gall and gumption

Monday, September 29, 2008

Good Morning!

Gonna buy my niece a bunch of Philip Pullman books for Christmas, heh heh.

My basic objection to religion is not that it isn't true; I like plenty of things that aren't true. It's that religion grants its adherents malign, intoxicating and morally corrosive sensations. Destroying intellectual freedom is always evil, but only religion makes doing evil feel quite so good.

Except possibly the transcendent extra specialness of being an American ignorant racist clodhopping murderous Christian shit-for-brains.

DAYTON — Baboucarr Njie was preparing for his prayer session Friday night, Sept. 26, when he heard children in the Islamic Society of Greater Dayton coughing. Soon, Njie himself was overcome with fits of coughing and, like the rest of those in the building, headed for the doors.

"I would stay outside for a minute, then go back in, there were a lot of kids," Njie said. "My throat is still itchy, I need to get some milk."

Njie was one of several affected when a suspected chemical irritant was sprayed into the mosque at 26 Josie St., bringing Dayton police, fire and hazardous material personnel to the building at 9:48 p.m.

Go get 'em, Fatso.

Update: Added link that I forgot to add.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Note to Self, 4 a.m.

The word "fish" on a restaurant menu in Washington DC does not mean what it means on the West Coast. Fish on the West Coast is fish without batter.

I am not in the West but the South, where fish is smushed into a sort of paste coated (to put it mildly) in batter and deep fried in what I fear, at time of writing, might be recycled synthetic motor oil.

I had "fish tacos" for dinner at the neighborhood hipster bar with my friend J. Fish tacos! What do you think of when you hear that phrase, my West Coastians? Do you think of little chopped up bits of fish-flavored deep-fried salty crunchy and chewy spicy tasty mysteriousness with something that seems to be a sort of muffaletta sauce poured all over it? Delicious, but so, so wrong.

I mean, there I was in the hipster bar, not one of the "carryout" places (e.g., Chinese, Mexican, chicken, subs, all behind the one counter) with the tile walls that remind me of nothing so much as a Greyhound station restroom, and the plexiglas barricade and the phone cards and the miscellaneous this and thats people might need at 1 a.m., while they satisfy their craving for fried fish with fries and extra friediness plus a side of grease. And I was suddenly down South, under the rule of "what can't be deep fried probably isn't worth eating."

Update: Later the same day I go to Eastern Market on the pretext of buying peaches for the Holy Angels, but also because I hear they have a good lunch counter. And I can tell they do, there are people lined up. I look at the menu and it has two or three kinds of fish plus shrimp and oysters and crab cakes. Platters, combos, sandwiches. People are eating it up. In my mind I'm running down the list of items saying "Fried. Deep fried. In batter." I don't know why more people aren't dropping dead right in the streets from it, honestly.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Defying Gravity, Politely

Before it becomes completely stale news I will just mention that last week I went with a couple of people to the Kennedy Center open house and saw a free hourlong performance of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, the small company she runs that now resides at the Kennedy Center. I've been wanting to go for a while.

Here's what I wrote to Jeff about it (Jeff aka buckner who posted here from Italy for a while and then stopped more's the pity):

They did Apollo, something jazzy and slightly racy, and then they did Tzigane and I kept thinking of those photos on MM's wall of Farrell in that role. Do you remember those? She looked so exactly right. The woman who danced Tzigane was technically all there but she appeared to be rather older than is typical, and I began wondering if it was Farrell herself. You can kind of see her touch in the other dancers. The focus and the unselfconsciousness, none of that awful ballerina mugging, you know how they will finish their 28 fouette turns and stand there and just give the audience the big toothy grin? Farrell's dancers don't do that sort of thing, very cool and deferring to the dance, committed to a sort of transparency without any affectation or mannerisms, and totally at home in the Balanchine idiom, like fish in water. You become convinced that they really dance from within. Except this one male lead looked so much like Napoleon Dynamite that it was totally distracting.

