Saturday, December 31, 2011

Pinter's Krapp

On 15 December at BAM Harvey I attended the performance of Samuel Beckett’s 1958 One-Act Play, Krapp’s Last Tape. John Hurt was Krapp, and in his performance he was precise and chilling, making Krapp rather ascetic and acerbic. In the conversation after the performance Hurt said that he didn’t play the role for laughs though comedic elements are in the opening scene with a banana and the skit of jumping in and out of the spotlight and darkness.

My first experience of Krapp was on the Italian television RAI. As I remembered it, Bert Lahr was Krapp who, in my fading memory, was warmer and more relaxed. I could not find Lahr as Krapp in any performance record. I looked up the Italian title, L’ultimo nastro di Krapp, and I was wrong. Glauco Mauri performed Krapp in 1961 on stage, it must have been telecast shortly later. I was in Italy from January 1962 to August 1963. I was overlaying Lahr in Waiting for Godot on Krapp.

While searching Krapp on video, I discovered that Harold Pinter performed Krapp’s Last Tape at Royal Court in 2006, only two month before his death in December of that year. After ten performances, it was videotaped, and this was available on YouTube in five installments, about ten minutes each. In another YouTube, Ian Rickson, who proposed the event and directed the play, explains tellingly that the the actor started rehearsals soon after a major surgery, and ten performances were absolutely the limit. He acted seated in a motorized wheel chair, and the opening banana and light-and-shadow sequence was evidently omitted (in the video, anyway).

The depth of feeling Pinter brought to the character of Krapp was extraordinary. Pinter, of course, admired Beckett since his youth, but his age and closeness to death may have made the performance especially poignant, though this was probably less than relevant given the superb acting he accomplished with minimal movements, the economy which accords with Beckett’s writing.

The video was shot as a film rather than as a filmed stage play. In general, a stage performance on video is less than satisfactory.  But Krapp is an intimate play, best experienced in the first row next to the stage. Watching the videotaped performance of Pinter’s Krapp, I was struck by the intensity of the play and the performance on the screen which I attribute, first, to the use of closeups and, second, on the camera movement. Combined with the gliding movement of the wheel chair, the fluid camera, visualized the inexorable flow of time better than the image of the stage that remained static in its total composition.

The camera, moreover, brings out the facial acting -- subtle but terribly expressive in Pinter’s performance -- in the closely calculated movements of the eyes, the mouth, the cheeks, and now and then the hands. And we listen to the tape as we watch him listening as though we were sitting close to his face rather than watching him listening as a fixed framed picture. As we listen to the tape and Krapp’s reactions and his soliloquies with a concentrated attention (alone rather than sitting among the audience in a theater), we masticate each and every word of Beckett’s carefully weighted writing which passes too quickly in a staged performance as experienced from a seat in the auditorium.

Beckett’s own choice of actor when it was first performed was Patrick Magee, and later Rick Clutchey and John Hurt, among others. I watched them on YouTube, and they are all good in different ways. But Pinter’s Krapp is, in my opinion, unsurpassed.

There is also a YouTube video of an interview in which Pinter comments on Krapp (available, apparently, only with Spanish subtitle), and another of Pinter talking about Beckett earlier on in 1990 when he was 60.

Harold Pinter in Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape:

Ian Rickson on directing Pinter in Krapp's Last Tape:

Alan Yentob interviews Pinter on Beckett and Krapp's Last Tape:

Harold Pinter tallking about Beckett in 1990:

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sick Sick Qif

My cat Qif suffered a severe diarrhea and vomiting some eleven days ago. On the morning of Friday 2 December, I found the mess she had made overnight all over the place. All day Friday she didn’t drink or eat. She is now fourteen years old, and she has never been seriously sick in her life. She always had a healthy appetite, and she ate well the night before.

Saturday morning I called her vet. I suspected gastroenteritis but I was mostly worried about her dehydrating. I was not able to take her, however, until Monday morning. She had not slept much for two days. She was apparently in pain; her forepaws folded, she stared out vacantly all day. On Monday, the doctor, after a preliminary examination, administered blood tests and radiograph. He then advised that that Qif stay at the clinic overnight for enema. The next day, he reported that she was not constipating but that he suspected pancreatitis. After two nights at the clinic, she was cleared of pancreatitis but there was no diagnosis. On Thursday morning, after paying $1366 covering consultation, examination, tests of all sorts, and lodging for three nights, I picked her up; she was not eating at all, I was told, and might do in the comfort of her home. Back home, she still didn’t eat but she slept, and slept well for the next two days. Friday evening, she came to the kitchen and meowed faintly begging for food. I put a spoonful of her usual salmon treat in her dish; but just sniffed and didn’t eat. I forced water into her mouth with a syringe. I was not successful giving her any of the pills I was instructed to administer. On Sunday, I finally saw a good sign; I saw her drinking water from her water bowl. These two days, she has been eating a bite or two during the whole day. This morning she had three bites; so, she is definitely on the mend.

