The Molten Notebook

Mostly Asian classics, most of the time

Art from the Internment Camps, or Enduring the Unbearable

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For Japanese-Americans who were forced into relocation camps during World War II, everything from peach pits to bottle caps became the stuff of art.

They found animal traps in the brush and melted them down to make knives. A length of sewer pipe, etched with plum blossoms and small birds, became a vase. Shells from prehistoric seabeds were brushed off, bleached, and meticulously pieced together to form roses, lilacs, and even Mickey Mouse.

These pieces appear in the exhibit The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946, which runs through January 30 at the Renwick Gallery in Washington. Read the rest of this entry »

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July 23, 2010 at 7:02 pm

The Sad Tale of the Battle of the Crater

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Scene from the Battle of the Crater (Alfred R. Waud)

The other day, I asked the Muscle how the Battle of the Crater got its name. Ever since he took the Open Yale Course on the Civil War,* he’s been reading every book on the syllabus, so I figured he would know.

His answer: A bunch of Union soldiers dug a tunnel under a fort in Virginia and blew it up, hence the crater. They weren’t sure what to do next, so they filed into the hole — where they were summarily shot like fish in a barrel.

The Muscle always makes up crazy stories when he thinks I don’t really want to know the answer.

“Come on, what happened?” I asked.

The general was drunk and thought aliens were attacking with laser-blasters that would form massive craters.

“Seriously.”

All the soldiers were reading a best-selling novel that had just come out the week before, Union and Confederates alike. They wouldn’t fight until they’d all reached the last page. The novel was called The Crater.

I gave up and looked it up on Google. To my surprise, he had told the truth the first time. The Battle of the Crater may not be a one-name conflict like Gettysburg or Antietam, but there’s something darkly compelling about its story.

It reads like the synopsis of a good novel: the suspense of mines and countermines, the battle tactics and race politics, and the sudden plunge from triumph to tragedy with a drunken general at the helm. Read the rest of this entry »

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July 21, 2010 at 10:18 am

Posted in America

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Muybridge: Shooting a Moving Target

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Back in the 1870s, Eadweard Muybridge set the stage for cinema by shooting photos of moving targets, such as horses, gymnasts, and nudes serving tea.

From "Animal Locomotion," by Eadweard Muybridge

This was quite a feat, given the cumbersome process of photography in those days. (Think glass negatives and chemical baths.) Muybridge had to trick out cameras that could take a number of photos in succession and create a device that could flash them in front of the viewer’s eye.  For this, he invented the zoopraxiscope, which you can see in all its steampunk splendor at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. The exhibit “Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change” runs through Sunday.

I expected Muybridge to be little more than a historical blip on the path to movies as we know them. The exhibit gives us a fuller picture of the man who scaled the peaks of Yosemite with thirty pounds of equipment and later became one of the first to photograph the native peoples of Alaska. His seventeen-foot panorama of San Francisco is one of the better documents of the city before the great earthquake of 1906. Working mostly by government commission, he was well-known long before a railroad baron named Leland Stanford asked him to photograph his horse in motion. (Legend has it that Stanford wanted to settle a bet as to whether a horse lifts all four legs off the ground while running.) Read the rest of this entry »

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July 15, 2010 at 6:26 pm

The Artist in American Society, the Formative Years

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Self Portrait of Benjamin West, ca. 1763

The Artist in American Society, the Formative Years: 1790-1960 by Neil Harris. (Goerge Braziller, 1966)

The colonial painter wasn’t so much an artist as an artisan. He painted signs, crockery, fire buckets, and anything else he could to make a living.

If he were particularly ambitious, he might farm himself out to small towns like Albany, NY, and offer to paint portraits for a reasonable fee, or send panoramas on tour with sideshow-type acts. If he succeeded in the minor leagues, he might try his hand in a big Eastern city like Boston, Philadelphia, or New York.

After the Revolutionary War, painting was impressed into the service of patriotism. The trouble with painting history in America was that scenes of speechifying or signing documents were not terribly exciting. Thrilling moments were often violent ones — certainly not the tension-in-repose of the Classical ideal.

Landscapes, it seems, became more prevalent during the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath as alternatives to the mechanized world. Interestingly enough, scenes of the cities where artists lived and worked were not painted until after the Civil War.

