Wednesday, December 29, 2004
Alec Soth: The boyhood home of Johnny Cash
Today went with Sarah to see the Alec Soth exhibition at Open Eye, Sleeping By The Mississippi. Enjoyed the photos that intertwine landscape detail with objective portrayal of the human characters encountered, very much in the style of William Eggleston. But the great surprise was finding a small pile of sale copies of Robert Frank's The Americans, a book that I'd been searching for unsuccessfully for the past two months or so.
Wednesday, November 24, 2004
Saw the new Andy Goldsworthy film at the Phil - almost the definitive collection, a beautifully filmed resume of his key themes:
Sunday, November 21, 2004
Just seen on video: Letters From A Dead Man, a 1986 film by the Russian director, Konstantin Lopuchansky (an assistant on Tarkovsky's Stalker). Set in a post-nuclear war Russian city, where a group of survivors are sheltering in the basement of a museum. Shot in sepia. Remarkable closing sequence where a group of young children set out walking into the apolcalyptic future.
Saturday, November 20, 2004
Sunday, October 24, 2004
On stage alone (apart from a rck of 15 guitars and keyboards) for close on three hours, Browne sang his way passionately through a huge back-catalogue stretching back over a quarter of a century:
But it's a long way that I have come
Across the sand to find this peace among your people in the sun
Where the families work the land as they have always done
Oh it's so far the other way my country's gone
Across my home has grown the shadow
Of a cruel and senseless hand
Though in some strong hearts
The love and truth remain
(Our Lady Of The Well: his closing song)
A fortnight before the US elections, a segment of the show featured his songs of political commitment:
Don't you want to be there, don't you want to know?
Where the grace and simple truth of childhood go
Don't you want to be there when the trumpets blow
Blow for those born into hunger
Blow for those lost 'neath the train
Blow for those choking in anger
Blow for those driven insane
Don't you want to be where there's strength and love
In the place of fear
(Don't You Want To Be There)
Throughout the concert, Browne gave the impression of having no set list, seeming to respond instantly to shouted requests from the audience. But this was a probably an impression. Overall, this was a powerful and moving performance that took the audience on a generation's journey and reflected a soul still searching:
Still I look for the beauty in songs
To fill my head and lead me on
Though my dreams have come up torn and empty
As many times as love has come and gone
I'm not sure what I'm trying to say
It could be I've lost my way
Though I keep a watch over the distance
Heaven's no closer than it was yesterday
And the angels are older
They know not to wait up for the sun
They look over my shoulder
At the maps and the drawings of the journey I've begun
Sunday, October 10, 2004
Saturday, September 18, 2004
God...can he really be? How old am I? His are lyrics that have accompanied me through many different times:
And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said "All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them"
But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
And then leaning on your window sill
he'll say one day you caused his will
to weaken with your love and warmth and shelter
And then taking from his wallet
an old schedule of trains, he'll say
I told you when I came I was a stranger
I told you when I came I was a stranger.
Ah you hate to see another tired man
lay down his hand
like he was giving up the holy game of poker
And while he talks his dreams to sleep
you notice there's a highway
that is curling up like smoke above his shoulder.
It is curling just like smoke above his shoulder.
I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm,
your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm,
yes many loved before us, I know that we are not new,
in city and in forest they smiled like me and you..
(Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye)
I know you've heard it's over now and war must surely come,
the cities they are broke in half and the middle men are gone.
But let me ask you one more time, O children of the dusk,
All these hunters who are shrieking now oh do they speak for us?
And where do all these highways go, now that we are free?
(Stories of the Street)
Like a bird on the wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.
(Bird on a Wire)
Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
(Dance Me to the End of Love)
Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
I greet you from the other side
Of sorrow and despair
With a love so vast and shattered
It will reach you everywhere
And I sing this for the captain
Whose ship has not been built
For the mother in confusion
Her cradle still unfilled
For the heart with no companion
For the soul without a king
For the prima ballerina
Who cannot dance to anything
(Heart With No Companion)
They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
I'm coming now, I'm coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin...
(First We Take Manhattan)
And I'll dance with you in Vienna
I'll be wearing a river's disguise
The hyacinth wild on my shoulder,
My mouth on the dew of your thighs
And I'll bury my soul in a scrapbook,
With the photographs there, and the moss
And I'll yield to the flood of your beauty
My cheap violin and my cross
And you'll carry me down on your dancing
To the pools that you lift on your wrist
Oh my love, Oh my love
Take this waltz, take this waltz
It's yours now. It's all that there is
(Take This Waltz - after Lorca)
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
(Tower of Song)
I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn't answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me
In the Tower of Song
(Tower of Song)
Give me back the Berlin wall
give me Stalin and St Paul
I've seen the future, brother:
it is murder.
Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won't be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
It's coming through a hole in the air,
from those nights in Tiananmen Square.
It's coming from the feel
that this ain't exactly real,
or it's real, but it ain't exactly there.
From the wars against disorder,
from the sirens night and day,
from the fires of the homeless,
from the ashes of the gay:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
It's coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It's here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it's here they got the spiritual thirst.
It's here the family's broken
and it's here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
If it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well
And draw us near
And bind us tight
All your children here
In their rags of light
In our rags of light
All dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will
(If It Be Your Will)
- Guardian feature (17 September 2004). From which this endearing quote, 1994:
"If you're going to think of yourself in this game, or in this tradition, and you start getting a swelled head about it, then you've really got to think about who you're talking about. You're not just talking about Randy Newman, who's fine, or Bob Dylan, who's sublime, you're talking about King David, Homer, Dante, Milton, Wordsworth, you're talking about the embodiment of our highest possibility. So I don't think it's particularly modest or virtuous to think of oneself as a minor poet. I really do feel the enormous luck I've had in being able to make a living, and to never have had to have written one word that I didn't want to write.
"But I don't fool myself, I know the game I'm in. When I wrote about Hank Williams 'A hundred floors above me in the tower of song', it's not some kind of inverse modesty. I know where Hank Williams stands in the history of popular song. Your Cheatin' Heart, songs like that, are sublime, in his own tradition, and I feel myself a very minor writer. I've taken a certain territory, and I've tried to maintain it and administrate it with the very best of my capacities. And I will continue to administrate this tiny territory until I'm too weak to do it. But I understand where this territory is."
- The Leonard Cohen files
Saturday, September 11, 2004
Marine iguanas are extremely gentle and
live in complete harmony with the other animals.
From today's Guardian: Sebastião Salgado is embarking on the last of his great photographic projects, which will appear regularly in the Guardian over the next eight years. He is seeking out places that are still as pristine as they were in primeval times, places that provide hope.
His previous projects...' left him questioning his faith in humanity. He had seen so much man-made suffering. The idealist began to have his doubts about our essential goodness. "I was injured in my heart and my spirit. For me, it was terrible what I saw. I came away from this with incredible despair." He was desperate to find something that would restore faith.
