Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Roman Polanski, Salvador Dalí, and Shakespeare

The New York Times's Opinionator blog


and Robert Baird's Digital Emunction blog


link to an interesting array of blog comments about the arrest of Roman Polanski. Collectively, the comments tend to break neatly on either side of George Orwell's "Benefit of Clergy," an essay about The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí.

In that 1942 memoir, Dalí joyfully chronicles his experiments in transgression, from coprophagy to kicking his infant sister in the head. As Orwell ponders this document, he considers the hypothetical case of a Shakespeare whose hobby was raping little girls. Meanwhile, this morning's edition of my local newspaper, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, September 29, 2009, brings us news from what I guess we could call the Leona Helmsley side of the debate.

Helmsley, you'll recall, was the hotel magnate who boasted, "We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes." Above a story about the Polanski case, then, a pair of Star-Bulletin headlines read, "Rapist sentenced to 50 years" and "Man, 22, gets 15 years for sex with 2 teen girls." When the judge told Mr. Fifty Years, "You are a serial rapist. You are a violent and dangerous guy," Mr. Fifty Years replied, "Judge, please, I have too much to lose. I'm an only child." In the other courtroom, however, Mr. Fifteen Years was more philosophical. He sagely commented, "This is a perfect example why I shouldn't date younger girls."

What do you think -- is there a movie in that script?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Yawp: how to blow, how to translate

1. Song of Myself, section 24, lines 519-521:

I do not press my fingers across my mouth,
I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart,
Copulation is no more rank to me than death is. 

2. Antiques roadshow: in nineteenth-century America, death was spoken of without euphemism and funerals were held in the home. By contrast, copulation was rarely spoken of at all, except for the purpose of inducing guilt and shame. We find that hard to think about now, from either side of the comparison. Consider, for instance, the emotion with which this fastidiously sanitized sample of the past was sealed into its specimen jar of 21st-century prose.

Edith was a nervous bride, wondering about the intimate side of married life. On her wedding eve, she shyly approached her mother with this question, only to receive a coldly dismissive response. Lucretia made reference to the sexual act by reminding her daughter of the differences in physiology between men and women as represented in statues in art museums.

(Shari Benstock, "Edith Wharton, 1962-1937: A Brief Biography." A Historical Guide to Edith Wharton, ed. Carol J. Singley [New York: Oxford University Press, 2003] 27) 

Signaled by the icy distaste of that prose, we pick up its social cue and perform a historical permutation on Whitman's comparison. Translating for 21st-century politesse, we make ourselves understand Whitman to say, "Death is no more rank to me than copulation is." That rationalizes the poet's awe before himself and gives his poem a new and more hygienic focus. As Whitman's son Hart Crane succinctly put it, at a time when Whitman's era was giving way to ours: "New thresholds, new anatomies."

3. "I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,"

sang the elder poet at the end of Song of Myself, secure in what he thought was possession of a code unbreakable by time. But Leaves of Grass, the book whose paper Whitman pulled through the printing press himself, turned out to be not just decipherable in time but recyclable.

In the recycled libretto, what is Lattice Amethyst? A setting for the opera Kleenex. "Yawp into me," sings yearning Kleenex there, her flesh all sensitive tissue under amethyst moonlight. "Yawp into me," Kleenex repeats. "I am all Whitmanic acceptance. I am extra large, I contain germs. Receiving your exuberance with complete understanding, I absorb and silence and dispose of."

And "Yawp," breathes Walt Whitman into Kleenex, completing the duet. A copyright attorney slips the cuffs on at the coda, "Let it out," and into the sanitary landfill goes the translated song of the tenderest lover, yawping for the last time as it crumples under the bulldozer.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Arbus loses face

At a recent white people's rally in Washington, one of the marchers was wearing a shirt in Harvard colors bearing the slogan "Lingua latina": "the Latin language." The colors and the words placed the shirt's wearer in the Mel Gibson / Marcel Lefebvre wing of American conservative thought.

Stephanie Taylor, http://twitpic.com/hgefm.
Thanks to Susan M. Schultz for the link.
Click to enlarge.

On a sign held by clawed hands in front of the shirt, some other words referred to President Obama's health care initiative of summer 2009 and the recent death of Senator Edward Kennedy, a long-time champion of health care reform. I'm footnoting those details because I think Stephanie Taylor's photograph may wind up outliving the significance of the words it immortalizes. If that happens, the image captured by Taylor will have become purely an image. Its alphabet will have been reduced or elevated (take your pick) to nothing but shape and color.

But even then, after it has given up whatever verbal meaning it once had, it will remain a document in the history of body language. A librarian in some future archive, for instance, might shelve it for its textual content alongside this image by Diane Arbus from the era of the Vietnam War. But the two photographs could belong just as well together in a catalog of clawed hands.

