ON THE TERROR OF FRACTIONS
ON THE TERROR OF FRACTIONS
AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL
Perhaps other Western countries have a popular culture as vibrant and brash as America’s, but I do not know of them. Weegee, catchy as gizmo or gocha or gee whiz, the name Arthur Fellig invented for himself, is quintessential American slang. Not only movie stars but gangsters and con men, capitalists and strippers, virtually every kind of character conceivable became celebrated in the tabloids of his day. And squarely in their midst, as center stage as he could manage, was Weegee himself. His life, his persona, as much as his pictures, the man as much as the work, illustrate the power of image in America.
Which he himself will participate in-- all the others most likely dead because of it.
The symbol is the key that throws the switch,
allowing us to perform previously unthinkable acts.
Armies all over the world perform the same magic trick.
where it can be lethal just to walk down the street?
it is taking off the uniform that is the problem.
So why did I watch it?
Because ultimately my interest in Lost had nothing to do with plot. And everything to do with character. Almost as if they were the sum of their various stories yet existed independently of them, the characters, and, by extension, the actors who played them, compelled attention. Viewers were caught up in them, cared about them, and seemingly
had to know how things turned out for them.
Whether it is housed in the external world or lives within the privacy of our minds, the illusion has a deep and mysterious power, a power that seems to gain its force through a connection with an archaic part of our brains that responds to resemblances.
BANNED BEAUTY: CHINA IN THE 90'S
My first days in China were the color of mud. The sky and the streets formed one continuous brown sheet, and the long hutong leading to my hosts’ apartment block, pure sludge. The apartment block itself, its cement walls cracking, was a grey-brown I was to become all too familiar with. But this was not entirely unexpected. These were Stalinist era buildings. The real surprise lay inside, in people’s abodes, in apartments they made not the least effort to domesticate. My hosts, people of learning and culture, artists, treated their home as if it did not exist. Things lay were they fell; all around indecorous heaps of trivial things, which might have been cherished for their nostalgic value, were mere dust-catchers, good for naught. If inanimate things could be depressed, those stained and cracked walls certainly were. In short, the interior environment expressed the same lack of concern, the same indifference, the exterior one did. This initial impression was confirmed in every home I visited.
In fact ugliness was so prevalent in the People’s Republic of China that I suspected it might be deliberate. All utilitarian explanations aside (i.e. it is easier to build big ugly buildings than lovely, graceful ones), I believe the hideous towns and cities of the PRC are the direct result of a conscious decision to blunt people’s perceptions, to shut down their sensory capacities and numb their feelings.
To force them to huddle inside themselves like turtles and render them emotionally inert.
Quite simply put, beauty is politically incorrect. It threatens a strictly utilitarian view of life by inferring that uselessness may have value. And if that were not enough, beauty is an indulgence, a distraction from the work of revolution that ought to be the sole preoccupation of every good citizen. It weakens one’s resolve by making one happy in the moment, in the status quo that must be changed.
The puritanism of China, of Soviet Russia, and of Nazi Germany, as well as that of the Puritans themselves is quite unlike the spartan aesthetic of the Quakers or the Zen masters, who stressed simplicity as an antidote for excessive sensuality. Fascists of all stripes cultivate ugliness. And in doing so, they cultivate depression as well. One can see how a depressed population would be all the more easily ruled. For there is something in the sense of beauty essential to life.
Though taste is far from universal, the sense of beauty is. It even seems to exist in plants. Flowers, after all, are designed to attract. And most certainly it exists in birds, bower birds in particular are quite fussy about their esthetic choices. Be that as it may, it can safely be said that all humans have a sense of beauty, however disparate. One can with less assurance (but more bravado) conjecture that this sense of beauty constitutes one pole of consciousness. That is to say, it is one of those crucial concepts, like time and space, by which we order our mental worlds, and without which our sanity is threatened.
