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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Le Fin de Summer of Stein

"Writing is a means of knowing, and in literature knowledge is derived through form.  New knowledge can only be obtained through new forms.  Yet such a process requires distancing oneself from one's readership, not selling books and setting of on a path that Joyce exhausted years ago.  The more one experiments with form the more one distances oneself from functional writing, and from the possibility of selling books.  It wouldn't be much of a dilemma, however, if I hadn't presently such a need for money."              Hermann Broch

"The historical position of Bach's work therefore reveals what later generations had begun to forget—that history is not necessarily a path climbing upward (toward the richer, the more cultivated), that the demands of art may be counter to the demands of the moment (of this or that modernity), and that the new (the unique, the inimitable, the previously unsaid) might lie in some direction other than the one everybody sees as progress."  Kundera, Testaments Betrayed

The Nazi's interned Broch in 1938 for producing subversive work.  In his cell he began the devastatingly beautiful and prophetic magnum opus The Death of Virgil.

In this symphony of language Cesar tells Virgil "The welfare of the Empire demands slaves, and they  have to accommodate themselves to this fact. . . should they rebel against this. . . like Crassus I should have to let thousands of them be slain on the cross, as much a warning to the people as to divert them, and in order to make them, who are always ready for cruelty and fear, realize with fear and trembling, how impotent the individual is in comparison to the all-commanding state."

"'The literature of Hermann Broch could be understood,' wrote George Steiner, 'in view of the totality of his ideas and works, as an incessant metaphor of translation:  translation of the present time  into the time of the final days, of classical values into contemporary chaos.'"  Eduardo Jiménez Mayo, José María Pérez Gay (trans.) Eduardo Jiménez Mayo, The Unfortunate Passions of Hermann Broch  

In Testaments Betrayed Kundera discusses the nearly 70 years Europe lived "under a trial regime."    He gives  many examples.  I mention one:  "The most exquisite flower of the century, the modern art of the twenties and thirties, was even triply accused:  first by the Nazi tribunal as Entartete Kunst, "degenerate art"; then by the Communist tribunal as "elitist formalist alien to the people"; and finally by the triumphant capitalist tribunal as art steeped in revolutionary illusions."   I recognize this moment, these accusations, and I am particularly drawn the writers who emerged from this war and continued to create:  Beckett, Kundera, Appelfeld, Broch and Stein.  Over sixty years later I hear the same accusations of work I respect or am in the process of creating myself.  Continuing Cesar's project of flaying slaves, gatekeepers and collectors control the discourse today.

Kundera concludes:   "If we don't want to leave this century just as stupid as we entered it, we must abandon the facile moralism of the trial and think about this scandal, think it through to the bottom, even if this should lead us to question anew all our certainties about man as such."

In Beyond Despair, Aharon Appelfeld, a child survivor who fled to live in the forest writes:   ". . . with the Holocaust.  Everything in it already seems so thoroughly unreal, as if it no longer belongs to the experience of our generation, but to mythology.  Thence comes the need to bring it down the human realm. . .to attempt to make the event speak through the individual and in his language, to rescue the suffering from huge numbers, from dreadful anonymity, and to restore the person's given and family name, to give the tortured person back his human form, which was snatched away from him." 

This is the very project I've taken on with A Woman's Body Was Found There, Urban Nizhóní and my current work on the traffic in Navajo slaves and Indian Art.  People often say certain subjects have been exhausted, and writers obsessed with these subjects (slavery, genocide, or the relevance of the novel) are continually forced to justify why we continue to devote ourselves to these areas of inquiry and form (oral history and written literature).

When I embarked on this summer of Stein I made a plan in my notebook to address literary ideals, the hard and fast economics of making a living as a writer (a painter and textile worker), and the professionalization of the arts (through servicing city programs and social services) controlling the grant cess pit.  My identification with Stein, Beckett, Kundera, Appelfeld and Kafka seems obvious as a Navajo writer when paralleled with our recent genocide and continuing persecution.  I see our recent path in these works.  I see possibilities for our future, with our own relocations to strange cities outside the protection of the sacred mountains, and my fear we may experience our own metamorphosis into hateful creatures, enemy diné, for whom humanity is a distant memory.

"There was no doubt that the war dulled, distorted, and I do not hesitate to say so, corrupted the soul, but at the same time it also brought powers of dedication and self-sacrifice from the depths, and mainly archaic feelings that over the years, had been covered beneath a thick deposit of rationalism."  (Appelfeld, Beyond Despair)

Last week Ms. Niki Lee and I went to see Sarah's Key to celebrate my birth.    

