Friday, January 30, 2009

Brief Notes

The New York Times is reporting, January 30, that Barack Obama is reversing the previous president’s policies on labor, and he is supporting labor organizing and fair contracts; and, also, President Obama has signed an anti-discrimination employment bill into law (for fair pay despite gender and more opportunity to pursue legal means of handling being the victim of discrimination).

Arianna Huffington comments from Davos: “The widespread contrition permeating Davos is matched by an unnerving feeling of paralysis. The people here -- and we are talking about some of the most influential people on the planet -- seem confused, at a loss about how to attack the financial crisis.” (Huffington Post, January 29, 2009)

Greencine Daily (January 29) announces that a new film, Barry Jenkins’s Medicine for Melancholy, is opening in New York and soon elsewhere—(Detroit (Feb. 13), Seattle (Feb. 20), San Francisco (Feb. 27) and Los Angeles (Feb. 27)— and the film, a love story, is set in San Francisco and features African-Americans and cycling.

I have just received notice that “The Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Oxford will host the 2009 International Conference of the Friedrich Nietzsche Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 11-13 September 2009, at St. Peter’s College, Oxford.” The conference will discuss “Nietzsche philosophy of mind in relation to his philosophical naturalism”; and scheduled speakers include: Günter Abel, Brian Leiter, Graham Parkes, Peter Poellner, Bernard Reginster, John Richardson, Galen Strawson. The deadline is March 15, 2009 for those who want to submit (abstracts for) papers. Contact: Dr. Peter Kail & Dr. Manuel Dries, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford.

John Updike

Writer's Note: John Updike, born March 18, 1932, was a prolific writer--a novelist, essayist, and poet--and I saw him not longer after I first moved to New York at the 92nd Street Y, reading on stage from his work, many years ago; and I wrote about him briefly for a literary journal (comments below); and he, with lung cancer, died a few days ago, January 27, 2009.

John Updike. Seek My Face. New York. Alfred A. Knopf. 2002. 276 pages. ISBN 0-375-41490-8.

John Updike’s novel Seek My Face is a fiction inspired by the painters Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and others, with Hope Ouderkirk standing in for Krasner, Zack McCoy for Pollock, and Guy Holloway as a combination of others. The story is told through an interview format, with a young internet reporter visiting Hope’s country house near the end of her life; and this allows for a comprehensive telling of twentieth-century American art’s development and the intensity of the complicated lives that produced it, but this structuring also gives the book a stiff quality, with most of the drama located in the past. The novel is, of course, thoughtful, well-researched, and observant, but it only came to life for me in the intellectual conversations between the artists in New York’s Cedar Tavern, the rude exchanges between abusive Zack and the intelligent, direct Hope, and the tenderness between Hope and her last of three husbands, a successful and loving businessman and art collector, at his deathbed. The exchanges between Hope and the admiring but interrogating reporter allow comments about the exploitive, scandal-chasing nature of the press (there were allegations that Zack had been involved in all-male orgies), brief commiseration between two working women of different generations over the ways of men, and intriguing moments of kindness when Hope feeds the reporter and attends to her comfort.

Sometimes Updike’s dialog is amusing, as when Hope says, “People speak of natural foods as if nature isn’t where everything bad ultimately comes from,” or, after lunch, when Hope takes issue with one of the reporter’s questions by saying, “Kathryn, the tuna salad has made you so oppositional.”

Reading the novel, I was taken aback by crude references to blacks (“long legged coons loping along A Hundred Twenty-fifth Street”) and homosexuals (“fairies”), odd references to Jewish characteristics, an unpleasant recounting of fellatio, small damning nods to jazz and contemporary art, and the many run-on sentences. (Hope’s aside regarding social justice concerns: “…I didn’t have the patience myself, it seemed very pretentious, with an undertone of violence toward the elected government that reminded me of Fascism, simple fallible government not good enough for fine spirits…” Another aside: “When you look at these Middle Eastern men, with these five days’ beards so they all look like terrorists…”) What is an accurate presentation of the vocabulary of the time, or an expression of a particular character, and what is Updike’s petty indulgence?

The title Seek My Face refers to divinity’s call; and art is sometimes thought an exploration of spirituality, and this was one of Hope’s artistic goals. Unfortunately, the appeal of the book remains historical and, as the history of the American twentieth-century art Updike focuses on most is well-known, the novel offers no significant surprises or satisfactions; and yet, it is descriptive, intelligent, and, even during its vaguely repellent moments, worth reading.

(c) DG

New York State of Mind

Writer's Note: I haven't been in New York since September 2008 and I miss it, and miss it less than I thought I would, but much more than I can convey; and this piece, written about seven years ago, captures some of what I think there is to miss...

