la vida / instrucciones

En una carpa leímos con María Clara un buen trozo de La Vie mode d’emploi hace 23 años. Estábamos recorriendo buena parte de Estados Unidos – desde Madison hasta San Francisco – en un carro no muy robusto, con medios limitados, acampando o quedándonos donde amigos – y evitando en la medida de lo posible las Interstate – yendo por puras carreteras pequeñas. El regreso no pudo ser así porque el carro se varó gravemente en Santa Cruz, California – y casi fue necesario dejarlo botado – finalmente pudimos devolvernos pero ya menos tranquilos.

perec

La vida / Instrucciones es una novela de Perec que sigue más o menos el corte de la carátula: va contando un montón de historias encasilladas de habitantes de un inmueble parisino. Sus miserias, sus sueños, sus exabruptos, sus engaños, sus dolencias, sus fiestas, sus sudores, sus ecos, sus humores, sus fracasos.

Pensé mucho en esta carátula por un proyecto que estamos haciendo ahora como parte del Proyecto Topoi, para una galería/café en Kingston, Nueva York. El trabajo para Kingston aún no ha salido (es en agosto), de modo que hasta ahora estamos haciendo material, pero puedo adelantar que serán cuatro videos en cuatro pantallas, hechos por los cuatro “topoistas” (Wanda Siedlecka, Roman Kossak, María Clara Cortés y yo), que explorarán de alguna manera la idea de “cámara de vigilancia” – de esas innumerables cámaras que están ahora por todas partes. Nuestro proyecto será algo relacionado con eso.

Ese “corte” de Perec del edificio inspira por lo menos mi cuarta parte del proyecto. No digo más (por ahora).

casi no logro llegar al punto maravilloso

de la novela de David Mitchell The Bone Clocks… Hubiera sido una pérdida no lograrlo. Por lo general me pasa que si arranco bien sigo con los libros y no me desanimo en la mitad (a menos que sean obras como Ulises de Joyce o À la recherche du temps perdu – donde la lectura parece entrelazarse tanto con lo que estoy viviendo que apenas hay un cambio fuerte (un viaje, o un inicio de nuevo proyecto, o simplemente un cambio de estado de ánimo global) puede pasar que las abandone por tiempos largos).

Con la novela de Mitchell me pasó algo extraño: empecé a leerla con mucho ánimo, con la historia de Holly Sykes, una joven británica más o menos de mi edad, viviendo su adolescencia en los años 80 – como me tocó a mí – aunque de manera mucho más accidentada a ella. Pero luego empezaron dos capítulos largos donde el eterno tema británico de las clases sociales se vuelve demasiado central: los acentos, la agresividad pasiva brutal de la gente de Oxbridge, el margen en que está la gente irremediablemente por su acento [así ganen buen dinero, jamás los dejan cruzar ciertos umbrales, cosa extraña para los que vivimos en este continente donde mal que bien la pertenencia social se puede comprar] o su lugar de nacimiento.

Un porcentaje brutal de obras británicas (sobre todo inglesas) de muchos siglos, de muchas épocas, gira en torno al problema de las clases sociales. Todo Jane Austen, parte de Charlotte Brontë, incluso buena parte de Chaucer y Shakespeare [aunque en esos casos con otro tipo de tensiones], luego todo Dickens y Wilde, Shaw y Wolfe, Orwell y Amis – los dos Amis y Byatt, e incluso en la literatura juvenil Rowling – todo es abrumadoramente, ensordecedoramente, bloody brutally, sobre clases sociales. Sobre quién asciende y sobre todo sobre cómo trancan a los que ingenuamente creen que pueden ascender. Nunca he estado en un país donde ese tema sea tan asfixiante (y vivo en una parte del mundo abrumada por la desigualdad pero el tema británico es cualitativamente distinto – allá saltar de clase es sencillamente inherentemente imposible, aún sí se tiene dinero [y tener mucho dinero puede ser un liability fuerte, allá no se puede como en Norteamérica y aún en Suramérica cambiar de clase ganando plata por el medio que sea]).

La parte central del libro de Mitchell tiene demasiado resentimiento causado por ese tema, demasiada fijación con los premios literarios – hay algo demasiado aburrido ahí.

