Tuesday, December 31, 2013


To even consider the topic of torture is to invite intervention and rejection by others.  Even as protected and entitled a person as Elaine Scarry uses a framework to approach the subject.  More frank than most people are prepared to be, Scarry invokes Amnesty International, an institution generally agreed to be “good” beyond reproach.  “Beyond” is the right word because it is about writing letters from faraway people neither tortured nor torturing, acting on conscience and compassion for people they don't know.  The political motives are muted.

Scarry comes to the conclusion that there are three “simultaneous phenomena” in the structure of torture.

1.  the infliction of pain
2.  the objectification of the subjective attributes of pain ( to the suffering one, the instruments, the room of confinement, the furniture become instruments of pain)
3.  the translation of the objectified attributes of pain into the insignia of power (“I collapse your world so mine prevails.”)

She does not talk much about the commodification of torture by making it entertainment, though she mentions the historical crowds who watched beheading, hanging, truth-testing through ordeals, and so on.  

For weeks I’ve been working my way through the series called “Alias,” devised by J.J. Abrams, which at first seems to be about a strong beautiful woman who is powerful on the side of good.   She is regularly tortured, usually by electroshock, poison, or other technical and scientific means, but is only temporarily disoriented.  Her core personality is the conviction that she knows what is worthy and good and therefore must resist two “fathers” who move in and out of being good.  She loves her biological father, though he has killed her biological mother, and hates her boss-father, though he often acts to save her.  Both purport to want to protect her, but don’t.  Her boyfriend, understandably, has the perpetually worried face of a hound dog.

The show is fascinating because of the actress who shapeshifts her way through one wiggy disguise, after another.  CGI seems to have little to do with her transformations, though clever editing helps a lot.  The goal is not magic but stubborn thinking that preserves her sense of herself and her goal.  She is childlike in many ways, never quite violated in the way a grown woman might be.  The worst tortures are the ones inflicted on her friends because she is full of empathy for them.  This demographic is young adults.  The show is not realistic, but it is playing with some very real and troubling forces in our culture: the acceptance of violence, the resentment by men who would like to torture women, the idea that evil forces are supernatural, and so on.

Leave that.  Scarry’s premise is that torture renders the person inarticulate, in fact, collapses their ability to maintain a self in a world-context.  The book promises that by the end of the discussion, it will be shown that the self can claim itself back through creative expression, rebuilding a world.  This is certainly the premise of “talking cure” in PTSD cases.  If I can stand reading that long, I’ll report.

But I think one of the most powerful points Scarry makes has been made in other places as well:  that to say torture is a way of discovering information is a scam, a deception.  The thought-eliminating pain is supposedly inflicted in an oxymoronic way for the sake of “intel,” as “Alias” would style it.  Yet it denies the intelligence of the victim, motivates lying and distorting.  Scarry says, It became clear that torture often is carried out when a country ceases to believe in itself, and therefore there is a certain element of spectacle involved in it.”  

Entertainment and mockery of the enemy (photos at Abu Graib) are disguised ways to assert importance and power when in fact it is not there.  (Nazi or Red Chinese spectacles.)  Torture is based on lying, not truth.  Scarry says, “In Chile the torture room was called the “blue-lit stage” and in the Philippines it was called the “production room” and in South Vietnam it was called the “cinema room.”  Torturers fancy themselves as J.J. Abrams?  Certainly they are denying the reality of the victim’s world.  They are denying compassion and love as efficacious guides to virtue.  The “information” idea is a self-deception on the part of the torturer -- if he or she needs one.  Once tortured, the victim knows nothing.

Water-boarding or space walking in a helmet filling with water?  This is stunt crew working on the actress for the sake of the story -- not the story itself.  So what is it?  Torture for art?

Now I’m leaving Scarry.  “Helpers” in our culture -- like doctors, social workers and teachers -- feel justified in closely questioning suffering people.  They want to know just exactly what kind of pain is being felt, they want to know “why” people feel that way, why they insist on their own world instead of the helper world.  Demanding that suffering people justify their self-damaging practices adds to the torture.  If they knew the cause, if they wanted to change, if they understood how to do it, why would they need the helpers?  Questioning them just underlines the power and entitlement of the helper, at least in the helper’s world.  It denies their own creative powers by setting the terms of communication.  It blames them for their own suffering.

Scarry spends a bit of time on phantom pain, which has been studied constructively lately, esp. by Dr. Ramachandran whose mirror therapy seems to convince the brain that the limb is there, then gone, in a way the brain can accept.  But how do we get our culture to address its phantom terrorism fears, to find what is real, accept that, then know when it is gone?  Both are matters of thinking, of the construction of reality in the brain.  What happens in a culture that has no reality but what it constructs -- but isn't that EVERY culture?

Let’s leave the notorious and lurid realms of international terrorism.  I’m more immediately interested in the schism between the worlds of adults and young people in our own quiet communities and the lengths to which we are willing to go in order to coerce young people into denying their own worlds, even if it means a withdrawal into sullen silence and hidden anguish.  HIV-AIDS workshops worry about how to “reach” youngsters in order to get them to test themselves, even if only with a private home test like that for pregnancy.  But their transparent end goal is to get them “under control” and medicated, therefore tabulated and converted to percentages, evidence for funding.

Every time in the classroom I’ve allowed and encouraged students to describe their reality, authorities have been quick to object and suppress.  The end result has been to harden the boundaries and intensify their determination to justify themselves.  Some of them never forget the lesson in invasive authority and resist for the rest of their lives.  Others, learning only obedience, never develop the critical reflection that is necessary for democracy to work.  They see survival as a matter of identifying with authorities, being surrogates of power.

Monday, December 30, 2013


I’m trying to read The Body in Pain by Elaine Scarry, “which is known as a definitive study of pain and inflicting. She argues that physical pain leads to destruction and the unmaking of the human world, whereas human creation at the opposite end of the spectrum leads to the making of the world.  “Elaine Scarry (born 30 June 1946), a professor of English and American Literature and Language, is the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University. Her interests include Theory of Representation, the Language of Physical Pain and Structure of Verbal and Material Making in Art, Science and the Law.” 

The book has been kicking around my selves for a long time and I’m trying to get a handle on what I should cull.  This book is pretty heavy duty, but looks at pain in four realms: medical, the state (torture), religion and creation.  As far as I’ve read, she is asserting that pain means diminishment, erasure, control, and the illusion of power.  She is not considering sex (S/M as a form of intimacy) nor birth as intimate creative pain.  She’s writing in 1985 and these contexts were not quite welcome yet, the African atrocities not quite known.

In fact, I’m going to take a little detour as well.  In the medical context, Scarry mentions the “McGill Pain Questionnaire” which is a breakthrough diagnostic tool that tries to overcome what she calls “the inexpressibility of pain.”  Since I’ve been wrestling with a sore shoulder, I’ll see if I can make it personally relevant.  The idea is that the clusters of words are suggestive of kinds of pain and are in sequence from left to right in terms of intensity.

Sample questionnaire

Flickering, Pulsing, Quivering, Throbbing, Beating, Pounding
Jumping, Flashing, Shooting
Pricking, Boring, Drilling, Stabbing
Sharp, Cutting, Lacerating
Pinching, Pressing, Gnawing, Cramping, Crushing
Tugging, Pulling, Wrenching
Hot, Burning, Scalding, Searing
Tingling, Itchy, Smarting, Stinging
Dull, Sore, Hurting, Aching, Heavy
Tender, Taut (tight), Rasping, Splitting
Tiring, Exhausting
Sickening, Suffocating
Fearful, Frightful, Terrifying
Punishing, Grueling, Cruel, Vicious, Killing
Wretched, Blinding
Annoying, Troublesome, Miserable, Intense, Unbearable
Spreading, Radiating, Penetrating, Piercing
Tight, Numb, Squeezing, Drawing, Tearing
Cool, Cold, Freezing
Nagging, Nauseating, Agonizing, Dreadful, Torturing

The list neglects the psychological “pain” that accompanies physical pain: the anxiety, the dread, the guilt or shame, and so on, but it's only a sample.  I consulted our clinic nurse practitioner who says it is either atypical arthritis, atypical carpal tunnel, or atypical fibromyalgia.  Typically unhelpful.

My shoulder, which is not THAT painful, since one adult dose aspirin will give me relief, but it is not just my shoulder.  My hands and arms have also been involved.  In fact, I’ve about come to the conclusion that I’m dealing with a complex.  First is tunnel carpal, which is not surprising since I keyboard all day.  But it’s the mousing that radiates clear up the arm to the shoulder.  If I stumble along with left-handed mouse use, that gives my right shoulder some rest.  Tunnel carpal, as I understand it, is when the tubes and wires that pass under the bracelet of binding tendon at the wrist joint are so swollen by use or inflammation that the wrists are painful, as mine are intermittently.  Twingy.

My thumbs feel sprained.  I don’t text but I notice that I’ve developed the habit of twirling my thumbs.  My mother did this, too, and once in church was so intensely twirling that I reached over and held her hands, which made her cry.  I wish I could remember what the topic of the sermon was, but I’m not sure I was listening.  To keep from twirling thumbs, I’m reminding myself to keep my hands entirely separated.

My arms, but particularly forearms, went through a period when they felt lamed by overuse, as though I’d been lifting a lot of heavy things.  When I brought in my monthly load of groceries, this was intensified, since the cat food and bottled water come in case lots.

Years ago the actual shoulder was identified by a doctor as slightly damaged so the joint occasionally pinches a nerve.  It’s clear that this comes from carrying a bag of books with that arm since high school (no backpacks in my day) and from many many miles of driving with a stickshift, steering with only my right hand at the top of the wheel.  Doctors all over Montana are eager to replace joints but I shall fend them off.  Nor am I enamored with the idea of physical therapy. 

So the pain here is an overlay: some pinching, some twinging, some limpness (my hands are sometimes clumsy), annoying, and -- when the shoulder is at its worse, burning.  “Milwaukee Shoulder Syndrome” comes up on the computer.  Here’s the description:  “apatite-associated destructive arthritis is a rheumatological condition similar to calcium pyrophosphate dihydrate deposition disease (CPPD). It is associated with periarticular or intraarticular deposition of hydroxyapatite crystals.  Though rare, it is most often seen in elderly females beginning in their 50s or 60s.”

Mercy!  But all these big words are only descriptive.  Clearly minerals, in this case calcium, can crystallize and accumulate at the joints, putting “sand” in the lubricants and giving a person grinding sensations.  The suggestion is that getting the balance of calcium and magnesium right would be helpful.  I drink so much milk and eat so much cheese, I might be triggering the problem with diet.  If I emphasized foods with magnesium  (beans and nuts, green leafy veggies, brown rice and whole grains -- all of which I like and eat) I could make things better.  I’ll get out “Diet for a Small Planet” and use it, which I’d been meaning to do anyway.  In summer, when there were a lot of fresh green leafy foods around, I was fine.  So now it’s time for the slow cooker.  My muffins already contain enough berries and nuts to make a squirrel chortle.

