Monday, November 30, 2009
Siam I am
by Edward B. Rackley
Nature captivates in Thailand. Its beaches and islands are legend; its birdlife and tropical flora endlessly entertain. On this visit though, nature bored me. A relentless jetlag was partly to blame. Its disorientations so warped my perceptions and instincts that I acquiesced to its inversions, accepting the Thai night as my day. Also, I was hungry not for nature but for the artifice of human imagination: grand emanations of culture, artisanry, cosmology. Has our petty species generated anything that I’ve never seen, never imagined? In creativity is there redemption for Homo Faber? For answers to this question Thailand is a gold mine.
Heavily subject to international marketing strategies and thus cast as the ‘Land of Smiles’, Thailand wants desperately to be permeated by magic. Of all possible reasons to be ‘desperately seeking’, permeation by magic is worthy enough, and seemingly free of ulterior motive. Orientalism and its facile seductions be damned, I thought, after my first week in country. If this place holds even one treasure of the human spirit, its authenticity will be self-evident to the most gullible and the most jaded.
From where I live it’s an 18-hour flight to Thailand. I learned to stop fighting jetlag long ago; it is now my companion and confidant. Wandering Bangkok streets and alleys at 3 am, nothing remained of the diurnal parade of human pursuit to entertain me. Roaming dog packs and the occasional buzz of a moto taxi broke the surprising silence of a vast urban labyrinth. I was left with night’s shadows and breezes, long walks along empty boulevards and closed shop fronts, the constant hum of yellow street lamps and neon. Repetition sets in and one begins inspecting a city for its anomalies, its artifacts of human touch, the physical traces of the shopkeeper at home ensconced in dreams.
In the shadows of commercial lots and over the walls of residential compounds, I began to notice wooden boxes of a similar dimension perched atop posts of shoulder height, always on the periphery of the lot. Were they an aesthetic afterthought; perhaps an outdoor fuse box or water meter required by city officials? I began to notice these little boxes everywhere, some dimly illuminated from within. One morning as the city began to stir, I found myself sitting amid a cluster of fishing boats and water taxis on the Chao Phraya river. Under a nearby Banyan tree I noticed another of these boxes on its pedestal, catching the sun's rays and revealing a bright color scheme.
It was an auspicious moment, as Buddhists say, because for the first time no wall stood between myself and the wooden boxes I had seen all around town. I could approach one now directly, and under clear sunlight examine it closely. It was unlike anything I had ever seen, except maybe a child's doll house, and for this I laughed out loud. On its raised pedestal, the box was in fact a meticulously carved miniature temple similar to those scattered around the city. It was clearly a shrine of some kind, populated by tiny figurines in classical Thai dress, with pointy hats, painted faces and gowns of real fabric. Their poses varied, some with bowed heads offering incense and jasmine flowers, others in dance poses surrounded by herds of tiny elephant. Other figures were arranged in a procession, leading out of the temple and down a short staircase where offerings of fruit, flowers and incense lay, presumably left by passers-by.
Spirit Houses and Sky Tassels
I later learned that these were called 'spirit houses', common in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. They provide shelter for local spirits and ancestors who could cause problems for the living if not appeased. In addition to the daily offerings to propitiate these specific spirits, the house itself is an offering of domesticity and devotion to the spirit world in general, a gesture of welcome and hospitality to the unknown and invisible.
I fell in love with these ubiquitous spirit houses, inspecting each one closely whenever it was accessible from the street. There is a certain elitism to Theravada Buddhism; this is admittedly an acquired taste. The architectural embellishments of its temples, shrines and representations of the Buddha are nothing if not arcane and gothic. Theravada architecture imposes its own economy on the fantastic, stripping it down into digestible and indelible archetypal forms. Many, starting with the ornate minutiae of the spirit houses, I had never seen before.
The history of religious art is the ongoing attempt to represent the fantastic in physical form. Thailand is famous for its infinite variety of such representations, and the long tradition of this language of expression through architecture, sculpture and painting. There is abundant beauty, to the point of utter satiety, and many surprises. But I experienced relatively few jamais vu--thoughts or forms I had never seen or imagined before. Besides the spirit houses, one other element of the Theravada tradition moved me deeply.
If there is a single feature that encapsulates the complexity and rigor of traditional Theravada architecture across Thailand, it is the sweeping, multi-tiered roofs of monastery buildings. The culmination of the roof, both literally and aesthetically, is the curious ridge finial: the chofa. Chofa means 'tassel of air' and its shape derives from Garuda, a mythical guardian figure with bird-like features common to Hinduism and Buddhism. Vishnu rides Garuda in the Mahabharata, for instance (image below). Different chofa abstract or stylize the bird to greater or lesser degree.
At my first glimpse of the chofa, I had no idea what it was--a cosmic symbol, an unfinished weather vane, an ornate lightning rod. But there was a deliberate seriousness to its shape, and I stopped in my tracks to take note. I appreciated its jagged gilded gesture, pointing skyward from a temple eave. I saw a concrete abstraction reminiscent of Brancusi’s ‘Bird in Space’, but to believers it must have signified more. Why was it this shape and not the many others that so captivated me?
I wondered about the potency of archetypes, transmitted through chance encounter with mundane plastic form. Perhaps there exist shapes (not symbols, mind you, but archetypal objects, Platonic mementos) capable of sparking awareness of the invisible and ineffable in our midst. The more chofas I saw around the country, particularly the starker, imperial ones, I never tired of their pointing to a specific holiness, a kind of pious rectitude, rising above the din of human chatter and industry.
That's all very lofty and quaint, but I was not in Thailand to savor cultural novelties, a democratic pleasure available to anyone who bothers to travel. I was there to study the conflict between Thai Muslims and the monarchist/Buddhist Thai state along the Malaysia border, and to suggest ways the US government could support media and civil society in forging peaceful solutions. Homo Faber was very busy here in his usual ways, none of them especially imaginative or sympathetic.
Although I did not see many of them, Garudas and chofas followed me to the conflict in spirit, this time revealing a different aspect of their place in Buddhist cosmology. The Thai government has over the years invested in reinforcing the Buddhist presence there, ostensibly to remind local Muslims that they live in a majority Buddhist nation whose monarchy are essentially Buddhist divinity. Cultural chauvinism is alive and well in Thailand.
