Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Let's Go Surfing Now (Everybody's Learning How)

In the introduction to his collection of essays, Learning to Curse, cultural historian Stephen Greenblatt describes the time he spent in graduate school at Yale in the late 1960s under the tutelage of the magisterial William K. Wimsatt, who was at that time the doyen of the New Critics. Wimsatt, along with Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and many others at the time, espoused the theory that poetry was an autonomous realm, to be understood largely on its own terms as an aesthetic act. Greenblatt admits to be only mildly interested in that approach.
[Wimsatt’s] theory of the concrete universal—poetry as “an object which in a mysterious and special way is both highly general and highly particular”—seemed almost irresistibly true, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to enlist myself for life as a celebrant of the mystery. I would go in the late afternoon to the Elizabethan Club—all male, a black servant in a starched white jacket, cucumber sandwiches and tea—and listen to Wimsatt at the great round table hold forth like Doctor Johnson on poetry and aesthetics. Wimsatt seemed to be eight feet tall and to be the possessor of a set of absolute convictions, but I was anything but certain.
Greenblatt had earlier spent two years as a Fulbright Scholar at Cambridge, and he had been struck during his time there by the “intellectual power and moral authority” of the Marxist critic Raymond Williams. The New Critics didn’t think much of Marx. In one then-popular text, Wimstatt and Cleanth Brooks had written that “Marxism and the forms of social criticism more closely related to it, have never had any real concern with literature and literary problems,” and that the Marxist approach fundamentally “destroys the literary viewpoint.”

Greenblatt, on the contrary, had found Williams’ approach to literature fascinating, and also liberating.
In Williams’s lectures all that had been carefully excluded from the literary criticism in which I had been trained—who controlled access to the printing press, who owned the land and the factories, whose voices were being repressed as well as represented in literary texts, what social strategies were being served by the aesthetic values we constructed—came pressing back in upon the act of interpretation.

Greenblatt eventually chose this path, which he describes as “a shift away from a criticism centered on ‘verbal icons toward a criticism centered on cultural artifacts.” He originally described the work he was doing as Marxist aesthetics,  but later began to apply the terms “cultural poetics” and “new historicism” so as not to unduly circumscribe the approach.

I find this personal narrative interesting not only for what it describes, but also for what it leaves out. The path Greenblatt chose became popular, and nowadays I suspect you would be hard-pressed to find anyone at the university level considering poetry or any other art form from a purely aesthetic point of view. That's really a shame. What Greenblatt fails to note, and perhaps doesn’t even recognize, is that the two approaches to poetry have nothing in common except the text they might happen to be scrutinizing. 

Greenblatt recognizes that his focus has changed, but he doesn’t quite see how. It isn’t away from verbal icons toward cultural artifacts. What he meant to say was, “I thought I was interested in poetry. In fact, I was interested in sociology.”

There is nothing terribly wrong with the field of sociology, of course, and using literary texts as indicators of social conditions or historical change might have a certain validity, too. But it’s a mistake to image that such an approach has anything to do with literature itself. The conflation of these two realms has done serious harm to the modern psyche by excluding the possibility that life can be seized and appreciated in its fullness (which is what poetry does) rather than merely picked apart to expose examples of injustice and oppression (which is what both sociology and literary “theory” tend to do.)

Let me give you an example of how far the rot has spread. In a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, critic Ben Ratliff takes up the case of the Beach Boys, on the lookout, it would appear, not for beauty but for “relevance.”
Time and social change have been rough on the Beach Boys. Their best-known hits (say, “California Girls,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “I Get Around”) are poems of unenlightened straight-male privilege, white privilege, beach privilege. It is hard to imagine that they helped anyone toward self-determination or achieving their social rights. Brian Wilson’s great integrative achievement as a songwriter and producer was absorbed in bits and pieces by others—Paul McCartney especially—but it mostly worked for him alone. In their rhythm and humor the Beach Boys sound squarer all the time compared to Motown, the Beatles, and the Stones, and a lot of Phil Spector.
It never occurred to me that the Stones or Paul MCCartney might be socially relevant, but be that as it may, is that what art is supposed to do? Help people toward social rights? Influence other artists? I don’t think so. At least not exclusively, or even primarily. I don’t listen to the Beach Boys now, but I did when I was twelve, and I still get a kick out of their vocal harmonies … for about thirty seconds. And having spent quite a bit of time on the California coast, I now see more clearly than I did as a teen how liberating and eternally cool surfing can be. 

The New Critics were right, in other words, when they defended the autonomy and universality  of works of art and the inadequacy of biographical and sociological interpretations to take their full measure. Such things as "beauty" aren’t easy to discuss in class, however, and recourse to phrases such as “concrete universal” soon become tiresome and unilluminating, as Greenblatt points out. A remark by John Crowe Ransom that I came upon decades ago, when I was an undergraduate, has stuck with me, though I might not be remembering it accurately: “A piece of literary criticism is a small work of art that we dedicate to a great work of art.”

