Monday, September 29, 2008

The Spirit of Our Age

I first became aware of the Italian artist Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) about 20 years ago. A friend of mine, an artist, spoke highly of his work, but the reproductions I saw back then, all still lifes with a few objects, usually bottles or vases on a table top, did not grab me.

Enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is now featuring a large exhibition of the Morandi's works and, thus, an opportunity to judge an artist who, according to the Met's website, was by the early 1930s recognized as "perhaps the greatest living painter in his country."
At the Met show I did like some of Morandi's earliest works on view (from, say, 1914), in which the colors (particular in the terracotta range) and the compositions related them to earlier traditions of paintings.

Overall, however, my first opinion of Morandi still holds: I don't see why he is so important. The late works, in which the arrangement of objects has been pared down to a minimum, are repetitive to my eye and offer me little intellectual interest, despite the information on the labels, concerning Morandi's neoclassicism and paintings "composed with the intellectual rigor of a classicist." Charming, yes, but I find that Paul Klee, who also works in a minor key, is more interesting.

When you have to read labels to understand what the painter was up to (the same goes for poets or writers who explain their work to an audience that has come to hear them), then the work, in my opinion, is not successful.

(I was struck by the way Morandi resembles both James Joyce and Bertolt Brecht.)

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for his paintings, I was intrigued that Morandi stuck with one subject throughout his life, investigating the possibilities with, indeed, "rigor." Something similar can be seen in the scholar whose works I have been studying recently, Fritz Strich, who wrote the first important book on Goethe and world literature, in 1946. From the 1920s until his death in 1963, he had one subject, "spirit" -- "Geist" in German.

Strich wrote in a way that is at odds with our postmodernist age: he spoke, for instance, of the Renaissance or of the Baroque period or of Romanticism as if there was a "spirit" that dominated the age and that was responsible for the way art and literature was expressed. Renaissance art, for instance, with its clarity of construction, its sense of proportion, and mostly with its central subject of "man," expressed the ideal that man, God, and the world existed in harmony. 

Baroque art, in contrast, with its restless, often colossal forms, spoke to an age that had discovered the immensity of the universe within which humans, reduced in stature, sought to break from the restrictive forms imposed by Renaissance harmony.

For Strich, the human spirit was polarized by two desires: one for the limits imposed by form; the other the desire to break free of limits. Cultural history, both art and literature, thus represented a succession of styles that expressed one of these two. Classicism, for instance, shows an age desiring the spirit of restraint, while Romanticism shows the same spirit suffering under restraint.

What is the spirit of our  age? I would say it is one of incoherence, which is reflected in our art and our literature. Other signs of our incoherence: we live in the most affluent time in history, yet we in the West are stressed out, feel a lack of control over our lives, think the government should save us if we get into debt, believe the metals in our cooking pans poison our food. Without coherence, without a firm anchor, we take seriously apocalyptic warnings from those whose mission it is to spread hysteria, whether it be about our planet, our financial system, our food. Please, won't someone take care of us, so that we don't have to take responsibility for ourselves!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Love, Really

I run a book group. The group began about 30 years ago, with the first leader being a graduate student in comparative literature at the school where I later got my Ph.D. The job was passed down through the years until it landed at my doorstep about 7 or 8 years ago. Several of the women were young mothers when the group started; now they are grandmothers.

This is not the kind of group that reads, say, The Kite Runner. For 30 years, led by one graduate student in comparative literature after another, they made their way through most of the classics. For a few years I scrambled to come up with a few they hadn't read (Eugenie Grandet by Balzac; The Black Swan by Thomas Mann). I still manage now and then to find something "old" (this season we have read Lionel Trilling's The Middle of the Journey and will read Stefan Zweig's The Post-Office Girl), but for the most part we concentrate on contemporary novels. I try to introduce them to books of social and political interest (though nothing tendentious), to books that are being talked about in a critical and intellectual way, to "ideas." I have a pretty good antenna for over-praise; one of the surest guides to really bad over-praised novels is the "10 Best" published at the end of the year by the New York Times Book Review. Last year I added one of these 10 best -- Special Topics in Calamity Physics -- which turned out to be a bore (and at 500-plus pages) and  as pretentious as its title suggests.

Today we read and discussed You Don't Love Me Yet by male wunderkind Jonathan Lethem. Forty-four years old, he is from Brooklyn, has been awarded a Macarthur "genius" grant, and is spoken in the same breath as Jonathan Franzen, Richard Powers, and the recently deceased David Foster Wallace.

