Monday, 31 January 2011

Verbal Bombs For Bonnie Prince Charlie

The annual Grassroots Seminar of the American Institute of Architects ended riotously with a spate of Prince Charles-and media-bashings. A distinguished panel of gold medal winners (Cal's Joseph Esherick, Canada's Arthur Erickson and the world's Kevin Roche--pinch-hitting for the hospitalized Philip Johnson) made a preemptive strike against the future king of England.

Their assignment was to speculate aloud on how excellence in architecture was to be achieved. But these stars of the architectural firmament exercised their droits de seigneurs by drifting boldly off their assigned topics. The ebullient Roche was the most egregious kicker-off of his traces.

He magisterially chided his assembled peers (and assorted media camp-followers) by asserting that Modernism had failed because its first vision of democratizing abundance for the poor and underadvantaged had been abandoned by the architectural elite. He further attributed the median mediocrities of Modernism to the architects' endemic failure to listen to their clients.

"There is no such thing as a bad client," he flew in the face of the architects' favorite copout. "There are only architects who fail to serve their clients." Having alienated his peers, the Peck's Bad Boy of American architecture proceeded to trash the only two other available victims--architecture critics and the Prince of Wales.

He faulted Charles (with the venom that only a Hibernian can feel toward the House of Hanover) for his abysmal ignorance of great modern architecture in contemporary Britain. But he saved his choicest spleen for the journalistic critics of architecture and for the art history professors who were inflicting on architectural discourse an incomprehensible jargon that spawned Post-Modernism--among other avoidable evils.

A less contentious but no less radical Esherick attributes the squalid results of the Modernist movement to defects in architectural education. He recalled ruefully, the pre-industrial days when children went to work as soon as they were physically capable of toting their bales. This system of forced education avoided today's paradoxical plight of the architect seeking good apprentices from the prestige schools.

"They can talk good architecture," Esherick said, "but they have no idea how to do the simple physical things that go into erecting a building." He hypothesized that if such learned ignoramuses were ever forced to shovel a footings ditch, their jargon would end in their fellow diggers hitting them over the head with the business ends of their implements. Architecture critics were especially faulted for their total ignorance of how buildings are made.

Erickson hurled another dart at the prince. (Charles at that moment was all unwittingly preparing to lunch with President Bush, as foreplay for awarding the AIA gold medal to the widely unknown-Ozark Wrightist, E. Fay Jones). This dart would have really hurt, because Erickson traced the current economic and ecological malaise of Britain to its 17th- and 18th-Century denuding of its forests by the Royal Navy.

And he chided the prince for the singular A Vision of Britain, contending he should be talking "Visions," since the de-imperializing hordes that Britain had grown rich off in centuries past were now complicating the urbanities of contemporary Britain by their contending presences.

In short, the assembled architects were nursing the hangovers of their perennial dilemma: We need to get the public more involved, yet involvement can lead to the simpleminded clout of a Prince Charles. It's a cold, cruel world out there in Clientland. You literally can't live (easily) with 'em or without 'em.

Who ever said architecture was an easy art? Their puzzled peers took a coffee break before reassembling for a pep talk on leadership. They'll clearly need all of that they can find, threading their tricky way through the labyrinth of modernism at the end of which is the Minotaur of Wales, surrounded by a protective phalanx of architecture critics.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, March 28, 1990

Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Architect of Everywhere

It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime serendipities. The editor of Architecti in Lisbon had asked me to write a piece on the Argentina-born "world" architect (with active ateliers in New York, Bologna and Tokyo) Emilio Ambasz.

I'd been dazzled by his San Antonio Botanical Center when it opened in 1988. And in 1989, seeking out the new provincial museum in Lugano, Switzerland (a luminously recycled townhouse by Gian-Carlo Rossi), I literally stumbled on Ambasz's sculpted terrace for Residence-Au-Lac (1976): It beguilingly evokes the Alpine landscape which the residents view every day as they leave for work. To paraphrase Will Rogers, I've never met an Emilio I didn't like.

So when I got the Architecti mandate, I phoned Stuart Wrede at the Museum of Modern Art, whose 1988 Ambasz exhibition reinforced my hunch that Senor Ambasz was the freshest voice in world architecture. He suggested I go direct to the Ambasz office.

When I phoned Marie Wildman, the architect's aide, she agreed to have a packet of Ambasziana ready for me at the Greenwich Village atelier the next morning. I took an earlier train from Philadelphia than I usually do, with extraordinary results.

Ambasz's 11th-floor office was inaccessible because a security key kept the elevator from working there. I waited for a key man. In a few minutes, a very elegantly dressed man appeared with the needed key.

"Are you with the Emilio Ambasz firm?" I asked.

"I am Emilio Ambasz," he replied with a twinkle. Thereupon ensued the most remarkable 90 minutes of architectural discourse it has been my pleasure to participate in.

For a start, I'd just returned from Zurich, where I'd reviewed the Robert Maillart retrospective at the Design School Museum. To my delighted amazement, Ambasz told me that as a science high school student in Resistencia, Argentina, a prescient book on Maillart had been his first epiphany that engineering and architecture were not only compatible but (as his ingenious solutions attest) mutually dependent for grand results.

Since his staff didn't start work until 10 a.m., the master tutored me magisterially, one on one, about his life and work. His first teacher at Princeton, at 19, was none other than civil engineering professor Donald Billington, who organized the first American symposium on Maillart in 1972.

Billington quickly knew he had a genius on his hands, and when the young whippersnapper instantly solved a stress problem Billington had set to test his reflexes, the professor moved the boy into graduate school after only a year at Princeton.

Princeton awarded Ambasz a traveling fellowship at the still tender age of 20. During his first encounter with the City of Light, a thug mugged him. But the resolute lad refused to surrender his valuables. Disillusioned, he left Paris the next morning for Provence to expand his architectural horizons in a less thuggish milieu.

He taught at Princeton and served as curator of architecture and design at MOMA / New York until 1976, during which time he mounted landmark exhibitions on Italian design and Mexican architect Luis Baragan.

I asked Ambasz if it wasn't frustrating to be a curator instead of an architect. His reply revealed his humanistic character: "Oh, no. I loved it. Planting seeds. Helping young architects establish their reputations. Seeing them grow. I've never felt more important or useful."

His quixotic "poetry of the pragmatic" philosophy is perhaps best represented by "The Taxi Project," in which the goal of designing a better taxi for with world's metropolises put him in conflict with U.S. auto executives. The president of General Motors sniffily replied to Ambasz's request for financial and moral support by turning him down cold with the explanation that his company produced 55,000 taxis during the preceding year and didn't need MOMA's help in designing better ones. (Several European auto firms had supported the project enthusiastically, by the way.)

No matter. Ambasz included the GM prexy's acidulously arrogant remarks in the show's catalog, triggering a libel suit from GM. But he had the GM president's letter, and after a bit of legal huffing and puffing, GM dropped the suit.

Ambasz's attitude toward authority and power is also evident in the money he raised for this offbeat show. He borrowed $4,000 seed money from Dr. Frank Stanton, then the president of CBS and by most accounts the real brains behind William Paley's long tenure at the broadcasting corporation.

Paley was also on MOMA's board and was deeply skeptical about the Taxi Project as a MOMA enterprise. When Paley told Ambasz in effect to junk the project, Ambasz simply shouted down the insolent streetfighter Paley.

It helped him that his recycling of an old Beaux Arts structure in Grand Rapids, Michigan, into the Grand Rapids Art Museum (1976) put him into touch with Gerald Ford, for years the U.S. Congressman from that city and a major voice for the auto industry. Courtesy of Richard Nixon's duplicity, Ford became President, and his clout emboldened Ambasz in his skirmish with Paley.

Ambasz entered the world of architecture in 1976, leavened by his liberal education at Princeton (where all the luminaries of our age seemed to be gathered--Robert Venturi, Michael Graves, Louis Kahn, not a bad professoriat for a young foreigner!), and toughened by his grapples as MOMA curator at the no-longer-tender age of 33.

His first major work, the Grand Rapids Museum, won Progressive Architecture's Award. He was in the race for aesthetic immortality. He also won the competition to extend the Beaux Arts New Orleans Museum of Art in 1983.

In 1984, it was a rehabbing of a bank interior in Rockefeller Center for Banque Bruxelles Lambert, a $3 million job. In 1984 he also created a Celestial Gardens for Texas Eastern Corporation in Houston, establishing his central reputation as a man who knew how to create garden Edens in our gritty cities.

So it was entirely natural that Ambasz be awarded first prize and a gold medal in a limited international competition for the master plan for Expo 92 in Seville. That site exhibited the same Ambasz persistence in finding fresh solutions for tough problems. His inspired idea: recycling an abandoned Carthusian monastery and a 19th-Century ceramics factory as emblems of the future-looking Expo, solidly rooted in a usable past. It once again attests to Ambasz's pragmatic humanism.

In an era when ecological talk is often shallow and self-serving, Ambasz has staked out a position that combines love of the land and its unique individualities with a hard-headedness that appeals to businessmen more given to bottom lines than to levitating visions.

For example, in an international competition for the Sanda Cultural Sports Center in the new city of Shin Sanda, Japan, his proposal came in much higher than other offers. But the local press mounted a successful campaign for the Ambasz proposal because of his poetic muse. The Japanese know an imported National Treasure when they see one.

Furniture designer, design consultant for Cummings Diesel Engines, garden planter, recycler of noble old buildings--here is a polymath for all seasons: Emilio Ambasz.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, November 25, 1992

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Gary Younge

Here is a Big Leaguer. I interviewed him in Prague at the 40th Anniversary Symposium in 2008.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Going After Aalto

Last fall's exhibition and symposium on Alvar Aalto's architecture at New York's Museum of Modern Art so charged me up that I vowed to treat myself to a trip to Finland this summer to see the masterworks in 3-D. I was not disappointed. It was one of the most serendipity-laden odysseys I have ever made. Even my mistakes seemed to enhance the adventure.

So because I misread the Swedish train schedules and could not take the trip up around the Gulf of Bothnia (that train didn't run on Saturday, the very small print in Swedish read!), I was forced to take the ferry to Finland. And take the train from Vaasa to Jyväskylä, the town where Aalto was educated and first worked as an architect, and where the Alvar Aalto Museum attempts to use the master's example for a worldwide dialogue on bettering the man-made environment.

The train stations along the route, as well as the farm houses and barns that adorned the landscape of birches and pines and water, were folk architecture of the highest order. Their wood stake style, the fine tuned scale of their window placement, their gingerbread garnishes were stunningly and unexpectedly beautiful. They were, in fact, the sources that nurtured Aalto's own muse, making him prefer a modernism of wood to the usual vocabulary of steel and glass.

When I recounted my delight to the director of the Museum, he shared my excitement by disappearing into his outer office to return brandishing a brand new book, "Railway Architecture, 1857-1941," published last year by his office. I said I thought the 400 people who will attend the triennial Aalto symposium this August 12-14 should be counseled to come "the hard way," via Vaasa and the Silja Line Ferry from Sondsvall to Vaasa ($16).

Finnair, in fact, has just inaugurated a 15-day pass for $250 that allows the curious to see everything important that Aalto ever built, from Lappland in the far North to Helsinki in the South, from Turku on the Western border to Lahti in the East. The Museum has cannily laid on two trips after the symposium, one concentrating on his Finnish work, the other exploring Vyborg which the Russians took over after World War II.

For full particulars on this Third International Alvar Aalto Symposium (the theme is "Modernity and Popular Culture," with cult architect Michael Graves giving the keynote address), write the Alvar Aalto Musuem, Seminaarinkatu 7, SF 40600 Jyväskylä, Finland. The fee is $100; lodging costs range from 40 Finnmarks a night ($6.50) at the Save the Children youth hostel (a ten minute woodsy walk from the Museum), to standard hotel prices (architecturally most interesting is Finnair's new Cumulus Hotel).

Aalto insisted that a museum named after him should deal with more than his work, in fact be a full-service art center. It is. Still there is a fine swatch of mural-size photos with text giving an overview of the Finnish architect's achievement in the back gallery, a space that is itself one of the man's finest jobs. Next door is his Central Finland Museum with brilliantly displayed artifacts from pre-history to the present from the region. Even the birchwood display cases are by the master. This museum will shut down for two years in December to allow for expansion, an addition that will be supervised by the old firm now run by his widow.

A few blocks down the street is the Handicraft Museum of Finland, now running a special show on the revival of wool as a material in Finnish design. It is an eye boggler. The Tourist Office, two blocks from the station, has two free brochures, one an architectural map of the town with all its important buildings indicated, the other a handsome guide to Aalto's work there. He laid out the site plan for the University and did several of its larger buildings himself.

The most remarkable thing about architecture in Finland is the high level of understanding among the general public. To wit, on the train ride of five hours from Vaasa to Jyväskylä, in a train compartment holding six people, three of the riders--a young photography store attendant, a middle-aged housewife, and a recent architecture graduate (she was designing her first house for a Helsinki firm)--were veritable founts of information on the history and current prospects of art.

Indeed, when I got turned on to those railway stations along the route, I hung out the window and quizzed the railway dispatchers about the dates of construction of their stations. Half the time they knew exact dates! 1894. 1899. And so on.

I asked the young (37) director of the Aalto Museum, Markku Lahti (himself a scholar in French literature and British fin de siècle stage design) how he could account for this high level of popular consciousness about architecture in Finland. "C. F. Engel" was his short answer. Engel drew up the city plan of Helsinki while Finland was still a grand duchy of Imperial Russia and designed most of the major public buildings there. Beleaguered by its former Swedish overlords on the West and erratically hassled by its czarist rulers to the East, Finland indeed tried to create and maintain a national identity through its architecture.

Lahti's long answer was "competitions." "When Aalto was beginning his career in the 1920's, he must have entered as many as fifty competitions for public buildings." These public rituals were pedagogic in a very fundamental way. Lahti deplores, by the way, the fact that there are almost no architecture critics in the media in Finland. It seemed to me that the competition process may be even more productive of understanding. And a public that cares about buildings gladly pays the taxes to put them up.

Which reminds me of another serendipity. In Tampere, Finland's number two city, I was walking down the boulevard to the city's Art Museum when I caught in the corner of my eye a strange building under construction behind a protective fence. The construction sign was in Finnish so I went behind the fence to see if I could find out what this copper-roofed structure was for and who designed it. As I approached, a laborer with a hard hat exclaimed, "Oh! You're the journalist from San Francisco. Would you like to look around?" He resolved the mystery of his knowing who I was by saying that he had overheard a conversation in the bar on the ferry from Sweden a few nights before!

He spoke perfect English (because he had worked for several years in Alberta), and he understood architecture--I guess because he's a Finn. In short, for the next two hours I was taken on a tile by tile, wall by wall explication of the new $10 million public library by the First Couple of Finnish architecture, Reima and Raili Pietilä. (They have recently won the most prized competition of recent history, a new "White House" for the president of their country.)

The thirty-year-old worker translated my questions into Finnish so that the fifty-two-year-old chief construction engineer of the City of Tampere could answer them. It was an epiphany-filled encounter. As I left, the chief presented me with a twelve-page, four-color bilingual brochure on the building we had just been exploring together. "Why is it in English?" I asked. "Because there are so many architects who can't speak Finnish," he smiled.

"The basement cladding and the steps to the library," the Pietiläs explain in the brochure, "are of a richly patterned 'Viborgite' granite. The facades and curving eaves are of copper; the windows are of greenish pine. The window sections possess the roundness of a branch, thereby giving the impression that the external space continues into the large main hall. The interior space forms a winding and changing series of segmental vaults, thus conjuring up the image of wind-filled spinnaker sails." When I got to the roof, the construction engineer laughingly pointed out the playful muse of the Pietiläs: the image formed is that of a wood grouse in heat, spreading out his feathers in a courting display!

So I was not surprised at all when I finally got to Helsinki to discover that the summer exhibit at the Museum of Finnish Architecture is a major exploration of--who else?--the Pietiläs. If you can't get to Finland this summer, do yourself a favor of ordering the catalog (it's not only bilingual, but the Pietiläs' drawings are brilliantly evocative of their fresh thinking about building, probably the most eloquent architectural aphorists since the late Louis Kahn. (PIETILÄ: Intermediate Zones in Modern Architecture, Alvar Aalto Museum, 125 FM.) And right behind the Museum of Finnish Architecture (a ten-minute walk from the Central Station, itself a masterpiece by Eliel Saarinen) is the Finnish Museum of Applied Art, with a suite of rooms illustrating the history of the last century of Finnish design, the furniture and the objects that enhanced the interiors of those buildings.

And across the street from the legendary Stockmann's Department Store (whose new annex has just been the result of a competition on view this summer at the Aalto Museum!) is the main salesroom of ARTEK, the firm which has been selling Aalto's furniture and glass for the past fifty years. (They'll be celebrating that anniversary in October with a major exhibit at the Museum of Applied Art, and related corporate hoopdeedoo.)

Meanwhile, across the water in Stockholm, the Moderna Museet is celebrating the centenary of the first "modern" Swedish architect, Gunnar Asplund, the one who, in fact first, turned Aalto on to functionalism in 1927. Indeed, Asplund turned all of Scandinavia onto the fast track of modernism with his groundbreaking Stockholm Exhibition of 1930, which did for the cold Nordic North what the Paris Expo in 1925 did for the bottom half of Europe.

In short, there's never been a better time to savour the pleasures of Scandinavian design. The national railroads are even offering a variety of passes (regional variations on the Eurail scheme) to make it cheap and convenient to treat your eyes to the glories of the North. You'll be as pleased as I have been if you make that move.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Enrique Norten

I like him and pray he doesn't Gehry out!

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Chomsky" Too "True" to be "Good"

To those who read the above assessment of Noam Chomsky as our preeminent American (yeah World) public intellectual, it must have sounded like Pope Benedict XVI announcing his pal John Paul II’s imminent Beatification. I was grossly misinformed. After reading “Understanding Power: The Indispensable Noam Chomsky” edited by Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel from numerous public appearances and interviews, Vintage, 2003), my title asserts that this compendium is not only very dispensable but intellectually highly toxic, revealing a hubris that is dangerously misleading.

“Too ‘True’ To Be ‘Good’” asserts that Chomsky’s arrogance about his frequently unique insights into the errors of the American political history over the past century is so clouded by blind brilliance as to be useless for those committed to necessary changes in the American Behemoth.

Compare him with autodidact filmmaker Michael Moore. Moore is no internationally famous linguist. He’s just a guy whose middle class family has been destroyed by Flint, Michigan capitalists with no concern for their workers but committed only to greater riches for their stockholders. Michael hurts. Noam merely moans dramatically. Michael’s films have made the greedy capitalists outraged at how his films have revealed their evil ways to the middle masses.

Noam’s bleats (corrupted further by his mendaciously demotic idiolect—he uses “guys” like that fake cowboy, Bush 43) are unheard on Wall Street. Here we have a wealthy retired professors performing for a global gaggle of tired out lefties who feel good listening to his self-intoxicated mewling.

And NC’s peculiar relations with his academic “uncolleagues” is significant: he respects only the hard sciences and asserts that the humanities and social sciences are full of intellectual bums. Whenever he’s asked for hard evidence on the uselessness of these university disciplines, he welches by suddenly feigning ignorance and humility! And the book’s footnote numbers allude to a website
( if you want to check his data or generalizations. What a parody of scholarship. No bibliography. Just his solipsistic repetitions of silly devils like “wage slavery”.

I grew up in Detroit and worked all Big Three auto factories earning money for my Ph.D. And his whining about “wage slaves” is total malarkey. Was being tied to the rigors of farming better than working making automobiles? Silly. I also worked a summer for a pea farmer in Bay City, and I’d gladly prefer a factory to a farm. It’s the destruction of the CIO unions that’s the scandal. And I’ll bet our pampered grant winner never pushed a broom anywhere, as I did at the East Lansing State Bank for my young family as I finished graduate school. NC’s world is is what is left of his former leftist New York intellectual comrades.

He never once mentions the real academic scandal of “our” generation (I was born in 1927, he in 28): the co-emergence post-Reagan of the $100,000 plus professor and the simultaneous peonization of English graduate students. Now there is real wage slavery—ABD’s parlaying multiple parttime gigs with no healthcare nor pension rights so their Profs can wangle grants, sabbaticals and small classes of highly motivated—ABD’s. Chomsky has devised a cushy global retirement of internationalized pretentions to defend political freedom. I’ll bet two years of my miniscule pension (I junked a full professorship with tenure at 55 for the cultural freedom of journalism)that he’s one of those post Reagan profs who watched tuition inflation boost their benefits while their “successors” suffered the “wage slavery” of ABD’s.

To be really true is good. To be falsely “true” is worse than no good at all. I’ve never been so let down by a book in my entire academic life. The Romans used to say the corruption of the best is worst. Chomsky’s preening with his glib condemnations of all the rest of US is pathetic. Moore is truly good. And he risks his ass in his fight against out of control greed. Chomsky fakes chumminess as he slides from one phony self love fest to another. Shame on this “saintly” act. I’m accusing him not of dishonesty but self confusion. Even geniuses can get lost.

And how can he oversee a 400 page book on political commitment and not mention the Berrigan brothers? If the brave Jesuits in Central America have earned his praise, why not his American “brothers”? Do you have to be a CIA victim to get his attention? Even get a sniff of anti-Catholicism left over from his leftie New York former contacts. The great Eugene Debs makes the Index but not Dorothy Day nor Father Bob Drinan, S.J. Ideological slavery is a worse affliction for an intellectual than his faux “wage slavery”. And he mocks Maureen Dowd falsely and maliciously. Bad example for the junior professor. The Kids. Shape up, Noam, or shut up.

Here's a previous post on Chomsky.

Click for an article by Chomsky on Egypt.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Eclipsing Cybertopias

The Internet does such remarkable things our egghead’s first reactions was to describe electrified utopias. Sherry Turkle, M.I.T. sociologist led the parade in 1995 with a book about identity called “Life on the Screen”. She’s having second thoughts in “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other," Basic Books,$28.95.) The kind of things giving Cybertopias a bad rep was the recent suicide of Simone Back from Brighton who wrote a suicide note in her “Facebook” to which none of her 1,048 “friends” raised so much as a Mouse finger throughout her travail. And when Turkle recently made the Stephen Colbert comedy stint to tout her newest book, she groused that at a recent funeral, everyone there was busy using their iPhones, to which Colbert smirked, ”We all say goodbye in our own way.” Alone Together indeed!

Her thesis is simple: technology is threatening to dominate our lives and make us less human. We have assumed new technology allows us to communicate better while in fact the new cyberworld often isolates us from each other. The solipsism of the “inventor” of “Facebook” astonishes us, as well it might. And his instant philanthropy of $100,000,000 in aid of the beleaguered Newark, New Jersey school system reeks of preemptive justice as his Harvard “friends” sue him for stealing “their” invention. Anti-social media?

And she is not by far the sole cyberskeptic. Kent State education specialist William Kist reports a backlash re the new modes of communication as scaring people. By far the most coherent and comprehensive criticism of cybertopias is in Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains” (W.W. Norton, 2010). He warms up to the subject with solid and literate commentaries on Marshall McLuhan’s theories of the New Media as well as his mentor Walter J. Ong, S.J.’s pioneer research on orality in medieval rhetoric, a long, shamefully absent prologue to his student McLuhan’s oracular aphorisms about the emerging complex. The Mediator was the noisy Massager!

But by far the most interesting episode to this new intellectual crisis is Friedrich Nietzsche’s experience with the new Danish made Malling-Hansen Writing Ball. The philosopher was sickly throughout his life, especially after he fell from a horse while serving with a mounted artillery unit in the Prussian Army. In 1879, aged 34, he had to resign his post as a professor of philology at the University of Basel. He went South in the winter to Genoa and returned North in the summer in Leipzig, all the while losing his vision. The new typewriter was delivered at the end of 1882.

Mastering the 52 key typewriter (capital and lower case plus punctuation marks), he was no longer “silent”. With practice, you could type 800 characters a minute, making it the fastest that had ever been built. He was so charmed he typed an ode to his salvation:

The writing ball is a thing like me: made of iron
Yet easily twisted on journeys
Patience and tact are required in abundance,
As well as fine fingers, to use us. (Carr, p.i8.)

But the real story on Action News was that it changed the way he wrote—and thought. His close friend, the writer and composer Heinrich Köselitz, noticed that his prose had become tighter and more telegraphic. (“The medium is the message” makes its debut.) Carr notes “There was a new forcefulness to it, too, as though the machine’s power—its “iron”—was, through some mysterious metaphysical mechanism, being transferred into the words it pressed into the page.” Köselitz noted that thoughts in music and language “often depend on the quality of pen and paper.” (p.19). The philosopher concurred. “Our writing equipment takes part in the framing of our thoughts.”

After clearly summarizing the entire history of speaking, writing and printing—clearly and succinctly, he explores how the use of the computer has influenced his writing—not always for the better! It has reduced as well his capacity to read long, complex texts. Thus the grave risk that cyberthinking and writing will be shallower and less authoritative. No hysteria. Just the way it goes in the new cyber life. Carr’s book is the clearest guide I have read yet for preparing adults, especially teachers at all levels, for orienting the under-lettered for intellectual life in the future.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Remembering Louis Sullivan

My mentor Studs Terkel slyly mocked our country when he called it the United States of Amnesia. Listen to our radio ranters to prove that this criticism still prevails. And Architecture in America is an especially amnesiac swamp.

Americans can cite baseball hitter stats to the fourth decimal. Ditto football QB’s pass memorabilia. It’s not that our compatriots’ brains are absent. Their culture trains them to ignore Culture. They should take the time to view a new DVD on one of our country’s greatest architects, Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), Mark Richard Smith’s “Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture” (Whitecap Films, 97 minutes, $25. Tel. 773-334-9077,831 W. Ainslie St., Chicago 60640.)

His life was full of disappointments. Reared on his grandparents farm North of Boston, at 16 he entered M.I.T., then a pioneering architecture school with a Beaux Arts faculty trained in Paris. He found the curriculum of copying Greek and Roman images a yawning bore, and dropped out after a year. But he hungered to see Paris directly. In six weeks he was fluent in French. And he was the only American (of 30) to gain admission. But the old BA ritual still turned off his curious muse.

Still Europe inflamed his imagination, especially Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. He vowed to do as well. Back in America, Chicago beckoned. A devastating fire in 1871 paradoxically freed the urban landscape for new architects to work.

In 1875 came the greatest marriage of architectural skills in our history, the acoustical moxie of engineer Dankmar Adler and the decorative skill of Sullivan. Their first triumph was the Auditorium on Chicago’s main drag, Michigan Avenue. The duo ran with the dream of philanthropist Ferdinand Peck who funded a 4,000 opera house “for the masses”, a 400 room hotel for the movers and shakers rebuilding Chicago, and a 17 story office building (A & S set up shop on the 16th, with an unbeatable view of the new metropolis abuilding.)

Sullivan then “invented” the skyscraper, first the Wainwright in St. Louis, and the Guaranty in Buffalo: transforming the classical Column into a base, upward thrust floors, and topped by a roof “capital”. That simple form succeeded throughout the Midwest.

And when the perfectionist Sullivan got behind on his sketches, he hired a Wisconsin dropout—the then unknown Frank Lloyd Wright, soon to become their chief draftsman. They invited President Benjamin Harrison to the Aud opening in 1892. He was so impressed that Congress soon gave Chicago the go-ahead on the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, a year late for the quadra-centenary because of a financial panic.

Alas their main competitors, Daniel Burnham and John Root, got the Columbian exhibition call to create their White City, a Beaux Arts revival to end all, an insult to Sullivan’s program to create a new architecture expressing this country’s unique values.

He did design the most-liked build at the fair, the Transportation Building. But millions of American that summer took the White City virus back to their hometowns, blocking for a generation, Sullivan’s dream. Adler was married with kids so when the financial panic killed their business, he took a $25,000 job from Crane Elevator and dissolved the firm. In 2000, 44 year old Louis married unhappily. And it was downward for the rest of his life: cheap hotels, loans from old friends, miserable isolation.

But (in my judgment) his greatest achievement—the small town banks his clients dubbed his “Jewel Boxes”-paralleled this painful alienation. During that brief turn of the century Progressive politics, small towns were full of idealism that responded to his dreams. Serendipitously, my son Michael left Philadelphia for college in Minnesota. There he introduced me to the greatest JB--in Owatonna (that is to say Nowhere) Minnesota.

I was soon in love with his JB’s. So I bought me a Greyhound Ameripass and proceeded to make a pious odyssey of my devotion. One night I pitstopped overnight in Dayton where my Newman Club chum, Sandy King, then taught American history at the U of Dayton. Up at the crack of dawn to take the First Dirty Dawg to Sidney, Ohio, I was the only guy on the bus.

As we pulled into Sidney, I asked the driver shyly for some extra time to take pictures. “Sure,” he smiled affably. “Two cigarettes worth!” (It was a wonder, the motto THRIFT scrawled sweetly across the main façade.) As I piled back on the bus, the driver exclaimed, "Damn but that’s a pretty building! I’ve driven by it a thousand times and never even noticed it. Thank you, mister for opening my eyes.” I smiled and ogled my Greyhound map. Next stop: Grinnell, Iowa.

Take it from my favorite Greyhound driver. You see Mark Richard Smith’s new Sullivan DVD and you’ll soon be roaming his Midwest, relishing on the spot Louis Sullivan’s JB’s.

Another version of this article appears at Broad Street Review.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Ike was right!

Finally, an explanation of our fiscal malaise I understand. How sad! And probably irreversible, as China begins to deploy their new aircraft-carrier sinking missiles. Ike was right!

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Three Generations at The Nutcracker

Re Dan Rottenberg’s piece on three generations at the Pennsylvania Ballet’s Nutcracker—

If there’s a really new Nut to be cracked, we can count on our polymathic editor to oblige. (Jock of all arts and master of many.) At hand is his beguiling double date with granddaughter Thelma (age three) and her mother Julie. Issue: When is it too early to take a tot to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker?

Given the DNAs involved, Thelma would have probably soared and scored silently in utero. As it turned out, she babbled brilliantly on her way back to New York on both Amtrak and the dreary subways.

Which brings me to a coincidence. Shortly after reading about her trip, I Googled the story about the 80-member Chorus Niagara doing a flash mob concert of Handel’s Messiah on the astonished patrons of a very ordinary watering hole— part of the Knight Foundation’s national scheme of willy-nilly upgrading the art experiences of the very unenlightened.

Now, my aesthetic upbringing was as uncultivated as a Detroit Catholic was unlike the obsessive Nutcracking of our Manhattan-bred editor. Yet as much as I enjoyed my first flash-mob Handel, this is putting the hearse before the free carts. Most Americans are culture-poor because their daily lives and surroundings are Handel-less.

The benighted Knights must see that the empty lives of too many Americans are still locked into an official boredom. A flash-mob thrill is better than none, but it just doesn’t add up to cultivated mass citizens. That stems from tutelage that begins with kindergarten and literally never ends. Not enough liberated editors for that task.
Patrick D. Hazard
Weimar, Germany
December 28, 2010

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

McLuhan Cool

I was his new friend until I panned "The Gutenberg Galaxy".

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Examined Lives

As a certified magna cum laude philosophy major, I'd get an "F" for fooling around from James Miller. Sob! Not to be confused with SOB.

Monday, 17 January 2011


John McWhorter is the saviest linguist around these days. Pay him attention. He's a McLuhan who never leaves the rails.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Season for Ungifting

Re “’Tis the season for ungifting,” by Maralyn Lois Polak

Serendipitous coincidence. Last week I was reading some old Welcomat columns when I discovered one on Polak’s celebrity interviews in the Inquirer. Good stuff. I mean hers. “Whatever happened to her?” I mused.”

A “recovered journalist,” says her bio. A welcome retrieval, sez I. Idiosyncratically grumpy. Scroogish, even! Whee, she lives.

Patrick D. Hazard
Weimar, Germany
January 4, 2011

Saturday, 15 January 2011

WikiLeaks and the End of Privacy

Dan’s canny recollection of his experiences as a young underling and then overlord of his first news job in small-town Portland, Indiana bespeaks an autobiography to be sweetly relished. I hope I’m still around to read what he remembers of my stumbles over AIDS and anti-Semitism in the Welcomat (circa 1990), and why Seven Arts magazine went under (circa 1996), and how he talked the University of the Arts into sponsoring the Broad Street Review in a time of fiscal crisis. We are indeed all small-towners in the Internet era!
Patrick D. Hazard
Weimar, Germany
January 1, 2011

Editor’s comment: The hangup is: Who will play me in the inevitable film version of my autobiography? Kirk Douglas, Richard Widmark and Lee J. Cobb are all dead.

Friday, 14 January 2011

EYE 95: The Interstate as Access to Visual Delight

Newark: What I really resent about Manhattan media hype is the way it eclipses luminous off-the-beaten track museums like the one in Newark. Perhaps the most innovative pioneer in American museology when American Culture was hungering for imperial status, John Cotton Dana founded the Newark in 1909 as an extension of the Public Library where he was also director. He had the populist instincts of a Progressive era librarian, a type which regarded an unread book as a wasted resource. He chided the robber baron flatterers who ran the Met by defiantly asserting that quality in art had nothing to do with age, price, or genre: he was staging museum exhibitions of well designed objects under $1 out of the local dime store a full decade before the Museum of Modern Art opened its doors let alone its Architecture and Design Departments.
He tried to get the Gotham clerisy to co-sponsor such shows, but they shuddered in distaste at his demotic illusions and went right on sucking up to the wealthy collectors of gee gaws. In 1924, the Bamberger retail family put up the money for the current building of Washington Square, having been beguiled by Dana like the rest of their business peers into accepting his assumption that no world-class city could exist without a world-class museum. Carrying on in this innovative tradition, the current director, Sam C. Miller, is hard at work raising the money for a Michael Graves’ designed rehabbing and extension.
“Winding down” towards the construction phase, the Newark is currently doing “throwaway” shows from its rich holdings, perhaps strongest of all in early twentieth century American art. “Avant-Garde American Painting, 1911-1946” neatly sidesteps a controversy over realism vs. abstraction by subsuming its treasures under the rubric “avant-garde,” and thereby simultaneously cocking a snoot at those ahistorical types who have prevailed in their fantasy of the past two decades that avant-guard was coterminous with abstract, as in expressionism.
Thus the show begins (with the to me dull) canvas of PAFA grad Arthur B. Carles’ “Still Life with Compote” (1911) because it reveals two years before the Armory Show, that tidal wave of Modernism, how one traditional American painter had been touched by the Fauves, the Cubists, and by the granddaddy of them all, Paul Cezanne: it could in fact be mistaken by a careless looker as a mediocre Cezanne.
But the prize of my eyes is the “dark Precisionist.” George C. Ault (1891-1948), Cleveland’s claim to immaculate fame. “From Brooklyn Heights 1925” takes a sweetly stylized look at Lower Manhattan from the other side of the East River, the far landscape a fog-muted cubist collage, the middle of the canvas surging with the energy of a tug headed upstream, the foreground a precisionist maze of transportation lines—rail, truck, foot.
MOMA would keep such a canvas in its vaults, too minor to interrupt its facile program of overpraising gallery-generated gurus. So with Joseph Stella’s “Factories at Night—New Jersey 1929.” Now it’s chic to mock Jersey grittiness, mostly by those whose swollen affluence stems from the industrial investments they sneer at. Not Futurist fellow traveler Stella: “The red reflection of the Vulcan fire operating in the Jersey Meadows are keeping awake in our souls our faith in the future rejoicing of Freedom.” Not to miss: Dove’s “Tug Boat 1927,” a pretty paean to the river’s plug ugly workhorses. And the Charles Shaw trompe l’oeil’s as protoAbstracts are the kind of surprises Newark bestows on its fans. There’s a handy map on the back page of its bimonthly members newsletter (1-201-596-6607 / or P.O. Box 540 / Newark 07101.
Manor Junior College: Ever since seeing the Finnish-derived wooden folk churches in Kishi, U.S.S.R., I have hungered to see more of these provincial executions in a “lesser material” of the onion-domed churches of the metropoles. Imagine my glee when pitstopping at the Ukrainian Heritage Studies Center at Manor Junior College, off Fox Chase Road, Jenkintown (884-2218) to see that they have a detailed photoessay on that genre of folk architecture from the region of the Ukraine closest to Czechoslovakia.
The delectable thing about Ukrainian folk culture is its remarkable diversity. They have a pysanky map of the huge region of 51 million population showing how differently each area decorates its Easter eggs. The lively two year college of 500+ students has its own art gallery, a specialized library for Ukrainians and a great fall hoedown of things Ukrainian; but my heart is attracted to the richness of its folk heritage.
Abington Art Center: One of the more beguiling things about the AAC, 515 Meetinghouse Road, Jenkintown (887-4882) is that you hear pro’s and am’s kibitzing about their work on the mezzanine as you scrutinize what they’re displaying below, on my last visit the 41st running of the American Color Print Society Exhibition. Both AAC and ACPS have been at it for 47 years, and AAC notes with pride that it has recently installed the latest safety equipment protecting color printmakers against hazardous acids, solvents and sprays used in its processes. It’s weird to have ACPS president Naomi Limont recall that it was founded because color prints were ineligible among the monochromes. I especially relished Doylestown’s Maggie Preston whose “Caucus II” is a collagraph where the biomorphic shapes recall Miro and the colors suggest Matisse but the net effect of which is wholly Prestonian.
St. Joseph’s University: Just a palette’s throw from the Barnes Foundation is St. Joe’s art gallery in a recycled stately manse. “Jesuit Spirit in the Arts 1986” moved me to make my first visit there because an ex-Jebbie student (U. of Detroit, philosophy major, 1949), I’m always ambivalent about the shock troops of the Counter-Reformation. Having lost their faith, I suspect I rely all the more on their ideals of intellectual excellence they instilled in my refractory soul.
What a marvelous way to celebrate the installation of a new president (Nicholas Rashford, S.J.) and how doubly serendipitous that he’s an altogether creditable photographer, displaying a demurely smiling old County Wexford Very Hibernian leading lady, shrewdly positioned in the extreme right of the frame so that her milieu (a marbleized door frame and brick wall brightly mortared) shines through as well as she does. And Father Rashford is a business major! How Jebbie-ish.
I palavered with fortyish Dennis McNally, S.J., on the upstairs landing until he begged to be released (“got to earn my salary”) to teach an intro course. The co-director of the Gallery explained hat the blue collar U had no art majors, but 6 courses (enough for a minor) and three full-time teachers—so that 200 of the upwardly mobiles (out of 5000) can take a humanizing look each semester at our visual heritage. His contribution in a show culled from the faculties (not all of them art department types) from Jesuit U’s across the country is “Ceramic Study of the Madonna Paradigm” described in the handsome catalog as “a result of side-by-side learning with his Ceramics students … allowing the clay to dictate the outcome of play with a single theme.” What a far cry from the kitschy-kitschy-koo holy card “art” of my culturally deprived youth in Michigan!
Arthur Ross Gallery, Furness Building Gallery, Penn: What a delight the Furness Library at Penn is. When I taught there 25 years ago it was the Main Library, and the wrecking ball bauhausers were on the brink of leveling her. Now it’s an art and architecture library, and the first visit I paid to its gallery was altogether beguiling. The Germans and Austrians have been grousing softly but nonetheless insistently of late that the Anglo-Franco bias of our architectural history (never mind what Mies and his minions have done to our built environment! another and entirely depressing story, even in the waning months of the van der Rohe centennial year) has kept us from understanding Teutonic contributions to our common visual fund.
The fall show on the official architect of the Grand Duchy of Baden and its capital of Karlsruhe is an eloquent piece of persuasion that we have been missing too much in our Corbu-dominated consciousness. Friedrich Weinbrenner (1766-1826) is a titan to my eye. He espoused classicism, as did most of Europe after the excavations at Troy, but he did not accept the ideal proportions theory. Rather he stressed manipulating materials and construction to emphasize the character of a structure, especially timber framing which he learned apprenticing in his father’s woodworking office.
His 1813 farm in Ritterheeck, an island in the Rhine, is a marvel of functioning wood. And the plans for the cemetery hall is delectably muscular in the bold deployment of structural beams. But the most delight for me is #59, a Turkish Bath for Baden Baden, a blend of mosque and hamman (bath) architectural traditions, with a minaret for a chimney. He had the great opportunity of having an enlightened patron, Grand Duke Karl Friedrich, and a need for a whole new range of building types. The drawings area a gift from a family of architects who studied under him, and one of whom migrated here to Philly. Exemplary. Good catalog by David Brownlee.
Philadelphia Art Alliance: The American Institute for Graphic Arts / Philadelphia chapter show is full of a few hits and a lot of misses. Joe Scorsone’s poster for Temple’s Art Program in Rome is a bell-ringer: the many-dugged wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus is on a leash, the holder of which you only see the bright red high heels of. Bingo! The pair of legs are stylized doubles of the lower part of Italy which we refer to as the “boot.” Memorable. Clear. Effective.
I wish I could say the same for most of the other graphics. What you have here is an epidemic of graphikers hungering to be “fine” artists, and losing their proper audiences in the process of becoming too swell. I watched a class from the Art Institute taking an assigned stroll through the show, and I thought to myself, they’re busy picking up the microbe of make-graphics-look-fine-it is, a disease notably absent from the stationery section, where you’re cancelled right off if you presume to put your own muse above your client’s needs.
And don’t neglect to notice how abstract sculptor Isamu Noguchi can be his own transcending self in “Bolt of Lightning” without forgetting that the memorial is to honor Ben Franklin not the sculptor. He of course honors himself by doing his assigned job of honoring someone else superbly. And the Ken Hiebert poster is worthy in its clarity of both Isamu and Ben.
While you’re at the PAA, don’t miss Linda Lee Ominsky’s Wall Hangings (through December 6). Her hangings of Noah et al. hanging in there on the 41st day (her dispersing clouds are enough to send you into your own statocumulous of joy and pleasure) is superb. Ominsky has devised a quirky way of rendering many of her 2-D surfaces to the brink of 3-D. I just go ga-ga at her talent. “False” naïve,
Reprinted from Art Matters, Dec./Jan. ‘86/’87

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Forbidden fruit

Re: ”My fantasy life among the nuns,” by Thom Nickels—

Dear Tom, I envy your “catholic” ecumenical contact with so many different orders of nuns. Alas, I was stuck with German Dominicans for the ten years it took for me to graduate to a minor seminary in Detroit.

I entered the care of Sister Felicia at age three, since my father had eloped with his secretary to Las Vegas. Fifty years later I went to their Mother House in Grand Rapids to see if she were still alive. When I told her who I was, she exclaimed, “Pat Hazard! You were the best student I ever had!” Sister Felicia, you were the best Dominican I never “had.”

And, Tom, if I’ve not forgotten the Greek I learned in the minor seminary, it’s spelled Daedalus, meaning “cunning worker,” who discovering the skeleton of a fish at the seashore invented the saw.

Patrick D. Hazard
Weimar, Germany
December 8, 2010

Editor’s comment: You’re both correct. Nickels was referring to James Joyce’s fictitious alter ego, whose name was spelled Dedalus.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Ansel Twice and More

Seeing two major Ansel Adams exhibitions 8,000 miles apart in the same fortnight can make your summer. The show at the DeYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park had the larger challenge—because San Franciscans see an awful lot of their favorite photographic genius. Just two summers ago, the California Academy of Science fielded a luminous retrospective on the laureate of Yosemite.

The DeYoung was aided by Pacific Telesis, which lent its cache of 75 images chosen by Ansel as the best of his 40,000 negatives. (If you can’t get to San Francisco by September 13, console yourself with Ansel Adams: Classic Images, Little Brown.)

The audio guide pivots on a career choice Adams made at age 30: Continue plans to become a concert pianist (the family preferred this high-status option) or plunge single heartedly into the as yet unlegitimatized craft / hobby of photography. (His concert pianizing is the soundtrack.) How lucky we all are that Ansel, benign oddball that he was, took the road that was almost untraveled.

That his genius was 99% perspiration and 1% invention is clarified by a marvelous sequence of prints titled “Moonrise, Hernandez, N.M.,” which show how much aesthetic sweat went into the composing and printing each of the images.

The only other Bay Area show that moved me as much was the Frida Kahlo, wife of Diego Rivera, at the Mexican Museum at Fort Mason. The Riveras had many San Francisco connections, but this show gave the best overview of her small but superb oeuvre I have ever seen. What a pity it is not traveling as widely as her husband’s larger but less interesting (to me) retrospective of last summer.

Fort Mason, by the way, is finally achieving its promise as the area’s premier alternative cultural center—where it now houses the Crafts and Folk Arts Museum, as well as the Museo Italo-Americano and the Afro-American Museum. Popping on the 29 bus (75 cents) will take you to Golden Gate Park via the Golden Gate Bridge ramp approaches, with a splendid view of the bridge and the Presidio.

The other Adams show, at London’s Barbican Art Centre, benefited from the main gallery’s well-designed spaces as well as by having the magic 75 prints. But much more instructive to me was a show called “Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-1955,” in which the mainly figurative painters eclipsed by the abstract tidal wave of the 1960s and 1970s are retrieved from oblivion.

It was my first visit to the Barbican, touted in a recent Economist as the “state of the art in city living.” An artist running a coop gallery in Greenwich, where I had traveled to see the Australian bicentennial expo at the Maritime Museum, said she thought I’d like it “if I ever found it,” which struck me as a strange remark until I found myself following a yellow tape footpath from the Underground past brutalist blocks of confusing sameness.

Lunching workers from the financial district surely looked like they were enjoying their late May loll in its flinty precincts, and I did unwind pleasantly at a wine bar in front of the Art Centre, but oh, I wondered out loud, how would this place be in the winter and fall to fellow imbibers of good wine and rare sun?

“Terrible,” was the candid reply. It’s not nearly as commodious as the Hayward Gallery, where the Thames softens, and where the Corbusier expo was absolutely first-class and its catalogue a classic.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, August 26, 1987

Tuesday, 11 January 2011


I don't get most of this, but it is Louis Sullivan blessed.

Monday, 10 January 2011


Zaller on Christmas:

May our very own Scrooge sweetly sleep this revived “Holyday.” Mammon is our true faith, no matter how much the Archdiocese would have us return to pre-Luther Europe. We have our Sharia neighbors to remind us how dire such a Reaction-ary move would be.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Kiefer and the Jews

Re “A German Gentile confronts Jewish history

Robert Zaller’s encomium over Anselm Kiefer’s “wailing wall” is transcendent. But to an ex-Catholic who has rejected the concept of a chosen people as tragic hubris, I can’t let my enthusiasm for Jewish achievements over the centuries obscure their genocidal activities in Palestine.

One genocide does not legitimize another. The settlements do not settle anything but ultimate Jewish self-destruction. The right wing Jew more and more resembles the Sharia Muslim. Both assume God-like powers no one deserves.

