Archive for October, 2011

Future of humanities? “Death,” says Michel Serres, and pauses. “Maybe.”

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Resident Socrates (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

A few days ago I wrote about Michel Serres new book Malfeasance.  But I didn’t have a chance to post the video, on that post or an earlier one.  Now I can.  It’s below.

He is a member of the Académie Française, one of its 40 immortels, and he is one of the most recognized public intellectuals in France.  Not here.  Why?  He’s not comfortable in English, and teaches his Stanford classes in French.  This video is one of the rare opportunities to hear him in English.

He comes to the sunny California for only a couple quarters a year, and has been doing so for decades – he’s here now, in fact. I had a chance to drop in on a class recently, the German Library is crowded, and not with the usual student types.

As I wrote in 2009:

His class attracts an eclectic and loyal coterie beyond its enrolled students—three decades is time enough to accumulate a following. A typical class might include a Silicon Valley mogul and his wife, a prominent publisher from Paris, a Stanford physics professor emeritus.

“Michel Serres presents his lectures in the form of fascinating questions, which he gradually answers and makes you feel as if you were participating in the thought process. His thinking is innovative and dynamic,” said Hélène Laroche-Davis, professor of French and film studies at Notre Dame de Namur University.

Alix Marduel, a former internist at Stanford and now a Palo Alto-based venture capitalist, said that Serres brings one thing that is AWOL in most philosophical discussions: passion….

“They are very well known as writers, but they have problems in France because they are unclassifiable. These kinds of people are disappearing. They don’t exist anymore—people who have encyclopedic knowledge, people who know civics, math, communication, science, anthropology. They are the rare and last humanists—what humanists used to be in the 16th century,” said Audrey Calefas, a doctoral candidate who has been Serres’ personal assistant for several years at Stanford (“out of friendship, really,” she added).

Enjoy the video (that’s Humble Moi in the red sweater in the opening shot):

Shakespeare or the Earl of Oxford? “It’s a shame sometimes that dead men can’t sue.”

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

Rafe Spall as William Shakespeare ... or is it the Earl of Oxford?

Anyone who has attempted a novel, play, or screenplay based on real people, or a real event, has faced the difficult question: How much do you make up?  Do you make two people fall in love because it tidies up the script nicely – even though there’s no historical evidence for it?  Do you vilify a nice-man composer like Antonio Salieri because of a few rumors that started decades after his death – even for a top-notch script like Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, which was further cemented in the public mind by a couple remarkable screen performances?  At what point are you simply defaming the dead?

Screenwriter John Orloff feels completely comfortable making stuff up for Anonymous, a new movie about the eternal Shakespeare authorship question.

Spoiler alert: Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford did it, and William Shakespeare was merely the front man in this version, which the New York Times called the “cold-blooded murder of the truth.” David Riggs told me the only reason the gullible seek out alternative authorship for the plays and poems is that people are generally unaware of what top-notch grammar schools the Elizabethans had – he wrote about it in The World of Christopher Marlowe.

Here’s another story that should discredit the theory: I actually knew of someone who had gone through the Earl of Oxford’s letters.  The man couldn’t write to save his life.

Rhys Ifans as Edward de Vere ... or is it Shakespeare?

Orloff is not a deep thinker, and the Wall Street Journal should be ashamed of printing platitudinous, clichéd passages like this:  “But I also wanted to tell a rocking good story and to express a theme that matters to me a great deal: that the pen is mightier than the sword.”

It gets worse.

The truth is, there is no truth in film—in any film. Even the films that we think are true, about real people in real places, actually aren’t.

This might seem obvious, but the emotions of a movie often overwhelm our intellect, blurring the line between fact and drama. We walk away feeling as if we have witnessed history.

But does this make a historical drama inferior to a history book or a documentary based on the same subject matter? Not necessarily.

Whatever a film might lack in literal truth, it can be far better at expressing the emotional truth of an event. [You don’t say! – ED]  In a movie, an audience can become connected to characters in a way that they often can’t in a straight historical account.

