8. For all its allure, its mystery, its sublime significance, the ruin always totters on the edge of a certain species of kitsch. The pleasure of the ruin—the frisson of decay, distance, destruction—is both absolutely unique to the individual wreckage, and endlessly repeatable, like the postcard that is so often its tangible memento. The very recent, industrial ruin is the contemporary equivalent of the picturesque view of a decaying Roman amphitheatre: it is part of an aesthetic now so generalized as to have lost almost all of its charge as a generic image. The twentieth-century ruin has become the preserve of countless urban explorers and enthusiasts of decaying concrete: the evidence of their obsession is spreading across hundreds of websites devoted to haunted asylums, silent foundries, vacant bunkers, and amputated subway stations. The secret of these places, in short, is out: the motivation behind such a fascination for decay is less clear, however. The ruin, still with us after six centuries of obsession, is no longer the image of a lost knowledge, nor of the inevitable return of repressed nature, nor even of a simple nostalgia for modernity. Instead, it seems almost a means of mourning the loss of the aesthetic itself. Ruins show us again—just like the kitsch object—a world in which beauty (or sublimity) is sealed off, its derangement safely framed and endlessly repeatable. It is a melancholy world in which, as Adorno put it, “no recollection is possible any more, save by way of perdition; eternity appears, not as such, but diffracted through the most perishable.”

more from Cabinet here.

First Arab Nobel laureate dies

From The Guardian:Naguibmahfouz256

Naguib Mahfouz, who became the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, died at his home today. He was 94.

Mahfouz, whose novels depicted Egyptian life in his beloved corner of ancient Cairo, was admitted to the hospital just over a month ago after falling in his home and injuring his head. He died this morning after a sharp decline, according to Dr Hossam Mowafi, the head of a medical team that had been supervising his treatment. Long established as one of the Middle East’s finest and best-loved writers, and an ardent advocate of moderation and religious tolerance, Mahfouz’s acceptance of the Nobel Prize in 1988 brought him to international notice. But a wider readership came at a price: in 1994, an attacker inspired by a militant cleric’s ruling that one of Mahfouz’s novels was blasphemous stabbed the then-82-year-old writer as he left his Cairo home. The attack damaged the nerves leading to his right arm, effectively putting an end to his former practice of writing for hours in longhand.

More here.

Why Does It Still Hurt, Doc?

From The Washington Post:

Doc_1 They regularly visit doctors’ offices complaining of baffling combinations of symptoms for which no medical cause can be found: chest pain one month, gynecologic problems the next, followed by headaches or crushing fatigue.

Hospital staff privately refer to them as “crocks” — people who repeatedly show up in emergency rooms demanding expensive, exhaustive tests to unearth the elusive cause of their numerous symptoms. Reassurance that their tests don’t show anything amiss has the opposite effect, convincing these patients that physicians haven’t looked hard enough — or don’t believe them. Most are women who develop the lifelong disorder during adolescence.

More here.

Sleeping with Cannibals

Paul Raffaele in Smithsonian Magazine:

Korowai_skullCannibalism was practiced among prehistoric human beings, and it lingered into the 19th century in some isolated South Pacific cultures, notably in Fiji. But today the Korowai are among the very few tribes believed to eat human flesh. They live about 100 miles inland from the Arafura Sea, which is where Michael Rockefeller, a son of then-New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, disappeared in 1961 while collecting artifacts from another Papuan tribe; his body was never found. Most Korowai still live with little knowledge of the world beyond their homelands and frequently feud with one another. Some are said to kill and eat male witches they call khakhua.

More here.

Mr. Danger

Greg Grandin in the Boston Review:

There is something quaint—flattering, even—about the way Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez insists on calling George W. Bush “Mr. Danger.” The taunt, which Chávez delivers in English with rolled-out vowels and pinched consonants, evokes an earlier era of cloak-and-dagger politics and lends Bush a certain mystery that he is generally denied in these shrill times of stateless terrorism. Mr. Danger, it turns out, is a minor character in Rómulo Gallegos’s 1929 novel Doña Barbara, a landmark in Venezuelan literature and before the fiction boom of the 1970s one of the most widely read Latin American novels in the world. A “great mass of muscles under red skin, with a pair of very blue eyes,” he is one of many unsympathetic misters who populate 20th-century Latin American social and magical realist prose, beginning in 1904 with the Chilean writer Baldomero Lillo’s abusive mine foreman Mr. Davis and continuing through Mr. Brown, the manager of a U.S. banana company in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

More here.

Colliding Clusters Shed Light on Dark Matter

From Scientific American:

000eb9fd823f14eb823f83414b7f0000_1For more than 70 years, astronomers, cosmologists and physicists have known that ordinary matter must be surrounded by vast quantities of an invisible substance–not substantial enough to collide with atoms or stars but massive enough to keep galaxies from flying apart. Dubbed dark matter, the mysterious stuff has eluded detection through any means other than its gravitational impact, leading some to propose that Einstein’s general relativity fails to adequately describe how gravity actually works on galactic scales. Now a relatively recent collision of two galaxy clusters has lifted the veil between ordinary and dark matter, proving the latter must exist.

More here. Also in Scientific American, Robert Caldwell answers the question “What are dark matter and dark energy, and how are they affecting the universe?

Laura Claridge

From Laura’s new website:

Laura_claridgeLaura Claridge has written several books ranging from feminist theory to biography and popular culture, most recently Norman Rockwell: A Life (Random House). She is currently completing a biography of American icon Emily Post, Emily Post and the American Dream: Red Shoes, White Gloves and the Little Blue Book (Random House), for which she received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant (2005). This project also received the J. Anthony Lukas Prize for a Work in Progress (2006), administered by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Born in Clearwater, Florida, Laura Claridge received her Ph.D. in British Romanticism and Literary Theory from the University of Maryland in 1986. She taught in the English departments at Converse and Wofford colleges in Spartanburg, SC, and was a tenured professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis until 1997.

Screenhunter_3_8She has been a frequent writer and reviewer for the national press, appearing in such newspapers as The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, and the Christian Science Monitor. Her books have been translated into Spanish, German, and Polish. She has appeared frequently in the national media, including NBC, CNN, BBC, CSPAN, and NPR and such widely watched programs as the Today Show.

Laura Claridge has also been my teacher, mentor, and very dear friend for a very long time. More about this amazingly accomplished woman here (including reviews by and of her, excerpts from her books, and much more).

NY man charged for beaming Hezbollah TV

Lindsay Beyerstein in Majikthise:

A New York City businessman is facing charges for making broadcasts from Hezbollah’s al-Manar satellite TV station available to New Yorkers. [BBC]

The right wing tabloids have been all over this story. I’m surprised that the arrest of Javed Iqbal hasn’t generated more attention from civil libertarians.

This case could set some very troubling precedents. So far, he has been charged with doing business with a terrorist entity, but there may be more serious charges to come:

Prosecutor Stephen A Miller had argued against granting him bail, indicating more charges were likely to be filed.

“The charge lurking in the background is material support for terrorism,” the Associated Press news agency quotes him as saying. [BBC]

We can’t treat all dealings with Hezbollah as if they were the equivalent of dealings with an Al Qaeda cell. Like it or not, Hezbollah has an institutional and political presence in the region as well as a military force. Hezbollah runs hospitals, schools, and other social service agencies. Hezbollah members sit in the Lebanese legislature. The US government didn’t sever diplomatic relations with Lebanon just because members of Hezbollah have seats in the Lebanese legislature. Why should we hold American businesspeople to a stricter standard?

More here, including quite a discussion in the comments.

they made art with all kinds of crap


They had some striking wallpaper in France 70 years ago. There was wallpaper that emulated the ornate gold-on-red arabesques of the Empire style, that pastiched stonework, and, far in advance of the date you might guess, paper in an assortment of modern abstract designs – coloured bars, teardrop-like blue petals, cubist triangles. You could buy wallpaper printed with ridged relief maps of the continents, olive-brown against grey oceans. Presumably, this didactic geographical wallpaper was intended for a child’s bedroom. It took the imagination of Picasso to turn it into a dress.

