Culture Corner

Bernie Langs

“Truth” in Painting

Getting to a ‘core essence’ in a mystic or revelatory sense can be as elusive as tracing the path of an electron or photon, famously described as both particle and wave. The arts can be utilized as a conduit to higher states of consciousness. In music, the drone of an Indian sitar or a choral work by Mozart can carry the mind of the listener to abstract and blissful states. In the 19th century, Walter Pater redefined the approach to the study of art in history and art history itself in his book of essays, The Renaissance. When writing about the Italian Renaissance painter Giorgione, he noted “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” and later asserts that the mind’s impressions are “in continual flux.” Pater states that a passion for the arts has “the greatest potential for staving off the sense of transience, because in the arts the perceptions of highly sensitive minds are already ordered.”

Bernard Berenson [uncredited picture on the Web site Art Fuse]

Bernard Berenson presents his theory of how and why painting grabs hold of the viewer, in his book The Italian Painters of the Renaissance, a compiled series of essays written from 1894 to 1907, and reissued in 1952. Berenson’s famous ideas on the ‘tactile’ process of how paintings bring the viewer to a heightened state starts with his observation of what form does in paintings: “It lends a higher coefficient of reality to the object represented, with the consequent of accelerated psychical processes, and the exhilarating sense of increased capacity in the observer.” He observes this as a retinal sensation and that the tactile sense stems from childhood revelations and joy in the discovery of the physical aspect of the sense of touch.

Alison Brown describes in her essay Bernard Berenson and ‘Tactile Values’ in Florence the evolution of Berenson’s theory, noting that Berenson saw his ideas more akin to psychology rather than philosophy, and that he had been heavily influenced at Harvard by his professor, William James, and his writings on psychological aesthetics.

What I took from reading Berenson’s book over two decades ago, was the idea of the shortcut offered by paintings to heightened states of the sublime, which leaves the door open to many kinds of revelation, including, yet far beyond, the psychological. In the mid-1990s, I purchased a book of collected essays by Meyer Schapiro, who at the time was Professor Emeritus of Art History at Columbia University. I’d read Schapiro’s book of selected papers on late Antiquity, early Christian and Medieval art that had impressed me in its scientific, sleuthing, and exhaustive examination of art, much along the lines of the awe-inspiring and groundbreaking approach of Princeton’s Erwin Panofsky. The 1990s collection includes the essay, Mr. Berenson’s Values from 1961, boasting cutting gems of prose such as his analysis of Berenson’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity.

Meyer Schapiro [Book jacket photo for “Theory and Philosophy of Art” photo by Richard Sandler]

Schapiro notes that Berenson failed to grow as a theorist and critic and chose to be a connoisseur rather than an art historian or philosopher of art, which indeed Berenson did regret. Schapiro describes the theory of ‘tactile values’ in painting as a “strange appeal to physiology” and that Berenson used these ideas “with no deepening sense, as personal clichés imposed on any sort of problem.”

Around the time I read Schapiro’s book, I was trying to incorporate the study of art history in cultural context using the methodical approach of Professors Schapiro and Panofsky, and others combined with the bullet train to higher states I’d created in my mind around Berenson’s ideas.

About ten years ago, I chanced to read The Truth in Painting by French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Derrida’s writings are uncommonly difficult and convoluted, and he is both praised and derided as the main force behind the philosophical school of Deconstruction. When reading Derrida, I’m always struck by his underlying humor, and when I really believe I’m catching the gist of his purposively obtuse arguments, it’s a source of sublime understanding.

Jaques Derrida [Photo: PhilWeb Bibliographic Archive]

Derrida’s approach is akin to a circling war party, each on his own horse surrounding one solitary covered wagon, where all riders have their own notion of what may be hidden in that wagon, and whatever it is may have an ‘ultimate’ end to it. But as we circle, it becomes clear that there’s a good chance that there is absolutely nothing inside the wagon (or perhaps Schrödinger’s cat!) and also that we’re never truly going to get a clear look at it. But by moving closer and closer and sharing all angles of viewing, we’ll perhaps find the ghost or essence of the core.

One of the essays in Truth in Painting is Derrida’s work Restitutions of the truth in pointing [pointure]. Gianluca Spinato in his essay, Philosophy of Art: Martin Heidegger and Meyer Schapiro, argues that “Jacques Derrida’s well-known discussion of the conflict between the faculties in question locates Heidegger on the side of the ‘truth’ of art and finds Schapiro on the side of historical and dialectical, even materialist accuracy. The resulting ‘haul’, as Derrida names it at the end of his own evaluation of Schapiro’s original assessment, ‘is a meagre one for the picture police, for this discourse of order and propriety/property in painting’.”

Derrida examines, in his playfully maddening manner, approaches to understanding Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting Old Shoes with Laces, as well as other paintings by the artist of peasant boots. Two significant quotes begin the exposition, the first by Cezanne that “I owe you the truth in painting, and I will tell it you” and Van Gogh’s own words, “But truth is so dear to me, and so is the seeking to make true, that indeed, I believe I would still rather be a cobbler than a musician with colors.”

Chad Orzel’s YouTube for TED-ED

After a long discourse on shoes, peppered with doubts of whether they can even be called “a pair” and other unsubstantiated “givens” in discussing Van Gogh, Restitution continues on to jab at Professor Schapiro and his approach to studying art, including the questioning of one of his most famous essays in his book on late Antiquity and early Christian art. Restitution included an unexpected view of Schapiro that both Heidegger and Derrida bring down on him, seemingly implying that their philosophical query into the underlying truths in Van Gogh and in painting, are something akin to abstract notions defined by the ancient Greeks, and ignored and beyond the comprehension of an art historian. Schapiro’s criticism of Heidegger is made to look like an attempt at grabbing back the paintings to his field of study and away from the other school. Derrida writes of “A symbolic correspondence, an accord, a harmonic. In this communication between two illustrious professors who have both of them a communication to make on ‘a famous picture by Van Gogh’—one of the two is a specialist. Painting, and even Van Gogh, is, so to speak, his thing, he wants to keep it, he wants it returned…They owe the truth in painting, the truth of painting and even painting as truth, or even as the truth of truth.”

In complete contradiction to my circling wagon deconstructive metaphor, Derrida describes examining the problem from a stationary standpoint. It reminded me of a lecture I attended many years ago by then-Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello. He discussed that to get the full power of a painting, one has to look at it for a very long time. He punctuated this point with a funny anecdote of how, while visiting the Frick Collection, he stared so long at a painting that the security staff grew concerned and a guard approached him demanding to know what he was doing. It reminds me to keep looking, keep looking long and hard.

 

Culture Corner

Landscape Into Art: Thoughts on the book Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape (by Christopher S. Wood), and the film The Revenant (directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu)

Bernie Langs

Caution: spoilers ahead!

Albrecht Altdorfer’s most famous painting: The Battle of Alexander and Darius at Issus (Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany; photo: Wikipedia – Public Domain)

The inspired ideas and emotions one experiences when taking in the sights of nature, reading about the subject, or seeing a film with beautiful landscapes, can range wildly, from those of awe and wonder to absolute terror. I’ve come to believe that once humans banded together to hunt and farm, communicate effectively, and build communal living areas, the species irrevocably lost any direct association with natural surroundings. We were left with only the ability to examine the inner biological mechanics of being for understanding what is called “nature.” We were destined from an early time as persistently self-aware beings to be removed and isolated observers of the planet’s natural wonders, no matter how in awe we are by such magnificence.

Ideas about the relationship of Man and his natural surroundings are examined in fantastic detail in Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape by Christopher S. Wood, who is Professor and Chair of the Department of German at New York University. Professor Wood’s book is an incredible achievement in art historical theory and research. It investigates a single daunting question: What motivated the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Altdorfer (1480 – 1538) to paint the very first stand-alone landscape paintings in human history? How did a European world completely centered on religion, with its arts engulfed in religious or classically-themed pagan iconography, end up with an artist creating pictures either with no humans in them at all or as tiny figures in overwhelmingly dense forest settings?

Professor Wood thoroughly examines the mindset of the artists of the German Renaissance era in which Altdorfer worked, a much less studied locality than that of the Italian and Flemish schools. He also examines the implications on his thesis drawn from the scant information in the historical record about the artist’s personal life. The book has beautiful reproductions of the works by German masters of paintings, drawings and prints, many in color, lending themselves well to deep meditation on its themes.

Altdorfer was caught between the rising tide of Martin Luther’s iconoclastic teachings (Luther was alive and active during his time) and traditional Christianity as practiced out of Rome, but he never completely gave in to the former. Professor Wood notes that as the landscape setting encroached on the religious saints and the pagan heroes in paintings, certain aspects of the primeval forests took on their attributes in an odd substitution of sorts. Joachim Patinir, the visionary Netherlandish painter who set his small figures from Christian tales amid beautiful panoramic views of mountains, waterways, lush trees, and forests, is cited as a proponent of the widespread idea at the time that nature’s beauty is subservient to the religious experience and story. However, Altdorfer’s revolution swayed towards evincing the fear and harshness evoked by the dense forests of his native Germany as an independent entity, with no relationship to the stories of the Bible or Classical literature and myths in any way. In the long run, one also can see in these frightening German landscapes the source of a nationalistic pride in their terrors. This attitude eventually leads as an almost natural path to the unflinching murderous apects of National Socialism.

