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I’m not really sure why I’m posting this. I’m trying to get back into posting every day, and part of doing that is to filter less. So here is an old photograph that fell out of my box of photos a few months ago when I posted some photos of Quebec on my photo blog. Instead of putting it away, I laid it down on a table and I keep walking by it. This is an exception to my little rule that all the images on the blog were made by me. This is a photo of me taken by my ex-husband around the time we were married, which means it’s approximately twenty years old.

a blurry bad photo of me twenty years ago.

I like it for some reason I can’t quite identify. It’s a “bad” photo in almost every sense of the word. It’s out of focus. The subject is poorly framed. It has the yellowish cast from using outdoor film under incandescent lights. It’s not especially flattering. It doesn’t even really look much like me. I’m pretty sure it was from around the time we were married because my hair is long. In my mind, I’m a short-haired person. My husband, however, liked women with long hair and he asked me to grow it for him.

Anyway, I was looking at it earlier and I hadn’t done a post yet. I wish I could write something a little deeper about why I like it. Everything that’s wrong with the picture is part of the reason why I like it. I find pictures boyfriends take of me interesting because I think it reveals something about how they see me. My ex always saw me as being a little nerdy and far too shy and I think that comes across in the picture.

My mind has been very occupied with mundane things and I’m feeling mentally depleted at the moment. Fortunately, the flight back was very pleasant. The plane was only about three-quarters full and the flight attendants were all in a good mood. I sat next to a very chatty Englishwoman with a good sense of humor and we laughed for about eight hours straight. It certainly made the flight go more quickly.

My mother has relocated to Baltimore and she tells me she’s going to put me to work sewing drapes, so this might turn into a home decorating blog for a few days.

Well, that’s about it, but I hadn’t posted in a few days, so I figured I had better put something up.

I went to the Louvre yesterday evening. Each time I’m in Paris, I take the opportunity of being here to go look at the French paintings there. If you didn’t happen to already know, I’m one of those people who falls down on her knees before Ingres. Last visit, I spent a large amount of time looking at eighteenth century paintings. This time, I decided to start at an earlier point.

According to the plaques on the wall, the French have not preserved as many of their early paintings as some other countries, so the French paintings really start in earnest around 1400. Among the first presented, if you follow the rooms of French paintings in chronological order, are several featuring the Pieta.When I was young, I really loved Medieval and early Renaissance paintings and I’ve always found them highly moving. When I was in Florence with my sister, tramping from Church to Church to Church like a pair of pilgrims, I joked that if I saw one more beautiful Madonna I was going to convert, and, indeed, that is exactly the effect they are intended to have. The reason those great works were commissioned by the Church in the first place, beyond simply the desire to impress the faithful with the power of the Church, was to inspire religious feelings.

In La Grand Pieta and, next to it, Le Christ de pitie soit tennu par Jean l’Evangelist en presence de la Vierge et de deux anges, both attributed to Jean Malouel, Christ’s flesh is pierced, his blood flowing. The pained sorrow of the onlookers. Who could fail to be moved? Are we moved by the suffering of a god, or only to the extent that we can relate to it as the suffering of a person. To what extent are we moved by the story, if we know it, the story as we can discern it if we do not know it, or by the plastic elements? If we are moved by the formal components, the how is that different from being moved by a work of abstract expressionism? In fact, isn’t that part of what abstract expressionism sets out to do?

However, unlike the abstract paintings, the medieval paintings do contain content and narrative. How did the people who believed these stories feel when looking at the paintings? Can I truly be said to appreciate them, no matter how moved I may feel, if I do not believe them?

Then I got a sinking sense of “What is it all worth.” Somehow, the paintings started making me feel very small and insignificant.

Obviously, I sketched this in another room. It is, I'm afraid, a poor copy of David's self-portrait.

Obviously, I sketched this in another room. It is, I’m afraid, a poor copy of David’s self-portrait.

Used to be that I could stand through hearing five or six bands on both Friday and Saturday night. Also used to be that I was twenty-three years old. Here I am, laid up, nursing sore ankles after standing through one set – and we’re not talking a Bruce Springsteen three and a half or four hour set either.

