A Great American Painter History Forgot: Mystic Cryptic Revelations:

From The Village Voice:

Saltz2 Young painters should look at the work of Charles Burchfield (1893–1967), the mystic, cryptic painter of transcendental landscapes, trees with telekinetic halos, and haunted houses emanating ectoplasmic auras. Burchfield, who like Hopper painted as if cubism never happened, is van Gogh by way of Caspar David Friedrich, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, calendar art, and Sunday painting. Consciously or not, recent painters like Peter Doig, Verne Dawson, Gregory Amenoff, Kurt Lightner, and Ellen Altfest are channeling bits of Burchfield’s visionary vibe.

One reason more young artists aren’t familiar with this great American may have to do with Burchfield being yet another painter who is left out of the Museum of Modern Art’s narrow-minded, mad march through modernism. Although he had three retrospectives at the Whitney, one at MOMA (way back in 1930), and one at the Met, Burchfield continues to be an odd man out of modern-art history.

More here.

Scoping Out Signs of Human Evolution

From Science:Evolution

Who says humans aren’t the result of Darwinian evolution? This week, researchers report identifying some 1800 genes that appear to have been the target of natural selection. Some of the genes may be important in understanding the genetics behind disease as well as the evolution of the human brain.

Now a team of scientists at the University of California, Irvine, has used a new computational approach–the “linkage disequilibrium decay” test–to search for signs of selection over the entire human genome. As a rule, the greater the linkage disequilibrium associated with a gene, the more likely that the gene has been under recent selection. Harnessing data from two existing databases of human diversity, the team found some 1800 genes that appeared to have been under selection during the last 10,000 to 50,000 years. According to team leader and genome researcher Robert Moyzis, this is between 10 and 100 times greater than the number found in previous studies. The genes belong to several biologically important categories, including genes important in defense against disease, controlling the cell cycle, protein metabolism, and nervous system functioning, the researchers report online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

More here.

Omar Khayyam’s Bible for drunkards

Robert Irwin on The Wine of Wisdom: The life, poetry and philosophy of Omar Khayyam by Mehdi Aminrazavi, in the Times Literary Supplement:

KhayyamSince the Rubáiyat was a kind of Bible for freethinkers, materialists and sensualists, FitzGerald’s translation attracted much criticism from Christian quarters. Edward Byles Cowell, the illustrious Sanskritologist and Persianist, who had first got FitzGerald interested in Persian and provided him with a key manuscript of quatrains attributed to Khayyam, strongly disapproved of the creed of the Rubáiyat: “I admire Omar as I admire Lucretius, but I cannot take him as a guide. In these grave matters I prefer to go to Nazareth, not to Naishapur”. Matthew Arnold, who thought that poetry should conduce to virtuous living, was shocked by the poem’s hedonism. Robert Browning also disapproved and wrote “Rabbi Ben Ezra” as a versified retort. Chesterton judged the Rubáiyat to be brilliant, but evil and “a thing unfit for a white man, a thing like opium”. He thought that the poem was a sad thing and he went on to argue that one should only drink when happy. However, American temperance groups campaigned against the Rubáiyat as “a Bible for drunkards”.

Mehdi Aminrazavi’s The Wine of Wisdom, though it is centrally concerned with the Persian quatrains known as the Rubáiyat, also covers Omar’s career as a mathematician, astronomer and philosopher as well as his poetry in Arabic.

More here.

Steven Pinker Discusses “Jews, Genes, & Intelligence”

Maggie Wittlin in Seed:

Pinkeradam180x271Steven Pinker climbed onto the stage and immediately laid out his most convincing credential: a fully-stocked reservoir of Jewish linguistic humor. He defined such words as “jewbilation”—pride in finding out that one’s favorite celebrity is Jewish and “meinstein”— slang for, “my son, the genius.”

The crowd was hooked; the man could do no wrong. And so the substance of the lecture began.

Apparently, Ashkenazi Jews—the Eastern European ones—really do have an average IQ that’s eight to 15 points higher than the northern European average. The Cochran/Hardy/Harpending paper says about four out of every thousand northern Europeans have an IQ of 140 or above. So, if Ashkenazi Jews have an average IQ of 110, that means 23 out of every thousand Askenazi Jews have above a 140 IQ. Sephardic Jews, those descended from Jews expelled from Spain in the 15th century, have the same IQ distribution as the rest of Europe.

More here.  [Pinker shown with Seed Chief-Editor Adam Bly in picture.]

The Trouble With Patents

James Surowicki in The New Yorker:

Patentes2Over the past two decades, the U.S. has taken the view that the stronger patents are, the better. But patents, by their nature, are imperfect. They may encourage innovation, but, by allowing the patent holder complete control of an invention, they also limit it. Patents reward some inventors at the expense of others: more than one person can have an idea, but only one can patent it. That may be why, in a study of a hundred and fifty years of patent protection, Josh Lerner, of the Harvard Business School, found that countries that introduced stronger protections for patents saw no increase in innovation by their citizens. Similarly, in a study of nineteenth-century innovation based on data from two World’s Fairs, Petra Moser, an economist then at Berkeley, found that countries with patent laws (like Britain) did not innovate more than those without them (like the Netherlands and Denmark).

Protecting patent holders’ rights is important, of course, but the system needs to be rigorous in the way it hands out patents—careful not to grant patents for ideas that are obvious, already well established, or too broad.

More here.

Don’t pick your nose: Hugh Pennington on MRSA

From the London Review of Books:

FlemingPenicillin revolutionised the treatment of staphylococcal infections. But its power over them began to wane soon after its general introduction. The first naturally occurring penicillin-resistant staphylococci were noted by Fleming in 1942. Between April and November 1946, 12.5 per cent of Staphylococcus aureus strains isolated at the Hammersmith Hospital in London were penicillin-resistant. By early 1947 the percentage had tripled. The bacteriologist Mary Barber showed that this rise was not due to the development of resistance while patients were being treated, but to the spread of a penicillin-resistant strain in the hospital. Some staphylococci had the ability to make penicillinase, a penicillin-destroying enzyme. The introduction of penicillin gave them an evolutionary advantage over strains killed by the antibiotic.

Methicillin was developed in response. It was resistant to penicillinase.

More here.

A Natural History of Peace

‘Summary:  Humans like to think that they are unique, but the study of other primates has called into question the exceptionalism of our species. So what does primatology have to say about war and peace? Contrary to what was believed just a few decades ago, humans are not “killer apes” destined for violent conflict, but can make their own history.’

Robert Sapolsky in Foreign Affairs:

Darape_1Like the occasional human hermit, there are a few primates that are typically asocial (such as the orangutan). Apart from those, however, it turns out that one cannot understand a primate in isolation from its social group. Across the 150 or so species of primates, the larger the average social group, the larger the cortex relative to the rest of the brain. The fanciest part of the primate brain, in other words, seems to have been sculpted by evolution to enable us to gossip and groom, cooperate and cheat, and obsess about who is mating with whom. Humans, in short, are yet another primate with an intense and rich social life — a fact that raises the question of whether primatology can teach us something about a rather important part of human sociality, war and peace.

More here.

The case for abolishing the CIA

John B. Judis in The New Republic:

Cia_01In his memoir, Present at the Creation, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson expressed his misgivings about the creation of the CIA in 1947. “I had the gravest forebodings about this organization and warned the President that as set up neither he, the National Security Council, nor anyone else would be in a position to know what it was doing or to control it.” In 1991 and again in 1995, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan introduced bills to abolish the CIA and assign its functions to the State Department, which is what Acheson and his predecessor, George Marshall, had advocated. But Moynihan’s proposal was treated as evidence of his eccentricity rather than of his wisdom and never came to a vote.

It’s time to reconsider Moynihan’s proposal, or least the reasoning behind it. Al Libi’s case, combining gross incompetence with the violation of international law, shows that the problems Moynihan and others cited have, if anything, gotten worse under George W. Bush. The intelligence reform act passed last year didn’t address them; and the current director Porter Goss appears oblivious to them. These problems have for years plagued the two main functions of the agency: intelligence gathering and covert action.

More here.

What Happens to Bad Scientists?