In such a catalog of hands, the pair of images might communicate across a facing page with Eadweard Muybridge's study of a hand releasing a ball and rising away into pure, unburdened gesture. Mediating the series would be the hand grenade locked down forever in the hand of Arbus's boy. In that series, Taylor's and Arbus's and Muybridge's pictures might communicate an idea of the disappearance of thought before the advent and charmed presence of mute, disinterested shape (the shape of a ball dancing with a hand, for instance).

Muybridge's "Human Figure in Motion": CD-ROM and Book
(Mineola, NY: Dover, 2007), image 164

A compiler of a catalog of hands, then, would be the curator of a purely formal, entirely inhuman beauty. If we had such a catalog to scroll through, we'd see that there are formal parallels between the wordless grimace captured by Arbus and the faceless words captured by Taylor. The major difference between them is only this: Arbus's grimace can stand alone as an image, while Taylor's words have no independent significance. Removed from their picture, they would be only a grammatical curiosity: a free-floating imperative metaphor without a speaker, an agent, or a tenor. (Who is telling whom to bury Obamacare? What does "bury" mean?)

And so much for Harvard and the lingua latina. But the Astroturf organizers of the rally seem to have wanted that emptying of meaning to occur. After all, in the era of America's first black president, their crowd formations reenacted (complete with men in Revolutionary War tricornes) one of the greatest victories of modernism's revolution against paraphrasable content: Kasimir Malevich's study of pure wordless meaningless form coming into being in the matrix of pure wordless meaningless form.

 The title of Malevich's martyrdom operation against words was White on White.

Monday, September 7, 2009

"Afflicted by the real world": juxtaposition without comment

1. From Wikipedia, "Glenn Beck":
Beck was born in Mount Vernon, Washington in February 1964, and raised a Roman Catholic. His mother and one of his brothers committed suicide and a sibling had a fatal heart attack.[2] He graduated from Sehome High School in Bellingham, Washington in 1982.

 A 2007 profile in "LDS Living" magazine provides a comprehensive history of Beck's early life and career in radio, and states that his first significant exposure to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came at age 18 when, after graduating from high school, he moved from Washington to Salt Lake City, Utah and shared an apartment with a former Mormon missionary. The article goes on to say that his first marriage ended in divorce at age 30 (1994). He and his second wife, Tania, joined the church in October 1999, partly at the urging of his eldest daughter, Mary, who has cerebral palsy.[3]

Beck was admitted to a special program for non-traditional students at Yale University while he was working for a New Haven-area radio station, having received at least one of his recommendations from Senator Joe Lieberman. During this time Beck took a single theology class, dropping out around the time of his divorce.[4]

Beck is a self-described recovering alcoholic and drug addict.[5] He also has a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. [6] He and his first wife divorced amid his struggle with substance abuse. Beck cites the help of Alcoholics Anonymous in his sobriety, and he eventually converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,[7] which teaches against the consumption of alcohol.

2. "We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well."

-- Richard Hofstadter, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" (Harper's, November 1964), conclusion. http://karws.gso.uri.edu/jfk/conspiracy_theory/the_paranoid_mentality/the_paranoid_style.html 


Delano Greenidge Editions, 2002.
Click to enlarge.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Standing, breathing flame, bending upward

Click to enlarge.

The Butts print of Blake's "Behemoth and Leviathan" is an elevation of chapters 40 and 41 of the Book of Job from narrative to image. Cued by God's language

("Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee. . . . Behold, he drinketh up a river, and hasteth not: he trusteth that he can draw up Jordan into his mouth. He taketh it with his eyes: his nose pierceth through snares"),

Blake translates it into a single comprehensive gesture. Concentrating his full creative power behind the gesture, God scornfully points downward. On either side of him hovers an angelic sycophant, watching with an attentive, worried, Father-is-in-one-of-his-moods expression. Crushed beneath the weight and warmth and odor of the divine body, Job and his comforters crouch as God's words pour over them in the cramped reservation between his heaven and his creation's earth.

Below the reservation, just touched by God's finger, Earth is a brown sphere filling itself to bursting with muscle and coil. Their creator points and touches, extending himself strenuously downward to the thick matrix of what he says he is bringing forth. As he penetrates, he remains colorless. But in their skin-colored earth, Behemoth and Leviathan are all color and red flame. These are a bioform, and its source is themselves. Having been made by a word, they have incorporated the word and translated it into silent color. Words are for the cold, limitless atmosphere. Wordless within the ownership of their silent light, Behemoth and Leviathan merely and wholly are.

At times, however, something from within earthlight points back upward to heaven. But the gesture cannot be retranslated into a scripture because it is still a part of earth's silence. It does not say; it only is. It is not an upward-aimed echo of God's downward-pointing motion. It does not attend upon words. And the wordless traces that it leaves across our perception map a free zone within the slave economy of the Book.