I gave Stone a “wish you were here” phone call last night. International minutes are expensive and I hung up still feeling antsy and agitated, and wanting to talk to someone, anyone. It was mixed-up, ambivalent, happy-yet-angry sort of agitation. I thought about heading out to a bar just so as not to be alone, but my ankles were telling me that that would be an unwise decision. So I sent my apparently no-longer-friend, who still hasn’t written, an email that said “fuck you” several times in between less sweet sentiments that I hope were not entirely incoherent. Maybe staying in was an unwise decision.

I’d never been to the Parc de la Villette. In grad school I had an acquaintance who was a big Bernard Tschumi fan, and it’s been on my list of places to see for years. Somehow, I never quite got out that way. I still can’t really say that I’ve seen it, since I’ve still only seen a very small part of it. If Paris was a big clock face, located out near half past one, there’d be the Cité de la Musique. Like the other things I saw in the park it had the feel of a big government project, sterile, hulking, inhuman in scale, and simply boring. The entrance is wedged into one of Tschumi’s follies like one oppressively bureaucratic idea trying to accommodate another. The only thing I could say it made me feel was an intense desire to shoot the leviathan and put it out of its misery.

After walking past a sleekly boring cafe, I saw some figures on the wall of the building that reminded me of the shadow figures I used to see painted on walls in New York in the eighties. A boyfriend who’d grown up in a project on the Lower East Side first pointed them out to me. We used to tell each other when we’d spotted one so the other could go look at it. Getting closer to these figures, they looked to me as if they’d been printed out on paper and pasted to the wall. Four of them. The fact that it looked like graffiti or street art seemed appropriate. I want to say they were images of the members of The Clash, but I’ve got a confession to make, I wouldn’t recognize most celebrities if I fell over them. I don’t know, and I don’t really care, about the personal lives of my favorite writers or musicians. Half the time I don’t even know if they’re alive or dead. I care about the work, not the person. Is that unkind of me?

“Europunk,” the name of the exhibit, let’s face it, is a misnomer. Ninety percent of the shit’s English. No denying that. Appropriately, the first thing to greet you at the entrance of the exhibition itself is an image of the Union Jack with a picture of the Queen on top. Yeah, you know the image. It’s the one with her eyes and mouth covered with letters that spell out “God Save the Queen” and “The Sex Pistols.” I can’t deny that I smiled despite the frame and the glass and the little museum description near the corner.

Punk was before my time, and mostly it took place across the ocean anyway, so I can’t say that this dredged up any feelings of nostalgia. The main feeling was one of gratitude. I think I was lucky to come of age in the era immediately following its heyday. Everyone else seemed to be staring in the glass cases ever so seriously. Was I wrong to think a lot of this outrageous stuff was funny? Maybe I had been too young to know better, but this stuff had never shocked me. The cases in the center of the room displayed clothing by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, like some sort of ancient pottery. This was, after all, a museum. Strangely, the words of a song I happen to really hate entered my mind, “I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac. A little voice inside my head said, ‘Don’t look back. You can never look back.'” Well, I still don’t like that song, but I’ve got to say that I think I now know what the writer was feeling when he wrote those words. I started feeling happy, amused and a little bit ill, all at the same time.

A drawing of a tower of televisions with people standing around them wearing headphones.

There was a t.v. playing a recording of the New York Dolls playing “Jet Boy.” I remember as a teenager always feeling cheated because I couldn’t listen to music because most of it took place in bars and I was too young to go to bars. Oh, I was so angry about that. So, when one of my sister’s friends asked if we wanted to go hear a band that was playing at a nearby college, I jumped at the chance. I had heard of these Ramones, but hadn’t actually heard them, so I had no idea if I liked them or not, but school venue = no booze = no age limit so I was going. I wish I could place my age at the time. I can’t, but my sister eventually had a falling out with that friend, so I must have been pretty young. The Ramones, as it happens, totally sucked. Despite being a sheltered little girl who had never so much as tasted beer and was clueless as to what marijuana smelled like, I had a pretty good idea that these guys were so stoned they seemed to have trouble standing up. It was as if each one was playing in his own little bubble and they only happened to be on the same stage. Yet the evening was not a total waste. If the headlining band was a disappointment, I was entirely taken by the opening act. Still, to this day, it might be the best performance I’ve ever seen. I kept his name in the back of my mind for years trying to find out who he was. David Johansen. If the internet had existed back then, I would have known about the Dolls before going to bed that night. In retrospect, this was probably my musical awakening, and for years I wouldn’t know who this guy was.

My dislike for the Ramones has always been a little awkward. They’re from New York and have been among the favorites of many of my friends.

I went to grad school a little bit late and I was almost a decade older than the bright young things who surrounded me. Now, nearly two decades on, it’s hard to see the difference between my age and theirs, but they saw that difference and never tired of rubbing my face in it, that and our class differences. They liked to call me a “punk” and said the word with a kind of disdain, like they were picking a piece of litter up off the street. They pointed to a pile of cassettes I kept beside my desk.

“You listen to The Clash.”

“Everyone listens to The Clash. Fuck, man, they had hit records.”

“Fuck, maaaan.” Someone repeated, giggling at my passé lingo.

“So who are these people?” someone else said, picking up a cassette of the New York Dolls.

I tried explaining why I said that I’d never been a punk. Finally, it occurred to me that it was a lot like when my bio-mom explained to me that she was a freak not a hippie. It was a nicety that I didn’t really care about. I nodded at the time, but I still describe her to people my age as a hippie. However, if you’re a certain age, she considered herself a freak. Me, I’m a wuss. I like hot and cold running water far too much to live in a squat. I was never a part of all that. I just happened to like some of the music.

On one wall was a poster, and I smiled again at something familiar. “This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. Now form a band.” It reminded me of one of the reasons I feel gratitude towards punk. People sometimes describe it as a DIY ethos, but it seems slightly deeper than that to me. Somehow, I felt that if you didn’t like the culture you could make your own. You don’t like your culture? Then what the fuck are you going to do about it? But it also drove home why I was feeling angst. It’s not “here are three chords, now play in your room.” It’s “now form a band.” Culture isn’t something that happens in isolation. It happens among people, and these days I’ve been feeling very alone.

At the end of the exhibition they had computers with a library of songs on them. I sat down and started listening to bands I’d never heard. It was almost closing time for the museum. It was disappointing because this was one of the most informative parts of the exhibition for me. If I had known, I would have started there.

As I left the museum, I saw people taking photos of one another standing next to the life-size images of famous bands that I had seen on the way in. Suddenly, I didn’t like them anymore.

As I was having a quick dinner at a brasserie across the street, I couldn’t help mulling over the differences between then and now. Of course, there had been plenty of photos from the era in the exhibit. I toyed with the idea of doing a cartoon showing two women, one showing how women actually looked in 1978 and another showing a woman in a “punk” Halloween costume in 2013. The contemporary interpretation would have a young woman in high, high heels with a touch of fetish styling, fishnet stockings, a super short plaid miniskirt and a black leather jacket, all looking far too cute and sex-kittenish to ever have been worn 1978. As I headed back to the concert hall, a young woman less than half my age walked by me wearing almost that exact outfit. The only difference was opaque black stockings instead of fishnets. I had to stifle the impulse to laugh. She wasn’t the only young person who appeared to be in costume.

I began thinking, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all, not that I thought it was a bad idea, but I found myself bracing for disappointment. Perhaps it was the context, but I didn’t like the sense that people were coming to see John Lydon as part of a museum exhibit, which in fact it was. Fortunately, I am not a reviewer, I wanted to have a good time and I did. However, I left with a huge number of mixed up emotions.

On the way home, I walked the streets feeling like a ghost.

The revolution will not be televised. It will be put behind glass and tucked safely away in a museum.

Blech! Just the other day, I said that I wanted to write more and, to that end, I would try to be more spontaneous. As the former governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, might say, “How’s that spontaneity thingy workin’ out fer ya?” I’ll tell you how that’s working out, I’ve written 1200 words of a post today and got burned out by fact checking.

