Saturday, 31 January 2009

Baker Baker

A longsuffering Bösendorfer piano, a crazy redhead, and evocative lyrics; bells, icicles, and cornflakes; teenage hangups, grievances against religion, a bad seafood dinner, and Anastasia Romanova. What's not to like?

From many points of view, Tori Amos' Under the Pink is a total nightmare. But if approached in the spirit, that one should attend to an artist's work but never to what they say about it, the album has a lot to give. It's now fifteen years old, and to celebrate I'd like to reflect on my favourite among the songs: Baker Baker.

The conceit is mild enough, by Tori's standards: the song is addressed to the demiurge under the figure of a baker, baking a cake that stands for the events of the day. The protagonist has driven her man away by being unavailable, and in grief and regret she comes to the baker for news, for hope that the situation might change, to carry a message ... all the while knowing that it's probably too late.

That's more-or-less it. It's a piece of ordinary sadness and dawning self-awareness, set to a heartbreaking piano tune; the device of the baker is estranging and striking enough to give some perspective, but not so intrusive as to overwhelm the material. The baker makes emotional sense: one goes to friends for help in these situations, to cry on their shoulders or to ask for their advice or intervention, knowing that in a strict sense they may not actually be able to help. From this point of view, the song is a properly integrated fantasy, like early Buffy, or a peasant fairy tale.

This fit of idea and expression makes Baker, however slight, compare favourably with the album's more famous and showier songs: Icicle, which is beautiful until you work out what it's about, at which point it becomes creepy oversharing; the glorious but overplayed Cornflake Girl, perfectly good as a nonsense song, although there apparently are baroque, bizarre motivations for most of it; and Yes, Anastasia --- would its spookiness survive too close an inspection?

But enough of this: listen to the song. It's on YouTube in a (1996?) live performance, and a performance (with mini-interview) from 1994. Lyrics are here.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Getting some perspective: (3) On intractable conflict

A couple of related essays on intractable conflict:

The NYT's Ethan Bronner on reporting the conflict in Israel/Palestine, says that
It turns out that both narration and mediation require common ground. But trying to tell the story so that both sides can hear it in the same way feels more and more to me like a Greek tragedy in which I play the despised chorus. It feels like I am only fanning the flames, adding to the misunderstandings and mutual antagonism with every word I write because the fervent inner voice of each side is so loud that it drowns everything else out.

openDemocracy, on shrill internet discussion, tries to put online Israel/Palestine discussion in perspective by comparing it with e-wars on chronic fatigue syndrome: a more promising comparison than it may seem. They go on to announce a manifesto:
The democratising possibilities of the internet are in the process of speeding the degeneration of the public sphere into a proliferation of insular nodes, each fighting a war that can never be won. Battles cannot be won on the net nor can they be lost. What remains is a solipsistic politics of ME, ME, ME: my views, my truths, my facts, my pain, my anger. Convincing others and changing the world is forgotten in favour of the perpetuation of one's own perspective.

It would be a mistake to look back at politics before the internet age as a prelapsarian idyll. But new realities create new problems as well as solving old ones. What is needed is a political model that can beging to redress the rise of solipsistic micropolitics; one that emphasises connection, self-critique and cool, considered analysis. What is needed is a different kind of technology that retains the internet's openness to participation but without the tendency to push activists and driven individuals towards self-righteous isolation. What is needed are tools for dialogue rather than tools for the proliferation of disconnected voices...

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Updike on neutrinos

In memory of John Updike, who died yesterday (see the obituary and an appraisal in the New York Times) here is his famous, and for the most part accurate, poem on that most fascinating of fundamental particles:
Neutrinos, they are very small.
They have no charge and have no mass
And do not interact at all.
The earth is just a silly ball
To them, through which they simply pass,
Like dustmaids through a drafty hall
Or photons through a sheet of glass.
They snub the most exquisite gas,
Ignore the most substantial wall,
Cold-shoulder steel and sounding brass,
Insult the stallion in his stall,
And scorning barriers of class,
Infiltrate you and me! Like tall
And painless guillotines, they fall
Down through our heads into the grass.
At night, they enter at Nepal
And pierce the lover and his lass
From underneath the bed---you call
It wonderful; I call it crass.
“Cosmic Gall”, from Telephone Poles and Other Poems, John Updike, Knopf, 1960.

For me, it's the comparison to “photons through a sheet of glass” that really sells the poem. (This may be more of a physicist's than a literary critic's remark, but bear with me.) Neutrinos' behaviour --- almost never interacting --- seems unaccountably strange, but suddenly the reference to light jolts you as you think, hang on, I already know that light goes straight through glass, which is also solid, and come to think of it that is peculiar too. It's a remarkable effect: neutrinos suddenly become more accountable, and an everyday phenomenon becomes more noteworthy and distinct.

OK, so in terms of his achievement as a writer, it's not up there with the four “Rabbit” novels. But when it comes to making particle physics accessible, I'll take all the help I can get.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Getting some perspective: (2) On teasing

From a New York Times article written In Defense [sic] of Teasing:
Today teasing has been all but banished from the lives of many children. In recent years, high-profile school shootings and teenage suicides have inspired a wave of “zero tolerance” movements in our schools... And we are phasing out teasing in many other corners of social life as well. Sexual-harassment courses advise work colleagues not to tease or joke... The reason teasing is viewed as inherently damaging is that it is too often confused with bullying. But bullying is something different; it’s aggression, pure and simple. By contrast, teasing is a mode of play, no doubt with a sharp edge, in which we provoke to negotiate life’s ambiguities and conflicts. And it is essential to making us fully human.

