Category Archives: reading

Krazy

I often have the experience of being inspired by something I read or see to order a book (used via Amazon, most often), but when it arrives I don’t recall the details of the inspiration, having by then moved on to yet more inspirations… Today’s case in point is Louis Kronenberger’s Quality: Its Image in the Arts (1969), which turns out to have a very interesting chapter on Photography by Walker Evans (which I had read about a couple of weeks ago in Svetlana Alpers’ Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch (2020), and was, as I now reconstruct it, the source of the inspiration to order). The Kronenberger book has chapters by a variety of mid-20th century luminaries (Virgil Thompson on Music, Gilbert Seldes on Popular Arts, Milton Glaser on Graphics, Ada Louise Huxtable on Architecture, Eliza beth Hardwick on Literature…), some of which are a bit musty a half century later (though their points of view are memorable to those of us who were there then). There are lots of wonderful illustrations, some very familiar and others quite new to me. One that especially delights me is this from George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, ca. 1922 (that is, nearly a century ago):



Now, Herriman himself is an interesting character, subject of the biography Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White (2016), and “a visionary whose influence helped shape popular culture for decades after his death… you may never look at the zigzag on Charlie Brown’s t-shirt again without remembering that it was Charles Schulz’s tribute to the Navaho designs that recurred in Herriman’s work…” (from the Amazon blurb). I retrieved it from the Auxiliary Library in the barn and started reading it again.

And Herriman drew the cartoons for Archy & Mehitabel (written by Don Marquis):

i have had my ups and downs
but wotthehell wotthehell
yesterday sceptres and crowns
fried oysters and velvet gowns
and today i herd with bums
but wotthehell wotthehell
i wake the world from sleep
as i caper and sing and leap
when i sing my wild free tune
wotthehell wotthehell
under the blear eyed moon
i am pelted with cast off shoon
but wotthehell wotthehell

(and see What Kittens? for more from A&M)

Egregores and the Egregious

An early morning riffle through this week’s New Yorker produces a marvelous collision of Americas. The first is a two-page spread advertisement for Sensei Lānaʻi, a “Four Seasons Resort” which proposes “Elevating Wellness into Wellbeing”:




This is the single most offensive ad I’ve encountered so far this year, and maybe ever. You owe yourself a close reading of the text:



I then turned a couple of pages to arrive at The Talk of the Town, the lead piece of which is Adam Gopnik’s “Fault Lines” which begins

Readers of “Through the Looking-Glass” may recall the plight of the Bread-and-Butterfly, which, as the Gnat explains to Alice, can live only on weak tea with cream in it. “Supposing it couldn’t find any?” Alice asks. “Then it would die, of course,” the Gnat answers. “That must happen very often,” Alice reflects. “It always happens,” the Gnat admits dolefully.

Gopnik goes on to consider America’s current crisis of democracy, and says

The default condition of humankind, traced across thousands of years of history, is some sort of autocracy.

…Keeping a republic is a matter not of preserving it like pickles but of working it like dough—which sounds like something you’d serve alongside very weak tea. But it is the essential diet to feed our democracy if we are to make what always happens, for a little while longer, happily unhappen.

What a juxtaposition: the utter crass ME-ness of Larry Ellison’s Lānaʻi (“Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison bought 98% of the island of Lanai in 2012 for an estimated $300 million…”) with Gopnik’s rendition of our current slide toward the “default condition of humankind.” But Gopnik tells only a part of the story, which includes Lewis Carroll’s discription of the fatal anatomy of the Bread-and-Butterfly:

its wings are thin slices of bread-and-butter, its body is a crust, and its head is a lump of sugar.

Thus, if the Bread-and-Butterfly did find its weak tea with cream, it would die as its head dissolved; if it didn’t find its weak tea with cream, it would starve. The Bread-and-Butterfly is, as Gregory Bateson noted, a classic example of the Double Bind:

the essence of a double bind is two conflicting demands, each on a different logical level, neither of which can be ignored or escaped. This leaves the subject torn both ways, so that whichever demand he or she tries to meet, the other demand cannot be met. “I must do it, but I can’t do it” is a typical description of the double-bind experience.