And this: “And, as I said, the film is not really about the Essex Rebellion. It is about showing that ideas are stronger than brute force. So how to make that point without wasting 20 minutes of the audience’s time?”  If the audience isn’t prepared to waste time, they shouldn’t be in the movie theater in the first place.

Then Orloff compares his historical liberties with those of Shakespeare himself.

This is a case where the comment section probes the issues more closely than the author of the article appears to have:


From Bill Wood:  “Nothing justifies outright lying to an audience. It’s one thing to present the argument that Shakespeare didn’t right [sic] his own work. It’s an idea that is baloney … It might make good drama. But it is also a lie. And most people will never bother to read the works which demonstrate what bunk it is.”

From David Brown: “One possible answer to Orloff’s question of how to make a point without wasting the audience’s time is to write your own story. If the history doesn’t support the story you want to tell, pick a different history that does fit – or just write your story without the crutch of misrepresenting great names and events.

From John Tufts: “Yes, stories exist to tell deeper truths, but Mr. Orloff is kidding himself if he thinks his movie is in the pursuit of truth. Neither movies nor theater, nor music, nor poetry, nor any art form has ever been very good at presenting what is real, but the history of all art has existed and been very successful at showing us what is true. That’s what makes Richard III great. Ultimately, it’s not about the real Richard III, it’s about the power of language, and the seduction of evil. Henry V isn’t about the real Henry Monmouth, it’s about the cost of war, and the challenges of leadership. These plays bend what was real to arrive at an essential truth. But for Mr. Orloff to say that he’s doing the same is nonsense. He’s bending what was real to arrive not an essential truth about the human experience, but instead to arrive right back where he started – a claim about what was real. He bends history to write not a great nor true screenplay, but a bad, and very unreal melodrama.”

Donald Forbes: “To aver that there is ‘no truth’ makes impossible any attempt to understand anything. There are no such things as facts, merely assertions of points of view. Relativism as usual morphs into nihilism and destructiveness. …”

As Thomas Conway, Jr., wrote, ” it’s a shame sometimes that dead men can’t sue.”

Was the blogosphere born in the French Enlightenment?

Friday, October 28th, 2011


My friend, Anaïs Saint-Jude, sent me the link for this short piece, which brings the noble trade of blogging into disrepute.

Robert Darnton compares today’s blogging with what he considers an early-modern precursor, the “nouvelliste“:  “Gossip mongers who worked oral circuits of communication were known as ‘nouvellistes de bouche.’ When they reduced news to written anecdotes and strung the anecdotes together in manuscript “gazetins”, they graduated into the ranks of ‘nouvellistes à la main.”’

A couple samples of the genre:

The prince de Conti was knocked out of commission by a girl known as the Little F…..He blames it on Guerin, his medical advisor.

The duc de … surprised his wife in the arms of his son’s tutor. She said to him with an impudence worthy of a courtier, “Why weren’t you there, Monsieur? When I don’t have my esquire, I take the arm of my lackey.”

Well, of course I’d argue that not all blogging is of the scalding political kind, and not all of us are boiling scurrility and celebrity into one nasty soup.  Some of us politely exchange views about Tolstoy or Stendhal over our Limoges teacups.

Still, it’s reassuring that the much-ballyhooed breakdown of civility did not begin last year, despite the sanctimonious pronouncements of politicians.

The aptly named Amanda French, commenting on Darnton’s article, did her own research on the salon and journal culture of early 19th-century Paris – a bit later than the nouvellistes, admittedly – and was struck by this comment from the noted saloniste Delphine de Girardin, which she translates for us:

Finally, they say, “It’s hard to make a name for yourself in Paris.” Lie! Nothing is easier today. Published every morning, printed every week are a hundred enemy journals and twenty rival reviews that do nothing but talk, and which esteem themselves only too happy when you want to furnish them with some amusing pages for nothing, giving them the chance to say something a little malicious about their enemy while you show off. Nothing is easier for a young man of talent than to make a name in the journals. Ask rather about these old journalists without talent who are so celebrated.

