The golden cage

It was late afternoon on an unseasonably warm winter day – and I’d made a terrible miscalculation.

Thus: instead of alighting from efficient Viennese public transport, I arrived by foot at the Raimanngasse bus stop after a marathon uphill hike from the wrong stop on an altogether inappropriate line, one or two bus routes removed from one I’d been instructed to take by my host, Frau L—.

I should have listened closer to what she’d been telling me that morning.

She’d provided all the necessary and proper directions, but I’d been distracted.

I wasn’t lost though at present. I could still find my way to the day’s destination. It was just that I’d made my journey all the more arduous. And sunlight was fading now.

The purpose of my excursion to 14th district Vienna was to visit Kirche am Steinhof, or St. Leopold’s – Otto Wagner’s Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) church on the hilltop there.

And as a proud and dutiful tourist, I wouldn’t be denied my visit – no matter how tired I was, no matter how long the day got.


St. Leopold’s is at the edge of the Steinhofgründe. Its doors face ignobly southward – toward Hungary. I was still many steps below the church, whose golden dome was now obscured.

I’d been told what to look for.

I’d been provided clear directions and informed instructions.

(What were they?)

I noticed some strange things.

First, the houses nearest the bus stop. Odd little suburban neighborhood along the Raimannstrasse. Queer little boxes with high fences and small lanes that ran behind them and barbed wire and signs in German (of course) that warned that nighttime access was verboten.

Further along, the dull gates at the last elevation before the final stretch to the church above. Unsure where I should enter the complex — is this area restricted, or nicht? — I almost turned back. But I’d already hiked so far — leaving my travel companion behind — I thought I should continue.

No one stopped me.

No one tried.

But after I walked through the entrance and reached a walkway to the summit, an old man in a shabby suit came tottering wildly at me. He spoke in a discordant way.

I told this obvious nonemployee that I don’t speak German (in German).

Or perhaps I said: You don’t speak German.

I’m unsure which or what, but I quickly climbed the steps in front of us, toward Kirche am Steinhof, then moved along the stone walkway. The man ducked away, disappearing behind one of the pavilions.

As I continued along a creepy feeling persisted. The stark buildings around me: the design aesthetic: part of Wagner’s overall plan? The whole place had the feel of a mental institution — because it was. Or it had been, according to my printed guide; that is, a full-fledged lunatic asylum, as they were once upon a cruder time called.

I was at the infamous Steinhof, although only some of the sixty pavilions designed by Carlo von Boog were still a psychiatric hospital (Psychiatrisches Krankenhaus) of the now-renamed Baumgartner Höhe Social Medicine Center – Otto Wagner Hospital and Care Center.

The man who’d accosted me might have been definitively mad, I realized, as I trod on the church-ward path, or maybe he was perfectly sane.

(Who is to know for sure?)

What elevated my uneasiness and uncertainty was the German language itself, whose words often seem a deranged construction to me, particularly when shouted.

I’m mostly illiterate of the language.

I was still adjusting to the country.

Meanwhile the grounds were otherwise empty. I needed to move on and get to the summit pronto, because the vista there, whatever that might prove to be, would soon be ruined by the disappearing sun.

Then what?

I wouldn’t be able to take my photographs. And this of course is the most important thing these days: to acquire documentary proof of one’s own middle-class adventures. If you don’t snap your photos and, more importantly, immediately share those images with as many people as possible, you cannot have possibly experienced what you think you have.

That shabbily-dressed old man who’d accosted me. His ghostly presence was not photographed by me, so he is therefore a mystery and remains unknown.

He reminds me now — in my memory — not then — not the year I visited Vienna — of Paul Wittgenstein, the title character in Thomas Bernhard’s Wittgenstein’s Nephew, which I read after.

In that book of friend-love the Wittgenstein character resided temporarily in Steinhof’s Ludwig Pavilion and the character Thomas Bernhard, our narrator, in the Hermann Pavilion. They are separated by a short distance on the grounds below St. Leopold’s. However, the gap is greater in their respective treatable pathologies — the character Bernhard’s illness being pulmonary, the character Wittgenstein’s mental.

Bernard’s book was a work of autobiographical fiction: Bernhard (the now-dead writer) had also developed a respiratory disease and Paul Wittgenstein (Ludwig’s cousin’s son, really) had suffered from mental illness; they’d both been to the hospitals at Steinhof. But Bernhard the character/narrator also says: “Paul was no madder than I am: I am at least as mad as he was, as he was said to be, though I have lung disease in addition to my madness. The only difference between us is that Paul allowed himself to be utterly dominated by his madness, whereas I have never let myself be utterly dominated by my equally serious madness; one might say that he was taken over by his madness, whereas I have always exploited mine.”

