Friday, June 28, 2013

How to Circumvent the Will of the People

In the  San Francisco Chronicle today the two top front page stories were about the U.S. Senate's passage of a sweeping new Immigration Reform bill, and the legal complexities created by the Supreme Court's knockdown of DOMA and California's Proposition 8 constitutionality (it was struck down too).

In each case, the will of the people was swept aside. On the one hand, by the Supreme Court which is now leaning towards a liberal bias, especially on social issues, and on the other, by a legislative branch which is courting the new growing "Latino/Hispanic" vote.

California voters passed their own version of DOMA by a wide margin, but a single District Court judge (a Gay man himself) ruled it unconstitutional, and the partisan governor and his attorney general "refused" to defend it in court.

Poling has consistently shown that Americans are against a general amnesty for illegal immigrants, and want better, stronger enforcement of our immigration laws and our sovereign borders. The latest amnesty vote in the Senate gives carte blanche to the latest wave of illegals, while "promising" to block further incursions.

In a democracy, the will of the people is supposed to determine the law of the land. And yet these latest maneuvers by our legislative and judicial branches show that that will can be undercut and outmaneuvered through technicalities or corrupt lawmakers. Senator McCain, for instance, whose own state has suffered the most from uncontrolled immigration along its southern border with Mexico, abandoned his staunch stand against amnesty, in order to bolster his party's courting of the Latino vote (he was one of the "gang of 8" who authored the legislation).

What needs to happen in this country is our government to reflect the actual needs and desires of its people. Americans are often stupid, gullible, selfish, and mean-spirited, but in a democracy, we honor sentiments, even when it's inconvenient to do so.

We've known for some time that the interests of big business come first, before the priorities of the voters--that's been true since beginning of our republic. What's even more disheartening, though, is to acknowledge that even small special interest minority groups, like the LGBT and Immigrant lobbies, can overturn the will of the majority--with the assistance of a biased media and corrupt legislators and judges.

These are not good times for American democracy.

Writing on the Margins - Pasternak/Ashbery Part II

This is the second part of an essay about John Ashbery's copy of the Selected Writings of Boris Pasternak, published in 1949 by New Directions, as Direction 9.    

A younger Pasternak

I have photographed the passages in the Pasternak text of Safe Conduct which have been underlined, presumably by John Ashbery, whose name appears on the front free endpaper of the book. Though the text of Safe Conduct takes up the first 147 pages of the Selected Writings, Ashbery marked only 9 pages of the text with vertical pen marks, the first on page 22 (as indicated on the front endpaper), and the last on page 69.

     I appreciated then how well trained are our facial muscles. Unable to breath properly from nervousness I mumbled something with a dry tongue and washed down my replies with frequent swallows of tea so as not to choke or make matters worse in some other way.

     The skin began to creep along my jaw-bones and the protuberances of my forehead, I moved my eyebrows, nodded and smiled, and each time I touched the creases of this mimicry upon the bridge of my nose, creases ticklish and sticky like cobwebs, I discovered my handkerchief clutched convulsively in my hand and with it again and again I wiped the large beads of sweat from my brow. Behind my head, spring, bound by the curtains, rose smokily over the whole mews. In front, between my hosts who were trying with redoubled talkativeness to guide me out of my difficulties, the tea exhaled in the cups, the samovar hissed pierced by its arrow steam, and the sun, misted with water and manure, circled upwards. The smoke of a stump of cigar, wavy like a tortoiseshell comb, pulled its way from the ashtray to the light, on reaching which it crawled repletely along it sideways as though it were a piece of felt. I don't know why, but this circling of blinded air, the steaming waffles, smoking sugar and silver burning like paper, heightened my nervousness unbearably. It subsided when going across to the salon I found myself at the piano. --lined passage from page 22-23 

The most amazing aspect of this scene is that it is an account of Pasternak going to visit Aleksandr Scriabin, the great Russian pianist and composer of demonic revolutionary works, who was Pasternak's instructor, to play some of his own original keyboard compositions for the master. Pasternak's first intention had been in fact to become a serious musical composer, and it was only later that he gave up this dream to pursue poetry. Like all translations, this one may suffer from the impenetrable idiomatic membrane which insulates separate languages from each other, especially those as different from each other Russian is from English. Nevertheless, certain things can be noted. First, there is almost a kind of dissociation of the speaker from his presence of mind, such that the details of events become overwhelming, a nervousness brought on by the anticipatory anxiety of playing before his teacher. The passage has some of the encapsulating weirdness that I've always identified with Ashbery's own prose writing, both the kinds he's employed in his poetry, or that to be found in his narrative prose (e.g., A Nest of Ninnies, with James Schuyler, New York: Dutton, 1969). 

