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Some may remember my review of Anne Carson’s book If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. Like everyone else, I adored her book and really took to her method of translation. Recently, I decided to investigate a little bit more about this talented artist and scholar. I found that If Not, Winter is hardly anomalous as a representative work.
In her essay “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,” published in a 2008 edition of A Public Space, she confronts the boundary between linguistics and literary theory, hoping to develop a kind of a theory of silence. She doesn’t need more space than what she uses in the essay to do so.
The motivation for the essay has its roots in the art of translation. According to Carson, there are two kinds of silence to be reckoned with by the translator. Physical silence occurs where something the author intended to be there is missing, as with many of Sappho’s poems, largely lost to posterity. Carson deals with this by using brackets where the author’s intended expressions are missing, but she says translators may be as justified in some cases to extrapolate expressions. The other kind of silence is “metaphysical” silence, wherein “a word… does not intend to be translatable. A word… stops itself.” Carson gives an example from the Odyssey:
In the fifth book of the Odyssey when Odysseus is about to confront a witch named Kirke whose practice is to turn men into pigs, he is given by the god Hermes a pharmaceutical plant to use against her magic:
So speaking Hermes gave him the drug
by pulling it out of the ground and he showed the nature of it:
at the root it was black but like milk was the flower.
MOLY is what the gods call it. And it is very hard to dig up
for mortal men. But gods can do such things.
MOLY is one of several occurences in Homer’s poems of what he calls “the language of gods.” There are a handful of people or things in epics that have this sort of double name. Linguists like to see in these words traces of some older layer of Indo-European preserved in Homer’s Greek. However that may be, when he invokes the language of gods Homer usually tells you the mortal translation too. Here he does not. He wants this word to fall silent. Here are four letters of the alphabet, you can pronounce them but you cannot define, possess, or make use of them. You cannot search for this plant by the roadside or Google it and find out where to buy some. The plant is sacred, the knowledge belongs to gods, the word stops itself.
These silences occur with words that are a subset of unknown size of the words that must be borrowed from other languages as opposed to translated. Translators must make several difficult decisions in their work from artistic and linguistic standpoints, but it is the latter that is the most important here because there is a “spectrum of translation” they must always employ. On one end are single words that translate with virtually 1:1 correspondence to words in the other language. ‘Book’ is ‘libro’ in Spanish without much confusion. Then there’re words like ‘nose’ in English that translate with but the slightest difference into 鼻 (hana). In Words in Context, Takao Suzuki shows that the area American English speakers consider the nose covers a different portion of the face than the Japanese word, although both of course include the most important functional parts. Likewise, as discussed on this blog, Paul Kay (Berkeley) has shown that speakers of almost all languages consider the best example or shade of the word red as the same, despite differing ranges of shades that could be considered red. Nevertheless, for all intents and purposes, a single word translation will do. Next we have compound and composite word translations. The word ‘television’ seems like it translates quite cleanly to 電視 (dian4 shi4) for Mandarin (or Taiwanese if we’re being cute). But there are a few issues here: 電視 is actually a composite word, much like the original, made from two morphemes that indicate ‘electricity’ and ‘being looked at’ respectively.
At this point, we can see that for much translation, there are words that some languages possess which will be difficult to translate with the same economy. From here until the middle of the spectrum, words are translated with progressively more and more morphemes in the destination language. But when a translator is faced with the problem of translating one word into a paragraph, that might defeat so much about the original: pacing, essence, and so on. And then, of course, there’s the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in Language, which suggests that the more words we use to describe the word to be translated in order to most closely approximate the original meaning, the more its essential meaning, in addition to other connotations, is missed. Locking down the expression so rigidly pushes out meaning. Therefore, there comes a point on the spectrum where translators must seek different methods of translation besides seeking the complete and rigid expression for it.
Carson is a master of this, as I have pointed out before. In her book of Sappho poetry, If Not, Winter, she uses words such as ‘songdelighting’ and ‘radiant-shaking.’ Instead of writing out the complete expressions, she chooses innovation. She creates novel words using standard word formation rules in the destination language that may contain more of the original meaning than an attempt at complete expression might.
The second to last point on the spectrum of translation is when a word is just borrowed without further elaboration. Carson highlights the borrowing (outright theft, I’d think) of ‘cliché’ from French. She writes:
It has been assumed into English unchanged, partly because using French words makes English-speakers feel more intelligent and partly because the word has imitative origins (it is supposed to mimic the sound of the printer’s die striking the metal) that make it untranslatable.
The latter is a good reason for borrowing a word from another language. Another reason is that a speech community possesses significant demand for a word that it does not yet have. For example, French speakers started using the word ’email’ because no word in French concisely described such a concept and its word formation rules would likely not have led to such an economical word either. (The Academie Francaise has tried to stifle the use of this word in favor of ‘courriel’ and I do not know the extent of its success.) A better example is the English borrowing of ‘schadenfreude’ from German which means “taking delight in others’ misfortune.” Although I have only really heard Dorothy Rabinowitz, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer of the Wall Street Journal, use the word, I have read it on several occasions from other writers. Just beyond these words are similar words for whom some meaning can never be discovered or reclaimed without being a native speaker of the language. Multilinguals know of many such words. Some brag about them. Some keep their knowledge locked away. Some of these words also depend crucially on shared temporal experience, as ‘truth’ and ‘authenticity’ mean so much more to many Czechs than most American English speakers can understand — though they can try if they read Havel, Seifert, Kundera, and maybe some Poles as well. This is a story worth telling in another post someday.
Finally, we arrive at the end of the spectrum, yet there is no guard rail or barrier, and we stand at a precipice beyond which we cannot see anything precisely: only the bright and ineffable, like MOLY. These words land in our language with a form bearing no relationship that we can trace back to any meaning. Morphological analysis stops because it can never start. Syntax? Phonology? Save yourself because the tracks have all been covered. Carson shows several examples of the bright, ineffable silences: they are all places that we cannot go. These silences may be uttered by our inner angels, the angels above, or from even more inexplicable origins. Our choice to explore them creates possibilities that we never before considered.
