Sunday, May 30, 2010

Notes on Notes From Underground

Credit where credit’s due: the idea of seeking out Notes From Underground was first seeded by Matt Yglesias’ list of influential books from a few months back. Had I not read that, I might not have picked it up at a used book sale, or at least been compelled to read it so soon. He calls the first section of the first half “the greatest stretch of prose in human history,” but the rest is hardly slack. As polemical writing goes, it’s some of the best one could come across in any language, of any persuasion. Take this passage from Chapter IX:

Yes, man is a comical animal, and there’s obviously a joke in all this. Still, I say that twice two [makes four] is an unbearable notion, an arrogant imposition. This twice two image stands there, hands in pockets, in the middle of your road, and spits in your direction. Nevertheless, I’m willing to agree that twice-two-makes-four is a thing of beauty. But, If we’re going to praise everything like that, then I say that twice-two-makes-five is also a delightful little item now and then.

What prose! The mingling of abstraction and concrete imagery! The immediate, sneering tone! And is it too much to think ‘twice-two-makes-five’ as a form of individual revolt, was the basis of Orwell’s reworking of that formulation as a summation of totalitarian’s absolute mastery over the individual? The delight that swaths of our current population takes in this sort of brute counterfactualism ("Keep the government out of my Medicare!") need hardly be mentioned. Nihilism scarce had a better apologist than the Underground Man of the Notes' first section.

The second half is less effective, though I would like to think this is by design. For the first half is entirely theoretical and, on its own terms, quite effective; we may not like the Underground Man, but damn if we don’t respect his crude integrity. The second half puts this philosophy of ultra-pessimism into action in several case studies—a desire to get an officer’s attention, a sadomasochistic imposition on his schoolmates’ dinner, the emotional manipulation of a beautiful young prostitute—and all of them find the Underground Man to be increasingly repulsive and, more important, impotent. The caustic wit of the first half is almost comically helpless against his irrational compulsion to debase himself before people whom he holds in the highest contempt, who couldn’t care less about him anyway. What before seemed a compelling if distasteful stance against faith in progress is revealed to be an ineffectual and embarrassing revel in one’s own misery.

Misery was key to Dostoyevsky’s outlook, of course. His later novels (Crime and Punishment is the only other I have read) go on to develop the notion of man’s bestial nature and its only hope lying in divine salvation. What is striking about Notes is the almost complete absence of this notion of penance. The Underground Man expounds on it at length in his discourse with the prostitute Liza, and it is on these precepts that she ostensibly begins to turn her life around. But the Underground Man repudiates everything he’s told her as soon as he has said so, and his failure to go after her in the end is painted as a grotesque redemption of sorts:

“And isn’t it much better,” I mused later, back at home, trying to soothe the living pain with my fantasies, “for her to bear this humiliation as long as she lives, because humiliation is purification, because it causes the most corrosive, the most painful awareness? I’d have soiled her soul and tired her heart no later than tomorrow, but this insult and humiliation will never be extinguished in her; whatever filth surrounds her, my insult will elevate her, purify her through… through hatred… well… maybe through forgiveness…. But will it really be easier for her now?”

No. But let me ask a question now on my own behalf: what’s better—cheap happiness or lofty suffering?* Well, tell me—which of the two is better?

The Dostoyevsky of later years would seem to elect the former—-after having stewed plentifully in the latter, to be sure. Following several days of guilt-fueled delirium, Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov finds solace in another woman, Sonya Marmeladova, and the two of them await their reunion that will follow when his sentence in Siberia has been served. Dostoyevsky was all about redemption through suffering, but in this work, at the beginning of his mature period, the only reason one seems to stand any chance of improvement and moral regeneration is by rejecting false saviors, and even that’s hardly a guarantee. It’s all suffering and no redemption.

