Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Goya at the Petit Palais

There’s nothing like block print illustrations to demonstrate the yawning gulf that separates artists from the rest of us normal folks. These prints, quite common in 18th and 19th century books, originated as black ink drawings after all. Many of us draw and doodle, but very, very few of us could create anything like the prints that you find in those old books. They demand close and patient observation with a magnifying glass, if possible.

The Musée du Petit Palais in Paris is currently showing a complete collection of Francisco Goya’s prints as well as prints by some of the Romantics and Symbolists who he inspired. The exhibit starts with a number of prints of Rembrandt paintings, done by Goya. I had never really noticed it before but there truly is a similarity between the two artists: both of them make faces that look sort of ugly at first glance and then stop looking ugly the longer you look at them. It’s strangest in Goya because he draws humans that begin to look inhuman and demons that begin to look human, and then back again. His drawings seem to stand on the border of human and inhuman, as if to illustrate that famous George Orwell passage.

It was also surprising to me to see the humanity in his figures because I’ve always thought of him as being a fairly cruel satirist, aside from the war pictures. I guess maybe this is why I was never keen on checking him out further. (I went to the exhibit to learn more about western art, a personal and professional obsession) And, in a way he is cruel and caustic, but there’s also a real sympathy to his work, a realization that humans are frail being key to both satire and sympathy. Even his demons look like poor wretches. It’s something I also like about Ingmar Bergman- his characters are doomed, often due to their own flaws, but you don’t really feel any contempt at the heart of it. Goya’s satire contains a surprising amount of pathos.

And then there are the war pictures. While Napoleon’s army was struggling with the Russians, his troops were also mired in Spain, fighting the local insurgents. These fighters were known as little warriors, or “guerrillas”, one keepsake of the battle for Spanish liberation. The other souvenirs, of course, are Goya’s shattering illustrations and paintings from the battlefield. Goya captures the humiliating nature of violent public death and the way that wars obliterate sense and logic. They’re not pleasant illustrations to look at, but they strike me as honest. And I think it’s hard to imagine that war without thinking of those pictures, just as it’s hard to visualize WWII without thinking of Frank Capra’s photos, or perhaps to think of the Crimean War without hearing The Charge of the Light Brigade.

His other major subjects were royalty on horses and bullfight scenes. What jumps out about the horseback portraits are the horses: their eyes are wonderfully expressive and alive, and once again strangely human. The bullfighting scenes that are the most memorable are the ones in which the crowd is rushing into the ring and, in their chaos, seem to be joining the animal world. For an artist who is often connected to the Enlightenment, Goya seems more aware than anyone of that era, aside from Voltaire maybe, how hard it is to become human and how hard it is not to fall back into animalism.


Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Originally uploaded by oferchrissake
A cheery monument seen in a kids' play park in Fürstenfeld, about an hour east of here. Nothing says "Relax, enjoy the nice greenspace!" like a looming specter...


Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sculpture in Gardanne.


More Gas Pains

If I gave McCain a D for his pandering "gas tax holiday" proposal, I'll have to give Obama a C. He's not exactly got a great solution for the problem either, but- once again- he's less full of shit than the other two candidates and simply wins on that count. Not exactly a ringing victory.

First off, he called the gas tax holiday what it is, a "scheme".

"The Illinois Democrat suggested such a tax break would weaken the nation's funding stream for highway and bridge infrastructure, potentially putting lives at risk.

"It will save you about $25," Obama said, presumably citing a three-month savings for average consumers. "Remember that bridge in Minneapolis?"

Ezzzackly! Obama has suggested implementing a "windfall profits tax" on oil companies to pay for a rebate for consumers, which like I said, isn't really a solution either. He also, maybe, gets extra credit though for having said that gas prices aren't very likely to go back down, which people don't want to hear, but which seems true as far as I can tell.


Magazines du Mode

It’s probably no revelation, but France has some of the finest fashion magazines in the world; Italy does too, so I can’t place France in a separate rank, but they’re both at the top of the heap. I have already accumulated a hefty stack of them and my time here is only half-done. Clearly, I will have to winnow out the best, or Claire will shudder at the clutter when I get home.

I don’t really know what to call these magazines; when I call them fashion magazines, people think I’m talking about those supermarket magazines that tell you how to get a man and a skinny ass. The magazine sellers call them design magazines, as opposed to women’s magazines: in English, I think calling them “mode magazines”, as opposed to “fashion magazines” might work. I loathe the gender-separation of magazines anyway. When I need a quick shot of pure artistry and aestheticism, these are the magazines I buy, along with Juxtapoz. Great haute couture is like the eruption of the marvelous into everyday life. Fashionable Parisian sidewalks are like a drunken Fellini parade.

The best-dressed people I’ve seen in my life were leaving black churches in Baltimore on Sunday mornings. The men were neon dandies and the women were walking paradise gardens. There’s a difference between stylish and fashionable: stylish is the application of the artistic soul to the body; fashionable is an attempt to wear one’s wallet on the outside. Many Parisians are stylish; sadly, more are fashionable. You can’t buy taste. On the other hand, I usually dress in grad student/hobo chic. Trust me: I am no fashionista with my facial hair growing wild like some tropical vine and my posture so bad it’s as if I’m trying to strangle my kundalini. So, apparently, I can’t even buy style on my paycheck.

Nevertheless, my favorite mode mags are Numéro, Jalouse, and Citizen K. My magazine dealer told me yesterday that she thinks Citizen K is the best magazine in France. It’s huge and beautiful and creative, and if you buy it in France, it’s one euro. Outside of France it’s more expensive, but here it can’t be beat. Like great science fiction novels, great fashion magazines open up a door to an unbelievable other world and you scratch your head wondering how they come up with this stuff. Having lived in the haute couture district of Paris, at the corner of Blasé and Bourgeois, I now know that these fashions come from another economic solar system far away from our own.

Jalouse is currently irritating me: they seem to have decided that rich teenage girls are their market and they’re running photo spreads with 14 year olds dressed to look like the Olsen twins. They’ve also featured the rich brat kids of famous rock musicians, as if that’s a group that needs more undeserved attention! People complain that fashion models don’t look like normal people, but I don’t want them to. If I wanted to see normal people, I could go for a walk. I want models to be outside of the norm. I want to see freaks. But teenagers are just not attractive to me- these trust fund brats look like those Margaret Keane paintings of urchins with giant eyes- and I certainly don’t want to see adults convinced that they’re role models.

I think the reason I admire these magazines is because they suggest that everyday life can be made extraordinary.


Notes on the Weather Underground

(Pic: Emily Rems and model Velvet d'Amour)

I guess revolutionaries get old too. It’s strange to think of the Sacco and Vanzetti smoking cigars and complaining about their arthritis and mortgages; hard to imagine the Bader Meinhof bridge club; one can almost picture a retired Che Guevara cleaning his car on a suburban Sunday afternoon. Revolution is the work of the young, who angrily want the world to change, not the old who wish that it would stop changing.

Even stranger than watching the wild-eyed revolutionaries of the Weather Underground grow old in imitation of grace is seeing how antiquated their movement seems: like something your parents understood, but which now seems as quaint and bizarre as David Cassidy records or Beatles boots. Sure, I get it: they were trying to stop the Vietnam War by bombing things and, yes, that comes from an anger that I can comprehend; but expressed through a savage appetite for obliteration that makes no sense to me. It was always this way- men need friction and struggles, or else they get fat and bored. Still, even blowing up empty buildings seems unbearable to me, like getting in touch with your inner fascist. All I see is a child smashing up his playroom.

But I think this strangeness is why people of my generation find it so difficult to get riled up that Barack Obama is friendly with a member of the Weather Underground: as terrible as this might sound, it’s just not a reference we get. It’s like saying that he can’t be President because he thought the Byrds were better than the Animals. I realize how ghastly it is to compare bombings to rock bands; however, it’s unrealistic to expect every historical event to be forever relevant. Relevance is a strange thing. J.G. Ballard once noted that Hitler seems much more “contemporary” than Churchill and wondered if fascism ever ages. Perhaps more frightening is the fact that Hitler seems more contemporary than John Lennon.

And since Obama’s not of that 60s generation, I think people my age recognize something that people of the 60s generation do not: their endless “struggles” with each other, aside from being counterproductive and narcissistic, are really fucking boring. It’s like listening to Grandpa’s war stories: here we go again with the one about how the pill “liberated” middle class women to have more affairs, or how white kids decided that the Vietnam War was “evil and immoral” so long as they could be drafted, or how the Rolling Stones “changed music forever” by playing old blues songs on electric guitars, or how our parents “changed the world” so we’d better pay our respects about how great the world turned out. Turn down that Obama racket you kids- I’m trying to listen to the mellow sounds of Hillary!

I suspect that Obama found Bill Ayers’s admittedly horrific past to be simply irrelevant to his own life and politics. When he says that Ayers is some guy in his neighborhood who did some horrible things when he was a child, I think people of my generation hear what he’s saying: please, please, please shut-up about the 60s! It wasn’t the terrible cataclysm that conservatives wish it was, or the Age of Aquarius that liberals imagine it was. Nostalgia is intellectual poison. Moreover, I don't think most of us care that much about whether or not you “changed the world” because you use that as a threat to prevent us from changing anything about the rotten mess we find ourselves in. We don’t care about the Big Chill; we’re ready for the Big Thaw.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

Party's Over?

Honestly, my time online is pretty limited these days. Read the regulars' blogs, cut and paste stuff I've written during the evening, and then IM with Claire for a while.

I did read this article in Salon today, in which Sidney Blumenthal claims that the Jacobins that have taken over the Republican party are about to meet their Thermidor and take the party with them. It's interesting. I'm trying to be less cynical, so I won't speculate as to whether it's wishful thinking or not. But, it is interesting.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Holy Mountain Toad Invasion

I've tried to explain Alejandro Jodorowsky's movie The Holy Mountain to Claire recently, and failed. This scene probably doesn't help, and is relatively offensive nonethess, but it sort of gives an idea of the flavor of the movie...



This was a poster for the local mayoral campaign in Gardanne, warning about the socialist candidate. But it seemed more amusing to me in the halfway removed version.


Les Ruines by Constantin Volney

The Romantics absolutely loved to spend afternoons wandering through old ruins and being moved by them to reflect on the fate of all human things to perish. The tradition likely originated with Diderot; but Volney was one of the most popular, and long-winded, writers of the genre with Les Ruines, ou Méditation sur les Révolutions des Empires, a 1791 account of his 1783-85 trip to the Levant, where the Ottoman Empire was in its long decline, and his reveries in the ruins of Greece, Turkey, and Egypt. Volney’s text is a vehement criticism of tyranny and celebration of liberty, typical for the era, and partly inspired by the battles between Russia and Turkey that broke out in 1788.

But Volney’s book is also one of the strangest in the genre, and a good example of just how bizarre Revolution-era books could be. After some pages on the perfidy of the Turks and the suffering of the oppressed Greeks and Arabs, Volney wanders through the ruins talking to a holy spirit for about two hundred pages. The spirit shows him a future in which all nations have come together in an international democratic government (under the tricolors!) and decide to interrogate the religions of the world to decide what is true in each. Basically, they conclude that all of them are largely-false, degraded versions of ancient Egyptian astrology, and they decide therefore to put aside their differences! The end!

Volney’s book was highly influential on later authors such as Lamartine and Chateaubriand, and it’s surprising, given how Catholic these authors were, just how close Volney’s ideas are to espousing theosophy- the belief that all religions are one at their root, usually deriving from the Egyptians. Volney is also the intellectual forebear of Madame Blavatsky, after all. It’s also a shame that Volney isn’t much discussed today as he certainly had a unique take on the “eastern question”.


Gas Hassle

John McCain has suggested that the United States should deal with spiraling gas prices by suspending all taxes on gasoline during the summer. Seriously: do Republicans ever have a Plan B to use after cutting taxes? A whopping 5% of the price of gas in the US is owing to taxes, which is why I generally fill up on the southern side of the border, as opposed to Canada where it’s something like 20-30% of the price! In other words, as gas prices peak, cutting out the taxes won’t make much difference for American consumers, and it’ll just mean that the states won’t have funds to spend on fixing potholes and crumbling bridges and such. Now, do I even have to ask whether the news media in the US is calling McCain on putting forth such a transparently asinine plan?

Update: Apparently, Hillary Clinton is making the same offer. It’s just such transparent pandering. They might as well say, “I have no idea what to do; but I’ll pay you if you vote for me.” Sure, I know this crap works with people (“No taxes? Great! I hate taxes!”), but I really do hope Obama doesn’t jump on this lame bandwagon. What seems to be needed here is an effort like the space race, but dedicated to getting off petrol. I just don’t get the sense that gas prices are going to drop significantly in the coming years. Seriously: the first politician to say, “Look, access to a finite natural resource is not an innate human right, okay?” will get my vote immediately.

Update Update: Brian corrected me on the gas taxes. It's more like 14 percent of the price. About half of it is federal tax, which is what they want to suspend, so it's better than I said it is, but still not a substantive answer. But, the states will be able to fix potholes.

Update 3: Are gas prices expected to drop again? I've said I doubt it, but I'm cynical. I've now read that it's likely. Again, I'm pretty skeptical.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A New Way to Lie

As horrible as will likely get, I am enjoying the new style of lying in America: posing the lie as a question. Here's a story about a pastor whose church sign reads "Osama, Obama? Hmmm. Are they brothers?" As much as I hate that churches have taken it upon themselves to lobby for political parties, since we can't tax them, I can't help but find the pastor's response really funny:

"When asked if he believes that Barack Obama is Muslim, Byrd said, "I don't
know. See it asks a question: Are they brothers? In other words, is he Muslim ?
I don't know. He says he's not. I hope he's not. But I don't know. And it's just
something to try to stir people's minds. It was never intended to hurt feelings
or to offend anybody."

Absolutely 100% awesome. I'm not lying, I'm just asking a question that happens to be complete bullshit. I'm totally going to start doing this to people.

"I'm not saying for sure that you owe me fifty dollars. But, hmmmm... Doesn't it seem like you owe me fifty dollars?"

"I'm not saying that I wasn't speeding, officer. But, I don't know. Isn't it likely that I was not speeding? Why won't you answer the question?"

