I have a vague memory of a scene in a film, perhaps dating from the 1940s, although I can’t say for sure. Where I saw this film I have no idea; it could have been during some airing of classics on late-night TV, or possibly it was in some movie I’d seen at the Nanaimo Festival many years ago. I’ve long forgotten the subject of the film; my best guess is that it was some romance set during the First World War, or possibly a historical comedy involving a fishing village. The details are lost.
But what I do remember is a scene of a lighthouse, standing solitary on a rocky island not far from shore. The day is calm, and the small waves curl in gently, making a sound like paper being folded. This image, of a solid tower squating serene among quiet waters, has taken on a relatively profound significance for me–almost as if, when I recall it, there comes to me a sensation similar to that of deja vu–of having experienced this scene outside of time’s flow, of possessing an intuition that I have been to this shoreline many times before, although I’m fairly certain I’ve never actually visited the place. And yet this scene enters my consciousness fairly often, and at seemingly random times (although most commonly in moments of stress or depression) and over the years, various sensations have gradually attached themselves to this image, much as patina grows upon a bronze statue; so that now when I recall it I also hear the sound of terns softly crying as they float on the wind, or smell the pungent, pleasurable odor of sea-rot.
I mentioned this scene to my friend Christopher J. Liszt, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of movies, particularly film noir and pre-Code screwball comedies. But try as he might, he could recall no such scene in any film he was familiar with. And truthfully, the whole scene may have been so fleeting that it wouldn’t have impressed itself on him in the same way it had upon me. I’m sure for most moviegoers it passed by completely unnoticed. As for me, I became filled with an obsessive need to discover anything I could about this lighthouse (which I began to suspect existed only in my imagination), and so made several trips in the autumn to Suzzallo Library on the campus of the University of Washington. There, on a dark, drizzly afternoon I sat at a long oak table under the gothic arches of the graduate reading room and immersed myself in reference books. Before me were stacks of atlases and maritime charts, historical accounts, and indexes of lighthouses across the world.
Most useful and comprehensive of these was Penfield’s Complete Lights and Beacons, a massive and musty-smelling codex that cataloged every lighthouse constructed in human history. I spent long hours buried in its pages, swimming among the stone towers, Fresnel lenses, and automatic fog horns. After several days hunched over these pages and failing to find what I was seeking, I began to feel that gloomy lassitude that comes with being excessively immersed in a research project. At these times, a sense of guilt overcomes me, knowing I’ve spent too many hours exploring deep caverns and finding nothing of use.
And anyway it was a difficult time for me; my daughter had recently undergone surgery, my literary career was stalled, and the prospect of continuing at my freelance job for another year, which involved writing glowing descriptions of various random consumer products (running shoes, coffee makers, lingerie, and board games among them) threatened to drag me into a deep funk.
And then I found it. There in Penfield’s was a picture that matched my memory exactly. The caption described it as the stone lighthouse on Machias Seal Island, in the Gulf of Maine. There’s not much there, apparently: a few species of wildflowers and grasses, some nesting Atlantic puffins, and the tower, which is the only manned lighthouse remaining on the eastern coast of Canada.
The island has a strange history. Far from coastal settlements, Machias Seal was for most of its history virtually ignored, save for an occasional visit by a passing lobster fishermen. It sits in a gray liminal zone between boundaries. The 1783 Treaty of Paris, which established the boundary between the United States and British North America, was vague in its description where precisely the boundary line should be drawn. The island sits in a maritime no-man’s land, and is claimed by both countries. In 1832, the Governor General of Canada ordered a stone tower built there, and the beacon has been staffed by Canadians ever since. Even today, sovereignty of Machias Seal is disputed, and strangely enough, anyone born on the tiny island is automatically granted dual nationality.
Intrigued, I dug deeper into the island’s history, and discovered that only one person has ever qualified for the distinction of being granted both American and Canadian citizenship on Machias Seal.
Her name was Elspeth Codd.
She was born in the watchman’s house in 1841 to Dorthea and and Philemon Codd. Codd was a former ship’s captain who’d taken the job as the lighthouse keeper on Machias. He was from Nova Scotia and had a reputation as a skilled skipper of lobster boats (stung by childhood mockery of his name, he always refused to fish for cod). The captain, who was a quiet, intense man, left his maritime career to marry Dorthea, a spirited American actress from Boston. Once on the island, she gave birth to Elspeth, and the family lived happily in their remote hideaway. Dorthea raised her daughter in the small cabin next to the tower; in summer the three of them would picnic on the grass; during lashing winter gales, Dorthea would read the novels of Sir Walter Scot to her daughter by the yellow glow of whale oil lamps.
Philemon A. Codd (rear, right) pictured with ship captains in Halifax.
Elspeth was precocious and observant child, according to several of Philemon’s letters that survive. In one, he describes his seven-year-old daughter’s eyes full of “sharp glints like sun upon the summer sea.” He wrote to his sister that
“The child has a laugh like an accusation, and her eye is merciless. Elspeth sees everything, the girl shies away from nothing. Yesterday I caught her staring down a sculpin I’d caught for bait, lying on the dock and gulping its last breath through bloodied gills. “Does it hurt him?” she wondered. And it was only the day before that she inquired of me as to why sometimes young puffins fall from their high nests and die on the rocks below. Every answer I provided was deemed insufficient to concluding her inquest.”