De pronto es porque a Mitchell se le da bien escribir sobre el pasado (como en The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, un libro maravilloso en el Japón del siglo XVIII) o sobre el futuro (como en partes de Cloud Atlas) … pero de pronto cuando describe el presente (la Cartagena del Hay Festival, seguramente bien descrita pero para nada interesante, la Shanghai contemporánea) es demasiado plano. Eso, mezclado con los tonos e inflexiones de las clases sociales, me tenía a punto de botar por la borda un libro después de haber leído 300 páginas.

Pero luego llega el futuro. Javier me advirtió que de pronto no me gustaría esa parte. Es dura. Pero de nuevo está el Mitchell supremamente inventivo, irónico, maravilloso. Reaparece de manera más interesante la joven coetánea mía ya en su edad madura y luego en su vejez, Holly Sykes, pero también la trama se torna más sorprendente y vertiginosa. Y Mitchell de verdad arma un mundo posible que hay que leer. Con referencias maravillosas al pasado (al crecer como niña de siervos en un condado remoto de la Rusia imperial hacia 1820, el horror de esa vida, y las peripecias de una niña que por razones de la novela sabe que está atrapada en un cuerpo femenino en el momento equivocado para salir al mundo), la reaparición del maravilloso Marinus de The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, pero en 2025 y 2043. Y también la acumulación de errores de los seres humanos y el colapso brutal de parte de la civilización a mediados de nuestro siglo. La manera como lo escribe Mitchell es plausible, aunque horrífica.

Al final no pude soltar el libro – me tocó leer las últimas 200 páginas de una, sin parar, y como ante una verdadera revelación de la inteligencia de un escritor para vislumbrar e iluminar un futuro posible (brutal y no muy lejano en el tiempo).

Mitchell parece ser muy sensible a la evolución actual de Irlanda y de Europa. Sabe, por ejemplo, que la etapa de relativa laicidad y de relativa igualdad de condiciones para las mujeres, pueden ser muy vulnerables en caso de crisis seria, en caso de colapso de nuestro mundo como lo conocemos – aún en regiones del mundo hasta ahora orgullosas de sus posiciones de avanzada. Un personaje muy asustador es una candidata católica irlandesa a la alcaldía de un pueblo perdido – una candidata de “The Lord’s Party”. Su retórica manipulativa, sus amenazas veladas o no tan veladas a quienes se niegan respetuosamente a hacer parte de “the flock” hace temer un retorno a Europa (o a lugares como nuestra Bogotá que ha ido logrando avances sociales importantes) del oscurantismo religioso más perverso. Leer a Mitchell es un ejercicio de pensar el presente a través del pasado, el presente a través del futuro, el futuro a través del presente y del pasado.

Mitchell es un verdadero tejedor de tiempos, magistral. Logra que veamos trazas presentes ya de ese 2043 catastrófico que presenta en nuestro 2016 aún no (tan) catastrófico – que detectemos en nosotros la huella de nuestro pasado en nuestros abuelos, tataratatarabuelos en lugares muy dispersos. Lo hace de manera un poco hiperbólica – a través de una guerra entre seres que tienen la habilidad de percibir y manejar el tiempo de maneras mucho más hábiles que la nuestra.

Al hacerlo, Mitchell se convierte también en un detonador de pensamiento sobre nuestra propia mortalidad, sobre la traza que puede quedar en un par de generaciones aún después de la muerte física. De la permanencia posible y de su fragilidad.

Lean a Mitchell – dense ese gran placer – y no le pongan tanta atención como yo a sus problemas con las clases sociales. Y sobre todo, no dejen que el presente aburrido apabulle la lectura de una obra tan interesante, lúcida (y generadora de felicidad).

