Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Beltran Era

His final game in a Mets uniform was a typical Carlos Beltran performance. Two walks, a single, an RBI, and 3 runs scored. He went out in perfect Beltran fashion with a strong all-around game that a pessimistic eye would be blind to. That's how he always went about his business throughout his seven year Mets career and, sadly, during that time many Mets fans adopted the unfairly critical perspective of their Bronx neighbors. "They act like they own you," he would later comment.

After the Mets signed Beltran to a monstrous 7-year $119 million contract (the largest in Mets history) before the 2005 season, the fans had every reason to expect big things from him but the normally shy and reserved centerfielder seemed to wilt underneath the massive New York City sports spotlight. He had a poor year by his own standards, hitting just .266/.330/.414 with 17 homeruns for a Mets team that underachieved and finished in third place. The fans weren't happy.

Everything would change in the next season as the Mets loaded up in preparation for a run at a title. They brought in Beltran's friend and fellow countryman Carlos Delgado and this certainly seemed to benefit Beltran as he went on to have arguably the greatest offensive season in Mets history. He hit .275/.388/.594 with 95 walks and a team-record 41 homeruns as the Mets went all the way to the National League championship.

It was during that season that I attended more Mets games at Shea Stadium than ever before, I saw probably 15 or 16 regular season games and even went to Game 2 of the NLCS against the Cardinals (wrote about it here). I fondly remember Beltran running down any fly ball that was hit in his vicinity with a long-striding graceful gait that was nevertheless an image of peak athletic performance. During one game against the Angels I saw him not only chase down a ball that was smashed but he even reached up above the tall Shea Stadium fence and stole a homerun. It was one of the best catches I'd ever witnessed in person.

A seemingly perfect player, he became my favorite on the team because of his all-around talent and consistency. David Wright was terrific but he was prone to frustrating lapses in the field, Jose Reyes was as exciting as anybody in the sport but could have some terrible at-bats in those days. Beltran, on the other hand, was the kind of player you'd create in a video game---he had speed, big-time power, a good batting eye, hit the ball all over the field from both sides of the plate, and played a superb center field.

In the '06 NLCS against the Cardinals, Beltran and Delgado carried the team (Beltran scored 8 runs and hit 3 homers) and they battled all the way to a deciding Game 7 at Shea. That was an unforgettable night for me as I know it was for all Mets fans. I'll always remember where I was. I watched the beginning of the game in my kitchen and saw Endy Chavez's legendary catch right as I stepped out the door to join my brother's future wife and her friend for a few drinks at a bar in Brooklyn. The bar was absolutely packed and I hated it, you couldn't walk anywhere without squeezing in between a crowd of inconsiderate people. The game was on TV but not enough people seemed to care. The teams were locked in a 1-1 tie and as it reached the 9th inning, everybody suddenly started paying attention. For a reason I can't fathom now in retrospect, the Mets didn't put their best reliever in the game but went instead with Aaron Heilman who promptly allowed a two-run homerun to the Cards' worst hitter, Yadier Molina.

The Mets went into their final at-bat needing two runs to keep their season alive. They would face rookie pitcher Adam Wainwright. The first two hitters got on base and I can remember that incredible feeling of hope, a particular brand of which seems to be unique to baseball. The tying runs were on base, the opportunity to tie the game existed. But Wainwright was composed amidst the chaotic Shea Stadium scene and retired the next two hitters. My least favorite Met player Paul LoDuca worked a walk and the bases were loaded for the team's best hitter, Carlos Beltran, with a trip to the World Series on the line.

Wainwright threw two fastballs and got two quick strikes on Beltran. The next pitch would live in infamy. Wainwright twirled an absolutely perfect, knee-buckling curveball that started around the height of Beltran's head and promptly dropped down to knee-level for a called strike three. Beltran was fooled by it, couldn't muster a swing, and the game was over. The Cardinals went to the World Series and eventually won the title, defeating the Detroit Tigers. Beltran, for all his subsequent accomplishments, was never forgiven by most Mets fans for not swinging the bat. My dad still brings it up. As I watched it in the bar, I didn't scream or stomp my feet in anger I simply exhaled "fuck..." and felt the same helpless feeling that Beltran must have had. It was an impossible pitch to hit. Wainwright had won the battle fair and square and there was nothing the Mets could do about it.

It should be noted that, despite that memory of Beltran being fooled by a perfect curveball being burned into everyone's minds, that's not why they lost. They were already trailing by 2 and down to their final out, none of that was Beltran's fault. He'd even scored the team's only run in that game. I blamed all the Mets' failures on inept manager Willie Randolph in those days and while the arguments I used to make have faded from my memory over the years, I still think it's safe to say that Randolph's poorly informed decisions are to blame for the Mets not going all the way. 

Beltran didn't let the memory of his strikeout get to him as he went on to post another two huge seasons for the Mets, but in both of those years (2007, 2008) the team collapsed down the stretch and never got back to the playoffs again. Again, Beltran was not the one to blame. In both of those seasons, he put up huge numbers in the final month while the rest of the team faltered. He especially turned it on in the closing month of 2008, hitting .344/.440/.645 in September as the Mets desperately tried to save their season in the final days of Shea Stadium's existence.

These past few years he battled knee problems, had surgery, and missed a lot of games but still hit well in the games he did play. This year he was putting up big numbers again (leading the league in extra-base hits) while playing in right field to give his knees a break, but with his contract expiring he became expendable. He was traded to San Francisco on Wednesday.

I'm sorry to see him go but it's comforting that he's going to a great baseball city where he'll be appreciated for what he brings to the table. He also gets a chance at defending a World Series title so I'll probably be rooting for the Giants the rest of the year with him in the mix. As I learned in my last trip to San Francisco, the love those people show for their team, even through hard times, is enough to make me want to root for them (despite my distaste for their general manager, Brian Sabean).