“Boy, did that remind me of the blogosphere,” she writes.

But Darnton implies that these pre-bloggers were more than lazy gossip mongers. They may have lit the match that sparked the revolution:

“The anecdotes constituted the early-modern equivalent of a blogosphere, one laced with explosives; for on the eve of the Revolution, French readers were consuming as much smut about the private lives of the great as they were reading treatises about the abuse of power. In fact, the anecdotes and the political discourse reinforced each other. I would therefore argue that the early-modern blog played an important part in the collapse of the Old Regime and in the politics of the French Revolution. …

“I don’t believe that history teaches lessons, at least not in a direct, easily applied manner, but it does raise questions. Are blogs disrupting traditional politics today just as ‘libelles‘ did in eighteenth-century France?”

Over our teacups, we might point out – delicately of course – that Darnton himself is writing on a blog, denouncing the art of the blog from the blogosphere.  In fact, he himself realizes the irony as he pens his piece on the New York Review of Books blog.

Read more in his book,  The Devil in the Holy Water, or the Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon.

And we’ll have more to say on this topic at the Book Haven in a few days.

Postscript on 10/30:  Dave Lull sent me this link from 2Blowhards on the coffeehouse culture: “I’m not the first observer of the web and of blogdom to be reminded of the 17th and 18th century coffee-house. ‘It’s open! And everyone is having a say!’ – the parallels between now and then are striking. Even so, I haven’t yet run across a brief blog-intro to coffee-house culture. What was this coffee-house phenomenon about anyway?”  Check it out.

Rick Banks and his controversial question: “Is Marriage for White People?”

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Provocative author (Photo: Natalie Glatzel)

My friend Elaine Ray has an interesting recent post on Rick BanksIs Marriage for White People?, a book that, with a title like that, has obviously gotten a lot of attention.  She did a short Q&A with him here.

These days, “black women are about half as likely to be married as their 1950s counterparts,” he writes. “Marriage has also declined among black men, fewer than half of whom are husbands.”

Elaine’s interesting blog, My Father’s Posts, honors the journalism of her father, Ebenezer Ray, who emigrated to the New York from Barbados.  He died when she was 13.  Last month would have marked her parents’ 63rd wedding anniversary.  She describes her parents’ courtship and marriage this way:

I don’t know if my parents had planned to get married anyway or if the pregnancy [with Elaine’s older sister] forced their hand. There also is the possibility that my mother’s father, John Henry Brown, a  piano mover who is said to have been around 6’4″ with a shoe size in the vicinity of a 13 EEE, might have offered a bit of “encouragement.” My dad was 5’4”.

My father was a printer by trade; and though he was quite erudite, I don’t think he had a college degree. My mother, a social worker and teacher, did.  Until my dad’s death, their 19-year marriage seemed sturdy and stable. For most of their life together, before my father took ill, they were able to live on his salary. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, an arrangement my father preferred.

Faced with the same set of circumstances today, would my parents’ marriage have survived?  Would they have even gotten married in the first place?

Her own story is a quick review of some of the social dynamics within the African American communities decades ago.

Banks says he is offering no advice in his book, but he does conclude that black women might find their professional and intellectuals equals in other races.  Hence, the uproar. I guess I don’t quite understand.  Hasn’t interracial marriage been happening for some time now, in both directions?

One excerpt from Elaine’s interview:

ER: What kind of reactions have you gotten from black men to your book?

