It must have been in Martin Gardner’s column in Scientific American where I first acquired a hazy notion of what a syllogism is and what can make its premises and/or conclusions either valid or false. My understanding has since gotten considerably hazier, but here’s three factoids that happen to be absolutely true and look like there is is some link or element of causuality binding them together when obviously there isn’t.

1.               At an early stage of his career, the  ecclectic British writer Colin Wilson was  horsewhipped by his future father-in-law.  Made the papers and all. Don’t know if Dad caught them dissing Sartre in the sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath where Wilson wrote The Outsider, ca. 1954, but it was a real event and a real horsewhip, from all accounts. I suspect this is a distinction few living writers can claim. 

2.               In one of the Marx Brothers films -- Horsefeathers, I think  -- Groucho says “I’d horsewhip you, if only I had a horse”.

3.           Two decades later, when Groucho wrote his memoirs, he asked his British publisher to send copies to three individuals: Winston Churchill, Somerset Maugham, and Colin Wilson (who has never been a big Marx brothers fan, he maintains). What can this possibly mean? I have no idea.  

Fearful Asymmetry

John Hemingway, son of Gregory, son of Ernest, tells his Oprah-worthy life story in Strange Tribe: A Family Memoir.  He lifts the lid on his complicated (i.e. screwed up beyond repair and almost beyond belief) relationship with his father, Ernest Hemingway’s youngest son. There is not that much John can say about Ernest since he was still an infant when the Abercrombie and Fitch shotgun went bang, but the grace under pressure guy does feature in a vituperative exchange of correspondence with the author’s father.
           Not all of the (by my rough count) eight half-siblings Greg sired on three of his four wives appear as vulnerable as John, the son of a schizophrenic mother and a manic depressive (bipolar hardly does justice to Greg’s pit-and-pendulum mood swings), cross-dressing alcoholic and de-licensed doctor who managed to live just long enough to realize his dream of full gender reassignment. It was as his lifelong alter-ego of Gloria that Greg died of heart failure in the Miami-Dade Women’s Detention Center, where he was charged with lewd behavior and resisting arrest.

John appears to have escaped the toxicity that seeped into the third generation of Hemingways (half cousin – is there such a thing? – Margaux killed herself) by hightailing it to Italy and coming to terms, from a distance of safety, with the father for whom dressing a woman, passing as a woman and being a woman was the only joy in a life of hopeless and (he claimed) paternally-induced inadequacy.
            The detail that startles is where John says that before undergoing the full transsexual transformation, Gregory had a breast implant – and in this case the singular article refers to the implant, not the procedure. One implant, one breast. His son speculates that he didn’t have the money to pay for number two and just let it ride, until he decided to have the lump of solitary silicone removed at a later date.

           My question is: what were other people seeing and thinking in the meantime? Didn’t something look a bit odd to them? Would it have led them to assume that an unselfconscious, rather peculiar-looking woman had undergone a complete mastectomy? But if Greg went to the trouble of submitting to surgery, wouldn’t it be because he wanted his breasts to be looked at – and decided that this would be the way to make sure people did? I wonder about such things.  

Look, it’s Chico Marx being bawled out by Sig Ruman. No, wait, it’s Wile E. Coyote

On January 13, 2012, the Costa Concordia, one of the largest and most expensive ($570 million) cruise ships ever built, struck a rock in the Tyrrhenian sea while approaching the island of Giglio. After water poured in through the gash in its hull, the ship finally listed to port and capsized. But it took over an hour for the order to be given to begin evacuating more than 4,000 passengers and crew. Captain Francesco Schettino was later charged with dereliction of duty, as he was alleged to have been absent from the bridge. It was claimed by some he was entertaining his Moldavan dancer girlfriend blow decks during the critical interval. Thirty-two people died. Many of the victims were on their honeymoon cruise.  

I Transcript of the radio transmission between Livorno harbormaster Gregorio di Falco and Captain Schettino.

FALCO: Schettino, get back on board! You’ve abandoned ship and I’m in command now. Get back on board, do you understand?.... There are bodies -- are you listening to me, Schettino?  Let’s get moving!

SCHETTINO: How many bodies are there?
FALCO: I don’t know! I’ve only heard about one. You’re the one who’s supposed to be telling me how many bodies there are! Christ almighty!

