Unreal Nature

October 25, 2008

Luck and Bones and a Heart

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:51 pm

I try, I guess, to disable normative modes of perception, so as to try to allow for a revitalized way of seeing and feeling in the audience, hoping that’ll somehow translate itself, for them, into a reacquaintance with, and maybe even an affirmation of, regular earthly things, of consciousness itself, of suffering and joy themselves, rendering it all, for the audience, for all of us, for myself, into something more than a meaningless squeak beneath a meaningless and, by definition, heartless sky. I try to do that. I try to exalt normal stuff. I don’t know if I’ve ever succeeded. I try to make myself cry. Or stop. You have feelings, you know. You have feelings and gravity and time. That’s what you have. I don’t know, you have luck and bones and a heart.

— Will Eno [playwright] in an interview in the October 2008 issue of The Believer magazine



On Patrol

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:12 am

Munchkin and Cookie take their jobs very seriously — to keep their territory free of … of … (they make up the rest as they go along, depending on if it’s interesting and how big it is).







They have had some interesting encounters with critters in these woods. They are by no means the dominant non-human species here.



October 24, 2008

What’s Left (Or Is it Right?)

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:06 am

“Imagine Lucifer…”

by Jack Spicer

Imagine Lucifer
An angel without angelness
An apple
Plucked clear by will of taste, color,
Strength, beauty, roundness, seed
Absent of all God painted, present everything
An apple is.
Imagine Lucifer
An angel without angelness
A poem
That has revised itself out of sound
Imagine, rhyme, concordance
Absent of all God spoke of, present everything
A poem is.
                 The law I say, the Law 
What is Lucifer
An emperor with no clothes
No skin, no flesh, no heart
An emperor!

— from the July/August, 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

… It was a game, I shout to myself. A game. There are no angels, ghosts, or even shadows. It was a game made out of summer and freedom and a need for poetry that would be more than an expression of my hatreds and desires. It was a game like Yeats’ spooks or Blake’s sexless seraphim.
Yet it was there. The poems are there [….] What is real, I suppose, will endure. Poe’s mechanical chessplayer was not less a miracle for having a man inside it, and when the man departed, the games it had played were no less beautiful. The analogy is false, of course, but it holds both a promise and a warning for each of us.

— from Jack Spicer’s first book, After Lorca. Quote taken from an essay on The Valve.

“The poems are there.” The pictures are here. What is real will endure.



October 23, 2008

Collecting Art

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:45 am

… One of my paintings shows a group of cats playing musical instruments. It sounds hokey on paper — cute, even — but in real life it’s pleasantly revolting, the musicians looking more like monsters than like anything you’d keep as a pet. I have it in my living room, and, after asking the price, my father shook his head the way you might when witnessing an accident. “Boy,” he said. “They sure saw you coming.”

Whether I’m buying a painting or a bedspread, his premise is always the same — namely, that I am retarded, and people take advantage of me.

“Why would something that’s survived three hundred years not cost that much?” I asked, but he’d moved to another evident eyesore, this one Dutch, and showing a man undergoing a painful and primitive foot surgery. “I wouldn’t spend two minutes looking at this one,” he told me.

“That’s O.K.,” I said.

“Even if I were in prison, and this was the only thing on my wall, I wouldn’t waste my time with it. I’d look at my feet or at my mattress or whatever, but not at this, no way.”

I tried my best not to sound too hopeful. “Is someone sending you to prison?”

“No,” he said. “But whoever sold this to you should be there. I don’t know what you paid, but if it was more than ten dollars I think you could probably sue the guy for fraud.” He looked at it one last time, and then rubbed his eyes as if they’d been gassed. “God Almighty. What were you thinking?”

“If art is a matter of personal taste, why are you being so aggressive?” I asked.

“Because your taste stinks,” he told me. This led him to reflect upon “Cracked Man,” which still hangs in the foyer beside his living room. “It’s three slabs of clay cemented to a board, and not a day goes by when I don’t sit down and look at that thing,” he said. “I don’t mean glancing, but full-fledged staring. Contemplating, if you catch my drift.”

“I do,” I said.

He then described the piece to my boyfriend, Hugh, who had just returned from the grocery store. “It was done by a gal named Proctor. I’m sure you’ve heard of her.”

“Actually, no,” Hugh said.

My father repeated the name in his normal tone of voice. Then he began yelling it, and Hugh interrupted, saying, “Oh, right. I think I’ve read something about her.”

