Monday, July 29, 2019

Notes for a Commonplace Book (26)

Sally Mann:
At its most accomplished, photographic portraiture approaches the eloquence of oil painting in portraying human character, but when we allow snapshots or mediocre photographic portraits to represent us, we find they not only corrupt memory, they also have a troubling power to distort character and mislead posterity. Catch a person in an awkward moment, in a pose or expression that none of his friends would recognize, and this one mendacious photograph may well outlive all corrective testimony; people will study it for clues to the subject's character long after the death of the last person who could have told them how untrue it is...

It would be an interesting exercise to determine if there's some threshold number of photographs that would guarantee, when studied together so that the signature expressions were revealed and uncharacteristic gestures isolated, a reasonably accurate sense of how a person appeared to those who knew him.

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Upon the Retina

A Mr. Warner, photographer, on reading an account of Emma Jackson in St. Giles's, addressed a letter to Detective Officer James F. Thompson, informing him that "if the eyes of a murdered person be photographed within a certain time after death, upon the retina will be found depicted the last thing that appeared before them, and that in the present case the features of the murderer would most probably be found thereon." The writer exemplified his statement by the fact of his having, four years ago, taken a negative of the eye of a calf a few hours after death, and, upon a microscopic examination of the same, found depicted thereon the lines of the pavement on the slaughterhouse floor. This negative is unfortunately broken, and the pieces lost.

The Cincinnati Lancet & Observer (1863)

Monday, July 22, 2019

Notes Against a Manifesto

What is to be done? Is there anything more exasperating than the cycle of analysis regarding our political situation? How did we get here? Whose fault is it? The implicit argument too often seems to be that there is no dilemma, no reason to trade off one thing for another and not have it both ways, as long as you listen to me. I'm neither a prophet nor a political scientist — and no one listens to me (nor would I expect them to) — but at a fundamental level all of this profound wisdom seems to me to miss the point.

The manipulation, the lies, the social and economic and cultural anxieties, to which we all have been subjected are amply documented, and all of it takes its toll, warps our understanding and our better natures, makes us putty in the hands of demagogues. Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner, wrote Tolstoi, and that is true for the novelist but not satisfactory to the moral philosopher. If we're nothing more than the sum of our influences — and perhaps we're not, we can't prove the contrary — then we're not moral agents at all.

The social sciences are concerned with the study of causes; literature (of the best kind, something I insist on the existence of, Literature-with-a-capital L) is about freedom. Not freedom as the absence of chains or bars (not all of us have that luxury), but freedom as the consciousness of the ability to be a moral agent, in whatever sphere, even in the most constrained of circumstances.

Stalin supposedly commanded writers to be "engineers of human souls," but no writer worthy of the name is capable of doing any such thing. (Milan Kundera, among others, has said all of this better in his writings on the novel.) Engineers of the soul are, in any case, a dime a dozen. Nevertheless, writers can, and do, interrogate the world, and no sphere can be barred to them, politics least of all. Writers have (or don't have) responsibility because we all do (or don't).

The symbol of moral freedom is not, in my view, the broken chain but the absence of a net, the high-wire act with nothing to fall back on. A single false step will be relentlessly exposed. Anything else, all the deadly sins, can, in time, perhaps be forgiven, but not bad faith.

For the pious of various stripes there is rarely any dilemma; their convictions will always protect them from the pitfalls of freedom. But such security is itself highly contingent, for if the net that protects them is whisked away where are they then? (The argument that the net must necessarily exist because we need it is pure sleight-of-hand.) Some, it is true, manage to maintain something that amounts to faith without believing there is a net beneath them, and with them I have no quarrel. I'm not really interested in how people get to virtuous action, or what flags they wrap themselves in to justify its opposite. But at some point you need to be able to look in the mirror and recognize what you see.

In the end the overriding issue at the moment is comfortingly binary: Fascism, yes or no?

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Ouch (2)

Jeopardy clue: "Inscribed on Woody Guthrie's guitar: 'This machine kills' these." Contestant's response: "What is 'trees'?"

(Correct question: "What is 'fascists'?" Kudos to Jeopardy for remembering, especially now.)

Sunday, July 07, 2019

In Kakania

Robert Musil:
The administration of this country was carried out in an enlightened, hardly perceptible manner, with a cautious clipping of all sharp points, by the best bureaucracy in Europe, which could be accused of only one defect: it could not help regarding genius and enterprise of genius in private persons, unless privileged by high birth or State appointment, as ostentation, indeed presumption. But who would want unqualified persons putting their oar in, anyway? And besides, in Kakania it was only that a genius was always regarded as a lout, but never, as sometimes happened elsewhere, that a mere lout was regarded as a genius.
The Man without Qualities (Wilkins-Kaiser translation). "Kakania" was Musil's coinage for the kaiserlich und königlich Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Lucas, His Long Marches

Julio Cortázar:
Everybody knows that the Earth is separated from other heavenly bodies by a variable number of light-years. What few know (in reality, only I) is that Margarita is separated from me by a considerable number of snail years.

At first I thought it was a matter of tortoise years, but I've had to abandon that unit of measurement as too flattering. Little as a tortoise may travel, I would have ended up reaching Margarita, but, on the other hand, Osvaldo, my favorite snail, doesn't leave me the slightest hope. Who knows when he started the march that was imperceptibly taking him farther away from my left shoe, even though I had oriented him with extreme precision in the direction that would lead him to Margarita. Full of fresh lettuce, care, and lovingly attended, his first advance was promising, and I said to myself hopefully that before the patio pine passed beyond the height of the roof, Osvaldo's silver-plated horns would enter Margarita's field of vision to bring her my friendly message; in the meantime, from here I could be happy imagining her joy on seeing him arrive, the waving of her braids and arms.

All light years may be equal, but not so snail years, and Osvaldo has ceased to merit my trust. It isn't that he's stopped, since it's possible for me to verify by his silvery trail that he's continuing his march and that he's maintaining the right direction, although this presupposes his going up and down countless walls or passing completely through a noodle factory. But it's been more difficult for me to check that meritorious exactness, and twice I've been stopped by furious watchmen to whom I've had to tell the worst lies since the truth would have brought me a rain of whacks. The sad part is that Margarita, sitting in a pink velvet easy chair, is waiting for me on the other side of the city. If instead of Osvaldo I had made use of light years, we probably would already have had grandchildren; but when one loves long and softly, when one wants to come to the end of a drawn-out wait, it's logical that snail years should be chosen. It's so hard, after all, to decide on what the advantages and the disadvantages of these options are.
Translated by Gregory Rabassa. Lucas, the narrator, is a kind of alter ego of the author. The above piece is the final chapter of the book (which has been out of print for many years).

Thursday, July 04, 2019

The Age of Ubu

"A painting by Jean-Martin Bontoux of King Ubu in Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi, late twentieth century," via The New York Review of Books. The image accompanied an article by Charles Simic, who wrote in part:
One only had to watch the confirmation hearings for Trump's cabinet to fully grasp the sort of men and women who are now in charge in all spheres of life in this country. Lacking any feeling of empathy for their fellow Americans and their problems, convinced in their minds of their superiority because of their immense wealth, eager to pillage this country even more, they are bound to do evil because that's the kind of people they are. In the meantime, the crimes and injustices that are bound to multiply in the months and years ahead is what we have to look forward to. Ubu Roi may not be a great play, but we don't deserve Shakespeare.
"Year One: Our President Ubu"

Two years on, the situation has only grown more grotesque.