Thursday, April 23, 2015

Gertrude Stein and Sisyphus

Strange how a phrase with quite profound meanings can arise from a fairly common experience  when it is expressed in high compression as a kind of poetic line. Such a case is of Gertrude Stein’s saying: “There is no there there.” Stein was revisiting Oakland, CA where she had lived as a child. The farmhouse when she had grown up had been razed and built over. In her mind “there” meant “where I grew up”; but that place was no longer “there,” meaning the physical arrangements at that spot.  The poetic touch—to be pedantic about it—is the contrast between two meanings of “there.”

The phrase came to mind this morning when I was contemplating the evanescent nature of reality as we experience it here, which, by a small mental step, produced the notion that the values we create or manifest rapidly vanish with the rush of Time. Or do they? Is it with values as it is with people? The body soon ages and then, transformed into dust or ashes, disappears for practical purposes. But the soul moves on. This line of thought then brought to mind that, as long back as I can remember, work has always been the center of my life—going right back to my humblest tasks in my early teens working as a bus boy at Plaza Royal restaurant in Kansas City. Work produces value—at minimum a certain order. Which vanishes sooner or later—so we never run out of work. But the value of that labor, it seems to me, must be preserved somewhere. Over there, perhaps. Which then suggested to me that Sisyphus’ labors are not fully appreciated. Yes, condemned for his hubris he was set the task of rolling a huge boulder up a steep hill—but just before he reached the top, the rock got away from him and rolled down, down, down again.

Aside from being a great pre-scientific discovery of the laws of entropy by the Greeks, the story also symbolizes the work of our lives here—which, while never-ending—never produce a genuinely lasting achievement either. And since we can’t really see the other side of reality from here—from here we cannot see what is really there—we think there is no there there. But faith tells us that values are there, piled high, not least the value of Sisyphus’ labors. Bits and pieces of his pride kept rolling down the hill—but his efforts to overcome them are there, on the other side.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Emancipated Art

According to the Wall Street Journal this morning, the Art Institute of Chicago has received art valued at $500 million. The donors are Stefan Edlis and his wife whom the WSJ calls Gael Neeson. The art is of the Pop genre and includes some nine works by Andy Warhol (1928-1987).

During my Army years (1956-1960) I’d spent some of my free time seriously studying art as a phenomenon—aided by being in Europe during that time. Just after I’d returned to the United States, Warhol’s star began to rise, in the 1960s. By then I’d seen the terrain leading up to the Pop Art movement and, having formed some conclusions of my own through actual study and thought, I more or less shrugged. It was bound to happen.

You might say that art reflects the general culture of its time. And even as early as the 1960s, culture had come a vast distance from the days of Christendom. Indeed art had separated itself into a self-conscious social phenomenon long before I’d actually been born; it had become emancipated from the collective. Somewhat arbitrarily, let me say that this emancipation began with Impressionism in the nineteenth century. Thereafter new schools began to flourish, among them, just to name a few, were Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art, and so on. A strong element of this was self-consciousness: viewing the collective from above and as its critics. By contrast, what I came to view as real art during my studies (and it’s always present, if also largely in the minority of works since the Renaissance) is art that aims at something transcending. And in that sense Pop Art, with its focus on ordinary objects, celebrity, and techno-wizardry is amusing, perhaps, but not in any sense motivating the viewer to respond. Self-conscious art, curiously, comes ever more to focus on itself, rather than on its subject; the subject is a means, not an end. Beauty, which is perhaps the most general word expressing art’s subject, is lost in self-promotion.

The art world, in consequence, has lost its general relevance to culture—except as yet another path to fame and fortune—whether as a creater, owner/collector, or institutional temple for it. When art is seen as art, it no longer works. And much the same may be said of countless other semi-institutional efforts that have become similarly “emancipated”  rather than remaining organically rooted in the collective social effort.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

As the Plants See It

As our plants experience it, the inclement season is almost over. Virtually every year they “go out” on May 5; “coming in” is more variable. In the last four years, they’ve come in on November 11 at the latest (in 2011) and October 18 at the earliest (2012). Going by the calendar alone, warm means May 1-October 30, cold means November 1-April 30. But to be on the safe side, we’ve tended to short the summer season, working at both ends, by about a week.