Here’s another thing to think about.  On the back of my shoulder, about the same time that the pain started, is a bite of some kind that itches enough for me to have scratched the top off several times.  Spider venom?  Tick fever?  Last night I took a .222 (thirds @ of aspirin, caffeine, and codeine) instead of an aspirin and woke with enough pain to think about the Internet conviction that female heart attacks are in arm and neck.  Mental torture.  But as soon as I got up and moved around a bit, the pain was gone.  Vascular?  A circulation problem?  Just the pinched nerve?

Are you fed up with this yet?  The one friend in whom I confided soon objected.  We mock old people for complaining, real though it may be, and we hint that it may NOT be real.

The internet sources recommend expensive blood testing which I’m sure would please the local medical community if only for the profit margin, but also because that’s the way they like to do medicine: by equations in a lab with no groaning people present, whinging over atypical sore shoulders.  Now that we’ve discovered that human beings are actually complexes of molecules that can be converted to numbers, we are “bookkeeping our blood” the way money is a matter of double-entries and, in fact, interchangeable with money.  The perfect justification is there for diminishment, erasure, control, and the illusion of power -- we all become walking test tubes and our bodies are no more than collections of titres to be adjusted.

Pain can help with diagnosis, but not this kind of twitchy complicated low-level small stuff -- yet this is almost the nature of old age and chronic disease.  No one wants to hear about it.  Even friends will have “magic cures” that they thrust upon a person, favorite theories that they propose and if they don’t work, they're irritated with us.  Some cures are far worse than the original problem. -- consider chemo for cancer and antiretrovirals for HIV.  Is it the pain, the cause of the pain, or the attempt at cure that is dehumanizing?  There is definitely a political element here.  Back to Scarry.

Sunday, December 29, 2013


Poets and Writers  http://www.pw.org -- or people on their staff -- have identified five sentences that they consider “perfect.”  I thought it would be interesting to just sit here and look at them, one at a time, to try to understand what they see as perfection.  Is it grammar?  Images? Recognition of the sentiments?  Prettiness?  They don’t stipulate first sentences, but I suspect they mostly are the beginnings of the books.

Elizabeth McCracken

My father was right: you could make anybody amazing just by insisting they were.
-”What We Know About the Lost Aztec Children” by Elizabeth McCracken

I think this one is a case of sentiments -- that upbeat entitled kind of idea that’s around in certain circles, like among teachers, the idea that parents know best and can “make” people exceptional with force of will.  The sentence is simple: a compound with a colon for a joiner, and a subordinate clause as adverb modifier.  I would not choose this sentence, but it’s because I am too cynical for the sentiment.

Thomas Pynchon

She thought of a hotel room in Mazatlan whose door had just been slammed, it seemed forever, waking up two hundred birds down in the lobby; a sunrise over the library slope at Cornell University that nobody out on it had seen because the slope faced west; a dry, disconsolate tune from the fourth movement of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra; a whitewashed bust of Jay Gould that Pierce kept over the bed on a shelf so narrow for it she’d always had the hovering fear it would someday topple on them.
-The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

This is a list structure, so a person would have to go to the contents and the rhythm of it to find it remarkable.  It moves from simple -- the beginning of a day -- a slammed door which often happens, esp. in hired lodgings anywhere because people get up early to travel, but are there really two hundred birds in the lobby of a hotel in Mazatlan?  Then that sunrise at a location some readers know but an event never seen which is anti-romantic.   Bartok is too sophisticated for me but I listened to the beginning on YouTube and it’s very much a waking/dawn/birdsong sort of thing. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C68SkzGb6Ww  I didn’t listen long enough for the 4th movement to see it if was dry and disconsolate.  Jay Gould (not Stephen Jay Gould) was a robber baron millionaire of the 19th century and evidently “Pierce” both wants to think about him and is willing to accept hazards for the both of them.  In short, for those who understand the references, this sets up a plot tension -- pretty effectively for those readers.  For the rest of us, not so much.

Herman Melville

On heart-broken pretense of entreating a cup of cold water, fiends in human form had got into lonely dwellings, nor retired until a dark deed had been done.
-Benito Cereno by Herman Melville

A sentence in three parts: The first part uses emotional language:  “heart-broken,” “pretense,” “entreating” and the classic Biblical example of a gift that is simple, life-sustaining and against hoarding of the oasis.  Then comes the switch, “fiends” and “lonely,”  and then the pay-off, a dark deed, but the supernatural fiends are gone.  It’s over, they have retired.  Too late to fend off the swindle.  Another good hint at the story coming now: injustice, suffering, finding the cause.  And forces that are beyond human control -- maybe even understanding.

Amy Hempel

I sleep with a glass of water on the nightstand so I can see by its level if the coastal earth is trembling or if the shaking is still me.
-”In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel

Here’s another three part sentence.  Many people habitually sleep with a glass of water on the nightstand in case of waking up thirsty.  In fact, hostesses will often provide a glass and carafe.  But then this simple image is related to a planetary and quite real danger that cannot be predicted and sometimes not really detected: the shifting of the Pacific Coast fault.  For my aunt in Santa Ana the warning was the tinkling of her bone china teacups on their hooks when the motion came.  Everyone there is alert, ready to take action.  But in the third part, the first-person narrator moves the trembling from the land to herself and the difficulty of distinguishing between the two.  We don’t know why she would tremble -- is it about fear of earthquakes or something else?   So we want to find out.

Roberto Bolano

“I get the idea perfectly, Mickey,” said Archimboldi, thinking all the while that this man was not only irritating but ridiculous, with the particular ridiculousness of self-dramatizers and poor fools convinced they’ve been present at a decisive moment in history, when it’s common knowledge, thought Archimboldi, that history, which is a simple whore, has no decisive moments but is a proliferation of instants, brief interludes that vie with one another in monstrousness.”
-2666 by Roberto Bolaño

This sentence is quite different.  I think the quote marks at the end are an error, so the quoted material is short:  “I get the idea perfectly,” says this man with a fancy name (is he the same as the object of obsession on “Alias,” the parodic television thriller, who is a kind of mock da Vinci?).  He is speaking to someone with a vernacular name, “Mickey.”  Irish?   Mickey is irritating, ridiculous, self-dramatizing, and thinks of history as significant with turning points that he actually witnesses.  But Archimboldi, arrogantly and with the entitlement of the intellectual implies that he knows all about lowlifes like whores (maybe he does!)  and shows his superiority by denouncing the triviality and meaninglessness of little connections, each more monstrous than the other.  All this multisyllabic superiority is very European -- maybe even Spanish.  Is Mickey American?  Uncouth, primitive, uneducated?  Then why is Archimboldi telling him about getting the idea “perfectly”?  There must be a plot afoot.  Will it be a proliferation of monstrous instants?  One gets the impression that the writer is half Archimboldi, but also “Mickey.”  It’s all in his head, a war of consciousnesses.

So it appears that the persons choosing these sentences are looking for narrative value, the potential for story.  Even that first simple statement holds a challenge:  can one really make someone amazing through simple assertion?  Let’s see you do it.  Or fail to do it.

These are not “pretty” sentences, describing conventional scenery.  They are ironic, even bitter, all about facing reality and implying that disaster is on the way.  In that dimension they reflect upon the mentality of choosers at PandW and through them the culture of writers today.  No doubt the choosers have read the whole books from which they derive these sentences and that has some impact on them.  Elizabeth McCracken, insider and writing faculty; Thomas Pynchon, “dense”, mathematical, experimental and political;  Herman Melville, much in favor lately; Amy Hempel, another insider on writing faculty;  Roberto Bolano, "the most significant Latin American literary voice of his generation" according to the NYTimes.  Pretty safe choices, esp. the women.

If you want to try it yourself, below is a link to last year’s sentences.  Can you detect a shift in culture?  A change in taste?

Saturday, December 28, 2013


Now that we are able to “read” the double helix of chromosomes -- or for that matter the single line of code in half a chromosome or the reverse transcription of that code or snippets of genome or even the epigenome (that I envision as a sleeve on the chromosomal string) which can turn individual genes on and off, interposing the environment on the expression of this and that -- the world looks like a very different place.  It looks as though viruses, which are sort of free-ranging code, and bacteria, which are more like single cells with viruses as nucleus inside, are everywhere -- crowding the world with their teeming.

“Lousy Sex” is an anthology of short essays about this sort of thing, written by Gerald N. Callahan, who is billed by his publisher (University Press of Colorado) with neither Ph.D nor M.D., but identified as a microbiologist (though many of his subjects are SUBmicro), an immunologist and pathologist, and a teacher of creative nonfiction.   (In fact, he is a Ph.D.) He could also claim some credentials as a “sexologist” so long as you were talking about genetics instead of technique in bed.  He is the author of “Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the Myth of Two Sexes,” which is bound to throw a spanner into the sprockets of even the people who have embraced the myth of marriage as two people of opposite accoutrements who intend fertility.

Animal alternatives are considered in the essays.

1.  Animals with a full complement of chromosomes, one set of which is specific for controlling reproduction -- like us.  If the combination of the two halves is an X gene and a Y gene, the result will be a “male” creature which produces sperm (nucleuses with tails for traveling).  The means of delivery can be as simple as releasing in water or using some sort of device  attached to "papa."   If the two halves are both X, then the creature will specialize in being the receptor and gestator, though the eggs may be nurtured inside the body (mammals) or outside (eggs of some kind, as with shells) or in some compromise (marsupials).

2.  It’s possible for confusion and stuttering to produce an XXY, an XXX, or some other wretched excess but never a YY or YYY because there’s no egg.  In addition to that, X genes have some basic information encoded on them that is vital to survival.  Y’s are smaller and therefore Y’s are more vulnerable, with less information.

3.  The ovum or egg also includes mitochondria which appear to be “captured” one-celled creatures (bacteria) which have their own DNA which is invariant.

Bacteria flash mob

4.  The reason for the teasing title of the book, a publicist’s little joke, is that it was first discovered by studying pillbugs (wood lice) that bacteria could get into an ova and suppress the Y chromosome so that from then on the bug could only produce females full of the bacterium, which we would pejoratively label an “infection.”  There’s no way for them to “infect” a Y since Y’s don’t carry baggage -- just that whip of a motor.  If antibiotics are used to “cure” the ovum by killing all the bacteria, then the Y chromosome becomes operational and there are male bugs again.

5.  We’ve long puzzled over ants and bees which pattern some females NOT to reproduce and dump males early.  No new info on them in this book.

