Friday, July 23, 2010


It’s an unfashionable thing to say, but the world is a fairly predictable place most of the time. In similar situations, similar things happen. There’s only so many ways people will behave. That said, there are times when that predictability takes own its own strange scope and mystery.

In April, or June, a plane went down in Poland, taking with it an extraordinary chunk of the country’s national leadership. The dignitaries, strangely enough, were on their way to a memorial service for the Katyn Massacre, in which almost 22,000 Polish politicians, doctors, lawyers and intelligensia were killed by the Soviet internal security services. I don’t have to spell the parallels out, do I? But the most extraordinary thing, the thing about Poland that always caused some part of my brain grind to an astonished halt, was that this was a country presided over by twins. One was current president, the other Poland’s previous prime minister. It was a mythic set-up made real, perhaps by Poland’s inimitable history.

The plane crash, which mirrored so perfectly the very memorial they were on their way to attend, felt like fate. This is not a word I like, but what others do we have? How do we talk about this kind of thing? It is the sort of news that leaves me feeling supersititious. It was as though, for an instant, some arcane universal machinery had creaked into action. Its purpose – to redress circumstances too ridiculous, or too extraordinary to be allowed to last. Only an event of equal absurdity could reset the balance.

Later, a completely unrelated thing happened in the mediterranean. Isreali security forces stormed a group of aid vessels attempting to defy the Gaza Blockade. Whereas the Polish aircrash has something of the ineffable about it, this event had a logical ugliness to it – nine people were killed in the latest piece of violence to erupt in an area proverbial for it.

I think my point is that two very different kinds of predictability were at work. One, the aircrash, has a sort of mythic fatalism about it. The other, Israel’s most recent piece of criminal activity, seemed simply inevitable. I found myself enjoying both guiltily – the former because it suggested the world may yet act in ways too strange to fully explain; the latter because it seems to push us ever closer to a watershed moment in the Middle East, when Israel’s claim to self-defense would finally fall flat.

I don’t know how to finish this, because the process is unfinished itself. I am waiting, I suppose, for something to happen. Something bigger that, once and for all, exposes things for what they are. Heidegger would talk about lanterns in the darkness, someone like Swedenborg would speak of veils moving briefly aside. I don't know.

I really don't.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Wilkommen bei uns

Ladies and gentlemen, please redirect your attention to Professional Aesthete dot com


Monday, June 14, 2010

Gordon, my friend


I don't claim to know Gordon Brown personally. I've never been to his house. I've certainly never sat down and eaten a meal with the man. I don't know what Gordon Brown's hair smells like, or how he holds a fork. At no time was I on holiday with Gordon Brown, or his family. Neither of us were in Tuscany at the time ... or any other time.

I have never met Gordon Brown.

That said, I would be lying if I claimed not to know his ruff of hair, his ruddy, slightly slacken face. I have a vague grasp on his political pedigree: Gordon Brown, rough diamond, a kind of Obama for the Home Counties, beaming up the left wing. There was a lot of excitement around him, as there was Tony Blair. Though I never heard anyone call Blair a 'saviour'.

Gordon has goen now. I know we were supposed to trust his terrierish ruffle of hair, his calm face. The solid will. But I never could. That is my confession. At a distance, he seemed paper thin. A lost cause. Not so much insincere, as impossibly transparent. To me it was a miracle that he held himself together at all and did not explode under the compression of constant scrutiny.*

["the thing I am now imagining is like a human airship, inflated, aloft from the pressure of the atmosphere around it - a social Jupiter"]

I hope he's happier now.


*this is a defensive take on Borges's poem 'Music Box', in which 'shyness of melancholy ' is invoked as a successful containment of desperation at the arrival and passing of time.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Borges at night


Penguin is publishing five (!) new Borges books this year. While three promise great things at a later date, collecting classic and unpublished essays on Argentina, Writing and Mysticism, the first two are already out, collecting his sonnets and his poems about night and darkness. For Borges, growing up with the knowledge that, like his father, he would eventually go blind, darkness is both threatening and perversely comforting – eventually the day will become the night, and all things will end.

Harpers published "Sonnet for a tango in the twilight" here (subscribers only, unless your eyesight can overcome low-res thumbnails), but the publishers released another sonnet, "Music Box", as a teaser.
Music of Japan. Drops of slow honey

Or of invisible gold are dispersed

In a miserly way from a water clock,

And repeat in time a weaving that is

Eternal, fragile, mysterious, and clear.

I fear that each one may be the last.

It's a past coming back. From what temple,

From what fresh garden in the mountain,
From what vigil before an unknown sea,
From what shyness of melancholy,

From what lost and ransomed afternoon
Does its remote future come to me?
I cannot know. No matter. I am
In that music. I want to be. I bleed.
No such teasers are available for Poems of the Night, but the book's pitch informs me that the translators include W.S. Merwin, Alan Trueblood, Christopher Maurer, and my personal favourite, Alastair Reid. Both poetry books are dual-language, with parallel text – helpful if someone gives you "horrifying" for "atroz", and you just know that "atrocious" would scan better. Having different translators offers mixed blessings – the reader is exposed to a range of quality English-to-Spanish scholarship, but the potential to compare poems translated by a range of individuals is limited. Atroz.

I picked up on the theme of night and day – or specifically, dawn and twilight – in last year's thesis, though in favour of proving a point, I focussed primarily on his earlier poems. I'm very interested in the contents of Poems of the Night, but in the meantime, here's something of an extract from the thesis, examining the tension between night and day, as mediated by the streets of Buenos Aires. The image of Borges the flâneur, writing the streets he would soon no longer be able to see, percolates through the early poems, particularly those in the collection Fervor de Buenos Aires:

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hair, over there

My daughter is one, and currently involved in an undergraduate psychology experiment run by the University of Otago's Psychology Department. Ignoring the implication of the department's location inside the gaping, embarrassingly puddle-ridden Commerce Building, we trundle up the 7th floor, where she sits in front of screens and is shown faces of various races. The experiment, I was told by a young, slightly orange-faced young woman whose perfume reminded me of a cheap bar, was designed to investigate the details children used to differentiate between people of different races. My daughter was good at distinguishing people of roughly Nordic heritage. She struggled a little with Pacific Islanders, and, to cement a cliche as old as rice paper itself, was utterly lost when confronted with a range of Asian and Middle-eastern faces. Thankfully, it only took a few visits to get considerably better at discerning less familiar face types. My brazenly Aryan daughter had redeemed herself.

It turns out that the pattern recognition systems employed by our brains kick in early, lurching about, searching for a reliable range of details to distinguish one person from another. European children go for hair, noses, mouths. Asian kids are much better at eyes. And so on. The process is generic - it's not as though Korean kids are hardwired to recognise eyes - they're hardwired to find something to define one face from another, and it turns out, eyes are the thing. Hair in Asia, broadly speaking, just isn't varied enough to cut the mustard identity-wise. As a result, Asians' distinctions, when based on hair, are made in fairly broad strokes. Which solves, for me, an enduring mystery.

Consider the following:

I have no idea what these guys won, or who won, or even who they are, but there's some pretty funked-out, ka-ni, architectural hair going on right there - as there often is when young Japanese guys appear in front of a camera.

And now we know why - conditioned from birth to largely ignore hair as a definitive personal characteristic, these guys have to try about 3 or 4 times harder than you or me, to make a mark with their 'do. They're pushing against a crushing weight of cognitive selection, just to be noticed. Hence, what seems like a touching homage to My Little Pony (viz, the dude to the right of the MC) is really a restrained and debonair quiff that practically pays for itself after only two-and-a-half hours in make-up, and enough hairspray to fossilize a small penguin colony.

Or am I just being crazy, and the guys on American Idol look just as frou-frou?

Friday, May 28, 2010


I grew up with a father ensconced, to varying degrees according to the whims of the Otago Law Society, in the legal profession. Lawyers, I take great pleasure in noting, charge not by the hour, but determinedly by the six-minute unit, meaning that a dozen short phone calls from a drunk fifteen-year-old in the police cells asking for advice over a 30-minute period could equal roughly an hour and a quarter of billable hours. (Few professions can bend time like this, or altogether deny its existence right up until the moment they sent the bill.)

Basketball, then, was a pretty sweet deal. Forty-eight minutes, no injury time, limited time-outs: it kept to the family schedule, didn't run over time (the 1993 NBA Finals Game Three was a notable and extremely tense exception), didn't ever finish before the final whistle, and legitimised baggy clothing with readily apparent logos and brands. Important, in 1993.

It's probably unfair to assume that it was solely a unit-driven upbringing that predisposed me to enjoy basketball – the spectatorship of which lives and dies based on a delightful formula whose end-product is a 24-second possession – and the appeal of that knock-off Chicago Bulls Starter singlet wore off pretty quickly. That formula, though. Try reverse-engineering the thing, imagining Commish David Stern's 1954 equivalent in your ear: "Fans want a hundred points per game from their team, and we've only got 48 minutes to give it to them. Twenty-five points in 360 seconds per team per quarter, divided by the average points per team possession (crunch the FG, FT and 3PT percentages, carry the one)…" It's a thing of beauty; it's finding a capital-'P' Proof based on first principles.

I'm now in a country where NBA games are free-to-air and live, and while Eastern Conference games can't be found for love or money, the battle for the West continues every two or three days. Or it would, if live coverage of the Socceroos' gripping press conferences wouldn't keep obscuring TNT's pre-game comment-off. Not that I'm missing much from Charles Barkley, whose co-hosts have to help him along every misstep of the way. Kobe gets in on the act, too – where players without shoes named after them have the humility to ask the Round Mound how to get the step on defensive boards, Bryant just offers a shit-eating grin and asks how many donuts CB34 got through in his career. Former Indiana Pacers swingman Reggie Miller can't quite make up for it, commenting just as he used to play, by keeping his head down and sniping in from left-of-screen when everyone else is tired.

