Friday, December 28, 2012
Saturday, December 22, 2012
When the unnamed narrator of Sara Levine’s novel Treasure Island!!! reads Stevenson’s book, she is struck primarily by how cramped her own life is compared with ‘the book’s open air’. ‘When had I ever done a foolish, over-bold act? … How can I become the hero of my own life?’ she asks, before deciding that Treasure Island is the accident that was waiting to happen to her, a book that was ‘cosmically intended for me’. And so, armed with what she sees as Stevenson’s four Core Values – Boldness, Resolution, Independence and Horn-Blowing – she begins her journey towards a more adventurous selfhood: ‘You know what Jim Hawkins would say? He’d say what good is a life if it can’t be dashingly used, cheerfully hazarded?’ Part of the novel’s comedy comes from Levine’s knowing that Jim wouldn’t quite say this, or perhaps even think it, but might still act as if he did. So several questions are given room to breathe in the novel’s open air: is our 25-year-old heroine using Treasure Island to enrich or to avoid her life? Is the very thoroughness of her need to turn Stevenson’s tale into a self-help book part of the problem, not the solution?
Friday, December 21, 2012
By ALAN BURDICK
Miriam Rothschild lived the 96 years of her life by the minute, and in the minutiae. "Fleas are nearly always in a hurry," she wrote, and she was, too, in their pursuit.
Rothschild was the world's expert on fleas. She loved them, lived for them - a passion acquired from her father, Charles Rothschild, a banker who collected and discovered some 30,000 species of flea in his lifetime, including the chief carrier of bubonic plague. The Rothschild fleas (some million-plus specimens, now housed in the British Natural History Museum) represent more than 90 percent of all known fleas.
But a collection means nothing if nobody studies and interprets it. The daughter spent more than 30 years painstakingly examining the fleas under magnification, eventually producing a multivolume illustrated catalog of the collection, a sort of Who's Who for flea-ologists.
She herself also eagerly collected fleas: bartered for them in New Guinea, smuggled them out of Australia on flea-ridden mice. She peered at them through a microscope she'd set up in the bedroom of her baronial estate in Northamptonshire; she kept them in plastic bags so that her children - two adopted, four from her 14-year marriage to an English-Hungarian spy - wouldn't disturb them. If we were fleas, our hips would contain a rubber-like fluid enabling us to leap a height equivalent to the Empire State Building - a fact Rothschild discovered by photographing fleas at high speeds, then dissecting their motion moment by moment.
All parasites fascinated her: bird lice, feather mites, ticks, flukes. She liked that history could be shaped by unseen agents. "It was possible to see Hitler and Goebbels," she wrote, "but it is impossible to perceive the plague bacillus spreading poison or the malaria Plasmodium bursting open red blood corpuscles." She liked that every organism is a kind of weedy lot, open ground for secondary growth. Owls are infested with rodent fleas; fleas carry worms that infect dogs and would infect us too, had we no hands to pluck them off with. "Parasites are, perhaps, the organisms in which evolution is most obvious," she wrote. Each is a small, shining example of natural selection at work in a crowd.
Rothschild had no formal education. Instead, she was raised in a Doctor Doolittle setting dominated by her famously eccentric uncle, Walter, the second Lord Rothschild, whose animal collection came to include (in addition to fleas) some 250,000 butterflies and moths, 300,000 bird skins, 200,000 birds' eggs and 144 giant tortoises, which he housed in his own museum. He rode on the back of his giant tortoise Rotumah, drove to Piccadilly in a zebra-drawn carriage and helped 4-year-old Miriam raise ladybugs. Natural history "wasn't a subject," she later recalled. "We just lived it." She was recipient of six honorary doctorate degrees (including one from Oxford). She worked on the Enigma project to break German codes during World War II. She played cricket for the national team, under a pseudonym she kept secret.
Rothschild sought the ecological ties that bind. She studied biochemical codes shared by insects and plants. Butterflies are poisonous to predators, she found, because of a toxin they get from their milkweed diet. She felt that most land management was ruinous to the intricate web of biological diversity and successfully persuaded Ladybird Johnson and Prince Charles to grow wildflowers wherever possible. She fired her groundskeepers and let her prim gardens devolve into a Rousseauvian free-for-all. Butterfly bushes sprouted from cracks in her former swimming pool. The house itself was half-encased in brambles and vines and ivies. "The battle with weeds, the conquest of Nature, is a thing of the past," she wrote.
