THE SANE ASYLUM

Only way to get there is to keep on goin'.

Márquez and Lehane and Giraudoux

Gabriel García Márquez died yesterday. He forced guardians of literary propriety to accept — even, perhaps, to appreciate — magic realism. And he severely pissed off guardians of socio-political propriety, hanging out with people like Castro and Chavez. Hard to be sure which I admire more.

Probably the literary side of him. One Hundred Years of Solitude has the best opening line since Moby-Dick:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Dennis Lehane may have had that in mind — perhaps it was a deliberate tribute — in the opening of Live By Night:

Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watched the water churn white at the stern. And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had ever happened in his life — good or bad — had been set in motion that morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.


Long as I’m rambling on about literature and politics… found a short passage in an old notebook. It’s from a play I was in years ago, The Madwoman of Chailot, by Jean Giraudoux. The scene is a business meeting in Paris, among the politicians and businessmen. They’re figuring out how to deal with those who oppose their plans to dig up the city in a search for oil. (I played The Prospector.)

PROSPECTOR. The treasures of the earth, my dear sir, are not easy to find nor to get at. They are invariably guarded by dragons. Doubtless there is some reason for this. For once we’ve dug out and consumed the internal ballast of the planet, the chances are that it will shoot off on some irresponsible tangent and smash itself up in the sky. Well, that’s the risk we take. Anyway, that’s not my business. A prospector has enough to worry about.
BARON. I know — snakes— tarantulas — fleas—
PROSPECTOR. Worse than that, sir. Civilization.
PRESIDENT. Does that annoy you?
PROSPECTOR. Civilization gets in our way all the time. In the first place, it covers the earth with cities and towns which are damned awkward to dig up when you want to see what’s underneath. It’s not only the real-estate people — you can always do business with them — it’s human sentimentality. How do you do business with that?
PRESIDENT. I see what you mean.
PROSPECTOR. They say that where we pass, nothing ever grows again. What of it? Is a park any better than a coal mine? What’s a mountain got that a slag pile hasn’t? What would you rather have in your garden — an almond tree or an oil well?
PRESIDENT. Well —
PROSPECTOR. Exactly. But what’s the use of arguing with these fools?

Sounds like a recent commentary on oil spills and fracking, no? In fact, it was written seventy years ago.

But… is it ART?

One of the boons of modern technology has been a vast improvement in the quantity and quality of fake art. Imitation Rembrandts which skilled (and under-appreciated) artists labored over for months — or years — can now be whipped out in an hour or two with computerized gadgets.

To judge from the indignant tone of articles I’ve read, many in the art world do not share my view. They do not see the proliferation of high-quality fakes as a boon. They are historians and agents and curators and speculators, people1 who make money — piles of it — by acquiring, commenting on, evaluating, sequestering, and selling artists’ work.

Wait a minute. There’s a cottage industry in fake Matisses someplace, able to crank out canvases indistinguishable from the genuine thing. People who have invested fortunes and careers in the real thing stand to lose mightily. Shouldn’t I be more sympathetic to their plight?

No, I shouldn’t, and I’ll tell you why.

Art2 of any period is a vision captured in that period. Move away from that period, and the art becomes an artifact. It does not diminish in quality, but it addresses a constantly changing world. Each new age deserves its own art, drawn from images and themes of its time. No matter how much we swear by eternal verities, the images and themes of one era are not quite the same as those of the era which preceded it (nor the one which will succeed it).

In short, individual works or art do not speak to all ages with equal clarity, intensity, and purpose. In purely artistic terms, a Rembrandt, as it ages, becomes less valuable, not more.

The work of an artist — the trick, if you will — is in developing a vision and capturing it for others to appreciate. Art inheres in the artist’s vision and the execution of that vision; it is the image, not the specific medium or surface which present that image. Therefore, an accurate copy or imitation of the work is a tribute to the artist’s vision, a continuation of that vision, and one which makes it available to a larger audience.

I don’t suggest a four-color print of a Degas dancer, even naive viewers would never mistake for a painting, is as good as an original. However, a computer matched reproduction of colors and brush strokes, et al, which the experienced eye cannot distinguish from an original, is approximately as good as that original.

Imagine two painting on a wall. One of them we know is a genuine Van Gogh, and the other we know is an exact copy. But neither we nor anyone else can reliably tell the difference. This expert will stamp one as the original, but that expert will swear it’s the other. Which of the paintings ought we to admire?

The answer is, we admire them equally.

Instead of selling one for five million and the other for five thousand, we ought to sell each for what a sane and willing buyer will pay, more than five thousand and less than five million.

