Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Shades of the prison house

Tuesday night. Leafing through the New York Review of Books I discover that it has a Personals section. I'd never noticed this before. I do a quick scan. Artists, writers, PhDs - women interested in opera and ballet and movies and piano sonatas and watercolours and buddhism seeking educated, creative, perceptive, thoughtful, witty and 'quasi-normal' men to "explore the heights of the mind, the realms of the globe and the depths of love". Wow! I feel like I've stumbled upon a secret elephant burying ground.

Then I read the thing more closely. "50ish", "44-59", "48-64", "mid-50s to early 70s" "50+". Right. A woolly mammoth burying ground then. The median age of people these ads are targeted at is 55. The youngest person advertising is 38 (but assures that you she looks 29!). It's official - I'm an old person. It's just a matter of time before my body figures this out.

I wonder if the NYRB will let me contract for a Personal ad to come out in Decembe 2035. I'm going to need to put one in then anyway, and just think of the killing I could make by locking in their current rate.

In other non-news, the NYRB also features a glorious poem called the Trumpeter Swan by Robin Robertson:

He takes a run at it: heaving himself
up off the lake, wing-beats echoing,
the wheeze of each pull
pulling him clear.

The sky is empty;
every stretch of water
flaunts its light.

You can learn how to fly, see all the edges
soften and blur, but you can't hold on
to the height you find,
you can never be taught how to fall.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

After she left

After she left he searched through the house for signs of her presence. Like a spy. Or an errant husband. Hoping that she had forgotten something, hoping that she had left something behind. There was nothing. No damp tissues crumpled in the wastebasket, no smudge of lipstick on the coffee cups, no tiny slip of paper fallen accidentally behind the bed. Not even the trace of her handwriting on the notepad by the phone. There was no way for him to prove that she had ever been there, not even to himself. Was it possible that he had simply imagined her? He picked a few loose hairs off the pillow, stared at them for a minute, stretching them out between his fingers to confirm that they were too long to be his. Then he threw them away.

After a while he got up off the bed, switched on the coffee machine, put a record on the stereo. Bob Dylan singing Is your love in vain? while the black certainty of being alone again trickled slowly into his coffeepot. He began to tidy up, folding away the sofa-bed, putting away the extra quilt. The sheets on the bed still held the shape of her body. He folded them up very carefully, as if he hoped to preserve the perfect crease of the moment forever.

Later, sipping his coffee, he opened the notebook, sat down to write. Absence is the space between heartbeats, he wrote, an emptiness too small to be alive in. The words stared back from the page, refusing to offer him any consolation. He imagined her departure as a perfect arc, a projectile thrown beautifully into the world with no one on the other end to catch it. He logged on to the airline's website, tracked the status of her flight on the screen to make sure it had taken off on time.

It seemed to him then that the air was the right element for her; that as long as she was up in the sky and he was here on earth they would both be safe, and the thread between them would unravel but remain unbroken. It was only when she landed and left the airport that he would lose her, that she would finally have left him behind.

He tried not to think about that. Everywhere he looked the room bore the signs of the hasty cleaning he had done before she arrived. Clothes peeped out of the drawers they had been hurriedly shoved into, a flock of loose papers lay hurriedly thrust under the bed. What had it all been for? he wondered. In the silence of the morning her absence felt more real than her presence had been, as though he missed her more than he had enjoyed being with her.

After a while the sun shining in through the window reminded him that it was time to get to work. He shaved carefully, imagining his face as she would have seen it, lingering in the shower so that the scald of the water would take the yearning out of his bones. When he came out of the shower he found the mirror had fogged over. He started to wipe it clean, then, on an impulse, with his hand just inches away from the frosted surface of the glass, he let it be. He dressed quickly, absently, his thoughts still elsewhere. He picked up his keys, put on his coat, picked out the library books that were due. Then he was gone.

Behind him the mirror cleared slowly, drops of precipitation running down its surface like tears, the slow fog of its grief fading, until it stood cold and empty in the perfect absence of the winter afternoon.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Evolution of Line

Van Gogh at the Met

Seeing Van Gogh without colour is like looking at a bonfire that has been laid out but not lighted. Sure, you can admire the precision with which the lines criss-cross, the skilled symmetry of the heaped wood, but you can't help missing the flame itself, the raw power of the fire dancing in vivid tongues from within the dry branches.

But let's begin at the beginning. The first thing that strikes you about the exhibition of Van Gogh drawings at the Met is just how crowded it is. As great herds of people crowd into the six rooms that make up the exhibition to gawk and admire, there's an atmosphere of polite fishmarket, a sort of half-concealed greed that takes over as you jockey for a better view. Being able to see a drawing by yourself is virtually impossible, you're lucky (and probably fairly tall) if you manage to get a full view of the drawing and don't have to piece it together bit by bit from glances caught between the backs of other people. Every step forward requires the kind of concentration you normally associate only with Rubik's cubes - a studied determination to somehow maneouver your way into the one empty space left in front of the painting. M and I managed to get to the museum just as it was opening, so it wasn't so bad - by the time we left, the wait time just to get into the exhibition was 40 minutes.

All of this means, of course, that quiet contemplation of the drawings is not an option. You could stand and stare at a painting for hours, I suppose, but only if you had kidneys of tungsten and were consequently immune to elbow jabs in the back.

So much for gentle ambience. The drawings themselves are, at least in the initial years, exquisite without being spectacular. Which is to say they're beautiful drawings but it's hard to see Van Gogh in them. Much of the initial work consists of portraits done in severe graphite and ink tones, which seem more like Degas', though without quite the same intensity. There are also some glorious landscapes, including one called the Kingfisher (a tiny heart of a bird buried away in a grainy perspective of indifference)

and a luminous Drenthe landscape (emptiness radiating as light). These are wonderful drawings, but they are the drawings of a master who is yet to find himself, a master still tied to the old geometry of planes. Here, as in the drawings that immediately follow, Van Gogh is still using lines that are cleanly, almost insistently straight. If there is any emotion in these drawings at all, it is not so much passion as sparseness, a bleakness of perspective accentuated by the lack of colour.

Here and there, Van Gogh introduces colour (and indeed one of the greatest joys of the exhibit is the way it places multiple versions of the same drawing, some in colour, others not, side by side - see examples below) and the effect is vivid and glorious, though even here the colours do not so much swirl about as arrange themselves in neat, shining legions and oppose each other.

It's only once Van Gogh reaches Arles that you see the drawings change, grow. The strokes seem to become bolder, more confident, but more importantly, it feels as though Van Gogh is finally breaking away from the strict linearity of his early drawings. There is more room for confusion now, the lines mill about, responding more the passion of the artist's hand than to the staider laws of perspective and geometry. This is fascinating evolution to watch, barely visible in Fishing Boats at Sea, beginning to emerge in Wheat Field with Sheaves, achieving some prominence in the Sower and in the swirling Olive Trees at Montmajour,

taking centre stage in Garden with Sunflowers and the leaping fire of Cypresses,

and acheiving its apeothesis in Wild Vegetation and Old Vineyard with Peasant Woman. The difference between these last works and the drawings that the exhibition begins with is a stark one, and bears witness to the phenomenal growth that Van Gogh underwent as an artist in a little under ten years.

All in all, the exhibition at the Met is not as soul-searing an experience as the idea of a Van Gogh exhibition would seem to promise. It is, however, an insightful and engaging exploration of the artistic evolution of one of the greatest painters of all time. The drawings exhibited here and beautiful and alive - and if they seem pale and a little dull, it is only because one cannot help comparing them to Van Gogh's richer, more explicitly passionate paintings. It's a comparison that few works of art could stand up to.

For a look at the complete catalogue of paintings on show at the exhibit, see here.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Somebody stole my break...

...or the Top 5 break-up songs of all time.

(This is why you shouldn't watch High Fidelity at 1 in the morning on a Saturday night)

1. Bob Dylan, 'She's your lover now'; from The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3

Pain sure brings out the best in people, doesn't it?
Why didn't you just leave me if you didn't want to stay?
Why'd you have to treat me so bad?
Did it have to be that way?
Now you stand here expectin' me to remember somethin' you forgot to say

2. Joan Baez, 'It's all over now, Baby Blue'; from Farewell Angelina; originally by Bob Dylan.

The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense.
Take what you have gathered from coincidence.
The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets.
This sky, too, is folding under you
And it's all over now, Baby Blue.

3. Stephen Sondheim, 'Send in the Clowns'; from Little Night Music

Don't you love farce?
My fault, I fear.
I thought that you'd want what I want -
Sorry, my dear.
But where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns.
Quick, send in the clowns.

4. Joni Mitchell, 'Still like to see you sometimes'; from For the Roses

I’ll come meet your plane
No need to surrender
I just want to see you again
We’re in for more rain
I could sure use some sunshine on my apple trees
It seems such a shame
We start out so kind and end so heartlessly

5 Ella Fitzgerald singing 'Just one of those things'; written by Cole Porter

As Dorothy Parker once said to her boy friend,
"Fare thee well,"
As Columbus announced
When he knew he was bounced,
"It was swell, Isabelle, swell,"

As Abélard said to Héloïse,
"Don't forget to drop a line to me, please,"
As Juliet cried in her Romeo's ear,
"Romeo, why not face the fact, my dear?"

Saturday, November 26, 2005


Oh, we're sunk enough here, God knows!
But not quite so sunk that moments,
Sure tho' seldom, are denied us,
When the spirit's true endowments
Stand out plainly from its false ones,
And apprise it if pursuing
Or the right way or the wrong way,
To its triumph or undoing.

There are flashes struck from midnights,
There are fire-flames noondays kindle,
Whereby piled-up honours perish,
Whereby swollen ambitions dwindle,
While just this or that poor impulse,
Which for once had play unstifled,
Seems the sole work of a life-time
That away the rest have trifled.

- Robert Browning, 'Cristina'

In general, the Victorian age was not, I think, a good time for English poetry. The Rossettis and Arnold wrote a handful of good poems, but also wrote volumes of sentimental twaddle. Swinburne was all surface - his poems sounding glorious and magical, a wonder to read aloud, but not really standing up to closer scrutiny. Tennyson, on his good days, was a spectacular poet, but try going beyond the Selected Works and all you'll get is the semi-coherent rambling.

Browning alone stands out from among this crowd - not only because his poetry is far more consistent (relatively speaking - there's a lot of bad Browning as well - but it represents a much smaller proportion of his work than with the others) but also because Browning was the only one of these poets who was consciously pushing the envelope of poetry forward. What you chiefly hear in all the other Victorians is a nostalgia for the old masters, it is only in Browning that you find a premonition of the century of poetry to follow. As a dramatist, as a poet of conversations, Browning has few equals - he finds and exploits the hidden rhythm of human speech, its protean patterns, to perfection. And it is in Browning that we hear, after almost a decade of romanticism and sentiment, the aching sense of bitter-sweet irony that will become a hallmark of modern poetry. Browning's poems are complex constructions of idea and emotion, of sound and wit, and it is in their sophisticated casualness that we first find the voice that, in the years to come, we will hear faintly repeated in Auden and early Eliot, in Hughes and Day-Lewis and (perhaps) even in Larkin. As Browning himself put it : "Your ghost will walk, you lover of trees / (If our loves remain)"

Friday, November 25, 2005

The Pianist

When his turn finally came, the ring-master slashed his wrists open with the practised ease of a professional butcher and a great giant of a slave, his taut muscles gleaming with oil, led him out. As he stepped into the dust of the arena a great cry went up from the crowd, like a flock of angry white birds rising suddenly up into the sky. It was a cry of hunger, a cry that rose from the very depths of the ravening maw of the stadium, a cry that carried within it the tang of blood tasted and not forgotten. Now that the initial numbness of the knifestroke had faded, the pain was returning to his slashed wrists and the blood dripped from his fingers in a constant stream, leaving a thin ribbon of red across the white sand of the ring. It was a hot day and the piano was a brilliant, glaring white, standing there in the centre of the arena, so far away from him that he thought he'd never reach it.

But he did reach it, of course. As he sat down in front of it, there was a momentary hush from the crowd, an instant of silence that matched exactly the calm in his heart as he contemplated, for the last time, that familiar arrangement of black and white keys. That one ephemeral second before the first chord is struck when the whole world seems perfectly in balance - like the sudden hushing of the wind before a storm.

It didn't last, of course. As the first notes of Tristesse trembled their way out of his piano (for what else could he play, with his hands bleeding, but Chopin), the crowd began to shout again, so that before long Chopin's sad, lovely music had been almost completely drowned out, remaining audible only to him and becoming, in the tenacity with which he clung to it, a private prayer, an intimate and deeply personal grief. As the pain in his wrists harmonised with the glorious ache of the music, every note became a small victory, a triumph of the soul, the pure expression of a sorrow untouched by the grasping fingers of the mob. The blue of the sky above seemed to close in on him, he felt the air thinning away from around him, the world thawing away. Never mind the crowd. He was going to die in this ring anyway. He shut his eyes and played.

As he brought the etude to a close, letting the last notes tremble and then fall like leaves, he felt the roaring of the crowd go louder. At first he thought it was simply the effect of the music ending, an illusion of walls closing in created by the snapping of that vital link, but then he opened his eyes and realised what the crowd was cheering about. The tigers had been brought out! He could see them, far away on opposite ends of the arena, straining against their chains. A quick snap of a lever and they would be released and come bounding towards him - he could already imagine the crunch of their great teeth biting into his neck.

For a minute he considered giving in to them, letting them have their way. After all, he was going to die anyway - this last grandstand with the piano was just a form of sentimental foolishness. Might as well get it over with. Besides, the loss of blood was starting to take its toll on him. His wrists felt numb and heavy, his fingers were virtually bloodless, so that if he continued to play it was through sheer will alone. Will and the habit of decades, that kept his fingers true to their accustomed courses. His arms felt heavy as lead, a slow spiral of dizziness was climbing up to his brain.

Then, even as the crowd stood up to call for his death, a new courage filled his heart, a new determination tighted the line of his jaw. No, he would not go down easily. He would fight. He thought of Beethoven, loveless, old, his hearing gone, continuing to wrestle with the ferocious demons of his music until he had them pinned and helpless on the ground. No, he would not give up.

The momentum of this thought flared through his body, the way a dying bonfire, discovering a log left unburnt in its ashen heart, flames into sudden, momentary glory. His fingers moved of their own accord, smashing down onto the keyboard. Beethoven. Piano Sonata No 14. Third movement. The endless vertigo of defiance. As the notes exploded from his piano like gunshots, the crowd was shocked into silence, and even the tigers took a step or two back, uncertain of how to face this new and unfamiliar beast that had been let loose in the stadium. The pianist didn't care. The music beat inside him like a frantic heart, the notes poured out of him like blood. The entire keyboard reeked with his gore now, the delicate ivory of the keys had been stained a clotted red, and a thin rivulet of blood had crept down the leg of the piano like crimson ivy, and was starting to snake its way across the floor of the arena. And still he played. Now that the crowd had been subdued into perfect silence, the fury of his playing filled the stadium, the notes echoing and resounding among walls of ancient stone, like a vengeance that knows no compromise. As the pianist played, a terrible premonition gripped the listeners. As though a veil had been pulled back and they could see the withering away of empires, the inevitable erosion, not only of their own bodies, but of all the things they held sacred - their palaces and temples, their monuments and stadia - all crumbling away into dust as the unstoppable force of that music dashed against them. Gripped by panic, feeling his throne crumble away from under him, the Emperor gave the signal for the tigers to be released, for the pianist to be silenced. But the tigers would not attack the pianist. They circled him warily, their whiskers bristling with the anger that radiated out from the piano in sharp, radiant lines.

