The Meaning is the Question

[O]ne might refer without irony to man’s superior irrationality. Certainly human development exhibits a chronic disposition to error, mischief, disordered fantasy, hallucination, ‘original sin,’ and even socially organized and sanctified misbehavior, such as the practice of human sacrifice and legalized torture.
Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine (11)

IMG_5866

I love that excerpt from Lewis Mumford’s Myth of the Machine because it appeals to our myopic sense of superiority and then makes plain that, truly, it is our irrationality with which we maintain a clear lead. As I always say, if you’re not laughing—it’s just fucking depressing. I am not suggesting that Mumford’s book is a laugh-riot, only that he does have a certain level of wryness which he employs to point out many ridiculous qualities of the culturally induced assumptions that we seem to hold dear about ourselves.

For man to feel belittled, as so many now do, by the vastness of the universe or the interminable corridors of time is precisely like his being frightened by his own shadow (33).

Why? Because “time,” as we understand it, is a human construction—the vast universe cares nothing about the particular matrix we use to describe time. But this misunderstanding of how we see ourselves in relation to all else is at the heart of Mumford’s thesis. The myth is that human beings are foremost toolmakers, and machine makers—that our tools describe us better than any other measure, and therefore our tools are our only means of progress.

In short, if technical proficiency alone were sufficient to identify and foster intelligence, man was for long a laggard, compared with many other species. The consequences of this perception should be plain: namely, there was nothing uniquely human in tool-making until it was modified by linguistic symbols, esthetic designs, and socially transmitted knowledge (5).

We are so inured in the idea that our tools have been the formative objects of our human development we can hardly see that tools are merely the formative objects our our human history. It’s simply the story as we tell it. Just think of how we define the ages: the stone age, bronze age and, iron age without ever taking into account the more ephemeral aspects of our history—the greatest of which must be language. And what of our imaginative minds? our playful (and ernest)curiosity? which are elements without which we can not even begin to explain ourselves.

[F]or ninety-five percent of man’s existence, as Forde points out, man was dependent upon food-gathering for his daily nourishment. Under these conditions his exceptional curiosity, his ingenuity, his facility in learning, his retentive memory, were put to work and tested. Constantly picking and choosing, identifying, sampling, and exploring, watching over his young and caring for his own kind—all this did more to develop human intelligence than any intermittent chipping of tools could have done (101).

This book was first published in 1967, and so there were times when I felt it was, of course, dated—there seems to me much more consensus on these ideas by this point in time. But it is still well worth the read because what Mumford does is alter the reader’s perspective, and then shows other possible explanations for rituals, social organization, and onto the “magamachines” (his term) which are “composed solely of human parts.” Meaning our long history of kingships, priesthoods and bureaucracies that make these human machines (slavery, feudalism, serfdom, slave minimum-wages, debt-based societies) a necessity for their own existence: “forced poverty made possible forced labor” (206). The ritualization and moralization of work have long held sway and are forces that, in many ways, describes capitalism.

In sum, where capitalism prospered, it established three main canons for successful economic enterprise: the calculation of quantity, the observation and regimentation of time (‘Time is Money’), and the concentration on abstract pecuniary rewards. Its ultimate values—Power, Profit, Prestige—derive from these sources and all of them can be traced back, under the flimsiest of disguises, to the Pyramid Age (279).

What happens if one acknowledges that there may be something built into the power structure that gives us a propensity to view ourselves as inherently selfish and warlike beings, and that that may in fact, and very likely is, simply untrue? What is not, and never will be dated about Mumford’s work is that one must always question. Question our beliefs, question authority, question! That is our human gift.

Is intelligence alone, however purified and decontaminated, an adequate agent for doing justice to the needs and purpose of life? (288)

The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development
Lewis Mumford
London, Secker & Warburg, 1966

Giving Reality a Relief

To find  trees where there are none, or something where it shouldn’t be, such as a hat off a head in one shot but on again in the next, are, as it were, cracks in the wall through which poetry can penetrate. Those who notice such spelling mistakes are the real illiterates and cannot be moved by fantasy anyhow. Such details have no importance. 
—Jean Cocteau, Diary of a Film (50).

labelleetlabete2.jpg

Still from the filming of La Belle et La Bête.

