“I find everything useful and nothing indispensable. I find everything wonderful and nothing miraculous. I reverence the body. I avoid first causes like the plague.” —Norman Douglas, An Almanac
“miracle, n.: A wonderful object, a marvel; a person or thing of more than natural excellence; a surpassing specimen or example of some quality.” —OED
Norman Douglas might not believe in miracles, but a certain literary coterie does, one that’s been celebrating Douglas and his writing through biennial symposiums since 2000. Fortuitously, I found myself at this past symposium held in the bucolic beauty that is Thüringen, Austria. The symposium’s organizer, and my liaison to the whole affair, Willi Meusburger, is a large buoyant man who wears bright dandyish suits and a fabulous Dalí moustache. A miracle in and of himself.
The group, by and large much older than me, were also a wondrous delight. Where else, I wondered, would you find a devoted team celebrating a not very well-known Austrian-born English writer? A diverse group composed of an Italian geologist, English pianist, nephew of Virginia Woolf, and a former Wesleyan German lit professor. All providing worthwhile scholarship on a man who, despite rubbing elbows with D.H. Lawrence and Rudyard Kipling, scant attention is paid beyond his scabrous character, little boy scandals and South Wind—his most popular novel.
But don’t start with South Wind several of the symposium goers told me: Siren Land or his autobiography Looking Back are much better. Douglas composed the latter by pulling acquaintances’ business cards randomly from a bowl and writing a blurb about each of them. This should tell you more about the guy than any of the tabloids. He’s fascinating, really.
Back in Bregenz, I found myself confronting another miracle. Namely, Ed Ruscha‘s Miracle (1975), a film that follows a mustachioed mechanic around his centerfold-adorned garage as he works on, or rather tinkers with, a lipstick red ’65 Ford Mustang. At one point while the frustrated mechanic is noodling with the float bowl of the carburetor, he gets a call from a pretty young lady, played by actress Michelle Phillips.
Leisurely sprawled out on her bed painting her nails the same color as the Mustang, the blonde beauty teases Mr. Mustache with her anonymity. Intrigued, he finally figures her out and asks her on a date that evening. They settle on a time and the rest of the film is tensely wound around scenes of the newly energized mechanic feverishly attempting to configure the carburetor as the clock ticks away towards the looming date.
However, our guy only manages to get further engrossed in the complexities of the machine—even going so far as breaking out test tubes and strips to determine the chemical compounds of the residue—and just when you thought a carburetor couldn’t get any more complex, she calls. She’s distressed. She says it’s an hour-and-a-half past their scheduled date. Amused, he corrects her, and says that technically he’s an hour-and-forty-five minutes late. She huffs and hangs up. He cocks his head and grins. Then he puts the carb back together and back in the Mustang, and fires it up. The credit sequence shows a close-up of the tail pipe purring clean exhaust….
The takeaway is that the film’s miracle isn’t the babe calling out of the blue, but the object in and of itself, and the working of that object. (Had she found her way into his garage I’m sure the film would have taken a very different turn.) As the first piece displayed in Kunsthaus Bregenz‘s four-storied showing of Ruscha’s work, Miracle really is the best way towards reading the rest of the exhibition, appropriately titled Reading Ed Ruscha.
After Miracle there’s three separate rooms of Ruscha’s objects. All of his art books were on display, as well as several newer paintings of, you got named it, books! It’s a Gertrude Stein meets Americana fantasy library with goofy phrases and syntax appropriated from America’s more rowdy, roughneck era. Caustic cowboy catchphrases like, “When I’m released I’m smoking a straight line to you – got me?”, “This no joke I’m after you stupid punk”, and “You will eat hot lead”. The images were far more measured and pretty, but after three big rooms of the stuff, the jokes started to wear thin.
It wasn’t until after a fairy tale train ride to Vienna, at an entirely separate show, that I saw Ruscha’s truly miraculous objects. The Ancients Stole All Our Great Ideas is Ruscha as curator pulling from the Kunsthistorisches Museum‘s collection. As a celebrated pop artist, the title plays on Ruscha’s insistence that all good art steals from its predecessors. In several of his selections the influence is obvious—the “unnatural blazing backgrounds” in the 17th century portraits of Archduke Albrecht and Archduchess Isabella, and the mirrored and layered gradients of a giant rock crystal—both look strikingly similar to many of the backgrounds found in Ruscha’s own work. The rest of the show essentially revealed that the dude just likes cool things. Things like coyotes, rattlesnakes, meteorite fragments, and 17th century knives that fold out and contain small pictures of inscribed deities. You know, miraculous kind of stuff.
So I’m going to have to disagree with Douglas a bit because something can be both wonderful and miraculous, useful and indispensable. Austria is a case in point. Nowhere in all my travels have I seen so much verdant beauty and met such friendly people. Everywhere I went there was either a castle or a waterfall or a little village framed by majestic mountains. And everyone I met was like, Hey, come on in. I walked into a packed Italian restaurant and the waitress sat me with a couple who were more than happy to share their table and conversation. I walked by a private lederhosen party and within seconds I was being offered free beer and cake and directions to the best lederhosen shop in town. It’s almost sickening, really, all this wonderful miraculousness. Douglas may have had a point after all.