Saturday, October 29, 2011

Seeds of Enlightenment

April 1969, Cologne, Germany
            What are those books on your shelves? I ask, pointing at a rainbow-colored row of paperbacks.
            It’s a series published by Suhrkamp: Brecht, Marcuse, Benjamin, Adorno, Bloch. Do you know them?
            Not yet.
            Before the week is out I am carrying a slim purple edition of Bertolt Brecht’s Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder, bending over the dialect-strewn text on the streetcar, reading my way into a radical new world, savoring the vinegary words on my tongue: “Eia popeia / Was raschelt im Stroh? / Nachbars Bälg greinen / Und meine sind froh.”

Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Verlag -- my shelf 40 years later

May 1969, Cologne
            My missionary companion agrees to spend the morning in the Wallraf Richartz Museum. It will be my first art museum, just as the Cologne performances of Aida and Lohengrin have been my first operas.
            In the entrance, an oversized, bulbous, winged and brightly colored woman balances on one leg. She makes me smile. Niki de Saint Phalle is the artist.
We look around. The sheer number of works begins to overwhelm me. How does one experience all this?
A flash of blue and yellow draws me across the room. The bright blue is from sky and water, the light yellow from grasses and reflections on the river or canal. A delicate drawbridge spans the water, its counterweights reaching back like wings. A woman carrying an umbrella crosses the bridge.
I stand in front of the painting, struggle with unexpected emotions.
The paint has been daubed onto the canvas in yellow slashes to form the grass and the reflections on the water. I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve never seen this way. I feel like Moses standing before the burning bush.
The label says “Zugbrücke,” Vincent van Gogh. May 1888.
Wallraf-Richardtz Museum, Cologne

Friday, October 28, 2011

Worse than Hives

I had just finished an article about Heinrich von Kleist's story the "Marquise von O. . ." and needed the critical editions of Schopenhauer, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and Herder for the citations. Deadline for publication this coming Monday.

My choices? Drive to the University of Utah on a Friday afternoon and fight rush-hour traffic on the way home or drive across town to BYU.

Despite the fact that I get (psychological) hives when I step onto the campus where I taught for 11 years, largely a result of memories of academic freedom violations that drew a strong censure by the AAUP investigators Sam Rushforth and I and others invited to campus, I chose what seemed the easier option and headed down University Parkway toward BYU.

Big mistake!

Traffic slowed down near the BYU stadium and I slowed down too. Behind me I could see a car accelerating instead of slowing. I did the only thing I could: honked. It didn't help a bit. The other car crashed into me, knocking me into the car in front of me so hard that it hit the car in front of it.

It was a Mercury behind me. Its entire engine compartment was destroyed -- liquids leaking everywhere. My Subaru, built higher than the Mercury, took its damage underneath and throughout the frame.

Doors that won't open. Muffler mashed up against the frame. And when I finally drove away, trouble with the drive train.

Moral of this story: stay away from BYU.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


This afternoon, on "The World," in a story about the possible future of North and South Korea, a student at a girls' school said "I think it would be bad if they unificate."

Sunday, October 23, 2011

J. M. Coetzee's "Summertime": Afrikaners and Mormons

The book is a fictionalized and fragmentary biography. The biographer presents the Nobel Prize winner's notebooks 1972-75, interviews with five people who knew the author, and undated fragments from his notebooks. The accounts are largely unflattering.

This morning as I finished the novel (the genre designation on the title page is "Fiction"), I was left wondering about my own deficiencies, awkwardness, guarded personality, loyalties, and relationships with my parents.

And about my rejections of and identifications with the religion I was raised in and whose tenets I practiced for 40 years.

Here's a passage from Summertime that seems to get at complexities I recognize:

So we have the case of a man who spoke the language only imperfectly, who stood outside the state religion, whose outlook was cosmopolitan, whose politics was -- what shall we say? -- dissident, yet who was ready to embrace an Afrikaner identity. Why do you think that was so?

My opinion is that under the gaze of history he felt there was no way in which he could separate himself off from the Afrikaners while retaining his self-respect, even if that meant being associated with all that the Afrikaners were responsible for, politically.

Was there nothing that drew him more positively to embrace an Afrikaner identity -- nothing at a personal level, for example?

Perhaps there was, I can't say. . . . He had been rebuffed by the Afrikaners too often, rebuffed and humiliated -- you have only to read his book of childhood memories to see that. He was not going to take the risk of being rejected again.

So he preferred to remain an outsider.

I think he was happiest in the role of outsider. He was not a joiner.


Johann Gottfried Herder’s Journal meiner Reise im Jahr 1769 / Journal of my Trip in 1769

Many of the events of our lives are, in truth, dependent on the play of chance. Thus I came to Riga in my clerical office and thus I abandoned that office; thus I began to travel. I was not happy with myself socially, neither in the circles I frequented nor outside the ones I chose not to frequent. I was not happy with myself as a teacher, the sphere was too narrow for me, too unsuitable, and I for that sphere too broad, too foreign, too busy. I was not happy as a citizen, since my domestic life was typified by restrictions, little substantial productivity, and a lazy, often odious placidity. And least of all, finally, as an author, in which capacity I had achieved a reputation that was as disadvantageous to my position as it was to me personally. Everything was loathsome to me. I didn’t have enough courage and strength to destroy these unfortunate circumstances and to swing myself into an alternate career. Thus I was forced to travel; and because I doubted the likelihood of that, as suddenly, overwhelmingly, and even adventurously as possible. . . .

I reproach myself, I have lost years of my Human life; and wasn’t it my sole responsibility to enjoy those years? Didn’t fate offer me the full capacity to do so? What if I had chosen to make the French language, history, natural science, mathematics, drawing, comportment . . . my highest commitments? . . . I wouldn’t have become an inkpot of learned scribbling, a dictionary of arts and sciences that I haven’t seen and don’t understand. I wouldn’t be a repository full of papers and books that belong only in the study. I would have avoided situations that hemmed in my spirit and mind and thus limited me to a false, intensive understanding of people. . .

Herder boards a ship and while sailing to Sweden, Denmark, and France, develops a new curriculum for educating the kind of person he wishes he were. While denouncing abstractions and the language of abstraction he constructions new abstractions. It reminds me of Thoreau's turning to nature at Walden Pond and then experiencing nature through the lenses of classical education.

Still, Herder's decision to travel in order to flee the restrictions of his life, in order to open new spheres of experience, speaks to me.

Time to break loose. 


Friday, October 21, 2011

Tristan / Tantris

Okay, I'm not a big fan of contemporary romance novels. That's doubly true for contemporary teen romances. So when this book arrived in the mail I thought it must have been misaddressed. 

The author, however, is a former German major, a student of mine who went on to complete a Ph.D. in German Studies at Princeton. I knew Mette had been shaping a career as a writer and that she had a growing list of published books. But I had never read any of her work.

Tris & Izzie is Mette's title. Tristan und Isolde was Wagner's title. Tristan was the simple title of the 1211 epic poem by Gottfried von Strassburg. Okay, I thought, I'll read it, see what's she's up to. Flipping past the title page, I discovered why she sent it.

I'll be damned, I said. I'll be damned.

Right when I was wrestling with the idea that perhaps I'm not the teacher I always thought I was. Right when I've just gone to class and found that only 2 of the 6 students had read the assignment and the other 10 hadn't even come to class. Right when I most needed it in that eternal cycle of pride and doubt, here comes a book out of the blue that claims I taught at least one good class.

So I read it. Teen romance and all. Magic teen romance with giants and evil serpents and swordplay and love philtres and a two-headed dog.

If that had been it, even with the dedication, I would have replied with a luke-warm thank you very much. It was very thoughtful of you.

But that was not it. All the magic teen romance takes place in high school. And that makes all the difference. 

Izzie is 16 and loves Mark, a basketball player and nice guy. She loves his butt in tight pants and loves to kiss him. When her affections switch to Tristan, she likes his butt even better. Izzie is the antithesis of the passive magic teen princess heroine. She's a real teenager. Okay, she's also got magic. Okay, the story based loosely on Gottfried's Tristan has a happy ending (although when the black sails appeared at the end I feared tragedy).

But best of all, at least for me, was that it's just plain funny. Juxtapose a tragic epic German poem with high school and, if you write well, you've got a book that makes you laugh. What a fun day it was reading this.

A couple of examples:

Then I took a shower, put on clean, unsweaty clothes, and ate a candy bar (a sure cure for any ills). I also looked on the Internet for cures for a love philtre. Here is a list of them:

1. Death

That was pretty much it. Both of us had to die. If I just killed Tristan, I would pine over his loss, and then I would end up dying of a broken heart anyway. Jumping off bridges, taking poison, or simply refusing to eat and wasting away were some of the top choces for ending the magical power of a love philtre, according to all the old stories, and the new ones, too.

As tempting as it was to strangle Tristan with my bare hands on his bare, bare neck-- 

Let me put that a different way.

Here's another sense for Izzie's narrative voice:

Brann was right next to the giant's face now, and he was examining her carefully. Maybe he was nearsighted. Who would make glasses in that size?

The giant opened his mouth.

I thought how bad his breath must smell from up close. It was bad enough where I was, yards away. I didn't think he was a vegetarian. He looked at Branna like she was a tasty treat, a bite-size chocolate-covered ice-cream bar. He wasn't going to worry about the calories, either. Guys never do. They want to be bigger.

In short, it's a good story.

In short, I'm deeply moved by the dedication.

In short, thank you, Mette. 

Indian Summer / Nachsommer in Utah Valley

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Photo by David Light (slight fuzziness due to my photo of the photo)

Lyn's brother-in-law, David Light, took this photo in Scotland. It has been hanging on our wall since late last year and I've often had the impulse to write about it (in the service of seeing it better).

In several ways the photo is the polar opposite of Hyunmee Lee's painting (see the previous post); but in an odd way it raises some of the same questions hers does.

This time the mass that weighs heavy on me is stone, cut stones stacked and mortared together to make a massive set of structures. Had I been walking past these buildings I would have looked the other way, hoping for a human face or an interesting sequence of hats.

David saw and photographed the mass -- and much more.

There are the colors, remarkable in variety despite the fact that they are all closely related.

There are the mostly vertical shapes, a verticality enhanced by the horizontal roofs they hold up, straight lines broken only in a couple of places by curved arches.

There are the alternating planes, some facing the viewer, some slicing across the view, that keep the eye guessing about relationships. 

So the mass is differentiated, interesting, even beautiful. Still, I wouldn't have asked David for the photo if it hadn't also made me smile.


Pink is just the wrong word for this stolid set of buildings. It belongs here like shit belongs in a boardroom. It's unsettling. And sly -- sly at least in the photo, even if it's probably just the sign for a boutique of some sort. As letters that together mean something beyond themselves, it works in my mind like the "5" or the "b" or the squiggle works in Hyunmee's painting, as a sign of the human mind at work making sense of things.

And then there's "ROYAL EXCHANGE SQUARE." The building is a human construction and has a name. The name, however, the sign "for" something, raises tension in the context of the massive pile of stones that stands there. Although the architecture too is language, there's a distinct contrast between the two modes of signification.

Exacerbating that delicious tension is the hanging sign facing backwards, "MERCHANT CITY." It takes a conscious effort to make it out, a conscious effort that inserts itself agilely into what looks like a mass of stones.

And finally, there's the camera.

Not the camera in David's hands, but the security cameral bolted to the building and then reflected in the window. These windowed and reflective and lettered buildings are self conscious.

This is a significant set of buildings, thanks to David's good eye. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Hyunmee Lee's "chunji-changjo" (heaven and earth)

The painting is signed LeeHyunmee, the artist's name in her native Korean. But Hyunmee is also an American and so the catalogue for the USU exhibition of the "Creation" paintings called her Hyunmee Lee. The difference in cultures and languages feels to me like a good metaphor for the differences between how Hyunmee describes her painting and how I receive it.

chunji-changjo is the Korean. "Heaven and earth" the English.

Living with the very large black-and-white painting for a couple of years now, I find my mind and my feelings tending away from heaven and earth and feeling their way toward consciousness and subconsciousness, toward what is simply/complexly the case and what human consciousness makes of that.