“You’re damn right you have,” my father said.

— excerpt taken from Suitable for Framing: A family of experts by David Sedaris in the February 27, 2006 issue of The New Yorker



October 22, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:33 am

I have a phobia about suffocation. You are probably thinking, “Who doesn’t?!” but I think mine’s worse than yours. I can’t watch video of scuba divers in underwater caves. This article in National Geographic, World’s Longest Underground River Discovered in Mexico, Divers Say, makes me hyperventilate. I’m not claustrophobic; I don’t mind elevators or closets or any closed space that has any kind of airflow. And I don’t mind, for example, swimming underwater — as long as I can see the open water surface above. It’s when, 1) the space is constricted, as in a tunnel, and, 2) access to air is (visually) blocked.

I was reminded of this because last night I was watching a DVD from the History Channel, Cities of the Underworld. Most of it was fine, but near the end, the particular under-city excavations were … snug. (I don’t have TV — no reception — so I will buy almost any cheap DVD. This one was $14.95 for 10+ hours of show. Side note: I may be the only person in the USA who has never heard Obama or McCain speak. I did watch Palin on a YouTube clip … because curiosity got the better of me.)

I used to think that the fear of suffocation was a result of excessive laughter. It’s a fact that you can’t inhale when you are laughing. I have always been subject to fits of delerious laughter (tip: trying to stop by holding your breath only makes it worse). However, as I still enjoy uncontrolled fits of laughter, that can’t be it. The other, more likely source (if there is one) is the hernia operation I had when I was in the third grade.

They used an inhalational anaesthetic on me which was administered by some sort of large, rubbery black mask that they lowered to completely cover my face. The anaesthetic gas was hideous, poisonous stuff and I went nuts. The doctors, nurses, and everybody else that I could see in that room then held me down — arms, legs, head — and forced the mask onto my face until I passed out.

Jump to the older me, a few years ago. A friend of mine asked me if I’d like to see the insides of a coal mine in Southwestern Virginia. That sounded cool; I said ‘yes’ without hesitation. I envisioned something like the local tourist attraction, Luray Caverns, shown below.

When we got to the coal mine, this is approximately what the entrance looked like (below):

[ Photo borrowed from this site. The yellow object is a caver’s helmet, for scale.]

It was a “nineteen-inch seam.” I figured this was some sort of side-entrance. The real Luray-cavern like coal mine would be a short hop from this tiny hole. The coal mine manager, who was sitting in a mobile home with his feet on a desk, eating a sandwich and watching a portable TV, gave me some overalls and a head lamp. He phoned somebody in the mine, and shortly, from out of the hole in the ground came a long, flat trolley. Think of a narrow sheet of plywood lying on little trolley wheels with a platform height of about five inches. The worker/driver of the thing (who never said a word the whole time) lay curled on the front of the trolley, with some sort of motor controls. I was told told to lie on the back. “Lie flat. Don’t raise your head.” I should have had a clue…

We, the two of us on the trolley, drove for what seemed like an hour straight into the mountain. I say “seemed like an hour” because I was in a state of extreme, teetering on the brink, about-to-lose-it, near hysteria from the moment we lost sight of the “cave” opening. The floor was wet with black mud. It was, of course, pitch black except for the few inches before me lit by my head lamp. Those few inches consisted of the roof of the tunnel, because it was about three inches from my face. Three inches from the whole weight of the mountain. I could not move at all.

I don’t know how they got the coal out of the mine. I don’t know how they got the machinery in. I do know that after a very long drive I could hear sounds of men working, like rats, somewhere in the blackness beyond. When we reached some sort of tunnel intersection, my driver hesitated for a moment, then, turned the trolley around and we went back the way we had come.

There are no words to describe how awful it was for me in that hole. If you don’t have any phobias, you won’t understand. If you do, then you do.

There are people who spend their whole lives working down there. You can take “down there” as local to this story, or as a global, social metaphor.



October 21, 2008

Lies Coiled Behind

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:56 am

We meet a photograph with an immense file of experience already inside us; so we see a photographed face within the context of all the faces we have already seen in the four dimensions of our lives. Of course, precisely the same is true of the photographer who takes a portrait. The artist’s equipment is not just the camera, nor even the human eye; these are only a small part of the apparatus; the greatest part lies coiled behind the vision: in the weighty machinery of experience and the emotion that is geared into it.

That, and all that follows are taken from the book, Faces: A Narrative History of the Portrait in Photography by Ben Maddow (1977).

[from the Forward]
Half of the future of photography is in the past. There are not only the uncounted and unseen riches in the vaults and in the stacks or sadly moldering in cardboard boxes in the basement of a city hall or a local historical society; but also the unprinted and often uncatalogued negatives in museums everywhere in the world; the contact sheets in private storage; the reproductions in dead and living or merely somnolent magazines….

Portraits of the past are like gems: each must be weighed individually; they are not wholesale items. More than the artifacts of any other human pursuit, they represent a unique concurrence of the real and the artful, of the momentary and the historical. A single new example might shake all our aesthetic preconceptions; a discovered series might make us rewrite our histories.

[from the first chapter]
I feel certain that the largest part of all photographs ever taken or being taken or ever to be taken, is, and will continue to be, portraits. This is not only true, it is also necessary. We are not solitary mammals like the fox or the tiger; we are genetically social, like the elephant, the whale, and the ape.

… Portraits, luckily, are not pure pleasure. As in painting, music, and literature, one can feel the balancing strain between fact and structure, between reality and desire. The energy of that tension will be found, I think, even in the worst photographs.

… It [the human face] is naked, mysterious, commonplace. It haunts our work, our love, and our fantasies. We read a face as we read a clock: to orient ourselves, to see where we are right now, right here, to place ourselves and everyone else in the nervous entanglements of our own society.

… The great thing about the transmission of graphic emotion inside the painter — from eye to brain to spine to hand to brush — is that there is continuous feedback to the eye of the painter again. Customarily, a painter does numerous sketches of the sitter, mostly of his head and hands; but then has him return time after time for lengthy sittings. So by the very processes of work, the artist grows acquainted with his subject, and can learn to see, through the virtual translucency of skin and flesh, the lineaments of age and character; of the general inside the particular, and the particular constructed into the general; of tragedy, dignity, and absurdity, all inextricable.

Is that, in the haste of the photographic portrait, even possible?

More difficult, can it bear the unconscious social function of all art? Can it transmit community magic? Can it be religious on the preliterate level, where the purpose is profound and yet fundamentally impossible: to ward off the anxiety which proceeds from the indifference of the nonhuman that surrounds us, from space illimitably without us in every direction, from infinite time before and after us, and from the peaks and cesspools of our private mind?

[from the last page of the last chapter, on modern portraiture]
Contemptuous of the dramatic and the arranged, they profess to love the banal. Truth is their first criterion, and so they photograph what they dislike: the new suburban look of flat streets, flat lawns, flat people. So they continue to work with small, light, fast cameras, but they no longer hunt; they prefer simply to be, to let things happen through and around them, and to let — or so goes the theory anyway — whim decide the “decisive moment.” One wonders if the current interest in chance is not the result of anxiety about chance: the uncertainty of power — the impulse to embrace what you fear.

… it is a fact that every art has some gritty degree of chance; conversely, most chance is partly planned — even if the judgment is sudden, or hidden, or even denied. Here again the double nature of photography — truth in bed with control — is just as true of the photographic portrait. And those who wander in the street in a fever of picture-taking require the discipline of an artistic prejudice. … it must be recognized that convictions, either moral or metaphysical, are a human necessity; which doesn’t make them sacred, absolute, or eternal. That conviction can be as simple as a passion for the details of human character. It doesn’t matter whether such love — or hate — is rationally justifiable. It’s sufficient that a fine portrait, by a photographer or a painter or a sculptor, is impossible without it.

This is an excellent book (aside from Maddow’s constant use of the colon and semi-colon). It’s very big — 540 pages — and crammed with amazing black and white portraiture in historical sequence. All with a running commentary by Maddow similar to the brief sample given above (though specific to the pictures or photographers being discussed).



October 20, 2008

At Tension

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:45 am

… getting back on topic, after the previous diversions…

This is part of the essay, Photographic Facts and Thirties America by Anne Wilkes Tucker in the collection of essays, Observations: Essays on Documentary Photography edited by David Featherstone (1984) — in which Tucker compares the documentary attitude of Walker Evans to that of Dorothea Lange:

He [Evans] assumed that the photograph, like the physical universe it recorded, would have its own internal order, independent of his or his audience’s feelings or beliefs.


Lange trusted the persuasive power of information; facts that heightened and directed emotional responses were important.

Below, with the above quotes in context, I have included my reactions to some of it in square brackets within the quoted text.