Once every few months, Philemon would sail back to Seal Cove for supplies. On a bright August day in 1848 he did so, and several days later he returned, his skiff laden with sacks of flour and rashers of bacon, a crate of apples, three tins of coffee, and a paper bag full of sasparilla candies for his daughter. But when he met Dorthea at the dock, the worried look on her face erased all traces of splendor from that balmy day. Elspeth, it seems, had cut her hand on a rusty nail and she was now in bed with a terrible fever. Bundling her into wool blankets, Philemon sailed her back across the gulf and late that moonlit night he knocked at the house of the town doctor. Her prognosis was not favorable, and several days later she died.
After burying their only child in the garden beside the lighthouse tower, Dorthea placed a bouquet of daisies and blue-eyed grass upon her daughter’s grave. In the days and weeks after, the couple descended into a fathomless grief. In rare moments when the sadness departed, it was replaced by anger and recrimination. “Our marriage is finished,” Philemon wrote in a letter to his sister, and in 1850 he quit the island for Halifax. Soon after Dorthea returned to Boston.
Philemon Codd signed on with the W.H.F. Preston Line, where he served as captain of merchant clipper ships carrying cargo across the Atlantic and to the Far East. For many years he commanded the Mercury, which brought opium to China, tea to San Francisco, Campbell River lumber to Plymouth, and tin from the mines of Malaya to Portsmouth. He was known as a stern but fair commander, and it was noted among his fellow officers that he was distant and aloof, preferring to dine in his private quarters. With the arrival of steam engines, Codd proved himself resilient and adapted to the new technology. His boats were heralded in the Preston Line for their speed and prompt arrivals. Codd evoked great loyalty from his crews, even though he worked his men hard (and was quick to punish any man for dereliction or tardiness). But he was generous in allowing recreational diversions, and it was not uncommon to find the entire crew of his packet steamer, on some sultry tropic evening, passing around bottles of rum and belting out the old sea shanties to the accompaniment of a squeeze-box.
Few knew of Captain Codd’s tragic family history, and those who did possessed scant details. There was much debate among his associates as to whether he was a changed man after the loss of his daughter, or if he had always been a reserved and taciturn individual. Myself, I am fascinated by Codd’s story, and I find that the more I read his correspondence and the accounts of those who knew him, the less I actually know him.
For example, there is an incident late in Codd’s career, in 1881, when a steamer under his command made port at Mombassa in order to take on a cargo of coffee. One member of his crew, a man by the name of Alawan, had been accused, while on shore leave, of stealing a woman’s purse. Codd defended this man before the local magistrate and, vouching for his character, obtained his release. One might see in this defense a certain enlightened, admirable side of Codd. But in the course of my research, I also came across, in the log book for the S.S. Mildred Prewitt, not long after the incident in Mombassa, a rather perfunctory and disturbing entry by the captain:
Apr. 12th, 1881: Trying to make good time thru Malaccas, we encountered fierce storm with swells reaching 20ft. Proceeded under full power into the night, men exceedingly tired. In attempt to secure a loose hatch, one of crew, a certain Alawan, went overboard and attempts to locate him in violent seas unsuccessful. Crew might have been more disconsolate had he not been a Negro Mussulman, so I consider this fact a bit of good fortune. Made port at Penang Apr. 18 three days ahead of schedule.
What to make of Codd–a man, by all reports a fair-minded captain, but also one who didn’t hesitate to sacrifice a dark-skinned crewman in order to get his cargo to port several days early? After Elspeth’s death, Codd became a man intent on his career and nothing else–he abandoned his habit of reading novels, his skill at playing the jaws-harp, and also his hobby of sketching birds. As for his wife, he reportedly sent money to Dorthea, who upon receiving an annulment, had remarried and went on to have both a large family and a distinguished acting career.
Sometimes, when I consider the directions my life could have taken, and I am grateful that random tragedy has, for the most part, spared me and my family, I think about poor Philemon A. Codd and the profound existential break that opened up in his life and never repaired. I think about how his life at the lighthouse of Machias Seal Island must have been so incredibly idyllic, and also so temporary.
Codd’s later career involved work as a ferry captain in the Pacific Northwest. For several years, he helmed a boat that ran the line between Lopez Island and the Canadian Gulf Islands. It was here, in another liminal space between borders, that Codd’s career came to an end. In a thick fog, and distracted by his thoughts, Codd neglected to see a formation of dark pillow basalt rising from the narrow straight, and his ferry ran aground. Stripped of his certification, he returned to Nova Scotia.
Remarkably, his old position as watchman of the lighthouse was at that moment vacant, and Codd was allowed to return. He manned the tower for several more years, and died of hear failure while on the lookout. A search party found him two months after his passing.
What can I pull from the flotsam I’ve discovered in the wake of Captain Philemon Codd and his daughter Elspeth? Is it that I should be grateful, and wary that at any moment my life could take a terrible turn? Is it that we all walk blindly in a thick fog, unaware of what awaits us when it clears? I thought I might get to know this captain and lighthouse keeper and divine something from his character–perhaps a lesson in moving beyond tragedy. But I found almost nothing to admire in him; the simple fact is that he became a lesser person after his setback, and never recovered. And how can I judge him for that? How do I know that I would respond any better, that I would not also abandon what I previously loved and, in order to distract myself from the loss, apply myself to my profession with a merciless lack of emotion?
Codd’s notebooks filled with sketches of birds I find especially difficult to look at. He made several while he lived on Machias Seal Island, and though they are not particularly accomplished, they demonstrate an abiding interest in the life around him. One can easily imagine him pointing out a sketch of a common eider to his young daughter and describing to her what he knew of puffins, or arctic terns, or the various migrating song birds that occasionally stopped by the island on their annual migration. In one of the sketchbooks, Codd notes a moment in which a “fall-out” of birds occurred when his daughter “had a multitudinous array of all manner of colorful songbirds perched upon each of her arms.”
I found that line rather extraordinary, and in my subsequent research, learned that “fall-outs” do happen with some regularity at Machias Seal Island, owing to the fact it lies in the path of a major flyway. Sometimes a storm will cut off the tired birds, and a rainbow of different species will descend. On the internet, I found an account posted by the current keeper of the lighthouse; and in one exceptional incident, he observed perhaps a hundred different species taking refuge on the island: yellow and Blaburnian warblers, ovenbirds and redstarts, Northern parulas and veery thrushes. These fallouts are moments of crisis for the birds–such sightings only occur when a storm and hunger have forced them to land in a desperate attempt to find food and rest. And yet there is an urgent beauty in this moment of danger.
Philemon and Elspeth Codd are both buried on the island in simple graves adjacent to one another. The captain’s stone includes a quote from Sir Thomas Browne:
Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us.
Photo of Machias Island songbird fall-out courtesy of Ralph Eldridge.
Yes, it’s time once again to revive “Your Weekend Reads” here at the Lost Salt Atlas–a weekly compendium of essays, articles, poetry, fiction, and thought-provoking stuff I’ve wandered into on the web. It’s my attempt to counteract the mindless nature of social media these days. I firmly believe we’re in a golden age of reading: there’s an embarrassment of riches out there online, and instead I find myself reading incendiary articles that confirm my political beliefs or idiotic clickbait lists (“You won’t believe these Trump-themed pumpkins!”).
So without further ado, here are my picks. Click on the links or the pics below to read more…
In the Guardian, art historian Maggie Cao reviews two novels that revolve around artistic forgeries: Dominic Smith’s The Last Paintings of Sara de Vos, and Swiss novelist Martin Suter’s The Last Weynfeldt. Forgeries are ripe material for fiction (after all, that’s all fiction is: beautiful lies). Suter’s book involves a collector forced to part with a nude painting he’s obsessed with, and hires a forger to create a version he can sell. Smith’s story concerns the work of a fictional female painter during the Dutch golden age:
In both The Last Weynfeldt and The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, forgery—an act done in recognition of a painting’s monetary value—evokes its opposite: the intimate, almost magical role that works of art play in people’s emotional and erotic lives
Novelist Joanna Kavenna, author of the new novel A Field Guide to Reality, grounds her fiction in philosophical inquiry. In an interview with Lit Hub, talks about the incomprehensibility of death and the strangeness of daily existence.
I’m very interested in philosophical questions about reality and truth and the meaning of things. I don’t think there should be an esoteric elite that gets to think deeply about life, and surrenders its hallowed revelations to the rest of us. I think we all have the right to speculate about what the hell is going on.
Most of us know the famous thought experiment of Schrödinger’s Cat, which illustrates the strangeness the uncertainty principle in quantum physics by describing a cat in a sealed box that’s both dead and alive while an observer waits to find out if a radioactive element has decayed and broken a vial of poison inside. What most of us may not know is the larger story of how the thought-experiment was created against the backdrop of fascism rising in Europe. In an essay for Nautilus magazine, David Kaiser tells the story of how Einstein and Schrödinger exchanged letters on the topic of chance in quantum physics as they simultaneous fled Germany after the rise of Nazism.
Poet Hsia Yü, born in Taiwan, combines blurry, impressionistic photographs with her verse, which also has the fragmentary feel of snapshots. In excerpts from her project First Person, at Asytmptote, she observes daily life in Paris and finds a significance in quotidian, everyday reality:
I once heard tell of a postal worker who abandoned a big bag of mail he was carrying
He said that it was filled with nothing but bills and subpoenas, parking tickets, junk mail and the like
The man became manically depressed at the knowledge that no one writes real letters anymore
In short, because we no longer write to each other, he was carted off to prison
Marina Abramovic is the most famous performance artist in the world, thanks to her 2010 piece The Artist is Present, in which she sat in the Museum of Modern Art and looked into the eyes of hundreds of museum visitors. Since then she’s become something of a minor celebrity, and she continues to push the boundaries of whatever propriety is left in the art world. Carl Swanson of New York Magazine catches up with Abramovic, and finds her intense, bizarre, and brilliant.
She’s also become something else: a kind of shambolic mother goddess cloaked in a New Age self-help aura, her public image hovering somewhere between those of Joni Mitchell and Oprah, or perhaps Melisandre from Game of Thrones.
In the world of twentieth century classical music, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji isn’t exactly a household name. But the Parsi composer wrote some of the most difficult, romantic, and frankly weird piano works ever put down on paper. In a fascinating profile on Scroll, Anu Kumar recalls the long, strange career of Sorabji, who among other things, composed a nine-hour symphony, and was known for banning his works from public performance for forty years. His piano pieces were considered impossible to play until a Baltimore pianist named Michael Habermann discovered a score in a Mexico City bookshop. Habermann sometimes spent a week or more trying to perfect a single measure of the wickedly difficult arpeggios. Have a listen to Fantasia Espagnole, which ranks as one of the most insane pieces of music I’ve ever heard:
Sorabji died in 1988 at his private castle in Dorset, where he accepted no visitors, although a sign on his door reportedly read: “Roman Catholic nuns in full habit may enter without appointment.”
I’m tempted to read the composer’s memoirs on the strength of its title alone:
Mi Contra Fa: The Immoralizings of a Machiavellian Musician…
Illustration of Schrödinger’s Cat by Dhatfield, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
One the few quirky things about Geneva is a bus line, the Number 11, whose terminus is a park on the Arve River known as Bout du Monde. In English, that translates to The End of the Earth. I always loved hopping on that bus and letting it take me to The Landes Where There Be Dragons…
Sadly, the literal ends of the earth no longer exist in our collective imagination, but cartographers have determined the most remote place on the face of the planet. It’s in the southern Pacific, at a place called Point Nemo, and it was only firmly established in the 1990s by a Canadian geographer named Hrvoje Lukatela, using GPS and computer modeling. Named for the anti-social submarine captain in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Point Nemo is what’s known as a pole of inaccessibility: a point in the ocean farthest away from three points of land. If you want to visit, you’ll need to set a course for 8°52.6’S 123°23.6’W. That’s 1,670 miles (2,688 kilometers) equidistant from three places: Maher Island off the coast of Antarctica; Moto Nui, a remote islet that’s part of the Easter Island chain; and Ducie Island, an atoll connected to the Pitcairn Islands.
Inside that circle with Point Nemo at its center is a patch of sea without land that encompasses 8.6 million square miles, about the size of the old Soviet Union. Hardly anyone passes through here except the occasional round-the-world sailing race. And because there’s no land, there’s very little drifting organic matter known as “marine snow.” As result this deep, vast ocean is nearly lifeless.
It’s also know as the “spacecraft graveyard.” That’s because space agencies often direct dying satellites to re-enter the atmosphere into this no-man’s land distant from any human habitation. The Russian Mir Space Station met its fiery end not far from Point Nemo.
And if all that lifeless expanse wasn’t weird enough, Point Nemo also happens to be very close to the spot H.P. Lovecraft chose for R’lyeh, the undersea home of Cthulhu, that tentacled cosmic critter in his horror novels. If you’re feeling exceptionally creeped out by all this, you can indulge your paranoid side even further by listening to an audio clip of “The Bloop,” a mysterious sound recorded by oceanographers near Point Nemo in 1997. The Bloop was louder than the vocalizations of blue whale, and cryptobiologists were convinced it was evidence of some gargantuan sea monster lurking in the depths. Alas, it was recently attributed to the sound of an iceberg breaking off from an Antarctic glacier.
One of my favorite depictions of Point Nemo is Doug McCune’s wooden map (pictured above). An aficionado of offbeat mapmaking, McCune utilized digital cartography software to create a vector image, and then etched the map into a circular block of wood using a Pokono laser cutting tool. It’s a beautiful monument to the place where one can truly get away from it all.
(Hat tip to Strange Maps for the blog idea.)
“On a moonlit night in the winter of 1835, the carriage of Marie Taglioni was halted by a Russian highway man,” the inscription begins. It goes on to explain how she danced beneath the stars for the Russian robber and thus was allowed to keep her box of jewels.
A story as elaborate as this might seem to lend Taglioni’s Jewel Casket (of which he made many variations) a built-in obscurity, or at least a layer of weirdly arcane detail that few could unravel. Of course, that just what he wanted. In much the same way that he was frugal with money, Cornell was retentive with meaning, refusing to give anything away. In his art, he resisted instant communication with the viewer much as he resisted easy intimacy with the people in his life. The objects inside his boxes were not just random assortments of material but souvenirs of a quest, a chronicle of infatuations whose meaning was as complicatedly inward as a private journal.
–Deborah Solomon, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell
Well, it’s been a long time since my last post here at The Lost Salt Atlas, and tomorrow begins a new adventure: returning back to Seattle after living seven years overseas: four years in Vietnam and three years in Switzerland. Those years have been crucial in creating a new sense of who I am. My family and I have seen many places, learned new languages (well, my kids have anyway), and lived the day-to-day adventure of being something of a stranger in the place where you reside.
