31 May 2011

And What Did You Learn In School Today?

I see that Georgina Bloomberg (who?) has written a young adult novel that The New York Times suggests opens a window onto the private life of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. I see that Georgina Bloomberg has been given a two-book contract by Bloomsbury Books though she seems to have had no experience whatsoever as an author. Indeed, for this work she seems to have required the services of a co-author, and in the article even belittles whatever little success she seems to have had in education. This reminds me of George Bush’s boast that he was a C student at college. So much for the idea of the necessity for intellect, and talent, and even effort. 
The publication of The A Circuit means, of course, that another young adult novel will not only not be published, but probably has not even been read. Someone’s effort has been not merely denied but ignored. Time is, riches regardless, a limited quantity, and even editors have only twenty-four hours in a day to read new work. The publication of The A Circuit denies that writing is an art that must be struggled with, learned and practiced; instead, the publication of this novel suggests that effort and skill have equal power to influence and social position. The publication of The A Circuit mocks the effort of budding (and experienced) writers who daily practice their art and struggle too often fruitlessly to find a publisher. All the hard work that writing requires, all the struggle in which one engages to perfect the writing art, all the effort it takes to publish a work anywhere, appears quite senseless when the publication of The A Circuit means that success derives not from talent and hard work but from the authority of social connections, and that revelation of a few dirty secrets about the life of someone of privilege trumps any honest exploration of a complex humanity even if it is contemptuously referred to as ‘young adult.’  I am incensed as a writer, as a scholar, and as a teacher, that the publication of The A Circuit derives not from its quality but from its source, and that the privileged nature of that source has purchased for it the suspension of the judgment of a reputable publishing house that now wishes to compete with Us and People and The National Enquirer for the dissemination of basically idle gossip. 
The book, purportedly a young adult novel, is being discussed for its window into the private life of the extremely wealthy (and private) life of Michael Bloomberg, and not for its insight into the lives of young adults, most of whom I know are not professional horse-jumpers attending elite private boarding schools, and are certainly not the offspring of Wall Street billionaires. Georgina Bloomberg’s book purports to be a tell-all novel that I suppose is published now to compete with the ubiquitous tell-all memoirs that cover the shelves and tables of our bookstores. I suspect we shall soon see a plethora of such work slithering out of the homes of the rich and famous, displacing the hard wrung efforts of people who have studied and struggled with their art. These tell-all books will sell not for the quality of their writing or their insight into life, but will be purchased for their hint of scandal. This bookand these books that will follow as the day the nightwill not inspire the imaginations and intellects of a ‘young adult’ reading public, nor will they offer any insight or comfort to their lives, but will appeal rather to our degraded social world’s acquired quest to gawp even enviously into the inside and privileged lives of the rich and famous. This publication by Bloomsbury will not offer our young adults literature that challenges and enriches their lives, but rather, one which panders to baser desires and capacities. These books will only make the rest of us less visible and more powerless than we have become at present. 
And then someone in high office, indeed, even in the office of the Mayor of New York, will complain that the schools are failing and that our teachers are inadequate. 
Even at the hair stylist and the dentist, I am forgoing the gossip rags. That’s it. I’m done. Be gone!

28 May 2011

Amazing and Awesome

I really like my doctor.
Today, the Alan Block Death Watch 2011 has come to an end. As they say at Cape Canaveral, all systems are go. I am a hypochondriac of the Yossarian type: I think they’re trying to kill me; every cell in my body is just waiting to turn traitor. And so, every Spring, when I can’t stand the suspense any longer and feel that I am overrun with disease and stand feebly waiting for death to stop for me, I visit my (very, very patient) family doctor and undergo a complete physical examination. My physician/friend has already had performed the necessary blood work, and at our appointment today he pushed and probes and explores every available bodily part to which he has access (and even some he must make some effort to examine). I have had carefully studied over the past few weeks some of the internal organs by various medical procedures too numerous and sordid to mention. And dear doctor listens uncomplainingly to my various and numerous symptoms and concerns. He pronounces me well, shakes my hand affectionately and sends me on way suggesting that I am free to call whenever I have concerns, knowing full well he will here from me sooner rather than later and that he will see me again this time next year. For each of my concerns he has had either an explanation or a referral. Today there was need for only the former.
I really like my doctor. And I like him because he is so wonderfully competent. And for twenty years he has treated me physically and emotionally with skill, concern and great competence.
On the radio today I heard some citizens (of Iowa, where the first of the 2012 caucuses will take place) explain their ardent support for a) Michelle Bachman and/or b) Sarah Palin. And the reason they offered was this (alas, I do not paraphrase): “She’s just like me. She’s like (?) a normal person.” And I thought, “Why would anyone want someone “just like them” to serve as the President of the United States when the person who sits in that office must have a remarkable intelligence, possess tremendous insight into national and international affairs, and exercise crucial judgment in sensitive and complex matters of life and death. The President of the United States ought to be a person of great ability and mental acumen who thinks about things I do not, and whose critical intelligence I depend on to ensure that the quality of my life remains worthwhile and whose intent is to ensure that the lives of all others continues to improve. Oh, this is too silly: finally, I don’t want the President to be at all like “a normal person,” anymore than I want my medical doctor to be like “a normal person.” I want my doctor to be extraordinary and not at all like me. I depend on it.  And so, too, with my President. S/he must be, as my daughter might say, amazing and awesome!  And neither of my daughters has ever referred to me by those adjectives. Rightly so, I think.

