Wednesday, April 25, 2007

One Man's Trash Is Another Electrician's Treasure: Bringing Home the Bacon

Cross-posted over at -- feel free to leave your comments there as well.

I used to live in Irvine, California, which is a relatively nice place that is also one of the cleanest and safest cities in the US. But I had a bizarre experience one day. I walked out to the dumpster in my complex to throw my garbage away, and saw a very small Asian man hanging out inside the dumpster -- there he was, just lounging on top of the garbage that nearly overflowed from the giant container.

At first I thought he was homeless, and that he had taken up residency inside the dumpster, and it felt very awkward to be throwing my trash out in someone's home. But then I noticed that he seemed to be well-dressed. He even greeted me, not in English, but in a way that made me feel as if he knew me, and so I threw my trash in (as far from where he was sitting as I could), smiled, and said, "Hey, nice to see you!" as if it were completely normal to find someone sitting inside my dumpster.

Later that week, the same thing happened, except this time it was a very small Asian woman sitting inside the dumpster, going through garbage. I tossed in my trash, which consisted, on this occasion, of some discarded notebooks and lots of papers and old bills.

Before I walked away, she crawled over to my rubbish and began going through my papers. She was excited to find the old notebooks, and I saw her put them into her canvas collection bag.

I was mad. It felt creepy to have someone going through my papers even if I considered them trash. It was my trash. The next day, I happened to look out my window and notice the same man and woman coming out of the apartment across from me.

They were my neighbors. They weren't homeless or "needy" -- not if they were living in a fairly nice complex. My neighbors were dumpster divers. To make matters worse, the woman was wearing a hat that I had thrown out.

Okay, fine, what's the big deal? It just feels weird! My neighbors shouldn't be going through my trash, carrying my discarded notebooks, and wearing my old trashy hats.

But perhaps they were on to something.

An article in the Guardian today talks about an electrician who was working at Francis Bacon's studio in west London 30 years ago and noticed the artist dumping rubbish. This guy persuaded Bacon to let him keep these few discarded paintings, diaries, photos, and other odds and ends.

He kept it all, and last night, it was auctioned off as the "Robertson collection" (named after the electrician) for insane amounts of money.
According to Mr Ewbank [of Ewbank Fine Art Auctioneers and Valuers]:"This stuff is a little bit of history. If it weren't here, it would be gone for ever. We have a little bit of extra insight into him." Does he have qualms about selling paintings that were rejected, indeed deliberately mutilated, by the artist? "The best judges of art are not the artists themselves," he said. "The fact that these paintings were discarded does not mean that they are not of value. And he did say he regretted destroying so much of his work."

Does this feel wrong to anyone but me? I guess it's true that Bacon essentially gave Robertson his trash, but does the wiley electrician really have a right to capitalize off of a dead-artist's trash? Then again, there's the Kafka dilemma -- Kafka asked Max Brod to burn all of his manuscripts after his death. Brod, of course, did not honor his wishes, and for that we are grateful. But is this appreciation merely an indication of our own greedy and narcissistic impulses?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Witch Hunt Begins

I've cross-posted over at Jewcy -- feel free to leave comments there as well.

In the wake of every disaster, we always look for a scapegoat -- someone or something to blame, something at which to point our wagging fingers. Or, in struggling to understand why or how something catastrophic happened, we try to re-trace the steps leading up to the event. We assign new, enlightened meaning to old facts and moments. We grieve, we televise the mourning, and then the witch hunt begins.

After the Columbine tragedy people pointed fingers at violent video games and the music of artists such as Marilyn Manson, insisting that such things warp the minds of young adults and turn innocent children into homicidal maniacs. In response to such accusations, Manson wrote an incredible essay for Rolling Stone called "Columbine: Whose Fault Is It? In it, Manson implicates all of us in the death of the students at Columbine -- it's such a great essay that it's taught in composition classrooms all around the country (mine included). The main point: "America loves to find an icon to hang its guilt on.

So now I read on MSNBC that the gunman of yesterday's Virginia Tech shooting was a "depressed and deeply disturbed young man whose 'grotesque' creative writing projects led a professor to refer him for psychological counseling."

Fellow students in a playwriting class with Cho also noticed the dark and disturbing nature of his compositions.“His writing, the plays, were really morbid and grotesque,” Stephanie Derry, a senior English major, told the campus newspaper, The Collegiate Times. “I remember one of them very well. It was about a son who hated his stepfather. In the play, the boy threw a chainsaw around and hammers at him. But the play ended with the boy violently suffocating the father with a Rice Krispy treat,” Derry said. Otherwise, Cho was a young man who apparently left little impression in the Virginia Tech community. Few of his fellow residents of Harper Hall said they knew the gunman, who kept to himself.
Okay, sure, that's a little disturbing, but I think this is just where the scapegoating process begins. Dark, disturbing creative writing projects do not a murderer make. Think of iconic Southern gothic writer Flannery O'Connor, whose stories include everything from girls with wooden legs being taken advantage of to small children being crushed by tractors and farmer's wives being gored by bulls. And what about Edgar Allen Poe? Surely we can think of countless examples of literary greats who were consumed with the idea of death. But, like I said, this is where the witch hunt begins, as we point the first round of fingers at school counselors and teachers who read his dark writing and did little or nothing about it.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Vonnegut, Non-Jewish Writer, Dies

I'm blogging a bit over at Jewcy this week and next so this post is over there as well -- feel free to leave your comments there.

