Saturday, January 21, 2012

We are not here to discuss the chromaticism of Scarlatti


.. but of course, we might. Who has ever heard a sounder argument for the random walk theory of investing, than by applying it to the selection of one's houseguests? It is uncannily likely to present us with companionship unpredictably steeped in the curtain wall of Beauvais, say, or the keyboard techniques of Horowitz. And why should it not? If we are so improbably inclined in our interests, who would be so daft as to resort to probabilities? I realise, there is a whiff of Clovis Sangrail in this line of thought, but that's not what it is. It's a line of experience. I do not believe we get lucky. I believe we just are. Or maybe it's a property of Saturday?

Studies in kissland i: the crime of the upturned face

For Tassos Paschalis

Here, I lapse into a neo-academic voice that I'd like to think seldom surfaces at the page. What inspires it is a text I acquired almost 25 years ago, in the easy browsings I so much enjoyed at City Lights in San Francisco. Few young readers will ever know that amenity, for whose loss not even a fine Review can adjust. Our culture had good company in the stimulating discern-ment of honest tradesmen. I do not pretend to imitate them; but on our days, of all days, we are entitled to seek the company our productivity has taken from us, not by our choice and not by our consent, archaic frames of reference as we speak.

Once the line encountered the body of a dead soldier .. The ranks opened covertly to avoid the corpse. The invulnerable dead man forced a way for himself. The youth looked keenly at the ashen face. The wind raised the tawny beard. It moved as if a hand were stroking it. He vaguely desired to walk around and around the body and stare; the impulse of the living to try to read in dead eyes the answer to the Question.

This excerpt from The Red Badge of Courage is not the first to be cited here. Crane tells many stories at once, but also unlocks many vantage points on the Question. He is a writer of great leverage into desire, morbidity, dread - the underside of Burke's influential essay on the sublime and the beautiful - and into the "morals" of any culture's view of their correlation. In The Blue Hotel, Crane finally deposits this correlation in the lap of the criminal code. 

I present a portrait of the kiss, to pursue the question of where its criminality lies. This is not an exercise in the anatomisation of actual criminality, but of the posture which excites the reflex to condemn. Assuredly, something is the focal point of that reflex toward this portrait; and even though we know already what it is, I think it is not excessively evident why we think so. Crane can help.

We know this document does not arise from the inherently radioactive hour of dawn. The plinth on which the figures are situated betrays no nocturnal disturbance. With this circumstance an inference of premeditation cannot be discarded; but people premeditate the buttering of their toast, so we wisely don't linger in horror of that element. Moreover, given the times, we manfully assimilate their sharing of a gender, even a nakedness, with a minimum of that ick factor which nevertheless pertains to this portrait.

We observe abundant clues of their proximity, but we write these off only moderately grudgingly, as elements incidental to the act they are committing, a kiss. We resign ourselves readily enough to precedent for this coincidence; and we have heard, that at a certain age and with a certain experimentalism, this sort of casting of the parts is almost rather ordinary. Not that we could confirm it, our Chorus insists. The intent concentration in the face of the kneeling figure could well be that of an infantryman passing a corpse - a wholesome enough occurrence, in any lad's life.

We will notice a pressing by a hand, but not only is this gesture attributable to the exigencies of one remaining upright, and the other in parallel; at worst it is an innocuous reinforcement of sentiment - or, if this is worse, of motivation. There is a fanny for its placement, but when is there not, we reasonably recall.

Now. Something catastrophically implicates the left face in a condition from which the other - enthralled as it is - is exempt. It is that of the corpse. The upturned masculine face is the marker, at bottom, of death. It is morbidly compelling in signalling something much more stark than the canards of submissiveness, dependency, decadence; yet the face peering into it is captivated definingly by its posture. Call it a vortex, call it an abyss, the reading of the upturned masculine face gives rise to the complaint, but that is supposed to be dead. I happen to think the crime of death, itself, which in Crane is the Question of the infinite, is embedded in the blameworthiness of this image; and I am not surprised, that this umbrage surfaces in scriptural trappings. Our reigning eschatology is proudly steeped in carnal pre-occupations; but Crane reminds us that a phobia is a fear, not a scruple, and that it cannot be under-stood without going to its shuddering reflex.

