Monthly Archives: December 2007

The breaking year

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May
Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May, 1909, by John Waterhouse 

In honour of the breaking new year, and of this annual time of resolutions, strategies, and self-reflection, a sonnet about life and youth and time by one of Spain’s greatest poets, Luis de Góngora (1561-1627):

While trying with your tresses to compete
in vain the sun’s rays shine on burnished gold;
while with abundant scorn across the plain
does your white brow the lily’s hue behold;

while to each of your lips, to catch and keep,
are drawn more eyes than to carnations bright;
and while with graceful scorn your lovely throat
transparently still bests all crystal’s light,

take your delight in throat, locks, lips, and brow,
before what in your golden years was gold,
carnation, lily, crystal luminous,

not just to silver or limp violets
will turn, but you and all of it as well
to earth, decay, dust, gloom, and nothingness.

(Translation by Alix Ingber, Sweet Briar College)

Happy new year, everyone!

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It ends in murder

benazir-bhutto.jpg
Benazir Bhutto in 2006 (Photo: Reuters/Toby Melville) 

As world news organizations fall over themselves to provide broad-brush background and analysis on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, go read Tariq Ali’s recent LRB profile of and full-scale backgrounder on Bhutto; your investment in time will be repaid with greater comprehension. Example: A BBC piece today describes the 1996 murder of Benazir’s brother Murtaza curtly and with inoffensive vagueness. “He won elections from exile in 1993 and became a provincial legislator, returning home soon afterwards, only to be shot dead under mysterious circumstances…” By comparison, here’s Ali on the same subject:

Some months later, in September 1996, as Murtaza and his entourage were returning home from a political meeting, they were ambushed, just outside their house, by some seventy armed policemen accompanied by four senior officers. A number of snipers were positioned in surrounding trees. The street lights had been switched off. Murtaza clearly understood what was happening and got out of his car with his hands raised; his bodyguards were instructed not to open fire. The police opened fire instead and seven men were killed, Murtaza among them. The fatal bullet had been fired at close range. The trap had been carefully laid, but as is the way in Pakistan, the crudeness of the operation – false entries in police logbooks, lost evidence, witnesses arrested and intimidated, the provincial PPP governor (regarded as untrustworthy) dispatched to a non-event in Egypt, a policeman killed who they feared might talk – made it obvious that the decision to execute the prime minister’s brother had been taken at a very high level.

… In an interview on an independent TV station just before the emergency was imposed [by President Pervez Musharraf], Benazir was asked to explain how it happened that her brother had bled to death outside his home while she was prime minister. She walked out of the studio. A sharp op-ed piece by [Murtaza’s daughter] Fatima in the LA Times on 14 November elicited the following response: ‘My niece is angry with me.’ Well, yes.

Bhutto’s life story is a remarkable one, but it’s also complex and murky, and we should be on our guard against simplistic narratives (suiting Western media and politicians alike) of cosmopolitanism vs. fundamentalism and civilian vs. military rule. As with the hall of mirrors regime that Musharraf has constructed and continues to adapt to his needs, appearances rarely reflect reality.

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Spurning the glass teat

Florida Youth Orchestra 

With the writers strike threatening to turn American television into a wasteland of re-runs and reality-based programming, one could be forgiven for assuming that a final and ignominious descent into cultural oblivion is nigh. So it is with a sense of holiday joy that I present to you the counter-argument, namely, that American arts culture is thriving as it never has before. Thus writes art critic and journalist Douglas McLennan in a recent (okay, month-old) post on his very interesting blog diacritical:

In 1950 there was only one full time orchestra in America. In 1965, there were only three state arts commissions. Now there are 18 full 52-week orchestras, and more than 3,000 arts commissions at the local and state levels. The 1990s were the biggest expansion of arts activity in American history; we went on a construction binge, building more than $25 billion worth of new museums, theatres, concert halls and cultural centers. Since 1990, almost one-third of all American museums have expanded their facilities. Major American museums such as the Met and the Museum of Modern Art are now so crowded the experience of visiting them has degraded.