Daniel Engber in Slate:

051216_exp_hwang_tnSuperstar stem-cell researcher Hwang Woo Suk was accused of major scientific fraud on Thursday. A collaborator now claims Hwang faked much of the data for the groundbreaking research he published in May; earlier in the week, a co-author from the University of Pittsburgh withdrew his name from the work. Investigations are now underway in Pittsburgh and Seoul. How do you investigate scientific misconduct?

First, interview everyone who might be involved. In the United States, research institutions conduct their own inquiries into scientific wrongdoing. If the allegation seems credible, a small committee will spend up to a month quietly looking into the matter. They’ll talk to witnesses—most likely members of the lab, collaborators, and the person who made the charge—before confronting the accused researcher with the charges against him. If the committee decides there’s reasonable evidence for misconduct, the issue passes to a larger committee for a formal investigation.

More here.  Also this from Scientific American:

With considerable disappointment, the editors of Scientific American are immediately removing Dr. Woo Suk Hwang from his honored position as Research Leader of the Year on the 2005 Scientific American 50 list.

Dr. Hwang famously announced in Science last June that he and his team at Seoul National University in Korea had cloned human embryonic stem cells from 11 patients. Published accounts appearing this morning, however, report that one of his co-authors, Dr. Sung Il Roh, now says that Dr. Hwang admits that much of the evidence in his Science paper was faked. He further alleges that Dr. Hwang has asked Science to withdraw that paper. Dr. Hwang was not available for comment.

More here.

Polar bears drown as ice shelf melts

Will Iredale in the London Times:

Polarb3Scientists have for the first time found evidence that polar bears are drowning because climate change is melting the Arctic ice shelf.

The researchers were startled to find bears having to swim up to 60 miles across open sea to find food. They are being forced into the long voyages because the ice floes from which they feed are melting, becoming smaller and drifting farther apart.

Although polar bears are strong swimmers, they are adapted for swimming close to the shore. Their sea journeys leave them them vulnerable to exhaustion, hypothermia or being swamped by waves.

According to the new research, four bear carcases were found floating in one month in a single patch of sea off the north coast of Alaska, where average summer temperatures have increased by 2-3C degrees since 1950s.

The scientists believe such drownings are becoming widespread across the Arctic, an inevitable consequence of the doubling in the past 20 years of the proportion of polar bears having to swim in open seas.

More here.

Music lovers, critics and writers worry too much about acoustics

Bernard Holland in the New York Times:

HallMusic lovers, critics and writers worry too much about acoustics. Truly bad acoustics – whether you hear too little or too much – cannot be ignored, but the imperfect world that lingers between the two extremes just has to be dealt with. The hall is too bright (Walt Disney in Los Angeles); the hall is dead (Royal Festival Hall in London). There are devils everywhere intent on spoiling your listening pleasure. Go to concerts, and hear people cough and cellphones ring. Stay at home, and your CD player skips or an ambulance goes by the door.

Relax. Rise above it. The ear and the mind connected to it have marvelous powers to adjust to less-than-perfect environments. Herbert von Karajan once told me that his early years of conducting truly awful orchestras in backwater opera houses did wonders for his powers of imagination. As the Tallis Scholars began to sing in the Church of St. Paul the Apostle near Lincoln Center recently, the loud hum of what sounded like a ventilation system made the heart sink. But oddly, after 10 minutes it was forgotten, as if the brain had isolated an intruder and removed it to a place out of earshot.

More here.  [This post dedicated to Tony Cobitz.]

Shopping in the Renaissance

Kathryn Hughes reviews Evelyn Welch’s book, in The Guardian:

Dashing out to the shops in early modern Venice or Florence you would have seen some strikingly familiar sights. There were groups of giggling teenage girls touching and trying everything. Harassed housewives scooted round, grabbing basics as if in an obstacle race. Solitary men lingered and pondered and lingered some more over status-boosting luxury purchases. Cheapskates hunted for a bargain, while others spent up to their credit limit, returning home sick and giddy with the realisation of what they had just done.

