Bonny Finberg

CINDY SHERMAN UNTITLED: TRANSCENDENCE AND TRANSFORMATION

CINDY SHERMAN UNTITLED: TRANSCENDENCE AND TRANSFORMATION Museum of Modern Art, February 26–June 11, 2012

From an early age, dressing up in their mother’s clothes, girls are encouraged to enhance their appearance in order to attract men and the world at large, often to the extent of self-betrayal. At the same time, the idea of such endeavors as the beleaguered expression of the oppressed doesn’t really tell the whole story. Play has the ability to defuse the so-called oppressor’s grip on identity and, of course, there is power in sexual magnetism. It’s in this sense that I prefer the word “play” over “work” in relation to Cindy Sherman.

For four decades Sherman has been instructing us in the various, unique memes that mask and, at the same time express, the individual self. She plays dress-up and we are the mirror into which she looks. Her play explores images ranging from the heightened drama of film to the ordinary person on the street struggling to create herself as her own ideal self. Sherman takes images from paintings of ordinary and historical figures, from the sublime to the ridiculous, the plebeian to the surreal, the ripeness of youth and it’s opposite. She challenges us to look at what would ordinarily disgust, in full, blazing, high definition color on a large scale. She explores identity in all its intentional and unintentional beauty and repulsiveness, and presents attempts to mask age and decay, the layering over of lost or failed beauty, as something horrifically, pathetically, clown-like. Sherman, like Hannah Wilke before her, stares out from behind these altered selves, challenging the male gaze, at times reclaiming her co-opted image, at others, defying it. All of this being said, it’s also important to point out that Sherman’s work--this show-- is fun.

Refraining from an editorial stance, all images are labeled simply, “Untitled,” with a number. The rooms are basically arranged into groups: Film Stills (’77-80), Centerfolds (1981), History Portraits (1988-90), Fashion, (Early ‘80s) Sex (1992), Monumental (2008,) Society Portraits (2010-present). Walking through the galleries is not necessarily a chronological journey through the work’s evolution. Some of the earliest pieces are astounding in their simplicity and sophistication. The earliest is a picture of Sherman and a friend in 1966 dressed as two old ladies. Her photo booth series (“Untitled #479,” 1975) shows her transformation from bespectacled student to glamorous, cigarette-smoking femme fatale. A stop-action collage film of Sherman as a tiny paper doll trying on cutout clothes is impresses with her ingenuity. These early explorations in black and white confirm her as an innovator of photography as fine art among the few women who also used their own image and film to convey concepts of identity and gender: Hannah Wilke and Claude Cahun, most prominently.

At the entry to the retrospective is a monumental sized photograph of Sherman in a  loose-fitting, pajama-like body suit replete with breasts and pubic hair. These secondary sex characteristics look like just that, afterthoughts, as if attached by an eight-year-old for a self-made, ill-fitting Halloween costume.

In the first room we see the photographs that secured Sherman’s career in the late ‘70s, “Untitled Film Stills.” More than simply re-creating iconic images of women in film, these images reflect heightened moments in emotional lives during a time when women were presumed to exist primarily in domestic and romantic contexts. These narratives  defined a young girl’s present sense of what she was in the eyes of others as well as her aspirations of what she might become. Delivered on large screens with musical accompaniment, even the past was filtered through this romantic lens. Yet, Sherman manages to create something closer to the true emotional life of these celluloid women, lying abandoned and disabused on a kitchen floor, standing in black and white on a street alone, shot from below, cowering in fear among shadows. What comes across most strongly is that, despite being a solitary figure in the frame, these women all have the look or pose of being watched. The torque of the body stretched out on a couch, the pout of the lips and upward glance holding a letter, caught in medias res--a moment of some life-changing, emotional event. For these women, perhaps most women, there is always the sense that the camera is rolling, even when they are alone, waiting for some unseen object of desire.

The “Centerfolds” from the early ‘80s are not the clichéd poses of nude woman stretched across two pages of a glossy magazine. Sherman presents her centerfolds as reflective, sad, somber, in rumpled polyester, languishing on a cheap couch, parked on a bare floor or staring at a telephone. Even in these solitary surroundings, there is still the sense that these women feel themselves as characters in their own movies.

As Sherman’s success grew, her resources increased. The Historical Portraits are as magnificent as the originals they reference for the technical and visual splendor they employ. Again, putting prosthetics, costume and make up to great use (she clearly enjoys the process as much as the result), resisting the temptation to use digital techniques to alter her appearance, Sherman gives us her own version of art history and portraiture. She also resists irony in these images, though there is sometimes more than a hint of humor. Venturing beyond her former female-based tropes, she cross dresses, dons a beard here, a bald pate there. She bares an anatomically-impossible placed breast in the medieval style, place a clearly fake nose in profile. In other words, here she presents the full range of images of another time that also shaped a cultural psyche-- Ingres, Caravaggio, Raphael, among others, are represented with astounding skill and attention to detail.

The Fashion Portraits are among the funniest and most fun. Sherman takes it to the max. Unlike most of her previous images she stares into the lens, sometimes defiantly; a panoply of characters: heroine chic, fashionista, Anna Winotur style bitch-on-wheels, and some that are clearly from the recesses of Sherman’s very dark imagination. This darkness is the flip side of her humor, sometimes confusing us as to which is which. Her clowns are of the horrifying variety that scare little children at the circus despite their intention to make them laugh. Her series of mud-caked, decaying creatures, vomit, pimpled prosthetic asses, broken body parts, where she is often absent from the picture, are some of the most disturbing images ever displayed in an art context. The beauty of these “disgusting” images comes from an almost abstract combination of color, light and scale.

The “Sex” photographs take pornography to a level of absurdity. She collages together prosthetic penises, vulvas and breasts in constructions that can only be described as surreal objects that one might put in the Mutter Museum. She seems to  be asking to what extent fetishism, or kinkiness, extends before it becomes repellent.

Some of the most poignant of Sherman’s images can be found in the rooms devoted to her Society Portraits and photographs of Hollywood has-beens or, more likely, never-beens. These women, layered with thick makeup and carefully, if sometimes unwisely chosen, outfits, sum up the quixotic aspirations to extend youth and beauty by women past their prime. Even those who have unlimited means at their disposal, cannot transcend the indiscriminate decline of aging. One picture particularly caught my eye. It was “Untitled #476” (2008), showing a woman in luxurious surroundings with a small dog on her lap. Her makeup is perfectly and thickly applied, not a hair out of place, everything within view is tasteful and expensive. Yet one thing betrays that all is not perfect in her world: her nails are bitten to the quick. This is the kind of detail that makes Cindy Sherman a master of disguise that succeeds in revealing the truth behind the mask.

Bonny Finberg

Review of Love-Lies-Bleeding

LOVE-LIES-BLEEDING

    A play by Don De Lillo

    Reviewed by Bonny Finberg

    As Aristotle stated that a man doesn’t know his life until he dies, Don De Lillo asks: what is a life and whose are we living?

    Love-Lies-Bleeding, his third and latest play, also the name of an ornate plant with hanging clusters of red flowers, is written in the compressed poetics of speech between intimates. DeLillo paints a compact miniature of the injured relationships that cluster around a life at its end. As Bachelard illuminated the poetics of space, DeLillo demonstrates the poetics of mind with exquisite force. People speak to each other as one would to oneself, speaking to themselves as if speaking to another.

    DeLillo constructs his play by containing the present action between a past moment split into the opening and closing scenes.

    In the opening scene, Alex, a 70-year-old painter, living in self-exile in the Arizona desert, is seated in a wheelchair after a stroke. He speaks, with great difficulty, about the first dead body he ever saw. He was an 11-year-old boy riding a NYC subway train with his father next to him obliviously reading the race results. He watched the dirty grey figure, its mouth wide open, bobbing to the rhythm of the moving train, unnoticed by the other passengers, absorbed in the languid routines that presumably gave their lives meaning. He was unafraid, except that the body might fall out of its seat and tumble to the floor.

    In the following scene, a year later, Alex is seated in the wheelchair, after a massive, second stroke which has left him in a hanging-jaw-coma. Gathered around are three characters: Lia, his devoted, much younger wife; Toinette, the once younger second wife; and Sean, Alex’s grown son, born after Alex abandoned his mother for Toinette. All three present arguments as to whether Alex is aware of them—or even himself—or not.

    DeLillo is a master of portraying how the personal intersects with the universal. In this way, his main character, Alex, kaleidoscopically revealed through a complex of relationships and time shifts, reminds us of the cautious attempts we make in trying to forge relationships without disappearing. Memories are brought out of the darkness through the prismatic recollections of Alex’s son and two wives.

    Toinette tells Lia about Alex’s indifference to Sean’s birth. When Sean later speaks to his father, now in a vegetative state, he describes feeling ignored, but in awe, obsessed with this still inaccessible father. He makes a case for easing his father into death with increased doses of morphine, ultimately convincing Toinette. They try to convince Lia, who wonders if they are pleading for Alex’s release, or their own. She insists that the dying have a right to suffer, that endurance is the last effort before there is nothing at all.

    Alex’s first act revelations resume in the last scene, suggesting that the past is the only present that matters, existing as it does in a timeless presence, even in our absence. Alex grasps that his early confrontation with a dead man was the defining moment of his life with a clarity that perhaps can only arise from a living mind inside a dying body:

    “What good is a life that doesn’t experience some trace of all possible lives…I mean, shouldn’t the man on the subway train, the man on a park bench who has no shoes, who’s too beaten down even to beg, sitting there, so frail and soiled-shouldn’t I be able to be in his life, be who he is, even for half a minute?”

    Here, DeLillo proposes that empathy is all—we are doomed as strangers if we recoil from understanding. Our unspoken thoughts and observations become part of our fabric and silently die with us. The only evidence of who we truly were remains in the memories of those left behind, where there is still some pulse of the details. And the details are in our recognitions of each other.

    “Loves-Lies-Bleeding” was published in January 2006. It will open in Chicago in May 2006. Don De Lillo’s two other plays are “The Day Room,” first performed in April, 1986 and published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.1987, and “Valparaiso,” first performed January 1999 and published by Scribner, 2003.

    The premier performance, by the Steppenwolfe Theater Company , will take place in Chicago April 27-May 28th, 2006, Amy Morton directing; then as  part of the Kennedy Center Theater Series in Washington, D.C from Jun 17 - 25, 2006.

    ©Bonny Finberg, May, 2006, NYC

Interview of Susan Sherman by Bonny Finberg

SUSAN SHERMAN

INTERVIEWED BY BONNY FINBERG BF: Why do you think so many activists become less directly involved in political activism as they get older? Some, like Tom Hayden have entered mainstream politics, others have maintained a revolutionary stance in response to politics and the world at large, but many have retreated from the front lines. Where are they? What are they doing?

SS: I don’t think it’s true many have become less directly involved. Maybe a handful of the more famous activists, and that might not even be true. We just don’t hear about them. I was at a memorial recently for Grace Paley that was held by the War Resister’s League and the Women’s Pentagon Action and it was full of people who were active in the Sixties, many even before, and are still struggling for social justice in many areas from mainstream politics to the anti-war movement to local struggles for fair housing. Much of the really important struggle takes place on a local level and that is just not “sexy” enough for the media to report. Also there has obviously been a concerted effort after the Sixties not to cover progressive politics or activity.

