Monday, December 28, 2009

Lovely Myths of the Season

We emerge from a season of festivities as if from a long dark tunnel, albeit one illuminated by twinkling lights and cheery faces. We’ve been bolstered along the way by pickles wrapped in ham, chicken chili with jalapeños, eggplant parmigiano, pork roast stuffed with cranberry jam, grilled salmon with pesto on home-made pasta, white wine, red wine, vintage port... A few gifts have been exchanged, though for those of us without children this is a very minor aspect of the occasion. We’ve taken in a few films—in the daytime, no less!; played a French Voyageur game that involves singing and passing shoes while kneeling on the floor (see photo above); taken a trip downtown through the slush to a service on Christmas morning where poinsettias hang from every light fixture; reacquainted ourselves with the entire gospel of St. Mark in front of the fire, reading out loud and snoozing by turns; and shoveled wet snow from the driveway, the front sidewalk, and the back deck, layer by layer. Four deer paid a visit to our backyard on Christmas morning before dawn to sample the shrubs, their elegant forms appearing as dark silhouettes against the snow; and by the time all is said and done more than forty people, family and friends, stopped over for a meal at one time or another, a few of them coming from as far afield as Miami, Dallas, Portland, and Dayton, Ohio.

These are dark times, but also good times. We inevitably read editorials about the consumerism of the season, but it isn’t hard to avoid. In fact, this year I did so little shopping that I didn’t hear a single version of “The Little Drummer Boy,” which makes me a little sad. Nor did I hear the Beach Boys doing “Little Saint Nick” or Madonna singing “Santa Baby.” I kept waiting for Charlie Parker’s version of “White Christmas” to show up on my new iPod shuffle (a cast-off from my sister, who has three of them, though I do appreciate it). I guess I haven’t been going to the gym enough lately.

Around our house the turntable has been dominated by the Tallis Singers, the Alfred Deller Consort, up-beat orchestral Bach (keyboard concertos, violin concertos) and a somewhat dreary but atmospheric CD for quieter moments entitled “Musique Iberique au Clavicorde: Cabezon, Cabanilles, Coelho, Correa de Arauxo, etc.” On Christmas Eve I gave Arvo Part’s De Profundis a shot while cranking the pasta-maker as Hilary fed the dough down the slot, but that portentous downer didn’t last more than five minutes.

And speaking of music, I was cheered at one Christmas gathering to learn that my young niece’s favorite gift had been a set of Beethoven’s late string quartets. (Heavy stuff!) Another niece, who designs lingerie for a living by day, told me about the large paintings she’s doing at night incorporating mythic elements into portraits of women. When she described one that had bees arising from a woman’s hair I was reminded of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and having my copy close at hand, I showed it to her. Scrooge that I am, I didn’t actually lend it to her, but Ovid is not the kind of thing you just read cover-to-cover and then return. I could have given it to her, but it was a beat-up copy, and besides, we agreed that myth arises from common experience, and from the psyche. Such fountains of inspiration and insight can easily be blocked by excessive learning.

There is a mythic element to the events that took place in a manger in Bethlehem under a bright star long ago, and they’ve been analyzed ad nauseam. A recent episode of Frontline presented a very sophisticated overview of how the various gospels differ in tone depending on whether the Temple In jersuelem had been torn down or not at the time they were written. And a few days before Christmas another powerful myth with slightly different overtones was broadcast on public television. I’m referring to Puccini’s La Boheme. This opera encapsulates perhaps the most powerful myth of the modern age as beautifully as any work of art I know. The story of young artists enjoying life and supporting one another as they freeze in a Parisian garret cultivates a notion that most of us believe in, at least to some degree, namely, that we’re all undiscovered geniuses with something unique to offer the world. “I’m a millionaire in ideas,” Rodolpho says at one point with great enthusiasm.

This theme is amplified by the appearance of Mimi, a shy but beautiful seamstress who lives downstairs. It’s love at first sight between these two, of course, and when Mimi returns to die in Rodolpho’s arms in the final act, we may also call that “love,” though all she really wants to do is die in the company of someone who actually knows who she is.

Might this also be the ultimate message of Christianity? That we ought to attend very carefully to one another? I don’t know, but I’m suddenly left wondering if that sort of message is anywhere to be found in the Metamorphoses?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Up in the Air

If you like George Clooney, you’ll probably like this slick entertainment vehicle, which keeps the laughs on a slow simmer and throws in a heart-tugging scene from time to time to mask its conceptual shallowness. It’s matinee fun, though the more you think about it, the worse it becomes. (If you plan to see it, you might want to stop reading here.)

Clooney plays a man who travels the country firing people. He’s not the hatchet man who decides whom to fire, merely the anonymous individual from outside the corporation who delivers the bad news. He lives in his suitcase and he likes it that way. In the opening scenes he is portrayed as easy-going but callous, a Teflon apparatchik who considers himself wise in having determined that all human relationships constitute a burden of one sort or another. Early on in the film he meets up with a woman (played by Vera Farmiga) who shares both his lifestyle and his good humor and they have one or two mildly witty romps together.

The film takes on added interest with the arrival of Anna Kendrick in the role of the young executive who overturns Clooney’s world by proposing that the termination process could easily be done through computer screens. This would take the fun out of Clooney’s airport lifestyle, of course, and suddenly his persona shifts from the devil-may-care termination engineer to the caring, seasoned pro who must show Kendrick why remote termination wouldn’t work by taking her out on the road with him. Kendrick is a more interesting person to watch than Clooney or Farmiga. Though her professional facade is even more brutal than Clooney’s, there’s a real character underneath it. When her fiancé dumps her, she grows confused and weepy, and an entertaining dialog ensues between this young woman and her two older and slightly more liberated (or jaded) colleagues.

There are some fun scenes at an electronics convention, and Clooney and Farmiga get nostalgic at his sister’s wedding in Rheinlander, Wisconsin. Meanwhile, every so often we actually sit in as Clooney and Kendrick deliver the bad news to some auto worker or office clerk. If the film were actually about job loss these scenes might be meaningful, but it isn’t, which makes them a little gratuitous. They’re merely emotional props to set in contrast to Clooney’s glib cheeriness. We’re glad they’re there, because it puts us in touch with “real life” for a moment or two, but they clash with the humorous episodes we’ve been enjoying during the rest of the film and expose the underlying shakiness of the plot.

What then, is the film about? It’s about the importance of family connections. Clooney finally figures this out, but everyone in the audience already know it, and after spending most of the film chuckling about his liberated lifestyle, we can hardly be expected to get all warm and fuzzy when he finally sees the light.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Spill the Wine

I have always liked that part of town. It’s a frontier of sorts between the labyrinth of the University and the whirr and noise of downtown Minneapolis, an open expanse hemmed in by strange freeway entrances, the cheap, unlovely Metrodome, and a bend of the Mississippi that can still accommodate houseboats while also cuddling up to a quaint power plant or two from a bygone era.

Washington Avenue cuts an expansive swath through the center of this ragged urban zone, and it’s lined with equally odd establishments including an indoor skating rink, an Old Spaghetti Factory, The Minnesota Center for Book Arts, the local headquarters of the Red Cross, and, capping its east end, the formerly Swedish neighborhood known as Seven Corners, where the elegantly broken-down Southern Theater serves as a favorite venue for various dance organization.

In recent years the Guthrie theater and a raft of condos have arrived in the neighborhood, and in their wake a few interesting nightspots have opened up in the warehouse spaces nearby.

The other day we decided to check out the Happy Hour at Spill the Wine.

The deal is this: from 4 to 6 p.m. appetizers are ½ price (i.e. 4-5 dollars apiece) and they offer an assortment of $15 bottles of wine. These “special” wines aren’t actually printed out anywhere, and the waitress who served us initially had a very shaky command of who the vintners were, but really, does it matter? We ordered the chardonnay, which was fine, and later tried the pinot grigio, which was also fine.

As for the appetizers, they were slightly classier than one might desire; we ended up having more than our fill of sashimi, gnocchi, calamari, and crab cakes. But they were tasty enough and fairly priced. No complaints.

The ambiance of Spill the Wine is quite nice—a sort of peach-crate elegance with a few tables in front looking out across Washington Avenue (nice view) and a warmer, darker room stretching back from the street alongside the bar. The noise level was pleasant—animated but not overwhelmingly loud, which made it easy for the eight of us to talk back and forth across the table.

The only real blot on the evening was our waiter, an energetic fellow who reminded me of a thinner, cheerier version of Newman, the misanthropic postman in Seinfeld. He insisted on pouring out the wine glass by glass, which is a real no-no in my book, especially with such a large group, people arriving at different times, and two types of white wine on the same table. Worse than that, he brought out quite a few dishes we hadn’t ordered. “We didn’t order this,” I said at one point. “It’s on the house,” he replied and darted away as if on roller skates. As the dishes piled up, the only explanation I could think of was that a private party had canceled at the last minute and they had a lot of raw fish sitting around in the kitchen attracting flies. Meanwhile, Newman neglected to bring out a few things that we had ordered—the cheese plate, for example.

When he brought the bill, he mumbled something about “two of the dishes are on me.” Hmmm. “Is something wrong?” he asked sheepishly when I went over to talk with him. “I’ve been going to restaurants for decades,” I replied, “and I’ve never experienced anything like this. We didn’t order half of these things.” “What do you want me to do?” he said, with an anxious tremor in his voice, as if he were genuinely concerned, “Knock $20 off the bill?” “Forty minimum,” I replied, and he immedately agreed.

Later Newman came over to the table and apologized for any “misunderstanding.” He seemed not only contrite but genuinely melancholy, like a dog who’s just been kicked by someone he’s always trusted. It was a strange scene all the way around, and it cast an faint but ugly shadow over what was supposed to be a festive little get-together.

All the same, I’d like to go back to Spill the Wine, it’s a nice place to sit, maybe try the hummus and the cheese plate. Next time I’ll bring a pad and pencil, so we can keep our order straight…even if the waiter can’t.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"Dangerous Games"

Books devoted to the subject of historiography seldom make it to the best-seller list. Did I say seldom? Make that never. It came as quite a surprise, therefore, that Margaret MacMillan’s slim volume, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, seemed to be enjoying some sort of popular success this summer. MacMillan is the author of highly regarded works on the Paris peace talks that ended WWI, and on Nixon and Mao. Glowing reviews of Dangerous Games carry terms such as “smart,” “wise,” “persuasive,” “compelling.” I put my name on the waiting list at the Hennepin County Library, and became 24th in line for the three copies that the nation’s 6th-largest library system had seen fit to purchase. Four months later I was 17th. In the end I gave in and bought the thing. That was a mistake.

MacMillan’s book isn’t a compelling read, but it makes for an interesting skim. It isn’t really about the uses of history—only the abuses. She never asks herself what history is, or how it works (though I have little doubt she has pondered these issues) but limits herself to exposing the ways that it can be misused. These fall into various categories—defenses of nationalism, ethnical identity, territorial legitimacy, gender oppression, museological controversy and correctness, Israelis and Palestinians, Serbians and Albanians, Germans and Frenchmen, etc etc. For those who can read between the lines, the book suggests that whenever politicians draw upon history, they are likely to be abusing it, because history offers no easy answers. It is never anything other than complex, and should those complexities be successfully diagramed and illuminated, the result would be utterly absorbing but not necessarily relevant to other times and circumstances.

We can be thankful, I guess, that although the study of history has never been shown to be useful, many find that there is no substitute for the realness it offers. I am not referring here to entertainment value, but to truth value. Historians are cautious creatures, by in large, more concerned to get the details right than to speculate about the overarching meaning of things. Yet there is a strong, albeit largely implicit, moral current to the best historical writing. Most historians would be unable to articulate what that current consists of, and we ought not to expect that from them. It would be like killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. Like asking the artist to explain how he (or she) goes about his work, and what it all means. That’s for others (like us) to judge.

History is the only truth. That is not an absolute mystery, but it’s a tough nut to crack. MacMillan makes no attempt to crack it, though her flutterings around the periphery are sometimes thought-provoking. They make us want to read a real history book. Even one of hers. Yet there is also place on the shelf, and in our hearts, for a book that’s really about historiography. (Yes, but who is going to write it?)

Friday, December 11, 2009

“That Beet’s All”

They call it the season of lights—because it’s so dark, I guess. We begin to appreciate the things that sparkle, like new-fallen snow as it catches the morning sunlight. But silhouettes of deer are also beautiful in the backyard moonlight and the vigor of our resident red-bellied woodpecker is striking as he shushes away the finches and chickadees.

Other lights of the season?

- Colored house lights have come into vogue, it seems, and for the most part I prefer them to the dangling strings of faux icicles that were popular a few years ago. Our neighbors to the west have a dense skein of tiny red and blue bulbs draped above their gutters, and the young couple with a new baby two houses down to the east have gone wild with a slightly less attractive mess of red, orange, and blue.

- The Happy Hour menu at Vincent. We parked in the Target ramp and bought enough laundry detergent inside to meet the Free Parking requirement, then sauntered two blocks down Nicollet Mall through the bitter evening to a couple of stool’s in Vincent’s dark and cozy bar. The menu now features a chicken liver pate served with golden slices of toasted bread.

“That’s a fine addition to the menu,” I said to the bartender, “though it’s a little sweet.” “There’s a sweet onion glaze on top,” he replied. “The French love their sweets.”

- Root crops. The furor of excitement over the turnip harvest has dissipated by now, but I was thrilled when Hilary came home from the farmer’s market the other day with a big bag of beets. I peeled them dutifully and they seemed to glow with the stored energy of summer sunlight. Alice Waters notes in her book on vegetables: “Unlike other root vegetables, the beet (Beta vulgaras) has intense, highly-saturated jewel-like colors.” And she’s right. And the effect is intensified with the brilliant December sunlight shining through them.

When they were peeled I ran them all through the food processor; they emerged as firm, thick, jiggly strips of glorious purplish red. Add carrots, onions, chicken stock, some pre-boiled stew meat and a healthy clump of fresh dill, simmer for an hour or three, and you’ve got Christmas borsht. (The white sour cream, with a spring of dill on top, completes the effect.)

But my love of beets has always been sullied by a perturbing undercurrent, a dark secret that takes the form of a very bad joke. A man is brought his dinner on a silver warming platter. Upon lifting the lid he sees that the platter contains only a single enormous beet. He turns to the waiter and says, “Well, that beet's all!”

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Messenger

The Messenger, an edgy, fluid little masterpiece, focuses on a few weeks in the lives of two army officers whose task is to inform the next-of-kin that their sons, husbands, daughters have been killed in action. Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) has been doing it for years; his assistant Will (Ben Foster) is brand new to the job.

Harrelson is driven by traditional military machismo, but Foster is recovering from injuries sustained in combat and also struggling to adjust to life back home in the states. His girlfriend has moved on to something new and he's simmering with hurt and rage as a result of his tour of duty. Foster hates his new assignment and his boss.

The missions are assigned without warning and they’re unspeakably sad for the most part. Poor, affluent, white, black, Latino—the family situations are different and the reactions are too, but your heart will be in your throat repeatedly as the story develops. These episodes take up only a quarter of the film, however. They're accompanied by plenty of slice-of-life sequences and also an awkward romance that develops between Foster and one of the women who’s been recently widowed. (The widow is played by Samantha Morton, whom you may remember from the equally brilliant film In America.) There are moments of humor scattered throughout the film as the two officers get to know one another, go drinking or fishing together, and crash the engagement party of Foster’s ex-girlfriend and end up playing “army” in the parking lot outside the banquet hall.

Every scene contributes in one way or another to create a powerful portrait of the devastations of war, but it would be a mistake to label it an “anti-war” film. Rather, it places the operations of war firmly within the context of civilian life, exposing the day-to-day humanity of those who fight as well as the heroic sacrifices they often willingly make. (The men and women we see in the background on base are, in fact, real soldiers that have just returned from active duty.)

How was the director, Oren Moverman, able to create such a powerful sense of hurt and loss on the screen? In an interview with the Boston Globe , Foster remarked: “No scenes were rehearsed in the picture. For the notifications, he kept us separate from the people we were notifying. He talked to us separately. We never met them until we were knocking on the door. And these scenes were shot in single takes. There was rarely any coverage. We were encouraged to go off book, and most of all, listen to each other. The drug of it all is getting lost with other actors and forgetting that you’re not performing at someone, that you’re together in it... I think that’s what makes Oren Moverman one of the future greats, period. He’s more interested in the messiness of the experience, as am I.”

