Tag Archives: art

Out of the Deleatur

What torments people have to go through when they leave the safety of their homes to become embroiled in mad adventures.
—José Saramago, All the Names, (88)

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Anyone who is familiar with the writing of José Saramago will know that he has a distinct style and tone. All the same, as I read All the Names I was struck by the very strong similarity to a children’s book of his that I read to my youngest son a few years back, The Tale of the Unknown Island. The stories are of course different, but the phrasing and word choice is very like. I became convinced that they must have been written in proximity to each other and, how exciting! I was right—as it turns out, Saramago wrote both stories in the same year—1997.

That’s what has happened to me, he added, inside my head, and probably inside everyone’s head, there must be a kind of autonomous thought that thinks for itself, that decides things without the participation of any other thought (52)

Saramaga eschews quotation marks altogether, marking a change of speaker by a comma and a mid-sentence capital letter. His prose come practically paragraph-free (a typesetter’s dream my good friend and typesetter tells me—now that I think of it, he is the one who suggested I read this book—we share a love of Saramago). Saramago’s books take place in the interior of his character’s minds and standard punctuation has no place there. Once you are in his books there is an undisturbed flow to it all—you are next to the narrator, falling in love with his patient, wry, and kind voice.

“It is well known that the human mind very often makes decisions for reasons it clearly does not know, presumably because it does so after having travelled paths of the mind at such speeds that, afterwards, it cannot recognise those paths, let alone find them again” (12).

Both The Tale of the Unknown Island and All the Names deal with the same subject in the same way. In All the Names the protagonist is a man named José. He works in the kafka-esque atmosphere of the register’s office in all its magisterial pettiness and labyrinthical paper trails. Rather than embarking on an escapade to the unknown island, José is led, by himself—by the unfathomable mystery of his own mind’s logic— on an investigative search for the unknown woman. Why? he hardly knows. Why search for the unknown island when everyone knows it doesn’t exist? Why find the unknown woman when her existence is merely a clerical matter?

The phone book’s in there, I don’t feel like going into the Central Registry just now, You’re afraid of the dark, Not at all, I know that darkness like the back of my hand, You don’t even know the back of your hand, If that’s what you think, then just let me wallow in my ignorance, after all, the birds don’t know why they sing, but they still sing, You’re very poetic, No, just sad (55).

Thusly, José conducts conversations with himself throughout the story. The Tale of the Unknown Island is of course a tale about Love. Love is the unknown island that others scoff at and hold snide doubts about its very existence. The unknown woman of All the Names is the object and subject of Love. Saramago touches on the universal quality of Love that strikes like lightening individually. All the names of the unknown hoards of people deserve, want, and need Love. To deny that fact is to perform a depraved sort of deletion. Some delete themselves. And then, institutions, even those of record keeping—in their maniacal effort to keep track of individuals—erase the actual individual.

It doesn’t seem a very good rule in life to let yourself be guided by chance, Regardless of whether it’s a good rule or not, whether it’s convenient or not, it was chance that put that card in his hands, And what if the woman is the same one, If she is, then that was what chance offered, With no further consequences, Who are we to speak of consequences, when out of the interminable line of consequences that come marching ceaselessly towards us we can only ever distinguish the first (34)

In my lunch hour at my summer internship at the Met this past week, I happened upon one of the smaller shows that is currently on exhibit, About Face: Human Expression on Paper. The photo above is part of the exhibit. The photograph was taken by Hugh Welch Diamond in the mid-1800s. It is of a patient of the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum. At the time it was thought that insanity somehow presented itself in the physiognomy of the face and all manner of strange experiments, sometimes involving electrodes applied to various muscles of the face, were rather callously conducted. I find the photograph to be quite beautiful. Given the early-photgraphic era when it was taken, it is perhaps strange that she has a smile on her face, but if we didn’t know she was in an asylum one could invent entirely different circumstances around her life.  She is an unknown woman to me. But the connection that crosses the decades from the smile on her lips to mine is what makes us all feel alive to one another—it is Love writ large. That smile is not unknown to me. One of the most meaningful qualities of art and literature is that it fosters a feeling of human connections to one another. Art stands witness to our longing to connect and for not deleting ourselves or our desire to Love.  For the briefest moment I know and love that unknown woman. And, I know that I too am the unknown woman.