I sorely missed Qif these three days she was away. It was especially sad the first night; I felt forlorn without her who comes up to my bed and sits on my chest and purrs for a while before retiring to the foot of the bed to lean on my leg to sleep. She is an old cat, and sleeps most of the day; but she is ever present in the fringe of my field of vision. The dead silence in her absence was chilling. I realized, though it was no surprise, how deeply I am dependent on her. I know someday she is going to die and leave me behind but thinking about it gives me shivers.

PS It’s now 14 days since the attack of what seemed like gastroenteritis. Qif is now eating a little more than a few bites several times a day. Three days ago I put some dried food -- small pellets -- in a bowl, which I always had for her snacks, even though I thought she wouldn’t be able to eat them. But she did -- more than her favorite gourmet salmon. So, she is steadily on the mend, though slowly.

PPS Three weeks have passed since Qif took ill. I added water to the salmon paste to make a sort of puree; she didn’t even sniff at it. I gave some raw eggs, well stirred; she didn’t touch it. She threw up once but started eating more of her favorite salmon. Her loss of weight is visible in sagging skin. But I think she is steadily regaining her health.

Merce Cunningham Legacy

I attended three consecutive evenings of Merce Cunningham: The Legacy Tour at BAM last week, the final performances by the company.

The choreographer’s six seminal works, among many, were performed -- three works before 1990 (RainForest 1968, Second Hand 1970, and Roaratorio 1983) and three later works (Pond Way 91998, Biped 1999, and Split Sides 2003). I saw another Legacy performance earlier this year in March at Joyce Theater; this included Antic Meet 1958, Quartet 1982, and CRWDSPCR 1993. Then, in July, at Merce Fair held at Lincoln Center, I saw Squaregame 1976 and Duets 1980. I have been to many Merce events, too, before his death on 26 July 2009 at 90.

Three days of immersion in Cunningham’s choreography brought me some (to me) new and more clarifying observations.

First, his dancers in his dances, in particular in his later works, are noteworthy in avoiding facial expressions and histrionic or even mimetic gesticulations. Their movements are therefore emphatically graphic, created as geometric configurations; his dances are totally non-mimetic and strictly abstract in this sense.

Secondly, in contrast to the works of many other choreographers, Cunningham’s dances are geometrically fully three-dimensional in conception. Dancers, of course, occupy a three-dimensional space and they do move sideways as well as in depth and in diagonal directions. But there is more often in other choreographers works a feel for the audience on one side -- outside the proscenium arch or the fourth wall. Cunningham makes us learn to see his dance group configurations in a fully abstract space without any walls. It is little wonder that he choreographed some of his dances in an open outdoor space. On the other hand, he is sparse in the use of vertical movements -- jumps and leaps.

Thirdly, Cunningham’s dancers, even in leotards or minimal covering, do not exhibit their bodies in their sensuality. Human bodies as bodies do not seem to concern him; he views bodies as composite lines. This makes sense in the light of the process of choreographing his Biped, of which, I believe, it was said that he first choreographed the movements of the legs dissociated from the torso, then the arms by themselves, and finally the torso -- all using the diagrammatic stick figures on the computer. This kind of anatomical disjunction counters the natural counterposition that is the basis of classical contrapposto (as seen in classical sculpture) in which the lines of hips, legs, shoulders, and arms are placed for balance as nature demands. When we lower the left shoulder, the right shoulder rises naturally, and the head counters it in the opposite direction. Cunnigham mechanizes the human figure but also, by forcing it, makes it dynamically charged.

