Friday, July 29, 2011

Ship of Fools

Herr Boehner looked out at the storm clouds on the horizon. He couldn’t see land and in a way he didn’t want to, since he knew that when they pulled into port he would have to deal with the angry crowds at the docks. He had ordered his favorite schnitzel and a glass white wine and after dinner he would sit on the deck with his digestif and his bible as he did every night. Herr McConnell sometimes joined him and they would laugh heartily at the sight of Herr Reid and Frau Pelosi, their old rivals, who took their nightly coffee at the Captain’s Table. Herr Boehner had been jealous of the obvious affection that the Captain had for Herr Reid and Frau Pelosi, but he consoled himself with the notion that the crew would likely undergo a change once the ship pulled into port. He imagined himself at the new Captain’s table, maybe even being the Captain himself, and regaling Frau Bachmann with his tales of the rough seas and huge swells he’d had to cross before finding his way back to the land, where the intent of the original signers of the Constitution was reestablished as the law of the land, and where the deficit was no larger than it was 234 years before. Herr Boehner had never understood why his children should suffer the sins of their parents. He was thinking how unfair it was to saddle future generations with so much debt when all of a sudden he heard a sickening crack. In the darkness of the night, the unthinkable had happened, and before the Captain, Herren Boehner, McConnell and Reid  and Frau Pelosi knew what was happening to them, the ship sunk in the icy waters, leaving only a few bubbles where the proud vessel had once stood.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

What Is a Debt Ceiling?

What is a debt ceiling? Most ceilings are made of wood beams or steel girders. Some old-fashioned ceilings are supported by balusters or feature moldings and friezes for decorative effect. The central support is then filled in with plaster, which is painted over and from which light fixtures are eventually hung. Debt ceilings are different in two ways. Firstly, they don’t support an upstairs or protect a room whose ceiling is contiguous with the roof. Secondly, debt ceilings go up and down (but mostly up), while the average ceiling in a room pretty much sticks in one place. If the current debt ceiling isn’t raised then the United States will unlikely be able to meet its obligations and will default on everything from U.S. Treasuries to Social Security checks and Medicare, along with the salaries of government employees. It is unlikely a plywood ceiling would be raised, and equally unlikely that the raising of such a ceiling would have a significant effect on the U.S. economy. When you rent out a log cabin, your ceiling is a selling point, since it protects inhabitants from the harsh, backwoods elements. Most people prefer to repaint their plaster ceilings or treat their wood ceilings than go to the trouble of raising them. For instance, there is fear among some fundamentalists that if the debt ceiling is raised there will be no stopping it from eventually going sky high. These same folks point to the ceiling over their heads and say, “See, this is the kind of ceiling I like. It stays where it is and protects me from the elements. Occasionally the kids upstairs make a rumpus, but that wouldn’t make me want to raise it. I’ll take a plaster ceiling over a debt ceiling any day since plaster ceilings stay right where they are.”

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Every once in a while a movie comes along that is fucked up in a really wonderful way. Bridesmaids is what Hollywood used to call a high-concept movie. It’s the country cousin of Wedding Crashers, both in theme and in its capacity for a kind of foolhardy farce that is like a serial killer with bad aim. More often than not it doesn’t hit the mark, but when it does you can’t help but yelp. Annie (Kristen Wiig) and Helen (Rose Byrne) are rivals for the attention of the bride, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), and the competitiveness starts off from the beginning when one of them tries to out do the other with nostalgic anecdotes. Helen renders an overly long Thai proverb in Thai only to have the mike grabbed away by Annie, who attempts, but fails, to reciprocate in Spanish. Annie arranges a dinner for all the bridesmaids that ends in food poisoning and, in an homage to Monty Python, projectile vomiting. The scene concludes with the bride taking a dump in the middle of a crowded street in her wedding dress. Underneath this female version of Animal House lurks yet another story about a character trapped in her own negative projections about the world. Annie’s business enterprise, a cake shop, has failed, but she is unable to weather the storm since it reinforces her philosophic view that all human relationships and enterprises are doomed to failure. Her mother, played by the recently deceased Jill Clayburgh, is an avid AA member, even though she’s never had a drink, and as her daughter engineers her own downward spiral, she insists that Annie has to reach a bottom. As incongruous as such a serious character portrait might seem amidst all the comic haymakers, it works, and is as terribly interesting as the it is terrible. Bridesmaids is a jumble of silliness that lacks pacing but manages to go everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

