Monday, May 31, 2010

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Beyond the uniform

Went to early mass today at the Spanish-language "mission" maintained by the Catholic parish my mother belongs. It's always a pleasure to hear the mass in another language (I could even follow part of the enthusiastic young Mexican priest's schoolteacherly sermon on the Trinity - well, at least the Q&A with which he started: tres! uno!), and humbling to be at church with people some of whom are migrant laborers, living far from their families. I noticed one older man, his face burnt almost chestnut color from working outdoors, exchanging delighted smiles with a little boy... perhaps he has a grandson that age back in Mexico? Or perhaps he's never been able to have a family of his own? The boy's older sister had a long serious face which in profile looked like something from an Aztec codex. Worlds within worlds. A young woman came up and gave the church a giggly speech of thanks - she's joining a convent this coming week, thanks the congregation for its support. Already a novice, she wore a school uniform-like blue dress over long white sleeves. The music for the mass was provided by a soprano at a spinet next to the altar. She had a lovely singing voice and wore a uniform of another kind: short hair, baggy jeans, teeshirt and hoodie. We hear so much about churches being repressive and conformist, but the picture is always more complicated. If they normalize some forms of human life, they accommodate many more.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Torrey Pines State Reserve in bloom!

(Mexican pinks with sea dahlia and coastal buckwheat; yellow pincushion and sand verbena; lanceleaf dudleya; golden yarrow; monkeyflowers with black sage; canchalagua; more monkeyflowers and a Torrey pine)

Friday, May 28, 2010

Beach life

I'm back in Del Mar for a spell. A stylish snowy egret made way for me,
but this baby seal was still trying to figure out what to think.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Marvelous Macabre

Was lucky enough to get a ticket for the New York Philharmonic's "fully staged" production of György Ligeti's opera "The Grand Macabre" tonight. Although most of the Philharmonic's subscribers decided not to come, all three performances are sold out. As well they should be! The opera itself is weird but mesmerizing, the performances were stellar, and the production turned Avery Fisher Hall into an avant garde space. It felt like - well - it felt like an old European opera house taken over by insanely gifted young upstarts. Which, in a sense, is what was happening. "The Grand Macabre" was the culmination of young Alan Gilbert's first season as Music Director, and augurs well for the future. Perhaps he'll do for the New York Philharmonic what Esa-Pekka Salonen did for the Los Angeles Philharmonic: tackling the daunting classics of 20th century classical music, and in the process building a 21st century audience. (Pictures)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Forbidden constellations

One isn't supposed to take pictures inside the Metropolitan Opera, but I was in the orchestra yesterday - so far from my usual perch in the Family Circle that the air pressure even feels different - and couldn't resist. I was there for the premiere of American Ballet Theater's new ballet for the season, "Lady of the Camellias," choreographed in the 1970s to music of Chopin (piano solo and concerto) by an American in Europe, John Neumeier, in a manner both classical and contemporary. I'm not sure it entirely succeeded - some of the lifts seemed more difficult than beautiful, women were routinely dumped on the ground (or rolled over by men), and the action often upstaged the dancing - but I could get used to seeing the stars at eye level!


Animal migrations are astounding in lots of ways. But even so, the latest research on the migrations of small birds is unbelievable. Bar-tailed godwits fly 7,100 miles (11,400 km) across the Pacific without a stop to rest or feed - and in nine days. Arctic terns, meanwhile, make stops along the way, but can fly as much as 50,000 miles (80,000 km) a year. Makes us humans seem as mobile as limpets by comparison!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Lang lang ago

The second phase of our New School history project focuses on Eugene Lang College, which celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2010-11. Part of what needs to be better understood is Lang before Lang... when and how did it start? Lang may be as old as I am! We usually hear that something called the Seminar College was founded in 1973. Something else happened in 1978, I think it was a move to becoming a four-year program. But it turns out there was something much like Lang before any of this, witness this spread from the New School Bulletin in October 1966! That day-in-the-life could be from today (though Lang students today are less likely to go to the Bach organ matinees at Grace Church); the furnishings in the room at upper right are used to this day!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Summer white

Remember that tree up the street that looked so elegant after a snowstorm in December? Well, it's full of white again, part of the last flush of flowers before the greeeeeen of summer sets in.

(July: sources tell me it's a catalpa.)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Lego potsherds

Since last I checked, the Brick Testament - the LEGO Bible - has been caught up with Job. Here Job 1:2, 1:19, 1:20, 2:10, 38:1, 42:12, 42:13.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Brick testament

Went to the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea - nearly a museum, really - for their deeply moving show of late Monets, and on the way noticed a feature of my old friend, the Church of the Guardian Angel, I had managed to overlook before. (This might even be its namesake, I suppose!)

A poem by one of my colleagues

Subway Stairs
(4/10, for ML)

That curved young man strays

from what century,

which play, dragging,

his epee

behind him idly


ving, embla-

zoning my day

with quirk-

y small circles’


ing dance

up stairs,

so highly unaware

of the cosmic chance

he dares inspire

in the city, air and me,

glistening history,

compressing today

to its peculiar destiny

Friday, May 21, 2010

And the band played on

In last semester's Teaching & Learning Seminar (where the peer advisers to the first year meet to plan their workshops and discuss issues) everyone had to write an essay on some university or college tradition they thought it important that new students learn about. I was naively expecting essays on the Dramatic Workshops, the University in Exile, Hannah Arendt, the history of protests, you know - old stuff. What I got instead were things that are currently part of student life... many of which I didn't know about before.

I was reminded of one of these essays yesterday, when two of our graduating seniors told us that they would be touring with their bands this summer (H at far left, A at far right below). Bands! The Teaching & Learning essay (incidentally by the student who won the prize for best work in Interdisciplinary Science) was about the college radio station, and how if you listened to it long enough you'd realize that every Lang student is in a band. Who knew!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Congratulations graduates!

This crew produced senior works on microcosms and macrocosms in Andean religion, Tibetan Buddhist diaspora identity, Terrence McNally's gay passion play "Corpus Christi," how St. James became patron saint of Spain, a comparison of ideas of beatitude in Augustine and Spinoza, and a study of microlending (an economics major who did a minor in Religious Studies). Pretty impressive! (Religious studies hat is happy!)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Synecdoche, Uz

