Sunday, October 28, 2012

Election 2012


Questo misero modo
tegnon l’anime triste di coloro
che visser sanza ’nfamia e sanza lodo.

Mischiate sono a quel cattivo coro
de li angeli che non furon ribelli
né fur fedeli a Dio, ma per sé fuoro.

Inferno, III


I have rarely employed this blog for political discussions, not because I have no opinions on such matters (people who know me well know that I am, in fact, stridently and perhaps tiresomely partisan), but because this particular space was intended to be, for the most part, reserved for joy, and there is, for the most part, precious little joy or for that matter integrity in the political sphere. But at a certain point it becomes dishonorable to keep silent. I have minimal influence on others and most of what I say here may largely be preaching to the choir, but it must be said nevertheless. I will try to be brief.

It may be surprising that someone like myself, who has no religious beliefs, would adopt the essentially Manichean attitude expressed in Dante's condemnation of those "who were not rebels, nor faithful to God, but who were only for themselves," but I have strong views (though not theological or metaphysical ones) about what is right and wrong, or what, if the terminology pleases you, constitutes Good and Evil. Put simply, compassion and honesty are good, cruelty and lying are evil. In spite of that, I have modest expectations of others, including those who take it upon themselves to lead us. I worship few idols, in politics or elsewhere, and I don't necessarily expect to find perfection or even idealism in public life. It's commendable when one finds a relatively selfless politician, but I don't regard it as necessary. A certain amount of self-interest, in our leaders and in ourselves, is not only forgivable but normal and probably inevitable; it is, in fact, largely how political systems work, by balancing the competing needs of factions that are looking out for their own interests and implicitly doing harm to the interests of others. Saints, when you find them -- and there's that theological language again -- are deserving of recognition, but they are also rare, and expecting sainthood is not only naive but dangerous; history is littered with the victims of self-declared purists.

But if corruption is our natural state (I do not exempt myself), it is nevertheless the case that there are degrees of that particular vice, and that there is a difference between those who through frailty or selfishness allow their motives to become mixed and those who deliberately, relentlessly, systematically manipulate public life and consciously sacrifice the general welfare for the inordinate benefit of a few, or who use fanaticism and bigotry as the tools with which to consolidate their power and privileges. As someone whose own ideology is solidly on the left, I have at times taken issue with the policies of the current administration, but I refuse to be reduced to the trivialization of declaring whether I "support" President Barack Obama's presidency or whether I think his motives and methods are largely "good" or "bad." Like everyone else I have my impressions, but they are ultimately of no importance (and in any case, too complex to be reduced to a simple "yes" or "no"). What is important is that a choice must be made -- by me, by everyone else -- and that how that choice is made will have profound consequences.

That our country's political system is, and has been for many years, a dysfunctional nightmare, is not in question. The size of the country, the vast opportunities it offers for corruption, and our sordid history -- never healed and all-too-often barely acknowledged -- of conquest, genocide, slavery, exploitation, racism, and fanaticism, are all inimical to the spirit of a democratic polis. Even the letter of democracy -- the principle of universal suffrage -- has been increasingly threatened by efforts to suppress the vote. (Always, that is, the vote of certain people, though we have even seen serious suggestions that the right to choose US senators should be taken away from the electorate and returned to the state houses, where it resided before the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment). The fog of disinformation and outright lying perpetrated by right-wing cable outlets and websites has served to confuse and mislead a population already long divided along regional, racial, and social lines, and has encouraged a fatal cynicism about the potential positive role of government and law in promoting the general welfare. Congress, the body that in effect invented the country and which was intended by the Constitution as the ultimate legal embodiment of the sovereignty of the people, is now perhaps the most universally despised institution in the country, on both the left and the right. None of this will be set right in this election, or, most likely, in our lifetimes.

But there is a difference between illness and death, and in a little over a week we will learn, assuming our creaky electoral machinery doesn't simply freeze up entirely, whether we intend to leave open the possibility that "government of the people, by the people, for the people" is a goal worth striving for that might at some future time actually be achieved, or whether we will simply surrender ourselves once and for all to the barons of neo-feudalism and the armies of hatred, fanaticism, and greed that have gathered around them. There is no middle ground.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Devil's Lexicon




Another video from Gonwards, the upcoming Peter Blegvad - Andy Partridge - Stuart Rowe collaboration, releasing October 22nd from Ape House Records. The whole package has been described as, in part, "a re-imagination of the myth of the Blues," and in this film (by Marina Lutz) this element comes through explicitly. But of course, this being a Blegvad-Partridge project (like the earlier Orpheus the Lowdown), the Devil not only meets the musician at the crossroads, he actually brings him into being out of the raw materials of creation.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Notes for a Commonplace Book (10)


