Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Stapleton on Moore (3)

T. S. Eliot, when persuading Moore to republish Observations with the addition of a small number of new poems, offered a useful guideline on deciding what makes up a "book" of poetry:

The point at which one has "enough" for a book (of verse) is not a quantitative matter alone: it comes at the end of a paragraph, or chapter, however short; it's a question of form. One only has not enough, when one feels that the poems written require the cooperation of certain poems not yet written, in order to be themselves quite.

The paragraph, or chapter, metaphor suggests that a book of verse should have a completed shape, not necessarily a narrative arc, but whatever is proposed at the beginning of the paragraph or chapter would have been developed to some satisfying (Moore would have said, joyful) conclusion. Demanding as the metaphor may sound, it is also liberating, for a paragraph or a chapter is not the whole book, is not the whole work of a lifetime. There is time and space for later paragraphs and chapters to develop, modify, or even contradict, what has been said.


Moore's reading of Genung's Epic of the Inner Life affected deeply her writing of "In Distrust of Merits," her WWII poem. The book has something significant to say of the book of Job:

...the book of Job is too much like real life to be a didactic teaching with a single self-evident answer to its problem....Why does suffering upon suffering befall the righteous--is unsatisfactorily answered in the apparent fluctuation of its reasoning, the unity of the book being centred in a person--Job.

Not why & how God deals with man, but what Job is, is the vital question...the book is an epic of the inner life--a drama within the individual soul.

And if Job has wrought the answer, then the answer exists in humanity--: Answer: There is a hunger for God and a loyalty to him, which survives loss and chastisement.

But the answer is not put in words. It is lived.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Stapleton on Moore (2)

I've just finished reading Stapleton's chapter on Moore as a literary reviewer. In discussing Moore's approach, Stapleton says something very true and just of the task of a literary critic:

For a critic to praise justly, and without exaggeration, is hard; it may be harder still, when praise is due, to make it relevant--to make it mean anything specific in reference, and specifically alive in statement. This difficult art goes to the root of criticism. For praise that counts is not encomium, is certainly not compliment, but attempts identification. It no longer adds a mere plus (or when not bestowed, a minus sign); it ceases to refer primarily to the writer, and becomes the predicate attaching itself to the work in question. Because Marianne Moore exemplifies the reserve and the "immunity to fear" of the true writer, her praise of the work she admires suggests the outline of her poetics. [bold emphasis mine]

The predicate metaphor is beautifully apt. The literary work should be the focus of the critic, as the grammatical subject is the focus of the sentence. The critic's job is to complete the sentence by showing what the literary work is or does, to her.


Moore uses quotations in her prose reviews as well as in her poems. These quotations sometimes serve as a springboard of metaphor, as in this fine observation on the imagination:

"imagination of the finest type involves an energy which results in order 'as the motion of the a snake's body goes through all parts at once, and its volition acts at the same instant in coils that go contrary ways.'"


Stapleton: "Bacon recommends aphorisms as the way to represent thought in growth."

An unusual insight. Aphorisms are usually seen as summary, or, at least, static. But an aphorism embedded in a poem may provide a resting place, a staging post or a debating point, and thus "represent thought in growth."



She is one of the few writers who has paid special attention to accelerations of tempo: in discussing one poem, she admires "brilliance gained by accelerated tempo in accordance with a fixed melodic design." Acceleration affects rhyme as well: "the accelerated light final rhyme,...the delayed long syllable." She thinks that "the better the artist...the more determined he will be to set down words in such a way as to admit of no interpretation of the accent but the tone intended."


From the next chapter "Arrivals and Departures" about the next stage in Moore's poetic development. Stapleton:

Marianne Moore would have completely understood Eudora Welty's principle: "You have to have an idea so strong it compels you to write. Only a strong idea has vitality and you give it all you've got."

From another perspective, that of the critic's, the question to ask of any literary work is: what idea compels it into being? With what strength does the work realize the idea?

Monday, August 27, 2007

from Laurence Stapleton's "Marianne Moore: The Poet's Advance"

Moore: "The individuality and emotion of the writer should transcend modes. I recall feeling over-solitary occasionally (say in 1912)--in reflecting no 'influences'; to not be able to be called an 'imagist'--but determined to put the emphasis on what mattered most to me, in a manner natural to me" (in a broadcast on American poetry).

Earlier in the same broadcast, Moore said, "rhythm was my prime objective. If I succeeded in embodying a rhythm that preoccupied me, I was satisfied."

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Grace Paley dies at 84

Grace Paley joined Sarah Lawrence College in 1966, and from that beginning had been closely associated with its creative writing program. By the time I enrolled in the graduate course in 2003, she had not been teaching there for some time, but still could be seen at college events and readings.

I read her short story "Wants" not long ago, and was impressed by the economy of her prose, especially her adroit use of a short verbal exchange to convey an entire marriage and its breakdown. The NYT obituary mentions her first ambition was to be a poet, and she studied with Auden for a while at The New School. I googled and found this:

Here I am in the garden laughing
an old woman with heavy breasts
and a nicely mapped face

how did this happen
well that's who I wanted to be

at last a woman
in the old style sitting
stout thighs apart under
a big skirt grandchild sliding
on off my lap a pleasant
summer perspiration

that's my old man across the yard
he's talking to the meter reader
he's telling him the world's sad story
how electricity is oil or uranium
and so forth I tell my grandson
run over to your grandpa ask him
to sit beside me for a minute I
am suddenly exhausted by my desire
to kiss his sweet explaining lips.

Friday, August 24, 2007

New Yorker Profile of Ian McKellen

When Ian McKellen visited Singapore on a R.S.C. tour, Yawning Bread pointed out the bad publicity that must result from Singapore's anti-gay law:

So McKellen lands here, he reads the highly prejudiced letters in the press, he mixes with gay Singaporeans and hears their stories. He watches a gay play in which Section 377A of the Penal Code is discussed.

What do you think he's going to say about Singapore after he's left our shores? He, the celebrity with huge access to the media all over the world?

Sure enough, the New Yorker profile of the gay actor, written by John Lahr, includes a paragraph on McKellen's response to Singapore. As part of his interpretation of Lear, McKellen strips completely naked in the storm, but not in Singapore.

In Singapore, where gay sex is punishable by up to ten years in prison, Lear was forced to wear underwear in the storm scene and McKellen spoke to the press protesting the community's "personally offensive" anti-gay strictures. During a TV interview, he managed mischievously to mention that he was looking for gay bars. "When I found a couple," he wrote, "I was greeted rapturously." So, evidently, was the tour. "Singapore was a wow--full houses and standing ovations," he wrote.

What a terrible irony. Singaporeans gave him standing ovations, but would as soon clap him into jail should he have sex with another man in the country. And so the country gets entangled in contradictions as it tries to promote Singapore as a Renaissance city, and the arts as another growth engine of the economy. The anti-gay intolerance goes hand-in-hand with moralistic philistinism. Requiring Lear to cover up, with no appreciation for the integrity of a man's art, is barbaric, even as it poses as custom.

In McKellen's interview with Reuters, (quoted by Yawning Bread), he responded thus to the question whether he was aware that Singapore senior statesman Lee Kuan Yew has said it would be difficult to repeal the law on sexual acts between men because of popular opposition from the country's conservative majority:

"Yes. Then he must expect gay people not to come here, he must expect gay people to emigrate, he must expect no company to have their gay employees work here."

Home truth.