The Messenger
combines the best features of documentary with a gripping yet highly atmospheric narrative in which every scene contributes to the emotional impact—a “must-see” that will probably be gone from theaters well before Christmas.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Rum River Flat

Yesterday was a bit dark. We decided to "get out of the house" and went up to the Central Rum River Park, near Ramsey. Had a nice hike through the woods and returned to find we had a flat tire. A young couple came by walking their dogs and offered to help. He was tall and had an oblong head and an open smile, she was short and pale with beautiful straight black hair. I had already gotten the lug nuts off the tire but the tire itself wouldn't budge from the hub.The guy (who reminded me of my cousin Rick) helped me yank on the tire without success and suggested rolling the car back a bit to free the wheel--also to no effect. He finally said with a laugh, "I've changed a lot of tires but I've never seen anything like this."

Then his wife, who was lingering on the grass with the dogs, said, "Do you have triple A?" and I said, "Gee, actually we do."
"Why don't you call them?"
"Good idea ... but we don't have a cell phone."
She had a worried look on her face, though I wasn't sure if she was worried about us and our tire, or worried about us ruining her walk...or simply incredulous to meet up with two people who were clueless and didn't seem to mind it.

"I left mine in the car," the guy said. "I have mine right here," she said.

So we call Triple-A (she had the number on her speed dial) and described our predicament. They agreed to send someone out within the hour and would call when they were five minutes away. "But if you're not there or we can't find you, we'll have to go on to the next stop."

"You're going to get a call while you're on your walk," I told the guy. "Just tell them you're still standing by the car. OK?"

"Sure," he said genially. "And we'll come by to see if you're still here before we leave the park."

There was only one road leading in to the trailhead parking lot, and once our new friends had headed off into the woods we immediately decided to walk out to the only intersection in the park to make sure the AAA guy didn't go the wrong way, end up at the canoe landing, and give us up for lost. We stood at the intersection by a marsh, looked up the hill through the woods, took a photo of some drops of water clinging to the top of a weed, and generally had a very fine time. I began to think of that intersection in Provence, in the Luberon, where Beckett allegedly conceived the idea for Waiting for Godot. And I began to wonder about the sign directing people to the picnic grounds, the landing, the horse trails, etc. It struck me as odd that one of the entries on the sign was "Canoe Campsite." We had passed the campsite on our walk--it was only available to passing canoeists. But if that were the case, why would anyone in a car need to be told where it is? (Maybe if the canoeist were meeting some of his buddies to have a big beer party?)

We'd been standing by the intersection for twenty minutes, and I was beginning to figure what we might do if the Triple-A guy didn't show. Walk six miles to the labyrinth of malls on the highway in Coon Rapids? Go over to the house of the dog-walkers, who lived ten minutes away and had offered to help us out further? (But what good would that do?)

Just then a little red car pulled up, and our new-found friends rolled down the window. "We wondered where you'd gone off to. They called us. They said they need to have your name."

"What? They already said they were coming!" He handed out the phone.

Just as we were smoothing out that litle wrinkle, a white panel truck appeared from out of the woods from the direction of the highway. AAA. Hallelujah!

Our roadside help was a bearded young man who'd recently moved out to St. Francis from Mounds View. He reminded me of a son of some friends of ours, smiling and relaxed. Two sharp swats of a sledge hammer later (delivered from the back side, with a big block of wood serving to distribute the force of the blow) and the wheel was off. Noticing that our spare was almost flat itself (I had thought it was a hard rubber tire!) he inflated it to the required 65 psi.

We drove off feeling like a million dollars. We had had an adventure and met some very nice people. I can't say that it restored my faith in humanity, because I've never lost it, but it certainly re-affirmed how eager people sometimes are to help out.

I almost feel like calling the dog-walking couple to tell them how we finally got home. (Maybe I should just call my cousin.)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Montaigne, the first blogger?

Even for those of us who are self-employed, and sometimes practically idle, the day after Thanksgiving seems more like a holiday than a work day. This morning it was clear and sunny, though at this time of year even sunny days can be distinctly wan. A trip to the gym to run my obligatory three miles—the locker room is almost like a temple, with lots of people fiddling with their togs, zipping up gym bags, heading to the shower … and no one saying a word.

Back home, I begin to sift through a pile of old New Yorkers and come upon Jane Kramer’s essay, “Me Myself, and I: What made Michel de Montaigne the first modern man?” It’s an interesting subject, though I don’t much like the subtitle. It seems to me that “modern man” can be characterized as fanatical, opinionated, pig-headed, all of which were the things Montaigne especially hated and railed against in his famous Essays. He was ever-fascinated by the things we don’t know, but only think we know or feign knowing, and returned to that subject again and again. At one point he complained, with respect to the need felt by many to choose sides amid the religious strife of his day: “We are not allowed not to know what we do not know.”

But if Montaigne were nothing more than a skeptic, endlessly reiterating how little we can really know about anything, his writings would not have endured as long as they have. His essays are often about things, not merely about our ignorance of things. Just take a glance at the table of contents: “Of sadness,” “Of liars,” “How the soul discharges its passions on false objects when true ones are wanting,” “Of solitude,” “Of warhorses,” “We taste nothing pure,” “Of smells,” “Of honorary awards,” and so on. At one point he writes:

I could wish that every one would write what he knows and as much as he knows, not about one subject alone, but about all others; for one may have some special knowledge or experience as to the nature of a river or a fountain, who about other things knows what everyone knows. He will undertake, however, in order to give currency to that little scrap of knowledge, to write on the whole science of physics. From this fault may spring grave disadvantages.

Montaigne has a point here, though I’m not sure he always followed his own advice. It’s not that he went overboard in padding his observations to make them sound more authoritative, but that he knew about a great many things which he kept to himself. Kramer’s mini-bio makes it clear that Montaigne was a man of the world, serving as mayor of Bordeaux, head of an estate a day’s ride east of the city, and sometime counselor to Henry IV, the future king of France. Yet to a large degree, his essays consist of references to classical authors such as Horace and Livy, well-turned nuggets of philosophic wisdom, things he has read about the customs of other nations, and generalizations about “human nature”—a thing that he felt did not exist. There is not much that brings us into direct contact with sixteenth-century Aquitaine to be found in them.

Similarly, we might approve when he remarks, All our efforts can not so much as reproduce the nest of the tiniest birdling, its contexture, its beauty, and its usefulness; nay, nor the web of the little spider. But that being the case, we might ask ourselves why Montaigne spent so little time describing such beautiful creations.

Perhaps it's because he took an overriding interest in the "inner" aspect of things human--and himself above all else--so that details of politics, husbandry, clothing, cuisine, or his natural surrounding fell by the wayside, too mundane to relieve his persistent melancholy.

We may be thankful that Montaigne had both the leisure and the talent to bring a well-developed sense of Gallic joie de vivre to those habits and foibles of human conduct that we exhibit repeatedly without reflecting much on them. (The first modern man? Maybe Kramer is right.) He considered conversation to be the supreme art, and turned his ruminations into internal dialogues, challenging his own assertions, wandering hither and yon, holding the "chain" of thought (such as it is) together by a supple prose style that remains umatched even today, (and makes Francis Bacon, to take an example from among his contemporaries, sound like a complete blockhead.) You can open the essays to almost any page with profit and amusement. (To read more than four in a row is sometimes difficult.)

The Italian savant Benedetto Croce once wrote a book called Shakespeare : Corneille : Ariosto. That always struck me as an odd trio, though perhaps the thrust of the book was to highlight differences rather than similarities. To my mind the trio that calls out for simultaneous analysis is Shakespeare : Montaigne : Cervantes. These writers differ in temperament but are more or less equal in stature, and they stand at the peak of their respective genres. (If it were necessary to include an Italian in the group, my candidate would be Castiglione rather than Ariosto, though his chapter would be a short one.) In the introduction to the edition of the Essays put out recently by the Modern Library, Stuart Hampshire offers a different trio for consideration—Montaigne, Diderot, Stendhal—whom he describes as “the three great monuments of secular French sensibility.”

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Always in the Woods

Many years ago I worked at a canoe camp for a few summers. We took teenaged kids, sometimes only a few years younger than ourselves, “on the trail” for a week or two in the BWCA and occasionally further north into the wilds of North Ontario. We’d arrive back at camp worn out but exhilarated by our adventures, take a blistering sauna, enjoy a hearty meal with real meat and real potatoes, and then engage in a ceremonial evening around a fire in the camp’s oldest log structure. On one occasion my fellow counselor (we typically went out in pairs) gave an introductory speech as we sat in the dark in rickety canvas chairs with the light of the fire flickering in our faces. He concluded his little peroration to the campers with the remark, “…so wherever you go in life from this point on, you’ll always be in the woods.”

