Archive for February 2011
A lilting breeze, soft bright light, the sounds of sparse traffic down on TW Lane, and black birds calling out on the roof of the adjacent block – slow, lovely, tropical mornings are the best, boasting nothing but the promise of unhurried hours ahead ..
Looking through the bookshelves, I’ve realized that my copy of Poe’s Mother: Selected Drawings of Djuna Barnes is rapidly yellowing. Barnes’ artwork is amusing at best, derivative at worst (she clearly had Aubrey Beardsley in mind in the early days). I’ve reproduced* several of her sketches of famous folk she knew, accompanied by anecdotes culled from Philip Herrings’ biography.
* I don’t have access to a scanner, so these pictures were taken by hand with a camera.
“With the keen eye of a portrait painter (a sketch accompanied her interview article), Barnes saw Joyce emerge form the fog sporting [a] goatee, bluish-gray coat, and heirloom waistcoat …… She struggled to do her subject justice by penning observations that do not easily yield their meaning. Joyce evoked “the sadness of a man who has procured some medieval permission to sorrow out of time and in no place; it is the weariness of one self-subjected to the creation of overabundance in the limited.” His head seemed to be “turned further away than disgust and not so far as death.” Despite the dubious brilliance of these aphoristic pearls, Barnes’ interview of Joyce remains one of the best.”
“Years later, Barnes told James Scott that Stein
couldn’t write for beans! But she did write “A rose is a rose is a rose” – that was good. The only thing she ever wrote that was. D’you know what she said of me? Said I had beautiful legs! Now, what does that have to do with anything? She said I had beautiful legs! Now, I mean, what – what did she say that for? I mean if youre going to say anything about a person … I couldn’t stand her. She had to be the center of everything – a monstrous ego. Her brother, what was his name? Leo Stein. Poor thing. He was a nice boy. She simply ate him up!”
“Barnes apparently had the respect of Eugene O’Neill, who was to send her an occasional friendly note and humored her by saying that she was the better playwright. Chester Page asked her “what sort of man Eugene O’Neill was.” “‘A nice drunk,’ she said. ‘I saw him every night at dinner, at Polly’s or whatever the name was. Edna Millay was there. Polly was drunk and served rather drunk dinners which we all ate.’”
“Hartley told a story of coaxing Barnes into bed, which may have been wishful thinking, for William Carlos William says dubiously: “[Hartley] told me how once he had made rather direct love to DB – offering his excellent physical equipment for her favors … I can see old Marsden now, with his practical approach, explaining to Djuna what he could offer her. Djuna and her evasive ways. Marsden was very fond of her.” That Hartley, like nearly all the men who surrounded her, was gay would have made little difference to Barnes, but it is far from certain that she would have agreed to his proposition.”
“Late in 1916, with William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy played a lead part in Alfred Kreymborg’s Lima Beans at the Provincetown Playhouse, where she would often have been in the company of Djuna Barnes. In 1918, in Mexico City, when the divorce from Haweis was final, she married Arthur Cravan (1887 – 1918?), a nephew of Oscar Wilde, and a boxer hero of the Dadaists and Surrealists, who apparently disappeared in Mexico while she was pregnant with Fabienne.
Some say that his body was found in the Mexican desert, but of Cravan’s disappearance, William Carlos Williams wrote:
he bought and rebuilt a seagoing craft of some sort. One evening, having triumphantly finished his job, he got into it to try it out in the bay before supper. He never returned. Pregnant on the shore, [Loy] watched the small ship move steadily away into the distance. For years she thought to see him again – that was, how long ago? What? Thirty-five years.”
Or, as the series is actually called, Great Ideas.
This particular collection from Penguin boasts such appealingly pared-down and sumptuously tactile covers that that’s probably what most readers out there are buying these titles for: the way they look and feel.
A brief sketch: Great Ideas started off in 2004 as a series of twenty short books, comprised of either standalone essays or excerpts from longer works. The collection was intended as a showcase of “the works of the great thinkers, pioneers, radicals and visionaries whose ideas shook civilization, and helped make us who we are”; titles included Rousseau’s The Social Contract, John Ruskin’s On Art and Life, and The Communist Manifesto. What distinguishes these slim volumes from multiple other editions out there on the market, though, is their design-oriented aesthetic: debossed text; sparing use of images; uncoated paper; an austere palette restricted to black, white and a variable spot colour; and, most strikingly, informed and innovative deployment of typography as a major visual element. (See below.) David Pearson, then fresh out of Central St. Martin’s and a recent addition to Penguin’s in-house creative team, was tasked by art director Jim Stoddart to “produce a coherent series of paperbacks selling for 3.99 each”, and “each cover with a typographic style typical of the time and spirit of the text” (according to an article in the NYT, here). He roped in a couple of collaborators, one of whom was Phil Baines, a former teacher at St. Martin’s and author of Penguin By Design: A Cover Story, 1935 – 2005. Thus was born the first Great Ideas series – twenty minimalist-looking paperbacks, drizzled in black and red accents against an unsoiled white backdrop. Four more were soon to follow, with the latest and last appearing in the summer of 2010. The chromatics of each set is characterized by a so-called spot colour. In trade lingo, that simply means printing a certain hue with its own ink, as opposed to the more common process of using four inks – yellow, magenta, cyan and black – to produce all other colours. The spot shade for the second series was a cerulean blue; green for Series 3; purple for Series 4; and for the last of the line, the fifth series, a deep, tawny mustard, which tends to be referred to as ‘brown’ in the publicity literature.
(The entire collection is viewable on the Penguin site.)
The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels (from Great Ideas, Series 1). Image courtesy of The World is My Fuse.
Covers from Series 1 of Great Ideas. Image from The Casual Optimist.
My personal stockpile so far is piddling: Charles Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life (from Series 5) and John Berger’s Why Look at Animals? (Series 4).
They’re the most erotic things ever.
We’re talking about the vanguard in the war against the dematerialization of book-reading praxis: the digital revolution, the decline and fall of the tangible tome. If anything can stave off the onslaught of Kindle, these lovely, luscious objects – their skin thick, creamy and agreeably grainy under under one’s caressing fingers, their slender figures neatly and lightly graspable in the palm of the hand – should. And beyond their physical sensuousness, I love the way they look. The Baudelaire, especially, stands out. It would have been easy to incorporate a pictorial image into the design here – the figure of the late 19th century flâneur, say, borrowed perhaps from a Caillebotte canvas (below) – but Pearson certainly has more imagination than that. The cover makes no concession to the historical phenomena with which Baudelaire’s text is most closely associated these days: the urban landscape of a Hausmannized Paris, or the visual idioms of the various art movements of the era – the way the choice of a William Morris design bespeaks Ruskin’s On Art and Life (below), the undulating tendrils of luxuriant, densely-patterned foliage flexing and flowing across the surface of the paper. What we get instead with TPML is the impersonal abstraction of typography writ large over the surface; the actual words of the author’s name and the title reduced to small, indented lines in black, like so much random motific flotsam. Most saliently, though, the chosen typeface seems an incongruous pick. Utilizing what looks to be the Playbill font for the large brown letters, the cover channels not so much the art criticism of the 19th century’s ur-Symbolist, but resembles rather a saloon poster circa the Old West.
Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877), Gustave Caillebotte. Image from the Art Institute of Chicago website.
Nothing in the history of Playbill would seem to recommend it as the typeface of choice here. Designed by Robert Harling in 1938, it was based on a style of 19th century wood type frequently seen on wanted posters in the Wild West.
This playbill typeface has a compressed form that, allowing more letters per line, is implicitly associated with the solid western value of thrift ….. The solid black printing associated with these letters is a historical reference to the ancient black-letter typefaces of early wood-block printing. The solid and exaggerated black serifs produce a distinctive optical dazzle and visual punch. This pattern can be recognised and, by association, linked to the various entertainments. For many people these letters, spelling out saloon or the names on a wanted poster for example, are an immediate and powerful reference to the Wild West.
(Excerpted from an online Guardian article; read it in full here.)
Rendered in an earthy shade of umber, gone is the “optical dazzle and visual punch” otherwise commonly associated with the Playbill font. What remains is the rational system of large, monospaced glyphs that function as a backdrop for the smaller lines of debossed text, the entire layout ordered by a calculated compositional rhythm, the rich historical associations of a pictorial image jettisoned in favour of the methodical grid of contemporary design. Rather than simply employing a more historically appropriate typography or a similar image, Pearson and team have proven themselves capable of taking the road less travelled:
The designers simply used styling contemporary to the texts – but only as a starting point. Great Ideas could easily have turned into a visual history lesson but Pearson found that half the fun was finding more abstract links to the subject matter. Phil Baines’s take on Roman inscriptions with Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is a confident masterclass on the history and use of type: ‘Breaking the author’s, and Penguin’s, name over two lines,’ notes an admiring Pearson. ‘I don’t think anyone else could get away with it!’
(From a write-up in Eye magazine here.)
