July 31, 2009
Doug Henwood in Conversation with Christian ParentiIn the Brooklyn Rail:
Rail: Why do you think the bankers won?Henwood: There are two parts to that. The longer term structural issue is that Wall Street, the financial system, is basically a mechanism for the creation and exercise of ruling class power. It is the heart of the capitalist economic and social system. So taking on Wall Street is very, very complicated.But, there is also the sense in which these guys represent a social interest that has done very, very badly and they could have had their toes stepped on a bit—and they haven’t. If you go back and compare when Roosevelt gave that speech to the Democratic Convention in October 1936, he said: “Never have the rich and powerful been so lined up in their hatred of a political candidate and I welcome their hatred.”You cannot imagine Obama saying anything remotely similar. That’s partly because the bust has been less dramatic than it was in the 1930s, but also because Roosevelt came from the aristocracy and thus had more personal confidence in stepping on their toes. Obama is a guy who has been created by the meritocracy and it has treated him very well. He’s kind of in awe of wealth and power and much less willing, for personal reasons, to challenge such interests.The political environment is also totally different now. Going into the 1930s—there was a whole radical tradition: the populist tradition, the progressive tradition—there were people who had different ways of looking at an economy.
Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch
A friend of mine once said that the fact that Martha Stewart never shows a mistake, unlike Julia Child, revealed the ethic of an arriviste. Michael Pollan in the New York Times Magazine:
[H]ere’s what I don’t get: How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves? For the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next Food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking.
Today the average American spends a mere 27 minutes a day on food preparation (another four minutes cleaning up); that’s less than half the time that we spent cooking and cleaning up when Julia arrived on our television screens. It’s also less than half the time it takes to watch a single episode of “Top Chef” or “Chopped” or “The Next Food Network Star.” What this suggests is that a great many Americans are spending considerably more time watching images of cooking on television than they are cooking themselves — an increasingly archaic activity they will tell you they no longer have the time for.
What is wrong with this picture?
When I asked my mother recently what exactly endeared Julia Child to her, she explained that “for so many of us she took the fear out of cooking” and, to illustrate the point, brought up the famous potato show (or, as Julia pronounced it, “the poh-TAY-toh show!”), one of the episodes that Meryl Streep recreates brilliantly on screen. Millions of Americans of a certain age claim to remember Julia Child dropping a chicken or a goose on the floor, but the memory is apocryphal: what she dropped was a potato pancake, and it didn’t quite make it to the floor. Still, this was a classic live-television moment, inconceivable on any modern cooking show: Martha Stewart would sooner commit seppuku than let such an outtake ever see the light of day.
Alain de Botton: A kinder, gentler philosophy of success
The Death of Libertarianism?Over at the Monkey Cage, Steven Kelts looks at the issue:
Parts 2, 3 and 4.
An economic crash spurred on by a weakness for profit and a blindness to risk; but efforts at reform are resisted in the name of the “free market.” A healthcare system that is more costly and less effective than many others in the developed world; but efforts to change it run aground on the reluctance of some to pay for the benefits of others. Federal coffers drained by unaffordable handouts to the largest corporations, highest income-earners, and wealthiest estate-holders; but efforts to roll back these mistakes are met by an astro-turf tax revolt that smacks more of class warfare than the progressive tax system itself.
We could see these as the same old battles between left and right, the same tired pantomime that ends in stalemate. But it seems to many that something is different this time around, that change in our political system is inevitable. New regulations will be issued for Wall Street and corporations. A new national plan for healthcare will emerge. And changes in our tax laws will have to occur to reverse the deficit and arrest the debt. No doubt each of these will be resisted by those who still cling to a retrograde American “libertarianism.” But it may finally be the case that their outsized and undeserved influence on the politics of the past 30 years is ending. It is time for us to reflect on this free market ideology, and ask whether American libertarianism is (or ought to be) dead.
The Death of Poland's Socrates
Andrzej Rapaczynski on Kolakowski in Project Syndicate:
Kolakowski came back to Poland a number of times in his last years, although he never settled there again. He was an icon among his fellow countrymen – indeed, for his 70th birthday, the largest newspaper in Poland organized a celebration during which they crowned him (with a crown of laurel leaves, of course) … the King of Europe. When he died, the Polish Parliament observed a minute of silence. Poland went into mourning.
But the man himself was never a monument. Indeed, his experience with the “Hegelian bacillus” made Kolakowski forever sensitive to all enthusiasms and all-encompassing creeds. He preferred humor to hectoring, gently making fun of those whom he criticized, while always making sure that even the most severe intellectual critique did not deny the humanity of his opponents. Refusing to believe anything unconditionally, he retained that most important characteristic of a truly great man: he never had unconditional faith in himself.
Another quality he shared with Socrates.
getting to know your plane
We air passengers are not accustomed to perceiving, or even imagining, planes in this way, as almost animate beings, with a capacity for suffering and endurance, requiring consideration and esteem, and being sensitive, almost, to gratitude and rancour. We board them and can barely distinguish between them; we know nothing of their age or their past history; we don’t even notice their names, which, in Spain at least, are chosen in such a bureaucratic, pious spirit, so lacking in poetry, adventure and imagination, that they’re hard to retain and recognize if ever we entrust ourselves to them again. I would like to ask Iberia, in this the twenty-first century, to abandon their anodyne patriotic gestures and adulatory nods to the Catholic Church – all those planes called Our Lady of the Pillar and Our Lady of Good Remedy, The City of Burgos and The City of Tarragona – and instead choose names that are more cheerful and more literary. I, for one, would feel safer and more reassured, more protected, if I knew I was flying in the The Red Eagle or The Fire Arrow or even Achilles or Emma Bovary or Falstaff or Liberty Valance or Nostromo. Perhaps reading that air hostess’s epistolary revelations had something to do with the diminution of my fear.more from Javier Marías at Granta here.
From Job to the Enlightenment
Our idea of modernity is in many ways defined by that extraordinary flowering of scientific and philosophical ideas in the 17th and 18th centuries known as the Enlightenment. Yet current attitudes to the Enlightenment are ambivalent. Many still see it as unequivocally a good thing: mankind's coming of age, learning to think freely and independently and throwing off the shackles of obedience to received authority. But there is a dissenting view that has gained new momentum in recent years — that far from heralding a new and glorious dawn, the Enlightenment was born of an overweening arrogance, grossly overestimating the power of human reason and technology to solve our ills and inaugurating a crass materialistic era that has destroyed our reverence for the world and eroded our sense of the sacred. Susan Neiman's latest book, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists (The Bodley Head, £20), offers a distinctive reading of the Enlightenment that attempts to recover its authentic ideals and rescue it from some of the caricatures advanced both by its defenders and its critics. An American moral philosopher who has taught at Yale and Tel Aviv and now works in Germany, Neiman is committed to promoting a broadly liberal political agenda and, as a writer, to making philosophical ideas accessible to a wide reading public.more from John Cottingham at Standpoint here.
In 2001, Armin Meiwes, a computer technician from Rotenburg in Germany, advertised on the Cannibal Café website for someone to have dinner with. He received numerous replies, but some withdrew when he responded and he considered others not serious enough. Eventually he invited Bernd Brandes for dinner. The plan was that Armin and Bernd would dine on Bernd’s severed penis, to be bitten off at the table for the occasion (this failed and it had to be cut off). Bernd found it too chewy, he said, so Armin put it in a sauté pan, but charred it and fed it to the dog. Later, Armin put Bernd in the bath (to marinate?), gave him alcohol and pills, read a science fiction book for three hours and then stabbed his dinner guest in the throat, hung him upside down on a meat hook in the ceiling, as any good butcher would, and sliced him into manageable portions. The world was agog at the news of the German cannibal and his two trials, at the first of which he was found guilty of manslaughter (no law against cannibalism in Germany, and his ‘victim’ had consented, volunteered actually, to being killed and eaten) and sentenced to eight years. He was retried on appeal for first-degree murder on the grounds that Bernd might not have been in a position to consent once his penis had been severed and the blood loss taken its intellectual toll. Armin Meiwes was given life.more from Jenny Diski at the LRB here.
Man Gone Down
Lucy Daniel in The Telegraph:
‘I know things aren’t going well,’’ begins the narrator of Michael Thomas’s debut novel, bracing himself for a downward journey. Broke and bile-infused, Harvard-educated, now jobless and down on his luck in New York, he is estranged from his wife and three children. It is the eve of his 35th birthday, and he has four days to somehow scrape together $12,000 to keep his family afloat. Calling himself the ‘‘progeny of, to name only a few, an Irish boat caulker, a Cherokee drifter, and a quadroon slave’’ and married to a white woman from an elite Boston family, he provocatively refers to those children as ‘‘the wreckage of miscegenation’’. He spends the novel’s four days in anxious, caffeine-fuelled flight from his past – alcoholism and an abusive childhood. The question is whether he will redeem himself or resign himself to being ‘‘preselected for failure’’. Man Gone Down, as the title suggests, plays with the meanings of descent, and harks back to a rich tradition of American stories of rise and fall, success and failure, of ‘‘making it’’.
Thomas’s gleaming, lucid prose does justice to that tradition. The narrator wonders about the future for his children; one son is brown-skinned, the other fair, and he feels able to predict the arcs of their lives based on people’s reactions to their colours: X looks exactly like me except he’s white. He has bright blue-gray eyes that at times fade to green. They’re the only part of him that at times looks young, wild, and unfocused, looking at you but spinning everywhere. In the summer he’s blond and bronze-colored. He looks like a tan elf on steroids… His blue eyes somehow signify a grace and virtue and respect that needn’t be earned – privilege – something that his brother will never possess, even if he puts down the paintbrush, the soccer ball, and smiles at people in the same impish way… What will it take to make them not brothers?
The Mysterious Downfall of the Neandertals
From The Scientific American:
Some 28,000 years ago in what is now the British territory of Gibraltar, a group of Neandertals eked out a living along the rocky Mediterranean coast. They were quite possibly the last of their kind. Elsewhere in Europe and western Asia, Neandertals had disappeared thousands of years earlier, after having ruled for more than 200,000 years. The Iberian Peninsula, with its comparatively mild climate and rich array of animals and plants, seems to have been the final stronghold. Soon, however, the Gibraltar population, too, would die out, leaving behind only a smattering of their stone tools and the charred remnants of their campfires.
Ever since the discovery of the first Neandertal fossil in 1856, scientists have debated the place of these bygone humans on the family tree and what became of them. For decades two competing theories have dominated the discourse. One holds that Neandertals were an archaic variant of our own species, Homo sapiens, that evolved into or was assimilated by the anatomically modern European population. The other posits that the Neandertals were a separate species, H. neanderthalensis, that modern humans swiftly extirpated on entering the archaic hominid's territory.
July 30, 2009
Cures for the Common Cold War: Postwar Polish PoetryBenjamin Paloff in The Nation:
Jaroslaw Anders's Between Fire and Sleep, a collection of essays that first appeared in American periodicals, especially The New Republic, when Eastern Europe was digging out from under the wreckage of Communism, is the best book of its kind available in English and, quite likely, any other language. Granted, the field of nonscholarly books that synopsize modern Polish literature is admittedly narrow, so such praise may sound slight, a little like Spinal Tap exclaiming that they're huge in Japan.
