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October is two days away. One of our favorite things to do in my favorite month is watch old spooky movies every night. We have a very specific kind of spooky movie that we love: black and white flicks from the 1930s and 1940s.
Probably my all-time favorite halloween movie is Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), which must be seen to be believed.
A lot of the really good stuff is from the “pre-code” era: in between the advent of talkies in 1929 and the “Hays Code” of 1934. A lot of these movies go hard and are still pretty shocking: the original King Kong (1933) is a great example.
A great person on Twitter to follow for these kinds of recommendations is @nitratediva.
Everyone in our house is healthy at the moment, and for that I am grateful, but I can’t remember a month with more cosmic nonsense and petty frustrations. Good grief.
Having to write a Tuesday and Friday newsletter brings some order to my life when everything else is chaos. We had a truly epic “tell me something good” thread and I recently wrote about re-watching The Wizard of Oz and my favorite summer reads.
If you don’t subscribe yet, I hope you’ll do so!
Some recent Tuesday newsletters have been centered around some work I’ve been doing on “creative tensions” — pairs of opposites that contain within them generative possibilities. (Inspired by Heraclitus and Iain McGilchrist.) The most recent was the “warp and weft” of weaving. (Another related letter: “Resistance is necessary.”)
Q: You got away with enormous technical advances, didn’t you?
A: Simply by not knowing that they were impossible.
Orson Welles on the genius in not-knowing: pic.twitter.com/uikbK3Q5ry
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) September 5, 2022
Q: Where did you get the confidence from?
A: Ignorance! Ignorance! Sheer ignorance, you know. There’s no confidence to equal it. It’s only when you know something about a profession that you’re timid or careful.
Q: How does ignorance show itself?
A: I thought you could do anything with a camera that the eye could do or the imagination could do. And if you come up from the bottom in the film business, you’re taught all the things that the cameraman doesn’t want to attempt for fear he will be criticized for having failed. And in this case I had a cameraman who didn’t care if he was criticized if he failed, and I didn’t know that there were things you couldn’t do, so anything I could think up in my dreams, I attempted to photograph.
Q: You got away with enormous technical advances, didn’t you?
A: Simply by not knowing that they were impossible. Or theoretically impossible. And of course, again, I had a great advantage, not only in the real genius of my cameraman, but in the fact that he, like all great men, I think, who are masters of a craft, told me right at the outset that there was nothing about camerawork that I couldn’t learn in half a day, that any intelligent person couldn’t learn in half a day. And he was right.
Q: It’s true of an awful lot of things, isn’t it?
A: Of all things.
The rest of the 1960 BBC interview is worth watching, I think, if you have 25 minutes or so:
What’s interesting to me is how much of this is echoed by the players in Light & Magic, Lawrence Kasdan’s six-part documentary about Industrial Light & Magic, the special effects company that George Lucas created for the making of Star Wars. The good lines are right there in the trailer:
For anyone who is making something that previously did not exist in this form is, at that point, of necessity an amateur. How can he know how this thing is done that never has been done before? Every designer, every artist, every inventor or discoverer of something new is in that sense an amateur. And to explore the untried, he must be an adventurer. For he finds himself alone on new ground.
Filed under: not knowing
Labor and wait, I thought, sounds like the writing process.
You write something, then you put it in the drawer and wait until tomorrow to pull it out and see if it’s any good.
You put together a book proposal, then you send it out and wait to see if anybody buys it.
You finish a draft of your manuscript, then you email it to your editor and wait to see what they think.
You publish a book, and you wait to see if anybody reads it.
(See also: The Abyss and The Gulp.)
After a little googling, I discovered that “Labor and Wait” is from the last line in Longfellow’s poem “A Psalm of Life”:
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
That poem made me think a little differently about the phrase.
You don’t cease labor and wait, you labor and wait, laboring while you’re waiting.
Always laboring, always working, always making, even when you’re waiting.
“The waiting is the hardest part,” another poet said.
“Let us, then, be up and doing,” says Longfellow, and the waiting will be less hard.
The wheatsheaf is a powerful Co-operative symbol, evoking messages of unity in strength as one stalk of wheat can be easily broken but a whole sheaf has great strength. The American spelling of ‘labor’ is not a typo – it was intended as a statement of support for the anti-slavery North in the US Civil War.
(Here it is on the side of a building.)
In Latin, the term “ex-voto”, is described as: a votive offering of thanks to a sacred entity for a miraculous act.
August, tells Aldo Buzzi that he fell off his bicycle but was not seriously hurt. “In my mind I see the disasters I avoided—teeth, bones, eyes—and I understand the concept of the Ex-Voto.” He makes an apotropaic drawing…
“Apotropaic” means “supposedly having the power to avert evil influences or bad luck.”
Here’s that drawing:
Note the brand names on all of his gear. In another letter to Aldo Buzzi, he wrote about his cycling commute:
Early in the morning, then, I’m on the bicycle to Amagansett, all of it uphill, and for a little bit along the ocean, etc. The return trip, downhill, much quicker. I wear a plastic helmet due to the danger from local yokels in their trucks, who hate cyclists and drive too fast and too close.
Here’s another ex-voto drawing of him on his bicycle from 1992:
I’m not sure when Steinberg first became inspired by ex-votos. There were votive paintings in his native Italy, but he also made several trips to Mexico, first in the late 40s with Hedda Sterne, who was down there hanging out with the great Miguel Covarrubias and others. He first started making his own around 1983.