My partner Joanie said it much better than I could in an email to a colleague:
We now see the world in a different way than we did then, and so do our kids. They have firsthand knowledge of parts of the world that I could not have even pointed to on a map when I was their age. They know what it’s like to live on three continents, they speak fluently two languages and bits of others. We have deep friendships with people scattered around the world, and we’ve known an intensity of life that has at times been difficult but that has made us feel like we are truly living.
Going “home” after being an expat is a notoriously difficult experience. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Repatriation Blues,” a continual expat says that moving overseas “will mess you up for the rest of your life. You’re constantly torn between those places, and you’re a changed person.”
British-born literary critic James Wood (who has lived in the U.S. for most of his life) wrote about this in a great essay for the London Review of Books called “On Not Going Home.” After comparing his own experiences as a voluntary expat with the more difficult and tragic experiences of forced exiles, he concludes:
What is peculiar, even a little bitter about living for so many years away from the country of my birth, is the slow revelation that I made a large choice at the time; that it has taken years for me to see this; and that this process of retrospective comprehension in fact constitutes a life–is indeed how life is lived. Freud has a wonderful word, “afterwardness,” which I need to borrow, even at the cost of kidnapping it from its very different context. To think about home and the departure from home, about not going home and no longer feeling able to go home, is to be filled with a remarkable sense of “afterwardness”: it is too late to do anything about it now, and too late to know what should have been done. And that might be all right.
I don’t doubt going back to the U.S. will be hard, and not simply because of the new intensity of its politics and spiraling incidents of violence. It will be foreign to me, and to us, and I’m hoping to treat it like a new adventure, to experience America as an expat, or at least an outsider. Of course, that will be difficult since the U.S. is intricately part of my experience and nothing annoys or angers us quite like the folly of the place we come from.
But my daughters, especially my youngest, will in many ways be discovering the country and its culture (both good and bad) for the first time. The majority of their lives have been lived elsewhere.
That’s been a good thing: learning new languages and getting exposure to other ways of living is an incredibly valuable skill, and one that America should value more than it does.
I felt very at home in Hanoi and Vietnam, where I lived for four years. Of course nostalgia makes me forget the terrible air pollution, the hassles of completing simple household tasks, the constant chaos and state of disrepair. Geneva, Switzerland has been exactly the opposite: plenty of order, prompt public transport, clean, fresh air. And yet where Hanoi was a daily thrill, Geneva is beautiful but dull. I’ll readily admit there’s much here to admire about Switzerland: incredible access to mountains and the outdoors, the ease of travel to places all over Europe, and the constant presence of history wherever I go. To cite just one example, our apartment in the village of Commugny was located in an old forge that dates from the mid-16th century. It’s tough to find any buildings in North America that are that old.
But Switzerland always felt temporary to me. Finishing my first novel was my primary task, and I dedicated less time to building friendships and social connection than I probably should have. Plus, I was living in the suburbs, which has its own pressures of isolation.
But we made it work, and my children are now fluent in French–which, even if they don’t keep it up in the states, they may come back to later in life. That’s a gift. They have friends all over the world, and technology makes it easier than ever to keep in contact with them.
So I say goodbye to my home for the past three years, a place I’m ambivalent about, and which no doubt will seem much more attractive when I’m sitting in traffic on Denny Way. Right now, I’m feeling a lot of that uncanny “afterwardness” Woods refers to; as if the whole experience of living abroad was one long, complicated, beautiful, frustrating and unbelievable dream.
I’m not a huge fan of TED talks, but I do come back to one given by travel writer Pico Iyer from time to time. It’s entitled “Where is Home,” and it addresses this new world where over 200 million people live in countries they weren’t born in. “Home isn’t where you’re from, but where you’re going,” he says. There’s great wisdom in that, and in carrying your personal notion of home wherever you go. I will alway be a little bit of an exile, a little bit of a nomad, even when I’m living in the city closest to where I was born.
In his talk, Iyer refers to Proust’s famous quote about how the real adventure isn’t going to new places, but seeing things with new eyes. I went to find the complete quote, and it’s revealing because it also talks about the power of art to provide that new way of seeing. It’s in the fifth volume of The Remembrance of Things Past:
A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect as the things of the Earth. The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is; and this we do, with great artists; with artists like these we do really fly from star to star.
And so I move on to the next voyage with eyes wide open. It’s a time to say goodbye; but as Rilke observed in the Duino Elegies, we’re doing that at every moment:
Who has turned us around this way
so that we’re always
whatever we do
in a posture of someone
who is leaving?Like a man
on the final hill
that shows him
his whole valley
one last time
who turns and stand there
that’s how we live
Thanks to a tip from Open Culture, I found one of those things you don’t know exist in the world, but have been waiting patiently for you to discover it.
To be precise, actor Christopher Plummer portraying Vladimir Nabokov giving a lecture on Frank Kafka at Cornell Univeristy in the 1950s.