SCHETTINO: But you don’t understand. It’s all dark here and I can’t see a thing.
FALCO: What’s the matter, Schettino, you want to get home or something? It’s dark outside and you just want to hurry on home, is that it? Climb back up the ladder and get on board  and tell me what needs to be done, how many people there are and what they need. Do it now!

SCHETTINO: I really would like to get back on board but…
FALCO: You’ve been saying that for the last hour. Now get back up and call me from there. And I mean NOW.   

II.               Domenico Pepe, head of the legal team defending Schettino on charges of involuntary manslaughter, causing environmental damage and gross culpable negligence.

“Captain Schettino never abandoned his ship. The vessel tipped over and when it was at an angle of 90 degrees, the captain fell off and dropped into one of the lifeboats below. “

SOURCE: El País, domingo, 14 de julio de 2013. Excellent  reporting by Pablo Ordaz.


Two poets and an actor go into a pub in London and when they’re all good and drunk one of them says: let’s see which of us can recite the world’s greatest lines of English verse. The poets are Louis MacNiece and Dylan Thomas and the actor is Richard Burton, the scene is a pub called the George in wartime London and the story is in a book called War Like a Wasp by Andrew Sinclair who got the story direct from Burton, he says in a footnote.

MacNiece goes first and recites something written by himself. Burton does a turn from Hamlet. Then Dylan Thomas in that incredible Welsh voice of his and with the bombast turned up full blast declaims:
                                                                            I am

Thou art

He is, She is, It is

We are,

You are,

They are.



Long ago a picture must have been an event. Capturing an image has become too ordinary a miracle, perhaps. They go about with their automatic drive Nikons, and OM-2’s and their Leicaflexes and put their finger on the button  and the hand-held machinery makes a noise like a big toy cricket. Reep, reep reep, reep. A billion billion slides, projected once, labeled and filed forever. Windrows of empty yellow boxes blow across the Gobi, the Peruvian highlands, the temple steps at Chichicastenango. The clicking and whirring and clacking is the background sound at the Acropolis, at the beach at Cannes, on the slopes of Villefranche.  All the bright people, stopped in the midst of life, looking with forced smile into the lenses, then to be filed away, their colors fading as the years pass, caught there in slide trays, until one day the camera person dies and the grandchild says, “Mom, I don’t know any of these people.Or where these were taken even. There are jillions of them here in the big box and more in the closet. What will I do with them, anyway?

“Throw them out, dear.”

John D. MacDonald, The Empty Copper Sea  


No Ifs, Ands or....