Memorial Day 2002
A Letter from New York: “Tomorrow Mountain”

On 13 Conversations about One Thing, Gosford Park,
Verve Remixed
, Lena Horne, and Imagining a Changed World

I stood at the edge of a block looking down the street, trying to decide if I wanted to walk down this street to get to the main avenue on which I’d walk until I found a place where I wanted to eat. I stood and I watched the green car go slowly—certainly no more than twenty-five to thirty miles an hour—down the street when suddenly an East Indian girl, slim and in a purple top and black shorts, backed into the street to catch what looked like a spongy football. From my perspective she seemed far enough in front of the car to make it to the other side of the street…

I had expected it to be another quiet holiday weekend. I had made no significant plans; I rarely made significant plans these days. On Thursday, May 23rd, I saw Oliver Parker’s The Importance of Being Earnest, an entertaining movie with especially good performances by Frances O’Connor and Colin Firth, though not as well-made or as potent as Parker’s treatment of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. (I also found Rupert Everett meretricious in both films.) On Friday, I saw 13 Conversations about One Thing, a film directed by Jill Sprecher. The film unfolds in the form of interconnected cinematic short stories set in New York and focusing on the meaning of existence and the occurrence of happiness, love, and luck. One segment featured a manager in an insurance claims office who has a rather bitter take on life, played by Alan Arkin. The manager has been work-driven, and that alienated him from his wife and son, and so he now has an ex-wife and a son who is a drug addict, thief, and subject to legal prosecution. The manager has a conversation in a bar with a successful young lawyer, played by Matthew McConaughey, in which the lawyer disputes the notion of luck, and on his way home the lawyer hits a young woman, and leaves her, but suffers guilt. The young woman, a housecleaner who had previously believed her life had a purpose even though she wasn’t sure what it was, is played by Clea DuVall. The accident is one thing that forces this young woman to reconsider her positive perspective; another more important factor is her being suspected a thief by a man whose apartment she conscientiously cleaned. The filmmaking is austere, clear, and the conversations, direct and believable, contain daily details, observations, questions, feelings, and human contradictions. The conversations are part of stories that connect and flash back on one another to create an interesting puzzle-like form in an exploration of contemporary human existence, making this the kind of film that justifies and enriches my own film-going experience.

Saturday, I took the train from Queens into Manhattan to see a personal acquaintance perform as part of a band named George in the bandshell in Central Park, near Summerstage, not far from 72nd Street. The concert started a little after noon, and the group consisted of two guitar players, a harmonica player, a drummer, a lead singer and two backup singers. The music was uptempo rock with strong rhythm and blues and folk music influences (Native American, for one; and country for another, according to the lead singer). The show was part of a Memorial Day weekend celebration. There was military personnel in attendance, with men in camouflage clothes wrestling on a mat (their faces were bland and boyish, but their eyes had a kind of hypnotized glaze that made me wonder about repressed homoeroticism); and there was also a display of guns and artillery. I enjoyed the musical performance, then walked over and spoke to the wife of the guitar player who’d invited me. She and I had met when we worked for a nonprofit corporation in the early 1990s, and had become friends, a friendship partly rooted in my sense of her as more bohemian and radical than she actually was. I hadn’t seen her or her husband in about a year, and there was now a hesitant affection and attention when we spoke. When her husband joined us, he gave her a hug, hugged me, then he picked up their daughter. They are an “interracial couple,” she African-American and he an American of European descent, and their daughter is an obviously loved child. I told him I liked the show though the acoustics weren’t good, and he agreed that the bandshell hadn’t actually been built for that kind of music (electric music?). He went back to help pack up the band’s instruments, and me and my friend talked a little before I said goodbye.

I walked through a pathway designated as a poets’ walk; it is a broad walkway lined with benches, fences, trees, and beyond the trees are lawns; and it is one of my favorite places in the park. Nearby was a large sculpture in the form of a silver tree, the kind of thing that might be seen as ugly or vulgar, but I liked it.

I began to walk out of the park. I thought about the hesitance that had hovered over my conversation with my friend. I thought about the things within me that had sometimes made my own life difficult: my idealism, my shyness, my impatience with others, and my anger at perceived misunderstandings and stupidity.

Then, I delivered a package of journals featuring my published work to an older male friend who lived near by. He’d told me when we’d had lunch in the restaurant Josephina near Lincoln Center weeks before that he wanted to see the publications. I walked around before going to see Robert Altman’s Gosford Park for the second time, this time in a theater on the upper east side of Manhattan.