* title from p. 13: “it would not be the first time in the history of the deleatur that this had happened.”  Deleatur, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the proofreader’s mark that looks like a drunken Y and is from the Latin meaning “let it be deleted.”

Free from the Tyranny of Erudition

A good work of visual art carries a person who is capable of appreciating it out of life into ecstasy: to use art as a means to emotions of life is to use a telescope for reading the news.
—Clive Bell, Art, (29-30) 

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Clive Bell’s book  Art (preface dated 1913)expounds on his ambitious attempt to articulate his theory of art. What is art? is the question to which he thinks he knows the answer. That last sentence makes it sound as if I don’t think he does, but in fact his thesis is completely acceptable if for no other reason then it defines without revealing. While my edition of the book is nearly 300 pages long, he comes right out with it—Art, Bell states, is always this one thing: significant form. Lines, colors, shapes, and material must always relate significantly to each other in order to precipitate the aesthetic emotion. Bell is a very clever fellow, of course, so I can not argue with a man that defines art so succinctly while leaving the puzzle of the how and even the why untouched. In fact, this is his cleverness, because, of course, must know what one is dealing with—significant form— in order to consider the Yes or No.

Be they artists or lovers of art, mystics or mathematicians, those who achieve ecstasy are those who have freed themselves from the arrogance of humanity. He who would feel the significance of art must make himself humble before it. (70)

There is a lament in the museum world that goes something like this—do you know that the average museum go-er spends less than 30 seconds in front of a piece of work?—Whenever I hear that I want to say—hold on a minute. Ars longa, vita brevis, no? Too short to waste more than 30 seconds, or whatever the amount is (30 may be generous), on a No. We feel it right away. The aesthetic emotion hardly requires seconds to register. Yes or No? Or as Bell cheekily puts it: “there are two types of art: good and bad.”

Yet, though the echoes and shadows of art enrich the life of the plains, her spirit dwells on the mountains. To him who woos, but woos impurely, she returns enriched what is brought (35).

What is in the substantial form that moves me? Or doesn’t. By feeling the Yes or No we can then be on firm ground to approach the why. And that is not to say that one can not come to be moved differently as one’s emotional intelligence becomes refined and freed, but, alas, Bell has a rather low opinion of most people’s ability to really feel, and therefore understand, a good work of art. As with a writer who with “nothing to say soon come[s] to regard the manipulation of words as an end in itself” (222), so too the artist can make a perfect representation of an object or display impressive control of materials without touching anything true in the realm of Art, he/she makes mere “labels” by which many viewers get hopelessly distracted:

The habit of recognising the label and overlooking the thing, of seeing intellectually instead of seeing emotionally, accounts for the amazing blindness, or rather visual shallowness, of most civilized adults (79).

Bell blames the culture of intellectual appreciation. Coming at a work of art through the intellect, through a learned (ruinous!) and well-intentioned study (the road to hell is paved!) of art history and methodology is a useless and damaging endeavor as far as he is concerned. What does history have to add to a work of art’s quiddity? He doesn’t say it isn’t potentially interesting in itself, but the objects and images in a painting, the historical placement of a painting—these are details that mean nothing to its value as a work of art. It is the emotion that transports one away from the plebeian, away from the emotionless news report of the image and/or its happenstance— perfectly rendered or not.

Just as the aesthetic problem is too vague, so the representative problem is too simple. (67)

Unapologetically and amusingly bitchy at times, Bell’s book is refreshingly blunt. Despite the fact that he is an intellectual, he argues for something more from artists and art lovers alike. The mind is not enough, one must invest one’s heart, truly and purely.

He who goes daily into the world of aesthetic emotion returns to the world of human affairs equipped to face it courageously and even a little contemptuously (292).

Ecstasy awaits.

*Title from p 263: Let us try to remember that art is not something to be come at by dint of study; let us try to think of it as something to be enjoyed as one enjoys being in love. The first thing to be done is to free the aesthetic emotions from the tyranny of erudition.

**photo: Marble relief of the Three Graces. Roman, mid-imperial, ca. 2nd Century A.D., The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The Three Graces—Aglaia (Beauty), Euphrosyne (Mirth), and Thalia (Abundance)—bestow that which is beneficent in nature and society: fertility and growth, the arts, and harmony between men.”

