Wednesday, February 25, 2009

State of the Dis-Union

President Obama gave an inspiring, uplifting speech to Congress last night. Education, energy, and health care were the themes. Of course, the economy was central to achieving progressive policies on these three, and the end of war is a means to financing. It was thrilling to see Obama, flanked by Pelosi and Biden, running the nation, and doing it with wit, intelligence, and eloquence.

The Howdee Doodee appearance of Louisiana Gov. Jindal to give the Republican response was ludicrous and sad at the same time. His reference to Katrina was absurd and actually proved the opposite of his claim that government is not the answer. No, Bad government, such as Bush provided in response to the hurricane is not the answer; Good government which builds secure levies and rescues disaster areas is. The Republican indifference and utter lack of compassion for those who have been laid off, and could lose their homes, is appalling. In politicians, it is immoral, even evil.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Film Epiphanies

In this fertile time of Obama's presidency, and of racist cartoons, like the one in the NY Post I won't dignify with a reference, as Atty Gen. Holder asks us to engage in true dialogue about racism in America (to which I would add or expand to bigotry against gays), what better film to see than Monster's Ball? I watched it tonight, along with The Pianist, just for the added horror. Bigotry is global-- and I venture to say that in many places, it is no less today than in Warsaw in 1942.
It has been an emotional night for me, not without the epiphanies great film can bring. Here's a review of Monster's Ball from over 7 years ago:

December 26, 2001

FILM REVIEW; Courtesy and Decency Play Sneaky With a Tough Guy

Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) is, like his father and his son, a Georgia corrections officer. Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry) is a waitress struggling to make ends meet and to raise her 12-year-old son. She is also the widow of a man whose execution Hank helped to conduct. The relationship between Hank and Leticia, a relationship born of chance, moral reflex and desperate need, is at the center of ''Monster's Ball,'' a tough, heartfelt new film from the young Swiss-born director Marc Forster.

In outline, the story of Hank and Leticia's entwined lives might seem implausible, and the events that surround it -- three deaths, including the unblinkingly filmed electrocution of Leticia's husband, Lawrence (Sean Combs) -- could have smothered the movie in melodrama. ''Monster's Ball'' could easily have been an exercise in liberal high-mindedness, a cinematic lecture on the inhumanity of the death penalty or the legacy of Southern racism. But Mr. Forster and the screenwriters, Milo Addica and Will Rokos (who is a native of Georgia), are more interested in the details of character and milieu than in deducing right-thinking morals.

Hank and Leticia are not easy people, and much to its credit, ''Monster's Ball'' is not an easy picture. Mr. Forster's deliberate pacing and the gritty, smudged look that Roberto Schaefer, the cinematographer, brings to the workaday modern South create an atmosphere heavy with the buried emotions of grief, rage and terror. Hank lives in the shadow of his bullying, bigoted father (Peter Boyle) and a brutal code of masculine behavior that blocks all access to feeling. But if Hank feels at all sorry for himself, he does not show us, and Mr. Thornton earns our sympathy the hard way, by showing us Hank at his unvarnished worst. ''You've always hated me, haven't you,'' demands his son, Sonny (Heath Ledger), a sensitive, troubled soul who is clearly not cut out for death row duty. ''Yes, I have,'' is Hank's even-toned reply.

The night before, Sonny had incurred his father's wrath by showing intolerable weakness during Musgrove's walk to the electric chair. As one of his African-American colleagues tried to pull him off his son, Hank exploded in an obscene, racist tirade. ''This is not you, Hank,'' his co-worker insisted, trying to calm him down. ''This is me,'' Hank yells back. ''This is me.''

He's right. Hank's prejudice and suspicion are not simply mistaken attitudes in need of correction; they are integral to his character. But so is a habitual courtesy -- the writers catch the quiet politeness that inflects even the most tense or hostile exchanges -- and a reluctant sense of decency. These qualities overtake the others in a way that surprises Hank himself, and his transformation -- in Hollywood, as in the Baptist church, they like to call it redemption -- is all the more astonishing for being almost surreptitious.

Mr. Thornton, one of the most gifted screen actors working today, outdoes himself. For her part, Ms. Berry proves herself to be an actress of impressive courage and insight. Like Hank, Leticia is a character who could have been simplified, turned into a one-dimensional victim or a saint. Ms. Berry emphasizes the character's temper, and also the vulnerability beneath her toughness.

What she has in common with Hank is an alienation from her finer emotions. She loves her son, Tyrell (well played by 10-year-old Coronji Calhoun in his first film role), but he is also the target of her anger and shame. In the last minutes of the movie, the burden of dramatic resolution falls squarely on Ms. Berry, and she soars. The film's conclusion is an enormous gamble for the filmmakers, as well as for Leticia and Hank, and it is above all Ms. Berry's fearless concentration that converts potential sentimentality into honest, complex emotion.

The characters and the bond that develops between them are too complex for words, and the writers use very few. Their economy and the eloquence of Mr. Forster's unshowily beautiful images give ''Monster's Ball'' the density and strangeness of real life. The raw intimacy of some of the scenes -- whether they take place at a diner, in the death house or in the bedroom -- is breathtaking. In the end, the movie belongs to the actors -- to Ms. Berry and Mr. Thornton, principally, but also to the large supporting cast, including Mr. Combs, Mr. Ledger and the hip-hop star Mos Def (as Hank's neighbor down the road). This is one of those rare movies in which even people glimpsed only for a moment or two seem to have lives that ramify beyond the screen, as if the story were being witnessed rather than dramatized.

''Monster's Ball'' is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has scenes of brutal violence and realistic sex.


Directed by Marc Forster; written by Milo Addica and Will Rokos; director of photography, Roberto Schaefer; edited by Matt Chesse; production designer, Monroe Kelly; produced by Lee Daniels; released by Lions Gate Films. Running time: 108 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Billy Bob Thornton (Hank Grotowski), Halle Berry (Leticia Musgrove), Heath Ledger (Sonny Grotowski), Peter Boyle (Buck Grotowski), Sean Combs (Lawrence Musgrove), Mos Def (Ryrus Cooper) and Coronji Calhoun (Tyrell Musgrove).

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Monday, February 16, 2009

Valentines, Cloudland Canyon, Charlotte...

Valentine's Weekend

Play slideshow
Valentines, Cloudland Canyon, Charlotte
Feb 16, 2009
by Jak & Dar
Valentine's weekend in Cloudland Canyon, Chattanooga, Redtop Mt. And pics from Charlotte in Jan.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Starry Starry Night

New Zealand town is in the dark — and proud of it

By RAY LILLEY, Associated Press Writer Ray Lilley, Associated Press Writer

A stone chapel is shown on the edge of Lake Tekapo under the sparkling sky in AP – A stone chapel is shown on the edge of Lake Tekapo under the sparkling sky in New Zealand's South Island …

TEKAPO, New Zealand – This little town is in the dark and proud of it.

