This must be a Friday. Last weekend Letty & Zsuzsi were listening to this song, and then while I painted more white undercoat on The Found Bentwood Chair out on my balcony on Tuesday morning, the girl across the street was playing Florence's ditty again with her windows open.
biggest library and world's
smallest library. Perhaps.
A very short article of mine advocating a return to the simpler commodity exchanges of olden times went online yesterday. A long, rather inconclusive, article describes a South African neurologist in Switzerland who wants to build a simulation of a complete human brain. After this an overwritten disappointing piece about a man with (he thinks) a new theory of suicide. After a tedious preamble, we finally get to his punchline - suicides are people mentally strong enough to go through with the self-harming, who feel they are a burden on others, and who are lonely. This trio of causes undoubtably captures a lot of them, but it's plainly unsatisfactory as a general theory for even 90% of suicides.
Saw both Xenias (photographer and new student) as well as other students Augusta & Ella. Finished the other book I borrowed from Robin's library 'Machiavelli: A Dissection' by Sydney Anglo, a discussion of Niccolo Machiavelli's ideas based on all of his writing, not just the two books usually looked at most closely, 'The Prince' and 'The Discourses'. The result is a very interesting re-evaluation in which the Florentine diplomat-turned-political-philosopher is diagnosed as essentially having no political philosophy or discursive method worth the name. Anglo is not unsympathetic to the Italian thinker, but is unsparing in pointing out how much Machiavelli's attention-grabbing writing style substitutes for clear thought, stumbling from simplification to contradiction again and again. Even though it was a long time ago I read The Prince, I do remember finding a lot of odd sentences which just struck me as non sequiturs. Anglo homes in on one achievement though - the merciless clarity with which Machiavelli sees practical politics, its tricks, bullying, cut-throat nastiness. After active diplomatic service for the Republic of Florence, Machiavelli was left with this one abiding reaction: that politics is about force, subterfuge, corruption, and deception. Oddly he emerges almost as a despairing idealist rather than the Satanic corrupter depicted by Jacobean playwrights. Anglo points out how Machiavelli gets contemporary Italian warfare and politics repeatedly wrong, so gripped is he with his belief in the moral supremacy of Rome and the ancients, obsessed with citizen militias to replace mercenary armies, and inclined to downplay cavalry and artillery in favour of the sturdy citizen pikesman of the German or Swiss cantons. In a peculiar way which the keen-eyed Anglo uncharacteristically misses, Machiavelli might have been most right about Switzerland - then a confederation still emerging, to this day still peculiarly close to the citizen militia ideas of Ancient Greece and Rome. Elsewhere, Machiavelli gets caught up in his fascination with the sheer ruthless cunning of Cesare Borgia, watching his rapid rise and his rapid fall from close quarters as a diplomat, and wastes much of his life hoping that a Borgia or a restored Medici can somehow revive the fortunes of Florence and create sufficient unity to eject foreign (French, Spanish, German) armies from the Italian peninsula. A benevolent dicator in other words - someone who will seize power for himself but then use that power to resuscitate democratic city rule. There's no cynic like a disappointed naif, and every century seems to have them. If he was this foolish, the real successors of Anglo's Machiavelli then are the last two centuries' fervent hopers that a revolutionaries claiming noble motives can ever improve a state by revolution. If, as more likely, Machiavelli was only saying much of this while unsuccessfully trying to flatter his way back into diplomatic service (albeit with a higher purpose if he could manage it) then his was a lesser naivete - the belief that his double-speak would ever fool the kind of rogue razor sharp enough to win power in Italian Renaissance politics.
