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Culture Clash The Political Animal

The Firing of Melissa Click

This is where the faculty case against firing Melissa Click, otherwise correct in every respect, falls apart:

But no one on the campus filed a complaint against the professor, Ms. Henrickson said, a step that would have triggered the university’s own procedures. “No one took the opportunity to avail themselves of that process,” she said, so the board began its own.

This is why the federal government becomes involved in local cases, when local government and law enforcement prejudicially does not do its job. The faculty was not supplanted or overruled. It did not do its job when it should have. Why it did not is perhaps at the very heart of the matter..

AJA

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Culture Clash

Thumbs Up for “Three Masters”

My latest film criticism, “Three Masters: Spielberg, Anderson, Haneke, and Their Audience,” excerpted in the previous post, is recommended reading for the week at RogerEbert.com. If that doesn’t get you to read, I don’t know what to do with you. (But I’ll think of something.)

A further excerpt:

In Saving Private Ryan, the film’s ultimate sentimentality, which sets it apart amid all of the hyperrealistic violence that is one mark of the anti-sentiment of the anti-war film,9 is Captain Miller’s dying charge to Ryan to “earn this.” Though Ryan expresses doubt in the final moments by asking his wife if he did, the audience has little doubt of the judgment. It is the purpose of Saving Private Ryan, its raison d’être – it serves not a personal artistic vision but a social good – to validate the suffering and sacrifice of the World War II G.I. and claim that they all “earned it.” It is the purpose of Saving Private Ryan in its public role to “redeem the horror of what [the American soldier] experienced — and, perhaps, as well, participated in — in patriotic honor. This is the purpose of the (pro) war film. Spielberg chose to present war more graphically than any (pro) war film ever had before and still declare that the right, good cause can justify it and expiate the essential human crime of it.”10

Among the minority who vociferously dissent from the general acclaim for Schindler’s List, the objection, beyond other particulars, is to the same sentimental closing affirmation, even about the Holocaust. Most viewers, perhaps some part of almost any viewer, wish to believe that even in the face of the Holocaust, life can be meaningfully renewed, that the full realization of the Holocaust’s occurrence can be integrated into a human existence the moral worth of which does not need forever to be doubted. Even after all that, and that kind of barbarity and death, we – not just we but actual survivors from the list, including Oskar Schindler’s widow Emilie – can pass in procession before his gravestone to the exquisitely emotive music of John Williams, drawn from the violin by Itzhak Perlman, and place a commemorative stone in profound grief and honor and – and what? Have learned? Be deeply moved and made better?

Read the rest here.

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Three Film Masters

My latest film criticism is available now at Bright Lights Film Journal. “Three Masters: Spielberg, Anderson, Haneke, and Their Audience” addresses the question, as the tag line has it: “Is the filmmaker tyrant, aesthete, ringmaster, or hermit?

It is commonly claimed by artists that they create for themselves. Wrote Stanley Fish, to whom I respond,”If a reader feels consoled or comforted, that’s all to the good, but it’s not what writing is about.” Fish called the consolation and comfort of art a “rationale for the act that was not internal to its demands, a rationale that could take the form of an external justification.”

“Of course,” said Fish, “the words refer to events in the world, including events I may have witnessed or experienced, but to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.”

I challenge this stance, here particularly with regard to three filmmakers whose consideration of their audience is discoverable in their filmmaking. Spielberg is a filmmaker commonly charged with pandering to his audience. Anderson and Haneke may be characterized, peculiarly, by antagonism to their audience. When an artist claims to create only for himself, yet sets his work before a public audience, what is one to make of that? Is it contempt? Is something more complex at work?

An excerpt:

The notions of “external justification” and “effects” are complicated by the thought that the reader, viewer, or listener is the artist himself. I think, of myself, for instance, that I write for an ideal reader, and that ideal reader is me, with my sensibility, only smarter, someone who can read – decode – without knowing, as the reader, everything I as the writer write, or encode, and more. I wish, then, to consider with regard to three modern filmmakers and their most recent (at this writing) films – Steven Spielberg and Lincoln, Paul Thomas Anderson and The Master, and Michael Haneke and Amour, all released in 2012 – where they stand, as filmmakers, in relation to “I write because making things out of words is what I feel compelled to do” and “to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.” Because the relationship of the filmmaker to his artistic act and also to his viewer is my focus, I wish very briefly to begin with their relationship to my viewership.

Remarkably, for completely different reasons, all three films are works I do not imagine ever viewing in their entirety again. Lincoln is a film I simply do not regard highly enough. I anticipate encountering it on television in the future and pausing to enjoy particular scenes, mostly for the pleasure of watching Daniel Day-Lewis’s extraordinary act of possession. I do not believe in the future that the film will be especially esteemed for more, though certainly its supporting performances are very fine too, and Tony Kushner’s screenplay offers a vivifying extraction of the personalities and politics.

While I have been an admirer of Anderson and think There Will Be Blood a magisterial achievement, I found The Master almost unbearable and nearly impossible to sit through, which I managed only out of cineastic duty. Despite the nearly universal critical encomia, I do not personally know a single individual who did not hate the film.

Of Amour, I can say that my disinclination ever to sit through the whole film again is based tellingly and contradictorily in Fish’s observation that “to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.” Toibin’s admiring readers had been profoundly touched by his artistic realization of their painful experiences, which is to say moved both by the artistry of the realization and by the painful fulfillment of the art’s effect. They did not separate the two. Nor I with Amour. My response to its artistry is refined to a form of admiration beyond only aesthetic pleasure, in which the bleakness of the emotional response is inseparable from the “value of the [filmmaking].” The aesthetic pleasure resides in the artistic compulsion of the craft, which is precisely to seek its “external justification” in the profound and painful verisimilitude of its effects.

Whatever Haneke is compelled to do with an image, with mise en scene, in for instance the closing shot of Isabelle Huppert’s Eva entering the apartment of her now dead parents and feeling their absence, the unsentimentalized empty space of their having vanished completely from the world, that compulsion is unfulfilled if the bleakness of Eva’s realization is not stunningly visited upon the viewer just as it is upon her.

Read the rest here.

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Let Your Soul Stand Cool and Composed

From the National Portrait Gallery in Washington comes an exhibition on one of my favorite subjects: the cool. “American Cool” offers up its representative icons of cool in portraits by renowned photographers, such as Avedon, Arbus, and Henri-Cartier Bresson, who are sure to add to the alure of the exhibit, but that I don’t  think necessarily give us their subjects at their – how shall I put it – coolest.

This Steve McQueen definitely does the trick.

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“I have said that the soul is not more than the body.”

Here is a companion Paul Newman, not part of the exhibit, atypically bearded.

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“And I have said that the body is not more than the soul.”

