Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Reverse engineering

I'm experimenting with a blog for the Big Man's school library. I thought, for a start, we'd ask parents to write about their favorite children's book (oh so original but if it worked for RIF it can work for us).

I kicked it off by doing the exercise myself, and it turned out that I had a lot to say about From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsberg. Goddamn book changed my life. So here's a less expurgated version of what will go in the school library's blog (if we decide to do it).
This is my favorite book of all time. In it, two kids, Jamie and Claudia, decide to run away from home. Since they're smart and practical (not to mention snobbish and greedy) and don't want to end up on a curb in Times Square, they plan to run away to a place that's indoors and has some of the comforts of home. They pick the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Isn't that great? That's a thought process that basically makes sense. And you can tell right off that this is not going to be your hijinky plot-driven pratfall novel - they don't run away to the circus, they run away to an art museum. E. L. Konigsberg writes great books, with sharp characters, but this is her genius work. An unpleasant, geeky girl with a violin case and an annoying little brother goes into an art museum - and that's the premise for a successful, beloved kids book? Dag.

What keeps this book going, and what fascinated me as a kid, is the view of the off-hours museum through Claudia's eyes. Claudia is a pretty dissatisfied kid, and in the peace and beauty and mystery of the museum, she has a chance to get out of her crabby self and become absorbed in the beautiful, weird, storied objects that surround her. She gets to touch and examine precious things that are usually off-limits, and in the process, one object stops her in her tracks - a small sculpture of an angel.

When it was my turn, my object was Cupid and Psyche by Jacques Louis David.

I came around a corner in the Cleveland Museum of Art, looking for something to write a paper on for ARTH103, and this baby popped me right in the eye. It's enormous, for one thing, and very detailed, almost realistic. Cupid is climbing out of bed, smirking - yeah, he tapped that - and now he's trying to get out of there without waking her. I believe I met this painting before I met Bob, but this is kind of what Bob looked like when he was 19, when we met (minus the smirk, he would insist I point out).

Claudia wants to learn everything there is to know about "her" angel, and in the process discovers something that only the titular Mrs. Frankweiler knows (looking back, Mrs. Frankweiler had to be a registrar - registrars are consistently the coolest, geekiest people in all art museums I've come across). Though the angel isn't really Claudia's, this secret knowledge is. The process of discovery, the possession of knowledge, and her intimacy with the object change her, showing her what is best and noblest in her nature.Cleveland Museum of Art

When I had my Art History classes in the basement of the Cleveland Museum, I would leave through a set of very high, very heavy double doors. I'd run down the wide marble steps that led to the Lagoon. I was usually the only person there, and at those moments, I always felt like Claudia - I felt like I lived in that museum, and that all the treasures inside of it were mine. Eventually, I spent so much time with those objects that, like Claudia, I did own them in a way. I sat in front of paintings and tapestries and Japanese woodcuts for hours, desperately hoping to find enough to say about each object to fill a ten-page paper.

I am not a spiritual person. Maybe I'm the antithesis of spiritual - I'm a physical person. I believe in the transformative power of knowledge, and I believe that firsthand observation is the best way to gain that knowledge.

When you can take time to absorb the textures and smells of an object, you can absorb its language, feel the actions that made it, and figure out which questions to ask. You can meet its maker.

Me, I know the political climate that Jacques Louis David painted in - I know why there are laurel leaves on Psyche's bed. I know what the missing letters in the Byzantine tapestry were, and I know what happened when the weaver was running out of room on the right side.

Don't get me wrong - it's not the trivia itself that I groove on. What I like is the way you can decode details of the artist's world backwards from the details of the work.

When I finally had a chance to decide what to do with my life, I chose to live in museums, like Claudia. That book showed me a place filled with intrigue and stories, a place where you could figure out things that nobody else knew.

I have spent a lot of time in Claudia's museum, both as a student and working there, and she was right -- knowing that place feels like having a big cool famous friend. It was a privilege every single time I went into the workrooms of any museum I worked in, from Birmingham to Brooklyn to Baltimore.

Maybe if I'd read a different book, a good book about a scientist kid, for example, I might have been a botanist (except I still would have flunked Calculus). But I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and it changed my life.