Becoming Jane

For a movie that aims to show how Austen was transformed by a love affair into the great novelist, you would have thought a better title is "Becoming Austen." But Austen, played by Anne Hathaway, is all and always Jane in this film: unconventional, romantic, beautiful. She plays cricket better than the boys. She elopes with her lover, Lefroy. She has a supermodel figure. So the title is true to the real spirit of the film after all. Just don't look for Austen in it.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Faulkner's "Light in August"

Faulkner is a terribly depressing read. The fatalism that permeates the novel is sometimes described as supernatural: the characters are so many chess pieces moved by a Player with some unknowable plan. But all the time it is clear that the characters are fated by their own characters to live, die, kill, love. So even Lena Grove's optimistic persistence in searching for the father of her child has its fatalistic aspect: she cannot help herself; she has as much power to stop searching as the father Lucas Burch has to stop running away. Byron Bunch's love for Lena is instantaneous and overwhelming, and he acts thereafter according to the dictates of this love. Hightower, a disgraced clergyman who has withdrawn from life, intervenes to save the life of Joe Christmas, but his intervention has as much effect as the wooden table hiding Christmas from the vigilante's gun.

This fatalism has a sonic accompaniment, a musical motif. Throughout the novel we hear the hooves of horses. Hightower is obsessed by the dream of his Confederate grandfather shot while riding into a henhouse. Old Doc Hines rides after his daughter, and kills her lover, who is some part black. Byron Bunch gallops on his mule (an echo of Christ) to get a doctor for Lena. The characters may think they are pursuing their own course of action, but rearing over them are the apocalyptic horses of the last judgment.

How is Faulkner different in this from Hardy? Faulkner couples his fatalism with grotesquerie. The savagery is usually unnecessary, and that is precisely its point. Grimm who shot Christmas has to carve away the genitals of the dying man: 'Now you'll let white women alone, even in hell.' And the savagery is linked to religion. Christmas' adopted father whips him over and over again for not memorizing the catechism, whips him without rage or sorrow, but with the implacable intent of teaching the boy the right ways.

And man's only possible response to this savage providence that is not providence is endurance. Riding his mule, Byron leaves Jefferson, and Lena, behind, and rides up a hill:
'Well, I can bear a hill,' he thinks, 'I can bear a hill, a man can.' It is peaceful and still, familiar with seven years. 'It seems like a man can just about bear anything. He can even bear what he never done. He can even bear the thinking how some things is just more than he can bear. He can even bear it that if he could just give down and cry, he wouldn't do it. He can even bear it to not look back, even when he knows that looking back or not looking back wont do him any good.'


In a humorless book, there are a very few moments of mocking fun. Like the description of Tennyson's poetry, which Hightower resorts to for consolation:
One wall of the study is lined with books. He pauses before them, seeking, until he finds the one which he wnats. It is Tennyson. It is dogeared. He has had it ever since the seminary. He sits beneath the lamp and opens it. It does not take long. Soon the fine galloping language, the gutless swooning full of sapless tress and dehydrated lusts begins to swim smooth and swift and peaceful. It is better than praying without having to bother to think aloud. It is like listening in a cathedral to a eunuch chanting in a language which he does not even need to not understand.

After delivering Lena's baby, when Hightower is released from his paralysis, is suffused by a sense of agency and hope, he turns to Shakespeare instead:
He goes to the study. He moves like a man with a purpose now, who for twentyfive years has been doing nothing at all between the time to wake and the time to sleep again. Neither is the book which he now chooses the Tennyson: this time also he chooses food for a man. It is Henry IV and he goes out into the back yard and lies down in the sagging deck chair beneath the mulbery tree, plumping solidly and heavily into it. 'But I shant be able to sleep,' he thinks, 'because Byron will be in soon to wake me. But to learn just what else he can think of to want me to do, will be almost worth the waking.'

Poor Tennyson. But perhaps the Victorian poet laureate can draw comfort from the fact that he is being compared to Shakespeare, against whose love of the world our lusts must seem dehydrated.

Mark Doty on Walt Whitman

from his VQR essay "Form, Eros, and the Unspeakable: Whitman's Stanzas":

[On the third form of the unspeakable, that which is wordless, undefined]...It is the most difficult form of silence to talk about, since once a word exists for something, it does, and the quality of being nameless, outside the realm of speech, becomes irrecoverable. Samuel Delaney tells an instructive story about this problem in one of his essays; he describes meeting a man in a Times Square porn theater, a shoe fetishist who’s passionately turned on, in several wordless encounters, by the writer’s sneakers. When Delaney needs to buy a new pair, he figures he might as well make the guy happy, and so he breaks their silence and asks him what kind of new sneakers he’d most enjoy. The questioned man is speechless, stricken; he flees; later he returns and manages to choke out only the words, “light blue.” But though the desired shoes are purchased, the sexual relationship is never the same. Delaney speculates that the man’s desire exists in the realm of the unsaid; it has never been brought into the light of articulation, and to do so, in this case, damages or limits or at least changes the experience.


...I...think of a man I met in north central Vermont, in the 1980s. A native Vermonter from a rural town, he was in his seventies then, and newly and proudly out; gay political associations in Vermont accepted him as a delightful sort of mascot. He told a story which is instructive, placed beside Delaney’s anecdote of speechlessness. Near the town of his boyhood was a river that featured one of those delightful Vermont swimming holes, and beyond this inviting spot were wooded islands and further streams. All summer, the place was the favorite of adolescent boys, and it was simply understood that they would pair off, wander to some more private spot, and enjoy one another’s bodies. This behavior was neither named nor spoken of, and it clearly did not constitute an identity; the teller of the tale did not come out when he joined in this idyllic scene—did not, in fact, come out for sixty more years! Vermont, in the 1920s, was arguably a 19th-century place, and I wonder if this man’s experience might not be as close as we could come to a sense of what same-sex practice might have been like before the coining of terms for it, before the medicalization of sexuality, the rigid enforcing and policing of the newly nominalized heterosexual norm. It is an erotic landscape that seems to appear in the paintings and photographs of Thomas Eakins, and certainly in the poems of Whitman—a free-floating, unfettered homosexual praxis that’s both amative and adhesive at once.

But still not an identity. The boys didn’t think they were queers, and presumably they mostly didn’t go on having sex with men; that was not an available position for them, just as it wasn’t supposed to be such for Whitman. His poems suggest an erotic life that is centered on encounters (often outdoors, but not always) with working-class guys and with younger men; he is at some pains to construct this as an experience of the love of equals, because this notion, a same-sex relation founded on equality (and not the Greek model of transmission of knowledge from older man to younger, or the Renaissance model of boy-loving, or the later fin de siècle notion of the sensitive esthete enjoying the more animal sexuality of working-class youths, as in Oscar Wilde’s “feasting with panthers”) is entirely anomalous. Its genesis can be found in the new cities, where one can leave the fixed social and familial roles of rural life and decide who you want to be today. Does this new sense of freedom inform Whitman’s slippery use of “you”—and his free-ranging, interpenetrating, omnipresent “I”? The new subject isn’t simply a farmer, a son, a father, a teacher, a soldier: the citizen of the new world comes and goes, participates, observes, empathizes, slips into new relations and positions with a freedom the past couldn’t have foreseen. How characteristic of its century this new freedom is—like the railroad, it moves you from one place to another swiftly; like the photograph, it allows you to travel in time. One of the more benign projects of industrialism, finally, is the liberation of subjectivity from the bonds of limited roles.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Meridian's Best New Poets 2007

Wheeee! I am going to be in Meridian's Best New Poets 2007.

Meridian magazine, from the University of Virginia, publishes this annual anthology. Each year, Best New Poets features the work of fifty emerging poets selected from nominations by writing programs, literary magazines and an Open Internet Competition.

Here's the announcement by Jeb Livingood, Series Editor:

We'd like to congratulate the following 50 poets, whose submissions to Best New Poets 2007 were selected by Natasha Trethewey [My note: Natasha Trethewey's Native Guard won the 2007 Pulitzer Poetry Prize]:

*Name* *Poem* *Source*

Beth Bachmann "Nesting" Open Competition
JoAnn Balingit "History Textbook, America" Open Competition
C. Bentley "Fortune" Open Competition
Erin Bertram "[Mesmerist]" Open Competition
Craig Blais "Sister at the Airport" Wichita State University
Kara Candito "Carnivale, 1934" Florida State University
Natalie Diaz "Why I Don't Mention" Open Competition
Christina Duhig "What Places, Things" Open Competition
Robin Ekiss "Vanitas Mundi" The Virginia Quarterly Review
Kelly Erlandson "Reliquary" Open Competition
Elyse Fenton "Gratitude" University of Oregon
Brett Foster "The First Request of Lazarus" I M A G E
Liz Gallagher "A Poem That Thinks It Has Joined a Circus" Open Competition
Scott Glassman "Drinks Over The Medusa Fossae" Web del Sol
Benjamin Gotschall "Bait" Open Competition
Alex Grant "The Steps of Montmartre" Poemeleon: A Journal of Poetry
K.A. Hays "Serotinous" Black Warrior Review
Todd Hearon "In the Garden" Harvard Review
Chelsea Jennings "Landing" Open Competition
Kristin Kelly "Endings" Open Competition
Elizabeth Knapp "Betray" Open Competition
Christi Kramer "Biography of Awe" PRACTICE: NEW WRITING + ART
Elizabeth Langemak "A Brief History of Sainthood" Open Competition
Jee Leong Koh "Brother" Ledge Magazine
Natalie Lyalin "Freak Inside The Heart" University of Massachusetts
Ed Madden "Sacrifice" Open Competition
Dora Malech "A Shortcut" Open Competition
Michelle McEwen "Blood" Open Competition
Tyler Mills "Violin Shop" Indiana Review
Tomas Morin "At Klack's 1941" Open Competition
Laura Newbern "In the Jewish Cemetery" Open Competition
Matt Nienow "Six Ways Of Looking At The Moon" Open Competition
Julie Sophia Paegle "Clock & Echo" The Cream City Review
Cecily Parks "The Fern Seed" River Styx
Sarah Perrier "Pitch the Woo" Open Competition
Catherine Pierce "Epithalamium" Open Competition
Christine Rhein "One of Those Questions" Michigan Quarterly Review
Margaret Ronda "Walking Late" The Eleventh Muse
Jamie Ross "Peterbilt" Northwest Review
Donika Ross "Ceremony" University of Texas
Robert Sawyer "How I Know She's Coming Home" Open Competition
Robin Beth Schaer "The Liger" The Greensboro Review
Morgan Lucas Schuldt "Triptych for Francis Bacon" Sentence
Brandon Som "Alba: The Archer Yi" Open Competition
Rebecca Wadlinger "Pet Fungus in Our Zoo Rehearsing the National Requiem" University of Texas
LaWanda Walters "Her Art" The Antioch Review
Fritz Ward "Grief is Simple Interference: Endings Overlapping" Memorious
David Welch "Tribute" Open Competition
Jordan Windholz "Psalm XXV" University of Colorado at Boulder
Greta Wrolstad "Notes on Sea and Shore" Black Warrior Review

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

TLS, August 17, 2007

from Peter Holland's review of William Shakespeare: the Complete Works, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen:
On King Lear--"The coronet, the commentary assures us, "must be of material that can be broken in half", but this is to read Lear's instruction to "part" it too literally, to assume that the speech and a stage-event are aligned. The exhilarating theatrical point may be precisely that the coronet cannot be divided, that, try as they might, neither Lear nor his sons-in-law can split the metal ring, that the circle, such a potent sign of wholeness, will not break--especially in a play fascinated by the way "The wheel is come full circle", as the dying Edmund puts it.


from Barbara Everett's Commentary piece on biographies of Shakespeare, "Reade him, therefore":
In an important sense Shakespeare did not live in his life, if by life we mean circumstantial existence. Neither a dreamy aesthete nor a dithering incompetenet, the poet--a businessman's even shrewder son--looked after his own (and his own were his plays and poems as well as his family): he saved and invested well and wisely, and fought back when his future in his profession was threatened. But a man can devote his sensible energies to matters beyond sense. This poise governs the whole of his career, at once supremely romantic and thoroughly ground-based ("My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground").


The Tempest is set deep in the same difficulties as everything the poet wrote, and most of what he lived, considered biographically. There is a great truth in the play, but it would be a serious mistake to read it literally: which is surely why Shakespeare here and throughout his work so disposes times and places as to make impossibilities for the literalist. Propero's island, for instance, is neither Old World nor New World. This self-limiting establishment of the "romantic" is only one aspect of the writer's unique credibility. It could be said that Shakespeare is our greatest writer simply because of this intensely personal poise between worlds at once rock-solid and "thin air", "a pageant", "a dream". As with other great artists, his sense of the actual and of the imagined interfused, interbred and created. As a dimension of this, we can perhaps say that if his biography is to be found it has to be here, in the plays and poems, but never literally and never provably.


The distinguished art critic John Richardson once reviewed a popular film about Picasso that he thought very bad, and ended:

Films about great artists are a benighted genre in that they usually sacrifice art to La-Bohemeish sentimentality or a soap-opera story line. The trouble is that the workings of the creative process are too slow, too private and too painstaking to be entertaining, let alone cinematic.


from Hugo Williams' Freelance piece:
It seems that tanning, like slimming and body-building, is habit-forming--the soft drug of the self-improvement industry. We have tanaholics suffering from tanorexia. Tanning shops used to be places where people lay in their underwear, clamped in a giant waffle-iron. "Health spas", such as the Electric Beach, aren't like that. You go naked into upright bronzing stalls where high-up pole-dancing handles allow you to gyrate to music of your choice, your arms above your head for an overall finish, even if most of the people there are deeply tanned already.


from Peter Parker's review of India & Pakistan 07 on BBC2 and BBC4:
One of the lasting legacies of the British in India is the railway system, which by happy coincidence was inaugurated in Bombay on August 15, 1854, so that Independence Day has additional significance for the country's railway workers whose lives were followed in Monsoon Railway. The first train should have steamed out of the Imperial capital, Calcutta, but the ship carrying it from England somehow missed India altogether and sailed on to Australia, while its carriages were lost when another ship sank in the Bay of Bengal. After this inauspicious start, the railways went on to become a vital part of Indian life. There are some 7,000 stations, including Kharagpur Junction in West Bengal, which has the longest railway platform in the world, stretching more than a kilometre. Indian Railways are the biggest civil employers in the world, providing housing, healthcare and other benefits for their workers, while keeping 11 million passengers on the move every day. Indeed, for all its ramshackle qualities, the state-owned system is remarkably efficient, putting our own privatized network to shame. During the monsoon season, the track is inspected twenty-four hours a day, and a bridge washed away by the rain is repaired (by hand) within four days; freight profits are used to subsidize ticket prizes for the poor; and the Minister of Railways has banned plastic beakers and reintroduced equally disposable but biodegradable clay cups, which are not only much nicer to drink chair from but provide jobs for 100, 000 potters.


from P. D. Smith's review of Ehrhard Bahr's Weimar on the Pacific: German exile culture in Los Angeles and the crisis of modernism:

Edward Said argued that the twentieth century was "the age of the refugee, the displaced person, mass immigration". Hitler's rise to power in 1933 provoked a haemorrhage of talent from German-speaking Europe. As fascism spread in the 1930s and 40s, as many as 15, 000 refugees found a haven from persecution in southern California. Many headed for Los Angeles, a city that has traditionally occupied a space somewhere between an acquired Arcadia and a man-made utopia in the American imagination. Among them were Arnold Schoenberg, Fritz Lang and Max Reinhardt from Vienna, Franz Werfel from Prague, Billy Wilder from Poland, the actor Peter Lorre and the film director Michael Curtiz from Hungary, Heinrich and Thomas Mann from Germany itself. It was, says Bahr, "one of the largest emigration of writers and artists recorded in history."


Theodor Adorno once said that "for a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live". He and Max Horkheimer both relocated from New York to Los Angeles in 1941. Their classic study Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) provides Bahr with both a hermeneutic tool and a paradigm for the dialectical approach of "exile modernism". Horkheimer and Adorno's conclusion that the enlightenment project contained within it the seeds of the "new kind of barbarism" that had dripped Europe was one that the exiled modernists of Los Angeles were reaching independently in their own fields as they tried to resolve the crisis of modernism provoked by the rise of fascism.


from Brenda Maddox's review of Janine Burke's The Gods of Freud: Sigmund Freud's art collection:
Freud began collecting at the same time that he was writing The Interpretation of Dreams, in the period following his father's death in 1896, an event that left him feeling uprooted. As a child he had been an ardent hero-worshipper of figures ranging from Alexander the Great to Napoleon. As an adult, as Burke sees it, he needed to surround himself with images of masculine greatness to inspire and encourage him. Overall, Burke says, the collection appears to embody the theories he was developing: an investigation and celebration of the past, a memento of real and imagined journeys, and a catalogue of desires.


His favorite above all in the collection was a small bronze statue of Athena, a Roman copy of a Greek bronze from the fifth century. "She is perfect" he told H.D., "only she has lost her spear." The Athena now occupies the central place on the desk in his museum.


There (temporary home on Elsworthy Road) Freud had given very short shrift to Salvador Dali, who visited him, considering him a father figure. Freud coldly told him that Surrealist painting showed only the conscious, while in the classical art he loved, he could find the subconscious. Dali took Freud's words--perhaps correctly--as the death-knell for Surrealism.


from Anthony Kenny's review of The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine by Alister McGrath with Joanna Collicutt McGrath:
But if Dawkins fails to make a distinction between religion and belief in God, both McGrath and Dawkins fail to distinguish between belief in God and faith. Faith is something more than the mere belief that there is a God: it is an assent to a purpored revelation of God, communicated through a sacred text or a religious community. It is faith in a creed, not mere belief in God, that is Dawkins's real target in The God Delusion....

"What is really pernicious", Dawkins says, "is the practice of teaching children that faith itself is a virtue. Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument."...

...It is, indeed, too much to say that faith requires no justification: many religious people offer arguments, not just for belief in God but for their particular creed. It is also excessive to say that faith brooks no argument, if that means that the faithful are unwilling to offer responses to criticism. Nevertheless, I think that dawkins is correct to deny that faith is a virtue, for the following reason.

The common characteristic of faith in almost all religious traditions is its irrevocability. A faith that is held tentatively is no true faith. It must be held with the same degree of certainty as knowledge. In some traditions the irrevocability of faith is reinforced by the imposition of the death penalty for apostasy, which the abandonment of faith. Now the kinds of argument that believers offer in support of their religion cannot be claimed to have anything like the degree of cogency that would rationally justify the irrevocable commitment of faith. Again, no argument will make a true believer give up his faith, and this is eomthing that he or she must be resolved on in advance of hearing any argument.

McGrath will no doubt disown such a view of faith. But once again, Dawkins's account is closer to traditional Christianity than McGrath's. The idea that faith is an irrevocable commitment, which goes far beyond any evidence that could be offered in its support, is explicitly stated by Christian thinkers as different from each other as Aquinas, Kierkegaard and Newman. It is the degree of commitment involved in faith, rather than its religious object, that is really objectionable.

Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Visited the Center in Brooklyn Museum on Saturday. The long term installation, Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party (1974-79), was a disappointment. Banners flanking the entry to the banquet hall proclaimed the work's own iconic importance in portentous Biblical language and childish drawings. The curatorial notes did not explain why the dinner table was in the shape of a triangle, when a circle would have better conveyed communion and equality. The ceremonial feel, in the banquet tables, wall mirrors and subdued lighting, was subverted by the colloquial title of the work, and the glitzy, cursive script used for writing on the white tiled floor the names of the other 999 honored women.

The porcelain plates had raised central motifs based on vulvar forms. This had the strange effect of making the vulva seem the food of choice. Why would anyone want to eat anything off their sex organs? Sappho? Much as straight men love their penises, I can't imagine them wanting to lick the sauce off the penile moulding on their plates. Is it different for straight women?

And who got a place at the table sized for 39? The VIPs began with the Primodial Goddess, and ended with Georgia O'Keeffe. The invitations were strongly biased towards Anglo-American women, not even towards Europe as a whole. Tokenism abounded. Kali was the sole Indian representative. There was no East Asian at the table. Of course, some selection must be made, but the principle of selection in this work seemed confused. Places were set for both the Fertility Goddess and Margaret Sanger, but in a "chronological" order rather than a dialogic one. Why give a place to Virginia Woolf, and not to George Eliot or Jane Austen? If Woolf was considered feminist in a way the other 2 writers were not, was Elizabeth I feminist in the way Woolf was? And why Elizabeth I and not Empress Wu zetian? The selection and arrangement of places make the differences between the women more obvious than the gender that they share. The installation exemplifies the limitations of 2nd wave feminism, challenged by so-called Third World feminists.

As if to ward off such criticism, the Center mounted an exhibition of forty recent works selected from the larger one, Global Feminisms, that inaugurated the collection. I enjoyed Miwa Yanagi's Yuka, from her My Grandmother series. Her photo conveyed the frank fantasy of the aged, without regard for its political correctness.

A mixed media painting, by an African woman whose name I cannot remember, titled something like Dismantling the Empire Within You, horrified and fascinated me by its violent dismembering of the human body. Tiny crystals gleamed from the bloody ends of torn limbs. Here was an art--unlike The Dinner Party that merely aimed to be iconic--that interrogated itself, that was truly iconoclastic. It had the fierce intensity of a very different work, Rodin's The Prodigal Son, displayed in the museum lobby.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Days of Summer

Summer expires in a drizzle. Tonight, returning from the gym, I noticed that the day had turned dark at 7.45 p.m. The weather has turned colder yesterday and today. It should get warm enough for a last dash to the beach next weekend, but it does feel like the gasp of a dying creature. I thought about what I had achieved over this summer, having spent most of it in the city, instead of travelling elsewhere.

My main disappointment is that I have not worked on "The Book of the Body" sequence at all. At the beginning of summer, I had the excuse of reading up for it: Guy's biography of Mary Stuart, and McLeod's essay on Sikhism. Then I read Bidart on narrative in poetry, and realized that I don't have a story for the sequence. The sequence needs a narrative to meld its parts into a body; otherwise, it remains a miscellany, despite its conceptual framework.

Dissatisfaction with myself can be highly productive some of the time, and merely depressing at other times. So I remind myself that, this summer, I have re-organized and re-worked my first full manuscript. Now, I am not only pleased with it: I am proud of it. Putting together a first book is a school for patience. I hope the Alice James judges think as much of it as I do.

I've also written a new poetic sequence, "Fire Island," working through my ideas about boundaries. In that sequence, I experimented with syllabics and with Bidart's prosody, and that is useful work. I cannot conduct poetic experiments (or write poetic exercises) in a coldly calculating way, and so I am glad that reading Moore and Bidart had given me impetus to try something new for me. I am proudest, I think, of the one good new poem I wrote this summer. In "Razminovenie, or Non-meeting," I think I've gone further, in some way, than before, some different level, some new mastery.

