Sunday, December 6, 2009

Essence of Cow

Two Museum Visits—and an Art Gallery Not Visited

***

Stepping off the elevator at the Museum of Modern Art several years ago, I proceeded into a room of paintings that I was sure that I had visited many times before. However, this time as I turned to the wall on my right, I was stopped in my tracks by a painting that I had no recollection of seeing previously: “The Cow with the Subtile Nose” by Jean Dubuffet (viewable at http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=79420). I gazed at the work in wonderment for some time. Surely, I thought, this is Essence of Cow.

***

Some years later, wandering the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I decided to drop in at the International Center of Photography, then located on museum row on upper Fifth Avenue. The ICP was hosting a group exhibition, each of the participating photographers being allotted wall space for both his prints and a statement of purpose. As I walked around the gallery I became aware of one salient fact—the photographers whose pictures held my attention had all declined to make a statement about their work. Their photographs worked as photographs because their images contained all the information needed. In contrast, there was one photographer who had an IDEA: he was in Hawaii and decided to go out into the tropical forest in the middle of the night and snap pictures at one location facing in different directions. The result was a set of images that looked like nothing at all, and had no compositional sense or internal tension.

***

The art gallery not visited was in Suffolk, England.

As reported by the Daily Telegraph in 2001 (link: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1312686/Student-lazes-in-bed-for-her-art.html), for her end-of-the-year project an art student named Katherine Hymers was to spend four days lying asleep on a single bed set in the middle of the gallery amid the work of her fellow students. Her “work,” she said, was “a symbol of her struggle as an artist, representing the way that her art has become her life.”
Of course, just by looking at someone snoozing, one would instantaneously grasp that meaning, right? Or would one have to poke Ms Hymers in the ribs and ask, “What the hell are you up to?”

***

Francis Bacon (the 20th Century painter, not Shakespeare’s contemporary of the same name) once said, “If you can talk about it, why paint it?” Words are no substitute for (and certainly not an improvement on) the direct experience of art. Critic Jonathan Jones recently stated in the Guardian, “Art doesn't have to be about anything to be good. In fact, the easier it is to say what a work is about, the less interesting that work becomes.” I am reminded of the second- and third-rate books in the syllabi of some of my former colleagues; they were there because they were easy to teach in a connect-the-dots way. One could talk about Themes and Ideas all day. Never mind that the works were in themselves “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,” to quote Hamlet.

Henri Cartier-Bresson said great photography depicted "the decisive moment,” which he described as “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression." Perhaps all great art, each in a way appropriate to its particular genre, strives to accomplish the same result.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------

To view some paintings by Francis Bacon: http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/bacon/
To view some photographs by Cartier-Bresson: http://images.google.com/images?hl=en&rlz=1B2RNFA_enUS304US342&q=henri+cartier-bresson+the+decisive+moment&um=1&ie=UTF-8&ei=FywcS6SBOYOnlAeym7HvCQ&sa=X&oi=image_result_group&ct=title&resnum=6&ved=0CC4QsAQwBQ

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

“Which of you shall we say doth love us most?”


“Which of you shall we say doth love us most?”


With these words King Lear, determined to shed himself of the cares of state and to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, settles back to bask in the fulsomeness of praise. His two eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, do not disappoint him. “Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter,” Goneril begins.

“Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
As much as child e'er loved, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable;
Beyond all manner of so much I love you.”

Regan, an excellent poker player, sees her sister:

“Sir, I am made
Of the self-same metal that my sister is,
And prize me at her worth. In my true heart
I find she names my very deed of love.”

And then raises her:

“Only she comes too short: that I profess
Myself an enemy to all other joys,
Which the most precious square of sense possesses;
And find I am alone felicitate
In your dear highness' love.”

These hyperbolic phrases come from the mouths of two daughters who will prove to be among the cruelest of Shakespeare’s characters. After Lear has turned over all his kingdom to them, they will bar the castle door against him, forcing their father to spend the night battling a raging storm.*

Lear then turns to his youngest daughter, Cordelia, and asks her: “[W]hat can you say to draw/A third [part of the kingdom] more opulent than your sisters? Speak.”