On pages 192, 193 however Anglo quotes a speech from the 'Florentine History' where Machiavelli, writing about the plebian violence of 1378, gives a worker a speech where he is trying to motivate his fellows, the popoli, to rise up against the rich. These were not at all Machiavelli's views, yet his insistence is unflinching that all politics works this way and other political philosophers are vain dreamers. The rabble rouser ends "The opportunity which is brought to us by the occasion is fleeting; and, when it has fled, one seeks to recapture it in vain. You see the preparations of your adversaries; let us anticipate their plans; and those of us who first take up arms will without doubt triumph, with the ruin of their enemy and with their own exaltation: and thus honour will result for many of us, and security for all." Anglo calls this "the most remarkable passage Machiavelli ever wrote." Sound as this invented character from the 1370s might like an early Robespierre or Lenin, Anglo stresses that Machiavelli is not approving or disapproving here, not recommending anything. He is saying this - dog eat dog - is how politics works and has always worked, and that everything else is show and pretence. No wonder his name still makes people with more polished political theories uncomfortable.
Back to Budapest by train. On the train read most of a book from Robin's library, probably one of Mike's, called 'Phallic Critiques' by Peter Schwenger. Finished it later at home in Pest. This is a high-1980s tomelet about the subject of masculinity in 20th-century novels, with special attention given to Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and Yukio Mishima. Intriguingly, although the book is beautifully written, well argued, and enjoyable to read, it falls short of its most ambitious goals (very much of their time). Quite simply, the underlying theory of the period - that there is a kind of culturally-constructed mirage of maleness based on nothing natural - is so self-evidently wrong that Schwenger's witty and sympathetic analyses of these authors cannot quite shake off the pretentious context. As comparitive essays about some writers fixated on their own masculinity or lack of, Schwenger's chapters are satisfying and fun to read. As something more portentous about maleness and its cultural "meaning", the book has dated. Schwenger also covers several very interesting-sounding less-well-known authors (at least less well-known to me) like Robert Kroetsch, Alfred Jarry, Michel Leiris, Robert Jones and the better-known Philip Roth and Alberto Moravia. Nonetheless, the trio of Hemingway, Mailer, and Mishima are the core of the book. All three were very interested in physical violence and anxious to do it for real (Mailer stabbed his wife while drunk, Hemingway wrestled a newspaper critic to the floor of an office after displaying his hairy chest, Mishima trained rigorously in Eastern martial arts for years in his 30s). Two of these three writers committed suicide. Two of the three had political ambitions, though strangely indirect (Mailer made bizarre shouty remarks while running for Mayor of New York, Mishima tried to spark a hopeless coup d'etat with a showy speech inside a Japanese army barracks). While the two Americans' writing seems more hobbled by their own self-conscious crassness, Mishima (perhaps because Japanese high culture sees the dedicated warrior as someone more refined than a street brawler) writes more subtly and precisely about his nihilistic macho beliefs. All three saw bull fighting as "important". Schwenger ends one chapter on Hemingway making a neat point about the writer's feelings on machismo requiring minimal speech (since Hemingway thought being a talker or writer already risked being unmanly) by noting that he died by shooting himself in the mouth. Although this is a fairly common form of suicide by gun, Schwenger's suggestive observation is typical of 70s & 80s literary theory. However there is another possibility, much simpler, which never gets discussed - probably because it is hard to sound clever while making it. If it turns out that feminism, masculinism, literary theory, and Freudianism are all largely mistaken fads rather than worthwhile bodies of thought, then Hemingway, Mishima, and Mailer might turn out to have been nothing much more complex than three self-hating homosexual men. Men bitterly fascinated by what they took to be hetero masculinity and its (to them) elusiveness. Guns, swords, muscles, shooting big game in the woods, fishing for giant fish, bull fighters, fist fighters - all a bit suspect really. What about the male writers content to just write books, seemingly not haunted by such identity doubts? As Quentin Crisp so crisply phrased it, the homosexual man is tormented by desire for a real man as his lover, yet by definition a real man wants not him but a woman instead. A man who wishes to be a writer, yet rages that writing is for sissies unless it is authentic, hairy-chested, manly writing publicly wrestling with its own manliness, doth protest too much methinks.