Evelyn Welch’s Shopping in the Renaissance, however, is concerned with a lot more than proving that nothing much changes over the centuries when you’re in desperate need of a pint of milk or some new curtains. Her interest in shopping arises from its status as an invisible activity, so embedded in the rhythms and disciplines of the everyday that it barely breaks the surface of our consciousness. We do it, just as the Italians of the Renaissance did it, almost without noticing. But by making shopping explicit, argues Welch, by seeing it for what it is – a whole series of social, cultural as well as financial transactions all bound up in the exchange of a few warm coins or a handshake – it should be possible to get deep into the mindset of early modern Europe.

More here.

stinging rebuke to advocates of intelligent design

Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times:

Darwincollier20portraitA federal judge ruled today that a Pennsylvania school board’s policy of teaching intelligent design in high school biology class is unconstitutional because intelligent design is clearly a religious idea that advances “a particular version of Christianity.”

In the nation’s first case to test the legal merits of intelligent design, Judge John E. Jones III dealt a stinging rebuke to advocates of teaching intelligent design as a scientific alternative to evolution in public schools.

The judge found that intelligent design is not science, and that the only way its proponents can claim it is, is by changing the very definition of science to include supernatural explanations.

Eleven parents in Dover, Pa., sued their school board a year ago when the board voted that ninth grade biology students should be read a brief statement saying there are “gaps in the theory” of evolution and that intelligent design is another explanation they should examine. The case is Kitzmiller et. al. v. Dover.

The six-week trial in federal district court in Harrisburg gave intelligent design the most thorough academic and legal airing it has had since the movement’s inception about 15 years ago. The judge heard evidence from scientists in the forefront of the design movement, as well as scientists and other experts who are critics.

More here.  And Sean Carrol has more here at Cosmic Variance.



“A piecemeal atlas of the world I think in” was William T. Vollmann’s phrase for a book he wrote almost ten years ago. That world is certainly worth mapping. It is full of contemporary history, politics, guns, prostitution, drugs, crowds, and violence. But it is also the shifting residence of a lonely, obsessive reader and writer determined to make sense of things. The work in question is in fact called The Atlas (1996), and contains fifty-five items of varying length, written alternatively in the first and third person, from the point of view of a male traveler, set in an impressive list of locations around the globe, from Afghanistan to Zagreb, and from Grand Central Station to the Yukon.

more in the New York Review of Books here.

rushdie on clemente


Salaman Rushdie’s thoughts on the Indian Italian paintings of Francesco Clemente.

There is a story by Italo Calvino about a time when the moon was closer to the earth than it is today, when lovers could leap off the earth to walk upon its satellite and look up at their home planet hanging upside-down above their heads. Separation, inversion, the fascination of the leap: these are the characteristics of Clemente’s paintings. His is a traveller’s art. “In each place where I was,” he says, “the continuity of memories, the tradition of the place, has been broken, somewhere, sometime; I don’t know why. Really, you can’t look at any place in the world from the place itself. You have to look from somewhere else to see what is there.” These ideas, of the fragmentation of cultures and of the creative benefits of displacement, are close, also, to my heart. “The only ones who see the whole picture,” one of my half-remembered characters says somewhere, in some half-forgotten book, “are the ones who step out of the frame.” Fragments are what we have left and the artist must assemble them into meaningful form, so that they can reveal some, at least, of their broken mysteries, the way the shards of Heraclitus’s lost book still, after 2,000 years, retain the power of significant speech. The Self-Portrait with Smoke reassembles a fragmentary self in just this way, uniting the artist’s dissociated and replicated physical elements with the most transient and evanescent of bonds.

more from The Guardian here.

A Mystery, Locked in Timeless Embrace

From The New York Times:Egypt

When Egyptologists entered the tomb for the first time more than four decades ago, they expected to be surprised. Explorers of newly exposed tombs always expect that, and this time they were not disappointed – they were confounded. There, carved in stone, were the images of two men embracing. Their names were inscribed above: Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep. Though not of the nobility, they were highly esteemed in the palace as the chief manicurists of the king, sometime from 2380 to 2320 B.C., in the time known as the fifth dynasty of the Old Kingdom. Grooming the king was an honored occupation.