Hobson’s Choice is another common trope, in which the Choice is between something and nothing. Both are all too present in today’s world.

Somewhere in the searching and reading that this conjunction provoked, I stumbled upon a term that was new to me: egregore, “powerful autonomous psychic entities created by a collective group mind.” Egregores: The Occult Entities That Watch Over Human Destiny

sustained by belief, ritual, and sacrifice and relies upon the devotion of a group of people, from a small coven to an entire nation, for its existence. An egregore that receives enough sustenance can take on a life of its own, becoming an independent deity with powers its believers can use to further their own spiritual advancement and material desires… provides instructions on how to identify egregores, free yourself from a parasitic and destructive collective entity, and destroy an egregore, should the need arise. Revealing how egregores form the foundation of nearly all human interactions, the author shows how egregores have moved into popular culture and media–underscoring the importance of intense selectivity in the information we accept and the ways we perceive the world and our place in it. (from the Amazon precis)

How very like the ‘Trumpism’ that seems to stalk the land and contribute to that “current crisis of democracy.”

Eeeek…

And A Pseudoethnography of Egregores. Quite enough for a Monday.

Three Farmers again

It was almost 7 years ago that I wrote a blog post about my fascination with August Sander’s “Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance”

and Richard Powers’ marvelous book (published in 1985) with the same title, which constructs an epic reading of the photograph. A couple of weeks ago the book was released as an Audible book, and I’ve been listening to it and re-reading my 1987 paperback too. The book has lost nothing of its power in those 33 years since I first read it.

That post followed one a week before, written while I was reading Powers’ Orfeo (2014), which contains this bit of insight:

…people take up all kinds of hobbies in retirement. They visit the birthplaces of Civil War generals. They practice the euphonium. They learn tai chi or collect Petoskey stones or photograph rock formations in the shape of human faces… (Orfeo, page 2 or so)

In 2014 I wasn’t seeking rock faces (though that was the first year we visited Brittany, and I did photograph megaliths), but it was about that time that I discovered the 12th Imam on a rock in Martinsville, and that was probably the beginning of my engagement with faces in rocks:


12th Imam as first discovered

Since then I’ve done thousands of rock portraits, and just today we did an expedition to Marshall Point and I collected these:

9xi2030

9xi2031

9xi2032

9xi2018

9xi2048

9xi2053

9xi2016

self/no-self

“I” (me, my, etc.) figures prominently in this blog and in the thinking that precedes the construction of an entry. This seems a fact to acknowledge, rather than a failing to expunge or an error to vitiate, and reflects the personal nature of its contents, which emerge as a catalog of mental states and doings and projects, mostly quotidian and only occasionally nudging into territory of the sublime or transcendent. The author is no Bodhisattva:

no Bodhisattva who is a real Bodhisattva cherishes the idea of an ego-identity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality

as Dr. W.Y. Evans-Wentz puts it in his Foreword to the Shambhala 1969 version of The Diamond Sutra.

My citation of Minor White’s dictum

The photographer projects himself
into everything he sees,
identifying himself with
everything
in order to know and feel it better

All photographs are
self-portraits.

(which ended a post that followed a post on the Dude abiding, which itself harked back to discussion of the Convivial question of the previous week…) evinced this response from one of my Convivial interlocutors:

Which raises the question of the “self” if every _______ is a self-portrait. Assuming, of course, that there is a self. Or are there more than one “selves?” Nobody seems to agree on any of these possibilities.

Hm. I thought. Well, I’m a self, conscious of constructing myself over a lifetime, in continuing inner dialog that continues to be constructive, and aware that sometime it will all cease. But meanwhile it’s not an illusion, but rather a performance space in which various plays are enacted, alone and with others. I can be self-critical, self-absorbed, self-centered, self-involved… but those are choices made. I can also attend to the broader performances outside my own little theater of the mind, and choose to participate, or not. Choose to display and communicate, or not. Have close alliances with others, or not. Engage with external stimuli and events, or not. That choosing is done from within the wheelhouse of the mind, where attention may be directed as I choose.