Its subject is love, or the desire for love, if not yet, and the confusions that result from that desire. The seekers, principally one named Lucinda, are late 20-somethings, four members of a band that has no name, has never had a gig, and has a set list of 10 songs. They are stuck, as their songwriter (Bedwin Greenish) is having what he calls "a sort of problem with language." He no longer believes "in the place where the sentences come from," but this uncertainty reflects their general lack of orientation.

The story is set in Los Angeles. The band members work at low-paying jobs (at the zoo, in a coffee shop, in a sex toy shop) and live in Echo Park and Silver Lake, which the New York Times reviewer of the novel called the "locus of Los Angeles's shabby groovester scene." An odd thing about these musicians is that none of them has an iPod (or indeed a cell phone). There are no references to TV. Their life revolves solely around the local indie music scene, the presiding personality of which is a character called Fancher Autumnbreast (anything goes in LA, apparently). They are a small island within a large city; one seldom has any sense of the larger city beyond, aside from a neon sign for footwear outside Lucinda's apartment. They have no parents, no siblings, no politics, no associations beyond the groovester scene.

This island-like quality underlines the group's lack of traditional attachments and, indeed, traditional  sources of artistic creativity. Since their ideas of love have no real-world associations -- like marriage or family or work -- Lethem has had the brilliant idea of connecting this search for love with conceptual art. The story begins in a museum of conceptual art, in which Lucinda, the bassist, meets Matthew, the singer/guitarist, "to end it," meaning their off-on relationship. They make love in an installation at the museum, a conceptual project built by her former boyfriend Falmouth. It is a large white cube outfitted inside with tiny furniture. Imagine a doll's house in which, Alice in Wonderland-like, they manage to fit themselves: while Lucinda braces against tiny bedposts, Matthew wrinkles her jeans over her knees. You get the picture.

What propels the action, what gets the band out of its rut, is Falmouth's newest conceptual art project at the gallery he runs. Orange stickers, reading "Complaints" with a phone number, have been posted on public phones, in restaurants, cocktail lounges, and the like, all over the city. Lucinda and a couple of "interns" (students of Falmouth's) take the calls and write down the complaints. Lucinda has given up a job as a cappuccino maker and has doubts that any museum will be willing to purchase Falmouth's "lunatic archive of woe and store it in its basement." One of the callers, however, "the brilliant complainer," makes an impression on her, as he pours into her ears his tales of failed love. As he says of himself, he has "this condition called monster eyes." He always find something to dislike in those he has been in love with, until it becomes so enormous that he can no longer look at the woman. "M-O-N-S-T-E-R E-Y-E-S," Lucinda writes in the notebook she has been instructed to fill with the words of complainers. Of course, the complainer is not really talking about love, but about the effect of real things (like bad cuticles) on our perception of the loved one.

The complainer, we later learn, is a writer of jingles and  bumper stickers (POUR LOVE ON THE BROKEN PLACES), and the tales he tells Lucinda, besides being heavily interlaced with sexual content, are full of bon mots. "Astronaut food," for instance, something that everyone has lying around: "The people you imagine you might be with but you know you never really will be. ... Friends who are almost more than friends but really, they're just friends. Astronaut food, bomb-shelter provisions." As I said, these are people with only a conceptual understanding of relationships.

Lucinda, however, passes on a list of the complainer's phrases to Bedwin. Unleashed from his language block, he incorporates them into songs .

Concurrently, the tales have lit up Lucinda sexually, and she seeks out the complainer. Though he turns out to be a middle-aged hipster, after an alcohol-soaked, sexual weekend with him she imagines she is in love. At the end of the same weekend, the no-name band, with the songs inspired by the phrases of the complainer, has got its groove back. The result is 15 minutes of fame at a happening misorganized by Falmouth.

From there things begin to go awry. Let me just say that the story ends with Lucinda and Matthew rekindling their love, following a route planned out for them by Falmouth, "a sort of unofficial wedding present": "He said he'd pay me for the day if we followed his exact instructions, to drive up the coast and ignore all the beaches until we got to El Matador. We're supposed to eat at Neptune's Net, too, a fish shack farther up the highway."  And that is what they do, though what they are really doing is starting out on the "oceanic voyage into their thirties and beyond." One wonders, however, if they will simply stay in their conceptual bubble, or whether they might go out into the real world: get a job, get married, support a family.

The "youth" of America (and the West generally) is divided into those who are "conceptual" (without roots in traditional culture) and those who are "real" (who follow in the paths of previous generations).

(Picture credit: Reuters/Alex Grimm [Oct. 18, '05])

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Happiness and the Discontent with the Present

My dentist is very talkative, and during a recent visit our recent conversation concerned the new equipment in his office. Immediately after your teeth are x-rayed, the result is posted to the computer in enlarged format. No more waiting for development, no more holding up tiny negativess to the light and trying to see what the tiny dark spots in the lighter areas indicate.

"Isn't modern technology marvelous?" I say.

"Well, yes, " he responds, "but ..."

Even before he started to speak, I knew there would be a "but." Doctor R is  an interesting mixture, an extreme environmentalist who is, at the same time, anti-government. (I suspect he is a "Paulista" and probably packs a gun.) Thus, my question was a bit of a bait.

"Well, yes," he says, "but if you consider the atomic bomb ..." He leaves it at that.

I was referring to the marvels of medical technology, say, the laporoscopic surgery by which my gall bladder was removed seven years ago. Instead of undergoing a big abdominal gash to remove the offending organ, followed by a week in the hospital (risking infections) and who knows what kind of recovery, I was operated on in the morning and went home before dinner.

How easy life is today compared to 200, even 100, years ago! Dental braces, dialysis machines, not to forget the iPod, the computer, and the cell phone: few in 2008 would wish to return to the condition of 1908, when a man's life span was fifty years (and a woman's much shorter), compared to almost eighty today. It is no understatement to speak of "progress" in connection with the past two centuries: for people living in 1908, enjoying the benefits of efficient indoor plumbing (Thomas Crapper, c. 1880), antiseptics, aspirin, and elevators, the way of life of 1807 would have seemed positively backward.

I haven't asked Doctor R what he thinks about energy exploration, but I suspect he thinks that man has messed up the earth. There is much nostalgia among environmentalists in their desire to maintain the earth in an unchanging state, if not to return it to a pristine condition. Yet who would go back in time to 1908 when gall bladder surgery would have probably been fatal? (Could gall bladder problems have even been diagnosed back then?) Would we want to live when, if we lost a front tooth, we could not get a new one that looks even better than the original? Would we agree to live in an age without anesthetics or aspirin?

Goethe lived to the ripe old age of 82, but his friend and fellow poet Friedrich Schiller died at forty-six in 1806 already of something that could have been cured by a week of antibiotics.

Now, there are also people who have what might be called a nostalgia for the future. They are "utopians," who like to project a future unburdened with the problems of the present. In the utopian future, the earth will be protected from the ravages of mankind, including the worst ravage of all, war. There will be no war because the lion will lie down with the lamb.

As with returning to the past, however, there will be trade offs. We will still have antibiotics, but, since they will be free, everyone will want them; but since demand will exceed supply, not everyone will get them. This restriction will apply to all the products invented by human ingenuity and hard work in the last 200 years. New criteria for receiving these products (besides ability to pay) will be applied.

What will those criteria be?

One system is that of John Rawls, a favorite philosopher of liberals. In a book entitled A Theory of Justice, he designs a social contract that reconciles liberty and equality. Starting from a hypothetical "original position," members of society will choose those principles for living together that will allow the most liberty and equality to members, with the proviso that you will not know what position in society you will occupy in the resulting society. In other words, you might be a princess or a pauper, a hedge fund manger or a newspaper vendor. Rawls was of the opinion that people would choose to abolish the kinds of social inequalities that exist because, well, because of the fact that some people are smarter (more beautiful, talented, etc.) than others. In other words, his system will penalize people who, traditionally, work hard for their success. It leaves out of account that people might not want to continue working to produce the things that have made them wealthy -- and the lives of the rest of us easier -- if they are not going to be rewarded. The social justice set (which includes many Americans) sees society as a zero sum game: if I am rich, I am taking away your share.

Every age has its trade offs, but we only live when we live. Just as most of us would not like to return to the past, before we design a new future we should keep in mind that we might not like the future we get. Think back on the bright futures promised by so many well-intentioned programs, including (in my own lifetime) the "Great Society." Have they done what they set out to do? Or have they produced more problems that people are now wishing to escape into new future visions?

Thursday, September 11, 2008


Seven Years Later
Construction workers always remember.

Traffic sign on West Side Highway

Monday, September 8, 2008

Love-Hate Relationship with Europe

I'm trying to get around to posting some pictures of fabulous paintings seen in Vienna, but for today let me just say that you really can sit for hours in a cafe and nurse a single cup of coffee.

The pink thing on the table is friend Ed's dangerous dessert; mine is the more modest one in front, with the large glass of latte. (Picture of rest of cafe to the left.)