For the first time since I started this blog, a couple of days ago I deleted a comment. As I mentioned in that post, “A Comment I Almost Made,” the final leg on my journey to a skeptical viewpoint was learning to take received wisdom about health and “wellness” with a major grain of salt. I have no idea why health issues are relegated to the lifestyle section of the newspaper and covered in the media with less rigor than “hard” news. The commenter was understandably unhappy. I’m not sure there is a polite way of deleting a comment. However, I’ve heard that when people are presented with false information, they retain it even after hearing a correction. Somewhere in the box of papers in which I threw everything that was sitting on my desk the last time I moved there is some notes from a lecture I went to go hear in which a philosopher was discussing the question of how we know what we know and he seemed especially disturbed by the spread of false information on the internet. On a similar note, the website of the magazine Popular Science shut down its comment section. However, one of the reasons I wanted to start a blog was to reach out to people and I have not found commenters on this site to be uncivil.

So, if someone makes an incorrect claim, unintentionally in this case, what should I do?

Anyway, I’m still chewing over this incident because I’m not entirely comfortable with it. Beyond that, I had to ask myself the question, “Was I right.” Because if I’m going to delete comments over facts, as opposed to opinions, then my facts should be correct.

So I started to write a post about diet and skepticism and it’s turning out to be a much bigger job than I thought, even though it’s quasi-autobiographical as almost all my posts are.

Anyway, that’s where I am at the moment.

I wouldn’t have started a blog if I was just going to post frivolous stuff, but on the other hand writing serious stuff is time-consuming.

A week or two ago, I came across a blog post in which a woman debated the merits of correcting people on the internet. She was referring to things that are easily checked with a quick search on the internet. I was sympathetic to what she had to say having five minutes earlier just corrected someone who claimed that there had been no slavery in Canada. Although it was never an integral part of the economy, a quick search on the internet will bring you to a page on Wikipedia with a brief summary. I already knew this fact because my ex-husband’s cousin had done research on their family and had it privately printed in a book, which I read. One of their ancestors had owned a slave. Also, I once watched a documentary on CBC about blacks in Canada. Slavery in Canada was mentioned. Although my ex-husband’s ancestor was not mentioned by name, the slave he had owned, Olivier le Jeune, was.

However, if you’ve ever gotten into a dispute on the internet, you probably know that even fetching easy to find links is time-consuming. If you’re trying to find reliable information on something a little more controversial, as I was doing earlier today (well, yesterday morning), it can be quite time-consuming. So I wound up not putting up the post I intended to put up today:

Banned Books Week: What Should I Read?

The Bible
x
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes
x
The Koran
Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
Arabian Nights
Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift
Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
x
Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
x
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
x
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe
x
The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli
x
Diary of Anne Fank, Anne Frank
x
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
x
Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
Dracula, Bram Stoker
x
Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin
Tom Jones, Henry Fielding
The Book of Common Prayer, The Church of England
Essays, Michel de Montaigne
Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
Tess of the D’Urbervilles Thomas Hardy
History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Edward Gibbon
x
Origin of Species, Charles Darwin
x
Ulysses, James Joyce
Animal Farm, George Orwell
x
Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio
x
Candide, Voltaire
x
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Analects, Confucius
Dubliners, James Joyce
Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
x
Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
Red and the Black, Stendhal
x
Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
x
Capital, Karl Marx
Flowers of Evil, Charles Baudelaire
x
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
x
Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D. H. Lawrence
Jungle, Upton Sinclair
x
Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser
Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
x
All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque
x
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx
x
Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
Jude the Obscure Thomas Hardy
Diary Samuel Pepys
Doctor Zhivago Boris Pasternak
Critique of Pure Reason Immanuel Kant
x
Praise of Folly Desiderius Erasmus
Praise of Folly Desiderius Erasmus
East of Eden John Steinbeck
Catch-22 Joseph Heller
x
Moll Flanders Daniel Defoe
x
Color Purple Alice Walker
x
Catcher in the Rye J. D. Salinger
o
Autobiography of Malcolm X Malcolm X
Essay Concerning Human Understanding John Locke
Bluest Eye Toni Morrison
x
Invisible Man Ralph Ellison
x
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Maya Angelou
x
Leviathan Thomas Hobbes
x
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Bridge to Terabithia Katherine Paterson
Confessions Jean Jacques Rousseau
Gargantua and Pantagruel François Rabelais
Women in Love D. H. Lawrence
Social Contract Jean Jacques Rousseau
American Tragedy Theodore Dreiser
Separate Peace John Knowles
Bell Jar Sylvia Plath
x
Talmud
Mein Kampf Adolf Hitler
James and the Giant Peach Roald Dahl
Red Pony John Steinbeck
Popol Vuh
Metaphysics Aristotle
Satyricon Petronius
Affluent Society John Kenneth Galbraith
Little House on the Prairie Laura Ingalls Wilder
Institutes of the Christian Religion Jean Calvin
Lolita Vladimir Nabokov
x
Slaughterhouse Five Kurt Vonnegut
Clan of the Cave Bear Jean M. Auel
x
Black Boy Richard Wright
x
Spirit of the Laws Charles de Secondat Baron de Montesquieu
Julie of the Wolves Jean Craighead George
Steppenwolf Hermann Hesse
Power and the Glory Graham Greene
Black Like Me John Howard Griffin
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble William Steig
Sanctuary William Faulkner
As I Lay Dying William Faulkner
Sorrows of Young Werther Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood

Didn’t like the list over at the website of the organization that’s promoting Banned Books Week. Actually, if you read the fine print, it’s banned and “challenged” books. This is a different list from the one promoted by Banned Books Week. I found it over at OCLC. It’s a list of books that are on both their “Top 1000” list and have been frequently challenged, so it contains more classics. Still, I thought it might be fun to read something but I haven’t decided what yet. Pardon me for getting lazy with the formatting halfway down the list. Actually, there’s 120 books on the list and I’ve only typed the first ninety-nine. The ones with an “x”, I’ve already read.

Now, suddenly, I’ve been doing some reading on nutrition and my reading plans for the week may have changed. Still, if you’ve read any of the books I haven’t and would like to make a plug for them, please go ahead.

…which I think means that I have to be more spontaneous if I don’t want blogging to take over my life. Right now, I have three or four posts I’ve started within the past week that I haven’t finished because they involve double checking some facts. Believe it or not, I do try to do that before posting, or I indicate when I’m speaking off the cuff. I know that I’m as subject to biases as anyone else, but I try to check things. After all, I don’t want to continue to hold beliefs that are untrue.

So I feel a bit torn. For instance, I read a short historical article the other day and it made me think of a few other things I’ve read in the past. I began to write about it, but then I figured that I should check and make sure I remembered what I read years ago correctly. It’s just a matter of rereading a chapter of a book that I read about a decade or so ago, but I haven’t been in the mood and the post is just sitting there.

There’s a question that I’ve tossed around with my sister a few times recently. I’ve said many times recently that I don’t remember religion as being important during my childhood. I keep asking her if I’m remembering things correctly. She assures me that I am, or that my memories parallel her experiences. Some people have suggested that I grew up in a marginal subculture. I guess that’s possible, but it doesn’t seem that way to me. It seems to me that people who were raised in a fundamentalist household that limited or policed their interaction with people of other backgrounds were in a more marginal subculture.

It was only about five years ago when I realized quite how freaky fundamentalist Christianity is. One day, I was listening to Earth Wind and Fire and I was singing along with the music when I realized that the words I thought I heard in “Serpentine Fire” were a little weird and I decided to look up the song on the internet if it really said, “Going to tell a story, Morning Glory, wow, about the Serpentine Fire.” Now, I thought about it, and having read Foucault’s Pendulum right after reading The Name of The Rose way back when, the possibility that it could be about the Serpent Kundalini crossed my mind. Now, admittedly, that goes along pretty well with ankhs and the Egyptian symbolism that Earth Wind and Fire used. Still, I was flabbergasted, really totally blown away, when I came across a site that said that “Christians” shouldn’t listen to Earth Wind and Fire because of the pagan symbolism. Wow. I’m sorry that I have put scare quotes around Christian in that previous sentence, but if your church tells you that there are things you shouldn’t listen to or shouldn’t read you belong to a cult, not a mainstream religion.