And what’s the point of it all? It’s continuously interesting as a story with episodic complexities and pleasures/gratifications. My own performance space is happy, untrammeled, little bothered by slings and arrows of tragedy, suffering, dissatisfaction. In short, felicitous. Just why and how I’m not sure, perhaps more by “luck” and ultimately chance of the initial draw than by any inherent virtue, or any karmic head start.

I am at home in the Sensorium, attentive to Umwelt. The Dude abides.

I can imagine that there might not be “an ego identity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality” just as I can imagine breathing into my toes, shoulder blades, etc., or that the rocks are peopled. It’s the imagining in which I take refuge.

All of that stuff emerges in the contemporaneous context of reading Madeleine Thien’s Poems Without an ‘I’ in the October 8th issue of NYRB, a review of 3 books on classical Chinese poetry, a subject in which I didn’t know I was interested. She avers that “The essential experience of Chinese poetry is all but untranslatable” (which set off a kerfuffle among linguists) and continues

the dimensionality of the Chinese writing system itself is akin to a forest we walk through (where the trees keep grouping and regrouping as we move among them), rather than a series of twigs arranged on a surface. Cheng observes that the writing system “has refused to be simply a support for the spoken language: its development has been characterized by a constant struggle to assure for itself both autonomy and freedom of combination.” To add to the constellations of meaning within any given poem, the disciplines of poetry, calligraphy, and painting are not considered distinct but rather facets of a single complete art.

Hinton notes that the Chinese language is not constructed around “a center of identity”; each time we see an “I” in a translation of Tang poetry, it was almost certainly not in the original text. Chinese grammar—a genderless and verb-tense-less system in which past, present, and future are inferred by context—allows for a complex blurring of subjectivities, which is not just a side effect but a fundamental aspect of the language. In Chinese poetry, fiction, and philosophy, the “I” is not the nerve center from which thought and knowledge begin.

The whole business of translation has amused me ever since high school Latin, and Thien’s characterization of David Hinton’s approach is elegant:

Hinton’s translations have always gone against the grain. He has been building, translation by translation, an English language for a Chinese conceptual world. His versions get closest to what makes Du Fu sublime for Chinese readers. He isn’t afraid to baffle us; the gaps remind us that we are only guests here, and that the poems do—indeed should—hover a bit beyond our grasp.

So does all this sort out the self/no-self question? Um, no, but it surely puts me on one side of the chasm.

contra Sherlock

Today I was listening to Stephen Fry’s reading of Sherlock Holmes as I walked, and was diverted by this bit of Holmes’ practical philosophy:

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.
(from A Study in Scarlet)

This is just about the diametrical opposite to what I’ve thought all these years, the antithesis to my patron saint Hugh of St. Victor’s dictum:

Omnia disce,
videbus postea nihil esse superfluum

(Learn everything,
you will see later that nothing is superfluous)

(and see my Goals and Methods of Teaching as summarized 25 years ago)

It’s the curation of stuff that makes the difference between the lumber-filled brain-attic and the well-oiled engines of synthesis and retrieval to which one aspires. I (seem to have to) learn this lesson anew whenever I try to make sense of one of my collections, and each pass reveals new interrelations I hadn’t noticed or fully appreciated before.

Convivium: Attachment

This week I think I’ll try a different approach to posing a Question for Convivial consideration, stating it in its general form and then providing a backstory to how it arose and what I think about it. Here goes:

We’re told that Attachment is a fons et origo of Suffering, with the implication that we shouldn’t BE Attached, or should shed Attachments. Of course there can be Attachment to immaterial as well as material, to notions as easily as to stuff.

So on the one hand one might Ask: how to be/become NOT Attached?

But perhaps the more useful question to mull is: what are one’s own Attachments, what’s their history, how does one understand their importance in one’s life?

Personally, my consideration of this Question has led to the realization that I don’t wish to shed Attachments, but that I enjoy the active engagement with their curation, with the working out for myself of those Attachments’ designs and architectures. This won’t surprise anybody who has been following along, nor will the scope of convolutions and serendipities that are the background to its posing.

Here’s how the Convivial Question-making seems to unfold: I’m reading in one or more books, attending to their main threads, and up pops a Relation to something we’ve discussed before—often quite tangential, but pointed enough to get written down, and thus to provoke further wondering. Other books come off the shelves, google searches may ensue, bits of summary of findings and thoughts get written down, and so it goes.

The impetus for today’s Question was a story from the New Yorker’s Annals of Gastronomy, 2 August: How a Cheese Goes Extinct, By Ruby Tandoh

…By July of that year, the farm ceased production, and Holbrook’s cheeses—Old Ford, Cardo, Sleightlett, and Tymsboro—slipped out of the living tradition and into the pages of history. A cheese is just one small piece of the world—one lump of microbe-riddled milk curds—but each is an endpoint of centuries of tradition. Some disappear for months or years; others never return. The cheesemonger and writer Ned Palmer told me that, when a cheese is lost, “Your grief reaches back into the past—into decades and centuries and millennia of culture. You feel all of that.”

When you talk with cheese aficionados, it doesn’t usually take long for the conversation to veer this way: away from curds, whey, and mold, and toward matters of life and death. With the zeal of nineteenth-century naturalists, they discuss great lineages and endangered species, painstakingly cataloguing those cheeses that are thriving and those that are lost to history. In his classic The Great British Cheese Book, from 1982, Major Patrick Rance—a monocled founding father of modern British cheese—intersperses his tales of surviving regional cheeses with obituaries for those that never made it so far, going as far as to describe their disappearance as extinction. Under “Extinct cheeses of the Midlands and East Anglia,” Rance pays his respects to a lost Newmarket cheese, “a 40lb marigold-coloured cheese,” pressed under cloth and rubbed with salt and cream, the recipe for which was unearthed in a 1774 housekeeping manual.

The cheese story ties in with ongoing reading of Alexander Langlands’ Craeft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts, one aspect of which is (on my part) a rather romantic engagement with (indeed, an Attachment to) technologies and lexicons of the past, and with the mysteries of Mastery of materials and processes, which may be (at least for me) anchors to windward against the storms of the Modern that perpetually threaten to swamp us. Among other books in this ilk are Robert Persig’s perennial and always-worth-revisiting Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (which first appeared in 1974) and Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (2010). And Glassman and Fields Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Living a Life That Matters traverses much of the same territory.

I have a 50+ year engagement with the history (well, histories) of technology, broadly defined and ranging from poky sticks and string and rock-smashing through all manner of materials and mechanisms and clevernesses, all the way to today’s frontiers with nano-scale materials. All of this territory is of the mind, and wanders through human proclivities and imagination and dexterity and inventiveness, and not excepting mistakes and unforeseen consequences. A lot of territory, and spangled throughout with the by-now-familiar assemblage of this-and-that from reading and chance encounter and excavations of past enthusuasms and lines of inquiry… it’s what I do. Two extended examples from the past:

  • At the behest of this line of inquiry, yesterday I quarried a 1991 project from the archives, a design for “A Reference Collection for the Executive Offices of the Society for the History of Technology” that I produced for a Library School course taught by Jay Lucker, who was MIT’s Librarian. The first 10 pages read well even 29 years later and after a vast upheaval in the library world, and Jay Lucker’s comments warm the heart. The 434 items listed and annotated would provide several lifetimes of reading…

  • See also my Technology weblet, built before there were blogs and illustrating my approach to distributable digital note-making of 20+ years ago: the 1998/1999 scheme for a History of Technology course at Washington and Lee. See also electronic version of the Syllabus and notes for my presentation on the course to the Virginia Collegiate Honors Council, September 1998. There’s probably a lot of linkrot, but the implicit method is clear enough.

and another Convivial wonderment

The incoming Freshman class of September 1961 was assigned CP Snow’s The Two Cultures (based on his 1959 Rede Lecture). An excerpt of the original lecture:

I believe the intellectual life of the whole of
western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups. When I say the
intellectual life, I mean to include also a large part of our practical life, because
I should be the last person to suggest the two can at the deepest level be
distinguished. I shall come back to the practical life a little later. Two polar
groups: at one pole we have the literary intellectuals, who incidentally while no
one was looking took to referring to themselves as ‘intellectuals’ as though there
were no others. I remember G. H. Hardy once remarking to me in mild
puzzlement, some time in the 1930s: “Have you noticed how the word
‘intellectual’ is used nowadays? There seems to be a new definition which
certainly doesn’t include Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me. It
does seem rather odd, don’t y’know?”.

Literary intellectuals at one pole—at the other scientists, and as the most
representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual
incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and
dislike, but most of all lack of understanding. They have a curious distorted
image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of
emotion, they can’t find much common ground. Non-scientists tend to think of
scientists as brash and boastful. They hear Mr. T. S. Eliot, who just for these
illustrations we can take as an archetypal figure, saying about his attempts to
revive verse-drama that we can hope for very little, but that he would feel
content if he and his co-workers could prepare the ground for a new Kyd or a
new Greene. That is the tone, restricted and constrained, with which literary
intellectuals are at home: it is the subdued voice of their culture. Then they hear
a much louder voice, that of another archetypal figure, Rutherford, trumpeting:
“This is the heroic age of science! This is the Elizabethan age!” Many of us
heard that, and a good many other statements beside which that was mild; and
we weren’t left in any doubt whom Rutherford was casting for the role of
Shakespeare. What is hard for the literary intellectuals to understand,
imaginatively or intellectually, is that he was absolutely right.
And compare “this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a
whimper—incidentally, one of the least likely scientific prophecies ever
made—compare that with Rutherford’s famous repartee, “Lucky fellow,
Rutherford, always on the crest of the wave.” “Well, I made the wave, didn’t I?”
The non-scientists have a rooted impression that the scientists are shallowly
optimistic, unaware of man’s condition. On the other hand, the scientists believe
that the literary intellectuals are totally lacking in foresight, peculiarly
unconcerned with their brother men, in a deep sense anti-intellectual, anxious to
restrict both art and thought to the existential moment. And so on. Anyone with
a mild talent for invective could produce plenty of this kind of subterranean
back-chat. On each side there is some of it which is not entirely baseless. It is all
destructive. Much of it rests on misinterpretations which are dangerous. I should
like to deal with two of the most profound of these now, one on each side.

I regret to say that I punted: I didn’t read the book at the time, and I didn’t quite see why it would matter to me. Looking back, I see what I might have begun to think about if I had just made the effort. I could see, dimly, that Snow was on about two hostile camps, between which we might be supposed to choose. Or so I thought. Of course there was much more to it than simple four-legs-good-two-legs-bad (I had read Animal Farm…), with/against binary opposition.

Betsy and I were both in that Freshman class, though unbeknownst to one another, and likewise we were both in a Gen Ed class on Philosophy (along with maybe 300 others), taught by Rogers Albritton, in which I have to confess I drifted aimlessly, largely ignorant of how to read and how to listen. One of the readings was Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. A section I still recall (though don’t remember it as verse) describes the imagined atomic world:

     What seems to us the hardened and condensed
     Must be of atoms among themselves more hooked,
     Be held compacted deep within, as 'twere
     By branch-like atoms--of which sort the chief
     Are diamond stones, despisers of all blows,
     And stalwart flint and strength of solid iron,
     And brazen bars, which, budging hard in locks,
     Do grate and scream. But what are liquid, formed
     Of fluid body, they indeed must be
     Of elements more smooth and round--because
     Their globules severally will not cohere:
     To suck the poppy-seeds from palm of hand
     Is quite as easy as drinking water down,
     And they, once struck, roll like unto the same.
     But that thou seest among the things that flow
     Some bitter, as the brine of ocean is,
     Is not the least a marvel...
     For since 'tis fluid, smooth its atoms are
     And round, with painful rough ones mixed therein;
     Yet need not these be held together hooked:
     In fact, though rough, they're globular besides,
     Able at once to roll, and rasp the sense.
     And that the more thou mayst believe me here,
     That with smooth elements are mixed the rough
     (Whence Neptune's salt astringent body comes),
     There is a means to separate the twain,
     And thereupon dividedly to see
     How the sweet water, after filtering through
     So often underground, flows freshened forth
     Into some hollow; for it leaves above
     The primal germs of nauseating brine,
     Since cling the rough more readily in earth.
     Lastly, whatso thou markest to disperse
     Upon the instant--smoke, and cloud, and flame--
     Must not (even though not all of smooth and round)
     Be yet co-linked with atoms intertwined,
     That thus they can, without together cleaving,
     So pierce our body and so bore the rocks.
     Whatever we see...
     Given to senses, that thou must perceive
     They're not from linked but pointed elements.

