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  • 10/20/16--13:26: The End of the World

  • John Martin [1789-1854] was an English Romantic painter. Very popular in his day, he specialized in apocalyptic scenes such as these (below), which showed an Old Testament feeling about mankind, God, the universe, and the vicissitudes of existence. 

    Most of Martin's big turbulent canvases I've looked at feature a familiar theme--a great fiery cauldron into which earth and mankind are either being swallowed up or threatened with impending incineration. This is represented either as "God's wrath" or the work of a pitiless infernal influence, the inevitable consequence of humanity's sinfulness--visions of mass destruction and the end of the world. 

    The 19th Century was dominated by what are now described as "Scriptural Geologists"--scientists or theorists who tried to reconcile the universal concepts of Christianity with the new science of geology. They hadn't yet begun to understand vulcanism and plate tectonics, so they were basically free to imagine that the devastating eruption from Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD was a phenomenon generated by a supreme deity. Pompeii was guilty of decadent and conspicuous indulgence, and ripe for punishment. 

    Religion has often used fear and loathing to scare its adherents into obedience and conformity. And the Victorian Era trembled under the apprehension of an angry deity.       

    In Martin's colorful vision The Great Day of His Wrath, we see humanity and cities and whole sections of the earth's crust blasted up and tilting into the crucible of melting matter. 

    We now know that vulcanism is a clear expression of the instability of the planet, where molten elements periodically leak upward through the earth's crust, through cracks in the seams of the huge tectonic plates, which migrate slowly, in geologic time, round the unstable surface. We know these eruptions occur naturally, through the process of continuous formation and deformation of the hot matter beneath. But Victorians--who had no real understanding of larger geological forces, or of the vast spectrum of time involved-- were free to speculate about imaginary causes and meanings.

    The popularity of Martin's holocaust-like pictures is a testament to the fascination people had with frightening nightmares of their own jeopardy. It was fun to look at pictures like this. Today, people still have intense curiosity about large, terrifying events, such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornados, though we no longer see them as manifestations of destiny or the will of the gods. There's no one to blame for these things, so we have to treat them for the periodic and inevitable occurrences they really are.       


    John Martin The Great Day of His Wrath 1851-3
    (To see these images better, drag them onto your desktop, and expand them onto the screen.)

    The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum [1822]


    John Martin [1839]

    Today, however, we've come to the realization that our affect on the earth's weather has become nearly catastrophic. As global warming progresses, the seas rise, and drought covers vast areas of the land masses of continents and islands, we'll be faced with the consequences of our own mischief in offending the chemical balances of the atmosphere, resulting in catastrophic changes in weather, the seas, and the ice-caps. As if garden-variety pollution hadn't done enough damage, now we're looking at a compromised planet, much less hospitable to all life, than we had come to imagine it just a century or so ago.

    In a very real sense, the moral imprecations of the 19th Century are being revisited upon humanity today, though we have only ourselves to blame, not an angry god. It isn't, after all, our profane indulgence in sex or crime or persecution which is the fault, but our presumptions and negligence about the natural world at large. The earth, which once seemed so large and unconquerable and inexhaustible in extent and largesse, we now know is vulnerable in its fragility and finite limit(s). We've offended Mother Nature, and she's unlikely to take the offense lightly. 

    Written not long after the end of World War I, Archibald MacLeish's famous poem The End of the World presents a piquant, ironic and surreal take on the fatalistic crisis of consciousness familiar to poets and novelists of the time (1920's).      


               The End of the World

    Quite unexpectedly, as Vasserot
    The armless ambidextrian was lighting
    A match between his great and second toe,
    And Ralph the lion was engaged in biting
    The neck of Madame Sossman while the drum
    Pointed, and Teeny was about to cough
    In waltz-time swinging Jocko by the thumb
    Quite unexpectedly to top blew off:

    And there, there overhead, there, there hung over
    Those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes,
    There in the starless dark, the poise, the hover,
    There with vast wings across the cancelled skies,
    There in the sudden blackness the black pall
    Of nothing, nothing, nothing -- nothing at all. 

    Just in case you were wondering, Vasserot is probably a made-up name, though Ferdinand Vasserot was a French bicyclist who competed in the 1900 Summer Olympics. The poem seems to describe a circus, inside a big circus tent, in which various figures are performing feats and tricks. Vasserot the armless ambidextrian, Ralph the Lion, Madame Sossman, Teeny, Jocko are figures in a madcap troupe and the "thousands of white faces" are the audience. Quite unexpectedly, the top of the tent blows off--something that might actually happen--revealing the big dark night sky overhead. The "vast wings" might be less literal. The "sudden blackness" might be said to represent the "nothingness" of the universe, or the meaninglessness of existence, the larger context of infinite space, beyond mankind's imaginative powers. 

    MacLeish responds to the new cynicism of the Lost Generation with a half-serious comic salvo. Though he is usually included with Eliot and Pound among the high modernists, his career took him away from aesthetic disengagement. He had a career in law, which he gave up to write. Returning to America,  he worked as a journalist for Fortune magazine. Later, he served as the first de-facto American poet laureate (called then the Head Librarian of Congress), and still later inside the precursor of the CIA during WWII. He also became a successful playwright. 

    MacLeish presents the case of a figure torn between tendencies. Sympathetic to Communism during the 1930's, he worked as a propagandist during the Second WW to promote the cause of victory. Stylistically, he's now regarded as an imitator--particularly of Eliot--and his poetry has not stood the test of time. He may have thought of himself as an innovator, but that seems less and less so today. 

    His poem is notable for its fragmented phrases, and the sense of coy surprise, but the repetitions seem more hackneyed ("there, there overhead, there, there""blackness . . . the black pall""nothing, nothing, nothing -- nothing at all") than inspired. It's almost like nursery rhyme. It's a novelty, which perhaps suits the clever cunning of its method. Read for the first time, it leaves an indelible impression, which palls with each successive reading. This is a quality which he shares with E.E. Cummings, of a specious playful inventiveness that is short on conviction. It usually comes off as gesture. 

    The poem is sufficient unto itself, and demands nothing more of us but mild amusement, though it purports to carry a much larger message. In the context of his whole work, it often happens that an inferior poem or composition comes to occupy a much larger place than it deserves, and overshadows more ambitious and laudable efforts. Novelty pieces like this can actually hurt a writer's reputation.           


    Archibald MacLeish [1892-1982]





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  • 11/09/16--08:29: Article 1




  • The 2016 Presidential election is coming to an end, and it's clear that Donald Trump, while not winning the actual popular vote, has been elected to the office.

    The prognosticators have been telling us all along that Trump's campaign strategy, which has been consistent from the beginning, was appealing to what Nixon supporters used to understand as the "silent majority"--the part of America often referred to as the ideological Middle.

    Political sentiment has always been as much about emotion and irrational projections as it is about facts and realities. Politicians who can tap into resentment and frustration can often overcome better candidates who base their campaigns on valid points. 

    While some of Trump's talking points were superficially valid--stemming illegal immigration, restoring jobs--there never was any reason to believe he had any concrete solutions.

    Trump has behaved as a demagogue, strutting and blustering and wise-cracking. He is a man without political experience, or public speaking skill, and with little knowledge about domestic or world affairs and issues. 

    When America elected George W. Bush, I felt deep embarrassment for my country. How could a naive, smarmy little truant rich boy ascend to the highest office? It became clear, eventually, that Dubya was nothing but a puppet, that the real President was Dick Cheney, who guided our country into dead-end foreign wars, while using the patriotic fervor generated by those conflicts to engineer a traditional conservative domestic agenda (tax breaks for the rich). 

    I've always said that Americans are dumb, and that who we elect to political office is the clearest proof of that. Trump's election is further evidence.

    For three generations, America has been losing jobs, and its standard of living has declined in real terms. Meanwhile, corporate America has flourished. The political parties' answer to this has been to champion minorities and immigrants, "free trade," tax breaks for rich and corporations, etc. 

    Rather than addressing the root causes for the widespread frustration which these trends have created, the Democrats have talked about "inclusion" and "cooperation" and brotherhood. Code words aimed at minorities, whom it was widely believed represented the new "swing" vote strategy. 

    Again, the fact that Trump might never be able to "deliver" on any of his vaunted promises (building a wall, bringing jobs home, increasing domestic security), had nothing to do with his appeal. 

    Because casting votes is more about gesture and sending a message, than it is about seeking real solutions. In this current election, supporters identified with Trump's adolescent posturing and resentment at outsiders. 

    Politics is indeed dirty business, and Trump's strategy has been to play it as dirty as possible. It wasn't that his supporters were duped, as much as that they got the message they were looking for.

    We live in a democracy, which means that no one side can win all the time, or at least that's what the rules say. Yesterday, Americans spoke. You can like it or despise it, but they expressed their sentiment, directly. 

    They're fed up with how things have been going. Will we listen to them? Or are they just the great unwashed benighted fools we've been thinking they were all along? The unemployed auto and steel and glass and textile and rubber and plastics industries workers have been hurting, and they feel betrayed by a government which puts their priorities at the bottom. They haven't enjoyed being told that the needs of Mexicans and Syrians and Indians come first, while they must learn to be more "tolerant" and transform themselves into service drones. 

    Now, with majorities in both houses of Congress, and a "can do" guy in the White House, whatever Lola wants, Lola will get

    It's likely that Trump's administration will be "business as usual" for the rich and privileged. The American Middle Class will continue to crumble.

    Plus ça change . . . . 



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  • 11/21/16--10:01: The End of the Rainbow

  • Over the weekend, we had a lovely experience. 

    We live in the East Bay Hills, facing the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge to the West. 

