Two photographs flank a painting here. One photo is taken from our place in upstate New York and the other from our place in New York City. I show them not to shout out our real estate holdings (…guess where we’re rent-stabilized), or to contrast Walden Pond with Thoreau’s swampy Civitas (well,…maybe a bit of the latter). My closest neighbor upstate is a half-mile away…and in the city? I could puncture my neighbor’s instep with the dulled tip of my broom handle if the ceiling were only thinner.
Here’s the dilemma: I seem to need both places equally. How does this square up, you ask? Am I both Bumpkin and Cosmopolitan? My respective neighbors think me weird, can’t have it both ways, they say, pointing at each other. You’re not one of them, are you?!
I am, and I know better.
There’s a clue in Esther Pasztory’s new monograph* on Jean-Frédéric Waldeck. Remember him? Oh, I forgot…you haven’t read AIIOE yet. Well,…do. Particularly, if you’re interested in any of the following: Captain Cook, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, his distant relative Henri, Gauguin, the mud of Lo Pagan Spain, druids, or free-love-back-to-nature types gamboling in Camille Paglia’s chthonian-muck mosh pit. It’s the noble savagery in us, fellow sapiens…freedom from stifling convention, the erotic (…ahem, the noble kind) in the exotic remove, the return to stamens and pistils.
‘Count’ Waldeck was an 18th-19th century mystery man – artist, scientist, archaeologist, cosmopolitan explorer, man of belles lettres, and all around polymath. At least, by his lights. He was also – besides being a Class-A dissembler, pornographer and fraud – a major reverse stud puppy. Twice married with family, he went threesies with an adoring 17 year-old at age 84. Bang, a third litter.
Nevertheless, he did for Palenque, Mexico what Gauguin did for Mataiea, Tahiti. Years earlier. He went native. Bungling in the jungle for the rest of us. Gotta love this guy.
Hunkering down in the Palenque ruins with his Mayan mistress, he painted up Palenque’s history as if it was a Disney-on-Acid version of the Garden of Eden, Hellenic Athens, and the Lost City of the Amazons. And if the vicarious thrill of imagining a distant bare-breasted savage nobility was not enough, he’d paint himself right into the lush scenery with his languid Meso-american Athenas. Livin’ the Dream. I get it.
So, when I’m upstate, I can understand why I sometimes get the urge to go all William Blake with my wife. It’s not that the natives are particularly exotic, it’s just that the closest one is a half mile away. Ain’t nobody there but us chickens,…er, wild turkeys.
It’s the provocation of our biology, the pre-civilization itch to get back into the state of Nature where man and beast still understood what was up with each other, when words like “noble savages” weren’t words at all, only odd nasally-grunts and hissing sounds that would have you reaching for your lithic spear, just in case there was something to them. Taylor Thatcher knows what I’m talking about. He felt it sitting in Waldeck’s old digs:
Nicole and I sat, cross-legged, on the floor just inside the temple’s large central opening. Framed by the deep piers of eroded stone and stucco, we watched the gale outside. Rivulets of water, monstrous silver snakes, swaled rapidly around the earthen mounds and gathered in large pools in the courtyard. The smell of electricity, swapping lightning charges at the speed of light, coursed through the air. It was a storm perfect in some mythic way for its setting. We both felt it. Nicole’s eyes were afire. “How wonderful would it be to wander through these ruins in such splendor?” she asked, breathlessly.
Yes, I thought,…in loincloths.
Of course, it always helps to be in a warm climate…and out of the city. And, oh, by the way, Waldeck lived to be 109. Go figure…and then let me know if you need a ride upstate.
(*For more on Waldeck and his truly amazing drawings, see: Esther Pasztory, Jean-Frédéric Waldeck, Artist of Exotic Mexico; University of New Mexico Press…sorry that I reversed the Waldeck painting here…needed the rhetorical ooomph.)