Table of Contents: > A Commonplace Book


Seeing Clearly

celmins

Ocean, 1975 Vija Celmins / drypoint on paper

What we call seeing a thing clearly, is only seeing enough of it to make out what it is; this point of intelligibility varying in distance for different magnitudes and kinds of things, while the appointed quality of mystery remains nearly the same for all. Thus: throwing an open book and an embroidered handkerchief on a lawn, at a distance of a half a mile, we cannot tell which is which: that is the point of mystery for the whole of those things. They are merely white spots of indistinct shape. We approach them, and perceive that one is a book, the other a handkerchief but cannot read the one or trace the embroidery of the other. The mystery has ceased to be in the whole things, and has gone into their details. We go nearer; and can now read the text and trace the embroidery, but cannot see the fibers of the paper or the tread. The mystery has gone into a fourth place, where it must stay until we take a microscope, which will send it into a fifty, sixth, hundredth or thousandth place. —John Ruskin on the picturesque sublime

Juxtaposition by Dave Hickey25 Women: ESSAYS ON THEIR ART, 2016 / Univ. of Chicago Press

Hello. Hello.

can_you_hear_me_now tent_1 records beer Pie tent_sargent

Shepelavy.com — Part IV, if I might be metal-grand & prog-rock-y about it. Untie the latch, part the canvas, pop your head out from the tent, let’s fire up the old transmitter. Is this thing on? Can you hear me now…

In 2009 I pitched camp on this modest little lagoon online. What began as a portfolio with occasional annotations tumbled into pretty steady blogging for a fat 3 years or so. More & more, however, severe advertising gales would knock out the transmitter for weeks on end. Sundry commitments were pressing. The blog contracted a virulent SQL database corruption. After a few stalled re-ignitions, things round here finally sputtered into silence around the winter of 2014.

Then Spring came, like it does, being Spring. I missed tapping these signals out into the ether, tending & fussing over my little plot of enthusiasms…So, I dusted off the redesign, gathered passels of uncollected old & new work. The code spooled out over the summer & fall.

& this so current salvo of transmissions begins… from this tiny lagoon on the clotted coastline of the interwebs, that I share with beached beatniks, old salts, venerable preps, society matrons, homespun cuties, movie stars & scientists… an endless three-hour cruise. Come aboard —

 Welcome back.

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Standards

Robert_McGuire_Aphrodite
Aphrodite by Robert McGuire, Berkley Books

By now we have been thoroughly disabused of the notion, so heavily advocated by Clement Greenberg, that abstraction was, at last, a pure art “inflated by illegitimate content,” as he claimed in the November 1949 issue of the Partisan Review. Abstraction would therefore be able to cleanse the world of the intellect of any contamination by low-level kitsch. But most of us have since come to understand that kitsch inevitably contaminates every form of human creativity. There is so much heartless and mindless abstract kitsch found on the walls of mansions owned by the rulers of the universe that it is no longer possible to privilege abstraction over any other form of artistic expression. It is therefore meaningless to brand as kitsch only illustration – or comicbook art, or pulp magazine covers. Most of it is, but so is most of contemporary “high” art: the popular arts still have at least certain technical standards that can help us separate the kitsch from the corn.
– Bram Dijkstra

Perfect Storm

PerfStr

Simply wonderful illustration by the crushingly deft Tomer Hanuka. Perfectly evocative of the languid coziness of city snowstorms. Also happens to be an uncanny rendering of my old bedroom window overlooking Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It takes a lot to make me miss living in New York City. Well done.

On Language…

It is not by chance, or without a deep ground in his nature, common to all his qualities, both affirmative and negative, that Lamb had an insensibility to music more absolute than can have been often shared by any human creature, or perhaps than was ever before acknowledged so candidly. The sense of music — as a pleasurable sense, or as any sense at all other than of certain unmeaning and impertinent differences in respect to high and low, sharp or flat — was utterly obliterated as with a sponge by nature herself from Lamb’s organization. It was a corollary, from the same large substratum in his nature, that Lamb had no sense of the rhythmical in prose composition. Rhythmus, or pomp of cadence, or sonorous ascent of clauses, in the structure of sentences, were effects of art as much thrown away upon him as the voice of the charmer upon the deaf adder. We ourselves, occupying the very station of polar opposition to that of Lamb, being as morbidly, perhaps, in the one excess as he in the other, naturally detected this omission in Lamb’s nature at an early stage of our acquaintance. Not the fabled Regulus, with his eyelids torn away, and his uncurtained eye-balls exposed to the noon-tide glare of a Carthaginian sun, could have shrieked with more anguish of recoil from torture than we from certain sentences and periods in which Lamb  perceived no fault at all.
– Thomas De Quincey on Charles Lamb

This excerpt of Thomas De Quincey’s operatically vicious takedown of the writing of fellow essayist Charles Lamb’s work is a treasure for three reasons. The first is the deliciously tight braiding of critical acumen and epic meanness. The second is the sheer melodrama of it all – Nature’s sponge !, the tearing of Regulus’s eyelids, shrieking in the noon-tide glare of a Carthaginian sun. Unhinged. But. There is art and wisdom buried in this empurpled soufflé of brainy spite. It has, nested in the middle, one of the most eloquent formulations of the mechanics of excellent writing. – Rhythmus, or pomp of cadence, or sonorous ascent of clauses… the structure of sentences… an indispensable sketch of the the engine that brings art to language.

Hang on to yourself…

Hell yes! Essential pop wisdom courtesy of Mike Fornatale. Always remember – all our passionate affairs with the stuff we love began back then, with those first obsessions that blotted out the horizons of our imaginations. The same force that makes you, let’s say, hand draw and write a full libretto for a sequel to Aladdin Sane at 14, still order vicodin online legally powers your infatuations today. Hang on to yourself indeed.

Fornatale, by the way, is a rock lifer – raising fandom to a vocation and a formidable talent in his own right. He currently sings in the latest incarnation of the beloved baroque pop maestros The Left Banke. An appreciation from The Big Takeover can be read here.

Quandry

My favorite Doctor Seuss art by a country mile… It’s a QUANDRY, who lives on a shelf, in a hole in the ocean alone by himself. And he worries from dawn’s early light. And he worries, buy vicodin just worries, far into the night. He stands there and worries. He simply can’t stop… Is his top side his bottom? Or bottom side top? (Seuss’ September 26th, 1991,New York Times obituary, here)

Going to Melody…

Leon Wieseltier writing in the New Republic on the closing of his local record store. It’s an perfectly articulated tribute to the deep pleasures of browsing; a eulogy; and a defiant, fierce refusal to accept all this as collateral damage in the interest of progress. Read, treasure – and if it stirs you, take time to tend to and nourish the analog rhythms…

# # #

GOING TO MELODY, February 2, 2012

In a country as injured as ours, there is something unseemly about all this sagacious talk of creative destruction. A concept that was designed to suggest the ironic cruelty of innovation has been twisted into an extenuation of economic misery—into capitalism’s theodicy. Where there are winners, there are losers: praise the Lord and pass the Kindle. I have always believed that the losers know more about life than the winners, though I wish affluence upon us all; but it does not romanticize the poor to demythologize the rich, and to propose that sometimes creative destruction is not very creative but very destructive. The brutality of large businesses toward small businesses, for example, is neither brilliant nor heroic. They do it because they can. Last week a record store in Dupont Circle announced that it was closing. The immediate cause of its demise—it had outlasted national and regional chains—was Price Check, Amazon’s new idea for exterminating competition. It is an app that allows shoppers to scan the bar code on any item in any store and transmit it to Amazon for purposes of comparison, and if it compares favorably to Amazon’s price, Amazon’s special promotion promises a discount on the same item. In this way shoppers become spies, and stores, merely by letting customers through their doors, become complicit in their own undoing. It will not do to shrug that this is capitalism, because it is a particular kind of capitalism: the kind that entertains fantasies of monopoly. For all its technological newness, Amazon’s “vision” is disgustingly familiar. (“Amazon is coming to eat me,” a small publisher of fine religious books stoically told me a few weeks ago.) Nor will it do to explain that Amazon’s app is convenient, unless one is prepared to acquiesce in a view of American existence according to which its supreme consideration must be convenience. How easy must every little thing be? A record store in your neighborhood is also convenient, and so is a bookstore. There is also a sinister side to the convenience of online shopping: hours once spent in the sensory world, in the diversified satisfaction of material needs and desires, can now be surrendered to work. It appears to be a law of American life that there shall be no respite from screens. And so Amazon’s practices raise the old question of the cultural consequences of market piggishness. For there are businesses that are not only businesses, that also have non-monetary reasons for being, that are public goods. Their devastation in the name of profit may be economically legitimate, but it is culturally calamitous. In a word, wrong.

WHEN MY FRIEND at Melody Records told me about the death of his store, I was bereft. This was in part because he is my friend—after my father died, I received a letter from the Holocaust Museum informing me that he had made a donation in my father’s memory—and now he must fend for himself and his family and his staff in the American wreckage. But my dejection was owed also to the fact that this store was one of the primary scenes of my personal cultivation. For thirty years it stimulated me, and provided a sanctuary from sadness and sterility. “Going to Melody” was a reliable way of improving my mind’s http://www.honeytraveler.com/pharmacy/ weather. The people who worked there had knowledge and taste: they apprised me of obscure pressings of Frank Martin’s chamber music, and warned me about the sound quality of certain reissues of Lucky Thompson and Don Byas, and turned me on to old salsa and new fado. They even teased me about my insane affection for Rihanna. When they added DVDs to the store, my pleasures multiplied. (Also my amusements. Not long ago Marcel Ophuls’ great film arrived in the shop, and the box declared: “Woody Allen presents The Sorrow and The Pity.” Beat that.) Of course all these discs can be found online. But the motive of my visits to the store was not acquisitiveness, it was inquisitiveness. I went there to engage in the time-honored intellectual and cultural activity known as browsing.

IT IS A MATTER OF some importance that the nature of browsing be properly understood. Browsing is a method of humanistic education. It gathers not information but impressions, and refines them by brief (but longer than 29 seconds!) immersions in sound or language. Browsing is to Amazon what flaneurie is to Google Earth. It is an immediate encounter with the actual object of curiosity. The browser (no, not that one) is the flaneur in a room. Browsing is not idleness; or rather, it is active idleness—an exploring capacity, a kind of questing non-instrumental behavior. Browsing is the opposite of “search.” Search is precise, browsing is imprecise. When you search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse, you find what you were not looking for. Search corrects your knowledge, browsing corrects your ignorance. Search narrows, browsing enlarges. It does so by means of accidents, of unexpected adjacencies and improbable associations. On Amazon, by contrast, there are no accidents. Its adjacencies are expected and its associations are probable, because it is programmed for precedents. It takes you to where you have already been—to what you have already bought or thought of buying, and to similar things. It sells similarities. After all, serendipity is a poor business model. But serendipity is how the spirit is renewed; and a record store, like a bookstore, is nothing less than an institution of spiritual renewal.

MY FATHER HAD furniture stores. I grew up with the pathos of retail: you throw all your money into a location and an inventory, you hang out a sign, you trick out a window, you unlock a door, and (if you lack the resources to advertise formidably) you wait. If they come in, you use your skill; but they have to come in. When my father was ill, I would quit the library and mind the store. One day I set a house record for sofas sold because the store was located in a neighborhood where many U.N. people lived, and I knew more than most furniture salesmen about the crises in Iran and Cyprus. Eventually the store failed. But the failure of some stores is more repercussive than the failure of other stores. The commerce of culture is a trade in ideals of beauty, goodness, and truth. A hunger for profit exploits a hunger for meaning. If the one gets too ravenous, the other may find it harder to subsist. The disappearance of our bookstores and our record stores constitutes one of the great self-inflicted wounds of this wounding time.

 

For Christopher Hitchens…

The first time I read an essay by Christopher Hitchens it triggered in me an almost magnetic alignment. It is what influence feels like, palpably. Your notions, deductions, biases, obsessions, interests, and proclivities drift, loosely organized in patchwork clumps, downstream. They bump up, shift, and self organize, when suddenly a forceful current snaps them into order. Everything just locks into place.

I wish I could remember what it was about, my first draught of this amazing, lusty, brilliant mind. Maybe it was about the culture of snitching in East Berlin, or the necessary example of Thomas Paine. A full throated and eloquently argued brief against the very notion of the divine. The disgrace of Clinton. The grace of the Kurds. The hangover scene in Lucky Jim. Orwell with a side of Orwell in an Orwell sauce. Later it may have been on poetry, the lovely considerations of Czes?aw Mi?osz, or Fenton, Seidel, and Larkin. Reading Lolita as a father. The rallying, with righteous and sometimes nearly blind fervor, to the fight against Islamofacism. Amidst the pamphleteering, a steady stream of passionate criticism, elegant and lingering appreciations of Wodehouse, Wolf Hall, and, most delightfully, that libidinous rogue, Sir Harry Flashman.

In a way, though, it hardly matters. It wasn’t really about concurring with his arguments; it was following the manner of his thought, tracing its grain. Wanting to think like that, argue like that. In conversation or argument insisting on the significance of the melodramatic flourish, a theatrical toss off… the gregariousness, the bonhomie, the relish…. the decency of it all.

# # #

People disproportionally focus on the atheism, lately. I get it, as it really was the topic that propelled him, like Richard Dawkins, to general fame. It’s a shame, though, because it misses the larger point of it all. It was religion’s ongoing project to extinguish the nourishing legacy of the Enlightenment that fueled his fury. Broadly speaking, Hitch advocated for the credit due to a species that could put aside its animal nature and build and nurture this miraculous idea of civilization. To suppress, punish, or deny humanity this achievement and its benefits was an act of the basest evil – a denial of humanity itself. The stupid, pointless loss, the vandalism – the human cost of all of this idiocy – is what called him to the thick of it. It was a front he never tired of patrolling and a battle he never failed to enjoin.

