The Raging Flood and the Peaceful Pond, and Other News


On the Shelf

Robert Smithson, Broken Circle/Spiral Hill.


  • Chris Ware has been reading a lot of Krazy Kat, as we all should in these trying times. In the Kat and his creator, George Harriman, Ware sees a tacit African American tradition: “Krazy Kat has been described as a parable of love, a metaphor for democracy, a ‘surrealistic’ poem, unfolding over years and years. It is all of these, but so much more: it is a portrait of America, a self-portrait of Herriman, and, I believe, the first attempt to paint the full range of human consciousness in the language of the comic strip … I may be in the minority here, but I really think that most if not all readers of Krazy Kat during Herriman’s lifetime would have had a hard time thinking of Krazy as anything but African American. Krazy’s patois, social status, stereotypical ‘happy-go-lucky despite it all’ disposition all funnel into a rather pointed African American identity.”
  • Robert Smithson’s Broken Circle/Spiral Hill is classic land art: it’s dirt and sand and raw geology, and it’s all fun and games until someone decides to sell it. Phyllis Tuchman visited the work in the Netherlands, musing on its history and the difficulty its owner faces in passing it on: “At 6-foot-3 and often dressed all in black like a character in the B-movies he watched on West 42nd Street, Smithson cut a striking figure. His prescription aviator glasses, slicked-back brown hair, blue-gray eyes and pockmarked skin completed the persona he projected … Unlike his colleagues, Smithson accompanied his earthworks with films, which made them accessible to people who couldn’t travel to see them. But his death at age thirty-five in a plane crash in 1973 prevented the completion of the film of Broken Circle/Spiral Hill until 2011. In it, we learn how Smithson’s artwork relates to both the prehistoric past as well as more recent times … ‘Between violence and calm is lucid understanding and perception,’ Smithson also said in Arts magazine in 1971. ‘What goes on between the raging flood and the peaceful pond? I hope to make that an aspect of the film on Broken Circle/Spiral Hill.’ ”

  • Aaron Giovannone thinks that poets should break their silence about money: “North American poets have to stop pretending that money doesn’t matter to them, or that it makes no difference in their lives. Businesses and institutions have now borrowed precisely this idea from the arts, banking on the amenability of grad students, interns, and contract employees to work ‘for the love of it.’ At a union meeting at my college, the chair of the business department announced that she didn’t think contract professors should be paid so much (we make about 60 percent of what tenured faculty do). The contract professors she has hired, the chair explained, do it as a public service.”
  • Dennis Duncan looks back at the career of Harry Mathews, who died last week and remains one of the only American member of Oulipo, the experimental French literary group: “‘As an American embedded in French literary culture it was natural that translation, and its problems, should have been a cornerstone in Mathews’s writing. His fiction is peppered with strange, made-up languages: Pagolak, which can’t be translated; the three-word languages of Oho and Uha; the supposedly south-east Asian Pan, in which portions of Mathews’s third novel, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, are written. One of his characters muses, ‘The longer I live—the longer I write—the stronger becomes my conviction that translation is the paradigm, the exemplar of all writing.’ It is hard not to read this as Mathews himself thinking out loud.”
  • Writers: if you feel that mere words aren’t enough to move the political needle, you might consider starting a shadowy cabal instead. A couple of British authors, Douglas Jerrold and Hugh Pollard, banded together before the Spanish Civil War, and their intervention may have kick-started the whole thing—Danuta Kean and Chris Schüler explain, “‘In 1936, Jerrold got together over lunch at Simpson’s in the Strand with an aeronautical engineer and Louis Bolin, the London correspondent of a Spanish nationalist newspaper … Together they hatched a plot to charter a light aircraft to the Canaries for what looked like a holiday jaunt. But it wasn’t.’ What the three planned was to help Franco—who had been stationed on the island by the government in order to neuter his power—to reach his troops and lead a coup. Jerrold phoned Pollard, an old friend of notorious occultist Aleister Crowley, and arranged for a plane to take them on the supposed jaunt. To add credibility to the trip, Pollard recruited his daughter Diana and her friend Dorothy Watson, whom Jerrold noted ‘kept her cigarettes in her knickers,’ adding approvingly: ‘Obviously she was the type that went to Africa.’ ”