According to the curators,

Cool carries a social charge of rebellious self-expression, charisma, edge and mystery.

Cool is an original American sensibility and remains a global obsession. In the early 1940s, legendary jazz saxophonist Lester Young brought this central African American concept into the modern vernacular. Cool became a password in bohemian life connoting a balanced state of mind, a dynamic mode of performance, and a certain stylish stoicism. A cool person has a situation under control, and with a signature style.

Speaking of Lester “Prez” Young:

lester-young

Young may have been the daddy of jazz cool, but its epitome, of course, was Miles Davis

Miles_Davis_Scarf

who gave us so many cool Milestones.

If you came of a certain age in the 1950s and were not a jazz man or woman, James Dean was probably the cool cat of your emulation or dreams.

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Urban Dictionary tells us of cool that it is

American now global slang, 1950s-present
adj.
1) superior, desirable, worthy of approval
2) in or beyond the current style; in harmony with an ineffable sophistication
3) graceful despite pressure
4) relaxed, calm, low-key, mellow
5) agreeable
6) trustworthy; not a narc
7) under self-control, despite appearances
8) reconciled
9) above and beyond a situation
10) characterized by strange masteries and hidden resources

“Hey, be cool.”

“You cool?”

“It’s okay, man, I’m cool.”

Even though cool walks the edge of transgression, according to Patricia Cohen of The New York Times,

Being cool embraces contradictions. It assumes authenticity and integrity, being comfortable in your own skin. Yet it is also the ultimate performance art, a posture created for the public and disseminated through media.

So someone as polished and non-transgressive as Fred Astaire was cool.

fred-astaire

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Djuna Barnes, dressed as “performance art, a posture created for the public,” was cool.

Barnes, Djuna

Lauren Bacall, even when – especially when – teaching someone how to whistle (“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and — blow.”) was cool as a cucumber.

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The Times’s Cohen tells us of the exhibit,

More unexpected is when “American Cool” reaches back to the 19th and early 20th century to recognize those who exemplified the ideal even before there was a word to describe it. Walt Whitman, a radical advocate of self-expression and equality, was the progenitor who created the conditions for cool to be born by exalting personal experience.

Whitman-leavesofgrass
“Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”

I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul;
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is,
And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy, walks to his own funeral, drest in his shroud,
And I or you, pocketless of a dime, may purchase the pick of the earth,
And to glance with an eye, or show a bean in its pod, confounds the learning of all times,
And there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero,
And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheel’d universe,
And I say to any man or woman, Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.

People wonder sometimes about the longevity of cool, why that word, unlike so many others after that pretended to expression of the same ineffable quality, has lasted and persists in its perfection for every time. I say that it is because while cool promises so much, it gives up, ultimately, nothing.

The essence of cool is in its root meaning, the absence of warmth.  Warmth is open and emotional.  It shows itself and consumes itself in heat.  Cool remains hidden.  It is contained.  It is detached.  (By the end of his career, Miles Davis was turning his back on the audience.)   Cool is ironic, and irony, in its contradictory negation, is emblematic of all cool cultures. This: not this.  While cool celebrities may become “hot,” the heat comes not from them, but from the burning of the public that desires them.  The object of the public’s desire – the “cool” one – is like the exemplary black box, upon whose hidden mechanism is conjectured the reality-in-itself that is the nature of its workings.  But black remains black.  It absorbs the heat. It does not give it off.  Cool people remain forever other, irreducible and apart, inexplicable.  Cool is in and of itself.  It is, as they say, what it is.

coolhandluke
“Sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”

AJA

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Do You Give to the Ones Who Are Drunk?

RecipesGood friend Rivvy Neshama has written a book, Recipes For a Sacred Life: True Stories and a Few Miraclesthat is the accumulation of a life’s gained wisdom. Panning through the grains of the sad red earth, we see the fool’s-gold sparkle, often, of the oh-so-smart, not so much the glimmer of the precious stone that is genuine wisdom. Recipes has been chosen by Redbook as it January Book of the Month and offers an interview with Rivvy, too. As it happens, one of the many nuggets to be found in the book contains a very brief tale of this blog’s own shining jewel, Julia Dean.

Do You Give to the Ones Who Are Drunk?

from Recipes For a Sacred LifeTrue Stories and a Few Miracles, by Rivvy Neshama

My son, Tony, who lives in Manhattan, keeps some change in his pocket when he goes out walking. That way, he has something to give to the people he passes who ask him for help.

“Do you give to the ones who are drunk, who may use it to buy more beer?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s not for me to judge them or how they’ll use it. You give from compassion to people in need.”

So now, when I remember, I keep change in my pocket too. It helps me look forward to outstretched hands that I sometimes used to resent.

In Judaism, giving to the needy is considered by some sages to be the most important commandment of all. It’s called tzedakah — which often translates as “charity” but truly means “righteousness.” It’s simply doing what is right and just.

Maimonides, a medieval rabbi and philosopher, wrote that there are eight levels of tzedakah, and one of the highest is to “give to the poor without knowing to whom one gives and without the recipient knowing from whom he received.”

But something special happens when you’re face-to- face on the street. It’s a chance to really see each other and your shared humanity, and both giver and receiver end up feeling good. I feel especially good if I give with a smile and wish them good luck.

Maimonides also wrote, “Even a poor person who lives entirely on tzedakah must give tzedakah to another.” Which reminds me of our friend Julia Dean.

Julia teaches photography around the world, but this story happened when she was a struggling artist in New York. It was a snowy winter day with a biting wind. Julia still remembers it because she walked home forty blocks in the cold, not having enough money for a bus.

“I was ten blocks from my apartment,” she says, “when a man huddled in a doorway held out a can filled with change and said, ‘Lady, you got any money?’ It hit me that I didn’t, I didn’t have any money, and I started to cry. He looked at me and then held out the can again and said, ‘Lady, you need some money?’”

***

You can buy Rivvy’s book at your local bookstore or online, here, from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Indie Bound. Just click on the circle that says “Buy the Book.”

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Invisible Cities

Tonight the The Industry and LA Dance Project production of Invisible Cities completes its extended one month run at Los Angeles’s Union Station.

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A 75-minute opera based on the Italo Calvino novel, with music and libretto by Christopher Cerrone, choreography by Danielle Agami, directed by Yuval Sharon and conducted by Marc Lowenstein, the production has been staged twice each performance evening in the active train station. Each performance began with the overture, in the separate hall that contained the small orchestra.

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Ticket holders were issued headphones through which to hear the music as, the overture completed, they set out to walk the halls and outdoor patios of the station, throughout which all the opera unfolded

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As the patrons wandered in search of theater, they created their own small dramas, mixing among the travelers on the way to catch trains and the many homeless and sleeping travelers waiting for departure. At every turn of the head, some figure presumed to be part, merely, of the everyday human drama emerged as part of the theatrical.