The national army and the monarchy are famously intimate, and recent troubles in Bangkok between royalists and their opponents have been quelled by military and police. So where the Thai majority dominate to the point of homogeneity, the serenity for which Thailand is famous naturally prevails. But in the Deep South, as it's called in the press, Muslims outnumber Buddhists and the national security apparatus, whose symbol is the Garuda, is out in force. In Buddhist mythology Garuda is a giant predatory bird, whose size is so immense it can block out the sun--in this case, the sun of ethnic and religious difference.
As we approached the first police roadblock, I noticed a long line of parked motor scooters along the road. All had their seats lifted forward to reveal their gas tanks. Our driver, a local stringer for Reuters covering the insurgency, noticed my gaze and explained, 'It's a way to confirm the absence of explosives--we've had a number of scooter bombings this year.' Arriving in Pattani, life seemed mostly normal, with the exception of military hardware, roadblocks and metal detectors. The lobby of our hotel had been decimated months before by a bomb; now it was completely refurbished. Gamelan music played over the intercom in the lobby as I checked in. I had to laugh at the calm I felt after the day's hectic drive through roadblocks, meeting innocent victims of the fighting, and yet aware that this hotel was a target.
I am no expert on the situation in southern Thailand, but certain circumstances clearly justify the notion that freedom is built by the sword, that 'freedom isn't free'. It is evident to anyone affected by the conflict that the insurgency stems from a civil rights issue--a state failure to recognize the rights of an ethnic and religious minority. Thailand has trouble accepting that some Thais are ethnically 'other', not Buddhist, and suspicious of the monarchy. Yet there is no crime in being any of these things.
I have no great ideas for how to solve the great rift between Thai Muslims and their Buddhist compatriots. Progressive Thais have tried reconciliation in many different forms, to little effect. I was struck by strong parallels with the US wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, where the rationale of 'national security' is quick to suffice as the primary justification for engagement. But this heavy-handed response pours fuel on the fire, and makes dialog with insurgents impossible. It creates fanatics and extremists where none may have existed before. This in turn justifies an increased defense budget, and the state of siege continues. The Thai military has a 'hearts and minds' campaign, but it is flat-footed and ridiculed by southern Muslims.
Neither the battle for freedom by southern insurgents nor the military occupation to preserve national security were succeeding. I thought of all the wars I've worked in, and my conviction that the fog of war always trumps the moral clarity and political purpose that leaders ascribe to it. More pointedly, I see no direct causal linkage between the freedoms I enjoy right now and the barrel of a gun deployed by a US citizen-soldier in the past or present. Infinite other factors are at play to explain the perseverance of my fragile domestic liberties: the vigilance of our judiciary, the protests of media and countless other forms of popular pressure. Nothing is so simplistic and reductive as the assertion, now a platitude of biblical proportions, that our quality of life was paid in blood.
But many Americans continue to romanticize war as the crucible of this country's relative freedom and stability; specifically, the myth that US military are dying abroad to protect American living standards. Without all this dying and these sacrifices, the US would somehow crumble into an inchoate, anarchic mess, and our enemies would take over. My response is that if the service of God and country--patriotism by any other name--requires bloodlust to be true, then go see a shrink.
America has its threats and enemies, foreign and domestic, and they are real. But this alone is inadequate to justify a national narrative built on blood sacrifice. For those of us who reject the purported causal connection between the defense industry and the quality of American living standards, what narrative exists to satisfy this need for national belonging? Individual identities are fungible and fluid, 'multiple identities' is an asset in an increasingly cosmopolitan world. But surely a country requires a robust sense of identity if it is to be more than a planetary street address. Perhaps this is the price of replacing the unquestioned dominance of a majority narrative--the norm in contemporary Thailand--with a public space in which countless identity narratives are allowed to coexist and compete.
FASTER, TERPSICHORE, FASTER! On Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (Zipporah Films)
Rehearsal is everything and Frederick Wiseman knows it. As usual for this eminent American documentarian, his interest lies in the workaday world, but in his latest project he finds the harmony of place serving the artistic process. The opening shot fills the screen with a bird’s eye view of the rooftops of Paris as the white domed confection of Le Sacre Coeur entices the eye to the horizon line. Then the camera cuts to a closer view of the ninth arrondisement with its stately mansard roofs and street life before dropping down to gaze upon the facade of the 19th century Beaux-Arts Palais Garnier, home to the world's oldest ballet company.YOU ARE THERE
Wiseman intercuts scenes of rehearsal with architectural snapshots of the busy hive that is the Palais Garnier – an apt metaphor because he finds an actual beekeeper harvesting honey on the roof. Multiple close-ups in underground quarters show lighting instruments rigged to pipe and thick ropes coiled in meticulous spirals on the floor. Just as meticulous is the student footwork in ballet class. Throughout, Wiseman cuts away from the dancers to admire the graceful curved balustrade of the central spiral staircase that connects cupola to basement. He stops in at the cafeteria at lunchtime, watches ballet shoes being dyed in the costume shop, and visits the empty opera house as a young man cleans its plush scarlet velvet seats. Meanwhile an underground stream (the legendary hiding place of the Phantom of the Opera) hosts not only living plants...but swimming fish. Wiseman sees everything.
Without a pre-conceived idea or narrative arc imposed in advance of shooting, Wiseman is patient and learns as he goes. As is customary in his films, he neither includes interviews, voice-overs nor hints about his process. He observes with the eye of the curious neophyte (like most of his audience will; no previous knowledge of dance is required) to discover what he is truly interested in: the mysterious connection between rehearsal and performance. Quite rightly, he uses only snippets of the finished works, not as an end unto themselves, but as a new window through which to review the rehearsal process he’s made us privy to. Since he’s not manipulating what you pay attention to, if you don’t watch closely, you might miss the surprising new choices certain artists make during performance, born from painstaking rehearsals. Wiseman knows that creating art is an ongoing journey, and although not a balletomane and despite documentary’s non-fiction genre, he trains us to look for dance’s ineffable drama as it burns only briefly onstage.
John Davey the cinematographer shot the film in Super 16 and positions the camera diagonally across from the dancers (to include the mirror sometimes). This choice provides a deeper, more elongated view of the rehearsal room and gives us pianists, choreographers and assistants. Likewise in performance, the the straight on audience point of view is rarely used. Davey shoots from the side, standing in the wings, or sometimes moves in close, as in the final scene of Medea. This segment where choreographer Angelin Preljocaj breaks ancient Greek tragedy's rule to keep all violence off stage, has a distraught Medea streak blood on her children's bodies in full view of the audience. The choreography isn't very interesting (ditto the conceit of aluminum buckets bordering the stage perimeter), but the leading lady finds within herself mysterious forces that push her portrayal from rehearsal into the realm of inspired performance.
