10 May 2017

revisiting 1789: on simon schama's citizens.

Well, if nothing else, I can at least check resolution #4 off the list. I recently finished Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, which, as one of the preeminent popular histories of that whole affair, I have had in my possession for almost a decade but only began reading in February. It had been many years since I last read a history of the French Revolution, my first true intellectual love, and it was interesting to perceive how my responses to Schama’s work were intermediated both by a lingering nostalgia for the historically inflected idealism of my youth and the large body of reading I’ve done since that has by and large disabused me of (or at least significantly tempered) that idealism.

(Aside: By “first true intellectual love,” what I mean is that I remember reading some anodyne picture book about the French Revolution and also watching the Wishbone adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities when I was in elementary school, and all of that lingered in my memory long enough such that I enrolled in a course called Great Revolutions when it came time to ship off to CTY the summer before I started high school. Covering the French Revolution, Marxism, and the Russian Revolution, that course has a good claim to being the genesis of every academic interest I’ve nursed since, including, of course, economics, which I at some point chose as my professional calling. Essentially, I wouldn’t be a quarter of the person I am today had I not studied the French Revolution with all the starry-eyed wonder of a thirteen year-old who believed that a better world was possible if we could just make it so.)

Though Schama purports to have written the story of the Revolution free of any theoretical edifice disciplining the events recounted within that reduces them to the manifestations of some impersonal teleology or structure at work, his book is far from neutral. Over the course of some 800 pages, he advances two main arguments. The first is that violence was inherent to the very progression and objectives of the French Revolution and not some aberration from it or a phenomenon merely confined to the Jacobins’ virtuous terror. Not much to argue with here, though implying an equivalence between the riots of hungry peasants with state-sanctioned murder of political opponents is a touch sloppy.

The second is that the French Revolution ushered in less change than is commonly supposed. (The subtext is that all this violence couldn’t even properly midwife a world of equality among men, so why have bothered with it in the first place?) To bolster this thesis, Schama devotes around a fourth of the book to detailing the reformist agendas of King Louis XVI’s various ministers, driving home the fact that France of the late 18th century was not the impoverished and hidebound domain that the term ancien regime conjures within the imagination. He notes that the initial impetus for political upheaval came not from the dregs of the Third Estate but rather within the nobility itself, and he never tires of observing that the demands of the masses were often less radical than they were reactionary, cries for state protection against the vicissitudes of modernity instead of clamours for individual liberty and the sovereignty of the people. All of that can be true – indeed, for all of Schama’s strenuous efforts to appear counterintuitive, his supporting points are not even a little surprising to anyone with a modicum of knowledge about how politics works – without being a conclusive case for some fundamental continuity of French history through the Revolution.

Here in particular, I found Schama’s scope of analysis disappointingly narrow. No revolution in the history of mankind has ever immediately altered the real, lived-in conditions of the people writ large, at least not to the extent to which the revolutionaries themselves promise and their opponents protest. Change of this nature simply does not occur with that kind of rapidity (see, e.g., Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914). On the contrary, it would seem to me that the defining characteristic of a revolution – its lifeblood and its legacy, one that will prove more enduring than any political, economic, or social agenda it may advance – is its ideology. It recasts the world in its own image, illuminating it within its own language. The very parameters of the questions that can be asked and the set of answers considered permissible shift. The revolution, in this way, makes itself indispensable and irreversible, for nothing that follows could be understood or even discussed if it were to be removed from history. Nothing can change, yet everything changes.

Is a studiously objective account of the French Revolution possible? Is it even desirable? While reading this book, I occasionally thought back to something that Tony Judt said in Thinking the Twentieth Century, which was that, as a historian, he was once preoccupied by why things happened, but, as his career progressed, he felt more strongly that the historian’s primary responsibility was to see things as they are – the implication being, of course, that this was much easier said than done. Yet Judt himself wrote histories that were seared through with moral judgement, so “objectivity” as such cannot be what he meant. What he was really calling for, I think, was a sense of authorial integrity. It seems folly to think that anyone can check his or her biases at the door entirely when approaching a topic like the French Revolution, given the strong passions it arouses to this day, and the art of writing about history (or anything else, really) is the negotiation, conscious or otherwise, of where the self and its experiences end and the object of its actions and thoughts begins and the subsequent honesty to say, “This is how I drew the line.”