It was only when the pianist stopped and fell limply of his stool that they regained their courage, approached the body lying in the dust with angry growls. But by then it was too late. The pianist was dead. And the seeds of passion that would ultimately bring down the empire had been sown deep in the stone of the listening walls.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Hoover my God to thee

Have you ever noticed how much like confession vacuuming is? You sit around, letting the tiny sins of dust collect on the carpet of your soul, and then one day you haul out the heavy equipment and get rid of them all in one roaring go. Fifteen minutes and your soul is as good as new. Of course, if you happen to do something really bad - like break a glass or spill coffee grounds all over the place, then you need to fix it right away, but for any sins less mortal you can get by with the occassional vacuuming. If you're the pious type you'll vacuum every week whether it looks like you need to or not - it'll be a kind of ritual. If you're like me then you'll wait until there's a real risk of someone coming along and declaring your room a health hazard, and then get the old Hoover out.

Of course, the thing with this is that you never know when people (like Death, for instance) may come to visit. If you're lucky, they'll show up right after you've finished vacuuming, so you'll be able to bask in the heaven of their appreciation, and pretend that you're one awesomely neat person. More than likely though, they'll show up unexpectedly just when you've been putting off cleaning up for a while, and then you'll stand around all embarassed, wishing you'd got to the task sooner.

Every time you finish vacuuming and look with pride at your scrupulously clean carpet, you think - this time I'm going to keep it this way. You promise yourself that you'll leap after every stray crumb, every piece of thread. You figure if you could just catch these things when they fall you wouldn't need to do all this cleaning afterwards. It never happens though - a couple of days later you'll be tired, you'll slack off, before you know it your room will be a mess and it'll be time to take out the vacuum again. The best thing you can do, in fact, is not even try, just go ahead and sin all you like and just make sure you clean up regularly.

Not, of course, that there aren't people whose floors aren't always spotlessly clean. These are the kind of irritating, saintly people who'll put in white carpets and then fuss over a 1 mm piece of lint that they discover lying in one corner. I have a lot of respect for these people, but on a personal basis I find them insufferable. That's why I don't even consider going to their house, even when they invite you.

And God? God is the one absolutely clean carpet lying in an abandoned room that no one is allowed to walk on. The one you need to take your shoes off even to come near. The one that nobody can really live with.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Oh, and all the fish

Seeing as it's Thanksgiving tomorrow (and given my passion for making lists in general) I figured I'd be all traditional and do the soppy 'things I'm thankful for' post. So here's my list (are supposed to check it twice even if it's not Christmas?) of the 20 things I'm most grateful for in my life (in no particular order):

1. Doppios

2. High speed Internet

3. My parents [1]

4. Happy Hours (read: $1 pints and 50% off on all shots)

5. Msrs. Neruda, Auden, Plath, Eliot, Walcott and Faiz

6. Mozart

7. The Far Side

8. The New Yorker

9. Janus Films (aka the Criterion Collection)

10. My iPod

11. The Philadelphia Orchestra

12. A 30% decline in my cholesterol levels over the last year (despite # 4 and # 15)

13. Being able to come home to an empty house

14. Central Heating

15. Dark Chocolate

16. Free shipping on Amazon

17. Whitman

18. "All things counter, original, spare, strange; / Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) / With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim"

19. Free talktime after 9 pm on weekdays (and all day on weekends)

20 Blogspot.


[1] My mom wrote in in response to yesterday's post saying how she agreed with me and was glad to know that sex wasn't beneath my dignity, but complaining about how my post would give people the impression that my parents are uncool! If that doesn't drive home the point by itself, let me say for the record that I have the coolest parents. Ever. So there.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

What's marriage got to do with it?

I'm against pre-marital sex.

Not that I have anything against sex per se [1]. It's the pre-marital bit that I have trouble with. It's such a ridiculous and reductive notion - this idea that it's okay to have sex if and only if there's a marriage somewhere in the offing. It's a classic bait and switch deal - first celebrating sex out of proportion, then adding a sting to its tail. You know how HP sells you its printers at throwaway prices and then makes money on the ink? It's the same kind of thing.

Okay, look, let's put aside for a minute the whole debate about whether marriage is desirable at all. Let's ignore the problem of how this pre-marital business is to be contracted for, or what may constitute a breach of that agreement (is it okay to have sex with someone who you're going to marry as long as they die before you marry them?). Let's not even think about going into what exactly constitutes a sex act and why, but for a neolithic preoccupation with virginity, penetration matters.

The thing I have trouble with is why the two events - sex and marriage - should be conditional on each other in any way. That's not sexual liberation, it's a more insidious servitude. At least with the old chastity argument you had the implicit sense that sex wasn't something worth getting hot and bothered about. The pre-marital sex argument merely emphasises the notion of sex as something monstrous and sinful, a vicious dog that must be kept firmly on a chain, except now it's important enough to get married over [2]. People who don't have the courage to accept sex for its own sake may as well not have it; and those of us who see it as little more than a source of harmless pleasure don't need to be scaffolded to some defunct institution in order to enjoy it.

Understand that I'm not making a case for that most terrible of catch phrases - casual sex. I'd be the first to agree that choosing a sexual partner is an act of meditation and discernment, if only because sex without trust or intimacy strikes me as being a dubious pleasure. I'm simply saying that the choice of sexual partner and the choice of spouse are fundamentally different decisions and require both distinct criteria and different cut-offs on the criteria that are common. Take financial prudence, for example - do I really need someone I'm having sex with to have a good credit history? Or be someone I'm willing to share a joint checking account with? Yet surely these are things I would look for in a spouse. Why then should the choice of one be related to the other? It's like saying you need to have a degree in accounting before you can drink at a bar.

The problem, I think, is primarily semantic. The trouble is that in the dichotomous black-and-white world of the moral police, there are only two categories - sex within the confines of marriage, and promiscuity. This is like saying that anyone who doesn't own a Merc is a pedestrian. The fact is that it is possible to have sexual relationships that are not linked to marriage but that are otherwise far from casual. Let's call such relationships 'passionate sex' (okay, okay, so that's a loaded term, but it's a hell of a lot better than calling it formal sex - as opposed to casual; besides, it's about time someone did a little marketing for the other side). Passionate sex is sex with emotional involvement but without the tyranny of social definitions. It may or may not be exclusive (yes, MR, I knew you were going to bring that up) in the short run, but it rejects both a commitment to longer term exclusivity and the ignominy of random selection. Understand that I'm not saying this is a new idea that someone should try - I think, correction, I know, that Passionate Sex is a reality of the world we live in. It's just that we don't have the right word for it.

Bottomline: The point about the whole pre-marital sex discussion is that the real issue is not sex, it's marriage. If the advocates of pre-marital sex seem locked in an irreconcilable battle with those who aver a stricter 'moral' code, it's only because they're the only two groups still backward enough to think sex is an issue. It's like watching two schoolboys fight during detention - the rest of us have already left the building.


[1] Mom, Dad, if you're reading this, just keep repeating to yourself that stuff about this blog being mostly fiction.

[2] I seriously worry that there are people out there whose entire will to get married is born out of sexual frustration. It would explain so much.

Monday, November 21, 2005

A spilt life

When the money for the canvasses ran out, he started to paint on the curtains, and when he was done with those, on the windows themselves, hoping to catch the sunlight that way. "I must have the only house in the Universe where you've got to look into the windows to see the view instead of out of them", he told me. "You know that nude I painted on the bathroom window? Man, you should see the number of peeping toms I get".

When the windows gave out as well, he started on the wall-paper, tearing great swathes of it off the wall and painting on the back, the glue making his colours stickier. He was painting in strips now, painting the kind of torn beauty that the world is really made up of, hoping he'd be able to put it all together one day, stick it back up with the wallpaper reversed so that the walls would bleed with his colours. ("You know how people are always turning their pockets inside out to look for something they think they have on them but can't seem to lay their hands on. Well, that's what I've done with my house.")

When the money spring (as he put it) finally ran dry, he sold off all his music, keeping only that one Charlie Parker record he'd never got around to painting. ("You got to hear the blue on this one, you just got to. There hasn't been a blue like this in the world since Tintoretto. Honest"). Even so, it was a choice between buying food and buying paint. He went and bought ten huge cans of paint, saying, "There's more than enough food in the world, but there sure isn't enough colour. Don't you worry about it, I'll manage."

How he managed was this: every morning he would wake up at three in the morning ("Not wake up - I don't have the strength for that anymore - more like fall awake") and go wandering about the city, stealing a bottle of milk from some passing doorway to slake his hunger. He was careful not to steal from the same house twice, though, not because he was afraid of getting caught but because he really didn't want to do anyone harm and figured losing one bottle of milk in their lives wasn't going to hurt anyone. As the months passed, this meant he had to go further and further to get the nourishment he needed, returning home exhausted from having walked too far. The evenings were better though. There was a bakery around the corner who agreed to let him have a loaf of left-over bread every night as long as he'd come in once a week and draw a new background for the 'specials of the day' board. So he did. With nothing but three pieces of coloured chalk to work with, he turned out glorious, golden paintings of melting butter and soft, rising bread and coffee blacker than a moonless night. People told him he was wasting his talent, to which he replied, perfectly serious, "No, actually, it's wasting me."

And wasted he certainly was. As the days passed, the pounds fell off him like leaves from autumn trees. His face had the hollow look of eroded stone, his eyes were dark and bloody wells. And still the paintings flowed out of him. By this point, he'd covered practically every surface in the house, even painting on the pages of the Telephone Directory, even painting on toilet paper ("Now I've really got paint running out of my ass!") He tried painting on bread once, but it soaked up too much of the colour and the image got soggy and crumbled away, so he didn't try that again. Then one day he stared at himself in the mirror, seeing his withered body, the skin stretched tight across his gaunt frame, and it made him think of a canvas so he started painting on himself ("Now that's what I call a self-portrait"), using a mirror he borrowed from a neighbour (his own was covered with a portrait of Narcissus) to paint his back when the front was all used up. "I used to tell people that when they saw my paintings they saw my true, my naked self. Now that's literally true!"

And still the images wouldn't stop coming. He painted on the undersides of dustbin lids, he went to fairs and painted on the faces of children. His system of stealing milk bottles no longer worked because he would absent-mindedly end up painting on the doors he stole from, so that his trembling images told them at once who had taken their milk. He didn't care. He wasn't really interested in the milk anymore, he only wanted the bottles so he could paint on the insides of them and then drop them from a height to see how colour shatters, how beauty is destroyed. When the few friends he still had came to check on him, they would find him lying stark naked in the centre of the room, drunk on colour. "Beauty, real beauty is the stuff I imbibe", he told them, "all this other junk is just the vomit that comes out afterwards". Then he started to attack them with paintbrushes, hoping to paint on them as well, and they stopped coming altogether.

Slowly the conviction that the world was just something he'd painted grew on him. Stuck all day in his tiny garret of a room, its walls and floor and surfaces all painted over more times than he could remember, he felt as though he himself were a figure in his own paintings, without the strength to get out. For the first time in his life he experienced the pride of the imagined in its own creation, felt how desperately the image needed to be perfect because the visible is all it had, all it could ever be. What you see is what you get.

When the paint finally ran out he cried for three straight days, using his tears to dilute the blotches of paint in the room to go on painting with. By the end of it though his eyes were giving way and he knew he couldn't go on. It occured to him then, that there was one surface that he still hadn't painted on, one last canvas left untouched. The inside of his skin. Slowly, deliberately, he imagined the painting he would make on that canvas. For two nights and a day he sat rapt in meditation, picturing it to himself, sketching it out with the paintbrush of the mind, with the colours of memory. Then, when he was sure he had it, when that last, perfect painting was done and he could feel the colour humming in his veins, he climbed up to the top of the roof and threw himself open on the street, sharing himself and his work with the city the way he'd always wanted to, the way he'd never dared. As the paint spilled out of his broken body, it seemed as though the flow of it would never stop, as though the great spreading pool of his colours would engulf the city, dye it with his images. In that moment he saw, for the first and only time, his vision realised.

Two months later, his paintings had all been sold off to private collectors, to hang safely in their sterile homes. The landlord had auctioned off the rest of his personal effects and used the money to hire a professional housekeeping service that scrubbed the floors clean and put up new wallpaper. All that was left of the fever of his life was a slight stain of red, hardly noticeable, on a anonymous sidewalk in a little known corner of the city.

"They tell me it's no use crying over spilt paint", he used to say. "But what else is there to cry about?".

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Philadelphia Art Museum Post 2: Of Mermaids, Fauns and Satyrs (with a few birds thrown in)

Second part of a post about the Philadelphia Museum of Art this weekend. The story continues...

Till human voices wake us: Edvard Munch's 'Mermaid'

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

- T. S. Eliot

One of the more interesting exhibits currently on at the Museum is a mini-exhibition of the work of Edvard Munch, centred around Munch's superb 'Mermaid' painting. 'Mermaid' is a true classic, an evocative allegory of young womanhood, a vision of the mermaid as a metaphor for sexual awakening. The focus of the painting is the figure of a young woman emerging tentatively from the water - flaming red hair, budding breasts, legs tapering off into the water that end in the barely visible tail of a fish. The expression on the woman's face is plainitive, haunting - Munch captures perfectly the balance between fear and confidence, between desire and innocence. Behind the girl the moon extends a long, almost phallic line of light in the water, a line rippled and broken by the girl's feet. The appearance of a tree on the side gives the impression of something secret, a hidden harbour, a dream glimpsed through the trees of sleep. This is a trembling and intimate painting, there is a strong sense of being on the verge of something, of a discovery about to be made.

The museum's special exhibit essentially explores Munch's art through the lens of this painting, bringing together a set of diverse Munch paintings that are somehow related to the 'Mermaid'.

Most notable among these are a set of other paintings of mermaids by Munch. The most beautiful of these for me was a painting called Mermaid on the Shore. There are many similarities between this painting and the Mermaid - both feature young women arising out of the water, but Mermaid on the Shore takes the young mermaid out of her solitude and locates her in a broader context of girlhood, introducing a set of fellow-bathers into the picture (something about the picture made me think of Renoir's bathers. I'm not sure what). Ironically, this actually increases the isolation of the young woman - where the Mermaid is a timeless dream-figure, the Mermaid on the Shore is a young girl alienated from her companion, her gawky figure and vivid, lonely eyes emphasising the awkwardness of her situation. The colours are fuzzier here, the whole picture has a blurred, overblown feel, which only serves to emphasise its sense of angst. The exhibition features a couple of other mermaids and a small, glorious Munch nude, but Mermaid on the Shore was easily my favourite.

Other works in the exhibition were more tangentially related to the Mermaid. A number of paintings here contain elements that return in the Mermaid, including two dramatically different versions of Voice (the setting is exactly the same, but oh what a difference in the central figure!) and a set of brooding paintings featuring a male figure seated by the sea in sorrow.

Most interesting perhaps were a series of paintings that deal more directly with female sexuality. These included:

A stunning black and white drawing of lovers in the sea, a woman's face, pale and beautiful emerging out of the waves of her hair, which are also the waves of the sea that her lover (barely visible in side profile) is drowned in.

An allegorical painting of three phases of womanhood - the young, virginal figure of a girl, dressed all in white, staring up at the moon; the temptress, sex as confrontation, a woman completely nude, her legs spread out, staring straight out at the viewer; and finally an old woman, with bent back and shaky hands, beginning to slouch her way out of the frame. (Comparisons to Klimt's famous Three Ages of Woman are inescapable)

A wonderfully ambiguous painting of a man sitting with his head on a table and a woman bending over him, her hair flaming orange. My initial interpretation of the painting was that the woman was consoling him, trying to share in his grief. Friends of Munch, however, have interpreted the painting to be the figure of a female vampire, sucking the blood out of her male victim - and looking at the painting you can see that image working as well. I'm not entirely sure how Munch meant it to be interpreted, but to me the dichotomy is what makes the painting interesting - the idea that a woman can be a caring friend and blood-sucking vampire at the same time.

My favourite painting in the exhibit though, was the one below - Madonna - an incredibly sensual image of a woman caught in the moment of conception; the flawless execution of an intriguing and irreverent idea. Thin threads of sperm dance around the border of the painting, and a tiny id-like figure crouches in the bottom left corner, but what draws you into the painting is the undeniable sexual tension in that figure of a woman that is at once vision and instinct. This is a spectacular painting, a work of dark and hypnotic power.

Eugene Atget: The World in Black and White

Also on display at the Museum is a collection of photographs by one of the great pioneers of photographic art - Eugene Atget. At first glance, Atget's pictures seem simple, almost stark, unadorned images of everyday objects, the quotidian rendered with loving precision in black and white. Atget covers a wide range of subjects - from Paris street scenes and shop windows, to the interiors of houses, to pictures of prostitutes, to loving chronicles of ancient sculptures in the great gardens and palaces of France. His photographs seem timeless, definitive, as though time were irrelevant, and the object, having been seen that way once, could never be different again. This is a form of exact nostalgia, of memory polished to a high silver sheen.

Looked at more closely, though, Atget's pictures turn out to have a lot more to offer. Most intriguing to me is the way he manages, time and time again, to find the right spot, the one exact perspective, from which the lines of the photograph will seem to radiate out in razor straight lines. There is a subtle geometry to Atget's work, an implicit exploration of line and angle that is truly beautiful to behold. Atget is also, in many ways, a nascent surrealist, every now and then his photographs juxtapose wildly disparate objects, creating a series of dreamlike images. But Atget is also a realist, who is enthralled by the camera's unparalleled ability to show us things as they really are. A number of his photographs show ragpicker's houses, broken down old carts, etc, all in an attempt to capture the beauty inherent in all decay. Conversely, his pictures of ancient sculptures are quick to put the decay of these sculptures on display.

Perhaps Atget's greatest gift then, is to find the dream in what is real, to produce images of fantasy without in any way distorting the truth of the visible world. In part this is achieved through Atget's loving use of light. Light in Atget's pictures is a tangible presence, palpable as fog. Seen through Atget's lens, even something as simple as a tree becomes an explosion of brilliance and shade. There's also the probing, whimsical nature of Atget's muse, his ability to spot the entertaining, the off-beat. So we have pictures of the turn of a staircase, pictures of a market where boots are laid out by the dozens, pictures of a shop with corsets, a picture of a crowd staring at an eclipse. What stands out in these pictures is Atget's incredible eye for beauty, his ability to discover the sublime in the everyday.

Nowhere is this great talent of his better exemplified, I feel, than in his pictures of various gardens and sculptures. As Atget photographs them, these are no longer pictures of mortal places, but images that date back to that earlier, purer time when gods and goddesses walked the earth. It's the casualness of the figures that's stunning here - Atget doesn't glorify the gods, he makes them familiar, almost unremarkable. In achieving this effect, Atget does with light what the great sculptors of old did with marble - he makes the gods human.

Endnote: A dash of colour

I can't end this post without a passing mention of the final special exhibit on at the museum, a tribute the work of four photographers (Eliot Porter, William Christenberry, Joel Meyerowitz and William Eggleston) who played a pioneering role in developing the art of colour photography. The images that stood out for me here were the photographs of Eliot Porter, particularly his photographs of birds caught in flight, as well as the urban portraits of William Eggleston. Beautiful stuff.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Philadelphia Art Museum Post 1: From Harlem to Haarlem

First part of a two-part post about the glorious day I spent today at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It's a really exciting weekend at the Museum because there are four different special exhibitions on - featuring the works of Beauford Delaney, Jacob von Ruisdael, Edvard Munch and Eugene Atget. This post discusses the first two exhibitions - the others will follow

Beauford Delaney: The Colours of Jazz

Whenever you see colour, think of Beauford Delaney. Delaney's pallete is vibrant and masterful - his paintings literally seethe with colour - vivid reds and passionate yellows run like worms within the living clay of his art. The current exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum showcases Delaney's evolution as an artist, from a loving chronicler of the explosive energy of New York in the 1940s to the purer abstraction of his Paris years. The difference between the two is stark - the early paintings are blurred negatives of plastic colour, pulsing landscapes of a city that capture almost perfectly the manic energy of New York. These paintings start with a vision of urban beauty that owes much to the Ashcan school and the aching peoplescapes of Hopper and others, except that where these painters are muted and sombre, Delaney is vivacious and daring - combining these visions of his beloved city with a range of colouring that owes more to Van Gogh and Matisse than to any of his contemporaries. Highlights for me from this part of the exhibition were a painting for Marianne Robinson as well as a series of portraits of James Baldwin that highlight Delaney's versatility - ranging from a simple pastel sketch of a young open-faced Baldwin, through a gloriously god-like portrait of Baldwin as Dark Rapture and a intense, almost disturbingly close portrait of Baldwin done in darker tones, to a portrait of on older Baldwin as a black sage, an idol of dark and terrible gravity, a negative force on a background as red as blood.

Where Delaney really comes into his own for me, though is in his later, Paris years. The paintings here are entirely abstract, yet staring at them one has the hypnotic sense of shape struggling to be born, of the imminence of pattern. At first glance, these paintings seem blank, evenly shaded - it's only when you look at them more closely that you begin to see the subtle dance of colour hidden away inside them, the clever little insinuations of light and dark that fall just short of becoming form. It's because of this that these paintings seem startlingly alive, incredibly real. The overall effect is stunning - in a series of paintings titled simply Abstraction Delaney captures the essence of each season, contrasting the brooding maroon of autumn with the lighter, yellowish-green of spring. Also on display is his stunning tribute to Charlie Parker - a painting that is pure pulse - lines of electricity exploding out from the centre of the page.

The thing that connects these two very different phases of Delaney is colour. Whether his subject is an urban landscape or the pure abstractions of the mind, Delaney is an artist of furious and contagious hues - colour breaks out all over his paintings like a rash, like a disease. Throughout the exhibition there is a sense of passionate, almost greedy density, of paint scraped onto the canvas with a knife, of colour that is inches thick. There is something very solid and aggressive about Delaney's painting, something insistently opaque, and it is this that makes him the exciting painter he is.

I can't end this description without mentioning my favourite painting of the entire exhibition - a stunning portrait of Ella Fitzgerald - a background of abstract and living yellow from which a pair of eyes emerge, and a face like a half formed moon beams out onto the canvas. A painting that showcases, in a single work, both Delaney's mastery of portraiture as well as his command of vivid abstraction.

Jacob van Ruisdael: Master Dutchman

From the rebellious to the sublime. If Delaney's work dazzles you with energy, the exhibition next door, featuring the works of master landscape artist Jacob van Ruisdael, is a study in harmony and light, in the quiet perfection of the great Dutch masters. Ruisdael is one of the 17th century's most admired landscape artists, a painter whose work inspired, among others, the great John Constable (a fact that the current exhibition makes much of - showcasing works of Constable that are clearly inspired by the Dutch painter). His works are masterpieces of timeless grandeur, paintings of exquisite and epic balance.

Ruisdael is the quintessential landscape painter. People are of little interest to him - indeed in most of his paintings the human and animal figures are added by other artists. What Ruisdael delights in is the sheer scale of the natural world - the soaring majesty of trees, the sad beauty of ruined towers, the breathtaking power of distance. His paintings are studies in perspective, touched impeccably by light and instinctively highlighting the glory of a universe where man is purely incidental. To see a Ruisdael painting is to be transported into a world of dreamlike perfection, where even the raging torrent of a waterfall seems stilled, timeless.

The first thing you notice about Ruisdael's paintings is the sky. In painting after painting, the sky dominates the larger part of the canvas, a sky alive with majestic clouds, with shapes of unearthly power. There is an incredible depth to Ruisdael's work, his paintings seems to sweep away into the distance, the line of the land perfectly horizontal, betraying the full breadth of open space. Nowhere is this more evident than in this landscape of Ruisdael's native Haarlem, where the tiny rooftops of the town have been squeezed into the shadow of the church spire, leaving the horizon unbroken.

The second thing you notice about Ruisdael's paintings are the trees. Ruisdael's trees are more than just the big plants that make up a forest - each tree is a unique vision of beauty, a seething form of almost abstract energy, rising gloriously out of the earth, every leaf on its branches aflame with light. Again and again Ruisdael paints these mighty monarchs of the forest with a passion is almost nostalgia, until the trees in his painting have an electrifying, almost hypnotic quality - it is difficult to tear your eyes away from them to see anything else.

Yet if trees are symbols of the organic, chaotic quality of nature, ruins, in Ruisdael becomes pillars of light, razor-sharp evocations of lost glory. Remember the line about sunlight on a broken column. Again and again, Ruisdael returns to this vision of beauty, using the debris of history to construct images of desperate melancholy of aching and absolute longing. Light in these paintings (which are my favourite in the exhibition, and include some stunning landscapes of Edmonton castle, as well as a justly acclaimed painting of a Jewish cemetery) is an act of benediction, a form of grace.

In the final analysis, Ruisdael's paintings are the landscapes of fantasy, perspectives from a world of uncompromising perfection, the kind of world that God would have created before he let humans in. Human presence is never wholly absent from these paintings, but for the most part it is there only to be dwarfed, only to be shown to be irrelevant. Sunlight and forests and clouds are the true heroes of Ruisdael's world, and it is these that he is most interested in painting.

The final set of paintings in the exhibition is a fascinating series of late seascapes. Here again, we see the characteristic Ruisdael touch - a tiny sale of glorious white catches our attention, drawn into the painting by it, we observe the incredible distance that the canvas stretches to, the calm of the horizon contrasting so vividly with the churning sea closer at hand. I am reminded, inevitably of Manet.

Taken together, Ruisdael's work has the awe-inspiring feel of a revelation; I walk out of the exhibition hall feeling as though I were walking out of a church.

The Killer

He is two hundred miles out of the city when the dawn catches up with him. His spirits dip like the needle on the fuel tank. The night had seemed an endless highway, an endless escape; now the sky is the colour of newspapers he no longer reads. He tries to bring himself to believe in the day's return, in its newness, its twilight hope; but the whole thing seems false to him, the very horizon an act of propaganda, a meeting of earth and sky that he knows can never come true.

He stops at a roadside diner, orders coffee and eggs, wondering where he's going to find the appetite. The place is empty - he must be the first customer of the day. The waitress smiles at him as she takes his order. He wonders if she would still smile that way if she knew where he was coming from, knew what he had done. She probably thinks I'm some sort of travelling salesman, he thinks. It occurs to him that that's exactly what he is - a salesman of Death - the condemned his only customers. No repeat business in his line of work.

He shakes his head. No use thinking that way. These out of town jobs are always the worst. Sure, they pay well and someone has to do them, but there's something very alien about driving 500 miles just to kill a man (as though death were some sort of special delivery), a peculiar sort of emptiness. Like the hollow feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when your plane lurches into turbulence or when you come off the top of a roller-coaster and realise there's nothing beneath you but the drop. Something almost sacrilegeous about being out in this lonely country, in the freedom of these distances, so soon after a man's death. Something aching and misunderstood.

A man's death. Say rather a boy's death, for that's what he really was, the one this morning, a boy, barely twenty years old. Just your average teenager - awkward walk, gawky hair, an uneven shave - and that air of demonstrative defiance that tells you they're really, really frightened. Only the thing this teenager was afraid of wasn't the future, it was Death, a much sterner school master, a grown-up much harder to defy. Still, just a kid, after all.

A kid who was a killer, he reminds himself. Running over the facts of the case one more time, running over those horrifying pictures in the paper (Why do they let them put stuff like that on the front page anyway?). Not his decision anyway. Due process. Jury of peers. Appeals, petitions for pardon. All the deliberate and venerable machinery of the law that led to that moment on the gallows. Besides, it had to be done - it was the law of the land, it was for the greater good.

He drops argument after argument into the black memory of that night, like cubes of sugar into a cup of coffee, watching them dissolve and disappear.

Better not to think about it. Still a long drive ahead before he gets home. Another five hours or so, if he doesn't stop for lunch on the way. Mary will be waiting for him at home, he knows, having taken the day off, the way she always does. They will not talk about this, of course, will, in fact, say nothing to each other - he not wanting to dwell on the details, she knowing that he needs the silence. He will take all his clothes off, sink gratefully into a warm bath. She will stand behind him, rubbing the tension out of his shoulders with her firm, loving hands, while he closes his eyes and tries to forget, tries to wash the memory out of himself, leave it behind him like a pool of faintly muddied water. Afterwards a quick meal (he will have no appetite, but will have to eat anyway, she will insist) and then a long, long nap right through the afternoon, waking to find the children home, seeing the dim shape of anxiety in their eyes. He will spend the evening playing with the younger ones (though not with Eric - Eric knows what his father does for a living, Eric is old enough to disapprove), crushing them in his embrace as though they were Life, feeling how delicate their bones are.

Five hours, maybe six. The eggs on his plate are getting cold but he isn't really interested. He pokes at them with his fork, like a man fidgeting with a map, drawing and redrawing the boundaries of his hunger. He is tired of this place, it suffocates him, he wants to get away. But something very like necessity weighs down on him, something very like duty. There's a voice in his head telling him he must be sensible, must eat, must do what needs to be done. He wishes he could get a drink but it's too early for the bars to be open and anyway he has a long way to drive. He wishes he hadn't given up smoking.

Through the diner window he can see his car, standing alone in the parking lot. His ceremonial gown in the back seat. People make fun of him for his gown - apparently they don't wear them any more, the others - apparently they do the job in plain formals, sometimes even in jeans. Like clerks or mechanics. He can't bring himself to think of it that way, as though taking a man's life were no different from fixing a dynamo or selling a vacuum cleaner. He thinks of every execution as a special rite, the precise and ancient ritual of some pagan creed of which he is the last surviving priest. It's silly, he knows, and superstitious, but he needs the sense of ceremony, the sense of something meaningful and mysterious. His one regret is that he's not allowed to wear a hood. Hoods are important, he feels, they're a way of denying his own role in the proceedings, of underlining the fact that is not he himself but some faceless servant of an anonymous system who is sending this man to his death. He hates the way they look at him, the condemned ones, how they stare into his face trying to recognise in it the features of their own death. This is not me, he wants to tell them, this is only the disguise I have been asked to put on for you, the mask of executioner, the camouflage of heartlessness. I am like the stripper who seduces you with a desire she does not feel. But of course, he is not allowed to talk to the prisoners. He is neither enemy nor confidante, neither friend nor foe. He is just a technician, brought there for his own special expertise to get the job done as efficiently as possible.

Just a technician. The thought is both demeaning and a release. Just a cog in a larger apparatus. He beckons to the waitress, signals that she may clear the food away. He has barely touched the eggs, but it is too late now, he has no appetite. You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. But what if you didn't want the omelette in the first place, what if you only asked for it because you thought you had to, because someone else told you to?

The waitress comes over and hands him his check, then wipes the table clean with a damp cloth. If only it were that easy, he thinks to himself, watching the sheen of the water glisten and then fade on the tabletop. If only we could wipe the table clean each time, get rid of all the crumbs, start again. If only he had gone to college the way his mother wanted him to, if only there were something else he was good at, something else he could do. He sighs. No use thinking about it now. There are bills that must be paid, roads that must be travelled; he is still five long hours away from home. Time to get on with it.

As he leaves, the waitress waves goodbye, wishes him a good day. He wishes her back, and in his heart those simple words are changed into a blessing, a prayer for the rightness of the world, for its abiding innocence. As he walks towards his car, the sun is just rising over the distant hills and the Utah sunlight seems removed, distant, heartlessly cold. He takes a deep breath and steps out into the light, his shoulders lifting in automatic defiance. Knowing that what must follow is irrevocable. Knowing that there is no other way.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Short shrift

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

- T.S. Eliot

I've never understood the point of abridging Shakespeare. As a child, I remember reading this book called Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb - the book left me completely cold. The stories seemed lifeless, needlessly complex and, in most cases, fairly absurd. I wondered what the fuss was about. Then, at fourteen, out of sheer boredom, I read Twelfth Night, and "felt like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken". It seems a trite thing to say, I know, but that one afternoon, rich with its intimations of poetry, of the dizzying possibilities of language, changed my life forever.

The point is not simply that the Lamb book was a henious travesty of the original. The point is that it was a dangerous travesty - because it offered the reader the seductive idea that he / she knew about Shakespeare or had 'read' him, whereas in reality nothing could be farther from the truth. This wasn't a harmless little book - it was the vilest, most potentially damaging book you could give your child to read - I'd rather give an eight year old a copy of Playboy than a copy of Tales from Shakespeare (and no, for a change, I'm not trying to be cruel to children!). In general I'm not for censorship, but if there's one book that I would support making bonfires of, one book whose copies should be rounded up and burnt in the public square, it would be Tales from Shakespeare.

So you can imagine how horrified I was to read this. (hat tip: Prufrock) Classics on sms? Why don't they just offer free lobotomies instead? They'd probably be more painless. It almost makes you hope that cell phone radiations are actually carcinogenic and all the people who subscribe to this service are going to end up with brain tumours because, let's face it, it's their only shot at mental growth. Classics on sms forsooth!

Why? Why can't people just leave the classics alone? Isn't there enough crap published every year for them to mess around with? All those thousands of books that are steadily reversing the process of paper making and converting perfectly good paper back into pulp? If you want to save the forests, go convert the Da Vinci code to an sms ('Gibberish, gibberish, gibberish' - there, now you can claim to have read it) or murder hacks like Chetan Bhagat (I'd pay for an sms version called One very, very short night at the call centre - at least the grammar would be better). Why go after Shakespeare for God's sake? It's bad enough that we have random film versions of Austen - but at least those have Keira Knightley - but this? Who says the classics should be made more accessible, anyway? That's all wrong - the classics are books you deserve, books you earn the right to read. I wouldn't consider someone who's only read the sms version of Romeo and Juliet literate, let alone educated.

The thing I was reminded of while reading the article was a phrase from Martin Amis' Yellow Dog - 'high IQ morons'. That's what we're creating, a society of digitised souls, of miniaturised intelligences. A society where technological savvy has become a substitute for good, old fashioned thought. I'm no Luddite, but I think it's time we realised that intelligence is only marginally about fact and analysis, that there are deeper wellsprings of creativity and silence that go into the making of intellect, the making of what we once called (even the word seems archaic now) wisdom. Yeats writes: "How can they know / Truth flourishes where the student's lamp has shone / And there alone".

Meanwhile, of course, I'm waiting to get my sms version of Aristotle.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Pasta! Maestro!

"Thinking about the spaghetti that boils eternally but is never done is a sad, sad thing"

- Haruki Murakami 'The Year of Spaghetti'

Murakami is GOD. Period.


Two thirty am. I am trembling on the edge of sleep when a sharp beep from my cellphone wakes me. In the darkened room the neon light of the phone makes it look ghostly, possessed - a spectre calling to me from another world. I have, it seems, a new message.

My first instinct is simply to ignore the damned thing. Just snuggle back into my pillow and forget about it till morning. But who could me text-ing me at this hour? Maybe there's been an emergency. Maybe someone I care for is in hospital or in tears. Maybe someone needs me, maybe this message is a call for help.

Slowly I crawl my way out of the covers, make my bleary-eyed way over to the table (not forgetting to stumble over shoes, magazines and the occasional chair on my way), shivering in the early morning cold. Really anxious now, I thumb my way through the phone menu, mentally bracing myself for bad news. It takes a moment for my eyes to focus.

The message reads: "Dear Sprint Customer. This is to confirm that in accordance with your request, we shall no longer be sending you text notifications of new deals and offers on Sprint. To resubscribe to this service, please reply T to this message. Thank you."

Aarrghhh!! The world is made up of morons.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


Scene: A Library. Falstaff enters from left, come to pick up the copy of the new Marquez (my review here) that he'd requested and has just been informed is waiting for him at the counter.

Falstaff: Hi. I'm here to pick up a book (hands over e-mail notice that he's carefully printed out to avoid having to say the book's name out loud)

Library Guy 1: Okay Cool (Goes off to look for book. Comes back empty-handed two minutes later). Sorry, it hasn't come yet.

F: Errr...but you sent me an e-mail last night saying it was here and I could come pick it up (points to notice in LG1's hand)

LG1: Uh, ya, I guess. Okay (Goes off to look for book again. Returns one minute later with a copy of Arthur & George. Proceeds to check it out and hand it to F. Looks so triumphant that F. doesn't know how to break this to him)

F: Errr...but this isn't the book I'm here to pick up. I'd asked for this one as well, and I'll take it, but the one I came to pick up is different.

LG1 (Checks record on computer): Oh ya, that other one is still pending. See, it says that right here, Zadie Smith's On Beauty.

F (with nightmarish image of his grad advisor listening in on this conversation): No, no. That's not the one either. As in yes, I've requested that as well, but the one that's supposed to be on hold here is the new Marquez, (deep sigh) Memories of my melancholy whus.

LG1 (reads title of book in e-mail notice. Looks up. Gives F look that says 'pervert'. F feels like he's 15 years old buying condoms in a pharmacy): Uh, ya, well, it doesn't seem to be on the shelf...

LG2 (coming up behind him): Hi. What seems to be the trouble?

LG1 explains.

LG2 (taking my card): Let me take a look. (Goes back to the hold section. Shouts from back a minute later) Say, what was the name of that book again?

LG1 (shouting back): Memories of my melancholy whores!

LG2 (still shouting): Memories of my melancholy what?

LG1 (shouting louder): WHORES!

Every one in a thirty feet radius turns. Falstaff stands at the counter cringing. Senior Library Guy comes over.

SLG: What's going on here?

LG1: This guy had a book that is supposed to be on hold, but it doesn't seem to be here.

SLG (looking at notice): Ah, the new Marquez. Hey, I saw that come in yesterday. It must be somewhere around here. Let's look.

LG1, LG2 and SLG all proceed to spend the next five minutes searching through every book that's been put on hold trying to find the Marquez. Meanwhile a line of some ten people has collected behind Falstaff, all listening intently to the conversation at the counter.

SLG to Other Senior Library Guy: Hey, Larry, you remember the new Marquez that came in yesterday?

OSLG: Huh?

SLG: You know, the one about whores.