When I lived in Indonesia, I purchased and devoured every Japanese classic that I could get my hands on. From Kawabata and Oe to Mishima and Tanizaki, these novels invariably featured some very odd and different themes from the books I typically read. Spring Snow by Mishima remains my favorite of that lot, which I left in trust at Universitas Gadjah Mada for a wing of the library to be called “The Douglas MacArthur Memorial Library for Peace, Tolerance, and Justice.” Eventually, I encountered a work that I had much less trouble instantly understanding and appreciating: Chiyo Uno’s The Puppet Maker.
Chiyo, herself, was a celebrity. She lived fully up until the end of her very colorful 98 year life. She penned several interesting works, most notably Ohan, according to scholars. I learned of her works through Rebecca L. Copeland’s excellent The Sound of the Wind: The Life and Works of Uno Chiyo. Copeland compiled and translated (I think) three of Chiyo’s short works and added an original biography of her. And so, it is in this book that one may find The Puppet Maker. A final note about the publication: it comes from the University of Hawai’i Press. This university press is one of my favorites, as I visited the school bookstore in February and no amount of time was enough for me to enjoy A Dictionary of Cantonese Slang, Fundamentals of Japanese Grammar, Manchu: A Textbook for Reading Documents, Modern Tagalog, and The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy amongst many, many others. They specialize in works with niche Asian subject matter that really appeal to specialists and really dorky amateurs like myself. Browse the UH Press titles some time.
The Puppet Maker itself is essentially journalistic, told from the first person perspective of Chiyo as she travels to meet Tengu Kyukichi, perhaps the last great puppetmaker. She, a young woman, and he, an 85 year old, witness and discuss the puppetmaking art form at the precipice. As the puppetmaker sees it, “If this story were a play, then I suppose you could say we’ve come to the third act. If we do the third act today, the rest of the play won’t last another week.”
Later, he continues:
“You know what I think?” he said. “I think the puppet theater has seen its last days.” Indeed, the old man believes that it is now only a matter of time before the puppet theater perishes completely. And yet he continues to devote himself all the more to this dying art. If those in my line of work ever heard that the alphabet we use—that is, the alphabet I am using now—was shortly to go out of existence, I doubt they would continue to write, hoping against hope that by doing so they could perpetuate their art. No, we would give up immediately, and that is why I sense in the old man an extraordinary depth of passion.
And so, the work is communicating on several levels. The author has something to say about the man, the art, and tradition. We are inclined to sympathize with the puppetmaker, but not pedantically so. Unlike in a movie, there is no musical score to make us dance to whatever feelings the director wishes to evoke. Chiyo lets Kyukichi’s words speak for themselves. For a modern Westerner, they are difficult to assess, but I suspect they represent a time and a way of life very different from today. Indeed, Kyukichi spares few words for the wife who has accompanied him for six decades, and fewer still for children, some of whom he can barely remember anymore. Of his wife, he says this:
“What was it she’d do for me that I appreciated most of all? Sometimes I’d work late into the night, you see, and when I did she’d always wait up so she could lay my bed out for me. Well now I suppose just about anyone would have done the same. Laying out bedding is no great task. But once I’d crawled into bed and started off to sleep, I’d sometimes feel my old wife go around behind me and pat the quilt down soft around my shoulders. That’s all. But no one else would have done it.”
From the few words he uses, it seems he has a core tenderness, just one that is hardly practiced and little noticed. It didn’t matter as much then, when there was so much less opportunity. Still, the truly compelling parts of the narrative concern art and our relationship with it. For this, puppet-making is truly a wonderful foil and Kyukichi’s words come alive. Kyukichi describes the state of puppet-making thus:
“You see, art is tradition. It’s the same for carving puppets, too. If you’re going to carve Lord Hangan, you carve him the way tradition tells you he’s got to look. And, if you’re going to carve the hero Yuranosuke, you carve him in keeping with the Yuranosuke tradition, the way he’s been carved for centuries. But what happens to art when it’s done the same way over and over for hundreds of years? Back in the old days folks did things a certain way because it seemed natural to them. But now we’ve reached the point where we’re just copying the way things were done long ago without really understanding why, and so long as we’re just copying, it doesn’t have much meaning for us. Years ago folks lived with one goal in mind, and once they reached that goal, well, they were ready to die. But now, if you don’t set your sights higher and higher and aim to get beyond whatever goal’s been set, you might as well go ahead and die, and you sure don’t have any business talking about art. But, you see, I didn’t come to figure this out till four or five years ago—and it dawned on me when I finally noticed folks weren’t coming to the puppet plays much anymore. They were turning up their noses at it. How I wish I’d realized this sooner!”
There’s always a sense that the old days were different than today. For example, people often say that politics was kinder and gentler in the United States. In some respects, yes. In some respects, no. Yes, in that there was less overall competition and fewer interests bound up with the results. A good ‘ol boys network might ably control local politics for decades with most living their lives well. But no, in that you were much more likely to end up dead, run out of town, or ruined as a result of them. Slander? Try 1800. Things were no better in the 1940s or 60s. And so, in this respect, Kyukichi may be overreaching about his conclusion that in the old days artists merely replicated the old ways. It is possible, but I am skeptical. Even by seamlessly duplicating another’s style, there may be slight, but important differences of technique. Perhaps one carves faster. Perhaps one artist develops a change seemingly as slight as the puppetmaker equivalent of the damp fold in sculpture, but it has not been consciously appreciated yet.
But it is true that without something more, an art form might become static and uninteresting to the consumer. I really like Kyukichi’s sensibility regarding the intrinsic need for growth in the arts. Certain forms may have held special meaning in the past, but if they fail to in the present, then artists ought to consider change. In this case, we see a titanic struggle between modernity and tradition, because what Kyukichi is alluding to is not the necessity for mere changes of style. Given the improvements in technology and the changes in attention span, the art form itself is obsolete as pure entertainment for anyone born after 1930. Rather, Kyukichi may be unconsciously be pushing at the reality that puppetmaking needs some kind of fusion with other art forms, lest it be relegated to museums and ceremonial performances. His lament, “How I wish I had realized this sooner!” gives us a window straight into Kyukichi’s heart. This is his fondest wish.
