is not the star of the story that bears his name. Neither is Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, or Richard the Lionheart, who all have significant parts to play in the tale. The star is Rebecca, the “jewess.” That term, like “negress,” sounds not only old-fashioned to our 21st Century ears but racist, and there is plenty of anti-semitism in Ivanhoe, so much that I felt a little queasy in the early pages, afraid I had unwittingly begun reading a racist tract, until I remembered that it was recommended to me by a Jewish woman.

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The character called Ivanhoe is injured in an early scene and spends most of the novel bed-ridden and weak. So the heavy lifting of the story is left up to the character of Rebecca whose beauty, strength, humility, and grace form the backbone of the book.

Written in the 19th Century but set in the 12th, Ivanhoe is considered the world’s first historical novel. Sir Walter Scott’s devotion to accurate portrayal of the language, costumes, and customs of the age extends to the bigotries of the time.

In this scene, Ivanhoe wakes from the injuries of battle to find himself being tended by a beautiful doctor. Scott uses this scene to lay bare the ignorance of 12th Century prejudices which he must have seen reflected in his own time, and we can recognize in ours:

“Gentle maiden,” he began in the Arabian tongue, with which his Eastern travels had rendered him familiar, and which he thought most likely to be understood by the turbaned and caftaned damsel who stood before him – “I pray you, gentle maiden, of your courtesy – ”
But here he was interrupted by his fair physician, a smile which she could scarce suppress dimpling for an instant a face whose general expression was that of contemplative melancholy. “I am of England, sir Knight, and speak the English tongue, although my dress and my lineage belong to another climate.”
“Noble damsel – “ again the Knight of Ivanhoe began, and again Rebecca hastened to interrupt him.
“Bestow not on me, Sir Knight,” she said, “ the epithet of nobles. It is well you should speedily know that your handmaiden is a poor Jewess.”
I know not whether the fair Rowena would have been altogether satisfied with the species of emotion with which her devoted knight had hitherto gazed on the beautiful features, and fair form, and lustrous eyes of the lovely Rebecca – eyes whose brilliancy was shaded and, as it were, mellowed, by the fringe of her long silken eyelashes, and which a minstrel would have compared to the evening star darting its rays through a bower of jessamine. But Ivanhoe was too good a Catholic to retain the same class of feelings for a Jewess. This Rebecca had foreseen, and for this very purpose she had hastened to mention her father’s name and lineage; yet – for the fair and wise daughter of Isaac was not without a touch of female weakness – she could not but sigh internally when the glace of respectful admiration, not altogether unmixed with tenderness, with which Ivanhoe had hitherto regarded his unknown benefactress, was exchanged at once for a manner cold, composed, and collected, and fraught with no deeper feeling than that which expressed a grateful sense of courtesy received from and unexpected quarter, and from one of an inferior race. It was not devotional homage which youth always pays to beauty; yet it was mortifying that one word should operate as a spell to remove poor Rebecca, who could not be supposed altogether ignorant of her title to such homage, into a degraded class, to whom it could not be honourably rendered.

I don’t know why Sir Walter Scott devoted his masterpiece to an exposé of anti-semitism disguised as a swashbuckling adventure. Perhaps he fell in love with a jewess.

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Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca in the 1952 film version of Ivanhoe

The last car of the 6 train

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I saw you bouncing up the stairs of the Bleecker Street station, determined to get into the last car of the 6 train, where I was standing. I don’t remember what song was playing but I know my foot was bouncing and my fingers were drumming on the side of the pole. You apologized to the kid whose backpack you brushed on your way in. He didn’t mind. You were trying not to smile but your heart wasn’t behind the battle. You stood close to me, the way people do in subway cars, and we avoided eye contact. My heart wasn’t in that. I was wearing sunglasses that helped darken my gaze, so I was able to catch the cut of your hair, your fire-engine fingernails, your big round glasses and the gold medallion pressed against your ribcage. And those lips, big and soft, still hovering on the edge of a smile.

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Killing Christina – Part 2

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I tried telling myself lies about her:
She’s an idiot.
She’s unstable.
She’s not that beautiful.
The charms of her smiles, her thoughts, and her scents have no effect on me.
But every lie was so foul that it made me sick to pretend they were true.

I tried imagining parallel realities where we never met, or where we met under different conditions, ones that made us immediate incompatibility.

I tried to push thoughts of her out of my mind, but even that involved thinking about her, and once that starts, I’m lost.

So I came to the most remote place I know to strangle the life out of my love for Christina and give it a proper burial.

I felt from the start that we were on a timer. The weight of my feelings for her, compared to the weight of hers for me, made us too lopsided a couple to stand together very long without tipping over. When we came to the inevitable crash-and-burn part of our relationship I had to get away from everything – not just Christina but every habit and object in and about my life – to find canyons of silence and emptiness where the enormous resolution I need has enough room to move around and to find me. If it can find me anywhere, it will be in this most sacred space: halfway up a mountain, in my Uncle Bob’s cabin in the Catskills.

Uncle Bob is an old vinyl guy and the depth of his record collection fascinated me even when I was a boy. I pick out a disc at random and put it on the turntable, then I grab a beer and start a fire. I don’t look at the album cover so I don’t know which one I picked until I hear the gravelly voice of Louis Armstrong hitting the nail a little too sharply on the head, singing:

In my solitude
You haunt me
With reveries of days gone by
In my solitude
You taunt me
With memories that never die

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Killing Christina – Part 1

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Lies are dangerous things.