Sunday. Rained in at Robin's place in southern Hungary. His 8 or 9 sheep shelter from the downpour under the covered terrace round the house. In silence, they swivel their heads to look at me with frank ovine interest when I pop out to say hello. Keeping their watchful eyes fixed on me, they chew in unison.
Saturday. On train into countryside get chatting to Peter, a young computational linguist from Szeged. He speaks a fast, quiet Hungarian and I am only just able to keep up. Peter is very serious in his admiration for Steedman, an Edinburgh academic with an anti-Chomskian research project, showing me this paper on his laptop: 'Combinatory Categorial Grammar' by Mark Steedman & Jason Baldridge. I reach Kecskemet in high afternoon, with hot sun and crisp dark shadows, but a train ride later by the time Gyuri picks me up in Lakitelek, grey rainy weather has appeared from somewhere. As he drives me under cloudy skies Gyuri predicts a good rapeseed harvest, plenty of grapes, but says the chilly winter has already stunted peaches and walnuts this year.
Friday. How Hindus see good defeating evil.
A rather joyful day of letter-posting, recipe-reading, and household whatsitness. Yesterday very cheering early afternoon interlude of black coffee and bacon sarnis with Jeremy W. Word of the week so far is: wettability.
NY Times carries a breathless article about a "rediscovered" supposedly visionary text from the late 1940s by inventor of the word 'cybernetic', Norbert Wiener. Turns out to be the same platitudes on robots & automation dozens of others were saying at the time and several decades earlier. Nothing prophetic.
Ekman's guide to reading liars looks handy.
On the topic of liars, drive back to Budapest slightly marred by 'customer-service' glove puppets on a toll road.
Anywhere outside here, the crickets are loud every day & night now. Funny how what sounds like a bustling mass of insects is often just 3 or 4 of them. Inside the sun-warmed studio one or two mosquitoes or one bumble fly zizzing and tonking against a window pane seem loud for a different reason. Finish, with a lot of help from a dictionary, 'Comme Faire Les Fromages' by Suzanne Fonteneau. Very humbling, since it rubbed in just how many huge gaps there are in my French vocabulary. Herbs, basic kitchen words like 'basin', 'muslin', 'ladle', 'whisk', the list just goes on and on. A nice sensible text with the usual French clarity when it comes to instructions. Making pretty much any cheese ever devised requires a cool cellar, judging by this book.
Early evening a distraught Zsuzsa & Juci return from helping out at Rita's stables. A horse owner had unwittingly fed another horse there, called Emo:ke, some kind of green plant stuff. Within hours it had swollen up in the horse's stomach (apparently they cannot vomit) and the creature was lying on its side in agony under a hot sun. Zsuzsa and her friend Juci struggled to keep it standing up and walking around as Emo:ke's owner, a vet, raced back across the country to deal with his mare. It seems there was an hour or so of the two girls literally flogging the dying animal, forcing it back on its feet again and again so it might live. Later at the house I ask Juci what happened, and standing in Zsuzsa's bedroom doorway with her back to me, she tells me in a couple of short sentences about the afternoon, adding, "Emo:ke is such a big, strong, beautiful horse" - then her voice breaks and she shuts the door.
Sunday. Get things done in the studio while Robin outside tells his new sheep not to eat leaves off his fruit trees. A not so bad house mix.
Teach Ben. Catch early afternoon train to Robin's place in the countryside in hot sun. In the inter-city carriage to Kecskemet seated with some likely lads. Letty, Zsuzsi, and another riding friend, Anna, kindly pick me up from Lakitelek station. Constantine joins us soon after in the next village, with Robin pointing out from the car as we drive by the street where the antiques dealer Lajos hanged himself a year or so ago. Constantine recommends documentary research done by Oliver Stone, available both as TV series & book, 'The Untold History of the United States'. Doubtless more actual material in the book as usual.