IC1

Lines from the libretto were projected onto the station wall. Movement erupted seemingly from nowhere.

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Action erupted. Ordinary occupants of the station, passing the action, turning to look at it…

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…transformed into players in the drama, turning themselves to sing to a passing dancer.

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Everyday life is the springboard for sublime actions.

In one sense there is nothing more simple and more obvious than everyday
life. How do people live? The question may be difficult to answer, but that does
not make it any the less clear. In another sense nothing could be more
superficial: it is banality, triviality, repetitiveness. And in yet another sense
nothing could be more profound. It is existence and the ‘lived’, revealed as they
are before speculative thought has transcribed them.

Henri Levebvre, Critique of Everyday Life

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What emerged and gradually mesmerized was not drama in any expected sense, but spectacle, the spectacle of the ordinary, and what arises out of it, without form or direction, at every moment.

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It converged everywhere.

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Until it was over. And the convergence continued.

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***

AJA (photography by AJA)

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Photography, Fathers, and Mayors

Photo by Gil Garcetti
Photo by Gil Garcetti

When Gil Garcetti was voted out as Los Angeles District Attorney in 2000 after two terms, he turned his dedication in life to another love besides the law – photography. In the years since, he has become a respected figure in the L.A. and broader photo community. He is especially known for what has become his signature project: his photo documentary record of the construction of the city’s now iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry.

When he began, Garcetti did not have three books and exhibits in mind, nor quite the physical challenge. But he responded to another challenge, that of an iron worker one day while Garcetti was shooting the building in progress. The challenge was not to allow what all knew would be a great building to be identified solely with its architect, but to permanently recall the men, and a woman – the iron workers – who walked and assembled the beams of its skeletal body. Garcetti took on the challenge, and he has never forgotten his charge. While some of his

Photo book by Gil Carcetti
Photo book by Gil Garcetti

Disney Hall images capture the extraordinary architectural whole, many more carve geometric abstractions out of the building’s oblique and curving planes set against the sky. Others – the first third of the latest book – document the skills and daring of the iron workers.

Yesterday, the latest exhibit of Garcetti’s Disney Hall work opened at the Colburn School of Performing Arts in downtown Los Angeles, just a block from the hall. Since Gil Garcetti has just agreed to join the board of advisers of the soon to be transformed Julia Dean Photo Workshops into the nonprofit Los Angeles Center of Photography (about which, more at a later date), and Julia Dean being a special inhabitant of the sad red earth, we had

Photo by Julia Dean
Gil Garcetti, right, with iron worker who helped build the Disney Concert Hall.
Photo by Julia Dean

the opportunity to be present at the opening.

A few things stood out, besides the photographs. One was Garcetti’s humility and lack of self-centeredness. When he spoke after his introduction, it was all about neither his photography nor the famous architect, but about the iron workers. Two of them, captured in Garcetti’s images, were present, at his invitation. They spoke, too, and it was obvious the regard in which they all held each other in their continuing relationship.

Photo by Gil Garcetti
Photo by Gil Garcetti

Another stand out observation was of the photographer’s son. Gil Garcetti is, of course, the father of Los Angeles’s new mayor, Eric Garcetti, who was present, along with the rest of the extended family. If there were handlers, they were not obviously visible. Nor did the mayor draw any attention to himself, though everyone knew he was there. For the afternoon, he was a man’s son, proud of his father, deferring the center of attention to him, and like any tech habituated 42-year old, capturing the occasion on his smart phone by by doing a 360 degree video pan.

Mayor of Los Angeles Eric Garcetti. Photo by Julia Dean
Mayor of Los Angeles Eric Garcetti.
Photo by Julia Dean
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Scientism, Signifying, and Meaning

Since I wrote my brief broadside against Steven Pinker’s monumentally misguided New Republic essay “Science Is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians,” a slew of additional responses have come to my attention. Rhetorically, my reply was a proslepsis (among its many names), a technique by which one talks about something while pretending not to. (I won’t even mention what a condescending scientisitc snot Pinker was with that subtitle.)

The last few posts at Byzantine Dream will lead you to many of these worthwhile offerings. At Maverick Philosopher, you will find a clear explanatory definition of the scientism – not science – that Pinker was so offensively defending.

Scientism is a philosophical thesis that belongs to the sub-discipline of epistemology. It is not a thesis in science, but a thesis about science.  The thesis in its strongest form is that the only genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge, the knowledge generated by the (hard) sciences of physics, chemistry, biology and their offshoots. The thesis in a weaker form allows some cognitive value to the social sciences, the humanities, and other subjects, but insists that scientific knowledge is vastly superior and authoritative and is as it were the ‘gold standard’ when it comes to knowledge. On either strong or weak scientism, there is no room for first philosophy, according to which philosophy is an autonomous discipline, independent of natural science, and authoritative in respect to it. So on scientism, natural science sets the standard in matters epistemic, and philosophy’s role is at best ancillary.  Not a handmaiden to theology in this day and age; a handmaiden to science.

To clarify I would add to philosophy, above, aesthetics and hermeneutics, though these are, of course, philosophical expressions. A common fundamental criticism of Pinker and others who promote scientism is that they do not even recognize the distinction between science and scientism, which is why, as Pinker did, some conflate the two by their use, only, of the word “science.”

In addition to this conceptual confusion, between an epistemic method and an epistemological theory, Pinker makes a perhaps deeper error still, by an apparent inability to cognize, or credit, alternative ways not just of knowing, but of being. I refer to this in my comments to the post as

a predisposition of the scientific mind to think mechanistically, instrumentally, and teleologically – that last in the sense that human “purpose” is posited ideally as some kind of bell that gets rung in the end. Is that what human purpose need be? Is centrality found only in mechanistic or final causation?

Adam Gopnik offers just a clarifying first eye opener to this different vision here, in this apologia for the humanities led into the fray by the study of English. Science offers us a large measure of what is, and how it is (and why it is only in that sense of how), but of symbol making and symbol reading – signifying – and of meaning, science does not speak.

No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose. We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. Some idea of symbolic purpose, of pleasure-seeking rather than rent seeking, of Doing Something Else, is essential to human existence. That’s why we pass out tax breaks to churches, zoning remissions to parks, subsidize new ballparks and point to the density of theatres and galleries as signs of urban life, to be encouraged if at all possible. When a man makes a few billion dollars, he still starts looking around for a museum to build a gallery for or a newspaper to buy. No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department—texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.

Even if we read books and talk about them for four years, and then do something else more obviously remunerative, it won’t be time wasted. We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O.s but because, as that first professor said, they help us enjoy life more and endure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough.

