Wednesday, July 27, 2011

And for humorous purposes....

"Bastards won't give me tenure."
These delightful animatronic figures are for sale this week at an auction located near Steubenville, Ohio. Michael found them on These darlings were once part of moving window displays erected in commercial venues. Really, I'll say no more, and allow them to speak for themselves. They have so much to say.

Celebrity Rehab: The Sesame Street Edition

Thursday, July 21, 2011

General Doings...

It's Thursday and incredibly hot, a fact we have been unfailingly alerted to and reminded of by the news for the past week. I can look out our living room window, from where I'm writing this post and see trees and haze. The ciccadas are screaming, so that (according to popular lore) means there are only six more weeks of this hard-to-breathe, quick-to-sweat searing thickness. We hope. To heal my broiled (and now perspiration-drenched) spirit, I envision approaching surf and cooling breezes. Happy place, yes. 
O Fallen Angel
Kate Zambreno's
first novel, O Fallen

Kate Zambreno's wonderful blog (like this post or this one) always reconnects me with what it means to be a writer. She is a thinking writer, an intellectual, very analytical, but also forceful in her emotion, and sometimes her uncertainty. At her blog are the best three parts of humanity: head, heart, soul. More on her new book Green Girl very soon...

What I worked on from 7:33 A.M. until about 11:30 today is "Conceived in the New Liberty", a fictional commentary on how easily we might allow our rights be dismantled. I'm happy that it's flowing pretty steadily.  During my daily hour of penance on the exercise machines in the basement, I flip between HLN, CNN, and Fox (all three are on consecutive stations on our cable box) to get a feel for the tenor and language used to deal with contemporary issues. My perceptions are, in part, what spurred my Two Minutes Hate post on Tuesday.

Lapith fighting a Centaur
Metope from The Parthenon

I may have mentioned this before, but I finished the Lord Elgin story, which I retitled "The Metope Prophecy." A 'metope' is a  decorative architectural element, a carved spacer in a freize that usually appears between fluted trigylphs. On the Parthenon, there are 92 metopes. Many of these are what Elgin brought back to England to sell to the British Museum.

If you remember this post and the excerpt it contains (all the way at the posts' bottom), here is the paragraph that follows it:

"The image haunted him the following morning, even though he’d had other, less vividly remembered dreams afterward. He knew he could not save Phidias’ immense Athena. She was already lost. The military leader, Lachares, had used the gold plates that comprised the goddess’ drapery to mint coins to pay his troops in the third century before Christ. Resplendent then in copper and ivory, she survived two fires before disappearing with the rise of the Ottoman Empire. So, as he sipped at the dark brew that passed for coffee while his wife moved sulkily in her chair down the long table, he began to think of the statue’s plea in metaphorical terms. It is a message, he thought, staring at a triangle of buttered toast. I’m supposed to rescue what is still there." -- from "The Metope Prophecy" 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Two Minutes Hate

A still from the movie based on George Orwell's dystopic novel,
1984. Depicted here is the daily two minutes, during which citizens
of Oceania rail against images representing enemies of the state.

George Orwell's concept of Two Minutes Hate is an effective propaganda tool, with ingenious psychological effect. On the surface it reinforces recognition of ackowledged state threats. Yet, it is an opportunity for Party members to exorcise their fear and anger in a way that reinforces the state's purpose. In fact, it is the only accepted period throughout the day, when emotion of any kind can be expressed. Here, the frustrations borne of personal privation and grim existence are diverted away from the state, which determines these bitter realities, and onto figures who are not responsible but still pose a threat--even in theory--to the state's power. After Party members have exhausted themselves hurling their pent up emotion at the screen, an image of Big Brother appears, intended to instill a reassuring calm to their weary spirits. Someone capable is in control, even if (we, the readers, suspect) he is actually a political concoction by the party rather than a figure truly at the helm.

During one of the Two Minute Hate rituals, the character Julia, with whom protagonist Winston Smith eventually becomes involved, even goes so far as to attack the screen onto which the state enemy, Emmanuel Goldstein (whom critics believe to be modeled on Leon Trotsky), is projected. And apparently, as Orwell indicates, this type of attack is not uncommon. Yet it is here that Orwell's plot device points up the ways in which our culture is prone (or perhaps we will one day learn, our political system has facilitated) the creation of public villians, against which citizens--feeling similarly burdened by unemployment, their own inauspicious life choices, and narrowing personal options--can vent their frustrations.