Jean Cocteau’s book Diary of a Film is a lovely little look into the process of making a film. His diary documents the making of the 1946 film La Belle et La Bête. A friend had wanted me to read the book, so I decided I’d better see the film first. The film is fabulous. Not just fabulous as in ‘wonderful,’ but, as my desktop dictionary gives the etymology: Latin fabulosus ‘celebrated in fable,’ from fabula. It is both kinds of fabulous. The artistic conception of the sets and costumes are a wonder, and the earnestness with which the earnest tale is told is nearly flawless (there was one scene which caused an outburst of mocking laughter in me, but I didn’t mind, and in fact enjoyed, the hearty laugh).  

But for all that, I’d be mad if I forgot that bad luck has always run through  my life, and that it always has been and always will be, a sheer struggle (77).

“Bad luck” is a serious understatement. Never mind the post-war equipment problems and chronic “current” spasms (in my translation when there was a power outage it was said that they lost ‘current’—and that was pretty much daily). No—it was health issues that seriously beset Cocteau and crew. The leading man suffered boils, the leading woman—feverish illnesses, co-stars—various maladies including a fractured hip, and Cocteau…oh dear man—carbuncles, shingles, fevers, face rashes, eczema, and then this gem on page 189: “Have got jaundice. Yes, that was about all that was missing!” It’s a medical miracle they finished the project. Meanwhile:

Nuremberg trial. The two-and two-make-four’s are judging the two-and-two-make-five’s or even twenty-two (158).

Cocteau is a marvel of succinct truth and he is eminently quotable. Does the above quote not perfectly describe many of our current politician’s logic? And yet….This past summer I bought a wonderful book (it’s a rare occurance for me to actually purchase a book as I neither have room to house books nor discretionary money to spare—but, je ne regrette rien). I haven’t finished it, but this is why I bought it—I knew I would want to take my time with it. (It is in alphabetical order—I’m up to the F’s.) Written by Clive James, Cultural Amnesia is a series of essays (over one hundred) on the heros, villains, and fascinating figures of the twentieth century. Cocteau naturally rates.  And yet, while more than acknowledging Cocteau’s artistic achievements, James, as is his style, does not give Cocteau a pass regarding his questionable forbearance regarding the Nazi occupation of France.

While not exactly despicable—nobody died because of him—his behavior was not admirable (James 131).

Cocteau did not merely stay silent, he was an “air-kissing” attendee of Nazi cocktail parties. I read this essay before I saw La Belle et La Bête and, of course before reading Diary of a Film, but I had to re-read it after the two because….oh man. People are complex and flawed, I know. And—I have children! and I know enough about the Nazi’s and their ilk to know that I can’t say for sure how I would behave—those folks don’t fuck around, they don’t simply murder you! no, they will murder your son, daughter and goldfish too—and that is terrifying. We can not be in Cocteau’s mind, we can not know what aspect of his life allowed or forced his recurring attendance at these Nazi fêtes. All we can know is that we hope we would not. And we hope we will never be faced with the prospect.

I went off to R. in despair of ever finding perfection that can survive its difficulties. It’s always just beyond one’s reach. Sometimes one can almost touch it. But something is lacking (Cocteau 86).

*Title from p. 57: “In films a trick shot is often much more convincing than the real thing, and besides, it gives reality some relief.”

 

 

Philistines From the Plush Parlors

Any legend immune to rational arguments can be supposed to rest upon powerful collective desires.
Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A psychological history of the German film (117).

IMG_5602A couple of weeks ago some of my children and I went to see Star Wars. I’ll state right up front, unequivocally—I love Star Wars. Okay, maybe a little equivocation—I am only speaking of the first three, and mostly the first two that were made. Nevertheless—we were excited. The film was fine, I do not regret the price of admission (which my lovely daughter’s boyfriend paid for come to think of it, although I bought the exorbitantly priced popcorn and what not) and it went a long way to make up for the last three monstrous iterations. But never mind all that. The discomfiting thing I wish to discuss is the previews that we were subjected to.