The narrator herself struggled with the character of the puppetmaker:
I had never thought anyone could actually sit in the same place for sixty or seventy years doing the same thing day in and day out. If the person were performing a religious austerity, like those who practice zazen, perhaps I could understand it. And yet here was this old man, doing just what I had thought impossible. “I don’t know how it looks to others,” he told me, “but I’ve a reason for sitting right here all day long, never going out. You see, if someone came on business while I was away—well, wouldn’t be anybody else here who’d know what to do. No, I decided it was for the best if I stayed in as much as possible. Look, I’ve got my tools and things all laid out around me so I can sit right where I am with everything at hand’s reach. The sort of life the old man has led may not seem all that strange in a country town like this. No, he has lived just as a tree or flower might live, completely natural.
The power of a metaphor isn’t only that it helps us to see data in a new but analogous fashion. It’s also that it amplifies selected fundamental qualities or characteristics of a thing or situation in our perception. Chiyo’s description reflects a common perception in the modern day that a man who found his way early and did that the rest of his life grew like a tree or flower — sitting in the same spot, but still full of life, untarnished by the blemishes of modernity, unconcerned. And yet, it would be just as true to take the metaphor in a negative sense. We can lament his lack of opportunity, to be stuck no matter his true desires or talent, to in effect be condemned to the same lot generation after generation as the vast majority of the world were for thousands of years. Only in the mid-20th century did social mobility take off. Kyukichi, after a certain age, and maybe even before it, would still probably have it no other way, though. By the time of the interview, he has a solid sense of what his role is in the art, and more importantly, art’s role in him:
“…but let me tell you a thing or two about art. There’re folks who set their sights on one level in art—and once they’ve reached that level, they figure they’re finished for life. Then we’ve got craftsmen like Hidari Jingoro who keep right on perfecting their skills until the day they die. You see, there are those who always push for better, who are always struggling and trying so long as they’ve got breath in their bodies. And, I wonder if this isn’t where art is said to live. Once you’ve decided that you’ve gone far enough—you can’t do better—well, then that’ll be the end for you. I don’t know how much longer I’ll live. Maybe two more years, maybe three, but this that I’m telling you is what is closest to my heart.”
Some artists are not possessed by achievement in their field. In these days, I suspect a higher portion were, though. I’m fascinated by his comment that he wonders “if this isn’t where art is said to live.” Is he saying that it’s in the focused struggle to create ever better art? We do know that by then, Tengu Kyukichi had ceased being someone much associated with the past, and as we know, this partly includes even insuperable ties to family. They remain, incidental, to his story, but they are far from the chunk of the iceberg. What lies below is the passion binding him to his passion: the art of puppet-making, its limits, its transcending moments. It is indeed of art that he wishes to speak:
“…as I’m making my puppets, I feel as if I’m praying to the gods. Don’t you see, where my skill stops—when it doesn’t go any further—that’s where you’ll find the gods. Yes, they’re there just beyond human understanding. […] But let me just say that if you don’t reach out to the gods first—make some kind of effort—then they sure aren’t going to go out of their way to help you. […] Before I start to carve a puppet I have it all clear in my mind how that puppet ought to look. But there’s always one part I just can’t get no matter how I try—yes, there’s always something missing, and it’s in that part, that missing part, where the gods reside.”
Humans do not possess perfect information. They act in a world replete with risk and full of uncertainty– yes, these are two different things. And despite Kyukichi’s mastery, he is humbled by the reality that there is something beyond his precise calculation that goes into the art. It’s not just chance, but perhaps the occasion when he initiates some carving only to see something he missed in his mental conception that he now wishes to execute — or something that might be a flaw. Kyukichi recognizes in the flaw of his imperfect conception the idea of gods. Gods are unfathomable, but generally considered to be, if not all-knowing, certainly more knowing than we and arguably non-linear in temporal perspective. This reminds me of the literary theorist Kermode who argued “the concords of past, present, and future towards which the soul extends itself are out of time… To close that great gap, we use fictions of complementarity. They may now be novels or philosophical poems, as they once were tragedies, and before that, angels.”
These angels very much resemble Kyukichi’s gods. And so there is something in the human make-up that acknowledges its own imperfection, yet stubbornly refuses to attribute individualistic, virtuoso creations (art) to pure chance. Instead, we seek out any semblance of knowing will. Perhaps there’s some beauty in Kyukichi’s gods, who do not exist independent of humanity’s imperfection, though they ably light the way for humanity’s endless drive to overcome it.
We often hear pundits, scholars, and friends arguing about the merits of competition in the context of economics. Introducing competition to a moribund industry characterized by monopoly, as occurred when UPS and FedEx were finally able to challenge the US Postal Service (a truly damaging monopoly) for the delivery of packages, induces all competitors to improve their offerings because, in general, they have to battle on quality and price to find patrons. All else equal, this is what we would expect in any activity, leading to more choice, better service, and greater happiness. And this is what we tend to find.
But, arguably, the blessings of competition are even more pronounced in the arts. In 2008, I described the effects of competition on two great bands of the 1960s in “The Fortune of Coldplay“:
The Beatles and Beach Boys engaged in an “arms race” of sorts that propelled both bands to dizzying unforeseen heights of artistic expression. The story is worth recounting, briefly: Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson, two of the virtuosos behind their respective bands, forced each other to get better with each album. They influenced each other, beginning with The Beatles’ Rubber Soul driving the Beach Boys (read: Brian Wilson, the only one of them worth a creative damn) to produce Pet Sounds, which Paul McCartney to this day calls the best album ever and moves him to tears with its melodies. In turn, McCartney went to the drawing board with John Lennon and they came out with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is often called their best album. According to some, this album broke Brian Wilson, whose prodigy was unleashed by the album but also broken by it. Wilson had, like perhaps Fermat grasping his Last Theorem or Nash contemplating Game Theory, become possessed by the art of the possible in his field. [Yet] the fulminations of other Beach Boy members condemned Wilson’s potential magnum opus, SMiLE, to death. When Wilson recovered [from his breakdown], he produced SMiLE as he thought it would have been. The result is unlike anything else that came from the 60s, or perhaps unlike anything that has ever been made.