Hence Genesis. Yes, we may already have destroyed 50% of the planet, but Salgado wants to show us what we have left, and what we stand to lose if we don't take care.
In the end, the only heritage we have is our planet, and I have decided to go to the most pristine places on the planet and photograph them in the most honest way I know, with my point of view, and of course it is in black and white, because it is the only thing I know how to do. I want to see if I can put a kind of virginity in these pictures, if you can say that, and to show 100% respect to nature and the animals."'
- Guardian special report: Salgado's Genesis project (including photographs and introduction by Salgado)
- Salgado's Exodus at the Barbican: his previous project on migrants
Heaney on Milosz
Also in today's Guardian Seamus Heaney remembers Czeslaw Milosz: 'though he confronted the brutality of the modern age, Czeslaw Milosz believed in the joy-bringing potential of art'.
See earlier blog on 22 August.
Wednesday, September 08, 2004
The Everyman Theatre company in 1974 including Julie Walters, Bill Nighy, Matthew Kelly and Nick Stringer
From the Guardian today: a feature recalling the golden days of the Liverpool Everyman in the 1970s.
Saturday, September 04, 2004
Caught up with the Korean film Take Care of my Cat on video today.
Director Jae-eun Jeong's debut feature (2002), Take Care of My Cat portrays a group of Korean girls living in the industrial sea town of Inchon. The girls are leaving high school, and the film depicts the difficulties involved in keeping their friendships going after school.
Hae-joo works in a brokerage firm in Seoul and has ambitions; Ji-young lives with her grandparents in a crumbling home, has no job, and draws elaborate textile patterns. Tae-hee works at her father's sauna and dreams of getting away, anywhere far from her domineering family. Each girl seeks escape from the depressed town of her childhood, and none is exactly sure how to get away.
As the film develops, there is an inevitable loss of their closeness. As Take Care of My Cat begins, Tae-hee complains that it's increasingly difficult to get the group together, and their friendships only break further apart from there. The need to move on eventually affects them all , including the cat which has, by the end, lived with each girl.
More details here.
Thursday, September 02, 2004
Music I've been listening to in recent weeks:
Henri Dikongue: Ndol'Asu and C'Est La Vie (from the album C'Est La Vie) [Interview with Henri Dikongue; Cameroon's global ambassador page]
Zap Mama: Brrrlak! (from album, Zap Mama)
Amparanoia: Rebeldia Con Alegria
Jeff Buckley: Forget Her (previously unreleased track from the Grace sessions)
Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton: The Blue Train (from Trio 2)
Youssou N'Dour: Egypt
Van Morrison: Poetic Champions Compose
Jackson Browne: Fountain Of Sorrow (from Late For The Sky)
Blind Willie Johnson: Soul Of A Man
John Mayall: 70th Birthday Concert
Bruce Springsteen: Live In Barcelona
Rodney Crowell: It's A Different World, Earthbound (from Fate's Right Hand)
Eric Bibb: Painting Signs
Eric Bibb: Water Works Fine (from Natural Light)
Amadou & Mariam: Tje Ni Mousso
Taken from an extract in today's Guardian from Jeremy Rifkin's new book, The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream:
"A new European dream is beginning to capture the world's imagination. That dream has now been codified in the form of a draft constitution and Europeans are currently debating whether or not to ratify its contents and accept its underlying values as the core of a new Europe.
Twenty-five nations, representing 455 million people, have joined together to create a "United States" of Europe. Like the United States of America, this vast political entity has its own empowering myth. Although still in its adolescence, the European dream is the first transnational vision, one far better suited to the next stage in the human journey. Europeans are beginning to adopt a new global consciousness that extends beyond, and below, the borders of their nation-states, deeply embedding them in an increasingly interconnected world.
Americans are used to thinking of their country as the most successful on earth. That's no longer the case: the EU has grown to become the third largest governing institution in the world. Though its land mass is half the size of the continental US, its $10.5 trillion GDP now eclipses the US GDP, making it the world's largest economy. The EU is already the world's leading exporter and largest internal trading market. The comparisons are even more revealing when it comes to the quality of life. For example, in the EU, there are approximately 322 physicians per 100,000 people; in the US there are only 279 physicians per 100,000 people. The US ranks 26th among the industrial nations in infant mortality, well below the EU average. The average life-span in the 15 most developed EU countries is now 78.2 years compared to 76.9 years in the US. When it comes to wealth distribution - a crucial measure of a country's ability to deliver on the promise of prosperity - the US ranks 24th among the industrial nations. All 18 of the most developed European countries have less income inequality between rich and poor.
Europeans often remark that Americans "live to work", while they "work to live". The average paid vacation time in Europe is now six weeks a year. By contrast, Americans, on average, receive only two weeks. When one considers what makes a people great and what constitutes a better way of life, Europe is beginning to surpass America.
Nowhere is the contrast between the European dream and the American dream sharper than when it comes to the definition of personal freedom. For Americans, freedom has long been associated with autonomy; the more wealth one amasses, the more independent one is in the world. One is free by becoming self-reliant and an island unto oneself. With wealth comes exclusivity and with exclusivity comes security. For Europeans, freedom is not found in autonomy but in community. It's about belonging, not belongings.
Americans are more willing to employ military force to protect perceived vital self-interests. Europeans favour diplomacy, economic aid and peacekeeping operations to maintain order. The American dream is deeply personal and little concerned with the rest of humanity. The European dream is more systemic, bound to the welfare of the planet.
That isn't to say that Europe is a utopia. Europeans have become increasingly hostile towards asylum seekers. Anti-semitism is on the rise, as is discrimination against Muslims and other religious minorities. While Europeans berate America for having a trigger-happy foreign policy, they are willing, on occasion, to let the US armed forces safeguard European security interests. And even its supporters say that the EU's governing machinery, based in Brussels, is aloof from the citizens it supposedly serves.
The point, however, is not whether the Europeans are living up to their dream...What's important is that a new generation of Europeans is creating a radical new vision for the future. "
Full text of extract
Sunday, August 29, 2004
Mary Ellen Mark: Adopted Children, New York City, 1993
Went to see the exhibition of Mary Ellen Mark photography, American Odyssey and Twins at Manchester Art Gallery. American Odyssey consists of black and white images of American subjects, taken over four decades since the 1960s. Subjects range from homelessness (including a memorable image of a family living in a car, and the one above taken in a refuge for the homeless) to challenging images taken at a gatherings of Aryan Supremecists, anti-abortion actions, pro-Vietnam War rallies and a convention to celebrate fatness in America . All her photos are challenging because of the way they present the their subjects: squarely, and without the usual framing commentary, as unique human beings. The images have empathy, humanity and a penetrating vision. With American Odyssey, the Gallery was showing another series of Mark’s photographs, Twins.
Reproduced alongside the images, and providing a commentary on them, was Maya Angelou's poem Human Family:
I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.
Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.
The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.
I've sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I've seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.
I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I've not seen any two
who really were the same.
Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.
We love and lose in China,
we weep on England's moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.
We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we're the same.
I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
- Guardian review of Manchester exhibition
- Mary Ellen Mark: American Beauty Photo essay at Time magazine
- Mary Ellen Mark Photographs
- Multimedia interview
Fuser and Alberto on the road in Motorcycle Diaries
Saw the new Walter Salles' film, The Motorcycle Diaries last night. It stars Gael García Bernal as Guevara (seen previously in Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien). The screenplay is based on Guevara's Journals and Alberto Granado's Travelling with Che Guevara: The Making of a Revolutionary. Although the film does glamourise the young Guevara (through his romantic portrayal by Bernal, and his almost Ghandian response to the inmates of the leper colony) I thought it was impressive -especially in the use of amateur actors to portray the native Americans, peasants and lepers that they encounter along the way. The use of black-and white portraits of Latin America's dispossessed was also effective.
- Motorcycle Diaries website: has an interview with Alberto Granado who visited the set during the film's production. Granado is now 81 years old and lives with his wife and children in Havana, Cuba.
- Guardian review: discusses the growing Guevara legend, and reminds us of some of the realities of Guevara's later career.
Saturday, August 28, 2004
Lucien Freud, Head of Bruce Bernard 1985
Spotted Bruce Bernard's 100 Photographs at Salt's Mill, Bradford a couple of weeks ago. Delivered this week, it's a a stimulating and intriguing collection of images he was asked to compile for a wealthy patron. Interestingly, he's included several photos taken by anonymous amateurs. It complements Bernard's other, massive photo collection - Century - which contains 1000 images, 10 for each year of the 20th century.
He died in 2000; his Guardian obituary is interesting.
Monday, August 23, 2004
I've just finished reading Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida in which he sets out to try to identify what it is that gives certain photographs the power to make you pause, to touch something in your heart. His quest is inspired by leafing through some photos of his recently-dead mother. There are many that are good likenesses, but only one - rather indistinct, taken as a child - that, for Barthes, captures her essential uniqueness.
Barthes suggests that a few photographs have this essential element 'that rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me.' He calls this the photograph's punctum: 'that accident that pricks me...is poignant to me'.
This reminded me of Fountain Of Sorrow, the second track on Jackson Browne's 1974 album, Late For The Sky:
Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer
I was taken by a photograph of you
There were one or two I know that you would have liked a little more
But they didn’t show your spirit quite as true
You were turning ’round to see who was behind you
And I took your childish laughter by surprise
And at the moment that my camera happened to find you
There was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes
Sunday, August 22, 2004
Czeslaw Milosz in a Krakow Park, 2000
Last week (August 14) the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz died:
- His obituary in the Guardian
- A revealing interview with him, conducted in 2000
- Poems by Milosz, including A Poem For The End of The Century
Yesterday the Guardian printed this recent poem by Milosz, from a collection to be published in the autumn.
Eyes by Czeslaw Milosz
My most honourable eyes, you are not in the best of shape.
I receive from you an image less than sharp,
And if a colour, then it's dimmed.
And you were a pack of royal greyhounds once,
With whom I would set out in the early mornings.
My wondrously quick eyes, you saw many things,
Lands and cities, islands and oceans.Together we greeted immense sunrises
When the fresh air set us running on trails
Where the dew had just begun to dry.
Now what you have seen is hidden inside me
And changed into memories or dreams.
I am slowly moving away from the fairgrounds of the world
And I notice in myself a distaste
For the monkeyish dress, the screams and drumbeats.
What a relief. To be alone with my meditation
On the basic similarity in humans
And their tiny grain of dissimilarity.
Without eyes, my gaze is fixed on one bright point,
That grows large and takes me in.
Published Saturday August 21, 2004 in The Guardian
On a similar theme, from the title track of Rodney Crowell's 2004 album, Earthbound:
With each new day that passes I'm in need of thicker glasses
but it's all O.K.
Someday I'll be leaving but I just can't help believing
that it's not today
Earthbound....hear the wind through the tops of the trees
Earthbound....summer sun nearly ninety degrees
Earthbound....big ol' moon sinking down......
think I might stickaround
Friday, August 20, 2004
Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise
Last night saw Richard Linklater's film Before Sunrise (missed it, strangely, six years ago). A perfect film: the framing, the screenplay, the acting. A loquacious film (as the Guardian said) about two people communicating, learning about each other and talking about everything and anything: love, death, sex, men, women:
'I really believe that if there's any kind of God, he wouldn't be in any one of us - not you, not me, but just this space in between. If there's some magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone else, sharing something. Even if it's almost impossible to succeed, but who cares, the answer must be in the attempt.'
One one level it's a film about serendipity: those chance encounters that make moments special (here, the riverbank poet, the basement harpsichord player).
Update 29 August: saw Before Sunset last night. Not really as good as the first film, though still some good lines. The spark between the two was present only intermittently, and the film took a while to get started. Perhaps the impact was less because, unlike the first film, this was primarily about the disillusionment that comes with experience.
Memory is a good thing if you don't have to deal with the past.
Other great loquacious films: Blue In The Face, Smoke, My Dinner With Andre.
Richard Powers: The Time Of Our Singing
Monica Ali: Brick Lane
Orhan Pamuk: My Name Is Red
Jose Saramago: The Cave
Alice Sebold: The Lovely Bones
Carol Shields: The Stone Diaries; Larry's Party
Margaret Atwood: Oryx & Crake
Haruki Murakami: Sputnik Sweetheart
Tariq Ali: Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree
Richard Fletcher: Moorish Spain
Michael Jacobs: Andalucia
Jason Webster: Duende
Chris Stewart: A Parrot In The Pepper Tree
Gerald Brenan: South From Granada
(Other books on Spain read previously:
VS Pritchett: The Spanish Temper
Camilo Jose Cela: Journey To The Alcarria
Norman Lewis: Voices of the Old Sea
Robert Hughes: Barcelona
Cees Nooteboom: Roads To Santiago
Michael Jacobs: Between Hopes & Memories - A Spanish Journey)
Cilauro, Gleisner & Steich: Jetlag Travel Guide to Molvania
Susan Sontag: On Photography
Roland Barthes: Camera Lucida
A new article on openDemocracy by John Berger argues that Michael Moore’s documentary film Fahrenheit 9/11 is a historical landmark inspired by hope – and its maker is a true artist. Berger makes no reservations in his praise for the film and his assessment of the significance of Moore's intervention in the political processs:
'There is something else which is astounding. The aim of Fahrenheit 9/11 is to stop Bush fixing the next election as he fixed the last. Its focus is on the totally unjustified war in Iraq. Yet its conclusion is larger than either of these issues. It declares that a political economy which creates colossally increasing wealth surrounded by disastrously increasing poverty, needs – in order to survive – a continual war with some invented foreign enemy to maintain its own internal order and security. It requires ceaseless war'.
