Friday, 28 September 2012

Follett’s Folly: The Selling Of The Writer

Book Publishing is in the midst of some serious buffeting. The American Booksellers Association didn’t miss a beat as it held its annual convention in the world capital of Non-Reading Glitz, Las Vegas. And (what made my tired old eyes boggle) a certain “Ken Follett” is paid $12.5 millions up front for his next two novels, not yet written or even plotted.

Ken Follett? Yet another hole in this reader’s experience. (I’ll plug that later in this rumination. But first the facts.)

Let a late-summer lead piece in the Wall Street Journal’s “Marketplace” section (Aug. 2) be your tutor: “To increase sales of Pillars of the Earth, his latest novel in paperback, he agreed to be part of the prize in a contest advertised in thousands of bookstores. Pillars is about the building of a medieval cathedral, and the winner of the contest will get a free trip to England and a tour of Westminster Abbey guided by the author.

“And that’s not all: At his publisher’s request, Mr. Follett wrote a romantic short story, ‘The Abiding Heart,’ that takes place in the present but uses the same medieval cathedral as a backdrop. Good Housekeeping magazine got the story free for its current issues. In return, Follett’s publisher, a division of Penguin USA, received two full pages advertising the Pillars contest just before the story.”

Contests? Spin-off short stories? Cathedral tours? It’s a far piece from Matthew Arnold, a lot more advertising anarchy than literary culture.

One wishes those well-paid Duke deconstructionists could do a little demolition in the Follett’s folly sector. But they’re too busy putting each other down, I suppose, to be concerned about the McDumbification of our literary institutions.

But where do you draw the line? Or does it even matter? The hustle is both endemic and protean. Arthur Hailey recently appeared on the J.C. Penney TV Shopping Channel to flack his latest institutional, The Evening News. Bottom line? The QVC book shopping channel (format: the author and the host in a studio, extolling the latest product) claims Rosamunde Pilcher sells 100 to 50 books a minute. Rosamunde Who?

What greater love hath a writer than to flog him or herself on behalf of the latest title? Joan Didion modeled a turtleneck for Gap clothing stores. Even my hero Jimmy Carter confessed to the lustiness of his book promotion when he took journalists on a fishing trip to promote his An Outdoor Journal several hypeful seasons back.

But the flog that’s most beguiling is Baltimore reporter Leslie Walker going on a talk-show circuit with the brother of the murderer she had profiled—until her fraternal evidence was himself jailed for murder. (Takes one to sell one?)

Perhaps the distance we’ve traveled can be gauged by contrasting octogenarian James Michener’s curt “It’s disgraceful” with 30-something Tama Janowitz (who touted Slaves of New York with a video of herself at parties with Andy Warhol): “You do what you have to…and as long as someone is moved to read your book, it’s worthwhile.”

The late Walker Percy refused, despite repeated entreaties, to go on the Dick Cavett show, then considered the hottest medium for book-publishers. Poor old-fashioned Dr. Percy believed his job was writing them, not selling them.

Keen young Ken Follett (he’s just turned 40), on the other hand, once took a course on how to do TV makeup and consulted a “color analyst” so “I would wear colors that make me look attractive.” Yuck.

His first, best thriller, Eye of the Needle (Arbor House, 1978), is not an unintelligent exercise as befits a philosophy major who learned to be demotic on the London Evening News. “Timely,” too, in the sense that a generation after World War II there were millions ready to take a nostalgic look at a key incident preceding the D-Day invasion—whether the Allies would enter France via Calais or Normandy, and how the German General Staff would deploy its diminishing resources along the Channel.

The key player is a Nazi secret agent known at home as “Die Nadel” (“The Needle”) for his penchant of dispatching those who get in his way with the stiletto he keeps hidden in the sheath on his forearm. He must have been doubly appealing to his British readers for his curmudgeonly oddball contempt for Nazi authority.

The man who leads the British chase is a medieval historian on loan to security services. The other principal is a beautiful wife of an RAF Spitfire pilot whose legs (and chances for heroic war effort) were sheared off in an auto smashup on their wedding day.

I really relish the cat-and-mouse details of the chase, especially the Needle’s preternatural skills at anticipating the enemies’ moves. Surely, the pleasure Follett has given me in the reading earns him the last word: “I’m sure there are things I wouldn’t do, like promoting cigarettes. I understand there are writers who are deeply, deeply serious about the creative work they do and who feel promoting themselves would sully that. But it would be pretentious to feel that way about entertainment fiction. The way I look at it, I’m an entertainer.”

Fair enough. But the Infotainment Era makes it harder and harder for the bunch of us to think consecutively about social options or to palaver with each other about what policies ought to come out of our palavers.

Maybe the mistake is believing that there’s any connection between hard covers and hard thinking. Billions of books don’t necessarily add up to sane and life-enhancing behavior. With or without color analysts.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, January 23, 1991

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

What’s in a Name?

NOUMEA, NEW CALEDONIA. For a street-name freak, there is no greater thrill than arriving in a city of 60,000 to find that, the day before, two amateur historians published a fat book ($44.50) on the history of their city’s street names. Wowee!!

The Brits were the first non-Melanesians to touch down here (Capt. Cook in 1774). The first thing the French did when they settled in was to change the Brit street names. Adelaide became Strasbourg Street; Auckland, Soissons; Brisbane, Reims; Sydney, Metz. To the temporary winner belongs the onomastic spoils.

1853 is the year of the landing that the French memorialized (with a great ship anchor at a Y in the road), and a street is dubbed for the date, the 24th of September. (The only other dated street is the 18th of June, when General DeGaulle affirmed, from London in 1940, to all the “Free French,” that “La France a perdu une bataille; Elle n’a pas perdu la guerre.”)

But in 1985 France almost lost New Caledonia, an unpleasantness which has just been recounted in Chronicle of the Years of Ashes, New Caledonia 1984-86, by Isabelle Doisy, a pen name, the anonymity of which suggests how high the feelings still run amongst the volatile mix of 61,000 Melanesians, 54,000 Europeans, 17,000 Polynesians and 12,000 Indonesians, Vietnamese and “others.”

An evident difference between New Zealand and New Caledonia place names is the preponderance of Maori monikers in the former. Except for the coastal villages, in New Caledonia there are almost no Melanesian names evident. The Brits ruled by seeming not to conquer; the French prefer to Frenchify everything in sight. Which makes a section of the city called “Motor-Pool” stand out like a sore hitch-hiker’s thumb: Between 1942 and 1946, this was a major American military base where the cars and trucks were kept up to snuff.

“Caledonia,” by the way, was Cook’s idea, because the mountains near his first landfall at Balade reminded him of his native Scotland. Alas, geopolitical hardball being what it is, he gets no street named for him in Noumea.

Outside the Cathedral of St. Joseph, the first bishop, one Guillaume Douarre, is described as “Having given this country to God.” Alas, he died, age 43, in an epidemic, the year the pays became French as well as divine—or is it the other way around?

Curious as to why a certain Dr. Guegan earned a street name, I looked in a new book. He was a naval doctor who settled here and was praised for never having taken a metropolitan (Paris) vacation; the noble doctor died from the infection from “a jet of pus” in his eye while treating a patient.

The book records onomastic waves—in 1933, Zola balanced Peguy; in 1964, there was a binge of artists—Van Gogh, Valasquez, Fragonard, Ingres, Manet, Renoir, Michelangelo and Gauguin; a scientific cultural wave crested in 1971, with Marconi, Lumiere, Voltaire, penicillin Fleming, our own Ben Franklin, steamboat Fulton, Yuri Gagarin and Rousseau getting the name nod of recognition; in 1977, it was the turn of Pascal, Teilhard de Chardin and Douglas MacArthur!

There is no analysis of why these pattens occurred when they did, just the old-fashioned bit-by-bit description. What stories must lie behind Bull Halsey making the cut in 1964, Thomas Alva Edison in 1966, Nimitz in 1973 (in the same honors list as Einstein), while Jack Kennedy seems a very belated afterthought in 1984.

The latest cultural tsunami is U.S.-generated: Pacific Burger sells Big Pacs! Across from the Cathedral is the “No. 1 du tee-shirts” with the American flag worked into their logo (they also sell “sweet” shirts). An obscure graffito complicates their pitch: FLASH DASH SOLO FOSTER.

