When Jawara arrived at the apartment the girl was home, greeting him with a melodious if distant „Hi, Jawara“, pronouncing his name with a slight American slur though she was European, actually German. It was unusual for her to be … Continue reading
Where do you live when you live in a mattress under a dining table as a roommate to a legal intern? What is your legal address? Do you even have one? You are not freezing at night. You do not go hungry by day. You are alive to the world, breathing, thinking, feeling, and you have a history that walks by your side as you walk past the store fronts on Madison on your way to the subway on 96th Street after your boss has taken off with the food truck towards Queens. His day is not over yet. He still has to drive the truck out, clean and unload it in order to comply with food regulation rules, to keep the truck running that provides both of you with a livelihood but in your case just so.
From the window displays on Fifth and Madison distant galaxies of human existence are reflecting. The entry to these worlds is being jealously guarded by slim young men in well cut suits with cold stares. You don´t even desire the kinds of goods that are hiding behind those faraway windows though you are also not ignorant of them, there is simply no meaning in the acquisition of things that furbish and decorate for events that are not even on your far horizon.
You do desire books though and a place to sit and work quietly. At this moment all you need is a few minutes for yourself, to be a free man and a free agent of your fortune, maybe pretending there was indeed a place for you to go to, not here in the Upper East side, maybe somewhere in Queens like your boss, a place with friends and family waiting for you like back at home. You correct yourself: like it used to be at home.
You stop in front of the book store on Madison Avenue, Crawford & Doyle. You have never once been here during opening hours but you love the window display and the old-world storefront. Your time is ticking, and you are incredibly tired, but you take a few minutes to let your eyes rest on the new arrangement of books. You love book design. Your mother was born in in Saint-Louis, Senegal, where she grew up before moving to Dakar to finish her secondary schooling and becoming a book designer. You know book design because she loves it. You miss her, but you know she approves of you being here and giving it your best shot. And so you feel ashamed that your best shot does not go so very far as you are exhausting yourself working at the food truck so you don´t have to live in the street. Any other city you might be having your own place but here it is all but impossible, all you can afford here is the mattress under a dining room table of a legal intern who is too poor to afford that place on her own.
The studio apartment you share is really small like a doll´s house, which explains why the only place for your mattress is under the table. The intern herself owns next to nothing – but she does own this table that is like a small hut. A table like a boat, like the Arche Noah she once said. New York could drown and all she´d have to do is turn the table over and float out of there. The both of you share the upper part of that table and the kitchen and the bathroom. She has made her own bedroom in a walk-in-closet which accommodates her own mattress underneath the clothes hangers. The arrangement works remarkably well. You are rarely at home when she is, time´s maybe overlapping a few hours at night. She comes in late, often after midnight, you have to get up at 3.30 am to meet your boss set up the food truck in time for the morning crowd of office workers. Both of you try to be mindful of the other´s sleep. Neither one of you brings a lover home though you have once seen her with this tall guy on Bank Street, artist looking type. He would not have fit in that closet. Such a strange thing though to know there is a girl in the closet while you are brushing your teeth. Sometimes she´s talking in her sleep from deep within that closet. New York is a strange place.
All of this you think as you let your eyes travel unseeing over the books displayed in the windows at Crawford & Doyle. You should be writing a book and have it displayed in this book store´s window for people to see and buy, you are a good narrator and a good writer, and you have a story to tell. But even in real life no one here seems to care about your story, you are all but invisible. People ask you for a bottle of Peach Snapple or Newman´s Lemon Ice Tea, they ask for coffee to go, they ask you for a donut with cream cheese or a pretzel with salt which you carefully wrap in a napkin and hand out to your customer, but not before you have carefully counted the change. People don´t care for you touching the pretzel with your hands, they are afraid of touch and life and smell, though the city is full of touch and life and smell, but it is like a playground to them with their own set of rules, it is their playground but your jungle, and they know close to nothing about you and they don´t want to either. You are not their problem, you hand out snacks and food and sugared drinks and coffee in a sanitary, non-threatening, polite way so they can forget about you the moment they bite into their pretzel, you are like an extra to their own, legitimate story while you keep invisible, keep in your place. Your head is so full of life and stories that all you want to do is sit down and start writing, tell a story, only you can´t because you are so tired and lonely and tired again, so tired you almost hear your thoughts and they are so loud that they are almost painful and the blood rushes to your face, and what you really have to do is to go home and wash the dust off and crawl on to your mattress under the table in order to be able to get up in a few hours to start working again, so you will still have that mattress under the table and water and enough food to survive, and so this will be another night when you don´t start your book. Maybe tomorrow night. Try again. You have not given up quite yet. And you slowly start walking toward the subway station on 96th and your life´s avatars drag behind a bit, still clinging to that beautiful window display.