That is why I find it hard to believe the Underground Man’s stance is meant to be taken at face value. The especially acid outlook on human existence he conveys has been thought to be a function of Dostoyevsky’s personal distresses at the time of its writing, but it could also be he intended we be seduced by the Underground Man’s anti-philosophy, in order to more acutely understand the dead ends—the inherent stagnation—it leads to when practically applied. I suspect a mixture of the two, that at that point in his life Dostoyevsky felt this pessimism quite intensely but also knew that, taken to its logical conclusion, it could only terminate in bootless misanthropy, that there must be a better solution to the problem of man’s baseness.

On those grounds, I think Yglesias’ description of Notes From Underground as “an illustration of the power of great writing to convey radically unsound or even totally nonsensical ideas” doesn’t give the author quite enough credit. But then again, Dostoyevsky was a very damaged individual; perhaps he meant it all, and, fittingly, I am not giving enough credence to the man’s irrationality.

*Sartre considered Notes a seminal text in Existentialism, so it is not at all surprising to see in this line a precursor to Hamm's "Can there be misery loftier than mine?" in Beckett's Endgame.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Stupid Wisdom Teeth

I just had two wisdom teeth extracted. I thought it would be three (I had my upper left pulled a few years ago), but my upper right wisdom just never came in, which I find a little disconcerting given the symmetry our DNA is supposed to code for. Intelligent Design indeed. I'm biting down on a gauze strip now, my lower jaw still numb, and so verbal communication is impaired, though not entirely impossible. This, writing, is much preferable, however. It makes one appreciate lucid thinking all the more.

The injection into my jaw gave me some initial pain in my ear, apparently because the nerve loops around there. When I started to go numb I began to feel an itching on my chin that no amount of scratching, short of maybe ripping off my skin, could satisfy. I needed another shot because of some extra sensitivity in the back of my jaw. This we found out by my groans when the dentist pressured and jiggled my teeth.

We had started on the left wisdom, but it proved troublesome and so the dentist "gave me a break" by working on the right. It was a straightforward affair, as far as these things go. It neither took very long, nor provided any memorable complications. The left, however, continued to be an incorrigible sonofabitch. The dentist, having loosed the tooth from its gummy moorings, attempted to pull it out in the normal fashion. It refused cooperation, however. The dentist brought up the possibility of surgical removal, but only to say he wanted to avoid doing that. Instead he got out the drill, in order to score it and split it and remove the pieces.

The experience of all this was not brutally painful, not all the time anyway, but for one who's lived as sheltered a life as I, it was probably the most pain I've ever been in, and it was enough to make me reflect on how cruel Dr. Mengele really was. Additionally, much of my anguish was not physical, but psychological: every crack and pop, scrape and grind I heard not only externally--a sound wave vibration that entered my ears--but also reverberating inside my head, prompting me to wince and yelp with every unpleasant development, regardless of the actual pain it was causing.

"This will give you something to write about," the dentist said during the procedure. I grunted assent. "You know, I saw Little Shop of Horrors before it went to Broadway, way back in the day."

After a particularly loud crack I babbled, "I' ih ovah?" It wasn't. That had only been the crown. The rest of it was soon to follow, and on its removal the issue was apparent: the root of the tooth was curved, and had been hooking into my jaw whenever it was being pulled out. After biting down on some gauze pads I was good to go.

My lower jaw will be numb for at least a couple more hours. In the meantime my lip feels fat, my swallowing is weak and cautious (don't want to upset those blood clots). I open and close my mouth periodically, like a fish. I feel old. Pressing around my ear, where numbness and feeling mingle, produces an odd, unwanted, sensation. My stomach feels just the slightest bit queasy, perhaps because of swallowing some blood, perhaps because I let myself be way too sensitive to these things.