Where Citizens failed for me, as a work of history, was the absence of this integrity. In the book’s prologue, Schama claims to have undertaken an “exercise in animated description...without any pretense of definitive closure,” yet that description is bracketed with such charged modifiers and subjunctive clauses that it cannot be interpreted in any way other than how he intends it to be interpreted. His approach to the Revolution is Burkean to its core – the disdain for its “Events and Persons” practically wafts off the page – and it would be a perfectly plausible reading of the events of 1789 if he could just own up to it rather than hide behind the shibboleth of chronicle. (Besides, what chronicle of the French Revolution ends in 1795 when the end of the Revolution is typically given to be 1799 and a very strong argument can be made for including a certain Corsican general in the tale as well?) His posture is self-consciously revisionist – “I alone can stand athwart the tyranny of conventional wisdom and elucidate for you, Poor Befuddled Reader, what really happened” – but the novelty of his insights struck me as greatly overstated.

By way of postscript, I should note that, ironically, Citizens did not even quite live up to expectations from a storytelling perspective. Schama does place Great Men (and some Women) at the centre of his tale, but they remain like figures in a Jacques-Louis David painting, imperious and removed. They are people in the strictest sense of the word, but they have no heart. But perhaps I should not be too harsh: Citizens was not any less disappointing than other popular histories of the French Revolution I’ve read over the years. Truth be told, my honours for the most compelling evocation, historical or otherwise, of the Revolution still belong to Hilary Mantel’s novel A Place of Greater Safety. Something something, fiction being truer to life than fact, something something.

29 April 2017

mix: sunshine escape.

I started assembling this playlist a few days before I went to Jacksonville. As its title suggests, it was meant to be the soundtrack to my temporary respite from the long reign of Ithaca’s winter, and its sound is largely inspired by the sun-drenched, retro stylings of The Knocks’ single “Classic,” but the mix took a bit longer to come together than expected. Perhaps that isn’t the worst outcome, though, as it might finally just be getting warm for good here in upstate New York. Possibly. Maybe.

ambergris caye.
sunshine escape
download

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  1. Foster the People – Coming Of Age
  2. Surfer Blood – Island
  3. The Knocks – Classic (featuring Powers)
  4. Passion Pit – Where The Sky Hangs
  5. Raphael Saadiq – Stone Rollin’
  6. Phoenix – Fences
  7. Local Natives – Airplanes
  8. Broken Social Scene – Stars And Sons
  9. Charli XCX – What I Like
  10. Carly Rae Jepsen – Fever
  11. Belle and Sebastian – The Blues Are Still Blue
  12. Japandroids – True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will

16 April 2017

seasonal migration.

This year, I performed the storied American tradition of fleeing to Florida during my spring break. It was welcome refuge from both the cold, which can have a mercilessly prolonged reign over upstate New York, and the meteorological volatility that tends to characterise springtime around here. And it helped that the boyfriend happened to be doing a rotation in Jacksonville at the time. As the adage goes, don’t look a fortuitous scheduling coincidence in the mouth.

I had been to Florida a number of times before without any sense of having actually seen the state, my previous destinations (Disney World, the Everglades, and Key West) being more like enclaves of interest that exist in spite of the surrounding whole. As I get older, I am finding that domestic travel is making me more cognisant of the wide regional variations otherwise obscured by the American penumbra. This particular corner of Florida – I didn’t know this until I went, but Jacksonville, located in the northeastern corner of the state, is actually its largest city – was as flat and wide as the eye could see, the land regulated by a clockwork of interstate highways. There were RVs, sports cars, and old people abound. It was hot and sunny, consistently so, and, when it did rain, it stormed with such ferocity that I half feared the earth would crumble to bits and dissolve into the ocean. The locals to whom I spoke all seemed a touch friendlier and sociable than I would have expected (e.g., there was a cashier at Trader Joe’s who went out of his way to give us food and sightseeing recommendations after we had finished paying for our groceries that I wondered if he was working on commission for the local tourism bureau). Florida is not of the Deep South is my understanding, but Jacksonville is not far from the border with Georgia and culture is rarely exhibits discontinuities at such boundaries.