In 1938, the 20th century’s greatest painter made a work of art out of wallpaper


more from The Guardian here.

james lee byars


In Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (1951) Erwin Panofsky argues that the builders of Gothic churches did not need to read scholastic philosophy in order to adopt a similar worldview, for “they were exposed to the Scholastic point of view in innumerable other ways….” Very often art too reflects the period style of its supporting culture. By displaying Judd’s art on the twentieth and twenty-first floors in midtown Manhattan, in rooms with large windows on all four sides of the building, Christie’s allows us to see how his sculptures and wall pieces mirror the architecture of America. Look from his boxes and stacks to the windows of the nearby skyscrapers, or compare his corner piece linking two panels with a black pipe and his wood blocks with horizontal and vertical lines to the banal architectural structures outside the gallery. In the city at large, as in Judd’s art, regular geometric divisions are omnipresent. He reconstructs our urban environments, making aesthetic the city’s basic visual vocabulary. It was instructive to walk from Renzo Piano’s newly opened reconstruction of the Morgan Library and Museum a few blocks uptown to Christie’s. The new steel-and-glass pavilions at the entrance, thrust into the older Renaissance-style palazzo designed by Charles McKim, bear a striking resemblance to Judd’s boxes. Christie’s most generous gift to the public (April 3 – May 9, 2006), the highest display of art I have yet visited, and one of the best, effectively presented Judd’s vision. James Lee Byars’s “The Rest is Silence” was dispersed amongst gallery spaces of three New York dealers. And so when you traveled from Michael Werner uptown down to the Chelsea galleries of Mary Boone and Perry Rubenstein, it was natural to reflect upon the relationship of Byars’s art to its urban setting.

more from artcritical here.

no more gods


Zeus would not approve. In Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 movie “Troy” and now in “An Iliad” (Knopf), the new novelization of Homer’s epic by the bestselling Italian author Alessandro Baricco, we find no gods — none. No Hera or Aphrodite; no limping Hephaestus or weed-bearded Poseidon; the whole fractious, horny, and meddlesome crew is simply…not there.

The omissions in “Troy” we can probably forgive; a swords-and-sandals blockbuster like that, swirling in money and policed no doubt by militant producers, might just not have had room for visions or divine entries. But the godlessness of Baricco’s “An Iliad” is more considered and programmatic: Homer’s Olympians “are probably the aspect of the poem most extraneous to a modern sensibility and often break up the narrative, diffusing a momentum that should rightly be palpable,” he writes in an introductory note. “I wouldn’t have removed them if I’d been convinced they were necessary.”

more from Boston Globe Ideas here.

Why the study of English lit needs to become a tough subject again

From The Guardian:Kermode1

Great (British) literary critics are like heavyweight boxing champions. No one bothers to know their names any more. Lit-crit used to be big time; Henry Cooper big. No longer. Our very greatest living GBLC is Frank Kermode, now in his ninth decade. Sir Frank (like ‘Enery in his field of combat) was ennobled for services to literary criticism. Something makes him a rather lone figure among the sovereign’s doughty band of knights.

Looking back over the field he has dominated for half a century, Kermode’s words are unminced. Universities, he says, “are being driven by madmen”. And education in general “is being run by lunatics”.

More here.

Micro-motor runs on bacteria power

From MSNBC:Bacteria_1

At Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology near Tokyo, Hiratsuka and his colleagues experimented with one of the most rapid crawling bacteria, Mycoplasma mobile. This pear-shaped microbe, a millionth of a meter long, can glide over surfaces at up to seven-tenths of an inch an hour. Translated to a 6-foot-tall (180-centimeter-tall) runner, this roughly equates to 20 mph (32 kilometers per hour). The researchers built circular pathways coated with sugary proteins, which the microbe needs to stick to in order to glide over surfaces. They then docked a rotor onto the track and coated the bacteria with vitamin B7, which acted like glue to yoke the germs to the cog. They also genetically modified the microbes so they stuck to their tracks more stably.

The scientists created roughly 20,000 rotors on a silicon chip. Each cog is etched from silica, which sand is made of, and is 20 microns wide, or roughly a fifth the diameter of a human hair. In addition to helping drive micro-robots, Hiratsuka suggested that bacteria-powered motors could help propel micropumps in lab-on-a-chip devices. “Alternatively, we may be able to construct electronic generator systems, which generate electric energy from an abundant chemical source — glucose in the body,” he said.

More here.

Dispatches: Agassi

Being a fan of Andre Agassi is difficult – there’s too much competition.  He is the most sentimentally revered figure in the history of professional tennis, which can make appreciating him feel like a form of conformity.  For this reason, with the start of the U.S. Open, Agassi’s declared last tournament, many tennis enthusiasts prefer to moan about the press banquet of schmaltz being spread out before us.  But, as with music fans who denounce overly popular musicians to demonstrate their independence, those who allow NBC’s endless ‘inspirational’ montages to dictate their feelings are merely indulging in juvenile contrarianism.  Having trouble admiring what is too popular is a common youthful problem, but not the one I face here.  Quite the opposite: with nostalgic tributes to Agassi thicker on the ground than confetti, many composed by people who have actually met the man, what can I add?

Maybe I can start by critiquing some of the broad brushstrokes used to paint the man’s narrative arc.  Today’s New York Times contains an illustration of Agassi bisected into two halves: on the left, his youthful bleach-blond maned incarnation; on the right, his current “wizened veteran” visage.  As a visual metaphor it sums up the common conception of Agassi’s career: after a wasted youth spent caring too much about image, Agassi dropped to number 141 in the rankings, then was reborn having learned important life lessons and returned to number one.  Simple, but mostly wrong.  In truth, Agassi’s career has been about comebacks from the very beginning.

Agassi was blessed with ball-striking talent so clean and remarkable that at age four he rallied with Jimmy Connors for a crowd at Caesar’s Palace in his hometown of Las Vegas.  Growing up, he was seen in no uncertain terms as a prodigy who would go on to dominate tennis.  And he duly burned up the men’s tour as a teenager, and in 1990 he reached the finals of two Grand Slam tournaments as a heavy favorite.  He lost both (although we later came to realize that losing to a then-unknown Pete Sampras wasn’t as inexplicable as it then seemed), then reached the French Open final in 1991 again as the favorite, and lost again.  What happened? 

Agassi’s early years were marked by a desire and an ability to hit the ball harder off both forehand and backhand sides than was generally considered wise.  He possessed, however, a freakish consistency in his ability to strike the ball early (making ‘hit it on the rise’ into a shibboleth of the era) and accurately.  First chance he got, he simply blasted you off the court.  Agassi was able to maintain the “flow state” — those ineffable, perfect stretches — much more of the time than others, with less practice and less preparation.  He had a sort of genius.

Yet his talent came with a price.  The unconscious ability to unload on the ball was prone, as all such talents are, to disappear during moments of tension.  This happened to him quite often early in his career; when faced with matches he was favored in, and thus pressured by, he often lost them.  It was as if the punishment for how easily the strokes came to him was a lack of strategies to win (you can see this today with Marat Safin).  The midsection of his career then, was marked by fallow periods followed by amazing victories out of nowhere.  He won the 1992 Wimbledon after playing indifferently for months, with little practice, on his worst surface.  Again he disappeared, only to resurface with a poor ranking and become the only player to win the U.S. Open without a seeding in 1994. 

At this stage, Agassi employed the crafty former veteran, Brad Gilbert, whose professional success despite a near vacuum of talent was the precise reversal of Agassi’s underachievement.  Together, Gilbert and Agassi were able to concoct strategies of point construction that could overcome Agassi’s early reliance on irruptions of brilliance.  Specifically, the new plan was to become fitter than any man on tour, and to punish opponents by jerking them from side to side, purposely not making the killing stroke until a plain positional adavantage was achieved.  This plan wore opponents out, induced unforced errors (which are the easiest way to win points), and, most importantly, freed Agassi from reliance on the “flow state.”   He began to dominate, beating Sampras at the Australian Open to begin 1995, and in doing so generated a hybrid offensive-defensive model for success followed to this day.

