It's a fictional streetscape we wander, here, a metropolis whose buildings, boulevards, and back alleys are in a constant state of flux. This is every place, and yet, no place at all - a city of dreams and a dream of a city.

Here, we explore the life and work of Ivan Illich and his circle of collaborators. There's no comprehensive index to the articles published, but we invite you to use the Search box, to the left, and to explore the Archive links that appear at the bottom of each page. Comments are welcomed.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Diagramming a Beatles song

Someone has come up with a clever graphical depiction of a famous Beatles song, here.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Recalling Ivan Illich, the man

Not only was Ivan Illich a challenging thinker and illuminating critic of modern, industrialized life, he was a remarkable man who lived life, day to day, year by year, in a remarkable way. And those who knew or even met him briefly were generally impressed as much by the man himself as by his thinking.

As someone has written in an review, Illich was a "conscientious objector to modernism." In a joyful, even foolish way, he sought to keep alive traditions and a sense of humanity and friendship that were under constant attack from all sides - by the degradation of language, by endless schooling, by the accelerating homogenization of jobs, landscape, and culture.

He managed to walk the entire length of the Andes, for instance, and even when speaking to large audiences, he often declined to use a microphone. The one time we saw him speak - in NYC in early 1985 - he made a point of shaking hands with every person who'd come to hear him; and then, he asked us all to simply listen and converse with him, to not take notes or make recordings or treat him as anyone special.

Ordained as a priest, he became one of the Church's fiercest critics. Why did the Church contribute so much to the misguided effort to "develop" poor nations along the American model? Why did it rail so against abortion, he asked, but not against nuclear weapons? And why did the Church - more specifically, why did its head theologian, Cardinal Ratzinger, later to be named pope - rely on scientific definitions of "life" in its arguments against abortion? Illich was, of course, eventually ex-communicated.

Perhaps most famously, Illich lived for the last 20 years of his life with a disfiguring and increasingly painful tumor on the right side of his face; early on, he declined to have surgery, mainly because it might well have affected or cost him his ability to speak.

We understand that Illich wanted to be known and appreciated only for his work, not for his life, or even less for a few brief moments of celebrity. (His grave, in the shadow of a Lutheran church in Bremen, Germany, is marked by a wooden cross, not a stone.) Yet, we cannot help but wonder if an oral biography of the man might not be fitting - an effort to record people's memories of him, so to speak. So many people were touched and deeply impressed by their encounters with Illich, no matter if those encounters were momentary or lasted for many years. He was, in many ways, larger than life. And repeatedly, we've heard people who either met or worked with Illich describe him and his ways with great enthusiasm.

In this vein, we point readers to two warmly and well-written reminisces of Illich that recently have come to our attention, each recalling a remarkable vitality and joie de vivre.

A site called Philia, A Dialogue on Caring Citizenship, describes itself so:

The Philia Dialogue is a global conversation on citizenship. More specifically, it's a conversation on caring citizenship - a notion of citizenship based on contribution, participation, relationship, and a commitment to the common good.

Our inspiration for this dialogue stems from our roots in the disability community. We believe that welcoming the presence and participation of people with disabilities as well as others who have been marginalized or isolated - will revitalize our communities and strengthen our society. In fact, we believe that everyone has an important contribution to make to civic life, and that the health of our society depends on the active participation of all citizens. So we want to make sure that everyone is included in the conversation.

The site specifically mentions Illich as a major inspiration. And among its founding members is a Sam Sullivan, currently the mayor of Vancouver, who recalls spending three days in the company of Illich and his circle at the home of Jerry Brown, former governor of Calif. and the then-mayor of Oakland. One short passage:

When Ivan Illich was born the doctors believed he had a mental disability and should not
be put in school. So from a very young age he engaged in self-study. He also spoke the
many languages of his different caregivers, to the extent that he never was able to point
to one mother tongue. in both his conversation and his writing he would switch
seamlessly from one language to another. I was with him one evening when a number of
his intellectual devotees arrived from various parts of the world. They would be speaking
animatedly when someone would quote a philosopher in German. The conversation
would then switch entirely to German. When someone quoted someone else in French,
the conversation would continue in French, and then move effortlessly to Spanish. Well
into the conversation Ivan realized I was not always following when he directed a
question at me in another language. Because he knew I spoke some Chinese, and he
had once tried (and failed) to master that language, he assured me that the next we met
we would continue in Chinese!

Another recollection of Illich shows up in Ode, a magazine "about the people and ideas that are changing our world for the better." "The forgotten thinker you need to know" recalls a 2001 visit with Illich at his home in Bremen.

Illich was generous with his time, the writers recall: "While the forces of development and a certain vision of progress race forward every day, Illich showed no bitterness the day we spoke. 'I'm not stupid enough to think I can really change anything, but I can poke fun at the system.'

He admitted, though, that he does feel "heartache" for people who should know better, yet choose to stick to the beaten path. He recounted a discussion he once had with the former head of the World Bank, Robert McNamara. "I explained how technology is not always the solution to poverty and injustice. That equality and freedom continue to be an illusion in a world with cars." McNamara replied: "If there weren't any airplanes, I couldn't have gone to Bangladesh last week to discuss emergency aid for a flood disaster. [Illich] asked him whether his talks were a success. 'No,' [McNamara] said, 'procedural problems stood in the way.' Shortly thereafter he broke off the discussion and left to fly his private jet to his vacation home."

Yet another personal essay about Illich, published in 2003, can be found at First Things, a journal of what - religious philosophy? Peter L. Berger, a sociologist, theologian, and co-author of a book that had a strong effect on Illich, The Social Construct of Reality, remembers working closely with Illich, even planning to write a book with him, but later finding their analyses and conclusions diverging irreconcilably. Berger notes this bit of human drama:

After the mid–1970s
our contacts became intermittent. Illich often called me from some airport,
announced that he was coming through Boston, and informed me that he would come
by the house for a short visit. One time he kept a taxi waiting outside while
we talked. Then there was the surreal episode of the migrant scarf. Illich
possessed a rare scarf, made from both llama and alpaca hair, which had been
given to him by a Peruvian philosopher. Illich called me from New York, telling
me that he had forgotten the scarf in the office of his publisher, who was
going to mail it to me; he would then pick it up on a forthcoming visit to
Boston. Illich arrived, but the scarf did not. Next, he asked me to forward it
to Atlanta where, he informed me, he spent every New Year’s Eve with the widow
of Erich Fromm (Fromm lived in Cuernavaca for a while and had become a friend).

The scarf arrived, some days after Illich’s visit, and I duly sent it on to
Atlanta. But a quick recapitulation of Illich’s itinerary made me doubt that
the scarf would reach him in Atlanta either. I then had a vision of the scarf
following Illich, from continent to continent, never reaching him—a metaphor of
unending pilgrimage. (I never did learn where the scarf ended up.)

Berger concludes:

About two years ago I received a short letter from Illich. He regretted that we had seen so little of each other in recent years and thanked me for having given him some ideas that he had not had before. It read like a goodbye letter. I knew
that he had been seriously ill, and I phoned him in Mexico. It was a brief conversation. He said that he was quite well, that he was working. Then he added: “I am ready for departure” (we spoke in German—“abreisebereit”). May his journey be full of glory.

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Monday, December 07, 2009

In the Graveyard of the Text

It's remarkable the range of present-day issues that Ivan Illich's work is able to illuminate even now, 7 years after his death and many more years after he was writing, speaking, and publishing to such acclaim. This is a function of his radical and ever-deepening analysis of modern, industrialized life and its institutions and even more, his desire to understand what it has meant to be human.

Take something as arcane as the mounting concern for the future of the book - the book as repository of knowledge, source of entertainment, centerpiece of schooling, most-respected form of expressing one's self, and product of a huge industry. Whenever we stumble onto speculation about what the effect on the book and publishing industry will be from gizmos like's Kindle or from Google's already-huge library of digitally scanned books, and whenever we see discussions about, say, the merits of students relying on Wikipedia instead of Britannica, we can't help but think back to In the Vineyard of the Text, a 1993 book about reading in the 12th century as well as what Illich saw as the demise of "bookish" culture - a term he borrows from George Steiner. For 800 years, Illich writes, "universal bookishness [has been] the core of western secular religion, and schooling its church." But this era is coming to an end, Illich writes:

"The book has now ceased to be the root-metaphor of the age; the screen has taken its place."

