Tag Archives: summer 2010

AMERICAN IDLE: A Journey Through Our Sedentary Culture

Mary Collins
Capital Books ($16.95)

by Scott F. Parker

The kinds of facts a reader finds in Mary Collins’s American Idle are easy enough to predict (Americans eat badly, don’t exercise enough, and are killing themselves with their lazy lifestyle choices)—but the sheer extremity of the specifics is staggering. “The average American household keeps the television on seven hours a day.” “65 percent of Americans are overweight or obese and engage in moderate activity less than three times a week.” “Lifestyle habits account for 80 percent of healthcare costs in this country.” “A ten-year-old Hispanic child living in the United States has a 50 percent chance of developing Type 2 diabetes.”

Collins found herself drawn to this scary subject after a severe bicycle accident forced her to give up her active lifestyle and become “more like the average American”—more sedentary. As she worked through a long and difficult recovery, she began an investigation into our national idleness. And though she documents plenty of physical neglect, her findings and thinking on the subject reach far beyond our bodies. “Issues like body weight and heart rate certainly count for something, but the incredible decline in physical activity in the United States has ripped apart our civic life, further demoralized struggling low-income populations, undermined our collective morality, and has created a devastating rift between human society and nature.”

These are big claims that Collins backs up by surveying everything from the fossil record in Kansas to the strangely un-American walkability of New York City to animals in the National Zoo, and flushing out the implications of her discoveries for the modern American. It’s such an admirable goal—imploring us to reengage with our bodies for the sake of our lives—that the reader roots for Collins’s conclusions, and is inspired to follow her recommendations for individuals, gentle and achievable as they are. For example: incorporate activity in daily life, and don’t settle for simulated, in-front-of-the-TV activity. Get outside. Her societal goals—an American lifestyle with more free time and cities with accessible public parks and trails—are more complicated but equally necessary if we’re to stop idling and start moving. First things first, though: read the manual.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

STUDIO GHIBLI: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata

Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blanc
Kamera Books ($24.95)

by Emy Farley

Animation is a lively and innovative art form that, when done well, can transport audiences to extraordinary worlds. Studio Ghibli, Japan’s preeminent animation studio, has for decades pushed the boundaries of what is possible and brought animation to new and exciting heights. Even the mighty Pixar is quick to sing the praises of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Studio Ghibli’s founders and chief creative forces. It is therefore all the more unfortunate that Studio Ghibli by Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blanc falls flat, somehow managing to make the extraordinary feel tired.

At fault are the book’s organizational structure and its lack of new information. The introduction includes lengthy exposition about how the films relate to one another thematically, but the choice to place analysis ahead of discussion of the films themselves renders this introduction virtually inaccessible. Following this, the studio’s films are described one-by-one in chronological order. The descriptions tend to vary in tone, ranging from the conversational to the analytical, which makes the book feel disjointed, and without a more narrative format there is a constant start-and-stop feeling to the book, which prevents the films from coalescing into a single studio identity. Had the authors woven the lengthy introduction into the play-by-play of the films, their desire to tell Studio Ghibli’s story and explore “the cultural and thematic threads that bind these films together” would have been supported by the structure of the book, rather than stilted by it.

Studio Ghibli is also notably lacking in first-hand accounts from anyone at the studio. The facts the authors present about the studio’s formation and film evolution are insightful, but can easily be found by perusing the web or visiting the studio’s official museum. In short, animators, enthusiasts, and Ghibli-geeks won’t find much useful here. If you’re already a fan, you’ve likely done this level of analysis and research on your own. If you’re new to the films, the inaccessibility of structure and lack of intimate expertise will likely keep you at arm’s length. If you’re hoping to understand the process of animation or how Manga goes from the page to the screen, look elsewhere. Studio Ghibli consistently produces some of the world’s most spectacular and imaginative animation; sadly, Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blanc fail to emulate the standards set by the studio they seek to bring to life.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

NAMING NATURE: The Clash Between Instinct and Science

Carol Kaesuk Yoon
W. W. Norton & Co. ($27.95)

by Ryder W. Miller

In Naming Nature, science reporter Carol Kaesuk Yoon tells a fascinating story about the history of taxonomy, the biological field that seeks to give names to all living things on the planet. The field has been recently revolutionized by mathematical and chemical techniques, leaving the old guard disgruntled and under attack.

Yoon begins with founder Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), who took on the "biggest" question of his day, giving names to all of God's creations. The story continues with Darwin, who showed that species were not immutable, and eventually proceeds to the contemporary, where a brash new breed of scientist is combating the common sense of their predecessors.

Cladists, or those who wish to change the taxonomy groupings to reflect newfound evolutionary connections, argue that certain historical groupings are no longer accurate. Yoon bemoans in particular the loss of "fish" as a cohesive group, which has led to whales now being classified in the same category as fish, even though they are mammals.

The predominant historical trend explored here is the death of our "umwelt," a German word that signifies the perceived world, “the world sensed by an animal, a view idiosyncratic to each species, fueled by its particularly sensory and cognitive powers and limited by its deficits . . . We might call it reality, but it is indeed an umwelt, an idiosyncratic sensory picture of the living world around us."