I think there are a lot of these cults out there that fly under the radar because they call themselves “Christian” and members of the mainstream culture don’t think to question it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Earth Wind and Fire is “harmless”, exactly, because if art and music can be credited with affecting the way people perceive the world good art can’t be anodyne, still, it was widely popular. According to Wikipedia, Earth Wind and Fire was the first African-American band to sell out Madison Square Garden in New York City.

There were ways in which my childhood was not mainstream and I like to think I know what they are. For instance, as a teenager, I watched late night drag shows on the far west side of Manhattan from the lighting booth. Not typical. I know that. However, when people seem to suggest that having sex with my high school sweetheart or not going to church is indication of having grown up in a marginal subculture, it really makes me feel a little disoriented.

According to the Center for Disease Control in the U.S., in nineteen eighty-eight, fifty-one percent of girls between the ages of fifteen and nineteen reported being sexually active. I graduated from high school in the early eighties, not the late eighties, but that was the best I could do with a quick search. It’s apparently declined significantly since then, which most people probably think is a good thing, but I would disagree. Self-reporting differs from the actual numbers, but it seems that the majority of Americans don’t go to church regularly.

Aw, damn. I looked that up. I’m already wrecking my intention of being more spontaneous.

I actually have a pretty good memory. Another way in which I was not mainstream: I didn’t take drugs and I didn’t drink until I was seventeen or eighteen. I’m not going to look this up to confirm this so you’ll just have to take my word for it: I once saw a graph of drug use among high school students and the peak was my sister’s cohort, one year ahead of me. I remember casual drug use as being rampant in New Jersey around 1980.

So, when I’m told I don’t know things I’m pretty sure I do know, it’s disorienting and it makes me want to withdraw.

I have, somewhat oddly for me, been playing a lot of music. It’s not that I never play music, I just don’t usually do it this much. It’s funny, because I don’t pretend to be in the least bit good at it.

My mother came from a very musical family. Her grandfather was a cabinet-maker and violin maker. Her uncle inherited the business and he also played in the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. My sister and I were given lessons in piano and violin as a matter of course. Although I wasn’t exactly talentless as a musician, I did not stand out in any way. I dropped the violin, but continued to play the piano until I went away to college. Ever since college, I have regretted not sticking with the violin for no other reason than it is more portable than a piano. Essentially, ever after leaving my parents house, I didn’t play any music for over thirty years.

About a year and a half ago, I was diagnosed with depression. It probably had been creeping up on me for a year or two. I hit a very low point during the spring before last. When I started to feel better, I went and bought myself a keyboard. I’d been wanting one for decades, however, I felt like I wasn’t good enough to deserve one. It’s the sort of self-denial that helped drive me into a depression in the first place.

When I first started to seek help for my depression, many therapists responded with suggestions like I go to the gym or throw myself into work. I felt so frustrated hearing these kinds of suggestions because I felt that it was exactly that sort of puritanical running on the treadmill, both literally and figuratively, that had gotten me into that state in the first place.

Buying the keyboard was a much mentally healthier thing for me to do than exercise or work. The funny thing is because I am not very good it brings out the fact that I’m only doing it for myself. I’m not trying to please anyone or achieve anything. I just do it because it’s fun.

Ever since I bought it, I play a little bit all the time, but sometimes I go on binges. I’ve been on one of those binges, playing constantly, for the past couple of weeks. I suspect my neighbors, if they knew, would be relieved that I bought an electric keyboard instead of an acoustic piano.

The other day, I started reading Aisthesis: Scenes from the aesthetic regime of art by Jacques Rancière while eating dinner at the local coffee shop. While walking home, my sister drove by, not as odd a coincidence as it sounds since I live between where she lives and where she works. She asked if I wanted to come back to her place for a bit, so I got in the car. She glanced at the cover of my book, a deep black rectangle with the title placed soberly near the top and, at the bottom, as if placed inside a shadow box, and a woman in white billowing garments emerging from the darkness. With no more than a momentary glance she said, “Loïe Fuller.”

