Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Up in Boston there is a statue. Actually it’s a collection of figures, just slightly larger than life-size: five mounted horsemen, armed with swords slung on their hips and each with a lance that rises up behind him. They are riding in a loose double file, the horses at a walk. It is one of the most remarkable statues I have ever seen, and speaks deeply to me. And I think it is a quick diagnostic for any of us, how we react to it.

The riders themselves are thick-booted, but without helmet or headgear – the lack of the helmets suggesting that they are not ‘troops’ and yet the boots reminding us that at times they must laboriously walk on the earth. The swords, thick and heavy, hang down although not on a pure vertical plumb, joining the boots in their message that the matters of this earth are thick and dense, not always on-plumb and heavy to engage. Yet the lances are perfect thin spires that rise up above them, reaching with sharp lightness for the sky, a natural medieval city of spires, an echo of the forests that gave them shelter.

The riders are recognizably human males but without individually distinctive facial features. But – no surprise for the deeply Catholic Polish tradition – each rider’s face has a beard, and of the cropped type often seen in paintings of the Crucifixion; the effect is heightened by each rider’s head bending slightly forward, with the upright ‘tree’ of his lance directly behind. The physical contours of their upper bodies are clear, as if they had no shirts (against the cold night) or very threadbare shirts; the lead rider seems to have old medals pinned to whatever shred covers his chest; the effect is of an undemonstrative vulnerability. They sit their mounts square and straight, but with their shoulders hunched. Counter-intuitively, this imparts strength to them, as if in gathering his arms in toward his torso, each was marshalling his resolve, and the tensile seriousness of the group itself is thus multiplied. But while the heavily-booted legs bond with the torsos of the horses, each individual’s upper trunk rises free of the close-grouped mass, each lance then further elongating its owner, extending him almost as an El Greco saint, straining upwards under the tension of his spiritual dynamism and yearning.

The horses are equally marvelous. Thin-bulked, they give the impression of not having eaten a great deal recently. Their legs are long, which serves to further extend the group on the vertical plane. But the legs are not bent as if the animals were weak; rather, the legs are flexed, tensively and dynamically; they are in the very act of moving at a walk. The necks, however, especially of the lead animal, are stretched out, extending the group on the horizontal plane, pulling it forward into the uncertain future. One of the following animals – bringing up the left rear of the group – is caught perfectly in the midst of one of those inimitably equine gestures: the simultaneous extending of the neck to the left and shaking of the head from side to side, almost palpably accompanied here by a whinny. And its neck, extending obliquely outward further to the left, breaks that plane of the presentation, as if reaching out to the viewer.

Yet too, the animals’ legs are not only thin, but also enlongated; as if the necessarily thick burden of the men and their mission is raised up on thin but very adequate legs. And further, as if those who pursue strenuous, lonely but honorable paths, even though burdened, pursue their duty on a plane above the plain dimension of quotidian earth, of daily life. As if, even while moving along in the common dimension, they are actually existing in a dimension above it – perhaps Above it.

The whole group arises from a single base. It is executed completely in a very darkish, pitted and pocked bronze-like metal. No child-smooth, brightly polished, proudly mawkish encomium here. Rather, the metal’s darkness and texture grittily respects the tremendous and lonely exertions of the committed adult, so often carried out in physical hardship and the darkness of uncertainty, unlit and unsmoothed by any clear promise of success or aid.

Or of support. For these men, this group, is alone. Darkness dwells with them, even in the daylight. They are hunted as well as hunters, and cut off even from their own countrymen, who cannot or will not join them in their hazardous duty, who may well not acknowledge their exertions to be any sort of duty at all, but rather a madness that is also a crime, endangering everyone. And thus burthened they press onward with a quiet will.

They are partisans, modeled by the sculptor (Andrezj Pitynski) on those Polish fighters who fought the Nazis and then the Soviet Communists, in the awful years spanned by Hitler’s Reich and Stalin’s Iron Curtain. But of course, they are a tribute to all partisans anywhere, whose complicated passions draw them into the tangle of human darknesses amplified through war and the ragings of governments, and yet whose uncomplex ideals draw them upward above the spume and dust of the human fray, reaching spire-like for a heaven that, if it exists, must out of tactical necessity assume the shape of a spear rather than a fully-formed cross. They ride together yet each separate, always in darkness, in a hard and darkling world, on a mission that is never completed, undetained by any welcome, stretched out in a crossroads dimension, a vortex comprised out of the living fiber, the colliding energies, of the Vertical and the Horizontal. And of the Beyond.