As the quote on the cover of The Painter of Modern Life announces: “Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent.” Perhaps modernity, rather then embodying the transient, the fleeting and the contingent, has been proven here to be itself transient, fleeting and contingent, a self-reflexive prognostication updated for the contemporary.
Dinner at Chalk began indoors. I started off with some cream of corn – which sounds like it came out of a red and white can or a Warhol silkscreen – but the soup was fantastic. Rich and smooth, with nibblets of cut corn and chewy hunks of fat-fringed chicken swimming just beneath the milky, flaxen-hued, herb-speckled surface … absolutely dee-lish. CH ordered the escargots, which were pretty darned tasty too, especially when a ready supply of home-baked bread was on hand to soak up the pools of garlicky grease with. They were certainly a step up from the snails I’d had at Cocotte; served with gruyère on little bits of puff pastry that managed to mask the taste and texture of the molluscs, those were definitely an experiment that didn’t pan out.
Anyways, entrée-wise, we decided on a beef stew and the stuffed quail. The beef was good, braised to supple softness in a piquant red vino gravy – though not particularly outstanding. The quail was something else. Smooth, moist, stuffed with a mix of minced meat and diced vegetables and cooked to glazed, lightly charred perfection, it slid down the throat like so much vintage booze. Speaking of alcohol, however, the one sour note of the evening was the beer. I had a König something-or-other from the tap, which turned out to be uninspiring. Usually German brews are spot-on for the money; this was a rare misfire.
Chalk is situated at the Old School – the former Methodist Girls’ campus – and so named for their occupation of the school’s science lab. (A throwback to the blackboard era perhaps.) Nestled in the serene environs of Mt. Sophia, the complex exudes an idyllic, laidback charm, all low, whitewashed buildings and aged umber- and tan-coloured tiles and towering coconut palms and viridescent foliage sighing slightly in the thick, tropical late afternoon breeze. By the time the main courses had been polished off, nightfall had descended, and we took our coffees out to the terrace for an al fresco tête-à-tête, along with a small cake of sticky date pudding accompanied by ginger ice-cream and a glutinous butterscotch sauce. It was lovely out there. Under the low glow of the streetlamps, we had a view of the buildings rising up from Orchard and Handy Rds down the hill, lit up like ginormous slabs of glass-encrusted confection. Talk moved from casual banter to personal histories, and thence to the bewildering changes Singapore has seen in the last decade or so. I was surprised at how many memories CH and I share: he’s a naturalized Singaporean, having grown up in Mumbai and the U.K., but as he reminded me he’s been here fifteen long years, and the place is pretty much home these days. The 1990s was the era of my coming of age, and the further it slips away behind history’s onward stride the more my recollections of growing up then seem to lodge themselves in the nooks and crevices of my mental universe, peering out from beneath the ostensibly unbroken flux of everyday life in the here and now ..
In the words of a pastry-chompin’ Proust:
The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it … as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me … immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents.
- Swann’s Way, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu
Old School, 11 Mount Sophia Road #01-03, Singapore 228461
The title says it all.
Jin Yong’s (a.k.a Louis Cha) novels are a popular source of inspiration for film and television adaptations in the Sinophone world, the better-known ones like The Duke of Mount Deer 鹿鼎記 and The Return of the Condor Heroes 神鵰俠侶 numbering roughly one new televisual version every decade since the 70s. My first brush with his work was the 1986 TVB series, Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre 倚天屠龍記, starring a very young, very nubile Tong Leung 梁朝伟 – in the days before Wong Kar Wai’s films propelled him to stardom on the international arthouse circuit.
Even before the Leungster, though, there was a version produced in 1978, which by most accounts seems to be the first appearance of the material on Hong Kong television, thus explaining the fond wistfulness with which it tends to be recalled these days. It starred Adam Cheng 郑少秋, Liza Wang 汪明荃 and the oh-so-lovely Angie Chiu 趙雅芝, who was soon to go on to star in that classic of 80s TV, The Bund 上海滩, so widely beloved in its day it made regional household names of Angie and – yes – the immortal Chow Yun Fat …
The Adam Cheng (i.e. official) version of the theme song.
I digress. The theme song to the 1978 Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre (above) was sung by its star, Adam Cheng, and like most TV tunes of that era it’s melodramatic, sentimental, cringe-inducingly tacky. However, fortunately for musical posterity, Liza Wang also recorded a version (below), and, boy, does her rendition strike a chord with me, ever. The same lyrics, an identical melody – but a whole world of difference as far as I’m concerned. Even the words begin to take on a new significance …
情仇兩不分 愛中偏有恨 恩怨同重
難忘你恩深 我偏偏有恨 相思難共
要共對亦難 分也不可 愛恨填胸
屠龍刀 倚天劍斬不斷 心中迷夢
The chorus especially resonates: “情如天, 萬里廣闊/仇如海, 百般洶涌.” Literally translated, those lines run “Passion vast as the heavens, ten thousand li wide/Hatred deep as the oceans, in a hundred ways tempestuous.” Listening to Wang wail those words as the orchestral strings surge in tandem over the strident march of the drumbeats never fails to send a chill and a thrill down my spine …
The Liza Wang rendition.