Frank McEntire, a fine sculptor himself, quotes Hyunmee in the exhibition catalogue to the effect that the Zen concept of "ch'i," the life force, is the life of her paintings.

I have as little personal sense for "ch'i" as I have for heaven. What I do have is an ongoing visceral response to the painting that has a powerful conceptual component.

It's a dark painting for me, especially when I'm gripped by melancholy (a richer word than depression). It weighs heavy on me, so much so that at times I can't stand to look at it. If I do look at it in that mood, I can sense my life slipping formlessly and helplessly down off the canvas.

At other times, however, in other moods, what I feel about the weight and direction of the blackness is tempered by the scratchings and markings and scrumblings (Frank's word) in the black and across the black and even aside from the black. They are the workings of the eye and the mind and the hand of a human being. They seem like attempts to find patterns, to understand forms, to create meaning out of chaos.

In these moods I look to the right of the painting and see what my mind's eye takes to be a "5." Or it could be a "b." Or it could be the accident of an artist's gesture with a brush and paint. In any case, I see it as a sign created to make sense of the inchoate, a letter or number with which to create meaning.

Okay, it's ambiguous, it's only partially clear, it may be an accident; but it's delicate, it has a light and thoughtful form, it is the antithesis of the heavy and sliding blackness.

And that's all I really need, a simple antithesis on whose structure I can stretch my emotional and rational self (I almost wrote "selves" -- "zwei Seelen wohnen, ach, in meiner Brust").

Heaven and earth. Consciousness and subconscious. Chaos and order. Whatever it is, it (usually) works for and in me.


Hi Scott,

How are you?  It's a wonderful news.  Just read your interesting writing and I enjoyed it. 

Just a short note about the gestures and black color in my work: 
The strong black gestures moving across the surface of large canvas was beginning of my "meditative gestures".   The large dark gestures are influenced by Taoism and Buddhism; the black unifies and bridges the harmony of energy (chi).  The black color is very special to me, for me black is much more than just feelings (and white is full as empty canvas.)  The black color is a window, it opens to the another world (far from a physical world), so my black is lighter than any other color.  Hope to enjoy the painting and you could move into a realm of progression of balance.

Thanks for the email!  We are doing great!!!  Say hi to Lyn!!,



thanks for your thoughts about your painting.

I'm intrigued by your idea of seeing the black as a window, as lighter than any other color. It reverses the polarity for me and just now, watching the motion of the black on the white, I could feel it lifting and rising like a balloon.

Why not, indeed, see the white as "full as empty canvas" and all the various black markings as the signs created by a hopeful and thoughtful artist.

I'll never see it as you can, of course. I'm just not equipped to do so. But to live with the painting and to see it and feel it and to think about it like I'm doing now will make it a fine companion for the coming years.

Been thinking a lot lately about aging, especially in conversations with Alex and Sam. Health and sickness. The inevitable winding down -- entropy is in fact the law. But until it all goes black (or white), there's still the back and forth out of which we fashion our lives. That's the ongoing power your painting has for me, Hyunmee, the interplay, the dialectic, the bridging, the tension out of which life proceeds.


The comment by the flowerville blogger has reinforced my sense for how important this work of art (any work of art) is as it raises questions and stimulates the desire to work them out.

This morning I looked more closely at the white paint Hyunmee starts with. In my mind it was just white, just a background for the black. But when you really look at it, the white is as thick and rich and marked as the black.

It makes me think of Zarko's friend Julije Knifer, about his paintings that began with multiple layers of white, layer after obsessive layer of white, putting off the moment he feared, when black would enter the picture. Here a couple of photos from Zarko's experimental book called "Knifer" that show the painter before unfinished canvases.
photos of julije knifer at work, by zarko radakovic

And then I think of snow and the marking that comes from our entering that uniform covering of the familiar.

Finally, another Knifer meander and a link to an earlier conversation about Knifer which, surprisingly (or not) also involved depression:

Monday, October 3, 2011

Scales and Spurs, Greens and Reds

memento mori (and that evolution is a fantastic artist)