Yoon is a captivating biographer and presents a fascinating chronicle of our loss of essentialism. Surprisingly, she does not investigate how our umwelt may be affected by our education, with trips to the zoo and PBS documentaries having made a big impact on our understanding and interest in wild creatures. Still, her book is infused with passion, disdain, concern, and even humor. Naming Nature is a fine journey through how we humans know and shape the natural world.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Jean-Luc Nancy
translated by Charlotte Mandel
Fordham University Press ($16)

by Charisse Gendron

Best known, with his colleague Maurice Blanchot, for his investigation of the political and of “inoperable” community, Jean-Luc Nancy writes philosophy like a poet, one who has rejected metaphysics but not “the soul,” nature, the dream, or the rhapsody of language. His sentences surge like the sea, wavelet breaking on wavelet of meaning, meaning itself generated from the friction of word against word, as salt enters the water through the tumbling of stones. Note how even in translation sound leads to sound, association to association, and metonymy to myth, so that in three lines we understand all that we have lost to the hyper-vigilance of consciousness and the violence of intention:

How to sleep in a world without a lullaby, without a lulling refrain, without a capacity for forgetting, without unconsciousness itself, since Eros and Thanatos patrol everywhere shamelessly, sardonic watchmen armed with whips and cudgels?

According to Nancy’s philosophical hyperbole, we have forgotten how to forget (if we ever knew). Yet we do sometimes sleep. This brief, rich book attempts the impossible by describing that amnesia, through paradox, parsing, and repeating. Paradox because one is, when sleeping, most deeply oneself, relative to nothing else; also one is someone else, the placeholder who substitutes for the absent self; and at the same time one is everyone, dissolved in universal night:

‘Who am I?' disintegrates in the fall of sleep, for this fall carries me toward the absence of questions, toward the unconditional and indubitable affirmation—alien to any system of doubt, to any condition of identification—of a being-in-self that tolerates no unpacking, no analysis of its structure.

I sleep and this I that sleeps can no more say it sleeps than it could say that is it dead. So it is another who sleeps in my place. But so exactly, so perfectly in this, my own place, that he occupies it wholly without overlooking or overflowing even the slightest portion.

Night obstinately brings indifference back into the different; it finds the previous world, the magma, the chaos, the khora, equality posed on itself, the bodies of lovers at the bottom of the sea, the equivalence of hours no longer recorded by the unequal shadow of any sundial and measured only by the constant and arbitrary unit of the falling drop of water, or else the transition of an atom of caesium 133 from state A to state B.

Nancy’s prose illustrates how any discourse continued long enough will contradict itself, and how such contradictions create the seams in the flat fabric of meaning that turn it into a garment, a covering on the invisible, on what Nancy calls “the world of substance” that is night.

Artfully translated by Charlotte Mandel, his essay does not depict any particular dream in the manner of a surrealist image but rather elaborates a surrealist image to suggest the distinct form of awareness we experience in dreams:

. . . we guess the shot was taken using an array of lenses too complicated for its machinery to be dismantled, but whose presence we sense is quite close, a copper and ebony apparatus loaded with enlarging and distorting lenses, magnifying glasses and beveled mirrors, a cinematographic device without motor but endowed with zoom lenses and dollies and booms staked onto each other and moving effortlessly, with no hint of the space in which they move.

Through such flights of imagination Nancy captures the very sensation of dreaming, that “gesture of evanescence with the charm and virtue of presence.”

One cannot talk long about sleep without mentioning death; the title of the book in French puns ontomber (to fall) and tomb. But Nancy says less about being dead (other than the wonderful metathesis, “One could say that sleep is a temporary death, but one could also say that death is necessarily temporary, for it lasts only as long as time lasts”) than about the experience of another’s death. How sad, beautiful, and old world, how safe from the sardonicism and cudgeling of the contemporary mind, is his description of the death-bed vigil: “We watch them leave and we see them left; they fall asleep thus in our eyes as well as in our arms, as in the tomb into whose depths they will never stop vanishing.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

MY FATHER’S LOVE: Portrait of the Poet as a Young Girl (Volume 1)

Sharon Doubiago
Wild Ocean Press ($20)

by Dottie Payne

“My soul looks back and wonders how I got over.”
—James Baldwin

Consider how the seminal North American novel, Huckleberry Finn, exalts the commonest among us: a homeless, illiterate orphan and a runaway slave. No wonder, then, that the memoir has emerged as a favored genre in the United States; our national literary taste is inextricably intertwined with our idealization of individualism. Ours is a revision of the genre, however, one that serves as an affront to a tradition that in the past extolled only the well-heeled, famous (or infamous), aristocratic, or exceptionally accomplished. We wallow in the worthy-ordinary, the inextinguishable spirit of the “everyman” (or woman) who, against incredible odds, nevertheless “gets over.”

The telling of our tales, however, is not without literary pitfalls: How does a writer translate and render coherent recollections of intimate experiences when the past only returns to us in fuzzy-edged fragments? How does one merge facts, events, and responses in a form that resonates, as well-wrought art must? That invites understanding? That matters? Struggling to make sense of one’s life is an ennobling act; translating it in a manner that empowers others is a remarkable one; crafting it into fine literature requires an extraordinary skill that only the most accomplished writers have achieved.

