Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Uses of Intelligence and Sense: News and Notes

In a web article for Filmmaker magazine (February 25, 2009), Nick Dawson writes about film director Astra Taylor, whose her first film was Žižek!, about Slavoj Žižek, following her sharing duties for other film productions: "With her sophomore feature, Examined Life, Taylor once again brings together her two main passions: film and philosophy. The title is derived from a quote by Socrates (who deemed that 'the unexamined life is not worth living'), and over the course of the film Taylor introduces us to eight contemporary philosophers who delve into the issues and problems of the modern world. Though Cornel West talks to Taylor as they drive around New York, the other seven participants – Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Judith Butler, Sunaura Taylor and Žižek – hold forth on foot, as Taylor conceived the film as 'philosophers on walks.' Going against the norm of 'serious' documentaries tending to be depressing, Taylor here creates a film of substance that is nevertheless light on its feet." I am pleased to see that the film director has included such a varied group of thinkers; and it is encouraging to have one more avenue for the introduction of significant contemplations. The Filmmaker piece includes an interview with director Astra Taylor, in which she says, "The thing that attracts me most about philosophy and filmmaking is that both those disciplines are concerned with shifting perception, shifting the way you see a problem when you have a new theory – it's illuminating, you suddenly see the world in a new way. And going to a really good documentary film can have the same effect: your whole sense of the world is different."

"A dynamic new school of thought is emerging that wants to kick down the walls of recent philosophy and place experimentation back at its centre. It has a name to delight an advertising executive: x-phi. It has blogs and books devoted to it, and boasts an expanding body of researchers in elite universities. It even has an icon: an armchair in flames. If philosophy ever can be, x-phi is trendy. But, increasingly, it is also attracting hostility," announce David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton of Prospect magazine (March 2009).

I love to hear news that Americans are recognizing and responding to other cultures, as I think that is not only intellectually stimulating, but politically necessary: it is easy to despise what you do not understand and harder to hate what you do. And there is such good news from Washington: "From the Arabian Gulf to the Levant to North Africa—this region of the world is the birthplace of human civilization and features extraordinary diversity in geography, traditions, landscape, religion, and contemporary aesthetics," according to the web site of the Kennedy Center, which is presenting an Arab arts festival, "Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World," February 23 through March 15, 2009, in Washington, the District of Columbia. The notice continues, "In cooperation with the League of Arab States, the three-week festival brings together artists, many of whom are making their U.S. debut, in performances of music, dance, and theater, as well as exhibitions featuring art installations, fashion, a soundscape, cuisine, a marketplace, and much more." The literature portions of the program are scheduled to discuss audience, language use, fantasy, gender, and national politics.

It is especially important to remember the diversity and riches of the world in difficult times, and in places in which the culture most available may be too simple. I have been enjoying the beautiful, soothing music of Ancient Future (Planet Passion), Matthew Montfort (Seven Serenades), and Mariah Parker (Sangria), world music produced by Records.

Christian John Wikane writes for about Diana Ross’s early solo work: "Despite their historic significance, Everything Is Everything and Surrender have been widely unavailable for nearly 40 years, though each album made a very brief appearance on CD in the mid-’80s. Hip-O Select has lovingly dusted off the masters, dug through the vaults, and re-released the albums in stunning expanded and re-mastered editions. These albums offer a wealth of undiscovered gems in the sorely underappreciated Motown catalog of Diana Ross" (Feb. 26).

Carl Wilson at his blog Zoilus has declared, "I've put together a quick (well, not so quick) cultural history on how musicians have tried to transform human speech into music through the ages (but particularly, often thanks to technology, in the 20th century)," and that history is interesting reading (they are part of a February 19 posting).

There a great Picasso exhibit at London’s National Gallery, and an exhibit of Cezanne, whom Picasso and many others admired, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, reports The Yves Saint-Laurent/Pierre Berge art and antiques auction has broken sales records, yielding a little more than $483 million, according to the Art Newspaper. Meanwhile, the High Museum of Art is cutting staff and salaries (Atlanta Business Chronicle), and the Walters Art Museum is eliminating staff as well (Baltimore Sun).

Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute, worrying about the increase in federal spending and government size, claims there’s a gap between Obama’s rhetoric and policy, but the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities' writers Iris Lav and Nicholas Johnson state that if states refuse the funds the federal budget is making available that refusal could undermine economic recovery. (Comments are available online, at the organizations' sites.)

Apparently even the well-known conservative David Brooks did not like Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal’s Tuesday night response to President Obama’s policies, reportedly calling it stale and insane. Others have piled on. "How many Americans know that Jindal boasted of participating in an exorcism that purged the spirit of Satan from a college girlfriend?" wonders Max Blumenthal of The Daily Beast, Feb. 25.

In an article on the New Orleans CityBusiness blog titled "Council Plan Seen as Racist," Deon Roberts writes about a mayor-council conflict involving Mayor Ray Nagin, "Nagin, early in his administration, created a panel that involved a public representative to award the contracts, which total $150,000 or more. On Feb 5, the council decided it wanted the awarding process to be totally open to the public, and it adopted an ordinance to make the process adhere to the state’s open meetings law. Nagin vetoed the ordinance. Now, the public is waiting to see what the council will do now"(Feb. 26). Some people think the council is trying to sabotage the mayor's authority.

Frank B. Wilderson, III, a professor of African American studies and drama at the University of California, Irvine, has received the 2008 American Book Award for Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid, and has announced a forthcoming writing project, Red, White and Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonisms.

The stock of the New York Times is now considered junk by investors. The Washington Post fourth quarter profits plummeted 77 percent, reports Associated Press. These publications have been important, and are not now without their uses or influence, but how many of us care as much now about the fate of these elite institutions when there are so many exciting alternatives, as we cared before when many waited for their public recognition and support, these elite media institutions that for so long were indifferent to our ambitions, concerns, and needs? We are alive, feeling and thinking and working, in a world of changed possibilities, of new resources and unexpected obsolescence.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Film Comments: The Great Debaters & Notes for an African Orestes

Excerpt from "Once More, with Feeling: Denzel Washington’s film The Great Debaters and Robert Rosenstone’s book History on Film/Film on History"

“Like the shape of Africa,/ the raison d’etre of Art is a question mark,” poet Melvin B. Tolson wrote in the poem “Delta,” Harlem Gallery (Collier Books, 1969; 28). It may be impossible to reduce any art worth contemplating to a simple idea or explanation, but part of the value of The Great Debaters is its giving form and spirit to questions that have haunted too many of us concerning the place of African-Americans in the world. Are we to be discouraged by circumstances and expectations, or inspired to excel and exceed them? Are we to be whole or forever condemned to self-division—“a half-breed,/ a bastard of Barbarus and Cultura,” as Melvin Tolson described a character in “Upsilon,” Harlem Gallery (105). The principal characters in The Great Debaters choose excellence and are exhilarating and touching because of it (and their challenges and doubts are merely some of the dragons that every hero has to slay, but heroes they are); and the film pays tribute to them, and offers encouragement as well as pleasure to its viewers, something the actress Jurnee Smollett realized when she said to Movies Online: “it’s giving voice to the voiceless, putting lips to something, and that’s one thing that makes you so proud to be part of a film like this, because you’re giving a salute to everyone who has come before you.”

Excerpt from "Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Notes for an African Orestes"

In Notes for an African Orestes, we see Pasolini in Africa, mostly in Tanzania but also in Uganda, looking for casting and locations (he thought of using sites in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and Kampala in Uganda, as Athens). Pasolini has a severe handsomeness, and, attentive, he speaks quickly and smartly, as he explores the culture, commenting on how the transformation of the furies, the Erinyes, into the Eumenides, the benevolent, is a metaphor for African political experience. Tanzania, between Kenya and Mozambique in eastern Africa, near the Indian Ocean, and rich in iron, coal, diamonds, gold, and gas, was formed as a nation after Tanganyika and Zanzibar won their independence from England in the early 1960s, and Tanganyika and Zanzibar united in 1964. The country has more than one-hundred tribes, making up the Bantu people, who speak Swahili and English in addition to diverse Bantu languages. The Tanzania that Pasolini visits is poor; and it remains poor. It is an irony that many people farm (coffee, tea, cassava, corn, cotton, nuts, tobacco, wheat), but that less than ten percent of the land is conducive to farming. It might be easier to think of Tanzania as a probable place for a Greek play if one recalls that few Greeks participated in democracy—those who did were like a village within a town. If one thinks of democracy as a dynamic process involving consciousness and choice, one can see how promising this could be for Africa, which, following colonialism, has seen so many despots (such is the case for Uganda, which Pasolini considered for his proposed feature film).

All texts (c) DG: the texts were written in July and August of 2008.

Generational Purposes

Excerpt from "A review of Michael Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy"

I know what some of the members of my generation are doing, and I know a little something about who they are: Paul Begala, Ralph Carter, Joan Chen, Thomas Haden Church, George Clooney, Nadia Comaneci, Douglas Coupland, Dinesh D’Souza, Kim Deal, El DeBarge, Melissa Etheridge, Laurence Fishburne, Wayne Gretzky, Woody Harrelson, Bonnie Hunt, Peter Jackson, K.D. Lang, David Leavitt, Carl Lewis, Wynton Marsalis, Chi McBride, Dylan McDermott, Christopher Meloni, Isaac Mizrahi, Rick Moody, Jeremy Northam, Barack Obama, Alexander Payne, Scott Ritter, Dennis Rodman, Henry Rollins, Tim Roth, Arundhati Roy, Douglas Rushkoff, Campbell Scott, George Stephanopoulos, Isiah Thomas, Steven Weber, Irvine Welsh, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Winterbottom. Many of us do: as people whose work has achieved some renown, they are allowed not only personal fame but individuality, a measure of freedom and fulfillment. Those of us whose efforts have been less well rewarded (thus far) might feel a certain indifference to the world’s glance and judgment—genuine or cultivated indifference. Of course, as with much else, money makes this indifference easier to achieve; without money, the world often still has the power to irritate and to irritate with little relief. What the world offers many, rather than the freedom of individuality, are socially recognized—if not always socially accepted—false selves: selves rooted in simple notions of purpose, place, and personality, with the responses to one’s public situation being all that is understood as one’s personality; selves that have little to do with one’s own perceptions, philosophy, or private personality. In a word, stereotypes. Think of class, skin, gender, religion, or national origin, accept these as existential facts, as elemental aspects of being, and you need not ever have another independent or honest thought again.

(c) DG, 2006

The President's Speech to Congress

“Volcano monitoring likely saved many lives - and significant money - in the case of the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines (where the United States has military bases), according to the USGS,” the United States Geological Survey, writes senior writer Andrea Thompson of, in an article following up on Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal critique of government funding of volcano monitoring in the recently passed economic recovery package legislation. (Louisiana is not known for its educational successes and recently a science group objected to some of the state's policies regarding science, or, more precisely, anti-science.) Jindal’s comments, part of the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s speech to Congress last night, were a litany of Republican ideological points promoting wealth and ignoring the real needs and concerns of ordinary people in a time of crisis. Of course, Jindal plans to take a lot of government money for various state projects, though he is, reportedly, refusing money that will help the unemployed. It was an interesting choice having Jindal give the Republican response, as many well-informed people fault him for leaving Louisiana to travel around the country for Republican fundraisers and conferences while problems go untended in Louisiana. President Obama made his own motivation and policies as clear as anyone could; and an early poll suggests most viewers and listeners understood that and approved. I was fascinated by the ritual address, and the ovations the president received (how odd it must be to have one’s remarks continually saluted with a standing ovation).

Monday, February 23, 2009

Hollywood's Academy Awards, and More: Appreciations and Repudiations, Part Three

The film industry Academy Awards program, televised last night on ABC, has found a way of making each actor-nominee in the most prominent categories feel like a winner, by personally addressing and describing her (his) performance before the official winner is announced: it was very nice to see past winners in the best actor and actress and best supporting actor and actress categories introduce the nominees. I thought most of the program was entertaining, and I didn’t turn away from the show with the empty feeling I sometimes have after watching an awards program (I still thought the show was too long by about two hours). Hugh Jackman was an entertaining host; and it was good to witness the wins in the major categories, specifically that of Penelope Cruz, Kate Winslet, Sean Penn, and Heath Ledger, and I liked seeing Beyonce, Anne Hathaway, Nicole Kidman, Alicia Keys, Will Smith, Robert DeNiro, and Meryl Streep. The lovely Penelope Cruz, in an elegant vintage dress, gave a charmingly sentimental acceptance speech. Heath Ledger's family was dignified and (spiritually) healthy with its comments upon his posthumous award. Kate Winslet, who with age is becoming more handsome than beautiful (there is such strength and intelligence in her face), was obviously gratified to win, and Sean Penn seemed well-intentioned and was both sharply political, affirming equal rights, and sometimes obscure.

The New York Art Resources Consortium is providing material online from the libraries of three museums, The Frick, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art, at an online site called Arcade. Meanwhile, the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., is showing federally-funded New Deal paintings, according to

No Line on the Horizon: the music group U2 is making its new album available for listening on its MySpace page; and the band is planning a stadium tour for the summer.

Last Friday night, I saw Sarah McLachlan and Duffy on PBS’s “Austin City Limits,” and I thought Sarah McLachlan’s presence very strong—emotional, musical, sensual; and her voice was particularly impressive, as she played guitar and piano. I had listened to Duffy’s music in New York, liking some of it and not sure about the rest (was she too imitative of past music?), but I was disappointed watching her on Friday: I didn’t like the way she sounded, looked, or moved, finding her intonation and pitch frequently uncertain or unpleasant; and her gestures were busy, excessively choreographed.

The four-day, annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs was held recently in Chicago, February 11 through 14, 2009. There’s a Festival of New French Writing at Manhattan’s New York University, February 26 through 28, with the participation of E.L. Doctorow, Philip Gourevitch, Francine Prose, Bernard-Henry Levy, Emmanuel Carrere, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint.

“It’s not that Americans aren’t interested in the world at all. It’s just that we seem to want someone else to do the ­heavy ­lifting required to make a cultural connection. As the ­Peruvian-­born writ­er Daniel Alarcón ob­serves, Americans would rather read stories by an American about Peru than a Peruvian writer translated into English,” notes writer Aviya Kushner in the article “McCulture,” from Winter 2009 The Wilson Quarterly, available online.

There’s a new philosophy blog called Matters of Substance, focused on metaphysics, at (look for “substantial matters”); and, though not yet well-known, if it is as good as it promises to be, it will provide interesting reading.

Criticism can describe and evaluate the form and content of a work, theory, or experience, and criticism may be an art but is not a popular art; and criticism, which reveals the mind of the critic as much as the object of contemplation, is done both well and badly these days and sometimes it is hard to know the difference. As everyone is aware, there’s a lot of mutual masturbation involved within the communications media, both online and print, so that work that might not be distinguished still gets supported. For instance, media sites that are well-funded such as Slate and Salon received respect before they had done anything to deserve it; and, consequently, habits good and bad continued, without significant critique. One can read some of the self-important, unnecessary political musings of Joan Walsh at Salon, and clueless attempts to identify the cultural zeitgeist by Jody Rosen at Slate, and wonder if they have editors or even attentive readers.