Andrew Sullivan calls it "McTruthyism". His point is that Obama is getting a lot of these questions lately from people who are really just lying. It's a variation on one of my favorite stupid arguments- the "silence is deafening" argument. To wit: "My next door neighbor has never said that he opposes molesting puppies, and why not?... The silence is deafening."

What it does is to place the burden on the other person for your own information level. My favorite video on the internet shows an "expert" on radical Islam being confronted by a group of moderate Muslims. It goes something like this:
Woman: Why don't Muslims ever protest against terrorism? The silence is deafening!
Muslim boy: But we just did last weekend. Our mosque had a protest against terrorism and over 300 people showed up.
Woman: Well, why didn't I know about that?

See? Now the other person is responsible for making you not stupid. This is where we're at now: not only do people not know shit; now they're blaming the people that know shit for the fact that they don't know the shit that those people know. Again I say: 100% awesome.


Otherwise Occupied

While it’s certainly nice when history is debated as a living thing- which of course it is- I am often glad that my own work is not particularly controversial. All historians write about the present; however, I’m not sure that the intellectual roots of tourism really touch a lot of raw nerves; or, at least, I hope not. It’s interesting though: you can learn a lot about a society by which historical debates flare up in that society.

In Paris, there has been a very vocal dustup over an exhibition at the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris of color photos taken in the city during the occupation. The BHVP is showing 250 pictures taken by André Zucca for the Nazi propaganda magazine Signal depicting happy, smiling French people basking under the warm sun of fascism. Critics have argued that the exhibit does not do enough to highlight the fact that these are propaganda photos and that the reality for the French under the occupation was not so cheerful. They have also criticized the posters for the exhibit for the same reasons and many of them have been taken down.

On the one hand, they’re right that propaganda is a loaded art form that needs to be contextualized. The BHVP has been a bit flippant about this, claiming that everyone knows this is propaganda after all; but perhaps they don’t and it could be a risky business publicizing the Nazi narrative on life under Nazism.

On the other hand, there’s perhaps a bit of a counter-mythology taking place here. Critics contend that the “reality” was much harder for the majority of Parisians: that they were suffering on food lines, while the Jews were being deported; but I don’t know that they’re not overstressing their case. There’s a real desire among the French to imagine that everyone was in the Resistance at that time; if not actively, then passively. There’s also a real desire to see what went on in that time as having been imposed from without and not really taking place within France. But, of course, most of the studies suggest that collaboration was the rule and not the exception under the Occupation. I think part of what makes the pictures so painful is that they show a certain reality of Parisians living comfortably in collaboration with the Nazis; even if they are propaganda, someone had to collaborate with the creation of that propaganda.


Monday, April 21, 2008

Patti Smith at the Fondation Cartier

There is a popular mythology that portrays artists as angry young savages smashing up the musty world of their parents and pissing on all tradition. While there are indeed artists, or at least art students, who take this approach, in my experience they tend to do so with mixed results. Conversely, most of my favorite artists have been great campaigners for other great artists and excellent teachers of art history. They’ve worked within a tradition, as links in a chain, and they’ve openly celebrated their teachers.

Patti Smith has always been a great celebrator of the poets and artists who taught her to communicate, and her current exhibit at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain is as much a memory box for her heroes and friends as it is a collection of her own art in several mediums. In fact, it most resembles a reliquary, a solitary place to reflect on what has passed away and what remains.

Following their successful 2007 David Lynch exhibit, the Fondation Cartier once again exhibits an artist who might not be automatically associated with the plastic arts. Tout le monde knows Patti Smith’s music, of course: her albums Horses and Easter are masterpieces and Radio Ethiopia is excellent, and her rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Because the Night” was even a radio hit. Fans are familiar with her poetry; after all, she was a poet before she was a singer and has remained a poet her whole life. And art fans would be familiar with her work with Robert Mapplethorpe, one of the great artistic collaborations of the 1970s.

However, one might be surprised to hear that she has been taking black and white Polaroid photos for the last few decades, and maybe a bit skeptical about seeing an exhibit of Polaroids. Luckily, the pictures are fascinating, focusing again on such sacred sites as Virginia Woolf’s bed and Arthur Rimbaud’s grave. And the exhibit also includes several short films, also in black and white, recordings of Patti Smith reading her poetry, sacred relics, a room in which visitors have written all over the walls, occasional musical performances from Smith and several of her sketches and drawings. The overall effect is like visiting the home of a particularly inspired loved one.

For me, the room entitled The Coral Sea was the most moving part of the exhibit, consisting of several photos and items related to Robert Mapplethorpe and a long poem about his death and transformation read on a recording over a film of the ocean in black and white. Mapplethorpe’s death was one of the great losses of the plague years and his influence is evident throughout the exhibit.

The exhibit also pays homage to Walter Benjamin, René Daumal, Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, and Rimbaud, among others. In the gift shop, there is a table filled with books, CDs, and DVDs hand-picked by Patti Smith for her visitors. Claire will be glad to hear that the only contemporary music she has chosen are three Radiohead albums. Everywhere, in the gallery we see handwritten notes from Patti Smith and hear her spoken recordings. There’s a very personalized nature to it all- evidence that she played a significant role in constructing the exhibit. There is also something of the invocation here, calling forth the spirits to speak with them again. If Patti Smith, like all great poets, is part of a tradition, it is a living tradition, and one that she lives herself.


Sunday, April 20, 2008

Gabelstaplerfahrer Klaus

This short film depicts the heartwarming tale of Klaus, the forklift driver on his first day of work after receiving his forklift driver certification. Unfortunately, Klaus does not adhere to safety protocols and an improbable bloodbath ensues. I'm assuming Holly and I are the only ones who speak German here, so I am including the English-subtitled version.


Friday, April 18, 2008

The Multipolar World

This month the cover story of the magazine Courrier International is entitled “L’Hyperpuissance Américaine c’est Fini”; and I thought I was being hard on the states!

Apparently the issue focuses on the new rules of a “multipolar” world, a startling phrase that essentially rings true. The unipolar world can’t last forever; it’s really just a holdover from the old bipolar world, which lasted much too long itself, but at least made a slight amount of sense. The 1800s weren’t really polar; more like musical chairs on a global scale. You could say that the British Empire was a pole, like the Spanish Empire in the 1500s, but they not for very long; in fact, the 16th through the 19th were really four centuries of jockeying for position. And we can’t forget that Europe was competing with the Ottoman Empire during that entire time period. The “clash of civilizations” idea doesn’t really work though because the “civilizations” were so divided themselves. Before the modern period, you’d have to go back a thousand years to find anything like a pole in the world. A world with poles is a relatively rare phenomenon and a “multipolar” world might well amount to a nonpolar world.

Poles make sense in a world organized along the 20th century company model: there’s someone on top and various levels of subordinates below. There’s a chain of command. The problem, as pointed out by any number of comedians and cartoonists over the years, is that there’s no open communication between levels, because nobody wants to be too honest with their boss, and they’re all keeping an eye on the guy below them. The guy on top is half-terrified of and half-clueless about everyone below them, a situation that the US currently finds itself in. And everyone else wants to come up.