Archaeologists were taken aback. It was extremely rare in ancient Egypt for an elite tomb to be shared by two men of apparently equal standing. The usual practice was for such mortuary temples to be the resting place of one prominent man, his wife and children. And it was most unusual for a couple of the same sex to be depicted locked in an embrace. In other scenes, they are also shown holding hands and nose-kissing, the favored form of kissing in ancient Egypt. What were scholars to make of their intimate relationship?

More here.

New Pain Reliever Proves More Potent, Less Addictive

From Scientific American:Pain

Morphine and other opioids work wonders for pain. Unfortunately, their effectiveness declines over time while their addictiveness grows, meaning patients need the drug even as it affords them less and less relief. But new research into the cellular workings of opioids offers a promising new pathway to improved pain relief–without the addiction–by triggering one receptor and blocking another.

Medicinal chemist Philip Portoghese of the University of Minnesota and his colleagues began by studying two of the four major opioid receptors in the cells of the central nervous system. Each bears the name of a Greek letter and the chemists focused on the Mu and Delta receptors. Previous research had shown that drugs that linked up with Mu receptors lasted longer with less addiction when combined with drugs that blocked Delta receptors. But it was not known whether the two channels worked separately or in concert to improve the overall effect. So Portoghese and his colleagues built a drug that triggered the Mu receptor while blocking the Delta receptor–dubbed MDAN, for Mu Delta agonist antagonist. They administered various versions of the drug to mice and then tested their sensitivity to pain by focusing a hot light on their tails and recording the time it took the animals to move them. The MDAN drug proved roughly 50 times more effective than morphine in blocking pain, the researchers report in this week’s online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

More here.

3 Quarks Daily readers send art student to college

Thanks a million to everyone who contributed to our collection to send an art student, whose scholarship was cut off, to school in the spring. In one week we have collected the full amount of $1,533.85 thanks to your generosity. When I went to give my friend the check, she showed me some anatomical figurative studies she was working on (done in BIC Medium Blue ballpoint pen on paper!). I asked if I could photograph them and exhibit them at 3QD and she agreed. So here they are (click to enlarge any image):



Jpl3 Jpl4

She also wrote this message down for the readers of 3QD:

Unfortunately there is no way for me to truly express my gratitude, because it is so immense, it is even unfathomable to myself. It is a chain reaction when something so kind is done, even if it may be subconscious. The happiness felt within bleeds onto others and they too feel the pleasure that the other has received. I don’t really have a family, but I have been so lucky to meet the people I have in my life. For my friends are my family. Because of this I have strong family values and care greatly for anyone I affiliate myself with. Especially Margit and Abbas. They are two of the most brilliant people I know, and ever will know. I love them unconditionally as I would a mother, a father, a sister, or a brother. It means the world to me that someone has so much faith in me, and it gives me the drive to pursue my dreams. I believe in my success and myself. Through this kind act, I have learned a lot. And this will never be forgotten. I have always thought of myself as a selfless person, but the generosity displayed by your trust will be redistributed as I continue my life. I wish I could thank each and every one of you for helping, but I suppose I will leave that up to Abbas. This is the nicest thing that anyone has ever done for me, and I don’t think it has quite settled in yet. Still, I am so grateful, and wish you all the best in life. Unfortunately there are no words to truly express my gratitude, so I will simply leave this with a thank you.

Thank you, my friend.

Dispatches: The Thing Itself, or the Sociology of Coffee

In the movie “My Dinner With Andre,” a touchstone for the antic film buff, Wally Shawn muses about the things that make life bearable despite the heavy weight of human suffering and existential dread that torment his friend Andre Gregory. “I just don’t know how anybody could enjoy anything,” he says, “more than I enjoy… you know, getting up in the morning and having the cup of cold coffee that’s been waiting for me all night, that’s still there for me to drink in the morning, and no cockroach or fly has died in it overnight – I’m just so thrilled when I get up, and I see that coffee there, just the way I want it, I just can’t imagine enjoying something else any more than that.”

