Archive for February, 2010


February 28, 2010

So, I saw this painting yesterday at the Gardner. The reproduction is not great, but it will have to do:

Titan, Europa,1575-1580. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

Mythology note: Europa was a Phoneican kidnapped/ravished by Zeus, who disguised himself as a bull and bore her on his back to Crete.

Unfortunately, this does not get across the brilliant painting(note the fish riding the putto), but there’s still a lot of what makes this a great painting.  There are some really daring moments of composition, like where the center of the painting is almost empty save for Europa’s kneecap. It still works, though, because of how much the kneecap pops against the sunset. I also find the phonecians on the shore to be a mildy amusing touch.

Any guesses what’s up with the brown fish, though?

Some homebrew stuff

February 22, 2010

Sorry to keep you waiting so long. Anyhow, I have some poetry I’ve written. It’d be nice to get feedback. Please do not reprint.

12.5 variations on a fishing trip
Above the spires looms
Flaming hills which beckon with
Burbling music
2. in the flaming cleft
Leaves which crackle underfoot
Inform my approach
3. A cracking tree limb,
A kingfisher’s shrill whine,
Breaks the fall stillness.
4. by shattered waters
Are approaching fishers concealed
From the ghostly trout
5. A sheet of glass shatters
As a footstep is misjudged
Might as well move on

6. The water disrupted,
My mind elsewhere, my fly drowned
A routine disappointment
7 . The fly is stripped
The rod bends with swift live weight
A fish strikes and holds
8. The trout is in hand
Red, blue, on vermillion
Gone in a dark streak.

On the hill above the spires
The fire has died down.

Something lighter

February 18, 2010

Here’s a wonderful poem about Monet by Lisel Mueller(no known relation to Jason Mueller), introduced to me recently. Enjoy and look at some Monets after reading this.

Monet Refuses the Operation

Doctor, you say that there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
wisteria separate
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and changes our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.

~ Lisel Mueller ~

Claude Monet, The Houses of Parliment, Sunset. 1903.

Claude Monet. Waterloo Bridge, London, at dusk. 1903.

Another lazy post

February 15, 2010

Warning: Definitely not for the faint of heart
From Strauss’ Salome:

Early Valentine’s day post.

February 12, 2010

For all the notreally-bitter singles out there:
The Miller’s Tale(prologue, in the original middle english)

A rap version of The Miller’s Tale:

Venice in painting

February 12, 2010

I’d give some thoughts on the process of “dissolving reality” in 19th century painting and the role Venice played in that process, but this late at night I’d be talking out my hat. So on to the paintings:

J.M.W. Turner, Approach To Venice. 1844.

Amazing how the horizon is blurred to the point that the sea and the sky merge, isn’t it? Of course, Turner could have easily painted another vedute but it would have been less interesting than this colour symphony.
Check out this Whistler pastel for a similar dynamic:

James Abbot McNeil Whistler, Sunset on Harbour. 1880

James Abbot McNeil Whistler. The Doorway. Etching and drypoint. 1879.

Here is a very different view of Venice. Although it emphasizes the city’s presence, it shows the doorway without showing how it stands up. Furthermore, it’s fading and what we can see of the darkened interior seems to indicate that it’s been ransacked or at the very least abandoned. This Venice is a place subject more than most places to decay, to entropy.
Claude Monet, The Plazzo da Mula, Venice. 1908
I’ll leave you tonight with this Monet. Note how he never really defines the openings in the facade and keeps them in the same “key” as the water, so the facade seems to fade into(or out of) the water, which in turn fades into the mist behind the facade, which…does not fade.

Some poetry

February 10, 2010

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
-Wallace Stevens

St Kevin and the Blackbird

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
and Lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.