(What are we to believe?)


I reached the summit and St. Leopold’s soon enough.

Wagner believed his Catholic church might have a calming effect on the mentally ill residents at Steinhof. This made greater sense to me as I wildly snapped my pictures that late afternoon and wandered about the grounds there. What I mean is: to this sane twentieth-first-century man, St. Leopold’s appeared to be nothing if not utter madness.

But first, note the amazing consideration for its resident churchgoers. Kirche am Steinhof forgoes the typical east-west orientation of Western churches. Wagner did this so that patient-parishioners might benefit fully from the healthy influences of southern sunlight (the pavilions also face that direction). Pews, designed by Wiener Werkstätte, had no sharp edges, so that patients might not injure themselves. Bathrooms were installed near the altar for obvious emergencies. Pew bases were made utilitarian in design and aisle floors sloped for easy cleaning when patients were unable to make it altar-side. Medical rooms off the sacristy for those needing mid-mass attention. Large doors at either end allowed for quick exits. Holy water dispensed in dripping taps instead of fonts.

Elsewhere: stained-glassed windows by Koloman Moser. Sculptures by Othmar Schimkowitz. Early on these features mattered little to the local churchgoers. Steinhof and the surrounding neighborhood had been one parish then, it is said, intertwined, villagers living among the patients, all part of the same ordinary community. And not long after its debut in 1907, the church folded itself into the backdrop of history. It survived Austria’s dark days during World War II, when Steinhof patients were experimented upon and murdered by Nazis. Today there is a memorial on the property. These and other atrocities were well documented; the more tyrannical a regime after all, the richer its archive.

St. Leopold’s reemerged, as it were, into a general cultural awareness, in the latter half of the century. Renovated by the state several years ago and ably promoted by the Austrian tourist board, it now receives many visitors. Pilgrims are guaranteed to see at least four angels standing outside. Angels made in the form of modern young women of Wagner’s time. Bob haircuts and golden gowns and giant absurd wings. The architect’s trademark golden wreaths are ubiquitous, as are his black studs, on typical white marble exterior. Bright gold crucifixes abound. Robed saints sit in patina judgment atop columns, their faces lit by the setting sun. From ground level their dress and soles shine brightly; the view of Vienna obscured by trees. The church itself: of another world.


I took many photos of this place. Afterward I examined them on screen and was disappointed that they failed to capture Steinhof as I remember it. (A trick of the late-winter light? Or was it the photographer?) What could have been more accurately recorded in words and pictures? The mystery man of Steinhof. The ill-advised bus journey. Those angel sculptures outside the church. Maybe it all could have been better rendered in ink and watercolor.

A tourist’s memory is notoriously unreliable. Tourists are disoriented. The quotidian gestures of townsfolk are meaningless. Twisted around, the otherwise recognizable might appear bizarre to those unschooled in the routines of a place. It seems obvious — of course! — that St. Leopold’s would have been for a time just another parish church, although this might not be immediately apparent to the tourist. To him simple strangeness appears as mystery. And in mystery he might even see the spiritual, a god not above that European capital but one in the walls of its famous churches.

And what to make of all this confusion and all this gold?

Purposeful architectural design mitigated dissonance at Kirche am Steinhof, as intended, though not for everyone, I imagine — mostly for the fortunate patients.

Wagner’s was a mad church for mad people after all, or so it was said when St. Leopold’s first opened for worship.

Its geography also quickly begot a Viennese euphemism for “going crazy,” and so it might be said, unkindly, about Bernhard’s novel/memoir that in 1967 the person/character Paul Wittgenstein “went up lemon hill.”

And every day so do all the tourists.

As I did, they go determinedly up that lemon hill.

Steinhof was also called the Golden Cage, because St. Leopold’s dome blazes above Vienna in a rigid formation of auric squares. And though I couldn’t quite express adequately for myself, using crude digital tools, what I’d seen there in flesh, I can tell you for certain: my visit to that place did occur.

I have my documentation.

And I have now shared the proof of my experience.



A book from Canio’s

Over the years I’ve discovered a few bookstores that match my personal literary taste. Luckily these stores are still in business (for now), and they affirm my belief in the value of the serendipitous book search.

Enter a physical place with no idea what you’re looking for. Trust that it’s there. “It” being that one book you were always looking for – though, actually, you had no idea it existed.

You’ve followed your influences. You know the new or new-ish writers. In your mind you’re making all the logical literary connections that only you can understand. And you believe that that book you need or want but had no idea you needed or wanted just might be on the bookstore shelf, somewhere, if only you keep looking.

If it appears today, you will be rewarded. If it doesn’t, you’ll visit this store again – to try once more. Very soon. On another night. On a different Sunday afternoon. On some other lunch break during a lifetime of lunch breaks. Because you’ve got hope “it” will show up there, eventually.

But yours is more than wishful thinking: the bookseller knows what you want – even though you’ve never spoken – because what you want in a book is what she wants in a book. That is, of course, why you patronize this bookstore in the first place. It’s an experience (a way of living, I’d say) that can only happen in the offline world; it’s a type of book-searching that is vanishing.

There’s little use in denying – or raging at – that reality. Massive tectonic changes have long been underway. We all know what they are. I’m skirting the facts and the narrative here; simply acknowledging tacitly the monolithic corporate and cultural forces in play.

Though I admit that sometimes I feel as if I’m one of a dying tribe of practitioners: the last person in the factory who knows how to operate that obsolete machine in the corner, the final priest to understand the meaning of the words in our prayers.

In truth, there are many people just like me. Maybe you think and feel this way, too. If so, like me, for now and for the immediate future, you’ll live as you always have: you’ll go to your bookstore(s). You’ll search. You’ll browse. You’ll leave. You’ll return.

And sometimes you’ll find that one book that proves you were right all along.


Recently I was proved correct again at Canio’s in Sag Harbor, NY. It’s a great store but I could never have imagined the book I found there this fall. If you’d told me its title beforehand, I would’ve yawned. If you had told me the price for this twenty-five-year-old book about rural people in the state of New Mexico, I might have balked. But it happens to be a book I was searching for – though I had no idea it existed.

It’s called Villages of Hispanic New Mexico and it was published in 1987 by the School of American Research Press.

Its author is Nancy Hunter Warren.

Warren started visiting rural villages in New Mexico in 1973. She returned regularly for the next twelve years. Her efforts resulted in a history of the social life and customs of places named La Manga, Cleveland, Bernal, Abeytas, Chimayo, Tierra Amarilla, Ojo Sarco, Las Nutrias, Tecolote, La Joya, and La Cienega. She writes about the people, the Church (Catholic), the architecture, their economic lives, feast days, Los Hermanos Penitentes, and so on. It’s a smart, well-written, and well-researched book.

The reader gets the sense that Warren captured life very close to how it truly was in the mid-1970s through the late 1980s, and she did so with an affection and humility as well as with an unsentimental eye befitting an anthropological study. That’s hard to do, I’d imagine. And though she’s honest about what she sees – this includes poverty and suffering – she’s not gaping at her subjects, and therefore neither are we. She heeds without judgment; renders without voyeuristic results.

Her book appeals to me for many reasons, but mainly because I’m intrigued (have always been) by place and the role of place in our so-called modern lives. Warren’s book can be read now in part as a requiem for Place – that is, for those villages in New Mexico she visited repeatedly during one decade of her life, long ago. The religion of the people – inextricable from a specific place and an all-powerful landscape – also captivated me:

“The dramatic and elemental nature of the New Mexican landscape is too intense for some. There is little in it that is soft or yielding. Rather, people have learned to adapt to the environment. It is a place of the spirit, where the soul finds beauty in starkness and gathers strength from the forces of nature. As one villager put it, the mountains are ‘an anchor. They are here. They never leave us…they are nearer to God than us.'”

I’ve wanted to write for some time about my own experiences with religion and a specific suburban place; how that place and places like it alter and can in fact nullify a search for meaning, in a spiritual and religious sense. Eventually I will get to that project – or maybe I won’t. But in the meantime I have Warren’s book: a document about the rickety marriage of God to place.

And yet, all the points I’ve made in the brief paragraphs above – they are merely extra benefits. The truth: I bought Villages for the pictures, solely for the beautiful arresting photographs, also by Nancy Hunter Warren. (I only discovered afterward that they serve to buttress and elevate the fine text.) Fittingly, the best images are of the New Mexico landscape. But there are also many beautiful portraits of the people who lived there – residents Warren came to know well.


Where the Rio Chama approaches the Rio Grande

“the New Mexican landscape…too intense for some”

Portraits – Cleveland and La Manga

Portraits – Mora Valley and La Manga

Portrait – La Manga

The above cropped photos do little justice to Warren’s images as they appear in her book. So I suggest you buy Villages for yourself, directly from the publisher. That might be the fastest way.


“The fastest way.”

