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Labor Day

Labor Day is now thought of primarily as the day that marks the end of summer and, in rather rarified society, the last day of the season in which it’s fashionable for women to wear white. So the holiday has come to have an autumnal, a valetudinarian air about it.

Of course it wasn’t that way to begin with. It was established in the heyday of raw capitalism to acknowledge —  maybe placate is the more accurate word  — workers.  It was celebrated with marches, banners, speeches and some great songs. But unions, the backbone of the labor movement, have steadily diminished in membership and power. In the 1960s about a third of all non-agricultural workers were unionized. According to the US Department of Labor, by 1983 only 20.1 percent of wage and salary workers were members of a union. Unions continued to lose members and by last year only 11.9 percent of workers were unionized. In a sense, Labor Day has come to mark the autumn of the labor movement.

Unfortunately, this great Woody Guthrie song is rather more nostalgia than a call to action. But it’s still a great song.

“The Classics So Far”

Illustration for Jane Austen novel by Hugh ThomsonWe appreciate Great Novels, especially Great British Novels, but every now and then our attention flags.  And this isn’t limited to Great British Novels; there are also Great Russian Novels in which we’ve found our attention wandering. There are even some Great American Novels — OK, let’s admit it, we’re thinking of Henry James — in which we’ve fallen asleep, even though we do admire Henry James. Mostly admire him, anyway. At least we feel obliged to say so whether we do or not. So we were delighted to come across the following poem by Marilyn Robertson.

The Classics So Far

The heroine is choosing the wrong man.
If she were not sitting next to him at the dinner party,

she could see him as we do —
a man in love with his own brains.

Yet the handsome baronet who has made her a gift
of a small yapping dog — is he any better?

Surely, somewhere in the next five hundred pages
there’s a third man: a maker of violins, say, or

the vicar’s second cousin once-removed, who, after
several misadventures of his own, is going to turn up

in that village and change everything.
But I may not last that long if these other two characters —

the fat one in the waistcoat and the churlish earl —
don’t stop debating the principles of land reform,

completely oblivious to how little patience
we have these days for eloquence.

Keeping Cool in 1863

Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe by Edouard ManetPictured above are four Parisians who found a way to escape the sweltering heat of the city. Well, at least two of party have found a way to keep cool.  These four are rather like a certain quartet of musicians who had a picnic in 1510; the women were bare naked but the men were smothered in velvet. All that’s further down this page.  Now pay attention to the painting above.  The woman in the background clearly enjoys wading in the stream and isn’t concerned that her chemise — what exactly is she wearing? —  gets soaked. And the bold young woman in the foreground has tossed aside convention and all her clothes. You’re cool or you’re not, right?

But the men! Look at them — suffocating in tight collars, heavy jackets, cravats, hats, shoes and, though you can’t make it out in this small image, the one on the right is even wearing a vest. These guys haven’t got a clue.

It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on here. The scene was painted by Edouard Manet around 1862-1863. He named the painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) and, in fact, along side the discarded clothing there’s a basket of fruit and a round loaf of bread.  But no one is eating.  And whatever the guy on the right is saying it’s clear that he’s lost the attention of his naked lunch date. She’s more interested in us. And, you know, we’re more interested in her.

Manet wasn’t having any luck getting his paintings shown when he captured this interesting picnic. His work was rejected year after year by the gate-keepers of the government-sponsored show at the Palais des Champs-Elysees. That exhibit, or Salon, was visited by thousands of Parisians and it was virtually impossible for a painter to make a living if he didn’t succeed there. The jurors were generally conservatives and Manet was one of several artists whose work was rejected by the Salon. In 1863 so many paintings were turned down that the government, giving in to the artists’ bitter complaints, sponsored an alternative exhibit for the rejected paintings, the famous Salon des Refuses.  That’s where Manet exhibited this painting.

Manet’s scene was inspired in part by Giorgione’s painting of a similar quartet 1510. We have an image of that painting further down this page. We’re not suggesting you try this at your local picnic grounds or National Park. We’re not stupid. We know there must be better places. You’re cool or you’re not, right?

The Readers at Readercon

Of the many literary gatherings held this summer, our attention was caught by Readercon, a conference focusing on imaginative literature. Readercon logoIt was held at the Boston-Burlington Marriott and drew people not only from all over the US but from other countries as well. Readercon has “con” baked into its name, which is unfortunate if it conjures up images of certain other “cons” which are primarily party occasions where participants dress up to resemble their favorite character from science fiction, fantasy, or vampire tales. Readercon has the reputation, deservedly, of being the most serious of the cons. For readers interested in imaginative literature in it’s many different forms, Readercon can be entertaining, sometimes scholarly, mostly engrossing and, in one way and another, simply enjoyable.

