Recommendations for 03/25/2012

Lots of words for you all this time— both mine and other people’s.
Song: “Lay Your Cards Out” by Poliça
I actually heard this on a podcast a few weeks ago, and meant to track it down then, but forgot until now. This band apparently has some pretty big-name support— Bon Iver appears on one song on the album— but I know very little else about them. 
Unintentional Conversation: “The Story of Us, A People in Exile: On The New American Haggadah” by Rachel Freeman-Slade (http://www.themillions.com/2012/03/the-story-of-us-a-people-in-exile-on-the-new-american-haggadah.html), and “Comes the Comer” by Leon Wieseltier (http://www.jewishreviewofbooks.com/publications/detail/comes-the-comer). 
These are two very different takes on The New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer. Freeman-Slade is quite positive, calling the book “a newly rich and provocative text” that “makes worship a radical act of intellectual inquiry.” Wieseltier, on the other hand, claims that “[t]here have been many English translations [of the Haggadah], most of them mediocre or worse. Now the New American Haggadah has appeared, in a translation by Nathan Englander that takes its place, alas, in that sad line.” And, indeed, his strongest criticisms are mostly reserved for the translation,; he argues that while translator Nathan Englander’s rendering of the “Tetragrammaton…as ‘the One Who Brings Being into Being’…is genuinely thoughtful,” still, “generally he strains too much, and frequently ends up with versions that are awkward, ugly, or wrong.”
Now, I am definitely in no position to say anything at all about Wieseltier’s critique of the translation. Some of his objections seem merely aesthetic, some more substantive; certainly, he brings a level of scholarship and linguistic knowledge to his argument that Freeman-Slade does not attempt— indeed, she has very little at all to say about the translation, though that little is generally approving. Where the two really diverge is in their take on the commentaries included in the book. There are four, one each from Jeffrey Goldberg—who writes for The Atlantic— the novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, scholar of Judaism Nathaniel Deutsch, and…Lemony Snicket. 
So, clearly, Freeman-Slade and Wieseltier have very different responses to Lemony Snicket’s contribution, and probably, I think it’s safe to say, to the kind of humor it represents. Slade-Freeman sees it as bringing some perhaps necessary, at least not-unwelcome levity to the ceremony; Wieseltier seems to think it trivial— and worse, trivializing. After quoting a bit from Snicket’s section, he asks: 

“Is this the cry of a generation? A pitch for Zach Galifianakis? There is something sad about such a fear of adulthood. It is an Egypt of its own.” 

Now, whatever one thinks of Lemony Snicket’s approach (and I have to wonder why he chose to publish this under that name, rather than as Daniel Handler), there is no way this statement is not overblown. Comparing irreverence (here meant literally) to the enslavement of an entire people seems…well, irreverent. But I think this also gets at why these two reviewers had such different reactions to the new Haggadah, and to the commentaries in particular. Wieseltier begins his piece with a lament about the

“awful fact…that Jewry of the United States has decided—it was a decision, even if it was never formally made—that the Jewish tradition may be adequately received, developed, and transmitted not in a Jewish language. Judaism’s language, after all, is not English. Owing to the magnitude of their illiteracy, American Jews have broken new ground in Jewish incompetence.”

In other words, American Jews do not sufficiently understand their heritage—in particular because they have insufficient knowledge of Hebrew. As a result, in the Seder, which “was designed as an education for the children,” is opaque and foreign to all its participants: “…in the cultural eddies of the diaspora the “children” often included the adults, who also had a need for a vernacular version of what was being read and sung.”
Moreover, Freeman-Slade singles out the commentaries for special praise precisely because

“These contrasting voices bring out the multitudes of questions and quandaries inherent in the Passover story, and by secularizing the commentary, giving it over to political, liturgical, literary, and elementary analysis, they have made this into a vitally relevant piece of philosophical inquiry.”

She goes on to say that “What makes this volume such a pleasure to read, and what makes it the best book of modern religious thought in recent memory, is its demand that dialogue be a central part of worship.” Weiseltier, in contrast, says of the commentaries that

“They are sermonettes of varying quality, most of them keener on questions than answers. This is appropriate, I guess, for the night of the Four Questions; but those questions, remember, are for the children to ask. The adults are supposed to be less interrogative than instructive—to be unembarrassed by the claim that they are in possession of answers. Contrary to its contemporary reputation, the Haggadah is more about the prestige of answers than the prestige of questions. There is nothing tentative about its account of God, history, and freedom. The tradition that it describes does not shrink from certainties. It is an argumentative tradition, to be sure, but not because certainty is impossible or illegitimate.”