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Shaking the Post-Election Blues

I. Outdoor Expo

When November gloom arrives, you could do worse than head down to the Outdoor Expo that Midwest Mountaineering hosts every year on the West Bank. The event consists of films, lectures, booths tended by outdoor organizations, and a store-wide sale on colorful tents, sleeping bags, hi-tech clothes, and assorted camping paraphernalia.

Approaching via Washington Avenue North, I was astounded to see how many glitzy coffee shops have sprung up along that warehouse canyon. And on a Saturday morning they all seemed to be hopping. 

Along the way we passed countless purple-clad football fans who had snagged affordable parking and were heading for their designated tailgate parties (four hours before the game). We parked in the gravel lot behind Caesar's (is Caesar's still there?), then hurried over to Hanson Hall to listen to a 90-minute talk about hiking in the Dolomites. The pictures were stunning and the presenter was personable. It would seem that no one knows more about the trails in that vast region than he does. He has also gotten to know the locals over the years, the best hotels and restaurants, the cable cars, and so on.

It was a pleasant way to spend a part of the morning. However, I doubt if I'll be spending $650 a day to take a guided tour of the region any time soon. Evidently many people have. Part of the guide's philosophy is that it's more fun to take day-hikes using a single village as a base than to do a cross-country trek. After the talk someone asked him where his "base" was. "I can't tell you that," he said. "I've spent too much time, too much time..." 

The second talk we attended was given by a man who'd hiked the Coast-to Coast trail across England with his wife. It took them fourteen days. His photos weren't quite as good. For that matter, the countryside, beautiful though it may be, wasn't quite so stunning as the Dolomites. But the talk was informative, and he offered some very useful information for arranging sherpa services and booking rooms along the way.

Both presentations made it easier for me to imagine visiting such places, and I guess that's the point.

In the nearby canvas tent, we ran into a succession of organizations that brought back memories of adventures I had decades ago. At the Border Trail booth I was reminded that I hiked that route before there was a trail of any kind along the south shore of South Lake, and was lucky to come upon a guy with a boat who ferried me across the neck of Magnetic Lake. In retrospect, the hike seems almost mythic.

At the booth for the Kekekabic Trail Association, I was reminded that I have hiked that 44-mile trail three times, but that was way back when, in the early 1970s.

A young woman in one booth was setting out small portions of tepid freeze-dried beans and rice on little paper plates, without much enthusiasm. They looked GROSS ... but I ate one. It was so-so, though it would probably taste much better after a long day on the trail. (I don't remember the brand. Backcountry Pantry?)

Vistabule Trailers had a booth. Also the Parks and Trails Association, of which we're members. Sierra Club. The Superior Hiking Trail. The two guys in the winter camping booth looked like they'd just climbed out of a tent after a rough night in the wild.

An entire chamber of the huge tent was devoted to cross-country skis. When we finally made it into the store itself, we soon ran into Hilary's cousin, John. He was standing in the clothing department chatting with a salesman and clutching a small hatchet with a fine leather sheath. "I've always wanted one of these," he said, gripping the shaft and suddenly taking on the look of a twelve-year-old boy.

It was the Hultafors Axe, I later learned, which the Swedes have been making since 1697. The store also stocks hand-forged axes from Granfors Bruk and Wetterlings.

I've never heard of any of these manufacturers. Maybe I should do some research. My hatchet is so dull, I think you could pound a nail with the blade. And the rubberized grip is no longer firmly attached to the stainless steel shaft, so you have to be careful when you're splitting wood to avoid sending the business end on a dangerous trajectory across the campsite.

November is when we dream of the adventures that lie ahead. Maybe we're looking less at the maps these days and more at the air mattresses. But that's because we've become more adept at finding our way, and we've also learned that there are plenty of staggering sights to be had just a few miles down the path.

II. Poetry Night

A poetry reading can be fun. When Margaret Hasse gives one, it's often more than that.

In part, this is because Margaret has gotten to know so many interesting people during her years as a poet, teacher, and arts organizer. At her recent reading at the Loft, she called upon a few of them to choose one of the poems from her new book, Between Us, and explain briefly how they came to know Margaret and why they chose that particular poem to read. 

Among those that shared this information with us were a woman from South Dakota—a good friend of Margaret's older sister who, decades after leaving home, ran into Margaret, first in a Nodin Press poetry anthology, and then in person on a bus in South Minneapolis. Another was Clarence White, who first met Margaret while he was a student in St. Cloud; now, decades later, he co-curates the Banfill-Locke poetry series with her.

Another long-time friend, a Jungian psychoanalyst by trade, read a dream poem about a bat; Margaret's son Alex, jazz trumpeter and tennis pro, read a poem about a boy being taught by his father to ride a bike, giving as a reason that "I think it's about me."