By describing in detail a momentous set of changes in the physical act of reading that took place in the 12th century, Illich shows that bookish reading had a beginning. Most people alive today have taken this kind of bookish, or scholastic reading for granted, as the only one worth doing, but Illich argues that it is but one of many possibilities, contingent on the existence of various societal forces and techniques. And what's more, because it had a beginning, this kind of reading will come to an end - an end that Illich saw coming 16 years ago and that now seems to be accelerating as bandwidth increases, screens improve, batteries last longer, and the Internet penetrates daily life more fully.

Bookish reading can now clearly be recognized as an epochal phenomenon and not as a logically necessary step in the progress toward the rational use of the alphabet; as one mode of interaction with the written page among several; as a particular vocation among many, to be cultivated by some, leaving other modes to others.

Illich is not so interested in the mechanics of reading - whether books are made from paper or silicon - as he is in the book's symbolic fallout. Bookish reading ushered into being a very new and different mental space, Illich explains, with text now disassociated, or abstracted, from its out-loud vocalization and even from a particular page or book. Reading aloud from the page gave way to silent, contemplative engagement with the text, and once the text itself was organized into paragraphs and chapters and its topics indexed according to the entirely arbitrary order of the alphabet, scholars could think about, dissect, and refer to the text and its ideas in entirely new ways. And even those who could not read books at all - for many centuries, the great majority of people - were affected by these changes. The book shaped the popular mind and people's understanding of themselves and their world. Everyone, reader or not, came to believe in the "book of life," for instance, and the modern conscience was perceived as a book that could be read by priests and perhaps re-written with sufficient effort. Illich points out, too, that the separation of words by spaces, a new device in the 12th century, coincided with early glimpses of what we now understand as the modern individual, quite separate from others.

Today, those of us living in the intensely bookish culture wrought by these changes cannot fully grasp the mental space in which our pre-bookish predecessors lived and thought. There's no way, in other words, of undoing literacy - of unlearning what it is to understand the world through and as text. Likewise, there is no way for purely oral cultures to understand our literate culture. And now, Illich sees a similarly unbridgeable chasm opening up between our book-centric culture and the future culture that will be mentally shaped by screen, network, and instant hyperlink.

Many pundits strive to extrapolate from today's hardware and networking trends to predict the shape, power, size, and price of future reading devices, and to figure out what new business models those devices might support, and to imagine what all these changes will have on learning and living and playing. Illich, however, declines to engage in any such speculation, understanding that what's more important - even if it's much less graspable - is the entirely new symbolic landscape whose construction we are witnessing.

And even before the advent of computers and TV, he notes, how Western culture has understood itself and the world is increasingly through a flood of visual means and metaphors: charts, graphs, risk profiles, hand-drawn and photographic images, comics, X-rays, and computer-simulated virtual realities, for instance. And this development, he argues, can be traced all the way back to the earliest Christians - a topic we may try to tackle in another post.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Axel Krygier

It was German Muzikmeister Uwe Schmidt's Señor Coconut persona - one of several dozen that he has invented - who led us to our current fascination with Latin electronic/dance/alternative music. And this is to say that we're particularly taken, right now, by the music of a certain multi-instrumental Argentinean named Axel Krygier. To cut to the chase, check out his MySpace page, where he has put up a wealth of good, interesting music and, especially, videos.

Sr. Coconut first hooked us on neo-Latino, or electro-Latino, several years ago with his fabulous covers of Kraftwerk's music. What Schmidt realized is that Latin music and electronic dance music share a reliance on strictly-formulated rhythmic patterns and phrases, called claves in Latin music circles. Cha-cha, mambo, son, rhumba, bossa nova - all Latin styles are structured around distinctive rhythmic patterns. Likewise, electronic dance music is composed largely of repeating loops, which often get repeated and layered on top of each other to create catchy polyrhythms and, in some cases, trance-inducing passages. So, why not apply electronic techniques to Latin claves, sequencing and layering them, too? Schmidt adds to this a variety of other moves, including lots of samples taken from old Latin dance hits and a broad and playful palette of electronic glitches - all those clicks, beeps, buzzing, and other noises that are artifacts of digital and analog circuitry but now, instead of being anathema are warmly embraced.