Jay Jaffe at Baseball Prospectus wrote a nice piece the other day looking at Beltran's performance as a Met, showing that he was actually among the top 5 most productive outfielders in baseball during that time. Nevertheless, he remains under-appreciated by most Mets fans and some still hold the 2006 strikeout against him as his defining moment, conveniently ignoring that Beltran leaves the Mets with numbers that compare favorably to Mike Piazza's output during his time in Queens. Looking at the list of top Mets career performances, Beltran ranks in the franchise's top 10 for on-base percentage, slugging, runs scored, doubles, homeruns, RBI, walks, OPS+, and anything else important.

The guy simply had a great career as a New York Met. I will always remember him for his whip-like swing and the homeruns he crushed (so many of them at crucial moments), the fly balls he ran down, and the way he made it all look so easy. It's a shame that he missed so much time during the two seasons prior, but I see it as representative of the Mets overall organizational decrepitude of that time. His rejuvenation this year coincided with a rejuvenation of the Mets franchise under new management and I'm glad we got to see him go out at the peak of his powers and I wish him all the best in San Francisco.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Wave that Washed Your Meals Away

The excitement of the 2011 major league baseball season suddenly burst into supernova recently. It all began late Tuesday night in Atlanta.

After the 3rd inning, the Pirates and Braves were locked in a 3-3 tie. Nobody managed to put across another run for the next 16 innings. They nearly played the equivalent of two full baseball games without scoring a run. I tuned into the MLB.tv feed around the 13th inning and the matchup just seemed far too boring so I skipped to a different game. Once I saw that they were headed to the 16th, I realized this could be something special. The kind of game where managers actually have to start putting their thinking caps on (both skippers confused their thinking caps with dunce caps, though, as evidenced by their long line of stupid maneuvers).

The game got to the bottom of the 19th inning when things finally got interesting. The Braves put two runners aboard with one out. Julio Lugo, who I had only recently realized was still in the majors, stood at third base. The Braves had run out of position players so they let Scott Proctor, a crappy pitcher and an even worse hitter, step to the plate. He managed to make pretty solid contact but he hit a ground ball directly at the third baseman Pedro Alvarez. Lugo took off from third towards home plate and while Alvarez hurled a perfect throw to the catcher I remember thinking that this is one of the things I love to see in baseball, a tense moment with the game on the line and a fielder executing a perfect throw to home plate to keep the game alive.


The throw home was perfect, alright. Pirates catcher Michael McHenry, a minor league scrub acquired from the Red Sox organization after a slew of Pittsburgh catchers started falling apart in succession, received the throw from Alvarez and met the oncoming Lugo a few feet in front of home plate. Lugo was out by a mile and he knew it. He didn't even try to bowl the catcher over or knock the ball out of his glove, he simply executed a feeble slide with a look on his face like he didn't want the catcher to be too rough with him. Perhaps McHenry sensed Lugo's hapnophobia because instead of firmly smacking him with the glove, he waved his arm in the vicinity of Lugo's leg.

Lugo stood up from his slide with his body slumped into disappointment when suddenly the umpire gave the signal "SAFE!" and Lugo quickly touched homeplate. The game was over. And "the umpire" was about to lose his relative anonymity. The world of baseball-watchers exploded in anger. I've never enjoyed following the stream of Twitter messages as much as I did that Tuesday night (after 1 AM, mind you). Everybody had been tuning into the game because of how unusually long it was lasting, it seemed like there was a shot at history being made. Well, it was historic alright. Many people called it the worst call they'd ever seen in a baseball game.

In retrospect, the umpire Jerry Meals apologized and admitted he messed up while some have argued that he may have actually made the correct call. Major League Baseball actually issued a statement saying that Meals screwed it up, but they can't take it back. They won't be bringing the two teams back together to re-do everything. It's in the books. Worst of all for the Pirates, who are contending for the first time in some 19 years, this could be the difference between them going to the postseason or not.

*   *   *

All of that stuff was going on around 2 AM eastern time and so the next day figured to be filled with all kinds of reactions once everyone got to gather their thoughts on the incident. Well, a huge wave of Wednesday baseball action suddenly splashed, overtaking and washing away all the Jerry Meals news that had begun to pile up.

With the trade deadline looming, the newswire had begun to buzz with big news: the St. Louis Cardinals were going to trade their young stud centerfielder, Colby Rasmus. The 24-year-old Rasmus, although a world class talent, had been squabbling with the team's manager last year and it spilled over into this season with Rasmus having a bad year to show for it. It certainly didn't help Rasmus' standing with the Cardinals that his father had the attitude of a big-mouthed little league dad constantly interfering with the team's handling of his son. Better yet, it was the Toronto Blue Jays' shrewd young general manager who was swooping in to grab Rasmus and bring him up to the nest in Toronto along with a bunch of other rejected fledglings.

Before that trade was completed, the news wire blew up again: the New York Mets had reached a deal to send Carlos Beltran, the most coveted trade bait in baseball, to the San Francisco Giants. The rumors about Beltran had been swirling around for a few weeks but suddenly the wind jutted violently like a cold day in the Bay Area and Beltran was gone. But the Mets managed to scoop up the Giants' best pitching prospect, Zack Wheeler, in return. (Personally, I'm sad to see Beltran go but glad he's headed to a contender defending their championship. I'll have more to say on Beltran and the Mets soon.)