6.  The most sensational and rarest news is that the ancients’ notions of chimeras appear to be real, though not cross-species unless laboratory induced.  But evidently even in humans an egg, fertilized, can merge with another egg, fertilized, to produce a community of cells that develop as one adult instead of twins.  We discover this in humans when mothers have DNA at variance with their children, when genomes must be matched for transplantation (chimera make good receivers -- double -- but bad donors -- half unmatched) and sometimes when surgery reveals that internal sexual organs are not bilateral, even male on one side and female on the other side.  But chimeras can also develop as “mosaics,” mixing the two kinds of cells the way a tortoiseshell cat mixes at least two colors of fur.  In fact, some suggest that tortoiseshell cats may be natural chimeras. 

7.  Once we leave mammals, and especially when we get to fish and other marine creatures, the necessity of special packaging that dry land imposes is no longer a limit, and the possibilities are -- shall we say -- swimmingly various.  Individuals can be true “switch-hitters” going back and forth between producing ova and producing sperm -- after all, the difference is only baggage -- or just sticking with the old fav: mitosis which is splitting or budding, or mixing mitosis with meiosis.

by Malczewski

Now comes Callahan’s deepest question: to what extent does our “self,” our internal construct of behavior and preferences, respond to this same situation?  Some people “feel” female but have XY chromosomes or might go the opposite way or might combine their cultural identities in various ways as a mosaic.  Some are male for part of their lives and female other times.  Our rigid moralities are either shaken into a shambles or -- a more vicious solution -- the person is suppressed at the least and destroyed at the most.  Hetero-homo divisions are revealed as constructs -- and yet, are they really?  

The concept of “split personality” or even “multiple identities”  has been reworked and exploited so many times by movies and books that we almost believe we know something about them that is fact -- even useful.  We “know” that it is the product of abuse, particularly sexual abuse at a young age, or other trauma that forces “dissociation” which is a more defined state, something like hypnosis or fugue, a kind of detachment and translation to another place and state.  We think of this as pathology but is it?  Why isn’t it a positive skill?  Maybe we only know about such cases in terms of discomfort because the ones who find it effective and happy just go their own way, stay out of the lab.

I can envision a sci-fi story in which there is a planet where all the writers are chimeras, mosaic people, shape-shifters if you like.  Maybe there is a non-chimera who wants to be a writer, but his writing is so atypically flat that he cannot succeed.  It’s the shock of expectations not being met that makes the trouble.  But expectations draw us out, develop us, as much as they suppress us, deny us.

For humans and maybe dolphins, whales and elephants, these matters that begin in molecular patterns can end in consuming yearning.  Once I went to apply for a job in a zoo and was asked to wait for my interview alongside a tank that held a beluga whale -- not a "blackfish" but a white mammal with a big forehead like a baby.  The whale came to me, making sounds and trying to lead me like a pet that wants a door opened, but urgently.  A passing keeper told me that the whale was trying to get me to open a gate into another tank where there was a female in season.  His near-Wagnerian aria was meant to convey to me his yearning, his overwhelming need to get to what could only be called his lover.  I heard him, I felt him.

Much attention has been given to Tillicum, the brutalized Orca stud who kills humans, but I have not seen a movie about whales who love whales.  Or is it just lust?  They say that cetacean whales have a whole big brain section (that humans do NOT have) that is devoted to emotion and because they are in water, they are in direct contact with the emotional vibes of another creature.  Even humans, as some women who swim with dolphins discover with some distress and a loss of romantic constructs.  But the Greeks were wrong about a chimeric child resulting.  The yearning does.

Friday, December 27, 2013


Bob Scriver was born in 1914, approximately at the beginning of WWI, so 2014 will be the centennial year of his birth.  I want to mark it somehow and what is within my powers is a “book,” maybe a hundred pages long, 8 1/2” by 11”, with content that people will actually read.  At this point Bob’s peers are mostly dead, though he really began his sculpture career about twenty years late, so in that sense there are a few left.  The truth is that most people now have little or no consciousness of him and -- worse than that -- most people really don’t give a damn except to want to know how much his work is worth.  They cannot grasp that all art is only worth what people are willing to pay for it, which varies greatly over time and place.  In fact, almost everything varies in value according to circumstances.

In this post I'm speculating on what I might include in this projected “book,” which will be little more than a long magazine article.  If people want to read an exhaustive account of Bob’s life, context, and place in history, they should read “Bronze Inside and Out: a Biographical Memoir of Bob Scriver,” published by the U of Calgary Press, available online.  No bookstores carry it, not even the Montana Historical Society which owns Bob’s estate.

In Montana everything is dominated by the pattern of Charlie Russell -- even the reality of the man himself is obliterated by the legendary template and attempts to differ from it will be quickly suppressed.  Bob Scriver was a sculptor, which means that from the very beginning the story must be different.  Both men constantly worked bits of malleable material -- wax, plastilene, river bank clay, whatever.  It’s the art medium of cast bronze that defines Scriver far more than Russell.
Bust of Washington by Houdon

About the time of the founding of the United States of America, all fine sculpture was cut from white marble by Italians.  When it was time to commemorate Washington and so on, Houdon, a Frenchman, had to be imported to make the figures and then they were cut in Italy, shipped back to the US.  So strong was the influence that Washington was depicted in a toga.  (Here on the high prairie the horse had just arrived.)

by Barye, Animalier

Then about the time of the American Civil War, bronze had replaced marble.  I should look all this up, but I’m sketching here.  It’s just a guide -- YOU look it up!  The ability to make finally detailed bronze sculptures, much less fragile than marble, made possible the Animaliers and Rodin.  If you watch the set dressing on BBC shows like Downton Abbey, you see a lot of small bronze objects, especially on desks. To show sophistication, many are depictions of Romans with rearing horses.  Those are probably "pot metal," a lesser alloy.  (By this time the buffalo were being eliminated and the prairies were being cleared of Indians. Charlie arrives in Montana.)

by Saint Gaudens

The next war is WWI and metal is converted to armaments.  Blackfeet become soldiers.  A small boy is born in Browning, a second son named Robert.  By the time the war ends and recovery is underway, he is old enough to read and spends time sprawled out with the newspaper which comes with one page of local news and three pages printed en masse somewhere else.  Favorite stories feature the new monuments to heroism created by sculptors educated in Paris, esp. at the Ecole de Beaux Arts. Nowadays not many of us know the names of the sculptors, but we recognize their work because in heroic-sized monuments it has stood in parks a long time.  Usually they are men on horses.  These works are the ones to whom Bob Scriver aspired.  His natural home is not Cowboy Artists of America, but rather the National Sculpture Society founded by the Beaux Arts representational bronze sculptors.  This creates a problem, a split in potential appreciators, since the subject matter goes one way and the art medium goes another.

Bighorn Foundry

Bronze is also problematic because the cost of production, both in terms of exertion and capital, is far higher than for a painting.  Bob became convinced early on that one way to survive was to be his own foundry, his own gallery, and -- of course -- his own and only artist.  So we learned to cast “Roman block lost wax” sculptures that demanded great technical expertise, a certain amount of danger. and intense energy.  

This was in the early Sixties, just as the Space Age began.  The technology of creating metal parts made huge jumps, not least the invention of ceramic shell casting.  It was as though the printing press had been replaced by computer printers: a steep drop in the cost and expertise of production.  People could cast bronze replicas of their children’s creations in their own backyards.  Most people cannot tell much about quality in almost every humanities pursuit: painting, sculpture, writing, dance, music.  The schools don’t teach the principles.  The media only wants to know what will sell and that means quick, dirty and preferably shocking.
"Transition" by Bob Scriver

Art is like religion (in the sense of systems of thought that support meaning and a sense of significance) in that it has to be present but not necessarily available to conscious reflection, but when the culture is wealthy in time and money, it is much more conscious and explored which makes the value go up.  But the money has to be seen as a means rather than an end.  So when the Blackfeet were flush with oil money the first time (there’s a little echo these days with frakking) they laid out a promenade of monuments.  It was never built, but this is the impetus for Bob’s first significant meant-to-be-monument works.  “Transition,” “No More Buffalo,” “Return of the Blackfeet Raiders,” “Real Meat,” were worked out with the advice of Iliff McKay and Blackie Wetzel, leaders at the time.

The Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife in winter when saddles were stored there.

Parallel to the development of these works was a path also followed by Earl Heikka, going along with Charlie:  “modeling” rather than sculpture, meaning one-of-a-kind, nostalgic, colored, full of detail meant to be accurate, near-dioramas.  Gordon Monroe has picked up this genre.  For Bob this was braided together with his taxidermy career, which bridged him over from his first career as a musician, his love of hunting, and his admiration of the world class dioramas presenting mounted animals in the major natural history museums, like the Field Museum in Chicago where he went to school as a young man.  His notion of a personal collection justified by usefulness to animal artists drew him into the newly formed Society of Animal Artists.
"An Honest Try" by Bob Scriver

The climax of Bob’s career was probably the rodeo series, though a case could be made for the Lewis and Clark monuments.  The rodeo pieces hinged on the commission for a portrait of Bill Linderman in what was then the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.  It came about because of rodeo hands who had worked for Bob pulling him into the contest just before it closed. 

There is another strand, much more private and often misunderstood.  A commission for a “corpus,” the body of Jesus the Christ on the cross, coincided with the cancer death of his daughter and renewed connection to his brother and sister-in-law from his second marriage.  (The daughter was from a first marriage.)  Her bust, the busts of Maurice Chaillot, the model for the corpus, and then of Heléne DeVicq when both posed for a Pieta, form a little cluster that has little to do with Christianity, but everything to do with grief.  It met a dead end in a statue of Jesus big enough to enter and go up into on stairs.  Never built.

There are hundreds more sculptures, some just for fun, some for money, and so on.  Just making a list of them is an on-going task.  I try to keep track on Scriverart.blogspot.com but new pieces show up all the time.  What are they worth?  How much do you want them?

Thursday, December 26, 2013


The reason I go on and on about sensorium and structure is that for me it has a lot to do with writing.  When I taught high school English (’61- '66), I used a series called “Enjoying English” which I now realize must have been chosen by Phil Ward, who was our superintendent but had previously taught English. I see there are used copies on Amazon. One of the consultants was Wallace Stegner.  

In those days the preoccupation was with the “c’s.”  Conformity, completeness, correctness, clarity, cleanliness -- the kind of thing that makes good secretaries.  Creativity was just beginning to come into the picture.  Economy of language was big, because of Hemingway and Steinbeck, but in my circles Faulkner was beyond the pale.  His subjects were depraved, his sentences were too long, and anyway he was a drunk.  We still worked to improve our handwriting.

