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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Since the fifteenth century, Timbuktu had been an epicenter of commerce on the trans-Saharan caravan route


As the desert inches south into the city of Timbuktu, the sand settles on your skin and the air feels heavy in your lungs. When I travelled there nine years ago, the mythical city, home to the shrines of three hundred and thirty-three Sufi saints, left a bleak impression, tempered only by the selected wonders under glass at the Ahmed Baba Centre, an edifice which, until last Friday, housed between sixty and a hundred thousand manuscripts dating back as far as the thirteenth century. Other smaller libraries and private collections held many more. Until last week, the total number of historic manuscripts in Timbuktu and its surrounding region was estimated at about two hundred thousand.
Because I had seen them, and because it hurts physically each time our collective patrimony is savaged, I felt personally hurt by the early reports that one, two, or all of the famed libraries of Timbuktu had disappeared. Later, it was also reported that a man had been burned alive for yelling “Vive la France!” shortly before the final onslaught, and that the city’s town hall had been destroyed by fire, together with the governor’s office.
The mayor of Timbuktu, Halle Ousmane Cissé, has for the last ten months sought refuge in Mali’s capital city, Bamako, and even he only possesses second-hand information. Since the beginning of the French intervention, phone and power lines have been down in Timbuktu. Last Sunday, however, Cissé received a phone call from his communications attaché, who had just been able to escape the city. He was told that the Ahmed Baba Centre had burned, and that more than half of its manuscripts had been consumed in the fire. “What is happening in Timbuktu is dramatic,” Cissé told the French press yesterday. “This is a cultural crime perpetrated against world heritage.” Yet he also seemed to hint that not all of the city’s manuscripts had been destroyed.
Jean-Michel Djian, a French writer who specializes in West African culture, and is author of a recent book, “The Manuscripts of Timbuktu,” confirmed by phone last night that parts of the various collections were safe. “The great majority of the manuscripts, about fifty thousand, are actually housed in the thirty-two family libraries of the ‘City of 333 Saints,’ ” he said. “Those are to this day protected.” Djian also revealed that Abdel Kader Haidara, the owner of his family’s “Mamma Haidara” library, had transported, two months ago, more than fifteen thousand of its manuscripts to the capital city in order to protect them. Djian said that the same was true of the several thousand manuscripts of the Kati Foundation in Timbuktu. “The rest,” he added with a crack in his voice, “is unknown.”
In April, 2012, Timbuktu, once the great spiritual capital of Africa, was assaulted by two rival Tuareg rebel groups: the nationalists who declared secession in Northern Mali, and the Islamists of Andar Eddine who have sought to implement Sharia law. A couple of months later, insurgents from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (A.Q.I.M.) came in and wrested control from the other groups. They demolished most of the Sufi shrines, banning them as idolatrous, smashed the statue of a man astride a winged horse, flew their black flag, and began a régime of terror.
Since the fifteenth century, Timbuktu had been an epicenter of commerce on the trans-Saharan caravan route, but also, thanks to its thriving mosque and university, an oasis of learning and literacy. Founded between the eleventh and twelfth centuries by Tuareg tribes, the city soon housed scholars and scribes within its walls. These scribes copied countless works on topics ranging from political science, history, and theology to astronomy, botany, and poetry. Arabic and, at times, Fulani, Songhai, or Bambara texts were recopied on camel shoulder blades, sheepskins, tree bark, and even papers from Italy. Some were illumined with gold leaf, with frail calligraphy presenting significant stylistic variations. The surviving manuscripts, including one in Turkish and one in Hebrew, span the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Thus a written history of Africa was constructed, including the wondrous “Tarikh Al-Sudan,” a storied chronicle of West Africa.
Many of these texts have been preserved in mud homes and rudimentary private libraries, since they represent a prized family heritage. In 1973, the Malian government created the Ahmed Baba Centre, named after a seventeenth-century scholar, to provide adequate care and protection for texts which were otherwise rotting away in trunks and attics, or, in some cases, in desert caves. It was finished in 2009, with funding from UNESCO and South African and other foreign and private sources, and used advanced techniques to attenuate abrasion and other damage. Unfortunately, very few of the manuscripts had been copied electronically. And since many of the areas of knowledge they cover—anatomy, erectile dysfunction, women’s rights, medicine, music—are domains traditionally despised by Islamists, the Ahmed Baba Centre had several times been ransacked by armed men, though no damage had yet been done to the manuscripts themselves.
Last spring, the magazine Jeune Afrique reported that curators and private collectors were already organizing themselves to conceal the most important documents. Families spontaneously followed course on their own accounts. According to some manuscript-conservation specialists, it is believed that these libraries bring “baraka” (“good luck”), and that dismantling them attracts misfortune. Besides, many of these texts (or jottings in the margins of the manuscripts) contain family secrets, correspondences, accounts, and diaries, owing to the fact that most of Timbuktu’s inhabitants, including its skilled-craftsman class, were literate since the fifteenth century. To this day, the Tuaregs are reluctant to give away secrets such as the possible Jewish ancestry of some eminent families of Timbuktu, or evidence of extra-marital affairs involving illegitimate descendants. But locals have reported that Islamists were loath to enter private houses—most likely for fear of being “polluted”—and this has helped the conservation of significant parts of the city’s legendary heritage, at least so far. In West Africa, there is a saying that every time an elder dies, a library burns with him. The disappearance of even a section of the city’s ancient libraries conversely represents no less than the death by fire of old and ancient men and women who had so far pursued, with us and between themselves, a quiet but immemorial dialogue.
Lila Azam Zanganeh’s first book, “The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness,” was just published by Norton / US and Penguin / UK.
Photograph by Horst Friedrichs/Anzenberger/Redux.