The number of performing arts groups is up 48 percent since 1982. Last year American music schools graduated more than 14,000 students, and new fine art academies are popping up all over and overflowing with students. There are more than 250,000 choruses in America – that’s choruses, not people in choruses. That means that more than four million people a week are getting together to sing. There are at least that many book clubs. Opera attendance is up 40 percent since 1990. Band instrument sales are at an all-time high, and in cities like Seattle, where I live, the youth orchestra program is so crowded, more and more orchestras have been added. Culture is a $166 billion industry, accounts for 5.7 million jobs and is America’s top export.

Now, this says nothing about the quality of art being produced by (or even for) all this activity, and elitists will certainly point out that having thousands of teenagers puffing away on trumpets does little to produce an American Mozart. But certainly the existance and enthusiasm of so many cultural participants and consumers is a sign of hope for the producers of art (or rather, to use a less market-inspired word, for artists); such a constituency provides revenue both directly in the form of sales, and indirectly in the form of favourable public opinion that might positively influence the aggregate level of arts funding granted by governments. It also elevates standards, as any exposure to the great works of the past is wont to do.

Television a cultural wasteland? Sure — but who cares?

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Ghosts unmentioned

Henk Hofstra’s “urban river”
Water is Leven, by Henk Hofstra (2007)

The ongoing interplay between man and nature occasionally throws up an oddity. In the usual course of things, cities and farmlands spread inexorably, fundamentally distorting (where not destroying outright) the ecosystems they encounter. Far less frequently, it is mankind who retreats — leaving concrete bunkers behind after a war, for example, which soon enough become overgrown and inhabited by wild cats and bats (see my post on Germany’s Westwall here).

What man hardly ever does, however, is memorialize the nature he has displaced. This is one of the objectives of Dutch artist Henk Hofstra‘s “blue road” in Drachten (thanks to Torontoist for featuring the project and several pictures of it), which runs for 1000 metres exactly and sports eight-metre-high letters that say (in Dutch) “WATER IS LIFE”:  the city road that Hofstra painted vivid blue runs along the course of a former waterway.

The idea of building memorials to vanquished nature is an appealing one. Imagine our cities with multi-block areas painted deep green to symbolize the woods that were cut down to make way for buildings, or yellowy-brown to represent the fields bulldozed under. Perhaps we could even paint shadow animals — like the silhouettes we sometimes paint to represent the real or potential human victims of nuclear bombs — here a moose, there a porcupine, that scattering of shapes on the next block representing a flock of passenger pigeons we netted for meat and stuffed into boxcars.

But could we live with such images pointing their accusing wings and paws at us while we shop for designer clothing and eat in fine restaurants? No, which is why we do not mention these ghosts, nor build memorials to them. Far better to forget.

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Liquid aviary

Alex Trochut, illustration pattern

A detail from a rather striking design by Barcelona designer Alex Trochut, prepared for ad agency Wieden + Kennedy. The deliquescent flowers jump out at the viewer, but, once noticed, the hummingbirds are even more pleasing.

Or is it the reverse?

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The things we don’t choose

Casey Affleck

The neighbourhood is the kind of place where ten-year-old boys on bicycles tell you to “fuck yourself and fuck your mother” when you ask them to move out of the road. Where the local tavern is frequented by a skeleton crew of thugs and broken-down old men at two o’clock in the afternoon. Where the mother of an abducted child – an event that has put her at the centre of a regional media frenzy – is a foul-mouthed, hard-faced, homophobic drug-addict.

This is south Boston, as envisioned by Ben Affleck – now a very capable director – in Gone Baby Gone, a movie based on Dennis Lehane’s book of the same name. Over its opening scenes of weathered walk-ups with overweight and under-dressed local girls hanging around on ground-floor balconies, the film’s hero, a young private investigator named Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck), comments on the nature of identity: “I think that it’s the things we don’t choose that make us who we are. Our neighborhoods, our families…”

[spoiler warning] His thesis is borne out by element after plot element. When Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), Kenzie’s girlfriend and professional partner, recognizes a friend of the missing girl’s mother as a former classmate, the woman instantly takes note of Angie’s clean hair and pressed clothing and snaps, “I see you’re still as conceited as ever.” Lionel McCready refers to his sister Helene’s alcoholism and drug addiction as an affliction rather than a sin: “She’s got the gene,” he says simply. And Kenzie, in his search for 4-year-old Amanda McCready, is able to draw on a network of childhood connections which give him trusted access to the criminal king-pins of his neighborhood. In Affleck’s and Lehane’s Boston – as in the Boston of Lehane’s earlier Mystic River, where cop, gangster, and suspect started as boyhood friends – your past follows you everywhere.

