Saturday, June 30, 2007

On Break for a While

Deborah, Nat, and I are about the leave on a trip to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Nat and I will be going on the "Wild Cave Tour," which sounds terrifying to a mild claustrophobe like me. It involves squeezing through spaces nine inches high, climbing walls, crawling through wet places. I'm sure I'll be doing a lot of thinking about the fate of Floyd Collins. After that, I'll be off to western South Dakota or the Nebraska panhandle with my new maksutov-cassegrain telescope to take advantage of those deep dark skies. (Ah, darkness! Ah depth!)

When I return I'll stifle the urge to inflict slide shows on you. I'll try to talk about important stuff.

Given that the new Michael Moore movie is coming out, I guess I'll have to say something about socialized medicine (oops! I mean single payer and single provider health care systems (funny how "socialized" has become a dirty word (how did that happen?))).

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

In Nietzsche's Footsteps

In January I took part in a conference, "Interpreting Equal Respect" in the amazing Medieval Italian city of Pavia, in the state of Lombardy. Our genial host, Ian Carter, pointed out to me that the church of San Michele Maggiore (Google Earth photo at left), which was next door to the Villa Gloria a San ichele, the restaurant where we had dinner twice, was where the kings of the Lombard League were crowned here after they made Pavia their capital in 572. Actually, now that I have been able to do a little research, I see that these coronations must have been in the Lombard church that earlier stood on this site. San Michele was built in the late eleventh century. But it was plenty old enough to please me in any case. More importantly, the facade was decorated, not just with saints and angels, but with animals and weird monsters, now sadly eroded by time and attempts at cleaning, like swan-necked dragons and lion-headed men. They weren't designed merely to edify or browbeat the viewer, but to some extent to delight and entertain. It certainly is odd to think of Christians designing a church that way. It upsets my stereotype.

I decided try to make Romanesque churches the theme of the rest of my trip, in which I would visit coastal Liguria (Genoa and points south) as a grateful guest of my old friend, Valeria Ottonelli of the Università di Genova. Churches, plus soaking up the ambience the Nietzsche loved so much. That does sound like an odd combination, doesn't it -- Nietzsche and churches?

Here are a few pictures I took with my cellphone. They are small, uncropped, and badly exposed, but they're all I've got.

A vast area in the center of Genoa is Medieval, a labyrinth of twisting streets and narrow, cave-like alleys. No wonder they drive those funny little toy cars. (Well, there's also the whole conserving-petroleum thing.)

Through this inconspicuous door in a gloomy alley, with no sign to indicate what it was, we entered the most delightful candy store I've ever been in. I asked if we were going into the rear of the store. No, Valeria said, this is the store itself. Inside is a simple counter, with two women, obviously mother and daughter. Over their shoulders you can see the little kitchen which they made their wares: tray after tray of -- all sorts of things dipped in chocolate as dark as sin. My favorite was the chocolate-covered orange peel. The Italians know their candy. They are also the only tribe on Earth who know how to make coffee properly: "strong enough to float a horseshoe," as they used to say out west.

This is the Church of San Donato, in Valeria's neighborhood in the center of the medieval part of the city. It was built in the eleventh century, but the black and white striped portal, which unfortunately dominates the facade, was added in 1888.

Inside San Donato. There are several rooms that are basically an art museum, with paintings displayed simply as paintings. I asked Valeria about the guy who painted one of them, "The Holy Family." She said, "Why that's Paoli!" She seemed to be thinking, "Sheesh! Don't you know anything?" I hadn't heard of him. When she was growing up, they learned all about the Genoese painters (Genoa is her home town - how lucky can you get!), of whom this Paoli guy was one. For my part, growing up in Stockton California -- either there were no Stockton painters and writers, or they didn't matter. Probably the former.

The places that were most important to Nietzsche were a little further along the coast, on and around a little peninsula called either the Promontory of Portofino or the Promontory of Capodimonte. He wrote in Ecce Homo that the whole of Part One of Zarathustra, above all the character of Zarathustra himself, came to him while taking daily walks from Rapallo out to the tip of Portofino in 1881 and 82. Though he moved to Nice, further up the Riviera, after that, he did return to live in the area again. The preface to the second edition of "Dawn" was dated "Herbst des Jahres 1886," below the phrase"Ruta bei Genua." Ruta is a hamlet high on the slopes of the Capodimonte itself. The "Monte" is a huge loaf of dark igneous rock, pushed up to a height of 610 meters by tectonic action, which forms the spine of Portofino. Scattered on its craggy sides are stone houses, an occasional church, small orchards, and much half-wild forest. It's Nietzsche's kind of country. When he walked around the Capodimonte, he was indulging the same passion that had brought him to Switzerland: his love of mountains and climbing. ... Above you see Genoa, looking west from the west side of the Capodimonte. The stuff that looks like clouds on the far horizon is actually the snow-covered Alps.

Rapallo is not what it used to be. Valeria said there is now an Italian verb, "rapallizare," which means "to build up a once quaint and interesting place as a destination for swarms of tourists." We drove to Rapallo, got an eyeful of the tourists, then headed back to the area near Ruta. Valeria parked her cute little yellow toy car near the hamlet of San Rocco, and we started down stone-paved path toward the water. We saw this little shrine along the way.

This is the wall of a sort of snack bar, set in a little cave in the rock of the pathway. I noticed this inscription. As you see, it says "dai mûagetti." "Good Lord!" I said, "What language is that?" Valeria said, "Genovese!" (I haven't been able to figure out what that phrase means.) Genoa has a regional language! It's said to be a remnant of the language of the ancient tribe of the Ligures, who were here before the Romans. This is one great virtue Europe has: the localities are often very, very local. Like different countries.

Further down the path is the Romanesque church of San Nicolò di Capodimonte. Above, Valeria approaches it on the mountain path.

The main altar of San Niccoló. Here you see Saint Nicholas himself, in his pre-Thomas-Nast days. He already has his red robe trimmed in white, but hasn't lost his pointy bishop's hat.

View just to the left of the shot above this one. Mary's halo was the only light in the place that was turned on.

On one wall of the church, not shown, it said "Ave Maris Stella," hail star of the sea (Maris Stella being an epithet for Mary, from a Medieval hymn). For centuries this church served the fishermen who launched their frail wooden boats from the rocky shore just below us.

Though we were only about four miles from the congestion of Rapallo, this whole area was deserted. While we were in the church, no one else was anywhere in sight. Though the doors were unlocked, there wasn't even a priest or attendant anywhere about. Near the door of the church was a table with brochures and postcards, and a box to pay for whatever you took. (I now have a Saint Nicholas medal on my key ring.) I was amazed and touched that these people, total strangers, were trusting me not to rob them blind. I hope it stays this way too: just the way it should be.

Returning to Genoa, I briefly visited the Genoa Cathedral. Valeria waited outside. Cathedral? She'd seen cathedrals! As you can see, the facade is not Romanesque but snazzy new Gothic. The building was partially rebuilt and modernized when it was damaged by a fire caused by a fight between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Darn those Guelphs and Ghibellines!

So that was my visit to one of Nietzsche's favorite winter haunts. Hope you didn't mind the pictures too much!

Thanks Valeria! You're the best!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Not that Kind of Zoo

I saw this movie last night at the fabulous Sundance Film Center in Madison Wisconsin. I balked at seeing it, because I found the subject matter upsetting, but Deborah wanted to see either this one or something called "After the Wedding." In all my life I've never seen a movie with the word "wedding" in the title. I didn't want to break my perfect record, so I chose "Zoo."

No, it's not about the kind of zoo that has bored-looking lions, masturbating monkeys, and hippos who look like they would commit suicide except that all sharp instruments have been carefully taken away from them. (I wonder, am I the only one who finds those places seriously depressing?) Anyway, the subject of this movie is even more disturbing than that. A lot more.

Whatever else you think about this movie, there is one thing that makes it interesting: it has made a lot of people really mad.