What a stroke of unsung courage would it be, to breach reflex, shuddering, scruple, fear, pride, umbrage, and rule, to come so far, to kneel there in the backlight of day to meet that face as what it is, even with one's own? We all have seen such people, even met some; and it is apparent that what they have discovered, is that these forces weave not a defense but a tissue of shock having no origin in nature. Not for them, but for anyone, I note that today, in South Carolina, in the United States, every single voter drawing the curtain across his backside has been 'roused by men demanding to be the next President of this nation, to draw a curtain upon that face.

But I stray, and stumble into the abstract against my nature. This is Saturday, and the checklist calls for a kiss. You have Rodin, you have Doisneau, you've Mr Porter to say it's so. You have the world (excuse the limitation) as your oyster. Look into its face. Take all the time you need.

Stephen Crane
The Red Badge of
op. cit., cited in

Michael Fried
Realism, Writing,
  On Thomas Eakins and
  Stephen Crane
University of Chicago Press, 1987©

x-xi  Jeremy Young

Friday, January 20, 2012

Suppose it were Friday lii: we treasure a break from I Tatti

Tassos had a birthday;
alas, it was last week

There is an endearingly hilarious episode in Alan Moorehead's fond memoir of Berenson, in which the rough Aussie protégé has had quite enough of the stultifyingly impacted treasures of the house, and one evening turns out the lights, simply to be free of them. Of course he can then not escape, without crawling carefully on all fours, through a minefield of precariously positioned excrescences of the past, to the doorway's merciful egress.

My friend had a birthday last week, and laid before me the means of observing it in his own vision, refreshing along the way (and none too soon) memory of why we are here.

To make a break we went up to stay for a few days with --- and his fourth wife, ---, who happened to be an old friend of ours; they had taken a chalet at Cortina in the Italian Dolomites. We arrived in heavy snow, and [he] was out shooting duck, a gruelling business in that weather since it involved standing by the hour in a barrel in a frozen marsh waiting for the dawn to break. When he came in at last he was the walking myth of himself. Cartridge belts and strings of teal and mallard hung in festoons from his shoulders, powdered snow clung to his beard and woolly cap, and when his gun was laid aside in the corner he had to be helped off with his clothes - 

layer after layer of sweaters, leather jerkins and a coloured shirt. At the end of it all he fished a cable out of his pocket and held it out to me. It read: 'Nothing could be better than a piece on Venice by you but it so happens we have got someone called Alan Moorehead who may be doing it one day so I am sorry ..' It was signed Harold Ross.

Nothing could be more certain than that my friend Tassos will be taking to the slopes soon (he confessed it here); and with any luck we shall see thrilling pictures, and news of other conquests. I hope it is widely understood, that rmbl originated because of missing him on one of his sporting vacations. 

I think it's wonderfully fitting that we find Hemingway welcoming Moorehead in Cortina, with a jest on crossing paths, besieging cheapskate editors. I'm grateful to be the hapless upstart who doesn't really get in the way, because I get to play in my own little duck blind and still keep up with the antic goodguy when he's in Attiki. Laurent is a guy who didn't exist until he found Tassos' Comment section; and like Hercule + Auguste, Naughty Witt, and Dickie H here, he has chums over there, Yr obdt svt, But I love your place, And don't forget the roditis. Tassos runs the page where puppies go to munch the furniture; he is homo ludens, the fire Cocteau would save, our goddy of the duty of play.