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en Skye (aún parte de Gran Bretaña)

Línea 4 de Avenida Burnside a la Calle 86

Me subo en Burnside Ave a la línea 4 del metro, después de una visita al Bronx Community College (uno de los campus de CUNY) y una charla dada para el BCC Math Seminar. La caminata a media tarde entre el BCC y la estación del metro elevado es interesante y emocionante. La avenida está repleta de letreros en español (cosas tipo hay trabajo para delivery boy), anuncios de rizos en el pelo, de pollos asados, de barbacoas y reparación de zapatos; tiendas con relojes “de marca” iguales a las tiendas de la Carrera 13 en Bogotá, mucha gente en la calle vendiendo cosas. La estación de metro elevado se siente temblar duro cada vez que pasa un tren; abajo, es la oscuridad eterna en la calle causada por el metro elevado. Mucha gente con pinta vistosa: latinos, negros, con peinados y trajes abigarrados, jóvenes jugando con sus celulares, tenis muy vistosos. No tomo fotos ahí; demasiado obvio tal vez.

Sale el 4. Atraviesa una parte del Bronx, entre calles 180 y 125 cuando entra a Manhattan. Para en lugares emblemáticos como el Yankee Stadium. Como es elevado se ve todo: el Bronx “recuperado” pero aún en parte con aspecto de ciudad bombardeada, ventanas empalizadas, lotes con carros abandonados. Luego se sumerge.

No dura mucho en llegar (pues es un expreso) a mi parada de destino de ese momento: la calle 86. Es brutal el cambio. Al bajarme en Lexington con la 86 busco instintivamente Park por ser más soleada y amplia – tengo que caminar hasta la calle 75 con Madison donde está el museo donde quedamos de vernos con María Clara.

Esa caminata de 11 cuadras por Park Avenue a la hora de salida del colegio son impresionantes. Niños y niños, los más pequeños con sus “nannys” (estas con caras de latinas, rusas, polacas, negras). Felicidad pura, patinetas – pero sobre todo la cara de quienes implícitamente saben ya, desde sus cinco años, que son los dueños del mundo. Y es que en Park Avenue de verdad están los niños de los dueños del mundo. La arquitectura, los jardines, la presencia de las niñeras, el alborozo, los policías trancando el tráfico para el paso del cortejo infantil – todo eso da un contraste impresionante con el Bronx, de donde salí apenas 25 minutos antes.

Me pone feliz la felicidad en esas caras de seres humanos de cinco, seis, ocho años. La velocidad en sus patinetas, ese momento breve anterior a la adolescencia en que ya pueden moverse sin tanta parafernalia de padres/tutores pero a la vez aún hay cierta ilusión/sueño de libertad.

Nota: en el BCC además de la conferencia para el coloquio de matemática, tuve conversaciones muy interesantes al almuerzo. Algunos profesores son bien activistas allá. El gobernador aparentemente trata de mangonearlos con la plata (“que les quitamos este medio billón del presupuesto si no enseñan tal cosa de tal manera”, etc.). Las instalaciones son como en las universidades públicas de Colombia: por un edificio bueno, hay tres cayéndose. Tratan de decirles que les dan plata si enseñan “razonamiento cuantitativo” o “estadística” en vez de matemática. Los profesores resisten. Algunos llegan a marchar (los contratos de profesores adjuntos son absolutamente paupérrimos) – en una marcha pacífica el fin de semana pasado arrestaron por varias horas a algunos por aquí cerca en Midtown.

bolt

electrificantes están esos blogs que sigo – últimamente Arturo Sanjuán escribe de manera descarnada – Javier Moreno escribe con un estilo muy controlado y depurado pero los posts cortos son acaso lo mejor posible (no es tuiter, no es el blog viejo, son pensamientos concentrados a veces muy extraños si se leen de manera aislada) – otros blogs también me llegan pero le pongo atención a esos dos en particular

trucha ahumada ayer (y hoy, de sobras) – pocas veces he hecho pescado ahumado, con trucha funciona de manera sorprendente – hoy no teníamos mucho tiempo para preparar almuerzo y fuimos a Tomodachi; el plato de anguila con arroz estaba enano y costaba trenta y un mil pesos – mi trucha ahumada costó mucho menos y (modestia aparte) quedó mucho más sabrosa que lo de ese restaurante

además, dio para almuerzo de martes y comida de miércoles – hoy estaba tal vez aún más rica que ayer

un poco nervioso con tanta cosa en NY en estos días que vienen: charlas en seminario de lógica y para otro seminario, la presentación del video, luego la exposición en Fleischmanns (un pueblo en los Catskills), luego visita a Artem en UCLA y charla allá también

