Thursday, January 06, 2011


Tragedy, Comedy, the Getty, Babies

In high school (and the first year of college), I had this extremely nice boyfriend, and we wore tragedy-comedy rings to signify our relationship. I went to lots of theater on Broadway-tickets were cheap for students-and saw a lot of tragedy and comedy, and felt very inspired and romantic all the time.

But it wasn't until I went to the British Museum, and saw actual representations of tragedy and comedy that I sort of understood how profound these symbols are. Like--there was a point where people did not represent sadness and happiness, and then there was a point where suddenly they did. What's more, there was a point where culture suddenly involved not just showing some god flying off into the sky while the little humans looked on expressionless or with some archaic smile, but re-enacting things that were sad and happy for people.

If you stroll through the halls of most museums and look at very old art--the Egyptians--you will see a lack of personal expression. And then, with the Greeks, the expression and representation and pathos suddenly leap out at you from inside glass cases. People become people.

What happened?

I had forgotten all about ancient culture, and my early obsession with it, until this past December when we took a family trip to the Getty Villa in Los Angeles. It is a true villa. JP Getty apparently wanted to recreate the Villa dei Papiri, which dates from the first century, and was buried under Vesuvian ash and lava.

The next time someone tells you that delusions of grandeur are, well, deluded, send them to the Getty Villa. I can't think of anything more deluded than trying to recreate a two-thousand year old villa. And yet, what a gift to be able to see Roman and Greek artifacts in their "natural" setting.

Here--one of the Muses. I think this might be the Muse of philosophy. I looked for the Muse of Poetry, since that would be the closest thing a writer today would need to turn to for help, but she was absent.

All the same, you get this extraordinary feeling about this old culture that, as I said, suddenly started to represent comedy and tragedy--the whole human condition--as a world separate from the gods. It's interesting. It's not a surprise that the Getty also includes an outdoor ampitheater, which occasionally performs plays. If I lived in LA, I would absolutely go see a performance.

Here is a fragment of papyrus, with a little piece from the Illiad--one of our oldest stories. Looking through the many rooms of the Getty, and examining the representations of heroes, I was reminded again of the power that a heroic individual exudes on us, even as we seem to be (or I seem to be) increasingly jaded. It's not an easy thing to come to terms with--this notion that we still want heroes to serve and save us, even as heroism seems so fleeting.

And then I came home to New York and sat down for my obligatory reading sessions with Ewan. He is good at holding a book and looking at the pictures and understanding that "something" is happening on those pages.

But the most popular book? The one that generates the most interest and that is universally acknowledged as the one that holds the attention of babies everywhere? It's this series of baby faces--babies smiling on one side, and babies crying on the other. The official title: Mrs. Mustard's Baby Faces.

Over and over Ewan turns the pages, examining the happy babies and the sad babies. I see all this concentration on his face. He seems to understand that half the babies are happy and that the other half are suffering. He turns to the book over and over, as if to try to come to terms with these dual emotions. Sometimes he looks at me, as though he wants to ask me a question. Then he goes back to the faces, until I put the book away and start up Dr. Seuss.

It is said that we have to learn to empathize early, or some of us will not learn to do so at all. Then there are the children who have difficulty reading human expression. When I think about this, then I think that these books--which struck me as terribly inane when I looked at them while pregnant--contain in them a wealth of instruction and information. And that my high school sweetheart romantic rings were not so cartoonish after all.

Did we get you Mrs. Mustard? I think so. I had the same "what the hell" reaction pre-kid, and yes, the same conversion experience. It's so elemental. They're so compelled. And suddenly we get it.
I think the first time I saw these books was at your house. And I remember you saying that they were strange, but that T loved them. And now that I'm a mother, I completely understand--though we have moved on to other interesting things like cats and lions and balls!

I have lost track if you gave me this particular book. You might have. Our pediatrician gives me an awful lot as well. But I thank you for inspiring us and being so generous!
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