Thursday, April 22, 2010

Serious Play

I was out at the Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington, recently, and everybody there was dressed for a glacier climb, with boots, rugged khaki pants, and carabiners around their belts with cell phones hanging down. It’s like going into a nightclub where everybody is constantly shoving their endurance cleavage in your face.

Then I drove over to the store where these Microsofties buy this sort of gear, the 80,000-square-foot REI emporium in Seattle. It’s a store that sells leisure stuff to people who spend their leisure hours strenuously, or at least would like to look like they do.

To get there, I drove my rented minivan to downtown Seattle and parked it amidst the muddied-up sport-utes in the RET garage. I walked past the postage-stamp forest the RET people have landscaped as a place for customers to test-ride their mountain bikes. After a trip up the slate-floored elevator, I was on a large front balcony with huge wooden benches. A plaque on each reassures us that the wood used for the bench was blown down in 1995; no trees were murdered in the making of this rest spot. Up above there are clocks that tell the current time atop Mount Everest and the north face of Eiger in the Swiss Alps, in case you want to make a call there.

I walked through the front door and found myself a few steps in front of the ice-ax section. Out in front of me stretched a great expanse of ordeal-oriented merchandise, aisle upon aisle of snowshoes, crampons, kayaks, tents, and parkas, a daunting profusion of equipment options. I must admit I began feeling as if I were suffering from oxygen deprivation. The goal of reaching the coffee shop upstairs at the store’s summit seemed an absurdity. I was like a character in a Jon Krakauer book. Dazed by this bewildering environment, I knew only that I must somehow summon the strength to trudge on.

To my right as I entered there was a museum of outdoor gear, so I could enjoy a little edifying foreplay before I got down to the serious shopping. At the far end of the museum was the climbing wall, at 65 feet the largest freestanding climbing structure in the world.

It wasn’t the salespeople that made my brain spin. I knew they’d be products of Seattle’s culture of hiking shorts macho. They bounce around the store displaying their enormous calves, looking like escapees from the Norwegian Olympic Team. Nor was it my fellow customers that put me in this state. I was ready for squads of super-fit software designers with glacier glasses hanging from Croakies around their necks (because you can never tell when a 600-foot mountain of ice might suddenly roll into town, sending off hazardous glare).

The thing that got to me was the load of requirements. If you are going to spend any leisure time with members of the educated class, you have to prove you are serious about whatever it is you are doing. “Serious” is the highest compliment Bobos use to describe their leisure activities. You want to be a serious skier or a serious tennis player or a serious walker or a serious cross-country skier or even a serious skateboarder. People engaged in any of these pastimes are constantly evaluating each other to see who is serious and who is not. The most accomplished are so serious they never have any fun at all, whereas if you went out onto some field or trail or court and acted happy and goofy, you’d be regarded as someone who is insulting the whole discipline.

Now to be a serious outdoorsperson, you have to master the complex science of knowing how to equip yourself, which basically requires joint degrees in chemistry and physics from MIT. For example, up beyond the ice-ax section there’s a tank where customers try to test and fathom the differences between a dozen different water filters and purifiers. To traverse that spot, you have to distinguish between purifiers made from iodine resin and iodine resin, glass fiber and pleated glass fiber, a ceramic microstrainer and a structured matrix microstrainer.

And it only gets worse. Every item in the store comes in a mind-boggling number of chemically engineered options that only experienced wilderness geeks could possibly understand. And from each product dangles a thick booklet so packed with high-tech jargon that it makes selecting a computer mainframe seem as simple as picking an apple off a tree. For backpacks, do you want a Sun Tooth Tech pack with 500 x 1000-denier Cordura or a Bitterroot Tech Pack with the 430-denier Hexstop trim? Do you want the semi-rigid 12-point Charlet Moser S-12 Crampon Laniers with the heel-clip in the rear or the Grivel Rambo with the rigid drop-forged points and the step-in bindings? Even something as basic as sandals comes in various high-tech versions, loaded with expedition-class straps and high-performance treads, in case you want to climb to Mount Pinatubo on your way to the Alanis Morissette concert.

I was dimly aware of some code of gear connoisseur-ship I should be paying attention to. For true nature techies, some things, like boots and sport utility vehicles, should be bought in forms as big as possible. Other things, like stoves and food packs, should be bought as small as possible. And other things, like tents and sleeping bags, should pack up small and open up big.

But the real reason for the REI store is upstairs on the mezzanine level, where the clothing department is. Because while not a lot of people actually go climb glaciers, there are millions and millions who want to dress as if they do. So most of the foot traffic at RET seems to be up on the mezzanine. T went up to the clothing department looking for a respite from all the high-tech mumbo jumbo of the gear section. There were indeed a few soothing racks of all-cotton shirts in muted colors. But T didn’t have to walk far before I was assaulted by a blaze of cobalt blue glaring off a vast profusion of polyester. It soon became obvious that while in the seventies the polyester people were low-class disco denizens, now they are high-status strenuous nature types. Between me and the coffee shop at the far end of the mezzanine there remained a treacherous field of artificial-fiber parkas, paddle jackets, zip pants, stretch vests, anoraks, and ponchos. And each of them had ominous-sized booklets hanging down, stuffed with dissertation-level technical detail highlighting the state-of-the-artness of each item. I confess at that moment I lost the will to live. I was content just to sit down and let somebody find my lifeless body there amidst the Gore-Tex mountain bibs.