My initial desire to see the film lay in my interest in Kristen Scott Thomas' work, especially her dual language acting.  The content was a bonus.  In my years of reading about the war, the Nazi persecution of artists and intellectuals, and the response of Jews before, during and after the Nazi program against them I knew little of this particular round up.  I knew mainly of our own.  When we left the theatre I continued to think about Julia's (Scott Thomas' character) devotion to her writing, to the questions inside, to her inability to take the place laid for her in this contemporary age.  When a younger writer, who knew nothing of the round up asks, "What can we do about it now?  You want to give them back their flat?"  Julia answers, "Yes.  Why not?"  This is the same question I am asked by over three quarters of the people I interact with.  Julia, the writer, makes the only choice, as a writer, that she can.  This choice is an artist's choice.  The same one Beckett made as a member of the resistance.  The same one Kundera and Broch made as they fled.  The same one Gertrude made when she remained and recorded her and Alice's life in Wars I Have Seen.
Appelfeld continues:  "The naive faith that a man was free, to be judged by his intentions and acts, everything that we include under the rubric of 'humane rationalism,' crumbled and turned to dust.  In the penal colony other standards were set.  The mystery within you was crime and punishment at one and the same time."

Again, I arrive at Gertrude's saints and their pursuit of the mystery within.  A quest artists face and grope at, sometimes with grace and at other times inelegantly, but always with a feverish perseverance incomprehensible to many.  There is no way to put a figure on this pursuit, but we are, every one of us, asked to pay our way in today's world, to pay our rent, to pay our grocer, and to pay our doctor.  To pay in money we must access in some way, not often compatible with our pursuit of the mystery within.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Summer of Stein

Four Saints in Three Acts:  An Opera Installation

I usually don't write reviews.  I'm on a different time line, but we had such an amazing day (Thursday 18 August 2011), and this performance was so utterly contrary that I have to address it specifically.

We spend all our money on rent and food.  We save for art (music, literature, theatre) when we feel we can't live with ourselves if we miss a particular performance.  This year the one performance we thought we could not live without was Gertrude's Four Saints in Three Acts.

It's Gertrude.

During this summer of Stein my one constant obsession has been the lives of artists—especially as they relate to our ability to make a living.  In a recent LA Review of Books article, FutureTense, Tom Lutz concludes with a discussion of the price of books in France, and an American complaint that they are too high.

"Yes," said the Frenchman.  "We have this silly theory in France that our authors should be able to eat."

Lutz adds:  "We don't know what the future of publishing is, but we know that the future for every writer requires food."

Earlier this week I made a tally of my rejections:   A Woman's Body Was Found There (45), California Wasn't Good For Us (3), Urban Nizhóní (2) and The Portugal Story (7).  Nearly all of my rejections spin around the axis of marketability.  There are a few living writers I feel kin to: Lahiri, Silko, and Kundera.  When I need refuge (nearly every night) I turn to Gertrude, Beckett, and Kafka.  Their world, their language, their attention to what lingers nearby, awaiting an utterance, sometimes silence, keeps me afloat when life flows like water into the mouth a drowning man (Kafka).

Virgil Thomson:  "Please do not try to construe the words of this opera literally or to seek in it any abstruse symbolism.  If, by means of the poet's liberties with logic and the composer's constant use of the simplest elements in our musical vernacular, something is here evoked of the childlike gaiety and mystical strength of lives devoted in common to a non-materialistic end, the authors will consider their message to have been communicated."

We'd been preparing for the play for months.  Ms. Niki Lee made a new dress and I rested enough to bear life after sundown.  Early that day a check arrived from IAIA:  Ms. Niki Lee sold Bringing In The Dawn, her first sale in just over a year.  We remembered our friend America saying "just when you can't make the rent a check arrives in the mail from IAIA."  Bringing In The Dawn won't pay our rent, it barely covered the price of the tickets for the play, but we were happy nonetheless.  Sometimes even the smallest thing keeps you going.

Ms. Niki Lee had read the Examiner insert written by Robyn Wise, and she was a little nervous.  In my usual fashion I hadn't read past:  "Thomson chose for his subject the life of the artist, and Stein embroidered the idea with religious themes, insisting that the artist's absolute commitment to art is comparable to saint-hood."  The rest: "the production assembles formidable collaborators from both coasts, including composer Luciano Chessa, contemporary chamber opera group Ensemble Parallele and New York's much-in-demand video/performance artist Kalup Linzy, perhaps best known for sendups of soap opera culture."