26 May 2011

On Helplessness

I think one of the most unpleasant feelings that I experience is that of helplessness. Oh, I am competent at a great many things: I can change every light bulb in my house with great facility, and there were moments when I knew how to change the oil in my automobile. I own several screwdrivers of different sizes ands styles, and a cordless power drill. I have published six books, unjustly unread, and have taughtwith some competence, I thinkthousands of students. I maintain an active intellectual and ethically sound life, keep this blog and a venture out occasionally into the social world with some success. I continue to learn things, some of them quite useful! As Ishmael says, “I try all things: I achieve what I can.” 
But unlike Ishmael, I am uncomfortable when I experience my helplessness: an acknowledgement that though I desire to effect some change, I have not at all the power to do so. I have much power, but there are some things over which I have none.  So as long as I’ve begun to refer to Moby Dick, I think I should continue to do so. In certain respects, I am more like Ahab: I want the world to be compliant to my wishes, and too often I respond respond with ferocious anger and defiance when it does not conform to my desire. My helplessness leaves me helpless, though my response to it might look like action. 
But I have not the hubris of Ahab, and I have about me none of the heroic that characterizes this captain of the PequodI would not strike the sun if it defied me for fear of sunburn or skin cancerand I am not prepared to gather the world about me to command it to pursue my desires. Ahab’s monomaniacal quest to kill the white whale, to rid the world of all that is inscrutable may be a noble quest, but it is also, and without doubt, a mad one. 
On the third day of the chase for the white whale, Ahab rails against the wind that blows against a naked man but will not stand still to fight. Unlike Jacob, there is no corporeal agent against which to wrestle. Ahab complains: “Would now the wind but had a body; but all things that most exasperate and outrage mortal man, all these things are bodiless, but only bodiless as objects, not as agents.” Ahab is helpless before the wind though it does blow him about. What most angers and disturbs him is that the wind is powerful but without physical substance, cannot be resisted. Hence, Ahab he has placed all his animus on the white whale and assigns to its physicality an agency against which he can fight. Ahab can strike at Moby Dick and not feel helpless. 
Ahab’s response to his sense of powerlessness is defiance, and this stance leads to the death of all aboard the Pequod but Ishmael, and yet Ahab will not succeed in destroying the white whale. His response to his helplessness is futile action. Ahab has suppressed his awareness that those things that exasperate and outrage us are bodiless because they exist in our minds and not in fact. We are helpless before them. Is the white whale malevolent? He is for Ahab, but for Stubb and Starbuck he is a senseless brute. Oh, I believe that there are very real evils in the world, and against those we can and should fight. And though in these struggles we may in the end be defeated, we need not suffer exasperation or outrage because we have done something. As Dylan says, “I’m glad I fought—I only wish we’d won.” But true helplessness means that any action is impossible because there is no opponent. It is only me. “I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from, ” Dylan sings. We rail against Fate, and yet  . . . and yet, though there is nothing to be done, we must keep on keeping on. I think that how we persist with the knowledge of our helplessness defines us; there are so many things in the day over which I have absolutely no control. Sometimes, like Ahab, I strike out at the worldshoot my arrow in the air and alas, hurt my brother and myself. And sometimes, I subject myself to these winds over which I have control and allow them to move me on despite the complex and baser currents here below, on the ground. Sometimes the winds are kind. And sometimes, I accept my helplessness and treat myself and others with some sympathy and even grace.

24 May 2011

Happy Birthday, Bob Dylan

Today, I (and not a few others!) celebrate Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday. Indeed, wherever I turn on the dial (alas, no radio really and no dial: just the click of the computer mouse on different web radio stations) there is the work and sometimes even the voice of Bob Dylan.  Right now, Peter Keane is singing “One Too Many Mornings:” You’re right from your side and I’m right from mine, Just one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind.  He’s ironically right: every declaration of certainty comes too late and from too far away. Many programs today are playing listener choices of Dylan’s top 70 songs—Rolling Stone detailed their selection in the recent issue—when my daughter asked what songs I would have chosen for Dylan’s favorite, I couldn’t decide. Wherever I turned, I found a favorite. I saw my life. 
Dylan has been present in my consciousness throughout my sixty-four years. The sound track of my too many memories consists in large part of Dylan songs. I have in my life celebrated many new mornings, and been torn between the debutante who knows what I want and Ruthie who knows what I need. I have too often been stuck in Mobile with the Memphis Blues, and have certainly stayed in Mississippi a day too long.  No matter where I was in my life Dylan walked with me, supported me, led the way: He not busy being born is busy dying. I have tried to heed his urgings. But he also cautioned never to become too dependent on him: oh, it ain’t me you’re looking for, babe. Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters. I have paid too many parking fines. And though sometimes he felt inspired, he suffered the same vulnerability, pain and loneliness as did I: I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me. Dylan’s humility taught me humility, his strengths taught me strength, his angers taught me anger, his loves taught me love and his pain taught and yet relieved my pain. He has been for almost fifty years my tambourine man singing a song for me. 
I am glad to have been aware of his presence and to have known him as my teacher. 
Happy Birthday, Bob Dylan. 

22 May 2011

Graduation Day

I have spent my entire life in academia, and so I have attended many graduation ceremonies, some of which were even marking my own passage from one educational state to another. And I think that graduations are interesting phenomena not because they are not significant, but because they are so formal and impersonal. This remarkable achievement celebrated so communally in fact has no personal touch at all: the graduates are a sea of distinctive colors but no distinctive faces. The graduates are in attendance though I wonder if they are really present. Who remembers the speeches delivered from Commencement stages? These commencements are not educational but, rather, are about education. No one listens because everybody already knows what will be said because it has already been said. And perhaps that is appropriate, because indeed, for now, I hope briefly,formal education has ended and the graduates exist for a brief time in a sort of limbo—not in school and not at work, children still and yet children no more. Commencement represents this stasis. 
Today’s graduation at Ithaca College was no different. As are all such ceremonies, today’s event was an extremely structured event: the caps and gowns, the processional marches accompanied by Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” the series of speeches and charges to the graduates, and then the conferring of the degrees. Students cheered themselves, shifted their tassels from right side to left, and then tossed their mortar boards into the air. Then follows the recessional, accompanied today by a trumpet piece by Henry Purcell and watched carefully by the parents looking intently for their particular graduate. In the audience today were many thousands of people far enough away from their children so as not to be able to actually see them; so many graduates that no one walks across the stage individually to receive their diplomas. The entire event is almost anti-climactic and quite passive—the real event was the last classes, the final issuance of grades and the tearful good-byes. Today, the graduates did just what they were told to do, and in fact, did very little. Only during the department receptions did I have a sense that my daughter studied here with actual people in small, participatory classrooms. When her professors wished her farewell and Godspeed, I knew she had lived here. 
Nevertheless, as I prepare to leave Ithaca having celebrated my daughter’s graduation from college, I feel settled into a emotional state that borders on a sadness. This feeling is not anxiety—I would recognize that one easily, for I have for years known its contours and characteristics well.   And for that there are pills, and I do not think any would offer me relief now. Nor does this feeling approach nostalgia, some longing for an emotion that never occurred. Indeed, for me there is nothing about this event to be nostalgic about: I did not attend this school and except for Emma’s enrollment here, I cannot imagine ever having visited this city. If nostalgia is a longing for an emotion that never happened, then I have no longing for any emotion that definitely did not happen. And I can barely remember my own college graduation and so I do not think I can be nostalgic about that for which there are no memories. Certainly I do not feel any regret, that is, a sorrow for an act or a failure to act, because I think my daughter’s experience here has been valuable and like most experiences, imperfect. I would not suffer any pangs of regret for her; and as for me, I have done from Wisconsin all that I could for Ithaca. No, I have about this event no regrets, no tears goodbye. There is so much more to look forward to after Sunday’s ceremony. 
But this city has been part of my life for four years because my daughter lived here, established a community here, ate and studied and wept here for any number of reasons. Here was her daily life, and I was not infrequently invited into that life, sometimes with some reticence and even at times, some resentment. I cannot measure her leaving here in terms of loss or gain; rather, her graduation marks not a change in currency so much as a change in markets. I remain a viable player. I remain a citizen. 
It would be a cliché to say that Emma’s graduation makes some major transition in the nature of our family life and the household. In an ideal sense, she is no longer a dependent. Ha! Also cliché would be the notion that her graduation represents another marker of my aging. But of course, it would be quite solipsistic to bemoan my passing years as if only I suffered them. But underlying every cliché lies a truth, and so I am sadder that I and everyone else has aged, though paradoxically, I don’t think I have much desire to be any younger even were it possible. I was so much older then. 
So, what is it? At some early time this morning I considered this: Emma’s graduation means that the nature of my relationship with her—and with the rest of the family—changes, and I am uncertain how that might act out. It is back to the idea of the shift in the market; the environment has changed, and though the participants look the same, what each seeks has changed.  The uncertainty unsettles me. Is part of the emotion I experience now a result of this unsettlement? I could look with excitement and anticipation for the next phase, but I am not yet doing so? Why? Maybe Emma’s enrollment there pulled me out of my current place and settled me there to immerse myself once again in study and reading, and to live once again like a college student. I think I must have liked my years as a student more than I have ever acknowledged. Who knew? I returned a bit to a type of innocence, and I enjoyed it.
Though there have been many moments of discomfort and difficulty over the past four years, I have have reveled in her experiences here. I think of “Bob Dylan’s Dream:” “I wish, I wish in vain, that we could sit simply in that room once again.” 
And so tomorrow in the early morning at 4:00 o’clock, we will make our way to the airport and leave Ithaca, New York. I will walk once more through the innocuous Detroit airport, and begin again anew.  It will be a commencement.

18 May 2011

Voulez vous couchez avec moi?

So. Let us assume that I am the CEO of a rather large (ok, I’ll admit ita very large) company. I wear very expensive and well-tailored suits. Actually, I look quite handsome sartorially. Let us assume that I was even one of those executives whose compensation rose 11% last year, even while the unemployment rate remained high, real wages of so many fell, home foreclosures continued unabated, and world economies crashed all about me. Regularly, I meet with elected officials of many countries, big and small, and negotiate large and important agreements that have tremendous impact on the daily lives of the populations.  I have great responsibility. 
So. Let us assume that I am the head of a large international organization that handles international financial arrangements (I know there is a more technical term but I am not really the head of a large international organization that handles international financial arrangement, and so I really don’t have immediate access to that vocabulary.) What I do affects the economies of the countries of the world and therefore, the daily lives of the many people who live in those countries. I meet with elected (and even non-elected) heads of many countries. I have great responsibility. 
So. Let us assume that I am the governor of a very large state in the United States of America. It is my charge to carry out the laws of the State and in conformity with the laws of the nation of which my large state is a part. I meet with the elected officials of each of the states in the United States and I meet with many various government officers throughout the country. I have great responsibility. 
So. Given one or all of the above. Let us assume that I am on a business trip and staying in a rather fancy hotel. Not, I assure you, a Super 8 or even a Country Inn. The daily cost of this hotel room equals the monthly salary of too many workers, and is the size of the entire downstairs of my present living establishment. I step out of the shower (naked, of course) and walk into the dressing room of this rather large hotel room where I will put on my very nice clothes and begin a very busy and probably arduous day in which I will make many important decisions that affect, probably, millions and millions of people. And as I exit the shower, naked because I don’t expect anyone else in my room, I see standing by the couch in the foyer of my remarkably large room, preparing to service the rooms, a very lovely and  young chambermaid. I am naked. She looks up at me and at my dazzlingly beautiful body and says, “Please, make love to me.” 
So. I consider who I am: my responsibility to the world, my citizens, my constituencies, my family, my own ethical stance. I smile a bit too politely, even swallow a bit too hard, and say, as I hurry back into the bathroom for a towel or a robe to cover myself up. “Ah, that is sweet, but no thank you,” “Excuse me,” I say, as I reenter the room semi-clothed at least, “I have to get ready for my day. Could you please come back in a little while?” When I exit the room, I might leave a slightly larger tip. 
Any other response means that I am a shit, and I don’t deserve the responsibilities with which I have been trusted.

