Thursday, January 1, 2009


A new year deserves a new font; Mindful Pleasures needs a typeface slightly more readable than last year's, with more distinct commas, periods and semicolons. Since the comma is my god and the semicolon my demigod, this matter is crucial. Here's hoping everyone prefers Verdana to the old Times.

Among my resolutions for 2009, I pledge to do everything within my admittedly slight powers to make the following three old dead artists better known:

SALVATOR ROSA (1615-73) was an Italian painter of the Baroque era. If you've been to any of the world's great art museums, you've undoubtedly walked past his paintings. Next time, stop and look. Rosa's marvelous, moody, proto-Romantic landscapes influenced 18th-century notions of the Sublime, and the London National Gallery's unforgettable Self-Portrait is a great portrait of the artist as judge, weighing his fellow men and women in the balance and finding them wanting. Rosa paints himself half-length against a grey sky; one hand rests on a tablet upon which is inscribed the Latin phrase Aut tace, aut loquere meliora silentio, "Either be silent, or speak things better than silence." I've never seen a painting by Rosa that was less than interesting (although he was a prolific and diverse artist, so I'm sure there are some duds out there). It's high time for one of the major museums (London National, Met, Louvre, Uffizi) to host a Rosa retrospective. Let's give this unknown-except-to-specialists master the respect he deserves.

GEORGE OPPEN (1908-1984) was an American poet who seems to have slipped back into obscurity in the years since his death. This fate probably wouldn't have surprised or much bothered Oppen, a lifelong left-wing activist who spent much of his life not writing but doing what philistines call ''real work": union organizing, working at an auto plant, fighting in WWII (he was a highly decorated soldier in the European theater), building houses, partnering in a small furniture business. But the other, more literary side of Oppen's life deserves to be remembered and read. For me, the stand-outs among his works are two long poems, "Route" (his great sui generis masterpiece) and "Of Being Numerous." The former begins:

"Tell the beads of the chromosomes like a rosary,
Love in the genes, if it fails

We will produce no sane man again..."

It also contains a couple of typically concise statements of Oppen's poetics: "I have not and never did have any motive of poetry / But to achieve clarity" and the brilliant "Words cannot be wholly transparent. And that is the / 'heartlessness' of words." The high point of "Route," though--and possibly the best thing Oppen ever wrote--is the prose section describing the horrors of life in Alsace under the Nazi occupation. This section was my introduction to Oppen. I heard Paul Auster (who knew Oppen during the 1970s; hell, Auster knew everybody during the 1970s) read this section at a PEN event a couple years ago, and when he was finished I thought, "Whoa! What the hell was that?! And why haven't I ever read it?" I encourage anyone who has never read Oppen to check him out. I'll end this discussion with another quote from the man himself:

"Obsessed, bewildered

By the shipwreck
Of the singular

We have chosen the meaning
Of being numerous."

LUIS BUNUEL (1900-1983) was the greatest of all Surrealist filmmakers. I'm always surprised when I mention Bunuel to Americans and discover that their knowledge of him begins and ends with the eye-slicing scene in Un Chien Andalou. Outside the subtitle-loving subculture of foreign film buffs (I'm a charter member), Bunuel's career is pretty much unknown here in freedom's home and bravery's land (as Gore Vidal called it). It's time for a Great American Bunuel Revival (or Introduction, as the case may be). It should become common knowledge that Bunuel had a career as long as Hitchcock's, beginning in silents and ending in the Seventies, and directed films as brilliant (and in their own way more shocking) as any created by the master of suspense. The great works of his last two decades deserve to become at least as well-known on these shores as the films of Fellini, Bergman and Truffaut. I especially recommend Viridiana, The Phantom of Liberty, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Belle de Jour, The Milky Way and That Obscure Object of Desire. Seek them out. Check them out. You won't be disappointed.

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