The film had broken and been crudely repaired since I’d first seen it—it’s been playing for months. However, it’s a very good-looking film, well-organized, with smooth pacing. The film is set in England on a large country estate. It is a comedy of manners, a melodrama of bad marriages and relationships, a critique of class roles, and a murdery mystery, with an implicit tribute to art in the appreciated piano and singing performances of Jeremy Northam as actor-singer Ivor Novello. All the film’s performances are terrific. I especially liked Ryan Phillippe, Clive Owen, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emily Watson, Kelly MacDonald, and Jeremy Northam. If the film has a flaw, I cannot see it. Leaving I asked the concession stand operator, a very young man, if he liked working in the theater and he indicated that it was a rather mixed experience. Walking away from the theater, it occurred to me that, unlike in the past, I rarely saw films on the upper east side of Manhattan. I used to see films all over the city often, and now I’m more likely to see films in Greenwich Village, the refurbished Times Square area, the west side of Manhattan, or in Queens. I thought how easy it is to develop habits and made a small promise to vary soon the theaters I visited.

I walked around the city, and I didn’t get home until late, and I read and listened to music before falling asleep: Verve Remixed, and Lena Horne’s Stormy Monday.

The Verve album provides an opportunity for contemporary dance music producers to give the voices of singers such as Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nina Simone new musical contexts, though it is a sense of emotional or social context that many of the songs lack thanks to these remixes. (The dance music is almost abstract, which gives it a likeness to some jazz; however, jazz has greater sonic texture, and one perceives more intellectual and emotional content, more humanity, in jazz.) One of the strongest productions on Verve Remixed is Dinah Washington’s “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” with a remix by Rae and Christian. Washington brings the world into the song in her attitude—tough, honest. The two Nina Simone selections are probably the best. Simone is an iconoclast, and her “Feelin’ Good,” remixed by Joe Claussell, has a jazzy ambience with percussion and tinkling piano. Simone’s “See-Line Woman” is remixed by Masters at Work. Ella Fitzgerald’s “Wait Till You See Him,” remixed by De-Phazz, is terrific, enchanted and enchanting, full of desire and admiration. However, Sarah Vaughan’s “Summertime,” remixed by UFO, has the greatest of singers hardly making an impression. Nor is the Shirley Horn (“Return to Paradise”), remixed by Mark De Clive-Lowe, or Billie Holiday (“Don’t Explain”), remixed by Dzihan and Kamien, noteworthy. However, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” remixed by Tricky, has a blaring trumpet and drumbeats that offer nice accents to Holiday’s dramatic reading. Possibly this album will serve as an introduction of these singers to a new generation. (Must the preferred styles of the young be utilized to attract them or are talent, intelligence, and use-value enough?)

The Lena Horne record is a pleasure. First released in 1957, the album has just been re-released with ten bonus tracks for a total of twenty-one. The original album’s highlights include: “Tomorrow Mountain,” by Duke Ellington and John LaTouche, along with “Summertime,” by Gershwin and Heyward, “Mad about the Boy,” by Noel Coward, “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home?,” by Warfield and Williams, “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home,” by Arlen and Mercer, and “Just One of Those Things” by Cole Porter. The bonus tracks include: “Come Runnin’,” by Roc Hillman, “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” by Rodgers and Hammerstein II, and “Sweet Thing” by Walberg and Herget. Horne sings these songs as if they are part of her natural method of self-expression.

Many of these songs are love songs, and the secret, or the principal energy, in Lena Horne’s singing on this album might be eroticism. One of my favorite songs on the album, a bonus release, is “What’s Right for You (Is Right for Me),” written by Doris, Goodman, and Gluckman. Horne sounds charming, excited, and (to my ears) sexually greedy—she sounds almost masculine in her directness, in that usually one hears a man “on the make,” but not a woman—and it’s a funny, sexy, and wholly persuasive performance.

“Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home” is an assertion of restless independence, but there’s a movement in the song when the music goes low and Horne’s voice turns contemplative. One hears a reflection on the lyrics, and of the self’s interpretation of phenomena, that evoke the mystery of personality.

Lena Horne was born in Brooklyn, New York, but I often think that I hear something southern in her very feminine voice. (Masculine? Forceful. Feminine? Pretty, sensitive. Horne’s singing is at once forceful, pretty, and sensitive.) Horne’s career began when she was very young, and she was performing in the chorus line at the Cotton Club by the time she was 17. She performed as a singer with several well-known bands, including those of Noble Sissle, Charlie Barnet, Teddy Wilson, and Artie Shaw. She starred in the films Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. She was favored as a World War II pin-up among African-American soldiers. However, neither Horne’s career or glamour image prevented her from becoming involved in the Civil Rights movement, which she did as part of the National Council for Negro Women and as an individual. Unfortunately, her father, son, and husband died in the early 1970s and she withdrew from performing. She returned almost a decade later, co-starring in The Wiz with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, and starring in her own one woman show on Broadway, The Lady and Her Music, which received critical and popular acclaim. Her more recent albums, such as We’ll Be Together Again, exemplify her unique talent.

