Saturday, December 31, 2011
Sunday, December 11, 2011
My installations of episodes from my life continues into the 1980s. I am not happy about this state of affairs because the 1980s are not as innately interesting to me as the 70s, yet there was something about the 80s that couldn't fundamentally shake so many elements of the 70s.
Thursday, December 8, 2011
It was with the greatest shock, incredulity and finally anger that I opened up a copy of the New York Times Magazine of December 4 in this final month of a surely awful year of 2011 to come upon an article attacking my hero Ralph Waldo Emerson. Reading this piece by one Benjamin Anastas made me realize why I am such an irregular reader of the New York Times and, while I will not go so far as Gore Vidal who infamously called it a "bad paper" I have to conclude that it has, much like The New Yorker under Tina Brown's reign, fallen prey to the worst twin vices of a sophomoric and cheap populism and utilitarianism or instrumentalism.
I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instil is of more value than any thought they may contain. To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—— and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.
There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried. Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and another none. This sculpture in the memory is not without preestablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray. We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.
Notice throughout his tone: it is magesterial and measured. It is also suffused with greatest passion. He creates a rhythm through a certain syntax. We are. A man is. God will not. It is delivered. The eye was placed. This is Biblical and spiritual language to be sure. If Anastas is of the party of science he will not be pleased by this kind of tone. Yet the tone is, in language, something like that of John Coltrane in A Love Supreme, in music. It is curiously at once completely secular and free of any partisan creed or catechism and yet built from the syntax and tropes of scriptural and sacred writing and oration. This combination of the two is part of Emerson's genius.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
“All God’s children are not beautiful. Most of God’s children, in fact, are barely presentable,” wrote Fran Leibowitz. I surely should apologize, dear reader, for having enough shallowness of spirit as to be unable to see adequately into the insides of others that I cannot but concur with Leibowitz’s sentiment. Alas our insides are very much invisible and silent. But our outsides are ever present and never stop talking.
Yet, to make matters worse, though we do have a bit of control over the presentation of ourselves, whether through cosmetics or dress, there are great limits that Nature has set before us. When it comes to our externally built environments, however, the ones we can never escape at least without a wrecking ball of sorts, we have something approaching total control. Though we have this control over our environments that we are denied over our own person, we have repeatedly committed acts of ugliness at best and outright sin at worst. The architects and designers of the 20th century have a great deal to explain, though they will surely resort to Theory as an alibi.
Second only to our original sin of slavery is the sin of deciding that every human being be entitled to car use and ownership alongside the massive development of what is called the suburbs to support such car centeredness, the spreading and sprawl of ourselves outside of our cities to accommodate these driving machines, the supreme sin being the planning and building of the Interstate Highway System. Every problem, from the inner workings of troubled families, the disease in any soul, to the decay of arts and culture more generally, can be traced to that fateful decision. Without the decision to suburbanize we would not be having much of a discussion about fossil fuels, and only a scientist would know how much less would be our effect upon the Ozone and so on.
We need a new way of regarding older words that is free from euphemistic cant. Instead of using the word entitlement to describe basic human needs like a living wage, or retirement funds, or medicine, or even the right to work, we ought to use the word entitlement - and in the most scolding sense - for the idea that sprung up in the forties and fifties that every human being deserves a house with a yard and even two children of their own, to say nothing of the dogs and cats. Think of how a wise extraterrestrial being would regard the spectacle of every human being moving around in these most ugly and cumbersome of machines to go from one place, many miles away, to another. Such a being would think us mad at best, evil at worst.
Recently I went back to Tampa, Florida for the funeral of my father. As my friend Greg drove me across miles of long stretches of cement, as we passed one chain restaurant after another - an Outback, an Applebees, The Cheesecake Factory, the only attractive diversion breaking up the soul killing monotony being what appeared to be an independently run strip club, or fringe Southern Baptist church - Greg sensed my great displeasure at what comprised the largest part of the humanly created American landscape. He said to me with great emphasis: “Mitch, these are your roots. This is where you come from.”
I have spent the remainder of my life trying to get away.
To be fair, I remember another part of my childhood far away from all of this and that was New York City - Manhattan. It is here where I must make some clarification for some of my peers in the ecology or environmental movements whom I take to be greatly insensitive to a great part of what makes us tick. For the problem is not, as these peers are wont to say, civilization, or modernity, or even industrialism. To regard civilization or, in particular, cities as the root of the problem is to commit what I call the error of Holism: to take life as forming a single system, such that, if there is anything wrong with the system you have to scrap that system and start over anew, even with revolution if need be.