We arrived just as they were opening the house.  We sat and started to read the program.  What we read was not reassuring:  "I have added a more structured narrative, interconnecting several dark several dark comedic vignettes that explore some of society's irrational views regarding life and death and the contradictions that surround murder and our concept of justice."


Did director and production designer Brian Staufenbiel not trust Thomson's music or Gertrude's language?  Did he actually think, "I need a hook for this?"  Or did he just want to write his own opera?

The curtain came up and two rows of black hooded figures walked on stage singing in parsel tongue, looking like rejects from a middle school production of Faustus.

This was A Heavenly Act, to go before the saints, commissioned by SFMOMA and Ensemble Parallelle.

Ms. Niki Lee tipped her head to me and said, "Who goes to the theatre to watch TV?"  I'll refrain from attacking Mr. Linzy, who looked like a P-Funk devotee, whisper singing like Janet when the rest of the cast sung sans electric.  I kept waiting for him to do something, his stage presence an annoyance, and certainly less compelling (even in disgust) than the white plastic mannequin clothed in a lace dress that took center stage in "Heaven-as-it-actually-is."  Filling a theatre is decidedly different than You-Tube. 

I've commented at length about the power of Thompson's original cast being all black, when black bodies were largely objectified for nonblack audience needs and fetishized epistemology, but that was then and this is now, and with all the silver paint covering the rest of production and cast faces, why did they use Mr. Linzy's body for the promotional poster—only.

Gertrude herself said, you don't have to understand it you have to enjoy it:  I hated it.

As Kalup himself says:  I Cried All Tears I Could Cry

I tried not to flood myself with questions:  they sent to New York for this guy, they could have gone down to Esta Noche on any night of the week and found someone better, what about Vixon Noir she needs work, she's a dancer, she can sing, she commands the stage, she's hot and she lives in San Francisco.

At this point the woman next to Ms. Niki Lee lifted her right cheek about 6 inches off the seat and let one go.  Which Ms. Niki Lee thought might be better than the foul smell of fabric softener she had been releasing, and which revealed, not her opinion of the opera "installation," but her own manner of "bringsy upsy."

I was hoping this mess would contain itself to the new commission.

Curtain.  Four Saints in Three Acts.

Ms. Niki Lee said, "cotton candy has more substance."

Forgoing a blow by blow I will say they forced this work to conform to their own limitations. 

"Novelistic thinking is purposely a-philosophic, even anti-philosophic, that is to say fiercely independent of any system of preconceived ideas; it does not judge; it does not proclaim truths; it questions, it marvels, it plumbs; its form is highly diverse:  metaphoric, fanciful; and mainly it never leaves the magic circle of its characters' lives; these lives feed it and justify it."  (Kundera in The Curtain)

"I have added a more structured narrative, interconnecting several dark several dark comedic vignettes that explore some of society's irrational views regarding life and death and the contradictions that surround murder and our concept of justice." (Four Saints program notes)

These were four Saints.  Gertrude wasn't being allegorical.  She revered these holy people and this landscape (Spain).  This production was completely earthbound, without the land, a central character of the original production of 1934.

Ms. Niki Lee said, "These people think they are better than the gods."

"Unlike the original, this new production has a few dark angels.  The aim:  to imagine divine intervention working in reverse, and to ask if our earthly acts might transform the very landscape of heaven itself."  (Four Saints program notes)

The significance of this statement hit me full on after I watched them gut the opera (literally on stage, and figuratively in practice).  Not only did this production remove the beauty and exaltation from the music and the book, but they removed it from the lives of the Saints as well.  There is no possibility of divinity in this production.  The same divinity Saints reach toward and artists pursue, knowing that the most essential aspect of creation is to allow the work to be larger than yourself and your limitations.  Not only did this production not trust Thomson or Stein, with their belief that it needed an amendment (a narrative and darkness), but they also believed that heaven (a concept of a divine, by definition above human frailty, wretchedness, above us, the waˆceh) can be, and in some way, needs transformation itself.  The desire of a certain peoples to transform the landscape by our earthly actions is tragically clear to us, the indigenous; we see it in the dams and the current struggle at the Peaks. 

It's easy to project your own limitations on work that is "experimental."  I experience this with my own work, all the time.

"Every author of some value transgresses against 'good style,' and in that transgression lies the originality (and hence the raison d'être) of his art."  (Kundera in Testaments Betrayed)

There are so few spaces for these transgressions today.  They are getting stopped at the gates (MFA, Tenure Track Faculty, much-in-demand celebrities) and with bottom line thinking.  I expected more, especially from the YBCA.  Gate keeping is the very reason I've begun this series, the very issue I raise in all my work—the inability of people to make a living with a creative life.  The professionalization of creation--the service of art for further consumption, replication and regurgitation keeps all of us in the audience at the feet of the sanctioned (funded and much-in-demand), even if they claim a different status.

