Sunday, May 16, 2010

Insectopedia by Hugh Raffles

I had the privilege two weeks ago to spend Friday evening in Gowanus (between Carroll Gardens and Park Slope) at a book and film party sponsored by Cabinet Magazine for Insectopedia, the brilliant a-z encyclopedia of essays in Entomology by Hugh Raffles, who teaches anthropology at the New School and is the kind of omnivorous scholar we sadly see so little of today in publishing. The Insectopedia ,published by Pantheon Books, offers a diverse entertainment on subjects as unusual as locusts in the Sahel, sex and animal crush videos(just found legal by the US Supreme Court on first amendment grounds),Kafka, the communication systems of bees, and the treatment by the Nazis of Jews as "lice"and the Holocaust to be as merely a delousing of society.
The evening was punctuated by video and aural displays and by Mr. Raffles' presiding over one hour of filmstrips, going back to animated Russian strips in 1912 dealing with an adulterous affair between a grasshopper and and a beetle,an award -winning educational French filmstrip in the 1940's, where the producer pointedly speaks of those who"suck on others being sucked in turn by their own parasites".
Then there was an experimental Stan Brakhage strip on moths and light and a Catherine Chalmers piece "Safari' with stunning close-ups of the bug eat world of some of our favorite insects. (By this time, my thorax was really acting up)

Chalmers is also the award winning author of a book on cockroaches showing some of them executed as if on death row. A commentary on capital punishment from across the species as it were.

All in all, a great evening,one that leaves one even more fascinated to read Edward O. Wilson's latest non fiction tract on the Superorganisms, those societies of ants and others,which operate for the benefit of the social system over individual lives (and whose decision points in their daily lives are governed by algorithyms parallel to the self -organizing pronciples of computers, since what their genes prescribe is not a literal life cycle, but as the author puts it, a program that is more like a molecular operating manual by which the colony asserts itself)

Bugs and computers- a nice combination- cockroaches can survive a nuclear blast and computers are anaerobic....

Which brings me to the last four lines of the famous story by the late Edward Gorey- discussing the disappearance of young Millicent Frastley-

They stunned her, and stripped off her garments, and lastly
They stuffed her inside a kind of pod,
And then it was that Millicent Frastley
was sacrificed to the Insect God.

ps -don't put borax in my thorax!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Secret History,and PEN Forum

Secret Histories, by Justin Spring,is the first major biography of the academic/novelist turned tattoo artist and gay male erotic writer Samuel Steward(1909-1993).Steward was an exceptionally brilliant man who taught in several western colleges at a time when to disclose one's sexuality would have been cause for immediate termination. He wound up at Loyola University in Chicago where he had a good career at the same time he began an epistolary relationship with Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas that ultimately resulted in their meeting in Europe on several occasions;he also had a number of interesting liaisons, including with Thornton Wilder.
All this while writing several fairly well- received, if not blockbuster hit novels.Steward also worked closely with Alfred Kinsey on his sex research , but it was his early 1960's decision to abandon the world of academia for a postion as tattoo artist in one of the rougher sections of Chicago under the name Phil Sparrow, as well as his beginning to write erotic novels with an S& M theme under the name Phil Andros,while still publishing under the name Samuel Steward , that goes to the core of this book.
Although Steward in some sense resembled his literary hero J Huysmans, the author of Against the Grain,La-Bas, and several other richly ornate novels of 19h century French decadence,Steward himself ultimately rejected the decadent and mystical in favor ofa forthright, no- nonsense acknowledgement of his own sexuality. It was this confessional honesty and his search for the healing power of truth, believes the author, that sets him apart from others.
Steward died in semi-obscurity in a shabby overcrowded bungalow in Oakland, Californa.surrounded by vast quantities of material in boxes on the floor.,
This book should ideally be read in conjunction with the one volume introductory autobiographical work penned by Steward, and perhaps his Phil Andros novels.

The World PEN author festival concluded a few weeks ago, a marvellous assemblage of talent with only a few missing,because of volcanic ash.Unfortunately, one of our favorites, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, the great Gogolian Hungarian author,was not able to make the trip.
At a session on the Future of Reading after Twitter, blogs and Kindle, Sergei Sokolovskiy, A Russina poet/essayist, gave his own slant on just what the future holds for us. His POV: that 100 years from now humans may no longer be the dominant species on the planet.Instead, that distinction may belong to sapient bacteria, who as of this juncture, are not known for their reading habits.

NB As of this date, according to the latest sscientific criterai, bacteria occupy a larger portion of the biomass of the earth than we do.With a right-leaningand property -oriented Supreme Court, could they use the power of eminent domain to evict our unicellular friends from the biomass?
Don't think too long on this one.