Sunday, November 8, 2009

Among the Obelisks 1

Here is the first installment of my second "mural" piece. The actual story features footnotes and a brief introduction by the translator. I've been told that this was necessary otherwise the audience would have no idea what I was talking about. This assessment maybe fair, but there is something about inviting your readers to look things up that I think has been generally under-appreciated in contemporary writing, particularly since the advent of the internet has made this so easy. For the audio version I decided to skip these asides since it would be too jarring on the continuity of the piece, and I hope the atmosphere nevertheless shines through.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Blog is a Most Curious Space.

The effects that the internet has on the form and content of personal, creative and formal writing has been noted by many. Generally, it seems to be seen in a negative light. Accomplished wordsmiths loath the violence done to language by the introduction of "lol", "u" and "brb", and even while the shear bulk of individual correspondences increases, the fine art of letter writing, and the historical record of these exchanges seems to be dwindling away to nothing.

Yet we do not seem to be at a proper junction to really assess the long term gains and losses here. I highly doubt that all the "lol"s in the world will have the power to do any more harm to the quality of our thought than any other kind of slang in the history of language. The historical question is somewhat more difficult.

Recently introduced to the concept of the blog, I have to wonder if it is not in some ways taking over the role of the personal letter, at least for those who spend the time to develop their thoughts at any great length. Of course, there are differences. I tend to use this space as a kind of sandbox, or public testing grounds for ideas I may wish to explore more later. My style is clumsier than in my polished prose, and mistakes creep in at every corner. No message is ever lost, and I can withdraw my statements by deleting a passage at whim. It is also a space in which I question if there is anything in my soul that is worth listening too. These practices would have neither been possible nor acceptable in 1890s prose.

Indeed, aside from the increased concern of spying and censorship by Google, there seems to be a whole new place opened up for the Blog in the world of the written. Some things are lost, though I think they never will be forever, some things are gained, perhaps to be lost again someday, and our daily exchanges are more enriched by this passage from one to the other.

The written word has always been a serpent for our thoughts, it writhes away even while clinging to us, bites us when we grasp it wrongly by the tail, and will only truly obey the gifted Charmer.

In any event, though, it is a living animal, and will never die, for it lives on our most subtle traumas and through our greatest victories.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Spitzweg Among the Bourgeoisie

The bourgeoisie eccentricities and play on popular pastimes embodied in the work of the German artist Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885) remain one of my favorite manifestations of the Romantic critique of daily life in the 19th century.

At once a commentary on all the things people will get into and pride themselves on when their material means increase, while at the same time exhibiting a childish fondness for those very same absurdities, it is hard for me to say if Spitzweg was ultimately laughing at or with his subject matter.

Thought when it comes to the matter, I think I enjoy this ambiguity the most. Whether he is depicting the huddled and seemingly lethargic poet in the above painting, or the bedazzled mineralogist in the grotto shown below, there is a strange admixture of absurd fantasy and gritty realism in these works.

Spitzweg is worth checking out. Most of his paintings are available on Wikipedia and he provides an unparalleled look into the paradoxes of life during the 19th century.

For More Information:

Have Brain, Will Travel

The epic of Albert Einstein's brain is a macabre and yet captivating tribute to the cultural impact of the father of modern physics.

The story began in 1955, seven hours after Einstein's death. The attending pathologist who was scheduled to perform the autopsy, Thomas Stoltz Harvey, is said to have taken the brain without the family's permission. He is also said to have given Einstein's eyes to the physicists optometrist.

Certain that the brain would provide endless opportunities of study to scientists of the future, Harvey eventually lost almost everything in his efforts to keep it in his possession.

He lost his job, his marriage, his house, and for the longest time traveled around America with the brain in the back of his car.

All this time he was seemingly, and somewhat strangely, appealing to random researches and asking them if they would benefit from a study of this or that part of the physicists anatomy.

This fact was not widely known until 1978 when a journalist "broke" the story and interviewed the now aged pathologist.

Today a part of Einstein's brain is in Ontario, most of it was returned to Princeton, but Harvey sent samples to over a dozen different specialists during the time when he was its sole keeper.

While we don't often admit it to ourselves, the contemporary fetishization of knowledge has allowed the organ of the intelelct to take on an uncanny quality, at once grotesque, and yet captivating. The greater we value the intellect of the person, the grater power the messy physicality of their brain takes on in our imagination. Harvey's seemingly irrational actions can be seen in this light to be an extreme manifestation of the cult of genius that evolved around Einstein and his accomplishments, and can not be separated from the same impulse that has motivated generations of Catholics to preserve the relics of their saints.

Not seen in these saintly terms, Harvey died in 2007, and his brain, to the best of my knowledge, was laid to rest with him.

Einstein's Brain:

For More Information:

Michael Paterniti, Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America With Einstein's Brain.
Carolyn Abraham, Possessing Genius: The Bizarre Odyssey of Einstein's Brain.

(For another scientific relic, see Galileo's finger:

A Beautiful Animism

For me the beauty and the wonder of the movie Wall-e comes from the way in which it is able to instill the fundamentals of life and fellow-feeling in what seems to the human observer to be an inanimate object. While it is CGI, I had the feeling when first watching it that I was observing puppets in motion.

Puppetry as an art is both ancient, and, like many ancient things, deeply under-appreciated. It, and its sibling claymation, has been steadily fazed out because of improvements in computer graphics that see the material construction of cast/scenes to be an unnecessary and complicated expense.

But there is something to be said of the joy of animism in making the inanimate animate through these forms. That a puppeteer could pick up something seemingly dead and with a few skillful motions give it life and personality seems to me to have a powerful effect upon the imagination. It led my mind to reconsider the supposedly harsh duality between matter and mind, spirit and substance, and almost seems to lend a soul to the artifacts around us.

A greater appreciation of the personality of things would do much to ameliorate the present culture of waste and refuse that refuses to adhere to environmental responsibilities. Yet when it comes time for me to throw away some old jacket, or sell some long possessed relic of my childhood, I am often struck with the feeling that I am leaving behind a companion rather than a belonging.

No doubt this view is the height of eccentricity, but such foolishness may well save us in time.

For More Information: (An excellent puppetry theater currently on tour across America)

Clark Ashton Smith

Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) was a self educated poet, sculptor, painter and writer who spent almost the entirety of his life living in a small cabin in Auburn, California. While supporting himself by picking fruit and cutting wood, Smith taught himself French and Spanish, and read encyclopedias and dictionaries to expand his knowledge of a world he seldom traveled in.

It's hard finding Smiths writing in most bookstores, but the website The Eldritch Dark has done a wonderful job of presenting his creative output. I have long admired Smith's works and contribution to uncanny literature, and would not have known anything about him if it wasn't for this delightful find.

Of course, not everyone would agree with me. Smith was in conscious opposition to the realist litterature of his day, and often expressed frustration when critics would chastize his work for not being another reproduction of Hemingway. His fantastical worlds, their ambivalent moralities and cosmic scope, his enjoyment of concepts of reincarnation, mysticism, the evil or indifference of higher intellects and the ultimate finitude of human activity won him few friends in the polite society of letters in 20th century American literature.

But that does not seem to be what he was really after anyway.

My own story, The Gray Men of the Desert of Dust, was originally written as an homage to the first work by Smith that I ever read. The Abominations of Yondo, while not Smith's finest work, captured my imagination with its arcane use of language and atmospheric qualities. Indeed, readers looking for character-driven plots may be disappointed by his style. His protagonists tend to be archetypal, and his female characters too often find themselves in the old duality of the maiden or the witch. Yet I prefer to treat each work as an exquisite painting, and am little troubled by this.

For new readers I would certainly recommend The City of the Singing Flame, The Empire of the Necromancers, The Disinterment of Venus, The Chain of Aforgomon and The Ghoul to get a feel for what Smith was all about.

For More Information: