Saturday, 31 October 2009

A Humbler Cheekiness

If James Carroll's "self-serving" memoir is a blunt sword on behalf of liberalization of the Roman Catholic church, then Professor McInerney's snidely cutting remarks (he is described as a philosophy professor, who are usually rational beings) reveal the same know-it-all obscurantism that I found intolerable in his Church.

When the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility (as well as the Immaculate Conception) were very belatedly declared in a feeble attempt to roll back the tidal wave of modernism, we are told that none of the earlier gaffes of the institutional church (indulgences as obscenely mercenary as American political soft money--there were 27 altars in Eisenach's St. George church to multiply the money-grubbing Masses), Galileo, Indexes of Forbidden Books, and yes, anti-Semitism as well as anti-Protestantism (I was warned by the nuns at Holy Rosary Academy to cross the street in downtown Bay City, Michigan to avoid contamination by walking too close to the YMCA) never came from the Magisterium.

Talk about ad hominem. Try,if you have time to waste, to disprove infallibilities or immaculate conceptions. The trouble with all churches which claim a monopoly on Divine Truth is that they amass power and try not to lose it, and God pity the poor people who are caught in its inflexibilities. Just because Notre Dame is no longer worshiped by the faithful as a football theology, it should never forget that at one time the church was a brutal and (to contemporary judgments) irreligious as the Taliban is today.

Professor McInerney should be grateful to his God that there are Carrolls and Wills to mitigate the old familiar arrogance displayed by your reviewer. Let him turn to a humbler cheekiness the next time his monopoly is questioned.

Friday, 30 October 2009

A One-Day, One-Man Lent

As a third generation Irish American named Patrick, in honor of my mother's patronym, Fitzpatrick, I got so disgusted with the professional Hibernians' binge drinking on my name day that I gave up drinking entirely on that day, a one-day, one-man Lent to atone for the sins of my fellow Micks.

Imagine my dilemma recently on a Deutsche B.A, flight from Berlin to Munich on St. Patrick's Day, when a curvaceous flight attendant observing my name gave me a bottle of champagne to celebrate. I complied. Now that's sekt's appeal.

Back on earth, I renewed my pledge.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

As one of the 2% of the Irish

As one of the 2% of the Irish who no longer believes in the R.C. God he was baptized for, I offer an historical note. The Ulster Museum in Belfast celebrated the "alleged" 1500th birthday of the elusive snake charmer with an exhibition whose principal point was that St. Patrick was just an also ran bishop until a Norman duke invented the cult we recognize on March 17 to pacify his fractious peasants.

That was something to ponder as I passed through the metal detectors at the Airport Novotel. I was tempted to bless myself as I landed at the front desk, safely.

Patrick D.Hazard, Weimar, Germany

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

American "infotainment"

The Holocaust has become an integral part of American "infotainment" and political soap operas, with survivors telling their stories on the Jerry Springer Show.

As part of the disillusioned third who have stopped going to the movies (I did luck out recently on a USAirways flight to Philly in seeing "Erin Brokovitch" and Allen's "Small Time Crooks"), I am grateful to Michael Medved for explaining the apparent paradox that the Hollywood which used to be motivated by family grosses now revels in grosser and grosser families.

Boho hubris can only be challenged by such airtight economic analyses. The trouble is some of us have become so wealthy that we're impervious to peer pressure.

Patrick D.Hazard, Weimar, Germany.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Münter and Murnau

Self-portrait, Gabrielle Münter

To be begin with Gabi, she took a summer home here in 1909, which two years ago was turned into a delightful and insightful museum in honor of her residence there with other Blaue Reiter artists like Alexej Jawlensky, Marianne Werefkin and Kandinsky, who was her lover until he dumped her in his eagerness to get back to Russia at the beginning of World War I. (She waited for him quite pathetically in Scandinavia, but he never came.)

The most surprising aspect of the house is the painted folk furniture the painter left behind when he left. Even astonishing is the photo of Kandinsky in local lederhosen, pretending with a rake to be farmer! She later lived there with the art historian J.Eichner until her own death in 1962 at age 85. Barbara Schneider at the news agency next to the Hotel Post still remembers her as a gentle, fragile and penniless pensioner. The house has many of her works, a splendid video where you can explore every aspect of her life, including her two years in America (her mother and father lived in Texas for several years) with her sister Emmy in 1899-1901.

The two year old museum, alas, is open only from 2 to 5 in the afternoon. But it attracted 80,000 visitors in its first year, and plans to expand as finances permit. The only mini-museum of equal elegance and intellectual substance is the one on Van Gogh in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, where the Dutch painter spent his last days.

But to get a full picture of her and her circle, you must visit the Schloss Museum. (It has an absolutely lovely cafe in an encircling little forest of trees, where I come down from my Muenter highs, morning, noon and night--their roasted duck is a specialty of the owner/chef Joseph Girg, who amiably wanders from table to table in search of satisfied customers.)

The Museum has many more samplings of her work from beginning to end. It also describes visually how a landscape school of painting emerged there in the early 18th century as middle class people began to get their sublime kicks savouring the nearby lake and the astonishingly beautiful foothills of the Alps. Beginning on July 21, there is a major retrospective of her graphic work, with an excellent catalog. It runs til November.

But this is also the centennial of a remarkable Nazi fighter, Odeon Horvath (1901-37), and he is the subject of special symposia beginning in September. In March 1933, Horvath was eating in the dining room of the Hotel Post (since 1632, and still run by the Wagner family) when Hitler's first speech as Chancellor was being broadcast live from the Sports Palast in Munich. Horvath shouted to shut the damn radio off at which point SS troops beat him senseless, and he fled to Paris that very night.

His diplomat parents sold their house after a few months and followed him into exile. Alas, during a thunderstorm on the Champs Elysee, a falling branch struck him dead. The exhibit explains the Nazi movement in Murnau. (There is a splendid book on his literary efforts on sale for 15 DM.) There are standing exhibitions on the natural history of the region, and especially about early mining activities there.

Ordinary people (as opposed to landscape painters!) came to Murnau for the Staffelsee, a bucolic 15 minute walk from "downtown" Murnau. As a kid who grew up on pristine Lake Huron, I found its murky waters unswimmable, and its "beaches" sandless. But it was full of swimmers, until a sudden thunderstorm cleared it out in a few minutes.

I did enjoy heartily, however, a cool Karg, the town's most famous white beer. And the breezes were not polluted. Meanwhile, back in beautiful downtown Murnau, the locals were celebrating the first year of a auto free walker zone--with professional Dixieland by amateur musicians, Oompah band music from the local school, and mouth-watering white sausages tempting everyone from the grills stationed along the street.

We stayed at the Hotel Post, which began in the seventeenth century as a relay for fresh horses for the mail. Today, the owner Nicholas Wagner is a genial host who on Saturdays serves the generous buffet to give his hausmeister a long weekend. It was only 80 DM per person, and situated neatly between the train station and the Schloss. Don't miss the Nicholaskirche, next to the Schloss. It is the most moving Baroque church I have ever visited.

I usually find Baroque too much of too much, with everything looking tacked on. This church is a really integrated work of art. Gabi's grave (and Eichner's) are in its graveyard. We walked off to the station fully satisfied, to catch the five o'clock train to Munich, where we stayed at the InterCity Hotel in train station for 235DM, a weekend special. Insist on a room away from the street. It was insomnia noisy.

From there you can walk to the City Center where diverse musical buskers amused and amazed the perambulists, and where German TV was setting up for the next day's broadcast Mass for the golden jubilees of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and his brother. More interesting to us was the Free Opera in the open air in front of the Opera House, with Zubin Mehta conducting the Bavarian State Radio Orchestra in Beethoven's Seventh and a prodigiously talented 12 year old Japanese violinist playing his violin concerto. There were all kinds of people (and dogs!!) enjoying these treats under a full moon.

We withdrew to the nearby Nuremberg Restaurant, where I gorged on calf's liver covered with thin strips of onions fried and on a bed of puree potatoes. My friend had decadently delicious duck. It's a gemutlich type beer hall place where you seated with strangers, who turned out to be friendly out of town visitors, a head nurse in the children's hospital and a librarian from Seattle, their old friend a professor of law from Santa Clara, and German couples from Berlin and Stuttgart. It was a gas.

Sunday we visited the "Cool Gaze" exhibition at the nearby HypoAustellungsHalle, a eye-dazzling collection of paintings from the1920's, what we Americans call Precisionist painting and the Germans call it the New Objectivity and other Euros other names. But that is another story. By the way when I couldn't sleep, I sauntered across the street to EASY EVERTHINGS, a 24 hour Internet cafe, where you can catch up on your e-mail for a measly 5DM for four hours time! But Munich is another, more complex story.

If you ever visit Munich, don't ever miss Murnau.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Dark Side

Dark Side of Globalization
Regarding "No, I'm Not" (Jan. 24, 2001) by Jürgen Kaube.

This article is a breath of fresh air in what American political scientists used to call the "smoky back rooms" of candidate selection. The McDonaldization of politics is what Friedrich Merz should be worried about: It is the emergence of 'Kultur Lite', not the eclipse of 'Leitkultur' that is the problem. Recently, the Bild-Zeitung was in a tizzy over the fact that none of the ten candidates for "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" could arrange four phrases from the Lord's Prayer in the proper order.

What profiteth a society if the faster its food gets, the dimmer its memory of substantial values? This is not a German problem; it is the dark side of globalization. If our attention spans are reduced to shorter and shorter election cycles, then no increments of material abundance will amount to more than a hoot and a holler.

By Patrick D. Hazard, Weimar

This letter does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – English Edition.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Old Detroit

Last month I had the pleasure of introducing my new German girlfriend to the old Detroit I grew up in (1930-49). She's an Ossie, so she's used to visual disasters. But we both found parts of our journey down Woodward Avenue from 14 Mile to Jefferson scary.

We traveled SMARTly by bus from our Days Inn in Madison Heights--to be near my college chum in Troy who was to chauffeur us around on the three other days of our stay, exploring my old Denby neighborhood and our University of Detroit venues. But we began on Woodward. I should begin by saying how efficient and cheap the SMART bus service was--$l.50 for her, 50 cents for me, with schedules that kept us from standing long on street corners.

At 14 Mile Road, I told her about Cranbrook up the road (which we visited the next day by car to find their exhibition on the Saarinens' plans for Detroit) and how I discovered Architecture with a capital "A" there with Eliel's designs and Carl Milles' sculptures giving my sensibility a permanent Scandinavian bent. I explained the smart suburbs of Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills and how many of my most successful friends moved out there, abandoning the center city to its troubled fate.

At Eleven Mile, there was a short lecture on Father Coughlin and his Shrine of the Little Flower and how my U of D sociology prof, Father John Coogan, S.J., fought to contain the radio priest's anti-Semitism. And how the German nuns at Holy Rosary Academy in Bay City (where I boarded for 10 years while my single mom taught middle school in Hamtramck to support me and my brother)listened to him religiously every Sunday. (I still love the world class Art Deco of the buildings--bad radio can finance great architecture!)

At Eight Mile I showed her where my mother spent her last years in Southfield. And where a few years ago I had interviewed Dick Clark at the Michigan State Fair. (We had shared a TV crew at WFIL-TV when I was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.) The crew used to kid me for the miniscule audiences for my telecourse on architecture.

Heh, I countered: Give me a gaggle of South Philly fillies and watch my ratings soar. (It was not to be--they couldn't spell "architecture".)I also pointed to Eastwood Gardens right off at Gratiot where I loved dancing under the stars to the likes of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and Gene Krupa.

At Seven Mile, I told her about my dismal golf game at Palmers Park as I tried to impress the father of my first serious girl friend, a Denby buddy. (It was so disenchanting an experience that I swore off golf played or observed until Tiger Woods brought me back.)

At Six Mile, I pointed left to where we lived and right where I went to college and what a long tedious bus ride it was. Missing was the Varsity Theatre where I had seen Bob Chester's orchestra when they tried to start a big band policy.

Then things began to get dismal. I hyped the Ford Plant in Highland Park (where Fordismus, which still influences the Germans heavily) got started in 1913. But the apartment we lived in across from Highland Park High School had simply disappeared. As had another one we lived in later across from Blessed Sacrament Cathedral. As we passed Chicago Boulevard, I told her we'd visit Sacred Heart Seminary tomorrow, where I spent almost three years until Monsignor Donnelly caught me and Jim Van Slambrouck trying to learn how to smoke at midnight in the Gothic Tower. Cough, cough. He booted me into Denby during Easter Vacation. The only things that seemed changed there were a statue with a black face (welcome) and a fortified fence (which said WATCH OUT.)

Then things began to get really run down. With a brief oasis, but not as green as they had hoped for twenty years before, at the New Center. I told her about Albert Kahn, the great industrial architect who designed the GM World HQ (and whom Uof M's Art Museum is honoring as part of the Detroit Tricentennial). I also pointed out his Fisher Building because its illuminated tower had a crucial place in my family history.

My Uncle Dan Fitzpatrick who dispatched the delivery trucks at the old Crowley-Milners informed me as a goggle-eyed four year old that that was the GilleyHoo Bird's Nest. And every night he came back to our house on Mendota, he'd say, shortly after settling down to read The Detroit Times. "Did you hear that swooshing sound, Patrick? Check and see if it was the GilleyHoo Bird.) So I would eagerly search the outside window ledge which Our Bird favored and sure enough there'd be a Baby Ruth, or a Mounds, or a Twix--The GilleyHoo was amazingly catholic in his benefactions.

But the high point was our passing Orchestra Hall. I told her how I used to play hooky in high school to see what we then called the big "colored" name bands--the Duke, the Count, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Erskine Hawkins, you name it, we heard it. And that my humanistic education began at the Paradise. In 1980, burying my brother, I was in a sentimental mood. So I went by the Paradise, which had been shuttered by rock music to find a most interesting Bicentennial Year plaque.

It seems the Grosse Pointe nabobs, like all nouveaux riches everywhere, decided in 1919 they needed Culture. So they brought a pianist/composer from Warsaw to form the Detroit Symphony Orchestra --and then forced them to play in the acoustical equivalent of a junor high cafeteria. He rebelled. Get me a decent performance space or I'm going back to Poland. They did, in record time, build him Orchestra Hall, which no less an ear than Pablo Casals called the best performance space in North America.

But then the affluent whites moved North, and it became my Paradise. It remained empty for years and years until the benignly obsessed oboist in the Symphony raised millions and millions to refurbish and reopen it in November l989 with the 500,000th Steinway commissioned to the sculpture Wendell Castle. A few years back I went to a rehearsal and chided the oboist for destroying my Youth. A lively fellow, he replied: "Heh, we have a thriving jazz series too." Case closed.(Except for some later reflections.)

What, no Vernor's Building??? Luckily, my college chum had a supply of its uniquely bubbling ginger ale on ice for our later delectation.

Heh, the Fox is alive.

And Comerica Park. (My chum and I had celebrated the 50th anniversary of our graduation from U of D with a final, sad visit to Tiger Stadium, aka, Navin Field where I saw my first game--with the Browns where I embarrassed the neighbor who brought me by shouting my ten year old lungs out at Sunny Jim Bottomly who was singularly unsmiling in the middle of a long batting slump--and Briggs Stadium, which was the cheapest, classiest date during our college years).

My krautlette insisted on taking two rides on the People Mover--one looking out, one looking in. The Joe Louis Arena looked smart under a new paint job. Cobo seemed dingier than I remembered it. The River Front high rises looked terrific--but well beyond the means of my modest pension! And the walkway they were constructing appeared first class. We got off at RenCen and babbled with the authorities about the Winter Garden they expect to open in September.

I loved RenCen on my visits back to Detroit, especially during the 1980 Detroit/Montreux Jazz Festival which I reported for the Christian Science Monitor. Achille Scotti, pianist/arranger for the Jazz Orchestra of RadioSuisseRomande invited me and my date Chris Hamill to palaver from his top floor eyrie, where he and wife promised I could use his apartment whenever I got to Montreux. I later visited them in their Geneva home. I have great confidence this time the RenCen will prevail as a major tourist destination.

Finally, I had to show Hildegard my favorite building in all of Detroit, among my Top Ten in the World, the Guardian, an Art Deco masterpiece. We hung out for a bit at the Aztec Cafe. Assured that they were taking good care of the jewel, we split for Windsor. It seems especially significant that its architects, from the legendary firm of Smith, Hinchman and Grylls, have moved back into the 30th floor their distinguished ancestors so brilliantly birthed the year I was born.)

Windsor is an intrinsic part of my Detroit upbringing because my sense of humor and fondness for radio were nurtured on the early morning nuttiness of Joe Gentile and Ralph Bingay from CKLW. When foreigners ask me if I'm a Canadian (I always say "eh?", I reply. "Only spiritually, I grew up on the CBC." To this day, my college pal Henry B. Maloney and I can sing "Kahn's Clothes, Kahn's Clothes/They're neat and nifty etc) commercials like that from the 1940's.

We savored Detroit's skyline from the park on the Windsor side. We wowed through the new Art Gallery of Windsor with its great gathering of the Group of Seven painters and a frisky thematic show on Portraiture. And the best damn lunch of our entire 15 day Greyhound Ameripass adventure at "Colours". Did you know the Canadians make great wines? In the Niagara region. She had a Chardonnay and I had a Merlot. (Those Canucks are so damn humble!)

And, what we plan to exploit on our next visit, the two national hotels next to the Art Gallery, a Hilton and a Radisson, offer the same prices as their U.S. counterparts--in Canadian dollars. Not bad, when it only costs $5.10 for a round trip bus ticket from RenCen.

Sunday, Henry took us to St. Anne's, for TriCen historical motives and fallen away Catholic theological reasons. I was impressed by the Mexican laity's practically running the Mass!! The ecumenical spirit in the congregation was palpable.

Here's my forecast for the quadracentennial in 2101. If the spiritual vitality of St. Anne's, the unbeatable enthusiasm of the oboist at Orchestra Hall, and the puckish sense of humor of my Uncle Dan prevail, Detroit will then no longer be a basket case. It will once again be the Detroit I remember--of Joe Louis, Hank Greenberg, and Walter Reuther, brave and persistent enough to overcome deficits that sometimes seem insurmountable.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Izzie was

from the Welcomat, After Dark, July 5, 1989:

The death of Isidor Feinstein Stone at 81 on Father’s Day triggered fond recollections of my brief contacts with him, phoning to set up the I.F. Stone Award for the Free Library’s Art Festival in 1975.

That award–dubbed the Izzie–sought to honor undergraduate journalism in his investigative tradition. Izzie and Esther were clearly thrilled by the title’s winning winsomeness. But with characteristic generosity when I told him we had made a special award to an Atlantic County journalism teacher who’d gotten into hot water when her class exposed fiscal hanky-panky in the audio-visual department, he turned to his wife to say “How blessed we were” to be party to the praise of such a courageous journalism teacher....

When some witless KYW reporter asked him how he felt about finally receiving his degree [on an honorary basis from University of Penn. on the 50th anniversary of his graduating class from which he had dropped out before graduating] Stone gave him the zinger his dumb question earned: “I got out of phys-ed.”

That wry sense of humor may well have been the most attractive trait of this idiosyncratic leftie. The American left has too often smothered itself in its lugubriousness. Izzie leavened his high seriousness with a delightful playfulness.

Friday, 23 October 2009

The "New" China Daily

After thirty years of teaching American literature, Patrick Hazard has turned his sights East.

The editor who was showing me around the headquarters of China Daily, the PRC's two year-old English-language newspaper, pointed out a color supplement issued on its first anniversary in June, 1982. "Children's Day," he explained with a smile. It struck me that the choice of subject for the anniversary supplement was a good one: Everywhere there is evidence of almost childlike enthusiasm for "catching up" with the Western media and an innocent openness to self-improvement, signified by the "self-criticism" bulletin board on which each successive issue is subjected to anonymous critiques.

(Alas, not a little of the criticism by "foreign experts"-read China-sympathizers from Britain, the U.S., and Australia who have helped the fledgling paper get off the ground-consists of rather prissy put-downs of Chinglish, the enchanting dialect born of the marriage of English and Chinese syntax.)

It was last January, while studying at the Shanghai Foreign Language Institute, that I paid my call at the decrepit building in Beijing that houses the Chine Daily offices. Decrepit outside, that is, but all high-tech within. At the time of my visit, the six-day-a-week eight-pager had a circulation of sixty thousand, including a same-day Hong Kong edition; a state-of-the-art Compugraphic typesetting system generates the disks that are airlined from Beijing.

Since the paper's second anniversary this past June, a New York edition has been available (China Daily Distribution Corp., 15 Mercer Street, Suite 401, New York, N.Y. 10012; 212-219-0130). Now North American readers can judge for themselves how well Chine Daily measures up to world-class journalistic standards.

As the editors tell it, the paper was initiated to help relieve the claustrophobia felt by American visitors in China. I certainly fit the pattern. A news junky, I had immediately tuned in to the English-language radio service offered by Radio Beijing, but found its presentations extremely curt; and the programs were offered at a time when, after a full morning's study of Mandarin, sleep tended to overcome all other drives.

I became hooked on the newspaper during my winter in the PRC, and even paid $69 for a quarter-year's overseas subscription when the paper promised an advance look at Treasures From the Shanghai Museum"-the exhibit that will be touring the United States for eighteen months. I have never regretted the impulse.

Competition for Gannett's new U.S.A. Today the paper is not. Every issue betrays the agenda not of a news editor but of the Party. We students at the Institute always began with page eight-what we called the "disaster page"-offering news of some natural or man-made calamity back home. Still, on that trauma-ridden billboard one could pick up useful clues from "World Briefs" and 'In the Third World," not to mention the serendipitous ads for Charlie's Cocktail Bar in the New Jianguo Hotel (Oven Fresh PIZZA every week on Tuesday and Thursday); China Asparagus, Flying Wheel Brand; Xuzhou Forging and Pressing Machinery; and China National Machinery Import and Export Corporation, Jiangsu Branch. The presence of advertising, once rejected as a form of bourgeois imperialism, carries its own message.

Page one invariably touts recent Party decisions: 'Shanghai supports inland development" (industrialization is skewed to favor coastal areas In the northeast and south); "Conference on bicycle standards" (China will remain for decades a bikescracy, where mass transit is ruled by pedal); and "China, Rwanda stand for new economic order" (supported by a three-column photo of the president of Rwanda and premier Zhao Ziyang being greeted by a ceremonial covey of children in front of the Great Hall of the People, Beijing).

Page two deals with economics and finance: 'Fodder industry improves China's livestock breeding" and 'Shanghai knitwear sells well in short, a swatch of success stories salted with external signs of instability such as "Major industrial nations warn of energy danger." On the same page one finds a dubious bit of American advertising headlined Non-Resident American University Degrees: 'It is possible-it is honestly possible to earn good, useable Bachelor's, Master's, Doctorates, even Law Degrees from recognized American universities, without ever going to America."This followed by a Mendocino. California, address and telephone number! I am reminded that when I broke my eyeglass frames in Shanghai, the oculist who came to my aid had qualified forty years before by correspondence from the Philadelphia Optical College.

Page three is 'National News: "China develops medical services for 55 minorities." In this, China resembles the Soviet Union: much ado about respecting the rights of splinter minorities while majority civil rights remain in jeopardy. This page also has a revolving regional report, so that Canton, Shanghai, and the Northeast are not too frustrated by the Beijing bias of the entertainment and service features. Page four offers "news" stories--though we in the West would readily call them editorials-and letters to the editor.

The themes that dominate are the reprivatization of the Chinese economy (the so-called responsibility system) and the rehabilitation of intellectuals (read "college trained")- those who, removed from positions of leadership in government, industry, and the military during the Cultural Revolution, were replaced by the politically reliable and rarely competent. It is apparent from such pieces that the process of easing out the Incompetent is now complicated by the reluctance of the competent to identify themselves, terrified lest they be subjected to another such round of frenzied egalitarianism in the future. The slogan "Never Again!" is repeated In China in another context.

Page five is the Culture page, which, in the rhetoric of the New China, includes Technology, Science, and Medicine. One issue tells a chilling story about Tang Feifan (the Western version of his name, F. F. Tang, is given in a picture caption), who attained international renown as the isolator of the virus that causes trachoma. The article ends: 'In 1958 Tang was unjustly accused of being 'reactionary.' On September 30, he committed suicide. His only son, Tang Shengwen, now works in the institute where his father devoted his life to research."

Page six contains 'Life/People" stories and entertainment listings. Mao would turn in his mausoleum to see a story in the same day's issue: "Fashion modeling, Chinese style,"glossed by a photo straight out of a Busby Berkeley movie. Reads the caption: "Members of the Shanghai Fashionable Dress Performance Team model Western clothing at the Agricultural Exhibition Centre in Beijing." Page seven is sports, mainly American, to assuage the gasping US. businessman or government official who just has to know that "76ers edge Knicks, Lakers' blitz wins."

In short, China Daily, for all its journalistic faults, is an honest effort at Sino-American dialogue and a boon for armchair Sinologists.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Noisesome Noises

Jacob Bronowski

Are the excess decibels of our Technotopia driving you up the proverbial wall?

My Merriam Webster dates the phrase “noise pollution” to 1966. I no longer find even the jangling traffic noise of Gershwin’s “American in Paris” agreeable. A British acoustic engineer (what a necessary but dismal profession!) named Trevor Cox from Salford University decided to do something about our unsound malaise. He set up a website and gave his potential readers thirty-four abysmal contemporary sounds to rate as to detestability. 1.1 million hits responded to his Shit Parade of Sounds: (Guardian, 11/24/07). Reported by Ian Sample, their science correspondent. The envelope, please:

> Vomiting (for clinical reasons, an actor simulated this noise with a bucket of diluted baked beans!)
> Microphone Squeals
> Babies Squalling (Men scored this much higher than women. As a new father at 79, I find these “noises” signs of life and adorable But I know what they mean, when I hear the mean neighbors..)
> Trains scraping their own rails. (Perhaps skewed by too many Brit train spotters!)
> Squeaky Seesaws. (Hell, I remember that being half the not much fun to begin with.)
> Poorly played violins. (Esthetic violinse?)
> Whoopie Cushions.
> Arguments on Soap Operas!
> Electricity mains humming.
> Tasmanian Devils. (This is either a bad Aussie joke, or a total mystery.)

Tied for eleventh were dentists' drills and scraping blackboards. There was an age factor here: under 10’s and 40 to 50’s rated drills highly, probably from their frequency of appointments.

Cat howling and mobile phones tied at 12th. Not in my acoustic universe. Phones are by far the greatest acoustical evil of the twenty-first century.

Sniffling was rated 15th. (That never bothered me at all.)

There’s an anthropological element in the scraping blackboards at 16th. They remind many of the danger cries of monkeys? I remember hating the blackboard scraping, as it accompanied my teachers disciplining me with public writing assignments.

No matter what your druthers, here, you must agree that noise is one of the greatest afflictions of our high tech existence. Heh, what’s to do?

The BBC World Service has been running a fascinating series for insomniacs. (It also runs on WHYY-FM in the middle of the night.) You can podcast the series at One I especially liked concerned a roving reading teacher in New York City who was disturbed by the way the subway noise was damaging the reading skills of her elementary classes. She found that on the side of the school abutting the clanking train, students were a whole grade inferior to their peers on the side of the school away from that noise. And she did something about it. She harassed the subway people until they capitulated and put acoustic tiles in the noisy side, bringing those young uns reading skills up to speed.

The BBC is under intense fire at the moment, as they are lobbying for a hefty raise in the annual TV tax. My wife and I pay German public television $200 euros a year for the privilege of its two channels. The Brits are being thumped for almost twice that amount for five channels. Paul Dacre, the contentious editor of “The Daily Mail” is fighting mad about the unfair edge Beeb has over its competitors (namely him!) It has 3500 journalists and support staff--more than all the national dailies put together! With a budget of 500 million pounds: a billion dollars at current rates. He accuses them of “Cultural Marxism”—with a spurious “figleaf of impartiality”.

Mebbe so. But when I worked at Time Life Films (1968-72) I found the Beeb’s intellectual standards miles ahead of even most of our public TV and radio operatives.(Bill Moyers was, and still is, the Big League exception.) I still remember the rushes Jacob Bronowksi showed us at Ealing in July 1972 for his new series. He explained how he didn’t want to do television. He wanted to write more polymathic books like his science and William Blake classics.

But Aubrey Singer, then head of special projects, kept up a drum beat of his social responsibility: it was his mitzvah to bring the BBC the best TV. Bronowski told us how he had to sit at the feet of Kenneth Macgowan, the network’s premiere cameraman, to learn how you taught on TV. When the rushes were over, and we were babbling friendly nothings, I told him this reminded me of my favorite William Blake aphorism: “He who would do me good must do it in minute particulars!” His eyes blazed: ”Precisely. Precisely.”

And the eggheads running The Third Programme weren’t Marxists, they were Jewish refugees from Vienna, like Stephen Hearst and Martin Esslin. An analogous experience contrasted America’s use of its eggheads in public broadcasting. Newton “The Vast Wasteland” Minow, FCC Chairman for JFK and LBJ assembled a blue ribbon panel of social scientists—Gary Becker from Chicago, Ithiel de Sola Pool from MIT, Bernard Berelson from Columbia and me (a gofer stand-in for Gilbert Seldes, then dean of the new Annenberg School) to advise them on updating the license renewal application forms. Trouble was none of these American eggheads had the foggiest idea that the stations took their renewals as pro forma jokes.