Everyone is concerned about the American economy; and one notices that some journalists seem afraid to be optimistic despite the daily attempts by the new presidential administration to take decisive actions (journalists seem to both want something to be effective and to disbelieve in anything being effective). Now, Henry Blodget argues for the nationalization of American banks, at the Huffington Post.

President Barack Hussein Obama continues to make overtures to the Republic party, while its members play politics-as-usual. Obama and his administration attempt to address the important economic matters feeding the current crisis involving jobs, banks, housing, and health care; and the president has a small summit of leaders gathered today at the White House to discuss the economy and fiscal responsibility; and, among other things, one of his goals is to discuss how to cut the federal budget deficit.

"Music and Friends": A Stranger on Earth, fiction excerpt

Writer's Note: "Music and Friends" is a chapter in a proposed novel, A Stranger on Earth, a work-in-progress; and here is the beginning of that chapter.

Thomas had asked Mark to bring him his personal papers—banking records, insurance policies, pension records, mortgage papers, and other things, and though weak, Thomas read them, and read them, and read them again. Thomas made calls, he wrote notes, and he told Mark to remember certain things—Give people photocopies of this stuff, if they ask, and if they want to see an original, don’t let the original out of your sight. This is New Orleans—people will do what they can get away with. My father had a son with a woman other than my mother—I never knew the boy. If he or somebody connected to him comes ‘round, I have nothing for them. It’s in my will—they get nothing—no money, no thing, nothing. I have a niece in New York—there’s some money for her. She used to write me. She hasn’t written me in years, but I liked her letters. She was a smart girl—Sarah. I want her to have a little something. See that she gets it. It’s in my will. There’s a copy of the will in the courthouse. There’s a copy of my will in the bottom drawer here. There’s copy of it written on the back of a music sheet I sent to the congressional library—“The Blues Is Nothing but a Good Man Saying What He Saw.”

Mark heard what his friend had to say. He supposed he would not forget it, but he made notes when he left Thomas’s bedroom and went into his own. Mark did not know what he was going to do when Thomas died. There had been years to think about it—but he did not know, now, what he was going to do. Mark thought of their careers, of their lives. They were hardly more than boys, though each thought himself a man when they had met at the same audition. Mark had been the serious one, the one who thought that Armstrong and Gillespie were too much the entertainer and Parker and Coltrane bad examples for their use of drugs. He loved their music, but none was an icon for him—he was going to be his own hero. Thomas just wanted to play—he wasn’t about representing anything, and Thomas was the one who had the early success. Doors, wallets, and women’s legs opened for Thomas. Mark did the apprentice thing, learned under flawed masters, played in cheap clubs, and got small-time contracts—and that entire hard work ending up giving him some kind of legend he had not anticipated. By the time the big money started to come his way, he and Thomas had found each other again, weren’t so rude about each other’s differences, respected each other talents, and Thomas began to be sick—his body began to cave in on itself. Mark had come to help out a little until Thomas got better or until one of Thomas’s people came to take care of him—and Thomas never got better and the people who came wanted to help Thomas into the grave and Mark ending up staying for twenty years. Mark ended up saying no to the big gigs and big money and did small records for small labels that let him alone, or almost alone, to live his life—and he ended up taking care of the fun, shallow bastard who meant no real harm and had become his best friend.

Mark put the dishes in the sink. He let the water run. He poured liquid soap over the frying pan with its tiny grit of bacon stuck to the bottom, its slight brown fried foam of egg on the sides. He put his fingers under the flow of water, testing for heat. He thought about the hopes he had years ago for the music, the conversations about the music’s relation to folk, blues, and classical, literary and sculpture, to history and politics. He had wanted a high art that people would finding meaning and pleasure in. He wasn’t the only one—he thought of Abbey and Max, of Archie, of Anthony. He wondered if musicians weren’t the only people who really cared about the music, who really saw it as important. Weren’t the others just using it, using it for dancing, for easy fun, using it to justify a false idea of who they were, using it to intimidate people? It was a path to freedom, and they could not see it. Mark picked up the wash cloth and began to scrub the plates first. He went back and forth between using paper plates and regular dishes. The plates came clean easily. He scrubbed the forks, careful to remove the grease near the printing of the maker’s name. The music was for everybody, but who wanted it? Mark picked up a spatula and scrapped it against the bottom of the frying pan, then scrapped the sides of the pan, before washing the spatula. The children today were listening to another kind of music, simpler music, what somebody called music for morons. Why did things always have to begin at the bottom? Why did they often have to stay there? Why couldn’t you just hand the next generation the task as you had completed it, and let them go on and develop that? Mark looked up from his task and looked out of the kitchen window. He saw small garden of vegetables—potatoes, egg plant, string beans—and the few fruit trees (apple, plum, fig), and the garden chair next to the garden. He thought he might take a book and sit outside for an hour or two. Would Thomas be alright inside? Would he want to try to sit outside today? Mark wanted some fresh air. He opened the window. It was not enough. He looked down and scrubbed the frying pan. He reached below the sink and pulled out some powdered cleanser and sprinkled some into the pan. The scrubbing became easier. You had to have the right tools to make things come right.

(c) DG

Richard Wright, Author

Writer's Note: When I was very young, before I was 18, Richard Wright became an important writer for me, someone who wrote with honesty, intelligence, and passion about his life in the south and his own ambitions and conflicts as well as insightfully about the world... Here below are my comments on a biography of Richard Wright, and notes on Wright's career and reading interests.

Hazel Rowley. Richard Wright: The Life and Times. New York. A John Macrae Book/Henry Holt and Company. 2001. 626 pages. ISBN 0-8050-4776-X.

“Is this the dirt road,/Winding through windy trees,/That I must travel?” asked writer Richard Wright (1908-1960) in a haiku, #131, written near the end of his life. Wright’s haikus were not published in a book, Haiku: This Other World, until more than three decades after his death, and they are one more testament to what was not known about this famous writer while he lived. Wright’s lyrical and polemical autobiography Black Boy and his grim ideological urban drama Native Son may be well-known references in American literature courses but exclusive consideration of them have given us a narrow view of the author, who also wrote the comic, experimental fiction Lawd Today!, the existential novel The Outsider, and Savage Holiday, a novel featuring no African Americans, as well as books on Africa, Asia, and Europe—Black Power, The Color Curtain, and Pagan Spain.

Richard Wright, born to a sharecropper father and schoolteacher mother in Mississippi, endured a childhood of poverty, familial misunderstanding, religious dogmatism, and racial prejudice. He distinguished himself when young by writing a short story that was published, and being selected as a representative of his grade school class. Reading H.L. Mencken in the late 1920s introduced him to literary and social criticism, and to writers such as Dreiser, Lewis, and Anderson. Wright moved to Chicago, where he worked in the post office. He became a member of the John Reed Club and through it met other writers, and became also a member of the Communist Party—and then moved to New York, where he wrote for a party publication. Wright’s first book, the short story collection Uncle Tom’s Children, was published in 1938 and received good reviews. Two years later, Native Son was published and thus Wright became an important American writer. Wright married the white Ellen Poplowitz in 1941, published Black Boy in 1945, and visited France the next year and moved there with Ellen in 1947, where he would live, work, and die.