I could add to this, I suppose. I don't really follow the world of fashion in stardom in ballet and my opportunities to see any contemporary great stuff have been limited. If you want to know about that then read Wolcott. I feel like everything I learned about watching ballet I learned from watching old NYCB films and videos, including everything I could find from the Farrell years. What lingers for me out of the memories of watching those films (usually right after the ballet classes I was taking in grad school) was this quality of stillness and suspension that she had as if she had all the time in the world, all the balance, all the extension and all the lightness in the world and only had to sort of wait to be possessed by the choreography. It was negative capability I was seeing. I've seen wonderful dancers but I've never seen anyone with that quality. It wasn't affectation, it was total trust and conviction in the expressive powers of the medium, a really profound understanding of what classical dance is about and all the physical capacity and instinct needed to present it.

Haggin, writing about Balanchine in his weekly reviews for the Nation, was totally attuned to this: he recognized it in Farrell as a dancer and in Balanchine as a choreographer, which seems to me to be almost an inadequate word to describe Balanchine's genius. I mean, it's such a long drop to the next choreographer. Haggin would go back and back to certain phrases that he just used repeatedly, week after week in his Nation reviews, because he had the same point to make and these words worked to make it. This, you must understand, is integrity. He talked about the plasticity of the medium, usually in reference to whether a performer had an understanding of it. And he used this term in reference to classical music as well. But Fellini talks about it too, indirectly, in relation to his own work. I mean, people used to assume that Fellini was a sort of hippie who just threw open the set and created his art out of free association and, like, whatever. This annoyed him no end. Rightly so.

When they're performed right Balanchine's ballets look natural; but the naturalness is a sort of continuous play within the very artificial medium of classical technique. I mean there you are in a perfectly ordinary passage and the transition into something totally strange and modern occurs without a change in persona; the dancer is doing a flatfooted shuffle with her feet not turned out, or she's slowly turning, en pointe on one bent leg with the other leg in attitude, and momentarily you can't even see the force that's turning her -- and she's doing this without appearing in character as the Evil Fairy or the Giant Bird or the Estonian Peasant Girl. The dance itself took her there in fulfilment or unfolding of its own inner character. This is, of course, an illusion that is achieved by disciplined attention to really small physical things like the way the fingers are held, or the inclination of a head. That transition between familiar and strange in pre-Balanchine ballet was a feature of "characterization", like mime, if it occurred at all. Balanchine integrated strangeness into ballet technique while somehow keeping the technique pure; it's beyond representational as if he understood the important central part of ballet, where it was interesting and alive for a creative mind, in movement as a medium. He put movement in front. And then he just went ahead and created his ballets his way, as if there was nobody's permission to ask, lifting ballet out of the traditon-and-nostalgia mode that necessarily confined it in the 20th century when the society that it mirrored had ceased to exist, and sweeping it into the now. Not the hipster now but the now of the moment, of the unknown present. And yet not scornful of the past, either; that incredible pas de deux, Diamonds, is a richly reverent invocation of tradition, as if Balanchine had found beauties in traditional ballet that it didn't know it had. The purpose is pleasure, pleasure in creating, in performing, and watching. That's what complete assurance looks like in a great artist, I think.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hearing Voices

For those of you who don't read the New York Review of Books regularly the current issue online has a great piece by Oliver Sacks on "bipolar disorder." The books under review all sound fascinating, too. I mean, it's not always true that the book that gets a great review written about it is a book you would want to read. But these are.

On the subject of mental illness, via Metafilter I got to, of all things, a schizophrenia simulator. It gives you the experience of being schizophrenic and going to the drugstore to get a refill after losing your meds a week earlier. You should really try it out. It's basically just a video. I recommend using headphones with it. It's really quite creepy.