In short, the performance, far from being that of hermetic literary associations and references, demonstrated how many ways poetry can reach out beyond purely literary concerns to illuminate relationships and experiences of all kinds.

The poems Margaret read herself amplified the effect. Her poem "Come Home, Our Sons," which touches in a personal way upon the Philando Castile shooting, was a striking example of how poetry can take us beyond politics, without trivializing the political problems we struggle with. Another poem, slightly humorous, was about memory loss. But the image that sticks with me now came at the end of a poem about a young woman who cuts herself, not because she wants to die, but because she wants to draw "deep pain" out of herself and drain it, so she can live. "She will flush the blotting tissue," the poem concludes

in the toilet like red paper roses
some other girl might wear to a prom.

After the reading everyone gathered in the lobby for wine, nuts, chocolate cake, and publisher Norton Stillman's famous spinach dip. A long line curled through the middle of the room of guests eager to buy books signed and personalized by the author--their teacher, neighbor, friend. This is the point at which I usually make myself scarce. I know Margaret and her husband, Dave, fairly well, but did not expect to see too many other familiar faces. I was glad to meet up with a few old friends myself, and even brazenly horse-collared Margaret's sister, Ellen, whom I recognized by sight but had never met before. We were soon exchanging our enthusiasm for public libraries and Louise Penny mysteries. And she convinced me that I ought to pay another visit to her adopted home town of Iowa City.  

"But that's Trump country," I said.

"Oh, no," she replied. "There's a little corridor running from Iowa City north to Cedar Rapids, and on to ..."

III. ¡Sacabuche!

The James Ford Bell Library invited the Renaissance Canadian ensemble ¡Sacabuche! to give a performance as part of its "Celebrating Venice!" series, which also included lectures on subjects such as "Mapping Muslim Jerusalem in Late Medieval German Pilgrimage" and "A Knight of the Italian Renaissance: Pietro Bembo and the Order of Malta." I signed up for the lectures, which were free, but failed on each occasion to drag myself away from the computer, down to the U of M campus, and up to the fourth floor of Wilson Library.

We did attend the concert, and it turned out to be a treat. It was billed as a multimedia presentation, but that was only barely accurate. The major visual element was a large woodcut map of Venice circa 1500 that was projected onto either side of the nave of First Methodist Church on Lowry Hill, where the performance took place. Aside from a dozen or more musicians, both vocal and instrumental, two readers were involved in the show, and as they dramatized a particular text, a circle would appear on the maps indicating the location of the event or institution to which it referred.

The main draw, of course, was the music, and it was very fine indeed. Renaissance music comes in several varieties, of course, but you can be sure that the progressions and cadences will be altogether different, due to their polyphonic construction, from the ones baroque and classical composers liked to work with. Less dramatic, perhaps, more floating, texturally complex, and ethereal, notwithstanding the prominent role played by sackbutts of several sizes. Sacred or secular, these pieces by Monteverdi, Gabrieli, Mainerio, and other masters of the period carried a jewel-like perfection that could easily have been marred by bad entrances or shaky pitch.

The program also contained three new pieces by New Brunswick composer Kevin Morse, which served as refreshing points of contrast without disrupting the mood overmuch. Sephardic, Turkish, and Acadian folksongs were also on the bill. (Venice was the New York of its time, after all, the crossroads of the Western world.)

I even found the audience interesting. Who were these people, many of whom seemed to know one another? Professors, musicians, grad students who had attended the lectures, early music specialists or students of comparative literature? Some showed up in suit and tie (well, it was a Sunday afternoon) while others seemed perfectly comfortable in jeans and t-shirts.  

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The First Snowfall

It does something to the heart—deflates it, I think, and sends it scurrying for shelter. But it isn't an altogether bad feeling. There's an element of relief involved, and also one of surrender. At the same time, one feels a secret and almost conspiratorial joy. Now we can start thinking about "inner" things, sit in front of the fire at 5 p.m. while the cauliflower for the spaghetti sauce  roasts in the oven.

With whom are we conspiring? With the night, of course. And with that inner flame that begins to reassert itself as the abundant heat of summer dwindles.

When the snow started to fall, I was sitting in a cafe with my father-in-law, Gene, who's ninety-two. He said, "When the Armistice Day Blizzard hit, I was in the bar of the Lemington Hotel with two friends. We were trapped there for three days."

I had never heard that story before.

Gene and I had just attended a morning concert together. Three of the four composers involved—Smit, Schulhoff, and Karel—died in concentration camps. The lobby of the church where the performance took place contained an exhibit of brightly color photographs taken recently of men and women, all residents of the Twin Cities, who had survived those camps and are presumably still alive.

The music being performed was full of festive French carnival colors in the manner of Poulenc, 
Milhaud, and Auric, and sprightly Czech folk dance tunes, somewhat rearranged and homogenized for the concert stage—though they kept the 5/4 time. I liked them all.

At the end of World War II, Gene was among the GIs who came upon and liberated the concentration camps. No one told them what to expect. No one told them the camps were there.