What the Stars Sew

“Kit. Darling,” I called him, and he opened his eyes. Darling—there is magic in that word. Giles once addressed me as darling, in his letter to the Lighthouse, and the world changed its hue. 
—Sena Jeter Naslund, Ahab’s Wife: or, The Star Gazer (281)

print I made of cut foam, on fabric

print I made of cut foam, on fabric

Ahab’s Wife is a romantic, learned, and ambitious novel. I can not be sure if it was my mood or the book which matched, but I told a friend as I read it that if it had been  music, it would be a bass tone. A low note ran through the heart of the novel that resonated deeply. The tragedy of life pins us to the earth as the brilliance makes our hearts wish to soar.

At Margaret Fuller’s salon, women talked of magnificent ideas, of poetry and art, of science and travel. Never had I heard such discourse among women. Not one word of family of home or food or even sewing. I interjected the question did they not think that quilting could be an art form and perhaps the only art available to frontier women, and several, including Miss Fuller, quite agreed with me, although not all (375). 

By sheer coincidence I happen to have been participating in a pilot class, Critical Craft while reading this book. Throughout Jeter Nasland’s book she came back to sewing as a relevant and essential aspect of the protagonist Una’s life, so it was of wonderful interest to me that this point: the intersection of art and craft, as well as the function of crafts in people’s, particularly women’s lives came up.

In 1978 Lucy Lippard wrote a compelling article for the journal Heresies (reprinted in the book Craft in Action) called “Making Something from Nothing (toward a Definition of Women’s “Hobby Art”) in which she discussed many of the attitudes towards the ostensible lesser or lower art of craft.

The “overdecoration” of the home and the fondness for bric-a-brac often attributed to female fussiness or plain Bad Taste can just as well be attributed to creative restlessness. Since most homemade hobby objects are geared toward home improvement, they inspire less fear in the makers of being “selfish” or “self-indulgent,” there is no confusion about pretensions to Art, and the woman is freed to make anything she can imagine (Lippard 486).

She wrote of the lingering tendency of women being brought up with “an exaggerated sense of detail and needing to be “busy.”‘  The article highlights the “high end” art world’s turned-up nose in the face of some stunning and creative “crafts” made largely by women (often nameless women, as in textiles and decorative household goods) while embracing the male versions of bricolage, abstraction, and even fabric sculptures (she points to the work of Claes Oldenberg, whose wife, it should be noted, did the actual sewing!).

And this is not entirely a disadvantage. Not only does the amateur status of hobby art dispel the need for costly art lessons but it subverts the intimidation process that takes place when the male domain of “high” art is approached (Lippard 488).

In 2015 there is something of a renaissance of crafts. Curiously the word ‘hobby’ seems to be out of use….But, the hipsters have gotten involved! there are “craftivists” and a burgeoning cottage industry of high-end craft, which looks a hell of a lot like art to the likes of me (or at least costs as much…). The lines crumble.  And yet there is something in craft that reaches beyond ourselves. Often these are techniques and skills that are passed down from one generation to the next. Or, in a DYI spirit, one is free to create, in whatever manner one envisions the things they need, for themselves. The work involved is repetitive and mediative. There is also the sense of not only the connection with generations past, but also in the moment. And the lengths of time working on something acts as a marker of one’s own life: I knit that when I was pregnant, or, I made that when I was heartbroken that winter, or, I quilt that for my sister’s baby, I baked that cake for my daughter….our days are reflected back to us through these objects that are beautiful and precious because they mark our hand’s touch, our presence, our being.

Jeter Nasland’s book is a elegiac tale, intermixing historical figures, places and politics, with historical fictional figures. She takes her time in the telling, and although occasionally uneven, when the story is moving full sail the sweet wind of the storyteller is invigorating.

Beyond that, and more pertinent to this essay, she makes lovely use of the practice and metaphor of the crafts which surrounded her character’s lives. She uses Una’s defense and pride of her needlework to represent her independence of mind and connection to her body. The physical act of doing and making is what allows Una to be a “Star Gazer.” One must be connected to the mundane to let one’s spirit soar to the border of imagination: the star sewn heavens.

 

 

 

 

 

Enemy of Oblivion

Nicholas Basbanes’ book On Paper: The Everything of its Two-Thousand Year History is written, he adds on the cover, “by a Self-Confessed Bibliophiliac.” As I practically medicate myself with books, a dear friend of mine pretty easily surmised I would enjoy this one and sent it to me.

