Friday, November 30, 2007

Life Imitates Art: Films that are life-altering

scar Wilde recognized the truth that Life Imitates Art, not the other way around. His example? The Ubiquitous London Fogs brought on by the Impressionists.

Sunrise by Monet

The influence of art on life today is most obvious in film. Great directors and great films shape our perceptions of reality and alter our lives forever:

Dar, for instance, owes his personality to Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard,
to Gloria Swanson and William Holden.

Norma Desmond (click)

Films that have shaped my life and my understanding of life include:


American Beauty (modern living)
Cabaret (gay 30s Berlin, Liza)
Casablanca (noble character, war)
Chinatown (capitalism, evil, making of L. A. )

Fanny and Alexander(it's good to be Bourgeois)
The Godfather (pure evil, crime world)
Harold and Maude (suicide, ageless love)
The History Boys (the joys and sorrows of Teaching)

Juliet of the Spirits(the Beauty of fantasy)

Midnight Cowboy (New York, love)
Night of the Iguana (Tennessee Williams, Mexico)

Shortbus (genuine sexuality, love, and the psyche)

Slaughterhouse Five (All's bad in war)
Some Like it Hot (Marilyn Monroe, drag)
The Wizard of Oz (Yellow Brick Road)
Women In Love (D.H. Lawrence)

Akira Kurosawa
(truth is subjective)

But this is just a sampling.
It is also essential to mention the great directors whose films have shaped my life:

Federico Fellini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski, Werner Fassbinder, Ken Russell, Peter Greenaway,
Lina Wertmüller, Derek Jarman, Pedro Almodovar, Ang Lee, John Waters, Ingmar Bergman, Louis Malle, Pier Paulo Pasolini, Kurosawa, Luis Bunuel, John Cameron Mitchell... even Woody Allen
(all are clickable)

The Guardian has quite a list
of 40 current Film Directors

Keep viewing


Monday, November 26, 2007

Japan Dreaming

Where I'd rather be today:

Snowbound in Japan

Raymond Meier

At Gozanoishi Shrine on Lake Tazawa, in Japan's Akita Prefecture.

Published: November 18, 2007

It was after a three-hour train ride north from Tokyo, heading for Tsurunoyu Onsen, that I learned Tsurunoyu isn’t an onsen at all. “It’s really more of a hitou,” Moto, my guide, delicately pointed out. We were in Honshu Island’s far-north prefecture of Akita, winding our way up the unpaved road to the 300-year-old mountain lodge, and Moto seemed especially intent on setting me straight. An onsen, he explained, is a natural hot spring. A hitou is a natural hot spring that is hidden. Ah. Hiddenness being perhaps the most prized characteristic in Japanese culture — second only to a love of drawing precise distinctions on a minute scale — I understood this was a critical difference.

Tsurunoyu finally emerged from a gulch in the hills. It seemed tiny. The original lodge is flanked by a handful of low thatch-and-wood structures added over the decades, all backed by a sheer, massive wall of coniferous green. In the middle of the compound is a stream that runs down the hillside and alongside a shallow, oblong pool of hot, ice-blue water that bubbles up from the ground, where people soak for hours at a stretch. Until World War II, Tsurunoyu was something like a sanitarium; the ill and injured came here to recoup with the help of the water’s healing minerals. It’s the oldest and most picturesque of seven hot-spring inns in the immediate area, known collectively as the Nyuto onsens. In a 20-mile radius, there are some dozen more — but those are not really hitous and, according to Japanese logic, draw fewer visitors.

Although Tsurunoyu is mainly a destination for the Japanese, foreign travelers are starting to make the trek here. The man who served us dinner one night said he gets as many as three international visitors a week. A few days before we arrived, he’d had a German diplomat. The onsen gets plenty of Germans, he said, as well as Austrians, Canadians, Australians, Italians and Taiwanese. They come in part for the area’s alpine pleasures — Nyuto is contained within the Towada-Hachimantai National Park. A mountain trail connects all seven Nyuto onsens, and you can hike the whole thing in about two hours, stopping for a dip in each bath and taking in the particular properties of the various waters. (Each pool is said to confer a unique benefit.) There are also ski slopes nearby, as well as gorgeous Lake Tazawa, the country’s deepest, with clear blue water and boats for rent. A few miles away, the town of Kakunodate, known for its well-preserved samurai houses and cherry-blossom festival, is a kind of Japanese Colonial Williamsburg.

We drove there one afternoon and visited a half dozen of its house museums, where seemingly every stray possession left from previous owners has been thrown behind glass: fascinating displays of 17th-century armor, a puzzling assortment of 1950s vinyl LPs. Afterward we followed a group of Japanese businessmen to an udon restaurant; the area is famous for the purity of its water and therefore also its noodles.