Patrick D. Hazard
Weimar, Germany
December 17, 2010

Robert Zaller replies: I have no idea what Anselm Kiefer thinks about the modern state of Israel, nor do I think that an opinion about it can be inferred from his show. My reaction to it was my own, and it certainly doesn’t preclude my criticism of Israel as a non-practicing American Jew.

Modern Israel deserves no special treatment, but it does deserve equal treatment. The fact is that no other state in the world is subject to existential threat from surrounding hostile powers. Throwing around words like “genocide,” or suggesting an equation between Nazi extermination and Israeli policies toward the West Bank and Gaza, is to me an abuse of language in a situation in which language needs to be used with the utmost scruple and exactitude.

Friday, 7 January 2011


Economic news from Germany: The big difference here is the respect for unions, as opposed to Reagan’s mantra, "Americans are free again to become billionaires," the idiotic ideology that replaced "Any boy can grow up to be president."

Reagan began his imperium by destroying the air controllers union and advising executives to break the auto unions by outsourcing. German brass support union participation on boards of directors and don’t whine about unemployment insurance.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

O.E.D.: Three Initials Celebrating the Greatest Victory Yet of Literacy

For a bibliomaniac like me, Simon Winchester’s beguiling biography of the Oxford English Dictionary, ”The Meaning of Everything” (Oxford, 2003) is as exciting a read imaginable. It recounts the gathering conviction of the English Philological Society that their great language, just beginning its globalized victory, deserves a new kind of professionalized dictionary.

Its final finish in 1928, 68 years and three weeks after its troubled beginning, was perhaps the greatest single achievement in literary history. “The English establishment of the day might be rightly derided at this remove as having been class-ridden and imperialist,bombastic and blimpish, racist and insouciant—but it marked undeniably also by a sweeping erudition and confidence, and it was peopled by men and women who felt they were able to know all, to understand much,and in consequence to radiate the wisdom of deep learning. It is worth pointing this out simply because it was such people—such remarkable, polymathic, cultured, fascinating, wise and leisured people—who were primarily involved in the creation of the mighty endeavour that the following account celebrates.” (p. xviii.)

On Derby Day 1928, 150 members of the Philological Society(“all of them men, one feels slightly shamed to note today”,p.xix) sat down to a celebratory dinner at the London Office of Assay, where precious metals are measured for their purity and value. It at first was the club of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. The first two copies of the twelve volume dictionary were bestowed on King George V—and Calvin Coolidge, attesting to the common culture of the two English-speaking countries. A total of 227,779,589 letters and numbers, occupying fully 178 miles of type! 414,825 words.

The ecumenical bent of the editors account for the two Russian words, Glasnost and perestroika, unknown before 1989 to join the English glossary, along with so diverse a collection as “sauna, dachshund, omboudsman, waltz, cobra, bwana, ouzo, agitprop, samovar, kraal, boondock, boomerang, colleen, manga, kava, tattoo, poncho, pecan, puma, piranha” (p.18.).

And the search never ends. Take the word “information”. “It has grown urgent and problematic—a signpost seen everywhere, freighted with new meaning and import. We hardly need the lexicographers of the O.E.D. to tell us that, but after all, this is what they live for.” (James Gleick, “The Information Palace,” The New York Review of Books (12/14/2010).) The editors have determined that the word “information” is “exhibiting significant linguistic productivity” a word that “both reflects and embodies major cultural and technological change” therefore a word crying out for their attention. And it got it It! Attention that is.

The word “information” now requires 9,400 words of explication, the length of a novella. Gleich exclaims that the new entry “is a sort of masterpiece—an adventure in cultural history. A century ago ‘information’ didn’t have much resonance. It was a nothing word. ‘An item of training; an instruction.’ Now (as people have been saying for fifty years) we are in the Information Age. Which by the way the OED defines for us in its dry-as-chili-powder prose: ’the era in which the retrieval, management, and transmission of information,esp. by using computer technology, is a principal commercial activity.’”

Michael Profitt, OED managing editor, digs deeper. ”What makes it so distinctive as the fabric of mass communication is the very combination of immateriality and massiveness, its overwhelming diffuseness. It’s also a word that provides a point of imaginative sympathy between OED’s editors and readers.” Which is to say a personal dimension in an intimidatingly complex environment.

Incidentally the word entered our vocab, as near as the lexical gumshoes can say, in the fourteenth century where it had a sinister ring, signifying something like “accusation” or “incrimination”.The earliest citation came from the Rolls of Parliament, to wit, "Thanne were such proclamacions made. . bi suggestion and infornacion of suche that wolde nought her falsnese be knowen to her own lige Lorde.” “For centuries thereafter, informations were filed, or recorded, or laid against people.” As it goes, with words, for ever and ever. And never an Amen! Its meaning began in the Latin verb, informare, to give form to, to shape, to mold. Language is a wonder, No?

Incidentally, you can get the whole new 9400 yards of “Information” in the OED’s latest quarterly revision online, December 2010. And that ain’t all. One Henri Bejoint has newly joined the OED in cyberspace, in “The Lexicography of English” (Oxford, 2010).( See Howard Jackson’s review,”Hard Words” in TLS, October 29, 2010, p.27.)

Computers were first used in the 1970’s to check consistency of definitions in the “Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English”. Samuel Johnson got his definitions and citations from his chosen “authors of the first rank”. OED editor James Murray and his co-workers collected 5 million quotations! Modern lexicographers mostly use a computer corpus of texts to search new words and new meanings. The largest of these corpora is the 2 billion plus Oxford English Corpus, composed of material taken entirely from the internet.

My only first hand lexicographical crisis occurred during the Modern Language Association convention in New York in 1964. I had persuaded a skeptical MLA Executive Committee to let me organize a “jury” of nine(for the Muses) MLA satire specialists to meet after the telecast of “That Was The Week That Was” with the TV cast, next to General David Sarnoff’s office in the RCA Building where we had dined during the broadcast.(Scuttlebutt had it that the RCA boss Sarnoff’s color TV was the only one that worked in America.)

I had invited Philip Gove, editor of Webster III, to the satire panel. Soon into our afterparty, the TV show MC, (now Sir) David Frost got into a free for all with Gove over his descriptive rather prescriptive principle that allowed four letter words to sneak into Webster III! It was not a very humane discourse that ensued, as I was distracted by my feebly unsuccessful attempt to court Nancy Ames, the program’s stunning jazz singer. Some months later while I was summer teaching in London, David invited me for lunch at his club. He broke the ice with a spirited apology for his rampage against Webster III. Having had his vocabulary widened by Philip to encompass the lexically permissive “descriptive” as well as the old fashioned “prescriptive” ranting, Frost warmly allowed that now he “loved Gove”! OED. QED!

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

De-Exceptionalizing America: The Vision of Fareed Zakaria

Part of the America creation myth dates from the 17th century Puritan doctrine of US as “the City on a Hill” chosen by Divine Providence to be an example to the rest of mankind. Secularized by the Deistic duo of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, it was later corrupted into a ideology that justified abusing the American Indian and imported African slaves.

Eventually it served as the folksay that “Every American boy could grow up to be President” until the crisis of the Great Depression engendered “the American Dream”, a compensatory ideology that reduced the original universal promise for all to the vague possibilities of a few Americans a striking it very,very rich. It is this fatuous theory of America’s Exceptionalism as a nation that Fareed Zacharia disassembles in his third book, “The Post-American World” (Allen Lane, 2008). TV pickings for Americans are mighty few in Germany, but his hour-long Sunday afternoon (1400h.CET) “The Global Public Square” (2008--) has become my must see attraction.

A short bio will help explain both his brilliance and clarity. Born in Bombay in 1964 to a father who was both an Indian National Congress politico and Islamic scholar and a mother who was once editor of the Sunday Times of India, Fareed went to a private school and became secularized, honoring both Hindu and Muslim festivities. He studied Political Science at Yale, where he was president of the Yale Political Union, editor-in-chief of the Yale Political Monthly, and a member of Scroll and Key. He then went to Harvard to get a Ph.D. under Samuel P. Huntington at age 31. He directed a research project in American foreign policy at Harvard before becoming the managing editor of “Foreign Affairs” in 1992. From 2000-2010, he was the International editor of Newsweek, until he became a contributing editor of Time in 2010.He is already a naturalized American citizen.

One of his first Time essays is “WikiLeaks shows the Skills of U.S. Diplomats” (December 02, 2010.) He is cooly contrarian, “These leaks have been compared to the Pentagon Papers. Which they are not. The Pentagon Papers revealed that the U.S. engaged in a systematic campaign to deceive the world and the American people and that its private actions were often the opposite of stated public policy. The WikLleak documents, by contrast, show Washington privately pretty much the policies it has articulated publicly.”

But his real genius is in explaining to Americans how unproductive, even self-destructive, their Myth of Exceptionalism is, indeed always has been! He brings us back down to earth, explaining that the issue is not our decline but rather “the rise of the rest”.The expansion of communications meant that the world got more deeply connected and became “flat”, in Thomas Friedman’s famous formulation. Cheap phone calls and broadband make it possible for people to do jobs for one country in another country—marking the next stage in the ongoing story of capitalism. With the arrival of big ships in the fifteenth century, goods became mobile.

With modern banking in the seventeenth century, capital became mobile. In thew 1990s, labor became mobile. People could not necessarily go to where the jobs were, but jobs could go where people were. And they went to programmers in India, telephone operators in the Philippines, and radiologists in Thailand.” (p.25.) You can’t outsource all jobs, but the effects of outsourcing could be felt everywhere. The “rise of the rest” became more and more possible and attractive. So Americans need not feel they were declining. They just had to figure out how to go better with that new flow “of the rest”. To monolingual, “exceptionalist” Americans, that would be a tough transition.
Other successful nations were suddenly acting Exceptionalist for their own good reasons!

Zakaria recalled an informal meeting in a Shanghai Internet café with a young Chinese go-getter. “He was describing the extraordinary growth that was taking place in his country and a future in which China would be modern and prosperous. He was thoroughly Westernized in dress and demeanor, spoke excellent English, and could comfortably discuss the latest business trends or gossip about American pop culture. He seemed the consummate product of globalization, the person who bridges cultures and makes the world a smaller, more cosmopolitan place. But when we began talking about Taiwan, Japan, and the United States, his responses were filled with bile.” (p.32.)

Eh, the Rising Rest has its own historic agenda, that complicates the lives of both Risen and Riser! And each Riser will inherit memories from before the Rise. Globalization is no cinch! “’When you tell us that we support a dictatorship in Sudan to have access to its oil,’ a young Chinese official told me in 2006,’what In want to say is, ’And how is that different from your support for a medieval monarchy in Saudi Arabia?’ We see the hypocrisy, we just don’t say anything yet.’”

Ah Yes. Different strokes from different folks! For Fareed, the de-exceptionalized American will inspire more confidence and agreement in the Risers with discrete agendas. We must navigate shrewdly (and humbly) from a world of anti-Americanism to one of post-Americanism.

Indeed, Zakaria, “American”in spirit since he was 18, flying from Mumbai to study at Yale, points the way. Don’t fret about losing. Concentrate on dealing fairly with the hordes that are rising, willy-nilly. He is a model of post-exceptionalism. His book probes how the rest of the world is dealing with the New Risers. Arrogance about being Number One, once, won’t do it. Joining the human race is the first step. It’s easier after that.

This article has been republished with permission from Broad Street Review.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

What to Do with Old Buildings in a New Order

Nicholas Pevsner. a Jew(he converted to Christianity in the 1920’s but lost his teaching job) fled Nazi Germany to tout the Bauhaus safely from Britain, defined architecture shrewdly: “A bicycle shed is a building, a Cathedral is a piece of art. Nearly everything that encloses space on a scale sufficient for a human being to move in is a building, the term “architecture” applies only to buildings designed with a view to esthetic appeal.

Tell that to the few of the 2400 villagers who still go to their nineteenth century (completed in 1870) NeoGothic Church in Geste, in western France. The church of St. Peter replaced(in 1870) on the ruins of an older 16th century building destroyed during the French Revolution.

The new church was built in stages to accommodate 900 parishioners, but has been empty since 2006 and is now surrounded by a wire fence to protect visitors from its crumbling stonework. In deeply Catholic Anjou, their resistance to the anti-clericals resulted in damage. Ironically, in the early twentieth century an anti-clerical policy(1907) turned ownership of churches over to local authorities. In England and Italy, on the other hand, churches have been recycled as homes, stores or museums. Beatrice de Andia, the founder and president of the Religious Heritage Observatory in Paris (2006) estimates that there are about 90,000 religious buildings in France, about 17,000 of which are under government protection for historic or architectural value. The secularization of France is evident in the number of priests: 40,000 in 1940, 9,000 today.

The issue is local budgets: In 2007, the mayot and town council voted 17 t0 16 to demolish the Geste church: it would cost $4.4 million to renovate, as oppsed to $1.9 million to demolish and erect a new one. Alain Durand,50, a mason and metalworker who is treasurer of a preservationuist group, argue: “It’s very political; if they tear down and rebuild, it’s only to fight unemployment:” (John Tagliabue, ”Rising Price of Faith in France’s Shrinking Parishes,” International Herald Tribune 5, 1010.)

Durand showed a visitor the plans of a a nearby new circular church. ”It’s for entertainment,” he sneered, ”It’s a music hall. You could put a sign on it saying,’Groceries’."

So much for the Vatican II design to have the priest face the faithful during Mass.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Twenty-first Century "Saints"

As Richard Hawkins and Christopher Hitchens loudly blare their “faith” in secularism, a retired fishing family in Brittany perhaps shows by silent example what being “saintly” entails in our era. Their inspiring story was told by Fred Eckhard, lately Kofi Annan’s spokesman, who recently retired with his wife Kathryn after thirty years UN service in New York to Brittany, northwest France.(“85 Euros and a Bicycle,” IHT,3/3/10, p.7.)

Brittany has more stone manors per square kilometer than any other part of France: It came from their profitable linen weavers who supplied sailing ships for centuries with the raw materials for sails (including, tradition had it, those of the Santa Maria, Pinta, and Nina.) Came the steamship in the nineteenth century, and there were suddenly many empty manors, one of which is now inhabited by the Eckhards.

She was a Scot, with a deep curiosity about Brittany, so in 2005, they settled in a small fishing village, Plourhan, where they met Gilberte and Jean-Claude Saint Cant, recently retired from a local lifetime of fishing. Jean-Claude had once also served in the French Merchant Marine. Jean-Claude used to take Gilberte to Djibooti, one of the hottest places on earth, where they would sleep buck naked on the tile floor, with overhead fan, until dawn, when they’d take running dives into the Red Sea. They dug Africa, those lower class, high class Brits!

Ten years ago a priest from Koudougou, Burkina Faso (at 100,000 plus and growing ,the third largest city in the second poorest state in Africa).Pere Albert Kabore and Gilberte set up an NGO to finance girls in secondary school there. At first they begged bikes, fridges, and clothing from village friends and sent the stuff by container ship. One girl named Souli was an inspiration. She made very popular cakes. For 85 Euros and a bike she started a successful year around business. She put two younger brothers through school. Now she’s married to a shopkeeper, has one child and a thriving cake biz!

But the 2002-4 Ivory Coast Civil War cut off landlocked Burkino Faso’s access to container ships, so Gilberte shifted to Euros. Pere Kabore happily took home her last collection of 7000 Euros(she sells her fabulous chocolates over Xmas and throws a fund- raising Xmas luncheon). That will pay tuition for 45 girls. Not everything is working. Many girls are forced to stay at home to help with chores. And some girls miss 3 to 4 days a month because they can’t afford sanitary napkins during menstrual periods. But their little NGO is still gogo! It suggests a career pattern for pre-retired in our crazy Casino Capitalism: Pick a missionary and ask her how you and your friends could help! And even our secular media are beginning to think and act that way.

CNN now runs an annual Hero’s Race, in which a dozen or so such global “saints” are described and viewers are urged to vote for their favorite—and emulate her/him/them in a fresh way. Let’s call them People Plebiscites. Recently it has been argued that the sudden decline in liberal arts majors is explained by a massive transfer to business majors where the Big Bucks allegedly are. Mebbe so.

All the more reason to tout generosity as an essential compensatory attribute in Casino Capitalism. The generosities of,say the Gates Foundation as well as those of George Soros and Warren Buffett are necessary to balance the distortions of the Bigger and Bigger Bonus Bums! Where are our comedians mocking the Bejeesus out of Harvard MBA’s ruining capitalism by their juvenile shenanigans. Becoming a Billionaire is a very shallow aspiration!

Sunday, 2 January 2011

The Media Are Malarkey: A Loser And Two Winners

Back in 1955, when I went to New York on a Ford Foundation fellowship, Marshall McLuhan was trying by his seminal presence to bridge the widest street in America—127th Street, on one smug side of which was Lionel Trilling Land, on the other, Columbia Teachers’ College.
As a Commonweal Catholic, I found media guru McLuhan old hat, for he had tested the temperature of the audience for that magazine with slivers of his first (and best) book, The Mechanical Bride. Later, he pooh-poohed this landmark in humanist consciousness-raising by alleging that he was then still the “victim of linearity.” Blather.
The Mechanical Bride was my baedeker as a cadet teacher among the upper-muddleclass masses of East Lansing High. And it worked: Before you could say “UHF,” I had my 12th-grade students empaneling themselves each week over WKAR-TV under the rubric “Everyman is a Critic,” discussing fashion, movies, stock car races.
Later, as the TV editor of Scholastic Teacher, I devised the “Teleguide” so that other teachers in the boonies could assign a program intelligently before seeing it themselves. There is no more important task than the planned acculturation of young people into Socratic postures with their leisure media.
Alas, what a deformed genie I helped let out of the bottle. The Whitney Museum’s “Image World: Art and Media Culture” (through Feb. 18) is the latest and largest pain in my brain.
Begin with what I call a “crock” video. Young people stand transfixed before this tsunami of images, surfing on its superficialities (a quick closeup of a mons veneris from several angles perking up their short attention spans); pre-MTV generations mutter obscenities and flee—to the show proper, to be assaulted by still images of equal vacuity.
This is the Whitney’s move into the Big Time—and oh, what malarkey moils in their media. The catalog even suggests that the media have not just attained peer status with the traditional forms but that they are now the central forms of our culture, and then poses a series of inane questions:
“Who controls the manufacture of images? [Does any serious person doubt that the military industrial complex controls the mainstream and many of its main eddies?] Who is being addressed? [Consumers with time and income to make profits for some combine.] What are the media’s strategies for seduction? [A hedonistic paganism that, at worst, reduces humans to thought-and-feeling deprived automatons.]

Have the media collapsed time and history into a succession of instants? [This kind of pseudo-philosophical banter suggests how much we can rely on the museum community to extricate us from the lock the combines have on the denurturing of our people—Polaroid sponsors this show.]

What are the effects of image overlord, fragmentation, repetition, standardization, dislocation?” [Short answer: the mess, psychological and industrial, that contemporary America has become with a playpen politics that urges voters to stand tall in their saddles when not visiting Disney World, where they’re supposed to believe everything they see at EPCOT.]
The principal problem of our age is that the media are not the message, but that the media have a message-which is to control the public for corporate purposes. And corporations redistribute just enough of their profits to museums to create this kind of poudre aux yeux.
If the museum community were serious about our crisis, they’d call for a redistribution of income so that ghetto dwellers would have enough family stability to use the leverage of education to get out of the social sewers they are forced to inhabit.
With painful irony, a few corporations are now seeing that if they won’t educate those ghetto prisoners, hey won’t have a workforce in the 1990s. Maybe demography will force us to do what charity and justice ought to have dictated generations ago.
American democracy has been calculatedly two-tiered at least since Jacksonian times, but the detritus and debris didn’t build up to dangerous levels until after World War II. As long as well-paid, well-educated parents are more interested in the SAT achievements of their pampered offspring than in the viability of a decent and humane egalitarian society, just so long will the museums that cater to their guilty, neurotic leisure obscure rather than clarify our art and social agenda.
But I come not to bury the Whitney but to praise two must-see shows in Manhattan—at the Met, a luminous gloss on the early adulthood of photography (before it lost its mind to the narcissists), “The New Vision: Photography Between the World Wars” (closing Dec. 31). Paradoxically, in light of my diatribe above, it was made possible by what is believed to be the largest corporate grant ever made to a museum, by the Ford Motor Corporation.
It lets you walk through this history by means of exceptionally well-captioned critiques—succinct but illuminating—of classic photographs, arranged under comprehensive categories that put you in possession of the meaning of this medium’s 150 years of achievement.
The catalog is a pricey $49.95, but be a pal of media ecology and donate one to your local school library for Christmas. If only our children knew the riches of our visual legacy. We have been lying to ourselves that each new generation of immigrant millionaires was the kernel of the American Dream. In an authentically egalitarian culture, every school child would know who Lewis Hines and Edward Weston were.
They would also know who Berenice Abbott is—amazingly alive and thinking pertinaciously in her 90s. You can learn why she is an indispensable American artist (until Jan. 6) at the New York Public Library, Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, in “Berenice Abbott, Photographer: A Modern Vision,” worthy of her genius (but marred by bulbless patches where you can’t even see the prints by squinting!).
I especially like her portraits—she was obsessed by James Joyce, lucky for that Irishman’s images for posterity—and her benignly obsessed documentary series on the New York City of the 1930s, but most of all her science images, which—conveniently enough for my thesis of a new movement to transform mass education—were incorporated into a new science syllabus in the 1960s. If that is not a metaphor for saving us from our meaner selves, we deserve to be lost.
I couldn’t help tarrying before B.A.’s touching photo of Rowena Javits, the photo librarian for decades there, who combined a quiet passion for the images with a tireless searching and finagling to get them in the collection. She was the most impressive mensch I met in my first year in New York.
She and Moe Asch of Folkways. Moe did for the nation’s ear what Javitz did for our eye. Aschophiles will be levitated to learn that the Smithsonian is now releasing each and every disc he produced, on cassette, with an intelligent wraparound commentary at $10 at pop, mail order. Whitney folks, go down to D.C. and learn how to make a cultural heritage accessible.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, December 20, 1989

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Two guys from Philly

Two very different guys from Philadelphia, granted. But the serendipity of casual juxtaposition is one of the joys of my vagaries-ridden reading life.
Shortly after Wayne State University Press supplied me with a copy of Samuel Noah Kramer’s In the World of Sumer: An Autobiography ($37.50!), The Free Library cooperated by displaying David Brenner’s Nobody Ever Sees You Eat Tuna Fish (Arbor House, $16.95) on is new book rack.
Comparing and contrasting their lives is a classical exercise in the cultural history of our own times. What the 41-year-old entertainer and the 89-year-old scholar have in common is being born New Wave Jews (Lithuania and Russia-proper in origins) and poor in Philly. Each has secularized his Jewish heritage, but in remarkably different ways.
Take the easier and less impressive case. It is eerie to learn that Brenner grew up in what became MOVE country—60th and Osage. His major shtick as a comedian, in fact, is to turn the dross of urban poverty into the gold of bucks, an alchemy that works less and less effectively on my risibilities. The shtick which tickled in Soft Pretzels with Mustard (1983) has gone decidedly mushy in the intervening years.
Urbanologists will find his guide to Philly’s street “Toys and Games” interesting, if checked out by other sources. His “gutter raft” gambit (“Grab your raft and run as fast as you can to Osage and place your raft in the gutter with all the others. Run alongside it as the horse’s piss rushes the rafts to the sewer at the corner. You are yellow-water rafting”) has the earmarks of being hoked up during some longeur at his Upper East Side Manhattan townhouse.
I was surprised to learn that Brenner, a Temple journalism graduate, spent five years doing TV documentaries for independent stations and PBS. He describes several of the prison documentaries he made, and when he stops horsing around, he can be downright analytical, as in his animadversion over female incarceration:
“Women prisoners are so different from the stereotypes Hollywood produced on the silver screen. The women in he real prisons, unlike in those feature films, are not very attractive, very well built, misunderstood good hearts who only got into trouble because of their undying love for a bad man…”
“Most of the women I met in prison were, by and large, physically unattractive, extremely common, and tough as a piece of leather straight out of hell. Quasimodo’s sister would have won a beauty contest in the prison in which I filmed.”
It’s no secret why he left thoughtful TV. He wanted to make big bucks, and, as he told the Inquirer, he felt ineffectual. “The social problems I was dealing with existed before I entered documentaries and, unfortunately, still exist today. I wanted to make money, and you don’t get rich in documentaries.” Brenner claims he still feels “the same way I aways did about poverty, about bigotry, but instead of focusing people’s attention on those issues, I’m now overpaid to take their mind off of them. Which is still kind of altruistic, and much more satisfying to me.” Mebbe so.
But the most striking difference between Brenner’s “interim memoirs” and Kramer’s autobiography is the former’s constant exploitation of his personal life and the almost total absence of such tasty trivia in the latter’s. We learn how David broke his cocaine and Quaalude problems, and though we’re told he’s fessing up to teach his readers a lesson, one’s hunch is that his motivation is as venal as the local TV station’s crusades against crack: ratings hype.
Needless to say, damn few of Brenner’s viewers have even heard of Samuel Noah Kramer, Penn’s super Sumerologist. His book is full of interesting lore about growing up poor in Philly two generations before Brenner. And after wallowing around in Brenner’s megabuck swamp, it is amazingly refreshing to see Kramer’s gratitude at getting a grant for a few thousand dollars from the Guggenheim so he can keep us his “useless” work of deciphering man’s first written language.
There’s a definite demotic streak in Kramer, as well as in Brenner. Kramer’s concept of “firsts” in human history, drawing on his Sumerian findings, is a successful ploy at turning dry-as-dust materials into the green of salable and readable books.
Kramer didn’t start out hungering to become the world’s most famous Sumerologist. His muse quickened by the American literary renaissance of the 1920s, Kramer aspired to be an imaginative writer. He was a flop at that.
Only by a series of academic accidents in a career (made more difficult by the anti-Semitism that blemished the Ivy League until after World War II!) that is distinguished by persistence as much as by brilliance, did Kramer reach his preeminence in a very narrow international world of specialists.
Kramer has trained his basilisk eye on practically every extant Sumerian tablet, whether in Baghdad, Istanbul, Copenhagen, Jena, Leningrad, Moscow, Oxford, London, Paris or Rome. He’s a world traveler for world history. By far the most interesting episodes in his life, to me, were his thawing the Cold War just a whit as a visiting professor in East Germany and, later, in the Soviet Union.
What did this energetic man achieve, the cynic may ask? In a world besotted by high tech (and humungously profitable) space and warfare research, he pushed back the perimeters of our human past by a thousand years or more, modified our religious heritage by showing how our myths and theologies had analogues in Near Eastern antiquity.
And all without ever making a killing salarywise (to use a phrase I’m certain he’d despise), without dragging his dirty private linen in public for yucks or bucks. Both Brenner and Kramer are obsessed men: Brenner to ride a wave of popular acclaim, Kramer to leave a lasting mark on civilization as we used to know it.
Brenner, characteristically, brandishes his Chaim pendant bellicosely, so the goyim won’t forget all the Jewish children they killed. Kramer, on the other hand, wants to be buried in Ur, “The Sumerian city where—so at least the Bible tells us—Father Abraham was born, as a symbolic reminder of Arab-Jewish fellowship and fraternity. This, I fear, is now quite impossible; the political struggle between the two related peoples has become so embittered that even a well-meaning, innocent Sumerian lama (his good angel) cannot bridge the gap sufficiently to make this metaphoric wish come true.
“But as one Sumerian sage put it, ‘Friendship lasts a day, kinship last forever,’ and I will not give up the hope that sooner or later ancient Sumer and Ur, resurrected out of dust and ashes by the spade of the modern archaeologist, will help to revive the spiritual and familial bond between Arab and Jew.”
Those are Kramer’s closing sentiments. Here are Brenner’s: “From now to the end of this wondrous gift we call life, I want to live a few books, not write them. I thank each of you for making my life so wondrous. I hope that you, too, have a rich and rewarding life and that you, too, are a breathing, living book. Now, let’s all get out there and kick ass!” Yuck. Q.E.D.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 6, 1987