Image by Ralph Solonitz over at The Rag Blog.
Happity hoppity year of the hare, folks !
To the rest of the world, Chinese astrology begins and ends with one’s birth year zodiac: if you were born in 2011 – well, after the start of the Lunar New Year anyways – you’re a Rabbit, with all the quirks of personality that are typically associated with this particular sign. What is less recognized, though, even among us kentang-eating locals, is that so far as Chinese astrology is concerned, one is born with four animal signs. And when you add the dimension of the element to each of those, you get four pairs of signs, or what is termed one’s personal Eight Characters, your sheng chen ba zi 生辰八字.
Just to back the truck up a little: so there are twelve animals around which the Chinese astrological system revolves, as well as five elements. These are: Metal; Water; Wood; Fire; Earth. A surefire way to tell one’s year element at a glance is to consider the last digit in the year of your birth: years ending in zero and one are Metal years; twos and threes are Water years; fours and fives, Wood; sixes and sevens, Fire; and eights and nines, Earth. So, 2011, far from being just being the Year of the Rabbit, is the Year of the Metal Rabbit. The previous bunny year was 1999 (the Earth bunny) and the next will be 2023 (a Water one). There’s a detailed description of the Rabbit personality here, as well as a list of all the Rabbit years in the twentieth century – plus similar links to the other animal zodiacs.
Back to the Eight Characters, also popularly known as the Four Pillars: four animals + four elements = eight signs. In other words, beyond the birth year, there are also specific signs (both animal and elemental) allocated to the month, day and hour of one’s birth. For instance, someone who was born, say, 3rd September, 1949, at 3.20 a.m. in the morning, would be possessed of these eight characters: 1. Year – 己丑 ji chou, corresponding to the Earth Ox; 2. Month – 壬申 ren shen, the Water Monkey; 3. Day – 丙申 bing shen, the Fire Monkey; 4. Hour – 庚寅 geng yin, the Metal Tiger. Et voila! – your astrological profile as its most basic.
(Interested in calculating your pillars online? Try this page.)
For those of you who read Chinese, here’s a chart to match up animal and element with their assigned character. The five elements become doubled, each with a yang and yin permutation, thus making up what is dubbed the Ten Heavenly Stems 天干; the animal zodiac is known as the Twelve Earthly Branches 地枝. And both, in Chinese astrology, have their own nomenclature, e.g. the Yang Earth element is 己, not 陽地 or sumthin’ like that, and the Ox is labeled 丑, not 牛 – a system of naming which dates back to the hoary mists of the Shang Dynasty.
Ten Heavenly Stems (elements):
1. Metal: 庚 geng1 – yang metal; 辛 xin1 – yin metal
2. Water: 壬 ren2 – yang water; 癸 gui3 – yin water
3. Wood: 甲 jia3 – yang wood; 乙 yi3 -yin wood
4. Fire: 丙 bing3 – yang fire; 丁ding1 – yin fire
5. 戊 wu4 – yang earth; 己 ji3 – yin earth
Twelve Earthly Branches (animals):
1. Rat – 子 zi3 2. Ox – 丑 chou3
3. Tiger – 寅 yin3 4. Rabbit – 卯 mao3
5. Dragon – 辰 chen2 6. Snake – 巳 si4
7. Horse – 午 wu3 8. Goat – 未 wei4
9. Monkey – 申 shen1 10. Rooster -酉 you3
11. Dog – 戌 xu1 12. Pig – 亥 hai4
This image is available for purchase from redbubble.
2011, then, the year of the Metal Rabbit, is referred to as 辛卯 xinmao, the yin Metal Rabbit. The so-called Xinhai Revolution of 1911, which resulted in the abdication of China’s last emperor, Puyi, is named for the year of its occurrence – 辛亥 xinhai, the yin Metal Pig. And just to clear up any queries on this point, some animals can only ever be associated with yang elements, and others with yin. As seen, the Rabbit and Pig are yin signs, and thus those years are always yin metal, yin water, yin wood years, and so on; there can’t, and will never, be a yang Metal Rabbit, or a yang Water Pig, say. The Twelve Earthly Branches table I provided above is quick way of telling which are which: the odd-numbered animals (rat; tiger; dragon; horse; monkey; dog) are yang signs, and the even-numbered ones (ox; rabbit; snake; goat; rooster; pig) are yin signs. This pretty much accounts for why, despite the fact that 10 Heavenly Stems x 12 Earthly Branches = 120 different possible element-animal combinations, the complete astrological round only contains 60, and is otherwise referred to as the sexagenary cycle.
