Monday, January 30, 2017

Krazy Kat's banjo

Cartoonist Chris Ware, in the New York Review of Books, on Krazy Kat's banjo:
I may be in the minority here, but I really think that most if not all readers of Krazy Kat during Herriman's lifetime would have had a hard time thinking of Krazy as anything but African-American... one detail in Herriman's strip that would have absolutely cemented this identity in the minds of contemporary readers has since passed into obscurity: Krazy Kat's banjo. Through received clichés and shifts of poverty and culture in America, the banjo has come to be thought of as an instrument of poor whites, but at the turn of the century, it was as emblematic as a watermelon as part of the African-American stereotype. In fact, the banjo has a solemn origin: descended from the West African akonting, xalam, and ngoni instruments, played as an accompaniment to storytelling by Wolof griots in Senegal or the Jola in Gambia, early instruments like what became the American banjo were recreated by American slaves from whatever plantation materials were at hand — gourds, turtle shells, coconuts, animal skins — to try to hold on to a memory of life and culture torn from their grasp.

To the modern reader, the banjo in Krazy Kat might seem a lighthearted accessory, but when Krazy picks it up to sing "There is a Heppy Land Fur, Fur Away," the meaning, to thoughtful readers of the 1920s to the 1940s, would have been clear. Even more astonishingly, Krazy never plays a "proper" banjo, but plays the gourd or coconut banjo, the origins of which by the time of the strip's appearance would indeed have been obscure. Herriman knew what he was doing, and it's not insignificant that the very last strip he left unfinished on his drawing table showed Krazy playing a gourd banjo.
Chris Ware, "To Walk in Beauty."

Related post: From the Archives: Krazy Kat

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sleepy Hollow, rising

Washington Irving's drowsy little village is now a busy multi-ethnic town, and today some 500 people from Sleepy Hollow and neighboring areas turned out on a beautiful winter afternoon for a march against the current administration's anti-immigrant policies. As the march passed street signs bearing names of immigrants dating back as far as Dutch times, the atmosphere was festive, friendly, and inclusive. The mayor joined the speakers in a park overlooking the Hudson, and there were plenty of dogs, strollers, and families.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Dreamers, rising

"Succeeding for me is how I can get my revenge. I want to break the stereotype of us being here taking jobs away and not helping the economy. I want Trump to see we're the total opposite of what he thinks." — Indira Islas, quoted in Dale Russakoff's article, "The Only Way We Can Fight Back Is to Excel," from the New York Times, January 29, 2017.

Also, from The Nation: "How to Fight Trump's Racist Immigration Policies."

Black lives, in black & white

"It was a real neighborhood, and a black experience no one talks about, because it wasn't filled with drugs and it wasn't filled with poverty. It was public schools, it was playing ball, it was playing music." — Arthur Bates, quoted in Anne Correal's account of how she recovered a discarded family photo album and traced the lives it recorded, from the New York Times, January 27, 2017.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Harry Mathews (1930-2017)

The writer Harry Mathews died yesterday. Weirdly, I found out because I looked him up to see what he was up to, well knowing that he was getting up there in years. I don't have anything particularly profound to say at the moment except what I would have said to Harry if I ever had the opportunity (we never met): "Thanks for writing those books." The obituary notices so far are mostly in French, but the Paris Review has a brief note and provides the one piece of good news: he completed a forthcoming new novel before he died.

My post from a few years back is here: Permutations of Mathews. Worth a listen is Isaiah Sheffer's hilarious reading of Mathews's story "Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double)" (you can skip ahead to 1:10 or so).