Thursday, January 24, 2013

Nagel believes that (currently unknown) teleological laws of nature might mean that life and consciousness arise with greater probability than would result from the known laws of physics.

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False
by Thomas Nagel
Oxford University Press, 130 pp., $24.95                                                  
‘A Sun of the Nineteenth Century’; cartoon from Puck magazine showing Charles Darwin as a shining sun, chasing the clouds of religion and superstition from the sky, 1882


The history of science is partly the history of an idea that is by now so familiar that it no longer astounds: the universe, including our own existence, can be explained by the interactions of little bits of matter. We scientists are in the business of discovering the laws that characterize this matter. We do so, to some extent at least, by a kind of reduction. The stuff of biology, for instance, can be reduced to chemistry and the stuff of chemistry can be reduced to physics.
Thomas Nagel has never been at ease with this view. Nagel, University Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, is one of our most distinguished philosophers. He is perhaps best known for his 1974 paper, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” a modern classic in the philosophy of mind. In that paper, Nagel argued that reductionist, materialist accounts of the mind leave some things unexplained. And one of those things is what it would actually feel like to be, say, a bat, a creature that navigates its environment via the odd (to us) sense of echolocation. To Nagel, then, reductionist attempts to ground everything in matter fail partly for a reason that couldn’t be any nearer to us: subjective experience. While not denying that our conscious experiences have everything to do with brains, neurons, and matter, Nagel finds it hard to see how these experiences can be fully reduced with the conceptual tools of physical science.
In Mind and Cosmos, Nagel continues his attacks on reductionism. Though the book is brief its claims are big. Nagel insists that the mind-body problem “is not just a local problem” but “invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history.” If what he calls “materialist naturalism” or just “materialism” can’t explain consciousness, then it can’t fully account for life since consciousness is a feature of life. And if it can’t explain life, then it can’t fully account for the chemical and physical universe since life is a feature of that universe. Subjective experience is not, to Nagel, some detail that materialist science can hand-wave away. It’s a deal breaker. Nagel believes that any future science that grapples seriously with the mind-body problem will be one that is radically reconceived.
As Nagel makes clear in the subtitle of Mind and Cosmos, part of what he thinks must be reconceived is our reigning theory of evolutionary biology, neo-Darwinism. Neo-Darwinism maintains, or at least implies, that the origin and history of life can be explained by materialist means. Once the first life arose on earth, the fate of the resulting evolutionary lineage was, neo-Darwinists argued, shaped by a combination of random mutation and natural selection. Biological types that survive or reproduce better than others will ultimately replace those others. While natural selection ensures that species constantly adapt to the changing environments around them, the process has no foresight: natural selection responds only to the present environment and evolution cannot, therefore, be aiming for any goal. This view, Nagel tells us, is “almost certainly false.”
Before creationists grow too excited, it’s important to see what Nagel is not claiming. He is not claiming that life is six thousand years old, that it did not evolve, or that natural selection played no part in this evolution. He believes that life has a long evolutionary history and that natural selection had a part in it. And while he does believe that intelligent design creationists have asked some incisive questions, Nagel rejects their answers. Indeed he is an atheist. Instead Nagel’s view is that neo-Darwinism, and in fact the whole materialist view elaborated by science since the seventeenth century, is radically incomplete. The materialist laws of nature must, he says, be supplemented by something else if we are to fold ourselves and our minds fully into our science.
His leading contender for this something else is teleology, a tendency of the universe to aim for certain goals as it unfolds through time. Nagel believes that (currently unknown) teleological laws of nature might mean that life and consciousness arise with greater probability than would result from the known laws of physics, chemistry, and biology.
Scientists shouldn’t be shocked by Nagel’s claim that present science might not be up to cracking the mind-brain problem or that a profoundly different science might lie on the horizon. The history of science is filled with such surprising transformations. Nor should we dismiss Nagel’s claims merely because they originate from outside science, from a philosopher. Much the same thing happened when natural theology—the scientific attempt to discern God’s attributes from His biological handiwork—gave way to Darwinism.
It was the philosopher David Hume who began to dismantle important aspects of natural theology. In a devastating set of arguments, Hume identified grievous problems with the argument from design (which claims, roughly, that a designer must exist because organisms show intricate design). Hume was not, however, able to offer an alternative account for the apparent design in organisms. Darwin worked in Hume’s wake and finally provided the required missing theory, natural selection. Nagel, consciously or not, now aspires to play the part of Hume in the demise of neo-Darwinism. He has, he believes, identified serious shortcomings in neo-Darwinism. And while he suspects that teleological laws of nature may exist, he recognizes that he hasn’t provided anything like a full theory. He awaits his Darwin.
Mind and Cosmos is certainly provocative and it reflects the efforts of a fiercely independent mind. In important places, however, I believe that it is wrong. Because Nagel’s book sits at the intersection of philosophy and science it will surely attract the attention of both communities.1 As a biologist, I will perhaps inevitably focus on Nagel’s more scientific claims. But these are, it appears, the claims that are most responsible for the excitement over the book.
I begin by considering the reasons Nagel believes that materialist science, including neo-Darwinism, is false. I then turn to his alternative theory, teleology.