While baseball peeps were still assimilating these two huge events, an afternoon baseball game in Cleveland between the Angels and Indians suddenly demanded everyone's attention. Angels righthander Ervin Santana was pitching a no-hitter. Once everybody (including me, via my iPhone) managed to tune in, Santana cruised through the last two innings and history was made. Suddenly, nobody gave a crap about Jerry Meals. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"Light is Provided..."

"Light is provided through sparks of energy
from the mind
that travel in rhyme form

givin' sight to the blind
the dumb are mostly intrigued by the drum
death, only one can save self from..."

- Masta Killa, the 9th lyrical swordsman of the Wu-Tang Clan


My plans for this blog as we head towards the month of August include a lengthy foray into the music sphere, mainly through hip hop (and specifically my hometown favorites, Wu-Tang and their enormous tree of influences). This will most likely include a few album reviews, lyrical analyses, and some general pieces on music and the vast world of audio art.

Prior to that, expect a piece on baseball (which has exploded with interesting occurrences lately) and a huge, huge post on James Joyce. But once August hits, the turntables begin to spin.

Here's an old track featuring my personal favorite trio out of the "nine-diagram phoenix": Masta Killa, Rza, and Gza.



"I'm a slave to the rhythm, but never to a mental-deafening power"
- Masta Killa

"What's the square miles of the planet?
why is the axis slanted?
how much is covered by water, how much is granite?

True I Master Equality, godbody be flowing like the chi energy inside ya artery"
- The Rza

"Walk around b-boys, DJs, emcees
through RAP, never thinking airwaves or TV
it was strictly
all about
MAGNIFICENT RHYME CLOUT"
- The Gza/Genius

Monday, July 25, 2011

Some words for Winehouse

Saturday morning I had to get up very early, around 6 AM, to drive my girlfriend to work. Bursting out of sleep and into consciousness so early brought with it a still-spinning movie reel of vivid dream action. I don't often remember my dreams (although I have tried a few times, including recently, to record them in the morning immediately upon waking up in an effort to tap into that unconscious wellspring) but this time I was still seemingly half asleep. The whole story was fresh and I outlined it to my girlfriend during the short drive over to her job, including my own attempts at interpreting each facet of it.

My memory of the dream began with me checking into a hotel and my credit card being denied. The problem was quickly resolved (although there was intense worry upon my only form of payment being rejected) and I went over to the elevator to head up to my room. It was a crappy, rickety old elevator, probably representing the elevators at the hotel I stayed at recently in Pasadena, those were unusually old and slow as hell.

I went in and hit the button to head up to my floor but then two little children rushed in and started playing a game where they chased each other in and out of the elevator while their mother looked on, unable to control them. I realized the elevator wouldn't be going anywhere so I opted to take the stairs. Walking back into the lobby there was a big beautiful staircase in the middle that led up to a restaurant on the second floor. This lobby, in retrospect, was a dream distortion of the lobby in the hotel I was forced to stay in after I was stranded at LAX last month when the United Airlines computers crashed and passengers had to sit at the ticket lines for over 5 hours.

Walking up the hotel lobby steps I heard a news report blaring out from a television below: a young superstar NHL goaltender had suddenly died in a car accident. This goalie had a name in the dream but it wasn't anybody real, just an unconsciously garbled name but this news hit me hard and I felt terrible for this young man who'd died so suddenly. A very close friend of mine, a hockey goalie who I'd grown up with since the age of 8 or so, died in his sleep two years ago, just two weeks after his 26th birthday and, with the anniversary of his untimely death coming up soon it's likely that the thought of him was present here.

As I continued ascending the stairs onto the second floor, the news report's grim images and descriptions of the young man, normally a spirited and animated presence in hockey games, having his life evaporate from him on a stretcher bubbled up sadness from my heart into my throat and I nearly broke into tears. The stairs led into a restaurant and while walking through the restaurant I spotted a familiar face. It was a distinguished man with glasses and he was carrying on a monologue to a large table of people, I recognized him as an NHL general manager, in fact, the GM of the team who'd just lost their goalie to a sudden death. I went up to him and offered my condolences at this horrible tragedy and he was relieved to see me because he'd been trying to communicate to his dinner guests just how bad this news is. I helped elaborate it for him, noting how this young man was only 25 years old and was at the height of his athletic career, etc, etc.

Shortly after that I woke up. After returning home from dropping my girlfriend off at work it was still super early and I was super tired so I sunk right back into bed and went back to sleep for hours. When I woke up again I was spacey and slow, before I could even get out of bed I languidly checked for new e-mails on my phone and then resorted to Twitter. There I saw the news that Amy Winehouse had just been found dead at the age of 27. It felt like my dream had perhaps tapped into a splash in the collective unconscious.

I never paid that much attention to Amy Winehouse's music over the years but I was certainly blown away by "You Know I'm No Good." The woman clearly had an immense gift for singing, listen to her voice for a few seconds and it will rumble down into the deep recesses of your soul. As powerful as her talent was, her inner demons were just as strong. We all wrestle with our shadows. Nietzsche wrote: "One must have chaos within oneself if one is to be a dancing star." Reading about Ms. Winehouse's harrowing struggles with drug addiction it's clear that her torment ran deeper than we could possibly imagine. She certainly wasn't the first superstar musician to have a drug problem but reading the details of her preferred substances (crack, heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, ketamine, alcohol) makes Ol' Dirty Bastard seem like a choirboy. And her descent played out in plain sight for all to see and judge.

I've been listening to her music a lot these past few days and I'm simply in awe of her voice. Russell Brand wrote a beautiful and personal tribute to her and described this feeling perfectly:
The awe that envelops when witnessing a genius. From her oddly dainty presence that voice, a voice that seemed not to come from her but from somewhere beyond even Billie and Ella, from the font of all greatness. A voice that was filled with such power and pain that it was at once entirely human yet laced with the divine.
I hope her troubled soul can now finally rest in peace.