The Mound is all kinds of interesting, but I want to hear Toni Kukoc telling us just why Goran Dragic thinks he can drive to the hoop again. I want to hear Clyde Drexler analyse Steve Nash's scoop layups, hear Spud Webb explain why Shannon Brown didn't quite manage to jump over Jason Richardson in Game One, hear John Starks belittle Derek Fisher. I want to hear Karl Malone laugh.

Though, maybe he could look at Pau Gasol's gameface.

With the series tied up 2-2, today's game was always going to be a barometer, a test to see whether Bryant and Gasol could push back against the Suns and their scarily efficient bench. Whether I'd  be able to discuss the Finals with Wilburforce the Fucking Pro Wrestler without knowing – knowing – that my Eastern Conference underdogs, whoever they turn out to be, would effectively be swept by the guys in imperial purple and gold. Whether Los Suns could pull off an emphatic triple construction.

After losing two straight, Kobe was angry – in the pre-game interview, he almost threw his microphone out of the pram. The first scoring play saw Steve Nash milk an all-too-cheeky foul from Derek Fisher and hit two free throws. Robin Lopez's afro was ridiculously buoyant throughout, but it failed as a measure of the Suns' success. At the worst, the Lakers led by 18, and even a late run and an eventual 3 to tie everything up at 101 apiece couldn't do more than give Kobe another chance to take a game-winning shot in the final 3.5 seconds. Or, as the case may be, airball it straight into the hands of Ron Artest, who only had to appear to take the shot or be fouled. Back to Phoenix for Game Six.

Welcome to the Space Jam

Oh God. I can't get enough of this (pdf), Michal Brody's paper on the startling similarities between the 1996 MJ-and-Bugs vehicle Space Jam and the Mayan creation myth Popul Vuh.
Consciously or unconsciously, the film's writers have developed a narrative in which a pair of heroes (Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan) 1) are summoned to play a high-stakes underworld ball-game against a variety of frightening villains, 2) manage to defeat those villains through the heroes' summoning of extra-human ability, and 3) ascend from the underworld with a glowing orb, all of which occur in the Popol Vuh. While the details vary (in the Popol Vuh, the heroes intend to retrieve the head of their father, Hunahpu; whereas in Space Jam, the villains have stolen the talent of NBA stars such as Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing), the congruence is remarkable. Brody also shows that the well-known phonetic irregularities of, e.g., Daffy Duck and Sylvester are quite analogous to those of ancestral characters in a variety of native cosmologies.
Hero twins. Also, Bill Murray.
In addition, the Looney Tunes are not bound by the physical laws of the known world and are capable of recovering almost instantly from injuries that would more than kill any one of us. Those characteristics are shared as well by the Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh. Like the Tune Squad, their adventure in defeating the lords of the under-world is filled with treachery, faith, and the symbolic power of the sphere. Thus, we’ve seen that a venerated and classic story with grand- scale cultural importance has significant thematic parallels with a trifling and inconsequential Hollywood bauble intended principally for viewing by children.  
There's a digital version of the Popul Vuh (Wuj?) here, if anyone would like to take this further, compare-and-contrast styles. Alternative option: compare Who Framed Roger Rabbit with the inevitable apotheosis of the monomyth's Universal Hero.

Monday, May 24, 2010


I watched this without really knowing what I was getting into.

The first question that occurred to me was: 'Did they actually hire a stadium for this?' Then I wondered exactly who Wayne Rooney was. Then I just let go, and sat, utterly speechless, at the scale of this advertisement's ambition. Seriously, how much narrative can be compressed into 3 minutes? Someone is going to laugh at me, but it reminds me of Fellini, the way he will scarcely show you something, trusting that even a glimpse of the right image at the right moment will do the work it needs to. There's something hypnagogic here, something mythic maybe.

I am a huge fan of the art form known as the preview, which is closely related to the music video. This ad has all the best elements of both, honed down to a glinting, razor edge. I suspect should be more horrified by this piece of cinema, but I'm not. I love the economy of it (a funny word to use, but it is perversely a very parsimonious piece of work), the efficiency, the direct-to-your-cerebral-cortex potency of it. It was directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, of Amorres Perros and Babel fame, but it's almost impossible to find out how much it cost. This would be my only real complaint right now.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Needs no further comment

Aside from the all-too-obvious note that he's a singular Elvis.

I'd pay to see Elvi (and his stage show) at any one of Balmain's iconic local pubs, should the aging Melburnian Jemaine-alike take this thing on the road. There's one around every corner, according to the real estate shills, and there are certainly enough skintight bike suits and dayglo tape repositories to sustain a nightly show. Amaaazing. Can we get some more blacklight up in here?


It is the curse of media culture that the brutal, banal or tedious must often stand in as emblems of larger issues. One thing stands for another. Many events are similar in shape, ultimately. I’m thinking of McCarthy barking across the floor in the hearings that bore his name, and the echo that rang out over America. I’m thinking of the fungal silhouette that loomed over the lives of anyone born before 1991. I’m thinking of Britney Spears’ garish divorce playing out like the murmur of a hotwater heater in the bathrooms of our souls. She has less currency than she once did, and there are dozens vying to replace her, but she remains a byword for that breed of hapless, tasteless ambition that thrives in the afterglow of America’s time in the sun. No less than a mushroom cloud.