Consider this: why offer 24-hour coverage and perpetual analysis of the Casey Anthony trial, other than to divert attention away from people's individual woes? What value does repeatedly showing Anthony's picture, or focusing on her impasssive face during the trial, have other than to inspire a deep-seated hatred that leads away from constructive activity or focus on one's own concerns? She becomes a flashpoint, an object of derision that channels disgust away from personal circumstances created by troubled economic and political issues.

24 Hours Hate: the impassive face of Casey Anthony on trial.
 Another example is Ruppert Murdoch. Regardless of my feelings about what he may or may not have done, I realize the constant media coverage has made him into an enemy of the state, and not just one state, multiple states. In the image below, taken during the parliamentary probe in the UK today, he was assaulted with a shaving cream pie by an angry protester, later determined to be a comedian. Here, the Two Minute Hate had its inevitable consequences: attacking the reviled figure. Yet it was the 80 year-old man, not the telescreen, the symbol, or the intangible idea that was attacked.

Ruppert Murdoch, assaulted with a pie by a protester,
during a parliamentary probe.
Certainly, we want to know what's going on in the world. But vilification and doom appear everywhere in the media. Hasn't then the news actually become the outlet for setting up the political pariahs, against whom we citizens can vent our disgust with our social and economic circumstances? Of course, I've compared the media to Rome's bread and circuses (all circus, no bread, of course) before. But is the way topics are covered actually designed to divert attention from real isseus or, alternately, ignite public outrage against figures, whom various governments no longer find politically expedient? What does this remind us of? And shouldn't we be incredibly scared of the consequences of these patterns of thinking?

Germany's Dolchsto├člegende, circa 1919

Friday, July 15, 2011

Conceived in the New Liberty

The Bill of Rights, 1st US Congress, New York, 1789
Thank you, James Madison.

Oh, how this girl enjoys satire. I'm working on a new story called, "Conceived in Liberty." I include an image of The Bill of Rights, at right, because I don't think we see enough of it. I am certain that everyone born after 1980 likely hasn't seen enough of it. And so I am writing a story about it, along the lines of James Clavell's The Children's Story. I read this novella long before I ever read Animal Farm or 1984. Clavell wrote it after he realized his daughter did not understand what the Pledge of Allegiance really meant. She could recite it, but the meaning had never been explained to her.

I find that the young students I teach have large, somewhat surprising gaps in their education. It is patently obvious in English, and, I suspect, they also have an inadequate understanding of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. It may not be covered as thoroughly as it should be in primary and secondary schools, and since segments of it are so often bandied about carelessly by pundits, they may misunderstand its original intent. Their usual source of news and information is the web and television. And so, I am working on this:

"It began as a quiet rumbling at first, a question posted on Twitter by a fifteen year-old user named Boyz2DaHo, “So what good are trials by jury if criminals go free?” It was retweeted by five hundred of his followers, and by the end of the week, the question, which had percolated up Twitter feeds and across the Smartphone Screens of teens and twenty-somethings, became something people discussed over their cube walls, across tables in the nail salon, in lines for movie tickets.  It got so much attention that, within a week and a half, the question was actually posed on the evening news.  But instead of a history lesson on the Founding Fathers’ intentions, the news presented various viewer opinions, posted on Youtube and submitted via email."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Things I understand with age

George Grosz at work
During my year in Germany, when I studied in an antiquated building whose most memorable feature was its herringbone parquet floors, I spent a lot of time in the Art History Department's library. I pulled out tomes, translated chapters, and made copies enough to fill several three-ring binders, which I eventually shipped home via the now defunct "Seepost". All of this activity got me closer to learning who George Grosz really was.

Of course, I knew who he was. His drawing, "Fit for Active Service", had been in my mother's college text, H.H. Arnason's History of Modern Art, along with a color plate of the painting, "Pillars of Society." (Arnason's book became something close to a sacred volume for me. I look at it constantly. I once knew the order of the page imagery by heart.) And yet, I did not understand what made Grosz, the man, tick. I felt this was necessary, since I had chosen him as the subject of my thesis. During my first few months at LMU, I made an appointment with a professor in Art History Department and indicated, in my then uncertain German that I wanted to study Max Beckmann. She said, "You will find it difficult to do any original research on Beckman. So many people have already written about him. Why don't you do your paper on someone like...oh, say, George Grosz?"