And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in Love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.
-Seamus Heaney

from Notes on The Balinese Cockfight

February 8, 2010

Bentham’s concept of “deep play” is found in his
The Theory of Legislation. By it he means play
in which the stakes are so high that it is, from
his utilitarian standpoint, irrational for men to
engage in it at all.
This, I must stress immediately, is not to say that
the money does not matter, or that the Balinese
is no more concerned about losing five hundred
ringgits than fifteen. Such a conclusion would
be absurd. It is because money does, in this
hardly unmaterialistic society, matter and matter
very much that the more of it one risks the more
of a lot of other things, such as one’s pride, one’s
poise, one’s dispassion, one’s masculinity, one
also risks, again only momentarily but again
very publicly as well. In deep cockfights an
owner and his collaborators, and, as we shall see,
to a lesser but still quite real extent also their
backers on the outside, put their money where
their status is.
It is in large part because the marginal disutility
of loss is so great at the higher levels of betting
that to engage in such betting is to lay one’s
public self, allusively and metaphorically,
through the medium of one’s cock, on the line.
And though to a Benthamite this might seem
merely to increase the irrationality of the
enterprise that much further, to the Balinese
what it mainly increases is the meaningfulness
of it all. And as (to follow Weber rather than
Bentham) the imposition of meaning on life is
the major end and primary condition of human
existence, that access of significance more than
compensates for the economic costs involved.
Actually, given the even-money quality of the
larger matches, important changes in material
fortune among those who regularly participate in
them seem virtually nonexistent, because
matters more or less even out over the long run.
This graduated correlation of “status gambling”
with deeper fights and, inversely, “money
gambling” with shallower ones is in fact quite
general. Bettors themselves form a sociomoral
hierarchy in these terms. As noted earlier, at
most cockfights there are, around the very edges
of the cockfight area, a large number of
mindless, sheer-chance type gambling games
(roulette, dice throw, coin-spin, pea-under-theshell)
operated by concessionaires. Only women,
children, adolescents, and various other sorts of
people who do not (or not yet) fight cocks – the
extremely poor, the socially despised, the
personally idiosyncratic – play at these games,
at, of course, penny ante levels. Cockfighting
men would be ashamed to go anywhere near
them. Slightly above these people in standing
are those who, though they do not themselves
fight cocks, bet on the smaller matches around
the edges. Next, there are those who fight cocks
in small, or occasionally medium matches, but
have not the status to join in the large ones,
though they may bet from time to time on the
side in those. And finally, there are those, the
really substantial members of the community,
the solid citizenry around whom local life
revolves, who fight in the larger fights and bet
on them around the side. The focusing element
in these focused gatherings, these men generally
dominate and define the sport as they dominate
and define the society. When a Balinese male
talks, in that almost venerative way, about “the
true cockfighter,” the bebatoh (“bettor” ) or
djuru kurung (“cage keeper”), it is this sort of
person, not those who bring the mentality of the
pea-and-shell game into the quite different,
inappropriate context of the cockfight, the
driven gambler (potet, a word which has the
secondary meaning of thief or reprobate), and
the wistful hanger-on, that they mean. For such a
man, what is really going on in a match is
something rather closer to an affaire d’honneur
(though, with the Balinese talent for practical fantasy, the blood that is spilled is only
figuratively human) than to the stupid,
mechanical crank of a slot machine.
What makes Balinese cockfighting deep is thus
not money in itself, but what, the more of it that
is involved the more so, money causes to
happen: the migration of the Balinese status
hierarchy into the body of the cockfight.
Psychologically an Aesopian representation of
the ideal/demonic, rather narcissistic, male self,
sociologically it is an equally Aesopian
representation of the complex fields of tension
set up by the controlled, muted, ceremonial, but
for all that deeply felt, interaction of those selves
in the context of everyday life. The cocks may
be surrogates for their owners’ personalities,
animal mirrors of psychic form, but the
cockfight is – or more exactly, deliberately is
made to be – a simulation of the social matrix,
the involved system of crosscutting, overlapping,
highly corporate groups –villages, kingroups,
irrigation societies, temple congregations,
“castes” – in which its devotees live. And as
prestige, the necessity to affirm it, defend it,
celebrate it, justify it, and just plain bask in it
(but not given the strongly ascriptive character
of Balinese stratification, to seek it), is perhaps
the central driving force in the society, so also –
ambulant penises, blood sacrifices, and
monetary exchanges aside – is it of the
cockfight. This apparent amusement and
seeming sport is, to take another phrase from
Erving Goffman, “a status bloodbath.”
The easiest way to make this clear, and at least
to some degree to demonstratee it, is to invoke
the village whose cockfighting activities I
observed the closest – the one in which the raid
occurred and from which my statistical data are
Consider, then, as support of the general thesis
that the cockfight, and especially the deep
cockfight, is fundamentally a dramatization of
status concerns, the following facts:
1. A man virtually never bets against a cock
owned by a member of his own kingroup.
Usually he will feel obliged to bet for it, the
more so the closer the kin tie and the deeper
the fight. If he is certain in his mind that it
will not win, he may just not bet at all,
particularly if it is only a second cousin’s
bird or if the fight is a shallow one. But as a
rule he will feel he must support it and, in
deep games, nearly always does. Thus the
great majority of the people calling “five” or
“speckled” so demonstratively are
expressing their allegiance to their kinsman,
not their evaluation of his bird, their
understanding of probability theory, or even
their hopes of unearned income.
2. This principle is extended logically. If your
kin group is not involved you will support
an allied kingroup against an unallied one in
the same way, and so on through the very
involved networks of alliances which, as I
say, make up this, as any other, Balinese
3. So, too, for the village as a whole. If an
outsider cock is fighting any cock from your
village you will tend to support the local
one. If, what is a rarer circumstance but
occurs every now and then, a cock from
outside your cockfight circuit is fighting
one inside it you will also tend to support
the “home bird.”
4. Cocks which come from any distance are
almost always favorites, for the theory is the
man would not have dared to bring it if it
was not a good cock, the more so the further
he has come. His followers are, of course,
obliged to support him, and when the more
grand-scale legal cockfights are held (on
holidays and so on) the people of the village
take what they regard to be the best cocks in
the village, regardless of ownership, and go
off to support them, although they will
almost certainly have to give odds on them
and to make large bets to show that they are
not a cheapskate village. Actually, such
“away games,” though infrequent, tend to
mend the ruptures between village members
that the constantly occurring “home games,”
where village factions are opposed rather
than united, exacerbate.
5. Almost all matches are sociologically
relevant. You seldom get two outsider cocks
fighting, or two cocks with no particular
group backing, or with group backing which
is mutually unrelated in any clear way.When
you do get them, the game is very shallow,
betting very slow, and the whole thing very
dull, with no one save the immediate
principals and an addict gambler or two at
all interested.
6. By the same token, you rarely get two cocks
from the same group, even more rarely from
the same subfaction, and virtually never
from the same sub-subfaction (which would
be in most cases one extended family)
fighting. Similarly, in outside village fights
two members of the village will rarely fight
against one another, even though, as bitter
rivals, they would do so with enthusiasm on
their home grounds.
7. On the individual level, people involved in
an institutionalized hostility relationship,
called puik, in which they do not speak or
otherwise have anything to do with each
other (the causes of this formal breaking of
relations are many: wife-capture, inheritance
arguments, political differences) will bet
very heavily, sometimes almost maniacally,
against one another in what is a frank and
direct attack on the very masculinity, the
ultimate ground of his status, of the
(The full text of the essay can be found at

Hot food and Moby Dick

February 5, 2010

I had a post on Turner, Whistler, and Monet and Venice worked up, but it got deleted. So for all of you snowed-in east coasters. read about a nice bowl of hot chowder courtesy of Herman Melville:
It was quite late in the evening when the little Moss came snugly to anchor, and Queequeg and I went ashore; so we could attend to no business that day, at least none but a supper and a bed. The landlord of the Spouter-Inn had recommended us to his cousin Hosea Hussey of the Try Pots, whom he asserted to be the proprietor of one of the best kept hotels in all Nantucket, and moreover he had assured us that Cousin Hosea, as he called him, was famous for his chowders. In short, he plainly hinted that we could not possibly do better than try pot-luck at the Try Pots. But the directions hc had given us about keeping a yellow warehouse on our starboard hand till we opened a white church to the larboard, and then keeping that on the larboard hand till we made a corner three points to the starboard, and that done, then ask the first man we met where the place was; these crooked directions of his very much puzzled us at first, especially as, at the outset, Queequeg insisted that the yellow warehouse-our first point of departure-must be left on the larboard hand, whereas I had understood Peter Coffin to say it was on the starboard. However, by dint of beating about a little in the dark, and now and then knocking up a peaceful inhabitant to inquire the way, we at last came to something which there was no mistaking.

Two enormous wooden pots painted black, and suspended by asses’ ears, swung from the cross-trees of an old top-mast, planted in front of an old doorway. The horns of the cross-trees were sawed off on the other side, so that this old top-mast looked not a little like a gallows. Perhaps I was over sensitive to such impressions at the time, but I could not help staring at this gallows with a vague misgiving. A sort of crick was in my neck as I gazed up to the two remaining horns; yes, two of them, one for Queequeg, and one for me. It’s ominous, thinks I. A Coffin my Innkeeper upon landing in my first whaling port; tombstones staring at me in the whalemen’s chapel, and here a gallows! and a pair of prodigious black pots too! Are these last throwing out oblique hints touching Tophet?

I was called from these reflections by the sight of a freckled woman with yellow hair and a yellow gown, standing in the porch of the inn, under a dull red lamp swinging there, that looked much like an injured eye, and carrying on a brisk scolding with a man in a purple woollen shirt.

“Get along with ye,” said she to the man, “or I’ll be combing ye!” “Come on, Queequeg,” said I, “all right. There’s Mrs. Hussey.”

And so it turned out; Mr. Hosea Hussey being from home, but leaving Mrs. Hussey entirely competent to attend to all his affairs. Upon making known our desires for a supper and a bed, Mrs. Hussey, postponing further scolding for the present, ushered us into a little room, and seating us at a table spread with the relics of a recently concluded repast, turned round to us and said-“Clam or Cod?”

“What’s that about Cods, ma’am?” said I, with much politeness.

“Clam or Cod?” she repeated.

“A clam for supper? a cold clam; is that what you mean, Mrs. Hussey?” says I, “but that’s a rather cold and clammy reception in the winter time, ain’t it, Mrs. Hussey?”

But being in a great hurry to resume scolding the man in the purple shirt who was waiting for it in the entry, and seeming to hear nothing but the word “clam,” Mrs. Hussey hurried towards an open door leading to the kitchen, and bawling out “clam for two,” disappeared.

“Queequeg,” said I, “do you think that we can make a supper for us both on one clam?”

However, a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes! the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favourite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition: when leaning back a moment and bethinking me of Mrs. Hussey’s clam and cod announcement, I thought I would try a little experiment. Stepping to the kitchen door, I uttered the word “cod” with great emphasis, and resumed my seat. In a few moments the savoury steam came forth again, but with a different flavor, and in good time a fine cod-chowder was placed before us.

We resumed business; and while plying our spoons in the bowl, thinks I to myself, I wonder now if this here has any effect on the head? What’s that stultifying saying about chowder-headed people? “But look, Queequeg, ain’t that a live eel in your bowl? Where’s your harpoon?”

Fishiest of all fishy places was the Try Pots, which well deserved its name; for the pots there were always boiling chowders. Chowder for breakfast, and chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper, till you began to look for fish-bones coming through your clothes. The area before the house was paved with clam-shells. Mrs. Hussey wore a polished necklace of codfish vertebra; and Hosea Hussey had his account books bound in superior old shark-skin. There was a fishy flavor to the milk, too, which I could not at all account for, till one morning happening to take a stroll along the beach among some fishermen’s boats, I saw Hosea’s brindled cow feeding on fish remnants, and marching along the sand with each foot in a cod’s decapitated head, looking very slipshod, I assure ye.

Supper concluded, we received a lamp, and directions from Mrs. Hussey concerning the nearest way to bed; but, as Queequeg was about to precede me up the stairs, the lady reached forth her arm, and demanded his harpoon; she allowed no harpoon in her chambers. “Why not? said I; “every true whaleman sleeps with his harpoon-but why not?” “Because it’s dangerous,” says she. “Ever since young Stiggs coming from that unfort’nt v’y’ge of his, when he was gone four years and a half, with only three barrels of ile, was found dead in my first floor back, with his harpoon in his side; ever since then I allow no boarders to take sich dangerous weepons in their rooms at night. So, Mr. Queequeg” (for she had learned his name), “I will just take this here iron, and keep it for you till morning. But the chowder; clam or cod to-morrow for breakfast, men?”

“Both,” says I; “and let’s have a couple of smoked herring by way of variety.”

Snow Country For Old Men

February 4, 2010

Peter Brugel The Elder, The Hunters in The Snow. 1565. 117x162 cm. Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.

Peter Bruegel The Elder, Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap. 1565. 38x56 cm. Wilton House, Wiltshire

Gilbert Stuart, The Skater(Portrait of William Grant). 1782. National Gallery of Art, Washington.