Mentally Stuck In The Library


civic-center-library-01The Scottsdale, Arizona library has a justly famous sculpture outside. My mother’s most vivid memories of me in Arizona are of me climbing on the pieces that make it up (it was allowed, I gather; and by the way, I am not talking about the ‘LOVE’ sculpture because that wasn’t there during my early childhood days in the southwest).

My most prominent memory of that library is actually of what felt like a terrible failure.

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Behind The Painting


After I bought this, my better half perked up. This book, she said, is a sort of classic. It’s one of those books that every Thai student is given to read in high school. She then quoted to me a translation of the final line, which is, apparently (and one other Thai person confirmed this to me), iconic.

I die with no one to love me, yet content that I have someone to love.

We were at a Cherry Blossom festival in San Francisco’s Japanese neighborhood (in LA, that neighborhood was called Little Tokyo, but I think in SF they called it Japantown) and I excused myself to check out Forest Books, a great little used bookstore, specializing in books about Asia and literature in translation. They had shelves devoted to Eastern European, Chinese, and Japanese literature. And they had a Southeast Asian shelf, so I figured I would see if they had anything from Thailand. Not knowing anything about it, I bought this.

It’s romantic, and I’m a sucker for that, even if it was a little slight.

Matisse/Diebenkorn At SFMOMA


While in San Francisco for a wedding (congratulations, L-!), my better half and I visited the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

While I appreciate the theory behind pairing Diebenkorn with Matisse to bring attention to the work of a NorCal painter (and I applaud SFMOMA for staging a blockbuster style exhibit that highlights a local artist) and appreciate them trying to find a new way to show a lot of Matisse paintings that isn’t just another retrospective, but… it all came together in a way that was unjust to both artists.

Besides the obvious: very few artists will not see their work pale with paired with one of the greats, like Matisse.

But also, Diebenkorn, someone I had not been familiar with before, but who is clearly an amazing painter, is reduced to his relationship to the influences of Matisse (for myself, I saw more Cezanne and Hopper than Matisse, but my opinion is suspect because, by the end, I was openly rebelling against the exhibit’s paradigm).

And we are presented with all these wonderful Matisses and they feel suffocated on the walls. Many of these works needed a little room to breathe and be appreciated for their own sake and not smushed (psychically and geographically) with someone else’s oeuvre.

Unrelated, they had two metal floor sculptures by Carl Andre that I made my better half stand on (because you could – as long as you wore shoes).

I first encountered his work at the Pompidou Centre. I swear it was his 144 Zinc Squares. An internet search revealed that that museum has Tin Squares, but my memory is so clear, I have to believe that it was Zinc Squares that I saw that day. But this is all besides the point.

The first time I saw 144  [Some Kind of Silvery Colored Metal] Squares, my mind was blown. But I didn’t realize you could walk on it. I went back (because I loved that museum so much) and read that visitors could walk on it. And if my mind was blown the first time, then this time, well, insert some kind of metaphor (maybe something involving nuclear explosions, but nothing tasteless that directly references actually nuclear disasters, which includes the dropping of the atomic bombs in World War II and morally outrageous nuclear tests on Pacific islands, but feel free to make some kind of Godzilla reference). To this day, I can still remember the sensation of walking on a piece of art and the electric sensation that ran from my feet to my brain. Probably, my love of conceptual art stems from that day.

‘Burr’ By Gore Vidal


Vidal signed my copy of his early novel, The Judgment of Paris, at the West Hollywood Book Festival some ten years ago. I read it, enjoyed it, but did not give him much more thought.

When The Best of Enemies, about the 1968 Buckley-Vidal debatescame out, I rushed to see it with a friend at the E Street Theater downtown and, for the first time, saw Vidal as a monumental figure.

But, in a way like Christopher Hitchens (who had a fraught relationship with Vidal), you wonder whether there will be any cultural memory of him twenty years after his death. Will his books and essays be read?

So, I decided to read one of his most famous (and best reviewed) novels, Burr.

Will Burr last?

Maybe. Yes. No.

A little, is probably the best answer. Much better than middlebrow (midcult?), but a shade below masterpiece or classic. It’s far, far, far, far, far, far better than Gone With the Wind, but I can see it having a similar lifespan. Mitchell’s novel has maintained an incredible cultural cachet and readership over the years, but is, I think, finally fading (mainly because it is unreconstructed claptrap).

But the real novel in question.

The character of Aaron Burr himself is a fantastic creation and the novel acts as a fantastic apology/redemption for the figure. For those who don’t the story of the novel, a man named Charles Schuyler finds himself becoming the biographer – or, really, the scribe for a memoir – of Burr. The novel jumps between first person sections from Schuyler’s perspective on his own life in New York City in the 1830s and then first person sections from Burr’s perspective, narrating major parts of his history (and, necessarily, the founding of America).

Based on my own (admittedly slight) readings of original texts from the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Vidal has a nice sense of an earthy, pre-Victorian mindset for Burr (though it’s still a modern novel; also, thankfully, with regular and recognizable spelling) – less so for Schuyler. His Burr’s depiction of a craven, political Thomas Jefferson is as frighteningly hilarious as his thin-skinned, conniving, and barely competent George Washington.

American history during this period is not really my forte and I’m not going to act as judge on much of the accuracy of this – I just don’t know enough of Revolutionary and early post-Revolutionary American history to stand in judgment – and I know enough about Vidal to believe that, even if he would fudge for literary reasons, he did voluminous research. It’s certainly not news to say that Vidal is deliberately revisionist, in the sense of changing how we view the sacred icons of our founding fathers.