BF: How do you see your own activism manifested in your life now?

SS: In a number of ways. Through my writing, teaching, working with our union—we are affiliated with the UAW—at Parsons School of Design and Eugene Lang College, both part of The New School, and through social justice work both community and nation based at Middle Church, a wonderfully diverse socially progressive community. And of course any demonstration that comes up, although that is harder for me now because of an injury which makes it difficult for me to walk.

BF: What issues are pivotal for you at this time? What about China and Tibet, for example? What do you see as the most important things relentless and passionate young activists should be putting their energy into? Do you see any indications that there is a youth movement? Is it a healthy one? Considering the state of things in the world at present, what do you think is necessary to create an atmosphere that will encourage more radical activism today—How much worse does it have to get? Or is it a case of depleted energies and catastrophe/issue fatigue?

SS: We hardly have to create an atmosphere that will encourage more radical activism given the situation in Iraq and the economic, environmental and social problems surrounding us today. I think that activism is all around us. Yes, it’s important to support Tibet, of course, but we have issues here at home that are vital—hurricane Katrina, survivors of which are still suffering and are scattered all over the US, the devastation in the Midwest, and the ever present issues of HIV/AIDS, sexism, racism, homophobia, economic injustice. As well as the myriad issues around immigration. Globalism is an overriding concern if these other issues are to be adequately addressed. There are all kinds of indications that a healthy youth movement is alive and well—and a healthy older movement too. The Obama campaign regardless of the nuances was built to a large extent on the need young people feel for greater social equity, for a life that has more meaning than just the number of objects you can acquire. We were lucky in a way in the Fifties and Sixties because products were not so slick and compelling and advertising was not so insidious and widespread. On the other hand while it is still in our hands we can use technology like the internet—just look at the influence of blogs, Youtube, organizations like Move On. I think people should put their energy into whatever issues move, excite, touch them most. I would recommend magazines like Colorlines, which focus on young people of color and the struggles they are engaged in at the present if you want to know what is happening now. BF: What direction does Cuba seem to be headed in from your point of view and how do you assess the “success” of the revolution?

SS: Again another very complex issue that would take a lot more than a simple answer to even begin to do justice to. When I was in Cuba in the Sixties—my last trip was in 1992—the Cubans liked to say that the rebellion succeeded in 1959 but that the revolution was an on-going process. I think we have a tendency here to think of things still in terms of beginning, middle, end instead of accepting the fact that all struggle is a process and a hugely complex one at that and ongoing. For specific information, analysis of the situation in Cuba I highly recommend a book by Margaret Randall, who figures prominently in my memoir, which will be published by Rutgers University Fall 2008 titled To Change the World: My Years in Cuba. Margaret lived in Cuba for ten years during the revolution’s formative period and has much more information and analysis about the situation then and now.

BF: Can you talk about Marcuse and Hegel’s ideas on individual choice and self-determination based on reason and rational thought— what kind of forces they were for you and those around you, in trying to build a world based on these principles rather than accepting the forces and facts of life as “the way things are,” etc?

SS: I’m not sure how much Marcuse and Hegel were on people’s minds that were struggling to fight against the many threads of repression and violence in the Sixties, particularly in the United States—which I think is the period you were referring to in this question. The catalyst would be found more in the energy and idealism of the Civil Rights Movement. The recognition that underneath the surface there were layers and layers of injustice that had to be addressed. Young people joined others already engaged in struggle who felt that two cars in every garage was not the motivation that moved them, the future they looked forward to. Marcuse’s book, The One Dimensional Man, was important because it laid out the vacuousness and emptiness of the period. Marx, particularly early Marx and Marx’s analysis of capitalism and his incorporation of Hegel (turned on his head) into his theory of historical determinism were more widely read and discussed, particularly in respect to the resolution of contradiction—the old thesis, antithesis, synthesis, negation of negation! A more pertinent question today I think—not putting down the gentlemen you name—would be the growth of media and advertising and its subliminal appeal to emotional needs that extend from the smallest parts of our lives—the toothpaste we buy—to electing our most important officials. BF: Can you talk about the sources of memory for this book? You mention the destroyed correspondence and pictures necessitated by the need to protect people from government surveillance?

SS: We actually never took many photos in the Sixties because we never knew how they would be used and I did destroy a great deal of my correspondence in the middle Seventies when women from the women’s movement were being targeted by the grand juries. That is a whole other story. Fortunately I kept letters from Margaret Randall who I had an extensive correspondence with during the Sixties. I actually had to go to the NYU library to get my corresponding letters to her—my letters are archived there with in El Corno Emplumado collection. I had some essays and articles, which were published at the time, from which I could get valuable specifics about my trips to England and Cuba. I did some research. But for the most part relying on my memory wasn’t really a problem since the incidents in the book for the most part were highlights of those years I wasn’t likely to forget!

BF: What do you feel was left out of this book that in, retrospect, you wish you’d included? SS: I would have liked to have taken the book to at least 1975 to include the women’s and gay liberation movements, a trip to Chile, the end of the Vietnam War and in 1975 a very important summer session at Sagaris, a feminist institute where I served on the faculty. But I felt that, as it was, there was a lot of information packed into one book. Who knows maybe some day I’ll write America’s Child Part Two! To repeat what I wrote in the last chapter of the book I feel what we call the Sixties really extended from the late Fifties until 1975 and that in actuality that period, even if extended, has to be viewed within a continuum of struggle in the United States. It cannot be compartmentalized. BF: Yes, I completely agree. I think books such as yours can serve as inspiration and hope for each generation of activists that come along to continue the struggle. I hope America’s Child Part Two is on your front burner.

