Saturday, 31 July 2010

The Way to Go

Here are two alternatives to Galloping David Dukism: one from outside the black community; one from with. (From within is by definition better than from without, because in a democracy individual and group autonomy ought to prevail, but given the fix—and fixation—we’re in, we thank the forces for Goodness for whatever favors we can get.)

Adopting a black elementary school class has become a highly esteemed act of charity. The media coverages makes the givers blush humbly; and the astonished receivers are so pleased their smiles are a classroom wide. Not to give a gift horse in the mouth, but I have two caveats before we confuse ourselves in vicarious self-congratulations: such ad hoc charity is no substitute for a fair and equitable tax system, and it’s no substitute for exploitative relations at the workplace, in effect a PR sop self-administered for what could be guilt.

I don’t intend to imply that the current instance is so guilty; it’s just that I have observed that some of our biggest philanthropists have patently been some of our crummiest employers. Those cavils aside, there should be nothing but joy in our divided country for out and out self-help and subsidized self-help.

Because when Bucks County luxury home and condo builder Robert I. Toll and his wife Jane told the third graders at Philadelphia’s Harrity Elementary School (Inquirer, 10/10/90, p. 1, cols. 1,2,+10A) they would pick up their college tuition, they coupled it with a tough proviso: they’d have to finish high school. When you learn that three out of every four of the school’s 450 students are the children of welfare recipients, you know those kids have got their charity cut out for them.

And the Tolls want their mitzvah to go on spreading like a benign tsunami of giving across history: “We are helping you so we can get what we want most out of this program. I want you to come back her 30 or 40 years from now and do what I am doing today . . . that would be the greatest reward for me and Jane.” The Tolls, who have five children of their own, for two years mulled over their decision to join the U of Penn directed SAY YES TO EDUCATION program begun by George and Diane Weiss of Hartford, Conn. three years ago when they agreed to support 112 students from the Belmont School.

The Tolls, who are graduates of Penn, live in Solebury, Bucks. “If we don’t help the children in our cities, we aren’t going to have cities soon. If we permit our cities to be destroyed, then we are really destroying ourselves.” Toll, 49 (History/Cornell, Law/Penn), practised law less than a year before joining with his brother in 1968 to build a Chester County subdivision called Inglewood. Mrs. Toll, 48, taught for many years in public elementary schools and in private schools for emotionally disturbed adolescents. She spent several days visiting schools to find “the right school and principal.” I imagine this could be divisive in a school and it’s up to the principal to establish a cooperative effort.”

Mrs. Toll plans to devote one day a week to the third graders. (She has her own construction company, Swan Development Corp.) Principal Nancy Donahue pinpoints a problem with such highly targeted charity: “There’s going to be an element of jealously. . . . People will want to know whey their child wasn’t picked. It’s unfortunate that all the children can’t be picked, but we should be happy for those that are.” Need I point out that in a country as wealthy as ours, it is only the unconscionable maldistribution of wealth and an unfair taxing system that keeps us from having publicly supported access to tertiary education.

(Actually, our whole city and country would be in less of a mess if the minority—and majority—students were using their current access to junior and senior high less wastefully than they are; we must guard against the college degree fallacy—some of the Americans I most admire, from I. F. Stone on the left to William Safire on the right, never finished college. It’s character and applied intelligence we need more of, not phony baloney degrees.)

I have many fewer problems with black Chicago idealist Gil Walker. (See George F. Will, “On the ball court after midnight, learning the rules of more than one game,” Inquirer, 10/10.90, p. 18A.) The forty-one-year-old Walker works for the Chicago Housing Authority where he has very good reason to know what empty hands and heads in the projects are wont to do. (Eighty percent of the sixteen ten-man teams he has fashioned into the Midnight Basketball League for $90,000—about what it cost to jail three men for a year—come from those notorious Chicago projects large enough to be Illinois’ second-largest city. There are a hundred gangs in Chicago with an estimated thirty thousand members.)

What qualifies an eighteen- to twenty-five year old for the MBL? You have to attend practices once a week and be what Walker calls a “successful individual,” which he defines as “anyone taking care of a family.” After each game the players get a dose of Gospel according to Gil. This sock-it-to-them Socrates teases a definition of “manhood” out of his players.

Gil: “How many babies you got?”

MBLer: “Four.”

Gil: “How many are you taking care of? Tell me their teachers’ names. You don’t know? What kind of man are you?”

It would seem, a bigger and better one when they’ve absorbed Walker’s moral coaching, which might include how to look for a job, how to get along with co-workers, how to deal with a boss who “is on your case.”

Multiply the Tolls and the Walkers by the thousands and we might make it as a country. And David Duke wouldn’t stand a chance. Incidentally, I’m looking eagerly for the first Maecenas to give an equally Fair Deal to an elementary classroom in a poor white Appalachian town. Duke is thriving on the perceived threat that increasingly poor whites feel about the Land of Opportunity shrinking to a pitiable Wasteland of Opportunism, where golden parachuting rich abandon the poor. As things are, they have a right to be pissed, and to have a spokesman in David Duke.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Raleigh, Old Chap: of Motels and Art

There's one thing sure about the vaunted research triangle of Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, N.C. Without a car, you're immobilized. The limited public transpo is clearly designed for workday blue-collars to get to their jobs and back.

So I booked a Mazda subcompact at Raleigh/Durham Airport for the lovely low rate of $17.99 a weekend day. Summer-shy of business travelers, they even offered to let me have it at the same rate until midnight Monday.

I had flown down on my new packet of USAir senior coupons. An ambiguous note in Modern Maturity had seemed to say you needn't book two weeks ahead but could stand-by, space available. I bought my packet at Philly International the same day I flew down. Airline clerks seem fuddled by the ambiguity themselves, but they're willing to let you fill an empty seat.

I headed to the nearest Motel Six. Not only have they Tom Bodetted into a major chain (more than 600), but they publish a handy directory with state maps, city highway charts and local attractions. There was a (well-used) pool, soft drink machines, news vending stands, but no restaurant.

Given its location--near where I-40 and U.S. 1 intersect--you need a car even to eat at nearby Pizza Hut, Waffle Hut or Shoney's (no prime gourmet location, but I highly recommend the Friday and Saturday gorge-on-seafood-till-you-burst special--catfish and clams were suicidally savoury).

I hadn't been to Raleigh for about five years, and the downtown hasn't improved as far as I could see. Abandoned on the weekends to seniors (who've recycled the former premier hotel, the Sir Walter) and transient blacks, it was a bleak cityscape. Amtrak sits in scuzzy isolation on the downtown's southeastern perimeter, Greyhound demoted to the old Trailways on the southwestern perimeter. (On my last visit, a spanking new Greyhound station gave you an architectural lift entering the city; it has been sold to the Post Office for an annex.)

There are no hotels near Amtrak, so you'd probably want to taxi over to the Holiday Inn/Capitol, which has attractive weekend packages when state government workers are out of town. Journey's End Motel, kitty-korner from Greyhound, is cheap and functional. If you fly in, there's a Great Western right across from Terminal C.

I had never pitstopped at North Carolina State University, the land-grant institution that did the dirty work of vet. med., dairy ag and nuclear engineering, leaving the professions to Duke and Chapel Hill. NC-SU's niche is aptly symbolized by the title of its student newspaper, The Technician. It's a scruffy campus, split in part by Hillsborough Avenue. The best thing I found was DJ's Campus Bookstore, where you can buy out-of-town newspapers as well as pick up free alternative papers like the excellent Independent Weekly.

But what I most wanted to see in Raleigh was its North Carolina Museum of Art on Blue Ridge Road. Its next-door neighbor is the penitentiary, encircled by two of the most formidable-looking rings of concertina wire I've ever seen.

Conscious of the anti-cultural milieu, architect Edward Durrell Stone has hunkered his building down behind green grass bunkers. Once you're inside, it's a kaleidoscope of interesting intersecting levels. If I hadn't stuffed myself at the International House of Pancakes, I would have stopped at their Sunday brunch. An exotic menu, a splendid view of the surrounding meadows and a live classical concert.

The American collection is particularly strong. There's a fine Eakins, of Dr. Albert Getchell (1907), who married one of the painter's students; two good William Merrit Chase portraits. But what really dazzled me was a small but fine thematic show, "Objects of Delight: Three Hundred Years of Still Life Painting," on view through the end of December.

This genre, I discovered to my mind's delight, represents a transition from the unalloyed religious commitment of medieval painting to a fascination with love of the secular. Those visual feasts meant to delight the senses are rarely found before the early 15th Century.

The genre begins to emerge around 1420 in Flanders as part of a new fascination with the visible world, which late Gothic artists invested with religious significance through disguised symbolism. Still-life elements played a subsidiary role until the 1560s. Two intellectual revolutions in Northern Europe--Calvinism and the Copernican world-view--matured the genre. Since the Calvinists considered purely religious paintings idolatrous, Dutch and Flemish artists shifted to market and kitchen scenes.

The most interesting convergences of these at least theoretically antagonistic forces occurs in the Dutch "Vanitas" still-life. Their imagery derived from emblem books and other popular literature and prints: They embodied the dour but earnest Calvinist ethic by preaching temperance, frugality and hard work.

They emphasized the vanity of all worldly things, the brevity of life, the inevitability of death. But paradoxically, they did this by attending very carefully to the marvelous surfaces of life. Life may indeed be short, but by God it is sweet. The subtext was cancelling out the text.

Vanitas in vain. The tiny butterfly in the remote right background of Francois Desportes' "Urn of Flowers with Rabbit" (1715) might suggest to the careful looker that those fruits and flowers were ephemeral. But they sure were nice while they lasted. The program for cultivating other-worldliness has been subverted by the marvels of this very real world.

I love this kind of show which doesn't hoo and ha about being complete but just takes a neat idea and exemplifies it with intelligence and imagination. In curatorial victories like this one, the small museum need never kowtow to the heavy hitters at the Met and the Louvre. The art of presenting art is in the eye of the curator.        

Reprinted from Welcomat-After Dark, Hazard at Large, November 13, 1991

Thursday, 29 July 2010

That Ain't No Bull About Durham, N.C.

It's easy enough to get from Duke University to downtown Durham, N.C. Just take the No. 6 bus from Chapel Drive at the U., and 20 minutes later you're there--except that there's mighty little there there.

I was the only unblack on the bus into town. I shifted into my typical cruise mode, looking for architecture to delight it. Precious little. The trademark Kress department store, with the usual delicious terra-cotta decoration, had been recycled into a bank, and the unkind rehabber had obliterated the lovely Kressiana with the new logo. Dodo Deco.

Except for the usual gentrified lawyers' offices (and the sleazier bail-bondman hangouts), there was no downtown. One curious detail: Bail jumpers are Polaroided in a little supplementary rogues' gallery in the street windows, complete with listed rewards (from $50 to $200).

Things were so thin I started schmoozing a Black Muslim who was hawking Minister Farrakhan's "The Final Call." He was several degrees Fahrenheit shy of a blazing sun in his cordiality--but he took my donation.

It's a bizarre read. On the alleged anti-Semitism rap, there's a fulsome take on Stokely Charmichael (under a new Afro name fashioned from two post-colonial black liberators, Kwame Ture) for founding the Worldwide African Anti-Zionist Front. The dateline was Tripoli, where Carmichael was attending the awarding of the Gadhafi Human Rights Prize, which was given this year to the "red Indian nation of the Western Hemisphere." Stokely has just turned 50, "still working like 20" and still spending about six to eight weeks a year in the U.S. laying down his anti-Zionist message.

I had a serendipitous palaver with a matronly black lady in her late 50s. She'd returned to the South--part of that benign black backlash that has just attracted the attention of demographers. She grew up in Pinecrest, N.C., but went north to live with an auntie in Perth Amboy as a young girl (I had fun trivia-lizing our conversation by asking her who was Perth Amboy's most famous citizen--she got "Count Basie" on her second guess).

For 40 years she worked in electronics in Brooklyn, then turned down a job at IBM for the slower pace of North Carolina. "Do you miss Brooklyn?" elicited a sardonic snort. "No way." That on a weekend that began, according to the Sun Herald, with the biggest spate of shootings (seven, one dead) in the history of the Durham PD and ended with four of the meanest-looking cop-killer suspects overpowering their female guard at a county jail.

There was one interesting node of green: a brand new Omni Hotel with a most compassionate rate for seniors--$50 a double, and a festival rate of $55, single or double--and a brand new technogimmick you might try out if you follow my forthcoming suggestion for a visit to the almost-dead downtown: Budget is testing a new automated rental booth. You place your driver's license face down in what they call a "document bin," slip your credit card in a slot, mug at a security camera, and voila! Keys for a car in a lot across the street drop down.

Behind the hotel is an attractive NeoDeco skyscraper for People's Security Insurance, with a parking garage that serves the Civic Center, which is part of the new Omni.

As I took the No. 6 back to Duke, deeply disappointed, my eye caught the Durham Art Center, a recycled 1930s Beaux Arts high school that opened in 1988. It's a bit grandiose for my architectural taste, but it has several commodious display spaces.

Two community-made quilts were well worth a visual dawdle: One celebrated Kwanzaa, the other the 400th anniversary of the first "British American" (careful rhetoric there) settlements in North Carolina, in which the upper right hand squares had been made by Brits, the lower left by Tarheels (that nickname for North Carolinians comes from the British Navy use of the pines for naval stores--the going sometimes got sticky from dripped sap).

But the real story about moribund-appearing downtown Durham is that it will be no corpse during the last weekend of September. Friday and Saturday, September 27-28, at the El Toro Stadium, runs the Fourth Annual Bull Durham Blues Festival, 7:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.; $15 for one day, $25 for two. And there's a September-long series of seminars and workshops on Durham as a center for Piedmont Blues. For a brochure, call the Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-772-BULL.

Beginning in the 1920s, local talents like Blind Boy Fuller, the Reverend Gary Davis and the harmonica-guitar duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee came to entertain for the bustling tobacco markets--and stayed to play roadside jukes.

Overlapping with the music festival in CenterFest, a visual arts bash on the 28th (10 a.m.-6 p.m.) and 29th (noon to 6 p.m.) on the grounds surrounding the Durham Arts Center, a five-minute walk down Morris Street from the baseball stadium. Two outdoor stages and a coffee house, 100 exhibiting crafts persons, an International Food Court, the woiks.

And be sure not to miss the Welcomat of Durham, the Independent Weekly (2810 Hillsborough Rd., Durham 27705), appearing on Wednesdays. The week I visited there was solid reporting on murder and rape trials as well as a hilarious number by columnist Hal Crowther on how the invasion of Manhattan sewers by raccoons is Saddamizing their rep as cute cuddly critters.

The Sun Herald also publishes "Preview" on Fridays. I'm sure there are many other good annual reasons for visiting deadly downtown Durham, but I doubt if there could ever be a better one than the Blues Festival plus CenterFest.

Reprinted from Welcomat-After Dark, Hazard at Large, September 18, 1991

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

One Outraged Architectural Client

John Silber’s “Architecture of the Absurd: How ‘Genius’ Disfigured a Practical Art” (The Quantuck Lane Press, 2007.)

Why listen to a allegedly cranky past president of Boston University go “ad hominen” against the starchitects of our era? Begin with his provenience. His Beaux Arts trained architect/sculptor father left Berlin in 1902 to prepare Germany’s participation in the 1904 Louisiana Purchase World’s Fair in St. Louis, 1904. And his son John, later a distinguished U of Texas Professor of Philosophy, got a special tutorial as his gofer when Dad liked what he saw so much he settled down in an architectural practice in Palestine TX.

His father was a stickler for detail! If the client called for three coats of varnish on the doors, he’d wait till the contractors went home and the mark the second coat with a pencil to see whether they later applied the third coat! If they didn’t, he’d raise holy hell until they complied. Naturally, this rankled contractors used to cutting corner. But eventually his rep was so strong, the honorable complied! Bit by bit, son John learned the details of design and construction the hard way—shadowing his eager teacher father.

So that when he became a client as Boston U prexy, he was a shrewd analyst client who knew what he wanted and how to ensure getting it. One sad story involved a new library facing the Charles for “esthetic” reasons! Winters made the main entrance a frozen exit, and it took millions to finally design a practical side entrance, less glamorous but functional 365 days a year.

The book is a collection of such architectural faux pas, culminating with his indictment of the arch(itectural) fiend Frank Geary. MIT needed a new Stata center where important secret military and industrial research was to be carried out. It was to replace the humdrum Building 20 (1943), which looked like a Bauhaus warehouse, bland beyond belief. (Except that it functioned perfectly!)

His Dream Center was to have “grand avenues” (formerly called corridors) where the artisans could inspire each other. Originally it was to cost about $100 million, or $252 a square foot. Alas, the final cost was more than 3 times the original budget at $315 millions, at $442 per square foot. And four years over due!

Juxtaposed to his Higher Goofy were splendid buildings by Fay Jones (Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel, 1988, Bella Vista, Arkansas) and Moshe Safdie (Yitzak Rabin Center, Tel Aviv, 2002). And wouldn’t you know, the old philosophy prof drags Aristotle into the argument. Listen to the timeliness of the Old Greek: “There are a number of arts in which the creative artist is not the only, or even the best, judge. There are the arts whose products can be understood and judged even by those who do not possess any skill in the art. A house, for instance, is something that can be understood by others besides the builder: indeed the user of the of a house—or in other words the householder—will judge it even better than he does.” (Ibid.,p.44.)

Think a pious moment of the thousands of pioneer modernist householders with leaky roofs! When Philip C. Johnson deigned to make the first Miesy house for the great art collector De Menil family in Houston in 1950, it rained so often their kids thought the roofer was the architect. So much for the Modernist goofs who abandoned the gable, the first major innovation in architectural history, thereby committing the Original Sin of their craftless art!

Silber shrewdly forces us to accept our given rights as users of buildings. They’re supposed to^please us not the vain architect! Old presidents don’t always die. They revert to their first expertise, and make us all think about the humanmade landscape that are supposed to serve our living needs.

Thanks, John, for clearing that up. Class dismissed!

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Goodbye to the Politics of Bloat/part 4

If I were Wilson Riles, I would feel it incumbent upon me to see whether this Watergate of wastrels can be prosecuted. Administrators so incompetent or venal that they would allow such conditions to develop as they play the ADA numbers game would be sacked in a decent society.

My prison poetry students were behind bars for trivial offenses compared to theirs—if the underground consensus of staff and students about this abuse of the Free Lunch system is true.

More frustrating to a teacher than the ADA-Vet shysters are the majority of students who do come to class—mostly tardy, often absent, almost never prepared. The want to be teacher’s Chum, and psychobabble on in a lunatic’s lexicon of current cant phrases.

(The handful of students who are taking advantage of SRJC, I must acknowledge are as good as any I’ve ever had the anywhere in Academe—U of Penna. Grad School, the East-West Center of the University of Hawaii, perky undergrad proles at Trenton (N.J.) State, or my students of five years ago at Beaver College. But what a placer mine this subsidized sandbox is: ten nuggets in a class of forty nothings. Sand. Sand. Sand.)

Any reasonable outsider must ask how could this Bloat arise? I have intimated in the beginning of this essay that the Bloat began at least with Andy Jackson’s “spoils system.” But the Bloat spread in America because everybody tried to get a piece of the action—or should we say Reaction.

The professors in my discipline are strict constructionists about open admissions; so you would expect them to blow the whistle on the Free Lunch louts.

Ah, there’s where Jacques Levy’s new book, Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa (Norton, 1975), provides a brilliant gloss on the flabbiness of liberals, maybe especially liberal professors.

Chavez had a moral crisis about quitting his secure job as a Community Service Organization worker for the wild improbabilities of organizing what became the UFW.

At one point, Chavez’s epiphany over his experience is that affluence is the great American problem—gelding so quickly, so surely; putting our soul in escrow.

That’s why your humanist professors don’t blow the whistle on the Welfare Louts. Cut back the ADA bloat to those who are earning the right to be educated at the public’s expense, and there would be massive unemployment among the clerisy.

Since conscienceless Humanist imperial administrators overproduced Ph.D.s to build their won fiefs in the 1960s, making a glut to rival Detroit’s great car park-in, the job market is already a mess, with tenure protecting the geriatric from the worthier young’s challenge.

This is no place to get into tenure but I could see starting a GAWage by pensioning off elder professors. If they dessicated, they’d be less harmful at home. If they aren’t, it would release their energies, take away the students that get in their ways anyway, I mean in the way of their bibliographies.

But the present issue is that, given the best of times (and we're in the worst), it would take a saint the size of Chavez to holler the academic equivalent of “Huelga” at flab among students, teachers, and administrators.

FLAB LIB!! The Era of Bloat is over. There’s no giving the kiss of life to a bad idea that has overlived its time. King Boodle is dead in San Clemente. Long may he be interred.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Goodbye to the Politics of Bloat/part 3

Legacy of Flab

If there weren’t a recession we should think seriously about inventing one. To exorcise us out of the Flab which is our common legacy from the Age of Bloat begun by Andy Jackson’s mendacious fiddling with a barely formed egalitarian dialogue.

There is, indeed, no Free Lunch. But there is freeloading beyond belief. I will forebear expressing my deep personal disgust with whiplash lawyer, muddlepractice doctors, and star-crazed media pros.

I will concentrate on what I know best—from twenty-five years of teaching. Last spring I was—as the saying goes—radicalized by a poetry workshop I taught at Philadelphia’s minimum security prison.

I had written off in my mind the hyperbole about Attica and the contention that all prisoners were political prisoners. Until that first Tuesday in February, when, after being frisked for the first time in life, I entered the maelstrom of the least difficult prison in the Philadelphia area.

God help those who must work, let alone be incarcerated, in the less benign ones. The noise—a cacophony of competing transistors forcing the Orwellian P.A. system to fight decibels with decibels—traumatized me.

The “library” (a catwalk about the central foyer) seemed to be at the peak point of this noise. For the first time in my life, I shouted poems at this strangely hostile audience—prisoners always attend the first of anything new—to test whether it’s more boring than their cells.

Wednesday mornings I would try to shift gears to teach in the Green Cocoon of the uppermiddleclass woman’s college I have been Professor of English at for thirteen years.

The contrast freaked me out. My poetry workshop shook itself down to a cadre of five to ten whose writings were as nutritious as their experiences were scarifying to my innocent soul.

The Attica backtalk I was terrified to learn was understatement, not hyperbole.

The “ass and grass” rottenness of my “real” students became to me a crime crying to heaven for vengeance.

As a member of the Board of Directors of the Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia, I saw how flabby super-Liberals in a cultural institution can be when a neanderthal like Frank Rizzo is Mayor. I resigned from the board when the library sat on its hands in publicism the library’s own arts festival in May, 1975—because, in my opinion, they were afraid the First Annual I. F. Stone Award, which I had organized to praise undergrad journalists in Izzy’s tradition, would embarrass them at budget time.

It was all the more galling to me when Stone himself talk with such fond joy about how he had completed his own education at that very institution when it had opened on the Parkway in 1925 while he was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania.

And so here I am in California, fleeing the absurdities of Minute Man Bicentennial in Philadelphia. Teaching media in a junior college. SrJC has better technical access to meda study than any other institution I have ever seen, including CBC and BBC related activities.

And the library staff is enthusiastically obliging. The departments I’m working with are staffed with exceedingly capable people who give the lie to the most disgraceful snobbery of all in “class-free” America, status panic over where one went to school, over where one teaches.

An Eden of an opportunity? Only potentially. Because in this land of the educational Free Lunch, the students are not only flagrantly wasting their chances to be well-educated, but they are cynically fiddling the system. Students who never showed after the first day of class—to get on the ADA rolls—appear on Drop Day to drop—I’m told, so they can repeat the fiddle for Vet’s benefits next semester—and the next—and the next.

I’m told there is a whole subculture of welfare louts who use school as a con to get more stuff at the public trough. This is knavery and can be brought before the law.

Part three of four

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Goodbye to the Politics of Bloat/part 2

Brain Trust

Briefly, FDR put together a infrastructure of a welfare system. Desperation bequeathed us, however fleetingly, the Living Theater of Hallie Flanagan, the Farm Security Administration of Walker Evans and James Agee, and murals on public buildings being re-evaluated (upward) by New York critics-curators whose gallery contacts have run out of post-impressionist canvases and whose crudely inflated Pop-Plop genres are even too bloated for the upper middleclass managers whose Money for Art is their substitute for a decent community of humans becoming persons.

The New Deal, without the necessary but not sufficient condition of a human and compassionate clerisy, created a welfare system that engendered the final dimension of Bloat—a covert patronage system for the Big City Democratic machines and, to a lesser degree, for the Big Corp-Small Agribiz G.O.P. ententes that have faked populism since FDR.

In the nineteen sixties we made one last rally to recover from the Politics of Bloat. We assembled Peace Corps, we warred on Poverty, we HEWed ourselves to death of the spirit. When poverty, disease, and ignorance didn’t dissolve like a tule fog, we pouted and raged.

Sadly, we now see that when burrocrats were saying “Poor” they really meant “Middle class professionals.” Money to organize the defeated. This is the prologue to the anti-politics of austerity.

Part two of four

Friday, 23 July 2010

Goodbye to the Politics of Bloat/part 1

The Politics of Bloat are over. The corruption of the developing democratic ethos which began with the Jacksonian “spoils system” has reduced itself to Watergate-San Clemente absurdity.

Indulgent historians of American ideology have cheated us by taking a Realpolitik tack on the degradation of the Jefferson-Adams consensus by King Andy. They have assured us that such is the way the emergent Party cookie crumbles in an egalitarian democracy. Tain’t necessarily so.

When the two gentlemen spent their retirements in an elegantly urgent discussion of guaranteeing a natural aristocracy of talent, they spoke more eloquently and pertinently than our burro-crats in the several National Endowments (more properly, Grants for the Professoriat, a group by and large grossly overpaid already).

More ominous than Jackson’s second winning of the Presidency in 1828 (he always felt the Virginia-Mass. axis had fiddled him out of his “first” election in 1824) was the mysterious coincidence of the two savants dying on 4 July 1826, separately but equally lost, on the Golden Jubilee of the Declaration of Independence.

It took an astringently agnostic sensibility indeed to doubt that America was obviously the apple of the Divine Eye in the Sky, a City on the Hill, which Lincoln would come to call the “world’s last, best hope.”

But Andy’s bad habits enticed an entire nation, over time, into the moral flabbiness that now confuses and confounds us. First, it was the sunshine patriots who left the word “shoddy” in our version of English because of their contemptible profiteering over the nation’s third great tragedy.

(We can no longer accept the facile notion that the Civil War was an innocent American Adam’s first brush with evil, a fratricide Fall from Eden. American Indian genocide and Black African slavery were the first and second covert losses of innocence, linking, as Melville put it with such pain. Nature’s fairest hope and history’s foulest crime.

If the Civil War was a proving ground for America’s first gaggle of plutocrats, then the Gilded Age deepened the hold of Bloat on our culture.

William Dean Howells noted ruefully that the millionaire had become the new hero of America. Horatio Alger legitimized the larceny and looting of a thousand dime-store Robber Barrons. (There is an amusing onomastic battle going on at Leland Stanford, Jr. University in Palo Alto. During the peak of Libbery, the sports of that university dropped the name “Indians.” A student election in December 1975 substituted the word “robber Barons.” University administrators titter nervously and speak darkly of (ha ha) black Undergrad humor. Let us not get too close to the truth about how and where Stanford’s endowment came from!)

How gullible the professors and artocrats were, how cheaply bought off at the turn of the century. Jack London, whose centennial we should be celebrating—in sack cloth and ashes—instead of the superTinsel Buy-Cents-tennial, told the Carnegies and Rockefellers of his days (1876–1916) that seeding libraries across the defaced face of Americas was no even deal for the twelve hour days in dirt and disaster of the New Immigrants who sweated the steel for Sandburg’s skyscrapers out of their own bodies.

See John Beecher’s remarkable Report to the Stockholders (of U.S. Steel Corporation, Birmingham, Alabama, 1920). It is no accident that Beecher is the Hugh MacDiarmid of America—those Vanderbilt Aesthetes who took their stand on a platform of benignly neglectful racism ignored him because his integrity exposes the shabbiness of their Grayflanneled Diaspora to Minnesota and Yale and Kenyon.

Rarely has a clerisy with such high pretensions been so quickly co-opted by the Snopeses of the North. They not only didn’t criticize the Bloat of the twenties and thirties—they added to it, savoring the pecks that accrue to housebroken humanists, exemplifying the truth of the old Latin aphorism that corruption of the best is worst.

Even Robert Penn Warren’s Jefferson Lecture (1974) for the National Endowment for the Humanities, though he has recanted the disgraceful racism of his essay in I’ll Take My Stand (1930), is so abstract a reading of American literature and experience that it will embarrass no one, not Richard Nixon nor Ronald Berman. It is indeed a Cass Mastersly performance of not coping with the anguish of our national history.

So if the self-appointed Clerisy of the New Criticism had no strictures in the Era of Bloat, because they were themselves so much a part of the Great Flab of supersalaries and prodigal grantsmanship, we haven’t had many calling us like we are—fat and unsassy, indifferent to the cruel lives cleaning ladies live.

Bloat rules. When the dollar-franc ratio made Paris less of a free lunch, or ex-patriot writers of the 1920s came home to a dying capitalism, to help, for a change, for a bit, it turned out. Massive leftism among our clerisy, a bit of mindlessness they would just as massively defect from during the mccarthyism episode, hiding behind the abstract vagaries of action painting and abstract inexpressivism.

Part one of four

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Globish extra

Globish is the worldwide dialect of the third millennium. More than a lingua franca, the rapid adoption of "decaffeinated English", according to the man who coined the term "Globish", makes it the world's most widely spoken language.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Let a thousand decorators blossom.

I wish the underthinking Jew who accused me of anti-Semitism for calling nineteenth century Jewish kitsch kitsch could come with me in spirit to the National Museum of American Jewish History before April 30 to see "Moshe Zabari: A Twenty-five Year Retrospective" of Jewish ritual objects. Now there's great Jewish religious art, like mezuzah (1984) made for the Lubavitch Youth Organization, in which the three Hebrew letters that make up one of the names of God (Shaddai) are layered to create the form of the object.

Or (alas, not in the show) a Purim noisemaker (1984) of silver, steel, coral and lapis beads in which a figure standing on a horse can be whirled about to create the ritual sounds. Zabari's range is levitatingly broad--alms boxes, hallah trays, seder sets, Torah appurtenances, he leaves no traditional piece unenhanced. And his control of diverse materials is also inspiring. There is something marvelously sustaining to see age old values embodied in the freshest eloquence.

My second Judaica episode of this weekend was the Vatican treasures at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It reminded me of how let down I was the first time I saw Persian miniatures and realized that the medieval Roman Catholic illuminated manuscripts I grew up loving were pinched from Persia in particular and Arab culture generally.

I have since learned to savor excellence no matter what its provenance. So I have no problem relishing the imagery that Jews picked up from Christian traditions in Europe. I exult in the benign promiscuousness of the process. Note how the Spanish texts have a Moorish tang, the German a Teutonic grossness, the Italian a floral flair. Diane Eacret, the NMAJH publicist, had even seen Judaeo-Persian manuscripts. Maybe we ought to see in the friendly sharing of our medieval ancestors an alternative to our current impasses.

I regard the effort to elevate the great millenia-long craft of pot-making into a Fine Art as intellectually demented. It's part of what I call the M.F.A.-ification of art education. Partly as an offshoot of the Abstract Expressionist brouhaha (with rearward looks putting more and more emphasis on the ha-ha of this witches brews) all crafts aspire to nonobjectivityhood. The non-functional works so engendered are of course completely functional--they function to make lots of money for a few M.F.A.'s who strike it rich peddling the Higher Goofy to nouveaux riches BMWers with more money than taste and with absolutely no confidence in their own independent art judgments.

All of this is by way of prologue to the Delaware Art Museum's recent participation as the last stop in the Quilt National fifth biennial juried exhibition of contemporary quilts. Fifty of them from five countries--Great Britain, West Germany, Japan and France. As the press release exudes, "Quilt National '87 provides an opportunity to see how quiltmaking is changing an age old craft to an increasingly popular fine arts movement." I beg to differ.

The genius of the quilt as a genre is its deepest roots in folk traditions. The whole concept of "fine" is a Renaissance hustle, when the new dukes wanted to have the best of everything to express their status. So artisans doing the daily jobs were lower than the top cadre of cats stroking the lords, sacred and temporal. There are maybe five at DAM I'd like to have in my collection. All of the are skillful manipulation of materials, but in my opinion the effort to "raise" a glorious folk art to an MFA's badge of status is not only meretricious but disgusting.

Tell me, you teachers of Fine Art, how come our common environment (subway, public spaces, institutional corridors, streets) becomes more dismal by the day while you turn our minions for the upper middle class whom you have taught to believe that New is Good, Newer is Better, and Newest is Best. I no longer believe it. And I sneer at your fatuous complacency.

I declare a CounterReformation against the bill of goods Greenberg and Rosenberg sold us during the McCarthy Cold War scare when former Commies and pinkos dove under the Bed of Formalism to keep from losing their jobs. As our savants spin their wheels trying to make it looks like their return to figuration is not a return at all (they always loved the image, you know that).

When you read this, it will be too late to check out my judgments against the real things, but the excellent all-color catalog at DAM will let you get a good enough idea, except for the humongous ball that Philadelphian quilter Virginia Jacobs calls "Krakow Kabuki Waltz" (Polish joke?) It's lovely, but it ain't a Q, baby.

I was doubly eager to get to the Artists Equity Association of Philadelphia's "Celebrate Art in Philadelphia"--first, because I'm ashamed to admit that although I moved into Philly from Levittown thirty years this coming August, I had yet to visit Memorial Hall, and second, because I have been eager to learn more about AE ever since teaching with Ben Spruance at Beaver 1962-67 and hearing his heroic tales of its founding.

The median level of the work of the fifty AE's exhibiting was lacking lustre, to put it most charitably. Maybe there were ten artists whose work I'd make a second effort to see and savour. Definitely five, Cathie Freeman, who makes very attractive low-fired clay wall plaques in soft satisfying colors, had a publicity piece on her wall from a magazine called Niche, a medium for retailers. There has never been such an artist exploration since the MFA-ification of art education that the crafty art type must find a way to satisfy a very particular need of a specialized audience.

Rose Brein-Finkel has found such a niche with her cat imagery and her embossed cards. Amishland Prints by Xtian Newswanger is another neat niche. And Nancy Waldin, who takes commissions for fabric portraits of a person's house (one had delicious calicos serving for a clump of diverse trees), has a niche. She was a frustrated painter until she found a way to express herself in a fashion that has commissions stacked up until September 1989. The only artist who really knocked me out is a recent immigrant from Israel, Tsarfati.

Heh, I can hear you saying, "Who the hell does he think he is, dismissing AE out of hand." I only know what I really like and there was precious little of that at AE's outing. I'm quite willing to grant that in a pluralistic society there are many levels of artistic skill and taste. The President also told me it cost between three and four thousands dollars to rent Memorial Hall and stage the show. And that AE was going to come out of it with a modest profit. So maybe it's just a perk for the members--the solidarity of exhibiting together must have a very positive impact on the members. Let's settle for this. Houses have interiors which need to be decorated. Let a thousand decorators blossom.

Reprinted from Art Matters, EYE 95/April 1989

Monday, 19 July 2010

More Marianne, Please

The centennial of Marianne Moore's birth--what better conjunction for Women's History and Poetry Months? The current exhibition at the Rosenbach Museum and Library is an ingenious incitement to the only proper way to praise a poet--by reading more of the verse with an attention that imitates the high seriousness with which it was written.

Patricia C. Willis' catalog, Marianne Moore: Vision into Verse, distills the expertise that has mellowed since Willis' Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Chicago, the recent publication of The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore (Viking, $24.95) and her current editorship of The Marianne Moore Newsletter.

But all of this heavy-hitting scholarship has not rendered Willis heavy-handed. Moore had an untiring eye for illuminating metaphors lying fallow in the natural world. As she wrote late in her career in the Christian Science Monitor: "I think books are chiefly responsible for my doggedly self-determined effort to write: books and verisimilitude: I like to describe things."

Does she ever! Such as "A Jelly Fish" observed in a Bryn Mawr biology class in 1908:

Visible, invisible,
A fluctuating charm,
An amber-colored amethyst
inhabits it; your arm
Approaches, and
It opens and
It closes;
You have meant
To catch it,
And it shrivels;
You abandon
Your intent--

Willis juxtaposes a page from Marianne's biology lab report with the poem it engendered. Those Rosenbach vaults are richly freighted with the raw materials of Moore's shaping imagination.

Her eye caught on the most diverse phenomena: a glacier in the Pacific Northwest, the main garden at Versailles, a desert rat in Egypt, a rare Costa Rican lizard in the London zoo, the Bell lab's quartz clocks for the precisest of time keeping, Kiwi shoe polish, the jockey Ted Atkinson, fat Hampshire pigs in Missouri, a new chemical for moth suppression in an industrial lab, an old photo of the amusement park that gave way to LaGuardia Airport, the Venerable Camperdown Elm in Prospect Park she helped save from the "improvers." It is astonishing how ecumenical this Midas of the mundane could be.

I was surprised to read that Bryn Mawr denied her the English major. One professor, upon whom mercy bestows anonymity, quibbled: "Please, a little lucidity! Your obscurity becomes greater and greater." What a felix culpa. Her fall from English department gracelessness endowed her with several more semesters of biology. (Because her engineer father entered a mental institution early in her life, she, her minister brother and her mother were always hard-pressed financially.)

Fate dealt her another happy blow--she flunked her interview for work at the Ladies Home Journal. What a melancholy "what if," Moore punching a Curtis time clock in the Lazy Land of Norman Rockwell. Her first job, alas, was a summer one at Lake Placid, typing for the library-innovating spelling reformer Melvil Dewey.

The detailed, high-pressure work was not her cup of tedium. A year intervenes before she works again--as a teacher of business subjects at the United States Indian School in Carlisle. I relish the decorum of her addressing her Olympian student Jim Thorpe as "James."

Out of this nondescript background emerged a major modernist poet praised alike by T.S. Eliot ("an original sensibility and alert intelligence and deep feeling") and William Carlos Williams, who couldn't resist taking a poke at T.S. in his praise of her ("nothing is hollow or waste to the imagination of Marianne Moore").

A fit epitaph for the poet whose poem "Poetry" taught my generation to dislike the fiddle of pseudo-poetry and to displace high-sounding interpretation with closely observed particulars. Bless her fine eye.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, March 4, 1987

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Integrated communities

Levin’s evocation of 1959 rang a bell: It was the year we moved from a rented, unintegrated Levittown to an experiment in an integrated community in Northeast Philly: Morris Milgram’s Greenbelt Knoll. Never did my three children fear their own streets, most of their friends being black.

As my family now sells this house 50 years later, we salute the idealist who conceived the experiment. It worked, beautifully, Morris. Thanks.

We need more Milgrams to show the way.

Patrick D. Hazard
Weimar, Germany
July 1, 2010

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Santiago

Calatrava! I've been adoring his Lyons station for decades!

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Stuff

Overconsumption is costing us the Earth and human happiness.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Globish Banned

If only a John McWhorter had been around when Marshall McLuhan lost it! It would have saved Humanistic Studies in America a generation of dissolution by European Mystiphysics. His current essay in the New Republic is groundbreaking in the sense of turning our abused intellectual soil over something edible would grow there again. I taught Am Lit for thirty years beginning in 1952 while finishing my doctoral prelims at Michigan State. A Ford grant in 1955 took me to New York to devise ways of coping with newer media, especially TV.

(I became the radio TV Editor at Scholastic Teacher for six years, until an appointment at the University of Hawaii made a Variety subscription inaccessible.) Marshall was spreading his latest gospel at TC, Columbia. The more I knew him face to face, the less credible he became. My doctoral committee at Western Reserve rejected in 1952 my proposal to write my dissertation on McLuhan. As a philosophy major at the Jesuit University of Detroit I had become a Commonweal Catholic reader, where Marshall first tried out the ideas that became “The Mechanical Bride”.

Anyway at the 4C’s convention in New York in 1956, the English brass from Trenton State were beguiled by my convention speech, “Liberace and the Future of Cultural Criticism,” and invited me to teach there. In the next year, my dissertation accepted, I was awarded a Carnegie post doctoral to spend two year at Penn creating a new Am Civ course on the Mass Society.

During the second year Walter Annenberg gave Penn $2 million to found the Annenberg School at Penn. Faute de mieux, I became Penn’s gofer while they searched for a dean. (I was dispatched to J Schools and business conferences to spread “our new word”. Gilbert Seldes preceded McLuhan my mentor. (“The Seven Lively Arts” (1924) turned me on to Pop Cult crit.) I promoted him as dean successfully and became his gofer!

Ironically the business contacts were thrilled at the arts emphasis of the new Annenberg, but the burned out M.E.’s who mostly ran the J Schools mocked us for taking Walter’s dirty money! They sneered that Hearst had tried the same gambit a generation earlier and they gave him the boot. Except for the new cadre of socially scientific communications “scholars”. Not the great figures like Wilbur Schramm. The untenured climbers had no ethics. Such news rattled the New School’s “thinkers”. I taught media history in the Annenberg until David Riesman recommended me as the first director of the American Studies Institute at Hawaii’s splendid innovation of the East West Center in 1961.

Alas “the best job I ever had” had some flaws. The first was a cut of $3000 from my promised salary—after my family of three small children had already arrived—no negotiation possible! The second flaw was that my number two had spent the ten years since his Iowa PhD working for the CIA. His task was to keep Asian and American students (and professors “clean” politically! And we had just left a new Louie Kahn house in Philly while we scrounged in a small house a bachelor English professor left for a sabbatical.

We returned to Philly where I became English chair at Arcadia University. My media interests NPR, Time Life adviser for BBC, American correspondent for the British Film Institute’s journal, publication in The Nation and The New Republic (my first piece there was about the second banana in TV’s “The Honeymooners” called “Out of the Sewer and into the Sky”. Once you’ve visited Gay BBC, it’s more and more boring back on the suburban farm! One saving grace was the WFIL-TV program manager with two lobes. Tom Jones created “American Bandstand” with his right lobe while his left let me shoot cultural TV on his station.

Meanwhile back at the farm, I was trying to update Am Lit by turning it gradually into International English Lit. I premiered the new angle in London by pairing writers, Dickens/Twain, Whitman/Arnold, Emily/Hopkins. It works! In London I booked poets like Australia’s Robert Frost, A.D. Hope. It worked. Back home, I added AfroAm Lit (slyly pairing it with Appalachian Lit!) I designed a conference with Seamus Heaney, Michael Harper, and the Jamaican egghead Rex Nettleford. They bought into my Globish concept: Am Lit plus Commonwealth Lit equals International English Lit. (Except for the cranky editor of Canadian Commonwealth Lit who saw it as a CIA plot.

Imagine me who celebrated our BiCen by founding The Centre for Internationalising English to neutralize the CIA by dispersing IEL poems throughout the world. My saner filmmaker son Michael changed the name to the Center for International Education in St. Paul where for the last thirty years he has making the humanities more intelligible with films on the likes of locals Tom McGrath and Robert Bly.

I attended the Commonwealth Educational Ministers Conference in Lagos in 1968 with Wole Soyinka’s TV film on Nigerian Lit, as an example for other Commonwealth Countries. Alas, after showing it at the American Embassy, three CID detectives detained me for ten hours as their lieutenant interrogated me on my intentions! Only because the Canadian ambassador shamed them at a reception the next evening did the give me back my camera and tape recorder! Yo, I never knew Culture could be so exciting. They didn’t return my film until six months later in London. Fools work slowly!

When my mother died in 1982, I grandly gave the Dean a letter of resignation on Walt Whitman’s Birthday. I soon was writing cultural reports for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Business Journal (my first masthead and greatest editor). Then I went to Shanghai to study Mandarin for six weeks as a cover for my first “scoop”, the first foreign visit of the Shanghai Museum to the SF Asian Art Museum, with the cover story on Focus, the monthly magazine of KQED-TV.

What followed was a decade of Globish trotting to Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Europe. Followed by a decade in Philly writing a weekly column called “Hazard-at-Large” putting to work what I had learned on my travels. The only thing better than reading an unusually (but rare) student paper is making a weekly deadline in an alternative paper, “The Welcomat”.

When I started trailing the Globish options (which simulates poorly what I want to do!), I found that while I was scooting around, Europeans were holding scholarly conferences on IE, almost bereft of American input! I will soon outline their achievements in another essay. It’s encouraging! John McWhorter will be thrilled! (I hope: he clearly doesn’t thrill easily.) Read me later.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Moore is more

On Amy Goodman's Michael Moore.

I have long admired Michael Moore's committed idealism, but have known little of his slowly sliding into media. I grew up in Detroit (1930-50) and worked in three different factories to finance a Ph.D. in American Literature. I taught college for almost thirty years then became a free lance media critic where I could do more to change opinion. The most salient point in the interview is the analysis of Reagan's deliberate deindustrialization of America through his Acapulco secret meetings.

First, auto execs shifted production from Michigan to the union free South, then Mexico, the anywhere cheaper. This was an egregious treachery which we must report to the American people like this Goodman interview does. From "Every American can be President" to the sleazy shift from workers making a decent wage to Bushed-up execs becoming millionaires.

Chris Hedges has pointed out how Ike's fear of the military industrial complex has come true with America having almost 800 bases around the world and a military budget more than the entire rest of the world. Bless Michael for digging in up in Northern Michigan (where I spent grand summers) before Reaganism deindustrialized the state.

Patrick D. Hazard, Weimar, Germany, where I'm researching a book on the idealism of Walter Gropius's Bauhaus. Incidentally, German industrialists, having learned painfully from the Nazi era, would never break its unions nor deindustrialize cynically for a quick Euro.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Hail Sonia, Whose Mantle Picasso Wore

At some point in the last 15 years I became obsessed by the conviction that several 20th-Century woman artists had been unfairly eclipsed by their famous but artistically inferior male companions.

It began with my simple amazement that I had never even heard of Frida Kahlo (twice married to Diego Rivera) until I saw two of her canvasses at the Phoenix Art Museum; Sophie Tauebner (married to Hans Arp) until the Museum of Modern Art gave her a one-person show; Gabrielle Muenter (Wasily Kandinsky’s mistress) until Princeton mounted a retrospective several years ago; Marianne Werefkind (whom Alexei Jawlensky grossly abused by seducing her young ward) until the Municipal Art Museum in Ascona, Switzerland, honored the 50th anniversary of her death in 1988; and Sonia Delaunay (wife of Robert), who gave up her own art making for ten years after his early death in 1941 to reestablish his reputation.

Axel Madsen’s fine new biography, Sonia Delaunay: Artist of the Lost Generation (McGraw-Hill, $24.95), has started me thinking yet again about how skewed the canon of modernism remains.

Sonia was born in 1885 in the Ukraine as Sarah Stern, precocious daughter of a factory mechanic, the same year that Robert was born in Paris to a down-at-the-heels countess. Sarah became Sonia when her uncle, Henri Terk, adopted her in St. Petersburg, where he had accumulated a fortune as a lawyer.

Sonia was thus blessed by the upper-middle-class secular Jewish milieu, with its highly developed cultural interests. She was recognized as a genius by a high school teacher who later became the founding director of the Museum of Popular Art.