Though the program guide describes Readercon as “The Year’s Best Science Fiction Convention” the four-day event fortunately covers considerably more than science fiction. The recent 22nd annual Readercon offered a broad spectrum of discussions, stretching from an academic panel on the “Death of the Author” (a theory of French intellectual Roland Barthes), to the jovial “Kirk Poland Memorial Bad Prose Competition.” In between these extremes there were panels on such diverse subjects as young adult fiction, on myth, on the Midrash, on a literary agency, on  book design and typography, the retelling of Russian folktales, the blurring of genras —  plus book signings, readings by authors, and interviews. According to the volunteer organizers, a typical Readercon has about 150 writers, editors, publishers, and critics. But what struck us were the 400 or more people who attended the different events – it would be hard to find a more engaged and lively group of readers.

Beating the Heat in 1510

Giorgione's Pastoral Concert

Giorgione's Pastoral Concert

The heat and humidity afflicting most of the United States has been a problem for other people in other places too. Pictured above is a scene painted by Giorgione in Italy around 1510. We don’t know how Giorgione came across this interesting quartet who had found such a simple way to keep cool on a hot day. In mid summer there’s nothing like the peace and quiet of the countryside, especially if there’s a well of cool water and a glass pitcher close by. So you bring along your guitar or lute, and a recorder or flute of some sort, and play a few tunes. And you  stay cool.

Or at least some do.  There’s no way of telling what those two women were wearing when they left home that morning, but clearly they’ve discarded a lot of clothing. There’s no better way to keep cool than by slipping out of your clothes. So you have to feel sorry for those men — the fellow on the left must be roasting under all that heavy red velvet, and the guy on the right, the one with the 1968 head of hair, he’s not much better off either. But the women look cool. OK, so maybe they ate too much pasta the past few years, but they do look cool.  Heavy, but  cool.

The painting has had different names – Country Fiesta, is one — but if you call it Giorgione’s Pastoral Concert, that will be fine. Giorgione’s full name is Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco; he was a Venetian and one of his students was Titian. In fact, the Louvre, where this painting hangs, believes that Titian painted it, or, at least, finished what Giorgione had started to paint shortly before his death.  Only about a half dozen of   Giorgione’s paintings survive, and many, like this one, have a  suggestive, enigmatic  quality about them.

Medical Marijuana & The Lotus Eaters

Sixteen states plus Washington, D.C., now permit the use of medical marijuana. Federal law doesn’t recognize medical marijuana, and the blue-nose mean-minded Bush administration made life difficult for certain doctors, patients and marijuana dispensaries. State law still doesn’t beat federal law, but the Obama administration has said it won’t prosecute people who use the drug if it’s prescribed by a physician, nor will the feds attempt to close down the marijuana dispensaries. Maybe you thought that California had a lot of marijuana dispensaries; you’re right, it does. But Colorado stands out by having more marijuana outlets than it has Starbucks coffee shops.

Marijuana leaf

Marijuana leaf

Our attention was caught by the names of some of the Colorado dispensaries as well as what they have to offer. The Ganja Gourmet claims to be “America’s First Medical Marijuana Restaurant-Dispensary!” And we believe it’s a reasonable claim. The Herbal Cure doesn’t offer gourmet dining but does provide massage therapy as well as the weed. Then there’s Denver Relief which describes itself as “a wellness and medical marijuana center dedicated to assisting people with making positive and natural changes in their lives.” If that’s too fancy an enterprise for you, there’s the simpler and more direct Discount Medical Marijuana. And we can’t forget Lotus Medical, a name which joins the antiseptic “medical” to Alfred Tennyson’s “The Lotus Eaters,” his extraordinarily lush poem about a land “In which it seemed always afternoon.”

“All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.
Full-faced above the valley stood the moon;
And, like a downward smoke, the slender stream
Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.”

Tennyson was drawing on that passage in the Odyssey where a few men from Odysseus’s crew go ashore on an island where the inhabitants eat the narcotic lotus and spend their lives in dreamy passivity.  In fact, a couple of Odysseus’s men who eat the lotus succumb and give up all thought of returning home.

It certainly isn’t cool to read Alfred Tennyson today but, you know, the man had a way with words. You’re right, you won’t get high reading a Victorian poet, unless you can read and smoke at the same time.  (It’s not that difficult.)  If you’re curious about the poem you can read it here. It’s really lush.