I have a few days off from work, during which I'm going to take the downtime to watch Apocalypse Now and Dolomite, continue reading Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground, and write, if I can focus. Maybe play some video games, which I seem to have little time for these days. When I had my first wisdom tooth pulled I watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy extended edition in its entirety, back to back, while working out the entire arc of a cartoon I was doing for my school newspaper. This is a good occasion for large undertakings.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Shepard Fairey Post-Script

This review of one of Shepard Fairey's exhibitions in 2009 says many of the things I do, and better, and with more knowledge at its disposal:

To this day, he insists that his oeuvre expresses no ideology, that its cardinal message is simply "question everything." Aside from being a lowest-common-denominator philosophy, this is doing a disservice to the urgency of his work’s better messages -- his environmentalism, his anti-war views, etc. Presumably, Fairey actually wants to move people with these works. At the same time, the dictum’s vague character reflects Fairey’s own political vagueness

His bottom line:

Still, at the end of the day, it is Fairey’s aura of idealism -- that his art actually gets out of the gallery and does stuff, that it speaks a popular language, that it feels righteous and relevant -- that has given this show such tremendous resonance. And if there is one thing that his success shows, it’s that images and ideas can take on a life all of their own, and transcend their source. In the political realm, the Obama campaign has inspired hopes, demands and even activism that go far beyond President Obama’s policy prescriptions, which are, after all, pretty limited. If Fairey’s success has something of this effect for the art world, that’s a good thing.

Shepard and Sheep

I don't know what to make of Shepard Fairey. He's "made it," there's no doubt about that. He's affected American culture not once but twice, first in those ubiquitous Andre the Giant 'OBEY' stickers in the late 80s (which dotted the levels of a Tony Hawk video game not too long ago), and more recently, of course, with the Barack Obama 'HOPE' portrait that defined the 2008 presidential election and went on to become the basis of a Facebook app. That latter portrait now hangs in the National Gallery. Whatever else he may do, Fairey's place in history is secure. In today's fractured, internet-driven culture, that is tremendous.

But what of the work itself? For the Obama picture, memorable though it was, is well in keeping with Fairey's style: a bold, stenciled image of a famous person made with two or three complementary colors over a newspaper college backdrop, with an occasional message (often 'OBEY'). Take the grandeur of Soviet Realism...

...Warholian distancing...

...and street art minimalism;

...mix them together and you've got a reasonable summation of the Shepard Fairey style.

The result, much like 'HOPE,'is visually arresting and usually has something to say. These are both virtues. The problem, with, say, the Young British Artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin is that quite often their work is ugly and pointless and is only art because they say it is. Fairey's very good at what he does, and he's not out to scam millionaires and art snobs, and for that we can be glad.

What vexes me is the contradiction that runs through this style. The art very consciously appropriates the grandiloquent kitschiness of communist propaganda and takes the piss out of it, but instead of being a joke on its subject, like the 2005 Stalin piece above, or a joke in itself, like his Andre the Giant, it often goes on to make a sincere political statement, or at least imply one. Irony and earnestness thus mingle uncomfortably, even in the portraits without big words.

It's self-defeating. Andy Warhol always denied any deeper meaning to his work ("There's nothing behind it."); the superficiality, the product of a then-new mass-produced culture, was exactly the point. What to make of the obvious affection (note the dove and 'WAR IS OVER!' clippings) Fairey has for the Dalai Lama or John and Yoko when they are depicted in a style already acknowledged to be, and mocked for being, propagandistic?

Perhaps predictably, Fairey is more successful when he breaks from this formula (I hate to call it that, but what else could facilitate such prodigious output?). The first, smaller, room of the Deitch Projects MayDay exhibit that I caught during my New York trip--which coincided with Free Gallery Week--features three pieces that are not portraits, and, while perhaps not as handsome, are more successful in their efforts. The first (unfortunately I did not get the titles) is a conscious quote of Jasper Johns' (whose portrait is a part of the exhibit) Flag, which was also painted over newsprint collage.

The second reads, "Check Your Oil|America's Favorite|Flammable Liquid."

The third, near as I can tell, is just a surfer catching a wave. Note the unusual blue color scheme.

Divorced from a style that is the basis an expensive novelty gift, their intent--and occasional message--come through far more successfully. This is also in part due to the fact that they stand apart. The MayDay exhibit consists only of work produced in 2010, most of it of the portrait variety, and there is so much that it becomes exhausting. As I said, Shepard Fairey is very good at what he does, but its effect is diminished when it is done so often. I should hope that his (further) raised profile will push him into new directions. I'm certainly interested in him enough to find out more and watch his development.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Everybody Draw Mohammad Day

I'm posting this late, but why confine blasphemy to a single day?

This criticism of Everybody Draw Mohammad Day is valid as far as it goes, which is to say, college campuses. Going out of one's way to be obnoxious towards particular fellow students is, well, obnoxious (I did it to a Mormon teacher in high school, and yeah, I'll admit I was a dick). There's nothing to be gained in such a localized setting.

The real target is global, which is why this broader critique misses the point. To recap:

- South Park once inserted Mohammad into the show, in the Super Best Friends episode, without incident in pre-9/11 2001.
- When they attempted a Mohammad appearance so as part of an episode about the Danish cartoon controversy, Comedy Central refused to show the scene.
- When they recently made fun of Mohammad's non-appearance by having him "appear" in a bear suit, some twats from Revolution Muslim passive-aggressively stated that South Park's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, would suffer the same fate as Theo Van Gogh, who was murdered in broad daylight.
- In response, Comedy Central did not rerun the episode, nor did they stream it online. They also removed Super Best Friends from online view.

Some additional context:

- Many news outlets refused to show the offending Danish cartoons when the story broke in 2005, and several of the editors involved in those that did were fired.
- Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wrote the script and provided the voice over to Theo Van Gogh's Submission film, was threatened in a note pinned to his body and at one point had to collect donations to cover her security costs.
- Kurt Westergaard, one of the Danish cartoonists, was attacked with an axe in his home while he was taking care of his five year-old granddaughter.
- A Swedish cartoonist, Lars Vilks, who drew a picture of Mohammad's head on a dog's body was head-butted and had his house set on fire, having already been the target in a foiled murder plot.

Everybody Draw Mohammad Day is a response to intimidation and suppression of free speech. If Trey Parker and Matt Stone are to be threatened with death for depicting the prophet, the theory goes, then so will the rest of us. It's a debased version of the Danes all wearing Stars of David to protect their Jews from the Nazis, except that--given the different circumstances--this time the participants mock a religious icon rather than honor it (also, this event has the benefit of having now actually happened).

I admit this is bullshit symbolism with no practical benefit in itself--which I usually hate--but putting this on the internet for all to see, potentially, if remotely so, puts its participants at risk. Any violence to occur as a result of it would make the point all the more obvious and strengthen the cause, which is more than can be said for the usual plant-a-flag-for-Darfur crap.

Ahmed Rehab, the author of the objection to Everybody Draw Mohammad Day, complains about a campaign that would willingly offend Muslims, which this no doubt does. My only response is a question: which is more offensive: this?

Or this?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Picasso at the Met

I'm a relative neophyte to the art world. I grew up wanting to draw comic books and became pretty good at drawing, but the closest thing I've taken to a proper art class lately was the British art component of the prep course I had to take for the London trip I went on through my school. The London trip itself--with trips to the Tates Modern and Britain, the National Gallery, and others--expanded on the introduction I got from the class, and since then it's been a matter of absorbing what I can from the museums I visit and the books I pick up along the way.

So when The New Republic complains about the Picasso exhibit at the Met being unwieldy and unfocused, I don't really have any response. If I was better versed in the Spaniard's body of work, I suppose I would agree. As you can see here, there is a lot of material crammed together.

But given my limited background, I was more than happy to have so much of it there for me to take in. I had a vague idea of Picasso's range, mostly due to the masterworks at MoMa, but I never knew just how many styles the man went through in his life time, as all that schoolchildren are ever told about is Cubism. To the layman, it's not immediately obvious that creator of Pipe Rack and Still Life on a Table, above, had earlier painted The Blind Man's Meal:

or this self-portrait:

and would go on to make something like Las Meninas and Gentlemen in the Sierra

Discovering all this, in roughly chronological order, was a joy, and so I'm going to call this a win for egalitarianism.