Review of America's Child

AMERICA’S CHILD by Susan Sherman

      reviewed by Bonny Finberg

       The phenomenon of the Sixties did not arrive via Zeus’s head, pre-fab with a face and a name. It was the frisson created between dissidents and revolutionary thinkers, from both the political and cultural spheres, and the powers that be. And let’s not forget those whose survival depends on the powers that be, at any time in history, which covers just about everybody.

       The Sixties were a bend in the river—-a river that seems to be in danger of going the way of the Rio Grande—dried up. Susan Sherman traces the gathering currents of this river at the confluence between some of its major tributaries. For her it begins in Los Angeles in the Forties and Fifties, which was by then the heart of America’s image-making machine. Her transformation follows the larger social trajectory of a country that rose victorious and prosperous from a world war. First are her frustrated early attempts to keep step with the world of toothpaste smiles, tidy lawns, backyard barbeques, martini cocktail hours, and non-filtered cigarettes. With her move to Berkley at nineteen, and the ensuing, age-specific progression of influences, relationships and their resulting liberations and limitations, she begins her five-decade investigation into political and social change and the power and beauty of language.

       America’s Child, Susan Sherman’s moving and engaging book, begins in a movie theater watching the documentary “Control Room.” This takes her back to a memory of sitting in a similar room in Havana in 1969. As one of a small group of Americans among a larger group of Vietnamese students, she watches a documentary about the American bombing of North Vietnam. There is footage of an American plane being shot down. The audience, both her American companions and the Vietnamese, applauds and cheers wildly. In her characteristic way, Sherman doesn’t leave it at that. She reminds us that she is recalling these events from an older and wiser place, explaining that she remained silent, feeling conspicuous and conflicted. This is very much a personal history not an analytic one. We are never left to wonder about her perceptions and reactions. Her memoir reads like a novel where the depth of its characters and the way they initiate or react to events are windows into a historical place and time. Considering the current, sometimes scandalous, fashion of offering fiction as memoir, Sherman’s ability to weave together events and people provides the merits of both.

       1969 was a pivotal year of the 1960’s. It was post May ’68 when it could be said that the Flower Children went postal. It was many complications after the underground burblings of a few, isolated individuals found each other and began constructing communities made up of intellectual revolutionaries dedicated to social change. By 1969 the media had created its own version of “rebellious youth,” Hippy Fashion had pervaded large department store windows and had taken root in the very suburban lifestyles it meant to undermine.  Starting with that glimpse of where she had landed in 1969, she then takes us further back to Berkley 1958. We are allowed an intimate view of the awaking of a young girl: a developing poet increasingly involved in acts of peaceful civil disobedience, also discovering that she loves women. Her romantic enthusiasm, not yet fully activated, had yet to find its wave. At what point might she have realized she was part of its force?

       In 1958 “Nonconformist” had become a buzzword for a relatively small group of ”free thinkers” and dissenters. They challenged the material and social achievements of the post-war middle class, threatening to dismantle most of the fundamental beliefs in the American ideal. The American character had transformed itself from the struggling, industrious, average Joe into the white-collar corporate ideal living a cookie cutter, suburban lifestyle. This was actually just an updated version of the poor worker enslaved by 19th century industrialists transplanted into the expanding corporate, service industry structure. The only difference was that now the slaves wore grey flannel suits and ties. This new group of bearded, long-haired people who didn’t clean under their nails or wear make-up saw themselves as the true “rugged individualists”—Americans who would exercise, and, thereby protect, the U.S. Constitution as fervently as any Conservative Republican ever claimed to.

       Sherman sets out to bridge the separation in time between who she was and who she has become. The turning point for her is moving to Berkley where she fortuitously meets and lives with the poet Diane Wakowski and her lover, avant guarde musician, La Monte Young, also students at the University. Wakowski and Young take a somewhat protective role, much like surrogate parents. The apartment building on Telegraph Avenue is filled with artists and writers who pass their work around, reading aloud in dark, candle-lit rooms strewn with empty bottles of cheap jug wine. This living situation provided a sense of finally having found one’s true family. It was as if, despite having grown up with one’s birth parents, feeling you’ve been left with foster parents, you now discover a new, exotic life—the one you can and will choose:

    To discover the world you have known since childhood is not the only world is probably the most important discovery in a person’s life, because it is to discover the possibility of, not one, but many alternatives. It is to discover the possibility of choice.

       Of course this was at a time when the American economy was booming and it was possible to work just enough to pay your rent and live on the fringe if you didn’t mind eating rice and beans and whatever you might be able to shoplift now and then. It was a generation that prided itself on rejection of TV and advertising, creating its own, alternative media. The phenomenon of the internet might not have evolved in the free-for-all, anarchistic way it did, at least in its early days, without the preceding flood of grassroots media, like The East Village Other, WBAI, street and avant guard theater, most importantly, the Living Theater, decades before. Art and literature thrived with new blood and ideas; movements were started. There was cross germination among writers, painters, dancers and musicians. It was a time of prolific cultural activity in the company of acute political self-education. The Living Theater, the Performance Group, Joe Chaiken’s Open Theater, Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, La Monte Young, Charlotte Mormon and Fluxus. Among these was Sherman’s IKON magazine. The struggles with financing and governmental surveillance that she describes, the dedication and sacrifice often required for survival, can be applied to all radical artistic venues of that time. Although the Beats had become an icon to the mainstream by then, they still lived and worked within this larger community of poets, visual and performance artists, part of a bigger wave. In a sense it was America’s Renaissance. But, unlike the earlier European one, it flourished in opposition to the Church and wealthy elite, rather than its sponsorship. 