I had argued in the post that it may not be possible to not have an “arms race” like that again, pitting extraordinary talent against extraordinary talent, producing ever more outstanding works, and satisfying consumers (in this case, of music) better than they could have dreamed. I was strictly mistaken. This could only occur in a market with a set of tastes that are perfectly and permanently satisfied. Rather, the example of The Beatles and the Beach Boys shows the benefits of competition for us. Similarly, in my recent post on Coorte, I showed that he received a fine for selling art work in a market without being a member of the artist guild. Yet consumers all benefited from his doing so, for they received excellent art works. Allowing artists like Coorte into the market without prior approval ensures that other artists must create works that compete with Coorte’s genius. This is why artists (and workers) form guilds (and unions) that insulate themselves from becoming better.
There is no other reason.
But when they become better, and improve themselves through the crucible of competition, we can build on those achievements. There’s another example of this in an “art” of sorts: chess. The 20th century saw many advances in the art of chess, including those made by Tal, Capablanca, Alekhine, Lasker, Botvinnik, Fischer, Karpov, and Kasparov. The 1970s through the 1990s was the era of Fischer, Karpov, and Kasparov. Fischer is best known as the American who broke Soviet dominance of world chess. But in the chess world itself, his nationality isn’t very important. His contributions to opening theory and endgames are. Chess masters continuously study and study and study previous games. It gives them a sense of the probabilities of how games will play out, but it also means they are storehouses of information regarding the games and artists who came before them. According to Fischer’s wikipedia:
Some leading players and some of his biographers rank him as the greatest player who ever lived. Many other writers say that he is arguably the greatest player ever, without reaching a definitive conclusion. Leonard Barden wrote, “Most experts place him the second or third best ever, behind Kasparov but probably ahead of Karpov.” […] According to the Chessmetrics calculation, Fischer’s peak rating was 2895 in October 1971. His one-year peak average was 2881, in 1971, and this is the highest of all time. His three-year peak average was 2867, from January 1971 to December 1973—the second highest ever, just behind Garry Kasparov. […] Fischer’s great rival Mikhail Tal praised him as “the greatest genius to have descended from the chess heavens.” […] Kasparov wrote that Fischer “became the detonator of an avalanche of new chess ideas, a revolutionary whose revolution is still in progress.” In January 2009, reigning world champion Viswanathan Anand described Fischer as “the greatest chess player who ever lived…”
Yes, it is possible that his capabilities have been exaggerated by his iconic status in the media, but when so many legends and peers believe he was the best, one must concede the possibility. The media would be less likely to distort their evaluations. It is now worth considering Anatoly Karpov, still ranked the 98th best player in the world, who was a dominating world champion for many years before the era of Kasparov. Unlike most masters, he did not have just one peak of greatness. He was world champion from 1975-85, when Kasparov began his stifling dominance of chess. Yet, Karpov retained much of his ability for the following decade, despite not surpassing Kasparov or Nigel Short. Still, Karpov’s greatest performance was in a 1994 chess tournament:
The field, in eventual finishing order, was Karpov, Kasparov, Shirov, Bareev, Kramnik, Lautier, Anand, Kamsky, Topalov, Ivanchuk, Gelfand, Illescas, Judit Polgar, and Beliavsky; with an average Elo rating of 2685, the highest ever at that time, making it the first Category XVIII tournament ever held. Impressed by the strength of the tournament, Kasparov had said several days before the tournament that the winner could rightly be called the world champion of tournaments. Perhaps spurred on by this comment, Karpov played the best tournament of his life. He was undefeated and earned 11 points out of 13 possible (the best world-class tournament winning percentage since Alekhine won San Remo in 1930), finishing 2.5 points ahead of second-place Kasparov and Shirov. Many of his wins were spectacular (in particular, his win over Topalov is considered possibly the finest of his career). This performance against the best players in the world put his Elo rating tournament performance at 2985, the highest performance rating of any player in history.
In this era of Fischer, Kasparov, and Karpov, it is worth considering what a tournament between all of them at their peaks might have been like. It is something Karpov has considered, since he would have played Fischer for the World Championship had Fischer not declined to defend his title. And although considered one of the all-time greats with his positional brilliance, always ready to take advantage of the most minor mistakes, he is not considered greater than Kasparov or Fischer. According to Karpov’s wikipedia:
Karpov is on record saying that had he had the opportunity to fight Fischer for the crown in his twenties, he (Karpov) could have been a much better player as a result (in a similar way as Kasparov’s constant rivalry with him helped Kasparov to achieve his full potential).
This is probably true. On the other hand, Karpov’s place in history may be unchanged, for his own improvement may have spurred even greater improvement in Kasparov as well. Whatever the case, it cannot be said that less competition is better for fostering the brilliance of artists anywhere in any situation.
It seems like Adriaen Coorte, a Dutch painter of the late 17th century, is all the rage these days. Featured in today’s Art Market Monitor (AMM), Coorte has two works that have recently been discovered and will be available through Sotheby’s soon. Estimates range from €100,000 to 150,000. His works have sold for considerably more. Called an Old Master, which I suppose is a title given to an artist whose work can fetch a pretty penny at an “Old Master” auction by Sotheby’s or Christie’s, Coorte painted all manner of works in a long, but mostly uncatalogued career. There are some interesting notes to make about the case, however.