And this installation is not even good.  I've seen every image (scene, set, face make up, color scheme) before—nothing surprised me or moved me to reconsider.  The entire visual and imaginative arena was cliché.  They were trifling, each one.  Aside from the necromantic narrative, and their ridicule of Gertrude's linguistic vision, the cast (aside from the marvelously voiced and very poorly dressed Eugene Brancoveanu, Heidi Moss, Jonathan Smucker, John Bischoff and a solid debut by Maya Kherani) looked like they had only began practicing a week ago, their costumes could have been (if they weren't) purchased up the street at Ross, and the choreography was lame and flaccid.

Still, the most destructive aspect of this production is what it had to say (in practice and theme) about the lives of artists today. 

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Summer of Stein

"Imagine the Grand Canyon turned into a lake."  (Up the Yangtze)

Last night we watched Up The Yangtze , the 2007 film by director Yung Chang.  The film documents China's Three Gorges Dam and the relocation of young Yu Shui and her family.

It has taken four years for Ms. Niki Lee to face Chang's film—four years to prepare to endure the harrowing sorrow and despair she knew the film would provide given the obvious parallels with the Garrison Dam on the MHA Nation.

"Did you know we're going to be flooded?  Did you know we're going to have to leave everything behind and we're going to be flooded?"  (Waterbuster)

During the building of the Garrison Dam one fourth of the MHA Nation's lands were flooded for the creation of Lake Sakagewa—a lake named after the celebrated Shoshoni slave, and "unwed mother," who helped Lewis and Clark on their expedition, as they forged the Oregon Trail— another monument to western expansion, and the relocation and molestation of tribes in the process.

Up The Yangtze begins with the story of the Ghost City, the place were dead souls must pass before they can return to the earth as reincarnated spirits.  The Three Gorges Dam floods some of that city and some of the sacred sites that relate to this spiritual point of entry.  Where will the souls go on their journey now? 

The Chinese need the dam for three principle reasons:  electricity, water control, and navigation (water recreation).  This is what they say.  This is what we hear.  They told the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nations similar things when they began work on the Garrison Dam in 1946, work begun as part of the Pick-Sloan Project along the Missouri River.

As we watched the land be flooded by overweight Americans, tourists, cash economies, mass produced commodities and water I kept thinking of our Nations and our own relocations (to reservations, cities, and casinos as employees).

Every night I dream this dream.  I open my eyes to the end of the world; I have survived.  I wander, sometimes with Ms. Niki Lee, sometimes on my way to find her.  Once I fell off the face of the earth.  I survived that too.  Sometimes I wander for hours.  No one can kill this dream, not even needles from my Chinese doctor.  The dream is old; I've had it since I was a child, sans Ms. Niki Lee.  Relocation is an ancient nightmare, one the ancestors remind us to survive and one we are responsible to recognize the reoccurring terrain of.

Our connection to China is not only one of commerce and mass consumption.  We share the earth; we share humanity.   This goes beyond my constant harping about flicking switches— turning off as much electricity as we can (lights, computers, and chargers), and my concern with the toll technology takes on our humanity and personal relations (including the mass suicides of Chinese workers confined to produce iproducts, or those Chinese whose bodies were savagely put on display for an international tour in the name of science and education).

Watching Up The Yangtze underscores the fact that the greatest war in progress today is the war against the land and against landed people—indigenous people everywhere, those that emerged from Mother Earth, those that fell to her, from stars or rain clouds, those that know first and foremost their place as relations among her children, those that seek balance.

The film is a painful reminder of all our rivers and relocations.  What do we do and where to we go?

D'Arcy McNickle's 1978 Wind From An Enemy Sky begins with Bull, the tribes strongest and most respected man, walking up the mountain to see this lie he refuses to believe:  the dam.  In his sorrow and fear he shoots the dam with his gun.

Bull tells his grandson:  "I am a big man.  I have always been called so.  They gave me my name, Bull, because they said I was strong even as a boy, growing up.  But when we saw how the white man built that place in the rocks and stopped our water, turned it away, I was not a big man.  I fired my gun—a puff of smoke.  You were frightened because I could do nothing. . .After a while, you will understand it.  The white man makes us forget our holy places.  He makes us small." 

McNickle wrote this novel to honor the MHA Nation and their experience with the Garrison Dam.  He wrote a novel.  He created in light of devastation and destruction.  He devoted himself to his passion and purpose—to language and story.   

In 1837 Geroge Sand wrote: "To destroy life is the past time of a Gentleman."  Patience, in Mauprat

Kundera tells this story in "Works and Spiders" a chapter in Testaments Betrayed.  He was 13.  His father hired a friend, a Jewish composer, to teach his son the basics of musical composition.  Kundera wasn't a gifted musician.  The war was everywhere around.  The composer wore the star, and people had begun to avoid any connection to him.  Asking him to teach Milan was his father's show of solidarity—shared humanity.  Kundera followed the man from place to place, each smaller than the last, as the man kept getting relocated throughout the ghettos.  He took his lessons among strangers, strangers to both men, as the composer simply had to go where they sent him.  The bustle of ghetto business surrounded them.  Kundera remembers one moment in particular, this moment shaped him profoundly.

After one of his lessons the composer walked him out and stood by the door.  For no reason Kundera could recognize he said:  "There are many surprisingly weak passages in Beethoven.  But it is the weak passages that bring out the strong ones.  It's like a lawn—if it weren't there, we couldn't enjoy the beautiful tree growing on it."

Kundera continues:  "But dearer to me than the remark in itself is the image of a man who, a while before his hideous journey, stood thinking aloud, in front of a child, about the problem of composing a work of art."

I have been reading story after story of escapes made by people fleeing the Nazis and the Gestapo.  Every artist carried their work with them, no matter how cumbersome:  Beckett, Benjamin, Man Ray and Gertrude's long time collaborator Virgil Thomson. 

Man Ray and Thomson fled Paris together by train.  Man Ray took one loaded camera and Thomson brought 14 pieces of luggage, including 6 trunks of scores he planned to debut in the states once he returned.  The Spanish border guard thought the scores might be military code and refused them entry.  Thomson would have to go on without them.  Thomson refused and offered this explanation:  they were Mozart sonatas.  The guard replied, "Ah, Mozart!" and let them pass.

The artist devotes her life to creation, not destruction.  Elzéard Bouffier plants trees.  I write.  Ms. Niki Lee sews.

"This is how walls have fallen." (Those Who Thunder, Linda Hogan)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Summer of Stein

"There was a woman who used to wash the clothes for the enemy in a kind of way she was an enemy herself, not an enemy who could frighten one but just an enemy and she said the enemies would win because they had wonderful weapons that no one had ever seen, all the enemies had wonderful weapons that no one had ever seen."
            -Gertrude Stein, Wars I have Seen

We started this week's visit to the Steins Collect with a quick trip up to see Matisse and Cezanne.  The place was flooded with docents so we made a quick exit down two floors to visit the Klee exhibit.  The National Socialists declared Klee's art "degenerate" in 1933, upon which he returned to his birth land.

Und schamt sich nicht (Am not Ashamed)

I have been reading about the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) and Varian Fry's work in rescuing degenerate artists from Europe during the Nazi terror.  According to my New World Dictionary a degenerate person is "one who is morally depraved or sexually perverted."  One who has become "debased morally or culturally."

Hermann Broch, began his masterpiece, The Death of Virgil, while incarcerated in a German Concentration camp.  In it he writes of Virgil on his death bead.  Virgil's thoughts: "nothing availed the poet, he could right no wrongs; he is heeded only if he extols the world, never if he portrays it as it is.  Only falsehood wins renown, not understanding."

The ERC started with a list of names compiled by friends and colleagues who had recently escaped Europe.  After the Vichy government agreed to hand over any German (any anti-Nazi) on the Nazi's list.  The Americans sent Fry, in August 1940, to evacuate as many of the people on his own list that he could find.  He set about his task, and recorded his experiences in a 1945 book titled Surrender on Demand.

Gertrude and Alice were not among those who received his aid.  Like Matisse they chose to wait it out.  Their experiences are detailed in Wars I Have Seen, one of the most profound of Stein's writings (along with Three Lives).  Her humanity is revealed in her attention to the daily details of survival—especially as two women, alone, in a Vichy France.  She doesn't complain or even name the difficulties of being a Jew and a Lesbian at that time–for Gertrude, I believe, that is facile.  What Gertrude and Alice demonstrate is the undertaking of daily life, there, and anywhere, for two women, where allegiances are not always clear and art shapes every breath.  During this time, like all of the artists I've read about, or read themselves, Gertrude wrote.  She created.  Alice cooked.  Together they found that "you never can tell who is going to help you, that is a fact. . . It always is funny that way, the ones that naturally should offer do not, and those who have no reason to offer it do, you never know you never do know where your good-fortune is to come from.  The most experienced person can never tell, never never never."