Hazel Rowley’s biography of Wright may not be elegant or eloquent—it is rather plain and slow-moving—but it is the most factual and fair, the most intelligent, biography of Wright that I am aware of, and it allows future generations to inherit a Wright who is whole, at once man, thinker, and writer. Richard Wright was handsome, likable, and hardworking, with a voice that ranged from high to baritone, a man with the cool confidence of a jazz musician—he liked to talk and laugh and be with friends, who included Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. (One friend, Gertrude Stein, betrayed him by introducing him to a thief and then by refusing to acknowledge the theft of Wright’s property, which included penicillin for Wright’s daughter.) Wright was, surprisingly, a sexual swordsman who put his marriage to Ellen at risk. Rowley’s book is also interesting for addressing the rumors surrounding Wright’s death (CIA? Femme fatale?). Rowley investigates Wright’s medical treatment, which included the taking of bismuth for intestinal disorders, a prescription given by a doctor who made Wright’s friends uneasy. Oral bismuth was then popular in France, but would later be known to cause heavy-metal poisoning leading to kidney and liver failure.

Richard Wright’s legacy is a complex one—it is aesthetic, intellectual, and political. Intelligent interpretation is what Wright tried to provide in his own work, but not always what he received for his own efforts. Wright’s work was censored before publication—for instance the sexuality of Bigger Thomas was excised from Native Son, and after publication his work was sometimes misunderstood or misrepresented. A 1957 New York Times review of Wright’s White Man, Listen! called the book “argumentative, belligerent and often wrong-headed” and then went on to summarize how correct Wright was in many of his positions but reprimanded him for not understanding well-enough the threat of Communism (Wright, who joined then abandoned the Communist party). African-American novelist David Bradley in 1977’s Quest magazine said Wright seemed a “cold-blooded intellectual.” Feminists more recently have questioned his work’s treatment of women and his dismissal of Zora Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. However, Wright was for himself and for others a one-man university system. Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Walker, and other women writers acknowledged his active support of their early careers; and Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Gordon Parks admitted his influence, although Wright’s tying literature so closely to politics may have become a burden to subsequent writers.

“All of my life had shaped me to live by my own feelings and thoughts,” Wright wrote in Black Boy (p.298, HarperPerennial, 1993). Hazel Rowley’s necessary biography of Wright is preceded by other books on the life and work of Richard Wright, resources that can help to place the efforts of this controversial writer in the most comprehensive of contexts, such as The World of Richard Wright and Richard Wright: Books & Writers, both by Michel Fabre, and Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K.A. Appiah, Voices of A Native Son: The Poetics of Richard Wright by Eugene E. Miller, Richard Wright by Robert Felgar, and Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by Arnold Rampersad. Wright brought not merely heat but light; he was, as in the words of one of his own haikus (#647), a fire: “Burning out its time,/And timing its own burning,/One lonely candle.”

Excerpt from "Iconography: Ideas, Images, and Individuals"

“Every time he thought he was going mad, he met somebody else who had already gone mad, but in a nice, sweet sort of way,” wrote Richard Wright about Cross Damon, faced with a woman allowing herself to become involved in a real estate scheme, in the novel The Outsider (HarperPerennial, 1993; 184). Wright was himself a man of intelligence and taste and, considering what he knew in the era in which he lived, his own sanity is nearly a miracle—except that we know his sanity was cultivated. Michel Fabre paid essayist, novelist, and poet Richard Wright significant respect by producing Richard Wright: Books and Writers (University Press of Mississippi, 1990), which provides an annotated bibliography of Wright’s library and also includes some of his sharp, quick-moving book reviews and other commentaries on literature. Richard Wright read the published (and sometimes unpublished) books of Peter Abrahams, James Agee, Sherwood Anderson, Hannah Arendt, Austen, Balzac, Djuana Barnes, Joseph Conrad, Rene Descartes, John Dewey, John Dos Passos, Dostoevsky, Dreiser, DuBois, T.S. Eliot, Emerson, Engels, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Flaubert, Forster, Freud, Gibbon, Gide, Goethe, Geoffrey Gorer, Gorky, Graham Greene, Knut Hamsun, Hardy, Hawthorne, Hegel, Heidegger, Hemingway, Chester Himes, Langston Hughes, Husserl, Ibsen, Joyce, Kafka, Kierkegaard, Kinsey, George Lamming, D.H. Lawrence, Camara Laye, Alain Locke, George Moore, John O’Hara, George Padmore, Edgar Allan Poe, Proust, Pushkin, Rabelais and many, many more, famous and obscure. The important events in a writer’s life—his perceptions, ideas, and discoveries of the uses of various forms—are identified not by considering the people he slept with, fights he had, contracts he broke, or alcohol he drank, but by identifying the books he read and wrote. It was famously said that Richard Wright could imagine a Bigger Thomas (Native Son), but Bigger Thomas could not imagine a Richard Wright. (Wright himself starred in a mid-century film of Native Son as Bigger Thomas, directed by Pierre Chenal; and a subsequent film version of the novel, directed by Jerrold Freedman and starring Victor Love as Bigger, was released in 1986.) Richard Wright could claim the broadest human inheritance for himself because he was aware of its full dimensions; and he was surprised to learn how rare this knowledge was, and where, other than in art, it might be found. In White Man, Listen! he wrote, “It has been almost only among Asians and Africans of an artistic stamp and whose background has consisted of wars, revolutions, and harsh colonial experience that I’ve found a sense of the earth belonging to, and being the natural home of, all the men inhabiting it, an attitude that went well beyond skin color, races, parties, classes, and nations” (HarperPerennial, 1995; 25-26).

All texts (c) DG, 2001 and 2006

Friday, February 20, 2009

Silence, Exile, and Cunning; or, Appreciations and Repudiations, Part Two

“The NEA will receive $50 million to distribute to non-profit arts organizations while the Smithsonian gets $25 million to repair its facilities,” reported The Art Newspaper, following President Obama’s signing of the stimulus package legislation, the recovery and reinvestment act (Helen Stoilas, February 19, 2009). There were worries, apparently, that the National Endowment for the Arts and Smithsonian might be cut from the legislation. There have been arguments, too, and elsewhere, for a cabinet post representing the arts, a secretary of the arts, the equivalent of a culture minister, an idea I’m sympathetic to, as culture connects with all aspects of American life, public and private; and having a culture secretary or minister could illuminate and support that: a culture representative and department could connect what is occurring across the country, in different states, and demonstrate how to incorporate culture in terms of education, the economy, and social projects.

“As President Obama begins to put his personal stamp on public debate, I think we can be hopeful that respect for the qualities that liberal education aims to foster — moral and aesthetic sensitivity — will rise. We can also be hopeful that academe, especially as an engine of opportunity and a site of scientific research, will find a friendlier partner in government. The provisional 'stimulus package' includes modest increases in federal support for low-income students and a good deal of money for 'shovel ready' construction projects on our campuses,” writes Andrew Delbanco in “A New Day for Intellectuals” in The Chronicle Review (February 13, 2009). Delbanco, after examining charges of anti-intellectualism in American culture and asserting that Americans are pragmatic regarding education and expertise, affirms the importance of self-criticism and social justice, as well.

The troubled economy continues to affect the world of culture and media: Borders Books is cutting twelve percent of its corporate workforce, according to Judith Rosen of Publishers Weekly, February 19. The New York Times Company will not be paying dividends scheduled for this month, because of lower received newspaper revenues, the paper reports (Richard Perez-Pena, Feb. 19), the first suspension in four decades. Meanwhile Wall Street investors worry that American banks could be nationalized.