16 May 2011

Of Artists

Sometimes I wonder what it is that makes an artist. After all, I have written. Or rather, I wonder what one has to do to earn the designation artist. After all, I write. I do not want to engage here in the idea of ‘what is art,’ and therefore, who is the artist, though of course, something of that debate will cling heavily to this discussion. Rather, I want just to trouble the notion of what it is that one must actually ‘do’ to identify or be identified as an artist. In what kind of labor—in what type of effortdoes one engage to be recognized in the social world as an artist? 
I have long held that the designation ‘artist’ belongs in a very material way as a type in the general category of ‘worker,’ though certainly the artist produces in a different way than say, a sanitation worker; definitely produces a different type of product; and usually functions with greater autonomy than most workers in the world. Well, but sometimes this is not true. I am thinking of Wallace Stevens who served as the President of Hartford Life Insurance even as he produced the large body of poems that now sit at the center of twentieth century American literature. I am certain that Stevens went to his office at the company most days, though I remain curious what he did behind those closed doors. Sometimes, I know, an ‘artist’ works with little recognition in his/her lifetimeI am, of course, thinking of Vincent Van Gogh, who did not sell a single painting when he was alive, lived in relative poverty supported by his generous brother, Theo, but whose work now rests pricelessly in museums, and whose priced work sells for upwards of $87,000,000. When exactly was his work characterized as ‘art,’ I wonder. And sometimes an artist achieves great success earlyhere I think immediately of Jonathan Safran Foerwhose writing earned him recognition and praise in his twenties with his very first novel, Everything is Illuminated. But the designation of ‘artist’ cannot be assigned by present popularity or reputation, a fact to which the first example of Vincent Van Gogh above attests. And then, how might we understand the reputation of Pearl Buck, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature but whose work today few read and even fewer study. Was she then but is no longer considered an artist? I have to believe (but why must I continue to believe?) that the characterization ‘artist’ cannot be attributable to a genetic trait that at some moment activates, and voilà, what she produces is deemed artistic work, anymore than I believe that at a certain moment in a person’s life s/he becomes as if by magic a medical doctor. Though I might believe that at some moment a person might decide, as if by magic, to become a doctor and then set out to realize that ambition. 
I know that people see the world with different eyes, and I do not know how they have come to that personal vision. I suppose that is work for the analyst. But it seems to me that an artist (and yes, I hope my doctor can be included in that category) possesses a vision, an overarching belief about how the world and its lives proceed, and the artist enacts that vision in her daily life. The enactment is what they do. It is their life. It is their art. They are artists. I have for a long time believed that art requires great effort, and that as Emerson said of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the present work must have had a great foreground. Every work of art has a great foreground, and appears through great labor. Though sometimes the work of the artist may be judged (by some and not by all) mediocre, there is always work to be done that must be then subject to someone’s assessment. I think here of Philip Roth whose body of work spans five decades. Or I could here reference Rembrandt, Picasso or Grandma Moses. 
I have just finished reading Patti Smith’s memoir Just Friends, a portrait of the Village scene at the close of the 1960s decade and the first years of the 1970s. The book is also an intimate account of Smith’s relationship with the photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith’s book won the National Book Award for 2010. As I read her work I could not help but think of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein. Stein and Toklas resided at the very center of the Paris art scene during the first decades of the twentieth century, and across their portal passed everyone who would become central to the world of arts and letters: Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, and of course, Gertrude Stein. Indeed, it was Stein and Toklas who gave support to these artists who would transform the nature of art and literature in the twentieth century. Through the voice of Alice B., Stein notes that she, Alice, has known three geniuses in her lifetime: Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred North Whitehead. Stein writes of Alice that she typed the manuscripts of Stein’s numerous and increasingly more complex texts. Stein worked fully at her writing. 
In her book Patti Smith recounts the arts and letters population amongst whom she and Mapplethorpe moved: Harry Smith, Sam Shepherd, Andy Warhol (and, of course, his entire Factory), Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Roy Lichtenstein, Janis Joplin, Phil Ochs and more; I would not continue name dropping the name dropping that fills Smith’s memoir book. If 23 Rue de Fleuris was the center of the expatriate artistic community in Paris, then the Chelsea Hotel and Max’s Kansas City served as the meeting place of late 20th century avant garde art and rock and roll. And circling ever about it and attempting to enter was Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, at the time her friend (just friends) and lover. Eventually, of course, both succeeded in their quest to attain prominence in that circle—Mapplethorpe became a renowned photographer and Smith an early and very influential incarnation of punk. 
I am not familiar with the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, though I did follow the controversies surrounding what some consider his pornographic photos. At some point Smith says that Mapplethorpe turned pornography into art, though I have a feminist daughter who says that pornography is oppressive to women and antithetical to art. I am not at all prudish, but I am uncomfortable with some of the S&M images Mapplethorpe produced. Nor am I in the least qualified to judge Smith’s assessment. I have looked at other art books reproducing Mapplethorpe photos, and looked on-line at a few others, and I find some of his portraits startlingly beautiful. I know that the world of art holds Mapplethorpe’s corpus in very high regard and that at any time several exhibitions of his work are mounted in international venues. I know he is an artist. 