Fry is one such man who helped for no reason.  There are many more and there are many that were not saved.  Walter Benjamin, travelling with his manuscript in hand, being only one death by suicide that we all know.

"The one thing that is sure and certain is that history does not teach, that is to say, it always says let it be a lesson to you but it is not at all because circumstances always alter cases and so although history does repeat itself it is only because the repetition is soothing that any one believes it, nobody nobody wants to learn either by their own or anybody else's experiences, nobody does, no they say they do but no body does, nobody does.  Yes nobody does."  (Wars I Have Seen)

One of the most powerful aspects of Gertrude and Alice's lives, for me and Ms. Niki Lee, is that every night Gertrude wrote and every day Alice typed, sewed and kept the house.  Together they devoted each day to art and to artists.  Today most of what I hear is that you can't make a living writing, speaking your own language, cooking and growing your own food, raising your flock, sewing your own clothes, being open— in any way— to something larger than making and spending money.  The madness of art appears when the artist opens him, or her, self to something greater, something beyond what is seen, even by themselves.  There is fellowship among those who attempt to live this out, especially today with the wonderful weapons of hate, apathy and greed.   

Many of Klee's paintings, those left in Germany, were confiscated during the great destruction of art committed by the Nazis.  At this moment, these particular pieces hang on the second floor at the SF Moma.  In honor of combat Veteran Jeff Hillier, master of the reflection in photography, you will find me and Ms. Niki Lee in each photo. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Summer of Stein

"There is a price exacted from those who live in a place where they are rejected and openly hated by their neighbors:  loss of confidence in one's identity and its corollary, the unending need for self-reinvention." 
            The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head.  Franz Kafka:  A Biographical Essay by Louis Begley

Before even entering 5 Stories I stopped to look at the guest book.  Scrawled across the right side of the page was:  Gertrude Stein saved two Jews during the war—herself and Alice.  It rubbed me the wrong way.  I read only two Jews, and I read it as criticism.  Ms. Niki Lee asked, "What was she supposed to do, join the resistance like Beckett?"  I said, I didn't know and the question has lingered for weeks.

I keep reliving a conversation we had a year ago in our kitchen.  Some how Kafka came up.  I can't remember the details, all I remember was my friend saying, "The self hating Jew."  I was quiet.  Ms. Niki Lee asked him, "Have you read him?"  Knowing the place Kafka takes in my intellectual and spiritual practice.  Without apology he said, "No." I took my cue and spoke briefly in reference to his work, his patronage and documentation of the Jewish theatre, the context of Prague, and the more I spoke the less he was interested.  Ms. Niki Lee checked her cookies (she's like the Oracle in the Matrix), and he chimed in, "They're brown around the edges, they're done."  We left it at that.

This memory kneaded the knot lingering beneath the guest book affirmation; I now believe the author of the quote wrote to confirm the power of saving one life, even if it is only your own.

It is easy to stand outside of a moment and understand what should have been done differently—supposedly, better.  Gertrude and Alice were Jews, they were Lesbians, they were women without a man (and all that he brings with him).  Everyone has an analysis of what they might have or could have done different.

I believe it is best to start with the work:  Wars I Have Seen.

"We should take the story for what it is—the author's desperately brave attempt to work through nightmares from which he could not awake—" (The Tremendous World. . .)

Klee Benally sings, "We know this nightmare, because it repeats."

I am interested in survival—specifically the consequence of surviving extermination. 

I agree with Blackfire, relocation is genocide.  We have considerable shared experiences with many.  I acknowledge relations.  I don't rent ruptures or fester disconnections. 

Gertrude, Alice, and Kafka:  examining the intimacies our lives share is just as relevant as Baldwin's point:  "I still believe that the unexamined life is not worth living:  and I know that self-delusion, in the service of no matter what small or lofty cause, is a price no writer can afford.  His subject is himself and the world and it requires every ounce of stamina he can summon to attempt to look on himself and the world as they are."

Everyone has moments in their own history they have difficultly comprehending.

These are mine:  I live among people who would throw sewer water in my church, and spread human waste products on the face of my Gods' house, knowing, without doubt, that their acts will destroy my people, my children, my future.  I endure the people's journey on the Long Walk, in both directions, knowing we lived and died together and alone.  I know the loss caused by my ancestors' position as slaves in the south western slave trade, and I face the brutal reality that substance abuse and domestic violence have become accepted and part of my oral tradition.