I also hope that people can come to understand that she doesn't deserve to be tossed into the gutter because of her failure to cope with her problems. Artists are often lightning rods not just for controversy, glamor, and all the other paparazzi bullshit. They are antennas tuned into the aura of their epoch. We live in a chemically consumptive world and this brilliant young woman who couldn't stop gobbling up drugs is representative of our modern mass madness. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

"Thought Through My Eyes": Epilogue, Part 3 (Expansive Bibliography)

To finally close out this treatise, I would like to share thoughts on some of the books used in the research process.



Published in 1942, this is really the definitive text to read for those interested in Dali. His writing style is superb though often flashy and exuberant as he tells the story of his life starting with intrauterine memories (seriously). The intrauterine stuff was actually very interesting, especially as compared to Stanislav Grof's research on the subject (which came decades later). As often seems to be the case, Dali's artistic intuition is so precise that it matches perfectly with later scientific findings.

Next to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, this was one of the main texts for my paper and (as the point is belabored in the paper) its style of "autobiographical mythology" certainly makes for an interesting comparison with Joyce's autobiographical novel. One of the differences between them though is that Dali's book is filled with beautiful hand-drawn illustrations depicting symbols, scenes, characters, etc drawn from the story.

Diary of a Genius by Salvador Dali
Although the opening pages, detailing his disputes with the Surrealists and André Breton, make for interesting reading, I didn't find this book to be all that good. Sure, Dali's writing style is always entertaining but this book is literally a diary, a daily account of a few years in Dali's life and we get to read how many times he crapped that day, what he ate, etc. It's not all boring, but I wouldn't read it again.





The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali (as told to André Parinaud)
This book is a written account of Dali dictating his life, his work, and his theories to Parinaud and it makes for a great read. It was composed in the 1970s when Dali had been a famous artist for about five decades so there's plenty to talk about and in the 300 pages there's tons of great material. There are illustrations (and photos) in here as well, hand-drawn in an interesting charcoal style. Plenty of great material on the paranoiac method in here, it's also got the only mention of Joyce by Dali that I've been able to track down. Very briefly, he shares Helena Rubinstein's account of the great writer: "nearsighted and smelling bad."


Salvador Dali by Robert Descharnes
Descharnes is Dali's main biographer and this big coffee table art book has an engaging account of the artist's life and career while also displaying big, beautiful color images of many of his paintings. This is the first Dali book I read and it remains a great one.


Dali: The Impresario of Surrealism by Jean‐Louis Gaillemin
When I visited London back on Thanksgiving 2008, there was an art museum right on the Thames River that had a big Dali exhibit. Of course I checked it out and it was great (they had some of his illustrations of The Divine Comedy which I loved). Afterwards I was in the gift shop trying to avoid getting anything (so as to conserve my meager funds), but this little book caught my attention and I couldn't resist picking it up. I devoured it on the return flight and still pick it up every now and then. It's another book about his life and career but it goes a little bit deeper into certain things like frequent motifs or his interactions with people like Jacques Lacan. In fact, it was reading this book that first put me on to the role Lacan plays in this whole thing. This is a great introductory primer to Dali and his work, I highly recommend it. It's also a very tiny book that could fit in your back pocket.


James Joyce: Portraits of the Artist in Exile edited by Willard Potts
When I was at the Joyce conference last month I often brought this book up in conversation and it seemed nobody had heard of it. I can't recommend this book highly enough. It's a collection of recollections of Joyce by a number of writers, artists, scholars, etc. that encountered him at various points in his life all throughout Europe. It's a highly entertaining book of anecdotes and there's tons of material in it that I've never read anyplace else. This might be meaningless to most people, but it reminds me of the great baseball book The Glory of Their Times.  

James Joyce and the Politics of Egoism by Jean-Michele Rabaté
I've always thought this title sounds boring and overly academic but it's a great read. Rabaté is one of the best of the current Joyce scholars and he writes very well.

A Reader's Guide to James Joyce by William York Tindall
This book really came in handy when I first read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Tindall writes in a very clear and engaging style and he weaves through the mass of Joycean symbols and motifs very smoothly. My understanding of the symbols in Portrait really owes a lot to Tindall. (This is also a good book to have when reading Ulysses as he gives clear and brief breakdowns of each chapter.)

Coincidance by Robert Anton Wilson
I picked up this book very late in the research process and so I didn't include it in the actual bibliography but it certainly helped me put everything together. I've been admiring RAW for a while but this is the first book of his that I actually read and it was spectacular. It is a collection of essays dealing for the most part with instances of synchronicity all over the place in art, science, and history (there are also many essays about things that have nothing to do with synchronicity at all). He has three pieces on Finnegans Wake that are as interesting as anything I've come across yet on the Wake and which might convince you that Joyce was really working on some sort of unknown cosmic level. In one essay he details how the characters (and sigla) of the Wake coincide perfectly with the trigrams of the I-Ching and effectively ties both of those in with the composition of DNA. Really, really delicious food-for-thought. (There is also a footnote in which he claims certain parts of the Wake are influenced by Dali but I didn't find his argument convincing at all.)

Jacques Lacan by Elizabeth Roudinesco
For someone who lived such a wild, "rock-and-roll" lifestyle, I thought Roudinesco's account of Lacan was pretty boring. Her writing style was very dry and bland. Somebody at the conference asked me what's the best book on Lacan's life and, as far as I know, this is the only one and I wasn't too impressed with it.


