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This is an additional serving of Montaigne and an addendum to yesterday’s post regarding the book, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell.

A few more passages and thoughts from the book…

On the relevance of Montaigne to our age and time:

Some might question whether there is still any meed for an essayist such as Montaigne. Twenty-first-century people, in the developed world, are already individualistic to excess, as well as entwined with one another to a degree beyond the wildest dreams of a sixteenth-century winegrower. His sense of the “I” in all things may seem a case of preaching to the converted, or even feeding drugs to the addicted. But Montaigne offers more than an incitement to self-indulgence. The twenty-first century has everything to gain from a Montaignean sense of life, and, in its most troubled moments so far, it has been sorely in need of a Montaignean politics. It could cuse his sense of moderation, his love of sociability and courtesy, his suspension of judgment, and his subtle understanding of the psychological mechanisms involved in confrontation and conflict. It needs his conviction that no vision of heaven, no imagined Apocalypse, and no perfectionist fantasy can outweight the tiniest of selves in the real world.

Bakewell suggests that some credit for Montaigne’s ability to be so open to others is because of his cat (and I’m all for giving credit to insights that come by way of a beloved four-legged):

She was the one who, by wanting to play with Montaigne at an inconvenient moment, reminded him what it was to be alive. They look at each other, and, just for a moment, he leaped across the gap in order to see himself through her eyes. Out of that moment—and countless others like it—came his whole philosophy.

In Bakewell’s page of Acknowledgments, she describes her unexpected introduction to Montaigne. The final sentence below, the last of her book, is a worthy one:

I first met Montaigne when, some twenty years ago in Budapest, I was so desperate for something to read on a train that I took a chance on a cheap “Essays” translation in a secondhand shop. It was the only English-language book on the shelf; I very much doubted that I would enjoy it. There is no one in particular I can thank for this turn of events: only Fortune, and the Montaignean truth that the best things in life happen when you don’t get what you think you want.


Because I hold books in such high regard, finding one quite by chance feels serendipitously ordained. I always wonder, is the book lost or intentionally left behind just so I could find it? Sometimes it feels like a mystical encounter with a non-sentient being.

Beach houses, small hotels and B&Bs are all good places for this to happen. Everywhere I go I notice what books are left on the bedstand or jammed into a bookshelf where they look longingly at you, waiting patiently for someone to give them a (new) home.

One hotel I stayed at in India took this idea of the Lost Book quite seriously and had an entire room devoted to the volumes that guests had left behind over the years. On the inside front cover of every book, someone had carefully written the room number and date of the find. Such careful documentation! I was touched that they approached these abandoned books with the same regard one would attend to a lost child or pet. With a hospitality so common in India, hotel guests were invited to peruse the shelves. I found two great books in that room that accompanied me for the rest of my trip—Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda and The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux, both of them perfect for my peregrinating adventure in the subcontintent.

So the back page of today’s New York Times Book Review was just my kind of piece. Leanne Shapton, author and illustrator, introduces her topic, Summer Shares, with words that resonated deeply with me:

There is fate in the moldy, dog-eared paperbacks found on the shelves and bedside tables of summer guest rooms. When the masterpiece we’ve dutifully brought along stalls five pages in, the accidental bounty of other people’s discarded reading beckons. Like conversations with strangers on a train, these random literary encounters can be unsettling, distracting or life changing. Eight writers tell us what they have read on their summer vacations.

The selections by 8 writers are all interesting. Maile Meloy chose to write about a classic:

“The Italians,” by Luigi Barzini, was in our room near Baratti, Italy, just across from the island of Elba, where Napoleon was exiled. There was no window in the bathroom because the local government wouldn’t give permission for it, but there was talk of adding a small one secretly at night. That made no sense until I started reading “The Italians” and Barzini explained Italy to me.

And this by Arthur Bradford:

One hot summer we rented this house near Austin, Tex., that was on a river with natural springs where you could swim. I found a paperback copy of Charles Portis’s “Dog of the South” in the house, which I’m ashamed to say I stole because it was so funny. I had to have it! Since then I’ve bought other copies of that book and left them at people’s houses in an attempt to reverse the karma.

A note about Leanne Shapton: She is a perfect author to take on this topic. Her most recent publication is Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry. What a great title and what an ingenious idea. Shapton has created a fake auction catalog featuring the physical objects the remained afer the dissolution of a four year relationship. From Liesl Schillinger’s review of the book in the New York Times:

Taken together, the item descriptions provide a running, cumulative portrait of one couple’s glorious rise and deflating fall. . . For people who have ever thought that the little gestures, tokens and inside jokes of their relationships were unique to them, Ms. Shapton’s book comes as a poignant, jarring reminder of the sameness of the steps that so many couples retrace. . . Despite the mist of melancholy that floats amid this photographic record, there is also humor, caprice, knowingness and the implicit suggestion that changing feelings and fading possessions can’t rob a true romance of the value it had at its height. As Lenore and Hal’s remembrances show, a love affair is worth more than its trappings could fetch at a jumble sale.

I just returned from a few days in New York City. I only did about half of what I had intended. When it is over 100 degrees, the walkability of that city drops into negative numbers. Is it just me or do mental functions slow down for all humans in that kind of heat?

And speaking of mental functions, there is a great article in the latest Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by smart guy Nicolas Carr (who rocked the IT smart set in 2004 with his book Does IT Matter? setting off a worldwide debate about the role of computers in business, a topic still being argued today.)

He’s a facile writer with a clear thinking mind. And I am particularly impressed that Carr chose to quote one of my favorite playwrights (and in the view of some, a way way out kind of guy) Richard Foreman who phrased his ideal in a beautiful turn of phrase—“the complex, dense and ‘cathedral-like’ structure of the highly educated and articulate personality.” As Foreman posits, we need the “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance” or we turn into “‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.” It is a visceral and apt metaphor.

Much of what Carr says could be viewed as slightly tilted toward the Luddite. But at this point, being a Luddite might be the more progressive position any of us can take. In this world, everything is being skewed, where up is now down, in is now out. Being a Luddite in this manner might be similar to the artist who eschews the contemporary rhetoric and au courant posturing, choosing instead to be silent—which may be the most powerfully subversive position of all.

I’m only excerpting a few highlights below, so go to the link above if you are interested in getting the entire experience. And given his arguments, you might be guilted into taking the full read…

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets—reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.)

For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?” He speculates on the answer: “What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?”…

Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

Reading, explains Wolf, is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is. We have to teach our minds how to translate the symbolic characters we see into the language we understand. And the media or other technologies we use in learning and practicing the craft of reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains. Experiments demonstrate that readers of ideograms, such as the Chinese, develop a mental circuitry for reading that is very different from the circuitry found in those of us whose written language employs an alphabet. The variations extend across many regions of the brain, including those that govern such essential cognitive functions as memory and the interpretation of visual and auditory stimuli. We can expect as well that the circuits woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading of books and other printed works…

Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us. The Net’s intellectual ethic remains obscure…the assumption that we’d all “be better off” if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.

The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction…

Then again, the Net isn’t the alphabet, and although it may replace the printing press, it produces something altogether different. The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.

If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content,” we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture. In a recent essay, the playwright Richard Foreman eloquently described what’s at stake:

“I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and ‘cathedral-like’ structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the ‘instantly available.'”

As we are drained of our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,” Foreman concluded, we risk turning into “‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

I’m haunted by that scene in 2001. What makes it so poignant, and so weird, is the computer’s emotional response to the disassembly of its mind: its despair as one circuit after another goes dark, its childlike pleading with the astronaut—“I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m afraid”—and its final reversion to what can only be called a state of innocence. HAL’s outpouring of feeling contrasts with the emotionlessness that characterizes the human figures in the film, who go about their business with an almost robotic efficiency. Their thoughts and actions feel scripted, as if they’re following the steps of an algorithm. In the world of 2001, people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.


The Library of America has just released a new volume on Elizabeth Bishop. I have several others from the LOA series and find the quaintness of these publications comforting–the smaller size, the simple glossy black cover, the onionskin-thin paper, the bookmark cord supplied for you to employ immediately at your favorite spot. Having this carefully selected compilation of her poems, prose and letters all in one simple and elegant volume feels like a miniature universe.