I owe to my father, my introduction to Alan Moorehead, and Hemingway, of course; but possibly I'd have heard of him eventually. I owe to a stray comment from Tassos at another blog, my discovery of him. I know, I may never be the blogger here, I've been as Tassos' guest, just as I suppose I'll never interest anyone so much as my father. But I'm not ungrateful to fate. I'm happy that my friend illustrates the creativity of friendship, as much as its profile, because I like very much what it looks like, and feels like even in cyberspace. It is play. I hope I never forget how to leave I Tatti; I know I'll never forget where to turn.

Alan Moorehead
A Late Education
  Episodes in a Life
Hamish Hamilton, 1970©

ii-v  Joshua McVeity, photography

i-vi  Tassos

Thursday, January 19, 2012

I'm terribly sorry, but in North America, it's still Thursday

Yes, but whose fault
is that?

My favourite clothespin v: a stepping out in pieces

Possibly one of our most widely rec-
ognised gestures, the freeing of one's
foot from confinement, is not available
for our discussion here, except in
pieces. Fragments do suffice, how-
ever, for the character of the page
If you'll give me a moment, I'll 
gather them from their folder.
They come to us as readily assembled blocks. There is no cause for alarm because they are, after all, so familiar. 
You will naturally have to compose 
them as you like, but if you follow 
the traditional pattern, all will 
take care of itself. Don't be con-
cerned about the absence of clothes;
this will have a happy ending.

The awkwardness which we associate with the already completed portrait, is its possession of elements beyond what is sufficient for this page, as its betters see it. Thus, our allotment of fragments, to amuse us with that distinction. Perhaps we may turn to that, if the residual coherency of the image has begun to emerge?

We have a running subject, as you know, called my favourite clothespin, where a human quality or act has been inferred from a figure's posture. People have enjoyed these speculations, whether about gazing out of a window, in the first instance, or conferring with one's mother in the next; and the general interest in the freeing of one's foot has long called for assigning it a clothespin, here.

Objection has already been anticipated, to the image's failure to show a foot. It is upon this complaint that the whole principle of the clothes-pin could be ridiculed as one of fantasy. I shudder to count incompleteness of affect as a bar to comprehension, however, when the weight of cir-cumstances bears so heavily upon a single probability. We could not vote to convict him of unsnagging a foot, but we could allow this portrait to show it, beyond doubt.

What's telling about this portrait, is that avoidance of completeness only gives rise to several misconceptions at once. The first block shows a gesture which may be directed toward the right foot, but it is not. The portrait of the ankles is all but meaningless, but crucial. The portrait of the left side leads only to the emptiest conjectures. And the torso offers the same hazards. At last, we come to that feature of which everything else is a projection of a false incoherency. We are seeing an expression of calm bemusement, at stability, detained.

At St Anselm's College and often since, we have heard the now presumptive Republican nominee extolling the virtue of smashing people to bits, not for the untidy motives of the unfeeling, but as an immaculately unquestionable mandate of God. Yet beneath his delectation of the resulting image, there was such a contentment with the rightness of its incompleteness that it does not go too far to define it as a pleasure of withholding, and one he could believe he was extending to his listeners. He would propose to daub the resulting icon with a bit of vitriol here, a veil of ignominy  there; and as he warmed to his subject it was plain that he was admiring his creation. It could not hold, but that was its charm.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)

jar and kate

I feel very confident now
of saying, it isn't always
possible to know when one
is ready to see a great

Having to be in Washington
yesterday for other reasons,
I set aside a couple of 
hours of the afternoon to go
and look at Watteau; but the
NGA's French paintings are in
storage, pending repair of
their gallery's skylight, due
to be completed this month.

I'm not someone who can bear
to ignore a fine painting, 
and passing by the Ginevra
de' Benci is not my idea of
coming to grips with any part
of it. Moreover, I don't en-
joy assimilating more than
two masterpieces in a single
afternoon; and now that I do
not have to turn in an assign-
ment, it pleases me to look
at art as the work that it is.

