Thursday, October 05, 2017

Tradition and the avant garde, as seen in 1968

Eastside Road, October 5, 2017—
jUST FOR FUN, and because I've just run across it, a transcription made by I know not who of remarks ad-libbed on Critic's Circle, a review show on the arts I used to participate in at KQED, back when this sort of thing was possible.
It's long.
Charles Shere - CRITICS CIRCLE
April 3, 1968
[transcription of unscripted remarks]

I would like to talk about the PBL [Public Broadcast Laboratory] broadcast of last Sunday night because for the first time PBL give its two hours over entirely to a cultural program — and it gave those two hours to the avant-garde — which is very much, of course, in controversy these days, being only some thirty or forty years old. PBL's program was called Who's Afraid Of The Avant-Garde?: an excessively coy title which I think established PBL's stance toward the subject of its program.
It was never quite sure what its stance was going to be. Television can either act as a recorder, the kind of television that says "let's pretend you're at the Buffalo museum or let's pretend you're at the ball game and we will take you electronically there and you can carry it from there,” or television can act as a participant — and PBL attempted this a couple of times in Sunday night's broadcast.
When it did make this attempt, and when it succeeded, it came up with the most exciting things that it did the entire evening. I'm thinking, for example, of their coverage of Cecil Taylor's jazz group. I'm thinking also of the first coverage of Merce Cunningham's Dance Company, when the television entered and participated in Cunningham's dance and did considerably more than taking you out of your living room and putting you down in the auditorium.
By and large, however, PBL's attitude toward the avant-garde was very much conditioned by what I guess it feared was a recalcitrant audience nationwide; and perhaps that audience is more recalcitrant than we would think, living as we do in the San Francisco Bay Area, an area which is by no means representative of the country as a whole. For example, there were frequent statements on the part of the narrator that the difference between the avant-garde art and normal art was that avant-garde art does not care at all about any kind of representationalism. Taylor's music, for example, it was stressed, had no beat and no recognizable melody. When some underground films were shown, specifically Jonas Mekas’s film Circus, the narrator made a great point of saying that underground.films share the avant-garde prejudice against heroes, against plots, against stories, just as the avant-garde paintings and sculpture is non-representatlonal. It seems to me that there is a reason for this and that this is symptomatic, rather than the end result, of an attitude of the avant-garde artist. I was looking at a copy of a new book which came out recently published by Walker and Company, a book about the French sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon, who died in 1918, and in looking through this book it struck me that his career sums up the difficult time in western art which took place at the turn of the nineteenth century. It was a critical turning point, I think, in European history, certainly in the history of European civilization.
It was the transition between the teleological representational attitude of art until then and the new art which is the art of the 20th Century, representing homo ludens, man who plays games, man who is more concerned with the experience and with the integrity of what he is doing, of his activity, than he is with the pre-conceived concept of what kind of goal he is going to find at the end of his activity. In other words, where the nineteenth century and earlier thought of art as being a search with a goal at the end of the search, today's artists like John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Jonas Mekas, all of the people who were touched upon by PBL, are not concerned with what they are going to find at the end of their search… if you can call it a search. They seem to be considerably more concerned with what it is they’re doing while they’re filling the time ….
And I think that there is probably a lesson for all of us in this. I think that civilization gets the art that it gets because it is the civilization that it is. I think that our avant-garde art partakes of this quality partly because today the artist and intellectual, when he realizes it, is a little bit tired of the civilization which is founded upon things, upon works of art which have commercial value, upon having as late a model of car as your neighbor, and this whole sort of thing.
It's still very difficult to talk about avant-garde art and about Dada, its progenitor, because like PBL we tend to lump all of this activity into one bag. To think, for example, of Buckminister Fuller as being avant-garde, to think of Mary Quant, the fashion designer in England of being avant-garde, the same way as John Cage and Merce Cunningham are avant-garde. Of course this is perfectly absurd. There is a great difference between an industrial architect and an avantgarde fashion designer on the one hand and a painter and a musician on the other. And as John Calder says in his introduction to a new book about English happeners, talking about surrealism. "It will quickly lose its sense of identity as an art movement and become a technique to be used to a greater or a lesser extent by dramatists and artists of the future.”
I think this is true of the avant-garde and it’s true of Dada, and I think that programs like last Sunday's PBL, excellent in places and pedestrian in others, will help to accelerate this feeling, will help to accelerate the possibility of all of these phenomena, with the avant-garde being assimilated not only by the artists themselves but also by we the audience, the people whom the artists serve, the people who in the last analysis feed upon and, in turn, nourish the artistic activity itself.

Well, all of this said, I went out to Mills College Sunday night to see what was supposed to be an evening of Dada and about the only Dada on the evening's program were two films, a marvelous film by Hans Richter called Ghosts Before Breakfast, a film made in 1927, and Ferdinand Leger's Ballet Mechanique, a film made in 1924. I think that its greatly to television's credit that things like PBL are doing programs like that of the avant-garde. Certainly television should be reviving these early films, early experimental films and the recent experimental films as well. Television is the perfect medium of making these films an accepted part of our inheritance, just as the Mona Lisa is, for example, or September Morn was fifty years ago. And until this has become a common part of the culture, the importance and vitality of Dada and the avant-garde will be lost on most of us.
At Mills College there were also some musical performances, notably of the Three Miniatures for violin and piano by Krzysztof Penderecki and, before that, the Four Pieces for violin and piano by Anton Webern. These were very sensitively played by Nathan Rubin who was accompanied by Naomi Sparrow (who played, incidentally, the best I've heard her yet). The Webern could not he heard too well because of a marvelous crotchety woman who was in the audience banging her cane on the floor and barking like a dog from time to time. She was, I suppose, the most Dada of them all at Mills College.














Monday, September 25, 2017

Manifesto, 1966

FROM SOME TIME in 1966, this rather breathless and no doubt far too dense summary of what I had then come to believe:

The important things to me as an onlooker having been the sound (in music) the quick immediate appearance (in visuals) or (intermedia) the combination of these always coupled with not the way these final impacts, these appearances, were made (I don't care how it sounds Feldman says Boulez wrote, What I want to know is how was it made) but the way they happen once they have been made inevitably to happen. What it comes down to is an interest, no a concern with process: not techniques of writing/composing/painting/causing inevitably to happen but the objective fact or process or progression from (a point which can never be determined) to (a final position I at least will never fix). Cases in point being the whole Bride, the whole Joyce, the whole dada-surrealism-mid-twentieth century avant garde. The whole Mahler. Any individual Webern. Virtually any one opera. In short, any (apparently) closed microcosm, any closed system. Robbe-Grillet, Marienbsd, Blow-Up, Ionesco, Beckett. Getting lost in one luxuriant paragraph on the island in To The Lighthouse or Patriarchal Poetry or one stanza in The Faerie Queene or a metaphysical poet or wandering in the garden of a composition by Loren Rush or Bob Moran or a painting by Chirico or Magritte or Klee or Vermeer or the wake early in L'Etranger or the word chair in L'Age de raison. Tzara. Conversations with Jon Cott, David Abel, Karlheinz Stockhausen. Performances by Nelson Green, Bob Moran, David Tudor, Toshi Ichiyanagi. Ives: 4th Symphony, piano music, Central Park, Set For Theater Orchestra. Ashley's Frogs. David Goines at work, or Julia Child. This kind of process turns out to be a kind of texture always involving contemplation, but an exploratory kind of contemplation. The activity of absorption. No sort of time process at all. A physical visual impingement surpassing those objectivities set in motion by egos or personalities or intellects, and so we must restrict ourselves to gestures, to activity, to performance, and our reflections must be on the gestures activities & performances. Leave quickly when someone begins a presentation. Everything hard quick & committed, and full full full full. But serene in its vitality & its integrity. And the responses must be quick: no delay. But also no analyzed response, no conditioning: come when you're called, don't bring anything with you. Entities are discrete: constituents disappear within integrated contexts. No viewpoints, no perspective, no beyond, behind, this side or that. An unassailable logic of inevitability is the only teleology to be permitted. Make everything that concerns you an object of your concern, and mind your own business in a businesslike way. And once having committed yourself to that concern, no betrayal of commitment. The subject (of commitment, of concern), being secondary, disappears: cf. The Art (or Process) of Fugue. The agent, having acted, is unnecessary, and withdraws. This is what Dedalus meant by dramatic art. What's left is the process. No room any more for the heroic epic between the objective lyricism which is mood & the lyrical object of process. And having restricted ourselves to the business of being concerned with our gestures our activities our performances, seeing ourselves within the contemplative exploratory luxuriant texture we make of our microcosm. Abandoning a world only when it is fully known; until then returning as often as necessary; but abandoning any world unalterably when it is devoid of surprise. And never offering the insult of familiarity to any living thing (and all things live) but always granting to life the dignity of concern. And maintaining the joy of discovery, and the obligation of continuance, & the vitality: being.

ALL OF WHICH I though I summed up, later, more efficiently if perhaps more opaquely, in this short poem:

David Goines Contemplating the back of an axe.