Most people, however, come to this part of Akita simply to soak and eat. Dinner at Tsurunoyu is an elaborate, delicious, 12-course marathon of soba, soups, pickles, mushrooms, mountain vegetables and freshwater fish fried, sashimi-ed and roasted whole. Breakfast is the same, along with an egg. (By the third meal, you’d kill for a sandwich.) And bath time is the bridge between meals. Moto, who’d been here before, said it’s common to arrive at Tsurunoyu and not leave once in a three-day stay, especially in winter, when Akita’s heavy snows turn everything into sculpture. There’s something about living in a kimono, sitting in primordial waters, and eating food prepared and served according to ancient ritual that makes you feel serenely outside time. For many Japanese, Moto told me, this is a particular treat, an escape from the chaos of city life and a chance to reconnect with their collective past. One night the dining room was filled with a rowdy group of married couples in their 50s having a lavish meal with many bottles of beer and sake. High, whiny violin music played on a stereo while powdered wives in bustled kimonos danced for their husbands, who smoked heavily. Their exhuberance was so deep that for a moment I wished I were Japanese.

Which is not to say that the joys of the onsen are lost in translation — the staff doesn’t actually speak any English. Our server said he knew the word “dinner,” and that was enough to connect with the foreign guests. Hardly anyone speaks at Tsurunoyu, anyway. When you’re naked in mixed company, as you are in the baths, there just isn’t much to say. No forced camaraderie, no spiritual communion, just the savoring of hitou. When the reservationist learned that I’d come all the way from New York City, that gleaming Xanadu that usually elicits a response the world over, he barely registered the fact. It was wonderful.


Getting There And Around:
Take the JR railroad’s Shinkansen line from Tokyo station to Tazawako (three hours; about $270 round trip). From the station, you can take a taxi to Tsurunoyu Onsen ($50). If you plan on exploring the area, rent a car. (Note: you’ll need an international driving permit, available at for $15.) JR operates a rental office at the station (call 011-81-187-43-1081 to reserve; from $60 a day). There is a tourist office at the station, with maps and area information in English.

Tsurunoyu Onsen: Rooms at this atmospheric inn are basic and traditional in the Japanese style (futons on the floor), and most share a toilet. Rates, from $60 per person, include breakfast and dinner and unlimited use of the baths. Reserve through (the site also books other Nyuto onsens and traditional inns around the country).

Lake Tazawa: Explore this beautiful crater lake by paddle boat, rowboat or pleasure cruiser; you can pick any of these up in front of the Tazawako Lodge on the northeast shore. Sights worth seeing around the lake include Gozanoishi Shrine (north shore), with its striking red gate, and Katamae Mountain Forest (western shore), which has a spectacular lookout point.

Kakunodate: This historic town is about 40 minutes from the Nyuto area by car. Follow signs to the samurai district, which consists of 12 house museums in several blocks. Bukeyashiki Street has the headlining houses, including the terrific Aoyagi Samurai Manor. Stop at Satoku Garden (26 Higashi-katsurakucho) for Kakunodate’s other specialty: boxes and trays made from cherry bark, as well as silk scarves dyed with cherry-blossom petals. (From late April to early May, the town holds its renowned cherry-blossom festival.) Get lunch at Sakura Tei (18 Yokomachi; entrees $10 to $18), which serves excellent parent-and-child udon chicken and egg over noodles.

What Bliss...


Sunday, November 25, 2007

Savannah Dreamin'

Upgraded to a two room suite at the Marriott in Savannah, Dar and I had 4 days of rest and relaxation. We didn't go to Blaine's or any other clubs. We saw no movies, no shows. We did have Thanksgiving dinner at Johnny Harris with Mom and John (it was also John's birthday).
Mostly we slept. I visited Kathy and Dad's and had pot roast with them and with John and friends.

I also read Hotel De Dream by Edmund White.

Here-- for now-- is the review, nicely done, from the New York Times:

The Red Badge of Scandal


A New York Novel.

By Edmund White.

226 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $23.95.

Edmund White, who captured late-20th-century gay New York in his acclaimed autobiographical trilogy, has now written a novel about desire and betrayal in the New York of the late 19th century. The protagonist of “Hotel de Dream” is the American writer Stephen Crane, who at 28 is dying from tuberculosis in the English countryside. Stevie, as friends call him, lies on his deathbed, struggling to dictate a scandalous novella about a boy prostitute whom he met several years earlier. His amanuensis is his wife, Cora, herself the former proprietor of a brothel in Jacksonville named Hotel de Dream. Cora is foolish, vulgar, tender and perceptive by turns, and her ministration to the dying Crane gives White a frame narrative for this vivid and powerful novel.

Jonathon Rosens


A New York Novel.

The impetus for the book, White explains in a postface, is a surviving prose fragment by Crane’s friend, the critic James Gibbons Huneker, describing a chance meeting between the pair and a syphilitic New York street kid. Disgusted but fascinated, Crane began a novel about male prostitution and New York street life called “Flowers of Asphalt.” The opening of the novel was, according to Huneker, “the best passage of prose that Crane ever wrote,” but no trace of it remains, and White himself, following other scholars, raises the question of whether Crane really ever did write it. In White’s startling literary fantasy, the dying Crane rewrites the novel, which he had destroyed at the urging of his friend Hamlin Garland and which he calls “The Painted Boy.” Interspersed with moving scenes between Stevie and Cora, the novella is an explicit story of an erotic affair between the low-life Elliott and a prosperous, respectable banker named Theodore Koch.

