October 2008

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I’m still on a Jenny Saville bender (see post below)…Here are a few passages from an interview with Saville conducted by Suzie Mackenzie of the Guardian. I found these passages provocative and insightful.

She attributes the early “fascination with fat” to sitting on the floor watching her piano teacher. “From below she had these big, thick thighs, a thick tweed skirt and tights, and I’d spend the whole time looking at the way her thighs never parted and how the flesh would rub against the tights.” People sometimes observe that the experience of looking at one of the big early Savilles, with their dramatic cropping and foreshortening, is a bit like a child confronting a grown-up. A mix of awe and intimacy. “I wanted both in those pictures. A large female body has a power, it occupies a physical space, yet there’s an anxiety about it. It has to be hidden.” So a part of it, she says, was a search for intimacy, “as if being in a mother’s arms”. And part of it was discomfort, “the anxiety that comes from living with flesh”.

***
She began with the body for all sorts of reasons. “The art I like concentrates on the body. I don’t have a feel for Poussin, but for Courbet, Velásquez – artists who get to the flesh. Visceral artists – Bacon, Freud. And de Kooning, of course. He’s really my man. He doesn’t depict anything, yet it’s more than representation, it’s about the meaning of existence and pushing the medium of paint.”

***
What interests her is wherever the body breaks open – the genitalia – and, most particularly of course, the head, the face and all its openings. Her 2003 exhibition Migrants consisted of six paintings, three of them heads, all staring out at the viewer blankly, as if indifferent to their state. Gone are the morbid flesh tones of her early work; here the paint, a vibrant red and brown, is as charged as the images. Aperture, unusually, is a gruesome head of a man – puffy, one eye battered closed. Reverse and Reflective Flesh use her own image. Not as self-portraits: “I am not interested in portraits as such. I am not interested in the outward personality. I don’t use the anatomy of my face because I like it, not at all. I use it because it brings out something from inside, a neurosis.”

***
And she was a child of her time. Born in 1970, she came of age in the 1980s: “Everyone was obsessed with the body – it was all about dieting, gym, the body beautiful. Pornography, Aids were the big debates.” She was influenced by feminism. “As a child I’d look through art books and there were no women artists. Of course, you start to ask why not.” And: “Could I make a painting of a nude in my own voice? It’s such a male-laden art, so historically weighted. The way women were depicted didn’t feel like mine, too cute. I wasn’t interested in admired or idealised beauty.”
Females, as she says, are used to being looked at: “I don’t like to be the one just looking or just looked at. I want both roles.” Taking herself as her own model, her exaggerated nudes point up, with an agonising frankness, the disparity between the way women are perceived and the way that they feel about their bodies. Their massive bodies look diseased, half alive, half dead, the skin erupting in places as if cracking under the strain of having to contain so much fat, so much anxiety. In Branded, she inscribed on the flesh adjectives often used to describe women: “supportive” is scratched across one breast, “irrational” across the other; “delicate” across the midriff.

***
Propped has, etched into the paint, indecipherable words by the French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray, whom Saville studied on a sabbatical in America. There was “immense conviction” in making these pictures, she says, and an element of self-loathing. “There is in everybody. We are taught to judge ourselves from a very young age, to groom ourselves.” And this creates a neurosis for women, she says. “You see this dichotomy in women’s magazines all the time: an article on breast cancer – empowering; an article on skin products that make you look younger – neurotic.”

She says that feminism interests her less now. “I was never that polemical. That feels like a conversation I was having with myself then. I’m not drawn to that kind of admired beauty but I can’t say if it is because I am a woman or because my instinct visually is not that way.”

***
Paint, she says, is her language, the way she communicates – and everything else, everything else, takes second place…”My life is subservient to painting – I can’t find a substitute for it in the world.”

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Saville uses her own body for most of her paintings

This week we heard painter Jenny Saville speak at Boston University. Thirty minutes before the lecture was scheduled to begin at Morse Auditorium, 500 people were already in a line snaking down Commonwealth Avenue. My initial reaction was, how cool. How often do you find people waiting in a long line to hear a painter talk?

Sure, Saville is an international art star of the first order. Her work sells at astronomical prices. And as one of Saatchi’s early finds (he purchased her entire graduate exhibit) and part of the juggernaut of successful artists known as YBAs (Young British Artists), she hit the big time in her early twenties. Now she has a lottery winner’s life, living in a magnificent but tastefully dishabille 18th-century palazzo in Palermo, Sicily. She has 22 rooms that each house a painting she is working on. OK, it does sounds like the ultimate painter’s dream.

But this was no lifestyle evening. Saville stood up and launched immediately, talking for 90 minutes straight. Using double screens, she showed examples of her own work alongside images that have inspired her. Her source material was a steady stream: Photographs of distended, obese bodies; medical textbooks for plastic surgery; burn victims; murder scenes; slaughterhouses; autopsies. But there were also lots of paintings—Soutine, Degas, de Kooning, Velasquez, Warhol, Pollack. Clicking through hundreds of slides, her energy and passion for the power of these images never flagged.


Spending time sketching and photographing in a slaughterhouse was, according to Saville, one of the most beautiful experiences of her life

Saville isn’t slick or particularly polished. She seems to struggle to capture in language what her eye sees with such alacrity. Her description of her struggle as a woman artist who must, as she put it, get out from under the “burden” of the painting canon was delivered haltingly. It isn’t her content or her narrative that compel me; it is rather a dauntingly brilliant hand. There’s so much love and respect in her for wet pigment on a surface. Her mastery is in understanding how plasticity becomes an artifact with its own eminence.

Saville’s work is a cacophonous celebration of paint. Her immense canvases, when encountered close up, are complex, lush and juicy. Stepping back from the abstraction of the microview to perceive her larger than life figurative imagery—exploring the vicissitudes of flesh has been her primary project since art school—offers up a completely different encounter with her art. Both are valid means of experiencing the potency of a Saville painting.

Many times she referred to the “violence” she sees in a painting or an image. She sees it in dead bodies and mutilated limbs. But she also sees it in the streak of red paint in a de Kooning, in a young girl’s hair being combed in a Degas, in photographs of derelict buildings and crumbling ruins. That is Saville’s lens on the world, and it leads to paintings of subject matter that speak to that view. While that is not my lens, I am inspired by her relentlessness.

Saville speaks about her work without self-regard or arrogance. She has an unbridled intensity and humility (“This painting was supposed to be about the different tones of flesh, but I think I failed miserably”) that is palpable. She seems at ease opening her kimono to an auditorium full of strangers and exposing her peculiar and extraordinary mindset. I was not expecting that level of candor. I’m too quick to assume celebritism kills what was once authentic in a person who has achieved that level of success. How wrong I was.

At one point she described herself as having a “vicious” eye at collecting imagery. Well put. When I think of Saville now, I envision her as a giant cosmic eyeball that never stops scanning and absorbing everything in its domain. And doing so with intense heat. A hot, provocative, relentless eyeball.

She was, and is, unforgettable.


One panel from a commissioned triptych Saville is painting for a church in Rome

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OK. This is getting intense. Everyone in this house has become a political junkie of the worst kind. We start off the morning with a full perusal of the New York Times and the Boston Globe. Then after a day’s worth of work that gets punctuated with periodic flyovers of no less than 14 political websites, we keep the flow of this steady drip going with our favorite TV talking head, the smart, sassy and liberally reassuring Rachel Maddow, topped off with that last hour of deftly sardonic humor by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I’m teetering so far forward I’m off my heels with hyperventilated hope. Yet November 4th feels like it will never come, that this 8 year nightmare will never sputter out and we’ll spin in its madness forever. There’s more residue of resentment and anger in me than I’d like to admit.

So here’s a palliative that has helped quiet my inner madness. A review of John Updike’s latest novel in New York Times, The Widows of Eastwick, thankfully distracted my imagination and my thoughts.