I have heard that story before. Gene didn't feel the need to bring it up again. 

No, we talked about the son-in-law of a family friend, a seasoned chef who had catered the Ryder's Cup and was then invited to do the same for Prince's funeral. We talked about the historian Joseph Ellis and the travel writer Norman Lewis. We talked about nieces and nephews, jazz singers and retirement homes.

The concert hall had been filled with elderly women and men who sometimes had trouble making their way across the lobby, but who were nevertheless continuing to find ways to enjoy life. And here we were, as the snow flashed by the window in violent streaks and began to obscure the still-green grass, chowing down as if there were no tomorrow.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Joy of Compost

Perhaps "joy" is too strong a word to describe the quiet pleasure one derives from a low mound of rotting leaves and vegetable scraps. Then again, must all our joys be feverish and exhausting?

The beauty of compost lies in the connections between the carrot peels we stuff into a clear plastic container by the sink, the leaves that enjoy a brief moment of glory before dropping every fall, and the rich dark organic matter that develops over time in the wire-enclosed bin in the far corner of the back yard. We live in the midst of these connections, which operate on several levels of time. The vegetable scraps get carried out maybe three times a week. The leaves fall once a year. (You knew that.) I dig deep into the pile perhaps once every three years.

We water the pile occasionally in dry weather, but almost never climb inside the wire enclosure, which might be six feet in diameter, to "turn" the leaves and scraps. Mostly the pile takes care of itself, overfull by the time the snow falls, but sunken again soon enough after warm days return. 

The lovely weather this fall made it easy to delay raking the leaves, and that presented an opportunity to extract the mature compost over several days, a few wheel barrel's full at a time. I dumped some on the tomato patch in the front yard by the driveway, and another good pile on the wedge-shaped plot of annuals near the front door.
A few days later I brought some compost over to the terraced beds under the bedroom window, and I also spread some out around the turtleheads and the black-eyes susans.

None of this could really be called work.  I spent a lot of time pondering garden strategy—far longer than I needed to. 

One of the pleasures of the composting  process is that it gets you out into the further reaches of the yard, places you wouldn't otherwise visit so often, thus giving you a fresh perspective on things 
you've looked at many times before. These are the moments when you begin to dimly comprehend how beautiful and precious life is, or can be, when things are going well and the weather's nice and you've got the time to zone out, attentive to the moss and the clouds and other things that mean nothing to you or anyone else--things quietly proceeding on their own path.

Is compost really worth anything to the plants? Evidently it can improve soil structure, add nutrients, attract earthworms, and reduce problems with pests.

I simply like the look of it. At this stage it's almost fluffy, but by next spring it will have flattened out and basically disappeared. Perhaps I'll even have forgotten I ever messed with it, as the violets and bleeding-heart emerge and a new pile of leaves, compressed by the snow, sinks down ever further in its wire bin.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Nine Films About Art

I haven't been to many films since the weather turned warm back in April. Now that the evenings have gone dark and we've revived our Netflix subscription, I thought it might be worthwhile to throw out a few comments about films I have seen recently, all of which seem to have been about music, literature, the theater,or some other type of art.

The Music of Strangers

The famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma gathered together a group of musicians from various parts of the world as a musical experiment. The individuals involved might all be considered to be from places on the Silk Road leading across the desert spaces from China to the Mediterranean.  But would it be possible to find common ground for performance amid their disparate musical styles?

Part of the film is devoted to answering that question, but a larger part focuses on the stories of individual musicians from Iran, Syria, Galicia, and other places who have endured persecution or have otherwise encountered difficulties sharing their talents and promoting their art. (In many parts of the world, indigenous art forms are perceived as a threat to the authority of the unified "state.")

A third strand of inquiry involves Yo-yo Ma himself. The renowned cellist was a child prodigy who attained virtuosity without much effort—or interest. As he works in the film to make sense of these related but disparate musical traditions, Ma is also trying to reconnect to his own musical roots and revivify his passion for performance.

The film, in the best documentary tradition, is a loosely woven garment, held together by threads of rehearsal and performance, but more devoted to stories of individual musicians than to the ensemble which has brought them together.  Yet the musicians do connect with one another, and also with us. It's an easy garment to wear.

The End of the Tour

I have never read the novel Infinite Jest, and I'm pretty sure I never will, though I have read a few tennis articles by its author, David Foster Wallace. This film chronicles the last seven days of a book tour in which Wallace is accompanied by a reporter from Rolling Stone (played by Jesse Isenberg) who also happens to be a budding novelist. The two discuss literature, life, literature, work, fame, celebrity, junk food,  and other things as they travel together from one book event to another, slowly generating a camaraderie that's laced with suspicion and envy, professionalism and need, vanity and self-disgust. The interactions are complex and often edgy, as Wallace pursues the renown that will accompany the feature story while remaining wary of Eisenberg's power to "spin" the article any way he chooses. Whether these conversations offer an accurate portrait of Wallace I have no idea, but they make for an absorbing film experience.