Sharon Doubiago’s My Father’s Love never lets her individual experiences dominate the fabric of the social and historic wool from which it is woven. The first fifty pages are saturated with names, dates, places, events—familial and national—in such a way that the reader is required to view everything that follows from this historic landscape. The immediate message is that this narrative is as much about time and place as it is about one young girl’s life. By insisting on this larger framework, Doubiago infuses her memoir with a consciousness that requires the reader to consider the cause and effect of everything that follows.

As she moves from fragile childhood trust and innocence to confusion over her father’s ongoing betrayal and violation, the young Sharon’s poignant point of view is never simply about her; it is an indictment of a society that so trivializes the manhood of a working-class father, so diminishes him, that his humanity slips through his fingers. It staggers reason by reminding readers of the U.S. government’s recommendation that a mother play with a newborn only ten minutes a day—a chilling reminder of the Cold War world into which Doubiago was born. She further underscores the culture’s powerful indifference to the powerless struggling to maintain a healthy human family through newspaper images made vivid by her own mother’s recollections: ”We brought you home from the hospital . . . on every corner was the headline: ‘Hitler, Master of Europe’.” Only the most capable placement and interjection of historic fact can transmute it into potent and compelling metaphor, and Doubiago accomplishes this. In so doing, she overrides the ongoing tension between herself and her father with a much more pervasive conflict: individual survival in a society that promotes war and devalues love.

Assured of his aristocratic Southern heritage, her father is often at a loss to understand his own economic impoverishment and social impotence. He struggles to rebalance his sense of manly worthiness through his sexual prowess and demanding morality, both of which he imposes on his fragile family. Her mother, eager to make right her life, strives to realize a Christian definition of the good wife, the self-sacrificing helpmate, the martyr mother, and is at times more vulnerable than her young daughter. But it is Sharon’s inner conflict that most resonates in this story. The author does not presume to be an objective witness simply charting events; rather, her recollections reveal her subjective bewilderment over her father’s betrayal. Readers will be moved by the audacity of this innocence in the face of cruel violation, moved enough to consider the voice Doubiago has given sexually abused children who have been mercilessly silenced. This voice is neither a yell from a rooftop nor the whine of the wounded; it is the voice of a victim who has refused to be victimized and who deserves to be heard, the voice of redemption.

“Writing forces you to forgive,” the writer Thulani Davis has declared. Like Toni Morrison, Davis believes telling the tale heals not just the storyteller, but those to whom the story is told as well. In My Father’s Love, Doubiago shines a light on the horrific taboo of incest, but she never allows us to isolate it. There is no suggestion that her family, her tale, is unique. Rather she exposes it for what it is: one more example of that which the working poor often must endure. As Sharon struggles to understand and to forgive, we too are required to struggle right along with her. Reading My Father’s Love engages us in a shared, ritual remembering that is at once communal and healing—and therein lies its power.

My Father’s Love is American memoir at its best, a cultural affirmation of our commonness. Doubiago is an acclaimed poet, and her lyrical gifts take her narrative well beyond the tedious recounting of facts that often mar the genre. The traumas of her young life belong to all of us; the assaults on her innocence serve as markers on the too-familiar road many of us have traveled. She often presents the details in the direct diction and syntax of a child’s voice, unelaborated and real. She does not sensationalize or eroticize; rather she “tells” in a language we can all “hear”:

Waking to him, the covers ripped back. Waking in the dark to the pillow slammed down on my face. Waking to Mary Jane he’s slammed down on my face so I can’t breathe. Waking, arms in his arms, tangle of arms Daddy no Daddy no. Being lifted to between his legs as to a butcher knife to be severed in two . . .

Through this language of innocence and confusion, she puts us there. The repetition emphasizes little Sharon’s powerless, hypnogogic confusion, a reality Doubiago doesn’t want us to miss. To insure we do not, she closes the passage with a heart-wrenching touch of verisimilitude: “I couldn’t help it. I tried to keep the poop in, but it was forced out.”

In this masterful tale of one little girl’s refusal to fall, the personal becomes the political poetically rendered: young Sharon moves on by healing her own wounds, and the beautiful thing is, she requires us to bear witness and become strong right along with her. As James Baldwin wrote in another context, “the moral of the story (and the hope of the world) lies in what one demands, not of others, but of oneself.” In giving a powerful voice to the heretofore unspeakable, Doubiago establishes herself/her life as a living metaphor for an empowered 21st-century woman.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

PAINTING BELOW ZERO: Notes on a Life in Art

James Rosenquist
with David Dalton
Knopf ($50)

by Mason Riddle

In his autobiography, Painting Below Zero, American artist James Rosenquist offers a darting account of his life, weaving together the personal with the professional from infancy forward with enough detail and texture to satisfy the curious. Rosenquist’s transient musings of the past are often as prescient of his work to come as his current-day reflections are revelatory about work already made. The sometimes messy overlap of the two constructs an informative context on how and why he emerged as one of the most influential painters of post-World War II contemporary American art.

Rosenquist writes of 20th-century American art as “sleepwalking through the nineteenth century” before 1950s Abstract Expressionist artists such as Jackson Pollock, Franz Klein, and Willem de Kooning took command, lionizing New York City as the center of the art world. “It was a very vigorous and heroic style—you made epic canvases by splashing your psyche on the canvas,” Rosenquist writes. “I loved the Abstract Expressionists. . . . but I never wanted to look as if I were copying someone else’s style. I wanted to do something new.” For the uninitiated in post-World War II art, an often-obtuse trajectory, Rosenquist is labeled a Pop Artist, with critics and art historians neatly categorizing him in the same breath with other New York artists Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg, among others. Rosenquist takes great pains to distinguish his artistic practice from the others’ with convincing results, and he establishes how all of these artists were a new breed, percolating the 1960s Pop Art stew. The work of the Pop Artists through various styles and methods was simply a reaction, usually through the use of popular imagery, to the prevailing Abstract Expressionism.

For any reader living in the Midwest, and particularly North Dakota and Minnesota, the book has a particular seduction. Born into a family of modest means in 1933 in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Rosenquist’s psyche was imprinted early on with the scale and intrinsic power of vast, open spaces. “The Midwest is a strange place. On the one hand it is very basic, down-to-earth; on the other it’s a great generator of illusions . . . the land is totally flat, like a screen on which you can project whatever you imagine.” It is hard not to make the visual and psychological leap from the flat, expansive Midwest to Rosenquist’s powerful 1964 breakout painting, F-111, which stunned admirers and critics alike with its 10 x 88 foot size.

Although the Rosenquists were poor, one might today describe them as cool. Both parents were pioneering pilots who flew Travelaires and Monocoupes, and were developing an international mail route from North Dakota to Winnipeg when the Depression hit. “A dollar was as rare as frog hair,” Rosenquist writes. When he was seven years old his parents moved to Atwater, Minnesota, where his paternal grandparents farmed 500 acres and his father ran a motel and gas station along the highway. Two years later, the Rosenquists moved to Minneapolis and lived next to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. His mother, an amateur painter, encouraged museum visits and young James’s interest in art. His father was servicing B-42 bombers for Northwest Airlines and was later transferred to Vandalia, Ohio, where he worked at Wright-Patterson Airport; James’s mother took James to the nearby Dayton Museum of Art, where he gained an understanding of collage. Intermittently, he was sent back to live and work on the family farms in Minnesota and North Dakota. Paper was in short supply, so he drew on the back of long rolls of wallpaper his mother gave him—precursors to the huge billboards he would later paint. Back in Minneapolis, at age fourteen, he received a scholarship at the Minneapolis School of Art to study art on Saturdays. With the family always in need of money, he always had a job—selling ice cream, driving a delivery truck, or working on the farms in summer.

In 1952, Rosenquist graduated from Minneapolis’s Roosevelt High School and wanted to move to California, but his mother insisted he attend the University of Minnesota, which he found easier than high school. The famed Minnesota painter and teacher, Cameron Booth, became his mentor. He took a job as a sign painter to support himself and graduated in 1954 with an associate degree. The next year was spent traveling and painting signs. With Booth’s encouragement, he won a scholarship to the Arts Student League and flew to New York City in September 1955; he never looked back. His talent for scaling scaffolding and figuring out how to paint gigantic surfaces got him jobs where he eked out a living painting signs from Times Square to Brooklyn. The book’s black and white photographs are ample proof of his labors and talent—including one of Rosenquist and his mother poised in front of a 1954 Coca Cola billboard in Minneapolis. Leading a double life like most young artists, Rosenquist was also making his own work in the late 1950s, abstract paintings and collages. In 1959, at age twenty-six, he quit sign painting all together.

Painting Below Zero also offers a wealth of information on the New York art scene from 1960 forward. The book’s cast of characters includes the aforementioned artists and many others; his dealers Dick Bellamy, Leo Castelli, and Ileana Sonnabend also figure prominently, as do collectors such as Robert and Ethel Scull and actor Liv Ullman. Parties in Warhol and Rauschenberg’s studios are well noted, as is the famed Cedar Bar. Photographs, such as one of Rosenquist with model Jean Shrimpton leaning against Warhol’s Thirteen Most Wanted Men in the latter’s studio (which was rejected for the 1964 New York World’s Fair), gives the book a gritty caché. Rosenquist also documents his life in lower Manhattan’s walk-up studios, his marriage to his first wife and their son, and the tragic, 1971 automobile crash in Florida which wreaked havoc on their lives as a family and sent the artist into deep doldrums in the 1970s.

Following Rauschenberg’s lead of escaping New York for Captiva, Florida, Rosenquist bought land in the swampy outskirts of the backwater Gulf town of Aripeka, where he would be just another guy in a t-shirt and jeans walking through town. He underscores the importance of his laidback compound of studio, office, and home on stilts as a needed counterpoint to New York in the fast lane. His recollections of protesting the Vietnam War, appearing before Congress to stand up for artist’s rights, and the astonishing prices for his paintings at contemporary auctions are all part of the mix. He recounts how in 1965 F-111sold for $45,000, of which he received half, and in 1986 the Sculls sold it at Sotheby’s November Contemporary Auction for $2,090,000. In the same year he also had a cameo in the famous film about greed, Wall Street, with Michael Douglas.

There is also the touching account of his meeting and marrying his second wife, Mimi Thompson, in the mid-1980s, and the birth of their daughter, Lily, in 1989. Rosenquist’s writing turns poignant when he muses over the 2008 death of his close friend Rauschenberg, and the horrific leveling by fire of his Aripeka home and studio in April 2009, where he lost everything, including finished paintings, his entire print archive, and his car collection. One reads the weariness in the 77-year-old artist’s voice following the conflagration.

Tying all of these tales together is Rosenquist’s insistent description of painting after painting— including the whys and the wherefores of each, and how he used fragments of “giant images to foil the picture plane.” The title of the book, Painting Below Zero, comes from his drive to leave abstraction, which he considered painting about “nothing.” He writes, “maybe by using imagery from my billboard days I could go below zero, because I chose images not for their content but for their form and color. . . . I thought maybe I could make an aesthetic numbness out of these images, a numb painting where you don’t really care about images—they’re only there to develop space.” Viewers who did not clearly understand Rosenquist’s motivations and intent previously surely will now; descriptions such as this one comparing work from the 1960s to a 1998 painting, The Swimmer in the Econo-mist #3, nicely display Rosenquist’s thinking: “While many of my earlier paintings were intentionally flat, here I injected a roiling propulsive energy into the painting, a new kind of pictorial velocity. It’s a totally optical space.”

While Rosenquist was aided by biographer David Dalton in composing this book, Painting Below Zero is unquestionably in the artist’s words. The book could have used a more thorough edit, as some information is contradictory with regard to dates, and at times the text borders on repetitive. Similarly, while the book is privileged with many photographs and excellent color reproductions, including a foldout of F-111, a glossary of images at the back of the book with thumbnail shots would have been useful. And although the book’s subject is art and life, Rosenquist’s words do not always adhere easily to the page. Still, the artist’s blocky, at times almost clumsy delivery of his story will charm any reader. Pedestrian descriptions of significant aesthetic matters intersect with moments of clarity and insight that slowly gather the reader into the artist’s orbit, revealing his intentions, desires, philosophy, and sheer drive to succeed in a world that early on did him few favors. The syncopation of Rosenquist’s words and their unflowery directness bring the reader up close and personal to a man who is now considered one of the towering figures of 20th century art and who continues to thrive in the new millennium.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Mircea Eliade
translated by Mac Linscott Ricketts
State University of New York Press ($24.95)

by Spencer Dew

“The blank spaces in a private diary are also revealing,” observed Mircea Eliade, the famed Romanian historian of religion who served as a diplomat in Portugal during World War II. Yet his journal from this era was also a secret project, hidden away in folders and kept, at times, in a safe. A sample passage from 29 August, 1945, reads, in full: “In the struggle he has been carrying on with ex-king Carol, Brutus has emerged triumphant. I note, for the time being, only this date. When I’m able to write everything without fear, I shall complete this note with some very interesting details.” No such details were ever added.

The translator of this volume, Eliade scholar Mac Linscott Ricketts—who had access only to photocopies of the original notebooks provided by Eliade’s widow, of which two pages were missing—says in his preface that “the reader does not have the impression that the material has been ‘censored,’” but there is a great deal of obvious self-censorship on the part of Eliade here. That August entry from 1945, for instance, has no accompanying footnote or explanation. The preface, referring to Eliade’s association with the fascist Iron Guard via vague allusion—“his ‘Legionary past’”—claims that Eliade himself thought publication of this journal would answer questions, from Gershom Scholem and others, about the extent of his commitment to that anti-Semitic movement. That no such clarification can be found here reads as editorial avoidance of the issue.

One massacre of Jews is mentioned in the footnotes, in reference to an entry in which Eliade mentions “making inquiries among my Legionary friends: what happened, and why,” in Bucharest on January 21-23, 1941; he is, however, “convinced that a trap was laid for them into which they fell like naïve fools.” Nazi persecution is mentioned only as a rhetorical smokescreen invoked to further the Allied cause. Ample evidence is given as to why Eliade opposes the Allies. He fears a world “disfigured by Communism,” and rages against “Anglo-Saxon imbecility,” “the ferocious imbecilities of a Churchill or a Roosevelt,” for aiding the Soviets. Put bluntly, he believes that “If the Reds win, then I and my oeuvre and my nation—will disappear, actually or figuratively speaking.”

On the one hand, there is naïveté in his engagement with history; this, after all, is a 34-year-old, obsessed with his oeuvre, fantasizing about an annotated catalogue of his own works, musing “My capacity for understanding and feeling culture, in all its forms, is unlimited.” Yet this naïveté is not unrelated to the charges that continue to haunt that oeuvre—one of the most important in the study of religion—to this day. “My disgust for history has grown so much that almost nothing that’s happening in the world interests me any longer,” he writes in 1944. The statement seems slightly disingenuous, for to Eliade, his true interest, prehistory, never went anywhere. The archaic, the “pagan,” the “cosmic rhythms, symbols, signs, magic, sexuality” that obsess him are evident in current events—in Hitler, for instance, whose work reengages mythic structures, and in the Portuguese dictator Salazar, a biography of whom Eliade wrote. The preface of that volume is reproduced here, allowing us to see Eliade’s interest in “a Christian form of totalitarianism,” by which he means something to be applauded, a “spiritual revolution” of the sort he, too, is working to bring about.

Contemporary philosophy fails because it focuses on the “fallen man” of the present. Rather, Eliade insists, we must look to so-called “primitives.” As he explains it:

Imagine that on a beach somewhere there are five civilized men, all of whom have long since become sexually impotent. In addition, one is deaf, one blind, one crippled, another has a stomach ailment, another a nervous condition. All, however, are well-dressed, very clear, cultured, etc. They are watching a group of ‘savages,’ almost naked of course, who are playing, dancing, singing, and, especially, making love—right there, under the eyes of the observers.

The crippled moderns will each, in their own way, lack full perception of the event, but “All will know [the “savages”] are making love and that, in this respect, at least, they are infinitely superior.”

The Portugal Journal makes clear the confessional quality of Eliade’s engagement in the history of religions. “I am not a man with normal religious experiences,” he writes. “[R]eligion for me is the thirst for and intuition of the real, the Absolute.” Yet he means here “religion” not merely as the subject of study but also as a personal spiritual path. His scholarship emerges from and echoes his own self-proclaimed Christian “paganism,” and this paganism, celebrating prehistory and the potential for a new humanity, parallels the fascism of the Iron Guard, its celebration of blood and soil.

One can only hope the translation and publication of these pages will aid scholars attempting to analyze such connections. In the meantime, readers will be forced to hopscotch over “blank spaces” in order to develop a portrait of a young thinker intent on locating the particular “terrors” of human history in terms of a broader, abstracting understanding of “history” that will later be developed into the notion of “sacred time” and “eternal return.” In these pages, however, young Eliade is able to read his wife’s death as an act of God “to make me think in a creative way, that is, to facilitate my salvation”; to wrestle with Kierkegaard in terms of the possible coexistence of Christian and archaic theology; and to observe, without any of the bitter irony today’s readers will see in the comment, “I never would have believed that I’d arrive at metaphysical despair by starting from politics and nationalism!” Indeed, “politics and nationalism” dominate here as they do in contemporary reception of Eliade’s work, “blank spaces” threatening to swallow up the entire oeuvre.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

PASSINGS: Death, Dying, and Unexplained Phenomena

Carole A. Travis-Henikoff
Santa Monica Press ($24.95)

by Kelly Everding

Discomfort with death has become ingrained in the modern American psyche. Unless you are a very enlightened Buddhist or a worker at a hospice, you probably push the idea that you are going to die to the back of your mind. Death is a disease. Death is failure. Death is anathema, and any discussion of or preparation for that final frontier of knowledge is deemed a downer.

The deep-seated fear of death needs to be drawn out into the open, and many books on death are available to meet this need. Some are practical books on grieving or preparing wills, but others try to look at death from a more personal angle. Passings: Death, Dying, and Unexplained Phenomena is one such book, and it provides a fascinating dimension to the discussion about death. The author, Carole A. Travis-Henikoff, is no stranger to taboo subjects (she also wrote Dinner with a Cannibal: The Complete History of Mankind’s Oldest Taboo), and she is a well-regarded independent researcher in paleoanthropology. In her introduction, Travis-Henikoff explains the impetus behind her personal account: “woven within the threads of every death were anomalous occurrences that my pragmatic, science-loving brain couldn’t explain . . . So it is that Passings explores many deaths, intense human emotions and mind-bending occurrences universally experienced in proximity to death, all encompassed within a cocoon of research.”

Travis-Henikoff has experienced an inordinate amount of death throughout her six plus decades of life. At the age of 11, she nearly died of an acute asthmatic attack, and had a near-death experience; she remembers every detail of moving down a dark tunnel toward a bright light, only to be turned back by three figures. Since this auspicious introduction to death, Travis-Henikoff recounts the natural and not-so-natural deaths of many members of her family, some of which were accompanied by strange sightings and presentiments. Interspersed between these engaging, harrowing, and illuminating stories are references to research she conducts on different beliefs in the afterlife and occurrences of unexplainable phenomena surrounding death. These are personal, painful, and emotional accounts of the loss of her parents, her husbands, and her first-born child. Everyone will go through this sorrow at some point in their life, and even though it is inevitable, it helps to hear how other people cope so that we may learn to cope. And acknowledging our fear of death may become tolerable as we learn the role it plays in the spiritual progress of the soul: “Both Taoists and Buddhists believe that it is only our natural fear of death that keeps us here working through our karma and living out our lives regardless of circumstances.”