I’m not as worshipful as Sam Tanenhaus, but damn it, Updike IS good. His subject matter often becomes a tad annoying for me—enough with the endless tales of adultery and betrayal, John—but there are many visual artists who apply a spectacularly gifted hand to subject matter that isn’t as compelling as their aesthetic gifts. So I have had to learn to compartmentalize. Besides, Updike is now 76 and he hasn’t lost his groove. As Tanenhaus says in his review, “he still wrings more from a sentence than almost anyone else. His sorcery is startlingly fresh, page upon page.” Defying the cultural bias that assumes that creative output is the domain of the very young is a big theme for me as many of my readers of this blog know.

Here’s an excerpt from the review:

John Updike is the great genial sorcerer of American letters. His output alone (60 books, almost 40 of them novels or story collections) has been supernatural. More wizardly still is the ingenuity of his prose. He has now written tens of thousands of sentences, many of them tiny miracles of transubstantiation whereby some hitherto overlooked datum of the human or natural world — from the anatomical to the zoological, the socio-economic to the spiritual — emerges, as if for the first time, in the complete ness of its actual being.

This isn’t writing. It is magic. And it’s not surprising that the author who practices it should be drawn repeatedly to the other, darker kind, though it is often masked in droll comedy. In the 1960s, surveying the field in the literary rat race, Updike put a hex, collectively, on the Jewish novelists (Bellow, Mailer, Malamud, Roth) then looming as his chief competition. He invented a wickedly funny composite parody, Henry Bech, whom he entraps in a web of debilitating spells, from hydrophobia to sleep-anxiety. At one point Bech squanders the best part of a work morning on the toilet, “leafing sadly through Commentary and Encounter,” journals not often hospitable to Updike’s own fiction. Lest we, or his rivals, miss the drift, Updike afflicts Bech with the cruelest curse of all, writer’s block, which leaves him unable to begin, much less finish, his next novel. “Am I blocked? I’d just thought of myself as a slow typist,” Bech weakly jokes to Bea, his current emasculating Gentile mistress, who has supplanted her even more emasculating sister in Bech’s bed. “What do you do,” Bea sneers in reply, “hit the space bar once a day?”…

The genius inheres in the precise observation, in the equally precise language, but above all in the illusion that the image has been received and processed in real time, when in truth Updike has slowed events to a dreamlike pace and given them a dream’s hyperreality, so that the distinction between the actual and the imagined feels erased. “My first books met the criticism that I wrote all too well but had nothing to say,” he once ruefully noted. “My own style seemed to me a groping and elemental attempt to approximate the complexity of envisioned phenomena, and it surprised me to have it called luxuriant and self-indulgent; self-indulgent, surely, is exactly what it wasn’t —other- indulgent, rather.”

That other, he asserted, added up to nothing less than “the whole mass of middling, hidden, troubled America.” No writer of our time has reached into it so deeply or conjured so many of its mysteries so pulsingly to life.

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I have a lot of artist friends who are dedicated, hardworking and optimistic about their work. But when it comes to the vicissitudes of the larger world, they are ass-dragging pessimists. And it is understandable, given an art world that lavishly (and to a certain extent, randomly) rewards a few practitioners but leaves the majority to survive on crumbs. Being an artist is not a path for anyone who can possibly do anything else with their life. You only do this because you can’t not.

So it was with a wry nod of consent that I read the latest piece by the very smart Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine about the Frieze Fair in London and the collapse of the recently too-hot-to-hold art buyers’ market. Here’s a meaningful extract from that article. (BTW, you can read the full article on Slow Painting.)

If the art economy is as bad as it looks—if worse comes to worst—40 to 50 New York galleries will close. Around the same number of European galleries will, too. An art magazine will cease publishing. A major fair will call it quits—possibly the Armory Show, because so many dealers hate the conditions on the piers, or maybe Art Basel Miami Beach, because although it’s fun, it’s also ridiculous. Museums will cancel shows because they can’t raise funds. Art advisers will be out of work. Alternative spaces will become more important for shaping the discourse, although they’ll have a hard time making ends meet.

