May 2024

The Stranger Face of the Friend
Part Two

Brian George

Sandro Chia, Untitled, 2000

What a gift to have been expelled from Saint Peter’s at the end of my sophomore year. They were in such a rush to get rid of me they didn’t bother to tell my family. I saw no reason to tell them either. Until her death in 2019, at the age of 88, my mother never did find out. How well behaved my friends and I were. How impermeable were our cloaks of invisibility. How lucky it was that Nixon bombed Cambodia exactly when he did. I had no choice but to protest, which led to my expulsion. How mysteriously things fit together, as if according to a script. Worcester had just changed the rules that had kept me trapped in my neighborhood—a student could transfer to a school that offered a course that wasn’t offered anywhere else. I found a course—Cultural and Intellectual History of Europe—that was only offered at Doherty High.

The school was by far the best in Worcester. It was located in an affluent part of the city, with some of the most challenging courses and the most demanding teachers. Even the students, children of lawyers, professors, and factory owners, were more articulate than the teachers I was used to. Until my junior year at Doherty, I am not sure that I had ever encountered a good teacher, not one, at least, that made me sit up and take notice. In sophomore English class at Saint Peter’s, we had studied Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.” In Mrs. Goldman’s junior English class at Doherty, we analyzed T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” I preferred the later poem. It was at Doherty that I began to recover from my childhood. I had known that my world was small, but I had not realized just how small it was.

It was there that I met the gruff but not especially lovable Mr. Sleeper, my Cultural and Intellectual History of Europe teacher, who confronted me with the large holes in my knowledge, who introduced me to Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, which had the effect of a depth-charge. It was there that I met Sue Castigliano , a teacher who intervened at a crucial turning-point in my development, who was present in a way that no previous teacher had been present. It was there also that I met Mr. Trippi, my senior-year art teacher, the enforcer of technique and the enemy of vision, who was demanding in a way of which I was not prepared to take advantage . To learn to create art, he believed, was no different from learning the elements of Euclidean geometry. There were principles, to memorize, and procedures, to perform. Like many would-be geniuses, I believed that such doglike obedience was for others.

Mr. Trippi was short, aggressive in his occupation of space, very plainly spoken, with wide, intense eyes. He had many of the traits that I associated with the first-generation descendants of immigrants from Europe, in his case Italy, of whom there were many in Worcester at the time. This was back when the American Dream—whatever the limitations of the concept—was something more than a myth, when a whole extended family could go from poor to affluent in a matter of two decades, so long as they believed, so long as they defined their goals in the image of this dream. To judge by his body language, you would think that Mr. Trippi had missed his calling as a bricklayer, until you noticed the flash of intelligence in the eyes or picked up on the scholarly references when he spoke.

Max Ernst, Revolution by Night, 1923

Mr. Trippi was proud to be an American, at a time when I was against the war in Vietnam. He was eager to continue to ascend through the ranks of the middle class, to display his success, to prove what he was worth. I did not see him as a person like myself, nor did I recognize that we acted from a similar urge to prove what we could do. I was by turns arrogant and withdrawn, contemptuous and scared. That I might be almost wholly uninformed about a subject was not enough to prevent me from passing the most absolute of judgments. Mr. Trippi was unwilling to admit that a student even had a right to an opinion. When he talked, Mr. Trippi would stand about a foot in front of you, and stare, unblinking, into your eyes. I would always end up looking at the floor, at the wall, at the ceiling, or out the window. He did not seem to notice or to care that nothing of what he said was getting through. He took my disengagement as an invitation to stare even more directly, to be even more insistent in the proving of his points, to stand a few inches closer.

In this period, I had great hopes for myself without knowing much of anything, without being able to do more than gesture towards my spiritual and creative goals. I preferred a more oblique approach to self-discovery. Let us call this the method of “actively visualized self -deception.” By imagining a larger space than the one in which I lived, I was, by fits and starts, able to gain some partial access to it. If this method was, to some extent, successful, I was not in any way prepared to prove myself to someone as militantly sure of his principles as Mr. Trippi. I would often stay up late, listening to crickets chirp in the field across the street from my house. The night was my idea of a good teacher. She did not bore me. She did not make me feel more limited than I knew myself to be, and I suspected that even her most absurd demands would prove more useful than yet another lecture about Raphael. Yes, I knew that he could draw. I also knew that Shakespeare was important.

Adolph Gottlieb, Black Enigma, 1946

In his Oration on the Dignity of Man, Pico della Mirandola had said,

    We have given you, O Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgement and decision…We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.

“Five centuries after his death,” I thought, “how many of us have really come to terms with Pico’s words? Other thinkers have said similar things, perhaps, but who has said them in so personal a manner, in a tone that both accuses and invites? I can hear his voice. As Pico says, I am a creature with no place to call my own. I will shape myself. I will test the rungs of Jacob’s Ladder. My alienation is a role; it is not a disadvantage. Can I write a perfect college-level essay? Can I draw a good self-portrait? No. Many students at Doherty can, but what is that to me? I will burn with the Seraphim. I will challenge the Thrones. I will not be content to see out of two eyes. I will somehow find the talents that I need.”

Pico also said,

    For a certainty I shall speak out (though in a manner which is neither modest in itself nor conformable to my character), I shall speak out because those who envy me and detract me force me to speak out. I have wanted to make clear in disputation not only that I know a great many things, but also that I know a great many things which others do not know.

Yes. Like Pico, I would speak. I would demand to express my mode of vision, however half-formed it might be. I loved the matter-of-fact nature of Pico’s arrogance. Unlike Pico, I was not a prodigy. I was a child of the working class, who, in spite of several years of far-flung reading, had only just begun to come into his own. There were times when I experienced my stupidity as an almost physical weight, as a slowly constricting boa, as a virus that had begun to eat into my brain. I had said to Sue Castigliano, “I feel that I am getting stupider by the day .” She answered, “Why should you be any different?” Against all available evidence, however, I did feel that I knew certain things that others did not know.

Then, at 2:00 AM one night, with no warning that anything unusual might occur, I experienced an outpouring of creative energy, as explosive as a pyroclastic flow. To say that this outpouring was explosive is to only speak of its force. The quality of the outpouring—or near total lack thereof—must be seen as a separate issue. (Nothing to see here, Reader. You are getting very sleepy. When you wake, you will forgive the author for his teenage grandiosity. You will forgive his crimes against late 19th century Symbolism. You will see that he has set aside his ego. When you come to a sentence that begins “two things ,” you will obey without remembering a word of these commands.) Two things came from this life-altering experience. These were a 16 -page personal epic and a series of labyrinthine, hieroglyphic drawings , unlike anything I had previously done. If these pieces were not good, they were maybe just good enough. An energetic vortex had popped open.

Brian George, Ships on a Violent Ocean, 2004

The space that I had entered, or rather, that had entered me, felt pregnant with both danger and the shadow of true vision. To what end should I stuff facts into my head when it could, at any moment, be cut off? I told my mother that I was ill, and I did not return to school for several days.


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Brian George is the author of two books of essays and four books of poetry. His book of essays Masks of Origin: Regression in the Service of Omnipotence has just been published by Untimely Books at He has recently reactivated his blog, also called Masks of Origin at He is a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art, an exhibited artist and former teacher. He often tells people first discovering his work that his goal is not so much to be read as to be reread, and then lived with.
For more of his writings in Scene4, check the Archives.

©2024 Brian George
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine





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