or: If you depart from the law, you will go astray …
Legal avatars were walking with me every night right up until dawn. Most of them were missing something, something that was living and breathing in the legal clients who had come to the law office and had told their story of need and desire to the attorney but that somehow had got lost when the client´s life subsequently had been translated to fit in a file. Every day for about 15 minutes after lunch time Mr. O´Leary gave me a short introduction to the new cases he had Ms. Cavendish put on my desk in the morning. He was a very good narrator, mentioning details about clients that a less practiced observer would have overlooked or found insignificant. He was incredibly generous with me, 15 minutes is a long time for a lawyer whether he gets paid by the hour or contingency fees, that I knew even back then. And yet, the gap between his narrative and the legal brief I was supposed to write was so wide. Not unbridgeable but wide enough to truly humble me.
I still remember seeing the avatars slipping out of the files and silently pacing the room waiting for me to finish up. It started one night at about the time when I had been practicing my hand at writing briefs for about three months, practicing day after day with the many different cases that appeared in sets of three or four on my desk in the morning.
In the beginning it me had taken me a really, really long time to come up even with a just-so acceptable brief. By the time I brought the file back to Ms. Cavendish, Mr. O´Leary´s formidable secretary, I had read and reread the case close to a hundred times until I felt that I had either identified all the relevant information that I needed to actually write the brief, including the issue, the facts, the holding, and the relevant parts of the analysis, or, more often, that I had arrived at that kind of sinking, sick feeling that you have when it´s still not good enough but you just cannot do any better. Perversely, I had liked studying law for just that reason: it had made me small and humble and human insofar as it made me fail over and over again and that was perfectly in sync with my Puritan upbringing. I had been raised an atheist Puritan who had the severe character fault of having a creative streak. So if there ever was a law student who should have studied something instead it was me. And yet I continued in a distracted, untechnical, unstructured but seemingly still just-so good enough manner, because „not quitting“ had been ingrained into my personal code since my terrible-twos, and it continued to be my great weakness well into grown-up life. I was too stubborn to quit law school even as I was painting and dreaming and visiting museum after museum, I just couldn´t quit, it was as simple as that.
Generally speaking, before I had decided to go to law school I had been seriously suffering from delusions about what I could do in life, like: really anything. I had been convinced that I could do just about anything that I would set my mind to, you name it, math, sciences, language arts, and I´d be brilliant at it, and yet here I was, a few years later and not even being a quite good enough lawyer.
I simply had no clue what people were like and why they acted the way they did. I had no clue what other people actually wanted from life. No clue whatsoever. And you just can´t be a good lawyer if you don´t get people – on both sides of the law. You need to understand what drives a person and you need to understand what makes the law want to rule that very person in or entitle it to do as desired, you need , with other words, to have a good grasp of societal goals and values. Or, in the absence of such an abstract understanding, you at least need to believe that there is an order to things, a somewhat natural state of being that you will recognize when you see it.
