gall and gumption

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Progress of Love

This vile woman held my master till half an hour after seven; and he came hither about five in the afternoon. And then I heard his voice on the stairs, as he was coming up to me. It was about his supper; for he said,I shall choose a boiled chicken with butter and parsley.--And up he came!

He put on a stern and majestic air; and he can look very majestic when he pleases. Well, perverse Pamela, ungrateful runaway, said he, for my first salutation!--You do well, don't you, to give me all this trouble and vexation! I could not speak; but throwing myself on the floor, hid my face, and was ready to die with grief and apprehension.--He said, Well may you hide your face! well may you be ashamed to see me, vile forward one, as you are!--I sobbed and wept, but could not speak. And he let me lie, and went to the door, and called Mrs. Jewkes.--There, said he, take up that fallen angel!- Once I thought her as innocent as an angel of light but I have now no patience with her. The little hypocrite prostrates herself thus, in hopes to move my weakness in her favour, and that I'll raise her from the floor myself. But I shall not touch her: No, said he, cruel gentleman as he was! let such fellows as Williams be taken in by her artful wiles! I know her now, and see she is for any fool's turn, that will be caught by her.

It is impossible to feel the same way about this scene after reading Kenneth Tynan's diaries. It would seem to follow so naturally for the characters to have one of them getting spanked on the bottom. I don't know if this means that Richardson's idea of romance had a fair amount of dominance in it, or whether Tynan's spanking fantasies were just highly literate.

Thursday, June 28, 2007


Can't remember how I found my way to this Scientific American article on self-deceit, a subject in which I find a tireless fascination. I read it and couldn't help thinking how novels tell the same story better. I recommend Michael Kohlhaas. And Anna Karenina. And John McGahern's autobiography, already mentioned here. It does seem to me that the pace of discovery in psychology is awfully slow compared to the pace of discovery in literature. I mean, psychology keeps discovering things that literature has known since the Greek tragedies.

I mean, I'm sure this book under review is very nice and useful, but there is an air of being the last to arrive on the scene.

By coincidence I've been writing about it (again, yes!). I'm just going to post it because otherwise I will keep fiddling with it.

I've been thinking about it because of the endless fascination aforementioned, and also because I recently re-read this famous talk by Richard Feynman, the “Cargo Cult Science” speech. I read it years ago and it seems even better now than it did then.

I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas -- he's the controller -- and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land.

Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they're missing. But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth in their system. It is not something simple like telling them how to improve the shapes of the earphones. But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school -- we never say explicitly what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty -- a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid -- not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked -- to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can -- if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong -- to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.[emphasis added – kp]

It’s worth paying close attention to how Feynman uses language here. He hesitates for a minute, looking for the words to describe this quality that these young scientists must have. You can see him trying out different ways of saying it; he tries “ kind of scientific integrity”, he tries “utter honesty,” he tries “bend over backwards” and at last puts it as a simple and practical imperative: “You should report everything that you think might make it invalid.” Then the words come easily, fluent, specific. He wasn’t terribly interested in things like this in the abstract, and what he has to do is sum up what is a pervasive daily practice in small things, in an infinite variety of situations, into just a few words.

In those few words you get a rare sighting of the roots of science in Enlightenment humanism. Scientific integrity, or intellectual honesty, is not a scientific quantity; it’s a humanistic value. He’s speaking the language of Montaigne, of Locke, of Hume, of Voltaire. Not even in its succession of “revolutions” – Kepler, Newton, Darwin, Einstein – has it strayed from those roots. The science changed, but the underlying humanistic ethic has not changed. And here’s Feynman, who was not terribly interested in humanism or the philosophy of science finding it indispensable; it’s what distinguishes science from scientism.

University administrations have all sorts of policies prohibiting what they call “intellectual dishonesty,” by which they mean cheating on exams and plagiarism. But that sort of thing is not what Feynman is talking about here; he’s really talking about self-deceit, the practice of hiding the truth from oneself.

When Feynman goes on to discuss the importance of scientific integrity, he frames that discussion in terms of consequences. He talks about the trust that has to exist between the scientist and the nonscientist.

For Feynman, the technocrat’s superior knowledge entailed responsibility to speak the truth. Feynman helped to build the atom bomb, so he had as much of the technocrat’s power as anyone. Why shouldn’t you help governments to deceive themselves? You can. Why shouldn’t you mislead the public? You can. Why shouldn’t you deceive yourself or your colleagues? You can. The consequences are harmful, to your ability to learn, to the public’s understanding of your subject, and to the trust that members of a society need to be able to have in one another in this shared undertaking of learning. This is an ethics of consequences, and it is surprisingly consistent and unambiguous. It doesn’t ask, “What would you do?” It tells you what you must do, and points to consequences. Not “You will be punished” consequences, but “It will not work and the system will break down” consequences. Everything else was academic. Feynman, an academic superduperstar, was uninterested in academic questions.

Feynman loved his subject. There’s a moment in What Do You Care What Other People Think? when he describes himself, at last, standing really on the edge of the known universe, the outer boundary of knowledge of physics. His response was to write a poem. He was moved. And one of the consequences of intellectual dishonesty is the loss of that pleasure, that delight and wonder, because you cut yourself off from it when you choose to live inside of your own self-serving fictions.

He gave his “cargo cult science” speech in 1974. In 1986 he joined the commission investigating the Challenger explosion . Sure, it helped that Feynman was a mechanical genius, but it also helped that he had the very intellectual integrity that he was urging on those students years before. Understanding came out of tragedy, because Feynman was a person who could be trusted.

At the conclusion of the MIT speech, he says it’s dangerous “to teach students only how to get certain results, rather than how to do an experiment with scientific integrity,” the word “dangerous” has some content now. Without integrity, the whole thing collapses, and the consequences extend far into the world.

Another example is the ESP experiments of Mr. Rhine, and other people. As various people have made criticisms -- and they themselves have made criticisms of their own experiments -- they improve the techniques so that the effects are smaller, and smaller, and smaller until they gradually disappear. All the para-psychologists are looking for some experiment that can be repeated -- that you can do again and get the same effect -- statistically, even. They run a million rats -- no, it's people this time -- they do a lot of things are get a certain statistical effect. Next time they try it they don't get it any more. And now you find a man saying that it is an irrelevant demand to expect a repeatable experiment. This is science?

This man also speaks about a new institution, in a talk in which he was resigning as Director of the Institute of Parapsychology. And, in telling people what to do next, he says that one of things they have to do is be sure to only train students who have shown their ability to get PSI results to an acceptable extent -- not to waste their time on those ambitious and interested students who get only chance results. It is very dangerous to have such a policy in teaching -- to teach students only how to get certain results, rather than how to do an experiment with scientific integrity. [emphasis added – kp]

What is the danger? Short-term, spacecraft fall out of the sky; bridges collapse; levees don’t get fortified; medications cause horrible undisclosed side effects. And that’s quite bad enough, certainly. But there is another long-term danger that is much broader in its consequences for everyone; the loss of the tradition, the habitual practice of intellectual honesty, and the resulting distortion of what it means to know something. The long-term danger is the entrenchment of self-deceit and the corruption of judgment, attended with reduced expectations of results and reduced expectations of ethical standards. Which ensures that more catastrophic mistakes will be made. Feynman warned us that we couldn’t take this tradition for granted. It wasn’t enough to agree with it or to think it was a fine thing; you had to practice it. The only meaningful agreement with a principle is to practice it. Your mere cost-free approval, approval in theory, means nothing at all.

I think the reason Feynman bothers with the ESP experiments is to illustrate how commonplace this type of self-deceit is, and how easily it achieves respectability. Intellectual honesty requires truthfulness in the use of language. There is a form of intelllectual dishonesty that exploits the ambiguity of words to put itself in the right. So a certain fixity of agreement as to what words mean, and how they mean, is needed. You can’t resolve an issue by suddenly claiming that a word means something different from what it has been generally understood to mean within the discussion. That is, unless you’ve really discovered something new, in which case you’d still have to explain it and get the new meaning accepted. The language in shwich science is conducted, consequently, is scrupulously referential. The ESP Institute experiments “succeeded” as far as they did because Mr. Rhine discarded more and more data that didn’t fit; he was, in effect, changing the meaning of words after the fact. There is no surer sign of failure; the person who uses this sad trick has first deceived himself.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Virtue Rewarded

I’m reading Pamela for the first time in about 10 years. As some of you know, I read Clarissa about once every two-three years. Pamela is the Gateway Drug; once you try it and like it, you get curious, you want to try the harder stuff, Clarissa is the next choice and before you know it you are venturing into Sir Charles Grandison.