Axel Krygier is not strictly an electronic musician - and nor, for that matter, is Sr. Coconut, who "plays" his Mac laptop on stage with live musicians - but he is from Latin America and he does work with tango and other Latin rhythms and he indulges in a fair amount of sampling and electronic sound-making. He makes jazz-pop music, we'd call it - a smart mix of traditional and post-modern. Lots of horns and winds and upright bass and standard drums - a great sense of swing. He writes music for films. Like Schmidt and his The Roger Tubesound Ensemble, there is a solid appreciation for - and skill in - pre-electronic music. One of my most favorite pieces of his is "Echale Semilla!," a good remix of which I am glad to include, here:

I only wish I spoke Spanish, even a little, so I could understand more of and about Axel Krygier!

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Literary Fun

The NY Times has a nifty blog story about its work with the Morgan Library to bring Web fans complete, high-quality access to a facsimile of the first draft of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. All 66 pages are available for browsing. The story's comments are worth a look, too.

"The Social Construction of Energy"

We're looking forward with some anticipation to the arrival in a month or two of a never-before-published essay by Ivan Illich. "The Social Construction of Energy" is appearing in a publication out of Harvard called New Geographies. Any new publication of Illich is welcome, but this one is especially so as its topic is one for which we have maintained a long fascination, ever since early 1985, when we heard Illich discuss his thoughts on the matter during a wide-ranging series of evening talks in New York.

Before Newton's radically new explanation of gravity caught on, the common explanation for why everyday objects fell to the ground when dropped from a height did not rely on professional jargon and symbols. Newton's famous apple fell from the tree branch because it was heavy and because as a piece of matter, its proper place was on the ground. This common-sense understanding of "gravity," described by Aristotle, may not lend itself to mathematical analysis or help to predict solar eclipses or land rockets on distant targets, but it was just fine for people making do in the pre-modern world.

It was decades before Newton's math-based theory of gravitational force, along with the mathematical calculus that he (and separately, Liebniz) invented to explain that force, managed to catch hold with masses of scholars. But Newton's tying of force, mass and acceleration together in his three famous laws of motion did spark a revolution in physics. And eventually, university students and then younger pupils were taught Newton's laws as "the truth," and voila - a new set of "stuffs" had been socially constructed. One of these, called "energy," grabbed scientists and later, lay people, and is now widely accepted as yet another truth.

This energy, scientists came to understand and explain to others, was an abstract stuff, quite distinct from the physical forms in which its existence was evident. Energy flowed, it could be transformed (from an object in motion to electrical and then chemical form, for instance), it could be stored and manipulated and applied to performing work, it could be spent. As abstract and mutable as it was, though, energy was measurable with increasing accuracy. And its effects and transformation could be predicted with increasing accuracy, too, thanks to ever more-sophisticated mathematical techniques.

Like gravity, energy as we now understand it simply did not exist for the pre-modern, pre-Newtonian scholar. Fires created heat, oxen pulled heavy ploughs, and the sun scorched the earth. But these phenomena were not understood as examples of some universal, abstract stuff called energy being consumed or transformed or conserved.

Eventually, of course, a whole discourse, largely mathematical - think Classical Thermodynamics - grew up around this "energy" and by now, nobody thinks much about its origins - or, more significantly, that it even has an origin and history and that it is, in fact, a social construction. Nor do we often consider how our understanding of energy is so heavily influenced by modern economics, which are underpinned by the assumption that everything of value is scarce.

Or so we understand it, having thought about Illich's talk ever since. We have no doubt that his exploration of the topic runs much broader and deeper, touching on ideas such as the history of the body, gender, and his attempt, eventually abandoned, to write a "history of scarcity." Evidently, his argument so startled and captivated us that we failed to jot down any notes while listening. We do remember, though, that he mentioned having spoken recently about this social construction to a hall full of physicists at a German university. Some had questioned him but one physicist, Illich told us, had said, "Yes, Illich really 'gets' us, he really gets what physicists do!" (I believe Illich, with some relish, recalls this German lecture and the comments it elicited in one or another book, most likely Ivan Illich in Conversation (1982).

At the time we heard him speak, Illich was carrying (and selling) photocopied galleys of a book that tackled head-on the historicity of another stuff, namely water - H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness. Once magical and offering the gods a source of precious memories, water has been remade into a chemical solvent for removing dirt from bodies and the city. (This book is the most poetic of Illich's works and presents a brief but wonderfully imagined history of the city and urban space.) Much of his thinking in this area, Illich told us in 1985, was influenced by Gaston Bachelard (e.g. The Poetics of Space) and by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (The Social Construction of Reality).

