EJN Remembrance #5: O anima cortese Mantoana


Edward G. Nilges, “Cartoon for Remembrance of Edward Joseph Nilges”, pencil and pen on paper, 7.5*10 cm. 7 Sep 2010″

“Là sù di sopra, in la vita serena,”
rispuos’ io lui, “mi smarri’ in una valle,
avanti che l’età mia fosse piena.

Pur ier mattina le volsi le spalle:
questi m’apparve, tornand’ïo in quella,
e reducemi a ca per questo calle.”

Ed elli a me: “Se tu segui tua stella,
non puoi fallire a glorïoso porto,
se ben m’accorsi ne la vita bella;

e s’io non fossi sì per tempo morto,
veggendo il cielo a te così benigno,
dato t’avrei a l’opera conforto.

Ma quello ingrato popolo maligno
che discese di Fiesole ab antico,
e tiene ancor del monte e del macigno,

ti si farà, per tuo ben far, nimico;
ed è ragion, ché tra li lazzi sorbi
si disconvien fruttare al dolce fico.

Vecchia fama nel mondo li chiama orbi;
gent’ è avara, invidiosa e superba:
dai lor costumi fa che tu ti forbi.

La tua fortuna tanto onor ti serba,
che l’una parte e l’altra avranno fame
di te; ma lungi fia dal becco l’erba.”

“There up aloft,” I answer’d, “in the life
Serene, I wander’d in a valley lost,
Before mine age had to its fullness reach’d.
But yester-morn I left it: then once more
Into that vale returning, him I met;
And by this path homeward he leads me back.”

“If thou,” he answer’d, “follow but thy star,
Thou canst not miss at last a glorious haven:
Unless in fairer days my judgment err’d.
And if my fate so early had not chanc’d,
Seeing the heav’ns thus bounteous to thee, I
Had gladly giv’n thee comfort in thy work.
But that ungrateful and malignant race,
Who in old times came down from Fesole,
Ay and still smack of their rough mountain-flint,
Will for thy good deeds shew thee enmity.
Nor wonder; for amongst ill-savour’d crabs
It suits not the sweet fig-tree lay her fruit.
Old fame reports them in the world for blind,
Covetous, envious, proud. Look to it well:
Take heed thou cleanse thee of their ways. For thee
Thy fortune hath such honour in reserve,
That thou by either party shalt be crav’d
With hunger keen: but be the fresh herb far
From the goat’s tooth.

Dante, Inferno XV

One of the occupational hazards of art is that damn’d pair of complementary vices: grandiosity and shame.

Vices sometimes come in pairs, even as the Spendthrift destroys what the Avaricious grasps, to no effect, for eternity, in Dante’s Inferno.

In art, there’s a complementary relationship between the overweening feeling of personal grandeur when you come up with something, and the fear that you may be as Dante was mocked or worse ignored. For just as nasty miserly Avarice “enables” the Spendthrift who, justly angry at having to live (or as a child, grow up in) the grey goo of the household in which fear of no-money rules, goes out to waste money at the bar, the grandiosity is also the fear. Father Zerchi reflects at the end of A Canticle for Leibowitz that “the itch” is ontologically more fundamental than the pain.

So: screw it. Cezanne just tramped about Aix until the guy dropped dead.

Screw it and do it. OK, here’s the “cartoon”, perhaps, for the EJN Remembrance painting: this, perhaps, what I shall project on the canvas to trace the lines. I have a very cool Korean projector for this. When you do it you MUST pay attention and be IMPROVING the lines, otherwise it preserves your mistakes.

Still too much of Edward Joseph’s father and Eisenhower.

He may resemble my grandfather for he was of Depression necessity a second or Vice-Regent father in the family system. About the only thing my youngest uncle remembers of EJN is the combat infantry badge of the junior officer, with what the junior officer must say to the men when under fire: “follow me”.

The key to Edward’s anima might be in the broad planes of his young face, like the plain of the Po onto which the US and Britain were trying to break out. My grandfather had rounded lumps of clay on his face but these develop in men with time and hunger. I may be seeing those in the blank spaces and they may disappear with shading. Therefore, the next step is another “wash” chiaroscuro drawing.

In the 1960s I did a couple of likenesses in art school. You always know when you turn the corner and capture a soul. It is a spooky moment.

I have given him his Captain (o my Captain) bars to avoid confusing the viewer although his Camp Shelby picture has his Lieutenant bars, since I shall inscribe the basics of his life on a scroll in the final painting.

US Army didn’t know what they had in him. He might have taken and held Arnhem with his seriously crazy Asians and ended the war. But as a Nilges, he wasn’t what you’d call “pushy” or self-advancing, just did the next right thing. May I emulate him, having strayed like Dante from the true way, o anima cortese Mantoana.

But most officers were like the corrupt bastards that changed Irving Kristol (conservative Bill Kristol’s father) from a socialist to a conservative: looking out for number one while talking about pro patria mori and constantly taking advantage of military socialism.

Edward was probably too self-effacing to make his way at low flag rank, although I like to think that Eisenhower would have liked to have him on his staff, and that he’d like Ike. But the officers around him would, I believe, infer from his gentle manners and Catholicism that he was “soft”.

Something, of course, that he’d disproved, quietly, even before Mt. Folgorito and the bitter woods, and disproved to the least of men: Asians whose parents were in concentration camps. Dare I think of five years apparently wasted teaching Hong Kong students, six days a week,

whole intellects disgorged in total recall for seven days and nights with brilliant eyes, meat for the Synagogue cast on the pavement,

with nothing whatsoever to show for it?

I do. The only good reason for reading military history is not, if George McDonald “Flashman” Fraser is correct, to say, as my parents said, that “you never had it so good, and this was because the soldiers of WWII were better men than you’ll ever be”. For upon being demobbed, Fraser realized that the real fun would start: flogging encyclopedias in Canada, and the daily calls and regulations of civilian life including its final Mt Folgorito, death. Trying to get Playboy, 20 years later, to publish Flashman at the Charge. Getting screwed in Hollywood with that disaster that was made of Royal Flash by that psycho Malcolm McDowell.

The saint, writes Zizek, does what she in her heart of hearts, wants. It is not, in the final analysis, self-abnegation as the holy sisters told us. The question is what you really want. I used to think unfiltered Camels were mighty tasty.

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