I confess to having read Sir Charles Grandison all the way to the end. I don’t know if I will ever do that again; life is short, and that book is very very long. Clarissa is only very long and it has more soul in it: Sir Charles G. is a bit of a wet noodle if you ask me. But I love Clarissa, and I love Richardson’s handling of the character of Lovelace, how he really takes him apart. Sometimes I think I read that book just to get to those amazing scenes after Lovelace has raped Clarissa, when she is so powerful in her indignation, he thinks he’s going to be able to bully her at last but no, nothing frightens her, she’s just magnificent.

I’m feeling the old craving just beginning to warm up.

Meanwhile I picked up a copy of Pamela, just for a taste of that buzz of days past. I started reading it and

in the midst of our poverty and misfortunes, we have trusted in God's goodness, and been honest, and doubt not to be happy hereafter, if we continue to be good, though our lot is hard here; but the loss of our dear child's virtue would be a grief that we could not bear, and would bring our grey hairs to the grave at once.


Monday, June 25, 2007

The Mysterious West

Why? I don't know why. It is a mystery. It says it's for a picnic. But it's a solitary picnic -- just enough plastic chicken and plastic biscuit for one. When the price is only a dollar of course a person can afford more than one, and I already feel I should have bought at least two, because I'm social that way.

And why is there, of all things, the napkin holder?

Who thought of this? What sort of mind?

I look at this item and I feel all my confidence in my knowledge of the human race just leaking right out of my head. I am humbled.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

No Pity

Kind pity chokes my spleen; brave scorn forbids
Those tears to issue which swell my eyelids;
I must not laugh, nor weep sins and be wise;
Can railing, then, cure these worn maladies?

Donne is not referring to the bodily organ we know as the spleen, but to the spleen as the source of one of the four bodily humors of medieval medicine. The spleen is the irritable cranky one of the four.

Evidently he is recovering from a recent encounter with stupidity, and while it has annoyed him, “kind pity” checks the outbreak of irritability. Also he thinks he shouldn’t really stoop to their level: “Brave scorn forbids…” But you know? Despite the kind pity and the brave scorn he tells you anyway.

Well, kind pity chokes Donne’s spleen, but it does not choke mine. No, kind pity tried to choke my spleen but my spleen reared up and grabbed kind pity by its lapels and got all in its face and everything.

“Why are you hanging around here wasting yourself on smarmy middlebrow vulgarians?” my spleen wanted to know. “Are we out of orphans? Lonely people? Sick people? Abandoned animals? Why don’t you go get yourself a real job?” As for brave scorn, it was too busy with the highlighter pen and my diaries.

…. Questions like those raised by the NBCC survey envision the book review as a transaction between author and reviewer, rather than between reviewer and reader. To be obsessed with potential bias or conflict of interest on the book reviewer's part is to imagine the reviewer as a judge, who is obligated to provide every author with his or her day in court. But that judicial standard is impossible, because there is no such thing as an objective judgment of a work of literature; aesthetic judgment is by definition personal and opinionated. Nor would a perfectly objective book review even be desirable. The whole point of a review is to set one mind against another, and see what sparks fly. If the reviewer lacks an individual point of view, or struggles to repress it, there can be no intellectual friction, and therefore no interest or drama.

I wonder what it felt like to be the person who discovered that army of terracotta soldiers in China. It must have been thrilling to unearth first one and then another and begin to realize the extent of it all. Reading this piece I get some idea of what it is like: I pull up one straw man, and damn if there isn’t another one. Surely that isn’t… just how many of these things has he packed in here?

Well, now look; there’s a distinction that seems to have some content in it: “the book review as a transaction between author and reviewer, rather than between reviewer and reader.” Except the content just sort of shrivels up as soon as you look at it. The book review may be addressed to the reader, but it is about the author’s book, so the author has something of an interest in knowing whether the reviewer has any ethical biases. About 10 seconds more of thinking, and you realize that the reader has the same interest as the author. The reader has an interest in the use of the time and money and attention she gives to a book, and expects to be able to trust the reviewer to disclose prior commitments that might make for a conflict of interest: “The author is my no-good brother-in-law, and if he sells enough of these I’m hoping he can move off the basement sofa.” People have reviewed books by writers they know, who are friends. Of course! You tell the reader the truth, and you make an effort to be detached about the work, and the reader will judge whether your bias is an issue. If she thinks it is, she’ll go look for another opinion. If you’ve read Balzac’s Lost Illusions you’ll have a picture of what the literary world looks like when literary judgments are paid for without such payment (or any conflict of interest) being disclosed. This is an ethical question: is the reviewer deceiving the reader about the bases of his opinions? And again, the author and the reader share an interest in this ethical judgment, for a really simple reason: nobody likes to be lied to or lied about.

It makes no material difference whether the review addresses the reader or the author.
That distinction is a shiny object of no value. The real, important distinction in this discussion is the one that he breezily dismisses in the next sentence: between ethical judgments and aesthetic judgments. In the context of literature and the arts, Kirsch explains, aesthetic judgment is subjective, and therefore, by extension, the book reviewer’s ethical judgments are purely subjective too.

Let me see if I can compose myself to address the gibbering imbecility of this statement. Western culture has a tradition of investigation into and discussion of what constitutes right judging and good judgment going back oh gee I dunno nearly four thousand years. In criticism (i.e., the making of opinions) it begins with Aristotle and continues right up to the present time.

Brother Bongwater here seems to have made it all the way through college without having become aware of the existence of all this activity and its results in criticism, philosophy, science, ethics. What does he have to offer instead of all this accumulated experience? Sparks. Sparks that shed no light. Intellectual friction and “drama.”

Sad. Just sad.

I mean, what sort of standing would such an ill-educated person have to have an opinion about anything?

It makes a certain kind of sense, however, that book reviewers would become obsessed with ethical purity just at the moment that the newspaper book review is endangered. For along with the fall of the print review, we are also seeing the rise of the Internet review — or, rather, of a new form of discourse about books, which is not quite the same thing as reviewing. People who write about books on the Internet, and they are surprisingly numerous, do not call themselves reviewers, but bloggers. And the subtext of the NBCC's ethics survey and panel was really about the standards, professional and ethical, that bloggers are bringing to the profession.

(Do not fail to notice the insertion of the straw-man phrase “obsessed with ethical purity” which gives him back-out room for the moment when he is called on this nonsense. “I wasn’t speaking about you I was only speaking about the obsessed people,” i.e., not insulting you – only your intelligence.) And just as it was for the appalling Schickel, it’s news to this writer that people actually read books and talk and write about them. Until people started publishing their opinions on blogs he did not know this. Then he discovered that there were these creatures called bloggers. And the decline of the newspaper book review is their fault. Newspaper book reviews are declining, not because of the wretched cheap writing, not because they aren’t very good, not because the newspaper management is interested in making money and not, say, better newspapers, but because of bloggers.

In one sense, the democratization of discourse about books is a good thing, and should lead to a widening of our intellectual horizons. The more people there are out there reading, making discoveries, and advocating for their favorite books, the better. But book bloggers have also brought another, less salutary influence to bear on literary culture: a powerful resentment. Often isolated and inexperienced, usually longing to break into print themselves, bloggers — even the influential bloggers who are courted by publishers — tend to consider themselves disenfranchised. As a result, they are naturally ready to see ethical violations and conspiracies everywhere in the literary world. As anyone who reads literary blogs can attest, hell hath no fury like a blogger scorned. And the scorn is reciprocated: Professional writers usually assume that those who can, do, while those who can't, blog.

This is his not purely objective opinion, of course; he can’t be expected to supply any evidence for it. What follows is more not purely objective opinion – if by “subjective” we mean “I just felt like saying it and you can’t criticize it because you can never know what it feels like to be me. And if you do criticize it you will be guilty of seeking an impossible objectivity, obsessed with ethical purity, and besides you’re one of those angry bloggers.” Subtract these feeble self-defense strategies from the piece and you’d remove about 80 percent of it. The rest is one warm and fetid blast of contempt. Though he finds one web publication he can approve of for its seriousness of purpose. That it happens to be one he writes for is just one of those crazy things that happens, I have no doubt.

It is not just possible but likely that, one day, serious criticism will find its primary home on the Web. The advantages — ease of access, low cost, potential audience — are too great to ignore, even if our habits and technology still make it hard to read long essays on the computer screen. Already there are some web publications — like Contemporary Poetry Review (, to which I occasionally contribute — that match anything in print for seriousness of purpose.

I believe that that is what is known as “the money quote.”