This little reverie has always struck me as a note-perfect piece of writing (or speaking) by Shawn, who here depends on a long-running association of coffee with a form of escape from the prosaic, even as it fuels that most prosaic form of labor, writing. The social meaning of coffee combines its conception as the fuel upon which workers of all kinds rely with the notion of the coffee break, the oasis in the day in which workers are temporarily freed from adherence to their routinized schedules and can indulge in idleness. The twin sites of coffee drinking, the coffee shop and the cafe, represent the two class locations in which these escapes can occur: the coffee shop for laborers and the cafe for the intellectual, who turns her own idle philosophizing into her special form of production.

The association of coffee with both labor and the emancipation from labor is a long one. In the standard narrative of the Enlightenment, coffee shops in London in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries play a large role as sites that hosted the workingmen’s collectives and other forms of nascent intelligentsia. Jurgen Habermas, for example, famously identified the London coffee houses as the birthplace of the modern critique of aristocratic power in the name of liberty in his influential The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Habermas’ claim that the public sphere expanded and developed into an inclusive site in which middle-class interests could be voiced also gestures at the interesting social connotations of coffee drinking: a practice that bridges the public world of letters with the private world of internal reflection, which duality that remains in effect to the present time. Coffee is the special beverage of intellectual labor and mental stimulation, and along with other products of the tropical colonial world, such as tea, sugar, and spices, perhaps accrued its social meaning precisely because of its novelty and the absence of pre-existing traditional associations with its consumption (as would be the case in Europe with beer, for example).

Until 1690 or so, nearly all the coffee imported to Europe came from Yemen, after which time the West Indies began to dominate, due to large plantations established by European colonialists, until roughly 1830. London at this time was the major trading center for the world’s coffee supply, supplanted by Rotterdam and coffee from Java later in the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth by Brazil’s production and New York’s factorage, or management of trade. What is interesting about this extremely truncated potted history is how little known it is, beyond the vaguest associations with these locations and coffee drinking: Java, for instance, or Colombia more recently, being places generally associated with the commodity. The fact that coffee as a crop is extremely amenable to the large-scale plantation system had much to do with its spread around the world, and also with the inculcation of the desire to drink it. Coffee as a commodity has also been extremely important to the development of the global economy, perhaps second only to oil. In between the world wars, coffee surpluses in Brazil grew so large that enough beans to supply the world for two and a half years were destroyed, prompting the development of international agreements to govern the flow of trade and prevent the destructive influence on prices of huge surpluses.

As you will have guessed, what I’m interested in here is the caesura between the social meanings of coffee and its consumption, on the one hand, and the economic and historical conditions in which it is produced, on the other. Note that our airy and metaphysical associations of coffee with scribal labor, and our notion of cart coffee as the fuel for wage workers, show no trace of the globally instituted plantation system of production and distribution that allows for its availability. Now, a sociologist friend of mine, upon hearing my thoughts on this subject, remarked dryly: “Well, yes, standard Marxism, the commodity always conceals the conditions of its production.” Which is true, yes, my friend, but I think there’s a bit more to it than that, when we come to our present age of late capitalism (to adopt the favored descriptor). For we specialize in nothing so much as the inflection of meanings in order to create and reinforce markets for products: the process called branding. Coffee has presented an interesting problem for marketers because it suffered from the problem of inelastic demand.

What this bit of jargon means is simply that coffee drinking was typically habitual and not generally considered to be divisible into gradations of luxury. In other words, people do not make fine distinctions when it comes to coffee – and indeed, the world’s coffee market is dominated by one varietal, arabica (though robusta is often used in cheaper brands as a blending ingredient – in fact, the whole question of why arabica is considered superior to robusta is of interest, though not sufficient relevance here). Or at least, coffee was considered to be this type of commodity through the nineteen-eighties. At that point, a revolution occurred with the application of European connoisseurship to coffee-drinking. I am referring, of course, to the vogue for Italian coffee that swept the world at this time. Finally, with the nomenclature of espresso, macchiato, cappuccino, etcetera, marketers had an opportunity to make gradations, to identify a style of coffee drinking with sophistication and taxonomies of taste in such a way as to basically invent a whole lifestyle involving coffee preferences, and thereby to supplant the inelasticity of demand that was preventing consumers from changing their buying patterns.

