Monday, December 24, 2012

Stille Nacht

Postcard reproduction of a poster for Stephen and Timothy Quay's short film Stille Nacht I: Dramolet (1988). The letters "R. W." in the intricate calligraphy commemorate the Swiss writer Robert Walser, whose body was found in a field of snow on Christmas Day in 1956.

The Museum of Modern Art's special exhibition devoted to the work of the Quay brothers closes on January 7, 2012.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


A song by the young Icelandic musician Ásgeir Trausti. The title, I'm told, means something like "Summer Guest," and the song is addressed to a migratory bird.

Friday, December 14, 2012


From today's New York Times:
Each slaughter of innocents seems to get more appalling. A high school. A college campus. A movie theater. People meeting their congresswoman. A shopping mall in Oregon, just this Tuesday. On Friday, an elementary school classroom.

People will want to know about the killer in Newtown, Conn. His background and his supposed motives. Did he show signs of violence? But what actually matters are the children. What are their names? What did they dream of becoming? Did they enjoy finger painting? Or tee ball?

All that is now torn away. There is no crime greater than violence against children, no sorrow greater than that of a parent who has lost a child, especially in this horrible way. Our hearts are broken for those parents who found out their children — little more than babies, really — were wounded or killed, and for those who agonized for hours before taking their traumatized children home.

President Obama said he had talked to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut and promised him the full resources of the federal government to investigate the killer and give succor to his victims. We have no doubt Mr. Obama will help in any way he can, for now, but what about addressing the problem of guns gone completely out of control, a problem that comes up each time a shooter opens fire on a roomful of people but then disappears again?

The assault weapons ban enacted under President Clinton was deficient and has expired. Mr. Obama talked about the need for "common sense" gun control after the movie theater slaughter in Aurora, Colo., and he hinted during the campaign that he might support a new assault weapons ban, presumably if someone else introduced it.

Republicans will never do that, because they are mired in an ideology that opposes any gun control. After each tragedy, including this one, some people litter the Internet with grotesque suggestions that it would be better if everyone (kindergarten teachers?) were armed. Far too many Democrats also live in fear of the gun lobby and will not support an assault weapons ban, or a ban on high-capacity bullet clips, or any one of a half-dozen other sensible ideas.

Mr. Obama said Friday that “we have been through this too many times” and that “we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”

When will that day come? It did not come after the 1999 Columbine shooting, or the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, or the murders in Aurora last summer.

The more that we hear about gun control and nothing happens, the less we can believe it will ever come. Certainly, it will not unless Mr. Obama and Congressional leaders show the courage to make it happen.
I have little to add to the above because there really is nothing there that can be disputed, nothing there that hasn't been known for years. Over and over the same kind of incident has taken place, and over and other in response we've heard the same empty verbiage from the NRA and its allies, the same tired list of reasons why we shouldn't actually ever do anything effective that might have a chance of preventing these atrocities from happening, atrocities that would set us on a swift path to war if they were perpetrated by a foreign country, but which we're seemingly willing to aid and abet at home. Enough is enough; it's time to draw the line. We don't need "a conversation" about gun control; we need gun control, the stricter the better, the sooner the better. And if you don't agree, don't waste your stale breath on me; try to square your consciences with the families of the victims.

For more information:

The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence
Coalition to Stop Gun Violence
Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence
New Yorkers Against Gun Violence
Violence Policy Center
Charles Blow: "A Tragedy of Silence"
Larry Alan Burns: "A conservative case for an assault weapons ban"
Gail Collins: "Looking for America"
Adam Gopnik: "Newtown and the Madness of Guns"
Bob Herbert: "War at Home" (link now broken)
Nicholas Kristof: "Do We Have the Courage to Stop This?"

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Brothel, with Orchestra

I borrowed a copy of this brief study of the Uruguayan writer Juan Carlos Onetti because I was curious to see what Mario Vargas Llosa would have to say about Los adioses, the peculiar, ambiguous novella that is the only Onetti of any length I've read. As it turns out, he devotes only a few paragraphs to it, and I'm going to put off reading the rest of El viaje a la ficción until I've had a chance to read more Onetti, but in the meantime I did dip into a few sections, including the book's somewhat eccentric twenty-page preface, in which Onetti is not referred to at all until the final sentence.