What makes Passings stand out more than most books on death are the incidents of unexplained phenomena surrounding some of the deaths the author experienced. When she hesitantly shared some of these experiences with her colleagues—many of them well-respected and staunch scientists—she was startled to discover that they, too, had stories to tell about visions of deceased loved ones, pillars of lights, and other strange occurrences. Yet, while there is an inherent fear of death, the fear of appearing crazy may be even greater, so many people don’t say anything when they experience such phenomena. Carole Travis-Henikoff bravely and fearlessly lays out her story and lets the reader decide what to believe.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Juliet Koss
University of Minnesota Press ($29.50)

by John Pistelli

In 1849, fired by the ideals of the democratic revolutions that erupted across the European continent, composer Richard Wagner devised what history would regard as his signature contribution to aesthetic theory: the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total artwork. Juliet Koss tells us in her new study, Modernism After Wagner, that the composer at the time affiliated his ideals with those of radical leftist thinkers like Feuerbach, Bakunin, and Proudhon. Consequently, his theory of an artwork that would unite poetry, music, and dance in a single and singular experience also advocated the union of spectator with spectacle and of audience members with each other. As “a utopian socialist strongly interested in contemporary anarchism,” Wagner wished to create through the power of his musical dramas a new German people, joined in shared affective experience and oriented toward a democratic future. Wagner’s avowed inspiration in this radical project was the tragic theater of ancient Athens—an artistic and political institution that brought the members of the polis together in a purgative and communal ritual, making Greek culture the coherent but incipiently democratic force that Wagner perceived it to be. Thus, the composer-theorist looked to the past even as he theorized an art of the future: his ideals, writes Koss, were “simultaneously revolutionary and conservative.”

Koss’s book is very much an attempt to clear away the misconceptions about Wagner and his most influential idea. As her final chapter makes clear, the story of the Gesamtkunstwerk I have outlined in the preceding paragraph is not the story that has been told to subsequent generations. Wagner himself clouded his own legacy by turning against his early utopian ideals to embrace a more conservative aesthetic later in life. Then, after his death, his widow and followers were only too eager to channel his posthumous reputation toward emerging fascism. Following World War II, Wagner was regarded, writes Koss, as “the composer who provided the soundtrack…for National Socialism in Germany,” and no part of Wagner’s art seemed more fascistic than the Gesamtkunstwerk. After all, wasn’t the total artwork a totalitarian attempt to swamp the individual in a group hypnosis, just as Hitler had done to the masses?

Modernism After Wagner decisively answers in the negative. After a first chapter in which she outlines the emancipatory dimension of Wagner’s initial Gesamtkunstwerk theory, Koss surveys the journey of the total artwork from the composer’s 1870s theater-building project in Bayreuth to the Bauhaus movement’s robot-theater experiments during the Weimar Republic. Along the way, she provides a genealogy of German aesthetic theories that emphasized the audience’s empathy toward the spectacle they witnessed, showing that spectators’ willingness to lose themselves in a performance does not necessarily imply their docility before authority or a collapse of their critical faculties. Moreover, the influence of Wagner’s theatrical innovations on the development of cinema and the reform of German theater allow Koss to emphasize the Gesamtkunstwerk’s nascent modernity. Wagner-influenced theories of spectatorship and theatrical transformation had an ability to respond to the turn-of-the-century’s expansion of the middle class. As “the spectator” of aesthetic theory could no longer be assumed to look like the propertied male that earlier artists and thinkers had taken for granted, the notion of a popular theater for the whole nation proved fruitful in imagining modern art.

But the genealogy of the Gesamtkunstwerk is not the only drama of Modernism After Wagner. Koss’s patient study, made up of lucid, detailed chapters about the history of theater reform, art theory, cinema, and avant-garde experimentation, builds up to a final essay that ties the disparate materials of the book together in a rejection of previous scholarship on Wagner and his influence. With thrilling prosecutorial zeal, Koss singles out the eminent 20th-century philosopher most responsible for Wagner’s tarnished reputation, Theodor W. Adorno, and demonstrates that his analysis of the composer’s music and theories is ahistorical, tendentious, and misleading. Adorno insisted—not without reason, given the German right-wing’s championing of Wagner and his work—that fascism had its roots in Wagner’s total theater, and with what Adorno regarded as its encouragement of stupefied audience submission. Koss persuasively argues that Adorno’s conflation of the Gesamtkunstwerk with Nazi spectacle “also conflates the active model of communal spectatorship that the composer demanded in 1849 and the passive spectatorship required of a mass audience under German fascism.”

In her restoration of historical context to Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, Koss represents a scholarly generation impatient with the grand theorizing that characterized the academic humanities at the end of the twentieth century. Adorno’s revisionist Marxist critical theory, along with psychoanalysis and the post-structuralism of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, sponsored inquiries into culture that often led to vast claims about politics, history, language, and subjectivity. Increasingly, humanities scholars have retreated from such theorizing in an attempt to provide detailed historical contexts for the cultural artifacts they analyze. Koss’s illuminating restoration of the 1848 revolution and its utopian horizon to Wagner’s aesthetic philosophy exemplifies this approach at its best, imbuing careful research with an empathetic historical imagination to tell readers something they don’t already know.

