Tuesday, August 7, 2018

excerpt #1: Montesquieu

Alfred Bendiner, Coffee (1936)

Some months ago I read The Persian Letters (1721), Montesquieu's seminal faux-naïf epistolary novel about expatriates from Isfahan settling in Paris and trying to figure out French society. It is at once a vehicle for the author's humanist beliefs, a series of satirical episodes, and an uncomfortable cautionary tale about patriarchy. What we'll be looking at today are some passages from the letters written by the character Rica, who of all the emigres goes the furthest in assimilating to French society and is the most eager to explore the city, converse with the locals, and issue sardonic reports on what he discovers. (To give credit where it's due, the edition from which these were stol'n was translated by Margaret Mauldon.)

In the following excerpt, substitute in your mind the coffee shop wits debating Homer with YouTubers, bloggers, and comments-section dwellers arguing about video games. The academics and students who "live on obscure reasoning" in the final paragraph can still be academics and students; just imagine they are dressed differently.
Coffee is widely drunk in Paris: there are a great many public establishments where it is served. In some of these establishments news is disseminated; in other, people play chess: there is one place where coffee is prepared in such a manner as to sharpen the wits of those who drink it; at any rate, of those who emerge from there, not a single one fails to be convinced that he is four times cleverer than he was upon entering.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

preoccupation: gloomblossoms

Sometimes I get wrapped up in something strange and/or beautiful (really the two attributes seldom occur independently) I find out in the woods, like damselflies or wood thrushes or spring peepers. Lately I've been into Monotropa uniflora, which I must insist on calling gloomblossoms. They're already called Indian pipe, ghost pipe, ghost flowers, and corpse plants; what's one more colloquial name?

Via the Botanical Society of America:
The plant is entirely white, and each step is tipped by a single flower. If the plant is bruised or dries up, it turns dark brown or black. The fact that the flowers bend over probably relates to the wet places where they grow: if the flowers pointed upward, they might collect rainwater, and the nectar that they offer visiting insects would be diluted. The pollen grains would also be wet and wouldn't cling to visiting insects properly. 
The indian pipe gloomblossom is a flowering plant, but it isn't green, so how does it get its food? Even today, you see misinformation about that. People thought that it lived on decaying leaves and called it a saprophyte. Today we know that it has short, stubby roots that contain fungi. And the fungi, extend in a web-like way through dead rotting leaves and connect up to the roots of conifers. The conifers provide sugar, which the fungi carry to the Indian Pipe gloomblossom plant. So it's really a parasite, but on fungi.
Field observations:

Monday, July 16, 2018

Stray thoughts: on wood thrushes & cetera

Apologies for leaving this "web log" of mine to sit unattended and cultivate moss. I've been absorbed in a longform fiction project (superstition inhibits me from calling it a "n-v-l" until it's finished) which has swallowed most of my (non-procrastinatory) leisure time. I don't think this one will be a mere wind egg, though I'll be skipping directly to self-publishing instead of spending a year trying to get the attention of the small presses and gatekeepers. I already know that this one has no chance of impressing them, but it is nevertheless a project I'm compelled to see through to completion.

*               *               *

Bench where yr correspondent jotted down the rudiments of this post

Today I'm visiting the folks in North Jersey again. As usual during these trips, I stopped by Hidden Valley, a public park I've written about before, and where most of my Instagram photos are taken. As usual, I got a lot of thinking done; saw a lot of ghost pipe (gloomblossoms) and dwarf ginseng, encountered several different dragonfly species in the meadows, chewed on some wild raspberries and blackberries, and got my feet muddy following after a pileated woodpecker. Good times. But I was dismayed to to find the woods much quieter than expected.

At 3:00 PM on a mid-July day, with the sun out and the temperature approaching 90° F, I heard jays shouting, catbirds mewing and rambling, chipmunks yipping, the distant thudding of a woodpecker banging its face against a tree trunk, and the sibilant agitations of the leaves in the way of the wind. But on an afternoon that should have been ideal for them, I heard almost no cicadas, and not one wood thrush.