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I have a particular weakness for books that take on seemingly mundane topics and then show them to be a fascinating and vibrant thread of history. Basbanes’ book goes far beyond that. What begins as a comprehensive history of the origin of paper becomes far more profound. Because paper is such a unique material in myriad ways, On Paper is a series of mini-histories of ridiculously wide scope. It couldn’t be any other way. In fact, the overwhelming impression one is left with after reading this book is that Basbanes could have taken the subject on from an innumerable amount of other angles and still, one would only have a peek at the awing influence, beauty and importance of paper.

Once paper took hold (particularly in the Western world) there was no turning back. Demand forced innovation or unsavory accommodations: while it was still made with rags, the materials to make it seriously outstripped people’s ability to come up with raw/used materials. In fact, Basbanes writes that in England a law was enacted that forbade bodies being buried in clothing made of anything except wool to help ease the shortages (63).

Papermakers were in high demand as well: from being excused from military service during America’s Revolutionary war (85) to a hilarious (to me) account of 14th century German, Ulman Stromer, who was seriously vexed by the Italian brothers he had hired, over their “quite disobedient”  preference to import more of their paesans rather than install a third water wheel to increase productivity.

Stromer had the men arrested and locked “in a small room” for four days, whereupon they acceded to his demands (60).

The alchemy of paper making is a marvelous thing: the special way that cellulose bonds together is what gives it all of its essential qualities: thinness, flexibility, and durability to name the obvious ones. It was in René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur book, History of Wasps  that wood was first suggested as an alternative to rags after the naturalist observed the nests of wasps cleverly made from their chewed-wood slurry. The intersection of science and paper, (not only in paper’s development but in its use both direct and oblique) starts to send chills down a person’s spine.

From dollar bills to toilet paper, before one even begins to worry about the fate of books, Basbanes’ reader is made aware of the probable permanence of paper in our lives.  But maybe we shouldn’t worry: after all, books and toilet paper have a long history together as well:

“I knew of a gentleman who was so good a manager of his time the he would not even lose that small portion of it which the call of nature obliged him to pass,” Lord Chesterfield wrote in the 1747 letter, [to his illegitimate son] noting that whenever his acquaintance found himself so indisposed, he seized the opportunity to read through all the Latin poets. “He bought, for example, a common edition of Horace, of which he tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first and then sent them down as sacrifice to Cloacina,” a reference to the goddess in Roman mythology who presided over the Cloaca Maxima, or “Great Drain,” which served as the main trunk of the sewer system in Rome. “I recommend that you follow his example. It is better than only doing what you can’t help doing at those moments and it will make any book which you shall read in that manner, very present to you mind” (124).

Indeed! Paper—good for hygiene and intellect. It’s influence can not be understated.  The very stirrings of revolutions, from the stamp act in America, to the tallow-dipped rifle cartridges stoking India’s fight for freedom from England, (the Hindu and Muslim soldiers wouldn’t countenance tearing the paper carriages with their mouths, as instructed by their religiously insensitive superiors) are wrapped up in paper.  All that we love, like poetry, plays, love letters and art as well as all that we hate: red tape or the “Little White Slaver” as Henry Ford called cigarettes (which also may have their origin, during the Crimean War, in rifles as well— as a way to efficiently use up leftover tobacco from cigars in the paper used in gun cartridges) make use of this remarkable ubiquitous stuff. Paper looms large and little over our lives.  But I must admit my love of paper can be turned cold at the thought of red tape…

During pharaonic times […] by sacred tradition, bureaucratic processes extended even to the afterlife, with the deceased required to present written statements of vindication on the day of final judgement (187).

Oh please no.

Basbanes keeps up a steady stream of priceless documents and contributions of artists, inventors, politicians, musicians, and obviously writers: Leonardo, Edison, Beethoven, Shakespeare, to name a few. And it is not just the historical importance of these figures that make their documents so valuable. In many cases the notes and bits of ephemera that have made it through time’s ravages reveal an almost endless amount of information about how these people thought, worked, developed, and created their works. Engineering, public planning, psychological implications, deception, and communication of both the living and dead…the list goes on. How we continue to archive, store and organize these papers is under Basbanes’ examination as well. Not to mention—paper’s future.