Um, Home

I should mention, not that anybody is keeping score at this point, that my New York trip ended last Tuesday. I'll hide behind a slow blog defense.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Discipline and Punish

I went into Crystal Skillman's The Vigil, or The Guided Cradle, with high hopes. The subject matter, torture, is of keen interest to me, but also one that would lend itself to easy polemics. The parallel story premise--in modern-day Prague an American Girl and a Translator meet before a beautiful clock tower there was blinded by the king and his son tried to bomb it in revenge, "while" in the 15th(ish) century, the king's torturers and a new one who specializes in sleep deprivation are assigned to deal with the bomber--suggested a more tactful approach. As far as the subject matter goes, this is true. Instead of lecturing on the evils of torture, the theme is integrated naturally into the construction of the play. The play itself, however, is more problematic (as far as writing goes. The direction was fine throughout, the actors generally well-cast—and good at covering for a curtain that was accidentally ripped down—and the staging simple and effective).

The 15th century storyline is written in modern everyday--which is to say graceless--English, which makes for a lot of attention-drawing anachronistic idioms; the word "cock" stands out like an actual one, and F-bombs are dropped indiscriminately throughout these scenes, perhaps even more than the ones set in modern times. Too often the characters sound more like typical movie thugs than inhabitants of a world that valued the richness of the spoken word, even in normal encounters. The modern ugliness of the language then collides with unsuccessful attempts to be poetic later on, during a scene when the sleep depriver, Ippolito, has a change of heart due to the purple-prosed protestations of an accused witch's daughter. Also hurting the play is a bumbling sidekick character that constantly sabotages the ostensibly somber mood of the piece. The best moments (Ippolito's introduction, in which he carries out the simple act of eating with menace, and a transition during which the Girl is tied up on a torture rack) are, not surprisingly those involving silence.

The modern story thread has its own problems, in the form of bizarre, melodramatic plot twists; the Girl's father, we find out, is a CIA torturer who has the Translator's brother in custody, and so the Translator kidnaps her. She manages to kill him, and then later ends up visiting the brother in custody (he's hooded and bound) to deliver the play's denouement and strain the play's remaining plausibility to the breaking point.

While the action of the two storylines ended up blending/overlapping well--thanks to the smooth direction--there were no real reasons outside the thematic that they should be connected at all. The program listed some eight or ten development programs the play went through (I'm not even exaggerating), and my hunch is that too much tinkering diluted the original idea, which already had some problems (irreconcilable differences in the stories) to begin with.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Marathon Man

This afternoon I went to the Brooklyn Museum. Their big draw is their Egyptian collection, which is one of the largest in the nation if not the world. Impressive as it is, I'm just not into it.

I likes my Western art, what can I say.

I arrived later than I had planned, 4 PM, and did not get to spend as much time there as I would have liked--I may well return again and pretend (again) that I'm still a student, to be able to take in the art on a less harried schedule. They closed at 6, giving me two hours to get to the Brick Theater to see a show. It should have been more than enough, and was, I guess, but by a much slimmer margin than I'd hoped.

My New York City map only includes significant Brooklyn streets and so I spent 45 minutes trying to get to Fulton from the museum: up Hanson and back, down Flatbrush, backward, forward, through an absurdly large C Train station, and finally to the Fulton Street G Train. I should have been in the clear, but the train only went three stops, to Norstrand-Bedford-Lafayette, before we were all told that was as far as the train would go and many of us swore loudly.

Up top I asked one of my fellow travelers how to get to Metropolitan Avenue, and he said the best bet had been the subway. There were a couple buses pulled up, but I didn't know where they were going (I don't have a bus map, and the routes confuse me), and they were going the wrong way besides. I tried to call a friend who lives in Brooklyn for help, but to no avail.