I'm glad I went to Vienna, even though sightseeing is awfully wearying. It was my first time on the continent (aside from a trip to western Ireland last summer for a week of mountain walking) since the year 2000. After September 11, 2001, I didn't feel like getting on an airplane for a long time. Then, as time passed, I found myself more and more irritated by the anti-Americanism to be found in European newspapers. By the time I went to Vienna, I was feeling pretty negative about Europeans. Friends of mine were doing research in Vienna, and, when they heard I had never been to Austria -- despite having a Ph.D. in German literature -- they invited me to stay with them. So, it was a case of cultural tourism.

But, as I said, I am glad I went, because I found myself encountering all the things that had once charmed me about Europe and had been important to me when I was a young woman of eighteen to twenty years of age. Vienna (though surprisingly different from Germany: there is that Habsburg imperial background) likewise offers that mix of a long cultural tradition with a way of life that is simply not American. When I arrived on a Saturday morning, the day after the Annunciation (a holiday in Austria), the city was simply closed down. (If Friday is a holiday, then so is Saturday.) And Vienna is a city of one and a half million. (At the height of the Habsburg Empire, in 1910, it was the fourth largest city in the world, with over 2 million population.) I'm not going to compare the U.S. with Europe here; suffice it to say, I appreciate the custom of not doing business on a religious holiday.

My first year in Germany, when I was eighteen, young and uninformed, I used to think that I would be happy living there or indeed in a foreign country. I never took to Japan, of course, where I lived for several years. As I said, this time back in Europe I liked the way of life, but there now remains too much that is simply alien to my taste. When you find the advertisements in the subway strange, you know you are a stranger. I have not aged spending my afternoons sitting in cafes. I have lived for decades in a city that never sleeps. That shapes one's mentality.

I recently had some correspondence with the managing editor of The Complete Review's literary blog (called The Literary Saloon), who objected to my way of talking about "Europeans." I think what I most object to about Europeans is that they take their way of life for the natural state of affairs, without realizing that the ability to sit in cafes is actually a kind of inheritance, like the objects in museums. Are Europeans willing to fight to preserve what their forefathers have made possible for them to enjoy?

Thus, my love-hate relationship with Europe.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Rage and Anger the American Way

I have been intending to write more about Vienna, in particular about the art I saw there. The Art Historical Museum was one of the most impressive I have been in, and I say that as a person who spends a lot of time at the Metropolitan Museum here in New York. To say that I have been busy lately, however, is to put it mildly.

Last night, however, we went to Chelsea. It was a big night for openings at the galleries. The streets were flooded with people. This is what you would call "a scene," and, besides, the galleries offer free wine. I thought I noticed an infusion, over last year, of a lot of young women, dressed up, obviously hoping to meet guys, but the pickings are pretty poor. Really, males in their 20s and early 30s are in a pathetic condition these days, looking and acting more like girls, and I am talking about the heterosexual ones.

The above was to be seen in the first gallery we visited, on West 25th Street. (Unfortunately, I did not get the propaganda from the gallery concerning the artist. I'll try to post it later.) It filled most of the gallery space and looked like a scene straight out of the peasant rebellions that took place in Europe, beginning with a big one in England in 1381. Below (left) is an image of the entire picture.

What it made me think about were contemporary political protests. The large photo below, from an antiwar protest in San Francisco, is from the website of zombietime, which goes to these events and takes pictures of the really angry, very weird people who populate them. The peace marches of the early 1970s are really civilized affairs, in comparison, and the photos at the zombietime website attest to the denigration of the public sphere in the last four decades.

At the same time, there is something very American about these protesters: they actually believe, for instance, that Barak Obama will change America if they protest loud enough. They want him to be elected president. Unlike the peasants in the 14th century, who were angry about the taxes imposed on them, the contemporary protesters want demolition, after which a perfect society will be built again, on the ruins of the old.

It's not hard to see why they imagine Obama will make this kind of "change." His campaign theme has been "Change." He may actually desire to make the kinds of changes the angry are clamoring for, but his entire appearance is evidence of a basic conservatism. After all, he has a wife and two kids and a million dollar house. Obama would not march in the streets with such weird-looking, angry people and scream at policemen or in rage about war. Of course, some of the people that he used to hang out with --former Weatherman Bill Ayers -- did engage in angry behavior, but Ayers is now a tenured professor. If you go to Ayers' own website, you will see him with a smile on his face. He is now a very mellow man, having given up that raging look of the radical. Well, he probably has a million dollar house now, too, since he lives in the same neighborhood as Barak Obama. So, there is this strange phenomenon, that liberal politicians, those promising change, are basically conservative and unlikely to change anything.