Robert Fagles — the man behind Achilles — dies

achilles-florathexplora.jpgRobert Fagles, the New York Times reports, has died at home in Princeton, N.J., at 74. Cause of death, prostate cancer. Fagles’ translations of “The Iliad,” “The Odyssey” and “The Aeneid” in another time, a “classical” time, would have made him extremely famous. As it was, they sold millions of copies each and made life a lot easier for college students — who got to read Fagles’ direct, muscular, contemporary translations instead of fighting through Robert Fitzgerald (which I did). Not that there was anything wrong with Fitzgerald: Language and culture move along. Fagles was an update, a potent update. For me, “The Iliad” especially was impenetrable until I found his translation and then for the first time enjoyed it.

Translation is lovely, tricky business. Did Fagles give us a pristine “Iliad”? Impossible. Homer was already “difficult” for the Greeks in the Golden Age (according Bernard Knox, Fagles’ teacher and friend, in his introduction to Fagles’ “The Iliad”), full of archaic words and modes of expression. I guess I think of it as something vaguely “post-modern,” a pastiche of strange references and allusions, impossible for the non-scholar to understand. But Fagles’ version is what I would like it to be — tough-minded, clever, action-oriented, clear, rather like Odysseus himself. I think Fagles appreciates and shudders at Achilles at the same time, the power and the blood-lust mixed together.

Pick a random passage, Book 21 in this case:

And the god-sprung hero left his spear on the bank,
propped on tamarisks — in he leapt like a frenzied god,
his heart racing with slaughter, only his sword in hand,
whirling in circles, slashing — hideous groans breaking,
fighters stabbed by the blade, water flushed with blood.

Fagles gave us a great, strange Achilles. For that alone, I thank him, and I’m sorry for myself that he won’t be giving us more of the classical world.

Image courtesy of florathexplora on Flickr.

Deborah Jowitt out at Village Voice

images-21.jpgI heard from Art Scatter friend Tim DuRoche that the Village Voice has let go Deborah Jowitt, its dance critic of 40 years standing, along with film critic Nathan Lee. Confirmation comes from dance critic Elizabeth Zimmer at the Arts Journal. The only other source I could find on the internet was Gawker (sorry), but it seems to be true. According to Gawker, she will be able to freelance for the Voice. Perhaps she will.

As the print media disassembles itself, arts writing of all sorts has become an early casualty, even “popular arts” such as film. Every week, it seems, brings news on the newspaper business website Romenesko that another critic position has been eliminated at a major newspaper. And as Gawker points out, the alt.weeklies — and the Voice was the ur-alt.weekly — have not been immune. The Voice has previously discharged the eminent pop music critic Robert Christgau, after all. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times eliminated its dance critic position, leading Lewis Segal to take a buyout from the paper. Segal is an excellent critic, and the idea that the LAT Times will go without his writing is sad — there is great dance in LA.

Back to Jowitt, for a moment.
Continue reading Deborah Jowitt out at Village Voice

Gus Van Sant, vaguely artful

Gus Van Sant’s “Paranoid Park” has received mostly respectful reviews (see Rotten Tomatoes for a rundown of major reviewing activity on the film) from the nation’s movie critics, though not “glowing” or “excited” reviews. Most of them seem to get what Van Sant is up to — which is to give an atmospheric account of a horrific moment and its reverberations in an alienated teenager’s life. (The Oregonian’s Shawn Levy was among the most positive.) It’s a little too “arty” for some of them, with its fractured narrative line, scene repetitions and slow-motion, soft-focus sequences. But really, that’s what the film is about — to create an artistic affect, simple on the face of it but maybe profound and complex upon reflection. We’ll see.

“Paranoid Park,” which closely tracks the plot of Portland native Blake Nelson’s Young Adult novel (which I haven’t read), is a portrait of Alex (Gabe Nevins), a 16 or maybe 17-year-old kid in a small family that is breaking up. Van Sant doesn’t give us much background on Alex — he doesn’t have a psychological theory to explain him, no “causes” for his behavior, he doesn’t supply a case history. That’s OK, from a “coherence” point of view: Alex doesn’t have the equipment to analyze himself very thoroughly; and no one around him is interested enough to hazard a guess about what’s going on behind that placid (maybe slightly worried-looking) exterior. Except maybe for Macy (Lauren McKinney), his younger friend from down the street. More about her in a moment.

So, we don’t know exactly why Alex has started to get into skateboarding, what he was into before, what his status at school might be. We have to accept that he simply is into skateboarding, even though he’s not good at it yet. His friend Jared skateboards, too, and persuades him to visit Paranoid Park (the skater-constructed skate park under the Burnside Bridge, in actuality), where the best and scruffiest skaters hang out. Alex protests that he’s not ready for Paranoid Park, and Jared, in his one good line of the movie, replies: “No one’s ever ready for Paranoid Park.”
Continue reading Gus Van Sant, vaguely artful

Hemingway: Last Night in Havana

U.S. policy toward Cuba is depressing.

Fifty years ago there were high hopes in Cuba when Fidel Castro toppled the dictator Batista and ran out the American Mafia. But since then there has been a slow, steady descent into poverty and repression, the combined effect of the U.S. embargo and Castro’s ruthless system of concentration camps, forced-labor and re-education, supported by a network of secret police and informers. Recently, Castro was replaced by his brother Raul, and there was much speculation about “transition scenarios” and the usual saber-rattling from the administration about regime change, keeping hopes alive for the politically-active Cuban-American community that someday they’ll be able to reclaim the property Castro confiscated fifty years ago.

ernesthemingway.jpgBut there’s likely no going back in any sense. Consider the curious fate of Ernest Hemingway, always a revered local god in Cuba. His novels To Have and Have Not, The Old Man and the Sea, and Islands in the Stream reflect the sun-soaked, elemental, sometimes violent sense of adventure he found in pre-Castro Cuba. His estate on the edge of Havana, Finca Vigia, or “Look-out Farm,” where he lived for more than two decades, is now a state-run museum, housing thousands of books and dozens of paintings he collected, as well as many heads of animals he killed on safari.

Finca Vigia is the setting for Leonardo Padua Fuentes’ entertaining novel Adios Hemingway (Cannongate, 2005). As the story opens in the year 2000, ex-cop Mario Conde returns to duty to investigate the discovery of a skeleton and FBI badge that have washed up in the garden during a violent storm. It’s quickly established that the man was murdered some forty years before, during Hemingway’s last months in Cuba. Suspicion falls on the famous author because it was then that he abruptly left Cuba to resettle in Ketchum, Idaho, where he killed himself in 1961.
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Surveillance: From Barbed Wire to the Invisible Prison

Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you got no secrets
To conceal.

Bob Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone”

Ubiquitous means being or existing everywhere at once. A novel word for a commonplace idea. We now accept the idea that surveillance is ubiquitous, even though we commonly, and romantically, associate it with the world of stealth and spying, as in popular novels and movies of the James Bond or Jason Bourne variety.

Its reach is much broader than that.

I posted on CIA, surveillance and paranoia the day before the revelation that “contract” employees at the State Department accessed the passport files of Barack Obama and other presidential candidates. “Contracting” of course means “outsourcing,” which means the likes of Blackwater and Halliburton and its subsidiaries, the client states of administration officials and lobbyists. The State Department claims it was simply innocent curiosity – before they’ve even investigated. And little chance we’ll see the results of the investigation soon. It is essentially the same claim made on behalf of the Patriot Act. Communication surveillance is directed at terrorists; honest Americans have nothing to fear. I don’t “fear” anything, but I have no illusions. If information is there to mine, the roving political operatives in either party will mine and exploit it for political purposes.

Surveillance is pervasive. I recently ran the 2008 Portland Shamrock Run and a few days later received an email with a photo of me captured mid-race (and laboring mightily) that I can purchase for a fee. I can’t reproduce the photo here without violating intellectual property laws (as if I’d want that hunkered huffer-puffer figured-forth in this space). I assume the photographer was able to identify me by the timing chip I wore on my ankle. I don’t recall that I gave race officials permission to use me commercially in this way, but I imagine it is there somewhere in the entry form fine print. This is likely as “innocent” as surveillance gets. Cameras are everywhere and we now have the capability if not the political will or federal funding to create virtual borders. It is not, finally, that we are being tracked. It is that we are now effectively captive to technology and the paranoid will to use it in order to maintain political order.
Continue reading Surveillance: From Barbed Wire to the Invisible Prison

Friday recap: Week six

From certain perspectives, it wasn’t a good week at Art Scatter. A knee replacement. A hacking flu. A wheezing bronchial apparatus. Not much fun in there. Still, on the edge of Spring Break — and who doesn’t STILL celebrate Spring Break, even decades past the classes we’re allegedly breaking from? — it was hard to get too down in the dumps, especially as the knee replacement went just fine from all important reports.

But: All conspired to make it hard to “keep up.” You see the quote marks, and you’ve read the signs. “Keep up with what?” Or: “What does ‘keep up’ mean, anyway?” But maybe most pertinently: “Who said anybody was keeping up with anything?” We like keeping up as well as the next blog, really we do, although most of the time it feels more like “catching up.” Which begs a set of similar questions.

Our Wheezer is headed for DC. The Man With the Bionic Knee is headed home. The Hacker will continue his profound examination of the idea of hacking. Another week turns. Our paranoia sharpens. The duct tape territorial debates are just beginning. A box of graphic novels arrived. The dogs are barking.

See. Maybe we’re keeping up after all.

Urgent note: Those of you who take your Art Scatter from 9 p.m. Fridays to 9 a.m. Saturdays are going to be disappointed tonight. Our delightful internet host is going dark for 12 hours to make things better in the network. We take this as the truth by faith alone.

Ord. 374: Commissioner Leonard and the Audacity of Nope!

Commissioner Randy Leonard missed the March 19 City Council vote on City Ordinance 374, the measure he sponsored to prohibit the use of duct-tape or other markers on public property as a means of reserving space to view parades. Though he missed the vote, I imagine the Commissioner, aboard the bicycle carrier PSS Tom McCall, declaring “mission accomplished.”

I don’t like parades. I attended the Rose Parade once, in 1980, wearing a mask to protect against Mt. St. Helens ash. But I worked for thirty years in an office overlooking MLK, Jr. Blvd., and each year watched as folks blocked out space on the sidewalk with tape, chalk or string, and perhaps a lawn chair or two, reserving each his own personal observation deck for the Rose Parade. This would begin a week or more before the parade, and on the last day or two some people, the less trusting, would take turns occupying their spot, negotiating neighborly boundaries, all for the sake of a parade. I admit that the junk-art collagist in me also liked walking the streets the next several weeks, observing how remnant markers faded and melted away, especially the duct-tape, which as it disintegrates turns into a delicate web before disappearing altogether.

At first I assumed the law authorized this ad hoc reservation system. When I realized that this was just neighborly folk law in action, I was amazed, and still am, that for the most part people respected each other’s taped dominion. I always highlighted the practice for visitors, a charming sign of Portlanders’ mutual respect and good will. “Something there is that does not love a wall,” as Robert Frost said, and that something was your everyday Portlander, satisfied to have a marked venue with a view.

I’ve heard the plaint: “What makes folks think they can save a prime view of the parade simply by laying down a strip of duct-tape?” What indeed! For no reason other than it’s the custom of the country.

No longer.

I’m reminded of the “Sut Lovingood Yarns” by George Washington Harris, in particular a story called “Bart Davis’s Dance.” Bart hires a band, his wife Peg fixes a bunch of food, and they invite the Kentucky countryside to the dance. A preacher shows up. Welcomed good-naturedly by Bart, the preacher says, “Yu is hosspitabil,” to which Bart wonders if he should take exception, asking Sut, “I b’leve I’se been ‘sulted in my own hous’; didn’t that durn’d preachin mersheen call me a hoss?” Sut is always “sloshin’ about” at such affairs, and loves to stir the pot. “Sartinly,” Sut tells Bart, “pitabil is a sorter Latin tail stuck tu hit so yu moutn’t onderstand; hit means pitiful hoss in Inglish, an’ ef I wer yu, I’d see that his stumack wer spiled fur Peg’s fried chicken an’ biskit.” Violence and hilarity ensue.

See, I think a Rose Festival visitor observed the ceremony of the tape, was as amazed as I was, and happened to mention to Commissioner Leonard that she thought it very hospitable on the part of Portlanders to allow such a practice.

The Commissioner was not going to take that sitting down, as I’m sure he’s entitled to do, in a parade seat reserved for dignitaries, in a prime parade viewing area set aside for such purpose. And I suspect it rankles that an activity like this, not sanctioned by Authority, should actually work, more or less, certainly more than, say, the water billing system (yes, I know, different commissioner), but less than – well, I can’t think of a thing at the moment. More’s the pity, hoss.

CIA, Harold L. Humes and Harry Mathews

He didn’t tell me much about CIA’s modus operandi that I hadn’t heard already, but I did learn about the generally accepted laws of intelligence organizations. The basic rule is that if something can go wrong, it will. Applied to information from the field as it was read in supervisory offices, this means: “When something can be misinterpreted, it will be.”