We need it to steer by. Without it we lack an essential component of thought. To rob people of their sense of beauty, is to violate the structure of the mind. That such a violation is so prevalent in fascist societies is telling. In China, the wholesale brutalization of the longest lived high culture in the world can have been no accident. Its consequences no small thing.
by a woman of exceptional warmth and personal charm, to participate in a tradition
that dwarfs me and my small lifespan by thousands of years.
But only this year did I think to examine the ceremony.
How interesting, I thought, looking at the Seder plate in the middle of the table, that food should be symbolic. Unlike Christianity where visual symbols abound, taste not vision dominates this symbolic tradition. The Catholic Church, of course, retains vestiges in the Eucharist of a symbol system based on taste but then they tack on transubstantiation, something the far more down to earth Jews would never do.
Because just staying alive has been critical for this historical people forever on the run, always in danger of having had their last meal, always in danger of starving in the wilderness, never sure if they will see tomorrow,
in Judaism food rules. Where will we live, Jews ask, and what will we eat ?
a sacred act, where not merely eating but taking food together is key, along with the primacy of taste,
the emphasis on food preparation, the importance of cooking and eating utensils,
and everything that has to do with meals.
and rightly so, for the Seder is a gift.
As if encapsulating every seminal urge of early 20th century art, Man Ray was the consummate polymath, trying his hand at everything from painting to collage to objects to photography-- and whatever lay between. He once said that he painted what he could not photograph and photographed what he could not paint. True as that might be, as a photographer he was a master of style and manipulation, tugging at the boundaries of a resolutely realistic medium to create works of photographic imagination rarely equaled.
LIFE AMONG THE GODS
Were I reborn a god, I would insist upon being a Hindu one. Any god with good sense would. For only then would I be offered delicious things to eat, wonderful music to hear, and dancers worthy of my divinely discriminating eye. Besides none of the other deities have half so much fun. Here on Bali the gods eat drink and make merry at least twice a day, their meals served on exquisitely crafted trays made from banana leaves. Since the spirits are everywhere, their offerings are as well: in the middle of the sidewalk, on a threshold, on the dining room table, in the street where cars pass. A visible feast for invisible guests who are real enough for all that, to the Balinese, at least.
I suspect I might have already been transformed into a local deity, or perhaps I have snapped completely under the pressure of so much beauty. On friendly terms with their gods, the Balinese throw flowers at their feet rather than rip bleeding hearts from their chests. There are flower and food offerings on every doorstep, small shrines and large temples on every street. Characterized by courtyards and compounds, inviting rather than overwhelming, Balinese temple architecture is possibly the most appealing in the world. Certainly these are places any god in his or her right mind would consent to dwell.
Days here follow each other like contestants in a beauty contest, one more dazzling than the next. Bali is an omage a la beaute written by a late nineteenth century French poet, a decadent with slightly mystical leanings for whom the ever presence of religious feeling adds an extra frisson of esthetic delight.
On Bali the distance between nature and culture lessens. Or at least they are not polar opposites, but meet somewhere in the middle, on a rice paddy perhaps, or in a garden. Of course, rice paddies and gardens are nature cultivated. But that is what one feels about Bali generally, that it is nature cultivated, shaped, celebrated, and sung. I have never felt this anywhere else, not even in Japan where the national esthetic has traditionally celebrated the beauty of nature. In Japan that celebration is rigorous, masculine, and willed. On Bali it feels sensuous, spontaneous, and feminine. More natural in short! There is less focus on formal precision--the Zen exactitude that makes Ryanji so breathtaking (one feels they have counted every grain of sand!) No. In place of Japanese fastidiousness, here is an openhearted liberality. Even though Balinese music and dance require enormous technical precision, they possess a joie de vivre absent from their Japanese equivalents. The gods here are generous, and so are their celebrants.
On Bali it is possible to be in nature and in culture at the same time. The wilderness is not the antithesis of the civilized and the boundaries between them are muted, the extremes of America and Europe avoided. Here one can be a plant, an educated plant, a “thinking reed” as Pascal called us, with a rather different meaning in mind. Despite the constant presence of birds, crickets, frogs, and other wild things, on Bali plant, not animal, life is the dominant form. For here nature is Green. Green Fertile Feminine.