Fortunately for American audiences, subtitles translate conversations in French, although British choreographer Wayne McGregor of the Royal Ballet sets his work Genus in English with tongue clicks and scatting to help dancers parse his clipped, contorted movement vocabulary. (Research revealed that McGregor was inspired by Darwin’s On The Origins of Species for this piece, which makes sense as his couplings are somehow scientific in feel, as if the steps have been sliced for a microscope slide.)
ENCORE UNE FOIS, S'IL VOUS PLAIT
There are no scenes of tearful anguish. No one is fired. Absent too are the ruthless competitions that must surely twist the hearts of youngsters enrolled in the company school. Wiseman isn’t interested in personal stories. He’s fascinated with rehearsal and in scenes that are intense master classes in precision, we soon see why. Typically, dance films are about performance where we watch enraptured by exquisite dancers doing astonishing things. Here, during most of the film's 158 minutes, dancers are seen unadorned in practice clothe, sweating under studio lights. It is Wiseman's intention to accustom our eyes to their poetic pyrotechnics so that we might begin to glimpse their struggles. Like how to fit too many steps into too little music (Nureyev's verbose choreography for The Nutcracker, for instance). Or the difficulty of changing direction against established momentum. The watchful choreographers and coaches are polite but rarely satisfied. They continually suggest technical strategies for achieving their vision. Don't take the arabesque so high there. Lower the leg as the turn winds down. Yes, snap the head, etc. But a choreographer's razor sharp eye looking from the outside often wants to see more than a dancer’s body can deliver.
Case in point: star ballerina Laetitia Pujol patiently works a tricky phrase from a pas de deux over and over again without complaint until she stops to push a pin back into her bun and murmurs to the choreographer, “You blame me too much.” We glean that a dancer’s job is not only to remember steps, but live through them by employing subtle changes in attack and dynamic or rhythmic differentiation. Lyrical for two counts, go sharp on the jump, melt to finish. Dancing, even when performed by the best dancers pcan seem lifeless unless carefully invested moment by moment with varying valences, if you will. The goal is to make the audience feel in their own bodies the elastic pull of a lunge or the loft of a jump by suspending in the air for an extra second or by spinning a double turn into a triple and then closing down all that velocity heel to toe in a neat fifth position locked in perfect stillness.
What is asked of these artists is nothing short of super-human. Company director Brigite LeFèvre quotes Maurice Bejart, “Dancers are half nuns, half boxers,” and after watching this film, we understand what he means. A dancer must be devoted to the art with unwavering, almost otherworldly faith, and yet be strong enough to do the work of a Trojan warrior. To hear and make sense of relentless criticism requires a strong ego, as well. Teachers coax novitiates from a tender age to pursue unreasonable perfection; students compare themselves with each other; audition panels furnish rejections, and critics reference the glory of former stars for a lifelong battle against disappointment. Internalizing this barrage of criticism would be easy; to founder in self-doubt, bitterness or worse could jepordize one's emotional health. Wiseman’s sustained look at rehearsal implies these dangers without explicitly exploring them.
Sometimes dancers do exceed expectation. When a female duo takes stage in a Paquita dress rehearsal we hear an unseen director comment, “These two are incredible. You just have to plug them in.” Again as a premiere danseur wings his way around the stage in dazzling barrel turns, another director exclaims, “Superb. He makes it look indecently easy.” Only a dancer who has worked through pain would choose the word indecent to describe easy.
Wiseman began his career recording the goings on at Massachusetts Correctional Institution for the criminally insane in his 1967 film Titicut Follies. He went on to make cinematic inquiries into other social institutions including a hospital, high school, police department, La Comédie Française, and American Ballet Theater. He has won numerous awards including Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships. As per his cinematic stance, he has said
All aspects of documentary filmmaking involve choice and are therefore manipulative. But the ethical... aspect of it is that you have to... try to make [a film that] is true to the spirit of your sense of what was going on. My view is that these films are biased, prejudiced, condensed, compressed. I think what I do is make movies that are not accurate in any objective sense, but accurate in the sense that I think they're a fair account of the experience I've had in making the movie. I think I have an obligation, to the people who have consented to be in the film...to cut it so that it fairly represents what I felt was going on at the time in the original event.
On the administrative side of things, Brigitte LeFèvre juggles many roles as artistic director: discussing with a guest choreographer the delicacy of choosing dancers for a new work; a friendly check-in chat with a young member of the corps de ballet whom she slyly encourages to eat more; and brainstorming with a tour outfit aiming to bring in Big Benefactors including Lehman Brothers for a special performance and private tour of the facility. At my screening in New York City, the audience chuckled at this untimely plan that doubtless never materialized. But in times like these it is sobering to realize that arts organizations face a more tenuous future than ever before as funding sources now are not only community-based, but globally interwoven.
LeFèvre keeps a firm grip on her enterprise. While she is a champion of contemporary choreographers, and her dancers reign high on her hierarchical pyramid, her crowning mission is to sustain the company’s high standard of excellence – a difficult task given the wide-ranging repertoire of the Paris Opera Ballet. Its mix of styles includes gravity-defying Petipa classics in pointe shoes like Paquita to contemporary, middle-body floor-driven barefoot pieces like Pina Bausch’s wonderful Orpheus and Eurydice or the less successful Romeo and Juliet by Sasha Waltz. Not all these new choreographies are worthy of the dancers, notably Mats Ek’s pretentious reimagining of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba that asks the dancers to scream bloody murder. No duende there. Watching, we don’t experience the deep emotion that the choreographer intended so much as wince at the vocal chord damage being inflicted on the unfortunate dancers.
La Danse opened in Europe in September. At New York’s Film Forum, its run was extended to accommodate enthusiastic audiences. To find out when the film might be coming to your town in the next couple of months, click on this link. The DVD will be available in 2010. PBS, one of Wiseman’s champions, might fill a slot with La Danse, so check your local listings for a glimpse of Terpsichore, who is alive and well and living in a Parisian palace.
photos from La Danse, Zipporah Films
Conte on mylar.
Losing the Plot: Hope
There is no telling what a murdered man is capable of doing.