Thirdly, I saw a fundamental source of excitement in Cunningham’s choreography in what I characterize as the seeming repetitiveness which harbors infinite variety which on close and repeated viewing effervesces out of the sameness. In this regard, it occurred to me that those who find Cunningham’s dances boring are most likely those who find Philip Glass’s music repetitive and boring. The works of both these artists reassembles fragmented units into a complex web. In Cunningham’s dances, the dancers often form small groups and perform moves that are unrelated to those of other groups. He explains, as does John Cage, his longtime companion and collaborator, that we experience our natural everyday environment as an assemblage of many unrelated events occurring simultaneously. Viewed this way, most curiously, Cunningham’s dances are so abstract and yet so fundamentally natural.

An elemental piece of this aesthetics is also what I find intensely appealing in Francis Alÿs’s Sheep and the sets of ceramic cups by Emund DeWaal (of The Hare with Amber Eyes).

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Cherry Orchard for Laughs

The Cherry Orchard, featuring John Turturro and Dianne Wiest, is surely entertaining. But that is the bane of this production by the Classical Stage Company. The casting was good; aside from the leads, it had Alvin Epstein as Fiers, Juliet Rylance as Varya, and Daniel Davis as Gaev. The lines were delivered clearly, and the course of events was easy to follow. But the director Andrei Belgrader’s view of Chekhov is apparently slanted toward comedy. Ben Brantley of the New York Times called the production “heartbreakingly funny” and applauded it.

Chekhov himself called the play “a comedy in four acts.” But to understand the word comedy in the modern sense as understood in the age of television, I believe, is a distortion. The Cherry Orchard is more a satire, but this production rinsed out the irony. First of all, the new translation by John Christopher Jones was colloquial for easier understanding of the text; but it failed, for that reason, to portray accurately the upper class of the Ranevsky household. Dianne Wiest’s Ranevskaya lacked class; she made her a fool rather than a sympathetic anachronism out of step with the changes that had happened during her absence. So, John Turturro made Lopakhin into a clown, a bit too vulgar for Chekhov, a vaudeville act. They both performed well, and in consort with them, all the other characters, each in her or his own way, performed for laughs. Roberta Maxwell’s Charlotta, the governess, after repeating her line, “There is no one I can talk to,” continues saying “No one” more than once after her exit as an echo to squeeze laugher (successfully) from the audience. There was consistency among the players; so, the interpretation is evidently the director’s.

What was lost at the expense of clarity is complexity of interpersonal relationships. It is not a simple failure of communication that these Chekhov characters suffer. It is not that they don’t hear each other; they hear but somehow partially, each in her or his own way. The production, eager to create comedy, missed on Chekhov’s poetry, “elusive poetry” in the words of Michael Billington of The Guardian in his review of Howard Davies’s production in London earlier this year. Aura of elegy was sorely missed. It was like a Sung landscape cleared of its mist.

Entertaining as it was, this was The Cherry Orchard for vaudeville, a good histrionic Chekhov, a crowd pleaser.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

December now

Leaves around my feet
race with me frolicking
the northerly wind


Under the bright blue sky
black overcoats everywhere
winter is icomen in



Wednesday, November 30, 2011

C'mon, Salmon, Trout Out!

ふん、あたしのことなんだと思ってるの?あの白らっちゃけたシロもの,なんですって,マス? えっ? ニジマス? あんなもの,食べられると思ってんの。あたしはシャケ一点張り、ワカってるでしょ。毎日スコシづつ混ぜて騙そうたってダメダメ。安っぽいインチキは止めって頂戴。 どっか本に書いてあったの? はい,無言の行。ダンジキもする覚悟よ。

Bah, what do you think I am? What’s that whitish flaky fish? Trout, you say? What? Rainbow trout? You think I’m going to eat the stuff? Salmon is my only dish -- you know that for sure. It’s no good mixing the two fishes bit by bit over a week. Stop the cheap trick. You read it in a book somewhere? I’m going to give you a silent treatment. I’m ready to go into fasting, too.

Well, I should have known better, of course, that cats are finicky and resists changes in diet, especially an old cat like 13-year old Qif. She has never had, aside from the supplementary dried food, anything other than Fancy Feast Savory Salmon. But one day I realized that salmon may be harmful because of the mercury content and got an idea of gradually changing her diet from salmon to white fish. Not only that, availing myself of the special sale, I bought at PetCo three cases of Trout Feast flaked. That’s seventy-two (72) 3oz cans. She gets a quarter-can twice a day. I reduced the usual portion of salmon just a little the first day and put next to it a tiny bit of trout, and increased just a pinch of trout each day. She left the trout in the dish stubbornly. So, I tried stirring the mixture well. She picked out the salmon as best as she could and ate up only ⅔ of her regular portion. After a week I gave up, and I was stuck with 69 cans of trout feast. I didn’t want to dump them. I considered donating them to her vet, finding a friend with a cat who might like trout, and selling them somehow. I out a notice on Craig’s List but a week went by without even a nibble. Finally, I took them back to PetCo with the receipt, though the purchase was three months ago, and the store willingly exchanged all of them for Savory Salmon. Back to salmon pure and unadulterated, Qif licked her dish clean. Dear me.

猫と云うのは,殊に13歳になるキフみたいな老猫は、違った食べ物は容易に受け付けない事、勿論解ってましたけどね。一生、ドライフゥドをのぞいては、鮭の缶詰だけでしたのに,ある日の事ふと,鮭に含まれている水銀が健康に害があるのではないかと気にかかり,白身のお魚に徐々に変えて行こうと云うプランを立て,丁度やっていた特売を幸いと,ニジマスの3オンスの缶を,なんと,3ケース(72缶)買い込んで来たのが,大間違い。一日二回の食事に少しずつ,最初は隣り合わせに与えたのですが,必ずニジマスは食べ残し。後に良くかき混ぜた所、出来るだけ鮭だけをつまみ食いして,白身は食べ残し。とうとう根負け。所が手元に残った69缶の始末に困惑,どこかにキフするか,ニジマスの好きな猫を飼っている知人を捜すか,売りに出すか。クレイグスリストに広告しても反応なくて当惑。漸く思いついて買ったお店に持って行きましたら,幸い鮭の缶と引き換えてくれました。 又元の混ぜ物なしの鮭だけにしたら、こは如何に,キフばあさん、すっかり食べて尽くし、お皿もきれいに舐めるという結果。やれやれ。

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Colonel Blimp

I went to see The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, the 1943 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, restored by The Film Foundation under Martin Scoresese's leadership.  It is a remarkable film in form and substance as recognized by raving reviews but I found especially astounding the transformation in the performance of Roger Livesey (then, 37 years old) from young Clive Candy to the elderly Brigadier General.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Be Careful, Too Late

If you get into an accident and hurt yourself, like taking a fall, or dropping a vase and breaking it, or getting burned by a flying hot oil, someone -- usually someone close to you -- invariably blurts out the familiar tag line: You’d better be careful, or why can’t you be more careful. Ho, ho, ho, I know, I know. I wasn’t careful. If I had been, I wouldn’t have been hurt. It’s too late to tell me that. But I say the same words when someone else has an accident. What I might say, instead, is: Sorry you weren’t a little more careful. This is more compassionate than expressing impatience or irritation with the person who was hurt.

花瓶を落として壊すとか, 油がはねて火傷をするとか, すってんころりと転ぶとか, 何かおっちょこちょいをやらかして怪我をすると、必ず誰か,たいていは親しくしている人,が言う通り言葉は,気を付けないからとか、注意が足りないからとか。おほほっほ、解ってますよだ。注意してたら,怪我なんかしませんよ。言われても、もう手遅れ。でも,誰か他の人が怪我すると,あたしも同じ事言いますね。その代わりに、もう一寸注意すればよかったわね、と言い換えれば,怪我した当人に対して苛立ちや焦燥よりも、同情を表しますね。

Monday, November 21, 2011


面白いですね。「てめえ」は「手前」の変形ですが,手前とは目の前の事。そういう訳で自分の事も手前、話している相手も手前。「手前ども」と言えば謙遜、で「手前の渋っ面」といえば軽蔑。相手を見下げた時には,「てまえ」が「てめえ」になりますけど、それでも、 おめえもてめえ、あっしもてめえ。どっちがてめえだ、「文句はてめえがいってるんだ、てめえは黙ってひっこんでろ」だ。「お」を付けりゃ,茶道の御手前。「わい」も同じ様、自分をさしたり相手をさしたり。

No way whatsoever translating this into English, no sir.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Hard Work, Not Always

Work is a matter of resistance, not simply of the amount of effort . Work cannot be quantified except in economic terms, such as the extent the input outweighs the output. Hard work is hard because it gives displeasure instead of pleasure. Hard work, in short, is drudgery. Work, when enjoyed, ceases to be work; it is then a creative effort. Artists, in all fields, know it. Labor of Love, we say.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sketches Are Only Sketches

Some drawings are done as finished products, others are sketches, that is to say, trial pieces made toward the creation of finished works and thus representing stages in the artistic creation. Or else they are exercises, like quickly executed life drawings done in the studio. Sketches are therefore tentative; as such, they are private works.

They are nevertheless exhibited publicly today in galleries and museums; and they are auctioned and sold and resold and collected as works of art. Like many critics and collectors -- presumably most of them -- I have a deep appreciation of drawings, sketchy or polished, especially those by artists who were or are great draughtsmen and -women.

But when I started to think about the appeal of artists’ sketches, I began to realize that this is a very curious phenomenon. We think, of course, that sketches are valuable. They reveal the artist’s process of thinking and assist us in gaining a better understanding of the works toward which they were made, however sketchy they may be, however slapdash, slipshod, shabby. Through the sketches the artist informs us of her/his initial idea and the ensuing tribulations -- uncertainty, indecisiveness, doubts and reversals -- before reaching the eventual solution achieved to her/his satisfaction. The value in this regard is biographical, and it is inherently different from the artistic value we find in the finished works of art. It has to do with our encounter with the artist, rather than the consummate works themselves seen apart from the person of the artist. A sketch drawings by an anonymous author whose finished works are unknown is no lead to the artist’s mind and is of interest only for the quality of the piece and must be appraised as such. The literary counterpart of the sketch is the draft or work in progress, which is exhibited or published for their biographical interest, not really for their literary merit. The rehearsal for a play and other performing arts may be opened to the public but it is never mistaken for a finished performance. It is only a rehearsal, a tryout to test the work, a step toward the completion. Drawings are treated like finished works of art.

Sketches are predominantly works on paper. But there are oil sketches and underdrawings, sculptors’ wax and terracotta models, known variously as bozzetti, modelli, and maquettes, and full-size drawings for murals, called cartoons. They exist in those cases where a high degree of deliberation is required in creating the finished work, and, therefore, a careful advance planning. There are, on the other hand, those works of art which require supreme craftsmanship and yet lack the trail of drawings leading to their completion. They may not have been made; and, if they were, they were discarded as valueless. Works of ceramics immediately come to mind but also of silverware, glassware, lacquerware, jewelry, tapestry, basketry, and other works that are generally classified as craft rather than art. Craftspersons are not artists, so goes the presumption, and whatever preparatory work that went into the making of the final work, carries no biographical interest. The finished products count, not the makers -- not as much. A half-baked bowl is not of much use, nor tattered tapestry.

We know of the conspicuous paucity of drawings surviving from the 15th century. It is not that Quattrocento artists didn’t draw; sketches were discarded as trash when the work was finished, unless they were deemed reusable as a model for apprentices or for later projects that required a similar design. The underdrawing for a fresco was obliterated under the finished work; the cartoon for it was thrown away. But a new aesthetic outlook developed early in the 16th century. Michelangelo’s cartoon for the Battle of Cascina, an unexecuted fresco project in the Palazzo Vecchio, was so revered and coveted by his pupils and followers that it was cut into pieces and distributed among them as a model and a treasure. Thus, through the sixteenth century, master artists’ drawings were saved and collected by younger artists as well as collectors more and more for the inherent value placed in them as products of great creative minds. Vasari, later in the century, spoke of the sketchy drawing as endowed with the spark of creativity made visible as never possible in the studiously finished work. Artists themselves nonetheless considered drawings are preparatory, even though they saw in those of the mastery traces of an inspired mind.

The 20th-century sensitivity valued spontaneity as an aesthetic merit of highest order. It represents the outpouring of the artist’s unadulterated creative energy free of deliberation. It bespeaks the artist’s innate genius. Eventually, any scribble from a great artist’s hand came to be considered of artistic value, not merely of value as a document of a creative process. The focus of our aesthetic interest has shifted totally from the pleasure given by a carefully deliberated and finished work to the glimpse into the mind of the artist as a unique individual. The process, therefore, became more interesting than the well-made product, more essential a feature of art. The works of some Abstract Expressionists fully demonstrate the aesthetics of the process passing as the product. A splashy smear of paint is seen as expressive, and by that account beautiful, but only if the person of the artist, her/his ego, holds something worthy of being expressed.

In the 21st century, we find indications that the tide is changing. We see more works by younger artists today for whom deliberation seems more challenging and satisfying than spontaneity, more essential a feature of art. The product, more than the process, is becoming the goal of their aspiration.

In the 17th century, Poussin argued that imagination is a natural property of any of us. We all can fantasize and create faries, phantoms, and chimeras; imagination is rampant. The artist’s special gift is the power to give fantasy a consummate form by composing them into a tightly integrated work, To many of us today his sketches show verve and vitality and are more appealing than his seemingly frozen compositions. For him sketches were only sketches. Indeed they are.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Autumn sky 秋空

Blue sky reflected
bright on the glass skyscraper
autumn in New York.


Monday, November 14, 2011

Gingko 銀杏

Gingko bright yellow
five days ago is now bare
ready for winter.


Sunday, November 13, 2011

De Kooning in Retrospect

There is a retrospective of Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) currently at MoMA. He was certainly a major painter of his generation together with Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, and Hans Hofmann. But I consider his most creative years to have been no more than decade from 1945 to 1954. In those years, he produced some of the most impressive works: Pink Angels (1945; Weisman Foundation, LA); Judgment Day (1946; Metroppolitan Museum of Art), Excavation (1950; Art Institute of Chicago), and the Woman series, I through VI (1950-54). These, in particular, combining vigorous brushwork, bold palette, and awesome images, are energetic and heroic and overwhelm the viewer, whether she/he understands the iconography to be misogynous or expressive of female ferocity. At the time, the Women were considered regressive and lesser for being figurative rather than abstract. But in retrospect, as the retrospective allows us, the abstract works that followed them in the later 50s and into the 60s, struck me as weaker in impact. They spatter energy but playfully or else chaotically without the figurative element that provide a controlling armature; both the design and performance lack deliberation. Contradicting the experts in the field, I am tempted to say that after 1954 his oeuvre shows a steady decline; and, possibly exposing my ignorance, I am compelled to speculate that as his name grew in fame and stature he dashed out one canvas after another under the pressure of the galleries who could sell them to private collectors faster than he could paint them so long as the artist name was attached to them. Seeing de Kooning’s abstract paintings in number, we are made keenly aware how they lack strong individuality from one work to the next; they look much too similar and are disconcertingly unmemorable, as Rothko’s seemingly similar canvases are strongly individualized as are Agnes Martin’s in her oeuvre. The art market corrupted the artist as it did Basquiat more efficiently in the 80s. De Kooning after 1980 are, to me, sadly forgettable. It’s only the still pervasive cult of the artist’s name that honors his works after 1954 as equal to his best and the most powerful creations.

Monday, November 7, 2011

A Long Stretch on the Marathon Day

Last Sunday I went to Brooklyn Museum of Art. It was an arduous trip because I live east of 1st Avenue, which was blocked north of 59th Street for the massive NY Marathon and had many detours to negotiate. Moreover, since it was Sunday, the subway was running sparsely on detours and irregular schedule. Anticipating a long trip, I allowed enough time, and though it took two full hours door to door (which normally takes 50 minutes at the most), I got to the museum exactly at 1:00, when I was meeting a friend coming from Chelsea. I suspected that he, too, had a long trip as the usual trains, #2 and #3, to Brooklyn were not running. So, seeing that he hadn’t arrived yet, I phoned his mobile and left a message that I am waiting. By 1:20 I started to get a little restless; then, I saw the clock in the lobby, which said 12:20. Only then did I realize that the Daylight Saving Time ended at 12:00 a.m. Sunday. I was an hour early. So, that’s where my extra hour went, not for a Sunday slumber. Naturally, I was relieved that it was not the Fall change of time to Standard Time, not the Spring change, or I would have kept a friend waiting an hour. Maybe I should have planned to run the marathon.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Farewell, oh, Bacchus

Following the massive gastric hemorrhage last March, which put me in the hospital for five days, I bid farewell to Bacchus who had me well in his protective embrace. My kind doctor advised me to refrain from wine.

I like wine better than beer or ale, or hard liquor. There was a time when I appreciated, in particular, martini and scotch. I was also habituated to aperitif and liqueur, like vermouth, cointreau, campari, and punt-e-mes, which I kept in stock, and sambuco and strega when I was out. I am not into cold beer in hot summer; at one point I learned to appreciate beer at room temperature the old-world Bohemian way that enhances its taste. But nothing beats them all like good dry red wine. I have always had social glass of wine through my adult life, that is, some 60-odd years. But it was in my first sojourn in Italy, 1960-61, that I acquired the habit of a daily glass of wine at the evening table -- a small glass. I was correct in having red with meat and white with fish for a while but progressively I liked red with any kind of cuisine. I never imbibed a lot; a bottle shared by two was the maximum. A glass a day, I firmly believed, was healthful.