'It is always the poor who make the most sacrifices, Fahrenheit 9/11 announces quietly during its last minutes. For how much longer? There is no future for any civilisation anywhere in the world today that ignores this question. And this is why the film was made and became what it became'.
Wednesday, August 18, 2004
It's 25 years since the launch of the Sony Walkman. The current issue of Songlines, the world music mag, quotes a recent article by Norman Lebrecht, in which he argues that the Walkman 'has destroyed any sense of a piece of music having a place in the world, in time, in our personal lives. Music, made portable, is removed from any frame of reference. It becomes a utility, undeserving of more attention than drinking water from a tap. The day the Walkman landed was the day the music began to die'.
I suppose his argument is strengthened with the arrival of mp3 jukeboxes, and the personal playlist. No need, ever again, to listen to an album as the artist intended.
Thinking about this a bit more widely: the way, these days, we are bombarded with so many representations of reality that didn't exist for the average person in, say, 1703. Think of an ordinary home then. Music: no recordings, only what people played or sang themselves. Images: no photos, no cinema, no TV, no art galleries to speak of (the idea of galleries open to and drawing a mass public is a modern thing); few, if any images in the home, the main contact with them being in the local church. Words: with literacy levels low and the vernacular culture being primarily a spoken one, few households were likely to experience words via books; some might encounter cheap newspapers or magazines.
But now we swim in a sea of representations of reality; so much of our daily existence takes place in a virtual reality of words, images and sounds. Take this blog!
[The cartoon is by Tim Kreider, who says about it: 'I've been thinking about some way to draw ... a series of cartoons about the entertainments we're offered to divert us from the little indignities and atrocities inflicted on us every day'. Walkman/iPod as opiate of the masses? ]
Wednesday, August 11, 2004
Read while on holiday last week.
George Monbiot: The Age Of Consent
- globalrising.org: What can I do?
- Extracts from reviews
- The Age of Confusion: a critical response from Open Democracy.net
William Faulkner: The Sound & The Fury
Khaled Hosseini: The Kite Runner
Carol Shields: Larry's Party
- Reading group guide
- Observer interview with Carol Shields (2002)
- Carol Shields: Guardian obituary( 18 July 2003) and related articles
- Margaret Atwood appreciation of Carol Shields
- A chronicler of everyday love: Observer tribute
- Guardian review of Unless
- Unless: first chapter
Tuesday, August 10, 2004
While we were away in Catalonia, Henri Cartier-Bresson died. Here are links to various obituaries and appreciations:
Monday, August 09, 2004
This article by Bruce Springsteen, first published in the New York Times on August 5, appeared in the Guardian while we were in Catalonia. The Boss for Pres!
"A nation's artists and musicians have a particular place in its social and political life. Over the years I've tried to think long and hard about what it means to be American: about the distinctive identity and position we have in the world, and how that position is best carried. I've tried to write songs that speak to our pride and criticize our failures.
These questions are at the heart of this election: who we are, what we stand for, why we fight. Personally, for the last 25 years I have always stayed one step away from partisan politics. Instead, I have been partisan about a set of ideals: economic justice, civil rights, a humane
foreign policy, freedom and a decent life for all of our citizens. This year, however, for many of us the stakes have risen too high to sit this election out.
Through my work, I've always tried to ask hard questions. Why is it that the wealthiest nation in the world finds it so hard to keep its promise and faith with its weakest citizens? Why do we continue to find it so difficult to see beyond the veil of race? How do we conduct ourselves during difficult times without killing the things we hold dear? Why does the fulfillment of our promise as a people always seem to be just within grasp yet forever out of reach?
I don't think John Kerry and John Edwards have all the answers. I do believe they are sincerely interested in asking the right questions and working their way toward honest solutions. They understand that we need an administration that places a priority on fairness, curiosity, openness, humility, concern for all America's citizens, courage and faith.
People have different notions of these values, and they live them out in different ways. I've tried to sing about some of them in my songs. But I have my own ideas about what they mean, too. That is why I plan to join with many fellow artists, including the Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., the Dixie Chicks, Jurassic 5, James Taylor and Jackson Browne, in touring the country this October. We will be performing under the umbrella of a new group called Vote for Change. Our goal is to change the direction of the government and change the current administration come November.
Like many others, in the aftermath of 9/11, I felt the country's unity. I don't remember anything quite like it. I supported the decision to enter Afghanistan and I hoped that the seriousness of the times would bring forth strength, humility and wisdom in our leaders. Instead, we dived headlong into an unnecessary war in Iraq, offering up the lives of our young men and women under circumstances that are now discredited. We ran record deficits, while simultaneously cutting and squeezing services like afterschool programs. We granted tax cuts to the richest 1 percent (corporate bigwigs, well-to-do guitar players), increasing the division of wealth that threatens to destroy our social contract with one another and render mute the promise of "one nation indivisible."
It is through the truthful exercising of the best of human qualities - respect for others, honesty about ourselves, faith in our ideals - that we come to life in God's eyes. It is how our soul, as a nation and as individuals, is revealed. Our American government has strayed too far from American values. It is time to move forward. The country we carry in our hearts is waiting. "
Link to original NY Times article
Friday, July 30, 2004
Superb exhibition. It was moving to see the Vallauris Chapel War and Peace panels recreated (Sarah & I saw these in situ several years ago), as well as the large Massacre In Korea painting.
From the exhibition summary:
'...painting is not done to decorate apartments. It's an instrument of War for attack and defense against the enemy.' Pablo Picasso, Les Lettres françaises, 24/3/1943
The aim of the exhibition is to show those moments when the artist uses his work to echo his horror at the ravages of war. This horror was especially strong during the Spanish Civil War, when he was commissioned by the government of the Republic to paint Guernica for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition in 1937. With all the works that revolve around it, it has become a symbol of human suffering.
However, from Guernica on, a new symbolism in human representation appears in his work, particularly in his characterization of Maria-Thérèse Walter and Dora Maar, protagonists in Picasso's life and work during these years, and who assume opposing identities, very close to the artist's attitudes towards war and peace.During the Second World War, between 1943 and 1944, Picasso painted a series of still lifes in which he uses skulls to exorcise the sadness and pessimism of the war years, marked by the deaths of friends and relatives and the emergence of a cruel, violent world in which the premises he knew and understood were crumbling.
In the fifty or so drawings he did for the sculpture L'homme au mouton, an embodiment of the Christian Good Shepherd, evocative of the Mediterranean tradition, the humanism of his thoughts on the power of art over terror refers us to the context of war, in which the lamb is the incarnation of the victim and the shepherd the champion of peace and tolerance.
Two years later, in the summer of 1946, after the war had ended, he moved in with Françoise Gilot in Antibes and started on a new series of still lifes in which emblematic Mediterranean animals and birds radiate a new happiness and peace, endowing these works with an element of magic. The photographer Michel Sima gave him an owl, symbol of Antibes and of the goddess Pallas Athene. He included it in a number of the still lifes, in which it appears perched on a chair. This was, then, one of the elements which, like Pallas Athene herself, united wisdom and the victory of peace over war.