Ebenezer's daughter (Photo: Photo by Rachael Behrens)

RB: The reactions range from very positive – Kirkus Reviews described the book as “Triumphant”– to very negative. I’ve been called a “racial pimp” who is trying to “profiteer” off black women’s difficulties with “sensationalized bullcrap”  In addition to my “reprehensible title” I have been told that the book “relies on haphazard, shabby research and unsubstantiated theories wrapped in hollow, sophisticated rhetoric to make you give it a good look.” Of course, these comments are all from people who I know for certain haven’t read the book. 
 Those people who have read the book are struck by its candor, insight, and writing. My favorite response is from a New York Times editor who told me it was “unputdownable.”  One of my aims with the book is to promote a national discussion about the obligations of black women to black men.  The issues are complicated and emotionally fraught, and are perhaps best captured in the question of one CNN viewer: Do black women deserve better than what black men have to offer?

Aside from Kirkus, I think the reviewers were black men. Others are supportive, even if they don’t like, as my brother-in-law put it, “giving the white man a hunting license to take the black man’s woman from him.” “Brothers done lost so much,” he said, “now the woman going to be taken away too!”

I bristle a bit that men still talk about women this way,  as if women were objects without agency, to be passed or ceded from one party to another.  I know, I know, he’s only quoting.  Still I bristle.

Vladimir Sorokin “can eliminate one’s taste for lovemaking for a lifetime”

Monday, October 24th, 2011

The silver hair is lost in black & white (Elke Wetzig / Creative Commons)

Cannibalism, kinky violence, and scatology don’t normal fall within my range of reading material, but it’s always interesting and instructive to meet the author.

In this case, one of Russia’s most celebrated writers, Vladimir Sorokin, is a gentle, soft-spoken man, awkward in English and speaking with a slight stutter.  He’s hard to miss on campus, where he has started his one-month Stanford residency:  His flowing silver hair cascades to his shoulders.

As for the butcherings and bestiality in his writing – well, I guess he’s considered kind of a sci-fi writer. The protests against his books reached a crescendo in 2002, when protesters threw copies of his book into a huge papier-mâché toilet outside Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater.  (A notorious passage described sex between clones of Stalin and Khrushchev.)

During his pornography trial that year, one of his peers defended him, claiming “pornography is something that provokes indecency, yet reading Sorokin’s works can eliminate one’s taste for lovemaking for a lifetime.”

You can’t buy that kind of publicity.

From my short piece on him:

“According to [scholar Nariman] Skakov, many readers miss the point: “The beauty is not the shocking narrative, but what he does conceptually with the text.” For example, in one book, The Queue, it’s not entirely clear what commodity the characters are lining up for, and the lines of dialogue, including snatches of conversation, roll calls, jokes, howls of rage and amorous moans, are unattributed. Still the people in line wait patiently, doggedly, with several dozen blank pages representing the times when everyone is asleep on benches.

Sorokin’s dystopian science fiction books turn our mild anxieties and worst nightmares into art. His imagined future may include a Sinified Russian language or psychopathic cults, biomodification or hallucinogenic drugs, giant carrier pigeons the size of vultures and a cloned Dostoevsky or Pasternak, with characters and narrative lines that morph into others.”

The reading, with his translator Jamey Gambrell (I reviewed her translation of Marina Tsvetaea‘s Earthly Signs in the Los Angeles Times  here), began with Day of the Oprichnik, a book that opens in a futuristic Russia where czars are back and men in narrow beards wear kaftans and carry ray guns.  The narrator has “always the same dream” …  a white horse, “the stallion of all stallions, dazzling, a sorcerer…”

It all seemed sedate enough – but I ducked out after 45 minutes for a quick dinner with Mira Rosenthal, a current Stegner fellow and translator of poet Tomasz Różycki.

Ben Jonson: Not just another pretty face

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

You don’t know the half of Ben Jonson.

In this case, a half would be about 140 pounds, for he tipped the scales at 280.  Ugly little sucker, too: his chum Thomas Dekker described him as “a staring Leviathan” with “a terrible mouth” and “a parboiled face … punched full of oilet holes, like the cover of a warming pan.”

He’s not nearly so bad looking on the cover of Ian Donaldson‘s new Ben Johnson: A Life.  See right.