Murdered, in the cross hairs of a surveillance camera mounted on an unmanned predator drone; murdered on national and international television---murdered on CNN, murdered on Fox News, murdered on MSNBC and murdered on BBC--- the last word in murders. Incinerated over and over again on a 24 hour news cycle—killed, burned, assassinated, maligned, analyzed, sermonized, eulogized murdered, dead.
A murder of a man killed in a burning building expanded and super sized on television screens all over the world—in cafes, and in sports bars—in airport terminals and subways, in doctors’ waiting lounges---in old people’s homes, in tea stalls, in currency exchange kiosks, in living rooms and bedrooms, in newspapers and radio talk shows and in the aspiring manuscripts of hundreds of post killing literature.
A killing seared and stamped into the brains of every television watching human being. A killing made into a personal memory an intimately felt trauma. A killing of one in one instance, so repeated, so over exposed, twittered, face-booked, blogged, texted, videoed, printed, transmitted, translated and commoditized---that it over shadowed and rendered trivial in comparison the killing of millions over millennia. A killing that embraced, in a literal world, the literal meaning, that the murder of one is equal to the murder of all of humanity.
Could there be a deader man then, that? There is no way to measure the rage of a man whose daughter has been murdered and who himself is dead. There is no telling what the father of a murdered daughter will do to her assassins. A murdered American hero no less. Could there be a deader man then an American hero?
Jamshed Shah had wept so much that, those who had come to condole had left to tell others that they had seen Jamshed Shah cry till his eyes had bled. The light of his eyes had been killed. He didn’t know how to make sense of what had happened.
Had Zarmeenay, his beautiful child been involved with Stanley McMullen? “He was old enough to be her father! My God she was as old as our friendship!” he had wailed in anguish. He had turned on Rukhsana “You did this—you murdered my child! It’s your fault, I blame you! You sent Zarmeenay to him! You took her down this path of hell—encouraging her to fight those cases! And you thought that American—that American agent— could help her with her human rights cases?—Look at the result! She is dead! She would have been safely married to Aftab! She would have been alive, she would have been here with us, if you hadn’t interfered, if you hadn’t taken her side.”
Then when Rukhsana had not uttered a syllable of rebuke, not accused him of any part in their daughter’s death, he had floundered and searched for reason and turning away from blaming Stanley had gone in on another tangent “Did you think Aftab would tolerate it! Did you think that with all the power that he has at his command he would not have taught us a lesson, taken his revenge? Now she’s gone—the light of my eyes, my soul—you’ve killed her Rukhsana! Help me, you’ve killed my child!”
She had to hope. There were no images of the killing or the bodies. There weren't any instant and constant replays of the actual killings—of bodies—there was no such evidence which could assist in destroying her hope. And even if there had been—she had ceased to believe, in images.
Stanley was gone. Zarmeenay was gone. Jamshed had had a stroke. And madness would not come.
Hope was all there was now.
Could there be a more dangerous man, a more powerful man than a dead man wronged? Could there be any one more essential for elimination than the murdered Stanley McMullen?
For Zarmeenay, there had been no funeral. Jamshed would not allow it. For now they had listed Zarmeenay as a missing case. Out of concern for the family’s pride and honor it was better to not come forward with the information that the dead woman was not a village girl but rather Zarmeenay Shah the daughter of the powerful retired General Jamshed Shah.
Rukshana should have screamed and wailed too till her ears rang till her throat was hoarse and dry till she had developed a cough till she felt too, that her eyes would disappear inside their sockets. And yet she did not. Steadfastly and stubbornly instead she prayed. She had stayed kneeling on her janamaz, moving her lips in silent prayer, hoping for insanity but it would not come. Rukhsana had prayed for it and it would not come.
She could only hope, beseech God, lay siege to the channel of prayers that Stanley at least was alive, that he would seek the revenge that she was unable to exact herself. It was his blood that had been spilt. His blood. His treasure. He would avenge her. There would be hell’s fire to reap for what they had done. Stanley would make sure of that. She had hope. She would not allow an alternative line of thought. She had to have hope. She could not mourn him, he could not die. She had loved him too long, she had imagined him too long, created his being for too long: he had been besides her in absentia for so long that his death could not register it had no meaning. She had felt his presence all these years without him being there. She had felt his presence more than ever having actually been in his presence. And she felt his presence more than ever now. He was alive. Of this she was sure. She had to hope.
About Zarmeenay it was different. Zarmeenay had disappeared a week before the incident. She had gone for a visit to several towns in Baluchistan for work on the cases of missing persons and never returned.
The news had never provided the identity of the girl who had been found dead in front of Stanley’s café. The mob had burnt her body—She had been thrown into the flames before they could identify her. But Rukhsana knew it was her.
And now Jamshed ranted and raved about how Aftab would have kept her safe. Kept her safe had he not been enraged and insulted so. When the family had proposed to Jamshed and Rukshana for Zarmeenay— she and Zarmeenay had resisted Jamshed’s inclination to accept Aftab’s proposal of marriage to his daughter.
Zarmeenay had said she wanted to study she wanted to go to America for her law degree. She had applied and she was waiting to hear from the best universities. She was sure that she would not only get admission but a scholarship as well. Rukhsana had made her daughter’s case on her behalf to Jamshed—“Let her go and study she wants to go to America!”
Jamshed had laughed: “She can go to America once she’s married to Aftab! She can buy the university after she is married to him! She can buy America once she is married to Aftab! She will own America. His family you know how large their interests are in Afghanistan and in Pakistan with all their businesses here and there. The US government loves them!”
And Zarmeenay had resisted even more. “They are drug lords!—Heroine, that’s their business Aga jan! You want to throw me in a den of drug dealers, Aga jan?”
“That has nothing to do with the family—What business will that be of yours?” Jamshed had scoffed at her and scolded her. “I don’t want to discuss that with you. Saying no to them Zarmeenay will not be easy for me or for you. They have asked for your hand in marriage and we cannot insult them. They are too powerful. We cannot insult their honor!”
“Honor? So they’ll feel dishonored by my saying no and then what? Then they will exact revenge? Honor is about insults and revenge? We look at who is more powerful than us and we don’t say no to those who can do us harm? That is honor?”
“Call it what you want, Zarmeenay. Honor is honor.”
“Then kill me!” Zarmeenay had shrieked in rage at the end of one of many such conversations over a period of several months. “For the sake of this honor, Aga jan, kill me!”
“You are reading too many novels, Zarmeenay—too much law is getting to your head. Why do you talk to me in this hysterical manner! I am your father and I love you!”
And Jamshed had wailed his accusations: “This is what we have brought upon ourselves! This is what you have done! You refused them! You refused to give Zarmeenay to them! And they have taught you a lesson! They have taught us a lesson. You don’t refuse power! You don’t say no to power! You don’t say no to those who have Blackwater and death squads and Predator drones and the CIA on their side! They have taken her from this world! A drug lord can have anyone picked up—they probably kidnapped her in Quetta---she was gone for a week disappeared— Maybe Aftab had her turned over to the CIA! Told them she was a spy. Maybe she was alive when she got to the café maybe they killed her with a predator drone attack on that café.”
Rukhsana had retreated into her own grave inside herself focusing on the comfort that was present there.
Stanley had sworn his love to Rukhsana. He had sworn his life to her. She had not needed more than that. All these years—she had had evidence, this article of faith: She had Zarmeenay—Stanley had Zarmeenay. She had loved him for twenty six years. He had stayed for her. And she would continue to love him. Their one union had produced Zarmeenay.
Now—there was nothing. Nothing but hope.
There would be revenge. She knew it. She had to hope for it. If she knew anything at all she knew that Stanley was an honorable man. There would be revenge.
There was nothing but hope. It was the only thing that brought her peace.
From The Owls: Postcard from Vancouver
Postcard from Vancouver
By Stacie Cassarino
In this fog, it’s true, we are made-up of less than bone. When I reach for you, there is radiance in the dark. I promise you kindness. This blue city misses your New York. What can I say about so many windows? On the Greyhound, a woman is reading The Case for Christ. I remember Grandma blessed me before leaving as if something might make me suffer in the future. How dumb belief is, silly boat with its red flag. She was right. The sea surrounds. A cable pulls my body to the top of a mountain and the view is broken: I see you everywhere. I wonder how love ever goes away. We should insist on willing things: archipelagos, the secret your lip feels, the harbor. I ache for you. We should insist that letting go is one form of hope. Here, defiance in a stand of evergreens. I sip red wine with a Brazilian queer. Remember Rio de Janeiro, the size of God’s hand, sardines fleshed-open at the market, the way I entered and moved inside? Looking down, is this the kind of density you can live with? What is the slightness of our bodies to stay, to be good at loving a second time? My mouth pretends it is an oar when it lives inside your mouth, but you are far away. The last time, above a playground on 6th Avenue, I tasted your fear. We heard basketball, pigeon, boy after school. There were names called out, even mine was not among them. We didn’t know what to hold onto. Red light, green. A delivery truck kept turning the same corner. I kept paddling nowhere fast, but you couldn’t see me. You said you needed time. The playground emptied. I flew West into summer. From a payphone, I describe the light in Canada. I tell you it is something I believe in, though there is no voice on the other end.
Stacie Cassarino is a recipient of the "Discovery"/The Nation Prize. She is currently a candidate for the Ph.D. at UCLA. "Postcard from Vancouver" is from her first book, Zero at the Bone, published by New Issues Press at Western Michigan University, available here.
The Owls is a backyard lab for writing projects, appearing here by the generosity of 3QD. Curators send out prompts to groups of writers and then post the results. Or a writer takes on an intriguing project and posts along the way. You might enjoy receiving updates from The Owls site via RSS or via email (send a message to owlsmag[at]gmail[dot]com with the word "join" in the subject header). Read more about The Owls site here or peruse an ongoing project, "A Natural History of My _________ ", curated by Sean Hill.
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ 50 Years On
Mark Feeney in the Boston Chronicle:
Robert Frank’s “The Americans’’ certainly is a book, one that consists of 83 photographs taken during 1955 and 1956. But to say it’s “just’’ a book is like saying the same thing about “Moby-Dick.’’ Both works are central, defining documents of American culture. What the white whale was for Ahab, a red, white, and blue nation was for Frank. Ahab employed a harpoon. Frank used a camera. Unlike Ahab, he not only managed to capture his prey, he survived. Frank turned 85 on Nov. 9.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the US publication of “The Americans.’’ (The French edition came out a year earlier.) To observe the occasion, the National Gallery of Art has organized a superbly comprehensive exhibition, “Looking In: Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans.’ ’’ After stops earlier this year at the National Gallery and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, it’s at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Jan. 3.
“Looking In’’ is just right as a title. Seeing, an act that’s optical in nature, is as much passive as active. Looking, an act that’s not just optical but directive, is inherently active. It’s no accident that the first photograph in “The Americans’’ shows both an American flag and people watching.
Looking at America, Frank took in things others had seen but failed to note. Some were banal: jukeboxes, the ubiquity of flags, the many manifestations of automotive culture. Other elements - vaguer, abstract, even sinister - were anything but banal: a sense of isolation, the place of African-Americans in US society, a tension between openness and confinement. The latter is evident in everything from the sweep of a Southwestern landscape to the flickering image on a TV screen. Precisely because Frank’s exteriors look so large, even boundless, his interiors (bars, elevators, the inside of an automobile) feel so constricting.
The First Time As Tragedy
Michael Doliner in Swans Commentary (via bookforum):
It seems to have become fashionable to quote Marx's famous line from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." Grazing on the Web I came upon others using these bons mots to refer to a political battle in Hungary over the legacy of 1956. Then there's one comparing Obama's Nobel to Carter's. Lot's of people like to crack wise about "the third time" with a frisson of clever self-congratulation. Some guy on the Democraticunderground.com, a blog, conjectures that what Marx meant by this is that things keep changing all the time.
Although many use this expression, no one seems to have bothered actually to have read The Eighteenth Brumaire. Marx was not merely coining bons mots, he actually meant something when he wrote this. The two events Marx was talking about were first, the French Revolution, which he took to extend from 1789 to 1814, and second, the French Revolution of 1848-1852, of which The Eighteenth Brumaire is a history.
Marx follows this famous line about tragedy and farce with one almost equally famous: "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please." This also used to be quoted often, but now isn't, I suspect because it makes some people uneasy to suggest that men make their own history. After all, if they get the idea that they can do something, they might decide to make something other than what the rulers have in mind. Marx is not treating history as a scientific phenomenon worthy of observation. Science is a discipline that postulates the impossibility of acting with a purpose. It expunges purposes from the pantheon of causes. Marx, a firm believer in human action, that is action with a purpose, is trying to explain its difficulties. People often take the farce line to mean that the first time, the tragic one, is serious, and the second, farcical one, is a kind of joke. But Marx is making the point that whenever people want to act they usually can only act in a pattern taken from the past. People act in a way that they know. Thus the first French Revolution took on the trappings of Rome to bring about the Bourgeois Revolution. Once the revolutionaries overthrew the ancien régime, the Roman garb came off and they settled down to moneymaking in a world free of the complicated obligations and ties of the ancien régime. The Revolution of 1848 imitated the Revolution of 1789 precisely because it was not a "real" revolution. For whereas the Revolution of 1789 threw off its Roman costume once it had accomplished itself in the abolition of the ancien régime, the Revolution of 1848 continued to imitate the earlier revolution because it had so little to accomplish: it was a farcical revolution. In the end it all vanished behind Louis Napoleon's conjurer's handkerchief.