Agassi went on to dominate 1995 until the U.S. Open final against Pete Sampras, which he entered having won 27 straight matches.  Sampras, however, had never needed to play the defensive tactics Agassi had developed, because Sampras possessed a serve that is probably the single most devastating weapon in tennis history.  (The shorter Agassi, by contrast, has never had the psychological luxury of a great serve.)  In addition, Sampras never showed vulnerability on big stages the way Agassi did.  He mercilessly served Agassi off the court that day, sending him into a tailspin from which Agassi took two years to recover.

Now, the rivalry between Sampras and Agassi was extremely close.  Every time they met in Grand Slams on a slower surface (Roland Garros, Australia), Agassi won.  Of their sixteen tournament finals, Agassi won seven, Pete nine.  Unfortunately, everytime they met in the two faster Slams, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Sampras won.  These are the most prestigious tournaments in tennis.  After 1995, Agassi was faced with the realization that all his childhood genius combined with all his adulthood grinding was still not good enough to defeat Sampras at the events most important to him.  There was also the nagging sense that he cared too much in the big moments to be a true killer.

Don’t shut down on a player.  Agassi lost some interest, then made the mother of all comebacks, from 141 in 1998 to winning the French Open in 1999.  This gave him the historic full collection of Grand Slams on three surfaces, an achievement Sampras couldn’t match (nor Federer, as yet).  And thus began a run of dominance at an age that defied belief, and a consistency he had never before showed.  Agassi was ranked number one as recently as June 2003, and just last year, of course, played Federer pretty darn tough in the U.S. Open final, at age 35.

I have spent some time recounting the many comebacks of Agassi’s career, to give some of the flavor of his tenure in tennis.  Rather than a dominant number one, he has always seemed to be an ephemeral victor, an paradoxical combination of all-time legend with underdog.  He has revived his passion for the intense physical work of playing professional tennis after disappointments of many kinds.  Uniquely among top players, who rise to the top, are displaced, and then fade away, Agassi was able to scale the heights repeatedly, never becoming fatally disengaged by heartbreaking losses.  This was partly because of his amazing native facility for pugilistic hitting, much more due to his tenacious desire to play.

Like tennis’ Gatsby, Agassi was an extremely sensitive arriviste; of Armenian-Iranian origins, Agassi’s father had boxed for Iran before moving to Las Vegas to pursue Amercian social mobility.  His drilling of Agassi as a toddler may have programmed Agassi’s later perfection in muscle memory.  Agassi’s astonishingly bad, Merry Go Round fashion sense as a youngster was a sign of his contempt for those who would attempt to exclude him because of his lack of gentility.  Likewise his denunciations of Wimbledon’s dress code and anything else that seemed insufficiently egalitarian to the teenage Agassi. 

After such an assault on a perceived establishment, Agassi’s transformation into the offical Elder Statesman of tennis sometimes surprises.  But the intelligence he always showed has remained constant.  He has an uncanny ability to remember crucial details, and he is probably the most accurate tennis analyst alive.  (Here’s Agassi after playing Federer; here after playing Nadal.)  He is compassionate towards others as only a career underdog could be: he is by far the world’s most philanthropic athlete.  His career has demonstrated that redemption does not come from winning, but from working and giving (as New Agey as that, and Agassi, often sounds).  This last, by the way, is what I believe Agassi means when he says he owes a debt to tennis, that tennis has taught him lessons.

Caring more deeply about his sport and its intersection with the actual world than maybe any other player, Agassi showed that sensitivity can be an asset instead of a liability for athletes, who are more commonly compared to warriors and assassins.  This has had far-reaching effects on sport.  No longer do we think that true champions must be repressive drones or angry jerks.  If Federer is Sampras’ technical heir, he is Agassi’s emotional heir: he wins without negativity.  Federer, Andy Roddick, and others have also followed the lead Agassi set by forming their own foundations (Agassi’s runs a public school in a deprived section of Las Vegas).  The more impassive Sampras won more, and the more talented Federer will win more, but Agassi’s care has won him the love of the world.  The most important thing I’ve learned from watching him is how to defeat winning and losing.

The rest of Dispatches.

Monday musing: once more on the whole grass thing

Maybe it is OK to be a Nazi if you also happened to write at least one really amazing book. Granted, Mister Grass has written a lot of crap in the last few decades. I was recently trying to read My Century when a fit of boredom so immobilized me I had to watch several episodes of The Entourage on a friend’s TiVo just to get back the use of my limbs. But The Tin Drum is a great book of the twentieth century. It is so good that you can’t debate it. It’s just good. It’s great. A person who has written a book like The Tin Drum has provided a service for humanity. They have managed to grasp and convey something deep and profound and important about the real experiences of a generation. A novel that operates on that level is performing at the very highest echelon of what a novel can do and be. The Tin Drum is one of the novels that actually did the work of putting the European mind and soul back together again after its utter collapse in the traumas of the first half of the twentieth century. John Berger put it this way in his impassioned defense of Grass in last week’s Guardian:

… [H]is life as a storyteller was devoted to grasping, narrating and explaining, with extensive fellow-feeling, the contradictions, cruelties, abysmal losses, wisdom, ignorance, cowardice and grace of people (person by person) under extreme historical stress. Very few other writers of our time have such a wide knowledge of articulate and inarticulate experience. Grass never shut his eyes. He became a writer of honour.

The Tin Drum, in that sense, changed the world, at least a little bit (and for the better). The person who wrote The Tin Drum has therefore become a special person to us.

Günter Grass is also a terrible blow hard and sometimes barely tolerable jerk who has shown a calculated and self-serving side in many of his actions, most egregiously in rather conveniently waiting to receive his Nobel Prize before mentioning anything about all that SS stuff. Christopher Hitchens, not one to mince words, has summed up the situation thusly:

Grass’ many defenders have not asked themselves the question that needs to be posed, which is: Has he at last decided to appeal to the new German readership that is, so to say, a bit fed up with hearing about how dreadful the Nazis were? If this admittedly rather cynical suggestion has any merit, then at least his recent boring writings and operatic confessions would, in combination, make perfect sense. But they would also make absolute nonsense of his previous career as a literary policeman and a patroller of the line of taboo. “Let those who want to judge, pass judgment,” Grass said last week in a typically sententious utterance. Very well, then, mein lieber Herr. The first judgment is that you kept quiet about your past until you could win the Nobel Prize for literature. The second judgment is that you are not as important to German or to literary history as you think you are. The third judgment is that you will be remembered neither as a war criminal nor as an anti-Nazi hero, but more as a bit of a bloody fool.

There is no question that Hitchens is essentially correct in this tirade. Grass can and should be condemned for all of it. And here there is something lacking in Berger’s otherwise thoughtful essay. Berger is right that Grass proved himself, in his work, to be a writer of honor. But he’s also proved himself to be a complete ass. It took Hitchens to put his finger on that one messy little detail: Grass is a piece of shit.

But he is also great, overwhelmingly, wonderfully great. That’s how good his book is. And that is the one thing Hitchens is wrong about. Grass’s importance to German literature and, indeed, to world literature can’t be underestimated. That’s what happens when you write a truly great novel. Perhaps it’s not right, but there you have it. There are lots of weasely little worms who served with the SS when they were too young or ignorant to realize what they were doing and they’ll never be forgiven for it. Nor should they be. Let them rot. But they didn’t write any great novels. When you do something great, the rules change. That is the nature of our moral world, the human moral world in which things don’t work out very clean and nice. They get complicated and they do so quickly. Berger gives a nod to that fact in his essay but he makes it too easy on himself and thus too easy on Grass as well. Hitchens is no friend to easiness but he has to fudge the issue as well in order to achieve the finality of his moral judgments. In the end, Hitchens has to belittle Grass’s writing in order to get away cleanly with his judgments. The one time Hitchens mentions The Tin Drum, he does so with a telling reverence that shows how much he is brushing the question of Grass’s achievement under the rug. He writes, “For all this, one was never able to suppress the slight feeling that the author of The Tin Drum was something of a bigmouth and a fraud, and also something of a hypocrite.” Well, fair enough. But that’s the point. He is still the author of The Tin Drum and nothing is going to change that. It has to enter into our thinking about the man and what he is to us, what he means to us.

The brilliant philosopher Bernard Williams once coined the term Moral Luck. With it, he meant to pound a little contingency into the universalist and absolute moral philosophies of the Kantians and Utilitarians. We are not judged, Williams meant to say, in the pure realm of our actions and intentions, but within the decidedly contingent realm of the outcomes of those actions and intentions. What happens matters. The way things turn out, which is effectively impossible to foretell, has a lot to do with how we judge and understand the initial behavior. Williams was famously fond of his Gauguin example. It was, by any standard, a rather reprehensible set of actions that led Gauguin to abandon his wife and child and take off to Tahiti where he could behave scandalously with very young girls. It was a shitty thing to do. But, Gauguin also managed to accomplish something else. He painted brilliant paintings there. He painted paintings that were a revelation, that blew painting open and revealed new worlds of possibility to the art of his time. That is an accomplishment that cannot be ignored in the attempt to take account of Gauguin’s awful behavior to the people who needed him most. We judge Gauguin differently in the light of his accomplishment. That isn’t even to say that we let him off the hook, but that we simply cannot see his actions as unrelated to his accomplishments when those accomplishments are so meaningful to the world we all share.

And that is where Günter Grass currently resides. He’s in Gauguin territory. And any attempt to reduce him either to being a complete fraud on the one hand or a martyr/saint on the other is going to look like bad moral philosophy. Maybe we simply have to say that he’s a piece of shit who got away with it. Worse things happen in the world than that. But I’m glad he wrote The Tin Drum and I have no question that the world in which The Tin Drum was written is better than the world in which it wasn’t.

Random Walks: She’s a Rebel

Sillhouettte_1Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony.

— Jane Austen, in a letter dated March 13, 1816

There’s been a great deal of heated discussion in the blogosphere this past week about that infamous Forbes column by Michael Noer. You know the one. It’s where he urges his male readers to marry any woman, pretty or ugly, so long as she’s not an example of that unnatural, emasculating, horrific hellbeast — the dreaded Career Woman. Because dude, that is just a recipe for divorce, according to Noer’s generic “social scientists.” Not because the fragile male ego can’t take the competition, but because such marriages run a higher risk of failure due to the woman‘s dissatisfaction with a mate who might not be able to keep pace with her fast-track professional goals and achievements.

It took mere nanoseconds for every feminist blogger (male and female) on the Internet to be up in arms over Noer’s crassly sexist scribblings; even Jack Shafer at Slate felt compelled to weigh in on the issue. Among the many other objections raised, Noer’s definition of a “Career Woman” is not the stereotypical senior partner in a law firm or corporate CEO bringing down six figures (or more), but any female with a college degree who works 35 hours a week and makes more than $30,000 a year. The accompanying readership outcry prompted the Powers That Be at Forbes to post a rebuttal by Elizabeth Corcoran, which now appears side-by-side with Noer’s original screed.

I wonder whether Noer would have considered the English novelist Jane Austen to be one of those unmarriageable “career women” he so clearly despises. She certainly didn’t fit his simplistic strict criteria: she lived quietly, had no formal education, and came from modest means. While technically her “career” was writing, she earned very little from her literary endeavors — rarely more than 100 pounds per year — and spent much of her life dependent on financial assistance from her brothers. Yet in her own quiet way, she was quite the rabble-rousing feminist revolutionary, particularly when it came to her ideological views on matters of marriage.

Jane Austen was born December 16, 1775, in Hampshire, England, the seventh child of eight born to the local rector, George Austen, and his wife. Her father was a gentleman, with a respectable income supplemented by private tutoring, but the costs of maintaining such a large household meant that Jane and her older sister, Cassandra, didn’t have much in the way of dowries. Nor was there much opportunity for formal education, apart from a year-long stint at a nearby boarding school. But she learned to draw and play the pianoforte, and she was an avid reader, with full access to her father’s considerable library. She also loved to write, penning humorous parodies of Shakespeare’s plays and the more fashionable novels of her day for her family’s amusement at the age of 12. By 20 she had turned her attention to writing novels.

It’s quite telling that Austen’s heroines were rarely girly-girls, by Regency standards, where the only socially acceptable status for women was marriage — otherwise they were “doomed” to be spinster dependents, teachers, governesses, or lowly servants. Catherine in Northanger Abbey prefers cricket and baseball to more feminine forms of play, and loves “rolling down the green slope at the back of the house.” But none of Austen’s protagonists are as modern as Elizabeth Bennett, the spirited heroine of Pride and Prejudice. She is pretty and charming enough to turn heads, but with no dowry, her marital prospects are slim. Nonetheless, she still refuses two proposals of marriage: one from her cousin, Mr. Collins, and one from Mr. Darcy (whom, as we all know, she eventually accepts — but only because she loves him). Either one of them would have been acceptable matches in Regency England — indeed, Darcy was quite the catch — but Elizabeth heeds her father’s warnings not to tie herself to a life partner she can’t love and respect.

That was a downright radical notion in Austen’s day: women simply didn’t have the luxury of marrying for love. Compare Elizabeth’s choices and attitude with that of her far more pragmatic friend, Charlotte Lucas, who marries the odious Mr. Collins simply because she has no better prospects, being both plain and poor — and, at 27, verging on desperation to avoid abject spinsterhood. Charlotte personifies the plight of the low-brow Regency gentlewoman, for whom marriage “was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.”

As Austen wrote, so she lived. She, too, had limited marital prospects because of her small dowry, despite being described in contemporary accounts as very pretty, lively, witty, even flirtatious — the kind of fun-loving, whip-smart girl-next-door many men would dearly love to meet and marry. Unable, for financial reasons, to marry the young man she truly cared for at age 20, she resisted attempts to set her up with a local reverend in Cambridge the following year. In 1802, then in her late 20s, she briefly succumbed to temptation and accepted a marriage proposal from one Harris Bigg-Wither, a man six years her junior, quite prosperous, but “big and awkward.” She repented the next day and rescinded her acceptance, choosing to live out her life as a spinster rather than marry for anything other than love — even if it meant sacrificing financial stability. In the end, Austen had the courage of her convictions. Noer would have just hated her, I suspect. She, in turn, would have found him quite ridiculous, no doubt making him the target of her razor-sharp wit.Austen_1

One might be tempted to dismiss this past week’s hullabaloo as the proverbial tempest in a teapot were Noer a lone voice crying in the wilderness. My inner cynic insists that Forbes and Noer were deliberately antagonistic in order to generate just the sort of red-hot free publicity the article has since received. Even if my inner cynic is wrong, who really cares about the opinions of a clearly insecure man who lacks the stones to consider a potential wife his equal? Not me. The whole “Battle of the Sexes” debate seems so, well, 1970s. But there seems to be a disturbing broader trend at play: an abject terror that our society is changing as a result of the progress made over the last 30 years in terms of women’s rights, the roles they play, and the ever-widening array of choices they can make. And we all know how people fear change — even when it’s arguably for the better.

Consider a few examples from The New York Times, which has been running an alarmist series of articles on “the new gender divide.” For instance, on July 9 , Tamar Lewin reported on how women college students were leaving men in the dust, in terms of their commitment to achieving academic success — perhaps because most women don’t (yet) view education as an entitlement, having been denied the privilege for centuries. This should be a positive development, but apparently, it is evidence for a pending “crisis for boys,” despite the fact that, as Lewin writes, “[M]en still dominate the math-science axis, earn more money, and wield more power than women.” One gets the sense that Lewin was reluctant to jump on the “crisis” bandwagon, since she goes on to prominently quote the skeptical education analyst Sara Mead: “The idea that girls could be ahead is so shocking that they think it must be a crisis for boys.”

Further riffing on the “men are victims” motif, the August 6 installment of the Times‘ gender divide series detailed the growing number of men between 40 and 44, with less than four years of college, who are still (gasp!) single, in part because women have become economically independent. Again, this ought to be a positive thing. In fact, it’s a bit difficult to take such concerns seriously. Personally, I’m still waiting for the TIME cover story declaring that men over 40 have a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than getting married; maybe then I’ll start to worry — in between chortles of delight at having the matrimonial tables turned at long last. But part of me bristles at the unspoken implication that the reason such men aren’t married isn’t due to choice, but because all those uppity, status-seeking, money-grubbing, over-educated females think they’re too good for the hard-working regular guy. That’s insulting to both men and women.

Yea verily, I exaggerate for comic effect, but even more unsettling is a nagging sense that there might be a wee bit of truth to that exaggeration. Lewin’s article quotes a young female college student as saying she would be reluctant to marry a man without a college degree: “I want to be able to have that intellectual conversation.” Eventually this young woman will learn that a college degree, even from an Ivy League school, is not necessarily evidence of intelligence — just look at our current president. Ironically, the over-40 single men featured in the August 9 Times article were described as healthy, youthful and happy despite their unmarried state, although they still desired female companionship. It is no longer a “truth universally acknowledged” that a young man of good fortune must, by definition, be in want of a wife. Ditto for young women of good fortune.

And let’s not forget last October’s pathetic “pity me” whine-fest by Times columnist Maureen Dowd, intended to help launch her new book, provocatively titled Are Men Necessary? (Check out Katie Roiphe’s witty, Austen-worthy smack-down of Dowd in Slate entitled, “Is Maureen Dowd Necessary?“) In essence, Dowd complains that men don’t want lively, spirited women who are their intellectual equals because they find them too threatening; instead, they want pliable women in positions of servitude: maids, for instance, or secretaries. At the same time, however, Dowd finds very few men she herself would deem acceptable based on her stringent, “I must marry up” criteria. Can you say “double standard”? Granted, it’s hard to marry “up” when you’re, well, Maureen Dowd. But why does someone as well-placed as Maureen Dowd even need to marry “up”? Why dismiss otherwise handsome, decent men as prospective husbands out of hand just because they’re a little lower on the socio-economic ladder? (What would Mr. Darcy do? Easy — he married Elizabeth anyway, despite her lower socio-economic status, because he loved her and could afford to choose with his heart.)

Jane Austen would never have been so crass. She knew marriage should be first and foremost based on mutual love and respect, and that a union of true equals has nothing to do with their respective socio-economic status. She suffered the loss of her youthful suitor, an Irishman named Thomas Lefroy, because “society” — in the form of their respective families — didn’t deem him economically worthy. (He had the last laugh: he later became chief justice of Ireland, and told his nephew of his “boyish love” for Jane Austen.) Another young man who fell in love with her, and whom she might have loved in return, and married, died tragically before he could propose. (A similar fate befell Austen’s older sister, Cassandra, who was engaged for several years to a young man who died before they could marry.)

Marriage for women is no longer about economic survival, as it was in Austen’s day. Women have never had more freedom of choice, more options for what they want from life. And yet, it seems that the issue of marriage is becoming more about the social pressure to conform to the cultural stereotype than it is about finding the right loving partner. Anyone who doesn’t fit the traditional mold is viewed with extreme suspicion. The message to young women today is clear: Beware, because nobody will want to marry you if you’re too smart, too successful, too selective about your choice of man, because men like Noer can’t handle the competition. And that would be terrible! You’ll be an old maid! With a hundred cats! People will snicker behind your back and secretly pity you!

Thirty years into the women’s movement, and we still labor under the false assumption that marriage is the only acceptable state for a woman — or a man, for that matter.  Even Dowd has fallen into this trap. She’s beautiful, powerful, successful, and attracts equally successful, well-heeled men as paramours, even if she hasn’t married any of them. She clearly has a pretty high opinion of herself. And yet somehow even Dowd has bought into the notion that all her impressive accomplishments are negated by the fact that she’s “still single.”

Compare Dowd’s attitude to that of Austen, who found humor in her “old maid” status at 37, and even relished certain advantages when chaperoning young ladies at dances, “for I am put on the Sofa near the Fire & can drink as much wine as I like.” She indulged in flowers and concert tickets, and delighted in being an aunt to her many nieces and nephews. And while her novels brought her only modest recognition and financial rewards, they did bring great personal satisfaction. When she died — probably of Addison’s disease — at 41, she was buried at Winchester Cathedral. Perhaps the only thing that would have piqued her ire was that her tombstone made no mention of her literary accomplishments, merely alluded to “the extraordinary endowments of her mind.”

Somehow I doubt Dowd’s eventual obituary in the Times will follow its respectful summation of her life’s work with the somber observation, “Alas, she never married.” That’s because we don’t live in Austen’s Victorian England, with its restrictive social mores and limited opportunities for women. There’s still progress to be made on the road to true gender equality, but I believe our society has changed for the better. Women marry not because we need to, but because we choose to do so, and can also choose when to do so. We don’t have to be like Charlotte Lucas and accept the first halfway decent guy (or, in poor Charlotte’s case, the first pompous insufferable jackass) who comes along. We can afford to hold out for the kind of man we can truly love. And in the long run, that can only be a good thing for both genders. Unlike Dowd, I have faith in the male of the species. I suspect most men, given the choice, would opt to marry a woman who truly loved them, rather than one who wed them out of necessity or raw, status-seeking greed. I consider Noer and his ilk to be the aberration, not the norm.

Austen’s Emma is a strong-willed young woman, perhaps just a wee bit spoiled, with enough confidence and economic independence to be able to view marriage as an option, not a necessity. She meets her friend Harriet’s horror at the prospect of being an “old maid” with good-humored disdain: “A single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable.” Indeed, Emma laments, “To be so bent on marriage — to pursue a man merely for the sake of a situation — is a sort of thing that shocks me.” Emma’s sentiments echo those of her postmodern kindred spirit, the feminist blogger Bitch PhD:

“If you define non-career women as all the ‘undereducated’ who work part-time and make less than $30K, it becomes painfully obvious why female careerists are more likely to divorce than non-careerists: They can better afford to get out of an unhappy marriage than their sisters. That may be bad news for all the schmoes getting dumped, but it’s great news for the gals. So, go ahead, young ladies. Get your degree. Even go to grad school. Gun for that corner office if you want to, and get the guy. If you divorce, make sure to stick him with the shared subscription to Forbes.”

[UPDATE:  I take responsibility for an inadvertent mis-attribution: the quote above was written not by BitchPhD, but by Shafer in his Slate article, who in turn linked to her. So Shafer is Emma’s kindred feminist spirit, and Jane’s spirit throws him a genteel high five for his eloquence.]

Somewhere, Jane Austen is demurely pumping her tiny, lace-gloved fist in the air with a big smile on her pixie-ish face, declaring in dulcet well-bred Regency tones, “You go, girls!” My inner hopeless romantic would like to think her lost first love, Tom Lefroy, who everyone said wasn’t good “husband material,” is laughing by her side.

When not taking random walks at 3 Quarks Daily, Jennifer Ouellette muses on science and culture at her own blog, Cocktail Party Physics.

Below the Fold: Re-Discovering Evil in a Small Town Library

I have spent a lot of time in libraries.

Some of it was joyous. The library in our town when I was growing up provided the books that transported me into mythic worlds where I found my heroes among ancient Greeks, baseball starts, and even of the occasional great politician. Fastballers, spear throwers, and great rhetoricians – these were my summer companions. I once tried to read Arthur Schlesinger’s first book on FDR. I could barely carry the book home on my bicycle. But even as I ran out of summer time and returned the book unfinished, I still remember that amazing mix of fixers that surrounded the master himself, from clever lawyers, campaigning social reformers, and ward bosses — all seeking to change an America gone really wrong. As a Chicago boy, raised behind the lace curtain by a family of New Deal Democrats and a states rights Republican father, I often wondered what would have happened to life around me if Mayor Daley had been Jim Farley instead. It would be a better world, I told myself. When John Kennedy and his motorcade passed our house, and my sister and I festooned the attic with his pictures and bumper stickers, much to the dismay of my father and to the secret pleasure of my mother, I figured a better world was coming again.

The solace of the small town library did not last. The fantasies of childhood were replaced by the imperatives of young adulthood. Other atheneums, university libraries, became my haunts. I feared and despised them for some 20 years. Northwestern’s Deering Library, named for the tractor family, became my enemy. Like all Chicagoans who claim first dibs on near-native Frank Lloyd Wright and keep his quotes as closely as they do the poetry of Carl Sandburg, I would remember his acid description of Deering, a Romanesque part church, part castle, that it looked like a pregnant pig on its back.

Its mastery for me proved impossible. Too many books. An unforgiving card catalog. Dim-lit reading rooms, suffocating stacks. Like those great early cathedrals, natural light was anathema. The scant windows were colored. Light was to have shown presumably from within. Outside was the prairie; inside the seat of learning. The little light of mine couldn’t shine.

I later left the Midwest for the East Coast, but the university libraries there were fortresses of learning no less than Deering had been. Even newer libraries built on modernist designs, all glass curtain walls and open plan spaces on the first floors, turned into cloisters up above where all the books were. I hated them too.

But I see now that it was more than architecture that bedeviled me. My relationship to libraries and books had changed. Thanks to my scholarly pursuits, I had become something of a reluctant intellectual minotaur. The man in me had taken on the mind of an industrialist, piling through books in great heaps, pulling out citations, sources, and reading excerpts at an appalling speed. Did you ever wonder why we love Google? No doubt because it perfects our pursuit of industrial knowledge. It is utterly and ruthlessly efficient. It is like a cleaver that cuts through and strips away the meandering intellectual contexts in which knowledge is found. It gives us the meat of the matter, as one used to say in demanding a synthesis from a wistful student or an absent-minded colleague.

The beast in me was weak. The memory of the good mother that the small town library of my past had invoked prevented me from turning Deering or any other learning castles into objects of conquest. I did not feel strong enough to devour or to subordinate them to my will. Moreover, they became a kind of Kryptonite in my intellectual life. The more time I spent in them, and thus with them, the weaker I felt. Thus, I became a guerrilla user. I would strike quickly, practically upending the portion of the stacks that was my target, grabbing up the books, and fleeing the library after a few life-draining hours. But oh, the fines.

Things changed a bit with the arrival of the university library as pastel airport lounge style. Postmodernist architects, by letting in light and by using colors that I think of as variations on United Airlines O’Hare Terminal robin’s egg blue, calmed me. I still attacked the periodicals room in a frenzy, but I did develop little habits of browsing the new books section, even sitting down, and reading a bit without constant breathlessness and palpitations.

This summer, I spent time in a small town library — Salisbury, Connecticut’s Scoville Library. It says it is America’s first free public library, founded in 1803. The present building was constructed in the late 1880s owing to the benefice of a local iron master named Scoville. It has 33,000 books, the New York Times, The Financial Times, the local newspapers, Harper’s, the Atlantic, but not the New York Review of Books. If the late Norman Cousins were still publishing The Saturday Review, you would doubtless still find it there. Though not a Carnegie library (he financed 3,000 public libraries throughout the nation around the turn of the century), it is like them: a spirited architectural gem, loaded down with the eclectic touches of a time when a lot of Furness and Richardson went a long way.

I find comfort in its finitude. History is just four stands each with six bookshelves: could there be any more than a thousand books? Anthropology and sociology practically disappear, a perverse pleasure for me, the anthropologist.

This is where I re-discovered Hitler. Far and away, he and his Third Reich lead the history collection, a fact I have noted at other town libraries near me in Boston. I had had some good exposure to the genre over the years. In my time as an undergraduate, Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study in Tyranny was a standby in poli sci courses otherwise devoted to mindnumbing abstract theories of modernization and nation-building, a kind of functionalist fun house of American triumphalism produced by the self-satisfied political scientist cold warriors. Bullock was grudgingly assigned as the sugar that made the veiled ideology of American superiority go down more easily. Hitler like Stalin was an anti-American, all that was the evil that we were not. He like Stalin was an object lesson in what could happen mostly elsewhere, save the McCarthy era, if we did not remain vigilant and spread democracy worldwide.

About Hitler, The Holocaust, Night and Fog, Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, and yes, Mel Brooks became my teachers in addition to Bullock over the years. I had book-marked the new three-volume histories of Hitler and of the Third Reich, but hadn’t gotten to either of them.

At the Scoville Library this summer, I picked up William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960), a book I had known of since high school but had never read. I gleaned my first impression of Shirer in the sixties on a late night talk show out of Chicago run by Irv Kupcinet, a former sports and gossip columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, who was also a kind of weekend, Midwestern version of David Suskind. Shirer, as I remember was a solid, big-headed man with facial hair and a pipe. During this time, Hans Morgenthau was on Kup’s show a lot. Shirer, an intelligent, intrepid journalist who had reported first-hand the rise the rise of Nazism and the onset of World War II, had become a respected historian. He held his own with all of the south side U. of Chicago lions that Kup entertained on those late Saturday nights.

Now, in high summer with a lake at my feet, or my feet in the lake, was my chance. A small town library had availed me of another myth, this time a meditation with facts on the rise and fall of Hitler, recited by highly competent and morally attuned Homer. And I descended into the hell of the Hitlerism and the Third Reich.

Shirer’s Hitler is not banal. Her Eichmann, the Holocaust general manager, may have been, but the difference between him as puppet and Hitler as fairly jumps off of each riveting page. Shirer’s Hitler is evil incarnate, a white-hot poker stuck in the eye of German society, blinding the German Cyclops as it devoured its victims. He was a devil, a Beelzebub, who caused the death of scores of millions of people, and who finished his life practically desperate to kill some more.

Hitler was also was possessed of a charisma that guided his evil genius. It was said of Alexander that he could lead his troops anywhere and beyond human endurance. But when his troops felt his gift had become a betrayal of their bond, their unconditional love became hate. If he had crossed the Indus once more, they would have killed him.

Hitler was possessed of the same charisma: he commanded, and others submitted and became his followers. It was subordination fueled by attraction, awe, fear, and a kind of blinding love. Today, part of what seems an almost unending age of cynicism, his followers’ confessions of love seem naively, even absurdly carnal. Listen to what Goebbels wrote in 1926. I quote with major elisions for emphasis:

My heart is beating so wildly it is about to burst. I enter the hall. Roaring welcome… And then I speak for two and a half hours…People roar and shout. At the end Hitler embraces me. I feel happy…Hitler is always at my side…

Adolph Hitler, I love you because you are both great and simple.

We…bow to him…with the manly, unbroken pride of the ancient Norsemen who stand upright before their Germanic feudal lord. We feel that he is greater than all of us, greater than you and I. He is the instrument of the Divine Will that shapes history with fresh, creative genius.” (Shirer, 128-129)

He is the Fuehrer – the leader. “From millions of men … one man must step forward,” Shirer quotes Hitler as writing in Mein Kampf, “who with apodictic force will form granite principles form the wavering idea-world of the broad masses and take up the struggle for their sole correctness, until from the shifting waves of a free thought-world there will arise a brazen cliff of solid unity in faith and will. (Shirer, 109-110)

Hitler had a volcanic temperament. He had fits – not those you would describe your Aunt Ellen of having, but those worthy of psychiatric evaluation. His rages remind one of those attributed to charismatic figures of the past. When in fits of rage, Alexander and Charlemagne would command their soldiers to slaughter every man, woman and child in sight. Only orgies of blood and violence could calm them. Achilles’ rage on the death of Patroclus remains the greatest and most lasting of archetypes to this kind of psychotic break that charismatic figures are prone to, and are by their subalterns often permitted.