Not too long after I saw Steinberg’s drawings, I was at the library and came across this book of contemporary Mexican votive paintings by Alfredo Vilchis Roque and his three songs, made from the 30s to the present day. The book is divided up into sections based on subject matter: “Parenthood,” “Relationships,” “Emigration,” “Urban Violence,” “Illness,” etc. My favorites were the paintings thanking saints for not getting caught cheating:
You can see why a cartoonist might be inspired by this form of pictures and words. Your typical ex-voto has a scene of a “near miss” or a miracle, with a saint or religious figure looking over the scene, and words underneath giving thanks. This caption reads:
I give thanks to Lord Jesus of Chalma that Joaquin was able to get away before my husband came in, avoiding a disaster. I offer Him this retablo, begging His forgiveness. I swear in remorse never to cheat [again], because my husband loves me and doesn’t deserve it. I will always be faithful to him till death do us part. I let myself get carried away by [Joaquín’s] youth and smooth talk, but this has made me appreciate my husband, as a man and a human being. Rosa H. J. This took place in Col. Condesa, Mexico D.F. February 14, 1990.
In the book Alfredo Vilchis Roque cites Frida Kahlo as one of his biggest influences, which makes sense because Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera were avid collectors of ex-votos, decorating their house in Mexico City with hundreds of them. Here is an image I found of part of their collection:
You can really zoom in and get a look at some of these paintings in this photo.
It’s fun to trace the influence of ex-voto on Kahlo’s work in particular, and put some of her paintings next to ex-votos being made at the same time:
* * *
For more reading: “The Vivid Violence and Divine Healing of Ex-Voto Paintings”
“There are two camps of wrestlers in lucha libre: the técnicos, or experts who abide by the rules, and the rudos, or rough ones who break them.”
After I heard that photographer Lourdes Grobet died, I checked out a collection of her photos of Mexican wrestlers from the library. Lucha Libre: Masked Superstars of Mexican Wrestling is a wonderful book — a feast for the eyes, for sure, but it also has some great writing.
There’s an essay in the book by Superbarrio Gómez about when he made explicit the connection between politics and wrestling:
In the real world, you have the referee and the state, the rage you feel before underhanded politics and the demagogy that thrives without censure or scorn on television and in the press. In the lucha, the rudos do what they want. They don’t hide their behavior. A dirty wrestler isn’t sneaky about his wrongdoings. It’s all there for the public to see. In fact, he goes out of his way to offend the public, to give the finger to anyone who calls into question his corrupt ways. A rudo with a referee in his pocket is capable of anything, of using any available ruse to take down the scientifico, the clean fighter. This is how it is in the real world too.
Meanwhile, the good guys, the técnicos, can be a bit wide-eyed. They’ll extend their hand to their crooked opponent only to have the gesture of good faith paid back with some treacherous blow. The rudo will hold out his hand and, despite the crowd yelling “No! No!” the técnicos will accept it and get whacked. How many times have the people told their leaders “No!” only to be ignored and then suffer the consequences. Wrestling fans know perfectly well who the rudos are. When they’re spotted on the streets, they’ll yell out, “Enough! We’re sick of all your screwing around!”
My hipper friends have told me over the years that if I wanted to understand politics, I needed to get into pro wrestling. (Heck, Dan Sinker put together a whole podcast about politics as wrestling, but couldn’t get it picked up before the 2020 election.)
“Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle,” Barthes wrote.
“The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees.”
“Thus the function of the wrestler is not to win; it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him.”
As I understand it, in American pro wrestling, the terms “tecnico” and “rudo” are replaced by “face” and “heel,” respectively.
And so on. As Sean T. Collins points out, you can see how all of this is applicable to contemporary politics. (And art, music, etc.)
Even more becomes clear when you read about the history of Trump and the WWE. (Kurt Andersen: “WWE is, if not the key, a large key to the Donald Trump phenomenon we’re experiencing today.”)
In today’s newsletter, I wrote about Neil Postman’s 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, which begins: “Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us…. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”
I schedule the email to go out at 7AM, and by the time I get back from dropping the kids off at school and going for a walk, there are often dozens of interesting comments to read. Last week I simply posted an open thread and we ended up with almost 400 comments!
Truly my favorite place on the internet, though I’m still working out what goes on the blog and what goes in the newsletter. Always a work in progress…
We took the kids to the Houston Museum of Natural Science this weekend, and afterwards, I tweeted this thread:
The more I’ve gone over it in my mind, the more absurd and funnier it gets. Here is an institution dedicated to what we can learn from seeing physical objects in the fossil record in person… and they’ve gone “paperless” — no paper trail! (I should note, however, that they do print admission tickets so you can prove that you’ve paid to get in.)
I have also been meditating on my own absurdities concerning my life in paper. For example, my diaries are an attempt to make my own paper trail in an increasingly paperless world. My own “paper of the past.” My own fossil record.
But these archives are mostly for the short term, the short past: they’re to trace my own patterns, remember what I did last week, last month, last year, last decade. I am under no delusions that they will last, although they’ll probably last a lot longer than the hard drive I bought last month.
Meanwhile, I’ve stopped carrying a pocket notebook because I am in love with Apple Notes — the simple “notebook” on my phone that syncs across all my devices. I have files going for the newsletter, new books, shopping lists, etc. I am aware that these artifacts will mostly be lost, probably in the close future. They are the equivalent of “scratch” paper that will be tossed in the recycling later.
One final reach: The big news yesterday was that the FBI had searched the former president’s house to retrieve records he’d illegally removed from The White House. (Previously, he’d flushed paper down the toilet.) To a paper junkie like me, it is thrilling that paper can still, potentially, bring you down.
Like a good American, I have my pet conspiracy theories, and I wonder if the move to “paperless” is an attempt to rob us of our paper trails, the proof that things really happened the way we remember them happening.
So, I keep my paper trails going.
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