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

All Will Be Well

The Gods of Art were lavish in their gifts to John McGahern. First of all they gave him the talent for English prose: to find its equal you have to go back to D.H. Lawrence's big three novels -- Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, or Women in Love or the first volume of short stories. For his equal in that effortless identification with his characters, for that clarity of revelation of motive and of temperament, of how peopl expose themselves in the small things with the most terrible pathos, you have to look at the non-cranky Tolstoy of Anna Karenina. McGahern looked at human nature with such integrity, such purity of intent, that you feel that there was only one way any of his books could have been written -- his way, even if it meant that the manuscripts just sat piled up in an attic somewhere and never made it out into the world. This perceptiveness and his language, comprise the rirst gift.

The second was a great, passionate love and loss; his mother, who died of breast cancer when he was nine years old. He never forgot what it was to love with his whole being, he never forgot what it was to live in his mother's love. In the autobiography, she tries to get him to understand and accept that she is going to die. She explains that God wants her; "God's got everybody else," he says. "I've got nobody." He held on to his memory of her, it is with him through his whole life; the places where they walked together he remembers in these repeated incantatory passages, keeping the memory alive. There is no laughing off, no moving on, the love is carried all the way. He never doubted for a moment the greatness of this experience of love. It's the highest moral value.

Well, surely that would have been enough. But no. The Gods of Art loved him, as they love all who truly love and abide by the truth of love. They gave him his father -- a character so spectacularly weird that his mere presence would have made the One Good Book of any lesser writer. Selfish, conniving, sentimental, a bully, hypersensitive, mean, unintentionally funny, master of the emotional poison-pen letter, self-dramatizing, awkward, terrifying, controlling and incompetent, maniipulative, violent, prone to self-pity, needy, needy, pitiable and impressive. As I read All Will Be Well, I was seeing the father with the same amazed wariness that his children must have maintainte in order to survive life with him. There's nothing strange about his craziness; it is only a concentrated dose of the various crazinesses that are peculiar to family life. I've seen bits of him in my own relatives. But he has all if these, in such high concentration it that I think he's actually bending time and space towards him. He gave whole new depth, color, and richness of meaning to the phrase "It's All About Me." He manages to be the center of attention in his son's life story, the mighty ego exerting its massive gravitational pull though he's been dead so many years.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

How To Do It

L: He expected every woman he met to luhve him.

K: Well, you did, for about 45 minutes. And it was an agonizing 45 minutes. But then you spent some time with him, and you got the picture right away, and that put an end to that, but you still enjoyed yourself, and now you’re laughing at it. So I think you came out ahead.

Well, I confess I had high hopes when I encouraged L. to make the call. Wait, no, I didn't have what I'd call high hopes then, but I did have hopes. Then when he called her back I did have high hopes. And when he told her, "You must have been reading my mind," gosh! I fell for that line and it wasn't even my date!

This is the crazy part, no, I mean, this is one of the crazy parts. When L. decided, with her friends' encouragement, to call this guy, she had to overcome the fear of the sting of rejection. That is always how the thing looks to you before you call. You don't think that the problem will actually turn out to be that the object of your crush will turn out to be -- well, to put it kindly, a mechanic's special.

No, we always imagine that he’s the combination of Mr. Darcy, Alexander Pushkin, Pete Postlethwaite, and Morgan Freeman, and he’s going to reject us as soon as he finds out we like him. He’s going to reject us because we like him. Just like in high school, you know.

So my latest theory of the crush is that about 30 percent of it is fear of rejection; another 40 percent is actual liking, and the last 30 percent is having not the least idea what to do about it. (Individual mileage may vary.)

I’ve always been susceptible to crushes. I wonder if some people are more so than others.
In my case it happens like someone flipping a switch somewhere. As Screamin’ Jay Hawkins says it,

I was walking along, mindin’ my business,
When love came and looked me in the eye;
Crash! Blam! Allakoozam!
Out of an orange-colored sky!

(Yeah Nat King Cole sang it first but you never feel the same way about the song after you hear Screamin' Jay.)

My earliest crush dates back to when I was about eight years old. The silent unrequited yearning, the daydreams, the small encounters that would be insignificant with anyone else suddenly laden with possible but not quite accessible meaning and in need of tireless interpretation. The little things the crushee can do (smile, talk for five minutes) that set you mad with giddiness for a couple of hours. Somewhere in storage is my old high school diary, one long run of such agonies and ecstasies. In high school I never got past the politenesses, the being asked to dance etc., but I certainly got maximum emotional mileage out of those small things. I mean, I would take complicated routes around the school grounds just to meet whoever the latest was and exchange a nod of the head and a smile, and feel as if I really had something. When I was very young I could make a very little bit of reality go a long way in my inner life.

I remember one in high school that caused me no end of trouble for a couple of years. I had just started my senior year at a high school in the U.S. Virgin Islands, freshly arrived from boarding school in England. And this boy, a classmate, ran up to a pull-up bar and swung himself over it and I was gone, done. I just carried this thing around for two years. I took it away to college with me, where after a couple of months it went dormant, and then as soon as I landed home for summer vacations it was back again. It survived through other relationships – well, to be honest it made other relationships impossible sooner or later – and it only ended when I knew I’d never see him again. That particular crush was heavily loaded with lust, I must say.

Not all of them were lustful. I think I had a crush on Jamie, but I certainly never wanted to go to bed with him. It was a crush nonetheless, the feeling of life being more interesting and more alive whenever he was around, the wish to tell him everything, the wish to have his take on everything, the delight in his presence. Jamie’s spirits could pull me up out of anything, not because he gave me particular attention (though he did) but by the simple force of his energy, intelligence, and blunt truthfulness. Everything he did was interesting to me. It was a crush because I thought anybody who didn’t appreciate Jamie was The Less Fortunate.

I had one crush that grew quietly and slowly over the course of a long friendship. And when we finally did become a couple (we were together for seven years after that) it took me a few years to realize that I hadn’t really known at all who this person was. Actually I realized it pretty early on, but I couldn’t acknowledge it to myself for, like I said, years, and it was years before I made my escape.

Increased self-awareness may increase the possibilities for amusement.The last time, I felt it happening and there was nothing I could do; I met the man, he was talking I could hear my brain packing its suitcase and sneaking out the back door.

Anyway, with all these crushes you’d think I’d have some idea about what one is supposed to do with men. I haven’t the foggiest. I know less than I did when I was 15. I know less than I did a year ago. I know less than I did last week. I don’t mind not knowing, Not knowing feels real, at least. But sometimes I suspect that what I’m experiencing is not Socratic wisdom, just cluelessness.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Technical Term of the Day

The rubbernecking factor. "...(as a percentage) represents the reduction in capacity due to the reduction in vehicle speeds at the point of the incident for vehicles that are in lanes other than the lanes blocked by the incident..."

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Epistle from Italy: Pellestrina

Perhaps it’s wrong of me to begin with what I’m about to say, since it may sound like bragging, or gloating, but with all my luck right now, I feel like I’m living an absolutely charmed life. Sometimes I can’t possibly grin wide enough to express how unbelievably happy I am to be here in Italy. Most everything I’m doing is part of an amazing succession of good fortune: the people at the Accademia and the Tipoteca are incredibly kind and generous; my apartment is beautiful and perfectly located in Venice, not in the tourist zone, but near to everything important; I received free passes to the preview of the Biennale (a mixed blessing, see below); and I keep stumbling into the right place at the right time to meet the right people to do things that no tourist could ever find or do. For example yesterday, at the suggestion of Diana Ferrara the professor I’m working with at the Accademia, I went in the afternoon to the island of Pellestrina to see the largest piece of lace in the world.

People who know Venice will know that one of the islands in the lagoon, Burano, is famous for the production of lace. For hundreds of years the women in this small fishing village have made beautiful, intricate lace, to generate additional income for their families while their husbands were out to sea. Today you can still go to Burano and, though it is rather touristy, you can find shops with piles of relatively inexpensive lace.

Well, Pellestrina also has this lace-making tradition, but nobody knows about them. There are no shops, no tourists—just a small fishing village on the spit of land that is one of the thin islands that forms the Venetian lagoon and helps protect it from the open sea.

Two years ago a group of art students organized all the lace makers on Pellestrina to participate in creating the longest piece of lace in the world: over 400 meters long. The unveiling of this work of art was scheduled as part of the annual Festa di Sant’Antonio, in front of the local church. The work was displayed along the wharf, in front of the area where the fishing boats moor. In the square in front of the church they set up tables for eating, a bandstand, and along the dock were carnival rides and booths (as they say here—a “Luna Park”).

Getting to Pallestrina is no easy matter. First you take a boat to the Lido, the famous beach island. On the Lido you catch a bus (unlike in Venice there are cars on the Lido), which travels the length of the island and then continues via ferry to the next island in the chain—Pellestrina.