       Herbert Marcuse had written “Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory” less than twenty years before Susan Sherman entered Berkley. But these students and artists had incorporated the idea, whether knowingly or not, that only rational thought should determine the rights and freedoms of the individual, a member of a species whose determining characteristic is the capacity for reason, or rational thought. In the midst of this cultural renaissance and political awaking were sources of moral outrage. Desegregation of the schools had been unanimously voted as upholding the 14th amendment of Equal Protection Under the Law in 1954. However, true racial integration would still be a long way off.

       The overriding issue was the Vietnam War. Feminism and Gender Politics would eventually grow out of the internal struggles of the movement itself, but in the early stages the perception was that an illegal and immoral war stood for all that was wrong in Western society and economic policy. Sherman’s journeys to Cuba, for example, proved to be not only moving experiences for her on a social and interpersonal level, but on a more practical one as well. Doctors in New York had diagnosed her with an enlarged gall bladder and duodenal ulcer, requiring a month long stay in a hospital. Having no health insurance, she was given some codeine and sent on her agonized way. On a previous trip she’d met Castro’s doctor, René Vallejo. After some correspondence, he invited her to Cuba to receive treatment. It was on this trip, after her recovery, that she was given a private meeting with Castro at a gymnasium where he played basketball with his ministers after midnight, the only free time they had. They spoke for almost an hour about her experiences in a Cuban hospital and the status of the student movement and the New York art community’s reactions to the Vietnam War. The details of this dialogue make for fascinating reading. It is a rare, open discussion between the successful leader of a large revolution, maintaining order and his own power against the antagonism of a larger, more powerful nation, and a poet living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan struggling to keep an underground literary journal going against the antagonisms of the same nations. The accessibility of Castro to someone who had no name or status beyond a small group of young poets and activists is what impresses the reader as much as the discussion itself.

       Sherman’s explorations, and it does almost read like those 19th century, adventurous journeys into untrammeled territory, covered every aspect of the richly textured time and place in which she lived. It brought her into contact with many of the major figures that formed our current perceptions, attitudes, values and artistic vocabularies. Her experiences with psychedelics, for example, are not merely the same tired hallucinatory revelations of many who tried to convey such experience, but are infused with her characteristic humor as well. She goes to the Fillmore East, a large rock palace on Second Avenue, to see a lecture by Timothy Leary. She’d heard some horrible stories about the man, but tried to keep an open mind. But when he instructs his audience to “Just pretend for sixty seconds I am the wisest man on earth,” she tells her friend, “I don’t have that good an imagination,” and heads for the nearest exit.

       By the author’s own account, she sees her memoir as an imagined conversation between the girl she was and the woman she is now. Fortunately, for us, and for future generations curious about what the Sixties were all about in New York City, she has chosen to write it down.

       -Bonny Finberg

       June, 2008

        Paris

CRUCIFICTION

    by

    Bonny Finberg

    While the bombs fell between the 20th and 21st of April 1944, people prayed at the feet of the Crucifixion at Sacre Coeur. Montmartre was spared. I can’t help but feel it was their collective prayer that saved them rather than the stilled heart of a dead man, as full of grace as he might have been. There was no one then to pray for his salvation. He was betrayed. No one saw it coming.

I followed the Stations of the Cross, its brilliant mosaic transforming what must have been a messy business into a spectacle for the eyes. From the gleaming dome above, Le Seigneur, all cleaned up and risen from the tomb, bestows his blessing, substantiating triumph over death.

Once a year his betrayal is re-enacted. We all know what’s going to happen but we can’t do anything to reverse it. We can elevate it to sacrifice, feel better about the comparatively small betrayals we commit. We are all Judas. Only Jesus is the savior. His message was simple: Save yourself. But a game of telephone was in operation, and the road to dogma is paved with competing intentions.

Did he really die for our sins, or was he merely being consistent? Here, you can own another’s pain without having to really suffer it. You can be protected and forgiven. All human misery is swept under the shade of an ancient oak whose acorn happened to fall on good soil. 

A martyr chooses death. Jesus’ Passion might have been an unfortunate political accident. Or else Judas helped to ensure He carried out his destiny. Most of us die for no reason. Insight might come early or not at all. We may live rich, complex lives that are woven into a larger, ongoing narrative. Or we may be easily forgotten. How many bibles have gone unwritten?

    *

    Asylum

    At the entrance, security guards scan the crowd. A man directs people to the side aisles or the pews, depending on whether they’re coming to pray or coming to look. He repeatedly puts his finger to his lips—sshhhh! They have lots to see and say. Some are in awe. Some are making arrangements for later when they’ll go for moules frites.  Scowling, he continues shushing, pointing to his head to remind them to remove their hats, shaking his finger at the one-eyed monsters to put their cameras away. He protects the Sacred Heart with the authority vested in him by the Holy Fathers who take his confession and hand him the Eucharist. The end is always near. You try to see it coming.

    *

    Passion

    I thought the services would start at 5:30, so I was seated in the second row by 5:25. But this is Good Friday not a routine Vespers service. After an hour, a nun in a white robe and black wimple walks out to the front of the apse and sets up a microphone. She moves like an actress playing a nun. Men in lab coats come out and place the sacred objects and texts. A short, plump woman in a white lab coat appears with a rag and feather duster and tidies up. They have a brief conversation and walk back behind the apse. A handyman walks on, front left, with keys and a tape measure hanging out of his pocket. He looks around and walks off, leaving behind an odor of lubricating oil.  Another half hour goes by. The pews are filling up.