Understanding a person within the context of their times, and within the context of their own lives (their opportunities, their position, their resources and their spiritual and ideological fortitude) requires a considerable amount of introspection—quiet, attentive, intimate introspection.  Understanding also requires time alone with language—Language is life; we all live inside it.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Summer of Stein

It took us three visits to get to the end of The Steins Collect exhibit at the MOMA.  It is true:  the fact that the MOMA got all these paintings from varied collections to show at this one time and location is a monumental accomplishment--a coup of great social and political import.  Seeing this collection assembled in a set of rooms you can wander aimlessly through (provided you forgo the ear bud propaganda) is an experience that can help you imagine the experience and power of having original art in your home.  Art you chose because you felt something resonate between the two of you:  yourself and the picture, recalling Alice's insight, "you don't know a painting until you've dusted it." 

But when you snake through the exhibit, careful to avoid overhearing the docents, you arrive at the last exhibit room:  the propaganda kiosk.  I took note of this room on our first visit to the exhibit.  They had Alice's cookbook, The Making Of Americans (I assume to coincide with SPT's day long reading.), Gertrude's Picasso,  and a bunch of adult and children's books about Matisse, Picasso and Paris.  You could hardly comprehend that Ms. Stein was a writer.  I believe the MOMA prides itself on leading the pack, visually and culturally:  I though they'd foreground Ms. Stein's literary accomplishments and her role as collaborator, mentor and patron.  I lost my decorum when I saw the black t-shirt with the white lettering:  You can either buy clothes or buy pictures. 

This line appears in Hemingway's A Moveable Feast (which I'm surprised they didn't have on stock), from the chapter "Miss Stein Instructs."   At this point in the chapter Hemingway is recounting the afternoon Ms. Stein "told [them], too, how to buy pictures."

"You can either buy clothes or buy pictures," she said.  "It's that simple.  No one who is not very rich can do both.  Pay no attention to your clothes and no attention at all to the mode, and buy your clothes for comfort and durability, and you will have the clothes money to buy pictures."

"But even if I never bought anymore clothing ever," I said, "I wouldn't have enough money to buy the Picasso's I want."

"No.  He's out of your range.  You  have to buy the people of your own age. . .There are always good new serious painters."     

Given their (SF MOMA) fascination with Matthew Barney I don't think irony is their strong point.  The point of the t-shirts, the posters, the Print On Demand photocopies misses the significance and importance of the nexus created by the Steins. 

If you want to see Henri Matisse go to the MOMA.  If you're looking for a more nuanced discussion of this nexus head out the door, up the street and over to the Contemporary Jewish Museum where the emphasis is on seeing Ms. Stein and Ms. Toklas.

"The premise is that material objects, whether fine art, household artifacts, or curious possessions, highbrow or lowbrow, that belonged to Stein and Toklas could, if read closely, yield fresh insights about them and their universe."

The Contemporary Jewish museum presents Five Stories:  Picturing Gertrude, Domestic Stein, Art of Friendship, Celebrity Stein and Legacies.   This exhibit looks at Stein, her home, her body, her image, her artistic process, her creative relationships and her lover. 

Gertrude:  patron, husband, writer and friend.

Kundera writes about Bach:

"The historical position of Bach's work therefore reveals what later generations had begun to forget—that history is not necessarily a path climbing upward (toward the richer, the more cultivated), that the demands of art may be counter to the demands of the moment (of this or that modernity), and that the new (the unique, the inimitable, the previously unsaid) might lie in some direction other than the one everybody sees as progress."

These words could have been said about Gertrude and Alice, about the Steins and their collections; I will revisit them during the course of this series.

In the current arena of buying and selling (aka, get the rake, the artist is dead):  the Picasso circle jerk at the deYoung in the name of membership and cultural hegemony (including their decision to limit tickets for members, a change in policy members only learn about, after renewals), the bottom lines decision makers, and the proliferation of giclée prints and fine oil arts available at Aaron Brothers, very few people own original art they can dust.  Part of the problem resides in the fact that "people want art ( or an immediate return on investment), but they don't want artists."  (Niki Lee)  Gertrude and Alice's apartments and lives reveal a bit of the historical and artistic significance of artists supporting artists—financially as well as artistically.  Their lives (and this exhibit) demonstrate the intricacies, difficulties and absurdities necessary to survive "the wars I've seen," those foreign and domestic.

What does it mean to be a writer, an artist, a homemaker and a homo, then and now—in the day to day and over a lifetime, even those subject to revision for a SKU and a kiosk.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Summer of Stein

A few years ago the SF Opera hosted a traveling minstrel, Porgy and Bess.  Now, my woman has been dragging me to the opera for 12 years, back when I was healthy enough to hold onto the railing at SRO.  We've never seen many folks, but she loves it nonetheless. 