In “Tomorrow Mountain,” the song that begins the Stormy Weather album, Horne sings, “Just across Tomorrow Mountain there’s a happy city, they say.” It is a happy city where people are grand and every day is Christmas, with a “scotch and soda fountain” and “cigarette trees.” Kitchens are lined with gold, it rains Chanel No. 5, and there are diamond bushes. “Can’t you see Tomorrow Mountain? Can’t you watch it glimmer and glow? It’s a wonderful town, that’s upside down…and it’s full of easy dough. Won’t you pack your bags and go?” It is, of course, a utopia: nowhere; but Horne sings this song and the other songs on the album with an enthusiasm and intensity that make the album as fresh as morning coffee, afternoon sun, or evening coolness.

Sunday, I came into the city and had a late breakfast in a pleasant diner in the upper 40s on the west side. I walked downtown and stopped at Barnes & Noble on 8th Street and read from Robin D.G. Kelley’s The Black Radical Imagination in which he argues that love and hope, a vision of changed selves and changed institutions, not oppression and anger, have most inspired political thought and social movements. Then I sat in Washington Square Park reading from The Works of Plato. Reading Plato on Socrates, I thought how interesting it was that Socrates’ attempts at acquiring knowledge and providing philosophical critique were hampered by rumor and the personal vanity and resentment of others, as well as established tradition supported by the power of the state. How little and how much has changed?

I thought about things I have hoped for over the years: intellectual comrades, and financial security.

I slept in a little late on Monday, Memorial Day. I had dreamed that I was happily helping a female relative cook a holiday meal, a pleasant dream that caused me pain upon awaking—she has, in fact, been dead for five years.

I went out for a turkey breast sandwich and sat in a park, where I ate. I thought about how being disenfranchised (not part of established systems of effort and reward) is similar to being free in that one has the time to pursue one’s inclinations—though, unlike a state of freedom, one doesn’t have the opportunity or resources. I went home, and went to bed, listening to music, reading, sleeping. I read some of Jerry Rosco’s biography of writer Glenway Wescott and a newspaper article in which someone said people should take a moment from their shopping and barbecuing to remember that Memorial Day is intended to commemorate people who gave their lives in service to their country. I woke in late afternoon, did minor chores, then felt very hungry and went out.

I stood at the edge of a block looking down the street, trying to decide if I wanted to walk down this street to get to the main avenue on which I’d walk until I found a place where I wanted to eat. I stood and I watched the green car go slowly—certainly no more than twenty-five to thirty miles an hour—down the street when suddenly an East Indian girl, slim and in a purple top and in black shorts, backed into the street to catch what looked like a spongy football. From my perspective she seemed far enough in front of the car to make it to the other side of the street, but she was not. She was hit. A small crowd began to gather, and I began to walk toward the accident. The girl—about 13?—was in a semi-fetal position on the ground, mostly unmoving. The street was one block away from the one on which I lived, parallel to it, and I often walked here but I did not know the girl who was hit nor did I know the people gathering. Someone, after hesitating to watch, went inside to call an ambulance. The tanned woman in the car, middle age, attractive with dyed blonde hair, cried out, “You see, I stopped,” then “Would someone please call my husband?” She had an accent but I’m terrible with accents: was she Latino, East European, East Indian? There are no pay phones on the street, which is lined with private family homes. I watched for a time, but didn’t like the sight of the growing crowd. Were they concerned or was this entertainment? I couldn’t do anything. I walked away, and saw an ambulance coming.

I walked to a pizza place for a couple of slices. I thought of how quickly the accident had happened and wondered how anyone who saw it could be entirely sure of what he saw: was the girl’s top purple and her shorts black? When I got back to the scene of the accident, the girl, the woman in the car, the crowd, and the ambulance were gone. I asked a man on the street, “Did the ambulance take the girl to the hospital?” He said, “I don’t know anything about that.” Neither did I. We are simply unknown and unknowing neighbors.

(c) DG

Thursday, January 29, 2009

United Daughters of the Confederacy

Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, and he is the forty-fourth president; and much has been made of him being the first African-American president, a distinction trumpeted so much on his inauguration day that it sounded like an official title. I thought the iterations of the man's ethnicity were a sign of how simple rather than how sophisticated Americans are, but days ago, I was in a south Louisiana library that is getting rid of some of its magazine stock and I saw copies of the United Daughters of the Confederacy magazine being sold for ten cents, and I looked through some of them and bought two copies as historical items. The United Daughters of the Confederacy publications are dated 1972 and they are reminders of how recently racism has been a proud fact of southern life.