What films reflect are not so much explicit credos as psychological dispositions—those deep layers of collective mentality which extend more or less below the dimension of consciousness (6).

There were of course many previews. The remarkable thing to me was not that they were all hyped-up action flicks—I suppose that is to be expected when one goes to see an action film—but it was the sheer redundancy of the films. We watched the first one which was based on a comic book, something to do with a superhero “civil war.” Then the next film was previewed—instead of DC Comics, this one was Marvel Comics about a superhero “civil war.” I look around in dismay—we literally just saw this preview, I hissed to my daughter— It’s the same film, right? Am I right? The next six previews were exactly the same, saving the scenery—one in ancient Greece, another Egypt, et cetera, ad nauseum. What the hell?

And permeating both the stories and the visuals, the “unseen dynamics of human relations” are more or less characteristics of the inner life of the nation from which the films emerge (7).

I began to be convinced that these films must surely suggest something about the American psyche. A deep fear, a hope for a single vigilante-like hero to save a world beset by evil. By a very interesting coincidence the next day a book that I had requested from ILL (inter-library loan) came. It had been recommended to me by a fellow blogger Howard JohnsonFrom Caligari to Hitler examines just this question in pre- and interwar Germany. And the comparisons are chilling.

Significantly, many observant Germans refused until the last moment to take Hitler seriously, and even after his rise to power considered the new regime a transitory adventure.[…] Their surrender to the Nazis was based on emotional fixations rather than on any facing of the facts (10, 11).

In the book, Kracauer takes the reader through a history of the German film which, he argues, shows the struggle and latent anxieties of the German people at that time. Film, in particular, because of its collaborative nature, has the ability to inadvertently expose the pulse of the culture. No single person’s pathology emerges, rather there is a sort of leveling out of the zeitgeist. The major difference between our time and the time Kracauer writes of is the complete excess of entertainment we now face. One can (and believe me, I normally do) easily avoid “popular” movies and TV, while still enjoying myriad film productions. This may diffuse our ability to gain insight into our particular current psyche. But— I am very confused about Donald Trump’s popularity…and I think it is worth a few moment’s thought to take him more seriously, or probe the unfathomable-ness, than any semi-intelligent person might otherwise be inclined.

All said, I am not sure whether or not I should be happy that what I sensed on the screen was as potentially ominous as I perceived, or, seriously depressed that it might in fact be so.

*title from p. 272 “The blare of military bugles sounded unremittingly, and the philistines from the plush parlors felt very elated.”

** Photo of my daughter and her Donald Trump creation made for our dear friends’ Guy Fawkes party this past fall.

 

The Nectar of Mathematics

It is better to do the right problem the wrong way than to do the wrong problem the right way.
Richard Hamming quoted, Julian Havil, Impossible: Surprising Solutions to Counterintuitive Conundrums (50)

IMG_5786

My kind of geometry: The Doughnut

I was deep into my morning walk a few weeks ago when a powerful craving for doughnuts caught up with me. But proper doughnuts require a little time and a small crowd to partake in the pleasure, so I waited until the right moment.

For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong (H.L. Mencken quoted, 82).

I find that I tend to read a math book or two every year. I’m not sure what it is in me that compels me to plow through the complex equations that I have little to no real understanding of, but I do it anyway. I like the ideas that the math symbolizes, I suppose. I take a strange pleasure in relating events in my life to mathematical equations.

A recipe is like a math equation: n( x + y) (s/t/r) + nfº = Ne (That’s n ingredients, multiplied by speed and time of rotation, plus n degrees fahrenheit, equals the nectar of mathematics: in this case: Apple-cider doughnuts.). Of course we ran into some problems.

Now that we have complex numbers properly placed and our mind receptive to lurking difficulty, we will consider what should be a simple computation for a calculator (44).

Ah yes, the lurking difficulty. Well, that is something one must always be prepared for. I had my heart set on apple cider doughnuts. My children and I were all visiting friends who had kindly procured all the necessary ingredients. I only needed 1/2 cup of apple cider (which I would reduce to 2T) and my friend wondered what to do with rest as they didn’t care for cider. I told her not to worry, my boys would take care of that. The next morning, I awoke, ready to prepare the dough when I realized our error. I neglected to tell the boys that there had been a reason, other than their enjoyment and ever-lurking thirst, for the purchase of the cider. They had made quick work of it. Good communication is important. In math, baking and life—that holds true.

Put succinctly, to increase the chances of success the team must adopt the somewhat counterintuitive strategy of being wrong together, not correct together (53).

Something strange that I love about math, as it feeds some sort of philosophical truth I seek, is that not only can there be multiple ways to reach a solution, but there are multiple solutions to a problem. It just depends on what system, matrix, or units of measurement and/or data you are using. There is not as much firm ground as we like to think. There are just abstract ideas and evolving methods of problem-solving.

Of course making apple cider doughnuts is not that complex of a problem. I solved the equation, in fact, by a simple adjustment of words. Rather than making Apple-cider Doughnuts I replaced the 2T reduced apple cider with milk and renamed the solution: Plain Doughnuts.

*title from p 128: “Certainly, [the proof] is more secure and in looking at it we can taste the nectar of mathematics…”

 

 

 

Beauty is Lurking All Around Us

When he thought about the way she laughed, as though she owned the air around her, his heart thudded inside his chest, a lonely rada.
—Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (36)

IMG_5832

I wasn’t quite expecting it to be a love story. I’m not sure why, considering that Díaz’s protagonist, Oscar, was only ever craving love. But craving love is not the same thing as a love story. Craving love, sad to say really, is not even the same as deserving love, which in the end, Oscar does. And it goes without saying that, of course, deserving love is not the same as being loved. Alas.

I didn’t expect it maybe because I was distracted by the wonderfully funny and vivid writing of Díaz. I was expecting that, having read This is How You Lose Her a few years back, but, I’m easy I guess. I’ll fall for any story, well told.

In a sense I read these books in the wrong order, but that’s okay, they both stand on their own tierra. Oscar’s story is replete with a complete footnoted history of the Dominican Republic. It’s the sort of history that is so dark it can only be told with the light hand of humor that smacks you out of complete despair every now and then. Every sad history needs a wise-ass. And too, it’s a history that seeks to give a sort of equation to the algebra of Oscar’s brief life and the people who made him. And who doesn’t love an explanation! Something that will equal something. Something to explain the cold, cruel, frustratingly loveless world¹.

So that explains it! Must be a relief. To know. Except, after the relief—there you are again. There Oscar is again—lonely, in pain. And so, Oscar’s heroisms snuck up on me. My heart burst open at its own ill-repaired seams. I don’t want anyone who hasn’t read the book to think it is not devastating—a tragedy. It is. And yet, at the very last, I was so happy for Oscar, I cried.

 

¹Following the penchant for footnotes: Novels are satisfying that way—as far as reasonable explanations of unreasonable behavior goes. The x’s, y’s and square roots of it—very neat. For myself, I have had to resort to other theories to give me some hope of a solution I have always needed to which there is no algebraic explanation that can decipher or explain the crazy: cat parasites. I refer you here, dear Reader, and here, and here by way of evidence. I might be liable to go off on a wee tangent or two if I’ve had a glass of wine and my daughter is not in hearing distance—she doesn’t want to hear another word of my research into the fascinating and terrifying (take my word for it if you like) topic of toxoplasma-gondii; hell! at least it is an explanation! And yet! and yet, (I make steady progress) the other day we were watching the documentary Grey Gardens and my daughter suddenly mused aloud in abject disbelief over the bat-shit-odd mother and deeply affected daughter, “What? happened??” I simply gave her a look. One look. “Say it and I will kill you,” she threatened. But I didn’t need to say it.

The Paper of Housewives

Women create thread; they somehow pull it out of nowhere, just as they produce babies out of nowhere. The same image is latent in our own term lifespan. Span is from the verb spin.
Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, (238).

IMG_5783

Textile from Mexico given to me by my grandmother

About a year ago I had the pleasure of attending a lecture given by Elizabeth Wayland Barber on the history of fabrics. I wrote down the title of one of the books she wrote (mostly because I loved the title—and the title’s sense of humor was very much in line with her personality which made for a wonderfully lively, fascinating, and fun lecture style). More than a year later, I finally got around to reading it.