For Gershwin we got sit down tickets and swam in the sea of black to brown.  I've never seen a haughtier sea, and we certainly were as unwelcomed in it as we are in the pink sea we normally swim in.  Now—we didn't read the synopsis.  Nina loves Porgy so we figured we'd love Porgy too.

In the beginning, there is Summertime.

As the show went on I kept thinking we gotta get out of here.  This reminds me of the book someone gave a friend of mine for their child, the one where an Indian chops himself into bits, and can't even feel it.  Needless to say the book went to Eshu.

As I sat I could not believe all these folks paid money to sit here and watch this.  I can't believe we sat among them. 

I can't accept this.  I can't embrace the language as mine.  I refuse the narrative that claims that we (women, coloreds, poor people) when given the choice choose violence, poverty and isolation.

I was telling this to my cousin and she said, "you won't even give us, the fish is jumpin and the cottin is high."

I shot her back an uncompromising no.  I won't buy it, in another ticket, or another moment.  Especially if the fish is jumpin.  To bless this baby, our most precious of beings, those who come to us with the sole responsibility to grow into an elder, those who come to watch us and take from us those lessons on how to make choices.  What does this blessing do, but fatten the goat for the slaughter.  I won't offer myself to that.  I won't patronize artists and businesses that do. 

I believe:  "The ethical imperative for linguistic and all other social behavior:  one should address others with a presumption that they are capable of responding meaningfully, responsibly, and above all, unexpectedly."  (Gary Saul Morson in Bakhtin:  Essays and Dialogues on His Work

Nothing in this minstrel show is unexpected.  It's a dime store novel backed by money and power. 

Give me Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh's Porgy, the one Nina sings at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, on the evening of June 30:

"I got my man now.  I got Porgy.  My baby understands now.  I got my Porgy.  I'm through with byways.  His way is my way.  Forevermore. 

Lord when I feel his arms around me.  Knowing he can't go on without me.  I wants to beg for a chance to camp at his door.

Say he's not much for looking.  Say he's lazy and no count as he can be.  He's got the kind of love for me.

So I'm changing my style, my way of living.  Glad I've stopped taking and started giving.  I got my man.  Got my Porgy.  Now."

Give me Gertrude and Virgil.  Even Gershwin thought their opera was "refreshing as a new dessert."  He was so influenced by it (Four Saints) he used the same director Thomson (Virgil) used in his production of Porgy and Bess, an entire year later.  An entire year later.

In my own ignorance I had always believed (and heard) that Porgy and Bess was the first NY opera with an all black cast; I know Duke lamented his own failure in that arena, but Gertrude and Virgil premiered their "perfect masterpiece" a year earlier.  Few people have even heard of it (Four Saints).

Their choice of material, four saints and a landscape. 

Thomson has said that he and Gertrude envisioned saints as "a parallel to the life we were leading, in which consecrated artists were practicing their art. . .needing to learn the terrible disciplines of truth and spontaneity, of channeling their skills without loss of inspiration."

Artists' choice:  truth and spontaneity.  The lives of artists:  the relationship between land and spirit. 

"Art that has religious reverence carries with it harshness and discipline; the anarchic and the arbitrarily subjective are sometimes the enemy that destroys art from within.  When I say religious attitude, I mean the belief that inside every person, landscape, and still life, there is hidden a noble beauty."  (Aharon Appelfeld in A Table for One)  

This winter I watched The Secrets.  That film left me with same sickening feeling Gershwin did.  The writer and director forced the characters into an ending I could not believe.  I still don't believe it, and I still can't shake the violation I felt as I watched this film, twice, trying to make myself accept the end he offered me.  Was it me or was it the movie. 

"I have always, deeply, violently, detested those who look for a position (political, philosophical, religious, whatever) in a work of art rather than searching it for an effort to know, to understand, to grasp this or that aspect of reality."  (Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed)

I know Naomi and Michal--I don't believe their double white wedding, to men and to healing through self sacrifice.

"An event as we imagine it hasn't much to do with the same event as it is when it happens."

I know when I am being manipulated.  I hate it.  Even when I can't form words, the feeling is impossible to ignore, it chokes me.  I am smothered inside it.  The lie, the lack of spontaneity, the failure "to learn the terrible disciplines of truth and spontaneity, of channeling their skills without loss of inspiration."

This is the summer of Stein, devoted to artists and patrons, saints and landscapes, choices and vision.

About Me

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I believe we can be more beautiful than broken. Devotion to language and literature, stories and storytelling, writing and reading will restore humanity and heal severed relations. There is no alibi in being.