And I was in the 1970s enamored of Patti Smith, and in my basement warping apace are original pressings of her early albums, Horses and Easter. I experienced a number of live, and celebrated her performance. At one show at the Bottom Line I have a distinct memory of Smith holding a plastic catsup dispenser as a penis and spraying the first tables with catsup ejaculate. Someone in the front was not pleased, and after berating her for staining his clothes she tossed him some bills to cover his dry cleaning. I lost touch with her not long after that, or she dropped away from the scene when she married Fred Sonic Smith in 1980. I thrill each time I hear the version of her collaboration with Springsteen “Because the Night,” and several years ago I purchased a CD of hers for the anthemic “Power to the People.” 
I teach a course steeped in autobiography, and so her memoir interested me not only for its portrait of the 1960s in which I was very much a participant, but for its genre and style as well. I am interested in how people tell their stories. Autobiography is as much about hiding as it is about revelation, and as much is learned from the former as from the latter.  And, besides, my dear friend Gayle had read the book; she and I were both Patti Smith fans (I think we attended the concert at the Academy of Music together) and I thought that it would be pleasurable to sit over wine with her and discuss ourselves and Patti Smith. 
But I am going to return right now to the original question: what does it take to be an artist? What does one have to do to become an artist?  Smith and Mapplethorpe both wanted to be artists, though I am not certain what either of them might have meant by that term. There does not seem to have been for either of them any overriding vision of art so much as there was a concept of being the artist. For Smith, her ideal seems to have been Rimbaud and Jim Morrison. Bob Dylan albums played constantly in her background. I don’t recall who Mapplethorpe set up as model, if he held to any at all, although Mapplethorpe held Andy Warhol in high esteem, though, again, I do not recall anything he said concerning Warhol’s art; the book does not address this area. Rather, it was to Warhol’s lifestyle and notoriety that Mapplethorpe seemed to have been most attracted. Now, Patti at least owned art books, acquired as regular gifts from her mother and by her own purchases from book stores, but Smith doesn’t suggest that Mapplethorpe knew very much about the contexts in which he worked. As Smith writes, first he made necklaces for his mother, then he dabbled in drawing and moved serendipitously, it seemed, to photography via an acquisition of a Polaroid-Land camera. Prior to this obtaining, there had been almost no mention of any interest in photography at all. No study of its technique, its methods, or its aesthetic. So with Patti Smith: though she always sketched and wrote poems, there seemed no discipline or direction to her work. Indeed, most of her work took place clerically at Scribner’s Book Store on Fifth Avenue or downtown at the Strand. For a number of years her salary served as their primary source of income. And both seemed to stumble along in their daily lives mostly talking about being artists, but not seeming to work at being artists. I never got the sense that the eventual success of either of the two derived from their work but rather, from the influences of who they knew out in the world. They simply needed the proper environment and they would then blossom as artists in the same way as a rose with care becomes what it was meant to be: a rose. 
Both Smith and Mapplethorpe made friends with the rich and powerful, and these powerful friends were able to purchase for both of them the entry into the society that would entertain and assist in the dissemination of their work. The quality of their work never in question: they were artists and what they produced was art. Both had rich patronsMapplethorpe subsidized by Sam Wagstaff and Patti Smith by Sam Shepherd (and others), and their work received a public viewing because their patrons has influence and money to buy then equipment, supplies and artistic venue. And I never had the sense in the book that the two of them were ever doing much more than playing around in their art as children might run about in a playground. Smith and Mapplethorpe starved as do artists, involved themselves in the art world and surrounded themselves with artists, but they did not seem to ever work like artists. The work they produced, the book suggests, resulted then, from their genius and not from their effort. And I think this is a very bourgeois romantic view of the artist. The artist derives from Nature.
There is an unconscious revelation that suggests this late in the book. Patti has traveled to Charleville and visited the grave of Arthur Rimbaud. “I wanted a souvenir,” she says. As if the event would not be authentic unless she took back a material piece from it. And so at a flea market on the place Ducale, she found a “simple ring of gold wire,” not unlike one purchased for her earlier by John McKendry. But, Patti Smith says, she could not afford the ring, and so did not acquire it. But, the entire trip occurred in the first place at the largesse of Sam Shepherd who underwrote the entire pilgrimage. Then she adds, “I imagined Robert here by my side. He would have gotten me the ring and slipped it on my finger.” Of course, the first ring wasn’t purchased by Robert nor placed by him on her finger, and Robert would have only had the money to purchase the ring from the financial support he was receiving from his benefactor, Sam Wagstaff. On the very ample financial foundation of the benefactor’s funds, Smith has constructed an entire fantasy of poverty-stricken romantic artist-lovers. The image is romantic but counterfeit: it substitutes fantasy for reality and invents an impossible scene filled with idealistic longing and emotion but lacking in substance. It wasn’t going to happen that way. Nor does art. 
The two achieved great success, but in Just Friends I can’t discover the effort. The illusion presented here then is that the two are simply brilliant and their work erupts spontaneously and effortlessly out of their ample genius. I cannot accept this perspective. 
I mean: it took James Joyce seven years to produce Ulysses, and Whitman worked his entire life on Leaves of Grass. And the novels of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) fill and weigh down all by themselves a full book shelf in my basement library. And Dylan, now seventy years old, has been touring throughout his life and for the past twenty-five years or so without pause. And still regularly enough produces new work. These, to my mind, work and their work we deem art. They are artists. At least today.

