Sarah Churchland – THE WISDOM OF BABIES, PT. 5
Erin Thompson – BIA
James Carpenter – ILLUSTRATION AND EXPRESSION
Katherine Moore – A NOTE ON YOUNG KOH’S DRAWINGS
Arnold Klein – FROM MISCELLANEOUS LOVE POEMS
William Nolan – OH DOCTOR, MY DOCTOR
Inrideus – A ROOM AT THE METROPOLITAN
Aaron Steinappfel – MY CHICAGO
“Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim. It is absurd to look upon the enormous amount of pain that abounds everywhere in the world, and originates in needs and necessities inseparable from life itself, as serving no purpose at all and the result of mere chance. Each separate misfortune, as it comes, seems, no doubt, to be something exceptional; but misfortune in general is the rule.”
In everyday adult life, there are two basic ways most people deal with the inevitable pains and sufferings of human existence. And unfortunately, as we might expect, these methods we have developed for coping with pain are deeply unwise. After being hurt by some painful aspect of the world, we typically either turn away from life in order to avoid the potential future harms a full engagement with life would necessarily entail. Or we turn inward and fixate on our sufferings, dwelling over them and amplifying them until they become a central, and often emotionally crippling feature of our existence.
By this point in our exploration of the wisdom of babies, it must be clear that both of these ways of dealing with life’s tragedies are in complete conflict with the truly wise attitude towards suffering we see exhibited by babies when they experience pain.
It is not easy to watch a child cry. In fact for a compassionate adult, it is one of the most distressing sights one can witness. And yet I have devoted much of my research to investigating this aspect of infant wisdom because the benefits of coming to understand how our youngest children experience and deal with pain and suffering are so profound.
Ask yourself the following questions. When you see a baby cry, what do you see? Do you see anguish and sadness? Or do you see something far more primal, more fully human in a child’s tears? Have you ever noticed that it almost seems like a child immediately forgets that he’s been hurt the moment after he’s cried or acknowledged the suffering directly? How can this be?
It hardly seems worth mentioning something as obvious as the fact that babies experience pain and then scream and cry as a result. Everyone knows this. But unlike adult experiences of pain, babies do not feel anguish or sadness when they suffer. Rather they simply experience pain directly and immediately and their tears or cries reveal this to us.
What distinguishes the way babies experience pain, and what we can most profoundly learn from, is the infant’s freedom from both memory and forethought, that is to say from a reflective consciousness of their pain under the aspect of time.
Consider the following. Unlike adults, babies do not project their fear of possible pain into the future course of experience. They experience no such fear, and in fact do not experience fear at all until later in their development.
And unlike adults, babies do not dwell on past pains, and never render themselves miserable in the present. And this is not simply due to an underdeveloped capacity for memory. Not at all.
Rather, infant suffering is entirely encompassed by the tears and crying brought forth in the unmediated moment of pain. An infant feels pain and then releases it. He does not turn away from it or hold on to it, but rather is directly immersed in suffering and then simply lets it go. Like a sudden thunderstorm whose winds and rains burst from the sky only to end as quickly as it began, an infant’s sorrow is directly and fully felt, it is manifested in tears and crying, then it is spent leaving no trace behind.
His sorrow is Wise Sorrow. His tears are Wise Tears.
The two ways adults typically deal with sorrow could not be more different from the wisdom of babies.
Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th century philosopher of metaphysical pessimism and author of the words quoted above that begin this chapter, advocated for the first way we mentioned, the turn away from life’s pains.
Schopenhauer saw man’s conscious life as a never ending series of sorrows culminating in death. “Awakened to life out of the night of unconsciousness, the will finds itself as an individual in an endless and boundless world, among innumerable individuals, all striving, suffering, and erring; and, as if through a troubled dream, it hurries back to the old unconsciousness.”
His proposed solution for overcoming the “troubled dream” of life is not that much different from the advice found in the Upanishads: renounce your individuality, your will to live, and all desire. Only then will you find peace (for there is no happiness). You may then even do the world some good. According to Schopenhauer, those who fully renounce all desire and adopt a purely contemplative, will-less attitude towards it may, like the Bodhisattva of Mahayana Buddhism, be in a position to perform saintly acts of charity by helping and teaching others also how to turn away from life.
This approach to suffering is far more common than one might think, though the degree to which most of us engage in it is far less than that required to become a saintly figure. Everyday we see people cut themselves off or withdraw from life and life’s potential sources of pain.
How many times have you seen someone cut themselves off from the adventure of life for fear of getting hurt, or getting hurt again? Such people, and perhaps ourselves as well in our more timid moments, would rather sit on the sidelines of life rather than run the risk of misfortune by participating in the game to the fullest.
And who can blame us? Pain, the kind of pain one suffers after trying something for the first time and failing, or having one’s heart broken in the attempt to find love, or not achieving and accomplishing something you have set your heart on is, to state it simply, painful.
And yet we do not see babies turn away from life every time they feel pain. As a pediatrician will tell you, physical and spiritual withdrawal is rarely if ever seen in infancy, and then only as the result of acute illness.
One of the marvels of childhood is the child’s ability to get hurt and yet continue her engagement with the risks and perils of life. In fact, this is the one aspect of our innate wisdom that seems to remain with us the longest, oftentimes even through our early childhood and into adolescence if we are lucky. It is what allows children to experiment, to try new things, to suffer failure and pain, to cry and yet “shake it off” and continue to live with the same excitement for and involvement in life that they had prior to “getting hurt.”
Again, children have not yet been conditioned to the temporal framework of adult consciousness and have not yet learned to use their memory to “think out into the future” the possibility of future painful experiences, nor to “think back into the past” and fixate on prior suffering.
But for most adults, negating the will to live and adopting an ascetic, saintly life is the last thing that would occur to us to do after suffering one misfortune or another. Rather, most of us take the second route to “pain management” by learning to dwell on our pains indefinitely. We even at times seem to deliberately magnify them to such a degree that those pains continue to dog us long after we’ve actually endured them. Why is this?
It is because we have lost touch with our innate wisdom, and our sorrows and tears have ceased to be wise.
Have you ever met someone who can’t let go of the past? Someone whose attachments to their past sufferings or failures haunt their present life to such a degree that they become morose, a burden to those around them? Someone who always emphasizes the negative parts of their lives and who holds onto them like an alcoholic holding onto a bottle of liquor?
You probably have. And you know how they can cast a cloud over life whenever they enter a room.
We say that such people carry a lot of baggage. That they’re damaged. That they just can’t seem to get over a painful period in their lives or a true tragedy, like the death of a loved one or the experience of being abused.
It is undoubtedly difficult for adults to let their sufferings go. And this is primarily because we never truly experience them to their fullest extent.
When was the last time you had a powerful cry? Not the kind of crying you might do during a sad movie or when you happen to be feeling particularly blue for one reason or another. When was the last time you cried with your total soul the way a child cries in the immediacy of her pain?
Adults have developed techniques to mediate their painful experiences. Like someone suffering a schizophrenic episode, we split ourselves into two people: one who suffers and one who intellectualizes, rationalizes, or denies that suffering.
Rather than feel to the fullest our sufferings and our moments of darkest sorrow, we try to ignore them or explain them away only to have them stay with us and lead us to the path of turning away from life or the path of a dim existence darkened by the memories of past pain.
And what do we lose in this if not also the possibility for true joy?
The Ecstatic Joy and Wise Sorrow that we find in wise babies are not opposed or antithetical to each other. Rather they are both manifestations of the same fundamental wisdom embodied by babies.
In order to live in Ecstatic Joy babies acknowledge the painful moments of existence when they occur and they experience that pain fully and profoundly. By so doing, they completely exhaust themselves of the sorrow they feel and do not harbor it in a way that could potentially separate them intellectually from the Ecstatic Joy they embody in their wisdom.
If we are to remove ourselves from the two ways adults deal with pain that we have described and return to an experience of our native joy, it is essential that we learn from the Wise Sorrow and Wise Tears of our infants.
We mentioned in passing during our exploration of Ecstatic Joy that infants, especially very young infants, exhibit a remarkable resiliency to love even in the face of the loss of a parent.
And yet how well do we understand the way in which babies love?
Many of us today still believe in some form of the “reinforcement theory” of infant love which argues, with variations, that infant love develops first towards the mother and then is extended to others as a result of being fed, cared for, and generally treated as an object of affection. Because the infant has basic needs that must be met, she learns to have affection for those who satisfy those needs. Erich Fromm, wise as his book The Art of Loving is in many places, falls prey to this conception of infant love when he writes:
“Infantile love follows the principle: ‘I love because I am loved.’
Mature love follows the principle: ‘I am loved because I love.’
Immature love says: ‘I love you because I need you.’
Mature love says: ‘I need you because I love you.’”
While we can learn much from Fromm’s exploration of “mature love,” it’s a mistake to think that babies love because they are loved or love out of need for some object of love. To call such an attitude “infantile” simply lays bare the way many of us, especially psychologists and child development “experts,” look down on babies and fail to recognize their innate wisdom. That “infantile” has become a pejorative term in our culture speaks volumes about our separation from the innate wisdom we once embodied ourselves.
Contemporary scientists and psychiatrists working in child development have made some progress beyond the reinforcement theory in their understanding of infant love, but they still fall short. Following the theoretical work of John Bowlby and later Harry Harlow’s study of infant rhesus monkeys, most theorists in the field now believe that infant love develops out of an evolutionary biological tendency towards socialization. By being genetically predisposed to “love,” or in their terms “to become attached to” the mother, and subsequently the parental or familial unit, it is argued that babies are given the evolutionary advantage of becoming a part of and caring deeply for the larger societies which we find necessary for satisfying our more complex needs.
While theories of this sort are explanatorily appealing, they make the common logical mistake of placing the cart before the horse. Love for a mother, a father, a family, or a society does not develop because we are genetically and evolutionarily disposed to form attachments or because it is in our biological interest to do so. Specific attachments are rather the later particular results of the encompassing foundational wisdom embodied by babies that we see when they love. Just as we saw with Ecstatic Joy, Love is a preconditional state babies embody.
Can we blame our babies’ DNA for the state of our world, a world characterized in too many ways by often violent sectarianism, increasing provincialism and attachment to the “clan”? Is there a genetic bent in babies towards attachment that leads adults into divisive social organizations and factionalism? Does love separate rather than unite?
To answer any of these questions in the affirmative would be sheer folly.
True and honest love, which we see in its primordial embodiment during the earliest days and months of our children’s lives, knows no limits and does not stop with the mother, the father, or larger family. As we said before in relation to Ecstatic Joy, when a baby smiles and laughs, we cannot help but smile back, just as we cannot help feeling warm when we enter sunlight. Love is, at this age, the sun.
As an embodiment of love, the infant is simply disposed to love. He knows of no reason to prefer one person or another as an object onto whom should bestow his “favors.” To think that he does would again be to commit the “psychologist’s fallacy.” For what is more common to see in our everyday adult lives than instances of “love” doled out to individuals as a form of manipulation, emotional bribery, or simply in the selfish attempt to feel that we are loved individually ourselves?
But let’s pause here to ask ourselves a simple question. What is our adult concept of love? Most of us would probably say that we are either looking for someone to love (in Fromm’s terms “mature love”) or looking for someone to love us (again in Fromm’s terms “infantile love”). Both of these pursuits are in fact identical.
What makes them identical, the pursuit of a person whom we might need and thereby offer love, and the pursuit of someone to give us the love we feel we lack, is that they are both based on the same subject/object dichotomy of which we have already spoken.
Again, children know nothing of this distinction.
Love is such a central motive in adult life that is almost impossible for us to leave our routine conception of it long enough to understand what we are here saying about infant love. We have so forgotten our originary embodiment of love, and yet are still ever pursuing it, that we feel entirely incomplete if we are not loving and being loved at all times. We are so fixated by the idea that the “love” and affections of a person, a group, a society, or at times even God, might satisfy this craving which we don’t even begin to understand that we do everything in power to find it or else feeling it to be impossible to find (for so it is), we resign ourselves to despair.
By becoming habituated to the division between the “self” and the “world” we are essentially engaging ourselves in a futile quest to regain the feeling of embodying love that we once knew as babies, the feeling of openly and “unconditionally” loving all things that enter the sphere of love that we were and truthfully still are despite our losing touch with it.
Man’s entire history might be rewritten as the history of the forgetting of our innate love: as the history of mankind’s pursuit in adulthood to regain the feeling of the love he once embodied as a child.
How many actions in life are performed to obtain what we typically take to be love? How many wars have been fought for its sake? How many noble and often ignoble actions undertaken to create an encompassing sense of community or to “protect” the source of affection, acceptance, and protection we think we find in the “loving embrace” of the fatherland, the patria. These words are not accidental. That we speak of the “motherland” or “fatherland” or in terms derived from such phraseology indicates the close association between “patriotism” or love of country, and the love we give to the individuals whom we single out as those we “love” most, namely our parents.
Our individual histories might so be written, too.
Contrast, if you will, this divisive, object oriented love to the wise love of our infants.
Infant love might be thought of as like a room without walls. While this might sound paradoxical, it is an apt metaphor for the encompassing sphere of active loving embodied by babies. It is a room that knows no boundaries, that is located and locatable in the live presence of the child, but which needs no key to be entered. All are welcome to come into the presence of this love. Like a room, this love is encompassing. It enfolds all who come into its universal embrace.
And just as we distinguished between “enjoyment” and being “in joy” earlier, so too must we distinguish between being “in love” as we typically use that phrase and being “in Love.”
Love is not like a coin you can give to one person or another, no matter how special or unique you might find him or her, no matter how “attractive” you might find him or her. Nor is it like a hole that you might tumble into in a careless moment.
Love, Love with a capital “L,” is more like air. Think about it. Air gives us life, it sustains us, and though it’s always present wherever we are we easily forget about it. But most importantly, we are always in it.
Babies are in Love, like we are all in air. Love lives through them while at the same time they live through it.
In infancy there is no distinction between “lover” and “beloved,” between the one who loves and the one who is loved. Rather, there is simply loving: an embodied activity oriented to the universe. If it made sense to use our adult conception of the inner and outer experiences of life, the inner “subject” of personal experience or consciousness, and the outer “objective” world of matter and things, we might say that the love embodied by babies is entirely “outwardly” oriented. Yet to say this would lose sight of the fact that babies themselves embody love and don’t simply “give” or “take” it.
We could spend the remainder of this work simply considering the differences between adult love and the wisdom of our babies so important are they. But let me rather simply end by commenting on one of the more significantly revealing aspects of adult love we find in our most developed societies, that is to say those in which children have ceased to be regarded, out of economic necessity, as objects of potential revenue or future sources of protection.
Remarkably, the confused desire to re-experience this love which we were, and in fact still are, is often cited, framed as a desire to be loved unconditionally, as a reason for having babies.
It is not uncommon to hear parents speak of their desire to have a baby in terms of wanting to experience a form of love that could, within the framework of their logical adult minds, never be experience apart from having a baby of their own. They cannot see any other relation to love other than that which they merely “understand” under the aspect of the subject/object dichotomy that characterizes adult consciousness.
And it is true that the relation between parent and child is unique and special. In fact, no other relationship in life can be compared to it.
But let us be clear. This parental “instinct” is no “instinct” at all. Just as babies are not programmed by their DNA to love, neither are we as adults, despite the explanatory utility of evolutionary biology, hardwired to want the “unconditional love” we think our children have for us and us alone. Rather, what we take as “instinct” is really the feeling of being called back towards that love we are but have forgotten. By having a child we place ourselves in the “open room” of our baby’s love. And so we live, at least for awhile, at least until she too forgets her essential wisdom, in the air of our child’s love, never realizing that we too might love wisely if only we could learn from the wisdom embodied by our child herself.
How different might the world be if we too lived and loved with the wisdom of babies?
What does it mean for a film to be seen? If any film can be said to have been seen, Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life would seem to be it. The film has played on television endlessly for decades, particularly during the holidays, when certain channels have taken to showing it on days-long continuous loops, as if to ensure that no viewer could possibly fail to see it. Even those who can’t distinctly remember having sat down to watch it can confidently rehearse the essence of its plot: It is Christmas Eve in the small town of Bedford Falls, and the local banker George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) finds himself in legal trouble; he is tempted to commit suicide and wishes that he had never been born. But an angel named Clarence saves him by granting him his wish and showing him what the world would have been like if he had not existed. Recoiling from this vision, George is saved, and the townsfolk celebrate by singing a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.” This much we know all too well. But is it possible that we have never really seen this film? Beneath the familiar story and the annual ritual, might its real significance have somehow eluded us?
Several recent critics of It’s a Wonderful Life have made just this claim, arguing that its past viewers and the many critics who have written about it have not seen the film for what it is. According to these critics, what a proper viewing ultimately reveals is that for all its “classic” status, It’s a Wonderful Life suffers from a fundamental artistic failure. All of these critics frame their doubts about the film in strikingly similar terms, and in terms that are rather surprising in the case of a fiction film. For all of them charge It’s a Wonderful Life with a kind of falsity. In their view, the film is not meant merely to represent a heartwarming Christmas story, or a tale of one man’s descent into despair and his eventual redemption. Rather, they see the film as essentially concerned with representing certain aspects of life in the United States of America, and the heart of their criticism is that the film falsifies the reality of the American life it intends to depict. These contemporary critics of It’s a Wonderful Life have rightly unsettled the lazy and sentimental habits of viewing that have built up around the film, and have challenged us to see it afresh. I take these critics to be on essentially the right track in suggesting that the stakes of viewing this film are deeply caught up with coming to understand and assess its vision of America. But I want to raise certain doubts about whether even they have yet seen It’s a Wonderful Life.
Contemporary complaints about the film are particularly addressed to its central episode—the “Pottersville” sequence—in which the angel Clarence shows George a vision of what Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born. In the vision, Bedford Falls has become Pottersville, a town dominated by the spirit of Bailey’s rival, the ruthless banker Henry F. Potter (played by Lionel Barrymore). The premise of the sequence is that George’s rejection of his own existence deprives his hometown of its identity as well. In subsequently choosing to be restored to life, he is thus also choosing to restore Bedford Falls and to reject the alternative represented by Pottersville. The success of this sequence is decisive for the overall success of the film, since it is through this sequence that the film’s central problem—the problem of whether George will choose to live or to kill himself—is meant to be resolved.
The critics charge that the Pottersville sequence, and thus the film as a whole, fails because it turns on a conception of America that is naïve or sentimental and, if not untenable in 1946, certainly untenable today. In their view of the film, George recoils from Pottersville because it is modern, liberal and urbane; to them, his rejection of it and his decision to affirm his own existence are meant to represent a defense of small-town conservative values and rural ideals. But they argue that the film fails, insofar as we can no longer take these values and ideals seriously.
These critics have rightly emphasized that the film’s success hangs in an essential way on its vision of America. But in my view their critiques are targeted more at what they assume the film’s picture of America must be, than at what it really is. In particular, they miss altogether an essential aspect of the film’s sense of America: namely, that it is a place in part constituted by a certain openness to the strange and to strangers. The film imagines America as a place that is in part constituted by a certain kind of person, or a certain way of being a person, represented by George Bailey: one who is open to the strange and the stranger. In showing what America would be like without him, George’s story reveals what America would lack in the absence of this sort of person. By failing to see what Capra sees in America, the critics miss what is profound, and timely, in the film’s vision of that place.
To properly consider the question of whether It’s a Wonderful Life succeeds or fails in its representation of America, let us first consider what it is for a film to be set in a place, and more specifically what it is for a fiction film to contain as part of its artistic content a representation of a real place. When we think of films that are located in a real place, we tend to think, first of all, of films that use location shots or explicit references to real locations—in the way that a film like L. A. Story, for example, uses shots of Venice Beach or the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But this is not the only way in which a film can lay claim to a particular setting. What is more fundamental is that the film calls on us to see it as representing a certain place. When a film is set in a particular place, it is a representation of that place: a certain vision or conception of that place forms part of the film’s content. When a film sets a given story in a particular place, it means for our understanding of that story to be shaped by how we see that place and, conversely, it means for our understanding of that place to be shaped by the film’s events, as events that are in a certain way representative of that place and the possibilities it affords.
It’s a Wonderful Life does not contain location shots (it was filmed on a soundstage) and the town of Bedford Falls is fictional (though it is generally thought to represent upstate New York). Nonetheless, the critics are correct in assuming that the film takes the United States of America as its location, in the sense that part of its content is a certain vision of American life and its possibilities. In the case of It’s a Wonderful Life, part of its aesthetic content is a particular vision or conception of America as a place. Capra’s film makes an artistic claim about the kind of place America is, and presents its fictional events, characters, and even its fictional locations as in a certain way representative of America. We can then say that the film is set in the United States and thus belongs to a class of fiction films that naturally invite critical assessment in terms of how they represent a real setting.
To see how fiction films can make claims about what a particular place is like, let’s return to our example of L. A. Story and Los Angeles. In L. A. Story, Los Angeles is depicted as a surreal landscape of endless sunshine and traffic, in which your destiny is revealed to you by an electronic highway sign. For a different vision of the same place, consider Boyz n the Hood, in which Los Angeles is depicted as a scene of urban decay and chaos, where decades of neglect have created ghettos caught in inescapable cycles of violence. It is part of the creative work of films like these to attempt to give us imaginative access, through their characters and stories, to a sense of what Los Angeles is like as a place. Both films invite praise, or blame, on the grounds that they offer a true (or false) representation of Los Angeles. In this mode of critical conversation, we—surprisingly, but very naturally—praise or criticize a work of fiction on the grounds that it does, or does not, succeed in representing a real location in a truthful and insightful way. The question here is not so much whether the film’s placement of a particular story in a particular setting is “realistic” or “believable” in any ordinary sense. Some of the best films about Los Angeles, to continue with the same example, are highly improbable or fantastic (think of Kiss Me Deadly or Mulholland Drive), and yet succeed in creating powerful representations of the city that both resonate with and shape our sense of what it is like.
A film’s presentation of a place can do more than succeed or fail to correspond to our preexisting idea of that place. It may also challenge, extend, or seek to modify our idea of the place, in ways that may take us by surprise if we attend to them. It may also point to deficiencies in our conception of a place, or to overlooked or under-considered characteristics of a place that are, or could be, important to how we imagine that place, both in terms of what it is and what it can be. When we casually view a film in terms of its setting, we can easily and mistakenly impose on the film our present preoccupations and preconceived ideas about that location, rather than attending to the creative work the film does with it. Such films make it clear that to set a film in a location is not, or not merely, to reflect or draw on our prior understanding of what that place is like, but can also be a matter of reshaping that understanding so as to allow that place to be seen in a new light.
Contemporary critics of Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life are right when they claim that the question of place—what a place is, what it means to be in a place, what it is to be a part of a place—is central to our response to the film. Yet I believe they fall victim to the casual form of misinterpretation noted above, in which we impose on the film our own preoccupations about its location, rather than attending to the distinctive challenge presented by the film’s vision of it.
Before we come to the critics’ arguments, we need first to remind ourselves of certain details of the film that will be essential for understanding both the critics’ reactions and what goes missing in them. From the film’s opening scenes, we are made to understand that George Bailey never felt at home in Bedford Falls. As a boy, he longed to be an explorer, to travel to other places, to see “Italy, Baghdad, Samarkand.” As a young man, he dreamed of becoming an architect. He wanted to “design modern cities,” to build “airfields, skyscrapers a hundred stories high, bridges a mile long.” He longed to explore, and to create, places quite different from his hometown. But George never got out of Bedford Falls. His father died suddenly, leaving him to inherit the family building and loan business, and so George has instead built another kind of place, Bailey Park, a small housing development where working-class people, including African-Americans and Italian immigrants, can own their own houses.
George has thrown his whole life into the Bailey Park project, but he is also intensely conscious of how little respected and rewarded his efforts are in Bedford Falls. In a revealing but easily overlooked scene, George and his wife Mary, played by Donna Reed, are helping Mr. Martini, a friend of George’s and an Italian immigrant, to move into a new house in Bailey Park. Just as George is helping Martini to unload his furniture, George’s high-school friend Sam Wainwright appears. Sam is an obnoxiously successful businessman, back in Bedford Falls for a visit. Though he doesn’t want to show it, George is clearly embarrassed at being seen by Sam helping a poor immigrant like Martini.
The same prejudices are embodied by the villainous banker Mr. Potter. Potter mocks George’s attempt to help Italians like Martini as “playing nursemaid to a bunch of garlic-eaters.” When Potter offers George a job with better pay, more respect, and plenty of opportunities for travel, George is seriously tempted, and asks for twenty-four hours to think it over. But then he suddenly refuses. In disgust, he tells Potter, “You sit around here, and you spin your little webs, and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Well, it doesn’t, Mr. Potter. In the whole vast configuration of things, I’d say you were nothing but a scurvy little spider.” And yet, when George returns home that night, he feels uneasy with the decision he has made and unsure what his own life really represents in the “whole vast configuration of things.”
The action of the film is set in motion when George’s uncle and business partner Billy loses an $8,000 deposit, just as a state bank examiner arrives to check the accounts of the Bailey Building and Loan. In desperation, George is reduced to begging Potter for money to cover the missing deposit. Potter turns him away with ridicule, and George is terrified at the prospect of “bankruptcy and scandal and prison.” He goes home to sulk, then flies into a rage. He leaves for Martini’s bar, where he drinks too much whiskey and gets into a fistfight. As George is driving away from the bar, he crashes his car into a tree. He ends up standing on a bridge, about to throw himself into the town’s icy, fast-moving river.
At this moment, Clarence appears and reveals to George what the world would be like if he had never been born. George’s vision of Pottersville makes him decide not to kill himself after all, despite bankruptcy and scandal and prison. He returns to his house, where he knows the bank examiner and the police will be waiting for him, and enters with a triumphant cry of “Whoopee! I’m going to jail!” But it turns out that, while George was in Pottersville, his friends have raised the missing $8,000, and George and the Bailey Building and Loan are saved. The film’s central concern, however, is not with whether the missing money can be raised, but rather with how George can find the will to live—and this is the special burden that the Pottersville sequence has to bear. The central critical question for this film is whether this sequence succeeds in giving us a compelling explanation as to why George changes his mind and chooses to live. What is it that George sees about his life that makes him decide that his life is worth living after all? Pottersville is a representation of what the town would be without George. Its function is to let George (and us) see something about him, about the life he has lived, and the place where he has lived it, that he did not previously appreciate. In the absence of George, the identity of the town itself is lost, changed from Bedford Falls to Pottersville. Yet it is not a different town; it is the same town, with something that was essential to it gone out of it. In confronting this loss and transformation, what does George learn about himself, and about the place he has lived, that allows him to reaffirm his existence there? 1
Taking up the thought that It’s a Wonderful Life is meant to function as a representation of America, we can see that the Pottersville sequence will raise similar questions about America as well. Just as George is faced with the question of whether to affirm his own existence, we might see the film as addressing the question of whether we as Americans can affirm the lives we live in our country. Pottersville, we might say, is a representation of what America would be without George Bailey, or the sort of character in American life that George Bailey represents. What do we learn by seeing what Bedford Falls becomes in Pottersville, that might allow us to affirm the existence of America?
In order to approach this question, we need first to get a clear description of what happens in the Pottersville sequence, so that we can begin to bring its distinctive concerns properly into view. The sequence is dream-like, surreal and deliberately fragmentary. It is meant to induce in us as viewers a kind of disorientation that helps us to sympathetically imagine George’s experience in this uncannily familiar yet unfamiliar town. Yet if we attend closely to what happens in it, we begin to see that it returns again and again, obsessively, to the same preoccupation: the question of the immigrant or stranger, and more generally that of openness and vulnerability to the unknown. The sequence begins when George dives into the river, not to drown himself, but to save the angel Clarence, who falls in, as he later explains to George, “in order to save you.” As George and Clarence are drying their clothes in a shack on the bridge, George tells Clarence that he wishes he had “never been born.” Clarence grants his wish. “You’ve never been born,” Clarence tells him. “You don’t exist, you haven’t a care in the world—no worries, no obligations, no $8,000 to get, no Potter looking for you with the sheriff.” In response to this news, George announces that he needs “a couple of good stiff drinks.”
George and Clarence walk to Martini’s bar, only to find that Martini’s is now Nick’s, a tough joint run by a man George knows as one of Martini’s employees. When George asks to see Martini, Nick does not know whom he is talking about, and thinks he wants to order a martini to drink. When George calls Nick by his name, Nick becomes angry and says “Where do you get off callin’ me Nick?…I don’t know you from Adam’s off ox.” Just then George sees Mr. Gower, the town’s druggist and George’s boyhood employer, entering the bar. When George says to Gower, “This is George Bailey, don’t you know me?” Gower responds simply, “No…no.” Finding that he is not known by those who he assumes know him, George becomes frightened and confused: in Pottersville, George is a stranger.
George and Clarence are thrown out of Nick’s bar, and George announces that he is “going home” to see his wife and family. As he enters the main street of the town he is greeted, not by the familiar painted sign that reads, “You are now in Bedford Falls,” but by a blazing neon sign that reads simply “Pottersville.” Along the main street, where there were formerly a movie theater, a department store, and the Bailey Building and Loan, there are now pool halls, pawnshops, burlesque shows, and nightclubs with names like the Blue Moon, the Bamboo Room, and the Indian Club. Standing in front of a “Dime a Dance,” George recognizes his childhood sweetheart Violet Bick (played by Gloria Grahame). Violet is being dragged into a wagon by the police, and presumably arrested for solicitation. She screams at the policeman arresting her, “I know every big shot in this town…I know Potter!”
George sees his friend Ernie, a taxicab driver, and asks to be driven home. When George calls Ernie by name, Ernie tells him, “I ain’t never seen you before in my life.” Ernie takes him to the old house that George and Mary restored, which is now nothing but a decaying ruin covered with cobwebs and graffiti. Ernie has decided that George is “bats,” and calls the policeman, Bert, for help. When Bert appears, George cries out, “Bert, thank God you’re here!” But Bert is convinced that George is a lunatic, and he responds, “Why don’t you be a good kid, and we’ll take you in to a doctor.” George flees Bert and runs to his mother’s house, now known as Ma Bailey’s Boarding House. When his mother answers the door, George tells her, “Mother, this is George,” to which she responds, “George who?” Finding that he is not known by anyone in town, George decides that he needs to talk to the last man he saw before the angel appeared, Martini, and runs to Martini’s house in Bailey Park. But in the world of Pottersville, Bailey Park is only a cemetery. George demands that Clarence tell him where his wife Mary is. Clarence tells him that she is “an old maid” who “never married.” As George continues to ask for Mary, Clarence reluctantly reveals that she is “about to close up the library.” George waits outside the library, watching as Mary steps out; he calls her name, and she is frightened of him. She walks away quickly, but he follows her. He grabs her and says, “Help me, Mary, where’s our kids? I need you, Mary.” She screams for help and flees into a crowded bar, where George pursues her. Surrounded by men he thinks he knows, George calls out, “Tom—Ed—Charlie!” asking them to confirm that Mary is indeed his wife. Instead they restrain him and call for the police. Again the policeman Bert appears. George escapes from the crowd, punches Bert, and flees down the street while Bert fires after him with his pistol.