I arrived in Pellestrina a little late in the afternoon and quickly found Diana with a group of students and friends sitting at one of the tables in the square. They shifted over and made a place for me, I ordered some food, and then sat down and started to look around and take in where I was. I’m tempted to say it was like being in a Fellini movie, except this would give the wrong impression, like it was caricatured or bizarre. It wasn’t like this at all. It was normal people having fun in a way that is very particular to this place. While not caricatured, there certainly were a lot of interesting characters.

A wonderful quality of Italian life is how social people are. Unlike in the US where everyone comes home from work, closes the automatic garage door behind them, puts something in the microwave, and flops down in front of the TV, people here spend the evening in the public square in the company of other people. Even in Venice, which is so cosmopolitan, the little Campos in the neighborhoods are buzzing every night with people of all ages. In Pellestrina it was like this times ten. I’d estimate there were close to 400 people there: talking, laughing, eating, walking up and down the length of the wharf looking at the lace, kids running about playing—and I’m fairly certain I was the only American, and possibly the only foreigner.

The food was amazing: fresh steamed mussels, fried shrimp, sardines, calamari, and octopus, polenta, bread, and pitchers of white wine. For dessert, grappa (a strong regional liquor made from grape skins), espresso, and biscotti. How perfect is that?

As the sun set the lights came on in the Luna Park, and the band started playing (alternating between American pop songs, performed well but slurring the English words they didn’t know, and traditional folk music such as polkas and line dances). People immediately started dancing: older people knew the traditional steps, younger people tried to follow along, women without partners danced together, and mothers with their young daughters held hands and bounced around in the middle. Once again, I can’t grin wide enough to express the joy.

On the way home the bus was jammed full of Italians, laughing and singing. When we boarded the ferry everyone piled out and stood along the boat railing as we crossed the channel. In the distance you could see heat-lightening flashing in the clouds above the sea. I thanked my lucky stars to be in such a wonderful, magical place.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


For the past several weeks I've had a running argument with my father's dog Misha. The argument is over dominance issues. It began innocuously enough, with her and Sweetie playing The Growling Game whenever we were getting ready for a walk. But The Growling Game began to get a little rough, it was clear that Misha was using it to show Sweetie that she was the boss of outside too. (When we go out Sweetie is always in front, eagerly looking at things, wanting to just be out for ever, while Misha soon starts campaigning to go home.) So I have been laying down some rules: 1) The Growling Game must stop whenever it gets mean; 2) When the two dogs are in my room, Misha is not allowed to boss Sweetie around and try to hog all of the attention. If she tries this on I order her out of the room and she goes away looking utterly miserable. The third and final rule is that she must stay in the back seat of the car when we are out.

Well, I don't know, something seems to have gotten through to her in the last week. She's been acting really weird. Tuesday I guess it was, my father called me at work to tell me that Misha didn't seem to be well: she had climbed into the bathtub and refused to come out. I got home and found that he had placed her dish in the bathroom, next to the tub, in case she felt like eating. She had refused to leave the apartment, and when I got home it had been 24 hours sinced the last time she went out. But she came out with me and Sweetie willingly enough, and afterwards I took them in the car to the store, and she barked at every living creature in sight. I turned around to look at her and the expression of zany happiness on her face said, unmistakably, "This is living!" Wednesday we had a big thunderstorm here and when I got home both dogs were not at the door when I came in; apparently they were cowering in the bedroom from the weather. Now there is another wrinkle which is that she has taken to sleeping in my bedroom closet, on top of my dirty laundry, and generally conducts herself in my bedroom with this abject and forlorn air. She never wanted to hang out in my room until I started telling her to bugger off out of the room whenever she bullied Sweetie. Now she's in here all the time, but in this pathetic pleading way, and seems to be brooding over something that hurt her feelings. Or she may have suspected that he was going away again, which does depress her a little.

My favorite moment this week with my dad was waking up at about 2 in the morning to see him tiptoeing into my bathroom in his boxers and a T-shirt. "Daddy, what's up?" I said. "I'm just saying 'Good night' to Misha," he said. He disappeared into the closet (which is off the bathroom) and I heard him talking to her her and before he was even gone I had fallen asleep again. You have to understand that as far as he is concerned, the apartment stops just short of my bedroom door. He doesn't like to come in here, too much Kia personality around I suppose.

Anyway I've got the place to myself (plus, of course, dogs) this weekend as he's off to Jamaica for a few days.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Richard Schickel Farts In Your General Direction

I vaguely recall some commentary here and there a couple of weeks ago about the decline of the newspaper book review. The National Book Critics’ Circle is trying to save the Book Review section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Naturally enough, book reviewers are also on the case.

I want to save the newspaper book review, as well. I am all for anything that puts dollars in the pocket of a hungry literary scribe. And I also favor the dissemination of new ideas and of new books, and I’m pro-critic, too. I am a critic. I’ve written book reviews for newspapers, for actual cash dollars. But I haven’t written a book review for money in about two years. Mainly for lack of trying. And for years, I taught people to write and to read literature. Published a book of original literary criticism that was not widely praised, but praised in very good places. Small and select again, like you, my dear readers.

But I’m just a blogger now. I am not one of the Lord’s Anointed. I unanointed myself when I created my Blogger account and now I am one of the shaggy hordes threatening the citadel of Richard Schickel’s mind newspaper book reviewing.

Into the breach, it argued, will charge the bloggers, one of whom, a former quality-control manager for a car parts maker, last year wrote 95 book reviews for his website.

And great wailing and lamentation was heard in the citadel, for Auto Parts Guy was seen crossing the plain where the invading armies had pitched their tents…”

Schickel was apparently unaware, until the terrifying figure of Auto Parts Guy filled the sky and blotted out the sun, that “anyone can comment on books.”

Anyone? Did I read that right?

Even now, he has trouble believing it. Do you believe it? Well, look at the consequences. Auto Parts Guy.

He acknowledges (and I won’t quarrel with him on this) that most newspaper book reviewing is hackery. He knows this because all sorts of riff-raff have been able to review his books – with spray paint. Well that’s democratic. And if it’s not democratic enough for you? Well, I suppose you’ll think it’s just dandy when Auto Parts Guy comes and kicks your front door in and – something cataclysmic and awful -- wants to swim in your community pool maybe. Booooo!!! Auto Parts Guy!! The thing is pellucidly clear, as West Indian lawyers like to say.

One hesitates to make Schickel even more frantically irritated than he already seems to be, but perhaps it should be gently pointed out to him that people have always been free to comment on books. No one has to prove they have a right to an opinion. Not even Auto Parts Guy. I would recommend Schickel read Boswell’s Life of Johnson. He will find plenty of evidence there. Only one of the speakers in all of those conversations is a literary critic, one of the greatest literary critics of all time, in fact. And yet all sorts of people are venturing to express their own opinions to him. About books, politics, morals, all kinds of things. Bloggers don’t even need to assert their right to an opinion. It’s given. We aren’t all necessarily entitled to agreement or even interest from others, however. That we have to earn. And how will we know if we’ve earned it if we don’t put it out there? Does Schickel ever talk to anybody?

To be fair, from where Schickel sits it must look like a bunch of scabs are moving in to take over his job. I hear the lament of the skilled and valued worker who fears he is about to become obsolete. I don’t want book reviewers to become obsolete; I want there to be more to read in the newspaper, not less.

It isn’t bloggers who are threatening his job. They may be threatening his status, but his status is totally bogus anyway. He never had such status, and bloggers have not changed it.

I don’t know what Schickel’s credentials are but he doesn’t seem to be doing much with them. This is a slovenly and incoherent piece of writing. He brings in Sainte-Beuve (“not a name much bruited in the blogosphere,” he sneers, failing to notice that it’s not a name much bruited in newspapers or, for that matter, even Time magazine, either). What he says about Orwell is not relevant to the point at issue (but it is the one Orwell reference that newspaper people, for reasons that elude me, love to invoke), and he simply asserts (violating his own strictures against “idle opinion-mongering”) that Edmund Wilson was the “the best book reviewer this country ever had.” “Thumbs up!”

He seems to be laboring under the misapprehension that it is his job to tell posterity what to think of books. He imagines he is maintaining some sort of standard of judgment. On the basis of what evidence I simply do not know.

At the recent Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, there was a fascinating panel featuring writers whose books were written in what time they could spare from their day jobs. Inevitably, blogging was presented as an attractive alternative — it doesn't take much time, and it is a method of publicly expressing oneself (like finger-painting, I thought to myself, but never mind).

D.J. Waldie, among the finest of our part-time scriveners, in effect said "fine." But remember, he added, blogging is a form of speech, not of writing.

I thought it was a wonderful point. The act of writing for print, with its implication of permanence, concentrates the mind most wonderfully. It imposes on writer and reader a sense of responsibility that mere yammering does not. It is the difference between cocktail-party chat and logically reasoned discourse that sits still on a page, inviting serious engagement.