Cordelia’s answer is “Nothing.”

***

We will come back to King Lear, but let’s move on to Hamlet for a little bit.

In Act V, Hamlet has returned to Denmark, unbeknownst to all but his faithful friend Horatio. In the graveyard they spy an approaching funeral party and hide themselves. It is the interment of Ophelia, but before the burial can be completed, Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, leaps into the open grave, embraces his sister’s coffin and exclaims:

“Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead,
Till of this flat a mountain you have made,
To o'ertop old Pelion, or the skyish head
Of blue Olympus.”

Hamlet reveals himself, then leaps into the grave and grapples with Laertes, until they are pulled apart. But what exactly is it that impels the Prince to come out of hiding and make his return known to all the court?

Hamlet:

“What is he whose grief
Bears such an emphasis? whose phrase of sorrow
Conjures the wandering stars, and makes them stand
Like wonder-wounded hearers? . . .
Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I:
And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
Singeing his pate against the burning zone,
Make Ossa like a wart! Nay, an thou'It mouth,
I'll rant as well as thou.”

The important words, I think, are the verbs “prate,” mouth,” and “rant.” Hamlet, who has proclaimed, “I loved Ophelia,” is offended by the hyperbolic prating, mouthing, and ranting of Laertes. And so he mocks Laertes: “forty thousand brothers/Could not with all their quantity of love,/Make up my sum.”

The hyperbolic, then, is always suspect: it can be the resort of insincere and hypocritical persons to cover up their real feelings; or if expressed by one with true feelings, it will undermine those very feelings. As Hamlet well knows, true feelings must be matched by proportionate words and deeds.

***

Back to Cordelia, who will remain faithful to her father until her death.

After refusing to match her sisters’ hyperbole, Cordelia is finally impelled to enlarge upon her answer of “Nothing”:

“Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less. . . .
Good my lord.
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.”

The true daughter’s proportionate response reminds us of the Commandment:

HONOR THY FATHER AND THY MOTHER.

_______________________________________

*Cordelia later remarks about her sisters’ cruelty:

“Mine enemy's dog,/Though he had bit me, should have stood that night/Against my fire.”

(Adaptation of a speech not given)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

CLUCK


The Hut on Fowl’s Legs: Baba-Yaga


For the visual accompaniment I used printed
fabrics used by Southern African witch doctors,
known as sangomas, who practice a
form of traditional healing. They perform a
holistic and symbolic form of healing,
embedded in the beliefs of their culture that
ancestors in the afterlife guide and protect
the living. Sangomas are called to heal, and
through them ancestors from the spirit
world can give instruction and advice to heal
illness, social disharmony, and spiritual
difficulties. In many cases a ritual sacrifice of
an animal is performed, usually a chicken.
...
The visual component essentializes the
meaning of Baba Yaga in a formalistic
sense, thus beginning to touch on aspects
of the spiritual world and its meaning in
contemporary society.

***

Thus Robin Rhode, “Visual Artist,” explaining his video accompaniment of pianist Leif Ove Andsnes’s playing of one section of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The collaboration between the two men is part of “Pictures Reframed,” which had its debut at Alice Tully Hall on Friday, November 13, 2009.


One critic who was on hand that night suggests the following alternative (perhaps deeper?) reading of the video accompaniment:


The first sight we see is a chicken running across a barnyard. A chicken—clearly a representation of the Big Questions of life: “Which came first—the chicken or the egg?” and “Why did the chicken cross the road?” This chicken, skipping along, is carefree—but suddenly it is replaced by a two-dimensional fowl, bordered by a circle, on a red field that turns out to be a cloth. No longer at large, the hemmed-in chicken is a prisoner—but is it of red state Soviet Union or red state Mississippi? Before that question can be resolved, however, the chicken reappears on a new cloth, this one black; the chicken is now either surrounded by deepest night or pirates. But again before the issue can be resolved, the black cloth is gone and the chicken, still ringed by a circle, is now on a field of white. Surely, this connotes the frigid purity of a bird that will never reproduce, or maybe it is just lying frozen in a virgin field of snow. Either way, the video has taken us on the full journey from birth to death. Cluck.