Monday, June 11, 2018

exordium to some excerpts.

And it may well be that my history will seem less easy to read because of the absence in it of a romantic element. It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. 
——Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (431 BCE), trans. R. Warner 

"Any single historical event is too complex to be adequately known by anyone. It transcends all the intellectual capacities of men. Our practice is to wait until a sufficient number of details have been forgotten. Of course things seem simpler then!" 
..."But we're getting away from the point," he went on. "I don't care how well historical facts can be known from afar. Is it important to know them at all? I submit that history never comes close to repeating itself. Even if we had reliable information about the past, we couldn't find a case similar enough to justify inferences about the present or immediate future. We can make no real use of history as a current guide." 
——B.F. Skinner, Walden Two (1948)

When I'm reading a book authored prior to the twentieth century, I habitually scribble notes in the margins when a remark or passage seems like it could apply to contemporary events if a few historical names were swapped out with modern ones. (I'd aspire to be a gentleman scholar, but let's face it, the best I'll ever be is a degenerate scholar.) My old copy of Thucydides, for instance, is full of references to Vietnam, Iraq, and the neoconservative milieu of the second Bush Administration, especially in the pages treating Athens's doomed Sicilian expedition.

Tonight I was thinking I would share a couple of passages from Montesquieu and Burkhardt and elaborate on some of my off-the-cuff annotations, but then I wondered if the exercise might amount to just a lot of pointless pseudo-intellectual paddleball.

Well, "pointless" goes without saying. If the longform personal blog ever served a useful purpose, that time is already past. I'm talking about the lay practice of trying to clarify the present through the lens of the narrative past. The method, such as it is, has lately seemed to me to stand on dubious ground, so I'd like to spend a few minutes probing it. Even if someone only seeks out knowledge for his own pleasure, and not for some utilitarian purpose, he shouldn't want to settle for a facile understanding.

Knowing the past is necessary to navigate the present, because history tends to repeat itself. This is the central dogma of historical studies, and common sense bears it out. If you get food poisoning at a restaurant, you don't go back. One shouldn't get back together with an ex because if it didn't work out the first time, the second won't be any different. We accept the truism's validity whenever we nod at and retweet the commentariat's reminders that the global order today is much like it was on the eve of World War I, or their exhortations to remember 1930s Germany here in year two of the MAGA epoch. An air of prophecy often emanates from the eloquent argument from history. The parallels seem to obvious to gainsay. But the line between "obvious" and "specious" is ever drawn with a fine-tip pen.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Animation April, belated: Samurai Jack, Season 5 (2017)


I wasn't planning on doing any Animation April writeups this year. I'm still pushing my way through a fairly big project elsewhere, and had no ideas for prolix toon-related posts that wouldn't have been huge wastes of time. (Just because one can examine all three X-Men animated series doesn't mean it's a good idea.) But then April dragged on, cold and cloudy and generally miserable, and in my gloomy mood I stayed inside and watched a lot of cartoons. Now that we've got a May that's looking and feeling like April waylaid, maybe a quick glance at an old favorite is in order.

It's been about a year since the fifth and final season of Samurai Jack (2001–2003; 2017) premiered on Adult Swim. Now with a TV-14 rating, its titular time-displaced ronin could finally incarnadine his sword with living blood after fifty-two episodes of oil-spurting robot villains. Was that what people were most excited about? To judge from The Comments, one might believe so, but I don't think that's actually the case. The prospect of bloodletting in a Samurai Jack cartoon was just an appealing corollary to the real cause for anticipation, which was the promise of a resolution at last. Samurai Jack had a definite beginning and an episodic middle, but no end.

Samurai Jack's very premise necessitates the eventuality of a conclusion. Jack isn't a protagonist like, say, Bruce Wayne, whose essential story is of being Batman forever. Until he either rids Gotham City of all crime (not going to happen) or suffers a case of superhero perma-death (probably not in my lifetime), his saga cannot end. Batman exists in the amorphous narrative space of myth, while Jack is more representative of the comparatively diminutive but more distinct figure of the novel. He sets off with one avowed purpose: to find a way back to his own era and defeat his archnemesis Aku before the shapeshifting master of darkness conquers the world for all time. The goalpost never moves. It doesn't change. When the fourth and once-final season concluded with an episode where Jack rescues a baby and tells it a Japanese fairy tale, Samurai Jack certainly didn't end with a bang, but not with a whimper either. It went out on an ellipsis.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Zitatcollage: Kant

Immanuel Kant:
How, indeed, can Philosophy be learned? Every philosophical thinker builds his own work on the ruins, so to speak, of another; but nothing has ever been built that could be permanent in all its parts. It is, therefore, impossible to learn philosophy, even for this reason, that it does not yet exist. But even supposing there were a philosophy actually existing, yet no one who learned it could say of himself that he was a philosopher, for his knowledge of it would still only be subjectively historical. (Introduction to Logic, 1800)

Hubert Robert, The Washerwomen (1792)

The Getty Guide to Imagery:
The Temple of Modern Philosophy [at Ermenonville, pictured above], built in 1775 and copied from the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli, is unfinished, because "philosophy never attains her goals." (Gardens in Art, 2007)
Herman Melville:
They are mostly artists of various sorts; painters, or sculptors, or indigent students, or teachers of languages, or poets, or fugitive French politicians, or German philosophers. Their mental tendencies, however heterodox at times, are still very fine and spiritual upon the whole; since the vacuity of their exchequers leads them to reject the coarse materialism of Hobbes, and incline to the airy exaltations of the Berkelyan philosophy. Often groping in vain in their pockets, they can not but give in to the Descartian vortices; while the abundance of leisure in their attics (physical and figurative), unite with the leisure in their stomachs, to fit them in an eminent degree for that undivided attention indispensable to the proper digesting of the sublimated Categories of Kant; especially as Kant (can't) is the one great palpable fact in their pervadingly impalpable lives. (Pierre, 1852)

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

because there's no money in poetry.

Roy Lichtenstein, Masterpiece (1962)

From Jack Collom's Second Nature (2012): excerpt from an interview between Mr. Collom (JC) and Reed Bye (RB):
JC: [B]eing in NYC the last five years where the critical intelligence is so voracious, it's very hard to maintain faith and there's a lot of cynicism in the air about everything being done, people categorize——well, in New York with its excessive input, that categorization problem, I mean so much is coming in at you from all sides that people develop this habit of rejecting and classifying and uh—it is very hard to be open when you have that voice around you that's like a school of piranha ready to gobble up your words. You just feel it even if people don't say things like that. 
RB: And the pressure to have your own critical reference and express it with great confidence is much more pronounced there too. You get some overconfident——uh——well it's the sort of trend phenomenon that sweeps over New York or anywhere, any cultural center where trying to constantly keep on top of what has set the trend, or be aware of the new trend, that never stops. 
JC: Yeah——the novelty thing gets a little heavy there. Whatever has not been cloaked with aesthetic feeling before is searched out and eventually after you've gone through a whole bunch of sensibilities, there's a certain aesthetic delight popped out of them because nobody's ever looked at them that way before. There's certainly a lot to that, you know, finding aesthetic delight in anything in the world, but the chase for untried fields in that way just runs around and around, ah, it becomes too conceptual for one thing, people don't have time to develop a competency in a style, they're just after the weird idea that nobody ever thought of, rather than practicing and deepening themselves in some sensibility, filling out a world of nuances... 
RB: In the poetry world, that doesn't seem quite as true. 
JC: No, partly because there's no money in poetry. 
[end of interview]

Monday, March 12, 2018

Mardi & the ecstasy of Herman Melville

An image search for "Mardi" yielded this tattooed quote.

I recently came about 650 pages nearer to my goal of consuming Herman Melville in the entirety of his oeuvre by reading Mardi, and a Voyage Thither (1849).