On the Rue d’Alma you can buy electrical appliances from the O.K. Corral. And next door, furniture from O.K. Dock. But it’s schizzy in this latest onomastic world—a scruffy little shop styles itself “Snack L’Exotic.” If you believe that, you’ll probably buy your tee-shirts at “Tee-shirt a Go Go,” described as “Style in U.S.,” with rodeo, L.A. and football being the icons of choosing.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 11, 1988

Monday, 24 September 2012

Get Me My Bookie, Quick: Critiquing Literary Awards

The National Book Critics Circle announced its 1990 award winners last week, which reminded me that rare beef—and an equally rare Georges de Boeuf vintage—are not the sort of regimen to put NBCC minds in a state of high readiness. But that was the prologue inflicted on the membership before their panel on “The Theory and Practice of Book Prizes,” at the 1989 meeting, held at New York University’s Loeb Center.

Calorie counts aside, the nutritiousness of the observations was rich enough to justify the travel expenses of the nearly 100 members who attended.

Poet/critic David Lehman keynoted the panel, summarizing the contentiousness of the Big Three—the 60-year-old Pulitzer Prizes, the 40-year-old National Book Awards and the ten-year-old NBCC Citations. The rhetoric unleashed by their ambiguous standards included William Gass’s contention that the Pulitzer-givers had taken dead aim at mediocrity and almost never missed.

Ah, yes, the awards we all love to hate—and still and all, hate not to be loved. Lehman concluded his feisty warm-up by posing the questions he hoped the panel and audience would engage: What is the rationale for book awards? Do they help sell books? Do they change writers’ lives? Who should be eligible? Is controversy inevitable (even useful)? And—asking that the judges be judged—what did the panel think of the NBCC awards?

Pride of place on the panel went—as it should—to Richard Rhodes whose The Making of the Atom Bomb took the Triple Crown in 1987 for non-fiction. If ever a member doubted the usefulness of the awards from the winner’s perspective, Rhodes put their minds at ease.

In the five years he spent making the book, he said, he didn’t think about awards. So he was truly surprised at the NBA nod. The Pulitzer kept his phone off the hook, as old friends and current creditors attempted to cash in on his new cachet.

He amused the jaded crowd with vignettes about a long interview with the New York Times followed by a telegraphic encounter with USA Today’s terse injunction, “How do you feel—in one sentence,” followed by an equally succinct “Thanks.”

But Rhodes attested to how the prizes changed his life—from 20 years of catch-as-catch-can article writing in Kansas City to his new estate in Cambridge as a fellow in the arms-control circles of both Harvard and MIT. And don’t forget the attentiveness of book reviewers to his 1989 book on a Kansas farm family of agricultural achievers with whom he slopped hogs for six months. And all this from a book that’s hardly a best-seller, at 35,000 copies sold.

But better than such megabucks was the new control he gained over his own writing life, preparing to hunker down for a decade to do a two-volume history of the 20th Century, with the empowerment of the people through science and technology as the leitmotif.

Farrar Straus and Giroux vice president Helene Atwan followed, expressing enthusiasm tempered by experience. She averred that the publishing industry loved prizes, wished there were more of them—but also wished they wielded a bigger impact. Surveying a dozen colleagues in the publicity end of publishing, she found that prizes don’t automatically lead to heartening sales booms.

But there have been memorable effects: the escalation of a paperback auction price from $15,000 to $50,000 as the result of an NBCC nomination, the positive impact of college paperback adoptions of prizewinners, the Penguin paperback tour of Larry Heinemen’s Pecos Story, which was going nowhere until he got an award mid-tour.

Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley, designated cleanup hitter, argued that though the prizes weren’t perfect and their methodologies could always be fine-tuned, their net effect was one of gain for the book world, writer, reader and publisher. The judging process is heir to all human failings—whim, prejudice, fixation, dislike—but like democracy, though it may be a lousy system, it’s the best we have.

Therefore he greeted the new L.A. Times award as a healthy portent, breaking the East Coast monopoly in the prize-bestowing business. But he was restive about prizes being awarded by large panels with no expertise in a subject like, say, poetry or science—areas where he feels himself a rank amateur.

The free-for-all that followed settled scores, such as the Pulitzers not having the guts to give Thomas Pynchon the prize in 1974, or their feckless lack of judgment in awarding the Big P to Louis Bromfield’s Early Autumn in a year that saw the publication of The Sun Also Rises. With no apologies to Richard Nixon, who would these book people have to kick around if there were no Pulitzers?

Yardley reminisced with feeling about the pre-glitz days when you could walk in off the street for $10 to the Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall for the awards ceremonies. Yet by 1983, the process had become a holy mess, with 27 awards competing for media attention—and getting none.

The new and better ABA was patterned after the Booker Prize, with a short list to build suspense for the media. Some people present cheered for serious print coverage in “serious” media. Yet even here there were anomalies: USA Today—the butt of choice for most upwardly mobile newspaper readers—has one of the best book pages in the country, with formidable judges like Guggenheiming Joel Connaroe reviewing regularly.

Seriousness can be in the eye of the beholder. Dan Cryer of Newsday repeated the problem of finding a mechanism, say, for processing a dozen poets when most panel members don’t “do” poetry any more.

Another publishing executive argued that NBCC might be putting the horse before the cart by not attending to the 40-60 million illiterates in the country. (Gregory Rabassa recently lamented that you could put all America’s serious readers in one small state, and that one hour of Star Wars research could fund remedial reading courses for 300 illiterates for a year.) On the downside of his ups, Rhodes recounted his sadness at seeing a woman in a bookstore flinch at the periodic table in his text and put his book down for something more flappable.

Richard Rhodes praised Neil Sheehan’s book as the first one to make sense for him of the Vietnam War. He wanted more books like this one that changed out lives, not just runaway best-sellers. A member from the floor chided the pubs for not unleashing ad blitzes to boom the prize winners. Atwan replied that it wasn’t that simple: It cost too much to tout Sheehan’s hard cover; better to wait for the paperback and boost that.

Talk turned to the composition of panels. Sci-fi writer Tom Disch wondered aloud if three-person panels weren’t by definition a cabal. And Carol Renzler told a minatory tale of her involvement in a five-person telephone pane in which the manipulative maneuvers of the chair brought squirms of disgust to the audience.

Liz Bennet of the Houston Post wondered about how one award affected another: Did the Pulitzer affect the NBCC? No, said Lehman, because NBCC precedes the P. The NBA does precede NBCC, but conscientious members keep their own counsel.

Larry Swindell of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (and formerly of the Inquirer) advised against conceiving the awards as being in competition with each other. The NBA was instituted in 1949 after years of simmering over the fiction and drama prizes of the Pulitzer.

Edward Giuletto had the last word: Cream rises to the top, and we’re making an affirmation that books and ideas are important to the American culture. Heh, the group seemed to exhale, after one hour and 25 minutes of palaver, “We’ll drink to that.” Which they did—at $20 a pop.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, February 28, 1990


Here are the National Book Critics Circle winners:

Fiction: Billy Bathgate, by E.L. Doctorow
General Nonfiction: The Broken Cord, by Michael Dorris
Biog./Autobiog.: The First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt, by Geoffrey C. Ward
Poetry: Transparent Gestures, by Rodney Jones
Criticism: Not by Fact Alone: Essays on the Writing and Reading of History, by John Clive

And here’s who really should have won, says Patrick Hazard:

Fiction: Spartina, by John Casey
General Nonfiction: Barbarian Sentiments, by William Pfaff
Biog./Autobiog.: Jazz Cleopatra, by Phyllis Rose
Poetry: Collected Poems, by Phillip Larkin
Criticim: Swing Era, by Gunther Schiller

Saturday, 22 September 2012

"Retrieving" William Morris

Blinded by my Bauhaus obsession about “Good Design for the Working Classes,” I got more and more irritated by what I falsely saw as the medievalism of the British Arts and Craft innovator William Morris. He hated factories! An unforgivable sin to this touter of Detroiter Albert Kahn, the greatest factory architect of all time. 

So when my favorite new weekly magazine, "The Economist,” commented on how the Brits were honoring Morris as part of London post- Olympic hoopla (“More than just a pretty swatch”,9/22/2012, p.84), I had to take a closer look at Morris. I loved his mostly rural villas, and the interior decorations that made their interiors dazzle. But I falsely suspected that his influential medievalist ideas exacerbated the visual mess that was nineteenth century England, not to mention twentieth century America.

Alas, could it be Morris speaking: “I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few,” he said bitterly in 1873, a decade before Walter Gropius was born, as he decorated still another villa interior. It dawned on him painfully that he had been spending his esthetic career “ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich.” Wow. He could very well be the idealistic voice of Cameron Sinclair, that Brit who over a century later came to America to organize a global fraternity, Architecture for Humanity, with its down to earth secular bible, “Design As If You Give a Damn.”

Like the later Sinclair, Morris thought himself In the late 70’S into a radical stance :the great expensive objects he and his associates created “were completely unaffordable for the people he wanted to help.” (How would he have loved the Swede who created IKEA.) Alone of his Pre-Raphaelite fellows, he crossed what he called “the river of fire” and joined the Socialist cause. 

The Morris devotees who have turned his teenage residence in Walthamstow into a Morris museum tells the whole story of his career, first the stuffy Shop of gew-gaws for the wealthy, followed by his political phase of activism in socialism, environmentalism and preservationism. Political pamphlets, Utopian novels, the excellent printing of his Kelmscott Press as well as reports of his campaigns to protect the Thames, Epping Forest, and London’s historic buildings. His teenage home turned Morris Museum is conveniently at the end of the Victoria underground subway line. 

The Tate Britain complements the new museum with a Morris show through January 13,2013, “Pre-Raphaelites : Victorian Avant-garde”. His 1860s aphorism is up-to-date! “It is the allowing of machines to be our masters, and not our servants, that so injures the beauty of life nowadays.”

Strangely, the German Foreign Office sent a leading German architect, Herman Multhesius, to spy on British superiority in industrialization in the late nineteenth century. He was a leader in the Deutsche Werkbund,(1909) which wanted its designers to learn how to catch up with the industrial leader Britain. Alas, he was so beguiled by Morris’s villas that he missed his innovations that the Bauhaus(1919-32) would try to improve upon. 

Alas, he missed entirely the first great British industrial designer, Christopher Dresser, who graduated from mere Victorian decorator at Glasgow University to lead British industry to its eminence.The Friedrich Schiller University even gave him an honorary doctorate for his first book in 1859. He gave a series of lectures at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts during our Centennial world’s fair. Then he went off to Japan to study their folk arts, forerunners of industrial design. He declaimed on his return: “I went to Japan a mere decorator and returned an industrial designer!” It would take Germany and America several decades to catch up.

In an America rattled by art auctions that allow billionaires to show off their illth. Where our everyday environments grow more and more squalid, the more we build expensive museums, the mature William Morris is an idealist worthy of emulation.

This essay is also published in Broad Street Review.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

John Corrigan

Regarding Religion and Emotion: My out of date emotional archive is stunned into sinakil disbelief when allegedly serious thinkers consider creating neologisms like "emotionology" deepens our understanding of religious behaviors.

The only advantage such mindless behavior assists is that the "thinker" is too busy to sin while concocting such evasions.

Unless of course you create an Eleventh Commandment: Thou shall not extemporize.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Louis Kahn’s Last Masterpiece

On October 24, 2012 you’ll first be able to visit Louie Kahn’s last masterpiece: the four-acre Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on the former named Welfare Island, in the East River, with the prospect of the Statue of Liberty in full view. It took a long time and lots of maneuvering to achieve it.

On the saddest St. Patrick’s Day in American history in 1974, the greatest 20th century Philadelphia architect died of a heart attack in the men’s restroom in New York’s Penn Station. Because he had crossed out his address on his passport, it took authorities three days to identify him. He was returning from Dhaka where he had just finished their National Assembly. But in his luggage were the drawings for the projected Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park.

Alas, he was deeply in debt. And New York City was facing a fiscal crisis. So it took 40 years to fulfill his promise—courtesy of the former U.S. ambassador, William J. vanden Heuvel, himself the son of a poor couple in Rochester (his mother ran a boarding house and father a factory worker). So his work helping raise the $53 millions for the park was a labor of love. They expect a conservancy to maintain the park which will become a state park.

It’s pure Kahn, his only building in New York City, construction supervised by the Philly firm, Mitchell/Giurgola. Kahn ruminated about architecture as the creation of “noble spaces”, in which he here reveled at the “endlessly changing qualities of natural light, in which a room is a different room every second of the day.” In this park’s “ room” there are inch-wide gaps between 36-ton North Carolina granite blocks in which only the sides of the stones inside the gaps are polished to create shiny, reflective slits that amplify narrow views through them. (Michael Kimmelman, New York Times, 9/13/2012.) There is a bust of the President by Jo Davidson on a free-standing wall.

There is as yet little mass transit to the island, but Cornell has already designed a plan for a local campus. The skeptical are already promoting for skateboarders a location that doesn’t cheapen the quasi-religious feeling they are promoting. Kahn has been a cultural hero of mine ever since I interviewed him in 1959 in my WFIL-TV “University of the Air” series on the “Man-made Landscapes”.

He was eager to explain his dream that his design of the library for the Salk Center for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California would force the scientists and humanists to communicate with each other. So eager in fact, that he stood up to show me more closely his maquette! He was disappearing into the non-televised space! 

Some years later when I finally visited the Salk, I stopped the first local with a white jacket to ask, “Did Kahn’s dream of science/humanities discourse prove true?” “Only until Jacob Bronowski died,” he sadly reported! Bronowski was that British mathematical genius equally in love with William Blake that the BBC bullied into hosting teleseries while he preferred teaching and writing!

You can imagine my thrill in 2006 to learn at the Golden Jubilee of Greenbelt Knoll when we learned that Louis Kahn had secretly designed the 19 homes, Philly's first experiment in racially integrated housing. You see, the unprepossessing Louie had an irresistible thing about ladies he couldn’t resist. He worked under the table to finance his multiple liaisons! He had conned me into relishing unbeknownst a Kahn dwelling for 50 years. More lives should have such sweet serendipities.

I was astonished to learn yesterday that he was born in Estonia as Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky. His father emigrated to Philly to avoid Russian military service. They anglicized their names in 1915 after they became American citizens in 1914. They now, indeed, had nothing to fear but fear itself. The formidable Ricky Wurman, Kahn’s protege, sweet talked the Philadelphia school system into an architectural curriculum. That great idea fizzled.

It’s time to retrieve that common ideal. Begin it with his son Nathaniel Kahn’s marvelous film "My Architect: A Son's Story" on his gifted, quirky father. Philly students deserve their heritage.

Another version of this essay appears in Broad Street Review.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Joan Scott

 On a review regarding Vexed:

"Sexularism"? Ha! Ha! Neologisms do not a philosophy create. For millennia, diverse societies have ever so painfully devised  cultivated ethical  systems (e.g.the 10 Commandments) to diminish mere animal intincts and habits to make common life more civilized.

Great innovators like Erasmus reasoned that human beings can collectively achieve effective behavioral systems such as secularism. Most thoughtful people would agree that rational sexual behaviour is far superior, for example, to the Roman Catholic puritanism that recently resulted too often in pedophiliac abuses.

Sharia laws even persecute women who have been raped--because "they" have brought dishonor to their families. (The woman can even save herself by marrying the rapist!) Secular societies have the right to make such irrational "legislation" unlawful, and punishable by secular laws. EuroAmerica has been more and more openly threatened by invasions of Islamic congregants who would destroy our secular laws by their theological commitments.

Sharia law is not only brutal and sexist in sexual relations, but punishes thieves by chopping off their right hand! Or stoning an adultress to death. Christian theology is no less uncivilized with its punishments of eternal hellfire. BBC radio has been reporting lately of Iraqi "justice"  murdering gays. Such pathologically insane behavior would rule by fatwa. By secular reasoning I believe that dope addiction, irrational sexual freedom, pornography and other commercialized evils are destructive of families and societies.

But only reasonable improvements are acceptable to the thoughtfully secular. So many of these aberrations result from commercial greed that it is plain stupidity to punish the victims by Sharia laws. A thousand years ago Christianity burned heretics at the stake. Reason allowed us to extricate ourselves from such intellectual slavery. In the last century Naziism tried to eliminate the Jews, just as Christians tried in the Middle Ages to eliminate Muslims. We all have been irrational sinners. We must thank God for giving us the power to think our ways out of such dead ends.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Danny's Dinos

There they are: his plastic dinosaurs. Sixteen of them. (Bless his overgenerous mother!) Taking over the front room sofa, my favorite place to read the morning paper. Am I pissed? Absolutely not. It’s as exciting (to me) his fascination at age 5 with snails, bees, spiders—anything small that moves, catching his attention. Is this a future entomologist I see before me? Or better yet, a paleontologist.

His insatiable curiosity is what I entirely missed with my first batch of kids (now in their late fifties) because I was so absorbed in succeeding professionally: Michael (5), Carnegie Postdoctoral grant to create an innovative course on Mass Culture,1957; Catherine (5), faculty at Penn’s Annenberg School, 1959; Timothy (5), founding director of the Institute of American Studies at the East-West Center of the University of Hawaii, 1961. Sorry, kids. I was absorbed elsewhere!

But now I’m also hooked on dinosaurs. Books and magazines on the subject jostle for space on our tables. I, taught 85 years ago that mankind was a mere 4000 years old, must absorb the truth that it took 5 billion years to evolve to our current status. Bless the editors of GEO kompakt Nr 23, “EVOLUTION: Die Ersten vier Milliarden Jahre: Von der Urzelle zum Säugetier” . From single cell to mammal, 152 pages of graphs and images telling the story from era to era.  What a history!

Backed up by my vade mecum , just published by 82 year old retired Harvard biologist, Edward O. Wilson, whose eighth book, “The Social Conquest of Earth” (Liveright, 2012) tackles the toughest last chapter of the human adventure—from animal to social being. Take up that story with lightning starting a fire in the woods where our emerging humans were hunting for animals to eat. 

With their still clumsy tools they drag the cooked beast back to their lair where they can defend their take against the competing hungers of other animals. And it tastes so much better. And easier to consume. They even drag a smouldering trunk “home” so they don’t lose their new “tool” fire. Little did they yet know that the cooked food gave them larger brains, so much advanced that the ultimate miracle, speech, is theirs!

So dazzled by his book, I research his evolution. Poor Alabama boy, he hunts the woods around him. An adolescent accident destroyed one eye, making him choose small insects, especially ants, his specialty. He wants to sign up for World War II so a poor boy can use the GI Bill to finance his higher education. 

Rejected because of his damaged vision, he gets his undergraduate education at the U of Alabama, where his dazzling scholarship wins him access to Harvard. He is such a great long distance teacher. If you don’t believe me, read his seventh book, “Anthill: A Novel” (Norton, 2019.) Heh, the queen runs things, with drones and freer workers to bring home the nutrients that makes a huge colony prosper!

Now serendipitously, while we were spending our last week of vacation at the Baltic, Rostock’s Zoo just opened a new $30 million dollar plus “DARWINEUM”, a thousand animals to illustrate the central concepts of Evolution. And they had the savvy to invite the great, great grandson of Charles Darwin, a Brit who now researches ancient forests in India, to open the museum. Fossils are at the center of the research they are popularizing. 

Now I’m speculating that the high interest in this Darwinism is one of the DDR’s more positive legacies: a secularism antithetical to the numbskull “Christianity” that, for example, bans the study of evolution in the Texas schools. Such Tea Party foolishness is a discouraging development in America. Devolution before our very eyes. Danny already knows better!

Another version of this essay is published by Broad Street Review.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Skewering the Piffle-pushers

Thirty-five-year-old Signe Wilkinson gets away with murder—in her five-day-a-week political cartoons for the Philadelphia Daily News (she returned in triumph last October from sister Knight-Ridder paper, the San Jose Mercury-News), skewing the piffle-pushers from the editorial page of her home town’s feisty tabloid.

Take my favorite in her current retrospective, cannily entitled “Opening Shots,” at the Rosenfeld Gallery. “The Proper Way” to take a urinalysis at work, it’s dubbed. Five workers are relieving themselves against the façade of the corporate headquarters. You have to look closely to see that the mythical firm has been given the oligopolish name of OWNSALLCO INC; and you have to look even closer to see that in the pediment over the main door is a caricature of Mr. Moneybags, guarding his illth.

I asked her at the opening reception (where the normally high-strung lady faked a high Victorian faint when one of her friends announced he was actually going to buy one of her original drawings) if it mattered if most PDN readers missed those subtleties. “No. It’s there to be seen,” evidently being content to let the closer readers get the bigger kicks.

It’s obvious she’s an English major (University of Denver, 1972) because, unlike most cartoonists where what you see right away is what you get, she stacks layers of meaning, just like the praised lit in English 101. In “Color Blind Society,” a poke at the disaffirmative actions of the Reagan Administration, she deploys five grinning yessie clones—all identically attired in this sartorial satire—and their “color” lies in their shorts (white), ties (yellow), and suits (black) and shoes (brown).

“Privacy” displays a gaggle of prurient anti-sodomists, each with one eye on a bedroom keyhole and the other on their anti-Kamasutra, yclept the “O.K. Sex Positions” manual. “The Heavier Load” teases the macho who grouses about doing heavier work than his female mate by showing him toting a heavy, full “$1 while the lady hoists only a light 63 cent” jobbie.

A delightfully ghoulish one shows a White House servitor presenting a little Khadafy kid’s head on a dinner platter, to the President punning on the Ronbo’s request for the Libyan loony’s head. It makes my day to see such foolish policies reviled so cleverly. But it doesn’t please all the PDN readers. Her activist lawyer-husband John Landau confided that editor Zack’s phone sometimes rings off the hook when Signe gets off a really good shot.

When pressed about whether editorial cartoonists “make a difference,” she withdraws to a posture of calculated diffidence: “We didn’t put the troops into Nicaragua. We didn’t think up Star Wars.” Maybe so. But nonetheless, she confesses to Kaethe Kollwitz’s being an intellectual mentor of hers. And if editorial cartoons don’t smash evil, they damn well keep evil umpires from calling all strikes balls.

And there’s fire in “Strange Bedfellows,” in which the tobacco industry, the NRA and the ACLU all waffle in their own ways about their not being “links” between their products and patently ugly social situations.

Her marriage to Landau grew out of their joint anti-Viet protests in 1974. He has opened his own law firm since they returned from San Jose—specializing in immigration and military cases—conchies, hassled gays, etc. He is also a fine house father, judging from the way I found him wheeling two-year-old Claire through the Betsy Ross rocky garden area, to give Signe room to breathe at her reception.

The cartoonist has memorialized carrying Claire with a sequence of cartoons you’ll love, married or bachelor!

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, September 24 1986

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

A Nous la Liberte: A Lady’s Past

All the teasers about David Wolper’s Fourth of July hoopla over the Statue of Liberty Centennial whetted my appetite. Usually, big monuments like that don’t get done without heartbreak and hassle. So I started poking around in the library stacks to see how grief-free it had or hadn’t been.

It hadn’t. Perhaps the most astonishing detail I came up with was that sculptor Bartholdi conceived the statue first to garnish the latest French engineering feat—the Suez Canal. It was originally designed as a colossal lighthouse, to rival the ancient Colossus at Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the antique world.

Twice—in 1867 and 1869—the thirtyish sculptor plied the ruler of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, with drawings. No sale. Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, however, never wasted a good idea.

When our Civil War ended in 1865, the French liberals of republican bent groaned under the imperial rule of Napoleon III’s Second Empire. The most vocal critics of the emperor recovered the American model of government, and their leader, one Edouard Rene Lefebvre de Laboulaye, broached the subject of strengthening the old Marquis de Lafayette connection at a dinner party. He argued that there ought to be a monument built in America to symbolize Franco-American commitment to the ideals of independence. He further argued that they ought to build it together.

Because the U.S. had given tacit support to the Prussians and Napoleon had angered the Lincoln administration by supporting the Confederacy, the time was ripe for a monument to heal the split between America and France—after Napoleon III was pushed out of power by the Commune. Leboulaye advised Bartholdi in the spring of 1871: “Go to see that country. You will study it, you will bring back to us your impressions. Propose to our friends over there to make with us a monument.

Bartholdi spent three and a half months criss-crossing the country in search of his dream. He was astonished at Bigness everywhere. Hotels were “immense bazaars” where “even the petits pois” were humungous. He cast a covetous eye on Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor, the site of Fort Wood, as an ideal site for the monument of his dreams. Unfortunately, he was finding it hard to come up with a few people “who have a little enthusiasm for something other than themselves and the Almighty Dollar.”

When he got back to France, his enthusiasm was soon smothered by Laboulaye’s desperate efforts to get democratic governance in France back on track. He dealt with his frustration by devising monuments to French heroism in the recently concluded war and searching for emblems to embody the old Franco-American liberal connection. One such was his bronze “Lafayette Arriving in America” for Union Square, New York City, a French gift to the city.

In 1875, the French-American Union unleashed a nationwide newspaper appeal with the theme, “Let us each bring his mite,” with the descendants of Lafayette, Rochambeau and Tocqueville adding the clout of their celebrity to the appeal. The scheme was to give the statue in honor of the American Centennial the next year, with the American public coughing up the pedestal money.

Paris social life glittered with “Liberty” events. There was a 14-course meal for 200 guests at the fancy Hotel de Louvre, with goodies such as filet de boeuf Lafayette and croustades a la Washington. Money started to roll in, from all classes and all areas of the country. The momentum was such that the American press began to take notice, but American donations lagged.

Bartholdi was not a man to give in easily. He decided to bring Miss Liberty’s arm and torch to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The New York Times, then in its pre-gray lady, newspaper-of-record phase, made a risqué mock: Why start with the arm? Rather one should begin “at its foundation, modeling first the boot, then the stocking, then the full leg in the stocking.”

It wasn’t until early in 1877 that an American committee on the Statue of Liberty was formed in New York. But it was to be “a” Hungarian immigrant, Civil War vet and innovative newspaper publisher—Joseph Pulitzer of prize fame—who got the American public involved in raising money for the pedestal.

He challenged his readers to put up the money the wealthy had denied the project. He vowed to accept any amount toward the final $100,000 and to print the name of each and every donor “no matter how small the sum given.”

It was inspired populist rhetoric—and not incidentally damned good publicity for his newly acquired paper. The New York World. He pulled out all the stops of bathos: “I am a little girl,” one donor wrote, “only six years old and have 25 cents in my savings bank, which I send to help build the Pedestal.”

The last block in the pedestal was set in place on April 22, 1886, by the chief engineer of the project, Charles P. Stone. His workmen mixed coins in the last mortar to symbolize the more than 120,000 donations, most under a dollar, that gave the most important symbol in American history the broadest democratic foundation. Pulitzer had appealed successfully to his working class readers to do for the base what ordinary French citizens had done for the statue itself. This was to be a gift from the plain Jeannes and Jacques of one country to the Joes and Jills of another.

Alas, Liberty was not built in a day. A boatload of suffragettes added to the jam around Bedloe’s Island, but no women, not even Emma Lazarus, were allowed to attend the ceremony! Member of a prominent Jewish family in New York, she had written “The New Colossus” in 1883 for a pedestal fundraiser. She had been motivated both by anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia and by the spectacle of people of promise reduced to Lower East Side lives of “menial drudgery.”

Already, the statue was gaining a resonance that transcends the Franco-American liberal connection. Her Miss Liberty was the “Mother of Exiles.” But it wasn’t until 1903 that an admiring philanthropist got her poem inscribed in a plaque on a wall inside the pedestal.

Eternal improvement is the subscription price of Liberty. That should not be lost track of during this July 4th’s superhoopla and hype. The torch is only as meaningful as our own extended arms.

From Welcomat: After Dark, June 1986

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Everyday Miracles of Fossils

On a review of Durkheim:

As an ex-Catholic, misled by ten years in a Dominican Academy and three in a minor seminary, I find the pseudo-theologizing  of Durkheim yawnable. I'd say you only need a solid family to grow up in, not the phoney promise of an eternity of pleasure or pain, depending on how independent your ethical behaviour has been. When Walt Whitman asserted that the hinge of the human hand puts to scorn all machinery, and that a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels, I see no need for religion. Piety yes, but Belief? Blah. I was taught that mankind was only a few thousand years old.

And an unfeeling God the Father sent his only begotten Son on earth to save humanity from itself. What childish fantasies. Although I taught American Literature as a profession, I soon realized that its Exceptionalist attitude was simply false Puritan theology, slyly politicized. If I had it do over again (my life that is) I'd be a paleontologist, using the greatest gift, reason, to speculate on how life began billions of years ago, by studying the everyday miracles of fossils.

My 5 year old son, Danny the Dino Man, has converted me. When I regard the most recent new religions like Mormonism, Scientology, S.Korean Moonbeamery, and most disgusting of all, the TV evangelists who promise you riches if you pray (prey?) hard enough, I shudder in disgust.

My Heaven is the lucky gift to be alive, treating others the way you love to be treated. The miracle of conscious life is the only one that interests me. The rest is polsyllabic palaver.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Wild Bill and the Wild West: Demythologizing

I envy the skill of a writer who can succumb to his neologism, “peeder,” over 55 times (I started counting for fun on page 66 after a plethora of “peeders” had aroused my envy) without mucking up a luminous novel.

“Peeder” is Deadwood’s idiolect for “dick.” When I asked Pete if the term was a euphemism, like Norman Mailer’s “fug” in The Naked and the Dead, he deadpanned: “How would you like to grow up in South Dakota with the first name, Peter?”

Childhood onomastic traumas aside, Dexter’s second novel is a brilliant addition to the growing South Dakota literary tradition of demythologizing its frontier past. Dexter greatly admires septuagenarian Frederick Manfred’s Buckskin Man tales, a pentalogy that includes King of Spades, about Black Hills justice in 1876—also the starting date of Deadwood.

Dexter here explores the ambiguities of Wild Bill Hickok’s last days. Going blind, his “peeder” messed up by syphilis, “wild” Bill puzzles over how to come to terms with the contradictions of being one of America’s first media celebrities.

Harper’s Weekly (a kind of post-Civil War Ur-People magazine) is stroking the boredoms of urbane America’s East with confected tales of Hickok’s charisma. But Bill’s no Clint Eastwood, eager to have his day made with a dollop of macho manliness. He’s more worried about whether he’s infected his bride, Agnes Lake, a circus trapeze artist he’s just married in Cheyenne. She’s back in St. Louis, waiting out Hickok and his pal Charley Utter’s schemes to hit it rich in Deadwood, which is in the frenzy of a gold strike.

And there’s Calamity Jane, feeding herself on the fantasy that she is Wild Bill’s wife, breaking her bones riding bulls on the main street of Rapid City and “retiring” into a self-appointed role as the Florence Nightingale of the deadly frontier smallpox epidemics (when she wasn’t “charging the Army boys a dollar a turn, half the regular rate”—all-around public servant.)

When we first meet Jane, it is the morning after she has bestowed her questionable favors on bountyman Boone May, stuck in town because he’s trying to sell cut-rate the head of Frank Towles—so May won’t have to go all the way to Cheyenne to collect the bounty. This is what he saw, the morning after:

“Her skin was pale and bruised and old. She was a big-boned girl, but fat. Spindly legs, soft-looking arms, no chest to her at all. He had never seen a woman black and blue so many different places. It looked like they’d dragged her all the way from Chicago. And she was as ripe as live body gets.”

A visual calamity, of world-class proportions. When Boone returns from a gulp of fresh air, he counsels Jane to take a bath. Jane is not impressed, “’I give it a bath once,’ she said, pulling the blanket back over her body, ‘and a Cheyenne peeder come floating out.’” When Boone searches the tent for Towles’ head, he has trouble locating it because Jane has been using it for a pillow overnight.

Those were grotesque days out in the Black Hills, before Mount Rushmore, and Dexter is deft at weaving a tapestry of chaos that is almost too funny to be true.

Yet he collected the basic material in ten days at the Carnegie Library in Deadwood, the best archive, he says, next to the University of Nebraska for data on the region’s gory, “glory” days. Dexter’s been fascinated by talk about Deadwood ever since he grew up in Sioux Falls and Vermillion in the 1950s; he finally got to take a good look when he was 18, in 1961, at the annual “Days of 76,” a blowout he says makes the student migrations to Fort Lauderdale look like Sunday school picnics.

Marjorie Pontius, the Deadwood librarian, first showed him what amounted to a civic guest register, a chronological listing of how individuals met their deaths in Deadwood in its wide-open mining days. The local papers were, so to say, gold mines on the quality of life and death in early Deadwood. Dexter’s SuperCreep, one Captain Jack Crawford, is straight out of the old yellowed files. Don Quixote Dexter is proud to let such a phony “paper-collar” hoist himself on his own windmill with racist doggerel about pacifying Indians:

            They talk about peace with the demons,
            By feeding and clothing them well,
            I’d as soon think an angel from heaven
            Would reign with contentment in hell.
            And some day these Quakers will answer
            Before the great Judge of all
            For the death of daring young Custer
            And the boys that around him did fall…

Pete has found a Midas formula for turning dross into the gold of comic invention. Chinese call girls joined Mexes and injuns in the gold-prospectors’ trinity of contempt. The section “China Doll” recounts the mid-life crisis of Solomon Star, the sheriff’s partner in a plan to bring stability to Deadwood through the town brickworks.

Star’s feeble efforts to buy the radiant Chinese girl (after shedding a wife in Bismarck) set in train a sequence of violent events that culminate in a conflagration that destroys much of Deadwood and prompts Charley to “move up” to Lead, where his beddie, Lurline Monti Verdi, fronts as madam for Lurline’s House of Distinction.

The characters and events Dexter has culled from Deadwood’s Carnegie Library are obviously much closer to real history than the dizzily upbeat Disneyland images of the West most of our compatriots unencumber their minds with.

Yet it’s more than a mock. Charley and Agnes come together in a touchingly decent “mending hearts” club as they ease the grief of losing Wild Bill to an assassin’s bullet.