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Culture Corner

Book Review: Sudden Death: A Novel, by Álvaro Enrigue, translated by Natasha Wimmer

By Bernie Langs

The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio located at San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome (photo: Wikipedia)

The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio located at San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome (photo: Wikipedia)

I often view the study of European history as a lesson in arbitrarily defined epochs populated by individuals lost in a haze of their own coping mechanisms, against the ingrained, systematic, and what they felt at the time to be wholly justified violence surrounding them. Future generations may view our current times much in the same way.

A new book Sudden Death: A Novel, by  the  Mexican writer Álvaro Enrigue (now living in New York City) and translated by Natasha Wimmer, attempts to place the events of the Counter Reformation in a fictionalized setting, centering around a tennis match between the famous Italian artist Michelangelo   Merisi da Caravaggio (called “Caravaggio”; 1571-1610) and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. That both figures are so hungover that they can’t recall the events of the prior evening that has led to their vicious “dueling” on the court is a great running joke throughout the book. The historical Caravaggio is well-known as having been a violent brawler and yes, he played tennis. It is widely believed that it was an argument over a tennis match that led him to murdering Ranuccio Tomassoni. The subsequent threat of punishment by the authorities set off the chain of events leading to the artist’s own demise.

Sudden Death, graced with short chapters, has a wider sweep than the tennis match, bringing in far-flung plots that strangely eventually coalesce. Many of them center on the slightly earlier time of the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés. He is fictionalized as completely oblivious to the carnage he has left in his wake and later as having no sense of just how barbaric his land-grab in the name of Spain has been. Also appearing in the novel are Galileo and a host of other well-known personalities from the time of Caravaggio. Most amusing is the tracing back of the ball utilized in the tennis match, made from the packed hair of the executed second wife of King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn. That human or horsehair or wool were used at the time to make tennis balls is noted by Enrigue in brief interludes, presenting source documents on the evolution of the game of tennis. This, along with countless other diversions, makes Sudden Death a truly interesting and enjoyable read.

Caravaggio is a fascinating figure in art history. Having read nonfiction accounts of his life and work and having seen much of his paintings in person, I found it interesting to see how a novel makes him come alive, if just in the imagination of a writer such as Enrigue. I could have lived without some of the more scatological details and the sections describing the artist’s sexual proclivities, but the battling Lombard in Sudden Death neatly coincides with what I’ve imagined Caravaggio to have been like as a real person.

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CULTURE CORNER

Learning Lessons from Multi-Volume Series

By Bernie Langs

There is no challenge in reading more rigorous than the study, over several years, of a series of books by a single author on one subject. From about 1983 through the late 1990s, I read four series, two of which I did not complete and two of which I finished, that changed my outlook on life.

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The 12 volumes and index of Erwin R. Goodenough’s Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period (Bollinger Series)

My first foray began when I chanced on the first volume of a series by the German art historian and curator Max J. Friedländer (1867–1958) and decided on the spot that “I’m going to read all of this.” The 14-volume Van Eyck to Breughel: Early Netherlandish Painting is a wonderful overview of the Northern Renaissance. It’s written from the point of view of not only an art historian, but a connoisseur and a man with emotional and impeccable vision for classifying, cataloging, and appreciating the mostly Christian iconographic paintings of the mid-15th through mid-16th century. The first volume focuses on Jan Van Eyck and his mysterious brother Hubert, who died at an early age, and whose contributions to their oeuvre has been the subject of intense debate through history. The seriousness and depth of Van Eyck’s work, with its rich palette and texture brought on by his groundbreaking use of oil solutions in his paint, bring the reader into a new world of intensity and vitality, that Friedländer is able to maintain throughout the entire work. As the reader progresses, his or her own personal vision is enhanced and improved because of the time spent looking at the 2000 or so plates of reproductions of Masters, such as the harsh Rogier van der Weyden, the idealist Hugo van der Goes, the mischievous Bosch, the sublime Gerard David, and the romantic Adrianne Yesenbrandt, much of whose work I could see on view in the large Northern collection of the Metropolitan Museum.

The way I saw the world changed from the experience, and although I am not of Christian faith, I appreciated that these paintings were a way of an artist’s expression of his or her belief in “The Divine.” The views depicted in the background of many of the works of late Medieval and Renaissance Northern cities such as Bruges, often bathed in dark bluish color and light, became for me an ideal of a celestial home.

My next foray into a lengthy series was a difficult four-year journey through the ancient world with Professor Erwin R. Goodenough (1893–1965) of Yale University. His masterwork, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period is sophisticated and dense in presentation. Much of the early volumes are spent defining and refining the concept of what a symbol actually is and how deeply it was ingrained in the psyche of the ancient world in synchronized fashion, so that the Greeks and Romans and even the Egyptians and Assyrians shared ideas of mysticism which were co-opted into Jewish religious expression. Symbols such as divine fluids of wine, or expressions reflecting the stars and the zodiac, or of more natural subjects, show up in the most unexpected ways throughout the ancient world if you are educated to understand what you are seeing.

