Archive for December, 2005

On Art

While cleaning up my office – the more I clean the messier it gets – I came across a New Yorker clipping from the 5/27/96 Talk of the Town segment about a speech by art critic Robert Hughes. It is entitled “The Case for Elitist Do-Gooders” and was written when the NEA (along with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) were under attack by the Republican Congress. Here is some of what Hughes said:

“Of course, the economic argument is the merest flimflam. The drive to abolish the NEA (or to cut its funds to the point where it’s unworkable…) has nothing to do with the economy–not in a Congress that last year voted the Pentagon seven billion dollars more than it had asked for. Eliminating the NEA is simply a bone that Congress can throw to the extreme right. It is a cheesy piece of political symbolism, mounted by opportunists who want to show their populist credentials, and who don’t care what the destruction of the NEA does to the public culture of America.”

And further on:

“One of the ways you measure the character–indeed the greatness–of a country is by its public commitment to the arts. Not as a luxury; not as a diplomatic device; not as a social placebo. But as a commitment arising from the belief that the desire to make and experience art is an organic part of human nature, without which our natures are coarsened, impoverished, and denied, and our sense of community with other citizens is weakened. ……The arts are the field on which we place our own dreams, thoughts, and desires alongside those of others, so that solitudes can meet, to their joy sometimes, or to their surprise, and sometimes to their disgust. When you boil it all down, that is the social purpose of art: the creation of mutuality, the passage from feeling into shared meaning.”

Wow! I love that line “where solitudes can meet.”


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Thinking about Gogol

What do people think of Gogol, I wonder? I listened to a couple of his short stories on tape last year (“The Overcoat” and “The Nose”), but I don’t quite know what to make of them. As an aside, the only interesting thing (to me, I know others liked it) about last year’s pallid novel, “The Namesake” by Jhumpa Lhahiri was the father’s connection to Russian literature. His grandfather advised him to “read the Russians, and then reread them. They will never fail you.” He is reading Gogol’s “The Overcoat” when the train crashes, which ends up saving his life. He names his son Gogol as a tribute. The reason I bring it up is that while reading the Introduction to AK, Gogol is mentioned as a contemporary of Tolstoy’s. I’m reading Tolstoy now (well, rereading, actually) and I’ve read Pushkin and Turgenev and some of Dostoeyvsky. I think I should read some of Tolstoy’s short stories. Reading the introduction to AK, I realize how little into Russian literature I have really delved.

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12/5/05 New Yorker

The December 5 issue (Bush and Cheney as the odd couple on the cover) has a great article on the Pennsylvania trial on teaching intelligent design in high school biology classes. The author, Margaret Talbot, skillfully evokes the courtroom scenes and the personality of the judge and lawyers. She says the trial was like “the biology class you wish you could had taken.” She also draws a funny parallel about the way “creationists have adapted (evolved if you will!) to new environmental conditions.” They went from trying to ban the teaching of evolution to calling for a balanced approach to insisting that evolution is just a theory. And, Talbot predicts, they will doubtless come up with more subtle methods for promoting their agenda. She quotes a line from the play “Inherit the Wind” (which opened in a local theatre near the courthouse on the last day of the trial) where the Clarence Darrow character says, “You don’t suppose this kind of thing is ever finished do you?”

Elsewhere in the issue are some stunning poems by Franz Wright (Pulitzer Prize winner in 2004), a depressing article about Iraq (no big surprise there!) by Seymour Hersh. There is also a great book review by Adam Kirsch about William Wordsworth (reviewing Juliet Barker’s new biography). Between his idealistic phase when he was influenced by the thrilling ideas of the French revolution and his didactic phase where he “handed down moral instruction from on high,” he wrote some truly great poems. As Kirsch says, he explored his own inner life and shared his findings, which “continues to define the highest aspirations of modern poetry.” This reminds me of the saying of Yeats, “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”

I’m not a person who notices different typefaces typically; although I do love this font, Comic Sans Ms, so I wasn’t that eager to read the story about a typeface designer (“Man of Letter” by Alec Wilkinson). That said, it was actually quite interesting, especially the biographical details. He describes his father as “austere.” Apparently the father did not entirely approve of his son’s choice of career, but his only comment was “he thought that the conversation at the dinner table might have been more interesting if Carter (his son) had chosen another field.”

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Harry Potter VI

I was holding off reading the latest HP, but finally sat down with it last week. It was a lot of fun at first, and seemed much lighter than the dark and angst-ridden “Order of the Phoenix”. The sorting out of the teen boy-girl issues was handled well. The escalation of violence up to the horrific ending was consequently even more shocking.

I remember when I first read “The Sorcerer’s Stone” after hearing how great it was. I was disappointed in the writing, especially since I had just finished reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” out loud to B. The difference in style and language was jarring to say the least. However, I soon became caught up in the characters, the clever plotting and the consistently interesting juxtaposition of magic and muggle worlds. The books only get more interesting and with the seventh and final book now in sight, the pace is intensifying.

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I knew something was missing in my life and I discovered it while going through and discarding a stack of catalogs – the Oct. 24 New Yorker (Ballerina cover)! I was most impressed with the article about malaria, which Bill Gates is determined to eradicate. I read an article about malaria some years ago, which described the comeback of the disease after it’s near-eradication. And it has come back strong – with drug-resistant strains, so that nearly 3 million people (mostly poor African children) die of it each year. Gates is using his charitable foundation to pour money into malaria research, an area that has been mostly neglected because malaria is no longer a problem in the developed world. Here is a statistic: ‘less than 10% of all investment in health research is devoted to the diseases that affect 90% of the world.’ There is some controversy about Gates’ method – he wants a cure, dammit! But no one has ever come up with a vaccine that works against a parasite and some suggest that money would be better spent in delivering the proven solutions – especially nets that are treated with insecticide. Nets do help prevent the disease, even living near someone who has a net can help a child survive, but hardly anyone has a net. One doctor says that 30 to 50% of at-risk children could be saved with nets alone.

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