I don’t know, there’s something so perverse about me. When I read a passage like that last paragraph there my mind immediately goes to these written things that don’t impose any sense of responsibility at all: “The Imperfect Enjoyment”; Ben Jonson’s journey down the Thames; Dryden’s incredibly scurrilous pamphlets; James Joyce’s raunchy letters to his wife Nora; the Dunciad; Boswell’s journals; well, you get the idea. I mean, if you look at books they don’t act like this, there are so many layers of assumption with no reference to evidence in books. And there is no evidence presented to support any of his statements about blogs, either. Just Auto Parts Guy! Scary Scary Auto Parts Guy!

But it never worked like that. Schickel is just as entitled to his opinion as everyone else. But to get an audience to trust that opinion, his credential won’t help, his status won’t help, nothing but writing intelligent criticism will help. The one person who actually does have an obligation to prove anything to anybody in this scenario is Schickel. How’s that for irony? That is how it has always been.

It doesn’t occur to him that the bloggers who write about books, the ones he dismisses as doing no more than “finger painting” are his readers; a person who is interested enough to write book reviews reads book reviews. These are the people that he is treating with such bilious contempt. The critic is not the only person who judges. His readers judge him. They make snap judgments about him, just as they do about everything else that appears in the newspaper – everything under the sun. His credentials don’t protect him from those kinds of judgments. They will read him, and if they don’t think he’s interesting, or if they don’t feel they can trust him, they’ll move on. And this is, again, something that Schickel doesn’t seem to know.

Or maybe he does know and imagines that his position on a newspaper is like that of a preacher in a pulpit: a license to preach at the audience and not have to put up with any lip, and enjoyment of the delusion that any of this enforceable without the consent of the governed so to speak. Naturally a person who puts himself in that position is prone to think himself or herself specially ordained and anointed and entitled to have readers who know how to behave themselves.

And all three wrote for intelligent readers who emerged from their reviews grateful to know more than they did when they started to read, grateful for their encounter with a serious and, indeed, superior, mind. We do not — maybe I ought to make that "should not" — read to confirm our own prejudices and stupidity.

Orwell, Wilson, and Sainte-Beuve had readers who were grateful for book reviews, you sharper-than-a-serpent’s-tooth readers, you! What does Schickel get? He leaves you alone in the house for a couple hours and you invite all these yahoos in here and they drink up all the good booze and trash the place– you let Auto Parts Guy in here! Which bathroom did he use?

And what do you think of a writer who has such contempt for his own audience? For the people (other than his book publishers) who care most about what he writes in his book reviews? For the people who would most likely join him to save the book review? For the people least responsible for the predicament in which the newspaper book reviewer finds himself? But he farts in your general direction anyway, because, well, Auto Parts Guy! I mean, Auto Parts Guy!

Bloggers, and readers, are the last people to blame for this predicament. Newspaper management at the corporate level has a lot of the responsibility; editors have some of the responsibility; the book reviewers have responsibility. The LA Times Book Review has been dull for going on 30 years, and they have responded by doing just about everything possible except making it interesting. I don’t say nothing interesting ever appears, but considering the writing talent, and the reading talent, that gathers in the entertainment industry, why are their reviewers so uninspired? It is possible to write about books in a way that itself gives pleasure. But you can’t get there by starting out with contempt for your reader.

Now that I've fallen off the edge of the earth, no one has to come back here to read what I write or what Jeff writes if they don't find it interesting. I don't have the mighty clout of the LA Times at my back. And all my credentials will not help me if I'm not honest or interesting. An academic imprimatur would add prestige, but not necessarily intellectual value, to whatever I write here. I'm working without a net. So is is everybody else. Schickel, too.

Update: Tidied this up a bit. That's what comes of blogging in the wee small hours of the morning.

Labels: , , ,

Epistle from Italy: The Biennale

After two days of traipsing through the 52nd Venice Biennale it’s difficult to decide what hurts the most, your eyes, your brain, or your feet. First there is the main exhibition hall, with a grand display of some of the big hitters of the contemporary art world, chosen by Robert Storr, the former curator of contemporary painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, and the current Dean of the Yale School of Art. Then there are the Pavilions in the Venice Giardini: small temples scattered throughout the meandering gardens featuring the work of individual artists from around the world—one for each country that has established a residence during the 100+ years that the Biennale has been held. Getting through all this can hardly be done in one day.

Not tired of looking at art yet? Continue on your way to the Arsenale—an enormous procession of cavernous brick buildings where the Venetians, during their heyday of the 15th through 18th centuries, used to churn out battleships at the rate of one a day. Now they are filled with battleaxes instead: video art and installations with a decidedly political bent. Get ready to be preached at about the evils of war, prejudice, poverty, pollution, and also wear a good pair of shoes because you’ve got a long walk ahead of you. Fortunately at the end of your tour of the Arsenale, out in the middle of the most serene and remote part of the majestic boatyard, you can catch a ferry that will take you back around to the gardens again.

Finally, for those countries that for whatever reason don’t have a pavilion—they couldn’t afford the admission fee, they came late to the party, nobody likes them—there are temporary exhibition spaces set up in old palazzos and churches throughout the city. In some ways these are the most fun of all, because you have to go on a scavenger hunt though the maze of Venice to find them. But boy do my feet hurt now. Yes, it’s the feet, definitely the feet.

As is no surprise to anyone whatsoever (except maybe your grandma who thought she was going to an art fair) painting represents less than 5% of the work you’ll find at this year’s Biennale. The organizers of this event—just like everyone else in the curatorial, critical, gallery, and academic worlds these days—are going to continue to insist that painting is dead dead dead, even if they have to strangle the last bit of life out of it themselves.

Yet in spite of this it is consoling that some of this >5% is quite extraordinary. Mr. Storr seems to have a nostalgic attachment to painting, or certain painters anyway. Many of the artists he chose are people he has worked with or written about before: Gerhard Richter, Elizabeth Murray, Louise Bourgeois (just like Harold Rosenberg in the late 1940s, when asked to pick the artists who would prove to be the most important, he chose his friends: Kline, Pollock, DeKooning). I’m okay with this, because the people Storr chose are some of the best painters around. Certainly first and foremost for me—the best and maybe even the only great work in the entire Biennale—are the paintings by Robert Ryman.

I have a particular fondness for Ryman’s work in this context. It was in this same exhibition hall, at the Venice Biennale of 1978, that I first encountered and was stunned by his paintings. I remember them very clearly: big canvases with lovely brushed white oil paint that flowed across the surface and ended abruptly and confidently at the edges. They were so simple and elegant, yet full of brash character: a cross between Zen master and Tom Sawyer. I also saw Ryman’s 1993 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which was impressive, though of varying quality.

With this new work I’m very glad to see that Ryman has laid aside his obsession with how the painted surface is attached to the wall—all those tiresome brackets and exposed screws that were so prominent in the MOMA retrospective—and has gone back to painting on simple canvas stretched in wooden frames. Finally we can just look at the paintings and not have to look at their support. And what lovely paintings they are! Brilliant rectangles of off-white (almost but not quite pastels) create atmospheric, painterly fields of color surrounded by extremely dark black edging. The coal-black boarders frame the images and create a deep space for the delicate white surfaces to float in. Ryman’s masterful painterly touch with his brush on the surface continues to assert his presence, but now with a romantic wistfulness that is even more subtle and appealing.

The split personality Gerhardt Richter, whose work moves between photorealism and abstraction, has on display here some of his massive abstract canvases with slathered layers of paint that look like they were applied using a two-by-four dragged across the surface. I love this stuff—thick with sensuous paint in beautiful, jewel-like colors. In places the surface begins to appear like a moiré pattern, and you want to rub your eyes and look again.

Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings are, well, Ellsworth Kelly: boring as always. Here he paints shaped monochromatic canvases and attaches them to other canvases. I’ve never understood the appeal of his work, and I tend to respond strongly to minimalist abstraction. His work has always struck me as being both effete and slight.

Elizabeth Murray and Susan Rothenberg are both artists who have played out their hands and are searching for what to do next. Murray shows big cartoonish shaped-canvas assemblages that resemble what 80s painter Kenny Scharf might have been dreaming about in kindergarten. They are a little too cute. Rothenberg’s work, to be blunt, looks like a big mess (no, tell us what you really think!)

Out in the garden, in the pavilions, there is nary a painting to be found. This year the US was represented by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a Cuban-born conceptual artist who died of AIDS in 1996 at the age of 38. Mr. Gonzalez-Torres is only the second artist to represent the US posthumously. The pavilion consists of some of Gonzalez-Torres’s signature work: strings of light bulbs, piles of candy, large documentary photographs, stack of posters that visitors are allowed to take with them, and two large marble pools of water positioned in a figure eight in the courtyard. The funniest thing is to see people all over the city, everywhere you go, carrying the large unwieldy posters rolled up under their arms. How are they planning to get those things home on the airplane?

I have to say, I really want to like Gonzalez-Torres, and his work. It’s a relief to see conceptual art that is so soft spoken and subtle. After researching more about him online, he seems to have been a thoroughly likable guy—good-natured, witty, handsome (adorable really). It’s easy to see why he would be successful in the art world. How could you not like him? But I can’t help but feel that the work can’t possibly express much of anything to the mass of people who pass through the pavilion. They take their poster or their piece of candy and move on. This work could only be effective for museum curators and art insiders, and who cares about them?

By contrast the Russian pavilion is a multimedia extravaganza, featuring a number of artists, but most notably the work of Alexander Ponomaryov. Mr. Ponomaryov, a former sailor, presents video works with a nautical theme, including an amazing video shower booth with cascading images that surrounds the viewer, rows of large flat screen televisions that drip with water and are squeegeed clean by giant windshield-wipers, and a large wave machine that is activated when Mr Ponomaryov appears on a giant video monitor and blows across it’s surface. It’s all very clever. At the opening the oddest thing was to see Mr. Ponomaryov’s larger-than-life head appear on the screen, with his wild mop of graying hair and his intense gaze, and then to look over and see him in person, standing in the corner. He was the only artist in the whole place that you could surely identify.

The rest of the Biennale, stretching on endlessly, contains art of every possible description: neon fabrications, assemblage kitsch, installation funhouses (an actual maze of mirrors in the Belgium pavilion!), comic books, sour-natured graffiti, dada clothing, and pseudo-anthropological temple sculpture-structures, to name a few.

Photography and video dominate throughout. The photos are often polemic and documentary in nature-—an arty kind of photojournalism for the clever and the initiated. The videos are simply impossible to watch. If I have to peer around the corner through a crowded door into one more pitch-black, stuffy, video projection space filled with stalwart viewers leaning up against the wall or sitting earnestly on the floor I’m going to swear off contemporary art for good. Give me the DVD and I’ll snore through it in the comfort of my own living room. I guess it’s hard to evaluate something if you don’t bother to watch it, but if I had taken the time to sit on the floor with the rest of them I would be sitting there still. As the old 1979 pop song by the Buggles says, Video Killed the Radio Star. Well, I’m afraid it’s killing more than that.

For me, the one exception to this video ennui can be found at the very end of the Biennale, in a small scruffy garden behind the last building of the Arsenale. Part of the China Pavilion, "China Tracy," by Cao Fei consists of a large inflated and air-conditioned balloon environment—a white space pod reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey—for which visitors must remove their shoes (ah! feet!) to enter. Once inside you find cushions to lounge on, soft mesmerizing music, and gentle reassuring computer animated videos recounting stories about an ideal utopian future world. It’s not great art, but it was so nice of the artist to provide this relaxing respite after two long weary days of looking at art.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


A few days ago a friend told me he reads my blog. “You write well,” he said. “But a lot of it is just mental masturbation.”

Mental masturbation? You want to see mental masturbation? OK watch this. I’m going to do some, right here.

Friends, let me give you a word of advice. If you happen to find yourselves amongst me and drop a remark like that, have your laugh. And then pack. Take your whoopee cushion, your X-ray goggles, your clown shoes, and your dog-eared last month’s issue of It’s What Everybody Says So It Must Be True and Aren't I Clever to Say It, and get out of the vicinity. Because I do not back down and I do not let up. I will wear you out. I will singe the ears right off your head. I will unpack the contents of your brain and spread them out, sorted by size and function, and I will neatly label all the contents (“Stupid” and “Pig Ignorant” and “Loutish” among other categories) and show them to you and then I will shovel all of it into a garbage bag. And then I will kick you out the door and fling the whole worthless package after you.

Well, now I must go and fan myself. I am all aglow. Goodness!

See? That’s mental masturbation. Now you can say you have seen it on my blog. My pleasure.

Some of you have known me, lived with me, worked with me, since I was in my teens. Do I exaggerate? Back when I was teaching, I was The Scary One. I can run an argument into the ground, I’m like the Jack Russell terrier who is willing to tear up the whole sofa to get that piece of old cheese that's stuck between the cushions. And I so rarely ever get to pursue anything that way any more. I get excited just thinking about it!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

There Are Days...

I don't know how it happened but today a man I hardly know bit me on the ankle.

He was crawling around on all fours, growling like a dog, and so it seems reasonable. Both of us were fully dressed, there was neither hanky nor panky involved. He had two little girls on his back who were laughing their heads off and shrieking commands at him. My dog and I sat on the sofa in the man's house huddled together in frozen politeness (actually the politeness was me; the dog was frozen in horror) while this performance was going on.

But since that moment I can hear my mother's voice in my head, saying to her mother, lo, these many long years ago, "...Well, you don't see crazy people coming and talking to me on train platforms, do you? You must be doing something to attract them."

My mother would not get herself into a situation where a man could bite her on the ankle. Whereas I now feel that even in my total non-life here in the DC suburbs, if there is some looniness going I will find myself amongst it in some personal way, unable to explain to myself how I got into this position. I mean, the succession of events is perfectly clear. But the question "Why do these things happen to me?" is still a mystery.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

A Sojourn Among the Cannibals

This image was part of an exhibition at Stanford in 2000, commemmorating the Great Exhibition of 1900 in London. The curators or critics attach this note: "Derogatory depictions of foreigners at the exhibition reflect a degree of xenophobia within British society. The "Cannibal Islanders" illustration in a popular book of the time demonstrates this contempt." But everybody looks a bit silly in the picture, it seems to me, and the Cannibals look so good-natured and confident and interested, while the English people across the table look so suburban. But it's the cannibals, not the English people, who are here on display as another imperial commodity, beside the latest patent knitting machine or dairy cow or medicinal plant.

"This latest plot was at once different and similar to what we have seen before," said New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. "Different in its distinct ties to the Caribbean, a region that is rarely thought of in terms of terrorism but of increasing concern to us as a crucible in the foment of Islamic radicalism."

A crucible, eh? Well. Let us see what is in the pot. I don't see much, but there's something dry and scaly stuck to the bottom. I scrape at it with the spoon and I'll be damned if it isn't a piece of old baloney!

Although there was no link to the global terror group al-Qaida, investigators said at least two of the suspects were linked to the Jamaat al-Muslimeen (JAM), the Islamic extremist group in Trinidad which attempted to overthrow the twin-island republic's government in 1990.

Now we know it's a joke. The 1990 incident shocked and disgusted Trinidad & Tobago and the whole region. This is not a beloved organization. To call that outbreak of lunacy an “attempted coup” is to bestow on it a dignity that it never had in the eyes of anyone in the Caribbean. JAM had no popular support. This is the remnant of a bunch of lost souls. What sort of life do you suppose these guys have been living since then? One long mockery. Literally. Spectacular political failures, and poor.

The story of Caribbean Islamoterrorism now grows. The LA Times finds a link between the epidemic of kidnappings that has swept Trinidad over the past several years, and Islamic terror.

In recent years, JAM has allegedly engaged in kidnappings, slayings, drug and weapons trafficking, and other illegal activities that have ratcheted up the concerns of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials.

But the vast majority of kidnappings in Trinidad have had no ideological component; they've been for purposes of extortion or the result of business vendettas. Why didn't the reporter, Meyer, make a call to Trinidad's director of public prosecutions and find out whether anyone has actually been convicted of these alleged crimes? If it is so well known that JAM have been so busy kidnapping, killing, selling drugs and trafficking in weapons, why have they been walking around free in front of everybody for the past 17 years? And what about all the non-Muslims, a much larger constituency of criminality, who have been doing these things for years?

Caribbean people have a healthy cynicism about the role of ideas in politics. Ideas hardly enter into it at all. What matters is getting: the job, the scholarship, the free T-shirt, the status, the title, the road project, the call center, the community center. When JAM failed so spectacularly it was a farce. just as surely as Miss Agatha, who has returned from America with her new affectations and accent and her new wig, will be knocked down a peg in some undignified mishap (possibly involving a donkey or the village drunk). In the Caribbean these ideologically motivated political dramas end in failure, a spasm of violence, poverty, and unsparing public derision. I wouldn’t want to be a JAM member and have to walk past a rum shop on a Saturday afternoon.

