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Posts Tagged ‘culture

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”*…

 

Chateaubriand’s tomb, Saint-Malo, France

Because history “belongs to the victors”– is shaped, both consciously and preter-consciously by writers looking back through the lens of their often very different presents– memoir can be an especially valuable as a vehicle for understanding a time in its own terms.  François-René (Auguste), vicomte de Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave are especially precious.  His autobiography helps us as readers locate ourselves in a time of tumultuous transition– from the ancien régime to the modern era: the Revolution of 1789, the downfall of the monarchy and the execution of the king, the advent of Napoleon Bonaparte and the empire, the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty after the definite defeat of Napoleon by the powers that joined in the Holy Alliance, its overthrow by the Revolution of July 1830, the inauguration of Louis-Philippe and the establishment of the July monarchy, and finally the birth of the short-lived Second Republic.

But more, Memoirs helps us understand the psychological reality of living through– and in Chateaubriand’s case, playing a series of engaged roles in– that social and political sea change.

Chateaubriand was attached to the past and its centuries-old traditions, but he was also a liberal, open to modernity: this is one thing that sets him apart in the history of ideas. He had been repulsed by the discourse and the violence of the French revolutionaries and was deeply impressed by the powerful composure of George Washington, “the representative of the needs, ideas, intelligence, and opinions of his epoch.” He had a vision of social transformation that did not entail the obliteration of the past, and was proud to declare himself “Bourboniste by honor, royalist by reason, and republican by inclination.”…

Anka Muhlstein on the significance of the Memoirs: “A Passionate Witness“; get the book here.

(Literature can play a similar role: consider the Prince in Lampedusa’s The Leopard and Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.)

* newspaper reporter Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young), in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence

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As we struggle to understand, we might send tasty birthday greetings to the culinary genius behind green eggs and ham, Theodor Seuss Geisel, AKA “Dr. Seuss”; he was born on this date in 1904.  After a fascinating series of early-career explorations, Geisel settled on a style that created what turned out to be the perfect “gateway drug” to book addiction for generations of young readers.

The more that you read,

The more things you will know.

The more that you learn,

The more places you’ll go.

I Can Read With My Eyes Shut! (1978)

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Written by LW

March 2, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I can understand that a man might go to the gambling table – when he sees that all that lies between himself and death is his last crown”*…

 

Wheel of Fortune, Las Vegas, 1988

Thirty years ago, gambling in the US was limited to three destinations: Reno, Las Vegas, and Atlantic City. Jay Wolke photographed the ordinary people who played, lived and worked in the rapidly expanding cities.  Wolke was fascinated by the intersections of people, artifice, architecture and landscape in the US’s three gambling cities…

Girl in car, Trump Plaza, Atlantic City, 1989

Fortune Hunter, Las Vegas, 1988

See more at “Same dream another time: under the skin of 80s Vegas – in pictures” and at Wolke’s site.

* Honoré de Balzac, The Wild Ass’s Skin

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As we consider the odds, we might recall that it was on this date in 2000 that Cynthia Jay-Brennan won $34,959,458.56 on a Megabucks slot machine at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, the world’s largest payout; it was a one in 7 million chance.  A cocktail waitress at another casino, she had been a Desert Inn regular; on this occasion, she had “invested” $27 in the machine that paid off so handsomely.

Sadly. Jay-Brennan has become synonymous with the “Jackpot Jinx”: a few weeks after her huge haul, she and her sister were driving to a casino out of town when they were hit by a drunk driver, paralyzing her and killing her sister.

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Written by LW

January 26, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment”*…

 

We’ve all heard it before: There’s no time like the present. Broadly speaking, of course, it means to “seize the opportunity right now,” or maybe in my case, to avoid procrastinating. From a psychological perspective, this makes a lot of sense. As humans we experience time “passing,” and there is a special quality to the present moment. Hypnosis and dreams aside, there is no way to directly experience either the past or the future in the same way we experience the present. But is the aphorism true? Does modern physics actually tell us that there’s no time like the present?