(Another critic offered a reading of the video based on Col. Sanders—but that is too frivolous a suggestion to be given serious critical attention.)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Is Foul Use "Fair Use"?

If you quote too much of me, I’ll sue the pants off you!

Well, not me really, because I’d be most flattered, but other people might sue you for violating their copyright. You are allowed “fair use” of copyrighted material, but how much use (and what manner of use) is “fair use”?

I was drawn into consideration of one aspect of the “fair use” issue by an article in Slate by Tim Wu, Professor of Law at Columbia University. (The article, which gives a useful overview of the issue, is at http://www.slate.com/id/2233152/.) I e-mailed Prof. Wu that “I was interested in the fact that (according to the article) courts or legislatures have determined that ‘Parody (but not satire)’ is protected by the fair use doctrine.” I wondered “what the legal definitions of parody and satire might be that would lead to different treatment of the two in the courts.” My wondering was based, I wrote, on the fact that “parody is one device used by satirists (indeed, I think the case can be made that all parody--no matter how friendly--is satirical--no matter how mild),”

Prof. Wu was gracious enough to quickly respond to my e-mail, and we exchanged several more, during which exchange, Prof. Wu asked me to expand my views and I attempted to oblige. This blog is drawn from my responses.

***

Satire is a purposeful art; it attempts to unmask folly that is posing as wisdom, or evil posing as good. Since false appearance is accepted as truth, satire must do something out of the ordinary to jar and upset the audience's vision of things. And will use many different artistic devices to do so.

David Worcester in his book The Art of Satire divides satire into three types: invective; burlesque; and irony. Burlesque (not the strippers, alas) Worcester categorizes as the satiric mode that is based on imitation (parody and travesty, for example, are two of the forms of burlesque satire).

Parody is usually an attack on style (and because the style is the man, therefore on the man himself, who is a prisoner of his stylistic tics). A favorite parody of the 1950's was the rendering of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in Eisenhowerese (available at http://powellhistory.wordpress.com/2008/03/24/if-eisenhower-had-given-the-gettysburg-address/). The incongruity of the loftiness of the content and its rendering through flat, stumbling banalities was glorious satire of Eisenhower's speechifying. Satire also uses incongruity to render its target’s content ridiculous. A recent example which attacked the content rather than the style was the rendering of Sarah Palin's actual words as poetic speech (available at http://www.slate.com/id/2201342/). The satire attacked her words by demonstrating how they could not live up to the lofty presentation.

***

Below I have copied some excerpts from the Supreme Court's decision in the case of CAMPBELL, AKA SKYYWALKER, ET AL. v. ACUFF-ROSE MUSIC, INC. (in which the Court ruled that a rap parody of "Pretty Woman" was “fair use”) and annotated in italics certain points:

a) The germ of parody lies in the definition of the Greek parodeia, quoted in Judge Nelson's Court of Appeals dissent, as "a song sung alongside another." 972 F. 2d, at 1440, quoting 7 Encyclopedia Britannica 768 (15th ed. 1975) [something always to be careful about--words are human constructs and like human beings don't always dwell where they were born]. Modern dictionaries accordingly describe a parody as a "literary or artistic work that imitates the characteristic style of an author or a work for comic effect or ridicule," [this definition does take note of parody of style] or as a "composition in prose or verse in which the characteristic turns of thought and phrase in an author or class of authors are imitated in such a way as to make them appear ridiculous" [these "characteristic turns of thought and phrase" are the verbal tics that deserve to be ridiculed]. For the purposes of copyright law, the nub of the definitions, and the heart of any parodist's claim to quote from existing material [but really the quoting can be of content or style!], is the use of some elements of a prior author's composition to create a new one that, at least in part, comments on that author's works [the “commenting”—truly a weak word-- renders the original ridiculous, if the parody is any good].