Ironically, of course, most of these gradations have little to do with the coffee itself; rather, they involve the milk, whether to steam it or froth it, add it or not, or whether to adulterate the espresso with hot water (americano), and so on. The effect is the same: making coffee drinking into a form of connoisseurship. My sociologist friend and I recently walked by a Starbucks, the apotheosis, of course, of the current technocratic style of coffee drinking. Outside was a chalkboard, the faux-handwritten message on which inspired these reflections: “The best, richest things in life cannot be seen or bought… but felt in the heart. Let the smooth and rich taste of eggnog latte fulfill your expectations.” Depressingly contradictory, the message also advertises a beverage which may or may not include coffee itself, though the misuse of the Italian word for milk, in the world of Starbucks, usually signifies its presence. Yet there’s also something honest about it, in that it baldly announces the contradictions that the drinking of coffee embodies. Seen to be the escape from the prosaic, the fuel for the laborer, the joiner of public and private, the psychoactive stimulant that incites philosophy, coffee, so far from a purely metaphysical vapor, contains all the strange compressed complexity of the world of real objects and the webs of relations that bring them to our lips.


Divisions of Labor II
Divisions of Labor I
Local Catch
Where I’m Coming From
Optimism of the Will
Vince Vaughan…Eve Sedgwick
The Other Sweet Science
Rain in November
On Ethnic Food and People of Color
Aesthetics of Impermanence

Federico Fellini: Circus Maximus

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD’s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at peternicholson.com.au and at the NLA.

The Circus Maximus was the arena for mass entertainment instituted by the Etruscan kings and then enhanced by subsequent emperors for tens of thousands of spectators. Trajan, Julius Caesar and Augustus, among others, added to, and enhanced, this structure. Its chariot races were a particular feature of its activities in later times.

FelliniIn the theatre of his mind, the great Italian auteur, Federico Fellini, casts forth his films as entertainment, serious entertainment which is worthy of the greatest art that the twentieth century produced. However, it is no good coming to Fellini looking for Thomas Mann or Persona. Fellini is just not that kind of artist. He puts his trust in his feelings, and he believes that feeling is the way to discover the reality of the world. He doesn’t believe in intellectualising about life or art, or in theorising about art either. But to say Fellini is not intelligent in his films would be wrong. Fellini is supremely intelligent as film director. He shapes his films as carefully as any novelist or poet does in the silence of their rooms. Circus Maximus translates from the Latin as largest circle, and it is this largest circle which Fellini draws around the world, enclosing in its phantasmagoric visions the poetry and pain of a loving heart. He invites his audience to participate in his films as would the audience at the Circus Maximus for some games spectacular. You may sit around the edge of the circle and enjoy the surreal passing parade, smell the sawdust, see the most startling use of colour, and of black and white. If he allowed himself to be styled emperor in his domain, Cinecittà, he always did so with a light touch, and he could be scathing about his own persona—he virtually accuses himself of fraudulence in Otto e mezzo. Of course Fellini was no fraudster but a subtle artist of the most unusual kind. The caricaturist from Rimini went on to become a true maestro.

Fellini’s films are musical, and the word maestro is not inappropriate to use in association with his work. His orchestra is his production team—and what a singular group of artists he gathered together for his purposes. It is doubtful that films like Fellini’s could ever be made without this kind of team to work with. Underwriting the whole endeavour is the music of Nino Rota who provides such an insouciant soundtrack to Fellini’s visual panoramas, by turns tender, melancholic, wistful, or vital and exuberant, music for eating, laughter, dancing and loving. But Fellini knows when to keep the soundtrack silent too. Usually, somewhere in a Fellini film, there is that sudden silence followed by the sound of wind, premonition of an ending Fellini doesn’t try to understand. He simply accepts death as part of the spectacle we must all participate in.