Yet Anders is not without serious competition from fellow Polish writers. The most imposing is the latter portion of The History of Polish Literature (1969) by Czeslaw Milosz, with its contentious opinions, occasional errors and imperious language. Milosz describes Wislawa Szymborska--who would receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996, sixteen years after Milosz was awarded it--as a poet who "often leans toward preciosity" and who "is probably at her best where her woman's sensibility outweighs her existential brand of rationalism." Though the Polish language has no definite or indefinite articles, summary judgments like these leave no doubt that Milosz understood what it meant to crown his History with The instead of A. Stanislaw Baranczak's Breathing Under Water and Other East European Essays (1990), written during the poet's first years of exile in the United States, is suffused with the bewilderment of an Eastern European intellectual trying to make sense of the West, a struggle that is as much Baranczak's subject as is twentieth-century Polish culture. Last, there are the essays of theater critic Jan Kott, collected in such volumes as The Theater of Essence (1984) and The Memory of the Body (1992), whose interest in what literature says about our lives, whoever we may be, allows him to dispense with the usual arguments for Poland's relevance.
For generations a staple of Polish addresses to the West (and Western reviews of the same), such arguments have become hopelessly irrelevant, vestiges of what the novelist Witold Gombrowicz described as Poland's inferiority complex. What lends the aforementioned titles their continued vitality, despite their having been shaped by political circumstances that younger readers cannot remember, is their abiding interest in questions that transcend the headlines and gesture toward aesthetic, metaphysical and ethical quandaries. The nine authors discussed in Between Fire and Sleep thrive on these questions, and most of them received comparable attention from Anders's predecessors.
Conflict: Altruism's MidwifeSamuel Bowles in Nature:
Groups of fire ants, chimpanzees, meerkats and other animals engage in lethal conflicts. But we humans are especially good at it, killing ‘outsiders’ on a scale that altered the course of our evolution. Pre-historic burials of large numbers of men and women with smashed skulls, broken forearms and stone points embedded in their bones — as well as ethnographic studies of recent hunters and gatherers— strongly suggest that warfare was a leading cause of death in many ancestral populations. Yet at the same time, humans are unusually cooperative, collaborating with non-kin, for example in hunting and sharing food, on a scale unknown in other animals.
Paradoxically, the grisly evidence of our warlike past may help explain our distinctly cooperative nature.
This distasteful idea is based on the evolution of what my co-authors and I have termed ‘parochial altruism’. Altruism is conferring benefits on others at a cost to oneself; parochialism is favouring ethnic, racial or other insiders over outsiders. Both are commonly observed human behaviours that are well documented in experiments. For example, people from the Wolimbka and nearby Ngenika groups, in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea, have no recent history of violence. Yet when asked to divide a pot of money between themselves and another, they give more and keep less for themselves if the other is a member of their own group rather than an outsider.
But parochial altruism is puzzling from an evolutionary perspective because both altruism and parochialism reduce fitness or material well-being compared with what a person would gain were he or she to eschew these behaviours.
church and venter on synthetic genomics
Sixty-one years ago Aldous Huxley published his lesser-known masterpiece, Ape and Essence, set in the Los Angeles of 2108. After a nuclear war (in the year 2008) devastates humanity's ability to reproduce high-fidelity copies of itself, a reversion to sub-human existence had been the result. A small group of scientists from New Zealand, spared from the catastrophe, arrives, a century later, to take notes. The story is presented, in keeping with the Hollywood location, in the form of a film script. On July 24, 2009, a small group of scientists, entrepreneurs, cultural impresarios and journalists that included architects of the some of the leading transformative companies of our time (Microsoft, Google, Facebook, PayPal), arrived at the Andaz Hotel on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, to be offered a glimpse, guided by George Church and Craig Venter, of a future far stranger than Mr. Huxley had been able to imagine in 1948.more from The Edge here (videos of the lectures toward bottom of page).
unheimlich in vilnius
And having arrived in Vilnius, the "Jerusalem of Lithuania", with my proclivity for playing the part of the emphatic nymph Echo everywhere I went, I was anxious to discover something in my family's history that would secure for me a place in this city's dramatic Jewish past. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I was born into a family that had been assimilated for at least three generations. At school we became well-versed in Ancient Greek mythology, but we never learned about Moses or Jesus. I never heard a word of Yiddish or Hebrew spoken at home, never went to synagogue, never saw the Bible. None of my close relatives perished in the Holocaust or in the Gulag. My Jewish origin was stated in my Soviet internal passport – a kind of ID card in Russia – but I was, evidently, too much of a conformist and therefore too reluctant to dig deep enough in search of my Jewish roots in fear of discovering that I am not like everyone else. Apart from an occasional exchange of nastiness in the playground, common amongst adolescent boys in every country, I had never heard an anti-Semitic remark directed at me personally, nor had I ever in my life and my career suffered from an anti-Semitic deed or gesture on the part of any organisation or institution in the Soviet Union. In 1975, when I decided to apply for an exit visa to emigrate to Israel, the officials were trying, in many cases quite sincerely, to dissuade applicants from leaving the mother Russia. All in all, I left my Soviet fatherland with no regrets but also with no feelings of hatred: the Moscow of that era was for me the most entertaining prison in the world – I enjoyed staying there; but I also wanted to see what was happening outside the prison gates. The only way available to me (being of no-propaganda value to the Soviet authorities) was to emigrate. Since then I've written a few novels, arguing quite successfully why people like me succumbed to an urge as mad as to leave their own country for good. Now, I can only say that the urge to get out was stronger than my sense of attachment.more from Zinovy Zinik at Eurozine here.
the real carver
Raymond Carver wrote several drafts of each of his poems and short stories, “cutting everything down to the marrow, not just to the bone”. His stories, in particular, bear the traces of unending polish, of “putting words in and taking words out”. In the lives of most of Carver’s characters, history refers to a time when they were better or worse off, happier or unhappier, drinking more or less, than they are now. The narrative method of his early work was situated squarely in the tradition derived from Ernest Hemingway, deploying plain vocabulary, short sentences, the repetition of certain words and phrases, and above all the concealment of essential facts so as to implant a timed explosive in the reader’s imagination. Carver was Hemingway (most of whose fiction is located abroad) transposed to the blue-collar American margins, populated by men and women who seldom think about the world beyond – a land of bad marriages, cramped living rooms, truculent children, and unharnessed addictions of the old-fashioned sort. The pleasure of reading Carver, who died in 1988 at the age of fifty, derives partly from his bizarre scenarios and from absurdist dialogue which yet retains the quality of overheard conversation; equally, it comes from pace and phrasing, even paragraphing and punctuation, which the author controls with what are practically musical skills.more from James Campbell at the TLS here. (My own contribution to the issue here.)
Three's a Crowd
Ron Charles in The Washington Post:
By the time you realize just what a dangerous writer Nick Laird is, it's too late to break away. This new novel from Zadie Smith's husband comes on all wit and chumminess, a buddy story about two London roommates in love with the same woman. But in the familiar surroundings of romantic comedy, Laird is busy plotting something far more unsettling. Glover's Mistake turns imperceptibly toward the poisonous effects of bitterness, and it'll leave you feeling wary all day, as though you'd lain down with Nick Hornby and woken up beside Muriel Spark.
The story opens at a posh art show, a multimedia exhibition of style and pretension that makes a ripe target for Laird's exquisite satire. With a few graceful lines, he sketches out a privileged world where "money grants its owners a kind of armour." The gallery's central piece is a giant sheet of black paper called "Night Sky (Ambiguous Heaven)," which sells for $950,000. But the real object of Laird's attention is a self-conscious young man from the opposite end of this social scale: David Pinner, a disaffected English teacher who feels intimidated even while seething with scorn. He's come to the gallery in hopes of reintroducing himself to Ruth Marks, a famous feminist artist "acclimatized to prosperity at an early age." She was a professor of his a dozen years ago, and the moment he sees her again, "he could imagine how she might unmoor a man's existence." With a bit of expertly tailored flattery, David manages to persuade Ruth to consider a collaborative art project, and during their subsequent meetings he fancies he might have a shot at a more romantic relationship.
Little Creatures Can Stir Big Oceans
When it comes to churning up the world's oceans, Mastigias jellyfish are quite the little blenders. New research suggests that large groups of the small, placid creatures--along with all of the sea's other motile beings--can mix as much heat, gases, and nutrients through the water column as the winds and tides do.
On the surface, the sea is a roiling mass. But dip 100 meters below and the water is calm. How, then, do the world's oceans distribute heat and food throughout their depths? Currents driven by salinity and temperature differences can transport a lot. But another part of the answer comes from an idea conceived by the grandson of Charles Darwin. About a half-century ago, the famed naturalist's descendant--also named Charles--proposed that a body moving through a fluid would tend to drag some of that fluid with it. Applied to the oceans, the hypothesis means that the churning action created when aquatic creatures swim--even the smallest and slowest--might stir a significant amount of water.
Most scientists have remained skeptical, however, arguing that small marine creatures in particular could not overcome water's viscosity enough to circulate much of anything. Now, it turns out, the idea first posed by Darwin's grandson may be right.
The Rapture of my Dreams
Where am I? I awaken
and can’t find my things.
Have I lost the keys
that let me fly?
I can’t find myself in my books
nor do I see my own mirror
nor the aching table
of the blind papers,
nor the eternal voices
nor my earthly juices.
I do not feel myself,
but neither have I died.
I don’t find my ghosts
nor do I see my geography.
Now I only grasp
and an aimless street
where I get lost
without my living angels.
I awaken and the rapture
of my dreams hurts me.
by Jose Luis Diaz Granados
translation: Nicolas Suescún
from: La Fiesta perpetua y otros Poemas;
Published by: Golpe de Dados; Bogotá
El Rapto de Mis Sueños
¿Dónde estoy? Yo despierto
y no encuentro mis cosas.
¿He perdido las llaves
que me inducen al vuelo?
No me encuentro en mis libros
ni veo mi propio espejo
ni la dolida mesa
de los papeles ciegos,
ni las voces de siempre
ni mis zumos terrestres.
No me palpo a mí mismo,
pero tampoco he muerto.
No encuentro mis fantasmas
ni veo mi geografía.
Solo capturo ahora
y una calle sin rumbo
por donde yo me pierdo
sin mis ángeles vivos.
Yo despierto y me duele
el rapto de mis sueños.
July 29, 2009
Smart machines: What's the worst that could happen?
MacGregor Campbell in New Scientist:
An invasion led by artificially intelligent machines. Conscious computers. A smartphone virus so smart that it can start mimicking you. You might think that such scenarios are laughably futuristic, but some of the world's leading artificial intelligence (AI) researchers are concerned enough about the potential impact of advances in AI that they have been discussing the risks over the past year. Now they have revealed their conclusions.
Until now, research in artificial intelligence has been mainly occupied by myriad basic challenges that have turned out to be very complex, such as teaching machines to distinguish between everyday objects. Human-level artificial intelligence or self-evolving machines were seen as long-term, abstract goals not yet ready for serious consideration.
Now, for the first time, a panel of 25 AI scientists, roboticists, and ethical and legal scholars has been convened to address these issues, under the auspices of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) in Menlo Park, California. It looked at the feasibility and ramifications of seemingly far-fetched ideas, such as the possibility of the internet becoming self-aware.
The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday
Graeme Wood review's Neil MacFarquhar's book in the Barnes & Noble Review:
MacFarquhar's title, The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday, refers to a cordial August 2003 email from Haidar Dikmak, a flack for the militant Shiite political party in Lebanon. The book sustains the ironic, half-menacing tone of the title, and in its progress from one country to the next, it focuses on issues and personalities of interest to Arabs themselves, rather than the issues of narrow interest to the United States. As one government official notes explicitly, foreign reporters tend to arrive and raid the country for Hizbollah stories.
But to MacFarquhar and to nearly all Arabs, Lebanon is a country best known not for war but for entertainment and glamour -- a sort of semi-debauched Middle Eastern Hollywood. (The Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, whose music videos and singing temptresses entertain patrons in crowded lunch spots all over the Middle East, is known as Lubnaniyaat Bidun Culottes, or Lebanese Girls Without Underwear.) Fairouz, the beloved Lebanese hit singer, often goes unmentioned in books like this, an omission that would perhaps be comparable to a book about modern Iceland that never mentioned Björk. MacFarquhar awards Fairouz several pages that explain her fans' ardor in illuminating detail.