Kurt Vonnegut, called one of America's best writers by the likes of Graham Greene, John Irving, and Tom Wolfe, died last night -- apparently due to complications from brain injuries sustained during a recent fall. You can read about it in the Times. Some of his best-known works include Cat's Cradle (1963), The Sirens of Titan (1959), Slaughterhouse Five (1969), and Breakfast of Champions (1973). Vonnegut was one of those lucky writers whose work made into both mainstream and academic venues -- I actually read my first Vonnegut book as an undergrad in a class called Metafiction, and was surprised to learn that even some of my non-college-bound friends had also read Vonnegut and thought Slaughterhouse Five was rad.

I was planning to go hear him read and give a talk on April 27 here in Indiana -- at Butler University in Indianapolis, Vonnegut's home town. Vonnegut is one of Indiana's claims to fame. I'm living in Indiana right now (very temporarily), and one thing I've noticed is that people here are fiercely loyal to anyone from the state. They also go nuts if they're in a bar and Tom Petty's "Mary Jane's Last Dance" song starts to play (First verse: "She grew up in an Indiana town / Had a good lookin' momma who never was around / But she grew up tall and she grew up right / With them Indiana boys on an Indiana night"). It's no joke -- I was once in a campus bar called Harry's Chocolate Shop, and though it was packed with wall-to-wall people, when that song came on every single person in there (excluding me) jumped to their feet and began singing the lyrics. I feared they might riot. Or that there would be a stoning of people not from Indiana. So I joined in.

My point being: Indiana loves Vonnegut, so it's a sad day here.

But I learned something new about an hour ago. In talking to a friend of mine who is a scholar of Jewish-American and other literatures, I got into a conversation about Slaughterhouse Five, which is really about Vonnegut's own experience with the WWII Dresden bombing. My friend said he has always been slightly bothered by the book -- that it feels slightly anti-Semitic, though not in any overt way (anti-Semitic because it completely ignores the Holocaust, and focuses only on other WWII events, which does feel a bit strange). "But Vonnegut was Jewish, wasn't he?" I asked. No. Apparently he was not. This whole time I thought Vonnegut was a Jewish writer who didn't write about Jewish things -- like Joseph Heller (good friend of Vonnegut) or Norman Mailer or Paul Auster or Nathaniel West. The reason I thought this: a good friend of mine, who also happens to be a fairly well-known novelist in the Jewish-American literary world, told me so!

So was Vonnegut anti-Semitic? I don't know. I don't think so, but I do find the omission of the Holocaust in Slaughterhouse to be kind of creepy. Then again, in looking back at Breakfast of Champions a few minutes ago, a picture of a flag with a swastika on it caught my eye. Above the flag, Vonnegut writes:

Dwayne certainly wasn't alone, as far as having bad chemicals inside of him was concerned. He had plenty of company throughout all history. In his own lifetime, for instance, the people in a country called Germany were so full of bad chemicals for a while that they actually built factories whose only purpose was to kill people by the millions. The people were delivered by railroad trains. When the Germans were full of bad chemicals, their flag looked like this:

Of course, on the next page Vonnegut includes a picture of today's German flag, and writes: "Here is what their flag looked like after they got well again." But the last part of this section is my favorite -- Vonnegut writes about the "cheap and durable [German] automobile" that became popular all over the world after the war (the Volkswagen Beetle). He includes a drawing of the beetle insect, and writes underneath it: "The mechanical beetle was made by Germans. The real beetle was made by the Creator of the Universe." Pretty profound, don't you think, particularly in the wake of Nazi Germany's efforts to play God . . .

Monday, April 02, 2007

Words To Live By

The Internet is a dangerous thing -- for me. And by dangerous, I mean that it is not only a wealth of useful information that will aid and abet my cutting-edge research on midrashic theory, but also a useful source of distractions, most of which are of little use. Tonight, as I struggled to finish a review of a new book on Philip Roth's later fiction, I was lured in by the promise of the Internet to educate and entertain. And before I knew it, I found myself roped into one of my favorite procrastinating pastimes: looking at online dating profiles. Really, if you've never tried it, you must do so soon. It is endlessly entertaining.

I'm fascinated with the way people go about constructing their online identities. But cultural studies aside, what typically keeps me entertained are the odd things people say. And so tonight I have begun a list, at the urging of my roommate, of all of my favorite lame things that people say. Here are three of my favorite from this evening's late-night romp in internet dating cyberspace, as well as my pithy commentaries. Oh, and tonight's words of wisdom all hail from the often-not-kosher-enough world of JDate.

1.) "I am looking for someone who is similar to or different from me."

Now here's a guy who knows what he wants and goes after it. He also sounds like a careful, critical thinker, someone who is not willing to date just anybody. He's very selective.

2.) "I like to concentrate on things I'm focused on."

Now, this is not a man I could date. We would never get along because I only concentrate on things that I don't focus on. The question to which this guy was responding, of course, was "what are your interests?" I wonder what he is focused on . . . I mean, is it Kant? Biomechanical engineering? The upcoming elections? Or is it nothing more than what he will have for dinner tonight? Oh, and this guy is, allegedly, a surgeon.

3.) "I am compatible with those I get along with."

Here, the potential dater was supposed to answer the question of what type of person he is most compatible with. And there you have it. All you need to know about dater #3.

More to come . . .