He joined the French Communist Party in October 1944 as part of his fierce defence of freedom and peace, which is expressed in his work at the time and reached its height with his participation in the Peace Conferences in Wroclaw in 1948, in Paris in 1949 and in London in 1950. The doves in his drawings and lithographs became an emblem of world peace.
Apart from the works for the Peace Conferences, in 1945 he started on the large panels War and Peace, which were installed in 1954 in a chapel in Vallauris after extensive preparatory work. '
On our second day in Barcelona, we went to CCCB for the At War exhibition. Tremendous - it would have repaid several return visits. Superb organisation, bringing out different themes. Very wide-ranging: included paintings, sculpture, photography, film and installation art.
At War 'takes a long, hard look at what war is and how it affects the individual and society. This exhibition dissects the idea into discrete themes, beginning with the 'socialisation of violence' and how childhood games, fashion, entertainment and advertising affect our attitude to war, right the way through to 'memory' and the legacy of conflict'.
Bought the catalogue.
Thursday, July 29, 2004
On our first day in Barcelona (and just prior to falling victim to the birdshit ploy and thus getting robbed - read the Rough Guide, it's all in there!), went to see this very interesting exhibition in the beautiful MACBA building.
It was difficult to work out the common thread linking exhibits that included Buster Keaton and Eisenstein films, music by Erik Satie and Debussey, poetry, literature, as well as paintings and photography. But it was very absorbing.
Dates: From June 3 to September 12, 2004
“Limited Action” (L’action restreinte) is the title of an essay by Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) compiled in Divagations in 1897. This formulation designates not only the limits but also the focus of poetic action. “Art and Utopia. Action Restricted” reexamines some of the key moments in the exchange between art and poetry in the twentieth century up until the end of the 1970s. The Mallarmean poetic serves here as a medium for a history of modern art in its relation with language and its dispersion.
Art and Utopia. Limited Action sets out to rethink the art of the 20th century from a review of the role of the poet Mallarmé in the construction of the pillars of contemporary creation. Throughout the 20th century two apparently antagonistic phenomena occurred, confronting the will for formal experiment with the tradition of trying to educate society in order to transform it. That is the dichotomy between Marx and Mallarmé, between politics and poetry, which, in the context of this exhibition, is considered a solved problem, since there can be an art which is both poetical and political at the same time. The only utopia is in language, in the limited action of the poetic act.
The exhibition will include 108 paintings, 36 sculptures, 340 works on paper, 140 photos, 24 films, as well as sound works and rare books, from, amongst others: Guillaume Apollinaire, Hans Arp, Georges Braque, André Breton, John Cage, Joseph Cornell, Edward Gordon Craig, Giorgio de Chirico, Claude Debussy, Robert Delaunay, Sonia Delaunay, Marcel Duchamp, Sergueï Eisenstein, Max Ernst, Walker Evans, Robert Flaherty, Jean-Luc Godard, Juan Gris, Vassily Kandinsky, René Magritte, Vladimir Maïakovski, Stéphane Mallarmé, Edouard Manet, Joan Miró, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, F. W. Murnau, Pablo Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg, Man Ray, Odilon Redon, Roberto Rossellini, Erik Satie, Kurt Schwitters, Victor Sjöström, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Yves Tanguy Antoni Tàpies.
At the end of the nineteenth century, after the death of Victor Hugo, the poet can no longer claim to operate directly in the political arena or even designate himself as moral conscience. He can mention the world, but he cannot change it. His activity, however, is not purely contemplative. He realizes an action in a restricted but essential field, which does not belong to him but which he can reevaluate and even redefine. This is the field of language and languages; it is the space of the book as a “spiritual instrument.”
In March 1970, the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers, also coming from the poetic field, declared: “Mallarmé is the source of contemporary art. He unconsciously invents modern space.” Broodthaers was thinking above all about the word constellation constructed in Un coup de dés (1897). After its belated publishing in book form (1914), the poem effectively became the prototype for all investigations in the confluence of poetry, typography and visual art. Appollinaire’s calligrams, contemporary with cubist papiers collés, the Futurists’ words in liberty, and the word as such of Russian poets are derived almost directly from this poem or
differentiate themselves from it through a dynamic of avant-garde radicalization.
This genealogy continues with the emergence of concrete poetry in the 1950s. Plein air impressionism since Manet and the prismatic structure of post-Cézannean cubist painting represent two poles of the Mallarmean poetic. At the same time, the fantastic of Odilon Redon turned to the idea of suggestion, which defines symbolism as well as description and literary narration. The dialogue between art and poetry also opens onto other forms of visual creation such as in photography and film. Beyond that abstraction called “geometric,” the emphasis on the essential constituents of painting – point, line, plane, and color – participates in a speculation on the genesis of form that has much in common with poetic language.
Nevertheless, as Duchamp’s extra-pictorial activities indicate, the resonance of the Mallarmean poetic exceeds the genealogies of poetry and the visual arts. Mallarmé was also interested in music and the arts of the stage (theatre and dance) while refuting the Wagnerian model of the total work of art. Mallarmé had already imagined an anthropological reconciliation of modern art, liberated from religious representation. But that union was revealed to be just as precarious as the practice of poetry. In the 1930s, the distressing pressure of the times made the model of
myth return to the debates as well as attempts at the synthesis between rationalist utopias and a somewhat reasoned neo-primitivism, between constructivism and surrealism.
Immediately after the Second World War, Antonin Artaud’s return to poetry corresponds to a necessary strengthening of the myth about the “restricted action” of line and expression. In 1933, Artaud had defined Mallarmé’s exemplariness: “Nothingness that is infinitely worked out after having passed through the finite, the concrete and the immediate; music based on nothingness since the sonority of syllables affects one before understanding its meaning.” With the war and the concentration camps, nothingness acquired a resonance of terror and the inhuman.
In the 50s and 60s, the publication of Correspondence and fragments on the Book occurs concurrent with the introduction of the linguistic model in the humanities and the emergence of the artistic culture of the neo-avant-garde. Roland Barthes describes a common “structuralist activity” in literature, music and the visual arts. The impersonality extolled by Mallarmé ends in “the death of the author”. The book, “total expansion of the letter” (Mallarmé), continues to be the countermodel to the media of mass communication, but it has lost its sacred dimension due to contamination: it has been vulgarized. At the end of the 70s René Daniels’s painting La Muse vénale, modeled on a poem by Baudelaire, indicates the exhaustion of the cultural alternatives proposed by the neo-avant-gardes. It likewise shows the actuality of a poetic gaze that knows how to detect the anachronisms of the present. “Poorly informed,” Mallarmé writes, “is the one who proclaims himself his own contemporary.”