The Classical Ideal pursued through Romantic detail, the general revealed by the specific — history in the 18th century and nature in the 19th — this became the goal of the New World artist (15) Read the rest of this entry »

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September 30, 2009 at 1:53 pm

A Stiff Upper Lip, Without a Mustache

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magruder

Mary Kingsley (1862-1900)

The “lady traveler” was something of a Victorian phenomenon.  She shooed hippopotami with her parasol and bicycled across India in bloomers. A painter, collector, or just a wanderer, she cherished her tea after a camel ride. (Isabella Bird drank it from a beef tin with a one-eyed outlaw named Mountain Jim.)

Back home, if she were particularly famous, readers met her ship at the dock and crowded the lecture halls.

During the 40-odd years before the outbreak of the first World War, such genteel globetrotting reached almost epidemic proportions.

writes David Cannadine in The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy.

You might expect these women to be the grandmothers of today’s bestsellers like Eat, Pray, Love and Under the Tuscan Sun, in which middle-aged women find renewal and self-fulfillment in foreign lands. Read the rest of this entry »

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September 17, 2009 at 11:58 pm

Ten Things to Know about the Mahabharata: #3

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Avatars_of_Vishnu

Singapore. Statue of Krishna as Vishnu in his divine form.

#3. The problem of violence and responsibility. To regain their kingdom, the Pandava brothers go to war.

At the close of the 18-day battle, the dead include their sons, cousins, guru, and a brother they never knew they had. Some didn’t even die a clean death. They were distracted by imitations of their son’s voices, shot while trying to free a chariot from the mud.

How does a reader come to terms with the carnage of the Kurukshetra War? Even the heroes have their doubts.

Overwhelmed by the prospect of killing his relatives, Arjuna lost the will to fight. He dropped his bow and turned to his chariot driver. “How can we be happy after killing our kinsmen, O Krishna?” In fighting for his country, he would lose the very people for whom he wanted to win it.

Little does he know that his chariot driver is an incarnation of the god Vishnu. The divine Krishna responds with a meditation on faith, right action, and the eternal soul.

Do your duty to the best of your ability, O Arjuna, with your mind attached to the Lord, abandoning worry and attachment to the results, and remaining calm in both success and failure.

His speech is known as the Bhagavad Gita, or Song of God, and is readily available as a book as in its own right. The 700-verse treatise, possibly a later addition to the Mahabharata, is a seminal work of Hindu philosophy. Along with the Vishnu Sahasranamam, a prayer spoken by a dying warrior, it forms the religious core of the epic.

The Mahabharata helps the reader see the cosmic forces at work on the battlefield. Dying there is the result of a series of actions in a man’s life, or a previous one. Some enemies were actually demons in human form that the gods wanted killed. Warriors are merely instruments of fate.

On a cosmic level, it all makes sense. Yet as the wives of the dead search the battlefield, the suffering doesn’t seem any less real.

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September 7, 2009 at 8:30 pm

Ten Things to Know about the Mahabharata: #4

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Karna

Javanese shadow puppet of Karna, a character in the Mahabharata

4. Caste counts. Caste has a long, complex, and politically fraught history in India. This post merely outlines a few basics that are relevant to a reading of the Mahabharata.

Humans in the epic are born into a caste that determines their status and lifestyle. Caste resembles but is not quite the same as a social or feudal class. It determines the the jobs a character may hold, whom they may marry, and their duty toward members of other castes, among other things.

The castes you’ll encounter in the epic are mainly the kshatriya, who tend to be warrior and rulers, and the priestly brahmins.

A man of the kshatriya caste studies the art of weapons and statescraft; he’s likely to become a warrior or a ruler. His duties often include ruling justly, defending his kingdom, treating holy men with respect, and keeping his word. Many of the main characters, including the Pandava brothers and their cousins, belong to this caste.

A man of the priestly brahmin class studies the Vedas, or Sanskrit scriptures, from childhood, and officiates at religious rites. They lead ascetic lives of near-poverty and often live on donations of food. A notable brahmin in the epic is Vyasa, the sage who transcribes the Mahabharata as the god Ganesh tells it and appears as a character in the story.

Assumptions about caste are so strong that the warrior princes can disguise themselves by behaving like members of other castes. When they need to hide from spies, the warrior brothers dress as brahmins and beg for alms. This ploy succeeds until they hear of a demon who has been forcing villagers to sacrifice one of their youths for his supper. One brother, Bhima, is so outraged that he kills the demon, an act that unfortunately “outs” him as warrior. The brothers later conceal themselves by taking unusual jobs for warriors in a palace: a cook, an animal keeper, a lady-in-waiting, and so on. When the local prince goes to battle, though, the “lady-in-waiting” can’t help but take the field.