Bit of script-reading in the evening at Daniel's flat. For a possible staging of a fragment of this play. Here is a worrying article about Nigeria, Africa's biggest country. Their government plans to a) make biometrically-backed ID cards compulsory for all Nigeria's people, and b) to link these cards to financial accounts with Mastercard while removing all legal validity from any other kind of money. Governments hate non-electronic cash, of course. Citizens can hide old-fashioned cash from the state, spend it as they please, and live their lives largely unsupervised. No wonder the technology behind money so urgently needs to be "updated".
A rare song/video that mocks men, women, and pop music, all at once. As the lady so rightly says "You always came back for more." And if that cheered you up too much, then try this instead. Or even this.
Meant to see this film when it came out. Impressive yet understated trailer.
Silent Tuesday. Robin's housekeeper Marika drops me off at the Lakitelek railway station with lots of time before my train. A new girl in the station bar cheerfully serves me a sinister-looking red and yellow pizza. My train for the first leg of the journey back to the capital appears to be a kidnapped Austrian Railways carriage, astray at least 200 miles outside its homeland. Plump rural Hungarians sit in doubtful quiet at intervals down the eerily modern hypertrain. On the next train from Kecskemet to Budapest, a very sunny, gregarious blonde tot is being helped by its mother to walk up and down the length of the carriage. In the Dutch classification of toddlers definitely still a peuter and not yet a kleuter, she & I exchange greetings and do some waving at each other. The little one is delighted to find if she tilts her head to the left she can make my head tilt to the left too, and if to the right then my head must also tilt the same way. Much gurgling laughter at this excellent game.
Quiet Monday. Finish a late-1980s book in Robin's library, 'Dictionary of the Khazars' by Milorad Pavic, translated from Serbo-Croat into English by Christina Pribicevic-Zoric. My God this is dreadful. Pavic, not his translator. A novel in the cunning post-modern guise of a dictionary in three parts (Christian, Muslim, and Jewish) about a Dark Ages nation, the Khazars, this is gimmicky enough to be published in two slightly different editions that only disagree by one paragraph (the male edition and the female edition). The feeling this gives is of reading an enormously tedious hoax. A big joke at their expense that most critics are simply too obtuse (or too estranged from the enjoyment of reading books) to see. Individual sentences are sometimes beautiful, even haunting, but even ten pages of this becomes hard work to read through. What readers who believe they enjoy this text really enjoy, as with so many other borderline-unreadable pieces of experimental 20th-century writing, is the idea of it, the sheer cleverness and oddness of it. The very format of the book, a set of made-up lexicon/encyclopaedia entries which loop in and out of common themes, is calculated to win over people who read a book to look interesting rather than because the book itself interests them. The book circles around the Khazar Polemic (a fabled debating contest at some point in the 9th or 10th century AD where a Central Asian khan invited three learned men, a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim, to try to convert him and his kingdom to one of their faiths). I recall my old teacher Len Rix mentioning another book about the Khazars (alleged in that account to be a Central Asian people who converted en masse to Judaism) by Arthur Koestler, and that book I'd still like to read, despite its detractors. Pavic's text drew me in because individual snatches of it are lovely prose and they baffle & challenge the reader, as they are meant to. But after a few pages the absence of any real pattern or set of characters making sense of the conceit becomes horribly clear. Stubbornly I waded on, hoping it would come right somehow, but it didn't. Trying to be part Eco / part Escher, the fake-poetic self-referential drivel just wibbles on and on. It's like listening to a chatbot locked in Borges parody mode, or eating entire boxes of dried dates at Christmas, each date promising much, only to feel ill. Phrases like "He wore a face as dark as bread" or "His teeth held a perfect picture of my bones" are slotted into every page, as if by algorithm. We have passages like "In that battle, in which he carried sand, feathers, and a bucket as his weapons, Brankovich was wounded in the leg; after that he took a black horse, the sultan of all horses, which neighed in its sleep and was also a warlock. The lame Brankovich would go off into heavenly battle riding the soul of his horse transformed into straw. They also say that in Constantinople he confessed and admitted to being a warlock, after which he ceased being one, and the cattle in Transylvania no longer walked backwards when he passed by the pens..." and hundreds of pages of them. Magical women whose breasts give black milk, people invading each other's dreams, someone with two thumbs on both hands, people eating the letters of their own names, a city where the shadows stay long after the buildings are razed, people exchanging weeks of their lives or ageing backwards, random odd things on every page, whatever blah blah blah, but none of it actually fitting together or building anything. Any child being read to would hear the false note in this straight away. Once you pick up Pavic's cynicism (check
photos if you don't believe me), what seems enchanting in very small bites in a bookshop becomes sick-making. Defenders will say the novel is about the act of reading, about forgetting and remembering, about the making of history from fragments, about magical thinking, about something or other very impressive and worthwhile-sounding. Perhaps it is all of those things. But since teaching literary appreciation became an industry at the end of the 19th century there have also been shrewd shysters who work out exactly how to outfox the critics. Writers who make a 'classic' text academics or conversationalists can advance their career or reputation by discussing, even if no-one else actually reads it. This is the trick Pavic has pulled off. Effectively this is a very upmarket version of a Dan Brown book, a novel where a clever plot or intriguing central concept hides the lack of either storytelling or writing talent. In Pavic's case storytelling is the gap: 'Dictionary of the Khazars' has individual sentences which are well-written, attractive prose. But although it proclaims itself a puzzle text, no normal reader will care enough about the puzzle to try to solve it, and they are quite right not to care. Real readers will sense the author's smug smirk behind every paragraph.
Sunday. Go with Zsuzsi & Kasper into housekeeper Marika's house to look at the new kittens in their box on the sewing-machine worktop. While Marika has coughing fits, Farmville clucks and moos to itself on her computer, and four dogs bustle around our legs. (The two large white furry Komondors, Lexi the fox terrier, and Marika's limping black and white dog Cso:pi.) In their box, the two tiny kittens (only born Friday) huddle together up against their mother Shelby, Marika's cat. One kitten looks exactly like a tiny Pom Pom (the father) in black and white, the other looks exactly like a tiny Shelby in mainly white with brown and black markings.
Talking of the Life Force, here's Choo Jackson chasing his own tail.
Saturday train into countryside. Zsuzsi & Juci kindly drive out to meet me at Lakitelek. Later on Zsuzsi brings Csenge back for dinner. The 3 of us read Tarot spreads, eat pasta, drink fizzy red wine.
Someone somewhere is very cross with their philosophy supervisor, and has made dozens (hundreds?) of images of 'Scumbag Analytic Philosopher'. 3 or 4 of them are quite funny for anyone who's met the type: "Claims he doesn't understand..." and "The Limits of 'My' Language...", for example.
Hot Friday in Budapest. Coco Chanel was a Nazi agent? Ex-CNN reporter claims, "I received orders to manipulate news on Syria & Iran."
While waiting for Letty to find me at the sun-baked tram stop island, Plimsoll-Designer Jeremy scoots by on a scooter in dense traffic. We say hello as the traffic jam jostles past. Second meeting in 3 days and about 3 years.
Thursday. Finish an intriguing late-20th-century exhibition guide from Jarrow, South Shields, among Robin's books called 'The Art of the Invisible', probably another trace of the invisible Mike from that part of England. A worthwhile read, it is a bit more than a catalogue - just over fifty short pages of text and fifty pages of illustrations. The theme is carefully argued: that occultism (and specifically the occult revival of the late 19th century) were vital ingredients for the arrival of 20th-century abstract art and modernism in general. (I'd like to read more about the overnight conversion of Annie Besant from hostile rationalist sceptic to not only joining Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society but actually taking over its leadership in 1891: sounds like some sort of battle of charismas.) The text builds up carefully, from the Fox sisters and their creation of the table-tapping craze, the seance fad, Madame Blavatsky, the involvement of Yeats in ritual magic in London, and the slightly different path of Rudolf Steiner, all creating a crowded supernaturalist scene by the 1890s. There is no pushy rush forward to show all this becoming modern art, but rather Alf Corlett and Vince Rea detail a social milieu. By the time Kandinksky and Piet Mondrian are discussed, both deeply involved with occultist ideas and societies, the claim is convincing. The book's point is that 20th-century abstract art was, like abstract art in several other religious traditions, an explicitly transcendental effort to reach behind appearances to an underlying non-material reality. Modernist abstract painting started as freeform western mandalas, Corlett and Rea argue. The 1920s and 30s Bauhaus takeover of 20th-century modernism, and its embrace of the machine age, a mission to rediscover aesthetic beauty and social ideals in alliance with the factory era rather than against it, has hidden from us the roots of modern art in the anti-factory, anti-materialist movements of the 19th century. Although one or two later modernists also emerged from this largely forgotten tradition (abstract artist Brian Clarke's teenage training as a medium in the spiritualist churches of 1950s Lancashire leaps to mind), 19th-century occultism now looks as far from mainstream modernism as can be imagined. From where we sit now, the 1890s 'Occult Revival' looks in retrospect naive and batty.
Wednesday. Now possible to download a weapon from the internet. 3D printer builds a working gun out of that spray-on resin they use. Only the firing pin is metal. Meanwhile, an article about the various allegations against the late politician known by Italians as 'The Old Fox', Andreotti. This, his obituary, concentrates on the various times he was tried and acquitted for consorting with Mafiosi.
As I step into a small sleepy post office not far from Oktogon to post a complaint letter to a taxi firm, Robin's London mod friend Jeremy the Plimsoll Designer says hello. He is chatting to a man about a motorbike propped up against a wall outside the post office. First time I have seen him since perhaps 2010 or 2009, I think.
Return to Budapest. Here is a slightly silly map. Nonetheless, quite striking. Most of the world's Buddhists, the world's Hindus, and the world's Muslims are inside that circle. And so is the world's most sparsely populated country - though a bit naughty to call Mongolia that just because Greenland's not a sovereign state.
Still at Robin's proto-farm in the countryside. Exotic dark-haired sheep stroll past the windows. My second cold bath of the sudden summer today. A thunderstorm of distant drum-roll rumbling comes at night. I finish Robin's copy of On Secret Service East of Constantinople'. Stirring tales of derring do in the second Great Game - this time to defend the northern stretches of British India from pre-First-World-War Prussian plotting while German engineers toiled to build the Berlin-to-Baghdad Railway across the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire. Resourceful polyglot adventurers lurking in mountain villages show that T.E. Lawrence was only one of dozens of that brave type. As the author Peter Hopkirk describes them: "the last of that generation of men who once played the Great Game for King, Kaiser, Sultan, and Tsar east of Constantinople." The book clarifies just how much damage the reckless Turkish leader Enver caused, and how supremely irresponsible & foolish Kaiser Wilhelm was to reignite violent Islam as a weapon against Britain and Russia. Ultimately Wilhelm succeeded in fatally wounding both the British Empire and Tsarist Russia (though at the cost of a terrible German defeat). In many respects the dark results of Prussian expansionism from the 1890s to 1918 reach more deeply into the present than the more visible and better-remembered Nazi German war of the 1940s. Wilhelm helped tempt the Ottomans into their final collapse thereby destabilising the Arab world. He also embittered the end of British rule in India (which led to India breaking up, creating Pakistan and Bangladesh) an end which might have happened peacefully a couple of decades later than it did. Finally the Kaiser indirectly and directly (by shipping in Lenin on the so-called 'sealed train') brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia (without the Russian revolution Communist China might never have happened). Just for the dreadful mistake of creating the Soviet Union, perhaps the First World War deserves to have its old title of The Great War returned to it. The modern states of Kemalist Turkey, Israel, all the Arab states, India & Pakistan, all the Balkan states, nations like the Czechs and Slovaks and Hungarians (even Slovenia, Croatia, Kosovo), today's divided Cyprus, the last two Iraq wars, of course today's Russia and the ex-Soviet states - vast swathes of the political map are all really consequences of the First World War (rather than the Second) and the various fast and slow-burning fuses it lit.
May 5th; More sewing on Marika's electric machine. I am starting to get the knack of not letting the thread snap.
Finally get round to combing through a very short 50-page booklet I've had in my stuff for several years (since the late 1990s, in fact) The Energy Risk Management Glossary', copyright the slightly ominously-named 'Financial Engineering Ltd. London'. With handy little graphs, it breezes through the duller and more colourful energy derivative terms in a set of short alphabetically listed articles. Always good to revise which way round
backwardation work, for those of us woefully inclined to mix them up, and cheering little nuggets about
daisy chains, and
volatility smiles bring some relief. I know one isn't supposed to actually read glossaries, but sometimes it's a useful revision short cut. Both sour crude and sweet crude entries mention the presence of sulphur as below 1 per cent, which is a bit confusing, since going above 1/2 per cent is usually seen as the deciding point for crude oil sourness.
Saturday afternoon train out to the Great Plain, as Hungarians romantically call it. Sunshine, heat, the usual string of small villages and tiny branch-line railway stations. Hidden out there in the sheer flatness, they dot the track out to Lakitelek, where both Zsuzsi & Letty arrive by car to kindly pick me up in an interlude from a daytime party at their friend Juci's. All seems reasonably normal in Robin's absence.
Weather now hot. As a girl said to me in the lift last week, no chance of a spring now. Straight out of winter into summer. I meet Jacqueline at a delightful cafe in Buda, post a copy of the book to India, and have my first proper cold bath in months. Like an intravenous injection of caffeine.
Yesterday evening Robin & I drove back to Budapest at night, sleeping barely three hours at my flat before a sullen & dishonest taxi driver turns up at 4.30am to take Robin to the airport so he can fly west on his working holiday. In the evening a lead-grey sky looms over the number-1 tram route on my way to teach the two girls Anna and Zita. A dramatic hailstorm with lightning occurs at the girls' house, pieces of ice bigger than coffee beans bouncing off the roof for about ten minutes. Zita (Zizi) tells me that "Dubai is always overdoing stuff" and asks me what the real secret of life is. I let the cat out of the bag, people. I told her.
Finish a short text of Robin's, rich in images, A Concise History of Photography' by Helmut Gernsheim. This is a 1986 3rd edition, and not too much was added to the previous editions of 1965 and 1971. In feel it still reads very much as a book by the man the writer was in the mid-1960s. The early camera obscura devices are described well in a wonderful starting section, and the first half century from the 1830s to the 1880s is the most enjoyable part of the book. Gernsheim is very thorough throughout, crediting many photographic pioneers, being careful to cover as many countries, styles, and activities as he can (so not leaving out the early days of tourist photography, explaining how photographers earned their living, mentioning the slow uptake of photos by newspapers, many other interesting points). On page 75 he has a sudden outbreak of irritation while describing a late-19th-century fad for posed photographic montages of historic or mythical scenes. These, he writes, gave "results that are often comically suggestive of amateur theatricals."... "produced the worst kind of Victorian trash"... "their achievment hardly went beyond mediocre anecdotal pictures", were a "misguided effort to explore the realm of fancy..." and so on. Again and again he emphasises the importance of being true to photography, not trying to recreate some sort of painting. Those trashy Victorian montages (and silly efforts to create Impressionist-style blurred photoraphs on rough paper) failed to see what photography was, as a medium in itself. Yet soon, in the 20th-century section, we have abstract photography (looking a lot like recreations of abstract painting), surrealistic photography, in fact a host of oddly derivative-looking styles of art photography, written of with approval. Pierre Cordier's Chimigrammes (some of which do look like something original to photography) make an odd ending to this stimulating but surprisingly dated book.
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