Saturday, April 30, 2011

Where else would Ishmael set sail

I want not to record the annals
of the island of Nantucket -
its inhabitants have no annals
for they are not a race of warriors.

.. and there they found an empty ivory
  casket ..

J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur
Letter IV
Doubleday, 1966©

Herman Melville
Moby-Dick, or The Whale
Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker,
  G. Thomas Tanselle, editors
Northwestern University Press and
  The Newberry Library, 1988©

Saturday commute xxv: An evening stroll to dinner with Crèvecoeur

The Virginia Piedmont is at its loveliest now and for another two weeks, with any luck. Springtime's verdant layers are not monotonal yet, and although we've felt the lash that lately leveled Alabama, it left no scars to mar our sense of place. Our paths are supple underfoot, the evening air is soft.

Crèvecoeur has been invited to a neighbor's house for dinner, and has set out on foot to exploit the shade of our woods. Although a French émigré to Canada, now residing in Pennsylvania, he has come down here to convey some idea of the late and present interior circumstances of our countryside, to a friend in England. By all means, great swaths of our pastoral scene are as he found them; although we are endlessly pleased to find much improvement since the evening of this report, the setting is a stable one, we'll recognise en route. Most notably, the storied unpleasantness of the intervening 1860s, although grave, has left no permanent mark upon our way of being.

We are, you see, a red state, and have happily in common with the others a resistance to unseemly alteration. We'll return to this depiction of our distinction, but for now, we're off to dinner in our gracious countryside, our appetite attuned to every sight.

We catch up with Crève-coeur: all at once I felt the air strongly agitated; although the day was perfectly calm and sultry. I immediately cast my eyes toward the cleared ground, from which I was but a small distance, in order to see whether it was occasioned by a sudden shower; when

at that instant a sound resembling a deep rough voice, uttered, as I thought, a few inarticu-late monosyllables. Alarmed and surprised, I precipitately looked all round, when I perceived at about 6 rods distance something resembling a cage, suspended to the limbs of a tree; all the 

branches of which appeared covered with large birds of prey, fluttering about, and anxiously endeavouring to perch on the cage. Actuated by an involuntary motion of my hands, more than by any design of my mind, I fired at them; they all flew to a short distance, with a hideous noise: when, horrid to think and painful to repeat, I perceived a negro, suspended in the cage, and left there to expire. I shudder when I recollect that the birds had already picked out his eyes, his cheek bones were bare.. From the edges of the hollow sockets, the blood slowly dropped, and tinged the ground beneath.

No sooner were the birds flown, than swarms of insects covered the whole body of this unfortunate wretch, eager to feed on his mangled flesh and drink his blood. I found myself suddenly arrested by the power of affright and terror; my nerves were convulsed; I trembled, I stood motionless, involuntarily contemplating the fate of this negro, in all its dismal latitude. The living spectre, though deprived of his eyes, could still distinctly hear, and in his uncouth dialect begged me to give him some water to allay his thirst.. 'Tankè, you whitè man, tankè you, putè somè poyson and givè me.' How long have you been hanging there, I asked him. 'Two days, and me no die ..'

Oppressed with the reflections which this shocking spectacle afforded me, I mustered strength enough to walk away, and soon reached the house at which I intended to dine .. They told me that the laws of self-preservation rendered such executions necessary; and supported the doctrine of slavery with the arguments generally made use of to justify the practice; with the repetition of which I shall not trouble you at present.

In our stately commonwealth, we are accustomed to being taxed by visitors, expressing perplexity in our ways. Now that George Allen has offered to resume his seat in the Senate, we brace ourselves for further jests upon our civility. Macaws in the media will dredge up his "Macaca" salutation to the foreign agent who heckled his last campaign, and dredge up once again our Massive Resistance against desegregation, as if to say things were no better for our people than before. Laws of self-preservation cannot be rewritten just to hew to some degenerate fashion, which is why we are a Red State on the map, presented above, and proud to be.

The map identifies those states, world-wide, in which it is still punishable by imprisonment, torture, or death, to engage in consenting and private genital contact which is not conducive to pregnancy. When the Supreme Court of the United States struck down such a statute in the State of Texas (2003), every state in the American union except one promptly conformed its penal code with that ruling. While it is known that Virginia's law is unenforceable and unlawful, it is retained, with visceral exuberance, to arrest by the power of fright and terror, to convulse the nerves of every person subject to Virginian justice.

J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur
Letters from an American Farmer
Letter IX
Doubleday, 1966©

map: another country

Friday, April 29, 2011

By all reports, the knot is tied

Your tower,
or mine?

