Wednesday, September 29, 2010


First floor men's room, Physical Science Building, University of Hawaii at Manoa, September 29, 2010:

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Koechelverzeichnisnummer 581

In the skylighted lobby of the Hawaii State Library on September 25, 2010, a chamber music ensemble was performing.

 Click to enlarge.

One of the original Carnegie Libraries, the Hawaii State Library was built about a hundred years ago, and in downtown Honolulu its gracious proportions complement the cheerfully vulgar Iolani Palace next door. There's no need to romanticize the time when kings and queens ruled Hawaii and Andrew Carnegie's steelworkers paid with their lives for Andrew Carnegie's benefactions, but as of 2010 the State Library is a good.

However, the economics of the America outside the library's door still look pre-2010. The State Library's large lawn is now one of Honolulu's many Hoovervilles, and some of the homeless men who live there (they are mostly men) climb the library's steps and walk in the door of the lobby. Here, perhaps, was one.

The music was Mozart's clarinet quintet. It was singing to the man in the audience, and he was conducting.  Under the flags of Hawaii and the United States, a part of him had reached home.

The concert ended and I returned to my own home. As I passed, under brilliant sunlight, through one of Honolulu's prosperous neighborhoods, my eye was caught by a flash of moving color. It was a large American flag, waving in the tradewind from a white van parked in a driveway.

The van was covered with writing. I didn't stop to read it all, but I could take in two of the largest words:


Behind closed doors with Mozart, appearances were deceiving. Actually, in America at large it is 2010, and the era of the Carnegie Libraries will soon be over.

I hope the old white man in his dashiki doesn't suffer much.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Prose: description vs. profound thought

Consider these two samples of prose, each related to this year’s World Economic Forum in Tianjin, China.

1. “For the U.S. visitor, the comparisons start from the moment one departs Beijing’s South Station, a giant space-age building, and boards the bullet train to Tianjin. It takes just 25 minutes to make the 75-mile trip. In Tianjin, one arrives at another ultramodern train station – where, unlike New York City’s Pennsylvania Station, all the escalators actually work. From there you drive to the Tianjin Meijiang Convention Center, a building so gigantic and well appointed that if it were in Washington, D.C., it would be a tourist site. Your hosts inform you: ‘It was built in nine months.’”

2. “ . . . that ‘can-do,’ ‘get-it-done,’ ‘everyone-pull-together,’ ‘whatever-it-takes’ attitude that built our highways, dams, and put a man on the moon.”

The first verb in the sequence “departs Beijing’s South Station . . . and boards the bullet train” seems wrong. (Shouldn’t it be “enters,” not “departs”?) Otherwise, though, our first sample of Tianjin prose is as well laid out and enjoyably speedy as the bullet train itself.

But oh boy, that second sample . . .

In 2½ lines, four clichés set off by shamefaced quotation marks, followed by a shameless fifth (“put a man on the moon”). The author also thinks a verb, “put,” can be the next item in the noun series “highways, dams, and. . . .”

Well, the author is Thomas L. Friedman. Friedman’s prose has been notorious enough down the years to acquire Wikipedia citations, including a link to an article called “Someone Take Away Thomas Friedman’s Computer Before He Types Another Sentence.”

But here’s something funny: the author of the nice, efficient first sample is also Thomas L. Friedman. The difference between that prose and the prose of sample 2 seems to be only a difference in the quality and degree of their truthfulness. William Blake, poet and artist, understood that telling the truth can only follow from first seeing the truth in detail, the finer the better – as in “75 miles in 25 minutes.” In plate 55 of his Jerusalem, he summarized his findings this way.

He who would do good to another, must do it in Minute Particulars
General Good is the plea of the scoundrel hypocrite & flatterer:
For Art & Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars
And not in generalizing Demonstrations of the Rational Power,
The Infinite alone resides in Definite & Determinate Identity
Establishment of Truth depends on destruction of Falshood continually
On Circumcision: not on Virginity, O Reasoners of Albion

Are you listening, virgins of the New York Times editorial page?