Monday, September 11, 2017

Doggerel written while driving north

Highway 101, September 11, 2017—

SOMETIMES WHILE DRIVING or riding on these car trips silly verse jumps into my mind:

1.

An ant is on my seat
A moose steps on my feet
A cat nibbles my apple pie
A worm lives in the beet

A crow flies in the sky
A cat nibbles my pie
A dog drinks all the Chinese tea
Six chickens learn to fly

There is no pie for me
A dog drinks all the tea
A fish swims in the goldfish bowl
An owl sits on my knee

Three robbers steal the coal
A fish swims in the bowl
Lions lie on the dusty beach
Under the bridge, a troll

Thank god, they're out of reach
Those lions on the beach
You know it isn't very far
Please, may I have a peach

Cows fly up to the star
It isn't very far
There must be something dreadful wrong
My shoes are full of tar

We have to end this song
I think there's something wrong
Whatever you may think you think
It has gone on too long

2.

The cat's at the whisky, the mice at the rum!
The carpenter's clawhammer's beat up his thumb!
Little Jack Horner can't get at his plum!
Calamity! Catastrophe!

The children have mostly been fed to the bears!
Aunt Martha chokes while putting on airs!
Grandfather, drunk again, falls down the stairs!
Catastrophe! Calamity!

Those mischievous boys have derailed the train!
The surgeon's knife slips while inspecting a brain!
The turkeys all drown looking up at the rain!
Calamity! Catastrophe!

An elephant's eaten our favorite plants!
Apes have intruded and spoiled the dance!
The firemen have rushed off, forgetting their pants!
It's a Calamity!

Thieves stole all the instruments, left just one gong!
All the band's music sounds terribly wrong!
Everything's off, nothing seems to belong!
Calamity! It's a Catastrophe!

Trump's in the White House, and Ryan and Mitch
Make our eyelids break into a nervous twitch!
And the Press has worked up to a fever pitch —
Calamity! It's a real Catastrophe!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Back to the desk

Eastside Road, August 27, 2017—

Ali A. Rizvi: The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason
New York: St. Martin's Press,
2016
ISBN 978-1-250-09444-5
pp. 226     read 8/24/17

Frans de Waal: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
New York: W.W. Norton & Co.,
2016
ISBN 978-1-250-09444-5
pp. 275     read 8/26/17
THE LAST FEW MONTHS have not been the best, as readers of this blog — and particularly the other one — will have suspected. I'm not complaining: plenty of others have it a great deal worse. It's largely a matter, I suppose, of aging: I've just gone past 82.

Nor is it simply a matter of fatigue, lack of stamina, and a chronic backache, serves me right for always suspecting those who announce that complaint of malingering. Nor is it only the political situation, extremely depressing — I am convinced we are on our way to dictatorship, perhaps a new form of it with puppet congress and courts, and publicly owned lands and other goods (museums, libraries, post offices) turned over to private business. Perhaps even the military.

So I've taken a vacation of sorts from the blogs, spending my time on baseball games (only a couple of them live in ball park) and writing. (The last two posts here offered you peeks at the process.) This has occasioned reading through pocket calendars, journals, and reviews from the 1960s and '70s, and the difference between those times and the present has been striking to say the least. To bring me back to the present, two books caught my eye in the last week or two.

Ali Rizvi's The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason was recommended somewhere online, I no longer recall where. (I haven't been keeping up with my usual book review sites: The Nation, NYRB, and so on.) The title promised a good fit to the mood I've been in since the election. Dedicated readers of mine may recall my writing last April about this:

Belief, faith, knowledge : I began this month’s musings planning to contemplate my feelings about religion: past and permanence, decay and defiance, self and society, faith and belief, fact and facticity, life and death. Maladjustment of my own cells has made me more than normally aware of mortality. And what have the trams and ruins of Rome brought me to contemplate? Cats and garbage heaps on which grain had taken root over the years. Gardens and palazzi ; conversations with strangers; public behavior; the embrace of family; a toy boat; a pile of broken pots. The events and detritus of everyday life, in short. Nothing special, but constant reminders that there are things we see and so believe we know, transactions we share and so know we feel, concepts (and constructs) we hear or read about and so strive to understand. And I keep coming back to Montaigne: Que sais-je, What do I know?

Rizvi's book is far from perfect (I am hardly the writer to complain of imperfect books), but I think it is worth reading; perhaps even imperative reading in these times. Born in Pakistan, brought up in Libya and Saudi Arabia before moving with his parents to Canada and the United States, he observed the doctrinaire Muslim culture of Saudi Arabia from a protected position as the son of professionals living in a protected enclave.

This did not prevent his close reading of Quran and hadith, the twin written foundations of Islam. The internal contradictions in those writings, and their uneasy applicability to life in a post-Rationalist world, set him on the course described by his subtitle: a (personal) journey from religion to reason. Rizvi is a physician, hence a scientist; and he holds Islam — and Judaism and Christianity — up to a scientist's skepticism. As I myself think we must all do in these times when the inherently authoritative desert monotheisms seem increasingly at war, figuratively and literally, with contemporary society as it has evolved.

After a couple of hundred pages describing his own growing rejection of Islam, in the course of which Rizvi cites scripture as well as personal experience, he comes to the point: the solution to much of the present war in the Middle East — and the growing problems in the US with radically fundamentalist Christianity, though that's a bit outside the scope of his book — is reformation. He suggests a four-step process: Rejection of scriptural inerrancy, Reformation, Secularism, and Enlightenment.

But even the first step is dauntingly difficult in societies whose very identity — and whose individuals participate in this identity — is bound from birth with a sacred text. Muslims may be fundamentalist, lax, or even (as in Rizvi's case) atheist (or at least agnostic), but they are Muslims because of their common cultural grounding in Quran and hadith. It took Christianity some 1600 years to reach the Enlightenment, and a lot of blood was spilled along the way; there's no reason to think the path will be any easier for Islam.


IT WAS A RELIEF to turn from "faith" and "belief" to cognition — scientifically verifiable examples of memory, invention, and reason. Even if the examples were not from the doings of men and women, religious or not, but those of other primates, of octopodes and dolphins, of elephants and corvids. When I was a boy it was taken as fact that the lower animals were incapable of reason, of language, even of feeling pain. De Waal's book persuades otherwise, relying on his own experience with primates and the work of colleagues and forerunners in this fascinating field.

Much changed in that work over the last few decades, beginning with the suspension of the axiom that we humans are an essentially different and nobler animal than all the others. Observations in the wild (think Goodall) and experimentation in the laboratory revealed, once that prejudice was relinquished, that all animals communicate and many understand, or at least work with, memory, even with the concept of futurity. Such social animals as chimpanzees and bonobos, elephants and whales clearly have evolved language skills and evidence of economic and political methodology.

De Waal is a scientist and does not take up the question of religion. Perhaps this is the one thing that separates us humans from the other animals. I like to think that in this respect they may have evolved beyond us, to a stable point in their own evolution which dispenses with religion. Or perhaps Homo sapiens has evolved to need religion in order to externalize the intrinsic tribalism he shares with certain other apes, to justify irrational action when he knows better. We may hope for another book from de Waal:

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart WE are?

Friday, August 18, 2017

from Calls and Singing, for chamber orchestra

1968: from Calls and Singing

Note beginning the pocket calendar for 1968:  

and, later in the calendar,

do string orchestra piece on E, Ab, C: for music for orchestra?

write a piece like a football game. Players come in, go out, carry signals etc.

make a piece which gradually becomes metric — approaches a drive

make a piece with overlapping variable ostinati of various styles

Paul Freeman, a young conductor then directing the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, asked me to write a new piece for a concert that would also feature a work by Heuwell Tircuit, then a music critic (one of three or four!) on the San Francisco Chronicle. (I had met Paul earlier at a master class for conductors led by Richard Lert; I think we televised it.) For some time I couldn’t imagine what I could provide for a small chamber orchestra, lacking trombones, and percussion, until Nelson Green, visiting one day, pointed out that I could provide whatever I wanted to. This broke the mental block and the result, from Calls and Singing, was the second orchestral piece (after my Small Concerto) that I managed to hear played. 

The score bears an epigraph, from Gertrude Stein’s A Sonatina followed by another: “Call to me with frogs and birds and moons and stars. Call me with noises. Mechanical noises.” The score was as much calligraphy as notation, and David Goines lovingly printed it for me in an edition of a number of copies. Paul conducted clock-style; the strings of his orchestra played overlapping washes of melody; woodwinds and brass alternated between conventional sounds and “extended technique” like playing without mouthpieces, or using only the reeds, or playing harmonicas or taxi horns. I thought the result quite beautiful, and so I suppose did Paul, for he  repeated it a few years later with the Detroit Symphony on a special concert, drawing contemptuous reviews from a local critic or two.

from Calls and Singing (the lower-case initial letter is intended, though difficult to force: the idea was to suggest an absent because inexpressible opening) continued the indeterminacy of Nightmusic but added physical separation to the mix. It begins, for example, with the orchestral tuning (an idea from Stockhausen, I think), and much of the time the wind-players are wandering among the audience. It is, though, in general a gentle piece, and everyone seemed to like it, even Heuwell


See the complete 12 pages of score as a pdf here

Monday, August 14, 2017

Getting on with the memoir

A  FEW READERS have responded to the previous post, offering a draft version of the first section of a new memoir, with comments and in some cases welcome corrections or suggestions. Many thanks to them.