To be sure, the process itself is a little more raggedy-Ann-like. Every year some plants manage to make it out in April—and then, when weather forecasts turn us anxious, they have to be brought in again. Today is such a day. Happens every year. At the other end, we bring in plants too soon in Fall; but then, when a minor heat wave comes in late October or early November, plants already in must be taken out again—so that they may enjoy a few more days of the waning sun. In a general way, however, we’d rather be Now than Then. Then will come far too quickly now that time is speeding up—what with satellites and drones confusing everything.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Evolution in Media and Beyond

Brigitte found a fascinating article yesterday centered on the U.S. Ramstein Air Base in Germany—a place where she once worked before she and I ever met. The context today was Ramstein’s role in making drone warfare possible; the article is titled “Game of Drones” and appeared on April 17 in The Intercept (link).

The background on the publisher for starters. The Intercept is the first publication of a corporate entity called First Look Media. That corporation dates to October 2013—hence we might call it young. It was founded by Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire founder of e-Bay. He is just 47 himself and hence, in a context like this one, also quite young. He built the company around three editors famed for groundbreaking and generally liberal orientations: Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill.

Omidyar’s entry into the media by founding his own company is less visible than Jeff Bezos’ (Amazon) purchase of the Washington Post or Chris Hughes’ (co-founder of Face Book) majority investment in The New Republic. No doubt, now the pattern has been set, yet other Big Names in the e-World will also enter the media. The evolution here, in a way, follows the source of New Money; to get into the media has long been the crowning act of reaching that stage in success where becoming a Lord of Mass Communications is the last peak left to climb.

The story of Ramstein today, by contrast, illustrates societal/technological evolution on a grand scale: How to annihilate distance (and therefore time) by permitting drones to destroy targets from terminals at Creech Air Force Base in Clark County, NV using drones flying over Arabia, let us call it. The intermediate point of focus is Ramstein’s satellite relay station, itself served by a Galaxy-26 satellite that oversees most of the eastern hemisphere of the globe. The satellite serving as Ramstein’s eye-in-the-sky was first moved from a location above the U.S. to the one it now occupies in 2009.

Evolution keeps working in its mysterious ways. And just to imagine the money and effort to move a satellite halfway across the world boggles the mind—and never mind the vast labors and expenditures necessary to implement a military system the public is only vaguely aware of. Brigitte sighs, remembering her humble labors at Ramstein which, even in her days, was a center of the Cold War. How it has evolved….and how rapidly.

Back in 1948, when the occupying French forces began to build the first airbase at Ramstein, the town had a population of around eight thousand—and the place to see was the Catholic St. Nicholas Church, the tallest structure anywhere. Back then the feast of Corpus Christi was celebrated with a procession—and is still celebrated today. 

The evolution, therefore, is just 67 years old—even as the old still hangs in there. How long will all this last? I found the image of Ramstein’s St. Nikolaus church on a Wikipedia page showing another hundred or more airplanes taking off, landing, or making patterns in the sky. Progress is still going on and up, higher and higher. Someday, of course, this curve will peak and start going down again. I won’t be here then, but it will happen.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

An Active Spring Beckons

Last summer’s westward move had so severely tested my powers that at the end I simply failed in strength and in determination to move the sturdy (if decaying) compost heap I’d built oh a decade or so before. But now that we are settled, and the weather warming, I’m about to make up for that failure by building a new one. It will pretty much resemble the old. With that in mind I found an old picture which I’m showing this morning by way of foreshadowing things to come.

This isn’t an aesthetic but a practical matter. And seen from that perspective our compost heap, as this structure has been called, is a thing of beauty. I spent my morning trying to remember the exact measurements of that thing. After I build the new one, no doubt the measurements of the old one will fall into my hands again in some ancient folder—and a cackling laugh of amusement will be heard inaudible somewhere over my head. But so things go unless you are excessively pedantic and orderly.

Lovely thing, isn’t it? Along with that step forward (or back into the blissful past), our huge yard,  compared to the postage stamp that served us for a quarter century on McKinley Avenue, confronts me everywhere with challenges galore so that an active Spring beckons in 2015 so that, by the time our first anniversary in Wolverine Lake arrives at least a start has been made to initiate this strange new Eden into the ways we pursue: the random-seeming order of a Butterfly Ranch. Now whether or not the butterflies will also oblige us in due time, that still remains to be seen.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Whither the Basilisk?

I keep losing the slips on which I jot words while I am reading in bed—and hence don’t have a thick dictionary within my reach. The current list is getting longer. It’s time I looked up this words and started a new list.

I saw the word I’m featuring today in a quote from in one of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories (“The Worst Crime in the World”):

She had a powerful and rather heavy face of a pale and rather unwholesome complexion, and when she looked at anybody she cultivated the fascinations of a basilisk.

This is a happy instance in that it illustrates that context does not always help one make out a strange word, like basilisk. So what was this lady like, and what did Chesterton intend to convey when using that word? He intended to suggest a nasty woman with a fierce stare—and that because the basilisk is a mythological creature, a worm, with a death-dealing breath and a gaze that could kill outright. The word comes from the Greek basiliskos meaning “little king”; the original of it (see below) was a worm with a kind of crest suggesting a crown.

The medieval imagination rendered this creature as a worm with a cock’s head (first image). A close relative was the cockatrice (second image). According to Wikipedia (link), which did my research for me here, the naturalist Pliny the Elder (25-79 AD), who presumably supplied the name, had seen or heard about this creature and was describing an actual beast. He gave its size as no more than twelve fingers in length. While basilisk has continued to be treated as small, in some heraldic depictions it had latter grown large enough even to swallow a man.

The word has lost its currency today as a generic for “evil dragon” with bad breath and jaundiced eyes. In 1912 basilisk and dinosaur, as words, had the same frequency of use in the books Google Ngram tracks. Thereafter use of  basilisk declined significantly and dinosaur went for the skies. In 2000, however, basilisk still did a little better than tyrannosaurus rex. Ah science!

On my list are four more words. I found the first of these, portcullis, also in Father Brown and in the same story. The context was more revealing there, to wit: “The castle really was a castle, of the square embattled plan that the Normans built everywhere from Galilee to the Grampians. It did really and truly have a portcullis and a drawbridge.” A portcullis is a metal gate that slides in grooves and blocks entrance to a castle when the need arises. The image tells the story. At least we all know what it looks like….

Next comes apotheosis, also from Chesterton but from his book Orthodoxy. I should have known that word, but I failed to recognize it because I’d never consciously understood the prefix, apo. It means “to make”; theos, of course, is “God”; thus the word means the action of making a “god” out of something much less exalted: God-making. My own habit is to use the same word from a Latin root: “deification.”  

The next two words come from reading F.W.H. Myers’ Human Personality. The first is waistcoat. I knew roughly what it meant, namely a vest. But I wondered why it had lost its currency. Was it because vests had lost their popularity—particularly on those stout, men with fancy beards and somber looks? Or was it just that the word “vest” is shorter? Well, yes and yes. But the waistcoat has also conquered new territories. We see it, these days, mostly on young women, as shown in the illustration here provided.

The last word, expatiate, is interesting because it originated in a physical activity—but had come to mean, at least by the nineteenth century—something more mental. Ex can mean “outside,” as it does here. Spatiari means to work or roam about. (The German still use the verb spazieren to mean going on a recreational walk.) Such walks are often aimless, without fixed purpose. That aspect of a walk (or better yet “a ramble”) have come to be attached to expatiate; the word, these days, means to carry on, in writing or in talk, endlessly without much point. Expatiating at length—and then coming up short, wondering what I’m talking about—is one of my failings; it ranks right up there with inattention to words I don’t understand until a slip of paper gets kind of curly from lying on my bedside table for too long.
Image sources from Wikipedia articles in order: link, link, link, and link.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Imitating the Elite

I was exactly three months old when FDR gave a speech of which I reproduce a segment here. I found the speech easily when I searched Google with the key words “Roosevelt hatred.” Herewith that fragment:

For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away. Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge! Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair! Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent.

For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up.

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.
     [Franklin D. Roosevelt, October 31, 1936, at Madison Square Garden, link]

I made that search in the first place because, looking back, I was looking for another president of the United States who had been as genuinely hated by a subset of the U.S. public as President Obama. I knew that FDR had been so hated. Between 1936 and today, only a few things have changed. One is that we did not have any long breadlines during the recent Great Recession. Another is that FDR, no doubt because of those very real breadlines in his time, had full congressional support; hence “Government” was not split into warring sides; therefore he could right the wrongs that had caused the Great Depression. Finally, Obama is black; and in our time poverty affects ethnic minorities more than whites. To update the speech, we need only remove one word and add another. Remove breadlines and add, right after class antagonism, the word racism.

One cannot know anything with certainty where vast collectives are involved, but it seems clear enough to me that the recent upsurge of cases around aberrant cops killing blacks has its roots in examples being given at very high levels of government, namely barely disguised contempt for a black President by leaders in the U.S. Congress. I know, I know. It’s all about policy differences. But if the highest office is not visibly respected, the ordinary people, especially those who lack the necessary sensitivity—because they did not get it in their childhood—can certainly draw the wrong conclusions. And then the darkest angels of our nature will act in violent ways—when no one is watching.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Don't Ask

April does not want to get going around here. My desktop PC has been home but has also gone back to the doctor again for further therapies. Good thing. I managed to transfer my tax files to the laptop which, just this morning, finally, managed to dispatch that which belongs to Caesar back to Caesar via Turbo Tax. So don't ask. Give me some time now to recover...

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter Morning

An odd dream of black Mormon women controlling the Postal Service from the Moon wakes me this morning. The New York Times is, of course, “itself” and embodies the same incoherencies as my dream.

This madness will retreat, of course, as I anchor myself in concentration. Neither dream associations nor the news deliver the longed for Divine Order. But Divine Order is at work. My surroundings are still. Faint sunlight. The call of a mourning dove. Ignoring Netanyahu, the trees and bushes bud. The noise of a crumbling civilization does not signal anything high no matter the vast technologies and moneys that bring me news of them.

Settle out. Calm. That steady hiss in my ears means silence. No wind. The temperature is over 40. Deep breath. A kind of sleepiness steals over me, but B will wake now any minute and her cup is ready to take up filled with water boiled in our hi-tech Sunbeam device calculated to perform in 1 minute and 28 seconds. Breathe again…. The ragged clouds of madness have, indeed, already blown away. The animal has quieted; it sensed a superior and reassuring presence.

The resurrection of the Lord today: a potent, hopeful symbol even if we see no hint of it anywhere in a paper that today reports on a search for Jesus’ bones.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Calendrical Tomfoolery

I got to wondering why on this blog I’ve not yet done the pedantic sort of earnest thing I’m apt to do, namely to explain how April Fool’s Day originated. Now I have an explanation. It is that, by and large, nobody actually knows how the day originated. Attempts at tying it to New Year’s Day fail. Yes, once April 1st was New Year’s Day in some cultures—which is loosely associated with the Vernal Equinox. But that equinox takes place in March. And if the new year was such an inherently tricky or hoaxy day, why was its redesignation to January 1 (in 1582) not accompanied by the movement of Fool’s Day too? Some would have Chaucer as its originator, in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, where arrogant Chanticleer, the cock, is tricked by a fox; but that explanation relies for its justification on a presumed misspelling of one word in one sentence of the tale (link). No cigar. There was once a Feast of Fools celebrated more or less to coincide with the Feast of the Circumcision (January 1st). But how could the blasphemous Feast of Fools, condemned by the medieval Church, have found a rooting in April. Problems. Problems.

My personal problem is that this day was not marked in any way in my native Hungary. Yes, these days, Hungarians here and there mention it as an occasion of jokes, but it has no standing. When I consulted the Hungarian Wikipédia, as it is called there, asking for an article on Aprilis elsö, I was told that no such article exists, no article mentions it, and Wikipédia invited me to write the first one, if I wished. Brigitte has no memories of April Fool’s Day in Germany, and she lived in the north—nor do I though living in Bavaria where, per the German Wikipedia’s article it was common—indeed whence it emigrated to the United States. The German article is equally as fuzzy as the English-language version is.

My first e-mail this morning, however, informing me that my computer’s repairs will take at least another day—twice delayed already—ended with the following sentence: “I *wish* this were an April Fool joke...”