How James Joyce Made His Name: A Reading of the Final Lacan by Roberto Harrari

Out of all the books I read for my study, this was the most difficult. The "final Lacan" is Lacan's 1975-76 seminar on le sinthome or "the symptom" and it's the one where he focuses entirely on Joyce who, he was convinced, was schizophrenic but was able to channel his madness through his art and thus remain on the safe side of sanity (although his daughter inherited the sickness and perished). That sounds easy enough to understand but Lacan illustrated his theories using the Borromean knot and twisted and tied everything in all different ways because he was at that time hanging out with a lot of mathematicians. In this book, Harrari tries to explain all of Lacan's darting thoughts but I found it impossible to follow. If you flip around the book using the index, though, it's easier to glean what info you need.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The McLuhan Centennial


Today is the 100th birthday of the great influential thinker Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan died back in 1980 but his influence has exploded over the last decade or so as most of what he used to talk about in the 1960s has come to fruition lately. I spoke about this in two recent posts reviewing Douglas Coupland's excellent new biography of McLuhan.

Ever since reading that book, I've been devouring all the McLuhan material I can find albeit without picking up any of his books yet (I'm already far behind on a bunch of other books). I can't quite pinpoint what it is exactly that so fascinates me about McLuhan but his intense erudition and his nonchalant, almost humorous way of presenting it certainly appeals to me. He was also a devout student of Joyce, especially Finnegans Wake and he often brings up the Wake in his writings, lectures, interviews, etc. He was also a sort of modern public mystic, one with the physical appearance of a 50-something-year-old English professor (which is exactly what he was). For someone who was technically a literary scholar writing books about the future of technology, he was also very much a poet, an artist.

There is an audio clip of an interview with Robert Anton Wilson that I often listen to where he discusses Finnegans Wake at length and in the opening he describes James Joyce as "one of the greatest archeologists who ever lived." The more I look into McLuhan, the more that quote resonates in my mind and I've been starting to see McLuhan as a sort of successor to Joyce in that respect, a perfect connecting link between Joyce (who flourished in the first three decades of the 20th century) and the current times.

I need not try to expand on all of that here as the 100th anniversary of his birth (his birthday is actually just three days after mine, I turned 26 on Monday) has brought about a whole slew of interesting pieces and profiles all over the interwebs.

A couple weeks back, this big article appeared in Toronto Life completed with photos and an engaging write-up of his rise to fame. Here's a quote from it:
McLuhan didn’t really care if he was right. Right or wrong and good or bad had nothing to do with it. He was, he often claimed, not a moralist but an observer. An explorer, not an explainer. He was too fond of the paradox and the pun, always more of an imagistic and satiric poet. He was not a sociologist, nor was he, strictly speaking, a futurist. “If you really are curious about the future,” he said on CBC’s Ideas, “just study the present.”
That last part brings to mind a quote from Wyndham Lewis that I recently came across (no surprise since McLuhan was buddies with Lewis for a while): "The artist is always engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he is the only person aware of the nature of the present."

The Toronto Star also has a couple of pieces about him. 

Douglas Coupland, author of the aforementioned book You Know Nothing of My Work!, wrote a piece on MM in the Guardian.
 
The American Spectator has an interesting piece talking about McLuhan and Mark Zuckerberg.

And, of all the McLuhan pieces I've read today, the best one is this blog post by Nicholas Carr.

A few more McLuhan links I'd like to share:

Friend of this blog Bobby Campbell created an illustrated article on McLuhan a few years back called "The State of the Art." (Hat tip to the Maybe Logic blog.)

I think I've already linked to this before but here is a great article about McLuhan and Giordano Bruno.

And here is a really good interview McLuhan did back in 1971 (I actually burned this on CD and have listened to it during my daily commute---McLuhan starts off slow but then takes off). This is Part 1 of 6:

Thursday, July 14, 2011

"Thought Through My Eyes": Epilogue, Part 2

"If you like the epilogue look long on it"
- Ulysses, pg 213

One of the important facets of my paper that I really didn't get to delve into as much as I would've liked is Dali's paranoiac-critical method. This is also probably the most complex part of the whole paper and the part I found most difficult to write (and talk) about. Here I would like to expand on Dali's philosophies and percepts with regard to paranoia and also delve into how this relates to the title for my essay.

In Part 2 of my paper, the paranoiac-critical method is first described in what I think is the simplest and most understandable manner: looking at a cloud and clearly observing a rabbit. We do this kind of thing all the time. Recently, I was sitting outside having lunch with my lady at one of Austin's many great food trucks, and we were looking at an enormous conglomeration of what turned out to be thunderhead clouds. They were in motion, morphing into different shapes so that first we could clearly see a wolf, then a woman's face, and so on. One of us would perceive something and point out each little wrinkle to the other and they would see the same image too.