AJA

 

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The Spectacular Arrogance & Ignorance of Steven Pinker’s Scientism

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

What is one to make of an essay seeking to bridge a purported divide of understanding between science and the humanities – in which the humanities are said to fear and mistrust the sciences – that opens with the sentence, “The great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment were scientists”? The essay goes on to list “Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith.”

There is no mention in Steven Pinker’s “Science Is Not Your Enemy,” after or at any point, of Shakespeare, Cervantes, Swift, Voltaire, Johnson, Goethe, Wordsworth, Hayden, Bach, Mozart, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rafael.

If one were to claim that by “Reason and Enlightenment” was meant those rational philosophical and experimental and empirical enterprises that would not properly include this latter list of names, then Pinker’s opening claim would be tautologous and therefore pointless and meaningless to his argument. If he was suggesting more broadly, as he should have been, the development of the modern human being and world – or as Harold Bloom titled it in his magnum opus on Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human – then the absence of those names glares like a dark star.

What is one to make of an essay that purports to address the the fears and flaws of the humanities, but that devotes most of its time to countering the most primitive magical thinking of old religions, thus promoting such a conflation?

What is one to make of an essay in defense of science that does not state that there is no empirical evidence or reasoned argument for a belief that “the laws governing the physical world … have … goals that pertain to human well-being,” but that claims instead that we know that these laws have no such goals?

What is one to make of an essay that states,

We know that our intuitions about space, time, matter, and causation are incommensurable with the nature of reality on scales that are very large and very small,

yet that shows the presumption above and demonstrates otherwise a complete ignorance of  what the humanities in their essence are as a human expression and what elements of experience they address?

What is one to make of an essay that waxes enthusiastically that

[s]cience has also provided the world with images of sublime beauty: stroboscopically frozen motion, exotic organisms, distant galaxies and outer planets, fluorescing neural circuitry, and a luminous planet Earth rising above the moon’s horizon into the blackness of space,

but that takes only the notice of a phrase in the existence of the visual arts and no notice of the profound distinction, and meaning to be found, in beauty that is, precisely, a human creation?

What is one to make of an essay that in seeking to gain the support of humanists for science, offers as examples of what rejuvenating contributions science might make to the humanities enterprises that reduce the humanities to mere subject for empirical study.

What is one to make of an essay that evinces not the least visible recognition of a difference between a human being and a humanoid, between human experience and humanoid operation?

Nothing. Simply nothing.

AJA

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Helen Thomas and Oedipus

tech3On the CNN’s Reliable Sources this morning, new host David Folkenflik hosted three female journalists, including Judy Woodruff and Candy Crowley in considering the career and legacy of Helen Thomas. The entire discussion addressed Thomas’s groundbreaking career and generous influence on young women journalists like Woodruff and Crowley. Just before the end of the discussion, Folkenflick asked one question about Thomas’s career ending anti-Semitic comments. Woodruff characterized these comments as Thomas letting her views slip into her work. Thomas’s work over the last thirteen years of her career was, in fact, commentary, so the letting slip was not of her views, but of a kind of view.

That was all. That was the coverage of the rank anti-Semitism that Thomas propounded and ignorance she demonstrated on multiple occasions after the initial videotaped comments that brought her career crashing down.

CNN bills Reliable Sources as “one of television’s only regular programs to examine how journalists do their jobs and how the media affect the stories they cover.”

Utter nonsense in this case. There was no examination of journalism here, only journalists praising their own and themselves. There was no consideration of “how the media affect the stories they cover,” only the media affecting the story by gross and conscious negligence of a crucial human element of the story.

On ABC’s This Week and NBC’s Meet the Press the story was no different. Journalists allowed their personal relationships to the subject to distort their obituary coverage, which they turned into inside clubhouse praise of a teammate. George Stephanopoloous made reference in a phrase to “controversy.” David Gregory actually quoted President Obama stating of Thomas that she would “ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account.” Gregory actually, embarrassingly followed that comment with an “Amen.”

Would these be like the tough questions that Gregory and others asked about Thomas’s anti-Semitism, like their holding her to account? What if she had been an office holder expressing the views she did?  Rank anti-Semitism covered up by rank cronyism.

In a month in which Yahoo tech reporter Virginia Heffernan brought low the literary mind by comparing it, as she confessed her lightheaded creationism, to mystical flakiness ungripped by reason, it serves as a tonic to recall the lesson of Oedipus and of all Greek tragedy, about the full accounting of a human life, about the significance of endings and of what, in classical tragedy, are known as hamartia and hubris.

Hamartia is an error in judgment. It is the hero’s tragic flaw. Hubris is the overweening pride that compounds the flaw. Oedipus did more of estimation in his life than even Helen Thomas: he saved Thebes by solving the riddle of the Sphinx and freeing the city from the Sphinx’s curse, for which he was rewarded with its kingship and the hand in marriage of Jocasta, its dowager queen. But Oeidpus was blind to his rash and proud nature and willfully refused the counsel of the differently blind seer Tiresias. He brought about this own demise and more tragically than might otherwise have needed to be the case.

Helen Thomas did not make one error, which sometimes may even justly be enough. On multiple occasions she denied the Jewish heritage in Israel, greater, actually than that of most other peoples in their homelands, and told them to “go back” to the European nations that had committed genocide against them. She spoke of Jewish control of finance, of Hollywood, of government – all the classic anti-Semitic demonization. Judy Woodruff sought to minimize, even disappear these sins by characterizing them, unspoken, as the product of Thomas’s Lebanese heritage, another one of those disingenuous maskings of anti-Semitism as only Mideast anti-Israel politics.

Oedipus was a king. He did great things. He ruled a great city. We do not remember him without remembering his end. He is as defined by his tragic end as anything. It is actually the value of his life, that it reminds us that we are accountable to the end.

As the closing chorus tells us:

You residents of Thebes, our native land,
look on this man, this Oedipus, the one
who understood that celebrated riddle.
He was the most powerful of men.
All citizens who witnessed this man’s wealth
were envious. Now what a surging tide                                     1810
of terrible disaster sweeps around him.
So while we wait to see that final day,
we cannot call a mortal being happy
before he’s passed beyond life free from pain.

That is unless you have friends in the media to cover for you.

AJA

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Homer did no injustice to his grief

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Achilles mourning the death of Patroclus, Corinthian Chytra

Robert Frost in the words of Tobias  Wolff, from Old School.

Don’t tell me about war. I lost my nearest friend in the one they call the Great War. So did Achilles lose his friend in the war, and Homer did no injustice to his grief by writing about it in dactylic hexameters. There’ve always been wars, and they’ve always been as foul as we could make them. It is very fine and pleasant to think ourselves the most put-upon folk in history – but then everyone has thought that from the beginning. It makes a grand excuse for all manner of laziness. But about my friend. I wrote a poem for him. I still write poems for him. Would you honor your friend by putting words down anyhow, just as they come to you – with no thought for the sound they make, the meaning of their sound, the sound of their meaning? Would that give a true account of the loss?

….

I am thinking of Achilles’ grief. That famous, terrible grief. Let me tell you boys something. Such grief can only be told in form. Maybe it only really exists in form. Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry – sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry.

Form and echo.

You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.

Julian Barnes, Levels of Life

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Interview with John Spaulding

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From the spring issue of West Magazine, my interview with poet John Spaulding. Your can read Spaulding’s poems in the issue here.

John Spaulding holds degrees in English and psychology and earned a PhD in psychology from the University of Arizona, Tucson. He has worked as a psychologist for the Phoenix Indian Medical Center and the Puget Sound Service Unit of Indian Health Services. He teaches writing at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. He is the author of The Roses of Starvation (1987); Walking in Stone (1989); The White Train (2004), chosen by Henry Taylor for the National Poetry Series; and Hospital (2011). He also coedited the cookbook Civil War Recipes: Receipts from the Pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book (1999) with this mother, Lily May Spaulding, a former nurse and restaurant owner. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Hunger Mountain, Rattle, Nimrod and many other periodicals.

Questions for John Spaulding

A. Jay Adler: How early did you write your first poems? When did you first know that you would be a poet or begin to think of yourself as a poet?

John Spaulding: I wrote a few poems in high school but really began writing seriously in college. It wasn’t until of my books were published that I began calling myself a poet. It
Seemed presumptuous of me.

AJA: How long was it before you first began to think you might have produced good poetry?

JS: I still wonder if my poetry is “good poetry,” but I have my own internal standards
now (which may not be high enough). So I write for myself—that, I think, is what
happens to every writer eventually. You learn that “good” is so subjective that you
really have only your own taste to satisfy.

AJA: What is it that you think makes a poet in contrast to a writer of prose? Of course, some people write both and there may be the matter of where one thinks one’s greater skills lie, but is there something more essential to the writer or the calling or the relation to language?

JS: I think of many of my poems as highly condensed and miniaturized stories.
Writers of prose have lots of room to move around, but poets do not. Prose writers
need to make every paragraph, every sentence count, but poets need to make every word
and sometimes every letter count. Making a poem is akin to putting a mosaic together—
The dictionary is like a tray full of compartments of different colors. One must be careful to pick out just the right color to fit into the overall picture.

AJA: You have had a variety of careers besides writing, particularly in the fields of psychology and health. What has been the relationship between those other careers and your life as a poet? The subject matter of your different collections suggests a strong connection.

JS: Although I have had several careers, my poetry has remained a constant throughout.
Two of my books were directly generated by two of my careers.

AJA: Your work in the health field has been in Indian country, and your second collection,Walking In Stone, is concerned with the early European-Native contact. How did this all connect for you?

JS: Growing up in New England and a family legend of an Indian ancestor, I became interested in the Indians of New England. That, together with my Congregational background and a great
passion for history, led me to explore the initial interactions of the puritans and Pilgrims with the native people.

AJA: The White Train, which was chosen for the National Poetry Series, consists of poems about or in response to old photographs. What was that project about for you? Do you have ideas tending toward the universal about how writing should work with images or was your approach very particular to this project?

JS: History is a recurrent theme for me. And old photographs resonate with their time and place and people. Because we can’t go there, and the pictures are all we have, they are like poems, ultimately evocative and mysterious.

AJA: Your collections vary widely in subject matter, which produces significant variations in voice in your poetry. Speak a bit about the role of voice for you.

JS: My poems are very often persona poems. They tend not to be about me in any direct sense.
I am more interested in other people, other times, other cultures than I am in myself. Besides,
there are plenty of poets writing about themselves.

AJA: You currently teach writing at Pima Community College. That is a subject of interest in these parts. What is that experience like for you?

JS: Having taught at various levels of education, I can honestly say that I love teaching and my students; however, my community college students in particular, often come from very difficult backgrounds. Many of them are working fulltime and carry a full load of classes. Some are parents in addition. How they survive is amazing. But their desire for a career and a better life for themselves and their families carries them forward. I admire them for that.

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“I’m Just a Bad Boy All Dressed Up in Fancy Clothes” (1957): West Poetry

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Another poem from John Spaulding, our featured poet in the spring issue of West. Read more here.

I’m Just a Bad Boy All Dressed Up in Fancy Clothes” (1957)

by John Spaulding

I’m just a bad bad boy
all dressed up in fancy clothes
a jive bomber a rocket 88
a war baby a cherry bomb
a rebel with no cause but me
The newest thing under all the trashy stars–
hotter than Tab Hunter, James Dean,
and, Sal Mineo, better start movin on
I’m a man lover who understands
the only real cupcake
is the cupcake of death
Johnny Ace got nothing on me
I am Xmas Eve in your home town
& all the animals that live
in that deep hole underground
I’m just a bad boy bad boy bad boy
ready to take away your summertime blues
Tattoos you can’t believe tattoos you can’t see
The darkness you dream of
The dreamboat you can’t have
I’m just a gay boy a gay boy a gay boy
Whose ass looks jacked in tight black slacks
I’m sweet as gumballs stolen from a candy store
I’m your peanut butter and jelly sandwich baby
your sugar daddy your 60 minute man
who loves to hear you cry
a real bad boy ready to pop your bubble
bring you trouble then say good-bye
and if you can’t dig that, Jack, you dead

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West Poetry: “Bruja”

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Our featured poet in the spring issue of West is John Spaulding. Spaulding’s The White Train was chosen by Henry Taylor for the 2004 National Poetry Series.  He is the author also  of The Roses of Starvation (1987), Walking in Stone (1989), and Hospital (2011). His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Hunger Mountain, Rattle, Nimrod and many other periodicals. Below is the first poem of his West feature.

Bruja
To Rose Brodell

by John Spaulding

Today I thought of you, fast woman of Tucson,
near where you slept with coyotes howling
in your dreams.  Near where you walked the desert
with your brown hair blowing all night and the church
turned black against the burning mountain.
You have been gone too long.  I have
seen your white fingers snap chicken bones
your beautiful lips suck marrow from the night.
I have watched you dance until my face hardened
in the wind.  Mine is an old family.  Our tree
is full of hanged Apaches–their hair
sweeps the ground where we walk.
And none of us have many years left.
But you have been gone a long long time.
Just today I thought of you, fast woman of Tucson.

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Culture Clash The Political Animal

Obama’s Male Gaze

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Vanity. Hans Memling, 1485.

