A monkey ghost, from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, opens with a still portrait: a long mid-shot of a water buffalo tied to a tree somewhere in the Thai countryside. Shot in twilight, the dark greens of the jungle blend seamlessly with the brown of the buffalo’s hide. While the opening shot is not literally a still, it has far more in common with a photograph than a film clip: the deliberate, compositional use of color and light; the careful, static position of the buffalo on the right side of the frame. After a few minutes, the buffalo pulls on its lead and breaks loose, wandering into the jungle. The camera fixes on a particular patch of the jungle, as the buffalo wanders into the frame. Eventually, the buffalo’s owner comes to collect the buffalo and coaxes it back into the field. The actors in the minor drama leave the frame, but the camera remains. In the upper left, a mysterious silhouette gradually appears, as if it were an object in a dark room that only gets noticed once one’s eyes adjust to the dark. The silhouette is anthropoid but not human; it is the same color, in the low light, as the water buffalo, but with glowing red eyes that resemble a photographic red-eye effect. Is it a trick of the eyes? Had it always been there, camouflaged by the foliage? Were we too distracted by the water buffalo to notice? Only when enough time has passed for the viewers to begin to fathom the image do the credits finally drop.
Once in a while a writer hits an idea so squarely on the head that society unconditionally embraces it. Such is the case with Orwell’s concept of “Newspeak” in 1984. A language autocratically contrived to limit imagination and willpower, Newspeak may be the most pervasively integrated science fiction term in civic discourse. By the 1960s it was not uncommon for academic papers to refer to Newspeak without allusion to Orwell, and today even second-rate bands casually incorporate Newspeak vocabulary. My generation grew up instinctively understanding that manipulating language means manipulating thought.
Syl Johnson. Photo by Masahiro Sumori.
On a Friday night in December, I joined a sold-out crowd at Southpaw in Brooklyn to see the soul musician Syl Johnson. Johnson had recently released a comprehensive box set which was panned by music writer Douglas Wolk in his review on Pitchfork Media, creating a minor controversy. In the soul and “cratedigging” hip-hop communities, there was a palpable shock. Numero Group, the record label which released the box set, is easily the best out of the handful of labels dedicated to finding and releasing forgotten quality soul. Syl Johnson is no slouch himself; over his long career, he has written and sung a number of incredible songs (the hit version of “Take Me to the River,” “Sock It to Me,” “Different Strokes,” “Is It Because I’m Black?” “Any Way the Wind Blows”). However, there really should have been no surprise that Wolk on one side and such luminaries as the RZA on the other would come to such different conclusions. For this discrepancy was indicative of a greater gap, not only between two different aesthetics, but between two different histories, and two different worlds.
New York City may be, as Tony Judt writes, a city in decline. Its artistic and industrial regency has steadily weakened while “the intellectual gangs of New York have folded their knives and gone home to the suburbs,” and though the city remains culturally diverse, its days of global cultural ascendency are numbered.
I recently moved to New York, and despite its waning stature, I feel something of the exhilaration that generations of writers and artists have felt arriving in this, as Judt calls it, “world city.” For some transplants, that exhilaration never dies. When the painter Herbert Katzman (1923-2004), a Chicago native, moved here in the early 1950s, he encountered both a thriving commercial economy and an artistic crucible. For Katzman the attraction was both immediate and permanent: he adopted the city as home until his death fifty years later. Converts are often the most devout believers, and Katzman was no exception. The city rapidly became his favorite artistic subject. Continue reading
The Dialogue Between Tamar and Judah, With Scribal Commentary Marked
Last year, I chanted the story of Judah and Tamar; my partner Sarah chanted the preceding chapter. The Tamar story interrupts the larger Joseph narrative, splitting the brothers’ betrayal from Joseph’s experience in Egypt. Though the narratives are independent – and indeed the Tamar story appears as a bizarre interpolation – Sarah noticed a neat link. When Tamar confronts Judah with “the signet, and the cords, and the staff” – his guarantees of payment for their sex – she says “recognize please” (haker-na) (Gen. 38:25); Joseph’s brothers use that exact phrase that when presenting his bloody cloak to Jacob (Gen. 37:32). To emphasize the repetition, I chanted my haker-na loudly and slowly, as did she.
