Tell the Bees Edition
Georges Braques’ quiet dedication, Robert Frost’s snowswept voids, and the Irish saints bringing gifts of poetry, art, and honey.
This is my semi-regular roundup of what I’m reading and working on. If you’re new, catch up on what this substack is about here. I also post occasional poetry and prose. It’s free. Subscribe here if you like.
Otherwise, welcome friend, and read on.
Didionposting will continue. Know Your Enemy, a podcast hosted by Commonweal’s Matthew Sitman and dedicated to the noble mission of explaining conservatism to the left, brings on historian Sam Tanenhaus to discuss Joan Didion’s reactionary streak. Well—was it a streak or just who she was?
It’s true that Didion, a Goldwater girl and longtime National Review contributor, came to despise Reagan and later Dubya, but Tanenhaus makes a persuasive case that her conservatism was persistent, if not all too interested in policy details. It was a temperament, an aesthetic, and, yes, at times something of a contrarian pose calculated to ruffle her high society milieu. It sprang from a heady Old California cocktail: an unapologetic elitism, a dread and disgust of disorder, a frontier mindset of self-reliance, a self-conscious (and, Tanenhaus suggests, partially Catholic-inflected) ethos of seeking to access the world via form and not abstraction, and, perhaps above all, a self-appointed realism that was disdainful of utopian schemes, self-pity, and childish illusions, whether from the right or the left.
In this sense, her much-lauded “conversion” away from the GOP could be taken to mask a deeper continuity, in which she simply opted out from, stood critically apart from, whatever mass hallucination was on at the time—whether it happened to be Free Love, Morning in America, or the War on Terror. Sitman’s podcast largely agrees with that but gives it a slightly more cynical cast, implying Didion abandoned a cramped and curdled conservative movement at least in part in order to salvage her career (and her invitations to cocktail parties) in Manhattan and Hollywood, in an age when there remained little room on the right for literary provocateurs. William F. Buckley’s magazine wasn’t edgy, sophisticated, or countercultural anymore; it was boring, just another dial turned up to 11 on the blaring neoconservative Reaganite megaphone. An artistic liability. I have no special insight, but based on her prose I can imagine Didion responding to that with a—yeah, of course I dumped those losers. That’s life.
Ross Douthat gets at some similar points, in a briefer if slightly more trollish way, and it’s a good alternative or companion piece to the podcast.
A light on the dark ages. Historian Peter Frankopan reviews a new foray into the genre of medieval revisionism. The Bright Ages successfully debunks much of the self-congratulatory Enlightenment-era mythology around the “dark ages,” he says, but unfortunately ignores the experience of most of Eastern Europe, the Slavs, and the Byzantines.
The sleep of reason. Tom Stammers on how Franscisco de Goya’s madness wasn’t shocking to European high society but rather welcomed and encouraged:
This madness wasn’t Goya’s alone. We might also inquire into the sensibility of those aristocratic patrons who wanted to cover the walls of their houses with scenes of black magic, rapacious brigands and feasting cannibals. What shocks modern audiences was once seen as compatible with polite recreation and amusement; Goya named the shipwrecks, fires, botched bullfights and brawling madmen that constitute his cabinet pictures in 1794 a chronicle of ‘national pastimes’… it tallied with Goethe’s alarm in 1805 that cultivated Europeans had developed an ‘irrepressible craving for the absurd.’ Goya painted perversities of which he was himself keenly aware, and he painted them for a public he knew wouldn’t look away.
A quieter Cubism. A new exhibit of Georges Braque still life paintings raises the question: why has Picasso’s great friend, ally, and co-conspirator (and later, rival) fallen into such obscurity? Well, Pablo was the showman, not Georges. “[Braque] merely got on with it, year after year, making still life paintings of such restraint and subtlety, and much else too. None of the paintings on these walls shouts at us. They speak of self-containment, of a quietly impassioned, ongoing dedication to the task at hand.”
Elsewhere, art historian John Richardson has described what it was like to visit Braque at work:
If the light was curiously palpable—what Braque called “tactile”—it was because he kept his studio skylight veiled with thinnish, whitish material, which filtered and seemingly liquefied the light. In this penumbra the artist would sit as hieratically as Christ Pantocrator in a Byzantine mosaic, his great big Ancient Mariner’s eyes devouring the paintings set out in front of him. The monastic hush would be broken only when he got up, wheezily, to make a slight adjustment to one of the many canvases arrayed in front of him. On my first visit to the artist’s studio, I felt I had arrived at the very heart of painting. I never quite lost that feeling.
An officer and a gentleman. The founder of modern honeymaking was a “revolutionary Ukrainian beekeeper” named Petro Prokopovych. He retired his military commision in 1798 to devote his energies to developing more efficient and bee-friendly apiaries. By 1814, he was ready to introduce the world to the frame hive, allowing for easy access to the honeycomb, and the “queen excluder” barrier, which prevents eggs being laid in the harvest honey. Truly, what frontiers remain for us mortals to conquer?
“Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
—C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
Cat Power with a newly released Covers album:
Chan’s cozily nocturnal croon is, as ever, music to sit in the dark and ruminate to.
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.
The woods around it have it—it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.
And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less—
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
—Robert Frost, “Desert Places” (1933)
What I’ve been working on.
A new poem, “Meltwater.”
Doing some copying of the Masters, a time-honored practice. Not sure if it’s “taking” but then again I started with John Singer Sargent who is, if anything, known for an infuriatingly effortless-looking but ultimately unfathomable technique.
Also recently expanded my color set a bit, after using a very limited Zorn-ish palette1 for nearly a year. Went crazy and ordered a variety of turquoises, magentas, and lemons, especially the electric Pthalo and Quinacridone pigments introduced in the 20th century.
The liturgical life.
The snowy reaches of February are, liturgically speaking, a stretch of Ordinary Time and a sort of interregnum between Christmas feasting and the penitence of Lent. (The dates of Lent can shift by more than a month depending on the lunar cycle, but this year Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, falls on March 2.)
The shortest month, however, also brings us the feasts of two notable Irish saints. They don’t get as much attention as the godfather, Saint Patrick (feast day March 17), but they are most worth appreciating.
St. Brigid of Kildare (d. 525) is celebrated today, February 1. She was born the illegitimate child of a pagan prince and his Christian slave, and grew up to found Ireland’s most important religious community, the convent and monastery complex of Kildare, on a site that she relieved of its previous duty as a Druid temple. Many of the details of her life are legendary and/or contested—the stoic 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia warns drily that “we must allow a large margin for the vivid Celtic imagination”—but accusations that her historicity is merely a mirage based on the Celtic goddess Brigid are not borne out by multiple contemporary sources of the first millennium.
We know, in any case, that at Kildare she founded an art academy and scriptorium that produced perhaps the most impressive illuminated manuscript ever made. Sadly, the Book of Kildare does not survive, unlike its famous younger sister the Book of Kells, but one medieval reviewer gushed that it read as “an angel furnishing the designs.” St. Brigid is the patroness of, among other things, poets, dairy farmers, children with abusive fathers, fugitives, Ireland, and Florida.
Then on February 13, we mark the truly delightful St. Modomnóc of Ossory (d. 550), a contemporary of Brigid. Modomnóc (likely a form of “Dominic”; “mo” being an affectionate Irish prefix meaning “my little” or “my dear”) is justly venerated for bringing bees and their gifts to Ireland—a sort of delicious inversion of Patrick’s expulsion of the snakes.2
The story goes that, while studying in far-off Wales, Modomnóc devoted himself to keeping the monastery’s bees3. He planted their favorite flowers, expanded their hives, and confided all his thoughts to them. When the time came to return to Eire, his loyal bees refused to let him go, following his ship for miles out to sea until he eventually agreed to take them with him. He went on to found Llan Beach Aire, The Beekeeper’s Church, at Bremore near Dublin, and some credit his adventures with sparking the Telling of the Bees, the custom that a family’s bees must be kept apprised of important happenings, especially deaths.4
The story of Modomnóc and his bees is didactic in the best way. It offers us, in memorable and condensed fashion, some of the sweetest truths: that creation is a great gift made for us, for our enjoyment; that whatever love, attention, and stewardship we can extend to the natural world, it takes into itself, transfigures, and returns to us tenfold as pleasure, sustenance, wisdom, and companionship; and that the unexpected gifts of God, when seized, proliferate through time along many strange and unforeseeable tributaries until they find again the great sea.
Anders Zorn often used a palette of just four colors: White, Ivory Black, Yellow Ochre, and Red. This black has a bluish temperature, so mixed with white, red, and yellow it can make a surprising range of muted blues, purples, and greens. This is often suggested as a way for beginner to get started without being overwhelmed, and to learn how to mix color more confidently from scratch.
“This [6th century] date of arrival is substantiated by linguistic evidence of native Irish words existing at this time (the 5th and 6th centuries); such as beach (bee), mil (honey), and miodh (mead, i.e., fermented honey served as an alcoholic beverage).” Via Eimear Chaomhánach.
Apiaries were crucial resources for monasteries from the beginning; they provided not only honey, for nutritional and medicinal purposes, and increased pollination for gardens, but also the base for mead (honey-wine) and wax for the production of candles. For most of Church history, liturgical regulations have required the candles used in the Mass to be made from beeswax even after cheaper alternatives were developed.
Chaomhánach goes on: “In folklore tradition, bees are seen to have a sense and understanding of death. They appear to realise the connotations of death and its absolute nature. They react accordingly, by giving respect by what means they can…The old custom of ‘Telling the Bees’ ensures that the bees will remain with the family following a death, and that they will feel involved. It will also guard against any feeling of offence the bees may experience due to exclusion from family affairs.”