That brings me to my final point: at present Canio’s, the store where I bought Villages, is fighting for its survival. While writing this post I learned that Sag Harbor’s only operating bookstore is facing a punitive rent hike – an all-too-familiar tale for booksellers nationwide, in cities and towns alike.

Kathryn Szoka and Maryann Calendrille have owned Canio’s since 1999, and thankfully they’re not giving up. They’re carrying on with the help of the community, grants (possibly), and the good will and support of the people who value their wonderful bookstore. But like life in the Villages of Hispanic New Mexico, places like Canio’s are disappearing fast or are already gone.

And it causes me to ask: once new/used/rare bookstores disappear, what will replace them? What will supersede the pleasure of visiting them with no agenda other than to see what they’ve got?

I don’t know.

Whatever that might be though I can assure you: it won’t be found online.

It won’t be re-produced digitally.

It won’t be safely relocated to a web-based “community.”

Nor will it be delivered to you via an app that tailors an experience based on your user preferences, D.O.B, past purchases.

Something will be lost, undoubtedly.


Tiempo de vida

Marcos Giralt Torrente’s memoir Tiempo de vida won the Spanish National Book Award in 2010. It was published in English this fall by Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Sarah Crichton Books. The translator is Natasha Wimmer.

I reviewed the book for The Los Angeles Review of Books (2014-12-07):

AFTER HIS FATHER’S DEATH in 2007, Marcos Giralt Torrente read sundry memoirs “for inspiration,” as he prepared to write Tiempo de vida, his award-winning book about personal loss and the final years of Juan Giralt’s life. His writing had stalled and he’d failed repeatedly to come up with new ideas. “I finally accepted that all I could write about was my father,” he states in the book’s opening section. That’s a common sentiment from memoirists who publish accounts of the deaths of loved ones. But Giralt Torrente was conflicted about how to go about his task.

The full review is here.

Casting Binx Bolling

In the Readings section of the December 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine there’s an excerpt from Patton Oswalt’s latest book Silver Screen Fiend in which the comedian imagines “a month’s worth of titles to play in a netherworld movie palace.”

Here’s one entry from that book, in part:

The Moviegoer (1978, starring John Cazale).

In The Moviegoer Cazale’s searching, knowing eyes blink from too much time spent staring at a flickering screen, as he finally realizes that what he’s searching for lies in the real world, outside of his books and films.

Another entry has Terrence Malick adapting Blood Meridian, in 1988, into a film starring Gene Hackman, Barry Brown, and Marlon Brando (“The Comanche-attack sequence is both beautiful and nearly unwatchable…[t]he meteor showers that open and close the film were real.”) It’s the sort of funny little comedic divergence I have difficulty resisting. A serious reply might fantasize Malick making a filmed version of The Moviegoer instead.

It is said that Malick wrote a screen adaption of the Walker Percy novel years ago, but of course he never made the film. Maybe he got stuck on who might play Binx Bolling, the 30ish New Orleans stockbroker who is at the center of the story, stuck in a malaise and searching? John Cazale wouldn’t have worked, I think – blinking joke aside – as great as his five screen performances are (The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, The Deer Hunter). Cazale died in 1978 – the year of Oswalt’s imaginary Moviegoer.

He zeroes in on Cazale’s eyes in his humorous entry, and rightly so. They’re the honest eyes of open, honest characters. But the emotions Cazale evokes in those film roles are almost exclusively external, or somehow he subtly conveys for the audience the frailties of a person who feels everything too acutely. In any event, Cazale’s expressed emotions (verbal, physical, and otherwise) are inconsistent with the hidden and cynical disposition that embodies Binx Bolling, I think. Cazale also didn’t look the part. So there’s that, too.

In contrast Brad Pitt (ca. 1992-2003) would’ve been an excellent choice. And not just for Pitt’s physical appearance. Today a filmmaker could probably get away with a Binx who’s pushing 40 or 45 years of age. Pitt through the mid-2000s would have been the limit though, I think. A director would want to avoid the Pitt who appeared in Burn After Reading (2008), for example, in which he was clearly (and painfully) too old for the part he played. But if you’ve seen the Pitt of Malick’s Tree of Life (2011) – as well as many other fine performances – it is also obvious that he would have been great in the Binx Bolling role, at one point in time.

Here’s a listicle for this bloggicle – other suggestions to play Binx (with the appropriate year):

    William Hurt (1989)
    John Malkovich (1984)
    Paul Newman (1964)
    Christian Bale (2008)
    Jude Law (1997)
    Johnny Depp (1995)
    Alec Baldwin (1993)

Who else?