It's not too far of a stretch to see that years before, even if he did not yet speak in terms of social construction, Illich had been analyzing the creation of still other "stuffs." Beware, he seemed to say, when active verbs give way to nouns - when learning becomes "getting an education," for instance, or when walking yields to "having transportation." By definition, education, just like its close cousin knowledge, is understood to be scarce, and that assumption and maintenance of scarcity goes a long way, in Illich's book, to explaining why the world is as we now see it. Illich also dissected the "energy crisis" of the early 1970s in an essay called "Energy & Equity." By the early 1980s, though, he was interested enough in the social construction topic to hold a seminar in Mexico City; one of its participants was Wolfgang Sachs.

Details about New Geographies #2 - titled "Landscapes of Energy" and addressing "the fact that energy takes up space, and that in turn such space deserves scholarly inquiry" - are available here and here. More about the issue, from the Harvard Gazette, an in-house publication:
In 1859, the first commercial oil well was drilled near Titusville, Pa. The modern oil industry that followed quickly changed landscapes around the world.
By the 20th century, a burgeoning world of derricks, tanks, pipelines, and refineries required more roads, railways, and ship lines for distribution. Cities changed with the arrival of big oil, becoming denser and busier. With the advent of cheap cars, highways widened, clover-leafed, and spread into far suburbs.

Despite all of this change, architectural historians have not often studied the effect of oil infrastructure on landscapes. Nor have they much studied the social implications of the spaces changed by the oil energy business, from abandoned oil fields to busted boomtowns — or even the destination of oil money.

A related essay, written in 1995 by Jean Robert, one of Illich's longtime collaborators, can be found at the site of a Dutch outfit called Wise, or World Information Service on Energy ("an information and networking center for citizens and environmental organizations concerned about nuclear energy, radioactive waste, radiation, and related issues.") Robert's essay is titled "Genesis and development of a scientific fact: the case of energy." One of his footnotes quotes Illich, "I am interested in the history of 'energy' because I discover in the emergence of this notion the means by which 'nature' has been interpreted as a domain governed by the assumption of scarcity, and human beings have been redefined as nature's ever needy children. Once the universe itself is placed under the regime of scarcity, homo is no more born under the stars but under the axioms of economics."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A sharing of collectives

We've been enjoying a website called All Sorts, originally brought to our attention by one of our favorite web venues and magazines, Harper's. This self-described linguistic experiment collects newly-minted collective nouns, of the form "a gaggle of geese" and "pod of whales." Except theirs are more clever: a "seemingly empty room of ninjas," a "fixie of hipsters," and a "sneer of critics."

The public is invited to submit new such items solely via Twitter, but since we have yet to avail ourselves of that somewhat frantic messaging scheme - an error of twits? - we'll offer our own collection of collectives right here:

A whisper of gossips

A mood of cows

A freak of zoids

A roid of weightlifters

A pod of casters

A post of bloggers

A bent of bluesmen

A gross of snot

A grip of wankers

A stench of assholes

Insanity in Glasgow

A friend in the UK writes about a report making the rounds over there. Seems that the Politics Department at Glasgow University refused to publicize a talk by Prof. Noam Chomsky "on the hilarious grounds that the event was 'too political'!"

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Sticker shock

Amused, this morning, to read this on the back of a mini-van: "Jesus called, he wants his religion back."

That's up there with the one our pal Robert Kaplow - he of Me and Orson Welles book and movie (premieres Nov. 25) fame - made for his car back in the 1970s: "Honk if you're an idiot." (Many did.)

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Yet another review of The Humbling ...

... and not such a positive one, at that. Adam Kirsch writing at Tablet, A New Read on Jewish Life:

"... whatever power and interest The Humbling possesses comes from the reader’s sense that it does reflect Roth’s apprehensions. After all, Roth is too unsparing a writer not to realize that The Humbling, like its predecessors, represents a dramatic shrinking of his fiction’s power and scope. The book is very short—a novella at most—and thinly imagined, with few surprises in plot or language."

Mandelbrot Tree?


Is this tree proof, perhaps, that "life" is merely the result of a fractal algorithm?

Illich journal launches

News arrives that the first issue of The International Journal of Illich Studies has just been published, on the Web right here. (There's no charge for access, but one does have to register.) It's pleasing to see a journal devoted to Ivan Illich, who is perhaps our favorite thinker. He is without a doubt the most penetrating critic of industrialized society. And while he fell into disfavor in the early 1980s and is now dead - he died in Bremen, Germany, where he lived much of the year, in late 2002 - we believe that his books and essays remain more than relevant and will enjoy re-discovery by a new generation of thinkers and activists.
We first encountered his work in 1980, while travelling, backpack-style, in SE Asia. We'd known Illich's name from The Whole Earth Catalog but never bothered to learn more. Then, in a Hong Kong bookshop, we stumbled onto a collection of his essays called Toward a History of Needs. These pieces were, we'll admit, extraordinarily difficult, the writing and language being unlike anything we'd read before, but eventually one of them, entitled "Energy & Equity," yielded to our efforts and in a flash, the light went on. Among other things, Illich argues in "Energy & Equity" that as a means of moving across the landscape, the bicycle is much saner, less destructive, and less expensive, and thereby more equitable, than the automobile. The bicycle amplifies innate human abilities while the car tends to negate and frustrate those abilities. The car pushes the nodes of daily life - home, workplace, shops, schools, etc. - further apart from each other and in so doing, the car makes itself increasingly necessary. In Illich's word, it gains a radical monopoly, pushing pedestrians and cyclists off the road. After a certain threshold of car use, only those with access to cars can traverse the new distances required. Yes, some people can ride buses, but they are now in a different, lower class than the car drivers. But, as Illich makes clear, it's just not possible for everyone to own and operate a car, because of the expense and because the machines get in each other's way. Riding a bicycle, in contrast, doesn't bother anyone else, not to mention that this machine is inexpensive, easily maintained, and produces no pollution. In short, the car's counter-productive side-effects cause it to frustrate the very activity that it is intended to help with, namely moving a good many people from A to B. And even if the gasoline were free or the car ran on pollution-free water, its speed and size would still tend to corrode neighborhood life. And in one now-famous line, Illich noted that Americans had to work so much to support their car habits - that is, to pay for all the machinery, asphalt, gasoline, police services, accidents, insurance, and so forth - that when all was said and done, they managed to move at the same speed as normal walking, or 4 MPH. Reading this essay while travelling in Thailand, Nepal, India, and China (for a single day, just north of Macau) was eye-opening, to say the least. We felt that we were seeing and understanding the world - and especially the world back home, in New York - in a very new way. And when we got to London a few weeks later, we eagerly bought a copy of the first Illich book we could find, which happened to be Tools for Conviviality. Back in the U.S.A., we rounded up as many of his books as we could find, each one analyzing some institution or aspect of modern, industrialized life just as radically as he'd been in debunking the "energy crisis" in "Energy & Equity." In early 1985, we had the opportunity to attend a series of evening lectures he gave in NYC, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. As Duke Ellington might have put it, Illich was beyond category, an historian, theologian, sociologist, philosopher, and social critic who transcended traditional disciplinary boundaries. He was, moreover, an avid slaughterer of sacred cows, whether these be compulsory schooling, modern medicine, taught mother tongue, or the Church. Summarizing Illich's thought is exceptionally difficult, we've discovered, especially for the sake of newcomers. Indeed, it's even difficult to explain that difficulty. This is because his critique is so very radical, thoroughly questioning so many deeply-held assumptions. Illich declines to speak in the usual categories - of left versus right, for instance - and generally works from a very different angle - or, more precisely, from a different platform of axioms - than other social critics. But as we plan to explore in these columns, this different and unexpected angle of attack enables him to throw striking illumination on many subjects and gain marvelous - as in wondrous - insights that will, we have no doubt, continue to challenge readers well into the future. Illich was widely criticized for not offering practical or immediate answers to the problems and faults he was so good at identifying and describing, but he certainly did his utmost to question things as they are, and as they are understood, in the most creative and surprising ways.

Monday, November 02, 2009

More on 'The Humbling'

The "New Statesman" has weighed in on The Humbling, Philip Roth's latest book, and it's pretty much all thumbs down.