Time to turn the mind to school: reading Chaucer's General Prologue again, thinking what to do with Mrs. Dalloway, deciding on the approach to teaching Marianne Moore.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Parents' Visit Aug 17 (Fri)

Last day of visit. They are leaving tomorrow morning for Virginia. What did we do today?

Breakfast-Chinese pastries
Morning-Rested at home
Lunch-Dim Sum at Gala Manor: taro cake, siew mai, preserved egg congee, shark's fin dumplings, phoenix claws (chicken feet), braised pork ribs. The egg tarts were excellent: fluffy pastry and a center that was not too sweet or eggy.
Afternoon-Walked around Flushing
Late afternoon-Walked around Times Square; watched "The Invasion" starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig
Dinner-Cafe Asean, in the Village: duck spring rolls, sauteed Chinese broccoli, roasted striped bass with papaya, Malaysian curry chicken

Radio Show Rescheduled

The Poets Wear Prada show has been rescheduled. Here's the announcement from the producer:

Due to the unfortunate passing of jazz legend Max Roach, regular radio programming has been pre-empted on WKCR from tonight until next Wednesday. Max was very close with the radio station, and has been interviewed on it many times by Phil Schaap.

The "Poets Wear Prada" radio shows have therefore been rescheduled to Friday, August 24th (as before) and Friday, September 7th, from 9-10 PM.

Show #1, on Friday, August 24th will feature:

Alex O. Bleecker
Jee Leong Koh
Susan Maurer
Bob Heman

Show #2, on Friday, September 7th, will feature:

Roxanne Hoffman
Efrayim Levenson
Sheryl Helene Simler

The shows will air on WKCR FM NY (89.9 FM, from 9 to 10 PM on Art Waves.

Max Roach, bebop/hard bop percussionist, drummer and composer. Image from Wikipedia.

Parents' Visit Aug 16 (Thu)

Breakfast-Cheesecake bought from Flushing
Morning-Union Square; Washington Square; Greenwich Village
Lunch-Cafe Condessa: ham and mushroom omelette, goat cheese and asparagus omelette, cobb salad, grenache/syrah, albarino
Afternoon-Rested at home
Evening-Brooklyn Bridge
Dinner-Iron Chef Japanese restaurant: sashimi, tempura, teriyaki, beef negimaki
Night-Brooklyn Heights Promenade

Thursday, August 16, 2007

TLS, Aug 10, 2007

Extracts from David Martin's review of John Gray's Black Mass: Apocalyptic religion and the death of utopia:
Gray acknowledges a clear debt to Norman Cohn's pathbreaking The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), but obvious precursors like S. N. Eisenstadt, in his Fundamentalism, Sectarianism and Revolution (1999), subtitled The Jacobin dimension of modernity, and J. F. Talmon in his classic Political Messianism: The Romantic phase (1964) are at best buried in the endnotes.


The French may think master-narratives are out, along with belief and morality, but in fact the language of politics, even in secularist France, is saturated in a teleological moralism. Political language is, as Georges Sorel eloquently showed, profoundly mythic.


Our democratic order is not founded on some secular version of Christian Providence but a vulnerable local achievement, only exportable by violence on the mistaken assumption that, once you strike away the chains of history, tradition and culture, a New Man will emerge in the image and likeness of Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine.


Lions do not throw up, shaken to the core, at not being adequately leonine. Elephants do not roll in the mud to vent their desolation at being so grossly elephantine. Whatever else does or does not separate us from animality, the potential to imagine and body forth transfiguration and to acknowledge disfiguration, is what makes us human. Our sense of indignity is the essence of our dignity. Non sum dignus.


It was Harold Laski wjo pointed this out: the history of religion yields the crucial clues to social and political science.


Extracts from Alastair Fowler's review of Robert N. Watson's Back to Nature: The green and the real in the late Renaissance:
On Marvell's "green thoughts"--From Dante onwards, green often meant hope, whether worldly hope or hope of salvation. Thus, Sor Juana de la Cruz warns that those deluded by worldly hope look through green spectacles a la esperanza. Marvell's Mower, too, associated green with hope: his mind "in the greenness of the Grass/ Did see its Hopes as in a Glass". Hope may not be so much be a meaning we lend, as one lent already. And the color of the Garden seems quite like the "rose" of modern "rose-coloured spectacles."


Ruisdael, the Shakespeare of landscape, contributed decisively to most of its subgenres; some of them, indeed, he originated. His landscape oeuvre encompassed the full gamut of human experience, in all its moods: the serenity of the Karlsruhe "Grove of Large Oak Trees at the Edge of a Pond" as well as the purposeful activity of the many bleaching-ground and water-mill pictures. Nature in Ruisdael can be idyllic; it can also be challenging, even terrible, as in the stormy marines with menacing skies. His career coincided with the little Ice Age, and between 1650 and the mid-1670s he painted twenty-five or so winter pieces, among them some of his most famous pictures.

Wheat Fields, ca. 1670.


...what Watson sees in Dutch painting is often what Simon Schama has also detected: secularizing of religious motifs. Game-pieces identify with the suffering of creatures; spilt wine is eucharistic rather than merely a sign of moral excess; and each spiral of lemon peel signifies the old serpent. The emergent sensibility is tender towards animal nature, like Margaret Cavendish's feeling for hares and chopped-up butcher meat.

I'm reading on radio tomorrow night

Along with the other Poets Wear Prada writers, I'll be reading on Columbia University radio tomorrow (friday) night between 9 and 10 NY time on the Art Waves show hosted by Anne Cammon, on WKCR FM NY (89.9 FM) and on their website at (if you live out of the city). If you tune in, you will hear my poised and inimitable self.

Show #1 (Friday August 17, 9 to 10 PM)
Alex Bleecker
Jee Leong Koh
Susan Maurer
Bob Heman

Show #2 (Friday August 24, 9 to 10 PM)
Roxanne Hoffman
Efrayim Levenson
Sheryl Helene Simler

Parents' Visit Aug 15 (Wed)

Breakfast-Stop Inn Restaurant, an Irish diner: 2 eggs well done, crispy home fries, toast and pancakes
Morning-Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville
Lunch-Calvin's Restaurant: indistinguishable chicken, shrimp and pork dishes.
Afternoon-Rested at home; walked around Flushing, NYC's 2nd Chinatown
Dinner-Sentosa Restaurant: roti canai, char kway teow, hokkien fried noodle, barbecued skate.
Night-Played Rumi-o again, and dad and I finished the Canadian Shore Creek Riesling he had brought. The wine was a little drier and less fruitier than the German Rieslings.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

What To Do When Parents Visit NYC

My parents arrived for a week's visit last Saturday, and we've been together 24 hours for the last three days. Since they don't share many of my interests, I've been racking my brains to think up places and activities that they may enjoy. Mum loves to shop, and dad likes to take in new places. This is what we have done so far:

Sat. Aug 11, 2007
5 p.m.-They arrived on the Apex Bus at Allen Street. Walked round Chinatown: East Broadway, Mott Street up to Prince Street. Mother bought dried ingredients for making soups.
Dinner-Nonya Restaurant: roti canai, Hainanese chicken, kangkong belachan

Sun. Aug 12, 2007
Breakfast-Subway omelette sandwiches
Morning-Shopping at South Street Seaport and Century 21.
Late lunch-Panini place: tuna melt panini, smoked turkey panini, Asian sesame chicken and ginger salad, spinach salad
Afternoon-Rested at home
Evening-Watched Spamalot
Supper-Chinese takeout place: Cantonese wanton noodle, beef stew noodle and fishball noodle

Mon. Aug 13, 2007
Breakfast-MacDonald's pancakes and big breakfast
Lunch-Pan-asian place along Lexington Avenue: house fried rice, shrimp tempura
Afternoon-Jewish Museum
Tea-the Tea Box at Takashimaya along 5th Avenue
Afternoon-St. Thomas Church, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Rockefeller Center
Dinner-Penang in Chinatown: pipa duck (crispy and tasty), Hokkien char kway teow, sambal eggplant

Tue. Aug 14, 2007
Breakfast-Subway omelette sandwiches
Morning & Afternoon-Shopping at Woodbury Commons (vast shopping mall an hour from NYC)
Dinner-Congee Village: frog leg congee, sliced fish with preserved egg congee, steamed bean curd with sliced chicken
Evening-Walked around Lower East Side, up Ludlow Street

Congee Village was an unexpected hit with my parents. The food was cheap, and, after many heavy meaty meals, they appreciated the plainness of congee, or what the Cantonese calls, "clearness."