No, No, No

They tried to make me go to rehab/I said 'no, no, no.' Amy Winehouse got famous with those lyrics, which attest to the art of boisterous resistance. She isn’t the first artist capable of dramatizing the lure of oblivion. In fact, if one were to imagine non-being as an endless jump, with an equally endless but fading  echo, then a number of doomed poets—Plath, Berryman, Sexton—could be added to the chorus. Dylan Thomas and Brendan Behan both displayed a particular braggadocio when it came to drink, and died from it. Winehouse has now earned membership in the so-called 27 Club, consisting of rock greats Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, who were drawn by the Sirens’ deathly lure. Add to this Frankie Lymon, who died of a drug overdose, and Billie Holiday, who died of cirrhosis.In Winehouse’s demise, there were the ususal omens,  among them the failed concerts and the turbulent marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil. Self destruction is its own myth. It’s also a story the public never seems to tire of. But artists who dramatize their own lives are like adolescents playing chicken, continually upping the ante in a kind of narcissistic megalomania that convinces them that they will be the exception to a self -fulfilling prophecy. In comedy you had Lenny Bruce, John Belushi and later Chris Farley. Keith Richards remains the exception. He may have outdone everyone on the list when it came to drink and dry goods. Few would deny that he’s  one of the most daring highwire acts of all time. And he’s lived to write a bestseller about it, ironically called Life.

Monday, July 25, 2011

All Things Shining

More than occasionally, one comes across a review that makes one disinclined to read the book under consideration. Such is the case of Robert M. Wallace’s review of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly's All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (TLS, 7/8/11). Dreyfus and Kelly teach philosophy at Berkeley and at Harvard, respectively, and Gary Wills’s earlier critical review in The New York Review of Books has already initiated a spirited back and forth in the letters column of that journal. Here is how Wallace describes the book: “Dreyfus and Kelly share Friedrich Nietzsche’s view that the central error in Western thought was the turn to monotheism. Associated with this turn is the broadly Platonic tradition in philosophy including St. Augustine, Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant, who all give a central role to intellectual abstraction. These two traits result in separating us from ‘the shining things.’” In answer to the question, what are “the shining things?” the reviewer tells us, “This book is about ecstasy, which the authors refer to metaphorically as ‘shining” or ‘whooshing up.’” The world that Dreyfus and Kelly seem to want to renew is one in which there were heroes who stood between men and gods. Literary creations like Odysseus exemplify the kind of grand engagement that mankind is now missing. Perhaps it’s something that the early Christians had, the yearning after which accounts for the popularity of a book like Elaine Pagels’s The Gnostic Gospels. Hallucinogens, fascism and the cult of Jim Jones have provided transcendence for some. Words like  “shining” and “whooshing” can be red flags for those who believe that the highest aspiration of consciousness resides in the ideal of responsibility for the self. Isn’t there enough historical precedent to convince us that ecstasy is a dubious proposition/aspiration, and one that is often purchased at the price of reality?

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Woman with the 5 Elephants

Vadim Jendreyko’s The Woman with the 5 Elephants, currently playing at Film Forum, is a documentary about the Ukrainian-born German translator of Dostoevsky, Svetlana Geier. Actually, Schiller, Mann, Melville, Pushkin and Tolstoy have roles in the film as well, but the five elephants of the title refer to Geier’s five tomes of Dostoevsky translations, including Crime and Punishment (which she titles Guilt and Atonement) and The Brothers Karamazov. “One does not translate Dostoevsky with impunity,” she remarks about her life’s work. Geier is a white-haired woman who, now stooped with age, looks like the Ida Kaminska character in The Shop on Main Street. In the course of the film, saddened by the illness and untimely death of her son, she sets off on a journey back to her native Kiev, the city she left when the tide of war turned against the Nazi occupiers. Geier is a victim of Stockholm syndrome—despite the proximity of Babi Yar and the indelible sorrow it left in her, she was somewhat of an apologist for at least the more cultivated Nazis who employed her as a wartime translator. (Her sympathy for these Nazis may also have been exacerbated by the fact that her father had been a victim of Stalin’s purges.) Translation is the ultimate act of collaboration, and her previous collaborationist tendencies took a creative form in building a bridge between German and Russian culture. She is brilliant when she talks about text, the incompatibility of Russian and German and the grammatical complexities of translation, which requires its practitioners to keep the “nose in the air.” Geier died after the making of the film, and she is portrayed as one of those gifted and battle-scarred human beings whose talents have been purchased at a price.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The China Syndrome