None are more deadly than the ones we tell ourselves.

Of all the lies I’ve known there is none worse than the one I told myself about Christina, that she could love me as much as I loved her.

* * *

Time has its own way of breaking things down. Even plastic and styrofoam biodegrade eventually. There is no rush. People don’t retire when they reach a certain age because they can’t do our jobs anymore. Most jobs, unless they require physical labor, are done more quickly and easily by people with experience. The reason we retire is that the rationale behind our occupations inevitably falls apart, like newspaper in a gutter. Love is the only thing I know of that resists time’s efforts to break it down. It withstands onslaughts of alcohol and infidelity. It is almost indestructible. So, if my love for Christina is going to die, something is going to have to kill it.

Before we go any further, I would like to alleviate any apprehension I’ve caused by calling my story Killing Christina. You could be forgiven for imagining that this is going to be another of those stories where a sick, possessive man commits an act of intolerable cruelty against a woman. It is not. I am not going to kill Christina. Neither is anybody else. I would not see any harm come to her. I am in love with Christina and it is that – my love for her – that I have come here to kill.

We met in the most enjoyable place two people can meet: a bar. My first image of Christina was on a bar stool, reading. A song was playing that I hadn’t heard in years and I got a little more excited about it that I should have. I bumped into her and spilled her cocktail all over the bar. She might remember it differently but the way I remember it, I let out an astonishingly unmanly shriek. I grabbed a handful of napkins from the bartender’s plastic caddy and tried to sop up her drink. “I’ll buy you another,” I said.

And she smiled.

Just that. Just a kind, simple smile to a bumbling stranger, and I was undone. I knew, as sure as I know how to breathe, that if I have a moment before I die, to look back at all the strange and wonderful moments of my life, that handful of soggy napkins is going to be part of one of them.

“It was a martini,” she said. I interrupted the bartender who was cleaning up my mess to order two martinis. “I’ll pay for that one too,” I said, pointing at the spill.

It wasn’t until the drinks came that it struck me that I’d never had a martini. “Cheers,” I said and we clinked our glasses.

I sipped and  watched her long slow swallow. The lighter fluid in my mouth didn’t taste like anything I wanted to swallow. As badly as I wanted to spit the martini back into its glass, and would have in front of anybody else, I couldn’t do that in front of her, so I forced it down. In an attempt to distract her from the repulsive look on my face I pointed to her book and said, “I’ve never read anything by Virginia Woolf.”

The skin of her nose wrinkled, disclosing freckles that reflected the neon lights above her. “You should,” she said, and within minutes we were locking in an intense conversation about Haruki Murakami. We’d each read a few of his books, but none of the same ones.

After an evening of deepening conversation we went back to my place and talked some more, about books, and the exploration of our solar system, and the development of photography, and its impact on our sociology. We talked about her beloved second-grade teacher and my despised Little League coach. We talked about insects and religion and dreams.

“So,” she said during a pause in our inexhaustible revelations, “What do you think?”

“About what?” I said.

“About me.”

“You’re devastating,” I said. She smiled. She knew that about herself. She just wanted to see if I knew.

We continued until the sun came up and our talk of dreams rolled into the one where we were lovers and the universe belonged to us.

 

Victor Hugo and the French Aesthetic

I have long admired, even loved, the French but I don’t think I ever quite understood why until I read Victor Hugo. Their commitment to liberty inspired two revolutions – America’s and their own – that created the best of the world we live in today. They are more responsible than anyone for the evolution of government from hereditary monarchy to a system that exists to serve its people, not the other way around.

Their culture, their devotion to beauty, their appreciation of romance inspires artists and lovers everywhere. Their lust is not simple desire, but desires, eternally mingled with playful affection. In addition to their reverence for fine wine, cheese, and bread, they have an appreciation for the peculiar wonders of femininity and masculinity that aren’t chained to rigid concepts of gender. Makeup, wigs, and high heels were always for men as well as women.

Love is not a rigid concept either. It flows. It mutates. It entices. It satisfies a hunger that even the finest meals cannot. In this passage from Les Miserables, Victor Hugo produces a fine reduction of the love between an old blind bishop and his adoring sister that could easily translate into the love between parent and child, or between lovers:

To have continually at your side a woman, a girl, a sister, a charming being, who is there because you need her, and because she cannot do without you, to know you are indispensable to someone necessary to you, to be able at all times to measure her affection by the degree of her presence that she gives you, and to say to yourself: She dedicates all her time to me, because I possess her whole love; to see the thought if not the face; to be sure of the fidelity of one being in a total eclipse of the world; to imagine the rustling of her dress as the rustling of wings; to hear her moving to and fro, going out, coming in, talking, singing, and to think that you are the cause of those steps, those words, that song; to show your personal attraction at every moment; to feel even more powerful as your infirmity increases; to become in darkness, and by reason of darkness, the star around which this angel gravitates; few joys can equal that. The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves – say rather, loved in spite of ourselves; this conviction the blind have. Are they deprived of anything? No. Light is not lost where love enters. And what a love! A love wholly founded in purity. There is no blindness where there is certainty. The soul gropes in search of a soul, and finds it. And that soul, found and proven, is a woman. A hand sustains you, it is hers; lips lightly touch your forehead, they are her lips; you hear breathing near you, it is she. To have her wholly, from her devotion to her pity, never to be left alone, to have that sweet shyness as your aid, to lean on that unbending reed, to touch Providence with your hands and be able to grasp it in your arms; God made palpable, what transport!

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