One can hardly identify a single attitude toward caste in the enormous, episodic work. It does, however, raise recurring questions.  What happens when a man’s skills and aspirations appear to conflict with his birth? Drona, the heroes’ weapons instructor, also happens to be a brahmin; Vishwamitra, a kshatriya king, becomes a respected sage. Read the rest of this entry »

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September 7, 2009 at 5:06 pm

Quick Hit: Never Let Me Go (2003)

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ishiguroNovelist Kazuo Ishiguro captures the self-deception of men who grapple with personal responsibility amidst forces beyond their control. The perfect English butler in The Remains of the Day learns that his lord sympathizes with the Nazis. A Japanese propaganda painter fears that his wartime sympathies have damaging consequences in An Artist of the Floating World.

It would seem that his Never Let Me Go is in the same vein of blinkered, subtle narration. A trio of students at an exclusive school in the English countryside turn out to be clones. Their mundane, teenage interactions are set against a backdrop of muffled angst that, despite their love, their poetry and their sense of having souls, they exist only to donate their organs for medical purposes.

The book won a smattering of awards in 2003 and made Time Magazine‘s list of best novels. A film version starring Keira Knightley is in the works. Yet to me, it read as though a literary author who didn’t read much science fiction suddenly discovered cloning. The delicacy and restraint of the writing, which intensified the submerged emotion of the British and Japanese narrators in previous novels, only served to obscure a rather predictable and well-trodden story with paper-doll characters. (The Guardian makes much the same point in one of its irresistable “digested reads.”) High themes and an accomplished novelist do not a great novel make.

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September 2, 2009 at 12:21 am

Posted in England

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Solaris (1972)

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solarisSolaris is, on the one hand, quite strange. On the other, it’s not strange enough.

The 1972 Soviet film by Andrei Tarkovsky follows a psychologist named Kris Kelvin to the planet of Solaris, which is covered by a vast, intelligent ocean. It’s this intelligence that responded when scientists blasted it with radioactive waves some years earlier. Solaris tapped into the dreams of scientists as they slept and sent them “visitors” that embodied their deepest desire. (No, it’s not that kind of movie.) For Kelvin, it’s his wife Hari, who had committed suicide ten years earlier when he left her. This is not a resurrection, but a creature of neutrinos that looks, feels, and loves just as Kelvin remembers. This time, Kelvin loves back.

But for the pseudo-wife, the problems have only begun. Her feelings for Kelvin may be real, but she is not a “real” human, and her existence keeps Kelvin tied to Solaris. As Hari spirals into depression and guilt, Kelvin faces the prospect of losing his wife yetagain.

Meanwhile, he and the other scientists must decide how to respond to the planet that has sent these indestructible visitors. Deliver a final, mortal blast of radiation? Give up and return to Earth? Or a new, third option: send the brain waves of Kelvin to the ocean and see what happens?
Read the rest of this entry »

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September 1, 2009 at 11:48 am

Democracy in America: A First Look

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I’m experimenting with quick, mid-reading posts.

de tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859)

Alexis de Tocqueville was just 26 when he and a coworker visited America to study its prison system. His quest, as it turns out, was far broader: to understand democracy in America as a case study for what he expected to happen in France and beyond.

What surprises me most about Democracy in America is its charm. Like Montaigne or Plutarch, Tocqueville wears his erudition and incisive power lightly, without dryness or pedantry.

He’s a man of faith who claims to see God’s hand in the workings of history, and democracy as a sort of manifestation of God. This idealism doesn’t get in the way of keen observation. Like Thucydides, Tocqueville assures us that his information comes “informed men” as well as primary sources, although he declines to say who.

Here the reader must necessarily rely upon my word. I could frequently have cited names which either are known to him or deserve to be so in support of my assertions; but I have carefully abstained from this practice. A stranger frequently hears important truths at the fireside, which the latter would perhaps conceal from the ear of friendship.

Such a gentleman!  And if he contradicts himself, then let him contradict himself. He asks us to judge his work on its cumulative effect rather than isolated arguments. His free-flowing generalizations — and it’s almost all abstract generalization — are eminently quotable, plausible, and prophetic. Read the rest of this entry »

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August 20, 2009 at 9:14 pm