The singer and songwriter Santi White (Santogold) has generated interest and high regard among some music listeners, and she is scheduled to perform tonight at 7 p.m., for free, at the Apple Store in Manhattan, 103 Prince Street in Soho. I was disappointed last month to read an article titled “Janelle, Erykah, and Santogold Are the Afro-Techno Revolution, While Beyonce just struggles to keep up,” by Kandia Crazy Horse in New York’s Village Voice, available online (January 20, 2009), a piece in which the writer saw new music in relation to political context and found Beyonce’s work limited in emotional affect (“ice cold”) and complexity (“insufficient innervisions to triumph”). I have my own criticisms of aspects of Beyonce’s work, though I appreciate her beauty, talent, and success; and what worries me is that I suspect—following Village Voice writer Greg Tate’s comparison of Beyonce with Alicia Keys; and his contrasting supposed Eurocentric with Afrocentric artists—is that people are beginning to use Beyonce as a symbol, which may not be fair to her. (I recall how Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross used to be posed in certain arguments; and remember too that when Vanity Fair profiled Aretha Franklin in the 1990s, Ross gave her praise, and that when Ross was celebrated at the Kennedy Center recently, Franklin was there to praise her. Often, rivalries are in the minds of critics and lesser talents, rather than in the lives of major popular artists.) It is also true that the Village Voice has used ideas about "cool" and naked aggression as critical tools for years, under music editor Robert Christgau, and it’s unfortunate to see that tradition continued under editor Rob Harvilla. (Appreciating the serious exploration of culture, especially of literature and film, I have been a longtime reader of the Voice, even though its quality has diminished over the years, but I never liked Christgau's writing work, finding it abrasive, shallow, and desperately, all too desperately, self-promoting, the kind of relentless self-promotion rare for an established writer, suggesting a profound and possibly appropriate insecurity.) In discussing and evaluating artists, sometimes comparisons are useful; and sometimes harsh critiques are earned; however, it would make more sense for a critic to identify the qualities she or he finds of value in an artist, rather than to indulge in the construction of artistic demons to be vanquished. The other thing is that these comparisions sometimes rest, for their own effect, on the resentments that too many people have regarding successful people (so that success itself is seen as a form of wickedness: that is a petty and stupid kind of puritanism).

Sometimes late at night on south Louisiana television, sharing airtime with commercials offering health regimens, household equipment, and dating ads, is something called Jack Van Impe Presents, featuring Jack and his wife, featuring sheer lunacy: they discuss subjects such as whether Christ wanted to be a church leader or a king, whether the world will end in year 2012, when there is so much practical and social stuff that are problems for ordinary people that could be discussed. How does spiritual belief contribute to peace of mind and social well-being? The worst thing is that these concerns—the long-ago ambitions of Christ, and prospects for the end of the world—are only a little more weird than the deliberations that often go on in various religions. On Tuesday in Mardi Gras and soon after is the beginning of Lent; and neither event, one secular, one religious, is of positive interest to me. I am in a world in which so much of the dominant values are alien impositions. I recall now having a conversation with a friend last year in New York in which I said that I thought many of the interests of Americans involved business, family, religion, and sports and that those were not my principal concerns, which were more likely to involve culture, philosophy, or politics.

I have not seen as many of the past year’s films as I would like, but I do have some interest in the awards given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the Oscars: I’m hoping that Sean Penn will win best actor, Kate Winslet best actress, Heath Ledger best supporting actor, and Penelope Cruz for best supporting actress (though I would be pleased as well if Viola Davis or Taraji Henson won for best supporting actress). Greencine Daily will host a live blog of the 81st Academy Awards presentation on Sunday, Feb. 22.

Music and Writing

Excerpt from "Revelations: Notes on Music, Criticism, and Society..."

The people who write about music sometimes champion the work of those whose ideas and images closely mirror their own, in terms of class, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, but some writers are more imaginative, more intelligent, seeking out the widest possible range of music and musicians. Some of the commentators on music whose insights have enlightened and/or entertained me are James Baldwin, Playthell Benjamin, Delphine Blue, Nate Chinen, Kandia Crazy Horse, Stanley Crouch, Angela Davis, Jim DeRogatis, W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, Christopher John Farley, Nelson George, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Claudrena Harold, Pauline Kael, Greg Kot, Will Layman, Wynton Marsalis, Michelangelo Matos, Paul Nelson, Sarah Rodman, Kelefa Sanneh, Gene Seymour, Armond White, and Carl Wilson. I always recall Baldwin’s comments on Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, and Pauline Kael on Streisand and the Rolling Stones. One of the more interesting music writers now is Christian John Wikane. I encountered his work on the pages of the web magazine Pop Matters, which publishes great commentary on books, film, music, and other disciplines and issues. (My own commentary on Annie Lennox and the band The Smyrk appeared there.) In his writing, Christian John Wikane has featured the work and personalities of Ashford and Simpson, Gnarls Barkley, the Bee Gees, Tim Buckley, Don Byron, Paula Cole, Donnie, Feist, Aretha Franklin, Kevin (Ké) Grivois, Deborah Harry, Jamiroquai, Chaka Khan, K.D. Lang, Bettye LaVette, Amos Lee, Annie Lennox, Paul McCartney, Mika, Madonna, Stevie Nicks, Rahsaan Patterson, the Pointer Sisters, Corinne Bailey Rae, Nile Rodgers, Linda Ronstadt, and Diana Ross. Wikane called Gnarls Barkley’s The Odd Couple “an emotionally and musically provocative album,” a recording that is an “alternately disturbing, comforting, and challenging exploration of the human mind” (, March 25, 2008); and Wikane remarked of K.D. Lang’s first album of new songs in years, Watershed, that Lang demonstrates “a keen sense of how to record herself and lead her excellent unit of musicians” (, Feb. 5, 2008), and he enthusiastically declared of the anthology Bee Gees Greatest that the word “‘greatest’ seems far too modest an adjective to describe this music” (, October 8, 2007). Christian John Wikane’s love and respect for music and its makers are refreshing; and his commentaries—reviews of recordings and interviews with artists—are among the most complete responses to music available. His work is quite intelligent, but in light of his attention to emotion and sensuality in music, and the empathy and enjoyment he brings to encounters with musicians, I have thought that his work contains the beginnings of an erotics of art.

(c) DG, 2008

Thursday, February 19, 2009

John Cheever's novel Falconer

I have begun reading Iris Murdoch's novel Under the Net, having just completed John Cheever's Falconer, published in the mid-1970s. I do not think that I've read Murdoch before, though I have thought of it and her many times. I have read Cheever's short stories, appreciating the variety of situations and characters he presents and the honesty and sensitivity he brings to their portrayal, the sympathy.

One wouldn't expect a man like John Cheever to know all the hard things in Falconer. The principal chracter in the novel is a privileged and lusty man who killed his own brother out of disgust as much as anger. Set in a prison, the writer keeps bringing into the story memories of the past and the larger world. The book has a truthful and irreducible vitality; and gives knowledge born of private experience and contemplation, not just social studies.

What is fascinating about a good novel, such as Falconer, is how a writer creates, enriches, disrupts, transgresses and reconciles his own story: a novel is a digression with digressions.

The musician Seal

I have liked the musician Seal for a very long time, since the early 1990s when he released the song “Crazy” and I have been impressed by the unique quality of his voice, music, and image. Seal, whose full name is Seal Henry Olusegun Kwassi Olumide Adelo Samuel, was born in Britain to Nigerian parents in the early 1960s, and he has performed different kinds of music, but is identified with “techno,” an electronic dance music. I especially liked “Newborn Friend” from his 1994 album, which was called Seal, as was his first. He did a greatest hits album, featuring work from 1991 through 2004, in 2004; and in 2007 put out the danceable album called System, and last year released Soul, a collection of well-known rhythm-and-blues and soul songs, produced by David Foster.

For PBS’s program “Soundstage,” produced and directed by Joe Thomas, the musician Seal performed, in a Chicago concert, songs from Soul, including: “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” “It’s A Man’s World,” “Knock on Wood,” “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” “Here I Am (Come and Take Me),” “People Get Ready,” “Stand by Me,” as well as his earlier songs “A Kiss From a Rose” and “Crazy.” (The concert was broadcast last Saturday morning on LPB at 2 a.m., and is being rebroadcast tonight.) Seal opened the concert wearing a black suit with a white shirt and dark tie, possibly brown if not black. With a distinctive voice and passion, the mature performer sounded very good and his audience enjoyed him as I did. He had a large band with him, including violins, horns, guitar, drums, and piano, the resources of Euro-classical, jazz, and rock music. Seal took off his jacket for the James Brown song “It’s a Man’s World” and danced with one of his background singers on “Here I Am,” though he didn’t quite take the song from Al Green. Seal spoke of being inspired by the spirit of the 1960s and of how he relished the opportunity to sing great songs. He said, however, that he resisted David Foster’s suggestion that he sing “People Get Ready” but that it became one of his favorite songs on the album. I don’t think the music had as much “blues” as the original versions of these songs: there’s a sensuality and sorrow to the original productions, and I suspect that fact, regarding the lack of blues, rests with producer David Foster, whom Seal thanked, before beginning his short techno set, returning to his own earlier work with “A Kiss from A Rose” and “Crazy,” songs that released even more energy in the performer. Seal changed clothes for the second set, wearing white, a white short sleeve T-shirt and white pants; and he performed with a much smaller band, featuring nice piano detail, with Seal's voice having a near-operatic sweep.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Scholar Aram Goudsouzian on Sidney Poitier

Professor Aram Goudsouzian teaches in the department of history at the University of Memphis, and he wrote a comprehensive book, Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon (University of North Carolina Press, 2004), which manages to be both inspiring and sad at the same time. He was recently kind enough, earlier today, to answer a question about Sidney Poitier and the actor's relationship to his own scholarship.

Daniel: What led you to write about Sidney Poitier and how do the issues raised by his life and work relate to yours?

Aram Goudsouzian: I am interested in how popular culture shapes our attitudes about race, and in how race shapes our perceptions of popular culture. African Americans have historically found voices in entertainment and sports that were suppressed in more formal political arenas, and Hollywood has such profound, if often unacknowledged, effects upon the broader culture. The arc of Sidney Poitier’s saga particularly appealed to me because it carries through this entire period of racial upheaval. His persona transcended black stereotypes as comic buffoons or faithful sidekicks, and his dignity resonated with an emerging generation of African Americans and liberal whites who challenged racial convention in the 1950s. By the early 1960s, he seemed to embody the principle of racial equality, winning worldwide fame while lending Hollywood its sole black icon. Yet Poitier’s onscreen characters had to be ultra-virtuous heroes who exhibited unique restraints, fettering suggestions of black anger or sexuality. So by the late 1960s, one decade after getting considered a cutting-edge progressive figure, Black Power radicals and college students had tabbed him an “Uncle Tom.” I think his life and work still shape our popular understanding of black public figures today, none more so than President Obama. He seems to fulfill the same white liberal fantasies as Poitier, only on the most visible stage in the world.

More Brief Notes

The Senate and House bills regarding the economic stimulus package supported by the new president have been reconciled by Senate and House members: the U.S. economic stimulus package now is budgeted at $789 billion, according to CBS News, the New York Times and other news sources (February 12, 2009). I suspect this legislation will form the foundation of Barack Obama's legacy. [Postscript: The Congressional Budget Office would revise the package's cost to $787 billion; and the president would sign the legislation into law on Monday, February 17, 2009.] (Feb. 12, 2009) has reported that Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius is being discussed to lead Health and Human Services for the president. She seems an interesting person and a strong candidate, smart and accessible, collaborative and independent, practical and progressive.

Finland is known as one of the best places to live on earth, but the Helsinki Times (Feb. 11) has disclosed that Finnish hate groups have made their presence known on Facebook, focusing on anti-Somali feeling, with the groups even suggesting that monies be raised to send immigrants back to their native Somali.

In his (Feb. 3) Butterflies and Wheels article “On Rights and Sexuality,” Alexander Park states, “The obsession with some on the left with the biological roots of homosexuality is, I think, a direct result of the Privacy Fallacy. Seeking to avoid a conflict over values, which are ‘private’ and ‘relative’ and therefore ‘uncontestable,’ the left has chosen to try to avoid the entire argument that must inevitably occur by hiding behind the possibility of removing homosexuality from a moral calculus via biological fate. But this move is merely delaying the inevitable, and avoiding important facts at hand.” I have found, often, that using nature to justify human behavior is questionable: it can be a justification for the lack of choice and freedom, and a support for prejudice, as much as an argument for individual rights and personal wholeness. What is unique about being human is the possibility of knowledge and choice.

The Notre Damn Philosophical Reviews site has new book reviews focused on texts exploring Kant, Spinoza, and Wittgenstein, as well as freedom, bioethics, and critical theory. San Francisco State University’s Tom Leddy discusses Yuriko Saito’s book Everyday Aesthetics, a 2007 Oxford University Press title: “One unique aspect of Saito's analysis is the stress she places on the moral dimension of everyday aesthetics. First, she stresses the social importance of everyday aesthetic choices. If people value the greenness of a lawn, there are environmental consequences. Second, she tells us about how aestheticization of certain phenomena can cause social harm: for example, the Japanese in the last century associated their native landscape with militarist nationalism. Third, she stresses the ways that people are judged both in moral and aesthetic terms. Only the last of these seems problematic to me. There are admirable people who are not committed to conventional middle-class values of neatness and order. Should they be judged aesthetically/morally in terms of those values? In this respect, it is surprising to find an avowed feminist sympathetic, as Saito seems to be, to Dickens' implicit criticism of Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House as having allowed her house to become untidy because of her interest in social problems.”

Alexander Provan has an article on Kafka in The Nation, available online (Feb. 11).

In “Laughing Through the Tears: The Enduring Journey of Etta James,” (Feb. 12) excerpts Iain Ellis’s book Rebels with Attitude. (The piece might give some insight into James, whose responses, such as to Beyonce, can be contradictory, volatile.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Economic Stimulus Package Passes Senate

Yesterday, following a public event in which he spoke directly to ordinary Americans, Barack Obama gave his first press conference as president, answering the questions of a wide range of reporters, including those at National Public Radio and the Huffington Post. He spoke clearly, always intelligently, with intensity, and sometimes with wry humor. The principal subject was the economy, and he urged the Senate to pass a multi-billion dollar stimulus package, arguing that it is intended to create and maintain up to four million jobs and advance projects that are efficient and cost-saving over time. And, today, the Senate approved that $838-billion package with a 61 to 37 vote, mostly with Democrats approving and Republicans disapproving; and now the Senate and the House bills will go to conference for reconciliation of differences.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Grammy Awards, Reviewed

At last night's Grammy Awards, a small portion of the awards were broadcast on television (the remainder can be seen at the Grammy's official site at; and some of the awards were "Please Read the Letter," by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, for Record of the Year; Raising Sand by Plant/Krauss, for Album of the Year; "Viva la Vida" for Song of the Year; Adele as Best New Artist; Adele, "Chasing Pavements" for Best Female Pop Vocal; John Mayer, "Say" for Best Male Pop Vocal; Coldplay, "Viva La Vida" for Best Pop Performance by Duo or Group; and "Rich Woman" by Plant/Krauss for Best Pop Colloboration...Some of the awards we did not see on television included Duffy's Rockferry getting Best Pop Vocal Album, Alicia Keys getting Best Female R & B Vocal Performance for her song "Superwoman," and Al Green and John Legend getting a Grammy for the song "Stay with Me" (Best R & B Performance by a Duo/Group), and Al Green and Anthony Hamilton getting a Grammy for Best Traditional R & B Performance by a Duo/Group)....