[Dorothea] Lange’s and [Walker] Evans’ differences in their use of photography are apparent in the equipment they used and in the size and quality of their photographic prints. They also differed in their regard for and use of facts. Evans’ subjects were chosen not for their inherent drama nor for their social significance, but rather as cultural and historical referents, and for the pictorial logic Evans wanted them to satisfy. He assumed that the photograph, like the physical universe it recorded, would have its own internal order, independent of his or his audience’s feelings or beliefs. Seeking an intellectual, rather than an emotional appeal, Evans controlled pictorial tension, not the tension between his subjects and the picture’s audience. He strove for clarity of representation, not empathy; in not seeking change he supported the status quo. [I think the word “supported” is not justified here.]

For Lange, a compelling photograph presented an engaging human drama that addressed questions larger than the immediate subject. Her subjects gained importance from external value systems; she was, by her own definition, a social-documentary photographer involved in the social and political events of her time. “We were after the truth,” she wrote, “not just making effective pictures.” [This statement seems contradictory, to me. “Effective” implies personal intent.]

She was concerned with the human condition, and the value of a fact was measured in terms of its own consequences. [The “value” of a fact? Whose value?] When she photographed natural disasters like land erosion or floods, she focused on how the event translated into human experience and on how she could convey the human suffering inflicted and endured. She had, Beaumont Newhall observes “a burning desire to help people to know one another’s problems” because — and this is essential to any understanding of the drive behind the social documentary movement — she believed that knowledge provoked actions, that if people knew about something which required their support, they would act. Lange trusted the persuasive power of information; facts that heightened and directed emotional responses were important. [That last bit, “that heightened and directed emotional responses ” is pretty much a definition of propaganda.] “The consummate need of the thirties imagination,” observed William Stott in his book Documentary Expression and Thirties America was “to get the texture of reality, of America; to feel it and to make it felt.” [Of a selected reality, i.e. a documentary fiction.]

Today, the subjects of Lange’s pictures are, as Therese Heyman has observed, “figures in history whose hardship the present viewer is incapable of easing — symbols of timeless sorrow.” Present day viewers are not action-oriented reformers seeking clarity of issue, but search instead for irony and haunting eloquence. Pictures with these elements are found in the body of Lange’s work, but it is important to understand that she chose not to publish them during the thirties. Because they did not carry a persuasive message, presentation of these pictures was deferred until her retrospective exhibition as an artist in 1966.

I am a big fan of Dorothea Lange but I think Evans, in the quote at the top, has a more realistic estimate of what might be more nearly a documentary photograph. (Note, that in an earlier post, I quoted at length from an Alan Trachtenberg essay that specifically claimed that Evans was making “documentary inventions” himself).

On the subject of social “documentary” photography as propaganda, see my earlier post with quotes from Estelle Jussim on that subject.




Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:30 am

I try very hard not to use the word “soul” in any of my blog posts, but I’m going to let this one slip by because it’s Calvino and a Calvino soul is different.

To explode or to implode — said Qfwfq — that is the question: whether ’tis nobler in the mind to expand one’s energies in space without restraint, or to crush them into a dense inner concentration and, by ingesting, cherish them. To steal away, to vanish; no more; to hold within oneself every gleam, every ray, deny oneself every vent, suffocating in the depths of the soul the conflicts that so idly trouble it, give them their quietus; to hide oneself, to obliterate oneself: perchance to reawaken elsewhere, changed.

… here, now, my choice is made: I shall implode, as if this centripetal plunge might forever save me from doubt and error, from the time of ephemeral change, from the slippery descent of before and after, bring me to a time of stability, still and smooth, enable me to achieve the one condition that is homogeneous and compact and definitive. You explode, if that’s more to your taste, shoot yourselves all around in endless darts, be prodigal, spendthrift, reckless: I shall implode, collapse inside the abyss of myself, towards my buried centre, infinitely.

— from the beginning of the short story, Implosion, by Italo Calvino

Infinitely. That’s a really long time. Apparently not ploding is not an option. Personally, I prefer to do a bit of exploding in the early AM, but in the afternoon, it’s strictly imploding for me. (All ploding is prohibited at mealtimes else I get acid reflux.)



To All the Honest People Who Didn’t Get the Memo

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:27 am

There was a country where they were all thieves.

At night everybody would leave home with skeleton keys and shaded lanterns and go and burgle a neighbour’s house. They’d get back at dawn, loaded, to find their own house had been robbed.