To Melville's third book—following Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847)—is owed the distinction of being his first true novel, which it earns through its complete desertion of factual truth. Typee and Omoo, despite their embellishments, still fall under the category of travel writing rather than fiction. But apparently some portion of Melville's audience regarded his story of being held the captive guest of an indigenous tribe in the Marquesas Islands, escaping in a leaking, shambolic whaling ship, and then bumming around French Polynesia after being brought ashore and imprisoned for his part in a mutiny, as far too outlandish to warrant credibility. Melville cites this skepticism in the preface to Mardi as the impetus which led him to try his hand at a fully fictional narrative. If his provincial readers were going to accuse him of just making shit up, then why shouldn't he fabricate a narrative and see how they like it?

As it happened, "they" didn't like it very much at all. Mr. Murr of The Lectern suggests "the Book that Cost a Career" should be substituted for "and a Voyage Thither" as Mardi's subtitle. Melville had made a name for himself with Typee, and followed it with the apt and well-received sequel Omoo. Mardi, however, received a critical mauling. Here are some excerpts of contemporaneous reviews from The Life and Works of Herman Melville:
... [I]t is almost needless to say that we were disappointed with Mardi. It is not only inferior to Typee and Omoo, but it is a really poor production. It ought not to make any reputation for its author, or to sell sufficiently well to encourage him to attempt any thing else. --Charles Gordon Greene, in Boston Post, April 18 1849 
We have seldom found our reading faculty so near exhaustion, or our good nature as critics so severely exercised, as in an attempt to get through this new work by the author of the fascinating Typee and Omoo--George Ripley, in New York Tribune, May 10 1849 
This pretension to excessive novelty has in this case resulted only in an awkward and singular melange of grotesque comedy and fantastic grandeur, which one may look for in vain in any other book. Nothing is so fatiguing as this mingling of the pompous and the vulgar, of the common-place and the unintelligible, of violent rapidity in the accumulation of catastrophes, and emphatic deliberation in the description of landscapes. These discursions, these graces, this flowery style, festooned, twisted into quaint shapes, call to mind the arabesques of certain writing masters, which render the text unintelligible. --Translation of an article by Philarète Chasles, in Paris Revue des deux mondes, May 15 1849 
We proceed to notice this extraordinary production with feelings anything but gentle towards its gifted but excentric author. The truth is, that we have been deceived, inveigled, entrapped into reading a work where we had been led to expect only a book. We were flattered with the promise of an account of travel, amusing, though fictitious; and we have been compelled to pore over an undigested mass of rambling metaphysics. --Henry Cood Watson, in New York Saroni's Musical Times, September 29 1849
I can easily scorn the early critics of Moby-Dick (1851) for being too myopic, too cavillous, and too blinded by fashionable prejudices to realize they had the American masterpiece of the century on their hands. But I can't really knock Mardi's detractors. To put it kindly, Mardi adds up to far less than the sum of its parts. More bluntly, Melville's first foray into fiction is a real dumpster fire.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Status update + buzz hype aura & presence







Last fall I had a really stupid idea.

"I'll do a little something for National Novel Writing Month," I told myself in October. "Just for fun. It'll be fast! Breezy! Easy!"

So now it's February and the thing's at 65–70% completion and I'm at about 96% worn out and crazy. Having been so busy turning the soil over and over elsewhere afield, I've neglected my hay-making over on this side.

Well then, some stray thoughts.

The latest special exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (where I earn my wage) came to an end recently. Old Masters Now showcased the collection of one John G. Johnson, a corporate lawyer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who earned his fortune representing such scrupulous and benign entities as Standard Oil, J.P. Morgan & Co., the American Tobacco Company, and so on. When Johnson died in 1917 his mansion full of paintings was bequeathed to the city of Philadelphia, and the museum has hosted them since the early 1930s.

In terms of bringing in the crowds, Old Masters Now rated no better (nor really any worse) than a minor disappointment. "Paintings which belonged to one filthy rich packrat with unobjectionable taste and avaricious clients" doesn't exactly make for a compelling curatorial linchpin. Despite the exhibition's title, only one or two pieces from the individual eponymous old masters were featured—one painting by Titian, one painting by Rembrandt, one painting by Bosch, etc. Moreover, many of the highlighted pieces—such as Sargent's In the Luxembourg Gardens, Manet's U.S.S. Kearsarge and the C.S.S. Alabama, van Eyck's Saint Francis of Assisi—were already familiar mainstays of the galleries.

To be fair, the curators were hamstrung: the museum is currently operating in the midst of large-scale renovations, which means it cannot exhibit objects on loan from other museums or private collectors (for insurance reasons). For now the special exhibitions are restricted to objects already in the museum's stores, constraining their curators to literally work with what they've got. I don't think the tepid turnout came as much of a surprise to anyone.

I've joked to colleagues and to the occasional guest (whose humor I've ascertained and found suitable) that the show would have been more of a hit if the museum had underscored its fugacity, changing the title from Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection to Old Masters Now: AND SOON NEVER AGAIN. That would be step one. Step two would have the publications and outreach people sending out all the usual press releases through all the usual channels announcing two things.

(1) The creme de la creme of John G. Johnson's famed art collection will be on view until February 19.

(2) At 12:01 AM on February 20, the objects on display will be liquidated. Not auctioned off for fluid capital, but thrown in a heap, bathed in turpentine, and set on fire.

"If you don't come to Philadelphia to stroke your chin and nod thoughtfully before the treasures of the Johnson collection, then you've missed your last chance because vanity vanity all is vanity, Johnson is dead, achievement is ephemeral, and all our lives are as ash. Schedule your visit today!"

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

"This storm is what we call progress."

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus (1920)

At the start of the month Vanity Fair ran a piece about orgy culture among the Silicon Valley elite. There's a lot to be appalled by, but I might be in the minority in that the details of exclusive MDMA-fueled tech bro parties wasn't what grossed me out the most.

Emily Chang (author of the forthcoming book Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys' Club of Silicon Valley, from which the Vanity Fair article is an adapted excerpt) speaks to one "Founder X," an "ambitious, world-traveling entrepreneur" who gives us an insight into the chauvinistic behavior of the young tech mogul who regards female colleagues as "sex pawns and founder hounders" (emphases are mine):
“It’s awesome,” says Founder X. At work, he explains, “you’re well funded. You have relative traction.” Outside work, “why do I have to compromise? Why do I have to get married? Why do I have to be exclusive? If you’ve got a couple girls interested in you, you can set the terms and say, ‘This is what I want.’ You can say, ‘I’m happy to date you, but I’m not exclusive.’ These are becoming table stakes for guys who couldn’t get a girl in high school.”

...They don’t necessarily see themselves as predatory. When they look in the mirror, they see individuals setting a new paradigm of behavior by pushing the boundaries of social mores and values. “What’s making this possible is the same progressiveness and open-mindedness that allows us to be creative and disruptive about ideas,” Founder X told me.

...

Furthermore, these elite founders, C.E.O.’s, and V.C.’s see themselves as more influential than most hot-shit bankers, actors, and athletes will ever be. “We have more cachet than a random rich dude because we make products that touch a lot of people,” says Founder X. “You make a movie, and people watch it for a weekend. You make a product, and it touches people’s lives for years.

At least on the financial level, Founder X has a point. The payouts of A-list actors and the wolves of Wall Street just aren’t that impressive among the Silicon Valley elite. Managing directors at top-tier investment banks may pocket a million a year and be worth tens of millions after a long career. Early employees at tech firms like Uber, Airbnb, and Snapchat can make many times that amount of money in a matter of years. Celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher, Jared Leto, and Leonardo DiCaprio have jumped on that power train and now make personal investments in tech companies. The basketball great Kobe Bryant started his own venture-capital firm. LeBron James has rebranded himself as not just an athlete but also an investor and entrepreneur.

With famous actors and athletes wanting to get into the tech game, it’s no surprise that some in the Valley have a high opinion of their attractiveness and what they should expect or deserve in terms of their sex lives. In the Valley, this expectation is often passed off as enlightened—a contribution to the evolution of human behavior.
Here we have the lapidary encapsulation of Silicon Valley's arrogance.