After a stop-start investigation in cooperation first with two Boston PD detectives (Ed Harris and John Ashton), and then with a local drug lord and long-time acquaintance, Kenzie finally discovers that the missing girl has been abducted by none other than the head of the police department’s missing-children division, Capt. Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), whose own child had been murdered years ago. In a near-final scene, Kenzie and Doyle confront each other at the captain’s country house, tensely debating whether Amanda should be returned to her mother.

Their debate is short but fascinating. The policeman argues from a vantage point of ends-justifying-the-means instrumentality. With a wastrel as a mother, Amanda probably would be doomed to a life of poverty and crime. Living with Doyle and his wife, by contrast, she has a chance to grow up loved and in prosperity. Doyle tells Kenzie that if he calls the state police, he’ll condemn himself to watching the child grow up in terrible circumstances, and will live to regret his decision.

Casey Affleck’s acting is powerful not because it is uncommonly subtle or dramatically expressive, but because it convincingly portrays the public face of a quiet and wary young man who has been conditioned since childhood to use bluff and bravado to ward off violence, and who knows that in the unforgiving world he inhabits, he cannot let down his cool-eyed persona for a moment. When faced with tremendous moral choices, therefore, his expression does not change – but he pauses, and as he does so we fill in the gap; we join him in his mind and desperately attempt to help him find the right answer. So when he finally does respond to the dilemma, we are relieved that he has found an acceptable articulation of at least a few of our own thoughts. Something had to be said, and he has managed to find something to say.

Yet what he actually says is surprising. Against Doyle’s extreme pragmatism, he doesn’t oppose high-minded concepts like the rule of law or universal ethics – this is not A Man for All Seasons – but relies instead on an equally emotional and equally valid pragmatism. Helene might never change, Kenzie admits, and he knows he might live to regret his decision. But he cannot face the possibility that Amanda might one day discover her roots, and might ask him why he knew that she had been abducted, taken by a strange family, and yet did nothing about it. His emphasis on the girl’s authentic origins is a casting back to Kenzie’s opening words about the things we don’t choose making us who we are. To him, Amanda McCready is from south Boston, born of Helene McCready. It might not be much of a birthright, but it’s hers. To abduct her was a grave sin, but to deprive her of her rightful identity would be theft of an equally terrible kind.

Ben Affleck has co-written and directed a thoughtful and often gripping movie about identity and origins. Yet it’s an interesting development for him: the last time he co-wrote a film set in south Boston, Good Will Hunting, he had his math-genius protagonist (Matt Damon) doggedly intending to stay forever in the old neighbourhood among the friends he grew up with, and having to be read the riot act by his best friend (played, ironically, by Ben Affleck) in order to get him to pursue a higher destiny elsewhere, anywhere – far away, at least, from south Boston.

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Repent, ye sinners, repent

Tortura del agua 

Professor of theological ethics and director of the Martin Marty Center at U. Chicago’s divinity school, William Schweiker provides more historical background on the practice of waterboarding:

In the Inquisition, the practice was not drowning as such, but the threat of drowning, and the symbolic threat of baptism. The tortura del agua or toca entailed forcing the victim to ingest water poured into a cloth stuffed into the mouth in order to give the impression of drowning. Because of the wide symbolic meaning of “water” in the Christian and Jewish traditions (creation, the great flood, the parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus and drowning of the Egyptians (!), Christ’s walking on the water, and, centrally for Christians, baptism as a symbolic death that gives life), the practice takes on profound religious significance. Torture has many forms, but torture by water as it arose in the Roman Catholic and Protestant reformations seemingly drew some of its power and inspiration from theological convictions about repentance and salvation.

Schweiker’s column is worth reading in full, as he explores the unverbalized but plausible religious implications of the use of waterboarding by the U.S. government.

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