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28 April 2017
Afternoon Sedition

When Three Isn’t A Crowd

Photograph of Three Sisters Volcanoes

Three Sisters Volcanoes in Oregon, by Lyn Topinka, United States Geological Survey

Bad things, as the saying goes, come in threes. So do the fates.

In Greek mythology, the fates are called "Moerae" or "Moirai." (The word moerae means to apportion or divide.) There were three, described using metaphors drawn from weaving. The poet Hesiod is likely the source of their names:

These are Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, and they give mortals their share of good and evil.

— Hesiod, Theogony, 905-6

Each of the three has a separate role. Clotho, who spins the threads of human life, Lachesis, who measured its span, and Atropos, who cut it with a shears. (Atropos is the eldest, a wizened creature who, of all the fates, is most feared. Her name, meaning inexorable or inevitable, is the source of the name for the drug "atropine," a belladonna derivative that relaxes, or paralyzes, muscles by interfering with nerve conduction.)

Meanwhile he'll not suffer harm or trouble, not before he sets foot on his own land. After that he'll undergo all those things Destiny and the dreaded spinning Fates spun in the thread for him when he was born, when his mother gave him birth.

— Alcinous, The Odyssey, Homer, Book 7, line 240

The fates predate the gods of Olympus, and their relationship is much like the United States Constitution's balance (separation) of powers. She who cuts cannot measure. She who measures cannot alter the thread (events) of life. She who creates the life cannot determine its length. And so it goes.

Behind the power of the gods and beyond all the efforts of men, the three Fates sat at their spinning. No one could tell whence these sisters were, but by some strange necessity they spun the web of human life and made destinies without knowing why. It was not for Clotho to decree whether the thread of a life should be stout or fragile, nor for Lachesis to choose the fashion of the web; and Atropos herself must sometimes have wept to cut a life short with her shears, and let it fall unfinished. But they were like spinners for some Power that said of life, as of a garment, Thus it must be. That Power neither gods nor men could withstand.

Old Greek Folk Stories Told Anew by Josephine Preston Peabody, 1897

The Romans called the fates Parcae or Fatae; there were Nona, Decuma, and Morta: Nona, like Clotho, spins; Decuma, like Lachesis, measures; and Morta, like Atropos, cuts.

The Norse had the three Norns who wove human life: Urth or Wyrd, for the past or fate; Verthandi, for the present or necessity (of dying); and Skuld, for the future or being. When the end of the world arrives, Skuld will lay death upon the universe itself; in the meantime, they weave a tapestry of such unimaginable complexity that it will never be finished. The Norns live in a cave at the base of Yggdrasil, the world tree — situated in the Nornenberg (Nuremberg) mountains — where they try to stop its decay by pouring mud and water from the Well of Fate over its branches. (It is interesting, if not ironic, that the trials of Nazi war criminals were held at Nuremberg.)

The three weird sisters of destiny in Shakespeare’s Macbeth has the three weird sisters of destiny; these are the Scottish equivalents of the Moerae, the Parcae, and the Norns. (Weird is derived from "wryd," the Anglo-Saxon word for fate.)

First Witch: Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd.
Second Witch: Thrice and once, the hedge-pig whin'd.
Third Witch: Harpier cries:—tis time! 'tis time!
First Witch: Round about the caldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.—
Toad, that under cold stone,
Days and nights has thirty-one;
Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot!
All: Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

MacBeth, by William Shakespeare, Act 4, Scene 1

David Brin wrote a science-fiction novella, "The Loom of Thessaly" (published in The River of Time, 1981, but available online), about the fates. I quite liked it, but YMMV.

"Creative Genius Destroyed
by Neglect and Misunderstanding"

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935)

Well, it isn't a perfect poem, but it is certainly a remarkable one.

— John Lucas on "Richard Corey"

I often run into people who either aren't familiar with the work of Edwin Arlington Robinson or who are passingly familiar with it but either don't know the whole piece or the author. Fewer still know that Robinson moved from Maine to 28 MacDougal Street in New York City's Greenwich Village — holding such jobs as time checker for construction of the IRT subway and as a clerk in New York City custom's house (he was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt, who liked his poetry) — where he spent the last twenty-five years of his life, largely solitary, until his death on 6 April 1935.

A Maine poet whose numerous volumes of verse explore the repressive life of small-town American, Edwin Arlington Robinson drew inspiration for his portraits and tales from the tortured lives of his family and acquaintances. Transforming autobiography into myth, he set these stories in the fictitious Tilbury Town, the poet's emblem of the American dream gone awry, a place where creative genius is destroyed by neglect and misunderstanding.

Reared in Gardiner, ME, and educated at Harvard, Robinson's philosophical perspective came to combine the idealism of the waning Romantic Age with the dark pessimism of the dawning century. While he believed ardently in the divine spark within all man and nature, he inevitably found that spark clouded with what he called "the black and awful chaos of the night." Given the bleak history of Robinson's own life--poetic neglect, unrequited passion, and family problems with alcohol-- his view is not surprising; what is more amazing is the stoicism with which he persevered, ultimately winning national recognition for his long Arthurian poem, TRISTRAM, in 1928.

Robinson claimed to have experienced his poetic vocation as an epiphany when, at age seventeen, he became "violently excited over the structure of English blank verse." An admirer of Robert Browning's dramatic monologues, he set about to cloak his own poetic persona in a series of masks, creating a gallery of characters, who were at once thinly veiled incarnations of his relatives and townsfolk and subtle manifestations of his own psyche.

"I Hear America Singing", Public Broadcasting Service

Robinson was born the third son of a family whose hearts were so set on having a daughter this time that they had made no provisions for the name of an unwanted son. For more than six months the boy remained unnamed, until strangers at a summer resort, feeling that he ought to be granted an identity beyond that of simply "the baby," put slips of paper with male first names written on them into a hat and chose someone to draw one out. The man who drew out the slip with "Edwin" written on it happened to live in Arlington, Massachusetts, which seemed to provide the easiest choice for a second name; and so by an "accident of fate," we have a poet named Edwin Arlington Robinson. Robinson hated the name and thought of himself as a child of scorn--and he had reasons.

American Poets: From the Puritans to the Present by Hyatt H. Waggoner

Robinson's most famous poem is likely "Richard Corey":

Richard Corey

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich — yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Edwin Arlington Robinson

A few notes. Robinson's brother Hennan drank himself to death. It may not have been as quick as a bullet, but it was just as certain.

Here we have a man's life-story distilled into sixteen lines. A dramatist would have been under the necessity of justifying the suicide by some train of events in which Richard Cory's character would have inevitably betrayed him. A novelist would have dissected the psychological effects of these events upon Richard Cory. The poet, with a more profound grasp of life than either, shows us only what life itself would show us; we know Richard Cory only through the effect of his personality upon those who were familiar with him, and we take both the character and the motive for granted as equally inevitable. Therein lies the ironic touch, which is intensified by the simplicity of the poetic form in which this tragedy is given expression.

The Poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson: An Essay in Appreciation, by Lloyd Morris, 1923

While "Richard Corey" is likely his most famous poem, "Miniver Cheevy" runs a close second:

Miniver Cheevy

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would send him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam's neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing:
He missed the medieval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

Edwin Arlington Robinson, 1907

Some Notes. The khaki suit refers to the brown military uniform, common until after World War I. The Medicis ruled renaissance Florence, and combined a love of knowledge, art, and scholarship with naked brutality when it came to remaining in power. Priam was king of Troy and killed during the Trojan war. Thebes was a Greek city in Egypt, on the Nile. Camelot, of course, was the mythical home of King Arthur's court. The line "He mourned Romance, now on the town," is tied to the meaning of "on the town" as being unable to support onesself and thus dependent upon the town's charity. The poem has some relation to Robinson's life, given that he felt unwanted as a child. (See the biography above.)