The Paranoiac Visage (1935)
In 1929, when he was about my age (25), Dali started to realize something special about this phenomenon of perception. He became aware of an exceptional ability to look at an arrangement and perceive something altogether different. His mind could look at objects and create its own interpretation. He once looked down at a pile of envelopes and papers on a desk and saw a perfect reproduction of one of Picasso's faces. Turns out it was just a photograph angled a certain way. He later painted this same scene in The Paranoiac Visage. As he delved deeper into this process of perceptive organization, it became clear to him that this was a crack on the supposedly smooth surface of objective reality. If one can systematically and thoroughly outline one's own unique subjective obsessions or unconscious material onto the outside world, then the concept of an objective reality starts to melt down (this image of soft, melting, or amorphous objects is probably Dali's most well-known motif). During this time he published his first essay on the subject of paranoia entitled The Rotten Donkey and laid out the basics of this his theory (which, he would later admit, he still was only beginning to comprehend himself): 
As far removed as possible from the sensory phenomena that can be thought of as more or less connected to hallucination, paranoid activity always makes use of verifiable, recognizable materials. It is enough for someone in the grip of an interpretive delirium to link the meanings of heterogeneous paintings that happen to hang on the same wall for the real existence of such a link to become undeniable. Paranoia uses the external world to validate an obsessive idea, with the troubling result of validating its reality to others. The reality of the external world serves as illustration and proof of the paranoid idea and is subservient to the reality in our minds.(emphasis mine)
Before quantum physics asserted to us that nothing really "exists" without an observer, here is Dali hinting at the fact that the external world is "subservient to the reality in our minds."  What we are getting at here is a realization that what we see before us and perceive as reality is actually an ambiguous, amorphous flux upon which we project our own being, our own inner symbols and organizing principles.* Under normal conscious circumstances, this fact is suppressed and denied as irrational. But, in a state of delirium when irrational phenomena dominates one's view of everything, suddenly the whole outside world can be seen to mesh with one's own subjective thoughts (i.e., paranoia). What Dali was trying to show is that the irrational perspective presents a more accurate picture of reality and this became a conquest for him, "The Conquest of the Irrational," an attempt to discredit ordinary reality and free humanity from its collective madness, declared "in the service of Revolution" in The Rotten Donkey essay.

*As described by Stephen in the Proteus chapter, "veil of space with coloured emblems hatched on its field." (Ulysses pg 48)

Battle in the Clouds (1974)
Returning to the example of clouds, the cloud is a big puffy, soft, shapeless form as in a thought cloud, the image most often used in comic books to denote the workings of a character's mind. When staring at a cloud, this fluffy ambiguous form can be organized by our minds into a familiar shape, symbol, signifier. Dali explains: "Paranoiac systematization influences the real and orients it, predisposes it, and implies lines of force that coincide with the most exact of truths." We can see Dali's fascination with the anamorphic softness of clouds in many of his paintings including those which I posted in Part 1 of this epilogue. Morphing clouds are essentially the most eye-grabbing and important aspect of The Temptation of St. Anthony, the painting analyzed in the original essay.

The Temptation of St. Anthony (1946)

We see the scene from the perspective of St. Anthony, the ascetic who's been fasting in the desert and now perceives the clouds morphing into enormous and nightmarish temptations (notice how closely the horse's chest resembles the clouds on the right). In Flaubert's novel The Temptation of St. Anthony, the scenes Anthony sees often involved people from his life. This image is thus an exemplary scene of paranoia because this is all emanating from the character's own mind. We will come back to this shortly.

*   *   *

"He seeks fluid, wavelike forms that will express
immutable laws through infinite mutations,
the clarity of eternal forms through their
opaque but ineluctable modalities."

- J. Mitchell Morse discussing
the Proteus episode in
James Joyce's Ulysses: Critical Essays, pg. 31

If you take a look at most books of Dali's paintings (and there are tons of them), they usually bring up Dali's paranoiac theory in reference to some of his works that feature visual tricks or trompe l'oeil ("trick the eye" in French) techniques. During the decades of his deepest paranoiac explorations (1930s-40s) Dali produced about thirty sketches and paintings that invoke this technique, here is one of the most famous examples:
Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire (1940)
There are many more images like this from Dali including this one which is one of my favorites:
The Three Ages (1940)
The culmination of this trick-of-the-eye technique is probably The Endless Enigma, in which the image can take on any number of forms depending on the observer.
The Endless Enigma (1938)
This multiple-image effect, which Dali calls "anamorphic hysteria," is just one example of the paranoiac method. Dali's inquiry into paranoia certainly goes much deeper than this. As he discusses in the book The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali (pg. 140-144), the word "paranoia" is defined not in the way we commonly think of the word now---fear that the universe is plotting against you--- but in a much broader and more scientific sense as "the phenomenon of delirium manifested in a series of systematic interpretive associations." The "critical" part of paranoiac-critical is, as he says, for the artist to "play the part of a photographic developer" and Dali would self-induce a hallucinatory paranoid state (without drugs, "I don't take drugs, I am drugs" as Dali used to say) and spontaneously record the delirious associations, witnessing the "clash of systematization with the real" and the inevitable "evolution and production" that occurs in the exchange between subjective and objective. There is supposed to be a veil or a wall between these two (subjective and objective, psychological and physical, etc) but they are actually shaping each other. As Eugene de Klerk puts it in his excellent essay on this subject, "If one is able to remain critically aware while inducing paranoia, one can open up the play of representations which shape perceptual reality."

We start to see the importance of this tool for Dali; he's not simply trying to play visual tricks on you, he's going toe to toe with the accepted principles of our very existence. "It is time for us, in the history of thought, to see that the real as given to us by rational science is not all of the real," he states.
The world of logical and allegedly experimental reason, as nineteenth-century science bequeathed it to us, is in immense disrepute. The very method of knowledge is suspect...In the end, it will finally be officially recognized that reality as we have baptized it is a greater illusion than the dream world. Following through on my thought, I would say that the dream we speak of exists as such only because our minds are in suspended animation; the real is an epiphenomenon of thought, a result of non-thought, a phenomenon of amnesia.
Whoa!
The true real is within us and we project it when we systematically exploit our paranoia, which is a response and action due to the pressure---or depression---of cosmic void.
The same paranoiac phenomenon that systematically organizes ambiguous images into meaningful associations through our eyes is also the way we create our subjective individual selves, seemingly separate from all that we see. The space that we see and occupy is also being unconsciously created in this same manner. As Joyce writes: "We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves." I was recently listening to an old interview with Marshall McLuhan who touched on this as well, he said that primitive non-literate man doesn't think of the eye as a receptor but as a creator; it is creating that which it sees. The same idea comes from the observations of modern physics, which state that a particle is in a state of unsure probabilistic flux until it is observed and then takes on a certain form.