I only knew because Tom Jones, then the stealth intellectual at Walter Annenberg’s WFIL-TV, had been teaching me how to shoot and edit TV cultural news on the weekends when Temple prof John Roberts was filling in. Minow stuck his head into our meeting room and thanked us profusely—for nothing, for not knowing what they should have to formulate sound policy. That’s the day I started doubting Social Science.

The BBC is worth its money, in spite of what the Daily Mail’s editor whines. Even its international radio series keep au courant with series like the current one on Noisesome Noise.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Jugendstil and the Bauhaus

WR's canny observation that the comfortably stuffed chairs by Josef Hoffmann cost between $3,000 and $4,000, but were well worth it made me realize the greatest difference between my favorite style, Jugendstil, and the Bauhaus ethos which followed it. Gropius wanted blue collar people to be able to live in well-designed dwellings filled with well-designed furniture.

Marcel Breuer's epiphany that the chrome-plated handle bars on the bicycle that got him around in Weimar would make simple, springy chairs mass producible. The supreme irony of the Bauhaus in its phase one in Weimar is that the rinky dink Haus am Horn(1923) is the only Bauhausey structure left by the school, and that only because Gropius needed to have a place to display the 1923 international exhibition he felt was needed to hype publicity for his new school. The disastrous inflation precluded other structures.

On the other hand, Van de Velde's two glorious 1904 and 1911 Jugendstil buildings accrued to the Bauhaus because the Belgian had to leave Germany as an enemy alien.

They are now the showplaces of the Bauhaus Uni. Two young Munich architects have just repossessed a Van de Velde villa at Cranachstrasse 34 to recycle it as a six family community dwelling, exorcising its inglorious pasts as, first, the Russian military HQ and (especially) as the STASI main station in Weimar.

I love the Jugendstil in Weimar and elsewhere, but I respect Gropius' ambition to make blue collar life more esthetically rewarding.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Kicking the Can

Louis Kahn's Greenbelt Knoll

Following WR’s elegant traipse through the commodification of the Can in America-- SLATE (1/10/07), I have some commentary I want to eliminate. The late architectural journalist Peter Blake (1920-2006) makes a telling point in his memoir, “No Place Like Utopia”, that perhaps too easily influenced by Philip C.Johnson--who argued irrationally that only Art mattered in Architecture, his profession in America abandoned that postwar idealism best exemplified by Walter Gropius’s program for the Bauhaus (fusing art and technology to create decent housing and design for the working classes) for Mammon. Mies’ “Less is More” slithered down to “The Most is the Best”.

The evidence of this trahison des clercs surrounds us. Ever more elegant McCans in ever more extravagant McMansions. Not architecture. Mere building. The Obesity Epidemic extends its brown thumb to our manmade landscapes. WR finally concedes he wishes there were better places for reading in these McCans. Heh, consternation beats constipation, in the final anal – ysis. I long ago settled that problem by stacking periodicals, mainly weeklies, on the toilet’s flushing tank’s lid. Sybaritic is, of course, allowed in a free society. But to most adults it is quickly boring.

John Deering’s clever shaving setup in Viscaya reminded me of my visit to Corbusier’s first modernist house, a stripped down cement model for his parents in Vevey, Switzerland, overlooking Lac Le Man. In Tim Benton’s excellent new book, ”The Modernist Home” (2005),a spinoff of the V&A’s “Modernism” exhibition (now replaying in Frank O.Gehry’s MARTa in Herford, Germany), there is a photo of the monastically simple “guest room” (for when Corbu visits his parents?)in which a minilibrary allows a reader to gawk at the Lake! Not a loo, but a great view. I found his full dress Villa Savoie toilet too heavy breathing by comparison. Toodle loo!

I remain faithful to Bauhaus simplicity—it gives me more leisure to developed complicated ideas! Our first house (1954) was a National Homes three bedroom/ uni-can Cape Cod with grooved redwood siding, in a suburb of Lansing MI (read: an abandoned corn field.). Designed by Charles Goodman whom nobody knows but whom hundreds of thousands have enjoyed--$6000, $400 down, $40 a month mortgage! Gropius and the young Jewish genius Konrad Wachsmann (1901-1980) (Einstein got him a last minute visa out of Hitler’s Germany) founded the General Panel Corporation but didn’t ever figure out American financing and building codes.

And they wasted money by starting with a Park Avenue office. And guaranteed they’d never avoid bankruptcy by renting an abandoned aircraft factory in Los Angeles. (National Homes had the moxie to have its factory in Lafayette,IN—a central point for the major expense of distributing prefabs.) It was easier –but irrelevant--to pick an American sounding name!

When I started teaching at Penn’s then new Annenberg School of Communication (1959), we moved up to a Louie Kahn designed home in Greenbelt Knoll--$23,000 (one and a half baths!), an experiment in racially integrated housing in the Far Northeast of Philadelphia. It celebrates its 50th anniversary this June 10th. This cluster of nineteen modernist homes won an AIA award for Bishop/Montgomery for siting, using the hundred year old trees and unlevel land of a sliver of Pennypack Park to make a glorious sylvan retreat in a gritty city.

(Joyce Kilmer never wrote a corny poem, “I think that I shall never see/ a toilet prettier than a tree.” I still savour its simplicity when I’m not traveling or researching a book on the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany. Toilets to let? I couldn’t care less! Though I still have designs on that undeveloped toilet site in the basement. WR’s trip through McCanLand could motivate me to fulfill that long delayed dream. (I live in the basement. My non-traveling son Tim has taken over the upstairs.)

Monday, 19 October 2009


Joseph Maria Olbrich

As much as I relish Tiffany's Art Nouveau vendibles, I find it hard to shift gears on his much too hecklectic program for Laurelton. As a personally very disorderly thinker, I guess I love the assurance of a Gesamtwerk. In any case, that's what several years of living in and around German Jugendstil has done to my sensibility. At the turn of the twentieth century Germany was still a half Bismarcked loose collection of duchies. Each duke or local entrepreneur wanted to create more ideal conditions for manufacturing art in his locale.

The most interesting was Heinrich Sauermann of Flensburg who founded an art school (now a great little museum) to get better designers for his furniture factory. I first visited his lode for an exhibit, "Strasse Kunst", street art, meaning his collection of Jugendstil posters, beginning with the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. In 1899 Duke Ernst Ludwig of Darmstadt, Hesse founded a Kunstler Kolonie, bringing together a handful of geniuses like Olbrich from Austria and Behrens from Dusseldorf.

The colony has morphed into high toned residences (the ones they originally made for themselves!) with the Duke's house as the repository of the best that they thought to create. Last week I went to the celebration of a Van der Velde house (1914) in Weimar which two Munich architects are transforming into a community house to open next summer. (It has been closed for over a decade because it had the curse of being the STASI HQ during the DDR.)

The more I study the Bauhaus (my purpose for being here is to evaluate its history), the more I savour Jugendstil and its lovely local variations (Louis Sullivan, Modernismo, Liberty, Art Nouveau). It's hard to kick an obsession, which hurts so good.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Grossly Perverted Values: Emergency Surgery Advised

Thomas Eakins

Now that Inky art crit Ed Sozanski has declaimed on what he calls the Gross "debacle", perhaps we can examine the grossly perverted values that led to this "crisis". For generations, the movers and Quakers who have run Philly's cultural life into the ground, no one, BIG or small, peeped about the hidden scandal that as few as 500 people a year had contemplated "the greatest painting ever made in Philadelphia." And that's not vetting those gross numbers for "dupes", which is to say those Jeff workers who walked by it every day, semi-comatose to its value.

But those aren't the kind of "dupes" I want to discuss. When I was Gilbert Seldes' gofer for the then new Annenberg School, I was shocked by the cravenness of Penn officialdom vis a vis their donor, Walter. I had noted, growing up in Detroit, that Money Talks. But I had to wait until Penn hired me to learn that BIG MONEY SHUTS EVERYBODY UP. And the sycophantic way they trolled Walter to get him to leave his art collection to PMA filled me with disgust.

I had been taught that art cultivated you. Refined you. We need to refind the USA from these false Profiteers. Culture Vultures All I saw was the Grossest Hustle. And I am suffering through the greatest architectural illusion of modern industrial society: The Museum Boom! (I call it the Ka-Boom.) As the cultural elite fought each other raising the cash to finance this boom, the cities in them began falling apart. What profiteth a city if it gains a Gehry and loses its solitude.

With the exception of a few upper middle class oases, Philly is a war zone, inhabited by hundreds of thousands of people who have lost their heart. And we grieve over one painting which Jeff alums originally bought in 1878 to console Thomas Eakins over the insult that the Centennial Art Committee gave him in 1876 by hiding his great canvas in a side exhibit of medical equipment.(It was too "gory" for the Culture Vultures. And then they piously canned him from PAFA for having the balls to show a nude man model to a "mixed" audience. Had they no common sense, these Fig Leafers? Have we none yet?

And now the Crocodile tears over "losing" an Eakins. What a Krock. And Sozanski should be ashamed of the scurrilous way he has demeaned Alice Walton. She is "transplanting high culture to her beloved Ozarks." She is using her 18 billion dollar inheritance to "vacuum up high-profile masterpieces whenever opportunities arise." "Bringing the National Gallery into the picture makes her seem less like a contemporary robber baron." Her ability to pay premium prices reminds Ed of how "19th-century robber barons such as J. Pierpont Morgan and Henry Clay Frick built their fabulous collections. . ." But Walton isn't in "their league" (uppity old Ozark cracker that she is?)

Her Crystal Bridges Musuem "promises to supplant the Wal-Mart 5&10 Museum as Bentonville's premier cultural attraction." Ha ha ha.(Ed even sneers at it as a "boutique museum", but her architect Moshe Safdie is no Cracker: his National Gallery in Ottawa is one of the great museums of our time.) He even mocks her taste: in addition to the minor league Asher B.Durand canvas, "Kindred Spirits", she's amassed two George Washington portraits--one by Charles Wilson Peale and another by Gilbert Stuart, one of Martin Johnson Heade's South American landscape with orchids, a Winslow Homer genre scene, "and-wait for it-a classic Norman Rockwell, a boy comforting a sick puppy." End of Sneer. Heh, why doesn't Ed pick on someone his own intellectual size (or bigger?), namely, John Wilmerding, her advisor?

That Charles Wilson Peale snoot reminds me that I always used to begin my American Literature classes with a tribute to the Peale family, who deeply believed in helping create a cultural democracy in Philly, beginning with PAFA. And are we to mock Alice in her New Wondersland because she thinks Rockwell deserves a place in her parade of Americana. It was the Saturday Evening Post, a great Philly institution, that gave Norman his first national audience. In short, Sozanski's snottiness is a greater critical debacle than the Jeff sell out. And corny as well. If there is something art criticism must not be, it's corny. "Jefferson deserves all the obloquy for agreeing, in effect, to sell grandmother's wedding ring or the Medal of Honor that grandfather won at Anzio." Geezh, Ed. My eyes are watering.

In the Culture Vulture world, how fortunes are assembled is never questioned morally? Only unblinking Inky Blinquer Dan Rubin had the astuteness to suggest how many kids and/or cops that $68 million could give health insurance. Notoriously, Wal-Mart doesn't give most of its employees health insurance (even having the chutzpah to recommend to its most poorly paid "associates"--that new synonym for "slave" in Wal-Martese-that they apply for Medicaid!) And it hires as many part time employees as possible, to keep clear of full time perks.

The debacle begins in Bentonville, where these foul employment policies are noodled. We are no longer living in the Gilded Age of Morgan and Frick, we live in a new Guilt-free Gilted Age, where official policy is to make a few new Billionaires and to hell with the rest. Think for a minute where Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Eakins (no Uncle Toms, they) would stand on this Gross debacle. They would agree, I think, that we need immediate surgery, to cut away the gross ideas that are suffocating our egalitarian ideals.

Think about it, the next time you "save" money at a Wal-Mart.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

The Bauhaus Retrieves its History

On November 23, 1921, the continuously beleaguered Walter Gropius sent out an all hands directive: Please make photos of everything we’ve done in the first two years of our school, in or out of the workshops, and (given the still limited state of black and white photography) make color drawings as well of all our creations. He was already worrying about the first international exhibition he was planning for Summer 1923, to give his school the prestige it needed to counteract bad publicity in the local state legislature about his hippie students and their allegedly Bolshevik professors.

Eighty-five years later to the day, Klaus-Jürgen Winkler, Bauhaus Uni professor of the theory and history of architecture, proudly if shyly donned white curatorial gloves to show the local press his new treasure: the first of four albums of those historic photographs that by sheer historical good luck survived after Gropius’s hasty retreat to Dessau-- for the second of the three act farce that was to be his dream’s frustrating course between 1919 and 1933. Then the Nazis closed it down in spite of Mies van der Rohe’s increasingly frantic meetings with Alfred Rosenberg to save the school.

In 1955, because the Weimar Fire Department was getting more and more anxious about the junk that had gathered over the years in the attic of Henry van der Velde’s glorious Jugendstill building (now the HQ of the Bauhaus Uni), a professor sorting through broken furniture, ancient newspapers, and other castoff immemorabilia, found a trove of albums of some 404 of those photos Gropius had asked for—but had left in his hurry to start over in Dessau. The 104 in the first album dealt with Johannes Itten’s highly vaunted “preliminary course”, and the cabinetmaking, wood-turning, and wood-carving workshops

Thus by a blessed fluke, a Bauhaus Uni determined to repossess its heritage, one-upped the potentially grim and serial reapers of a virulently anti-Modernist professor, Paul Schultze-Naumburg, Nazi hostility, and Ossi indifference to the Bauhaus ideals until their Plattenbau boom in the nineteen-seventies made them see that Socialism and Modernism were compatible.

Gropius’s last minute decision to hire Hannes Meyers in 1928 as his successor so he could defect to his private practice in Berlin was very imprudent. (Pius had asked all his full professors to take a 10% salary cut to relieve a budget crisis; most didn’t even reply. And the editor of the local paper accused him of double dipping—taking his Bauhaus salary as well as fees for his architectural supervision of the new workers subdivision, Törten.) He fled to the Berlin he knew he could control in total disgust.

Meyers was a very articulate Communist whom the local authorities, then drifting to the political right, eventually canned in 1930. He then went to Moscow with some Bauhaus associates and their Plattenbau tradition bounced back to the Soviet satellite. Mies, who had to overcome his bad rep with the Nazis as the creator (1926) of a memorial to the two principal leaders of the German Communist party, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, cracked down hard on the Communist students. To no avail.

These retrieved images will win no photo contests. In Dessau, Lucia Moholy-Nagy and Marianne Brandt would soon show their own brilliance in the new art. But beggars can’t be choosers, especially since they were so close to having been total losers of their beginning visual heritage. The diverse images that remain from Itten’s preliminary course, which was meant at one and the same time, to introduce the students to the basics of artistic language and tell the professors as well which students were good enough to stay the entire course, are obscure and perhaps as meaningless as his obscurantist lectures. Pius (as he was familiarly known) and Itten were soon on an intellectual collision course—the former wanted mass production by fusing art and technology, the latter found such massness an insult to the artist’s vocation. Gropius fired Itten in 1924, and continued with his not yet fully focussed experimental vision.

Oddly, the most interesting photos are those of children’s room furnishings and toys, in which the Bauhaus geometric gospel of square, triangle and circle with the mandatory colors of yellow, red and blue have indeed a childish appeal. Alma Buscher is clearly the laureate of this collection. Hers are the only photos, by the way, that are humanly inhabited—kids eagerly messing around with Buscher’s innovative furniture and implements. And the only really mass produced objects are simple, foldable cots--for kindergarten naps. Easy to set up and easy to pile away when the snoozing was over.

It was one of the anomalies of the Bauhaus that Gropius set a 30% quota on female enrollments—and even forbade them entrance into the architecture program, such as it wasn’t! (This Beruf Verbot was somewhat ameliorated by the fact that there was paradoxically yet no formal architecture program--until Hannes Meyers appointment in 1928!) “Ladies” were shuffled off into “womanly” pursuits such as weaving, where the likes of Gunta Stölzl and Anni Albers eventually far outstripped their male mentors in international reputations. The taint of patriarchalism hangs sadly over this first album of Bauhaus history.

But hang on. There is more. The next three volumes will appear one a year until the Bauhaus’ ninetieth birthday in 2009. Book two will deal with weaving, book binding, wall painting, glass and sculpture workshops. Three with metal and ceramic. Four with the Haus am Horn, the famous exhibition of 1923, theater design and architecture in general. My advance peek at the original albums makes me certain the visual story gets much more interesting.

Meanwhile, Gerd Zimmerman(1946- ), the current Rector, who had the wit to “Brand” a so-so building trades school with the Bauhaus name, and follow the branding with a shrewd broadening of the curriculum to include media, design, and cultural management as well as extending its reach internationally (their prize design professor, Halifax emigrant Jay Rutherford, just returned from a lectureship in Bangalore, India and a vice deanship at the new design school in Bolzano, Italy.) Promising students are encouraged to spend a year in other Euro countries, and professors swap places casually in Beijing and Tokio. Bauhaus Uni is in the thick of the current German drive to create more elite institutions.

Michael Siebenbrodt, an Ossi from the old building trades school, has made a major play directing the Bauhaus Museum, expanding its collections from a meagre 800 to over 8,000. He has not been so successful yet in fulfilling his dream of a new museum large enough to handle everything he’s been collecting. The original name professors (Klee, Kandinsky, Feininger, and Schlemmer) are now too expensive to collect. And also-ran Bauhauslers are not attractive enough to regular tourists. And the state administration is tightening its cultural budget.

Another Ossi, later a Cologne architect, Peter Mittmann, made a local name for himself by saving the Ernst Neufert homestead in nearby Gelmeroda. Neufert was Gropius’s building superintendant for the widely praised Dessau Bauhaus. He was tempted to return in 1927 back to the Weimar building trades school, perhaps with a promise of an evntual directorship. Because Neufert didn’t leave the DDR, a certain ignominy surrounds his reputation unlike the grossly inflated ones of refugees Mies and Gropius. But his books on industrializing architectural construction appeared in 1938 and remain the standard worldwide, still in print in thirteen languages.

One of the things Bauhaus historians must do first is untangle these slanted reputations. Mittmann also created the Neufert Box in 1999 to honor Ernst’s centennial, next to the restored 1928 estate, built on a unique prefab system.The Blue Box uses Neufert’s ideas to create a visually astonishing twelve level exhibition space. The school, which ran itself ragged just staying alive for fourteen years, is now busily finding its proper place in the history of modern architecture. And Bauhaus Uni has taken up the challenge in spades.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Juilliard, Jazz and the Golden Gate Bridge

Source: The English Journal, Vol. 48, No. 6 (Sept., 1959), pp. 347-349

The teaching of eleventh grade English has come a long way when you can include, without awkwardness, film sequences of the Juilliard String Quartet, the Wilbur de Paris combo, and the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in the same half-hour lesson. Yet Clifton Fadiman did this and more in the introductory program of a twelve-part pilot series on the humanities recently screened for specialists brought together by the television section of the U. S. Office of Education in Washington.

Supported by grants from the Fund for the Advancement of Education, the series has been developed by the Council for a Television Course in the Humanities for Secondary Schools, Inc. (mercifully abbreviated to CTCH to get it on the crawl of a less than twenty one-foot TV screen!) The first twelve half-hour films-four each on Thornton Wilder's Own Town (Fadiman), Hamlet with (Maynard Mack of the Yale English Department), and Oedipus Rex (with Bernard M. W. Knox, a Classics professor from Yale)-were two years in the making. They were recently telecast over Boston's ETV channel, WGBH-TV, four times a day (8:30 a.m., 10:15 a.m., 1:00 p.m., and 7:15 p.m.) the first four days of the week, leaving Fridays for classroom testing. Over 8500 Beantown scholars in 137 public, private, and Catholic schools participated in the sessions. The course has also been tried out in St. Louis where the Fund has invested a great deal in experimental tele-teaching.

Fadiman's first session defined the humanities as the record of man's ideas and feelings about life down the centuries of recorded time. He wisely juxtaposed the Juilliard performance of Brahms' "Clarinet Quintet, Third Movement" with a swinging performance of the Wilbur de Paris jazz group, for the series is aimed primarily at the high school student who won't go on to college.

It was also smart to approach these reluctant aesthetes through a series of stills from Edward Steichen's photo-exhibition, "The Family of Man," and to close the color film with a pitch about the compatibility of science and the humanities by illustrating the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. The lively arts of jazz, photography, and technology are closest to the average high school student, and traipsing him through a Cook's tour of culture from the Greeks to the day-before-yesterday is a pretty inefficient way of developing alert patrons for contemporary art. It's like looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

That's the main trouble with the Shakespeare and Sophocles films. Both Mack and Knox are enormously articulate lecturers, and the dramatic sequences done by the Stratford (Ont.) Shakespeare troupe are first rate (Our Tomn rights were tied up for a TV spectacular and couldn't be dramatized). But the content and level of instruction are really sensible only for college-bound students who will get it anyway although rarely as expertly contrived as it is here. In fact, the real audience for the films should be future English teachers and the faculties of teachers colleges, not to mention the university pedants who somehow manage to squelch interest in a great popular playright by their sloppy preparation and audience ignoring remarks.

Another quibble about this series is that a great deal of time and money have gone into making brilliant color which then washes out on the classroom TV sets. True, Encylopedia Britannica sells the twelve polychrome films for $3000. But it would make more sense to invest that amount of money in color TV sets so that students could see and criticize as part of their classroom work the many specials broadcast by the commercial networks. Instead of trying to make grandiose and expensive gestures, it would be more prudent for schools to piggyback on the investments and interests generated by the best in commercial TV.

As it is what was originally planned as a 128-part series (with sequences on painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, and music as well as drama) has already been cut back to a projected ninety-six, done three times a week. It would make equal sense to cut down the ambitiousness of the producers to the black-and-white, nuts-and-bolts effectiveness of "Continental Classroom." The Boston series, on the other hand, is on the right track in the imaginative way it distributed free paperbacks with the texts of the plays discussed to all students participating in the experiment.

The real stumbling block, however, lies in the implicit assumption behind the choice of college-level plays: if you can bring university lecturers into the high school classroom, you can turn a public school into a private academy. The Ivy mentality is rarely to let different kinds of people develop standards for their own kinds of art but usually to assume that Ivy art and Ivy standards will civilize everybody if you push them hard enough down enough unwilling throats. "What's good for Yale is good enough for the rest of the country."

In this respect, it is interesting to note what one teacher in a Boston area prep school had to say about bringing private school caviar to the general student: "... every registered pupil received free copies of the plays to be studied . . . Even to Nobles boys who are used to owning their own texts, this free gift was exciting. We may infer from this the thrill to hundreds of public school youngsters who have never before owned a school book." Many of the Nobles students felt that "the course might fill great need in areas where English teachers are not specialists, and where the community has less access than we have to theaters, museums, symphony halls. This response may sound snobbish (and in a few cases felt so), but it seemed to represent a considered view."

It should be noted too how the presumed elite schools in America seem to feel no obligation to provide leadership in the criticism of the popular arts. What terminal high school students in the public schools really need is not genteel samples of what they won't get because they aren't going to college, but imaginative analyses of Paddy Chayefsky, Stanley Kramer, Mort Sahl, and Steve Allen. This series, in spite of the tentative right first step by Fadiman, reveals precisely why the humanities are so irrelevant to so many people in America today. Professors despise popular culture very often and make the humanities a way of escaping nostalgically out of the exciting confusions of the present. It's a tribute to the fundamental good sense of most Americans that they don't accept this genteel evasion.

Another real weakness is the humanist's sensitivity to criticism. The Humanities after all are A Good Thing, and therefore even to criticize constructively ill-conceived and grandiose plans is to accuse one's self of philistinism. Yet as more and more money is invested in television teaching, there is an even greater need for savage candor. (It might be instructive if commercial broadcasters parried the unenlightened criticism of broadcasting with trenchant critiques of poorly conceived educational broadcasting.) And a recent report from the Ford Foundation and the Fund for the Advancement of Education, "Teaching by Television," suggests that we are going to have more and more TV experimentation in the schools.

The experiments of over twenty-five colleges and universities, 100 school systems, and this academic year, more than 100,000 students and their teachers are discussed. As the birth rate zooms and teacher recruitment dawdles along, it's really no longer a question of TV or not TV teaching, but rather how good or bad. Given this squeeze in quantity of students and quality in teachers, the present situation in television teaching is important to consider.

As of February 1959, 117 colleges and universities were offering TV courses for credit, 241 are granting credit for "Continental Classroom," 569 school districts are making regular use of televised instruction. The Joint Council on Educational Television and the American Council on Education report that there are more than 150 closed-circuit installations in schools and colleges throughout the country and twenty-one military installations. The Ford Foundation and the Fund for the Advancement of Education have plunked more than $10,000,000 into more than fifty different experiments at the school and college level in the last five years. If the commercial broadcasters need sympathetic critics to mature, so now do the educators need critics to prevent the absurdity of using twentieth century machines to multiply the inadequacies of a nineteenth century concept of the humanities and of education in general.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Da Da/ Duh? Duh?/ The Ancien Regime of Twentieth Century Art

To celebrate the centennial of Alvar Aalto’s birth, I made a Pious Odyssey to Finland to savor once more his great architectural achievements. When I overnight in Helsinki, I always take a constitutional before breakfast around his supreme masterpiece Finlandia. To my dismay, I found that all the travertine cladding had been stripped off its walls.

Holy Moly! It was a Sunday and there were no workers around, but I tracked down an engineer in a hard hat and asked what was going on.”Simple,” he replied with a grin. “Aalto loved travertine too much from his Italian journeys. But the grim fact is that such a fragile stone can’t take Finnish winters. Shards were starting to fall on tourists’ heads. Can’t have that!” “So what are you going to do?” I asked plaintively. “Well, the tough-minded have argued that we must simply replace the cladding with granite which can take the cold. But of course we Finns are not tough-minded when it comes to Alvar. In honor of his Centennial, we’re doing it the hard way: thicker travertine and tougher adhesives. It will cost us several more millions down the road. But Aalto is Aalto.”

I went back to my hotel to eat breakfast, admiring the Finns for their sentimental ways when it came to great architecture. Then I hiked to the Finnish Museum of Architecture for a retrospective on his work. The epigraph made me laugh: NEVER FORGET: ARCHITECTS CAN MAKE MISTAKES! ALVAR AALTO: That should be inscribed over the entrances to all architecture schools in the world. And art schools!

The recent supershow on “Dada” that began at the Pompidou, moved to our National Gallery and recently closed at MOMA/NY is built on the complacent assumption that innovative artists have carte blanche to do anything that enters their sometimes empty heads.. It’s called experimentalism, an egregious abuse of the scientific belief that every theory must be tested against evidence. In ART, anything is supposed to go. Let that anti-intellectual fatuity loose in art and architecture schools and you have the esthetic equivalent of a building losing its cladding.

Now I’m not against artists stretching their envelopes From Cave Painting to Comic Strips, the entire history of art is a grand and elevating parade of diversity and innovation. But everything doesn’t go. And just because nineteenth century Academicism often (not always!) led to a kind of intellectual and emotional paralysis is no reason to shrug fatalistically that anything goes. It doesn’t. And mixed in with the admirable masterpieces of the twentieth century are attics full of minipieces. Mainly because what I shall call the Art Museum/Art History/Art Market Complex has authorized this Latitudinarianism, we have lost our way towards making art a civilizing factor in modern Western life.

You might say we have theologized Art in the twentieth century. The Ism Spasm that Modernism engendered has had its chance. Now we’ve got as patrons, curators, and philosophers to think freshly about what Art is for in our techno-happy society. How can we simultaneously have so many “flourishing” Museums and such a coarse and vulgar public life. I think in general the unlimited freedom Modernism bestowed on Artists has corrupted the muddled middle and made felonious the underclasses. Let me begin by analyzing the lightweight way we have regarded DaDa as an artistic manifestation.

I believe it started gradually with Romanticism in the early nineteenth century: as secular science and democratic politics began to erode the certainties that theology and absolutist power inflicted on the general public, artists began to propagandize for their new authority over morals and politics. Chateaubriand, for example, absurdly contended that “ a few lines of poetry greatly surpassed the value of all discovered mathematics.” (Ann L.Mason, The Skeptical Muse: A Study of Güinter Grass’ Conception of the Artist. Bern: Herbert Lang, 1974, p.9.)

Such ex parte piffle would ultimately emerge in the twentieth century as the Two Cultures controversy as monitored by C.P.Snow—under which dispensation humanists could not talk intellectually, or professionally, to scientists. In general, humanists know less about the nature of scientific work than vice versa. For science had in the interim had devised a complex set of theories about reality that they were continuously testing against new evidence.

The arts on the other were self-appointedly autonomous. Whatever they did “experimentally” was de facto legitimate, disciplined only by the whims of the artist in the midst of a creative surge. Dadaism was only the most absurd of those deviations from common sense. Modernism, as we know it today, while having a central tradition of thoughtful innovation, had no internal disciplines as the scientists did to monitor foolishness. Artists often exulted in the sense that they were happy fools, not governed by the quotidien. Da Da at its spasmodic worst became Duh Duh.

In 1924 El Lissitzky published a manual/manifesto in English, French, and German called the “Isms of Art” in which he tracked artistic trends from 1914 to 1925,including Cubism, Dadaism, Suprematism, Purism, Neo-Plasticism and Constructivism, to cite only the most notorious items in this Ism Spasm. (Christopher Wilk, ed., Modernism: Designing a New World (V& A Publications, 2006,p.46.) The self-confidence with which proclaimers declaimed these contradictory formulae is a lifelong counsel on the importance of prudence.

A salient example is the case of DaDa-ism which the esthetic clown Marcel Duchamps introduced by renaming a lowly urinal a high falutin’ “Fountain”. The poet Charles Simic, in reviewing the recent Dada retrospective, cites examples that exemplify the mindlessness of the movement. Tristan Tzara described how to make a Dadaist poem:

Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently.
Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag
Copy conscientiously.
The poem will be like you.

And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.

That’s the kind of art the patrons of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. (Lenin, who played chess there with Tzara while waiting for his trip to the Finland station, asked him pitifully what Dada meant. No answer, Vladimir!) One night Janko and Huelsenbeck joined Tzara on the stage to deliver what they called a “simultaneous poem” composed of separate texts in German, French, and English—and read simultaneously. And you thought World War I was crazy. And you were right. (Charles Simic, “Making It New,” The New York Review of Books, August 10, 2006,

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Closing the Barnes Door

Giorgio de Chirico: Dr. Albert C. Barnes

When the Barnes flap heated up, I had more important things to do: like learning enough German so I could research a book on the Bauhaus. In the back of my mind, though, this back door putsch to reject Dr. Albert C. Barnes(1872-) pissed me off. It was the MainLine’s last sucker punch at a man whose blue collar ideals still shame their greedy selfishness.

But Inga Saffron’s appeal for a Calder Patch on the Parkway in her lively “Skyline Online” blog started me deeper thinking. I argued that those Barnes Boo(s)ters cowering proudly on their Parthenon Hill at the rich end of the Parkway should be forced to swallow Argyrol (the ultimate winter punishment the Dominican nuns used to force down my ten year old throat in Bay City) and blow their stuffy old noses. (I was never good at civilized discourse!) But, alas, it had been almost seventy years since Sister Mary Giles had grabbed me by my aching ear and forced Dr.Barnes’ noxious toxic draft down my beleaguered throat. But in the winterim I had forgotten how to spoil the noisome stuff, so I Googled Dr. Albert C.

My God, had I been underinformed about the VC of this Mauler of the MainLine Snooties. For a start he graduated from Central High with a BS degree and at the precocious age of twenty walked away with an M.D.from Penn. This working class lad went on to study chemistry and pharmacology at the University of Berlin and later at the Ruprecht-Karls-Universitaet in Heidelberg, where he befriended a German scientist named Herman Hille.

Hille and Barnes formed the firm of Barnes and Hille in 1902 to peddle their snake oil. Later Barnes bought out Hille and the attendant fortune supported his increasingly crusading efforts to bring Great Art to the Masses. His wide reading in John Dewey, George Santayana, and William James (America’s premiere philosophers at the time) shaped his own theories about art education.

A combination of these theories and his compassion for the working man led him to start seminars for them at work. He hung Ashcan painters like William Glackens and Ernest Lawson in the Argyrol factory to be studied and discussed by his workers. His first formal classes in art appreciation were held at the factory for his employees.

In 1918 Barnes went up to Columbia University to study under John Dewey. Soon they were pals, and Barnes made Dewey the first director of education for the newly formed Barnes Foundation. He and his wife Laura bought a twelve acre aboretum in Merion from horticulturalist Joseph Lapsley Wilson, a lawyer and Civil War Veteran. He hired Penn Professor of Architecture Paul Philippe Cret to design the new Gallery and adjoining residence, now the Administration Building completed in 1925. He commissioned Jacques Lipschitz to make bas reliefs and tiles using African designs and themes by the the Enfield Pottery and Tile Works.

In 1929 he sold his company to devote himself fulltime to art education and collecting. His fondness for African Art was not as was common then among the gliteratti as the work of Primitives. He considered it from the start high art. He first got interested in the field when he accompanied his Methodist mother to African Methodist Episcopal church revivals. So it was no surprise when he entrusted his Foundation to the black Lincoln University where Horace Mann Bond was president.

(His son Julian now heads the NAACP.)In short, Barnes was a spectacularly successful alternative to MainLine Culture for the Rich and Complacent. That these reactionary forces are about to steal his great collection, skim off the “best”, and sell the rest to fund their own purposes is to me sacrilegious.

Let our bumpers proclaim, before it is too late, BUST THE BARNES BUSTERS: Let Dr. Barnes’s unique vision continue to show that Philly has its civilized side, that it wants all Philadelphians to participate in Culture. And begin by ensuring that Calder’s Patch comes first. CLOSE THE BARNES DOORS.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Tony's Snow Job

Tony Snow’s new campaign to turn the wholly discredited Cowboy President into a HyperReader is beyond ridiculous.

We’re reminded of an early Bushism when he was asked whose his favorite philosopher was and he replied, “Jesus”. Perhaps Jesus is making the tacky Texan believe that he really is Abraham Lincoln material, as he implies by his claims to having read two books on our Civil War President this year already.

Compare his ranting Second Inaugural, solely devised to get him slickly out of his own homemade Iraq quagmire with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. It’s the difference between TV Slinglish and immemorially moving prose. And to prove he’s not yet an intellectual, he is reported to love books about baseball. Why not, his Texas Rangers sinecure not only made him a millionaire after he had flopped badly four times in a row as an oilogarch.

Bush’s pathetic campaign to repeat slogans about fighting terrorism abroad so we won’t have to do it at home is simply pathetic. This man with comic book awareness of our historical past insults us all by twisting fascism to a simpleminded Procrustrean bed to suggest he’s on top of things. The country is safer when he’s cutting brush in Crawford than when he’s pretending to be President. That a great country has been conned into making him appear to be President twice will go down in history as our First Big Gaffe. We will all pay dearly for our carelessness.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Our Enemies' Weapon of Mass Destruction

Forget about weapons (plural) of mass destruction. Our enemies (plural) have only one: the uterus. Along our Mexican border, and throughout the Islamic World, our enemies are slowly but inexorably moving towards the mass destruction of America and Western Europe as we know them—through an unbridled population explosion. Our friend and ally, Israel, is already terrified by the prospect (witness the desperation of its hyperdestruction of Lebanon) of Palestinians outbirthing Jews both in Israel proper and improper (as in the occupied West Bank.)

What to do? The reasonably affluent West has learned the hard way that a small family is the best way to achieve and maintain their daily pleasures and routines. Large families mostly mean poverty in both the West and the demographically explosive Third World. How do we prevent the reproletarianization of America and its allies? The Bush II Administration tried it first with Cowboy Diplomacy: Bring ‘em on! That only alienated the few natural allies we had in parts of developed EuroAmerica. Now it’s shifting to semantic sleight of mind by coining terms like Islamo-Fascist to silence those who find our current policies self-destructive. When even so conservative a cohort as pundit George Will takes on Rumsfeld, it is panic time in the West Wing.

Such impasses are inevitable in these United States of Amnesia. George W. Bush’s sudden discovery of “freedom” and “democracy” as terms of endearment are scarcely credible in an administration that subverts democracy at home with ever more secretive policies and mocks our former ideal of a shared democracy by hyping the income of the already rich and blocking such simple expedients as raising the mininum wage As we speak, both Ford and General Motors are planning outsourcing more car production to Mexico.

The globalizing corporations have no sense of fidelity to the average American. Their terminally dumb SUV overproduction policies have surrendered without a shot the world auto market to the more thoughtful Japanese. The thinking world recognizes as well that all our sleazy moves are the cynical cover ups of Our Oiligarchy. We invaded Iraq to guarantee access to its oil reserves. Fatuous rhetoric about spreading democracy in the Middle East flies in the face of a century of collusion with the authoritarian regimes there. Even Donald Rumsfeld has no answer to his shilling for Iraq in their war with Iran. Now that such duplicities have come home to roost, W. brays fecklessly about his ideals, and pretends to be a Reader. How sad Jefferson must be. Not to mention his reputed role model, Honest Abe. Honest George?. The very concept is an oily oxymoron. Leave no President Behind.

But these recriminations help us not a whit in the current Uterine Crisis enveloping the West, from the distraught banlieus of Paris to the porous borders of the Rio Grande. Patrick J. Buchanan has just published a book deploring the inevitability of the Mexican invasion. We are outraged at a million illegal Mexicans (sporting their “legal” national flag) massing in Los Angeles to protest projected restrictive immigration policies.

But, James Polk to the contrary notwithstanding, we did steal their land from them in the 1840’s –because it was convenient, and we could! Now their long delayed counteroffensive is a wave of births that makes legal citizens of all who are born on the formerly Mexican land.( Talk about the Israeli’s and their Holy Land!) And we have to allow that the fierce destructiveness of Muslims in Europe is a belated payback for the colonial oppression that first gave them the notion of climbing onto the European social welfare wagon.

It doesn’t advamce our defenses one whit to now wave the rhetorical flag of our long besmirched ideals. That’s as feckless as Canute ineffectually commanding the waves. The only way out of our self-deluded trap is to actually start practising the ideals of a shared democracy that we have fouled with our hypocritical policies. For example, we have to stop subsidizing the American sugar millionaires and give tropical countries access to our markets.

The only way out of the Uterine Impasse is to start walking the egalitarian walk, instead of confusing ourselves by merely talking the Fourth of July talk. It’ll be a hard slog, in any case. But at least it will eventually stop our demented talk of America as “the last, best hope of Mankind”. We subverted that characterization a century ago with our brutal conquering of the Phillipines.What percentage of decent Americans have any notion of how cruelly and crudely we took over the Phillipines—as a coaling station for our new Pacific fleet? After they had fought nobly to free themselves from the Spaniards.

And believe me, we are not alone in the Uterine Wars. Spanish authorities have gone apoplectic this summer over Africans slying boating over to the Canaries. Morocco used to be their jumping (makes that diving) off place for Africans head first for Spain (and EU-ishly, all the rest of Europe.) But since Spain had the “foresight” (or chutzpah) to save itself two “free” ports on the Moroccan coast, they have been able to plug that hole in their Mediterranean dike. But the Uterine Hordes now risk their lives (over 550 have already drowned this summer alone) by boating over from more distant Mauretania, some 600 nautical miles from Tenerife.

This weekend EURONEWS reported that 674 Uteros had arrived in the last 24 hours this weekend (1-3 September 2006). And the pace is picking up: 4751 refugees altogether in 2005. 6000 in August, with an estimated total of 20,000 in 2006. While we dither and diddle, protecting oversubsidized American corporate farms, the wretched of the earth in a diaspora of despair, flood into the soft underbelly of Spain and the former Spanish America. Global warming? Energy Crisis? Islamic Terrorism? Un Uhh.

Silently, exponentially escalating Uterine Warfare.No Kaiserschnitts in this battle. We either share our wealth graciously with the lethally poor, or die separately. The true Apocalypse is just around the corner: a billion living on a dollar a day, 4 billions threatened by an obesity epidemic. Such a world ends not with a nuclear bang, but rather a starving whimper.Or overfed belch.

Finally, in these United States of Amnesia I was reminded that my hero,Thomas Jefferson, had led America's first war against Muslim terrorists, between 1801 and 1805. It was the Barbary Pirates then, an unruly lot, and since the Europeans had bought immunity, they sought out American ships. We often flew British flags to sucker the Barbary barbarians to sail in close enough to be shot out of the water, a ruse that worked more than once. The story is told freshly in Joseph Wheelan's Jefferson's War (Carroll and Graf, 2003).

This Good and Evil Syndrome George W.Bush sloppily uses, in lieu of the more difficult process of actually thinking through our new threats is a strategy doomed to failure. Oilogarchs don't think. They emote oilily. Cutting brush is not thinking. They endanger all of US with their slovenly cynicism.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

The Pleasures of Naming

May Fitzpatrick

I think I got my joy for naming from my mother, May Fitzpatrick. It’s part of my Irish temperament. In 1937 she named my first dog, Heinz, because it was such a mischling that you could easily see its 57 diverse varieties. (John Kerry’s wife Theresa got her gelt from the Pittsburg family factory famous for the diversity of its eating products.) We won’t go into the messes Heinz caused at Holy Rosary Academy when the nuns foolishly let my mother’s summer whim (a dog is good for a fatherless child) follow me in the fall to Bay City.

Our first family dog in the 1960’s we called Barnaby. There was little visible correlation between his sweet flakiness and that somewhat imposing moniker. So we often used famous short cuts like “The Barknob”. In the loneliness of my divorce, I bought a tiger cat back from the SPCA pound. He was so archetypically tiger, I called him Toby.

When he inevitably went to that Great Litter Box in the Sky, I returned to the SPCA and brought home Twoby. I was about to replace him with Threeby, when I inherited some money, quit teaching, and took a postdoctoral education snooping in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Europe. There’d be a Threeby, even a Fourby even my cat averse German wife said it was my computer room or a litter box. Not both.

One of my first passions growing up in Detroit was the Paradise Theatre on Woodward Avenue, the main drag, and conveniently close to the Cultural Center with the Main Library and Detroit Institute of Arts--so you could play hooky with an esthetic cover. Actually my humanistic education began there, watching the great “colored” dance bands of the 40’s and 50’s: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Earl “Fatha” Hines, and later the Motown Supremes.

It was my first onomastic experience: the blacks were compensating for their low esteem in the white super culture by assuming the names of royalty to snidely mock the fake egalitarianism of their “enemies”. King Oliver started the tradition way back in New Orleans. The Paradise name itself was analogous onomastic compensation, which I only found out in 1980 when I took my brother Mike back to bury him next to Mother May—in Mount Olivet Cemetery!

Courtesy of a Bicentennial historical plaque, I learned that the Paradise was originally Orchestra Hall, home of the Detroit Symphony. When the blacks moved up for the South during World War II for the good defense jobs, the whites fled to the burbs and their orchestra pitched its new (inferior) tent next to the Detroit River. No less an ear than Pablo Casals said it was the best performing space in North America. Little did we care watching vaudeville stars like PegLeg Bates entertain while we patiently waiting for the Duke.

In one of the very few happy endings in poor disintegrating Detroit, a benignly obsessed oboe player in the DSO raised twenty three million dollars to rehab the abandoned Paradise in 1982 and reopened it with a flair: the 500,000th Steinway designed by a great American wood artist. I dropped by for a rehearsal, to tease the oboist for destroying My Youth. “Hell, you say,” he tartly replied, "we have a jazz concert every Saturday night!”

When it came time to name my first batch of kids—Michael (1952), Catherine (1954), and Timothy (1956), we went Hibernian. My first wife was a kraut (father Schneider, mother Stocker) but German still had a not very welcome ring. So we went Hibernian. Except that Catherine Ann, as befit the offspring of two English professors, was a stealth tribute to a writer we were inordinately fond of at the time, Katherine Anne Porter!. Change the “K” to “C” and drop an “e”.

My latest child, until I saw it, was the last thing on earth I wanted in my 80’s. It was the only thing my young wife (40, and on the brink) wanted. She won, in vitro, after five tries! I got to name him, after ugly spats (during the pregnancy) over non starters like Leopold and Hellmutt. Ooff.

My first batch of names (for a Catholic slowly losing his faith) saint’s names were de rigeur. I chose a secular saint and hero of mine—Daniel Patrick Moynihan—to name Danny Boy. “Who?” My skeptical wife exclaimed. I Googled to his name in the Wikipedia and held forth: “Born poor in Tulsa (an Okie? that was new to me!), moved very young to Harlem where he shined shoes among other lowly occupations, Tufts U (not yet an Ivy, he!), started gaining a national rep working with Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer, was by firm principal nonpartisan, having worked for JFK; LBJ and Richard Nixon among others.”

“O.K., O.K.” Hildegard replied testily. (The list of German names was much, much longer, but I don’t want to repeat that experience!) “And he preceded Hilary Rodham Clinton as New York Senator,” bringing down to a name she recognized. So Daniel Patrick Hazard it is. I still have to deal with my Catholic relatives about the planned Lutheran baptism!

But the pleasures of naming are not restricted to one’s idiolect. (Linguists allege that each person has a use of language as unique as the fingerprint, or to be more up to date DNA.) And so do groups, even nations. Consider, for example, the American idiolect: early in the Jacksonian period working class Americans resented being regarded as “servants”. So they made up the euphemism “help”. You will see in the American idiolect a playing out of such illusions as to how we should be or actually are.

It all began with the ubiquitous “New”. New England, New Hampshire, New Netherland (morphed into New York). This linguistic trait is not unique for those who ultimately became American. Think of New Guinea, New Zealand, even New Hebrides—all manifestations of that first surge of globalization the Iberians began and the English, French, and Germans in their own ways and at their different speeds continued.

But shortly after the historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the American frontier closed—in 1893, at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a year late for the 400th anniversary due to a ill-timed financial panic, our politicians started using “New” in a more or less defensive way. The frontier may have closed, but we still have a great future: Teddy Roosevelt coined his program the New Nationalism, implying that the whole country had to learn how to bust trusts and keep “malefactors of great wealth” from taking over.

A decade later, that selectively idealistic head of Princeton and later governor of New Jersey Woodrow Wilson, talked about the “New Freedom” as a political program. We are more familiar with FDR’s “New Deal” after the great stumble of Normalcy run by Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. JFK picked the newness shtick with his “New Frontier”, marking almost a century of speculating what America’s egalitarian future would become when the physical frontier that was supposed to shape our national character was closed. Space, dreamt JFK, and saw to it that we flew to the moon. Our national idiolect is obsessed with the fear that our “New” may be over.

And then there’s the “studied casual”, that Humphrey Bogartish attire that looks very natural but is actually very artificial. Nice ‘n’ Easy does it. The “and” minus its first and last letters is endemic in our national talk and advertising. I think it suggested everyone could buy his way to a happy life, if he only surrounded himself with neat things. It’s a Saturday Evening Post version of America, a loosey goosey Normal Rockwell ideal.

What I think it implies is that there was a wide, even widening, indeed ever widening, gap between the American egalitarian Dream and how things were on the ground. Most Americans don’t realize that the American Dream as a concept didn’t become the standard version of American Exceptionalism before the Depression. (See David Madden’s “The American Dream”, LSU Press, 1966).

Bigness was also a basic trait of the American idiolect: The Whopper! The suffix –arama is a popular manifestation of this obsession with bigness. Note the fun headline writers are having now with Obama-arama! I even invented a part game I called “Suffixes”. (What do you call a sheep stud farm? A RAMARAMA!) When the guests got too loaded to think up new daffy definitions, we played the complementary quiz, “Prefixes”, based on the British penchant for using the prefix, “mini”, any and everywhere. (What do you call an undersized bull? A MINITAUR.) And so on, and on, and on. Niagara Falls, Grand Canyon, The Rockies, The Mississippi. Bigness was all, in our national character. And our idiolect shows it.

Humor is also a goofy American trait. I read recently about a small Missouri village (pop. 83) that named itself Tightwad, after a nasty dispute between a postman and a grocer over what a watermelon should cost. When a small bank was set up in 1984 in that blip in the road, patrons from all over the United States sent their money there, $3 millions was the high point. They wanted replicas of its logo, a tight fist with a sheaf of dollar bills! Students stole the village sign. Tourists bought T-shirts by the bale. MSB just pulled the plug on the Tightwad Bank because its population growth, 83-91, in 23 years was not the expansion they expected. Damn Tightwads!

Names, names, names. Personal idiolect. And national idiolect. Genesis starts with the naming of creation. It keeps on going. Nothing impersonal. It just the way the world works.