We forget it about Barack Obama. Amid his first-black-American-presidentness. His Africanness and his historical otherness. His – by American standards – worldliness. The youth in Indonesia and the exposure to Islam. The exotica, to mainlanders, of the upbringing in Hawaii. The life with a single mother. The academic achievement, the sometimes aloof scholarly mien. We forget it.

What a guy he is.

With his love of hoops, the links, the yearly tourneys and hangin’ with the homies. Yet with his eye for the ladies (Michelle Obama – that’s some lady), and despite all the rightwing nuttiness, just how much of an American guy he is. It turned out, too, that the first black president has roots in the nation’s slave history not through his African, Kenyan father, but, of all places, ancestry on his white, Kansan mother’s side. How thoroughly American, actually, is that?

What a guy – what an American guy.

This American guy, the American President, as it then came to pass something over a week ago, called California Attorney General Kamala Harris “the best-looking attorney general” in the country and quickly regretted it, to the point of apology. The national chatterers took automatically to their respective corners about it and came out fighting. As usual, the reflexive retreat to polarities stirred up a flurry of exchanges that yielded no clear insight.

People of a practical and natural persuasion observed that male and female exist in nature, that it is natural for them to recognize and signal the attractiveness of one to the other, and they questioned not for the first time what this new world political order it is into which we have entered, in which a good, handsome, respectable and respectful man cannot say to an attractive woman, “Hey, there good lookin’.”

And their national conversation interlocutors said, “Sexist.”

As usual, we ended with the reinforcement of an emergent social code that bewilders many and that fair numbers resent. This is post counter-cultural America. It is no way to achieve real understanding, but then complexity and subtle distinction are not distinguishing characteristics of American public discourse. Anti-intellectualism is a point of pride. The only theory of interest to much of the public is the one that explains what the hell is wrong with those people. Raise the subject of what has been called the “male gaze” and observe the crowd current shift toward the popcorn, the Bud, and the Final Four.

The male gaze is an idea first raised by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” It has its conceptual roots in the Lacanian gaze simple, by which to receive a gaze is to be highlighted as an object. This immediately raises the disturbing prospect that he who gazes may also be gazed upon, an object for some other, but I don’t want to give anyone an identity crisis here. Let’s stick with one gaze and one object of it.

Mulvey, writing at the height of second wave feminism, was noting in cinema what could be observed in any social or artistic sphere: the dominant social force being male, the predominating gaze was thus also male. Not only was, and is, the predominating gaze male, but the default gaze is male, the way “he” and “man” were for so long the default generic pronoun and noun for a person and people of indeterminate gender. It wasn’t that the female gaze was discounted, simply not considered or represented – women themselves actually internalized the male gaze, as a submissive object, who, art critic John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing, watched herself as the male watched her.

Susanna and the Elders. Tintoretto, 1555-56.

It requires a profound immersion in one’s own male subjectivity not to be drawn out to a wider perspective by this vision, a steep retrograde to deny its oppressiveness or to continue to affirm, theologically or otherwise, some righteousness in it. One difficulty, though, in the historic course of feminist influence arose in the latter stages of second stage feminism and in the transition from second stage to what is considered third stage. Theories of more radical intent, if not so obviously truth, were easier to mock and reject. Notions of “gender binarism,” of the peformativity of gender, as a social construct, leave men with little more left of any natural masculinity, you should pardon the expression, than their dicks in their hands, and maybe a woman’s hands, too, or any other gendered person.

At its most culturally productive, second wave feminism provided deeper insight into the embedded social structures that undergird the denial of full civil and human rights to women, and by extension, others as well.  It was a natural development of political liberalism and much of it, as what is sometimes called equity feminism, is fully compatible with liberalism. Third wave feminism is generally associated with a range of far left ideologies, of which postcolonialism is a representative example. Third stage feminism often participates in an attack on political liberalism, these days strikingly upending the values that gave rise to liberalism and that are liberalism’s founding contribution to our understanding of human rights. A difficulty this presents for both liberalism and feminism is that most people are not familiar with feminist theory, never mind its stages and ideological demarcations. They do not pause to distinguish the sources of the latest uprising in cultural brouhaha. What they know is that the ongoing reorganization of social relations, bringing with it decades of transgression and responsive, insistent correction via one new faux pas or corrective excess after another renders so much of what once seemed natural now a regime of unending PC admonishment.

A man can’t even tell a woman she’s attractive anymore?

Complicating matters more is the contribution and disdain of perhaps the oldest kind of feminist there is, under various labels, for whom sexual relation is not a defining feature of male domination, but a field on which any woman, as any man, or any other sexual being, may empower herself on behalf of herself, not just in opposition to men.

“Everybody should relax, lighten up,” Arianna Huffington said on ABC’s This Week. “I wish there was more outrage about the jobs numbers than we had about Kamala Harris.”

She added, quoting G.K. Chesterton, “If there is one thing worse that the modern weakening of major morals, it is the modern strengthening of minor morals.”

But Huffington, a representative political and public creature, fails to escape what I’ll call here the public gaze. It isn’t that Obama sees in Kamala Harris an attractive woman. It isn’t that he called her one. She’s a friend and likely felt no offense (he called her attractive and we’re speaking of offense!?), though she very possibly recognized his error.

It is that he did it at an official event performing a public role.

There may be no more pervasive gaze in the contemporary world than the public gaze, what is partly meant by the “glare of the spotlight.” For those in it, the public gaze is both subjective and objective. Objectively, it is always on them, ever more pervasive, invasive, and bright, and for whole swaths of society, regularly and even obsessively gazing upon those who live in the spotlight is now a feature of everyday life. At the other end of the gaze, those who are the object of it often, sometimes wholly, lose any clear sense of difference, between living under the public gaze and living unimportantly, nakedly, and privately beyond its beam.

For most people, living privately, public speaking is a fearful prospect. Sensitive personal revelations are an emotional prospect just to be made to one other person, possibly an insuperable challenge before a small group. Yet there are those under the public gaze who will share their intimate selves, or some facsimile thereof, on national television with Oprah Winfrey and some tens of millions of her closest friends. They will turn their ridiculous lives (or, for the cause and the buck, make their lives ridiculous) into “reality” television shows. They will press-release their personal transgressions and tweet their every stream of consciousness.

People who live like this may be understood, if not forgiven, as losing sight of the difference between the public and the private, and if so, surely of any grasp of the conventions and decorum that help establish the difference. Politicians and government and other public figures of serious purpose for the most part do not live like this in the public gaze, though they may well enjoy its rays. They do, however, subjectively perceive with a public gaze. For someone like a President, who spends much of his time looking upon the world and assemblages of people in his public role, and who must learn to feel completely comfortable and – ah! – natural in that role, it must be easy to lose sight of the line between the truly personal and authentic and the pretend personal and authentic he is supposed to present. So on one of those days after the day before and before the day after, Barack Obama, a guy, sees Kamala Harris, a girl, and forgets himself and goes hmnn.

To know that the President should not have done this in that public, official setting, recognize right now that no female official in his place would ever commit the same mistake. She has not had the privilege to do so, she has had to exercise even more discipline to succeed, and the gaze under which she built her career, and even partly, consciously adopted was not a female gaze that might ever vocally appreciate a man’s looks. Hillary Clinton will not publically be pointing out that Gavin Newsom is the best looking lieutenant governor in the country. And that first gay president, whenever he or she may come – well, you know what they won’t be doing.

The Turkish Bath. Sylvia Sleigh, 1973.

For five or ten seconds, Barack Obama gazed out at the world, a crowd, and lost in the constant public glare, thought he was doing it not as President of the United States, but as Barack Obama, and, with no ill intent, sexualized a woman when and where she should not have been sexualized. He got it. He said he was sorry. He made a mistake.

He’s a guy.

He’s a guy, and you have to hope – I do – that when he next sees Kamala Harris in a private setting, maybe at some intimate party, he takes her by the hands, leans back a moment to gaze, and says to her, “Girl – lookin’ fine tonight.”

AJA

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Speaking in Voices

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In the new, spring issue of West, my Poetic License column offers a discussion of voice in poetry, in introduction to the poetry of John Spaulding, whose The White Train was chosen by Henry Taylor for the National Poetry Series in 2004.

The first thing I look for in a poem is its voice. It is likely not the first thing I find. That may be an image, a sound, a surprising collision of words. These will help create the voice, but they are not yet it, and it is only once I hear the voice that I know if it is a poem for which I will feel passion, to which I will commit myself. How much more joy in the story if one loves to hear the storyteller’s voice.

With all its other virtues, there is the melancholic musical voice of Eliot’s “The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the grandiloquent heroism of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” the sprung-rhythm energy, as much in despair as in joy of the Lord, of Gerard Manley Hopkins. It is no different for me in poetry than it is in fiction, with narrative voice. Do I want to travel with this persona? Will I be ever engaged, even thrilled, and wish to return to it? Began Auden in “September 1, 1939,”

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade.

A direct, blunt voice, ready to deliver plainspoken truths. Tell it to me, brother.

Concluded Larry Levis, in “The Poem You Asked For,”

And the poem demanded the food,
it drank up all the water,

beat me and took my money,
tore the faded clothes
off my back,

said Shit,
and walked slowly away,
slicking its hair down.

Said it was going
over to your place.

Any poem that’s going to say sheeeit to me is welcome to come on over.

Paul Zimmer opens “The Eisenhower Years” with similar vernacular, if not so streetwise, voicings.

Flunked out and laid-off
Zimmer works for his father
At Zimmer’s Shoes for Women.
The feet of old women awaken
From dreams they groan and rub
Their hacked-up corns together

The more eccentric the voice, which is to say a distinctive, of-an-only-kind, there-can-hardly-be-its-like voice, the more I like it. Here is Atsuro Riley, in “Hutch,” conjuring a rural Southern world as much in the voice as in any detail.

From back when it was Nam time I tell you what.
Them days men boys gone dark groves rose like Vietnam bamboo.
Aftergrowth something awful.
Green have mercy souls here seen camouflage everlasting.
Nary a one of the brung-homes brung home whole.

So it was that the first time I read this issue’s featured poet, John Spaulding, it was the voice right away that clove me to him. From his 1986 collection Walking in Stone, about the Native American-European contact:

We are the knife people, iron men, coat people
and he-lands-sailing.
Souse eaters, house makers, husbands
of kine and goat and swine, farm builders
and keepers of kettle and scummer, word
scratchers, corn stealers and bad sleepers.

As if towns could build themselves.
As if stumps jumped from the ground or
flesh of beasts fell into trenchers.
As if paradise prevailed on earth.

The magisterial earth tone stood me up straight. This was not just one more pome. This was poetry.

Read the whole thing, the poetry of John Spaulding, and more here.

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Kingdom Animalia

for JSA
April 4, 1947 – May 16, 2011

Kingdom Animalia

by Aracelis Girmay

When I get the call about my brother,
I’m on a stopped train leaving town
& the news packs into me—freight—
though it’s him on the other end
now, saying finefine—

Forfeit my eyes, I want to turn away
from the hair on the floor of his house
& how it got there Monday,
but my one heart falls
like a sad, fat persimmon
dropped by the hand of the Turczyn’s old tree.

I want to sleep. I do not want to sleep. See,
one day, not today, not now, we will be gone
from this earth where we know the gladiolas.
My brother, this noise,
some love [you] I loved
with all my brain, & breath,
will be gone; I’ve been told, today, to consider this
as I ride the long tracks out & dream so good

I see a plant in the window of the house
my brother shares with his love, their shoes. & there
he is, asleep in bed
with this same woman whose long skin
covers all of her bones, in a city called Oakland,
& their dreams hang above them
a little like a chandelier, & their teeth
flash in the night, oh, body.

Oh, body, be held now by whom you love.
Whole years will be spent, underneath these impossible stars,
when dirt’s the only animal who will sleep with you
& touch you with
its mouth.

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Culture Clash The Political Animal

Zero Dark Thirty and Torture

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I held my peace during the controversy over Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty because I was working on an extended consideration of the film and preferred to make my case fully in that venue. Suffice it to say as brief introduction that I think the criticisms of the film, those that accused it of justifying or endorsing torture, or even of misrepresenting the factual record regarding the role of torture in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden, to have been grossly wrong. I did not think ZDT to have been the best of the high profile films of 2012 – I give that title to Michael Haneke’s Amour, a very great film – but Bigelow and Mark Boal produced an exceptional work of art. It was an honest and rigorous work chewed up by the political mill and abandoned by a weak-minded and cowardly Hollywood establishment.  Here is how I begin at The Fortnightly Review, in “Zero Dark Uncertainty.”

On December 21, 1817, John Keats wrote to his brothers George and Thomas that “at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

The capacity to be in uncertainty, without any – how apt the adjective– irritable reaching after fact and reason: how best to describe that penumbral sphere of presence reaching toward meaning that is the realm of art. How not to describe the world of politics. How not to describe GOP members of Congress over many months insisting upon the certain nature of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. How not to describe the irritable John McCain, the irritable Lindsey Graham, irritable others insisting that there were facts that the Obama administration was obscuring, facts different from any facts to which the administration itself laid claim, even damning facts, such as that the President had watched the attack in real time from the White House situation room and done nothing. The point is made still clearer: the dominion of politics is a far land from the realm of art, one in which facts are irritably asserted and reasons reached at, even if they need to be manufactured. So, then, the response of some, the purely political response, to Zero Dark Thirty.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have produced a depiction of modern intelligence and war craft that is austere, tense, and riveting in its power and sense of reality. In its restraint neither a glorification nor a facile critique of the national security danger zone, its mission is to tell an essential story of perhaps history’s greatest manhunt and to depict the concentrated focus of those professionals who dedicate themselves to such tasks in their lives at a level approached by few. It does not champion or excoriate them, though it does at times honor their dedication and expose – for the viewer to judge – their excesses.