     Greece distinguished excellently among ages. She understood how to meditate on childhood which is as sealed up and independent as an initial integrated kernel. How greatly she possessed this, can be seen in her myth of Ganymede and many others which are similar. The same convictions entered her interpretations of the demi-god and the hero. In her opinion, some portion of risk and tragedy must be gathered sufficiently early in a handful which can be gazed upon and understood in a flash. Certain sections of the edifice and among these the principal arch of fatalism, must be laid once and for all from the very outset in the interests of its future proportions. And finally, death itself must be experienced, possibly in some memorable similitude.

     And this is why the ancients with an art that was generalized, ever unexpected, enthralling as a fair-tale, still knew nothing of Romanticism.
     Brought up on a demand never afterwards made on anyone, on a superworld of deeds and problems, she was completely ignorant of the super world as a personal effect. She was ensured against that because she prescribed for childhood the whole dose of the extraordinary, which is to be found in the world. And according to her ways, when man entered gigantic reality with gigantic steps, both his coming out and his surroundings were accounted ordinary. --lined passage from pages 25-26

This passage follows upon a declaration that the author realizes he will soon abandon music and musical composition. It seems to be a way of saying that the decision to move away from music, towards another challenge, means an entry into the larger world ("superworld"). Much of the early part of Safe Conduct seems intended to convey a sense of tremendous abstraction, a generalized confusion which a tightly-wound-up artistic youth might feel on the threshold of alarming, but inspiring, discoveries and revelations. Descriptive passages like the one below abound. 

     I stood craning my neck and breathing hard. Above me towered a dizzy height on which in three tiers stood the stone maquette of the university, the town hall and the eight-hundered-year-old castle. After my tenth step I ceased to understand where I was. I remembered that I had forgotten my tie with the rest of the world in the railway carriage, and it was not be be recalled now any more than the hooks, the luggage-racks and the ashtrays. Above the clock-tower clouds stood festively. The place seemed familiar to them. But they too explained nothing. It was obvious that as the guardians of this nest, they were not to be parted from it. A mid-day silence reigned. It communed with the silence of the plain stretched out below. They seemed to rise to the sum total of my bewilderment. The higher passed to the lower in a weary wave of lilac. Birds chirruped expectantly. I scarcely noticed the people. The motionless contours of the roofs were filled with curiosity--how would it all end?

     The streets clung to the steeps like Gothic dwarfs. They were situated one below the other and their basements gazed over the attacks of their neighbours. Their narrow ways were filled with wonders of boxlike architecture. The floors which widened out upwards lay on protruding beams and, their roofs almost touching, they stretched out their hands towards each other over the road. They had no pavements. You could not walk freely in all of them.
     Suddenly I realized, that a day must have preceded the five-year strolling of Lomonosov along these same bridges, when he first entered this town with a letter of introduction to Christian Wolff, a student  of Leibniz, and still knew no one there. It is not enough to say the town had not changed. One had to realize that it might well have appeared just as unexpectedly small and medieval even for those days. And turning one's head, one could be jolted, repeating exactly one terribly distant bodily movement. As in the days of Lomonosov scattered at one's feet with the whole grey-blue swarm of its slate roofs, the town resembled a flock of doves enticed in a lively flight towards their cot at feeding time. I was in a flutter as I celebrated the second centenary of someone else's neck muscles. Coming to myself I noticed that the décor had become reality, and set off to find a cheap guest-house to which I had been directed by Samarin. --lined passage from pages 47-48 

This passage recounts a visit that Pasternak paid to the ancient German city of Marburg, seat of an important Protestant university [1527]. The town was, and is still architecturally impressive, with many old, Gothic structures. Again, one has the sense of a disorientation, as if the young poet's faculties have been overwhelmed by the scene set before him, as the rush of descriptive language comes pouring forth in an unedited stream. The air of unconcealed excitation is one, again, that seems to my mind to have a ring of familiarity in Ashbery's curious specimen-like fascination for isolated accounts of mental confusion expressed almost as a descriptive possession.  

Marburg, Germany  

     This is all so far away that if imagination reaches back so far, at the point where it meets this scene a snowstorm rises of its own accord. It breaks out from extreme cold in obedience to the rule of the conquered unattainable. Night will set in there, the hills be clothed with forests, in the forests wild beasts will come. And human manners and customs will be encrusted with ice. --lined passage from pages 51-52

This passage is inspired by the author conjuring up the historical figure Elizabeth of Hungary, a Countess of Thuringia who died at age 24 and was canonized as a saint for her work among the sick, in the year 1230. But the important thing is not the specificity of the personage evoked, or even its antiquity, but the conviction that civilization will eventually crumble and capitulate to the advance of wild beasts from the forested countryside. Though dream-like in its aspect, this passage, though much like the rest of the text, can stand alone as a sort of capsule miniature scene, an enclosed illuminated vision. 

The last two passages are brief, but telling. 

      Taste teaches morality and power teaches taste. --lined passage from page 60

     Like my fellow-travellers in the compartment, it would have to take into account that every love is a crossing over into a new faith. --lined passage from page 69

The first--rather like a proverb or aesthetic axiom--seems to summarize a whole attitude towards art and culture. If taste, as Oscar Wilde might have averred, determines morality, then power (as in the Nietzsche's will to power) nevertheless may hold sway, since taste is at the mercy of enforced circumstance. The second, though rendered in the course of a seemingly trivial event in a rooming-house where Pasternak was staying in Marburg, where he spent several months in 1912, has a similar kind of formulaic ring: A passage in a railway car to meet someone important for dinner. Rail transport often has a deeply metaphysical symbolic significance in Pasternak's imagination. 

Pasternak in later life

Though these passages are not linked, it should be noted that Pasternak's text is impressionistic, and poetic in its pacing and details. It is an example of what is called "spiritual autobiography" rather than a straight report. Albeit, as I have elsewhere said, all autobiography is by its nature a kind of self-deception, if not outright dissimulation, or a deliberate kind of lying. It's best to remember this, especially in judging the meaning of a work like Safe Conduct. It is precisely this impressionistic aspect that probably attracted Ashbery's interest.

Ironically, perhaps the most telling instance of Ashbery's acknowledgment of Pasternak is the quotation to his poem "The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers" [from Some Trees]. This concluding passage is not marked in the text, but it's certainly likely that Ashbery first read it here. The quotation precedes the poem, and is the last line of Pasternak's Safe Conduct:

He was spoilt from childhood by the future, which he mastered rather early and apparently without great difficulty. 

But to understand that engaging statement, one must realize that it is the culmination of the collective grief of a literary coterie which was facing a kind of doom. In Pasternak's narrative, Mayakovsky, the great Russian poet, and Pasternak's contemporary, had just killed himself, and his body put in a coffin. 

     When I returned in the evening, he was already in his coffin . . . Suddenly, outside, underneath the window I imagined I saw his life, which now already belonged entirely to the past. I saw it move away obliquely from the window like a quiet tree-bordered street resembling the Povarskaya. And the first to take its stand in this street, by the very wall, was our State, our unprecedented and unbelievable State, rushing headlong towards the ages and accepted by them forever . . . And it occurred to me then in the same irrelevant way that this man was perhaps this State's unique citizen. The novelty of the age flowed climatically through his blood. His strangeness was the strangeness of our times of which half is as yet fulfilled . . . All these [character traits] were explained by his familiarity with states of mind which though inherent in our time, have not yet reached full maturity. He was spoilt from childhood by the future, which he mastered rather early and apparently without great difficulty

I have no idea what the Russian idiom for "spoilt" is; in English, a child "spoiled" means a child pampered or over-indulged, which carries a double-meaning. One can be spoiled for the future. But how can one be affected by something that has not yet happened? Or is the meaning that one's childhood itself is ruined? That one's innocence is maimed? Or perhaps that one's fate is sealed, like an unknown destiny? Actually, it's more likely that those with great aptitude or genius see too much, and thus become instruments of their superior grasp. 

Ashbery, of course, was a very precocious child, appearing on a radio program for very smart children, later attending Deerfield Academy, where he wrote poems that were published in Poetry (Chicago) Magazine. Ashbery's life, if you follow the thread, suggests that he has always managed to master every obstacle in his path. Though somewhat misunderstood early in his career, the official literary culture has embraced him with increasing affection over the last 30 or so years. 

Recent photo of Ashbery

Unlike Pasternak, who suffered the opprobrium of being officially despised by his own government, Ashbery has basked in glory. He may not have been spoiled by the future, but he certainly has mastered it.

Following clues from textual scraps is one of the duties of scholarship, hence the proliferation of literary "archives" among many of our more prestigious institutional libraries. There is even an Ashbery Resource Center Archive at Bard College, a project of the Flow Chart Foundation (named after Ashbery's longest single poem). I humbly submit my little bit of research to the world at large, in the hopes that it will find a better home than my idle imagination. If Ashbery wants his book back, he'll have to write me direct. Years ago, I asked him to submit some poems for a literary magazine I was editing, and he gratefully responded with three works. I actually paid him for these, but they were never used. One was included in his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror book, which won all the prizes the year it was published. 

This whole exercise is like the footnote to a footnote. And footnotes, like marginalia, are parasitic growths on the actual stuff of literature.   

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Writing on the Margins - Pasternak/Ashbery Part I

Marginalia occupies a place in literature which we might characterize as . . . well . . . marginal. It obviously can't be considered original composition, since it exists only as running commentary upon a pre-existing text. Perhaps the most famous marginalizer (or marginalianist? - or marginal author???) in the history of literature is Samuel Taylor Coleridge, five volumes of whose marginalia have been published. Doubtless many other famous writers have written in their books, and the literary archives of many famous authors contain copies of books from their personal libraries, in which they have made various annotations. Influence--as a kind of literary tracing of effect--is best exampled through the use of antecedents, known to have exerted magnetic pull or push on other (often later) writers.

We don't think of marginalia as important, usually, because we don't regard it as original work, since by its very nature, it's parasitic, or symbiotic, like barnacles on the hull of a ship, or sucker-fish clinging to the flanks of a big shark. We tend to think of marginalia as having a kind of dependent existence upon an original body of work, though contemporary theories about new kinds of writing, generated through cooperative or collaborative means, may be challenging that old presumption. Reading recently some of the letters of James Salter, I was struck by the amount of revision his editors subjected him to. Readers seldom give much thought to it, but it's a fact that many of the most famous works of fiction in the 20th Century, were in effect collaborative efforts involving one or more editors, agents, legal copyreaders, in addition to the named authors. Thomas Wolfe's work would probably not have been publishable, without the heavy editorial involvement of Scribner's Maxwell Perkins.

One of the techniques of writing which post-Modern literature offers is the combination of texts from varying sources, appropriating fragments or shards of pre-existing texts directly into a new work. This kind of borrowing is different from plagiarism, or direct quotation (whether acknowledged or not). The source text (or parent work) isn't pirated to lend authority or content or style to a new work--but to include it in a kind of collage or sculpted assemblage, or as a discrete "specimen" of some kind. The debt one writer owes to another for this kind of literary theft or borrowing isn't usually great, though it may swing both ways, either as a bonafide salute, or as an implied censure or parody.

Writers typically are inspired by writing that has moved them. Writers are always on the hunt for new sources of inspiration, and though it may take non-literary forms, such inspiration frequently originates in pre-existing texts--and often in the most unlikely places!

Some years back, at a library book sale, I came across a copy of a book that had belonged to a well-known contemporary poet. The other book-scout who was present that day, to whom I showed the book, wise-cracked "so who is John Ashbery?" since the average person at a suburban library book sale would be about as likely to know who John Ashbery is as to know mean temperature of Bombay. The book I had found was a copy of Selected Writings, by Boris Pasternak, issued by James Laughlin as Direction 9 in his Direction series of texts from New Directions Publishing Company of Norfolk, Connecticut. 

This particular copy, a worn light grey textured paper-covered hardbound copy, had no dustwrapper, but it bore the following on the front free endpaper:

John Ashbery
Nov. 1949
New York

and at the bottom of the leaf was

pp.  22
"     26
"     47

On the pages indicated, and on other pages of the text of the book, were lined passages in the same ink as the front inscription. Consulting the official facts of John Ashbery's biography, you'd discover that 1949 was the year he graduated from Harvard with a bachelor's degree in English (cum laude). It would be four years before his first small collection of poems was published (Turandot, New York: Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 1953) and seven years before his first regularly issued trade book (Some Trees, New Haven: Yale Younger Poets, 1956). The young Ashbery was just beginning graduate school at this point, and though he may have had great expectations, it was far too early to tell what his prospects might be in the field of creative literature.

In retrospect, we can observe that Pasternak, in many ways had already come to be regarded as one of the great 20th Century poets, and had come to symbolize the tragic suppression of artistic endeavor under the Soviet System. The world knew nothing of his novel Doctor Zhivago, the panoramic narrative spanning the beginning of the Revolution and early years of the Soviet Republic, which he had been intermittently working on for decades, and which would eventually be published in 1956, the same year as Ashbery's Yale book.

The accidental nature of my finding this stray item from Ashbery's library--(did he dispose of it somewhere along the way, lend it to someone, or simply lose track of it?--and how did it find its way across to the West Coast?)--had the same sort of crucial randomness that you might expect in very abstract meta-fictions (or in certain kinds of post-Modern poems). Apparent randomness and inclusiveness are two aspects of Ashbery's compositional approach to writing which flowered in his early work: The collage (montage, decoupage) methodology in many of the poems of Tennis Court Oath (Wesleyan, 1962). In researching Ashbery's work in connection with this post, I came across passages in David Herd's John Ashbery and American Poetry (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), in which he discusses in some detail Pasternak's influence on Ashbery, O'Hara and Koch, specifically, in Ashbery's case, with his focus on the practice of metonymy in Pasternak's verse, and the use of contextualized description as a method of portraying character. In O'Hara's case, this is perceived as the focus on the immediacy of self and social milieu, whereas in Ashbery, it is expressed through the absorption (what Herd prefers to call "sponge"-like from the poem "A Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers" from Some Trees) of external influences and circumstances--i.e., defining presence and immediacy through the use or accommodation of impinging data.  Ashbery's use of details and surfaces superficially irrelevant to the argument or narrative of a work in hand, has always been a defining aspect of his writing, one which has given rise to many misapprehensions about the meaning and purpose of his poetry. From the point of view of early Soviet aesthetic theories about creativity, the immediacy of one's personal, social, political and artistic milieu as inescapable realities, must be incorporated into the flow of the work; thus there is no denying the priorities of the historical moment in which one is given to participate. 

Pasternak's problem inside the socialist realism of the Stalinist (and post-Stalinist) periods, was his apparent emphasis on the personal fates of individual souls, which is why Doctor Zhivago met such an intense backlash in the Soviet Union when it was first published. Though Zhivago is a story about people in a specific setting, it is also in many senses an inquiry into the Communist revolution, and of the vicissitudes of living through a time of convulsive change. It is also, in many ways, a spiritual autobiography whose outline bears significant comparisons to Pasternak's own life. In searching for new models to put up against the prevailing new confessionalism and self-justifying psycho-drama of Lowell, Jarrell, and Berryman throughout the 1950s, the young poets of the New York School sought formal pathways which could liberate them, and provide new sources of energy and inspiration. 

Herd specifically mentions Ashbery's encounter with prose work Safe Conduct, which is reprinted in its entirety in the Selected Writings book in hand. In it, Pasternak confronts directly the difficulties and frustrations of the beginning of severe censorship and persecutions of the early Stalinist period. Ashbery himself reminded critics and readers, in his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures (As Other Traditions, 2000), that Pasternak was an important early influence, serving both as a possible model for the kind of writing he was drawn to, as well as immediate inspiration to composition. 

In the context of this important link, it's intriguing to explore Ashbery's copy of the Pasternak writings, to see what it might provide in the way of clues to the exact nature of its influence on his work. The gentlest thing I might do would be to begin with a rough outline of Safe Conduct, but I'm not going to do that, preferring instead simply to inspect the marked passages of Ashbery's copy, and speculate casually about their connection to his work.    

Saturday, June 22, 2013

What Happens to People

One of the truly great photographs of all time is the portrait of these two small girls by Diane Arbus.

Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967

The picture is a meditation about personality. I can't remember the very first time I saw twins. There were a few sets in the suburban schools I attended. The story was they came from the same egg, or the same genetic material that split, for some reason, into two, each an exact copy of the other. But then I got to know a set of twin boys who didn't really resemble each other that much--I mean that they were actually of different body builds, and their faces didn't seem as if they were a match. They could certainly be brothers, but you wouldn't guess they were actually twins. Twins of different sex seemed to present less of a problem; they often looked only vaguely alike. 

Later, when I got to see and know other sets of twins, it became apparent that though they might look eerily alike, even if they dressed and groomed and acted alike, there was always a difference, a distinction which--once you became more familiar with them--was immediately recognizable. Even if these two identical people had started out with equal blueprints, they could never remain wholly united in the fruition of their maturity. They would drift apart, though there were also people who said that twins were always linked, would always have an intuitive connection, perhaps even a supernatural one, inescapable, perhaps like telepathy. 

I don't know that anyone I ever talked with about it said they wanted to be a twin. Would marrying someone who was a twin be like marrying "two people" since they would always be connected and intimate with each others' secrets and problems and dreams? The woman I married has the Gemini sign, which signifies the Twin. Actually it signifies contained opposites, and all the complexities that dialectic implies. I don't know that I've thought how this might be expressed in her character, though when you live with someone for 40 years and more, you do see the contradictions and consistencies in their character at a level of confirmation that is unparalleled in your life experience. Having a single mate for life is a crucially enormous segment of the potential range of things to know and discover about people, about being human; not to have had it, I think, would be a terrible poverty. 

The first thing that jumps out at you in the picture is that these two girls are already different people, each has begun to split off from the other to create and express a different comprehension, a different  projection of the world. It's as if nature demands that we each become separate, isolate beings, as if this were a kind of survival mechanism or adaptation. Each of us knows, inside the containment of our personality, that we're isolated from every other person, and that no matter how hard we might try to emulate or copy another person's life, we'll always be trapped inside what we are. It's our fate. 

The next thing I notice about the expressions on their faces is that they seem to be emoting (or coming) from different places. The sister on the right has a more charming, a sweeter smile. Any human expression can have multiple meanings (or interpretations): A smile can suggest happiness, or ingratiation, or insecurity, or obedience, or an habitual strategy of avoidance, or pleasure, or amusement, etc. The sister on the left is not smiling; her expression seems slightly strained, or perhaps she just didn't smile at the right moment for the portrait. Their respective expressions could be reversed, leaving us with a mirrored transposition of the initial "difference" implied by their separate looks. 

The third thing I deduce is the regimentation of their appearance. They're like dutiful little soldiers in a parochial school, or little choir girls wearing a uniform shared by many others. Their stance is very similar, close, but not intimate. There must be a natural intimacy, you would think, just from the likelihood that they share nearly everything in their lives--eating, sleeping, bathing, playing, praying--which is the outward expression of what all siblings to some extent share.  It's like the symbolic outward representation of the meaning of family, of shared DNA, as if twins were the ultimate weird incestual accident of nature, not to propagate across shared DNA, but to proliferate from a single template, but to what purpose? What would the superstition for twinning be?  Were twins once considered to be diabolical perversions, the way other kinds of genetic accidents were thought to be? Is there something spooky about twins? Would that explain why Stanley Kubrick put these little angels into his frightening fantasy movie The Shining?   

What happens to people when they grow up? The world distorts and transforms them, so that as they age and develop they begin to resemble the uniquely ornate freaks that distinguish them from everyone else. Aging seems normal, but what you can see in people's faces as they change over decades of time can be almost frightening. We think that the way we look in old age is somehow a fulfillment of what we were meant to be from our genetic inheritance, but it's also a consequence of the scrapes and blows and terrors which we're subjected to along the way. Some people look like monsters by late middle age. Some people bloat, others wither. Others wrinkle up, become spotty, shrink, become lopsided, top- or bottom-heavy, or just become hardened. It's hard not to become more fixed in your ways as you grow older, and most people tend to look more like how they see the world, i.e., their bodies and their expressions begin to be models of what they think life means. Some people become angrier, others become passive, or frustrated, or more skeptical, others may get silly, or careless, or bitter with regret. Some people seem overwhelmed by their past, others seem to forget everything that happened to them more than a month ago. 

Pictures--especially family pictures--tell stories. They are the stuff of memories, reminders of how we looked in the past. The story is the narrative which we construct out of the strangeness of change, the change we can see vividly as we drift further and further away from the selves and situations captured in the photographs.        

The two women below are of course the grown-up versions of the twins above, now probably in their early fifties (the picture may have been taken some years ago). In a weird way, they still resemble the sisters they were 45 years earlier. Or have they been reversed? Funny question. For my part, I can see the same personalities inside the faces, persevering over the decades, preserved in their facial magic. Can there be anything more mysterious or fascinating than human faces? Their unique portrait, done when they were just innocent, impressionable, and probably trusting young children, has made icons of their faces. They're almost as famously recognizable as minor movie stars. But not for the reasons that media personalities are. Something much stranger has happened to them. And to us. Arbus has seen something which the photograph reports with unerring fidelity. The flicker of reality is like the replicating frames of perception which comprise the experience of being alive, of seeing the zillions of light rays in which we're constantly bathed. There's a stillness at the center of all this flux, and the photograph reminds each of us of our isolation at that center. Everything revolves around us. Look in the mirror and who do you see? The irretrievable progress of what was, in all its particularity, now forever closed. The photograph is like a quick graph of a phenomenon that propagated itself from the tugging strands of microscopic DNA inside their mother's womb. At some intuitive level, could these two people always somehow feel the remorseless stretching apart of their common unity of template, splitting them into two isolate halves? 

What happened to them?                    

Come Again


remember how the King of France’s mustache tickled when he knelt down to sniff their petals

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Nov 1st 1783

Samuel Johnson

Address: To Mrs Thrale at Bath.  Postmark: 1 No.

.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     

     An air ballon has been lately procured by our virtuosi, but it performed very little to their expectation.

     The Air with (which) these balls are filled is procured by dissol(ving) iron filings in the vitriolick (or I suppose sulphureous) acid; but the smoke of burnt straw may be used, though its levity is not so great.
     If a case could be found at once light and strong, a man might mount with his ball, and go whither the winds would carry him. The case of the ball which came hither was of goldbeaters skin. The cases which have hitherto been used are apparently defective, for the ball(s) come to the gound, which they could never do, unless there were some breach made. 

  A contemporary engraving of a hot air balloon done in the same years as the letter

Blame the Cloth [1921]

"A Captain of Industry declaring that the desire of the manual workers to be paid exorbitant wages for doing the least possible amount of work is a sure sign that they have lost their faith in a future life."

From A Survey, by Max Beerbohm, 1921. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Pinocchio's Paradox

What really bothers me is the way meaning gets bent and twisted by the sound of adjacent senses. Take an example: sway-backed horse. Aside from the evident pain felt by the animal as a consequence of its body undergoing a severe trauma, there’s the ambiguity of  how “sway” gets misused. To sway means to oscillate in a side to side motion. It also signifies influence, as in given sway over. What does actual swaying or a superior influence have to do with a horse’s bent spine?

Language exists in time. You can try to compress it, or stretch it, but like a kind of flexible substance, it will generally snap back into its median position, a resistance. But the changing colors or tints of meaning are more subtle. If we put words of the same sound together—like quaint, saint, taint, feint—we end up with gratuitous flutter, which may be organized into deliberately enforced sense by poets attempting to wrest order from chaos. But there’s nothing “natural” about words at any point. A word or phrase might be five hundred years old, but it has no more integrity than that which we assign it. So much of the context of meaning is derived from consent.

As in the consent of the governed. Dictionaries may be like prisons in which words are held in indefinite detention. Meanwhile, outside the walls, the criminals have their own language, replete with curses, private code-words, and the alchemy of subversion; while the graffiti of disrespect keeps getting plastered all over the public wall of culture--our unofficial billboards. The danger is that we’ll mistake those defacements for real art, and domesticate them by bringing them in out of the cold. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Freshet - Imbibe for Spring

I haven't done any mountain hiking (or riding) in years, but there's nothing quite like being high up in the Sierras or Rocky Mountains, after a day of climbing, all the way up above the snow-line, and drinking from a spring thaw creek or rivulet, ice-cold, oxygenated, bracing. The air is thinner, there's a crispness and rawness that stimulates your senses, even the sounds seem purer. Somehow, for a while, you simply feel more alive, alert to sensation and detail. 

If drinks must have a theme, then this one reminds me of the freshness of a spring freshet, the first rush of snow-melt down a mountainside, over rocks, through a mountain meadow, gathering momentum. A sense of renewal, of the propulsive rush of the return of life in spring. 

By proportion, of course. This one should be shaken hard to produce as much ice fragment as possible to enhance the effect of its coldness. 

3 parts gin
1 part Cointreau
1 part peach schnapps
1 part Becherovka*
1 1/2 part fresh lemon juice

Funny how taste can suggest qualities of physical experience or evoke memories of it. As I get older, I appreciate the qualities of the changing seasons more. When I was a boy, weather just seemed like a minor inconvenience. In the Bay Area, we live under a mild climate almost year-round, so the changes may be subtler than they are for those who live in hard winters, or long very hot dry summers. 


*Becherovka is an "herbal bitters" liqueur made in Czechoslovakia, made from a proprietary herbal mixture. It has a cinnamon or spearmint flavor, and is used primarily as a mixer.  

Friday, June 7, 2013

Calico the Wonder Horse or The Saga of Stewy Stinker

Virginia Lee Burton (Demetrios) as a young woman

As children, we're at the mercy of our parents' will. What we know of life and conduct and possibility comes directly from their sense of the world. Parents are our guides in the first formative years, and what they think determines to a large degree how we turn out as we mature. For many children, the childhood years turn out to be a kind of collaboration between the irresponsibility of their parents, and the necessity of adapting to uncertain conditions; in many broken homes, children in effect raise themselves. But that wasn't the case with me. My parents had confident notions about how best to raise a child, and that included, from the beginning, a steady diet of reading. Until I was about 7, I was read to; thereafter, I was made to read out loud about every other night. I can now clearly recall memorizing these early children's stories, and certain ones became favorites which we would read over and over again, almost like a kind of mantra. My parents weren't religious, at least in the specific sense of that word (they never attended church), but the performance of language texts was clearly regarded as an invaluable kind of training. The best of these children's stories will be with me forever: Now, 60 years later, I can still say with certainty that my thinking about narrative and image (illustration) is heavily influenced by those books from my childhood. Raggedy Ann, Winnie-the-Pooh, Johnny Appleseed, Stuart Little, Peter Rabbit--these were the figures who first got into my head. But among all those early classic examples, it's another book, Calico the Wonder Horse, or The Saga of Stewy Stinker [Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1941] which left the biggest impression on me, not just for the suspense and hypnotic intensity of its story, but for the striking imagery which accompanied the text. Its author was Virginia Lee Burton (Demetrios) [1909-1968], an important figure in the juvenile literature genre, who had already established herself as a skilled children's book author by the time that Stewy Stinker was published, having published Choo Choo [1937] and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel [1939]. And she would go on to publish (or illustrate) another dozen or so titles, including Maybelle the Cable Car [1952].     