George runs back to the bridge and calls out for Clarence. “Help me, Clarence,” he pleads, “get me back. I don’t care what happens to me, get me back to my wife and kids. Help me, Clarence, please, please—I want to live again…I want to live again…I want to live again. Please, God, let me live again.” With this reaffirmation of his will to live, George’s existence is restored, and he returns home to find that the $8,000 has been raised and the Building and Loan saved. But George knows none of this at the time that he forms his wish to “live again.” The only thing that has changed his mind from intending to kill himself before Clarence appeared, to now choosing to live again, is what he has seen in Pottersville. What does that vision show him about himself that restores his desire to live? What precisely did George see in Pottersville that moves him to affirm his existence in Bedford Falls?
On one level, George’s horror at Pottersville and his wish to escape it represents a completely obvious and natural reaction. It would indeed be a strange and disturbing experience to find that everyone you know, including your own mother, does not recognize your face and has never heard of you. So we might understand George’s wish to “live again” simply as his wish to return to what is known to him and familiar. But if this is all we can say, then we have not yet succeeded in understanding the work that the Pottersville sequence is meant to do in the film. This response might explain why George is motivated to leave Pottersville, but it does nothing to justify his larger decision to live rather than commit suicide. It doesn’t explain how the vision changes George’s mind about the life he has led up to now: he wants out of Pottersville, but how does that answer the question of whether he should commit suicide? He could leave Pottersville and then commit suicide. But no one watching the film thinks that this is what he will do or should do.
George’s life has been marked by a particular set of ideals lived out in a particular place: ideals that made him refuse the job with Potter, that made him see in Martini a friend rather than a “garlic eater,” that made him want to see the world and envision the architecture of the future, and that ultimately led him to raise a family and run a business. But in George’s life, these ideals have led to disappointment again and again, to the point where his only reward for them seems to be “bankruptcy and scandal and prison.” George wants to know why it has been worthwhile for him to live with the special burden of these ideals, despite all that they have cost him. What the Pottersville sequence reveals is that in the absence of George and his ideals, the whole character of the town is changed. The task of the Pottersville sequence is thus to make George choose, perhaps really for the first time, to live the life he has lived. In order for George to do that, he needs to see more clearly what his life has been, and how it has been caught up with the fate of the place where he has lived it.
The central conceit in the vision of Pottersville is that if George had not existed, then no one would have done any of the things that George did in his life. For example, no one else would have fixed up the old house that George and Mary live in, and no one else would have resisted the influence of Potter. Thus, in rejecting his own existence, George is not merely rejecting the existence of a particular person; he is rejecting a whole type or character—the sort of person who would live the way that he has. He is thus also rejecting the sort of place in which this character lives. Pottersville represents the film’s vision of the town with this character gone out of it, an alternate version of the town in which this sort of character denies and repudiates itself. The Pottersville sequence is thus meant to show the value of living the specific kind of life that George has lived, by showing what this place without that character would be. In the film, the loss of this character is represented as a radical loss of identity: just as George’s rejection of himself deprives him of his identity, so the loss of George’s character deprives Bedford Falls of its identity and turns it into Pottersville. In the film’s representation of America, George’s rejection of himself similarly threatens to deprive America of its identity, by taking out of it a kind of character that the film imagines to be essential to it. But how exactly does the sequence accomplish this? What does it show to be essential to Bedford Falls that is missing in Pottersville? And what does it thereby mean to reveal about America?
The recent critics of It’s a Wonderful Life have argued that the Pottersville sequence fails, because it does not represent the loss of anything we can regard as genuinely valuable in American life. Instead, these critics charge that the Pottersville sequence exploits naïve and sentimental conceptions of American life and character, in particular nostalgic ideas about the virtues of rural American small towns. They agree that Pottersville is meant to represent a loss of American identity, but they argue that it fails to present a vision of America that is truthful about the reality of American life. Instead, these critics claim, the film draws on and reinforces many Americans’ fundamentally false conceptions about their national character and history. On this interpretation of the film, George’s choice of Bedford Falls over Pottersville represents a rejection of modernity and a retreat into rural conservatism. Since George’s choice to affirm the existence of Bedford Falls is also a choice to affirm his own existence, it follows that we cannot take George’s decision to live seriously, and that the film as a whole is a failure.
In a 2001 article in Salon entitled “All Hail Pottersville!” Gary Kamiya introduced a set of themes that have come to define this style of criticism.2 Kamiya’s piece is heavily tongue-in-cheek, and it would be easy to dismiss it as merely satiric or cynical. But Kamiya’s arguments have been picked up by a series of later writers in a strikingly earnest tone, and his piece has done much to establish the current mood of disillusion about Capra’s film. For Kamiya, the Pottersville sequence constitutes a “glaring flaw in Capra’s great canvas.” Pottersville is meant to represent, in Kamiya’s words, “a kind of combo pack of Sodom, Gomorrah, Times Square in 1972, Tokyo’s hostess district, San Francisco’s Barbary Coast ca. 1884, and one of those demon-infested burgs dimly visible in the background of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.” According to Kamiya, viewers of It’s a Wonderful Life are meant to “shudder” at Pottersville’s colorful nightlife and to long for the simple, modest ways of good old Bedford Falls. But, Kamiya writes, “there’s just one problem: Pottersville rocks!”
In Kamiya’s view, the attractions of Pottersville make George’s response to it somewhere between repugnantly prudish and unintelligible. Kamiya reminds us that George himself always longed to get out of Bedford Falls and find a little excitement. For Kamiya, the only possible explanation as to why George didn’t embrace the more exciting life of Pottersville is that he got “waylaid by a massive load of family-business guilt and a happy ending engineered by God himself.” Kamiya notes that Pottersville not only looks like a good deal more fun than Bedford Falls, it also looks a good deal more like modern America. “In the real world,” as Kamiya puts it, “Potter won.” “We all live in Pottersville now,” Kamiya declares. “Bedford Falls is gone. The plucky little Savings and Loan closed down years ago, just like in George’s nightmare.” He concludes: “To cling to dreams of a bucolic America where the little guy defeats the forces of Big Business and the policeman and the taxi driver and the druggist and the banker all sing Auld Lang Syne together is just to ask for heartbreak and confusion when you turn off the TV and open your front door.”
In the years since Kamiya’s article appeared, many other critics have offered variations on the theme that modern America simply is Pottersville, and therefore the film’s attempt to present Pottersville as any kind of loss or denial of America is wishful and illusory. David Thomson, like Kamiya, identifies the modern United States with Pottersville, and, like Kamiya, wonders whether this is really such a bad thing after all. “[S]ince 1946,” Thomson writes, “the United States has come to resemble Pottersville far more than Bedford Falls.” 3 In Thomson’s view, this is not something we should entirely regret, since “[t]he rural idyll of security and self-sufficiency didn’t work.” 4
In a 2008 New York Times piece entitled “Wonderful? Sorry, George, It’s a Pitiful, Dreadful Life,” Wendell Jamieson goes even further than Kamiya or Thomson. Jamieson takes the step of explicitly arguing that George’s fellow citizens would actually have been better off if he had never been born. 5 “Think about it,” Jamieson writes, “in one scene George helps bring manufacturing to Bedford Falls. But since the era of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ manufacturing in upstate New York has suffered terribly. On the other hand, Pottersville, with its nightclubs and gambling halls, would almost certainly be in better financial shape today.” “What a grim thought,” Jamieson concludes: “had George Bailey never been born, the people in his town might very well be better off today.”
Rich Cohen, in a 2010 Salon article called “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Most Terrifying Movie Ever,” 6 goes furthest yet. Cohen proposes to reverse the apparent logic of the movie, so that Bedford Falls is the illusion and Pottersville the reality. According to Cohen, “George had been living in Pottersville all along. He just didn’t know it.” Whereas Bedford Falls, according to Cohen, is “quaint and fine,” Pottersville is “vulgar and mean,” a “nighttime world of neon bars and drunks and showgirl floozies.” When Clarence took George to Pottersville, Cohen writes, “it was only then that he saw America.” Bedford Falls was never anything but a fantasy, Cohen concludes, and “Pottersville is where we live.”
The critics I’ve mentioned all understand It’s a Wonderful Life to be a representation of America, and they engage in the mode of critical conversation described above, in which we respond to a fiction film in terms of the truthfulness of its depiction of a real location. In particular, the critics take it that we, the audience, are meant to find in Pottersville the loss or absence of something important about the American way of life. But, they argue, It’s a Wonderful Life is an artistic failure, because Pottersville does not represent a genuine loss of American identity. America, in the critics’ view, just is Pottersville, and so the film’s presentation of Pottersville as lacking something essentially American is simply false. The critics suppose that the film means for George, and the audience, to prefer Bedford Falls to Pottersville, and to identify the real or essential America with Bedford Falls rather than Pottersville. But they argue that these responses rest on backward values and sentimental illusions. In explaining the difference between Bedford Falls and Pottersville, the critics tend to rely on a familiar opposition: Bedford Falls looks “bucolic,” “rural,” and “quaint,” whereas Pottersville seems modern, urban, and sophisticated. For the critics I’ve just discussed, Bedford Falls may speak to a kind of sentimental tendency that Americans have, to imagine their country as a bastion of small-town, traditional values—but the nakedly commercial Pottersville is closer to American reality.
These preoccupations on the part of the critics may reflect how the film has often been seen, especially by audiences looking to find in it a blandly heartwarming “holiday classic.” While the critics are rightly suspicious of that gauzy reputation, they in fact remain fundamentally captive to it. They do no more than take the traditional sentimental reception of the film and reverse its logic, so as to privilege the apparently more urbane Pottersville over “quaint” Bedford Falls. But in all of their concern to reverse how the film has traditionally been seen, they fail to see the film itself. Instead, they project onto the film some of our own current preoccupations about America, including the decline of rural economies and the ongoing conflict between rural and urban values. But these preoccupations may have little to do with the vision of America at the heart of the film. Instead of being open to the film’s vision of its setting, the critics have imposed their own conception of that setting onto it. When the film fails to reflect that conception, they judge it a failure. If we wish to take the film seriously as a representation of America, we need to set aside our preconceptions and be open to its distinctive conception of American life. If we do so, we may not only get a clearer view of the film; we may find our view of America itself challenged and enriched.