Thursday, July 22, 2004
Having recently read - and been impressed by - Monica Ali's Brick Lane, I thought I'd pay the street a visit on our London trip. It was quiet in the early afternoon, and it must be a totally different atmosphere on weekend market days or in the evenings when crowds flock to the restaurants. Took a stroll and some photos - including a look at the Brick Lane Mosque, a place of worship for different faiths for hundreds of years. It was first built as church by the Huguenots in the late 18th century, changed use to become a synagogue when a Jewish community replaced the protestant population, then in the late 20th century the building was converted again to serve as a mosque for the Bangladeshi community.
- History of Brick Lane
- From Bangladesh to Brick Lane: Guardian feature
- Observer review of Brick Lane
- Guardian review of Brick Lane
- Interview with Monica Ali
First in at 10.00 to see this major retrospective (the first since the one that Rita & I saw in the early 70s). Wonderful to see all these familiar paintings close up (though not, sadly, Gas. Favourites this time were Sun In An Empty Room and Two Comedians. But Sunday Morning and Nighthawks still stop you in your tracks.
- Tate Modern page
- Observer review
- Annie Proulx on Hopper in Guardian Review
- Extensive image gallery
- Edward Hopper Scrapbook
I went to see the huge Lartigue exhibition at the Hayward. Not only a comprehensive survey of photographs from all stages of his life, but also a large number of the albums that he maintained and regularly updated throughout his life. Wonderful.
Wednesday, July 21, 2004
First call on our trip to London (Rita & I, Sarah & Chloe) was the Bill Brandt retrospective at the V&A. Comprehensive (all distinctive phases of his career given full weight) and impressive.
Sunday, July 11, 2004
To see Michael Moore's film with Rita & Rod, Sarah & Mike at FACT. Powerful and much more disciplined than I'd expected. Only a couple of over-indulgent sequences (like the Oregon coastguard). All power to his elbow - it's been having a tremendous imact in America.
Friday, July 09, 2004
With Joel and Gemma to see Barrio Viejo put on a great show at The Art Gallery The View 2, 23 Mathew Street.
The line-up: singer -songwriter Sonia Linares Berroy from Sabadell, Barcelona, Brian Kelly on guitar, Tom Sykes on violin, Chris Lhereoux on cajón, Simon England on bass and Alex Mackenzie on flamenco guitar.
Saturday, July 03, 2004
Part of the Liverpool Arabic Festival, the Natacha Atlas concert at the Phil was a revelation - a full house of vary varied punters (not the usual world music crowd). Natacha herself was superb - wonderful voice, beautiful dancing. Not so impressed, though, with the synthesiser-led musical arrangements - or the rap singer/dancer.
Wednesday, June 30, 2004
The opening event of the Liverpool Arabic Festival at the Palmhouse. This 7-piece Yemeni group consists of Ahmad al’Ahmady on the ‘ud (Arabic lute), two violinists, one nay (flute) player, and three percussionists. Though they play traditional Hadhrami forms, their music also reflects the many cultural influences that Yemen is exposed to as, seen in the African and Indian rhythms. Their music reflects the different musical influences of their home-town Mukalla.
It was a great evening - not only wonderful music, but also traditional dance and Yemeni food (sweetmeats and mint tea). Good to see a very mixed audience - Liverpool Yemenis of all ages mixing with the usual world music suspects.
Sunday, June 13, 2004
This year's Africa Oye kicked off yesterday (Saturday) and today in a glorious, sunny Sefton Park. Yesterday saw Farafina, Boukman Eksperyans and Tinariwen. Went back today for a second helping of Tinariwen and also Misty in Roots.
Later, I bought Tinariwen's Amassakoul album, but I have to say I found it really disappointing - none of the excitement of the live performance. In fact, quite monotonous.
- Another blogger was there (includes Daily Post report)
- Tinariwen at WOMAD in July (BBC 4)
- Tinariwen discography
Sunday, May 30, 2004
Maybe it's the mood induced by the horrendous nine and a half hour drive to Canterbury on motorways congested to near-paralysis, but two book reviews today really resonate:
Doom watch: Guardian 29 May (Review of The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilisation
by Brian Fagan)
Force feeding (Reviews of Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate
by Felicity Lawrence, and Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets
by Joanna Blythman)
Makes you think:
Britain in 2002: 4,000 hours of cookery programmes on TV and 900 books on food and cooking, just 20 minutes, on average, preparing each main meal. British consumers now spend £7,000 a minute on ready meals, three times more than any other European country.
Supermarket delivery lorries, travel one billion kilometres every year, accounting for 40% of the lorry traffic on UK roads.
The supermarkets now sell more than 80% of the food we eat at home.
Monday, May 24, 2004
Susan Sontag has a brilliant essay in today's Guardian What have we done? evaluating the meaning of the Iraq toture photos and what they reveal about contemporary American society.
"You ask yourself how someone can grin at the sufferings and humiliation of another human being - drag a naked Iraqi man along the floor with a leash? set guard dogs at the genitals and legs of cowering, naked prisoners? rape and sodomise prisoners? force shackled hooded prisoners to masturbate or commit sexual acts with each other? beat prisoners to death? - and feel naive in asking the questions, since the answer is, self-evidently: people do these things to other people. Not just in Nazi concentration camps and in Abu Ghraib when it was run by Saddam Hussein. Americans, too, do them when they have permission. When they are told or made to feel that those over whom they have absolute power deserve to be mistreated, humiliated, tormented. They do them when they are led to believe that the people they are torturing belong to an inferior, despicable race or religion. For the meaning of these pictures is not just that these acts were performed, but that their perpetrators had no sense that there was anything wrong in what the pictures show. Even more appalling, since the pictures were meant to be circulated and seen by many people, it was all fun. And this idea of fun is, alas, more and more - contrary to what Mr Bush is telling the world - part of "the true nature and heart of America". "
Also in today's Guardian - this really disturbing article by John Sutherland on the literature that's popular in far-right circles: Far right or far wrong?.
"The book currently generating the most chatter is Jean Raspail's Camp of Saints. First published in 1973, in France... Raspail's loathsome novel has recently achieved something like respectability. The author has a website and has been hailed "the Frantz Fanon of the White Race". Camp of Saints articulates a western nightmare fashionable among neo-conservatives. Civilisations won't "clash". The developed world (and in the Middle East, Israel) will simply be outspawned into extinction...The book has also found a powerful advocate in Daniel Pipes. A leading neo-conservative and Middle East expert, he was appointed last August to the US Institute of Peace (a "non-partisan federal institution" dedicated to the "prevention, management and resolution of international conflicts") by George Bush."
I found this review of the book on the American Renaissance site:
Fairest Things Have Fleetest Endings
AM describes itself as “a literate, undeceived journal of race, immigration and the decline of civility".
The book is available from Amazon.com, which amazingly hosts many ecstatic reviews by racists.