What I couldn’t grasp in 1961 was that I was being introduced to how people thought, to the evolution of understanding that led to the present moment. I’ve been working on repairing my inattention ever since.

Alexander Boxer’s A Scheme of Heaven: The History of Astrology and the Search for Our Destiny in Data drifted into my ken a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been nibbling at it gradually, as a brick in the edifice of History of Science that I’ve been tracking for years. The book is full of surprises for me, the example of the moment being a discussion of oppositional schools of thought, Epicurean vs. Stoic in Boxer’s formulation, that contrasts Lucretius the materialist/skeptic/randomness-oriented Epicurean and Manilius the instantiator of the zodiacal elements of astrology (Stoic, or perhaps Pythagorean or Platonist), and advocate of divine intelligent-plan determinism. Boxer suggests that astrology is in effect Stoic astronomy, in which all can be analyzed mathematically. Manilius (of whom I had never heard) seems to have been the first to codify the characteristics associated with each of the 12 Signs of the Zodiac: Those born under the Sign of Virgo (“associated with the arts of writing, inquisitive and studious, adept with words and speech, held back by shyness…”) vs. [for example] those under Cancer (“associated with finance and international trade, grasping and miserly, shrewd and combative”) and so on. The newspaper horoscope version of all that is hokum and flim-flam, but in Boxer’s telling there’s much to tantalize. And I’ll have to confess that the description of Virgo characteristics is too close for complete comfort for this Virgo.

But what interests me is the proclivity for and predominance of oppositional thinking, this OR that, one or the other, for or against, right or wrong. It’s worth reflecting on how many witless binaries have blighted our lives, how often we are called upon to “Stand With” or to Oppose. John McIlwain’s comment is apposite: “Divinely ordained/fated, or simply a very complex machine – are these the only two metaphysical choices we have? We seem to still be struggling with these two alternatives, both of which free us from the responsibility of free choice. Either way, it’s not my fault!”

I seem to be sheltering in a metaphysics that is more organic/vitalist than ‘very complex machine’, a world of open systems and transduced energy and vast interconnectivities that we only dimly grasp and have, to our surprise, no dominion over.

Impostures

An astonishing book has fallen into my hands and into my life: Michael Cooperson’s Impostures by al-Ḥarĩrĩ: Fifty Rogue’s Tales Translated Fifty Ways. It’s worth recording how that ‘fallen’ transpired: first, a blog post by Victor Mair at Language Log (which often delights, often mystifies), which pointed to a Wall Street Journal review by Sam Sacks (June 27) and provoked an Amazon order. One of the key hooks in Sacks’ review was reference to maqamat, glossed as ‘improvization’ and so directly parallel to a musical form I’m well acquainted with and always seeking broader understanding of. There’s also a clear link to my explorations of Oulipo (and OuXpos of various sorts) that are themselves a bit more remotely tied to my wanderings in Benjaminia, thus linking several threads of the last 6+ months of reading and thinking. Just what the resulting tissu or macramé amounts to, or might lead to next, is less than clear at the moment, but it surely harks back to Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise Of The Music Of Language, and to the grand problems of translation /übersetzung, ‘over-setting’/, and thence to ruminations on Culture and the deep complexities of understanding and en- and de-coding. I’m a wanderer in these forests, always open to new delights. And rogue threads are forever finding their way into the macramé, viz. Walt Whitman and Bob Dylan “I contain multitudes”. These are all two-bit epiphanies, bits of insight rather than pointers to grand revelations. And mostly probably intransitive, for my own amusement and edification and pleasure. Reason enough.

Omnia disce

If I have a patron saint, it’s probably Hugh of St-Victor [12th century, author of Didascalicon], whose advice was

Omnia disce, videbus postea nihil esse superfluum
(Learn everything, you will see later that nothing is superfluous)

One can’t, alas, Know Everything, but elaborating one’s understanding of the world around has been a lifelong Odyssey, and a great joy. Sometimes the piling up of knowledge and the interweaving of threads of understanding leads to precipices, viewpoints where an unanticipated vista opens to disclose a chasm of personal ignorance. Happens all the time…

It’s a measure of something that I have read NONE of the reading list on issues of race in this issue of Harvard Gazette. I am uninformed in these matters, and forever surprised/chastened to discover vast realms of ignorance of important things I should have known about. Just now I happened upon May Jeong’s Ah Toy, Pioneering Prostitute of Gold Rush California, which considerably enlarges my knowledge of the history of Chinese immigration into California, and raises a host of other issues and questions about intersectional matters.

It’s easy to find examples of “I’m not responsible for…” with respect to evils of the past (slavery, the extirpation of aboriginal populations, anti- stances toward various Others, etc.), and indeed I’ve mouthed the formula myself in defense of one thing or another. The question of ‘responsibility’ might be reframed into a discussion of how does/should/might one take account of complicities in distant (temporally, spatally, socially…) iniquities and inequities. At the very least, one ought to be ready to inform oneself when a chasm of personal ignorance presents itself. Books like 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, the works of Eduardo Galeano (among them Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History, Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World, The Memory of Fire trilogy) and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States tend to blow the wheels off the wagon of complacency.

Lately I’ve been reading Walter Johnson’s The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States (which sports Kate’s beautiful maps) which provides a potent backstory to recent events like Ferguson (Amazon blurb: “…exemplifies how imperialism, racism, and capitalism have persistently entwined to corrupt the nation’s past…”). So much of our national mythos is built upon glorifications of events and people, of wilful self-deceptions under the rubrics of Patriotism and exceptionalism, of flaunted symbols like The Flag and the honored dead of glorious wars, and of notions of Progess and Victory. The Emperor’s Raiment, the thumping of tubs, demagoguery, coming to a screen near you…

A brace of haiku in praise:

moral certitude
inspires the cannon fodder
waving flags: Huzzah!!

another martyr
ours or theirs: keep careful count
a winner someday

Another Rabbit Hole

A couple of days ago I was organizing books in the Auxiliary Library in the barn and happened on Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination (which I had bought in 2008, on just what inspiration I can’t recover, 12 years later). Many of the 40 essays contained within are interesting to probe again, touching as they do on interests and enthusiasms and questions that have arisen during those dozen years. The last third of the eponymous and first (“The Geography of the Imagination”, originally a Distinguished Professor Lecture at University of Kentucky in 1978) is an extended riff on American Gothic, Grant Wood’s evocation of American essence:


(Art Institute of Chicago)
(see Wikipedia entry)

Davenport’s four pages of deconstruction of this eidetic image is a lovely mapping of implications, of allusions, of in-knottings. Some are explicit references by Grant Wood, others seem imbricated [an overlapping of successive layers], where the pointer is to bricolage, in the sense of ‘creation from a diverse range of available things’, rather than to an orderly pattern of overlapping, as with shingles (bricoler is “to tinker”). A similar unpacking can be visited upon other familiar images, to get at the question of how and why they come to be eidetic, and I’m tempted to try some of that myself (stay tuned…).

It’s no surprise that American Gothic has been praised as representing “steadfast American pioneer spirit”, derided as Norman Rockwellish cliché of a[n imaginary] small town America, and widely replicated in satire and parody (see a blog devoted to instances). Here’s an instance from my own archives:

Kent and Shel 1969
Shel and Kent Anderson, 1969