Oh, one more thing. The title line is from "I Hear America Singing", Public Broadcasting Service. It referred to Tilbury Town, but it summed up many things about Robinson and, indeed, about the world in general.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Children of the Night by Edwin Arlington Robinson (contains "Richard Corey")
  2. The Man against the Sky by Edwin Arlington Robinson
  3. The Three Taverns by Edwin Arlington Robinson
  4. "Edwin Arlington Robinson", The Academy of American Poets
  5. "On Richard Corey," Modern American Poets
  6. "On Miniver Cheevy," Modern American Poets
  7. "I Hear America Singing", Public Broadcasting Service

A Whisp of Smoke or a Raging Conflagration?

"Self-Portrait in a Grey Felt Hatt" by Vincent Van Gogh, 1887

"Self-Portrait in a Grey Felt Hat", Vincent van Gogh, 1887

Vincent Van Gogh was born today in 1853. Here are some of his observations that bear thinking about.

One may have a blazing hearth in one's soul and yet no one ever comes to sit by it. Passersby see only a whisp of smoke rising from the chimney and continue on their way.

— Vincent Van Gogh

I do not know myself how I paint it. I sit down with a white board before the spot that strikes me. I look at what is before my eyes, and say to myself, that white board must become something.

— Vincent Van Gogh

Just dash something down if you see a blank canvas staring at you with a certain imbecility. You do not know how paralyzing it is, that staring of a blank canvas which says to the painter: you don't know anything.

— Vincent Van Gogh

Painting is a faith, and it imposes the duty to disregard public opinion.

— Vincent Van Gogh

The painter of the future will be a colorist in a way no one has been before.

— Vincent Van Gogh

What am I in most people's eyes? A nonentity or an eccentric and disagreeable man... I should want my work to show what is in the heart of such an eccentric, of such a nobody.

— Vincent Van Gogh

Your profession is not what brings home your paycheck. Your profession is what you were put on earth to do. With such passion and such intensity that it becomes spiritual in calling.

— Vincent Van Gogh

Google marked today by creating a special logo. It will be up for one day only, so I've reproduced it below along with the painting inspiring it.

Google Logo for Vang Gogh's Birthday

Google Logo for Van Gogh's Birthday

"The Starry Night" by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

"The Starry Night", Vincent van Gogh, 1889

"ET Phone Home"

William Edward Ayrton

Professor William Edward Ayrton (1847-1908)

I was thinking about the ubiquity of cell phones and the price of being reachable anytime, anywhere, for any reason, no matter how trivial. And then I remembered the words of William Ayrton — a professor, scientist, engineer, and Fellow of the Royal Society — about the future of telecommuniations. (Keep in mind he said this in 1897.)

There is no doubt that the day will come, maybe when you and I are forgotten, when copper wires, gutta-percha coverings, and iron sheathings will be relegated to the Museum of Antiquities. Then, when a person wants to telegraph to a friend, he knows not where, he will call an electromagnetic voice, which will be heard loud by him who has the electromagnetic ear, but will be silent to everyone else. He will call "Where are you?" and the reply will come, "I am at the bottom of the coal-mine" or "Crossing the Andes" or "In the middle of the Pacific"; or perhaps no reply will come at all, and he may then conclude that his friend is dead.

— Professor W. E. Ayrton, lecture at the Imperial Institute, 1897

I, fortunately, haven't had anyone conclude that I'm dead when I don't answer my cell. There are, of course, times when I won't answer it; I'm not, after all, Paris Hilton.

When Ya Got Money Ta Burn!

Hell Bank Note #1

Burning Hell Money

There’s always a particular smell of burning incense when one walks through the gates of a Buddhist temple. The smoke looms around in a mist-like form. The air is difficult to breathe and some of the people’s eyes burn from the ashes around. The faithful continue to add more to the already huge amount of incense of all shapes and sizes — the little flames on the top of the incense glows through the misty smoke. Before these incense lays the deities, to whom some ask for divine guidance for their cause.

Today, a girl was burning something else in the temple. I looked down at what she was burning — some form of paper money? It appeared so. She was dropping them into the flames one by one. I had seen something like this before — somewhere in a Chinese movie, a man was dropping paper money in a makeshift grill for his brother who had died. Curiously, I approached the girl.

"May I see one of those?" I asked.

"Of course," the woman replied.

I looked at what the paper money said. "Hell money," it read on the bottom.

"Hell Money", The Anthropology of Money in Southern California, by Alex Adair, Joanne Choi, Ceasor Dennis, Clara Lin, Lambert Yuen

Wads and Wads of Hell Money

Wads and wads of Hell Money waiting to be purchased and burned.

Bank of Hell Checkbook

Ian Whitney's travel photos of Bank of Hell checkbook

So, what the Hell — no pun intended — is this stuff, anyway?

When i was child, growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, a friend of mine's family ran a grocery store. They were Chinese, and although almost everything in their store was exactly like the stuff in all the other small groceries in Berkeley, they also carried a few Chinese specialty items up by the counter. One of these was Hell Money. The word Hell was introduced to China, my friend's parents told me, by Christian missionaries who claimed that non-converted Chinese folks were all "going to Hell" when they died -- and the Chinese, thinking "Hell" was the proper English term for the afterlife, adopted the word. Thus, Hell Bank Notes are simply Afterlife Monetary Offerings or Spirit Money.

As they explained it to me, when people die, their spirits or ghosts go to an afterlife where they continue to live on, doing the same sort of things why did while alive, eating, drinking, wearing clothes, playing with their children, and so forth. In order to ensure that they have lots of good things in the afterlife, their relatives send them presents, and one of the best things to send them is Hell Bank Notes -- money to spend in the afterworld. In addition to Hell Bank Notes, some Chinese grocery stores also sell elaborately-made and multi-coloured paper watches, clothes, cars, Hell Credit Cards, and even refrigerators for the purpose of burning in the belief that doing so sends their essence to the afterlife world, where the recipient will be glad to receive such material goods.

Hell Bank Notes (Hell Money)

Hell Bank Note #2

Special furnace for burning Hell Money

Special furnace for burning Hell Money.

The question I have is what can you buy with fake money? (In the United States, the answer is quite a lot. That's why the Secret Service takes counterfeiting so seriously.) And what about inflation? Does burning more money make your ancestors richer, even if it makes you poorer? Anyway, this is no joke for the Chinese; they take this very seriously:

According to Chinese folklore, there is an increase in the incidence of accidents and deaths during the seventh month of the lunar calendar, an occurrence attributed to underworld spirits visiting the earth during this time. During Ghost Month, people prepare big feasts to indulge the many roaming ghosts.

Festivities to stop the troublemaking ghosts from disturbing the living were held island-wide yesterday, although the rituals have been attacked for polluting the environment.

Tables of offerings and urns of burning ghost money blocked many sidewalks in Taipei yesterday. An estimated 220,000 tons of ghost money is burned every year around Taiwan.

"Ghost Month Rites Calm Scientists' Consciences" The China Post, 15 August 15, 2000

Couple burning Hell Money

Couple on the street burning Hell Money

Wow! Did you catch this part: "220,000 tons of ghost money is burned every year around Taiwan." Just imagine if that were, say, old newspaper. How much air pollution would it cause? A lot, it turns out. So much that the government came up with a solution: (I'm quoting more of the article since their Website may not always be available.)