The Spectator reviews it here.  An excerpt:

“What a piece of work was Ben Jonson! If you lived in Elizabethan England and had just narrowly escaped the gallows after stabbing a man to death in an illegal duel, wouldn’t you want to keep your head down for a bit? Not Jonson. He converted to Catholicism.

A few months after the bishops of Canterbury and London, in 1599, declared the writing of satire illegal, what did Jonson produce? Every Man out of his Humour, a self-declared ‘comical satire’. The writing of history was also proscribed — Tacitean history being a particular sore point. So in 1603 Jonson produced Sejanus, a history play based on Tacitus. Epigrams were banned too. By 1612, Jonson got round to publishing some.

“Anyone would think he didn’t want to get on. Yet get on (despite the odd spell in chokey, and a fusillade of letters begging for forgiveness) is exactly what he did. He was the stepson of a bricklayer, with a criminal conviction for manslaughter, and a serial writer of plays that gave offence to court favourites — yet he became the pre-eminent dramatist and deviser of court entertainments of his era.”

Inevitably, the comparisons with William Shakespeare: “Though Shakespeare proved (in Jonson’s words) ‘for all time’, Jonson himself was eclipsed. What happened? He was classical, where Shakespeare was romantic.”  My goodness.  What on earth does those distinctions mean in the context of the 16th and 17th centuries?  The anonymous reviewer doesn’t quite figure this out.

The brush with murder is hardly a shocker, if you know how Christopher Marlowe was done in.  I wrote about that here (though the portrait that accompanies the story is almost certainly not Marlowe)  following the publication of David Riggs’s bio of Shakespeare’s rival poet, who may have been offed on orders of Queen Elizabeth I.  Moreover, Marlowe had tried his own hand at murder, or at least manslaughter:

“At the time of his death, Marlowe was a more prominent playwright than Shakespeare,” Riggs notes. By then, “Shakespeare had written Henry VI and Titus Andronicus, and they aren’t as good as Tambourlaine or Doctor Faustus.

In addition to being a revolutionary playwright, Marlowe was a blasphemer, a homosexual, a secret agent, “someone involved with a wide range of criminal activities,” Riggs says. In all probability, he wasn’t killed in a brawl but in a political hit, very likely on orders of Queen Elizabeth. …

Even in this unusual company, Marlowe stood out and was himself a subject for surveillance. He was a notorious brawler—in one case, the brawl resulted in a murder. Marlowe was held in Newgate, a “gloomy, rat-infested hold” for part of the time before he was discharged at trial.

By the way, David Riggs has his own 1989 biography of Jonson. See right.

Among these unsavory characters, the hardworking Shakespeare appears positively clean-cut, doesn’t he?

The MLA’s outspoken Russell Berman on college kids: “a hard time with sentences, vocabulary, and following an argument”

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

"A big shift from a century ago." (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Russell Berman is the current president of the Modern Language Association.  He also directs Stanford’s “Introduction to Humanities” program.  He’s a fierce advocate of foreign language study – I’ve written about his views here – but boy, he’s more determined and optimistic than I am about education.  He says he’s “not going to say if you’re going to be an educated man or woman, you have to have read Hamlet” (I would say exactly that), but he insists that even top-notch universities today must be “oriented towards skills acquisition” in reading. “That’s a big shift from a century ago,” he said without a hint of judgment, but with a serious desire to get down to business.