Going far beyond paper’s inherent artistic merit, as well as its vocational merit as a transmitter of ideas and information, Basbanes ends his enthralling book on an extremely poignant and moving note. Paper, it would seem, has a mysterious quality in which it utterly embeds our humanity, in all its stupidity and gloriousness, right into its very fibers.

*Title from: Sixth century Roman statesman and writer Cassiodorus words in praise of papyrus (9).

It’s Not Too Late

The snowy cold he knows to flee and every human exigency crackles as he plugs it in every outlet works but one: death stays dark.
– Sophokles, Antigonick, translated by Anne Carson illustrated by Bianca Stone.

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I was recently move to reread Antigone after a discussion with a lovely man over the eponymous character’s attributes. I love Anne Carson’s translations, so I was thrilled to find her version,  Antigonick in my library system. But I had no idea just what a treat it would be. More of an artist’s book than straightforward text with illustrations. The interplay between words, images, pages, and color is magnificent, irreverent, absurd, lovely, and striking.

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The book as a whole, as an object inseparable from the visual and tactile components that it comprises, makes the rash Kreon all the more ridiculous, the sweet Antigone all the more reasonable in her steadfast refusal to be shamed by the capricious laws of a man (or men, writ large). In the collaborative translation, illustration, and design trio of Carson, Stone and Robert Currie, Kreon is shown to be the flibbertigibbit that he is, but to tragic effect. He spews his nouns and verbs, but the black and white words imprison the letter of his laws, shutting his heart to the vitality of wisdom.

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Tangled up, and cornered in, when one can not feel and let love be the ruler of the day the results are bloody awful. And for Sophokles, that is quite literal. The body count is high. Oh! the Greek Tragedians – they didn’t fool around! The Chorus sings, “You’re late to learn what’s what aren’t you” And for Kreon it is a painful realization. Yes, he is late, so late. But, it’s never too late for wisdom. Isn’t that why we continue to revisit these tales of woe and tragedy? – to soften our hearts with what is wise and true.

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Der Grufulde and Passionate Freedom

“I don’t see much difference between our life and the life of the carp in the pond there. They have the fiord close beside them, where the great free shoals of fish sweep out and in. But the poor tame house-fishes know nothing of all that; and they can never join in.” – Henrik Ibsen, The Lady From the Sea (40)

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Catfish sculpture by my son Eric Accardi (2014)

This spring I was deeply engaged in making an impassioned argument for the inclusion of literature in philosophical inquiry. One of the texts that I cited in my final paper used Ibsen’s plays- in particular The Lady From the Sea as a source. I had never read that particular play, but I was intrigued on two accounts. One was that the text that was included in the source described an artist that tries to convince a young girl to bind herself to him, with a promise to  “think of him.” He would go off and develop his art, but her thoughts would be a muse  for him. Callously disregarding what effect this might have on her life- emotionally (as well by antiquated ideas of a betrothal’s fetters) to be pledged to a man that had no intention of fulfilling her desires.

Lyngstrand: She too must live for his art. I should think that must be such happiness for a woman.
Boletta: H’m–I’m not so sure–
(56).

The second account was that it was argued that this play did not entail moral reasoning and therefore could not seriously be considered ‘philosophical.’

I promptly added it to my summer reading list.

Ellida: [looks after him a while] Of my own free will, he said! Think of that – he said that I should go with him of my own free will (56).

While writing the paper, as well as subsequently, I have yet to discover any piece of literature that does not involve moral reasoning – in fact, I enlisted all of my friends in the pursuit, and if you can name one, I would be most interested.

But, meanwhile,   The Lady By the Sea…oh Ibsen…what a wonderful humanitarian, feminist, and writer…

Ellida: You call that my own life! Oh no, my own true life slid into a wrong groove when I joined it to yours (76).

The play, while ever so slightly too neat, is an extraordinary anachronism.  Ibsen was writing, through the telescope of a female perspective the true meaning of ‘freedom.’  An internal state that is stronger than any temporal ‘moral’ strain imposed from an ‘authority.’

The Stranger: Do you not feel as I do, that we two belong to each other?
Ellida: Do you mean because of that promise?
The Stranger: Promises bind no one: neither man nor woman. If I hold to you persistently, it is because I cannot do otherwise (87).

The distortions of subjugation is the theme of this play. No life is complete, fulfilled, or worthy of sharing,  without complete freedom. Ellida must be free, as a woman, as a human, to choose her destiny…it seems a problem of the past, but in fact, it is not. Societal ‘norms’ dictate what is valued, who gets to choose, what is ‘moral.’ But individuals don’t stop feeling just because they ought not, or are perniciously told not to. Ellida insists her husband (a marriage, she feels, that was of mercenary convenience) must release her, just so that she can decide for herself if she must leave him for The Stranger. She can’t know while she is bound.

Wangel: [looks anxiously at her] Ellida! I feel it – there is something behind this.
Ellida: All that allures is behind it.
Wangel: All that allures–?
Ellida: That man is like the sea (53).

Det grufulde: ‘the terrible,’ what frightens and fascinates. Ellida cannot understand her own life until it is truly her own life. Ibsen had a genius for understanding the subtle but very real harm experienced by the lack of freedom women experience.

Ellida: You can never prevent my choosing; neither you nor anyone else. You can forbid me to go away with him– to cast my lot with him – if I should choose that. You can forcibly detain me here, against my will. That you can do. But the choice in my innermost soul–my choice of him not you,–in case I should and must choose so,–that you cannot prevent (75).

Ibsen bravely expresses the force of one’s heart. It never yields, it only buries itself far away from anyone’s touch. Once free to choose, a true love will out. Rather than forced to react like a caged animal, Ellida, as her own woman, can give her whole heart, at last, to the husband she’s come to love, because she is finally free to choose that love for her free heart’s content.

*title from footnote on pg. 70.

*The Eleonora Duse series of plays, translated by Mrs. Frances E. Archer.

 

 

 

 

Sense and Memorabilia

I remember, in the heart of passion once, trying to get a guy’s turtle-neck sweater off. But it turned out not to be a turtle-neck sweater. – Joe Brainard, I Remember (131). 

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I remember not being able to get any dessert but prune crostata when I lived in Parma. But not minding, really.

“In the heart of passion” – that probably says it all. I Remember, written in 1975 by Joe Brainard, is one of the sweetest, funniest books I have ever read. In fact, I caused the  fellow commuter sitting in the seat ahead of me some alarm as I intermittently burst into spasms of laughter reading this on my way home the other night. She rather ostentatiously turned around to see what I was on about, and then I caught her peeping into the reflection of the window several times assessing my mental health.

I remember a little girl who had a white rabbit coat and hat and muff. Actually, I don’t remember the little girl. I remember the coat and the hat and the muff (32).

The book is brilliantly conceived. Ridiculously and poignantly simple. It reads as a sort of poem with each stanza beginning with the refrain: I remember.

I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie (8).

There is something magical in it. Brainard, a child and adolescent of the 40s and 50s, relates  details that are lovely in their historicism, but it is the disarming simplicity of his raw memory data that connects the reader to this charming fellow.

I remember once my mother parading a bunch of women through the bathroom as I was taking a shit. Never have I been so embarrassed! (93)

I’m really glad I never did that. As a mother of (mostly) sons, my heart just about burst for this young boy and his beautiful, puriel, ernest mind.

I remember when I worked in a snack bar and how much I hated people who ordered malts (22).

As a human who endured adolescence and retains a frightening degree of it, my heart ached for our shared humiliations, tribulations, and confusions. It would seem that Mr. Brainard and I suffer from the same malady – our hearts stuck in the ‘on’ position.

I remember liver (16).

Me too.

I remember Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (so sad) in Meet Me in St. Louis (49).

It was his tender use of parenthetical commentary that convinced me that this man must have been a lovely, kind soul.

I remember a girl in Dayton, Ohio, who “taught” me what to do with your tongue, which, it turns out, is definitely what not to do with your tongue. You could really hurt somebody that way. (Strangulation.) (133)

It is his innocence and crass adolescent mind, (which never seems to really leave us, eh?) his sexual forays, observations, reactions, and random thoughts that fill his memoir. This is the stuff we are made of.

I remember my mother cornering me into the corners to squeeze out blackheads. (Hurt like hell.) (141)

Okay – but in my defense, as a mother, that is really hard to resist.

I remember not finding pumpkin pie very visually appealing (113).

The sensual strength of our memories, whether it be vision, touch, sound, taste or smell is fascinating, revealing, and true. This is how we experience our lives – our world. It’s beautiful. Joe Brainard’s, mine, and yours. Simply beautiful.