With the arrival of the arrival of the traditional Ghost Month, the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) again urged urban residents to burn spirit money at municipal waste incinerators to prevent air pollution.

Yesterday in Kaohsiung City, an unusual ceremony was held at a newly cleaned municipal waste incinerator in Sanmin District.

In an address to the souls of the dead, Kaohsiung Deputy Mayor Yao Kao-chiao (???) sincerely informed roaming ghosts that the incinerator would be the best place for them to "withdraw" spirit money this year.

"We hope residents cooperate to burn all spirit money at the incinerator on the 29th day of the seventh lunar month," Yao said.

Kaohsiung City environmental officials said that last year 109 communities supported central-ized burning, and that 28 tonnes of money paper were burned in the incinerator. They estimated the move prevented about 3 tonnes of air pollutants from being released in the city.

Officials said that the participation of 408 communities in the program this year might boost the amount of centrally burned spirit money to 100 tonnes. A free service is available to deliver spirit money to the incinerator until the scheduled burning date.

Officials said that burning spirit money outdoors causes a substantial amount of air pollution and could result in fines ranging from NT$5,000 to NT$100,000 for residents and NT$100,000 to NT$1 million for factories and companies.

To attract more residents to use the service, officials have arranged for eminent Buddhist masters to be in charge of the month-end burning ceremony, ensuring a successfully delivery of people's respects to the gods.

"UNSEEN AUDIENCE: Kaohsiung officials invited spirits to `withdraw' spirit money offered for them at incinerators, where the smoke can be scrubbed for human lungs" by Chiu Yu-Tzu, Taipei Times, 16 August 2004

Hell Bank Note #3

But I like this description better than the "official" one:

The first report comes from Taiwan, where people traditionally burn paper "ghost money," which somehow reaches their dead ancestors, providing them with spending money in Heaven. But thanks to our huge balance of trade deficit, the Taiwanese apparently have so much money to burn that it is causing an air pollution problem.

So the city officials of Taipei came up with a brilliant alternative to ghost money. No doubt taking a cue from us Americans, who are experts in using credit cards to send our money up in smoke, they are now offering citizens a flammable "Kingdom of the Dead" credit card, which burns without creating pollution. A spokesman explained, "Like people, ghosts will find credit very convenient." Yes, they can now order their sheets direct from the Home Shopping Network! Frankly, when I heard about a government issuing a credit card that provides total security for your dead ancestors, I was incredulous. I couldn't believe that the Clintons hadn't thought of it first.

"The Skeptic&quot: The Newsletter of The North Texas Skeptics" Volume 7, Number 12, December 1993

Hell Bank Note #4

Most of the money images seen above comes from Randall van der Woning's blog.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Hell Bank Notes for Sale
  2. "Ghost Month Rites Calm Scientists' Consciences" The China Post, 15 August 15, 2000
  3. "UNSEEN AUDIENCE: Kaohsiung officials invited spirits to `withdraw' spirit money offered for them at incinerators, where the smoke can be scrubbed for human lungs" by Chiu Yu-Tzu, Taipei Times, 16 August 2004
  4. Randall van der Woning's blog entry on Hell Money

"Art is Anything You Can Get Away With."

Cover for The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan

Art is anything you can get away with.

— Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage, 1967

Art is Anything You Can Get Away With

Someday when I have some time, I'll have to write up why Marshall McLuhan not only continues to matter, but matters more now than ever. In the meantime, I thought I would share some of my readings into McLuhan's views on art, a subject near and dear to my heart. I'll start with his view on pop art:

When the industrial and mechanical environment first enveloped the old agrarian world, Nature became an art form for the first time. So did all the old crafts, the yokel, and even savage. The parallel, earlier, was the uplifting of the hunter to a snobbish, aristocratic status when the agrarian world took over as environment and the old hunting grounds became the "content" of new technology. When the industrial and mechanical age became environmental, the arts and crafts acquired a new snobbish, amateurish quality. They became the content of the mechanical age and were accorded the usual upgrading of status. When the electric technology enveloped the mechanical one, we were plunged into the world of machine as art form. Abstract art and functional architecture took over as mimetic repeats of old environment. Pop-Art is part of the same technological fugue.

The message and impact of the new environment is quite at variance with the content of new technology. The content is always the old technology, just as the novel was the content of the film when it was new. Now as film is processed by TV, the story line of the book form tends to disappear. The movie form now begins to acquire the nonnarrative structure of a Symbolist poem of a century before. There is thus no direct means of environmental awareness to be won from the consumer approach to such "art" activity. Indirectly, it is possible to construct the characteristic bias of the new environment from the current stock responses...

— Marshall McLuhan, Art News, May 1966

Cover for Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan

McLuhan then advanced into the art as a means to understand technology's impact upon society:

If men were able to be convinced that art is precise advance knowledge of how to cope with the psychic and social consequences of the next technology, would they all become artists? Or would they begin a careful translation of new art forms into social navigation charts? I am curious to know what would happen if art were suddenly seen for what it is, namely, exact information of how to rearrange one's psyche in order to anticipate the next blow from our own extended faculties.

— Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

The artist can correct the sense ratios before the blow of new technology has numbed conscious procedures. He can correct them before numbuess and subliminal groping and reaction begin. If this is true, how is it possible to present the matter to those who are in a position to do something about it? If there were even a remote likelihood of this analysis being true, it would warrant a global armistice and period of stock- taking. If it is true that the artist possesses the means of anticipating and avoiding the consequences of technological trauma, then what are we to think of the world and bureaucracy of "art appreciation"? Would it not seem suddenly to be a conspiracy to make the arust a frill, a fribble, or a Milltown? If men were able to be convinced that art is precise advance knowledge of how to cope with the psychic and social consequences of the next technology, would they all become artists? Or would they begin a careful translation of new art forms into social navigation charts? I am curious to know what would happen if art were suddenly seen for what it is, namely, exact information of how to rearrange one's psyche in order to anticipate the next blow from our own extended faculties. Would we, then, cease to look at works of art as an explorer might regard the gold and gems used as the ornaments of simple nonliterates?

At any rate, in experimental art, men are given the exact specifications of coming violence to their own psyches from their own counter- irritants or technology. For those parts of our selves that we thrust out in the form of new invention are attempts to counter or neutralize collective pressures and irritations. But the counter- irritant usually proves a greater plague than the initial irritant, like a drug habit. And it is here that the artist can show us how to "ride with the punch," instead of "taking it on the chin." It can only be repeated that human history is a record of "taking it on the chin."

Emile Durkheim long ago expressed the idea that the specialized task always escaped the action of the social conscience. In this regard, it would appear that the artist is the social conscience and is treated accordingly! "We have no art," say the Balinese; "we do everything as well as possible."

— Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

The reference to Emile Durkheim is particularly telling. Durkheim was a 19th century sociologist who wrote about such topics as the effects of industrialization upon society, including the division of labor upon the nature of meaningful and rewarding work and how a lack of meaning led to suicide. (I covered his concept of "anomie" in an earlier entry.) Without going into too much detail here, Durkheim labelled the values and behavior accepted by society as "normal" as the "collective conscience". (Jung reformulated this for his conception of the "collective unconscious." Which is where the NYC group Unconscience:Collective got its name.) I believe McLuhan is paraphrasing the concept into "social conscience." Anyway, occupations, according to Durkheim, falls into two types: homogenous (low skilled and generic) and heterogenous (specialized professionals). In this case McLuhan seems to be saying that artists define the social conscience, which, at first, appears to be outrageous. After all, just about every avante garde artist is labelled as deviant. And yet, without a short time, their work is mainstream. Go figure.