Both “The Painted Boy” itself and the framing narrative are remarkable feats of stylistic impersonation, the language persuasive without seeming mannered. In an early scene, Crane rescues the boy from the street and takes him to a hotel: “Now that I looked at his painted face I feared I might vomit. Huneker was studying me and smiling almost satirically, as if he knew my discomfort might make a good story that very evening. ... ‘Stephen pretends to be so worldly,’ I imagined he’d soon be saying, ‘but he is the son of a Methodist minister and a temperance-worker mother and he did grow up in darkest New Jersey, and though he’s fraternized with hordes of daughters of joy he’d never seen a little Ganymede ... before, and poor Stephen — you should’ve seen his face, he nearly vomited just as the headwaiter was confiding, ‘The joint won’t be served till 5.’ ”

The descriptions of New York’s thieves, vagrants and whores have stomach-turning realism. The sordid low-life tableaux are reminiscent of contemporary prose by Stevenson and Conrad (not to mention Crane himself), but White gives us explicit descriptions of the sexual and social deviance that “real” Victorian novels could only hint at obliquely. White has conjured a missing fin de siècle novel, albeit one that could not be written for another hundred years.

“Hotel de Dream” is an echo chamber of allusion, and White deals elegantly with themes of literary influence, indebtedness and impersonation. The overcultivated, emotionally constrained New York of Edith Wharton and Henry James — who appears in the novel as a force for debilitating self-control — resounds in the morality tale of Theodore’s demise. The indifferent cityscapes of Dreiser and of Conrad (who also has a fleeting cameo) are reflected in the depiction of the world of the street. Whitman and Melville can be heard in White’s evocations of labor and of male friendship. Most importantly, the figure of Oscar Wilde broods over the whole. Intoxicatingly hedonistic and fearsomely bleak, “Hotel de Dream” rewrites “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” a fable about the dissonance between flesh and spirit, between the morality of art and the morality of society.

With memorable relish, White describes bodies ravaged by now-vanquished Victorian illnesses. He is surely drawing an implicit parallel with the AIDS epidemic of 1990s New York, capturing the erotic thrill, as well as the grief, of lovers sharing a fatal disease: “When Theodore thought of his future as a syphilitic — half crazed, open sores running on his body, his frame starved from the collapse of his digestion — he pictured Elliott with him, clinging to him. He would stroke Elliott’s hair and it would fall out and remain in his hand. In a terrible way this fantasy consoled him.” For White, diseases start secretly, corroding and destroying out of sight before becoming terrifyingly visible.

Against such decay White offers a troubling image of attempted preservation. Desperate to memorialize his erotic attraction to Elliott, Theodore commissions a statue of his naked lover, the marble boy threatening to supplant the real one who is wasting away. The same is true of “The Painted Boy”: even as he writes the final scenes, Stevie finds that the ravaged urchin who inspired it is almost forgotten. “When I think of my Elliott,” he tells Cora, “I don’t even picture the real Elliott any more.” Memorialization, like elegy, is a sign that something has been destroyed.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Dover B****

Of course all great things need a little spoofing:

Here is Anthony Hecht's version:

The Dover Bitch: A Criticism of Life by Anthony Hecht

Saturday April 28, 2007
The Guardian

So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl
With the cliffs of England crumbling away behind them,
And he said to her, "Try to be true to me,
And I'll do the same for you, for things are bad
All over, etc., etc."
Well now, I knew this girl. It's true she had read
Sophocles in a fairly good translation
And caught that bitter allusion to the sea,
But all the time he was talking she had in mind
The notion of what his whiskers would feel like
On the back of her neck. She told me later on
That after a while she got to looking out
At the lights across the channel, and really felt sad,
Thinking of all the wine and enormous beds
And blandishments in French and the perfumes.
And then she got really angry. To have been brought
All the way down from London, and then be addressed
As a sort of mournful cosmic last resort
Is really tough on a girl, and she was pretty.
Anyway, she watched him pace the room
And finger his watch-chain and seem to sweat a bit,
And then she said one or two unprintable things.
But you mustn't judge her by that. What I mean to say is,
She's really all right. I still see her once in a while
And she always treats me right. We have a drink
And I give her a good time, and perhaps it's a year
Before I see her again, but there she is,
Running to fat, but dependable as they come,
And sometimes I bring her a bottle of Nuit d'Amour

November 21, 2004

An Expert on Human Failings


By turns stately or scathing, exquisite or stark, Anthony Hecht, who died last month at 81, wrote poems of indelible distinction. (click for the article)

Hecht also wrote:


For William and Emily Maxwell

At this time of day
One could hear the caulking irons sound
Against the hulls in the dockyard.
Tar smoke rose between trees
And large oily patches floated on the water,
Undulating unevenly
In the purple sunlight
Like the surfaces of Florentine bronze.

At this time of day
Sounds carried clearly
Through hot silences of fading daylight.
The weedy fields lay drowned
In odors of creosote and salt.
Richer than double-colored taffeta,
Oil floated in the harbor,
Amoeboid, iridescent, limp.
It called to mind the slender limbs
Of Donatello's David.

It was lovely and she was in love.
They had taken a covered boat to one of the islands.
The city sounds were faint in the distance:
Rattling of carriages, tumult of voices,
Yelping of dogs on the decks of barges.

At this time of day
Sunlight empurpled the world.
The poplars darkened in ranks
Like imperial servants.
Water lapped and lisped
In its native and quiet tongue.
Oakum was in the air and the scent of grasses.
There would be fried smelts and cherries and cream.
Nothing designed by Italian artisans
Would match this evening's perfection.
The puddled oil was a miracle of colors.

from The Darkness & The Light

For more poems by Hecht, click

Dover Beach

A poem worth repeating and repeating:

Dover Beach

By Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Friday, November 16, 2007

the Mormons

A Mormon (Mitt Romney) is a serious contender for President of the U.S. Just who are the Mormons and should we be concerned that one might become our leader?

Jesus with the native Mormons in America (click for concerned Christains view)

(Are those Mayan Temples? )

PBS produced the following show on Mormonism:

Check out the TIMELINE

Joseph Smith
from Wikipedia

The BBC has a good overview of Mormon beliefs:
God has a physical body, Jesus in America, etc. (click)

Another good start (critical of the PBS program) for examining Mormonism is:

This article can be found on the web at

howl by Nicholas von Hoffman

Mormons, in a Flattering Light

[posted online on May 2, 2007]

Suddenly, there were The Mormons. Two hours of them in the past two nights on PBS primetime. Each night viewers were given a richly produced, gauzily photographed documentary in the Ken Burns style--lush music in the background and people in the foreground saying personal things.

Many of the things said sounded like testimonials of faith for the Church of Latter Day Saints. In our era of sensitivity and exposed, delicate nerves, a documentary about anyone's religion demands a lot of tiptoeing, especially if it is a religion whose beliefs are regarded by some as peculiar and many of whose members are rich, powerful and well connected.

Hence the gauze over the lens when it came to issues such as Mormons and women, Mormons and African-Americans, Mormons and free speech, Mormons and gays and Mormons and the Republican Party. It's not that the subjects were entirely avoided. They were addressed, but softened by soothing background music and four hours of very nice pictures.

This added up to a failure to convincingly address the questions about this organization and its adherents. You did not hear, for instance, a sharp description of Mormon ecclesiastic polity. Who are the apostles who govern the church? How are they selected? What are their powers? Where do their powers end--or, as one is led to wonder, do they claim and are they given something close to an absolute suzerainty over members in good standing?

Discussion of the founding of the LDS Church induces a condition of historical vertigo. True, one of the experts quoted declared, "If you want to think about the fertility of religion in the nineteenth century, think of mushroom soil--the richest stuff you can imagine, that will grow almost anything--and there you have what it was like to be a believer in the early nineteenth century."

Ignoring mycology, the great religious skeptic Mark Twain once called the Book of Mormon "chloroform in print." And Whitney Cross, a historian who studied the period of Joseph Smith's founding, shows that the Mormon faith was not part of the general nineteenth-century religious experience. Instead, it grew out of the social situation in northern New York State in the first half of the century, a time and place that also gave birth to parallel movements ranging from table-knocking, Shakerism, spiritualism, Sabbaterianism, prohibitionism, Seventh Day Adventism and so on.

Cross writes that Smith and his collaborators "crystallized and provided an apparently authoritative formulation for what had perhaps been from the beginning the most prominent legend in the region's folklore." All of this is hardly touched on in the documentary, leaving nonbelieving viewers with little to explain the birth of a religion based on the belief that 600 years before the Common Era, prophets from the Holy Land arrived in upstate New York.

Ignorance of a religion and its practitioners is risky business. And in the end, The Mormons shed little light on the questions that set Joseph Smith and his followers apart from other homegrown American religions. And yet there's plenty of evidence that over the years members of the LDS Church have made themselves a place in the political and cultural mainstream.

Marriner Eccles, a Republican Mormon who, before Keynes had invented Keynesian economics, advocated for deficit spending as a way to end the Great Depression, was appointed chairman of the Federal Reserve Board by Franklin Roosevelt. George Romney, an outstanding automobile executive, was governor of non-Mormon Michigan and might have made it to the White House in 1972. His son Mitt, former governor of equally non-Mormon Massachusetts, may make it there yet. Mormon Democrat Harry Reid, from intensely non-Mormon Nevada, is Senate majority leader.

As a general rule, it pays to be leery of people who declare themselves saints. But obviously, some saints are as regular as the rest of us.



Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Singing in the Rain

Silly Sonny Perdue, Governor of Georgia; he's praying to the wrong god for water. Forget Jehovah, who hangs out in the Jerusalem area, it's time to pray to Tlaloc, Rain God of the Americas.

Here's what Tlaloc can do:

Tlaloc is the Aztec god of rain, fertility, and water. He was greatly feared among the Aztecs, who drowned children to appease him. They believed that Tlaloc was responsible for both floods and droughts, and that he had been created by the other gods. He is commonly depicted as a goggle-eyed blue being with fangs. Although, people have had several ways of picturing this god, it was more often pictured as a man wearing a net of clouds, a crown of heron feathers, foam sandals and carrying rattles to make thunder.

It was believed he often used his lightning bolts to make the people sick. Legends says that he had four different jugs of water in his possession. When he emptied the first one, it brought life to plants, to Earth. The second would cause blight, the third brought on frost, and the fourth would bring total destruction.

Human sacrifices were often made in his honor, usually children. Before the victims were sacrificed, their tears were collected in a ceremonial bowl, to serve as an offering. Priests sometimes made children cry before the ritual sacrifice by tearing off their nails.[1]

CBS story on the Governor's Prayer

 After twenty months of drought, Georgia's in the market for a miracle.


Sonny Purdue, Georgia's GOVERNOR, today became the state's chief pastor. He led a prayer for rain, right on the front lawn of the State House.

Tlaloc is getting downright pissed with all this Jehovah and Jesus worship. Better get the kids ready and the bowls for their tears, if we ever hope to quench our thirst again.

Praise Tlaloc.


Monday, November 12, 2007

Norman Mailer 1923-2007

Some tributes to Norman Mailer:

1) NPR's marvelous Mailer commentary (click)

2) Arianna Huffington

Heaven Just Got A Lot More Interesting

Posted November 12, 2007 | 04:22 PM (EST)

3) From the Guardian:

Norman Mailer  1923-2007

Search Books

Norman Mailer, 1923-2007
Norman Mailer reflects on turning 80The pugilist who wrote the story of America
He fought in the second world war, stabbed one of his six wives in the neck and wrote some of the most acclaimed literature and journalism of the 20th century. As tributes flow for the man who led a new generation of writers, we chart an extraordinary and full-blooded life
News: Norman Mailer dies at 84

Norman Mailer
Obituary: Giant of American literature - novelist, journalist, film director and two-time Pulitzer prize-winner - dies, aged 84

Farewell to Norman Mailer, a sexist, homophobic reactionary
Joan Smith characterises the late Norman Mailer as an arch-conservative who pulled off a stunning confidence trick

Farewell to a literary great, with chutzpah

Christopher Hitchens

4) Read the Village Voice on Mailer's achievements (click)

Photo by Christina Pabst
Mailer in the early Voice:
"Quickly: A Column for Slow Reade

Sunday, November 11, 2007


He hosted Talleyrand during the Rein of Terror in France; but the favor was not returned when, after his duel with Alexander Hamilton, he sought refuge from the U.S. He was the only sitting Vice President charged with murder while still in office. Later, President Jefferson had him tried for treason. Some claimed he wanted to become the Emperor of Mexico, though his land dealings in Texas might well have been a road to power had he not died a year before the Texas fight for independence. There is no one quite as chameleon as Aaron Burr.

Today, I asked author Edward Larson to comment on Burr's role in the election of 1800. Without his remarkable manipulation, Jefferson never would have become President at all...

From the Atlanta History Center:

Elson Lecture: Edward J. Larson

Elson Lecture: Edward J. Larson
November 11, 2007 1:00 PM–3:00 PM

A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, Americas First Presidential Campaign

Many people believe that the election of 2000 was the most controversial and extraordinary in American history. However, the struggle for the presidency at the dawn of the 19th century was even more contentious, and much more significant, being pivotal to the future of the fledgling republic. In his newest book, acclaimed author Edward J. Larson tells the fascinating story behind the fierce election battle between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the first true campaign for the presidency and one that almost broke the back of our democracy. The election of 1800 ushered in the party system, drawing the lines of partisan battle that would reshape our politics, while also preserving the institution of democracy. Edward J. Larson is University Professor of History and holds the Darling Chair in Law at Pepperdine University and is the Russell Professor of American History at the University of Georgia. He is the recipient of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in History for his book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and Americas Continuing Debate over Science and Religion.