Photography reviewed in Culture Wars, 5 November 2007
“Ocultos”  Fundación Canal Madrid : ended January 2008.
Dr Johnson would have loved it, and so would my eleven-year-old son. The Great Cham had Boswell & co. rolling on the floor when he absently-mindedly remarked of a certain lady that she ‘had a bottom of good sense.’ Before the laughter had a chance to die down, Johnson showed he was as deft as any talk show host at the art of split-second recovery: ‘Where’s the merriment? I say the woman was fundamentally sensible.’
It is in that frame of mind that one should visit the show at the former Madrid Water Works. ‘Ocultos’ (a pun, yes, though a strained one, culo being Spanish for bottom) brings together a cull (so much for self-restraint) of photographs in which prominent practitioners of the art depict or evoke the posterior parts of human anatomy. You should not expect anything so obvious as just having the photographer shoot a picture while the subject is shooting the moon, though. Well, all right, just one, then, by Jeanloup Sieff.
Painting, to be sure, has not exactly neglected the nether regions, as we are reminded in a text quoting Titian to his patron, Spain’s King Philip II, in which the painter slyly anticipates that his fleshy rear view of ‘Venus and Adonis’ will be ‘even more agreeable to His Majesty’.  Personally, I’m a big fan of Burne-Jones’ nude cutie Andromeda, but for some reason, hers have always struck me as being unremittingly British buttocks. Flabby but unyielding, like Churchill. More in my line is the reddish-brown peach sported by the Polynesian girl in Gauguin’s ‘Spirit of the Dead Watching’.
The Madrid photos eschew the selectively idiosyncratic for the sake of wideness of range and loose entry requirements. Representations are allowed, as well as the real thing, which means we get to revisit a 1961 classic by the grand old man of Spanish photographers, Ramón Masats, of Prado museum-goers contemplating Rubens' 'Three Graces'. The tell-tale tricorne hat on one viewer (then, as now, standard issue Civil Guard  gear) and tilted head of the lady sitting next to him  make it clear that scandal and stupefaction are in the air. In more modern reading of the same image might have them commiserating with the three ladies’ serious cellulitis issues.
My favorite depiction of depiction is Robert Doisneau’s 'Regard oblique', in which a middle-aged couple oozing bourgeois respectability is seen through the art dealer’s front window into which they are peering, the woman intently talking up one of the pieces while the husband’s beady eyes are riveted on the buns of a Renoir-like bathing beauty over on the opposite side of the frame.
Though the contents are fundamentally sensible, I’ll admit I don’t think much of the packaging. In accordance with somebody’s idea of mock titillation, the walls have been papered with New Orleans bordello plush and doors fitted with peep holes through which can be seen a slide show of the 67 photographs hung throughout the underground galleries that used to be the distribution hub for Madrid’s incoming fresh water supply. Do they really think the lechers of yesteryear didn’t insist on full frontal? That’s what the nightclub patrons in Burt Glinn’s ‘A Stripper at the Club Samoa on 52nd Street’ from 1949 would have liked, though it’s clear the nudies are wearing body stockings. 
Though humor and pornography rely equally on exaggeration, none of the pieces here strike me as terribly erotic. Herb Ritts is up to his usual, although for once Mapplethorpe is restrained in his Ken Moody gatefold of the month. Susan Meiselas gives us a rent-by-the-hour dominatrix and the red welts she has inflicted on some character’s pathetic behind, while Man Ray captures Paul Eluard’s muse, Nusch, in silhouette (but a butt with only two dimensions is not that interesting). Marilyn Monroe (with her trademark ‘Oops, excuse me!’ glance over the shoulder) appears half-draped in Eve Arnold’s photo, her emergent behind illustrating Plato’s paradigm of the whole that acquires a nominative identity in a manner ontologically distinct from its parts.
It may seem surprising that the proportion of bare to clothed (or semi-covered) is pretty close to even, but photographically it makes all kinds of sense. The same rough parity exists between male and female, depending on how you count the toddler in Robert Capa’s scene from an Israeli kibbutz. Best in show as far as I am concerned is Willy Ronis’ view from 1949 of his wife getting up after a late afternoon nap, classical in its interplay of Provençal sunlight, shadow, form and texture, the textbook definition of photographic intimism. Why isn’t there more of this man’s work on display in places where I am likely to see it?
I was also drawn to a distant nymph on a seacliff prominence by Fernando Manso, with its Maxfield Parrish overtones, and Harry Callahan’s ‘Eleanor by the Radiator’, Eleanor supplying the curves and the radiator the straight lines. Surprisingly good, though derivative, was a photo by Josep Renau, the one-time Commissar of Fine Arts for the Spanish Republic who persuaded Picasso to paint 'Guernica'.  Renau spent most of his life in East Berlin, his photography underwritten by Stalinist sinecures, where he died in 1982 after deciding he didn’t much care for what democracy was doing for Spain.
In the covered culo category, kudos go to Isabel Muñoz, by far the most interesting Spanish photographer on the scene,  absolutely the best. Her close-up of a Cuban dancer in a tight, tight dress evokes a spinner’s spindle and a child’s wooden top, but one that is unquestionably made out of living flesh. As usual, Muñoz‘s work has been expertly printed by the photographer herself. Nobody  comes anywhere near to her when it comes to getting gelatin silver or platinum to sing.
Some (Joan Fontcuberta, Claude Fauville) highlight the plastic properties of the human rump as it is squeezed, kneaded, displaced or otherwise deformed either by human agency (hands) or by the camera (Bill Brandt, Andre Kermes, Manuel Seneca). Others, like Rafael Navarro, take us up close and personal to highlight the surface area exposed by the outward thrust of the gluteus Maximus, with all its pores, moles and cellulite dimples.
Predictably, a fair number zero in on extra-large tonnage type posteriors, starting with William Klein, who, being William Klein, makes a beeline for the obvious, in this case a crouching sumo wrestler approached from low and behind. At the opposite end is Eikoh Hosoe, who extracts essence of Brancusi from a pair of tightly compressed legs and unobtrusive hemispheric crack.
Never will there be a better chance to put to the test Kenneth Tynan’s claim that ‘the buttocks are the most aesthetically pleasing part of the body because they are non-functional. Although they conceal an essential orifice, these pointless globes are as near as the human form can ever come to abstract art’. He forgot to add that what makes it even more fascinating is that it is the major part of our bodies we never get to see, but others certainly do.