Where other places greet the night by lighting up their streets and tourist attractions, this one goes the other way — low-energy sodium lamps are shielded from above, and household lights must face down, not up.

The purpose: to bring out the stars.

The town of 830 people on New Zealand's South Island is on a mission to protect the sight of the night sky, even as it disappears behind light and haze in many parts of the world.

The ultimate prize would be UNESCO's approval for the first "starlight reserve," and already the "astro tourists" are coming.

A group of 25 are huddled at midnight on a bare New Zealand hilltop, their faces numbed by an icy wind as they gaze up at the Milky Way.

"It's awesome, I mean it's like beyond words," says Simon Venvoort, 46, a management consultant from Amsterdam. "You see so much you aren't aware of."

"You know that two generations now are growing up not being aware that all this is out there because ... half of the world is light-polluted."

It's estimated that about one fifth of the world's population and more than two-thirds in the U.S. cannot see the Milky Way from their homes.

The "starlight reserve" idea germinated in UNESCO in 2005. Tekapo, in the McKenzie Basin of South Island, was already on its own track, seeking what locals were calling their "park in the sky." So Tekapo was suggested as a pilot site because of its haze-free sky and lighting controls already in place.

A UNESCO working party agreed last month to study what Graeme Murray, chairman of the Mackenzie Tourism and Development Board, calls "a heritage park in the sky."

"We helped make UNESCO world heritage look upward as well as around them in protecting the world's heritage," he says.

The U.N. body has extended world heritage status to 878 historic, cultural, ecological and natural sites around the planet, but none includes the sky.

The idea faces significant challenges — UNESCO's conventions do not mention the space above and around heritage sites, and there's still the question of how to define a piece of open sky for conservation purposes.

The darkening of Tekapo began in 1965 to serve the Mount John Observatory that opened on nearby Mount John. Town officials later turned necessity into a virtue by expanding controls on public and private lighting in a 19-mile ring around the town and observatory to keep the sky dark.

Three new housing developments have spent extra money for "sky-friendly" lighting. A skating rink even installed special lighting to prevent ultraviolet light reflecting off its ice surface into the night sky.

"We've got a dark sky and we've got to hang on to it," said Murray, who also runs a sky-watching ecotourism company.

Not that people here are bumping into each other or driving blind during the night hours. And anyway, there's plenty of starlight, as residents note.

"We're certainly not living in the dark," said Lorna Inch, a real estate agent. "We've got a beautiful sky that we all enjoy many nights of the year. There's a lot of natural light from the stars," plus those dimmed residential lights.

Some 150 years ago, unlit nights were the friend of a sheep rustling legend named James McKenzie and his faithful dog, Friday, as they stole through the landscape, driving flocks of stolen livestock deep into the basin that is now named after him.

Today a bronze statue of McKenzie's sheepdog stands — not floodlit — on Tekapo's lake front.

Resident Fraser Gunn, a night sky photographer, said people initially worried that with the light restrictions they wouldn't be able to develop the town. "But that isn't the case at all."

Regional economic development manager Phil Brownie said the lighting control ordinances "are not severe at all ... they do allow the community to develop and build ... and haven't imposed any difficulties."

Anna Sidorenko-Dulom, UNESCO coordinator of Astronomy and World Heritage, calls the sky park "an interesting proposal which needs to be evaluated," but adds that existing guidelines don't allow for protecting the sky.

"We cannot promote sky protection or sky recognition through the Convention on World Heritage. These are two completely different things," she said by telephone from Paris.

The chairwoman of New Zealand's National Commission of UNESCO, Margaret Austin, is more positive. She expects the park idea to be considered by UNESCO's general conference in October.

The former science minister says other countries interested in the idea are La Palma in the Canary Islands, Hawaii, Easter Island, the Galapagos Islands, Portugal, Canada, Romania and northern Chile.

Death Valley, Calif., is one of several U.S. national parks working to keep its lights low, the better to see the night sky. In Thailand, people living alongside the Mae Klong River say the fireflies are dwindling in number, chased away, they believe, by the ever-spreading glow of electric light.

"There's enough movement now among the principal players for it to gather momentum," said Austin. "The main sticking point is to get the criteria in the convention changed so it can include the sky above the land."

Atop Mount John, an astronomy guide's green laser stabs the night, picking out another stellar feature for the astro tourists.

For the guide, Chris Monson from Phoenix, Tekapo offers a chance to see something long lost to city-dwellers — "such pristine, dark skies."

Back in cities like Phoenix, grandparents may have seen starlit skies, but "now it's just something we hear about," he said. "We don't get to experience the stars and those constellations."


On the Net:

Sunday, February 08, 2009

James Baldwin and Chicken Soup

James Baldwin, Hyde Park, London
Photo-- Allan Warren-- Wikipedia

My introduction to James Baldwin came in London. As my first three months in Europe came to a close, I caught bronchitis there. That September it rained and rained, as I ducked into the theatre to watch Fellini's Satyricon; then returned drenched to the Kingsway Hotel, my B&B on Norfolk Place. The sweet English owners made me tea (what else?), chicken soup, and brought me a book to read: Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone. It was as great a discovery as any city treasure I had visited-- all about a threesome just like the one I was trying to get over. Despite the critical dismissal of this novel, which so delighted me at the age of twenty-three in my London digs, the account, below, of Baldwin's life and writing, and of books about him is a glorious sketch.
To my credit, I suppose, I went on to read Giovanni's Room next. I loved Baldwin and identified with his exile in my last month overseas, but more particularly with the exile of being gay in 1970. Even going repeatedly to Amsterdam and Paris was little relief of my sense of alienation, then.  Here's the article from The New Yorker:


Another Country

James Baldwin’s flight from America.

by Claudia Roth Pierpont February 9, 2009

Feeling more than usually restless, James Baldwin flew from New York to Paris in the late summer of 1961, and from there to Israel. Then, rather than proceed as he had planned to Africa—a part of the world he was not ready to confront—he decided to visit a friend in Istanbul. Baldwin’s arrival at his Turkish friend’s door, in the midst of a party, was, as the friend recalled, a great surprise: two rings of the bell, and there stood a small and bedraggled black man with a battered suitcase and enormous eyes. Engin Cezzar was a Turkish actor who had worked with Baldwin in New York, and he excitedly introduced “Jimmy Baldwin, of literary fame, the famous black American novelist” to the roomful of intellectuals and artists. Baldwin, in his element, eventually fell asleep in an actress’s lap.
It soon became clear that Baldwin was in terrible shape: exhausted, in poor health, worried that he was losing sight of his aims both as a writer and as a man. He desperately needed to be taken care of, Cezzar said; or, in the more dramatic terms that Baldwin used throughout his life, to be saved. His suitcase contained the manuscript of a long and ambitious novel that he had been working on for years, and that had already brought him to the brink of suicide. Of the many things that the wandering writer hoped to find—friends, rest, peace of mind—his single overwhelming need, his only real hope of salvation, was to finish the book.
Baldwin had been fleeing from place to place for much of his adult life. He was barely out of his teens when he left his Harlem home for Greenwich Village, in the early forties, and he had escaped altogether at twenty-four, in 1948, buying a one-way ticket to Paris, with no intention of coming back. His father was dead by then, and his mother had eight younger children whom it tortured him to be deserting; he didn’t have the courage to tell her he was going until the afternoon he left. There was, of course, no shortage of reasons for a young black man to leave the country in 1948. Devastation was all around: his contemporaries, out on Lenox Avenue, were steadily going to jail or else were on “the needle.” His father, a factory worker and a preacher—“he was righteous in the pulpit,” Baldwin said, “and a monster in the house”—had died insane, poisoned with racial bitterness. Baldwin had also sought refuge in the church, becoming a boy preacher when he was fourteen, but had soon realized that he was hiding from everything he wanted and feared he could never achieve. He began his first novel, about himself and his father, around the time he left the church, at seventeen. Within a few years, he was publishing regularly in magazines; book reviews, mostly, but finally an essay and even a short story. Still, who really believed that he could make it as a writer? In America?
The answer to both questions came from Richard Wright. Although Baldwin seemed a natural heir to the Harlem Renaissance—he was born right there, in 1924, and Countee Cullen was one of his schoolteachers—the bittersweet poetry of writers like Cullen and Langston Hughes held no appeal for him. It was Wright’s unabating fury that hit him hard. Reading “Native Son,” Wright’s novel about a Negro rapist and murderer, Baldwin was stunned to recognize the world that he saw around him. He knew those far from bittersweet tenements, he knew the rats inside the walls. Equally striking for a young writer, it would seem, was Wright’s success: “Native Son,” published in 1940, had been greeted as a revelation about the cruelties of a racist culture and its vicious human costs. In the swell of national self-congratulation over the fact that such a book could be published, it became a big best-seller. Wright was the most successful black author in history when Baldwin—twenty years old, hungry and scared—got himself invited to Wright’s Brooklyn home, where, over a generously proffered bottle of bourbon, he explained the novel that he was trying to write. Wright, sixteen years Baldwin’s senior, was more than sympathetic; he read Baldwin’s pages, found him a publisher, and got him a fellowship to give him time to write. Although the publisher ultimately turned the book down, Wright gave Baldwin the confidence to continue, and the wisdom to do it somewhere else.
Wright moved to Paris in 1947 and, the following year, greeted Baldwin at the café Les Deux Magots on the day that he arrived, introducing him to editors of a new publication, called Zero, who were eager for his contributions. Baldwin had forty dollars, spoke no French, and knew hardly anyone else. Wright helped him find a room, and while it is true that the two writers were not close friends—Baldwin later noted the difference in their ages, and the fact that he had never even visited the brutal American South where Wright was formed—one can appreciate Wright’s shock when Baldwin’s first article for Zero was an attack on “the protest novel,” and, in particular, on “Native Son.” The central problem with the book, as Baldwin saw it, was that Wright’s criminal hero was “defined by his hatred and his fear,” and represented not a man but a social category; as a literary figure, he was no better than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom. And he was more dangerous, perpetuating the “monstrous legend” of the black killer which Wright had meant to destroy. Wright blew up at Baldwin when they ran into each other at the Brasserie Lipp, but Baldwin did not back down. His article, reprinted later that year in Partisan Review, marked the start of his reputation in New York. He went on to publish even harsher attacks—arguing that Wright’s work was gratuitously violent, that it ignored the traditions of Negro life, that Wright had become a spokesman rather than an artist—as he struggled to formulate everything that he wanted his own work to be.
Baldwin knew very well the hatred and fear that Wright described. Crucial to his development, he said, was the notion that he was a “bastard of the West,” without any natural claim to “Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres”: to all the things that, as a budding artist and a Western citizen, he treasured most. As a result, he was forced to admit, “I hated and feared white people,” which did not mean that he loved blacks: “On the contrary, I despised them, possibly because they failed to produce Rembrandt.” He had been encouraged by white teachers, though, and was surrounded by white high-school friends, so that this cultural hatred seemed to remain a fairly abstract notion, and he had assumed that he would never feel his father’s rage. Then one day, not long out of school, he was turned away from a New Jersey diner and, in a kind of trance, deliberately entered a glittering, obviously whites-only restaurant, and sat down. This time, when the waitress refused to serve him, he pretended not to hear in order to draw her closer—“I wanted her to come close enough for me to get her neck between my hands”—and finally hurled a mug of water at her and ran, realizing only when he had come to himself that he had been ready to murder another human being. In some ways, “Native Son” may have hit too hard.
The terrifying experience in the restaurant—terrifying not because of the evil done to him but because of the evil he suddenly felt able to do—helped to give Baldwin his first real understanding of his father, who had grown up in the South, the son of a slave, and who had, like Wright, been witness to unnameable horrors before escaping to the mundane humiliations of the North. Baldwin knew by then that the man whom he called his father was actually his stepfather, having married his mother when James was two years old; but, if this seemed to explain the extra measure of harshness that had been meted out to him, the greater tragedy of the man’s embittered life and death remained. On the day of his funeral, in 1943, Baldwin recognized the need to fight this dreadful legacy, if he, too, were not to be consumed. More than a decade before the earliest stirrings of the civil-rights movement, the only way to conceive this fight was from within. “It now had been laid to my charge,” he wrote, “to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair.”