As for artists, too many have been getting away with murder, making questionable or derivative work and selling it for inflated prices. They will either lower their prices or stop selling. Many younger artists who made a killing will be forgotten quickly. Others will be seen mainly as relics of a time when marketability equaled likability. Many of the hot Chinese artists, most of whom are only nth-generation photo-realists, will fall by the wayside, having stuck collectors with a lot of junk.

Much good art got made while money ruled; I like a lot of it, and hardship and poverty aren’t virtues. The good news is that, since almost no one will be selling art, artists—especially emerging ones—won’t have to think about turning out a consistent style or creating a brand. They’ll be able to experiment as much as they want.

But my Schadenfreude side wishes a pox on the auction houses, those shrines to the disconnect between the inner life of art and the outer life of commerce. If they don’t go belly up or return to dealing mainly with dead artists, they need to stop pretending that they have any interest in art beyond the financial. Additionally, I hope many of the speculators who never really cared about art will go away. Either way, money will no longer be the measure of success. It hasn’t made art better. It made some artists—notably Hirst, Murakami, Prince, and maybe Piotr Ukla´nski—shallower.

Recessions are hard on people, but they are not hard on art. The forties, seventies, and the nineties, when money was scarce, were great periods, when the art world retracted but it was also reborn. New generations took the stage; new communities spawned energy; things opened up; deadwood washed away. With luck, New Museum curator Laura Hoptman’s wish will come true: “Art will flower and triumph not as a hobby, an investment, or a career, but as what it is and was—a life.”

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My son is passionate about fishing, and lately his enthusiasm for all creatures of the salt water zone has spilled over into the bivalvia. He and his fishing friends found the perfect beach for both steamers and quahogs, one that isn’t too far from our home. So after a few baskets brimming with steamers and quahogs were transformed into the world’s most delectable clam chowder, we began our latest culinary quest: Achieving the perfect clam pizza.

You can’t even begin to imagine how good this can be. It requires the freshest clams, a deft hand at cooking them just the right amount, and the steady patience to know how to produce a reduction-based, bacon and garlic-laced white sauce that brings the sea to your lips and will send you right out of your earthbound body. Layered with the perfect combination of cheeses (they must sing in background, this is essential), fresh oregano and parsley, with a final spritz of lemon juice, and you are in gastronomic pleasure heaven.

After such culinary ecstasies, who wouldn’t want to move farther down the clam procurement supply chain? So this week I convinced Bryce to take me with him.

I remember clamming in the San Francisco Bay when I was three years old. The clams are long gone from the Bay Area, but that muddy childhood memory has lingered in me for a long time. The steamer season in Massachusetts is over at the end of October, and you can only dig for them on Wednesdays and Saturdays. So even though Wednesday was rainy, windy and cold, it was my only opportunity for an East Coast clamming initiation this season.

When we arrived at the beach, the long grass whipped wildly in every direction and the low tide was higher than usual. Undaunted, Bryce took me to a likely patch of beach and gave me the simple instructions: Look for the dimple in the sand, then dig down.

As he demonstrated, I had the feeling I was witnessing childbirth, clam style. He showed me how carefully the process must be undertaken, how the sand needs to be softly removed from around the belly of the shell before the whole being is gently lifted out of its deep, sandy womb.

Everything about clamming feels sensual and sexual. Digging in wet sand has its own kind of physicality, and reaching down deep to find a tight, hard artifact is intoxicating. It fits in a human hand perfectly, locked in its fierce defense. But when that shell springs open with persistent heat or the quick penetration of a well placed blade, the inside is its own self-contained universe of soft, silky flesh. Even the dimple on the sand, a reversed nipple, speaks of seduction and arousal. Not to mention that the classification name bivalvia sounds so similar to vulva.

Bryce once rhapsodized about the strange and glorious circumstances of a clam’s life. They live in sand that is made from the ancient bodies of their ancestors, infaunal creatures who find enough nutrients from a tethered beach berth to grow to maturity. Very few survive past the larval stage, but those that do build their shells from ancestral remnants. They are a recycling and sustainability paragon.