I miss having a glass of wine at dinner, and I am melancholic about it. But I shed no tears parting with Bacchus. I was gradually broken into the new habit. When I started to live part-time in New York after retirement, I quit wine at dinner by circumstance as I frequented theater in the evening, and wine at dinner was too soporific. On the days of the week back home in Swarthmore, I kept up the good old habit. Since moving wholesale to New York, I go out theater-hopping almost every night, and I stopped having wine almost completely, that is to say, except on those evenings when I have no theater and go out to have dinner out with friends or to be an invited guest at a friend’s place.

The doctor’s advice was to refrain; she did not say I should abstain. So, I cheat. At a dinner out with a friend, we order the same wine and ask for an extra glass so that I allow myself a half glass and ask my companion to finish the other half. And, oh, it tastes so good -- like any forbidden fruit. As a good Asian, I glow fire-engine red very quickly, so even with a half glass I can appear cheerfully inebriated as though I had several glasses and thus congenially social at a party.

I haven’t really dismissed Bacchus; I am still waving at him in the distance.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Studying Languages without Learning

Studying a foreign language without learning it? It is like embarking on a trip and forgetting once on the way about the destination so that you can pour all your attention on the scenes, scenic or otherwise, and absorb them as fully as you possibly can. For most people taking up a foreign language for study, the motivation is utilitarian. You need it for one reason or another; the idea is to learn it so that you can at least read it, speak it, and possibly write it. It is a charming idea to know Italian in preparation for a trip to Florence; it is a generous gesture to try to learn Spanish to be friends with your new neighbors; it is an admirable thought to want to read Goethe in German, Flaubert in French, and Pushkin and Chekhov in Russian. It is a matter of responsibility to learn a particular language in order to read untranslated documents necessary for a research work. After a few years of study, you may be gratified with the result of your study. But, short of a degree of mastery, the effort is felt to have been in vain. Dropping the study after a while, unable to go further, you feel disappointed and even humiliated.

But studying a new language has a benefit of its own apart from achieving any pragmatic outcome. Language lessons, by and large, demand an enormous amount of time in building the vocabulary; but learning words is a mechanical affair which can be done on your own with a dictionary and flash cards. The essential part of language study is the mastery of the syntax rather than the lexicon. That is harder but more rewarding. Studying the syntax also exposes the semiotic boundaries of words unique to the particular language. For example, the English word “sister” covers two semiotic realms in Japanese which distinguishes “ane” (older sister) from "imôto" (younger sister) and lacks a single designation like "sister." Conversely, one Japanese word “yubi” identifies the “finger” and the “toe,” and “oyayubi” (literally, parent finger) covers two English terms “thumb” and “big toe” Every language has words that are untranslatable -- in the sense that there is no corresponding single term in another language, like “die Stimmung” and “l’esprit.” It’s the exposure to the syntax and semiotics of a new language that necessarily gives the learner a glimpse into some aspect of the culture of which that language is a part, a sort of kink in the way of thinking as seen from one’s own mother tongue; we learn in our encounter with a very different way of formulating ideas linguistically a possibility of a different way of thinking and, therefore, of viewing the world. In turn, it makes us aware of the peculiarities of our own culture which we readily take as unquestionably natural. Even if you dropped the study after a few weeks into the course, you come to realize an alternative way of thinking without having learned to use that language even passably. Even the basic understanding of the tones in Chinese as signifiers and the phonetic detail like the French “t,” which is not aspirated as the English “t” is, can be a revelation if we manage to stop and think about it. More removed the foreign language is from one’s own, say as Chinese, Arabic, and Swahili are to the English language speaker, the greater the benefit of becoming enlightened about the different modes of thinking. In order to gain an insight into another culture, you must study the language of that culture for what it is, not toward learning it to put into use.