So everybody lived happily together, nobody lost out, since each stole from the other, and that other from another again, and so on and on until you got to a last person who stole from the first. Trade in the country inevitably involved cheating on the parts of both of buyer and seller. The government was a criminal organization that stole from its subjects, and the subjects for their part were only interested in defrauding the government. Thus life went on smoothly, nobody was rich and nobody was poor.

One day, how we don’t know, it so happened that an honest man came to live in the place. At night, instead of going out with his sack and his lantern, he stayed home to smoke and read novels.

The thieves came, saw the light on and didn’t go in.

This went on for a while: then they were obliged to explain to him that even if he wanted to live without doing anything, it was no reason to stop others from doing things. Every night he spent at home meant a family would have nothing to eat the following day.

The honest man could hardly object to such reasoning…

— that’s the beginning of a short story, The Black Sheep, by Italo Calvino



Etiquette Old and New

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:25 am

All of the below quotes are from If You Ask Me: Etiquette through the ages by Judith Thurman in the Feb. 28, 2002 issue of The New Yorker.

First, describing the advice found in The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette :

… if your goal in life is to slink from birth to death without embarrassment, the authors make passable guides — except, perhaps, in handling the delicate situation of the fellow-guest at a cocktail party whose fly is open. They suggest that you discreetly take him aside and whisper the code words “XYZ.” How many of you sophisticates can guess what they mean? (a) Let’s blow this joint and find a motel. (b) I’ve got the plutonium you ordered in my briefcase. Have you brought the payment? (c) Shut up — you’re putting me to sleep. (d) Examine your zipper.

Otherwise, there is no aspect of personal hygiene, family relations, or social intercourse that they consider too elementary not to warrant a frank admonition. To make a good first impression, “be sure there are no unsightly stains on your clothes.” New parents are instructed that “a child should be taught to say hello.” Anyone planning a dinner party should note that “knives and forks are used for eating European (continental) or American style.” It is rude to inquire of a maimed individual how he lost his missing body part, and if you receive an invitation marked “not transferable” you musn’t hand it over to someone else. “Obey traffic regulations,” because “every life has many crossroads,” and there are personal-injury lawyers lurking at most of them. One is obliged to prevent a drunken guest from driving himself home not only out of common decency but “because the host can be sued for serving liquor to an intoxicated person who ends up having an accident.” (Should a drunk driver mow down one of your loved ones, try, in your bereavement, “to assume a positive attitude about life.”) On a grander note, do not accept an invitation to go foxhunting if you cannot ride, and, if you do accept, “never ride . . . into a stall with a low ceiling.” When you retell the story of your weekend in Charlottesville to the guys in your bowling league back in Port Jervis — ever mindful “not to toss or loft your ball into the air” — it would be “ridiculous” to worry whether it is proper to describe your posh friends as “wealthy” or “rich,” because such distinctions no longer betray one’s class. To be on the safe side, however, just say, “They have lots of money.”

That’s the conventional advice. Here’s some more modern recommendations:

If one is interested in visiting the raunchier shores of modern romance and is not too picky either about grammar or about the expulsion of liquids from private orifices*, there is “The Fabulous Girl’s Guide to Decorum” (Broadway; $14.95). The authors, two fetching Canadians, Kim Izzo and Ceri Marsh, deal with the etiquette of courting and copulating in the same chapter because, they explain, “in the world of the Fabulous Girl, which comes first, sex or dating, may change as often as her lipstick.” This little manual has several virtues. The authors are realistic about the way that barely literate, hard-drinking, terminally pert, lust-crazed young female predators actually behave in their natural habitat, and they hold their scout troop to an admirable standard of personal responsibility. When you pick up a stranger in a bar and invite him home to bed, an introduction is in order: “That’s right, we mean oral sex.” The next morning, however disappointing the boy’s performance, he is still your guest: “You fucked him, you can pour him a glass of orange juice.” I think, however, it’s a bit too High Church to insist that you must “share your toothbrush.” And, despite their sound, unsentimental views on adultery (“Practice lying”), and on the unseemly greed of brides over thirty who register for gifts, they must be under thirty themselves to suggest that “natural or street light” sets the most flattering mood for a seduction. When they publish “Still Fab at Forty,” look for a chapter on pink lampshades.

[ * from earlier in the article, “It is bad manners,” in Mr. Morgan’s book, “to expel any liquid from any orifice in public, and breast-feeding is no different.”]

Dear Mr. Morgan; the kind of people who expel liquids from their orifices in public don’t know what the word orifice means.



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