Nagel believes that materialism confronts two classes of problems. One, which is new to Nagel’s thought, concerns purported empirical problems with neo-Darwinism. The other, which is more familiar to philosophers, is the alleged failure of materialism to explain consciousness and allied mental phenomena.
Nagel argues that there are purely “empirical reasons” to be skeptical about reductionism in biology and, in particular, about the plausibility of neo-Darwinism. Nagel’s claims here are so surprising that it’s best to quote them at length:
I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life. It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. We are expected to abandon this naïve response, not in favor of a fully worked out physical/chemical explanation but in favor of an alternative that is really a schema for explanation, supported by some examples. What is lacking, to my knowledge, is a credible argument that the story has a nonnegligible probability of being true. There are two questions. First, given what is known about the chemical basis of biology and genetics, what is the likelihood that self-reproducing life forms should have come into existence spontaneously on the early earth, solely through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry? The second question is about the sources of variation in the evolutionary process that was set in motion once life began: In the available geological time since the first life forms appeared on earth, what is the likelihood that, as a result of physical accident, a sequence of viable genetic mutations should have occurred that was sufficient to permit natural selection to produce the organisms that actually exist?
Nagel claims that both questions concern “highly specific events over a long historical period in the distant past, the available evidence is very indirect, and general assumptions have to play an important part.” He therefore concludes that “the available scientific evidence, in spite of the consensus of scientific opinion, does not in this matter rationally require us to subordinate the incredulity of common sense.”
This conclusion is remarkable in a couple ways. For one thing, there’s not much of an argument here. Instead Nagel’s conclusion rests largely on the strength of his intuition. His intuition recoils from the claimed plausibility of neo-Darwinism and that, it seems, is that. (Richard Dawkins has called this sort of move the argument from personal incredulity.) But plenty of scientific truths are counterintuitive (does anyone find it intuitive that we’re hurtling around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour?) and a scientific education is, to a considerable extent, an exercise in taming the authority of one’s intuition. Nagel never explains why his intuition should count for so much here.
As for his claim that evolutionary theory is somewhat schematic and that it concerns events that happened long ago, leaving indirect evidence, this is partly true of any historical science, including any alternative to neo-Darwinism, e.g., the one that Nagel himself suggests. In any case, a good part of the evidence for neo-Darwinism is not indirect but involves experiments in which evolutionary change is monitored in real time.2
More important, Nagel’s conclusions about evolution are almost certainly wrong. The origin of life is admittedly a hard problem and we don’t know exactly how the first self-replicating system arose. But big progress has been made. The discovery of so-called ribozymes in the 1980s plausibly cracked the main principled problem at the heart of the origin of life. Research on life’s origin had always faced a chicken and egg dilemma: DNA, our hereditary material, can’t replicate without the assistance of proteins, but one can’t get the required proteins unless they’re encoded by DNA. So how could the whole system get off the ground?
Answer: the first genetic material was probably RNA, not DNA. This might sound like a distinction without a difference but it isn’t. The point is that RNA molecules can both act as a hereditary material (as DNA does) and catalyze certain chemical reactions (as some proteins do), possibly including their own replication. (An RNAmolecule that can catalyze a reaction is called a ribozyme.) Consequently, many researchers into the origins of life now believe in an “RNA world,” in which early life on earth was RNA-based. “Physical accidents” were likely still required to produce the first RNA molecules, but we can now begin to see how these molecules might then self-replicate.
Nagel’s astonishment that a “sequence of viable genetic mutations” has been available to evolution over billions of years is also unfounded.3 His concern appears to be that evolution requires an unbroken chain of viable genetic variants that connect the first living creature to, say, human beings. How could nature ensure that a viable mutation was always available to evolution? The answer is that it didn’t. That’s why species go extinct. Indeed that’s what extinction is. The world changes and a species can’t find a mutation fast enough to let it live. Extinction is the norm in evolution: the vast majority of all species have gone extinct. Nagel has, I think, been led astray by a big survivorship bias: the evolutionary lineage that led to us always found a viable mutation, ergo one must, it seems, always be available. Tyrannosaurus rex would presumably be less impressed by nature’s munificence.4
  1. 1
    Nagel’s work has long attracted the attention of both philosophers and scientists. Indeed the careful reader will notice that I’m mentioned in his new book as a scientist-participant in a workshop that he organized on some of the topics covered in the book; many of the other participants were philosophers. 
  2. 2
    The field of “experimental evolution” is concerned with watching evolution as it occurs. Because of their short generation time, microbes are the focus of much of this work. 
  3. 3
    While I’ve heard this concern before, I must admit that I think I only now understand it. 
  4. 4
    This is not to say that adaptation is rare or that natural selection doesn’t modify theDNA sequences of species. Even species that ultimately go extinct have experienced many previous bouts of successful adaptation. 