But an inner voice—which sounded like James Earl Jones’s—urged me on, and pretty soon I was slogging through racks and racks of outdoor gear processed from the world’s finest chemical labs: Cordura, Polartec, and all the “ex” fabrics—Royalex, spandex, Supplex, and GoreTex. There were $400 parkas that advertised their core vent kinetic systems and sleeves with universal radial hinges (I guess that means you can move your arms around). There were heavy-denier parka shells, power stretch tights with microfilaments, expedition-weight leggings, fleece, microfleece, and bipolar fleece (which must be for people on Prozac). My favorite was a titanium Omnitech parka with double-rip-stop nylon supplemented with ceramic particles and polyurethane-coat welded seams. I imagined myself sporting that titanium Omnitech thing and suddenly saying to myself, “Here I am in the middle of the forest and I’m wearing the Starship Enterprise.”

Finally I had to puzzle my way through the “performance underwear” section, which was a baffling maze of Capilene and bifaced power-dry polyester with a few Lycra spandex briefs strengthened with MTS2 polyester. And finally, just as I was about to turn into an underwear Luddite screaming out for a pair of honest white briefs, I spied the coffee shop not more than 50 yards away. I made my way toward the side of the store that has the art gallery, with majestic nature photos, and the lecture hall. I made it through the bookstore and past the park ranger station. And there, finally, was a smiling barista offering me a warm brew and a choice from among a multicultural panoply of sandwich wraps. I settled down amidst the Mission furniture they have strewn up there and finally began to realize how wholesome I was feeling.

I looked around the store and there was nothing but healthy people, educated-class naturalists who seemed to work out regularly, eat carefully, and party moderately. They were evidently well informed about their outdoor- gear options, judging by their boots, packs, and shopping bags. Moreover, as they sat there reading Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and such books purchased from the adjacent bookstore, they radiated environmental concern. Here was a community of good stewards, people who were protecting the earth and themselves. Nature used to mean wildness, abandon, Dionysian lustfulness. But here was a set of people who went out into nature carefully, who didn’t want to upset the delicate balance, who studied their options, prepared and trained. If Norman Rockwell were a young man today, he’d head up to this coffee shop to get all this wholesome goodness down on canvas.

- David Brooks

Little Boxes

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Rich as I may be from a material standpoint, I’ve long felt that I’m very poor, indeed, in time. For decades, my business affairs have made extremely heavy inroads on my time, leaving me very little I could use as I pleased. There are books that I have wanted to read—and books I have wanted to write. I’ve always yearned to travel to remote parts of the globe which I’ve never seen; one of my greatest unfulfilled ambitions has been to go on a long, leisurely safari in Africa.

Money has not been a bar to the realization of these desires; insofar as money is concerned, I could have easily afforded to do any of these things for many years. The blunt and simple truth is that I’ve never been able to do them because I could never afford the time. It’s paradoxical but true that the so-called captains of industry frequently have less time for indulging their personal desires than their rear-rank privates. This applies to little things as well as big ones.

It is not my intent to imply that I am in any way dissatisfied with my lot in life. Indeed, I would be more than ungrateful for the good fortune and advantages I’ve enjoyed if I were anything less than happy. Moreover, I am very gratified that I have managed to accomplish most of the goals I set for myself when I began my business career.

The point I’m trying to make is that each individual has to establish his own standards of values, and that these are largely subjective. They are based on what the individual considers most important to him and what he is willing to give for a certain thing or in order to achieve a certain aim.

Old—but true are the bromides that you can’t have everything and that you can’t get something for nothing. An individual always has to give—or give up—something in order to have or get something else. Whether he’s willing to make the exchange or not is entirely up to him and his own sense of values.

- John Paul Getty

Monday, April 19, 2010

experience art

I never worried so much about permanence because I make things that you experience, and then it's in your mind. Most of my stuff is site specific or site-related, but I feel that's what we do in life. We have first-hand experiences, and those are the ones we don't forget. They stay with us and hopefully they're meaningful enough that they're with you the rest of your life. That's pretty much what I've always been after. I've always tried to do stuff that has an effect on you that you never forget the first time.

- Doug Wheeler

Doug Wheeler - RM 669 (1969)


Egypt's might is tumbled down

Down a-down the deeps of though;

Greece is fallen and Troy town,

Glorious Rome hath lost her crown,

Venice' pride is nought.

But the dreams their children dreamed

Fleeting, unsubstantial, vain,

Shadowy as the shadows seemed,

Airy nothing, as they deemed,

These remain.