Robert Pinsky wrote a review recently and praised the editorial choices made by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz. Here’s an excerpt:

Certain great art establishes only gradually the kind of wide, deep appeal known as “classic.” Such art may be perceived at first as merely popular, like the work of William Shakespeare and Duke Ellington, and eventually acquire critical esteem. Other works may at first appear peculiar and arcane, like those of Vincent van Gogh or Emily Dickinson, and then for later generations come to seem universally, immediately appealing.

Elizabeth Bishop’s poems have taken a middle course, quietly attracting a diverse following that has grown steadily…Bishop’s “One Art” may be the most quoted and most memorized poem in many generations. And it, too, is sometimes reproduced without legal permission, in blogs or albums. Bishop’s poetry has been set to music by distinguished composers like Elliott Carter, and it has been incorporated into trashy pop songs. Academic critics and high school students, feminists and curmudgeons, fellow poets as different as Frank O’Hara and James Merrill – all have embraced this sharp-edged, slyly elegant work, with its way of interlacing the domestic and the volcanic…

Bishop’s great characteristic subject: the pulsing, rock-melting heat and pressure inside a person, under the thin, still crust of custom. Even her love poems are about isolation, tentatively or temporarily overcome…

Fascinated by a dull, normal, genteel world she could imitate but never really join, Bishop wrote in a super-refined, transformed version of that world’s speech. Thanks to the meticulous editing of Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz, her range and peculiarity are demonstrated in this volume that puts Bishop’s poetry into the context of her essays, stories, and personal correspondence.

The book supplies a satisfying sense of knowing the poet and an equally satisfying sense of inexhaustible, mysterious genius, flashing by before it can be entirely defined.

(You can read the full review on Slate.)

She Considers the Dimensions of Her Soul

(Mrs. Morninghouse, after a Sermon Entitled,
“What the Spirit Teaches Us through Grief”)

The shape of her soul is a square.
She knows this to be the case
because she sometimes feels its corners
pressing sharp against the bone
just under her shoulder blades
and across the wings of her hips.
At one time, when she was younger,
she had hoped that it might be a cube,
but the years have worked to dispel
this illusion of space. So that now
she understands: it is a simple plane:
a shape with surface, but no volume—
a window without a building, an eye
without a mind.
Of course, this square
does not appear on x-rays, and often,
weeks may pass when she forgets
that it exists. When she does think
to consider its purpose in her life,
she can say only that it aches with
a single mystery for whose answer
she has long ago given up the search—
since that question is a name which can
never quite be asked. This yearning,
she has concluded, is the only function
of the square, repeated again and again
in each of its four matching angles,
until, with time, she is persuaded anew
to accept that what it frames has no
interest in ever making her happy.

Young Smith

The poet Young Smith is new to me. This poem, featured recently on Poetry Daily, captures an elusive but familiar state of mind. Some of these lines haunt: “a shape with surface, but no volume—/a window without a building, an eye/without a mind.”

This poem is included in Smith’s volume, In a City You Will Never Visit. Below are a few other poets’ responses to the book.


Young Smith has composed a subtle, intelligent, spare book with the cleanliness of good prose. “In a City You Will Never Visit” threads two long sequences (a suicide story, and a metaphysical meditation on light) among individual poems of tantalizing variety. With their moral syllogisms and gnomic tone, they might have come from Eastern Europe—an Eastern Europe we will never visit, a city of the mind.
—Rosanna Warren

Somewhere between the merciless ironies of Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge and the aching metaphysical comedy of Zbigniew Herbert resides Young Smith, a student of the elusive nature of the real. “In a City You Will Never Visit” is an unexpected fusion of pleasures: a sequence of poems that accumulate with the weight of a novel, a lyric meditation on the behavior of light, and a study of the forms of longing—all of which Smith braids together into a fresh and striking debut.
—Mark Doty

There is an arrestingly ethereal quality to Young Smith’s poems as they navigate their numinous territory, where things that once seemed most familiar are revealed to be least controllable and comprehensible. Smith’s voices are troubled by tricks of light playing on objects that turn out to be merely the manifestations of our own witness, ‘made of notion’s fabric.’ I find myself drawn to these poems and their strategy of radiant patience in confronting what seems always to be almost just this side of unfathomable.
—J. Allyn Rosser

I’ve been burrowed in my studio for several days, getting work ready for an upcoming show in San Francisco. For the first time in nine years there is no heat in my studio on weekends, so I have had balance and moderation forced on my otherwise excessive self.