Friday, May 21, 2004
Tonight went to see the National Theatre production of David Hare's 'The Permanent Way' at The Playhouse.
"The Permanent Way is not a comedy involving impersonations but a true-life tragedy told mostly in statements delivered straight to the audience. It has been directed by Max Stafford-Clark for the National Theatre and Out of Joint, the latter Stafford-Clark's own company and a regular visitor to the Liverpool stage.
And while London productions often get recast for regional tours, this has not been the case with The Permanent Way. This is exactly the same production that was staged at the National Theatre with the same cast". (Daily Post May 17)
Original production details: National Theatre Productions : The Permanent Way
Neal Ascherson had an interesting article in the Observer last November, putting the play in the context of the recent upsurge of political theatre: Whose line is it anyway?
The original Guardian review is here: Up the junction
And it just goes on - it reminded me that in April the Guardian ran a detailed two-part analysis of the way that puiblic money has been poured into the West Coast main line project The £10bn rail crash and The £10bn rail crash, part two
Tuesday, May 18, 2004
Today I read this, on the question of the existence of altruism, in Ruth Kluger's Holocaust memoir, Landscapes of Memory:
Selection, there was to be a selection. At a certain barracks at a certain time, women between the ages of fifteen and forty-five were to be chosen for a transport to a labor camp. Some argued that up to now every move had been for the worse, that one should therefore avoid the selection, stay away, try to remain here. My mother believed - and the world has since agreed with her - that Birkenau was the pits, and to get out was better than to stay. But the word Selection was not a good word in Auschwitz, because it usually meant the gas chambers. One couldn't be sure that there really was a labor camp at the end of the process, though it seemed a reasonable assumption, given the parameters of the age group they were taking. But then, Auschwitz was not run on reasonable principles.
My mother had reacted correctly to the extermination camp from the outset, that is, with the sure instinct of the paranoid. Her suicide proposal of the first night is evidence of her understanding. And when I wouldn't go along with her then, she managed to take the first and the only way out. Time has proved that she was right all along, and yet I still think it was not her reasonableness but an old and deep-seated sense of being persecuted which enabled her to save our lives. Psychologists like Bruno Bettelheim have tried to persuade us that a sane person who hasn't been spoiled by a disabling bourgeois education should be able to adjust to new conditions, even if they are as outlandish as those of a concentration camp. The saner, the better the chance of survival is the bottom line of this type of argument. I think the opposite is true. I think that people suffering from compulsive disorders, such as paranoia, had a better chance to pick their way out of mass destruction, because in Auschwitz they were finally in a place where the social order (or social chaos) had caught up with their delusions. If you think that your mind is the most precious thing you own, you are right, because what have we got that defines us other than reason and love? But in Auschwitz love couldn't save you, and neither could reason. Madness, perhaps. There are no absolute means of salvation, and there are times when even paranoia may work. It wasn't the last time that my mother thought she was pursued, and maybe it wasn't the first time. But it took the Shoah to prove her right for once.
But isn't the price she paid too high: this madness that she carried inside her, like a sleeping tomcat? The cat would occasionally stretch, yawn, arch his back, softly case the joint, suddenly chatter with his teeth, reach with sharp claws for a bird, and go to sleep again - leaving the bloody feathers for me to clean up. I don't want to carry such a predator inside of me, even if he could save my life in the next extermination camp.
Two SS men conducted the selection, both with their backs to the rear wall. They stood on opposite sides of the so-called chimney, which divided the room. In front of each was a line of naked, or almost naked, women, waiting to be judged. The selector in whose line I stood had a round, wicked mask of a face and was so tall that I had to crane my neck to look up at him. I told him my age, and he turned me down with a shake of his head, simply, like that. Next to him, the woman clerk, a prisoner, too, was not to write down my number. He condemned me as if I had stolen my life and had no right to keep it, as if my life were a book that an adult was taking from me, just as my uncle had taken the Bible from me because I was too young to read it. Later I saw the selector's image in Kafka's door keeper, who won't grant a man entrance to his own space and light.
My mother had been chosen. No wonder: she was the right age, a grown-up woman. Her number had been written down, and she would leave the camp shortly. We stood on the street between the two rows of barracks and argued. She tried to persuade me that I should try a second time, with the other SS man in the other line, and claim that I was fifteen.
The month of June 1944 was very hot in Poland, and therefore both the front and the rear doors of the barracks stood open. The back entrance was guarded, but the detail consisted of inmates, and my mother felt I could sneak by and take another turn. And this time, please don't be a fool and tell them your real age of twelve. I got angry and was half desperate. `I don't look older,' I remonstrated. I felt she half wanted me to step in a pile of shit, like the time a few years earlier when she had urged me to go to the movies despite the legal prohibition. (I repeat: my mother and I were very unfair to each other.) The difference between twelve and fifteen is enormous for a twelve-year-old. I was to add a quarter of my entire life. In Theresienstadt, in L4r4, they had put the different age groups into different rooms. A mere difference of one year had meant another room, another community. The lie which my mother proposed was so transparent: three years! Where was I to find them?
I was anguished and frightened, but this was not the profound fear that overwhelmed me when I looked at the chimneys, the crematoria, spitting flames at night and smoke by day. When that fear gripped me, it was like the psychological equivalent of epileptic fits. The fear I felt now was more like the bearable fear of malicious grown-ups, a fear with which I could cope. For what would become of me if I had to stay in Birkenau without my mother? Well, that was out of the question, she assured me. If I wouldn't try the selection a second time, she would stay, too. She'd like to see who could separate her from her child. Only it wasn't a good idea, and would I please listen to what she was telling me, she said, without paying attention to my conclusive counterarguments. `You are a coward,' she said half desperately, half contemptuously, and added, `I wasn't ever a coward.' So what could I do but go in a second time, but with the proviso that I would try thirteen, never fifteen. Fifteen was preposterous. And if I get into trouble, it's your fault.
The space between the barracks I was to invade in order to reach the back door was guarded by a cordon of men. My mother and I watched them carefully for a minute or so. `Now!' we realized, and I sneaked by as the two men in charge happened to call out to each other. I bent over a little to appear smaller, or to make use of the shadow of the wall, turned the corner, and entered through the door, unobserved.
The room was still full of women. A kind of orderly chaos reigned which I associate with Auschwitz. The much-touted Prussian perfection of camp administration is a German myth. Behind every good organization is the presumption that there is something worth keeping and organizing. Here the organization was superficial, because there was nothing valuable to organize or retain. We were worthless by definition. We had been brought here to be disposed of, and hence the waste of Menschenmaterial, human substance, as the inhuman German term has it, was immaterial, to use another inhuman term. Basically the Nazis didn't care what went on in the Jew camps, as long as they were no bother. The selecting SS officers and their helpers stood with their backs to me. I went unobtrusively to the front door, took off my clothes once more, and quietly went to the end of the line. I breathed a sigh of relief to have managed so far so well, and was happy to have been smarter than the rules. I had proved to my mother that I wasn't chicken. But I was the smallest, and obviously the youngest, female around, undeveloped, undernourished, and nowhere near puberty.
