Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Complexities of "Modern Legacies"

Like all new semesters, Winter Semester 2008 promises all the pleasures of a complex and unpredictable new beginning.

This is especially true for me this year because for the first time I'll be teaching a class for the Honors Program called "Modern Legacies." 25 years ago I taught a slightly different version of the course for Vanderbilt University honors students, and the good memory is still with me.

Like the photo I took through the entryway window of Lyn's and my house in which it's hard to distinguish between reflections from outside and the stairs and windows inside, the idea of "modern legacies" has so many variables that it's hard to know just where to focus.

I've decided to start with four of the lenses we must look through, no matter who we are, as citizens of the 21st Century: the work of Wollstonecraft, Darwin, Marx, and Freud. With those tools in hand, we'll move from Boccaccio through Voltaire to James Joyce and Kafka -- writers of short fiction all -- and try to make some sense of how each of the authors conceives human nature. Just who are we? And how will we change once we have read and discussed these stories?

With about 15 students, each of whom will bring expectations and expertise to the class, it should be a stimulating journey.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


The stairwell of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. My eldest son Joe has found a window that gives his cell phone access to a signal. And I've found a striking double image: Joe and his shadow.

You see differently after you've been worked over by works of art. Shapes and colors become more vivid. Images more suggestive. Thoughts more graphic.

It was a family trip to hear Joe's brother Tom play his senior recital at the New School University in Manhattan. We stayed in Brooklyn, and spent a long afternoon exploring this museum, looking into artistic mirrors, surveying our souls.

Here's Tim, for instance, taking a picture of himself in front of an ornate concave mirror. And Maren picturing an Egyptian artifact.

And I, of course, am making images of the children who are, in part, images of myself.

We walked from painting to painting, exhibit to exhibit, and I found myself the eager parent, anxious to teach my children everything I know, and equally anxious to see things through their eyes.

And that brings me to teaching.

I have a lot to teach. Even a slow learner picks up a few things over 58 years. But what thrills me, still, about walking into a classroom, is what will come back. At the end of a class (or a stroll through the Brooklyn Museum with my children), I'm never the same person who walked in.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Zarko Radakovic, Writing/Painting a Life

In the mid-1980's I worked for a semester at the University of Tubingen in southwest Germany. While there I met a writer from Yugoslavia, living in Germanybecause his wife, a theoretical physicist, had a position at the University.

Over the years we have exchanged visits, have traveled together, and most important for me, have written together. Like no one I have ever met (with the sole exception of Alex Caldiero), Zarko is alive with ideas.

He knows jazz and writes about it.

He knows contemporary painting, and has, for instance, a book about his friend Julije Knifer. It's no biography in the sense we're used to, but an exploration of ideas that come bubbling up in Knifer's presence. With Zarko, I visited Knifer in his Paris apartment and came away with my head spinning. He paints only one thing: what he calls meanders. Black on white or white on black. Like the one at the bottom.

Zarko is a master of travel narrative. Together we once followed Filip Kobal, a character in Peter Handke's novel Repetition, from Austria into Slovenia, and later published our joint accounts as Ponavljanje (Repetitions).

He's a prolific translator, with more than a dozen translations of Peter Handke's work into Serbo-Croatian.

He's a former performance artist, I just learned this week. Belgrade about 1973.

He's a photographer (the photo at the top of this blog, of the goalie on a rural Austrian soccer field, is his).

He's a fine novelist, with six or seven works to his credit.

To my mind, each of these activities informs each of the others. He's a good novelist because he's a translator and jazz critic. He's a thoughtful travel writer because he knows art. Even when he's focused on one activity, interdisciplinary work is the result.

When Zarko last visited me in Utah, he gave an autobiographical lecture, part of which I'll include here:

Approximately fifteen years ago I left my country. Back then, in 1978, it called itself the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. . . . I didn’t have the least suspicion that in fifteen years, that is, now, my country would no longer exist. . . .
My ancestors were Serbian refuges. After the defeat on the Kosovo Polje, the Field of Blackbirds, they served as guards on the southern borders in the Dalmatian, Croatian, and what was then Austro-Hungarian hinterland. From there they moved as nomads to the fertile and sparsely inhabited plains of Pannonia, to Vojvodina – between Hungary and Romania. Several centuries later I was born there. I grew up in Belgrade. And since the late seventies I have lived in Germany.
Haven’t I always had something of the nomadic spirit of my ancestors in me? Haven’t I shunned every uniformity and every emphasis on a center? To be Serbian and not simultaneously some second or third thing on this always complex (unintelligible) Balkan peninsula – that seems to me today an impossible thought. . . .
Now the country has split into warring ethnic groups, of free movement in Yugoslavia there remain nothing but memories.
The war turned out badly for everyone involved; but even though political events may have made him "Serbian," he is very much still a second and third and fourth "thing."

Recently, a friend of Zarko's, Nina Pops ( has been painting Zarko's work, painting his life. Like Knifer's meanders, her complex, compartmentalized, connected and intricately related warrens or paths or lifelines represent the six decades of Zarko's rich life.

I can't wait to see painting number 7 in this series.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Machin-ery: Thoughts on Form and Content in the Digital World

Dada Typo is an umbrella in the rain of a digital renaissance. This is what poets say: it translates itself into innumerable languages and a self-fulfilling prophecy of your own desires. Dada Typo is a means to the end of imagination. Never content with simple mastery of a minor arsenal of technological gizmos, we reinvent ourselves with every step of progress and carry rearview mirrors to maintain a sense of lineage with history. We are not authoritative but speak with authority; we can help you do the same. The breadth of the world increases daily despite the constant ratio of pi and the rigid logic of modus ponens. It takes a world-wise and street savvy practitioner of communicative mysteries to maintain the delicate balance between the determined voice of the speaker and the doubtless wit of the audience, never captive but restless and demanding. Dada Typo is the archetypical circus seal juggling semiotic beach balls: entertaining at the very least, but also demonstrating incredible levels of competent complexity. We are multi-dimensional and can't agree upon the definition of dimensions. We can be linear without forgetting how to run in circles. Efficient without wishing to spare the effervescence of the sheer luxury of life. We quite like red roses. We like black roses also. In the end, a long conversation with us will leave you sleeping a little bit less, happily, caught up in the contemplation of words you never thought existed, but have always understood.

These images and text are from a design company based in Baltimore. I ran across them looking at the Situationist website

for Alex's and my class "Language: Most Dangerous of Possessions." Travis suggested that after reading McLuhan's "The Medium is the Massage" we might read Guy Debord's "The Society of the Spectacle," a 1960's radical text about an age "which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original." The website was designed by

and felt like one good resolution of the tension set up by the machine as it deals with and determines content.

As an example of a productive and human interdisciplinary response to problems of design, it may be as good as it gets.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Integrated Studies: Topics Courses

I'm wondering, this morning, as I walk the dog soon after sunrise, looking north across Utah Valley, if it is even possible to do work so focused that it doesn't involve some kind of interdisciplinarity. Scientists talk disparagingly about people they call "one mugs," teachers/researchers who are able to do only a single, tightly focused thing. But we don't see many of those kind in successful positions in academics or business or the professions. These days, even a proctologist works with an interdisciplinary team. And even a white-haired professor of Integrated Studies has to learn how to take photos with a digital camera and to post the images to a blog.

The assumption that most topics or real-life problems have to be addressed with a set of diverse tools is the basis for the Integrated Studies Program, where we teach methods of interdisciplinary research in our topics classes and where each student produces an interdisciplinary thesis.

For instance, here's a list of our courses for this year:

Fall 2007:
  • Death and Dying
  • American Modernism
  • Evolutionary Ecology
  • Language, most dangerous of possessions
  • India: Hindu Philosophy and Art
Spring 2008:
  • The American West
  • Death and Dying
  • Behavioral Economics
  • East Asian Buddhist Literature
Our purpose is not to make sure every student has studied Hindu Art or Behavioral Economics, but rather to model topical research that reaches across disciplines for the tools it needs. The language class, for instance, is looking at poetry, linguistics, religion, history, politics, semiotics, philosophy, film, at the language of photography as opposed to and as similar to the language of painting, and at who knows what else to think about the ability to create and think in images that so wonderfully and horrifically separates us from other species. .

The Spring class on the American West will similarly draw on various disciplines to think about a region that is as mythical as physical: literature, geology, history, cultural studies, and art (see the Maynard Dixon painting above -- Dixon was married to the photographer Dorothea Lang, had a house in southern Utah, and obviously witnessed skies like the one I saw this morning).

Our majors take two of these courses as a required part of the major; but the topics are so engaging that we draw a lot of students who are not majors as well. For instance, the ongoing course on Death and Dying, taught by certified Thanatologist Nancy Rushforth and Professor Reba Keele, appeals to a wide range of human beings, all of whom must respond to these issues.

So, take a look at the Spring offerings and join us for one of our cross-border trips.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Melancholia's Dog

Last year, a friend from graduate school, Alice Kuzniar, published a book she called Melancholia's Dog: Reflections on Our Animal Kinship .

The University of Chicago Press, Kuzniar's publisher, notes that "Dog love can be a precious but melancholy thing. . . . In addition to philosophy and psychoanalysis, Alice A. Kuzniar turns to the insights and images offered by the literary and visual arts—the short stories of Ivan Turgenev and Franz Kafka, the novels of J. M. Coetzee and Rebecca Brown, the photography of Sally Mann and William Wegman, and the artwork of David Hockney and Sue Coe."