I can’t say whether it was exhaustion, the utter relaxation brought about by the food and the sauna, or the smoke from the fire, but when I heard those words, “you’ll always be in the woods,” I had to muster every bit of self-control at my disposal not to burst out laughing. The expression “in the woods” (as you probably know) has the same idiomatic sense as “out in left field.” Today we would say that someone who’s “in the woods” is essentially clueless.

That’s not what my friend meant, of course. He was trying to suggest that the experience of being in the woods affects us at an elemental level, giving us a radically different perspective on life, not through brilliant intellectual constructs but viscerally, in ways we can’t describe and seldom feel the need to. Perhaps it’s odd that I should remember that trivial event, but it’s stayed with me like a Zen koan, and I’ve even come to believe that the deepening in perspective that we derive from being outdoors is related to the condition of being clueless—in a good way. I guess the joke’s on me.

During those years when I spent my summers in the North Woods, I also worked at the Bell Museum of National History on the campus of the University of Minnesota. I’d sit on the tile floor in front of those beautiful dioramas of timber wolves, elk, and moose, surrounded by obstreperous grade school kids, one of whom would invariably raise his (or her) hand as if to ask a question, and then say, “My daddy shot one of those.”

I spent some idle hours in the museum's break room with the other guides, too, and discovered that most of them were not much like me. I eventually developed a scheme to describe the varieties of nature-enthusiasm: Some people cultivate a relationship with nature through hunting, fishing, and woodcraft; some satisfy the need to work out-of-doors through scientific research, examining pond samples or charting the growing season of the dwarf trout lily; some enthusiasts see nature largely as a playing field on which to pursue extreme sports; and some take an entirely poetic stance, exploiting nature as an environment within which to probe life’s mysteries in solitude and silence, and perhaps also as a font of metaphor for moral truth.

These approaches are not mutually exclusive, of course. It seems to me that nowadays we sometimes place too much emphasis on ecological analysis, which may leave us with the unpleasant impression that nature will do just fine—just so long as we’re not there. Only rarely do we catch wind, at parks and government-funded nature centers, of the long tradition of reverence toward nature, both poetic and metaphysical, that extends back through time from the Romantic poets of the late eighteenth-century through the Neo-Platonists of the Renaissance to the Pre-Socratic philosophers of ancient times. Not to mention the strain that reaches back in a different but perhaps more interesting direction to the Druids.

Perhaps it’s significant that the word Plato uses to describe the primordial stuff of matter actually means “wood.” (to be continued)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Bright Star

The poetry of the English Romantics—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley—is the stuff that most of us put behind us when we leave college. We may remember it as being “good,” but the poems we recall tend to be the brief chestnuts rather than the meaty epics. I can still recite a few lines of Keats’s magnificent ode “To Autumn” and snatches of the Wordsworth piece that begins “Tis a beauteous evening, calm and free….” But looking back into The Eve of St. Agnes or The Prelude is likely to reinforce the impression that there are simply too many words, and quite a few of them ring false, too. It were as if, in an age before cinema explosions and steamy bedroom scenes, the best way to stir the reader’s blood was by referring to medieval legends, Greek gods, and leafy glades in cleverly rhymed iambic pentameter.

Historians tell us that to display such rapturous interest in the countryside was a new thing at that time, and it ushered in a more “natural,” personal, and deeply-felt mode of expression—hence the term Romantic poet. The stilted language of the eighteenth century gradually fell into disuse and the Greek gods eventually became less compelling too, though perhaps it’s worth noting that a half-century later, when Whitman was singing his barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the New World, Tennyson, Browning, Swindberg and other dandies were still all the rage in England.

With Bright Star, Jane Campion, the director of Angel at My Table and The Piano, has given us a look at the poet Keats, and the story is so slight we are likely to wonder why she set herself that particular challenge. The film has the trappings of a BBC Jane Austen flick but not the complicated plot lines. The Regency clothing, the china on the walls, the mahogany furniture, and the bucolic landscape are all in attendance, as well as the backdrop of financial insecurity, but the story is restricted to the confines of a single semi-rural duplex, where Fanny Brawn, a talented seamstress who knows nothing about poetry, falls in love with John Keats, an enigmatic poet of little money, bad health, and virtually no reputation beyond the circle of initiates that gather from time to time to discuss things literary.

The film is told largely from Fanny’s point of view, though it might have benefited from a bigger dose of hearty masculine literary small-talk. In one scene Keats agrees to give Fanny “poetry lessons,” and the few remarks he comes up with, “Poetry is like a lake, and when the poet jumps into it, his purpose is not to swim immediately to shore, but to luxuriate in the water…” leave us wanting a little more. But it might also be argued that Amy Cornish, who plays Fanny Brawn, is a lake herself, and her ever-changing expressions—curiosity, anticipation, frustration, affection, disgust—provide us with an inexhaustible font of interest, romantic and otherwise. Ben Whishaw, who plays Keats, is diffident and wary—largely, we suppose, because his lack of prospects make it impossible for him to marry Fanny, though it may simply be that his brooding entanglement with the muse or the illness of his brother Tom make it difficult for him to cultivate other relationships. His buddy and collaborator Brown, (who is also supporting him financially) is a simpler and far coarser, but also a more animated film presence.

Campion shot the film in a modern, anti-romantic style, with lots of jump cuts and seemingly random slice-of-life scenes. Fanny’s mother is a paragon of good sense and her two young siblings wander continually in the background, largely silent but attentive to Fanny’s growing infatuation. (In fact, every time her sister “Toots” appeared on screen I could hear someone a few rows away whisper to her companion, “She’s so cute.”)

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Or so Keats said. Bright Star is a thing of beauty, though its joy is muted by the gravity of the circumstances it depicts. It gives us less entertainment value, perhaps, than the average big-budget British romance, but it has soberness and integrity—like swimming in a lake where the water is a little too cold, and the bank suddenly seems very far away.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cleaning Day

It’s a cleaning day. That rare day when idleness (or neglect of duty) builds to a peak and I begin to devote myself in earnest to dusting, straightening, emptying old folders devoted to books that are now back from the printer and out in the bookstores, while simultaneously downloading a few things from Itunes, most notably some tracks from a new CD by the trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and his Colours of Jazz Orchestra. (The vocalist, an Italian woman named Diana Torto, evokes memories of the 1950s, with her Swingle Singer purity and agility.) Moving the table, I find, under a ream of typing paper and the wooden recycling box, some hand-made paper from another life that’s long since been flattened—and suddenly I want to make a hand-made book. Yes, but what would it be about? (And who would read it?)

I haul the tower from my old Gateway computer down to the basement. Why not? It isn’t connected to anything. As I’m clearing out a space for it I come upon a broadside I printed using old-fashioned “cold” type many years ago entitled “The Golden Sayings of Heraclitus.” Here are a few:

The sun is the width of a man’s foot.

Men who love wisdom should acquaint themselves with a great many particulars.

Although it is better to hide our ignorance, this is hard to do when relaxing over wine.

A man’s character is his guardian divinity.

Then the vacuum cleaner comes out of its closet. When I turn it on, orange lights appear on the handle signifying “extreme dirt.” I move the vacuum back and forth, but the lights never go out.

Daunting challenges remain—for example, to organize, label, and store all the data CDs that are lying around. But that could take hours. First I ought to thumb through the latest Daedalus catalogue which arrived in the mail a few minutes ago. It isn’t too early to order a discounted 2010 calendar, for example. I also notice a book translated by Stephen Mitchell called The Second Book of Tao, and there, on page 31, is The View from Castle Rock, by Alice Munro, whose work I’ve lost touch with in recent years.

Throughout this pleasant ordeal, which has gone on for hours now, I have a sneaking suspicion that I should be doing something else. Something more productive. On the other hand, as I shuffle and discard and file and rearrange, I feel that I'm looking at things that have been in my field of view for months, and actually seeing them for the first time. The experience is so strong and rich, I'm all but paralyzed.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Spirit and the Self

In a recent NY Times editorial, philosophy professor Gordon Marino suggests we might benefit from refamiliarizing ourselves with Galileos of the inner world such as Soren Kierkegaard, who have been stuffed in a back-closet of antiquated ideas in an age of Twitter and Facebook. He singles out for attention a distinction cultivated by the gloomy Dane between depression and despair, and suggests, following Kierkegaard’s lead, that while the former might be a medical problem, the later was likely to be a spiritual one.