In case you haven’t noticed, some of the most amusing and captivating writing in the city is being produced in the service of cheese.

In the Dairy Case, Ripe Prose

Photographs by Evan Sung for The New York Times (Saxelby) and Tina Fineberg for The New York Times (Gastronomie 491)
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They can tell you about torment. They can describe long, frustrating hours sitting in dark, stinky basements and caves, pen in hand, trying to get the flow of the words just right.


Tina Fineberg for The New York Times
Martin Johnson, cheese and charcuterie manager at Gastronomie 491, writes signs using wit and cultural references to entice buyers.
Tina Fineberg for The New York Times
Mr. Johnson's sign for Barick Obama.
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Steve Jenkins describes cheeses at Fairway Market with a certain passion.
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
Signs by Anne Saxelby of Saxelby Cheesemongers capture her Midwestern sense of enthusiasm.
They can tell you, too, about how it feels to be engulfed in a blaze of inspiration. They’ll describe the delirium of bliss when the right lines come. Like all writers, they are keenly aware of the competition,
and envy eats away at them when they detect, in one of their comrades, a candle-flicker of genius.
We speak, naturally, of cheesemongers.
Although not universally acknowledged as members of New York’s creative class, the people who sell cheese arguably deserve a place of recognition alongside the poets and the playwrights, the folk singers and the indie screenwriters.
In case you haven’t noticed, some of the most amusing and captivating writing in the city is being produced in the service of cheese.
Consider, for starters, Martin Johnson, 52, who manages the cheese, charcuterie and other treats at Gastronomie 491, a market and cafe on the Upper West Side. Look into the display case that Mr. Johnson oversees there, and your first response may be confusion. So many cheeses, so many names.
“Adelegger,” Mr. Johnson said the other day. “Does that really mean anything to you?”
Well, no.
“Exactly,” he said. Even if you learn that Adelegger is Bavarian and that it is made of raw cow’s milk — fine, but what does it taste like?
Mr. Johnson conveys the flavor this way, on a small sign in that display case: “Just think of a scene in a movie where the lead actress, obviously one of the greats, turns around slowly and walks away from the camera taking your entire attention with her.”
Now do you want some Adelegger? If so, then Mr. Johnson has done his job, which is to use lyrical wit and subtle cultural references to lure customers into taking home a wedge of the rare and unfamiliar cheeses that he adores.
Mr. Johnson’s labels have a following, in part because they practically dare you to suss out the allusions he’s dropping. In the Adelegger sign, he said, “The actress I was thinking of is Maggie Cheung, and the movie is ‘In the Mood for Love.’ ” For Calcagno, he has opted for rock ’n’ roll: “Big and floral in the very best way possible, this firm Sardinian sheep has the cool unaffected strut of Mick in his prime, Lou in middle age or Polly Jean today.”
That last part is a nod to the singer and songwriter P. J. Harvey, but so far Mr. Johnson hasn’t had to provide anyone with explanatory footnotes.
Mr. Johnson is just one of many skilled cheese wits around the city. Just this month, in fact, a cheesemonger named Peter Daniels, known as The Doctor, briefly had to reel in his reference-studded musings at Westside Market after a nod to Nostradamus caused a customer to complain.
The man often pointed to as both the Mark Twain and the Ricky Roma of fromage-inspired belles-lettres is Steve Jenkins, the volcanically passionate expert on cheese (and many other products) at Fairway Market.
Thanks to him, a sign-browsing stroll through Fairway will reveal many delights, like this billing for Queijo de Serpa: “It is still made only at night, I am led to believe, as it was when I last visited the cheesemaker, and what I haven’t told you is Serpa’s texture and flavor are like sex. There’s just no other way to describe the effect this cheese has on me. Even though I barely remember sex.”
As many shoppers know, Mr. Jenkins, 62, engages in what could be described as a complicated relationship with his clientele. The old saw that the customer is always right? He has never quite subscribed to that. “The customer has no idea what he or she wants,” he said. “The customer is dying to be told what they want.”
Hence the cheese signs: they strive to tantalize someone who is momentarily adrift in an aromatic sea of choices.
“Sales are provoked by an intelligent sign,” Mr. Jenkins added. “The sign tells them what to do. Their desires are defined by that sign.”
Surprisingly, though, Mr. Jenkins began honing his distinctive style —  simultaneously sensual and comically biting — more than 30 years ago when he was “going to blow my brains out,” he said, as a result of too much personal interaction with shoppers at the counter. Hiding in a back room and summoning the cheese-sign muse was a way “to avoid old ladies,” he said. “Because I was going to get fired. Because I would insult them. I would write signs for hours.”
Mr. Jenkins’s pioneering work helped to answer a marketplace conundrum, said Tia Keenan, a cheese expert who is an active part of the New York scene: “How do you sell something that’s perceived as fancy, foreign, intimidating to the customer? How do you sell this product to someone who doesn’t have any context?”
Before long, as Mr. Jenkins views it, copycats began cropping up all over town — and across America. “They’ve totally ripped me off,” he said.
Maybe so, but each of the genuine cheese wits tends to have a prose style that is instantly identifiable, at least to colleagues. It’s hard to imagine that a competitor could — or even would —  try to mimic one stridently Jenkinsian trait: Although most of his cheese signs are engineered to make you want to buy cheese, some aim to do the opposite.
Take his less-than-rousing pitch for an aged mimolette: “It was Charles de Gaulle’s favorite cheese, which figures. He was an army man, and God knows army men are not too particular about what they put in their mouths. Even aged a year, mimolette is not exactly startling.”