I remember trying to figure out what it’s all about. (Life.) (46)

 

* I Remember – published by Granary Books

 

 

 

 

Divisible Indivisibility of Color (or love)

The number of colors is infinite, yet every two opposite colors contain elements, the full possibility, of all the others. – Arthur Schopenhauer, On Vision and Colors

ImageI have to admit, I may have skimmed a few paragraphs of Schopenhauer’s On Vision and Color – it was too painful. After keeping me enthralled with his passionate explanation of his theory of the subjectivity of color, he spent a few pages lambasting and taunting all the idiots of the world who disagreed with him. Of Scherffer, for example, he writes:

He reaches for all kinds of wretched and absurd hypotheses, wriggles pathetically, and in the end lets the issue rest (84).

Ouch. They would be harsh words had Schopenhauer been correct. But the fact that he is mostly wrong makes it quite uncomfortable to read. I say “mostly” because there is an interesting truth to his ideas when we consider Copernicus’s words (which Schopenhauer quotes) “compare, when allowed, small things with great.”

This explains their striking, every other color combination surpassing harmony, the power with which they call for each other and bring each other about, and the outstanding beauty that we confer on each of them by itself and even more so on both together (66).

To what is he referring? None other than the par excellent purity of red and green. “They call for each other,” I love that. He uses words like, “marriage,” “intimate union,” “affinities,” and “attractions.” He mathematically computes the amount of…love between colors and speaks to the impossibility of separation:

Therefore, chromatically we may not speak at all of individual colors, but only of color pairs: each pair represents the totality of the activity of the retina divided by two halves (70).

It’s a love story. Clearly.

Schopenhauer’s theory (which in the book I read is followed by Philip Otto Runge’s Color Sphere) rests on his idea that color is wholly subjective- an activity of the retina in which the the retina divides and then intellectually perceives colors rather than the objective color wave theory. So he got it wrong. But the beauty of his prose, the philosophy and artistry of his thinking was not lost on all. According to the introduction by Georg Stahl, Gerrit Rietveld (of the De Stijl group) was particularly influenced by Schopenhauer’s theory. Klee was equally enamored with Runge’s Color Sphere and used it in his teaching at the Bauhaus. Although Runge’s spheres are beautiful he pulls back from the romance of Schopanhauer’s prose a bit:

All five elements to each other – through their differences and affinities – form a perfect sphere, the surface of which contains all the elements and those mixtures that produced through a friendly mutual affinity of the qualities for each other (131). – Runge, Color Sphere

From lovers to friends, oh well.

Everyone must therefore carry within them a norm, an ideal, an Epicurean anticipation, about yellow and every color, independent of experience, with which they compare each actual color (69).

“An Epicurean anticipation” is a fabulous use of language. And the discussion of ideals in music and colors that Schopenhauer goes into relates so nicely to Semir Zeki’s book (which is of course the reason I read Goethe’s Theory of Color and On Vision and Color in the first place). Politely disregarding Schopenhauer’s hubris and considering the time in which he lived, where an invention such as the Daguerreotype might encourage him to draw false conclusions:

[reproducing] in its purely objective way, everything visible about bodies, but not color (97). (emphasis mine)

one can, at the very least, appreciate the philosophy of subjectivity that, I think, has some merit. After all, just yesterday I forwarded, to a pink-loathing friend of mine, an article which showed that pink does not actually exist as a color. It is merely our minds (groping for closure) filling in the gap left by the color waves that the human eye can not perceive. It seems to me one must be taken with the other, after all.

There can be no object without subject and no subject without object, since perceptions are defined by both (17).

 

 

Give me ambiguity or…Give me something else!

The brain creates, according to its own rules, the knowledge that we have.
-Semir Zeki, Splendors and Miseries of the Brain: Love, Creativity, and the Quest for Human Happiness (27)

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By beginning his book focused on neurological constancies of the innate brain, that is: the one we’re born with before (as my step-father loves to gleefully quote) “they fuck you up, your mum and dad…” Semir Zeki lays the groundwork for his soul crushing conclusions. I don’t want to impugn Zeki, he in no way blames mum and dad – that is merely an indication of my own learned brain’s irreverent cheek. Forgive me.

It has been shown that color is perceived before orientation and that expressions on faces are perceived before their identity (37).

Color is just one brain concept that is hard wired for constancy. Even when the reality changes (say, from morning to evening light) we still perceive red as red, and we “see” it first, before we may even understand what it is we are looking at, we know it’s red.