There is something to be said, I think, for the argument that when we are low, the underlying issue might be spiritual rather than medical. But I doubt whether Soren Kierkegaard would be one to shed much light on it. At any rate, Marino’s line of argument is certainly not very convincing. In fact, he inadvertently exposes the central weakness of Kierkegaard’s approach to life early on in the article, when he quotes the first few lines of Sickness Unto Death.

A human being is a spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation relating itself to itself in the relation.

Two big problems here:
1) the spirit is not the self;
2) the self is not a relation relating itself to itself, etc. etc.

To these initial stumbles Marino almost immediately adds a third, when he cites the Dane’s definition of “human being.”

A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.

This, too, is off the mark, in so far as the word “synthesis” (an abstract and tendentious concept) masks the real question: in what way are the infinite and the finite brought together in us?
But all is not lost. We might reassemble and rearrange the various phrases Kierkegaard has provided to arrive at a more convincing assertion along the following lines.

Despair is the result of too closely associating spirit with the self, of wandering off into the labyrinth of soul-wracking but empty reflections that exhaust themselves due to lack of substance. What seems to be required is to cultivate affinities and associations with the world “out there” that enliven and invigorate us.

When Marino, paraphrasing Kierkegaard, suggests that despair is “marked by a desire to get rid of the self,” which is rooted in “an unwillingness to become who you fundamentally are,” we might reply that most of us don’t really know who we are most of the time. That’s part of the problem. Therefore, the suspiciously abstract question “Who am I?” might better be replaced by more specific ones such as “What do I like to do?” “Where do I fit in?” “Where does my enthusiasm lie?"

Kierkegaard is certainly right
to regard this as a spiritual issue, but not because spirit is the self. Rather it is a spiritual issue because spirit is not the self. Not quite. It is far more than the self. But we share in it, participate in it from time to time. Adventure, sports, child-rearing, church-committees, food, conversation. These (and other) activities bring us to attention, engage us, lift us up and beyond ourselves, at least momentarily.

Even to wrangle with a challenging metaphysical issue like the one we're dealing with here, following threads of inference, groping for enlightenment, can sometimes have that effect.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Not the Louvre

The Louvre has perhaps the finest collection of art in the world … and although that famous collection will never come to Minneapolis, a few pieces have made their way to the second floor gallery of the MIA. It’s a small show—only four rooms in all—and when we consider that the first room is entirely devoted to a bronze statue of a ferocious lion by Antoine-Louis Barye (who?) that leaves even less space for the rest of the exhibit.

The show’s theme—What makes a masterpiece?—necessitates the inclusion of a number of pieces that are fakes (though some of them look pretty good to me) and a few others that were once considered masterworks but have since fallen from favor. The quest for breadth—after all, this is the Louvre—may perhaps underlie the inclusion of unusual artifacts such as a simple urn from Egypt made of basalt, three Turkish bowls, a number of sketches by Pisanello, and a garish illustration of Paradise Lost that anticipates the computer-generated battle scenes of modern film epics. Considered all in all, it’s a terrible hodge-podge, and far too heavily weighted toward statuary and decorative arts. All the same, it makes for a stimulating ramble, and there are plenty of oddities to compensate for the relative dearth of genuine masterpieces.

Typical of the of pieces that were included merely to advance the “masterpiece” theme is Lorenzo Lotto’s painting of "Christ Carrying the Cross" (1526). This work was spotted by a collector gathering dust in the attic of a nunnery in Paris in the mid-twentieth century (if I remember the text correctly) and purchased for a very modest sum. Now it’s considered one of Lotto’s finest works, and valued in the millions.

Yes, but is it any good? I think not. The gestures are exaggerated, the colors are “stock” Mannerist reds and blues, and the tears on Jesus’s face are not that far removed from renderings of Elvis on velvet. The painting may not be a fake, but the nuns were right to relegate it to the attic. It’s utterly contrived and insincere. (Come on, people. Take another look.)

On the other hand, the show contains a few remarkable works that I could gaze at for hours. These include a drapery study by Leonardo circa 1479, Georges de La Tour’s famous "The Card-Sharp with Ace of Diamonds," and the show’s central attraction, Johannes Vermeer’s "The Astronomer" (1668). The extraordinary appeal of Vermeer’s work is obvious to nearly everyone nowadays—the perfect light, the perfect postures, the balance, the sheer thoughtfulness of both the composition and the subject matter. And the Institute has assembled a bunch of astronomical books, maps and globes in a room on the third floor to enhance our appreciation of the painting. This work alone is worth the price of admission.

The surprise of the show, for me, was a painting called “Portrait of a Woman Holding a Book” by Guillaume Voiriot, an artist I’d never heard of. The portrait is a straightforward society affair, with little of the depth or nuance we find in Vermeer’s study, but Voiriot has captured the character of the subject faithfully—her flesh, her beauty, her insecurity. There is nothing coy or vain about the woman, and as we look at the painting, we feel we are getting to know her.

Voiriot is one of those middling painters who have never made much of a splash in the history books. He became an associate member of the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1757 and two years later was elected to full membership, which gained him the right to participate in the biennial Salons. By 1785 he had achieved the rank of 'conseiller' in the Royal Academy. At any rate, that’s what the internet experts tell us.I could not find a digital image of the painting on line. If I had, I’d paste it here. I guess you’ll just have to go see it for yourself.

If you do, you'll also see a number of other curiosities, including some Sumerian seals the size of a candy bar and a statue of a woman dating to 640 B.C.E. that served for many years as a doorstop in the small town of Auxerre. Is it great art? Is it a masterpiece? Perhaps not. But it certainly is different.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park. Snow on the peaks, elk in the meadows. Rustic lodges along the fringe; hiking trails leading off in every direction. Who could ask for more?

There are disadvantages to visiting the park in late October, most notably that Trail Ridge Road, which leads up above the tree line and over to the far side of the park, might be closed (It was.) and that the cold and darkness arrive too early in the evening to make camping appealing. Also, the trails are packed with snow in some places, making it advisable to put “ice stabilizers” on your boots. (We didn’t have any.)

The great advantages are that the crowds have thinned, the elk are bugling, and the peaks are a brilliant white against the evergreens. If anything, it seems too easy to arrive at pristine and staggering vistas. (Not that I’m complaining.)

On our first day in the park we hiked to Mills Lake, a 5.5 mile round trip through the subalpine spruce and Engelmann fir, with mountain chickadees chattering from the forest at every turn. The trail passes Alberta Falls, then passes along the west side of a massive gorge before winding on through the woods to the lake, climbing nearly a thousand feet along the way. Mills Lake stands at 9,950 feet above sea level, and it’s surrounded on three sides by imposing snow-covered peaks that rise much higher, among them McHenry’s Peak (13,327’), The Arrowhead (12,387’), Chiefs Head Peak (13,579’) The Spearhead (12,575’) and a series of prominent spires near the summit of Longs Peak known as the Keyboard of the Winds.

We started off at 9 a.m. and had the trail mostly to ourselves, though a family with two very energetic Asian children chomped at our heals from time to time, and we allowed a group of middle-aged adults to pass us at one point. “I sold my house over the phone in one day, and two days later I had a new job,” one of the men was relating in a very loud voice. “I’m not complaining, I’m very grateful… but there wasn’t much drama or uncertainty to the transition.” Once having passed us, however, this group stopped almost immediately to rest, and we re-passed them and hurried on. (I was happy when they took the fork to Loche Lake and disappeared into the forest forever.)

There was snow on the trail in many places, though only a few of the sections were treacherous. The lake itself was half-covered with clear ice. The sun was bright and the air was fresh as we sat on the rock shelf eating a few slices of cheese. We spotted an ouzel (a gray bird that feeds underwater, also known as a dipper) wandering amid the driftwood at the lake’s outlet. He would occasionally hop down onto the ice, slip around a bit, and then return to better footing.

A chipmunk arrived almost immediately to share our lunch, and three men on a promontory fifty yards away struck up a long and elaborate discussion about where the “keyhole” route to the summit of Longs Peak went. I don’t think they were planning to make the ascent any time soon, but they did march off to Jewel Lake, which lies only a few hundred yards further up the trail. We were content merely to stare up at the icy mountain-tops, shush away the chipmunk from time to time, and listen to the breeze rustling through the forest nearby.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Serious Man

A Serious Man is the Coen brother’s semi-affectionate look at their Jewish childhood in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. It’s also a retelling of the book of Job—sort of. The film’s central character, Larry Gopnik , (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) is a mild-mannered physics professor whose greatest thrill in life is to fill a blackboard with formulas. He is also a man of conscience, however, at least to the extent of offering room and board to his near-do-well brother Arthur, a kindly bumpkin who spends most of the day in the bathroom draining a cyst in his neck. Larry’s son and daughter are moving through their noisy, reckless teenaged years, and the household is given a further twist when his wife Judith announces she wants a divorce. His moral angst is heightened further by a Korean student who surreptitiously offers him a bribe to receive a passing grade, a tenure committee that’s about to rule on his future at the university, and a red-necked neighbor who’s planning to build a shed on his side of the lot line.