The Internet and the crime world seem to both be organized instead around the cell organizational model. Instead of having a rigid hierarchy, which the police can trace and break down, drug cartels have begun to organize themselves into myriad semi-autonomous cells, apparently having adopted the model from communications networks. (New technologies teach us to think the way they want us to.) The end result is that the cartels are now nearly invulnerable. I assume that groups like Al-Quaida work much the same way and that their “cells” have little contact with each other or with any sort of “middle management”. It’s much easier to get things done when you don’t have a chain of command to go through. Watching superpowers try to fight these ever-multiplying “cells” is like watching King Kong swatting at biplanes: you know that he can’t get all of them. It’s equally impossible to regulate the internet, as many states seem to be learning at once.

I think we’re about to witness what happens after the “invisible insurrection of a million minds” has taken place. The unipower is already fini as far as much of the world is concerned, whether it realizes it or not and maybe so are lone superpowers in general. The globe might well pass through a “multipolar” century and into a “post-power” era. At this point, anything is possible.


Town versus City

This research-related separation has been a good time for me and Claire to mull over what it is that we want in our future, how we hope to live, and whether or not I’d look good with a handlebar mustache. I think so.

Anyway, one thing that we’ve both been thinking about a lot lately is whether we want to live in a city or a small town. Hamilton is essentially a small town, and it has all of the benefits of small-town living: we know all of our neighbors, people talk to us in the supermarket, there aren’t a lot of hipsters or snobs here, and you can follow your own strange impulses quietly without anyone else caring one way or the other. I’ve seen middle-aged men walking down the street in pajama bottoms and a cowboy hat before without getting any stares! Hamilton is not image-conscious and the other small-towns that I’ve lived in were the same way; the cliché about them being conformist is nonsense: they were actually good incubators for creativity.

On the other hand, small-towns really can be weirdly insular, and their small problems can appear apocalyptic. Some of our neighbors don’t get along with each other and I’m sure that one day it will end in rocket fire. It can be hard to stay out of those small-town dustups. And then there’s small-town depression: there’s nothing to do, people don’t have the same interests, nobody ever seems to read, and the movie theatres suck. It could be worse: I actually worked in a small-town where the local ‘entertainment’ involved kids driving over a metal trash-can in a parking lot with their pickup trucks.

Cities, of course, tend to have better culture. Toronto has a great film festival, theatre troupes, nightclubs, a thriving music scene, fashion, the Second City, a gay district, and its own horror movie magazine. Claire’s brother and his friends have great apartments that would be perfect for a husband, wife, and cat. Moreover, our old neighborhood was wonderful to walk around on Sunday mornings and buy food, search through record stores, and go to movies in the oldest movie theatre in Canada, which unlike our local multiplex, shows rare and provocative films, and not Norbit.

Of course, cities have their downsides too. For one thing, most of them are gentrifying at a frightening rate. New York City has gone to shit in recent years, as the druggies, hookers and artists have been pushed further and further out by barbaric hordes of yuppies and trust-fund brats. Toronto already has million dollar apartments with “sub zero freezers” that don’t justify their price. With the high rents come the snobs and pricks. I’ve thought that Paris might be better without Parisians, and Toronto is known for being too arrogant and “American”. You could not wear pajama bottoms and a cowboy hat without getting glared at.

So, the question is: does all the culture and things to do justify the high rents and insufferable people in the cities? Or, conversely, does living around nice people and being able to afford things justify having fuck-all to do in small towns? And, if we decide we want to live in a city, should I look for a profession that isn’t entirely likely to require me to teach at Western Farmville State University?


Thursday, April 17, 2008

tim robbins talks to NAB, sternly.

i felt this was sorely needed

not sure if i'm the only one who caught it...but i liked it. i'm sure you all did, but just in case.

here is the transcript if you can't stream:



Wednesday, April 16, 2008

For some reason, this picture makes me think of me and Claire.



I haven’t said anything about Obama and “bittergate” because the whole brouhaha strikes me as embarrassingly stupid. But, since it doesn’t seem to have made much difference in the polls, it looks like Americans also think it’s embarrassingly stupid. So, let me say two things now:

1. Obama’s words could have been better chosen, but we all understood what he was saying. And his responses have been great, once again. It really is striking that he’s banking on the ability of Americans to listen, absorb, and understand adult speech, while both of his opponents are betting the bank that Americans are too stupid to understand things they read or hear. I’m not sure how that makes him the “elitist” here.

2. McCain and Clinton are also making this case: “Listen here, Obama- Americans are really, really happy with how their government is working these days. And if you can’t see that, then you must be an out-of-touch elitist!” What, seriously? They think that’s a good argument?



I first heard this story about a month ago on the morning news show in Marseille; I figured it was too early in the morning and I had heard it wrong. Nope: the French parliament really is considering making it a crime to endorse anorexia, aiming at banning super-thin models from the fashion world. The monde du mode is in an uproar. Would this be the first time that standards of beauty were codified by law? I can’t really think of any other examples.

Of course, these sorts of laws usually fail anyway, for the same reasons that all laws that criminalize words or images are inherently flawed, and yes that includes the misguided hate speech code we have in Canada. In the first place, such laws are almost impossible to enforce: even if it was possible to explain what it means to advocate anorexia in a way that everyone could agree on, a prosecutor would still have to prove intent. We would have to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Vogue, for instance, set out to endorse eating disorders.

Secondly, by illegalizing certain images or words, we also create thought-crimes, which is simply cancerous in a democracy. An informed citizenry cannot be “protected” from ideas without infantilizing them. Moreover, by putting ideas out of bounds, we valorize them and, paradoxically, also put their counter-arguments out of bounds. And what does it say in a democracy when the citizens give their state power to protect them from dangerous ideas? What stops the state from deciding that all information and ideas should be similarly vetted?

Lastly, I’d be surprised if there was really a multitude crying out for this law. The French somehow don’t strike me as being so naïve and unsophisticated. It takes a certain kind of simplicity to believe that freedom of expression is a cause and pathology its effect. Without having studied the disorder, I’d imagine that anorexics most often come from stifling perfectionist middle class families and that their behaviors are triggered after serious traumas and loss of personal control. I’d imagine that sexual assault plays a role in a number of cases. Maybe I’m wrong about that. But there’s something remarkably insulting about the alternate idea that young girls are these tabulas rasas wandering around waiting to be brainwashed by the first thing they see on television. I can’t imagine the sort of identity crisis that would lead someone to feel so afraid that pictures in magazines could brainwash them that they would ask the state to protect them from these images, but it must be something like hysteria.

So it goes without saying that I think the proposed law is a mistake that won’t last long.


The Grand Inquisitor

Hard to believe I’m writing this, but John Ashcroft was the smartest guy in the room back in spring 2002. This was when Dick Cheney, who must think he’s running for worst man in North America or something, put together a group in the White House, consisting of Ashcroft, George Tenet, Colin Powell, and Condolezza Rice, to decide about what sort of “enhanced interrogation techniques” would be accepted by the United States in the future. According to the Washington Post, these four, Cheney, and Bush “virtually choreographed… the blows, deprivation of sleep, and the simulated drowning called ‘waterboarding’.” Not to mention “stress positions”, freezing rooms, and eventually the sort of wink & nudge environment that facilitated sexual assault, beating to death, electric shocks, and at least a dozen homicides in US custody during questioning to date. Not the work of a few bad apples after all. Ashcroft is quoted as having said at the time, “Why are we talking about these things at the White House? History will not judge us very favorably.” It’s probably the smartest thing he ever said. If Reagan was the “great communicator”, will Bush be remembered as the Grand Inquisitor?