Studying a subject for its own sake free of its utilitarian end is, indeed, the humanistic nature of the liberal arts education; it may appear to be a useless pursuit but in reality studying without necessarily trying to learn is as valuable as studying in order to learn. For a further observation on this matter, see my essay: The Usefulness of Usselessness.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Film Editing and History

An event or a scene can be described interestingly or boringly, dramatically or academically, expressively or sentimentally, clearly or confusingly. It depends not only on the choice of words but on their arrangement and pacing as well as the placement of stresses and pauses. In short, a good narration is articulated in writing or spoken presentation but especially in the latter. Similarly, a film will be incoherent unless well articulated. The scenes shot might be beautiful, interesting, and touching in isolation but, regardless of the quality of the shots, editing creates the final effect. Fiction or non-fiction, telling well means a good story-telling; in this sense, the documentary is fiction (and vice versa, as Jean-Luc Godard said and believed). Documenting reality is inexorably fiction because the filmmaker selects what to include in the work and thereby has to eliminate much of what actually exists in reality. Writing history is also inevitably selective. There is no comprehensive exposition of history, spoken or written; or, if such an attempt is made there is only a profuse confusion or confusing profusion. History, too, rather than presented comprehensively, must be edited to be comprehensible.

Small Eggs

Small eggs vanished from the market because they are sold in disguise encased in the boxes marked Medium; and, so, Medium is Large, Large is Extra Large, and Extra Large as JUMBO. Or, have hens, hormon-fattened, stopped laying small eggs? In fact, medium eggs have more recently disappeared, too. The thought occurred to me because the dozen eggs I got at the neighborhood Green Market recently were visibly and demonstrably small, very small.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Too Short, Not Really

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking,
But now, God knows,
Anything goes.
           -- Cole Porter, 1934

Over the summer we saw the hemline of miniskirts rising up higher than ever, getting dangerously close to showing the underwear, if not the buttocks, and, on occasion, actually exposing the cheeks to the public view, even without stooping. Young wearers of these micro miniskirts (and ultra short hot pants, too) no doubt relish the thrill of their daring; and men, I suppose, revel in the feast to their eyes, while mothers try in vain to stop their daughters going out in them.

“Too short” was the outcry of women past adolescence, who themselves wouldn’t dare sport such a daringly hemline. The line it was believed to have crossed was decency. So, the young wearers were charged for being vulgar, lewd, and provocative, and even subscribing to sexism. “They are dressed like whores,” the censure usually concurred.

When we say too short, we mean that it exceeded the acceptable short length; and by acceptable we mean that the length, though short, was the one prevalently worn by young women at large. But the curious thing is that in fashion history the standard of decent length changed drastically over time; and that is to say the notion of modesty has changed with it, too. The skirt at one time in Victorian era had a train; the hemline then rose to the floor length and yet shorter to the ankle length, and the exposure of the ankles was scandalous at first. Flapper girls in mid-1920s wore skirts at knee length or shorter, and they were at first regarded titillating. When Mary Quant and André Courrèges introduced the miniskirt in 1965, it was a sensation; and it was “too short” and "indecent" to the no-longer-so-young women of the day. The mini, it was even said, invited rape, and it was banned in Europe for a while. But it eventually became a prevailing fashion and it was then acceptable, and when it became acceptable it was no longer “too short.” Fashion historically defined morality, not vice versa. So, earlier, Marie Antoinette's scandalous diaphanous gown, virtually see through, became the fashionable robe-en-chemise.


Women’s beachwear early in the 20th century was still little different from street clothing, as we see on the swimwear contestants for Miss America 1923. Eventually, the tank suit or maillot came into being, followed after World War II by the bikini, which in the next decades got smaller and smaller in coverage into the string bikini, and then in the 1980s the thong or tanga came into fashion, and it exposed the buttock in its fullness, and it was no longer subject to censorship.

So, the style of showing the cheeks spilling out of a micro miniskirt, when adopted by enough adherents, may become a matter of fact, like the deep décolletage, acceptable in history one time or another, has returned in fashion in the last couple of years.  It is therefore, far from inconceivable that at some point in the future the fully exposed buttock, after the initial shock, may become an acceptable fashion, bringing the bikini and even the thong from the beach to the street in hot summer days.

If the micro miniskirt seems too revealing, it might be useful to consider the skintight tights and stretch jeans that so clearly outline the buttock and the crotch without exposing them in the flesh, even more than the skintight micro minidress does, perhaps no less obscene to those who object to the skirt that is “too short.”

It is hard to believe today that before World War I only prostitutes wore black stockings. Whoever it was who first wore them outside the profession must have been called names. Times change; and the parameters of morality change, too.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we are told, and so is obscenity.