Writes Jason Cowley, editor of the UK-based magazine:

"The Humbling shares most of the preoccupations of Roth's recent fiction: the sorrows and loneliness of old age, illness, the poignancy of lingering sexual desire, and so on. It clearly wants to be read as a companion piece to his impressive late works about the inescapable senselessness of death. Yet it is at times so ridiculous, so stylistically careless and shabbily executed, the characters so thin and artificial, that you think, at first, the whole thing must be an elaborate joke or parody, or else an exercise in character assassination - a novel written by one of Philip Roth's avenging doubles, hypothetical selves or alter egos, whose sole mission is to besmirch the reputation of the celebrated American author we know as "Philip Roth"."

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Decisive Moments


Halloween, South Bronx, 1991, photo by Angel Franco of The New York Times. The trick-or-treater is Guissette Muniz, then age 6.

I remember seeing this photo when it first appeared in the paper back in '91, and from then on, if I wasn't already, I made a point of keeping my eye out for Mr. Franco's work. Today, the Times has a story about Ms. Muniz and her family, about the moment that this photo captures and where life has taken each of the family's members since then.
'"I consider myself a princess,” [Ms. Muniz] admitted. ...“That’s what I am. I think highly of myself. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I think I’m a great girl, and I deserve the best in life. I’m not cocky, but you have to have confidence.”'

Part of what makes this photo work, I think, is its tilt - Angel's angle? - which underlines the idea that not all is OK in this landscape and corner of the city. Indeed, the South Bronx had been ravaged by arson and crack and years of neglect. Off-kilter, indeed.

As I recall, this image originally was published as one of a series by Mr. Franco. It's unfortunate, I think, that the Times' archive does not contain many of the photos that appeared in the paper - for reasons of copyright, no doubt. But they make up for this with the Lens blog, which is superb, a smart appreciation of photography, then and now. Which reminds me: Just the other day, for no apparent reason, my eye lingered for a long moment on a book on the shelf next to my desk - Photographs, by Roy DeCarava. I should look at that book again, I thought to myself, but I didn't. And then: Later that day, or the day after, I read on the Times' website - indeed, in the Lens blog itself - that Mr. DeCarava had just died, age 89. His photos are masterful in their use of light and shadow - an observation that may sound banal, but just look for yourself. There is a true painterly quality to his images. (I'd steal one to present here, but Lens is clever enough to protect its image sequences against such acts by presenting them in Adobe Flash. Lens presents 14 of his fotos, including a wonderful one of Duke Ellington in 1967, caught in an unguarded moment. And quite a few others of jazzers. More of his work is available at the most commendable Masters of Photography site.)

More on Roth's The Humbling

In a review on CounterPunch this weekend, Professor Charles R. Larson, at American University in Washington, D.C., points out what's missing from Roth's latest novel, The Humbling.

It's "the menacing social and political contexts. There are absorbing characters and erotic regeneration, but Roth’s greatest novels typically depict Americans brought down by the forces of the country’s hypocrisy. This time, Roth keeps everything in plain sight, reducing much of the fear of the unknown, leaving little for the reader to ponder."

How true. I should have thought of that.

I have noticed Roth submitting himself to being interviewed by Tina Brown on The Daily Beast and his publisher taking out a full-page ad in The Times for this book, which together make me wonder if the book is not doing so well.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Portrait of the Artist in a Negative Mood


Philip Roth x 2

Two small items featuring one of my very favorite authors:

Last June, the NYTimes wrote about someone having sampled Roth's voice to create a piece of hip-hop music. It's kinda silly, but fun to hear the man's voice and catch a glimpse of his sense of humor. I gather he is good at voices.

More recently, the NJ Star-Ledger caught up with Roth as he joined a bus tour of Newark, the city where he grew up and that serves as the setting for many of his stories. He had a grand time, surprising the others on the tour who, like him, but 10 years later than his 1950 date, had graduated from Weequahic High School. The Ledger's piece quotes from several of Roth's books, including this bit of lovingly remembered detail from Goodbye Columbus:

“The park ... was empty and shady and smelled of trees, night and dog leavings; and there was a faint damp smell too, indicating that the huge rhino of a water cleaner had passed by already, soaking and whisking the downtown streets.”

