Sailing to Byzantium.jpg (99541 bytes)

Sailing to Byzantium, ink & acrylic, 30" x 48," $3500

 


COMMENTARY

Sailing to Byzantium, a later version of the composition mentioned below, was part of the 44th Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, the Society of the Four Arts, Palm Beach, FL, 1982

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1969, Ph.D. recipient, Harvard University shortly before setting out on my travels

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Mister Jason

     Everyone should travel around the world at least once during his lifetime.  With me it lasted for five years.  People often ask me, "How did you do it?  Where did you get the money?"  Gentle reader, if the time spent perusing this commentary can provide you with any profit, you must remember that in this one-act comedy of life it takes little money to be happy and even less to travel.  All you must do is tear up your middle-class I.O.U.s, adopt a hippier-than-thou front, and join the international vagabond set.  Money?  To be happy must you dine at the Ritz or insist upon the trappings of gracious living?   Beneath the flamboyant plumage of the hippoisie there is much wisdom, to be sure.   With a few travelers checks in your pocket ( far fewer, by the way, than our cheapest adjustive psychotherapies demand ) you can run with the hares and ride with the hounds.  To be free as a bird-- what more could one wish?

     Like the time I was in Istanbul.  I detested Istanbul because of the filth.  All my life I had wanted to see Santa Sophia, and I felt like the figure in Munch's Scream when at the Pudding Shop, a rendez-vous spot for travelers to the East, a 'howdy, pardoner" greeted my ears.  The metronome of my leg quickened its beat as my confidant described the Caves of Matala.   "Good," I cried, "That's where I am going!"

     I sailed for Crete in October, 1969.  Once before during one of my undergraduate jaunts I had oohed and ahed my way amidst the ruins of Knossos and Phaestus, but now as I sauntered in blithe holiday spirit through the streets of Iraklion I thought only of Matala.  From my acquaintance in the Pudding Shop I knew only that Matala was located on a bay somewhere on the southern coast of Crete and that the caves were honeycombed out of two promontories straddling the town.   During the Middle Ages the place was a leper colony.  Now Matala, screamed the local archimandrites, was a den of vice and immorality.

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     Late at night the bus arrived at Matala which was dark and drenched in rain.  A poor beginning, I said to myself, glancing at Matala's sole unlighted street.  Getting out of the bus I ran slap-bang into an old Swede with short-sighted bulging eyes and pumping eyebrows who said menacingly, "Beware of Mister Jason!"  One of the Swede's hands clutched convulsively at a cane while the other shook as though palsied.  I asked the Swede about accommodations and he guided me through the rain to the Pavilion, a dormitory-style rooming house where travelers en rout to the caves often stayed.  With my gear deposited at the Pavilion I followed the Swede through the drizzle.

     A splinter of the moon had just broken through the clouds when I saw a haze of light.  "That's the Mermaid," muttered the Swede.  Matala boasted several seedy cafes, the most popular being the Mermaid.   Its verandah spread out fan-wise towards the beach, the Mermaid was the central hang-out of the cave dwellers.  Their corrugated faces hunched over kerosene lamps and candles, they huddled together, samples of all the migratory hordes gone A.W.O.L. from the anthills of the world: campus Guevarists in Fidelista fatigues, sexual Leftists and sanyasins in long-flowing robes, minstrels of sunburnt bohemianism, aspiring earringed gurus, the Eminences and Prometheus-poseurs of Hip-- all fixated in the dim waxen light like mannequins from Madame Tussaud's.  But the specialty of the house consisted of dogs, a dozen starving canary-yellow mastodons in half-sitting position who would go berserk whenever one of the cave dwellers at the tables threw them a morsel.  With the hounds zooming by, ravenous and snapping, the Mermaid resembled a loony-bin, intoxicating, like the rezina I kept guzzling in the corner.

     The next morning I had my first chance to look around.  On the beach, feeling healthy as a bull and glorying in the blueness of the Greek sky, I suddenly heard a scream from the top tier of the caves.  Had Neptune himself emerged on a dolphin from the waves, the metaphoric dimension of Mister Jason's descent from his cave couldn't have been more dramatic.  Like Tarzan, he dangled from a rope in mid-air and in a twinkling disappeared from sight.  Then contoured against the sky, unmistakable in his raffish costume-- for all that it mattered, Mister Jason might have been deep-dyed in green and armored in gold-- he meandered along the beach until he came to where I was sitting.  Then sticking out his ten-foot high pole crowned with a sheep's skull he cried, "Welcome to Matala!"

     Mister Jason, gallivanting along in his djellabah, was the pearl in the hip oyster, but he was not by a long shot the only pearl on the beach.  Next to me sat Miriam, a stunner from L.A.  Life had plucked her from a world where everything was mined and fitted with booby-traps to a glorified apartment house for hippies, she complained.  Unlike Mister Jason, who presided with panache in his cave, Miriam was a newcomer and lived in squalor.  In this she was not alone.  On any one day at least a hundred people occupied the caves on a first-come-first-serve basis.  The more elegant caves were old Cretan tombs carved out of the rock with semi-circular burial niches for sleeping.  These, the museum pieces, belonged to0 the established residents of Matala who looked down their noses on the new arrivals streaming in every day on the bus.  For Miriam the only available cave was a hole-in-the-wall and the flies on the dung-heaps threatened with typhus.

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      But as the sun rose in state over the bay who cared about the dangers of disease?  Disinfatuated with the municipal-grays of technocracy, the cave dwellers had dropped out of the rat-races, the assembly lines, the universities, and all the other traps conjured up by the anthills of the world to rob them of their integrity; and now they sat, émigrés from a remote civilization, on the rocky beach.  Like latter-day Diogeneses, they had reduced the essentials of life to a sleeping bag and a rucksack.  To them Matala was not a cop-out or a cultural kamikaze-act but the fulfillment of a hankering for the natural.

     A sociologist might argue that there were two types of cave dwellers in Matala: the typical middle-class drop-out and the unclassifiable.  Mister Jason clearly belonged to the latter category.  No one knew where he was from.  One rumor spoke of Chile, another Italy, a third Canada.   As the fifth oldest cave dweller Mister Jason enjoyed status in the pecking order of seniority, but even in this world of outsiders and desperadoes everything about Mister Jason was exotic and controversial.  In the Mermaid he held court at a special table where he tried to recruit the cave dwellers to join him Mussolini-wise on a march to Athens in a plot to overthrow the Colonels.  He was serious.  He volunteered to drill his recruits in the olive fields and when people scoffed he mumbled about his years in the Spanish Foreign Legion and waved his sheep skull called Beelzebub at them.

     Several weeks after my arrival Mister Jason invited me for a visit to his cave.  "Don't worry," he admonished in his thick accent as we trekked along the pathways of the cliff to his rope, "there's nothing to fear.  I'll show you how to use the rope."  There are things one does at thirty-- and I was certainly playing Huck Finn at thirty-- that one doesn't attempt to do ten or fifteen years later, and swinging on a rope over jagged boulders on a cliff overlooking the Aegean to have tea with a nut in a cave must certainly be one of them.  Mister Jason's cave, dim, squalid, irregularly shaped, boasted none of the amenities sometimes found down below in the tombs adjacent to the bay.  We sat cross-legged on the powdery floor while sipping our tea.  All around us the light of the candle metamorphosed the walls into eerie kaleidoscopic formations.  The whole scenario might have been a set-up for my demise.  Instead Mister Jason whispered, "I must show you my coin collection."  He got up and emerged a few seconds later from the darkness holding a bag of coins which he emptied on the ground.   "Algerian," he said, his dark eyes glittering in the light, "My people."  His story then came out in bits and pieces, perhaps a fantasy, perhaps not.  Mister Jason claimed to be an Italian anthropologist from Turin.  He was stranded in Matala without money ( He occasionally worked as a day-laborer in the olive fields ) and had only one all-consuming desire: to return to his tribe in Southern Algeria.  The tribe had adopted him.  Anywhere else he felt lost and deracinated.  I stared at him as he explained his tribe's unique hieroglyphic system.   Clearly Mister Jason was if daft not uneducated.  The costume was tribal.   The March on Athens was a scheme to rake up money for steerage to Algeria.   His story fell in place.

     I stayed in the caves for three months.   When I finally located my own cave it was with a colony of five London anarchists who inhabited a warren of adjoining tombs where one of the anarchists held periodic poetry readings.  However pleasant the Brits were, I needed privacy to paint.  In addition, there was only one water spigot for the entire cave population and disease of one sort or another always threatened.  The cave dwellers, émigrés mostly from Europe and North America, although unorganizable, all participated in one daily ritual..   At sunset they would emerge from their caves and stand on the rocks to observe the setting of the sun over the Aegean.  About three weeks after my arrival I noticed during this ritual a small house perched on the opposite promontory where very few cave dwellers lived and upon inquiry found that I could rent the house with its outdoor water faucet for only eight dollars a month.  The house was little more than a stone shack with two rooms and almost no light.  It boasted a stone verandah with a view of the town and diagonally below in an open cave was the stall of a pig named Herman.  By this time I had had enough of Matala's midnight revels.  I had left America to paint and though I had become somewhat of a local celebrity by painting in the outdoor cafes-- the Mermaid once tried to commission a wall relief from me-- I needed not only privacy but security from theft.  Matala's inhabitants were not known for their affluence.   Some of the cave dwellers like Mister Jason hired themselves out for a pittance as day laborers in the fields.  Others sold their blood for 350 drachmas a pint in the Iraklion hospital.  At this time I had in my pocket my savings from Berkeley, close to $4000 in travelers checks , which in terms of today's currency represented a considerable sum.  Eight dollars a month seemed then a modest outlay to continue my artistic activities.

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     In Matala my verandah with its water faucet was a godsend.  One day as I was sitting alone there occurred what I can only call an epiphany, a divine gift.  Robert Motherwell once remarked that in the 20th century a painter can either follow conventional lines or find his own doodle.  Sailing to Byzantium, my first original doodle, in retrospect just grew on the paper as the waves lapped beneath me.  If surrealism is the spontaneous evocation of unconscious images, then Sailing to Byzantium is very much an example of surrealism, a mad map akin to the maps of schizophrenics, except that in  this case the outline resembles that of the Eastern Mediterranean.  Its meaning must always remain to me inscrutable, and perhaps the best commentary on Sailing to Byzantium was made by a professor and his wife who purchased a later version in Ann Arbor and two years afterwards when I bumped into them in Chicago they commented, "It's in our breakfast room.  We stare at it every morning, but we still haven't exhausted its meaning, whatever it might be."  (c)

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