    At sunrise, I awoke and looked out the bedroom window, and to my amazement saw a vertical rainbow touching down on the Bay, directly behind Brooks Island, a narrow body of land sitting just south of Richmond/Marina Bay. I rushed downstairs to get our old digital camera, and caught just the tail end of the display before it faded into the dawn light.    




    Rainbows are unusual enough here, but catching one from a point of view that allows a useful photo is rare indeed. 

    There may not be a pot of gold along the Tiburon shoreline, but it was inspiring to see nature's accidental fireworks from our own backyard. 


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    Tom Disch [1940-2008] was a gifted poet, critic and science fiction writer. In a fit of depression, he shot himself in the head. 68 isn't young, but you'd have to believe he could have gone on to write more novels and poems if he'd lived longer. For a complete account, visit his Wiki page here. He began as a poet, but his sci-fi novels were his his most popular work. Disch didn't write the kind of poetry that I find satisfying, but he was clever and could make delightful metaphors and narratives. 





    Though I've never been a big fan of juvenile literature, occasionally I can be diverted by a book that seems to transcend the gulf we ordinarily associate with the separation between childhood and adulthood. Disch's book The Tale of Dan De Lion is one such.  

    Typically, I'm not a big fan of "cute" when it comes to poetry, but I've read a fair amount of light verse in my time. Specialists--like Ogden Nash or Phyllis McGinley--manage to sound witty while they're being inventive. Light verse is one of the mainstays of juvenile literature--a fact that sometimes dismays me, since I believe that it prejudices young minds towards the frivolous aspect of poetry, and forever taints their understanding and appreciation of more serious work. (The other side of that coin is so-called religious poetry, a steady diet of which tends to inculcate readers with the idea that poetry is nothing more than a vehicle for devout thinking.)    

    What's the excuse for light verse, aside from ease of apprehension, and the mild, negligent attitude towards existence it implies? Poems as jokes, poems as innocent fun--poems as a kind of parlor-game of rhyme and rhythm, no more edifying than square-dancing, cartoons, pantomime quizzes, or cross-word puzzles. 

    But occasionally, someone comes up with a valid pretext for a nonchalant indulgence in silly verse. 

    Traditionally, juvenile or light verse works well in tetrameter, or lines with a four-beat measure. Think of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky"--


    ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves 
       Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
    All mimsy were the borogoves,
       And the mome raths outgrabe.

    “Beware the Jabberwock, my son
       The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
    Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
       The frumious Bandersnatch!”

    He took his vorpal sword in hand;
       Long time the manxome foe he sought—
    So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
       And stood awhile in thought.

    And, as in uffish thought he stood,
       The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
    Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
       And burbled as it came!

    One, two! One, two! And through and through
       The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
    He left it dead, and with its head
       He went galumphing back.

    “And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
       Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
    O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
       He chortled in his joy.

    ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
       Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
    All mimsy were the borogoves, 
       And the mome raths outgrabe. 

    (Which is not to say, of course, that serious poems can't written in this measure.)





    The Tale of Dan De Lion was published by Coffee House Press in 1986. Coffee House Press was started in Minneapolis, by my old (late) friend Allan Kornblum, after he closed down his letterpress operation Toothpaste Press outside of Iowa City. When I knew Allan, we both lived in Iowa City--during the early 1970's. Allan had a good eye for charming alternative literature, though I wouldn't have known it then. 



    The Tale of Dan De Lion is the sort of contrary dystopian fable that appeals to smart children, and may be as attractive and intriguing to adults as well. 

    I've reproduced the whole book here, rather than just refer to it obliquely. It's out of print now, so I doubt that anyone will be offended by my appropriation. 


    Dan De Lion is a subversive little story about the competition between wild and domesticated plants--in this case between dandelions and domestic cultivated roses.  


    The story imagines the garden as a scene of conflict, in which the natural flora, ignored and despised by sophisticated (and well-heeled) gardeners, compete for space and air and water and nutrients, with the pampered flowers of Miss Belinda Butterworth.   


    Dan De Lion is a weed, a despised outlaw and invader of the tended bed, an enemy of Butterworth and her prized rose plants. 


    The obvious political and social implications of this relationship feel not in the least obtrusive, presented in these terms, with clever stylish cartoon illustrations. 

    ___________________________





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    [This is the second part of a blog about Tom Disch's poem The Tale of Dan De Lion.]




    Is this propaganda? You bet your life it is. Is it "saved" from being propaganda, framed as "innocent" clever rhymes? Not at all. 



    We don't really need to be reminded that juvenile literature contains as much violence, jeopardy, sadness, hatred and remorse as grown-up literature, do we? Most juvenile literature falls flat (and there's mountains and mountains of the stuff) because it fails to engage with and confront life's fiercest challenges and difficulties and contradictions. When it becomes an escape from reality--a "magic world" into which the self retreats--instead of returning us to the truths of actual life, it becomes ultimately irrelevant. 


    The personification of good and evil, expressed in horticultural terms, becomes a short-hand for a larger point about nature versus civilization, environmental husbandry and ethics.  


    Dan's descent into the symbolic underworld "where death gets all confused with birth," takes us into the philosophical arena, where important questions about mortality, rejuvenation, and endurance are worked out. 


    In the poem's cosmology, earth becomes a source of refuge, renewal and life. 


    Is Butterworth the evil witch she seems to be in this story? Should we regard her merely as a sophisticated hybrid of the kind who clubs up in ladies' and garden groups, striving to out-flower each other with superior specimens?


    So if it's revolution you want, then cheer for the upstart weeds, whose determination and pluck have overcome attempts to wipe them out!


    Even Thwaite, the slave to Belinda's selfish aims, deserts her. 


    And so endeth the lesson. 

    Copyright page

    Tom Disch [older]


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    Oh my, another cocktail blog. This is surely going to ruin my reputation as a serious blogger, since no one in his or her right mind would consider drinking alcoholic beverages a sophisticated endeavor. 

    It wasn't always so. Once upon a time, cocktails--and the opportunity to indulge in them--were considered something mostly confined to people who afford them. Access to a well-stocked bar isn't an universal privilege. Booze has always been expensive, and concocting different combinations (or mixes) requires a variety of goods and ingredients.   

    And then there was the imputation of naughtiness, which alcohol has always had. 

    Recently, in my travels as a book scout, I came across a copy of one of the classic texts, Ted Saucier's Bottoms Up, With Illustrations by Twelve of America's Most Distinguished Artists, Decorations by Russell Patterson, Cover Design by Al Dorne [New York: Greystone Press, 1951]. Visually, it feels very much like Esquire Magazine's look and style, with a few "tasteful" distaff illustrations of ladies in "compromising" poses, which I suspect were included not just for atmosphere, but to sell more copies of the book. Back in those days, there were few "legit" places men could see pictures of nudes, and any excuse to acquire them added to the interest of the product. The idea that drinking might improve your romantic opportunities has always been an adman's short-hand, and since its author, Ted Saucier, was in the public relations/advertising business, the connection fits. 

    Saucier was identified with the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, which still survives today, and puts out its own proprietary bar book. He knew how to eat and drink, and he collected recipes from all over the place--many of them associated with celebrities and bon vivants--which are named for or linked to them. To judge from the reach and range of the batch he gathers here, you'd think he must have spent half his life bar-hopping around the world sampling signature drinks.      



    It contains, as one would expect, a good number of the usual suspects, famous and reliable, which every bartender is expected to know from memory. The more complex the mixture, the more different ways there are to vary it, so for those who like to experiment and discover, a typical gin martini is pretty vanilla.  



    Cocktail mixing books will give you the rudiments of how recipes are created, but once you're familiar, they aren't really necessary. Any bartender worth his salt is going to experiment, and discover new combinations. That's what I do. I've probably tried over a thousand different combinations, guessing how one or another ingredient will taste when put with another.  


    The best mixology books bring something else besides just recipes. They can give a different spin on the world their authors inhabit, or imagine. 


    Thank goodness I don't live in a Muslim country, where drinking is officially forbidden!


    Thank goodness for the sexual revolution, which freed my generation and those that followed, from some of the hang-ups that beset our elders. I can't quite figure out what's supposed to be happening in the illustration above. Is it an open-air circus performer in London? Up and down, back and forth, as those odd little figures in seats watch the traffic go by. Are they priests?

    I tried one drink from the book, the "Bullfrog - Courtesy, Embassy Club, The Windsor, Montreal." 

    Juice 1/2 lime
    1 1/4 oz. Canadian rye
    3/4 oz. apricot brandy

    --shaken and served up with a cherry as garnish.

    Very nice. 

    The Windsor Hotel was quite an establishment in its day. Opening in 1878, it survived until 1981.  Pictures of the place in its heyday are below. I couldn't find any of the bar, but I'll bet it was elegant. The world it represented is long-gone, never to return. But we can still sample the drinks they enjoyed there.  





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    As a child of the 1950's (I was born in 1947, near the beginning of the baby boom), the predominant "social media" device was the telephone. People then would stay in touch by phoning, or writing letters, or perhaps sending telegrams (what an old conduit that now seems!) to each other. Early "walkie-talkies" or (later) CB radios enabled people to talk without land-line hookups, but those weren't things most people used, or had access to. In my generation, the telephone became a focus of interaction among teenagers, who weren't always allowed to meet or associate in person, so were relegated to connecting via the family 'phone. I was a somewhat atypical teenager, and didn't begin having phone conversations with friends until the last year of high school. Long, avid telephone conversations were something that girls mostly did, though they were the crucial conduit for boys who wanted to engage with, or seduce, specific members of the opposite sex. I was born without charm, and I had almost no appetite for small talk, so regarding the telephone as an essential, indispensable tool of my life never really occurred to me. When I finally did begin to communicate with other kids, it was usually to discuss ideas, not to compare notes about the social milieu. In that respect, as in other ways, I was a nonconformist, and I would then have rejected the idea that my curiosity, or my desire to be in contact with others of my own generation, was a priority. I rejected all notions of "teenage" behavior, because that would have been an admission that my significance as a person existed within a kind of limbo, neither excusable and "cute" as in childhood, nor burdened with the necessities and responsibilities of full adult-hood. Being dismissed as "teenaged" behavior meant that your actions, your ideas, your feelings, were somehow irrelevant--and that seemed entirely objectionable as a status. 