Source: Thomas L. Friedman, “Too Many Hamburgers?” New York Times national edition 22 September 2010: A23. Print.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Lingua franca

Printed in black and white, the windblown ironwood tree against a cloudy sky reminded me a little of a Chinese ink drawing. So I called up Google Translate, asked it for a translation of "ironwood," and pasted the characters into my picture. I thought they might remind viewers of the poems that Chinese collectors used to write on the classics that fell into their hands.

 Click to enlarge.

But it turned out that my effort was nothing but body Engrish.

Do an image search for "Engrish" and you'll make all kinds of funny discoveries, such as

But thanks to my neighbors George and Esther Quek, I've learned that the mysterious west is just as mysterious as the mysterious east. Google's four-character translation of "ironwood" turns out to be a personified transliteration: Ian Wood.


Population study, October 28: With this post, "The Art Part" went viral, albeit with only a low-grade infection. If you've googled "Engrish" since September 21, you've wound up here -- and people google for "Engrish" from all over the world.

So let me take commercial advantage and offer this free book about my summer's work with shape and color.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Time automatically updates. That's what makes it time.

Since earlier this year, I've been blogging about the September 18 primary election in Hawaii, where I live.  The candidate certain to win the Republican nomination for governor, I've written, was a fanatically reactionary Catholic whose anti-gay rhetoric has been strongly supported by the Catholic bishop of Honolulu. Of the two possible Democratic candidates, one was an old-fashioned secular liberal but the other was a fanatically reactionary Mormon whose anti-gay rhetoric has been strongly supported by Hawaii's influential Mormon leadership.

I blogged because (as a conservative might say) I felt my marriage coming under threat. My marriage is heterosexual but interracial, Hawaii is really the only state where interracial marriage is accepted as normal, and as waves of bigotry flooded Hawaii's green land this summer I found myself thinking back to my pre-Hawaii years in the midwest, where the standard witticism addressed to a man with an East Asian wife is, "Does it slant? Haw haw!" Struggling to keep my head above the flood of red-state language, I thought I could feel Hawaii's tolerance washing away beneath me. If my only choice in November is between a Republican bigot and a Democratic bigot, I thought, I might as well be back in Indiana.

But two cheerful things happened during the weekend of September 18-19. For one thing, the anti-gay bigot lost in the Democratic primary, and lost by a humiliatingly large margin.

And then I caught up with a distant past by watching, for the first time, a once notorious movie, Elia Kazan's Baby Doll.

Baby Doll's notoriety stemmed from its lurid advertising in the print media:
Click to enlarge.

In fact, however, the film was only an adaptation of Tennessee Williams's play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, which in turn was only an adaptation of Chaucer's Miller’s Tale: a comedy about an old man, his young wife, and a young wooer who sets right their violation of nature's simple law. The film itself is a lot closer to a G rating than Chaucer's original, if only because in 1956, when the film was made, Hollywood's production code forced Kazan and his screenwriters to be coy about how and by whom Baby Doll's virginity would eventually be terminated.

But this past weekend, Eisenhower-era repectability wasn't the only anachronism reaching up from the grave to grasp at the electronics of my home. Baby Doll takes place in rural Mississippi, Kazan shot it on location and used locals as extras, and in its time onscreen the word "nigger" fills the air of half a century ago as unremarkably as nitrogen. In a University of Hawaii classroom in 2010, a professor of film studies would have to explain to her class that no, that word doesn't make Baby Doll racist, or if it does it will have to make everything else in 1956 America appear racist in exactly the same way. As a social depiction, such a standardized image just won't be interesting. If the term "racist" is to communicate any distinctions, the professor could say, it will have to mean certain things but not others. Within the meanings of "racism," "nigger" will have to be read as a word whose own multiple meanings have changed in the last half-century.