I haven't any idea why the
painting I saw yesterday is not
taught along with the Eroica
symphony, apart from manifest-
ing that reign of specialisa-
tion that I so detest. This
work by Jackson Pollock is al-
so not going to be presented
here, because it cannot and it
does not make sense in this
medium - whereas, it is true,
one can read Beethoven.

A great painting will shock
for being the least radical
thing there could be; and,
as I say, it isn't always
possible to know when this
will be obvious. It will
sometimes be dozens of the
very things it is said not
to be; and in the case of
the Jackson Pollock painting
cited above, it is necessary
to tick some of them off at
once - it has structure, it
has narrative, it has coher-
ency, it has meaning, it has
eloquence, it has complete-
ness. It is, moreover, no
more than a coincidental ex-
position of its techniques.
So what was all the noise
about, we allow ourselves
to ask.

Mrs Nelson has given us a
gate to a residence, and I
suggest we look at it, past
the telltale elements of its
setting. After it has been
assimilated as a witness to
many passages, many seasons,
many handlings, many dis-
missals, what is it doing,
apart from staring us in
the face? I know very well,
what it is doing, but I
might not have done until
yesterday. It is staying.


Honour of the house

Delicacy of Monday

 I am perplexed;
 famous men rest
 retiring into their
 nineties with their
 spouses at their

 and every seventh
 morning fame is
 thwarted for the

 though they dream
 the pain
 of nobody



              What was the 
              hollering about 
              last night, in
              South Carolina?
I don't publish Ribbentrop fils,
as he is shown all over the web
these days, as an archetype. Do
I propose a Republican-like simile,
between his monstrosity and theirs?
Certainly not.

How much suffering must one 
will and cause in this country, 
to gain notice for what one does;
how ghastly, before there is shame?

These others are simply innocents
who bother Republicans. The final
one they would deem, too expensive, better left to their god to relieve.

Just after this posting went up,
and just before hopping in the
shower Tuesday morning, I sent 
off an e-mail to the source of 
one of these images, confiding 
in part:

I have felt acute disappointment 
in the publication, here and there, 
of Ribbentrop's picture.
I was extremely reluctant to use it.
But he serves an appropriate purpose 

in the question I ask, 'how terrible 
do you have to be, before you start 
to be ashamed' - For that reason I 
hope you do not disapprove.

Upon emerging from the shower, I saw
his comment blinking on my telephone,
and I published it and then took the
posting down, sending him a note to
say it was not his comment but my un-
derlying dismay with the popularity
of this picture, that brought this

The subject of that picture's al-
lure is a very broad one, but the 
narrower ground on which my friend  
objected to me in private - and
is very welcome to repeat here in
public - is the familiar and prob-
ably accurate judgment, that it's
best to compare nothing to Nazism.

This, however, I had not done. I had
compared conjugal deprivation of the
innocent to 50 years of conjugal lib-
erty for an officer of the Waffen SS,
constantly promoted and at least four
times decorated by the régime, for
leadership of the NSDAP's annihila-
tion machine. I had expressly not com-
pared Republican suppressions of lib-
erty to Nazi precedents, so that I 
could ask the fundamental question of
the hour, and in order to illuminate
exactly how Republicans frame extremist
similes as a matter, evidently, of core

The page has previously received re-
buke for disallowing one demographic
exclusive rights to complaint against
Nazism. I don't know anyone who hasn't
the duty, much less the right.

The bibliography of this blog is ex-
tensive in its registry of the conduct
of the Waffen SS, from Tim Snyder's
Bloodlands and Max Hastings' Armaged-
don and All Hell Let Loose, to three
great studies of the judeocide, itself.
But the argument in favour of recalling
Nazism's schadenfreude, its whipping 
up of fear and pride, its incitement
of rage and contempt, inter alia
is that such touchstones of its means
have a way of seeming to be safely
buried with its bones. That is not 
the case, in my country. All of these
qualities, air strikes excepted, are
directed against my liberty as we
speak, and primarily by Republicans.
For mammals, they quack pretty good.

