Friday, January 31, 2014

An Island

The Rock Island Arsenal was built on a large island in the Mississippi River located between the states of Illinois and Iowa. As a Korean War veteran, my father was buried in the military cemetery on this island in 1953. When I was a teenager in the 1960s my stepfather worked on this island every day. A veteran of World War II in Europe, he had been given a job as turret-lathe operator in a complex of 19th century stone buildings owned by the U.S. government and still in use as factories for military equipment. The Vietnam War guaranteed plenty of local employment. It seems odd now to realize that the three biggest American wars of the mid 20th century all played active roles in creating my childhood circumstances. And this missile-shaped island was the focus of that involvement. Adults would sometimes take me there (along with my little brother, as below, in autumn 1954) to visit my father's grave.

Adults would also take me to the island on other occasions. I remember employee picnics on the lawns. I remember tours of the antiquated industrial spaces where my stepfather worked.

My mother was an adolescent during World War II, living within sight of Arsenal Island. According to her, some of the buildings were in use then as prisons for captured Nazis. My mother believed the German soldiers had been treated with outrageous kindness. "THEY got bananas to eat every day, when WE couldn't find bananas in the stores at any price!"

Even at a young age I tended to doubt my mother's stories.

Thursday, January 30, 2014


The Alexandra of Lycophron, Paris, 2008

Starting with the early Renaissance, the study of ancient Greek became a popular and prestigious discipline – and stayed that way for more than five hundred years. Currently the study of Classics as a whole is a relatively rare academic specialty. The ancient texts are still quoted all the time by current-days poets and novelists and essayists  but quoted nowadays only in translation.

There may have been one Greek poet named Lycophron or there may have been two  modern scholars are divided between opposing theories. Everybody agrees there was a prolific writer of tragedies and literary criticism named Lycophron at the court of the Ptolemies in Alexandria about 300 BC. And everybody agrees that only a few scattered lines from all those tragedies and all that criticism have survived. What does survive under the name "Lycophron" is a complete poem of about 1200 lines called the Alexandra. Some scholars think the courtier-tragedian wrote it, but many think a poet who lived about a hundred years later adopted the name "Lycophron" as part of this intricately contrived literary performance.

The Alexandra of Lycophron, Basel, 1546

The poem consists mainly of prophecies by the Trojan princess Cassandra, repeating much of the plot of the Iliad, but in deliberately elaborate, allusive language. The 'Baroque' style of this late-Greek production is what has brought the poem back into fashion among working scholars today. It has become a mine for modern quotation and speculation. There are said to be more than 500 ancient Greek words that appear only in the Alexandra and in no other surviving text.

Ajax and Cassandra, Roman fresco, Pompeii

Cassandra's special curse is always to be right and never to be believed. She correctly predicts her own doom at the end of the Trojan War, when she will be seized as a concubine by the Greek hero Ajax.

Ajax and Cassandra, 1886
Solomon Joseph Solomon 

In the passage below, Cassandra describes the fate waiting for her own mother, Hecuba, after the Greeks have taken Troy 

And thy doom I lament, thou grief-worn dog.
One that same earth, which bare her, opening wide
Shall swallow utterly in yawning depths,
As she sees direful ruin close at hand,
There by her forebear's grove, where concubine
Who wed in secret now lies joined in death
With her own offspring ere it sucked the breast
And ere her limbs were bathed, her travail past.
And there shall lead to cruel bridal-feast
And wedding-sacrifices Iphis' son,
Grim lion, using his fierce mother's rites;
Slitting her throat into a vessel deep
The snake, dread butcher of the wreath-crowned cow,
Shall smite her with Candaon's thrice-owned sword,
And slay for wolves the opening sacrifice.
While thee, aged captive, on the hollow shore,
Stoned publicly by the Dolonican folk
Embittered by thy curses and abuse,
A robe shall cover wrought of showering stones,
When Maera's dusky form thou shalt assume.

 George W. Mooney, from his 1921 translation of the Alexandra

Hecuba (detail) 1815
Merry-Joseph Blondel

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Subtle Bodies

Norman Rush at age 80 has published his third novel, Subtle Bodies. There is evidence (as below) that he wrote the book on a typewriter, revising with multicolored ink-pens. I am old enough to think this looks familiar  but even to me such a manuscript has come to seem like an exotic artifact. A century from now, in some archive of the future, it will look normal again.

The story is set in 2003, just before the start of the Iraq War. In the passage below, one of the middle-aged male characters explains why he is disdainful of the anti-war petition that means so much to another of the middle-aged male characters 

"But here's what: they are going to do it, whatever you do.  The government decides what it wants. The State sings the Song of the State.  Brecht, I believe.  The Congress is out of it. And war makes money for the happy few.  War is like the prime interest rate, it is something the government takes care of.  Or like the Geodetic Survey, it is something the government takes care of.  The people don't care.  There is no draft.  And you know what?  I bet they love it.  The government loves it that you put on big walks and demonstrations, as big as hell, and you know why?  Why is because it keeps up the lie that you can do something about it, that the government can be touched in its heart.  And wars don't lose elections, either.  When the draft was on it was a little bit different, but not now.  And don't forget they lie.  And you can't prove it's a lie until thirty years later a scholar might and by then nobody cares."  

The final scene in the book is set in the midst of the anti-war marches that did historically take place in 600 cities around the world on February 15, 2003. The novel ends on that date, with the main character absolutely believing that his efforts (such as pressuring old friends into signing petitions) have succeeded and the Iraq War will not take place.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Resistance is the Condition of Art

Critical Laboratory from MIT Press collects writings of Thomas Hirschhorn  "a Swiss artist known for large sculptures and ambitious projects, often constructed of everyday, makeshift materials."

Crystal of Resistance, 2011

Crystal of Resistance, 2011

Crystal of Resistance, 2011

Eye to Eye Subjecter, 2010

Preparatory drawing, Gramsci Monument, 2013

Gramsci Monument, 2013

Thomas Hirschhorn (b. 1957) at the temporary Gramsci Monument he created last summer in partnership with residents of a large public housing project in the Bronx. The work was commissioned by Dia Art Foundation.

From Critical Laboratory 

To look at images of destroyed human bodies is important because it can contribute to an understanding that the incommensurable act is not the looking; what is incommensurable is that destruction has happened in the first placethat a human, a human body, was destroyed; indeed, that an incommensurable amount of human beings were destroyed. It is importantbefore and beyond anything elseto understand this. It's only by being capable of touching this incommensurable act that I can resist the suggestive question: Is this a victim or not? And whose victim? Or is it perhaps a killer, a torturer? Is it perhaps not about the victim? Perhaps this destroyed human body shouldn't be considered and counted as a victim? To classify destroyed human bodies as victim and not-victim is an attempt to make them commensurable. The victim syndrome is the syndrome that wants me to give a response, an explanation, a reason to the incommensurable and finally to declare who is "the innocent." 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Typical Cows

The Prints and Photographs collection at the Library of Congress preserves this artistic rendering of Typical Cows. It was published in 1904 for a purpose at once educational and ornamental.

The exotic beasts that follow are from a series first issued in the 1870s.

Below, a selection of 19th century American children  for whose nurseries the foregoing, colorful, inaccurate depictions of animal families would have been created.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Midwinter Polaroids

My daughter's weekly Polaroids memorialize crucial midwinter moments from the California life of three-year-old Mabel (and some of her domestic familiars).

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Special Day

Mabel and I had a Special Day on Friday, and did everything just exactly for fun and for no other reason. We stayed in pajamas for a long time lingering over breakfast. We read books, mostly counting books, since Mabel likes to practice counting now and can read some of the numbers. We worked a complicated sea-creature puzzle that Mabel picked out from among the new Christmas toys. Many activities of the day were too busy to get photographed, but the late afternoon trip to the playground did get photographed.