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ventana

  • Me conmovió la historia del hijo mestizo de Glass en la película El Renacido (Revenant). Di Caprio es Glass, y tiene un hijo mestizo, moreno, con quien habla en un idioma indígena (no recuerdo el nombre). Como es tan poco común ver mestizaje en Norteamérica y tan común aquí en Suramérica (al menos en los altiplanos andinos), logré sentir simpatía/empatía con el hijo mestizo (vilipendiado por el texano). Hace falta ese tipo de mezcla racial en Norteamérica.
  • Haciendo muchas pruebas de impresión para Project Topoi. Habrá en la proyección en Nueva York también bastante material impreso. Estamos emocionadísimos con eso.
  • Me parece extraño siempre que terminan de hacer un edificio nuevo, se pasa la gente y durante un tiempo no tienen cortinas. Yo mismo cierro poco las cortinas de mi estudio. Termina uno viendo mucha vida de la gente, aún sin buscarlo explícitamente. Levanta uno la vista de la pantalla y ahí está el vecino del frente levantándose de la cama o la vecina en la cocina del mismo apartamento preparando algo – aparentemente. Uno no mira mucho, pero algo mira. Ellos me verán en el estudio escribiendo algo, o leyendo, o por la mañana preparando jugo. Nunca de manera muy explícita. Quién sabe cuánto más duren sin cortinas.
  • Varios días seguidos escuché las Siete Palabras de Haydn, en versión cuarteto y en versión para piano. Mucha gente muy distinta le ha puesto atención a esa obra extraña. Es una singularidad pura.
  • Leo con fruición algunos blogs. El de Javier, obviamente, con su estilo depurado y aparentemente minimal. En realidad es un proyecto maximal e inmenso. El de Arturo, que escribe cada vez mejor, y me deja sin aliento. Su relación con la matemática – de cuando no quiere uno sino pensar en matemática y mandar al diablo el resto – me es conocida. La matemática la percibo a veces casi como una adicción (no soy adicto, afortunadamente [creo], a sustancias, salvo tal vez al café – pero sí he sido adicto al sauna en Finlandia, al baño en agua fría en quebradas y ríos, a correr intervalos, a ciertas series). Con la matemática la sensación a veces es parecida. Uno no quiere dejar de pensar en ciertos temas. Me ha pasado mucho también recientemente.
  • Quiero sacar al piano alguna pieza de Haydn. Suficientemente fácil para que la pueda tocar yo, pero quiero que tenga algo interesante, como esas que tanto me gustan y llegan.
  • El episodio 7 de temporada 4 de HoC me gustó mucho. El resto no tanto. Es gris ese mundo.
  • En realidad he leído poco en esta época. He leído eso sí bastante matemática y me he dedicado a escribir.
  • Organizar cosas es importante pero es costoso emocionalmente.
  • Hace diez años no voy a California. Será interesante volver (visitaré UCLA durante unos días). Le tengo un poco de miedo a Los Ángeles. Pero varios me dicen que es una ciudad interesantísima. En cambio ir a Nueva York se siente familiar, cercano, cozy.
  • Lo que sí es cierto es que UCLA es como un sueño de lugar por el tipo de matemática que se hace. Ya veremos qué tal.

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A Story of a Certain Loneliness

JoannaWiszniewiczA month ago, during heady and hectic New York days, I reported on my reading of And Yet I Still Have Dreams (A Story of a Certain Loneliness), the strange and unique book written by Polish author Joanna Wiszniewicz from her interviews to “Alex,” a man who was an adolescent during the Warsaw ghetto years, who lived his own coming-of-age and transition from protected boy from a well-heeled Jewish family in Warsaw, through the Warsaw ghetto years and then in different camps (Majdanek, Budzyń, Auschwitz, and later Valhingen) – going from being 12 years old to 18 in such places. My earlier report was written during the reading of the first part of the book, and I kept thinking, while finishing reading it, that I absolutely needed to write a second, more complete, review. At least for myself, and for some friends who read this blog and might get interested, or for the unknown person who might stumble here.

It is not an easy book to review. It is also not an easy book to read. Alex, the “first voice”, the interviewee who tells the story, avoids very self-consciously the trappings of Holocaust literature; he addresses the first-hand experience of being a boy, then a youngster and finally a young man – coming of age in the midst of the collapse of a world – but avoiding also that simple, straightforward description.

Very young Alex is naïve, exactly in the way most 12 year old boys are, but perhaps even more so from having been raised in a quite protective environment. He knows that. He sees how after his father’s death (around the beginning of the war), his forceful and active mother takes over his administrative job at a hospital, and manages to secure a measure of “protection” for him, for her whole family – a protection that would of course erode during the ghetto years, but which nonetheless strongly helped the boy Alex to live those first ghetto years relatively unscathed.

Her protection extends to other members of the large family – uncle, grandfather, etc. The prewar world survives for a while, in an odd way, in the ghetto. And this is the first fantastic and amazing aspect of the book: it depicts in a rich way, through the (memory) eyes of a young child (remembered by an old American, the same person but in a totally different universe, thinking half a century later who he really was back then), the strong non-homogeneity of ghetto life, the stark differences between social classes somehow continuing along the ghetto, the attempt of a 12-year old to go on, without thinking too much of the consequences of little acts.

This contrasts sharply with usual Holocaust literature or movies. In many of them we see extremely mature reflections – with the normal primacy, naivety, directness, firstness of experience being overshadowed by the tertiary, reflected, mature, contrasted, wounded voice of the narrator. Primo Levi in the camp is told by Primo Levi the survivor, and it is the harsh, detached, unromantic tone of the survivor that we hear. For all the importance and greatness of other accounts, this was (for me) the first time I could read an unassuming, direct account – a phenomenological précis – of those years.

Life as usual (and very much not as usual – but it is these “as usual” features that are unique in this book) for the young boy: getting angry with his grandmother, telling her she is ignorant (and then feeling the remorse for having done that), growing up getting involved with other young men whom he admires, but who are vain (as all young men of that age) and admire… German soldiers. In the typical confusion of young age, those Jewish adolescents, who know perfectly well what Germans (or non-Jewish Poles) may do to them in the ghetto if they “trespass” some lines, at the same time have admiration for some of those Germans, with their shiny and elegant uniforms – one of them (who would go on to become a fighter during the uprising) even boasts of “being friend” with a German soldier in Warsaw – a young 15-year old Jew being a “friend” of a German soldier in Warsaw in 1942! Of course, these infatuations are exactly what must have happened – the “dual realities” we all live at those ages, but transferred to the confined and rarified atmosphere of the ghetto.

As the war continues, the earlier protection layers erode (although some remnants linger – like the fact that in a camp the Polish peasants would sell smuggled food to the inmates – and of course those who had money (or connections) in the “outside world” would have strong advantages. Alex had both – and at some times somebody “who knew his grandfather who…” proffers protection – extremely weak protection in those circumstances, of course, but still protection.

The details of the stories, the fact that they sound so specific and yet so universal, and the fact that the “point of view” is somehow allowed to evolve (like our own evolution in perspective from age 12 to age 18), to inflect, to transform itself – and is not post-coded into the voice of a disenchanted, wounded man (as in other accounts) is perhaps what impressed me most. Alex tells stories that were contradictory (for instance, people saying constantly “we will not survive this war” yet making plans for “after the war” – just like our own frequent and important contradictions in our own “normal” lives) and wonders a little about the presence of those contradictions – quarrels between his grandfather (a prominent lawyer in prewar Poland) and his former employees – their devotion to his family (the class system continued for a long while inside the ghetto and the camps) – all that salt of life, or meanders of memory and knowledge.

This is an extremely non-linear account. The point of view keeps meandering, going back and forth, enriching itself and forgetting how it did so – it is not the point of view “at infinity” from the survivor’s perspective.

The “afterwar” years’ account is also fascinating. At liberation, in French-occupied Germany, Alex first meets North African soldiers of the French army – who allow him and the other former inmates to pillage a German little town – they have the German population leave and allow them to take over. Alex tells the story of how they utterly destroyed the German dwellers’ pretty houses, how they themselves acted with utter hatred – he does not offer judgment but rather allows us to ponder the emptiness and resentfulness they must have felt. Then he is slowly both enchanted to be alive and well (a young survivor with no family and no country, enjoying having girlfriends and going to concerts in occupied Germany, somehow rebuilding himself) but at the same time ashamed of himself (not clear why), and wanting to be a normal European young man – detaching himself from Jewish identification.

