Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Oscar Wilde's tweets

"All good work looks perfectly modern."

"We should treat all trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality."

It struck me recently that Oscar Wilde would have written the best tweets. I'd been giving some thought to Twitter, which has crept its way into my life and which I feel a little ambivalently about. I like the (constrained) opportunity for self-expression it offers, since that aspect, for better or worse, appeals to my confessional, writerly ways. I also enjoy its triviality; I like that it's a bit of nonsense to break up the day, a series of tiny glimpses into the whims and scattered insights of the handful of friends I follow. When it's used for more serious, structured purposes, like One Book, One Twitter, I find myself annoyed. It's 140 characters, people; let's not pretend we can engage in a substantive literary exchange. (Surely we can think of something more trifling!) Of course, being the relatively serious-minded young man that I am, it's not like all of my tweets are flippant, or that I disapprove of tweets that disseminate important information (the opening of a new vegetarian restaurant in Detroit, say, or the fact that another Golden Girl has died). But even if I attempt to impart something serious in a tweet, I know that the sentiment will be nestled among my friends' friends' jaunty dispatches. It seems impossible, as a result, to take Twitter too seriously, and that's something I can appreciate.

But it's the flip side of these aspects that worry me. Self-expression? Just what I need: more performance space. Triviality? Well, that's OK in moderation, but what happens when all the trivial thoughts of you and your friends are aggregated? How much total time in a day is eaten up by constantly refreshing the feed? This is a legitimate contemporary concern, I think: are too many of us spending too much time tweeting (and facebooking, for that matter)? Should we be worried that our light, frothy desserts might be taking the place traditionally reserved for a nutritious entree? What are the cognitive risks of constantly expending the mental energy it takes to jump from one bit of flotsam to another? Should I be worried about how many times a day I refresh the damn thing? (It's starting to feel a bit like a habit, not a conscious choice, and I find that a little troubling.)

Peggy Orenstein writes eloquently in the New York Times about the distancing of self from experience that's a necessary part of being an active tweeter. She wonders, too, how much her experience of tweeting is shaping her life (rather than her life shaping her tweets), and she worries about the performative aspect of Twitter, about what "encouraging self promotion over self awareness" does to a person. So here we are, tweeting suspiciously, tweeting and wondering if we really should be.

Anyway, back to Oscar Wilde. The more I thought about Twitter and its potential pitfalls, the more it seemed that while it's been adopted by millions of us, it's probably best suited to the talents of a select few: people, that is, with a Wildean sensibility. Wilde, the consummate modern man, is known for building a reputation (in letters and in society) out of epigrams. He had an unparalleled talent for spinning a brief turn of phrase that could delight as immediately as it could give pause or confound. This was his genius. He specialized in the pithy paradox ("My duty is the thing I never do, on principle."), and the platitude turned upside-down and emptied ("Whenever one has anything unpleasant to say, one should always be quite candid."). He could skewer in seven words ("The best play I ever slept through.") as deftly as he could dash out an incisive truth about art ("It is the spectator, and not life, that Art really mirrors.") or politics ("Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people."). His epigrams are the meat of his work. They're a universe unto themselves; in them, Wilde is wise, flip, callous, hilarious, compassionate, witty, somber, and frequently contradictory. They're the reason his plays soar and his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, can feel clunky and earthbound; surrounding all those elegant bons mots with exposition and description makes them sound a bit stilted and plotted.

What's remarkably modern or, maybe more appropriately, contemporary about Wilde's aphorisms, is how well they stand on their own. Flipping through my copy of Ralph Keyes' The Wit and Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, I'm dimly aware that each epigram comes from some larger work, whether a play, essay, or even a conversation some acquaintance had the good sense to write down, yet the majority of them feel complete. They don't seem decontextualized; I rarely wonder what the lines were that preceded or followed them in their original circumstance. In this way, they're like tweets, and in this way, they feel contemporary. Wilde was essentially tweeting 130 years before anyone else was; his work prefigures our age of atomized self-expression and fragmented, public self-construction (not to mention an age in which literary works can be divided handily by technology into constituent fragments). It points to us, now, who emulate his style, whether we know it or not. For the literary types on Twitter, it has come to make Oscar Wildes of us all.

Whatever its pitfalls (real or imagined) Twitter is, among much else, a contemporary literary form. And it's a form best suited to a particular kind of literary talent: a flair for brevity and wit that is, delightfully, descended from a man who died before the previous century really even began. Practically none of us are as good at it as he was, but that's because he invented it.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Review: "Bicycle Diaries" by David Byrne

David Byrne is an avid and longtime urban cyclist, and his career as a musician and artist regularly takes him to different countries, affording him the opportunity to explore some of the world's major cities by bike. "The Bicycle Diaries" collects his thoughts as he cycles through cities as diverse as Columbus, OH; Istanbul; Buenos Aires; Manila; New York; and San Francisco, to name a handful. He takes care to describe cycling culture in each of these places, noting which cities are particularly bike-friendly (Berlin, with its separate traffic lights for cyclists) and which cities' residents regard cyclists as a baffling anomaly (Istanbul, for one).
Byrne's observations and insights into the unique pleasures and pitfalls of urban cycling in each particular city are well worth the read, as are his broader discussions of cycling's social benefits. But what really animates the book are his digressions. Each place conjures a variety of subjects for him to ruminate on: in one deindustrialized American city, he explores the post-modern landscape, where there are "simulated streets" and industrial park landscaping that "refers to" a "memory of landscape," places that are really "places" in quotation marks. Berlin evokes notions of man's domination of nature, as well as collective and individual self-denial. In Manila, Byrne thinks about control, exploitation, and disco; in London, his thoughts turn to William Burroughs' "policeman inside," who permits us to think certain thoughts and forbids us from thinking others.
Skimming the book again in order to write this review, I was struck by how deftly Byrne navigates from subject to subject, and at how casually and informally he investigates them. In addition to everything he has to say about cycling in cities, he intelligently addresses some heavy topics, like colonization, urban decay, the connection between beauty and death, the way architecture can mirror culture, the absence of meaning in life, and the relationship of artists to art, but always in a somewhat disengaged, relaxed style, and usually in just enough depth to pique the reader's interest before hopping to another engaging topic. It's a delightful stylistic device, this restlessness, because it is reminiscent of the many fleeting impressions one gets while biking. His stripped-down, conversational tone belies the gravity of some of his subject matter, and gives the book a breezy feel: he's rarely moralizing, and never establishing and defending a thesis -- just asking interesting questions (and occasionally offering tentative answers).