Respect For the Fungus Overlords
Carl Zimmer in his excellent blog, The Loom:
When I first learned about the fungus Cordyceps, I refused to believe.
I was working on a book about the glories of parasites, so I was already in the parasitic tank, you could say. But when I read about how Cordyceps infects its insect hosts, I thought, this simply cannot be. The spores penetrate an insect’s exoskeleton and then work their way into its body, where fungus then starts to grow. Meanwhile, the insect wanders up a plant and clamps down, whereupon Cordyceps grows a long stalk that sprouts of the dead host’s body. It can then shower down spores on unfortunate insects below.
I mean, really.
Yet this video from David Attenborough faithfully depicts the actual biology of this flesh-and-blood fungus. I also discovered that Cordyceps is not the only species that drives insect hosts upward. You don’t even have to visit a remote jungle to see one. Here in the United States, houseflies sometimes end up stuck to screen doors thanks to a fungus called Entomophthora muscae. And the lancet fluke Dicrocoelium dendriticum uses the same strategy to get into cows.
Call me naive, but I assumed that creatures as freakish and wonderful as Cordyceps and company would attract enormous amounts of scientific attention. Yet I was frustrated to discover that hardly any research has been carried out on their powers of manipulation. That’s a shame, because you cannot assume that these parasites are indeed manipulating their hosts. It’s possible, but it’s just a hypothesis that requires testing.
World's Fastest Everything
Chinese Scientists Reprogram Cells to Create Mice
From The Wall Street Journal:
Two teams of Chinese researchers working separately have reprogrammed mature skin cells of mice to an embryonic-like state and used the resulting cells to create live mouse offspring. The reprogramming may bring scientists one step closer to creating medically useful stem-cell lines for treating human disease without having to resort to controversial laboratory techniques. However, the advance poses fresh ethical challenges because the results could make it easier to create human clones and babies with specific genetic traits. The latest findings are a bit of a surprise, given that Chinese scientists' contribution to lab-based stem-cell research has been modest over the years. However, Chinese scientists have been publishing more basic-research findings than in the past. The country is more known for its growing trade in unproven stem-cell therapies that have attracted patients from around the world. Reports suggest that China's health authorities have moved to regulate such activities.
long live serial
The plots of soap operas are not only melodramatic; unlike any other kind of serial, they are written with no end in sight. This engages the viewer in an experience in which the pace startlingly mimics that of reality and plot itself is incidental. Like life, once a soap starts you’re along for the ride, never knowing how or when it will end. You focus on the characters’ daily affairs and less on the overall story. Soap opera characters act in real time — day by day by day, just as you and I do — but theirs are infinite, fantastic lives. To quote Guiding Light’s “Gus Aitoro,” “Everything's easy for me. Although next year might be a problem because I was legally dead, partially, briefly.” It’s no wonder soap operas have been so loved by women who stay home all day. The incremental timing of the narrative mimics daily life, even if the events don’t. There’s an immediacy to all the melodrama. (This might be the reason why there were so many protests when networks tried to replace the ugly rawness of standard video with the gloss of high-def). And while the content of the narrative sounds outrageous when summarized, it doesn’t feel as strange when you’re watching it unfold over time. Maybe you haven’t yet been divorced six times, but try to write the story of your life in three paragraphs and I promise you will be shocked at the theater of it all. In structure, soaps are far different from a show like C.S.I. The latter is self-contained, complete. The plots are generally simple and focused. It doesn't matter much whether you watch the episodes in sequence, and the characters’ development tends to be static. Serials, however, are different. Each episode concludes with loose ends, teases that lead you along. As the plots unravel, the characters become more complicated. You watch what the characters on Law & Order do, but you don’t grow with them. With serials like soaps, you learn characters’ dark secrets, watch them slowly fall in love. And out of love. And into love again. The way serials involve you completely in their logic is not just engaging — it’s magical.more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.
The personal honor of the private eye is the genre’s most hallowed convention. He owes nothing to anyone. He is in it only for himself; therefore, he is selfless. In Chandler’s description: “He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man, or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. . . . The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.” The detective in Chandler’s books is Philip Marlowe, a character probably created on the model of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. (Hammett was a mystery writer Chandler did admire. “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse,” he said.) Lew Archer is Ross Macdonald’s private eye; Mike Hammer is Mickey Spillane’s. Thomas Pynchon’s is named Larry (Doc) Sportello. Sportello is the best thing in Pynchon’s self-consciously laid-back and funky new novel, “Inherent Vice” (Penguin; $27.95). The title is a term in maritime law (a specialty of one of the minor characters). It refers to the quality of things that makes them difficult to insure: if you have eggs in your cargo, a normal policy will not cover their breaking. Getting broken is in the nature of being an egg. The novel gives the concept some low-key metaphysical play—original sin is an obvious analogy—but, apart from this and a death-and-resurrection motif involving a saxophonist in a surf-rock band, “Inherent Vice” does not appear to be a Pynchonian palimpsest of semi-obscure allusions. (I could be missing something, of course. I could be missing everything.)more from Louis Menand at The New Yorker here.
to make marks is to be human
"Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the Middle Ages" is the most original museum show in this country since 2002's "Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence." These audacious exhibitions turn scholarly probity into artistic revelation; it speaks volumes about the curatorial esprit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that this great institution has been responsible for both events. "Tapestry in the Renaissance," which made a definitive case for the centrality of woven images in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century European art, was the defining moment in the career of Thomas Campbell, a relatively untested curator who is now the director of the Metropolitan. It is anyone's guess where the curator Melanie Holcomb will be in seven years, but there is no doubt that with this new, gorgeously focused show, she has reframed the place of drawing in the history of European art. I cannot imagine someone going through this epochal exhibition without being convinced that drawing was recognized as a deeply personal avowal as early as the ninth century. We may know next to nothing about the artists who did most of this work, but we can see that they were expressing their own sense of life through the energy that they brought to marks made with pen and ink on parchment.more from Jed Perl at TNR here.
How odd of my wife
I thought at the time
to pluck bay leaves
to season her stews
from a tree that shades
the grave of a girl
knew seventeen springs
before they laid her
into the earth,
before the bay tree
put down roots
before my mother
and father knew
fruit of the tree
Sitting at table
with wife and child
I relish the dish
and acknowledge the guest
who is part of the feast –
you’re welcome, Mary,
into my house
and you’re more than welcome
into my mouth
for this is the way
the world goes round
from the first kiss
to the baby’s milk,
from the first word
to the tongue’s last sound –
bread of communion
we taste in the mouth
is broken in commonwealth
under the ground.
by Michael Cody
Surprises from General Relativity: "Swimming" in Spacetime
From Scientific American:
In a famous series of stories in the 1940s, physicist George Gamow related the adventures of one Mr. C.G.H. Tompkins, a humble bank clerk who had vivid dreams of worlds where strange physical phenomena intruded into everyday life. In one of these worlds, for instance, the speed of light was 15 kilometers per hour, putting the weird effects of Einstein's theory of special relativity on display if you so much as rode a bicycle.
Not long ago I figuratively encountered one of Mr. Tompkins's great grandsons, Mr. E. M. Everard, a philosopher and engineer who is carrying on his ancestor's tradition. He told me of an amazing experience he had involving some recently discovered aspects of Einstein's theory of general relativity, which I will share with you. His remarkable story is replete with curved spacetime, cats twisting in midair, an imperiled astronaut dog paddling through a vacuum to safety—and Isaac Newton perhaps spinning in his grave.
July 28, 2009
The Russian God
By P.A. Vyazemsky, Translated by Alan Myers, in the NYRB:
Do you need an explanation
what the Russian god can be?
Here's a rough approximation
as the thing appears to me.
God of snowstorms, god of potholes,
every wretched road you've trod,
coach-inns, cockroach haunts and rat holes,
that's him, that's your Russian god.
God of frostbite, god of famine,
beggars, cripples by the yard,
farms with no crops to examine,
that's him, that's your Russian god.
God of breasts and…all sagging,
swollen legs in bast shoes shod,
curds gone curdled, faces dragging,
that's him, that's your Russian god.
God of brandy, pickle vendors,
those who pawn what serfs they've got,
of old women of both genders,
that's him, that's your Russian god.
God of medals and of millions,
god of yard-sweepers unshod,
lords in sleighs with two postillions,
that's him, that's your Russian god.
Fools win grace, wise men be wary,
there he never spares the rod,
god of everything contrary,
that's him, that's your Russian god.
God of all that gets shipped in here,
unbecoming, senseless, odd,
god of mustard on your dinner,
that's him, that's your Russian god.
God of foreigners, whenever
they set foot on Russian sod,
god of Germans, now and ever,
that's him, that's your Russian god.
In his 1985 essay "Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood," Baldwin wrote of Michael Jackson:
The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success. He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael.
Baldwin goes on to claim that "freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated—in the main, abominably—because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires." But Jackson was not quite that articulate or vocal about his difference, if he even saw it as such after a while. Certainly his early interest in subtext —expressed primarily by wordplay and choice of metaphor—receded after he released his synthesizer-heavy 1991 album, Dangerous. That album gave us "In the Closet," where an uncredited Princess Stéphanie of Monaco pleads, at the beginning of the song, for the singer not to ignore their love, "woman to man." (It's another link in the chain of influence; she sounds like Jackson doing Diana Ross.) In a later part of the song, Michael pleads: "Just promise me/Whatever we say/Or whatever we do/To each other/For now we'll make a vow/To just keep it in the closet."
more from Hilton Als at the NYRB here.
Merce Cunningham (1919-2009)
Merce Cunningham, who has died aged 90, was one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century, and the greatest American-born one. As a choreographer, he never abandoned the voyage of discovery that he embarked on at the beginning of his career. Like his life partner and frequent collaborator, the composer John Cage, he remained intransigent to the last. He continued to lead his dance company, founded in 1953, until his death, and presented a new work, Nearly Ninety, last April, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, to mark his 90th birthday. In spite of what was often seen as his iconoclasm, his work was essentially classical in its formal qualities, its rigour, and its purity. Both Cunningham and Cage used chance processes, though in very different ways: Cage carried them through to the actual performance of his music, while Cunningham used them only in the creation of the choreography itself. As with any other compositional tool, what really matters is the quality of the imagination at work. Apart from Cunningham's sheer fecundity of invention, his choreography was notable for its strength of structure, even though that structure was organic rather than preconceived.more from David Vaughan at The Guardian here.
your brain in drive
The unresolved debate over how to monitor older drivers points to not only the difficulty of regulating an important social activity, but of the underappreciated complexity of driving itself. Getting behind the wheel of a car may be an everyday activity, but it’s also the most dangerous and cognitively assaultive thing most of us do, and the only realm in which most people are regularly confronted with split-second, life-or-death decisions. That also makes it a valuable laboratory for the study of human attention, perception, and concentration - an arena where brain science is turning seeming abstractions into hard knowledge about important life skills. “[Studying driving] turns out to be an excellent way to look at the limits of our attentional abilities, especially as we get older and we start to show significant declines,” says David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah. “It’s one of the most direct ways to be able to look at how attention works, how multi-tasking works.”more from Drake Bennett at The Boston Globe here.
On the Train with Judy Garland
We are leaving the coast,
the seafarer’s road to Utopia.
The train sounds weary, it is old stock.
The branch line runs between
dry-stone walls and bushes of gorse.
There are small estuaries,
inlets where the day ends in solitudes
that feel cold and fill with sudden stillness.