- Mary Coleridge


All at once Sherman was aware of a figure approaching him on the sidewalk, in the wet black shadows of the town houses and the trees. Even from fifty feet away, in the darkness, he could tell. It was that deep worry that lives in the base of the skull of every resident of Park Avenue south of Ninety-sixth Street—a black youth, tall, rangy, wearing white sneakers. Now he was forty feet away, thirty-five. Sherman stared at him. Well, let him come! I’m not budging! It’s my territory! I’m not giving way for any street punks!

The black youth suddenly made a ninety-degree turn and cut straight across the street to the sidewalk on the other side. The feeble yellow of a sodium-vapor streetlight reflected for an instant on his face as he checked Sherman out.

He had crossed over! ‘What a stroke of luck!

Not once did it dawn on Sherman McCoy that what the boy had seen was a thirty-eight-year-old white man, soaking wet, dressed in Sortie sort of military-looking raincoat full of straps and buckles, holding a violently lurching animal in his arms, staring, bug-eyed, and talking to himself.



What is characteristic of many twentieth-century movements is the almost frantic search for contact with the primitive. Whatever you think of French Fauvism or German Expressionism, of Dada or Surrealism, or Abstract Expressionism-not to mention more recent movements and fads- they all have this in common: that they value regression. This valuation, as we have seen, reflects the distaste for the skills developed by the Western tradition, while I do not share this distaste I can appreciate the causes of this revulsion: the achievement of naturalistic representation as such has become trivialized. It has, anyhow, become somewhat redundant through the invention of photography. The resulting attitudes confront art with urgent problems.

An experience which I had when writing Art and Illusion may illustrate what I mean. Interested as I was in the integrative skill which is required in composing a naturalistic landscape, I asked a child of 11 to copy a reproduction of one of the masterpieces of John Constable. It was the picture, Wivenhoe Park, which now hangs in the National Gallery in Washington. As I had expected, the child disregarded the interaction of elements, and so the copy, which I also included in my book, considerably reduced the complexity of the painting. The main elements of the scene are all recorded, the house in the distance behind the lake, the swans on the water and the cows in the fields, but all these items are arranged on a flat surface, lacking in depth and atmosphere, but compensating for this lack by a greater intensity of colours and a greater simplicity of the component shapes.

You will not be surprised to hear that when I showed the result to an art student of my acquaintance he expressed a strong preference for the child’s drawing over Constable’s masterpiece. You will admit that there is a problem here, because, if there is anything I know about values in art, it is that Constable was the better artist. This experiment took place many years ago, and the child in question has meanwhile grown into a splendid young woman, yet she never wanted to add art to her many accomplishments, let alone to surpass Constable.

On the other hand, it is easy enough to read the mind of the art student. You may remember that, at the very beginning of these talks, I contrasted the cover of a chocolate-box with a child-like scrawl by the French painter, Dubuffet. I ventured to say that, without the chocolate-box, we would not have Dubuffet. The sweet picture of smiling goldilocks or the bowl of appetizing cherries mobilizes the dread of kitsch because it is found to be cloying. Cloying at least to those among us whose taste has undergone that process of sophistication of which, two thousand years ago, Cicero gave such a masterly description, which I have quoted in my first talk. To be found actually liking such a piece would be a social embarrassment, the admission of an undeveloped, that is, a primitive taste, a taste for the primitive scrawl of a Dubuffet, on the other hand, is safe from this suspicion.

Now this, to be frank, is the danger I see in the cult of the primitive. It is the cult of an extraneous negative virtue, the preference for the absence of certain qualities which we have been taught to reject. But negation can never be enough. Nor can regression be. If I may return to Freud’s example, it is not the childish babble which makes the joke, but the skillful use of verbal confusion in the witty ban mat. True, sheer nonsense can also be delightful, as in the rhymes of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear, but who can miss the mastery with which this nonsense is presented?

I believe the great artists of the twentieth century who admired the primitive and appeared to reject the skills of tradition, knew equally well how to use regression in play or in earnest without surrendering to its pull. Take Picasso, whom I quoted for his alleged desire to draw like children. He never did. But in one instance, at least, where we find him deliberately regressing to the methods of child art, we can guess his purpose. I am thinking of one of his preparatory drawings for Guernica, the mural he did to commemorate the destruction of the small Basque town in the Spanish Civil War.

When Picasso received the commission to paint a work for the Spanish Government Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition of 1937 he first thought of symbolizing the civil war through the fairly obvious analogy of a bullfight. As a passionate aficionado, he had often painted and drawn bullfights before, and the theme of the gored and dying horse came to him almost unbidden. Some of these earlier compositions reach an intensity and poignancy in the image of the rearing creature in its death agony that illustrates how much the motif must have meant to him. It is precisely this formula which he first tried out and yet discarded in favour of what looks like a childish scrawl. He drew a horse which really recalls a child’s drawing, with four straight legs sticking out of an oval body and a crude head attached to a clumsy neck. Other sketches show even wilder distortions.