Reflecting Glass Sphere (1935) by M.C. Escher
It occurred to me during my studies on this stuff that another image I have hanging on my wall is actually a perfect representation of this idea. If reality itself is a sort of fluid, morphing substance emanating and reflecting our own selves, then M.C. Escher's glass sphere can be seen as a proverbial droplet of this substance, reflecting and staring right back at us.
 
It is through all these considerations that I came to think about "Proteus," the third episode of Ulysses. It's the episode where readers usually gives up on the book because we get a firsthand look at Stephen's inner attempt to transcend the "limits of the diaphane," the veil of existence. This is perhaps my favorite episode in the book and one of my favorite pieces from Joyce. It is from the opening sentence that my title is derived:

Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes.

By the very act of perception we are stuck in this modality of visible space, inescapable or "ineluctable" as it is (the word "ineluctable" derives from Latin and literally means "not to struggle against"). The "ineluctable modality of the ineluctable visuality" he says later on. On page 48 he ruminates, "I throw this ended shadow from me, manshape ineluctable, call it back. Endless, would it be mine, form of my form?"

Reality or "space: what you damn well have to see" (Ulysses pg 186) is created by our looking at it through those bulbous organs of ours, eyes, which Dali eloquently considers:
What is the eye? A glob of humors, a knot of muscles, a film of flesh and nerves irrigated by a flow of acid? Beneath that appearance lurk galaxies of microscopic electrons, agitated by an impalpable wave, itself the fluid of a quasi-immaterial energy. At what level then, the real? The truth to me, to Dali, is in the magnifying-glass I aim at the world, called my eye, through which there takes place an exchange that for that moment is known as real. (pg. 144 Unspeakable Confessions)
This whole emphasis on the eye and visual perception is interesting also because Joyce actually suffered from terrible eye problems throughout his adult life. As his friend Louis Gillet gruesomely described it in an obituarial essay:
For twenty years, the great poet was half-blind; the left eye was lost and in the other remained only a flap of retina. Reading and writing was torture. The wretched man retained a gleam of light thanks only to twenty operations---each time a very cruel martyrdom. I still see him, in order to decipher a text, placing the paper sideways and bringing it into the narrow angle where a ray of his ruined sight still subsisted. (Portraits of the Artist in Exile, pg. 168)
*   *   *

"guide them through the labyrinth of 
their samilikes and the alteregoases
of their pseudoselves...
from loss of bearings deliver them"
- Finnegans Wake, pg. 576

Going back to that first line of Proteus again, the "ineluctable modality" also feels to me like a good description of a labyrinth as well and, of course, Joyce bestowed the name Dedalus upon his hero so as to invoke the symbolism of the architect Daedalus who, himself, built the labyrinth on the island of Crete and was also trapped in it because of its complexity. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the metaphor has to do with Stephen Dedalus trying to escape the oppressive atmosphere of Ireland to fly to mainland Europe just as Daedalus seeks to fly from the island of Crete to mainland Greece. Here in Proteus, this most metaphysical of chapters in the sequel to Portrait, Stephen is trying to escape the very labyrinth of space and existence.

This ties back to Dali again as he composed a number of essays on paranoia (including a piece alongside Jacques Lacan) in the surrealist art review called Minotaure, a title that conjures the beastly creature that was housed inside the labyrinth on Crete to keep people from escaping. He did clearly think of this paranoiac creation of existence in the sense of a labyrinth we've created and trapped ourselves in, indeed, he states in the aforementioned Unspeakable Confessions book: "We are at the heart of a labyrinth and can find our way while becoming labyrinths ourselves." Like many of Dali's profundities, that sounds like nonsense, but what he is referring to (intuitively, I assume) is that our souls are labyrinths. We exist in a labyrinth and we ourselves are also labyrinthine, this latter fact has been explored for centuries in the symbolic usage of mandalas to represent the soul and this symbol is still used in many modern psychotherapeutic practices to help people bring their psyches into balance. The labyrinth is essentially a mandala and vice-versa.

Now, to finally get us out of this labyrinth of an essay, let us conclude by once again considering the original point of the entire paper (if you haven't read it yet, contact me and I will send you a copy). What got this all started was a rather peculiar interpretation I made of Dali's painting The Temptation of St. Anthony in which I systematically compared it to the material in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist. The paper has elicited a positive reaction from those that have encountered it and on a few occasions folks have commented to me that it would really solidify the whole thing if I could identify a "smoking gun" that proves once and for all that Dali painted St. Anthony with Joyce on his mind. I would argue that such a thing isn't necessary. The piece-by-piece interpretation of connections/resonances with Portrait is interesting in its own right because it was initially a natural, organic, unwitting example of the paranoiac-critical method in action. 

Not in the sense of a simple trick of the eye, no, I didn't stare at the painting and realize it formed a picture of Joyce's face or anything like that (though the Martello Tower does appear to be there in the background). Instead, under a spell of thoughts and speculations on the symbols and motifs of Joyce's work, I suddenly was able to look at the painting of a tempted desert monk and associate all of the characters and objects with the object of my obsession at that moment. The resonances and connections I made can, I believe, probably stand up on their own but even beyond that, the paranoiac analysis led to two new ideas on the painting: that it is largely autobiographical in scope, and that it exemplifies the artist's famous paranoiac-critical method.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Flickerings of Film

Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali
Went to see Midnight in Paris last night and enjoyed it very much. I had heard a lot of good things about it from people and it certainly lived up to expectations. Getting to see some of the past greats like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot and everyone else in a modern film was certainly a treat. I was especially impressed with Adrien Brody's portrayal of Salvador Dali. As you can tell if you've read this blog much at all (or even looked at my previous post), I've been involved in closely studying Dali's life and work for a little while and so I was glad to see him get such a nice portrayal in the film, especially from a big actor like Brody. In all honesty, I can be a harsh critic with this kind of stuff, especially when it deals with something I've spent so much time being involved with, and I genuinely really enjoyed Brody as Dali. In fact, he may have been the best character in the entire movie (though Ernest Hemingway was certainly really good and the laughs in the theater certainly attested to that).