Obama's Brilliant First Year
Jacob Weisberg in Slate:
About one thing, left and right seem to agree these days: Obama hasn't done anything yet. Maureen Dowd and Dick Cheney have found common ground in scoffing at the president's "dithering." Newsweek recently ran a sympathetic cover story titled, "Yes He Can (But He Sure Hasn't Yet)." The sarcasm brigade thinks it's finally found an Achilles' heel in his lack of accomplishments. "When you look at my record, it's very clear what I've done so far and that is nothing. Nada. Almost one year and nothing to show for it," Obama stand-in Fred Armisen recently riffed on Saturday Night Live. "It's chow time," Jon Stewart asserts, for a president who hasn't followed through on his promises.
This conventional wisdom about Obama's first year isn't just premature—it's sure to be flipped on its head by the anniversary of his inauguration on Jan. 20. If, as seems increasingly likely, Obama wins passage of a health care reform a bill by that date, he will deliver his first State of the Union address having accomplished more than any other postwar American president at a comparable point in his presidency. This isn't an ideological point or one that depends on agreement with his policies. It's a neutral assessment of his emerging record—how many big, transformational things Obama is likely to have made happen in his first 12 months in office.
Bauhaus - Ziggy Stardust (for shuffy)
the mouse is under the table
The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock
Cyrus Hall on the Swiss Islamic Minaret Ban
An email to me from 3QD friend, Cyrus Hall (published with his permission):
My temporary home of the last five years, Switzerland, has just voted for one of the most bigoted and undemocratic constitutional reforms in recent memory: the banning of Islamic minarets on Mosques. The vote appears to be quite stunning, with 58% of voters backing the ban. This was after the most recent polls showed the measure being rejected by 53%, a story in itself.
This represents the most direct attack on the European Muslim minority yet. The French "headscarf ban" was at least religion neutral -- something I would still argue against (as an Atheist), but I appreciate the attempt at even-handedness. On the other hand, this constitutional amendment targets a small, largely immigrant population (many of whom have no vote), single-handedly banning them from behavior that would be perfectly acceptable were they of any other faith. Outrageous.
This is an issue for 3QD like no other. To me, it represents the continued erosion of Western values, in the U.S. and Europe, and their replacement with vapid platitudes and fear, and deserves all the attention in the world.
It's early still, but some basic news links on the issue include this and this.
I am going to be sick with disgust and revulsion as Hannity, Rush, and other media personalities in the U.S. pick this up as a great example of the way forward, for both Europe and the U.S.
Couldn't agree more, Cyrus. Thanks.
The world's most prosperous (and happiest) countries are also its least religious
David Villano at Miller-McCune:
In a paper posted recently on the online journal Evolutionary Psychology, independent researcher Gregory S. Paul reports a strong correlation within First World democracies between socioeconomic well-being and secularity. In short, prosperity is highest in societies where religion is practiced least.
Using existing data, Paul combined 25 indicators of societal and economic stability — things like crime, suicide, drug use, incarceration, unemployment, income, abortion and public corruption — to score each country using what he calls the "successful societies scale." He also scored countries on their degree of religiosity, as determined by such measures as church attendance, belief in a creator deity and acceptance of Bible literalism.
Comparing the two scores, he found, with little exception, that the least religious countries enjoyed the most prosperity. Of particular note, the U.S. holds the distinction of most religious and least prosperous among the 17 countries included in the study, ranking last in 14 of the 25 socioeconomic measures.
You and I are Disappearing –Bjorn Hakansson
The cry I bring down from the hills
belongs to a girl still burning
inside my head. At daybreak
She burns like foxfire
in a thigh-shaped valley.
A skirt of flames
dances around her
We stand with our hands
hanging at our sides,
while she burns
like a sack of dry ice.
She burns like oil on water.
She burns like a cattail torch
dipped in gasoline.
She glows like the fat tip
of a banker's cigar,
silent as quicksilver.
A tiger under a rainbow
She burns like a shot glass of vodka.
She burns like a field of poppies
at the edge of a rain forest.
She rises like dragonsmoke
to my nostrils.
She burns like a burning bush
driven by a godawful wind.
by Yusef Komunyakaa
from Dien Cai Dau; Wesleyan University Press, 1988
Karen Armstrong profile: Writing on His behalf
From National Post:
So what is Armstrong saying about God and religion? She argues for an approach that has more to do with the heart and spirit, approaching religious texts as allegories rather than literal truth. She argues for a religion not burdened by systems of belief that she views as man-made constructs that squeeze the joy out of faith. Religion, she believes, should be more about ritual than ideas. The height of religious experience, she insists, is to be left in a state of awe and the realization that God cannot be known.
Christopher Hitchens in Slate:
Very well, then; the case for Maj. Hasan the overburdened caseworker seems to have evaporated. Robert Wright, among others, is big enough to admit as much. Wright, now emerging as the leading liberal apologist for the faith-based (see his intriguing new book The Evolution of God), now proposes an alternative theory of Maj. Hasan's eagerness to commit mass murder. "The Fort Hood shooting," says Wright, "is an example of Islamist terrorism being spread partly by the war on terrorism—or, actually, by two wars on terrorism, in Iraq and Afghanistan." I know that contributors to the New York Times op-ed page are not necessarily responsible for the headlines that appear over their work, but the title of this one—"Who Created Major Hasan?"—really does demand an answer, and the only one to be located anywhere in the ensuing text is "We did."