    With the coming of the computer revolution, and the advent of the cell-phone era, we've entered successive plateaus of interactivity which have transformed our culture, especially the so-called "youth culture" (the old "teenage" culture). When I was an adolescent, boys and girls might be preoccupied with talking to each other on the phone, sometimes for hours at a time. This was regarded, at worst, as a kind of bad habit. How much trouble could you get into by talking on a telephone? It might be a waste of time, or an unjustified expense of a high(er) phone bill, but mostly it was a diversion from chores, homework, exercise, or just living in unconnected reality. 




     


    Every generation regards technological progress with some degree of apprehension, even alarm. It's often a knee-jerk reaction to simple change, as if just preserving the status quo were an inherently desirable goal. When personal computers first hit the scene, I was dead-set against our buying one, since I suspected that our son would immediately become infected by the attraction of computer games--a fear that was eventually confirmed. In the end, though, I was the one who would in due course be most dependent upon the new gadget, while the younger generation were moving on from computers to hand-held and cell-phones. 

    I was a late comer to blogging, coming in just at the tail end of "list-serve" and "chat-groups" period, but once I got a taste for it, I crashed the new party, posting and commenting with abandon. Clearly, kids talking on the phone the way they did in the 1950's isn't equivalent to people talking on their cell phones today. What is the difference, and what can we tell about that difference? 

    Today, no matter where you go, or what you are doing, you are surrounded by people monkeying with their cell/hand-held computers. Whether it's business, or pleasure, or sheer bored diversion, people are constantly calling and receiving calls and browsing hyperspace.  

    During the early days of blogging, much of the contact consisted of postings, brief essays, commentary, and e.mail. E.mail basically eliminated the need for most telephone exchanges, as well as snail-mail. Both cell phone use, and the new "social media" online sites, are both expansions of e.mail and telephonic exchange, as well as a new kind of group interactive forum. 

    What I like about blogging is the freedom to write at length, to develop thought, to conduct real discussions with others. While blogging fed the desire for serious interaction, it may have seemed slow and lugubrious, especially to younger people. The makers of computer devices saw that the new horizon was portability and convenience, freeing people from their land-locked computer units, as well as the old land-line phones. They saw that exploiting the urge to conduct quick, low-density content messages could open up vistas of commerce--hence Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of the now notorious online forums. 

    This has had the effect of seducing people away from more demanding (and unlimited) media, namely blogging and e.mail, to progressively quicker and briefer levels of exchange. It's inconvenient to type more than a few words in a social media stream, especially since one can't address a keyboard with all your fingers in play. I've seen people who've mastered the "thumb" technique, and can type words almost as fast as I can on a traditional keyboard. Is touch typing a thing of the past? Will traditional QWERTY keyboards someday become obsolete? 

    What's the next plateau of communication going to look like? We can now call people, send recorded messages, instant e.mails, and group posts on forums. Will the next generation begin to conduct communications with robots? 

    My primary gripe against all this low content exchange is that it encourages people to think primarily in abbreviation, as if the only thoughts or opinions that mattered were those that could be summarized in 50 words or less. Our new President elect Donald Trump is a child of our age, who uses Twitter to make statements and comment on the affairs of the day. One senses a connection between the triviality of his grasp of current affairs, and the media limitations that have grown up around us. We've created a generation of people who think that all the world's problems and issues can be addressed peremptorily, with little research. Also, that understanding the meaning and significance of complex matters doesn't require careful, considered research and consideration; that we can form coherent thought and make progress solving involved disputes and difficult situations, simply by making momentary pronouncements. 

    We're being told that the new President-elect is a new kind of politician, one who lunges and lurches from distraction to preoccupation, unpredictably and irrationally, blurting out sudden statements and "tweets" impulsively, without thinking before-hand what the consequences might be. 

    We've come to think that social media--which allows people to cohere briefly around a certain point of view--has a political meaning and impact that far outweighs its actual meaningful content. Just because a high office-holder can issue a momentary verbal salvo into hyperspace, doesn't suggest that his views are any more informed or considered than anyone else's. 

    It used to be that holders of high political office had superior access to information, that their offices were clearing-houses of data and exchange that enabled them to form policy and position the rest of us couldn't. In the case of Trump, it's as if he no longer thinks he needs to consider the background or history of a problem, that an impulsive reaction has as much legitimacy as decisions tempered by advice and research. It's not just that Trump seems unable to understand the world--he actually seems to think it doesn't matter, that action--even on the national and international level--can be conducted by amateurs, that power itself somehow legitimates bold, impulsive decision-making, uninformed by facts or information.  

    This is an entirely new stage in the development of political life. It's as if democratic office-holders now feel they have the freedom once relegated to dictatorship--that of acting without ordinary curbs and checks, like a child moving little lead soldiers on a battlefield board-table. It's unsettling to think that our new President may feel he can decide to go to war one morning by simply announcing his decision on Twitter, leaving his beleaguered subordinates to "work out the details" by lunchtime. 

    Most astonishing of all, it may be that people now accept that as a given means of action and communication, that American Presidents can conduct business in full view of the world, without prior restraints or inhibitions. A sort of wizard of tweet tinkering with the future of the planet as if it were a board game. 


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  • 01/01/17--09:07: Correct Grammar Matters

  • RESOLVED IN 2017

    Not to use any of the following conversational phrases or  constructions in speech:


    . . . any time soon . . .

    meaningless phrase that signifies no duration whatever

    . . . in regards to . . .

    wrong usage - should be regard 

    That said . . . 

    pointless overused transitional phrase which has virtually no meaning

    . . . which I said that . . .

    improper use of the relative pronoun 

    . . . too big (of) a . . . 

    unnecessary preposition

    . . . be it . . . 

    crude misuse of the participle 

    I feel (like) . . . 

    you don't feel like, you feel that

    **********************************

    Want to be stupid? Ungrammatical? 

    No?

    Then pay attention to what you say. Bad language is like a virus, which spreads as fast as the common cold, infecting each person who carelessly allows it to enter his/her speech. 

    It takes some vigilance. You have to want to avoid bad habits. You have to believe in accuracy and clarity as goals of communication.

    Good speech matters. 

    You could look it up.  

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    Why not.

    Barrett Watten's new book Questions of Poetics. Language Writing and Consequences has just appeared from University of Iowa Press [Iowa City: 2016]. Its overall intention, by my reading, is to reaffirm and consolidate the legacy of the soi-disant "Language Poetry School" and its members, in an ongoing campaign for its literary valorization. 

    In the course of this long-winded account, Watten takes on Ansel Adams' Fiat Lux: The University of California portfolio [New York: McGraw-Hill Books, 1967]--  





    --a commercial project the famous photographer undertook near the end of his career. The project, which was begun just months after the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964-65, provides Watten with a proximal contextual marker, seeing Adams, and the Fiat Lux project, as a conscious instrument (and symptom) of the monolithic power structure of the post-war American UC system, against which the subsequent resistant student protests, and later aesthetic movements (i.e., the Language Poetry movement) are posed. 

    Watten has strayed a little outside his comfortable area of expertise. But why not? Adams is an easy target. 

    As a serious large format photographer, I know a good deal more about the contexts and meaning of Adams' life and work than Watten does, and I find his analysis wanting in several respects. 

    Since his death, Adams has been an easy target of photography's critics, and for obvious reasons. Originally, he had wanted to be a professional classical pianist, but gave this up in favor of photography in his twenties. His early associations were with Yosemite Valley, where he lived and worked for several years, which led directly to his involvement in the landscape preservation movement (Sierra Club). His aesthetic inspirations are all to be found in his appreciation of wildness, of nature's grandeur and persuasive beauty, and his fame rests primarily on his nature images, which portray natural wonders in an heroic style, unencumbered with abstract theory or problematic distractions. Unlike Stieglitz, or Strand, or Edward Weston--who sought deeper levels of revelation in their work--Adams saw photography primarily as a craft. Indeed, his researches into the chemistry and technology of image-making, which include the Zone System of light measurement (which he pioneered), enabled him to focus on the precision and clarity of imaging (see F64). Though his reputation in retrospect came be be seen as primarily preservationist and naturist, he took commercial work of all kinds in his career. Adams's politics were centered around the preservationist aesthetic, both as a key figure in the Sierra Club, and as a promoter of (photographic) visions of the unspoiled American West. Indeed, if anything, Adams' stance against conservative figures such as President Reagan, specifically on environmental issues, would place him well left of center on the political spectrum. Later critics have seen in Adams'"superficial" celebration of landscape values a hypocrisy about the ultimate realities of modern industrial exploitation of the ecosphere, as if he ought to have understood that the real work lay in exposing pollution and the ugliness of chaotic human development, a task which has fallen to later generations of serious photographers.

    Though it is true that his images do not embody the ironies and problems of modern urban and suburban developments, of factories and clear-cuts and cesspools and smokestacks, no one worked harder for preservation values than Adams.    

    But why not? Who cares if we bring Adams down another notch or two on the aesthetic scale?

    Adams would have seen the University of California Fiat Lux commission as an opportunity to celebrate the optimistic spirit of public education and scientific research, not as the expression of a repressive, capitalistic, militaristic power structure. Adams would see buildings and trees and plazas in the same way he would see mountains and lakes and landscapes. What would you expect him to have done--use the commission to pillory the university system as the evil monolith of Yankee Imperialism?  

    The Fiat Lux commission is described by the UC System's permanent art collections: "Besides his personal work as a nature photographer--his art--Ansel Adams took commercial assignment in order to support himself. Among these was a commission from the University of California to produce a book celebrating its centennial in 1968. The subject was the nine campuses that then comprised the UC system--and the book's title was UC's motto, Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light)." The full archive of images can be viewed online here. "The project also enlarges our sense of Adams's career by showing us not only the talent he had for genres other than nature photography, such as portraiture, but also the ways in which he adapted his landscape aesthetic to the subject of the UC's campuses and agricultural stations."  

    Watten: "These photographs provide a record of the university's image of itself as it was before the cultural changes begun by the FSM ['Free Speech Movement'] , and as such they stand as a record of what the student movement saw itself as opposing, even as it assumed many of its values. They give, as well, accurate evidence of the historical constructedness of purported universals: the sedimentary thickness of all claims to the transparency of knowledge represented by the university." As evidence for this "sedimentary thickness" Watten emphasizes Adams' foregrounding of the Campanile as the towering symbolic representation of the oppressive atmosphere of the university administration and the opaque "universal knowledge" it purports to represent. Hedging his bet ("even as it [the student movement(s)] assumed many of its [the University's] values"), there is a pertinent irony in the meaning of those very values. So why not? Can't we have it both ways?  

    End Part I


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    [Continued]

    Watten: "Adams was an ideal photographer to represent the university's view of itself. As a world-renowned Modernist . . . he brought together in his work modern technology and sublime grandeur . . . . As anchor of this subliminally, the Campanile takes a prominent place in his iconography. The symbolic order it represents is distributed everywhere in Adams's system of representation; the archive reveals his repeated efforts to foreground and frame it as a controlling icon. This . . . in turn, offers a paradigm for Adams's construction of relations of equivalence between the elements of the discourse of the university, beginning with the literal construction of the campus . . . ." 


    In the first place, Adams could not by any stretch of logic be described as a "Modernist." His work began in the tradition of, and continued to embody, throughout his career, the pictorial landscape values of the 19th Century. He never questioned the analytical or aesthetic implications of that program. Indeed, his first portfolio--Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras--includes so-called "soft focus" images which had been popular at the turn of the century. In his eyes, natural wonders--symbolic signposts of a secular pantheistic tapestry, designating parks as jewels in the crown--became the means to project the preservationist's agenda into the popular realm. Adams never questioned the basic claim of photography as the means of the presentation of actual reality. He rejected any manipulation or alteration of the image which did not enhance the original conception as seen with the naked eye.    


    Secondly, Sather Tower (aka: the Campanile), which was constructed in 1914, as a part of campus architect John Galen Howard's Beaux Arts Master Plan, was specifically and deliberately designed to occupy the central visual key to the university, visible from everywhere. Based on European models--the Venice tower comes immediately to mind--it stands as a monument to the aesthetic mode of the time of its conception, and as an image of the optimism and progressive spirit of American liberal education. To suggest that Adams sought--either consciously, or unconsciously--to emphasize it as an over-mastering iconic symbol of repression and a decadent corruption of the administration, is sheer nonsense. What fool would think that deliberately excluding images of the tower would somehow have been a more politically correct choice? And for that matter, the tower's original purpose wasn't as an icon of power. Anyone choosing to view it that way, particularly in hindsight, is engaging in an egregiously cheap form of gratuitous bias. 


    But why not?


    Turning his attention to the faculty portraits--"in each of these rigid and codified poses, the inventor himself (always male) is an empty, nearly anonymous cipher, while the given invention . . . offers a promise of fulfillment. . . . The transformative potential of the most sublime orders known to man is disclosed--as with the Berkeley research that participated in the development of nuclear weapons at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory . . . as seen in Adams' images of the first diminutive cyclotron . . . This sublime potential . . . a threat of total annihilation in the name of science and rationality . . . by means of logics of equivalence . . . throughout the system." 


    All this analytical presumption seems beside the point. In choosing to include the university's scientific facilities as a pertinent sphere of its research mission, Adams was certainly not attempting to portray the administration's underlying power structure, as Watten states. It would be just as false for Adams to have pretended that scientific research wasn't important, by not portraying it at all, as it would have been to show a photo, for instance, of an atomic detonation. Documentary photography can swing both ways, depending upon your point of view. In any case, it wasn't Adams' mission to present a philosophical criticism of the university on its centennial, as Watten seems to demand.


    Watten goes on to include the usual suspects--" . . . not only is gender rigidly ordered . . . Other outsides of the system include minorities, as scarce as quark particles in the cloud chamber of Adams' oeuvre . . . Asian Americans . . African Americans . . . and Hispanics . . . [and] Native American[s] . . . ." Again, given the context of the historical moment, it's hard to imagine what Adams ought to have done, in retrospect, given the obvious mandate of his commission. If, for instance, he had been queued to the motions of "diversity" so prevalent in our own time, he might, instead of taking a photograph of Department of English Chairman James Hart, have chosen to photograph Josephine Miles, another professor in the same department, whose wheelchair condition could, signally killing two birds with one stone, have qualified for both gender and disability as the politically correct "coded" references of which Watten could, fifty years later, approve. But then, Adams wasn't a photographer in the mold of W. Eugene Smith (Minamata) or Paul Strand or Dorothea Lange; he wasn't hired to portray the university in a critical light, a fact which Watten seems unable to grasp. 


    "As a visual endorsement of Enlightenment rationality, it is doubly remarkable that this document was created, after the Free Speech Movement . . . Adams is hard pressed to account for the historical moment . . . It occurred during the 1966 Charter Day ceremony . . . [in which] a well-organized student group provided the students with picket signs [against the war in Vietnam] . . . " which are clearly evident in Adams' photos of the crowd. Ironically, Watten sees hypocrisy in the photo, which Adams included, as if the decision to include it, involved a compromised failure, and was evidence of the ambiguity of the project. But if Adams had chosen not to include it, then we would not even have had it to consider in the first place. Indeed, if Adams had chosen to exclude it, might that not have been evidence of the very corruption Watten insists the photo signifies in the first place? Finally, though the archive itself is exhaustive, no attempt is made in Watten's criticism to distinguish between the vast archive file, and the images that were actually published in the book. 


    Watten's attempt to associate his undergraduate self--and later his associates in the Language School activities in subsequent decades--with the era of student dissent at Berkeley in the 1960's--is an amusing maneuver. Watten himself was never an active protestor, and in fact was a science major during that period. In a discussion we had during the 1970's, he was adamant in insisting that participation in political demonstrations and activities was a futile and pointless choice. During the 1960's, I had had friends in the student radical movement. When I went to work for the U.S. Government, I discovered that the FBI had developed a fat file on my movements and activities during the 1960's. When I reported this to Watten, he was angered and frightened, worried that his association with me might have compromised his own non-participatory, officially a-political stance. His first concern was for his own reputation, and his image. "You keep my name out of that shit!" 


    There is nothing in the writing of the Language School participants to suggest that its "poetics" should be seen as a politically correct program. From Watten's point of view, it makes sense for him to regard himself, in retrospect, as an early messenger of Left political points of view. It's a way of polishing his legacy reputation, and that of his associates, to accord with current politically correct attitudes. Their poems are relatively free of political referents, primarily because they eschew the kind of timely dialectics which require clear stands, that fade and date with time--names and places and events that determine real outcomes. 


    Watten can put down Ansel Adams--that's just shooting fish in a barrel--because it provides an historically convenient symbolic document for his argument. Indeed, I myself have put Adams down for aesthetic reasons, which have little or anything to do with his politics, which Watten deliberately ignores in favor of easy, and clearly unjustified character assassination. Fiat Lux is, on the whole, a quotidian archive almost completely denatured of political content, primarily because Adams himself wasn't a critic of the university, but it's also worth pointing out the context of the commission itself, which had nothing whatever to do with the student protest movement, or with Watten's preferred point of view, fifty years later. 


    If Watten's goal is to privilege "transparent rationality" in institutions of higher learning, he might begin by engaging with current politically correct activities and attitudes on present-day American campuses, where freedom of thought and expression seem as much in jeopardy today, as at any time in the last century. In the 1930's, "fellow traveler" was a derogatory term used to criticize those who shared political beliefs with identified radicals. Today, there's a whole generation of American academics--of whom Watten is one--who flirt with socialism (in its various guises) but who never risk anything that might jeopardize their tenures and pensions. It's a kind of dishonesty that sees harmless (fake) association as a convenient cheap badge of honor. It's just chicken-shit behavior. 


    But why not? 








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  • 01/27/17--07:13: DURATION Poems 1978-2015

  • I've always been interested in books, and when I took Harry Duncan's typography class at the University of Iowa in 1970, I became interested in how books were made, and especially in how the construction of a book, and the presentation of its text, was an expression of the meaning of the medium. Duncan used to say a book is "like a wine glass, with the content the wine."

    As with any craft, the spectrum of taste of printers and binders ranges all the way from slavish devotion to tradition, to eccentric experimentation. Duncan's own work tended to be a mixture between the two, but his emphasis was to attend, thoughtfully, to every aspect of the process and the product, leaving as little to chance as possible. 

    Harry and I didn't get along well at all. I tended to be in a hurry, while he liked to slow you down. My settings in the press bed were slipshod, because it seemed less important to me to have a perfect layout than a pleasing image. And of course he believed that taking short-cuts would lead to problems, and he was correct. Still, in a single semester course, I managed, in just a few hours in the print lab, to turn out four impressive signatures of a book on very unforgiving thick Japanese paper. 

    After I left Iowa in the Fall of 1972, I pursued book publishing, but I didn't follow up on my interest in printing as such. It wasn't until some years later that I thought about letterpress printing and publishing. And by the time I did, in 2005, moveable type had been rendered somewhat obsolete by the new polymer printing process, which involves making a plastic template from a digital image off a computer file--which greatly simplifies the process of creating a matrix of letters or designs for use in a traditional mechanical press. Anything you can put on a computer screen can be translated into a print face.    




    There are printers and book binders and designers who see bookmaking, and the things that can be done inside the craft, as more important than content; that is, more important than the ultimate meaning or message of the words or images they (the books) contain. A lot of "fine printing" tends to focus on secondary literature, or reprinting of established texts. Since publishing and moveable type printing split up in the 20th Century, the connection between the material text and the artist or artisan has been severed. In other words, writers nowadays seldom think carefully, or intimately, about the relation between their words or images, and their final form--which has traditionally fallen to "publishers" who control which texts are chosen, and how those texts are presented. 




    The idea that an intermediary--a publisher, say--or an agent--or an editor--should interpose himself between an author and his text is certainly not a new relationship. It's so much a commonplace in our time, that people hardly comprehend another way of thinking about publication. But the new computer age has opened up vistas of communication (and "publication") that did not exist before. It's now possible to "publish" a text online. And given the new printing technologies of the digital age, it's possible to make a perfectly suitable paperback book in a matter of hours, if you have the tools and the money. This has pushed the publishing industry further into irrelevance, for while it costs much less to turn out a trade edition of any kind of text than it used to, it's also cheapened and degraded the relationship between the artist/author and his audience. 
      



    The other side of this argument, of course, is that individual authors and artists aren't to be "trusted" as arbiters of their own media. And they're discouraged from thinking about that relationship. Most serious authors today are so far divorced from what they think of as the cliché of popular bookmaking, that they hardly give it a second thought. What matters is being represented by a publisher, and having their work distributed and read by more readers. Readers, after all, are who buy the books. Books are commodities, and like much of our materialist culture, have become throwaways--disposable when used once or twice, and dumped into landfills, or pulped for recycling. 



    Once a book has been bought, and read, its immediate physical existence--its justification--falls into jeopardy. But can a book only be important for the attraction of its construction, the beauty of its binding and choice of typeface--if its content is not also somehow memorable or useful? Is any writer's or artist's interest in the possibilities of determining the quality and characteristics of their finished work a bonafide aspect of the writing impulse?

    Is it possible to restore the artist/writer to a position of control and desire with respect to his text? Is there something wrong with a writer who wishes to make his books not just the receptacles of data, but the very realization of the meaning of his vision? In the larger sense, all print media have tended traditionally to be a collaboration, between those who express through language and image, and those who realize that content through the design of the material text. 

    Fine printing is certainly a dying art, but there's no reason to think that writers in the future may not set aside the whole apparatus of "publishers" and distributors and salespeople, and simply set about making their own books, if they are given the opportunity. 

    For the vast majority of writers--or illustrators--getting work published usually involves an ambitious campaign of self-promotion, knocking on the doors to the "official culture"--a process which may take years, even for those with considerable talent. Being "ignored" or rejected is the hallmark of most creative composition. Writers who crave an audience, particularly a larger audience, may be seduced into compromising their inspiration by reducing their efforts to popular or trendy formulae. 

    Anyone who submits to the reigning bastions of taste and commercial publication, probably deserves to be "disciplined" by prevailing modes of form or subject. It's a capitulation that many regard as a higher ethical standard, than that implied by the confident assertion of an individual vision.    
       



    It's also just as likely that the vanity of self-publication will reveal how necessary or convenient the third-party publication process can be. One of the cardinal aspects of media theory is that there is no such thing as an unbiased assertion, that all communication (as in news, particularly, though in all artistic expression as well) is in fact presented from a point of view, or from the assumption of a point of view. It's not always self-evident, but if you scratch and dig a little, even the most accommodating party will, eventually, reveal a piety or a preference that colors what they are saying or doing.  

    My disdain at this point in my life for commercial publishers and editors isn't resentment or bad blood, just disinterest. I can no longer imagine someone having the audacity to tell me what I should be writing, or how I should revise or change or reconsider what I am writing, in the interests of other priorities. 

    We know that it's possible to write poetry and fiction without having any kind of audience. Emily Dickinson wrote her poems in private, without having the slightest concern or interest in "publication." She didn't need an audience. Writing--for her--wasn't a collaboration or dependency that fed off of the expectation or apprehension of consequence. And there are some--like me--who believe that that independence of mind allowed her to focus on her materials and subject-matter in ways she couldn't otherwise. In other words, her "isolation" allowed her to make her poems without the interposition, or interference of others, or the big Other.




    Many writers will say, when pressed, that they actually write for a single person, or group of persons, not the great mass of anonymous potential readers who represent the "public"--whatever that means. In my case, I've seldom if ever thought that writing was a form of intimate or personal address. I write as a pastime, for my own amusement, as a form of personal experiment and play. That's how I first came to dabble in writing, and that's how I still think of it, half a century later. I don't see my "development" as a writer as a process of interaction with an audience. Whenever people have told me about something they've read of mine, it's never given me much positive or negative "feed-back" because they usually understand it differently than I do, or misconstrue something of the intention. In other words, what they think is irrelevant to my own aesthetic mien. 

    So nowadays, I enjoy publishing my own poems in books that I plan and design all by myself. If you've never considered "making a book" out of your own writing or artwork, it may seem odd or indulgent. Paper and glue and thread and cloth are pretty dull things to most people. But the history of "literature" is also the history of how things got recorded. In the 20th Century, it became possible to communicate electronically--via amplification, telephone, radio, video, and eventually internet. But the material fact of a book still survives, though perhaps less certainly. 

    I like interactive digital communication. This blog is one aspect of that sort of media. But fixing or reposing words in physical print is still, today, as much about our interaction with the material text as it ever was. Electronic memory or "storage" is an ephemeral realm, dependent upon the custodians of data banks. For my part, I don't trust those folks to preserve anything I've written "online" longer than it suits their financial interest(s). "Technology" isn't a kind god; she's a jealous creature whose priorities aren't ours.

    My latest experiment in self-publication is a collection of "poems" I've written, off and on, over the last 35 years or so. I stopped writing for about 25 years, while I labored in bureaucracy to make a living. When that ended, in retirement, I came back to writing. The book isn't in any sense an account of those lost years. It's the record of my reawakening to the pleasure of writing. 

    If you don't enjoy writing, you probably shouldn't be doing it. I can still remember how difficult and unpleasant just writing a letter seemed when I was a boy of five or six. It took a while for me to discover the relationship between myself and the printed page, but once I did, I was hooked.

    Each copy of Duration: Poems 1978-2015 cost me almost $200 in materials and labor, to produce (print and bind). You could call it a "labor of love" though what love has to do with it, I don't know. It's just something I enjoy doing. If someone "gets something" out of the text, that's fine with me. If they don't, that's fine too. As I've said, what people think of it is of little real importance to me. That's not why I write and publish. 



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    I've noted before how under-rated aquavit is as a mixing spirit. 

    You hardly ever see it mentioned in books of mixology, and I guess I understand why: It has an oddly bitter initial flavor (caraway), which becomes less noticeable the more you drink it. I have the same sensation when I drink Greek retsina wines. There's an initial reaction to the unconventional undertow, then you get used to it, and actually begin to enjoy it. 


    Norway - Land of my Forefathers

    For "white goods" gin can get a little monotonous. It's also on the sweet side, as is white rum. Vodka seems to me to possess such a weak flavor by itself, that putting other flavors with it makes its taste disappear. For me, vodka is a spirit to drink solo, without any adulterating distractions. Its subtlety makes it a connoisseur's delight, but as a mixer, I find it almost an anonymous spirit. 

    Chocolate and mint are natural cousins, as any candy fiend will testify. Put these together with the odd basis of aquavit, and a dash of lime to dry it out a little, and you have an intriguing combination.  


    2 parts aquavit
    2 parts white vermouth
    2/3 part creme de cacao
    1/2 part creme de menthe
    tablespoon fresh lime juice

    Makes two portions. Shaken and served up in frosted cocktail glasses. 

    Northern Exposure was a television series [1990-1995] which was set in Alaska. Hollywood has paid very little attention to Alaska and Canada over the decades, so it seemed a little goofy and unconventional to have a sit-com set up near the Arctic Circle. But the cast managed to bring it off without a hitch. It became the vehicle that propelled Barry Corbin, Janine Turner, and Rob Morrow to stardom. Turner was probably the sexiest "thinking man's" actress to appear in the 1990's. 



    Janine Turner



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  • 02/16/17--09:06: Two on the Aisle



  • I'm not sure how much longer I'll be able to keep up my regimen of cocktail recipes. My endocrine system is sending me distant messages about my longevity, and we all know that isn't an argument any of us is going to win, ultimately. 

    In the meantime, here are two more lovely variations from the stainless steel counter, concocted by yours truly, for no other reason than the delight of invention. 

    Bartenders who are interested may experiment with different combinations, which may in time become famous, or signature recipes. At some point, I'd like to be able to publish a collection of my own original cocktail mixes. 

    The majority of cocktail books seem determined either to make a claim to be the most reliable source of classic recipes, or of the sexiest new inventions. Tastes may be strong, or subtly variable. There's always room for innovation. 



    A lot of new cocktail recipes depend on exotic flavors. But the way a cocktail is structured generally hasn't changed over the last century. You begin with a distillate, or perhaps a wine (or even a beer), and you add other ingredients in various proportion to augment the essential flavor of the "goods." It's perfectly possible to drink any liquor straight, which lots of drinkers do. And there's enough variation among brands and types that you could confine yourself to sampling unmixed liquors forever, if that were your choice. There are confirmed drinkers of Scotch, Bourbon, Rum, Gin and Vodka, and Vodka producers have begun to produce pre-flavored versions, so no mixing is required; in my view, this makes vodka seem like a poor sister to the other liquors, since its own flavor may be considered too weak by itself, though there are people who delight in the subtle shades of flavor of different vodkas. But life's too short to drink every version of anything. Professional tasters must find it difficult sometimes to extend their discrimination beyond a certain point. Of course, some people have a much greater sensitivity to flavor or smells than others. Animals (dogs for instance) have a smell sensitivity which is hundreds or thousands of times more sensitive than people's. Probably there are people who could distinguish between all the different kinds of liquors there are in the world, if they chose. But most of us can't, and certainly wouldn't need or want to. 

    The spirit of adventure and experimentation is a very good thing. It's how discoveries are made. Discoveries may be accidents, or they may be deliberately conducted trials. Whenever I contemplate a new mix, I try to think of combinations I've never heard about. It's possible that I'm actually duplicating a recipe that someone, somewhere has already tried. And occasionally I'll accidentally "create" a recipe that, unbeknownst to me, has been labeled a classic decades ago. That's either a confirmation of your good intuition, or a proof of the "inevitability" of that happy congruence. 

    Of course, I mix from published recipes all the time. The old standards are standards for a reason. The Rusty Nail has hung around because it's a wonderful flavor, not because someone thinks it's good to keep repeating old methods or favorites. 

    But I'm not a professional bartender, and I would never want to be one. The idea of having to mix the same drinks, from a menu, or from customers' preferences, is abhorrent to me. Who wants to mix for others, especially when you can't really share the experience yourself. Good service is good, but the pleasure in that case has nothing to do with the goods. And bartenders who never experiment in an attempt to make new discoveries are just putting in their time, or lack imagination. 

    In any case, I've never seen these recipes anywhere else, so I'll assume for the time being that they're completely new and original.         
         
    2 parts Boodles gin
    1 part St. Germaine liqueur
    1/2 part Kirsch
    1/2 part fresh lime juice

    1 part manhattan rye
    1 part dry vermouth
    3/4 part peach liqueur
    1/2 part fresh lemon

    Both are mixed by proportion for single drinks served over ice. Our favorite accompaniment is freshly roasted pistachio nuts in the split shell. You break the shell with your fingers and pop the green nut in your mouth. And then another, and another . . . . They're just dry enough not to interfere with your tastebuds. 


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    David Mamet [1947-] is a renowned playwright and screen writer living in Santa Monica. He grew up in a middle class Jewish family in Chicago. He made his name early in his career as the author of a number of plays--Sexual Perversity in Chicago, American Buffalo, Edmond, etc., and then he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama with Glengarry Glen Ross (which he later adapted to the cinema). Coincident with his career in the theatre, he began doing screenplays in the early '80's, beginning with a re-adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, and including a new version of The Untouchables,The VerdictHouse of Games, The Winslow Boy, The Edge, as well as doing television script work.   



    In 2008, Mamet openly declared in an article titled Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal his conversion of conservative political partisanship. 

    "I took the liberal view for many decades, but I believe I have changed my mind . . . As a child of the '60's, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart . . . These cherished precepts had, over the years, become ingrained as increasingly impracticable prejudices. Why do I say impracticable? Because although I still held these beliefs, I no longer applied them in my life." 

    Further --

    " . . . I wondered, how could I have spent decades thinking that I thought everything was always wrong at the same time that I thought I thought that people were basically good at heart? Which was it? I began to question what I actually thought and found that I do not think that people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama." 

    These sweeping, and in many ways astounding assertions, by one of America's greatest playwrights and dramatists, needs to be understood in the context of Mamet's Jewishness, and in the context of Hollywood (as opposed to Broadway), since both conditions influence how he has come to regard his place in the scheme of American culture and its entertainment industry. 

    Many American Jews support the existence and future prospects for the State of Israel. Though there continues to be widespread support across the political spectrum here for military support and diplomatic unity with Israel, there are those who feel the Arab-Israeli stand-off can only improve if both sides are willing to compromise. The hard-line position is that Israel should show a belligerent face to its enemies, that it is isolated geographically, and by history, and can only survive through strength and determination. This "realist" position isn't only "existential"--it's an attitude towards life, a fatalistic attitude about the consequences of a naive faith in human nature. The "liberal" position in America does not embrace this pessimistic point of view. Many American Jews find inspiration in the existential defensiveness of Israeli conservatism. 

    As an American Jewish writer/artist, Mamet feels pulled in both directions. As a child of the American middle class, his sentiments would ordinarily be towards justice, freedom, and a positive view of life. But his loyalty to his ethnic background, and his identification with Israel as the symbolic bastion of the resistance to tyranny and intolerance towards Jews, has influenced him towards reactionary politics in America.

    Mamet has said he now agrees with free market theorists such as Friedrich Hayek, the historian Paul Johnson, and economist Thomas Sowell. The idea of a totally free market accepts that human nature is not inherently good, that only through competition can human potential and progress be released. In Mamet's mind, the commitment towards a strong, resistant Israel has been joined to a cynicism about life in general. As his own artistic and personal success has progressed, Mamet's become increasingly rigid in his beliefs--a pattern familiar in American business and entertainment careers. 

    Mamet's world view sees the plight of the Jew against the backdrop of the larger struggle for the hearts and minds of people between the Democratic and Totalitarian forms of power. Persecution of Jews throughout Europe, and especially in Russia, is associated with Communism, and the enemies of Israel. Authoritarian powers, and especially politically liberal tendencies, are seen as emanating from the same place. 

    This cynical view of human existence is plain in Glengarry Glen Ross, in which greed and competition and the exercise of power dominate the characters' lives. It is Mamet's triumphant message about life in general, that life is a Darwinian bargain, that the outcome of our struggles is a chess-game, where selfishness and guile overcome good intentions and weak capitulation. 

    For Mamet, successful art means good art, because putting butts in paying seats is the final measure of entitlement in the cruel world of economic transactions. For Mamet, art itself is an economic bargain in which value derives only from economic success. The idea that artistic endeavor should be driven by direct appeal to greed is an old one.  



    The history of theatre in the 20th Century is to a large extent the history of the theatrical ideas of Revolutionary Russia. Its great figure, Konstantin Stanislavsky, is the progenitor of styles of production and acting that tended to dominate theatrical practice and theories throughout the world. While Stanislavsky thrived during the first great Soviet period in the arts in Russia, he eventually came under pressure during the Stalinist period. Though the history of Stanislavsky's ideas and participation in Russian theatre is long and complex, Mamet sees his theories associated with the artistic oppression and censorship of the early Soviet period. The politicization of art under the Soviet dictatorship resulted in a suppressed form of theatrical art, in which political and social realities could not be freely explored or expressed. 

    Mamet sees the Russian theatre in the early Soviet period as victim of political correctness. Stanislavsky's notion of a mystical approach to acting, and the central importance of the director in play production, are seen as perversions of the purpose and function of theatrical entertainment. As a writer, Mamet places himself in the forefront of the theatrical system, and he denigrates attempts to emphasize the personality of the actor, or the genius of the director, to "interpret" a play's content. Stagecraft, for Mamet, is merely the means to an end, which is the narrative the playwright supplies. Actors should say their lines, directors should see that the playwright's intentions are followed to the letter.

    This reminds me a little of what Stravinsky said, late in life. "All I want is that the orchestra play the notes I've written. No 'interpretation' is necessary, no emotional exaggerations, no pregnant pauses, no selective emphases" [I'm paraphrasing here]. This was during Stravinsky's "neoclassical" period when his works were dry and clean and intellectually clipped. The complaint by authors or composers that their work may be "over-interpreted" by ambitious or misguided directors, producers, actors--in effect maimed or corrupted by interference and tinkering adaptation--is also a common cry. Is it jealousy that drives this carping? That powerful actors or shrewd directors may actually claim the high ground of artistic expression, and become the focus of appreciation? 

    It's been remarked more than once that in English theatre tradition, the actor "becomes the character" whilst in American tradition, the character becomes the man. Clark Gable is always Clark Gable, no matter what part he's playing, while Laurence Olivier is many men, each different according to the demands of the specific character. In Woody Allen's films, Woody himself is invariably the "subject" while the plot and the supporting actors are like planets that revolve around the central character (himself).  

    Mamet's work--particularly his screenwriting--hearkens back to the hard-boiled "noir" period in American cinema. In the 1930's, social realism (Clifford Odets and the Actors' Theatre etc.) predominated. But after the war, Hollywood turned shadowy and grim, turning out black and white crime dramas. Dialogue was blunt, tough, edgy. It was raw, and sullen. Every man for himself. Violence, betrayal, double-cross, corruption, heavy-handed justice. These are the qualities that draw out Mamet's talent. 

    ***** 

    End Part I  

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  • 03/06/17--08:38: Mamet's Conversion [Part II]





  • Theatre (and by extension, cinema) is perhaps the best example of a cooperative, collaborative artistic medium. Writers may collaborate, artists may collaborate with writers (or vice versa), musicians may (as with jazz) improvise (becoming, in effect, the composers of new extemporaneous works), architects may share billing with builder/craftspersons, landscape designers and interior designers. But in the theatre, the playwright is separated by at least two removes from the actual realization of his vision. There's the text, the director, the producers, and the actors, each of whom has a say in how it turns out; and each can alter, to a greater or lesser extent, the outcome of the playwright's original work. In this sense, any playwright might be said to be dependent upon the skills and abilities of those who actually realize a dramatic work. 

    Mamet's many successes in the legitimate theatre and in cinema entitle him to speak with some authority as a critic of dramatic art. Great writers of fiction or poetry or drama may or may not qualify as useful or valid critics of their own metier. We usually need to qualify any artist's opinions about their art, by remembering that powerful imagination and creativity may not necessarily be accompanied by a clear rational objective sense. Most artists tend to value what they themselves do best. Occasionally, an artist or writer will admit to admiration for another's work, even to envy. Mamet praises Anton Chekhov, though with the caveat that Chekhov's work is politically tame, blandly "universal" in its meaning(s).

    So if Mamet denigrates the "interference" of producers, directors and actors in the artistic process of theatre or cinema, it's understandable that this could be seen as the overblown vanity of pride, of a belief in the sufficient perfection of his own work or vision. Any artist may "earn" the right to make their own case, but we are under no obligation to accept such partisan verdicts, especially when applied to widely different kinds of products. As a screenwriter whose credits include The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Untouchables, House of Games, Glengarry Glen Ross, Hoffa, The Edge, and Hannibal--we'd grant him the authority to make sweeping statements about such tropes as violence and venality in dramatic works. 

    But would we be willing to accept Mamet as an authority on comedy, or affairs of the heart, or historical dramas, or science fiction, or epics? What is the connection between Mamet's personal proclivities as a writer, and his political points of view? 

    Some playwrights to have a certain view of humanity, and to be a laborer on two fronts, the way George Bernard Shaw was, as an active socialist part of the time, and a very good playwright the rest of the time. Portraying human beings interacting on a stage, or on a screen, is a perfect vehicle to demonstrate certain principles in action. 

    And indeed, Mamet has come more and more to believe in a certain view of human life and value, one which he calls "the Tragic View." The tragic view holds that humanity is--in Mamet's words--"greedy, lustful, envious, slothful, duplicitous, corrupt and inspired" and that "this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama." 

    Mamet sees liberal politicians, and those on the Left as suffering from the delusion that human imperfectability can be corrected, and the imbalance between right and wrong made even, through government intervention. He sees the highest good American democracy has achieved as the balance of powers, set against one another, thus self-restraining.  

    An argument could be made--and it is a classic (some might say tired) one--that having achieved personal artistic success, accompanied by personal wealth, Mamet now can "afford" to assume the usual privilege of economic success, and glory in his own good fortune by believing that his prosperity is a kind of credential in an imperfect world; that his success is not only proof of his own moral superiority, but that his dramatic actions have been successful precisely because they present life in the terms he sets up. 

    Mamet himself might suggest that his own "greed, lust, envy, corrupt and inspired" are no more admirable, or exceptional, than any other artist or citizen. And he'd be right, with the possible caveat that he's just a bit more corrupt and inspired than most people. 

    If the point of drama, as Mamet defines it, is to portray human error in conflict with itself, then we might respond that the early work of Clifford Odets, such as Waiting For Lefty [1935], or Awake and Sing! [1935] is as apt a vehicle, in this sense, as any of Mamet's works. Odets came of age in the Depression years, when the reaction to the excesses of unbridled capitalist speculation and exploitation was at its height. The "tragic view" of human life would be no less pertinent then, than it would be for Mamet, growing up in the post-war years of relative prosperity. The tragic view of life does not imply that people should not have flaws, but that their struggle may not result in a preferred outcome. Since Odets was, in his day, as successful and admired as Mamet is in our time, would it be disingenuous to argue that Odets' politics was somehow as irrelevant or extraneous to the fact of aesthetic achievement, as Mamet's politics is?

    For Mamet, the best outcome is measured by the success of the performance. The struggle in the hard knocks arena of public entertainment is no less frustrating, or tragic, than the struggles that occur in politics, or life in general. 

    As an American Jew, Mamet sees the struggle for Israel's continued existence as a dialectic between those who support the Jewish State, and those who oppose it--or who may hold a contrarian view that includes the Palestinian opposition's interest. Because for Mamet, the predominant contemporary liberal view of the Mideast Crisis--that Israel must in the end learn to compromise with its neighboring Arab States--is consistent with a false promise of the perfectibility of humankind, that people with legendary differences can learn to get along with one another. 

    But the tragic view of Israel is built on generations, nay millennia of experience, that Jews cannot trust those whose interests oppose theirs, and that if history teaches anything, it's that they will be betrayed and persecuted just because they exist. If Israel's identity is indeed existential, then any Jew may come to believe its best chance for survival is through domination. Further, that any attempt to temper that dominance with compromise or concession is bound to lead to the ultimate capitulation. And that any betrayal of that domination may be identified with weakness, self-destruction, and threat. 

    As an American Jew, Mamet's politics is heavily influenced by the "tragic view" of Israel's continued existence. Though Jewish American political sentiment has traditionally been liberal, the issue of Israel's existence, and of America's continued support of it, is the key dividing point between liberal and conservative Jewry. Mamet's "Hollywood" politics follows a recognizable pattern for those of his biographical profile. But Mamet's conjoining his aesthetic focus with the politics of personal, financial success may signal a wrong turn. 

    In America, any man may declare his political beliefs without fear of reprisal or repression. But we're under no obligation to accept those beliefs. Why should we think that portraying the human condition in the make-believe world of theatre or cinema entitles any artist to speak about real problems in the difficult real world? Ultimately, a playwright's work must speak for him. 

    As I enter old age, I come more and more to understand the impatience of intelligent people who deal with the frustration of seeing history repeat itself, over and over again. If you believe that human life is essentially tragic, then it would seem a futile gesture to take sides in a Shakespearean dialectic in which right seldom, if ever, triumphs. 



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    Tender sensibilities! 

    If we could all admit that the most enthralling physical sensations occur in our most vulnerable states,  perhaps our over-mastering inhibitions wouldn't get the better of us.

    Mortality is a blessing, which if we could only comprehend its crucial meaning, might liberate us all. 

    The fact that all that we know and experience is fleeting--not to be repeated, not to be extended indefinitely--might allow us to elevate our response to life, reflecting the value that only limits can grant. 

    Swimming is a wonderful thing. Our whole bodies immersed in flowing liquid--symbolically amniotic--a sensation that refreshes and enlivens our nervous system. 

    If a drink could inspire this feeling, it might be the most addictive drug. Most psycho-active drugs are said to either heighten our sense of impression, or deaden our sense of pain. 

       




    Innocently enough, here's a stab at an inspiration of the freshness and immersion of bodily clarity and chill, the Swimming Naked Cocktail. Mixed as always by proportion. 


    3 parts Boodles Gin
    3/4 part aquavit
    1 1/2 part Cointreau
    1/1/3 part fresh lime juice

    --shaken and served up with a garnish of a thin slice of lime.






    I was a latecomer to the joys of swimming, but eventually I was hooked. 

    I often have the same feeling with certain kinds of music. Just now I was listening to Chabrier's Scherzo-Valse, which I find so bracing and uplifting, with its crisp enunciation and high spirits, that it's as exhilarating as a dive into a cool pool. 

    So here's to physical joy, and the pleasures of feeling, and taste. 




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    The University of Alabama Press has just published Calligraphy Typewriters: The Selected Poems of Larry Eigner, Edited by Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier [ISBN: 978-0-8173-5874-7, Quality Paper $24.95]. 334pp. with a Foreword by Charles Bernstein, Index and Notes on the Text. The book measures 7 x 9 inches, with sewn signature binding, and a glossy cover (designed by me and George Mattingly).  





    The publication of Eigner's Selected follows our earlier work on the Collected Poems of Larry Eigner [Stanford University Press, 2010, Edited by Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier], a four volume hardcover set of 1868 pages.     



    Any selection will be a reflection of the taste and discrimination of its editor(s), and with a poet as prolific as Eigner was, there can never be a completely settled subset of universal correctness. Certainly all of Larry's famous poems have been included, but the work's overall consistent quality virtually guarantees that any selection will have a satisfying and familiar confirmation, no matter how partisan. 

    Our determination to include as many poems as would reasonably fit--our selection actually comprises less than a third of Eigner's total published out-put in his life--meant that we used as much of each page as possible, often stretching the limits of traditional margin-practice. Due to a slight trim error, some of the pages are a bit too low on the page, a problem which we could not have foreseen at the proof stage. 

    Unlike the earlier Stanford edition, in which we established a fixed left-hand margin for all the poems, in the Alabama edition we chose to present each poem roughly centered, in order to give each a degree of autonomy. The resulting shifting margins makes for more variety of placement, and creates a sense of balance. 

    Calligraphy / Typewriters is intended to reach a wider audience than the bulky Stanford Collected. Our hope is that it will become a sort of textbook of his work for use in classrooms and study-groups, and for the general reader. 

    For my part, Eigner's work belongs in the handful of major post-Modern writers who broke from the strict confines of traditional verse to create a kinetic, deconstructed experimental work that revisions poetic perception and sensibility in unexpected and astonishing ways. I'm proud to have had a hand in husbanding his contribution to subsequent generations of readers.     



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  • 05/17/17--05:54: Lily Sabine Dreaming





  • Lily Sabine, sleeping, so curled around her intent, dreaming no doubt of escapades and adventures, from the past, or soon to come. 


    Do dreams serve some purpose in the riddle of survival and genetic mutation?

    Since we can't know what it feels like to be "inside" another animal, another being, we can only guess what they dream. We assume that other mammals dream, since they exhibit the same twitchiness, rapid eye movement, and distraction which we have learned to associate with active "unconscious" narratives during sleep. 