André Gide (in the voice of Édouard):

To strip away from the novel every element that does not specifically belong to the novel. Just as photography in the past liberated painting from its concern for a certain sort of accuracy, so the phonograph will no doubt shortly purge the novel of the reported dialogue on which realists so often pride themselves. Exterior events, accidents, injuries, belong to the cinema; the novel should abandon them to it. Even the description of the characters does not seem to me to properly belong to the genre. No; this doesn't seem to me the business of the pure novel (and in art, as in everything else, purity is the only thing I care about). No more so than it is the business of drama. And let no one argue that the playwright does not describe his characters merely because the spectator is intended to see them recreated in the flesh on the stage — for how often does a stage actor irritate and baffle us because he is so unlike the person our own imagination had figured better without him? The novelist does not as a rule give sufficient credit to the reader's imagination.

(From The Counterfeiters. I have messed liberally with Dorothy Bussy's translation.)

I'm not sure if Édouard's manifesto constitutes good advice or bad advice at this point; it certainly seems to have been prophetic, at least of later tendencies in the French novel. Having just finished reading Bleak House, which would seem to embody, in its glorious way, everything that Édouard wished to jettison, I find it alternately bracing and appalling. What exactly is the role of the novel in a culture in which the dominant forms of narrative are moving pictures? (And remember that Gide put these words in Édouard's notebook in 1925, before talkies and long before television.) Is the novel simply to be (as many novels now are) a transcript of what we would see and hear if we were watching the same story on TV?

On an unrelated note, can there be any doubt that Cortázar's Morelli is simply Édouard under another guise?

NB: Quoted at least twice in Cortázar's letters, including one addressed to Mario Vargas Llosa in 1970: "Toutes choses sont dites déjà; mais comme personne n'écoute, il faut toujours recommencer." (André Gide)

Friday, October 12, 2012

Tales of a Sea Cow




I saw most of this "documentary" by Etienne de France this summer at the Listasafns Íslands (National Gallery of Iceland) in Reykjavík, where it was playing in a continuous loop. As far as I can tell only this trailer is available online.

The Stellar's sea cow is believed to have become extinct in the 1760s.

Update (2015): Below is an image from an installation of the Tales of a Sea Cow project at the Muséum d'histoire naturelle in Paris.

Friday, October 05, 2012

A Working Museum




I didn't really know what to expect with this one since I only knew Amy Rigby from three songs, which was exactly two and a half songs more than I knew of the work of Eric Goulden a.k.a. Wreckless Eric. But I liked those three songs enough (even though two of them weren't her own compositions) that I plunked down my $15 through Kickstarter and gave it a shot. As it turns out, it's a pretty likeable record. As the song list on the cover implies (it's typed by someone who evidently learned to type using the same method I did, which is to say no method at all), this is very much a homemade production, cranked out by two veteran musicians who have kicked around a bit, have been working together for a while, and who have also been a married couple for the last few years.

Amy Rigby is an American, Goulden a Brit. They're a bit of an odd couple musically, at first glance, Rigby coming across as a typically self-aware, acoustic guitar-toting singer-songwriter, though with an appealingly off-beat delivery and a skewed sense of humor, and Wreckless Eric being more of a '70s punk rocker and looking a bit worse for wear, as do many of us of his vintage even if we weren't ever punk rockers back in the day. They wind up complementing each other quite well, as it turns out; Rigby can stomp around and rock out with the best of them, and Goulden writes intelligent, melodic pop that deserves better than the horrible pub sound systems and rowdy audiences he probably had to endure in his original heyday (aw, but I bet he loved it, at least some of the time).

The highlights here for me are Rigby's "Do You Remember That?," a slightly different version of which I first heard via the Radio Free Song Club, and "Rebel Girl" (which is apparently a posthumous tribute to someone, though I don't know who), and Goulden's "A Darker Shade of Brown" (which contains the plea "Aw, God save us from sanitized sex") and "Zero to Minus One." There are one or two misses, by my count, but really this is a solid record, produced with handmade care without the involvement of the bean-countership, which at this point has pretty much given up on this kind of music anyway.

As for the title, the explanation is in the liner notes:
We've called this album A Working Museum, because at this point, with a combined musical career of 70 years, that's probably what we are. There's something unnatural (though hopefully not undignified) about people our age making pop music and hacking around the club circuit, but that's what we do.
Here, by the way, is a video of Amy Rigby and Wreckless Eric from a few years back, doing a version of Eric's much-covered "Whole Wide World," plus the beginning of "Take the Cash." See if you can tell whether they're having a good time.