    A Black priest in a white robe comes out. There is anticipation, especially in the first two rows, where those who came earliest have been sitting longest. But then, behind the priest is the cleaning woman again. They file off to the right. Some people are talking, others are praying. Some of the ones praying tell the ones who are talking to be quiet. An irritable exchange erupts between the two women next to me, who have been chattering away, and the woman behind, who chastises them. A woman many rows back is talking loudly. People are trying to quiet her. She becomes increasingly belligerent and it slowly becomes apparent that she is not in her right mind. A few people smile indulgently. Two nuns come out and hand out the texts for the mass. Another ten minutes pass. The nuns come out and take their seats on the sides and the noise subsides a little. Another twenty minutes pass.

    I read the whole four pages of the mass. My eyelids fall closed and I drift into a mild state of meditation. The woman next to me stands suddenly. I jump up from my seat, surprised at my own reflex and realize that, although I never thought it possible, I have been hypnotized.  The procession has begun.

    A cardinal and three priests are in front. One of the priests is old and feeble. All kneel down and prostrate themselves before the marble Crucifix. When they stand, the two on the outside pull the old one up by his elbows. He stumbles to his feet, a tuft of white hair sticking up from his head. The angelic voices of the nuns sing about the Royal Kingdom of Heaven. I sing along, following the printed text, in exalted French. The Passion is read by three priests. The cardinal speaks the words of Jesus in a deep, commanding voice. We all stand and the nuns sing, in crystalline harmony, the adoration of the Wooden Cross:

    Voici le bois de la Croix

    qui porte le Salut du monde,

    Venez, Adorons!

    Here is the wood of the Cross

    that carries the Salvation of the world,

    Come, let us adore it.

    The Wooden Cross, carved in olive wood, is carried from the back by a procession of robed men.  When they reach the apse they hold it vertically so the priests and altar boys can each in turn come forward to kiss it. After each kiss, a priest wipes the spot clean with a handkerchief. 

    Then the nuns line up. They kiss the naked Jesus all over his stretched out body, under his ribs, his armpit, his thighs, his hands, his feet. They know how much he suffered for them, how much he loves them. And they love him back. The priest swabs each kiss with his handkerchief.

    After this the pews empty into the aisles. The line is slow and as I come nearer my eyes are ineluctably drawn to the loincloth. I sense a nudge from the devil but head for the foot. The priest points to the blank surface of the cross, indicating where I must kiss it, shouting, “Le pied! Le pied!”—and I begin to think my eyes have betrayed me. Or the priest has read my mind. I am convinced he is able to see transgressions before they happen. I walk past his finger and put my lips to the exquisitely carved toe, the tendons strained in agonized submission.

    The nuns sing:

O Croix, buisson ardent de la Revelation,

Vigne au Sang vermeil, Olivier de benediction,

O Croix, bois d’ombre et defraicheur ou murmure L’Esprit, nous t’adorons!

O Cross, burning bush of the Revelation,

Vineyard of ruby Blood, Olive Tree of benediction,

O Cross, dark and faded wood where the Spirit whispers, we adore you.

    Words so holy even the metaphors are Capitalized.

    *

    Walking back from the church I notice signs hanging outside many apartment windows that read, Vendu. The word ‘vendu’ means ‘sold.’ It also means ‘traitor.’  This seems serendipitous. We find ourselves inhabiting a world where the structures we’ve trusted to protect us have betrayed us. Time and space have become commodities beyond our means—The weak may inherit the earth, but the traitors have the best real estate. So at least here, in Paris, you’re safe from traitors if you pay attention to the signs.

              © Bonny Finberg, 2005, Paris

Review of ON BEAUTY

          By Zadie Smith

          Reviewed by Bonny Finberg

          I’ve been thinking about reincarnation and Zadie Smith— wondering if the tremendous insight and breadth of her vision are the result of many lives lived. But the more I think about it, the more convinced I become by the simpler idea that she experiences and processes what she sees and hears more deeply and quickly than most people do. There is always the sense of play as she gives us an unobstructed view of those things that transcend gender, class, and race—that is, most things at the core of being—delivered with immense humor and compassion for all concerned. The narrative occurs naturally out of the various intersections between these people, taking place in this Present World that we all wake up to and sleep as reprieve from, whatever Them or Us we belong to.

          Let’s start with Howard Belsey: an opinionated, hubristic type who knows what’s right, and insists that others take heed, while he fights various losing battles between his sexual boredom and his last stabs (no pun intended) at fading lust, not to mention his interminably “soon to be published” treatise on how Rembrandt has been overrated. He is an Englishman who teaches art history at a prestigious New England University through the lens of his left leaning politics, loves his African American wife, Kiki, and has raised three children, now teenagers, who have variously grown into Belsey-adherents or rebels, depending on their gender and age. Zora is her daddy’s girl, passionately aspiring to academic accomplishment and intellectual vigor. Jerome, being the oldest son, also follows his father’s intellectual path into academia, though he veers into forbidden territory, having gone on holiday to London, where he is staying with the family of Howard’s right wing nemesis, Monty Kipps. Howard and Monty are engaged in an ongoing academic feud about what constitutes Good vs. Bad Art. Easily acclimated into the Kipps milieu, Jerome finds himself in love with Victoria, the luscious Kipps daughter. This becomes further complicated by developments that would qualify as bordering on the surreal. Levi Belsey, 15 years old, is in the throes of teendom, and intent on hiding the fact that he lives in a privileged college town with the privileges afforded the family of a respected academic in a respected American University. He, rather, talks the talk and walks the walk of young Black men 250 miles away in New York City (none of the Belseys can figure out how he learned to talk like that) wears a head stocking, writes Rap lyrics, and gets involved with some African “Brothers,” street vendors, selling pirated DVD’s, CD’s and designer bag knockoffs. Howard and Kiki are both recuperating, at least trying to, from the crisis of Kiki’s discovery that Howard had a one-night stand.