She began her formal training in Karlsruhe and spent a year in Paris, where she had a munificent $1,000-a-month stipend. To get a second year, she entered into a marriage of convenience with homosexual art dealer Willi Uhde, who drew her wholeheartedly into the artistic life of the world capital of art.

She met and fell deeply in love with Robert, even though he was a loudmouthed, arrogant man consumed with a sense of his own great future.

Robert was basing his aesthetic of Simultaneous Art on an 1839 treatise by Michel-Eugene Chevreuil which asserted: “When two objects of different colors are placed side by side, neither keeps its own color and each acquires a new tint due to the influence of the colors of other objects.”

Out of this, he ultimately fashioned a theory of non-figurative abstraction which he believed established his claim to be one of the major pioneers of modernism. No matter that he dabbed in cubism (with his Eiffel Tower and San Severin suites) or futurism in his soccer-player canvasses or that he did a great many potboiling portraits.

More mysterious is that Sonia took him at his own face value, systematically deprecating herself. Sidney Janis had come to inspect her lode of Robert’s work with a view to a major exhibition in his New York gallery. He noticed another painting on the wall of the staircase. “Who did that?” he inquired.

“That one is by me,” she replied humbly. Janis was speechless in awe. Finally, he told her: “You know, you’re a great artist.”

At 67, she was free to become her best self. She once confided to a friend that she had led three lives—one for Robert, a second for her son and grandsons, and then her own. Since she lived to be 94 and was protean in every conceivable medium, we have a great deal more evidence of her genius than we do of Robert’s, who seemed to be a manic-depressive with down periods when he did nothing artistic and manic surges when he wasted a lot of Sonia’s hard-earned francs on crackpot schemes.

She was strangely anti-feminist, rarely agreeing to enter women-only shows, was almost entirely apolitical and was happy only when she was boosting Robert’s reputation or creating in an astonishing range of media. She considered no art “minor”: She lectured at the Sorbonne in 1927 on the influence of painting on dress design.

When the Russian Revolution abruptly cut off her monthly remittances from St. Petersburg, she turned to fashion, where her funky color schemes made her work the talk of the town. She opened a Casa Sonia in Madrid. Her Ateliers Simultanes made her the darling of the Art Deco era.

She and Robert lived a very hard life during World War II, eking out a meager existence, sometimes by selling old work to Swiss museums or to the Guggenheims.

She was devastated when Robert died of rectal cancer, but her friends rallied around—especially the Arps—and she plotted how she’d establish her dead husband’s reputation once the war was over. Her only son, Charles, joined the Resistance and returned at the end of the war to his role as the premiere organizer of American jazz in Europe.

She could be a fierce fighter when she thought the Delaunay legacy was threatened. When Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning started drifting into Paris to take over the abstract art movement, she railed at them as “dirty foreigners.” She became a favorite of Andre Malraux when he assumed the mantel of De Gaulle’s Ministry of Culture, and even le grand Charles honored her at the Elysee Palace.

Still, since I’ve become convinced she is one of the greatest artists—if not the greatest—of the 20th century, I play a quiet game in arty conversations. Nine out of ten who know Robert (however vaguely) have never heard of Sonia. But shows at the Bellerive (Zurich) and MOMA (Paris) convinced me gender-skewed criticism has given Picasso Delaunay’s rightful place.

from Welcomat: After Dark – Hazard-at-Large, September 12, 1990

Friday, 9 July 2010

Monkeywrencher supreme

Oh, the Sisyphean unendingness of American literature. With over 50,000 new titles a year, you shouldn’t feel frustrated at gaps. But when you read an eloquent eulogy like Edward Hoagland’s of Edward Abbey in the May 7th New York Times Book Review, you rue that you didn’t get to know this authentic geezer sooner.
 
The eco-raider Abbey left his native Appalachia on a rail (road) at 17, where he had been engendered idiosyncratically by a WCTU mother and a Wobbly organizer of a father (who still cuts hickory fence posts for a living.) I like his father’s given names—Paul Revere.
 
After five wives, five children and six decades of never suffering technologizing fools gladly, Abbey was buried out in the desert West he loved truly—under stones piled to keep his buddies the coyotes from metabolizing what was left of him, and several pseudograves to keep Ph.D. students of the future in a froth of frustration.
 
His funeral was a 12-hour debauch in a wilderness outside Tucson, attended by the kind of unpersuadable haters of progress for whom Abbey set a very high standard.
 
Hoagland’s praise sent me scuttling to the Torresdale Free Library branch where, lo and behold, they had Abbey’s most popular book (500,000 sold in paperback), The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975). It’s a romp for the Greens of this Earth.
 
The book’s four principals share a passion to subvert the industrial corruption of those wide-open spaces. One is an Albuquerque surgeon on the brink of middle-age who sets the stage for the novel’s theme of eco-terrorism by burning down billboards with the Bronx Jewish girl of his choice.
 
All billboards bug them, but especially ones like WONDER ENRICHED BREAD HELPS BUILD STRONG BODIES 12 WAYS. And political malarkey like WHAT’S WRONG WITH BEING RIGHT? JOIN THE JOHN BIRCH SOCIETY. But any old obfuscation of nature will do.
 
And when the advertising industry ups their ante by putting up steel stanchions, Doc and Bonnie go just technological enough to undo their sworn enemies. Doc’s bumper sticker puts their credo succinctly: GOD BLESS AMERICA; LET’S SAVE SOME OF IT. It’s a gloss on one of Abbey’s favorite resolves: Let’s keep the world the way it was.
 
Returning the Colorado River to its pristine pre-Glen Canyon Dam condition is the highest ambition of the most knowledgeable of the Gang of Four—Seldom Seen Smith, a failed Mormon whose nickname alludes to the state of his several wives, who are salted like caches of food and supplies throughout the territory.
 
And George Washington Hayduke, a Green Beret whose advanced seminar in technological disaster was picked up in the course of his Vietnam service. He is more than mildly nutty from the experience, and Abbey’s deft interweaving of how our high tech-warriors in Nam are a piece with the oil, coal, uranium and power predators “improving” the four corners of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico is one of the most successful parts of his fiction.
 
This foursome never does get to the often-fantasized destruction of the Glen Canyon Dam, although Abbey’s sweetly ironic ending implies that Hayduke has resurrected himself from the dead to become a “security” guard inside the dam. Hot Dam, they seem to conclude.
 
Two kinds of expertise give a satisfying verisimilitude to their varied maneuvers. We learn—bolt by bolt, almost—how to decommission big Caterpillar tractors and other construction gear, how to blow up railroads, how to (almost) deconstruct ferroconcrete canyon bridges with thermite.
 
The almost-video-game violence of this capers encapsulates Abbey’s hatred for industrialism and all its works and pomps. The other expertise is the knowledge of the land they need to elude the posses which misconstrue the epidemic of mayhem as part of the American Indian Movement.
 
Their AIM is deeper than that of the indigenes. It’s a dream of returning to the status quo ante—keeping the world the way it once was. The chases they engage in are epic in scope. You’ll be amazed and pleased how often, how intelligently, and how long they elude the law.
 
Ironically, it’s the Hippocratic Oath that catches the doctor and his girl friend. They’re too civilized to defeat the barbarians of progress and power. The story once in a while takes on New Masses cartoonishness. But the characters are so feisty, you forget and forgive.
 
I will close this grateful discovery the way Hoagland does, quoting from Abbey’s Appalachian Wilderness: ”How strange and wonderful is our home, our earth, with its swirling vaporous atmosphere, it’s flowing and frozen climbing creatures, and croaking things with wings that hang on rocks and soar through fog, the furry grass, the scaly seas … how utterly rich and wild … Yet some among us have the nerve, the insolence, the brass, the gall to whine about the limitations of our earthbound fate and yearn for some more perfect world beyond the sky. We are none of us good enough for the world we have.”
 
Coda: Political Life Imitates Art. Dick Russell in “Earth Last!”, The Nation (July 17): “Some fifty agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation—in helicopters, on horseback and on foot with bloodhounds—lit up the desert sky with flares and moved in on our four environmentalists who, in the Arizona darkness, were about to cut the power line to a pumping plant along the Central Arizona Project, a massive and controversial irrigation canal staunchly opposed by conservationists.
 
“One of the four ‘monkeywrenchers,’ an FBI undercover agent who called himself Mike Tait, abruptly vanished. Peg Millet of the Earth First! speakers' bureau and two activists from Prescott, Mark Davis and Marc Baker, were taken into custody.”
 
from Welcomat: After Dark – Hazard-at-Large, August 2, 1989

Thursday, 8 July 2010

DuBois and Robeson return

Waste has been, until very recently and with few exceptions, as American as Apple Pie. The apparent limitlessness of our natural resources discouraged husbandry. Ghost town and fly-by-night became national pass words. Human resources where not protected from such profligacy either, especially if one were unlucky enough to be black, brown, red or female.
 
Take black American geniuses like W.E. B. DuBois, Paul Robeson and Philly Joe Jones. It took the estimable Library of America series five years and 34 volumes before they got around to publishing DuBois, the first black writer in the series. No matter: better late than never.
 
It is instructive to read DuBois in the midst of the ConBiCen. His doctoral dissertation at Harvard (in 1895, the first black to get a Ph.D. there) was on the suppression of the slave trade. And he pins down the tradeoff that eventually resulted in the nefarious formula that five blacks were demographically equal to three whites: Northern commercial interests agreed not to ban the importation of slaves if the South would not encumber its eventual adversary with too harsh shipping controls.
 
DuBois also has a strong Philly connection: In 1896 he was hired by the University of Pennsylvania as an “investigator” (no tenure track nonsense!) at $900 per annum to prepare a sociological study of the city’s black population, a landmark ethnic investigation. Imagine how the course of white/black relations in this city and in the nation at large might have been ameliorated if some administrator at Penn had the courage to appoint this obviously promising scholar to its faculty.
 
Admittedly, DuBois was not a man to suffer fools, high I.Q. or low, of whatever color, gladly. Take Carl Van Vechten, the darling of cafĂ© society in the 1920s, held up as an open-minded man because he got Manhattan midtowners to slum at the likes of the Cotton Club—where no blacks were served and where light-colored blacks did the entertaining.
 
DuBois was not misled, savaging Van Vechten’s condescending novel, Nigger Heaven (1926), “To him the black cabaret is Harlem; around it all his characters gravitate … Such a theory of Harlem is nonsense … The average colored man in Harlem is an everyday laborer, attending church, lodge and movie and as conservative and as conventional as ordinary working folk everywhere.”
 
Or take his response to N.Y. Times music critic Olin Downes, implying that the Fisk University Choir at Carnegie Hall was not the real colored sound of the kind he had heard at colored churches. “What it really means,” DuBois railed, “is that Negroes must not be allowed to attempt anything more than the frenzy of the primitive, religious revival … any attempt to sing Italian music or German music, in some inexplicable manner, leads them off their preserves and is not ‘natural.’ To which the answer is, Art is not natural and is not supposed to be natural. The Negro chorus has a right to sing music of any sort it likes and to be judged by its accomplishment, rather than by what foolish critics think that it ought to be doing.”
 
In this context it is bittersweet to read his 1916 notice of “Miss Marion E. Anderson” as a principal singer in the People’s Choral Society’s rendition of Handel’s “Messiah” at the Musical Fund Hall in Philadelphia. “Miss Anderson,” DuBois subtly pleads for a generous patron, “is in her second year at the William Penn School in Philadelphia … She is now studying under a German teacher and anticipates going abroad after her schooling if she can secure sufficient engagements; but her father is dead and Miss Anderson is one of a family of four.”
 
DuBois would be thrilled to learn that due to the good services of Moonstone, Inc. (get their program either at 110 S. 13th Street or 735-9598) and the fiscal brinksmanship of Larry Robin of Robin’s Bookstore (who is out on a $15,000 limb on this splendid venture), Paul Robeson is being honored by a week-long retrospective which should regain him some of the respect he earned before the State Department shamefully denied him his passport in 1950 (whereupon his income fell from $104,000 to $2,000).
 
DuBois, writing in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine in 1918, is clearly elated at finding the promising comer for his Talented Tenth brigade that he hoped would lead the colored masses out of an economic slavery as dire as their former physical one.
 
He tells how the six-foot-two, 210-pound athlete graduated at the top of his class in Sommerville, N.J., and entered Rutgers on a four-year scholarship. “Mr. Robeson … has won the first class oratorical prize for two years, a feat never before accomplished in the school. He is varsity debater, plays guard in basketball, throws weight in track, catches in baseball, and is a baritone soloist.” And how baritone! April 5-11 is Philly’s week of Robeson catching-up (see the listings section for the full roster of remaining events).
 
Catching up as well is WHYY (91 FM) which premieres locally its national series, Jazz Impressions from Philadelphia, Friday, April 24 at 9 p.m. with last June’s Mellonfest “Philly Jams for Philly Joe.”
 
Maybe we’re beginning to see the folly of wasting the best amongst us.
 
from Welcomat: After Dark – Hazard-at-Large, April 8, 1987

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Snob

I'm increasingly impressed by the contentiously contrarian views of Dr. Dalrymple. Keep him coming!

Patrick D. Hazard, Weimar, Germany

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Zurbaran

Zurbaran (at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art through December 13) is a puzzle. I can’t remember when I’ve seen a retrospective in which the gap between media blah and a few superb peaks was so yawning. Maybe it’s got to do with the style of ecclesiastical patronage.

When the Dominican monks of the monastery of San Pablo El Real in Seville gave him a commission on January 17, 1626, they were very, very specific; 21 pictures for 4,000s reales (below scale, as the good fathers dickered with an aspiring out-of-towner who hadn’t quite made it yet).

They wanted 14 scenes from the life of their patron Saint Dominic, four of the Fathers of the Church, and one each of Saints Bonaventure, Thomas and (heh, he was the boss) Dominic. The splendid catalog (paperback, $35) makes clear at another point that the padres wrote into their contracts that they had the right to refuse any painting if it didn’t meet their muses.

There are other anomalies noted. Because Napoleon’s generals helped themselves to many of his paintings and because there was a secularization of many monasteries in Spain in the early 19th Century, this exhibition is literally the first time that many of the paintings have been seen ensemble. (One critic suggests that they would have been hard to admire in those poorly lit Baroque alcoves.) In any case, it establishes that Lord Elgin was not the only cultivated European hanging in “cultural exchange” in those good old days.

One of Zurbaran’s major patrons, the Mercedarians, were an order established to ransom Christian hostages who had been captured by the Moors and taken to North Africa. They tried to buy back the faithful with money they had raised begging. Failing that, they offered themselves in exchange—a hardy bunch.

One of the paintings that pleases me most is of the Mercedarian Saint (Peter) Serapion, a Britisher who fought the Moor with Alfonso IX of Castile in the 13th Century. The monks placed this painting in the Sala de Profundis, where monks’ corpses were on final view before burial.

They played a hardheaded holy theology, and it seemed to me the best paintings were the ones that embodied this stark vision, such as “Saint Francis with a Skull” and “Saint Francis Standing in Meditation.” They are minimalist in tone—dark monochrome backgrounds, with the subject often deeply in shadow, not infrequently with skull in hand.

This “memento mori” stuff is repugnant to me intellectually, but it has tremendous force emotionally. Life stripped down to bare essentials, as in gazing with joy on a death that could transfigure a soul.

On the other hand, when Zurbaran is doing the historical paintings or, especially, the church furniture paintings he (or his atelier) did by the hundreds under short deadlines for shipment to Latin America, they remind me of all the mediocre church paintings I suffered in my Catholic youth, piety’s purple prose.

Reprinted from Welcomat: Hazard-at-Large, December 2, 1987

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Maillart Is My Art: Bridging Modernism

To really appreciate the achievement of the Swiss ferro-concrete bridge designer Robert Maillart (1872-1940), you have to look at the first bridge he built in 1899-1901: Innbruecke Zuos, a heavy, not-yet-quite-Jugendstil masonry structure with heavy-breathing. It’s got imperial standards—a visual millennium away from the elegant ethereal sculptures he’d ultimately design to span the heart-stopping reaches of the Alps.

Maillart’s first effort was like a hundred such roadways built across Europe in the 19th Century to express how pleased Euroman was with himself as a cluster of modernizing powers. The recent Maillart retrospective at the Museum of Zurich’s Design School was a brilliant exercise in museology, with videos and slide shows (original photos commissioned to reveal the present condition of his creations).

Negotiations are under way to bring the exhibit to the U.S.—one of the principals organizing it was David P. Billington, the Princeton professor of civil engineering who convened the first symposium of Maillart at Princeton in 1972 and who has followed up with three books on the man.

Maillart was no prima donna seeking to elicit gasps from jaded tourists. Each task was an exercise in applied geometry, the shapes coming out of the equations. The workaday glory of his Simmebruecke in Garstatt BE (1939) is “merely” a roadway with chastely elegant banisters held low in place over a small stream by two trapezoidal concrete slabs of different shape, as befit the topographical differences in the two banks he was connecting.

It hardly prepares you visually for the astonishing mountain bridge of the Salginatobelbruecke bei Schiers GR (1929-30), spanning a width of 90 meters, 80 meters above the riverbed. And neither bridge foretells the power of the concrete shell 16 meters across that forms the Zementhalle an der Schweiz, Landesaustellung, Zurich (1939).

In short, Maillart’s elegantly ethereal solutions in a medium as gross as beton really do give new credence to that now-often-derided formula, “Form follows function.” He began with his slide rule and followed its formulations. This is not the tactical brutalism of Oscar Niemeyer’s Casino Park Hotel, Madeira, Portugal; there is no attempt to gussy up the surfaces to relieve their crudeness. The art in Maillart is truly in the engineering.

Let’s hope Princeton delivers on its aspiration to stage the exhibition over here. A consolation prize, for readers of German, is Claude Lichtenstein’s 88-page catalog for the exhibition, its own cool graphic symmetries as apt a tribute to Maillart’s genius as book can fashion.

Reprinted from Welcomat: Hazard at Large, April 17, 1991

Saturday, 3 July 2010

An Experiment in TEENAGE TV

IT'S MONDAY night at WKAR-TV, Michigan State's new educational station. Studio A is a mad hubbub of voices, a tangle of TV cameras and props. "One minute . . . quiet in the studio," barks the director over the PA system. And out of the unbelievable, hour long chaos of rehearsal comes a weekly half hour show spotlighting the best in current teenage leisure activities.

Produced and acted by high school students from the Lansing, Mich., area, "Rec Room," as the program is called, is a showcase of hobbies and creative work of all kinds, a forum for movie and pocketbook reviews, a place for displaying the latest fashions male and female and, in general, a clearinghouse for new angles and ideas on anything and everything young people do with their free time.

How did the program start? As part of a summer curriculum workshop sponsored by the East Lansing Board of Education. Two high school English teachers, as a result of their study of the present curriculum, wondered how they might tap for educational purposes the tremendous reservoir of energy and enthusiasm expended by teenagers in their spare time.

The plan started with the aim of developing a flexible program after the "magazine concept" show developed by commercial TV which would begin with our students' obvious interest in popular culture and proceed from that point to suggest ways that might lead everybody to find new and stimulating leisure horizons. In any one show, we figured, we ought to appeal to as many levels of taste as possible. To avoid that fatal mistake of talking down to teenagers, we found the best way was to include them in the planning and production.

Indeed, as the program concluded its first series after twenty telecasts the teenagers were actually producing it. They outlined it, made arrangements for guest talent, created title cards, and acted in it. It has been a brilliant confirmation of our hunch that teenagers can produce marvels, given a little direction and encouragement.

The pivot of the series was an articulate hot rodder. He was the M.C. of the show, and he made the program run smoothly from one segment to another. And sensibly enough, the first program was on hot rodding. He brought a hot rod into the studio and explained what went into its construction. We went to the Michigan championship hot rod races ("drags," to the initiates) and took twenty minutes of sound film.

Edited, this became an exciting, eight minute segment of authentic documentary screeching tires, roaring exhaust, careening cars, and interviews with contestants, police, and safety officials. The rest of the show was devoted to a discussion of manners at football games, and previews of good books and jazz records. The first program was kinescoped for publicity purposes.

This kine was extremely useful to us, because a conflict in studio schedules made it impossible for us to go on with the series for about two months. While we waited for an opening in the schedule, we went to work trying to get the bugs out of the program. We showed the kine to English classes and asked the students to criticize it. And they did! First to go was the teacher-conceived title, "Spare Time for Youth." The old title was much too condescending, and the students told us so.

Next went the section on manners; it was too preachy. Finally the format gelled into a basement recreation room, complete with pennants, "no parking" signs, and stuffed deer head. Into the "Rec Room" each week would come teenagers who had done something outstanding with their leisure; they would be the features of the program. Standard fare included three movie reviewers, a book editor, and a boy and a girl fashion expert.

What are the sources for a program like this? We are lucky in our community to have a well-sponsored youth talent show. Each year, under the combined auspices of the Lansing State Journal and the Lansing recreation department, hundreds of local youngsters enter their best work in an area-wide competition. Enough talent shows itself to run several programs like ours. The grand prize winners for 1955 were a girl who wrote a book on her family's trip to Japan and a boy who built a complete four cylinder internal combustion engine. Other youth talent prize winners who have appeared on our show include sculptors and painters, entrants in graphic arts, fly tying, clothing construction, and furniture, and an amazing young man who had constructed a radio-controlled airplane.

Music was another activity we thought important. Our theme was a moving bit of modern jazz by Shorty Rogers, called "Boar Jibu." When the Jazztone Society a new jazz record of the month club offered an introductory sampler of all the styles of America's own art form, from New Orleans to bop, we asked a jazz pianist studying music at Michigan State to explain the evolution of this kind of music.

With the use of a piano, our record, and his musical background, we developed a short series, "Introducing Jazz." Student quartets, dance teams, and soloists added variety on some programs. A high light of our telecast Valentine party was a series of popular love songs rendered by local young people. We even tried, with considerable success, telecasting a cello solo by a girl from one of the local high school orchestras.

Fashion is something close to the hearts of teenagers, so it had a legitimate place on our show. One week we would have a profile on some phase of girls' fashions sweaters, blouses, spring dresses, sportswear; next week would be the boys' turnshirts, cuff links, sport coats, sweaters. Esquire, the New York Times fashion supplements, and local merchandise provided ample material for discussion. We tried, or rather the fashion editors tried, to stress how to buy wisely and how to take care of clothes chosen to fit one's personality and physiognomy. Some of the drawings conceived to illustrate points were artistic triumphs in themselves.

Movies may not be better than ever, but our youngsters are better moviegoers because of the discussions they have had in their weekly reviewing sessions. The downtown theaters gladly gave us all the passes we wanted for our reviewers, who fortified themselves for the program by checking their reactions with those found in Time, Newsweek, the Saturday Review, the Commonweal, and other quality magazines. We even talked the managers into supplying a few film clips for our program and frequently had movie stills to focus the viewer's attention on our remarks.

And I suppose no program could be complete, from an English teacher's point of view, without book reviews. We were especially lucky to have as our editor an attractive girl who is equally at home in the buzzing confusion of the adolescent world and in the more staid atmosphere of top quality academic work. She reviewed the monthly Teen Age Book Club selections in a particularly fresh and imaginative way.

Occasionally she and others would move into less charted waters with great results. We reviewed the Museum of Modern Art's collection of photos, "The Family of Man"; several photo essays from Life, particularly the series on religions; and similar cultural material. These forays into the domain of the highbrow (for teenagers, it's highbrow) came off very well because they were done in a relaxed and casual way that fitted in with the rest of the program.

What suggestions can we give to others interested in extending the idea into their communities? Choose "all American" boys and girls for M.C.'s. They should not only be bright and attractive but also free from stiffness and stuffiness; they should be full of enthusiasm. Plan your programs ahead so that next week's participants can watch a show rehearsed and aired before they try their luck.

Have your talent outline their presentations and time themselves before the show. Always expect them to run through their material too soon and always have padding for the end of the show. Nothing can produce anxiety like running out of material with ten minutes of air time still to be filled. It's best to keep some filler material ready; it can be used next week if you don't need it the first time.

But by all means do get into TV. It's fun and it's good for the youngsters. Not the least satisfaction is that of receiving the fullest cooperation from a TV staff like that at M.S.C. While an ETV station is perhaps more eager to accept such noncommercial ventures as a youth leisure show, there is no reason why a civic minded commercial station could not find time for such telecasting and no reason why sponsors could not be obtained. We just never considered that phase at WKAR-TV.

What does this activity have to do with English teaching? A great deal. Although the program is strictly extracurricular, it is not extra-educational. TV is a mode of communication that, as Pat Weaver of N.B.C. suggests, could revolutionize the human situation. It could, if used imaginatively, raise mass man's awareness to levels heretofore attained only by a very small elite. As the chief exponent of the liberal arts tradition in the high school, the English teacher has a responsibility to see that the mass communications revolution is humanized.

If we can show our students the many ways in which they can achieve maturity through creative use of their leisure time, our purposes as interpreters of the humanities are well served. If we can, in a program like this, telecast what David Riesman calls models of autonomous leisure people who know how to enjoy their leisure creatively then we are encouraging that total maturity of personality which is the chief aim of the liberal arts.

I am convinced that what we do to help the high school student raise his sights in his leisure life is the most crucial single factor in America's forthcoming cultural maturity. If we can start a few dynamos of personal enthusiasm roaring in the high school years, the battle is won. "Rec Room" had aims like that.

An Experiment in Teen Age TV Author(s): Patrick D. Hazard Source: The Clearing House, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Oct., 1955), pp. 113115 Published by: Heldref Publications

EDITOR'S NOTE Has TV much connection with English teaching in high school? Mr. Hazard, who teaches at the senior high school in East Lansing, Mich., says that it does. During the current year he is studying the relation of mass media to the liberal arts tradition under a grant from the Ford Foundation.

Friday, 2 July 2010

The Hazards


Happy young couple. Squirmy boy. 1952

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Literary Gumbo

What a joy it is to come upon another splendid new patch in the crazy quilt of American fiction. It’s one of the mysteries of American literature—loose and under organized as it is—that you never know where or when literary lightning is going to strike next.
 
On your continental map, stick a pin now in Lake Charles, La. and mark the flag. Andre Dubus (say it do-BUSE). The Last Worthless Evening: Four Novellas and Two Stories (David R. Godine, $15.95) is simply luminous in the way it fixes a Cajun Catholic sensibility on his original turf and his adopted Merrimack River country—mainly blue collar but marvelously cognizant of the Great American Lie that we are allegedly a classless society.
 
The title of the collection refers not to a single tale but to his own collation of an epigraph from William Faulkner’s The Bear—“that whole hopeful continent dedicated as a refuge and sanctuary of liberty and freedom from what you called the old world’s worthless evening”—and his and Faulkner’s despair at the hopeful continent having become “the same worthless tideless rock cooling in the last crimson evening.”
 
Surely the supreme irony of American history is that the country which preened itself to the world two centuries ago as an antidote to the ancien regime has itself, largely unwittingly, become the most obdurate and ungracious of ancien regimes locked in its Unenlightenment.
 
When Faulkner whistled in the darkness of his Nobel acceptance speech that he expected mankind not only to endure but to prevail, he must have hoped that there would be writers like Dubus read by his countrymen.
 
The opening story, “Deaths at Sea,” pairs the fellowship of two officer bunkmates—a black Chicago Yuppie and a Catholic Cajun integrationist—with the death by drowning of a cracker swabbie pushed into the slip as they both await the midnight liberty launch.
 
The difficulty of their friendly isolation is epitomized at an officers’ drinking party at which an “enlightened” Southern carrier pilot condescends with abysmal ignorance to the Buppie public information officer. The Cajun OOD tried to console his bunkie and then deals with the terrified black swabbie from Detroit, who wouldn’t suffer “Nigger” gladly from a drunken shipmate but is horrified by the freak drowning.
 
The details of these moral ambiguities (it is necessary but insufficient to be the compassionate Cajun) is so finely focused that it exhilarates you at the same time that it pains you with its Gordian complexities.
 
But it’s the range of Dubus that ultimately impresses: the Rashomon ambiguities of “Land Where My Fathers Died,” the dugout perspective of a minority ballplayer who freaks out at Fenway Park in “After the Game,” the terror of an 11-year-old held temporarily captive by a Viet crazie in a Boston bar in “Dressed Like Summer Leaves,” but especially the mother’s confused pains at her daughter Molly’s sexual coming of age, and (the best in the genre I’ve ever read) the survival of Rose abused by her husband.
 
Reprinted from Welcomat: Hazard-at-Large, September 6, 1989