Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Notes on a couple of recent books I enjoyed...

The Pueblo Imagination: Landscape and Memory in the Photography of Lee Marmon
Beacon Press. 157 pages, $35.

Lee Marmon is a Laguna Pueblo Indian who has been taking photographs of Laguna with professional cameras since 1946. If you've seen the poster of the elderly Indian man wearing Converse All Stars (“White Man’s Moccasins”,the image on this book's cover), you've seen Marmon's work.

This collection of his work since 1946 would be worthwhile if it simply documented the ceremonies, buildings, landscapes, faces and figures-what had changed and what did not---over more than a half century. But this volume is so much more. These are dazzling, beautiful photographs, mostly in black and white. The stark magic of the Southwestern landscape was captured in the abstract paintings of artists like Georgia O'Keefe and Max Ernst. But black and white photos are inherently abstract, since they turn the world of color into shades and grains. Put a master photographer who knows his subject so intimately together with this landscape and you get one astonishing image after another.

Every page is a different experience. There are wonderful faces, dramatic landscapes, close-ups that let you feel the grain of old wood. There's a different feeling in every photo,and the feelings can be surprising, like the strange joy in "Girls at a clothesline," with white clothes flying against a wisp of cloud, yet in the foreground is a harsh and radiant edge of stone. Or the strange sinister appearance of black clad priests against the whitened adobe geometry.

There are a smaller number of color photos, just as accomplished and evocative. There's some prose by Marmon's daughter, writer Leslie Marmon Silko, as well as by writers Joy Harjo and Simon Ortiz. But it's the photographs that are important here. They draw you in, and your eyes and heart expand. If you know someone who loves the mystery and arid majesty of the Southwest, or relishes authentic and beautiful images of American Indian life, this book makes an elegant gift for Christmas or any other occasion. If that person is you, do yourself a favor. You won't have any trouble entering these images, and you can stay in them for a long time. The secrets are there.

Writing on Air
by David Rothenberg (Editor), Wandee J. Pryor (Editor)
MIT Press

I love looking at clouds. But I don't often get the chance to read about them. "The sun, too, is a burning cloud..." writes John P. O'Grady in his essay in this collection. The theme of air includes atmospheres of various kinds, breathing (and not being able to), flying through the air (and what flight has and hasn't meant versus human dreams about it), wind, song and sound carried by air...all kinds of neat stuff.

There are a few fairly well known bloomers in this florilegium but most of the writers are probably unfamiliar. There's verse by Lori Anderson, but no Laurie Anderson (though her "From the Air" riff would be perfect for this volume.) But mostly that only adds to the feeling of discovery. Unlike some anthologies, the selections don't seem like parts of something else; each is intriguing and usually satisfying. Just the right length to read easily one at a time and let them fill your sense of wonder with oxygen. It's playfully serious, thoughtful fun. This is a book that opens your mind and lets some fresh air in.

...and one I sort of enjoyed but didn't like...

Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid
edited by Robert J. Sternberg
Yale University Press 272 pages, $18

When you think about it, the topic of why smart people can be so stupid---or at least how they can---is a central motif in a whole lot of storytelling, from Greek tragedy through grand opera to slapstick comedy: from Oedipus to "The Blue Angel" and the Marx Brothers running a college. It is also a central problem addressed by various forms of psychology applied to people who are not mentally ill---neurotics, say, rather than schizophrenics. You might even say it's a major moral concern of many religions.

Literature's answers include hubris, obsession, weakness, social arrogance and people who love too much. Psychology talks variously about complexes (including one that takes its name from Oedipus), inflation, projection, displacement, even group and self-hypnosis. Religion posits sin, including the seven deadlies.

So what's remarkable about this new anthology is that virtually none of these things are even mentioned. It's emotionless in more than one sense of the word. For a book put together by a psychologist, it seems striking to me that Freud is referenced once, for a study on childhood development (though "Forrest Gump" gets four citations for an analysis extending through some 13 pages) and Jung not at all. But then, the kind of contemporary psychology that is used in some of these essays is not to my taste. It's mainly the reductive, mechanistic, classify this, apply that drug school.

Instead, the useful parts apply logical analysis in the old ordinary language philosophy way to the terms (although I'm sure the authors would prefer to call it deconstruction. Ordinary language philosophy no longer gets tenure). What do we mean by "smart people"? What do we mean by "stupid?" Do we mean smart people who do unintelligent things, or smart people who act foolishly? (Sometimes one, sometimes the other.)

There are some wonderful examples of smart people being stupid and/or foolish, especially applied to scientific howlers, like Jean Joseph Leverrier, a mid-19th century mathematician who dazzled the world by applying strict Newtonian physics to perturbations in the orbit of Uranus to correctly predict the existence of Neptune, and its precise location (although he got a little lucky with that.) Suffused with the fame he accrued, he then went on to apply the same kind of calculations to the wobbly orbit of Mercury to predict the existence and location closer to the sun of the planet Vulcan. Despite failing to find it for some 17 years, Leverrier never conceded error.

It took Einstein to explain Mercury's orbit with a new non-Newtonian theory of relativity. And of course, it took Gene Roddenberry to eventually discover the planet Vulcan in a completely different part of the universe, and impishly populated it with a race that stuck to logic and suppressed any idea that emotion---like pride, or a taste for the warm sun of fame--could influence them: a whole planet of smart beings who could be so stupid.

One answer to the title question that emerges is that smart people are often "domain-dependent," that is, mostly smart about one thing, and mostly stupid about others. This, along with the other explanations offered, don't explain very much. Even domain dependence is given a more sophisticated explanation by Jung's theories of types, and how the inferior functions work. The unconscious, the shadow, even the seven deadly sins, offer richer grounds for explanations or at least discussion than the mechanistic mumblings in this volume. By my lights then, a whole bunch of sometimes entertaining smart people have collaborated on an essentially stupid book.

No comments: