Tuesday, April 11, 2006
“Are we talking about God?” Crichton asked.
“Yeah, God,” Wolf said. She elaborated: “I actually had this vision of–of Jesus.” And that, needless to say, is when the interview really began.
Wolf’s story went like this: Several years ago, while in therapy for writer’s block, Wolf was asked to try a classic deep relaxation technique, where she imagined walking down a flight of stairs. When she reached the bottom and opened the door, there he was: Jesus, with a holy light radiating out of him, the light of absolute perfection and powerful love. In the vision, Wolf wasn’t her usual zaftig, constantly commented-upon physical self, but rather a 13-year-old boy. The vision taught Wolf several lessons: that God cares about each and every one of us; that we are born with knowledge of our own soul, which, like Plato once taught, we forget and have to re-remember in order to realize our life’s mission (in her case, to spread the gospel of feminism). That we can all, if we try, be like Jesus–radiant, loving, perfect. The revelation made tears run down her face, she confessed to Crichton.
more from TNR here.
Kakutani’s refusal ever to take her eyes off the thumbs up/thumbs down prize, or to lay any of her own prejudices, tastes, or tangentially relevant observations on the table, is dispiriting. One of her favorite gimmicks for ducking subjectivity is to invoke the supposed reactions of “the reader” to a book. This is a rather underhanded device with a tweedy scent of 1940s and ’50s arbiters like Lionel Trilling and Clifton Fadiman—and it’s a perfect emblem of the way Kakutani muffles her own voice by hiding behind a mask. But it provides the only fun I get from her reviews: First thing, I always hunt for “the reader” (whom I visualize as a kind of miniature androgynous Michelin man) the way I used to count the Ninas in a Hirschfeld drawing. Imagine my delight to come upon Kakutani’s January review of Richard Reeves’ President Reagan and find two successive sentences telling us that “the reader turns in eager anticipation” to the book because Reeves’ previous works on Kennedy and Nixon gave “the reader minutely detailed accounts” of their presidencies.
more from slate.com here.
IN RETROSPECT, Douglas Huebler seems to have framed the scope of his work (or at least the general reception of it) with two irreconcilable declarations, the first being Conceptual art’s most oft-quoted pronouncement, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” Despite its laconic tone, Huebler’s remark, initially put forward in a 1969 artist’s statement for a show at New York’s Seth Siegelaub Gallery, mercilessly lampoons the expectation that artists be prolific. It implies a cessation of production, not because the world is particularly wonderful, but simply because it meets a minimum standard: “more or less interesting.” It hints at a certain ecology as well. To make more objects—particularly, boring art objects—would be redundant. Why bother?
more from artforum here.
Brad Delong point us to this article in The New York Times on the reorganization of work at McDonald’s.
Like many American teenagers, Julissa Vargas, 17, has a minimum-wage job in the fast-food industry — but hers has an unusual geographic reach.
“Would you like your Coke and orange juice medium or large?” Ms. Vargas said into her headset to an unseen woman who was ordering breakfast from a drive-through line. She did not neglect the small details —”You Must Ask for Condiments,” a sign next to her computer terminal instructs — and wished the woman a wonderful day.
What made the $12.08 transaction remarkable was that the customer was not just outside Ms. Vargas’s workplace here on California’s central coast. She was at a McDonald’s in Honolulu. And within a two-minute span Ms. Vargas had also taken orders from drive-through windows in Gulfport, Miss., and Gillette, Wyo.
Ms. Vargas works not in a restaurant but in a busy call center in this town, 150 miles from Los Angeles. She and as many as 35 others take orders remotely from 40 McDonald’s outlets around the country. The orders are then sent back to the restaurants by Internet, to be filled a few yards from where they were placed.
The people behind this setup expect it to save just a few seconds on each order. But that can add up to extra sales over the course of a busy day at the drive-through.
Fighting cancer is currently a messy war. Modern chemotherapies attack tumors with the equivalent of a machinegun approach: cover the area widely with deadly fire and hope to destroy the tumor with a minimum of collateral damage. Doctors have long sought a way to precisely target tumors with their chemical therapies. Now researchers may have found it in a nanoparticle laced with a cancer-combatting drug.
Omid Farokhzad of Harvard, Robert Langer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and their colleagues created the nanoparticle out of a previously FDA-approved polymer that has been shown to dissolve inside cells. This nanoparticle–one-thousandth the width of a human hair–carries a load of a lethal chemical: docetaxel, which is currently used to treat prostate cancer. In addition, the scientists studded the outside of the particle with so-called aptamers–tiny proteins that link directly to cancer cells while avoiding regular cells. Finally, they equipped the nanoparticles with polyethylene glycol molecules, which allow them to resist the internal defenses of a tumor cell.
People who have had near-death experiences are more likely to mix up dreams and reality than those who have not, researchers say. At times of extreme danger or trauma, many people report out-of-body experiences, seeing intense lights, or a feeling of peace. “Near-death experiences are more common than people realize,” says neurophysiologist Kevin Nelson of the University of Kentucky, Lexington, lead author of the study published in Neurology.
Via the Near Death Experience Research Foundation, based in Federal Way, Washington, Nelson found 55 people who reported near-death experiences after traumatic incidents such as car accidents or heart surgery. He also interviewed an equal number who had not had any such experiences. Of those who reported near-death experiences, 60% also reported having had at least one incident where they felt sleep and wakefulness blurred together. For those without a near-death experience the figure was 24%.
Monday, April 10, 2006
The cover of this week’s STAR Magazine features photos of Katie Holmes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Brooke Shields, Angelina Jolie, and Gwen Stefani (all heavily pregnant) and the yellow headline “Ready to POP!” Each pregnancy, according to Star, is in some way catastrophic – Katie’s dreading her silent Scientology birth, Gwyneth drank a beer the other night, Brooke fears suffering a second bout of depression, Angelina’s daring to dump her partner, and Gwen’s thinking of leaving show business. They seem infected, confused, in danger of combustion. “I can’t believe they’re all pregnant all at the same time!” exclaimed the cashier at Walgreen’s as she rung up my purchases, as if these women were actually in the same family, or linked by something other than fame and success. The cover of Star suggests that these ladies have literally swollen too big for their own good.
Britney Spears’ pregnancy last summer kicked off this particular craze of the celebrity glossy. Each move she made, potato chip she ate, insult tossed toward Kevin, all of it was front page pregnancy news for Star and its competitors. “TWINS?!” screamed one cover, referencing her ballooning weight. It was coverage like this that inspired Daniel Edwards’ latest sculpture, “Monument to Pro-Life: The Birth of Sean Preston,” though from his perspective the media’s take on the pregnancy was unilaterally positive. When asked why it was Britney Spears whom he chose to depict giving birth naked and on all fours on a bear skin rug, he replied, “It had to be Britney. She was the one. I’d never seen such a celebrated pregnancy…and I wanted to explore why the public was so interested.”
Predictably, the sculpture has attracted a fair amount of coverage in the last few weeks, most of it in the “news of the weird” category. The owners of the Capla Kesting Fine Art Gallery have made much of the title of the piece, taking the opportunity to include in the exhibit a collection of Pro-Life materials, announcing plans for tight security at the opening, and publicizing their goal of finding an appropriate permanent display for the work by Mother’s Day. Edwards states that he’s undecided on the abortion issue, Britney has yet to comment on the work, and the Pro-Lifers aren’t exactly welcoming the statue into their canon. For all of the media flap, I was expecting more of a crowd at Friday’s opening (we numbered only about 30 when the exhibit opened), and a much less compelling sculpture.
My initial reaction to photos of “Monument to Pro-Life” was that Britney’s in a position that most would sooner associate with getting pregnant than with giving birth. Edwards, I thought, was invoking the pro-life movement as a way to protest the divorce of the sex act from reproduction. But in person, in three dimensions and life-size, the sculpture demands that the trite interpretations be dropped. It’s a curious and exploratory work, and I urge you to go and see it if you can, rather than depend on the photos. Unlike the pregnant women of STAR, the woman in “Monument to Pro-Life” isn’t in crisis. She easily dominated the Capla-Kesting gallery (really a garage), and made silly the hoaky blue “It’s a Boy!” balloons hovering around the ceiling. To photograph the case of pro-life materials in the corner I had to ask about five people to move – they were standing with their backs to it, staring at the sculpture. The case’s connection to the work was flimsy, sloppy, more meaningful in print than in person.
Yes, Edwards called the piece “Monument to Pro-Life: The Birth of Sean Preston,” but I think the title aims less to signal a political allegiance than to explore the rhetoric of the abortion debate. Birth isn’t among the usual images associated with the pro-life movement. Teeny babies, smiling children, bloody fetuses are usual, but I’ve never seen a birth depicted on the side of a van. Pro-life propaganda is meant to emphasize the life in jeopardy – put a smiling toddler on a pro-life poster, and you’re saying to the viewer, you would kill this girl? The bloody fetus screams, you killed this girl. The images are meant to locate personal responsibility in the viewer. But a birth image involves a mother, allows a displacement of that responsibility. A birth image invokes contexts outside of the viewer’s frame of reference (but maybe she was raped! Maybe she already has four kids and no job! Maybe she’s thirteen!), and forces the viewer to pass judgment on the mother in question. Not all pro-lifers, not by any means, wish to punish or humiliate those women who abort their pregnancies. The preemies and toddlers and fetuses serve to inspire a protection impulse, and the more isolated those figures are from their mothers (who demand protection), the simpler the argument. Standard pro-life propaganda avoids birth images in order to isolate that protective impulse, and narrow the guilt.
Of course, the mother in this birth image has a prescribed context. Britney Spears, according to Edwards, has made the unusual and brave choice to start a family at the height of her career, at the young age of 24. For him, the recontextualization of “Pro-Life” seems to be not just about childbirth, but about childbirth’s relationship to ‘anti-family’ concepts of female career. Edwards celebrates the birth of Sean Preston because of when Sean Preston was born, and to whom. Unlike STAR, which depicts the pregnancies of successful women as dangerous grabs for more, Edwards depicts Britney’s pregnancy as a venerable retreat back to womanhood. The image/argument would be more convincing, however, if the sculpture looked more like Britney, and if Britney was a better representative of the 24-year-old career woman. It doesn’t (the photos don’t conceal an in-person resemblance), and she isn’t (already the woman has released a greatest hits album). Edwards would have been better served had Capla Kesting displayed a case of Britney iconography along side the statue if he wished his audience to contemplate her decision. But the sculpture is perfectly compelling even outside of the Britney context.
Standard pro-life rhetoric is preoccupied by transition, the magic moment of conception when ‘life begins.’ Edwards too focuses on transition, but at the other end of the pregnancy. Sean Preston, qualified as male only by the title, is frozen just as he crowns. He has yet to open his eyes to the world, but the viewer, unlike his mother, can see him. Many midwives and caregivers discourage childbirth in this position (hands and knees) because, though it is easy on the mother’s back and protects against perineal tearing, it is difficult to anticipate the baby’s arrival. It’s a method of delivery that a mother should not attempt alone. The viewer of “Monument to Pro-Life” is necessarily implicated in the birth, assigned responsibility for the safe delivery of Sean Preston.
You’ve got to be up close to see this, though. As I left the gallery, walked up North 5th to Roebling, a 60-something woman in a chic black coat stopped me. “Who’s the artist?” she asked. “Who is it that’s getting all the attention?” I told her it was Daniel Edwards, but that the news trucks were there because it was a sculpture of Britney Spears giving birth on all fours. Her eyebrows raised. “You know, I thought it was very pornographic,” she offered, and I glanced back at Capla Kesting. And from across the street, it did look like a sex show.
It’s a tricky game Daniel Edwards is playing. On the one hand, “Monument to Pro-Life” is a fairly complicated (and exploitive) work; on the other, it’s a fairly boring (and exploitive) conduit of interest cultivated by STAR and the pro-life movement. Unfortunately for Edwards, the media machine that inspired his work doesn’t quite convey it in full – the AP photograph of the sculpture doesn’t show her raised hips, and forget about Sean Preston crowning. However, the STAR website does have a mention of the sculpture, and a poll beneath the article for readers to express their opinions. The questions: “Is it a smart thing for pregnant-again Britney Spears, who gave birth to son Sean Preston just 6 months ago, to have another child so soon after giving birth?” and “Can Britney make a successful comeback as a singer?”
For Gerard Manley Hopkins there was Heaven-haven, when a nun takes the veil, and perhaps a poet-priest seeks refuge, but for Philip Larkin there is no heaven. There is Hull, and that is where Larkin, largely free of metropolitan London’s seductions, finds his poetry and his poetics. Old chum Kingsley, it seems, can do his living for him there. But Larkin has more than two strings to his bow too, which awkward last meetings around the death bed show only too plainly.
Now that the usual attempts at deconstruction have almost run their course, the time has come to look at the work left. Pulling people off their plinth is a lifetime task for some who never get around to understanding that some writers say more, and more memorably, than they can ever do. Also, they don’t seem to understand that writers are just like everyone else, only with the inexplicable gift, which the said writer understands least of all, knowing that the gift, bestowed by the Muse, can depart in high dudgeon without notice. Larkin knew this, and lamented the silences of his later years.
Silence does seem to wait through his poems. They bleakly open to morning light, discover the world’s apparent heartlessness, then close with a dying fall. Occasionally ‘long lion days’ blaze, but the usual note is meditative, and sometimes grubby. What mum and dad do to you has to be lived out in extenso. Diary entries are too terrible to be seen and must be shredded. Bonfires and shreddings have a noble tradition in the history of literature. What would we have done if we had Byron’s memoirs and we were Murray and the fireplace waited?
Strange harmonies of contrasts are the usual thing in art. So if Larkin proclaimed racist sentiments in letters yet spent a lifetime in awe of jazz greats, or ran an effective university library whilst thinking ‘Beyond all this, the wish to be alone’ (‘Wants’), that is the doubleness we are all prone to. For artists there always seems to be the finger pointing, whereby perfection is expected of the artist but never required by the critic. Larkin is seen as squalid, not modern, provincial, by some. For others there are no problems. He says what they feel, and says it plainly.
If Larkin doesn’t have a mind like Emily Dickinson’s—who does—or scorns the Europeans, these are not, in themselves, things that limit the reach of his poetic. Larkin’s modest Collected Poems stands in distinct contrast to silverfish-squashing tomes groaning with overwriting. Larkin is a little like Roethke in that way. Every poem is precise, musical, clear. How infuriating it is that people do not follow artists’ wishes and publish poems never meant to see the light of day. There is a great virtue in Larkin’s kind of selectivity. Capitalism seems to require overproduction of product, and many poets have been happy to oblige. But this surfeit does the poet no long-term favours and usually ensures a partial, or total, oblivion. Tennyson and Wordsworth are great poets who clearly have survived oblivion, but who now reads through all of ‘Idylls of the King’ or ‘The Prelude’.
Larkin’s version of pastoral has its rubbish and cancer, sometimes its beautiful, clear light, its faltering perception of bliss, usually in others. Doubts about the whole poetic project surface occasionally, and what poet doesn’t empathise with that. How easy jazz improvisation seems in comparison to getting poems out and about. No doubt the improvisation comes only after mastery, control. Then comes the apparently spontaneous letting go. But the poet doesn’t see that. He/she is left with the rough bagging of words to get the music through. Larkin’s music is sedate, in the minor key. Wonder amongst daffodils or joy amongst skylarks are pleasures that always seem just over the hill, or flowing round a bend in the Humber as one gets to the embankment. Street lights seem like talismans of death, obelisks marking out seconds, hours, days, years, eternity. Work is a toad crushing you.
A great poet? The comparison with Hopkins is instructive. Hopkins makes us feel the beauty of nature, he makes us confront God’s apparent absence in the dark, or “terrible”, sonnets. It is committed writing in the best sense The language heaves into dense music, sometimes too dense, but you always feel engaged by his best poetry. Larkin is dubious about the whole life show. The world is seen from behind glass, whiskey to hand, or in empty churches, or from windswept plains, sediment, frost or fog lapping at footfall. Hopkins loves his poplar trees; his kingfishers catch fire; weeds shoot long and lovely and lush. Grief and joy bring the great moments of insight and expression, and thus the memorability.
The case of Larkin does raise a fundamental concern regarding art and its place in society. When the upward trudge of aesthetic idealism meets the downward avalanche of political and social reality, what is the aesthetic and political fallout. With Larkin it appears to be a stoic acceptance of status quo nihilism—waiting for the doctor, then oblivion. With Celan, one cannot get further than the Holocaust. For others, a crow is an image of violence, or tulips are weighted with lead. No longer are these images of natural beauty. No doubt, for those who have just seen a contemporary exhibition at Gagosian or been reading about the latest horrors in Darfur, Larkin could seem hopelessly out of touch, and self-pitying to boot. That is not a sensible way of looking at culture. Looking for political correctness in art always leads to disappointment.
Larkin seems to fill the expectations required by late-twentieth century English aesthetics, but I wonder. When younger, I thought Stravinsky the greatest composer of the century I was born into. Now it is Rachmaninov and Prokofiev who give me more pleasure. And I find them no less ‘great’. Robert Lowell seemed the representative poet of his generation when I was at university. Now some of the work reads to me like a bad lithium trip. Does this signify cultural sclerosis on my part? We can’t have a bar of Wagner’s anti-Semitism, but that still leaves the fact of Wagner’s greatness to be confronted. The achievement is so enormous. To use a somewhat dangerous and controversial term of the moment, it shows more than intelligent design. Appeals to the Zeitgeist, a somewhat unreliable indicator of artistic excellence, are last resorts for those who like to give their critiques an apparently incontrovertible seal of approval. In the interim, culture remains dynamic and reputations sink or swim depending on factors having very little to do with intrinsic value.
In Hull Larkin found his haven, the world held warily at bay. However, the world cannot be held at bay for long. The general public want their pound of flesh, and they will take it. Hopkins’ divided soul has passed through mercy, and mercilessness, to a Parnassian plateau. Larkin has entered upon his interregnum, where an uncertain reckoning now takes shape.
The following is the first part of a two-part poem, ‘Larkin Land’, written in 1993.
Perhaps this sifted life is right—
The best of him was poetry
Bearing acid vowels
In catalogued soliloquy,
Where art’s unspent revisions
Would liberate, restore;
Trapped in a bone enigma
Ideals could still creep through.
A fifty-dollar lettered life
Can’t give you all the facts.
When one has got a poem just right
Awkward prose seems second-best.
Judgment is mute
When words come from pain—
Beside fierce Glenlivet
These civilised spines
Stare past the face
Of a thousand-year spite;
Annexed by form,
Poems survive the killing night.
So, at end, the cost of verse
Is paid for with this strife;—
Though not asked for, given,
This England mirrored into life.
One probably apocryphal story of the Alhambra tells of how Emir Al Hamar of Gharnatah (Granada) decides to begin the undertaking. One night in the early 13th century, Al Hamar has a dream that the Muslims would be forced to leave Spain. He takes the dream to be prophetic and, more importantly, to be the will of God. But he decides that if the Muslims are to leave Spain, then they would leave a testament to their presence in Spain, to al Andalus. So Al Hamar begins the project (finished by his descendants) that would result in one of the world’s most beautiful palaces, the Alhambra. Muslim Spain was still in its Golden Age at this point, but also just two and a half centuries before the expulsion/reconquest. The peak of the Golden Age had probably passed, with its most commonly suggested moment coinciding with the life of the philosopher ibn Rushd, or Averroes (1126-1198 C.E.).
Muslim Spain plays an interesting role in different contemporary political imaginations. For Muslim reformers, it is an image of a progressive, forward looking and tolerant period in Islam, where thinkers such as ibn Rushd could assert the primacy of reason over revelation. For radical Islamists, it’s a symbol of Islam at the peak of its geopolitical power. For conservatives in the West it is a chapter in an off-again, on-again clash of civilizations. For Western progressives, it is an image of a noble, pre-modern multiculturalism tolerant of Christians and Jews. That is, for the contemporary imagination, it has become the political equivalent of a Rorschach.
I see no reason why I should be different in my treatment of Al Andalus (In all honesty, I react fairly badly, I cringe, when people speak of past cultures and civilizations as idyllic, free of conflict, and held together by honor, duty, and understanding. The only thing I’ve ever been nostalgic for is futurism.) Morgan’s post last Monday on Joseph Roth reminded me of Andalusian Spain, of all things.
The Hapsburg Empire is the other Rorschach for the imagination of political history. The Austro-Hungarian Empire carries far less baggage from their involvement with the present than Andalusia does, but it certainly suffered its fair share. The break up of the Soviet Empire and the unleashing of “pent up” or “frustrated” national aspiration had many looking to the Hapsburgs as a model of a noble, pre-modern multiculturalism.
My projection onto these inkblots of history is something altogether different. In the changing borders and bibliographies of Andalusian and Austrian history, I see societies that reach a cultural and intellectual peak as (or is it because?) they are overcome with panic about the end of their world. A “merry” or “gay apocalypse”, is how Hermann Broch, the author of the not so merry but apocalyptic Death of Virgil, described the period. This sentiment echoes not just in literature but even in a book as systematic as Karl Polyani’s The Great Transformation. Somehow it’s clear, Karl Kraus’ Grumbler, the pessimistic commentator who watches the world go mad and then be annihilated by the cosmos as punishment for the world war in The Last Days of Mankind, was lying in wait long before the catastrophe, that is, during the Golden Age itself.
The early 13th century was hardly a trough for the Moors in Spain, just as the period before World War I was not a cultural malaise for the Austrians, or the rest of Europe for that matter. Quite the contrary. If there is an image that these societies evoke, it is feverish activity, even if it’s not the image that, say, comes across in Robert Musil’s endless description of the society, The Man Without Qualities. Broch would write himself to death in some bizarre twist on Scheherazade.
The inscriptions on the Alhambra, such as “Wa la ghalib illa Allah” (“There is no conqueror but God”), are written in soft stone. They have to be replaced, and thereby they require the engagement of the civilization that is to succeed the Moors. Quite an act of faith. While it may be the case that some such as Kraus (or Stefan Zweig) expected the end of all civilization, Austrian thought and writing of the era show a similar faith despite the Anschluss. Admittedly, you have to really look for it. And it certainly did export some of the better minds of the time—including Broch, Polyani, Karl Popper, and Friedrich von Hayek, albeit for reasons of horror and that are to its shame.
It is harder to know what to make of these civilizations, for which an awareness or expectation of their end spurs many of their greatest achievements. There aren’t too many of them. They have in common the fact that they are remembered for relative tolerance, but that could just be a prerequisite to flourish in the first place. Their appeal is, however, clear—as close to an image a society can have of creating, thinking and engaging, even through despair, some way to survive the apocalypse.
I’m a huge fan of the Japanese anime series Fullmetal Alchemist, a bizarre, multi-faceted mix of screwball comedy, heartfelt pathos, and gut-wrenching tragedy — not to mention rich metaphorical textures. It’s the story of two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, who lead an idyllic existence, despite their alchemist/father’s prolonged absence because of an ongoing war. Then their mother unexpectedly dies. Devastated by their loss, with no word from their father and no idea of where he might be, the two brothers take matters into their own hands. They attempt an alchemical resurrection spell — the greatest taboo in their fictional world — to raise her from the dead. They pay an enormous price for their folly: Edward loses an arm and a leg, while Alphonse loses his entire body; his soul only remains because Edward managed to attach it to a suit of armor. The story arc of the series follows the brothers as they roam the countryside, searching for a mythical Philosopher’s Stone with the power to undo the damage and restore their physical bodies.
The series touches on so many universal human themes, but for me the most poignant is the fact that the brothers’ lives are destroyed in a single shattering event over which they have no control: the death of their beloved mother. I’ve been ruminating on this notion of world-shattering of late because this month marks the 100th anniversary of the great earthquake of 1906 that essentially leveled the city of San Francisco, which had the misfortune of being located right at the quake’s epicenter. The shocks were felt from southern Oregon down to just south of Los Angeles, and as far inland as central Nevada, but most of the structural damage and the death — perhaps as many as 3000 lives lost — occurred in the Bay Area. The carefully constructed worlds of tens of thousands of people were literally shattered in just under a minute.
Like the Brothers Elric, until that fateful morning, San Francisco basked in the glow of its successful transition from tiny frontier town to a thriving, culturally diverse metropolis. The city benefited greatly from the California Gold Rush, as miners flocked there in search of (ahem) “entertainment,” and to stock up on basic supplies before returning to their prospecting. A few lucky ones struck it rich and opted to settle there permanently. The population exploded, so much so that by the 1850s, the earlier rough-and-tumble atmosphere was limited to certain lower-income areas. Elsewhere, theaters, shops and restaurants flourished, earning San Francisco the moniker, “the Paris of the West.”
In 1906, big-name stars like the actress Sarah Bernhard and famed tenor Enrico Caruso performed regularly in the city’s theaters. A local restaurant called Coppa’s was the preferred hangout for a new breed of young Bohemians: intellectuals, artists, and writers like Frank Norris and Jack London. A recent NPR tribute to the thriving arts scene of that time revealed a fascinating historical tidbit: one of the (apparently depressed) regulars at Coppa’s had scrawled a warning on the wall: “Something terrible is going to happen.”
On April 18th, something terrible did happen: the city was rocked by violent tremors in the wee hours of the morning. Emma Burke, the wife of a prominent attorney, recalled in a memoir (part of a fascinating online collection of documents at the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco),”The floor moved like short choppy waves of the sea, criss-crossed by a tide as mighty as themselves. The ceiling responded to all the angles of the floor…. How a building could stand such motion and keep its frame intact is still a mystery to me.” Not all buildings remained intact; roofs caved in, and chimneys collapsed. People ran into the streets, fearing to remain in their unstable homes, and thousands camped out in Golden Gate Park. Making the best of a bad situation, some people adorned their crude tents and shelters with handmade signs: “Excelsior Hotel,” “The Ritz,” or “The Little St. Francis.” The Mechanics’ Pavilion became a makeshift hospital, with some 200 patients lying on rows of mattresses on the floor, awaiting transport to Harbor Emergency Hospital.
Despite the devastation, the city might yet have survived, structurally, were it not for the fires that broke out. In Fullmetal Alchemist, the Elric brothers make their situation worse by attempting a taboo resurrection, ignorant of the price that would be exacted. Similarly, some quake survivors attempted to start morning fires, not realizing the danger of their ruined chimneys. Worse, the quake had destroyed the water mains, making it difficult to douse the flames. The fires raged out of control for days; the firefighters had to resort to dynamiting entire blocks in advance of the flames, hoping to create a breach over which the fires couldn’t leap. It wasn’t the most effective method, and by the time the fires were quenched, most people had lost everything, and very few structures remained standing. Many accounts of those who survived speak of the flames burning so brightly that night seemed almost like day. Portrait photographer Arnold Genthe recalled in his own memoir, “All along the skyline, as afar as the eye could see, clouds of smoke and flames were bursting forth.”
We owe a great historical debt to Genthe, who provided a photographic record of the events for posterity. Within a few hours, he had snagged a small 3A Kodak Special camera from a local dealer whose shop had been seriously damaged by the quake, stuffed as many rolls of film into his pockets as he could manage, and spent the entire day photographing various scenes of the disaster, blissfully unaware that the fires would soon destroy all his material possessions.
Among Genthe’s more amusing anecdotes is his recollection of bumping into Caruso — who had performed in Carmen the night before at the Mission Opera House — outside the Francis Drake Hotel, one of the few structures that had not been severely damaged by the quake. The proprietors were generously handing out free coffee, bread and butter to the assembled refugees. The great tenor had been forced to abandon his luxury suite clad only in his pajamas, with a fur coat thrown over for warmth. He was smoking agitatedly and muttering to himself, “‘Ell of a place! ‘Ell of a place! I never come back here!” (Genthe wryly observes, “And he never did.”)
Caruso’s loyal valet eventually secured a horse and cart to transport his master out of the disaster area. Others soon followed suit in a mass exodus to escape the flames; thousands streamed toward the ferries waiting to take them across the bay to safety. They fled on foot, carrying whatever salvaged belongings they could manage, or transporting them on various makeshift vehicles: baby carriages, toy wagons, boxes mounted on wheels, trunks placed on roller skates. Genthe recalled seeing two men pushing a sofa on casters, their possessions piled on top of the furniture. He claimed to never forget “the rumbling noise of the trunks drawn along the sidewalks, a sound to which the detonations of the blasting furnished a fitting contrapuntal accompaniment.”
For all the tragic plot points in Fullmetal Alchemist, as much as the Elric brothers continue to suffer, there are still moments of humor, sweetness, and evidence of the elasticity of the human spirit. The residents of San Francisco were no exception. “I never saw one person crying,” Emma Burke recalled. Indeed, the disaster seemed to bring out the best in people, with rich and poor standing on line at relief stations to receive daily rations, and people sharing the few resources they had with those around them, regardless of race or class. Anyone with a car used their vehicle to transport the wounded and dead to hospitals and morgues, respectively. Emma Burke recalled one chauffeur who “ran his auto for 48 hours without rest,” and George Blumer, a local doctor, ran himself ragged for more than week tending to the sick and wounded all over town. There was also a distinct lack of self pity; most people seemed resigned to their plight, accepting the hand Nature had unexpectedly dealt them. Nobody ever said the world was perfect.
That’s not just an aphorism; current scientific thought bears it out. The universe isn’t perfect, although some string theorists believe in the concept of “supersymmetry”: a very brief period of time in which our cosmos was a perfectly symmetrical ten-dimensional universe, with all four fundamental forces unified at unimaginably high energies. But that universe was also highly unstable and cracked in two, sending an immense shock wave reverberating through the fabric of space-time. There may be two separate space-times: the one we know and love, with three dimensions of space and one dimension of time, and another with six dimensions, too small to be detected even with our most cutting-edge instruments. And as our four-dimensional universe expanded and cooled, the four fundamental forces split off one by one, starting with gravity. Everything we see around us today is a mere shard of that original ten-dimensional perfection. Supersymmetry is broken.
Physicists aren’t sure why it happened, but they suspect it might be due to the incredible tension and high energy required to maintain a supersymmetric state. And on a less cosmic scale, symmetry breaking appears to be a crucial component in many basic physical processes, including simple phase transitions: for instance, the critical temperature/pressure point where water turns into ice. It seems that some kind of symmetry breaking is woven into every aspect of our existence.
Paradoxically, shattered symmetries may have made our material world possible. In the earliest days of our universe, there were constant high-energy collisions between particles and antiparticles (matter and antimatter). Because they had opposite charges, they would annihilate each other and produce a burst of radiation. There should have been equal numbers of each — except there wasn’t. At some point, matter gained the upper hand. All the great, beautiful, awe-inspiring structures we see in our universe today are the remnants of those early collisions — the few surviving particles of matter.
The same is true of time. Theoretically, time should flow in both directions. But on our macroscopic level, time runs in one direction: forward. Drop a glass so that it shatters on the floor, and that glass won’t magically reassemble. What’s done cannot be undone. We can’t freeze a perfect moment, but the very impermanence of that perfection is what makes it meaningful.
For all the devastation it wreaks, shattered symmetry also gives the opportunity for rebuilding. Merely a month after the San Francisco earthquake, Sarah Bernhardt performed Phaedre, free of charge, for more than 5000 survivors at the Hearst Greek Theater at the University of California, Berkeley. Other performers followed suit (except for the traumatized Caruso), and within four years, many of the theaters had been rebuilt. In 1910, opera star Louisa Tetrazzini gave a free concert downtown to celebrate the city’s revival. The disaster also laid the foundation for modern seismology, specifically the elastic rebound theory developed by H.F. Reid, a professor at Johns Hopkins University. He attributed the cause of earthquakes to sliding tectonic plates located around fault lines; before then, scientists thought that fault lines were caused by quakes.
One of the Major Arcana cards in the traditional tarot deck is the Tower, depicting sudden, violent devastation that causes the once-impressive edifice to crumble, its symmetry utterly destroyed as it is reduced to rubble. It wouldn’t be described as an especially fortuitous card. But out of the Tower’s rubble comes an opportunity to rebuild everything from scratch, just like the violent environment of our baby universe eventually produced breathtaking celestial beauty. Change is built into the very mechanisms of the cosmos. Like the early supersymmetric universe, perfection is a static and unnatural state that cannot — and probably should not — be maintained. Observes Edward’s mentor, Roy Mustang (a.k.a. the Flame Alchemist), “There is no such thing as perfection. The world itself is imperfect. That’s what makes it so beautiful.”
The Leviathan of American capitalism is dying. And what is bad for General Motors is bad for America. But few, aside from Wall Street arbitrageurs casting lots over the firm’s remains, seem to care.
General Motors from almost every vantage point was the instrument of the post-World War II American Dream. Peter Drucker’s rigorous analysis of Alfred P. Sloan’s GM empire fueled the development of modern business management theory. Walter Reuther and the United Auto Workers played the part of the exemplary progressive union, driving General Motors into becoming the national sponsor of a business-based welfare capitalism for workers. Guaranteed annual incomes, annual productivity raises, cost of living allowances, health insurance, and corporate-guaranteed pensions, in addition to good wages, were the fruits of forty years of conflict and cooperation between union and the great Goliath. Each side, it can be said in retrospect, exceeded expectations in moving forward the frontiers of collective bargaining to include an American dream for all. Reuther even dared try to negotiate car prices to make cheap transport available to American workers. Charles Wilson, the GM head famous for the “what’s good for General Motors” phrase took progressive business unionism to its heights, sponsoring the first cost of living wage increase clause in the belief that workers needed protection against the wage erosions of inflation.
Good wages, welfare state, and a Chevy under the carport were all made possible for millions of American workers by the unlikely alliance of General Motors and the United Auto Workers. In 1948, only half of all American households owned a car; by 1968, 80% did. Several million other American workers got roughly the same deal pioneered in Detroit.
And there were piles of profits. According to the labor historian John Barnard, Detroit automakers between 1947 and 1967 were getting a 17% annual return on their capital, twice as great as that of any other manufacturing sector. Between 1947 and 1969, automakers earned $35 billion in profits, an astonishing sum in yesterday’s dollars. From the end of the war to the end of American industry’s “golden age” in 1972, the Big Three made over 200 million cars and trucks.
And then the wheels began to come off. Oil crises, recessions, inflation, and the corporate inability to copy Japanese innovations in total quality control started the downward spiral in which General Motors, and to a lesser extent, Ford, find themselves caught up today. Toyota will surpass GM as the world’s largest car producer this year, while Toyota and Honda combined now out-produce GM in America. General Motors now loses $2300 per vehicle; Toyota makes $1500 per vehicle. Each GM vehicle carries $1500 in health care costs, $1300 more per vehicle than a US-made Toyota.
GM lost over $10 billion last year, and has offered to buy out 30,000 of its 113,000 blue-collar workers in the coming year. Thousands of white-collar workers are being severed without any generous terms attached. The firm is selling off a majority interest in its lucrative finance arm, General Motors Acceptance Corporation, as well as much of its holdings in several Japanese vehicle manufacturers.
There are two basic causes for decline. First, GM runs less efficient production lines, taking 34 hours to make a vehicle to Toyota’s 28. Instead of closing the gap, GM is falling further behind, as Toyota is making faster efficiency gains than GM. GM operates at 85% capacity, while Toyota is running at 107% capacity. Coupled with this management failing, secondly, is that while US Toyota’s hourly wages are only 13% lower than GM’s, Toyota’s labor force is smaller, younger, and healthier. Toyota, having only begun producing vehicles in the United States in 1986, also has but a handful of retirees – 1600 to be precise. In contrast, GM has 460,000 retirees whose needs along with those of their families raise the total hourly labor cost for a GM worker to $73, an amount 52% more than an hourly worker cost US Toyota.
The road to car hell for GM is no doubt paved with bad decisions like buying SAAB which continues to go its own way (down); investing in FIAT, and then having to bribe FIAT to avoid having to buy the all-but bankrupt firm; pushing gas guzzling SUVs right into the face of a predictable oil price rise; and missing the hybrid mini-boom. These are just the highlights. It is also hard to understand how management plans to shrink its American operations will enable it to raise more needed capital for investment and to support the pension and retiree health care costs that figure importantly in its unprofitability. One wonders whether the newly announced downsizing is the first step in a business plan that includes eventual bankruptcy, whose proceedings might offer the company the opportunity to shed retirees and their costs, and perhaps much of their employee liabilities altogether.
GM, or for that matter Ford or the UAW, cannot be held responsible for the national indifference to their fate. In 1979, the federal government bailed out Chrysler, floating bonds that allowed the firm to invest in new products, plants, and technology. No hint of a repeat thus far. Nothing more at this point than a letter from two members of Congress to Delphi, parts manufacturer, former GM subsidiary, and key contributor to the GM fiscal mess, urging the firm to engage in good faith bargaining with its unions. Another two members of Congress have filed a bill to prevent a firm like Delphi from dumping labor agreements in bankruptcy court while providing bonuses for bosses and shifting corporate money into offshore accounts.
Why no more than a muffle from Congress? Why silence from the Executive? In part, because saving General Motors and securing its workers would run against the prevailing economic orthodoxy of our time. If General Motors cannot be competitive, whisper the market-mentalists, then to the others should go the spoils of the American auto economy. If Toyota workers in Tennessee are more productive than General Motors workers in Detroit, then, according to dogma, our economy will function more efficiently with more Toyota workers and fewer General Motors workers. We, that elusive we, will be better off, market enthusiasts would tell us, however painful handling these externalities, those expensive retirees, their medical costs, and the medical costs of current workers turns out to be.
Why is bankruptcy the only tool in the kit today, and particularly a bankruptcy process increasingly adept at dispossessing workers and retirees of anything more than lower wages, benefits, and pensions? One reason among the many that is relevant here is that our ruling elite, blindly committed to a concept of free trade that is injurious to the workers in rich and poor countries alike, has kicked away the only real escape ladder for a massive economic and social problem of the sort faced by GM. Under the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO), a bail-out of the firm would be considered an illegal subsidy violating the terms of the agreement. If the American political elite is going to fight to advance Boeing’s interests against the European Airbus by arguing that the Europeans are subsidizing Airbus, it would indelicate, indeed embarrassing and compromising to be subsidizing American car firms in their battles with Japanese, European, and Korean competitors at home.
Ah, and then another reason is adduced for Washington’s silence in the face of Detroit’s agony. Our elite has moved on: cars are so last century. The capacity of American firms to produce them is seen as of marginal significance in the desire to achieve economic mastery of the world. Information, banking, finance, drugs, and biotechnology are tomorrow’s American advantage, and the WTO rules were fixed so that these industries could expand relatively easily world-wide. Aside from succumbing to quadrennial blackmail by farm bill and held hostage by agro-industrial interests, the only manufacturing industry the US elite aids is the military/defense sector that the government now supports to the tune of half a trillion dollars a year. In addition, the US government provides the military industry with a staff of uniformed sales representatives from the Pentagon and an overseas finance bank that supports its sales. As C. Wright Mills observed fifty years ago, the unholy mixture of the military, politicians, and corporations producing the weapons of war is the basis for the modern American power elite’s political regimes.
Perhaps the Big Three should have stayed in tanks and planes after World War II. Think of the profit margins and political protection they would be enjoying now. Think how an Abrams tank production line would have clarified the elite mind on the matter of saving General Motors.
Also exposed by Washington’s silence is that the elite wants to avoid picking up the tab for the corporate welfare state that General Motors, the United Auto Workers, Ford and Chryslers have built. General Motors has a single-payer health care system: why not simply federalize it? And those of the others? Why not assume the pension systems of the Big Three, ensuring that workers would be paid dollar for dollar what they expected, while using the government’s bonding authority to stretch out the companies’ liabilities?
Of course, our gang’s problem is how the government could help GM, the Auto Workers, Ford, and Chrysler without extending protections to the rest of us. They could be caught in a tricky game because equity issues could trigger an avalanche of resentment on the part of the rest of us, just as easily as it could salve the wounds of a sick corporation and its workers, past and present.
Readers, please take notice. First, this is no plea for economic nationalism. If Toyota USA faced the same problems, the same remedies would apply. It is about workers and maintaining a decent way of life. Second, this is no plea for trade protection. No barriers to trade are recommended. However, a state that ignores the nation’s economy, fails to regulate firms of whatever national origin in the interests of working people, and refuses to pick up the tab for the basic needs of its citizens contemplates both misery and revolt.
Sunday, April 9, 2006
Christopher de Bellaigue in the New York Review of Books:
During the past few months, many nations have reached a consensus on the threat that Iran’s nuclear program poses to international security. A similar consensus eluded the same nations in the debate over invading Saddam Hussein’s Iraq three years ago. On March 8, the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna referred Iran’s case to the Security Council. In public or private, but increasingly in public, senior officials from a wide range of countries—including the US, the EU states that vociferously opposed the invasion of Iraq, as well as India and Japan—speak of Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons with a conviction that suggests they regard it as an incontestable fact. Citing a series of deplorably anti-Israel statements by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, officials from some of the same countries express the fear that once Iran has the bombs it is assumed to be seeking, it will threaten Israel with a new and reckless vigor.
“So say the activists, and that’s good enough for ABC News.”
Rebecca Goldin in Stats:
Society without statistics is all in the eye of the beholder. Ask a divorce lawyer, and divorce is always a messy affair. Call people at home, and you’ll find that no one works 60 hours a week. Ask a shrink who treats porn addicts about the effect of pornography, and she’ll respond that they are disastrous.
This is exactly what ABC did in their recent, favorable coverage of anti-porn activists and their campaign to limit adult pornography. In one of the most biased pieces on pornography we’ve seen by the mainstream media, ABC says that some activists are “raising funds for high-tech brain research that they hope will fuel lawsuits against porn magnates”, and then quotes one activist who says “we’ll demonstrate in the not-too-distant future the actual physical harm that pornography causes”. They leave this scientific question dangling before the reader, as an assured reality that a link will be found given funding for the high-tech research. The main expert quoted to support the view that “you’re damaging your brain” by consuming porn is… (drum roll) an auto executive.
Without ado, the article moves on to the social consequences of porn. By talking to a porn addiction expert, they find “many of her patients, rather than improving their sex lives with porn, suffer sexual dysfunction.” And from an expert on internet behavior, we have the “estimate” that “up to ten percent” porn viewers stop having sex with their wives – but where he got ten percent, and how this compares to how much non-porn watching men have sex with their wives is anybody’s guess. Divorce lawyers claim that an increasing percentage of their clients are divorcing over pornography. Need it be say that these lawyers are seeing a skewed sample of porn viewers?
Dan Whitaker in The Observer:
Cloud lovers now have a spiritual home, the Cloud Appreciation Society, with billowing membership and a UK website that won the recent Yahoo award for Weird and Wonderful Site of the Year.
The society was launched at a Cornish literary festival in 2004 by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder of The Idler magazine. Nearly 2,000 people signed up within a year. Membership surged further following a plug on Channel 4’s Richard and Judy show last February.
Cloudspotters are enthusiastic about what American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson called ‘the ultimate art gallery above’. Toni-Marie Hudson, a site devotee who combines art with work at a Blockbuster video store in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, salutes nature’s sculptures, which ‘create dimension to the sky … I love clouds’.
Howard Zinn in The Progressive:
Now that most Americans no longer believe in the war, now that they no longer trust Bush and his Administration, now that the evidence of deception has become overwhelming (so overwhelming that even the major media, always late, have begun to register indignation), we might ask: How come so many people were so easily fooled?
The question is important because it might help us understand why Americans—members of the media as well as the ordinary citizen—rushed to declare their support as the President was sending troops halfway around the world to Iraq. A small example of the innocence (or obsequiousness, to be more exact) of the press is the way it reacted to Colin Powell’s presentation in February 2003 to the Security Council, a month before the invasion, a speech which may have set a record for the number of falsehoods told in one talk. In it, Powell confidently rattled off his “evidence”: satellite photographs, audio records, reports from informants, with precise statistics on how many gallons of this and that existed for chemical warfare. The New York Times was breathless with admiration. The Washington Post editorial was titled “Irrefutable” and declared that after Powell’s talk “it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.”
It seems to me there are two reasons, which go deep into our national culture, and which help explain the vulnerability of the press and of the citizenry to outrageous lies whose consequences bring death to tens of thousands of people. If we can understand those reasons, we can guard ourselves better against being deceived.
Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times:
“Sweet and Low” is the story of those ubiquitous little pink packets of sugar substitute that you see in restaurants and diners and coffee shops — the story of the role saccharine played in the diet revolution that began sweeping America in the 1950’s and the story of the artificial sweetener wars that raged in the 80’s and 90’s.
It is the story of how Ben Eisenstadt, the son of Polish immigrants, lived the American Dream: how this short-order cook turned an old Brooklyn cafeteria into a factory called Cumberland Packing, invented the sugar packet and Sweet’N Low, and made a tidy fortune. It is also the story of how that sweetest of dreams turned sour, when scandal overtook the company in the 1990’s with allegations of influence-buying, tax evasion and possible mob ties being lobbed at some of its top brass.
But most of all, “Sweet and Low” is the story of the Eisenstadt family, as written by Ben Eisenstadt’s grandson Rich Cohen — a rollicking, utterly compelling family saga that is part detective story, part morality tale, part tragedy and part farce. It is a story peopled with eccentrics and naïfs and scoundrels, and a story recounted with uncommon acuity and wit.
Roop points me to this, a short and funny sketch, 1601, about language, manners and flatulence by Mark Twain, with a background to the story and its printing.
[Mem.–The following is supposed to be an extract from the diary of the Pepys of that day, the same being Queen Elizabeth’s cup-bearer. He is supposed to be of ancient and noble lineage; that he despises these literary canaille; that his soul consumes with wrath, to see the queen stooping to talk with such; and that the old man feels that his nobility is defiled by contact with Shakespeare, etc., and yet he has got to stay there till her Majesty chooses to dismiss him.]
YESTERNIGHT toke her maiste ye queene a fantasie such as she sometimes hath, and had to her closet certain that doe write playes, bokes, and such like, these being my lord Bacon, his worship Sir Walter Ralegh, Mr. Ben Jonson, and ye child Francis Beaumonte, which being but sixteen, hath yet turned his hand to ye doing of ye Lattin masters into our Englishe tong, with grete discretion and much applaus. Also came with these ye famous Shaxpur. A righte straunge mixing truly of mighty blode with mean, ye more in especial since ye queenes grace was present, as likewise these following, to wit: Ye Duchess of Bilgewater, twenty-two yeres of age; ye Countesse of Granby, twenty-six; her doter, ye Lady Helen, fifteen; as also these two maides of honor, to-wit, ye Lady Margery Boothy, sixty-five, and ye Lady Alice Dilberry, turned seventy, she being two yeres ye queenes graces elder.
I being her maites cup-bearer, had no choice but to remaine and beholde rank forgot, and ye high holde converse wh ye low as uppon equal termes, a grete scandal did ye world heare thereof.
In ye heat of ye talk it befel yt one did breake wind, yielding an exceding mightie and distresfull stink, whereat all did laugh full sore, and then–
Ye Queene.–Verily in mine eight and sixty yeres have I not heard the fellow to this fart. Meseemeth, by ye grete sound and clamour of it, it was male; yet ye belly it did lurk behinde shoulde now fall lean and flat against ye spine of him yt hath bene delivered of so stately and so waste a bulk, where as ye guts of them yt doe quiff-splitters bear, stand comely still and rounde. Prithee let ye author confess ye offspring. Will my Lady Alice testify?
Peggy Curran and Randy Boswell In Canada.com:
A clash between McGill University and the key federal agency that funds social science research in the country is sparking a scholarly debate in Canada about the theory of evolution.
McGill University says the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council made a “factual error” when it denied Professor Brian Alters a $40,000 grant on the grounds that he’d failed to provide the panel with ample evidence that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is correct.
Jennifer Robinson, McGill’s associate vice-principal for communications, said the university has asked the SSHRC to review its decision to reject Alters’s request for money to study how the rising popularity in the United States of “intelligent design” – a controversial creationist theory of life – is eroding acceptance of evolutionary science in Canada.
More here. [Thanks to Setare Farz.]