The one thing that bothered me, of course, was the absence of James Joyce. His name was mentioned in an anecdote very early in the film but through all the adventures the main character had with the big figures of 1920s Paris, we never got to meet Joyce. This was really disappointing because I know his character would've stolen the show, just as the real Joyce did within that rich artistic environment. The Joyce of the 20s was also perhaps the one best suited for big screen portrayal; he had the eye patch at that time, the great fame from having just published Ulysses, and was in the midst of his greatest (and most baffling) work of all, Finnegans Wake. And the biographical books are certainly filled with his wild carousing with the likes of Hemingway who had a relatively huge role in the movie. I wonder if there were Joyce scenes that were cut out that might be included in a future DVD set. I'm really interested to find out because I thought Woody Allen handled all these old famous figures extremely well.

While my girlfriend and I were getting ready to go see the movie, I reflected on how for decades and decades couples were in that same spot, getting dressed for a night at the movies to see "a Woody Allen film." It struck me for a reason I can't quite elucidate (eternal recurrence through the ages, perhaps). I've never had any real interest in Allen's films before and, really, I can't name a film of his that I particularly enjoyed. I know of Annie Hall but haven't seen it, and the last time I started to watch a Woody Allen movie I found the whiny arguments so grating I had to turn it off (admittedly, Whatever Works starring Larry David was not bad). This movie was completely different and, really, there wasn't much indication that it was a "Woody Allen" film. The director managed to stay out of his work, as in Joyce's description of the dramatic art form: "The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails."

*   *   *

Speaking of directors, God, and creation, I have to say a few things about Terrence Malick's Tree of Life. As I wrote a few months back, the trailer for this movie captivated me and the scope seemed to perfectly fit my current mindstate. I dragged my uninterested girlfriend to a packed theater on the first night it was playing here in Austin and after nearly three hours of completely unconventional cinema, I was left in a daze. She absolutely hated the film and it doesn't surprise me that it has evoked similarly strong reactions from the public on each side of the pole.

To put it bluntly, the style of the film does not make for a palatable cinematic experience. One has essentially no idea what they are watching from beginning to end. The dialogue is minimal and most of the talking we hear is in hushed whispers. What we encounter is a collage of memories, moments, seemingly personal explorations of the unconscious. Whose unconscious it is, we're never really sure, but it seems to be that of Sean Penn's character as he goes about his work day and experiences a sort of crisis within himself.

The style was unlike anything I've experienced from a movie, it was perhaps a bit more like a (lame) amusement park ride. There is a constant pattering upon the senses of a variety of sounds, gleams of sunlight, and, if it were somehow possible, smells. (A recent piece in Salon magazine likened it to Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man where we also experience the character's developing senses.) I think it is a film that speaks very clearly to our unconscious but is quite difficult for our conscious minds to ascertain. From the trailer, I expected it to be a monumental epic that would hit my emotions and provide that feeling of aesthetic arrest but it was only during one brief scene that I could feel the depths of my own memories get a bit rattled. It was a simple scene within the family kitchen on a bright afternoon and it unearthed a dusty old cave somewhere in my mind that brought about visions of my upbringing and made me a little nostalgic for Staten Island (or, at least, the innocent Staten Island of my childhood).*

I had expected the scenes showing the Big Bang and the creation of the universe to be special and indeed they were. My problem with it is that they seemed to leave something out, as we didn't get any kind of transition from all of that to the small-town Texas family. It was just a bunch of cosmic creation, formation of planets, life, etc and then a cut back to the family scene. While the point ("we are walking manifestations of the history of the universe") seems clear enough, I don't think the delivery of it was well executed. Nevertheless, an extremely admirable and ambitious idea.

I don't want to offer a firm judgment on the overall quality of the movie because I've only seen the film once and really didn't connect with it the way I expected to. That doesn't mean I think it sucked, it certainly left me in a blank daze for a while afterwards, but that may have just been due to the aforementioned tender onslaught of sights and sounds which can be hypnotizing in a way. I think I'd like to give it a look one more time and then decide how I feel about it. It's certainly sending some of our cinema scribes into a state of spiritual serenity.

*Interestingly enough, the final scene (trust me, this won't ruin it for you) is a view of Staten Island from across the Verrazano Bridge in Brooklyn. In the context of the film, I don't have the slightest clue why this appeared but it certainly hit me personally as that bridge holds an important place in my heart for many reasons (one of which is that it allowed my parents, from Brooklyn and Staten Island respectively, to join together.)

*   *   *

Lately, I've come to think that the movie trailer is, itself, a new medium. I can think of many examples of films that had awesome trailers while the actual film was disappointing (my favorite example is probably Revolutionary Road which had a stirring Nina Simone song). The crafting of movie trailers has gotten so good that we often relish the opportunity to watch previews just as much as the actual movie itself when we go to the theater. I certainly do, at least, and I'm always open for that next big potentiality to light up my eyes and expectations. Well, a new one of those hit me yesterday and it's called Take Shelter. Here's the trailer:



With my recent studies on paranoia (and my own occasional feelings of impending doom within this crumbling American Empire) this one seems right up my alley. Plus those are some pretty strong endorsements included within the trailer.
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