Metamorphosis

December 10, 2007

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In Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak Memory, there is a chapter in which he takes a break from his sometimes tedious nostalgia about the comings and goings of his aristocratic family and describes the origins of his “mania” for butterflies. Of course, he was a serious collector and respected lepidopterist all of his life.

The image of men with butterfly nets has often been used in movies and TV for comic effect, but apparently his experience was that it was regarded as simply bizarre. Here he describes the impact of his boyish hunts on the startled Russian country people:

“I would see in my wake the villagers frozen in the various attitudes my passage had caught them in, as if I were Sodom and they Lot’s wife.”

Marvelous simile there, a movable city of sin, the burning metropolis of Sodom, plowing through the countryside leaving a trail of salt/stone figures, transfixed by its passing. And here he addresses the frightening aspects of transformation as he comes across a caterpillar on the path:

“…a strange creature…in a frantic search for a place to pupate (the awful pressure of metamorphosis, the aura of a disgraceful fit in a public place).”

I think it was Joyce Carrol Oates who identified the “gothic” element in Dante’s Inferno, as those passages in which characters experience in helpless terror the changing of their bodies into something else. (The “disgraceful fit” reminds me of Dostoyevsky’s descriptions of his epileptic attacks, always ecstatic in the end). Transformations and horror, as with Actaeon, werewolves, American and otherwise, Jekyll-Hyde, vampires male and female, and even the Incredible Hulk.

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(The image at the top is by James Gillray, and shows a celebrated naturalist Joseph Banks.)

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Richard Sala Comics

December 4, 2007

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How nice to talk about an artist who hasn’t been dead for two centuries. Well, I see no reason to apologize for my taste, and if you read my recent post “On Paper,” you know that Richard Sala is my favorite comics artist now. This black and white piece from “The Grave Robber’s Daughter” illustrates other aspects of his work that I love: comic gore galore; black humor; great sound “effects” (does he practice stabbing people to get it right?); sexy, tough, profane female characters; and femme fatales, dead and alive.

The heroine above is Judy Drood, a dark alter-ego of Nancy Drew. She slugs and swears like a sailor. The image below is his fetching heroine, Peculia, to be found in his series Evil Eye, and elsewhere. You don’t want to mess with her either. How does he make them so sexy with such simple elements? Too bad Peculia isn’t real…she wouldn’t like me anyway…I’m reading these things too much!

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I was not always a comics fan. As a boy, I read a bit of Superman and Batman. After college, I enjoyed reading Zap and Anarchy comics briefly. I always liked Edgar Allen Poe, however, and clearly, so does Sala! It was James Gillray, of course, that reawakened my joy in the pure entertainment of graphic images. The sheer delight I get from Gillray’s wild and vicious satires is matched by the giddy pleasure of Sala’s hilarious, dark, absurd, noir-world. It’s pure entertainment of a very special kind. See for yourself —-> Richard Sala’s Page.


Odd Maps

December 4, 2007

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Maps are part of my business – I make them with computers using geographic information system (GIS) applications. On occasion, I cannot resist buying some old scraps of paper with interesting maps on them. I have a particular fondness for maps that don’t show much of anything. The one on the left here (click on the thumbnails to enlarge them) is a genuine United States Geological Survey (USGS) quadrangle that has nothing but water! I like to say that it’s the most accurate map in the world because it conveys virtually no information. If you wish to avoid error, say nothing.

The quad is similar to another map, more whimsical, that is shown at the wonderful blog, Strange Maps, where you can find all things weird, funny, and cartographic. The map I have in mind is from Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark. Go take a look around – you’ll never look at maps the same way again.

The middle map I have here is an 18th century chart of part of Mongolia, and, of course, there’s not too much on it either. Makes you wonder what use is was to anyone. The image to its right shows the area of the map superimposed (dark polygon) on a modern map of Asia. Quite a big area to wonder through with only that as your guide! Such was life before MapQuest and Google Earth.

Finally, once again, we have James Gillray. This is not the only image he did that involves massive deployment of turds, animal or human. And it is not the only anthropomorphic map he did either, but it is one of the best of both. Believe it or not, it is not the most unflattering portrait of George III he did. After all, here George is heroically defending the British against an invasion by Boney, and the joke is mostly on the French. Was this where Monty Python got their line (for the French) “I fart in your general direction!”


On Paper…

November 29, 2007

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Pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, on paper…create a world of meaning – where? In our minds.