Museum Hours

This film, released in 2012, is probably a cult classic by now. Much of it takes place in the Kunstehistorishes Museum in Vienna, where a tall, middle-aged guard named Johann sits on a bench thinking his private thoughts (in voice-over) as the patrons pass by. Just when we're beginning to think the film is a genuine slice-of-life documentary on the order of Frederick Wiseman's National Gallery, Johann makes an effort to help a stranger named Anne, who has arrived in town from Montreal to visit a relative she hardly knows in the hospital. She has little money, doesn't know the city, and returns to the museum repeatedly as a way to fill her idle hours. Anne and Johann are both gentle souls, lonely but also widely curious, and they slowly begin to open up to one another as the empty days go by.

This plot line—it would be a misleading to call it a romance—never comes to dominate the screen, but serves as a counterpoint to the seemingly random but mildly engaging images the camera draws our attention to both within the museum and also on the city streets, which include bored children and cawing crows, streetcars in the snow, and closeups of Grand Master paintings. At one point we listen for several minutes to a lecture being given by one of the docents about the work of Breugel, and the parallels between his peasant-oriented work and the film we're watching become clear. One remark that she makes could stand as the theme of Museum Hours: a painting's ostensible focus and its actual point of interest are not necessarily the same thing.

Mary Margaret O'hara, a  folk-singer from Montreal, deserves a special note for her whimsical, slightly confused, and artfully understated portrayal of Anne, who often talks in a whisper and sometimes sings to herself, but moves through this difficult and disorienting episode in her life with quiet courage and genuine appreciation of the beauty that surrounds her.   

Eight Days a Week

Ron Howard's tribute to the Beatles focuses on the years during which they toured. It's a fine recapitulation that brings out the band's musical talent and wit, while also highlighting the challenges and drudgery of performing in large stadiums and responding ad nauseum to inane questions from the press. Those of us who grew up during that era will also remember the darkening tone, the groupies and drugs, the acrimony and divisiveness of the group's last years, but you'll hear little about those things here. When Howard was asked about such omissions, he replied with a smile, "I made the film I wanted to make."

It's a good one.

Words and Pictures

It's one of those films that carry you along on the strength of the bubbling plot and the actors' charisma. The absurdities of the plot only ring out later ... and by then it's too late!

The action takes place at a prep school where Jack (Clive Owen) teaches English and publishes the school's literary magazine. He's evidently a good teacher, but he hasn't published anything of note in fifteen years, and the school in on the verge of dropping the publication, which costs a lot to print and seems less than relevant when most of the students are glued to their mobile devices. Jack is also a drinker, and has been tossed out of the swanky local restaurant and gathering place due to outlandish behavior.  The story gets more interesting when a new teacher arrives on campus: an abstract painter named Dina (Juliette Binoche) who suffers from arthritis and hasn't painted much in years. Sparks fly immediately, and Jack turns up the heat by challenging Dina and her students to a battle to determine whether words or pictures have more expressive power.

Little point would be served in identifying the various weaknesses in this scenario as it plays itself out. Better to simply sit back and watch the story unfold.

Miles Ahead

It's difficult to remain "cool" and stay true to your art, without coming off like a jerk. Of course, being a jerk is OK too, if you stay cool enough to pull it off, though the inference is that you don't have time for the squares and the "little people." Which isn't very cool.

Miles Davis was perhaps never quite as cool as he thought he was. He was banned from Bradley's, the premier later-night hang-out for jazz musicians in New York City, because, as the owner's wife once observed, he "felt that he could come in and order anything for himself and his friends without being obligated to pay for any of it."

But be that as it may, it's especially difficult to portray coolness on the screen. Don Cheedle has failed to do so in his conceptually imaginative but cantankerous and cliché-ridden portrait of the legendary trumpeter. It's an exercise in faux-coolness that I found very hard to watch. In fact, I turned it off half way through and dropped the last good album Miles made, Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968), into the CD player. Now that's cool.

Herb and Dorothy

Most of us are reluctant to buy original works of art. They cost a lot more than posters and we're afraid that our interest is likely to fade with time. Many who do buy original pieces are inspired by the belief that the works they own will appreciate in value over time, which makes the art seem like a shrewd investment rather than a frivolous purchase, even when it's moldering in the back of the closet.

Herb and Dorothy Vogel were different. She was a librarian. He was a postal worker. They both loved looking at art, owning works of art, thinking about art, getting to know the artists and trying to understand how a given artist's work had developed over time. So they devised a strategy: live on Dorothy's modest salary and buy artworks with Herb's. They went to openings and visited unknown artists in their studios. Over the course of time they crowded their narrow apartment with a collection that's now worth millions.