12 May 2011

A public intellectual: Lewis Mumford, for One

I’m rereading Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization. I think I studied it originally almost thirty or more years ago. I was more radical and so much younger then. Well maybe not, but at that moment in my life I described myself then as an avowed Marxist. On the night John Lennon was shot, I was walking home from a class at the Marxist School then located on the Upper West Side. I believe that at the time I was attending a series of classes offered by Michael Harrington on Capital. As I walked home I heard the sirens. 
Technics and Civilization is a study how civilization has developed as a result of the technics, and how the machine derived from the development of civilization. Mumford’s volume is a wonderful example of a work of cultural studies. He writes, “[T]o understand the machine is not merely a first step toward re-orienting our civilization: it is also a means toward understanding society and toward knowing ourselves. The world of technics is not isolated and self–contained: it reacts to forces and impulses that come from apparently remote parts of the environment.” For Mumford, technics is not equivalent to technology; rather, technology is part of technics. Technics refers not to the machine itselftechnologybut to the human investment in the machine and the social environment that produces that machine and the society into which it enters and which the machine then alters and by which it is subsequently altered. Technics refers to the interplay between human desire and how humans use the machine to realize those desires. The machine embodies that desire. Art, too, Mumford will later write, expresses that desire. In order to understand technics one must engage, then, in multidisciplinary study: one must learn to read the world to discover the world in the machine. 
Mumford is a public intellectual.  I think what I mean by that term is this: a public intellectual speaks to a public about matters that specifically address the quality of life of that public. A public intellectual proposes as his life-work to understand and to explain in public and to the public her/his understanding of elements of the public sphere and to address public forums in language specifically meant to address that public so as to offer insight into the relations of power that have impact on the essences of daily life. The public intellectual thinks always of the public, and it is to that public that a public intellectual does not talk condescendingly; in the non-technical language of the disciplines the public intellectual speaks of those disciplines. After all, the public intellectual must speak to the public and not merely about that public. Thus, the public intellectual reads and studies interdisciplinarily in the attempt to understand and to explain the complex of conditions that interact in the formation of a social world. A public intellectual works for the public and her work attempts to throw light on society for the enlightenment of that public.  I think enlightenment is always a type of freedom. 
One interesting note for now about Mumford’s style: his use of the colon.  Many grammar teachersI am very much interested in grammarwould circle in red many of his sentences for the use of too many colons. Now, I have learned that a colon announces “look at what comes next,” and I think that Mumford uses them because he means to make what he is about to say emphatic: he makes a generalization and then follows it with a series of examples to prove his point. His style is declamatory because he is urging an understanding on the public for its liberation, in this case, from the physical and psychological grip of the machine. A colon focuses on what comes next: Pay attention!!

08 May 2011

Joan of Arcadia

In 2003 a TV show on CBS aired called “Joan of Arcadia.” It was a contemporary version of the story of Joan of Arc who, you might recall, heard the word of God and undertook to lead the French to several military victories in the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). She was burned at the stake in 1431 when she was nineteen years old but eventually canonized as a saint in the Catholic Church, as if she cared. The contemporary Joan is a high school student in small town Arcadia, Wisconsin who receives regular visits from God who assumes a variety of human forms and roles when s/he calls upon Joan. (Indeed, God appears not only as either male or female but as adult and child as well.) In each show God advises Joan to act in ways that are often at odds with her daily life and that often conflict with it. And though Joan resists God’s words, she nevertheless always follows God’s lead. In her actions, she changes herself and the world. That’s the point. 
What if God were one of us? I’ve wondered about that before. 
There is a story in Bava Metzia, a tractate in the Babylonian Talmud. 
Elijah would frequently appear at Rabbi’s academy. One day, it was the first day of the month, [and] he was delayed and did not come. Rabbi asked him, “What is the reason that you, sir, are delayed?” And Elijah responded politely: “[I had to wait] until I awakened Abraham and washed his hands, and then he prayed, and I laid him down. And then I awakened Father Isaac, washed his hands and then he prayed. When he was done I laid him down again. Finally, I awakened Father Jacob, washed his hands, then he prayed, and I laid him down again.” “But Elijah,” Rabbi said, “why didn’t you just awaken them together!” And Elijah said, “Oh, Rabbi, I was afraid that if I awakened them together then they would pray fervently and would bring the Messiah before his time.” 
