<= 2014.10.18

At the studio, an olive tree became his friend. ‟When he had had a good session in his studio at Les Lauves,” reported Gasquet, ‟he would go down at nightfall to stand outside his front door, watching the day and the town go to sleep.

‟The olive tree was waiting for him. He had noticed it immediately, on his first visit there, before buying the land. While the building was being done, he had a little wall put up around it, to protect it from any possible damage. And now the old twilit tree had an air of vigor and fragrance. He would touch it. He would talk to it. When he parted from it at night he would sometimes embrace it.... The wisdom of the tree entered his heart.

‟‘It’s a living being,’ he said to me one day. ‘I love it like an old friend. It knows everything about my life and gives me excellent advice. I should like to be buried at its feet.’”

—Alex Danchev, Cézanne: a life

Proposition Q would require an immediate seismic event on the Hayward Fault with a Richter magnitude of no less than 7.0 and a Mercalli intensity of no less than VIII, with certain districts authorized to experience shaking up to Mercalli X, at the discretion of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. (Source: California Legislative Analyst’s Office.) The fiscal impact would be considerable. Yet the logic is persuasive. Assuming that the quake has to come at some point—and no one is about to deny that, everyone concedes that certain fundamental structural forces are out of our hands—there might be considerable benefit in dictating its circumstances. To the extent that they can be dictated. There are bound to be unforeseeables. But would this not be preferable to absolute uncertainty? Opinions don’t split cleanly along party lines. Some Democrats advocate taking our lumps now, lest we burden future generations; others counter that while a major earthquake might serve the interests of certain groups, this is hardly the time for so draconian a measure. Some feel that the debate throws into relief the irrationality of the popular initiative system, and that the proposal ought to have come through the proper legislative channels. The Republicans, for their part, are on the far side of the hills, burning their usual effigies—you can see the smoke plumes—and nobody wants to actually get on the web to find out what they think. So along comes the day of decision, and early in the morning, or on lunch break, we stand in line at the church reception hall or the middle school gymnasium to cast ballots, nodding pleasantly at our neighbors; and that evening we curl up together on the couch, hitting refresh on the browser every few seconds, with our five-gallon water jug and battery-operated radio waiting beside us on the floor, just in case the foundation starts to slide.

Hotel register 2014.007

La última niebla / La amortajada

The jacket claims to collect “la totalidad de la obra narrativa en castellano de María Luisa Bombal,” which is untrue. Many later stories are missing, an especial shame because they get more haunting as they go. It starts with that thirties Spanish-American sense of both author and milieu finding their feet, an immediate talent for evoking the dreamland and some uncertainty about what to do with it. In the short tales of unhappy marriages, gender is very essential (nature-woman: society-man); the longer pieces give it more room to complicate, all to the good since an unhappy marriage is nothing if not complicated and Bombal, who once tried to shoot herself in her lover’s house and later on tried to shoot her lover, knows the facts on the ground.

In 1937, when she was writing “La Amortajada,” Borges told her that a deceased narrator was a bad idea because she would have to combine the realistic and supernatural. It works, of course; the broad view of life anchors the mystery of death. The innocent, destructive beauty in “La Historia de María Griselda” seems to come out of a Kleist tale, though without the Kleist sentence structure. Bombal’s sentences and paragraphs are short, powered by adjectives, sometimes ending three phrases in a row with the same adjective; this works too. (Los cipreses se recortaban inmóviles sobre un cielo azul; el estanque era una lámina de metal azul; la casa alargaba una sombra aterciopelada y azul.) On the misadventures of a submarine pirate ship: “Furiosos pulpos abrazábanse mansamente a sus mástiles, como para guiarlo…”

In sum, it’s probably worth trying to track down those uncollected stories.

I like what Josh says on why we still do it.

Hotel register 2014.006

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

What most impresses me is his ability to pitch the lecture to the front and back of the class at once. I know it caught the attention of Nobelists and all, but being entirely unschooled in economics I had to take it as a highly digestible introductory textbook. A tendentious introduction, to be sure, but that keeps it interesting. Corrections to Marxism and monetarism are administered more or less impartially. The jokes are few but well judged (“Did Bill invent the computer or just the mouse? Did Ronnie destroy the USSR singlehandedly or with the help of the pope?”). More references to Balzac than to The Aristocats (not a typo). One would call the book “centrist,” if one’s country had any sort of reasonably placed center.

Hotel register 2014.005

Lightning Rods

Completely poker-faced. There’s no comeuppance, nor any conflict as such, for this is the happy salesman’s universe where every obstacle flips into an opportunity and every adversary into an ally. We know from the start that our hero will ride his innocent obscenity straight to the top. In America we all get rich together. I want to give this to some MBAs and see if they think it’s making fun of them.

Round the Prickly Pear

Text of a talk given at In Solution Symposium, San Francisco, September 2014.

ἄριστον μὲν ὕδωρ, ὁ δὲ χρυσὸς αἰθόμενον πῦρ
ἅτε διαπρέπει νυκτὶ μεγάνορος ἔξοχα πλούτου:
εἰ δ᾽ ἄεθλα γαρύεν
ἔλδεαι, φίλον ἦτορ,
μηκέθ᾽ ἁλίου σκόπει
ἄλλο θαλπνότερον ἐν ἁμέρᾳ φαεννὸν ἄστρον ἐρήμας δι᾽ αἰθέρος,
μηδ᾽ Ὀλυμπίας ἀγῶνα φέρτερον αὐδάσομεν

Water is best, and gold, like a blazing fire in the night, stands out supreme of all lordly wealth. But, my heart, if you wish to sing of contests, look not past the sun for a warmer star in the empty sky of day, nor let us proclaim a contest greater than Olympia.

That is Pindar in 476 BC, writing an ode for the Olympic Games. His purpose is to praise the victorious athlete, flatter the athlete’s family, and cement social bonds; but he begins by proclaiming that water is best: ἄριστον μὲν ὕδωρ. This preambulum is a funnel. Before the pre-eminence of the victor, he establishes the pre-eminence of the contest; before the contest, he acknowledges the social beacon of blazing gold; before gold he gives pride of place to water, a foundation to life, perhaps a god to be propitiated. In the early Archaic period, Hesiod describes a world of recurrent scarcity and hunger. By Pindar’s time the government of the polis was more consolidated, but rainfall had not grown any more regular from year to year.

In 1799, the Grand Pump Room was completed at Bath, England, and Pindar’s ἄριστον μὲν ὕδωρ set over the door. The imperial British were of course Romans and not Greeks; it is a purely Roman act of appropriation to set this phrase on the front of a public utility—not only a utility but a tourist attraction. Throughout the nineteenth century crowds came from around Europe to bathe in and drink the sulfurous water, and to see and be seen in its presence. Bath resident Jane Austen has the characters of Northanger Abbey visit just long enough to find that “the crowd was insupportable, and that there was not a genteel face to be seen, which everybody discovers every Sunday throughout the season.” The pump room belongs to our world of insupportable crowds, where water comes out of a pipe; not Pindar’s scarce world, where one must pray for it.

We don’t think of Greece as a desert civilization in the manner of ancient Egypt, or Mesopotamia, or Palestine. But this picture, which I took a few years ago at the temple of Hephaistos in Athens, shows on the hillside what sprouts everywhere in the city, prickly pear cactus. These are very common plants in Tucson, where I grew up, and I was astounded to find this mythic city, which I had always thought of as a marble model kit, possessing not only a landscape, but a landscape very like the hard, bright desert of my home country. I was then working on my collection The Drowned Library, which adapts mythic stories that principally take place in deserts, since our culture has so many desert roots; and to find prickly pears at the temple helped me to define one aspect of that gaze into the past, which is that it displaces the gaze we, in our own day, project into the future, anxious that heat and water will carry us from Jane Austen’s world back into Pindar’s.

Pindar would not have recognized the prickly pears, since this genus colonized the Mediterranean only in the last five hundred years, following Euro-American contact. This territorial gain may recompense an earlier loss. The ecologist Daniel Janzen proposes that the spiny defenses of these plants, their brightly colored fruit and their propagation by breaking off pads must have co-evolved with some large mammal, which would have browsed them and carried bits of them like burrs from place to place. No extant species plays this role, but as recently as 10,000 years ago North America was home to camels, which disappeared in the late Pleistocene extinctions. It may be that not only the prickly pear but other cactus, yucca and agave species in the region are ecological orphans, components of lost systems.

The plant kingdom is slower to change. For the last century Tucson has been draining its basin groundwater; at present its wells are pulling up liquid that was laid down in the last ice age, before the camels disappeared. In the nineteenth century Tucson sat on a river, the Santa Cruz.

In the first photo, from 1942, the river’s course is hard to make out because the mesquite and cottonwood trees are so abundant. The second photo, taken in 1989 from the same vantage (note the large rock at bottom), shows an arid channel. Groundwater pumping in Tucson has dropped the water table more than 100 feet, and the river is now permanently dry, except during rains.

The monsoons blow north from the Gulf of California in August, and are why the Sonoran desert, despite being hotter than the Mojave, supports a far richer biodiversity. This is the foundational water that Pindar propitiates, that the Aztecs worshipped as Tlaloc and whose current in our culture flows out of the book of Isaiah: In the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert. And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water: in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes. That is the source for poetic droughts from Eliot’s waste land, there a metaphor for personal emptiness, to Mahmoud Darwish’s “A River Dies of Thirst,” there a metaphor for political deprivation—although it is not only a metaphor in Palestine, where physical, drinkable water is hard to come by.

People die of thirst in Arizona as well, most often during the illegal crossing from Mexico. The piece in The Drowned Library that records such a crossing is titled after Tlaloc, who was not only the god of agriculture but the guardian of those who died by water, a protector and an object of fear, who is said to have received child sacrifices. A child who dies in the desert is not sacrificed to any purpose. Still, water may kill otherwise than by simple lack. One who suffers from mortal thirst will not hesitate to drink from a stagnant cow pond. And the rains themselves can be fatal in their unexpected coming; the packed ground cannot drink the water quickly enough, and flash floods will course along any channel they find. The title of my book refers in part to the library of Alexandria, a desert outpost which was nonetheless brought down by water; whatever remained of the complex after multiple rounds of conquest was probably cast into the harbor by the earthquake and tsunami of AD 365.

The study of antiquity is a study of loss. I’d like to close on the question of what is lost and what persists, our anxious gaze into the future, and also a nod back to Pindar, who played something that he called a kithara. Over the last few years I’ve made many guitar-based home recordings. The music is mine, but I think of them as collaborations, since they were released with photographs by my friend Matthew Besigner. He works in the desert at night, using ambient light with long exposure times to bring out the contours of the land, while man-made objects, the light sources, shimmer and become unreal. To me it looks like the landscape forgetting what has been built over it. Musically I’m interested in similar effects, how the clipping of a distorted guitar signal both drops information and amplifies power, like the surviving half of a damaged statue or ode. This track has on its mind the colossal wreck of Ozymandias half sunk in sand, and is called “Archaeologists.”

Hotel register 2014.004

Problem of a Chinese Aesthetic

The mode is high-eighties tropes fighting each other in full de Man style, but as with high-eighties drum machines, they can be turned to good ends. I learned quite a lot about the Odes (or Classic of Poetry), and the chosen translations are, at least, impeccable English poems.

Observe the rat, it has its skin;
A man without manners,
A man without manners,
Why doesn't he die right away?

Or else:

The pine boat lurches
On the current's flow.
I am wide awake
As with a secret pain.
Not that I lack wine
To divert myself with.
My mind is not a mirror:
It does not assimilate.
True, I have brothers,
But I cannot rely on them.
[...]
My mind is not a stone:
You cannot roll it about.
My mind is not a mat:
You cannot roll it up.
My demeanor has been strict:
You cannot take exception to it.

The Hegel citations about bones being the dead core of animal life confirm Hegel's status as a stoner who stayed up too late.

Hotel register 2014.003

White Is for Witching

Fear in search of a form. I applaud the search: the intelligence that comes up with figures like “tiny robots trapped in a net” (fish) won’t rest easy with stock templates. The shuffling of narrators and times, the prologue that makes no sense until a second reading, are well worked but too busy for a situation that is purposely anti-narrative. Having a house as one of your narrators is, yes, a truly creepy way to get at a horror that goes back generations and has no in or out. It raises literal chills. But houses don’t move. As a short story (a long short story, after the Hoffman and Poe it name-checks) this would have been devastating.

Part of Your World

—Is Ariel’s mom dead?
—I don’t remember that part of the story. Her mom isn’t around, it’s true.
—I think she is dead.
—Could be.
—When people die, do other people not eat them?
—Er, no. Meat comes from animals, not people. It wouldn’t be polite.
—What do we do with people when they die?
—We put them in holes in the ground, and they turn into dirt. It takes a long time.
—Ariel’s mom?
—Well, mermaids might do it differently.
—People take a long time to turn into dirt?
—They do.
—When do they turn back into people?

<= 2014.10.18

What goes on