The 30-minute video, in which Nabokov gives a lecture on Kafka’s masterpiece, The Metamorphosis, was made for a PBS broadcast in 1989. Plummer does a great job capturing the erudite ebullience of the author of Lolita and Pale Fire, even evoking his patrician, international-expat accent. My only complaint is that in the effort to keep the video to thirty minutes, the scriptwriter left out a hefty chunk of Nabokov’s analysis of the story. Missing are some fabulous lines, including
Mark the curious mentality of the morons in Kafka who enjoy their evening paper despite the fantastic horror in the middle of their apartment.
You can read the full lecture here, or better yet, track down a copy Nabokov’s collection Lectures on Literature, which includes the text (and Vladimir’s hand-drawn illustrations) from talks on Joyce, Austen, Dickens, Flaubert and others.
One request. Can we please make videos like this a Thing? The imagination stirs at the possibilities: Helen Mirren playing Virginia Woolf lecturing on Mary Shelley…or Michael Fassbender as Nietzsche explicating the Dionysian forces at work in Greek tragedy. Perhaps Don Cheadle would play James Baldwin talking about W.E.B. Dubois or Javier Bardem as Gabriel Garcia Marquez on the influence of Faulkner. I’d pay good money to watch Marion Cotillard portray Anais Nin talking about the life and work of Henry Miller.
Other suggestions? Post them in the comments…
On a recent trip to Spain, I took my family to Madrid. One of my reasons for going was to take my daughters to see Picasso’s iconic painting Guernica. I’ve always tried to be honest with them about the world in all its beauty and ugliness–and this masterpiece combines those two qualities in powerful ways. It’s the defining image of our age.
Much has been written about the huge mural, which depicts the bombing of an undefended Basque town by planes of the German Luftwaffe on April 26, 1937–a critical turning point in the Spanish Civil War. The death toll is disputed, but there’s no doubt that from one hundred to a thousand people died that day. Journalist George Steer, writing for The Times of London, described this new strategy of warfare:
Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday by insurgent air raiders. The bombardment of the open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and a quarter during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes … did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1,000lbs downward and it is calculated more than 3,000 two-pounder aluminium incendiary projectiles. The fighters, meanwhile, plunged low from above the centre of the town to machine-gun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge in the fields
At the time, Picasso had been commissioned to create a painting for the Republican government in exile, to be displayed at a Paris exhibition. Facing a creative block, Picasso read Steer’s reports and other accounts from Spain, and in his anger decided to change course and attempt to capture the suffering inflicted on the town.
Working furiously in his Paris studio on the massive canvas, Picasso completing the work in less than a month. Reaction was mixed. Some recognized its genius, while some supporters of the Republican cause were critical–claiming the picture lacked an overt message, unlike some of the other propaganda on display. (The Reina Sofia Museum has created a thoughtful exhibit that provides excellent context for Guernica, including posters, Picasso’s preliminary sketches, and newsreels about the Spanish Civil War).
But Picasso’s masterpiece wasn’t propaganda, and that’s why it continues to endure in our imagination. It’s a cry of rage against the horrors of modern warfare, a work of art that prophetically envisioned the carnage of the modern world. Technology and brutal efficiency all reside in that evil-eye electric lightbulb hovering at the painting’s apex. Picasso foretold the fracturing of countless lives on all sides of war. Not just in London, Rotterdam, or Warsaw, but also Berlin, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, we’ve seen that screaming mother and her dead child too many times (as well as the ineffectual bull, the male symbol so potent in many of Picasso’s works, here reduced to a dumbstruck bystander).
Guernica continues to be the icon of a world steeped in violence, whether it’s napalm dropped by B-52s on the people of Vietnam or the callous acts of terrorists that shattered so many lives on September 11. There’s nothing mysterious about why a tapestry based on Guernica at the United Nations was hidden behind a curtain when Colin Powell gave a speech arguing for the invasion of Iraq. We want our shock and awe to be abstract, just words. But words have consequences, and we see this in the news every day: in the indiscriminate death of Syria’s Civil War, in extremist attacks on Paris, Ouagadougou, Beirut, Jakarta, Panakhot, Brussels, Garissa University, and in reprisal attacks on Raqqua, Sana, Waziristan… the list goes on and on.
It’s hard to call Picasso’s painting political when its subject is such a pervasive constant of our time. It’s realism. Within those stark, cracked images of fear and grief is a command: that we actually see the results of violence, especially those acts we might otherwise ignore.
For example, you may have missed it, but largely ignored this week was the news that Saudi Arabian warplanes armed with bombs bought from the U.S. killed 97 civilians (including 25 children) in Yemen. Where is their Guernica?
Or in the deluge of our new feeds, it might have slipped your notice that a US drone strike in Afghanistan reportedly killed 17 civilians. Where is their Guernica?
We live in a world of dark threats, but to my mind there’s no brand of warfare as cowardly and dangerous as remote-controlled drone strikes, where soldiers sit in front of computer monitors sipping their Big Gulps and, with a click of a mouse, send missiles thundering down from that lightbulb in the sky. Many of these attacks are what US military leaders call “signature” strikes. These are the ones in which the targets’ identities aren’t known, but simply chosen because they look suspicious. After the target is hit, more missiles are fired at the people who attempt to help the victims. A recent article in the Atlantic asserts that between one hundred to several thousand civilians have died in U.S. drone strikes around the world. The same number as the event that inspired Guernica.