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The day I got stuck inside one of Sol LeWitt's open cubes

So speaking of Sol LeWitt:

I spent a few
much-needed hours at the Detroit Institute of Arts this afternoon. My appallingly busy schedule during the semester usually prohibits casual strolls through Detroit's glorious Beaux Arts art palace, and I've been itching to check out a small video art exhibition that ends tomorrow, so I figured there was no time like the present. I mostly enjoyed the exhibition, and encountered a number of works in the Contemporary and African-American galleries that captivated or moved me, but nothing grabbed me the way LeWitt's "Modular Open Cube Pieces" ('76) did.

It's funny, because I've seen the piece on a number of other occasions and given it only the most cursory attention. This time, though, I felt an unexpected and immediate connection, something that held me in front of it for a good half hour, much longer than I typically spend with a non-narrative work of art in a museum. (I'll be an honest: I usually lack the attention span to stare at a static artwork for more than a few minutes.) Here's a picture of a similar piece (or maybe it's the same one; the website where I found it doesn't offer any details):
Cube image

It's made of white-painted wood. (The cube at the DIA was, fortunately, displayed on a simple, white platform, not distracting the eye away from the piece as the floor above does.) Gazing at it, the eye is in constant motion. I have actually not seen that much LeWitt sculpture, and maybe for the first time, I really understood its potent connection to Lucinda Childs' minimalist dances: simple forms, repeated, and though still, somehow always in motion, aggregated into a complex, variable and engaging whole. One of the great pleasures of the piece was that the more time I spent standing in front of it (and crouching, backing up, walking around it, standing on my tiptoes) the more I saw, suddenly and with the force of a revelation. There are the basic building blocks, the simple pieces of wood; the complete, individual cubes that are stacked upon one another; the vertical and horizontal structures of varying height and length that are created by stacking the cubes; and the tunnels, straight and diagonal, that lead the eye directly into the piece's center. For a few minutes, I was just noticing the positive space, the actual wood, and then suddenly, I became aware of the dynamism of the negative space, the tunnels and holes that were certainly as engaging as the structure itself. Equally arresting were the shadows: pieces of wood cast shadows on other pieces, creating what appeared to be stripes or notches cut into the wood; these shadows increased in frequency as the eye moved closer and closer to the dense center of the piece. The top corners of the uppermost cubes had different shadows, tiny slivers of darkness that pulled gently down in short, diagonal lines. And suddenly, I became aware of the shadows the piece cast on the white platform upon which it sat, beautiful forms created out of light and darkness that echoed the wood forms: lines of varying intensity projected onto the blank base, again increasing in density and complexity as the eye moved inward.

The cube's innards were a wonder to behold: line after line, structure after structure, leading in and out and up and down. White and shadow alternately capturing and directing the eye, overwhelming it with the piece's unexpected depths. I felt an urge to dive inside it, to become tiny and crawl around, playing and climbing through the tunnels and along the wood until I would collapse in exhaustion. I also felt the surprising compulsion to destroy it, to hurl myself or something else into it, as if realizing a latent demand made by its fragility and delicacy.

I kept feeling like I should leave, which was silly, but I couldn't. I tried once, after about fifteen minutes, but then looked back, noticed another series of shadows I'd missed, and returned, staying for fifteen more. I felt that it was completely irrational to want to stay so long, but then felt the freedom of the holiday vacation, the absence of pressing obligations, and thought that there was nothing else I'd rather be doing than looking at this wondrous structure.

Ten or twelve people probably came and went during the time I was there. None stayed more than a minute, and I kept wanting to shout, "Wait! Don't go! You'll miss nearly everything!" But of course, this is what people do at museums. This is what I do at museums when a piece piques my interest and nothing more, and in fact, this is what I've done in the past when I encountered this particular piece. Their reactions were pretty wonderful: a toddler tried to dash toward it, presumably to climb on it, and was swiftly reigned in by his mother. He then stood obediently back, eying it and me in equal, fascinated measure. Some kids with an older woman talked about how much it looked like a building, and how they would love to see a building like that, where all the squares created by the cubes were windows. A teenage couple looked at it for about fifteen seconds, pronounced it "cool," and moved on. Two bright kids, who looked like a brother and sister, tried to calculate how many individual cubes comprised the whole structure. I think they eventually came up with a formula for figuring it out, but neither of them offered an answer.

Finally, and gradually, the piece released its uncanny grip on me, and I drifted away, wandering around the contemporary gallery. I thought I should probably leave the museum, but stuck around anyway. While I saw much else that excited me, I felt a little depleted, and my mind kept returning, insistently, to the intricacies of the open cube.