Kiefer and Khlebnikov


June 6, 2017 by AK

From the website of the Hermitage museum, St. Petersburg:

In 2016, Anselm Kiefer, inspired by his visit to St. Petersburg, created a new exhibition project specially for the Hermitage Museum. It is in the triadic space of the colossal Nikolaevsky Hall of the Winter Palace that Kiefer chose to display around 30 new works dedicated to the Russian futurist-poet Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922).

As an art project, Für Chlebnikov is much older than 2016: it went on display in the White Cube gallery in Hoxton Square, near Old Street, as early as 2005. If I understand correctly, Kiefer keeps adding new works to his Khlebnikov corpus. Some were shown in a courtyard of the Royal Academy in 2014, and some are on permanent display at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The Nikolaevsky hall, built in the late 1790s and restored after the 1837 fire, hosted an exhibition of Zaha Hadid’s work in 2015.

The Hermitage explains the Kiefer-Khlebnikov connection in this manner:

One of Khlebnikov’s central ideas is that major pivotal naval and terrestrial battles endlessly repeat every 317 years. This foresight was for Kiefer a thread to reflect on themes of war and peace, the fugacity and finitude of all human aspirations and the mercilessness of fate.

This is not how I would introduce one of the most influential Russian poets of the 20th century. Khlebnikov’s odd numerology might have been as important to him as Biblical chronology was to Newton and spiritualism to Yeats, and his quirky theories of time might have been inseparable from his poetic insights. Nevertheless, his poetry deserves the first word, ahead of his other pursuits.

By the way, the number 317 appears to have a literary pedigree: it’s a rearrangement of three, seven, ace, the three magic cards from Pushkin’s (and, later, Tchaikovsky’s) Queen of Spades.

The first snowfall of June


June 3, 2017 by AK

Searching YouTube and Google images for snow in Moscow “June 2” (in Russian) and the Russian #weathergonemad tag on Instagram should turn up enough results to give one an idea of yesterday’s snowfall in Central Russia. A chance event is not a valid argument against a theory based on long-term trends and averages. The fact that the snow came in October and failed to melt at once but stayed until March or even April, and that there were snowfalls in mid-May and in early June, is not yet serious evidence that the global warming is not happening. Nevertheless, there’s an eerie, end-of-times feel to these atmospheric oddities – the summer snow, the freak winds in Moscow, the tornadoes in Tatarstan.

To laughter and flaccidity


June 1, 2017 by AK

Christian Lorentzen, a columnist for New York Magazine and a former (?) editor-at-large with the LRB, has published an amusing essay subtitled “A brief history of sex in American fiction.” Amusing, that is, when read for low-level textual entertainment, not for meaning. Let me quote without opening and closing ellipses and proper attributions, indiscriminately​:

characters travel by various means… in one man’s case, through his own urethra, to a sex resort in a parallel dimension

genital enlargement accomplished via arm amputation

a work of genuine pornography… broadly feminist in intent

Julia’s desire for an intimacy that involves neither the touch nor the sight of her husband

I was honored when he allowed me to go to bed with him… Worst of all was my ambivalence over what I took to [be] the inauthenticity of his Marxism.

in a room at a clinic where he has gone to masturbate and is provided with Asian pornography that spurs guilty political thoughts about postcolonial exploitation

encounters that begin in public toilets are as worthy of aesthetic refinement as any others

Many thanks for the good time. But as always with me, there’s cause for complaint. This:

…Ishmael and Queequeg in bed aboard the Pequod

I can’t recall the sleeping arrangements on the Pequod but the bed-sharing occurred at a hotel in New York City New Bedford: the Spouter-Inn owned by a man called Coffin.

Trump’s reasoning is OK. His assumptions are outdated


May 30, 2017 by AK

To quote a post by myself from June 2016:

Trump, it turns out, has consistently argued since at least 1990 that the terms of trade between the United States and its allies unfairly favor the latter because the US subsidizes them to a vast extent by providing for free a crucial public good: regional and global security.

It was a valid argument in its day.

Does it still retain its validity in 2017? Since the USSR went out of existence, the US has underprovided security in some important regions. The emergence of ISIS, the bloody chaos in Iraq and Syria, and the resulting human flow towards Europe are the most recent examples of such underprovision. France and Germany can argue with some justification that the American invasion of Iraq, which they did not support, and the subsequent (entirely predictable) chaos in the region resulted in the rise of ISIS. The bitter fruit must now be harvested by the European Union, unavoidably, by virtue of geography. Any clearing of accounts among the G7 countries will have to take this massive American blunder into consideration. Trump may still ask Japan with some reason to pay the US for keeping peace in the Pacific, but the continental Europeans don’t have much to pay for anymore.

America’s role within NATO is a more narrow question than its role as the global policeman. Trump will probably insist on greater military spending by the EU majors and might get his way, but that would not change the terms of trade between the two unions. It might eventually lead to the creation of a continental military force, initially as part of NATO.