Elijah is a familiar figure in Jewish culture; historically, Elijah is the Prophet from Gilead. (I think of Poe’s poem, Lenore: “Is there no balm in Gilead?” The legends of Elijah suggest that there is, indeed, such succor.) Elijah was the outstanding religious leader of his time. The Bible records that he did not die, but was carried to heaven in a chariot pulled by horses of fire. Among the many stories told about the Prophet Elijah, perhaps the most important ordains him as the forerunner of the Messiah. In this tradition, Elijah is charged with devising and announcing the coming time aright. This Talmudic story quoted above rests clearly in that Messianic tradition. I will return to this matter shortly. But it intrigues me that this Elijah is portrayed first, as a common servant and second, as a regular visitor to the Rabbi’s studio. Could it be that even the prophet Elijah continues to study? I wonder if his study, perhaps, is connected to the coming of the Messiah? The centrality of study in Judaism, its placement at the center of faith, argues for this position. 
Another aspect of this story intrigues me: Elijah explains that he has taken the more inefficient route in his actions because the conjoint praying of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would have been so impassioned that they would have brought the Messiah before his time. Now, the Messianic theme speaks, according to some traditions, of the advent of a time of illimitable peace and happiness. The Messianic era portends the end of exile, of suffering, and of political and economic strife. The Messiah offers the redemption for which the Jew waits. Not unlike Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon who wait for Godot, the Jew waits in great expectation and hope for the Messiah. Yet, oddly enough, in this story, unlike the desires of Vladimir and Estragon who are desperate for Godot’s appearance, Elijah is fearful of bringing the Messiah before his time—he would rather, as it were, keep Godot off stage and thereby, continue to await his arrival. In this Talmudic text, waiting is a consummation devoutly to be wished. 
It is often written that Elijah can assume many appearances to accomplish his purposes, but here, however, Elijah appears as a common citizen familiar to Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi and as a regular visitor to his academy. It intrigues me that Elijah would be so regular a visitor here—again I wonder, could it be that the Talmud suggests that study is intrinsic even to the lives of the prophets—and that even the great Prophet Elijah must continue his study at Rabbi’s academy. Elijah is, we are told, a daily visitor. Second, it is interesting that in this story Elijah is portrayed as servant to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the traditional founding male ancestors of Judaism. He awakens them each and every day and cares for their diurnal needs. The patriarchs pray each day—it interests me that Elijah does not appear to pray with them; rather, he is wholly preoccupied with the exigencies of their daily lives. Could it be that the Talmud suggests that the great Prophet Elijah who will usher in the messianic era must live a quotidian life until he is called upon to announce the coming of the Messiah? 
As there is a story that the Messiah exists even now among us, it is clear that Elijah, too, must exist now among us. It is he or she who ministers to our daily lives. Who makes it possible for us to pray, or in more contemporary terms, as it were, to study. Elijah comes daily to our studios, to our offices, perhaps even to our homes. I wonder what would it be like if we treated every visitor to our offices as if they were the Prophet Elijah. As if they had just come from ministering to Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob—or Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, or Leah—performing necessary duties executed separately for each to ensure that their conjoint praying not bring the Messiah before his time? Indeed, what if we considered ourselves to be Elijah so mindful of our responsibility to others that we put off our own prayers and studies until we had completed our ministrations to the Other? I suspect that were we to think of each other and ourselves as this Elijah, the time for the coming of the Messiah would, indeed, be here.
And why not awaken the patriarchs at once? Certainly it would prove to be the more efficient method. And, some would argue, wouldn’t now be an appropriate time for the Messiah’s coming? But Elijah says that the simultaneous prayers of the patriarchs would bring the Messiah before he or she is due! The coming of the Messiah for whom we wait is here contingent on human action. That is, in this story the Messiah will not usher in the era of peace but will arrive at its moment. According to Talmud, the Messiah, paradoxically it would seem, must wait for us. Of course, we might say that Godot waits for Vladimir and Estragon, but they do not see it this way. 
There are two arresting possibilities concerning this story of Elijah. The first is that the coming of the Messiah will not bring redemption but rather, acknowledge it. That is, human action must prepare the world for the Messiah. The second possibility is equally as astonishing: that the Messianic era is only possible by human action. Were the patriarchs to pray in unison the Messiah might arrive, but the world would be as yet unprepared for the Messiah’s coming. There is, it would seem, very much something to be done.  
What if the Messiah were one of us and already here? I think that Joan of Arcadia suggests this very possibility.
No wonder it was canceled!