Amateur anthropological observations aside, I enjoyed a holiday in the truest sense of the term. I am often guilty of trying to make my travels as edifying as possible, but it must be said that bumming around on beaches, floppy hat and sunglasses in tow, for the better part of two days is quite nice too. I’ve little idea how Jacksonville’s beaches rank relative to others in Florida; as someone whose only recourse while growing up was the Jersey Shore, though, I have no complaints in this regard.

We spent one day on Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island, home to genteel old houses and a cute oceanside town. We stayed long enough to catch the sunset because, like, why not be completely trite when on vacation?

amelia island.
amelia island.
lulu's at the thompson's house.
fernandina beach.
fernandina beach.

Somewhat more substantial adventures were had the following day. When scouting around for things to do in Jacksonville, I happened upon the Wikipedia page for the nearby city of St. Augustine and learned that it carries the distinction of being the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement in the continental United States. So, obviously, I added it to our itinerary. Our first stop was St. Augustine Bike Rentals, where we picked up two svelte fixed-gear bikes to get us around for the rest of the day. They proved ideal for navigating the tangle of small streets that thread through St. Augustine’s Old Town, which, with its cobblestone paving and squat, colourful buildings, abounded with historical charm. (The plethora of tourists was less charming – and I acknowledge the hypocrisy of pointing that out – but what is there to be done?)

st. augustine.
popsicle break.

Some landmarks of note that we saw were Flagler College, whose campus is largely centred on a Gilded Age-era hotel –

flagler college.
flagler college.

– and Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the Lower 48. We didn’t pay to go inside, but cycling around what had been the moat was completely free! It was extremely reminiscent of the forts that I visited in San Juan, Puerto Rico – not a surprise at all, given both cities’ origins in Spain’s colonial enterprises.

castillo de san marcos.
castillo de san marcos.

After a quick coffee and lunch break at The Kookaburra (aside: if you’re going to name your coffee shop after a species of Australian wildlife, why would you ever choose anything that isn’t a quokka?), we crossed over the Bridge of Lions –

bridge of lions.

– and biked for a few miles until we got to Anastasia State Park, where, for a nominal entrance fee, a rather pristine white-sand beach and hours of insouciant lounging, interspersed with jaunts into the waves, awaited. Miraculously, I made it through with only a few, and thankfully discreet, sunburns.

anastasia state park.
anastasia state park.
anastasia state park.
anastasia state park.
anastasia state park.

As the sun began to set, we rode back to Old Town for dinner, locked up our bikes, and sauntered down St. George Street, its main pedestrian thoroughfare.

st. george st.
st. george st.
st. george st.
st. george st.
old city gates.
oldest wooden schoolhouse.

I should note, by way of both disclosure and conclusion, that going to the beach has never been on my list of favourite things to do. I am more liable to find lying facedown on a beach towel as the sun roasts my skin to a delicate shade of scarlet an occasion for panic rather than relaxation, am strongly resistant to being tan (“deathly pale graduate student” being, after all, my #aesthetic), and have always been annoyed by the sand’s unerring ability to find its way into every known crevice of clothing (and some unknown ones too). At the risk of engaging in some unwarranted over-analysis – totally unprecedented in the history of this blog – I might infer that my dislike of the beach stems is just a specific manifestation of a more general aversion to dirt and messiness, to things being out of place. With that having been said, as our seaside excursions wound to an end, my mind and body suffused with the sort of tired contentment that only a day out and about can induce, I thought that I had succeeded after all at setting that prissier side of my personality aside for a time and that bottling up a bit of that sun-kissed, windswept magic to bring back north with me might not be the worst idea.

15 March 2017

a shading of jazz.

Recently, I’ve gradually been working through my blog history and archiving my posts – all 641 of them and counting – to my hard drive. It occurred to me that my ten-year blogging anniversary is this year (September 21, to be precise), making this little space my longest lived blogging endeavour to date, and the impending milestone made me realise how very sad I would be if I were to lose a lot of this writing to the internet’s penchant for impermanence (or, more specifically, to Google’s penchant for killing off their services without much warning). In the course of doing so, I have been able to revisit the sort of things I used to share in this space and realised that I no longer talk about music as much as I did. Which is a shame, because music is great! And I spend the majority of my waking hours listening to it! So, in the spirit of my old music share posts, here’s some of what has captured my aural imagination as of late.