I’ve missed the introspection and insight that both writing posts and reading others’ blogs brings to my life. And what a welcome surprise (and compliment) it was to find this after several days of heads down studio marathoning: “TIV”, Maîtresse Extraordinaire of the wild colony of blogs camped out around The Individual Voice has awarded me a purple lion. Instructions include the tagging of five other bloggers whose work inspires me and to share three shards of advice about writing.

I’m going to break ranks on this and tag five individuals who do not currently have blogs but whose written language skills thrill, delight, inspire, provoke, instruct, evoke and fill my email inbox with the best kind of writing.

In no particular order:

1. Andrew Kimball. A friend for nearly thirty years, Andrew’s weekly e-newsletter is sent out to a select list every Sunday morning at 8am. It is a running history of his life and the lives of his large family of six children. He combines the personal with the larger arc of existential meaning like no one else I know. His wordsmithing is so rich and redolent, I have saved every one he has sent to me.

Here are a few samples:

But of course there are a thousand ways to fail, most of them available at any age. The thousand people at last Thanksgiving’s AA meeting in Marin County struggle to endure, just 24 hours at a time, so sufficient to each day is the evil thereof. Meanwhile standing unseen and ministering amidst that great congregation crammed around cafeteria style tables and so caught between bodily weakness and wings of desire, are the somber comforting spirits, without voice or body, that strive to bless us.

My college friend Tom: “One year ago yesterday my mother died, exactly on the date of giving birth to me. I gave a eulogy and began closing a book that seemed to have not been completely written. But, as they say in my profession, “pencils down”. Left alone we could design and redesign and explore yet another concept to see if some geometry or set of relationships not yet recognized might still be found by our relentless searchlight.

One year later, something significant is simply over. At this point, I now realize, life is increasingly about things that are “over.” Until life itself, in our last abilities to move about, laugh, grow enraged, feel hurt, feel loved and rise up in the morning convinced that every day above ground is a good day, is over.”

2. Paul Barbuto. I have known Paul since my first days in New York City. He drove a cab and would stop by my Chinatown loft at odd hours, always toting a strange and arcane book under his arm. I knew he had a poet’s soul when I handed him a volume of poems by Wallace Stevens. Stevens is a poet who typically requires a more academic orientation rather than the intuitional. But Paul “got” Stevens immediately, without intermediation of any kind.

We have reconnected after many years of being out of touch, and our coming back together has been one of the greatest gifts to me during a difficult year of loss and grief.

A few samples:

I told GW about a short poem I read in a book of Robert Bly translations. It was from a Japanese poet. It goes “inside one potato there are mountains and rivers.” I felt it summed up everything I had ever learned or ever hoped to learn about poetry. It was all there: the actual & the imaginative, the everyday & the strange, consciousness & dream, etc etc. It tells me how to see and experience things.

Gary Brown had the fastest mind-to-word ratio I ever heard. He was (and must be, today) the best slash and surprise guy that ever spoke. Every sentence had a wonderful and surprising punch. There was no one like Gary Brown.

Reading Denis Johnson this week brought Gary to mind. Denis Johnson, like Gary Brown, has that magic sudden turn in every sentence. After reading Jesus’ Son I decided I would never write another word. I will read and I will point and I will click and if need be I will make my “x” on the line. But I will leave the words to Denis Johnson (and Gary Brown whose spirit is a mighty sword).

One line that amazed me was the opening sentence of Dirty Wedding. “I liked to sit up front and ride the fast ones all day long. I liked it when they brushed right up against the building north of the loop and I especially liked it when the buildings dropped away into that bombed-out squalor a little farther north in which people (through windows you’d see a person in his dirty naked kitchen spooning soup toward his face, or twelve children on their bellies on the floor, watching television, but instantly they were gone, wiped away by a movie billboard of a woman winking and touching her upper lip deftly with her tongue, and she in turn erased by a –wham, the noise and the dark dropped down around your head–tunnel) actually lived there.”

He takes my mind just ahead of the words. When I arrive at the words they tell me what I just saw. How does he do it?