But Hitler’s rages were also instrumental. He would use them to bully and intimidate foreign leaders, succeeding in gaining ground for the Reich while giving a knowing wink to his lieutenants. The rages inflicted on his followers achieved more complicated effects. Like a great, mad magician, he turned outsiders into enemies, and enemies into sub-humans, vermin and lice on the German body that had to be exterminated. Vacillators and prevaricators became murderers. People jumped over moral boundaries and executed the slaughter of the Slavs and the Holocaust.

Thanks to the Scoville Library, I found Shirer this summer, and discovered Hitler again. I suffered the sickening fascination of evil. I achieved a greater appreciation of the powers of emotion to overturn reason.

I re-disovered Hitler, however, enwrapped in the comfort of a small-town lending library, a little outpost of reason like the one that succored me in my early life. Thanks to Shirer’s remarkable book, I have learned that though we live in a world of madness, emotion, and unreason, we are led by those possessed mostly of ignorance and hubris, and not of total evil. Call out your analogies for the American empire, Afghanistan, and Iraq: Athens and the Peloponnesian War, 16th Century Spain, the Western Europe of the Two Wars, the Soviet Union of the successors of Stalin. Fair enough. But Hitler? Well, not yet.


Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD‘s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at and at the NLA.

The whole history of art is really a prolonged commentary on human nature. Here, in a world that has managed to send a human-made object out of our solar system but which yet witnesses thousands of deaths every day from starvation and war, Wagner’s art work surely stands for the mightiness of the human endeavour, whatever our beliefs about why or how we got here. As Wagner was intensely human, there are traces of all his humanity in his work. Perfection is an ideal that can be embodied in art, hardly ever lived out as an ethical ideal.

Orpheus is ascending: And maybe we are learning to look at the face of Wagner with not only our love but with compassion too, the same compassion Wagner expressed so nobly in his music. The world must be an alien place for those who can only criticise what has been brought by civilisation to their back door. How strange it is that Wagner should have achieved something so gigantic in one lifetime. We do no honour to Wagner by turning those achievements into a cult and praise, as in a Nuremberg war rally, the outer garments, the actual detritus of biography and performing tradition left behind after the life has been consigned to history. A real love of Wagner means putting aside all the biographical apparatus and listening to the music he composed and the words his characters sing. What we do with that intensity and exaltation is our own affair, but I should say that the experience is a civilising one.

In some of Lucian Freud’s later paintings the artist has concentrated on painting the figures of Sue Tilley and Leigh Bowery. They are subjects who have amplitude; they impose their bodies on the visual landscape with a voluptuous certainty; they have a physicality that reaches out beyond the canvas; the details of their skin and hair are painted in loving detail. These paintings of Freud are in total contrast to the anorexic smugness that passes itself off as beautiful in contemporary culture. Wagner’s works are somewhat like these paintings. All of life has been put into them. Beyond the rational, yet not irrational, the music of Wagner provokes with its prodding at the fabric of life, the fabric Wagner found so difficult to wear himself. Past debt, fatigue, depression, nervous exhaustion, irritability and duplicity, Wagner dragged into existence his music dramas with their panoramic transformative power. We cannot always be worthy of rising to the level that Wagner demands, and sometimes those demands, as in the Prologue and Act One of Götterdämmerung on a hot August afternoon, are fearsome.

Orpheus had been given a gift by the gods. Wagner often wanted to hand his gift back; even after his world success he fantasised about luxuriating on the Nile and wished the whole Bayreuth enterprise would go to the devil. Christina Rossetti asked in a poem, ‘Does the road wind up-hill all the way?’ and answered, ‘Yes, to the very end.’ Wagner’s life was lived along a road that wound up-hill to the very end. The extraordinary fecundity of Wagner’s imaginative world is still leading audiences, critics and historians uphill.

I said at the outset that Wagner’s predestined end was the classical imperium we reserve for only a handful of mighty creative spirits. He is still removed from that imperium, but the distance is narrowing. Much still needs to be written about and thought over, and that will only be possible once we have cast to one side our present cultural confusion.

In Theodore Zeldin’s book, An Intimate History Of Humanity, Vintage, 1994, the author states that, with all of our historical understanding and insatiable curiosity, the real age of discovery has hardly begun. Let us try to discover the real Wagner, the Wagner still in advance of a century of new departures, artistic revolutions and experimentation. Wagner saw quite clearly that art was not a throw of the dice across a white abyss of symbolic chance, to use the language of Mallarmé, but a profoundly expressive medium that could embody the complexity of existence. It may seem outrageous to claim that we have not yet discovered Wagner. What with the outpouring of critical works written and a performing tradition that is ‘rich and strange’, perhaps it might be objected that we understand Wagner only too well. I would argue that we are now only just preparing ourselves intellectually and emotionally to confront the reach of the Wagnerian enterprise. The old pro and contra arguments are not sophisticated enough to bring into focus the contradictions and ambiguities that the Wagner music drama presents us with.

Critics who write on Wagner spend a great deal of time wringing their hands at the wailing wall of their own supposed moral superiority. I don’t suppose any of them ever got round to nearly starving or being exiled from their own country, though I imagine one or two of them might have had bad first marriages. It is the individual members of the great unwashed general public who are properly grateful for culture, not the critical fraternity, and who often see beyond the tiresome theoretical monologues to the passion and beauty of the art. It is one of the singular failures of most art criticism, though it is of particular significance in Wagner’s case, that it cannot accommodate itself to the following observation made by Arthur Schnitzler in Casanova’s Return To Venice: ‘had he not leamt a thousand times that in the souls of all persons who are truly alive, discrepant elements, nay apparently hostile elements, may coexist in perfect harmony?’

From the very tooth and claw of nature Wagner drew down onto the stage uncanny representations of fire, water and birdsong, moonlight, rainbow and wind. From his own knowledge of human frailty he gave us Marke’s grieving and Brangaene’s incomprehension, Alberich’s lust for power and Wotan’s abnegation of that very same power, Loge’s ironic detachment and Parsifal’s spiritual commitment, Kurwenal’s steadfastness and Ortrud’s treachery. From within a reservoir of sympathetic intellectual interest he fashioned the epic-poetical, political-aesthetic, republican-mediaeval art work of the future. There is revolutionary fervour in the music dramas, just as there is resignation, passionate abandonment to divine fate and existential aloneness. In other words, there is life, not an image of life, but the thing itself in all its ambiguity and complexity. How perplexing it is that an artist captured it all with such intensity and verisimilitude. And how remarkable it is that it should have been possible when circumstance so often conspires to defeat what is worthwhile in this world. The Wagnerian music drama continues to thrive because, for one thing, it is all-inclusive. The young sailor at the beginning of Tristan und Isolde is winged with the same yearning humanity as its protagonists; the apprentices who request silence at the beginning of the song contest in Meistersinger know they are asking for the quiet needed for all to properly participate in a festival of poetry and song. Wagner does not compartmentalise his characters either. Nothing could betray a greater misunderstanding of Wagnerian dramaturgy than a comment such as this in the notes for the CDs of the Met’s 1942 Tannhäuser: ‘Wolfram is so goody-goody. No wonder . . .  nobility has died out . . . he’s too pure to procreate’. Such vulgar reductionism cannot begin to comprehend Wagner’s theatrical world which, whilst seldom achieving equanimity, sees into the heart of the human experience, and in doing so, attempts to reconcile all of its fragmented splendour. Now, one must take account of someone like Marc Weiner who proposes that Wagner’s works are riddled with anti-Semitic intention. There can be no question of the shameful prevarications still practised by those who would like to rewrite history after their own unjust deserts. Art worthy of the name will always withstand critical scrutiny; it has nothing to fear from it. But intellectual justice has to be exercised on behalf of art too. Trying to contain Wagner in an ideological straightjacket simply doesn’t work. The music dramas are too big and too many depth charges are set off in the course of the Wagner experience for there ever to be much plain sailing. Simplifying the biographical facts of the matter doesn’t help our understanding of Wagner either. Just as Cosima’s haughty obsequiousness can make us feel queasy, so can her service to the composer fill us with amazement at its dedicated far-sightedness. If the lamentable intellectual shenanigans Glasenapp got up to have challenged contemporary Wagner scholarship to rebalance the scholarly equation, so too must we come to a clear-sighted estimation of what really was achieved by Wagner and what is now being achieved by the inheritance of Wagnerism.