Clamophilia? Sounds like a social disease. Clammism? Suggests an extreme political movement. Bivalvism? Could be a continental literary theory.

I need a simple word that captures my rhapsody and passion. Clam lover will have to do.

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Living in Trees

The Soul

We know we’re not allowed to use your name.
We know you’re inexpressible,
anemic, frail, and suspect
for mysterious offenses as a child.
We know that you are not allowed to live now
in music or in trees at sunset.
We know—or at least we have been told—
that you do not exist at all, anywhere.
And yet we still keep hearing your weary voice
—in an echo, a complaint, in the letters we receive
from Antigone in the Greek desert.

–Adam Zagajewski
translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh

Thank you to my friend and poet, Martin Dickinson, for bringing this poem to me.

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The New York Times’ architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff captured it all in the title of his review: The Chanel Pavilion: Clear folly in lean times.

Look how quickly everything in our lives has shifted. In just a matter of weeks, the vox populi has traded its old laissez-faire lens for a sharp edged one, one that perceives excess and inappropriateness with rapier alacrity and angry mob rage. Some people have been caught off guard by this rapid change, like the ill-advised Republican “strategist” (must be in quotes, after all) who didn’t think through how the public would respond to a $150,000 clothing makeover for their mavericky vice presidential candidate. Others have found themselves hopelessly caught in the final arc of a project that just doesn’t fit in this newly harsh, lean world. There’s just no quick way to redirect a tanker that is barrelling in the wrong direction. Call it karma. Or timing. But these elements that live outside the controllable zone are the guerrilla fighters in life. In a way, they always win.

The Chanel Pavilion, a temporary structure designed by Zaha Hadid and currently viewable in Central Park, is a memorable example of a timing hijack. It is a harbinger, with implications on so many levels.

Here’s a fitting excerpt from Ouroussoff’s article:

The wild, delirious ride that architecture has been on for the last decade looks as if it’s finally coming to an end. And after a visit to the Chanel Pavilion that opened this week in Central Park, you may think it hasn’t come soon enough.

Designed to display artworks that were inspired by Chanel’s 2.55, a quilted chain-strap handbag, the pavilion certainly oozes glamour. Its mysterious nautiluslike form, which can be easily dismantled and shipped to the next city on its global tour, reflects the keen architectural intelligence we have come to expect from its creator, Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born architect who lives in London.

Yet if devoting so much intellectual effort to such a dubious undertaking might have seemed indulgent a year ago, today it looks delusional.

It’s not just that New York and much of the rest of the world are preoccupied by economic turmoil and a recession, although the timing could hardly be worse. It’s that the pavilion sets out to drape an aura of refinement over a cynical marketing gimmick. Surveying its self-important exhibits, you can’t help but hope that the era of exploiting the so-called intersection of architecture, art and fashion is finally over…

It’s not that hard to see why Hadid accepted the commission. One of architecture’s most magical aspects is the range of subjects it allows you to engage, from the complex social relationships embodied in a single-family house to the intense communal focus of a concert hall. Great talents want to explore them all; it is what allows them to flex their intellectual muscles.

But traumatic events have a way of making you see things more clearly. When Rem Koolhaas’s Prada shop opened in SoHo three months after the World Trade Center attacks, it was immediately lampooned as a symbol of the fashion world’s clueless self-absorption. The shop was dominated by a swooping stage that was conceived as a great communal theater, a kind of melding of shopping and civic life. Instead, it conjured Champagne-swilling fashionistas parading across a stage, oblivious to the suffering around them.

The Chanel Pavilion may be less convoluted in its aims, but its message is no less noxious. When I first heard about it, I thought of the scene in the 1945 film “Mildred Pierce” when the parasitic playboy Monte Beragon sneeringly tells the Joan Crawford character, a waitress toiling to give her spoiled daughter a better life, that no matter how hard she scrubs, she will never be able to remove the smell of grease. We have been living in an age of Montes for more than a decade now. For strivers aching to separate themselves from the masses, the mix of architecture, art and fashion has had a nearly irresistible pull, promising a veneer of cultural sophistication.

Opening the pavilion in Central Park only aggravates the wince factor. Frederick Law Olmsted planned the park as a great democratic experiment, an immense social mixing place as well as an instrument of psychological healing for the weary. The Chanel project reminds us how far we have traveled from those ideals.

The pavilion’s coiled form, in which visitors spiral ever deeper into a black hole of bad art and superficial temptations is an elaborate mousetrap for consumers. The effortless flow between one space and the next, which in earlier projects suggested a desire to break down unwanted barriers, here suggests a surrender of individual will. Even the surfaces seem overly sleek by Hadid’s normal standards; they lack the occasional raw-material touch common to her best buildings, which imbued them with a human dimension.

One would hope that our economic crisis leads us to a new level of introspection and that architects will feel compelled to devote their talents to more worthwhile – dare I say idealistic? – causes.

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Equipment for Living

The back page essay in the New York Times Book Review can sometimes be the highlight of my Sunday morning newspaper tussle. And these days, just weeks from the culmination of this all-consuming political season, it is a serious tussle getting through two papers, each the thickness of small pillows.

This past Sunday Lee Siegel, author of Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, wrote a very humorous piece that I am including here in its entirety. Every book loving soul could write his or her own personal version of being taken captive in adolescence by books and ideas, but few of us could make it this funny. “The University of Chicago’s Great Books course? Think Tammany Hall.” Priceless.


Cultural observer Lee Siegel

Unsafe at Any Read

Kenneth Burke considered great imaginative writing “equipment for living,” and for Saul Bellow poetic and philosophical words were a “poor boy’s arsenal.” Kafka declared that literature “breaks up the frozen sea inside us.” (What a mess that would make.) We now know, thanks to Allan Bloom, that reading the “classics” is the only defense against the closing of the American mind and that — courtesy of Alain de Botton — Proust can save your life. A modest question arises, however: If great literature is so great, why is it that if you act on anything great literature tells you about life, you’re in big trouble? I mean, big trouble.

Let’s start with a couple of harmless tests. Have you gone looking in your memory lately for Wordsworth’s redemptive “spots of time”? First, try to recall what you had for lunch yesterday. Don’t worry, I can’t remember either. How about D. H. Lawrence’s “blood consciousness”? Once you recover this primal state of being, D. H. tells us, you blissfully obliterate your mental and spiritual condition. Volunteers?

Now, I used to swallow this stuff whole. Don Quixote’s downfall was medieval romances, and Emma Bovary ruined her life with novels, but at least they didn’t get bonked by books until they were middle-aged. They had a few decades to live it up. My undoing arrived in ninth grade in the form of Dostoyevksy’s “Notes From Underground.”

The book fell into my hands the way an innocent person might find himself holding a heroin-filled syringe at a party, thereby sealing his sad fate. I had been involuntarily enrolled in what was euphemistically referred to as an “enrichment program.” This was the official name for a “Manchurian Candidate”-like experiment in which happy-go-lucky boys and girls were whisked away from their favorite television shows into a shadowy world of triple meanings, narcotic generalizations and ambiguous imagery. “Notes From Underground” was our first homework assignment.

What buried flaw in my being responded to this perverse Slavic sham is still a mystery to me. But all of a sudden, I started explaining to my gentle, loving parents that common sense was the collective hallucination of madmen. That the idea that two plus two equaled five was “tantamount” (a word I envisioned as a white steed rising heavenward to steadily beating drums) to a “spiritual” (another fave) rebirth.