If, on the other side, you are a multifaceted, spacey kid who lets the winds that blow through the city grid take a hold of you and push and pull you into any which direction it pleases, if you are but a drifter, if you live in books and if you cry while reading Sylvia Plath and if you are stricken by a certain Yellow in a Miró painting as if your life´s meaning depends on it, Miró, of all painters, if you are completely content with the universe for the view of the tar beach on the roof of your rental building on a freezing but fiercely clear morning, still barefoot and in your PJs and with a mug of coffee hot enough to burn the skin between your thumb and index finger (your stereotypical European intern kid), if you are happy with cheap Asian food from the corner store for weeks on end, if you are content with sharing your cramped studio apartment with a guy who works crazy hours at a food truck and crashes on a mattress underneath your dining table, if you get a kick just out of running around Central Park in worn-out-no-brand sneakers trying to keep up with the Mexican runners for a few minutes before collapsing on to the Great Lawn, if you feel insanely alive for a split-second just because the light over Manhattan illuminates the Avenues looking south with toxic quick silver, and if on top of being this incarnation of a European nerd you think that your kicks are what makes all people around you stop dead in their tracks for excitement, then you might be on to something great for life, but as a lawyer you know next to nothing. If you don´t get what actually makes people fight for their very own piece of Lexington Avenue, small or majestic as it may be, you will be but a pathetic excuse for a lawyer.
So night after night, after I had closed the last book, feeling exhausted and ready to loose myself in the city, the avatars were quietly slipping out of the files and following me down the long hallway, past the pale light of Mr. Letterman´s office, into the creaky elevator and down, through the marble tiled lobby and out into the night. As we left the building, the avatars and I, and I was walking out into the night, they were following me and I was to them like the one eyed king amongst the blind. Si a jure discedas vagus eris, et erunt omnia omnibus incerta.
Mr. Letterman was the kind of man who found find intrinsic value in reflection and contemplation and had allowed this inclination to become the building structure of his life. This was why as an undergraduate student even with law school in mind he had chosen to study philosophy rather than economics and had concentrated on 17th-century philosophy which he found particularly intriguing because it answered to his own temperament. He had studied Descartes, Locke, and Newton, and had read Kant as well as Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Adam Smith. He cherished reason and individualism as the core values of enlightenment.
He knew quite well how difficult it was to actually live an individual life as he understood it, starting with an education that gave a student time to acquire the ability to distinguish individual choices from prefabricated ideas. He had been a keen observer all of his life, and since the late Eighties had noticed the changes imparted by a growing globalized market on American cultural habits which had been in fluid transformation of very different heterogene cultural movements since the late Sixties but now were anastomosing into more or less one all-emcompassing stream of consumer culture. Since then, or so he was convinced, increasingly suggestive marketing strategies had been skillfully reducing individual freedom more or less to the act of choosing between different consumer goods. According to the logic of the market commercial success was the gate to freedom as it allowed access to consumer products, and striving for the possession of consumer goods had been accepted as the ultimate meaningful pursuit in life. People now spend most of their time working and earning money to spend on such consumer goods and if their work in itself happened not be meaningful, there was little time left to construct meaning from whatever was left over to their private discretion. Consumer goods as carriers of a lifestyle that few could integrate into their everyday routines were tailored to fill the void of the un-lived life while at the same time creating the desire to acquire even more goods, more things to throw into the abyss of time.
Mr. Letterman knew that poverty enslaves families, condemning generation after generation to a living on low wages and social security, that people as intelligent as he considered himself to be had to forego higher education and work hard, repetitive jobs, wasting their potential, that he himself, due to fortuitous social circumstances, had been allowed to develop. He knew that in low incomehouseholds – among other things – there was indeed also a lack of needed consumer goods from food to clothing to furniture to kitchen appliances to books. But he also knew that it was not the lack of consumer products that was most painful consequence of low incomes but the lack of education and access to the many sources of meaning that were reserved for those who knew how to decipher the code. Higher education was an expensive privilege. He was not fighting for social justice per se even though he was representing a fair share of pro bono cases. But he kept aware that he did not earn the privilege of an education that was denied to others and he kept a special kind of contempt for people with access to this kind of privilege who nonetheless proved incapable of making individual and intelligent choices.