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Culture Corner

Book Review: A Manuscript of Ashes, by Antonio Muñoz Molina

By Bernie Langs

When the book A Manuscript of Ashes by Antonio Muñoz Molina arrived in the mail in a glorious hardcover edition, I knew that this unexpected present from my brother would become a special read. After all, my brother has the best literary taste of anyone I’ve ever met. After reading few pages, I paused realizing that the book was approachable but difficult in its sentence structures and in its form of shifting memories shared by narrators with unique perspectives of the events in the small Spanish town of Mágina over three decades.

CCAshes is mysterious on many levels and it plays with readers’ sensibilities that everything read may not be truth, as the shifting perspectives may be unreliable. But each contains a kernel of truth as well. In Muñoz Molina’s book, the story centers around a period of Civil War and later, Franco’s fascist control where several key players are dragged off and face death or prison time so brutal that they emerge scarred for life, never letting go of the fear imbedded in their bones.

In the late 1960s, the book’s protagonist, Minaya, escapes Madrid for Mágina in fear, and arrives at the home of his Uncle Manuel. He searches out the work and life of poet Jacinto Solana, who had lived there and violently died after prison. Solana had loved the same woman as Manuel, Mariana, who had upended Manuel’s family and friends with her beauty and dynamic manner. Mariana stands tall and powerful in this novel, though she is viewed obliquely and has little dialogue in the passages describing her time among this entourage. Tragically shot in the Mágina home (in the outdoor pigeon coop) on her wedding night with Manuel, it is discovered that it wasn’t a soldier’s bullet that felled her, but that she was murdered and possibly by someone within Manuel’s household.

The women in Ashes, be it Mariana, or the house servant Ines, who becomes romantically involved with Minaya, or Beatriz, who seeks out Solana after his release from prison in the 1940s and is in grave danger herself, or the harsh, reclusive mother of Manuel, Doña Elvira, ruling the household from her room in aged bitterness, are strong-willed, mysterious, and greatly shape the realities and lives of the men in the book.

As I read of the passionate love that Solana has for the elusive, alluring Mariana and felt his heartache as he awaited the wedding of Mariana to his school friend Manuel, I thought of something my own college friend told me: love was invented by poets and novelists, it wasn’t a naturally occurring phenomenon. While reading the love story in Ashes encapsulated in a murder mystery, surrounded by political intrigue and betrayal, I felt that Muñoz Molina could not have invented the intricacies of love for Mariana and the familial love (such as that between Solana and his tragic father), but that he’d drawn from experiences. We all feel and fall in love, and artists extrapolate on this and send it back out to us refined and beautiful. Then each of us have an even more intricate base for our next romantic experience. It is comparable to a Krebs Cycle going around and around, each piece a necessary cog of understanding to give us a pulse and a heartbeat, with an accompanied pang of discomfort.

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Culture Corner

Book Review: My Struggle Book 1, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

By Bernie Langs

For several months I had heard chatter about an extraordinary set of books written by an eccentric Norwegian chronicling his life in the minutest detail. There was even one nighttime commute home on New Jersey Transit where I sat and watched a man reading the book in the seat across from mine and I pondered questioning him if it was worth the effort and time to take it on.

My Struggle Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard ended up being a fantastic book and the much-discussed overly detailed remembrances came across to me as the natural power of observation of an extraordinary, unique and creative mind at work. The dynamics of any family are complex, emotional for its members, and more often than not, extremely difficult, and the manner in which Knausgaard presents his family’s relationships teaches harsh and true lessons while keeping the reader absolutely glued to the page. By focusing on nuances and detailed moments occurring decades in the past, one begins to sense the writer’s blurring of fact and fiction, in this case, the loss of distinction between memoir and embellished storytelling. Knausgaard still remained true to the message he wishes to impart.

The landscape of obscure locations in Norway forms much of the backdrop to Knausgaard’s recollections. Fjords, the sea, and even watering holes are present as are the constant reminders of the cold and the snow of the Nordic region. Yet all of that is natural to its natives, while remaining fairly exotic to the readers of the book, who can marvel at names of people and places they can’t even begin to try to pronounce.

Although this first book of many in the series of My Struggle focuses on periods of the author’s time as a boy and teenager, he does jump to other times of his life and we see how the characteristics he displayed early on take on permanence as an adult, and not always in a flattering way. Certain insensitivities as a youth grow into a manner of emotional coldness and removal as an adult that Knausgaard is all too aware of and in some way, ashamed to have allowed to have blossomed.

The underlying key to much of this is clearly revealed to stem from the personality of his father and their odd and complicated relationship. The book moves along and builds to become a flood of emotions based around this man, whom we first meet in the early pages as stern and confident, physically alive but in many ways “not there” emotionally. We then learn of the author’s father’s devolution into a broken individual who becomes an obese, out-of-work alcoholic who has lost contact with his sons and who dies a miserable death.

Here is Knausgaard early in the book discussing his father and “how great the difference was between our days. While my days were jam-packed with meaning, when each step opened a new opportunity, and when every opportunity filled me to the brim, in a way which now is actually incomprehensible, the meaning of his days was not concentrated in individual events but spread over such large areas that it was not possible to comprehend them in anything other than abstract terms.”

When reading My Struggle, I began to think to myself, “This is why I read.” Trying to explain why one chooses to read a difficult book for pleasure can be likened to trying to explain why one walks. You just do it. But it’s more akin to why one takes on a difficult walk or a hike through tough terrain for no real reason except to “get there” and “there” not being a physical destination, but an exhilarated or even spiritual state of mind. While reading books by writers like Knausgaard, Kraznahorkai or Vladimir Nabokov is a struggle, it is somewhat comforting in that they ponder the big questions that dog us all with impassioned urgency and dazzling creativity. The urgency is often driven by the belief that life is fleeting so we better get to pondering and figuring it out as soon as we can. The creativite portion remains, oddly and ironically, the fun and the adventure of it.◉

The Pursuit of Vocation

By Peng Kate Gao

Work is love made visible.

−Kahlil Gibran

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his brilliantly written book The Happiness Hypothesis, summarized three ways that people generally view their work: a job, a career, or a calling. A job is what people do to earn money and to support their families. A career is what people do to achieve higher goals, such as advancement and prestige. A calling, on the other hand, is for those who find their work so intrinsically engaging and fulfilling that they do it for the sheer love of it. These people usually would continue to work even without pay, if they suddenly became very wealthy. They would have found their life’s vocation.

How do we find ours? In many ways, this is an age-old question. Two and a half millennia ago, Confucius advised, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Nowadays in industrialized western society, where individual autonomy and achievement are farmers among the highest priorities, this question seems even more urgent. As Apple entrepreneur Steve Jobs, remembered as much for his passion as his success, once said, “You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.” This type of sentiment has always created mixed feelings in me. I am deeply moved and inspired, but at the same time confused and even frightened, as one question burned in my mind: what is my burning idea and would it be strong enough to motivate me to the end? For a long time, I thought my passion was out there, like some great truth, waiting to be found.

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Leaving the Lab, but Still Thinking Science

By Mayla Hsu

1024px-Barbara_Ehrenreich_2_by_David_ShankboneBarbara Ehrenreich graduated from The Rockefeller University (RU), Class of 1968, but never worked as a scientist. Instead, she became a journalist, best known for Nickel and Dimed, in which she documented the hardship of life working at a series of low-wage jobs. She has written nineteen books and numerous articles, on diverse subjects such as women’s health, war, economics, and the joy of dancing. Her most recent book is Living with a Wild God, a memoir describing her childhood into early adulthood, and an exploration of how a lifelong atheist reconciles episodes of mystical dissociation with an absolute conviction in reason and science.

How is it that someone who received a PhD in immunology from a leading university ended up as a leftist freelance writer? Natural Selections recently interviewed Ehrenreich to find out. It’s a story of a promising young scientist who took some unexpected turns by being completely true to herself.

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Culture Corner

An Interview with Richard Torregrossa, Author of Terminal Life: A Suited Hero Novel and Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style

By Bernie Langs

 RT CG author picSeveral years ago, I was checking the blurbs of recommended articles and reviews indexed by the Arts & Letters Daily web site as I do every day. The site recommended a review of a book about the fashion sense and style of the late, great actor, Cary Grant. Since I admire Grant and his body of work (especially the films done with director Alfred Hitchcock), I clicked and discovered that the book in question was written by a friend I’d worked with at a publishing house. Richard Torregrossa and I became fast friends in the mid-1980s, as we did the dull work of pre-computer copy-editing and marketing, and in his case, copy-writing, editing, and interactions with authors. In addition, we attended book release parties from other publishers where we sipped wine in the evening and hovered in reception room corners while we watched literary types and quietly wise-cracked observations to each other.

We both lived in Brooklyn and finally Torregrossa, born and bred there, had enough and headed west to seek new opportunities, his fortune, and adventure in California. We contacted each other now and then and I was pleased when he found success utilizing his cartoon drawing skills with several captioned-illustrated books such as Fun Facts about Dogs, The Little Book of Wisdom, Fun Facts about Cats, and the more poetic and meditative The Man Who Couldn’t See Himself.