In the book/film, Black Robe, the story of French Jesuit missionaries in Canada in the early 17th century, there is a passage in which one of the priests demonstrates the power of writing to the Algonquins. They have no equivalent tool in their culture. He takes aside one tribe member and asks him to whisper his name into his ear. He writes the name on a piece of paper and then hands it to another missionary who is standing some distance away. The second man speaks the name of the Algonquin and all the tribesmen are amazed. How did the name travel across space? There was no sound, no hand signs. Somehow, the name was captured in the scratches of black on the piece of paper!

Works on paper take the ideas and images of the creator and capture them for us to see, so that we can digest them in our minds. I have always thought about this a lot, this is what art is (and not just on paper) but lately I’ve been thinking about it on paper because of my preoccupation with James Gillray and comics. If you doubt that last connection, click on this thumbnail and examine this work from 1800 by Gillray: “Democracy: or a Sketch of the Life of [Napoleon] Buonaparte.”

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Could not this have been produced, just this year, by Gary Trudeau of Doonesbury fame? (Many versions of the image were hand colored.)

For a superb social history of the English satirical print in the time of Gillray, I recommend the immensely enjoyable and beautifully produced book, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in 18th Century London by Vic Gatrell. You will even get a history of laughter!

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The history of comics, and its relationship to art and ideas is wonderfully presented by Scott McCloud in his book, Understanding Comics.

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Of course, the title is a nod to Marshall McCluhan’s Understanding Media, which is the inspiration for his text, although I think McCloud is better at explaining his more clear and sensible ideas than was McCluhan. Perhaps too, McCloud is a fan of the book that I never tire of promoting,

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Prints and Visual Communication, by William Ivins. This book delves into the fundamental philosophical issues of just what reproduced images, i.e., prints, are, and what they do to us and for us. It tells us how they became ubiquitous – the movement towards mass reproduction of photographs in periodicals is the epic challenge motivating the ‘plot’ of the book – and lets us imagine what the world would have been like before this earthshaking change.

Meanwhile, these panels are from the comic tale, “One of the Wonders of the World,” by Richard Sala. This is, perhaps, my all-time favorite. I hope to post more on comics, with more examples, later.

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A Peep…

November 20, 2007

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Foul things lurk in the dark, damp caves of seditious politics! If my ignorance of Latin doesn’t hobble me too much, it says on the right, “Truth is great, and will prevail.”  (The thumbnail gives a larger and more clear uncolored image of this wonderful print by James Gillray.)

This print is from the Anti-Jacobin review, a journal dedicated to combating liberal and revolutionary sympathies in England in the last decade of the 18th century. All sorts of good people were pilloried in its articles. James Gillray was, for part of his career, in the pay of the Tory party, not an unusual arrangement for a satirist in those days.

Gillray, however, even as he took one side in his work, was not likely to let the other side off easily. In the print below, he shows Price, a well known liberal divine, surprised in his study as he pens subversive, “revolutionist” texts. And who, or what!, is finding him out? Edmund Burke, the famous conservative, here represented primarily by his nose. (Compare to the contemporary portrait detail shown below.) As the Gillray collector and scholar, Draper Hill, remarked,

“with typical ambiguity, the content of the engraving is critical of Price but the form ridicules Burke.”

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For a wealth of images and background on Gillray, visit this excellent online gallery: New York Public Library – Gillray

Here are the notes on the image above:

Although originally a Whig and a supporter of the American Revolution, statesman and celebrated orator Edmund Burke warned that the French Revolution would lead to the collapse of order and an outbreak of regicide and atheism. Reduced here to a pair of peering spectacles, a prying nose, and a pair of tiny hands wielding a crown and a crucifix, Burke split with the Whigs and by 1792 had allied himself with the Tory leader, William Pitt. The “rat” upon whom Burke spies is the Dissenting, radical clergyman Dr. Richard Price. Gillray imagines Price at work on an imaginary essay “On the Benefits of Anarchy Regicide Atheism,” with a picture of the execution of Charles I hanging over his desk. Price’s actual sermon before the reformist Revolution Society, which praised the French Revolution and its ideals of liberty, and championed an elective monarchy, provoked Burke to write Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). While Burke’s essay was probably instrumental in changing Gillray’s attitude toward the French Revolution, the artist chose to portray Burke as a crazed fanatic. As Draper Hill has commented, “with typical ambiguity, the content of the engraving is critical of Price but the form ridicules Burke.”


Gillray – George Bush

October 26, 2006

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Scientific Researches?

April 9, 2005

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It can get pretty grim today, examining the rampant run of pseudo-science. There are a lot of intellectuals out there, and a lot of pseudo-intellectuals (that’s SWAY-do, if you’re not in the know) and even more pseudo-scientists. The image by Gillray lifts my spirits a bit, with its hilarious shafting of savants, intent on the investigation of the pneumatic power of farts.

Yes, there’s cold fusion – when will the cold water thrown on it finally wash it away? – and there’s Intelligent Design – a “theory” without content – and there are the worthy epigones of that Victorian blockhead, John Galton, the contemporary running-dog-lackeys of vulgar empiricism. Right now, I’m thinking of Charles Murray, Adam Bellow, and the latecomer to the club, John Gartner. Not household names? – read on!

When I think of pseudo-science, I think of Murray, who made his splash with The Bell Curve, a statistical mishmash that manages to avoid the important question of just what he purports to be measuring. Race, intelligence? Does anyone have a clear definition of what these are? No? Then it’s off to the races, no pun intended – develop your own theory of anything. Murray hit the stores with another book in which assessed human “achievement” of civilizations with a quantitative method. Surprise, the west is on top! You pays your money, make your assumptions, and…

(Those who want a more intelligent assessment of why some cultures have won out while others disappeared should check out Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. His critics often tar him as a simple “environmental determinist”, but his arguments are quite rational, and far more subtle and profound than his critics appreciate.)

Murray’s first book was published by Adam Bellow, who has since weighed in with his cogent analysis of nepotism, a deliciously self-serving tome by someone who’s principal claim to fame – no fault of his own – seems to be his (recently deceased) father. Yes, it’s all genetic, ants do it, fish do it, nepotism is natural. Even Edward Wilson, the father of sociobiology, who stumbles badly when he tries to advance his ideas to the human cultural realm (He is a big-time subscriber to the naturalistic fallacy, i.e., that you can get an ought from an is.), might cavil. The crude socio-biologists always warp the same way: animals have evolved behavior A; humans have behavior B; A and B appear to be similar types of behavior; therefore, human behavior B is nothing but animal behavior A, and it is the same in all respects, origins, and purposes. Quite a few leaps there, and nature doesn’t make big jumps, does she? Back on the purely human level, Bellow said in a NYTimes Opinion piece,

“…a name, nepotism can serve to get your foot in the door, but after that, you’re on your own”.

Of course, legions of struggling actors, artists, and other professional aspirants well tell you deadpan, straight off, getting your foot in the door is THE crucial step! They’re all smart! So, pseudo-science serves, once again, to dress up some propositions that are most gratifying to one’s self-esteem.

I happen to know that the next member of my anti-pantheon, John Gartner was Bellow’s school chum. Is this a co-inky-dink? Or…is it in the genes!? [And why am I talking about them? Simple: Saul Bellow died this week, and Gartner’s book was just reviewed in the NYTimes today. And there are other connections, too dark and nefarious to mention here… ] Now he has written a book which posthumously analyzes several American high achievers and concludes that they were all hypomanic, i.e., just this side of clinically manic. Pity they aren’t around to suggest otherwise. Of course, this just proves that the USA itself is one great big self-selecting gene pool of hypomanics, which is why the USA is so successful, and presumably always will be. This is science? Yes it is, by jingo!

Finally, I must refer to Nicholas Kristoff’s column today, in which he asserts that Nukes are Green. NK doesn’t pretend to be a scientist, but he does claim to be factual and rational. Still he comes out with this statement:

Radioactive wastes are a challenge. But burdening future generations with nuclear wastes in deep shafts is probably more reasonable than burdening them with a warmer world in which Manhattan is submerged under 20 feet of water.

Okay, nuclear plants are pretty safe, I agree. Okay, they don’t contribute to greenhouse gases, but why does he assume that we should be more worried about submerging Manhattan than burying waste? Is he certain that they are equally probable. Nukes do produce waste – Manhattan under 20 feet – that’s a stretch for even the worst warming scenarios. Is it because the French do it? Hey, pass the Freedom Fries! “Probably more reasonable?” Better be sure before you bury!

Environmentalists often state that human civilization is conducting a giant, uncontrolled experiment with the climate, and if it turns out badly, we’re in bad shape. Doesn’t burying tons of intensely radioactive waste and assuming that our progeny will properly take care of it for the next 100,000 years or so amount to a rather daring experiment? A little radioactive waste in the groundwater could be a big problem, not to mention the fact that the USA can’t even seem to find a place to accept burial of even part of its waste. You can’t just dream away political problems such as NIMBY, although if we had a French Revolution here, that would be a solution, We could simply quell parochial resistance by forking over money to those affected the way the French government does. Bravo, bon idee!

Why does Kristoff pose the energy issue as one of “how do we maintain our current level of consumption in our current distribution system?” Green energy options are most feasible when the Grid is gone, replaced by more local sources. Utopian in the short run, perhaps, but the short run is quite malleable in this case by public policy. The long run, in which we are all dead, as Keynes famously remarked, is bad in any case. The facts, and imagination, are both part of science.