But there was a brilliant approach to writing in this EE series, which was about what I’m now calling the sensorium.  It addressed preparation for writing.  With my own “Method acting” interpretation, my standard operation was to think up an evocative topic -- summer or horses -- and assign it but not let the kids write for about ten minutes until they had sat silently thinking about it, not writing.  Then they were to write a list of three examples related to the topic for each of the five senses.  It was easy for the high-functioning students, esp. the ones who tried to be shocking.  The low-functioners struggled.  This is the sensorium step and my theory was and is that these kids were shutting themselves away from ordinary life, trying not to feel, sliding along.  If any of them was using drugs other than alcohol, I didn’t know it.  There was no television.  Their occupation of choice was basketball, not the game but the repetitious moves.  They were exposed to a lot of abuse and violence.  I was very impressed by Sylvia Ashton-Warner and would not have minded if they wrote about darkness, but they were pretty covert, didn't attend much anyway.

When they got their list made, their assignment was to choose the best of the three examples of each sense: a smell, a taste, a sight, a sound, a sensation on the skin, and organize them into a paragraph according to some principle: time, first to last; space, back to front or the opposite; etc.  Then write the paragraph a second time correcting all misspellings, bad usage, etc..  At this point they could ask a neighbor or me for help. The result was usually pretty respectable.

At the same time the kids were doing this stuff, I was enrolled in the Famous Writers correspondence course which was eventually closed down for being a scam, a con, a hustle.  I had perfect faith that it would launch my career as a famous writer.  The first assignment was something sensible.  I did it.  The second one was a little fancier and I flexed my high school muscle.  WHAM!  Went down like a hog-tied calf.  Never recovered.  That was the scam: get the money, then insult the student so thoroughly -- which wasn’t hard since ego was involved -- that they never wrote again but it was all their own fault.  If they didn’t do the assignments, the school could hardly be blamed.

When I first began to blog, comments were often like those of the FW teachers: put-downs, sarcasms, snarky sophomore stuff.  Then that became politically incorrect but no one can figure out what IS politically correct so they stopped saying anything except to correct facts, which I appreciate.  But I gag at social media:  all the little positive sayings, the candified encouragements, the quasi-religion with bows on top.

In my youth “good” writing was that which fit the Harold Bloom canon, often pretentious and not exactly suitable for ordinary people.  Then there was the book-of-the-month stream which was popular and immersive.  And another stream was pre-television and often sprang from GI Joe reading on his bunk.  Mostly action and crime, incl. porn.  About the time I hit college there was a new stream, a why-not realm of possibility full of wild images, defiance, and total disregard of the rules of intelligibility which turned out not to be that useful anyway.  Could anything be any more baffling than Ezra Pound cantos?  A lot of this was in the rainy Northwest, possibly because people were indoors a lot.  Similar to Ireland but with less peat smoke.

All through high school I was in “enriched” classes which meant that we’d already mastered good grammar and usage, generally because we came from families who spoke well.  When reading literature, familiarity counted more than analysis, but for me to find modern poetry was to fall in love, a revelation about what words could do: fling open the sensorium.  My teachers were weaker on structure, but so was modern poetry.  In previous posts I’ve told how I signed up for writing class at NU and was taunted, mostly for not fitting the stereotype of the brilliant young man, which meant I put my energy into theatre instead.

A part of the biggest of the Scriver dioramas -- about prairie.

And I’ve also described what became the keystone of my writing since then, but maybe it bears repeating.  Bob Scriver was just creating a room of miniature dioramas of the major game animals of Montana and we needed captions.  I struggled to write a paragraph that would fit on the space, that would teach something about the animals, simple enough for kids to read but evocative enough to interest adults.  I wrote, rewrote, and rewrote again, while far less educated people whipped out a few direct sentences a lot better than mine.  The light came on.

Subject matter after that was going to be natural history and I started a column in the Glacier Reporter, the local weekly paper.  Somehow it drifted into politics and in a year or so I was fired.  “The Merry Scribbler.”  I never learned my lesson in that regard.  Ten years of preaching didn’t discourage me, though writing for an audience that sits there looking at you is VERY educational.

So what’s my advice?  Remember that buffalo jump pattern I wrote about earlier?  The broad field of grazing and accumulating, the pinch point that must be done exactly right so that the prey instead of the predator goes over the cliff, and then the hard work of parting-out, boiling-down, curing.  At 75 that’s what I spend my time doing nowadays, kindly supported by SSI.  All my life I looked forward to this time.  I don’t give a damn whether it sells, though it would be nice if it did.  I do care about whether people see something they value.  Sometimes it’s just information.  I try not to be boring.

Most people do not understand writers.  I mean, they understand the “type” as portrayed in the media, but they do not have any idea what goes on IN the writer.  It’s not necessarily something that can be taught, although the Enjoying English stuff about concrete detail, conciseness, completeness, and so on can probably be taught.  On the other hand, I’ve never mastered cleanliness.  My printouts are always smudged.  I blame it on the cats.  

My advice is the same as for everything:  take a close look, grow your brain around it, chose your pinch point and jump.  Then sort the debris.  Don’t let anyone stop you.  Just do it.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


This is not about a Christmas tree, neither the northern White Goddess/celtic vegetative code of evergreens nor the patriarchan Middle Eastern birth symbol which was a palm.  This is about a tree as a structural form which is then also the shape of thought because the brain is organized that way.  I’m going to consider three aspects:  the spatial pattern of it, what the branches support (memory), and rhythm, the pulsing of life itself.

What I’m really thinking about is how brains work.  The architecture of brains looks like blobs sort of glommed together when they’re lifted out of a skull, but actually, as in a computer-sketched version of the connections, it is structured far more like a tree or maybe branched coral.  This “tree” is dynamic.  Not only does it respond to experience by growing new branches, but also it will let old unused ones dwindle and die.  This can be done intentionally as when one practices a skill until it is mastered.