Thought this morning I oughta try to read all of his books. So far, for the record, I've read these: American Pastoral, Operation Shylock, Patrimony, The Humbling, Sabbath's Theater, The Plot Against America, I Married a Communist, and first of all, Portnoy's Complaint, which made me laugh out loud on the NYC subway. And that's without having tried too hard, over the course of 13 years.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Yojimbo, Mac tool extraordinaire

I recently acquired a program called Yojimbo that has, in a word, made my life much simpler. I think of it as a smart box, or archive, into which I can store all the stuff I collect while stumbling around the Web. That's in contrast to a dumb, inert folder.

Yojimbo is the garage, or attic or basement, that I always needed for my always-expanding collection of Web pages, text clippings, images, bookmarks, and receipts - all the stuff, in other words, that I grab, sometimes with no good reason beyond it's being available to grab. But it's a garage that is self-organizing, constantly ordering and indexing its contents for easy retrieval. Garage with butler included!

In the past, these collected items would get stored willy-nilly in my computer. Some languished in my Mac's Downloads folder, most others just cluttered by desktop. Every so often, I might do some house-cleaning and shuffle items into this folder or that - a Reads, folder, for instance, for storing all those news, magazine, and Web page articles that I fully intended eventually to read, someday, somehow, in the future, when I happened to have the time and actually remembered that they existed. This Reads folder itself was contained in a folder I long ago labled Stuff - a sprawling collection of items, many but not all of them organized in folders: images, documents, bookmarks, MP3 music files, you name it.

Yojimbo is a better Stuff folder, a program-and-container into which it's particularly easy to put things. I can, for example, just ask to print any document or web page I like and, in the usual drop-down menu, select "PDF to Yojimbo". Voila - the item is stored under 'jimbo's control, complete with any tags I may wish to add. Or, I can click on another button in my browser to store a page's URL in YJ. Or, I can hit the F8 button my keyboard and any text or image I have selected will get stored, again with tags. Finally, I can drag items to a 'jimbo tab that sits patiently on the far left edge of my desktop; this action automatically stores the items, too.

When I need to find an item, YoJ is way helpful, too. It provides a spiffy Mac-style interface with a scrolling list of all stored items. This list is easily searched, the items's titles, textual content, and tags all available near-instantly. A preview pane shows selected items but one can also open items in their own windows, print them, or drag them to the desktop as normal files. Clicking a bookmark launches the appropriate page in the default Web browser. In addition, items are organized into categorical folder off to the left - URLs, images, receipts, your choice, etc. - to make finding things easier, too. Smart folders can be created that automatically include items that contain specified keywords. (I haven't used it, yet, but a crypto function can hide chosen items from prying eyes, too.)

That's YoJo in a nutshell - a well-designed program that really does the job. I wish I had had this to use many years ago.

The Humbling, by Philip Roth

I have just read Philip Roth's latest novel, The Humbling. Perhaps novella is a better word. It's short.
I enjoyed it, a good deal, even, but I have to wonder what the point is he's trying to make. An aging actor figures he's all washed up, can't act, but then, he finds himself in an unlikely affair, feels much happier; but then, complications ensue, and .... I won't spoil it. There's more to it than that, actually. There are echoes, for sure, of Sabbath's Theater, a marvelous book that, by chance, I read just a few weeks ago, but in that story, Roth is playing (masterfully) a massive pipe organ, all stops out, wrestling with Death. In The Humbling, he appears to be using a simpler keyboard and only dabbling. The characters are well drawn and convincing, the story well told, the sex quite Rothianic, but in the end I am left wondering. This book is a miniature and I am not sure that, Roth-wise, it is breaking much new ground. But I may well be missing something.

Henry Green

Reading Henry Green's book Loving, published in 1949. It's rich in dialog and dialect - maids and servants and butlers in a big rambling house in Ireland, during the war.

I found this in that bottomless fount of wisdom, Wikipedia: In his 1975 memoir Here at The New Yorker, Brendan Gill relates that during a luncheon at the Ritz Hotel, New Yorker editor William Shawn asked [Henry] Green what had led him to undertake the writing of Loving. Green replied, "I once asked an old butler in Ireland what had been the happiest time of his life. The butler replied, 'Lying in bed on Sunday morning, eating tea and toast with cunty fingers.'"

I look forward to finishing this book and getting on with his memoir, which I just took from the library this evening - Pack My Bag.


Santa Rosa, California, United States
Writer, photographer, music fan; father and husband living in northern Calif.