For him, prerequisite to a mindful life was reading. And the prerequisite to reading well was education. He visited the New York Public Library during late lunch, sometimes just to sit down in the reading room for a while. Since childhood he had loved the gigantic stone lions who guarded the entrance to the Library, Patience and Fortitude. He loved the many different book stores of New York´s neighborhoods.He chose his books with care following his established interests and toyed with the idea to write a book himself if he should ever find the time, a book about the many stories that clients brought to him daily and which were a kaleidoscope of the many brilliant pieces of NYC of but like any passionate reader he was also curious about books and authors yet unknown to him. He loved to rediscover new as well as almost forgotten authors and frequently visited used book stores. He was a regular at Strand´s.
Saturday mornings he liked to stop by at Crawford & Doyle booksellers, a small old-fashioned independent bookstore on Madison Avenue between 81st and 82nd street close to the MetMuseum. After his visit to the book store he walked straight over to the Met where he spend whatever was left of Saturday afternoon, sitting in one of the courts and reading a new book while tourists and New Yorkers walked past him.
Crawford & Doyle booksellers catered to a eclectic reading tastes, offering a selection of the New York Times bestseller list and the annually published most notable book list yet always keeping the discriminating reader in mind, and offering a plethora of topics including fiction, history, philosophy, biography, religion, politics, lyrics, social studies, art, children´s books and a fine selection of crime novels on the first floor of a space hardly larger than a spacious living room. The store was beautifully stacked with old dark wooden shelves and lower showcases and booktables stacked with books, leaving only small alleyways to pass through and two very narrow benches to sit down.
There was a gallery on the second floor which was, in fact, a book store within a book store, with collectible and rare books, concentrating on first editions of primarily American and British fiction. Mr. Letterman had found first editions of Frost and Yeats upstairs and a small volume of the Dubliners which he treasured and always carried with him as it fit perfectly in the pocket of his overcoat.
Crawford & Doyle was dependable and friendly like an old acquaintance. Customers were entering and leaving the store on Saturday mornings in a lively flow without interrupting the reader in the corner; they politely accommodated one another in the narrow passageways between the displays and conducted short, quiet conversations among themselves or livelier ones with the knowledgeable staff at the register. It was a store dedicated to the art of reading and thus to an enlightened public, readers like himself, in search of the path that was as individual as the reader, leading from one book to the next, choosing one, leaving out another equally deserving one, following an instinct that had formed over a lifetime of reading.
As many customers were regulars Mr. Letterman would see familiar faces on Saturday mornings and got to know the taste and habits of people who remained strangers to him yet at the same time were like family to him, serious readers like himself. A Saturday morning regular for example was the small lady whose features were so delicate and who moved so lightly that she reminded him of a small bird. She had a special taste for all kinds of political fiction and quite obviously a voracious reading appetite. She would assemble sizable stacks of books to take home, carrying The Reader by Bernard Schlink on top of The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago, followed by Anthony Burgess last novel Byrne, postwar German author Heinrich Böll with a short story collection titled The Mad dog, and on top of this formidable stack The Three-Arched Bridge by Ismail Kadare who had just recently become a lifetime member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences of France.
Mr. Letterman loved to cast a sideway glance at the birdlady´s finds and sometimes he let himself be inspired by her choices. It was through her that he discovered his love for Kadare. He read Ura me tri harqe, The Three-arched Bridge, first published in 1978 because he had spied it on top of her stack, and had continued with Përbindëshi, The Monster, an even earlier work from 1965, which took him some time to find and that he finally discovered in the used-book section of Crawford-Doyle´s just like before the reasure of an author-signed version of Nata me hënë, Moonlight, first published in 1985.
And then there was the girl mainly lingering in the art book section but sometimes straying to children´s books. She was mostly dressed in faded Jeans and an NYU-sweatshirt, wearing her straight dark blonde hair open and pushed back on just one side behind her ears. He had never paid too much attention to her because he did read little on the visual arts, and had no interest in children´s books but he had indeed noticed the girls just as he did notice the other regulars and had inscribed her on his inner map of a particular Saturday morning.
Then one Saturday, something strange had happened. Instead of in her usual spot in the arts he had encountered her in the non-fiction area between philosophy and history. She had taken a somewhat awkward turn to let him pass, misjudging the space between their passing bodies and with an abrupt countermovement had just so prevented herself from running the art volume into his rips . The abrupt movement almost made her drop both of her books, the art book on top of which she had opened another book, using the larger book like a small reading desk. This other book he recognized at once because he owned an earlier edition of it and was familiar with the new one she had been studying before he had interrupted her. After he had passed her unharmed, answering her apologies with a polite apology of his own, she went right back to reading. The book was „The Hedgehog and the Fox“ by Isaiah Berlin. Mr. Letterman considered this an unexpected choice for a girl who would spend most of her time in the arts and children´s book section. Isaiah Berlin had commented on this collection of essays, bearing the title of a fragment from the archaic Greek poet Archilochus. Berlin has said: „I never meant it very seriously. I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously.“ which struck Mr. Letterman as an appropriate motto for his own well intentioned life that was meant to be light and unattached to convention but that had also turned out a bit different than he had foreseen. A little lonelier than anticipated for example.
The girl looked like the serious kind of girl who preferred reading to going out, maybe a bit too serious for young men´s taste, he thought. She was pale and almost pretty and she squinted her eyed as if she was in need of glasses while reading.
He liked the The Hedgehog and the Fox . It too was an intellectual game in which Berlin divided writers into two categories: hedgehogs, who – like Plato – view the world through the lens of a single defining idea, and foxes – like Shakespeare – who draw on a wide variety of experiences and who pursue multiple ideas simultaneously that were all but incompatible with each other but coherent in themselves, representing Berlin´s irreducibly pluralist ethical ontology. Mr. Letterman suspected that he himself – unfortunately and despite his curiosity – was more of a hedgehog really, not least due to a certain shyness and his need to keep a steady view of life while the value pluralism that Berlin was able to embrace gave his own ethical system a spinning sensation.
He had been curious if the girl would actually purchase the book or had just been attracted by the whimsical title. It was a hardcover edition though and bound to be expensive, probably around sixty Dollars, and so, even if she decided against it, it might not necessarily tell him much about her intellectual preferences. Still, his curiosity was aroused, also she seemed vaguely familiar, and so he gave her a sidewards glance every once in a while.
After a while she closed the Hedgehog and the Fox carefully, but did not put it back. Instead she pulled out yet another book from the shelf, this one slender with a marbled green-greyish paper cover over a frayed soft cardboard binding and a light green title tag glued to the front like an old fashioned school notebook. There was no dust cover.
The first thing he thought as he looked at the small book was that he must have overlooked it (because he knew all the books in that shelf and noticed new books right away when he got to it), the second thought was that it must have been displaced because quite obviously it belonged in the used book section. The girl put the art book and the Hedgehog and the Fox down on top of the fairly low shelf and gently opened the marbled book in order to spare the book spine from damage. By the way she handed the book he could tell that she was used to handling books.
He stepped a bit closer, randomly pulling out a book of his own and looking over to her again, smiling in case she should meet his gaze but she didn´t. She was fully concentrated on her book and did not look up or showed any other sign of awareness of his presence. He therefore dared to move a little closer still in order to identify the book and saw that the volume did indeed not belong in this shelf. The gilt letters on the title, partly obscured by her hands he deciphered as Ri- – o-nn- – Orph – -s and concluded that she had found a treasure, Rilke´s Sonnets to Orpheus. He knew the publishing house´s signature marble cover, a German Publisher called INSEL, the Island.
The girl became even more interesting to him now as she seemed transfixed by this new book, caressing the paper while turning the pages. Quite suddenly she looked up as if she had grown aware of his observing look. She looked directly at him and smiled. For a moment he was startled by her sudden awareness, but then he returned her smile. I am German, she said, it´s strange to read Rilke in English translation. She said this as if they had been meeting before and this was just one out of many remarks that had already passed between them. Well, he answered, I envy you, my German is very limited and I would not be able to read Rilke if his work hadn´t been translated. That is a nice edition you found. Someone must have placed it in the wrong shelf.
She smiled again, lowered her voice and then continued the conversation with an even more personal tone. -Will you keep a secret if I recited some lines from my favorite Rilke poem in German to you? Her English was excellent with only a slightly rough edge that gave away the German native speaker. He considered the question. He was curious and so he nodded. She briefly closed her eyes and, reopening them, looked straight at him again and started with a clear if still quiet voice, not at all like a schoolchild reciting a poem by heart, as he had half expected. Though clearly in verse it did not sound like a recitation of a poem at all, more like an intimate confession. He could make out single words, colors like Grün and Blau and simple words like Sommer and Sonne und Frau, and names of places places like Venice and Kasan, Rome and Florence, Kiev and Moscow, but the rest to him was like a strange music, beautiful and raw.
Und du erbst das Grün vergangner Gärten und das stille Blau
tau aus tausend Tagen
die vielen Sommer, die die Sonnen sagen
und lauter Frühlinge mit Glanz und Klagen
wie viele Briefe einer jungen Frau
Du erbst die Herbste, die wie Prunkgewänder
in der Erinnerung von Dichtern liegen,
und alle Winter, wie verwaiste Länder,
scheinen sich leise an dich anzuschmiegen.
Du erbst Venedig und Kasan und Rom,
Florenz wird dein sein, der Pisaner Dom,
die Troïtzka Lawra und das Monastir,
das unter Kiews Gärten ein Gewirr
von Gängen bildet, dunkel und verschlungen, –
Moskau mit Glocken wie Erinnerungen, –
und Klang wird dein sein Geigen, Hörner, Zungen,
und jedes Lied, das tief genug erklungen,
wird an dir glänzen wie ein Edelstein.
Es geht noch weiter, she said, after a pause, then realized that she had spoken German, repeated: – This is not where it ends, but I think this is good for now. He smiled warmly and bowed to her. She gave a small laugh and answered: – Now for my secret. He replied: – But that would be two gifts then, implying that the poem had been a gift and he had appreciated it, but she did not pay attention to him as if she was in need of depositing her secret whatever it might be with someone, just anyone, maybe the first person she met who liked Rilke.
He felt a bit uneasy, because the encounter had become personal and he did not know whether he wanted to be burdened with a private detail. – You see, she commented as if she had been following his thoughts, – the second one is not a gift, it is a fair and square deal. But don´t be afraid, it´s just an insignificant small thing I am going to tell you, quite childish really, and he felt ashamed that he had been nervous.
She continued with a hushed voice and in a slightly pedantic tone, her German accent now more apparent that she had recited the Rilke poem, – I cannot afford to buy this book, it´s really quite expensive. It´s a first edition, published in 1923, and it is absolutely beautiful. I do spend money on books as you can see, but this one´s out of my reach. So I took it from the rare book section down here and placed it in social studies because I figured chances are that most people interested in social theories and politics and history would not much care for poetry and so it would be awhile until it either found a buyer or the clerks put it back where it belongs and until then I can look at it. These editions normally go very fast. Now, there it is, my secret, and I am going to put the book back on the shelf right next to Isaiah Berlin because he was fluent in German and would be good company to Rilke. I hope you will keep my secret because then I will be able to enjoy this a little longer and all the more now because it is a shared secret now.
