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  1. Religious Needs -- What To Do About 'Em?
  2. Meeting Toni Bentley
  3. Things They Don’t Tell You About Modern Art
  4. The WTC and Free Enterprise
  5. Rightie Elsewhere
  6. Women and Solitaire
  7. Ira Levin Adds Value
  8. The Sublime

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Saturday, May 8, 2004

Religious Needs -- What To Do About 'Em?
Dear Friedrich -- I realized this morning that I walk around with a small and perhaps unjustifiable theory. Well, I walk around with a lot of them, to be honest -- they help me get by. This one, though, I'm eager to compare notes about. Here it is, if in babble form: it's that 99% of how people have screwed up in the last 150ish years is a function of people not knowing what to do with their religious feelings. Everyone has needs, energies, and hopes that we might as well call religious. For example: many people seem to have a conviction that there's a Final Explanation out there that can be unearthed, as well as some some Ultimate Reality that can be made contact with. Nothing wrong with these feelings, IMHO -- I've got 'em too. As a friend of mine likes to say, we all seem to be born with a gene for religion. Too bad that traditional religion ain't doing it for a lot of people any longer. Hungry and needy anyway, many people either buy into quasi-religions (cults, new-age-ish things), or they turn otherwise-useful and down-to-earth fields into quasi-religions: science, politics, economics, and art, for instance. But these energies seem to wreak havoc when poured into systems or fields that can't support them. Turned to with religious fervor, economics stops being a tool for understanding (or just making a little sense of) certain aspects of social life, and becomes instead That Which Explains Everything and Gives Us Final Guidance, whether from a loony-libertarian or a mad-Marxist p-o-v. Politics stops being a set of tools and traditions by which we organize certain aspects of social life and becomes instead The System By Which We Shall Achieve Perfection. Modernism refuses to take its place as a nice addition to the cultural menu, and instead becomes The Art To Which All History Has Led -- The One and Only True Art. It ain't a coincidence, IMHO, that the American modernist acting school was no mere school for performers; no, it was "The Method." My impression these days is that it's "diversity" that has hardened into redemptive dogma. It's a safe bet that once we've burned up all that "diversity" has to offer, we'll take these restless, needy feelings and project them onto some other unsuspecting field or value, so that we can once again have a cause we can get all charged up about. Could it be that what we're looking for isn't the specific cause but instead that all-charged-up feeling? We do this even though we know perfectly well what happens when we chase feelings; we make 'em even more slippery and elusive than they're otherwise prone to be. Oopsie. Got away from us again. This line of speculation has me admiring traditional religions more than I used to, if from a utlitarian, evo-bio-ish point of view. The usual left-oid thing is to condemn traditional religions for the destruction and misery they've caused. The Crusades, the witch-burning, etc.,... posted by Michael at May 8, 2004 | perma-link | (40) comments

Friday, May 7, 2004

Meeting Toni Bentley
Dear Friedrich -- I posted here and here about my enthusiasm for the writing of the ballerina-turned-author Toni Bentley. Lucky me, the other day I got the chance to meet Toni Bentley herself. She was in town for a few days and sweetly got in touch to see if we could meet for a drink. Indeed we could! Full disclosure: I'd pushed myself on Toni long ago, emailing links to my postings, and she'd been gracious enough to respond. Hence our contact. Well, OK, so she was just being cordial to a fan. Still! I'm glad to report that Toni -- she's "Toni" to me now -- is charming, smart, and full of relaxed energy. She was looking elegant in what I'll ineptly describe as hippie-gypsy clothes made edgy with a touch of bondage chic. We swapped news and gossip, and yakked about this and that. Toni told me a bit about her new book, "The Surrender," which is due out from HarperCollins in October. I can report that the book sounds as yummy as its title. I suspect that it'll cause quite the scandale -- here's hoping, anyway. I've sworn to keep the juiciest details under wraps, but I'm free to say that the book is a memoir, and that sex, God, art and ecstasy (some of the Blowhards' favorite themes) are never far from Toni Bentley's mind. If you're eager to know what her subject is -- and who wouldn't be? -- you can visit a webpage that Toni has set up here, and have a good time trying to make sense of the clues. I mentioned to Toni that I'd noticed at Terry Teachout's blog that Toni had met with Terry too. (Glad to see that Terry likes Toni's writing as much as I do. Here's Terry's charming account of their get-together.) "He invited you up to see his prints?" I said in disbelief. "And you went? Don't you know by now never to trust a critic?" Toni giggled. "He was charming, and a complete gentleman." Phew! So we marveled for a few minutes about how much first-class pro stuff Terry publishes in legit venues. "And then he goes home and blogs! For relaxation!" We shook our heads in wonder and shrugged. What's to be done? Some people just have the gift. Then I got down to blogbusiness, did some sulking and some arm-twisting, and managed to get Toni to agree to do an exclusive q&a with 2Blowhards -- er, that would be this Blowhard -- when the release of her book gets near. Ah, the things I do for our visitors. Hey, who needs the Algonquin Round Table or Bohemian Paris when we've got the blogging life? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 7, 2004 | perma-link | (6) comments

Things They Don’t Tell You About Modern Art
Michael: In my wanderings around the Internet I came across a fascinating web page the other day. It’s on the website of the Grey Art Gallery website. It is devoted to a show called “Counter Culture: Parisian Cabarets and the Avant Garde, 1875-1905”. (You can check it out here.) Some of the fin de siecle Montmartre hijinks described on the website stirred dim memories from my previous reading. I remember coming across descriptions of Bon Bock dinners and the Chat Noir and Quat'z'Arts cabarets. These were all institutions that helped to convert the general bohemianism of the 19th century Parisian art world into a specifically avant-garde culture. And who can’t get behind the idea of hanging out in cafés, talking radical art and radical politics all day long? To say nothing of getting loaded, watching ‘shocking’ avant-garde amusements, and trying to score with the local girls? It might all be a cliché but it’s a rather fun one. But what was new to me on the web page was an artist’s and writer's club called the Hydropathes, and, more specifically the Arts incohérents exhibitions organized by a young writer and Hydropathe member, Jules Lévy. As the website describes them: On Sunday afternoon, 1 October 1882, the artists Edouard Manet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro, the composer Richard Wagner, and the king of Bavaria were among two thousand curious invitees reported to have crowded into the Left Bank apartment of the young writer and Hydropathe Jules Lévy to view the exhibition bizarrely entitled Arts incohérents. Two months earlier, as a challenge to academic art, Lévy had organized a show of "drawings made by people who don't know how to draw." Lévy's October proto-happening included professional artists who poked fun at the art establishment and produced "incohérent" works using a variety of peculiar and everyday found materials, for example, sculptures made from bread and cheese. One entry, a group painting by six artists, anticipated the collaborative efforts of the Surrealists some forty years later. The most provocative work was the first documented monochrome [i.e., all-black] painting by the poet Paul Bilhaud and entitled Negroes Fighting in a Cellar at Night. Artist Alphonse Allais expanded on Bilhaud's conceit by exhibiting a white and then a red monochrome painting in the 1883 and 1884 Incohérent shows; in 1897 he published a book of these images along with an empty musical score billed as a funeral march for the deaf. As early as 1885, with photographs of an ear filled with cotton and a hand holding a rose, filmmaker Emile Cohl prefigured the uncanny juxtapositions of Surrealists. And in 1887 proto-performance artist Sapeck (Eugène Bataille), who was known to travel the streets with his head painted blue, portrayed the Mona Lisa smoking a pipeyears before Marcel Duchamp added a moustache to the Louvre's venerated icon. But while these pieces anticipate the work of later avant-garde artists, the Incohérents employed raucous humor rather than esoteric theory to challenge academic tradition. I don’t know about you,... posted by Friedrich at May 7, 2004 | perma-link | (10) comments

Thursday, May 6, 2004

The WTC and Free Enterprise
Dear Friedrich -- As you've probably read, Larry Silverstein, the tycoon behind the World Trade Center, has lost his bid to receive a double insurance payout. (He spent $100 million in legal fees to achieve that result.) As a result, the rebuilding of the site is likely to be a less gargantuan thing than anticipated. But what caught my eye in Julia Vitullo-Martin's good piece about the future of the Ground Zero plans in today's WSJ (not online) was one particular passage. A surprising number of people I talk to seem under the impression that the often-awful forms American cities and American suburbs take these days represent the free enterprise system in action. Strip malls? Barren plazas at the base of towers? Sprawl? Too bad, but hey, it's The People expressing their preferences freely. Um, er: can we talk about tax breaks, highway subsidies, bizarro regulations, high-level cronyism, etc etc? As an admittedly dramatic example, here's Vitullo-Martin spelling out some of what was involved in the creation of the WTC: The World Trade Center had never been the monument to capitalism the terrorists believed it to be. Rather, it was the product of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's peculiar brand of government gigantism -- immense office towers built on private land acquired under eminent domain, exempted from city building codes, and freed from all taxes to compete with the private sector. Despite the status of Mr. Silverstein and his partners as leaseholders, the Twin Towers were never truly privatized -- which in normal terms would have meant "sold." Instead they were merely leased for 99 years to maintain such Port Authority privileges as tax exemption and freedom from city regulatory codes. Another reason why architecture-and-urbanism is so much fun to follow: politics. Best, Michael UPDATE: Laurence Aurbach, a better researcher than I, found the Vitullo-Martin article online. It can be read here.... posted by Michael at May 6, 2004 | perma-link | (12) comments

Rightie Elsewhere
Dear Friedrich -- I'm often surprised by how little interest lefties show in learning about rightie-ism. Many seem completely content with a demonic cartoon image of rightie thought -- all righties think alike, and it's EVIL. Perhaps they enjoy the fun of being able to train their guns on a single target. But, honestly, I'm just as surprised by how seldom righties show any interest in the variety of rightie thought. Rightie-ism embraces a lot of points of view, many of which conflict with each other. FWIW, learning a bit about all this strikes me as a matter of basic political literacy. Anyway, for this posting at least, I'm a man with a mission: to demonstrate the range of rightie thought via links to tiptop bloggers and sites. Many people have no idea, for instance, that such a thing as antiwar righties exist. Actually, they're fairly numerous. Steve Sailer's an example; check out Steve's blog (the right-hand column of his site, here) for his caustic ongoing thoughts about the Iraq war. But I read just about everything of Steve's I can get hold of; he strikes me as one of the most original journalists around. Recently, he's contrasted Northern and Southern California (here); discussed how crazy it is to soften medical-training requirements in order to achieve affirmative-action-style goals (here); and delivered interesting info about Europe's anxieties about its Gypsy population (here). Arts and Letters Daily (here) pointed out this good Scott McLemee piece about paleoconservative godfather Russell Kirk (here). Where does post-WWII American conservatism come from? Kirk's the Man -- yet how many Americans even know of this major figure's existence? Kirk's also a rebuke to those who claim that conservatives have no interest in the arts. FWIW, although I can't get through Kirk's own writing (talk about stuffy), I enjoy reading about him and his thought. Curious to hear how you react. Randall Parker, certainly a rightie, links to an essay by Harvard prof Samuel ("Clash of Civilizations") Huntington, who identifies himself as a Democrat. The theme of Huntington's essay is how the American elite (Democrat and/or Republican) became the anti-American thing that it is. Why is there such a huge gap between the elites (Huntington labels them "cosmopolitans") and we run-of-the-mill Joe-Sixpacks (who Huntington calls "nationalists")? On what fundamental points does this disagreement turn? I found Huntington's taxonomy and Randall's discussion helpful and enlightening, even in my thinking about the arts. Randall's posting is here, the Huntington essay is here. (Fenster Moop, here, points out that a NYTimes interview with Huntington can be read here.) Good Huntington line: "Actually, both [political] parties are divided on immigration." Jim Kalb -- who stopped by 2Blowhards to give us some concise lessons in conservative philosophy (here, here, and here) -- qualifies as a "traditionalist conservative." I find his p-o-v subtle and impressive, if impossible to characterize in a few snappy words. FWIW, I'm reading Pascal's "Pensees" at the moment (and don't I feel hoity-toity dropping that so casually into a conversation),... posted by Michael at May 6, 2004 | perma-link | (11) comments

Wednesday, May 5, 2004

Women and Solitaire
Dear Friedrich -- Does your wife love playing solitaire? My Wife loves Spider Solitaire, my sister loves Freecell, a niece loves Strict Klondike, and a work friend has Forty Thieves on her Windows desktop 24/7. Based on this statistically significant sample, I'm working on a theory that women love solitaire card games. There's something about solitaire (especially on the computer) that just ... works for women. OK, many if not all women. What do you suppose it is? When I asked The Wife, all she'd say was, "I don't know. That's a really good question. Did you know that FDR liked Spider Solitaire?" Me, I'm guessing that solitaire offers women something to focus their tirelessly churning feelings and energies on. First they exhaust (and delight!) their men; but long after we're in the grave, they'll still have solitaire. I once accused The Wife (fondly, of course) of cheating when I observed her hitting the "Undo" button a number of times. Her response: "That's not cheating. They wouldn't give you an Undo button if it were cheating. Besides, it isn't a competition. It's about trying to figure the deal out." Have you noticed that you -- or more likely the women in your life -- can now play all kinds of solitaire card games online? Here's one site ("Idiot's Delight -- the Solitaire Server") that offers more than 20 different versions of the game. But solitaire doesn't appeal to me at all. In accordance with my theory, I've decided to attribute my dislike of solitaire card games to my brawny and untamed hetero dude-hood. Does it hold any appeal for you? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 5, 2004 | perma-link | (18) comments