First, according to Sotheby’s materials, as relayed on AMM, “Coorte was almost completely disregarded until the 1950s when a series of articles and an exhibition curated by Laurens Bol drew attention to him.” The late Laurens Bol, who passed in 1994, was a crucial source on the subject of Old Masters. His primary writings on Coorte spanned from the early 1950s until the mid-1970s and helped to put Coorte on the map. He also served as a long-time Director of the Dordrechts Museum. It was in this capacity that he organized a Coorte exhibition that is believed to have put Coorte on the map. The significance of this is that even directors of middle tier museums have influence on the wider art world, to place prestige on certain artists, values, and ideas. Though many have difficulty accepting the free market’s role in this, it is hard for me to believe anyone really wants government to use its premiere, coercive role in life to propagate the art of its choice on people.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what has transpired in a burgeoning scandal in the United States, where the strictly non-partisan National Endowment for the Arts recently worked with the White House to engage sympathetic artists to fight for the President’s agenda. Artists are already free to do this. What’s new is that a government agency that by law is non-partisan has been co-opted. As I wrote recently, this sets a terrible precedent for the government. No one wants the arts to be a pawn of whoever happens to be in the White House at the time, especially when it only patently works for one side of the aisle.
The second lesson I take is yet another free market one. Sorry, you knew what you signed up for when you started reading an art blog from me. Apparently, Coorte, who is now considered an Old Master, was once fined for selling art but not being a member of the “guild”!!! According to a 2003 brochure from the, sigh, National Gallery of Art, “Only one contemporaneous document mentioned Coorte, and that concerned a fine levied against him in 1695 because he had sold paintings in the Middelburg market when he was not a master in the local artists’ guild.” That pretty much sums up the utility of any kind of union. The members inside the union benefit, but consumers, that is, everyone else does not because they endure higher prices as a result. In this case, consumers were being deprived of a master’s work because he had not submitted for guild membership, for whatever reason. Guilds, unions, and other petty restrictions should be fought. It reminds me of the unfortunate case of Star Trek: Insurrection, written by Michael Piller, in which a utopian society forces people, if they want to be artists, to train for no less than 60 years. Somehow, this is argued as a good thing in the movie. Those who rebel, I guess insane tea party-loving libertarians, are exiled from society. Again, who is society to judge what “good” art is? This is not what we need more of.
We should be mindful of these lessons, for they remain timely.
Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek and his name is still found at the beginning of every episode or movie created either by fans or Paramount, including the latest (excellent) movie directed by JJ Abrams. Roddenberry’s life ended in 1991, just prior to the public release of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, but not prior to the conclusion of Yvonne Fern’s work on Gene Roddenberry: The Last Conversation.
Though the title was certainly posthumous, she obtained an enormous corpus of material from Roddenberry, asking questions that he had never been asked before. The book is utterly engrossing reading, in part because Roddenberry reveals a narcissism not entirely uncommon to science fiction progenitors. Many answers are contrived by Roddenberry to seem profound, as when he argues that he created Kirk and Spock as two halves of the same person. In the best case scenario, he’s implying that he created them having the next 3 seasons and several movies in mind when he made them. But he never did. That’s quite silly, and I don’t want to get into all the reasons why because they’re too arcane and Trek-oteric, but much more powerful arguments have been made that, if anything, he unconsciously developed Kirk as a virtually archetypically superego, Spock as ego, and McCoy as id.
Even worse, Roddenberry keeps invoking the word humanity for so many weird reasons. You can tell he’s grasping at his own greatness and not quite getting there. I am sure that the author must have realized this, but perhaps only after the fact. It is clear that Roddenberry bought into his own myth: that he was a visionary. Many Star Trek fans adulated him, so it’s not a mystery as to how or why. It also explains part, though not all, of the comments about money being obsolete in the future — statements that would involve destruction common sense (see this excellent explanation of the glory of currency by Murray Rothbard) to say nothing of human nature. Ironic, since in “What are Little Girls Made of?”, an original series episode, Kirk argues with Dr. Roger Corby over his achievement of creating robots that feel no hate, jealous, or anger, saying that they will also never know love, tenderness, and sentiment.
As you can see, although I haven’t laid eyes on this book in probably five years, the book definitely messed with my head. I am someone for whom Star Trek can be said to be a religion. I don’t wear it on my sleeve, like some, but it comes out in many conversations, my nickname, all sorts of ways. Gene Roddenberry was demolished by this book. I can’t imagine that the late Majel Roddenberry, who was a gifted and charismatic keeper of the flame, would have been pleased with this. His sometimes extraordinary and cruel vice, which will not be mentioned further here, were not actually balanced by all the humanity hogwash. If anything, they were exacerbated by the delusions of godhood. I was really, really, really disappointed. Star Trek has inspired millions and will continue to do so — and Roddenberry deserves an enormous amount of credit for that — but it goes only so far. It turns out that Bob Justman, Gene Coon, Herb Solow, and many others deserve almost equal credit.
Nothing wrong with that.
In any case, as I read the book, I took a few notes on passages that seemed interesting. My favorite is an exchange on “leadership.” Gene says, my emphasis:
You see, Captain Kirk is a good man. And he is also an excellent man—well trained, experienced. But he is a man who was born to be a leader. And whatever that is, it is what makes him capable of convincing others who are less experienced, less able, to allow him to lead. In his leadership, he gives others the opportunity to grow. He isn’t so in love with leading that he forgets his duty. His duty is to seek out life—and that also means the lives in his care—to bring them along, to see that they have the opportunity to learn and grow to their fullest. Their fullest may not be a quarter of what Kirk’s is, but it’s theirs and they have a right to it.
This is the best explication of great leadership that I have yet encountered. In order to be a great military commander, you probably need to be terrific at training troops, understanding logistics, and possessing keen strategical insight. Someone who fits that bill is General Douglas MacArthur. In order to be a great politician, you need to have a sense of people, vision, and drama (poise, theater, timing). Someone who fits that bill might be Margaret Thatcher. In order to be a great team captain, you are going to need will power, demanding requirements, and respect of others. I can think of several in basketball: Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan come to mind. In order to be a great fashion model, in order to separate from the pack, you need an engaging personality, an entrepreneurial command, not to mention tenacious will. Heidi Klum comes to mind. But what do all of these people have in common? They all have the ability to, as Roddenberry put it, coax everyone’s full potential.