At the Harlem branch of Fairway, there is a large, prominent sign describing the various qualities of different cheeses. Between “Strong & Gooshy” and “Creamy & Dreamy,” Mr. Jenkins has squeezed in a category that most grocery stores endeavor to avoid: “Bland & Forgettable.”
Among those deemed “Bland & Forgettable” are the popular havarti, Muenster, Jarlsberg and Saga Blue.
“I have no patience for people who don’t want the best of everything,” he explained. “You’re in a world-class store and you’re buying Saga Blue? Grow up.”
If Mr. Jenkins has had a friendly sparring partner along the way, that would be Rob Kaufelt, the owner of Murray’s Cheese Shop, who likes to refer to the writing on cheese signs as “romance copy.”
“Jenkins and I used to sit down in the cellar and try to top each other with pithy signs,” Mr. Kaufelt, 65, recalled. (This would have been in the early 1990s, he said, during a brief period when Mr. Jenkins worked for Dean & DeLuca.) “That was fun. And that’s a good education. As a literary exercise, it can’t be beat.”
He warmed to the theme. “Of course I’m much better. He peaked way back. Way back. I’m still on the upswing here.” He offered, tongue-in-cheek, a literary analogue. “I would say it’s Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I’m Fitzgerald and he’s Hemingway. Or maybe it’s more like Mailer and Roth. Mailer and James Jones. Whoever’s pugnacious.”
Pugnacious is one thing. Transgressive is another. If Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Kaufelt represent the old guard in cheese-signery, the punk-rock misfits can be found at theBedford Cheese Shop, in Brooklyn and Manhattan, where one notorious eye-grabber, courtesy of an owner, Charlotte Kamin, is so scatologically envelope-pushing that it cannot be reprinted here.
“Oh, that’s her famous nasty one,” said Stephanie Bealert, a cheesemonger at Bedford. “I hate that sign. It’s just gross. But it’s funny. People love that sign.”
Another sign at Bedford likens the effect of Tomme de Berger on one’s senses to the enthusiasm of “a gay schoolboy going to see a Britney Spears concert.” 
“It relaxes people so that they want to have a conversation about them,” Ms. Bealert said of the humor in the signs. “People will say to me, ‘I want to taste the one that has that silly description.’ It opens up a conversation.”
There are gentler ways to break the ice, of course. At Saxelby Cheesemongers, on the Lower East Side, the signs are jotted down, like postcards from a vacationing friend, in Anne Saxelby’s own handwriting, and the descriptions seem to capture her winsome, Midwestern sense of enthusiasm in real time. Of one goat cheese from Vermont, Ms. Saxelby, 31, has written, “My reaction when I first tried this cheese was: Dear God. Yes, it was nearly the perfect cheese.”
“It all reflects her personality,” said Sophie Slesinger, a member of the Saxelby team. “It is not as hip or lewd as some of the stuff out there, but it still gets the point across. We keep it a little more family-friendly.”
(In reality, the cheese signs have been composed by countless people over the years, but each shop has its own idiosyncratic voice, usually a reflection of the person in charge.)
If it occasionally seems as if the city’s reigning cheesemongers haul around the souls of frustrated artists, that’s probably because many do. Behind the counter at your neighborhood shop you’re highly likely to encounter dancers, musicians, poets and journalists who happen to have a fixation on fermented dairy products. “We’re artsy, dorky people,” Ms. Bealert said.
Take Mr. Johnson from Gastronomie 491, who has written about jazz for an array of publications, including The Wall Street Journal. He, like many of his fellow cheese pundits, has standards to uphold when he’s composing his fromagic odes. He works hard to make sure his signs are both approachable and erudite. Allusions to Alvin Ailey and “Argo”? No problem.
“But I don’t want to associate Taylor Swift with cheese,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
A Sampling of the Signs
Bedford Cheese Shop
Mastorazio, Madaio The Lindsay Lohan of the cheese world, this pecorino has a tan, leathery exterior that surrounds a delicate yellow paste. With hints of herbs and the aroma of hay, you can almost hear the bleating of Lindsay up in the Italian hills. Pair with nicotine, Red Bull and an alcohol monitor.
Andante Dairy Nocturne Icelandic ponies. Japanese cats on the Internet. Yawning puppies. Toddlers who give each other hugs. Goats climbing all over everything. Pink and green macaroons. Red pandas. Sparkly nail polish. Do you get where I’m going? Cute things. This cheese is so perfect and cute and delicious you just want to marry it. Or buy one and eat it.
Fairway Market
Queso de Clara A deeee-light. A mitzvah. Serendipity! Dumb luck to have fallen across it. A rare, firm yet tender RAW goat’s milk cheese, legal (90-days aged), rustic, primitive, shouldn’t exist at all, but one of those cheeses you taste in Europe that makes you say to yourself, “Why can’t I have this cheese at my counters?” Well, I do.
Florette Goat ‘Brie’ You will find yourself on the floorette upon serving this soft, dreamy, oozy, stark-white wonderment.
Gastronomie 491
Seaver Brook Blue Sprawling, earthy and kind of overpowering, this Vermonter is the death metal band among the otherwise dulcet varieties of blue. Go for it, you only live once.
Red Hawk How’d this happen? It’s like the kid with the best stereo in the biggest house and with the most lenient parents is also the first one up on all the latest dance moves. In other words this cheese is rich, cool and funky in nearly blinding dimensions. Pair with Vouvray & Foster Grants.
Taleggio Way more classic and rustic than a dog-eared copy of Gibbon, yet as potent and trenchant. This washed rind Italian is the basis for so many others, but few match the tangy flavor and pastoral aromas (hmmm, barnyard).
Galets de Cher Yes, it looks a tad, well, funkee, no? but this latest creation from our man Rodolph melts on your tongue, suggesting complex herbal ecstasy. It’s like getting the high of a Bikram Yoga class without the heat, the postures and the drill sergeant instructor.