Rationality, I informed Mom and Dad, was like a dagger in the soul. I said all this through $40 million worth of hardware on my teeth — instead of sending me to an ordinary orthodontist, my doting parents had actually hired a top civil engineer to work on my mouth. I exaggerate, but you see what I mean. And this is how I paid them back. Week after week, I expounded the cult of unhappiness at the dinner table. Exiled to my room, I consoled myself with Camus, who tells us that to live honestly we must ask ourselves every day whether we should take our own lives. There was no agency, on the local, state or federal level, to intervene on my behalf. The die was cast.

Harold Bloom once wrote that literature’s most precious gift is to teach us to be alone with ourselves. Easy to say when you’re surrounded by adoring graduate students. I began to carry around my solitude like a trophy, cultivating anomie the way some of my friends lavished care on their pet gerbils. It was an unhealthy situation.

This wasn’t just baffled adolescent desire rushing with relief into morbid tales of anger and renunciation. Uplifting writing derailed me, too. When, in 10th grade, Antonia Perella (let’s call her) — the love of my hormone-addled life! — finally chose me as her partner at a square dance, I was so afraid of not rising to the occasion that I refused, ennobling my cold feet by summoning to my mind Plato’s vision of love (see “Phaedrus”) as moist wings sprouting from the lover’s body. I just didn’t feel the wings business, I told myself. Recently, I learned from Classmates.com that Antonia had married a professional wrestler. Can you blame her?

But even Oedipus eventually saw the light (or so Sophocles tells us — you decide). Somewhere in my freshman year of college, my mind, thankfully, began to close a little and the world started to open up. I was on the slow boat to recovery . . . and then calamity struck. A “friend” lent me his copy of Bellow’s “Herzog.”

If ever there was a candidate for strict Congressional oversight, it is this cunning little book. Moses Herzog is a professor in the full throes of midlife crisis who writes countless letters to the famous literary and intellectual dead. These scintillating one-sided exchanges, in which Herzog quotes and spars with the great minds of Western civilization, made me feel that I was mastering life as I read them, just as a budding music historian might have the delusion that he was mastering the piano simply by listening to a sonata by Beethoven.

In fact, as I discovered many years later, Bellow was joking. What he wanted to demonstrate, in the figure of poor Herzog, was the utter ineffectuality of the most potent ideas. Thanks for letting me know, pal. Since nobody at the time bothered to let me in on all the fun, I finished “Herzog” as, well, Herzog. At job interviews, I assured prospective employers of my immunity to distraction by affectionately invoking Artistotle’s observation that copulation makes all animals sad. To puzzled women on dates, I expatiated on Hegel and Sombart. “What’s wrong?” one girl asked me as we stared into each other’s eyes and I smiled ruefully. “Oh nothing,” I said. “Spinoza associated desire with disconnected thinking — that’s all.”

And so it went, just like that, reaching the high point of absurdity when I applied for a job at a publication called The Social Register, thinking that it was a socialist magazine.

I had been reading Gramsci by way of Silone by way of Engels on the Manchester working class. So enthusiastic had I become about the sweeping inexorabilities of dialectical materialism that I neglected to pick up an actual, material copy of The Social Register. Grando mistako. If I had, I would have seen that it was not a socialist magazine at all, but a comprehensive directory of America’s high society. My interviewer, a pleasant, 40-ish man in a rumpled white shirt and tie, sat in his Fifth Avenue office and listened politely, his lip curling ever so slightly, to my reflections on hegemony, slave consciousness and “boring from within.” He even walked me to the door.

I hope you are at least partly convinced by the power of my examples. Somehow, we’ve been sold a bill of goods about how literature empowers us. But the idea that great literature can improve our lives in any way is a con as old as culture itself. The University of Chicago’s Great Books course? Think Tammany Hall. “Willing suspension of disbelief”? Code for: distract him while I lift his wallet. The government regulates drugs, alcohol and (finally) bad lending practices. How long can we continue to allow the totally laissez-faire dissemination of literature? Not even a warning from the surgeon general or the attorney general, or some sort of general, on the back of every book?

It was years before I realized that if life is a voyage of sorts then the best thing to do is to keep busy in the depths of your little boat — your life — polishing, tuning, cleaning, repairing the engine that is your own inborn strength, without regard to extraneous aids in the form of culture. Facing it, always facing it, that’s the only way to get through.

O.K., I got all that from Conrad. The fact is that “facing it” has gotten me into trouble, too. I tell you, these people are hard to shake.

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Installation at Violet Ray Gallery

One of the old lions of the art world, Gillian Jagger, got a high five from John Perreault’s Artopia this week. She IS amazing.

Can an artist be too original, too ambitious? Gillian Jagger, in my book, is truly an original, one of the most original artists I have ever come across. Her work is bigger than life in its homage to both beasts and geology, and her use of space. The problem is that she is difficult to classify: critics, curators and collectors want examples of categories, not precedent-breaking, back-breaking, space-claiming, raw sculptures.

Jagger makes casts of what appear to be heavily trafficked pastures, the mud around wilderness watering holes and the unsung trails of migrating herds. And these great chunks of plaster and latex are deployed within specific exhibition sites to exploit the drama and the grandeur of her themes.

You think at first you are looking at the crackled bed of a dried up lake or a marble quarry gone berserk, but then you see the hoof prints, at least in the present work… Many years ago, when visiting Africa, Jagger witnessed thundering herds in the wild. The image and the awe stuck with her, finally finding expression in these new works, under the title “In Between.”

When Jagger uses plaster, you don’t think of George Segal, you think of Nature. When she installs her gigantic flat (!) sculptures – whether as floor pieces, wall pieces, or something in between – she takes your breath away. Now, retired from teaching, she glories in her maturity. She is neither a Minimalist, anti-form artist, or Earth Artist. She is sui generis.

“I believe that the way of perceiving that I have developed living in nature leads to a shared sense of wholeness, to a sense of in-commonness of our mutual interconnected survival.”

–Gillian Jagger

“Her responses to found life begin with a visceral awareness of the urgency of its vulnerability or death and include a passionately attentive listening that has a visceral or meditative component. This listening to the other’s call precludes self-absorption and narcissism, which dissolves defenses against one’s own anxiety about vulnerability and death that help produce the mentality of compartmentalization.”

–Michael Brenson

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Mahmoud Darwish

While I was in India last August, the beloved Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish died in a Houston hospital after complications from heart surgery. Darwish published over 20 volumes of poetry and prose about his life as a Palestinian exile. His is a singular, extraordinary voice.

Darwish’s poem, “Under Siege,” is a long poem, full of emotion and pain. I’ve selected a few excerpts to post. To read the entire poem, click here.

From “Under Siege”

Here on the slopes of hills, facing the dusk and the cannon of time
Close to the gardens of broken shadows,
We do what prisoners do,
And what the jobless do:
We cultivate hope.

A little of this absolute and blue infinity
Would be enough
To lighten the burden of these times
And to cleanse the mire of this place.

It is up to the soul to come down from its mount
And on its silken feet walk
By my side, hand in hand, like two longtime
Friends who share the ancient bread
And the antique glass of wine
May we walk this road together
And then our days will take different directions:
I, beyond nature, which in turn
Will choose to squat on a high-up rock.
On my rubble the shadow grows green,
And the wolf is dozing on the skin of my goat
He dreams as I do, as the angel does
That life is here…not over there.

In the state of siege, time becomes space
Transfixed in its eternity
In the state of siege, space becomes time
That has missed its yesterday and its tomorrow.

Greetings to the one who shares with me an attention to
The drunkenness of light, the light of the butterfly, in the
Blackness of this tunnel!

Greetings to the one who shares my glass with me
In the denseness of a night outflanking the two spaces:
Greetings to my apparition.

Our cups of coffee. Birds green trees
In the blue shade, the sun gambols from one wall
To another like a gazelle
The water in the clouds has the unlimited shape of what is left to us
Of the sky. And other things of suspended memories
Reveal that this morning is powerful and splendid,
And that we are the guests of eternity.

–Mahmoud Darwish
(Translated by Marjolijn De Jager)

Thank you Whiskey River for introducing me to this poem.

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