27 December, 2006

San Francisco: another photo essay

The consonants are a church of
hands interlocking, stops
and measures of fingerings
that confine the spirit to
articulations of space and time.
In the Church of the Holy Name, near Ocean Beach, a caretaker asked me, Are you Catolic, den? I was hoping this wouldn't come up. I lied through my teeth, No, my mother's a Catholic. I came here for her sake. I'm an agnostic. He said, So you don't b'lieve in notting? I replied, No, I'm not sure, I don't know if God exists. The man said, When you gonna know? Good question, I replied, and both of us laughed, he in sincerity. But being in a place like this—I gestured around at the airy 1964 interior, the high glass dome—makes you feel a bit spiritual, doesn't it? Yeah, yeah, he said, smiling. It's de house of de Lord.

Well, I suppose there's an unreligious sort of experience for you.

Most men, as you know, stand up to pee. Me, I prefer to sit, like a lady. I just think that micturating, like defecating, should be a leisurely, relaxed sort of affair. It's the same with washing. I learnt to shower during my graduate days, but really I'm a bath man. It's so much more gentlemanly to wash yourself while reclining back in a tub, than standing in a vigorous blast of steam and water. Some say it's less hygienic, as you're sitting in your own dirt. Those people don't understand how soap works. Thus, I prefer to sit and relax while washing and excreting. But when I'm out walking, I prefer a bit of physical resistance, which is why I'm not averse to a four-hour trek in the pouring rain now and then. Within five minutes my shoes had filled up with water, and my hair was dangling in loose wet curls into my eyes. There was no question of an umbrella. Mrs. Roth, inexplicably, again declined to join me. The trick is to stick it out till that point where you can't get any colder or wetter, and just lose yourself in looking and thinking, that way the discomfort ceases to bother you. I actually made the mistake of stopping for a hot muffin, which afforded a few minutes of pleasure, but only accentuated my condition when I returned to the road.

My second journey in San Francisco, west from the edge of Haight-Ashbury to the ocean and back, was quite different to the first. In my last post I showed you a bright and well-known stretch of the city; in this one I show you an overcast sky hanging over the west side towards the ocean, a quiet area full of orientals rather than beatniks and Italians. On Irving, a block or two south of Golden Gate Park, there are over a thousand nail-salons, vying for space with the markets and discounteries, the used bookstores, the Chinese restaurants, and the occasional boutique. Another block south and it's almost all houses, but what houses! In terms purely of vernacular local architecture, this town is easily the best I've seen in America, and even ranks with the finest parts of London. There's an extraordinary variety, each house on a street different from its neighbors, and so many colors, forms and textures.

This stuff was easily enough to keep me entertained. But I enjoyed the more monumental buildings too, such as this one, a great period piece of American modernism:

Naturally I explored a couple of bookstores in the area, though they weren't much cop. Black Oak on Irving had a two-volume edition of Roger Bacon's Opus Maius, which might have tempted me, only I'm not buying books now. Anyway, I've already read it, and it wasn't as great as I wanted it to be. I was hoping for something more magical, maybe even an elaborated version of his earlier De Secretis Operibus Naturae (1252), which rattles off in a Leonardesque way about Greek fire, the quadrature of the circle, telescopes and microscopes, the concealment of secrets, artificial flying machines, incantations, anagrams, menstruation, counterbalances and so on. In fact the Opus, presented to Pope Clement IV in 1267, turned out to be a systematic exposition of Bacon's reading in natural philosophy during the preceding decades. As such, it's not terribly exciting, though it does have moments of undeniable methodological interest. Bacon was a tireless collector of manuscripts, and was particularly lusty in his hunt for Seneca's epistles, which make up the dull bulk of Bacon's writing on moral philosophy. But at some point he joined the Franciscans and gained access to the personal library of his great predecessor, Robert Grosseteste; this reading, combined with his knowledge of Arabic sources, contributed to substantial chapters on optics, astronomy, and empirical method. The latter, which Bacon claims is wholly unknown among his contemporaries, consists of three things: investigation by observation and experiment, an open mind and rational use of experimental data, and better results than 'speculative science'. Ah, better results! Here we have some enjoyable inventions, at last—a stone which will put an army to flight, perpetual lamps, bituminous 'Malta' to eat through armour, magnets and gunpowders. . . great stuff.

(Bacon is a bit confused about language, though—he claims that Latin is derived from Greek and Hebrew, bless him, listing the following loanwords, many correct: domus, scyphus, clericus, laicus, diabolus, Sathanas, ego, pater, mater, ambo, leo, bos, ager, malum.)

The vowels are physical
corridors of the imagination
emitting passionately
breaths of flame. In a poem
the vowels appear like
the flutterings of an owl
caught in a web and give
aweful intimations of
eternal life.
My movement through San Francisco, as best it could have done, proceeded by observation and experiment. I walked where my eyes took me. Bacon, for whom all science was merely the handmaiden to theology, would have approved of the myriad churches—including Korean and Assyrian—on my route. Here was the first impressive example, St. Anne's, on Judah:

The second big church was the Holy Name, miles further west, and south towards Lawton. Where St. Anne's is eclectic, drawing on Gothic and Moorish styles and somewhat Italian in feel (and colour), the Holy Name is decidedly modern, with a slightly pagodesque roof and rounded 60s lines inside. It had some tasteful, abstract stained glass, and some rather dull sculpture, but the most interesting object for me was the ambry (or almery, Latin armarium), containing the holy oils:

I cannot, incidentally, identify the round black solids in the jars, nor could the caretaker. (Are you Catolic, den?, etc.) Outside you could already smell the salt smell of the sea. Lily's aunt teaches at a school near here. The winds were up and in my face, though it had stopped raining by this point. My shoes and socks, sodden through, squelched mercilessly as I trudged down to the shore. I wasn't prepared for what I saw. There were hot green and red grasses lining the road that separates the streets from the beach, burning violently, longly as the cars rushed past in the gathering gloom:

And then the roar and break of the ocean, grey and silver and white, brutal.

I first saw it through two dunes over the road from Lawton. I was miles away. The strand was ochre and wet, deserted, save for a few crusties and lonesome men—four gulls darted dark against the crashing surf and for a moment I thought they were horses or dogs, cantering in the distant sea. I couldn't have been further from the green and gentle waters of the Fisherman's Wharf. The winds were really galing at this point, and sands were coursing over the shore, blue and brown, with the roar in my ears, and the plovers all gadding about in tiny multitudes. Being in a place like this made me feel a bit. . . spiritual. Or romantic at least. I've been reading some of the German romantics lately, the philosophy and criticism. You feel they really wanted to be outside, here, not stuck indoors waving their arms to evoke the sublime in Hamlet. If the monumental churches had led me from 3rd to 48th, zigzagging to the north and south, then here was my telos, the closest approximation to a religious experience I could have had.

The walk home did not contain much to stir my heart, and in my condition I found it rather tiring. The dusk descended dully as I walked east along Lincoln, gazing occasionally into the park as the trees bent in the gales. I was not in the same city I had walked so pleasantly on Friday. I had no ridiculous poetry to mock here; the overcast west is a prosaic sector. The glamour and variety of downtown and North Beach had been replaced by a grey continuity, overlooked but full of small surprises. But then, theology is not a thing of glamour and variety. It is more of a grey continuity, full of small surprises, tending toward revelation. San Francisco is eating away at me, and part of me wants to put up and stay, London be damned.

Nature does nothing in vain. Roger Bacon wrote that, a good Aristotelian—but it will serve as well for the romantics, and for their modern heirs, the beats, to whom this city has long been home.


Anonymous said...

now, this is NICE. i suppose I shall have to do my Penang photo essay NOW.

John B. said...

You thought of the (German) Romantics on your jaunt to the ocean; I thought of Melville's Ishmael (a closeted Romantic (Melville, I mean) if there ever was one) in chapter one, "Loomings."
I very much enjoyed this post and the previous one. I've been to San Francisco only once, for MLA, and so I've enjoyed seeing, through your posts and pictures, some things I saw then and things I hadn't seen then.
Next up: The Vertigo Tour? Retracing Bullit's car chase? Or just drying out your shoes?

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks. It's so nice that I get different folks commenting on different posts, as if each of my readers has his own favourites. Next up, methinks, Berkeley, if I can find enough to say about it.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful essay, in word and image. I've lived there; it's my favorite city. You've awakened in me an almost physical longing to return. Thank you.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Well, thank you Marty, I'm honoured to have had such an impact.

Unknown said...

About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

Peace Be With You