We hurtle through provincial stations
and slow down when it’s time to stop
for new passengers.
The girl on the seat opposite,
like a young Judy Garland,
has become my three-hour figment
of infatuation. Sometimes she seems
on the verge of speaking
but really she is occupied by what she sees
in nature: the vernal landscape
in the window frame,
the black raincloud like a mascara stain.
by Gerard Smyth
from A New Tenancy; Dedalus Press, Dublin, 2004
Evolutionary Psychology: A Response to Its CriticsIn Psychology Today, Gad Saad responds to Sharon Begley's article on evo psyc in Newsweek. One of Saad's points is that many evo psyc models incorporate contingent behavioral strategies, the "it depends" mode of explanation. I wonder though. If the claims of evolutionary psychology are given credence by identifying them in cross-cutural, transhistoric universal patterns of behavior, how can we know that the variations in behavior are the result of an "it depends" hardwiring or socio-cultural development?:
Sharon Begley has just written an article in Newsweek wherein she castigates the field of evolutionary psychology (EP) using the same antiquated and perfectly erroneous set of criticisms that have been addressed by evolutionary psychologists on endless occasions. If cats have nine lives then critics of evolutionary psychology à la Ms. Begley have infinite lives. The anti-EP dragon is slain repeatedly and yet it always resurfaces, emboldened by its blind and prideful ignorance of the facts. Unfortunately, it would take several posts for me to provide a point-by-point retort to the endless number of falsehoods that appear in her article. Instead, I will focus on a few key ones that were central to her critique.
(1) Ms. Begley's article title, Can We Blame Our Bad Behavior on Stone-Age Genes, seems to levy yet again the specter that evolutionary psychology is tantamount to genetic determinism. Evolutionary psychologists posit that the human mind does indeed consist of evolved computational systems that can be instantiated in one of several ways as a function of specific triggering inputs. Put simply, evolutionary psychologists are perfectly aware that humans are an inextricable mélange of their genes and idiosyncratic life experiences. This is known as the interactionist perspective. Epigenetic rules by definition recognize the importance of the environment in shaping the manner by which biological blueprints will be instantiated. Hence, EP does not imply that we are endowed with a perfectly rigid and inflexible human nature. Rather, we do possess an evolutionary-based human nature that subsequently interacts with environmental cues. That said this does not imply that human nature is infinitely malleable. I challenge Ms. Begley to find a culture in the annals of recorded history where parents were overwhelmingly more concerned about their son's chastity as compared to their daughter's.
Tennessee Williams: the quiet revolutionary
From The Guardian:
Who is Britain's favourite American dramatist? One year it seems to be Arthur Miller, the next it's David Mamet. Right now, Tennessee Williams is having a moment. Rachel Weisz opens in A Streetcar Named Desire tonight, at the Donmar in London. In December, a Broadway African-American Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, starring James Earl Jones and Adrian Lester, comes to the West End. And, in between, there is the European premiere of a forgotten 1937 play, Spring Storm, at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton. But, for all our enthusiasm for Williams, I think we still get him subtly wrong. He is most often dubbed a "psychological" dramatist, but this ignores his social and political radicalism – as well as his rich talent for comedy.
Of course, perceptions of Williams have evolved over the years. When Streetcar was first seen in London in 1949, in a production directed by Laurence Olivier and starring Vivien Leigh, Williams was viewed as a kind of filthy American sleaze-merchant. The confrontation of Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski sent the British press into a tizzy: Logan Gourlay in the Sunday Express spoke for many when he condemned the play as "the progress of a prostitute, the flight of a nymphomaniac, the ravings of a sexual neurotic". The play was attacked in Parliament as "low and repugnant", and by the Public Morality Council as "salacious and pornographic". When Cat On a Hot Tin Roof had its British premiere in 1958, it had to be presented under the polite fiction of a "club performance" – lest the broader public be corrupted by the discreet suggestion that its hero, Brick, is gay.
An Easy Way to Increase Creativity
From Scientific American:
Creativity is commonly thought of as a personality trait that resides within the individual. We count on creative people to produce the songs, movies, and books we love; to invent the new gadgets that can change our lives; and to discover the new scientific theories and philosophies that can change the way we view the world. Over the past several years, however, social psychologists have discovered that creativity is not only a characteristic of the individual, but may also change depending on the situation and context. The question, of course, is what those situations are: what makes us more creative at times and less creative at others?
One answer is psychological distance. According to the construal level theory (CLT) of psychological distance, anything that we do not experience as occurring now, here, and to ourselves falls into the “psychologically distant” category. It’s also possible to induce a state of “psychological distance” simply by changing the way we think about a particular problem, such as attempting to take another person's perspective, or by thinking of the question as if it were unreal and unlikely. In this new paper, by Lile Jia and colleagues at Indiana University at Bloomington, scientists have demonstrated that increasing psychological distance so that a problem feels farther away can actually increase creativity.
Exhuming the Spanish Civil WarJulius Purcell in the Boston Review:
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.
Auden’s anthem to the doomed Spanish Republic, his somber warning, has rarely been more relevant.
Last September Spain’s homegrown “super-judge” Baltasar Garzón—best-known for his dramatic 1998 effort to arrest the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London— announced that he was investigating not only the whereabouts of the remains of the “disappeared” of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), but also the huge numbers of defeated Republicans executed by General Francisco Franco in the grim postwar years. His goal was to try to amass enough evidence to charge Franco’s regime posthumously with crimes against humanity. Could it be that, after so long, “help” and “pardon” were finally coming to the descendants of those who died defending the Spanish Republic?
According to the great Hispanist Hugh Thomas, the three-year Civil War claimed the lives of 365,000 Spaniards, a toll that includes both those loyal to the fascist rebel Franco and those who opposed him. Some historians put the figure higher. Both sides carried out brutal executions, the bodies of victims often ending up in unmarked mass graves.
When the Civil War ended in 1939, the victorious Franco regime executed an additional one hundred thousand-plus Republican prisoners, many of whose corpses were flung into yet more mass-burial pits. These unmarked mounds, visited stealthily by the families of the “defeated” during the dictatorship, are scattered the length and breadth of Spain.
July 27, 2009
The Humanists: Wes Anderson's Rushmore (1998)
Because thousands of a certain generation's cinematic lives have been changed by this film, its territory is best approached with caution. Mine, however, happens to be among those thousands, 1998 marking as it did the opening of my prime window of cultural absporpton. Cinephilic teenagers of the 1960s had The 400 Blows, Breathless, Dr. Strangelove; cinephilic teenagers of the 1970s had Harold and Maude, Chinatown, Taxi Driver; cinephilic teenagers of the 1980s had Repo Man, Blue Velvet, Stranger than Paradise; cinephilic teenagers of the 1990s had Rushmore.
The impact of Wes Anderson's second film didn't propel me immediately from the screening room to a new, theretofore unseen world illuminated by pure light cast forth by the angels of cinema. Its effects were those of a gradually-dissolving ingested substance, working only in the fullness of time. I knew I'd seen something epiphanic, but damned if I could put my finger on what or why. While it has sparked and continues to spark in young viewers as much of a fanatic enthusiasm for film, both its appreciation and its craft, as the most radical, stylistically transgressive piece of deliberate provocation, it does so within a shell of relative normality. But though translucently thin, this shell appears to have confused almost as many filmgoers as it's blindsided with slow-acting inspiration.
"You can't tell if it's a comedy, or if it's a drama, or what it is!" complained some with whom I excitedly sought to discuss the movie. While my adolescent mind couldn't counter this grievance, I now realize that coming up with a genre to fit Rushmore into is an exercise not only doomed to futility but ignorant of the very seat of the film's strength: you can't tell if it's a comedy or a drama or what because it isn't. It is, strictly speaking, a film without genre, which is to say, a film without any of the bundles of clichés that constitute the genres' membership qualifications. This must have rendered marketing a futile ordeal, which would account for the movie's unimpressive domestic box office performance. (But since genre is a labor-saving marketer's device in the first place, perhaps this is a simple case of reaping what's been sown.)
Even celebrated critic Pauline Kael, quoted by Anderson himself in his account of privately screening the film for her, expressed bewilderment:
''I don't know what you've got here, Wes.''
''Did the people who gave you the money read the script?''
I frowned. ''Yeah. That's kind of their policy.''
Then again, she was the one who continually dismissed Terrence Malick, so, grain of salt. From Kael's exalted position to that of the lowliest Netflix user-reviewer ("What is this movie? Funny? Quirky? Coming of age? How about none of the above," writes one, lodging also her doubt "if the people that make these things have their head skrewed [sic] on"), what seems to set off uneasy viewers isn't just the picture's casual disregard for the artificial boundaries of genre, style and mood but its proprietary — to use Anderson's own words — "heightened reality" that, perhaps for some, falls into the uncanny valley between mundane realism and wild fantasy.
Rushmore's world superficially resembles, but is not, our own. Its story takes place over half a year in a region with verdant, unnaturally season-reponsive campuses and crumbling concrete public structures; cheerfully seedy laundromats and barbershops with wall-mounted payphones; vertiginous, wind-wrapped skyscrapers and sprawling industrial complexes; run-down, chintzily brimming cottages and silent, isolated mini-mansions. Its people don everything from tweed on tweed to blue blazers to vintage athletic wear to hunting hats to red berets to brown ski parkas to school uniforms to baggy jeans to pinstripes to green velvet. They drive Beetles and Bentleys and bicycles of highly specific makes and nationalities. They watch monochromatic television sets and use 16-millimeter projectors. Their cultural references include Jacques Cousteau, Serpico and Budweiser. The fulcrum of its music rests somewhere around the year 1970. Though not, strictly speaking, timeless or placeless, it spans wide temporal and geographical ranges without lacking its own distinct qualities.
At this small world's center stands Max Fischer, a man not without qualities himself. But is he a man, really? He's scripted as a 15-year-old high school student and shot in such a way as to appear significantly shorter than the adults with whom he associates. And yet, in a larger sense, he is a man, the man of the film, more poised, articulate and confident than any of his elders. One might well ask of the protagonist what they ask of his story: which categorizations could possibly apply? His just-so attire, chunky brown spectacle frames and occasionally wonky haircut suggest a nerd, but he expresses no stereotypical nerd qualities. He's not an underachiever: a yearbook montage lists his privileged positions in myriad student organizations including "French Club", "Piper Cub Society", "Yankee Racers" and "The Max Fischer Players". Nor is he not an underachiever: a transcript reveals grades that hover, in every class from geometry to botany, around the 50-percent mark, and rapidly falls into "sudden death probation," under which one more failure means expulsion.
But so what? Find a new school, new friends and the expelled student is, with a clean slate, right back when he began. Not so, alas, for Max Fischer. Rushmore Academy, the prep school he's attended for a dozen years on a scholarship granted on the merit of a play written in early childhood — "a little one-act about Watergate," Max reminds the exasperated headmaster — has become his raison d'être, the very core of his identity, the institutional escape pod from his otherwise drab lower-middle-class existence. When a local millionaire, observing that Max seems to have life pretty well figured out, asks him what his secret is, Max replies: "I guess you've just got to find something you love and then do it for the rest of your life. For me, it's going to Rushmore."
That millionaire is Herman Blume, the self-made founder of a successful steel firm who will become both Max's best friend and greatest living enemy. The willingness to explore a friendship — or rivalry — between a middle-aged, Vietnam-hardened tycoon and a hard-dreaming kid outsider is representative of Rushmore's unusual brand of craftsmanship, a controlled freewheelingness that treats cinema's almost unseen yet stubbornly routine-hardened barriers as immaterial without descending into tiresome creative indiscipline. Blume seems to see something of himself in Max, be it tenacity, sneakiness or raw ambition; he at once admires it and is vaguely repulsed by it. And at the same time, Max seems to pull the whole act off with more panache than does blume; hyperambitious child, to echo a tired point, is the father to drained man.