I've known a couple of people who suffered from it, and one person who developed it almost under my eyes, and saw his parents just stricken with full-on grief. It was intense to know their son (who was about 19 at the time) as this perfectly nice, thoughtful, studious and gentle, rational being, and then to find him just tormented by these voices in his head. It was hard to believe what he said was happening, or to appreciate how deeply it was affecting him. You could see that he was suffering, but it was also hard to understand that he couldn't just switch it off the way you switch off distracting thoughts that beset you at one time another throughout the day. I remember getting him to go for a short walk with me, and the anxiety and fear made him turn back; I understood then that the most ordinary experiences had become an exhausting struggle to reclaim himself from these creepy inner voices that just would not shut up.

If you try the simulator out, I'd be curious to know what you think of it, if anything.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Getting to Know the Neighborhood

The Week of No Parking

Last night, the third night of Not Parking, was not my fault. Coming home yesterday evening from my cousin F’s house, where I had left the car during the second day of Not Parking, I realized that buses were being diverted off 14th Street, all traffic in fact, and there I was driving into whatever they were all driving out of. There were cops everywhere. It was a bigger police presence than when the crazy guy invaded the house. It was a small army. In addition to the cars up and down the streets and blocking the alleys there was a helicopter circling, low and tight, right over my block.

There were crowds of people on the corners and along 14th St.

My lovely neighbors, Terry and Sherry and their Dad, Mr. B., and another brother whose name I didn’t catch, and Mrs. P. from across the street, were all on the porch and in the driveway, as usual all in an advanced state of angelic philosophy, watching it all with amusement and not missing a single thing. “What is it this time?”

“After the police kicked down the door of the prostitution house,” said Sherry, “that’s when they heard the shots in the alley.”

That’s how I learned that I live four doors away from a whorehouse. I had wondered about the prodigious quantities of takeout that seemed to get eaten there; by the end of the weekend sometimes there are three enormous garbage bags spilling Styrofoam containers, beer cans, and chicken bones out onto the sidewalk. You could miss it because it has even less of a front than James’s house. There’s a basement where most of the activity takes place (at any rate that’s where I see most of the men who hang out or live there, that was never quite clear), and then there’s a front door without the enhancement of a set of bleacher steps like James has. I think you just plunge two feet to the sidewalk if you step out that door. The clientele and the people who live and work there are all Latino.

The raid, it seems, was all that had been originally planned, but then someone was firing guns in the alley—not my alley but the one across the street. My neighbors were inside when they heard the police kick down the door of the prostitution house; then they, too, heard shots and took up their stations on the porch; they all agreed that it was stupid to have gone firing bullets during a raid.

I stood with them for a while, watching drivers come up our very narrow one-way street, reach the police tape and have to back all the way back out again. This was entertaining. I observed that the raid took place almost on top of James. “Oh, he was sitting on his porch for some of it,” said Terry or Sherry. “It was like watching Cops on TV. Then I think he had a nap.”

The cops were still all over the place when Terry and Sherry's other brother the one who doesn't like being called a baby, went across the street with a bucket of paint and some paintbrushes and very soon was busy putting a new coat of red paint on the steps. "Is that where he lives?" I asked Sherry and Terry.

"No, he lives in Northeast. He's just painting Mrs. P.'s steps for her."

Monday, September 08, 2008

Dear Jervey,

Yes, I was amused by your piece, thanks!

Except I wish you had included the way you called yourself (and, later on, me and Uriah) a "swarthy urbanite."

Friday, September 05, 2008

Well, If the Canon Told You to Jump off a Cliff Would You Jump Off?

Here's something nice. This chap, Morgan Mels, has just discovered that he is at liberty to read whatever he pleases. He seems unsettled by the news.

I'm a bit unsettled myself, though less by the news than by the discovery that anybody is still talking about the canon, and by the news that a canon was made and enforced for years until -- when exactly? Last week? Last June? Last year? Where was I when all this was happening? Why didn't anybody tell me? I'm going to have to hold some of you accountable for this, Bob, Pam.

For the non-English majors among my readers, a word about the canon. When I heard this debate start up I was in grad school. It seems there had been a canon before but now it was too white, too male, too Eurocentric, etc., and needed to be modified to accommodate all these new voices. (Over on the right side of the auditorium writhing could be observed.) Somehow the project (mostly imaginary, at least so I thought) expanded: the canon would be one of many things -- just what exactly, though, depended on who had the podium: a curriculum for English majors (to be used everywhere? a list of suggestions? what sorts of critical standards and methods would underly it? would literary theory be part of it? would the canon be a requirement? implemented how? more debate more debate more debate). While everybody seemed to agree that it was necessary to have this thing defined and settled, what subsequently happened was that the ensuing controversy became a sort of battlefield in the culture wars, that is, it took on the feature of every American political sideshow: every single little consituency, political and "theoretical" was demanding "representation" within the curriculum, on one hand, and on the other hand, the lizard-brained self-appointed defenders (who asked them? Tolstoy? D.H. Lawrence?) of Western tradition and "standards" hissed and harrumphed at proof that the world was going to hell in a handbasket.

There really wasn't much to choose among the various parties to this debate. At least not for me. I just mostly wished that they would all get drowned together. But now I learn from Mels what I missed, while I was reading what I liked and thinking, writing, and teaching what I pleased about it.

The one assumption that they all shared--and it was the key assumption, everything else was decoration--was that the literature major's act of reading would need to be in some way "blessed" by the fruits of this ongoing ecumenical council.

And there was the other assumption, recklessly optimistic to the point of being delusional, that these various constituences all arguing over the canon could in some coherent way be reconciled to one another, and that the product of this reconciliation would be worth reading by anyone seriously interested in literature.

(If you want to see a painful example of what that could end up looking like I recommend Jay Parini's biography of William Faulkner. Parini's narrative of Faulkner's life is sensitive and genial. But every time he ventures into discussion of the work, his professional conscience requires that he play the role of the English department chairman in a David Lodge novel, presiding over one of those academic department meetings from hell where people talk at cross purposes and the chair tries tirelessly and with utter foolish futility to pretend that these seething resentments and long-cherished reserves of contempt (Al Stephens called them "La Brea Tar Pits of grudges") will work themselves out if everybody has a turn with the talking stick. Points are conceded not on the merits but sort of on the birthday-party-favor principle: no-one should go home empty-handed.)

First, according to Mels, the canon enabled people to distinguish themselves from "the barbarians" hahahaha yes I'm sure he was speaking ironically, aren't you? Otherwise, what a confession that would be!
Second, it gives you "standards by which to measure yourself and others." Standards of what?
Third, "You learn from the canon in order to understand what the rules are and how to apply them." To what end, other than distinguishing oneself from the lower orders sorry I meant barbarians, is not apparent.

Then there was the downside:
First, "it becomes unquestionable," and questioning it leads to an infinite regress, because if the standard can itself be judged there must be a more primary standard, ad infinitum.
Second, it was "an authority that, for all its usefulness, often seemed arbitrary and authoritative merely for authority's sake." And when you observed this, what did you do? Just shrug your shoulders?
Third, "There was power — too much power maybe — lurking inside the canon, with its terrible weapon of exclusion."

Once you stop complaining and start getting back to work, it becomes clear that the barbarianization of all things affords some interesting opportunities. There are benefits to having a canon, of course. For one, you've got standards by which to measure yourself and others. But one of the most troubling things about a canon is the way it becomes unquestionable. You're never able to ask the canon "Why?" It is the standard by which one asks why. This is meant to prevent infinite regress. If the standard can itself be judged, then there must be a more primary standard, and so on, ad infinitum. The canon stops all of that cold. It answers those disturbing questions before they can even be asked. You learn from the canon in order to understand what the rules are and then you go out and apply them. What you cannot do is turn back and start asking questions about the canon itself. A canon doesn't work that way.