And, contemplating the spirey but so thin lances, one cannot help but be reminded of the charge of the young Polish cavalry against the Panzers and the machine guns and the Stukas. Yet the human will to be free – not equally taken up among individuals of our species – proves itself sparked by the divine when it is welcomed into the heart and reaches out to others of similar stature.

For twenty-three years, this group had ridden its Long Mission on the lawn at the western edge of the venerable Boston Common; hardly an inappropriate spot. Here stern Puritans gathered to drill for their errand into the wilderness, militia formed to join General Washington in Cambridge or man the fortifications on Dorchester Heights, and Union troops paraded en route to the colossal struggles far to the South. Only yards from their site, the new Polish Pope had said Mass in October of 1979. If this group is out of place, it is only because of their stern message. And maybe because they’re Polish.

The group was removed some months ago. The heirs – by Deed and mortgage if not by blood or spirit – of those earlier generations, the current ruling residents of Beacon Hill, to whom the City has granted the trump-right of outrage and preference, finally took an unofficial vote and decided that the piece did not fit in with the “spirit” of the Common. The sculpture was “depressing”. Apparently the nearby Civil War monument, several stories tall, does not depress them. Perhaps because they can’t quite place it, that particular war. Or perhaps because they can only recall that General Sherman had had tea at great-grand-mamaa’s, when he attended the unveiling. Or was it General Washington? That their defecating Lhasa Apsos and cavorting poodles do very much fit in was taken as a given; ditto their white-tent receptions and twittering parties, held on that hallowed ground by City permits vouchsafed only to the utterly proper, the impeccably appropriate, and the irresistibly-connected.

It’s “depressing”. Well, anything more expensive than cheap grace always is, to a certain type. It’s a type that is not in short supply among us today, arguably it’s even in the majority. If there is a ‘grace’ to Citizenship, a genius, a set of skills (or are they gifts?) of mind, heart, and character, then what are the different roles played by the ‘cheap grace’ and the ‘strenuous grace’ folks? Is there a tipping point when the inertia or chaos wrought by ‘cheap grace’ living finally overwhelms the Republic? Or is it pretty much expected that the Republic is bound to have more ‘cheap grace’ types – perhaps many many more – than ‘strenuous grace’ types? The Founders probably had a very specific and narrow range of folks in mind when they declaimed “We, the People”; is it crazy to expect that a wider democracy will be able to platform sufficient Peopling skills? When Lincoln rhapsodized sparely about “the people”, was he describing what he really believed existed or was he only limning an ideal that he hoped enough folks would adopt as their own? Will we recover enough of the skills, in any case, to be able to People this much-expanded Republic? Or will we simply slide into a paralyzed political senility lubricated by near-hysteric distractibility bordering on dementia?

It was not long after the sculpture was removed up in Boston that Ray McGovern, (the former CIA intelligence agent now spearheading others of his peers in an effort to lay open to the light the treachery and perfidy by which this Administration stampeded the country into our current debacle on the Eastern Front) was shushed by a white-tent-full of oh-so-propah pretend-gentry from the Great State of Jawjah. He had arisen at a Q&A presided over somewhere down there along the line of Sherman’s March, and amidst the tinkling and tittering, had asked the now-almost-former Secretary of Defense about fudged intelligence, thus ruining the rhythm of antiphon-and-response, the tone of democratic rapport established between the good (and gated) burghers and their war-master. McGovern’s brazen temerity was considered an egregious breach of form branding him the worst sort of hussy, and the heroic patriots shushed as if one to defend the graces. They had their priorities.

A pox on the faux-proprieties that dictate polite applause as war-masters bask confidently and the Republic is drawn closer to that tipping-point experienced by Rome when, through her people mistress of her own house, she was betrayed by those same people to Caesar. The propriety and right-thinking that enables these McMansioned gentry to gate their drives and keep the sinecures that pay their mortgages has not served us well. If there is little good done for the Republic by beer-swilling Fox-fed chest-thumpers waving plastic flags, there is equally little good done by wine-swilling fake aristocrats demonstrating their good manners to the whipmasters of war. As we saw in Germany decades ago, the only difference was whether you wound up in the huge mob, cheering yourself hoarse while sweating profusely, or you got gussied up for the invitation-only post-speech reception, where you could applaud tastefully with your gloved hands and shuffle alertly down the receiving line. Ja, surely there is a great difference between those who shout at the Fuhrer and those who gently gush their names to him with a respectful grace. And to think that your invitation marked you as one who had not only some standing and some cachet but a security-clearance! Very heaven! Ach!

But that is no difference at all, in the larger sense of which Lincoln spoke. A soup rabbit is a soup rabbit, whether it is temporarily parked in an iron cage or a velvet one. And if we are to be a People, if we are to be The People, we need very much not to place our trust in the manners and habits of soup rabbits. We, even more than the now-rescendant Democratic Party, must understand that. (Yes, I did make that word up; I couldn’t bring myself to compliment them with ‘ascendant’ – while I have seen Republicans falling, I haven’t actually seen many Democrats doing the hard work of rising. Show me.)

Knowing that in the eidesis of the sculpture they are Polish partisans, we are brought up short by their weapons: horses, swords, and lances against Blitzkrieg and the Soviet T-34. How pathetically quaint. How hopeless. How unshrewd. How useless. What can they be thinking, these partisans? Is it depressing to realize how quaint Justice has become among us? (Republicans, take note.) Is it depressing to realize how quaint Character, Virtue, Will, Commitment, Self-Mastery, and the Beyond have become among us? How flat our unVertical world has become? How smooth our un-adult world has become? How dangerous our world has become in its government-engorging selective crusade for societal and individual purity? How disenchanted our world has become without a Beyond? (Democrats, take note.)

If there is anything ‘proper’ and ‘appropriate’ for us, it is the willingness to do the work of Peopling. Is it depressing to recall what stern exertions Liberty demands? Then we need to re-educate ourselves as to just what the hell we have inherited here in this Republic. Our economic and cultural elites are depressed by statues that speak of the vigorous darknesses of life; our young troops are depressed (with far more reason) by the stern realities of war – and a failing war to boot. And against this ‘depression’ we are exhorted to ‘go shopping’ while our troops are prescribed sleeping-pills in a war-zone. And at all times to applaud politely as our whipmasters urge us on. Are we lemmings? Are we rabbits? Are we – in the gay argot – bottoms? Whatever we are becoming, if this keeps up we will most certainly be slaves.

The sculpture was, after some time in a storage shed, given a new billet, by the Transportation Authority, outside one of its ultramodern stations: on a concrete overpass, above the newly re-developed cement and asphalt plains of the city’s old fish pier and warehouse district. You have to know where it is. Once you get there, you have to imagine them riding the actual earth (although, rightly, the group has been ‘planted’ in an earth-filled wooden stand).

But they are there. And they are here. Homeless, betrayed by a propriety as treasonable to the human spirit as any violence, they pursue their mission. To such spirit, the whole earth is home. And yet not any particular place on it. In faithfully, resolutely struggling for Justice and Liberty partisans make themselves unacceptable to the appropriate. And as it is for Justice and for Liberty, so also for partisans and the spirit of Resistance: only willing human hearts can create a place for them. But no permanent place. If we wish their company, we will have to join their stern and strenuous mission.

The soil of Boston Common was gracious to The Partisans. The hearts of its current presiders were not. How can a Republic bloom if it is not rooted in the soil of the heart of The People? Not everyone who treads Boston Common is a patriot; not every one whose forebears entertained Washington is truly his heir. But there are some Polish guys …

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Blogger Davidco said...

I follow the tracks of one of the world's great religions. No one from any pulpit familiar to me has ever asked us - over these five years of GWOT - to pray for the Afghani or Iraqi peoples or even the souls of their hundreds of thousands who lay slain at our feet.

Where is the religion so universal that it would permit me to see Iraqi partisans as understandably ordinary defenders of hearth and home no less worthy than partisans of other nations - including my own?

Where is the religion so prophetic as to question collaboration with government activites on behalf of grasping special interests which enrich themselves with purposes inimical to the commonweal?

Criticism of Vichy collusion flies fast and furiously nowdays in retrospect, when, it seems, every old duffer on the street was once a great leader of La Resistance.

How will I answer when grandchildren ask: "Where were you when the dark side swallowed our country and America became reviled as an outlaw all around the world?

8:28 AM  

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