Their qualities united are formidable; when divided, things get quite ugly, quite quickly. The wedge comes in the form of Rosemary Cross, Rushmore's young, widowed, long-skirted, English-accented first-grade teacher. Not long after she meets Max does the pursuit of her rise to his foremost extracurricular activity. Noting her slight wistfulness at the school's cancellation of Latin, he fights tooth and nail to have the courses reinstated — despite the fact that he campaigned to end them in the first place. Stepping it up, he observes Miss Cross' love of marine life and sets wheels in motion on the construction of a multimillion-dollar on-campus aquarium, financed by Blume. Given the ludicrously inflated scale of Max's stage productions — an ultrastylized drama of gats and lowriders, a roilingly pyrotechnic Vietnam piece, a faithful adaptation of the aforementioned Sidney Lumet film — it comes as no surpise that he would build an aquarium just to win over a woman. But indeed, what drive has ever built more aquaria?
Bemused by her teenage would-be suitor's grand gestures, Miss Cross distances herself, all the while attracting, and eventually reciprocating, Blume's interest. After learning of their assignations through his diminutive former chapel partner, Max shunts all that club-founding, play-producing energy toward but one goal: revenge. Miss Cross and Rushmore itself are the movie's two obscure objects of desire, neither of which Max ultimately finds knowable or attainable, not that it stops him from trying. Repeatedly rebuffed by the teacher for whom he's hot and stripped of Rushmore Yankee status after breaking ground on the aquarium without permission, Max finds himself at paralyzingly loose ends when his strikes at Blume — his brake line-cutting, his bee attacks, his informing Blume's wife of the affair — fail to drive Miss Cross into his own arms. Despite possessing the drive and ability to accomplish much of what he sets his sights on, he's been robbed of his desiderata. The question becomes, as it so often does with the driven and able: what now? "She's my Rushmore, Max" explains an importunate Blume. "I know," replies Max. "She was mine too."
Eleven years on from Rushmore's release, Anderson's detractors have unfairly (but not wholly groundlessly) labeled him a shallow, finicky production design fetishist fatally attached to a dwindling stable of pet themes; a 2007 Onion headline sardonically heralds that a new Wes Anderson film features "Deadpan Delivery, Meticulous Art Direction, Characters With Father Issues". He has defended himself, and articulately so, as merely a craftsman who understands and accepts what he wants to make and thus looks to improve with each iteration rather than to diversify for the sake of diversification, much as a cabinetmaker seeks to produce a superior cabinet on each job instead of, say, a shoe rack just for the hell of it. (In this, he's very much the artistic cousin of the criminally under-recognized Sang-soo Hong.) Should he deny the accusations of deadpan delivery, meticulous art direction and characters with father issues? He shouldn't, and in any case probably couldn't. Admirably, he owns them.
But that said, it must be admitted that he hasn't, at least in my judgment, topped himself since. While Anderson's three more recent pictures have built upon what's to be found in his first two, the other entries in his oeuvre lack Rushmore's equipoise. The charming Bottle Rocket was thematically both engaging and slightly inchoate — "thrown together," in Kael's mildly harsh words — and the lush The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, while all products of an ever-growing filmic skill set, suffer under a low-ish signal-to-noise ratio. With sharper focus than its predecessor and clean economy relative to its successors, the movie manages to convey itself in just the right number of brushstrokes, never overreaching, plodding or condescending. Though its main character is given to sometimes damaging grandness, calculation and overreach, the picture itself is decidedly not.
And oh, what a main character. Volumes could be written on Max Fischer alone. Try as one might to identify direct ancestors or descendants, only superficial similarities present themselves; the reality is that there is no other character like him, not in any meaningful sense. Plenty of stories have been written about social outcasts, about the willfully institutionalized, about rule-free rebels, about awkward nerds, about junior achievers, about academic slackers, about lovelorn youngsters, about Gatsbyesque pretenders. Here we have a story about someone who is all these things and more besides. But perhaps most importantly, Max is all these things in the service of his visions, of the dreams he wants to — nay, must — realize, and they happen to be his very own, not a shrinkwrapped set pulled down from the stock ambition shelf. As Anderson himself put it in a 1999 Salon interview:
I like characters that are trying to realize their projects. They have a strong idea of something they want to execute and they just won't let anybody shut 'em down. It might seem ridiculous or it might seem too big — I mean, building an aquarium, that's crazy; putting on a Vietnam play with explosions from the stage is crazy — but [Max] does that. Of course, it's a movie, so I can have whatever I want to have happen. But I do like that kind of thing of people with unrealistic ambitions and their ambitions are not just to be rich. They have ideas and projects that they want to do.
This clearly resonates with the filmmaker. It may resonate with you. It certainly resonates with me.
Rushmore has, after countless viewings over more than a decade, revealed its imperfections: it gets too plotty, especially around the Max-Blume rivalry; the ending's a bit neat; many sequences use thirty shots where one would have done. But time has not diminished its aesthetic and human richness, nor the refreshing boldness of its willingness to simply be itself, a work that exists on its own terms without dictating them to the audience. Walter Benjamin once wrote that all great works of literature dissolve a genre or found a new one. Though of a different medium, Rushmore is indeed a great work and thus does the former, the latter or quite possibly both. But, much more importantly, it was the first film ever to feel as if it were made for me. And I'm hardly alone in the sentiment.
Feedback happily accepted at colinjmarshall at gmail
a coupla robot heads sitting around watching tv (or, i caught a bad meme this weekend)
When it comes to "memetics," which some say is the new science of studying "memes," consider me a skeptic. Doesn't a science need to have a clearly defined subject and verifiable findings? At this point the "meme" concept seems more or less to be where the "artificial intelligence" idea was twenty years ago: That is, it's not so much a hypothesis as it is an analogy - a somewhat vague and fluid analogy - one that lets people think in some new and smart ways but leaves them subject to flights of excessive rhetoric.
Which means it's useful ... but not exactly real.
The uninitiated among you may be wondering what, exactly, is meant by the word "meme." You're not alone. Meme advocates are still arguing about that. The word was first used by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, as a contract of "mimeme" (meaning imitated behavior.) Dawkins was suggesting that cultural behaviors, reproduced as one person mimics the actions of another, could be considered analogous to genes.
What are some examples of memes? Opinions vary. But the word has caught on in the blogging and Internet world, where its definition seems to be indistinguishable from "fads" or "catchphrases." Lolcats is described as a "meme" on the Web, for example, and so is "rickrolling." Expressions like "Jump the shark" and "FAIL" are memes in the online universe, too. A more rigorous and universally agreed-upon definition appears to be lacking.
In addition to his scientific work, Dawkins is one of the finest science writers we have. But it's not clear (at least to me) how seriously he expected the idea to be taken. It's being taken very seriously indeed, however. Consider this sentence: "In a given population of people, memes compete to be copied." It was written by Dr. Susan Blackmore, a noted researcher in altered mind states and well-known debunker of paranormal phenomena. The sentence reflects the mind-set of someone who is notably and eloquently skeptical about many phenomena, yet is somehow willing to impute agency - and something that sounds very much like volition - to cultural behaviors.
The Oxford English Dictionary's online definition of compete is "strive to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others." So, by this theory, LOLcats and rickrolling strove to prevail over other websites and Internet pranks that have been less successful. A less successful website - like Men Who Look Like Old Lesbians, for example - apparently lacked either the proper attributes ... or maybe the will ... to succeed as its fellow memes have succeeded. It is a loser in the cold Darwinian battle for our head space.
Look ... it's entirely possible I'm being unfair about all this. I've caught a nasty virus and I feel lousy. It feels like I'm typing this from inside a six-foot sphere made entirely of lint. Dr. Blackmore's done some very interesting work. Maybe there is something called a meme, and maybe it does have agency. But the virus that has attacked my body can be seen on an electron microscope. It can be defined. It reproduces and competes for definable and limited resources.
Let's look at this "meme" thing a little further. (And forget about Men Who Look Like Old Lesbians. I know why that didn't succeed - because, judging from a quick scan, pretty much any man over fifty qualifies. It's bound to annoy both older men and lesbians. You call that a meme?)
Dr. Blackmore's paper on "consciousness in meme machines" points us to the exceedingly cool work being done by researchers such as Luc Steels, who has used computer science and robotics to experiment with creating and reproducing language.
In their paper "Bootstrapping Grounded Word Semantics," Steels and Frederic Kaplan describe their research on "robotic agents interacting with real world environments through a sensory apparatus." (See illustration, above.) Specifically, they connected "Talking Head" robots via the Internet and gave them the ability to exchange "agents" that could move from one unit to the other. Both robots had visual access to a series of colored shapes on a whiteboard, which they viewed via an electronically relayed imaging system.
In other words, the robots were watching TV ... and talking about it.
It should be noted that the Steels/Kaplan paper does not use the word "meme." They are attempting to reproduce the genesis and evolution of linguistic forms using programmed software, combined with video technology and robotics. The subjects of their experiment clearly do have identity and agency, even if it is programmed from an external source (and therefore could be said to be an expression of Steels' and Kaplan's actions, not the expression of their own volition.)
Are there really "selfish memes"? Isn't that like saying the different pairs of pants in my closet "compete" to be worn by me every morning? And that the plaid ones my mom bought me are being selected against on a regular basis? Isn't that really just an analogy?
Well, analogies are alright. Analogies are good and proper and useful - provided we remember that they are analogies. I'm not on board the "meme" bandwagon as reality - at least not yet. Apparently the "meme" meme's efforts to reproduce itself in my mind have been unsuccessful so far. But then, is there a "me," independent of the memes that have coagulated in my general direction? Dr. Blackmore suggests not, that the illusion of self is created by hordes of selfish memes: "The illusion that we are a conscious self having a stream of experiences is constructed when memes compete for replication by human hosts."
It's a fascinating idea, one that owes much to Dr. Blackmore's past studies of Buddhism and which I can more easily grasp because of my own. But I'm not prepared to make the leap of faith required to consider it a reality.
Maybe it's just this virus slowing me down. I certainly feel lousy - that is, if there really is an "I" who feels anything. Maybe the "feeling sick" meme just needed to replicate and I was an available host. Which is to say, maybe I just came down with a bad meme.
If you live in New York, there are, theoretically, an infinite number of reasons to vary your route home from work. Dozens of neighborhoods, hundreds of shops, thousands of bars can be explored with only the slightest detour from your particular beaten path. So why do I rarely, if ever, take the opportunity? Call it inertia, or lack of imagination, or, more realistically, the result of nine hours of staring at a computer and circling a mouse around. After that, whatever path gets me to my apartment and into a drink the fastest is the one I’m going to follow. More than once I’ve convinced myself to make a post-work side trip to, say, a book store in Union Square, only to emerge from a daydream and find myself walking up the steps at my normal stop in Brooklyn anyway. The best-laid plans are powerless in the face of the daily habits of the 9-to-5er. The upshot, sadly, is that the city where I work is seldom the city where I explore—it’s not the city where I see.
My office is in Murray Hill and I live in Cobble Hill in Brooklyn, which makes my best commuting option the 6 train to 14th St., and then the 4 to Borough Hall, a wobblingly reliable 20-minute express shot down the east side. Late in the evening, though, the 4 can be exasperatingly slow, so slow that on some nights I’m compelled to throw routine to the wind and take the 6 two more stops, to the Bleecker St. station, where I can catch the F to Brooklyn.
Bleecker is less a proper station than a decaying, half-finished interstice that serves as a connector between the subway’s formerly competing systems, the IRT (i.e., the numbered trains) and the BMT (the lettered trains). It’s the only stop in the city where you can transfer between lines on one side—downtown—and not the other, a flaw that’s currently costing the MTA $134 million to rectify. The space’s most notable landmarks are two large, blue mosaics that date from the system’s proud opening in 1904. “Bleecker Street” is carved out at their centers with a beaming, capitalized pride that mocks the dilapidated state of the station today.
Jarring as they may be, those mosaics weren’t what caught my eye one recent evening after work.
I was walking a few feet behind a woman whom I could only assume was a European tourist—she sported the hip walking shoes, half-sneaker, half-moccasin, whose labels are a mystery to American shoe shoppers like me. Even more of a giveaway was the fact that she had pulled out a digital camera and was using it to take a close-up snapshot of the signage on one of the station’s dingy white-tiled pillars. The sign read, in black sans-serif type, BL’KER. As charming as the mid-word apostrophe was, I thought that only a tourist would bother to commemorate its existence. To a New York native, the subway is a dead zone, a reminder of daily obligations, something we must get past to start our days, something to block out of our minds.
The woman stopped, zeroed in on BL’KER, and snapped. By the time she was finished, I was about a foot behind her. She held the camera up to her eyes to preview her shot; from behind her head, I could see it at close range as well. I was stunned. Inside that tiny rectangular frame, BL’KER was beautiful. No, not beautiful, exactly, but it was the found-art equivalent of beautiful: It existed for me. I could see, to my surprise, that it had been designed rather than just mindlessly slapped in the same spot on pillar after pillar to let subway riders know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, where they were. Behind the letters there had been a thought. This may seem obvious—everything is designed in a city—but it had never occurred to me. The tourist’s eye, or her camera, had aestheticized the little broken word. It was a heady feeling, but it wasn’t the first time I’d experienced it.
Two years earlier, I’d visited a Dan Flavin show in Paris. The exhibit itself, at a contemporary art museum, had been pretty dreary. Flavin’s usual configurations of fluorescent tubes was dwarfed by the space, which was colossal and featureless. His works were robbed of the warm luminous ambient quality they can acquire in closer confines. After a hasty tour, I was happy to make my way back outside and into the afternoon sun—Paris itself was the better show. But when I walked down into a metro station a few minutes later, I found that my eyes were drawn to the fluorescent tubes that lined its ceilings. I had never consciously looked at them before, in Paris or anywhere else, but now I could see that they were everywhere. Along the train tracks, the tubes were placed end-to-end; in other places they were housed in individual boxes. Having internalized Flavin’s preoccupation with them, these seemingly stale objects now struck me as thin, buzzing, manmade suns. They were ubiquitous and at the same time virtually invisible. They were—again, a fact both obvious and totally surprising to me—the reason we could see underground.
A few days later I took the 6 to Bleecker again. This time, now that I could recognize their existence, the BL’KER signs triggered a memory, a sensation from a forgotten and very different time in my life in New York.
Growing up in the middle of Pennsylvania, four hours from New York, I’d been obsessed with the city. In high school and college, I extended that into a passion for the city’s downtown music scene, its bands, its characters, its choniclers. It had been the reason I’d moved to the city in the first place.
What fed my obsession through the pre-Internet ’80s were the tattered copies of the Village Voice that appeared, wrapped around a stick in the periodical section, each Wednesday at the musty public library in my hometown. The Voice was always untouched when picked it up after school on the day it arrived. Williamsport, Pa., wasn’t a No Wave kind of place; it was barely a New Wave kind of place. The four or five quasi-Deadheads who edited my high school’s literary journal were what passed for hip, misunderstood youth in the area. The Voice’s inky pages and hyper-serious music criticism let me escape for half an hour and map out a grimy, glamorous landscape of the East Village in my head. I opened the paper as fast as I could to the table of contents: Would this week’s issue bring that great, geeky, infinitely convoluted gift to rock and roll obsessives everywhere, a Consumer Guide from Robert Christgau?
Christgau, the most reliable of the top-tier rock critics, gave me the aesthetic parameters for thinking about music. But it was the more passionate scribbling of his colleague Lester Bangs that made me want to move to New York City and write about rock and roll myself. I had discovered the Voice too late to read his famously freewheeling work there—Bangs died of a drug overdose in 1982. But his first posthumous collection, Psychotic Reactions and Carburator Dung, came out during my senior year in high school. I bought it at a Waldenbooks at the county mall; the groovy, shimmering yellow cover looked out of place under the too-bright lights there, as if it were waiting for me to come along and give it a proper, darker home. I finished the book in a day, which isn’t surprising considering that I was 25 pages into it before I even brought it to the counter. It would be years before I would stop reading it.
Bangs chronicled the late-70s CBs scene from a personal vantage point. He placed himself and his relationships with musicians like Richard Hell and the Dead Boys at the center of his essays. One of the haunts that he mentioned regularly was a record store called Bleecker Bob’s. From what I could tell, this was where the latest punk singles from England would arrive first in New York. In the Voice, Christgau also reminisced about this briefly glorious period, “when every 45 that Bleecker Bob put on sounded better than the last one.”
The store became a mythic location in my mind. One day, looking at an atlas of my father’s, I discovered that there was a Bleecker St. in lower Manhattan. Presumably this was the home of Bob’s. The street took on mythic properties as well, especially when I traced its endpoint to an even more evocative New York word, the Bowery. While watching TV, I would haul out the atlas and stare at the street grid of lower Manhattan. This densely crosshatched triangle, where the numbered grid of avenues ended and a seeming free-for-all of legendary neighborhoods began—Chinatown, Little Italy, the East Village all bled into each other—became the focal point of all my vague aspirations. Could I really survive there?
I made my first foray into this edgy fantasia after graduating from college in 1992. Somehow I’d lined up an internship at Rolling Stone magazine that fall, but I drove in a few weeks beforehand to visit a friend. Bumping my way uptown from the Holland Tunnel early on a quiet Sunday morning, I caught a glimpse of a green street sign—“Bleecker St.” I pulled over, sat in the driver’s seat, and stared down a modest, tree-lined block. This was it, my version of the Great White Way. The letters on the sign were just as mesmerizing as they had been in the atlas.
I moved to the Village two months later, into a shared apartment with a cranky old Chinese man who lived there for free while I paid the entire stabilized rent. I quickly found out that Bleecker Bob was an equally cranky man, and that his store was long past its prime as a tastemaker’s haven. The pricing made no sense, either; I got the feeling that the numbers that the clerks stamped on the stickers were part of an elaborate, ironic inside joke at the customers’ expense. This was only moderately disillusioning, however. I knew New York was a hard place, and a brick wall career-wise, and all I could do was chip away at it—like a lot of other people, I didn’t become the next Lester Bangs (but you already knew that). As for the downtown scene I’d mythologized, I discovered that it was forever looking backward to better times. When I got there in ’92, the kids in the East Village were mourning the wild, skuzzy days of the late-’80s, when squatters in Tompkins Square Park faced off against NYC’s riot police. Reading Bangs’ stories from the ’70s on my back porch in PA, I had unwittingly been doing the same thing as those kids.
Thinking back 17 years later, my memory working overtime on the F train ride home, I knew that I hadn’t been disillusioned. Something quieter, more subtle, more inevitable, but I suppose equally regrettable had happened over the years. Living in the city, walking up, down, and across the real Bleecker St. thousands of times, I had lost the dreaming, wide-eyed sensation of discovery I’d had in Pennsylvania when those two tiny words appeared to me on a map of Manhattan.
Last week I got off again at the Bleecker St. stop. I noticed that the MTA’s construction crews had begun to strip the stained tiles off the station’s pillars. Already half of the old, black, block BL’KER signs are gone, and I can only assume the rest will go soon—New York has never been known for hanging onto the past. Which makes a sad kind of sense: Just when you learn to see something in the city where you live, it’s gone
Steve Tignor is the executive editor of Tennis Magazine.
“These are tears of joy. I can die a happy woman. Though I don't feel much like dying today… Think harder. Write faster. Please take your time and hurry if you possibly can.”
--from reader F.M. on a previously posted poem: A Politically Incorrect Ode to Whitman
Walt Whitman’s ready nearby
tucked humbly among authors
I keep close upon my night stand
for the waking of my
You'll see him in this drawing
I made years ago, still stacked
(a bedrock source) while others
cycled in & out of this small
like many million moments
that have blindly come and
Yesterday I found a poem
which said well some things
I've thought as days have
and the subject he so expertly
unravels and so surely
pins and spins and
And funny you should mention
tears since this morning
without reason I
......................had a sudden sob-fest
returning from the dump
after dropping off our rubbish in
my weekly, sloughing,
It might have been the singer
in the dashboard or
the adolescent female walking
plying the left shoulder as I
..................(a clone of my granddaughter?)
or— ..........who knows what existential lever
I'd leaned upon too deeply in a
by Jim Culleny, 7/26/09
Night Table; drawing by Jim Culleny, 1997
Economic Recovery for Whom?
Heard enough about those “little green shoots” of economic recovery? Not finding them in your backyard garden? Not popping up in between the cement slabs on your stoop?
Perhaps this is because the only place the green is sprouting is on Wall Street and on the balance sheets of several mega-banks. The Dow Jones has hit 9,000 again. Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan reported hefty profits. Seems like old times.
But these are new and perhaps even better times for the masters of the money universe. They now operate with a full and explicit federal guarantee against failure, and many have made back their government loans at little or no expense. Even though the banks and big financial firms working through them laid us low, the Obama Administration seems to have passed out “get out of jail cards” to their operators. Unless Andrew Cuomo decides to play spoiler, the miscreants who triggered the world financial crisis will be back living large in no time. This is also because the proposed Obama financial regulation regime is so weak that it is even described as toothless by that paragon of 18th Century classical liberalism, the Economist.
Walk off Wall Street and you hit upon another world. Never mine no green shoots. There is instead massive die-off, as if the economic eco-zone had been ripped up by a financial Katrina and been left to molder.
The rot and decay of a near-dead economy lie all around us. There is universal acknowledgement that we will reach 10% unemployment in the fall. Every occupational category has been hit thus far, with rates of unemployment doubling since 2008 in computing, architecture, engineering, community and social services, health care technical services, construction, maintenance, repair, manufacturing, mining and transport. Already in double digits are food services, buildings and grounds maintenance, construction, farming, fishing, forestry, construction, mining, manufacturing and transport. In addition, state and local governments are laying off workers at unprecedented rates.
The unemployed are running out of benefits – an estimated 600,000 have run out of benefits since the recession began, and the rate at which workers will lose their benefits is growing exponentially as the stimulus package extension of benefits runs out.
I also counted 9 states and Puerto Rico as having forced furloughs of varying lengths on their workers thus far.
Perhaps the most baffling as well as infuriating fact is that home foreclosures continue to rise. Here after all was where it all started – where the financial grifters did their dirty work and triggered the worst recession since the Great Depression. The Center for Responsible Lending estimates that there will be 2.4 million home foreclosures in 2009. They estimate further that 9 million foreclosures will occur between 2009 and 2012. Having found their estimates reliable over the past two years, I take these to be serious numbers.
The Center for Responsible Lending has performed a study that suggests that an estimated 92 million homeowners will lose $1.86 trillion in home equity between 2009 and 2012. Millions will lose through foreclosure, but 10 times more homeowners will lose equity as houses are foreclosed around them.
Nothing the Obama Administration has done on housing has worked. Some experts argue that the recession has so clobbered homeowners that federal efforts were quickly made inadequate to the task. Even if true, I am not aware of what the Administration intends to do about its failure to turn back the foreclosure tide.
In my Boston neighborhood, the head of housing litigation for the Harvard Law School clinic there told Jenifer McKim of the Boston Globe (July 23, 2009) that “lenders are not modifying or engaging in any meaningful efforts to save folks’ homes.” Several of these lenders are those the federal government in effect now owns or controls.
This leaves one in a quandary. The recovery is a success if you are a banker. It is fast becoming an abysmal failure if you are out of work, out of luck, or poor. President Obama’s initial diagnosis of the economic crisis is becoming a tired excuse. Yes, the Administration was handed a failing economy that had been running on fumes for years. Yes, Bush’s many wars weakened government’s capacity to fight the recession.
But Obama’s politics, it seems more and more to be the case, are now part of the problem. To fix health care, better wire our infrastructure, improve fuel inefficiency, and curb environmental crisis – to pick out a few items from his standard speech litany of things we can do to create a new economy out of the current chaos – doesn’t put people, surely not enough people, back to work, nor does it help them save their houses. His insistent, visionary call for creating good times out of bad is not only turning out to be myopic, but it is beginning to cover his Administration’s failure thus far to transform the federal government from a kind of hand brake on economic decline into a driving force for good, the American motor of fundamental economic and political justice.
Who would have thought a year ago that Obama suffered from the sclerosis of Daddy Bush’s “vision thing?”
In the real world, President Obama has until the mid-term elections to seek out justice that helps people in the here and now, and that puts a majority of America behind him in his work for a truly better world. If President Obama doesn’t, he will lose a Democratic majority in the house, and with it governability. His administration, even if he were re-elected, would become the third in a row to open the doors of power to the forces of reaction.
The Owls: A Deuce and a Half
By Alan Koenig
George “Cousin Georgie” Mayer, the last living member of my family to fight in WWII, died earlier this summer. In February of 1942, at the age of eighteen, he was drafted and spent the entire war fighting in the Pacific theater under General Douglas MacArthur.
Georgie saw continuous action — except for two periods of convalescence after contracting malaria — and his eventual return to Chicago after an absence of three years is a hallowed chapter of family legend. He died after a thirty year battle with leukemia. What’s unusual about his story is we know how it got him.
In late August or early September of 1945, on only his second day in occupied Japan, a “deuce and half” truck from his unit pulled up and some soldiers asked Georgie if he wanted to visit Hiroshima. In one of those historically haunting moments in which future consequences are unknown, he accepted. While recalcitrant about many of his battle experiences, Georgie was more forthcoming about visiting Hiroshima, mostly because there wasn’t all that much to tell.
“There was simply nothing there. All day long we walked around in dust, nothing but dust.”
Highly radioactive dust. The first atomic bomb had been dropped only about four weeks before his unit’s macabre visit. By the time Georgie was diagnosed in the late seventies, the VA administration was tracking the soldiers from that fateful truck as well as many other luckless American military tourists. A strange corollary to the epochal tragedy of Hiroshima: The VA deserves credit for the intensive care they gave him over three decades, care widely believed by my extended family to have extended his heroic life.
Alan Koenig is a Ph.D. student, teaching fellow, writer, and political analyst living in Queens, NY.
The Owls is a literary experiment that cross-posts here by the generosity of 3Quarksdaily. "A Deuce and a Half" forms part of an ongoing project called "Stamps" featuring writing and images about places. Other recent posts in the Stamps project have included a photograph by Frederick Schroeder, a poem by Kirsten Andersen, and an essay by Sean Hill. If you would like to get updates from The Owls, send an email with the word "Subscribe" to owlsmag[at]gmail[dot]com.
James Ensor: Keepin' It Surreal
James Ensor, the Belgian painter, died in 1949, having done his last searing work half a century earlier. The man in the sea of masks, above, was wrapping it up in the studio even as he painted this self-portrait at age 40. In two decades of furious industry, he had cast himself as Christ, as John the Baptist, as an insect, a skeleton and a herring. Crucified, beheaded, rattling but undead, made a meal of by critics or simply subhuman, he spared a thought for how he might appear a century after his birth. My Portrait in 1960, below, is an etching on woven paper. It's no self-portrait -- the actual sight of his remains would necessarily be recorded by some other guy. This is just a nudge.
Ensor kick-started Surrealism and Expressionism, driving Flemish painting forward from its roots in the Renaissance to its foundational place in Modernism. In him, Bosch, Bruegel and even Rubens found an heir who would poke holes through the possibilities of paint, and figure forth a vision powerful enough to impel artists a century later to engage with it en route to terra incognita of their own. And that's not all. While it is common to feel repelled by art considered in exquisite taste in the late 19th century, uncommon it is for an artist of that era to step neatly outside taste once and forever, offending a certain high idea of painting with lasting sureness of touch. As the song, Meet James Ensor, written by They Might Be Giants, urges us -- "Appreciate the man."
With the first major Ensor show in the United States in more than 30 years, the Museum of Modern Art in New York makes that very easy to do, through September 21. I have had a lifetime with James Ensor, one of my mother's art gods. Mother was a Southern lady, the kind that naturally thrills to the transgressive in art. And I am brought to my knees, again and again, by this painter so utterly uningratiating.
The Strange Masks, (detail, right), 1892
The Skeleton Painter, 1895-6, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp
Tribulations of St. Anthony, 1887, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Are these paintings beautiful? Or even good? Those are questions that fence-sitters keep on asking -- with reason. In The Strange Masks, poor Pierrot, Europe's wan clown, slumps to the left, rotting within his white tulle glad rags as the other maskers rot, their shoulders liquefying, their masks peeling away from the bone. A shaft of pearly white light makes it all much too visible. Daylit too is the artist as a dapper skeleton, grimacing at the easel in his bright attic, brushing away at a phantom canvas as Ensor himself would later do: 50 years of painting just about nothing.
In The Tribulations of St. Anthony, the red-hooded saint is beset by pests swirling like microbes. No accident -- the mother of a friend of Ensor's youth, Ernest Rousseau, Jr., was a professor in Brussels, and it was she who gave him his first look at the microscopic world. While death, torment, rot and the skull beneath the skin were Ensor's great themes, he also painted critters that were a microscopic affair, adding to them fantastical flourishes and enlarging them to occupy the same pictorial space as human subjects. From time to time, he gave himself and others human heads and insect bodies, and he painted as few painters ever have crowds that do not mass or advance, but sub-humanly swarm.
Long after his brief stint in art school, Ensor learned etching, for a feeling of permanence. The hardness of copper plates reassured him, he said, compared to the fugitive nature of paint. The etching below, Death Chasing a Flock of Mortals -- it pops up, please click! -- shows what kind of graphic artist he had the dedication to become, his eye trained on Rembrandt and Goya. Even people who find him not only a distasteful but a clumsy painter are filled with respect -- and terror -- by his graphic oeuvre.
Death Chasing a Flock of Mortals, 1896, Etching and drypoint, Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent
In his letters and in his imagery, as his second decade of adulthood wore on, one senses Ensor knew on some level that painting was slipping away from him. The fury in his canvases is not all a matter of his chosen subjects, or of their being presented to confront us in a way no one could find agreeable, but of how the paint is laid on -- it is smeared, it is scraped, it is thick like slabs or streaked. As if the painter could only fitfully decide whether to hurl the stuff or snatch it back. His 8 by 14-foot masterpiece, The Entry of Christ into Brussels, was painted when he was 28. He was never to be parted from it. For one thing, no one else would have it. (Click to pop it up.)
The Entry of Christ into Brussels, 1888, J. Paul Getty Museum, Santa Monica
Christ is the tiny figure in the middle distance, mounted on a donkey, set off by an ochreous halo. Fabulously insulting to the burgers of Brussels -- and by extension to every Belgian -- was the implication they were the gaudy, malicious and deathly rabble surrounding Him. (Details below, click to pop up.)
Deep in his youth, Ensor had painted Post-Impressionistically: diners tucking into shellfish; light passing through glass; lunch tables enlivened by cut flowers; and, big skies luminous over red roofs.
L., The Oyster Eater, 1882, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp
R., Rooftops of Ostend, 1884
These paintings are conventional enough, are they not? Well, they were not, according to the art establishment of the day, when Impressionism and its spawn were still a risky business. Painting like this, Ensor got himself nowhere in terms of acceptance or a career, and it is interesting to see if these early works herald the changes to come. Pop up The Oyster Eater -- oh, yes -- look at the shadows cast by the dresser against the wall. They are writhing. Look to the far right strip of the painting, and you will see the great disquiet they hated at the Brussels Salon. My mother always told me -- look at the edges of a painting to tell where the artist is headed next. But for North Sea light on gleaming white linen, as proper a subject for art as the 19th century ever saw, this is no bad painting.
Simon Schama, writing about the present show at the MoMA for the Financial Times, calls Rooftops of Ostend "breath-taking." And it's true -- there's nothing to forgive here before finding it beautiful. Yet the freedom and vigor, the arbitrary use of color, the palette knife that suggests but does not describe -- all that delights our eye, and that of Simon Schama -- seemed antic to art lovers of the 1880s. Just that crucial bit off-key.
Inside a few short years, Ensor would cease to underwhelm and start in earnest to offend his countrymen. What is the route, then, from the matron soon to eat the oyster in her grasp, from the anodyne eventful sky, to the confrontational and hideously truthful paintings of the next two decades? Paintings that will never fully gain acceptance as long as we can find them rather jokey. Paintings that still repel. If you don't like Ensor -- or, as with many, you don't completely like him because you are not looking at art to be made so uncomfortable -- then you can always take refuge in classifying him as an extremely unfunny joker in the idiom of the poorest possible taste. With images such as Doctrinal Nourishment, a rare hand colored print of 1889/95, Ensor himself will invite you to be disgusted with him.
Doctrinal Nourishment, 1889/95, hand-colored etching, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Yes, it's what you think. The king of Belgium, the personifications of the Church and the Military all sit in a row and defecate into the open mouths of Belgians. Today, this may not look worse than an editorial cartoon -- but it was once considered subversive. Bodily fluids -- excrescence and the process of deliquescence especially -- were Ensor territory. He was as unafraid as a Plague-rattled fresco painter of the 14th century to address the filthy and the malodorous. This distinctly uncharming print fits into a long tradition of art that curiously dried up in the pre-Modern times Ensor inhabited, a tradition that looked unflinchingly at vile bodies, at all their terrible news.
The scene above, a detail from the vast fresco of the 1330s, The Triumph of Death, is in the Camposanto of Pisa. Painted by either Francesco Traini or Buonamico Buffalmacco, it shows a gaily dressed party on horseback holding their noses. They and their staring, balking horses are literally stopped in in their tracks by an awful sight and stench, three rotting bodies in open coffins. I've been to see the fresco, and there are, perhaps fortunately, no good photos -- a viewer is likely to be overcome. That was the point. Throughout the 14th century, Europe was ravaged by Plague, and no one was safe. Paintings on this theme -- "As you are, I once was; as I am, you shall be" -- were commissioned to remind everyone in finery or in rags to keep their mind on Last Things. To be ready at any moment to leave their corrupt flesh behind to explode, deliquesce and frighten the horses, because their true business was elsewhere. One contender for the title of creator of this fresco cycle, Buonamico Buffalmacco, was known as a practical joker. If this is not his work, but that of Francesco Traini, then none of his work survives. Now that's a good joke.
More than two centuries later in 1562, when Bruegel painted his own Triumph of Death, the danse macabre was in full sway, with skeletons riding in and reaching out to haul everyone, from paupers to cardinals, off to their mortal fates. While Bruegel is not without humor, he is quite without mercy: a dog chews at a dead child's face. The concept of the hellscape that would throw a proper scare into into the illiterate -- most people, that is -- had evolved through the Bosch years, the time leading up to the Reformation. Bruegel painted skeletons whereas Bosch had instinctively preferred fiends.
For a later comer wanting to conjure with these themes, it's quite a dilemma to contemplate: skeleton or fiend? Ensor's answer, as demonstrated in Masks Confronting Death, from 1888, was -- both.
The dark sky of the typical Flemish hellscape is forsaken by Ensor for that milky, corrosive all-directional light known to habitues of northern beaches. It's not less hellish, just hell by the light of day. In Venice, it's called water light -- the reflection of sky in vast water, doubling the light.
Ostend, the Belgian city on the North Sea where Ensor was born, and which he almost never left, was beachy indeed, but had a tragic past. The Siege of Ostend (1601-1604) left more dead than any battle of the Eighty Years' War, and was one of the longest sieges in history -- a "long carnival of death," it was called. At its ruinous end, there was for 12 years a negotiated peace that was also the peace of exhaustion between Spain, the technical victor, and the United Provinces.
By Ensor's time, Ostend was focused on the kind of carnival that ushers in Lent, and it was taken very seriously there, as it was and is elsewhere in Belgium. Below are the "Gilles" of the town of Binche, a medieval city with one of the oldest and most famous carnivals in Europe. The dark green spectacled Gilles Binchois is referenced by Ensor again and again. Now that carnivals have tourist rhythms, and meanings pried well away from their ritual beginnings, it might be useful to look briefly at why Carnival was ever noncommercially important.
It was after all very important to Ensor. The masks that fill his paintings, that stare up from the very floors when not covering the faces of his subjects, are both fiendish and comical, and were entirely familiar to him. Not from a loud seasonal festival but from his childhood home, where his mother operated a souvenir shop out of the ground floor. There, she sold chinoiserie and tourist trinkets, and in the deep winter, masks for the coming Carnival. Many of these found their way upstairs, and stayed there 12 months a year, year after year. The only studio Ensor ever had was the attic room of his boyhood home, higher than most of the rooftops of Ostend, high enough for the water light, with its property of making everything it reached both garish and pale, to enter freely.
Carnival signals a reversal of ordinary times of the year. Starting as early as January, but usually not earlier than a week before Ash Wednesday, there is great pressure to eat up the stored foods of winter. These are rich and meaty foods that, suddenly, do not have to last. They wouldn't last, in any case, in the slowly warming weather, and Lent, the season of purification, is coming on. Through the early spring, butchers wander the countryside replenishing their stocks, so none of the old year's animals eaten for meat will escape the feeding frenzy. A possible etymology of the word is "Carne + vale" or "Farewell to meat." After Carnival, there will be many weeks of porridge.
But Carnival revelers bid farewell to meat in another sense, too -- to the meat-suits they habitually wear, to the stations in life they occupy, to the order under which they live, and, if they like, to their genders and identities. Here, the mask is key. For a masker may take certain liberties, and for a few precious and frantic overfed days, be someone else behind a false face, living "as if" in a meat-suit not his own. In the Middle Ages, Carnival involved the whole town -- beggars were exalted, nobles played low-born, women barked out orders like men. As when death chases everybody down, making a joke of the inequalities we live by, Carnival is subversion and, finally, leveling. It was an intoxicating collective performance and dream, long before it devolved into spectacle.
In Rabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin characterizes the carnivalesque as overturning the ready-made via energies that are normally suppressed, yet suddenly available and ferocious. The temporal arts, cinema especially, have embodied this concept more than the visual arts, and Ensor in his carnivalesque aspect has reached as deeply into cinema as into painting.
Much has been made of James Ensor's improbable life story. In his early 20s, he joined forces with a Symbolist-leaning group of avant-gardistes, Les Vingt, and had for a time the stimulation of peers. But for most of the next two decades, he was an isolate painting in an Ostend attic, living off his mother's earnings, reading Rabelais and Poe to his heart's content. He couldn't stick school, spent a bare three years there. Gaining entrance into the Academie des Beaux Arts in Brussels, he left early, calling it a school for the blind. A bachelor dressed always for a funeral in a black suit and purple cravat, Ensor was neither formed for academic painting nor theory-laden enough for the avant-garde. He was of course a Wagnerite. Throughout his long strange youth, he was a figure of fun in provincial Ostend. Children in the street had choice things to say about him as he passed.
It has been suggested this is the kind of life to make the person who lives it angry. I'll bet. But without knowing any of that, you can tell as much from the throbbing satirical impulse in his painting, from his long private engagement with the outrageous. It may be smarter, anyhow, to save our pity for eccentrics whose subsequent histories have not transpired, who were misfits without genius.
As he climbed towards 40, a mystery overtook Ensor. The establishment he had reviled in such paintings as Dangerous Cooks, wherein art critics serve up his severed head, began to embrace him, the far-seeing Emile Verhaeren first among them. His pictures began to sell. By 1896, the Musees Royaux in Brussels had purchased Lamp Boy, a very early oil. In 1898, fifty-five of his paintings were exhibited by the avant-garde Salon des cents in Paris, the show accompanied by a special issue of La Plume. Only seven years earlier, his paintings -- the scatological ones involving the Belgian king especially -- had been declared impossible to exhibit. "The prosecutor would swoop down on us," the critic Maus remarked.
But this was not the only mystery, and it was nothing that might not be explained by observing that success in Paris warms the provincial heart to even its craziest sons. The greater mystery is the diminution of Ensor's inventiveness as an artist at precisely the time he began to achieve recognition. By the time he was made a Chevalier of the Order of Leopold, in 1903, his work had taken a classical turn, with some forays into the rococo. Always a music lover, but never musically literate, he composed by ear a ballet, The Scale of Love, and designed the costumes -- more Watteau than Bosch. Beneath the masterpiece of his youth from which he would never be parted, The Entry of Christ into Brussels, he played his harmonium, improvising ceaselessly, voicing mild regret he had not pursued music instead of art.
Among the newsy conditions he experienced as he became an eminence was that of financial success. His mother, who died in 1915, thereby inspiring one of his few original compositions of that era, had labored throughout the 1880s and 90s to support his father, himself, and his sister, Mitche, pregnant and abandoned by her husband. For almost twenty years before her death, Ensor had earned enough -- and then some -- to secure the small family. And, perhaps fatally to his painting, to secure a life of honored leisure for himself.
Did Ensor buy himself out of the struggle? Something subtler happened, I believe. All artists work for recognition, and some work better and longer without it. Ensor might have been one of those. In the catalog for the last major Ensor show in the United States -- at the Guggenheim, in the late 70s -- John David Farmer proposes that Ensor might simply have wearied of accepting the personal and psychological risks of painting as he did. That's a very good guess, but the unknowable truth is a story for Balzac.
Ensor was given the title of Baron by King Albert I in 1929. By then, he was very much Belgium's grand homme. When he made day trips from Ostend, it was almost never to go further afield than De Haan, a charming resort town on the North Sea only a short distance away. It was at De Haan, in 1933, in the garden of the Restaurant Coeur Volant, that the photograph below was taken.
That's Einstein on the far left, Ensor, in the black hat, on the right. In August of that year, the German Jewish philosopher Theodore Lessing had been murdered by the Nazis in Czechoslovakia, where he had fled for his safety. Einstein and his wife, traveling in Southern California, got wind that their home in Germany had been ransacked. Belgium seemed a safe enough place to stop and think what to do. King Albert provided a little villa at De Haan, and the Belgians did everything possible to make Einstein welcome. That included arranging a luncheon with James Ensor. As befits a man likely wondering what new alliances might save his life, Einstein is engaged, leaning into the group. Ensor, whom the camera always set apart from any others present, leans back, almost ceremonially displaying the large bony hands that had for decades done nothing but knot cravats and noodle on the harmonium. If the two visionaries had a conversation amounting to more than pleasantries, it was not transcribed, but much Belgian speculation has gone into making it a substantive affair.
Most surreal of all, James Ensor, the painter of such repugnant subjects that "the prosecutor would swoop down," has made an appearance on the Belgian 100 franc note. The English have a way of de-horning their artist mavericks by knighting them, but this is extreme rehabilitation.
Ensor was a letter writer, and it will soon be possible to read every word he ever wrote, translated into English. But, even in the privacy of correspondence he had only the most evasive remarks to make about his own work. The proof of his engagement with the great artists of the past is in his paintings, and he was notoriously close-mouthed about whether the artists of his own day mattered to him. He had parted company with Les Vingt when they wanted to exhibit Georges Seurat, and that's a very bad sign. Also, he had no students -- influence, but no students. So his art thoughts were not passed on. All an artist can know of Ensor is what that artist determines to find out. But, to paint in the 20th century and simply bypass Ensor, it was necessary to have taken a completely rationalist path.
Too much is made, in my view, of the vaulting respectability of his last five decades, and the departure of the muse. When the wonder is what the muse enabled him to do while she was present. For good or ill, the story of the Modern in art is the story of greater and greater freedom from unthinking convention for form and color. If you like the way that's going, you will appreciate the route it took through an Ostend attic. But even if you don't -- like the song says, appreciate the man.
July 26, 2009
The foundations of NYU Abu Dhabi
From The National:
As the foundations of NYU Abu Dhabi come into view, John Gravois concludes his two-part series on NYU's new campus by examining the university’s efforts to translate grand ambition into reality – and the many challenges that remain.
Read part one of this series
To reach the offices of the Executive Affairs Authority – one of Abu Dhabi’s several modernising brain trusts – you ride a glass elevator up through the atrium of one of the city’s more upscale buildings and then walk to a set of unmarked doors. These open onto a minimalist, ivory-coloured lobby, as elegant as it is Apollonian, whose dominant feature is an immaculate bank of windows overlooking several desert islands to the north.
The office sits more or less on the edge of Abu Dhabi, with its back to the inhabited parts of the city, so its view to the unpopulated north is hushed, unobstructed and otherworldly. Across a blue-green waterway, half-skeletal towers rise out of the sand on Reem Island (slated for commercial and residential development) and Sowwah Island (financial, medical). Further off in the distance, you can see the first big power lines stretching out to Saadiyat Island, the planned site of Abu Dhabi’s Guggenheim and Louvre museums and the future home of New York University Abu Dhabi.
If the view from the Executive Affairs Authority has the feel of a command post, it is not undue. A number of the projects at the heart of Abu Dhabi’s growth fall under the authority’s quiet direction. NYU Abu Dhabi is one of them. For the past year, a handful of strategists here – along with NYU’s own small ground team, working out of a converted condominium across town – have been fine-tuning plans for the new university and overseeing its first pilot projects. From this exquisite office, they have been mapping out what some see as the masterstroke in Abu Dhabi’s future as a high-cosmopolitan capital of ideas.
Forrest Gump in One Minute, in One Take
from the onion's brilliant China issue
Police Still Searching For Missing Productive, Obedient Woman
ricky on religion
On Iran, Do Nothing. Yet.
Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek:
What is happening in Iran? On the surface, the country has returned to normalcy. Demonstrations have become infrequent, and have been quickly dispersed. But underneath the calm, there is intense activity and the beginnings of a political opposition. In the past week, Mir Hossein Mousavi, the candidate who officially lost last month's presidential election, has announced his intention to create a "large-scale social movement" to oppose the government and press for a more open political system. Mohammad Khatami, the reformist former president, has called for a referendum on the government. Another powerful former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has criticized the regime's handling of the election and post-election "crisis." All three have demanded the release of politicians and journalists imprisoned over the past month and held without charges. (Those prisoners include Maziar Bahari, NEWSWEEK's Tehran correspondent, a Canadian citizen, and an internationally recognized documentary filmmaker.) These are not dissidents in the wilderness. Between them, the three men have been at the pinnacle of power for most of the Islamic Republic's existence.