October 30, 2006

JENKIN'S OTHERWORLD

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Spirit Photography by Catherine King. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce in any form.

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October 29, 2006

SPOT WITH SPIRITS

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Spirit Photography by Catherine King. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce in any form.

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October 28, 2006

JENKIN AND FRIENDS

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Spirit Photography by Catherine King. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce in any form.

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October 27, 2006

SHADOW AND THE STRANGER

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Spirit Photography by Catherine King. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce in any form.

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Something In Common

by Jerome du Bois

I've kept my promise to my wife and myself to stay away from news about Islam and Muslims, for my psychological health. But I came across some old news about Muslims, with contemporary reverberations, that I'm going to note for the record. It comes from an unlikely source --novelist Philip Kerr's superb new book, The One From The Other, featuring his German private eye, Bernie Gunther, in a mystery that takes place in 1949. (Ron Rosenbaum alerted me to Kerr and Gunther. And, by the way, Kerr's Dark Matter: The Private Life of Sir Isaac Newton --a 17th-Century mystery-- is also superb.)

In his Author's Note at the end of The One From The Other, Kerr includes some information about the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem:

The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, was a ferocious anti-Semite who led several pogroms in Palestine, which resulted in the deaths of many Jews. He had been canvassing a "final solution to the Jewish problem" as early as 1920. He met with Eichmann in 1937, and first met Adolf Hitler on November 28, 1941. This was less than eight weeks before the Wannsee Conference, at which Nazi plans for the "final solution of the Jewish problem in Europe" were outlined by Reinhard Heydrich.

During the war, Haj Amin lived in Berlin, was a friend of Hitler's, and personally raised an SS Moslem Division of 20,000 men in Bosnia, which murdered Jews and partisans. He tried to persuade the Luftwaffe to bomb Tel Aviv. It seems quite probable that his ideas had a profound influence on the course of Eichmann's thinking. Numerous Jewish organizations tried to have Haj Amin prosecuted as a war criminal after the war, but they were unsuccessful, despite the fact that arguably he was as culpable as Heydrich, Himmler, and Eichmann in the extermination of the Jews. Haj Amin was a close relative of Yasser Arafat's. It is believed that Arafat changed his name in order to obscure his relationship with a notorious war criminal. To this day, many Arab political parties, most notably Hezbollah, have identified with Nazis and adopted symbols from Nazi propaganda.

Muslims and Nazis. Sometimes, it's hard to tell the one from the other.

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October 25, 2006

Black Cat with Orb

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Spirit Photography by Catherine King. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce in any form.

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October 22, 2006

Lucretius In Extremis

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Lucretius In Extremis. Digital Net Art. 2006. © Jerome du Bois.

The Earth giveth and the Earth taketh away.

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October 13, 2006

New Art: Whyn Weirds Kaleide

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Whyn Weirds Kaleide. 2006. 42" square. Colored pencil, acrylic, and collage on Arches paper. © Jerome du Bois.

Detail here.

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October 02, 2006

Obsession and Wordplay

by Jerome du Bois

I have an alternate title for Ron Rosenbaum's new book, The Shakespeare Wars. I would have called it Shakespeare's Obsessives, of which Rosenbaum is one of many featured in its pages. Significantly, as my wife Catherine pointed out, most of them are men. Harold Jenkins, for example, spent twenty-eight years to publish a 600-page edition of Hamlet. One of his footnotes, in the "Longer Notes" section, not the footnotes at the feet of the play's text, is on "to be or not to be," and it's six pages long. Other textual scholars devote their entire careers to studying the compositors, the printers who set the Bard's manuscripts into type. One of them, Charlton Hinman, invented a machine to detect "on-press variants," a contraption of flashing lights and mirrors known as the Hinman Collator, and damn near went blind using it. Rosenbaum himself has spent over thirty years of close reading, listening (to audiotapes), and playgoing, all trying to recapture the ecstacy he felt at a legendary production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. This experience is a touchstone, an elusive talisman, he returns to often in his book.

What follows here is not a book review, by the way. For that, you can read John Simon's in the New York Sun, or Michael Dirda's in the Washington Post. More important to me is how the men in Rosenbaum's book, including Rosenbaum, allow Shakespeare to take over their lives, to unbalance them, and smother Shakespeare's spirit with their attentions to his language, thus attentuating their attendance at life's rich pageant, which was, after all, Shakespeare's main subject, wasn't it?

I'm writing here mainly about the textual scholars, not the actors and directors, who do have other interests in their lives apart from Shakespeare's writings. It's the scholars I want to point to --briefly, lightly, before moving to my main points-- who focus minutely on "didst" and "diest," on "to morrow" and "tomorrow," on "shrewdly" and "shroudly," on whether the dying Hamlet actually emitted the "O-groans" or ended with "The rest is silence."

What's the fuss about? O,o,o,o, don't get me wrong. As someone who knows very little about Shakespeare, I thoroughly enjoyed every little nook and cranny Rosenbaum pried open in his incessant quest to unearth the essence of what is "Shakespearean," what sets his writings over and above all others. And out of all those he studied and interviewed, who have been trying to isolate, distill, and definitively nail that genius down, I found two examples, two people --director Peter Brook and textual scholar John Andrews-- who come closest, and by precisely not trying to nail him down.

Rosenbaum asked Brooks his position on the "exceptionalist" question -- "Is he on the continuum of other great writers, perhaps the greatest, but still understandable in the same terms as other great writers, or does he occupy --has he created-- some realm of his own, beyond others?"

Brooks replies: "I think he is a unique case and I think the uniqueness inheres in his generosity. I think there's no one else who manages to insert himself totally in such a wide range of human beings. If you count how many human beings [he created] . . . That he could have, in the act of writing, instead of using them partly to express what he himself wants to say, lets them say what they want to say . . . to be such a highly developed, highly acute servant of other people's truths is unique."

Other people's truths. Wonderful.

Brooks continues: ". . . Shakespeare's sense of each character having endless facets so you can see year after year, after year, new interpretations can be given to any character and they're always based on truths which are there --that is what is unique and I think this is inseparable from Shakespeare being so anonymous. One thing everyone can agree about him is that he is the least known of any great writer."

A few pages later, Brooks is lecturing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and he's talking about how alive Shakespeare was:

"This person walking through the streets of London must have lived each single moment with an incredible richness of awareness. So many levels, infinite levels of meaning. When I say 'infinite levels of meaning,' the only reason his plays are redone, rediscovered for centuries, is the phenomenon that a line of ten syllables has within it level after level of meaning.

"But where did these meanings come from? From his surroundings, yes. This extraordinary person hearing the sounds around him, hearing through his eyes. . . . He can overhear and notice two kinds of things: all the life and noise pouring out with great excitement. Yet at the same time, even though he's a very practical man, he can evoke in words faraway worlds, strange tales, astonishing ideas, and develop and link them to an intimation of meaning in society, in regard to the gods, a sense of cosmic reality --these were all pulsing through his mind, all these levels at the same time."

Shakespeare was the genius sui generis. And he had a life, a life of his own, which he didn't spend microanalyzing the works of Thomas Kyd or Christopher Marlowe or anyone else. And though he may have been influenced by Giordano Bruno's lectures on infinity, he didn't become obsessed by infinity, he used it. (Infinity drove Georg Cantor crazy, at which time he became obsessed by Shakespeare. You can look it up!) Undoubtedly Shakespeare's nimble and prehensile mind sensed the dangers of singlemindedness, and avoided it at all costs. That way lies madness. Balance is better. Finally, and most importantly to me, he respected and tried to honor the lives of other people, to faithfully reflect their shapes and shadows, warts and all.

Textual scholar John Andrews is an advocate of "unmodernized spelling" of Shakespeare, so you might at first think that he would be a stiff, strict tightass on the original meaning of Shakespeare's words in their original spellings on the page. But he's also the founder of Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Guild, which bestows a Gielgud Award annually to Shakespearean actors. So he's an advocate of spoken Shakespeare as well. And sometimes you can't tell how the spoken words are spelled. But it all ends well, according to Andrews.

Because, you see, in Shakespeare's time, words were "unanchored" to a particular spelling. Later they got nailed down in Dr. Samuel Johnson's famous dictionary. Rosenbaum:

"By 'unanchored' Andrews means more slippery, free-floating, not just in word-letter formations but in meaning. It is not, to use the famous example from Hamlet, that we must make a choice between 'too too sullied flesh,' 'too too sallied flesh' and 'too too solid flesh.' But that each spelling gives one all three overlapping colorations of the word. As did each spoken utterance of the word. And that the multiple forms of words, such as 'shrewdly' and 'Shroudly,' the unanchored, nonreductive variant spellings, either created or reflected a more fluid, unanchored, polysemous [offering many potential meanings] way of reading, hearing and thinking that found its epitome in Shakespeare's language and thought."

Andrews wrote in the introduction to his Everyman Shakespeare that "Shakespeare revelled in the freedom a largely unanchored language provided." Rosenbaum, in an interview, asked him about it:

"That phrase, 'unanchored language': Are you implying that Shakespeare was thinking and writing in a different way than we imagine ourselves thinking and using words?"

"I think so, yes," [Andrews] said. Then: ". . . You know I once heard Robert Fagles [the acclaimed translator of Homer] speak at Princeton, and he quoted D.H. Lawrence who said something like, 'Before Plato told the great lie about Ideas, men went slippery like fishes and didn't care.' I'm not sure what exactly Lawrence was getting at but I do think Shakespeare was using language that way, 'slippery like fishes,' malleable. You didn't have any grammars, no one had codified grammar or spelling. I think for Shakespeare spelling was a trope-- you could play around with the form of words just the way you could do other figurative things with words."

Slippery like fishes. Wonderful.

Both Brook and Andrews celebrate and participate in the multifarious generosity of Shakespeare's wordplay; unlike some of the others in Rosenbaum's book, they don't feel an obsessive need to find the one way Shakespeare must be.

These days --even with our codified, anchored grammars-- I think we can still go slippery like fishes. I have an example and exemplar, and I don't mean that white whale James Joyce, who tried to swallow language whole and regurgitated the unreadable. Trudging through Finnegan's Wake is like wading hip-deep against an incoming tide of semi-digested goulash, the overlapping slapping waves of Babel-language driving one back to the more subtly shifting shores of sense.

I'm referring to Marcel Duchamp and his elegant and balanced wordplay.

Wait. Come back. I'm not elevating Duchamp to Shakespearean heights. He wasn't a writer, even. But they do have some things in common, including a playful attitude toward language, an obsessive, cultlike following, and a conviction that a lived life is more important than any artifact they might create. And neither one was a self-promoter, like so many others who are constantly shepherding their reputations, defending their positions, and writing memoirs and autobiographies. Neither man left behind an autobiography, though both had the time and freedom to do so. Their egos were secured to their lives, not the lives of others. Each was bien dans sa peau --at home in his skin.

Duchamp invented a vocabulary to describe what's going on in his Large Glass, and even a particular word for what the thing itself is. Calvin Tompkins helps us here:

"In one of the working notes that he collected and published in The Green Box, Duchamp refers to it as a "delay." Use "delay" instead of picture or painting . . . It's merely a way of succeeding in no longer thinking that the thing in question is a picture --to make a delay of it in the most general way possible, not so much in the different meanings in which delay can be taken, but rather in their indecisive reunion."

Tomkins continues: "Like so many of the Green Box notes, this one has been chipped away at and drilled into and bombarded by generations of Duchamp explainers, an international tribe whose numbers increase each year. . . One Duchampian has suggested that it be read as an anagram for 'lad[e]y,' so that 'delay in glass' becomes glass lady. Duchamp adored puns and perpetrated a lot of them, but his were never as heavy-footed as that. Generally overlooked in the ongoing analysis and microanalysis of Duchamp's wordplay is that it is play. He played with words, juggling a variety of senses and non-senses and taking pleasure in their 'indecisive reunion.'"

Indecisive reunion, to me, relates directly to unanchored language, with words slippery like fishes. So that in the notes for the Large Glass we get real but mysterious words like love gasoline, asensual icicle, malic moulds, automobiline, desire-magneto, cinematic blossoming, and --my favorite-- spangles of frosty gas.

Though the tribe of explainers may delve and dive for years to extract pearls from these intractable mysteries, the informal crib notes indicate that the delay is about the mechanics of sexual desire. As adults, we don't really need that explained to us, do we? Rrose Selvay = Eros, that's life. Duchamp was just having fun. He explained his interest in puns and wordplay to Katherine Kuh in 1961:

I like words in a poetic sense. Puns for me are like rhymes. . . . For me, words are not merely a means of communication. You know, puns have always been considered a low form of wit, but I find them a source of stimulation both because of their actual sound and because of the unexpected meanings attached to the interrelationships of disparate words. For me, this is an infinite field of joy -- and it's always right at hand. Sometimes four or five different levels of meaning come through.

I ran across one of his best wordplays on the international Duchamp tribe's online journal, tout-fait, wherein you can read the most arcane articles --was Duchamp a character in Finnegan's Wake? was Etant Donnés inspired by the Black Dahlia?-- as well as biographical minutiae. This example was included in an interminable piece by the inestimable and inexhaustible Stephen Jay Gould in 2000, a couple of years before his death. (tout-fait, by the way, is edited by Dr. Gould's widow, Rhonda Roland Shearer.)

I'm only going to quote the beginning of the article --the part about a candy wrapper. The article is entitled "The Substantial Ghost: Towards a General Exegesis of Duchamp's Artful Wordplays."

Here is Gould:

The Duchampian pun that covered each piece of candy at the opening of Bill Copley's 1953 Parisian show might, in its richness and ambiguity of meaning, suggest Churchill's famous description of Soviet Russia as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Duchamp designed the square tinfoil wrappers, and inscribed each little gift to the invitees with a simple and original phrase that may well be regarded as his deepest and richest play on words: A Guest + A Host = A Ghost.

[Here's a picture of the wrapper. It was wrapped around a caramel, which, one of Gould's commenters pointed out, is an anagram of À Marcel --To Marcel. See how this works?]

At face value, adding only the most obvious and minimal interpretation, the pun seems gentle and harmless enough at a few evident levels that might catch anyone's interest and mild appreciation:

1. The single resultant (ghost) arises as an amalgamation of the two inputs --the initial consonants of each word in sequence (g of guest followed by h of host), the final two consonants shared by both words (st), and the vowel of one (the retained o of host) used instead of the vowels of the other (the eliminated ue of guest).

2. At a first level of meaning (definitional) behind the amalgamation of letters, the joining of these paired and opposite words (the host who provides hospitality and the guest who receives it) leads to their annihilation (ghost). This curiosity merits at least a smile, and must have intrigued Duchamp.

3. At a second level of meaning (contextual), the phrase seems even more humorous when inscribed on a candy wrapper - for after one eats the candy, the wrapper remains as a shroud or ghost, the former and now empty covering of an annihilated substance.

4. At a third level (functional), the people were guests at a host's exhibition --and they left with a ghost generated by the gift of a host followed by receipt and intended usage of a guest.

These levels of meaning might be deemed sufficient to warrant notice and minimal commentary, but scarcely complex or interesting enough to inspire any scholarly exegesis or artistic appreciation. I would like to argue, on the contrary, that Duchamp's extensive and pervasive wordplays in general (appearing throughout his career, in all formats from offhand remarks, to the titles of most of his works, to explicit publications spanning a full spectrum from single items to extensive lists, and also to large chunks of his posthumous notes) --and the 1953 ghost pun in particular (as perhaps the most complex and revealing example of all)-- occupy a vital and central place in the totality of his life's work. Moreover, with the conspicuous exception of André Gervais's book, very little commentary or explication has ever been devoted to Duchamp's verbal creations, while most of his visual creations have been analyzed to a level of detail and argument usually reserved for sacred writ.

And Gould goes on and on with his exegesis, with categories and subcategories. He was a paleontologist --a professional classifier-- after all. And though I'm glad to have shared this exquisite example with the reader, I'm also abashed that I've ruined the reader's own pleasure in working out the levels of meaning and interpretation for his or her own self. Which is my final point. Shakespeare never ran out on stage to underline every clever line --See? This means that! See how clever I am? And neither did Duchamp. They wrote what they wrote and walked away, because they respected their audience enough to let them work on the meanings themselves.

In my own word art, I hope in my own modest way to have done the same thing. In my recent "verb" piece --here-- I could have written several paragraphs about the word "verb" being a noun in that sentence, or how "lighting up" selected letters creates a number of sentences within the sentence-- but for me it's best to be generous and let the reader's brain play with it, for the pleasure inherent in such play.

In that spirit, I leave the reader with one more anagram I ran across reading about Duchamp, one that he wrote down, but that anyone could have, and made something out of it. See if you can, reader. I know I will. Here it is, perhaps an echo of Hamlet's last utterance:

SILENT = LISTEN.

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