This utterance brought me back to a party in Paris about ten years ago. It would wrong to say that the subject of the conversation turned to art, because, as the hostess was an artist, the principal subject of the conversation all evening had been art. The subject, however, turned to dance. One of the Parisians was trying to recollect the name of a particular dancer. She moved her arms in an undulating manner, imitating a woman with billowing drapery. My sister, who had been a dancer when she was young, guessed Loïe Fuller. In this instance, her guess was wide of the mark. There was a beat, then a disdainful glance. After quick, terse no, the conversation resumed. Over the years, that disdainful glance has taught me far more about what is regarded as good art and what is dismissed than all the lectures I have ever heard. However, my sister is not ignorant of dance and its history and that moment reveals a divergent evaluation of Loïe Fuller and her legacy, between the speaker, who was French and my sister, who is American. (Note to self: Do not mention Loïe Fuller in a conversation with Parisians unless you have ready arguments at hand and have already established oneself as a knowledgeable person in the given social situation.)

Over dinner, I only read the prelude and part of the first chapter. The flap of the book promises, “a history of artistic modernity far removed from the conventional understandings of modernism.” Happily, the book is not nearly as boring as that description sounds. The arrangement of the book is that each chapter details an episode that shows the development of modernism.

Their selection might give rise to some surprise; the reader will seek in vain for landmarks that have become unavoidable in the history of artistic modernity: no Olympia, no Suprematist Composition: White on White, no Fountain, or Igitur or The Painter of Modern Life.

I confess, despite having taken few art history classes, posessing a degree in literature and once having been enrolled in an MFA program at an Ivy League school, I had to do a search on the internet for “igitur.” Now, I hesitate to hold myself up as some sort of paragon of sophistication, but I would suggest that Igitur, which if Wikipedia can be trusted is an unfinished story by Mallarmé, is not a touchstone in the American telling of art history. On Wikipedia, it is mentioned more prominently in the French article on Mallarmé than in the English. If “Le peintre de la vie moderne” was something I could place, it has to do with some quirks of my own particular interests, not because it was presented to me as a landmark. In fact, I didn’t know it was one. The fact that a search for “igitur” on google.com and google.fr, yields very different results, leads me to believe that my lack of familiarity is not some unique gap in my own education. However, the French story and the American one, do have a large degree of overlap, as the mention of Olympia, Suprematist Composition: White on White and the Fountain attests.

Rancière has chosen a less well-trod set of episodes for his discussion.

The scenographic revolutions of the twentieth century are difficult to understand without mentioning the evenings spent at the Funambules or the Folies Bergère by poets that no one reads any more: Théophile Gautier and Théodore de Banville. One would be hard pressed to perceive the paradoxical ‘spirituality’ of functionalist architecture without referring to Ruskin’s ‘gothic’ reveries – or even write a somewhat precise history of the modernist paradigm while forgetting that Loïe Fuller and Charlie Chalplin contributed to it far more than Mondrian or Kandinsky, or that the legacy of Whitman is as influential as that of Mallarmé.

However, we most certainly covered Ruskin at length in one of the architecture history classes I took in school and read his work. How much did the fact that Ruskin wrote in English influence that choice? If Loïe Fuller is less well-known, it may be because dance is not as well covered as painting. She was most certainly mentioned in the dance history class I had in high school, but the fact that I took a high school class in dance history is highly unusual. Do the French teach, as we do here in the United States, that modern dance is an “American art form?” Probably not. Finally, ask an American who is more influential, Whitman or Mallarmé.

I am not castigating anyone, neither the French nor the Americans, for nationalistic bias. For example, I’ve noticed the French hold Edgar Allen Poe in far higher esteem than do Americans. I’m sure, if I were only more familiar with the received wisdom of the French, I could find a Frenchman or French woman held in higher esteem here. Ruskin, after all, was English, and if he is more widely studied here I am inclined to attribute that to the coincidence of a shared language rather than to cultural chest thumping. I am simply amused by differing perspectives.