Thursday, 30 June 2011

Doing Porto

The first thing to remember about Porto, Portugal, is that its main train station isn’t downtown. You have to hop a local to São Bento station. I didn’t, and had a nocturnal walk of about a half hour through blue-collar districts that occasionally made me feel edgy in the total dark. (Why is it that when you see a lot of policemen walking their night beats in a strange town you tend to expect the worst?)

The main station is served by a bridge designed by Gustav Eiffel, a bit of international engineering trivia locals are wont to puff with pride about. (And don’t call it Oporto; that’s a British gaffe as galling to indigenes as calling San Francisco Frisco—think Port wine to keep yourself in tune with their idiolect.)

Anyway, by the time I hit CENTRO I was too pooped to be picky. But I was also low on escudos, so at the first stop there was no room for me because they didn’t take Visa. Next stop was around the corner—at the Hotel São Joao, 8,000 escudos. No matter, it was Visa-ble, and I was ready for bed.

A nice one, on the fourth floor of a commercial block, with funky Art Nouveau sconces for the hall lights, delicious two-tone (brown and beige) floor marquetry, and a color TV that worked—though my Portuguese didn’t, for on the more interesting channel, a Pinteresque fable brilliantly acted made me wish I were up to their speed in the language.

Breakfast was superbly Continental; with the thickest, most well-grilled toast I have yet eaten anywhere on earth, and endless, strong black coffee. All of this on elegant plate and cutlery, with a maid obviously more used to serving counts than no-accounts like me.

An added attraction was a 25-year-old glass salesman from Tel Aviv, with opinions as bold as the Bulgarian antecedents of his parents—who fled to Israel after the communists took over in Sofia. He made the point several times that the Nazis had never messed with the Jews there. “Bush has balls” was his post-Gulf summation: I didn’t have the early morning heart to ask him if Bush really knew what to do with those cojones. And he was too opinionated for me to try to do a William Safire on him about Iraq-gate.

He did give me first-hand accounts on him and the SCUDs: “Tel Aviv is always such a sociable place, but after the first attacks it was a ghost town after dark—that was the weirdest part of it.” On Arabs: “They’re such children. They get off on fantasy so easily. Imagine Arafat changing his strong position for the quick dream of Hussein’s destroying Israel.” He was almost as good as the toast, this Bulgarian-bred Israeli.

São Joao (St. John the Evangelist) is the patron saint of the city. And on my visit I tried to check into “his” hotel. But it had long ago been fully booked, as Oportans come home en masse for an all-night spring revel. I was puzzled by the way everybody was bopping each other on the noggin with day-glo plastic mallets—until the woman at the Tourist Office explained that the ritual was originally a young lady’s laying claim to a lad she lusted after by laying him about the skull with a sheaf of onions!

Believe me, the plastification of that annual rite is one of the tackiest comedowns, visually, of any tradition I have ever encountered.

Out on the street—Avenida Republica, to be exact—I started to check out S. Bento station, where I should have arrived in the first place. It’s a grand 1910-era edifice, with humongous blue tile murals—an especially attractive one of Vasco da Gama taking Ceuta. And lovely later-era ones on the wall facing the street of a choo choo, clock hands, and a bell—a metaphor for the new time-controlled-railways-commuter’s sweetly harsh life. At the bottom of the Square is an equestrian statue of Dom Pedro IV, with homages being paid to soldiers in 19th Century revolutionary struggles.

I had noted a poster in the café next to my hotel advertising a major Portuguese photography show in the Galeria de Praca. But it didn’t open until 10. So I cruised up the Avenida looking for the Tourism Office. It wasn’t open until 9, so I explored the marvelously baroque Trinity Church and got thrown out of City Hall for going in the wrong entrance.

The Tourism Office lady was a multilingual marvel. She whipped out a map marked with all of Pritzker Prize architect Siza Viera’s big works in the city and showed me how to find his office—way, way up the Rua Alegria. Unless you’re a born mountain climber, or want to subsidize their taxi business, you’d better get one of their mass-trans deals, because the ups and downs and ins and outs of Porto can be not only tiring but misleading. I took a back street “short cut” behind the cathedral and ended up in a scruffy quarter above the river that was sheerly perpendicular—and as hard to get out of as to get into.

While waiting for the photo gallery to open up, I started sizing up a bus inspectors’ kiosk in front of it. It was attenuated Arte Nova, but the windows (which could be really savored from the inside) were stained jobbies of a stunning beauty. Later, I dragged the gallery director out into the street—not exactly kicking and screaming, but shall we say deeply skeptical—to share my newfound joy with her. “WOW,” was her astonished response. She’d not had the curiosity to duck her head in.

There’s a lesson in her “temporary” blindness that I intend to explore at a greater length at a later date (99% of us are afflicted with esthetic cataracts that deny us rightful, daily pleasures). Right now I want to thank her for opening my eyes to the greatest local photographer. She and her colleague also gave me the full particulars on the dazzling rehab of an old book store that is their current exhibition space. The “architect” is an engineer who “took a course in interior design in Italy” and also happens to be the co-owner’s son.

After my luminous visit to Siza Viera’s atelier, I sought out the ancient photographer’s former studio at 120 St. Catherine’s Street. At the Grand Hotel, where I was checking out their gorge-until-you-die luncheon buffet, they said I’d find his former shop next to the Majestic Café. Holy Toledo. Instead of his shop, I found the grandest, most glorious Beaux Arts / Arts Nouveau café in history. I sat right down, ordered a café solo (i.e., alone, or without milk), and a pastille de Belem, a lip-smackable custard treat, while I dawdled in regal splendor over my International Trib.

The real reason, of course, for an architecture buff to come to Porto is Siza. He scorns international acclaim, preferring to teach at his U. and finish his masterwork, the new Architectural Faculty, overlooking the Douro River on a splendid site. He gives honor back to the term Modernism, because this complex of buildings has no PoMo gewgaws on it—but ingenious sun-breaks.

Simplicity, even austerity, also characterizes the old classroom building adjacent to the new Faculty. It is not a sterile less-is-more geometry, but a least-is-most sort of sensitivity to materials and site. It was also a joy to schmooze with the students, who appreciate the generosity and genius of their hero. They know how lucky they are. He is insuring that the future of Porto (and Portuguese) architecture is in good hands.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, March 2, 1994

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Monday, 27 June 2011

Henry van de Velde
Walter Gropius

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Former DDR lemonade factory recycled as first Bauhaus Uni library HQ.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

The new classroom building opposite Van der Velde's Bauhaus Uni HQ.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Old Faithful: It Sure Is

Finally made it to Yellowstone on a two-week Grand Circle Tour of National Parks in the West. I hate being committed to one bus full of seniors, but I hate driving in the mountains more. Actually, it wasn’t the geezers that bugged me, but the logorrheic Pat Buchanan of a tour leader who regarded us as all on the brink of Alzheimer’s, repeating the next day’s schedule so often I was ready to scream. And he was obsessed with shopping, not with museums as I am. So we unconverged in too many ways. And the hotels we stopped at were far from prime choices. Next time I think I’ll wing it on Greyhound.
Still, Old Faithful was a gas! Literally, as I later found out, reading a marvelous follow-up book, Jim Robbins’ Last Refuge: the Environmental Showdown in Yellowstone and the American West (Morrow, $22.95). It is an up-to-the-minute analysis of the policy issues and alternative solutions to the problems of mining, logging, ranching and water rights, as well as the downsides of the burgeoning tourism. It is a tasty mélange of curious anecdotes and deep thinking, the “dulce” that keeps you sticking through the sometimes complicated “utile.”
Actually, Old Faithful pales by comparison with the 10,000 other thermal features clustered in the park’s two million ample acres, “the Firehole,” a glassy river of gray-green water—until it picks up hot water that bubbled from geothermal springs. The heat and chemicals enrich the water, and the steam is superabundant with plants and insects.
But backward runs the Firehole. When most rivers are locked in ice, steam hovers over the free-flowing Firehole and things keep growing. Rainbow and brown trout grow a remarkable inch per month for nine months, then stop growing in July and August because the stream is too hot—90 degrees. That’s when the fish in other streams have their growth spurt. While rainbow trout usually spawn in May and June, the Firehole trout spawn at Christmas-time. There’s a tradeoff: Firehole’s superheated trout live only three years, while their cooler peers in Yellowstone Lake live to be 11. Talk about burning at both fins.
Another anecdote bemusing to this non-fisher was the datum that cutthroat trout, considered terminally dumb by tourists, get caught on average of nine times a year during the five years of their catchability under the catch and release regimen which now prevails. Each one of these too-suggestible critters would cost $48 to raise from a hatchery.
Here’s another anomalous discovery from the fish hatchery folks: They discovered, more or less accidentally when trying to understand river-flow effects, that rainbow trout raised in a hatchery disappeared shortly after stocking. Seems being raised in those crowded concrete raceways ill prepared them for ducking under cover in the wild for protection against predators. The otters and osprey were making out like bandits on these too too-civilized hatchery fish.
Tourists were not all that civilized either. The Radersburg party (they were unlucky enough to run into the Nez Perce fleeing to Canada) spent the first part of their vacation in 1877 “geyser jamming,” which consisted of “stuffing Old Faithful full of stones, tree branches and rubbish and sitting down to watch as the geyser blew the detritus high in the sky.” These Ur-Tourists also used the geyser to clean their dirty socks and underwear which exploded into the fresh air as “nice and clean as a Chinaman could wash it with a week’s scrubbing.” Heh, there wasn’t any television.
Which reminds me—we overnighted the evening Cheers was melodramatically ending itself. It seemed to me the next morning that half the staff had driven into Cody or Mammoth Springs to catch it. (I was miffed, until a few days later I caught the dull rerun in my Salt Lake Hotel.)
We also hear of U.S. Grant’s denominating the first National Park in 1872 as some great noble gesture. Alas, Nathaniel Pitt Langford, the 38 year-old former Montana territorial governor who led a party there to explore the Plateau in 1870, came to have two nicknames: National Park and Northern Pacific. It was the great railroad which raised the first two hotels: One on the lake shore began as a huge shed but was zooted up with Ionic columns and humungous pediments in 1903 by NP’s young architect Robert Reamer, thereby spoiling its outdoorsy image; and the Old Faithful Inn, which is a very satisfying evocation of the out of doors with a tremendous four-sided fireplace and gigantic gnarled beams. I loved it on sight and regretted that our chintzy tour company plopped us in the fake Colonial on the lake.
I also relished the Colter Bay Visitor Center, named after the first white man (in 1806) to see the sights—John Colter, a trapper with the Lewis and Clark expedition, who first ran into the tradition of skepticism about Yellowstone with his stories of “rivers that ran so fast the bottom got hot.” What was a non-science major to do, explaining the tall-tale truths of this unique environment?
David T. Vernon (1900-73) left his Indian collection, courtesy of a Laurence Rockefeller bequest, and it is mounted in a most satisfying manner, worthy of much longer than the half hour pitstop our hyperactive leader allowed us.
My favorite was Philadelphian George Catlin’s 1832 celebration of the Mandans: “…the several tribes of Indian inhabiting the upper Missouri are undoubtedly the finest looking, best equipped and beautifully costumed… they are the most independent and happiest race of Indians I have met with: they are all entirely in a state of primitive rudeness and wildness, and, consequently are picturesque and handsome, almost beyond description…”
I’ve always admired the benignly obsessed painter, doing the portraits of hotsy-totsy Phillies in the winter back below Broad and Market to finance his Injun savouring trips. He would have loved the Yellowstone injunction, “Take Only Photos, Leave Only Footprints.”
He also would have enjoyed Jim Robbins’ careful but still catchy exploration of the dilemmas facing Old Westers (loggers) and New Westers (Earth First! monkeywrenchers), who both find it hard to compromise for the kind of Next West Robbins is hoping for in the 18-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. (In the paperback edition, I hope he can persuade his tightwad publishers to expand the duplicated endpaper map, which I went partly blind trying to read. And unless I flunked 14-mile hike as a Boy Scout, several of the out-of-ecosystem allusions have flipped their quadrants.)
From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 4, 1994

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Simulated Walter Gropius office at Bauhaus Uni

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Typical class workshop in Bauhaus Uni

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Monday, 20 June 2011

Sunday, 19 June 2011

A Tramp Through the Damp in Sitka

“Don’t drip on the books” commands a sign in the Harbor Book Store in Sitka, Alaska (population, 8,000). I could relate to that injunction as I visited the National Historic Site in the driving September rain. Back in 1903, the local Tlingit totem carvers were motivated to create some fresh icons for world fairs in St. Louis (1904) and Portland (1905) after which they were returned here. During the Depression, Civilian Conservation Corps gangs spruced up the by-then-bedraggled sculptures for eventual conservation by the National Park Rangers. Their displays are powerful and instructive about the lives and habits of the local Indians.

And there are two excellent ten-minute slide films: one on the Battle of Sitka in 1804, during which the Russian American Company troops outgunned the local Indians, who surrendered after a lucky shot from a frigate blew up their canoe full of ammo.

How did the Tlingits get guns in the first place? Well, there were a lot of surplus guns left over after the American War of Independence, and geopolitical maneuverings being what they were, both the Brits and the Ams sold the Indian guns to destabilize the Russians’ hold on this valuable source of the furs the Chinese were so hungry for. The other fine film shows how the Indians got there (paddling up from British Columbia) in the first place.

But the real treat, in a high-roofed shed garnished with local totems, I found in a suite of craft rooms where a matron was fashioning the kind of dazzling regalia the Indians made from red felt and buttons they picked up from the Anglos in trading.

A younger woman was hard at work at an even more inspiring bit of cultural retrieval: Basing her creation on the historical research of a Canadian scholar, she was methodically twisting from Merino wool the first cape in 200 years. When I asked her where she got the curiously abstract piece of bone she was using in the weaving, she said: At the bottom of a bowl of venison soup!

In the small but vigorous craft renaissance under way in Southeastern Alaska (the panhandle), her soulmates in Juneau and Ketchikan, heartened by her success, were weaving similar capes. When she heard I was from Philadelphia, she was thrilled: The clan house of her great-grandfather from Porcupine Point had been carted off to Penn’s University Museum early in the 20th Century, and it is her dearest wish to visit this Mecca, where such an ancestral artifact is conserved. (I told her to hurry!) It didn’t surprise me to learn that each year about 100,000 visitors come to Sitka, a major stop on the itinerary of the cruise ships making the Inside Passage each summer.

The next “must” stop on the meander back to the center of Sitka is Sheldon Jackson College, where 250 students pursue liberal arts degrees in teacher ed, business, natural resources and forest management. Readers of James Michener’s Alaska will recall the indefatigable Reverend Jackson, who spent his summers Presbyterianizing the bush and the rest of the year raising money for his schemes of Christian civilization. In 1988, Sitka held a major centennial symposium here on the collecting of Indian artifacts, soon to be housed in the first concrete structure in the territory.

I bored museum director Peter Corey with the umpteenth telling of my only story about Bill Reid, the Haida visual genius who sculpted the first traditional Haida canoe in this century for the Vancouver Expo. In January 1988, when I was making my frigid railway circumnavigation of Canada, I took the ferry from Prince Rupert to pass the day on the Queen Charlotte Islands. Turns out the Haida were gathering that very day in their annual powwow, and Reid had pushed the noble craft out in the sound with a tentative paddle. It beat those old, grainy set-up movies of Edward Curtis.

Last fall I walked into the foyer of the Museum of Man in Paris and, damn, there was that blasted canoe again, at an exhibition of Claude Levi-Strauss’s favorite Amerindian pieces. A few days later I was in Giverny, paying the usual tribute to Monet, when I was surprised by a mimeographed notice announcing the arrival of a group of Haida Indians at Le Havre to make a royal paddle up the Seine to the Museum of Man. What a canoe. What a life. What an artist.

The Centennial Hall (think 1867, when we got Alaska form the Russkies for two cents an acre, all six million of them) has a small local history museum named after the Isabel Miller who started it. I took in some sessions of an international symposium on saving seamen shipwrecked in the cold waters.

The best seafood dinner I had in Alaska was at Staton’s on the main drag: halibut, beer-batter fried, with Alaskan amber ale to ease it down. And when your dogs are tired from taking in the Sitka sites, drop by the library, a new building with a stunning sitting room overlooking the Sound.

By this point I was tired of youth hostels and decided to splurge on a $100-plus-a-night room at the Shee Atika Inn, but the annual convention of the state’s leading professional sorority left no room for me in that inn. So I consulted my Frommer’s Dollarwise Guide. Karras Bed and Breakfast was described at “the most convenient B & B to downtown. Operated by a Greek man and his Tlingit wife well-versed in native legends.”

Pete Karras picked me up and took me back to the airport—in his pickup. And the breakfast, if not hearty, was substantial enough. Alas, the Indian wife was outside cosseting the grandchildren. I learned a great deal about hunting and fishing mores and economics from Pete, an amiable sexagenarian, between mouthfuls of French toast.

I had been “researching” a jeu d’esprit on Alaskan Dreams by asking as wide a variety of residents how they plan to spend their Permanent Fund oil bonus. When I asked a fisherman who stopped by to palaver during breakfast, he surprised me by saying he’d never applied for the freebie since it was begun in 1982. Why? “I can’t read or write.” The matter-of-factness of his response, entirely without any sense of shame about this limitation, amazed me as much as his answer.

You also run into an ornery streak when you bring up the fund, which sent over 530,000 residents a check for over $900 each last year. A fisherman at the SJC Library thought it was just another example of welfare mentality spreading across Alaska entirely too quickly. His companion expressed no such reservations: She was plunking it onto the mortgage balance of her fishing charter boat.

What was a fishing charter captain doing in a library, researching a tour based on the Russian influence on the region? Now, that’s my kind of non-Disneyland touring. If you get off the cruise ship next year, ring up Captain Barbara Bingham. To judge from the intelligence of her conversation, she’ll have cooked up something high-IQ by then.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, October 2, 1991

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Henry van der Velde's Jugendstil "Treppenhaus" (Staircase) to the top floor of what is now the HQ of Bauhaus Uni, the greatest building in Weimar

Friday, 17 June 2011

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Southern Exposures: Dixie Architecture

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that Catherine W. Bishir’s North Carolina Architecture (University of North Carolina Press, $59.95) is a mere coffee-table book. True, it has all the outward signs: hernia-heavy, replete with splendid photographs—and expensive.
But despite these stigmata, inwardly it’s the most thoughtful and penetrating book on architecture that I’ve read in a long time. It powerfully confronts the most besetting sin of architectural criticism, Facadism: the callow, shallow tic that tries to palm off elegantly-phrased descriptions of the exteriors of buildings as the real thing.
Take the “minor” local genre of textile-mill architecture like the Durham Hosiery Mill (1902): “The towered Romanesque factory form satisfied demands of strength, fire resistance, natural lighting and symbolic stature. Massive, tapering brink walls and massive structural timbers supported wooden floors that carried heavy loads and vibrating machinery. The think plank floors and stout timbers were also part of the ‘slow burn’ construction promoted by the New England Mutual fire insurance companies… The tower allowed the stair (through which a fire could spread) to be closed off form the main structure, and it typically supported a water tank for a sprinkler system. Such measures were crucial in a factory that processed highly combustible cotton and where workers and machinery operated in lint-filled air.”
Now, that’s the kind of architectural explication an amateur like me loves to roll over in his mind as savory tutor Bishir lovingly explains the five eras of the state’s architecture: the colonial (1680-1776), the federal (1780-1830), antebellum (1830-61), late 19th (1865-1900) and early 20th (through 1941).
May I bitch a bit at this point? To cover all that time and all that space without affording the reader a map of North Carolina is a gratuitous misery. Why not use the end papers for an ancient (front) and modern (back)? How else can an outlander like me ever track down Milton, N.C. (just across the line from Danville, Va.) to find more of the carpentry of Thomas Day, a free black who carved some of the most exquisitely original banister details I’ve seen in all American history?
The sauce on this meaty work comes from such quirky details, such as Korner’s Folly in Kernersville: “The house was the personal creation of Jule Gilmer Korner, whose father, a German clockmaker, had settled in the rural Moravian tract. The artistically talented Jule studied art in Philadelphia, returned home to work as a sign and portrait painter, and embarked on a career that brought artistic inventiveness into harness with booming industrialization. It was Korner, under the pseudonym Reuben Rink, who in 1883 created for Julian Carr the international advertising campaign that made Bull Durham tobacco a household word and left the hand-painted bull trademark emblazoned on buildings and billboards—some as large as 80 by 100 feet—throughout the nation.”
Korner compensated for all those bulls by turning the interior of his 22-room, seven-level studio-office-reception area (eventually his home as well) into a cornucopia of kitschy-koo décor. It’s so bad it’s marvelous.
I remember my own first awareness that N.C. architecture was far from negligible. I’d been visiting the great radical poet John Beecher and was too wired form the schmooze to fall asleep in my “Heart of Asheville” motel room. So in the spirit of Philip Larkin’s “Church-going,” I snuck into midnight mass at the Church of St. Lawrence (1907).
Holy Mackerel! I couldn’t believe the tilework. I was so euphoric I sought out the pastor—a grumpy exile from Brooklyn named Sweeney—who curtly explained that Rafael Guastavino and his craftsmen had come over to do Richard Morris Hunt’s nearby Biltmore and had tarried to bless other buildings with their skills. (One architectural “gem” I caught on that trip was Eugene Gant’s boarding house—as good a reason as I can imagine for Thomas Wolfe’s not wanting to go home again.)
Well, Bishir’s book gives me hundreds of architectural reason to visit N.C. with a fine tooth comb—beginning with, say, the marvelous local Deco genius of Douglas D. Ellington in Asheville. But it’s not just the grand stuff that’s great: I’ll never forget exploring the byways around Boone, N.C. The open, airy functionalism of the tobacco storage barns nearly knocked me out as totally as the soft regional dialect of the farmers explaining their craftiness. Use Bishir as Baedeker on your next trip to the Tarheel State.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, September 11, 1991

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Translation: With the Second German TV Channel programs you see better.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Monday, 13 June 2011

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Last Refuge of Scoundrels?

Not since Barbara Frietchie has there been a howl so heartfelt as those thousands of talk radio Americans enjoining the Supreme Court: “Justice, burn not that flag.” One recent caller to Bernie Herman’s WWBD talkathon exclaimed that allowing flag burners to go unpunished was the final nail in America’s coffin. An enraged patriot “threatened” Dick Oliver’s “Voice of the People” (WOR) that he was going to burn his own flag and flagstaff on the Fourth of July, in a demented kind of self-immolating patriotism.
The median kookiness of the outrage doesn’t give you a lot of confidence in the emotional health (or political sophistication) of the great unwashed. Time after time, these callers implied that the Court was actually encouraging people to go out and burn their flags. Very, very few took any comfort at all from the fortuitous juxtaposition of unleashed AK-47’s on Tiananmen Square and a guarantee of freedom of protest even to the most contemptibly unpatriotic. “Common sense” about doing in your enemies is much closer to the mentality of most Americans than the ultra-complex Constitutional issues.
Patriotism has always been a funny issue in America. My hunch is that the promise of the American Dream has so often outstripped the actual payoff among most of the public that there has always been a disaffected minority aching with its own expectations gap. Those closer to the Dream’s payoff tend to dismiss those “losers” with LOVE IT OR LOSE IT bumper sticker bromides. Is it significant that the only states without flag-burn laws are Alaska (too unbridled or too isolated for burning rituals—hell, maybe just too cold!) and Hawaii (in its polyethnic achievements having the lowest per capita loser population)?
The electronic babble-line broadcast other anomalies. Liberals who were quite adamant about protecting dissenters on a flag-burning tack bristled when it was suggested the Ku Kluxers ought to be protected in their cross-burnings. What’s sauce for the Marxist flag-burner goose ought to be the same for the racist gander.
One rather dim woman attributed the decision to the justices’ failure to get their salary raises last summer, a kind of simple-minded economic determinism more appropriate for a Marxist agitator. A matronly lady from Queens expounded a metaphorical interpretation that appealed to me; “Every time a voter fails to discharge her duty, every time a citizen breaks the law, each of them is burning the flag a little.”
It’s a beguiling model. As one Brooklyn lady put it, “Why are all these callers berating the Supreme Court for defending dissenters when they didn’t say a word when Oliver North practically threw out the whole Constitution?”
A good question. The yellectorate much prefers a Rambo to a nitpicking jurist splitting judicial hairs about some abstract legacy. I assume the same mentality prompted the fans in Riverside Stadium to rise en masse on opening day to give Pete Rose a standing ovation. “Love me, love my public enemy” is the prevailing ethos.
One other thing that troubled me: The talk show hosts peppered their defense of Constitutionalism with periodic insults at the man who burned the flag. It seemed as if they were afraid of being too tarred by the Supreme Court’s broad brush. They were continuously distancing themselves from the dissenter by using epithets like “stupid” or “I’m enraged by what that monster did.” Imagine Jefferson or Madison stooping to such crowd-pacifying behavior. Vox Pop poops on you if you don’t go along with the crowd.
In this bicentennial of the Bill of Rights, it is scary to perceive just how tenuous the legacy really is. Not only do a great many Americans not know what the crucial amendments are, but they also don’t give a hoot or a holler for protecting them when their own and shifting interests are not at stake. It’s clearly a lot easier to state a Bill of Rights than to get every generation to re-invest its intellectual and emotional energies into comprehending and valuing them.
One caller wanted to start a recall of the Fatuous Five of the majority. Another wanted a new amendment outlawing the burning of Old Glory. It made you wonder what they learned in civics. Then I remember how abstract the nuns’ teaching of the subject had been. No allusions to Father Coughlin, to the UAW sit-down strikes, to the Memorial Day Massacre at Ford in ’37, to California State police hassling the Joads. And as the movement to legislate scuzz out of rock music lyrics mounts, how much are this generation of adolescents being told about the anomalies in our national life that make Constitutional guarantees such a valuable heritage?
Dr. Johnson’s classic saw about patriotism being the last refuge of scoundrels needs to be updated. Show me a person who waves the flag as a substitute for thinking through painfully complex issues and I’ll show you a dropout from the college of hard Constitutional knocks, a flunk at the daily and unending course of reweaving the fabric of rights and duties into the ever-new conditions of the republic. It is easy to salute the flag. It is damned difficult to add to its meaning and heritage with continuing civic behavior that alone validates the flag’s importance.
Like the visual components of the flag itself, our support for its values must evolve as the nature of national life changes. The outcry against protecting the rights of dissent is not a sign of electoral vitality. It’s evidence of intellectual and ethical arteriosclerosis in the body politic. It comes from a generation of Disneyfication of our politics—cynical poll-taking politics, rampant Atwaterism, the reduction ad absurdum of the old Madison Avenue empiricism, “Let’s run it up the flagpole and see if anybody salutes.” Playing such games deadens. Happy Fifth of July.
From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, July 26, 1989

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Friday, 10 June 2011

The Old Boys’ Last Bastion

Cambridge, Mass: A watershed in American cultural history passed unremarked over Labor Day weekend at Harvard: The thirty-eighth running of the bellwether English Institute admitted the existence of the twentieth century.
Black U Penn professor Houston A. Baker mounted the most amazing section of the conference—on English as a world language and literature, with Dennis Brutus, South African poet-in-exile (at Northwestern University), leading off with a brilliant analysis of how the unique polylingual mix of his country (Afrikans, English, Bantus languages, E. Indian tongues, and a bewildering mélange of blends of these) complicates the movement for political liberation.
Edward Braithwaite, with Derek Wolcott the premiere poet of the Caribbean, teaches History at the U of the West Indies, Kingston because British university tradition does not include our demotic “Creative Writing” strand. He made history at the conference, demonstrating brilliantly with the aid of a tape recorder allowing us to attend to the timbres of black Afro-Caribbean poets living and dead, as well as the remarkable convergence of high seriousness and pop art in Jamaican developments like calypso and reggae.
It was wall-to-wall epiphanies, and the gaggle of jaded metro sensibilities, desiccated by decades of footnote shilling, were visibly and audibly moved. A tough act to follow, but one which Leslie Silko, Native American storyteller form the University of New Mexico (Albuquerque), after a nail-chewing day of wondering how she had ever assented to appearing in this bear pit of Ph.D.s, topped easily. She put ethnologists and folklorists on the spot by explaining how the realities of her tribes and their clans and families are too big for the neat and tidy theoretical systems which prefer “exotic” origin stories. Ms. Silko insisted that the genius of Amerind storytelling was beginning in media res and never ending: process is all in pueblo narrative.
It was exhilarating to hear her tell how the oral network among even acculturated high school students (bound in the chains of rock and kitsch along with their (Anglo peers) still processes events that mean a great deal to them, such as the murder of a New Mexican highway patrolman by a small band of Indians. Storytelling is alive and well in their teepees and hogans. Mass culture only deadens Indians; it doesn’t kill them.
The most dramatic confrontation between the old boys network of preferment in English studies (which had been the covert mission of the Labor Day conference since it started during World War II) came when a large majority of the 250 conferees began to clamor outside the Third World Lit session to get in and start their session on George Eliot! The lack of interest in the Third World among the elegant Eliotites was emblematic of the narcissism of the Modern Language Association luminaries who have run this seminal seminar each year without interference, indeed without notice, from their inferiors.
Dennis Brutus explicated this little unplanned allegory wittily by assuring the Third Worlders being hustled into closing that George Eliot herself would have been on the inside not looking out at the genteel mob. Of such ironies is America’s high capitalist culture made.
The second “revolutionary” session was instigated by that dirty old manic, Leslie Fiedler, the Peck’s Bad Bully of American literature. His mission was to introduce, supervise, and sum up a series of talks on “English as an Institution.” Bruce Franklin, of Rutgers / Newark (he’s the only American tenured professor of international reputation to be sacked for political cause—Stanford has the mouldy distinction), took off from his contentious book that argues slave narratives and prison lit are not only the most ignored genres in the American literary canon but they are also the key texts.

Franklin doesn’t suffer learned fools easily, surely not gladly, and the hostility which greeted his presentation showed clearly how far English professors are from holding a session on controversial ideas and assenting to them. What Franklin says, if acted upon, would involve among men of good faith, a wholesale transformation of the ways things are done in English departments, especially at the key Ivy / Big Ten / UC top institutions.
I say “men of good faith” as a way of praising the most dazzling performance of the entire session—by an “unknown’ female assistant professor at Penn State / Erie, Diana George. As she put it slyly—her 70 page analysis of sexism, latent and manifest, in he old boys’ network of prestige and preferment, is what happens when the men teach women like her to think and express themselves. Her findings were devastating, and make the annual volume of papers (available next fall) as absolute must for all serious students of American culture let alone English studies.
The MLA hierarchy should hang its collective headlessness in abject shame over the tenure denial incidents at the Universities of Hawaii and New Hampshire. They are perfect examples of Hazard’s Law: Seventh rate people in Academe surround themselves with tenth rate people on the grounds that a valley makes a foothill look like a mountain. The more brilliant and productive a female English instructor is, especially the more articulate her feminism, the less chance she has of getting tenure.
The case of Annette Kolodny in New Hampshire is particularly galling. Her scholarship in my field—American lit—had impressed me greatly, and I was appalled to learn in disgusting chapter and verse in the George paper how cravenly (and probably anti-Semitically) the freedom fighters at UNH had abused due process to keep their clear superior from becoming their “peer.” I have never felt the animus of Voltaire’s “Ecrasez l’infame” in my gut until hearing George’s analysis of the Kolodny case. Never has a corrupt and insensitive aristocracy so blatantly abused its trust. The Kolodny scandal deserves a federal investigation violating as it does HEW and numerous other federal policies. It made me feel ashamed to be a full professor in such a crummy cadre.
Fiedler played the Borscht Belt Ph.D. in his amusing and controversial summing up. As he leaves middle age (he began teaching S.I. Hayakawa’s Language in Action in mimeo forty years ago this fall at the University of Wisconsin), he perhaps plays the poor boy off the streets of Newark a bit too sentimentally! I mean it’s a long way from Samuel L. Clemens professorship of American Lit at Buffalo to Central Avenue, Newark! His shtick at the moment is a proselytizing for Sci Fi, Dracula, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and other books “that bring people together” rather than separating them like modernist classics do. Fiedler is no ghoul himself of course; and inasmuch as his programme for English studies would disemploy all the members of the audience (who have strained themselves to the breaking point all their lives to become Modernists with High Standards), one can predict the confused outrage that his call for the abolition of Standards brings among these most rigorous of knee-jerk Standard Barers. When pressed to the blackboard, the dybbuk of Am Lit admits that he wants students to evaluate their esthetic experiences; he just doesn’t want “standards” imposed ritualistically.
But he has Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the brain pan. He even admitted that it bothered him that Freud reported some compulsive masturbators found the book a congenial tool. An obscene wag in the now aroused audience yelled out, “Not to worry, that was a clear case of immature ejaculation.” Where Fiedler is very much on target is in his reducing the agenda of humane studies to the “Song and Story” impulses which began in some cave campfire, and as Leslie Silko’s testimony proves, endures through thin and thick. “Cabin” appeals to Fiedler because Harriet Beecher Stowe explained how the book began as a vivid image (of a slave being abused) during the longuers of a Sabbath Sermon. Her book then became stage play, movie, radio, and TV over the past century.
It’s the images in students’ heads which must concern the teacher. Get them together, and civilization ensues. Be rigorous out of context, and mortis sets in. it was a hard act to leave. When on irreverent auditor taunted him in disgust that if he were so high on pop lit why didn’t he give up his Buffalo professorship and we’d pass the hat for a Kate Turabian Chair of Pop Lit. (Ms. Turabian is the heavy in Fiedler’s melodrama because of her stature of Ms. Footnote of English Studies). Fiedler’s riposte was vintage Leslie: he had tried to get them to name his prestigious chair the Huck Finn Professorship. Aghast, the Buffalo prestige seekers wouldn’t even accept his proffered compromise—the Mark Twain Professorship. SUNY or later, every link on New York’s chain of graduate schools has got to exorcise its teacher’s college prehistory by snaring a Leslie Fiedler level luminary and putting him in a chair named after a great New Yorker. Maybe Annette Kolodny should become the Harriet Beecher Stowe professor of Feminist Lit at Storrs.
It will not be easy. In the fourth session at the English Institute, the endemic bad habits of the clerisy surfaced in ways that were self-parodying to all but the auto-novocained. “Allegory” is the hottest hot bed now for the seamiest of semiologists. There were so many Francophoney neologisms making their debut in this clutch of four papers that defenders of clear English proposed setting up a George Orwell Nurd Neologist Award for the most and lowest quality coinages in any fifteen minute paper. Unfortunately, the perpetrators were so fecund they brain damaged the putative jury on the spot. “Heard any good allegoremes lately?” became the whispered rhetorical question. I can’t conclude without observing that this session also showcased a genre unknown to me before—semi-hard core porn.
The relish with which these academic allegoreamers zeroed in on the private parts in Dante, Montaigne, Pascal, and others would cause Hugh Hefner to get it up pronto. You’d think the professors were discovering the damn things—I mean pricks, assholes and other apertures that give the isolated the sense that they’re dealing with Reality.
Ah well, meanwhile back at the pueblo, we have Leslie Silko’s word that the Indians are going to take back the Non-reservations, in narrative anyway. That’s good. The housebroken professors have abused their trust long enough.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Monday, 6 June 2011

The Media go "Wilding"

Will there be no end to it? A loner AK-47-ing moppets in a Stockton school yard. Serial killers by the baker’s dozen. Drug dealers in Matamoros protecting themselves with a cordon of ritual murders. If Fox Broadcasting were to de-escalate one ratchet lower in its programming, it could easily transcribe a Horror of the Week docudrama straight off the tube.
And just when you thought our horror index had been trivialized, the Central Park Jogger incident has played “Can you top this?” with our emotions. Never has there been such media obsession with an event that seems to turn James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time into a mild run-through for Apocalypse Now. It makes Tom Wolfe’s scary Bonfire of the Vanities encounter on a Bronx off-ramp resemble a daylight saunter through Central Park. And having prepped at the Tawana Brawley School of impostature, the Al Sharptons of the black over-class flex their talons for a new media flight.
Indeed, the more one replays the interpretations of the moral disaster, the more implicated the media seem to be in the malaise. New York magazine’s media critic Edwin Diamond notes (May 15) that there were 3,400 rapes and 1,900 murders reported in New York last year. What is it, he asks, about the six minority teeners going berserk on a night of the full moon that so mesmerizes us?
The obvious answer is still the most valid one: a Wellesley / Yale / Phi Beta Kappa investment banker in the first flower of womanhood laid low by six scumbags without a future. Could anything be more unfair?
Yes. Try this computer read-out from a City University of New York Graduate Center sociologist: North of 110th is the highest indices of underclasslessness anywhere in America. South of 110th is the highest per capita wealth in the city.
Unfair? The widest economic fissure in the country which is the precipitate of three centuries of racism and redlining of one kind or another is of course No News. The Kerner Report, with its grim prediction of two Americas, is No News either. But it's the most salient truth about our country—a gritty reality that has been exacerbated by the last two Disney Decades of Reagan imploring his countrymen to stand tall in the saddle once more.
The hysteria, media-hyped, over the Central Park Jogger is middle-class anxiety that “There for my own lack of gutlessness to jog in the moonlight lie I.” Not that the fear isn’t real enough. But walk in the recent moccasins of two Brooklyn women.
One was walking back to her Crown Point apartment from getting a pack of cigarettes. Two black youths stopped her for a light and ended up dragging her to the roof of a tenement, raping her and throwing her off the roof to the concrete yard below.
Residents heard her screams but didn’t do anything. They gave two possible reasons. That kind of screaming is going on all the time. And “I didn’t want to get involved.”
The woman survived from the fluke that the courtyard clothesline broke her fall. Her recumbent moans brought the aid that her airborne screams had failed to muster. Unfair.
Imagine having to live day in, night out in such a Hades. It’s not the occasional unfairness of the discretionary nighttime jogger. It’s unremitting, unmitigated diurnal hell. I’m amazed there isn’t more cross-110th Street marauding.
One more Crown Point detail. TV pictures of the two rooftop rapists gave another of their victims courage to charge them for an earlier crime where she barely missed being tossed herself.
Preservationists have made an industry of saving buildings which survived from our kinder, gentler past. What their middlebrow sentimentality obscures 99% of the time is that our past is a most ambitious burden, an idealistic heritage corrupted by the repression of our darker side in our official centennializing hoopla. It’s more genteel tourism than mature historiography.
Parallel to media obsessiveness over the Central Park Jogger was mass coverage of the bicentennial of Washington’s inauguration as president. We needed to praise George less and flatter him more by following his hardheaded examples.
The foolishness that media hype has induced on this one incident staggers belief. The other night Larry King set himself up as an authority on the Constitution by berating every caller who neglected to use euphemisms like “alleged” when alluding to teen marauders.
One incensed caller played a variation on Bernard Shaw’s contemptibly rhetorical question to Michael Dukakis about how he’d respond to his wife’s rape by asking King what he’d do if someone raped his daughter. Quick as a flash, the erstwhile Constitutional tutor retorted, “I’d track him down and kill him.” (This from a man who spends half his air time lobbying against the death penalty.)
There’s more. When another caller asked King for a rationale, he blurted, “Do unto others . . .” Thus does talk radio decline into doubletalk. In general, my sampling of talk radio on this issue the last two weeks suggests that King may actually be talking at a higher level of discourse than his mikemates.
Which brings me to my conclusion. Hyping such tragedies has become part of our media’s metabolism. It helps ratings and circulation. No doubt about that. But I think it has been unwittingly eroding the conditions for a civil polity in our society.
Fast America is fast becoming a Foolish America. Two cyanide grapes, and Chile staggers. Traces of pesticide, and the Yakima Valley apple crop is endangered.
Come on. Let’s cool it, media. Acid Rain, ozone layers, nuclear waste and what we aren’t doing to deal with them is the long-term story. One Central Park tragedy is not the American Tragedy, but it is an emblem of what will engulf us if we don’t start liquidating our losses.
From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 31, 1989

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Wednesday, 1 June 2011