Pablo Picasso - sketch for Guernica 1 (1937)

I do not think I am over-interpreting if I say that Picasso tried to revert to elementals precisely because he found his skill obtrusive. He wanted to get away from what threatened to become a facile stereotype; he wanted to learn to draw like children. His fury and grief at the violation of his country may have demanded from him something more genuine, more intense than a repetition of a symbol, however moving. But for Picasso this extreme regression was a passing phase, a fresh charging of the mind with artistic energies. It is not the least instructive aspect of his search for an expressive symbol that, in the end, Picasso reverted to his earlier invention, the rearing horse in the agony of death. He must have felt that he could not do better and that the painting as such had meanwhile become so charged with emotion that he could afford this self-quotation. Even with this amendment Picasso’s Guernica, in its final form, remains one of the most impressive instances of the power of regression, casting aside the niceties of style in the heat of emotion. But just as the great actor can scream or roar without losing control of his faculties, so Picasso gave vent to his fury without becoming inarticulate.

Pablo Picasso - Guernica (1937)

This seems to me the decisive point in the use and abuse of regression as cultivated in our century. The disregard of the rules of grammar that occurred in poetry or of that of plot in the novel or drama, the casting aside of dexterity and even of the brush itself, must be compensated for by a heightened awareness of the means at the artist’s disposal. If I were asked to name one artist who exemplifies in his work just the right balance between regression and control, the exact dosage of the primitive handled with mastery, it would be Paul Klee. Studying his oeuvre and that of his peers in the employment of primitive modes, one arrives at a conclusion which is only an apparent paradox: the more the ‘Western artist courts the primitive, the more must his art differ from his admired models. African or Polynesian art — the styles we used to call primitive — have many resources, but, for good or ill, they must lack the one so dear to the sophisticated. I mean, of course, primitivism. The tribal artist cannot regress to an earlier phase for the sake of effect. The technical developments of the Western tradition have thus given to art an unexpected dimension. Hence one of the values of the primitive in art, its otherness, turns out to be a by-product of the striving for progress which the ancients and Vasari celebrated in chronicling the evolution of Greek and Renaissance art. It is a progress achieved by the systematic correction and adjustment of the conceptual schema, ‘Without this effort and the artistic perils it disclosed, we could not appreciate that distance between the elemental and the slick which plays such a decisive role in our taste today. We cannot opt out of this development which has carried us so far away from the genuine primitive. Nor can the self-conscious artist escape from the hail of mirrors which gives an added significance to whatever he does or leaves undone.

Paul Klee - The Goldfish (1925)

I was confirmed in my diagnosis of the situation in which the artist and the public find themselves in reading some of the utterances made by Roy Lichtenstein, whose rejection of artistic sophistication drove him to seek inspiration in the popular art of the comic strip. Asked by a reporter of Art News, “Are you anti-experimental?” he replied, “I think so, and anti-contemplative, anti-nuance, anti-getting-away-from-the-tyranny-of-the-rectangle, anti-movement and light, anti-mystery, anti-paint-quality, anti-Zen and anti-all of these brilliant ideas of preceding movements which everyone understands so thoroughly.’ Apparently, Lichtenstein found himself trapped in a field of force in which he could see no move but that of turning to the imagery beloved of the unsophisticated masses. And yet he, too, realized in his heart of hearts that art cannot come of rejection alone. Three years later, he put this insight into the following words:

I’m interested in portraying a sort of anti-sensibility that pervades the society, and a kind of gross over-simplification. I use that more as style than as actuality. I really don’t think that art can be gross and over-simplified and remain art. I mean it must have subtleties and it must yield to aesthetic unity; otherwise it’s not art. But using it as a style, I think that it’s really a kind of conceptual rather than a visual style which maybe permeates most art being done today, whether it is geometric or whatever.’

We must hand it to Lichtenstein that he has seen the dilemma in which his negation of negations has landed him and so many of his fellow artists. He realized the resulting plight, and tried to extricate himself by claiming that his art is really very different from the style he imitates, and therefore very subtle. But, whether true or false, this claim only brings us back to that sophisticated elitism from which he, like so many other primitivists, wanted to escape. But, on his own showing, the dilemma in which he finds himself enmeshed is the result of intellectual rather than purely artistic ambitions. If I am right that this applies to much of the art of our time, then intellectual arguments may also offer a remedy. I have always seen myself as a historian rather than a critic, and I would never want to tell artists what to do as long as they, and their public, are happy. But I think that, in the present malaise, even the historian of art can make a contribution because it was he, as I tried to show in these talks, who first appeared in the guise of the serpent, tempting the artist to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.

- E.H. Gombrich

kitsch meets art

Roy Lichtenstein - Girl with Ball (1961)

a postmodern awareness of the rules of art being broken is itself a form of hyper-elitism

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Mergers & Acquisitions

I’m not sure I’d like to be one of the people featured on the New York Times weddings page, but I know I’d like to be the father of one of them. Imagine how happy Stanley J. Kogan must have been, for example, when his daughter Jamie was admitted to Yale. Then imagine his pride when Jamie made Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude. Stanley himself is no slouch in the brains department: he’s a pediatric urologist in Croton-on-Hudson, with teaching positions at the Cornell Medical Center and the New York Medical College. Still, he must have enjoyed a gloat or two when his daughter put on that cap and gown. And things only got better. Jamie breezed through Stanford Law School. And then she met a man—Thomas Arena—who appeared to be exactly the sort of son-in-law that pediatric urologists dream about. He did his undergraduate work at Princeton, where he, too, made Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude. And he, too, went to law school, at Yale. After school they both went to work as assistant U.S. attorneys for the mighty Southern District of New York.

