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Showing posts from November, 2013

Monstrosity is the Untruth

TLS October 25 2013

from Jack Flam's review of T. J. Clark's Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica:

Although Clark takes a rather long and circuitous route to conclude that Picasso is a monist whose art is amoral--not from indifference, but from a reality principle (the world itself being amoral)--his discussion of parallels between Nietzsche and Picasso contributes to a better understanding of Picasso's uniqueness as a thinker as well as a painter. It also provides an implicit rebuke to Jung's expectation that great art be "good" as well as beautiful. Following Nietzsche, Clark maintains that the way monstrosity collapses normal terms of identity and difference can be a substitute for truth: "Monstrosity is the Untruth--the strangeness and extremity--inherent in everyday life".

Arthur Danto's "The Transfiguration of the Commonplace"

In this work of philosophy, Danto wishes to define art, and to show why contemporary art, having attained self-consciousness, is asking the same questions as philosophy. His approach throughout the book is to compare artworks with what he calls mere real things, when both are indiscernibly alike. The two classes of things, as he argues, belong to different ontological realms, hence, the title of his book. The artist performs a transfiguration of the commonplace when he makes of his materials a work of art. Danto has been criticized for his belief in duality, underlined by the Christian or Catholic figure of transfiguration, and reiterated throughout the book in his references to the body and the soul. I am not sure if the two ontological realms are as separate as his tropes imply, for his argument proceeds by making nice distinctions between, first, a representation and an object, and, then, between a representation and an artistic representation. If the categories are finally differe…

Frank Ching's "Ancestors"

It is a curious thing to me that I am non-curious about my ancestors. I read to discover literary ancestors--predecessors and mentors--who can give me help. I cannot imagine spending years of my life, as Frank Ching did, researching actual ancestors, as if they have anything to do with me but for the accident of blood. Would I feel different if I discover how illustrious my ancestors are, like Ching's list of top court officials, brilliant scholars, famous poets, noted failures, and even a notorious traitor?

Though illustrious, their lives in dynastic China followed the same basic pattern, which makes for dull reading. These men (for only scholar-class men had their lives recorded in government, city or clan histories) studied throughout their teens and twenties, and sometimes thirties and forties, for the civil-service examinations. When they passed them, they were posted to various government positions throughout the empire to carry out their various duties and effect their vari…

Two Queer French Films

Dans la maison (In the House), 2012, directed by François Ozon, is many things. It is a story about a cynical teacher and a talented student. It is also a study of the sexual frustration of middle-class women, the art gallery owner married to the teacher, and the housewife married to a corporate hick. At the heart of the film is the voyeur in everyone of us, the student (compelling Ernst Umhauer) who wants to see what a perfect family looks like, the teacher (Fabrice Luchini), and his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas). It is an homage to Teorema by Pier Paolo Pasolini, in which a stranger enters a home and seduces everyone in it, maid, son, mother, daughter, and father. And, most profoundly, the film is an allegory for the creative process. The fact that all these levels cannot be separated from one another easily as the film moves towards its unexpected ending is a testament to the skill and vision of the director. GH and I watched it last weekend, and we still felt its impact last night a…

Reading at Hunter College

Alison Park invited me to read to her Asian American Studies class at Hunter College last Wednesday. The class consisted of about 20 students, half of which were Asian American. There were a few more women than men. The students were taking the class to fulfill the requirement for pluralism in their studies, so not everyone there was an English major. In fact, someone there majored in Computer Science. They were a little quiet and shy at the beginning but warmed up soon.

I read them some family and New York poems from Equal to the Earth, stopped for questions, and then read from The Pillow Book as a lead-in to Sei Shonagon and her use of the list form. The students wrote their own list for "Things That Sound Beautiful," a topic suggested by the class. After they wrote down some ideas, I asked them to write them out again, this time aiming to elaborate, organize, paragraph, and delete. They came up with some great descriptions. I remember, in particular, wind chimes, a minor …

3 Poems in Axon

All three poems have epigraphs from Lee Tzu Pheng. Alvin Pang was the Consulting Editor for this issue of the Australian journal Axon

Vijay's Seshadri's "3 Sections"

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Vijay's third collection, and it's well worth waiting for. The book is marvelous, constantly surprising. I enjoyed again the lacerating "Memoir" (which first appeared in The New Yorker) and the three apocalyptic visions of "This Morning" (which I first heard at a PSA reading). "Three Persons" is still a particular favorite. The theme of containing multitudes recurs in different guises throughout the book, culminating in the transformative ending of "Personal Essay," where the faces seen in a trance are themselves and more than themselves. I also love the memoir "Pacific Fishes of Canada" and will be sharing it with a colleague who teaches Moby Dick. The book takes many risks in its language--colloquial, mythic, sentimental, scientific--but rides the waves through the energy of its sentences.

Old Work, New Work, Public Work

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Shakespeare's Globe is in New York, and I was lucky to get two tickets to the production of Richard III at Belasco Theatre last Friday. Disconcertingly, Mark Rylance played Richard for laughs, and achieved a new horror. Liam Brennan was brilliant too as Clarence, as was Paul Chahidi as Hastings. The rest of the cast was below par. It was an all-male cast. Of the men playing the women, the strongest was Joseph Timms as Lady Grey. The scene in which Richard tried to persuade Lady Grey to give her daughter to him in marriage was both funny and heartbreaking. Rylance's comic timing, aided by a stutter, turned seemingly innocuous lines into bombshells of laughter.

Yesterday was a beautiful, brisk day for gallery-hopping. GH and I saw the new sculpture by Richard Serra. Inside Out (2013), a single work made out of two curved plates, was tremendous. You think you know Serra's signature monumental work, and will therefore be unmoved by it. But I was, yet again, at the Gagosian gal…

Tara Bergin's "This Is Yarrow"

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I can't praise highly enough this first book of poems by Tara Bergin. I'm into my second reading, and it's even more compelling than the first round. Favorites, familiar from PN Review or from New Poetries V, are here--"Looking at Lucy's Painting of the Thames," "Himalayan Balsam for a Soldier," "The Undertaker's Tale of the Notebook," "This Is Yarrow"--but now set in the company of poems that deepen and broaden their resonance.

"Acting School" acknowledges the distance between art and life, but brilliantly concludes that "there is a sufficient amount of physical truth" in the former to approximate, and even vivify, the latter. That physical truth I find confirmed, again and again, in the musicality of the verse. It is not drinking water, but in drinking air, poetry comes close to life.

The contradictions and tensions in married life are conveyed with nervous, even harrowing, energy. I love the poem "…

Lines from Batu Ferringhi

QLRS has just published my essay on Goh Poh Seng's book-length poem Lines from Batu Ferringhi. Thanks, Hsien Min and Shu Hoong. (In the same issue also, my answers to Shu Hoong's Proust Questionnaire.) The essay will have done its work if it interests someone to re-issue this vital work of Singapore literature.
Batu Ferringhi is a beach area in the north of Penang Island in Malaysia. In the 16th century, Portuguese traders from India stopped at Batu Ferringhi to replenish their water supplies, and their visits gave the place its name. "Batu Ferringhi" means "Foreigner's Rock". At this liminal space between land and sea, one seeks the foreign in one's familiar self. In the 1970s it was famous as a hippie's hangout, as a place where foreigners came to swim "in the nude at the freshwater pools" (according to Wong Chun Wai's 'Life's a beach in Penang'). Goh was not a hippie. He was a married man with children, a doctor, a …