I have read that Vidal’s so-called ‘Narratives of Empire’ (of which this was the first book) is intended to show the evolution of America into an empire, but Burr ultimately feels elegiac. You could say an elegy for a dream lost to dreams of empire, but that’s not what it feels like to me. Schuyler missed the Revolutionary War and is somewhat in between epochs. Around long enough to hear the myths and truths of a great age, but not old enough to have experienced it.

 

The Social Contract


  I’m not going to explain Rousseau’s Social Contract. Frankly, if you’re reading this, you can look up what better folks than I have to say about the Swiss philosopher meant or should have meant or maybe meant. Also, you probably have access to a public library. And if that public library is poorly stocked in terms of Enlightenment philosophy and commentary, there are university libraries. Maybe you can’t check out a book, but there is pretty much no barrier to simply going inside and spending a few hours reading up on the subject.

What struck me was how some of his remarks are quite prophetic in their implicit criticism of some of the structural problems affecting the American (and global) economy.

Very early on, he criticizes what today we might call rentier capitalism. In The Social Contract, he is speaking purely about land (possession of agricultural still being the avenue towards wealth and the source of the aristocracy’s wealth), but the idea is easily transferable to modern financial instruments.

Possession of land, he says, must, in part, be justified by ‘labor and cultivation.’ Modern financial instruments do little to actually invest in production or innovation or much of anything (if I buy AT&T stock, AT&T does not suddenly have extra capital to expand broadband access; rather, I have simply given money to the someone who used to own the stock). In other words, they do not participate in ‘labor and cultivation.’

Later, he also explicitly attacks finance directly, as a destructive force that drives government away from the business of public service and which replaces ‘community’ (though he references the city-state, which shouldn’t be taken too literally, but rather as a reference to Greek philosophy and an idealized, Athenian-style polis) with money.

On economic inequality:

It is precisely because the force of circumstances tends continually to destroy equality that the force of legislation should always tend to its maintenance.

His distinction between ‘will’ and ‘force’ are in the context of the difference between the legislative and executive branches, which is less interesting and, in one sense, posits ‘will’ as the act of legislation and ‘force’ as the act of execution of said legislation (later, he also says that separation of the legislative and executive is necessary in a democracy). But he is pretty explicit that will is a moral cause (using ’cause’ in a loose, but not too loose, philosophical sense).

He gets what Machiavelli was trying to do in The Prince. Ostensibly writing for a prince, but actually writing for a future, restored republic.

Rather interestingly, he notes that, sometimes, slavery was a necessity for a form of democracy. He notes that widespread use of slaves in ancient Sparta might have been what allowed Spartan citizens to be free to participate in the government and direction of their city.

It’s interesting because, more and more, it is clear that American democracy was built on the economic back of slavery – that only the economic benefits (benefits for the white, male elite who created American democracy) of slavery allowed for the existence of America, both intellectually and practically.

The old copy of the book that I read had a slip of paper in it (actually, a piece torn from an envelope), with an address in my writing to the Open Fist Theatre Company in Los Angeles. It’s not far from my old apartment in Hollywood, though I don’t remember going there.

Pens


  
This article about judging NYC art galleries based upon their pens seemed like just my kind ‘o thing. I can totally respect the idea of critiquing galleries and of expecting them to have something more than the usual. Pens, too, are a tool for creating art.

Even though my professional writing is almost invariably done on a computer, I am painfully fussy about my pens.

For years, I had single pen; a fountain pen. It had no brand name on it (though it used cartridges made by Waterman), but it had been a gift of Jose and Nico – two friends from Spain – and it was slender and graceful. A perfect writing instrument. It broke after almost ten years during a particularly soul crushing and unhappy Christmas in New York.

I looked for something to replace it and settled on a Cross Century II in chrome. As to pile on the misery, that model has been discontinued, but it has been a sturdy friend so far. The style in fountain pens these days is ostentatious and big and thick. The fountain pen as a tool for Freudian compensation. But I got used to a finer, more elegant style (are you noticing the rhetorical tools that I’m using to dismiss the favored style of fountain pens?) and though I haven’t found anything so slender as the father of my fountain pens, the Century II is comparatively slender, which is why I chose it.

I love this particular kind of notebook – I believe they were originally designed as school composition books – that I used to buy at this shop in LA’s Little Tokyo. They had strange sentences on the front that were clearly more or less literal translations from the Japanese, things like: This notebook is good for writing sentences.

Anyway, a good fountain pen that feels right, fits in the hand and has the correct, tactile feel when you put it to paper, is also ‘good for writing sentences.’

 

To Read, Or Not To Read


In bars, that is.

Because I saw this HuffPo post entitled Bars Are Great for Writers, But Not for Reading. Obviously, it was intended to gin up (did you see that pun I just made) some flames and back and forth and what not and it certainly got my goat.

You see, I love reading in bars.

I don’t get to do it much anymore. One of the things I really didn’t count when I became deeply involved with someone was that my solitary time at bars would greatly diminish. In fact, I think it’s safe to say it has nearly zeroed out.

But back in the day, it was my thing. And I loved it. The Pig an Whistle on Hollywood Boulevard was my haunt for several years. I would straggle in and belly up to the bar and drink Stella Artois and eat wonton chip nachos (so good!) and read. There are even certain books I have had trouble reading since my bar time diminished. Deleuze and Guattari’s almost deliberately unreadable Anti-Oedipus is actually more comprehensible when the intake of alcohol and alcohol absorbing nachos is properly balanced. Fully sober, the ‘body without organs’ means almost nothing to me.

There were novels and wonderful books that I read almost entirely inside the confines of a bar: Yabba Dew’s in Gulfport, Florida; the Pig and Whistle in Los Angeles; the Black Prince in Atlanta. The bartenders were understanding and I think the bars did okay, in spite of my apparently flagrant violation of the set purpose of the establishments.