is american naïveté a cop-out?

it is well known in the rest of the world that american media are neither critical nor incisive. this is why americans are often described as being naive. in a way it all makes sense:

(1) americans are the most overworked people in the industrialized world. they have surpassed the likes of japan (by two weeks per year) and germany (by two entire months per year)
(2) american public education is sadly deficient. as the gates have pointed out: “what good is it for kids to graduate in 2006 from a school system that was designed for 1956?”
(3) american healthcare has not only left huge segments of the population out in the cold, it is ranked 37th in the world in terms of quality even though our healthcare costs are astronomical – almost double the per-capita cost in canada (yet canada’s life expectancy and infant mortality rates are better than ours).

what do you expect from people who are overworked, under-educated and without decent healthcare? do they have the time or the ability to navigate multiple news sources (some domestic, some international), parse that information and make up their own minds? the capitalistic system is alive and well. the focus is on producing good workers and consumers, not good citizens.

but are we that helpless? is it that easy to infantilize a nation?

john stuart mill believed that people generally get the form of government they deserve – if laws they allow to go unchecked become the tools of despotic powers, they have only their own ignorance or apathy to blame. it is our responsibility, our duty as citizens, to maximize our intellectual potential in order to make the right decisions. how else can a democratic system be truly democratic and embody the voice of the people?

john stuart mill

les chansons de mon enfance

these are the songs of my childhood. like proust’s famous madeleine, these songs unleash such a vivid pastiche of memories that i’m transported to the heart of europe, early seventies, my mother in bell bottoms and giant sunglasses, my dad with long sideburns in a three-piece suit, my sisters hardly old enough to be in pre-school, my brother just a baby. i am overcome by nostalgia. this feeling of sadness washes over me – i feel like we have all lost something.

my favorite by far is gérard lenorman’s “michèle” which interestingly enough is about lost love, about how things seem simpler when we are young. it’s also very french – i too miss “les cafés joyeux, mêmes les trains de banlieue”. then there is “angie” by the stones.” and of course there’s elton john’s “goodbye yellow brick road.”

more in my next post!

brice marden and abstract art

peter schjeldahl’s “true colors, a brice marden retrospective” (new yorker, nov 6, 2006) starts with something the artist once said: “it’s hard to look at paintings. you have to be able to bring all sorts of things together in your mind, your imagination, in your whole body”. that struck a chord – it reminded me of a short piece i wrote about why i love modern art. check it out under prose.

brice marden’s cold mountain painting

muhammed iqbal

muhammed iqbal

muhammed iqbal is this great urdu and persian poet. he was born in 1877 in punjab, pakistan. he wrote prolifically about politics, economics, history, philosophy and religion. his poetry is powerful and inspiring and earned him a knighthood. this is one of my favourite stanzas from jawab-e shikwah, the second part of the poem “shikwah” (man’s complaint to god, which expresses muslim anguish in the face of 20th century problems). “jawab-e-shikwah”, which literally means answer to complaint, is god’s directive to the muslim community to stand on its feet and set in motion a process of active self-realization.

here god addresses man in the following words:

“art thou alive? be eager, be creative,
like me encompass the whole universe,
shatter into pieces that which is conventional,
bring forth another world out of your imagination –
he who lacks the faculty of creativity
is nothing to me but an unbeliever and an agnostic”

imagery in poetry

here’s a great article on poetry, written by gary smith, that uses one of t. s. eliot’s poems as an example:

Preludes by T.S. Eliot

The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.
The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

This poem was written in 1917, when there was a worldwide critique and questioning of the values of contemporary western civilization. Due to many factors, especially the First World War and the economic depression, many artists, poets and philosophers felt that modern industrial civilization had lost its sense of meaning and direction. There was a general criticism of the status quo. Preludes falls within this ambit. In this poem, Eliot describes the modern city as a vacuum of meaning and uses imagery to intensify this feeling.