Two bourbons past the funeral, we were reading from the thin old books of the old poet.

Two Bourbons Past the Funeral
Two bourbons past the funeral,
we were reading from the thin
old books of the old poet, past old now,
and another old poet fumbled
to his favorite poem. Where was it?
Not this book, but that, and then
he was reading, his voice reverent
and sure, until he caught on a word
like a coat on a barb, and hung there,
a low moan ululating on a long vowel
for the friend he knew almost entirely
from these words and his own voice
reading them. On and on the soft
moaning rose and fell, until he tore free
and snarled, “I told you not to do that.”
“Yes, you did,” he said, and turned again
to the old poem, reading as if he’d written it,
a small change here, a larger there,
correcting the fictions and false
felicities of his youth.

The New Criterion 
January 2013

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

On a spring day in 1913 students at the Art Institute of Chicago held a mock trial for the aesthetic crimes of the artist Henri Matisse.

Into the Canvas
Matisse wasn’t just a painter but an explorer, and each painting was a journey.

On a spring day in 1913 students at the Art Institute of Chicago held a mock trial for the aesthetic crimes of the artist Henri Matisse. The event was a response to the Art Institute’s exhibition of works from the large Armory Show held earlier that year in New York, which was the first encounter many Americans had with European modernism. 

The trial was a well-staged performance for a crowd of students and patrons held on the south portico of the Institute, its archways providing a proscenium for the theatrics. Guards brought in the satirically named artist “Henry Hair Mattress,” his hands manacled as he was pushed in front of the court at the “point of a rusty bayonet,” according to the Chicago Daily Tribune. The prosecution presented the evidence of three canvases — said to be that of the artist but, in fact, rough copies of three Matisse works from the show: “The Blue Nude” (1907), “Le Luxe I” (1907) and “Goldfish” (1912). The crimes were read to the jury and included “artistic murder, pictorial arson, artistic rapine, total degeneracy of color, criminal misuse of line, general esthetic aberration, and contumacious abuse of title.” (In case you were wondering, contumacious is a “stubborn or willful disobedience to authority” though this “crime” seems the lesser one of the list.)

"Goldfish" (1912)
The copies of Matisse’s paintings were so unsettling to the all female jury (an irony in 1913 before women had the right to vote) they caused a collective fainting. The verdict was unanimous. The canvases were burned to the excitement of the crowd, and then, in a moment of pure Greek tragedy, the executioner stepped forward and the “shivering futurist, overcome by his own conscience, fell dead.” His body was carried to the other side of the Art Institute with onlookers in procession, ending in a humorous funeral where a student read a eulogy, concluding: “You were a living example of death in life; you were ignorant and corrupt, an insect that annoyed us, and it is best for you and best for us that you have died.” With this, they planned on burning Matisse in effigy but the police stepped in before the image of the French modernist could be set ablaze. Even for this performance, burning the artist went a bit too far.

"Le Luxe I" (1907)
This revolt against modernism was an acutely violent one, more so than the acerbic words of critics and artists that were hurled at the Armory Show and those cubists and Post-Impressionist works on display. If modern art was about “artistic murder” as those Art Institute students so claimed, then their mock trial was its own form of modern performance art with its bonfire jubilation of Matisse’s copied canvases. Burning art or books (or even witches) holds this paradox for it is often not about the thing being burned as much as it is about maintaining an idea. Preservation often depends so much on destruction. In this sense the mock trial was more than outrage, but rather a claim to an artistic process anchored to the rigors of academic painting. What hovered behind the outrage, what angered the critics and the students, was how Matisse used the canvas. As much as this trial was about modernist aesthetics it was also about a question that has lurked at the edges of modern art for decades: What makes a canvas a painting?

"Still Life with Compote, Apples, and Oranges" (1899)
“Matisse: The Search for Pure Painting” explores this question in a slightly different way. Exhibiting 49 paintings of the hundreds of works Matisse completed during his life, the show illuminates the importance of experimentation and the painterly process in understanding his works. In displaying canvases created in pairs or a series, the show makes this process, these experiments with paint on canvas, the creative energy of his art.

"Still Life with Compote and Fruit" (1899) 
From the first spacious gallery, you confront this experimentation with two still life works composed in 1899, when the artist was 30. Matisse began his studies of art in Paris in 1891 after leaving behind a career in law, much to the dismay of his middle-class Normandy family. “Still Life with Compote, Apples, and Oranges” and “Still Life with Compote and Fruit” reflect his early efforts with Impressionist and Post-Impressionist techniques. The paintings nearly mirror each other in composition, but while the former experiments with an earthy palate, heavy brushstrokes, and geometrical shapes of a Cezanne composition, the latter is much more flat in color, the paint nearly translucent in its softness, fading away towards the left corner of the canvas, the colors nearly succumbing to the texture of the canvas itself. These two works could have been done by completely different artists, or at different times of an artist’s life. But here they are sitting together, composed in the same year, questioning any singular sense of Matisse.

"Young Sailor I" (1906)
We confront this questioning again and again in this show, as these experiments with color and shape and perspective continue to challenge our sense of Matisse as more than that artist with the colorful collages. Consider “Young Sailor I” and “Young Sailor II,” each done in the south of France in 1906. The first canvas looks more like a sketch of paint, the sailor slouching on a simple chair, torso twisting to the left as he gazes off to the distance. The colors of both the sailor’s clothing and the background are roughly applied in quick brush strokes that reveal the canvas beneath, the body and facial features trimmed in black lines that are meant to give the subject some depth and solidity. The second version destroys the depth of the painting, presenting instead the shape of the sailor’s body defined with dark outlines and contrasting hues of green and blue and pink. The work lacks any sense of light or shadow — the sailor’s body looks nearly like a cut out of color shapes — and transgresses the pictorial perspective that was, in the demands of academic art, so crucial to what makes paint on a canvas a painting.

"Young Sailor II" (1906)
This loss of depth is clearly evidenced in his large canvases of “Le Luxe I” and “Le Luxe II” from 1907 and 1908 that hang nearby. Matisse uses the paint to give texture and shape to the bodies of the three women composed naked on a hillside, a lake and more hills rise behind them in the distant. But in the second version, the paint is there to give form, flat colors outlined in black, the shapes of clouds and hills flat and dense with brush strokes, the charcoal sketch underneath revealed through the paint. This painting evokes its very artifice as we encounter the artist’s efforts on the canvas, creating its own intimacy between viewer and artist, as well as viewer and canvas.

"Le Luxe II" (1907)
Alongside these paintings hangs a full-sized drawing of the first painting. Matisse commonly did sketches that were as a large as the canvases, believing in the power of the sketch to hold it own force in imaging the painting. Here the sketch serves to preserve the first painting, but also evokes the more reduced sense of depth in the second painting. This copying upon copying, a near obsessive mimetic exploration in the use of shapes and lines, underlines how the subjects of his paintings were increasingly less important than the how the canvas can present and hold the subject. In an interview from 1925, Matisse responded to critics who wondered about his repetitive subject matters arguing that throughout the history of art, painters “went on re-doing the same painting and always differently. After a certain time, Cézanne always painted the same canvas of the ‘Bathers.’” In evoking Cézanne, who he greatly admired, Matisse was aligning himself to a painterly process that emphasized the work of the artists as much as the subjects he created.
This process was itself a perpetual search into the limits and possibilities of not only paint but also the canvas itself. One wall text in the show quotes Clement Greenberg, the American art critic and champion of modernism, who wrote that Matisse was “a self-assured master who can no more help painting well than breathing.” This self-assurance rested on his ability at using the canvas as a field of exploration, of creating paintings that are caught in a moment of expression but utterly incomplete for both the artist and the viewer. There is a power in this incompleteness, as these works always seem to be in the process of becoming more finished. The force of such incompleteness raises a question that the show makes explicit about half way through: What constitutes a finished canvas?

