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Identity Politics and Art, the Work of Bruno Schulz, and Rebuilding Notre-Dame

I try to ignore the preoccupation with identity politics today, but it ain’t always easy. On some mornings, over half of the pieces I read address in some way what a literary work tells us—or doesn’t tell us—about patriarchy and racism. In a way, critics and writers who have become captivated by these obsessions du jour are like the aficionado and aspiring artist Hayward in W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage: “He always admires the right thing whatever the right thing is . . . He was a man who saw nothing for himself, but only through a literary atmosphere, and he was dangerous because he had deceived himself into sincerity . . . His mind, vulgar in its effort at refinement, saw everything a little larger than life size, with the outlines blurred, in a golden mist of sentimentality.”

Like sentimentality, politics obscures reality, too, and if Hayward saw everything “a little larger than life size,” some of our writers and critics see everything a little smaller, attributing every action, every gesture, to some form of political oppression or emancipation.

In The New York Times, David Brooks wrote recently [1] on a list of 25 artists that “define the contemporary age” according to curators and artists writing for T Magazine. He is not impressed and makes the same point: “Most of the pieces selected are intellectual concepts or political attitudes expressed through video, photographs, installations or words . . . The works are less beautiful creations to be experienced and more often political statements to be decoded. In 1989, for example, Cady Noland made a silk-screen of the famous photo of Lee Harvey Oswald getting shot. There are eight large bullet holes across his body and there’s an American flag stuffed in his mouth. The most provocative pieces are in the realm of sexual politics, where the art world has had its biggest influence . . . Several works redefine female power . . . The general attitude is: Let’s smash injustice with a sledgehammer. What you see when all these works are brought together is how the aesthetic has given way to the political, how the inner life has given way to the protest gesture.” The art, in turn, seems rather small.

Brooks’s goes on to identify five works of the 25 that transcend politics. That might seem depressing, but the good news—and here’s my point that I’m taking too long to make—is that there are artists working today who may not “define our contemporary age” in the way that T Magazine thinks it should be defined, but who are doing great work nonetheless—artists like Graham Nickson, Matthew Miller, Aaron Collier, Chris Arnade, and many others. The same is true of writers and critics, again, even if they don’t get the attention they deserve. May they receive more.

In other news: A jury in California says that Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” copied [2] the Christian rap song, “Joyful Noise.”

Jacob Howland writes about his mother’s correspondence with Saul Bellow [3]: “My mother died in late 2017, many years after her books had gone out of print. But two years earlier, Brigid Hughes, the editor of the literary magazine A Public Space, came across W-3 in the $1 bin at Manhattan’s Housing Works Bookstore and included Bette’s work in an issue on forgotten women writers. Prompted by this to look through Bette’s papers, my wife and I discovered a cache of letters and postcards from Bellow that formed the basis of an article I published in Commentary (‘Chicago Love Letters: Bellow and Bette,’ October 2015). Now, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, a collection of Bette’s stories that includes those in Blue in Chicago, has appeared as the inaugural volume of A Public Space Books, and plans are in the works to reissue W-3 and Things to Come and Go. Last year, my brother Frank and I discovered 29 more Bellow letters and postcards tucked away in a cardboard box in the attic, and, inspired by the find, I found most of Bette’s half of the correspondence in the Saul Bellow archive at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library. Their exchanges reveal a friendship that, while not without unrealistic expectations and occasional recriminations (not least on Bellow’s side), was rooted in mutual admiration and a shared experience of the struggles and pleasures of authorship—a friendship that was, as Bette had hoped, both real and lifelong. One can also hear their inimitable voices. As everyone knows, Bellow was incapable of writing a boring sentence, and so was Bette.”

Becca Rothfeld takes stock of the work of Bruno Schulz [4]: “It is standard to compare Schulz to his near contemporary Kafka. And the parallels between the two are striking and abundant. Like Kafka, Schulz wrote oneiric, misfit stories that defied literary precedent. Like Kafka, Schulz was sickly. And like Kafka, Schulz was engaged but never ultimately married: His fiancée, fed up with his failure to take practical measures to leave the town he loathed, broke off all communication with him in 1937 . . . But there are also important differences between the two. Unlike Kafka, who died before his most important writings gained much recognition, Schulz did achieve modest acclaim during his lifetime. He was friends and rivals with Gombrowicz and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, two giants of Polish letters, and he was awarded the Golden Laurel of the Polish Academy of Literature in 1938. Perhaps the most important difference between Schulz and his Czech counterpart is stylistic: While Kafka’s mode is ascetic, Schulz’s is lushly ecstatic. He trades not in allegory, sheared and schematic, but in delighted density. ‘Dazed by the light, we browsed the great book of vacation, whose every page was on fire from the radiance and which contained in its depths the languorous sweet flesh of golden pears’ is how he describes the onset of summer in Cinnamon Shops.”

