Every every evening she played the piano near window on the second floor. Figures stopped passing outside to listen. Orange and red clouds kept passing and pulling. A bowl of bananas, piano fingers of hers in the light, but the light went away. As the sun went down she would close the piano, but the window left open a little while longer.
There is a rare mastery of English and humor on display in most of James Thurber’s essays and short fiction. His abilities hit an unexpectedly high note, though, in a children’s book: The 13 Clocks. It is an absurdist fable written as poetry but formatted as prose. A prince attempts to rescue a maiden from an evil duke; then Thurber breaks the rules and the fourth wall, and every shred of coherence is washed away in a torrent of invention.
Language warps at Thurber’s command. The Duke allegedly “breaks up minstrels in his soup, like crackers”; one creature “moves about like monkeys and like shadows”. The absurdity of the writing is matched by that of the plot, which shambles forward via bizarre, seemingly random twists—whose details this writer will not spoil here. But the apparent abandon with which Thurber employs himself belies the tightness of his poetry. Every word is conspicuously in place.
The 13 Clocks was one of Thurber’s later works, written after his blindness. Perhaps this is why so much of it is visually unrepresentable. Although it was released with illustrations (this version is available online), it is arguably best read “blind”, as a text visualized by one’s imagination. In any form, though, The 13 Clocks is a classic not of children’s literature but of literature full stop. It deserved to have followed the children’s works of E. B. White, Thurber’s associate at The New Yorker, into the culture memory.
“Portraiture is performance, and like any performance, in the balance of its effects it is good or bad, not natural or unnatural. I can understand being troubled by this idea—that all portraits are performances—because it seems to imply some kind of artifice that conceals the truth about the sitter. But that’s not it at all. The point is that you can’t get at the thing itself, the real nature of the sitter, by stripping away the surface. The surface is all you’ve got. You can only get beyond the surface by working with the surface. All that you can do is to manipulate that surface—gesture, costume, expression—radically and correctly.”—Taken from “Borrowed Dogs” (2002) by Richard Avedon.
Hey, your most recent post propagates one of the most damaging misunderstandings of economics in human history. Particularly the passage referring to material resources and the economy as "a zero-sum game" even in "today's digital age" is horrifically inaccurate. If economics and progress was actually a zero-sum game, it would be impossible for the population to increase while technology/life expectancy/quality of life etc. ALL improved. Value is actually GENERATED through the market. Peace
Thanks for your concern. Our writer used the phrase “zero-sum game” to illustrate a trivial truth about material objects, which is that they are finite. If one person has a bottle of Grey Goose, then another person does not have that bottle. If Bill Gates has a billion dollars, then other people do not have that money. Because success is defined as the amassment of material things, and because material things are finite, the pyramidal structure mentioned in the article emerges. (The same situation arises with digital information, thanks to the finite supply of attention.) “Zero-sum game” did not refer to exchanges within an economy, but to the natural limitations placed on any supply of material things.
The principle remains true even in periods of economic growth. No amount of growth can produce an infinite number of material things. Further, measurements of success increase with the size of the economy: they are never simply static. As a result, no matter how large an economy becomes, it cannot accommodate an unlimited number of successful people. This is particularly true when success involves the accumulation of capital goods and natural resources. Regardless of how many of these are injected into an economy, their use will be dictated by a limited number of successful owners.
On the other hand, hardship and destitution do not scale up, even if they are shifted from one race or country to another. Rather, they are inversely proportional to the level of success enjoyed by others. As land, natural resources, capital goods and money become concentrated in the hands of the successful, they are denied to everyone else. The poor become the desperately poor, people incapable of self-sufficiency. Some turn to crime; the majority are set to work at McDonald’s or Rana Plaza, where they help the very successful succeed even more.
Three gamblers sit at a poker table. Several hands have been played; one player has a clear lead. The other two believe that their luck will improve if they continue to play. Sure enough, one of them wins a few hands and ends the night ahead. But the third gambler, who kept playing after multiple losses, is now very far behind. Ironically, it is his failure that allowed the other two gamblers to succeed. If all had won equally, then none would have come out on top. The persistence and ultimate defeat of the loser created the game’s winners.
Roughly two weeks ago, Idea Channel posted a video about enjoying “difficult” (read: transgressive, visceral) works. Specifically, Mike Rugnetta asks whether such media can be enjoyed. These works are experienced by their audiences as violent assaults, as raw, unremitting punches to the gut. Why, then, are they so often popular? What makes them appealing? Rugnetta argues that it is a sense of post-traumatic “relief”. As he puts it, “It is not the depictions themselves that you enjoy, but the relief that comes afterwards.” In this state, one’s perception is heightened such that “blues are more blue, sounds are more intense” and so on.
In the past, we have argued that art is experiential, and that its highest purpose is to place its audience in a state of wonder toward what Gertrude Stein called “the excitingness of pure being”. Wonder is, in some sense, an aesthetic delight brought on by depiction: it is our remembrance of being and mystery. J. R. R. Tolkien wrote that the failure to recall these things creates a certain anxiety, a dissatisfaction with existence that draws one toward the lurid. If Rugnetta is correct, then perhaps this draw is in fact the search for a counterfeit wonder—for “an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom”, as Baudelaire put it. One seeks to be shocked because the heightened awareness that follows interrupts crushing ennui, just as those who experience a dull, constant pain seek occasionally to make it sharper.
“What I am saying is this: the score is not what matters. Life does not have to be regarded as a game in which scores are kept and somebody wins. If you are too intent on winning, you will never enjoy playing. If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted. If a university concentrates on producing successful people, it is lamentably failing in its obligation to society and to the students themselves.”—Taken from “Learning to Live” (1967) by Thomas Merton.
Like many fishermen I spoke to in the area, he told me that the ocean had changed. It was hard to pin people down when they said this: the sense of disappointment was vague but undeniable, like the sundering of a relationship between these coastal villages and an ocean that has, for centuries, provided them with a livelihood.
Recently, Akash Kapur wrote in The New Yorker about the effects of modernization on small fishing villages in India. In particular, he explains that the relatively new Pondicherry harbor (it is twenty-four years old) has caused coastal erosion on a massive scale. Villages built near the water are slowly falling into the sea; and the way of life that these villages embody is vanishing. As Kapur pointed out in a 2010 article, environmentalists had foreseen the impact of the harbor, but the local government had “overruled [them] in the name of progress”. The “new economic opportunities” that the harbor provided were simply too lucrative to pass up.
It was Gandhi’s dream that the post-colonial India would be a collection of small, self-sufficient villages. To him, industrialization was a form of exploitation—a curse. But it is clear that modern India has opted for the Western idea of progress. As a result, the village life that Gandhi endorsed is being phased out. The sad irony is that Pondicherry and environs are inundated with “the evidence of prosperity”, as Kapur put it in 2010. Restaurants and resorts are replacing huts; one way of life is being born out of the destruction of another. What is lost in the process, though, is a way of living in and with nature that cannot simply be replaced by wealth and comfort.
Once again, we at Still Eating Oranges would like to thank the many followers who view and enjoy our posts. Updates from the last several months have been gathered in the sections below. Above, you may find our past round-ups. We hope to continue to entertain you in the months ahead.
In America, it is often said that great writing captures the world with a “journalistic eye”. That is, the very best writers copy the world in exact detail. They study patterns of speech, construct naturalistic backgrounds for their stories and painstakingly describe environments and characters. All of this is to ensure that their work is “believable”, which is to say that it is “realistic”. The goal is to create characters and stories that are unsentimental, that are not idealized; to show the world as it is. Every type of fiction—written or filmed—has been influenced by this goal, from standard literary fiction to Game of Thrones.
But what, exactly, does it mean to show the world as it is? What is the difference between real and artificial portrayal? This distinction, to which we appeal so readily, is far less clear than we imagine. Supposedly we can point to the difference in realism between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Rabbit, Run. Yet, both works are fictional; non-real. Can one non-real work be more real than another? And what counts as real, anyway? If we are to understand realism, these questions must be answered.
i read where you said that John Cage "focuses on the experience of the audience itself." but i'm not sure how to tell that other instrumental music does not do the same thing. what does it mean?
Thanks for your interest. In that article, our writer was making a distinction between depiction and self-expression. Depiction, as we have clarified inotherarticles, is the creation of an experiential surface for the audience. The artist attempts to provide a certain experience for the observer, and the success or failure of this attempt determines the quality of the work. Cage’s best pieces are of this type. Contrasted to depiction is self-expression, which is the putting-forward of the artist without regard for the audience. Self-expression makes experiential content irrelevant: authenticity and subtext reign.
To focus on the audience’s experience is to become an entertainer of sorts. If the audience is entertained—if the audience has the intended experience—, then the work is a success. If Cage’s In a Landscape failed to elicit the quasi-mystical experience that it was designed to produce, then it would fail as a work. To focus on self-expression, on the other hand, is to become wholly self-referential. The self-expressive work is ultimately surfaceless: it is just a mirror of the artist.
Music, in general, has suffered less from the rise of self-expression than have other mediums. It is difficult to write music—particularly instrumental music—that takes no account of the audience’s experience. However, people like Arnold Schoenberg and Cecil Taylor have shown that it can be done.
The birds are mumbling. Those people lined up the tomatoes on the fence from most to least. Something is about to happen. A lean dog shifts in the dust at the end of the road. The bell rings and the sky turns yellow. Vision fades but that droning sound never, ever leaves.
All Western institutions were reshaped by the assertive self. We have discussed the ideology’s revision of art; now, this writer will consider its transformation of science. Before the early modern period, most scientists in the West were Aristotelian in method. These people sought knowledge—generally as an end in itself—of the essence and telos of every natural entity. Experimentation was rare because of Aristotle’s belief that artificial conditions obscured the truth of nature. As the assertive self took hold of Western culture, the Aristotelian method was displaced by a new science whose goal was not speculative but practical: the prediction and control of the natural world.
“In the context of the interlocking processes pertaining to the orderly disposition of electrical energy, even the Rhine itself appears as something at our command. The hydroelectric plant is not built into the Rhine River as was the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for hundreds of years. Rather the river is dammed up into the power plant. What the river is now, namely, a water power supplier, derives from out of the essence of the power station. In order that we may even remotely consider the monstrousness that reigns here, let us ponder for a moment the contrast that speaks out of the two titles, “The Rhine” as dammed up into the power works, and “The Rhine” as uttered out of the art work, in Hölderlin’s hymn by that name. But, it will be replied, the Rhine is still a river in the landscape, is it not? Perhaps. But how? In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry.”—Taken from “The Question Concerning Technology” (1953) by Martin Heidegger. Translated into English by William Lovitt.