Monday, August 13, 2007


Watched only my third Broadway musical yesterday night, after Wicked and Sweeney Todd. As before, after the show was over, I wondered why I don't watch more musicals and plays than I do. They are usually such entertaining affairs. The cost is prohibitive but the money goes in other more insidious ways. Spamalot was hilarious, the second half was even better than the first. Not a Monty Python fan, I don't know how much the musical rips off or riffs off the TV show and film, but a lot of the musical makes fun of the genre itself. I love the rompish queering of the text. Launcelot, that perfect courtly lover in medieval lit, rescues a prince, instead of a maiden, in distress, and discovers his inner gay. Sir Robin, the coward, discovers his Grail in his talent and passion for, what else, broadway musicals. Yes, the humor, lacking verbal sophistication or strong set-up, relies heavily on visual gags and references to pop culture. But this musical succeeds by combining parody and paragon. It lays bare the creaky mechanisms of the genre, and celebrates them raucously at the same time. As the show tune goes, always look on the bright side of life...

Friday, August 10, 2007

Razminovenie, or Non-meeting

Razminovenie, or Non-meeting

Though I dream all the time of union, cold air
aerated by air, coursing water saturated by water,
I’ll imagine never meeting you, my imaginary love.

Perhaps you are in the apartment above mine,
hooked up with my neighbor, cursing softly, and I wish
you could read, here, the entry of your voice: fuck.

Perhaps you are not so near in time and space.
On a planet dried of air or water you survive
by reciting poetry from memory, a line of verse—

you’re exerting a force equal to the earth’s

a capsule taken, paradoxically, by spitting it out.
This is not so ridiculous as some may think,

for didn’t Tsvetaeva and Pasternak live like this,
not on one planet, but on two hurtling asteroids.
We have nothing, Marina wrote Boris, except words.

A poet’s boast, carried by neither air nor water.
But, oh, we can live for months by howling
the medial syllable of razminovenie: no.

TLS, August 3, 2007

from Rachel Polonsky's review "A higher romance" of Catherine Ciepiela's "The Same Solitude: Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva"

Although Pasternak fantasized about travelling to Switzerland with Tsvetaeva to visit the dying Rilke, and there were intermittent urges and unrealized plans to meet over the years, actual encounters played no part in the "love" that their letters mutually proclaim. As Tsvetaeva later wrote to Pasternak, "we have nothing except words." Her shrewd sense of how meeting in person might jeopardize the communion available to them in letters (and dreams) was part of a longstanding philosophy of "non-meeting" (razminovenie) with other great poets, which, in its turn, contributed to what Joseph Brodsky calls her retreat into an ever-expanding "sphere of isolation".

I, too, have this intuition about meeting great poets, the fear of being disillusioned, but I did not know that there was a "longstanding philosophy" behind it. What a lovely name for non-meeting: razminovenie. Sweetly melancholic, it makes much out of little. And its middle syllable is "no."

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Impatience

When will my love, my love, be true?
When will my love be true?
When will my love, my love, be you,
and when, my love, will you?

When will my days, my day, be bright?
When will my days be bright?
When will my nights, my night, be night?
When will my nights be night?

When will my death, my breath, be dead?
When will my death be dead,
if you, my breath, are not yet dead?
When will my breath be dead?

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Ancestral Worship

My parents gave up their ancestral ghosts
when, midwived by their only son, they were born
again as children to the Lord of Hosts.

I, in turn, gave up a young man’s faith worn
on the sleeve, first as heart, and then as rank;
I burned my uniform. I am gone

to pen my invitations on the blank
tablets, to burn joss paper as a man
incinerates his carbon days, to thank

the ghosts returning in a caravan,
coupled with aliens and aborigines,
back from Seleucia and Samarkand.

Son of the Yellow Emperor (and queens),
I trace my lineage from the man who lined
the yellow bed, a house for in-betweens,

whose dragon-draped sheets twisted and twined
round his throat like a necklace or a noose.
Desire fathers knowledge, body mind,

thus was born Master Zhuang, the skilled recluse,
cousin to Heraclitus. War and change
enkindled his mind, conflagrated, Use

uselessness, like One-Foot, and you will range
like fire through bushfire without getting hurt.

My forebears, village scum, floated to strange

banks, ember-hearts inside their single shirt.
Some were extinguished by a careless shoe.
Some smoldered on. The lucky hit pay dirt.

I see their fire, like that of exiled Jews,
shining like birthing stars in infrared:
so Bruce Lee was reborn as Lee Kuan Yew,

and Mao sprang, whole, from Empress Wu’s godhead.
Through fire no energy is gained or lost.
The boy who lit a joss stick for the dead

beget the man praying for Pentecost;
not enemies but guests who leave at dawn
the host of fathers, sons and holy ghosts,

rising from sleep, and burning to be born.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Indignation 2007: Pride Season in Singapore

Here's a link to the calendar of events. If you can't be there, you can still get a taste of what's in store for the island. Ian McKellen, who performed in King Lear and The Seagull in Singapore, left a video message in support of Indignation. He also spoke in support of gay rights in interviews on Singapore TV and radio. The government banned a lecture (a lecture!) on same-sex legislative trends in Asia, and a same-sex kissing photographic exhibition. You may read about those bans on Talking Bread too.

The bans are intellectually inconsistent and indefensible. The common thread, from the accounts in Talking Bread, is that the homophobic campaign, which includes letters to the press, is being waged by conservative Christians in Singapore, many of whom are influential in the government. Religious fundamentalism is the issue of the twenty-first century, and I am not referring only to the Islamic variant. One letter, written by a self-identified Christian, said, ""Even if a 'homosexual' gene was discovered, this does not change the Christian perspective on the issue. Christian theology considers death, sicknesses, cancers, genetic mutation and even an eventual finding of a 'homosexual' gene (or genetic defect) as the results of sin and flouting of God's moral order." The writer, and the Christians she represents, have not left the medieval age.

I am also reproducing in full a letter sent by a gay Singaporean man to the main newspaper. When the newspaper failed to publish it, he sent it to Talking Bread. The name John Toh is a pseudonym. Though he is fully out in his newly adopted country, he used a pseudonym because his mother has many friends in the Methodist church. His concern is that she could suffer from ostracism and vilification should it be known that her son wrote the letter.

I am a homosexual Singaporean who has been in a loving and committed same-sex relationship for almost ten years. My partner and I currently live overseas because we sought for ourselves a better life in a progressive society more accepting of us. Despite the pain of losing direct access to our dear friends and family, and the continued revulsion of our "chosen" lifestyle by the conservative religious community who also exist here, we have nevertheless found a new and happier existence in this foreign land. If nothing else, we are comforted by laws here that affirm our right to exist as equals, regardless of skin colour, creed or sexual orientation.