A few quotes from the video:

  • “What I hear from current [teaching] fellows is that students … have a hard time with sentences, they have a hard time with vocabulary, they have a hard time following an argument over several pages.” We need to “take them by the hand metaphorically and lead them through the clauses, lead them through the thickets of paragraphs.”
  • “Students can’t get to Sentence 2 because their reading habits are, with all respect, Harry Potter.  The toughest thing they read in high school is To Kill a Mockingbird, and they can’t get through those complex sentences. Not sentences from high literature, but from a scholarly article.”
  • “We haven’t done a census of this at Stanford, but I believe that students who don’t major in humanities don’t read after freshman year. They do something else, or read very minimally.” It’s not that we’re sending the wrong kids to college: “It’s about government policy, ‘No Child Left Behind,’ amplified by ‘Race to the Top,’ common core state standards.  They diminish the capacity for critical reading taught in high school.”
  • “I have big doubts about whether students entering college can read – and this is at Stanford as much as anywhere else.”
  • “Too many of our peer institutions, too many of the selective schools,  blind themselves by generating narratives about the excellence of their students. This is the marketing narrative that serves multiple purposes that have deleterious consequences.”  Among them, it causes us to neglect giving students the “scaffolding” to reading texts.
  • “I could make argument that this is essential to humanities and humanism. It’s all about reading.”
  • “No one was ever hired from one institution to another because he or she was a great teacher … This is not argument against research – but it’s a call to a recalibration between research and teaching” because of “the neediness of students.”

You can watch the bad news here (and more of his remarks in the comment section below):

Lying: Sam Harris and the $1.99 book

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

Over at the Daily Beast, neuroscientist Sam Harris threw down the gauntlet, and I picked it up.  For $1.99 I bought Lying, his book on radical honesty, and downloaded it to my Droid.

This makes me something of an anachronism, apparently, in an era where everyone wants everything now, free.

Where publishing is concerned, the Internet is both midwife and executioner. It has never been easier to reach large numbers of readers, but these readers have never felt more entitled to be informed and entertained for free. I have been very slow to appreciate these developments, and yet it is clear even to me that there are reasons to fear for the life of the printed book. Needless to say, many of the changes occurring in publishing are changes that neither publishers nor authors want.

The bestselling author points out that a Christopher Hitchens‘s article in the glossy Vanity Fair, praising the work of Joan Didion, gets fewer tweets and Facebook “likes” than one of his own blog posts – sometimes by a factor of ten. What’s worse, a heavily trafficked blog gets more hits than the entire splashy Vanity Fair magazine website.  It’s a sign of the impossible plight of my beleaguered profession:

Journalism was the first casualty of this transformation. How can newspapers and magazines continue to make a profit? Online ads don’t generate enough revenue and paywalls are intolerable; thus, the business of journalism is in shambles. Even though I sympathize with the plight of publishers—and share it by association as a writer—as a reader, I am without pity. If your content is behind a paywall, I will get my news elsewhere. I subscribe to the print edition of The New Yorker, but when I want to read one of its articles online, I find it galling to have to login and wrestle with its proprietary e-reader. The result is that I read and reference New Yorker articles far less frequently than I otherwise would. I’ve been a subscriber for 25 years, but The New Yorker is about to lose me. What can they do? I don’t know. The truth is, I now expect their content to be free.

So how does this get back to Lying?  In the “All Free, All Now” era, “If your book is 600-pages-long, you are demanding more of my time than I feel free to give. And if I could accomplish the same change in my view of the world by reading a 60-page version of your argument, why didn’t you just publish a book this length instead?” Harris’s response: the unprinted book that can be absorbed in one sitting.  In this case, Lying, a book about the need for absolute honesty in all aspects of one’s life.

It’s an interesting topic.  I would go further than he does, however.  Someone once defined lying as speaking about something one doesn’t know, as if one knew or could know.  For example, adhering to this standard would eliminate most political discussions, which would be a mercy.

I find that most lying, if not all, is an attempt to manipulate someone else’s reality to one’s own benefit – to control their choices by limiting the information they need to make informed choices, while keeping the full range of options for oneself.

It is said that no lie is innocent.  I thought of one exception: the lie to conceal a surprise birthday party.  But it pretty much stops there.

However interesting his topic, Harris’s gambit didn’t work, at least not entirely.  People still griped.