[We run into the acquisitive hoarder syndrome here]

Because the only difference between the two is that one was painted by the master personally and the other was faithfully copied from the master’s work. Is one therefore a superior piece of art? No. There is no difference between them in artistic value. If we insist on assigning a higher value to one, it is because it was personally touched by the master. That has nothing to do with artistic merit.

That is relic mongering.


  1. You may note one group of people associated with art is not in this list. Those are the people who do not — in most instances, cannot — benefit.  ↩

  2. Yes, I do extend the idea to the other arts, generally. Still, I advocate for Professor Ellington’s dictum: “If it sounds good, it is good.” ↩

Here to stay are…

Long ago, before artificial cooling became a casual luxury, movie houses had special summer-only signs: “AIR CONDITIONED.” When it was 98 in mid-July, for a quarter — half a dollar downtown — you could sit on a cushioned chair in a cool room for hours, munching popcorn, watching movies.

The cast may suggest the year.

The cast may suggest the year.

Last weekend, contemplating semi-permanent snowdrifts, I recalled those good old days, wishing, ironically, for a time when “AIR CONDITIONED” would be a welcome sign. Then, on Monday, I did see an even more welcome sign. It read, “Spring is coming.”

It was in the hills, a couple miles west of my home. I was driving around taking landscape photographs. (Even a countryside in grays and browns can be beautiful, if the air is clear and the sun’s at a good angle and power lines don’t intrude.)

The sign was 37 deer. Not all at once. I saw them singly, or in small groups, as I drove up and down back roads. They crossed in front of me, they grazed quietly on rural lawns, they watched in amusement as I tried to get the camera pointed at them before they vanished. One — slower than the rest, or maybe just an extrovert — did stand still long enough to give me a clear picture.

The rare cloven-hoofed extrovert

The rare cloven-hoofed extrovert

I mean, they know, don’t they? They wouldn’t come out so brazenly, in such numbers, unless they had agreed it was time for Spring. And deer wouldn’t lie to us.

Like the rest of us, they’ve had a miserable winter. Long. Cold. Unremitting. Ironically, last year was the sixth-hottest year. The first ten years of this century were the hottest decade on record. Thirteen of the fourteen hottest years on record have hit us in this century. All that is, pardon the phrase, cold comfort.

I did see a lot of birds that day. But I’ve given up on birds as harbingers of Spring. Robins used to be, but they’ve been around for weeks, chirping deceptively in the back yard birch tree and the silver maple out in front. Nothing happened.

Saw crows that day as well, but you know about crows. They’re liars and tricksters and magicians. You can’t believe them. They never tell the truth unless they know you’re onto them, expecting a pack of lies. That’s when they tell the truth, knowing you won’t believe it. Devious, deceitful creatures, those crows, always trying to pull the feathers over your eyes.

Biggest bird I saw that afternoon was a wild turkey. He waddled across the road, then stumbled into a ditch and scrambled up the bank into underbrush. You can’t tell much from a turkey. Really, why do you think they call him a turkey? He probably believes the crows.

No, birds in general are over-rated as messengers of Spring.

Oh yeah. I forgot to mention geese. Geese used to be markers, back when movie houses tried to lure you inside with promises of coolth. You’d see them flying high in show-off formations. If they were headed south, Winter was coming. Headed north, Spring was coming. Now the raucous beggars hang around all year, getting in the way and making a mess. I heard a man in the supermarket last month describe them as the in-laws of the bird family.

But I think we can trust the deer. I want to, anyway. Out in the hills west of here, 37 of them. Have to admit though, a couple — numbers 22 and 23 — did look familiar. Maybe the total was only 35.

How many ever there were, here’s why I trust them. They’re out, suddenly, calmly chewing on whatever peeks up through the snow in fields, in people’s lawns, even in roadside ditches. Standing there, munching on weeds and grass, looking me casually in the eye as I drive by.

On the way back home, I came to a railroad crossing. I slowed down to minimize damage to my elderly vehicle and bones. At the edge of the tracks I saw an ad for the season, like an ad for a spectacular movie, the kind you used to see right under the “AIR CONDITIONED” sign.

roughcrossingif_e0

I thought at the time it was meant for me. Later, I decided it had been for the deer.

Slapping the general’s wrist

[You probably know the one I mean. It's been in the media for days now; the events leading up to it for weeks. But if you're still at a loss, look here or here.]


A piece of reality I encountered sixty years ago:

Military intelligence is to intelligence as military music is to music (1).

When I first heard it, I assumed the underlying message was that military music was not good music, and therefore military intelligence was not good intelligence. I was mistaken. Truth of that original statement — and it still is remarkably and dangerously true — shows up only when you incorporate yet another bit of reality, also encountered sixty years ago:

There are three ways to do it:

  • The right way
  • The wrong way
  • The Army way

The Army way, then, is neither right nor wrong, by the standards most of us (in civilian mode) would apply. The Army (2) has a what I’ll call it a “system” for accomplishing its goals, for handling its problems, for defining its mission. That system has proven itself — in the minds of the military (3) — and is to be neither ignored nor challenged. It is what it is, and that’s the way it is.

All that said, my first comment about the general’s wrist-slap is that military justice is to justice as military music is to music.

There is also a second comment I will make.

Sometimes, military music is pretty goddam awful.


  1. Yes, there are echoes here of Snowden, et al, but they are irrelevant to the main topic.  ↩

  2. This applies, I’m pretty sure, to any similar organization at any time, including police and other police-like or quasi-military organizations.  ↩

  3. You may also adduce another piece of reality: The military mind is to our idea of a mind as…. ↩

Why do we do it?

We do it, I guess, because while trying to slay the dragons of our own madness and the madness of others, once in a while we want to cry “Hold! Enough! Stop here. Give us a fresh start.”

And so we have a new day — the one absolute new period, regular and invariable — and a new year — also regular and invariable although not quite so clearly demarked in our eyes, necessarily regulated by the more-easily read calendar. A new decade. And, as of fourteen years ago, a new century.

A new millennium is still about 86 years off.

We need new starts, we seem to tell ourselves. A new start will… what? Cancel out the mistakes of yesterday or last year? Grant us, truly, a clean slate upon which to write a totally new story for ourselves?

If only we could slay our dragons, or contain them. Tame them. Put them to use. And we could, if only we could start over, start afresh minus the baggage we have accumulated.

If we go back to zero, maybe we can do it. But we have locked ourselves into a calendar, a numbering system, and cannot wait for zero to come round again. Nor could we endure the panic and confusion attendant upon any plan to restructure our time-keeping systems.

Think of the frenzy which developed with the approach of Y2K — the careless habits of mind and the casually dismissed assumptions which led us to jeopardy

  • how easily it might have been avoided with foresight
  • how much worse it seemed the longer we let it go unchecked
  • how little real damage ultimately was done.

As my avian friend above says, the best way to get there is to keep on goin’. Or, if you’d rather, Keep On Truckin’©, which has a painful (for R. Crumb) history, or Don’t never look back, which has been grammarized by the Propriety Police.

A couple thought experiments

Suppose someone proved that, over the past ten years, you had been responsible for a dozen deaths, hundreds of injuries, and uncounted totals of property damage. You say you are shocked, dismayed, you had no idea any of it had happened. News of those deaths, that damage, was out there all the time, but you had managed to convince yourself that it was none of your doing, not your fault. You might say, for instance,

“I am very sorry for the loss of life that occurred, and will take every step to make sure this never happens again….Something went wrong with my process in this instance and terrible things happened.”

Twelve bodies, damages surely into the billions of dollars. Well, it’s good you did say something, but it may be difficult to sell that “I knew nothing” bit. Even if it’s true. After all, you’re in business where that kind of stuff is — pardon the casualness of it all — where that kind of stuff is routine.

Question number one: Should you be excused because you didn’t know? And if you are, what about those others, who did know what was happening but managed to pretend they hadn’t noticed? For real-life background on this, you can check here or here.

Or suppose prosecutors came and proved you had been responsible for many deaths and — as in the above example — an enormous toll in injuries and property damage.

And suppose those prosecutors, after long and arduous negotiations with your lawyers, said that for 1.2 billion dollars they would let you go. No more criminal investigations, and you’re on your own to settle with the victims.

Now, a billion-two might seem steep to the average person, but if you had vast resources, probably not a bad deal.

Question number two: How does it happen that prosecutors — in this instance, feds, are so easily bought off. Does this not carry a faint whiff of high-stake bribery? For real-life background on this, you can check here or here.

As you must know if you’ve read or heard the news in the past few days, these are not hypothetical situations. They’re real life, as it’s lived by General Motors and Toyota. The difference is that neither GM nor Toyota is a person in the sense you and I might use that word. But they are persons in the legal sense; they are corporations.

A corporation is, by my admittedly biased definition, a group of people banded together for mutual benefit, which benefit includes but is not limited to immunization from individual responsibility.

“The corporation done it, not me, so it’s stockholders — and the folks buying our products — who will foot the bill. Not me. And I can probably get a hefty tax write-off for it as well.”

Puts to shame the petty swindling and corruption practiced by illegal criminal gangs, doesn’t it?