As it happens, they began collecting in the early 1960s, and took a liking to Minimalist and Conceptual art by Robert and Sylvia Mangold, Richard Tuttle, Lynda Benglis, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Christo, and other artists  who at the time were undiscovered or unappreciated.

This is the Vogel's story, told through interviews with the Vogels themselves and the artists they collected. We may remain unimpressed with the art they purchased, whatever its current price tag might be, but this charming couple pursued their passion, followed their instincts, and had a very good time doing so. And it's a lot of fun watching it all happen.   

Love and Mercy

You will meet few people nowadays prepared to defend the position that the Beach Boys belong on the same tier of the rock-and-roll pantheon as the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, Neil Young, and a few others. But most of us nevertheless want to know: Whatever happened to Brian Wilson? 

In his directorial  debut, producer Bill Pohlad tells the story of Brian's youthful naiveté and success, parental browbeating, recording studio magic, and subsequent manipulation by a self-serving pharmacological "expert" (Paul Giametti). The story is told in a series of flashbacks anchored by a modern-day love story. John Cusack plays the middle-aged Wilson, Paul Dano plays the youthful wunderkind. It's a complicated, sad, and inspiring tale, with less surfing music than we might have liked, but more depth and meaning.       

The Wrecking Crew

To get a more complete picture of the Beach Boys phenomenon, I would recommend sandwiching Love and Mercy between the surfing documentary Riding Giants (2004) and The Wrecking Crew (2008), which tells the tale of the studio musicians who actually played (and often created) the music we hear on the great Beach Boys hits. This small group of relatively unknown instrumentalists also created the instrumental backdrop to hit by Nat "King" Cole, The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkle, the Mamas and the Papas, Dean Martin, Elvis, Cher, and many others.

Clouds of Sils Maria

It's difficult to make a film about a "famous" fictional actress because viewers have no idea how that fame developed or what kind of weight it now carries. Thus we have Juliette Binoche, an aging actress herself, playing an aging actress questioning her talents and struggling to decide whether to take the part of an older woman in a drama in which she made her name decades earlier playing the younger role. Whatever happens, it doesn't seem very important in the grand scheme of things. Everyone might as well go down to the basement of the ritzy Swiss lodge and play Foosball.

Nevertheless, Binoche and Kristen Steward (the young assistant) keep our interest up though a long series of interviews and conversations. One of the chief issue seems to be whether the clouds of fog will rise up through the pass.( Hence the otherwise incomprehensible name of the film.)

Strange but true: I enjoyed the film from beginning to end without caring for an instant what happened to anyone in it.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Trump and the Theological Origins of Modernity

On a Sunday afternoon, following a spectacular road trip down the Mississippi to Red Wing and then back up the Wisconsin side, with a slice of cheese on the plate and a Picardy glass of pinot noir beside it, the time has perhaps arrived to consider whether the Trump phenomenon might be properly explained by reference to the nominalist challenge to Scholasticism that arose in the early fourteenth century.

That seems to be the thesis advanced by Michael Allen Gillespie in his recent book, The Theological Origins of Modernity. One cannot read more than a few pages of this crisply written work without screeching to a halt repeatedly at the specious generalizations, the most glaring of which concerns the concept of modernity itself. Does such a thing as modernity exist? If so, in what does it consist?

The simple answer is that modernity does not exist in any palpable way. We are all cave dwellers, slaves, saints, foragers, mystics, warriors, scientists, artists, lovers, bureaucrats, and heals, and the recent history of our nation reflects that complex and contradictory makeup. The more historically minded among us might sometimes propose that we are creatures of reason and self-assertion who have triumphed over the dogma and superstition of the Middle Ages, and such is, in fact, the case. But only to a degree.

The same thing could be said in reverse, of course. Very few people who lived during the Middle Ages knew the slightest thing about the medieval "world view" so amply elaborated by Thomas Aquinas, and they certainly knew nothing at all about the long-running dispute between the "realists" and the "nominalists." They could be very "modern." If you've read a few bawdy stories from the Decameron (1353) or the even more risque French fabliaux upon which Boccaccio's tales are often based, the similarity between the modern era and the Middle Ages becomes more striking still.

And consider the troubadours, who, nine hundred years ago,  were often filled with "modernist" individuality and  self-assertion. In one of his lyrics Bernart de Ventadorn (ca. 1150) writes:

Of course it’s no wonder I sing
better than any other troubadour:
my heart draws me more toward love,
and I am better made for his command.
Heart body knowledge sense
strength and energy—I have set all on love,
The rein draws me straight toward love,
and I cannot turn toward anything else.

A man is really dead when he does not feel
some sweet taste of love in his heart;
and what is it worth to live without worth,
except to irritate everybody?
May the Lord God never hate me so
that I live another day, or even less than a day,
after I am guilty of being such a pest,

and I no longer have the will to love.

To modern ears verses of this kind may sound naive. In any case, the idea they advance—that preferential amorous love lies at the center of masculine self-worth—is not terribly Christian. Fealty to the local duke or king, certainly; dedication to a life of spiritual exercises and obligations, of course. But on what grounds can personal love be elevated to the highest plane of value? Yet this is what the troubadours espoused repeatedly, and it had the effect of turning life, at least as it appears in the courtly literature of the times, into a series of inspired but also arbitrary, grandiose, and often ridiculous adventures.

The German scholar Erich Auerbach once noted:
When we moderns speak of adventure, we mean something unstable, peripheral, disordered… a something that stands outside the real meaning of existence. All of this is precisely what the word does not mean in the courtly romance. On the contrary, trial through adventure is the real meaning of the knight’s ideal existence.
I look forward to examining Gillespie's analysis of the nominalist challenge to the realist orthodoxy more closely. The arguments bear striking parallels to those we use today to keep the arrogance of scientistic reasoning at bay. But I doubt whether he will hit on the central truth of the matter: the nominalists were right, for the most part. There are many horses in the world, but the thing called "horse" does not actually exist. Another way of putting the same point is that Aristotle's notion of "species," which is still in wide use today, is a fiction—a useful but metaphysically empty fiction. (I have a secret hunch that this is what Gillespie's overriding point will turn out to be. But will I have the patience to ferret it out?)

Matters are complicated by the fact that in a few instances, the realists had the upper ground, and these are the most important ones. Every beautiful thing partakes of "beauty." Every accurate judgment partakes of "truth." Every loving act partakes of that quality. (Ask Bernart!) And speaking more broadly (but also more vaguely), every worthy action of any kind partakes of "god." 

Yet beyond the specific instances, these things—beauty, truth, love, god—do actually exist. We feel them, sense them, strive for them every day.

And that's what Democrats will be voting to preserve and extend on election day. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Indian Summer

It was one of those stunning mornings after an overnight  rain, cool and wet and bright with sun. Yellow leaves on the trees, tending toward orange-red here and there.

I had gone to pick up some vegetables for soup and other concoctions; the store was largely deserted, a seminar was underway in the produce department, and I thought to myself: "That's what I should have been: a produce stocker."

For a split second I even entertained the thought that maybe it wasn't too late! No, it is too late.

When I stepped out into the glaring sun of the parking lot, I was pleasantly reminded of a parking lot I crossed in Apache Junction, Arizona, many years ago on a similarly brilliant morning. There was a cactus wren hopping around amid the litter that morning, and there might even have been frost on the concrete. But the essential quality was unbounded light and joy. Just like yesterday.(And today)

How do we explain this flashback? It might have been because I was listening to a Carlos Nakai CD on my way to the store. Why? Because I'm getting a string of digital images together for a talk I'm scheduled to give on Friday about the National Parks. Earlier in the morning I'd been sorting through a few scenes of Canyonlands. 

No point in talking about the Maze. Few in the audience of fifty-odd retirees are likely to be going there any time soon. But what about Horseshoe Canyon, with its spooky Barrier-style petroglyphs? It's a seven-mile hike there and back down the floor of a deserted canyon, but nevertheless it would be well worth showing some images of the art.

I had planned to cook up some broccoli-wild rice casserole for my in-laws, who are experiencing some mobility constraints, but in the end I decided to make a batch of what I call Beltrami Salad. 

Count Beltrami, as you may know, was an Italian adventurer (but not a count) who hooked a ride on a steamboat with Stephen Long in 1823 up the Minnesota River, then down the Red River of the North. Long had been sent to determine where the border between the United States and British territories lay; Beltrami was confident that he was about to discover the source of the Mississippi River through the back door, as it were. He hired an Indian guide who abandoned him somewhere on the Red Lake River, but Beltrami persevered,  hauling his canoe upstream single-handedly, and eventually arrived at a body of water he named Lake Luisa, in honor of his girlfriend. 

It isn't the headwaters of the Mississippi ... but there's a monument on a hill nearby commemorating Beltrami's near-miss.

Beltrami Salad is part Italian and part Native American. It consists of wild rice mixed with orzo and flavored with sautéed shallots and tarragon—a bit of a French touch. There were some mushrooms in the fridge getting old, and I cooked some of them up, too, and tossed them in.

The smell of wild rice cooking reminds me of wet tree bark. A woodsy, autumnal smell. Hilary cut a handful of parsley from the front garden, and I tossed that in, too.

The day had remained stunning throughout, but as twilight approached I was looking around for something suitable to read—something to sustain the pastoral yet vaguely ecstatic mood. Patrick Modiano, the lugubrious French novelist? No way. Alexander Hamilton: from Obscurity to Greatness? Too political. I finally hit upon something that suited the moment perfectly: Good Seeds—A Menominee Indian Food Memoir by Thomas Pecore Weso. 

In this short book (113 pages of text) Weso describes growing up on the Menominee Reservation, his focus being on the things he hunted, the crops he and his relatives grew, and the berries and nuts various members of the tribe gathered. The book has a quiet tone, direct, honest, charming, and curious rather than edgy or strident. The first two chapters set the mood, with grandmother cooking downstairs while grandfather prays—or "dreams," as Weso puts it—upstairs.  Subsequent chapters are devoted to fishing, hunting, and fruit-gathering, though there are also chapters about German beer and Wisconsin Diner food. Each chapter concludes with a few recipes.

Weso's grandfather looms large in the early pages. He comes across as a leader, a diplomat, someone not only capable of building bridges between whites and Indians, but also aware of how important it is to do so. Weso reports that he was thirty-five years old the first time he saw his grandfather in traditional Indian garb. It was at a peyote ceremony of the Native American church. His grandfather was wearing a headband more intricate and idiosyncratic than any he had seen before, and he speculated that it dated from pre-contact times. He considers it a reflection of how highly esteemed in the community his grandfather was.
"I can now see," Weso writes, "that Grandpa was trying to create a political climate in accordance with a spiritual climate, and I think people expected him to do this in his role as a medicine man. My grandfather talked to white people, black people, Indian people, and he tried to learn how to interact with each equally...  My grandfather never told boastful stories about himself, as he was very modest, but he was a leader."
Probing a little deeper into his grandfather's philosophy, Weso concludes that is was based on the urge to help people feel better about themselves. "If people feel good about themselves, they take better care of themselves, their domain, their town, and their land."

The good-natured tone of Good Seeds is no doubt a reflection of Weso's success at absorbing the teachings of his revered grandfather, from whom he learned that even the simplest daily tasks could carry far more than a merely practical import.
"Part of Grandpas teaching was gardening. We always had a family garden. If any of us went to the garden to do some watering or hoeing, we could see our efforts bear fruit. That reward also had a spiritual aspect."
Good Seeds isn't a self-help book, however, and once having introduced us to this "philosophy," Weso wisely proceeds to describe various food-related activities on the reservation that he thinks might interest his readers. Here are a few typical remarks:
 "When I was young, I thought a deer was a big animal, but it is not, especially on the reservation. A deer is really a big rabbit. It is tasty, and if a deer is available, it is welcome. Venison stew tastes delicious. But comparatively, it is the runty ungulate after bison, then elk. There was this guy on the rez with a huge appetite who could sit down and eat an entire deer. People did not like hunting with him."
"Bears are another source of meat on the Menominee rez, but I was never much of a bear hunter. I was a good shot, and I did not mind killing a squirrel, a rabbit, or a partridge. Even if it had a soul, it could not be a very big soul. I could not, however, bring myself to kill bear. I did kill one as a young man, and that was enough. It was like killing another man."
"Any time a group of people live together, suddenly there is no firewood within walking distance."
"The body of a beaver is about the size of the body of a white-tail deer...Some people like the taste of beaver, but to me it is less desirable—though it does taste better than muskrat or raccoon."
"On the rez are many edible ferns. Fiddleheads, curled-up shoots of ferns, are not that deli­cious. They are slimy, mucilaginous, and furry. The ostrich fiddle- head fern is edible—not poisonous. I could not eat a pot full."
"Generally blackberries grow where bears live, and there are mosquitoes. All in all, the mosquitoes are worse than the bears."
In his youth, Weso was influenced by the writings of Euell Gibbons, like many other outdoorsy types, including me. "I was from that generation," he says. At another point in the narrative he writes, with both humor and candor:
"This was during President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the era when people were expressing their cultural heritage more readily. Headbands had become a common thing. Anyone with one re­cessive Indian gene wore a headband. Those were the days when I always had a pair of moccasins. From early spring to late fall, I wore only moccasins, not as an expression of culture, but because they were very comfortable."
The portrait he paints of reservation life is relaxed and multifaceted. His grandmother, who also looms large throughout the book, worked in a store from six-thirty a.m. till dark, and often served canned sauerkraut at the dinner table. Though she sometimes reminisced about traditional foraging techniques, she was not nostalgic for those days.
"She would say, Do you want to live in a tipi? Do you want to spend most of the day bringing wood home so you don't freeze to death? Yes, it sounds great, but do you want to do that? Do you want to chase a big animal with a spear?"
In the last two chapters, Weso returns to the family and community life of the reservation, the local fair, the powwow, and the challenges of food storage when serving ten or twenty hungry people daily. In the final chapter he even describes the malevolent spirits that danced on the walls and seemed to live in the furnace room of the family home, which had previously been a jail. He speaks fondly of photos taken of himself outside the house as a young boy, sitting on horseback with Hopalong Cassidy six-shooters hanging from his belt—a gift from his uncle Billy, who was as near to being a father as anyone was. Several times he mentions in passing "when my uncle Billy was murdered" but doesn't elaborate, and it gives an unsettling twist to the notion of "spirit" that has carried us through this generally low-key, heartily sincere, and often delightful book.