Friday, November 09, 2007



Portraits from Wikipedia

Womanizer, bribe-taker, statesman—the cynically brilliant Talleyrand inspired an equally colorful biographer.

by Benjamin Schwarz

Charm Offensive

He is one of history’s great survivors— and opportunists. Born into the high aristocracy, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754–1838) was by 34 a worldly, womanizing bishop. With the overthrow of the ancien régime, he adjusted to the new realities and embraced the revolution, rising fast and high in the new order even though it meant his excommunication. He fled the Terror, first to England and then to America. But Citizen Talleyrand soon returned,

ingratiating himself with the Directoire and slithering into the remunerative post of foreign minister. He nicely timed his transfer of allegiance to Napoleon, who bade him to continue his brilliant, subtle conduct of French foreign relations. By 1808, having long since decided that Bonaparte had embarked on a ruinous course, Talleyrand was conniving with the emperor’s enemies Tsar Alexander and Metternich, Austria’s foreign-policy master. In 1814, with the armies that had fought Napoleon across the Continent at the gates of Paris, Talleyrand machinated to restore Bourbon rule. Reinstated as foreign minister (this time serving the dynasty the revolution had overthrown a quarter century earlier), he performed one of the great feats in the annals of dip-lomacy when, at the Congress of Vienna, he played perfectly his country’s exceedingly weak hand, nimbly exploiting the rifts in the coalition that had been ar-rayed against France and gaining for it an equal status among the great powers.

Eight years before his death, Talleyrand schemed to bring the Bourbons’ rivals, the Orleanists, to power. The new regime appointed him ambassador to Great Britain, a country that had expelled him as an agent of the revolution 36 years earlier. To those aghast at such a career, he could very well respond with one of the countless cynical bons mots attributed to him: “Treason is a matter of dates.”

Arguably a turncoat, possibly a degenerate (his last mistress was his niece by marriage and the daughter of a former lover), certainly a shameless flatterer and world-class bribe-taker, Talleyrand was also the most skillful and farsighted diplomat of his age and a man of arresting grace, wit, and style. No wonder that during his American sojourn he developed an intense friendship with that most glamorous, coolly intelligent, and winning of the Founders, Alexander Hamilton (years after his return to France, Talleyrand kept Hamilton’s portrait over his mantelpiece). Like Hamilton, he had a rare rapport with and understanding of women—he counted many of the most intelligent, attractive, and influential of them as his friends or lovers, though one suspects they often adored him despite themselves. A French noblewoman recalled her entirely chaste surrender to his beguilement:

One couldn’t help regretting that there were so many reasons for not thinking well of him, and after listening to him for an hour one was compelled to banish the recollection of everything one had heard against him.

Indeed, to men as well as women, to his intimates, his masters, and his diplomatic opponents, this smooth and delightful aristocrat highlighted the dark side of charm: He was as seductive as he was obviously dangerous.

Talleyrand’s ambiguity extends from his contemporary and personal reputation to his grand historical one. He consistently profited from his renegadism, but was he also following the dictates of France’s interests? Is there, as his (reluctant) admirer Henry Kissinger—a man whose own antennae have always been exquisitely attuned to the winning side—suggested in A World Restored, “a certain consistency in this behaviour, an effort to balance by his changes of side the excess of his contemporaries … a sincere attempt to remain in a position to moderate events”?

No surprise, then, that this protean figure has attracted (and often revolted) historians and biographers. Talleyrand himself wrote multiple volumes of delectable but tendentious (even by the low standards of the genre) Memoirs. Since they were published, 60 years after his death, French writers have regularly condemned—and less regularly elevated—his character and achievements. In 1870, Sainte-Beuve famously and eccentrically devoted his unrivaled literary talents to a lacerating indictment of Talleyrand. (Georges Lacour-Gayet’s biography, completed in the 1930s, is at four volumes the most exhaustive study; Jean Orieux’s mannered one, translated into baroque English in 1974, is probably the most reliable.) Until now, the last important Anglophone book was Talleyrand, an elegant masterpiece published in 1932 by Duff Cooper, the English diplomat, soldier, statesmen, bon viveur, and Francophile. This year, however, two British journalists—David Lawday, the former chief Paris and Washington correspondent for The Economist (and a contributor to this magazine), and Robin Harris, a historian, a Conservative Party official, and the ghostwriter of Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs—each published a biography. Harris’s is the more authoritative and better written of the two, but, alas, it has been published only in the U.K. Neither it nor Lawday’s intelligent and breezy book, which has just been published here, can approach Cooper’s achievement, a book still in print. But both, drawing on more recent scholarship, correct a number of Cooper’s errors and misapprehensions.

Why, after a prolonged drought (despite a perpetual interest in war, power, sex, and Parisian salon life), this relative flood of Talleyrand titles? These books betray a nostalgic admiration for a diplomatic style long out of favor, a style encapsulated in Talleyrand’s admonition to his junior diplomats: “Above all, gentlemen, not too much zeal.” With foresight and not inconsiderable courage, Talleyrand opposed Napoleon’s ceaseless and destructive pursuit of la gloire, and instead urged a foreign policy of restraint and moderation. The emperor sought to transcend international politics by crushing his enemies; Talleyrand wanted to use them to help maintain the balance of power. Of course, all Talleyrand’s efforts to modulate Napoleon’s overweening ambition failed, and Talleyrand could be faulted for helping attach France in the first place to a force so inevitably dangerous. (Only after the punitive Peace of Pressburg, at the end of 1805, was Talleyrand convinced that Napoleon’s ambitions were unlimited and perilous. But, as the historian Paul Schroeder argues, “All efforts to find some point in Napoleon’s career at which he turned wrong or went too far are misguided. His whole character and career were fundamentally wrong; he always went too far.”) Nevertheless, Lawday rightly praises Talleyrand’s “epic struggle against Napoleon’s imperial overreach,” and he anachronistically tips his hand by adding, “If only our world’s lone superpower … were to lend him an ear.”