Herewith, part two, covering 1967 to 1972, when I was working at KQED while tapering off work at KPFA. This was an intense and interesting time: the 1960s were winding down, and so were freewheeling broadcasting, open-form music and play-for-nothing new music concerts, and the marginal gallery scene. I don’t suppose we knew it at the time, but increased commercialization and the reach to bigger audiences was about to change everything that seemed to interest me, at the same time that our children were growing into their teens and Chez Panisse opened (in 1971), quite changing family dynamics.

Once again I make a DRAFT pdf of this memoir available. It runs to 85 pages, 1.3 MB of data. It is only a draft; more illustrations will be added as well as expansions of descriptions of people and places — and, I hope, responses to your comments and suggestions.

Read and download Part Two HERE
Read and download Part One HERE

And remember: this is not for distribution, only for single-person use; and I may well take the material down after it has served its purpose.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

memoir

I HAVE BEEN BUSY writing further in my memoir — "further," because I've already published a volume covering my first thirty years.

Getting There. Ear Press, 2007; 212 pages. Growing up in Berkeley, 1935-1945, and on a hardscrabble farm in Sonoma county, 1945-1952; college in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Berkeley; early marriage and children; beginning to learn about Modernism, writing, and the composition of music. ISBN 978-0-6151-5935-5 Available from Lulu 1487909, pb $20 (e-book $9.99, Lulu 18655161, iBookstore), or from such websites as Amazon.com

I've completed a first draft of the next volume, which runs from 1964 on to 1974 — years when I was on staff at KPFA and KQED, when I began teaching at Mills College, and began writing for the Oakland Tribune. This will probably run to 250 pages or so in print, and be subdivided into four main sections:

1: KPFA, 1964-1967
2: KQED, 1967-1972
3: Juggling Jobs, 1972-1974
4: In print, 1974-1976

As I've been working on this I've been struck by what an interesting time those years were, perhaps especially in the San Francisco Bay Area. I write about KPFA and my work there, of course, but also about family life, my musical composition, the musicians and others I got to know — and Berkeley as a backdrop.

But I may be overly enthusiastic. After giving some thought to the idea, I've decided to make the first section available as a pdf on my website. Interested readers can download it by clicking here where it should appear as a PDF running to 76 pages.

I ask that these pages not be printed out, or, if so, not distributed. I welcome any suggestions or corrections. And I reserve the right to take the pdf down from my website as time goes by…

And do let me know if you cannot find or download the pdf.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

New book from Rome: Where to Dig, and How Far Down

Portland, June 25, 2017—
PUBLISHED, HERE AT peripatetic Ear Press: Where to Dig, and How Far Down, an 80-page paperbound book containing the writing posted here last April while I was in Rome.

Well, the title. You have to give a book a title, and something like Rome, April 2017 seems pretty lame. (Although it would probably get more clicks: Rome is a popular subject. I followed my usual process when titles don't come readily to mind: open the proof copy half-way and look for a random phrase. No luck. All right, open another half way to the end. Still no luck.

Hmmm. Zeno warns against proceeding further toward the end of the book; let's go halfway back to the last halfway point. Ah, there it is:

Poor Italy! Preserving, interpreting, ignoring these ruins, these and many others — Italic, Etruscan, Greek, Roman, even medieval — must be a constant headache. The archaeologists have to decide where to dig, and how far down. The government, I suppose, has to decide when to protect, when to recognize the futility of any thought of perfect control. And of course these historical records are an important tourist attraction; Christian or not, one goes to Rome to savor and contemplate all this history.
I've been working on another writing project, whose results may or may not appear here. It's a study of the ruins of my life — something of intermittent interest to me, but probably to few others. The first question, then, is how to make it interesting: but short of that process there's the mining, the digging down through such ruins as journals, clippings, pocket calendars, photographs.

And, always, memory. I relied on virtually nothing but memory in my first venture in memoir, Getting There, published ten years ago: two hundred pages covering my first thirty years. That book, I thought, might have some value as a cautionary, and I gave copies to various grandchildren as they left high school: Don't commit to a career too soon, be ready to profit from luck, embrace the liberal arts, that sort of thing.

This next venture, though, has to be written differently. For one thing there's a lot of public record: my own career, which took me into journalism of sorts, was not only public but also documented through clippings and the like. Better check those memories out in case you have entirely the wrong date — or, worse, the wrong source, or the wrong guy!

But it's always a question of where to dig, and how far down. It's easy to get distracted. There's also the danger that the act of digging will destroy the stuff you're digging through — in this case, wrecking a story by getting it straight.

In any case, this Rome book turned out, I think, to be a series of meditations — on history and the present, Christianity and not, faith and belief, thinking and walking. That delicious conversation between inner contemplation and outer observation so facilitated by travel, especially this kind, anchored to an unfamiliar residence for a month, but within a setting familiar from previous visits over the years, rich with its own history Thucydides knows, but made richer by conversations with a granddaughter who lives there, and shared with other members of the family.

Anyhow, I'm rambling. Where to Dig, and How Far Down. Healdsburg: Ear Press (self-published through my favored online publisher Lulu), 2017. 80 pages, paper, b&w photos. $7.95 plus postage. Click on title to order.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Más poesía

Portland, Oregon, June 22, 2017—
A FRIEND WROTE of this photo, which I don't particularly like, that it made me look like a Latin-American revolutionary poet, so here's the beginning of a new career:

Contemplación

se necesita tiempo morir
el corazón se detiene,
el cerebro jadea por el oxígeno
   o no

los tejidos blandos se disuelven
   o se comen

dientes y huesos duran
quizás muchos años

líneas de ferrocarril oxidadas, rotas
viaductos de hormigón

el bosque crece lentamente
sobre los restos

las lunas sin número puntúan la vida
   desapercibida
pequeñas lesiones
que se extienden a través de los huesos

poblaciones
que emigran a través de las catástrofes

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

EIGHTS AND TWOS FOR LINDSEY ON HER 82d

Eastside Road, June 10, 2017—
which fell in fact on the seventh

Great day!

Though the days grow short: busy suns
      rise, set
as the hours used to do, and now
      years gone,

most of them with you, and better
      for that.
(Of course I can only hope you
      agree.)

Never more beautiful or more
      graceful
whether patient or not, gentle
      friend and
sharp critic sharing this long life
      of ours.

Let the whole world know how much I
      love you.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Cats

Eastside Road, June 9, 2017—
Thomas McNamee:
The Inner Life of Cats
New York: Hachette, 2017
pp. 278     read 6/5/17

Carl Van Vechten:
The Tiger in the House
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1924
pp. 367     read 6/9/17

ANOTHER BOOK by another friend, and read with pleasure. McNamee's writing is always well researched and informative in detail, and this latest title is, I think, even more gracefully written than previous books. And the subject-matter is close to my heart: not the wolves and grizzly bears of his previous books on animals, but Felis silvestris catus, the house-cat.

There are probably almost as many books about cats as there are about Abraham Lincoln, of course, and I haven't read that many of them. Some purport to be owner's manuals. Some are technical, and McNamee cites more than one of these. Some are basically literary, like my favorite, The Tiger in the House, about which more later.

McNamee:

Unfortunately there are a lot of mediocre cat books out there. The best way to know a good one is to see how well it recognizes the essentially wild nature of the beast… There have been, recently, some books that purport to be grounded in science but make no attempt to understand the subjective experience of cats. Without that, you will never have the slightest sense of who your cat really is.
The Inner Life of Cats is, then, by its own standards, a good cat book. I suppose it's of more practical value to a cat owner (or prospective owner) than to one who is, like me, catless; but having shared my house and home with cats — "ownership" has always seemed a problematic word and concept, to me, when applied to pets in general, cats in particular — I read this book with great interest and increasing gratitude.

McNamee's story begins when he finds an abandoned kitten in the Montana snow, adopts it, and learns to share his life with her. He alternates between Augusta's biography as it intersects with his, on the one hand, and, on the other, considerations of more general catness. He writes about whether cats think or talk (they do); whether they're wild or domesticated (wild); how they grow from kittenhood into being a cat.

He writes about how a cat can attain a good life even shared with humans, even living indoors — neither of which, I think, is truly instinctive to the cat. He writes about the cat's maturity and health, its various disorders, aging, and death.

And in a final chapter he writes, this chronicler of animals-as-they-are, about Love, which is after all the highest and perhaps the instinctive reason we humans live with cats. McNamee could have got into trouble here, I think. I've read a few reviews of The Inner Life of Cats on the Internet site Goodreads — I really must write about this site one day, it and Librarything — and more than one take him to task for bringing up the unpleasant fact of the death of cats: ours is an evasive culture, often, preferring to pretend such unpleasantness is the exclusive domain of foreigners.