In theory if the U.S. defaults on its payments of interest to China, which is one of the world’s largest holder of US bonds, then China could do the kinds of things that lenders do to debtors who fall behind. In 19th-century England, those who couldn’t pay their debt went to debtors’ prison. As the chief executive of our land, President Obama could, under 19th-century English law, go to jail, or at least have his wages garnished. While bonds are not mortgages, and while the U.S. debt is not collateralized by a house or industrial or commercial property, a lien could be filed against the debtor’s home—in this case the White House. If the default continued, the lender could conceivably repossess the debtor’s collateral, i.e., the White House. With Chinese consular officials or army officers dispatched to occupy the Oval Office, who keeps the keys to the black box? Let’s say nuclear war broke out with China—part of the loan settlement could be that any Chinese official occupying the White House had authority to activate the beg red button, even if it meant unleashing a nuclear strike against his own country. Rupert Murdoch’s wife, Wendi Deng, who has been in the news lately for gallantly using skills gained as youthful volleyball player to protect her husband from a pie thrower, would be a good candidate for first lady in the event that Obama goes to jail for defaulting on U.S. debts. She originally came from Mainland China to live with an American couple, the Cherrys. Mr. Cherry divorced his wife to marry Deng, then she divorced him to marry Rupert. If Rupert’s fortunes continue to fall, she would surely divorce him, even if it meant repealing the Defense of Marriage Act to legitimize her marriage to President Bachmann.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Yes, I Can!

Rick Perlstein, in an op-ed in The Times following Betty Ford’s death (“Betty Ford, Pioneer,” NYT, 7/11/11), describes how the former first lady “volunteered in McCall’s that she had sex with her husband ‘as often as possible.’” Perlstein also notes that Ford had been a dancer with Martha Graham, so that may explain it. Dancers are always more comfortable with their bodies, unless of course they are mentally fucked up like the dancer in Black Swan, who also has mommy issues. But Ford, who did a lot to help a lot of people feel comfortable with a lot of things, particularly by talking about her own alcoholism, should go to heaven just for her pronouncement about her sex life. If she doesn’t go to heaven, then someone should open a First Ladies’ Hall of Fame, right next to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. The passage of legislation in New York legalizing gay marriage is a milestone, but marriage gay and straight needs all the help it can get. The cornucopia of choices open to couples through the information overload of modern life, with its viral Bovaryism, i.e., life-hating masking as desire, has got marriage by the balls. Every generation spawns pragmatic evangelists who preach the tenets of survival. Betty Wright, who sang “Clean Up Woman,” Arnold Stang, who apotheosized the Chunky Bar, and Camille Paglia, who wrote a book called Sexual Personae, which pointed out why men should have vagina envy, are examples of historical personalities who changed people’s lives. Yes, we all understand that no is a complete sentence. No one wants to encourage people to take advantage of their partners, but Betty Ford spoke for those men and women who kept marriage alive by saying “yes.” All this brings to mind the bestselling 18th century self-help tome, Yes, I Can, by Immanuel Kant.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


There is something beautiful about the city when it is deserted on a hot mid-summer afternoon. There is something oppressive about it too. In Camus’s The Stranger, Meursault’s senseless murder occurs on a similarly hot, quiet day on a deserted beach. On a recent Sunday, crowds wait to board a ferry to Governor’s Island, where art is exhibited in an antiseptic government structure with linoleum tiled floors and fluorescent lighting. Some of the art concerns what is occurring right outside the gallery space—the tides and the future of the island itself. Some of it concerns bird songs and soundscapes that render visual representations. Some of the art is political and deals with the ultimate subjectivity of the observer, as with one piece that plots the degradation of a trauma victim’s testimony. The ferry ride back is equally packed and you marvel at the Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women who stubbornly cover themselves in the heat. The restaurants of Chinatown are scarcely populated, except for an ice cream parlor, which is packed. An old man sits on his stoop, smoking. Utopia is by definition that which cannot be, like Samuel Butler’s Erewhon. For a moment one thinks of the sylvan sands of Eastern Long Island, but the fantasy is broken by the realization that beauty has become a commodity like everything else, and pristine settings like East Hampton, Cap d’Antibes and Venice (California and Italy) are purchased for a price. You make bargains in your head. What would you sacrifice? Is it worth it? Is anything worth it? A refined sensibility doesn’t generate the resources to acquire a front row seat to beauty. But rugged individualism, resourcefulness and luck do. Maugham had a bit of  them all, and lived in a villa called Mauresque in the fairytale locale of St. Jean Cap Ferrat.