It takes a fire-breathing religion to blunt the hatred and despair in “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (1953), the autobiographical coming-of-age novel that Baldwin wrote and rewrote for a decade, centering on the battle for the soul of young John Grimes, on the occasion of his fourteenth birthday, in a shouting and swaying Harlem storefront church. For the boy, being saved is a way of winning the love of his preacher father—an impossible task. Still, part of the nobility of this remarkable book derives from Baldwin’s reluctance to stain religious faith with too much psychological knowingness. More of the nobility lies in its language, which is touched with the grandeur of the sermons that Baldwin had heard so often in his youth. Then, too, after arriving in Paris, he had become immersed in the works of Henry James and, reading Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” had strongly identified with its self-creating hero. “He would not be like his father or his father’s fathers,” John Grimes swears. “He would have another life.” Baldwin, led by these supreme authorial guides, to whom he felt a perfectly natural claim, set out to turn his shabby Harlem streets and churches into world-class literature. The book’s moral and linguistic victories are seamless. Although Baldwin’s people speak a simple and irregular “black” grammar, their loosely uttered “ain’t”s and “I reckon”s flow without strain into prose of Jamesian complexity, of Biblical richness, as he penetrates their minds.
Baldwin wrote about the strictures of Harlem piety while living the bohemian life in Paris, hanging out in cafés and jazz clubs and gay bars; after having affairs with both men and women in New York, he had slowly come to accept that his desires were exclusively for men. His often frantic social schedule was one reason that the writing of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” dragged on and on. It also began to seem as though he somehow used places up and had to move to others, at least temporarily, in order to write. In the winter of 1951, he had packed the unruly manuscript and gone to stay with his current lover in a small Swiss village, where he completed it in three months, listening to Bessie Smith records to get the native sounds back in his ears. Published two years later, the book was a critical success; Baldwin claimed to have missed out on the National Book Award only because Ralph Ellison had won for “Invisible Man” the year before, and two Negroes in a row was just too much.
But it was Wright whom he still took for the monster he had to slay—or, perhaps, as he sometimes worried, for his father—and the book of essays that Baldwin published in 1955, which included two that were vehemently anti-Wright, was titled, in direct challenge, “Notes of a Native Son.” It was not, by intent, a political book. In its first few pages, Baldwin explained that race was something he had to address in order to be free to write about other subjects: the writer’s only real task was “to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.” The best of these essays are indeed closely personal, but invariably open to a political awareness that endows them with both order and weight. Baldwin’s greatest strength, in fact, is the way the personal and the political intertwine, so that it becomes impossible to distinguish between these aspects of a life. The story of his father’s funeral is also the story of a riot that broke out in Harlem that day, in the summer of 1943, when a white policeman shot a black soldier and set off a rampage in which white businesses were looted and smashed. “For Harlem had needed something to smash,” Baldwin writes. If it had not been so late in the evening and the stores had not been closed, he warned, a lot more blood might have been shed.
In 1955, the injustice of the black experience was no longer news, and if Baldwin’s warning drew attention it was overshadowed by the gentler yet more startling statements that made his work unique. In this newly politicized context, there was a larger lesson to be drawn from the hard-won wisdom, offered from his father’s grave, that hatred “never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.” Addressing a predominantly white audience—many of these essays were originally published in white liberal magazines—he sounds a tone very much like sympathy. Living abroad, he explained, had made him realize how irrevocably he was an American; he confessed that he felt a closer kinship with the white Americans he saw in Paris than with the African blacks, whose culture and experiences he had never shared. The races’ mutual obsession, in America, and their long if hidden history of physical commingling had finally made them something like a family. For these reasons, Baldwin revoked the threat of violence with an astonishingly broad reassurance: American Negroes, he claimed, have no desire for vengeance. The relationship of blacks and whites is, after all, “a blood relationship, perhaps the most profound reality of the American experience,” and cannot be understood until we recognize how much it contains of “the force and anguish and terror of love.”
When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus, in December, 1955, Baldwin was absorbed with the publication of his second novel, “Giovanni’s Room”; he watched from Paris as the civil-rights movement got under way, that spring. His new book had a Paris setting, no black characters, and not a word about race. Even more boldly, it was about homosexual love—or, rather, about the inability of a privileged young American man to come to terms with his sexuality and ultimately to feel any love at all. Brief and intense, the novel is brilliant in its exploration of emotional cowardice but marred by a portentous tone that at times feels cheaply secondhand—more “Bonjour Tristesse” than Gide or Genet. Although Baldwin had been cautioned about the prospects of a book with such a controversial subject, it received good reviews and went into a second printing in six weeks. As a writer, he had won the freedom he desired, and the decision to live abroad seemed fully vindicated. By late 1956, however, the atmosphere in Paris was changing. The Algerian war had made it difficult to ignore France’s own racial problems, and newspaper headlines in the kiosks outside the cafés made it even harder to forget the troubles back home. And so the following summer Baldwin embarked on his most adventurous trip, to the land that some in Harlem still called the Old Country: the American South.
He was genuinely afraid. Looking down from the plane as it circled the red earth of Georgia, he could not help thinking that it “had acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from these trees.” It was September, 1957, and he was arriving just as the small number of black children who were entering all-white schools were being harassed by jeering mobs, spat upon, and threatened with much worse. In Charlotte, North Carolina, he interviewed one of these children—a proudly stoic straight-A student—and his mother. (“I wonder sometimes,” she says, “what makes white folks so mean.”) He also spoke with the principal of the boy’s new school, a white man who had dutifully escorted the boy past a blockade of students but announced that he did not believe in racial integration, because it was “contrary to everything he had ever seen or believed.” Baldwin, who is elsewhere stingingly eloquent about the effects of segregation, confronts this individual with the scope of his sympathies intact. Seeing him as the victim of a sorry heritage, he does not argue but instead commiserates, with a kind of higher moral cunning, about the difficulty of having to mistreat an innocent child. And at these words, Baldwin reports, “a veil fell, and I found myself staring at a man in anguish.”
This evidence of dawning white conscience, as it appeared to Baldwin, accorded with the optimistic faith that he found in Atlanta, where he met the twenty-eight-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., and heard him preach. Baldwin was struck by King’s description of bigotry as a disease most harmful to the bigots, and by his solution that, in Baldwin’s words, “these people could only be saved by love.” This idealistic notion, shared by the two preachers’ sons, was a basic tenet, and a basic strength, of the early civil-rights movement. Baldwin went on to visit Birmingham (“a doomed city”), Little Rock, Tuskegee, Montgomery, and Nashville; in 1960, he covered the sit-in movement in Tallahassee. His second volume of essays, “Nobody Knows My Name,” published in 1961, was welcomed by white readers as something of a guidebook to the uncharted racial landscape. Although Baldwin laid the so-called “Negro problem” squarely at white America’s door, viewing racism as a species of pathology, he nevertheless offered the consoling possibility of redemption through mutual love—no other writer would have described the historic relation of the races in America as “a wedding.” And he avowed an enduring belief in “the vitality of the so transgressed Western ideals.” The book was on the best-seller list for six months, and Baldwin was suddenly, as much as Richard Wright had ever been, a spokesman for his race.