Some did not understand the format—a very short book that can be read in 40 minutes—and expected to get a much longer book for $1.99. Many wondered why it is available only as an ebook. Some fans of ebooks were powerfully aggrieved to find it available only on the Kindle platform—they own Nooks, or detest Amazon for one reason or another. However, the fact is that Amazon made it extraordinarily easy for me to do this; the Kindle Single is the perfect format for so short a book; and Kindle content can be read on every computer and almost any handheld device. I decided that it was not worth my time or other people’s money to publish Lying elsewhere, or as a physical book.

On the surface, the launch of Lying has been a great success. It reached the #1 spot for Kindle Singles immediately and #9 for all Kindle content. It is amazing to finish writing, hit “upload,” and watch one’s work soar and settle, however briefly, above the vampire novels and diet books.

I would be lying, however, if I said that I wasn’t stung by some of the early criticism. Some readers felt that a 9000-word essay was not worth $1.99, especially when they can read my 5000-word blog posts for free. It is true that I put a lot of work into many of my blog posts, but Lying took considerably longer to write than any of them. It is a deceptively simple book—and I made it simple for a reason. Some of my readers seem not to have appreciated this and prefer to follow me into my usual thickets of argument and detail. That’s fine. But it is, nevertheless, painful to lose a competition with oneself, especially over a difference of $1.99.

It didn’t quite work for me, either.  I still haven’t finished it.  If reading is confined to the in-between moments when I happen to have my Droid with me, not much more than an email message can be read in “one sitting.”  Moreover, aren’t all the health articles nowadays urging us not to sit on our cans for more than a few minutes at a time?

Everything seems to conspire against reading, nowadays.




Charlotte Salomon’s “antidotes to indifference”

Monday, October 17th, 2011

Yesterday I was one of the very last visitors to the six-month exhibition of nearly 300 of Charlotte Salomon‘s gouaches at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.  I almost overlooked the exhibition, ongoing since March 31, until John Felstiner reminded me during a reception last week.

I’m glad I caught it on its last day.  It’s an extraordinary show, of an extraordinary woman.

For those who don’t know the background, Salomon (1917-43) was a young German Jewish artist, hiding in the south of France after the Nazi takeover. Between 1940 and 1942, she worked feverishly, often without stopping to eat or sleep, to produce about 1300 paintings.

She hummed as she painted, and the gouaches often include titles or scraps of the music that accompanies these snapshots of her life.

They often, medieval fashion, show several thematically related or  sequential scenes on the same sheet of paper. Sometimes, like photography, she repeats the same image over and over on a sheet.  The total result was Life? or Theater? A Play with Music.

The Nazis caught up with her in 1943.  The 26-year-old was transported to Auschwitz, and probably killed the same day.

Her tragic story is not only an artistic triumph, however, but an existential one:  Her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, aunt, and a number of other relatives died by their own hands.  In unimaginable circumstances, she fought the suicidal impulses of generations, choosing to do something “utterly crazy” – a somewhat fictional, largely autobiographical operatic series of paintings combining text and images and, by the extension of imagination, music, too.  She famously put the series in the keeping of a friend, with the instructions, “Take good care of it. It is my life.” It is more than that, really: it aims at Gesamtkunstwerk, a Wagnerian “total work of art.”

Mary and John Felstiner (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I have Mary Felstiners biography, To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era – part of my research for my article on both the Felstiner’s examination of “creative resistance” during the Holocaust.  But when I got home, I thumbed through it’s pages with a new understanding.  I hadn’t realized quite how gripping Mary’s book is.  I won’t try to review a book I haven’t read, but here are a few words from the reviewers:

“Ms. Felstiner tells this harrowing tale clearly and emotionally. . . . Her account will spread the word about a talented and tragic hostage to her family and her times.” – Peter Gay, New York Times Book Review

“Something truly remarkable, a work of art in its own right and a masterpiece in the field of Holocaust studies. . . . At times, To Paint Her Life achieves a certain songlike quality and poetic grandeur it’s a fugue of art and history, love and pain, sexuality and politics – and it reaches a shattering crescendo in the very last, speculative passage.” – Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Times

The Salomon paintings at the Contemporary Jewish Museum return to Amsterdam’s Joods Historisch Museum.  I bought the catalogue – by the last day of the show, it was half off the listed price.