The Grammy Awards television broadcast seems quite good when one considers it an industry award program: how many industry award shows could sustain interest and provide entertainment? The quality of the performances were probably better than could be predicted for a live program before millions; and I liked hearing U2, Kid Rock, Kenny Chesney, and the blues tribute featuring Keith Urban, B.B. King, and John Mayer. The u2 song captured different periods of rock history and was smartly presented with the lyrics as a backdrop. Whitney Houston received a warm welcome, a standing ovation, before she presented an award to Jennifer Hudson, for Best R & B album. (The audience may have been in a generous mood: others would get ovations--not only U2 and Houston but also Coldplay, Jennifer Hudson, Radiohead.) Justin Timberlake's performance with Al Green struck me as energetic but less good than Timberlake's later performance with T.I. (Green's voice seemed a little rough to me, though it smoothed a bit as he went on). I found the rock/rap colloboration between Coldplay and Jay-Z to be incongruous, though the song's third-part uptempo movement was an improvement. Carrie Underwood, performing in a short dress that showed her great legs, did some kind of noisy, soulful country thing that seemed both bad taste and very effective. Kid Rock, in dark glasses and a black suit, generated energy and interest with a song mixing rock, gospel, and rap and various contemporary references, before sequeing into two other songs; and it was a fun (and swaggering) performance, which ended with his taking his jacket off and walking off the stage. I thought the duet performance of Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus was just bearable, though I sympathize with the subject of the song (a young woman's vulnerable years). Jennifer Hudson's appearance was dramatic in many ways; it was among her first performances following the death of several family members, and she began singing offstage; and she sang something that seemed a love song that could be interpreted as a spiritual, and she was helped by a choir. It was odd to hear Stevie Wonder perform with the Jonas Brothers and to hear them repeatedly call him Stevie (was Diana Ross in the house? She could have instructed: that's Mr. Stevie to you). Metrosexual late night talk show host Craig Ferguson introduced Katy Perry, who performed "I Kissed A Girl" with costumes, dancers, and props, the kind of performance that goes back through Madonna and Cher...all the way to Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus. Estelle has a good voice though her duet with Kanye West was lost on me (also, her dress was little more than a glittery bag), just as the Paul McCartney/Dave Grohl performance didn't mean much to me. The female rapper M.I.A, performing with famous rappers, was a sight for sore eyes--and might have caused the sore eyes (I don't think I want to see a nine months pregnant woman perform again in such a transparent and clinging outfit, though I recognize this might have been some kind of transgressive breakthrough: score one for women; score ten for bad taste). I'm not a fan of Radiohead but I liked their performance. I like Smokey Robinson and wished he had been a bigger part of the Four Tops tribute that he, Jamie Foxx, Ne-Yo, and Duke Fakir participated in. Neil Diamond's performance was oddly paced, and brought to mind the Jewish Elvis moniker I used to hear (Diamond seemed pleased by the audience's attention and they seemed glad to give it but there wasn't a lot of energy: there was mostly nostalgia). One of the oddest combinations wasn't bad at all: featuring Lil Wayne, Robin Thicke, Allen Toussaint, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and Terrence Blanchard. These award shows, such as the Grammys or Oscars, are interesting often for reasons that have nothing to do with art, but to do with business and popularity and social values; but last night there were some good musical performances and the presentation of some attractive performers repaid some of one's attention--but, at three and a half-hours, it is still hard not to argue that time could have been better spent.

Susan Sontag, Reborn

I have been reading John Cheever's novel Falconer and Susan Sontag's Reborn, a collection of journals, and it took me about three days to read Reborn, which I finished this past Saturday.

Susan Sontag's Reborn: Journal and Notebooks, 1947-1963

Reborn (Farrar, Straus, 2008) is an edited presentation of Sontag's journals, documenting her early consciousness, work, and life: art, books, and education; family; love and sexuality. Edited by her son David Rieff, the journals contain genuine philosophical speculations as well as great personal candor, illuminating Sontag's precocious gifts and intellectual ambition, achieving a passionate intensity when she expresses love for broken relationships. Sontag was a private person, and though this book is a raw revelation of some of her intimacies, (on first reading) I don't think it destroys her dignity or value or authority. It may expand her accessibility and range--and, certainly, her discipline and accomplishment are more clear.

Excerpt from "Human Conflict, or the legacies of superfluous men: Hotel Rwanda, The Merchant of Venice, Bad Education, The Woodsman, and Notre Musique"

Susan Sontag, who liked Emerson and Poe, claimed as models Nietzsche, Kafka, and Van Gogh, and also Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes. Sontag admired, as well, the two Simones, Weil and de Beauvoir. A cosmopolitan thinker, Susan Sontag grew up not in New York or Paris but in Arizona and California; and, an energetic child and an avid reader, she was excited by a biography of Madame Curie by Curie’s daughter and Les Miserables, before turning to Thomas Mann, James Joyce, Eliot, Kafka, and Gide. She graduated high school at fifteen. She attended the University of Chicago, where she studied with Kenneth Burke and Joseph Schwab. Sontag, who did graduate work in philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvard and Oxford, dreamed of writing essays that would be appreciated by informed readers; and that is what she spent her life doing. The philosopher Sartre said that freedom has no essence; and that there are descriptions that aim not at essence but at existence; and, with this in mind, I would say that Susan Sontag sought, found, and lived an exemplary freedom.

(c) DG

Thursday, February 5, 2009


Writer's Note: This, "Friends," is an old poem, written in New York in the 1980s, about friends taking a trip to Washington for a public event; and I thought of it again during President Obama's inauguration. I write with diverse inspirations, for various reasons; and this poem was written, partly, for a friend: it was a way of giving to her an ordered, sensible vision of the world, a vision that could be useful. When she first got the poem, she wasn't sure it was for her (she, like many people, may have preferred something even more crudely sentimental), but as time went on she liked the poem...

(Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr's Birthday)

Soft white winter light licking long black trees

Sky a pale storm blue, air dried of heat and summer promise

You drive, jolted by bumps, turns in the road,
shifts in conversation. I watch your back,
the throbbing neck muscle covered by dark cream skin.
I look at your short curly hair, your green canvas jacket,
but I see a distant yesterday when your hand reached
out to know my hand. Today, I silently thank you. Again.

Next to you, your lover's voice humming the same blues
as when we left our warm southern house,
Desiree, Eugene and I in the back seat,
slim brow hands counting my numbers
thinking I have bowed to mysticism
when I have bowed to his magic--friendship.
Short, small Desiree sleeping crushed
against a door, having fed us with wheat cakes
sweetened with raisins, goat milk, and vitamins.

We are traveling from lush lawns and magnolias,
Louisiana, to the red dirt hills of Georgia,
stepping lightly in thickly dark forests,
to the shining marble of Washington.
We are traveling from a single wish to friends' hope
to communal vision. From Saturday to Sunday to January 15th.
From hope to joy to wonder.

The capital, fresh snow cold, whiteness strangling
the thinnest neck of grass, under an axblade-blue sky.
On stone steps and iced lawn, there is a great rough quilt
of people--silk and leather blacks, sackcloth and satin browns,
velvet reds, lack and cotton whites, stitched together
with smiles, arguments, tears, touching. Anthems are sung.
The wind is blowing, frizzbees are flying.

Our conversations are slashed
by hawkers of buttons, t-shirts, and stickers,
their voices stabbing air:
Breathe revolution cook revolution dance revolution
fight revolution fuck revolution wear revolution
as we wonder which revolution? Our nerves tense
with premonition:
Bombs dropping, caressing flesh with pain,
sharp steel slicing arms and legs with kisses,
climaxing in bullets ejaculated by hung thick machine guns.