If the productive labor of women is not to be lost to the society during childbearing years, the jobs regularly assigned to women must be carefully chosen (29).

Barber begins by working out what we are talking about when we use the term “women’s work.” She points to Judith Brown’s criteria in which women’s work must be suitable for the people that are bearing and tending to children (and there are no societies in which men take on the latter—the former being, obviously, unlikely). Therefore: “such activities have the following characteristics: they do not require rapt concentration and are relatively dull and repetitive; they are easily interruptible and easily resumed once interrupted; they do not place the child in potential danger; and they do not require the participant to range very far from home” (30). Spinning, weaving and sewing all fit nicely into this criteria.

Cloth survives poorly in most of Europe, subject to the destructive effects of alternating wet and dry weather; yet our surviving textiles from Neolithic are astonishingly ornate. Clearly these Neolithic women were investing large amounts of extra time into their textile work, far beyond pure utility, far beyond our concept of “subsistence level” (90).

This suggests that a reconsideration of our assumptions of what ‘level’ humans historically lived at needs to be reexamined, as well as the obvious (to me) fact that—human beings like making the useful beautiful. As I always say—art is the constant.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is that Barber herself weaves. This enables her to reconstruct ancient textiles so that the arm-chair archeologist’s assumptions about the level of sophistication of a given society are not only challenged, but disproven. Only a weaver would know what the warp and weft denote. Only a weaver would know that a given pattern makes no sense unless more than one color is being used—thereby pushing certain knowledge in the dying of fabrics to significantly earlier dates than had been thought.

By looking at murals, previously discarded archeological evidence of spindles, looms, weights and the odd scrap of fabric, as well as art, a tremendous fount of the previously silent or discarded history of women can be known.

Simply following the language trail reveals so much of how and when sewing and weaving skills emerged.

But it is Barber’s knowledge that exists in her hands, rather than her head that so greatly impressed me. Understanding what one is looking at—true understanding of the art involved is an enormous advantage. For instance, in regard to the historical ubiquity of “string skirts” which are used (Barber cogently conjectures) to signify a woman’s readiness for childbearing—and thereby again shows how the visual is used as a form of language, perhaps even a precursor to language—Barber notes that on a Paleolithic Venus figure the sculptor has rendered the string skirt as fraying out at the bottom into a “mass of untwisted fibers” which shows that in c. 20,000 BC certain knowledge of twisted fibers, and therefore knowledge of sewing, existed.

Barber weaves a wonderful history of textiles. A history that greatly contributes to one’s understanding of ancient societies, language, myth, culture, and art.

We women do not need to conjure a history for ourselves. Facts about women, their work, and their place in society in early times have survived in considerable quantity, if we know how to look for them” (300).

Knowing how to look at what is, as well as, significantly, what isn’t, is true scholarship.

*title from p 232

This Is Not a Father

I have spent much of this semester making this edition of five books reflecting upon my father who died when I was two-years old. It is very satisfying to make a book by hand and besides the moments when I wanted to abandon the project or figure out a way to abandon myself, (that moment when I was pasting down the pastedown and accidentally pasted the book in upside down was just one such lovely me-ism. I fixed it, but I am still bitter.) overall, yes, a finished book is a nice thing.

IMG_5724

I also spent much of the semester writing a twenty-five page paper for my sociology class on the culture of art. I wrote my paper on livre d’artiste—very briefly, these are French artists books from late nineteenth to early twentieth century. The very first such book was called Parallèlement with etchings by Pierre Bonnard and poetry by Paul Verlaine. In my paper I write extensively about the influence of Charles Baudelaire as well as the publishers of such books such as Ambroise Vollard and Albert Skira.

IMG_5728

When I finished pasting the books into the covers I wanted to put a weight on them so they would not warp. As I mention in my own little book about my father, I grew up surrounded by my father’s books and art,

IMG_5754

but imagine my surprise when a huge spineless art book I used to weigh my books down turned out to be my father’s. The title: From Baudelaire to Bonnard published by Albert Skira.

IMG_5753

That’s an odd bit of coincidence.

IMG_5735