Monday, July 18, 2011

O Quebec V: The 45th Parallel

 Photo by Hallie Cohen

The 45th parallel is marked on a grey slab that looks curiously like a headstone in the town of Richford, Vermont, about five miles south of the Canadian border, in the heart of an area of desolate beauty known as the Northeast Kingdom. It’s down the road from a boarded up takeout Chinese place. Most of the main streets in this locale, with their lines of two-story wood or red-brick buildings and deserted storefronts, are an inglorious celebration of the cynosure of geography that marks the midpoint between the Equator and the North Pole. The stone marker was put up by the local American Legion back in the ’80s, and it’s the kind of tourist attraction that’s easy to miss and unlikely to attract large crowds, the kind landmark that creates more of a whimper than a bang. But there is something wonderful about the fact that the marker sits in such an inconspicuous location. Both poles, even though they are currently degrading due to global warming, have been the sites of legendary expeditions, in which famous explorers like Robert Falcon Scott have lost their lives. In the meantime, mankind has been furnished with many mountains to climb, including Everest and the rock face of the Matterhorn. Huge skyscrapers continue to challenge the heavens, but this quiet spot on an obscure country road seems a fitting place for the ultimate Maginot line. You don’t feel anything as you cross it, and that seems to be the point. “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on,” Beckett’s narrator says in The Unnamable. When you take away man’s self-created dramas (the hostile separation between North and South Korea at the 38th parallel, for example), the life we live on earth is really best described as a simple road with signs leading North, South, East or West.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Arf Wiedersehen

British tabloids are taking a beating in the wake of the News of the World scandal. But sometimes their American counterparts manage to get it right, although “Sam Sleeps” was a snoooze when it appeared in The New York Post. And then there was the infamous “Ford to New York: Drop Dead.” But no one does it like the British. In her Wednesday op-ed column, Maureen Dowd reports on a book called Amazing Dogs by Cardiff University School of Medicine lecturer Jan Bondeson (“Hitler’s TalkingDogs,” NYT, 7/13/11). Dowd describes how Dr. Bondeson “reveals that Hitler supported a German school that tried to teach large, muscular mastiffs to ‘talk’ to humans. The story set off a panting spate of  ‘Heel Hitler,’ ‘Furred Reich,’ ‘Wooffan SS’ and ‘Arf Wiedersehen’ headlines in British tabloids and plenty of claims that Hitler was ‘barking mad.’” Compression is an attribute of poetry, as is enjambment, the latter term just being a word thrown out to impress the reader. So credit the meeting of popular culture and great art when reading tabloid headlines that turn murder into a terrifying joke. Let’s hope the Brit tabloids survive the current storm. Open up a random page of dialogue in almost any Pinter play and you’ll find the same mixture of humor and fear. Could the roots of Pinter’s dramatic poetry lie in British tabloid journalism?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

More Pricks Than Kicks

Most men would rather die a thousand deaths than have their penises cut off. Most men would rather boil in oil. Castrated sex offenders aren’t happy, but they, at least, are allowed to keep their joints. Even in old age, when the once proud appendage becomes a withered carrot, there is always hope for divine intervention and ultimately resurrection—an immaculate conception in copulation. The desired object or moment of bliss will arrive and awaken the dead for one final mind-blowing fuck. Perhaps that’s what happened to Nelson Rockefeller, who died in flagrante in a 54th Street townhouse, making it impossible for his wife to live up to her name, Happy. The Huffington Post reports that Catherine Kieu Becker of Garden Grove, California, and her husband were in the midst of a divorce when she decided to administer a drug and tie him up before inflicting the final insult. Garden Grove certainly doesn’t sound like Eden, despite the alluring name. “Becker cut his penis off with a knife and threw it in the garbage disposal, turning it on as she did so” (Huffington Post, “Catherine Kieu Becker Accused of Cutting off Her Estranged Husband’s Penis,” 7/13/1). A local law enforcement official named Lt. Jeff Nightengale told HuffPost, “I’ve been doing this for 22 years and the only other time I remember this happening was when Lorena Bobbitt did it, and that didn’t even happen here. This is not a typical domestic violence case—it’s way over the top.” Samuel Beckett wrote a collection of short stories called More Pricks Than Kicks—apparently he managed to hold on to his.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Human Seoul