At the time, we did not recognize the repeated haker-na’s role in a contemporary debate over how to read the Bible. Writing in Commentary in 1975, Robert Alter had used the Tamar story to exemplify a “literary approach” to the Bible. He notes other similarities between the two narratives – in language, plot, character, and theme. At the start of the Tamar story, Judah “goes down” (an odd locution, perhaps), paralleling Joseph’s being “brought down” to Egypt in 39:1. Thematically, Joseph’s future eclipse of his older brothers mirrors the death of Judah’s first-born sons; Jacob’s emotional reaction to his son’s ostensible death registers ironically against Judah’s stoicism on recognizing Tamar’s claim, and so on. When read together, the stories’ protagonists become full human figures, with complex psychological motivations.
The MGTOW Symbol
I hesitate to write about current events for this blog unless I feel that those events are somehow paradigmatic. Unfortunately, that seems to be the case with the beatings of leftist protestors by Tea Party activists in the last weeks before the midterm elections: a particularly vicious head stomping in Kentucky, and a similar attack in Washington. I deeply fear political violence, even in the rare cases in which it is justified. Political violence is the failure of society: after just one blow, everyone’s lives and rights are only as secure as their own power to protect them. Unlike Jon Stewart, however, I won’t simply attribute this violence to general incivility. As the political blogger Josh Marshall notes, these acts have a distinct character that is not simply reducible to fanaticism:
What stands out to me though is how each one of these seems to be a nutshell symbolism of the boiled down essence―the precipitate―of blue and red state America, almost to a degree we wouldn’t buy from a writer if we found it in a novel. . . Each time it’s middle-aged or retired right wing white guy in violent encounter with early-twenty-something Dem woman with either cropped hair or more or less crunchy appearance.
It’s not just right wing activists attacking left wing activists. Middle-aged men are attacking young women. Rarely is violence against women so public.
Public spaces are the bulwark of every city’s identity. Parks, buses, and sidewalks are home to the quintessential interactions of city life. Anyone from tourists to mayors contending how friendly or dirty or vibrant a city is will most likely cite anecdotes from public spaces. They describe, flatteringly or not, food carts, street performers, peddlers and swindlers. They might also mention eccentric panhandlers, chess players, and soapbox preachers. And there are inanimate features as well: majestic elms, stadiums, bridges; alongside abandoned industrial façades, tenements, and polluted rivers. How “friendly” the city is perceived to be also depends on public spaces—the disposition of pedestrians, drivers, and subway riders.
A 2,000 year old Olive Tree in Israel
Recently, Ben secularized the idea, paralleled in Mircea Eliade’s study of religion, of “homogeneous” history. For Eliade, profane time – that is, time without divine intervention to organize it – is a vast, homogeneous expanse, the meaningless tohu vavohu (unformed and void) that precedes creation. Significant theological events punctuate these equilibria, giving birth to a radically new order, a “sacred history.” Some of these sacred interventions are familiar: the creation of the world, the revelations at Sinai or in the Cave of Hira, or the life and death of Christ. I’d like to talk about a more obscure theological event: the shrinking of the olive.
Reading Ben’s post on stagnant thought and homogenous time, I thought of a cultural rut that America seems unable to escape: an obsession with vampires. The past two years have seen “Twilight,” “True Blood” and “The Vampire Diaries, ” not to mention a flurry of knock-offs. Today, the movie “Let Me In” comes out in theaters, a vampire film which is itself an adaptation of the Swedish film “Let The Right One In.” Even the venerable New Yorker has dedicated a panel in its three-day festival to the phenomenon. Of course, media executives often hop on the bandwagon of whatever superficial element seems to be selling tickets and DVDs. Still, I am curious about this cultural trend. What is so compelling about vampires right now?
The Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg has recently published a pair of articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education to promote his new book on legacy admissions at American colleges and universities. Dr. Kahlenberg makes no secret of his beliefs (the book’s title is Affirmative Action for the Rich), and while numbers make an occasional appearance in the articles, impartial social science does not.
Whether or not his prejudices should cast doubt on his credibility is a question we can leave aside, since his articles contain enough poor science to disabuse us of any sympathy we might have for his views. For a taste of Kahlenberg’s inclinations, here are the concluding sentences of his first article:
In a fundamental sense, this nation’s first two great wars—the Revolution and the Civil War—were fought to defeat different forms of aristocracy. That this remnant of ancestry-based discrimination still survives—in American higher education, of all places—is truly breathtaking.
If the professor genuinely believes that legacy admissions disgrace the spirit of our forefathers, one can only imagine what he must think about expensive private high schools and family businesses—institutions that are much more efficient than selective colleges at keeping wealth in the family, evidently an un-American activity. Perhaps he would prefer mandatory public education and a one-hundred-percent estate tax? And, for good measure, throw in a federal prohibition against hiring relatives. Continue reading