A subplot details his son’s half-hearted efforts to prepare for his bar mitzvah when he’d rather be smoking dope, listening to Jefferson Airplane, or watching F-Troop.

A good portion of the film concerns itself with Larry’s attempts to find meaning in his discombobulated life by seeking the counsel of a succession of rabbis. It’s the stuff of cliché and caricature, but the Coens are past masters of assembling a succession of deftly framed scenes, ridiculously frozen expressions, perfectly timed sighs. It’s as if a veil of Buster Keatonesque drollery hangs over every shot, so that although the texture is stylized and rather thin, the effect is strong. In fact, the first half of the film is quite tense, as we watch the hero bear up graciously, if a little timidly, under a long succession of insults, affronts, and genuine misfortunes.

The minor characters are superbly portrayed. Adam Arkin (whom we all miss from his days as Adam on Northern Exposure) plays the comforting lawyer and Richard Kind plays the hapless brother to perfection, but Stuhlbarg seals the success of the film by hanging onto our sympathy from beginning to end—often by a thread.

The vision is bleak and the material is the stuff of farce, but the world the Coens have created is robust and engaging. And it’s a Jewish world through and through, with Yiddish and Hebrew expressions flying left and right, and no need to explain anything to the goys, who are merely goys. Is there spiritual sustenance to be drawn at any point from such tomfoolery? I think there is. Somehow, this seems like the texture of family life, of growing up ... of going off the deep end.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Wabi-Sabi at the Twin Cities Book Festival

It snowed that morning, the air was cold and clear, and the streets were largely empty when I arrived at the Twin Cities Book Festival, fifteen minutes early, not quite sure why I was supposed to be there, other than to look at books, enjoy the displays, and chat with colleagues in the industry. It turns out I was supposed to tend the Nodin Press booth until twelve or one. I took a quick trip over to the free coffee and scones section and then settled into my position behind the table, which Norton had expertly loaded with this year’s new books. North Star Press of St. Cloud was right behind me, the Minnesota Historical Society was down at the other end of the aisle.

Before settling in to my post I made a dash down to the Consortium table, three rows deeper into the middle of the room, to borrow a few books from an old friend, Bill Mockler, who recommended a slim volume about Wabi-Sabi. Consortium had been pleased when one of the authors it distributes, the Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek, won the Nobel prize in 2004, and I teased Bill with the remark, “I suppose you carry all the works of Herta Mueller, too.” ( Mueller was awarded the prize for 2009 just a few days ago.)

“Actually, we do have a few of her titles,” Bill replied with a chuckle. “We have a book of photos by a Romanian, and she wrote the accompanying text. I called the publisher the other day to inquire whether we could list her as the “author” of the book—sometimes the photographer wants it to be solely under his own name—and the publisher hadn’t yet heard that she’d won! It was kind of a thrill for me to be the one to inform him.”

I bumped into Alicia Conroy on the way back. Her book a short-stories, The Lives of Mapmakers, has drifted to the dim recesses of her publisher’s backlist, but she’s hard at work on a novel—when she can block out a chunk of time in the midst of her teaching chores at Normandale.

Back at the Nodin Press table, I proved myself fully worthy of the book on Wabi-Sabi—the Japanese aesthetic of the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete—by spilling coffee on the front cover within ten minutes of having borrowed it.

It was amusing to sit, reading or looking around, as people passed by. Many were strangers, some were aspiring writers with their parents, and a few of them, mistaking me for an expert, asked my advice.(“Listen to your muse… but also listen to your editor,” was the best I could do.) Several people came by with self-published books looking for a genuine publisher who could provide them with wider distribution. Pat Morris stopped by with a flyer announcing an upcoming presentation by “nationally known” book designer Kathi Dunn; a little later Heid Erdrich shared some of her plans to launch a non-profit publishing venture devoted to works in Ojibwe. Steve LeBeau pulled from his very wide pockets a hardcover book of black and white photos of Paris. His client is looking for national exposure—I recommended a local agent. Jill Breckenridge introduced me to her son and recommended a few current films, including a locally-filmed story (the name of which I’ve forgotten) about a priest.

Eric and Kelly Lorberer rushed past from time to time, ear to cell-phone, as various readings and events got underway. I would like to have heard Nicholson Baker and Adam Zagajewski, both of whom spoke that day, but I was chained to the table. By the time my relief arrived, I’d sold ten or twelve books and reaffirmed my belief that the publishing industry is filled with interesting people—though it’s a tough way to make money.

That’s the beauty of this kind of festival. It’s downtown, free, open to the public, and filled with publishers, authors, readers, book crafters, and fringe arts organizations whose dedication to the printed word make all the effort and expense of putting their thoughts and images out there worthwhile.

Back home—the snow had melted, but the air was still very fresh. I opened a book of Zagajewski’s poems and read:

That Force

The force that pulses
in the boughs of trees
and in the sap of plants also inhabits poems
but it’s calm there

The force that hovers
in a kiss and in desire
lies also in poems
though it is hushed

The force that glows
in Napoleon’s dreams
and tells him to conquer Russia and snow
is also in poems
but is very still.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Irony, Relativity, Nostalgia

There is nowhere better than the North Shore, with the sea gulls clamouring on the rocks just below the window, to sink one's teeth into that philosophic tomb that's been glaring down from the shelves for months, saying: if you're not going to read me, why did you bring me home?

On a recent trip to Lake Superior I brought along Richard Rorty's classic collection of essays, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity. In the introduction Rorty observes that there have been several “streams” or traditions in modern philosophy. One emphasizes the importance of self-creation: Nietzsche and Foucault are among its exemplars. A second school, which numbers Dewey and Habermas among its adherents, stresses our common human nature, and seeks to devise precepts that will allow us to strengthen human solidarity and pursue social justice.

Rorty wishes to establish the point, first of all, that these approaches to life—the private and the public, if you will—need not be opposed to one another. They are as little in need of synthesis, he writes, as are “paintbrushes and crowbars.”

In the course of sketching this outline, Rorty makes it clear that there is one approach to such problems with which he has little sympathy—the metaphysical approach. He describes that zone of thinking as one which takes as its point of reference “an order beyond time and change which both determines the point of human existence and establishes a hierarchy of responsibilities.” In a world without such eternal verities, he proposes “liberal irony” as a posture well-suited to balancing, if we cannot fully integrate, public and private values. He defines “liberals” as people who think that “cruelty is the worst thing we do,” and an ironist as someone who accepts the contingent nature of his or her core beliefs and desires. Once again, his distaste for eternal verities rings out loud and clear.

Rorty no doubt fleshes out each of these points in great detail in later chapters. But I find it admirable that he has provided us with an outline of his position, unencumbered by the peccadilloes and digressions that often obscure a thinker’s message. I look forward to examining such essays as “Private Irony and Liberal Hope” and “The Contingency of Selfhood, ” but in these first few pages I have already noted some serious problems, and I thought it would be worthwhile to spell them out.

The first problem is Rorty's suggestion that “self-creation” is an entirely private affair. In fact, the activity to which this expression refers might better be called “creation” pure and simple. We do not create ourselves, we create things—families, whirligigs, poems, essays, experiences and memories of every sort.

As Antonio Porchia once put it, The man who has made one thing and the man who has made a hundred things desire the same thing—to make something.

It might be argued that in the course of making things we make ourselves. Or “realize” ourselves. That may well be true, and it would serve as a subject for a fine essay, perhaps. At present I merely want to point out that “self-creation” is not merely a private or internal process—it takes place in the world, it changes the world—and it actually desires to change the world, or to let the world know who it is. That explains why Nietzsche and Proust and Nabokov and Foucault published books. Rorty argues that such folk tend to be social skeptics “who turn their back on the very idea of a community larger than a tiny circle of initiates.” Yet it doesn’t necessarily follow that such aesthetes are self-absorbed or actually cruel. Their criticisms of mobs, crowds, and the destructive power of propaganda and social coercion are often well-founded, and the fact that their private musings, in time, have gained widespread influence and popularity makes it clear that they were mining a vein of feeling far deeper and broader than that of the “self” narrowly conceived.