And now, just outside the Hawaii classroom, a political campaign with a bigoted subtext has failed. Such campaigns have succeeded here in the past, but the new reading that was performed on September 18, 2010, shows us that our interpretations of political language can change. Of course there's no guarantee that the changes will be lasting, and of course, in the nature of change, they can't be permanent. Still: for now the change is on us, and our language is a little more interesting than it was yesterday.

A note about language

Ever downward in the tradition of the folksy epistle: James Russell Lowell to James Whitcomb Riley to Ezra Pound (a Riley fan) to Charles Olson to Clark Coolidge to this bulletin to the Buffalo poetics list from Jim Andrews:

i have a course in mind. here's some of the reading. the course would be called 'language and poetry after godel and turing'. the course would explore computational poetics. there's some yammerin bout manovitch et all concerning poetics of new media. ya ya. but get down to the really revolutionary changes in thought.

Look at them there paratactic sentences. Look at that there lower-case, signifying lostness in deep thought while chewin on a slab o cod from Gloucester. But remember: Gresham's baneful law does not contemplate exceptions. The bad does drive out the good, always. I've visited Riley's Old Swimmin' Hole in Greenfield, Indiana, and I'm here to tell you it's full of rats. Consider them a visitation from the actual: the blessed event called nemesis, or poetic justice.

And then dream of language rodents swarming the prose of Stanley Fish, George Will, and the late Stephen Jay Gould: three arch-snobs who talk bout baseball to show that they're really jes faux.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Vanishing point

Clattering past the intersection of 63rd Street and Halstead in the summer of 1929, the Chicago elevated train transports its riders no higher than the second story. Black and white is its milieu. On the cover of the 1993 University of Illinois Press reprint of James T. Farrell’s naturalist trilogy Studs Lonigan (1932, 1934, 1935), the words provide a splash of color, but that's an anachronism. In its original, this book was monochrome.

Click to enlarge.
He seemed to be choking.
“Mother, it’s getting dark,” he called feebly.
He gasped. There was a rattle in his throat. He turned livid, his eyes dilated widely, became blank, and he went limp. And in the mind of Studs Lonigan, through an all-increasing blackness, streaks of white light filtered weakly and recessively like an electric light slowly going out. And there was nothing in the mind of Studs Lonigan but this feeble streaking of light in an all-encompassing blackness, and then, nothing.  (856)

Once upon a time, says the fable, a young Chicagoan named Studs wasted his life and then died of pneumonia. As he lay dying, Communists were marching through the streets of his city, singing, "A better world's in birth" (835). That juxtaposition of bodies on a page constructed out of words, says naturalist theory, is called symbolism. Symbolism is a system of notation intended to make visible naturalism's idea of God -- that is, a metaphor which naturalism called "the Forces." But outside the library, the optics of Chicago seem to promise that if you take the doctor’s advice and avoid congestion, you can soar on perspective right over the symbol, ascending through layers of beauty from black iron to an empty heaven the color of Chicago’s pearly, lake-reflected light.

 The original of this facsimile poster was captioned,
"Rapid Transit Lines, Fast . . . Reliable."

And it isn't only in Chicago that black pours forth light. In Rome, one evening early in the Fascist era, sounds poured from a black phonograph and filled a room with white arms, white dresses, and a receding perspective of white bodies beginning to learn from the music how to step out of themselves and become airborne. We have the pictorial evidence before us still. Composed into a single motion by their music, the bodies will dance forever. In pure motion around themselves, dancing the force of their song just out of our hearing, they seem to ask us only the simple question that the urn posed for Keats: Who are these coming to the sacrifice?

I found the little advertisement tucked inside an old book. For some eighty years the turntable spun in the darkness between words. In the light it's spinning still. Clamorosi successi!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The descent beckons / as the ascent beckoned.

William Carlos Williams, "The Descent"
Click to enlarge.