b) Parody needs to mimic an original to make its point [it always must be kept in mind that parodic mimicking distorts, which makes it satirical], and so has some claim to use the creation of its victim's (or collective victims') imagination, whereas satire can stand on its own two feet [this truly makes no sense and is totally unexplained; is this relying on the belief that satire is always ironic in nature, and not also burlesque at times?] and so requires justification for the very act of borrowing.

c) [The Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U. S. C. § 107] has no hint of an evidentiary preference for parodists over their victims, and no workable presumption for parody could take account of the fact that parody often shades into satire when society is lampooned through its creative artifacts [this seems to indicate the belief that parody is specific, while satire is general, but satire can be general or specific], or that a work may contain both parodic and nonparodic elements [goes without saying].

d) Satire has been defined as a work "in which prevalent follies or vices are assailed with ridicule" [close to my definition, which is more descriptive] 14 Oxford English Dictionary, supra, at 500, or are "attacked through irony, derision, or wit [pretty weak definition]" American Heritage Dictionary, supra, at 1604 [perhaps the Court, relying on these definitions, doesn't see the specific trees because of the general woods].


***

Let's make some distinctions here: if I do my party routine of imitating Bogart, Cagney, etc. (trying to be as accurate as possible), I'm not parodying but mimicking--for there is no attempt to deride those I'm imitating. If I start to exaggerate the mannerisms of speech, gesture, etc., then I'm moving into the realm of parody. Think of caricature, which is analogous to parody, in that the features of the subject can be twisted and distorted (noses lengthened or shortened, chins extended forwards or receded and so on) to make the hidden essence of a person (his wolfishness, her cattiness) evident to the viewer. Too bad the Court, while seeing that parody and satire both deal with the ridiculous, did not understand their relationship. Parody IS satire—and satire, by its nature, is criticism. The Court acknowledges that Section 107, provides that "the fair use of a copyrighted work . . . for purposes such as criticism [or] comment . . . is not an infringement . . .." (Also, “Parody, like other comment and criticism, may claim fair use.”)

But perhaps the real problem with the Court (in which it is only following a certain obtuse conventional idea) is in believing that satire is concerned with making only bitingly-negative (even vicious) attacks on society (what I have termed "the general").* This is reflected, I think, in the Court's statement that "society is lampooned" by satire. Thus, the Court has removed the specific (mild or harsh) attacks on a person's inadequacy of style, language, dramatic range, etc. from their rightful places in the universe of satirical means and modes.

***

Here are two excerpts from Pope's "The Rape of the Lock":

My Lord, why what the Devil?

Z___ds! damn the Lock! 'fore Gad, you must be civil!
Plague on't! 'tis past a jest--nay prithee, Pox!
Give her the hair!
----------------------------------------------------------
Mean while declining from the Noon of Day,
The Sun obliquely shoots his burning Ray;
The hungry Judges soon the Sentence sign,
And Wretches hang that Jury-men may Dine . . .
----------------------------------------------------------
In the first extract Pope is satirizing (by parody) the bumbling, clichéd mutterings of witless courtiers; in the second he fashions a satirical attack on the operation of the justice system. Both are satire, one is parodic. As Pope wrote elsewhere: "Fools rush into my head, and so I write." As the fools rushed into his head, Pope used many literary devices in his satirical works to expose those fools (whether attacked specifically or generally), including, of course, parody. And sometimes the satire was biting, but sometimes the satire was mild. I don't think the fact that the heat of satire can, like pepper sauce, run from mild to five-alarm is widely appreciated. Or that while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, parody can be a sincerely-determined effort to reveal the true foolishness or viciousness behind the front of personal style.