Mr. Letterman watched her shelving the book neatly, holding on to his own books tightly to steady himself. He was feeling troubled. He did not know whether he felt disapproval or interest in the girl or both he was at the same time curious and uncertain as to how the situation would continue, asking himself whether she would expect him to answer to her confession and what to say, and whether he was to be her accomplice in the crime or give her some fatherly advice. Surely this was not a grave violation of ethics, not as bad even as hiding a book at the law library to prevent other students from finding specific titles that were relevant for a semester assignment as was a bad habit of some of his fellow students at law school. Surely, there was something intriguing about a girl her age who knew Rilke by heart and seemed to know a bit about Isaiah Berlin as well, already knew this before she opened The Hedgehog and the Fox. Surely, he did not normally seek out young girls for literary conversations and confessions, and he felt at insufficient and uneasy and overall insufficiently prepared for such a situation, which in turn made him feel irritated and at a loss for words. But she just turned around, smiled at him once more, but now in a polite and distant way that betrayed nothing of the intimacy they had shared just a moment ago and with a small nod of the head, walked over to the register to pay for her two books. He looked at the shelf where the small grey-green volume nestled up to its neighbor, like an ordinary, out of the ordinary secret, a secret quite different than the ones he was entrusted with every day save Saturday and Sunday as a lawyer. When he looked up again the girl had left the store leaving him behind with their shared secret. Should he take the book out of the shelf like a good schoolboy and carry it back to the rare book section? But nobody had made him the guardian of the books after all and the clerks, as she had said, were bound to find it sooner or later, so there was no harm done, really. After giving this some consideration he still didn´t feel right about it, and he still felt angry with her for leaving him with choices that would put him in the wrong no matter whether he decided it one way or the other. Finally he turned his back on Rilke and Berlin and started browsing in the opposite shelf, in History. He pulled out Herodotus who was shelved properly and leafed through the pages until he found his favorite part, the story of Candaules and Gyges. When he had finished reading it and Candaules had been killed and succeeded by Gyges, he had successfully willed himself to forget about Rilke, and about the secret and about the girl. Or so he thought. Thus he kept the secret. Thus the trouble began.
When we arrived at the cottage we were basically frozen. Courtesy demanded to offer someone who came to the cottage door a cup of tea – but I would have offered it regardless of etiquette because the girl was in … Continue reading
the shadows were moving slowly, swaying like branches in a light breeze or high buildings on a windy day. to detect purpose in these gentle movements required a slight degree of paranoia, and yet there was no apparent natural cause to explain the shift of the shadows away from their corresponding objects and towards the center of the village like water draining from upset glasses.
finally, there were just a bits of shadow left, like drops in a sink adhering to the enamel by their surface tension. these droplets of shadow were sparkling like rainbows, no grayness reflected. the air was still and non-expectant, noon in a depressed small town, and the realization that the world was without shadows had not yet sunk in. in a dirty jeep, parked close to the village center, a woman lit a marlboro
even those who had dismissed the shadows as inessential, felt disconcerted when the birds ceased to sing. on the morning of the third day, after a dawn without luminosity had given way to dull day light, small insects began their crawling procession towards the centers that had swallowed the shadows.
and someone laughed at the gray man in his wrinkle free woolen suit who solicited signatures on retro-active insurance policies. “one day only”, he implored, “an amazing offer”, but they shooed him away while watching the myriad of tiny, scarlet colored spiders tie a living ribbon between the outskirts of the village and the shadow drain.
and yet, the spiders said, too easily do you accept that we form a living ribbon, and wander into oblivion. one by one. what to your eyes a living ribbon is, to ours is a band of pain, and joy, and hope against all odds.
My mother was busy preparing dinner and answering questions my sister had while sitting at the big wooden table and doing her homework. This evening she was coloring and cutting out the states and gluing them in the right place … Continue reading
Alternative approaches to teaching ART
Joseph Beuys and the use of butter and animal fat in his work
This is a journal entry describing an indirect approach to the question if a certain object as later illustrated by Joseph Beuys “fat corner” is or is not art. Rather than to start by discussing what art might be, I took two sticks of butter and a box to a class of fifth graders. I opened the butter and started squishing it between my hands without explaining what I was doing and why I was doing it. The butter was slightly softened and was growing softer still through handling and it had good sculptural properties. As I worked air into it, it produced disgusting sounds. I walked around the room, talking about art in general,never referring to my activity, still working the butter between my hands. The kids were intrigued, their reaction ranged from mere disgust to laughter, on which i did not comment, but after a while they started to be fascinated by their own responses to the demonstration, how emotional, shocking, entertaining this seemed to them – and why, and so they talked about that. in the end I sculpted the butter into a corner of the box. I picked the box up and presented it to them like a diorama. then I asked: is it art?
Out of 21 kids, based on their own experience of the performance, 19 judged it to be art.”