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Ed Fox

The chanteur of the instep, a photographer of bodies and soles, the Orson Welles of foot fetish films, Ed Fox has been able to turn what he calls his “little secret” into an oeuvre, with videos, photos, and now a deluxe edition book from Taschen, the publisher of every other cool art book on the shelves. Judging from the book, his style is somewhere between porn and art, with a heavy pinup glamour aesthetic, and heavy on the foot close-ups.

To be honest, I’ve never been particularly interested in women’s feet, not that there’s anything wrong with that interest; as far as fetishes go, it’s pretty tame; I think you’d have to be quite a prude to get upset by a boyfriend wanting to give you foot rubs. To each his, or her, own. Fox explains the female foot as a logical extension of the female body- a site of additional curves: “The perfect foot should look like a water slide, with all the twists and curves- one I could slide down with my arms straight out like a happy young boy.” Not surprisingly, he seems to have several low-angle photos, looking up at leggy women as if paying homage to a divinity.

I do feel bad for men’s feet though; it seems like all of the foot fetishists are interested in women’s feet. Who will appreciate a good manly set of arches?

Here's his site!


Monday, April 14, 2008

Okay, well there was a bit of cool graffiti in Marseille...


Notes on Chateaubriand's "Génie de Christianisme"

Do we really need Chateaubriand? His Itinerary to Jerusalem… etc. tells you very little about Jerusalem and a lot about the biases of 19th century Catholic Romantics in regards to Muslims. His Martyrs is really just a repeat of Madame de Staël’s ideas about literature. And his novel René is just a lesser version of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is itself hard to read all the way through without wanting to hit young Werther with a croquet mallet. If I had to pick one work by François-René de Chateaubriand to keep around, it would be the Mémoires d’outre-tombe; lucky for him that it’s so damned long.

The Génie de Christianisme suffers the same problem as his other works in that it’s extremely dated. If you’re writing a thesis on 19th century French Romantic Catholicism, again, this would be in the reading list. But, it doesn’t really succeed in convincing us to become Christians, which is his goal. Somewhat strangely, Chateaubriand uses things like bird migration patterns and the calls of wild animals to convince us that God is great. His idea is to avoid abstract arguments and, instead, focus on “poetic reasons and reasons of sentiment, this is to say marvels of nature and moral evidence.” The problem is that it’s not always clear what his nature stories have to do with Divinity. And his argument against atheism, which is pleasingly vehement, boils down to the fact that it’s depressing. Okay, and…?

The other major problem with the Génie de Christianisme is that, when Chateaubriand focuses on scripture, he winds up with entire chapters telling us about how great another book is. His point is that scripture is great because it has a certain emotional and aesthetic effect on the reader; “not to prove that Christianity is excellent because it comes from God; but that it comes from God because it is excellent.” This illustrates the interesting thing about Edmund Burke’s idea of the sublime- what Burke did was to turn the sublime from a cause to an effect: that is, instead of dealing with it as a property of literature, he dealt with it as an aesthetic response to literature. Chateaubriand is applying this idea to scripture. But, after a while, you just want to read the Bible and forget about Chateaubriand. So, perhaps in that sense, he is successful.


Paris Overdose

Every year when I was a child my family would go to our favorite theme park. We would ride the rollercoasters, buy souvenirs and toys, eat funnel cakes, and make a desperate stab at visiting everything in the park in one day. And every year, there would come a point, usually around 10:00 at night, in which I was exhausted, satiated, and stuffed. I think I’m reaching that point with Paris.

Remember, of course, that Claire and I live in a town whose cultural landmarks boil down to a bowling alley, a video store, and a hamburger place called ‘Buddy’s’. Okay, we do have the band Teenage Head and two roller derby teams; but, for the most part, Hamilton is a cultural dead zone. Remember also that I’m a bit of a Francophile… or perhaps a Europhile… or, let’s face it; I’m pretty much just interested in everything.

And Paris has so much to be interested in. There are currently three exhibits that I want to see: Patti Smith’s photos, Louise Bourgeois’s statues, and Marie Antoinette’s possessions. But there are also at least five smaller exhibits I plan to visit, and of course, I have to spend a number of days in the Louvre again. There are no good movies out now to see; but there is a theatre near me that shows old movies, and there is a great DVD store near the Bibliothèque Nationale. I’ve bought enough books and I’m busy reading my way through Rimbaud, Chateaubriand, and Proust, in addition to all of the stuff I’m reading for the dissertation. I’m reading in the BNF from 9 to 7 every day. And, then I’m watching a lot of television shows at night because my French is still largely literary. (I understand about 98% of written French and about 70% of spoken French, and still speak French atrociously.) So, I’m learning a lot at once; it’s a bit like stuffing a goose.
Of course, it’s important to take advantage of opportunities like this, and I’m not about to complain about being in Paris. If I could live here, I would. It really is the cultural center of the world. (And, besides, the subtext of every gripe I have is that I really miss my wife.) But, I definitely need a break. Maybe I should go bowling


Spanking the Banks

Swiss banking giant USB has all sorts of problems right now; the largest problem being that they’ve just posted $37 billion in losses due to a mistaken risk they made on, you guessed it, mortgage securities in the United States. Ultimately, they’ll probably have to pay down something like $60 billion. It’s especially painful for the bank and its shareholders because the Swiss pride themselves on being prudent and thrifty and USB views itself as a very safe bank. There are also quite a few people wondering right now just how the famed USB risk management system broke down.

It brings up a few issues here. The first is that all the talk of “regulation” makes sense, but regulation won’t help if the rules are applied by states: they have to be international because a bank in Canada can follow the rules and a bank in Japan can screw up and hurt the entire system. Secondly, there’s the especially painful fact that USB is being blamed for having “Americanized” itself. It’s painful because, while Americans aren’t necessarily known for being prudent, they are known for being good businessmen. And I think what’s so troubling about the ongoing financial meltdown, which itself will probably be hard but not catastrophic, is that it’s a reputation meltdown as well.


Success USA

I like how this one came out because it's a bit enigmatic. There was a job fair at the Marseille Chamber of Commerce and this was from the day before. It reminds me of Twin Peaks and the sign to the right, which reads "Success USA" is the cherry on top for me because it makes the picture more enigmatic. Maybe I'm tooting my own horn here, but it's really nice when you see something and know that it should be a photograph.


Saturday, April 12, 2008

Elder Architecture

Originally uploaded by oferchrissake
It's hard to tell, when looking at very old structures, what was done for aesthetic reasons, and what for practical ones. Of course there is surely overlap, and it's possible that the folks who planned an executed this found it ugly, or highly functional, or really attractive, or kind of useless, or some combination of all that.

Modern visitors to this space mostly find it charming, but maybe not so practical, I'd guess. It'll keep rain off, unless it's coming sideways. It's not good for storage, there's really no need to defend the area below this, and the view isn't particularly interesting.

Nonetheless, people will pay to find out what it was used for in the 14th century. I find *that* fascinating.


Friday, April 11, 2008

Not that you likely care...

The talk shows here get a variety of American actors, singers, and directors. For the most part, they don’t speak any French. However, Vigo Mortensen did okay speaking French, as did David Cronenberg (who’s Canadian, so he should know some French). But, holy Moses, I’ve got to say that Jodie Foster’s French is absolutely perfect. I knew that she’s done a few films over here; but you can’t even hear her accent when she speaks French.


The Proustian Sentence

I think I’ll truly be reading French at an adult level when I can breeze through Proust without difficulty. I read him in English, one summer during college, and I thought that In Search of Lost Time was the greatest novel I’d ever read. I still do think that. It’s amazing to me that I can turn to any page of this massive story and find some startling idea or evocative metaphor there; I’ve tried it several times and it always works. It’s a great story: a social critique, a meditation on human memory, a soap opera, and a study of selfhood and subjectivity.

When you read it, you fall into Proust’s languid rhythm after about 20 pages and so his sentences: huge cotton candy-like convoluted bundles of clauses and metaphors: just add to the overall effect. In English translations, the sentences tend to be chopped up a bit; this is normal with translations of French novels; French readers love the semicolon a bit more than English readers do. And Proust has a few sentences that extend longer than a page, and even in your native language it can be hard to follow a sentence with that many clauses grouped around a main idea.

It’s even harder in a language that you’re still learning. I recently realized that, rather ridiculously, I never finished the last volume of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu; probably because I had to return to university. Basically, I read a 3,000 page story, except for the last hundred or so pages. This occurred to me when I read an article talking about the main theme of the book and how it’s finally elaborated in the last page. Admittedly, after 2,900-some pages, I pretty much understood what the theme was; but I still never finished the thing. So, now I’m in search of lost Proust. But, wow, is he a challenge in French.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

My last comments on the view from abroad

Back to the soap opera that is la vie Paglia. The huntress Camille writes her usual Salon column this week, with its bewildering mix of 60% things I totally agree with and 40% things I think are off-base. One thing she wrote was this:

I too wish that Obama had more practical experience in government. But
Washington is at a stalemate and needs fresh eyes and a new start. Furthermore,
at this point in American history, with an ill-conceived, wasteful war dragging
on in Iraq and with the nation’s world reputation in tatters, I believe that,
because of his international heritage and upbringing, Obama is the right person
at the right time.

This lead neoconservative Abe Greenwald to write this howler:

"If Ms. Paglia finds the U.S.’s “reputation in
tatters,” she’s describing some internal or personal state of

(Got that? Not only do all other countries love the US; but if you think they don't, you're crazy, man. Anyway, the amount of delusion here, and in some of the comments that follow, is a little too sad to make fun of anymore. But, there are some good comments that reflect what I've found while living abroad.)

Here's two:

1. "I live in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. This is the richest town, in the richest state or province in North America. I am not jealous of any heavily indebted fat southerner.We have oil here, and I make a lot of money, partly because of a mistake of half of the American people, who voted for a war monger as “commander in chief”. Before GWB, I loved the USA, and travelled there all the time. Most Canadians had a generally favourable view of our powerful neighbor too. Very few Canadians would vote for a GWB type character, he is too abrasive and conservative for us. On 911, I cried for America. Real tears. On the build up to the Iraq war, I could not understand what was going on, and tried like hell to understand. One day, about a month before the invasion, I woke up and saw what was going on. The good ol’ boys are running out of oil, and there is plenty left under the sand in the middle east. Better to have the American military sit on it, before China gets any ideas. No sir, you will have to work very very hard to find a Cheney/Bush fan in wealthy Canadian oil country."

I should probably note that Alberta is often called the Texas of Canada, and it's partly because they're often more conservative than people in the other provinces. So, this says something too.

And then there's this one:
2. "Utter nonsense. Writing from Europe, America’s reputation has not been more tattered than since well before the Vietnam War. Europeans were mockingly critical of Bush right after his first election. Almost without exception, they stood with and behind America after 9/11. They largely abhorred the war in Iraq and they grew increasingly distrustful of the Bush administration in 2003 and 2004. Most of them chalked this up to a rogue administration. And then they were absolutely aghast when the Americans voted Bush back in. At that pivotal moment, Europeans questioned the ultimate nature of the American character, and they began to deeply suspect Americans generally. I’m referring to people in their 60s whose families were liberated in France, Germans in Berlin who were fed thanks to the Airlift and many scores elsewhere who enjoyed a youth or adulthood safe from
Communist aggression, and had every reason to respect and admire and be grateful to America. Precisely these people now believe that there is very little to
emulate in America now.

"Obama is well liked in Europe because he is exceptionally bright. That would be major change number 1. He is compassionate, and dedicated years of his life to the underclass and the underprivileged. This is also a major change. He has risen to where he is today through his hard work, his extraordinary capabilities and his capacity to marshall committed support from millions, as opposed to his marriage, his family or his personal wealth. He is idealistic and is able to draw upon a diversity in his constituents that has never before been seen in US politics. He stunningly fails to incorporate the ‘one liner’ hack soundbite style-before-substance politics America is famous for. He largely rejects the most vivid examples that separate America from Europe, including the death penalty, the Iraq war, torture and the polarization between the well off and the most poor. His American individualism - a trait still admired in Europe - is tempered with both personal and political efforts to ensure that all Americans benefit from the chances and opportunity available in the United States."

"In short, he represents about as much of a rejection of the loathed Bush as one could possibly imagine. Electing him would do more here to restore faith in America and the will of its population to achieve the highest American ideals than another Marshall Plan."

Like I said.

Okay, so of course, Obama isn't going to be the messiah, and he's probably not going to end the fustercluck in Iraq. But, let me throw down the gauntlet here a bit and repeat that I think voting for Obama is a profoundly patriotic statement, while voting for McCain simply is not.


Forty Years into the Future...

Il est interdit d’interdire.

That Faulkner line about the past never being dead is certainly true in France where historical events are generally discussed as heatedly as current events. Hiromi recently linked to this NY Times article, which mentions that historical figures sell magazines here. Currently, every magazine, and all of the television channels are doing features about Mai ’68 leading up to the fortieth anniversary of the student uprisings in Paris. So far, my favorite is a porno magazine whose cover reads “Mai 68. Mes 69…”

L’action ne doit pas être une réaction mais une création.

1968 was a tumultuous and fairly tragic year nearly everywhere. And 1969 was even worse. There were the student protests, riots, and assassinations in the United States, of course. But there were in fact protests and riots in several other countries, and Prague’s ill-fated summer. All of this sound and fury was great for culture, of course; but soon gave birth to a cottage industry in reactionaries and future reactionaries. Alas, it seems to be an iron-clad rule that there are revolutions and then the boot falls. The times they ‘a change back too, unfortunately.

Un flic dort en chacun de nous, il faut le tuer.

In Paris, the students occupied the Sorbonne at roughly the same time as a general worker’s strike was going on, which they soon aligned with- probably the only time that’s ever happened in history! They were angry about the arrests of students protesting the Vietnam War; but one thing led to another and, within days, the Rue Saint Michel was barricaded with burning cars and piles of paving stones and the students were facing the riot police.

Sous les pavés, la plage.

Two things are surprising when you watch newsreels from that era: the first is that it really does look to be on the verge of civil war in several cities at the same time. Revolutions in Paris aren’t unheard of, of course, and the level of destruction in 1968 was startling; probably startling enough to turn the tide of public opinion back in the direction of law and order. In Prague, on the other hand, public opinion never turned towards the Soviets, and the despair in the faces of the Czech crowds is evident as the tanks roll in.