    Are dreams a passageway into our secret meditations, conduits to the unknown? The surrealists thought so, and psychology and psychiatry are both founded largely on an analysis of the involuntary impulses that generate dreams. We live in the "real" world, while conducting a private series of stories or incidents in our imagination, which are parallel to the real but also creative reinterpretations  of it. Perhaps, as has been suggested, dreams are a testing ground or a rehabilitation center which exists to work out problems or try out ideas. The brain may be said to possess a certain autonomy with respect to actual experience, in a sense "acting alone" without our conscious direction. 

    As I get older, my dreams seem to be getting more involved, more tangled with plots and counterplots. I'm not sure why this should be. My life was certainly more eventful when I was younger, and yet my dreams then tended to be briefer, less complex, though often more lucid and powerful in their immediate effect. 

    Many people report that they can fly in their dreams--an astonishing proposition since humans have never been able to fly--except artificially, with balloons, parachutes, or in planes. Is it possible to imagine that humans may someday mutate, naturally or artificially, into bodies that could fly? What an amazing thing that would be. 




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    Regular readers of this blog--if indeed there are any such animals--know that I've had a profound interest in photography, as evidenced by my many blog-posts here about various well-known photographers over the years. 

    While living in Northern Japan in the mid-1980's, I developed an interest in documenting the fascinating landscape of that place, by taking pictures. In the course of that pursuit, I quickly realized that I had an untapped orientation to the visual, as well as an aptitude for composing in two dimensions. After returning to the States, I quickly moved into the view camera field, acquiring various large format monstrosities, including a 4x5, an 8x10, and even an 11x14. 

    I pursued this avocation for 10 years, before abandoning it in 1996, for personal reasons. In the intervening years, I've always intended to return to it, while keeping busy with other distractions such as blogging and antiquarian bookselling.

    Finally, this Spring, I decided to explore the possibility of making a collection of my images as a published book. In the time since I had actively worked in the field, the technology of print production underwent a revolution to the digital. What would once have taken a lot of painstaking donkey-work with chemical baths and drying racks and mounting boards, could now be achieved inside digital application programs, projected onto light screens, with an almost limitless range of possible adjustments and augmentations of an image file. The possibility of projecting a collection of mounted silver gelatin prints into a book file was a dream I had nurtured in my imagination for over 20 years. The time seemed ripe. 

    Fine art photography book production, using the latest high-tech craft in digital lithography, has yielded stunning examples of the work of the best contemporary photographers in the world. The costs associated with this craft have driven much of the industry overseas. In America, one outfit in particular has continued to set a standard, Dual Graphics in Southern California. Continuing a tradition begun earlier at Gardner-Fulmer, Dual Graphics employs the latest in digital image-making from scanning to final print production, to produce breath-taking monographs, with images that rival the original prints they're made from. 

    30 years ago, hardly anyone would have thought this possible. But it's become a reality.

    Presently, I'm about half-way through the production of my book of photographs, the front cover of the dust wrapper for which is shown below. Assisting in layout and design is George Mattingly, a publisher and graphic designer in Berkeley, an old poet and little magazine editor I've know for many years, since our days in Iowa City back in the 1970's.             





    The book is scheduled to be completed sometime in mid-June. Next week, I'll be traveling to Brea, California, to oversee the printing of the signatures. There are 65 black and white images in the book, predominantly landscapes, with a few studies and abstractions. The shot reproduced below is of countryside in West Marin, an area I spent a good deal of time in during the decade of my photographic work.    




    The dimension of the book will be 16x14 inches, a huge tome of a volume, in the traditional "coffee table" format. The reason I chose such a large dimension is because I wanted to print my 11x14 inch contact prints at full scale, without shrinking them to fit a smaller vision. One of the great attractions of very large format, is the incredible clarity with which scenes can be reproduced, without blur or weakness anywhere in the field of the frame. Having gone to such trouble to generate these big prints, I couldn't stand the idea of compromising their potential. 

    The book will be 106 pages, and a $100 price tag, though I suspect that few if any of the copies will be sold for that amount. The run is limited to 300 numbered copies, all signed. I've explored the possibility of national distribution, but I doubt anyone will pick it up. Book distributors aren't much interested in obscure photography books by unknowns, no matter how interesting they are. And I've never been ambitious enough to pursue gallery or print sales.  

    Good luck, big book!

      

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    Let me begin this essay with a series of qualifications.

    Since the inception of photography in the 19th Century, there has seldom been any doubt about the inherent quality of photography's function, which is its ability to present verifiable versions of visual reality through the use of artificial glass lenses onto light sensitive surfaces. The degree of accuracy of the reproduction of imagery from reflected surfaces, onto flat ones, has always been its aim and measure.



    Of course, accuracy alone cannot account for the effect of modified illusions, which is partly what modern photography offers. The last century of photography is the development of a technology of increasing sophistication, in which "raw" data is manipulated and augmented to create altered or improved versions. When Ansel Adams said the negative is the score, and the print is the performance, he was referring not just to the playing of the music, but to its interpretation. What, after all, is a "straight" print, if not one version of the process. To change that process, or adjust it, by whatever means, is in one sense, just another means to an end, which, from an aesthetic point of view, cannot be more or less than an aesthetic choice.

    All art is subject to the vagaries of taste, which is ethically neutral. All attempts to fashion a fixed, defensible bastion of aesthetic criteria are doomed, since there is no final arbitration of value inherent in the artistic realm. Which suggests that all our preferences and pronouncements about the ranking of quality in the arts are opportunistic and arbitrary. They may be constructed around humanistic, or religious, or pragmatic principles. They may begin in utter simplicity, but ultimately, we cannot credit such principles unless we accept them, as starting points, as initial axioms.



    There have been attempts to distort the meaning and function of photography by diverting it into cup-de-sacs, such as Soft Focus, multiple imaging, etc.; and since the advent of digital technology, the manipulation of the image itself. But there is no reason, other than the arbitration of prejudice, that we should want or need to object to such variations.

    Straight photography, nonetheless, continues to hold a place of privilege, even as it evolves into new means and materials. As we transition out of organic emulsions to digital projections, the terms of the equation may change, but the solution to the problem has the same general aim. The sense of an idealized photograph implies the existence of an idealized subject, and this is what makes landscape, fashion, photojournalism and documentation, etc., each in its way, compete for progressively ever more iconic, diverting, or synthetic instances.



    What is the difference between reality and an accurate photograph? What is the difference between a "straight" (unmanipulated) print, and one which has been subjected to various augmentations? What is the difference between an "exaggerated" and an "invisible" manipulation? What is the difference between how I see a scene, or a photograph, and how someone else "sees" it? What is "reality"?

    Most photographers will readily admit to manipulations, since to do so is as much a boast and a claim, as it is an admission of some degree of artificiality. The delicate balance between a naked "straight" representation and an augmented work, insures that there will always be some degree of "wiggle" room between what we may decide to expect of, or allow, any craftsperson.



    The issue of craft is paramount in any production where method and materials are as crucial as they are in the chemical processes of traditional photography. We tend to be somewhat suspicious of any craft that pretends to define meaning and quality merely as aspects of the refinement of technique, as (for instance) with poetry. A well-written sonnet may say nothing of importance, may be nothing but an equivocal demonstration of wit or word-play. But with true crafts, of which photography is one, it is often convenient to think that the perfection of method is more important that the actual content of the image. 

    John Sexton began his career as an apprentice of Ansel Adams, and his career has followed a familiar pattern for the kind of craftsman that he set out to be, and has become. 

    It's tempting to suggest that fine art photographers who concentrate, for instance, on landscape can equate fine craftsmanship with the subtle distinctions one encounters in nature. Sexton has said repeatedly that his aim is to transmit the subtlest shades of feeling and impression through the careful exploitation of the finest distinctions of silver gelatin print-making. Like Adams, Sexton focuses on the familiar scenic icons of the American outback, including notably Yosemite, which Adams immortalized. 



    But unlike Adams, Sexton seems less interested in evoking the "heroic" aspects of nature, than in transmitting meditative calm, peaceful states of mind, fragility, harmony, and centeredness. It is perhaps no coincidence that an adroit technician--patient, careful, even finicky--should choose these kinds of tropes to explore and convey.  

    What strikes me, looking at Sexton's work, more than any other quality, is its static fragility. It almost has a feminine aspect to it, a timid sufficiency that chooses to accept whatever mildly pleasant scene chance may offer to his discerning eye. His pictures don't seem to say very much. Images of still or silky flowing water, windless forests, posed leaves or rocks or details of architecture seem chosen primarily because they present little challenge, but may yield delicate possibilities in the darkroom. 

    When technique overshadows content, an artist may become over-fastidious and prone to mannerism. This is what I see in Sexton's work: A photographer who has become so preoccupied with finishing and revising and drawing out nuance and innuendo that he forgets about the importance of feeling and significant meanings. 



    Any art which gets so caught up in the technicalities of its craft that it forgets to communicate anything but an appreciation of the function has lost its way. Sexton's passivity and ingratiating distillations leave you feeling as if you needed a nap. There is perhaps some use in presenting images of perfect calm and frozen visual music, for those for whom these are the desirable states of mind. We're all familiar with the drugstore Zen Buddhist approach to the vicissitudes of life in the over-amped Western pursuit of pleasure and wealth, but oversimplifying the potentialities of serious photographic-imaging by promoting it as an aid to nature meditation is nothing but glib salesmanship by critics and gallery-owners, looking to capitalize on the latest new age fad. 

    It may indeed be true that "art makes nothing happen," but whatever is happening should at least occur in the mind of the viewer. 


    Technique can get you so far in any art, but without at least a clear vision of what your craft is for, you may be nothing but an experimenter, content to let your ingenious tricks be the main attraction of your work.  

    Sexton's work is restful, and satisfying in a submissive way. Its only determination seems to be to make everything fit, and clear, but that organized transparency feels ungrounded. His prints seem like problems to solve, rather than experiences to be lived. 


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