Monday, October 29, 2012


Surrealism: Desire Unbound, a 2002 catalogue (edited by Jennifer Mundy) of an exhibition at the Tate Modern and the Met, is a well illustrated, theoretically sophisticated, and absolutely essential book about this often misunderstood Modernist movement. It is that rare--indeed, almost unknown--thing in the contemporary artworld, an exhibition catalogue interesting enough to be read more than once. Consisting of scholarly essays on various aspects of the movement, it presents not a narrative history but a thematic survey focusing on the artists' transformations of erotic desire. Unsurprisingly, the theoretical take tends toward Lacan and Bataille, but the authors' interpretations resist dogmatism and revel in complexity, as worthwhile scholarship always should. More important and provocative than the essays, though, are the illustrations, many of which are marvelous. The full-page photograph of Meret Oppenheim's My Nurse from the Moderna Museet in Stockholm shows it to be an object much more multifaceted and polymorphously perverse than her better- known Le dejeuner en fourrure, the fur-covered teacup at MOMA. The large reproduction of Man Ray's great photograph of Oppenheim as phallic woman, Veiled Erotic, is endlessly fascinating, as are the photos of works by Hans Bellmer, Alberto Giacometti, Louise Bourgeois and Joseph Cornell, the last an artist whose works' multi-dimensionality usually resists photographic treatment. There's also an excellent reproduction here of a work very well-known, Magritte's The Rape, an image that should never cease to disturb and provoke. Overall, this catalogue is a fine antidote to the popular tendency to see Surrealism as the whacked-out comic relief side of High Modernism, HighMod for stoners, too 'far out, man' to deserve sustained attention. The artworks the Surrealists created are both more serious and more deeply, distressingly comic than that. Study the illustrations in this catalogue and you'll see what I mean.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Moment of Truth

Last night on MSNBC's The Ed Show, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a Republican supporting President Obama, added a rare note of blunt truth to our nation's political discourse:

Col. Wilkerson's words about the current Republican Party deserve repetition:

Let me just be candid: My party is full of racists, and the real reason a considerable portion of my party wants President Obama out of the White House has nothing to do with the content of his character, nothing to do with his competence as commander-in-chief and president, and everything to do with the color of his skin, and that's despicable.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


Of all the novels frequently cited as exemplary masterpieces of Modernism (a list that also includes Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, To The Lighthouse, Berlin Alexanderplatz, The Master and Margarita, The Great Gatsby, etc.), The Magic Mountain impresses me least. After spending a week at the International Sanatorium Berghof (cough, cough), I left that mythical institution never to return. I concluded early in my reading that Mann was indulging--in a manner much more subtle and refined than David Foster Wallace's--the fallacy of imitative form: writing boringly about boredom, statically about stasis, etc. In so doing, he constructs  a novel that's longer and duller than it has any reason to be. The Magic Mountain is one of the major disappointments of my reading life. (Perhaps I read it too late. It should probably be read around age 20--just as On The Road should probably be read at age 17--for if the reading is delayed into middle age, the reader will expect too much.) Which is not to say the novel is devoid of interest. There are some very good parts: the 'Snow' chapter, Herr Naphta, Hippe and the pencil motif, the climactic duel (bit of a 19th-century cliche, that; Mann is the most 19th-century of major twentieth-century novelists), the X-ray scene, several other scenes and passages. But these are all like Alpine peaks snowbound amidst too much deliberate tedium. The Magic Mountain might be interpreted as an anti-novel, a book written against itself and against a culture in which people have the luxury to read 706-page philosophical novels while the world crashes around them. The extent to which Mann's text supports such a reading is unclear to me, and since I wasn't impressed enough to re-read the book, it will likely remain so. But the narrator and his tone would probably be the interpretive crux of such a reading: that tone of annoying, deliberately irritating irony. The Magic Mountain might be interestingly read as a book written against its readers--but not by me. My ticket out of the Alps was strictly one-way.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Wily Willard and Slippery Mitt

Long ago in a state as strange as Michigan, two boys were born to the Romney clan. One was named Wily Willard; the other they christened Slippery Mitt.

Wily Willard was the son of a penniless refugee from Mexico; Slippery Mitt was born with a silver car elevator in his house.

Wily Willard was an upright youth, spartanly free of intoxicating substances; Slippery Mitt was an assaulter of longhairs (and perhaps even a drinker of tea).

Wily Willard fulfilled his religious obligations through missionary work and piously supported the Vietnam War; Slippery Mitt dodged the Vietnam draft by taking Joe Smith's gospel to the Champs-Elysees.

Wily Willard scared his dog shitless atop the family car; Slippery Mitt denied ever owning a dog.

Wily Willard became the Brain of Bain; Slippery Mitt donned suspenders and played Gordon Gekko.

Wily Willard bought failing corporations and transformed them into cash; Slippery Mitt bought successful corporations and translated them into Chinese.

Wily Willard wants everyone to know he helmed the Salt Lake City Olympics; Slippery Mitt hopes everyone has forgotten the bribery scandals.

Wily Willard called blind trusts "an age-old ruse" and explained exactly why they are never blind; Slippery Mitt used the 'blind trust' ruse in a presidential debate.

Wily Willard was "a severely conservative governor of Massachusetts" (cue raucous laughter); Slippery Mitt is a moderate in October and a reactionary in March.

Wily Willard is a "car guy" whose "dad ran an automobile company"; Slippery Mitt wanted to "let Detroit go bankrupt." (Can you spell 'Oedipus,' boys and girls?)

Wily Willard has decades of secret tax returns; Slippery Mitt has nothing to hide, so he's keeping it hidden.

Wily Willard has uncounted millions in Cayman Islands accounts; Slippery Mitt prefers Swiss banks and Chinese factories.

Wily Willard wants to be "a president off the 100 percent"; Slippery Mitt considers half the American population a horde of parasites.

Wily Willard is a self-made man; Slippery Mitt is an upper-class twit.

Wily Willard wants to restart the neo-con war machine; Slippery Mitt says the word 'peace' whenever Frank Luntz orders him to.

Wily Willard is a man of principle who "knows what it takes"; Slippery Mitt is an all-you-can-eat buffet of empty rhetoric.

Wily Willard can convincingly portray a human being; Slippery Mitt can't move in the morning until Ann inserts a Krugerrand into the slot between his shoulder blades.

Tragically, this list could go on forever. The idea that either of these assholes might raise his hand and take an oath at the Capitol in January scares the unholy fucking bejesus out of me.