Drone operators jokingly refer the photo evidence of these strikes as “bug splats.” And I suppose from satellites in orbit, that’s what they resemble. But what Picasso’s Guernica reminds us is this: these aren’t bugs, but real human beings–with real lives–that are being ripped apart.
Happy Oscar weekend, dear readers! Before you immerse yourself in the world of red carpets and awkward jokes, grab some popcorn, curl up on the couch and have a gander at this week’s picks for thought-provoking reads. You can click on the photos next to each selection to be whisked away to food for your brain. What a fascinating modern age we live in.
The #OscarsSoWhite movement isn’t so much about specific Academy Award nominations, but about the fact that there’s such a paucity of opportunities for women and people of color in Hollywood. The vast majority of gatekeepers–studio executives, agents, marketing staff, and movie critics–are white and male. About 28 percent of roles are played by people of color (a rate 10 percent less than the general US population) and consider that of the 400 major movies produced in 2014 and 2015 a mere four percent were directed by women.
In a great interactive feature, the New York Times interviewed women and people of color working in Hollywood–from Jimmy Smits to Queen Latifah–and documented their experiences of discrimination, frustrating slights, and successes. Definitely worth your time.
In a brilliant movie review/essay for the the New York Review of Books, novelist Zadie Smith muses on Charlie Kaufman’s new animated film Anomalisa, connecting it to Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy, The Polar Express, and the willies we get in the uncanny valley. Her thoughts on the theology of The Polar Express are priceless:
It has no denomination, this belief of the boy’s: it belongs to a generalized American faith that long ago detached itself from any particular monotheism, achieving autonomy in and of itself. Believing in belief is what makes Luke a Jedi and Cinderella a princess and Pinocchio a real boy, and my children have been believers of this kind from the earliest age—ever since they could say “Netflix.” This is the lesson: If you believe—it will be real! The movie ended, more snow came down. I wiped the foam from my delighted children and we went back out into the light.
It came out several years ago, but I only recently discovered Will Self’s interactive digital essay for The London Review of Book called Kafka’s Wound. You’ll want to set aside an hour or two to explore this beautifully layered investigation into Kafka’s mysterious 1916 story “A Country Doctor.” In addition to Self’s meandering essay on Kafka’s relationship with European history, you’ll find experimental puppet animation, photo essays on wounds suffered in the Great War, musical compositions inspired by klezmer, a video essay on a visit to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, modern dance inspired by Kafka’s story, an audio reading of the original German text, and much more. A brilliant use of technology to deepen our understanding of a literary work.
No topic about contemporary Vietnam agitates Western observers more than dog meat restaurants. Not for the faint of heart, Calvin Godfrey’s visceral and empathetic report The Dog Thief Killings investigates a series of vigilante murders of dog thieves in central Vietnam. The piece explores the mystery of why dog thieves are so loathed, and yet provide the vast majority of meat served in these popular establishments:
One worldly café owner told me he gave up dog meat because it made him feel bad. “I mean, you’re asking yourself, is this someone’s pet?” he said while we jogged down a major thoroughfare. Dog’s status as a guilty pleasure, he said, renders it a delicacy without a single fancy restaurant. Yeah, I shot back, dog restaurants did all seem sort of seedy and furtive—like adult bookstores or something.
“Right,” he said. “Dog is like porn.”
In a photo+word essay in Blunderbuss, Sara Nović wanders the abandoned urban landscapes of central Ohio and in her search for the elusive Midwest Nice, finds it the most foreign place she’s ever visited:
No one here recycles. It’s not even an option. And everything is styrofoam—plates, cups, containers of all kinds—I’ve seen more styrofoam here in a week than I have possibly in my entire life elsewhere. Or at least in the last decade.
Over at Electric Lit, artist and writer Richard Kostelantz serves up “Clouds Rush By on Silent Bikes,” a story told in aphorisms. Inspired by the work of Spanish surrealist Ramon Gomez de la Serna, it’s collage of pithy sayings that are simultaneously wise and absurd:
The caterpillar is the smallest railway in the world.
Insolvency is a profession especially enjoyed by Spaniards.
By buttoning is an accordion played, a lover by unbuttoning.
Buried in a piano is a harp lying asleep.
Pajamas buried too deeply under a pillow cannot be found.
A gong is a widowed saucer hung out to mourn.
The letter T is the alphabet’s hammer.
Archeologists’ discovery of a 10,000-year-old massacre site in West Turkana, Kenya has re-kindled the debate over whether humanity’s propensity for war and violence are innate. Though plenty of mainstream press articles have jumped to the conclusion that war is in our genes, John Horgan at Scientific American reminds us that evidence of war in our evolutionary history is quite thin:
…anthropologists Jonathan Haas and Matthew Piscitelli have carried out an exhaustive review of hominid remains over 10,000 years old, including more than 2,900 skeletons from over 400 different sites. Excluding the Jebel Sahaba skeletons, Haas and Piscitelli found only four skeletons bearing signs of violence.