The role was a great temptation and a greater danger. Given his ambitions, this was not the sort of success that he most wanted, and the previous few years had been plagued with disappointment at failing to achieve the successes he craved. A play he had adapted from “Giovanni’s Room,” for the Actors Studio, in New York, had yielded nothing except a friendship with the young Turkish actor, Engin Cezzar, whom Baldwin had chosen to play Giovanni; the play, which Baldwin hoped would go to Broadway, never made it past the workshop level. His new novel, “Another Country,” was hopelessly stalled; the characters, he said, refused to talk to him, and the “unpublishable” manuscript was ruining his life. He was drinking too much, getting hardly any sleep, and his love affairs had all gone sour. He wrote about having reached “the point at which many artists lose their minds, or commit suicide, or throw themselves into good works, or try to enter politics.” To fend off all these possibilities, it seems, he accepted a magazine assignment to travel to Israel and Africa, then, out of weariness and fear, took up Cezzar’s long-standing invitation, and found himself at the party in Istanbul. It was a wise move. In this distant city, no one wanted to interview him, no one was pressing him for social prophecy. He knew few people. He couldn’t speak the language. There was time to work. He stayed for two months, and he was at another party—Baldwin would always find another party—calmly writing at a kitchen counter covered with glasses and papers and hors d’oeuvres, when he put down the final words of “Another Country.” The book was dated, with a flourish, “Istanbul, Dec. 10, 1961.”
It is an incongruous image, the black American writer in Istanbul, but Baldwin returned to the city many times during the next ten years, making it a second or third not-quite-home. In “James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade” (Duke; $24.95), Magdalena J. Zaborowska, a professor of immigrant and African-American literature, sets out to explain not only the enduring attraction the city had for Baldwin but its importance for the rest of his career. For Zaborowska, “Istanbul, Dec. 10, 1961” is not merely a literary sigh of relief and wonderment—Baldwin’s earlier books have no such endnote—but an affirmation of “the centrality of the city and date to the final shape of ‘Another Country’ ”; she insists on Istanbul as “a location and lens through which we should reassess his work today.” Divided between Europe and Asia, with a Muslim yet highly cosmopolitan population, Istanbul was unlike any place Baldwin had been before and, more to the point, unlike the places that had defined both the color of his skin and his sexuality as shameful problems. Whatever Turkey’s history of prejudice, divisions there did not have an automatic black/white racial cast. And, on the sexual front, Istanbul had long been so notorious that Zaborowska is on the defensive against Americans who snidely assume that Baldwin went there for the baths. In fact, during his first days in the city, he was nearly giddy at the sight of men in the street openly holding hands, and could not accept Cezzar’s explanation that this was a custom without sexual import. At the heart of the matter is the question of racial and sexual freedom—the city’s, the writer’s—and its effect on Baldwin’s ability to reflect and to experiment in ways that he had not been able to do elsewhere.
But was this freedom real? How much of it can be found in Baldwin’s work? Despite a tendency toward jargon—Academia is another country—Zaborowska is a charming companion as she follows Baldwin’s steps through Turkey, brimming with enthusiasm at the sights and at the warmth of her reception by his friends. The Polish-born professor, a blithe exemplar of the “transnational” tradition in which she places Baldwin, is too idealistic and far too honest—the tender air of Henry James’s Maisie hangs about her—to refrain from reporting her shock at some of those friends’ remarks. “Jimmy was not a typical ‘gay,’ ” one explains, “he was a real human being.” In the matter of race, she informs us that she is omitting “Cezzar’s use of the n-word, which he employed a couple of times but then abandoned, perhaps seeing my discomfort.” As she admits, her own evidence refutes the hypothesis that Baldwin’s Istanbul was untainted by the usual prejudice. And then there is the problem that Baldwin never wrote anything about Istanbul. Zaborowska labors to soften this hard fact through elaborate inferences and suggestions of symbolism, and by calling on various authorities for disquisitions on “the experience of place,” or “Cold War Orientalism.” (This is where the jargon really thickens.) But if she ultimately fails to make the case that Istanbul was anything for Baldwin but what he claimed—a refuge in which to write—she makes us feel how necessary such a refuge was as the sixties wore on.
“Another Country” turned out to be a best-seller in the most conventional sense. A sprawling book that brought together Baldwin’s concerns with race and sex, its daring themes—black rage, interracial sex, homosexuality, white guilt, urban malaise—make an imposing backdrop for characters who refuse to come to life. A black jazz musician who plummets into madness because of an affair with a white woman; a white bisexual saint who cures both men and women in his bed—the social agenda shines through these figures like light through glass. More than anything else, the book reveals Baldwin’s immense will and professionalism; like the contemporary best-sellers “Ship of Fools” and “The Group,” it suggests a delicate and fine-tuned talent pushed past its narrative limits in pursuit of the “big” work. Baldwin claimed to be going after the sound of jazz musicians in his prose, but aside from some lingo on the order of “Some cat turned her on, and then he split,” the language is stale compared with his earlier works—or compared with the burnished eloquence of his next book, which shook the American rafters when it was published, in early 1963.
“The Fire Next Time,” Baldwin’s most celebrated work, is a pair of essays, totalling little more than a hundred pages. Some of these pages were written in Istanbul, but more significant is the fact that Baldwin had finally gone to Africa. And, after years of worry that the Africans would look down on him, or, worse, that he would look down on them, he had been accepted and impressed. The book also reveals a renewed closeness with his family, whose support now counterbalanced both his public performances and his private loneliness. Eagerly making up for his desertion, Baldwin was a munificent son and brother and a doting uncle, glorying in the role of paterfamilias: his brother David was his closest friend and aide; his sister Gloria managed his money; he bought a large house in Manhattan, well outside Harlem, for his mother and the rest of the clan to share. To hear him tell it, this is what he had intended ever since he’d left. A new and protective pride is evident in the brief introductory “Letter to My Nephew,” in which he assures the boy, his brother Wilmer’s son James, that he descends from “some of the greatest poets since Homer,” and quotes the words of a Negro spiritual; and in the longer essay, “Down at the Cross,” when he portrays the black children who had faced down mobs as “the only genuine aristocrats this country has produced.” Although Baldwin writes once again of his childhood, his father, and his church, his central subject is the Black Muslim movement then terrifying white America.
With the fire of the title blazing ever nearer, Baldwin praised the truthfulness of Malcolm X but rejected the separatism and violence of the Muslim movement. He offered pity rather than hatred—pity in order to avoid hatred—to the racists who, he firmly believed, despised in blacks the very things they feared in themselves. And, seeking dignity as much as freedom, he counselled black people to desist from doing to others as had been done to them. Most important, Baldwin once again promised a way out: “If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”
When did he stop believing it? No matter how many months he hid away in Istanbul or Paris, the sixties were inescapably Baldwin’s American decade. In the spring of 1963, thanks to his most recent and entirely unconventional best-seller, he appeared on the cover of Time. Although he insisted that he was a writer and not a public spokesman, he had nonetheless undertaken a lecture tour of the South for CORE and soon held a meeting with Attorney General Robert Kennedy; in August, he took part in the March on Washington. It was with the bombing of a Birmingham church barely two weeks later, and the death of four schoolgirls, that he began to voice doubt about the efficacy of nonviolence. The murder of his friend Medgar Evers, and the dangers and humiliations involved in working on a voter-registration drive in Selma, brought a new toughness to his writing: a new willingness to deal in white stereotypes, and a new regard for hate. (“You’re going to make yourself sick with hatred,” someone warns a young man in Baldwin’s 1964 play, “Blues for Mister Charlie.” “No, I’m not,” he replies, “I’m going to make myself well.”) It is ironic that Baldwin was dismissed by the new radical activists and attacked by Eldridge Cleaver as this change was taking place: in an essay titled “Notes on a Native Son,” in 1966, Cleaver did to Baldwin something like what Baldwin had done to Richard Wright, attacking him as a sycophant to whites and a traitor to his people. The new macho militants derided Baldwin’s homosexuality, even referring to him as Martin Luther Queen. But the end point for Baldwin was the murder of King, in 1968; after that, he confessed, “something has altered in me, something has gone away.”