It’s safe to assume that Lawday isn’t limiting his opprobrium to the current administration (after all, the United States has described itself as the sole superpower since the early 1990s), and neither would the archpragmatist Tal­leyrand. He would have found discomfiting the tenor of much of the last hundred years of American diplomacy—including the Clinton administration’s hubristic proposition that America, “the indispensable nation,” should not conduct its foreign policy as if it were “simply … another great power,” and JFK’s stirring but rather hazardous notion that “to assure the survival and the success of liberty” throughout the globe, the United States would “pay any price, bear any burden.” Adept at adroit maneuvering and tactical fine-tuning on a grand scale rather than at laying out the sort of ambitious doctrines and grandiloquent rhetoric that have largely defined American foreign policy, Talleyrand subscribed to the idea that statecraft’s modest but arduous task is to enable one’s country to survive and prosper in the world as it exists—not to transform international relations and not to further the alleged cause of mankind. Ever since Woodrow Wilson, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans have zealously embraced the at-once earnest and breathtakingly extravagant foreign-policy style of his “New Diplomacy.” Here’s two cheers for Talleyrand’s long-despised Old Diplomacy—cool, even cynical; flexible, even inconsistent; restrained, even pedestrian.

Haiku Friday

At the invitation of Ariana Huffington,,

following the Atlantic Magazine Idea,

I submitted the following Haiku on the American Idea: (17 syllables)

Deist Franklin loved
Science. With Tom
the idea was

Someone named Timothy wrote this:

Oval office prick
Devil spawn vice president
Money is their God

collapse timothyi

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Speaking of Art...

Added: From the Dec. 10, 2007 issue of the Nation:

Love By a Thousand Cuts

And here is the latest review from Slate of the stirring work of my former student and friend's art:

Great slides and commentary!

art: The big picture.

The Anti-Oprah

The violent, abject, sometimes disconcertingly tender art of Kara Walker.

Click to view a slide show.

Click here to read a slide-show essay about Kara Walker.





Friday, November 02, 2007


The greatest artist of the 20th Century? There's no (legitimate) denying it, Picasso.

Yes, he invented (with friend Braque) cubism. Yes, his Blue and Rose periods were revolutionary. Yes, his drawings and lithographs are superb.

Le guitariste by Pablo Picasso (1910)

His range of talent and creativity is unrivaled, though Matisse certainly reaches the same heights of beauty and color. Gertrude and Leo Stein were brilliant in their early recognition of the genius of both Picasso and Matisse.

Even in the realm of Surrealism, Picasso exceeded Dali in bringing us the landscapes of the unconscious, the realm of dreams.

Newsweek's Peter Plagens gives us a good overview of how Picasso's life and art made him the consummate artist of the 20th Century:

Here's Newsweek's evaluation:

AFP-Getty Images
The Master: Picasso at one of his exhibitions

Picasso: No. 1 With a Palette

We all know who's the most celebrated artist of the century. The question is: why him?

By the mid-1920s, Pablo Picasso was one of the most celebrated men in Paris, and he liked people to know it. He rode around town in a chauffeur-driven Panhard. He relished greeting important visitors while wearing white silk pajamas, accompanied by a big Pyrenean sheepdog. He loved to throw dinner parties after an opening night at the opera. His wife, the former ballerina Olga Khokhlova, did the cooking, but the meals were served by a butler in white gloves. When an art collector named Christian Zervos visited him one day in his Paris studio, Picasso asked if he'd like to see another couple of rooms. To Zervos's surprise, the rooms contained not art but a Scrooge-McDuck-like pile of large-denomination French bank notes bundled in newspaper. "Everything Picasso did," writes John Richardson in "A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917–1932," the new, penultimate volume of his four-part biography, "would be news."

Picasso stayed news for the rest of the 20th century and into this one. Which prompts the question: Why? Why has Picasso—with his endless variations on disjointed and unpretty cubism—become the quintessential modern artist? Why isn't it Henri Matisse, whose brightly colored fauvist pictures shocked viewers years before cubism came along, and who was still producing remarkable work on his deathbed in 1954? Why not Marcel Duchamp, the chess champ who cut right to the end-game of modern art with his "readymade" bottle rack way back in 1914 and set the standard in modern-art ballsiness by submitting a urinal to an important sculpture exhibition three years later? Or why not Salvador Dalí, with his astonishingly real-looking, groovily weird surrealist paintings, and a talent for publicity that makes Paris Hilton seem like a hermit? Picasso's pre-eminence is the result of a lot of things, including paying some dues, being in the right place at the right time, making avant-garde art sexy, finessing politics—and, of course, being a genius.