In short, this is an interdisciplinary book, its author driven by topical necessity to draw on what the U of C Press lists as its fields:
  • ART: Art--General Studies
  • BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES: Natural History
  • LITERATURE AND LITERARY CRITICISM: General Criticism and Critical Theory
  • PHILOSOPHY: General Philosophy
In the context of Albrecht Durer's etching "Melancholia," Alice probes connections between human depression and the dogs that accompany and cause and ameliorate depression.

The book is (also) autobiographical, as any of Alice's whippets could tell you. Take a look.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Alex and me and the M that marks The Mothers

So we come out of class, Integrated Studies 3500, Humanities 320 R, Communications 350R, "Language, most dangerous of possessions." Alex has just lectured on/performed Mallarme, the poem "A Throw of the Dice," about the kinds of meaning we create with our sounds/words, meanings that are constellations painted on the non-narrative starry sky.

We walk to my office and can't quit talking about meaning and constellations. I pull the German/Czech poet Rilke's "Duino Elegies" off my shelf, a translation done by Alex's and my old friend and Welsh poet Leslie Norris:

Who can show us a child as he really is? Who
can send him among the constellations and let him stretch
his hand among the wide distances? . . .

As for us, we are spectators, always and everywhere,
turned to the universe, with no access!
It overwhelms us. We organize it. It falls apart.
We order it again, and fall apart ourselves. . . .

And above that, the stars. New stars, of the land of Sorrow.
Solemnly she names them: --There,
look: The Horseman, The Staff, and that full constellation
we call: The Wreath of Fruit . . .
And in the southern sky, unblemished as in the palm
of a saintly hand, the clear, luminous 'M'
that marks The Mothers. . . .

I point at the 'M.'
Alex points at the 'M.'
Don LaVange snaps his shutter.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Language and Reality: The Case of Nevada

Fall Break. Road Trip. Lyn, Blue and I in the Subaru.

For purely historical reasons (she's a Ph.D. Historian, for god's sake), Lyn has always wanted to drive Nevada's ET Highway. For the sake of Nevada's system of breathtaking ranges and basins (I'm a completely rational literary critic), I went along. For food and companionship, Blue (who is a yellow dog), came too.

At the east end of the Highway, we encountered a sign offering a grammatically curious product. Do they mean fresh alien? Fresh like an alien?

Is it cannibalism to eat alien jerky? Felt like it to me, and suddenly the honey and pickles didn't seem like such good ideas either.

Headed west, after sorting out the woman/man signals for "might we please stop here for a photo" and "of course, sweetie," which served us better than "I can't read your @#$%&* mind" and "you stupid patriarch," we played with thoughts of aliens and felt the secret presence of of Area 51 to the south while noting that it was not at all present on our Nevada State Map.

U2's "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" on the CD player, followed by Bill Frisell's "The Willies."

Once conspiratorial vibes get going, it doesn't take much to look through the spiny arms of a Joshua tree to the dirt road down in the basin leading from the ET Highway southwest to a "Wild Mustang Management Area" butted up against what you know is the super-secret government installation (even the word "installation" raises hair on the back of my neck) and to think you had better hide your camera after taking the photo because the Bushies probably had Cannon Camera Company put a GPS device in the camera and don't need a FISA warrant to commence waterboarding.

But as a purely rational literary critic (emphasis on German literature from Goethe to Handke), I'm not about to give in to conspiracies. I swear to enjoy the desert. I chuckle at the popular culture of aliens grown up in the cold-war Fifties. Lyn and her colleague Kat Brown have been teaching their History of the Cold War class this semester, and I've been subjected to a lot of bad movies featuring giant ants and spiders mutated by atomic testing and/or the Reds. It's all so predictable.

And in fact, the tarantula that stilted across the highway was no bigger than my hand, perfectly natural.

People have a good time with all this, and Lyn has read up on the phenomenon (for purely historical reasons, of course). So when we pass "the" mailbox, I have to turn around and get a photo of Blue in front of the alien's PO Box.

The road winds through a range, twists back and forth to accommodate the geology on display, requiring a sign that warns drivers to slow to 55 MPH. Beneath the warning, a sign pasted on the sign tells passersby to


Winding road through the ranges. Straight road across the basins. Counter-cultural drivers weaving on the straights and cutting across the curves. I'd love to see this from the air.

And then we arrive at Rachel: ground zero for the alien jerky crowd, home for the Area 51
theorists, sales outlet for alien paraphenalia. I walk Blue across the desert floor while Lyn piles mugs and bumper stickers and green inflatable aliens and posters and buttons and who know what else next to the cash register (gathering data for the cultural study she's engaged in -- no question about it).

Feeling more than a little disturbed by the swarm of yellowing bumper stickers pasted to the bar inside (Blue had pooped twice and more than deserved the porkdoggysausage I left him with in the car), every one of them devoted either to gun rights a la "triggers don't kill people, fingers do" or to an utter and evidently universal distaste for Bill Clinton -- the most tasteful of which were "I miss Ronnie and Nancy. Hell, I even miss Jimmy and Rosalynn" and "Impeach Clinton, and her husband too," we fled Rachel for the open road.

Look at the hawk, Lyn said, pointing up through the windshield.

I located a large bird hanging in the sky. But it was more compact than a bird, probably a much larger object at more of a distance. And it just hung there, not moving. My heart beat faster. I stared intently at the object, gathering all the sensory data I had access to. It made no sense, hanging there, not moving, black and compact. It's an alien craft! I told Lyn, just as it swerved sharply to the left.

Quickly joined by another jet fighter, the plane swept low over the desert floor, quickly disappearing behind the next range of mountains.

And I, the rational literary critic, was left with a heart that gradually slowed.

Do the stories we tell affect what we see? Even the inflatable green stories?

Who are the real aliens here? Lyn asked.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Caldiero, Carrier, and Bowden: An Unholy Trinity

"Scott has reported from the Far East," Bowden said, "and Alex has reported from Outer Space. Now I'll report from the Mexican/American border."

I've been wondering just what Charles Bowden might have meant when he began his reading after having heard Alex Caldiero and Scott Carrier last Friday at UVSC.

There's a way that all three readers/performers reported from outer space. They dislocated us. They displaced our minds. They surprised and shocked and delighted and concerned and generally worked over our accepted ideas till we were less sure of ourselves and more sure of what needed to be done in Burma and Juarez and the USA.

Carrier and Bowden had that effect through what they taught us about their respective catastrophes (and by means of their very different but equally remarkable voices). Caldiero disconcerted and regaled our minds and emotions by working on the border of the articulate and the inarticulate, that place where sounds become words and words slip back into sound. Sicilian, Spanish, and English alternated with the vibrations of a Jewsharp, with the grunts and raspings, chants and sibilant whispers that only Alex can conjure.

Incantations, Ken Sanders claimed, after Vegor pointed out that Alex's bag of tricks were straight out of Aleister Crowley's book of magick.

For 90 minutes, Utah Valley State College was the center of the universe.

More thoughts on photos and meaning

Over the weekend I've been thinking more about photos, those historical/artistic records we figure will outlast us but that, in the most important sense, are as brief as our faces (John Berger).

The examples I gave of knowledge I had of the people in the 1966 photo of young men and airplanes at Lake Powell, knowledge that supposedly would disappear when I do, weren't as good as they might have been. I listed names and professions and what became of some of us after the photo was taken.

Better examples might have been taken from the thinking I've been doing while trying to read the photo for some writing I'm doing.

I was in Boise, for instance, following traces left by my brother John before he died of AIDS in 1992, when I stepped right into Larry Echohawk's campaign for Governor. The contrast between his extremely public and successful life and John's death in a cheap apartment across the street from the State Capitol was painful. Those thoughts and memories create an aura (see Walter Benjamin) that no one besides me can experience.

The future Mayor of Farmington is interesting to me because of his role in the 1974 demonstrations by Navajos in Farmington after three Navajo men were tortured and killed by Farmington High School students. The Mayor, a kind and gentle and generous man, excoriated the Federal Civil Rights Commission's "Farmington Report" as the product of a socialist government and claimed there was no racism to speak of in our red-neck, oil-boom town.

I look into the faces of the five generous men who have brought us here in their airplanes, I look at our faces, and I try to trace present and future beliefs and affiliations. I scan the photo most intensely for explanations of the racism that raises its ugly head at the most awkward times in my own psyche indelibly formed by this and other events tied to my home town.

"And our faces, my heart, brief as photos."

Thursday, September 27, 2007


I've been writing and thinking (the two are almost invariably intertwined for me -- writing focuses my random thoughts) about photos.

One of my favorite writers, John Berger, has a book of poetry called "And our faces, my heart, brief as photos."

That's pretty much the crux of it for me. We're mortal. Our faces will disappear. And even, or especially the photos that might "capture" and preserve our faces are brief.

Take this photo of my son Tom playing at EZ's Woodshed in Harlem.

What does it mean?
What does it mean to me?
Those are two very different questions.

To me, to Tom's father, it means -- it's a means to see Tom, or at least a picture of Tom. It makes me wish I had been there to watch and hear him perform with his trio in front of the painting of John Coltrane. It brings back all sorts of memories and makes my mind race to the future when I'll fly to New York to hear and see Tom in early December. It means that Tom is working and can pay his rent. And so on.

But all of these meanings are mine. I'm the one reading the photo this way. Those meanings are exactly as brief as I am. They'll be here for a few more years if I'm lucky.

By itself, the photo is some kind of historical record and could be read in terms of the shirt Tom's wearing, the way he wears his hair. A reader of the photo might conclude things about the myth of Coltrane from the train that sweeps across his body in the painting.

But personally, the photo is as brief as our faces.

That's all the more apparent in another photo I've been thinking about. It was taken in 1966 or 1967 on a landing strip near Lake Powell.

If you found this photo and had absolutely no context outside what you see, you could figure out several things.

The red-rock desert landscape makes some sense; and with enough effort you might even pinpoint this as a place overlooking Lake Powell. The clothing and hair styles might indicate the 1960's, although this is an eclectic bunch. There's a lot of information to be read from the boy on the far left: a basketball player's legs and height and Converse shoes. His shirt says "Farmington Scorpions" -- this group is from Farmington, New Mexico. The kneeling man has boots and haircut that might indicate some sort of educated outdoor profession. There's an FFA cowboy in the middle of the front row. And so on.

The brief meaning I bring to the photo is more personal and much more extensive. The basketball player is named Willard Washburn. The cowboy is Delbert Slaugh. The kneeling man is a petroleum engineer. The man in the blue shirt standing in the center has a trading post on the Navajo reservation. The man to his left owns a car dealership and will become the mayor of Farmington.

I'm standing behind the boy in the red shirt, Larry Echohawk, who will become the first Native American attorney general of any state and will only narrowly be defeated in a bid to become governor of the State of Idaho.

There's lots more to be told; but important here is that most of the meaning to be read from a photo (there's no meaning inherent in the photo -- it's just a bunch chemicals adhering to a piece of paper) is tied to memory. And memory is as brief as we are.

Finally, John Berger brings this all back to the value of diverse or interdisciplinary approaches to meaning:

There is never a single approach to something remembered. The remembered is not like the terminous at the end of a line. Numerous approaches or stimuli converge upon it and lead to it. Words, comparisons, signs need to create a context for a printed photograph in a comparable way; that is to say, they must mark and leave open diverse approaches.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Writing about Alex Caldiero

I've had the pleasure of writing about the art and poetry and performance of Alex for more than a decade now.

"Intermittent Conversations" is the beginning of an essay written for the 1994 exhibit at the Salt Lake Art Center of works by Alex and 4 other artists under the title of "The Unclosed Hand."

I just posted this essay on my professional page, along with several other publications on performance and art and poetry. With Alex, if you worry about generic purity or about how to categorize his work, you're already a day late and a dollar short. He's got a whole set of interdisciplinary genes, inherited from his Sicilian parents, mutated by his Brooklyn upbringing.

Today in our class about LANGUAGE, Alex wrote the first two letters of the word "cry" on the board and declared that the C was the mouth, the r the tongue.

Here a couple of his drawings from that Unclosed Hand show that illustrate the visual nature of Alex's sense for words:

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Language Scraps and the Deseret Alphabet

Torben Bernhard has just started a blog -- --

with the intention of collecting "language scraps." It's already a visually beautiful site, and the entry on the Deseret Alphabet caught my eye.

The Deseret Alphabet was an early Mormon effort, one of many of their revolutionary ways of remaking the world they lived in, and even if it isn't used widely today, it was such a creative attempt that it continues to capture the imagination of creative people.

For instance, the Clearfield, Utah artist and 5-string banjo player Bob Moss has created a whole series of works on wood and leather and gourds and who knows what else that feature the deseret alphabet. The one I've scanned here (which has a proud spot in my house) asks what a monkey and a cookie jar have in common, and provides a transliteration sheet for any curious readers/viewers. To learn more about Bob Moss, who epitomizes the eclectic interdisciplinarity this blog keeps harping on, see this address on the web:

You'll hear good music, see some photos of Bob Moss and his work, and learn that Bob Moss doesn't have a computer.

The Deseret Alphabet also showed up about a decade ago in Trent Harris' film "Plan 10 From Outer Space." Trent's website is worth visiting:

You'll read there that

Plan 10 From Outer Space is now available on DVD and it is loaded with extras. For instance it has the official Plan 10 From Outer Space deseret alphabet decoder! It has Karen Black singing the Kolob song!! And it has the extra special extra, extra...Day With The Director, which is a strange short film where Plan 10 From Outer Space director Trent Harris chases pesky antelope around a live bombing range. . . .

and that

Plan 10 From Outer Space begins when Lucinda Hall (Stefene Russell) discovers a century old book penned by a mad Mormon prophet. She deciphers this odd artifact and is sucked into a world where spacemen, polygamists, and angels run amuck. Lucinda desperately tries to uncover the "Secret of the Bees" before it is too late. Is she mad or is she on the brink of discovering a diabolical plot led by Nehor (Karen Black), a peeved alien from the planet Kolob? Just because it's made up doesn't mean it isn't true!

And if the Deseret Alphabet and the lovely Karen Black singing "If you could hie to Kolob" and the beehive-headed cyclops don't have your attention yet, note that Alex Caldiero appears in the movie (with his now-defunct station wagon -- I kept telling Alex he should check the oil -- oil, smoil, he said) as a mustachioed father out to reform his son who has a panty fetish.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Semiotics of Young Werther

Ah, sweet love. Sweet depictions of love. Words of love.

In our interdisciplinary class on "Language, most dangerous of possessions," we've begun talking about Goethe's first novel (1774). Written by a 24-year-old who was spurned by Charlotte Buff and whose friend Jerusalem killed himself after being turned down by a married woman, there's a high potential for embarrassing sentimentality (captured nicely in this etching by a contemporary artist).

"Why does it need a name?" Werther asks, "Tell it as it is!" And that's the crux of the problem: things are as they are; we know them through language. Frustrated by the constrictions of the very language through which he knows things, Werther sees "nothing but an eternally devouring, eternaly cud-chewing monster" (when he's not kissing Lotte or her letters).

Semiotics and epistemology are Goethe's antidotes to romance in this novel that even Napoleon couldn't get over (or are they the poisons that make love wither?). So when Werther sits at his desk in his famous yellow trousers,
weighing the pen and the pistol against one another, reading Lessing's tragedy Emilia Galotti, writing the words to Lotte that will announce his death, he's caught in that web of words, that prison-house of language that is our shared human condition.

Although this ends tragically for Werther, Goethe found solace in his own writing, and went on to a ripe old (and very productive) age.

Friday, August 31, 2007

The Semiotics: A bed of words

Of nature, angels, and gods;
Of untranslatable music;
Of oblivion never sweeter
Than upon a bed of words.
Alex Caldiero

Oh that Procrustian bed of words, sweet even though (especially because) it requires clarity and translation. Let nature, angels, and gods sing freely and absolutely. The dark impress of human language speaks us as we savor its flavors.

Alex's poem and my Goethe Yearbook article on language in Goethe's first novel are echoes of Herder's arguments in the essay "On the Origin of Language."

For instance: "If an angel or a heavenly spirit had invented language, how could its entire structure fail to bear the imprint of the manner of thinking of that spirit, for through what could I know the picture of an angel in a painting if not through its angelic and supernatural features?"

For instance: "What proof is there of the existence of a single word which only God could invent? Is there in any language anywhere a single, pure and universal concept that was handed down to man from Heaven?"

As Herder contemplates the human origin of language he contrasts the whirling and fecund imperfections of language with the cold universality of supposed angelic speech. God's language and the cold language of French philosophy pale, for Herder, against the rich tapestry on the bed of German words.

"Die, or create language."

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Semiotics: Alex and Scott

This semester I'm teaching a course with my old friend Alex Caldiero called, after a line by Holderlin, "Language, most dangerous of possessions." The delicate song and dance that is teaching (lowest paid branch of the entertainment industry) becomes even more delicate when it's Alex and me dancing cheek to cheek. We've thought of several names for our act: Abbott and Caldiero, The 49'ers (both born in 1949), The Poet and the Madman, HUMISPHILCOMM (the departments sponsoring the class) -- but have settled on The Semiotics, neatly fracturing a noun meant to describe a scholarly discipline.

Don LaVange made a wonderful poster for the class, using a miniature painting of the Tower of Babel from a medieval manuscript.

With about 30 students able and eager to discuss 18th-century European theories of the origin of the language, a novel by Goethe in which the main character shoots himself because he can't escape the conventions of language, the language of religious mystics, the everpresent and omniscient DADA, Nazi use of language, obscenity, The Goalies Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, and so on, we're having great fun thinking about semiotics of all sorts. (Great fun with suicides? Nazis?)

The high point of the class will be a November performance by Alex featuring poetry in and about, for and forswearing, within and without language. Watch for a new flier and come hear and see and possibly smell a master of the semiotic arts.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Still-born fawn

Yesterday my dog Blue and I were hiking in a gully near our house. (The photo is from last winter, his favorite season.) Blue's sharp nose led us to the remains of a fawn, still-born earlier this summer. Its tiny black hooves were still perfect, it was still curled in what I took to be a perfect fetal position, but something had gone wrong and there it lay. Still.

I felt sad about the loss of potential; but I also recognized the event as perfectly, or imperfectly, natural. We start things, we conceive ideas, we make plans, we nurture them and let them grow; and sometimes they just plain don't work out. Sometimes we just have to let them be.

Left there to decompose, the fawn's little corpse was feeding ants, flies, beatles, birds, and would have fed Blue if I hadn't been so squeamish. Our abandoned projects and incomplete ideas can do the same.

This summer I've returned to some writing I started in 1991 and for my new work have been drawing from its various blind alleys and fragments. I grew up in Farmington, New Mexico, and my ongoing question is what that red-neck, oil-boom town was like outside my limited set of experiences.

In my research, I found some information that I inserted into the beginning of my text:

March, 1950, Farmington, New Mexico

In what eventually will become our hometown, for three days running, half the citizens report seeing flying saucers. Between eleven and noon each day, hundreds of the alien craft raise hell among farmers and trading-post operators, builders and teachers, cooks and civil servants, many of them descendants of Mormon settlers.

I found a newspaper account that I also wove into my experience:

10 June 1974, Tocito Oil Field, Navaho Reservation

I kick at rabbitbrush to break the silence. The derrick has been lowered, the doghouse packed with equipment. Cactus Drilling Company is paying me time-and-a-half to stand guard for the night.

A breeze browses through the newspaper I’ve set aside.

“Violence Erupts, Policeman Injured: Coalition Stops Posse Parade”

A traditional Sheriff’s Posse Parade through downtown Farmington Saturday erupted after a peaceful beginning into an afternoon of violence which saw a Farmington policeman struck by an automobile and crowds of hundreds flee from police tear gas when members of the Coalition for Navajo Liberation attempted to stop the parade. . . . The leaders, who seemed to be supported by an estimated 40 to 50 more Indians on the sidewalk, objected to allowing a six-man contingent of horsemen to proceed. Dressed in cavalry uniforms of the late 19th Century, the horsemen were members of the U.S. Army’s Ft. Bliss, Tex. drill team. . . . One middle aged Fruitland Indian, speaking just after the violence, said in a voice heavy with alcohol, “I care for my people. It should not happen . . . I speak for my people and the white people.”

“Juveniles Sentenced to Springer”

All three youths charged in the mutilation murders of three Navajo men in April were sentenced to terms at the New Mexico Boys School at Springer following an all-day hearing in San Juan County District Court Friday. . . . Medical and psychiatric testimony at the hearing revealed that in the opinion of the authorities, none of the three youths was insane and that they would be “amenable to treatment.”

I study a sidewinder track in the sand. A sinuous sentence with ellipses. And there’s the snake! It progresses almost by regress, eyes me as carefully as I it.

I sleep fitfully in the back of my little car, dream of vengeful natives in the grey dawn over the sand.

After remembering this, I found what's called "The Farmington Report," an important civil rights document, on the internet. It's a federal attempt to improve the way Navajos are treated by Anglos in my home town. That national context made me see the little town with new eyes.

Then I talked with my friend Don LaVange and he showed me a 1974 poem by the Beat poet Gary Snyder:

I Went into the Maverick Bar

I went into the Maverick Bar

In Farmington, New Mexico.

And drank double shots of bourbon backed with beer.

My long hair was tucked up under a cap

I’d left the earring in the car.

Two cowboys did horseplay by the pool tables,

A waitress asked us where are you from?

a country-and-western band began to play

“We don’t smoke Marijuana in Muskokie”

And with the next song, a couple began to dance.

They held each other like in High School dances in the fifties;

I recalled when I worked in the woods and the bars of Madras, Oregon.

That short-haired joy and roughness—America—your stupidity.

I could almost love you again.

We left—onto the freeway shoulders—under the tough old stars—

In the shadow of bluffs I came back to myself,

To the real work, to “What is to be done.”

Gary Snyder, “I Went into the Maverick Bar” from Turtle Island.

Finally, I drove through Farmington again and found an adult video store on the south side of town with a billboard towering over it:

That, of course, scared the bejesus out of me and I went back to my computer. My task now is to take lots of fragments like these and tell a story with them.

The Byrds tell a story of a dog named Blue you may enjoy:

And I hope that buck and doe have more luck next spring.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty died last Friday.

Thirty years ago, I watched Richard Rorty hold his and Mary Varney Rorty's new baby in a circle of LDS men while the Bishop of the Princeton Ward gave him a name and blessing. Mary had grown up LDS in Idaho. Richard had grown up the orchid loving son of Trotskiite parents. True to his pragmatic philosophy, Richard figured it might be good for their new son to grow up within some tradition, and perhaps Mormonism was a good as any other.