A tree of thoughts is a spatial design and, indeed, it is organized in terms of space -- back and forth, up and down, in and out.  Our stories -- our lives -- are seen as paths through time plotted as a line.  Our analyses are often diagrams, boxes and arrows, connecting lines.  Our grammar depends partly upon position in a sequence of words; English reading is produced by interpreting an ant march of letters.  Music is dots clustered on lines.

Researchers discover that thoughts are composed of information from our sensorium, a word I particularly like because it implies so much more than just the five senses and also suggests the in-skin processed nature of the information that comes from out-skin.  Some of it is like the toad’s bb’s, sitting there inert until it is pruned out.  (See previous blog.) Some of it is processed without our knowing it -- shadows in our muscles and guts that we feel without any consciousness -- and some of it has been transformed into something it really isn’t because there’s no place on the tree for what it is.  No holes for nests means no nests.  But wait -- what about nests in forks of branch?

The surface of the brain’s cortex, where much of the through-skin sensorium info is kept, actually is plotted like a map of the body, though the more sensitive parts (lips, hands, etc.) are bigger in proportion because so much more info from them is stored.  This information is filed by indexing it to the associated sensorium, which is why a certain smell, taste, smell, muscle twist, can summon up memory and even emotions, which is what Method actors use to manage their consciousness when representing situations.  The work of memory is first editing the intake and then “filing” the sensorium in the cells of the cerebrum.  If the memory functions are overwhelmed, editing loops can result.  This is thought to be at least part of the problem with PTSD: the sensorium is too intense and there is no place to put the information anyway.  It is indigestible information and disrupts all the bodily resources with floods of hormone and adrenaline.  A ball-bearing in the brain, insolvable but electrical.

Using the tree idea again, some of the sensorium information becomes flower (music), some fruit (theorems), but mostly leaves and attractors that pull small mammals, birds, insects, fungus, moss, mistletoe, and possibly small boys into the branches.  This is too fanciful to be useful.  We must not neglect the tree’s reflection rooted underground where memory -- possibly cultural, sort of Jungian universals -- nourishes the life-force that travels up and down and out to the tips, all driven by a kind of life-urge that is like atmospheric pressure.  This is also fanciful but fancy often shapes scientific insight.

New insights have major implications for education and for self-management.  One can “grow” one's mind and one can manage the patterns of the connectome, which is what determines the momentary nature of consciousness, depending on which centers of function are connected.  Dynamic events in the brain are always echoed in the body, not just in nerves but in both organs and muscles, and, in fact, can be controlled in part by bodily actions and positions.  This is ancient knowledge more acted upon in the Asian, African, American and Australian parts of the world, which is a slantwise way to say that Euros spend too much time sitting and pondering motionlessly.

Too much of that pondering gets channeled into business capitalism and empire war-mongering. A case might be made that the result of all this figuring out has since Egyptian times meant bookkeeping to keep track of wealth or in order to design military advantages. The history of Europe seems to be preoccupied with ownership and domination.  Fantastic systems of theology based on unchallenged assumptions crowded out science based on experimental direct observation.  Men have one fewer rib on one side, they said, because of Eve being made from an extracted bone, but no one simply counted ribs.

Now we come back to old issues with a huge technically augmented sensorium that has already forced many paradigm shifts, but most of all has proposed the idea that givens can and should be challenged.  Already so many unnecessary and unjustified givens have been swept aside.  The invention of the imaginative novel began to claim back a lot of territory related to human experience. Now it's video images that go everywhere.  We see things never seen by humans before, either at the tiny submicroscopic level or at the most faraway macrocosmic distance.

How it is that we can watch ourselves watching?  We begin to understand how the sensorium perceives the out-skin world, but how is it that we can feel ourselves feeling?  And critique the ways we react, try to train ourselves to react differently, to look at the out-skin world differently?  Even stranger is our capacity to imagine by extension -- greener than green, more powerful than any power -- and unlimited continuums of time and space: eternity, infinite other dimensions.  Forests that carpet the earth, trees that reach to the skies, roots to the center of the earth.  They don't exist but we can think of them.

In our own consciousness we combine music, image and word in ways that evoke far more meaning than the definitions of the words and then we make them move to rhythms of sound that are partly language and partly melody.  We call this poetry -- when it is not song -- and cherish its indelible patterns in our brains.  We don't think of trees as having rhythm though obviously they do: growing, shedding, regrowing, swaying in the wind, responding to the seasons, making music with the leaves that flutter and hum or branches that rub together, and occasionally providing a great crescendo crash of falling over, whether or not we are there.

We’ve known about brain waves for a long time and know about circadian rhythms sliding into nightly sleep.  We note the waves of emotion that accompany us through the seasons, and maybe the long gradual movement of our lives through maturation and the slowing of age.  We know about alphabetically labeled brain waves and what the mind does when the patterns differ.  We know how to run electrical surges or magnetic trickles through the brain -- sometimes a happy jolt, and others inducing the confusion of seizure and disorder.  We even know about the radar-like wave that keeps the other waves synchronized, washing through the brain at regular intervals.  We speculate about whether trees scream when we cut them down, still pushing a projection of ourselves in extremis as we try to think the unthinkable.  We are life in the midst of life but what does that mean?  Should we do something about it besides growing our brains?  What invisible particles wash through us on their way to eternity?  They say the planet vibrates like a gong.