Hitch’s ultimate argument, then, was to not to advocate against religion but for literature. He resolutely maintained that it was in our poems, our books and our paintings that we really grapple the most honestly, the most subtly, and the most fully with the fundamental questions and dilemmas of our existence.

Oh, and yes, there’s the drinking. And yes, it was herculean. But looking at it through the framing conceit of mere drinking, whether to condemn or to celebrate, is shortsighted and, I think, a little vulgar. Again, we’re missing the essential point of it all. As he put it:

I always knew there was a risk in the bohemian lifestyle… I decided to take it because it helped my concentration, it stopped me being bored — it stopped other people being boring. It would make me want to prolong the conversation and enhance the moment. If you ask: would I do it again? I would probably say yes. But I would have quit earlier hoping to get away with the whole thing. I decided all of life is a wager and I’m going to wager on this bit… In a strange way I don’t regret it. It’s just impossible for me to picture life without wine, and other things, fueling the company, keeping me reading, energizing me. It worked for me. It really did.

Exactly. No, seriously – exactly. This is the wager we enthusiasts make – appetite and curiosity always pushing, unbalancing our keel, lurching into the waves to feel the contour of experience…. Hitch nailed it here. He’s written reams of defiant endorsements of bohemian life before, squarely standing his ground against pious pick-nose hall monitors, amidst a swirl of smoke, clinking glass in hand. This time buy vicodin chicago it’s tempered. Caution enters the frame. The bet has been called. He wagered too much. He didn’t get away with the whole thing. With this last dash of restraint, the recipe is complete. Mix well and enjoy.

# # #

Appreciations of Hitch are always anchored by anecdotes. It seems his essence was in person, when all these aspects were gathered up in the full force of his personality. Like many of this readers, I’m sure, I’d daydream now and then of what it would be like to find myself in his company. Absurdly enough, chance and accident tumbled in my favor one evening in Los Angeles, in the late 90’s.

Hitch was touring his new broadside, No One Left to Lie To-The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton and I went to go see him read. The reading was raucous, funny, and bracing. Afterwords (after the cops led out the LaRouche plant) he held a signing, and when my turn arrived I basically thanked him for the company of his bullshit detector, and, if I remember right, mentioned the Chicago journal The Baffler, with which I was really besotted at the time.. After some appreciative nods Hitch thanked me, and as I walked away, a young Anglo-Indian named Palash Davé, who was filming the reading, asked me if he could interview me for a documentary about the book tour. Sure, I said, and asked him to join me for a smoke outside. After a bit of a filmed banter between me and a young black labor organizer we just started grousing as the crowd dispersed.

I asked him if there was a way I could keep in touch with him to keep track of the project. He said yes, then asked if I would like to have a drink with him and Hitchens that night. Cue all sputtering cliches…

So I end up going back to his hotel room… Hitch greeted us at the door and wolfishly explained that it was the same suite where Clinton stays when he’s in Los Angeles (he couldn’t wait to mark the room with smoke and whiskey). Along with Hitchens and Palash were his wife Carol Blue, Steve Wasserman- the editor at the time of the LA Times book review, and old leftie whose name I can’t recall, and the guy who shot Saturday Night Fever.

Hitchens was an effusive and diligent host. Asked me what I wanted to drink, and then led me out to the balcony, where he and I talked for about an hour, drinking Jack Daniels and smoking his Rothmans’s… Folk began to leave and the night eventually boiled down to me, Hitchens and Palash, drinking and talking until we cleaned out the mini-bar.

What a chat – From Clinton, of course, to the fate of the Left, our generation, Dylan, more on the Baffler and the art/music/politics mafia of Chicago, a long boozy dissertation on the film “Glory,” books and more books, authors (Murry Kempton & John Dos Passos, mostly) and the private tax revolt of home packed cigarettes.

The drink and tobacco exhausted, he offered a round of coffee and room service. I declined, feeling the onset of the mental fog I could no longer hold back. The bill had come due. Home, then.

# # #

There’s a reason we’re anxious about influence. To be shaped by external forces means, as individuals, that we need to yield, to go just a little slack, so our posture shifts, changes, molds. We surrender. We risk being supple for the promise of being shaped. You strike a balance between being propelled and being subsumed.

The exhilaration, though! – when you encounter, and engage such a force, and, under your shaky grip, you let it sweep you away…. His moral clarity, his insistence on literature, and art, really, as the soul of humanity, and the lusty brio with which he lived have profoundly formed and informed me. If all the world’s a stage, he was a character for the ages. We are vastly poorer for his absence. Civilization has lost one of it’s great knights and I have lost one of my brightest guiding stars. Farewell Hitch. That was a damn good show.