And so I headed north. I walked. And then I ran. And got tired and walked. And ran some more. I tried to flag a cab, but they are shockingly scarce in Brooklyn, and those that did pass me were either occupied or aloof (one of them waved to me). So onward I jogged, down Nostrand, until I ran into Flushing, which I knew was significant. Across a bit and then up another street, probably Marcy or Wallabout. Then I happened onto Lorimer, which I knew was very significant (the Brick is between Lorimer and Union), and followed until Grand Street, whereupon I called a friend to ask if I was close. He gave me the Metropolitan address, but said I should ask for directions to the street. Escaping the wind in a restaurant as I was, I asked a girl at the register how to get to Metropolitan. She pointed yonder down Lorimer and said four, holding up as many fingers to see that I got the message. I thanked her, and found it a couple minutes later, some 27 minutes and 2 miles after I had started, and still with a half hour to spare. I had made damned sure I was going to see my show, because I had bought my ticket ahead of time, because it sounded like it would be good. Sounded.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Last Night and Today

The first thing that happened when I got into the city and off the A Train yesterday, I randomly ran into one of my friends from the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference. He had a little show going up that night at Playwrights Horizons, which I attended. Afterwards, we and some of his friends went to a Japanese restaurant that had the worst service I've ever had. The waitress insisted we had to buy more food or go ($8 per person minimum), she didn't get us the Sake we ordered until we asked her about it 20 minutes later, and she breezed by when my friend wanted a glass of water. When we paid for the check I asked him if he was going to tip her, whereupon I learned why the service was so awful: the tip is included in the check. I only wish I had the name of the restaurant so I could dissuade others from patronizing it. At least during Happy Hour.

Today I'll be making trips to the Museum of Jewish Heritage (a Holocaust museum) and the Shepard Fairey (he's the creator of the Obama CHANGE image) exhibit at Deitch Projects. I'm going to swing by the Drama Book Shop, as I didn't get a chance to do so last time I was out here. Later tonight I'll be having Chinese food with some alums. Good times.

I also see that today is the first day in a two week showing of the newly restored cut of Fritz Lang's Metropolis at Film Forum. I'll definitely be seeing it while I'm here.

Here are some of those cloud images I promised.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Story Thus Far

I got maybe three hours of sleep this morning, going to bed just before 1 and getting up at 4:15. All the while I woke myself up intermittently, terrified I would sleep through my alarm. The traditional advice for traveling is to rest well in the days leading up to the trip, but who does that? There are loose ends to be tied up, everywhere and all around.

In light of baggage price extortion by the airlines I was planning on keeping all my belongings in a single carry-on bag, plus my laptop. The restriction on liquids in packages greater than 3 ounces, however, meant I had to either jettison my oversized Proactiv acne treatment bottles--unthinkable given that I'm traveling for an interview--or pay $25 to check in my bag. I smell a conspiracy involving the TSA and the airlines, to force more people to check in baggage in exchange for not really having to do anything to address safety issues. Get me Glenn Beck's chalkboard!

While en route to Salt Lake City I took several pictures of the clouds. Unlike other travel pics, these are guaranteed to be one of a kind. Of a sort. My connector cable is in my checked-in bag, however, so they won't be up until this evening.

I'm quite happy to find Salt Lake airport now offers free Wi-Fi. The last time I was here, an overnight detour at the end of my London trip last February, internet access some ridiculous price, $5 or $8 or $12 or something of the sort. It's actually kind of shocking that Boise has been offering it free for as long as it has, considering its relatively modest size.

I have a friend who was badly burned last month and is being treated at the hospital here, where my grandparents live, and it somehow never occurred to me to set aside a couple days for them. Gad.

The airport announcer just announced over the P.A. about some flight to San Diego was now boarding, and then added "Just kidding." This was followed by a robo-female announcement that the San Diego flight would begin boarding. Airport personnel have an odd sense of humor.

I'll be landing in JFK Airport at 3:20 and trying to AirbusTrain my way into the city. Until then....

Return to New York

I'm going to New York for an interview with one of the schools I applied to for a Playwriting MFA program, Pace University. The interview is on Monday, but I'm flying in today and will be spending the weekend there to make the most of my $400 plane ticket. I'll be taking lots of photos, seeing some museums and shows, and giving accounts of my escapades here. Stay tuned. Or don't.

("Follow me, don't follow me," get it?)