Some extremely interesting takes on Job as the Job course ends. Above a scene from of a comparison of Job and "Batman 2," two works M thinks concerned with human vs. supernatural justice, rewards for the patient, faithfulness against all odds. At left below are the images from W's graphic novel of Job as a "space opera." K asserts that the Book of Job isn't about why we suffer but how we should suffer. C notices that all the characters in Job express their views of God, justice and destiny through nature imagery, and concludes the Book of Job and nature act as silent partners - giving everything and confirming nothing. A complementary argument is made by L, who uses Maimonides and others to show that the Book of Job commends an active engagement with the created world; it's there that communication with God happens - earthly experience can yield transcendent wisdom. J offers a poetic (meaning Harold Bloomian) reading - God as Milton at his peak, Job and his friends as anxious English Romantic poets, Elihu as insouciant but also insubstantial Whitman, Leviathan as the pure metaphor which resists interpretation and misreading; despite our best efforts, our attempts at creating, sustaining, and mediating meaning are thwarted, are slain by our poetic ancestors in whose shadows we still dwell. L skirts Repetition to argue that Job exemplifies Kierkegaard's despair at not willing to be, arriving at the infinite resignation of the tragic hero. T argues that Job, like meditation, can interact with and reassemble our consciousness. P, building on Antonio Negri, shows Job to be a rebel whose rejection of an unjust system is not just reactive but creative, indeed the kind of superabundance of charity which can envision a better world for all - and here, not in heaven. Finally, N imagines a Theatrical Production of Job (compare with Carol Newsom's) which communicates something of the experience of our class experience. Job, restored, is trying to write his story but can't quite remember it. His wife interrupts him, and in a fit of pique he cuts her from the story he's writing. But the awareness that he is in fact recreating, and possibly fictionalizing, his experience is an epiphany. He asks his friends to help him remember, but their versions are different from his own. At this point, things go positively "Synecdoche, NY": From these collected recollections the audience starts to learn the story of the Book of Job but the characters are still not sure that they have the parts correct, they need to witness and hear the actions again themselves. Enter stage right a group of four men who look like the original group in slightly historically updated clothing. The original group of men then directs their corresponding double to a script they have written. A process of modifying the scripts happens three times which ends with a completely different result from the first that was performed. The second group of men then become angry at the first and begins arguing with their counterparts. The second group then proceeds to invite their own doubles onto the stage, again in historically updated clothing and begin to act out scripts that the doubles have given them. ... Eventually the stage is filled with several dozen men and a few women... The whole stage is in turmoil in a giant debate most of which is incomprehensible. The audience can catch wind of some of the arguments but many have nothing at all to do with the events of Job. Some shouts can be heard exclaiming familiar lines, "Do you have eyes of flesh?" or "But man dieth, and wasteth away; yea, man giveth up the ghost and where is he?" Eventually all but the original Job at his writing desk are cleared from the stage by a stage manager who recites Job 28, "True fear of the Lord is wisdom; true knowledge is avoiding sin." Elihu, an inept lighting technician, falls to the stage, speaks and keels over. The play ends as it started: a voice from every direction of the theater says: "Have no doubt, any wisdom you believe you have is not of the same nature as the wisdom which I possess." It's been an interesting journey!

Baffling new social categories

Can anyone explain to me the relation/difference between the poorgeois and the fauxhemian?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Step by step

My mathematician friend J showed me how to make this fractal paper cutting. It's the same cut (a pair of parallel cuts) repeated three times, that's all! (Less simple: as one fills in steps, one approaches the diagonal - but the diagonal is shorter than the actual length of the paper...)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Suspension of disbelief

Remember the ballet dancer's effortless rise, Kierkegaard's illustration of the "leap" of the "knight of faith"? I think I saw it tonight. Natalia Osipova, in a scene from Act II of "Giselle," at the otherwise rather unremarkable Gala opening American Ballet Theater's 7oth season.

R&T final synthesis

As you know, I have students in all my classes write final syntheses - usually not graded, and sometimes in a medium of their choice (some creative examples). Since our pedagogy is seminar-style, many of the most important moments in a class are not scripted - at least not until someone writes them into the script. But even if we were a more conventional lecture-style school, it still would be a valuable exercise. It seems the best way for students to hold on to what they've been learning and thinking - and the best way for me to find out what I'm actually teaching, or helping happen in the classroom. As a rule, I do a final synthesis, too.

Repeating Religion & Theater, after two and a half years, was a treat. A chance to revisit some wonderful and challenging texts and issues, and to recombine them and integrate new experiences (we also shed a lot). The main change was to structure the class around a series of larger themes, each an "ellipse" centered on a single play and a work in theory or history of religion, and to spend several classes on each theme. The themes and plays were explored also through questions of acting practice and interpretation: how were actors prepared to play in these works when written, and how would/could one present the works today? (Most ambitious example of this: Britten's Sumidagawa-adaptation in Curlew River.) The course remained (probably inevitably) focused on theatrical rather than religious performance, but we did send students to attend two theatrical religious services: Purim and Palm Sunday.