          All the people but one in this novel have some physical flaw that puts their beauty into question, compensated for by some other virtue like wisdom, wit, talent or youth. This is most prominently true for Kiki Belsey, who at 54 has gained considerable weight since the time when she and Howard were young lovers brought together by sex and radical politics. Forthright, wise and emanating a beauty and style of her own, she tries to accept these changes gracefully, particularly challenging in the face of Howard’s own slip from grace. Howard’s attempts at damage control, on the other hand, are poignantly transparent, awkward, and familiar.

          Kiki and Howard, on a family outing, stand in line for a concert in the park, with their three children:

  Kiki began to giggle. Now Howard let go of Zora and held his wife instead, gripping her from behind. His arms could not go entirely around her, but still they walked in this manner down the small hill towards the gates of the park. This was one of the little ways in which he said sorry. They were meant to add up each day.

          Kiki, cautiously inching closer to forgiveness in the glow of a milestone anniversary and its requisite party, is further cast down the rabbit hole. Howard continues to try to “get out of this one,” stumbling, and yielding to temptation with the sad weakness of the 1950’s sitcom husband: Stupid Loveable Louse.
          Though in truth, no one in this novel comes across as a stereotype, quite the opposite, and no one is actually stupid. They only act stupid, often against their own best interests, and some more than others. The smartest choices and observations generally fall to the women. That brings us to the one exception in this book of flawed beauty. Victoria Kipps, possibly named after the lingerie line of the same name, is the ideal centerfold masturbation fantasy and she plays this (most hilariously during a sex scene) to the max. This eponymous Victoria has quite a few secrets of her own. While her characterological flaws mar her physical perfection, all the other paunch-bellied, ass-sagging, bespectacled, prominent-fore headed, awkward teen-aged humans are trying to do the right thing, even if imperfectly, with good intentions and relative humility.
          The Belseys and their friends and foes are people that one could easily know, or at least might have come into contact with. You don’t know how this will all come out until the last page, and even then, just as in life, there is still room for another turn of events, another slip up, a change of mind. It’s not over till it’s over and so, at its end, after you’ve closed the book and these fictional intimates are silenced, you may find yourself wishing for a sequel, or even a trilogy.

Review of Inheritance of Loss

“Tötest du einen, bist du ein Mörder. Tötest du viele, bist   du ein Held. Tötest du ALLE, bist du eine Legende.”

“If you kill one, you are a murderer. If you kill many, you are a hero. If you kill ALL, you are a legend.

Posted by the moderator, “Frontsoldat,” of “Deutschland” an online forum

(Google translation)

Inheritance of Loss

by Kiran Desai

Reviewed by Bonny Finberg

  We seem to live in a time of ‘otherness’ when there is a prevailing us-vs-them mentality as others threaten to trespass into our once exclusive lives as a result of the increased permeability of geographic boundaries. This ostensibly shortens distances, facilitates communication and disseminates information. But information is not necessarily knowledge and some of it can be faulty or incomplete or based on fear, bias, and lack of vigorous research. Still, we smile and talk of ‘diversity,’ try to show ‘tolerance’ and political correctness, while leaders are building walls to protect our borders as Kings once built walls around medieval cities to keep out the Romans, the Franks, the Goths, or the Vandals. Fear built those walls. Technology made them crumble. These days, Electronic Information Technology is not only dismantling the physical limitations of geography, it is eroding the boundaries between individuals. We now speak of Identity Theft and Geographical Tracking Systems. Personal information and pictures can be sent through some wireless mystery that allows a stranger to steal the idea of your money which doesn’t actually exist except in a data base recorded on a microchip, or share the spectacle of your being run over by a sanitation truck with her best friend in Africa who is going on a guided night safari in a jeep to invade the privacy of animals trying to survive under cover of darkness. This last scenario is not some product of my imagination to prove a point. It was reported in the New York Times Travel Section with its usual peppy tone and sadly ironic use of metaphor. To justify these intrusive night safaris into the African bush the author wrote:

After all, an after-dark shutdown makes as much sense as rolling up Manhattan's sidewalks at sunset: so many African animals come into their own when the heat subsides. Like hip urbanites, they surface from slumberous hideouts to drink, forage, frolic and stalk.

http://travel.nytimes.com/2007/03/18/travel/18JOURNEYS.html

Et voila! The great question of our existence is answered. It’s nothing more than a marvelous amusement park—even those poor animals who take for granted what you and I find so exotic and fascinating as we fuck it up.

Living in big cities we are confronted with the ‘other’ as a matter of daily life. As bona fide members of the First World Club, we enjoy freedom of movement and access to discount travel fares and package tours. But has this increased our sensitivity to other cultures or simply made them an extension of our general Disney consciousness where everything seems to exist for its entertainment value? Just real enough—real-ish. Entertainment itself has taken on a heterogenous look. If one does travel and is privileged enough to have spent time in a hotel with cable TV it’s evident that most countries’ primary programming is either, dubbed American serials and films, or facsimiles in the local argot. I once met a young Bulgarian business student in Paris who cringed when I mentioned Fellini, saying, “I hate European films. I love trashy American movies, like—”…the name escapes me as I write this, but you get the idea.