The fugitive

for the new Paschalis

Did Queensberry never say to Wilde, You really don't get it, do you. Did he never compare Wilde's pandering to his son with his own, and urge less consideration, not more, of qualities which may have had little to do with what he might want, could become? Now there is a new edition of Dorian Gray, purporting to restore explicities suppressed as infelicities in the last one. Well, this is happy news, for the knead for magnification; not long back, the same gladdening gloss was laid upon Death in Venice, for taxonomists on training wheels. Where will it end, before no one is more than one, undifferentiated epithet - so we can start over? 

Who does not understand the resistance of the present President to the typifications of nomenclature, participates in his predecessor's fratty delight in bullying even his intimates, with contemptuous nicknames. But nobody does not understand the diversion on the birth certificate, except those who cannot explain their loss of influence except through tricks of their own trade - distraction, conspiracy, and outright treachery to the truth. Now the President has not only his point, he has our point. Nobody but the shabbiest sectarian could tolerate being perceived by any one term, and of all the President's foibles, the boldest is this rejection of calumny by identity.

We have a new Paschalis, improbably half Greek, half Turkish; improbably a subject of Her Majesty, to ponder this dynastic day of revelry and rite. How Obamic can an infant be, to reconcile in himself so soon such marvelous complication - yet threaten, too, anxiety to typify, and thus to deny his true descent? One might as well divide the Bosporus, and freeze one fragment here, one fragment there, to make the kind of world we need for zealots to be mariners.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

On the resort of unnatural construction

At some risk to one's lifetime free ride on the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, this witty pair of morning pants called to mind the chronic problem of the leisure class, or rather of those who work terribly hard for a few nights where no one would go a second time. This is the Disneyland aspect of gated terrains with brand names, Vuitton-like habitats so kinkily imagined that not even their native stone is innocent. There isn't an unstyled island left in Hawaii, now that Molokai and Lanai have been reduced this way, and famously even Machu Picchu is host to Michelin-rated servings of meals from the other side of the world. But it's always the manipulation of the landscape that speaks the loudest of one's captivity.

What is it, then, about the urban fancies of an Olmstead or a Burnham, which gives their bourgeois settings such fundamental, restorative natur-alness? A Virginia farm boy may feel a chill in Golden Gate Park, but he won't be affronted by the masonry. The same fellow, awakening to his first dawn at Napasai, will wonder why the garden is lifted from a shopping mall. He came half-way around the world in 4 or 5 different conveyances, to swim by himself in a pond they made of the Indian Ocean. Yes, this was thrillingly wasteful, but was it as extravagant as taking the 38 Geary out to the Sunset, for pot luck? Who plays host, to the primordial right of shirtlessness?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The seduction of boys iii

We applaud, I think, the prevailing custom in many cultures, of looking upon our couples whose conjugal felicity finds approbation by church or state (not to stress a distinction moribund at home) as "sovereign" in their union. We might even deck them out in little crowns or coronets. We also toy, with some incurable delectation, with the institution of a personified sovereign in a nation-state. Some coinage, indeed, is admired as a sovereign. But when we think of a sovereignty in any of these ways, we impute a capacity which stops short of infinite, much less immutable effect.

For this reason, when the portrait lately published in The New York Times restored this interesting concept to its proper antecedent, it served only to place the week's festivities in timeless perspective.

In the garçonnier which sheltered me as a young child, there were the usual portraits and dartboards, personal projects and pennants which festoon such enclosures for a formative time. I can't remember them all in my brother's wing - Stanford, surely (although this was not to be, for him), and swimming trophies, by the squadron. But also, too, the odd front cover of an Annual Report from something called, Raytheon, a toy particular to him, but of mystical appeal even to me.
I'll never forget the day, when this bright and shining little boy, buttoned down and solicitously knotted by his father, was led off to meet the nice little man at Merrill, Lynch (then a reputable firm) whom another nice little man who controlled his inheritances (then a reputable bank) had recommended, for the purpose of finding something to do with some cash which had fallen out of one of his trusts. It goes without saying, it was not about to find its way into one of his mother's charities; and, besides. It was time to introduce the boy to the market.

I did not attend this meeting, but I know where it was and I know what it did. It resulted in the little boy's infatuation with guidance systems for a new and thrilling thing, the omnipotent intercontinental ballistic missile. This was the sole project to which this young but brave and promising new company had devoted itself, then: to keep him safe as he slept and to enable his godly nation to smite his mortal enemies with impunity. I will make this clear, if it can be done: the boy was seduced, right before his father's eyes. His substance was taken, with his father's counter-signature, to nourish the illusion that would destroy him.

