Friday, August 31, 2012

I’m about to finish Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love, and Death in Renaissance Italy, by Sarah Bradford. It’s my first real introduction to Italian history (book history, as opposed to pop culture history). It’s fun to learn about someone from history whose name you’ve been vaguely familiar with for years but didn’t really know anything about. I admit that I picked this book up because I’ve been watching the quasi-factual Showtime show The Borgias. At least one big scene on the show seems to have been entirely fabricated, but it’s an entertaining fiction anyway (and Jeremy Irons is the Pope, so need I say more?). But I’m glad I decided to check out the real history, which is even more interesting than the fiction, and infinitely more complicated. In the first half of the book, Lucrezia is actually a relatively minor character in her own biography, as so much of her early life was defined by her being a pawn in the political intrigues of her family. Just keeping the names and titles of everyone straight takes a lot of concentration. (That’s the thing about European history—everyone has multiple names, like Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, or Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua.) But Italian names are fun to say, so that helps. 

The name Lucrezia (or Lucretia) Borgia is one of those “infamous” names of history, but as usual, the real person is more complicated and nowhere near as nefarious as the myth. Her father, Pope Alexander VI, and her brother Cesare, however, were indeed pretty ruthless, so if you’re into war, murder, torture, adultery, corruption, greed, and hypocrisy, there’s plenty of that too. The Borgias probably weren’t “the original crime family”, as the TV show’s tagline goes, but they certainly were as bad as any modern gangsters and would make John Gotti proud. 

Next I want to read Nancy Mitford’s biography of Madame de Pompadour, another one of those vaguely familiar names of history. Since I know as little about 18th-century France as I did about Renaissance Italy, that should be fun.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Gesichtspalme Sonntag

I've had Susan Sontag's On Photography sitting in my to-read stack for months now, and the other day I finally started reading it. I'm not sure how much more I can take. I was annoyed when she said, "There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera." I got more annoyed when she sneered, "While real people are out there killing themselves or other real people, the photographer stays behind his or her camera [...]. Photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention." She laments at "how plausible it has become, in situations where the photographer has the choice between a photograph and a life, to choose the photograph." Please. If you're so inhumanly callous that you would choose to take a picture rather than help someone in danger, you've got problems to start with, problems you would have even if you'd never used a camera. Did she actually believe that was something professional photojournalists did?

Then I got really, really annoyed when she said that "there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder—a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time." I mean, come on. As a photographer, how can I not be insulted by this? Predatory my ass. Why is seeing people as they never see themselves a "violation" anyway? What's wrong with that? As for "turning people into objects"? How 'bout no. The camera doesn't turn anything into anything. The person is still a person, and the picture is a new, separate thing. And that's all it is, a thing, a little piece of paper. It's not stealing anyone's soul, for christ's sake. There's no harm done. (No harm, that is, in merely taking a picture. Using the picture commercially without consent of the person is another matter, but that's beside the point.) And this idea of "sublimated murder"? Speak for yourself, is all I can say. This is the kind of comment that's too ridiculous to know how to refute. I mean, I take pictures of people for reasons that are pretty much the opposite of murder. Jeez louise. "Sad, frightened"? Let me tell you, when I'm taking pictures, it's probably the least sad and frightened I ever feel.

Eight of my Goodreads friends gave this book 5 stars! And most of them are people I like as human beings! What am I to make of this? Are any of them photographers? I doubt it. But, okay, I promise not to judge them until I've finished the book.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

I still hate theory

I've always hated theory. I hate it because it makes me feel stupid. I hate it because everyone I know seems to "get it" and I don't. I hate feeling alienated because of it. I hate being too stupid to truly be one of the group, to be accepted. I want to be included. I hate missing out because I'm too stupid to understand things. I want to be smart enough to attract a girlfriend who is smart. I want to be respectable. I hate not being able to take part in discussions. I wish I could make you understand what this feels like. What if all your friends were tennis players, but you couldn't play tennis. That's what this feels like.

I tried reading Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes because it's about photography. I couldn't get past the first two pages. Here's a sentence from the second page: "The various distributions we impose upon it are in fact either empirical (Professionals / Amateurs), or rhetorical (Landscapes / Objects / Portraits / Nudes), or else aesthetic (Realism / Pictorialism), in any case external to the object, without relation to its essence, which can only be (if it exists at all) the New of which it has been the advent; for these classifications might very well be applied to other, older forms of representation."

Can someone please tell me what that sentence is supposed to mean? What human being actually communicates that way? I don't even know how to begin to try to understand it. How can you expect me to keep reading if I have no hope of understanding even one thing about what he's saying? Why does he say professionals and amateurs are empirical? What does that even mean? Why does he say landscapes, objects, portraits, and nudes are rhetorical? What does that mean? What the hell does "the New of which it is the advent" mean? I cannot begin to understand this sentence.

I get so angry when I read something like this. Something that doesn't seem to care about communicating with a real human being in the way real human beings communicate.

In college I took an introduction to literary theory class because I had to for my major. I hated it so, so much. I've never hated a class like I hated that class. Throughout school I was bored or indifferent with a lot of classes, and sometimes I liked a subject but didn't like the teacher, but with this, I just hated the subject so much. The teacher was cool, but that didn't help. One time I broke down in tears as I tried to explain to her why I hadn't turned in a particular assignment. I hadn't turned it in because I couldn't do it. I was incapable of doing the kind of advanced abstract thought you need to be able to do for literary theory.

I hate being inferior. I hate how it separates me from people I don't want to be separate from.

When I started college I was a music major, the best part of which is that you don't have to write papers. It's a subject that's not based in language or verbal thought. I thought I would never have to worry about writing papers. But then I switched majors to English. I didn't even like English class in high school. I never took honors English, I took regular English. It didn't occur to me to apply for honors English. Not only did I not give a shit about my academic career, I knew I was not smart enough for honors English.

I don't understand why I turned out this way. I wish I could make you understand how I feel. As the years have gone by after college I've thought about it less frequently, but when it does come up, like when I'm reading a blog or comment or essay or just a Facebook status and I don't have a clue what the person is talking about, it all comes bubbling up to the surface. It's like I'm back in college again, sobbing uncontrollably because I know how inferior I am.

I don't want to sound like I'm mad at anyone. I guess I'm just jealous that everyone is smarter than me. But that doesn't mean I'm mad. I just want to get this off my chest once and for all and explain how it feels. If I can make you all understand how I feel maybe I can relax finally and stop letting it bother me so much.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The 10 Most Important Albums of My Teenage Years

I was going to call this my ten favorite albums of my teenage years, but such a list would consist mostly of Beatles albums. So by calling it the ten "most important" I can get away with including just one token Beatles album to represent all of them. But it's not a random choice—Please Please Me was the first Beatles album I bought, and one of the first rock albums I ever bought. It was a gateway album. Until then, I hadn't thought of myself as the "kind of person" who listens to rock music. It was exciting to finally be getting into something other kids my age were into. 

The second album on my list was another kind of gateway: it enabled me to be identified as a person with "good taste" in music, which in turn led to my making friends with other people who had "good taste" in music. (Throughout high school, there were only a handful of us who fit that description.)

Beyond that, you can just think of this as a list of the albums that most affected my emotions and personality. I came up with the list very quickly, listing them as they came to mind with as little thought as possible. I hope I'm not forgetting anything.

What does this list say about me? Seriously, you tell me.

1. The Beatles — Please Please Me (1963)
2. Ben Folds Five — Whatever and Ever Amen (1997)
3. The Smashing Pumpkins — Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)
4. Beck — Odelay (1996)
5. Led Zeppelin — Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
6. Squirrel Nut Zippers — Hot (1996)
7. Pink Floyd — Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
8. Ben Folds Five — The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (1999)
9. Phish — Billy Breathes (1996)
10. No Doubt — Tragic Kingdom (1995)

P.S. I never actually owned the last album on the list. I borrowed it from my sister all the time.

Monday, August 13, 2012

I just finished What's for Dinner? by James Schuyler. It's mostly dialogue, and it's very charming. It's the kind of book where the author has a lot of affection for the characters, but in a really wry way. Similar to A Nest of Ninnies, but more serious. Highly recommended.