Change of Plans

Not all nicely made movies are interesting — in fact, some are quite dull — and not all badly made movies deserve to be ignored. A badly made movie that you might want to look at came from France two years ago. It wasn’t widely viewed here. It’s Change of Plans (Le code a change), directed by Daniele Thompson, written by Christopher Thompson, who also acts in it,  and Daniele Thompson.

The central event of the movie is a dinner party (yes, yes, this is  French cinema) of ten friends  and acquaintances, most of them in their forties, some in a profession, legal or medical. By and large, they’re an unhappy lot — this one is having an affair, that one is on the verge of leaving her husband, another hates her father, and one is close to burning out in his job, and so on. In fact, there are too many characters — too many for us to keep track of and too many for the director to dramatize in satisfying depth. Furthermore, we learn about the characters’ private lives by a series of intercut flashbacks, not all of them easy to follow. OK, the movie has problems.

Change of Plans with Karen Viard & Patrick Bruel

Karen Viard & Patrick Bruel in Change of Plans

Nonetheless, this is an interesting movie.  The rather slapdash dinner party is completely believable,  the dialog is good and the characters are engaging. We enjoy their company, despite their occasionally really bad behavior. This is, by the way, one of the few movies to show how cell phones have changed the rules when it comes to secret love notes.  Because it’s an ensemble cast, and a good ensemble, no one stands out as a central figure, but Karen Viard (wonderfully energetic despite the apparently thickening body of an early forties woman) is the hostess, Marie-Laurence ‘ML’ Claverne, a lawyer, and is central to the movie in that way. Her character’s younger sister Juliette is played with irritable conviction by Marina Hands, and Emmanuelle Seigner does a good job as Sarah Mattei, a woman on the make.  Pierre Arditi and Patrick Chesnais do a fine job and some nice comic turns as older men. But, in fact, the male roles tend to recede into the background, another weakness in this movie. And yet, and yet… It may be a movie you did well not to spend big bucks on at the local cinemaplex, but it’s worth watching on a rented DVD, and you get some good bonus features as well.

Sex And Violence

Judge's gavelBy coincidence the Stop Porn Culture conference and the US Supreme Court decision about violent videos came upon us at the same time. What caught our attention was that although the Supreme Court has ruled in the past that states can legally keep pornography from youngsters, it has now ruled states cannot keep violent video games from them.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the court’s majority decision in the video game case. Among other things, he wrote “Like the protected books, plays, and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas — and even social messages — through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world). That suffices to confer First Amendment protection.”  And later: “No doubt a State possesses legitimate power to protect children from harm… but that does not include a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed.”

That last part did strike us as running counter to the assumptions behind the Supreme Court’s permitting a ban on, say, video depictions of  sexual acts being shown to the very young. In perhaps the most important case involving children and their access to pornography (Ashcroft vs. ACLU, 00-1293) the court ruled 8 to 1 in favor of using “community standards” as a measure for determining what material should be prohibited or regulated online.

A pornographic book or video  can also “communicate ideas — and even social messages — through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music)”  yet those books and videos can be restricted using “community standards.” OK, we’ll stop now and admit we’re confused. As a matter of fact, Justice Scalia does go into the difference in legal standing between pornography and depictions of violence.  Justice Scalia has never been  one of our favorite Supreme Court justices, but his opinions are always interesting to read, and if you’d like to read his opinion, please click on this link http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/08-1448.pdf

We posted the picture below the day after the summer solstice. It’s a water color etching by William Blake called Ancient of Days. Ancient of Days is another name for God and here Blake has portrayed him as the architect of the universe. The phrase and what it calls to mind has inspired artists for generations. Blake may have had in mind these words from the Book of Daniel: I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of Days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.Good grief! The days are getting shorter!

HarperCollins vs. Libraries

Speaking of libraries, as we were in the post below this, we report the sad fact that the publishers HaperCollins has decided not to sell e-books to libraries but to rent them out. The publisher allows libraries to let an e-book circulate only 26 times before the library must again pay to rent it for another 26 times. E-book Reader If it were a conventional book, the library would buy it and allow it to circulate among library patrons until it needed to be replaced, at which point the library would buy a fresh copy. Now HaperCollins wants to sell a lot of copies to libraries, so it has decided, arbitrarily and whimsically, that the e-book wears out after it’s been read 26 times. Libraries, which are publically funded and never rich, have complained about this. One example —the Upper Hudson Library System, a consortium of libraries in New York State —  has sent a public letter to HaperCollins protesting this whacky arrangement and “will no longer purchase any e-content published by HarperCollins or any of its subsidiary publishers.” You can check out the letter sent to HarperCollins by clicking  on this link http://www.uhls.org/new/open_letter_HarperCollins.pdf

More Notes


Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.