Alex’s telling the story to the author Joanna Wiszniewicz (wonderful, I think, in her allowing that unique voice to emerge) was a difficult process. He did not want to speak about those events for decades, he emigrated soon to the United States, studied at City College in New York, and wanted to build a totally new life for himself in his new country. For many decades, he completely refused to identify as uniquely Jewish – he wanted to see himself as “American”. When people asked him where was he from he would say “Jew from Poland” – he also did not feel “just Polish” (the story of two opposed lines in his family, some of them very integrated and feeling very Polish, some not – is later reflected in himself).

However, later in life, about 20 years ago, something made him want to go back to that fundamental part of his formation, of his youth. That is not clearly surmised from the book. He travels to Poland, is interviewed by Joanna Wiszniewicz, a first book (in Polish) is written from that interview, then much later, in 2004, a translation to English by Regina Grol. Alex refuses to let his full name appear in the book, he explicitly claims he does not want his name to be associated with “Shoah business” as he calls it. Yet he gave the interviews (the author says however that she had to almost entirely rewrite the first version of the book, as he claimed it did not reflect his voice back then – she says she had to record six more tapes of interviews and let him read large tracts of the corrected versions before he approved – and even then without his full name!).

I wonder what could have brought a man in his sixties or seventies to engage in that harsh, deep and serious revision of his own earlier life – after decades of having shunned those accounts. I imagine the conversations with the author must have been extremely demanding – and her editorial work to go from the raw material to this book surely was as demanding, if not more, than the conversations themselves.

The end result is one of the best documents ever written of the memory of a man of mature age of his early years, growing up (slowly) in the middle of a brutal age – and allowing the perspective to continually evolve along the way. A phenomenological feat, among many other things.

Through lenses, murkly

A composer (contemporary operas, etc.: Michael Kowalski), in a Brooklyn studio. A mathematician (Roman Kossak), difficult to capture via lens. Artists (Alberto Baraya, María Clara Cortés), wondering. Flowers seen across 38th Street – artificial flowers, according to Baraya. Photographed through binocular lenses. The Brooklyn (at Red Hook), through an amplifier glass. Glass of rum on the way sometimes as well. A moving topos.

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And yet I still have dreams…

(A Story of a Certain Loneliness)

Joanna Wiszniewicz wrote in 1996 a memoir from “Alex”, an anonymous survivor of the Warsaw ghetto and three concentration camps – she interviewed him when he went back to Poland after more than 40 years in the US, and got from him a incredibly deep testimony. Now Regina Grol has translated it to English (And Yet I Still Have Dreams – A Story of a Certain Loneliness).

I am now reading the book, slowly. So far, what makes the book stand in sharp contrast to so many other Holocaust memoirs is the detached and reflexive tone, the fact that the interviewee’s voice, Alex’s voice, ponders on many subjects around what it really meant growing up as a Jewish Pole in prewar Warsaw. Not being a traditional Jew anymore, but not being a Pole – or at least not feeling fully as one, having a father who participated in Poland’s independence war, is at the same time comfortable as a Jew and as a citizen of the new country, but nevertheless knows that he is not “just another Pole”.

The book is perhaps (at least what I’ve read so far) the most phenomenologically aware account of the Holocaust I have ever read. Expectations, of oneself, of others, about identity, are discussed, calmly and with the distance of age. Case comparisons, between the two grand-fathers, between the mother and the father, and between all their approaches to modernity, to the paradox of becoming modern, as so many Eastern European Jews did during the first half of the last century, yet being still somehow part of a traditional culture, steeped in ways of doing things corresponding to other times.

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The New York Public Library – as seen today (9.4.14) by av

Antenna tree.

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Boroughs. Bronx. Brooklyn. Manhattan from the distance. Tennenbaum (^2) lurking. Exploration at the Bronx Community College. Limits of tori, 1+2+3+…=-1/12, as is well known again. Burnside Avenue. Ravines. Acid light. Coincidence of purpose, of directions (reconstruction), of qualms.