The centrality of teasing in our social evolution is suggested by just how pervasive teasing is in the animal world. Younger monkeys pull the tails of older monkeys. African hunting dogs jump all over one another, much like pad-slapping, joking football players moments before kickoff. In every corner of the world, human adults play peekaboo games to stir a sulking child, children (as early as age 1) mimic nearby adults and teenagers prod one another to gauge romantic interest. In rejecting teasing, we may be losing something vital and necessary to our identity as the most playful of species.
And, he might have said, the most social.

A very important point about human nature and wholeness is being made here. I was saddened to read the letter in response that the NYT published; a letter that, despite itself, rather proves the point of the article. Extreme and abusive, or merely dysfunctional forms of teasing, are indeed harmful and potentially crippling to their victims. OK. Yes. We get it. (Some of us already know this from experience ... although it would be unwise to enter into a contest on credentials here.) And to ask the victims to have a sense of humour about the wider phenomenon, may be to ask too much.

But that is not the question. The question is what the public policy should be. And I take the point of the article that it is improper, hubristic, and vain to try to bring annihilating force to bear against an entire dimension of human interaction; especially one so embedded in our nature, and so constitutive of positive and healthy development ... so constitutive of mature life.

Those of us who have suffered in this matter may find it hard to hear this argument: it reopens old wounds; and, more subtly, it torments us with a vision of functional relating which (we may feel) is inaccessible to us, and which others have achieved, in a way that excluded us. But this is a hurt that we should address in conversation with our counsellors, our friends, and our priests --- not with support for some utopian project.

The argument is still correct.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Four belated reassessments

From the New York Times:
On the Age of Neo-Remorse
On the unintended consequences of housing regulations

From the London Review of Books:
Ross McKibbin on the wider implications of the financial crisis:
The second inescapable obligation [on any responsible government] is the return of housing to its proper function: as providing places to live in rather than to speculate on. The relationship of housing to politics in both Britain and the United States is not fully understood even by those who transformed it. They don’t understand it because that would require confronting awkward facts about Anglo-American democracy. Fundamentally, private housing has become a compensation for the increasingly gross maldistribution of income. Inadequate incomes mean that large numbers of people don’t have access to the style of life that has always been the ultimate justification of neoliberalism and to which, reasonably enough, they now believe they have a right. What does give them access to it (in the short term) is credit. But credit has to be secured, and that’s what housing does. However, it works only if house prices keep rising and people have enough income to repay debt.

And from the cinema vault: I have finally seen Scent of a Woman. I missed the film when it came out, and despite my love of Al Pacino, I've avoided it since, believing the rumours about its over-the-topness and cornball. Well: it's better late than never. The worst part of the movie by far is the prep-school framing material --- the sub-Dead-Poets assembly scene is not only over-the-top, it's cheap --- but the body of the film is terrific. Pacino brings real charm and depth to the part, and over such a range ... it really does belie the idea of a one-note “Hoo-wah!” period. (The expression is a staple of his character here; perhaps this has fed the stereotype.) And the tango scene is delightful.

All this time, there's been a very strong NYT review of the film, too. Well, that review was right: and the conventional wisdom can go hang. OK, so Pacino should have got an Oscar for the Godfather films, rather than for this. But let's take the movie on its merits.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Getting some perspective: (1) On identity politics

From The Edge of the Mystery, a NYT essay on presidential transitions:
Then, too, have come the inevitable protests from identity-based interest groups: Latinos and African-Americans in Congress who weren’t satisfied with the number of senior appointments, as well as gay activists lamenting the omission of a gay cabinet nominee. That sound you hear is the last wheezing gasp of boomer-age politics, the cataloging of individuals according to their areas of oppression, the endless process of tallying cultural differences rather than aggregating common objectives. It is a political philosophy that probably made sense 30 years ago but that seems sort of baffling at the dawn of the Obama era, when such interest groups are among the most powerful in the Washington establishment — and when the Man himself is black.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

On watching “The Contender”

Sydney's Channel Ten HD showed a repeat of The Contender tonight: surely the film from 2000 about which I'm most ambivalent.

The plot is pure liberal self-indulgence: the sex scandal Democrats wished they would have, in an alternative-history Naughties, with a post-Clinton president whose vice-presidential nominee is targeted with a smear campaign; rather than the sex scandal they actually did have, in the real Nineties, with Bill Clinton ... well, you know. The film, and its writer/director Rob Lurie, were kidding themselves at a fundamental level.

And yet the acting is glorious: three almost flawless interpetations from the principals Jeff Bridges, Gary Oldman, and Joan Allen; sly, larger-than-life scenery-chewing from Sam Elliot as the chief of staff; and pert, pony-tail-swinging scenery-chewing from Kathryn Morris as an FBI agent. Any one of those parts is worth the price of admission just by itself ... and have Bridges, Oldman, or Allen ever been in a film where they weren't better than the material?

They are certainly better than this material. (This is not a new point: the NYT review at the time said as much.) The grandstanding is quite insupportable: “have you no decency, sir” gets re-aired; and the credits, preposterously, dedicate the film “to our daughters”. But let us be clear about the background to this: the real Democratic president in the nineties was exposed as a sexual aggressor, a selfish user, and a bit of a clown. I would have voted for him, as did the American people and (in the end) the Congress --- and he is prodigiously gifted --- but the guy is a flake who squandered his talents. This is what really happened, and that matters. Fantasising about an über-principled female VP-designate who is (unjustly) tarred with the same brush does not wipe the stain away.

In related news: While I have long ago forgiven Joan her face-lift, a distressing rumour reaches me that a remake or sequel of TRON is in the offing. Say it isn't so, Jeff. Please. I loved TRON, but surely you should let it rest.