It is a sort of semi-documentary, with re-enacted scenes rather confusingly interwoven with actual footage, directed by Robinson Devor, about events that came to light after a certain man, known to his associates only as "Mr. Hands" was accidentally killed near Enumclaw in western Washington in 2005. He died of internal bleeding due to a perforated sigmoid colon as a result of having anal sex with a stallion. (The anus was his, not the stallion's.) Eventually, it turned out that he was a member of a club of a half-dozen or so zoophiliacs who met at a local ranch to have sex with Arabian horses. They called themselves "zoos" for short. (Yeah, that kind of zoo.)

This boggles the mind in more ways than one. These "zoos" were all men. The horses, apparently, were male horses. According to the one man we hear being interviewed about this, the men would, er, do the deed by, um, acting sexually interested in the horses, and this was enough to inspire the horse to, well, take the active role and penetrate the man. (There, I've said it!) My first response to this was like Queen Victoria's on learning of the existence of lesbians: I wasn't sure such things were possible! (However, I know you can get animals to do some pretty weird things. Tip o' the sombrero here to Two Blowhards.)

At the time of Mr. Hands' death, having sex with animals was not against the law in the state of Washington. Now, as a result of the public furore inspired by these events, it is. Inevitably, the film raises the issue of whether it should be. It doesn't overtly take sides. It allows both points of view to express themselves. You decide! But it leaves you with the impression that the film makers think it probably should not be.

At one point in the film, the ranch owner tells a story about a horse he had that went blind. The poor creature kept wandering into thickets of thorns, looking for food, and its eyes would be reinjured by the thorns. He considered taking the horse in to be put down. Instead he decided to have its eyes surgically removed, so they wouldn't be poked out any more, and continued to care for it. He said that having a problem like this is not a good enough reason to be put to death. So the film gives the impression that, in some ways, these people were more humane toward their animals than most of us are.

I am not quite sure what I should think about the issue of whether this sort of thing should be illegal or not. Here is a brief tally of factors that I think are relevant.

1. Sex with animals might be regarded is animal abuse/cruelty. Sex with children is regarded as abusive per se. Why not with animals? This argument is made by one of the people in the film.

2. The consent issue. At least one of the zoos in the film says that the animals in this case "consented" to having sex with these men. In the sound track we hear at one point the voice of a radio commentator, instantly recognizable as Rush Limbaugh's, saying that there can be no debatable issue about that at all, because if the animals had not consented, "none of this could have happened"!

I think Limbaugh is confusing consent with desire. Desiring is not consenting. Desire is an animal thing. Consent is very human. In the cases where consent is really important, what you are consenting to is written out, and you consent by signing your name. Of course I don't mean that you can only consent if you can read and right. But the consent argument here infers from the alleged fact to a conclusion about the rights of the animals, whereas something like the reverse of this must take place. When you consent to my doing something to you, you are giving me the right to do that thing, and furthermore you intend to do so. That is the point of indicating consent. You also thereby acknowledge that you are giving up some rights of yours: mainly to complain (about a violation of your rights) later on. Infants can't do this, because they don't have the needed sorts of concepts and understandings. The same is true of (all non-human) animals.

3. This may be an unusual sort of case. Well, I don't know anything about this stuff, but I would think that this sort of zoophilia, animal-penetrates-man, might be unusual, and the man-penetrates-animal sort is more common. That might be a totally different issue. The consent argument, if you find it appealing, cannot be given for the other sort of thing.

4. How abusive is it? You might want to just make the latter sort of zoophilia illegal, on the grounds that it is more abusive, or more obviously abusive (of the animal), than the animal-penetrates-man sort. But how abusive is it? Having something inserted into an orifice and then pulled out. What is the abuse? It horrifies us because we interpret it as sexual, and we have all sorts of ideas and attitudes about that. But all this seems to be completely absent in the animal. It probably does not find being penetrated by the human sexual at all. And even sex itself does not have anything like the meaning for them that it has for us. We see it as an intensely personal connection between people. For them mating is no more personal than any other bodily function. And besides, if this is abusive, there are things that will still be legal to do to animals but are much worse. Like killing and eating them, for instance. So even if man-penetrates-animal is abusive, it might not be abusive enough to justify making it illegal.

Bottom line: Maybe the only reason for illegality here that is consistent both with obvious facts and other policies most of us are already committed to is legal moralism. It can't be because of harm to the animal, because the harm would have to be a "dignitary" harm that does not exist. It would have to be because the act is considered wrong in and of itself, apart from hurtful consequences to anyone. Like many liberals and all libertarians, I am no fan of legal moralism, hence I think this sort of thing should probably be legal.
My rating of "Zoo": *** (out of a possible ****).

Some reviewers compared it to the work of the great Errol Morris (one of my personal heroes -- how many filmmakers have made a movie that got an innocent man out of prison?). You can see Morris's influence in "Zoo", but I would say it is a notch or two below his level.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

My Other Car is a 1957 Imperial

Yes, my other car, the one I don't drive a lot, is an antique. I've had these pictures almost since we bought it in 2001, and never got around to putting them up on the web. Well, here they are!

Chrysler's 1957 cars were exuberant fantasies. They were the first cars to have huge tailfins. When they appeared, so they say, General Motors' design team literally threw away their plans for the 1959 cars and started over. The Chrysler cars were designed by a genius named Virgil Exner (his friends called him "Ex"), who said he was inspired by speedboat designs and by science fiction pictures of rocket ships. He said that his goal with these designs was to make cars that looked like they are moving even when they are standing still. He succeeded! There are a people around who loathe these cars for their flamboyant individualism, their naked assertion of human power, their extravagance, their seeming refusal to be safe and sensible. I love them for all the same reasons.

I've heard the front of this model described as "intimidating." Hm. Well, it does have a stylized eagle -- a bird of prey-- in the middle of the hood. The grill looks like a row of gleaming teeth. It seems to be saying "I eat Volkswagens for lunch." Yeah, I guess "intimidating" is a fair enough description. That's not what I love about it, but I have to admit, that's what it is.

The strips of chrome over the headlights are called the "eyebrows." People have a tendency to anthropomorphize cars. Or maybe they are designed to be anthropomorphic.

They say that the 1957 Chrysler cars were the first in the world to have curved side windows. Evidently, "Ex" wanted curved doors, and realized that if the doors are curved, then the windows that slide in and out of them can be curved as well. It's part of the extremely sleek look he was after. Though the car is very long -- nineteen and a half feet! -- it is also very low. The top of the car is well below shoulder level for me. (My Jeep Wrangler is half as long and almost a food taller!) The effect Ex achieved is striking.

Think of driving a great white shark.

A driver's-eye-view. The gauges are set in deep wells rimmed with gleaming steel. It somehow gives the thing a futuristic rocket-ship sort of look. This is a two tone car: white, and something Chrysler called "Indian Turquoise". The interior is dominated by the blue color. The windshield is lightly tinted blue, so driving it you feel as if it's just a blue world out there -- the whole cosmos. It's an experience of blueness.

The "doughnut" on the lid of the trunk contains -- absolutely nothing. The spare tire is in a completely different area of the trunk. It's there for looks. Frank Lloyd Wright would have a cow.

The famous "gunsight" taillights. I always thought they looked more like jets of flame shooting out the back of a rocket. The chrome halos are like those glare circles that show up in photographs of bright lights.

The original owner of this car was a Wisconsin farmer. He never married, and lived and farmed with his sister. She hated going to church in his pickup truck, so he went to Gillespie Bloomer Motors (now Don Miller Chrysler-Plymouth) in Madison and brought home an Imperial. There was something about it she didn't like, so he took it back to the dealer, and brought this one home. This one, she liked. For many, many years, they drove it to church, and nowhere else. And they would not even take it to church if it was snowing, and usually not if it was raining. Church and God are important, sure enough, but -- this is an Imperial after all! ... I respect that. This was a guy with a clear sense of values.