It is to be regretted that the main way people now come to Fellini is through re-release on DVD, or on television. If ever a director needed the big screen it is Fellini who designed his films as a medium in which there is a participatory audience. I remember two experiences in my early years of picture going. The first time I saw Otto e mezzo it was a revelation to me, and I also found it profoundly moving. And I almost hurt myself laughing, along with the rest of the audience, when I saw the family argument around the table in Amarcord. I doubt I would have had these reactions if my first viewing of these films had been via the television set. Fellini embraces you through the screen. If you can’t participate in the manner of an Italian feast, you won’t get the best out of his films. These are not works of art for people who want to sit at a distance in judgement. They are meant for enjoyment, involvement. His camera is lascivious, and it gets very close to its subject matter, which some people find disturbing. And people who think Pulp Fiction instituted some new kind of film narrative need to have another look at Fellini’s work, especially from Otto e mezzo onwards, just as cliched ideas about Fellini’s sexism ignore a lifelong preoccupation with the facade of Italian machismo.

For some, Fellini’s films can be a stretch, they ‘don’t wear well’, his sensibility, with its strangely compatible dual carriageway of sensuality and moral prodding, being at odds with present conformities. Satyricon especially is difficult to get hold of. On one hand it is a spectacle which Fellini fills with characteristic striking visuals. On the other, it comes across as cold, as if one was visiting a moonscape. Fellini called it science fiction of the past. Perhaps it was his comment on what he saw going on about him in supposedly liberated times. True, you don’t want to sit down to a tranche of his films in one go. His work is intense, baroque. There is maximum sensory overload. He is like Emily Dickinson and Bruckner in that way; you can’t take on too much of their intensity at one time. It would be a mistake to try to because then the appetite sickens. These are artists who are for a lifetime. You can always come back to them and their depth and seriousness will always be there for you when you have need of it. The fact that Fellini insists on joy being part of his sensibility makes him the major artist he is—he refuses to degrade himself in the manner of so many European intellectuals and artists who mortify themselves with doubt, self-hate and cynicism. It is not as if Fellini avoids tragedy. Who could forget Zampano’s despair on the beach at the end of La Strada or Marcello’s horror at Steiner’s suicide and the murder of his children in La Dolce Vita. Fellini is the realist who accepts suffering but who nevertheless insists on the pleasure principle too. One of the things Fellini takes most pleasure in is the human face. For him, it is endlessly fascinating. Fellini does not, contrary to a lot of Fellini criticism, put freaks in his films, but the variousness and beauty of the human face and form. In that sense he is a portrait painter, filling the screen with characters that give witness to the strangeness and majesty of the human: the alluring image of Anita Ekberg standing in the silent Trevi Fountain, the fantastical ecclesiastical fashion parade in Roma, the out-of-touch aesthetes on board the Gloria N. in E la nave va.

Was ever a director luckier than to have Giulietta Masina as a life companion? How one marvels at this actor’s performances in Fellini’s films. I am especially fond of her work in Giulietta degli spiriti. Here was companionship that led to beauty and greatness. But all Fellini’s actors seem to belong to a troupe. The circus master may crack the whip, but what performances he gets from his casts. How vital his characters seem with their dreams and delusions, their grandeur and pettiness, their gross appetites, their inwardness and hopefulness.

Opera, theatre, cabaret, vaudeville, circus. Luminous and celebratory, fantastical but all too real. Cinema. Art. Fellini is all of these things. For me, his films are inimitable, poetic, unforgettable.

— *** —

The following poem was written in late October 1993 when the press reported Fellini’s stroke.

        Federico Fellini 1920–1993

Maestro, lover, dreaming poet,
Must we say farewell just now?
Here on this uncertain street
Of a tawdry century
You encompassed multitudes,
From the fountain’s quietude
To a seaside ecstasy.

Trumpets at the darkened gates?
But how are we, who trust you still,
Beyond the failings that we share,
To live without your gaiety,
Except that in film flickering
And in Giulietta’s eyes
We know your passion will be strong.

Soon to sawdust you must drop
And circus clowns will hang their heads,
But while you live the world seems good,
For a pure heart brings such grace
And mischief that shows kindliness.
Stay to see our wretchedness
You maker of the marvellous!

But stillness is approaching now,
Tender, as this last spool spins
To silence in unending night.
Ciao, dear artist. May you slip
Quickly to that other side
Behind the screen, and leave us with a smile
Whose joy is deep, whose laughter was so wise.

Intervista: Fellini’s penultimate film
Giulietta’s eyes: Giulietta Masina, Fellin’s wife

Written 1993