Not that he started out that way. In 1900, at age 19, Picasso did what revolutionary artists were supposed to do for career openers: he went to Paris and almost starved. It took him seven years before he'd painted "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," the world's most influential painting, and (along with his buddy Georges Braque) invented cubism, the style that turned art upside down. Being a Spaniard in Paris—an outsider—helped Picasso immensely. He was able to see through surface appearances in a way the natives could not. As his patron, Gertrude Stein, put it, in France "the houses move with the landscape, with the river, here they all agree together, it is not at all Spanish … Spaniards know there is no agreement, neither the landscape with the houses, neither the round with the cube … It was natural that a Spaniard should express this in the painting of the 20th century, the century where nothing is in agreement." Like no other artist, Picasso captured the twin impetuses of modern times—fracture and invention. Everything in "Painter and Model" (1928), for example, has been broken up and reassembled in a witty visual rebus. The face of the model sports a vertical row of three eyes—or two eyes and a mouth, depending. The artist, on the right, is a busy stick figure with one hilariously long arm holding his brush and a shorter arm—sticking out suggestively just below belt level—holding a genital-shaped palette. Sex sells, and it didn't hurt Picasso's career any, either.

He certainly had plenty of—shall we say material—to draw on. When we join Picasso at the beginning of Richardson's third volume, that artist is designing sets and costumes for Sergei Diaghilev's modern-dance extravaganza "Parade," and resisting pressure from his overbearing mother, Doña María, to marry. He tries mightily to land Olga, but she won't sleep with him until he marries her, so Picasso goes off to brothels. Olga finally gets her man—on her terms—in 1917, but it isn't long before Picasso chafes at much of the respectability Olga courted. In 1923, he sells "Demoiselles" to pay for a hideaway studio floor in the building where he and Olga live. In 1927, the 45-year-old, still-married artist spots 17-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter outside a Paris department store. She is, Richardson says, "the femme-enfant of his dreams: an adolescent blonde with piercing, cobalt blue eyes and a precociously voluptuous body—big breasts, sturdy thighs, well-cushioned knees, and buttocks like the Callipygian Venus." Picasso tells her, "You have an interesting face. I would like to do a portrait of you. I feel we are going to do great things together." Less than a week later, they're doing that you-know thing together. Picasso required Walter—as he did all his lovers—to read the Marquis de Sade. She also dutifully trailed behind Picasso, just out of Olga's sight, for nine years and bore him a daughter. Picasso didn't flaunt his copious couplings to the paparazzi of the day; in fact, he stayed home from the opening of his first museum retrospective, lest Olga see so many paintings of Maria-Thérèse and cause a scene. But he still seemed like a real stud, which, not surprisingly, made him much more of an influence on younger artists than his competitors.

No less tricky than juggling women, Picasso also managed to negotiate the politics of Europe during a century featuring two charnel-house world wars and a cold war fraught with the threat of nuclear annihilation. The huge monochrome "Guernica" (1937) is an antifascist masterpiece, turning the horror of a bombing raid on a civilian town into a brutally beautiful fugue of cubist forms, and semiabstracting a disemboweled horse into an unforgettable icon of suffering and injustice. In spite of the picture, Picasso managed to get himself treated with kid gloves by the Nazis in occupied Paris during World War II. (Richardson won't weigh in on the details of that gambit until volume four.) After the war, Picasso showily declared himself a communist—to which Dalí supposedly quipped, "Picasso is a communist; neither am I." From the mid-1950s on, Picasso stuck apolitically to the studio and to sunbathing.

However interesting his biography, Picasso's pre-eminence still derives mostly from his work. The man created fine art's equivalent of rock and roll and then put in seven decades producing some of modernism's greatest hits. It's as if Chuck Berry and Elvis were one person who made it to age 91. For doubters who think Picasso couldn't "really" draw, there are his early rose and blue periods, the neoclassical paintings of the 1920s and '30s, and tons of exquisitely drawn etchings and lithographs. Richardson even credits Picasso with originating the whole mode of welded sculpture (culminating with works such as the 1967 giant "baboon" public sculpture in Chicago). Compared to Picasso's output, Dalí's "hand-painted dream photographs" are Freudian indulgences, Duchamp's dada objects are sophomore frolics and Matisse's painting—which Matisse himself said he wanted to be "an armchair for the weary businessman"—is, well, an armchair. Picasso wasn't shy about touting his accomplishments, either. Quotation dictionaries are filled with his aphorisms ("Good artists copy, great artists steal," "Art is a lie that reveals the truth," etc.). Richardson quotes this bragging—but accurate—self-summation: "To put eyes between the legs, or sex organs on the face," said Picasso about the tricks of his trade. "To contradict. To show one eye full face and one in profile. Nature does many things the way I do, but she hides them." By the time we leave Picasso at the end of "The Triumphant Years," he's been creating one "monumental" painting every single day for six weeks. And he's still got 40 years to go. If that isn't No. 1 with a bullet, we don't know what is.

© Newsweek, Inc.