A second problem raised by Rorty’s remarks is that his definition of “liberal” is inadequate. To be a liberal, it is not enough merely to be against cruelty. It is not enough merely to value justice. It seems to me that a liberal endorses the idea that each one of us possesses a unique spirit, and ought to be given as free rein as possible in developing that spirit. The institutions of the state serve the purpose of putting those ideals into effect. Thus, they take us far beyond the notion of justice per se, which is always retributive and after the fact. The institutions of liberalism nourish growth though education, health care, public safety, and representation in the policy-making process. They do not demand that we all join the volunteer fire-department, but they rely on the fact that while some individuals pursue self-development through macramé or stamp-collecting, others do so through giving their time to the community—and this is often as true of paid employees of the state as it is of volunteers.

It also seems to me that Rorty’s use of the word “ironist” is out of place. There is absolutely nothing ironic about life itself. Irony is an aesthetic quality, a position of wry or melancholy or wistful detachment we sometimes assume with regard to our lives. Irony is categorically opposed to commitment. This is not entirely a bad thing, however, because where commitment starts, thinking stops. Liberals are susceptible to irony because liberalism requires them to support attitudes that may be potentially inimical to the liberal worldview—in the spirit of individuality and diversity and free thought.

These shortcomings may be attributed, I think, to the aversion that Rorty has developed to metaphysical speculation. The simple truth is that liberalism is rooted in eternal verities. I spelled them out just a minute ago. “…a liberal endorses the idea that each one of us possesses a unique spirit, and ought to be given as free rein as possible in developing that spirit.”

From this simple truth quite a few corollaries might be elaborated if we had the time. (We don't.) But with respect to Rorty’s views, perhaps one idea is central. There is no reason for us to suppose, as he does, that metaphysical inquiry is rooted in a point of reference “beyond time and change.” Is has been a long time since Hegel took up the task of rooting metaphysical inquiry within that domain of time and change we call history. Dialectical development, the concrete universal. These are metaphysical constructs that can have meaning only within time, and other thinkers, now largely forgotten, have refined them since his day. They do not determine the point of human existence, but they help us clarify it for ourselves. They do not establish a hierarchy of responsibilities, but they help us to construct one.

On the forth and final page of his admirably concise introduction, Rorty defines “human solidity” as the goal of his liberal utopia. Yet I’m not at all sure that solidarity is a liberal construct. To me solidarity smacks of clenched fists and toeing the line. For a good cause, perhaps, though the word doesn’t seem to require it. What solidarity requires is commitment to a single objective, obedience above all. Not very liberal.

Such are the dilemmas we face as we commence to read on the shorts of Lake Superior, with the waves rolling in from Wisconsin and the tansy sprouting sportively from between the rocks. Two hours to read and digest and analyze four pages of text! Maybe it’s time for a walk in the woods.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Julie & Julia

Julia Child is a cultural icon from a bygone era. She almost single-handedly brought French cooking to the American kitchen, and her cookbooks have remained popular ever since. The complicated French cooking techniques she explained in plain English in Mastering the Art of French Cooking were humanized by the high-pitched voice and slightly bumbling manner she exhibited in her television program, endearing her to several generations of aspiring cooks, and also to many who never proceeded beyond vinaigrette, onion soup, and haricot verte, with an occasional foray, perhaps, into the daunting realm of pot au feu or coq au vin. Child died in 2004, and her brief autobiography, My Life in France, appeared two yeras later.

By that time Julie & Julia, the memoir of a young woman who sustained a daily blog for a year as she worked her way through Child’s magnum opus, had become a best-seller. Author and screenwriter Nora Ephron has woven the two stories together into a cross-generational film of great charm and surprising emotional impact. The scene shifts back and forth from Paris in the sixties, where Child was living with her husband (an exhibits officer with the State Department) and trying to learn how to cook at the tender age of 50, to Queens in the aftermath of the Twin Towers disaster, where Julie Powell is trying to bring some order into her life as she approaches 30 by blogging ... about Julia Child's cookbook.

Meryl Streep, in the role of the giddy yet indefatigable Child, is a joy to watch. She whoops it up to the point of absurdity while her husband (in a fine performance by Stanley Tucci) tries affectionately to keep the lid on. Just when Streep's irrepressible cheeriness is beginning to grate, the scene shifts to the young Julie Powell and her husband in their walk-up apartment. As Julie, Amy Adams once again exhibits a girl-next-door freshness, with just enough weight to keep us interested.

Though the food itself is never far from center-stage, Julie and Julia is also rich in décor, especially of the Parisian variety, and of minor characters who make a strong impression. Aspects of the publishing world, the McCarthy witch-hunts, the instant fame made possible by the internet, and other cultural phenomena add interest, though the emotions associated with bringing meaning to life, one way or another, provide the passacaglia. In the end, Julie and Julia is less about food than about hero-worship. It's a low-key tale with an unusual plot, it's all very civilized and nearly everything in it works.

It makes you want to go home and cook up some Gigot ou Épaule de Pré-Salé Braisé—or at least open a bottle of Bordeaux Superior and add another entry to your blog.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sea Caves

No one could say that Lake Superior isn’t grand. But if you camp on the south shore next to the beach in the hamlet of Herbster, Wisconsin, on a calm night, you can see the lights twinkling on the opposite shore, and it gives that remarkable expanse of open water a more homey feel.

We camped in Herbster for two nights recently; the lake was as calm as it ever gets, the sun was bright, and the berries on the mountain ash were as red as could be. The Canada geese arrived early in the morning, squawking as they descended to land out on the lake. The crows in the spruce tree just outside the tent had already been making a racket for quite a while. Before the clouds had dispersed we canoed out into the Bark Bay Slough, a lovely, quiet, environment of spruce, tamarack, bog laurel and floating muskeg that’s protected from the lake by a long spit of sand. We ran into two sandhill cranes in a back bay and watched four otters playing in the shallows for quite a while.

In the afternoon we took advantage of the unusually calm weather to head out onto the big lake from Meyers Beach to see the sea caves. The lake was rippling with little wavelets, and the sunlight, shining through them, created golden rippling bars of light running at angles to the little ridges on the sandy bottom twenty feet below us. From time to time we’d pass above patches where the elevation of the lake bottom changed abruptly, exposing clusters of pumpkin-sized boulders.

But all of that was mere prelude to the green-aqua water and the golden-red cliffs and caves a mile down the shore—far more beautiful than any photograph could convey. The brilliance of the lake itself, which seemed to have a shiny skin, added to the dazzling effect. Just being out on the big lake in a canoe is exhilarating—it keeps you on your toes, even in the calmest weather—and the sight of passing kayakers, with an island or two off in the distance, completed the picture. Canyon de Chelly meets Cancun, with a touch of the Arctic thrown in for good measure.

The caves go on for miles, and you can paddle into some of them, even in a canoe. The waves that wash into them make a mysterious gurgling sound as they meet up with enclosed spaces deep within the rock—the geological equivalent of wind rustling in the trees, I guess.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Early September

The most beautiful month? Still a little robust, but mellow. Our trip to the State Fair (capitalized, like a deity) was brief, due to an eye injury Hilary is recovering from. But things are so familiar that even a glance reminds us of the beauty and allure of the various buildings and exhibits.

The critic in the Tribune described the art show as inferior, sentimental. This struck me as a little far-fetched and dismissive, considering how many works are on view there every year. But having seen the show, I would tend to agree that relatively few of the pieces on display had much of an impact. There was a very fine black-and-white photo of a cliff-top monestary in Meteora, Greece. A nice lithograph of the exterior of a bus in North Africa somewhere. But all too many staged "theme" photographs with crows (for example) and close-up portraits of frustrated or pensive or determined or jadded young women. I did not see a single interesting functional pot. Among the three-dimensional pieces I recall an attractive necklace made out of used coffee-filters that had been rolled up into long narrow cones and strung on a piece of string. But the piece that sticks with me most is a wooden case of the kind printers used to keep their various pieces of type in—and still do, if there are any cold-type printers left. But this case happened to be filled with tiny ceramic figures of alligators. Why? I don’t know. But it looked pretty cool.

And speaking of cool, it was a cool morning, and the light and color at the north end of the fairgrounds was superb. We sat for a while eating a mocha-on-a-stick as we watched an elderly couple dance to a polka band at the Farmer’s Union booth. The same Peruvian musicians were trying to make music on their primitive flutes at the Caribbean restaurant near the chicken barn. Noise and people everywhere. But with limited time and no agenda, the sheer color of the scene made itself felt more strongly than ever.