3. Elatia Harris. Elatia is an artist and a writer, and exceptionally gifted at both. While she does not have her own personal blog, she writes regularly for the highly respected blog, 3 Quarks Daily. You can go there and search her articles. Each one is a flotilla of brilliance, written in a style that is florid, seductive, erudite and very funny.

4. George Wingate. My first roommate when I arrived in New York City with $200 in my pocket and a few names scratched on a napkin, George is an exceptional artist but his mind also finds words as playful and malleable as wet paint on canvas. His e. e. cummings-esque emails are treasures of unexpected, quixotic, timeless insights.


lots of things to consider.

the smile, not of reason….

the big-mouthed smile of the computer screen: the primal screen

save me

at least we’re having fun.

first look at your blog
can’t hardly accept the word…blog…
and i heard chris lydon champion the word early-ish

and i’m trying, just as i ‘m trying with the computer

YOU are not a trying individual you are a doing individual who doesn’t try me at all. keep it up and you will wear down my resistance.

5. Matt Thomas. Married to my niece Celeste, Matt teaches high school in Utah and has a mind that deserves a larger audience than his lucky students. He does maintain a classroom blog, but oh would I love to read what he’s thinking when he’s not confined to lesson plans.

As for the shards of writing advice, I have to think about that.


The mist rose with a little sound. Like a thud.
Which was the heart beating. And the sun rose, briefly diluted.
And after what seemed years, it sank again
and twilight washed over the shore and deepened there.
And from out of nowhere lovers came,
people who still had bodies and hearts. Who still had
arms, legs, mouths, although by day they might be
housewives and businessmen.

The same night also produced people like ourselves.
You are like me, whether or not you admit it.
Unsatisfied, meticulous. And your hunger is not for experience
but for understanding, as though it could be had in the abstract.

Then it’s daylight again and the world goes back to normal.
The lovers smooth their hair; the moon resumes its hollow existence.
And the beach belongs again to mysterious birds
soon to appear on postage stamps.

But what of our memories, the memories of those who depend on images?
Do they count for nothing?

The mist rose, taking back proof of love.
Without which we have only the mirror, you and I.

–Louise Gluck

Ah, a bit of Gluck with which to begin a new year…

One of my Christmas gifts from my friend Cindy was Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon, a book of poems by Pablo Neruda translated by Stephen Mitchell. Based on my preliminary reading of a few of my favorite Neruda poems in this volume, thumbs up.

Here’s a sample comparison of Mitchell’s translation with a popular translation of the poem, Ode to Ironing. See what you think.

Ode To Ironing
by Pablo Neruda

Poetry is white
it comes dripping out of the water
it gets wrinkled and piles up
We have to stretch out the skin of this planet
We have to iron the sea in its whiteness
The hands go on and on
and so things are made
the hands make the world every day
fire unites with steel
linen, canvas and calico come back
from combat in the laundry
and from the light a dove is born
purity comes back from the soap suds.

(Translated by Jodey Bateman)

Poetry is white:
it comes from the water covered with drops,
it wrinkles and piles up,
the skin of this planet must be stretched,
the sea of its whiteness must be ironed,
and the hands move and move,
the holy surfaces are smoothed out,
and that is how things are made:
hands make the world each day,
fire becomes one with steel,
linen, canvas, and cotton arrive
from the combat of the laundries,
and out of light a dove is born:
chastity returns from the foam.

(Translated by Stephen Mitchell)

“Holy surfaces.” “The skin of this planet must be stretched/the sea of its whiteness must be ironed.” “Chastity returns from the foam.” Yes.

Modernism, Part 2
Here are a few more selections from the Mia Fineman/Peter Gay book discussion from Slate. (For the full conversation between Fineman and Gay, start at the beginning on Slate.)

Mia Fineman:

Though I don’t think Pop Art brought about the end of Modernism by democratizing art, I do agree that Modernism suffered a kind of slow death in the early 1960s. The primary cause of death—and I’m certainly not the first to suggest this—was the steady assimilation of Modernist avant-gardes by mainstream institutions like museums and universities, and by the market. By the 1960s, Modernism had metastasized into the official culture of art. The shock of the new had grown old, and Modernism’s taboo-shattering transgressions gradually evolved into the highbrow equivalent of classic rock.

Which brings us to my next question: What comes next? In your final chapters, you entertain the possibility of a Modernist revival, pointing to the novels of Gabriel García Márquez and the architecture of Frank Gehry as works that carry the torch of Modernism into the 21st century. You end the book on a personal note, describing your experience of a recent visit to Gehry’s titanium-sheathed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. You convey your enthusiasm for the “wealth and elegance of the forms” through loving descriptions of the building’s “assortment of curves, of weight-bearing, slightly twisted pillars, of curved internal bridges, of enticing balconies, all of them enlivened by museum-goers wandering about the spaces.” Your verdict: The museum is a “Modernist masterpiece.”

Now, Gehry’s Guggenheim is surely innovative and thrilling to behold, but is it Modernist? Like many independent-minded artists, Gehry doesn’t like to be connected with any particular style or movement. Nonetheless, his work has been widely discussed in terms of architectural Postmodernism, and even more specifically, in terms of Deconstructivism, a style that arose in the late 1980s and is often associated with the work of Peter Eisenman, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, and Zaha Hadid, among others. Like these architects, Gehry rejects the Modernist principles of “form follows function” and “truth to materials.” His designs represent a radical departure from the straight lines and ordered rationality of International Style architecture. So, I wonder if you could say a little more about why you consider Gehry’s Guggenheim to be a Modernist, as opposed to a Postmodernist, work? And more broadly, I’d be interested to know what you think of Postmodernism as a term to describe the cultural and stylistic tendencies (like irony, fragmentation, hybridity, and self-reflexiveness, to name just a few) that have surfaced since Modernism’s demise in the 1960s.

Peter Gay:

As for Gehry and Postmodernism. Early on, I wrote a chapter on Postmodernism, which particularly worried and incensed the academy. I therefore decided not to get involved in quite another fight. I greatly enjoyed and enjoy Modernism (whether Picasso or Virginia Woolf or Orson Welles) but thought that Postmodernism was a fad and would not last forever. So I gave up writing about it and threw away the chapter. I don’t call Gehry Postmodern. I agree that he is unwilling to be enlisted in any school or category. He tries in the most interesting way to fulfill the client’s needs. But as distinct from Postmodernist architects like Eisenman and Libeskind, he does respect form following, or at the least not offending, function. To judge from his recent (say last quarter-century) designs, he does not construct things that simply play games or impose their moral prejudices on the public. Thus Eisenman’s balconies in Tegel or Libeskind’s voids, areas of devout silence (where you are supposed to feel terrible about the Holocaust), make demands on the public that Gehry and others like him would not dream of making.


Mia Fineman, art critic at Slate, employs a more dynamic approach to the slightly tired category of the book review. Her approach is to write an email to the author and then post the exchange. This can go back and forth several times, and the conversation that results is more multifaceted and provocative than one hand clapping, so to speak.

In Fineman’s exchange with the esteemed historian Peter Gay about his latest book, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond, some memorable ideas and questions surface. I’ve extracted a few below. (For the full conversation between Fineman and Gay, start at the beginning on Slate.)

Mia Fineman:

What you come up with are two defining attributes, which you believe all Modernists share: first, the impulse to break rules and flaunt conventional sensibilities (which you call the “lure of heresy”), and second, “the commitment to a principled self-scrutiny, which entails an exploration of the self.” As you take us through the lives and work of many of Modernism’s most influential figures, it’s easy to see how some—like Baudelaire, Picasso, Le Corbusier, or John Cage—manifested both of these attributes.

Peter Gay:

By and large, Modernists presupposed a cultivated audience. And difficulty meant “high” art against “low” art. Marcel Duchamp’s more or less deliberate attempt to destroy art as such with his readymades, for example, shows that Modernist artists knew perfectly well that their audience would probably be limited. Duchamp, it seems to me, was contemptuous of, or indifferent to, “ordinary” viewers, whether in museums or at art dealers. He took above-average risks, and essentially looked for the elite audience to understand them. Artists like Duchamp split the public into three rankings: the vulgar masses (no real interest in art); the well-to-do middle-class (smaller than the vulgarians but still sizable, and not really, truly in love with art); and the elite (which comprehends the difficult art that avant-gardes present to the world without apologies or explanations).

More to come…