One phone call we had in the 1990s, was memorable as I listened to a story of how he’d scored a difficult book contract. Torregrossa told me that since he couldn’t afford a literary agent to work the difficult terrain of the competitive publishing business on his behalf, he invented an agent, and sent out inquiries under their name. His fictitious agent made inroads into the business and, one afternoon, Torregrossa received a call from a publisher interested in signing him, but on different terms. Torregrossa said his agent was in the room and advised him to stand his ground. The publisher asked to speak with Torregrossa’s agent. Torregrossa, without hesitation, asked him to hold, took a beat, impersonated his fake agent with an accent and a higher pitch, and worked out the deal.

After I read the online review about Torregrossa’s book, (which includes an introduction written by fashion designer icon, Giorgio Armani), I tracked down his email and we resumed our long-distance friendship. I read many of his erudite and well-written freelance, fashion newspaper columns in major international and U.S. publications and was glad when he became a style consultant with a history of fashion curator at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. When Torregrossa delved into fiction with Terminal Life, I read an advance copy. It was just released to excellent reviews. The graphically violent, action novel unfolds at a quick pace, but with twists on the genre. There is a unique hero, Luke Stark, a former Navy SEAL who returns home to learn that his wife was murdered and his son disappeared. And so begins his tale of revenge written through deftly presented prose. The book’s themes examine everything from the value of life to the complications of filial obligations. There’s also a sprinkling of fun and humor. When I finished Terminal Life, I told Torregrossa that the way he artfully managed the book’s deeper ideas was selective and subtle, which packs a more powerful punch and leaves a larger impression.

Torregrossa kindly agreed to be interviewed on the eve of his new book’s release for Natural Selections.

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Culture Corner – The “Exotic Foreign” of Wes Anderson and Haruki Murakami

By Bernie Langs

There is much made in some classical and modern philosophies of the concept and ambiguity of what is termed “the other.” In addition, one can find obscure musings on the idea of “the stranger” from the pens of philosophers as far afield in time and thinking as Plato and Camus. I’ve been avoiding, of late, the more difficult works of such trained thinkers and their non-fictions, opting to glean life lessons from those more akin within the arts to current travails. What I continue to discover is that I draw great pleasure from the belief that ideas originating from lands abroad that I will most likely never visit, appeal to my sense of intellectual adventure, offering to me, and perhaps to others, the mystery of the “exotic foreign.”

I offer, by way of example, two works of art extremely different in nature appealing to this sense. Wes Anderson co-wrote and directed the film The Darjeeling Limited in 2007 and Haruki Murakami wrote the book “Sputnik Sweetheart” in 2001. In Anderson’s movie, we follow the travels of three brothers on a train through India, a trip they take in an attempt to bond and heal a year after their father’s untimely death. The brothers are played to absolute perfection by the actors Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman (Schwartzman has frequently appeared in Anderson’s films and he is also a co-writer of this movie). The viewer identifies with these foreigners since we can relate to the notion of Western individuals seeking spiritual solace in the East as visitors. We discover India as they do, as enlightened tourists hoping to catch a glimpse and some meaning from something new and completely alien to our routines.

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Culture Corner: book review “Seiobo There Below” by László Krasznahorkai

By Bernie Langs

I would bet that it is safe to say that anyone reading these pages is more than busy in this life and that many of you who continue to read for pleasure are overwhelmed by the truth that there are “so many books and so little time.” You may also feel, as I do, that at this point, if I’m going to commit to a book that is both challenging and difficult, it sure as hell better be worth the effort. Keeping this in mind, I have found such incredible joy in chancing upon the works of the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai (b. 1954). I have had the pleasure of reading three of his works of fiction. Last year in Natural Selections I reviewed his book The Melancholy of Resistance and interviewed its translator. Subsequently, I completed his War & War, a book so powerful that I would read it in dumbfounded awe, and recently I have just finished his Seiobo Down Below.

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An interview with White Out: The secret life of Heroin author, Michael W. Clune, Ph.D

By Bernie Langs

Clune

I did not know what to expect when I procured a copy of Michael W. Clune’s memoir, White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin, after reading a blog review about the book in the New Yorker. I very quickly became engrossed in White Out, consumed by its tale of the author’s life of addiction. The book presents with a cast of colorful characters appearing throughout and the exciting tale of Dr. Clune’s highs and lows: his deceits, his run-ins with the law, and finally, his recovery. I found great humor throughout the memoir, and became attached to the author’s ability to weave complex sentences that delight the reader in a strange and unique fashion. I found Dr. Clune online in the Department of English at Case Western Reserve University, where he is an Associate Professor specializing in American literature, literature and science, and poetry. I also came across several academic papers by Dr. Clune. Here are his enthusiastic responses to my questions.

BL:  Having read some of the essays you’ve produced as an academic, after reading White Out, I was struck by how different the “voice” is between the memoir and the professional writing.  In fact, there are no traces, in my opinion, that the author of the White Out could write in such a detailed, let us say, complex academic way. Did you make a conscious effort to distinguish the tone of White Out from what you produce in the humanities?

MC: My academic writing is quite different in tone and syntax from my creative writing. I would say that in the former, I strive for clarity. I want to communicate my ideas and my findings as clearly as possible. Clarity is not always the same as accessibility. Clarity sometimes involves carefully distinguishing my views from various arguments made by others. I always try to avoid jargon, but sometimes the work requires the judicious use of terms of art. I begin to write my academic books and essays after a long process of research and thought. The writing involves communicating what I’ve discovered as cleanly and economically as possible. In my creative work, the situation is different. Here, the writing itself is the discovery process. Since my preferred mode of writing is memoir, I don’t need to work out the plot in advance. I simply sit down to write, and try to understand my memory and experience through the process of creating images and phrases that seem to fit. The language has to be very flexible; I have to work with a greater range of tone and meaning. In particular, humor is a crucial resource for my creative work. I’m constantly asking myself—how do I make this funny? What angle reveals the humor in this situation? Humor for me is a path to objectivity. When I can laugh at a memory or an experience, I become distanced from it. Laughter enables me to see myself from the outside, and grants me a different level of understanding. In my creative work, humor functions for me as a kind of strange analogue to the scientific method.

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Scientists Invade the Comics

By Jason Rothhauser

391px-Manhattan_Projects_comp

This holiday season, two comic books that share one thing hard to find in today’s popular fiction: scientists are the stars of the show. One comic proposes an outrageous alternate history in which a cabal of real-world scientists use their public research as a cover for far more bizarre experiments, and the other imagines a world in which scientists are our rock stars.

The Manhattan Projects, written by Jonathan Hickman with art by Nick Pitarra, asks a simple question. What if the government program to build the first atomic weapon was actually the cover story for a far more audacious project? And what if that project went terribly wrong? In this world, the likes of Joseph Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, and Enrico Fermi are on a quest not simply to build a weapon, but to push the very boundaries of science.

In Hickman’s world, scientists have already mastered interdimensional travel, advanced cybernetics, and artificial intelligence by the start of the Cold War. The names that round out the cast of characters are all familiar (among those already mentioned, expect to meet Werner von Braun, Albert Einstein, and Yuri Gagarin), but in this carnival-mirror alternate universe, none of them are what they seem. Oppenheimer is a brilliant man with a disturbing secret and an evil twin. Fermi may not be human, von Braun wields a massive robotic arm, and Feynman smiles serenely through the madness he (along with the reader) is quickly introduced to.

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CULTURE DESK — Book reviews: Inferno, by Dan Brown & The Inferno of Dante (translated by Robert Pinsky)

by Bernie Langs

When I heard that best-selling author Dan Brown had written a book centering around a mystery involving Dante’s Inferno, I came up with a scheme to read the original Inferno section of Dante Alighieri’s famous poem, Commedia (which later became known as “The Divine Comedy”), and compare the two works for Natural Selections. This is perhaps the only reason, I knew, that I’d ever read a book by Brown or the hellish work by Dante. I’ve read other poetry by Dante, as well as his work La Vita Nuova (“The New Life”), but avoided the Inferno for completely superstitious reasons. As for Brown, when his tens-of-millions bestselling book, The Da Vinci Code, hit stores with its tale of Professor Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist, I wasn’t just angry that he’d changed the playing field of the publishing business forever–making the publishing houses crave only huge blockbusters akin to film industry’s obsession with the big opening weekend. No, Brown became the only writer I’ve ever felt bitter towards, because I’d been writing books about messages in paintings and global intrigue for years; the difference being that my books had print-runs of about ten copies. Thus, I’d never stand a chance to be published and someone had beaten me to the punch. Continue reading

Book Review: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

by Jerry Melchor

Read these two scenarios and note how you would answer the questions:

1) The Linda experiment: Linda is thirty-one years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations. Which alternative is more probable? Linda is a bank teller. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

2) The bat and ball question: A bat and ball cost $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Both of these experiments highlight most people’s inability to reign in their intuition. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, an amazingly readable book from one of the founding fathers of Behavioral Psychology, Daniel Kahneman tries to explain the roots of the imbalance between System 1 (intuition) and System 2 (logic). Continue reading