Drawing for "Le Luxe" (1907-08)
For Matisse working and reworking a painting illuminated both the painterly process and the ongoing possibilities of the canvas. His early critics were distressed by this quality of his work. One critic in particular expressed his hope that Matisse would overcome this “malady of the unfinished” as if these sketch-like paintings were in some way a sickness. Perhaps as an effort to reply to such criticisms, Matisse began to photograph his painting process, and the transformation of the canvas through its stages of development, and continued to do so through much of his life. In his Notes of a Painter, published in 1908, he wrote: “I do not repudiate any of my paintings but there is not one of them that I would not redo differently, if I had it to redo. My destination is always the same but I work out a different route to get there.” In this way, the photographs of the works in progress offered a kind of road map as Matisse explored the direction of the painting each day.

"The Large Blue Dress" (1937)
By the 1930s the canvas itself became a dynamic space, for unlike his earlier focus on a series of canvases with a singular subject, he worked with the same canvas, painting and repainting it, scraping paint off from the last session, leaving other paint untouched, each reworking holding some trace of earlier compositions. This is how he composed “The Large Blue Dress” in 1937, painted over several days, each session concluding with a photographic portrait of the canvas take by a photographer who Matisse had hired. Helping him with this process was the model for “The Large Blue Dress,” Lydia Delectorskaya, a Russian émigré who met Matisse in Nice in the early 1930s when she was 22 and he was 62. Matisse hired her to be his wife’s assistant and to help him in his studio. While her presence caused a rupture in Matisse’s marriage (his wife left him in 1939), Delectorskaya would become his consummate model, muse and caretaker for the rest of his life. Throughout the 1940s Matisse and Delectorskaya, who was often his supportive collaborator in the studio, worked together in the painting process in his studio in Nice, almost unaware of the destruction of war that swirled around them. Matisse was not a political artist and his works from the 1940s have few traces of the conflicts of Europe.

Photograph documenting Henri Matisse's of painting "The Large Blue Dress" (1937)
One of the last rooms of this show is a recreation of the Gallerie Maeght 1945 exhibition of Matisse’s works including “La France” (1939), “Still Life with Magnolia” (1941) and “The Dream” (1940). As they were in the fall of 1945, the paintings are displayed at the center of a constellation of photographs that evidence the process over the weeks Matisse worked on them. This was Matisse’s choice, to show the works in this context of development. The only point of the exhibition, Matisse wrote, “was to present the progressive development of the art works through respective states toward definitive conclusions and precise signs.” Oddly there is no mention of the war in this recreation of the gallery space, mounted just months after Germany surrendered and Paris was liberated. The city was still suffering from food shortages and limited electricity when the patrons crowded into the opening of the exhibition, encountering what must have seemed odd displays of paintings alongside their progressive stages documented in black and white photographs. Such a display offered a kind of film-like quality to the works, as curator Dorthe Aagesen notes in her catalogue essay, creating a series of photographic canvases that emerged into the one on display. But I couldn’t help but think that Matisse’s obsessions with preserving the painterly process were also a response to the destruction around him both personally and socially. The photographs as displayed with the paintings offer a marker of time and, within the historical context, conjured for me a kind of memento mori of each progressive stage, preserving each trace of creative effort at a time when so much was being lost.

"Still Life with Magnolia" (1941)

The preservation of his painterly process also allowed for a certain reality that art historian Jack Flam has described as a “perpetual state of becoming” suggesting how an emphasis on the artistic process allowed for its own continually unfinished project. And perhaps this is what makes this show so compelling. It reminds us that the labor of art is a layered endeavor that often gets mystified in our enthusiasm for the canvas as a icon of market value, distancing us from the complex artistic processes and cultural forces that determine when a canvas becomes painting.

Reprint of archival photograph documenting Henri Matisse's process of painting "The Dream" (1940)
On the day before he died in 1954 at the age of 84, Matisse sketched a small portrait of Delectorskaya with a ballpoint pen. It would be the last sketch he would ever do. In her biography of the Matisse, Hilary Spurling notes that the artist held the drawing “out at arm’s length to assess its quality before pronouncing gravely, ‘It will do.’” •18 January 2013

James Polchin teaches writing at NYU and is the founder and editor of the site Writing in Public.

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