How did it all add up? I'm looking through the students' final syntheses, and lots of people learned lots of things. Me too. Some of the issues I shared in the last class:

Beyond Serial Monotheism
My conclusion last time 'round was that theater involves a kind of serial monotheism - a quality of commitment to a particular production which religions would envy, but after one performance the commitment moves to the next one. Now I think I missed the wood for the trees. The life of the person in the theater as a whole, moving from play to play, has an integrity to it, a discipline and practice of emptying of self to characters and fellow performers, etc., which is deepened over time (or can be). On the other hand, a commitment to a particular religion isn't (or needn't be) monotonous, whether in the cycle of holidays or rites of passage, assisting powers like saints and bodhisattvas, or the journey of a soul. There's much religion and theater have to teach each other.

It's worth really thinking through what it means that belief is performed (Lopez), and that performance strives to be believable (or, as Erik Ehn put it, invites belief). This might change your understanding of all your convictions and commitments, performances and practices in a salutary way. (And while you're at it ponder what's promised by the phrase "faithful interpretation." Traditions, religion as well as others, live on only because they are reperformed, (re)interpreted... a new interpretation can be more "faithful" than an old one.)

Repetition (a broader term than ritual) seems the daily bread of religion as well as theater (both rehearsal and performance). But does repetition deepen or flatten things, clarify or routinize? Are there bad and good forms of repetition (as we saw in Sotoba Komachi or Godot)? Is only the repeated real (Eliade), or does only the repeated let us appreciate, by a kind of contrast, the evanescent truly real?

The In-Between
The scenes you chose for final performances largely took place in some limbo after death, whether purgatory, hell, or judgment; other plays we looked at, from Bacchae through Noh and Faustus to Godot, are similarly in an in-between. Is there an affinity between the stage and what Soyinka described in "The Fourth Stage" - the transition between lives which keeps the cycle of death and birth going - and religious ritual? Does the artificiality of it, however hyperreal it also can (therefore) be, make it a wishful fantasy of transcending our mortality, or do we participate (at least anticipatorily) in actual transcendence? (Is this why actors are sometimes described as priests or shamans?) But is it a presentiment of transubstantiation (Calderon) or just a retablo de las maravillas (Cervantes)?

The Shape of History
The story told by secularization theory turns out to be true only of a small part of the world (Berger) - but this is the part on which we tend to base our understandings of theater and its history. As artists and thinkers, you have a choice whether to promote secularization (because it's not going to happen by itself) or to explore the persistent but hard-to-conceptualize enchantment of the world.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Emocratic party

So you don't think I just gorge myself on high culture: I went today to the Public to see a fantastic emo rock musical called "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" (written and directed by Alex Timbers of Les Frères Corbusier; music and lyrics by Michael Friedman). It's hard to describe, except as a ribald romp, deliciously entertaining, perfectly performed, thought provoking and - rarest thing among contemporary musicals -
hummable. Great songs! ("Second Nature" made me cry.) And, well, as art. It does something, makes something important available for experience and reflection, which I'm not sure you could do in any other form (certainly not as argument). Something about America's youth, and about an enduring youthful exuberance and anxiety in the American character, about populism, pop music and presidents (it was first conceived with Bush in mind, but has since picked up resonances from Huckabee and Edwards through Obama to Palin and Beck). The run's been extended: catch it if you can.


To fête our five departing Religious Studies seniors, we had a hat party.
To mark the auspicious occasion I made a papier mâché headdress
(my first papier mâché since a Kant piñata in grad school).

Mama Lola
Hume - Schleiermacher - Hamann
Eliade - Marx - Douglas - Freud - James - Durkheim
Add 1 graduate = Religious Studies 11-faced Kannon (十一面観音)

The surface is made of cuttings from the IDEA forms we love to hate, here finally put to true pedagogical use. Start inside, as "More false than true" and "More true than false" jostle with "Improper marks," then make your way up through the Scantron bubbles' chaos of uniformity and the region of words (all gerundive phrases) before arriving at the enlightenment of wordless bubble-less illumination.

In the right company, the Religious Studies hat (modeled here by a Religious Studies minor) can lead to spirited repartee.