I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.

— Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964

O-Higan
(Transcendence of Opposites)

Butterfly Girl

O-Higan
(Transcendence of Opposites)

(This image graces the covers of the hand-made, limited-edition greeting cards I made for the Vernal Equinox, which is today. I thought that both it and the accompanying text were equally appropriate tos hare, so I'm reproducing the card.)

The Vernal Equinox demarcates equality between night and day; afterwards, light banishes darkness, and life again returns to the land. We celebrate this shift in the balance of light and dark, cold and warm, masculine and feminine, yin and yang. In Zen, the equilibrium of the equinoxes is named o-higan.

About the Photograph

I shot this, on film, at Wigstock 2004, NYC’s annual drag-queen festival in Tompkins Square Park. It was a miserable, rainy, gray day, and those backstage (I had a pass) crowded under a small tent to stay dry.

I love photographing drag queens, transsexuals, and transvestites because—beyond their life force, gender fluidity, and tromp l’oeil nature—they just adore the camera like nobody else, honey. During a brief lull in the rain I saw the butterfly girl. I smiled and gestured with my camera; she smiled back and posed. I had time only for a few shots before the crowd surged in again and made photography impossible.

Who better to embody the equality of masculine and feminine; the season’s transformation from drab, dormant chrysalis to brightly-decorated butterfly; and the conundrum underlying Chou’s question?

Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.

— Chuang Chou

Best Wishes for the Vernal Equinox,

Citizen Arcane

"A Jack Hammer Riveting Into Your Skull"

For those of you wavering on the question of Miles' sanity, this clinches it. Metal Machine Music is an hour's worth of the equivalent of a dentist's drill drilling into an infected tooth, a jack hammer riveting into your skull. Except it's perhaps less melodic than that. Miles has officially gone over the edge. You know the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard? This is worse -- a lot worse.

— Andy Whitman

Album Cover for Metal Machine Music (front)

I was passing by a bar around lunchtime and heard what could only be described as pure noise. But it wasn't just noise; something was hauntingly familiar. Then I realized what it was: Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. (I think the only drink they serve at that bar must be EverClear straight up with an Oxycontin chaser.) If you haven't ever heard this album you're missing... well, absolutely nothing. Yeah, I know, there are those who swear by it, but they use jackhammers by day and say "what?" by night. This is music that could be used to torture Iraqi detainees. In all fairness, however, it isn't pure noise and it did take some creativity to introduce that feedback. Reed obviously did all of this in a studio using instruments, and not actual machinery. So it is an exercise in creativity, but that doesn't mean I want to listen to it. (If you don't believe me, you should listen to some short snippets.) Anyway, here's some commentary on Metal Machine Music:

The album was a two-record set titled Metal Machine Music and was met with much derision from the record-buying public, who went back to their respective record stores in droves and demanded refunds, claiming the album was "defective."

...

Along with Igor Stravinsky's La Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), which caused a riot at its 1913 debut, Metal Machine Music is one of a handful of compositions to elicit an almost universally negative response from the public.

...

But the idea that Lou Reed then left the studio is false --- or, at the very least, if Lou Reed did leave, then somebody stuck around --- because there is a lot happening on this album. It sounds like Lou took some basic recordings of feedback and subjected them to all sorts of electronic manipulation [...]

...

In other words, as Harry Dean Stanton put it in the film Twister [a film from ca. 1990, not the more recent blockbuster]: "I suppose you can acquire a taste for anything, but why do it?" Or something like that.

Joe Castleman

8-Track Tape for Metal Machine Music (front)

8-Track Tape for Metal Machine Music (front)

The waves of distortion are a bit to get through, and by the time that the record has ended you know that you have completed quite a task. Your ears, if the piece is turned up loud, feel as though they have been through a war.

Stylus Magazine

8-Track Tape for Metal Machine Music (back)

8-Track Tape for Metal Machine Music (back)

Except to add, "I think my ear canals are bleeding...", what can I say about Metal Machine Music Part III (16:13) that hasn't already been said; it's densely scrawled in the same violent frenzy as the rest.

David J. Opdyke

I bet if you need it for your 8-track collection you can find it on eBay.

At the end of the finishing assault, Metal Machine Music Part IV, Reed had engineers create a locked groove so that the record literally wouldn't stop playing its final wrenching seconds until someone manually lifted the needle (or pulled the plug).

— David J. Opdyke

"I Was a Racketeer, a Gangster For Capitalism"

There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.

— Major General Smedley Butler, USMC, speech, 1933

Major General Smedley Butler, USMC

Major General Smedley Butler, USMC

There is an old saying in philosophy, cui bonum; literally, "who benefits?". The point is to ask, for any situation, who benefits from it. Asking that question about war is, to some extent, pointless, because we know who benefits: the military-industrial-political complex. It never met an armed conflict it didn't like. Today's blog entry contains words from a military man who understood the evils of war. Although his words are seventy years old, they are just as applicable today, if not more so.

Major General Smedley Darlington Butler was not a coward. A coward would not have received not one, but two medals of honor for acts of bravery during wartime, and would not have been widely respected and honored for his courage and valor. Neither was he a pacifist who favored appeasement at all costs. Such men do not serve in a variety of conflicts, nor do they rise to the rank of Major General, nor do they publically criticize fascists like Mussolini. General Butler was a soldier who came to loathe and despise war because he felt it served only to enrich the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the ordinary people: workers, families, and soldiers.

The United States Marine Corp's writeup on General Butler certainly establishes his bona fides to comment on the evils of war:

Major General Smedley Darlington Butler, one of the most colorful officers in the Marine Corps' long history, was one of the two Marines who received two Medals of Honor for separate acts of outstanding heroism.

He was not yet 20 when the citizens of his native West Chester, Pennsylvania, presented him with a sword on his return from the Boxer Rebellion in China. Some 50 years later that trophy was presented to the Marine Corps for permanent custody.

General Butler, later known to thousands of Marines as "Ol' Gimlet Eye," was born 30 July 1881. He was still in his teens when, on 20 May 1898, he was appointed a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps for the War with Spain.

Following a brief period of instruction at Washington, D.C., he served with the Marine Battalion, North Atlantic Squadron, until 11 February 1899, when he was ordered to his home and honorably discharged on 16 February 1899.

He was commissioned a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps on 8 April 1899; promoted to captain, 23 July 1900; to major, 13 May 1908; to lieutenant colonel, 1 August 1916; to colonel (temporary), 1 July 1918; to brigadier general (temporary), 7 October 1918; to colonel (permanent), 9 March 1919; to brigadier general (permanent), 4 June 1920; and to major general, 5 July 1929.

...

His first Medal of Honor was presented following action at Vera Cruz, Mexico, 21 and 22 April 1914, where he commanded the Marines who landed and occupied the city. General Butler (then a major) "was eminent and conspicuous in command of his Battalion. He exhibited courage and skill in leading his men through the action of the 22d and in the final occupation of the city."

The following year, he was awarded the second Medal of Honor for bravery and forceful leadership as Commanding Officer of detachments of Marines and seamen of the USS Connecticut in repulsing Caco resistance on Fort Riviere, Haiti, 17 November 1915.

During World War I, he commanded the 13th Regiment in France. For exceptionally meritorious service, he was awarded the Army Distinguished Service Medal, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, and the French Order of the Black Star. When he returned to the United States in 1919, he became Commanding General of the Marine Barracks, Quantico, Virginia, and served in this capacity until January 1924, when he was granted leave of absence to accept the post of Director of Public Safety of the City of Philadelphia. In February 1926, he assumed command of the Marine Corps Base at San Diego, California. In March 1927, he returned to China for duty with the 3d Marine Brigade. From April to 31 October he again commanded the Marine Barracks at Quantico. On 1 October 1931, he was retired upon his own application after completion of 33 years' service in the Marine Corps.

United States Marine Corp, History Division

Now it is time to consider what he said about war and who profits from it. This is excerpted from a speech he gave in 1933 before he had written his book, War is a Racket:

War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses.

I believe in adequate defense at the coastline and nothing else. If a nation comes over here to fight, then we'll fight. The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag.

I wouldn't go to war again as I have done to protect some lousy investment of the bankers. There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.

There isn't a trick in the racketeering bag that the military gang is blind to. It has its "finger men" to point out enemies, its "muscle men" to destroy enemies, its "brain men" to plan war preparations, and a "Big Boss" Super-Nationalistic-Capitalism.

It may seem odd for me, a military man to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulness compels me to. I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country's most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle- man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.

I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service.

I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

Major General Smedley Butler, USMC, speech, 1933

He went on to expand these ideas into a book. Here is the opening part. It is worth reading, even if it is similar to the speech because it could very well be describing the Iraq war:

War Is A Racket

It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.

A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small "inside" group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.

In the World War [I] a mere handful garnered the profits of the conflict. At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War. That many admitted their huge blood gains in their income tax returns. How many other war millionaires falsified their tax returns no one knows.

How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?

Out of war nations acquire additional territory, if they are victorious. They just take it. This newly acquired territory promptly is exploited by the few -- the selfsame few who wrung dollars out of blood in the war. The general public shoulders the bill.

And what is this bill?

This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.

War is a Racket, by Smedley Darlington Butler, 1935

His conclusions are as valid today as they were in 1935:

To summarize: Three steps must be taken to smash the war racket.

1. We must take the profit out of war.

2. We must permit the youth of the land who would bear arms to decide whether or not there should be war.

3. We must limit our military forces to home defense purposes.

War is a Racket, by Smedley Darlington Butler, 1935

Sources and Further Reading

  1. War is a Racket, by Smedley Darlington Butler, 1935
  2. War is a Racket, by Smedley Darlington Butler, 1935
  3. War is a Racket, by Smedley Darlington Butler, 1935
  4. "War is a Racket" speech by Major General Smedley Butler, USMC, 1933 (note: this is not the same as the previous links to books)

During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

— Major General Smedley Butler, USMC, speech, 1933

"Art is Something Subversive"

Pablo shook his head. "Kahnweiler's right," he said. "The point is, art is something subversive. It's something that should not be free. Art and liberty, like the fire of Prometheus, are things one must steal, to be used against the established order. Once art becomes official and open to everyone, then it becomes the new academicism." He tossed the cablegram down onto the table. "How can I support an idea like that? If art is ever given the keys to the city, it will be because it's been so watered down, rendered so impotent, that it's not worth fighting for."

I reminded him that Malherbe had said a poet is of no more use to the state than a man who spends his time playing ninepins. "Of course," Pablo said. "And why did Plato say poets should be chased out of the republic? Precisely because every poet and every artist is an antisocial being. He's not that way because he wants to be; he can't be any other way. Of course the state has the right to chase him away — from its point of view — and if he is really an artist it is in his nature not to want to be admitted, because if he is admitted it can only mean lie is doing something which is understood, approved, and therefore old hat-worthless. Anything new, anything worth doing, can't be recognized. People just don't have that much vision."

Francoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso, 1964

Midnight on the Coast Highway by HST

"Dr. Gonzo" by Ralph Steadman

"Dr. Gonzo" by Ralph Steadman

Midnight on the Coast Highway
Hunter S. Thompson, San Francisco, 1965

"All my life my heart has sought a thing I cannot name."

Months later, when I rarely saw the Angels, I still had the legacy of the big machine - four hundred pounds of chrome and deep red noise to take out on the coast highway and cut loose at three in the morning, when all the cops were lurking over on 101. My first crash had wrecked the bike completely and it took several months to have it rebuilt. After that I decided to ride it differently: I would stop pushing my luck on curves, always wear a helmet, and try to keep within range of the nearest speed limit ... my insurance policy had been cancelled and my driver's license was hanging by a thread.

So it was always at night, like a werewolf, that I would take the thing out for an honest run down the coast. I would start in Golden Gate Park, thinking only to run a few long curves to clear my head, but in a matter of minutes I'd be out at the beach with the sound of the engine in my ears, the surf booming up on the sea wall and a fine empty road stretching all the way down to Santa Cruz ... not even a gas station in the whole seventy miles; the only public light along the way is an all night diner down around Rockaway Beach.

There was no helmet on those nights, no speed limit, and no cooling it down on the curves. The momentary freedom of the park was like the one unlucky drink that shoves a wavering alcoholic off the wagon. I would come out of the park near the soccer field and pause for a moment at the stop sign, wondering if I knew anyone parked out there on the midnight humping strip.

Then into first gear, forgetting the cars and letting the beast wind out .. . thirty-five, forty-five ... then into second and wailing through the light at Lincoln Way, not worried about green or red signals but only some other werewolf loony who might be pulling out, too slowly, to start his own run. Not many of those - and with three lanes on a wide curve, a bike coming hard has plenty of room to get around almost anything - then into third, the boomer gear, pushing seventy-five and the beginning of a windscream in the ears, a pressure on the eyeballs like diving into water off a highboard.

Bent forward, far back on the seat, and a rigid grip on the handlebars as the bike starts jumping and wavering in the wind. Tail-lights far up ahead coming closer, faster, and suddenly - zaaapppp - going past and leaning down for a curve near the zoo, where the road swings out to sea.

The dunes are flatter here, and on windy days sand blows across the highway, piling up in thick drifts as deadly as any oil slick ... instant loss of control, a crashing, a cartwheeling slide and maybe one of those two inch notices in the paper the next day: "An unidentified motor-cyclist was killed last night when he failed to negotiate a turn on Highway 1."

Indeed ... but no sand this time, so the lever goes up into fourth, and now there is no sound except wind. Screw it all the way over, reach through the handlebars to raise the headlight beam, the needle leans down on a hundred, and wind burned eyeballs strain to see down the centerline, trying to provide a margin for the reflexes.

But with the throttle screwed on there is only the barest margin, and no room at all for mistakes. It has to be done right ... and thats when the strange music starts, when you stretch your luck so far that fear becomes exhilaration and vibrates along your arms. You can barely see at one hundred; the tears blow back so fast that they vaporise before they get to your ears. The only sounds are the wind and a dull roar floating back from the mufflers. You watch the white line and try to lean with it ... howling though a turn to your right, then to the left and down the long hill to the Pacifica ... letting off now, watching for cops, but only until the next dark stretch and another few seconds on the edge... . The Edge... . There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others - the living - are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to chose between Now or Later.

But the edge is still Out there. Or maybe it's In. The association of motorcycles with LSD is no accident of publicity. They are both a means to an end, to the place of definitions.

Torii! Torii! Torii!

Torii gates at Fushimi Inaria

Frantisek Staud's photograph of a huge torii gate

I came across a one-line reference comparing Christo and Jeanne-Claude's The Gates to the "torii" gates in Kyoto, Japan. Vaguely recollecting this term from the days I studied eastern philosophy, I was intrigued and did some digging. What I turned up as very interesting and, I think, sheds some additional light on the artistic meaning behind The Gates.