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Philip Roth: Presidents, real and imagined

From a New Yorker interview with Judith Thurman, Philip Roth on comparisons between his novel The Plot Against America, which imagined a Charles Lindbergh defeat of FDR, and our present situation:
It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump. Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed tremendous physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927. He had character and he had substance and, along with Henry Ford, was, worldwide, the most famous American of his day. Trump is just a con artist. The relevant book about Trump's American forebear is Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man, the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel—Melville's last—that could just as well have been called The Art of the Scam.
From the same interview:
I was born in 1933, the year that F.D.R. was inaugurated. He was President until I was twelve years old. I've been a Roosevelt Democrat ever since. I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish* than English.
On the present condition and role of the writer:
Unlike writers in Eastern Europe in the nineteen-seventies, American writers haven't had their driver's licenses confiscated and their children forbidden to matriculate in academic schools. Writers here don't live enslaved in a totalitarian police state, and it would be unwise to act as if we did, unless—or until—there is a genuine assault on our rights and the country is drowning in Trump's river of lies. In the meantime, I imagine writers will continue robustly to exploit the enormous American freedom that exists to write what they please, to speak out about the political situation, or to organize as they see fit.
* Jerkish: A term popularized by the Czech writer Ivan Klíma in his novel Love and Garbage. Said to have been developed for communication with chimpanzees, Jerkish has a vocabulary of only 225 words. Klíma characterized it as the standard dialect of Czechoslovakia's Stalinist-era politicians.

Sunday, January 22, 2017


These photos were taken in and around a tiny dry stream-bed or rill a few minutes' walk from where I live. Partly obscured by fallen trees, the location is only a few yards off a well-traveled trail, and there are signs of occasional visitors (water bottles, beer cans), but all things considered it's surprisingly pristine. There's no visible water in the gully, at least at the moment, but the water table is high enough to support a rich growth of mosses, lichens, fungi, and other flora. There are some interesting rock formations and veins of minerals as well.

I spent an hour or so clambering up the slope, trying to avoid crushing the delicate vegetation, taking as many photographs as I could, until I reached a knoll surmounted by the stone sentinels shown below. I'll go back again, but in the future I'll stick to the edges. Some things need their own space.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Rising Voices

Today, the New York Times has an astonishing series of photos from the nationwide worldwide women's marches of January 21, 2017.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Notes for a commonplace book (21)

If a man gives up poetry for power,
He shall have lots of power.
— Mark Strand, "The New Poetry Handbook"

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
— Mark 8:36

A man without a moral code is just an appetite.
— Peter Blegvad, "King Strut"

When I was first in Czechoslovakia, it occurred to me that I work in a society where as a writer everything goes and nothing matters, while for the Czech writers I met in Prague, nothing goes and everything matters.
— Philip Roth (1975 interview)

À l'aurore, armés d'une ardente patience, nous entrerons aux splendides Villes. (At dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid Cities.)
— Arthur Rimbaud, "Adieu"

You can hold back from the suffering of the world, you have free permission to do so and it is in accordance with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.
— Franz Kafka, "Reflections on Sin, Pain, Hope, and the True Way" (Muir translation)

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
— Leonard Cohen, "Anthem"

We are ugly but we have the music.*
— Leonard Cohen, "Chelsea Hotel No. 2"

*Also, he could have added, the art, literature, history, nature, science, scholarship, compassion, friendship, integrity, conscience, regret, resistance, subtlety, memory, imagination, humor, seriousness, curiosity...

Image: George Herriman's Krazy Kat, exact source unknown.

Update: one more, too good not to include:

The world is a dog's curly tail – no matter how many times we straighten it out, it keeps curling back. As artists we aspire to console, uplift and inspire. To unite us through sound across boundaries and borders and dissolve lines of demarcation that separate. The beautiful thing is that as human beings, even under the most adverse conditions, we are capable of kindness, compassion and love. Vision and hope. All life is one. Who knows, maybe one day we'll succeed. We go forward.
Charles Lloyd

Monday, January 16, 2017

Education in the Balance

A trailer from Brave New Films regarding our prospective Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, who sounds like she'll fit right in with the rest of the grifters who are preparing to run the country.

More information about DeVos is available here at the Nation.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Curiosity Cabinet of Captain Nemo

In the eleventh chapter of Jules Verne's Vingt mille lieues sous les mers, the narrator, the noted natural historian Professor Pierre Aronnax, is given a guided tour of the Nautilus, the vast submarine skippered by his host (and captor), the mysterious Captain Nemo. One room is fitted out as a kind of museum, adorned with priceless works of art as well as wonders of the undersea world, the latter all hand-collected by Nemo. Aronnax's description of these treasures, as he recalls them later, includes a catalogue of molluscs worth quoting in full. I'll translate only the beginning, because most of the paragraph consists only of glorious French names that can be appreciated even for their purely formal qualities alone — and because many of the words aren't in my dictionary in any case.
Un conchyliologue un peu nerveux se serait pâmé certainement devant d'autres vitrines plus nombreuses où étaient classés les échantillons de l'embranchement des mollusques. Je vis là une collection d'une valeur inestimable, et que le temps me manquerait à décrire tout entière. Parmi ces produits, je citerai, pour mémoire seulement...

["A somewhat nervous conchologist would surely swoon before other, more numerous showcases where samples of the line of molluscs were arranged. I saw there a collection of immeasurable value, of which time does not permit a full description. Among these productions, I mention, solely from memory..."]

- l'élégant marteau royal de l'Océan indien dont les régulières taches blanches ressortaient vivement sur un fond rouge et brun, - un spondyle impérial, aux vives couleurs, tout hérissé d'épines, rare spécimen dans les muséums européens, et dont j'estimai la valeur à vingt mille francs, un marteau commun des mers de la Nouvelle-Hollande, qu'on se procure difficilement, - des buccardes exotiques du Sénégal, fragiles coquilles blanches à doubles valves, qu'un souffle eût dissipées comme une bulle de savon, - plusieurs variétés des arrosoirs de Java, sortes de tubes calcaires bordés de replis foliacés, et très disputés par les amateurs, - toute une série de troques, les uns jaune verdâtre, pêchés dans les mers d'Amérique, les autres d'un brun roux, amis des eaux de la Nouvelle-Hollande, ceux-ci, venus du golfe du Mexique, et remarquables par leur coquille imbriquée, ceux-là, des stellaires trouvés dans les mers australes, et enfin, le plus rare de tous, le magnifique éperon de la Nouvelle-Zélande ; - puis, d'admirables tellines sulfurées, de précieuses espèces de cythérées et de Vénus, le cadran treillissé des côtes de Tranquebar, le sabot marbré à nacre resplendissante, les perroquets verts des mers de Chine, le cône presque inconnu du genre Coenodulli, toutes les variétés de porcelaines qui servent de monnaie dans l'Inde et en Afrique, la «Gloire de la Mer», la plus précieuse coquille des Indes orientales;...
(The last-mentioned specimen is doubtless the cone shell known in English as the Glory of the Seas.) The rest of the paragraph is a headlong rush of names, some recognizable, others (to me) inscrutable.
- enfin des littorines, des dauphinules, des turritelles des janthines, des ovules, des volutes, des olives, des mitres, des casques, des pourpres, des buccins, des harpes, des rochers, des tritons, des cérites, des fuseaux, des strombes, des pterocères, des patelles, des hyales, des cléodores, coquillages délicats et fragiles, que la science a baptisés de ses noms les plus charmants.
The image at the top of page is by Adolphe Philippe Millot (1857-1921).

Below, with another catalogue of marine marvels, is the Louisiana singer-songwriter Zachary Richard, singing a song he co-wrote with his young grandson Émile (the very amusing lyrics can be found here).

Que la coque de ton bateau soit imperméable à l'eau
Quand tu te lances à la mer.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Dante on the BRT

His face each downward held; their mouth the cold,
Their eyes express'd the dolour of their heart.

"B.R.T.'s Icy Inferno" (cropped version), an undated original drawing by cartoonist Winsor McCay, inscribed with lines from H. F. Cary's translation of Inferno XXXII. The Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company went belly-up in 1919, a year after the Malbone Street Wreck killed scores of passengers, and the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum believes that the drawing is from the first decade of the twentieth century.