In the era of the Black Panthers, he was politically obsolete. By the early seventies, when Henry Louis Gates, Jr., suggested an article about Baldwin for Time, he found the magazine no longer interested. Far worse for Baldwin, he was also seen as artistically exhausted. On this, Zaborowska disagrees. In championing the “Turkish decade,” she attempts to defend some of Baldwin’s later, nearly forgotten works. She is right to speak up for “No Name in the Street,” a deeply troubled but erratically brilliant book-length essay, published in 1972 and described by Baldwin as being about “the life and death of what we call the civil rights movement.” (And which, during these years, he preferred to call a “slave rebellion.”) Unable to believe anymore that he or anyone else could “reach the conscience of a nation,” he embraced the Panthers as folk heroes, while resignedly turning the other cheek to Cleaver, whom he mildly excused for confusing him with “all those faggots, punks, and sissies, the sight and sound of whom, in prison, must have made him vomit.” As Baldwin knew, hatred unleashed is not easy to control, and here he demonstrates the dire results of giving up the fight.
“No Name in the Street” is a disorderly book, both chronologically and emotionally chaotic; Zaborowska sees its lack of structure as deliberately “experimental,” and she may be right. At its core, Baldwin details his long and fruitless attempt to get a falsely accused friend out of prison; he looks back at the Southern experiences that he had reported on so coolly years before, and exposes the agony that he had felt. At the same time, he wants us to know how far he has come: there is ample mention of the Cadillac limousine and the cook-chauffeur and the private pool; he assures us that the sufferings of the world make even the Beverly Hills Hotel, for him, “another circle of Hell.” And he is undoubtedly suffering. He does his best to denounce Western culture in the terms of the day, as a “mask for power,” and insists that to be rid of Texaco and Coca-Cola one should be prepared to jettison Balzac and Shakespeare. Then, as though he had finally gone too far, he adds, “later, of course, one may welcome them back,” a loss of nerve that he immediately feels he has to justify: “Whoever is part of whatever civilization helplessly loves some aspects of it and some of the people in it.” Struggling to finish the book, Baldwin left Istanbul behind in 1971—the city was now as overfilled with distractions as Paris or New York—and bought a house in the South of France. The book’s concluding dateline, a glaring mixture of restlessness and pride, reads “New York, San Francisco, Hollywood, London, Istanbul, St. Paul de Vence, 1967-1971.”
It is difficult for even the most fervent advocate to defend “Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone,” an oddly depthless novel about a famous black actor, which, on its publication, in 1968, appeared to finish Baldwin as a novelist in the minds of everyone but Baldwin, whose ambitions seemed only to grow. His next two novels, largely about family love, are mixed achievements: “If Beale Street Could Talk” (1974), the brief and affecting story of an unjustly imprisoned Harlem youth, is told from the surprising perspective of his pregnant teen-age girlfriend (who only occasionally sounds like James Baldwin); “Just Above My Head” (1979), a multi-generational melodrama, contains one unforgettable segment, nearly four hundred pages in, about a trio of young black men travelling through the South. There were still signs of the exceptional gift. But the intensity, the coruscating language, the tight coherence of that first novel—where had they gone? The answers to this often asked question have varied: he had stayed away too long, and become detached from his essential subject; he had been corrupted by fame, and the booze didn’t help; or, maybe, he could only really write about himself. Baldwin’s biographer and close friend David Leeming suggested to Baldwin, in the mid-sixties, that “the anarchic aspect” of his daily existence was interfering with his work. But the most widely credited accusation is that his political commitments had deprived him of the necessary concentration, and cost him his creative life.
The case is presented by another of Baldwin’s biographers, James Campbell, who states that in 1963 Baldwin “exchanged art for politics, the patient scrutiny for the hasty judgment, le mot juste for le mot fort,” and that as a result he “died a little death.” But isn’t it as likely that Baldwin’s dedication to the movement, starting back in the late fifties, allowed him to accomplish as much as he did? That the hope it occasioned helped him to push back a lifetime’s hatred and despair and, no less than the retreat to Paris or Istanbul, made it possible for him to write at all? It is important to note that the flaws of the later books are evident in “Another Country,” and even in “Giovanni’s Room,” both completed before he had marched a step. As for the roads not taken, among black writers who had similar choices: Richard Wright did not return to the United States and continued writing novels, in France, until his death, in 1960, yet his later books have been dismissed as major disappointments; Ralph Ellison took no part in the civil-rights movement, yet did not publish another novel after “Invisible Man.” Every talent has its terms, and, while Baldwin was in no ordinary sense a political writer, something in him required that he rise above himself. “How, indeed, would I be able to keep on working,” he worried, “if I could never be released from the prison of my egocentricity?” As Baldwin noted about his childhood, it may be that the things that helped him and the things that hurt him cannot be divorced.
The final years were often bitter. Campbell recalls Baldwin, in 1984, reading aloud from an essay about Harlem that he’d written in the forties, crying out after every catalogued indignity, “Nothing has changed!” He was already in failing health, and tremendously overworked. He had begun to teach—the conviviality and uplift seem to have filled the place of politics—while keeping to his usual hectic schedule; he saw no need to cut back on alcohol or cigarettes. Baldwin was only sixty-three when he died, of cancer, in 1987, at his house in France. He was in the midst of several projects: a novel that would have been, in part, about Istanbul; a triple biography of “Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin”; and, of all things, introductions to paperback editions of two novels by Richard Wright. But Baldwin’s final book was “The Price of the Ticket,” a thick volume of his collected essays, summing up nearly forty years, in which his faith in human possibility burns like a candle in the historical dark. The concluding essay, about the myths of masculinity, offers a plea for the recognition that “each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other—male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white.”
It is shocking to realize that as early as 1951, and based on no evidence whatever, Baldwin saw that our “fantastic racial history” might ultimately be for the good. “Out of what has been our greatest shame,” he wrote in an essay, “we may be able to create one day our greatest opportunity.” He would have been eighty-four had he lived to see Barack Obama elected President. It is an event that he might have imagined more easily in his youth than in his age, but an event to which he surely contributed, through his essays and novels, his teaching and preaching, the outsized faith and energy that he spent so freely in so many ways. During his wanderings, Baldwin warned a friend who had urged him to settle down that “the place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it.” It was, of course, impossible to make such a place alone. But, by the grace of those who have kept on working, as he put it, “to make the kingdom new, to make it honorable and worthy of life,” we have at last the beginnings of a country to which James Baldwin could come home.