*There are historically two streams of satire coming down from the Latin poets, the Juvenalian and the Horatian. The Juvenalian mode is basically straightforward denunciation of the evils and follies of the times; the Horatian follows the rule of Horace, who spoke of "Telling the truth smiling"--that is, sugarcoating the bitter pill (ala Mary Poppins: "A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down"). It seems that too often (like with the Supreme Court) only the Juvenalian mode is recognized as satire, while the nicer (at least on the surface) Horatian mode is considered humor (or something else) but not satire.

Friday, October 9, 2009

De mortuis . . .

. . . nihil nisi bonum

Usually rendered in English as “Don’t speak ill of the dead,” a literal translation would read, “Of the dead, nothing unless good.” Seemingly, we are not only admonished to hold back from revealing the dark side of the deceased, but also to avoid mentioning even the neutral or possibly ambiguous aspects of his character or actions. The Latin precept, again if taken literally, seems absolute; there is no time limit specified after which we may speak the whole truth of the dead. Never, it would appear, could we come to “bury Caesar, not to praise him” (as Mark Antony speciously claimed he was going to do). Not even centuries after his death. But none of us buys that I suspect.

***

“The great irrelevancy”

The recent death of a noted newspaper columnist evoked the above description in a dismissive evaluation in The Guardian (UK). His writing was “more skippable than the full-page ads for luxury apartments.” He was a person who “ignored facts to the point of ignoring human welfare, let alone national welfare.” And an example of his style (“sarcastic and at the same time weirdly cosy,”) was derided as “clotted, so compressed, you can't pull out the argument or even decipher the tone.”

So much for De mortuis.

But what actually spurred me to write this blog were comments by readers such as this one: “What a sad, bitter column - totally lacking in dignity and grace. Couldn't you wait a week?”

The comment recognizes, as we all do implicitly, that the Latin precept is faulty, because the dead should not be forever exempt from the ill-speaking of critics. But that reader (and probably most other people) supports a sort of temporal cordon sanitaire, during which the De mortuis admonition holds sway. Here he suggests a week, but surely no-one in 1945 would sanction such a time lag during which praise for Autobahn-building and pet-dog head-patting was all that was allowed.

***

So, if you believe there should be a time lag, there needs to be a way to determine how much time should be allowed to elapse before leveling criticism (especially if you believe the lag should be linked to the deceased's degree of badness).

Cue the graph: er, sorry, it seems that the site won’t support my beautiful hand-made graph.

Well, you can compose your own:

The Y-axis is a ranking of bad-doers (from “Devil Incarnate” at the top going down in steps from “Ogre,” “Baddie,” and “Meanie” to zero badness).

The X-axis is the time lag before one can speak ill of the dead person and can be divided into any time periods you wish.

So now, if you believe in the appropriateness of a time lag before criticism of the dead is allowed, you are all set.

All well and good. But for full disclosure’s sake, I must record that my instant, totally-adult response upon reading of the noted columnist’s demise was: “He sucked!”

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Why the Great American Novel Won't Get Written

Recently, I watched a DVD of La mariée était en noir [The Bride Wore Black]. The film, adapted from a novel by Cornell Woolrich (writing under the pseudonym “William Irish”), was directed by François Truffaut and starred Jeanne Moreau as the title character. Wed and widowed within a few minutes, Julie Kohler seeks revenge against the five men who were responsible for the murder of her newly-minted husband as he and Julie posed on the church steps for a formal wedding photograph. To accomplish her mission, Julie, adopting various personae, travels across France (for the men have scattered after the fatal moment and never maintained contact with each other) to hunt them down and do them in, crossing off one by one each name on the list in her little black book when she has succeeded.

