Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A Savage War (2016)

Williamson Murray and Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh, A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.

The authors provide a refreshing overview of the American Civil War through the lens of military history. They consider generalship, logistics, historical context and continued relevance. A few snippets are in order.

"Of all the generals in the war [Ulysses S.] Grant is both the most interesting and the most difficult to discern, because behind his mask of simplicity lay an understanding of war that few generals in history have equaled." (page 534).  

A Savage War highlights Grant's success in the Western Theatre, as well as ideas he put forth that would probably have shortened the war, had they been approved. For example, he wished to send forces to seize Mobile, Alabama, and Raleigh, North Carolina, much sooner than finally authorized. It also emphasizes the dramatic Union successes in the coordinated 1865 campaigns, usually overlooked or underplayed by those with Confederate sympathies.  

A Savage War also takes a sophisticated approach to General Joseph Eggleston Johnston, "the great puzzle among the Confederate commanders." (page 539).  
"[O]nly Johnston seems to have had some glimmerings that defensive operations offered up substantial possibilities of success at the strategic level." (page 547). And: "In the end Johnston proved the greatest master of defensive warfare -- but that skill put him out of touch with the larger culture of Southern white society." (page 540). 

There's much more ground to cover -- perhaps starting in a future post. Bottom line: if you want to catch a glimpse into modern (and timeless) military thinking as reflected through the American Civil War, A Savage War is worthy of your attention. The American Civil War reminds us that Americans, when driven into a frenzy, are quite adept at killing each other, and they (aka we) always have been. 

Today's Rune: Possessions. 

Thursday, June 08, 2017

James Baldwin and Raoul Peck: 'I Am Not Your Negro' (2016)

James Baldwin's words, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, directed by Raoul Peck and intermixed with intense archival footage, underscore the importance and relevance of I Am Not Your Negro (2016) in the 21st century. 

Very little has been resolved since Baldwin (1924-1987) drafted Remember This House (just published in 2017) in the decade prior to his death. 

Through consideration of the outstanding lives and violent deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., Baldwin expounds upon race and identity in the United States to great effect.

A couple of snippets, as narrated by Jackson:  "In the years in Paris, I had never been homesick for anything American. Neither . . . hot dogs, baseball, majorettes, [Hollywood] movies, nor the Empire State Building, nor Coney Island, nor the Statue of Liberty, nor the daily news, nor Times Square. All of these things had passed out of me. They might never have existed, and it made absolutely no difference to me if I never saw them again. But I missed my brothers and sisters, and my mother. They made a difference. I wanted to be able to see them, and to see their children."

"To look around the United States today is enough to make prophets and angels weep. This is not the land of the free. It is only very unwillingly and sporadically the home of the brave."

The cadences of Baldwin's sentences stick with me. He is still right: the USA will not be anywhere near true to its ideals until a critical and diverse mass of its people can be honest about race and history. 

It's easy to see in other countries -- such as when the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge -- and outright assaults -- anyone who even suggests that previous Turkish governments directed genocide against Turkey's Armenians (1914-1923); while any neutral observer would also see that frank acknowledgement is a surer way forward toward conciliation than denial. Yet as long as a significant subset of white America refuses to accept a fuller history of the United States, screeching the same kind of belligerent denials as come from the Turkish government; and, perhaps, also out of an ugly stubbornness; so long as this contra attitude persists, we shall remain stuck in limbo.   

Today's Rune: Protection. 

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

'The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington' (2017)

The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. Inroduction by Kathryn Davis. Translations from the French by Kathrine Talbot (and Marina Warner), and from the Spanish by Anthony Kerrigan. St. Louis: Dorothy, a publishing project, 2017. 

Published on the occasion of the centenary of the birth of Leonora Carrington (April 6, 1917-May 25, 2011).

As the back cover quip by surrealist Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel notes of Leonora Carrington's stories: "Her delirious fantasy reveals to us a little of the secret magic of her paintings." 

The collection is divided into three main sections: 
THE HOUSE OF FEAR (six stories)
THE SEVENTH HORSE (sixteen stories)

These strange tales are made stranger still by Carrington's understated approach to the macabre. We are invited into her dreamscape and become as if characters in her visual art. Is this a dream or a nightmare? 

Here's a brief snippet from "Monsieur Cyril de Guindre."  Make of it what you will:

     '"Precious mummy," he murmured, laughing. "Who knows? Won't you have fun after all?"
     Slowly he went down the marble staircase.' (page 82).

One of the eeriest stories is "Pigeon, Fly!" There is supposed to be a song with this title, but so far all I can find along these lines is Elton John's (and Bernie Taupin's) "Skyline Pigeon." I'll keep looking. 

But here is a sentence from the story version: "I followed the enormous walking wig like a sleepwalker." (page 66). Who knows? Maybe soon, you will, too. 

Today's Rune: Flow. 

Monday, June 05, 2017

Leonora Carrington: 'Down Below' (1943, 1987, 2017)

In Down Below (1943, 1987, 2017), Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) provides a vivid and harrowing account of the artist's descent into madness in the wake of the German occupation of France in 1940, which also brought about the end of her most intimate time spent with German artist Max "Loplop" Ernst (1891-1976), who in the middle of all this ditched his wife and her and the oncoming Nazis for Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) and New York City. Leonora eventually settled in Mexico, where she expanded her surrealistic vision. 

"Note on the Text" (page 69). Carrington wrote up the original draft in 1942 in New York City; the draft, apparently lost or destroyed, was first translated into French by one person and then translated back into English by another. Finally, in 1987, this third variation of the original text was "reviewed and revised for factual accuracy by Leonora Carrington . . ." 

Down Below, at 68 pages, is a fast and furious read -- just what the Surrealist doctor ordered. It should be noted that Carrington's ordeal was made much more agonizing by the treatment she received at the hands of various and sundry "mental health workers." 

Leonora Carrington, Down Below. Introduction by Marina Warner. New York: New York Review of Books, 2017. 

Today's Rune: Journey

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Andrei Tarkovsky: Андрей Рублев / 'Andrei Rublev' (1966)

Andrei Tarkovsky's Андрей Рублев / Andrei Rublev (1966) plunges us into Russian devotion and turmoil in the early 1400s. This astonishing mostly black and white film carves out a place for cinema as distinct from other forms of art.  It is highly esoteric, in this way rivaling films by Werner Herzog and Jean-Luc Godard. A list of its closest cousins would include Ingmar Bergman's Det sjunde inseglet / The Seventh Seal (1957) and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).  
Steve Rose's "Andrei Rublev: The best arthouse film of all time" (The Guardian, October 20, 2010) covers the film nicely: "For the next three hours, we're down in the muck and chaos of medieval Russia, carried along on the tide of history through gruesome Tartar [Tatar] raids, bizarre pagan rituals, famine, torture and physical hardship. We experience life on every scale, from raindrops falling on a river to armies ransacking a town, often within the same, unbroken shot. . .  At times the screen resembles a vast Brueghel painting come to life, or a medieval tapestry unrolling."

For the full article, here is a link.
The Russian medieval backdrop is wild: historically, the Tatar raids and invasions lasted for something like five centuries. If anyone wants to understand the Russian psyche, think about that! There was no savior to get them out of it, no "7th Cavalry." It was what is was: grim and provisional, the Myth of Sisyphus writ large.