Culture Desk Exhibition and Book Review The Artful Recluse: Painting, Poetry, and Politics in Seventeenth-Century China (at The Asia Society through June 2, 2013) Confucius: Confucian Analects, The Great Learning & The Doctrine of the Mean (translated with notes by James Legge)

by Bernie Langs

When reading certain philosophers that are difficult to understand, those of us who were never formerly trained as students of the genre often ask, “Why am I putting myself through this?” But in the case of reading Confucius, I know why I put myself through the hard task of reading his works. Just as one exercises the body for the good of the overall person, exercising the mind has terrific benefits to the soul. Confucianism reminds oneself of the need to simplify one’s personal code of ethics and it guides one to live easily within a set of attainable moral principles. Confucius offers simple, yet subtly intriguing notes on behavior towards one’s elders, on living as a moral person, and on how to deal with and recognize governmental quandaries. His most famous saying is a kind of back way into the now famous Golden Rule: “Tze-kung asked, saying, ‘Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?’ The Master said, ‘Is not reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.’” Confucius spoke often of the pursuit of learning throughout one’s life as a way of attaining virtue and wisdom. Continue reading

In Our Good Books

The reading suggestions have been kindly provided by staff members of the downtown bookstore McNally Jackson.

Fated by S.G. Browne

From the acclaimed author of Breathers—an irreverent novel about fate, destiny, and the karmic consequences of getting involved with humans.

Over the past few thousand years, Fabio has come to hate his job. As Fate, he’s in charge of assigning the fortunes and misfortunes that befall most of the human race—the 83% who keep screwing things up. Continue reading

Culture Desk Book review: The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai Interview: George Szirtes (translator of The Melancholy of Resistance)

by Bernie Langs

After years of feasting on nonfiction books, I find myself binging on works of fiction these days, and most recently, of all things, Hungarian prose. Having read the German W.G. Sebald and the Austrian Thomas Bernhard, who both write with no paragraph breaks, I was not taken aback when I realized that the book my brother had insisted that I read, The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai, had none as well. Yet, in comparison to the other two, this book was dense, lengthy, and boasted long, convoluted, and incredibly beautiful sentence structures. In fact, that’s an understatement. The language of this book is a tour de force. It is a lesson in how the writer’s sheer passion for his craft sweeps the reader into the palm of his hand, to be taken on a journey, which is a touch surreal and more than a touch apocalyptic. Continue reading

BOOK REVIEW Entering an Unseen World: A Founding Laboratory and Origins of Modern Cell Biology 1910-1974, by Carol L. Moberg, The Rockefeller University Press, 2012

by Joseph Luna

Credit: RU Press

The birth of a scientific field often combines new technology with bold hypotheses, unexpected collaboration, and a healthy dose of luck. There’s also time, that ultimate arbiter of the significant, upon which a new field grows and matures, from puzzling first glimpses to textbook diagrams and beyond. Increasingly in today’s world, inhabited by 90% of all the scientists who’ve ever lived1, the pace has quickened, but the basic arc remains the same: new tools are seized upon with fresh minds, and the results are often breathtaking.

The story of modern cell biology in the twentieth century presents a fascinating case study of this trajectory, considering the strides made by its predecessor, cytology. Tracing a direct route from van Leeuwenhoek’s first microscope to Hooke’s descriptions of cork (from which the term “cell” was coined) in the seventeenth century, cytologists by the 19th century had the impression that cells were worlds unto themselves, with analyses of visible structures such as mitochondria, golgi bodies, and nuclei, and with microscopic descriptions of processes such as cell division. But by the early twentieth century, the resolving powers of the light microscope had reached their limit, and the study of the fine structures of cells remained out of reach, if they existed at all. There wasn’t much to counter the argument that while cells were the basic units of life, they were largely devoid of subcellular structure. Continue reading

CULTURE CORNER Book and Film Reviews: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald & Celebration Day featuring Led Zeppelin

by Bernie Langs

Source: Wikipedia

I waited impatiently for five years to view and listen to the one-time concert of the 2007 Led Zeppelin Reunion performance, and immediately bought the film the week it became available in November 2012. Celebration Day, the video of the occasion, was well worth the wait.

I would venture to say that living heroes are few and far between these days, there being a shortage of Achilles-types or gallant Mr. Darcys running around. I have a loose sense of those I admire, and my list includes former Rockefeller University President and scientist Sir Paul Nurse, who writes and speaks with wit and wisdom; Curtis Martin, a former New York Jets football player who diligently trained his body like a machine to absorb the hits he took for years as a premier running back; and Jimmy Page, because of the way he has handled the band’s legacy after the death of drummer John Bonham in 1980. The market hasn’t been flooded with countless Zeppelin retreads and reissues. Page and his bandmates, singer Robert Plant and bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones, have issued only top-notch select concert footage and very few packaged musical offerings. Because of this, Led Zeppelin remains a precious commodity. Continue reading