These two awesome résumés collided at a wedding ceremony in Manhattan, and given all the school chums who must have attended, the combined tuition bills in that room must have been staggering. The rest of us got to read about it on the New York Times weddings page. The page is a weekly obsession for hundreds of thousands of Times readers and aspiring Baizacs. Unabashedly elitist, secretive, and totally honest, the “mergers and acquisitions page” (as some of its devotees call it) has always provided an accurate look at least a chunk of the American ruling class. And over the years it has reflected the changing ingredients of elite status.

When America had a pedigreed elite, the page emphasized noble birth and breeding. But in America today it’s genius and geniality that enable you to join the elect. And when you look at the Times weddings page, you can almost feel the force of the mingling SAT scores. It’s Dartmouth marries Berkeley, MBA weds Ph.D., Fulbright hitches with Rhodes, Lazard Frères joins with CBS, and summa cum laude embraces summa cum laude (you rarely see a summa settling for a magna—the tension in such a marriage would be too great). The Times emphasizes four things about a person—college degrees, graduate degrees, career path, and parents’ profession—for these are the markers of upscale Americans today.

Even though you want to hate them, it’s hard not to feel a small tug of approval at the sight of these Résumé Gods. Their expressions are so open and confident; their teeth are a tribute to the magnificence of American orthodonture; and since the Times will only print photographs in which the eyebrows of the bride and groom are at the same level, the couples always look so evenly matched. scholar who teaches philosophy there. The remaining marriages on the page are mixed marriages in which a predator marries a nurturer. In this group the predator is usually the groom. A male financial consultant with an MBA from Chicago may marry an elementary school teacher at a progressive school who received her master’s in social work from Columbia.

These meritocrats devote monstrous hours to their career and derive enormous satisfaction from their success, but the Times wants you to know they are actually not consumed by ambition. Each week the paper describes a particular wedding in great detail, and the subtext of each of these reports is that all this humongous accomplishment is a mere fluke of chance. These people are actually spunky free spirits who just like to have fun. The weekly “Vows” column lovingly details each of the wedding’s quirky elements: a bride took her bridesmaids to get drunk at a Russian bathhouse; a couple hired a former member of the band Devo to play the Jeopardy theme song at the reception; another read A. Milne’s Christopher Robin poems at a ceremony in a former du Pont mansion. The Times article is inevitably studded with quotations from friends who describe the bride and groom as enchanting paradoxes: they are said to be grounded but berserk, daring yet traditional, high-flying yet down to earth, disheveled yet elegant, sensible yet spontaneous. Either only paradoxical people get married these days, or people in this class like to see themselves and their friends as balancing opposites.

The couples tell a little of their own story in these articles. An amazing number of them seem to have first met while recovering from marathons or searching for the remnants of Pleistocene man while on archeological digs in Eritrea. They usually enjoyed a long and careful romance, including joint vacations in obscure but educational places like Myanmar and Minsk. But many of the couples broke up for a time, as one or both partners panicked at the thought of losing his or her independence. Then there was a lonely period apart while one member, say, arranged the largest merger in Wall Street history while the other settled for neurosurgery after dropping out of sommelier school. But they finally got back together again (sometimes while taking a beach vacation at a group home with a bunch of people with cheekbones similar to their own). And eventually they decided to share an apartment. We don’t know what their sex lives are like because the Times does not yet have a fornication page (“John Grind, a lawyer at Skadden Arps with a degree from Northwestern, has begun copulating with Sarah Smith, a cardiologist at Sloan-Kettering with an undergraduate degree from Emory”). But we presume intimate relations are suitably paradoxical: rough yet soft, adventurous yet intimate. Sometimes we get to read about modern couples who propose to each other simultaneously, but most of the time the groom does it the old-fashioned way—often, it seems, while hot-air ballooning above the Napa Valley or by letting the woman find a diamond engagement ring in her scuba mask while they are exploring endangered coral reefs near the Seychelles.

Many of these are trans-conference marriages—an Ivy League graduate will be marrying a Big Ten graduate—so the ceremony has to be designed to respect everybody’s sensibilities. Subdued innovation is the rule. If you are a member of an elite based on blood and breeding, you don’t need to carefully design a marriage ceremony that expresses your individual self. Your high status is made impervious by your ancestry, so you can just repeat the same ceremony generation after generation. But if you are in an elite based on brainpower, like today’s elite, you need to come up with the subtle signifiers that will display your own spiritual and intellectual identity—your qualification for being in the elite in the first place. You need invitations on handmade paper but with a traditional typeface. Selecting music, you need Patsy Cline songs mixed in with the Mendelssohn. You need a 1950s gown, but done up so retro it has invisible quotation marks around it. You need a wedding cake designed to look like a baroque church. You need to exchange meaningful objects with each other, like a snowboard engraved with your favorite Schiller quotation or the childhood rubber ducky that you used to cradle during the first dark days of your Supreme Court clerkship. It’s difficult to come up with your own nuptial wrinkle, which will be distinctive without being daring. But self-actualization is what educated existence is all about. For members of the educated class, life is one long graduate school. When they die, God meets them at the gates of heaven, totes up how many fields of self- expression they have mastered, and then hands them a divine diploma and lets them in.