Kirk did it on an episode-by-episode basis, demanding brilliance from his chief engineer, results from his first officer, instant vaccines from his chief medical officer. He expects genius first, but he’s not disappointed or vindictive when they do not come through because he knows that it is simply not possible. MacArthur is often considered to be one of the greatest commanders of men the world has ever known — his ability to train troops was unsurpassed, and many of the greats, including Eisenhower, came through his command. Thatcher sapped every bit of strength and potential the Conservative Party had in order to revolutionize and revive the United Kingdom. Before she took over, it was the poorest Western European democracy. When she left, it was the richest. Michael Jordan learned in part from Phil Jackson how to respect his teammates and to will a team to victory — two sets of back-to-back-to-back championships. Many of his teammates overachieved and never did so well again on any other team. Heidi Klum has encouraged and allowed Tim Gunn’s peculiar genius for leadership to bloom, so much so that he probably overshadows her in terms of love from Project Runway fans.
So this is all to say that I think Roddenberry’s statement is a necessary condition for great leadership. It may not be sufficient, the exact conditions for that changing based on situation, context, or industry. I think that one of the enduring mysteries for me is how he might have unwittingly said these words, but done so poorly at executing them in his many years involved in Star Trek. Even after he had long been removed from day-to-day running of TOS or TNG, he seemed to rarely if ever express any humility, any mention of others at all. Indeed, it must be said to helping others to fulfill their potential has to be more than asking them to do it in your own name.
Sigh, I can’t end this post having written all this negative stuff about the creator of Star Trek. His contribution to the world is far beyond what most of us mortals ever get to do. Kirk lives on today as an example of leadership. Spock lives on, if not as President Obama (contrary to the MSM’s belief, he is much more a TNG than a TOS character), then as a courageous, selfless, and devoted friend. McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov — they’re all there too, to say nothing of Picard, Riker, Data, Troi, Crusher, Worf, and LaForge. These are all his children. They’ve inspired so many firsts. Interracial couples, interracial children, dozens of astronauts, writers, teachers, actors, mothers, fathers, children, challenged persons, businesspersons, just all kinds of people. And it is the thing that, thank God, will not die. It will keep going and going, forever. And all this… from Roddenberry? The answer to the question is that it seems like it’s one of those paradoxes that mostly come from human perception. We’re not all light and we’re not all dark. Maybe Herbert Muller writes it best when he discusses the Hagia Sophia:
Only, my reflections failed to produce a neat theory of history, or any simple, wholesome moral. Hagia Sophia, or the ‘Holy Wisdom,’ gave me instead a fuller sense of the complexities, ambiguities, and paradoxes of human history. Nevertheless, I propose to dwell on these messy meanings. They may be, after all, the most wholesome meanings for us today; or so I finally concluded.
This rambling post is all about messy meanings, but they are undoubtedly the most wholesome meanings for us today.
Much of the history of Fiona Apple is a matter of easy-to-find record. Recently, by coincidence, I found some interesting news about Fiona: she has a very talented family. First, her father, Brandon Maggart, is a Tony-nominated actor who also appeared in several television shows. He has been married twice, and his second marriage brought us Fiona and her sister Amber. However, a half-brother from the first marriage, Garett Maggart, has numerous television credits to his name, including being the sidekick in UPN’s The Sentinel which ran alongside Star Trek Voyager in the mid-1990s. He’s still going strong, appearing soon in CSI Miami.
Of course, the second marriage is where things get really interesting from our standpoint. This brought us Fiona, to be sure, Amber is no talent pushover. Primarily known as a cabaret singer performing in major U.S. cities, she uses the stage name “Maude Maggart,” an homage to her paternal great-great-grandmother, Maude Apple. Currently, she is fighting her way through the business, taking on artistic projects of interest and gaining praise from the New York Times.
How did I learn about her?
Well… you know that with me, most things come back to Star Trek. Unfortunately, I am a Wolfram Alpha Star Trek computer (the name for Wolfram Alpha clearly being stolen from Memory Alpha… grumble). Maggart recently recorded an album with Brent Spiner, who plays Mr. Data in the show and movies from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Here’s a video of how the album was constructed, with far too little of Maude (but check 3:25, 3:56, 4:20 are key moments):
It’s an album concept that works. You can hear the similarity to Apple’s voice, as well. A little research dug up that she’s done a lot more than just Dreamland. But at the same time I was thinking about writing these posts, I came across this article in NYT Arts section, one of the must-read links in my Google Reader:
As Maude Maggart rummages through several decades of popular music in “Parents and Children,” her bewitching new show at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, you have the eerie sensation that a precocious young girl is leading you by the hand into an attic where forgotten family secrets are stored. […] Singing these two songs… in a sweet, delicate voice whose rapid vibrato lends everything she performs a slightly otherworldly quality, her long-lined phrases, filled with twists and turns. […]
Like Ms. Marcovicci, Ms. Maggart acts a song with a fluid body language that lends everything she sings an added dramatic intensity. And like Ms. Marcovicci she wields old-time Hollywood glamor to cast her seductive spell.
Interestingly, the article goes out of its way to not mention her sister Fiona. Maybe this is just being fair to Maude, who may be a formidable artist in her own right, but if so, the comparison to Claire Danes in the article seems gratuitous.
Maybe I should have titled these posts: “The Royal Applebaums.”
Fiona Apple released her first album, Tidal, in 1997. The album stunned reviewers and regular listeners alike. While “Criminal” stormed the airwaves, back when MTV still played music videos, with its subject verbally contrite, but factually writhing with sexual restlessness, other songs captured the praise and admiration of critics. As a young woman, Apple was raped, of which “Sullen Girl” expresses:
Is that why they call me a sullen girl – sullen girl.