I have therefore been following with keen interest the on-going, healthy and civilised debate on the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Singapore. I am drawn, in particular, to the article entitled "MP Baey all for repealing anti-gay law" dated 16 Jul 07 and the ensuing letter from Bishop Dr Robert Solomon dated 19 Jul 07 clarifying the stand of the Methodist Church of Singapore (MCS) against homosexuality.

As directed by Bishop Solomon, I took a closer look at the MCS’ website and its explanation for its opposition towards homosexuality. While admiring the attempt to use "reason" to justify its position, I cannot resist pointing out the flaws in their thinking. Surely, if any religious group wants to apply its distinct moral standards across society, the basis for such standards must withstand public scrutiny.

I have not read the book by Robert Gagnon, quoted by the MCS as providing an excellent scholarly study on the subject. According to some reviews, it seems to be a work of merit that challenges any dissenting view that the Bible and homosexuality are compatible. I have come across others, criticising Gagnon’s work for his "views on the authorship of the Bible, downplaying of Jesus’ condemnation of divorce, reliance on Paul Cameron’s thoroughly discredited sociological research, failure to address the question of ‘intersexed’ persons, insistence that same-sex relationships are unknown in the animal world (an idea that Bruce Bagemihl destroys in his exhaustive work)", etc. Amidst such concerns, how can we presume Gagnon’s work to be definitive on the subject? Perhaps only by unquestioning minds determined to preserve their Church’s prescribed views on the matter.

We are told by the MCS to distinguish between what is "normal" and "normative". The MCS claims that homosexuality, as condemned by God’s revelation through Scripture, should never be condoned even if it has been "normalised" by science or general social acceptance. By this argument then, abominable un-Christian practices such as adultery must remain criminalised. Likewise, divorce and the eating of pork and sea creatures without fins/scales should not be allowed. And misogynistic values and slavery should continue to be defended. Yet, in an ever-evolving "moral zeitgeist", to borrow a term popularised by Richard Dawkins in his recent bestseller "The God Delusion", we have seen a gradual acceptance, decriminalisation in some instances, of behavioural practices firmly condemned by Scripture and, conversely, the abolition of practices condoned by it.

On the matter of science, can we even contemplate that, by a similar refusal to give in to an updated understanding of a biological condition, sufferers of epilepsy should continue to be treated as victims of demonic possession? How are we expected to conveniently overlook such glaring inconsistencies, unless we fully concede that Scripture is inherently contradictory, trapped in an ancient social context and, ultimately, fallible?

For the benefit of those who remain unclear, Biblical objections to homosexuality mainly stem from Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 which, in slightly varying translations, assert, "If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads". Several other passages in both the Old and New Testaments are often also quoted. However, these quite arguably really refer to non-consensual and therefore oppressive sexual behaviour (e.g. paedophilia or bestiality) which I, and any other reasonable thinking and socially-conscious person, would whole-heartedly agree we must continue to revile. While other laws in the Penal Code would remain to ensure such socially unacceptable transgressions remain criminalised, a repeal of Section 377A merely seeks to legitimise consensual and, therefore, mutually-respectful male-to-male sexual relationships.

However one chooses to view homosexuality – whether as a product of a biological predisposition, a genetic variation, a mental state to be re-conditioned or a purely alternative lifestyle choice – homosexuals are also human beings with the same capacity to love and be loved, to form loving committed relationships and to live as responsible members of society, albeit with an innate sexual attraction for members of the same sex. And, like their heterosexual counterparts, they are also subject to the same human impulse for lust and perversity.

One must also question the wisdom of the MCS’ defence of Scripture’s absolute inerrancy when it is a document comprising books that were humanly written and originally assembled by the Roman Catholic Church, whose legacy the MCS no longer associates itself with or even respects from the perspective of dogma.

History shows that Methodism, which originated in the 18th Century when John Wesley and his followers broke away from the mainstream Anglican Church in Britain on the basis of a differing theology, flourished and appealed to agricultural workers and slaves during its initial spread to the US. Slavery, sanctioned by Scripture, was abetted by churches until it was legally abolished (the UK in 1833 and the US in 1865). A sensible secular law thus over-rode Scripture. The Methodist movement in the US suffered a massive split over conflicting views on the matter during the early 1800s but eventually reunited in 1939, long after the issue had been resolved by law, then went on to form the present United Methodist Church in 1968. Scripture’s endorsement and the Church’s defence of slavery have conveniently and mysteriously been forgotten. Is Rev Dr Yap perhaps truly well ahead of his time (and his own church) on this particular issue of homosexuality?

The Methodist Church also condemns capital punishment, opposes gambling and advocates "temperance" regarding alcohol consumption (to the extent that unfermented grape juice replaces wine in its modified version of the Sacrament of Holy Communion, again selectively departing from Scripture). It also opposes conscription and regards war as incompatible with the teachings of Christ. Yet, members of the MCS accept that, as Singaporeans, they must abide by secular laws and national policies that compromise their religious beliefs. The moral markers and penal codes that guide our society in Singapore are not governed by Scripture alone. If it were, how do we account for so many discrepancies?

MP Baey suggests a viable solution to this conundrum by advocating the clear "distinction between what the Government wants to encourage, and what it wants to criminalise". Adultery, while providing legal grounds for granting a divorce – mainly for its violation of the social agreement/contract that binds a marriage in the eyes of civil society (and not necessarily the Church or God) – is a non-criminal behaviour.

Fornication and adultery, as long as they are consensual between any man and woman, are not illegal, regardless of the latter being equally abominable in Scripture as homosexuality. So, by all means, continue to regard homosexuals as "sinners", as you do fornicators and adulterers. But is it right to selectively criminalise homosexuals?

Six years ago, before leaving Singapore, my partner and I held a private commitment ceremony. We decided that even if society there at the time was unable and unwilling to legally sanction our union, we would seek that recognition from friends and family. Devoid of any religious or legal motives, we merely wished to "publicly" declare our commitment to each other and, as in any conventional civil marriage, to seek the support of those in attendance to help nurture our relationship henceforth. Surely, our choice to affirm such a committed relationship can only reinforce the positive values that the social institution of marriage stands for, rather than to diminish them. But same-sex marriage, as we know, is an entirely separate debate.

If there is to be a genuine debate on the moral dilemmas we face today, why not instead devote ourselves to other more pressing issues – such as the unhealthy obsession with personal wealth-building, religious ignorance/intolerance that constantly threatens world peace, our obligation to respect and protect our environment for our future generations – all of which Scripture understandably fails to illuminate, given its stagnant, ancient context. Just looking at how the references to poverty far outnumber those on sexual activity in Scripture, one simply cannot fathom why Christians would choose to focus on the latter in their quest to seek a closer relationship with their God.

MM Lee has paved the way for this debate at a time when Singapore seeks to legitimise its place in the First World. This is opportune, given the prevailing air of optimism that accompanies an envisioned economic and social renaissance for the country. I can only hope that the Singaporean Government will see fit to address, beyond the economic imperatives that motivate this current discourse, the underlying humanitarian issue that threatens to be hijacked by both a regressive and aggressive religious viewpoint.

As Singaporeans, we constantly recite a pledge to uphold ourselves as "one united people, regardless of race, language or religion". With the Women’s Charter having already been enacted by the time this pledge was composed in 1966 and the issue of sexual orientation yet to surface, additional dividers of egalitarian ideals such as gender, sexual orientation and physical ability were omitted, perhaps deemed unnecessary then. But 40 years later, they remain as valid in any mature society around the world.

I want to believe that the Government and people of Singapore will become enlightened enough to provide homosexuals like myself with not just a place in its richly diverse, forward-looking, multi-faceted and humane society but also a legitimate and dignified existence.