In the last few days I finished five books and sent them off to the printer. (I didn’t write them; I only edited and designed and produced them.) Now I’m packing for a week-long vacation in the woods. Looking at long-sleeved shirts a little differently than I did a few weeks ago. Wondering which books will appeal to me a week from now. Maybe Death in a Truffle Wood. Or From Hegel to Nietzsche: the Revolution in Nineteenth-Century Thought. Or The Forest of Childhood: Poems from Sweden.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Scholarship and Community

Those of us who retain from our dimly remembered student days on campus, a lingering affection for scholarship of the arcane and humanistic variety—and really, who doesn’t?—are certain to derive immense pleasure from the essays contained in Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern World, by Anthony Grafton.

Grafton is a professor of history at Princeton. He is also an editor of the prestigious Journal of the History Ideas. His areas of special interest lie in the Renaissance and Reformation, but his prose style and range of cultural references bespeak a universal education and a social maturity light-years beyond the narrow focus and picayune technical concerns of the stereotypical “academic.” Whatever the subject may happen to be, Grafton draws us into its intricacies deftly, with nary a hint of insider rhetoric or dumbing-down.

A number of the essays originally appeared in mainstream magazines such as the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, and in scholarly journals such as The American Scholar and The Journal of the History of Ideas. And it may be questioned whether, considered as a group, they really advance a well-rounded picture of the subject highlighted in the title—the scholarly “community.” I think they do. That picture has none of the appealing narrative thrust of a “history of ideas” of the type that we find in the Yale Intellectual History of the West series, for example. But we ought to be suspicious of such “causal” narrative histories anyway, in which A leads to B, or at the very least, intimates it; in the realm of scholarship and ideas, A seldom leads to B. Rather, J looks back at kindred spirit C, and creates a new vision that will inspire X—two hundred years on.

What Grafton has given us instead is the genuine flavor of first-rate scholarship, in a series of essays that range from thoroughly obscure investigations such as “A Contemplative Scholar: Trithemius Conjures the Past,” to worldly and very up-to-date pieces such as “The Public Intellectual and the Private Sphere: Arendt and Eichmann at the Dinner Table,” and a lengthy essay on the impact of the internet on scholarship, books, and popular culture, “Codex in Crisis: The Book Dematerializes.”

Many of the essays carry the sheer delight that scholars have always felt in learning new things, painstakingly separating wheat from chaff, hammering down a point conclusively, and etc. And there are observations—not only facts we didn’t know, but judgments of value we lack the background to make ourselves—on every page. I was surprised to learn, for example, that Philo of Alexandria, one of the preeminent Jewish philosopher of ancient times, often considered a critical link between Plato and the apostle John, could not read Hebrew.

Grafton’s worldliness becomes especially rewarding in the more contemporary essays. The piece on Hannah Arendt, for example, does not offer a straightforward analysis of her work. Rather, it focuses on the appearance of a series of famous articles she wrote for the New Yorker on the Eichmann trail circa 1963. Grafton has an unusual perspective on these events, because his father was commissioned by Look magazine to interview Arendt and write a lengthy piece about it. The article was never published because Arendt refused to cooperate, but Grafton found his father’s extensive notes in a family file, which include a written interview with Arendt that she did reply to. These materials lead on to several intriguing insights, not only about Jews and Germans in Nazi Germany, but also about the sate of American journalism two decades later:

In other words, the editors of Look did far more than commission an article. They actively investigated the issues that they planned to cover, read and thought about them—and did so with a rigor and an attention to detail not found in most of the published responses to Arendt's book. Their professionalism and precision inspire respect and suggest that the Arendt affair marked something more than the beginning of a new age of recycled charges and countercharges. It was also the end of an older age--one in which national, as well as highbrow, media saw it as their task to inform the public at large, as well as they could, about major new ideas and debates, to make their readers an informed and critical community. [276]

Grafton’s essay about the internet is similarly wide-ranging, and includes a thumbnail history, not of libraries per se, but of the ways books have been categorized across the centuries. Thousands of articles have been written by now about the internet and its impact on every conceivable aspect of society, but very few, I suspect, have drawn comparisons between the Google search engines and the methods employed by Eusebius to catalogue and cross-reference early Christian texts in 300 AD.

Yet Grafton’s essays also highlight, without intending to, the limitations of the scholarly approach to the past. In his essay on Leon Battista Alberti’s theories of aesthetics, for example, he attempts to broaden the analysis of Alberti’s use of the terms “historia” and “istoria” by consulting those of Alberti’s writings that are not specifically about art. Yet the question remains unanswered, Why should we care about Alberti’s use of these terms in the first place? The field of reference needs to be wider still to convince us that Alberti’s aesthetic theories harbor insights into the nature of art that might still interest us today.

A similar but more significant omission will be found in the essay “The History of Ideas: Precept and Practice, 1950-2000 and Beyond.” Here Grafton charts the sudden rise of the “history of ideas” as a university discipline during the middle years of the twentieth century, “like a new sign in the zodiac,” as he describes it, and its subsequent eclipse as an even more dazzling realm of study, “social history,” appeared on the scene, with its many and varied ethnic and gender-based realms of specialization. It is a great delight to follow Grafton’s thumbnail sketch of these shifting realms of focus and perspective, with trenchant asides on all the historicist and hermeneutical rifts and backwaters. We could profitably spend a decade, perhaps, following up on all the footnotes, while saving a hundred thousand dollars in tuition fees along the way. The great names in the field pass before us, from the dim and distant Burckhardt and Meinecke to Lovejoy and Darnton, and on to Pierre Bourdieu, Peter Burke, and Carlo Ginzberg.

But in the end, well-rounded and erudite though it is, Grafton’s essay is a study of intellectual fashion, rather than a study of genuine thought. The question remains unanswered (and in fact, unasked) which of these various approaches to the past are actually valid—which of them bring us close to the truth; and which, in the end, (though it would be tactless to say as much to one’s colleagues among the scholarly community) are not worth much.

Friday, August 28, 2009


I sometimes wonder (sometimes—like right now) whether the most pleasing thing in the world is the sensation of cool breeze blowing in the window past the computer while the wind rustles through the leaves outside and the crickets (or cicadas, or whatever) make their incessant trill in the dark.

Robins are flocking, and that’s a sure sign that fall is coming on.

In an effort to seize the vanishing glory of summer, as it were, we’ve been down to the Minneapolis Farmers Market a few times (ten minutes from the house) and it’s a glorious scene. Vegetables, cut flowers, smoked trout, Hmong handicrafts and tapestries, locally produced soap and honey, French bread, smoked sausages. And the market—thank God—has never been gentrified, never lost that wonderfully urban, seedy quality. You park under the freeway bridge or along the roadside not far from Soul’s Harbor or the Litin party-favor warehouse showroom.

On a recent visit I was enchanted by the leeks. One dollar for a nice bunch. But we tried out a new recipe from an old cookbook. I can’t call it a mistake, because trying something new is never a mistake, but we should have known better than to match that very fine vegetable with a “sweet” crust, evaporated milk and cream cheese. The leeks themselves were good, and their appeal was not to be entirely obliterated, but as for the rest of the ensemble….

It rained this morning, and it was Friday, and we were able to park easily right among the stalls at the farmer’s market. The eggplant looked good—and you’ve got the buy the eggplant, if only in honor of Provence.

Eggplant is surely one of God’s strangest vegetables—it isn’t even good for you. But somehow, you love the challenge, and the way eggplant absorbs the flavors of the capers and tomatoes. Once again, a new recipe from an old cookbook. All the while we were making the dish, I was thinking of a tried-and-true caponata recipe that had cocoa among the ingredients. But new is good—except I should have recognized that when the recipe calls for red wine vinegar and sugar, you might as well use balsamic vinegar.

The caponata we made was fine. And the bread from Rustica bakery really saved the day. We listened to Vicente Amigo and El Pele on the phonograph—perhaps because I’d run into the flamenco dancer Susana de Palma at the liquor store earlier in the afternoon. And then, while we were sitting on the floor in the kitchen, Hilary fell asleep as I was reading out loud an essay by the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce called, “Why We Cannot Help Calling Ourselves Christians.” Lots of Kant and Hegel in that one, as usual. Yet the nod to the man from Nazareth was heartfelt just the same.