- David Brooks


If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn't need to lug a camera.

- Lewis Hine

I photograph what I do not wish to paint and I paint what I cannot photograph.

- Man Ray

On the Sublime

Long partial to deserts, drawn to photographs of the American West (bits of tumbleweed blowing across a wasteland) and the names of the great deserts (Mojave, Kalahari, Taklamakan, Gobi), I booked a charter flight to the Israeli resort of Eilat and went to wander in the Sinai. On the plane journey over, I talked to a young Australian woman beside me, who was taking up a job as a lifeguard at the Eilat Hilton, and I read Pascal:

When I consider...the small space I occupy which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me [l’infinie immensité des espaces que j’ignore et qui m’ignorent], I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then. Who put me here?

- Pascal, Pensées, 68

Wordsworth urged us to travel through landscapes in order to feel emotions that may benefit our souls. I set out for the desert so as to be made to feel small. It is usually unpleasant to be made to feel small, whether by doormen in hotels or by comparison with heroes of great achievement. But there may be another and more satisfying way for a person to feel diminished. Intimations of this may be felt by any viewer who stands in front of Rocky Mountains, Landers Peak (1863) by Albert Bierstadt, An Avalanche in the Alps (1803) by Philip James de Loutherbourg or Chalk Cliffs on Rugen by Caspar David Friedrich. What do such barren, overwhelming spaces do for us?

Two days into my Sinai trip, the group of twelve that I have joined reaches a valley empty of life, without trees, grass, water or animals. Only boulders lie strewn across its sandstone floor, as though the stamping of a petulant giant had caused them to roll off the sides of the surrounding mountains. These mountains look like naked Alps, their nudity revealing geological origins normally concealed beneath coats of earth and pine forest. There are gashes and fissures that speak of the pressures of millennia, offering up cross sections through disproportionate expanses of time. The Earth’s tectonic plates have rippled granite as though it were linen. The mountains spread out in seeming infinity over the horizon until eventually the high plateau of the southern Sinai gives way to a featureless, baking gravel pan to which the Bedouins have given the name El Tih, or ‘the Desert of the Wandering’.

There are few emotions about places for which adequate single words exist; we are forced instead to make awkward piles of words to convey what we feel as we watch the light fade on an early autumn evening, or when we encounter a pool of perfectly still water in a clearing. But at the beginning of the eighteenth century, a word came to prominence by means of which it became possible to indicate a specific response towards precipices and glaciers, night skies and deserts. In their presence one was likely to experience, and count on being understood if one reported that one had felt, a sense of the sublime.

The word itself had originated around 200 AD., in a treatise ‘On the Sublime’ ascribed to the Greek author Longinus, but it had languished until a retranslation of the essay into English in 1712 sparked a renewed, intense interest among critics. While these writers often differed in their specific analyses of the word, their shared assumptions were striking. They grouped into a single category, by virtue of their size, emptiness or danger, a variety of hitherto unconnected landscapes, and argued that such places provoked an identifiable feeling that was both pleasurable and morally good. The value of landscapes would henceforth be decided not solely on the basis of formal aesthetic criteria (the harmony of colours, for example, or the arrangement of lines) or even economic or practical concerns, but rather according to the power of places to arouse the mind to sublimity.

Joseph Addison, in his ‘Essay on the Pleasures of the Imagination’, wrote of the ‘delightful stillness and amazement’ he felt before ‘the prospects of an open champian country, a vast uncultivated desert, huge heaps of mountains, high rocks and precipices and a wide expanse of waters’. Hildebrand Jacob, in an essay entitled ‘How the Mind Is Raised by the Sublime’, offered a list of the places and things that were most likely to invoke this prized feeling: oceans, either in calm or storm, the setting sun, precipices, caverns and Swiss mountains.

Travellers set off to investigate. In 1739, the poet Thomas Gray undertook a walking tour of the Alps, the first of many such self-conscious pursuits of the sublime, and afterwards reported, ‘In our little journey up to the Grande Chartreuse, I do not remember to have gone ten paces without an exclamation that there was no restraining. Not a precipice, not a torrent, not a cliff, but is pregnant with religion and poetry.’

The southern Sinai at dawn. What, then, is this feeling? It is generated by a valley created four hundred million years ago, by a granite mountain 2,300 meters high and by the erosion of millennia marked on the walls of a succession of steep canyons. Beside all these, man seems merely dust postponed: the sublime as an encounter—pleasurable; intoxicating, even—with human weakness in the face of the strength, age and size of the universe.