Though the movie lives up to its reputation as a classic and I enjoyed it immensely, I nevertheless could not get one big question about the plot out of my mind: how did Julie know who the responsible parties were (and, concomitantly, how did she know where to find them)? The police have no idea that the murders are linked or that any of the victims were involved in the unsolved murder of Julie’s husband. Only a second sighting of Julie by a character who was friends with both victims one and four leads to her connection to the revenge murders—but not their connection to the original murder of her husband.
*
It took me several years of procrastination after my retirement before I was ready to sit myself down before my computer keyboard to write the Great American Novel (Mystery Division). I had had several plot ideas in my head for a while, and I plucked the “stolen identity” one from the gray matter, fired up the machine, and started to write. I knocked out the first (admittedly short) scene fairly quickly, saved it on a floppy disk, and spent the rest of the day feeling rather Hemingwayish and Fitzgeraldian.

And so to bed—where I lay awake all night, trying to weave together the strands of the plot (how did A get to location Z?; when did B find out about Y?; and on and on through the night). I tossed, I turned, and, when the little voice in the back of my mind whispered, “Gotthelf hath murdered sleep,” I realized that if I continued my project, I would never sleep again until I, unlike Truffaut, left no questions to be answered.

That opening scene remains on that floppy, on some shelf or in some drawer—perhaps to be found in some heap of rubble many centuries from now by a future generation able to apply its superior knowledge to crack the Rosetta Stone floppy and to discover the mysteries of our culture—then again, maybe not.

But I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Geese and Ganders

Three Analogies

***
Analogy One:

From Plato’s Apology

(Translated by Benjamin Jowett)


Socrates questions one of his accusers.

Come hither, Meletus, and let me ask a question of you. You think a great deal about the improvement of youth?

Yes, I do.

Tell the judges, then, who is their improver; for you must know, as you have taken the pains to discover their corrupter, and are citing and accusing me before them. Speak, then, and tell the judges who their improver is….

The judges, Socrates, who are present in court.

What do you mean to say, Meletus, that they are able to instruct and improve youth?

Certainly they are.

What, all of them, or some only and not others?

All of them.

By the goddess Here, that is good news! There are plenty of improvers, then. And what do you say of the audience, - do they improve them?

Yes, they do.

And the senators?

Yes, the senators improve them.

But perhaps the members of the citizen assembly corrupt them? - or do they too improve them?

They improve them.

Then every Athenian improves and elevates them; all with the exception of myself; and I alone am their corrupter? Is that what you affirm?

That is what I stoutly affirm.

I am very unfortunate if that is true. But suppose I ask you a question: Would you say that this also holds true in the case of horses? Does one man do them harm and all the world good? Is not the exact opposite of this true? One man is able to do them good, or at least not many; - the trainer of horses, that is to say, does them good, and others who have to do with them rather injure them?

And so Socrates rebuts the charge that he alone of all Athenians is a corrupter of youth. Or does he? His defense rests on an analogy: The training of youth is like the training of horses. Are you willing to buy that analogy? Socrates puts forward the analogy but offers no proof that the analogy is sound. The question “Does a human being need only one teacher?” (for having many will corrupt him) is never examined.

***

Analogy Two:

The statement “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs” is most famously attributed to Josef Stalin (although apparently it did not originate with him).

Stalin used that analogy to claim that desired political results necessitated harsh measures. (Basically, “the ends justify the means” defense.) Can the loss of millions of lives be exculpated by the omelets made from the eggs laid by the hens on collectivized farms?

***

Analogy Three:

A half century ago, in the long shadow of the McCarthy era, the student government of my college (the City College of New York) defiantly held an Academic Freedom Week each year. I was co-chair of the event one year, although I must confess that my partner did most of the work. And she it was who was able to snare Ayn Rand for an appearance during the event. Now, Rand was too grand to lower herself to debate anyone, but she did deign to “share” the platform with another speaker, in this case a member of the New York University law faculty, Robert B. McKay*.

In her presentation Rand sneered at the concept of academic freedom and asserted that a professor who upset the university powers-that-be should be sacked as easily and rightfully as a worker in a shoe factory who crossed the business’ owner. When it was his turn to speak, McKay riposted: “The soul of a man is different from the sole of a shoe.”