I have read a lot about the selections since that time, and all reports insist that the first decision was always the final one, that no prisoner who had been sent to one side, and thus condemned to death, ever made it to the other side. All right, I am the proverbial exception.
What happened next is loosely suspended from memory, as the world before Copernicus dangled on a thin chain from Heaven. It was an act of the kind that is always unique, no matter how often it occurs: an incomprehensible act of grace, or put more modestly, a good deed. Yet the first term, an act of grace, is perhaps closer to the truth, although the agent was human and the term is religious. For it came out of the blue sky and was as undeserved as if its originator had been up in the clouds. I was saved by a young woman who was in as helpless a situation as the rest of us, and who nonetheless wanted nothing other than to help me. The more I think about the following scene, the more astonished I am about its essence, about someone making a free decision to save another person, in a place which promoted the instinct of self-preservation to the point of crime and beyond. It was both unrivaled and exemplary. Neither psychology nor biology explains it. Only free will does. Simone Well was suspicious of practically all literature, because literature tends to make good actions boring and evil ones interesting, thus reversing the truth, she argued. Perhaps women know more about what is good than men do, since men tend to trivialize it. In any case, Well was right, as I learned that day in Birkenau: the good is incomparable and inexplicable as well, because it doesn't have a proper cause outside itself, and because it doesn't reach for anything beyond itself.
I can't keep SS men apart - to me they are all the same uniformed wire puppet with polished boots. Even when Eichmann was tried and executed, I was embarrassingly indifferent to the whole process. These people were one single phenomenon, as far as I was concerned, and their different personalities were irrelevant. Hannah Arendt offered the counterpart to Simone Well's reflections on goodness when she pointed to the simple fact that evil is committed in the spirit of mental dullness and narrow-minded conformity - what she called banality. Her reflections on evil caused much indignation among men, who understood, though perhaps not consciously, that this deromanticization of arbitrary violence was a challenge to the patriarchy. Perhaps women know more about evil than men, who like to demonize it.
The line moved towards an SS man who, unlike the first one, was in a good mood. Judging from photos, he may have been the infamous Dr. Mengele, but as I said, it doesn't matter. His clerk was perhaps nineteen or twenty. When she saw me, she left her post, and almost within the hearing of her boss, she asked me quickly and quietly and with an unforgettable smile of her irregular teeth: `How old are you?' `Thirteen,' I said, as planned. Fixing me intently, she whispered, `Tell him you are fifteen.'
Two minutes later it was my turn, and I cast a sidelong look at the other line, afraid that the other SS man might look up and recognize me as someone whom he had already rejected. He didn't. (Very likely he couldn't tell us apart any more than I had reason to distinguish among the specimens of his kind.) When asked for my age I gave the decisive answer, which I had scorned when my mother suggested it but accepted from the stranger. `I am fifteen.'
`She seems small,' the master over life and death remarked. He sounded almost friendly, as if he was evaluating cows and calves.
`But she is strong,' the woman said, `look at the muscles in her legs. She can work.'
She didn't know me, so why did she do it? He agreed - why not? She made a note of my number, and I had won an extension on life.
Every survivor has his or her `lucky accident' - the turning point to which we owe our lives. Mine is peculiar because of the intervention of the stranger. Virtually all those still alive today who have the Auschwitz number on their left arm are older than I am, at least by those three years that I added to my age. There are exceptions, like the underage twins on whom Dr. Mengele performed his pseudomedical experiments. Then there are some who were my age, but who were selected at the ramp to be sent immediately on to the labor camps, and who were thought to be older because they wore several layers of clothing, by way of transporting a wardrobe. They were not tattooed because they weren't in the camp. To get out of the camp, you really had to have been alive longer than twelve years.
I have always told this story in wonder, and people wonder at my wonder. They say, okay, some persons are altruistic. We understand that; it doesn't surprise us. The girl who helped you was one of those who likes to help. A young American rabbi says that after my buildup he expected a more heroic tale. Maybe he has seen too many action films or read too many Bible stories, the kind that tout male virtues, muscle over mind, noise over quiet resolve. But don't just look at the scene. Focus on it, zero in on it, and consider what happened. There were two of them: the man who had power he could exert on a random object, for better or for worse. He probably didn't believe that the labor of a starved little girl would promote the German war effort considerably or retard the final solution to a noticeable extent. He had to decide the case one way or the other, list or not list my number. Just then it suited him to listen to his clerk. And she is the other. I think his action was arbitrary, hers voluntary. It must have been freely chosen, because anyone knowing the circumstances would have predicted the opposite, or at least shoulder-shrugging indifference. Her decision broke the chain of knowable causes. She was an inmate, and she risked a lot when she prompted me to lie and then openly championed a girl who was too young and small for forced labor and completely unknown to her. She saw me stand in line, a kid sentenced to death, she approached me, she defended me, and she got me through. What more do you need for an example of perfect goodness? Never and nowhere was there such an opportunity for a free, spontaneous action as in that place at that time. It was moral freedom at its purest. I saw it, I experienced it, I benefited from it, and I repeat it, because there is nothing to add. Listen to me, don't take it apart, absorb it as I am telling it and remember it.
But perhaps you are of the opposite camp and claim that there is no such thing as altruism, that every action is motivated by some kind of selfishness, even if such egotism is no more than the consciousness of free choice. In that case, of course, freedom itself is a mere illusion as well. And perhaps you are right, and there is no absolute in these matters, but only approaches to goodness and to freedom. The main characteristic of freedom is its unpredictability. And no one has been able to predict human behavior with the same accuracy as, for example, the behavior of amoebas. Dogs, horses, and cows are semipredictable, but with humans there is never more than a certain degree of probability. People can change their minds at the last moment, and even if we knew everything about a person and stored it in the most advanced computer system, we could still not foresee the mental movement of a woman whom I didn't know, whom I never saw again, deciding to save me and succeeding.
And therefore I think it makes sense that the closest approach to freedom takes place in the most desolate imprisonment under the threat of violent death, where the chance to make decisions has been reduced to almost zero. (And where is the zero point? The gas chambers are zero, I believe, when the men in their final contortions are forced by a biological urge to step on the children. But how can I be sure?) In a rat hole, where charity is the least likely virtue, where humans bare their teeth, and where all signs point in the direction of self-preservation, and there is yet a tiny gap - that is where freedom may appear like the uninvited angel. If a prisoner passed on the beatings he received to those even more helpless than he, he was merely reacting as psychology and biology would expect him to. But if he did the reverse? And so one might argue that in the perverse environment of Auschwitz absolute goodness was a possibility, like a leap of faith, beyond the humdrum chain of cause and effect. I don't know how often it was consummated. Surely not often. Surely not only in my case. But it existed. I am a witness".