The members of United Daughters of the Confederacy were not only old women whose fathers or grandfathers were involved with the American civil war on the side of slavery, but individuals who were very young, and both female and male, in 1972 (there are photographs of members in the magazine; and, I wonder, where are they now?). The September 1972 United Daughters of the Confederacy magazine issue features a "Beliefs of Our Forefathers" article on page 29 under the rubric "Children of the Confederacy," a regular feature of the publication. In the article on confederate beliefs, the writer, who goes by her husband's name, and styles herself "historian and news editor," Mrs. Charles L. Deevers, discusses a confederate "catechism" that includes a defense of states' rights, saying that what led to the war between the states was "the disregard of those in power for the rights" of the southern states, the right to self-regulation. She, Mrs. Deevers, asserts that the "people of the south did not believe that slavery was right, and many felt that the south could work out their own problems and would eventually free the slaves because they were becoming the white man's burden." The writer discusses the economic concerns of slave holders (the economic loss if enslaved Africans were freed; and the high tariff proposed by northerners) and the "historian" Mrs. Deevers insists that enslaved Africans were well-cared for because they were valuable property ("They were well cared for because they were important to their owners") and goes on to note the "many stories" of kindness shown to Negroes; but, she says the Dred Scott decision "caused more trouble" and Abraham Lincoln's election "was the final blow." These unreconstructed views are interesting to read, though repellent; and I am reminded--thanks to Wayne Parent's book Inside the Carnival: Unmasking Louisiana Politics, from LSU Press, 2004, that even after the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution were passed, the south resisted respecting Africans and African-Americans; and southern states passed laws to disenfranchise blacks and prevent voting and civic participation, an exercise of states' rights, matters that made necessary the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. (I recall, too, W.E. B. DuBois's commentary on the south's behavior after the civil war in The Souls of Black Folk.)

In the November 1972 issue of the United Daughters of the Confederacy magazine, in an article under the heading "Children of the Confederacy" on education by "historian" Mrs. Charles L. Deevers (page 27), the author Mrs. Deevers notes that there were no public schools in the south before the war, that planters' children were educated at home, that northern textbooks drove "intelligent" southern male teachers out of the teaching profession (just as later, southern boys were inclined to leave the classroom for the battlefied), that a southern or confederate teaching assocication was formed in 1862, that girls schools were expensive, etc. It is a rather feeble attempt to affirm white southern intelligence and education, the kind of thing that is rebutted with even small research or logical thinking. For instance, in the book The History of Southern Literature, edited by Rubin, Jackson, Moore, Simpson, and Young, from LSU Press, 1985, Lewis P. Simpson in "The Mind of the Antebellum South" and Elisabeth Muhlenfeld in "The Civil War and Authorship" discuss the limits of southern intellectual and literary life. The south did have artists, intellectuals, and scientists, but because of their irrationalism and pride--because of their commitment to refusing to register or respect the humanity of Africans, and the southern dependence on and defense of slavery--the antebellum south had few lasting or significant intellectual or literary accomplishments. It is a great example of how response to others can lead to self-betrayal: limiting the empathy and imagination with which we view others can lead to intellectual limits that curtail what we can think and do.

It was just a few years after 1972, when Jimmy Carter was inaugurated, an event I watched with my class: and one of the students, a southern white boy, said something on the order of, "Well, we have the niggers to thank for that." (It may have been the same white boy who wrote me, just weeks ago, wanting to get in touch with me, his old classmate. I wonder sometimes, more and more, if other people do not remember the things that I recall.)

Politics, the struggle over resources and values, a struggle that determines the social order, is a realm of compromise and reconciliation at its best; and Barack Obama is a figure of reconciliation. Obviously the election of Barack Obama is a sign of enlightenment, though it does not augur a perfect age or a perfect people: for one thing, the United Daughters of the Confederacy remains an active group, with an online presence, and its current leader states, "I am a member of The United Daughters of the Confederacy because I feel it would greatly please my ancestor to know that I am a member. It would please him to know that I appreciate what he did and delight his soldier love to know that I do not consider the cause which he held so dear to be lost or forgotten."

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Draft: "Inaugurations"

Writer's Note: I scribbled these lines a couple of days ago, and I'm not sure what the sum is--verse or a story, or an outline for a short film, or all of those; and the intended meaning is fairly elemental--the difficulty of governing human emotion and impulse.