***

In his book The Duck That Won the Lottery, Julian Baggini states: “Arguments from analogy can be rhetorically powerful, but it is vital that we question whether the parallels are close enough to justify the conclusions drawn from them.” An analogy is not a proof; I prefer to think of it as a suggestion (“Look at example A as if were case B”). And analogies must be examined to see if, as Baggini points out, “the content of the arguments is analogous, [and] not just the forms.”

In conclusion: are human beings analogous to horses, eggs, or shoes?

***

*McKay’s obituary from the New York Times:
http://www.nytimes.com/1990/07/14/obituaries/robert-mckay-70-legal-scholar-who-led-1971-attica-panel-dies.html?scp=1&sq=Robert%20McKay&st=cse

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Three Thought Experiments

Thought Experiment One

Charlie, walking down Main Street, spots a Baskin Robbins ice cream store ahead of him. “Boy, I’d like some chocolate chip ice cream,” he says to himself as he makes his way to the shop. “I really want some chocolate chip,” he says to himself again, as he takes a number and waits his turn. (You always have to wait on line at Baskin Robbins.)

When the counterperson calls out number thirty-seven, Charlie steps forward. “I’ll have . . . er . . . that is I’d like . . . um . . . ok, two scoops of maple walnut ice cream with sprinkles.”

Charlie finishes his ice cream cone and says to himself, “The maple walnut was good, but I really wanted chocolate chip.”

Question: What did Charlie really want—maple walnut or chocolate chip?

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Thought Experiment Two

At exactly the same moment, two boy babies were born many hundreds of miles apart, one in a hospital in Rome, Italy (to parents of Italian ancestry dating back umpteen generations) and the other in a hospital in Stockholm, Sweden (to parents of Swedish ancestry dating back umpteen generations). Almost immediately, “some night-tripping fairy
. . . exchanged/ In cradle-clothes [the] children where they lay” (I Henry IV). A few days later, the babies were taken home by their unsuspecting non-birth parents, who proceeded to raise them quite normally.

Question: Viewed from the perspective of five years on, which child was the Italian, which the Swede?
(Would it make any difference if the cities were Dublin and Dubrovnik, or Haifa and Hanoi?)

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Thought Experiment Three

On January 1, 2010, every native speaker of English in the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, etc. wakes up, looks out the window, sees the great golden ball in the sky, and calls it “the cranston.” All native speakers of English, that is, except for a forty-five-year-old teacher of high school English in Scarsdale, New York, who looks out her window and sees “the sun.”

As the days, weeks, months go by, this woman gets testier and testier as she cannot make friends, family, colleagues, or strangers acknowledge that that thing in the sky should be called “the sun,” not “the cranston.”

Question: Is she right to insist that that heavenly body be called “the sun”?
(Would it make any difference if the woman was a physical education teacher?)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

'Lectronic Limbo

I pushed my shopping cart with its two boxes of cornflakes toward the checkout counters, only to discover that each line contained hordes provisioning as for a siege of the castle. Declaring (to myself) that I would rather starve than languish behind orders that had at minimum six cases of bottled water, I abandoned—without an ounce of guilt—the cart and cornflakes in front of a display of sweet gherkins. Guiltless, because I knew that before the day was through, those boxes of dry cereal would be back on their shelf standing shoulder-to-shoulder next to their mates raisin bran and shredded wheat, staring down the Maypo and instant oatmeal across Aisle 5.

In the car on the way home, I couldn’t help but think about the contents of shopping carts I had abandoned during e-commerce forays—for example, the camera that had to be placed in a cart in order to discover its price (alas, too dear) or the shoes whose steep shipping cost similarly was revealed to me only after my plucking the item off its electronic shelf. Are those size elevens still waiting for me to take them for a stroll, or did some ghostly hand remove the pixels from the electronic cart?