Monday, May 3, 2004

Ira Levin Adds Value
Dear Friedrich -- Have you read any of the novels of Ira Levin? He's best-known as the author of the novels Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives, and The Boys from Brazil, and of the play Deathtrap. I think he's sensational, and I marvel that more isn't made of him. His books -- I haven't yet read "Deathtrap" -- strike me as stunning examples of American art at its best. Er, "Rosemary's Baby"? "The Stepford Wives"? Hook-y, bestselling popular thrillers, right? Am I really trying to make the case that they're American art at its best? I sure am. (By the way, I'm hoping to do so in a way that doesn't put down hook-y popular fiction, which I've got a lot of respect for.) They're very sophisticated entertainments. I've only read three of Levin's novels: his first, "A Kiss Before Dying"; "Rosemary's Baby"; and "The Stepford Wives." To run through them ultra-quickly ... "A Kiss Before Dying" is a brilliant example of psychological suspense. (I blogged here about my enthusiasm for the genre generally.) It gets creepily inside the mind of a killer, and it has a couple of twists that have had readers falling out of their easy chairs with alarm, fear, and amazement for decades. It may be less needling and chilly than the best Patricia Highsmith, but it's even more maliciously plotted. Humbling note: Levin published this terrific novel when he was 23. 23!!! Interesting lit history: like the early Highsmith, "A Kiss Before Dying" (which was published in 1953) was a breakthrough psych-suspense novel that helped set the genre's pattern. A pause for a moment of exasperation: can you explain why so many educated English-major types have such ... well, if it's not contempt then it's certainly a lack of respect for the craft of storytelling? Lit types seem to think that plot and story are nothing much, and easily taken-care of. They're the lowest of writing's concerns, a matter of mere mechanics. But then, lit types often seem convinced that the only fiction-thing that counts is the writing. (Or what I like to think of as "the writin'.") Of course, their definition of what the writin' consists of changes regularly. Back in our college years, the writin' was a matter of meta-fictional games; for a stretch soon after, a writin' writer wrote flattened-out snapshots of depressing Americana; more recently, writin' writers wrote memoirs as metaphors for American dysfunction. I'm perfectly capable of appreciating and enjoying this kind of thing. I've got some, if not much, taste for it, as well as 'way too much education and experience in it. What I fail to understand is why the lit set has so little respect for the most basic elements of fiction-writing: for example, story, plotting, humor, characters-who-seem-alive, and suspense. This is especially puzzling given the way many lit-writers of my acquaintance spend their own leisure time reading mysteries and thrillers. All of which reminds me of the true stories you hear about the edgy and thorny... posted by Michael at May 3, 2004 | perma-link | (47) comments

Sunday, May 2, 2004

The Sublime
Michael: I’m going to be 50 in a month or so, and that may account for a little phenomenon that I’m about to describe, but then again it may not. As I’ve aged, the urgency factor in my sex life has decreased—no big surprise there. These days I feel that I use my sexuality; in my twenties, it pretty much used me. My lovely wife, on the other hand, who is either four or five years younger than I am depending on what month it is, seems to be enjoying a larger and more complex experience than ever. I feel like I’m playing a harmonica here, so to speak, while she seems to have moved up to a double orchestra. It sometimes feel like I’m navigating a very large, dark ocean in a very small, rickety boat. Again, as I mentioned, age is the obvious explanation here. But thinking back to my younger days, I’m not so sure that the disparity between the masculine and feminine sexual experience wasn’t always present. I just don’t think I was prepared to acknowledge it when I was 25. Which is too bad, as the awe that I feel these days—and I can’t think of a better word for it—is a real and remarkable addition to the whole experience. Maybe the diminishing role of my ego is opening up a space for a certain amount of the sublime to enter in. Live and learn, I guess. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at May 2, 2004 | perma-link | (18) comments