The inauguration in Washington
of the elegant, smart man,
pale brown in an elegant, smart suit,
and watched by millions
will change everything tomorrow,
but now as the parade passes before him,
on a noisy New York street
a skinny boy with sandy hair waits
outside an apartment building
for a girl he likes, and likes too much,
to be sent to the corner store
by her mother,
and the boy is watched by a man
in shorts, with a rubber waist band,
despite the chill (he wears a jacket).
The man has seen the boy before
and cannot forget him--
is irritated by him--
and tries to scare him
but the boy won't scare.
Finally, the man gets the boy
to agree to share the girl's attention
and they both wait.

Unfortunately, the boy's mother
is not watching him,
but is watching men come and go
in a pornography shop,
and when the police carry her out
she explains that she'd prefer to sell coffee
but can't get hired
and as they carry the disturbed woman
past her son on the sidewalk
she is still explaining
and as her son calls one of the policemen Father
(she told him they soon would meet his unknown father)
and then as the boy calls her Mother
and asks where she is going
she is still explaining
and the boy follows
distracted from his girl
and the man in shorts and jacket waits.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

I watched the inauguration today of the new president and vice-president of the United States, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden; and I thought it was a lovely, thoughtful ceremony, with the performance of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" sung by Aretha Frankiln and the closing benediction by Joseph Lowery, two people who embody history, and the classical piece by Yo Yo Ma and his colleagues, the inclusive poem by Elizabeth Alexander, and the very honest and intelligent speech by Barack Obama. It was good to see the greeting the outgoing president and his wife gave to the Obamas at the White House (following a church service and before the inauguration); and to see the goodbye that the Obamas gave to the Bushes following the inauguration. Barack Obama is an icon: he, handsome and elegant, represents intellect, political progress, and cultural complexity. He speaks now, as he has before, about the work we all must do together.

I am reminded of conversations I would have sometimes with an acquaintance in the city (there is only one city in the United States: all other towns aspire to it). We would talk about ideals and I would talk about what I would like to do: I felt as if our ideals should be lived in our own lives, must be lived in our own lives, if they were to live at all; and I think she thought of my speech as a kind of distinctive narcissism. I thought that our limitations and possibilities were the real limitations and possibilities, the kinds of things that any aspirant would face. Of course, not all of us get the encouragement or support for our dreams that we want or need: and so we may not achieve our goals, or if we do it is after long and lonely struggle and sacrifice, and sometimes the sacrifices are terrible.

When the new president speaks of the work that is to be done, I find myself hoping that a structure of support will be there for those who dare to dream: they will begin responsibilities but to complete those responsibilities, they will need help.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: News

Days ago president-elect Barack Obama met with the current United States president and all still-living former presidents, including Jimmy Carter. It was, apparently, Barack Obama’s idea that this meeting take place. It is, among other things, a way of being welcomed to office and being put in an official context, as well as an opportunity to seek counsel. Yesterday the president who is leaving office gave his last press conference: a sometimes rambling reflection on a wide range of issues, marked with some honesty and humility as well as some puckish humor and unrecognized anger. Many people are looking forward to the inauguration of president-elect Barack Obama, whose cabinet nominations have been impressive and sometimes controversial: and controversial because they are not radical, but are rather centrist figures. Obama has been said to be playing it safe; whereas I think he is shrewdly picking people of knowledge and power who can get things done—who can pursue his policies with success. (I'm not an admirer of all his nominations: I still have reservations about Hillary Clinton.) Barack Obama is not only intelligent, he has good instincts, and is drawing power—and the figures and symbols of power—toward himself.

In the January 12, 2009 Wall Street Journal, in an article called “All the Presidents’ Literature,” Jonathan Raban discusses Barack Obama’s writing in a rather close, dispassionate reading. Raban, in a more complimentary passage, remarks, “Obama is a skillful realist. By day, the I of his book is a vigilant listener and watcher, a hoarder of contingent details, who hugs his observations to himself, then broods on them late into the night. It's in the insomniac small hours when -- alone except for his burning cigarette -- he comes into his own as a restless thinker, figuring out his world in passages of eloquent interior monologue. Three o'clock in the morning is a recurring time in Dreams, the hour at which patterns reveal themselves, resolutions are made and the reader enjoys the illusion of unhindered intimacy with the author.” The article notes how many people are pleased to have an educated, literary president.

“Fiction Reading Increases for Adults” reports the New York Times’ reporter Motoko Rich, January 11, 2009. Rich's article states, “The report, ‘Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy,’ being released Monday, is based on data from ‘The Survey of Public Participation in the Arts’ conducted by the United States Census Bureau in 2008. Among its chief findings is that for the first time since 1982, when the bureau began collecting such data, the proportion of adults 18 and older who said they had read at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the previous 12 months has risen.” That is important news for many of us, especially editors and writers who have worried that the distractions and resources of contemporary life (particularly the internet and television) have made reading much less attractive and even less necessary to the general public.