I also came across a few gossipy literary anecdotes, such as the one in which Onetti, while reading Cortázar's "El perseguidor," reportedly smashed a windowpane with his fist when he read of the death of Johnny Carter's little daughter; and the following, in which Vargas Llosa speaks of his own encounters with the Uruguayan:
Only in San Francisco did I have a chance to chat with him a bit, in the smoky, dark little bars in the vicinity of the hotel. It took some effort to provoke him to talk, but when he did it he said intelligent things, though impregnated with corrosive irony or ferocious sarcasm to be sure. He avoided talking about his books. At the same time, behind his gruffness and lapidary jokes, there appeared something vulnerable, someone who, in spite of his culture and his imagination, was unprepared to face the brutality of a life which he distrusted and feared. One night when we were discussing our working methods, he was scandalized that I worked in a disciplined manner and with a schedule. Working that way, he declared, he would not have written a line. He wrote in gusts and impulses, without forethought, on loose sheets at times, very slowly, word by word, letter by letter — years later Dolly Onetti confirmed that this was exactly the case, and that while he worked he sipped glasses of red wine diluted with water — in periods of great concentration separated by long parentheses of sterility. And then he pronounced that sentence which I would repeat many times afterwards: that the difference between us was that I had a matrimonial relationship with literature and he an adulterous one.
A footnote appends two briefer and possibly apocryphal anecdotes to the above. In one, Vargas Llosa writes that "when my novel The Green House won the Rómulo Gallegos Prize in 1966, and [Onetti's] Body Snatcher was a finalist — two novels that centered around whorehouses — Onetti is said to have declared that it was to be expected that I would win, because my brothel had an orchestra and his did not." Onetti is also said to have told an interviewer for a French television program, who seemed fascinated by the fact that the Uruguayan had only one tooth remaining in his mouth, "At one time I had a magnificent set of teeth, but I gave them to Mario Vargas Llosa."

(The translations are mine.)

Update: A passage in one of Cortázar's letters supports the anecdote about "El perseguidor": "Speaking of Montevideo, I had one of the greatest rewards of my life: a letter from Onetti in which he says that 'El perseguidor' had him in a bad way for fifteen days (lo tuvo quince días a mal traer)." (Letter to Francisco Porrúa, August 14, 1961, from the 2000 edition of Cartas, Volume I.)

Monday, December 03, 2012

More Stasys

I don't know if these are actual covers for the catalog of the Vilnius Book Festival or just posters, but either way I am in awe. The artwork is by Stasys Eidrigevičius.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Notes for a Commonplace Book (11)

Leszek Kołakowski:

In short, the word “happiness” does not seem applicable to divine life. But nor is it applicable to human beings. This is not just because we experience suffering. It is also because, even if we are not suffering at a given moment, even if we are able to experience physical and spiritual pleasure and moments beyond time, in the “eternal present” of love, we can never forget the existence of evil and the misery of the human condition. We participate in the suffering of others; we cannot eliminate the anticipation of death or the sorrows of life...

There are, of course, people who consider themselves happy because they are successful: healthy and rich, lacking nothing, respected (or feared) by their neighbors. Such people might believe that their life is what happiness is. But this is merely self-deception; and even they, from time to time at least, realize the truth. And the truth is that they are failures like the rest of us...

Happiness is something we can imagine but not experience. If we imagine that hell and purgatory are no longer in operation and that all human beings, every single one without exception, have been saved by God and are now enjoying celestial bliss, lacking nothing, perfectly satisfied, without pain or death, then we can imagine that their happiness is real and that the sorrows and suffering of the past have been forgotten. Such a condition can be imagined, but it has never been seen. It has never been seen.

From "Is God Happy?," The New York Review of Books, December 20, 2012.