In my backpack, I am carrying a torch, a sun hat and Edmund Burke. At the age of twenty-four, after giving up his legal studies in London, Burke composed A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. He was categorical: sublimity had to do with a feeling of weakness. Many landscapes were beautiful—meadows in spring, soft valleys, oak trees, banks of flowers (daisies especially)—but they were not sublime. ‘The ideas of the sublime and beautiful are frequently confounded,’ he complained. ‘Both are indiscriminately applied to things greatly differing and sometimes of natures directly opposite’—a trace of irritation on the part of the young philosopher with those who might have gasped at the Thames from Kew and called that sublime. A landscape could arouse the sublime only when it suggested power—a power greater than that of humans, and threatening to them. Sublime places embodied a defiance to man’s will. Burke illustrated his argument with an analogy about oxen and bulls: ‘An ox is a creature of vast strength; but he is an innocent creature, extremely serviceable, and not at all dangerous for which reason the idea of an ox is by no means grand. A bull is strong too; but his strength is of another kind; often very destructive....The idea of a bull is therefore great, and it has frequently a place in sublime descriptions, and elevating comparisons.’

There were oxlike landscapes, innocent and ‘not all dangerous’, pliable to human will; Burke had spent his youth in one such, at a quaker boarding school in the village of Ballitore in County Kildare, thirty miles southwest of Dublin: a landscape of farms, orchards, hedges, rivers and gardens. Then there were bull-like landscapes. The essayist enumerated their qualities: they were vast, empty, often dark and apparently infinite because of the uniformity and succession of their elements. The Sinai was among them.

But why the pleasure? Why seek out this feeling of smallness—delight in it, even? Why leave the comforts of Eilat, join a group of desert devotees and walk for miles with a heavy pack along the shores of the Gulf of Aqaba, all to reach a place of rocks and silence where one must shelter from the sun like a fugitive in the scant shadow of giant boulders? Why contemplate with exhilaration rather than despair beds of granite and baking gravel pans and a frozen lava of mountains extending into the distance until the peaks dissolve at the edge of a hard blue sky?
One answer is that not everything that is more powerful than us must always be hateful to us. What defies our will can provoke anger and resentment, but it may also arouse awe and respect. It depends on whether the obstacle appears noble in its defiance or squalid and insolent. We begrudge the defiance of the cocky doorman even as we honour that of the mist-shrouded mountain. We are humiliated by what is powerful and mean but awed by what is powerful and noble. To return to and extend Burke’s animal analogy, a bull may arouse a feeling of the sublime, whereas a piranha cannot. It seems a matter of motives: we interpret the piranha’s power as being vicious and predatory, and the bull’s as guileless and impersonal.

Even when we are not in deserts, the behaviour of others and our own flaws are prone to leave us feeling small. Humiliation is a perpetual risk in the world of men. It is not unusual for our will to be defied and our wishes frustrated. Sublime landscapes do not therefore introduce us to our inadequacy; rather, to touch on the crux of their appeal, they allow us to conceive of a familiar inadequacy in a new and more helpful way. Sublime places repeat in grand terms a lesson that ordinary life typically introduces viciously: that the universe is mightier than we are, that we are frail and temporary and have no alternative but to accept limitations on our will; that we must bow to necessities greater than ourselves.

This is the lesson written into the stones of the desert and the ice fields of the poles. So grandly is it written there that we may come away from such places not crushed but inspired by what lies beyond us, privileged to be subject to such majestic necessities. The sense of awe may even shade into a desire to worship.

Because what is mightier than man has traditionally been called God, it does not seem unusual to start thinking of a deity in the Sinai. The mountains and valleys spontaneously suggest that the planet was built by something other than our own hands, by a force greater than we could gather, long before we were born, and set to continue long after our extinction (something we may forget when there are flowers and fast-food restaurants by the roadside).

God is said to have spent much time in the Sinai, most notably two years in the central region, looking after a group of irascible Israelites who complained about the lack of food and had a weakness for foreign gods. ‘The Lord came from Sinai,’ said Moses shortly before his death (Deuteronomy 33:2). ‘And Mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly,’ we are told by Exodus (19:18). ‘And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed and stood afar off. And Moses said unto the people, Fear not: for God is come to prove you...’ (Exodus 20:18—19).

But biblical history serves only to reinforce an impression that would have occurred anyway to a traveller encamped in the Sinai: an impression that some intentional being must have had a hand in this, something greater than man and with an intelligence that mere ‘nature’ does not possess—a ‘something’ for which the word God still seems, even to the secular mind, a far from unlikely appellation. The knowledge that natural rather than supernatural forces can also create beauty and an impression of power seems peculiarly ineffective when one stands before a sandstone valley rising towards what appears to be a giant altar, above which hangs a slender crescent moon.

Early writers on the sublime repeatedly connected sublime landscapes with religion:

• Joseph Addison, ‘On the Pleasures of the Imagination’ (1712): ‘A vast space naturally raises in my thoughts the idea of an Almighty Being.’

• Thomas Gray, Letters (1739): ‘There are certain scenes that would awe an atheist into belief without the help of any other argument.’