And then my thoughts segued to my abandoned email addresses: are they still waiting for me to click open their contents (assuming I could remember the passwords)? However, while I can summon up romantic images of a physical mailbox that I have moved away from holding, for a brief while before a melancholy return journey to the sender, a letter from a long-lost love or a dividend check from a forgotten investment, all I can imagine sitting in wait in the electronic boxes are several offers of fake Viagra.

I wonder if I have anything to eat for breakfast.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Magical Mystical Tour

“A group of rabbis and Jewish mystics flew over Israel chanting prayers and blowing ritual ram horns in the belief that they would be able to stop the spread of swine flu in Israel.”

Daily Telegraph, UK
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
I’ve been cogitating over this news item for a while. How, I have been wondering, does one get to be a mystic? Does one go to Mystic College or Academy? Does one get a diploma to frame and hang on one’s mystic office wall? And how does one attract a paying clientele? Does one hang out a shingle, with an arrow pointing “Mystic Inside”?

And what exactly, does a mystic do? Of course, he mysticizes, but again, what exactly is involved? Does a mystic specialize? You know: mysticizing by word versus mysticizing by deed?

And note that the story speaks of “Jewish mystics.” How do they differ from, say, Christian mystics or Hindu ones? Do they, like unions, sometimes have demarcation disputes? With flare-ups and arguments: “I’ve got Yahweh—you stick to the Holy Ghost!”

And if there are circumscribed mystic areas, surely in this case the Christian mystics have the expertise. For a Jewish mystic this is certainly an unkosher undertaking.

But, then again, with all my thinking, I’m still mystified.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Bones of Dead Men

The Bones of Dead Men

On an overcast Sunday in June I walk the block-and-a-half from my daughter's house to Avenida del Libertador, where a red light grants me fifty seconds to cross seven lanes of traffic. On the eastern side of Libertador is a series of two-story, white buildings with red tile roofs, settled on a great expanse of green lawn amongst lush vegetation. It is, seemingly, a Southern California junior college transplanted to the northeastern corner of the City of Buenos Aires.

But here no blondhaired coeds, clutching textbooks to their breasts, have ever rushed away from their surfer boyfriends to fly off to their chemistry or biology labs, for this is the home of the Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada, whose major experiments in torture occurred over three decades ago during Argentina's “Dirty War.” To be imprisoned in the bowels of ESMA one did not need to bear arms against the military junta, a typewriter or a pen would do. Here, mothers would be “disappeared” after having their babies snatched from them and awarded to faithful followers of the regime.

I peer through the metal fence for a while, then turn my back on the whited sepulcher and use all of my fifty seconds to cross Libertador. There, on the western side of the avenue, the blank faces of bland apartment buildings show no regard for the past.

To the Defenders of Torture

To the Defenders of Torture

During my many years of college teaching I would from time to time see students crossing the campus who, because they appeared different from the crowd (they were older or better dressed or, rarely, strikingly beautiful), made me wonder, “Who is that person?” And from time to time, one of those interesting persons would turn up in my English class and I, indeed, learned who that person was (alas, never one of the beauties though).

Mr. C. (as I shall call him) appeared in my composition class one summer session. I had spied him many times walking across campus with a sort of hop-limp, holding by its handles a stiff flower-decorated plastic shopping bag, the kind your grandmother might have taken to the corner grocer’s. He was at least ten years older than the majority of the other freshmen and spoke with a Middle-European accent. He was bright, but a difficult student. He wanted nothing to do with any writing that touched on feelings or emotions. Why, he wanted to know, couldn’t we just deal with the impersonal, the objective?

One day after class near the end of the summer session, I was discussing a paper with its writer when we were interrupted by another student, who insisted that I come immediately out into the hall, where he directed me to the stairway. There on the landing between flights was Mr. C., huddled in the corner, silently weeping. “He was tortured in prison in Czechoslovakia,” the second student whispered into my ear. I went over to the figure in the corner, a bumbling English teacher who had no words to console a man with a limp who wanted nothing to do with feelings or emotions.

(Originally published on my Telegraph UK blog)