(But I will never forget the death of our own first cat, the superb Loplop, who died probably of feline leukemia (oddly, an unpleasantness McNamee touches too little for other reviewers), only ten years old or so. Loplop died at home, in his favorite sleeping place, patiently, and taught me much about stoicism, a useful lesson, as it's turned out.)

McNamee's delicacy of writing runs through his entire book, and his discretion is evident from his dedication: not to Augusta, the marvelous black stray whose life and death inspire The Inner Life of Cats, but to Isabel the living cat who succeeded her in the McNamee household. Cats remind us to celebrate those gone but to attend to those who are with us.

I was particularly interested in the chapter on feral cats, which describes in some detail the recent history of the cats of the Largo Argentina in Rome. In doing so it describes also some differences I've noted between Italians and Americans:

American wildlife scientists tend toward attire somewhere between safari and thrift shop, and usually need better haircuts. Eugenia Natoli [a biologist who has organized the mostly volunteer attention to the Argentina colony] dresses with elegant flair, tailored jackets, slim skirts, silk scarves, fine jewelry, high heels, just-so coiffure. Luigi Boitani, one of the world's most renowned wildlife scientists, is given to silky tweed, chic dark shirts, cashmere sweaters over the shoulder…
The entire Largo Argentina story cleared up a mystery for me: why there used to be so many cats there, and why now there are so comparatively few. And the work of these volunteer gattari, who see to the nutrition and medical attention these cats need (including, of course, sterilization), the way the operation is funded and insinuated into the municipal government, can be taken as a model for less enlightened communities, depending as much on intelligence and research as it does on enthusiasm.

McNamee writes about the dangers our cats face. One was quite familiar to me: the over-eager neighbor who feeds your cat junk. Another danger to cats when they're out of doors (which of course is where they really want to be): predators. Coyotes are increasingly common in American cities. Here on Eastside Road, there are also bobcats. Overhead their are hawks and owls. Our neighbors have lost cats to such dangers, and of course to the road in front of their house.

I think of our Sally, another Berkeley cat of ours, who our daughter-in-law's cat the aptly named Tarantula was jealous of, and used to chase into the street, particularly if traffic was present. Sally finally took the hint and went away altogether. McNamee offers helpful guidance for such a situation, but that was in the days before microchips…

McNamee proposes a fine way for society to take care of lost cats and feral population:

Let the states pass laws mandating the licensing of all cats, using implanted microchips. The licensing fee must be very small — perhaps free if you can't afford it. Every person who takes a cat to be neutered gets a cash payment of one hundred dollars (and a license if the cat doesn't have one). … The money comes from private groups and government grants. It will not be long before governments realize they are spending less on that program than they previously spent rounding up and sheltering stray cats.
It's a fine balance of logic, pragmatics, and sympathy, this book; thankfully there's a decent index and bibliography, and I'm grateful to McNamee for the care and research he brought to writing it. I'm grateful, too, that it sent me on to another book.
Carl Van Vechten is one of my 20th-century heroes, for his wit, his intelligence, his enthusiasm, and his creative productivity. He had three careers: ten or twelve years as a music critic in New York; another ten or twelve as a smart-alec but sympathetic novelist; finally a photographer of some note. Among his many books I decided to pick up The Tiger in the House, at first simply to investigate its overlap with The Inner Life of Cats, then very quickly to re-read the entire thing, as it had been a long time since I first read it.

There is some overlap for sure, particularly I think as the subject turns to the language of cats, and their mystery, and their consequent significance as they share our own lives. But McNamee is a contemporary and, in the best sense, a journalist; he writes for today's readership and draws on today's knowledge. Van Vechten's book is a century old and belongs, I suppose, to another time.

But I think it's a time I prefer. Van Vechten is immensely erudite and has studied not only the cat — first-hand, of course, as well as through more distant examples — but also the literature of the cat. The bibliography in my edition of The Tiger in the House (third printing, 1936) runs to forty-eight pages. The many quotations and references are translated into English except those originally in French, which he mainly lets stand in that precise yet evocative language.

Like McNamee, Van Vechten introduces us to his "own" cat, Feathers, but not through a parallel structure for his book — more as a fondly observed reference point to the many other specific cats he introduces, real and occasionally fictional. He does touch on the science of felines as it was in his time, but he's skeptical:

It has long been a favourite contention of mine that nothing is more ephemeral than science; no books are sooner ready for the garret or the waste-basket than serious books. When a serious book has an artistic value, such as a book by Nietzsche, for instance, the case is altered, but the ordinary professor's or scientist's profound discoveries are absolutely worthless in a few years. They serve, indeed, only to indicate the quaint fluctuations, the ebb and flow, of human thought. The first to admit this is the scientist himself, who tells you that you must work only along the lines of the "latest discoveries."
One of the useful lessons Cat teaches is that we should attach as much importance to universal and timeless truths as to immediate and local ones. I think this is one of the subjects latent in the perennial question of Dog or Cat. I myself find ease in simple-minded dialectics, finding for Fitzgerald, not Hemingway; Vermeer, not Rembrandt; France, not England; Ravel, not Debussy; and so on: and in each of those cases I think the cat is associated with the first subject, the dog with the second. England for example is a doggy nation; France, certainly Paris, is feline, no matter how many fashionable little lapdogs are carried about the boulevards in little reticules. Van Vechten:
One is permitted to assume an attitude of placid indifference in the matter of elephants, cockatoos, H. G. Wells, Sweden, roast beef, Puccini, and even Mormonism, but in the matter of cats it seems necessary to take a firm stand. The cat himself insists upon this; he invariably inspires strong feelings.
This question of Dog or Cat can bring up amusing history. Van Vechten tells us about a minor midwest writer, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who
wrote a song called, " Mother, Bring my Little Kitten." "It was supposed," Mrs. Wilcox explains in her priceless book, The Worlds and I, "to be a dying child asking for her pet, which she feared she might not meet in heaven. It was mere sentimental stuff, of no value, of course. But the 'Funny Man' on the Waukesha Democrat (I think that was the paper) poked much fun at me, and said I ought to follow my song with another, 'Daddy, do not drown the puppies.'" Mrs. Wilcox took the suggestion as a cat laps milk and published the new poem in one of the Wisconsin papers. The refrain ran as follows:
Save, oh, save one puppy, daddy,
   From a fate so dark and grim —
Save the very smallest puppy —
   Make an editor of him.
I think most writers will enjoy that quatrain.

A recurring image in both the books I'm discussing here is the cat who sits at the dining table. Our black cat Joe did that, in our kitchen in Berkeley. Lindsey sat on her chair at one side of the table, I on mine at the other; and Joe sat patiently on a stool between us, on the third side of the table, which stood against the kitchen wall. Now and then — rarely — he put a tentative paw on the edge of the table, in which case I had only to tap it gently and say "foot-fault" and he'd withdraw it.

Joe was an outdoor-indoor cat, and lived to be fifteen or so, dying quietly in the back yard in Berkeley, just as we were preparing to sell that house and move to the country. We brought his sister Blanche with us: she was exclusively an outdoor cat, afraid of men including me, a fine hunter and quite independent though our neighbor Mrs. Revsen insisted on giving her junk food "because she is always crying!"

We were worried that a cat so white would be easy prey for owls, coyotes, foxes or bobcats, but Blanche did quite well in the country, staying close to the house but mainly supporting herself on mice and voles. (We almost never found telltale feathers along her accustomed routes.) When she died, at nineteen, it was under a rosebush. I think Van Vechten would have enjoyed this.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Book not written

Eastside Road, June 4, 2017—
IN MARCH, 1970, I thought about writing a book, whose chapters would be
1: 31 for Henry Flynt
2: Bottles at the Mud Flats
3: Repair art. Wiley. The (triumphant) return of Abstract Expressionism.
4: “Making charts to help you know how you know where you are when you get somewhere” (Word Rain, p. 4)
5: Your typical bicycle ride
     and
the 4.9 mile drive
6: The Richmond Sculpture Annual, Ecology, and Respect for the Object
     to be followed by
7: Hand Tools and Man’s Proper Place
8: Lawyers & Priests: footnote on our culture
9: Landscapes. gardens. Mahler’s 7th.

Chapter 1 would have been on a performance I gave of LaMonte Young's Any Integer for Henry Flynt, a piece of conceptual minimalism which consists, as I believe — I don't remember actually seeing a score — of the instruction to strike something with something else any number of times. I used a gong borrowed from the Oakland Symphony. The performance was on the deck of a café or restaurant near Nepenthe, in the Big Sur, on the west side of Highway 1.

Chapter 2 would have been about the day Lindsey and I and our three kids, then about ten, seven, and four, spent on the Emeryville mud flats which at the time had for a number of months been the site of impromptu sculpture. Many of these were pretty ramshackle, but a number were quite striking, beautiful even. All were made, for the most part, of material found on the site, stuff that had either been jettisoned or had washed up.
What we did, under my direction but with willing enthusiasm and, I think, quasi-intuitive understanding, was pick up every bottle we could find — and there were a good many — and arrange them using plans I no longer remember. Lines, certainly; perhaps masses as well.