So, with the collapse of the canon we're a little bit lost, drifting amidst a sea of cultural troubles. But we're also freer. The entire cultural landscape gets freshened up. We get to look at things anew and decide if we really do like them, and why. We step out from under the thumb of an authority that, for all its usefulness, often seemed arbitrary and authoritative merely for authority's sake. There was power — too much power maybe — lurking inside the canon, with its terrible weapon of exclusion. That power has faded away. We're alone again, confronting the world like children, barbarian children with only a few tattered and mutually contradictory maps to assist us.

The advantages of the canon are purely social. Subscribing to it will distinguish you from the riffraff, er, pardon me, barbarians by telling you what opinions to have. And thus you may avoid embarrassing (or possibly fatal) social situations which may arise from thought-gaffes, such as liking Hazlitt when it is not fashionable to like Hazlitt, or being too centrifugally belletristic (I was actually accused of this once -- it's among my cloudy trophies), or not having rushed out to acquire the latest analytical tool.

You may notice a certain amount of ambiguity (or, if you prefer, muddle) around the question of whether the canon is a collection of literary texts, analogous to the Biblical canons, or whether it's a collection, a collage, collective, corporate Leviathan- or jellyfish-like English professor composed of the assembled opinions all the thousands of English professors, jolted into life and animation by the fire of social ambition. A creature that doesn't actually exist in the flesh (thank God) but simply lives in the imaginations of those people who expect to be told what to think about what they read, apparently so they can repeat it approvingly at one another. I assume that Mels is not asking the stack of books "Why," and I've never had a book forbid me to think or read anything, so He must be asking this imaginary canon-person-collective entity.

Tell you what, just to simplify our lives, let's refer to the list of texts as "the Canon" and let's refer to that other thing, the one that judges and excludes and has standards, as "the Entity." I'd like to give it a proper name, but the only one that suggests itself is Jehovah, and that's taken. (Remember in California when people used to have Entities? I wonder if they still do. They were expensive, I remember.) This one is a rather testy Entity: its answer to the question "Why" is basically, "Because I said so, that's why!"

At the risk of disagreeing with Mels, I don't think this answer is an infinite regress. Still, it ought to prompt one or more of the following reflections, just as an infinite regress should: 1) Perhaps I am asking the wrong question; 2) Perhaps I am asking the wrong person; 3) Perhaps the Entity is an idiot; 4) Perhaps there is no question, i.e., the problem does not really exist. Also, unfortunately, there seems to be difficulty in understanding the difference between an infinite regress (dead end) and actual infinity.

The downsides of the canon are all social too. They consist of the Entity's arbitrariness and its "terrible power of exclusion."

Terrible! To be excluded from the Herd of Independent Minds.

... when critics influenced by Marxist terminology talk of alienation, they mean something directly contrary to Marx's philosophical and revolutionoary conception. They mean not the tragic sepearation of the individual from himself, but the failure of certain sensitive spirits (themselves) to participate emotionally and intellectually in the fictions and conventions of mass culture. And this removal from popular hallucination and inertia they conceive as a form of pathos.

Nothing could be more vulgar, in the literal meaning of the term, than whining about separation from the mass. That being oneself and not others should be deplored as a condition of misery is the most unambiguous sign of the triumph in the individual of mass culture over spiritual independence. It is a renunciation of everything that has been gained during the past centuries through the liberation of mankind from the authoritarian community.

Rosenberg published that essay in 1948, and here's Mels, 60 years later, having followed his profession to heights of bathetic grandiosity that Harold Rosenberg, merely sane, could not have dreamed up with a running start:

We're alone again, confronting the world like children, barbarian children with only a few tattered and mutually contradictory maps to assist us.


Seriously, what can possibly be made of that? What kind of an explanation is that for anything? Why this resort to the rusty metaphoric tools of late romanticism at its most vague and blathery? "Barbarian children." Who? Where did they say they were trying to get to? Does he feel like this all the time, or what?

Notice again this difficulty in perceiving the difference between a glimpse of infinity and an intellectual dead end. He thinks he's looking at the empty spaces of a godless universe but he's got his nose pressed up against a blank wall at the end of an alley. He can thank his Entity for putting him there.

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