Sunday, April 27, 2014

Three photos from Facebook

I MAKE NO APOLOGIES for spending time on Facebook, where I "follow" a great many "friends" (and, of course, family) scattered across much of the world. Nearing eighty, spending much of my time either relatively secluded in the country or relatively adrift traveling, I frequently hunger for intelligent conversation. I have never much liked talking on the telephone, which entered my life rather late, when habits had been set. I would like to commune with my books like Montaigne. Facebook has enabled a new kind of intelligent conversation. It has its failings, principally difficulty with subtlety and irony; but it has its virtues: the conversation can be interrupted for hours or days at a time, allowing recourse to reference material or the slow ripening of ideas in the back of the mind while doing various little errands and repairs.

Yesterday, for example, three different "friends" posted three different images, each of which then drew comments from other Facebookers; and in responding to these — images and comments both — I found myself contemplating, once again, the uses of irony. But let's just look at the images in turn, and see what develops.

photo 1.jpgThe first is the cover of the current issue of The New Yorker, originally posted with a comment by PETA but reposted by an online acquaintance with whom I share interests in nature, health issues, and literature, among other things. PETA's original comment on the photo was
The cover of this week's The New Yorker magazine says it all: Anyone who has a heart knows: it's time to BanHorseCarriages for good.

My comment: Um, that's not what the cover says to me…

Friend: Fair enough, Charles. To you, what does it say?

Me: Things are in a muddle.
It turns out that the artist who provided the cover, Bruce McCall, objects to horse-drawn carriages in New York City not only on the basis of "animal rights" but also for traffic-related reasons. (Find PETA's summary of this here.)

I feel strongly that horse-drawn carriages do contribute to the urban, not to mention metropolitan, experience. Of course they should not be forced to negotiate busy motor-vehicular traffic: but they are useful for negotiating the strip of sanity between the rush of taxicabs and the benignity of pedestrianism. Jane Jacobs was right, in her indispensable book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, to divide humanity between "car people" and "foot people." I am unabashedly a foot person; I think of my car — which we've driven 145,000 miles in the last five years or so! — chiefly as a way to get between my chair and an urban walk.

But the presence of horse-drawn carriages does more than ease that jarring gap between speed and tranquility. Let me mention two points.

First, humans have suffered, I think, from having removed themselves from the society of other animals. I think the sudden appearance of all those terriers — Yorkshires, Jack Russells — in the arms and at the feet of all those young flâneurs in Healdsburg is a {perhaps subconscious) acknowledgement of this. The society of other species is another bridge between states, the state of Nature and that of human invention; it reassures us that we are, fundamentally, only another species of animal, adjusting to an ecology badly damaged by our own doing it is true but governed by laws of Nature which really should be considered as they are likely to prevail.

When boys and girls attend daily to the needs of animals — I'm thinking, for example, of my own experience feeding pigs, tending the milk cow, dealing with ducks and chickens and rabbits — they develop a sensitivity to the needs, the fragilities, and the occasional threats coming from sentient creatures with whom verbal communication is tenuous at best. The difference between saddling a horse and adjusting a carburetor, or milking a cow and driving to the supermarket for a quart of milk, is the difference between a natural life and a mechanistic one.

(Interesting that the Internet will easily supply me with 48 synonyms for "mechanistic," and only two antonyms, neither of which works here: "nonmechanical," "handmade." An indication of the extent to which we've adopted a mechanistic mind-set.)

Second, horse-drawn carriages are by their very nature nostalgic. Nostalgia gets a bum rap these days (it ain't what it used to be, I'm tempted to write), because it's thought of as a distraction from the pressing matters of the present. But a full engagement with the present moment demands, I think, simultaneous contemplation of the past that has led to it. It's too easy to think of the city — our man-made ecology — as merely its present statement, rather than a living organism with a past and inevitable future as well as its present moment. In appealing to a nostalgia the carriages, the horses, even the driver, remind us of a historical source for the enlightened acknowledgement of the need for a Central Park.