With the election of the new president, it can be painful to realize how much work has yet to be done in terms of ethnic diversity and acceptance. I watched a Sunday morning television news program in which African-American issues were discussed—but discussed separately from the rest of the national and international news. (I found myself thinking that there should have been an African-American commentator participating in the national discussion and more people who weren’t African-American—say, Hispanics and Asians—participating in the discussion of African-American problems.) Just as African-American problems are segregated, so, still, are some African-American accomplishments, as with a new book of African-American essays: Best African-American Essays: 2009, edited by Debra J. Dickerson, from Bantam Books. The anthology is reviewed in the Asheville Citizen-Times by its books columnist Rob Neufeld, January 11, 2009. Neufeld likes James McBride’s piece on hip-hop music, included in the anthology; and notes Martha Southgate’s remarkable, telling piece there as well: “Martha Southgate, author of the novel The Fall of Rome, was motivated to write this essay by her experiences at writers' conferences, where she encountered far too few African-American literary writers in her middle-age bracket. There's a vicious cycle at work that makes lower promotion of black writers a business decision.”

“Black directors face frustration, hope and elusive success” is a headline in the International Herald Tribune, a headline above an article by Gene Seymour on African-American film directors (Spike Lee and others), January 11, 2009. Seymour reports, “You could now count on one hand (using two fingers) the number of black directors who can get their projects made and distributed at a steady rate. One is Lee, whose 19th theatrical feature, the World War II story Miracle at St. Anna was released last fall, while the other is Tyler Perry, the Atlanta-based, one-man multimedia conglomerate whose latest blend of low comedy and moral uplift, Madea Goes to Jail, is set for release on Feb. 20.”

For the online site the culture reporter Prairie Miller reports in the article “Women Film Critics Circle Member Sparks SLUMDOG Brouhaha in Wall Street Journal.” The film Slumdog Millionaire has been getting a lot of very favorable response, from critics and audiences, but now there is controversy too. (The world loves controversy; insists on it. Don't we?) Prairie Miller states, “Women Film Critics Circle member Jan Lisa Huttner of Films For Two and has been instrumental in a campaign to protest denial of screen credit recognition for major awards this year to Loveleen Tandan, as female co-director of Slumdog Millionaire, January 10, 2009.

It can be frightening to be forced to realize again and again how important money fame and money are: they are sources of freedom and power, necessary resources. Whether or not a person or institution can pursue independently preferred tastes can be, and are, determined by such resources. The current financial crisis in the United States is a wonderful or terrible teacher, depending on one’s own perspective. The more esoteric arts will be affected, as The Art Newspaper reports: “A survey of art museums across the US has found that most institutions have lost at least 20% of the value of their endowments and directors are retrenching amid the worsening economic crisis. The survey of around 40 museums, conducted by The Art Newspaper in early December, revealed that nearly all directors had begun trimming between 5% and 20% of their 2009 budgets and were preparing for deeper cuts in 2010.” (The Art Newspaper, in an article by Jason Edward Kaufman, January 8, 2009, Issue 198.)

Meanwhile, reports on “Grey Art Gallery to Show Damaged Romanticism: A Mirror of Modern Emotion,” a new exhibit.
Excerpts: “The first exhibition to be jointly presented by the Grey Art Gallery in New York City and the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, Damaged Romanticism will run concurrently at the two institutions, opening January 13, 2009, at the Grey and February 7, 2009, at the Parrish.”

“According to Terrie Sultan, Director of the Parrish Art Museum and an organizer of the exhibition, ‘The artists in Damaged Romanticism do not belong to a style or school in the traditional sense, but they share an outlook that helps define the spirit of our times. Like the original Romantics, who so powerfully transformed the arts and society two centuries ago, they keenly feel the damage wrought by the forces of modernity and by our divorce from the natural world. But the fantasies of these damaged romantics are tempered by a pragmatic realism. Their sense of disillusionment and loss never stops them from clinging stubbornly to hope.’”

"Artists whose work is included in the exhibition are Richard Billingham (England); Berlinde De Bruyckere (Belgium); Edward Burtynsky (Canada); Sophie Calle (France); Petah Coyne (United States); Angelo Filomeno (Italy/UnitedStates); Jesper Just (Denmark/United States); Mary McCleary (United States); Florian Maier-Aichen (Germany/United States); Wangechi Mutu (Kenya/United States); Anneè Olofsson (Sweden); Julia Oschatz (Germany); David Schnell (Germany); and Ryan Taber/Cheyenne Weaver (United States).”