Chapter 3 would have been about an exhibition I had seen at the old Berkeley Gallery, then on Brannan Street — a group show of marvelous Bay Area artists of the time, artists whose work the press liked to call Bay Area Dada. These were paintings and sculpture which had been repaired, or had been made to be repaired subsequently. Especially memorable, even now, was William Allen's magnificent Shadow Repair for the Western Man, which depicts an unoccupied pair of Levis standing airborne over the Sierra Nevada.
William Wiley was at the time producing his first marvelous assemblages responding to Duchamp with sculpture, painting, written material, and the occupation (or, better, articulation) of the space in which it existed. Much of this work of the late 1960s seemed to me to be a logical response to — and continuation of — Abstract Expressionism, in a manner it would have taken that entire chapter to explain: this is no place to attempt it.

Chapter 4 is self-explanatory, I think, except to note that Word Rain was a book by Madeline Gins that had made a big impression on me.

Chapter 5: I was taking long bicycle rides in those days, and frequently traced (literally) their routes, usually after the fact, on paper laid over USCG topographical maps. I thought of those rides as drawings in time and space. The "4.9 Mile Drive" was a conceptual art work by I forget who, a guided tour of part of the San Francisco industrial area south of Potrero Hill, a spoof of tourguides but also a serious entry to the disclosure of visual beauty and meaning in neglected or unsuspected places. Land Art.

Chapter 6: I don't remember what the Sculpture Annual at the Richmond Art Center had involved. Tom Marioni was the curator, and I particularly recall an exhibition there of work by Paul Kos, Tom himself (under a pseudonym), and Terrey Fox: all went on to remarkable careers. In all three cases it seemed to me the meaning of the work lay in the transaction between the artist and his material. Not the technique, the transaction, which respected qualities inherent in the material, either substantially or stemming from its sociological meaning. Here again I would have needed many pages.

Chapter 7 would have considered one's state of mind when using and maintaining hand tools while, for example, repairing plumbing, or maintaining the car or the bicycle, or building a bookcase — all things that had frequently to be done. My reading in Zen had led me to believe things went better if one regarded the tool as an equal, not a thing to be exploited. This led, by extension, to the hope that Nature would adopt a similar attitude toward Man.

Chapter 8: Ancient Egypt had a surfeit of priests; Babylon a surfeit of accountants; the 20th century a surfeit of lawyers. What doe these conditions lead to?

Finally, Chapter 9: Landscape is the ultimate transcending arena in which Nature accommodates whatever it is we inflict on her. Gardens are an attempt to create little landscapes, whether for productive or ornamental purposes. (What's the difference?) The inner movements of Mahler's Seventh Symphony amount to a musical statement of Landscape.

That's what I was thinking about in those days, and I see now, reading the journal from that year, that's what I continue to think about. And, I guess, write about.      

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Light Reading; Close Reading

Eastside Road, May 30, 2017—
Jean Rhys: Sleep It Off, Lady
New York: Harper and Row,
1976
ISBN 0-06-13572-7
pp. 176     read 5/27/17
MARVELOUS LITTLE STORIES here, quietly menacing some of them, all clearly from a feminine point of view but told by children, young women, middle-aged and old women, always with a very authentic voice. The settings range from the British West Indies to London and Paris, and are as persuasively evoked as are the characters. The sixteen stories are arranged in chronological order as to the age of the narrator, adding up to a quiet novella whose manner has affinities with Virginia Woolf, Saki, Rosamond Lehmann (a favorite of mine), and perhaps — this is a stretch — Chekhov; and while many readers will no doubt find them dated I, approaching eighty-two, find them tranquil and wise. And beautifully written.
Jonathan Cott: There's a Mystery There
New York: Doubleday, 2017
ISBN 978-0-385-54043-8
pp. 242     read 5/28/17
I'VE KNOWN JON COTT for fifty years and you will be forgiven for thinking me not an objective reader of his books; perhaps you are right. That will not keep me from writing about his most recent book, a fascinating disquisition on Maurice Sendak and, more particularly, Sendak's book Outside Over There, the less-known conclusion to the trilogy beginning with Where the Wild Things Are and continuing with In the Night Kitchen.

Sendak is generally though of as a writer-illustrator of children's books, which is like thinking of Henri Matisse as a painter of interior decor, or Mozart a composer of tunes. True: but things go much deeper than that. It's the going deeper Cott is interested in here, investigating the sources of Sendak's work, and the resonances it has with both psychological and cultural dimensions. I've often quoted here Joseph Kerman's assertion that criticism is "the study of the value and meaning of works of art": in this book Cott emerges as a serious and useful critic.

Cott is primarily known, I suppose, as an interviewer: of the nineteen titles listed on the "Also by" page at the front of Outside Over There, five are collections of interviews, or much extended interviews, with subjects ranging from Susan Sontag and John Lennon to Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould. He published a first interview with Sendak in Rolling Stone, where he has long been a contributing editor, in 1976, and Outside Over There includes a lot of material from that visit.

These conversations with intelligent readers of Sendak, including Sendak himself, reveal the rich and sometimes surprising sources and the patient, gifted making of his books, focusing on Outside Over There. The many references include Mozart, German Romantic painting and literature, child development, psychology; and the persistence of the early 20th-c. Eastern European (specifically Jewish) immigration to New York. The resulting book is patient, complex, rich, closely read, but conversational in tone and fascinating to read. It sends me to the bookstore in search of Sendak, and reminds me to take another look back over the extensive Cott shelf.

And I would particularly recommend Cott's book to the parents of small children. There has been controversy as to the propriety of Sendak's books to small children, but Cott, and his conversants, make clear his explorations of loss, rage, sensuality, and other inevitable aspects of childhood can be presented thoughtfully, eased by the delicious beauty of Sendak's art (and writing!).


Georges Perec: “53 Days”
Edited by Harry Mathews and Jacques Roubaud;
tr. David Bellos
Boston: David R. Godine,
1999
ISBN 1-56792-088-8
pp. 260     read 5/28/17
AND HERE IS ANOTHER exercise in Deep Reading which is nonetheless beguiling enough to be a day's summertime reading. Some who know me know that among my harmless eccentricities is a preference to read Complete Works of authors, on the theory that if one book is worth reading, then all the books by that author must be worth reading: this has protected me from Dickens, Balzac, and many other too-prolific writers. And I prefer also to read these books in the order in which they were written, which is why I have not yet got to Moby-Dick, The Golden Bowl, and many another masterpiece.

But, looking over the Books To Be Read the other morning, my eyes fell once again on the attractive cover of Georges Perec's "53 Days", his last book, and I dove straight in. I haven't yet read Life a User's Manual or A Void, and I don't know when I will: they're long and dense, and I rather mistrust their translation into English. Perec is well known to be an Oulipian; his books are written with the celebrated constraints of the Oulipo group; and as a writer I like to read deeply enough to get into the method behind the book while enjoying the content of the book. As the Companion says, once a critic, always a critic.

I'm sure there are constraints aplenty in "53 Days", but I read the book quickly, for pleasure, and didn't notice them at all. Let me explain quickly: constraints include such things as acrostic, palindrome, anagram, and lipogram (which omits a given letter: in the case of A Void, the letter "e"); I'm not going to go further into the technical matter of the subject, which can be explored on Wikipedia or in Daniel Levin BEcker's excellent book Many Subtle Channels: in Praise of Potential Literature, which I wrote about here a number of years ago.

"53 Days" is incomplete: Perec died before finishing it — a supreme constraint. It was planned as a detective novel in two parts, of which the first, called 53 Days, is complete as a very readable first draft in this edition, ably translated by the dependable David Bellos. (Well, nearly complete: the last two of the thirteen chapters are present only as extended notes from various notebooks Perec was keeping.)

The second part, Un R Est Un M Qui Se P Le L De La R, exists only as sketches, notes, and memos. Had the book been finished its structure would have recalled Perec's earlier, very successful W or the Memory of Childhood, a book that comes frequently to mind these Trumpian days, and came to mind reading There's a Mystery There, and which I highly recommend. (And here let me add my recommendation for approaching Perec, for those who aren't constrained by my chronological compulsions: Things; A Man Asleep; W or the Memory of Childhood. They're approachable as simple reading, pleasure reading, in spite of all the critical apparatus that's grown up around them, but of course the more deeply one reads, the more pleasure one gets.)

53 Days without the enclosing quotes, that is the first part not the whole book, is a mystery enclosed within another, exotic in locale (fictional arctic setting, fictional tropical one), with parallel "plots" concerning disappearances and corruptions, elegantly and fascinatingly written.

But what of Un R Est Un M Qui Se P Le L De La R ? The enigmatic title turns out to be a clue to another mystery, a deeper one; or rather a pair of them: one concerning the characters and plots within the book, the other concerning the book itself and how (and, I suppose, possibly why) it was approached — alas one cannot say "written", it's only sketched and planned, though pretty elaborately.