I asked Dexter who Dorothy and William Selz of Vermillion, S.D., were (he dedicates the novel to them): “She was my American lit professor at the University of South Dakota. She and her husband taught me the most important things I’ve ever learned—to be patient, kind and truthful—not in their courses, exactly, but in listening to me when I was one wild young son of a bitch.”

Wild Bill and Charley (and Agnes in a postscript sort of way) managed to remain patient, kind and truthful in the Deadwood of 1876. In that maelstrom of marauding and malarkey, they kept civilized values alive. A feat.

That’s what Wild Bill means, Dexter is saying: maintaining civilized values amidst the self-aggrandizing noises of the Captain Jack Crawfords, those paper-collars on their perennial cons.

That’s where this “non-fiction” novel connects with Dexter’s bread-and-butter work as a thrice-a-week columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. He says he used to prowl around looking for “original stories” to illuminate the contradictions of life in the big city. Lately, he has retreated to a more “reactive” kind of commentary, keeping tabs on big figures like Mayor Wilson Goode and his Osage brush with immortality, or the sheriff’s office hack who devised a scam by working both sides of the forced tax-delinquent sale of houses.

Dexter’s first novel, God’s Pocket (Random House, 1983), about crime, metro-journalism and tensions between Philly’s ethnic neighborhoods, didn’t do too well—10,000 copies, more or less, condemned to a limbo of first-novel brush-off by the faint praise of a back-pages review in the New York Times. One hopes better things for Deadwood, a much richer, more resonant work.

Pete’s already at work on his third novel, down on his six-acre spread overlooking the Chesapeake Bay near Earleville, Md. (pop. 40). It’s set in Milledgeville, Georgia, where he lived between the ages of six and eleven—a venue already given a certain magic as the home-place of another of his favorite writers, Flannery O’Connor.

From Welcomat: After Dark, April 23, 1986

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Taking Exception to Exceptionalism

Regarding Stathis Gourgouris:

Exceptionalism is the plague of theological discourse: Sharia prevails, no matter what. Judaism prevails in Israel, pity the poor Palestinians, enslaved by God's permission. And the most dangerous Exceptionalist "theology", secular America is God's gift to global history and you better fall in line.

Alas, American Christianity is infantilizing an entire generation, dispreparing them for the 21st century. No Evolution in the common schools. No sex education. Flagwaving displaces thought.

In the light of gross decivilizing pressures, metaphysical discourse in universities seems like pissing in the wind, colorful but humanistically useless. No exceptions: semi-blinded cultures stumble into secular apocalypses.

The crucial agenda: live and let live,  before competing Exceptionalisms destroy us all. Charity eclipses all fanciful metaphysics.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

A Serious Engineer

Re "Neil Armstrong: The engineer as celebrity" by Tom Purdom:

After years of fatuous hoopla, a solid insight into a serious engineer.

What an indictment of our messy, loudmouth media.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Splitting for Croatia

When my wife proposed that our summer wander would be Croatia this year, I grumbled silently at all the major art shows I could be missing in Munich or Berlin, London or Paris, all easily accessible from my Eurocenter in Weimar. Then I remembered my first Croatian visit, clearing my mind from summer teaching in London in 1974: a film festival on animation in the capital Zagreb, not to forget the post mortem of folk dancing in a hill village North of Z. Those rural ladies were so beguiling in ignoring my “urbane” fumble stumbling.

But what finally turned me on was the festival director’s enthusiasm for a local celebrity sculptor named Ivan Mestrovich (1883-1962.) He had left a sizeable collection of his diverse works in stone, wood, and metals to the city. My fading memory moved me to “Split” in the Wikipedia. Damn, he had made it his home town, with special emphasis on his own home—now a major museum- on a hill overlooking the Adriatic, as stunning a seascape I was to goggle at for hours after as exhaustive a scrutiny I have ever given a personal collection. (Hilly guided Danny in a DDR-like naked romp under the sprinkler in the garden between the museum and the sea.)

While I starting reading his daughter Maria’s recent biography of her father, “Ivan Mestrovich: The Making of a Master” (London: Stacey International,2008). Be sure to visit the museum store where I bought this book and a dozen postcards of his work. And chatter with the Moldovan young lady curator-manager with fluent English. The book is worthy of the sculptor whom Auguste Rodin ( later his pal in Paris) rated Mestrovich with Michelangelo. She sadly reported that after the Serbs lost their war with the Croatians ,the museum attendance halved. It was the first of the endless ongoing evils we observed that that useless war of liberation had left throughout the beleaguered country. We hiked to the nearby Church he had graced with a sequence of wooden wall sculptures of the life of Christ. Yards from this holy temple, Croats swam and sunned.

Spoiled by my summers at Birchloft with its sugar sand of Lake Huron, I excused myself to read the Herald Tribune in a café. Hilly and Danny gingerly deployed among the Adriatic stones.(This is the most rocky country I have ever encountered, with some of which stones young Ivan taught himself secretly to carve—including a foot for a crippled cousin!) Daughter Maria is as good at describing the harried history of Croatia as she was at describing her father’s rise from the deepest poverty to his final finish as the internationally renowned Artist in Residence at Notre Dame.

It was Notre Dame president Father Hesburgh and Ivan’s joint nose thumbing at Tito who wanted the artist’s prestige to give glamour to his new Communist country! They wanted (successfully) to spring Archbishop Stepinac from a Commie jail. Incidentally, Tito had a penchant for collecting attractive residences all over Croatia, a phenomenon that was only now returning those show places to their original families. Talk about leftwing droits de seigneurs! To return to our apartment, we strode along the rocky seacoast teeming with locals and internationals proving to their girl friends –or the world in general how brave they were to dive from perches a hundred feet or higher.

Our “apartment” (my wife ordered it by internet) overlooked the main train and bus station, an aberration that irritated my wife’s early morning snoozing—but gave Danny and me thrilling perspectives on the tourists coming and going. And Mr. Valentino picked us up at the late plane. Otherwise we’d have spent the first night cruising! There is a free weekly paper you should pick up at the airport for places to stay and visits to take. We flew Air Berlin from Leipzig.

In a Commander 400 turboprop, the squeeziest plane I’ve ever flown in –since two seater U.S. Navy planes. 72 seats and only a few windows. The “treat” was ludicrously cheap and unappetizing, followed by a drink that advertised eyecare. Tacky. When I asked the senior of two stewardesses if they had a map that showed over what countries we were flying she curtly barked NO. And when my wife inadvertently forgot to drop cards to relatives in the Croatian mail box, the same “Lady” barked NEVER when we asked her to fly them back. Try Croatian Airlines!

But the highlight of our three day stay was a ten hour trip into the Adriatic. The fiftyish captain and his 21 year old son were the “crew”. Providentially his girl friend’s old boat had half sunk off an island. He used the old craft as a dock to accommodate mid sea swimmers. I still thrill at the recollection of Danny stuffed in the circle of a life saver, tethered to the ladder by a strong rope, dogpaddling after his mother .The boat is named Mariner. His wife is by it at breakfast time at the main wharf to book for the next day’s 9:30 a.m. departure. The captain is an excellent cook of fresh fish at a generous lunch. (You may want to wear ear plugs: Captain,Jr. is obsessed with Bob Marley and Bruce Springsteen.)

But the lasting pleasure is Maria’s biography. Ivan almost didn’t survive at birth. Dirt poor, his mother had to work in the fields for survival. Her women coworkers helped the birth and then used their clothes to carry her back home.No Schooling. Ivan taught himself to read. When a Viennese industrialist gave Ivan’s pastor money for the poor, the pastor urged him to support Ivan in Vienna, at the heart of the Secession, with architect Otto Wagner and painter Gustav Klimt as teachers.

There he was, speaking not a word of German! His energy and drive persuaded the authorities to be accommodating. His entire life is interwoven with the Croatians fight for freedom. He left for America to spite Tito. In 1954, Dwight Eisenhower invited him to the White House to give him an American passport. If you’re ever in South Bend, Indiana, his Notre Dame collection is splendid. His last gesture of sharing, an admirable artist who ought to be better known.

A version of this piece is published by Broad Street Review.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Forms Follow Functions

On When Church Became Theatre, architectural historian and religious studies scholar Jeanne Kilde

This fascinating history of changes in church architecture might justly be imitated in all aspects of the modernizing of the structures we modify to better express our ideals. Forms follow functions.

Indeed forms make new function feasible. In early modern domestic architecture, major architects like Mies van der Rohe were so obsessed with ART they inadvertently made their forms unfunctional. 

As the great feminist, Dr. Marie-Elisabeth Lüders, noted in "Form" (1927)  Mies's Weissenhof Siedlung apartments were unfunctional from a female point of view: no room for wet clothes to be changed, so much glass that tykes scrambling on the floor would get pneumonia, open the kitchen door and the wind blew out the gas oven.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Original Din

Regarding a review of Robert Orsi’s Between Heaven and Earth

Any thinker who would neologize "otherize" is a prima facie pseudoserious deep thinker. Why not be useful and insist that his Bishops who have kept pedophilic priests from dismissal and jail are phonies who deserve the lowest circle in their hell, now.

Instead they lecture American nuns who actually live the most Christian lives among us. I was always amused to learn that the first infallible declaration of the newly infallible Pope was that the Virgin Mary was conceived without Original Sin.

What piffle. That university professors gabble about such nonsense is enough to make sane citizens do their best to mock the Errant Bishops into silence.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Fulfilling Fantasies in Megamall-land

Up North, in Minnesota, this fall they’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of the first covered, one weather shopping mall—Southdale, in Edina, an upscale suburb of Minneapolis. In a region where winters are so long and fierce they practically obliterate spring and fall, it’s no small blessing to shop without terminal shivers.

Up farther north, in Edmonton, Alberta, they’re putting the final touches on the world’s largest covered megamall, modestly described by its reticent owners, the Triple Five Corporation, as a wonder of the world. Its wonders are a 365-day-a-year swimming beach (Albertans measure their natural swim days in weeks!), an ice-skating rink that makes the one at Rockefeller Center look like a neighborhood hose job and 119 eating (burp) establishments.

It was begun in 1981 in three phases (the third, with a full-size replica of the Santa Maria and four submarines—to ogle a pen full of sharks the proper way, underwater, and safely—was finished in 1985), and Triple Five has just topped off its three-ring circus of a layer cake with a slather of superfrosting—the Fantasy-land Hotel.

Tired of the Interblah décor of the postwar generation of interstate motels? Has Triple Five dreamt up something for you—theme rooms, for $135 a nocturnal trip. There’s a Roman floor (so far the most popular, maybe because the circular waterbed triggers imperial fantasies.) There’s also a Hollywood floor, replete with Deco glitz: a Polynesian floor for those who opt for a catamaran bed to slumber on away from home: and most astonishing of all, a Truck Stop, for the thoroughly jaded.

You’ve got to see the Truck Stop to believe it could exist. You and your fellow fantasee sleep on the rear deck of a flatbed truck (to my jouncing hand, it seemed only slightly more resilient than the real, unmattressed thing). To keep you and your friend company, there’s a 1930s Texaco hand-pumping style gasoline tank to the rear of your right taillight, and a red, amber, green stoplight beam of your left taillight.

My Triple Five informant could not tell me whether these amenities had any function other than decoration for the night’s proceedings. Actually, the larger-than-life-size polyurethane policeman permanently frozen in the posture of blowing his whistle as he hovers meanly over your private Jacuzzi could hardly engender in me a spirit of carefree joy. I guess it depends on what you’re into.

The net effect of the theme rooms (you can sleep straight, if you prefer, in executive suites, plain or fancy) is of a low-order orgy, sort of a VCR-era rumpus room for roamers. All the theme rooms are supplied with ceiling mirrors, but, otherwise, erotic amenities seem to be minimal, as befits a family-oriented mega mall.

This is no Japanese love hotel, or even a Madonna Inn in Southern California. It’s the way Walt Disney would have slept, had he been as perennially and pervasively cold as those Albertans and their tourist visitors.

Checking out the theme rooms (I’m too much of a cheapskate to spend more than my $35 Canadian at Ambassador Best Western in downtown Edmonton), I did some elevator sociology on those who had checked in. A pleasantly fatigued looking young couple from Great Falls, Montana, sleepily informed me they were switching from Roman to Polynesian, to see how the other fantasists sleep, I guess.

Taking the elevator up on my inspection mission, my Otismates were the morning cleanup crew. I asked them if cleaning theme rooms was any harder than making up regular hotel work. As one, their eyes rolled skyward as they moaned, “The Mirrors!” If you haven’t messed up an overhead mirror in Fantasyland, you haven’t gotten all your $135 worth.

I am not the world’s greatest lover of the Disneyland tradition. Indeed, it’s only because a Connoisseur editor held a metaphorical gun to my head for a story on the ideal American Dream Home that I have committed both Anaheim and EPCOT Center. But I have to admit that I went to sneer at West Edmonton and found myself smiling with enjoyment.

There’s an unconscionable level of expensive kitsch degrading its interiors (take those sensational Ming vases in their plastic protective cases for a start, or the New Orleans / Bourbon Street waxworks figures of a harlequin and jazz saxophonist, the latter improbably attired in bib overalls).

But the Triple Five (four Iranian rug merchants and their octogenarian father) knows how to peddle to every taste. I’m not even going to pause to praise the Siberian tiger (and cub), the amazing flotilla of peacocks, the dolphin enclave, the general aviary and the aquaria awash with exotic fish, including red-bellied piranhas.

Instead, I want to report how wiped out I was by a case, museum quality, of semiprecious minerals and gems, where I learned, entranced, that aluminum was not isolated until 1825, after Napoleon III funded research looking towards lightweight armour for his troops; that at first it was so costly a metal to extract that it was displayed next to the Crown Jewels at the Paris Expo of 1855; and that not until 1888 was the cheap electrolytical method of refining it devised. All of this arcane info garnished with intrinsically delicious art works, like a piece of 8,000-year-old pottery made from aluminum-bearing clays. What a way to run a shopping mall!

When departing the PR precincts of the mall, my eye caught the back door with the enticing legend (to an Eskimo art nut like myself) for “Northern Images.” I fell by their front door to kibitz with owner Mrs. Kathy Butler, who had gotten onto the Eskimo art business when her husband was posted north of the 60th parallel in Yellowknife, Northwest Territory. She has a score of Inuit women in Inuvik engaged in the cottage (igloo?) industry of making parkas. She sold 4,000 of them in 1985. Her shop is a veritable museum of high quality Amerind crafts.

Curious about the scuttlebutt I had picked up about West Edmonton being a gawkers’ rather than a shoppers’ paradise, I asked her if she was making money.

“Absolutely. And I’ve been here since Phase I. Sales were flat in Eskimo art from 1977 to 1981, but not just here in the mall, everywhere. The economy started picking up in spring ’81 on our mail orders, and we have done very well ever since we opened in the mall.”

Still, I noticed that her $499.95 parkas were marked down to $199.95. There’s been only one anchor defection: Safeway just pulled out of Phase I, reputedly to build a superstore of its own three blocks away.

The first thing I visited (apart from the Marketplace Chapel, which gets 100 non-denominational worshippers a day) was a Toyota Superstore, a full-fledged auto agency next to the Santa Maria Lagoon. I asked 30ish manager Rich Koch how things were going. “Differently,” he smiled amiably. “We get more traffic in a day here than we get in a month on the three regular car agencies we have outside.

“You have to ‘qualify’ customers faster here, find out which ones are Americans (who can’t buy), which are hot prospects. You never pre-qualify a customer. An 18-year-old walked in here yesterday and bought a Sentra for $38,000 cash. You can never tell from their looks. You have to question them to find out if they’re ready.

“We do about 30 sales a month, which is nothing compared to our regular locations, but it’s abuilding. My boss dickered with Triple Five for a year and a half before making this commitment. And even though we’ve had a complete turnover in sales staff (six full-time) in our first six months, we’re here to stay.”

Triple Five are prodigious dickerers—for tenants who pay a mix of percentage of gross sales plus rentals, each tenant working out his own deal. And Triple Five are notorious as well for getting generous concessions from the public sector.

Downtown merchants moan that 1985’s three million visitors to the $1 billion mall decimated center city retail business. Triple Five replies that their $5 million tourism enhancement budget (more than the entire state of Alberta) is creating new business for their Eighth Wonder of the World.

Eighth or not, these five mega-merchandisers are beguiling wonders in their own right. They’ve been described in their frenetic negotiating style as the Marx Brothers of retail selling. And their octogenarian father has been known to poke a disciplinary cane at loiterers who are not engaged in enough hyping his boys’ bottom line.

He patrols the mall, kibitzing at construction and undoubtedly dreaming up new fantasies. Let the folks in Bloomington, Minnesota, who are fantasizing about a megamall of their own (where the football Vikings’ pre-Metrodome stadium was razed), be warned that they will have their hands full when Triple Five stakes its claim south of the border, down Minneapolis way.

From Welcomat: After Dark, December 23, 1986

Monday, 3 September 2012

Kraut-Bashing After The Berlin Wall

A series of art exhibitions and symposia has convinced me that the American art history agenda is seriously mis-skewed toward the French and British art traditions. Covert kraut-bashing has been going on since World War I. And the tragedy of the Holocaust hasn’t endeared Jewish scholars to German modernist art (despite notable exceptions, such as Philadelphia’s Mark Rosenthal with his pioneer explications of Anselm Kiefer).

In 1988, I’d gone to Berlin to see “Landmarks of (German) Modernism” at the Martin Gropius Bau, a précis of crucial exhibitions in 20th-Century Germany from Die Bruecke to Fluxus—and the single most illuminating art show I’ve ever seen.

My growing conviction of structural—if unintended—mendacity at the heart of our critical enterprise moved me to go to Atlanta early this year to see the High Museum’s “Art in Berlin: 1815-1989.” It was not, like the “Stationen Modernen” exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau, a synoptic view of almost two centuries of German art, but rather an exploration of how art functioned in the emergence of the Prussian city as Germany tried to play catch-up with Britain and France as Europe’s leading industrial powers.

I can’t remember when I’ve seen the complex ecology between art and political, social and industrial developments so subtly explained.

This narrow focus made one thing perfectly clear: how Berlin released tremendous energies in every sector of modern experience—before American intervention in World War I and the Versailles vindictiveness led to the outrages of Nazism.

Unknown (to me) topographical artists like Hintze and Taubert doubled as instructors at the Berlin Porcelain manufacturing complex while executing on their own time meticulously realistic canvases of the emerging particulars of the industrializing city. They are as useful to our tuition (and delectable in their diverse ways) as, say, Rowlandson and Caillebot are to our comprehension of British and French industrialization.

And my favorite discovery of the exhibition, one Eduard Gaertner (1801-77), had two luminist masterpieces that gave as much lively evidence of the impact of photography on modern painting as the canvases of Bonnard, Degas and Vuillard do.

There was even an Armory Show-type turning point. The Berlin Art Association (an artists’ cooperative) mounted one of the first exhibitions of Edvard Munch outside Norway in 1898. The BAA membership split irreconcilably over the controversy generated by the show. A minority, in fact, split literally when a vote of the membership closed the show.

I was so euphoric from the instant raising of my consciousness that I sought out High Museum director Dr. Gudmund Vigtel for what turned out to be an equally illuminating conversation.

He had been working on the show for three years and feels an understandable rue that the Berlin Wall didn’t do its Humpty Dumpty earlier, so that his $600,000 investment might have traveled. It’s both an achievement and a frustration that this brilliant once-in-a-century assemblage will have been seen by only something more than 75,000 viewers in its three-month Atlanta run.

The High’s outreach mini-museum at the Georgia Pacific Center brandishes the largest Nevelson ever executed, stark white, a paean to the forests which under gird GP’s paper business. There were two photo shows there, no less, for the Photography Sesqui—“Lasting Impressions”—a potted history of the daguerreotype, of great charm and curatorial moxey—and another on the anti-documentarian strain in contemporary photography.

Back at the main High, there was another discovery for me: the photography of John McWilliams, a teacher at Georgia State, who has documented his locale with great skill and verve.

Finally, there’s the ubiquitous Ted Turner. He announced in the morning Constitution—which I read in regal splendor, breakfasting on country ham at the Westin Peachtree—a foreign film series he inaugurated for his superstation. That ought to mollify the anti-colorizers a bit.

I used to have a submotif in my course on American literature—that the great thing about our national literature was that you never knew when or where the next surge of creativity would come from.

New England at first, then an efflorescence in San Francisco, followed by Chicago’s renaissance at the turn of the 20th Century. Then WASPishness derided by Catholics like Theodore Dreiser and Eugene O’Neill. Then the continuing Southern glory. Jewish, black and Catholic voices after World War II. App Lit, Gay Lit, Clit Lit. O many-splendored, multi-splintered thing. Walt Whitman would have glowed with satisfaction.

Brace yourself for the impending Atlanta Renaissance. And this isn’t mere ad hominy grits talk. The dawn is already breaking. It’s High in the sky.

This doesn’t mean, to end on a graceless note, that I recant my firm conviction that High designer Richard Meier is a creator of walk-through sculptures rather than a proper architect. As I descended from Berlin on the fourth floor to the McWilliams photos on the third, I discovered that his ramp has no off-ramps! No romp here. An expensive monument to his quirky muse is all.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, November 14, 1990

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Lit Biz in Florida

KEY WEST, Florida. The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” has become the national anthem of this 27,000-person principality 126 miles southwest of Miami. Key West is as plausible a utopia (read Capital P Paradise) as any extant—and it’s closer than Tahiti, so close that an astonishing 2.5 million non-Conchs churned through its narrow streets is 1988.

In January, when USA Today’s weather map is jammed with perturbations, it’s a balmy 80 degrees, with gentle breezes making a light sweat a pleasant cool-off.

And keyed up indeed were the 200 participants in the seventh annual Literary Seminar—held, appropriately enough, at the Tennessee Williams Fine Arts Center (1977) of the Florida Keys Community College.

I came to savor two of my favorite writers—Peter Taylor, the laureate of the Memphis genteel middle class, and Bobbie Ann Mason, an eloquent voice for the heretofore speechless blue collars of Paducah, Kentucky, and thereabouts. I was not disappointed.

Taylor prefaced his reading of “Her Need” (about a middle-aging, by-husband-abandoned bank officer) with a magisterial 20-minute gloss on how he learned from his superiors (Chekhov, Turgeniev and James) how stories gestate out of notebooks.

This half hour in itself was more than worth the eight-day Greyhound journey from San Francisco that led me there. And the septuagenarian teacher talks about his former students with passion and eloquence.

He talked to me at the reception of his junior Virginia colleague John Casey, whose remarkable first novella, An American Romance, was the first post-feminist novel in which an autonomous heroine is the center of the narrative. I was fearful that Casey was having a Ralph Ellison-type block. No way. Taylor reported gleefully that Casey had no fewer than three volumes about to appear.

When I saw Robert Wilson, the very able book critic of the much-maligned new medium USA Today, I assumed he was the seminar’s official rapporteur. Wrong. Wilson, it turns out, was a Taylor student in Charlottesville. What a legacy of writers and critics. More than a literary legacy: a mega-legacy.

Bobbie Ann Mason is too young yet to possess any legacy but her growing oeuvre. But at a reception after her reading, the youngest authors and aspiring ones—like Will Weaver of Bemidji, Minnesota, whose first work comes out in March—basked in the warmth of her outgoing personality.

She read “Wish” from her forthcoming (fourth) volume, Love Life. It is an audit by an 84-year-old man of his long life, which ends with his fond recollection of his first lovemaking, under the stars on a quilt spread over freshly mown grass.

She schmoozed easily and utterly without affectation. I was curious about the precise title of her last book, Spence + Lila—it being my hunch that the “plus” sign signified that their luminous union was much more than simple addition of their separate private lives.

Not only was my intuition correct, but she teetered on the edge of testiness when editors, critics and readers—including the man who introduced her at the seminar—sloppily substituted “and.”

But savoring the reading performances of treasured writers is a long haul from enjoying multi-celeb panels on the renaissance of the American short story, this year’s theme.

They were keynoted by one Frank Conroy, the indefinite article signifying my total ignorance of the man and his work. It turns out he’s a veritable superstar of the subsidized lit subculture.

He ascended this year to the directorship of the premier writing workshop in the country, the U. of Iowa’s, after having been the Maecenas of grants at the National Endowment for the Arts’ literature section for five years. Bureaucratic largesse has its perks.

And Conroy is no shadowy, faceless pol of the Culture Biz. He had sharp and perceptive things to say about the 30-year-old phenomenon of the writing workshop / creative writing adjunct to English departments.

His most acidulous remark was to note that if all the people who tried to get their poems and stories into little mags subscribed to them, the mags wouldn’t need to be subsidized. Hmm. I’d add a corollary to that. If all the writers and critics starring at the seminar were catholic readers, they’d be better informed guides.

I happened to be carrying Daniel Hoffman’s Hang Gliding from Helicon as longueurs insurance in case the panels were boring (none was, itself a miracle). But if I were to finger the poets and critics who had never heard of him, I’d wreck their reputations and careers.

I have a short word for that condition: narcissism. The subsidized writing programs are tax-supporting solipsism. Sadly, they create “a world elsewhere” culture parallel to the Disney-dominated one they never, ever leaven. It’s not exactly what Matthew Arnold and Emerson had in mind, is it?

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, February 15, 1989