Torii gates at Fushimi Inaria

Masumi Abe's picture of torii gates over stairs

In Japan, the entrace to a sacred area is symbolically marked with a gate called a "torii" through which visitors walk. The literal translation of torii is "where the birds perch", since there are no doors and the area is open. The gate itself demarcates "profane space" from "sacred space". The Fushimi Inari shrine outside of Kyoto is filled with so many of these gates that they form tunnels through which people walk.

Tom Plant's photo of a torii tunnel

Tom Plant's photograph of a torii gate tunnel

These gates are, at the same time, remarkably similar to the Central Park ones yet totally different. (See the links at the end for numerous variations in styles; the color is similar to the orange used for the New York City installation.) Christo and Jean-Claude would, in all likelihood, be familiar with torii gates at Fushimi Inaria. (Their Umbrellas installation, for example, had two simultaneous sites, one in the United States and one in Japan; setting this up required extensive visits to Japan.) The Gates in Central Park, however, are — at least to me — very different, indeed, from torii gates, in that the Central Park gates are augmented with fabric. As a result, the paths are framed and accentuated in ways that are impossible with torii gates, and the fabric dances in the wind as if alive, eliminating the passive aspect and giving the whole project movement. This movement simply is not present in the Japanese version, which is more sedate and contemplative. Beyond that, The Gates are widely spaced so they are not confining and do not separate the visitor from nature; instead, they accentuate and enhance the natural beauty of the park by giving contrast. It's almost like how a printed design floats off the page until anchored with some containers.

I wish I had recalled the torii gates when I could have asked the Japanese visitors I photographed on Saturday — the ones with the art-installation made with oranges — what their thoughts were. In any event, the deeper meaning of torii gates may have some bearing on the Central Park installation:

Torii gates are symbolic markers indicating the boundary between two kinds of space: profane space and sacred space. They are located at the entrances to shrines and temples, cemeteries, gardens, mountains and forests, harbors, villages, city wards, imperial residences and private homes. They are not really "gates" at all, as they rarely stand within a fence or wall and have no doors to open or close. But they represent invisible barriers between an inner world that is clean, pure, and bright and an outer world that is spiritually polluted and morally uncertain. As such, torii gates are powerful symbols of the way that Japanese organize the world, associating the inner with the sacred and the outer with the profane. The "inner" is peaceful, spontaneous, healthy, natural, simple and good; the "outer" is troubled, dirty, chaotic, ill, false and bad.

Torii gates are most often found at the entrances to shrines (jinja). Shinto shrines are sacred by definition, as they are habitations of the gods (kami). Kami, as mythic deities, ancestors, and spirits of nature, sanctify space by virtue of their physical presence, which is noted by symbols of demarcation: torii gates, corded ropes, cleared spaces, temples and altars. As simple as a stand of trees or a clearing in the woods, as ornate as a vast temple complex, Shinto shrines are sanctuaries from the pollution of the outside world. Their purity is ritually acknowledged through the performance of sacred dances, the recitation of mythic poetry, and the exorcistic activities of priests and shamans. The physical indication of the presence of kami gives Shinto its distinctively spatial dimensionality.

At many shrines, notably the Fushimi Inari jinja in Kyoto, the site is marked by a progression of torii gates, sometimes placed so closely together that they create a tunnel-like effect. Passing through these gates, there is a magical sense of deepening spirituality: a cleansing of outer pollution and a growing awareness of inner purity.

Dimensions of Sacred Space in Japanese Popular Culture, by Randall L. Nadeau, Trinity University

Except where does one go in New York City to find something sacred? Oh yeah. Maybe the place that sells Leonidis chocolate. Some women might consider that sacred. But definitely Katz's Deli. Their pastrami has just gotta be sacred to every New Yorker who isn't a vegetarian.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Dimensions of Sacred Space in Japanese Popular Culture, by Randall L. Nadeau, Trinity University
  2. Torii Gate in Tunnel Fashion
  3. Frantisek Staud's photograph of a huge torii gate
  4. Masumi Abe's picture of torii gates over stairs
  5. Line of Torii Gates
  6. My Kind of Kyoto, Torii Gates
  7. Tom Plant's photograph of a torii gate tunnel
  8. Savage Pencil's Photographs

The Fourth Man

I'm taking a break from putting photos of The Gates online. When I got back from the signing of New York Magazine by Christo and Jeanne-Claude — I'll blog that in a day or so — I was listening to the mess going on in Syria. (I generally try to avoid politics since the idiotic comments of der Fuhrer really annoy me.) Anyway, I was reminded of a poem by Constantine Cavafy, who is one of my favorite poets. This is not, perhaps, his best work, but it was appropriate given the day's events in Syria.

Oh, and I am often reminded of the poem's closing comment about employment. It seems I ended up getting similar employment choices, too.

They Should Have Provided

I have almost been reduced to a homeless pauper.
This fatal city, Antioch,
has consumed all my money;
this fatal city with its expensive life.

But I am young and in excellent health.
My command of Greek is superb
(I know all there is about Aristotle, Plato;
orators, poets, you name it.)
I have an idea of military affairs,
and have friends among the mercenary chiefs.
I am on the inside of administration as well.
Last year I spent six months in Alexandria;
I have some knowledge (and this is useful) of affairs there:
intentions of the Malefactor, and villainies, et cetera.

Therefore I believe that I am fully
qualified to serve this country,
my beloved homeland Syria.

In whatever capacity they place me I shall strive
to be useful to the country. This is my intent.
Then again, if they thwart me with their methods —
we know those able people: need we talk about it now?
if they thwart me, I am not to blame.

First, I shall apply to Zabinas,
and if this moron does not appreciate me,
I shall go to his rival Grypos.
And if this idiot does not hire me,
I shall go straight to Hyrcanos.

One of the three will want me however.

And my conscience is not troubled
about not worrying about my choice.
All three harm Syria equally.

But, a ruined man, why is it my fault.
Wretched man, I am trying to make ends meet.
The almighty gods should have provided
and created a fourth, good man.
Gladly would I have joined him.

"They Should Have Provided", Constantine P. Cavafy, 1930

Notes:

The Malefactor was the nickname for Ptolemy VII Euergetes, officially known "the Benefactor" who ruled Egypt from 145 to 116 BC with extreme cruelty.

Alexander II Zabinas, a nickname meaning "the bought one", had been an heir to the throne backed by the exiled Egyptian king Ptolemaios VIII Gryphon. After he defeated Demetrius Nicator he ruled parts of Syria from 129 to 123 BC, until killed by Antiochus VIII, nicknamed "Grypos" or "hooknose", who then ruled from 125 to 96 BC.

Ioannes Hyrcanos I, the son of Simon Maccabaeus, was the king and high priest of the Jewish empire from 134 to 104 BC. He fought the Greeks.

And Burroughs Said, Snick, Snick…Bang!
And there was art.

After a shooting spree, they always want to take the guns away from the people who didn't do it.

— William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs with shotgun

William S. Burroughs with Shotgun

10 Gauge City by William S. Burroughs

"10 Gauge City" by William S. Burroughs

In addition to being an avante garde writer, William S. Burroughs was also an avante garde artist:

Using a variety of tools like spatulas, Ouija board pieces, and even a .45 Smith and Wesson handgun, William S. Burroughs was always creating art.

...

Nelson said her favorite pieces in the exhibition are "Something New Has Been Added," the Steadman and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" artist, lithograph. Burroughs shot the lithograph six times with a .45 long colt Smith and Wesson handgun and then signed it.

Words, Guns and Art, by Tony Herrman, Kansas State Collegian, 18 September 2003

The discovery of the shotgun's potential as a paintbrush was purely accidental. But, then again, knowing how Burroughs lived, one could say his whole life was one creative accident, and that any day nobody died in the name of art was a good one. Anyway, Burroughs says he was shooting his shotgun — he loved guns, despite having killed his wife in a William-Tell style "accident" — at plywood. Finding the damage to be an intricate and attractive type of abstract art, he began loading shooting paint into shotgun shells and firing them into plywood and agumenting the splatters. Here's the actual process from someone who heard Burroughs describe it:

The gallery directors said something in French and then in English, and then Burroughs answered questions:

With a shotgun, yes.

Twelve-gauge.

No, you take the buckshot out, for god’s sake. You put the paint in the shells.

No, I only keep the good ones. I throw the others out.

Yes, you select the right part. You choose.

No, it’s not random.

Yes, the process is random. You can’t tell what you’ll see until you pull the trigger.

Well, no, you choose the right one. It’s not random. I choose the pictures I like. You have to do a lot before you get to the good ones.

Yes, it’s art.

Because I choose among them. Aren’t you listening? Every artist chooses. You choose all the time. That’s what art is.

Yes, I sign them. Jesus. No more questions.

"One Blow Job Away" by Michel Basilières, Maisonneuve Magazine, Issue 10, July 2004

William S. Burroughs and David Goodrich

William S. Burroughs and David Goodrich

The artist David Goodrich has an amusing anecdote about making shotgun art with Burroughs.

A bit later Burroughs gave me a call. He said that he’d done some experiments with shooting through magazine pages mounted to panels, and he liked the results. Therefore, he had decided, he would like to shoot my painting after all. I was elated. And so it was on Easter Sunday of ‘87 that he phoned and said he was in the mood to go shooting, and invited me along.

At his place we had to wait for Bill Rich to arrive. They had a shortage of shotgun shells, and, being Easter, there would be no place open to buy any. Therefore we stopped by the house of James Grauerholz on our way out of town, where I showed my painting to James, Michael, and some young girl that was there. We got our shells and went on to the Outhouse, a place outside of town, a small brick building, which, at the time, was a punk rock venue run by Bill Rich, I believe. They kept bails of hay there, which were used by Burroughs to lean panels against to accept the shot. He had a piece of his own to shoot, one of those 3-d postcards that he had attached to a panel. He shot this several times, once or twice with a splatter of paint. He had forgotten his staple gun, and so we had to beat nails into the panel with a rock we found to hold these baggies in place. Once he was happy with his project he offered to shoot mine, and so I pulled it from the trunk of my car. We beat a baggie of yellow paint onto the spot that I wanted shot, leaned it against the hay, and I stood back while the old guy put a hole right through it. He walked up to it, took a close look at the splatter he’d made, and said “It looks like an owl.”

We shot a few more things and I took a few photos, then we cleaned up our mess and I dropped him back at his place. Now I was happy. It had worked out just as I’d wanted.

David Goodrich's anecdote about making shotgun paintings with William S. Burroughs

Painting 'Something New Has Been Added' by Ralph Steadman

"Something New Has Been Added" by Ralph Steadman, 1995
Serigraph on paper with shotgun holes by WSB

Burrough's collaboration with the famed gonzo artist Ralph Steadman seems, at the same time, both obvious and peculiar.

In the late 1980s this life-long interest in visual art flared up in a series of surprisingly colourful, accessible and only-slightly-evening-classy paintings by Burroughs himself. Some consisted of painted plywood doors with jagged gunshot holes in them ... "The shotgun blast releases the little spirits compacted into the layers of wood, releases the colours of the paints to splash them out in unforseen images and patterns," he wrote. It is also, perhaps not irrelevantly, just about the most violent thing you can do to a painted surface without incinerating it completely.

...

The collaboration with Burroughs is a new way of nourishing his American roots. It was Steadman's idea. "I wanted to do a print with his express pleasure in mind," he says. He had met Burroughs only twice before, very briefly each time, but had long been a fan of his writing and also admired the shot-through doors which Burroughs exhibited in London in the 1980s. "My idea was that I make the print and he shoots the hell out of it and we sign it together."

Burroughs okayed the project, and the key meeting took place last May [1995] in Burroughs' clapboard house in the nondescript college town of Lawrence, Kansas, where he has lived for some 15 years. Meetings between celebrated artists must often be like this: swarms of assistants, acolytes, relatives, parasites, somebody taping the whole thing on video, another person with a Leica, flunkies, tripping over each other. Burroughs, bent double as he is, retains a jerky, relentless vigour, riffling through the prints Steadman has brought along, pulling revolvers out of his pocket and demonstrating the workings of the safety mechanisms, steadily chugging on a long beaker of vodka and Coke that is regularly replenished.

Bill and Ralph's Excellent Adventure by Peter Popham, The Sunday Review, 3 March 1996

Traveler on the Yellow Wave by William S. Burroughs

"Traveler on the Yellow Wave" by William S. Burroughs, 1982
Paint on Plywood with Shotgun holes.

But is it art? Is it acceptible to use tools to generate art? Of course it is; why wouldn't it be? There's a long tradition in using random processes to make art:

The first use of randomization in the arts that I am aware of is an invention by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart provides 176 measures of prepared music and a grid that maps the throw of a pair of dice, and a sequence number (first throw, second throw, etc) into the numbers 1 through 176. The player creates a composition by making a sequence of random dice throws, and assembling the corresponding measures in a sequential score. Perhaps Mozart knew intuitively that purely random music isn’t terribly interesting because he found a primitive way to mix order and disorder. The short pre-composed measures provide order, and the throw of the dice provide disorder.

Randomization in the arts came into its own primarily in the 20th century. As a young artist Elsworth Kelly used inexpensive materials such as children’s construction paper along with chance methods to create colorful collages. He was inspired to do this after observing the random patchworks that would develop in the repair of cabana tents on the French Rivera.

The writer William Burroughs famously used his Dada inspired “cut-up” technique to randomize creative writing. Less well known are Burroughs experiments in visual art using shotgun blasts to randomly scatter paint on, and partially destroy, plywood supports.

Occasionally Carl Andre would use a random spill technique rather than his more typical highly ordered assembly system.

Certainly one of the most famous advocates for the random selection of sounds in music was John Cage.

In the era of computer-generated art the use of pseudo-random number generators becomes perhaps the most popular digital generative technique.

"What is Generative Art? Complexity Theory as a Context for Art Theory" by Philip Galanter

Generative art can be used to attack these fundamental points head on. First, generative artists can explore form as something other than arbitrary social convention. Using complex systems artists can create form that emerges as the result of naturally occurring processes beyond the influence of culture and man.

Second, having done this, generative artists can demonstrate by compelling example reasons to maintain faith in our ability to understand our world. The generative artist can remind us that the universe itself is a generative system. And through generative art we can regain our sense of place and participation in that universe.

"What is Generative Art? Complexity Theory as a Context for Art Theory" by Philip Galanter

Cover for Seven Deadly Sins book

TitleThe Seven Deadly Sins
AuthorWilliam S. Burroughs
ISBN0934953368
PublisherWater Row Books

Color plates, each illustrating one of the seven deadly sins, with accompanying text. Art was produced using a twelve-gauge shotgun technique on mylar and wood blocks.

TitleConcrete & Buckshot: William S. Burroughs Paintings 1987-1996
AuthorTimothy Leary and Benjamin Weissman
ISBN1889195014
PublisherSmart Art Press

This catalogue focuses on Burroughs’s achievement as a painter and includes concrete poetry written by legendary twentieth-century philosopher cum pop-culture guru Timothy Leary shortly before his death. Adding meat to this Burroughs/Leary sandwich is artist and writer Benjamin Weissman’s "Sad but Happy," a Burroughs-esque literary adventure into the dark side.

Smart Art Press caption for Concrete and Buckshot

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Bill and Ralph's Excellent Adventure by Peter Popham, The Sunday Review, 3 March 1996
  2. What is Generative Art? Complexity Theory as a Context for Art Theory by Philip Galanter
  3. Words, Guns and Art, by Tony Herrman, Kansas State Collegian, 18 September 2003
  4. Smart Art Press caption for Concrete and Buckshot
  5. Concrete & Buckshot: William S. Burroughs Paintings 1987-1996 by Timothy Leary and Benjamin Weissman
  6. The Seven Deadly Sins by William S. Burroughs

Yes, it’s art. Because I choose among them. Aren’t you listening? Every artist chooses. You choose all the time. That’s what art is.

William S. Burroughs, "One Blow Job Away" by Michel Basilières, Maisonneuve Magazine, Issue 10, July 2004

Anomie and Anarchy
Living Together in Dysfunctionality

The word anomie comes from the Greek anamos, meaning "without law". It means a lack of social or ethical standards in an individual or group. This is what people mean when they talk about "anarchy". Think downtown Iraq or anything inside the Washington Beltway and you'll get the general idea. The key element of anomie is that it is an unraveling of the social contract and the rules of society, and not in a way that promotes freedom or individuality. Rather, it is the endless rise of entropy, the enemy of civilization.

Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist, introduced the concept of anomie in his book The Division of Labour in Society, published in 1893. He used anomie to describe a condition of deregulation that was occurring in society. This meant that rules on how people ought to behave with each other were breaking down and thus people did not know what to expect from one another. Anomie, simply defined, is a state where norms (expectations on behaviours) are confused, unclear or not present. It is normlessness, Durkheim felt, that led to deviant behaviour. In 1897, Durkheim used the term again in his study on Suicide, referring to a morally deregulated condition. Durkheim was preoccupied with the effects of social change. He best illustrated his concept of anomie not in a discussion of crime but of suicide.

Durkheim's Anomie

The word anarchy comes from the Greek anarkhia, meaning "without rulers". The vernacular uses it to mean lawlessness or a state of chaos, such as accompanies rioting or looting; the true meaning, however is quite different: a lack of rulers, not a lack of rules. (Measuring devices still exist under anarchy, so do not despair.) So comments like, "Anarchy - it's not the law, it's just a good idea." are structurally incorrect, no matter how clever they may be. The famous case of Sacco and Vanzetti springs to mind whenever anyone mentions anarchists. (Well, that and the WTO meeting in Seattle.) The specifics of the case aren't particularly relevant for the definition here, but some of the words of Sacco and Vanzetti serve to illustrate the distinction between anarchy and anomie:

Oh friend, the anarchism is as beauty as a woman for me, perhaps even more, since it include all the rest and me and her. Calm, serene, honest, natural, vivid, muddy and celestial at once, austere, heroic, fearless, fatal, generous and implacable-all these and more it is.

Nicola Sacco, Italian Anarchism in America: An Historical Background to the Sacco-Vanzetti Case by Paul Avrich

I am and will be until the last instant (unless I should discover that I am in error) an anarchist communist, because I believe that communism is the most humane form of social contract, because I know that only with liberty can man rise, become noble, and complete.

Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian Anarchism in America: An Historical Background to the Sacco-Vanzetti Case by Paul Avrich

Oh, and as long as we're on words that start with "a" and concern lawlessness, here's another good one: amok. This one comes to us from the Malysian, where it means a brooding despair punctuated by frenzied, uncontrolled violence. Sort of like what happens when England loses a soccer match to, oh, say, Pakistan.

The cbs [culture-bound syndrome] of "amok" has been known for many centuries in the Malaysian culture (Knecht, 1999). The syndrome has been defined as an episode of dissociation (Suryani & Jensen, 1993) and is often characterized by "a sudden rampage, usually including homicide, ending in exhaustion and amnesia" (Hatta, 1996). Typically seen as a Malaysian cbs, "amok" has been further documented in India, New Guinea, North America and Britain (Kon, 1994). Hawaii has been seen as the melting pot of the pacific with many cultures merging and yet remaining distinct. The legal defense of "amok" was utilized for a Filipino-American that had killed five people and injured three others. Orlando Ganal Sr. (Honolulu Advertiser, 1991) was enraged by his wife’s reported relationship with another man, shot and killed his wife’s parents and wounded his own wife and son. Ganal continued to firebomb the home of the other man’s brother, Michael Touchette, killing Michael, Michael’s two children and badly burning his wife, Wendy Touchette. Ganal was seen as a mild mannered man, until the stress grew and he finally "ran amok."

International Society for the Study of Dissociation

If Writers Weren’t Paid by the Word

Still from "The Incredible Shrinking Man", 1957

Still from The Incredible Shrinking Man, 1957

Glyn Hughes has done the world a service by squashing books; that is, distilling the essense from the major works in philosophy to make them far more accessible and easier to read. (No, we're not adopting that philosophy for Citizen Arcane. So sorry. Actually, so not sorry.)

The author explains the project's laudable purpose:

Unfortunately, life is rather short, the little storeroom of the brain doesn't have extensible walls and the greatest of thinkers seem to also be among the worst, and the lengthiest, of writers. So, most knowledge of Plato or Hume or Aristotle tends to come second-hand, unfortunately too often through masters more filled with pompous pleasure in their own mastery of complexity than with knowledge of their subject. Which is a pity, because your Prince, whether they call themselves President or King or Prime Minister, has almost certainly read Machiavelli. Your therapist is steeped in Freud, your divines in Augustine. Lawmakers take their cues still from Paine, Rousseau and Hobbes. Science looks yet to Bacon, Copernicus and Darwin.

So, here are the most used, most quoted, the most given, sources of the West. The books that have defined the way the West thinks now, in their author's own words, but condensed and abridged into something readable.

I'd like to say that the selection was far from arbitrary; that thousands of papers and essays and articles were scanned to find which great works were most commonly cited, which prescribed to students, which have the most published editions. The shades of these authors were invoked no less than 588 times in the last decade in the British parliament. Plato's Republic, and assorted commentaries, has 1722 editions, and that's just in English, and just in print at the moment. Machiavelli gets mention in just over a quarter of a million websites. Thomas Paine's name has appeared 186,526 times to the US House of Representatives. And so on. It is true that all this research has been done, but, the choice has, ultimately, to be a personal one.

...

And there's something more. By compressing these books to a tenth or so of their original size it becomes possible to read the whole thing as a single narrative, as the story of Western Thought, the story of how we got where we are now, the last chapter still waiting to be written. Is it cheating? Perhaps, but if it is, then so is reading Plato in anything other than unical Attic on papyrus.

Glyn Hughes Squashed Philosophers

As I leafed read through the squashed Tractatus Logico Philosophicus — I adore Wittgenstein, which probably comes as no surprise to you, dear reader — I again encountered one of my favorite quotes: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." Ahhh, yes, how true, how true. (I, of course, never paid attention to it.) I closed my Master's thesis with this very quote. Again, no surprise to those who know me. But I wouldn't want to slight another observation of Wittgenstein:

There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, Proposition 6.522

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