Promised Land

From the creator and editor of
Arts & Letters Daily

The promised land

Denis Dutton

Published 05 February 2009

Art theory assumes that our aesthetic tastes are conditioned by the culture in which we live. But does genetic programming have more to do with it than we think?

Frederic Church’s Heart of the Andes (1859) features many of the ingredients of our ideal landscape, including water and a path leading to distant mountains

America's Most Wanted was an audacious painting, even by the standards of the contemporary art scene. In 1993, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, expatriate Soviet artists then in New York, received money from the Nation Institute to study the artistic preferences of people in ten countries, including Denmark, Kenya, Turkey, China, the US and Ukraine. Were the people of each land drawn to abstract or to realist art? What were their favourite colours? What were the subjects they most liked to see depicted?

Komar and Melamid based their witty "Most Wanted" series of paintings on the results of the poll. America's Most Wanted combined the typical American preferences for historical figures, children and wild animals by placing George Washington in a grassy area beside an attractive river or lake. Near him walk three clean-cut youngsters, looking like holidaymakers at Disneyland; to their right, two deer cavort, while in the water behind Washington a hippopotamus bellows. The "Most Wanted" paintings for other countries looked equally absurd.

Joking aside, the project produced some fascinating results. That people the world over tend to prefer realistic art was perhaps predictable. That their favourite colour is blue was curious, though not astonishing. The art theory shocker was this: not only were landscapes the preferred subject for paintings worldwide, but tastes across the globe all gravitated toward a specific kind of landscape - a bluish scene with trees and open areas, water, human figures and animals. This was the case whether the respondents lived in the desert, the city or a rural area - in other words, their landscape preferences were not conditioned by their actual experience.

Arthur Danto, a Columbia University phil­osopher and key figure in American art theory, weighed in with the suggestion that the results were a product of the worldwide calendar in­dustry. This explanation seemed far-fetched, but it was consistent with the prevailing idea that has been the basis for academic art and aesthetic theory for the past half-century: our tastes in art are a product of enculturation - our aesthetic pleasures derive from our society rather than anything innate.

The Komar and Melamid experiment seemed to refute this idea. Alexander Melamid himself wondered, "Maybe the blue landscape is gene­tically imprinted in us, that it's the paradise within, that we came from the blue landscape and we want it . . . We now completed polls in many countries - China, Kenya, Iceland, and so on - and the results are strikingly similar. Can you believe it? Kenya and Iceland - what can be more different in the whole fucking world - and both want blue landscapes . . . The blue landscape is what is really universal, maybe to all mankind."

Human and animal life in general is full of interests, inclinations, emotions and sentiments that are not merely learned from experience, though they may be elicited and shaped by ex­perience and learning. An example: the window of my office at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand is high, and its ledge offers a con­venient perch and nesting place for pigeons. My solution is a rubber snake on the ledge. The birds land on the ledge, see the snake, and immediately depart, never to return. The odd thing is that, although European pigeons have been in New Zealand for a couple of hundred pigeon generations, there are no snakes in New Zealand and never have been. The phobic reaction of the birds is learned neither from exposure to snakes nor from images of snakes. It is a perfect instance of a natural atavism, an innate fear response that is passed, unnecessarily in this case, from generation to generation.

Human responses to landscapes also show atavisms, and the Komar and Melamid experiments are a fascinating, if inadvertent, demonstration of this. We could argue that the lush blue landscape type is an innate, evolved preference, present in human nature as an inheritance from the Pleistocene, those 1.6 million years during which modern human beings evolved. The calendar industry has not conspired to influence taste but rather caters to prehistoric, pre-calendrical human preferences.

Unknown to most art historians, there exists a body of psychological scholarship that is much more potent in addressing cross-cultural tastes in landscape than hypotheses about enculturation. For example, the biologist Gordon H Orians has described the ideal landscape that human beings would find intrinsically pleasurable. In his formulation, this landscape has much in common with the savannahs and woodlands where hominids split off from chimpanzee lineages and where much of early human evolution was played out; hence, it is called "the Savannah Hypothesis". In brief, this landscape type includes these elements:

  1. open spaces of low (or mown) grasses interspersed with thickets of bushes and groupings of trees;
  2. presence of water directly in view, or evidence of water nearby or in the distance;
  3. an opening-up in at least one direction to an unimpeded vantage on the horizon;
  4. evidence of animal and bird life; and
  5. diversity of greenery, including flowering and fruiting plants.

These innate preferences turn out to be more than just vague, generalised attractions towards generic scenes: they are notably specific. African savannahs are not only the probable scene of a significant portion of human evolution, they are to an extent the habitat meat-eating hominids evolved for - savannahs contain more protein per square kilometre than any other landscape type. Moreover, savannahs offer food at or close to ground level, unlike rainforests, which are more easily navigable by tree-dwelling apes.

Human beings are less attracted to open, flat grasslands and more attracted towards a mod­erate degree of hilly undulation, suggesting a desire to attain vantage points for orientation. Verdant savannahs are preferred experimentally to savannahs in the dry season. The type of savannah that is ideal appears to be the very savannah imitated not only in paintings and calendars but in many great public parks, such as portions of New York's Central Park. Modernly designed golf courses can make stunning use of such savannah motifs.

High-quality savannahs are characterised by Acacia tortilis, a spreading tree that branches close to the ground. Research shows that there is a cross-cultural preference for trees with moderately dense canopies which fork near the ground (a common tree type in 17th-century Dutch landscape painting). Trees with either skimpy or very dense canopies were less preferred, as were trees whose first branches were well out of human reach. A climbable tree was a device to escape predators in the Pleistocene epoch. This life-and-death fact is revealed today in our aesthetic sense for trees (and in children's spontaneous love for climbing them).

Landscape preference is not always for wildness, a sense of virgin territory, which can appear intuitively forbidding. In particular, the attraction of natural savannah-like scenes can be increased by signs of human habitation - control and intervention. Low grasses that appear to have been grazed by domestic stock can add appeal, as do such modern clichés as a cottage with smoke curling up from the chimney. Such features seem to humanise a landscape, rendering it less threatening.

Responses to landscape also depend on possibilities for exploration and orientation: "reading" a terrain. Experimental work by the psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan shows that the most desirable landscapes have a moderate degree of complexity. Extremes of intricacy, such as an impenetrable jungle, or boring simplicity, such as a flat, open plain, are undesirable. Preferred landscapes are characterised by coherence and legibility - terrain that provides orientation and intelligibility invites exploration.

A sense of a natural or man-made path is the most common cue for exploration, along with a surface that is even enough for walking. A path or a riverbank that can be followed into the distance can greatly increase the appeal of a landscape. This feature is found in landscape arts across the world, and is particularly potent if the scene suggests that a fertile valley or cool mountains might be where the path leads.

The Kaplans have also stressed a preference for an element of mystery, which they define as a feeling that "one could acquire new information if one were to travel deeper into the scene" - following the path or looking around the bend. They speculate that a sense of mystery implies a "longer-range, future aspect" of landscape preference. More than any other component of landscape characteristics, mystery stirs the imagination and as such is vitally important to landscape as an art form.

In a well-known experiment that has been replicated, the psychologists J D Balling and J H Falk showed photographs of five natural landscape types to six different age groups, each of which was asked about its preferences to "live in" or to "visit" each. The landscape types were tropical forest, coniferous forest, deciduous forest, East African savannah and desert. None of the photographs included water or animals. The age groups were eight, 11, 15, 18, 35, and 70 and over. From age 15 onwards, preferences were varied, with an equal liking for deciduous forest, savannah and coniferous forest, all three of which outrated tropical forests and desert, the latter being the least preferred by all age groups. The most striking finding was in the youngest group: eight-year-olds preferred savannahs for both living and visiting above all the other age groups. It is hard to explain this result from habituation, as none of the eight-year-olds had ever been in a savannah environment.

Choice of habitat was a crucial, life-and-death matter for people (and proto-people) in the Pleistocene. From our day back to the time of Socrates and Plato is a mere 120 generations. If we go further back from their Athens to the invention of writing, agriculture and the first cities, it is a lot longer: another 380 generations. But the Pleistocene epoch itself - the evolutionary theatre in which we acquired the tastes, intellectual features, emotional dispositions and personality traits that distinguish us from our hominid ancestors and make us what we are - was 80,000 generations long.

Over such a vast period of time, human beings moved out of Africa and into environments very different from the savannahs. Our ancestors walked along coastlines, went inland, learned to survive as Arctic hunters, and managed to sustain life in the deserts of Asia and Australia. They populated rainforests both temperate and tropical, followed the receding glaciers northward through Europe, and found islands off the east coast of Asia. Human evolution occurred not in any single geographical place, but over much of the globe. Unlike many animal species that are adapted to a single physical habitat and will die out if that environment disappears, human beings - clever, social, language-using tool- makers - devised ways to live in almost all physical environments on earth.

Nevertheless, the desirability of the original savannahs is an innate idea that lies deep in the human mind. We remain emotionally attached to them today because having an emotional predisposition toward such landscape types was a ­survival advantage for our prehistoric ancestors, not unlike a liking for sweet and fat, or sex. Even if an emotional attachment to such landscapes and a longing to go down the roads they offered had only a small survival advantage in the Pleistocene, it would still have become deeply engrained in the emotional life of the species over thousands of generations. Landscapes cannot be eaten or experienced by touch. They can, however, be seen, and their visual beauty is evolution's way of directing us first to the most fruitful and survivable landforms, just as the beauty and charm of a child is evolution's way of ensuring we treasure our offspring.

The emotions felt by our distant ancestors towards advantageous landscapes are of little use to us today, as we are no longer nomadic hunters who survive off the land. Nevertheless, as we still have the genetic legacy of those ancient nomads, these emotions can flood into modern minds with surprising and unexpected intensity. People who have spent their lives in cities can find themselves on a country road. Rounding a bend, they are confronted with a turn-off that leads up a valley. Pastures and copses of oaks dominate the foreground; farther up the valley the road winds and disappears into older forest. A stream lined with lush foliage follows the road for some distance and then is lost from view, though its route is indicated by groves of older trees. Far up the valley, a last bend in the road can be glimpsed. Beyond that, higher hills take on a bluish, hazy cast, blending imperceptibly into distant mountains flanked by great cumulus clouds.

Such scenes can cause people to stop in their tracks, transfixed by an intense sense of longing and beauty, determined to explore that valley, to see where the road leads. We are what we are today because our primordial ancestors followed paths and riverbanks over the horizon. At such moments, we confront remnants of our species' ancient past.

"The Art Instinct" by Denis Dutton is published by Oxford University Press (£16.99)

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Royal Weekend: from Mummys to Merman

Founder of Monotheism

The Pharaoh who tried to eliminate the polytheism of ancient Egypt figured prominently in the Emory Tutankhamen show Starr, Jeanie, and I saw this weekend.

The boy king who died at the age of 19, possibly from an injured leg, was either Akhenaten's son or grandson, or nephew.

When he died, various advisers and military leaders took charge until Ramesses I became Pharaoh and began a new and powerful dynasty. It was, of course, Emory University which found, identified, and returned to Egypt the mummy of this king.
^ "Egypt's 'Ramses' mummy returned", BBC (26 October 2003)

Inspired by so much royalty, Starr, Dar and I went to see Queen Varla Jean Merman in the action packed performance of Shut Up, Sweet Charlotte at the 14th Street Playhouse last night.
Our seeing the original, Hush, Hush Friday night greatly enhanced our enjoyment.

Here's a bit of review:

Varla Jean Merman storms Atlanta with ‘Shut Up, Sweet Charlotte’

By Mike Fleming | Jan 22, 2009 | 1:25 PM


Hold onto your wig.

If you only know drag icon Varla Jean Merman and her winning pink jumpsuit in last season’s “Project Runway” drag challenge, or from her saccharine-sweet role in the film “Girls Will Be Girls,” you’re in for a treat.

Varla takes her first official bow in Atlanta Jan. 22 when her creator and alter ego, Jeffrey Roberson, brings “Shut Up, Sweet Charlotte” to 14th Street Playhouse. The parody of the 1964 camp classic “Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte” plays through Jan. 31 after an award-winning run in New Orleans last year.

The cheesy, over-the-top film gives the parody a lot of material.

“Anything in the movie that is funny where it wasn’t meant to be, we pick up on those points and take them to the next level,” Roberson says. “The movie doesn’t really make sense, the whole story is so convoluted and confusing, and we just exploit every detail.”

Even if there’s a special connection for audiences that relish the original, you don’t need to know the movie to enjoy the play, Roberson says.

“It’s insane,” he says. “Whether you are familiar with the movie or not, the whole thing is so out of left field, unexpected and completely crazy. People will be rolling in the aisles.”

imageThe play stars accomplished actor Ricky Graham in the Bette Davis role of Charlotte, who is believed to have beheaded her boyfriend some 35 years ago. Varla Jean plays the Olivia de Havilland part, something Roberson says is quite appropriate.

“Olivia was known for her roles as the good girl, like in ‘Gone With the Wind,’” he says. “She’s the evil cousin here, so for her it was a departure — one that doesn’t work at all in the movie, but works for us perfectly, because Varla is sort of known as the girl next door, and I play it up to the hilt.”

But let’s get down to the dirt. Project Q Atlanta spent a half hour this week with Roberson (who slipped in and out of Varla) on the eve of her local debut. Roberson, like Varla, was notably friendly and forthcoming.