"I'm a good example of thinking small," she said once. "My scientific work is all bits and pieces that may or may not add up to something.
I've never had a master plan." Marcel Proust, by contrast, was "a person who thought big." She admired Proust deeply; she could no longer count how many times she'd read him. She lamented that no one had ever subjected his madeleine to a gas chromatogram, to decipher the aromatic chemistry of memory. Then again, she said, any entomologist could guess the agent: vanillin, one of those creamy scents concocted by weeds to attract pollinating butterflies. In her opinion, Proust was "the first and greatest urban naturalist the world has ever known." Perhaps she should be remembered as his inverse - a natural urbanist, that rare species of observer able to conjure the entire world of nature from the 60,000 microscope slides by her bedside.
If Addams’s wit is sardonic, there is also something warm and inclusive about it. This is a reflection (as it must be for all artists) of who he was. The much-indulged only child of a housewife and a prominent naval architect, Addams followed his father in his early avocation for the art of drawing and his mother in displaying an offbeat sense of humor and fascination with haunted houses and graveyards, something which continued throughout his life.
The cult of genius therefore led to an emphasis on originality as the test of artistic genuineness — the thing that distinguishes true art from fake. Alhough it is hard to say in general terms what originality consists in, examples such as Titian, Rembrandt, Corot, Matisse and Gauguin; such as JS Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, and Schoenberg; such as Shakespeare, Diderot, Goethe and Kleist enabled both critics and artists to grasp the general idea of it. The one thing those examples ought to teach us is that originality is hard: it cannot be snatched from the air, even if natural prodigies such as Rimbaud and Mozart seem to do just that. Originality requires learning, hard work, the mastery of a medium, but most of all the refined sensibility and openness to experience that has suffering and solitude as its normal cost.
We are interested in high culture because we are interested in the life of the mind, and we entrust the life of the mind to institutions because it is a social benefit. Even if only a few people are capable of living this life to the full, we all benefit from its results, in the form of knowledge, technology, legal and political understanding, and the works of art, literature and music that evoke the human condition and also reconcile us to it. Aristotle went further, identifying contemplation (theoria) as the highest goal of mankind, and leisure (schole) as the means to it. Only in contemplation, he suggested, are our rational needs and desires properly fulfilled. Kantians might prefer to say that in the life of the mind we reach through the world of means to the kingdom of ends. We leave behind the routines of instrumental reasoning and enter a world in which ideas, artefacts and expressions exist for their own sake, as objects of intrinsic value. We are then granted the true homecoming of the spirit. Such seems to be implied by Friedrich Schiller, in his Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man(1794). Similar views underlie the German romantic view ofBildung: self-cultivation as the goal of education and the foundation of the university curriculum.
Thursday, December 20, 2012
/*Starred Review*/ Eberstadt's new novel flows like a sun-spangled brook on a bright spring day. It continues the saga of New Hampshireman Isaac Hooker that began in Isaac and His Devils (1991), but no prior knowledge of Isaac is required for total immersion in this astute, animated, and funny tale about the sublime and the ridiculous in love and art. Isaac is destitute when he first moves to New York City, but various guardian angels take him under their wings and soon he begins to paint. Full of tumultuous if naive passion, Isaac barges into the oh-so-chic art world like a bull in a china shop, his narrative paintings rampant with color, mythic eroticism, and biblical drama. His most ardent champion is Dolly Gebler, the formidable head of a generous arts foundation and the wife of a man of tremendous charm and epic debauchery. Dolly and Isaac fall in love, and things get very complicated. Each page is an adventure as Eberstadt animates her marvelous characters, struts her fine psychological stuff, and offers provocative musings on the meaning of art and the nature of love. ((Reviewed March 1, 1997)) Copyright 2000 Booklist Reviews
Friday, December 14, 2012
Saturday, December 1, 2012
Art: Such is but one of the implications of Macaulay’s provocative study of Mackintosh, which reminds us once more that truly universal art always begins with an intensely personal engagement with the local and the specific.
Such is but one of the implications of Macaulay’s provocative study of Mackintosh, which reminds us once more that truly universal art always begins with an intensely personal engagement with the local and the specific.