Andrew Anthony reviews a book on the mass suicides in Germany at the end of WWII [5]: “In Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself, Florian Huber, a German writer and documentary-maker, tells the story of the mass suicides that broke out, particularly in eastern Germany, as the Soviet forces pushed towards Berlin. Terrified by Joseph Goebbels’s anti-Soviet and anti-Slav propaganda, Germans killed themselves in their ‘tens of thousands’. ‘The epidemic,’ writes Huber, ‘was an extreme expression of the meaninglessness and pain people felt in the face of defeat, humiliation, loss, shame, personal suffering and rape.’ The victorious Soviet troops did indeed exact retribution for the savagery their own people had endured with a remorseless campaign of rape. It’s been estimated that up to 2 million German women were raped. So the fear that accompanied Soviet occupation was not unwarranted. But as dreadful as that assault on women was, something else was going on, a kind of mass existential crisis.”

Corbin Gwaltney, founder of The Chronicle of Higher Education, has died. He was 97 [6].

Essay of the Day:

In The American Interest, Witold Rybczynski writes that it’s not “inauthentic” to restore Notre-Dame to its “last known visual state.” So why do so many architects think it is [7]?

“To understand, one has to go back to the early 1900s and the emergence of architectural modernism, one of whose founding principles was that every age requires its own unique architecture. As the field of historic preservation developed it adopted the same doctrine: When old buildings were added to, or substantially altered, the new work should be distinct from the old—‘of its time’ was the phrase often used. That is what Macron meant by ‘inventive reconstruction.’

“The idea that an old building becomes inauthentic if it is seamlessly restored is a credo that has been repeated so often it’s easy to forget that this was not the way that buildings were repaired in the past. It was the custom among the ancient Chinese, when an important building was damaged or destroyed by earthquake or fire, to simply rebuild as if nothing had happened. For example, the largest building in Beijing’s Forbidden City, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, was originally built in 1406. Over the years it was destroyed by fire (usually caused by lightning strikes) no fewer than seven times. Each time it was faithfully rebuilt, the most recent reconstruction dating from the end of the 17th century. Thus the building that is there today is slightly more than 300 years old, although the design is 300 years older than that. No one has ever called it a fake.

“Europeans, while not as dogmatically wedded to tradition as the ancient Chinese, were similarly conservative. When the Doge’s Palace in Venice suffered a major fire in 1577, the architect Andrea Palladio proposed a major makeover. Why not replace the old-fashioned facade, built in the 15th century, with something new, something modern, he argued? In Palladio’s case, something modern meant all’antica, in the style of the ancients. But the Venetians liked their quirky Gothic building with its squat pointed arches and colorfully patterned walls, and that is what they rebuilt. Saint Mark’s Campanille, the bell tower that stands in front of the Doge’s Palace was completed in 1511. In the following four centuries the 400-foot tower survived fires and several lightning strikes until 1902 when, for unexplained reasons, it suddenly collapsed. The collapse was total—contemporary photographs show a mound of debris in the Piazza San Marco. What did the Venetians do? It took them less than a day to decide to rebuild it exactly as it had been before (adding only structural reinforcement and an elevator). Today’s architecture critics would call it Disneyfication, but to the Venetians it just seemed like good sense.

“Modern warfare, with its artillery bombardment and aerial bombing, has been the scourge of architecture. During the First World War, Ypres in Belgium was the site of five separate battles and suffered inestimable damage—by the end of the war the entire city was reduced to rubble. The old market square included a 13th-century cathedral and the medieval Cloth Hall, one of the largest secular Gothic buildings in Europe—both now lay in ruins. Both buildings were subsequently meticulously rebuilt according to their original design, a project that took 40 years. The modern-day visitor would be forgiven for believing that the immense Cloth Hall with its tall central belfry is a survivor of the 14th century, and in a way it is—even though it was built in the 20th.

“In the past, when a beloved old building suffered misfortune, the common practice was to rebuild what was there before. This is what the citizens of Ypres did in their town center, just as after the Second World War Poles would rebuild the medieval Old Town in Warsaw, Germans would rebuild the historical center of Dresden, and the British would restore the bomb-damaged House of Commons in London. Nostalgia was certainly involved, but also a spirit of defiance: History is not destiny, it can be reversed, things can be put right.”

Read the rest. [7]

Photos: Bagan [8]

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