Sometime over the last week, I tumbled down a Bill Evans rabbit hole and haven’t been able to clamber out of it since. I’m not entirely sure how this happened, given that jazz isn’t a genre of music to which I listen with any regularity. I imagine that, as with many a layperson, my acquaintance with the work of Bill Evans began with Kind of Blue, where he provides the piano backing to Miles Davis’s trumpet stylings. (Aside: I was introduced to Kind of Blue by my high school music history teacher, himself a jazz musician. He described it as a jazz album even people who hate jazz love. So, if you haven’t yet, you owe it to yourself to listen through the record at least once before you die, though, afterwards, you may be too full of inchoate emotion to leave the house for a few days. Do not fret, that is perfectly natural.) Every once in a while, I would reach for Evans’s solo album, Alone, but it rarely rose above the status of background music. Then, perhaps a month ago, I had my radio tuned to Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz on the local NPR station (sorry, I’ll try to sound more like the living, walking stereotype of an east coast liberal elitist next time) when I heard the guest, whose name now escapes me, perform a rendition of a piece called “Waltz for Debby” written by none other than Bill Evans:

♪ Bill Evans Trio – Waltz for Debby (Take 2)

Is there such a thing as a delayed-onset earworm? For some reason, it floated to the surface of my consciousness last weekend, and, since then, I’ve been obsessed. Completely obsessed. Like, I-can’t-bring-myself-to-listen-to-anything-else obsessed.

If I knew anything at all about jazz theory or history, this would be where I explicate, in my admittedly amateurish way, the brilliance of Bill Evans, but the truth is that I am approaching his music in almost a complete vacuum of intellectual preconceptions. In some ways, this is a bit frustrating: I suspect that, as with any art worth its salt, one’s appreciation of jazz is strictly increasing in the amount that one knows about it. In another way, however, it has proved quite liberating. Instead of book learning, I must rely on music intuition. There is less thinking and more feeling.

What is it that Bill Evans’s music makes me feel? His brand of jazz runs cool in temperament. It is unruffled, contemplative, lyrical, and just a touch melancholy at the edges. It is suffused with a fundamental innocence. “Waltz for Debby,” after all, was written for his niece. In that sense, it reminds me of Ravel’s “Ma mère l’Oye” (“Mother Goose”), an orchestral suite that was originally written as a piano duet for two children that shares the same earnestness and lack of pretension.

♪ Maurice Ravel – Ma mère l’Oye: Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra with Yannick Nézét-Séguin, conductor

That, I think, gets to another reason that Bill Evans’s music has attached itself so firmly to my heart. For me, it is impossible to not hear, lurking behind the jazz inflections, a classicism that hearkens back to the piano works of the French Impressionist composers in particular. I imagine that must make Bill Evans an easier sell to me than other jazz musicians because I feel like he and I speak the same language, if rather different dialects thereof. Indeed, I find myself wanting to try playing some of his pieces on the piano, and I haven’t had the urge to personally try my hand at jazz since high school (I was convinced for about a month that it would be a good idea to expand my musical boundaries a bit, only to discover that my classically trained brain just couldn’t handle the rhythm and syncopation). Take, for instance, this other piece of his:

♪ Bill Evans Trio – Some Other Time

The double bass plucking out a broken perfect fifth in the very first bar of music – one could hardly find a simpler gesture, yet its supreme unhurriedness frames everything to follow. This made me think of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédies”, which, in spite of their ubiquitous presence on compilations of Relaxing Classical Music™, really are beautiful in their compactness and simplicity.

♪ Erik Satie – Gymnopédie No. 3
Pascal Roge, piano

And there are a few chromatic runs in the piano part that trace out a whole-tone scale, of which Claude Debussy, among other composers, made extensive use.

♪ Claude Debussy – Preludes, Livre I: Voiles
Pascal Roge, piano

And, in a twist that I am sure is far from coincidental, “Some Other Time” shares almost the exact same beginning as “Flamenco Sketches” from Kind of Blue.

♪ Miles Davis – Flamenco Sketches

I wonder if maybe the time of year has something to do with it too, caught as we are in the fitful transition between winter and spring (though, given recent meteorological events, there is no question as to who has the upper hand there). There is a yearning for warmth and the angled sunlight of longer days, but, until then, I will have to be content with dreaming of it.

2 March 2017

nesting update & introducing BARToC.

Now that I’ve been living in this apartment for almost seven months and survived most of an Ithaca winter (albeit an unusually warm one), it seems like a good time to provide a quick update on goings on at Chez Malin. Although not too much has changed from my original setup, I have made a few improvements at the margin, along with one very big addition that I am excited to introduce!

First, in my bedroom, I rearranged my reading nook. As enamoured as I was with it, it did have a few problems. Because the rocking chair was set into the corner of the room and slightly behind the bookshelf, something I did in order to make the reading nook as compact as possible, I often felt boxed in when I sat there – not really the feeling I want to have when in search of a relaxed state of mind. The ottoman-cum-sidetable was on my left-hand side, which, as a right-handed person, made reaching over for whatever hot beverage I would be nursing at the time a tad awkward.

new reading nook.

Here is a shot of the reading nook in its current form from exactly the same angle. Having tested it out thoroughly, I can confidently say that the two problems described above have now been fixed! There have also been a number of new tweaks to the space. I framed some prints that I cut out of a 2016 Rifle Paper Co. calendar and hung them next to my antique Washington, DC map. I have placed on the ottoman a portable bluetooth speaker that had been languishing, unused, in my home office. These days, I use it primarily to listen to podcasts while I do chores (any other Friends of the Pod out there?!) and WQXR while winding down at night. Within arm’s reach of the rocking chair is a mint green and white-striped fabric bin. Deemed my “basket of fun,” it holds a “Cuddly Bunny” Pillow Pet, a pair of fuzzy socks, a hot water bottle, and a cupcake-bearing Pusheen plushie that my sister gave me for my last birthday – basically, all the things I could ever need to make my reading time that much cosier.

basket of fun.

Another cosy addition to my room has been this butterfly chair from Target, nicknamed “Floof.” It fills this otherwise dead corner of the room nicely, and, when I prop my feet up on my desk chair, I have myself a ridiculously comfortable place to watch movies/TV/sports on whatever mobile device I happen to have on hand. (It was from this spot that I watched the Federer-Nadal 2017 Australian Open final on replay, the ultimate act of consecration.)

floof.

The most challenging room to deal with has been the study room, especially as the temperature outside started falling. Beyond the fact that the walls are not well insulated, it features a door that leads to an outside porch area that does not seal very well, plus three extremely drafty windows. With judicious placement of towels and the use of copious amounts of packing tape to seal up the windows and doors, I’ve at least managed to ensure that the study is just about the same temperature as the rest of the apartment. Any lingering chill can be mostly dealt with by layering on a vest and throwing a fleece blanket over my legs. Conveniently, I keep both items – along with more fuzzy socks – in a fabric bin right next to my office chair.

basket of cosy.

The study houses the newest member of my lineup of personal computing devices: a brand new, custom-built desktop! As I mentioned in my New Year’s resolutions post, my objective was to have a machine more powerful than my laptop to handle the computational burdens of my research. The tech geeks among you can read more about the build here. In the tradition of supercomputers with funky names, I was extremely keen on baptising my PC with a nifty moniker. I thought that “MAHLER” would be appropriate given my love for classical music and dear old Gustav’s penchant for composing beastly symphonies but couldn’t think of a suitable phrase for which “MAHLER” could serve as an acronym. Eventually, I turned to his Hungarian almost-contemporary, Béla Bartók, for inspiration. The “k” became a “c,” then “BARTOK” became “BARToC,” short for “Big Academic Research Ten-Core Computer.”

BARToC.

On a more practical note, the switch from using a laptop to a desktop computer as my primary machine of choice required me to redesign my workspace (my laptop now stays put in my departmental office, and both are bound by the magical powers of Dropbox). Although I had initially wanted to have a dual-monitor setup at home, the one large monitor I already had on hand has proved to be more than sufficient. My desk, as a result, feels far less cluttered and more spacious than it did before, and I want to believe that has had a salutary effect on my work productivity.

Another positive productivity shock, I hope: while upgrading to BARToC, I treated myself to this mechanical keyboard with the Cherry MX Blue switches. Typing on it is an absolute pleasure. As someone who types with a rather heavy touch, I appreciate the higher activation force, and the clicky sounds are literally all I have ever wanted out of my keyboarding experience. These switches, however, are definitely the sort of thing I can likely only get away with because I live on my own, as I could see the sounds being rather irritating to other people. Being a hermit must have its benefits, after all!