Sunday, August 06, 2006

In the Penny Press! Snickering at Genius!

So let's get a move on, shall we? We could start with the latest New York Review of Books, which included a long appreciation of the new exhibit of Michelangelo's pencil sketches. The review is glowing and appreciative, of course (how could it not be?), so I was surprised - and smiled - when I read this:

Leonardo's incomparably lively sketches for the Battle of Anghiari inspired a thirtyish Michelangelo to try drawing knots of men and horses for his own Battle of Cascina. But Michelangelo never shared Leonardo's fascination with nature, or the elder artist's peerless facility with pen and ink. Leonardo's sketches of galloping horses kicking up dust have a dynamism that Michelangelo simply could not equal - but then neither could anybody else.

Hee. I read that, and for a minute I felt like rebelling against it somehow, but there isn't a way. For some people, the genius gradient is just too steep. The same thing applies to Bach, I find. Ditto for any study of Bloomsbury, from an artistic point of view: there's everybody else, punting on Isis and moping about bad hygiene, and then there's Virginia Woolf, towering over everybody else.

And what about the mighty TLS? You'll recall (unless you've BLOCKED IT OUT) the piece I mentioned about Edward Luttwak's historical analysis of the Cold War ... well, David Kenney (a MAJOR A-hole, but hey ... when you're right, you're right) writes in response:

Edward Luttwak's piece misses the point. Because of their paucity and lack of accuracy, nuclear deterrents were useful only after the late 1960s. Contrary to Luttwak the Soviet Bloc did go to war, after the Second World War, on the periphery. It tried by military force to seize South Korea, West Berlin and Cuba, by covert action to own the Congo, Nigeria and Italy, and by political action and diplomacy to control the Straits of Mermara, Syria and Libya. The Taiwan Straits were a gleam in the Bloc's eye. As South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan thrived, the Kremlin's leaders watched all their initiatives, especially those in Africa, diminish to ugly internal and tribal warfare and in relevance to the West's continued hegemony. Everywhere Russians popped up, we beat them.

From the 1970s until the Soviet Union's collapse, it operated a reckless and ruinously expensive ballistic missile system. Here Luttwak is partially correct. But that system would not have been nearly as effective, if war had come, as was proclaimed, and it drove the Communist regime into bankruptcy. Their missiles could have ravaged much of the West but we would have won. Our third strike lay under the ice; theirs did not.

Secretary McNamara said that we had three nuclear confrontations with the Kremlin on his watch. I was present at two of them. They blinked and we did not. We are here and they are not.


And then there's the New Yorker, which had quite a bit of interesting stuff in it this time around - and nothing more surprising to me than the fact that I actually kinda LIKED the Martin Amis short story inside. I usually can't stand Amis (actually, I'm not all that fond of his father's novels either ... soggy academic sex-romps, exercises in tedium), but in this short story he puts himself inside the mind of one of the 9/11 hijackers, and it works. I'll be curious to see if it shows up in any 'best of' year-end anthologies.

The New Yorker also had a review of the new Veronese show at the Frick - a piece written by their art critic Peter Schjeldahl, with whom I often disagree on matters of art (mainly because he's a boob, and this piece was no exception - like, for instance, when he offhandedly mentions that Bellini was a better painter than Veronese ... not only is the statement wrong on its face, but in a typically careless fashion, Sjehdahl doesn't even specify WHICH Bellini). But he does manage to convey the bright watery genius of the man - in my opinion the best Venetian painter of them all - and that always comes with a touch of pity, since SO much of Veronese's work is lost. For whole decades in a very long productive life, his favorite thing to do was decorative frescoes, sometimes filling the entire interior of a palazzo with gorgeous, glowing works on every wall, from floor to ceiling, so that walking from room to room made you feel like you were INSIDE a painting. But Venice's climate is hell on walls, so lots of Veronese just peeled away over (very little) time. And many patrons wanted to impress their guests with his work, so they had him paint their grand entrances off the canal - and quite a few of those entrances are now under ten feet of water. There's a sermon in their somewhere about the inherent fragility of art - remind me to bore you with it someday!

(I had a roommate in college once, a frail and kind-hearted young man, and when he was in the mood, he'd take out his violin and play such winding, looping, gorgeous late-night solos that partygoers outside would stop and look up. His usual method was to start with Bach or Beethoven and then weave in longer and longer digressions that were entirely his own and entirely spontaneous - and they were heartbreakingly, astoundingly beautiful. And a couple of years later he died, with no recording ever made, no transcriptions ... no trace of any kind that such beauty ever existed, except in the memory of those who heard it. But that'll be covered in the aforementioned sermon!)

But New Yorker item of by far the greatest interest for Steve (and his severely bored audience!) is Jill Lepore's review of the new Mayflower book by Nathaniel Philbrick - a review in which she trashes the book (and rightfully so - I read a galley copy this weekend and was so disappointed I nearly hurled the copy at the nearest sleeping basset hound) - but a review in which, or reasons known only to her, she also goes out of her way to kick dirt on the reputation of Samuel Eliot Morison, whose name has surely come up in these Torrents of Tedium, no? She starts early, by telling her readers that Morison is widely considered the greatest American historian of the 20th century and then sniffingly adding "With that, as these things go, not everyone agrees." Prompting me to wonder who exactly she'd nominate in his place.

Sam Morison held the world of academic history-writing in contempt, and with good reason. I'm sure you've heard similar tirades from yours truly, about skimpy books boringly written and carelessly researched - just as you and everybody else I know has heard the opposite from me, when some new work of history or biography manages to be both challenging and well-written. Morison knew what all great historians know: that history is a STORY, the most fascinating one in the world, and that if you sacrifice that fascination for bland, please-everybody prose, you insult the Muse.

Not that I'm saying historians can get away with being inaccurate ... but if you can't overlay accuracy with narrative skill, you've no business trying the discipline at all (in 2006 so far, moreso than in any other year, I've been tempted to scrap everything I'm doing and actually try my hand at writing history ... except, what if I stink at it?). Morison firmly believed that, and in 30 books of published history, he never wrote a dull sentence.

So what the Hell does Lepore mean when she writes "Because he wrote more for the public than for his fellow historians, Morison has few academic disciples today, and if the chain reaction of dullness continues unbroken, Morison is as much to blame as anybody." Really? So the fact that he mocked boring histories, wrote only interesting ones, and urged others to write only interesting ones, those things don't alleviate his guilt at all? Geez. If I hadn't mostly liked Lepore's own work this past decade, I'd be tempted to call her a ... well, I suppose for dense women we'd have to come up with some other word, wouldn't we? I can't for the life of me figure out what Sam Morison is even doing IN this review ... he'd have hated Philbrick's latest, and he'd have dismissed it out of hand - but he didn't write anything like it, and he deplored books like it, so how does he work as a straw man? Maybe a testy letter to the New Yorker is in order, asking those very questions!

Fortunately, the issue recovered strongly with a David Remnick excoriation of the current administration in Washington, an excoriation prompted by going to an advance screening of Al Gore's new global warming documentary. At more than one point, it seems like Remnick is going to burst into tears:

If you are inclined to think that the unjustly awarded election of 2000 led to one of the worst Presidencies of this or any other era, it is not easy to look at Al Gore. He is the living reminder of all that might not have happened in the past six years (and of what might still happen in the coming two). Contrary to Ralph Nader's credo that there was no real difference between the major parties, it is close to inconceivable that the country and the world would not be in far better shape had Gore been allowed to assume the office that a plurality of voters wished him to have.


We'll leave this latest issue with a smile, though: Jonathan Stern writes an amusing little piece called "The Lonely Planet Guide to My Apartment" that had me chuckling. Here's a sample:

Local Customs

The population of My Apartment has a daily ritual of "bitching" which occurs at the end of the workday and prior to ordering in food. Usually, meals are taken during reruns of 'Stargate Atlantis.' Don't be put off by impulsive sobbing or unprovoked rages. These traits have been passed down through generations and are part of the colorful heritage of My Apartment's people.

And there you have it! Another thrilling installment of In the Penny Press! A casual glance at prospective reading material leads me to think the next installment might be rather heavily POLITICAL, so brace yourself for a double shot of tedium with a chaser of crackpottery!

1 comment:

Sam Well said...

That Martin Amis story was AWFUL! What an imaginative leap, Amis depicting a 9-11 terrorist as being...a character from a Martin Amis novel. Apart from clothing, his Mohamed Atta is interchangeable with, for example, John Self from Money: heavyhandedly self-loathing, sour-humored, wilfully debauched and prone to vomiting, all of which is detailed in Amis's aggressively overheated prose. The only thing the story was missing was a brief sententious run-in between Atta and a friendly and modest character named Martin Amis