Doesn't it all begin and end with pain?

The organizer, a dark man cut of holy cloth,
calls this "a movement to clothe, feed, house and teach all."
The elders delicately unwrap memories
that the young have meshed from black-and-white films
of olden days, of protest streets, dogs, gushing hoses,
bloody clubs, of white and black people, black and white reasons,
white and black fears. We think, One never starts over.
There is no new purity. We stand carved by life,
aware and struggling, hopeful in fits.

My hand reaches out to re-member yours.

Afterwards, to car, we ride train in tunneled earth,
knowing this is the work and the traveling
we are meant to do:
Underground, under skin, under language,
becoming comfortable with rushing rivers,
dank sewers, slender blood veins,
the inner flowing of pain and pleasure.

(c) DG

Monday, February 2, 2009

Comments: Appreciations and Repudiations

With his economic stimulus package, rejection of torture and plans to close Guantanamo, setting of government ethics standards, signing of anti-discrimination employment legislation and increased insurance coverage for children, President Obama and his government have made a good start. Yet, Benjamin R. Barber asserts in The Nation (“A Revolution in Spirit,” January 22, 2009) that larger questions and possibilities remain, and specifies some of them: “The crisis in global capitalism demands a revolution in spirit--fundamental change in attitudes and behavior. Reform cannot merely rush parents and kids back into the mall; it must encourage them to shop less, to save rather than spend. If there's to be a federal lottery, the Obama administration should use it as an incentive for saving, a free ticket, say, for every ten bucks banked. Penalize carbon use by taxing gas so that it's $4 a gallon regardless of market price, curbing gas guzzlers and promoting efficient public transportation. And how about policies that give producers incentives to target real needs, even where the needy are short of cash, rather than to manufacture faux needs for the wealthy just because they've got the cash?”

One of the most vicious critics of Barack Obama during the recent presidential election campaign was not a known conservative, but rather someone who styles himself a progressive, even a radical: Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report, a sometimes interesting online publication. Ford’s comments were often hateful, insane—and seemed to reflect a holier-than-thou or blacker-than-thou attitude, establishing the kind of standards that no real, complex person could meet, not to mention a man running for the highest office in the land and needing the public support of diverse constitutencies. (More recently, certain Republican party officials and members seem to have a difficult time wishing President Obama well, even if it means that if he fails many ordinary Americans will suffer; and the lack of empathy is telling.)

There is a book by Ellis Cose on the rage of bourgeois blacks: The Rage of a Privileged Class, which focuses on the opportunities and the prejudices and limits that educated, seemingly successful blacks still face and how they manage their feelings and professional responses (often they attain presence in an organization but not power). I think it's an important subject, one that refutes pretending that all blacks share the exact same experience.

It is impossible not to notice there seem to be a few more African-American journalists on television since President Obama's campaign, election, and inauguration. It will be great if they are able to affect the content of television programming.

The graphic destruction of the human body that television constantly displays is unsettling: and most recently, my stomach has been turned by an anti-smoking commercial that shows fat deposits in dissected human tissue. Disgusting. What can one say about television? More often than not it offers false associations, false memories, and a narcotic ecstasy. It consumes, fills, and trivializes time. It can offer us basic orientation in and to a new or different place, but the string of superficialities it is more likely to offer can convince us that the world is a lot more organized and a lot simpler than it is. Its appeal is too often primitive—a series of shocks.

I used to listen to radio a lot in New York, but there is less good radio in Louisiana, though even here there is a college station that has become a favorite. In the United Kingdom, Libby Purves, for the January 31, 2009 Telegraph (“Why We’re Still Ga-Ga for Radio”), writes: “Using only sound, radio stretches the imagination and makes the listener its partner. A humble plastic box can introduce you to writers, ideas, arguments, facts, music and atmospheres you might not encounter in two lifetimes. Speech radio, in particular, is a curious medium: more vivid than print, bringing ambient noise and atmosphere, conveying tones and breaths and hesitations and tension in the voice. It is indifferent to the artifices of appearance.”

I was introduced to musician Brett Dennen by the south Louisiana college radio station I like. Regarding singer-songwriter Brett Dennen’s album Hope for the Hopeless (Dualtone/Downtown), which Aarik Danielsen reviews for (Feb. 2, 2009), the reviewer Danielsen declares that “Dennen’s music serves a bridge between the hippy-lite jams that pass for folk rock today and old-school folkies of the ‘60s and ‘70s who brought the goods as far as songwriting and social consciousness. It might not be an overstatement to say that Dennen could prove an important figure, hopefully turning younger listeners onto the goodness that can accompany thoughtful words and simple melodies sincerely sung.” Yet, the writer also states, “Let’s put Dennen’s socially-conscious lyrics in perspective here; he’s no Dylan or Lennon. But he does capture the spirit of a generation attracted to the hopeful promise they witnessed in the Obama candidacy. Dennen is a perceptive songwriter who sees injustice in real-world, black-and-white terms, yet also sees opportunities to right those wrongs.” When so much of music criticism fails the highest standards, is to be respected, rising above gossip and hype to produce intelligent examinations of a wide range of music, as with the consideration given to Brett Dennen.

The hype that has welcomed new recordings by musicians such as Animal Collective and Bruce Springsteen reminds me of the investment that music journalists and publications have in the success of musicians—they promote aesthetic pleasure, meaning, and popularity, championing notions of “cool” and “relevance.” The glamour of the success of the moment is always being sold, whether the artist is new or old. We see this with U2 and Radiohead as well as with the Decemberists and Arcade Fire. (Whether one considers the dull respectability--and respectable dullness?--of Jon Pareles in the New York Times at one spectrum's end, or the indulgent trashiness of the web's Idolator at the other end, with the status-and-trend-chasing failures of Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and other publications in between, this time is far from an ideal moment for music commentary: many of these publications a critic or reporter might want to write for because of money and visibility rather than the creative company one would be forced to keep. When I saw the newest article on Springsteen in Rolling Stone, I laughed out loud and thought that if he died, the magazine would exhume and photograph his rotted corpose to commemorate a memorial anthology.) Too many journalists ignore chances to broaden the cultural conversation, the chance to go beyond current market offerings, and beyond merely fleeting topical concerns, to discuss serious ideas and prospects that are both timeless and urgent.

Sound and image can be mere distractions, or much more. There is nothing like standing in a museum contemplating a perspective in which care, color, craft, and thought have been invested. I have found peace doing that....The Art Institute of Chicago has free admission for all of February, 2009.

I have been reading Hamilton College history professor Aram Goudsouzian’s book about Sidney Poitier called Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon, published a few years ago by the University of North Carolina Press. It’s very good in pointing out how social matters can increase and decrease the appreciation for an artist; and explores the complex man Poitier is and dynamic times in which Poitier lived and lives.

Film Journal International (Sarah Sluis, January 29, 2009) reports that Mira Nair’s nonprofit film training project in Uganda, Maisha Film Labs, provides an intensive boot camp with experienced filmmaking instructors covering different roles in film production. Obviously it is a chance to nurture new talent and new stories.

There is a new Gerald Peary documentary, For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, and it is hard to know whether to be excited or whether to cringe: it is sickening that so often when the subject of film criticism is discussed Andrew Sarris and his acolytes make negative comments about Pauline Kael. Whatever Sarris’s value as a film critic (I read him first in The Village Voice and later in the New York Observer), it seems he may be a very pathetic man: he maintained a lifelong grudge against Pauline Kael and has extended that into a beyond-her-death grudge. While he and his minions continue to make questionable comments about Kael, the only ones diminished are they themselves. Admirers of Kael recall her work—books such as I Lost It at The Movies and Reeling and For Keeps…and think…and laugh with appreciation and pleasure.