“Freak winds” in Moscow


May 29, 2017 by AK

Storm warnings were duly issued, but no one expected the hurricane to inflict so much damage in so little time. The BBC reports:

At least 11 people died when a severe thunderstorm hit the Russian capital Moscow, health officials say.

Hundreds of trees were toppled by the storm, and more than 50 people sought medical help…

The winds of up to 110 km/h (70 mph) were described by meteorologists as extremely rare for the city, and caused structural damage to buildings.

If the death toll of 11 is confirmed – and some officials give a lower figure – it would be the deadliest storm in the city for more than 100 years.

The latest reports have 105 people hospitalized.

The loss of life is tragic and incomprehensible. The city went back to normal quickly – one of the suburbs suffered a total power outage for an hour – except that eleven people did not survive the attack, killed by trees, upset bus stop shelters and other falling objects. Witnesses report that the disaster unfolded very fast – within minutes, a typical spring rain with thunder transmuted into a deadly hurricane.

Moscow suffered from a similar but weaker storm in 1998, at that time the most disastrous since the tornado of 1904. I feel that Moscow weather has become more volatile and less predictable in the past 15-20 years. Until last fall, I suspected the climate had become a little warmer on average and more continental – shorter springs, hotter summers but longer winters. However, when it snowed in October 2016 and the snow failed to melt so the cover stayed until spring, the warming hypothesis looked less convincing. To make things worse, the spring of 2017 has been unusually cold, with snowfalls in mid-May. It’s hard to see a clear trend in all this.

Where Go the Scrapboats?


May 29, 2017 by AK

Early on in Theophilus North, the last novel by Thornton Wilder (1897-1975), the narrator sells his old car to a mechanic for $20. (The novel, published in 1973, is set in 1926, when $20 was roughly the average weekly wage of an unskilled worker.) The car has quite a history and a name, Hannah, taken from the 1924 song Hard Hearted Hannah, the Vamp of Savannah. Expecting the mechanic to dismantle the jalopy for spare parts, the narrator strokes Hannah’s hood and says goodbye to the car.

Then I whispered into her nearest headlight: “Old age and death come to all. Even the weariest river winds its way to sea. As Goethe said, ‘Balde ruhest du auch.’ “

The aging mechanic is perplexed at the young man’s feelings for the old car, so the protagonist explains himself and translates Goethe’s line, from Wanderers Nachtlied II (“Warte nur, balde // Ruhest du auch.” It’s also well known in Russia thanks to Lermontov’s inspired translation.) He adds apocryphal details… At the end of the novel, it turns out that Hannah was not taken apart but brought back to life:

In addition I had bought from him a jalopy at a price somewhat higher than I had paid for “Hard­-hearted Hannah” – who in the meantime had been restored to further usefulness and was watching this transaction.

The novel is something of an idyllic memoir. The sale happens in Newport, Rhode Island: Theophilus North reached it from Providence, having arrived there on a train from New York City. That is the place where he would rather stay but cannot yet at the moment:

I felt then that New York was the most wonderful city in the world and now, about fifty years later, I am of the same opinion.

Having seen and come to know – I should add, slightly paraphrasing North – Rome, Paris, Hong Kong, Shanghai, London, Berlin, and Vienna.

Ninety years later, the old cars on this barge on East River were less fortunate than Hannah. The pictures were taken from the East River Promenade. The brick building on the right is the Con Edison power station near the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Vinegar Hill. New York City is still the most wonderful city in the world, all things considered – except for…

Bad journalism at its best


May 27, 2017 by AK

Anne Applebaum wrote in her Washington Post column, right up in its title:

There is no one right way to react to terror. There is a wrong way.

I’m not sure who died and bequeathed the arbiter morum job to Anne Applebaum, but there you are:

Even before the biography of the killer was known or his links to outside groups confirmed, a singer attacked the officials who were supposedly too politically correct to call him an Islamic extremist: “In modern Britain everyone seems petrified to officially say what we all say in private. Politicians tell us they are unafraid, but they are never the victims. How easy to be unafraid when one is protected from the line of fire. The people have no such protections.”

It doesn’t take much to identify the author (whom Applebaum proceeds to call a drama queen) and the source: Morrissey on Facebook. Granted, Morrissey is a drama queen and a singer, but he is rather much more than that. For one, a born-and-bred Mancunian: Applebaum’s non-mention of his name concealed the fact that the quote came from a native son. It also masked the asymmetry in caliber between the parties: I’m still patiently waiting for a media discussion of Anne Applebaum’s nomination for National Treasure, whether in Poland or the United States.

The worst of it all, from the journalistic integrity angle, is Applebaum’s out-of-context quoting. If she wished to argue in good faith with Morrissey’s post, it deserved to be reprinted in its entirety. It begins with this:

Celebrating my birthday in Manchester as news of the Manchester Arena bomb broke. The anger is monumental.

For what reason will this ever stop?

For what reason indeed, as the author goes on to argue that the country’s top politicians are neither threatened by the acts of Islamist terror nor care about the people’s anger?

Theresa May says such attacks “will not break us”, but her own life is lived in a bullet-proof bubble, and she evidently does not need to identify any young people today in Manchester morgues. Also, “will not break us” means that the tragedy will not break her, or her policies on immigration. The young people of Manchester are already broken – thanks all the same, Theresa.

There’s not much to argue with in the passage above. The “us” business is laughable, whether invoked by Putin or May or Merkel or by another politician who has been, for years and decades, part of the select circle living under protection of special services? Even the richest bankers in London occasionally take the Tube or visit restaurants open to commoners. Cabinet members, not so much. It’s also pretty obvious that the politicians in this context are senior members of the executive with a long record of such membership, rather than recently elected backbenchers, so it’s pointless to bring up the murder of Jo Cox as a counterexample.

Sadiq Khan says “London is united with Manchester”, but he does not condemn Islamic State – who have claimed responsibility for the bomb.

Which means that by the time of Morrissey’s writing, there wasn’t much doubt about the attack being the work of Islamists, so Applebaum’s “before the biography of the killer was known or his links to outside groups confirmed” was a case of “this bloody uncertainty, again!” (The joke goes like this: A man suspects his wife of infidelity. Watching her from a house across the street, he sees another man enter the house. The wife and the stranger kiss, drink wine, and disappear into the bedroom. The curtains are drawn and the husband, unable to see anything, exclaims: “Oh, this goddamned uncertainty, again and again!”)

The Queen receives absurd praise for her ‘strong words’ against the attack, yet she does not cancel today’s garden party at Buckingham Palace – for which no criticism is allowed in the Britain of free press.

Not much to comment on here. Next, please:

Manchester mayor Andy Burnham says the attack is the work of an “extremist”. An extreme what? An extreme rabbit?

And that’s why these reminders about the IRA narrowly missing Thatcher in 1984 are irrelevant. You might as well invoke Aldo Moro or Olof Palme or JFK. It’s all in the past: the principal terrorists of today are Islamist and, to the best of my knowledge, they have not attacked senior officials of Western states. Besides, the “bullet-proof bubble” protecting the Mays of the 2010s did not exist in the 1970s and the 1980s. The good thing – following Morrissey’s logic – is that Thatcher and her team were forced to actually care about the issue instead of waving it away while the victims were limited to rednecks and Papists. An old friend of Thatcher’s got blown up in 1979 right by Westminster so she had no choice but to take it personally, five years before Brighton actually. I bet not a single acquaintance of May’s has ever died by the hand of an Islamist.

It is only after the paragraph above – after the “extremist rabbit” – that the bit quoted by Applebaum comes in Morrissey’s original Facebook post, which is pretty sensible if read from start to finish. Applebaum’s criticism of it is based on a deliberate misreading via selective quoting: dishonest journalism, simply put.

To add to this, had the PIRA or IRA had its way during the Troubles, it wouldn’t have spelled the end to the West or Europe and even Britain. (The UK might have become the UK of England, Scotland, and Wales.) The six counties would be now part of the Irish Republic rather than the UK – two countries with the same language, similar legal systems and systems of government more generally. One could argue it would have proven that terror works – but terror always works, in some way, unless everybody ignores it completely. The Oklahoma bombing of 1994 led to the passage of AEDPA, which restricted state prisoners’ recourse to federal habeas corpus relief. Nine-eleven produced the much-disliked USA Patriot Act, followed by the NSA’s over-snooping. In comparison to these assaults on civil liberty, the hypothetical reunification of Ireland sounds innocuous. In contrast, if the Islamic bombers had their way, God forbid, the West would simply cease to be.

AI: breaking news


May 26, 2017 by AK

As Interfax reports from Moscow, the Russian cabinet’s representative in the Duma has asked the chairman of its legislative committee if MPs could be replaced by robots:

“I am very much interested in your view on this. I’ve been to a lecture on artificial intelligence, and apologists for this theory are saying that soon, within five-ten years, it will become reality. My question is: can you teach a robot to write laws?”

I’m not sure why he felt like trolling the deputies in this slightly bizarre manner, but the previous Duma (2011-16) was often compared to a printer gone rabid for the poorly drafted but richly draconian laws it churned out.

The sentence that made my weekend


May 24, 2017 by AK

Via Crooked Timber, this corpuscle of pure delight at Bleeding Heart Libertarians:

This journal doesn’t even hit the top 115 journals in Gender Studies.

Here’s the list of the 115 top Gender Studies journals in the world referred to above. Granted, some of the publications on the list have a different primary focus. Taking them out still leaves a hundred, mostly in English, mostly from the West – the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, etc. And, if these are the best, there must be others out there, right?

Outlaw anonymous messaging!


May 24, 2017 by AK

The Moscow Times reports:

A new bill banning anonymous users from using online messenger apps has been submitted to the Russian parliament.

The plans would require users of apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram to identify themselves with their cell phone number.

Russian-language media are confirming this. It would be a waste of time to comment on the evils of the latest bill designed to make life harder for decent people, since the Russian parliament’s raison d’être seems to be precisely that – making decent folk miserable. However, technological innovation springs eternal, and the immortals have a weakness for black humor.


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