Photography: Valery Katsuba

Focus, April 2007

Valery Katsuba
Círculo de Bellas Artes, Madrid
12 Dec  2006  -- 7 Jan 2007

It’s no secret that the Germans were heavily into body building, seeking to attain extremes of sculptural perfection exulted in Triumph of the Will, Leni Reifenstahl’s Olympic paean to Aryan values. The homoerotic undercurrents are hard to miss in period photos of blonde beasts with big biceps and wasp waists. How typically, how inevitably German, you think, but now it turns out they were up to pretty much the same thing in Russia. Who knew?  

We do, now, thanks to several thousand photographs filed away and forgotten in the Cinema and Photographic Archives of St Petersburg. They date back to the 1880s, when local photographer Karl Bulla was commissioned to create beefcake albums by and for the phiscultura societies that flourished in Russia’s second city. His customers tended to be upper-class males showing off anatomic bulges, but auxiliary organizations “for the physical and spiritual development of daughters of the aristocracy” also sprung up as part of a craze that swept through late-Tsarist high society.   

Later on, we see factory workers heaving medicine balls around during their lunch break, the better to  transform themselves into the “new” model Soviet man, in photos taken by Karl’s son, Viktor -- but that was before he was shipped off to the Gulag in 1938. Afterwards, the physical culture movement was subsumed by paramilitary pantomime (Busby Berkeley with bayonets, cartwheels in gas masks). Throughout the Cold War era, grass-roots support for body building and fitness remained a state priority since it contributed to Soviet sweeps of Olympic gold and “it was considered a social disgrace for healthy people not to engage in sport.” 

When photographer Valery Katsuba came across this trove, it was a revelation. He set out to see if he could establish a time-bending dialogue between these pictures and his own. With our radically different notions of what constitutes an ideal physique, can the iconographic conventions of two bygone ages be valid in the 21st century? The short answer is: bet on it.
That’s because Katsuba is a fabulously gifted photographer and his pictures – which are absolutely devoid of irony or false empathy--- simply blow away the 20-odd smaller archival finds on display. Only a few of his subjects are body builders, and they are posed subversively as a mounds of muscle mass, no features visible, against a backdrop of porcelain, crystal chandeliers and wall frescos in a princely Rococo palace. The rest are athletes, dancers, circus acrobats who establish continuity with the sepia-toned strongmen through the way their bodies are made “to reveal what is secret and beautiful in their nature” says Katsuba, who is incredibly successful at capturing exactly those qualities in his images.

You read it here first: this guy is a natural, a prodigy, the farm boy who strides shoelessly up to the plate and bats them into the bleachers. Hard to believe he never picked up a SLR camera before the year 2000, but there you are.



Annals of Scholarship

Love, Sex and Tragedy: How the ancient world shapes our lives.

by Simon Goldhill, University of Chicago Press.

On page 242 it says, and I quote (go see for yourself) “At the end of the combat, the victorious gladiator appealed to the man who had given the games. Was he to kill his opponent or spare him? The crowd yelled its view, and the emperor, signaling with his hand, thumbs up for death, thumbs down for mercy, decided the fate of the defeated man. This repeated performance visibly demonstrated the emperor’s power over life and death.”

Uh—beg pardon?  Thumbs up for death? You sure about that? Your editor queried you? You do have an editor, right? You don’t know what editors employed by unversity presses are supposed to be doing with their time?

Has there ever been a more otiose, awkward blooper of a translation by an academic than  “Il faut d’abord durer,” the maxim Carlos Baker attributed to Hemingway and used to adorn the final pages of his “acclaimed” 1969 biography of the writer. No, it does not mean “last things first” nor would it make any sense if it did. So come on, smart guy, how would you do it better? No alternatives present themselves with the snap of the original, but “First, you have to outlast [adversity]” might be pointing in the right direction. If you ask me.