Our best current physical theory of space and time is general relativity. Prior to Einstein’s revolution over a century ago, physics considered time to be an “external parameter”—an independent, fundamental feature of reality not influenced by any other factor in the universe. Whether or not the passage of time is real or illusory (this is an age-old philosophical debate that predates Einstein and is indeed not settled by his theory), we now know that time intervals are not external or universally determined. Time is an internal component of a physical system, a dimension intertwined with three spatial dimensions. Taken together, this is “spacetime,” and is influenced by varying factors and is influenced by varying factors, including speed (relative to other observers or systems) and gravitational forces. Because the theory of relativity posits the constancy of the speed of light for all observers (even if they are moving relative to each other), spacetime itself must dilate and the concept of a time interval becomes elastic.

As a result, there is no universal notion of the present that applies equally to all observers. What looks present to me could just as easily be in someone else’s future, and in a third person’s past. Simultaneity is relative…

Think there’s no time like the present? As Mark Shumelda suggests, modern physics begs to differ: “Actually, There Is a Time Like the Present.”

* Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

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As we cogitate on carpe diem, we might send playful birthday greetings to Johan Huizinga; he was born on this date in 1872.  A Dutch historian and one of the founders of modern cultural history, he is probably best remembered for his 1938 book Homo Ludens, in which he argues for the importance of the play element of culture and society, suggesting that play is primary to and a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of the generation of culture.

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Written by LW

December 7, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Race is an idea, not a fact”*…

 

White people- “Viewing the Performance of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ in the Globe Theatre,” by David Scott. Photo courtesy the V&A Museum

The Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton invented the concept of ‘white people’ on 29 October 1613, the date that his play The Triumphs of Truth was first performed. The phrase was first uttered by the character of an African king who looks out upon an English audience and declares: ‘I see amazement set upon the faces/Of these white people, wond’rings and strange gazes.’ As far as I, and others, have been able to tell, Middleton’s play is the earliest printed example of a European author referring to fellow Europeans as ‘white people’.

A year later, the English commoner John Rolfe of Jamestown in Virginia took as his bride an Algonquin princess named Matoaka, whom we call Pocahontas. The literary critic Christopher Hodgkins reports that King James I was ‘at first perturbed when he learned of the marriage’. But this was not out of fear of miscegenation: James’s reluctance, Hodgkins explained, was because ‘Rolfe, a commoner, had without his sovereign’s permission wed the daughter of a foreign prince.’ King James was not worried about the pollution of Rolfe’s line; he was worried about the pollution of Matoaka’s…

By examining how and when racial concepts became hardened, we can see how historically conditional these concepts are. There’s nothing essential about them. As the literature scholar Roxann Wheeler reminds us in The Complexion of Race (2000), there was ‘an earlier moment in which biological racism… [was] not inevitable’. Since Europeans didn’t always think of themselves as ‘white’, there is good reason to think that race is socially constructed, indeed arbitrary. If the idea of ‘white people’ (and thus every other ‘race’ as well) has a history – and a short one at that – then the concept itself is based less on any kind of biological reality than it is in the variable contingencies of social construction…

Black or White?  “How ‘white people’ were invented by a playwright in 1613.”

* Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People

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As we aspire to (self-)consciousness, we might recall that it was on this date in 1966 that  A Hand Is On The Gate, billed as “an evening of poetry and music by American Negroes,” opened on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre. The directorial debut of actor Roscoe Lee Browne, it featured a cast of eight, including Leon Bibb, James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, and Josephine Premice (who was nominated for a Tony).

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Written by LW

September 21, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Why would heavy metal ever go away?”*…

 

Metalheads all the world over can agree on one thing: its culture, just like its music, eschews pretense. Nowhere is this better reflected than in Dumisani Matiha, lead singer and rhythm guitarist of Metal Orizon, one of Botswana’s heaviest outfits.

On an unseasonably warm afternoon, the 41-year-old is taking time out of his day job as a farmer to explain what distinguishes this metal movement from other scenes spread out across the globe.

“We see ourselves as warriors and poets,” says Dumisani. “This is a calling. We use metal to speak to our social conditions as Africans: the struggles, the climate we operate in… It might be cheesy to you but, to us, metal is just another way of speaking about romance. To us, love is hardcore, yo!”…

Botswana is 70 per cent desert and most of its metalheads dress in old-school biker gear – made even heavier with studs, chains and all kinds of trinkets – topped off with leather cowboy hats. They are a throwback to a purer time, an era when no heavy metal fan would have dreamed of Metallica and Lou Reed making an album together, let alone calling it Lulu.

Musically speaking, the metal scene in Botswana is neither heavy nor metal. It’s a combination that sounds impossible when articulated: a mix of African hard riddims, mid-70s Manchester punk, cacophonous dub, psychedelic swamp music, free-wheelin’ progjazz and some sped-up Ohio funk thrown in for good measure…

Far beyond driven: “The hell bangers of Botswana’s underground metal scene.”

* Scott Ian (founding member and lyricist of Anthrax)

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As we celebrate the shred, we might recall that it was on this date in 1966 that the Beatles said “thank you, and goodnight” for the last time– at the end of their last public concert, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. (This is, of course, not counting the 1969 impromptu performance on the roof of Apple Records headquarters in London — the Beatles’ last public appearance together.)

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Written by LW

August 29, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable”*…

 

By the end of last year, anyone who had been paying even passing attention to the news headlines was highly likely to conclude that everything was terrible, and that the only attitude that made sense was one of profound pessimism – tempered, perhaps, by cynical humour, on the principle that if the world is going to hell in a handbasket, one may as well try to enjoy the ride…  Yet one group of increasingly prominent commentators has seemed uniquely immune to the gloom…

The loose but growing collection of pundits, academics and thinktank operatives who endorse this stubbornly cheerful, handbasket-free account of our situation have occasionally been labelled “the New Optimists”, a name intended to evoke the rebellious scepticism of the New Atheists led by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. And from their perspective, our prevailing mood of despair is irrational, and frankly a bit self-indulgent. They argue that it says more about us than it does about how things really are – illustrating a certain tendency toward collective self-flagellation, and an unwillingness to believe in the power of human ingenuity. And that it is best explained as the result of various psychological biases that served a purpose on the prehistoric savannah – but now, in a media-saturated era, constantly mislead us…

Don’t worry, be happy? “Is the world really better than ever?

* Voltaire

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As we cultivate our gardens, we might send well-watered birthday greeting to Monkombu Sambisivan Swaminathan; he was born on this date in 1925.  A geneticist and international administrator, he is known as the “Indian Father of Green Revolution” for his leadership and success in introducing and further developing high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat in India.  Swaminathan, based these days at he MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, is an advocate of moving India to sustainable development, especially using environmentally-sustainable agriculture, sustainable food security, and the preservation of biodiversity– which he calls an “evergreen revolution.”

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Written by LW

August 7, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The color of fire and sunset, the color of flamboyant flowers”*…

 

Clio, Pierre Mignard

Red is “the first color,” the most primordial and symbolic, for thousands of years in the West “the only color worthy of that name.” It is the basic color of all ancient peoples (and still the color preferred by children the world over). It appears in the earliest artistic representations, the cave paintings of hunter-gatherers 30,000-plus years ago. Blood and fire were always and everywhere represented by the color red. Both were felt to be sources of magical power, and both played a role in human communication with gods through bloody sacrifices. Humans also painted their bodies red, and shells and bones painted red are found in abundance in burials from 15,000 years ago…

The history and the meaning(s) of that most fundamental of colors: “Crimson Tidings.”

* Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea

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As we take Bill Blass’ advice, “when in doubt, wear red,” we might recall that today is the Catholic Church’s Feast of the Precious Blood, a commemoration of the blood of Jesus.  (This is a feast that does not exist in the new Roman Calendar of Pope Paul VI. It is still, however, in the traditional Roman calendar of the 1962 usage.)

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Written by LW

July 1, 2017 at 1:01 am

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