To understand what has gone missing in these recent critiques, it is important first to be clear about what exactly is at stake in the Pottersville sequence. There can be no question, as critics like Kamiya tend to imply, of George choosing whether he will live in Bedford Falls or Pottersville. The fundamental premise of the Pottersville sequence is that it shows what the town would be like if George had never been born—thus, George can hardly pick up and move there. What is at stake in the sequence, as I’ve suggested, is only the question of whether George should affirm or deny the life he has lived, where that can only mean his life in Bedford Falls. I suggest that we read George’s choice this way: should he have lived the life he did in fact live, have been the sort of person he has been, in the place where he has lived, or should he have lived a very different kind of life in a different kind of place—for example, a life that was more focused on the pursuit of wealth and status in a place that richly rewards such pursuits? Would it have been better for everyone, himself included, if he had lived that kind of life instead? The Pottersville sequence proposes to answer this question by showing what it would mean, for George and for the other people in his life, for him to reject the life he has lived in favor of the other life that is the object of this fantasy.
We should understand the stakes of the film’s representation of America in similar terms. Critics who see the film as presenting us with two visions of America, one corresponding to Bedford Falls and the other to Pottersville, have not truly seen the film, because there are not two such places. Pottersville simply is Bedford Falls, with a certain kind of person—the kind of person represented by George Bailey—gone out of it. The Pottersville sequence does not represent a shift in the film’s setting, as a film might switch from depicting action in one city to another city. The setting of the film in the Pottersville sequence has not shifted; rather, the film’s singular setting has itself undergone a change. Understanding the sequence requires us to see what that change consists in. In the same way, we should see Pottersville not as a different location than the America of Bedford Falls, but as the same location with something essential to its identity gone out of it. In a parallel to George’s question, we might see the film’s question about America as that of whether America should have been the kind of country it has been, or a different kind of country instead. The Pottersville sequence will then serve to remind us of certain truths about the kind of country America has been, and what it would be like for it to be that kind of country no longer.
If we remain open to the central concerns of the film rather than our own preoccupations, we see that the decisive fact about Pottersville is not its colorful nightlife, or its economic vitality, but its pervasive attitude of suspicion and hostility toward strangers. In denying or disclaiming his own existence, George has rejected his distinctive attitude of openness toward strangers and strangeness. It was this attitude that set him apart from certain other characters in the film, in particular from Potter. But as the Pottersville sequence shows, this openness to strangers was also what gave Bedford Falls its identity. It is above all this openness to the stranger that goes out of the town when we imagine it without George or anyone like him. By the same token, it is this openness toward strangers that George affirms in affirming his own existence and, correspondingly, the existence of Bedford Falls. The Pottersville sequence shows George that, whatever the disappointments of his life there, the town without his feeling for the strange and unknown is a dark and narrow place. In the same way, I take the film to propose that the distinctive character of America hangs on its openness to the stranger, and that in denying this openness, America denies itself.
To see the film anew in this way, let’s return to the scene in which George and Mary welcome Martini and his family into their new house in Bailey Park. As I mentioned above, in that scene George is embarrassed when Sam Wainwright sees him helping Martini. I take the scene to be an illustration of George’s broader disappointment with his life: he sees himself in a certain way, connected with his frustrations and disappointments. But it is also important that this way he has of seeing himself is connected with his sense of shame in the face of particular others—those whom, like Sam, he takes to be more successful than he is. In privileging these characters’ vision of him, he fails to appreciate how another group of his fellow citizens, in particular the strangers and outsiders for whom he has built Bailey Park, might see him differently. If we ask how the Pottersville sequence is to help George overcome his disappointment, then we should consider how the vision of Pottersville leads George to reconsider events like this one, and to regard them in a different light. Prior to his vision, George tends to look back on such scenes as signs of his failure—his failure to get out of Bedford Falls or become a successful businessman like Sam. If, in the aftermath of his Pottersville vision, George is to conceive of his life differently, then his new conception of it should include a new attitude toward his having helped and befriended strangers like Martini. He may need to come to see the world—and himself—more from Martini’s point of view, and less from Wainwright’s.
When we revisit the Pottersville sequence from this point of view, we notice that Martini is conspicuously absent in it, as if Pottersville is haunted by the absence of this character in a way that links it to the absence of George himself. George was drinking in Martini’s bar just before he went out onto the bridge. After Clarence appears and tells George that he is an angel, George wonders aloud “what Martini put in those drinks,” as if Martini himself is somehow responsible for George’s vision. George and Clarence go to Martini’s bar, but it is now Nick’s. When George asks for Martini, Nick appears never to have heard of him. Later, when George is turned away from his mother’s house, he decides that he will be able to escape the “spell” he is under if he can find the last man he talked to “before all this stuff started happening” to him: Martini. In a reversal of the earlier scene with Sam Wainwright, George goes to Martini’s house in Bailey Park, this time so that Martini can help him. But Bailey Park is not there, and Martini cannot be found. Thus in trying to determine what is missing in Pottersville, we should begin with the invisibility of Martini, the other person who, aside from George, is noted to be missing there. For all of its seeming urbanity and sophistication, Pottersville may not in fact be any place for a stranger like Martini.
In Pottersville, George himself is put into the position of a stranger, and he sees the world through a stranger’s eyes. As Clarence tells George, “you’re nobody, you have no identity…you have no papers, no cards, no driver’s license.” Without papers or identity cards, he becomes like an immigrant, one who lacks proof of his identity and tangible signs of belonging. Of course, George is a peculiar sort of stranger—one who knows everyone he sees, though none of them knows him. But that may simply be a way of dramatizing the essential condition of every stranger, who must claim a place for himself in a society that may feel it is already complete without him. Beneath its glitzy surface, the most striking fact about Pottersville is that all of George’s many attempts to establish familiarity and claim recognition from the people there are met not simply with confusion or puzzlement, as would be natural, but with fear and hostility. When George claims to know Nick the bartender, Nick angrily throws him out of the bar. When George seeks help from Ernie the taxi driver, Ernie declares him insane. When George greets Bert the policeman, Bert proposes to take him “in to a doctor” for psychiatric treatment. George’s mother tells him that she doesn’t “take in strangers” unless they are sent “by someone I know”—that is to say, she does not, strictly speaking, take in strangers at all.
In the whole course of the Pottersville sequence, not one person in the town expresses any sympathy or even curiosity about George’s situation, or makes any attempt to help or understand him. It never seems to occur to any of them that, since this man is so insistently demanding recognition from them, perhaps they owe him some recognition in return. Instead, they react with fear and anger to his claims of intimacy, and to his need, as if intimacy and need were themselves something alien, frightening, and offensive. There is a kind of knowingness that characterizes the citizens of Pottersville, as if they take themselves to already know everyone and everything that could be worth knowing. Indeed, it would seem that in Pottersville, whom you know matters a great deal—as in Violet’s protest to the police outside the dance club, “I know every big shot in this town…I know Potter!” If we compare the average citizen of Pottersville and his attitude toward strangers with George and his attitude, the contrast is stark. George was a benefactor and a friend to Martini, as mentioned above. He jumped in the river to save Clarence—a stranger if there ever was one. And in Pottersville, George persists in believing that the people he sees around him are his friends and intimates, despite their utter rejection of him, as if he cannot quite believe that they are really strangers.
This openness toward the strange—manifested in openness to strangers, immigrants, and the foreign—defines what is present in George and lacking in Pottersville. Given this interpretation of the sequence and its themes, we can see how irrelevant is the critics’ fascination with Pottersville’s nightlife and its economic outlook. It should also be clear that the question of one’s attitude toward what is strange has broader dimensions in this film, dimensions that go beyond the question of whether a particular person happens to be a stranger. George’s youthful ambitions—first to travel and explore, and later to build the buildings of the future—can also be regarded as further manifestations of his tendency to reach out toward what is unfamiliar or unknown. Perhaps George’s most fundamental formulation of his distinctive attitude comes in his rebuke to Potter: Potter spins his “little webs” and thinks “the whole world revolves” around him; but “in the whole vast configuration of things,” he is “nothing but a scurvy little spider.” The contrast George draws here between “little webs” and “the whole world” speaks to his determination to go beyond the familiar and to remain open to what is unknown in the largest sense. It is this openness to the unknown that the film argues is constitutive of America, and that the film sees as a fragile but essential achievement, one that America will lose unless Americans come to see how the identity of their country would be lost without it.
If this interpretation points us in the right direction for understanding the Pottersville sequence, how does it help us to make sense of George’s wish to live again? Critics in the tradition of Kamiya find, in George’s change of heart, nothing but a “massive load of family-business guilt and a happy ending engineered by God himself.” But seeing the film in the way I have been proposing here, we can understand how George found, in his vision of Pottersville, a vindication of the kind of life he has lived and the place he has helped to create. George’s question was whether, all things considered, he ought not have lived a different kind of life—one more focused on money and status, and less burdened by a wider vision of the world and the task of making a place for that vision. In Pottersville, George finds a place that is blind to that wider vision, as typified in its attitude toward strangers. It is nothing but a “little web,” a small and lonely place. In contrast, whatever disappointments George has suffered, he has lived with a view to “the whole vast configuration of things” and struggled to build a place that can remain open to that vastness.
Critics like Thomson fault the film’s depiction of America, on the grounds that it exalts a “rural idyll of security and self-sufficiency” that “didn’t work.” But if the reading I have been proposing here is along the right lines, then this criticism misses a supreme irony at the center of the film: Pottersville, for all its seeming urbanity and sophistication, is actually a less imaginatively open and risky place than Bedford Falls. If Bedford Falls represents something about the history and identity of America, it is not America’s supposed history of quaint small towns, but rather America’s openness to the strange and the stranger. It is this aspect of American life, the film suggests, that risks being lost in Pottersville. If, as Kamiya, Thomson, Jamieson, and Cohen all suggest, Pottersville is closer to the reality of American life today, that is not because America has become more urban, or because American manufacturing has declined, but because America has become an essentially smaller place, at once more knowing and less curious, less open to the unknown.
While the film is concerned with the openness of America to strangers in the form of immigrants like Martini, it also places these attitudes toward immigrants within a broader context of attitudes toward what is unfamiliar and larger than ourselves generally. In the character of George Bailey, openness to strangers is part of a broader sensibility of curiosity and openness that affects everything from how we treat our fellow citizens to how we see our place in the universe. Focusing on the film’s concern with the fate of strangers gives us a different way of thinking about what it finds to be distinctively American, and what it fears America is in danger of losing. This vision of America overlaps with the traditional conception of America as a “nation of immigrants,” but it is more radical than that: it finds in the American character not only a kind of political openness to strangers, but also a kind of metaphysical openness, toward what is unfamiliar and unknown as such.
“What I want’s shorts.”
Could I have planted one idea in this kid’s sconce, “shorts”
Would have been it.
She always knew whatever look would next be in, it
Seemed to reach her
By E.S.P—whatever look one saw her feature
Always told one
What every girl’s would be. And now she’d junked her old one,
The, quote, “skate” look—
Her jeans five sizes oversized—which bantamweight look
Had become her—
For one which my imagination would, that summer,
Run amok on:
For this kid was the one I was completely stuck on.
How’d it happen?
Where it started, when—those I can stick a map pin,
À la Google,
To indicate: July of ’92; MacDougal
Anomalous a phiz, with features like cartoons’, as
With total crushability. How hers comported
To make beauty,
Even when I knew them to the most minute T,
Made for stumpers,
There being no one’s like hers, in with whose to lump hers.
How’d it happen?
I was watching her, her new skirt in her lap, pin,
Baste and seam it,
To make it even shorter. Had that day a dream, it
Was, she’d don it.
We met by chance a lot; so, though I wasn’t on it,
I got used to
Imagining her daily—picking routes with views to
Where I’d met her.
Her theory as to hemlines went, short skirts offset her
What made her physiognomy, though—no girl’s more—so,
Was how fast down she dropped, no horizontals making
She laid the skirt, now shorter by some subtle fraction
Of a foot, down,
To order some profiteroles, and blithely put down
No small plateful,
Not dreaming how that skirt would enter, by the pate-ful,
My routine, too.
But neither did yours truly. How expect nineteen to?
How’d it happen?
Of course one would have loved it had she set her cap in
But that was never on. Her final mate-selection
Came at twenty.
Besides, with incompatibilities aplenty,
“On” we weren’t.
She never let me doubt our footing, as first current,
If fantasies were had, I could in no way fault her
But on a kid the crushable and quasi-fetish
The question’s how to not get stuck, not how’d it happen.
And what’s kinky—
To see that short a skirt projected on that slinky
Of a figure?
A subject who obeys a post-hypnotic trigger
His self-control, though it’s the hypnotist’s suggestions
That compel him.
So whatever plants one in one’s cerebellum,
Once a germ ins,
It commandeers the apparatus that determines
What response which
Stimulus receives. One can’t turn off one’s on-switch;
Flip the toggle
As madly as he may, his eyes remain on goggle.
Once it happened,
What was one to do? She had one jeaned kneecap pinned,
Against the bar, and laughed that her designer label’d
Come a cropper
With so short of a skirt the target teenybopper
Demo’d snubbed it.
She had one, though, herself; her “slave skirt,” as she dubbed it,
While one’s lid flipped,
“Slave” constituting one more on-switch that this kid flipped.
For what happened,
Though impercipience deserves to have the rap pinned
Squarely on it,
In my defense, a bee, on entering one’s bonnet,
Makes a right noise,
But soon its importunities become a white noise
To whose hiss he
Goes slowly deafer. Overuse benumbs vibrissae.
Like with contacts
The vain forget they’re wearing, an incessant want acts
In so blanket
A fashion on one’s optics, one can’t help but blank it.
Still, things happen.
What acted like a hypnotizer’s finger-snap in
Monotony, was being asked for moral tonic
By a rookie
Who’d just been dumped. Well, that, said I, was how the cookie
The issue was how quickly back up, after tumbles,
On one’s bike one
Got. Then, offered as a concrete instance, like one
Asserts appeal to youths, of how tight one could bottle
Idle tears up,
“Take me,” then from the blue, “I’ve racked nine hopeless years up
For a kid I’ll never get”—without defining
Than that, what might be meant, before, or then, by “get her.”
Together was involved? But what effects un-steeping
One so yen-soaked
His yen has vanished in him, like a contact lens soaked
In its eyecup?
No single cure—not sex, nor bidding slave skirts hike up
To the hip joint,
Without discounting either. Greene, near Prince, the hip joint,
She manned the till while modeling its dernier cri wear,
Which, that May, meant
The “little girl” look, in which juvenile raiment
She was decked out,
Observing, from apart, her fellows—slightly checked out,
As her wont was;
And had my ache an utmost, that tableau vivant was
The micro-kilt, crossed ankles, look askance—what “getting”
Could have “got” those?
But what the Devil did one ache to get, if not those?
End it would, though.
With yens, you get yenned out, or outgrow yens for good, though
One so grinding
May take some time to fade: a decade’s over-winding
For me, though, too much hypertension on one’s mainsprings
That long apprenticeship in being nympholeptic
And one would learn for whom one had been pining, really
Whose surrogate she was. But that took years divining.
We were stirring in our chairs to stand and go when the epigrapher, who had paused at what had appeared to be the end of his presentation, gave a low cough and said, “There is one more item to which we should draw our collective attention—an ostrakon, found by Dr. Pevsner, which as far as I can decipher, is the beginning of a letter in Coptic, reading, ‘To my dearest friend and brother Nicolaus, how glad I am that you have found us…’ After that, the sherd is broken.”
The epigrapher tittered slightly, and the other members of the excavation also laughed, though a few of the younger students needed whispered reminders that the joke rested on the fact that I, who had dug up the letter, was also named Nicolas.
Ostrakon is a Greek word describing a piece of broken pottery on which something has been written. Fired clay, though the shapes into which it is formed can be fragile, is nearly indestructible in itself, and bits of broken pots litter most archeological sites. Ostraka were written on, either in ink or merely by scratching the letters into the surface, to make accounts, or school exercises, or even letters. True, letters on pottery are unusual. But there was always the possibility that someone might choose to write in a humble material—especially the type of person given to addressing his fellows as “brother”…
My thoughts were interrupted by the epigrapher, who, having again waited until his presentation had seemed at an end, created another minor sensation by bringing the ostrakon in question out of one of his pockets and placing it on the table. The ceramicist took it up and began to feel it, turning it between her fingers and giving alternate coos of delight and scholarly diagnoses: “Oh, what a lovely—a refined clay, well-fired, not glazed, though it has been polished to oh! just the loveliest black!” The sherd was of dark clay and was small, just large enough for the few words it contained, which were scratched through the polish into the dull black beneath. The letters were small and neat, but difficult to make out—an odd choice of vehicle, for the writer must have had quantities of lighter pottery to use. Perhaps there was some significance in the choice of this special fragment?
“Why, it’s so fine and thin,” the ceramicist was continuing, “it doesn’t look anything like other pottery from this site, or indeed from Egypt—it’s almost like a piece of Etruscan bucchero—but that would be a half-millennium off, wouldn’t it? See: from how it curves, you can tell that it must originally have been a piece of a large cup. Too bad it’s a letter, and we probably won’t find any more pieces.” She ceased turning the fragment in her hands and held it steady, close to her eyes, examining the polished surface. “Some pots are easy to love,” she said—an opinion that, as I could see from the repressed smile of the assistant ceramicist, she, rather a dreamy woman, must have often expressed before. “I can almost see the writer, as if he were here in this room with us, watching over us, moving silently about us in his long black robe—”
Here the epigrapher interrupted, repossessing the ostrakon and saying, “Miss Peters, we must not allow ourselves to be carried away.” The ceramicist put her hand to her forehead and closed her eyes as the rest of the staff and students left to go to dinner.
The excavation was a 4th century AD site in the Daklya Oasis—an isolated yet extensive series of natural springs in the middle of the deserts of southwestern Egypt. The people had cultivated, and still do cultivate, where the water reached, and built their houses on the bordering waste; these mudbrick buildings, soon filled with windblown sand when abandoned, remain much in the same shape until we archeologists empty them again, for the desert preserves them dry and unchanged. Building styles and pottery remains meant that our site was easy to date, and had indeed been discovered and dated by a team of surveyors more than a decade before I applied for the permits for my excavation.
The precise character and use of the settlement was much more difficult to determine than its date. This was because the oasis was, and still is, poor. Everything of value had been taken away by the former inhabitants when they left, and most everything of little or even no worth had been taken by remaining neighbors or wanderers ever since. Our work and study were focused on those very few things that had no interest at all to past scavengers—tiny bits of broken pottery or animal bones or cooking debris, from which we tried to reconstruct the inhabitants’ menu, both in content and preparation. We could also hope to find things of greater interest if they had been lost beyond the finding of looters—small coins accidentally dropped in rubbish heaps, good-luck tokens walled up in house foundations, or, what I in particular was hoping for, undisturbed graves. Ancient peoples tended to carry about them in their graves the tokens of their identity, especially if they believed that this identity would prove a recommendation in whatever further existence to which they thought they were destined.
No graves had yet been found here. This was not surprising, since we were excavating houses. Aside from the burials of newborns—who were popularly considered not to have souls any more than do cabbages, and who could thus be buried, for sentimental reasons but without fear of “haunts,” under house floors—any burials would have been in a separate cemetery, which, without walls to emerge from above the drifted sand and mark its place, remained hidden and impossible for us to find in our limited season. We had been digging for three weeks so far, and had only one more left.
The expedition, in truth, was a rather motley affair. I had been working for years on obtaining both the necessary permissions from the Egyptian authorities and funding from my university. One can’t get funding without permits, nor permits without funding, and I fear that to solve this paradox I was reduced to taking advantage of a particularly festive departmental cocktail hour to press whiskey sours and requests on my finally relenting chairman. Next morning, signing the papers with an aching head, the chairman had warned me that I would regret the trip, though I am inclined to think that he was merely pondering that eternal problem of the comfort-loving traveler—the low quality of spirituous liquors in Egypt.
Still, the money and the permissions came through, but late enough that my usual colleagues were already engaged to other expeditions. My former ceramicist was rooting about in the new parts of Babylon blown asunder in the recent wars; my habitual bone specialist was digging in the Rockies, trying to discover whether that famous party of snow-bound pioneers had indeed eaten each other or had rested content with their horses, dogs, and shoes; and my constant epigrapher—well, she was also my wife, and was about to acquire the additional qualification of “mother.” We had decided that giving birth in the middle of the Egyptian deserts would have been to tread too closely in the footsteps of the past, and so she had stayed at home.
Consequently, my current staff was composed of the people not already asked to join other expeditions—the type of scholars who are expert in their fields, but have other qualities that render them not the most desirable company for a month away from all other civilization.
Miss Peters, the ceramicist, was fairly inoffensive, with merely a tendency to talk to her pots and, it was rumored from the women’s bunk-house, a love of running about in the mornings without much in the way of coverings.
The bone and food-remains expert rendered himself difficult to associate with by a constant habit of tasting whatever we discovered in kitchen areas to determine whether, say, the pot we had come across was full of ancient grain or ancient rat-droppings. He was also fond of “artistic” reconstructions of ancient life, and would spend the evenings painting watercolors in which small distinct breeds of animals were equally as detailed as were his envisionings of the probable consequences of the primitive and thus fallible nature of the fastening devices on ancient women’s clothing. Yet this, too, was a harmless occupation, and so it was the epigrapher who was the most distasteful of my colleagues.
Epigraphers are experts in deciphering ancient writings. This one was on the faculty of my university and had never gone into the field before, preferring to dispute previous readings of ancient texts from the comfort of his office rather than producing virginal readings on-site; and his asking to accompany me was even more surprising to the department because he was thought to be very near to retirement.
I had the idea, though, that he had probably been rumored to be on the verge of retirement for decades—he was the small, dry, hooded-eyed type of man that would go on pestering librarians and making female undergraduates cry for a long time yet. His presence in Egypt was disheartening not only for his unpleasant company—I felt his scrutiny at all times—but also for this reiterated proof of his vitality. My wife would be a candidate for his professorship when he left it vacant, and he knew this, and seemed to be consequently suspicious of me. In turn, my patience was strained by him, since an additional salary would, with the baby, be welcome—an additional or perhaps sole salary, since if this excavation did not go well, my own tenuous position at the university would probably not be renewed.
This, then, was the state of affairs at the time—I was waiting for news of my family, and working for an increase in its security.
The day after the epigrapher’s presentation of the letter, there was a sandstorm. I was working in the same area in which I had found the ostrakon, several days before—in a large room near the center of the building complex we were excavating. I was working near to the floor layer, and was brushing away some final drifts of sand—a careful but mechanical task, and so I had been thinking of other things until I realized that I had been cleaning the same patch of gypsum-plaster flooring for the past ten minutes, with wisps of sand dancing back across it after every sweep of the brush. I stood and could see the body of the storm approaching across the desert, and so called in the workers to shelter. We watched from the dig house as sand came down like rain into all our slow-dug holes. (That is, we all watched from shelter save a few of the undergraduates, who ran about outside declaring, after the storm had passed, that they felt just like “Lawrence of Arabia”—rather ignoring the geographical differences.)
We began to clear the sand, and by the next day all was as it had been—except in my area. I had again removed the sand almost to the floor, which showed below as it had the day before, when with a final sweep I sent something skittering into the waste pile—something that had not been there before the storm. I picked it up; it was a piece of pottery, of polished dark clay. As I wiped off the clinging sand, I could feel the rough edges of scratched letters pull at my fingertips.
I had found the first ostrakon in the same place, a few inches higher in the now-cleared sand, and so, though it was remarkable to find two fragments of the same letter—if this new piece was part of it—it made sense that they would be close together. And yet, I had been sure nothing remained on the floor before the storm. Perhaps the wind might have blown it there; still, I felt a desire to throw the fragment back into the waste, and only the thought that it might reveal more about the identity of the site’s inhabitants made me note it in my find records and then bring it to the epigrapher, who had finished reading the new finds during the storm and would, I thought, appreciate something more to do.
Traveling alone is difficult for many reasons, one of which is—as I pondered that evening when we gathered to give our reports—that one thinks too much; or rather, that one thinks too uninterruptedly. The long train of thought rarely progresses far; instead, it loops and curls back upon itself, for we convince ourselves more with reiteration than reasoning. The skepticism of others makes us reason, and their questions make us progress in knowledge. That evening I anticipated both skepticism and questioning, but feared that the lack of them beforehand had left my ideas weak, too self-supportably fanatical. I was supposed to present my interpretation of the site so far, and more than ever wished for my wife or indeed anyone else willing to discuss and work out such ideas in private friendship. But as there was no one on the expedition for me to talk to, I waited through their presentations in turn, until it came time to deliver mine, the last. The epigrapher, when he spoke, had not mentioned my new find.
“As you know,” I began my presentation, “I choose this site because it featured what seemed to be an unusually large building, or rather, an unusually large number of rooms conglomerated together into a building complex. All this was visible in the report produced by the Egyptian team a few decades ago, who surveyed the positions of the then-visible mudbrick walls. I thought, then, that such an arrangement might be home to a community of people, of fellow-livers, since, as you are aware, I have been studying communities of monks, especially those of heretical brands of early Christianity, who lived in remote locations such as this—all this according to the hostile descriptions written by other, more orthodox sects. Such polemics are our only surviving remains of these monks, and I had hoped to find one of their communities, in order to let their own remains speak for themselves.
“Now, as to what we have found. The walls did prove to belong to one large complex. It is common in villages of this period to see homes sharing walls, but each of these homes would have its own entrance and kitchen. In our building, there is only one entrance for the whole, and only one room with fire pits for cooking, and so it does appear that it housed a group of people living in common. It is possible that this complex was a large house, the villa of a wealthy owner, but then we would expect to find other marks of wealth—painted plaster walls, lost coins, fine ceramics—whereas here we have found, with the exception of the letter ostrakon, only the coarsest of plain ware. This would indicate a humbler class of occupants. But as to who these occupants were, even after these signs of who they were not, we still have little idea. We have reached floor level in all the areas that we were able to excavate this season, and we have not found any definite signs of their identity.”
Here I paused. The students were distressed at the prospect of an excavation with equivocal results, since they were assigned by the department to write a paper about their participatory roles, and had all been anticipating a concluding paragraph in which they would claim that their own little corner of the dig had provided the most important evidence for understanding whatever it was that I should have been telling them now was to be understood.
The ceramicist and the bone specialist were resigned, being both so little notable in their fields that most of their work had taken the form of contributions to compilations of data from anonymous, unimportant, scattered sites—a form of publication that our excavation must be divvied up among, if we did not find something to make it more interesting, more worthy of multi-volume reports in folio size with gold letters on the cover and fold-out diagrams of, say, comparative percentages of wild and domestic pig bones found.
The epigrapher alone wore an expression that I could not interpret.
“The rest of our season, a little less than a week,” I resumed, “can take one of two paths. First, we could use the time to finish recording our finds, photograph them, draw them, etc.” The students, to whom fell most of the burden of producing scale drawings of the fragments of uninteresting pottery of the site, groaned at this option. “If we did this, we would have to hope that our remaining questions about the purpose and inhabitants of the site are fascinating enough to raise funds for a second season.” This, I thought, seemed unlikely. Once past the initial promise of virgin territory, donors, like undergraduates, preferred answers over theories.
“Secondly, we could hurry our final finds-processing and devote the rest of our time to a trial excavation beneath the floor of some room. This would at least show us if our complex was an original construction, or if it were built over some earlier structure. At the best, we might come across some clues as to the identity of the inhabitants, in items buried as foundation deposits. Thoughts?”
The students, choosing between work indoors and work outdoors, voted for outdoors. The bone specialist and ceramicist pled neutral, since it was unlikely that we would discover anything of interest to them beneath floors; though the ceramicist did say, with a fluttering sigh, that it was such a pity to break through what had survived whole for so many centuries.
“I wouldn’t presume to make such archeological decisions,” said the epigrapher when I turned to him. “But there is one more piece of information that we should all consider before making our decisions.” He brought out of his pockets two ostraka, one the old and the other the just-discovered. Even without the exclamations of the ceramicist, who took them from his hands, it was clear that the second was indeed of the same material as the first, its letters scratched in the same manner into the slick black of the surface. Murmuring, the ceramicist aligned two sides of the fragments and held them together. They fit perfectly, but she gave a loud “Oh!” and dropped them. They lay unharmed on the table; and the ceramicist said, softly, looking at them, “Yes, most definitely a cup.”
The epigrapher then spoke. “I had not mentioned this new ostrakon during my presentation, since there are a few difficulties in the text; however, it is certain that the text continues across the break, and we seem to have another part of the same letter as before—a circumstance often dearly wished for, but seldom obtained. You remember that the first bit was about how glad the writer had been that his ‘brother,’ whatever relationship that might denote, had found ‘us,’ whomever that might be. The new ostrakon continues, in my translation, ‘Come to us quickly, but secretly. Do not let the evil world know of our place and ways. If you speak…’”
“What is the difficulty in reading it?” I asked.
“The fact that there are no difficulties,” answered the epigrapher. “Usually, private letters scratched on bits of broken pottery are full of grammatical errors and misspellings. This letter, by contrast, has so far been perfect—a textbook example. I am consulting my colleagues to ask if any of them know of another letter of similar scrupulosity. Out of curiosity—am I correct in assuming that the deficiencies of our educational system mean that I am the only one here with any knowledge of Coptic?” No one volunteered any proficiency therein. “Too bad—even our Director?”
“I am an archeologist, not a linguist,” I replied.
“In my day, not even the smallest undergraduate would have been allowed on the field without an understanding of what are now considered the more esoteric languages. In any case, my vote is for behaving archeologically, and digging into those secrets about which the letter writer is so anxious.”
The next morning we began. At the center of the building complex there was a room larger than the others, and without signs of having been used as a kitchen or for any other type of production. It seemed rather like a meeting place of some sort, with niches, long empty, along the walls, and a low raised platform in mudbrick along one short side. This room was my best hope for a church. I had decided to dig down through the corner of the floor, including part of the platform, for an excavation here would have the best chance of finding something buried under the walls or seeded within the platform.
So we began to dig. Or rather, we began to carefully chip away at the mudbrick of the platform, to pick apart and almost peel away its layers. The area designated was small, so only two of us could work at a time, shoulder to shoulder. Those awaiting their turn to dig began to finish the recording and cleaning of our other finds in preparation for our departure. We dug like this for a day, and at its end it was certain that we would reach a few feet below floor level before we left, since the going would be faster once we finished with the platform.
There was nothing found on this first day. On the second, I had the first shift. My partner, one of the undergraduates, was late—hardly surprising, as the night before I had seen the locals selling an enterprising student a bottle of homemade something which had probably not made them drunk but had certainly given them headaches. I began, then, without her, using a miniature pick to loosen the mudbrick, and almost at the first gentle stroke, I turned up, among the pieces of the platform, a fragment of ceramic. I spat on my fingers and wiped off the dust—there again was the black gloss and the scratched letters. When the undergraduate came, I sent her back again with the new ostrakon to the epigrapher, and we continued to dig without finding anything else, though at the end of the day we had gone almost all the way through the platform.
The meeting that evening would normally have begun with the epigrapher’s report, but he sent a message that he was still working and would come when he had finished. We heard first, then, from the conservation expert. This was a man who had come to access the stability of the site and to advise us on the necessary measures for preserving the remains from looting or further disintegration while we were gone, either for a year or forever. Since we had found almost nothing but mudbrick walls, built thick to keep the ancient rooms cool, I thought that he would merely recommend the usual procedure of filling in the holes we had dug with clean sand in order to protect their surfaces from the erosion of the wind—which, in an area with almost no rain, is the main element of destruction.
I had been puzzled by the grave face of this conservation expert as he had made his tour earlier that day, and he soon explained his expression by beginning his presentation (which he opened only after a certain amount of adjusting his hat, shaking dust out of his sandals, and smiling at the more attractive of the undergraduates) with “This site is a disaster!” After a pause to survey the reaction of the students, he continued, “The walls are falling apart as if they’d been exposed for ten years. Haven’t you seen the pieces dropped on the floors?”
I had to reply that I had not thought anything of them, and asked what he thought the matter might be.
“Your students tell me”—here was an occasion for more winks and nods—“that you had a sandstorm a while back, and that might have made things worse. Here’s the problem: when a mudbrick building is abandoned, sand starts to pile up both against its outer and its inner walls, blown in through the door or ceiling, once the roof collapses. The sand on the inside and the sand on the outside build up at approximately the same rate, and so the pressure on the walls is the same: as if you, Lisa”—this to one of the undergraduates—“were pushed on one side by Erica and on the other side by Rebecca; you wouldn’t fall in either direction. But since the ground level builds up in time everywhere in the area of the walls, when you excavate, you dig out the sand normally only from the interior of buildings, and thus the walls are pressed against by the sand only on one side. But since a mudbrick wall is much sturdier than Lisa here”—the undergraduates indicated again tried to push one another over—“there are usually not so many immediate problems, and it takes years for the wall to weaken. Even a bad sandstorm wouldn’t really have caused so much damage—I really don’t know why your walls are threatening to fall so quickly. It’s as if something more than sand is pushing!” And he attentively helped up Lisa, who had collapsed to the floor. Order restored, he concluded with recommendations to fill up the excavations as soon as possible and to bring materials for bracing the walls, should we return.
An undergraduate sent to fetch the epigrapher soon returned with him. Behind them into the room came a man in a long, dark, coarse cloak, belted around the waist and with a cowl hanging around his face. He seemed to be a monk—there are still some monasteries in the deserts, some very learned, and so I thought that he was one of those correspondents with whom the epigrapher was working on the Coptic ostraka. The epigrapher did not introduce him, nor seem to take any notice of him—a junior colleague, evidently, I thought—but the ceramicist gave a start of recognition and ceased to fuss over the conservation expert. She indeed stared outright at the monk, who remained standing in the doorway for the whole of the epigrapher’s presentation.
I, too, looked at him often, though I had felt from the moment of his entrance a dislike or disgust which made my flesh creep and my stomach twist. It was his face, perhaps, shadowed to grey beneath the cowl, with crudely shaped features and a nose long and flatly sharp, as if carved with one stroke. His eyes were polished black, and glittered out from the shadow.
“A most unusual find,” the epigrapher was saying, “though I speak, of course, only of the unusual in the epigraphical field, and would not dream of intruding upon questions of the archeologically unusual, which must remain Dr. Pevsner’s sphere. Unusual because this ostrakon is the continuation, yet again, of the letter of the previous two ostraka of the same material, since both the contents and the shapes match.” He took the three pieces from various pockets and assembled them on the table, where, knit together, they rose in a curve, part of the circle of a cup. It seemed to me that the black of their surface gave off the same glitter as our visitor’s eyes, and indeed the epigrapher, with a puzzled look, glanced up at the doorway where he stood before continuing.
“The find is even more satisfying in that, as you will see, this last piece contains the end of the letter, which consists of an interesting curse formula. Thus: ‘If you speak, then—just as we, who in our humility and because of our secret love of God cannot speak to the world, and so are always almost dying, because how could new brothers know of us?—just so, you, Nicolaus, in your pride and because of your false love of Fame, will be cursed; your children will be cursed and die; no man shall remember your name, just as no man shall remember ours, which will be known only to God.’” As he finished, a man from the post office in town came through the doorway, from which the monk had disappeared.
I had little time to think about why the monk had departed so abruptly, for the newcomer handed me a telegram and then fell into animated conversation with the ceramicist, who could speak some Arabic and was friendly with some of the townspeople. The telegram was from my wife, and read “Nicholas we have beautiful son STOP but has problem with heart STOP small operation to take place tomorrow STOP do not worry love Caroline STOP.”
My expression must have reflected this news, for the messenger pointed at me and began to speak even faster to the ceramicist. When he finished, she turned to me and said, “Oh, Dr. Pevsner, this fellow keeps insisting that he saw a ghost go out the door as he came in, and now he claims from the look on your face that you must have seen it, too. I’m trying to assure him that any ghosts raised by archeology must be rather harmless, especially since we’re only digging up houses, not mucking around with graves, and what would they care if we remind the world where they lived? But Dr. Pevsner, you do look shocked—is something the matter?”
I read them the first sentence of the telegram, and we had a cheerful toast with a bottle produced by one of the undergraduates—the rest of which bottle they consumed off in the desert with the conservation expert. The rest of my wife’s message I kept to myself.
The next day was the third to last of our planned stay. I had sent the messenger back to his office with a telegram for Caroline and another to the airport, asking if there would be a plane home earlier, but for now there was little to do but supervise the packing up of equipment and the filling of our excavations. The day was grey and hot, with the wind continually blowing stronger. Because of this, and the thus greater danger of collapse of the weakened walls, only one person at a time was assigned to keep digging in the large room. I had the last turn, when it was drawing on to evening and both the platform and the floor had been dug through to expose the sand on which they were built. The space exposed was about three feet long by two across, and I was going to dig out a foot or two of sand in case anything had dropped there during the construction of the floor, though I considered it most unlikely that I should find anything.
I had taken out six inches or so of sand when the next sweep of my brush revealed a nose. A few more passes and I was looking at a face. The features were roughly cut in a black stone, a hard granite, and it looked like no other style of statuary that I could recall.
I kept digging, revealing shoulders and a chest, thinking that here at last was a find beyond question. The epigrapher suspected the ostraka, and indeed I myself would have been suspicious if someone else had found them as I did—always alone, and with texts always providing confirmation of my proposed identification of the site. Nothing would have been easier than to bring along a few pieces of pottery and compose messages in a language that I claimed not to know, for there are few means of dating scratches. But I could not be suspected of having secretly made, transported, and buried beneath sand and mudbrick this statue, which promised to be life-sized and would thus weigh far, far more than a single man could move or conceal.
I pushed more sand away from the head, using my hands so that I could feel if any materials remained of perished decorations—a necklace or garland of long-faded flowers, for example. There was only sand, and as I removed it I could see that folds of cloth had been sculpted around the head. If the large room were indeed a church, and the raised platform the place of the altar, this statue could be the cenotaph of a martyr or even the founder of the cult, shown wearing his cowl.
I hoped to reach his hands, thinking they must hold some attribute, some marker of his identity. Even if they did not, such a large statue was the sign of a community of some sort, and was besides an object impressively strange enough to attract donors who would allow me to return and excavate again. And if I found more, I would have a career, and be able to raise my son—whose name, it just then occurred to me, I did not yet know.
The Egyptian twilight is long, but the sun was now fading and the sand blown by the wind obscured the light even more. I began to brush away the sand from the chest of the statue, for it was no use fetching the others, since night would fall before they could see my find. I blew off the final grains of clinging sand and there, crossed on his breast, were his hands.
His left hand held a cross, carved out of polished black granite. His right hand, pressed over his heart, held a cup of the same glossy black. Its rim was broken, and into my mind came the memory of the three ostraka, balanced together on the table. The shape they made would have perfectly fit into the break.
As I saw this, from the rim of the cup came welling some thick, dark liquid, which dropped from the broken edge and ran into the surrounding sand, forming the shapes of letters. Another memory of the night before rose in my mind, and I looked again at the face of the statue. Its rough features, its sharp-cut nose, its eyes, which were polished and glittering in the last of the light—all were the same as those of the monk who had appeared in the doorway. I dropped my tools and scrambled away, first on my hands and knees and only at a distance managing to regain my feet.
I do not know if it was I who had knocked against a wall in my haste, or if it was the wind—which had begun to howl among the dunes—or some other power; but as I stood, the walls of that corner fell. The sand pent behind them poured into the room, burying the platform and all I had found beneath it, while more sand, blown in by what was now a sandstorm, began to fill the whole room up to the level at which we had begun.
It would have been simple enough to dig through the sand again the next day, but instead, I told no one what I had found. It meant abandoning the excavation and all hopes for its continuation, but as soon as I had given the orders to make our final preparations to leave, another telegram came from my wife, saying that the operation had been successful.
The task of archeology is to enrich the present with knowledge of the past, but there are some things which belong to the past entirely, and which it jealously guards. I leave this record, disguising names and places, for my son and, if she survives me, my wife, to explain why we had to endure the difficult period after my return, when even after I moved to another university, the gossiped accusations of the epigrapher followed me—that I had forged the ostraka, and even that I had obtained the help of my wife to do so, for she knows Coptic very well. I once, many years later, drew the letters I remembered formed from the liquid on the sand, and asked Caroline what they were, without telling her where they were from; she said that they were a bit of the Coptic version of the New Testament, and read, “My only begotten Son….”
We are happier now. I have found another career, and deal much more in the present than in the past. My wife succeeded to the position of the epigrapher, who died suddenly, a year or two after our return, from a heart attack. Among his papers was found a letter from a learned journal, accepting his proposed contribution of an article on a Coptic letter found on three ostraka; but as his notes for the piece were still indecipherably cryptic when he died, and the ostraka themselves were never again seen, the article remained unpublished. Some things are better left hidden under the sands.
Arnold Klein – VERSE LETTER 1: TO MK
Arnold Klein – VERSE LETTER 2: TO JC/EMH
Arnold Klein – VERSE LETTER 3: TO MK
Arnold Klein – VERSE LETTER 4: TO MK
Arnold Klein – FROM MISCELLANEOUS LOVE POEMS