They don’t know I used to sail the deep and tranquil sea.
But he washed me shore and he took my pearl –
And left an empty shell of me.
And there’s too much going on.
But its calm under the waves, in the blue of my oblivion.
Under the waves in the blue of my oblivion.
Personally, back in 1996-7, I thought “Never is a Promise” was the best song on the album. Apple conveys sentiments that I have heard many women, and a few men, struggle to express in words:
You’ll never see the courage I know
Its colors richness wont appear within your view
I’ll never glow – the way that you glow
Your presence dominates the judgments made on you […]
You’ll say, don’t fear your dreams, its easier than it seems
You’ll say you’d never let me fall from hopes so high
But never is a promise and you cant afford to lie […]
You’ll say you understand, you’ll never understand
I’ll say I’ll never wake up knowing how or why
I don’t know what to believe in, you don’t know who I am
You’ll say I need appeasing when I start to cry
But never is a promise and Ill never need a lie
The typical 1950s responses from us guys are not going to work on Fiona Apple. Sometimes a re-assuring hug or platitudes and declarations of certainties do little more than pour gas on the consuming fire — and risks explosion. During summer school in 1998, I was listening to this song when someone ripped my headphones off to listen to it. The kid waved the headphones in the air exasperated, “Is this the turkey bitch!??!” Although this term is listed in the Urban Dictionary, my esteemed colleague referred to Apple’s exhortation to stop eating turkey and turn to vegetarianism. By this time, she had also gained notoriety for a speech at the MTV Music Awards where she declared “this world is bullshit” and told viewers to stop taking their ethical and cultural cues from, well, people like her. Now, normally, these speeches seem contrived and just a little too cute (by far). Here, however, Apple is only 20 years old, she mentioned Maya Angelou, and she’s telling people to do something that probably hurts her market more than helps. And if the story ended here, you could still accuse her of just trying to get street cred and give the case to the jury feeling all right.
But over the next few years, Apple further developed her oeuvre, without much regard for market demand or the preferences of her record label. She released When the Pawn… [the rest of the Guinness Records-length title shortened for your sanity and mine] which proved a dismal market failure, but another extreme critical success ( For diametrically opposed readerships: Entertainment Weekly and Village Voice ). The album, like her first, is solid from the first song to the last, but none of the singles or music videos caught on this time. The closest she gets to mush, which is apparently what people expect from a woman who is writing her own music, comes at the end of the album in “I Know”:
And at my own suggestion,
I will ask no questions
While I do my thing in the background
But all the time, all the time
I’ll know, I’ll know
Baby- I can’t help you out, while she’s still around
So for the time being, I’m being patient
And amidst this bitterness
If you’ll just consider this-even if it don’t make sense
All the time- give it time
And when the crowd becomes your burden
And you’ve early closed your curtains,
I will wait by the backstage door
While you try to find the lines to speak your mind
And pry it open, hoping for an encore
And if it gets too late, for me to wait
For you to find you love me, and tell me so
Don’t need to say it
If you’re saying to yourself: hey, this isn’t mush at all, you’re right. That’s as close as it gets. This album is different. She talks about different things. She talks about familiar things in different ways. Her expressions are novel, sometimes graphic, and always force me to think. I had never considered that a relationship could take the shape where the woman ( a wife? a girlfriend? a partner? ) would wait like that. Is it possible that they could still survive it? It’s an intriguing thought. I guess the aftermath is for another song. But whatever the case: it’s new.
In her third album, Extraordinary Machine, well… I could never make heads or tails of it. But the story behind it is that she recorded it with a long-time producer, thought she could do better, and re-did it with another producer after a couple dozen fans started protesting the alleged imprisonment of her first go at the album. In fact, it was Apple, not Epic, that withheld the release. And it was her fans who stimulated her to get off her a-word and finish her album.
What emerges from this story is an artist who has seemed, at least until Extraordinary Machine, absorbed by her story — inhabiting the memories, her own personality, her relationships, the dynamism of all these things. Her artistry seems to have been consuming, in a way. I think that by Extraordinary Machine, she might have branched out into other subjects, new ways of expressing these things, with trepidation and tepid results. But I’m really interested in Apple’s seeming sensitivity to the people who interact with her music. The third album came out largely because of a few dozen fans. For other artists, this might not have meant much. But for Apple, it spurred her to finish the album and release it. She has responded in letters to magazines that have published critiques of her or her work. She used to engage with her work and the consequences of it — I wonder what she will do next.
Margaret Atwood visited The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) today, as part of the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival. She sounded much the same as she did at MIT in 2004, but she looked more grandmotherly, though not elderly. Her humor was very much in bloom. The subject of the “conversation” between her and the Chair of the Department of English, Professor Parker, was her recent poem “The Door” which comes from her collection of poems also titled The Door. This collection has been well-received, though not highly acclaimed.
I am going to respect the author’s wishes, that you might actually buy her book with the poem in it, so I will not paste the poem here. However, I will look at a few lines and discuss. The poem, as with much of Atwood’s work, is about time. I have discussed on this blog the power of paradox, especially as it pertains to time. Atwood admitted to being cognizant of this, remarking that this poem about time is simple — simple in structure, few if any dependent clauses, not unlike a circle. And just like a circle, with its properties mostly well-defined, tremendous mystery still abounds. We cannot grasp all the nuance and consequence of a circle, much less time, that constant companion we seem so well-acquainted with.
Her poem “The Door” generally describes our relationship with time. In each phase of our life, from youth to adolescence to adulthood to maturity and old age, we see the door opening and closing before us. At first, we are fearful of what’s inside. Later, we simply don’t notice it. Afterward, we become mildly curious about it, then very curious, and finally, we confide in it. It is a good poem, and you should go to a Barnes & Noble to flip open her book and read it. Even think about buying it, for there are enough good poems within to warrant it.
She began the conversation saying that novels come to her as scenes, poems as lines. Rhythmic lines, where meaning is not embedded in the content alone, but in the structure. She said that poetry often does begin with experience, but it is condensed human emotional experience, a matter of evocation versus mere self-expression, which would be like just shouting in the woods. Rather, evocation calls feeling out of the audience. Many bits of the personal information markers are shed, as the experience becomes condensed.
As for doors, they can sometimes be doors to the past, but they are always doors to the future. They represent people’s concept of time. Every culture has ways of marking time with recurring events, most based on the cycle of the sun and/or moon, and there are “power points” where another world seems closer, existing on hinges. Heaven has gates, just as Hell, yes? ( Yes, and Gore Vidal is not allowed in. ) Toward the end of the poem, and the end of the subject’s life, we suppose:
The door swings open:
O god of hinges,
god of long voyages,
you have kept faith.
It’s dark in there.
You confide yourself to the darkness
You step in.
The door swings closed.
The god of hinges is Hermes: always young, wings on sandals, no spouse, messenger of the gods, conductor of souls to the underground, invented articulation…. You want him on your side. And have you ever heard of “Hermetically sealed?” ( Yes, and while we’re at it, Norman Mailer isn’t allowed in either. ) As to keeping the faith, Atwood suggests we cast our minds to those wanting eternal life, but who do not ask for eternal youth; there is always a catch with eternal youth, a cost, as with vampires. Also, in the end, darkness seems to have new meaning. It is not scary anymore, for we confide in it. Think, Atwood says, of how awful it would be if the sun was out all the time?
One final remark on the poem: the door is only closed to the outside observer. We do not know if it is death. We do not know what is inside that door, which the subject caught glimpses of all her life. Beware false assumptions.
Someone asked Atwood: when did your fascination with unpackaging old bits of bizarre history begin? After some rumination, Atwood replied that it must come from the back of comic books, which said to “send away for the decoder ring.” In the end, she says, it is all about secrets. She added, before this, that she loves to read diaries and recommends The Assassin’s Cloak, selections from the world’s greatest diarists. The Bookling discovers, “A diary is an assassin’s cloak which we wear when we stab a comrade in the back with a pen.” – Willian Soutar, 1934
Speaking of secrets, you didn’t think I would leave you hanging without linking to her poem, “Siren Song,” did you? As a bonus, you get to hear an actual reading of it from the author herself.
A long time ago, I published a post about a surprising Frank Lloyd Wright discovery in the state of Florida: he designed an entire campus for Florida Southern College, which I pass regularly on I-4 between Tampa and Orlando, right around “Orlampa.”
In a recent Wall Street Journal, I caught this article (“Wright’s House of Wax“) about an interesting site developed by Wright in the 1930s:
…the three-story administration building features a half-acre Great Workroom for clerical employees that is distinguished by an arboreal canopy created by a grid of “dendriform” columns and interspersed skylights. The resulting openness must seem even more refreshing today — in contrast to the tight, sterile spaces of Cubicle Nation — than when the building was completed in 1939.
It really does seem to have a 1930s sense of the futuristic. It’s nothing that we would recognize as so, but what is odd to me, is that some of it seems to allude to a 70s design aesthetic. Even more odd, is that does not seem nearly as dated as that 70s design aesthetic. The bricks also remind me of the Southern college campus (Auburn, Ole Miss, Florida, Georgia) feel, though I guess it may in architectural circles harken more toward the Prarie School of the outdoors.
Apparently, in regards to this structure, Wright felt the following:
There in the Johnson Building you catch no sense of enclosure whatever at any angle, top or sides….Interior space comes free, you are not aware of any boxing in at all. Restricted space simply is not there. Right there where you’ve always experienced this interior constriction you take a look at the sky!
If this comment jars some memory for you, and you’re not an architect or architecture student, it may be that the pride and boast bring you back to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, in which the author explicitly based some of Howard Roark on Frank Lloyd Wright, and mirrored his bold, individualistic architectural adventurism as a “romantic” exemplification of Objectivism. (More on the relationship between Rand and Wright here.)
Picture 1: interior of the ‘Great Workroom’
Picture 2: the interior court
Picture 3: main exterior
Picture 4: mezzanines
Although neither Time magazine nor photography generally go in the (+) column of my life, I recently had occasion to read an issue — due to the outstanding cover story regarding a real-life hero in Washington, D.C. — and found an interesting little interview with Annie Leibowitz.
The first question and answer struck me.
Why do you continue to do celebrity portraits when many of them have their photographs plastered all over?
I thought to myself: good question! As it turns out, even better answer (emphasis added):
I’ve never liked the word celebrity. I like to photograph people who are good at what they do. I think the real problem today is, the Internet has created the demand for so much more information that we need to almost drum up more celebrities. We’ve run out, and now what we’re doing is, we’re making them up.
Actually, I think this is pretty close to the truth. Our media do not propagate in a vacuuum: they propagate as a function of demand. And it’s more, much more than an issue of celebrity. It’s about information. It has few uses, but they become important in terms of the marginal utility for such information, not unlike the age-old paradox of value problem. Sure, a glass of water is more important to us in a desert. But how often am I stranded in a desert? I’ll take the diamond necklace in lieu of that water any day in society. Just so, I would probably be better off in a desert with knowledge of how to capture desert bugs to eat them. But the marginal utility of that information, compared to the marginal utility of information about Kim Kardashian (I can use it in conversation with my friends, can use examples, can appreciate the physical beauty, etc.), is simply lesser.
Let us also talk about the Internet. What’s going on isn’t that there are suddenly more people to know about, but the cost to learning and transmission of information has gone down so much. That means you can trade off other things you do for that information.
Finally, let us connect it even more to art. Art forms continue to spread out in media, and our contemporary art becomes ever more heinous compared to traditional, more structured forms. Without assessing the merits of structure in art and art forms, I think it suffices to say we can expect this trend to continue in far more disturbing ways in the future. The exact way in which these art forms arise, and worse, are appreciated, is unknown.