I could go further. Economy, for example: the dollar value of what a "developer" might put in the place of a Central Park, versus the human value — ugly term, but nothing better comes to mind — of having its tranquility and, yes, its historicity. Kindness: the lesson implicit in the care of the handler for his horses, and by extension the sympathy between the riders and the handler (and the horses). Aesthetics: the sight of these handsome animals, so unlike us; the scent of health and life; the sound of the hoofbeats and the gentle murmur of the tires, so unlike the noise of the taxicabs…

Francis Ponge, from Trois petits écrits:
Pour la ruée écrasante
De mille bêtes hazardes
Le soleil n'éclaire plus
Quún monument de raisons

ils, mal venus
De leur sale quartier
La mère, le soldat,
Et la petite en rose,

Pourront-ils, pourront-ils
Passer? Ivre, bondis,
Et tire, tire, tue,
Tire sur les autos!
Because they rush and smash,
These thousand wild beasts,
The sun won't shine again
But a monument of reasons.

Will they — unhappily come
Alas, from their poor slums —
A mother, and a soldier,
A child, dressed in pink —

Will they, will they be able
To cross? Drunk now, I leap,
And fire, fire, kill,
Shoot, fire on the cars!

THE SECOND ILLUSTRATION is another magazine cover — Facebookers are nothing if not attuned to the present moment. Since I began writing this interminable essay the page has disappeared from Facebook — one of the annoying persistent features of that universe is its unpredictable evanescence. So I have to work from memory 3.jpg

The photograph is of the singer and actress Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter, who goes by only her first name. The image was posted by a Berkeley friend with a laconic comment noting that it shows the woman in her underwear, while the article inside the magazine refers to her as a feminist.

Thinking he was criticizing Time for cynical exploitation, I commented that there were multiple levels of irony here; whereupon another friend, an American expat in London these forty years, commented that there was "no inherent virtue in irony", which cheap politicians had been practicing for years.

Setting aside the question as to whether an essentially British mentality can ever appreciate the essentially Mediterranean device that is irony — after all, Brits, like Yankees, pride themselves on their plain-spokenness (which is itself ironic, n'est-ce pas? — I was taken aback by the concept that irony, or indeed any rhetorical device, might have inherent virtue. (Or, for that matter, vice.)

As I wrote here a little over a year ago, in a comment on Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending, I suppose it's the irony of our time that so many no longer understand the meaning of "irony," and take it to mean merely a state of being hiply flippant. (I don't mean to imply that my London and Berkeley friends make this error: they know the meanings of words.)

Such societal positions as Animal Rights and Feminism (and I don't mean to imply they are of equal value or significance) are problematic when they intersect with political action, because law and regulation are societal tools most practical when directed to specific actions and events, while positions — and affinity-group organizations whose motive is to focus those positions on political action — are necessarily concerned with larger and more vaguely defined issues, issues which connect to other issues. Society is like a brain; one doesn't attempt corrective re-wiring with a broadaxe or even a butcher knife.

In short, what I've called societal positions — one's position on such questions as "race," "gender," the rights of animals, public health and welfare — are collections of attitudes that tell us how to think of things, how to form and express our own opinions. They begin to lose value, I think, when they are asked to harden into matters of doctrine — precisely when they most reach toward irony.

Again, Ponge had a word for this, as I wrote in that post about Barnes: momon, "Texte qui inclut sa propre critique," says Larousse; and Ponge expands on this:
…toute œuvre d'art comportant sa propre caricature, ou dans laquelle l'auteur ridiculiserait son moyen d'expression. La Valse de Ravel est un momon. Ce genre est particulier aux époques où la rhétorique est perdue, se cherche.

…any work of art which includes its own caricature, or in which the artist ridicules his own means of expression. Ravel's La Valse is a momon. The genre is peculiar to periods when rhetoric, having lost its way, looks for itself.
says Ponge (Le Savon (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1967), p. 42-3.)*

The momon, a concept significant enough to be incorporated into English, hence no longer to be italicized here, is the intellectual attitude of our time, which is reeling still from the discoveries of Modernism, which depended on acceleration and dispersal; and so lapsed into the kind of apparent chaos every generation perceives in its own context. Earlier generations found refuge in such chaos in religion, in Enlightenment, in mechanics, ultimately in Romanticism — Fernando Pessoa has things to say about this; my generation found it in the momon.

Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, a terrible disease progressively swept over civilization. Seventeen centuries of consistently frustrated Christian aspirations and five centuries of forever postponed pagan aspirations (Catholicism having failed as Christianity, the Renaissance having failed as paganism, and the Reformation having failed as a universal phenomenon), the shipwreck of all that had been dreamed, the paltriness of all that had been achieved, the sadness of living a life too miserable to be shared by others, and other people's lives too miserable for us to want to share — all of this fell over souls and poisoned them. Minds were filled with a horror of all action, which could be contemptible only in a contemptible society. The soul's higher activities languished; only its baser, more organic functions flourished. The former having stagnated, the latter began to govern the world.

Thus was born a literature and art made of the lower elements of thought — Romanticism. And with it, a social life made of the lower elements of action — modern democracy.

[The Book of Disquiet, translated by Richard Zenith. New York: Penguin Classics, p. 212-13]

photo 2.jpgWHICH BRINGS ME, finally, to our third image, not a magazine cover this time but a snapshot taken in Amsterdam on Konigsdag, King's Day, when the entire city turns into a marvelous party and not a motor vehicle is to be seen (except, of course, the boats).

You should know, first, that Willem-Alexander, whose slender young frame you see here, sashed and bemedalled, was the first man to occupy the Dutch throne since the death of William III, in 1890. (William was succeeded by Queens Emma, Wilhelmina, Juliana, and Beatrix; he and his wife Queen Máxima have three daughters but no sons, so the Dutch tradition of gynarcy is likely to resume one day — but lang zal hij leve! )

The photo was posted by a friend who lives in Amsterdam. The comments soon appeared:
Do you need to bow and scrape?

Hip hip! Hoera!

Very convincing (minus the cheap sash!)

I thought that you made the sash just for him
But I think that one of the features that really makes the photo is the sash, and I can't understand why one would call it "cheap." Note that "The King" is in English, not Dutch. (I assume his left hand conceals the English word, not the Dutch "Konig.") The people around him must certainly be Dutch; they certainly look Dutch.

His sash is an exercise in humility, the opposite of irony; it recognizes the king's need of identification, even of explanation, in the contemporary Dutch context. The Dutch love their monarchy for the most part, much more good-naturedly (and generally!) than the British love theirs; but — it's a part of the Dutch temperament — they smile at their little indulgence, just as the king's sash is smiling at those medals.

Humility and a little bit of self-caricature, but without irony. And note: these are foot people, not car people. Like Facebook, they have a lot to tell us, if we only pay a little attention.


Sallie said...

Enjoyed reading this blog Charles and, as for the horse and buggy ride in Central Park,I loved it!!! It occupies a special space in my memory bank!

Civic Center said...

I was a Facebook late adopter a couple of years ago when it was no longer hip with young people and am finding it a marvelous way to keep in touch with other people's lives and to have a community bulletin board with smart friends. And if somebody is an uninteresting publisher, it's easy enough to hide their posts without offense.

Didn't understand the Beyonce/irony section, but am sure the fault is mine.

Spent the summer of 1972 in Amsterdam as an 18-year-old with no money, working at an old factory on a canal with Pakistani gastarbeiters. Went to the Queen's Day ceremony/party in the Dam and it was one of the most charming and egalatarian public events I saw in all of Europe. Queen Beatrix was on the balcony, with Grace Kelly of all people, and you put it quite well. The citizens below were smiling at each other over their "little indulgence."

Curtis Faville said...

Well, Charles, you didn't publish my last comment on Calder, so I wonder if I'll make the cut this time.

The thing about irony is that it's also frequently ironic.

I see the buggy cartoon as a social commentary. McCall is heavy and post-Modern. His work can be pretty abstract. I haven't read the New Yorker regularly since Tina Brown took over (temporarily as it turned out) as editor. I read this is a criticism of class, in which the horses, who are supposed to be the workers, are now the riders, and the riders now have to pull all their weight. In a social sense, I'm not sure how this computes; whom do the respective (symbolic) participants stand for? I think McCall just ends up confusing us, which he usually does.

Are you suggesting that an amusing insistence upon monarchy is a pleasant way of celebrating the past? I don't know, do we want our royals to be acting like royals, or should they be blessing ecology and kissing babies?

One of the merits of blogging, as opposed to the kiss-and-run of social media like Facebook and Twitter--is that we can stretch our legs, and have our say. Why confine one's self to 15 words? Do we really need to tell mom that we're at the grocery and that the cat needs to be fed?