The first lines suggest a feeling of decline and despair. How does the imagery help to achieve this effect? Notice the use of “winter” images. Winter is usually associated with a lack of growth and a loss of vitality. The poem is suggesting that the modern city is in a state of “winter” and has lost its direction and vitality.
The poet builds on this image to suggest a further delineation of the modern state of mental societal decadence. The image of ” smell of steaks” paints a picture of a polluted and mundane environment. The fourth line emphasizes this feeling of loss of vitality coupled with urban squalor. The day, and the society, is associated with an image of a burnt-out (read loss of energy) cigarette end.

The poet carefully couples images of decadence with images that we usually associate with the modern urban milieu, like steaks and cigarettes. He places these ordinary images into a context that suggests a criticism of the modern world and lifestyle. The point is again emphasized with another image of decadence and dirt in “The grimy scraps”.

The image of ” withered leaves” again points to the winter motif and paints a clear picture of death and decline. Always remember that the poet is not only referring to leaves here; he is using this image, through association, to connect to the general idea of loss of meaning in the modern urban world.
The second stanza intensifies its attack on the modern world. The first two lines clearly express the idea that modern life is little more than a drunken hangover. The feeling of personal and social decadence is strengthened by the images in these lines:
“The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer”

The final image of the second stanza achieves a brilliant but shocking image of the essence of the poem.
“One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.”
This image presents us with a particularly clear impression of the intention of the poem. We can imagine all the people repeating the same meaningless actions. They all raise ” dingy shades” to greet the day. Note the use of the adjective to describe the shades, which again points to the sense of squalor and decadence of the modern city. More importantly, this image suggests a sense of repetitive meaninglessness. Throughout the poem the poet uses the images to bolster and construct his impression of the modern city. Once the function of these images is understood, then the meaning of the poem becomes clear.


i’m back

after much personal busyness (harried but pleasurable) we’ve finally been able to spend our first weekend at the lake house. we invited over my parents, two sisters and brother along with their spouses and six young children, the occasion being the celebration of my parents’ 40th anniversary. it was a wonderful opportunity to enjoy lake canandaigua on a hot summer day, get together with my entire family and honor our parents. we’re back in pittsford now and things are settling down. the kids have summer camp at the memorial art gallery and i get to spend some time at starry nites, sipping hot chocolate and catching up with my blog. i’m back…

canandaigua lake

michael ondaatje

i saw michael ondaatje on tavis smiley last night. although i obviously know him from the english patient and anil’s ghost, i have never read his books and didn’t know much about him as an author. i found him fascinating and identified strongly with both his life and his artistic aesthetic. his life is a cultural melange encompassing 3 continents. he was born in sri lanka. his ancestors were originally from india but his genetic make-up is dutch-tamil-sinhalese-portuguese – he calls himself a mongrel. he went to school in england and finally moved to canada in 1962.

his artistry is predicated on ditching the conventional form and using a non-linear, multi-media collage technique in his writing. in the words of anthony chandler: “one of the most remarkable aspects of ondaatje’s work is the fashion in which he juxtaposes and blends the media of poetry, prose, and photography, making reading an almost multi-media function while remaining on the printed page. like film montage, ondaatje’s fiction often walks the line between narrative and imagery, leaving the reader puzzled with what she has just experienced. but ondaatje’s work is more precise than montage, and his mixing of media shows an acute awareness of form and function while still calling both into question: if narrative prose is selected to carry the story, and poetry is chosen to convey emotion, his use of photographic images often shows us that we may be wrong about everything; that we need to dig deeper in holes already dug.”

because of his multi-ethnic, multi-cultural life experience, he talked about having “double vision” – being able to see different points of view at the same time. i can relate to that. i can simultaneously feel like an insider and an outsider in many cultures. i know what it is to have doubts, to never be quite sure, quite comfortable in any milieu. there are no absolutes, just an endless, ying-yang tug of war between the many sides of every issue.

ondaatje’s latest book is divisadero.

michael ondaatje

dog and cat diaries

got this really funny email from my friend amra. this post is dedicated to phoebe, our sweet pomeranian…

Dog diary

6:00am – At last! I Go Pee! My favorite thing!
8:00 am – Dog food! My favorite thing!
9:30 am – A car ride! My favorite thing!
9:40 am – A walk in the park! My favorite thing!
10:30am – Got rubbed and petted! My favorite thing!
12:00pm – Lunch! My favorite thing!
1:00 pm – Played in the yard! My favorite thing!
3:00 pm – Wagged my tail! My favorite thing!
5:00 pm – Milk bones! My favorite thing!
6:00 pm – They’re home! My favorite thing!
7:00 pm – Got to play ball! My favorite thing!
7:45 pm – Quarter to eights – food! My favourite thing!
8:00 pm – Wow! Watched TV with the people! My favorite thing!
11:00 pm – Sleeping on the bed! My favorite thing”

“Excerts from a Cat’s Diary”

Day 983 of my captivity. My captors continue to taunt me with
bizarre little dangling objects. They dine lavishly on fresh meat, while
the other inmates and I are fed hash or some sort of dry nuggets.
Although I make my contempt for the rations perfectly clear, I nevertheless
must eat something in order to keep up my strength. The only thing that keeps
me going is my dream of escape. In an attempt to disgust them, I
once again vomit on the carpet.

Today I decapitated a mouse and dropped its headless body at their
feet. I had hoped this would strike fear into their hearts, since it
clearly demonstrates what I am capable of. However, they merely
made condescending comments about what a “good little hunter” I am.

There was some sort of assembly of their accomplices tonight. I was
placed in solitary confinement for the duration of the event.
However, I could hear the noises and smell the food. I overheard that my
confinement was due to the power of “allergies.” I must learn what this means,
and how to use it to my advantage.

Today I was almost successful in an attempt to assassinate one of my
tormentors by weaving around his feet as he was walking. I must try
this again tomorrow — but at the top of the stairs.

I am convinced that the other prisoners here are flunkies and
snitches. The dog receives special privileges. He is regularly released – and
seems to be more than willing to return. He is obviously retarded.
The bird has got to be an informant. I observe him communicate with
the guards regularly. I am certain that he reports my every move. My captors have
arranged protective custody for him in an elevated cell, so he is safe.
For now…


working class hero

just saw the video by green day – it is arresting. the song is obviously john lennon gold. it’s part of an amnesty international campaign to stop the genocide in darfur. yoko ono donated all royalties from lennon’s song book to support this campaign. the resulting album, instant karma, has 20 john lennon covers by the likes of u2 and rem. you can buy it at amnesty’s website or by calling toll free 1-800-862-0411.

african slavery

last thursday i met some friends for coffee, to discuss an upcoming fundraiser. we talked about everything under the sun including slavery and its implications. at one point someone compared african american slavery with jewish subjugation at the hands of the babylonians and pharoahs. besides the obvious difference in time elapsed since their respective liberation, there seem to be other unique factors inherent in the african american experience. african american slaves were ripped from their land, their culture, their language, their world and brought into an alien land. many africans were terrified by their captors because they had never seen people with white skin – they thought that they were ghosts, non-human, otherworldly.

they did not arrive in america as an exiled “community” but as fragments of tribes and cultures that most of them never came into contact with after their capture. most slaves did not speak the language of other slaves. the horror and loneliness of this fact alone is unimaginable. there was no cohesive community, no common language, no shared traditions, no comforting rituals, no common stories and myths, and no shared religion. there was nothing to tell them who they were and where they came from. no one to validate their sense of self-identity. it is truly nightmarish to be isolated to this point. on the other hand, most jews have a strong sense of community, of where they come from and who they are.

if one thinks about it, it is quite admirable that african americans overcame this by turning their experience of slavery into such a vibrant and strong culture. whether it be worship, music, language (strongly recommend toni morrison to get a feel for the african american experience through the “language” of the slaves), dance, or fashion, african americans have evolved into an incredibly creative community. if more of them were given the right circumstances to bloom and exercise this creativity, god knows how wonderfully explosive it would be.

btw here’s a great short film by kiki davis – it highlights problems of identity that stem from what I have tried to describe above – check it out.