“Brevity is the soul of wit,” Polonius says. And sometimes particularly useful things come in small packages. Such is the case with an article on the South Korean population’s resistance to psychotherapy (“Stressed and Depressed, Koreans Avoid Therapy,” NYT, 7/6/11). According to the Times, the suicide rate increased twofold from 1999-2009 in South Korea, and is now thrice what it is in US. Yet Koreans refuse to see a shrink. Part of it is cultural—Koreans don’t understand why anyone would have to pay to talk to a stranger when they can talk to someone else for free. This point may resonate particularly with those anywhere who have had insalubrious relationships with their therapists. The other part of the problem relates to the stoic nature of a culture that adheres to Buddhist and Confucian values of “diligence, stoicism and modesty” in which “individual concerns are secondary.” Sounds a little like the Protestant ethic, in which salvation is the product of pragmatism, no? And listen to Doctor Jin-seng Park, a Seoul shrink the Times quotes about the paradigm shift that is the source of the problem: “As the society became more oriented towards materialism, people started to compare themselves. There’s a lot of competition now, even starting in childhood, and the goals of life have moved. We have a saying, ‘If one cousin buys land, the other cousin gets a stomach ache.’” You don’t have to go to Seoul to hear this.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

O Quebec IV: The Golden Book

Photo by Hallie Cohen

Le Livre d’Or is the name of store on la rue Principale Sud, which is Main Street in Sutton, a high-end tourist destination in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Sutton boasts tasteful shopping nooks and upscale B and B’s, exemplified by Le Pleasant Hotel and Café, whose stark modernity embodies the anomalous cosmopolitanism you’ll find in similar out-of-the-way oases of sophistication like Kinsale in southern Ireland. Le Livre d’Or is one block down from rue Pine and two blocks from rue Maple, the street names reminding us that Sutton, for all its Frenchness, is only a hop, skip and a jump from the English speaking world. On the used book table is the Livre de Poche edition of Ernest Hemingway’s L’Adieu aux armes, published by Gallimard in 1948. It begins, “Cette année là, à la fin de l’été, nous habitons une maison dans un village qui, par-delà la revière et la plaine, donnait sur les montagnes.” Next to L’Adieu aux armes is Milan Kundera’s L’Insoutenable légèreté de l’être, published by Folio. It would not be surprising to find these tomes in a bookstall overlooking the Seine, but the proximity of Le Livre d’Or to the U.S. border makes the cultural displacement all the more startling. Signs on the road outside of Sutton alert drivers to la Douane, or customs, which is only a few miles away. No culture wars are being fought on rue Maple, but it’s a different civilization.

Monday, July 11, 2011

O Quebec III: The Dodecagonal Barn

Watercolor by Hallie Cohen

Canada was briefly the home of the great futuristic thinker Buckminster Fuller, made famous for, among other things, the Geodesic Dome. The Eastern Townships of Lower Quebec, right over the border from Vermont, are backwaters compared to major centers like Toronto and Montreal, famed for McGill University and the great Canadian-Jewish comic novelist Mordecai Richler. In short, the Eastern Townships aren’t usually thought of as hotspots of futuristic thinking. But when you travel to the town of Saint-Ignace-de-Stanbridge, you will find the dodecagonal barn, built by a railroad engineer named Alexander Walbridge in 1882. The barn originally featured a hydraulic-powered turntable on which horses could unload hay without having to go through the laborious process of backing up. The barn, which has been turned into a museum, was also innovative in the ways it dealt with heat and light. Walbridge was influenced by other “progressive thinkers” of his time like Elliot Steward and Orson S. Fowler, who had built polygonal barns. The sleepy environs of the townships, with mail boxes that read La Voix de L’Est and villages with names like Bedford and Dunham, pointing to the area’s mixture of French and English heritage, provided the roots for the progressive thinking about environment and energy that would emerge from visionaries like Fuller almost a century later. 

Friday, July 8, 2011

Diasporic Dining XXV: This Side of Paradise

Go to the end of the Long Island Expressway (Exit 73), meaning you haven’t gotten off the highway at Route 105 Manorville leading to Route 27, which is the road to the East End of Long Island and the Hamptons. Instead you will end up in Riverhead, with its long line of retail chains and car dealerships leading to a traffic circle that shoots down Route 58 to BJ’s Club. The relief from the crowded Hamptons is belied by a road that seems like one long shopping mall. But keep going. You will come upon a big neon sign with the words Modern Snack Bar. Right away you will be able to tell that Snack Bar is a misnomer, since the gray shingled building houses a rather large restaurant that serves things like crispy roast duck, clam chowder, lemon chiffon pie and soft-shell crabs (and the avuncular looking owner will tell you just when they came in if you ask). The uniformed staff is cheerful in an almost therapeutic way, and when you see the prices and the unhurried atmosphere you might think you are reliving the famous “A Stop at Willoughby” episode of The Twilight Zone. Of course the utopia that the show’s protagonist ends up in turns out to be death, while the Modern Snack Bar is very much alive, standing on an old country road alongside farms stands and modest white cottages. It’s a matter of faith. You have to keep going. Just when you thought you’d ended up in the depersonalized hell of consumerism, you come to a little piece of yesterday that, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words, is “this side of paradise.”

Thursday, July 7, 2011

O Quebec II: The Eastern Townships

Watercolor by Hallie Cohen

The life of Agnes Elizabeth Winona Leclercq Joy is chronicled in the basement of the Missisquoi Museum in Stanbridge East, Quebec, an area just over the Vermont border known as the Eastern Townships. Missisquoi, by the way, is the Algonquin word for “lots of waterfowl.” Joy was born in Franklin, Vermont, in 1844. But, according to the text in the musty display case, she experienced a desire to escape the confines of her world even as a young girl. She joined L.B. Lent’s National Circus and ended up in Cuba. Darkly beautiful, she married the Prussian Prince Felix Salm-Salm after meeting him in 1862. Prince Salm-Salm fought in the Civil War, and in 1866 Joy followed him to Mexico, where he served under Archduke Maximilian. Salm-Salm died in 1870 during the Battle of Gravelotte in the Franco-Prussian war. Joy died in 1912, at the age of 68, in Karlsruhe. It was a long way from Vermont's Northeast Kingdom and the Eastern Townships, and she hardly had the notoriety of a Margaret Trudeau, who had seemingly been infected with a similar wanderlust. On a summer’s afternoon, Stanbridge East, which has a history of resistance to authority on a global level that is also chronicled in the Missisquoi Museum, affords another generation of travelers the kind of escape that Joy sought. Joy’s forbears ostensibly came to America, like so many immigrants, because they too were trying to escape from something.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

O Quebec I: The Northeast Kingdom

 Photo by Hallie Cohen

Travel up I-89 past White River Junction and Montpelier, Vermont’s capital city, and then off through well-heeled ski villages like Stowe up towards the Canadian border and you enter what is known as the Northeast Kingdom. The words conjure Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, or Disney’s Magic Kingdom, and you can’t help thinking of Heart of Darkness, as the supermarket chains are replaced by old general stores, followed by miles of houses that seem to have left the present behind, including some whose roofs have imploded. You become aware of the frequent “Moose Crossing” signs, and even think you might run into some extinct species of animal. The roads become more winding and mountainous and the population more intermittent. The world is quieter in the Northeast Kingdom. You don’t see too many Escalades or Mercedes, and you don’t hear too many loud sounds, besides those of birds. The lawn mowers and hedge cutters honing topiaries are not part of this sight and soundscape. The Northeast Kingdom is like the late work of an Ibsen or Shakespeare—there is something ethereal and almost refined about its heights. Like Solness in The Master Builder, you ascend to a “castle in the sky” that is somewhere between destitution and heaven.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Vatican of Minimalism

The monumentality of Dia:Beacon is astonishing. It’s the Vatican of minimalism, the church in which those who worship saints like Sandback, Ryman, Serra, Beuys, Lewitt and Smithson congregate. The immensity feels opulent, the art sleek and self-contained and notably unconcerned with the notions of social conscience that have of late asserted themselves in the post-modernist landscape. Here’s a note that accompanies a Sol Lewitt, a squiggly line on a wall: “A not straight line is drawn from a point halfway between the center of the wall and the midpoint of the right side to a point halfway between the midpoint of the right side and the lower right corner to a point halfway between a point halfway between the midpoint of the top side and the upper right corner to a point halfway between the midpoint of the right side and the upper right corner.” The object of Fred Sandback’s string sculpture is described thusly: “To assert a certain space and volume in its full materiality without occupying it and obscuring it.” This temple of formalism is a little like the Large Hadron Collider—a huge space is required to unleash small particles, the esthetic equivalent of the elementary building blocks of matter. The scale of Dia:Beacon is also reminiscent of Versailles, and like Versailles it venerates order and an aristocratic view of art that has all but passed from our world.