Harry Mathews, My Life in CIA

We don’t keep secrets these days. We don’t want to be told things that should be kept secret. We don’t joke (especially in airports); we don’t pretend. We don’t pretend to know secrets. Secret agents among us pretend to be something they’re not. Secret agents often pretend to be what they think secret agents should be. And we assume we’re stalked, watched over, listened to by agents so invisible they don’t need to pretend to be secret. We don’t know what combination of places frequented, things read or words used on a cell or the internet will trigger the profile that becomes the secret we do not know we keep. So, what if we happen to be paranoid?

doc_humes_1968-fullinit_.jpgCheck out Rachael Donadio’s essay on Harold L. Humes in the New York Times Book Review, February 24, 2008. In the early 1950s Humes founded The Paris Review with Peter Matthiessen and others and wrote two highly-praised novels, The Underground City (1958), about post-World War II spies in Paris, and Men Die (1959), a story about African-American soldiers on a U.S. munitions base in the Caribbean. Called “Doc” by friends, Humes was a cultural touchstone in New York in the ‘50s and ’60s. He even managed Norman Mailer’s run for mayor in 1961. But he became increasingly paranoid. He believed the CIA was out to get him. It turns out, in fact, that his friend Matthiessen did work for the CIA, using The Paris Review as cover. Humes’ last years were defined by mental illness and odd behavior and he never wrote another novel. He died in 1992.

Humes’ daughter, Immy Humes, has made a documentary film about his life, and his books have been reissued by Random House. I haven’t read them, though I’m planning to do so. But I have another reason for bringing him up. Reading Donadio’s essay I thought of a superb book I did read a couple years ago, Harry Mathews’ My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973 (Dalkey Archive Press, $13.95).
Continue reading CIA, Harold L. Humes and Harry Mathews

Looking for something that works

It is impossible to begin to learn that which one thinks one already knows.
— Epictetus

images-3.jpgA week ago, I sat in on a lecture by Roger Martin, dean at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. The talk, sponsored by the Portland branding/design firm Ziba Design, was in the open atrium/auditorium at the Wieden+Kennedy headquarters in the Pearl District. There were W+K and Ziba people in the audience, but lots of other people, too. I noticed the head of a Portland arts organization, for example, and a couple of members of a prominent local law firm.

The epigraph above comes from the beginning of Chapter Six of Martin’s book, The Opposable Mind, which was on sale in the atrium and doing a brisk business with the crowd, it seemed, though perhaps less brisk than the table of pastries. It’s a nice quote, and above all a practical quote. Which describes Martin’s book, too, because it describes a practical approach to problem-solving.

And that’s what I found so interesting. We have reached a point of such bureaucratic stasis in our national life (both business and government and everything in between), of such stalemate in our way of thinking about problems, that what be commonplaces to followers of good old-fashioned John Dewey pragmatism, are taken now as new developments, creative breakthroughs. Martin’s idea is that our most successful leaders are able to look at competing ideas, take the best elements from them and come up with a newer, better idea.
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Al Souza: The Puzzler’s Dilemma

I’m just trying to do this jig-saw puzzle
Before it rains anymore

– M. Jagger / K. Richards “Jigsaw Puzzle”

Ours is a family of re-puzzlers. Last holiday our sons, both in their mid-twenties, spent two days working through our old puzzles, beginning with the extra large-piece “Masters of the Universe,” a “battle royal” featuring He-Man and two dozen other trademarked Mattel heroes of the day (circa 1983). From there they moved to “G.I. Joe Battles Cobra Command,” four puzzles that, when completed, can be interlocked to form a large mural depicting all-out war on land and sea and in the air. These boys have always been deliberate, methodical re-puzzlers. As youngsters they would build them, tear them down and build again. As adults they are also deliberate about seeming disengaged; they are handling memories, after all, not puzzle pieces.

My wife and I joined them on the adult puzzles, some we’ve had since the late 1960s, when we were first married and a bottle of wine and a good puzzle were an evening’s entertainment: “Fisherman’s Wharf,” in Monterey, California, the way it looked when we lived there; “Five-Clawed Dragon,” a detail from an embroidered Chinese Imperial robe; and “St. George and the Dragon,” a photograph of a statuette owned by a Bavarian duke who lived during the time of Shakespeare.

Oh, we’ve had other, one-time puzzles, more than I’d want to count, but these are the ones we’ve kept and re-puzzled time and again. Life is like a jigsaw puzzle, I’ve thought. Not like a box of chocolates. The puzzle worked over and completed, and then un-puzzled and tossed back into its box, is the seven ages of man – the first youthful stammering returning to reclaim incoherence from the modest settled principles an adult pieces together once, maybe twice, in a life.

So I was curious to see Al Souza’s sculptural jigsaw puzzle collages showing at Elizabeth Leach Gallery this month. He uses commercial puzzles gathered from thrift stores and on E-bay, and some that acquaintances around the country find and assemble for him. He layers and juxtaposes parts of the puzzles in large scale works such as “Italian Dressing” (72” X 72”, above), creating an explosion of slick images and bright colors that are the hallmark of commercial puzzles. Animals, clocks, landscapes, famous paintings and buildings, loopy holiday ribbon candy, toys and sports memorabilia – jumbled together in odd, surprising ways.
Continue reading Al Souza: The Puzzler’s Dilemma