Fifteen years ago, I spent five afternoons with Richard looking for a lazuli bunting. He was a passionate birder and had accepted a speaking engagement in Utah on the off chance that he might spot one of the beautiful little birds. Near Stewart Falls above Sundance, I saw a flash of blue and pointed at it. He raised his big binoculars and found it, thrilled to his bones. We had dinner that night in Sundance's Tree Room and I was horrified when he ordered quail. Since that initial sighting, I have emailed Richard every spring on the day I spot the first lazuli bunting in Utah Valley. This year it was on the second of May. I'll miss sending the email next spring.

Some time after publishing his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Richard left the Philosophy Department at Princeton to become a professor of Humanities at the University of Virginia, crossing disciplinary boundaries in order to work more broadly than before. His subsequent work Achieving Our Country drew on the American philosopher John Dewey and the American poet Walt Whitman, and Philosophical and Social Hope included a wonderfully personal autobiographical essay.

On the same day Richard Rorty died, Milo Marx Mussett Shaw was born to two of UVSC's philosophers. There's no way of telling whether the little Mussett-Shaw will be a philosopher, whether he'll engage in interdisciplinary work, whether he'll love birds, whether he'll be good to his older sister, but the balance of loss and gain feels good.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Interdisciplinary Bauhaus

This summer I'm teaching (with Doran Sanft) an Integrated-Studies course on the Weimar Republic, that ultimately failed but fascinating German experiment between the World Wars. When we read Walter Gropius' "Program of the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar" (1919), I thought that the following lines (along with the image of Breuer's famous chair) were an instructive interdisciplinary manifesto:

"Today the arts exist in isolation, from which they can be rescued only through the conscious, cooperative effort of all craftsmen. Architects, painters, and sculptors must recognize anew and learn to grasp the composite character of a building both as an entity and in its separate parts. . . . The Bauhaus strives to bring together all creative effort into one whole, to reunify all the disciplines of practical art -- sculpture, painting, handicrafts, and the crafts -- as inseparable components of a new architecture. The ultimate, if distant, aim of the Bauhaus is the unified work of art -- the great structure -- in which there is no distinction between monumental and decorative art."

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Dictionary of Accepted Ideas

A century ago, Gustave Flaubert collected examples of clichéd ideas in France, calling his work The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas (translated for New Directions by Jacques Barzun).

The entry for “America,” for instance, reads “If it weren’t for the discovery of America, we should not be suffering from syphilis and phylloxera. Exalt it all the same, especially if you’ve never been there.” And the accepted way to respond to the name “Machiavelli”? – “Though you have not read him, consider him a scoundrel.”

This weekend I've been thinking about received or accepted ideas, in part because I've sent a letter to the journal "American Scholar" about a badly argued, sometimes silly, and thoroughly cliched article they just published attacking a friend of mine -- see it at -- but mostly because I worry constantly about being nothing much but a bundle of old and not very interesting and mostly cliched ideas myself.

One response to worries about being shallow and mundane (and I often succumb to this) is to quit writing. The other (and sometimes I succeed at this) is to keep writing, to write more often, with more focus, to search for experiences and ideas (in books, mostly, and in conversation) that come together in my own brain in ways they can't in anyone else's brain. If I do that, sometimes I get lucky. At least I've got a chance. And it's better than the depression that accompanies the other option.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Passports and Identity

Yesterday I sent off an application for a new passport, as I've done a couple of times before. Some things never change, like place of birth, date of birth, name.

Other things, however, change radically, most notably the photo that identifies me (or do I identify the photo?).

I noticed this (was shocked by this) when I dug out my last passport to send in with the application.

Fifteen years later my hair has gone grey. I'm heavier. There's a psychological weight captured by the photo as well. Things happen. They take a toll.

I guess I'm glad they do. I can't even think my way back to being the happy, naive young man depicted on an even earlier passport from 1975. And he certainly couldn't have imagined being the much-traveled, liver-spotted man I have become.

A passport is designed to facilitate bordercrossings. Mine are littered with visas to the former German Democratic Republic and the former Yugoslavia, countries that no longer exist, with borders that have changed. They are stamped by officials in Peru, France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Austria, the United Kingdom.

With my new passport, I can return to some of these places (although I'll need Euros now, instead of Francs and Marks), but as the photo witnesses, it won't be the same person returning. And that's okay by me. I've worked hard for the experience that comes from books and languages and teachers and students and friends and children and grandchildren, for the values and tastes and quirks and knowledge of my own frailties that make me who I am today. I'm grateful for the range, for the reach, for the depths and the heights.

And when the new passport arrives, I've still got some new borders to cross.