The site, which focuses on Middle Eastern culture and its relation to the western world and to Islam, has an article on Edward Said: “The Edward Said's Orientalism in Arab Discourse, Instrumentalised on All Sides” (January 7, 2009). It is by Markus Schmitz, and is translated by Katy Derbyshire—Schmitz is a University of Munster research fellow (School of English, Postcolonial and Media Studies); and Schmitz affirs that “The Palestinian-American intellectual Said overstepped the boundaries of his academic and national origins, his critique thus achieving recognition across the disciplines and around the world. Yet although his significance in bringing together previously separate debates is undisputed, it proves extremely difficult to determine Edward Said's precise cultural, political or theoretical locus.” The site also the covers Afghan director Siddiq Barmak (his film Osama won international awards) and his new film, Opium War, as well as Italian singer Etta Scollo and her engagement of the medieval Arabic poetry of Sicily for her new album Il Fiore Splendente.'s reporter Banning Eyre has conducted an interview with Vampire Weekend band member Ezra Koenig, in which Koenig says, “You know, sometimes it's funny when I see interviews where we get too intellectual about things, because the way we speak about things among ourselves, as probably is true among most bands, we start talking about vibes and all these very weird concepts that maybe only matter to people who listen to music. So to me, and this is fairly distinct from the musical side of it, I have always been very interested in kind of cultural connections. I spent a lot of time when I was in school taking especially literature courses about British India, which is in some ways a horrible time, but also important. To look back at that period helps you to understand why India is the way it is today and the way England is today, and even the way America is today. So in a cultural way, I don't think it's a paradox. This is not the first time in history that people are moving around the planet and meeting each other, and being exposed to new kinds of art.” The year 2008 interview is available now online at the web site of

Monday, January 12, 2009

Old Films

This past weekend on television I saw two films I had missed, Brian DePalma's Carrie (1976) and Ron Howard's The Missing (2003).

Carrie is about a plain girl of telekinetic ability with a religious, repressed mother whose teachings leave the girl ill-prepared for school or life; and, thanks to her own lack of proper orientation and the cruelty of others, the girl's talents are used for destruction rather than anything good. The fascinating thing is how horrifying the "normal" world is in this film: though warmly photographed it is dull, and full of small-minded, cruel people. The mother is more idea and symbol than real woman, though what she symbolizes is important in a small town, such as the one Carrie (Sissy Spacek) lives in.

Cate Blanchett plays a frontier woman, honest and tough, with a father who abandoned her to join the native Americans (Indians). When her lover is killed and eldest daughter abducted, her gone-native father helps her track the girl, who is captive to a male witch and his men (they plan to sell the daughter and other girls). There were some predictable things in this film, but its spirit still seemed large. (Both the frontier woman's father and the male witch are larger-than-life, stranger-than-life figures.) The story is about accepting the difficulties of other people's choices and about making amends. The land itself is an important element; and the film is set in a time in which the land is at least as dangerous, if not more so, than the people who walk it (while, arguably now, we humans are more dangerous than the land and the other living beings to be found on it).

Home, and Homeless

Home is the place where we wake and sleep, the place in which we wash, dress, eat, drink, and rest, the place in which we reflect and imagine, and it is more: the place in which we find acceptance, foundation, support. It cannot be home without acceptance. Sometimes acceptance comes only through pretense: we pretend to a personality and purpose we do not share and are accepted; but false acceptance cannot be depended on--it is not for us, it is for what we are pretending to be, it is for our lie. Acceptance without truth leaves one homeless. Homeless people are forced back upon their own resources, whether those resources are many or few--and, too often, they despair and rage against the isolation and poverty and the quite limited kindness of strangers. Acceptance without truth leaves one homeless. If you do not feel connected to society through traditional, or conventional, relationships, art can become a connecting thing. Human secrets are better kept, and more eloquently and wisely revealed, by art than by anyone or anything else: and it may be that the only real secrets are the exact nature and dimensions of the individual human spirit. Art feeds the imagination, the spirit, and the mind. However, in a permissive public society, a society of crudity and vulgarity, a society in which standards and values hardly seem to matter, a society in which every indulgence seems possible, the impact of the symbolic freedoms that art embodies can seem, or even be, without importance. One can feel caught between private discouragements that wound and public permissions that fail to empower. I have thought of home as a place to be found in the future rather than as a place remembered from the past or enjoyed in the present: and, as a state of being; and yet, when I have thought of a particular place as home, it has been New York I have thought of, for the cultural diversity and personal freedom it offers, for the bookstores and theaters and galleries and museums and other enclaves and streets, rather than Louisiana, the state in which I was born; and, of course, the arts have been a nearly endless resource for encouragement and spiritual renewal.