Refuge in the library (the old New York City Public Library, that looks like public buildings should look everywhere in the world inside… and looks like a beautiful synagogue perhaps on Sheinkin, from its back – from Bryant Park). One place to steep oneself in deep concentration.

Sunday in the city.

Arriving, I couldn’t refrain from taking a picture inside and outside the waiting room at the Newark Airport train connection to the city. No one reacted to the camera this time. The train to the city arrived 75 minutes late. The announcement kept saying the train was delayed “8 minutes”. After 8 minutes the announcement repeated and said “another 8 minutes”. And so on. (Welcome to public transportation in North America, where they announce what they want when they want, cancel the train if they want, and nobody ever seems to bat an eyelid. We were too tired and hungry to even move.)

But then, the city:

The next day, Sunday, we met Daniela and Alejo to be inspired by Gauguin’s Metamorphoses, photographic practices in the studio [a brutal series with many photographers of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries], Wright’s sketches and floorplans, Jasper John’s latest series. What struck me most was (perhaps) the current emphasis on documentation in those exhibitions. The reading is not limited to finished works – it included lots of “unfinished” plates, prints on paper that would most likely have been discarded a few years ago for a main exhibition at a main museum – and now constitute perhaps the most important, the most exciting aspect of the exhibits.

Then, somewhere else, Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time, and perhaps the most wonderful set of photographs of Paris I remember having seen in a very very long time: Marville. Marville, by showing us how Paris lost an enormous lot to “modernization” by Hausdorff, by showing how Paris could have evolved into so many marvels and instead became… what it is (with its own greatness but also its pettiness and too corporate style), is incredibly contemporary. Painful to see, but how important nowadays, in our time of city blight, of city disaster, of destruction of trees. He saw, in the “Paris éventrée” of his photographs, our 21st century – more than 150 years ago.

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Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.

The three versions extract different pains, different moods. The song, among the earliest written by Dylan, and initially covered by Peter, Paul and Mary, seems to bridge the energy of country from the mountains (Southern Appalachian, thinking of Mother Maybelle and Carter Family songs) with the individuality of rock that was emerging during the 1960s.

When the rooster crows at the break of dawn, look out your window and I will be gone…

He wrote this song (and Blowin’ in the Wind, and Girl from the North Country) when he was about 20 years old – freshly arrived to New York City from Minnesota – with a “farm boy” allure still present but already a poet capable of churning out those haunting sentences that we saw printed on the wall of a beautiful cafe in Oxford, those supremely lyrical melodies – balanced up to some point by his unruly voice and tuning. He used the name of a famous poet when he chose his own artistic name (Dylan Thomas -> Bob Dylan).

It ain’t no use turning on your light babe, the light I never knowed, and it ain’t no use turning on your light babe, I’m on the dark side of the road…

Of the three versions I at present feel closest to the “rawest one”: Dylan, his seemingly untrained voice and his guitar (no harmonica yet, apparently, at that point), and no production, so to speak. Of course, I can see how the beautiful rendering by PP&M, with its carefully inflected voice, its balanced production, the harmonic blending of the three voices, the stresses coming from careful use of head-singing at crucial points, was a boost to the song, for audiences that apparently were not quite ready for Dylan’s own highly idiosyncratic way of singing. Then, of course, the freewheeling version – the best known today perhaps, the first I heard, with Dylan himself, now with his harmonica, with more polished and balanced use of voice of guitar. Every version I hear I love, but of the three at this point I am preferring the rawest, the least produced, the most “brouillon-like”.

Don’t think twice, it’s alright. So long, honey babe … where I’m bound, I can’t tell. Goodbye is too good a word, babe, so I just say fare thee well…

Of course, different sadnesses, of different kinds – different departures (in a way, we are always saying those words, even when we “stay”: we are constantly “on the dark side of the road” with respect to something, to someone, to oneself, to one’s former versions). I can’t really say, can’t really imagine how many times I have had to say a version of those words to myself, to my infant self, to my young self, to my friends, to countries (to Belgium, to Israel, to Finland on a boat heading for Stockholm in the dark night of winter).

Even mathematically (or mostly mathematically) this is something that (painfully) happens more often that we would like.

How could someone at age 20 know all that?

Walking the highline.

Already three times on the highline: with Dror and Ayhan in a very pleasant June of 2010, with María Clara under scorching heat in July of 2010 and now with Alejo and María Clara, in the almost wintry April of 2013. Always thrilling to me: the proof that it is actually possible to turn urban disasters into spaces for people, spaces that can be enjoyed with no cars, with no fees, and from where one can see the city as a huge work of art. True, one can be critical of the whole idea (as MC is) – but really, one could have a much worse thing there.

This time, with the thrilling expectation that preceded Simplicity (and the meeting of many minds, many singularities there), we went for a beautiful walk on the Monday before, with Alejo and MC, just for the fun of talking and discussing and watching the city.

Here is a little record of the walk – some of the transitions are weird, but I do not have now the patience to go over it again (for now at least):

A biking revolution? I wish it were true. In any case, I was surprised by the coincidence of two articles discussing this issue, both of today: Revolución ciclista in El País, and En bicicleta, a diario in Semana.

Beyond the splendor of the situation in cities such as Copenhagen, where bicycling finally seems to have become the main and in many ways the best way of moving around, or even beyond the coincidence of being highly ranked in terms of living standard and using bicycles profusely (Helsinki is number one, followed by Munich, Copenhagen, Zürich, in one of those rankings I take with a grain of salt), what attracted my attention is the situation in much more problematic cities:

“Sin embargo, no es allí donde está la revolución, sino en Barcelona, Nueva York, Bogotá, París, Londres, Lyon, San Francisco, Sevilla, Lima, Berlín, Tokio y cientos de ciudades más que se unen a la ola ciclista pese a no tener una gran tradición” (“however, that’s not where the revolution is happening, but in Barcelona, New York, Bogotá, Paris, London, Lyon, San Francisco, Seville, Lima, Berlin, Tokyo and hundreds of other cities that are joining the cycing wave in spite of not having a long tradition) says Borja Echevarría of El País.

I half concur.

Being myself (very timidly, compared to the brave people, like the guards of our building, who work in Chapinero Alto and go every freezing morning, every evening, from Engativá, from Bosa, to our part of town – 15 km each direction, through the big city) a small part of what’s described in the article, I am completely biased for bicycling.

This last semester, my preferred, my most exhilarating, my most beautiful, way of going to teach at the University, was by bicycle. It usually took me some 20 minutes, from the door of my place to the door of the classroom. By car, with luck, it takes 15 minutes. Without luck, 30 minutes or more. By bus, not less than 30 minutes. By taxi, with the portion of walking from the entrance to the campus, perhaps 25 minutes. So, the bicycle practically beats all other options. And 80 or 90% or the route is actually quite beautiful and quiet – just a couple of very dense avenues with traffic jams, but I manage to avoid them almost completely.

I felt a better connection to my students when I arrived (like so many of them) with my helmet to the classroom, with my heart pumping a little faster from exertion. I believe (I may be completely wrong here) that my classes were better those days.

I wish Bogotá (now that we’ll have a new mayor and will have the right to hope to breathe again as a city, after years of urban disaster) will understand what’s at play here.

Hedda Sterne – Untitled – 1985-90

I am mesmerized by her work. Amazingly, this 100-year old artist (born in Romania, studied Art History and Philosophy in Bucharest, then drawing in Léger’s atelier in Paris before emigrating to New York) who was at some point a kind of muse to the Abstract Expressionists managed to keep her independence from art movements and never let fashion dictate her work. She was abstract before abstraction was so much in vogue, she painted American machines during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, then turned really abstract when Pop Art “was debunking” abstraction. I would very much like to see her white on white works, done when she was about ninety years old and almost blind.

I read a very interesting article by Sarah Boxer on the NYRB, The Last Irascible. It has a lot of interesting descriptions of Hedda Sterne’s formative years, of her relationship to Rothko, to Barnett Newman, and to her husband for 16 years, Saul Steinberg, the author of the famous New Yorker cartoon with the view of the world from a New Yorker’s perspective. Reading it made me want to check her work carefully.