Rather, the problem is a long series of little decisions that accumulate. Not the car itself, but the decision that everybody should have one is the real problem. The splitting of the atom did not compel us to make a weapon out of that act. That weapon was a choice we made. Whatever history is, it is not an inevitability. The Devil is in the details.
Curiously and perversely many of our ecologically minded peers have helped create our current crises in at least a couple of ways. The first is, by fetishizing nature and green spaces they only encourage sprawl and an anti-urban attitude, what one scholar, Carol Clover, termed urbanoia. Urbanioa might lead people to try and recreate the simulation of nature wherever they may roam. This is why in all of these cement strips that cover the United States you see these little plots of green, as if that is an aesthetic solution to anything.
The second way in which some ecologists contribute to the problem is by a dubious distinction between the natural which is considered virtuous and the unnatural which is considered unhealthy. Thus, Playboy magazines and Christian Louboutin shoes are considered most unnatural and therefore bad, while organic farms or tribal living are seen as more or less natural and thus, good. This is an arbitrary convention, reflecting the fashions and tastes of an epoch rather than eternal verities.
This distinction between the natural and unnatural contributes to a coarsening of our aesthetic sense. We criticize things that we deem unreal and praise things to the heavens that feel real, not knowing that everything we humans do is in a certain sense unreal all the way down. There is no object more unreal than the play Hamlet, for example. Yet there is no object that could have more to teach you about human life.
Humans do not merely dwell in one but at least in two dimensions. The dimension to which our ecologists rightly pay homage is that of utility and necessity: the world of farming, for example. Many today dream of going back to a purer world which by their definition always means something rural. They would point out that this is not mere utility but family and community and wholeness.
I would retort that family and community, in addition to Love, also always already possess conformity and narrow religiosity, to say nothing of homophobia, perhaps sexism and other evils. In a certain sense we do not choose our families so there is a very intimate connection between the nostalgic and traditionalist love for family and the concern with organic farming. Thus, perhaps there is a fear of choice involved among those who would restrict life to utility.
We do not live by need or necessity, including family, alone. There is a second dimension to human affairs and it is gratuitous. This is why humans need and create civilizations. It is why we need cities.
Marx, so long ago in the 19th century, spoke of the “idiocy of rural life”. Today so many of our idiots hail from rural areas, and the nature of such idiocy has seldom changed.
Without cities all of our arts and culture would surely be nonexistent. I do not deny the necessity to overhaul our way of life in some way. I only deny that in the future we not be reduced to utility alone. I only confirm that space be made for our gratuitous nature. For if history is any guide we humans are exceedingly gratuitous. And any vision of the future that does not incorporate that stubborn and often times sublime fact is a vision that surely could only have been been concocted by tech geeks, engineers and the like.
Indeed, a good part of our future should include a return to the city. By city I do not mean an “exurb.” I do not mean, say, Watertown. The use of terms like “Exurbs” or “edge cities” is a way of trying to give credence to the suburban way of life. Quite the contrary. I mean exactly something of the large cities of old. Maybe even, dare I say it, New York City. Of course nothing on that scale is safe or sustainable anymore. but the population density might be a necessity.
Instead of moving out, the time has come for us to move back into the city. We need to reclaim and reinvent the city. Of course this is assuming we have decided we still want a place for some kind of culture not reduced to utility. The city was a precondition for the creation of someone like a Shakespeare or a Bach - to be a little quaint and corny about it. The city was of course a precondition for American popular musical art, for the theater, and many other riches. Farming and hunting and gathering will not quite make it.
There was a brief moment, in the middle of the previous century, when great poetry came out of suburban experience. John Updike and John Cheever come to mind. That day is long past. The best works of art today that reinterpret representations of the small town are works of art that both foreground their artificiality or are descriptions of a purely contemporary sensibility, and are really more about the present than the past, as in Lars Von Trier’s Dogville or in Madmen. These works say more about our time than the past. They are stuck in the present, while pretending to be be an archeology or anthropology of the past.
I should note that there continues to be a romance of the car, exemplified in the car chase in cinema, the halfway decent art/exploitation film Drive being the most recent evidence that this romance shows no signs of abatement, whatever the fashion for the bicycle.
But perhaps as in Updike and Cheever for domestic life, this romance of highway life will grow rusty. Maybe it too will be ridden out.
Moreover there is economics to consider: people never tire of telling me that nobody lives in cities because they are too expensive. By and large I believe the causation to be reversed. Cities are so unaffordable because not enough people stay in them to keep them affordable: everybody desires to live further out, in the sticks if possible. They see in the city only a place to shop and consume and to escape their boredom.
In contrast to the trends of the past forty years, I hope the future belongs to the city. I will let others dream of the Anarcho-Syndicalist commune in the woods. Speaking for myself, I dream of a place for arts and what used to be known as culture in the city.