Transformers: the Movie

I enjoyed Transformers: the Movie. The spectacle of metamorphosizing machines is, for me, mesmerizing. There is something steely and logical about it, though you cannot see for sure which part of the car turns into which part of the robot. It is enough that the head of the 18-wheeler is now the chest of Optimus Prime. Like a heroic knight of old, Prime wields a sword. The Decepticon Starscream is a Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, while Barrricade, a Saleen S281 Mustang, subverts the public trust in the police, by posing as a cop car. When the human soldiers see Starscream and think that air support has arrived, Starscream fires upon them in a horrible parody of friendly fire. Megatron, disguised as another fighter plane, flies through a skyscraper in an echo of 9/11. The secret government agency reveals that modern technological advancements, like lasers, have been achieved through the study of Megatron when he was retrieved from the North Pole, frozen in ice. The movie aims to be a parable, of course, but I take an animal delight in its machinery, its firepower, a mindless delight that has something akin to my enjoyment of sex, of poetry.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Reading "Light in August"

I could not resist the shape. Yesterday, the first day of the month, I started reading Faulkner's Light in August in Central Park. The August light burnished the trees with a final coat of summer polish, but the gold was also funereal. Then a cloud moved, and the light was shown up to be a trick. The grotesque did not take very long to appear in the woods, in the novel.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Neo Rauch, Contemporary Photographs, Manet

Neo Rauch sounds like a new art movement, which is almost true since a loosely-organized German school has arisen around this Leipzig artist (b. 1960), according to the curatorial note. The paintings, specially done for this Met exhibition, mix Surrealist and social realist images. I found the paintings hard to appreciate because most of the time I felt I was trying to read code without a key. I did like a few of the paintings. "Hunter's Room," with its cartoon figures in a social realist setting, reminded me of Otto Dix and fellow German expressionists.

"The Next Move" struck me as humorous in its juxtaposition of the artists thinking about their next projects, and the seduction in bed behind them.

I also looked in at "Hidden in Plain Sight: Contemporary Photographs from the Permanent Collection." Jean-Marc Bustamante elevates a newstand in a narrow alley into an image of great formal beauty, full of light and shade.

I saw William Eggleston's works for the first time. He used a process called dye transfer to achieve brilliant colors. I cannot find the photograph I liked so much: a box of tin cans on a piece of sandy ground cratered by two puddles, and embossed with tire tracks. His website showcases other works. The lone Stephen Shore print there more than held its own against the others.

I also spent some time looking at Manet's painting of his wife, in the European paintings collection.

Madame Manet (Suzanne Leenhoff, 1830–1906) at Bellevue, 1880.

Manet painted this last portrait of his wife three years before his death in 1883. He was only 51 when he died. I think the painting is a moving tribute to her strength and support for the artist. Not only is the figure sitting with her back straight and resolute, her chair, with its brown back and curling arm-rests, resembles a tree and its roots. Her own clothes are painted in shades of brown, her hat in straw color, her hands in ochre. Though seated, she is wearing her hat, as if she is ready to take a walk along the path, of which only a wedge can be seen. Her eyes hidden behind the hat, she preserves an autonomy opaque to the artist and the viewer. What are revealed, in this meticulously-dressed woman, are her strong nose, and her firm but sweet lips.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Ian McEwan's "Atonement"

This is how I know I have read a masterpiece: I walked out of my apartment, and my neighborhood seemed far less real than the world of Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis and Brioni Tallis. I loved them, and feared for them more fiercely than I had for anyone real. The love and fear came from an imagination so thoroughly awakened that its previous life had the quality of a dream.

I think Alan Hollinghurst is a greater prose stylist than McEwan. The Line of Beauty has passages of such lyrical, yes, beauty, exquisite passages that Atonement could not match. McEwan sometimes resorts to commonplaces. Sunlight is described as a "parallelogram," a "wedge," and then "geometry."

But McEwan is not after beauty per se; his prose probes and delineates the subtle psychology of his characters. Many reviewers compare him rightly to Jane Austen for his strength in this regard, though McEwan is, I think, fundamentally non-ironic. Who said that there are only three literary modes: ironic, tragic and lyrical? McEwan's vision is tragic.

He is also more ingenious in his plot construction and narrative methods than Hollinghurst. Atonement is, at least, in part, a story about story-telling. Part 1 tells of the same fateful day from four different perspectives, all four using the stream-of-consciousness technique. But that only sets up McEwan's quarrel with literary modernism. According to him, the modernist novel, in its obsession with the eddies of consciousness, has neglected the pleasure and importance of narrative. Emily Tallis, wife and mother in the Tallis household, is a Woolfian figure. She is like Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, except that Emily in Atonement is depicted as an ineffectual character.

Part 2, with its realist description of Robbie's trudge to Dunkirk to be evacuated with the rest of the British Expeditionary Force, is a tribute to the Victorian novel. It is Dickensian and Eliotian in many places. And then Part 3 provides the postmodernist twist. I can't explain it without giving away the surprise. The twist does not only engage in the great conversation about the powers and the ethics of novel-writing, it also deepens my feelings for the characters involved.

Where my attention wavered was in Part 2. Yes, it is connected logically to the plot, and suggestively to the theme of guilt and atonement, but I can't help feeling that it is not integrated with the rest of the novel. With its detailed documentation of the horrors of military retreat, it feels too much like a set-piece. Dickens would write set-pieces but they are usually short, not longer than one chapter, one short number in the magazine serialization. McEwan's set-piece goes on for the whole of Part 2, a total of 70 pages. It makes too loud a claim for Social Importance.

But it has its own pleasures. If it does not chart the transformation of Robbie, it does emphasize his love for Cecilia, and thus makes the ending so much more poignant. The main pleasure of Book 2, though, is the introduction of a cast of vivid characters and incidents. Mace and Nettles, the corporals forced to depend on Private Robbie because they cannot read a map, are convincing creations.

Futoshi Miyagi's "Island of Shattered Glass: In the Bondage of Quicksilver Daydreams"

The title is schmaltzy, and so is the show. No amount of art criticism (i.e. promotion), no amount of talk of the fleeting nature of memory, of the cultural implications of forgetting (never spelled out), can rescue this small exhibition from its enormous self-indulgence. The work, which uses the Japanese myth about Nirai Kanai (an island from which all things depart and return), lacks development and formal interest. From the exhibition blurb:

While Robert Smithson used broken glass for Atlantis, Miyagi’s Atlantis consists of thin strips of shredded “chigiries” portraying moments in the artist’s childhood diffused by layers of memory and fantasy. Miyagi violently shreds his “chigiries” after completion, so that the island of “Nirai Kanai” takes shape on the gallery’s floor from shredded memories. However, the original “chigiries” are preserved albeit distanced by their photographic documentation and abstraction in faded black and white prints, which hover around Miyagi’s island. In this way, Miyagi’s work also addresses inaccessibility in regards to geographic distance and time privileging what is vaguely forgotten over what is clearly remembered and the cultural implications of forgetting.

Suspicious abstractions. What you see in the middle of the one exhibition room is a strip of white cloth lying on the floor, with one end suspended from the ceiling. On the cloth are shredded pieces of paper in the shape of a long island. This centerpiece is hardly compelling.

Two photographs look somewhat interesting. In one, the drawn walls and floor of a Japanese-styled room are covered by small overlapping torn pieces of paper. In the other, the paper pieces form a wallet, and the photograph of a couple in it. This use of paper not only reminds me of the paper-thin delicacy of Japanese architecture and design, but also of Western pointillist technique. It is a method that may yield intriguing results.

When I searched for Nirai Kanai @ Wiki, I was directed to Ryukyuan religion, which focuses on ancestor worship. Sky, Earth and Sea are the Ultimate Ancestors since from them all life came. More immediate ancestors are those who lived between the present day and the twenty-fifth generation into the past, a time period called the Present Age.