Jamais les femmes été plus belles ni plus fières.

The second surprise is in how seriously people took these attempts at revolution. The students clearly believe that what they’re doing is critically important. I don’t know if they really believed that they were going to change the world; but they clearly believed that they had a civic duty to fulfill. The idea that our lives and actions actually matter seems somehow naïve and archaic for those of us living in the society of the spectacle. And it’s arguable just what the protesters accomplished in 1968. On the other hand, nobody ever looks back on those years and brags that they were in the riot police.

Le rêve est réalité.


Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Miserable Sods

One thing I need to make clear: when I wrote that I wasn’t encountering the unhappy French people of popular lore, I was in Marseille. There are, indeed, some miserable bastards in Paris. I think this is true of any city: there are people who seem to have the weight of the world on their shoulders, and who blame those of us who interact with them for adding to their already significant burden. You can hardly blame them, living as they do in Paris, where there’s nothing to do but absorb the world’s great art and culture, eat the most delicious food imaginable, and have sex with gorgeous, sexually-aggressive women. The question is whether these miserable, world-weary sods become that way by living in crowded cities, or if one’s chances of encountering them are just statistically improved by living in crowded cities.


Monday, April 07, 2008

Movie Notes : J’ai Toujours Rêvé d’être un Gangster (2008)

I guess it’s not too early for 90s nostalgia after all. J’ai Toujours Rêvé d’être un Gangster, or "I Have Always Dreamed of Being a Gangster", is the first line of Goodfellas, but this film is clearly an homage to lower-budget early 90s independent American films: it was shot in black & white for what looks to have been about 8,000 euros, it is composed of four interweaving storylines vaguely related to crime, the soundtrack features forgotten songs from the 60s and 70s, a dry sense of humor, and the old guard of French cinema all have roles in the film. Clearly, the French are familiar with Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino.
Such is art: Tarantino’s early films pay homage to Truffaut’s early films, which paid homage to American gangster movies, which often paid homage to German expressionist cinema. Art devours its own.
These sort of films tend to be a bit chatty, and French films are notoriously jacassant. Thus, the film has a lot of dialogue. I think all you can really ask here is that the dialogue be funny, which it is, and that the film have some unexpected moments, which it does. Also, it’s good if these films make sense in the end, and it basically does. So, you go see the film, or rent it when it’s inevitably released, enjoy it and forget about it. J’ai Toujours Rêvé d’être un Gangster isn’t going to change the world of cinema, but after all, those 90s indie films really didn’t either.


Today's Quote

“Modern writers who hold up the violence or the injustice of the past as marks of its inferiority fail to consider that a higher civilization is not necessarily one in which men behave like angels, but in which men can experience both their divinity and their animality.”
Jacob Needleman



God's Angry Men

“The wider and deeper becomes our knowledge of the inner life, the more will
our power increase to hold in check and guide our original desires. Wilson, on
the contrary, repeatedly declared that mere facts had no significance for him,
that he esteemed highly nothing but human motives and opinions. As a result of
this attitude it was natural for him in his thinking to ignore the facts of the
real outer world, even to deny they existed if they conflicted with his hopes
and wishes. He, therefore, lacked motive to reduce his ignorance by learning
facts. Nothing mattered except noble intentions.”
-Sigmund Freud writing about Woodrow Wilson, who once remarked to a fellow politician: “God ordained that I should be the next President of the United States. Neither you nor any other mortal or mortals could have prevented it.”

Nor the rest of the “reality-based community” no doubt. Wilson often reminds me of the current President, who is also aloof, narcissistic, unquestioning, and seems to have the same relationship to his all-powerful father: half-worshipful, half-rebellious; both of them ultimately replacing the all-powerful father with an all-powerful God. Wilson’s Fourteen Points read like a sermon to Europe, without being in the slightest sense practical. Bush, of course, has given the same sort of sermons to the inhabitants of Iraq, with the same lack of practicality. And both men exhibit the same weird priggishness. Wilson claimed to have been most-often mistaken for a minister by strangers in the street. Bush doesn’t seem quite as prissy, but it’s rarely commented upon that, for all of his macho posturing, there’s something vaguely gay about Bush. (I say that, incidentally, fully aware of how often I myself read as a little gay.) Lastly there’s the same undercurrent of contempt for their contemporaries, who apparently lack their particular wisdom.

It’s worth remembering, when we talk about the perception that America has lost its status in the world, just how much this turn of events is related to Bush, and therefore how likely it is to change in the years après Bush. This is a time for stocktaking around the world, and perhaps in the US as well, although I’m skeptical that American attention can be wrenched away from Obama’s politically incorrect priest or Hillary’s imaginary snipers. But, watching Bush, as his term approaches its end, it’s most incredible just how happy he seems, as if the events of the last seven years have hardly registered with him. Convinced that he is on the right side of “history”, understood by him as having a direction and endpoint guided by divine providence, he seems oblivious to just how badly the decisions that he made have faired out in the real world. The occupation, or semi-colonization, of Iraq is going great, the Geneva Conventions don’t apply to the US, real Americans vote Republican, and the economy will improve if we just cut taxes yet again. Oh and this is a great time to be a Republican.

I suppose this is why John McCain, a man who has always struck me as a fundamentally decent individual, now strikes me as absolutely the wrong man at the wrong time. If America has lost its status in the world with Bush, it certainly won’t regain this status with Bush Lite. And if Obama has any advantage over McCain, it would be in the fact that he not only inspires his supporters; he also seems to inspire a surprising level of patriotism in them. It is both weird and amazing to see crowds of liberal Democrats chanting “USA! USA!” at his rallies, especially given their relationship with the larger culture over the last decade. And it’s exactly the same overseas, where his candidacy seems to resonate with an idea that people have of the US as a place where the smartest guy in the room can become President based on his merits. McCain doesn’t inspire belief in the American dream or America itself with anyone that I can see.

But, at least, he doesn't seem to think God selected him for the job.


Torching Tibet

Today the Olympic torch comes through Paris, basically right where I'm currently living. Therefore, I am on the other side of the city. Part of it is that I don't really feel like braving the crowds to see some guy with a torch from a kilometer away. The streets are already clogged with hot dog trucks, and tourists, and men selling balloon animals. Besides, I'm morally opposed to selling balloon animals- do you have any idea how many balloon animals are slaughtered every year and used to make condoms?

Also, let's be blunt here- fuck the Chinese government. It's not like they haven't had several years to improve their human rights record and it's not like hosting the olympics, which has also been in the works for some time, didn't give them the incentive to do so. I'm not even sure what advantage there is for them to hold onto their quasi-colony in Tibet at this point. I've been thinking this about the quasi-colony we have in Iraq, and all of the colonies throughout history. What's the point? What's the advantage? It must be some sort of prestige issue because they really don't pass any sort of cost-benefit analysis.


A Park in Paris

Probably looks better if you click the picture and open it...


Charlton Heston escapes the planet of the apes

Charlton Heston has passed away this weekend at the age of 84… I’m just wondering if anybody remembered to pry the gun from his cold, dead hands. I’m kidding!

I actually agreed with Heston about guns. Not because I think that having a bunch of people carrying guns makes society any safer- of course it doesn’t- but because I’d imagine that trying to instill gun control in the United States at this late date would be as realistic as asking everyone who uses illegal drugs to report to their local police station and turn over their stash. Also, call me a paranoid, but I don’t like the idea of agents of the government having all of the guns. This just isn’t a good time to talk about yielding more rights to the state.

That said Heston was a Hollywood icon who was well-suited for a time of costume dramas and historical epics. I don’t actually think he was a very good actor: most Charlton Heston movies I remember as being great, except for his performance. But his grandiose persona was appropriate for an era of over-the-top scenery chewing and epic scope. His larger-than-life personality never appealed to me, but it worked in movies like the Ten Commandments or Ben Hur. And what’s more, he seemed like a movie star. It’s hard to imagine him doing much else. Could you imagine having Charlton Heston as your dentist?


Sunday, April 06, 2008


Unhappy French People

I have finally spotted the rude French people of popular mythology. A tribe of them was at the supermarket yesterday, huffing and scowling with true vigor! They were almost entirely women: I’ve noted before that no one on earth can frown like a French woman. Well these women were clearly quite upset about having to endure a trip to the Supermarché and their glares could have stopped the incoming tides. How dare these other people shop at the same time as they were shopping! As I stood in line with my bananas and milk, I had the distinct feeling that if I made one wrong move, they’d set upon me like a pack of lionesses bringing down a gazelle. I pretended to be calm, sure that they could sense my fear. As we left the supermarché, I thanked Eris for not unleashing the armies of chaos.

I worked at a rural Virginia supermarket for some time and one thing I discovered is that nearly everyone hates shopping at them. Maybe 2% of our regular clientele was ever happy to be there, while the vast majority of them looked as if they were attending the funeral of a particularly unsavory relative. I’ve never understood why so many people endure these crowded, unhappy trips to forage for jugs of milk, given that they seem to detest them so. Maybe this behavior makes sense in some lonely American outpost, but not in France where they have their beloved marchés two days a week. With a minimum of effort, they could boycott the hated supermarket altogether, and perhaps many of them do. I’m constantly surprised though by how many people both despise and submit to the mandates of capital. They learn to want things that they never asked for. Of course, they do this for only one reason: it’s cheaper.

Having worked in a supermarket, I’ve come to accept them. During most trips there, I am taking note of what is going on “backstage”, looking at how they organize their produce, how much meat they sell, and so forth. I would assume that the discomfort most people feel in supermarkets is akin to what I experience in shopping malls. It’s more than a low-level annoyance; more like a subtle existential despair, a fear that these places without character and endless strip malls without humanity might be all that’s in store for the rest of my life- no discomfort and no surprises.

I suppose it’s even worse with the Supermarché: one can accept the depersonalization of buying a pair of Nikes, but it’s hardly the same with something as intimate as the food that we take into our bodies. To have that provided by nameless strangers in fields miles away seems somehow perverse; comparing it to the food provided by the boulanger or fermier at the marché is a bit like comparing lovemaking with a spouse to an uncomfortable fuck with a prostitute. Nobody in their right mind would go to the supermarket if they could help it.


Note on Tibet

“Historically speaking, the attribute ‘traditional’ when applied to modes of contemplation and action (or to arts, science or anything else) reflects a situation where a given human society is regulated both in spirit and in respect of its formal expressions by a divinely inspired message originally received through prophetic or avataric mediacy, one which will continue communicating itself subsequently across time and space while also being adapted of necessity to the needs of a changing human scene. Reminders of that message will be written into every institution of the human collectivity concerned: a society so ordered, as long as that tradition is kept alive, will remain a quasi-unanimous society as regards essentials. This is why one is justified in describing the Middle Ages in Europe as characteristically Christian, even though things were often done then in the name of Christianity (or despite it) which plainly belied those Gospel teachings which everybody acknowledged in principle.

“The same can be said of Tibet as late as the year 1950: an unmistakably Buddhist flavour sufficed human ideas and activities at every social level, as I was able to observe at close quarters when visiting that country in 1947. A medieval Europe minus the chronic warfare and the extreme cruelties associated with the criminal law fitly describes the Tibet I remember, with the additional difference that the contemplative element was clearly in the ascendant in every sphere of life, a fact reflected among other things by the attitude of the Tibetans towards their non-human neighbours, animals of the countryside as well as domesticated ones; in this respect the compassionate influence of Buddhist tradition made, of Tibet, something like a distant replica of the terrestrial paradise prior to the Fall.”

-Marco Pallis, London, 10 December, 1976.


Thursday, April 03, 2008


I still cannot get used to the French lunch, which is strange because it actually makes more sense to me than the North American version of lunch. Basically, I show up at the archives at a quarter to nine every morning and prepare for my day of research. The other researchers and the people who work there arrive around 10:00. This means that, if I get my orders in for the day, I will receive the files I need by 11:00. Most of us leave for lunch around noon. Here’s where we all differ though: I return from lunch around 12:25, and they return from lunch somewhere around 2:00 and start working again around 2:30. There is an archive retrieval in the afternoon, and so I can expect to get more files around 4:00, when the staff starts winding down to leave.

If you’re keeping track, that means that many of the other people there work approximately four hours a day, while I work about seven hours. Believe me- the difference is entirely cultural.

Honestly though, I take the French side on this one. I have never seen the advantage in working more hours. Inevitably, I’m exhausted by 2:00 and should probably go home then. In fact, it seems to me that people do their most productive work for about four hours out of the day. Ideally, I think we should all be working a lot less, and I don’t really understand why technology hasn’t made that possible.

Behind all of this is a very French idea of the good life. No French would ever coin a saying like “lunch is for losers”. The idea is to live well, not necessarily to succeed at business, or have countless luxuries or a large bank account. There is an emphasis on the easy enjoyment of areas of life that North Americans hardly even notice. I’ve never given as much thought to bread as the French do. Of course, the idea of the good life appeals to me.

And yet, I’ve been trained well, I suppose, because I honestly can’t commit to the longer French lunch, as hard as I’ve tried. Je suis désolée.





I'll try to post more of these the next time I'm in a cafe with wifi.




Giving Paris One More Chance

Alas, I am now in Paris, searching the Bibliotheque Nationale for clues. France is basically divided into two regions: Paris and n'est pas Paris. To be honest, I prefer Paris for the culture and the rest of France for the people. It's not bad here, but life is very fast- as with all big cities.

I am living on the Avenue Wagram, about two blocks from the Arc de Triomphe. The sights are incredible. I live in an attic room and feel like I'm obligated to write a novel while here. The only problem is that I'm at the corner of Très cher and Assez cher. I can't really afford to eat in my neighborhood.

But it's fun. The other night I got stuck in a crowd on the sidewalk waiting for a red carpet entrance to the Lido and saw some famous person. He looked like Mickey Rourke, but I'm never good at this game. We ate next to some guy from Titanic the last time I was here, and all I can remember was that he was the other guy and not Leonardo DiCaprio!


Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Immigration Update

On the immigration front, Claire has been approved as my sponsor, which means that the process has officially begun with the government. So, I've now finally started down the road of being a permanent resident, after a hell of a lot of paperwork. Viola!