It’s not a culture that respects people who try different things and fail -- especially in politics. Especially when they have no money. Memories are long. Since the day they got their amnesty, the life of JAM members has been one long mockery. Literally. And so anybody who called these fellows up looking for assistance with a terror plot – well, maybe they should be locked up to be protected from themselves. Because they were some heck of plotters! They went looking to hook up with a highly visible terrorist organization to carry out a secret plot(if one of those JAM guys sneezed a ping went off on a monitor somewhere), seeking money where there was no money, and seeking approval from an organization whose only recorded achievement was a 17-year-old fiasco.

The Al-Qaeda connection is now found to be nonexistent, and the “plan”, it now begins to emerge, was a childish fantasy that would not have worked.

And here, for me, is where the jest suddenly stops. Here are a few things that might be news. Over the last 30-40 years violence in the Caribbean has steadily increased. More than a thousand people die by violence in Jamaica alone every year, Trinidad and Guyana are catching up, and the fear of violence is never far from the mind of any Caribbean person any more. In Jamaica you would be hard pressed to find a person whose life has not been materially touched by violence. Friends, family, murdered, robbed, raped. I can count off more than half a dozen cases in my own circle of family and friends, and I am not from the slums: I am from uptown. And I haven’t lived in Jamaica for 30 years. How many murder victims are there among your friends and family? From the time that this violence began in the early 1970s, it modeled itself on American films. The cinemas in the rough parts of Kingston (as those parts became rough, that is) showed B Westerns, American movies that Americans never heard of. Jamaican musicians, those great social observers, have been singing about this for going on 40 years.

The guns with which Caribbean people have waged unofficial and undeclared war on each other come from the United States. (According to the World Bank they also come from South America, where well-known U.S. makes are manufactured under license, i.e., offshored.) There is no ideological content to this war. It isn’t about Islam, or Rastafarianism, or Marxism. It is about identity and power in a really small setting: this street, that alley, this village, this road works job, those four votes over there, who controls which precinct, respect and disrespect. And it’s about being a Big Man, about creating this identity and living through it in order be seen as a Somebody. It is especially about that. There are historical reasons why it is especially about identity, but that’s for another day. It’s enough to say that the killers kill to show their power. It is the only use of power that they know.

So, again, let me simplify: American movies export the idea that a man with a gun and enough ammunition (Dirty Harry, Rambo, whoever it is that Bruce Willis plays, and any number of nameless cowboys, international men of mystery, rogue cops, gangsters, betrayed operatives, the whole assortment of swaggering tough guys) is equipped to solve any problem, and American gun dealers sell the guns for Caribbean audiences to solve their problems with. Is it solely a Caribbean problem when Caribbean people kill each other with American guns? Or is it a shared problem? Is it less of a shared problem than the drug problem?

The financial cost of all that bloodshed in the region is so huge that even the World Bank recently took notice of it. (Read the section, "Sources.") The social cost is incalculable. A very simple thing would have done a lot to mitigate it: coming to some workable formal arrangement between U.S. and Caribbean governments to control the export of guns into the region and to enforce those export controls with even half the zeal with which marijuana, say, is pursued. No expense is spared to stop cocaine at the source, before it gets to the user, and apparently this mostly ideological pursuit is worth the trouble no matter how paltry the results.

The Caribbean pays a high price for America’s indulgence in this logical inconsistency. In this as in so many things.

I met an American visitor to St. Kitts who observed to me that while the Caribbean was a fun place, it was a shame that the U.S. taxpayer spent so much money on aid.

Here is some more news. There is no aid. For probably the last 25 years, the Caribbean countries, like other developing countries, have borrowed money.

The only place the U.S. taxpayer’s money goes to in the Caribbean any more is drug interdiction and sex interdiction (also known as “HIV/AIDS education”), which are both certainly a waste of money: futile, harmful, and in defiance of all common sense. Oh, and mega-churches, whose missionary activities, money-grubbing, and broadcast technology the U.S. taxpayer cheerfully subsidizes. (And we have plenty enough homophobia out there without this additional contribution.) But of course that was not the sort of thing the man was talking about when he meant "waste." He was only politely expressing the fear that some black person somewhere was getting something for free. These guys who start this with me always take pride in their geniality and their ability to get on with all kinds of people and they sit there and dribble forth this fact-free complacent bullshit, as if the cylinders of their brains have never turned over once in the course of their entire lives. I remember in one of these arguments, one guy, light slowly dawning in his eyes, stopped and said, “Hey, wait a minute, you voted for Clinton, didn’t you?” This was apparently as far back in the universe’s order of cause and effect as he could possibly go. The belief that the rest of the world is one gigantic, dark-skinned and ungrateful Welfare State dies hard -- hell, it just won't die. It's hard to know whether the believer would prefer to keep his money or to cherish this grievance.

This is a man (and I have met him and his brothers and sisters in spirit through all the years I’ve lived in the United States), who expects to be told what to think. And because he thinks what he is told to think, he expects to be considered a thinker. The difference between him and me, in his view, is that I was being told what to think by the Wicked Witch Hilary Clinton, while he was being told what to think by the Right People. Actually informing himself wasn't even on the game board.

Fortune has put Caribbean people a little out of range of the fumes. They know they don’t live in the United States; they know they live in the Third World, where the means for self-deceit simply don't exist in such abundance. A bogus talking point like “Guns don’t kill people – people do,” does not sit in their minds passing for a profound original thought. Guns don’t kill people, people do? Fine. Then make people have to work harder to kill people.

But a sensible gun export policy, which would have the incidental effect of making things a little less convenient for any actually existing dangerous Islamocalypsofascists or other types of terrorists, would be governing. What we get instead is just hunting--the kind of hunting where the hunter does not spare himself any advantage in his “sport.” Radar to find the fish, caged birds, assault rifles to shoot deer.

For the human prey, no habeas corpus, no Geneva Conventions, no U.S. Constitution, secret evidence, limited access to lawyers, seizure of assets before guilt is established. And the torture, about which we know this much: it’s meant not only to inflict pain on the body, but to destroy the mind of the suspect before he even gets to go to trial. You think there was a moment in Jose Padilla’s ordeal when one of his “interrogators” suddenly turned and said, “Oops! I think we accidentally turned his brain to mush!” They were getting their filthy perverted jollies off and letting Padilla endure the punishment, the hell that is associated with pleasure in their minds. And they can turn around and think they are acting virtuously in a sacred cause, doing God’s work. This is the end result of dividing the world into evil Them and Good Us. The sleep of reason begets monsters, Goya said.

We do not know that these four men are terrorists, because for one thing the definition of what constitutes an act of terrorism has become so very blurred around the edges; their guilt must be proven, but we can reasonably expect that before it is proven attempts will be made to extract from them a rationale for this Big Scare. The abusers will try to force from them the justification for their own abusive behavior. The discredited al-Qaeda connection will persist, in all those minds where stupid self-serving lies take up residence and never move again, and when word leaks out about how they have been treated, you will hear that lie again, to excuse whatever barbarity is committed. These four men, we know, have entered the gates of hell. If they ever come out (and the lack of any case against them is no guarantee that they will get out) they will be damaged. But that's not too big a price to pay for a few minutes of the illusion of success on the nightly news. And the ordeal that these men now face has nothing to do with any real danger; the danger has been leaking out of this story by the hour. But that doesn't matter; there is still some use to be gotten out of these hapless, defenseless straw men. In a room in a prison somewhere, in secret, persons unknown will commit acts that shame the human race, convinced that they are bravely doing sanctified virtuous work: the highest work of the human race -- helping Americans to "feel" safe. Your rulers asked for the freedom to do this, and they got it. Because you're worth it. Welcome to the cannibal cult.

Update: Lest you think my fears are exaggerated, here's Digby summing up, again, the motives and methods of current practice in "terrorism interrogation."

Labels: , ,

Friday, June 08, 2007


Q: What is the headline when an ancient Vietnamese city collapses on a well-dressed practical joker?
A: Hué down upon the Soigné Ribber.

Update: Fixed typos.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Epistle from Italy: At the Tipoteca

The director of the Fondazione Tipoteca Italiana, Sandro Berra, speaks English about as well as I speak Italian—which is to say we can both get by—so we trade back and forth with the two languages, sometimes one, sometimes the other. He is a stocky, handsome, confident guy in his 40s, with a generous, amiable personality, and an easygoing manner. I admire his use of English but I prefer him to speak Italian, because he gets more animated and uses idiomatic expressions that I’m just now beginning to understand and appreciate. He also does two things that I love when I’m talking to Italians, he uses hand gestures, and he makes noises.

The gestures are classic ones: wagging his hand at the wrist, pointing and jabbing with the tips of his fingers, rotating his hands one around the other, shrugging his shoulders with the whole upper part of his arms including his elbows. One day he was talking about using the telephone and he jostled his hand next to his face with the thumb and little finger extended. That one I love!