Are our ideals capable of being fulfilled by us, here, now, practically. Or are our lives exercises in hypocrisy, and all our humanitarianism a charade to cover over the traces of an adamantine egotism. Is not the example of Wagner a compelling witness for the defence of Western culture, which latterly can be seen to have not been up to scratch. Why is it that the world of Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin Wall and AIDS can appear to fit the Wagnerian music drama so aptly whereas our own art can seem so indifferent, unconcerned and mediocre by comparison. Well, I would argue that Wagner was open to the enormity of our existence and that he lived out the polar and tropical entirety of the mysterium that got put into its elliptical orbit as the third rock from the sun. If there is an underlying racist or sexist agenda in the works themselves, it must be of the kind that is transformed in the very effort of the life lived and the art created. Beauty and truth to be realities must have dipped their purity into the muck of life, the ‘foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart’ as Yeats has it in ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’. Wagner certainly knew that bone shop in all of its complexities—its disappointments, hatreds and failures. Transcendence and redemption were freely optioned by a volatile sensibility at the epicentre of the Romantic agony.

I am all too aware of the unsatisfactory nature of this commentary on Wagner, just as I am aware that its contents could easily be dismissed as a rhetorical trope by one of our latter-day linguistic exegetes. What matters now is our commitment to art; that we have learned from it, been taught to feel and think in new ways by it. If we look on the Wagnerian endeavour as entertainment we have entirely missed the point; Wagner would have had nothing but contempt for us. It is not a matter of entering the theatre with bowed heads and an air of hysterical solemnity, as with the old guard at Bayreuth, but of an active and intelligent engagement with one of the most fertile and challenging artistic oeuvres that Western civilisation has given us. If that means rejecting the art work of the future or reducing it to the level of our own present straightened circumstances, so be it. It is often the function of great art to wait beyond decades and even centuries of neglect for its torso to emerge before newly-cleansed and awakened eyes.

On the last night of his life Cosima hears Richard talking ‘volubly and loudly’, as always.’ “Once in 5000 years it succeeds!” “I was talking about Undine, the being who longed for a soul.” He goes to the piano, plays the mournful theme “Rheingold, Rheingold”, continues with “False and base all those who dwell up above.” “Extraordinary that I saw this so clearly at the time!”—And as he is lying in bed, he says, “I feel loving towards them, these subservient creatures of the deep, with all their yearning.” ‘ [Cosima Wagner’s Diaries, February 11th, 1883] What a profound leave-taking of life with its clear presentiment of death these final comments are. And how truthful to his whole artistic endeavour is this final adieu. It was extraordinary that Wagner felt and composed as he did; no artist does themself a favour by indulging in false modesty. His final comment is one that expresses love; on the eve of his death Wagner foresees the ocean of life ready to take him, Licht-Alberich/Schwarz-Alberich, down to the depths on the immense wave of feeling he expressed in his music so profoundly. And as he prepares to descend, before a final historical ascent, he sheds his mortality, becoming, like Undine, a spirit of infinite yearning and patience.

In ‘The Critic as Artist’ Oscar Wilde writes in his amusing way, ‘A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal’. Well, perhaps never in the whole history of art was an artist more sincere than Wagner. Maybe it is that sincerity we find so unsettling. We now live in a culture that will pay millions of dollars for a baseball and that espouses the celebrity interview as a via media of significance. In contrast, we have Wagner to show us, in his life and work, what the upper limit for significance can be in this world. The great achievement of democracy gives us a personal freedom to fulfil our humanity to the best of our capacity. Wagner shows both the glories and limitations of this enigmatic human enterprise. His work also stands defiantly as a challenge to all that is unachieved or too-easily achieved in art and culture. Once in five thousand years it succeeds? No, certainly not. But it did succeed gigantically, once. Against all the odds, the poetic ideal became a reality. Wagner ascended the terrain we have yet to traverse, step-by-painful step, and he is waiting for us now.


The following poem was written in 1997. Ernest Newman, the Wagner scholar and music critic, mistakenly believed that Wagner had composed a string quartet while staying near Lake Starnberg, the lake in which Ludwig II subsequently drowned. My suggestion is that we can complete the ‘quartet’ begun by Ludwig, Nietzsche and Wagner through our involvement in, and commitment to, the creative act.

       Starnberg Quartet
      Ludwig, Nietzsche, Wagner

Here a gold symposium
Was summoned by a swan:
A king unsure of kingship, but who found
In art the solace we would give it now
If we believed in it as he had done;
A thinker near truth’s wound,
Bitter in rejecting what he loved,
A mind at the end of its strength,
Yet leaving Attic tracings
Of philosophic joy;
And a composer, worthy of our need,
Moving beyond failure
To ideals not betrayed.

It ended with drowning and madness,
An argument over sex.
Laughing death now names the fourth
Making the markings of this score—
That is you and I.
Matching what we have
With what they had to give,
Our reach might equal theirs.

We were never so foolish
To think redemption could come
From music heard in the dark
Or use ambiguous logic
To challenge our modern redoubt,
And we know if a god came to earth
Its name would sound like Mandela,
Not Wotan with his strife.

If we reject a part
Of what they were or said
And would never wish to become,
Then too we honour their greatness—
From highest bliss to the social debt,
Manoeuvring to find
All the human allows.

A mountain stands before us
Beneath a radiant Muse
And we would climb it still,
If we could give our best
And serve art as we know we should.
We wait now near their limit
For courage to reshape
The image of our magnitude
In work that’s undismayed.

Written 1997 Published 2001


Pictures from the 3QD Ball

Thanks to Darcy James Argue and Secret Society for amazingly beautiful music. Thanks to everyone at the Flux Factory for hosting our event and helping out in every way, especially Stefany Ann Golberg, who went far beyond the call of duty, stepping in and taking charge and instantly solving any problems that came up with an enviable calm and efficiency. Thanks to my dear friend Morgan Meis, without whom so many NYC-based intellectual and artistic endeavors would collapse. Thanks to Asad Raza for doing most of the heavy lifting, and for driving me around picking up supplies for a couple of days. Thanks to Alta Price for making the lovely 3QD sign. Thanks to Jed Palmer for helping in all the different ways that he did. Thanks to Azra Raza, Sughra Raza, and Shiban Ganju for generously donating funds to help cover our costs. Thanks to Jennifer Prevatt, and her young assistant Sheherzad Preisler, for taking care of the bar. Thanks to Lindsay Beyerstein for taking great photographs. Thanks to Maeve Adams for all her help. Thanks to Robin Varghese for all his work in the planning and execution of our event and, of course, for always being the best friend that anyone could possibly hope for. Thanks to the most beautiful woman in the world, Margit Oberrauch, who did more than any other person to make the party possible. And thanks to everyone who came!

Without further ado, here are a few of Lindsay’s photographs:




Sughra and Ashley:


Zehra, Asad, and Ashley:




Shiko, Lucy, Camille, and Elia: