Sunday, June 28, 2009

Grammar Nazi Revisited

Nice new words from the world of professional baseball:

"Ownage" -- referring to the command a pitcher or hitter has over his opponent--i.e., he "owns" the other player: He can get the other out reliably, or he can hit safely against him. 

Going "yard" --which means hitting a home run, hitting the ball out of the field of play (the "yard").

These are entertaining and accurate coinages, not the result of stupidity or laziness. 

Mispronunciation:  "Breakfuss."  Also "breakfusses."   

Eubonics:  "In-shaunce."

On the radio: "If he would of done that, he'd of had it how it could have been."


Erich Mendelsohn - High Modernist & Visionary

Einstein Tower - Potsdam [1920]

Early Modernist architecture had a visionary side. The Modernist movement in architecture in the early 20th Century was to a large degree inspired by mechanization and futuristic visions--this is the basis for what we now think of as "science fiction" which got its start in the late 19th Century (Wells, etc.)--facilitated by steel girder construction, as well as fantasies of structure. Though the aesthetic basis for much modern design was utility and functional simplicity and practicality, its other side was intuitive, "organic" and even romantically inspired.

Erich Mendelsohn [1887-1953] stands as a key figure in the visionary Modernist camp, perhaps the major exponent of a style of design which united visually stunning conceptions with the the structural components which came to be associated with the International Style. Post-Modernism--think of Philip Johnson, late Wright, Frank Gehry, and dozens of others--looks back to early Modernist examples, such as Mendelsohn, for antecedents which express a similar freedom of imagination, unhindered by narrow applications of spatial efficiency or cost. 
Schocken Department Store, Nuremberg [1935] 

Mendelsohn's career as an architect was interrupted by the First World War. While serving in the trenches, he wrote letters to his wife, on which he made tiny sketches of imaginary structures. These sketches are among Modern architecture's key documents. Conceived in a heroic style, they propose sweeping curves, looping cantilevers, dramatic futuristic shaped towers, etc. Though too small to suggest articulation of interior spaces, they share with other dreamers of the new urban landscape (e.g., Hugh Ferris) a view of the potentially exciting possibilities of large buildings, conceived within the context of the new rapidly expanding, high-powered economies of late industrial capitalism. This optimism may seem a bit naive to our jaded sensibilities, since we no longer much believe in the opportunities of the production line, the skyscraper canyon, or the functional super-apartment block.            

In 1933, with the rise of Hitler's Nazis, Mendelsohn emigrated to England, leaving already a trail of important commissions, and most famously, the Einstein Tower [1920]. Conceived as an astronomical laboratory to "test the theories of Einstein's new Theory of Relativity" its expressionistic exterior is suggestive of Captain Nemo's Nautilus submarine, immortalized in Walt Disney's 20000 Leagues Under the Sea [1954]. Poking its periscope-like tower up above the tree-line, it symbolizes man's curiosity about the universe, and the confident power of science to make useful and amazing discoveries.
Schocken Department Store, Chemnitz [1928] 

As impressive as some of Mendelsohn's larger buildings are as dramatic, curving shapes, we know now that such gaunt, glowering structures can be dehumanizing, making us feel small and insignificant against the backdrop of corporate power and institutional facelessness. In 1941, Mendelsohn emigrated to America, where he practiced until his death in 1953. Along the way, he designed buildings in Palestine/Israel, in addition to those in Britain and the U.S.     
Bexhill De La Warr Pavillion [UK, 1934]

In 1955, Mendelsohn's widow published a beautiful limited edition [1/500 copies] of her late husband's architectural sketches, including some from the "trenches" series. We offer a collector's copy of this portfolio through our Compass Rose Books inventory, priced at $2000.  

Park Synagogue, Cleveland, Ohio [1947]

Mendelsohn's career path is an analogue for crucial events in the 20th Century. Starting out as an optimistic visionary before the WWI, he passed through that conflicted era, only to be expelled from his native country as a politico-racial exile in middle-age, then carried his vision to England, Israel, and eventually America. The Jewish diaspora from Germany resulted in a dissemination of genius, an unprecedented scattering of talent and precious knowledge.  

Friday, June 26, 2009

File Under Topical - In the News Today

Michael Jackson died this morning. 

I was never a fan of his music--either of the tradition from which it sprang (Motown), or his particular use of it, a high-powered kinky jive routine which didn't leave much room for expressive definition. I found his voice flat and lacking in articulation. 

The personality he came to project--filled with self-loathing, a frenetic dervish emulating a child-like immaturity which became increasingly strained as he aged--left me cold. Why did people like him? As a projection of adolescent fantasy, he seemed a peculiar and odd amalgam of the teen idol: A lonely, lost soul who'd skipped growing up, and then began to mourn the loss of his own innocence. A Black man who wanted to be a white puppet, who attempted to create his own literal version of Never-Never Land, whose fixation upon little boys betrayed deep-seated psychological issues. 

His performances--of which I saw perhaps three, all on television--basically dance-numbers with voices dubbed in--showed his real talent as a dancer, though the moves and the themes of these--frankly masturbatory--seemed deliberately tasteless. If Jackson wanted to appeal to children, in the end, how was massaging his penis in those dance-numbers supposed to accomplish that?   

If Michael Jackson was the symbolic projection of our popular cultural ideal, what does this tell us about our collective unconscious?      

The growth of the medical industry over the last two centuries is one of the most dramatic phenomena of the modern world. The rapid increase in "universal treatment" in civilized societies has been facilitated by increasing mechanization of treatment, the advance of chemical applications and vaccines, and our understanding of physiology, body chemistry, and behavior.

This expansion of knowledge and treatment options has brought about the steady increases in costs of treatment, rapidly overtaking the ability of individuals, or the population at large, to pay for it. To be blunt: We can't afford to treat everyone for all the ills they suffer. 

For a long time, we've been pretending that there is no limit on treatment, that if we could only come up with the right "formula", the right combination of public and private "coverage", everyone could count on being taken care of, no matter how serious their conditions, no matter how rich or poor they were. This is a dangerous fallacy.  

There is not enough resource in even the richest societies, to provide equivalently efficient and effective medical care for everyone. The so-called "difficult choices" which we will make going forward are likely to make this graphically clear. The days of affordable group coverage are over. The days of providing state-of-the-art treatment for the poor are over. As the U.S. moves towards socialized medicine, the tiers of the medical treatment hierarchy will become more controversial, and clear-cut. 

Modern medicine is a miracle of science, but it's too expensive. We can't afford to offer it to everyone. There's not enough treasure in all the world to pay for it.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

WILLIAM CLIFT - Seeing the Sound

"New Mexico" William Clift

Brett Weston was quoted once as saying (this may not be exact): "When we both listen, something may happen." The implied approach to photography contained in those words is somewhat atypical of Brett (he wasn't very talkative about the spiritual aspects of his craft), though to anyone who appreciates his work (as I do), there is no mistaking the mysterious, even miraculous quality which some photographs can evoke. 
Another photographer, from a generation later, whose work shows the power of careful listening (and watching, and thinking, and waiting) is William Clift [1944- ], who works out of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Clift has self-published two books--Certain Places (1987), and A Hudson Landscape: Photographs (1993). Clift is extremely careful about what images he publishes, as well as those he chooses to exhibit. This care may be evidence of a stingy nature, but it is certainly the result of a desire to limit his known output to works that measure up to his vision.     

"Desert Form"

Clift's work doesn't contain much fanfare. You won't find extravagantly positioned views in it, each image is thoroughly considered, and meditated beforehand. His work is in the tradition of the quiet, clearly focused views, powerfully imagined, and flawlessly executed, but without the sense of meretricious pandering to "heroic" or "picturesque" overkill so common these days in popular (usually color) landscape work. 

I discovered it through that first book (Certain Places)--just a handful of images, but each one saying something specific, separate. The best photographs, no matter what their subject-matter, make us pause, as if we were listening to a whispered password to another dimension. The arrangement of objects, the tilt of the light, the unsuspected vantage--something, difficult to put your finger on, at first, has been captured, which contains a quality not immediately apparent, but which is revealed with continuous or repeated viewing. With Clift's images, that quality is composed of about equal parts awe, peaceful acceptance, fascination, joy, memory, and sadness. 
"Fence, Tetilla Peak"

How, you ask, can a photograph of a dry southwestern landscape contain all these kinds of apprehensions? Well, that's part of the magic of photography. 

When I visited Clift at his studio in Santa Fe, he showed me just a couple of his prints. But he insisted that I look at them long enough to absorb the detail and decisions that went into the printing process. "This one," he told me, "took me three months to get just the right tone along that canyon rock shelf." Painstaking repetition, incremental adjustments, living with the negative, and its possible versions, day after day, week after week, until the living precipitate, the essence of the conception, came clear.     

"Factory Butte"

That kind of dedication requires infinite patience, as well as a refusal to settle for shortcuts or "accidental" successes. Life may grant you the rare opportunity--some photographers bet the farm on these, improbably rare though they may be, but Clift comes from the older school of craftsmen, who believe in the difficult truth of concentration, effort, isolation, mythic power. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ian Hamilton's LITTLE SPARTA - The First True Post-Modern Landscape Garden

Minimalism - Part III

I had, of course, been familiar with the poetry of Ian Hamilton Finlay, prior to traveling to Scotland in 2005, as a part of our trip to the British Isles that year. The Dancers Inherit the Party [1960] had been available for some years, and the occasional whimsical "concrete poem" of his would turn up in periodicals in the 1960's and 1970's. Nevertheless, awareness of the full range of Finlay's work in America has lagged far behind his reputation on the Continent. I'm not quite sure why this should be. It may have something to do with the apprehension that he's just a minor poet who got sidetracked into sculpture and minimalism. 

Finlay's graphic work has dimensions which go far beyond the concept of the page, the book, and the broadside. His preoccupations include an interest in classical architecture (and garden design), glyphs, symbolic sculpture, collage. His work has affinities to Schwitters, Moholy-Nagy, John Soane, Russian Constructivism, as well as a host of other influences. My wife and I planned to visit Finlay's garden, Little Sparta, at the suggestion of George Albon, a poet living in San Francisco. He'd seen it a year or two earlier, and thought it worth taking a detour to experience. Little Sparta is about 30 miles south of Edinburgh in farming country. The narrow roads take you through rolling green hills, stone buildings. The property is a converted farm house at the edge of a hill. Finlay purchased the property as a residence, and set about developing the open land surrounding it as a continous project: A post-Modern landscape garden, complete with pathways, sculptures, bridges, and unusual plants. The construction is economical, though not claustrophobic. It's designed to take you through a series of views and discoveries--there are inscriptions on stones at your feet, on urns, on the sides of walls, buildings, etc. Many have classical references, or are direct quotations in languages other than English (such as Latin). There are fragments of architectural detail. Finlay was interested in nautical themes, as well as Nazi iconography, toy boats, the French Revolution (its spirit and literature). All of this is evident in the thematic content of the garden.         

When we visited Little Sparta, Finlay was gracious enough to meet with us over tea, and to talk a little about the place. He seemed rather thin--as would later become apparent he was suffering from the cancer that would take his life just a few months later. He was very modest, and joked about offering to let me "wet my [fishing] line" in his pond out back if I ever had the opportunity to make a return visit. The photo below looks out from just inside the entry gate to the property, which, since his death, is being turned into a trust estate for perpetual use by the public. Finlay's interest in visual poetry eventually led him to produce limited issue post-card and decorative small broadside runs, the sale of which helped support his garden expansions. Over time, he was less interested in writing "poems" than in leaving permanent physical artifacts/illustrations of his ideas. This tendency is unusual, taken to this scale. Towards the end of his career, Finlay was engaged by a number of clients to design garden spaces--many of them in France and other Western European settings. The full range of his ideas can't be easily summarized without a full documentation of these far-flung projects. The book Works in Europe 1972-1995, is a good place to start (lots of good color photos).           

For those wishing to visit the garden, a phone-call a few days in advance is recommended. The hours are fairly flexible, I believe, but you can't simply show up unannounced. It can be seen as a sort of self-guided tour, since the space isn't really very large. 

The question remains, which I've not really addressed:  What is it about Little Sparta that makes it "post-Modern"? One would have to include the ambiguous, contradictory symbolism of imagery and words. The garden isn't meant simply as a beautiful place to sit in, or have a picnic in, though that would certainly be possible. Second, it's designed to make you think about ideas in history, not simply as memorials of the grateful dead, or as empty mottos of cliche philosphical homily. Third, its economy of means, a kind of intersection of competing concepts of vista, enclosure, termination and continuity, maze and gameboard. In the garden, you are, in a sense, at the mercy of a slightly mischievous dilettante, who is throwing you curves at every turn. His garden is a giant oxymoron, leveraged with audacious whimsicality. A kind of improbable masterpiece set amongst the remote countryside of Southern Scotland, an eccentric's diversion, an anachronism for the curious. I hope to revisit it one day.  

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Flyfishing & Me (One of my Three F's)

Here's a picture of me proudly holding an impressive Brown Trout I've just caught on a fly on the Owyhee River in Eastern Oregon last year. My friend Keith took the picture, and within seconds of this snap, I'm returning this noble beast to the water whence he came. I forget which fly I took him on, but it was undoubtedly smaller than a size 16 hook, which meant that the leader was probably a 5x tippet, and the effort to land him was a dialectic with jeopardy. But what redblooded flyfisherman would have it otherwise?

I didn't come by my interest in flyfishing in quite the usual way. My stepfather, Harry Faville, had grown up in Wisconsin. After his first marriage ended in shambles in the early 1930's, he wandered about disconsolately, working at various jobs, never staying long in one place. He bought an old black jalopy and drove West over dirt roads through Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon, stopping sporadically along the way to fish and acquaint himself with the local flora. Years later, when I was a young boy, he would tell stories of his exploits on the Yellowstone River, the Madison, the Missouri. In these years before the Second World War, fishing in the Rocky Mountains was a real adventure. Roads were poor, settlements were sparse, the country was untamed. Camping and nature-going hadn't become the national pastime it is today. There were no limits on fishing, and streams were loaded with wild trout, and the fishing pressure was almost nil. Hiking off road for an hour would put you on water that hardly ever saw a fisherman. 20" fish were common, and 30" fish not unheard of. Flyfishing as a sport, as a science, was still relatively in its infancy. Methodical streamside entomology, and ecological knowledge about fish habits and conservation were decades away. 

Unfortunately, Harry had kind of given up serious fishing by the time I was a young boy, circa early 1960's. He talked about old split-bamboo flyrods, and casting, and tying flies. But we hardly did any fishing. Except for a couple of trips to back-country lakes, I had almost no experience of fishing. After I went away to college, I forgot about these memories, and Harry died in 1973 in an automobile accident near Dillon, Montana. 

In 1976 I began reading some of the literature of flyfishing. I soon discovered the work of Roderick Haig-Brown, the dean of fishing writers. Also Robert Traver, who was also a popular fiction writer (Anatomy of a Murder, etc.), who wrote about Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Haig-Brown, a Brit who'd emigrated to British Columbia in the 1930's, had established himself as a competent back-woodsman and naturalist, and eventually published dozens of books of fiction and non-fiction, most of it devoted to fishing and natural resource issues in his adopted Canada. I credit him particularly with reawakening my sense of interest in fishing.  

In 1976, my wife and son and I packed up our gear in a rented Ford Van and drove up to Southwestern Montana, and Yellowstone Park for a month-long exploration of flyfishing country. I took with me a brand-new Gary Howells bamboo fly-rod, and other assorted paraphernalia. We drove up into the headwaters of the Big Hole River, and camped beside a pretty lake. There were Cutthroat Trout, Brookies and even a few Grayling, a trout-related species which only survives, outside of Alaska, in the lower 48 in a few high-country alpine waters. I'd camped before, as a boy, but had never seriously fished. I knew almost nothing about technique, but gamely went about wading and casting in the pristine landscape of Montana and Wyoming. With a few lucky casts, and beginners' luck, I managed to land a few beautiful small to medium sized Rainbows. Brook Trout were easier, but they fought just as hard. One day on the Madison above the Varney Bridge, I hooked too powerful Brown Trout in succession, each of whom fought me to a draw, breaking off in swift rapids after 75 seconds of blood-curdling action. 

In the years that followed, we went back again and again, and I tried other places. Hat Creek, Fall River, Hot Creek, Silver Creek in Idaho, The San Juan in Northern New Mexico, the Madison. I was definitely hooked.  

A few years ago, I met a fellow locally who shared my love of the sport. Keith now lives in Sun Valley, near the Big Wood River, and not far from Silver Creek, the stream made famous first by Ernest Hemingway (in the days when he lived nearby), and later his son Jack. The Nature Conservancy purchased most of the best water at Silver for preservation and public access.       

This is a picture of Silver Creek on a sunny day--I think from up near the old fisherman's cabin overlooking the upper portion of the Nature Preserve. The landscape looks a little barren; there are wheatfields in this wide, flat valley, and sagebrush, and other kinds of dry-country vegetation. The ecology is "alert"--and the fish are wary. Beautiful Rainbows, requiring size 18, or 20 or 22 (hooks as small as an pencil eraser), deftly tied to resemble minute aquatic insects, and "leader" (filament tippet) as fine as a human hair. Perfect casts, with no drag (the "drift" of the line as the current pulls it back and forth between you and the fly (lure). It's tough!

I know of no feeling quite as exhilarating as a fish striking a floating fly. Animals which hunt develop a kind of unpredictability. If you've ever watched a cat never know--and I'm not sure the animal itself really knows--when the moment of the "strike" will come--it's impossible to predict. Suddenly you're at one end of a pulling contest. The fish is in its element, but you're not. As you might expect, fish usually go "nuts" when they're hooked. They dash about wildly, or turn tail and race in the opposite direction. Sometimes (Rainbows) they jump right out of the water to throw the hook. 

Flyfishing, at its best, is a dialogue between fineness of deception, and strength of materials. In order to fool a larger fish--who's survived by having avoided being caught and killed through several seasons--you have to present a reasonable imitation of what it's eating (an insect hatching at that particular hour of the day), and you have to make it seem as if this lure is behaving in a way the "natural" insect does on the surface of the water. This requires finesse, and very delicate material. However, once hooked, a larger fish is not only several times heavier (and able to "throw his weight around") but smarter. So here you are hooked on to a big bruiser, but in order to fool him, you had to use the merest wisp of nylon synthetic, and now you're trying (praying is a better word) to avoid pulling too hard on him lest he break the line and escape. 

Flyfishing has evolved into a pure sport. That is, most true flyfishermen understand that in order to preserve the resource for all, it's necessary not to kill the fish you hunt. This means that most flyfishing involves so-called catch-and-release, the deliberate returning of the caught (landed) fish to the water, employing a resuscitating technique in which the fish is held under the surface, long enough to revive itself (after its life-or-death struggle), and swim away, to live and eat and breed and maybe be caught again on another day by another fisherman.

Now that my co-editing job on the Eigner Project is substantially complete, I may be able to escape to Idaho for a little time on the water. I can't wait!     

Controlling the Debate on Illegal Immigration

Controlling the terms of argument is paramount for any partisan advocate in public debate.

For decades, America's position, with respect to its immigration policies with our neighbor Mexico, was dictated by pragmatism, and tacit neglect. Our agricultural economy in the border states depended to a significant degree on so-called "stoop labor"--among the most grueling kinds of work there is--which the Mexican peasantry class was more than willing to perform, for what in America was "dirt cheap" piece-work wages. It wasn't possible to live decently in the States on income from farm labor, so these nomadic "seasonal" laborers (frequently in family groups) went back to Mexico when there was no work on the farms. It was a loose arrangement, and no one--the farmers, the Mexicans, or the rest of the population--worried too much about it. A few scofflaws melted into the domestic economy, but the numbers were small.

All that changed over the last 25 years. Federal census figures show that the number of illegal immigrants coming into and staying in the United States has been on a steep steady rise over the last three decades. Estimates of the current illegal population (comprised primarily of Mexicans and certain other Central and South American groups), put the current number somewhere between 14 and 30 million. 

In the 1960's, political advocacy "on behalf of" illegals began to lobby for improvements in work conditions, and liberalization of immigration procedures and policies governing seasonal workers. In the intervening years, however, the situation has dramatically changed. What was once a seasonal phenomenon has grown into a surge. Instead of being limited to agriculture, illegal foreigners have moved into the general economy, taking jobs in the hotel and motel industries, the building trades, factories, transportation and shipping, and the general retail businesses. This employment pressure has been driven by poverty and neglect in Mexico and other poor countries. 

As the problem has grown, and the number of illegals arriving and staying has mushroomed, the debate over how to define the problem has sharpened. Advocates of lax immigration policy have attempted to frame the debate in terms of "racism" or "ethnic prejudice." They have tried to make it seem that any attempt to control borders, enforce legal residency and work status in America is motivated by a generalized racial hatred of Latinos (the general "ethnic" catchword for all Hispanic nationals) and their culture. All attempts to address the problems created by mass illegal immigration are met with organized propaganda on behalf of Latino Rights organizations. 

In the the general media, "sympathy" for this position has become politically correct. "Multi-cultural diversity"--the new phrase meant to represent the American melting pot--dictates that we all come from different places, different cultures, and that the classic American policy should always be tolerance in the face of "difference." 

But there are limits to how much tolerance any nation can afford. America has immigration policies, which are based on estimates of how many people the economy and infrastructure can reasonably absorb. Almost everyone is in agreement that excess (illegal) immigration has swelled well past the logical limits anyone might consider to be acceptable. 

Public opinion polls consistently show that the vast majority of American citizens want stricter enforcement of our immigration policies, and better control of our borders. But anyone raising the spectre of actual enforcement is immediately labeled as racist and white supremacist. 

In the news today, San Francisco District Attorney, who is running for State Attorney General, was exposed for allowing illegal immigrant drug criminals to expunge their criminal convictions and go scot free on her watch. The City of San Francisco has set itself up as a "sanctuary city," presumably allowing illegals to reside free of interference, and refusing to cooperate with Federal agencies attempting to enforce immigration law and policy. 

In the present atmosphere of strained state and federal budgets, it's difficult to make reasonable arguments about our ability to continue to tolerate the costs and inconveniences which illegals place on our economy, infrasture, and governmental departments. And yet this is what we keep hearing. Like the little puppy stuck in the sewer pipe, we hear about midnight raids on innocent little Latino families, screaming babies and distraught relatives, haggard ragtag groups dying along the desert border desperately seeking "the American dream", fruit-pickers living in shacks, etc. 

These images are designed to elicit sympathy and to frame the discussion in terms of needy poor who deserve only sympathy and help, who have been victimized by unfair regulation. 

Rather than seeking to address the root causes of this social distress, advocates of illegal immigration prefer us to think only of "solutions." Their solutions include open borders, no national immigration quotas, unqualified amnesty, quick paths to citizenship, multi-lingual schools and institutions, free medical, legal and social welfare benefits, and relaxation of all restriction upon trade, employment and residency. 

Instituting these "solutions" would result in what has been referred to as the "re-Mexicanization" of the American Southwest. California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, Utah and Colorado would be overrun within a decade. Los Angeles would become a new Mexico City. Sprawling tracts of shack and tent cities, millions of poor, uneducated, unhealthy streaming northwards to escape the deprivations of their homeland. 

All this of course would play directly into the corrupt hands of the Mexican government, which is delighted to have its excess poor leave. It would like nothing more than to have America take on this unwanted burden.

So it goes. America is the land of opportunity, the land of dreams where all who are hungry, unemployed, politically forsaken, must come. Woe be to him who would challenge the new "diaspora."

We're all racists. Or at least that's what the media calls us. 

The immigrant lobby has succeeded admirably in framing the debate by demonizing their opponents as racist. 

Are you a racist? Is it racist to want to control immigration? Would it matter to you if illegals were Irish, or Chinese, or African, or Australian? 

If someone suggested that America immediately absorb 30 million African nationals, would you reject this notion on racist grounds? 

If someone suggested that we immediately import 30 million Filipino immigrants, how would you defend your right to deny them?  

Are you a racist?     

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Summer Is Coming - New Cocktail "Moon Over Key West"

Summer begins today! 

The usual spoiler alert applies--all those who do not partake or have "issues" with alcohol are warned not to read further. It's the devil's work!

In order of ingredients, here is the recipe for a terrific cocktail for those hot days when you've just walked in from the garden, or from that quick set on the tennis-court.

The Moon Over Key West

1 1/2 Parts Gin
1 1/2 Parts Key Lime Liqueur
1/2 Part Mandarin Liqueur
Juice of 1/4  lime
Juice of 1/4 lemon

Shaken hard and served up.  

Beautiful pale green color, it's better than a lazy hammock under a yum-yum tree. Transport to Summer (courtesy of Wallace Stevens).


Thursday, June 18, 2009

James Salter - An American Master

When I first discovered James Salter, no one I knew had ever heard of him. A Sport and a Pastime was an improbable novel, a sort of quasi-French New Wave erotic fantasy narrative, clearly the work of a sophisticated writer, but where had he come from, and what else had he done?
I found the book, if I recall correctly, in a drugstore, on one of those revolving pocketbook display racks. Obviously, the publisher (Bantam Books) had decided to market it as a pornographic book, as the cover was unashamedly suggestive.

The prose was immaculate, impressionistic, deftly seductive. It struck me as reminiscent of European (say, French) cinema. Quiet, moody pans across landscape, surfaces, textures, feelings--very European in that way. And the sex was as seen through the glass of a vicarious American, though very wise and even cynical. The narrative voice obviously gloried in life, like a hedonist, but with a jaded edge. Maybe de Sade through the eyes of Flaubert. 

It was the first book that made me really want to see France, not as a tourist, but from the inside out. Indeed, the book seemed a paean to the Gallic spirit. It's like the intricate daydream of an older man, speculating about a fantasy-affair with a French girl. The narrative device places us simultaneously inside an omniscient viewpoint but shifts occasionally to a position of a friend, reporting events second-hand. This minor ambiguity is handled very shrewdly, as if we were being made to feel slightly embarrassed at our own curiosity. Yet it isn't curiosity that drives the story, but fascination.           

The first time I heard Salter read was in 1988, when his collection of stories, Dusk and Other Stories, was published. Salter has a subtly "down-east" accent, and he's a brilliant reader. Off the cuff, he's hesitant and uncertain, but when he reads, he's really in his element. I was already a fan of Salter's by this time, but I hadn't read the story he read that night, "American Express." It's a masterpiece of cruel ironies, brilliant quick portraits of people, places, awash in a kind of nostalgic regret, a perfect portrait of the selfish lawyer class of Eastern privilege and presumption. You don't have to like Salter's characters to love how he evokes them--the elegant procession of human frailties he puts before you.   

Salter's earlier life is documented in part by his own memoir, Burning the Days [1997]. He fulfilled his Father's wish that he go to West Point. Eventually becoming a pilot in the Air Force, he stayed in for 12 years, serving in Korea as a fighter pilot. He had already been trying to write a novel about his service experience, and The Hunters [1957] was a straightforward story about American Air Force pilots during the Korean War. It was made into a movie which starred Robert Mitchum, Robert Wagner and Richard Egan. Though only a modest success, it appears to have led directly to Salter's decision to leave the service and try writing full-time, as well as a decade-long stint as a screenwriter. The years between his second novel, The Arm of Flesh [1961] (another service novel), and the early 1970's, were intermittently devoted to screen-work, notably resulting in the script for Downhill Racer [1969], a Robert Redford vehicle. Salter invariably makes a point of emphasizing the decisiveness of his choice to leave the movie industry; though it clearly permitted him a viable living during years when his literary career was just an underground rumor. 

Salter has always been physically active. An amateur mountain climber, and a skier, his sojourns in the Alps led to his inspiration to write Solo Faces [1979], the story of an obsessed American climber. Its description of the life of small Swiss alpine villages, and the hair-raising physical and sensory impressions of being on the rock are the work of a poet.                     

Light Years [1975] is a sad, majestic ode to a failing marriage. Set in upstate New York, along the Hudson, it documents a social milieu which is undoubtedly familiar to the author. Filled with evanescent description, a muted landscape of light and shadow, it's like a symphonic journey through a series of disappointments, as the inexorable downward descent from passion to fatigue to boredom to bitterness progresses to its logical denouement.   

Salter, who is now 84, recently collaborated with his wife Kay Eldrege on a gastonomic daybook, Life is Meals [2006]. As one might deduce from the texture of his fiction, Salter is a bon vivant, a lover of food and fine wines, who relishes the perfect dish at the perfect moment, almost a Proustian indulgence. He divides his time between Vail, Colorado, and Long Island, with frequent trips to Europe. One imagines that his table talk might be as entertaining as his fiction, a suspicion supported by his forays into the non-fictional essay (There and Then: The Travel Writing of James Salter, 2005). 

Rumor has it that Salter is closing in on completion of a new novel, which I believe is to be a "comedy." If so, it's likely to be a new departure. Salter is a master of dialogue. I for one can't wait for it to appear. 

Maybe someday I'll get on a plane and discover that my seat companion is Salter himself. That's my little fantasy.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Loos, Wittgenstein & The Crisis of Modern Architecture

Which is the greatest of all the arts?  

Architects will usually answer "Architecture!"--and they're probably right.  Architecture combines all the other media--painting, music, literature, dance, sculpture, and applies the disciplines of mathematics and geometry and engineering to propose spatial demonstrations of human habitation, except for the things we do "outside"--though, even there, landscape architecture and biology and geology and astronomy all have something to tell us about the purposes and possibilities of our being and occupying space, in whatever setting.  

I have been fascinated by architecture all my life. My father was an architect. John Calef grew up in rural Wisconsin--New London--not very far from Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesen East in Spring Green, Wisconsin. He excelled in math and the sciences as a boy, and determined upon a career in design at an early age. The War intervened, but eventually he made his way into the profession, and practiced for approximately 25 years before taking a job with the National Park Service in Colorado. I didn't get to know him until I became an adult--I was raised by a Stepfather--but I naturally found my interest independently. Eventually, I  got a Master's degree in Landscape Architecture, which I ended up not using. But I've always had an intense interest in the historical and theoretical side of architectural design. 

Purely theoretical design would seem to be at odds with the practical function of living spaces for daily existence. Architects have been designing "imaginary" houses for thousands of years, houses (and spaces and rooms) which challenge the concepts of practical occupancy. A tent is architecture. So is a sandbox. A bee-hive is architecture, albeit for bees! A boat is architecture. A plane is architecture. Anything that people (or animals!) inhabit for any length of time is a built structure designed for convenience, or to fulfill a function. 

The debate between purity of conception, and utility, has been going on for thousands of years. It's possible to live in a lean-to, with a crude cot, a fire hole in the ground, or even in a cave. With the coming of "permanent" settlement--as opposed to nomadic hunting and gathering--mankind faced the question of what kind of structures he would occupy over time. The first question was materials: What kind of structures can you build from grass, from wood, from stone? How long should they last? How big should they be? Should they accommodate small groups, or larger masses of people? And how about domestic animals? 

As mankind developed knowledge based on forces and structure--i.e., mathematics and physics--it began to be preoccupied with the idea of purely synthetic formal designs. That is, structures whose purpose is the expression of some principle or conception beyond the quotidian. 

All questions derived from nature, or human use, are, by implication or direct adoption, aesthetic. Which is to say, even when the names we may give to these questions is necessity or accident, they are still meanings we give to them by choice or selection. 

Theoretical design is the application of one or more principles of structure or material or light, proposed in advance of the secondary priorities of use and function.  Load-bearing members were early on recognized as a firm requirement of all structures on earth. But the shape and the design of these members followed an historical development through time, which came to have aesthetic categories: The classical orders of Doric, Ionic, Corinthian. Such aesthetic distinctions revealed a "decorative" persuasion; Each was a pillar, free-standing and distinct. Obviously, though, there is no necessity for everyone to live in a stone structure supported by pillars of Ionic capitals! 

The difference between "naked structure" as opposed to "decorated structure" is a hotly debated topic in the 19th and 20th Centuries, and continues today. In the 20th Century, new revolutionary ideas about "ideal" structure were proposed by Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Wright, Gropius, and a host of others. In Austria, the representative pre-Modernist figure of consequence was Adolph Loos. Loos is a fascinating figure. Almost alone in the earliest years of the 20th Century, he suggested an architecture of pristine clarity and simplicity, stripping away the decorative gingerbread and classical filigree of traditional styles, common--in their various manifestations--since the time of Classical Greece. In "Ornament and Crime" written in 1908, he denounced the florid style of the Vienna Secession, the Austrian version of Art Nouveau. 

Despite this--and, in common with other Modernist advocates of "clean design" (which came to be called the International Style), Loos was a closet hedonist, who loved the elegant, stylish textures of granite, marble, polished hardwoods, sleek surfaces, and sophisticated refinement. In fact, if you look at the canonical projects of the major Modernist architects, you almost always discover a preference for expensive materials, richness, and tactile indulgence.                         

Loos's designs display the hallmark characteristics of high Modernism:  Flat roofs, understated trim, unadorned window sashes, boxy rectilinear volumes, sharp edges, open planning facilitated with thin steel supports and trusses, lightness, flat unelaborated surfaces. 

Loos - Steiner House [1910]

There are a thousand things to say about Loos--his life was in many ways a sturm und drang of ups and downs--as well as his projects. But the link I'm using here is to, somewhat improbably, Ludwig Wittgenstein, the fashionable philosopher of logical positivism, the master of ontology, epistemology, and language itself. I say fashionable because Wittgenstein has been the darling of the post-Modern world's writers and artists, just as Henri Bergson was the hero of the Modernist Age. Wittgenstein's novel approach to philosophical inquiry was the sequential notation, numbering his points like a series of mathematical postulates, building from first a priori principles to grander systems of deduction and synthesis. For Wittgenstein, reason reigned supreme, if only we could be certain what we might actually mean by reason. Suffice it to say that for Wittgenstein, the quest for certainty devolved from an examination of the cracks in the edifice of language itself. By systematically exposing, or "worrying", the categorical distinctions of the presumptions behind grammar, and words, and commonly held concepts of perception and nomenclature, he was able to reveal the enigmas and contradictions behind everyday illusion, the illusions by which we live! Wittgenstein was an eccentric. He tinkered with machines (inventions), and imagined "labor-saving" devices that might make things simpler, and less cluttered. 

The same tendency one sees in an artist like Loos, fascinated (or obsessed) by "honesty" in "naked" design (form), is expressed in the work of a thinker like Wittgenstein, who dreamed of an ideal life-style, without pretense, without superfluous accoutrements, without fuss or irrational contradiction.            

Wittgenstein House [1926-28]

Wittgenstein decided that he could--with a little help--design a house that might express in plastic space the ideas he had about a perfectly rational way of living. Given the context of the avant garde atmosphere of the time--as exemplified by Loos's elegantly simple commissions--it's no wonder that Wittgenstein's conceptions of the ideal urban villa for a serious artist-philosopher, bore a strikingly vivid resemblance to several of Loos's residential designs. 

Wittgenstein imagined a house in which every square inch of the space was based on a rational foundation of balance, simplicity, and clarity. Rationalistic concepts of design weren't new when Wittgenstein meditated his design. Palladio had designed a series of villas in Northern Italy in the 16th Century, based on the application of classical principles. Rather than adapting design to the "needs" and "preferences" of the occupants, the overall plan and execution was based on formal ideas about balance and proportion and visual impressions. The notion was that "timeless" ideas of pure beauty and mathematical precision were the best expression of human habitation--if you weren't "comfortable" in a Palladian Villa, then maybe you didn't belong there!

Not only are architects a bit pompous about their importance in the design landscape, they also tend to be jealous of their craft. Upstart clients believing they know how to design a house on their own!--what overweening cheek! But Wittgenstein was audacious, if nothing else. Like some people of genius, he believed that if you thought about something enough, you would begin to see relationships, and solve problems. Here is a long quotation from a review of an exhibition about the house at the Royal Academy of Art in London in 2002, which appeared in the Guardian:

"The Wittgenstein House was very Viennese - its absence of decoration came from a conviction that Austrian ornament had become as unhealthy as Viennese sachertorte cake. Fin de si├Ęcle Vienna was a city of aesthetic and moral decay and, at the same time, of creatively frenetic reaction against that decadence: Schoenberg's atonal music insisted that everything that could be expressed had been expressed by tonal music; Loos's architecture railed against decoration; Freud argued that unconscious forces seethed below a purportedly ordered and elegant society. Established values were being turned upside-down in Vienna. According to Karl Kraus, Vienna was a "research laboratory for world destruction".

The Wittgenstein House was a laboratory for living. For some, though, it was an experiment that didn't work. Wittgenstein's sister, Hermine, wrote: "Even though I admired the house very much, I always knew that I neither wanted to, nor could, live in it myself. It seemed indeed to be much more a dwelling for the gods than for a small mortal like me, and at first I even had to overcome a faint inner opposition to this 'house embodied logic' as I called it, to this perfection and monumentality."

It was just as well, then, that Hermine didn't live there. But Wittgenstein's other sister, Gretl, did - both before and after the Nazi Anschluss - and apparently found it fitted her austere temperament perfectly. She and Viennese architect Paul Engelmann had invited Ludwig to collaborate with Engelmann on the design of her new house. Gretl did not issue the invitation lightly: she was no philistine and indeed, like the rest of the Wittgenstein family, was immersed in the world of arts (when she married in 1905, for instance, Gustav Klimt painted her portrait; Ravel wrote Concerto for the Left Hand for her brother Paul, a great pianist who lost an arm during the first world war).

At the time of the commission, Wittgenstein was at one of the many fraught transitional stages that pitted his life. He was fighting against depression and struggling to find a vocation worthy of his genius. He had abandoned philo-sophy in 1918, believing (wrongly) that he had solved all its problems with his Tractatus Logico- Philosophicus, whose ideas he had developed while serving as a soldier and later as a prisoner of war.

After the first world war, Wittgenstein had rid himself of his vast inherited fortune (his father had been a wealthy Viennese industrialist), sharing it among his brother and sisters. And, while philosophers around the world were realising that the Tractatus was the work of a genius, Wittgenstein became a primary school teacher in Trattenbach, in remote rural Austria. But after a classroom incident (the highly-strung Wittgenstein hit a pupil so hard the boy passed out), he quit. In despair, he contemplated becoming a monk - but instead took up gardening at a monastery.

But it couldn't last. There had to be some outlet for his visionary spirit. So the commission to work on his sister's house came at an opportune moment.

We can best understand Wittgenstein's architecture by seeing it as an extrapolation from the Tractatus. There Wittgenstein wrote that his philosophy was disposable: "My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognises them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder after he climbed up on it)...Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

For Wittgenstein, it was precisely the most important things - God, ethics, aesthetics - that could not be put into words. They could not be said, only shown. Wilson writes: "It was as if Wittgenstein's first attempt to deal with his predicament after the ladder had been thrown away was instinctively to make things (architecture, sculpture, photography) whose essence is that they cannot be 'said' but must be 'shown'."

The philosopher's work on the house focused on the design of windows, doors, window-locks and radiators. "This is not so marginal as it may at first appear, for it is precisely these details that lend what is otherwise a rather plain, even ugly house its distinctive beauty."

Wittgenstein spent much time on these details. He took a year to design the door handles, and another year to design the radiators. Instead of curtains, each window was shaded by metal screens each weighing about 150kg, but easily moved by a pulley system designed by Wittgenstein. Bernhard Leitner, author of The Architecture of Ludwig Wittgenstein, hailed this "aesthetic of weightlessness": "There is barely anything comparable in the history of interior design. It is as ingenious as it is expensive. A metal curtain that could be lowered into the floor."

When the house was nearly complete, he insisted that a ceiling be raised 30mm so that the proportions he wanted (3:1, 3:2, 2:1) were perfectly executed. "Tell me," asked a locksmith, "does a millimetre here or there really matter to you?" "Yes!" roared Wittgenstein."

The imposition of capricious principles of design--derived from mathematics, or philosophy, or biology, has become increasingly popular over the last 50 years. So-called "organic" theories of design, in which structures resemble octopi or snails, has a diligent following. Bucky Fuller had his dome. Philip Johnson his glass house. Robert Venturi posited a theory of architecture based on "complexity and contradiction"--seeing in asymmetry or disjunction evidence of higher syntheses of meaning than mere classical composure. Christopher Alexander, in a life-long quest for a field theory of universal application, eventually opted for an empirical enumeration of "patterns"--gathered together to make a sort of ultimate source-book of ideal forms. 

Wittgenstein's house is an austere box whose perfection is not related to any individual life or landscape. It exists, discrete and eternal, in the middle of the most architecturally "decadent" city on earth (Vienna). Like other "ideal" structures, it seems best suited as an illustration of a conceptually pure expression of an ordered life, from which distraction, vanity, human indulgence has been extracted. Elaborated into larger versions, it could serve as the basis for a prison, or a sterile hospital wing, as, indeed, has been done in countless instances throughout the latter two-thirds of the 20th Century. The reaction against the radical purity of the International Style was well underway by the 1960's. Somewhat improbably, this reaction actually took the form of an extension of the very ideas which had formed the basis of the movement almost a century before.             

Peter Eisenman - House VI [1972]

One of the chief voices among a wave of "rationalist" architects in the last 30 years has been Peter Eisenman. Labeled "deconstructivist" by some critics, under the influence of such European thinkers as Colin Rowe, Manfredo Tafuri, and Jacques Derrida, he has explored the limits of meaning in structural design, attempting to free architecture from the confinements of limited applicability (such as utility!). In fact, Eisenman has even admitted that his structures aren't intended to make people feel comfortable; indeed, why would anyone necessarily believe that the design of a structure should enhance their preconceived notions of the fitness of shape and appropriateness of relationships between masses and spaces, planes and edges? 

When we came to design our own house in 1991, I played with a number of these post-Modern design ideas, in working together with the firm which executed the plans. "Turning its back on the street" was one such idea; "ignoring the view" was another. The privilege to build a house--to one's own specifications--is an exercise which provides a unique insight into one's intellectual condition. 

When I was an undergraduate at Berkeley in the 1960's, a contemporary of mine who was majoring in architecture--a very idealistic fellow (a common affliction among young architecture students!)--declared that he couldn't imagine how anyone could design a building that would not, at least in the conceptual sense, not be intended to last forever. How could you design a building which you'd know would only exist for a year, or five years, only to be demolished, to make way for later developments? That was an expression of the principle of immortality, of timelessness. 

Structures may exist only in the mind, unexecuted, only imagined, never built. I've often thought that Oldenburg's ideas are wonderful, but I wish people wouldn't actually build them. Thinking about a giant wooden clothespin along a waterfront development is a funny idea, but actually to have such a giant model sitting there, fifty feet high, for decades--well, that's not such a funny idea at all.