All the while, the Tatars were basically enjoying themselves, not unlike the Vikings: raiding, plundering, regrouping, then raiding again. Tarkovsky is masterful at showing them in action: they ride into a village, then with great relaxation almost, they go about wrecking things, killing some people, carrying off others, joking all the way. It's an absolute nightmare for homebodies. They leave things only partially destroyed. Why? So the villagers can repair the damage and then be raided again by the same or different Tatars. 
Here, the aftermath of a Tatar raid. A church is torn up and burning, while Andrei Rublev is left to pray. If you look carefully, you can see a black cat enter from the right side of the screen. Horses had trampled through earlier. Beautiful icon paintings are going up in smoke. 
In the end, looking back from the 21st century, the Tatar raids were finally put to an end. Some of Andrei Rublev's icon paintings remain, and they are beautiful. Is life on earth worth it? You tell me.  

Today's Rune: Harvest.  

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

'Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary' (2016)

Made a pilgrimage to the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff to see John Scheinfeld's Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary (2016). I wanted to see and hear Coltrane on the big screen. Well worth the extra effort.

The film is partly about the man and the musician, whose 1965 album A Love Supreme usually makes it into the top five jazz recordings of all time (that is, since electronic recordings began in earnest around the time of World War I). The film is also about Coltrane's impact on various people and their evolving ways of perceiving the world, plus more specifically his influence on musicians of various genres.
From the first time I listened to a John Coltrane recording, in my mid-teens, I've been hooked. Even now, I've got a framed album cover of Giant Steps in my work office and a framed cover of Blue Train at home. I've got three copies of A Love Supreme. I also dig Alice Coltrane, who continued down his mystical path after John's death in 1967 at the age of forty.

The most interesting surprise to me about Chasing Trane is a side trip to Japan, during Coltrane's last extended tour, and his visit to the Nagasaki atomic bombing memorial, and the enthusiastic Japanese response. 
The Texas Theatre is where Lee Harvey Oswald was nabbed on November 22, 1963, shortly after 1:40 p.m. A strange feeling to be seeing a John Coltrane documentary in this place on John Fitzgerald Kennedy's 100th birthday. But fitting, because Trane's music provides a portal to places far beyond our typical experience of space and time. 

Today's Music: Flow.  

Friday, May 26, 2017

Anne Trubek, 'The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting' (Part III)

Xerox Print Ad, 1976: Brother Dominic and the 9200.
Anne Trubek, The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Next we come to Chapter 4: "HUMAN XEROX MACHINES." In which Trubek describes monastic scribes and the process of copying ancient and newer texts.

A touch of weirdness here. "We are not sure exactly when silent reading developed, but . . . Saint Augustine [354-430 A.D.] described being shocked to find his friend, Ambrose [circa 340-397 A.D.], reading without saying the words out loud. The move from spoken to silent reading, like so much in this history, moved from being primarily oral to being more text based . . . Once silent reading became the norm, the scriptoria went quiet. The Church started using silence as a form of devotion and discipline, and to this day many monasteries require absolute silence." (page 42).  

Whoah. This is hard to believe, that people functioned like talking audio books when they read. Assuming that people must have been thinking silent thoughts as well as talking aloud, surely there were also people who could do the same with reading. Intriguing, though. Perhaps they whispered or muttered insensibly, sounding like babblers to anyone nearby to throw them off when they were reading the medieval version of Lady Chatterley's Lover.  
Silent thinking and reading are essential to personal autonomy and freedom. This is why "truth serum" and "lie detectors" are so useful to dictators and spy agencies. If you can safeguard your thoughts and dreams, you can remain free, at least in your mind.

Chapter 5: "THE POLITICS OF SCRIPT." Here we see the eventual addition of lower case words, for as Trubek points out: "The Romans wrote only in capitals." (page 47).

After various different types of scripts were developed, tried, discarded or modified, sometimes revived for artistic flourish (as is true still in the 21st century), scripts moved in our direction. The printing press would accelerate this process through greater standardization.

"Medieval scripts carry cultural meaning: Uncial was designed to distinguish Christianity from Rome, whereas humanist script self-consciously referred back to . . . that same Rome. To most of us [now], humanist is easier to read . . . because it is more familiar,  not because it is intrinsically more legible." (page 58).

Today's Rune: Growth.