How come nobody ever told me about Isak Dinesen? Well, I’m on to her, now, at least. I liked Winter Tales even better than Seven Gothic Stories. Not since I discovered Jane Eyre, have I walked around with a book in my hand, unable to put it down. Her realism is so generous, candid and acute, that it leads her quite properly outside of ordinary life. She does not hunt for strangeness, she hunts for reality, and reality is usually, at bottom, strange. Or, as one of her characters remarks, “Without poetry no ship can be sailed.”
[Image: Ulysses escaping from Polyphemus (Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, 1812)]
Delmar and I moved to Los Angeles the summer of 1984 and I remember the brouhaha over the cancelation of CIVIL warS. It didn’t matter to us—the Olympic Arts Festival was putting on so many other fantastic events all over town that we got the false impression that L.A. was a world-cultural paradise. Last Thursday night I finally realized that we had been deprived of something really amazing.
The music comes from that series of masterpieces Glass produced up to the mid-Eighties. The rigor and aggression of the earlier work was mellowing and acquiring lyricism and tenderness. He was discovering what classically-trained voices could do. One of the things they could do was evoke gently sorrowful tenderness (e.g. Mary Todd Lincoln’s keening over Robert E. Lee’s spoken word collage of news atrocities). They could also evoke indignation and determination in the face of evil (e.g. the chorus declaiming verses of resistance from Seneca the Younger).
This section of CIVIL warS does not offer a summarizable story. Mythic figures (Earth Mother, Hercules) share the stage with historical figures (Abraham Lincoln, Giuseppe Garibaldi)—whose words almost never have anything to do with their historical reality. They come and go without doing much of anything other than announcing their existence—and at the same time undermining any historical illusion. It’s a collage of words, characters, and gestures, held together by the music. But there is also a fairly clear mood of embattled humanity. We seem to be watching the characters and the chorus as people attempting to maintain their humanity in defiance of oppression, brutality, and misfortune. It’s not a hymn of triumph, but of resistance. And there are some funny parts, too (believe it or not). I felt I was seeing the apotheosis of Gertrude Stein’s work for the theater. Who knows what the whole thing would have been like. Maybe more than Einstein.
“Converging Lines: Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt” at the Blanton Museum, on the UT campus, was one of the best exhibits I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t big: just three rooms. But every object was (1) a compelling work of art and (2) part of the story of Hesse and LeWitt’s friendship. Quite a lot of them were gifts that they had given each other.
It was aesthetic treat, tremendously moving, and it also made you see at their work differently. I had put them in very separate boxes, but now I’m not so sure. She seems more systematic and concerned with process, and he seems wilder and more visceral. The last room was plastered with all the silly postcards LeWitt sent Hesse up to her death, and it just kills you. The curators provide postcards, pencils and a desk so that you can write an encouraging postcard to somebody yourself. It was aesthetically first-rate, smart and warm-hearted.
I started to see what people are talking about when they go on about Austin.
We arrived into Obama’s airspace, and had to circle the airport for half an hour before being permitted to land.
Our first meal wasn’t spectacular, but you have to give Aussies Grill & Beachbar credit for creating an artificial beach (under the shadow of the Hyatt’s mega-construction project) and hiring goodlooking people to play volleyball mid-day.
Later we lucked out and stumbled upon La Condessa, on the stretch of 2nd Street crammed with happening restaurants. Both the food (pan-roasted grouper, glazed potato, black garlic purée, chayote slaw, chile de arbol vinaigrette) and the space were beyond praise. My mouth is still on fire, but not from stupid hotness, but savory, complex, interesting hotness.
6th Street is an endless corridor of bars and ATMs, but it’s also Austin’s 19th century streetscape. The old shopfronts are nothing spectacular—except for the Driskill Hotel—but it’s like Our Town after the big, new towers on Congress Avenue.
And the bars have their own charm. The Jackalope ….
And the Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden, situated on an utterly unexpected bit of canal ...
Lonestar Souvenir & Food Mart had what turned out to be the most astonishing sight of the entire trip …
But the important thing is the courtesy and friendliness of everybody we encountered. Even the lunatic wearing a massive automatic rifle at the anti-gun-regulation demonstration at the Capital was polite, saying, “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am” to LH’s questions.
And the touch of old-fashioned propriety doesn't hurt. You don’t leave the house looking sloppy or wearing a scowl. You smile and say Hello. No wonder Austinites seem so attractive. How refreshing after L.A.’s popular modes of "Frankness is my excuse for being an asshole" and "I'm too destroyed and complicated to be civil."
And then it all culminated at The Broken Spoke ….
Usually I arrive at the Brand Library with a prepared list of exactly which CDs I wanted to borrow from their fantastic collection. This morning I was just checking out the renovation.
It couldn’t have been the most straightforward problem to harmonize the Victorian interior, the Victorian-Moorish exterior, the mid-century middle-eastern modernist addition, plus accommodate everything needed for a 21st century public library.
The result actually works. It was worth the wait. And even without a list, I managed to find CDs to borrow of Leonard Bernstein, Brahms, Donizetti, Philip Glass, Cat Power, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, George Benjamin, Ian Bostridge, Massenet ….
Two Friday’s ago I was part of The Changing face of urban cartography session at the Society of Architectural Historians’ conference in Austin.
The four of us were--so to speak--all over the map. Two talked about representing places: Angeliki Sioli surveyed literary representations of St. Petersburg. I talked about a new generation of apps that deliver movie footage to people standing in the places they were filmed. Two explored ways mapping architecture reveals hidden stories: Jonathan Massey demonstrated the value of real estate sites and social media for understanding sites, and Gretta Tritch Roman used brilliant animated maps to understand commercial real estate in 19th century Chicago.
And the audience was terrific—hitting back with serious questions. Lots of discussion about whether GPS has changed everything—are maps still maps?
Thanks to Linda Hart for organizing a session that was an actual conversation.
[Images from my presentation. Sorry, you had to be there ...]
Roddy Doyle is not my favorite Irish writer: The Commitments (1987) is entertaining rubbish and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993) is the first two pages of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man extended to almost 300, but bearable because it’s well-done. “Box Sets” nevertheless stopped me dead. It’s the best thing he’s ever done. Just a couple of pages long because it’s a excruciatingly vivid howl of pain, and it couldn’t possibly go on any longer. Not only The State of Ireland but The Way We All Live Now.
[The Suicide of Ajax, Exekias, circa 540 BCE]
Far from imagining that artists were superior to anyone else, [Auden] had seen in himself that artists have their own special temptations toward power and cruelty and their own special skills at masking their impulses from themselves.
--Edward Mendelson, “The Secret Auden,” The New York Review of Books, March 20, 2014