the tumultuous (18)60s

I recently finished This Republic of Suffering, the new book by Drew Gilpin Faust, about this country's relentless confrontations with death during the Civil War and its toll on the collective psyche. (That title is taken from–of all people–Frederick Law Olmsted and his description of the wounded and dying at Union hospital ships.) An unreservedly glowing review in last Sunday's Times surprised me a bit. While the book is a great achievement – it is thorough and rigorously detailed without being exhausting, it is sensitively crafted and intelligently presented– I still expected more.

Background: The Civil War's final tally stood at approximately 620,000 military deaths (I believe that figure does not contain what we would now call "collateral damage"), out of a total national population of about 31.5 million. It is no wonder that a Confederate soldier, quoted in the book, felt that, "death reigned with universal sway, ruling homes and lives." Nearly every household would have been mourning someone. Faust demonstrates, dramatically, that the experience of living through those years was limned by the presence of death—materially, politically, intellectually, and spiritually.
Geoffrey Ward, in the Times review:
When the war began, the Union Army had no burial details, no graves registration units, no means to notify next of kin, no provision for decent burial, no systematic way to identify or count the dead, no national cemeteries in which to bury them....Fathers and brothers wandered battlefields in search of missing relatives.... So did wives and mothers dressed in black.
“The war’s staggering human cost demanded a new sense of national destiny,” says Faust. The lasting impact of that sacrifice “created the modern American union,” she writes, “not just by ensuring national survival, but by shaping enduring national structures and commitments.” It also, she posits, changed Americans' understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. But the book largely documents, often in moving first-hand accounts, what I believe were immediate tangibilities of the time: the struggle to account for the losses, to attend to the casualties, to reconcile death with the act of dying "well" (ars moriendi, or the good Christian death). Faust even discusses the arcane rituals of mourning (though she doesn't define what the differences between "heavy", "full", and "half" mourning are). When I finished reading, though, I was left wondering why I didn't have a better understanding of the cultural and psychological impact of all this. (Perhaps I just need to read more about the war!)

America in the 1860s witnessed mass killing, assassination, racial enmity, political strife and rioting, what effect did that tumult have on literature, or social change or even religion? The shadows of events of that magnitude don't pass away quietly. They are absorbed, instilled, repressed, passed on or refuted. What did that generation of children without fathers grow up to think? This country was literally rent apart. What was Europe thinking at the time? That this Great Experiment was imploding, surely.

Americans saw actual photographs of war--the battlefields, the dead-- for the first time
, not an artist's rendering. In 1862, Mathew Brady shocked the public with an exhibit in his New York gallery, "The Dead of Antietam." Within hours after it was confirmed on September 19th that the Confederates had withdrawn, Brady's cameramen Alexander Gardner and James F. Gibson began to record the aftermath and within a month the results were hanging on the walls.
The New York Times said that if Brady "has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it... he has brought home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war."
(An interesting modern take on the "birth of photojournalism" on the battlefield at Antietam here.) How is it that religion and sentimentality became all the more entrenched in American society as a result? When the (mostly European, granted) wounded of WWI came back broken and disfigured 50 some odd years later their faces and bodies haunted painting, the graphic arts, and literature. Disillusionment, in some sense, propelled Modernity. How is it that this country faced the "terrible reality' of the Civil War and seemed to turn around.

The last Union body was recovered and reburied in 1871. The last Civil War veteran (though there is some dispute) died in 1956. In 2003 a man recounted stories about his father's experience during the Civil War for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It is history, but not totally out of reach. Faust's creates a vividness from a compilation of incident and fact. The book that traces the social and cultural legacy of those moments, t
hat's the book I'd like to read next.

Images: from Library of Congress,
a very romantic portrait of Confederate prisoners at Gettysburg, July, 1863 (detail; Union casualties at Battle of Gettysburg, July 1, 1863; from old-picture.com, Civil War wounded, prepared by War Department, Surgeon General's Office.


reading: a methodology

A "Talk of the Town" in this past week's New Yorker recounts how Art Garfunkel has kept an index of the 1023 or so books he has read since June, 1968. The list, kept on loose leaf pages, reveals a predilection for classics and 'high literature' (James, Fitzgerald, Tolstoy), as well as more rarefied fare (St. Augustine, Hazlitt, Spinoza). "I avoid fluff," he announces with appealing surety. Managing and publicizing such a list (with its hint of intellectual "ostentation," as the New Yorker calls it) is rather like a charmingly analog Library Thing. (For those of you who like books, list making, and/or intellectual braggadocio, high-tail it over there at once!)

"Reading,” Garfunkel explains, "is a way to take downtime and make it stimulating." While I never actively thought of reading as an interstitial time-filler, I suppose it is for me, too: in bed on the runway toward sleep, on the subway to wile away the tedium, in a diner ("Bitter? Party of one?").

The New Yorker piece then goes on to detail Garfunkel's particular reading habits...
He writes vertical lines in the margin next to passages he finds exceptional, arrows next to references to places he’d like to visit, and a little circle next to any word he needs to look up....He once read the Random House Dictionary, back to front.
I never thought I'd say this but Art Garfunkel sounds like my type of guy.

My reading rationale, as it has evolved: A page dog-eared from the bottom means there is something particularly interesting or noteworthy or beautiful, which may or may not get underlined or called out with a vertical mark in the margin (like Art!) for extra emphasis. A page dog-eared from the top indicates something requires research, a word that needs looking up or an idea that needs further background explanation. No highlighters, no markers, occasional ballpoint.

Typically I'm not one for full-blown marginalia. I do not make detailed notes or rejoinders that travel along the edges of a page. These are things I always half-associated with student-groupies who fawned over seminar leaders or the annoying hyper-articulate wunderkind who theatrically engaged the professor in personal debate at every turn. But its not that I mind marking the pages, I am not precious about my books. (My mother is much more of an opinion-sharing, note-writing reader, especially with the disposable reading matter. A Vanity Fair, for instance, might be passed on to me punctuated with exclamation points, clarifications or definitive assessments like, "bastards.")

I do not like book jackets. This is ironic since I sometimes design them for a living, but I find them cumbersome and unwieldly. I always seem to rip or crease them, or my cat will try to chew on the edges.

Many of my books are softcover and
I'm not very dainty with these at all. They get bruised, scuffed, wrinkled. When I take one to read on the subway I stuff it into my bag where it mixes with makeup (the page edges sometimes take on a rosey hue) and uncapped pens (angry erratic lines) and newspapers (smudges). And when I go out for breakfast with my book, there's always the danger of an errant drop of ketchup or egg yolk.

My habit is to often skip ahead or read chapters out of order, which is, as I read mostly non-fiction, not too
disruptive .
What I cannot do, though, is force myself to finish a book I do not like. I can't understand friends who say things like, "Oh that, that was annoying—it wasn't very well-written." Page four? irritating narrative tics? stilted dialogue?—I'm outta there. In junior high school we had summer reading lists. One particularly difficult summer found me reading and rereading the same lines in Cry the Beloved Country with no hope of getting to the end before September. For the life of me, my seventh grade head could not reconcile having to read that book. So I created a crude reading aid:
1) Take one sheet of blank paper
2) cut out
a narrow "window", exactly the height and length of one line of text
3) slowly move the window down the page, one line at a time, to keep eye focussed.

I can confidently say that, post-academia, all the books I have actually read—I like.


a fuseli moment

Somehow I felt like we'd been building toward a Henry Fuseli moment. The Owen Wilson wrist-slashing documentation (where are the scars?), the ghoulish video loops of Anna Nicole Smith slur-babbling in clown make up. There was the morbid preoccupation with defining Britney Spear's mental state, and pathetic images of her, wild-eyed, as they wheeled her off to the hospital. Frighteningly soulless online twitter of her obituary having been written and ready to go at the AP was supplanted only when Heath Ledger exited this mortal coil. Then I made the mistake of following the parasitical rush over to Gawker and watched hundreds of people snap photos of his body bag getting wheeled into an ambulance.

update-- a bit of synchronicity: Jon Pareles' piece in today's NY Times makes a more succinct statement than mine about the front row seat we all have to "celebrity" crack-up. (Of course, I also realize I neglected to include Amy Winehouse in the list above.) "There's a s
leazy symbiosis that connects instantaneous worldwide visibility, publicity, marketing and narcissism."

oh and another thing: I can't help thinking, too, about the days when one could pay a penny and take a walk through Bedlam. Visitors "delighted in" the patients' 'frenzical extravagancies.'" The noisy crowd of gaping sightseers found it a rare diversion when not attending public executions...
(The History of Bethlem by Jonathan Andrews, Routledge - 1997
Henry Fuseli, born Johann Heinrich Füssli (1741–1825) in Switzerland, produced dynamic, dark-themed and somewhat overwrought proto-Romantic works. He became a teacher at London's Royal Academy and was an influence on William Blake.

Images: Mad Kate 1806-07, 2 versions of The Nightmare 1782, 1790, Silence 1799-1801.


'return to angelica'

Robert Warner's ephemera collage art show at Pavel Zoubok gallery.
A wonderful display of vintage what-not and obscure commercial flotsam, expertly assembled.

There's Robert, who cleans up very well, out of "costume"--second row, right.

Lots of picture taking going on. (Samantha, at left, has an exceptionally keen eye and does the most unusual and hilarious things with fabric, beading, embroidery.)
In the background, at right, is "double Doody" (as in Howdy), which sold before the show even opened, to a man "covered in tattoos."

There was one very cute dog in attendance and one ridiculous pair of shoes.
A good time.


a ride on Stalin's cruise ship

Feeling somewhat expansive with the New Year, I've decided to simultaneously look outward from my navel-gazing and be more aesthetically open-minded.

Here: a Flickr cluster of Brutalist architecture (via Sit Down Man, You're a Bloody Tragedy)

addendum: a Flickr set of the building that first started me wondering what possible merits rusticated concrete ever seemed to offer.

I've expressed my opinions about this sort of urban landscaping before: soul-deadening, dystopian, authoritarian, hermetic– and it ages badly. And yet.
The Flickr cluster is an impressive collection of images, much of it taken in London, put together by people who like and celebrate this sort of thing. The title of this post is from a brilliant comment on the
photograph, above, of the National Theatre in London, by Paul Carstairs. In the past, when confronted with this type of building, I've been prompted to think "Death Star manqué" or "Eastern Bloc Futurism." I must admit, though, that the images have spurred in me qualified and begrudging appreciation of Brutalism. It was just as swift and revelatory as the time it struck me that the World Trade Center towers weren't just simplistic and heavy-handed and colorless. That in fact, formally, together, they were rather grand. (And then disturbingly, shortly thereafter, they were no more.)

I can now imagine how, but only in the most supremely competent hands, the orchestration of space and the gravitas created could seem ideal for government buildings in theory. (The reality often went terribly wrong.) But creating an abstract sense of strength and authority in a public forum is one thing-- asking people to live in stained concrete canyons is another.

I'd read about the renewed excitement, of those in the know, over the Barbican complex--especially the residential towers
(see my scanned photo above). Built in 1982 by Chamberlain, Powell and Bon, it has the distinction of having been voted "London's Ugliest Building." True, it was an environment that prompted palpable anxiety, discomfort, and feelings of hopelessness in me–and I was just visiting for an afternoon. But it would have had to have beaten a lot of stiff competition for that title– and I, again grudgingly, just don't think it is so.

Why this near reversal has happened in me, I'm not sure. At this rate I'll be gushing over Thomas Kinkade and extolling the merits of Home Depot Baroque by February.


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