Politicians and ideologues cannot have this complexity.

Read the rest here.

AJA

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We Fuses

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Julia gave me a splendid gift for my birthday today. When I was a very young man in Manhattan, in my early and later twenties, I would pour over and plow through the book reviews and journals – all the epistles from the church of literature –  including, deliciously each Sunday, the New York Times Book Review, in those days, under John Leonard, so much more seriously literary than now. I would cut out black and white print photos of so many of the twentieth century’s greats and excerpts of books and poetry collections, memoirs and anecdotes that captured my admiring and aspiring fancy. Apparently, years ago, I gave the folder with all of those clippings to Julia. I forgot that. I forgot I even had such a folder.

This morning,  framed against blackboard, I received three arrangements of photos and literary selections to start my day, a summation of my life’s passion and a recollection of my youth in thrall to it. Heading one collection, cut from the subhead of the story of some other writer’s life, were these words: “All he wanted to do was be a writer.”

I don’t like growing older. I like it less than last year and only a little bit better than next. If you want to tell me that you celebrate the accumulation of your years and experience, hold your tongue. Julia says that, but she has special privileges. If you say it beats the alternative, you’re banned from the blog. In my annual acknowledgment of the day, I do not so much celebrate my birthday as attempt to lose myself in each year’s newly chosen festive balm. “Short Farewells,” by William Matthews, from one of those three frames, helped me begin this time, speaking of toasts to departures, in which “you hold a small mouthful / of wine on your tastebuds and let your body / meditate on travel, the saddest / of its pleasures.”

…Somebody breaks the silence
with a joke and then it’s done.
It hurts to age and part but it hurts worse
not to, to turn blue with held breath.
Rain falls on our scalps like the blunt ends
of pins. We wear our grief like an extra flesh,
but it is only pain. Those lurid paths
we blazed along, we fuses? They’ll cross
again if we should want. I’ll drink to that.

AJA

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Creative Culture Clash Indian Country Israel On The Road The Political Animal

Taking Stock, Taking a Leave

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The first post on this blog is dated December 2, 2008, so I have been blogging as of the date of this post, four years, three months and two days. I began when Julia and I hit the road during a sabbatical year, traveling the country in our motor home researching Native American life. In those early days, blogging was about our experiences in Indian Country and the deep, moving joy of road travel. If you feel the strike of an interest, you can go back in the monthly archives or click “On the Road” on the horizontal menu bar and read what it was like when this blog traveled a different path from the one of recent years.

Before that original mission, I had never imagined any interest or conceived an intention to blog. So it was a gradual startlement, of a kind most bloggers experience, at how, as Wallace Stevens once wrote, of a jar upon a hill in Tennessee, “It took dominion every where.” Major events have happened in my life while I blogged, acknowledged and transformed by the blog, as writing transfigures everything. As with other marked experiences in life, there is for me now life before the blog and life since the blog.

I learned over time, again like many other bloggers, that blogs generally cannot be all things to all readers. I tried to mix the original focus with a broader political interest and with rough drafts of some creative work, too. That did not work in building readership, and since I was not treating the blog as a personal journal, I did want it to be read. Political writing drew more readers more quickly, and it was easier to produce, so the sad red earth became, with occasional forays into locales my fancy still would take me, what it has become.

Beyond even those broad political interests, the sad red earth gave increasing attention to Israel. That was never my intention with the blog, either, but while unintentional, it was not accidental. In the area of international affairs, where my political interests predominate, Israel is the focus of many other people’s attention too, exceedingly beyond what its relative circumstances warrant. My concern with that fact might seem obviously based in my being Jewish, and it would be silly of me to deny that element of personal import, but were my concerns based in that personal relation alone, I would be hard pressed to make the case that Israel should matter to everyone. It should matter to everyone not because it matters to Jews, but because its misguided critics and it enemies, masked and outright, have placed it at the very fault line of a civilizational crisis that affects all liberal democracies, and the fissures extending from that fault lead in every political direction. Why Israel matters is a topic about which I will continue to write, with even greater focus and, I hope, clarity.

Now, though, after mostly long periods of daily blogging, or of blogging several times a week during these four plus years, over recent weeks, the frequency of my posts has diminished. I always tended to write not the usual brief or mid-length post, but extended essays, and even knocked out pretty quickly, they consumed a lot of time. This writing has had many benefits. I am a writer, and the past four years have been enormously productive of words, beyond even what is reflected on the sad red earth. But there is much else I want to write, of book length and in other genres, that cannot stand the drain of attention to the blog. I need the time to do that writing. There is, too, life stuff that needs to be unstuffed. The pressure to produce for the blog is not one I wish to accommodate anymore, not for now, anyway.

It is not my thought to give up blogging completely or for good. I have made for myself, if not a megaphone, at least, then, a little bottle for my message, and I plan to float it when the spirit moves: excerpts of and links to what I will publish elsewhere, as well as original posts whenever inspiration and opportunity are cooperative. In not too many days, there will be the spring issue of West and my column on poetry there. Other works in other genres are in other pipelines.

It is time for change. For half my life I didn’t know that I liked it as I do. In the second half of my life, I learned that I need it, feel a calling for it, like the undiscovered country that looms up speeding by through the window of a car, or a motor home or a train, any vehicle that can make a movie of the journey from where you are to where you have never been.

I wish to focus more on my creative work again, including that mix, or that meeting, of the personal with the world-historical forces that both produce and ignore the personal. I want to write some of that parchment that Aureliano II is reading at the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude, when the great hurricane begins to blow – the lived and unlived history of Macondo and its people leading to that moment.

Aureliano skipped eleven pages so as not to lose time with facts he knew only too well, and he began to decipher the instant that he was living, deciphering it as he lived it, prophesying himself in the act of deciphering the last page of the parchments, as if he were looking into a speaking mirror. Then he skipped again to anticipate the predictions and ascertain the date and circumstances of his death. Before reading the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.

AJA

Susana Baca & Javier Lazo

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Culture Clash

When You Dreamed of Playing Guitar…

it wasn’t like this. I haven’t been posting much lately, about which more another time, but this called for it. Via old friend, guitarist Michael Robbins of The Border Collies.

Stefano Barone.

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