While stalking some of my favorite academics on the internet today I stumbled upon an interesting network of blogs.  The flagship site appears to be the Campaign for the American Reader, though I originally arrived there through one dedicated to authors discussing what they’ve been reading recently. There is a lot that could be said about a community that advocates reading and seeks fellowship on the internet, usually thought to be a medium at odds with the written word. I’ll leave it up to those more ensconced in cultural and media studies to do the heavy lifting on that one.

Two of the websites linked to this community are devoted to a game I only recently learned about. You open a book to a certain page (one version has it as page 69, the other as page 99) and you simply read. I’ve seen this go around Facebook as well, the idea being that you post whatever you find on that page as your status for the day. Page 99 is apparently inspired by the following quote which graces its masthead: “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” –Ford Madox Ford

Try reaching for the book nearest you.  Not the coolest one or the most interesting, but whatever is physically closest.  Open to 69 or 99 and read.  If you’re so inclined, share with us what you found.  What I ended up with was rather pleasant and quite fitting, but I won’t share its contents in public because it’s of a sensitive nature.  But please, let us know what you find and if if “the whole” is in fact “revealed to you.”

Impossible Contrast!

May 16, 2008

Though it is a truism, it is nonetheless true that the simplest expression’s in a language are often the most untranslatable. The German lassen sich doesn’t easily bend to your will, nor, for that matter, does anything in the French language. This is because French is the language of truth and English can not hope to contain it’s brilliant post-structuralist neologisms. But, I digress, and in the interest of general bonhomie, I will restrict myself to speaking about a language near and dear to all of us: Yiddish. The reason languages are often so hard to translate is because they’re entire systems of understanding, and while the words may be carried over from one language to another, the words do not mean the same things in the same system. Take for example: lehavdl. The word is derived from Hebrew and literally means “to separate.” The word is used every week in the prayer that ends Sabbath, “l’havdil ben qodesh v’khol,” meaning: to separate between sacred and profane. Two things that want nothing to do with each other or a “binary” if you’re so inclined. From this, the word gains an attributive meaning of, roughly, “these two things have nothing to do with each-other,” or, “don’t get me wrong! I’m really not equating these things!” So Weinreich’s dictionary gives the example sentence, “a mentsh un lehavdl a malpe”: ” a man and an ape.” (For a much better discussion of this word see this mendele discussion.) I’ve never really seen a good one word translation, but the best two word translation I’ve come across is “–impossible contrast!–”

So it is that today I want to make an impossible contrast of my own between Chad Pugh’s “Science Machine” and “There Will Be Blood.”

“Science Machine” has a very unique production history. Here’s how gizmodo puts it:

“Over several months, one artist put roughly 40 hours of Illustrator drawing work into a piece called “Science Machine.” And over that time, he had his computer screencap the project every five seconds.” So, we’re basically watching one person drawing in illustrator as he’s illustrating different parts of the project. There doesn’t appear to be much of a narrative at all. The video is simply random elements being drawn and added into the image one at a time. Nor is there much of an anti-narrative.

And yet the video coheres into a wonderful whole. Time passes and the image develops, taking on fantastic proportions. The world forms. It’s almost like the world Paul Thomas Anderson built before our eyes in “There Will Be Blood,” almost like the way Anderson had that machinery rise up out of the earth. The music is almost like Greenwood’s score. Pulsing. Slightly Haunting. Then again, it also sounds like the music from “Top Chef.” “Science Machine,” as much as it is a story about one person slaving away and becoming absorbed and mastered by a technology he wants to master, is very similar to “There Will Be Blood” and its tales of obsession.

Then again, this is an impossible contrast, and the two really have nothing to do with each other.

I had been planning on penning a piece about the new Presidents of the United States of America album before real-life interrupted. A friend of mine died tragically today. All deaths are tragedies, but this one was made all the worse for its randomness. An accident. A truck. He was one of the most welcoming people I’d ever met, and one of the smartest. Grad school is a place that encourages people to isolate themselves and to stay away from others. But that wasn’t my friend. We never talked about a lot of things even though we talked about a lot. I found out tonight that he used to write for The Forward but he never talked about it with me, nor did I ever talk to him about my various writings, no matter how insignificant they might have been, even though I always dreamed of inviting him to contribute to the Salad or to our as yet unprinted print companion, Fortnightly Salad. He was a man of diverse interests, and in tribute I’d like to mention two of them, two poets: Saul Tchernichovsky and They Might Be Giants.

Tchernichovsky was a man of the Hebrew renaissance. In my mind, Tchernichovsky, even more than Bialik, was the Hebrew renaissance. He translated the classics into Hebrew, be they from English (Longfellow) or from Greek (the Iliad). He made everything into Hebrew culture, and made world culture a part of the Hebrew rebirth. He even tried to turn the country around him into Hebrew culture, writing such “Canaanite poems” as “My Astarte.” My friend wrote his thesis about Tchernichovsky and his research cuts infinitely deeper than my curt introductory remarks. For me Tchernichovsky is a street more than a poet, an intersection with Bialik and Allenby, and a place of overpriced cafes. Somehow his words became history, became reality, an unbelievable feat.

For a different view on history, consider They Might Be Giant’s “Purple Toupee.” The song is a brilliant reworking of twentieth-century history, a comic inversion of the inversions in society. For me, the song is incapsulated by the brilliant line, “I shouted out, free the Expo 67!” One 60’s event so quickly turned into another. But for my friend the best line was, “Now I’m very big, I’m a big important man.” I never figured out why. Was it the double assertion? The posturing? Or just the great vocal inflections? I’ll never know, but I’ll always wonder.

I spent part of last week composing a retrospective for the first full year of YS in my mind, but I could never find the right lede, nor think of what posts I’d want to include, and before I knew it, it was 2008 and I’d missed my chance at both sending off my “malprorpiate valedictions” (the intended title) and having dinner with Chris Dodd. The problem might be that even if my brain is now a computer (as the furious romantic tells me), it doesn’t get internet, and I couldn’t remember all the posts that we’ve published over the year. Also, I was feeling nostalgic, and I’m still confused about whether or not nostalgia is still a good thing in this post-Garcia-Marquez world.

Apparently, I’m not the only one rejecting nostalgia. Treehugger reports on the growing phenomenon of “solastalgia.” Coined a couple of years ago by Glenn Albrech, “solastalgia” is “a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at home.” Specifically, it is:

“.. the distress caused by the lived experience of the transformation of one’s home and sense of belonging and is experienced through the feeling of desolation about its change.” (link)

The term was created as a result of climate change, and has been gaining currency as the actuality of climate change has gained recognition. But even if the term is new, there’s certainly nothing new in the concept. Environmental and urban change has always been a topic of literature where it has been handled in any number of perspectives. Blakes, “And did those feet” concerns a type of solastalgia. The implied narrator wonders how Jerusalem could have been built “among these dark satanic mills” and yearns for a messianic return to the British pastoral, “England’s green and pleasant land.” One could even read it into Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio,” one of the great imaginary places in American literature. In particular, its early chapters, with their religious overtones, could bear such a reading.

“Solastalgia” could probably been seen as the guiding concept of season 2 of The Wire. That season (perhaps the least appreciated) concerned the decline of the American working class, and the struggle over gentrification. There’s a scene where one of the dock workers looks into buying a home only to be blown away at the cost of buying in his increasingly gentrifying neighborhood. His urban life was passing away before his eyes.

I’m not saying we should immediately rush out and start using “solastalgia” in our term papers, though it would hardly be the first environmental term to catch on as a literary term; after all, Derrida structured one of his most entertaining pieces around the word/concept “biodegradable.” Somehow “solastalgia” seems too clumsy to really succeed, but if it does, it may just be 2008’s word of the year.

In the article “The New Yorker, a Magazine or a Club?” from Nouveaux Fragments du Puzzle American, written before a time when playboyclubhef.jpgcommunities were imagined, the author comes to the conclusion that though there is no such thing as a New Yorker club, “we may say…that all The New Yorker readers…form a virtual community which is unimaginable in the case of Time, Newsweek, and New York Magazine, the other magazine with a similar name.” This virtual community is contrasted with Playboy, a magazine that actually opened clubs around the country and thus allowed its readers to occupy a physical space with real membership and privileges of membership. Few magazines would dare to open such a club today (although Hustler is giving it a go), but perhaps one should. Now is a season when popular discussion of a film is more likely to focus on its box office prospects than on its critical merits, and a time when Americans are conflicted about whether their tastes should be reactionary (e.g. 80’s revivalism, Books, Christopher Hitchens, Yesterday’s Salad, and/or Hilary Clinton) or radical (2010’s futurism, Amazon Kindle/Sony E-Reader, Notwithabangbutawhimper, the upcoming spin-off New New Salad, and/or Barry Obama Joe Biden). Only one magazine reflects this delicate balance b/w postironicsnark-ism and our latent critical sensibilities. It is a time when we all belong to the same club: Entertainment Weekly.

Lo, such is the genius of The Shaw Report! Every week EW exploits our demands for newness with its dogged pursuit of not only the new-it-thing but the new-five-minutes-ago-thing and the new-out-thing. True, some may argue that only the cyclical demands of fashion keep this from being overly dependent on binaries, but those naysayers fail to appreciate the intertextuality at play. Though billed as an innocuous go at pop-insouciance, EW recalls the Shaw Report, the British Mandate’s inquiry into the 1929 Arab Riots in Palestine with every printing. There is no justice in the world of popularity, just as there is no justice in the Levant.

EW has also been a place where struggling authors can have their work published. Not too long ago, the magazine took a chance on an upstart long-hand writer named Stephen King, and gave him a column. Sure, they stuck his feuilleton at the back of the magazine, but the fact remains they gave him a shot. Read the rest of this entry »

A Bright and Sunny Post

December 13, 2007

I was riding the good old New York City Subway a few days ago when I came face to face with a scary looking character. This character was a man of average height and build, his clothes and his face both appeared slightly worn, and his eyes were swollen and about as red as his jacket. The jacket was old and too big for him. He had a beard, too, which needed a trim, and his hair had needed cutting two weeks ago. He looked tired and he looked beat and at the same time I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him snap or explode then and there.

This scary looking character was me. My reflection in the train window.

Part of the damage was done by insomnia. There’s really no describing the effects that prolonged sleeplessness can have on a person. The best explanation that I can come up with: it gives you a taste of insanity. Real insanity. Not pleasant. Insomnia bites my eyes.

The rest of the damage is less easy to explain. I don’t think it’s separable from the insomnia. It shows up with relative frequency, and is the result of an ongoing beating that I’ve unfortunately gotten a little too used to taking. This is the beating of artistic circumstance. I am a writer, and there’s no changing that. There’s no arguing against it, there’s no fighting it. There’s no being anything else.

Read the rest of this entry »