i     Photography Will McBride
ii    another country
iii  Family album Rudolf von Ribbentrop
      Waffen SS

Monday, January 16, 2012

Reading out of doors

Every man who rises above the common
level has received two educations:
the first from his teachers; the sec-
ond, more personal and important, 
from himself. He will not, like the
fanatics of the past age, define the
moment of grace, but he cannot forget
the era of his life in which his mind
has expanded to its proper form and

Inside the dust jacket of my copy of
Edward Gibbon's autobiography I notice
that I observed an on-again, off-again
custom of defacement in this library, of
penning a notation of its place and date
of acquisition. I picked it up on an
autumn visit to my college, from my law 
school, no doubt to attend some party. 
As Mr Gibbon would agree, it isn't what 
you do with a school, it's how you get 
through it that counts.

Gibbon had a gigantically miserable ex-
perience of schooling, of the best sort
his society could offer a child of its
aristocracy. Here, he is arriving on the
threshold of one of the great secondary
educations for which his Century was so
famous, in an era of his planet which is
remembered as its most cosmopolitan. The
finishing wretchedness of Magdalen is at
last behind him. He has come to Lausanne, 
and he is all of 16.

I'm aware that the first sentence,
cited above, is a hideously overtaxed
shibboleth of small minds on the after-
dinner circuit. That's not the least 
of the reasons I admire the next one,
on the bane of our time, the epiphany
of the easily pleased. This is a youth
who paid a call on Voltaire, to ask
him a question.

The text I'm referring to is not his more
famous one, but it bears out a virtue he
considered at length in those volumes,
which he attributes to Cornelius Nepos,
an originator of biography and a friend of 
Catullus ~ His simplicity is elegant, his
brevity copious. You can read the auto-
biography of Edward Gibbon wherever you
like, and be entirely taken away from your
present pre-occupations; but it isn't what
you do with it, it's how you get through
it that counts.

This is a book which illustrates a prin-
ciple, almost, which I remember striking 
me with great force, in the same year in
which I purchased it. I had come to the
garden of a German refugee lady - there
was a time, in the last Century, when
there were many - to dine with her and
her family in daylight savings. Her el-
derly mother was there, as radiantly
refined by age as the clichés of eth-
nicity and means have ever allowed;
the chair was wicker, the pergola was
profuse, and so were the bees. She was,
as I saw her, impervious except to her
text; she was reading her Schiller.

Mr Gibbon's is a book, not unlike some
few you might love, which unfailingly
inspires me to select a place for its
reading. This is not to imitate a sight
I've thought beautiful, but to be close
to the thing that I know. I wonder if 
this is not pretty customary. And so it
was, yesterday afternoon, that I found
myself in a couple of layers of Beretta
windproofing in the sunshine in one of
the pastures here, without my dog, a 
thermos of Balinese coffee standing by, 
reminding myself of how the teenager 
proved to his not promiscuous satisfac-
tion that Cicero's fame had been deserved.

This little foible, of going to a place
to contemplate a text, is the anti-
thesis, I think, of communing for wor-
ship; so I would never make too much of
courting pneumonia, as the secret of
literary recreation, and I would never
purport to recruit a foursome for it.
This little premise, of composing the
space for mental play, is second-
nature to the violist, the surfer,
and is only inadvertently eccentric
to the virtuoso of the playlist. Yet 
recreation, it is, and at a level
which makes sense of the teenager's
response to Cicero by the lake. 

Certain circumstances are so agree-
able as to impose some discernment,
in displacement with anything else.
Gibbon doesn't have to be read in
the pasture, or on a dock at your
summer house. But I don't think I
have to persuade anyone that if he
can be, it's because we think well
enough of pastures and lakes to 
bring them only our better ques-

Edward Gibbon
The Autobiography of
  Edward Gibbon
op. cit.

Peter Quennell
The Profane Virtues
  Four Studies of the
  Eighteenth Century
The Viking Press, 1945©