• Thomas Cole, ‘Essay on American Scenery’ (1835): ‘Amid those scenes of solitude from which the hand of nature has never been lifted, the associations are of God the creator-they are his undefiled works, and the mind is cast into the contemplation of eternal things.’

• Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Nature’ (1836): ‘The noblest ministry of nature is to stand as the apparition of God.’

It is no coincidence that the Western attraction to sublime landscapes developed at precisely the moment when traditional beliefs in God began to wane. It is as if these landscapes allowed travellers to experience transcendent feelings that they no longer felt in cities and the cultivated countryside. The landscapes offered them an emotional connection to a greater power even as they freed them of the need to subscribe to the more specific and now less plausible claims of biblical texts and organized religions.

The link between God and sublime landscapes is made most explicit in one book of the Bible. The circumstances are peculiar: God is asked by a righteous but desperate man to explain why his life has become full of suffering. And God answers him by bidding him to contemplate the deserts and the mountains, rivers and ice caps, oceans and skies. Seldom have sublime places been asked to bear the burden of such a weighty, urgent question.

At the beginning of the Book of Job, described by Edmund Burke as the most sublime book of the Old Testament, we learn that Job was a wealthy, devout man from the land of Uz. He had seven sons, three daughters, seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys. His wishes were obeyed, and his virtue was rewarded. Then one day disaster struck. The Sabaeans stole Job’s oxen and asses, lightning killed his sheep and the Chaldeans raided his camels. A hurricane blew in from the desert and wrecked the house of his eldest son, killing him and his siblings. Painful sores developed from the soles of Job’s feet to the top of his head, and, as he sat in the ashes of his house, he scratched them with a piece of broken pottery and wept.

Why had Job been so afflicted? His friends had the answer: he had sinned. Bildad the Shuhite told Job that his children could not have been killed by God unless they and Job himself had done wrong. ‘God will not reject a righteous man,’ said Bildad. Zophar the Naamathite ventured that God must have been generous in his treatment of Job: ‘Know therefore that God exacteth of thee less than thine iniquity deserveth.’

But Job could not accept these words. He called them ‘proverbs of ashes’ and ‘defenses of clay’. He had not been a bad man—so why had bad things happened to him?
It is one of the most acute questions asked of God in all the books of the Old Testament. And from a whirlwind in the desert, a furious God answers Job as follows:

Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?

Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.

Where was thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou has understanding.

Who hath laid the measures thereof if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?...

By what way is the light parted, which scattereth the east wind upon the earth?

Who hath divided a watercourse for the overflowing of waters, or a way for the lightning of thunder?...

Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?

Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven? canst thou set the dominion thereof in the earth?

Canst thou lift up thy voice to the clouds, that abundance of waters may cover thee?...

Hast thou an arm like God? or canst thou thunder with a voice like him?

Doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom, and stretch her wings towards the south?

Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook?

Asked to explain why Job has been made to suffer even though he has been good, God draws Job’s attention to the mighty phenomena of nature. Do not be surprised that things have not gone your way, he declares: the universe is greater than you. Do not be surprised that you do not understand why they have not gone your way, for you cannot fathom the logic of the universe. See how small you are next to the mountains. Accept what is bigger than you and what you do not understand. The world may appear illogical to you, but it does not follow that it is illogical per se. Our lives are not the measure of all things: consider sublime places for a reminder of human insignificance and frailty.

There is a strictly religious message here. God assures Job that he has a place in his heart, even if all events do not centre around him and may at times appear to run contrary to his interest. When divine wisdom eludes human understanding, the righteous, made aware of their limitations by the spectacle of sublime nature, must continue to trust in God’s plans for the universe.

But the religious answer to Job’s question does not invalidate the story for secular spirits. Sublime landscapes, through their grandeur and power, retain a symbolic role in bringing us to accept without bitterness or lamentation the obstacles that we cannot overcome and the events that we cannot make sense of. As the Old Testament God knew, it can be helpful to back up deflationary points about mankind with reference to the very elements in nature which physically surpass it—the mountains, the girdle of the earth, the deserts.

If the world seems unfair or beyond our understanding, sublime places suggest that it is not surprising that things should be thus. We are the playthings of the forces that laid out the oceans and chiselled the mountains. Sublime places gently move us to acknowledge limitations that we might otherwise encounter with anxiety or anger in the ordinary flow of events. It is not just nature that defies us. Human life is as overwhelming. But it is the vast spaces of nature that perhaps provide us with the finest, the most respectful reminder of all that exceeds us. If we spend time in them, they may help us to accept more graciously the great, unfathomable events that molest our lives and will inevitably return us to dust.

- Alain de Botton

Deflation - Devaluation

A simple analogy of the choice between deflation and devaluation might be that of the man who has put on weight and is having a hard time fitting into his clothes. He can either choose to lose the weight—that is, deflate—or alternatively accept that his larger waistline is now irreversible and have his clothes altered—that is, devalue. The burden of deflation falls on workers, businesses, and borrowers, and devaluation on savers.