And speaking of evolution (or lack of it) if you want to know why Donald Trump’s campaign is catching fire, you need to read Matt Taibibi’s smart and terrifying piece in Rolling Stone:
President Donald Trump.
A thousand ridiculous accidents needed to happen in the unlikeliest of sequences for it to be possible, but absent a dramatic turn of events – an early primary catastrophe, Mike Bloomberg ego-crashing the race, etc. – this boorish, monosyllabic TV tyrant with the attention span of an Xbox-playing 11-year-old really is set to lay waste to the most impenetrable oligarchy the Western world ever devised.
Top photo of a line outside a movie theater in Chicago, 1941 courtesy New York Public Library.
Etching of Franz Kafka by Jan Hladík, 1978, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Anyway, here’s this week’s collection of online reading that offers (I hope) a more mindful alternative to the usual clickbait…
If you think Americans live in a democracy, you need to read Tim Dickinson’s anger-inducing piece in Rolling Stone about how the Koch Brothers and utility lobbyists are preventing the development of solar power in Florida. The Sunshine State currently ranks 16th in the nation for solar power–mostly because $12 million in lobbying efforts have shut down incentives and set up regulatory hurdles to homeowners who want to generate their own power. But some people, including conservatives, are fighting back:
Coalition member Debbie Dooley helped found the Tea Party and today directs Conservatives for Energy Freedom. The 57-year-old grandmother may run her shoestring outfit out of the back of a 2010 Hyundai Sonata, but she has an impressive track record, spearheading a two-year fight that overturned anti-solar restrictions in Georgia in 2015 – creating thousands of clean-energy jobs.
While you’re at it, read my friend Erik Lundegaard’s thoughs on Dark Money, Jane Mayer’s account of the massive amounts of corporate money corrupting our political system.
Italian scholar and novelist Umberto Eco, author of The Name of the Rose, died this week at the age of 84. In a long interview he did with the Paris Review in 2008, Eco talks about historical fiction, the vibrancy of the Middle Ages, and his personal library:
I own a total of about fifty thousand books. But as a rare books collector I am fascinated by the human propensity for deviating thought. So I collect books about subjects in which I don’t believe, like kabbalah, alchemy, magic, invented languages. Books that lie, albeit unwittingly. I have Ptolemy, not Galileo, because Galileo told the truth. I prefer lunatic science.
In honor of National Wine Day (which happened this week, or for some of us, every day) read Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle’s article on the neuroscience of wine drinking at Nautilus magazine. Are wine critics full of hooey? Not always, but research is finding that we often enjoy expensive wines less, but will often attribute higher quality to a bottle if we know its price.
But the real revelation was that a region of the brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex was hyperactive in every one of the subjects while he was making his choice. It seems that we all use the same part of the brain to make decisions about wine, at least when money is involved.
In an interview with New Inquiry, Anna Tsing talks about her new book, The Mushroom At the End of the World, a thoughtful meditation on the strange, competitive world of matsutake mushroom hunters in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.
It’s part of the ideology we sometimes call neoliberalism, which forces workers to take on responsibility for both the rewards and the working conditions of labor. Mushroom picking is like that and more. There are no wages; there are no benefits. Everyone pays their own costs and sells their own product.
In the predominantly Muslim north of Nigeria, a group of outspoken women write inexpensive romance novels that are sold a vegetable markets. Known as littattafan soyayya (“books of love”) these books are giving women a voice in an otherwise conservative Islamic culture. This great long article by Laura Mallonee at Wired also features striking photos by Glenna Gordon, a feminist scholar who’s been studying Kano market literature for several years.
The ocean glows at night. The pirogue glides upon her own brilliant wake. Fish schools flicker like sunken treasure. You cast net: the float line lights up like a Christmas garland the instant it hits water, a floating halo in never-ending black. Luminescence seeps into the boat where it is leaking in blinking rivulets. You bail buckets of radiance. The outboard motor churns pure light.
So begins Anna Badkhen’s absolutely gorgeous essay on the fishing boats of Senegal, “The Secret Afterlife of Boats” in the latest issue of Granta. This piece flows like poetry as Badkhen contemplates how traditional pirogue fishermen are being affected by a steep decline in fish ecology off the coast of West Africa.
Folder is a relatively new online magazine that dedicates each issue to profiling the work of a single poet. This month Robert Fernandez gets his due, with six poems that are crunchy with the physical experience of the spoken word, and lucidly engage all the senses, not least of which is taste. I’m fond of the poem “If I Offend You With My Leniency,” which includes the lines…
I am the brown bittered
fig skinned with tomb
leeks in brown sauce
and a winking eye
like a suede curtain
Image of scribe St. Jerome by Meister des Maréchal de Boucicaut, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of Umberto Eco by Rob Bogaerts, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of Nigerian woman by Glenna Gordon, aerial image of multicolored seas courtesy of NASA.
Glass of wine by by André Karwath aka Aka – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.