Even when I was riding with him in his car one day he got on his cell phone, and with one hand holding the phone to his ear he began gesturing with his other hand as he spoke—no hands holding the steering wheel. Given the treacherous free-for-all of Italian highways, and the fact that the passenger-side seatbelt of his car is broken, this was a little disconcerting.

The noises are more subtle and difficult to describe. They are the equivalent in English of when we say, “umm” or “uh huh” but in Italian they use the sounds more often and they squeeze them in-between and around sentences. They are usually nasal in tone and express doubt, irritation, confusion, humor, confidence, disappointment, and a whole variety of other emotions. They might begin as a word, like “bene” (well), and then just trail off into a sound, “behhhhh…” They are the glue that holds the Italian language together, and makes it flow like music. Sandro does it exceptionally well.

The Fondazione Tipoteca is this amazing place in the small town of Cornuda, in the foothills of the Italian Alps where, in 1995, the contemporary printing company Grafiche Antiga set up a museum and learning center for antique letterpress printing equipment. The first time I went there I felt like I had died and gone to book printer’s heaven. It’s a huge manufacturing warehouse that’s been transformed (with a LOT of money) into a modern sleek workshop with probably fifty different letterpresses of various sizes, and all the accompanying bookmaking equipment and paraphernalia: typecasting machines, book presses, binding equipment, paper trimmers, linotype machines. They also have endless rows of type cabinets containing an amazing variety of type, including the largest selection of Italian modernist wood display typefaces anywhere. This is the kind of large wooden type, cut by hand, that would have been used to create Futurist and Bauhaus posters and manifestos at the beginning of the last century, and it’s in perfect condition. It takes your breath away to see it---or mine anyway.

To my great pleasure Sandro has essentially given me free reign of the place. The other day he left me there by myself to peruse the library (with valuable old books by Aldus Manutius and others—usually it’s kept locked, but he just handed me the key), and tinker with the type, while he went off to run some errands. I’ve discovered through extensive, interesting, bilingual conversation that Sandro and I are “d’accordo” (of the same mind) about many things, including politics, religion, humanism, and most importantly, printing. We share a suspicion of much contemporary “cutting-edge” artists’ book/sculpture fabrications, and a love of reading, and clear, legible, classically based typographic composition. He prefers to sit down and get lost in the writing of a well-printed book, to participating in the materials fetishism of most avant-garde book arts monstrosities. It’s so satisfying to find someone in charge of such a great printing facility who actually loves books! Soon I will be working at the Tipoteca, setting and printing text.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Epistle from Italy: Grocery Shopping

For as good as the Italians are at sleek and elegant design, one thing they are not good at is product packaging. No easy open pull-tabs or press-and-seal tops for them! Everything is bound up in draconian sealed wrapping and when you finally manage to break it open using a knife, or your teeth, the contents burst out all over the kitchen counter. Then you have to figure out what to do with the portion you don’t use right away, because they also haven’t discovered zip-lock Baggies. For someone who is used to shopping at places like Walmart and Sam’s Club (occasionally---not always!), where everything comes in truckload sizes, it’s disappointing to discover that here everything comes in one size: miniature. What’s worse, you pay the same price for the smaller portion (my how the Euros fly!)

Some of the labeling is also surprising. They try to convince you that cookies are good for your digestion. There is a label on the fresh milk advising you that it doesn’t need to be boiled before drinking. There has also been an obvious push by marketers in recent years to convince shoppers that they don’t need to go to the market for bread, deli meat, and cheese everyday, and instead can purchase prepared quantities in convenient (albeit poorly designed) packages. Yet I still see people lined up in the bakeries and salumerias. Thank God for fresh food!

Another stressful experience for an American is going to the grocery store to shop. These stores, especially here in Venice where space is at a premium, are extremely small, with everything jammed into tight little aisles that barely have room for one miniature-sized shopping cart (they also have hand-baskets like us that you can carry around the store, but they have wheels on them and the handle can be extended to transform them into an odd little pull-cart).

Now, as a supposed “cultural ambassador” to Italy I guess I shouldn’t be making bitchy generalizations about the Italians, but I’m going to anyway. Many of the people here are like giant overblown balloons: hugely egotistical characters, insistent on occupying center stage and oblivious to everyone else around them. I love them---they can be wonderfully charismatic and beautifully romantic, but they can also be as annoying as hell. To get a bunch of them crammed into a tiny market at peak shopping hour is almost more than a person can tolerate. They bump into you. They stand in the middle of an aisle reading a (misleading) label and won’t get out of your way if you’re trying to get by. The worst part is at the checkout counter, where people cut in front of you without any feeling of shame or remorse. The first time I went to the market here I was so frustrated I wanted to drop everything and run outside. Since I’m a fairly big guy I already feel somewhat claustrophobic in a small space. Having spent my whole life being conditioned to not intrude on other people, I was totally out of my league.

First the woman behind the deli counter made me feel like a complete idiot because, being used to pounds and ounces, I became flustered when I tried to explain how much prosciutto I wanted in grams (I’ve since figured that out). She talked to me like a child, in slowly enunciated tones, while everyone in front of the counter stared at me (I’m sure foreigners in the US have experienced that before!) Then it turned out that I was supposed to weigh and label all the produce myself. When I got up to the checkout counter everything came to a grinding halt while the checker went back and weighed everything for me---all eyes staring at the dumb American again.

Then of course there’s the money. My God, the Euro comes in so many denominations! E10, E5, E2, E1, .50, .20, .10, .05, .02, .01---and all the coins look pretty much the same. You just want to put out a handful and say, “Take what you want.”

Now a month later, I’ve got the whole thing down pat. I bustle around the store with the best of them, pushing my cart through the crowds of shoppers. At the deli counter I shout out what I want with confidence. Today in the checkout line I let my mind wander for a moment, and a foot of space opened between my cart and the person in front of me. Suddenly I became aware that the woman behind me was peering around my side, trying to figure out if she could sneak by me without being noticed. I quickly repositioned my cart, as if to say, “Don’t even think about it!”

(The only other thing I'll tell you about myself at this point is my real name: Jeff Abshear. Hello to those who know who I am!)

How Can You Miss Me if I Don't Go Away?

No, I'm not going away, but I have invited a new voice to join the festivities here. The commenter who goes by the name of "Buckner" will be guest posting from time to time. He's a painter, writer, publisher, voracious reader, teacher, founder and director of a book arts center, and he gets to look at cool stuff for the next four months while he's on a Fulbright in Venice.

We have been friends for many many years. If he wants to tell you any more about himself I'm sure he will.

Another invitation is outstanding, but I won't say more about that till I get a response.

I'm trying to give you all a break from myself, that's all. Hell, I'm trying to give me a break from myself so I can spend more time with my hyperesthesia.

The Right Song

Yesterday afternoon a storm was leaving the area. It hadn't been a real high-energy storm, it was a wet soggy dreary storm that sat and sulked and soaked everything in a half-hearted, passive-aggressive sort of way. Like it was always going to go away and never did. My train was traveling slowly also, and I didn't get home until nearly eight. Luckily I was reading a new (to me) Diana Athill novel with the wonderful title, Don't Look at Me Like That. No, I didn't mean you, I mean that's the title. I devoured it; started it on the Metro to work and by the time the train reached Germantown I had just about finished it. In fact I leaned against my car in the parking lot to finish the last chapter or two. If you had asked me how much longer it took for the train to get home I could not have told you.

Home, I took the dogs out and we walked one of our usual routes that actually crosses the station parking lot and then sometimes over the pedestrian railroad bridge. When we got to the parking lot the clouds had broken up and this peachy-colored sky was visible and the parking lot trees, where the light hit them, were orange. And then I noticed, too, that there was this subtle misty haze breathing up out of the ground and softening the contours of everything.

And that's when I turned on the Schubert Lieder. I've been listening to these for years but never with the kind of attention they deserve, or that I devote to, say, 1950s gospel music. But there's this thing that happens with art, where you crave something, and when you find that bit of art that has what you crave it's ready to talk to you or sing to you. Somehow it all snapped together in this wonderful way -- the train station, the pond, the trees, the fading light, the mist, you gotta understand that the immediate vicinity is not beautiful. Someone usually dumps a shopping cart in the pond and after storms there is this filthy foamy skin on top of it near the banks, garnished with disposable cups and plastic bottles. Beyond the pond, the post office, and looking North, a couple of newish ugly office buildings and some strip-malliness. And yet, it was quite lovely to walk along the dam of the filthy pond and see the mist crossing the railroad tracks etc., it made the music seem almost unbearably lovely.

So that's when I realized I'm having one of those mild bouts of hyperesthesia again. And by God, I intend to enjoy it, if it doesn't kill me. The last one was a couple of years ago. Can't remember what brought it on. I don't know if anything "brings them on."