OSLG: Oh, ya, of course, the whore book. What about it?

SLG: We can't find it now.

OSLG: You can't find 'whores'? Really? (looks at Falstaff) You haven't already checked it out have you?

F (wishing he'd just gone to the bookstore and bought the damn thing): No.

OSLG: Hmmm...that's very strange. Tell you what we'll do - give us your name and e-mail address and when we find it we'll let you know (taking out sheet of paper and pen). Here, just put your name and e-mail address down on that. (Takes back paper. Scribbles on it, then puts it up where everyone can see) Don't worry. I'm sure it'll turn up in a day or two.

F (staring at bulletin board notice that says 'Melancholy Whores' with his name and e-mail address on it): Oh, right. Thanks.

Note to GGM: The next time you write a novel, could you give it a slightly less provocative title? Something along the lines of Slow Man would do just fine.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Too used day

Variations on a theme

What would you do if you had a sheep, a goat, a basket of cobras, a basket of mongeese (or whatever the plural of mongoose is) and a troupe of dancing women?

Friend heh heh argues that the combination could help you make the perfect presentation. I don't disagree - I just think that as applications go that's hopelessly tame. Imagine if P T Barnum had gone in for this kind of thinking. Let's see - I have a fat guy with a tophat, three clowns, a trapeze act, a couple of fire-eaters, four lions, the incredible shrinking man, an elephant and this big monstrosity of a tent. Hmmm. Maybe I should organise board meetings.

So here, instead, are 10 things that you could do with the combination above that would be so much more fun:

1. Walk into the boardroom. Make an altar on one side and sacrifice the sheep, the goat and the women to propitiate the gods. Then throw mongeese out of the window and get a character reference from the snakes so that when the client gets around to suing you his lawyers will be on your side (seeing as you're a friend to the species and all). Take deep breath. Present.

2. Use the James Bond approach. Walk into the boardroom. In one swift motion, grab the goat by its hindlegs and swing it around, using its horns to disable the guards you walked in with. Then, using the mongeese as hand-grenades to give you cover, knot the snakes together into a rope, hook the teeth of the first one into the CEO's neck, grab a woman with one hand, tuck the lamb under your arm and shimmy your way out of the window. Find a cave to hide in for the night. Kill and skin the lamb (make sure it's a small one) and then tell the woman that if the two of you are going to make it through the night you're going to have to share the 'blanket' - you have to - it's for survival.

3. Pretend you're Aesop. Tell the following fable: "Once upon a time, a lamb, a goat, a snake and a mongoose were going on a long journey. On their way they came upon a wide and deep river. Seeing the river, the snake said, 'Don't worry - I shall bite the river and kill it'. So the snake bit the river, but his poison just floated away on its surface and he drank up too much of the water and it drowned him. Then the mongoose said, 'Don't worry - I will pounce upon the river and kill it'. So the mongoose took a big leap and jumped onto the river and he drowned as well. Then the goat said, 'Wait! I have a better idea. I will simply drink up the river and then everything will be dry.' (Scholarly aside: this, of course, is the origin of the tradition of using goatskins to carry water). So the goat drank and drank, but the river was too much for him and he exploded and little pieces of sheesh kebab scattered all around. After the goat was dead, the lamb didn't say anything but just sat around looking cute, until a troupe of village women came along and took him across with them'. Then stand back (looking sheepish, naturally) and wait for someone to come up with a moral.

4. Walk into the boardroom. Hand the sheep to one manager and the goat to another. Then set the mongeese loose in the room so there's total pandemonium. When the CEO catches you trying to sneak out, tell him you can't work like this - point out how one manager is always wool-gathering and the other really gets your goat. Assure him that no, you're not trying to weasel your way out of it. That's a mongoose. But it's okay, many people can't tell them apart.

5. Write a letter to a Bollywood producer with a new film script involving icchadhari mongeese. One of those things where the hero (who's a cobra naturally) accidentally kills the male of a loving mongoose couple, whereupon the female comes after him pretending to be a snake. So now the people are mongeese and the mongeese are snakes and the snakes are Miss World finalists and no one's quite sure what species Bappi Lahiri might be. And then, just as the vengeful mongoose is about to kill the hero God calls and reminds her of the pre-nup. What romance, what action, what drama! Suggest using the goat as the lead instead of Shah Rukh Khan because the goat will work for less and can actually act. Use the women for an item number. Use the sheep for costume (pretend he's a mink coat from Switjherland)

6. Send the basket of cobras to your client CEO in a long, mournful looking black car with a note that says 'Hiss' and 'Hearse'. Sit in a dark room and get the sheep and goat to say Bah! to you (repeatedly) for making such an atrocious joke. Dissect the brain of a mongoose to see what a sense of humour might actually look like. When that doesn't work, console yourself with women.

7. Skin a mongoose and put the pelt on your head so that you look like Donald Trump. Practise saying "You're fired" to a sheep until it looks like he may actually believe you. Get the cobras to hiss at you behind your back while you're doing this, just to make it feel authentic. When you feel confident that you really have no personality left at all, verify this by bringing in the troupe of women and making sure that they find the goat more sexually attractive than you.

8. Pretend you're Mel Gibson. Make a movie called 'The Passion of the Lamb' with the following script: Scene 1 (30 seconds): A cobra slithers across the ground hissing while a woman with a shaved head looks on. Scene 2 (30 seconds): A group of women stand around looking mournful Scene 3 (49 minutes): A pack of mongeese attack a sheep and slowly bite it to death. Scene 4 (48 minutes): A long still of the dying sheep slowly bleeding into the ground. Get the goat to do voice-overs, and pretend that it's the Bible, only in Aramaic.

9. Make an ad for shampoo. Voice-over starts: "Does your hair look like this" (shot of snakes writhing about) "or like this?" (picture of mongoose with fur standing on end). "Don't worry. With the new XYZ shampoo" (picture of hot woman in skimpy bikini, as if using a shampoo is going to give you a 26 inch waist and perfect tanlines) "you'll get the soft, lovable hair that everyone loves to touch" (picture of woman with flowing hair running loving hands over cute little lamb". Air ad on TV three times. Then cast goat in bronze and pretend you won him at Cannes.

10. Find a river that can only be crossed by a small boat. First take all the women across in one trip, placing them on your lap. Row in slow, rhythmic motion. Come back with only woman to keep you company. Leave her on the side you started from and take the mongeese across next. Come back with another woman. Pick up the snakes to take them across next. As you're about to go across again, wonder what's happened to the sheep, the goat and the first woman you'd brought back. Remember too late about the tiger (have you ever seen a river-boat crossing thing where there was no tiger? So there). Panic. Jump hastily into boat to escape to safety. Upset basket of cobras. Get bitten 378 times. Die.

Bonus application: Tell fortunes. Charge 1/4th of normal admission. Put the mongeese on sticks and colour them pink so that they look like candy-floss. When people walk in ask them if they're Aries, Capricorn or Virgo. If they are, direct them to the appropriate counter (sheep, goat or women). If not, sic the cobras on them. Then have them watch in amazement as you predict the time of their death with formidable accuracy.

Monday, November 14, 2005

And speaking of envy...

How's this for a bookshelf? The complete set of Penguin Classics - all 1,082 of them. Talk about being a book snob.

Let's see - say three friends a year, one book per birthday, plus one book a month I give myself - all I have to do is live to be a 100 and I could do it. Actually, probably more like 96 given the books I already own. Hmmm.

Next stop, Arles

I hate New Yorkers. When I say hate, I mean, of course, wildly envy. We're talking parrot green contact lenses here. You know the line about life being elsewhere? It always feels like my life is elswhere - a hundred miles to the North-East.

As an example - check out this review of the new exhibition of Van Gogh drawings at the Met (by Updike, no less). By the end of it my mouth was practically drooling in anticipation.

And then people wonder why I spend so many weekends in Manhattan.