Why not, indeed. The previous year, I had deferred my Master's Degree at Pitt in order to come to Germany, and I had already met with my future thesis advisor. She was a George Grosz scholar, perhaps one of the most prominent Grosz scholars. I had no misgivings about entering her turf, although some fellow graduate students later questioned my sanity. When I returned home, she and I carved up Grosz' life like it was steak. She got the 19-teens, 20s and early 30s; I got his emigree legacy. And ultimately, I tied Grosz's legacy to another artist, Romare Bearden, Grosz's student at the Arts Students League. But that's another story for another time.

So, the first Grosz I got to know was the Grosz of Second Reich and Weimar-era Germany--the Grosz whose manifestos I read in my apartment at Moosacherstrasse 81. Here was the Grosz of Dada, of Neue Sachlickeit, the Grosz who spent time with John Heartfield and wrote disgustingly boastful journal entries about his sexual exploits with girlfriend (and later, wife) Eva. Also, I got to know the slightly older Grosz who had a sincere commitment to Communism until he saw its realities in Russia. And then there was the Grosz of the blasphemy trials.

Here, as an aside, I should probably mention that before the story collection American Soma took the name of the principal story (a decision James made, and I don't disgree with), the collection was called Behold! Mankind. Why? Because it is the rough translation of George Grosz's portfolio satirizing mankind's immorality. (I intended no allusion to either Pilate or Nietzsche, only Grosz.)  Ecce Homo, published by Malik Verlag in 1923, was what landed Grosz in trouble with the authorities and, eventually, in court. Because American Soma offered small portraits of man's weaknesses, I felt there was a parallel in spirit and message.  (Also, if you read the story "Movie Star" in my first book, The Famous and The Anonymous, George Grosz appears as a character. I try to fit him into each fiction compilation because Grosz is my literary version of 'Nina'.)
George Grosz, "The Retreat" 1946
Back when I was in Munich, I was young (22 and then 23), determined, not easily daunted. I drank alot, and I saw in Grosz the nihilst, the rabble-rouser, the person who stirred dissent because he was young and prone to rebellion. I recognized a little of myself. 

When I got back to America, I began to discover a different Grosz, a disillusioned man, whose attempts to get away from his highly politicized past were met with criticism. Malcolm Cowley, who reviewed an exhibition of Grosz's American paintings for The Nation in the 1940s, castigated the artist for his decidedly apolitical tenor, for his tepid Cape Cod sand dunes, his comparatively academic nudes. Where, Cowley wanted to know, was the satirist? He was needed now more than ever. Apart from a few images representing the "haves" and the "have nots", Grosz abandoned social issues. 

I couldn't see it when I was 23 and 24, but I understand at 37 that Grosz was a haunted man, a broken man, as evinced by paintings like "The Retreat" of 1946. And knowing about the prescient dream he had in late 1932 that caused him to pack up his home and family and flee Germany before Hitler ascended to the position of Reichschancelor in 1933, it's easy to understand his pessimism. He had already seen that, ultimately, Stalin was little different than Hitler, something he revealed in a drawing appearing in the 1936 portfolio Interregnum. Ultimately, he resigned himself to the realization that man was so bogged down by weakness, desire, and corruption that he could never hope to achieve an equitable social or political system.

Malcolm Cowley, who castigated Grosz for
the artist's apoliticism in America
Why Cowley could not appreciate this, I'm not sure. Perhaps he was himself still an idealist. Perhaps he felt a man could not, or should not change. Grosz's attention to aesthetics over content was a conscious turn away from that which he knew could not be fixed. No amount of propaganda or artistic dissent would change the fundamental, corruptible nature of man. Ecce Homo indeed. Here, it seems, is the disappointing truth about man. Grosz knew this, and it is, I would wager, what contributed to his heavy drinking and, ultimately, his drink-related death.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Neue Sachlichkeit und andere Geschichte

Weimar's New Woman:
short-haired, smoking, thin, intellectual.
August Sander photograph of Sonia Schad, wife of
Neue Sachlichkeit painter Christian Schad
(photo credit)
Darlings, let's have a flashback. Look there. Yes, just there, through the glass of the closed-door private study room on the second floor of the Juniata College Library. That's me, head bowed near the desk lamp, which creates a deceptive halo of light in my short blonde hair. I'm in a blue hooded sweatshirt and a pair of black jeans I've worn since eighth grade (so ripped in places that it is necessary for me to wear red or mustard colored tights underneath to remain socially acceptable).

Yes, okay. Sure, I'll admit it. I have added to the graffiti on the wooden desk inside this closed carrel. I come back each evening and find there is more to the animated graffiti conversation I'm having with some sports-obsessed wanker. Anyway, I'm done studying for the night, or maybe I'm taking a break. I have left the carrel for a moment, gone to the stacks, and pulled out a book on Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). This is the way I reward myself after I have to study something especially tedious, like biology.

On the cover of one of these books is a painting by Otto Dix of the German Journalist and Poet Sylvia "Sy" von Harden. I find the image vaguely revolting but also entirely fascinating. It is this regular visual communing with paintings, like the ones below, that marks the beginning of my obsession with what I consider (at the time) to be German Expressionism, although this was not Expressionism. It is the antedote to the emotion associated with Expressionism. It was a new kind of perspective, a perspective gained on the back side of the Treaty of Versailles, on the back side of starvation and horrible inflation. Gone are colorful representations of idyllic Primitivism. In their place is a representation of humanity's terrible imperfections, rendered with technical virtuosity and Duerer-like precision.

Otto Dix, Portrait of Sylvia "Sy" von Harden
This painting was recreated in an opening scene of
the film Cabaret.
And then, there are allegories, visual allegories on the perils and outcomes of war, like Rudolf Schlichter's "Blind Power" (below). Other paintings depict the almost syphilitic post-war excesses (and privations) of the politically precarious Weimar Republic. In November 2002, I wrote an article on this for the European Journal of Cultural Studies. The article considered three books dealing with three vastly different facets of Weimar. They were universally scholarly subject references, but ones which discussed vital period themes: 1) The New Woman and how she was shaped by popular literature, 2) The Culture of Spectacle, 3) the reciprocal relationship between the faltering economy and the culture it supported (and sometimes failed to fully support...the black market was wild in 1920s Germany).

I'll admit that I'm still entirely blown down by this period in history. And I'm blown down specifically by Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, not as much by America and its era of Prohibition and speakeasy culture. Our media outlets talk about the dire circumstances of contemporary society. But think was it must have been like for those who came home from inhuman (and inhumane) front experience, their feet likely rotting from weeks of immersion in water. Some were maimed, while many others were yet in a constant state of alert and fear that would never truly abate. And then they come home to what? Brown shirts, violent power struggles, a worthless currency. And almost complete chaos and degradation, thanks to the Versailles Treaty, a punitive tool that only made things much worse.

But I realize, yes, I'm rambling. I know. Over the past week, I've been working on a series of different things. I finished the Elgin story and have submitted it to Weird Tales. I've got another venue lined up once it's rejected, which it surely will be. This is the way of all literary things for me, it seems. It doesn't mean that I'll stop trying. Tonight, in Barnes and Noble, Michael pointed out to me the book A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I laughed a little when I saw this because I remember what happened to Toole, or more accurately what Toole did to himself in the face of such universal rejection. It's definitely not that I find it funny; I find it sad beyond words. I sympathize with him more that I care to go into here. We're all yelling into the wind, while the world blows crap in our faces. I feel that every time I sit down to write something. Sure, A Confederacy finally made it into print, but only after Toole's suicide and through the dogged determination of his mother, Thelma, and to Loyola University Professor Walker Percy. And then, low and behold, it won a Pulitzer. Now, why, publishers, was that so freaking difficult to accept? No, seriously.

Anyway, since it really might never see the light of day, here's a teeny tiny slice of Elgin:
"When it became necessary for the frieze to come down in smaller segments, Elgin suffered a blinding headache that lasted three days. Hunt came to his temporary quarters, where Elgin had asked for thick fabric to be drawn over the windows to block out the light. Hunt related the details in solemn whispers. “I suppose,” said Elgin, his thin palm over his damp forehead, “if it must be done to get them out, then it must be done. Try not to disfigure them any more than is necessary. Save them as best you can.”
Athena did not appear in Elgin’s dreams again. As he lay still in the swelter of his small Athens apartment, waiting for the sun to set, the heat to abate, for his the headache to lift, he experienced ocular fireworks, the flashing of strange geometric shapes, and a disturbing delusion that there were snakes around the base of his bed. But there was no ivory-skinned goddess. He longed for her approval. At one point, in the cool clamminess of night, he woke to shouting, but realized, on fully waking, that it was his own voice he heard. The words still filtered through his consciousness: Have I done right by you? Have I done right?"  -- from "The Metope Prophecy"