06 May 2011

On Haircuts

J. Alfred Prufrock chose to measure out his empty life in coffee spoons; I have always considered that Prufrock by this accounting he would somehow assess the character of his life based in the number of tea parties he had attended and the spoonful of sugars he had dropped into his cup and with which he stirred the liquid while engaged in small talk with the ladies that he met. It is a meager means of measure, I think, regardless of the amount of coffee drunk. But then, Prufrock is an insignificant man. 
But today I am considering some measurement of my life in terms of the haircuts I have experienced. Now, I am not considering the quantity of them, in fact, but rather, the defining nature of the tonsorial experience and what it might suggest about the particular contexts of my life in which those cuts took place. As Prufrock’s coffee spoons define the quality of his life, so might the shedding of my locks offer some insight into the progress of my existence. After all, a boy-man’s haircuts are not insignificant events: Samson’s original restyling, after all, served as a defining moment in his life! 
But I think that any boy’s first haircut marks a major milestone in his maturity. Then, when my first visit to the barber took place, there were no ‘children’s’ barbers but only barbers who cut children’s hair. When I grew up the task of taking the child to the barber was often assigned to his stay-at-home mother, probably because weekends were never long enough to accommodate all of the heads requiring cutting, and on weekdays men were usually at places of employment. But I want to think that my first visit to the barbershop occurred on a Saturday afternoon, and so I am going to allow my father to be in attendance at the momentous event. Before the advent of puberty, before the first day of public school, the ritual of the first haircut looms large in the mythology of parenthood, and I want to give my father an opportunity to participate here, though in fact, I honestly don’t recall anything about the actual event itself. Much of what I will describe derives from later observations and television. And not a little fantasy. 
When I was ready for my first haircut (I suspect at the age of about four or five) my parents took me to the local barbershop. This emporium was a rectangularly shaped room of some size (at so it must have seemed to the rather diminutive four-five year old). There were four or five barber chairs—heavy steel structures with considerable cushions on the arms and seat and in my memory either wine-colored or slate blue in hue. There remains in my mind some connection between early barber chairs and the dentist chairs I later learned to dread. Indeed, I may have conflated the two seats, and though I no longer dread work on my hair, I still tremble at thoughts of my visits to the dentist. Of course, outside the front door of the former was the red and white candy-striped pole identifying the establishment as the barbershop. Outside the latter  . . . well, usually there was a lollipop and a waiting automobile. 
The barber himself was dressed in a short white coat—not unlike the garb of a lab technician today—and he appears in my imagination a portly and older man (at least older than the father, and certainly seemingly ancient in the eyes of the young boy) atop whose head rested a well-coiffed but sometimes thinning gray nest of hair. Often he had an accent—in my memory I identify it as Italian—and he always smiled a bit loudly. My parents probably lifted me onto the chair, and as the barber cut my hair they would engage me in small talk in an attempt to distract me from the proceedings. 
I wonder what it is that frightens young boys about their first haircut—is it the nature and size of the scissors? Perhaps it is the public nature of the denuding that produces such terror. Maybe the boy-child’s screaming occurs as a response to the feeling of being assaulted, of having all control taken away, and of being placed in a condition of feeling abused. 
At the end of the ordeal, the relieved parents treat would smilingly lift the young child out of the chair (in this case that would be me!) with the promise of a reward of an ice cream sundaes or some other sweet treat: this reward was probably earlier offered as some enticement to permit the violence of the haircut to be perpetrated upon him. 
After that first traumatic experience, haircuts became rather routine and regular. I do not recall being at all consulted on either the timing or the styling of these events. During the winter months my hair was allowed to grow long, but during the summer months it was razed into a crew cut for which was purchased some heavy wax that made the front of my hair line stand up straight, in a perverse imitation of a girl’s bangs. At these events the barber would grab his electronic clipper and simply mow from front to back, leaving, as I have suggested, just enough hair to stand erect! 
I do recall a very brief time, as well, when during my later adolescence I was permitted to visit the barbershop by myself. Unlike today when appointments are highly recommended, then a pre-planned visit to the barber was not necessary usually; if the establishment was crowded—as on any Saturday it was likely to be—the proprietor (I don’t recall the presence of receptionists) would simply declare how long the wait would be, and I would joyfully take a seat along the back wall next to the magazine table. There, I could find the newest issues of Playboy or Esquire, and I could for a brief time engage my adolescent fantasies in the relative anonymity of the man’s barber shop looking at photos of naked women and reading sexual advice from the Playboy adviser. At that time, women patronized beauty parlors and only men frequented barbershops, (except, of course, the parents of those younger children spoken of earlier, and they were usually too distracted by the event to take any note of my sensational reading materials). Waiting for an available barber, I felt free to indulge my libido in relative freedom until my turn was called and I turned reluctantly from the photos to the interview. But the barbershop had turned into a legitimate refuge and resource for my exploding sexuality. 
At some moment, of course, the sex turned real (never early enough!) and the refusal to allow one’s hair to be cut turned into an active rebellion—this decision was ascribed to the influence of culture, of course—this was the 1960’s and there was Hair and plenty of it. But I think some personal rebellion attached to the anathema of having one’s hair cutI had hated those crew cutsand this tonsorial rebellion represented perhaps some response experience of the powerless of childhood. Barbershops were now religiously avoided, and unshorn locks became de rigeur
The loss of a large part of the hair cutting population required barber shops to open their establishments to new clientele—women—and so as to provide some comfort to their new customers the proprietor would hire a single woman hair stylist. And because she was accustomed to dealing with longer hair, she could when needed, also handle the longer locks of the traditional male customers who slowly filtered back in albeit, as irregular customers. As more men and women began to frequent such establishments, more women were hired, and barbershops and beauty parlors became hair salons and Playboy was replaced with People and Esquire became Vogue and Working Mother
At some point, I believe somewhere in the early to mid-1980s, I began to be concerned with the quality of the cut. I cannot say exactly what provoked this new vanity, but shopping for hair stylists became common practice. I recall a conversation with my dear friend Larry regarding the proper etiquette when sitting in the stylist’s chair. It was his custom, he averred, to talk and joke with the stylist so as to ensure that they remain kindly towards him. I held that it was best not to talk with the stylist at all for fear that by the conversation they might become distracted; I carried in with me heavy tomes of scholarly work to ward off anything but polite talk and simple direction. Bad hair days became now a cliché. In beauty colleges students learned how to trim moustaches and beards and to fluff and flatter their male clients. It no longer seemed emasculating to occupy the chair next to a woman having her hair bleached. 
And that is how things remained until yesterday when I went in for my regular hair appointment. These days I visit the salon every three or four weeks, but I had been unable to make my regular appointment last week and so I was just a bit behind schedule. I think I looked a week behind schedule. And as I seated myself in the comfy chair and looked in the mirror before me, I saw a man in his mid-sixties staring at himself while behind him, smiling beautifully and running her hands through my hair, was a young, beautiful woman not too much older than my daughtermy stylist! And I was completely bemused by the situation: in fact, I could have been this child’s grandfather, and the smile on her face was not meant to be alluring or seductive as I might once have considered or even hoped, but was, I thought, just a bit . . . well, patronizing. And why not: I was probably almost three times her age and probably a big tipper, if she treated me carefully enough she would benefit from my age and largesse. As I glanced in the mirror all I saw was a scruffy, disheveled older man, and behind him, this lovely young girl whose responsibility it would be to make respectable this very disheveled and forlorn man. She looked at me warmly and with great sympathy; I looked back at this lovely child and couldn’t even fantasize. 
I wondered if I dared to eat a peach?

02 May 2011

The White Whale

I read in all of the papers the assertion that Ahab has finally killed the white whale. It is to my mind too ironic that Osama bin Laden has been buried at sea.  
I appreciate the idea that the man has been brought to justice, the very same man who the United States government once funded as our ally against the Russians in Afghanistan but whose campaign against the United States led to the series of terrorist attacks that culminated (but did not end!) with the bombing of the Twin Towers. Having acknowledged his role in the plots against the United States and others, bin Laden had to be held accountable for his actions. 
I do not know if there was ever the thought that he would be brought in alive or if the mission itself was meant to ensure his death. I suspect attempting to transport bin Laden to anywhere in the world and keeping his capture secure might have been an almost impossible task, and his death relieved the United States (and the world) of the extremely difficult task of bringing him to trial. 
But Moby Dick lives still, we know.