Now, I wasn’t born in the year of the Rabbit, but I do have that creature among my Eight Characters: I was born on the day of one – the yin Wood Rabbit, 乙卯 yimao. Your day sign, according to Chinese astrologers, is the most descriptive index of one’s inner personality (as opposed to a public persona, I suppose). They designate it the ‘Day Master’, and baziforlove.com has this to say:
Your Day Master is You. It is your personality, at its most basic. It is the essence of your inherent nature, being and existence. That is why understanding a person using BaZi, begins with determining their Day Master. The Day Master is the reference point for all the other components of the BaZi chart and is the key determination factor in the kind of person you are, can become and will be.
The site also calculates your Day Master for you, and the yin wood element, they aver …
… brings forth the visual image of ivy, creepers, flowers, twines, small plants and ferns. Yi Wood people are consummate networkers and manipulators numero uno. Like twines that wrap themselves around trees to reach the sunlight, Yi Wood people are not above using those around them, to get what they want. Sometimes, they go for a win-win scenario, other times, its not so win-win. Yi Woods come with an in-born understanding of the concept of leverage, and first-rate survival instincts. Dirt rarely sticks to them, thanks to their inherent charm and their penchant for ensuring they have ‘wriggle room’. Before you know it, they’ve got you wrapped around their little finger and eating out of their hand!
The Venus fly-trap best describes the Yi Wood woman because once she has you in her clutches, escape is indeed a challenge. The Yi Wood lady ensnares her man through a combination of charm, wit, sensuality, and just the right dose of intellectual challenge to keep things interesting. With their chameleonic nature – the Yi Wood lady is courtesan one minute, girlish coquette the next – they are consummately skilled at keeping their man interested. Most of the time, the Yi Wood lady has her man firmly wrapped around her little finger, and he doesn’t even know it. She has a way of making him feel good about decisions that SHE has made for him! Courting the Yi Wood lady demands regular professions of your great affection, and endless displays of loyalty. Make her feel like a damsel in distress, and you are her knight in shining armour and she’ll swoon!.
The Yi Wood man is charming, smooth, suave and the gift of the gab. Think Bill Clinton ladies, and you’re not far off the mark – he’s a Yi Wood. The problem with Yi Wood men is that they’re fickle and with so many choices, have difficulty settling for one lady. Being a playa is almost second nature to the Yi Wood man. That is not to say that they can’t commit but don’t expect it to be easy to get him to agree to take the relationship to a more committed level. The Yi Wood man is the consummate believer in wriggle room and will always look to make sure he has not over-committed himself – alas, reasoned methods don’t work with the Yi Wood man and a little good old fashioned histronics might just be the thing if you want something bad!
Those of you who know me, derive from that what you will. Now just one last point regarding the Day Master, and that is the concept of the trines. Chinese astrology holds that certain signs have an inherent affinity for each other, and these are: the rat, dragon and monkey; the ox, snake and rooster; the tiger, horse and dog; the rabbit, goat and pig. (Read more about these trine groupings at chineseastrology.com.) Generally, the trines are applied to one’s year sign; the rat, dragon and monkey, for example, are considered a natural fit in terms of disposition, thus greatly augmenting the chances for a successful romance, a fruitful professional partnering, a dynamic friendship … you get the idea. However, the concept also seems pretty practicable in terms of the other signs in one’s astrological make-up, especially the Day Master. On an experiential level, I share a trine with a couple of pretty good friends (just to recap, yours truly being a Wood Rabbit): CC was born on the day of the Water Goat, 癸未 guiwei, and BX the Water Pig, 癸亥 guihai. Rabbit, Goat and Pig = natural buds.
Of course, the whole point of this posting is that one’s astrological constitution is a holistic affair, and should be treated as such, especially when it comes to debatable – yet highly popular – matters like compatibility. While two people have may complementary day signs, their other characters may indicate a clash. Or – maybe, just maybe – factors like culture and language play a part in determining how well two individuals get along as well … Chinese astrology does provide a formula for calculating these things, but all that should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt, and then some.
Image courtesy of Life … or a reasonable facsimile thereof.