Because sometimes it is important to sneak away from the Land of Lost Memory and Poison Ivy, the other day I went to New Haven. An obvious choice. The original plan was to meet my friends, Becky and Wagon, and see Happy Days at Yale Rep, but then the plan expanded.
It turned out my niece, Eliza at the law school, had a few free minutes before plunging into the subtleties of Military Justice, so I was able meet her and then wander through the quad (Do they call it a quad there? Or a yard? Or a commons?) to evidence and high heels, while eating ice cream made from the milk of very happy grass fed Connecticut cows.
Actually, I had first suggested to Eliza that we meet at the Yale Art Museum and see the Dada exhibit, because I am fond of Dada, which frankly seems less absurd every time I see it. Or absurdity seems less farfetched. Saner. But once I arrived Eliza quickly switched our plan to ice cream and a walk (she has benefitted enormously from law school). We nodded in the direction of the New Haven Green, erstwhile home to an Occupy Wall Street encampment until a three-day old dead body was discovered in one of the tents.
Then Eliza went off to study Evidence and I ambled over to see Dada at the Yale Art Museum. And it was fine. I am still intrigued by Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau. May Ray’s spectrographs used to amaze me. I would have liked more Beatrice Wood.
But it was two stories down, among the old European Masters, that I stopped moving. Side by side were two - two among the hundreds in the world - paintings of the Temptation of St Anthony. I have been fond of Brueghel since I stopped teething, so I first checked out Brueghel the Elder’s version. Then came David Teniers the Younger, and it magnificently encompasses so much of the appeal and mystery of hagiography. There we have St Anthony, the 3rd century Egyptian anchorite, holed up in his cave praying, and the Satan sends him temptations in myriad forms. Why? Do we really thinks Anthony will abandon his cozy cave for these satanic enticements?This scene has been a favorite of painters for centuries. Teniers painted at least five versions, that I could locate. The Temptation at Yale features: Bats and flying fish, a lady in a black gown and a lacy white shawl, trailing a soggy handkerchief in one hand and holding aloft a dry Martini in the other; dueling flying creatures: a fish with legs and a beaky fox; a devil with butterfly wings wielding a backscratcher; and an owl. The owl is particular. It is hard to tell for sure, but in the lower right corner I think that is a deformed or tailless chicken standing atop a water pitcher, preparing to defecate. That same possibly defecating chicken is also in the version currently hanging in Ponce, Puerto Rico. In St Petersburg, Dallas, and in Amsterdam, St Anthony is eternally resisting the temptations of a lady dressed in red and black robes; a skeletal bird in a hoodie playing a bugle; Satanic imps riding flying reptiles; an horned old lady; gnarled chimerical creatures tugging at his robes and spitting; a dog with a funnel hat playing a horn; a bibulous frog astride a robed antediluvian anteater-type creature; beaky rodents; a birdman wearing a funnel-hat riding a flying reptile, dueling with an ugly frog astride a flying fish; a crone with hyena legs; a Tasmanian devil; snakes; and a gnomish man with a felt hat, pointing to way to perdition. (It has been suggested that I stop now enumerating the temptations of poor Saint Anthony. I will try.)
I know. All of that and still we have not arrived at the main event. The museum closed at 5 and I had to leave my contemplation of St Anthony’s stalwart determination in the face of such blandishments. I crossed the street and met Becky and Wagon, and we went to dinner at yet another restaurant that boasts of its relationship with farmers and their farms.
Then to poor Winnie and Willie, in Happy Days. But Winnie doesn’t complain. Winnie is not even tempted. Winnie is buried up to her waist in an immoveable mound of dirt. She is not tempted. In her bag (nearby, just) she has a toothbrush, toothpaste, a magnifying glass, an umbrella, a gun, lipstick. If Winnie were not already so delighted with her situation, she might envy St Anthony in his cave, still unencumbered, still capable of free will. She might be tempted by mobility and by a desert serenity unmarked by the piercing bell for waking and sleeping. She might witness the flying reptilian devils, and think, “Flight! Freedom! Autonomy!”
Winnie has not been canonized. She will never be canonized.
You may find this helpful: when, upon examining a small moving creature through her magnifying glass, and upon hearing from Willie that the white stuff being transported by the small moving creature are “Eggs!”, Winnie exclaims, “Formication.”
Sitting in the audience, you may think you are hearing the word fornication; a word appearing not infrequently in general usage, a word whose definition we know well. But that is not the word Winnie speaks. I was pleased (smug, delighted) that I knew right away the word was formication, not because I knew exactly what formication meant (a sensation like insects crawling over the skin) but because I knew very well that the word in French for ants is fourmis, and in Latin it is formica (Not the laminate, invented in 1912, made of composite materials that is heat-resistant and wipe-clean, not the branded product.). And had not Winnie been just then peering through her glass at the ant?
All of which makes it abundantly clear why the noun, formication, is the only one that makes sense.
In the second act, Winnie is buried up to her neck in the mound. The set looks very much like a termite or ant hill in the tropics. Or the desert.