But, oh, my. How did our boyish hearts leap to learn this magic name, and warm with pride to know that Davey was helping to make all this possible. In time, need I say, the brave and promising new company became, as a 5-star General then retiring as President observed in his closing speech to the nation, a leading element of that cluster of interests which, to this day, exerts an utterly untrammeled hold upon a people's means and dreams to an unchecked and sovereign extent, without any client except itself.

Davey had got in at the proverbial ground floor, and not just for a penny, but for a pound in those days. The gusher of the national security state is not so flashy as that of Xerox or of Polaroid, but it lasts, and is the bluest chip on earth. More to the point, its clutches had got in at the ground floor in that boy. The history of our time will show that hundreds of thousands of people have given their lives for the genius of witty guidance systems, when they could have had a better friend in all our power; but I knew only one boy who paid their bills.

Now, here's another. Do you like him; do you think he's cute? Or would you have it that he's fine, and thrilling in his street address? Dashing, probably, is what we are supposed to say; as if by such exquisite gradations in our concessions of temporal stature, he might aspire to the divine right of any boy. But it doesn't matter much, if he is interested in sovereignty. Sovereignty is interested in him.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Are the nostrils the last elements to be reconciled?

Zeiss produce a classic Biogon in a lens mount for the M, for which I've placed an order, to pursue a debate opened here some time ago with Valéry Lorenzo, on whether to be footloose in Paris with a 28 or a 50mm lens. We shall see what suits the circumstance the better, although in my heart of hearts I know I do agree with him.
Plainly the occasion of addressing a stationery passer-by with optical intent is best reconciled with the impartial focal length; but the occasion grows rarer every day. More and more, the broadly open scene is more coherent and less random, less misleading.

Monday, April 25, 2011

I wonder if my Sobranie might be a little strong for the Nocturne

for Joss


 No longer
 closely here
 no longer.

 Fire still burning
 in heart. People
 move in the oak brush.
 Day widens,
 music in the room.
 Think it's back
 where you left it?
 Think, think 
 of nothing.

Robert Creeley
Up in the Air
Selected Poems
University of California Press, 1991©

Caliban to the rescue?

Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments 
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again; ..

.. and then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that, when I waked,

I cried to dream again.

Echoes from The Tempest, seductively slipped into the screenplay of our latest popular film on the house of Windsor, are heard as the speech therapist entertains his precocious children with intimations of Caliban. Shards of stimulating perception seep into this propagandistic movie with some persistence, giving us a monarch of complete consciousness that he's to become a dustjacket for an Establish-ment under siege in its own House. Inevitably, the comparison of deformity - a quality of Caliban's, and of his elder brother - with impediment, his own, frightening burden, is shouldered by more familiar means: an auditioning of Richard III's chilling Winter of our discontent, in which the speech therapist-casting prospect is rejected for inadequate sex appeal. That spectacle of the conspiring regicide resurfaces, as the elder brother is heard to accuse him of it, and as the younger brother - now his successor as monarch - muses that it was indelicate of him to survive.

Fortunately for gross sales, the sentimental impetus of the film is to justify a dustjacket whose weddings must cost billions, in a world where any müllerin is fobbed off with millions. Every now and again, as the blogosphere reminds us by the minute, adoration must be paid to caste. Here, Edward VIII is presented as a neurotic figure from The Damned, Visconti's masterpiece on Junker degeneracy in that war which would make a hero out of George VI.

Sadly, it's that very myth, that war is worth it for the polishing of crowns, that drags this movie back to Graham Greene's pleasure dome from its pretenses to the stage. For this, we are given the rising strains of the Eroica's Funeral March, and the Emperor concerto. But it was stimulating to be stimulated while it lasted, to be reminded by cinema that we rehearse our sleep as long as it takes, to endure the day with dreams. We want another Windsor wedding, and it seems we're likely to get one, with History as our flawless ironist: setting off the glamorous heir against a parent of congenital quirkiness, to vindicate one of common impulsiveness.

i, Valéry Lorenzo

Tom Hooper, director
David Seidler, screenplay
The King's Speech
The Weinstein Company, 2010©

Sunday, April 24, 2011


to remember Robert Bresson

Easter wishes to all

Robert Bresson
  Au hasard Balthasar 1966
  Pickpocket 1959
  Lancelot du lac 1974
  Un condamné à mort s'est échappé 1956
  Journal d'un curé de campagne 1951