It includes a short essay by Jonathan Safran Foer, describing his discovery of Salomon’s work in Amsterdam.  He writes that “even more than praise, Life? or Theater? demands creation”:

Beautiful things are contagious, and no work of art has inspired me to strive to make art more than Life? or Theater? has. No work is better at reminding me what is worth striving for. The images I’ve selected for this exhibition [for the catalogue] are those I find myself most often returning to when nothing feels worth writing. They do not make sense as a thematic or stylistic group. They are simply my antidotes to indifference.


Michel Serres: Let’s become “renters” of the earth

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

During a recent visit to the Stanford University Press, Deputy Director Alan Harvey handed me Malfeasance, a slim $16 paperback by French thinker Michel Serres. In it, Michel suggests that we stop trying to “own” the world and become “renters” – that we establish a “natural contract with nature.”

I’ve blown Michel Serres’s horn before, and on this book before, too.  He’s an extremely prominent French intellectual – ubiquitous, really, with a regular radio spot.  An immortel of the Académie Française.

So here’s a bit more.

In Malfeasance, he distinguishes between “hard” polution, which includes “solid residues, liquids, and gases, emitted throughout the atmosphere by big industrial companies or gigantic garbage dumps, the shameful signatures of big cities,”  and “soft” pollution, that is, “tsunamis of writing, signs, images, and logos flooding rural, civic, public ad natural spaces as well as landscapes with their advertising.”

It’s the latter that seems to concern him most – the pollution of the mind.

He’s been called a stylist, and you can see why (and thanks to Anne-Marie Feenberg-Dibon for the translation).  An excerpt:

“Pollution grows with the production and consumption of goods, and therefore with the number of rich people with profusely overflowing garbage cans (hard) and overwhelming loudspeakers (soft). The parallel growth of property, money, and waste show their commonality; money and waste define one as an owner. The Anglo-Saxon term dumping refers to a commercial practice where the shipment of low-priced goods to foreign markets accurately recalls a public dump. A competitor will accuse his rival of throwing heaps of garbage on the market, in other words of appropriating the latter.  He says exactly what I want to say.

Avoiding pollution – both kinds – at Stanford (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“Global statistics show that owners who have acquired or rapidly increased their wealth pollute more than the poor, and the rich pollute more than the destitute, the dominating more than the dominated – in other words, those who own rather than those who have nothing. Refusing sometimes to sign draft agreements concerning the environment, plutocrats are suspicious even of ecological questions, accusing those who ask of plotting against expansion of their activities. To be sure, this touches on questions from the hard sciences, physics, and thermodynamics, or softer ones such as economics. But I repeat: these questions concern them less than the defense of or attack on appropriation that has been decided or desired from the start.

“What is more, the rich readily discharge waste – another case of dumping – where the very poorest live.  In this respect, the beltway surrounding Paris can serve as a revealing example.  Driving north toward the working-class neighborhoods, you will be dazzled to the point of nausea by aggressive images, billboards, and giant lights. If you go toward the residential western part, everything quiets down, greenery appears, and there is no more advertising.  The inhabitants of posh neighborhoods, the owners of brand marks, and the CEOs of media companies do not care to live in such abominations; in this respect, they are like those managers of TV channels who forbid their children to watch their own station’s programs. It is OK to besmirch others, but not one’s own residence or offspring.

The more wealth a man or a collectivity amasses, the more noise they make, soft but also hard; the louder the noise and the racket, the further their visual and acoustic productions or execrements will spread, the more hard power they have. Their images, smells, and voices reach far. The hard engedners the soft, which engenders the hard. The global invasion has begun.”