Everything in me revolts at this conclusion, which is echoed and underlined in another paragraph of the article. Why, six months ago, did "a 24-year-old-American named Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad—Carlos Bledsoe before his teenage conversion to Islam—fatally shoot a soldier outside a recruiting station in Little Rock, Ark.? ABC News reported, "It was not known what path Muhammad … had followed to radicalization." Well, here's a clue: After being arrested he started babbling to the police about the killing of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan." Wright describes this clue-based deduction of his as an illustration of the way that "an isolated incident can put you on a slippery slope." Though I can't find much beauty in his prose there, I want to agree with him.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Let A Hundred Theories Bloom
George Akerlof and Joseph E. Stiglitz in Project Syndicate:
The economic and financial crisis has been a telling moment for the economics profession, for it has put many long-standing ideas to the test. If science is defined by its ability to forecast the future, the failure of much of the economics profession to see the crisis coming should be a cause of great concern.
But there is, in fact, a much greater diversity of ideas within the economics profession than is often realized. This year’s Nobel laureates in economics are two scholars whose life work explored alternative approaches. Economics has generated a wealth of ideas, many of which argue that markets are not necessarily either efficient or stable, or that the economy, and our society, is not well described by the standard models of competitive equilibrium used by a majority of economists.
Behavioral economics, for example, emphasizes that market participants often act in ways that cannot easily be reconciled with rationality. Similarly, modern information economics shows that even if markets are competitive, they are almost never efficient when information is imperfect or asymmetric (some people know something that others do not, as in the recent financial debacle) – that is, always .
A long line of research has shown that even using the models of the so-called “rational expectations” school of economics, markets might not behave stably, and that there can be price bubbles. The crisis has, indeed, provided ample evidence that investors are far from rational; but the flaws in the rational expectations line of reasoning—hidden assumptions such as that all investors have the same information—had been exposed well before the crisis.
Just as the crisis has reinvigorated thinking about the need for regulation, so it has given new impetus to the exploration of alternative strands of thought that would provide better insights into how our complex economic system functions – and perhaps also to the search for policies that might avert a recurrence of the recent calamity.
One year ago, Mumbai was the target of a horrendous terrorist attack. Over at the Immanent Frame, several scholars--Veena Das, Sumit Ganguly, William R. Pinch, Vijay Prashad, Arvind Rajagopal, Anupama Rao, Tariq Thachil, and Arafaat A. Valiani--reflect on "what might constitute an appropriate response on the part of the Indian government, reflected on the terrorists’ use of spectacle (and the media’s response to it), considered India’s ongoing struggle to maintain its self-professed secular identity, and discussed the troubling socio-economic status of Muslims in India, the history and current state of Muslim-Hindu relations, and recent challenges to Mumbai’s historically cosmopolitan make-up." Vijay Prashad:
When mass movements wither, bitterness remains with the movements’ fugitives, many of whom plot amongst each other to contrive their return. These fugitives fire bullets at each other, accusing one another of treachery, holding themselves above the reasons for the failure of their movements. Equally, they seek refuge somewhere to gather up strength so as to return again with force.
In the 1990s, Afghanistan was that refuge for fugitives from Mindanao Island to Ingushetia, from the Arabian Peninsula to the Indonesian archipelago. Those who went to Afghanistan arrived with grievances of their own, some of the body, some of the soul. The exhaustion of national liberation into the authoritarian states of the 1980s, combined with the export of Saudi Islam to undermine any hope for the resurrection of radical nationalism and gave succor to this Jihad International. Funded by Washington and Riyadh, this International grew to have a greater sense of its own destiny, believing that what it accomplished was by its own means and not by the deft maneuver of its puppeteers. Not Hekmatyar, nor Shah Massoud, nor Bin Laden, could have set the trap for the Russian Bear, and none alone would have been able to thwart the Soviet Afghantsi, the frontline troops. It took this rag-tag brigade, despite Pakistani and US support, four years to dislodge the weak government of Mohammed Najibullah after the withdrawal of the Soviet armies. But the take-over of Afghanistan in 1992 and the collapse of the USSR in 1991 produced the excessive fantasy that the Jihad International was responsible. It was a fantasy that continues to have catastrophic effects.
In fact, it was a 15-year-old who turned me on to the game in the first place—one of my SAT students. He was funny, smart, and sensitive and lived with his family in a wealthy community on Long Island where I’d recently started to work as a tutor to keep my writing habit afloat. I taught my student how to look for patterns on the SAT test, and how to spot the usual errors people made when answering questions. He liked learning how to outsmart others. But he was a teenage boy, and didn’t always want to concentrate. He wanted to talk about his Xbox, which my live-in boyfriend had coincidentally just given me for Christmas. My student wanted to know if I had played the video game Knights of the Old Republic. It was set in a mythical version of the Star Wars universe, and would train me in the ways of the Jedi: a private universe where I could build my own light saber, even have my own Wookie sidekick, and become that enviable thing—a cross between Han Solo and Luke Skywalker—all while still remaining a girl. Or a boy. I could mold my features to look like anyone I wanted. There were instructions I could follow in case I wanted my character to look like Halle Berry. It was January and I was bored. The low sky and constant snow made the cramped city borough where I lived even more claustrophobic. But out here in the neighborhood I visited twice a week, wide windows looked out over an icy lawn and Manhasset Bay. It was doubtful that any residence I ever owned was going to have the luxury of a vast, scenic view outside the dining room window. But now there was at least the allure of becoming a Jedi to pass the winter months. My boyfriend thought we ought to give the game a try.more from Marie Mutsuki Mockett at The Morning News here.
Madame Chiang: far more complex, awful and brilliant than we had imagined
There is a bull market these days in Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) and his wife, Soong Mei-ling (1897-2003), usually called Madame Chiang Kai-shek. When I was studying in Taiwan in the late 1950s, then-President Chiang was regarded by most of the Western students on the island — and many of the Chinese as well — as the remote, cruel man who lost China; his wife was the austere, once-glamorous Dragon Lady who had helped him lose it. Although Chiang alone, or both Chiangs, had appeared numerous times on the cover of Time magazine, those illustrious days seemed over. But now that Jay Taylor has written his comprehensive book “The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China,” we are able to see Chiang as a man of considerable cunning, brutality and patience who skillfully played a weak hand against the Japanese and Mao’s forces while extracting huge sums from the Americans. Similarly, in her latest biography, “The Last Empress,” Hannah Pakula presents Madame Chiang as far more complex, awful and brilliant than we had imagined.more from Jonathan Mirsky at the NY Times here.
Dubai: A morally bankrupt dictatorship built by slave labour
Johann Hari in The Independent:
The people who really built the city can be seen in long chain-gangs by the side of the road, or toiling all day at the top of the tallest buildings in the world, in heat that Westerners are told not to stay in for more than 10 minutes. They were conned into coming, and trapped into staying.
In their home country – Bangladesh or the Philippines or India – these workers are told they can earn a fortune in Dubai if they pay a large upfront fee. When they arrive, their passports are taken from them, and they are told their wages are a tenth of the rate they were promised.
They end up working in extremely dangerous conditions for years, just to pay back their initial debt. They are ringed-off in filthy tent-cities outside Dubai, where they sleep in weeping heat, next to open sewage. They have no way to go home. And if they try to strike for better conditions, they are beaten by the police.
I met so many men in this position I stopped counting, just as the embassies were told to stop counting how many workers die in these conditions every year after they figured it topped more than 1,000 among the Indians alone.
Human Rights Watch calls this system "slavery." Yet the Westerners who have flocked to Dubai brag that they "love" the city, because they don't have to pay any taxes, and they have domestic slaves to do all the hard work. They train themselves not to see the pain.
More here. [Thanks to Nikolai Nikola.]
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
From The Guardian:
When Newland Archer opened the door at the back of the box, the curtain had just gone up on the garden scene. "Darn it," he thought. "I have arrived 10 seconds unfashionably early. All New York knows you are not supposed to make your entrance until Marguerite is two bars into her aria." Newland's annoyance dissipated when he realised that no one who was anyone in New York society had witnessed his horrendous faux pas. During the interval he turned his gaze towards his beloved, the divine May Welland, seated in the Mingott box opposite, and frowned when he saw that her cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, was in her party. How very awkward! What would New York think of the reintroduction of the scarlet woman into society? Yet how typical of the Mingotts to be so brazenly protective of their own! No matter! He would rise above New York's pettiness and his reputation would be unstained!
Alice Munro’s Object Lessons
From The New York Times:
The Germans must have a term for it. Doppelgedanken, perhaps: the sensation, when reading, that your own mind is giving birth to the words as they appear on the page. Such is the ego that in these rare instances you wonder, “How could the author have known what I was thinking?” Of course, what has happened isn’t this at all, though it’s no less astonishing. Rather, you’ve been drawn so deftly into another world that you’re breathing with someone else’s rhythms, seeing someone else’s visions as your own. One of the pleasures of reading Alice Munro derives from her ability to impart this sensation. It’s the sort of gift that requires enormous modesty on the part of the writer, who must shun pyrotechnics for something less flashy: an empathy so pitch-perfect as to be nearly undetectable. But it’s most arresting in the hands of a writer who isn’t too modest — one possessed of a fearless, at times, fearsome, ambition.
From the beginning, Munro has staked her claim on rocky, rough terrain. Her first dozen books are rooted mostly in southwestern Ontario, mostly in the lives of women. Although the stories are, on the surface, bastions of domesticity — they’re full of mothers and daughters and aunts and cousins, darning and gardening, aprons and cakes — Munro flays this material with the unflinching efficiency of a hunter skinning a rabbit. More recently, in “The View From Castle Rock,” she broadened her narrative territory by venturing both into 17th-century Scotland and beyond the boundaries of conventional fiction, mining her family history to produce an unabashed amalgam of invention and fact. Her new book, “Too Much Happiness,” represents at once a return to her habitual form and a furthering of her exploratory sensibilities. The collection’s 10 stories take on some sensational subjects. In fact, a quick tally yields all the elements of pulp fiction: violence, adultery, extreme cruelty, duplicity, theft, suicide, murder. But while in pulp fiction the emotional climax coincides with the height of external drama, a Munro story works according to a different scheme. Here the nominally momentous event is little more than an anteroom to an echo chamber filled with subtle and far-reaching thematic reverberations.
Man Ray's Signature Work
Artist Man Ray mischievously scribbled his name in a famous photograph, but it took decades for the gesture to be discovered.
Abby Callard in Smithsonian Magazine:
In 1935, the avant-garde photographer Man Ray opened his shutter, sat down in front of his camera and used a penlight to create a series of swirls and loops. Because of his movements with the penlight, his face was blurred in the resulting photograph. As a self-portrait—titled Space Writings—it seemed fairly abstract.
But now Ellen Carey, a photographer whose working method is similar to Man Ray’s, has discovered something that has been hidden in plain sight in Space Writings for the past 74 years: the artist’s signature, signed with the penlight amid the swirls and loops.
“I knew instantly when I saw it—it’s a very famous self-portrait—that his signature was in it,” says Carey, a photography professor at the University of Hartford. “I just got this flash of intuition.” Her intuition was to look at the penlight writing from Man Ray’s point of view—which is to say, the reverse of how it appears to anyone looking at the photograph. “I knew that if I held it up to a mirror, it would be there,” Carey says. She did, and it was.
“This makes perfect sense if you understand that throughout his career, Man Ray did many artworks based off his signature,” says Merry Foresta, who curated a 1988 exhibition of his work at the National Museum of American Art (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum) and decorates her Washington, D.C. office with a poster of his iconic Tears image.
Man Ray’s mischievous gesture is typical of his work. He was born Emmanuel Radnitsky in Philadelphia in 1890, but he spent most of his youth in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. In 1915, he met Marcel Duchamp, who introduced him to the modern art scene; the pair were involved with the Dadaists, who rejected traditional aesthetics (Duchamp, for example, displayed a urinal titled Fountain as part of his readymades series), and, later, the Surrealists.
Sex Pranks of the Orchid World
Carl Zimmer's new book excerpted in Discover:
Anne Gaskett, a Cornell University biologist, spends her days crouching quietly next to orchids in Australia. It may seem like an uneventful way to pass the time, but she is actually observing a marvelous act of sexual deception. The flowers are fooling wasps into making love to them.
Male wasps normally seek out females by sniffing for their pheromones, signaling chemicals that they produce. Each species makes a unique pheromone, which means that male wasps rarely end up with the wrong females. But the flowers that Gaskett studies, called tongue orchids, can produce a molecule that precisely mimics the pheromone made by the females of the species Lissopimpla excelsa, commonly known as dupe wasps. Male L. excelsa wasps pick up the scent of the orchids and race to the flowers, expecting to find a mate.
The deception only deepens when the wasp approaches the flower. The pheromone-like compounds are released from a part of the flower that has the coloring of a female dupe wasp. When a male wasp lands on the tongue orchid to investigate, he finds that his body fits snugly against it, just as it would against a female wasp. The dupe wasp is so profoundly fooled that he even extends sexual pincers, called genital claspers, into the flower.