Modernism After Wagner, however, occasionally makes one nostalgic for the broodingly focused passion of Adorno’s world-historical judgments. For instance, Koss convincingly tries to exonerate Wagner’s early concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk from the charge of proto-fascism. But she does not seem to realize that the composer’s theoretical marriage of backward-looking conservatism to revolutionary utopianism does indeed seem to anticipate some features of the Nazis’ right-wing radicalism, with their unholy alliance of ultramodern mechanization to neo-pagan reveries. Koss’s insistence on contextualization can also sometimes work against her own thesis. She wants to celebrate Wagner’s visionary attempt to create an art of the future, but if artworks have their real life in the immediate circumstances of their creation and reception, is it not futile for any artist to attempt a Wagnerian project to shape the future? A utopia totally bound to its own era is truly a no-place, at least as far as the rest of us are concerned. While the present generation of humanities scholars has done the hard and necessary work of rediscovering history’s complexities, Modernism After Wagner suggests that the next generation’s task may be to think beyond history’s determinations—to rethink the universal.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

MEMOIR: A History

Ben Yagoda
Riverhead Books ($25.95)

by Don Messerschmidt

A definitive study of the art of autobiography, Ben Yagoda’s Memoirtakes an historical approach to the subject. Its comprehensive and finely tuned analysis begins with the definition of autobiography and memoirs (plural) as “a book understood by its author, its publisher, and its readers to be a factual account of the author’s life,” while memoir (singular) describes “books that cover the entirety or some portion of it.” While autobiography must be written by that person, use of the term memoir (from the French mémoire, “memory”) complicates matters. As a result, whether or not an autobiography is based on factual memory is one of Yagoda’s persistent themes.

The author traces the first use of the term “autobiography” to the Oxford English Dictionary of 1809. Prior to that, there were autobiography-like writings in the form of chronicles and confessions, the most famous being St. Augustine’s Confessions (398 AD) and Rousseau’s The Confessions (c.1770). To Yagoda, however, such early personal expositions came before true memoir. Some dealt with politics and war (e.g., Julius Caesar’s Commentaries), others with a spiritual purpose, like The Book of Margery Kempe (c.1430s). Some, like Pope Pius II’s Commentaries (1463), were mirror-like products of Renaissance humanism (following the invention of glass mirrors in the 15th century). And of course there were diaries, personal essays, and literal self-portraits, some of which were veiled forms of fiction or drama—Yagoda cites Dante, Petrarch, Montaigne, Erasmus, Shakespeare, John Donne, and others.

Yagoda also discusses the profound influence of autobiography on the development of the novel, beginning with Robinson Crusoe, which many readers believed to be true. Daniel Defoe, he says, “shook everything up.” Yagoda also notes “it’s hard to find an important American novel that’s not some variation on a memoir.” Examples are Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.

The question of autobiographical truth is a recurring theme, which Yagoda introduces, and later caps, with skeptical observations by Friedrich Nietzsche and George Bernard Shaw, respectively:

“I have done that,” says my memory. “I cannot have done that,” says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually—memory yields.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

All autobiographies are lies. I do not mean unconscious, unintentional lies; I mean deliberate lies.

There are many examples where putting “autobiography” or “memoir” or “personal narrative” on a book cover has had little bearing on the veracity of the account. In several chapters, Yagoda discusses some rather famous but spurious autobiographies, beginning with the “supposedly factual memoirs” of men shipwrecked or kidnapped and the slave chronicles of 1800s America. The 1800s were a time, he says, when a spate of unreliable autobiographies (based on “memory like Swiss cheese,” “self-imposed suggestibility,” and “compromises with the truth”) were published, reflecting something of the wider culture. Leslie Stephen, an “advocate of life writing” (and father of Virginia Woolf), observed the following near the end of the 19th century: “an autobiography, alone of all books, may be more valuable in proportion to the amount of misrepresentation it contains.” His statement holds true today; witness the recent furor over Oprah Winfrey falling victim to the fakery of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and critical observations of Sarah Palin’s stretchers in Going Rogue.

Yagoda pegs the arrival of the modern memoir to Tobias Wolff’s 1989 book This Boy’s Life, in which the importance of the author’s power as storyteller and the importance (or not) of telling the exact truth, or a fair representation of it, are debated. “I’m going to tell this the way I want to,” is how Yagoda interprets Wolff’s admonition that some contestable points of fact be allowed to stand. “Memory is an impression, not a transcript,” says Yagoda, and he’s at pains to point out that a truthful story comes not from hard facts but from the heart. “That is the baseline position of the modern memoir.” Consider the small-type revelation on the copyright page of Paul Monette’s Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story(1992): “This is a true story. To protect the privacy of the participants, the names of most of the characters have been changed, as have some details about them and the events recounted here.” For Yagoda, the past four decades will likely go down in literary history as the golden age of autobiographical fraud, yet they have also seen a re-emergence of the African American memoir, begun with the slave testimonials of the previous century.

Memoir ends with a critical essay entitled “Truth and Consequences” in which Yagoda concludes his discussion on the writing of fake memoirs. He recounts a scene early in Breaking Clean (2002), Judy Blunt’s memoir about her life as a farm wife in Western Montana, in which Blunt describes her father-in-law dispatching her typewriter with a sledgehammer. Dramatic, yes, but truthful? After “the old man” publicly disputed her account, she confessed to a reporter that the machine’s death by sledgehammer story was “symbolic” and that, in reality, he simply “pulled the plug . . . and shouted and screamed, but the typewriter survived”—intact enough, we assume, for her to finish the book.

Ultimately, Yagoda concludes, autobiographers give us a version of what happened, and readers have the freedom to take it or leave it.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010