It may no longer be true, as it used to be, that living in urban areas means you are more exposed to the foreign born, usually two or three generations at most from their country of origin, who nurture a nostalgia for the past, a faraway place, another language. The occasional glimpses that someone of my generation had of a distant time and place were often through the lens of a grandmother’s joke told in a foreign accent with an untranslatable punch line, the homey smell of food as familiar as that of your own body, an aunt singing a song that was popular when she was eighteen and all that it conjured come to life in her aging face, a grandfather’s story about some ancient victimization or mischief whose comfort in the telling, no matter how many times, made you see the boy he was. Then, depending on the year, there might be the mother or father who cut questioning short with a definitive “I don’t want to ‘talk about all of that.’

Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss is more than a simple look at immigration and displacement. It’s a complex map of the experience of leaving one’s country for a better place and that which comes after. It begins with the dream of freedom, increased opportunity, choice, a better education, job, plumbing. Its complexity lies in the social and cultural contexts determined by generation, history, and the dynamics of longing. It’s colored by the self-delusions of assimilation and imitation and the cruel disappointment when, having finally arrived at the end of the rainbow, the anticipated pot of gold is just another path back to one’s self—the inescapable reassessment of what constitutes a ‘better life.” After all, how many choices do you really need when it comes to a cup of coffee?

Desai’s characters come down from the mountain, leaving their failing Shangri-la for the presumed efficacy and abundance of London, or New York City. It can be a ticket to success or, more often than not, turn out to be another kind of jungle where bosses take advantage of those without papers, or protection or family loyalty. Even those that succeed do so at a price. Maybe they achieve success but not without humiliations and hardships along the way. Being at the mercy of their place in history, it can be snatched away at any time. All those within this spectrum of hope and compromise who aspire to what everyone else seems entitled to, those who succeed and those who don’t, are victims in the end. They find themselves in a thick Darwinian tar pit and the ones who manage to climb out and clean up can be thrown right back in if they’re not careful. One can acquire too much, inviting the resentment of those with too little. Status can change in a matter of days, even within a fraction of a moment, humiliation trade places on the wrong side of a gun.

Against the backdrop of a Nepali insurgency in northern India, The Inheritance of Loss traces the dramas of class, culture and generational conflict. The story unfolds moving back and forth through time and continents in a patchwork that reveals the history of India and British colonialism through individual lives.

When Sai is four years old, her parents send her to a convent school where they exchange newsy letters devoid of emotional content. Two years later she is still at the convent school when her parents emigrate to 1950’s cold war Russia where her father is on a fast track to becoming an astronaut in the Soviet space program. His mission, however, is never fulfilled as he and his wife are killed by a bus while crossing a Moscow street. Orphaned at six by parents she hasn’t seen in two years, Sai arrives on the doorstep of a grandfather she’s never met. In a remote house at the foot of Mt. Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas her grandfather, a crusty, Cambridge-educated judge, wants only to be left alone with his dog, the only creature he has any feeling for. “A foreigner in his own country,” he long ago renounced Indian-ness, God, and in brutal fashion, a wife from an arranged marriage. Harboring a disdain for his own countrymen and the inevitable self-hatred that goes along with it, he is unable to reconcile the color of his own skin with his European tastes and affectations.

The judge’s cook takes a fatherly interest in Sai, perhaps in compensation for his absent son, Biju, who is living in New York City crowded together with other illegal immigrants, moving from one degrading restaurant job to another.

A tutor comes into Sai’s life and a love affair develops as they discover themselves through each other’s eyes and bodies. They meet for their tutoring sessions at the nearby house of her two great aunts. These two aging sisters enjoy their mannered lives among the accoutrements of two Indian women who, having lived through the last gasps of the Raj, expect to live out their years with the quiet comforts of proper English ladies.

All the characters in this novel face the forced choices imposed by the collision of colonialism with the modern world. A world where the back and forth governance and nationhood of countries have changed so often as to “(make)…ridiculous the drawing of borders.” The so-called ‘globalization’ we face is essentially driven by commerce, leaving behind those that spend their time striving to be part of a culture that is no culture at all but merely a market place fed by objects providing cheap and easy entertainment without substance. The question is: Why does it seem that those with less seem to have more while those who have it all have nothing? How do we strike a balance that allows us individual freedom and realization of our human potential without destroying what’s precious in human relationships and community?

Living in a cramped basement with a mix of immigrants, one of Biju’s roommates comments on the different attitudes regarding sharing in the States and back home.

“You can’t say this is my food, like Americans, and only I will eat it. Ask Thea” —she was the latest pooky pooky interest in the bakery—“where she live with three friends, everyone go shopping separately, separately they cook their dinner, together they eat their separate food. The fridge they divide up, and into their own place—their own place!—they put what is left in a separate box. One of the roommates, she put her name on the box so it say who it belong to!” His finger went up in uncharacteristic sternness. “In Zanzibar what one person have he have to share with everyone, that is good, that is the right way—But then everyone have nothing, man! That is why I leave Zanzibar.”

When does the exercise of free will become self-indulgence? Kiran Desai’s novel addresses these questions without fully answering them. She rather directs her lens to the weaknesses that have gotten the human condition to its present state of instability—the loss of self and community—and leaves us still wondering.

Paris, April 2007

America's Child

The Sixties were a bend in the river—-a river that seems to be in danger of going the way of the Rio Grande—dried up. Susan Sherman traces the gathering currents of this river at the confluence between some of its major tributaries. For her it begins in Los Angeles in the Forties and Fifties, which was by then the heart of America’s image-making machine. Her transformation follows the larger social trajectory of a country that rose victorious and prosperous from a world war. First are her frustrated early attempts to keep step with the world of toothpaste smiles, tidy lawns, backyard barbeques, martini cocktail hours, and non-filtered cigarettes. With her move to Berkley at nineteen, and the ensuing, age-specific progression of influences, relationships and their resulting liberations and limitations, she begins her five-decade investigation into political and social change and the power and beauty of language.