Illustration from one of Burton's books

Burton's early training was as an artist. She studied art both in the Bay Area, and in New England. She seems from her pictures to have been an attractive and motivated artist, a devoted wife and mother, as well as an organizer (she began the Folly Cove Designers textile collective in Cape Ann, Massachusetts)in the same year that Stewy Stinker was published). She and her husband George Demetrios were both artistic (he was a successful sculptor). By the time she was in her late twenties, she already had a distinctive visual style, and had absorbed important lessons from the best practitioners in illustration.    


Burton in her study

She said she drew inspiration directly from her own two boys, on whom she tried out her stories before sending them off to publishers. If a story put them to sleep, she set it aside. In the case of Stewy Stinker, she reported that she wrote it (for them) to wean them away from the comic books they were becoming preoccupied with. Dramatic illustration was in an exciting phase during this period, with Lynd Ward and Rockwell Kent working in America. Children's literature underwent a revolution starting in the late 19th Century and progressing through the 20th. The development of visual reproduction techniques in printing, along with the artistic advances of Modernism, and the dawning of psychology (and child psychology) and the use of visual aids and art in pedagogy, all contributed to an explosion of literary and illustration art. In the 1930's, there was added a dose of social consciousness and an emphasis on family values.        

The Demetrios Family

And if ever there were an example of a family devoted to art and artistic enterprise, the Demetrios family would be it. Trained as an artist, Burton let her child narratives grow out of the intimate attention to her own two young boys, and tailored her works to appeal to them. Both of her sons, by the way, grew up to have interesting, productive lives, one (Aristides Demetrios) becoming a professional abstract (public sphere) sculptor, and the other a head executive for theme parks (Marine World Africa USA). 

Burton with the Folly Cove Designers (far right)

The Folly Cove Designers organization has almost a Bauhaus (or Black Mountain) feel, judging from these vintage photographs. It lasted from 1938 to 1969, working in the linoleum block on fabric printing technique to realize their designs. 

Designed around the idea of a medieval guild, participants worked separately, then presented their designs to the rest of the group for an informal jury consideration. It closed down when Burton died, and the materials were placed in the Cape Ann Museum.  

Burton's style is ingenious, to say the least. She was interested in mazes and dyptichs, repeating freizes, symmetry, and sequencing. Stewy Stinker has all these qualities, and is highly stylized, but without any off-putting geometric domination: The imagery is guided by a sure sense of progression and the words and images are intertwined to make a single thread. The pictures are neither realistic nor condescending.  A lot of juvenile literature suffers from the desire to emulate supposed childish views of reality, but the best work in the genre simplifies the medium without watering down or dumbing down the content.    

Calico the Wonder Horse or The Saga of Stewy Stinker draws on the cowboy myth, as well as the comic book styles of the 1930's, but not naively--with impressive sophistication. To summarize, it's the story of a horse who almost single-handedly saves a small Western town from a band of horse-thieves and a torrential natural flood, taming the outlaws and bringing peace and harmony back to Cactus County. Along the way, there are feats of derring-do, and lots of visual hijinks, as the forces of good and evil contend. There's also the trope of the miraculous domestic animal who is intelligent, courageous, loyal, and lucky.           

Interestingly, the front and back pages of the text display the whole sequence of pages in order, which emphasizes the serial nature of the narrative. I don't think I've ever seen this done before--it almost makes the separate plates feel like a deck of cards, or which draws attention to the variable structure of each, though placed within the continuity of the unfolding story.   

The same qualities which informed her textile designs--

 Burton design from the Folly Cove archive

--are evident in her book designs: The stylized freizes of cactus in rows and contoured landforms, the geometric angles and curves of the cliffs and rock faces, with zig-zags, S-curves, steep pyramidal jags, and the sequential linking, as with the box canyon view and the full-length portrait of Stewy on the same page. 

Burton's use of white-line on black background allows her to evoke a nightmarish mystery and foreboding. Darkness is associated with Stewy's gang, and their cattle-rustling (done at night), and Stewy (in his darkest hour) escaping from the black dungeon (in the cellar of the schoolhouse), by digging under the foundation in total blackness.  

The values of community are emphasized, as in the end the newly tamed gang members are drawn into the town Christmas party at the local town hall. The power of community feeling to turn bad men into good, and draw them back into the life of the larger society is the underlying message of the tale. For Burton, family and community and socially integrated art are all intimately linked, and the integrated visual narrative of her children's books becomes the ideal medium to express this. But for me, the little morality play was primarily a cowboy cartoon, whose dreamlike world of unreal landscapes and intriguing perspectives drew me in to the curious and absorbing passageways of my own imagination. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Two Takes

                                      the shadow of a plane     

                                  is bigger than the day

                                  as it passes over

                          the memory of its sound


                         keeping track of

                       those phone poles

                       going back and back

                 into the 1930’s


                       at loose ends 

                       wandering into
                        my future life