“If you don’t speak up for everybody’s rights you have to prepare for your own rights to be trampled when you least expect it.” David Sirota
“Powerful digital technologies can be abused to carve away at civil liberties.” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/26/opinion/why-care-about-the-nsa.html?ref=international
In response to that excellent contribution to the discussion by the NYTimes of today (see above link): Even the most liberal systems have an inherent tendency towards a restriction of civil right positions. Civil rights are, by nature and design, inconvenient, inefficient, administratively annoying – but absolutely necessary for the upkeep of democracy. Because systems in themselves for a variety of reasons, some of them plainly administrative, have a spin towards restriction of individual rights, civil rights have to be constantly and equally system inherently defended against that tendency – this has to be understood as a necessary premise for any kind of democratic system. Due to the system inherent tendency to restriction, the ability of the executive branch to gain access to the totality of data that makes all branches – including the political dialog – transparent, is especially worrisome from a cicil rights point of view because it enables to influence the democratic process and dialog that defends cicil rights even before it starts. access to a totality of information carries the foreboding of totalitarian systems.
We have known this for at least thirty years, and it is part of the understanding of the constitution of the United States as well as of the constitution of Germany that the idea has been firmly established that an individual has the right to keep control over what you would now call data, but what then was simply called privacy and freedom of speech.
What is new is that this problem is not limited to one country. Single branch control exerted by privileged access to individual and governmental data alike, made possible by the use of powerful digital technology, if not contested by citizens world wide, will lead to an immense loss of civil rights and constitutional guarantees – world wide. Uncontrolled access to data will prepare the way for an ascent of totalitarian systems, possibly cooperating, totalitarian systems world wide. it is not the world we want to live in.
we need to start developing democratic, predictable and controllable systems and corresponding requirements for legal access to the use of data, country by country, world wide – right now. most of all we need to raise the wide spread awareness that to defend our constitutional values and civil rights we need to demand of our political systems to treat our data with the same respect that they are obliged to obey at least by the letter in treating the individual. we need to know that it matters who accesses our private data, who reads our emails – even if we are just writing down a few lines to grandma or jotting down a recipe.
“Writers must oppose systems. It’s important to write against power, corporations, the state, and the whole system of consumption and of debilitating entertainments. I think writers, by nature, must oppose things, oppose whatever power tries to impose on us. … You know, in America and in western Europe we live in very wealthy democracies, we can do virtually anything we want, I’m able to write whatever I want to write. But I can’t be part of this culture of simulation, in the sense of the culture’s absorbing of everything. In doing that it neutralises anything dangerous, anything that might threaten the consumer society. In Cosmopolis Kinski says, “What a culture does is absorb and neutralise its adversaries”. If you’re a writer who, one way or another, comes to be seen as dangerous, you’ll wake up one morning and discover your face on a coffee mug or a t-shirt and you’ll have been neutralised.” Don DeLillo (Panic #1, Nov. 2005, pp. 90-95.)
And is it not at the same time a cynical paradox and the hybris of writers, artists and maybe even lawyers, yes, now that I mentioned it, certainly lawyers as well, that in striving to be effective, successful, sharp, persuasive, unveiling, exposing, revealing, uncovering the workings of the machine we also strive for the kind of recognition that neutralizes our very effort. This is still the romantic idea of the individual rebel, the genius writer, the brilliant artist, a sly title afforded with societal approval by the very system that is being accosted, criticized and opposed just because this honor neutralizes, even castrates the very effort it lauds. Don DeLillo writes accordingly in Underworld that true proof of existence lies with the recorder not the recorded, the one who does not have a name but the authority to write the code which makes time tick. My words, his idea, by the way.
If you did indeed value the corrosive of your intellectual ability you would choose to remain unknown behind a work that was known for its efficiency. you would not buy the idea of the genius writer who ends up on a t-shirt or, for that matter, on Facebook where you can democratically and to no specific end be approved of by the click of a button, but you would anonymously and in a group of like-minded minds labor towards the specific end of a realization of your ideas.
this is, coming round from yesterday’s etude on the privacy of data, another appeal to keep private if you can and claim the right and authority to do so.