I was particularly satisfied by the book because it involves one of my favorite terrains, the Grande Chartreuse — and, oddly, a minor device is a (apparently marginal) bookshop in Grenoble used as a drop by Resistance fighters, a shop remarkably similar to that in which my correspondant Charles Lunaire found the typescript of Jean Coqt's novel Skagen, which Lunaire is translating and I am publishing. (The fourth section, Modane, will be out by the end of June.)

And suddenly, near the end of "53 Days", a passage that goes straight to the heart of anyone who loves rambling the Alps: in Bellos's translation,

This snow-covered waste ground is like an immense blank page where the people we are seeking have inscribed not only their movements and gait, but their secret thoughts too…
Gaboriau
Monsieur Leccoq (1868)
Which sent me immediately to Project Gutenberg for the original:
Ce terrain vague, couvert de neige, est comme une immense page blanche où les gens que nous recherchons ont écrit, non seulement leurs mouvements et leurs démarches, mais encore leurs secrètes pensées…
So now I must read Gaboriau, and Stendhal too — I'll never get to Moby-Dick at this rate…

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Richard Diebenkorn

Eastside Road, May 27, 2017—
Letter to an Italian friend
Matisse/Diebenkorn
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
March 17-May 29 2017

Richard Diebenkorn: Chabot Valley, 1955
19-1/2 x 18-3/4 inches
WE WENT YESTERDAY to see the SFMOMA show of work by Henri Matisse and Richard Diebenkorn, just in time, as it closes May 29. The exhibition is titled “Profound Inspiration: Matisse/Diebenkorn,” a title which seems to me only superficially inspired. What is inspiration? The breathing into a receptor by an external source. There is no doubt of the importance of Matisse to Diebenkorn, who referred to it himself publicly on many occasions; and there are certainly good examples in this show of works which show direct homages on Diebenkorn’s part to specific HM paintings, though in many other cases the connection is, to my eye, less a matter of direct “inspiration” than a developed affinity brought out, if at all, by curatorial statements on wall labels.

We took a old friend with us. The exhibition was crowded, but a combination of the timed entry and the fact that many viewers were wearing their headphones helped mitigate the crowd. First of all we jumped the line — someone recognized me for the long-retired art critic I am, said “You’ve paid your dues,” smiled, and waved us past the waiting line into the galleries. There, of course, many viewers waited in front of this painting or that while listening the their headphones, so I followed my usual practice of finding a painting being neglected at the moment and standing directly in front of it, viewing it as long as I wanted, leaning on my cane.

One of the key paintings was Chabot Valley, a small landscape from 1955. I’d been advised to pay particular attention to it, and thought I knew it: but of course I didn’t, as it’s still in the Diebenkorn family; I was confusing it with another painting, not in the show, which I see with my mind’s eye but don’t readily find among the various sources at hand. I am almost certain I had seen the painting before, though, hanging in Diebenkorn’s house outside Healdsburg, when I had a conversation with him in, I think, 1992. (RD died of emphysema in Berkeley in March 1993.)

I lingered, in the SFMOMA show, in front of Chabot Valley, an extraordinary painting for the success of its complexity and truthfulness in such a small scale — you can see why he would have kept it nearby for the rest of his life, as a sort of touchstone, a painting against which to check work under way. I think it’s likely the success of Chabot Valley developed of its own accord, and this is how: the external reality of the landscape he was painting, including of course its sky, and the example of the paintings by others (not exclusively Matisse by any means), and the painting itself as it developed from his palette and brushstrokes, all simply converged, partly from his conscious decisions, partly from the habits of hand and eye that he’d developed in studio work (including many hours of figure drawing and many others of printmaking), partly by consciously taking advantage of “accidents” presenting themselves in the course of painting.

Now Diebenkorn was an extraordinarily intelligent and thoughtful man. I spoke to him twice, once when he had a retrospective at SFMOMA in 1972; again in his Healdsburg home twenty years later. On both occasions his intelligence and thoughtfulness were immediately apparent: he spoke slowly, without ums and ahs, and referred to a wide range of reading, including the “reading” of visual work by other artists, contemporary and historical. I think any approach to his work, painting, drawing, or prints, that doesn’t include a similar approach, can begin to extract the richness of meaning that’s in it. I’m not saying this has to be conscious, or that his work is exclusively for similarly developed intelligences, of course even a viewer who’s only interested in painting-over-the-sofa interior decorating can find a lot to enjoy in an Ocean Park painting (not to mention Matisse. But there’s a lot more there, as Diebenkorn was quick to point out himself in interviews and conversation:

“I keep plastering it until it comes around to what I want, in terms of all I know and think about painting now, as well as in terms of the initial observation. One wants to see the artifice of the thing as well as the subject. Reality has to be digested, it has to be transmuted by paint. It has to be given a twist of some kind.”
(RD, quoted in Nordland, attributed to Paul Mills, Contemporary Bay Area Figurative Painting, Oakland: Oakland Art Museum, 1957, p. 12)
The current SFMOMA show includes a few vitrines housing books and periodicals from Diebenkorn’s personal collection, and you can be pretty sure his studio, like most painters’ studios, had reproductions of paintings pinned up here and there, more touchstones; though I believe certain works were burned into his memory and always cropped up someplace. I didn’t buy the Matisse-Diebenkorn catalogue and wasn’t allowed to photograph the wall labels (which annoyed me) and, given the crowds, my back, and our schedule, wasn’t able readily to take notes, but it’s likely this was a point the curator was making in this show.

It was probably helpful to me that our friend was with us, and asking intelligent questions from time to time: how should an intelligent and willing but basically untutored and in a sense painterly illiterate person approach these paintings? I talked about edges, the way Diebenkorn often squeezes a composition down into a rectangle slightly smaller than the canvas itself. I talked about palette, the way he finds new uses for colors found in previous paintings. I talked about composition and planes and perspective and vertical-versus-horizontal and recession and all that, without of course going into detail. I talked about the way certain touches reappear from one painting to the next — little flecks of color, little rectangles, little linear shapes (eyeglasses, bra-cups, the club sign from playing cards (heraldry, I remember the wall label had it), schematic faces recalling those of the Russian painter Alexei Jawlensky).

I’m fascinated that apparently I do all this quickly and subconsciously when I look at a painting, and it took the conversation with our friend to bring all this out. And on the way home, me sleeping in the back seat, I woke up and said, a propos of nothing, I hate doing that. What, our friend asked. Talking about painting like that: it’s all so glib. I know that’s how you feel, she said. (She was instrumental in getting me onto our local newspaper as a music critic, for a couple of seasons, after I’d left the Oakland Tribune.) Then we both fell silent. I think she disagrees, that she knows the value of journalistic criticism: but to me it’s public one-sided opinionizing too ready to lapse into a kind of authoritarianism.


Richard Diebenkorn: Ocean Park No. 54, 1972
100 x 81 inches
Anyhow we worked our way through the galleries, the Diebenkorns mostly but not all paintings I knew either from the flesh, so to speak, or reproductions, the Matisses not, in some cases, and then we stepped into the final gallery, where the Ocean Park paintings were. I stood for a long time in front of No. 54, a favorite of mine, one of the best I think and one in the SFMOMA collection — this is the one with the “Jawlensky” face, or a detail of it, at the lower right corner. As I backed away from it I overheard a tall man with curly white hair talking about it to his companion, trying to explain why he found it the best painting in the show, better than any of the Matisses. Besides, I interjected, somewhat rashly, Diebenkorn’s a better painter.

Thank you thank you for saying that, he said, that’s what I’ve been trying to say, it’s really that simple. (It isn’t, of course, it’s just that Diebenkorn is a better painter for me, for my purposes. And what are my purposes? To understand better how, using my eyes, I understand reality.) We had a little conversation and agreed that the Ocean Park series is simply magnificent. Each of the paintings, almost all of them, has in it all the things you want: landscape, figure, abstraction, light, perspective, color, edge, content, reference. Each of them has looked at Chabot Valley and thought about all the issues that early little painting raises (and resolves, you have to concede, on its own terms), and internalizes all those issues and resolves them anew, and leaves the painter’s eye out of the equation; they are completely ego-transcendent.

And then I was tired, and we left, and went to Zuni for hamburgers, and home.

Then this morning I looked into Gerald Nordland’s book (Richard Diebenkorn: Rizzoli, 1989) and thought about things and decided to write to you. I know you’ve looked into this catalog a lot, more than I have recently I’m sure. I was surprised to find I’d pencilled notes into it, probably when I was thinking of that interview in 1992. A magazine publisher had set up the interview, working through Diebenkorn’s gallery as I recall, overcoming my reluctance to do it. Finally I agreed to talk to Diebenkorn about why neither he nor I wanted to do an interview, to be published in his magazine. I went out to Diebenkorn’s Healdsburg house. He was not strong. I don’t recall whether he had breathing apparatus; I don’t think so. We had a nice conversation, one of those with long silences in which each was thinking of other things, probably Matisse, Chekhov, west coast jazz, the Bay Area school, and so on, each of us knowing what the other found valuable and enriching, and each of us knowing there was neither reason nor point in discussing these things, they were a matter of common knowledge and agreement.