Concept formation is one of the great triumphs of the brain but it also exacts a very heavy toll (47).

What the book is so excellently and fascinatingly working towards is the universally shared brain concept of love as a feeling of in-unity with another. In unity– I actually have to pause every time I write or think on that- its succinct precision of definition is quite beautiful.

Fighting against love is fighting against biology (132)

There is so much we don’t know about the brain, and as a brilliant doctor friend of mine reminds me, just because areas “light up” consistently only tells us just that much – areas light up. Still, for such an all-consuming yet (largely) academically and scientifically ignored topic, Zeki’s book is fascinating entrée.

The brain is organized to project its own interpretation to the incoming visual stimulus. And as we have seen, inherited brain concepts are immutable (85).

One of those inherited concepts is ambiguity. Ambiguity, Zeki tells us, is “constant,” which is the very quality that gives art its rich and endlessly creative interpretive life. The ambiguity of the innate brain allows for our different “learned brain” interpretations and perceptions. This is that delicate space in between the artist’s work and our experience of that work. Zeki cites myriad artists and writers whom exemplify a miraculous perfection of ambiguity and:

The difficulty of representing the synthetic brain concept or ideal, and the advantages of leaving much to the mind (111).

Reading Splendors and Miseries of the Brain is such an intellectually exciting endeavor that the soul crushing thesis sneaks up…yes, Zeki is taking us neural pathway by neural pathway to the fatalistic conclusion of the near impossibility of realizing what our brains so stubbornly create and insist upon: the Ideal. The root of all of our discontent, (historically proven in literature, art and music of the centuries past) is but a hopeless quest to experience a synthesis between our Ideal concept of love with reality. To experience the sublime – in unity with another, whether it be sacred or profane- no difference seems to exists within the brain, the lucky few sublimate their disappointment into the highest expressions of art- the rest of us….well, we have the pleasure of appreciation, and we have our dreams. That’s something.

Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter

-Shakespeare, quoted in Splendors (199).

*title – a favorite joke of a friend of mine.

Camping With Chekhov

But silence is painful and terrifying only for those who have already said everything and who have nothing left to say; but to those who have not yet begun to talk, silence comes easily and simply. – Maxim Gorky, Twenty-Six Men And A Girl (210)

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I dragged my Russian authors along on our annual camping trip. The Party by Anton Chekhov was an interesting contrast. Chekhov’s descriptions of the interior worlds of the painfully superficial and emotionally stunted bourgeoisie set alongside our chaotic, boisterous little group was amusing. While we are, some of us on occasion, at a certain…comfort level with emotionally stunted, the others try to help and,  painfully superficial has never been a danger in our midst. Some fifteen people, all of whom have their own struggles and hopes can at least find solace and encouragement sitting near one another next to the hearth discussing how to pronounce the word. And if that fails we can have fun arranging still-lifes:

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Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe en L’Orange

It seemed to her for some reason that if her husband were suddenly to turn facing her, and to say, ‘Olya, I am unhappy,’ she would cry or laugh, and she would be at ease. She fancied that her legs were aching and her body was uncomfortable all over because of the strain on her feelings. – The Party (198)

How many of us wear ourselves out binding our pride to our confusion and a looming monotony of meaninglessness that scares or deadens us? I was admittedly late to making this discovery, but I am happier when I can say if I’m not. Just let me feel. Let me feel it. The demons in my head are dispelled, and then there is happiness, lurking on a cool path through the woods, in one of our children’s laughter, competitive four-square, rushing waterfalls, bags of ice, blackened marshmallows, the history of cinema, no money or shoes, forgotten tent poles, a starry night, copious amounts of quinoa salad and the color orange. It’s all there.

Life for those whose circumstances never change is agonizing and very difficult: the longer they live, the more agonizing such circumstances become, if their spirits are not broken altogether.  – Twenty Six Men and a Girl (213)

Our spirits are not broken. Throw the comfort of a soft bed, clean clothes, and dry bathroom floors aside- these new circumstances in good company are a sweet succor to me. It’s all here. Don’t let happiness pass you by.

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*The Penguin Book of Russian Short Stories edited by David Richards
The Party, Anton Chekhov translated by Constance Garnett
Twenty-Six Men and a Girl, Maxim Gorky translated by Roger Cockrell