It may be (and perhaps it must be) that Matisse's was similarly rich and thoughtful a mentality; I don’t know. Clearly he was more intellectual than was Picasso, but by “intellectual” let’s admit we’re meaning “articulate, verbal”: as I said to our friend, painters like Diebenkorn “read” paintings the way others — she and I, I said — read novels. And the greats — Matisse, Picasso, Diebenkorn — teach us, I think, to read “reality” that way, and landscape, and skies, and arrangements of things on tables, and the figure.

In the last analysis I don’t think it was a magnificent show; the curator’s point was made but it is God knows an easy point to make; many of the Matisses (by no means all!) were second-rate paintings for him, and the Diebenkorns were mostly first-rate. We saw a marvelous show in Fort Worth, years ago, pairing Matisse and Picasso, showing their mutual inspiration — no, not inspiration; more like homages to one another, as in Oh: you can do that? Look what I can do with it! It may be, as my Companion suggests, that that exhibition has grown in my memory of it, and that this one will grow similarly. In any case Diebenkorn is a creative force to be grateful for, a transcendent expression of his century, a painter who knew both intuitively and through careful thought and observation the things I was trying to write the other day about space, measure, and markings.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Space, measure, and markings

I  THINK OF space, measure, marks, and accent. Why? Partly because I live in this landscape: except when traveling, it is my everyday context. The lineaments and proportions of ridgeline, gradients, swales and hillocks; and the markings of windrows of cut grass, of cypresses and grapevines, mold and reinforce the way I see. And for that reason, perhaps, partly because that is how I seem to respond to what I read and hear. The other night, for example, we went to a production of an adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s Cinna. I don’t know Corneille well, that’s for sure; of his thirty-odd plays I think I’ve only seen L’Illusion comique, in an adaptation by Tony Kushner. (That was at the Pasadena company A Noise Within, which I support because it mounts productions of French repertory. Five years ago! I wrote about it here.)

I think you could refer to Corneille's plays as examples of French baroque, along with those of Jean Racine. When through with my summertime reading agenda I must turn to those two: as they pivot from the baroque toward Romanticism, reading them should nicely accompany the autumnal season.

I wanted to attend this production chiefly because it was accompanied by Lou Harrison's incidental music, composed in the late 1950s, when he too was thinking about the baroque, and had definitively left New York, and modernism, for a near-rural life in Aptos, California. I remember visiting him there in his cabin and seeing and hearing the tack-piano for which he scored Cinna, an upright piano with ordinary metal thumbtacks pushed into the hammer-felts, producing a sound reminiscent of the grand harpsichords on which Rameau's and Couperin's music is so glorious.

The piano was tuned in just intonation, based on today's concert "G," with, I think, an eleven-limit, meaning it was faithful to the acoustical overtone series up to the eleventh partial. Somewhere I have a recording of Lou playing one of the intermezzi of his Cinna on this instrument, and for a long time I thought that was all there was to it, three or four minutes of remarkably spacious animation, decorative, supple, sweet, and strong, like so much of Lou's music, and measured, like the sound of the narration at the opening of the Alan Resnais film Last Year at Marienbad, also a favorite of mine.

Corneille's Cinna is in the requisite five acts, respecting the classical unities of time and location, and Lou (I knew him well enough that it feels unnatural to refer to him in any other way) wrote in fact five pieces, each, I feel sure, intended as a prelude to the following act. But last week's production was an adaptation, in English, boiled down to about forty minutes, read by its adapter Larry Reed, who modified his voice slightly to distinguish the major characters. (Each of the five acts, presented without intermission, was preceded by its opening lines in the original French, a marvelously evocative way to mark off the dramatic structure.)

The "actors" were shadow-puppets — wire representations of faces, in profile, of those principles (Octavius Caesar Augustus, Livia, Cinna, Maximus, Emilia, and the lesser roles Fulvia, Evander, and Euphorbus), manipulated behind a scrim. Lou, I think, would have approved this; it recalls his later opera Young Caesar, originally intended for large-scale puppets; and somehow it reveals the subconscious affinity of the baroque, and especially I think the French baroque, with certain Asian theater.

Linda Burman-Hall played the tack piano, and gave a little talk before the performance, explaining the instrument and suggesting that the music was intended to be descriptive of the characters in the play. This could be, but I'm not so sure. I think Lou was primarily an abstractionist, and that his music is descriptive of qualities, not personalities, though perhaps this is what Burman-Hall meant. In any case she played splendidly. (Her recording of the music can be bought online at the inevitable Amazon.)


WHAT APPEALS TO ME in Cinna is its measure. The play is about a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar, its discovery, and his forgiveness of the plotters who have proven their sincere remorse. As ever-helpful Wikipedia writes, "Corneille addresses the question of clemency and advocates an end to spiraling vengeance. His response is apologetic towards absolute power." He wrote, after all, largely with the indulgence of Louis XIV, during a time when social stability, if it were to be achieved, would depend on a stable structure itself dependent on a sustainable system of unequal social orders: Emperor or King, lesser nobles, clerics, merchants, peasants.

The social structure collapsed under the weight it built up at the top, through greed and the insistence on gloire, that majestic splendor which illuminates and radiates from absolute power, justifying it to the lower orders. In the mid-17th century France may have succeeded, for a few years, in maintaining the equilibrium; a century later of course it was crumbling toward the Bastille. (I wonder how all this will look a century hence.)

Lou's music itself is technically what is called "unmeasured," as I believe. (I haven't seen the score.) That's to say, it isn't barred off into regularly repeating "measures" of equal lengths, based on regular beats proceeding at a steady pace. This has always seemed a misleading terminology to me: the measure of the resulting music is felt by the performer, and expressed to the listener, in some other way than by the motor rhythms common to the music we mostly have in our consciousness (and even below that), whether it's "classical" concert music or commercial entertainment music.

Lou and his friend John Cage — they worked together for years — were greatly interested in this quality, which perhaps had something to do with the parallel historical development of abstraction in the visual arts. (And, to an extent, the literary ones: Gertrude Stein was the pioneer here, though I think perhaps even Proust is best read with measure in mind, more than narration.)

Their friend Virgil Thomson, the composer and critic of the New York Herald Tribune (where he hired Lou and John to turn in occasional concert reviews, always informative and entertaining), said that there were two kinds of (European-tradition) music, that based on song, which is vocal and strophic, and that based on dance, which is pedal and repetitive. Then came the 19th century and Romanticism and a third type, which he called spasmic, based on the movements of internal organs of one kind or another, mostly one in particular.

It's a cute summary and a useful one, but one result was the determination, by John and Lou, that it was high time for another approach to music, one that renders the listener tranquil — that is, in a non-self-absorbed state — and receptive to divine influences. And it's thence, I think, grows the concept of measureless music, music that requires the suspension of regular markings and events. Lou turned to the baroque — he'd earlier been much interested in early 18th-century Spanish music as known in the California missions — and John turned to purposeless abstraction reliant on chance procedures.

Of the historical events and processes I've known over the last sixty years and more I regret most, perhaps, the institutional neglect and contempt toward the procedures of the mid-20th-century avant garde. I lack John Cage's serenity in the face of that monumental social failure, and I have misgivings about Lou's apparent evasion, his withdrawal into gamelan. Apparent, I say, because I am certain within himself this was a perfectly successful adjustment to his position: but it is perhaps wrongly interpreted as an acceptance of and adaptive use of that quintessentially social and performative music, where I believe it was a recognition of a quality too easily unnoticed by the listener and even the performer: the spatial, long-measured structure enveloping the incessant (and to me distracting) motor-element of the beats.

Maybe it’s just the feeble complaint of an old man, but it seems to me we mostly lack an awareness of scale, an understanding of spaciousness, an appreciation of the long view, the big field. As societies and as individuals we lose ourselves in incessant nervous activity: we fidget. Of course fewer and fewer of us live among hills like mine; most of us are indoors most of the time, and the view out the window, when there is one, is likely to be the confining grids of rectilinear buildings across the straight and busy streets. John enjoyed it, serenely busy in his spare rooms above the noisy West Side. Virgil, that utterly urban francophile, seemed to take it for granted, basking in gloire.I can’t take it for long; it drives me nuts, as it did Lou.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Sixes and tens for Lindsey on our anniversary

Lindsey at the Erickson Gallery, Healdsburg
Sixes and tens for Lindsey on our anniversary


Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made…


— Robert Browning: “Rabbi Ben Ezra”
*

We are the best: I mean
we have the best, the best that we can have.
Just now it’s difficult,
but it’s been a hell of a ride, you know,
asking for more at this point amounts to
greediness — or folly.

After those rainy months
there’s a hot time ahead;
let’s make the best of it right now and here.
Our long parallel lives
converge in the reward
of this endless family around us

and the work that we’ve done —
whether or not anyone not yet born
knows or cares about it
at least it has kept us
from tearing at one another’s throats, all
these full and pleasant years.

Calm times and turbulence,
it all comes down to that:
anger, lust, passion, long silent moments,
love is using the other to make sense
of what can have meaning
but doesn’t, otherwise.

That’s just how I see it.
I can have no idea
what you make of love, marriage, life and death.
There never was any alternative.
Now, contemplation is
about all I can give —

Before too long, I think,
one or another of us, maybe both,
takes that walk over the ridge, just to see
what it’s like over there.
Our selves will just dissolve,
We know, like long marriage,
The possibilities are endless now.

— Healdsburg, May 11, 2017

*The first half of the first of 32 stanzas and by far the most memorable. I recall my mother quoting them, often, for some reason, when I was still just a kid, who knows why. I think about them now on my 60th wedding anniversary.)

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Approaching Africa

Eastside Road, May 7, 2017—
Ilja Leonardo Pfeijffer: La Superba
  (tr. Michele Hutchison)
Albert Camus: L'Etranger
Kamel Daoud:
  The Meursault Investigation
  (tr. John Cullen)
MY WORLD HAS SUDDENLY and necessarily grown considerably larger by the introduction into the family of a fine man born and brought to maturity in Algeria, of all places. That is what happens when a beautiful and intelligent girl spends a year abroad, in Italy; and then you take her for a month to Venice; and then she decides to go to college in Rome. International Relations! a course of study; then a prescription.

I'm not complaining: her betrothed is an excellent man, a journalist and a translator; as a writer myself I can forgive his being an editor. The wedding is set for — well, as soon as our government allows him a visa: if not this year in this country, then I would bet in Italy, whose view of immigration, troubled as it is, is officially more generous than that of our present administration.

Recently, then, my reading has gravitated toward the question of African emigration to Europe. Thank Zeus Xenios for our extended (though in truth mostly European) family! Tom was visiting here three months ago from Netherlands, and told me I had to read Pfeijffer's novel La Superba, not only was it all the rage in the author's native Netherlands, not only was it truly a good read, but it was a description, as well, of the very city we'd visited with Tom's parents only a few months ago, Genoa, "La Superba," a city we'd long wanted to become familiar with.

Well, we didn't become familiars, goes without saying; Genoa turns out to be a historical and social complexity rivalling Venice, Naples, and Palermo. Which is one of the things La Superba is "about." Pfeijffer is apparently an expatriate there, having left a small country grown too familiar and too internationalized-thus-boring to satisfy his authorial needs. You can't tell whether his novel is a novel; it's clearly part memoir; he weaves his authorial presence into and out of the book in that manner, troubling to many of us elderly readers, that erases the distinction — to me it was always a false one — between fiction and non-fiction.

(The proof of the falsity of the distinction: there's no better word for the supposed antithesis of "fiction" than "non-fiction.")

I was put off, at first, elderly and prudish as I am, by much of the language and imagery in La Superba, which opens with the narrator's discovery of a human leg and the quick attachment he develops to it — not physical, not truly fetishistic, but certainly erotic in an intellectual way. Quickly, though, the narrative reaches out into those mysterious Genovese streets and piazzas ranging up the hill behind the waterfront, and a populace, unseen by day and largely even at night by a casual tourist, is convincingly revealed, a populace of drifters, expats, barmen, transvestites, and immigrants.

The writing is very beautiful even though continuously vernacular. (I read the book in English, of course; Hutchison's translation seems to me effortless.) Pfeijffer has been compared to Calvino, and his book to Dante's Inferno; but the book made me think also of narrative cartoons. It's very visual, and would make a lovely film if handled by, say, the people who made Les triplettes de Belleville. Structurally it's broken into three big, roughly equal-size chapters, divided by two shorter interludes.

One of these is the harrowing and completely persuasive, hence plausible accounts of one refugee's escape from his native Senegal to his eventual place in Genova. The parallel with refugees from Central America coming here is inescapable to an American reader, I think.

Pfeijffer is himself — or his narrator is; hard to tell the extent to which they're identical — an immigrant, though a legal one, given the Schenken agreement within the European Union. But one of the subtexts here is: is any immigration truly "legal"? Or, perhaps, isn't all emigration legal, since ours is a wandering species, and all Europeans are ultimately descended from Africans?

Beyond the moral issue of migration, of course, or rather this side of it, there's the economic issue. How are these people to make a living? Tom, the Netherlander who recommended the book to me, is an economist by profession, specializing in entrepreneurship: he must have enjoyed this layer of La Superba. They make a living, "these people," by selling roses to diners in restaurants, or themselves to tourists of a certain sort (or to one another), or occasionally by cadging a spare coin or two. Pfeijffer befriends a couple of "these people" enough to get their stories, sharing café tables with them, ultimately becoming one of them — this is perhaps where the book becomes fiction — in his quest for the most beautiful girl in Genoa.

What you do not get, in reading this superb novel, is a sense of the locals, the Genovese, of Italians in general — they keep off these streets and piazzas. In Pfeijffer's world one's an immigrant, a tourist, or else part of the unseen normality that seems to have quite vanished.


La Superba is completely successful novel/journalism on many levels: a page-turner of a narrative, a fragrant evocation of place, a provocative query into overwhelming social and economic problems at the beginning of the 21st century, a statement of language and narrative structure perfectly at home with its antecedents (Joyce, Calvino, Swift).

The Meursault Investigation is none of those things. Its premise is fascinating: an account of the narrative central to Camus's L'Etranger from the point of view of "the Arab," told by a much younger brother of the man Camus's hero-antihero Meusault fatally shoots in his own novel. I was curious to read The Meursault Investigation, hoping it would give me some insight into the mentality of a people released from colonialism only to be hounded by a return to the authoritarianism of the ancient tradition European colonialism had worked so hard to erase.

I knew, though, that it would be useless to tackle The Meursault Investigation without having Camus fresh in mind. I'm embarrassed to admit I'd never read L'Etranger. I attempted it, sixty years ago and more, but my French was not up to it: and what I could understand, in the opening pages, was eclipsed buy the brittle brilliance of Camus's style.

But I downloaded a French-language edition of the book — its cover curiously giving the title as "L'Estranger" — and had at it, and discovered the book is so compellingly written, in such clear, limpid French, that with the useful help e-book reading offers in terms of glossing unknown words the story at least, and the profound moral and philosophical questions the story raises, were perfectly clear. Camus writes with Hemingway's pen, but Dostoevsky's soul and brain.

His book is straightforward: Meursault, a young single pied-noir (French ethnically born in France-colonized Algeria), bored with a mediocre life, falls into dubious company, allows himself out of boredom and inertia to pledge his honor to an act of revenge, kills an unnamed young Algerian who has pulled a knife on him (true enough: in an apparently unthreatening gesture), is imprisoned, tried, and sentenced.

Behind this narrative the book is "about" the equivalence of socially normal and heinous behavior given a colonialist context depending on social stratification, compounded by relentless heat, perhaps engendered by failed domestic life (the father is mysteriously absent, the mother inert), and not at all relieved by a religion whose basic assumptions are irrelevant.

Meursault's existential quandary cannot be resolved, which has led many to question the morality of Camus's book. His outlook reminds me of Wittgenstein's dictum: Of what we cannot know, of that we should not speak. But Chekhov isn't far away; you can imagine Meursault, if Russian, then Treplyov. But of course L'Etranger is French: rational, objective, phenomenological, it's well within a trajectory of literature more connected to Flaubert or Francis Ponge or the George Perec of Les Choses than it is to Dante or Dostoevsky.


Which brings me finally to The Meursault Investigation, a first novel significant for its place within post-novelistic literature and its introduction of a North African voice to its European audience. Alas, I could not get hold of a copy in French, but John Cullen's translation seems perfectly satisfactory; you can't think the prose style and the book's architecture depends on an essentially untranslatable linguistic style.

I had hoped Daoud would be using his novel to state an "Arab" view of Meursault's existential quandary, either refuting it thanks to some intellectual instrumentality foreign to the western European mentality or (perhaps more satisfyingly) reinforcing it through parallels or resonances resting on a Moslem sensibility. But this is not Daoud's intention.

Instead he focusses on the least interesting aspect of Camus's profound book: its top layer, its straightforward narrative of objectively verifiable details of plot and character. He gives us a counter-L'Etranger, told by the much younger brother of Meursault's nameless victim, resting on a similarly compromised relationship with his maman, punctuated by a similar acte gratuite whose philosophical usefulness is damaged by its undoubted political motivation.

Like L'Etranger, The Meursault Investigation is short and quickly read; unlike Camus, Daoud takes some time to hit his stride in the book. Through his narrator he admits he lacks the magical, precise evocation Camus is so famous for. (I seem to remember he blames this problem partly on the French language, native to Camus, learned, specifically in order to read L'Etranger, by Daoud's narrator.)

What is most fascinating about The Meursault Investigation is what it says about our present literary and political moment, so different from that of Camus. Daoud's book is materialistic, narrative (when it finally gets under way), filmic, and specific because bound to unchangeable injustices in the colonialistic past, where Camus's is meditative, evocative, theatrical, and — I think — universal in its implications. It's too bad, I suppose, to fault the new book for not having the older one's virtues; but the comparison is ultimately the point of The Meursault Investigation. I'm glad I read it, and I recommend it (though not without a recent reading of L'Etranger in mind); but it does not expand this reader's mind to further understanding of that of the postcolonial African. Maybe that's the point.