Ultimately, then, it seems to me that Freeman-Slade sees The New American Haggadah as both useful and though-provoking for people like herself, whose Hebrew is rusty, who approach Judaism from a more secular, cultural perspective (and let me note that I’m reading quite a bit into her piece here), and who see the interrogation of culture and tradition as an important part of participating in them. Wieseltier, I think, sees it in precisely the same way— and this is the problem. I think he knows precisely who this book will appeal to, and why, and his essential argument is that they should not need something like this; that they do is a symptom of a deeper and very real problem.
I have nothing whatever to say about the spiritual or cultural state of Jews in America, or the right way to think about Jewish traditions. But these two pieces caught my attention because they suggest that, if nothing else, The New American Haggadah has people talking about what traditions and rituals mean, and whether and how they should change over time. Which strikes me as being, more or less always, a useful conversation to have. 
Article: “Damien Hirst and the Great Art Market Heist” by Hari Kunzru
Very smart and totally unsparing piece about Damien Hirst and the contemporary art market. Hirst, for those who remain blissfully unfamiliar, is the world’s richest artist, having sold over two hundred seventy million dollars worth of his work in 2008 alone. (He’s the guy who cut a shark in half and had people walk between the sections, if that rings a bell). To some extent, Hirst has gotten to where he simply by figuring out how to turn stunts that garner headlines into products that people want to buy; he has also as Kunzru points out, figured out a way to make the use of assistants to do the actual painting (or whatever) into a kind of artistic statement; this is why there are well over 1,000 of his tiny-dot “pharmaceutical paintings” in existence. In short, he is everything I hate about Warhol, amplified.
But perhaps more importantly (and Kunzru makes a strong case that this is, in fact, more important), Hirst has come to epitomize the way in which the contemporary art market has transformed such that works of art are not simply worth money; in a very real sense, they are money— a store of value, pure and simple. Hedge-fund managers (a group that now serves as a metonym for excessive and irresponsible wealth) buy art as a form of speculation.  (See, for instance, this article in The Economist, which bemoans Hirst’s screwing of his “investors”: http://www.economist.com/node/16990811) Where owning contemporary art used to serve (sometimes cynically) as a sign of status, class, culture, or taste–or maybe just a tasteful symbol of wealth and status– it is now a place for people with too much money to put their wealth for safekeeping. Hirst’s art, perhaps, works especially well for this, because there is so much of it and because his status as an artist who fetches high prices tends to keep driving those prices further skyward, but for Kunzru this is less about any qualities in Hirst’s art specifically and more about the fact that it so neatly indexes this shift. 
Kunzru also discusses the ways in which this leads to the corruption of other facets of the art world– for instance, cases in which wealthy collectors who serve on the boards of important museums can get those institutions to stage exhibitions drawn almost exclusively from their own collections, thus making those collections even more valuable. In essence, both prices and museum exhibitions are supposed to work as indicators of a fundamentally indefinable “quality” or worthiness; when the latter comes to be in service to the former, both cease to serve this function.
On a side note, I very much want to read Kunzru’s new novel, Gods Without Men, reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review by none other than Douglas Coupland: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/books/review/gods-without-men-by-hari-kunzru.html?_r=4&ref=review&pagewanted=all
Article: “Editor Not Ready to Write an Ending” by Charles McGrath
Sort of a profile of Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review of Books, but really a story about the anxiety over who will replace him when he leaves— and, since he is 82, one assumes this will happen before too long. What really interests me about this is that, in a moment when everybody wants to talk about “curating” things (and yeah, I guess that is what I’m supposed to be doing here), the difficulty of finding someone to fill Silvers’ shoes shows how hard it actually is to do it really well. A similar issue came up when George Plimpton died and a new editor had to be found for the Paris Review. Interestingly, Silvers also worked as an editor at the Paris Review, and they will soon be giving him a lifetime achievement award; there’s an interview with Silvers about his time at the Review, and about what his goals are for the New York Review, here: http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/03/20/robert-silvers-on-%E2%80%98the-new-york-review-of-books%E2%80%99/  
Article: “The Problem with Music” by Steve Albini
This is actually quite an old piece now, first published in 1994. I ran across it again recently because the magazine in which it was published, The Baffler— which, because of constant funding problems, has published 18 issues in 24 years, and yet manages to maintain the intense loyalty of a certain demographic— has a new issue, a new editor, and will now be published three times a year by MIT press (you can read about all of that here: http://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/2012/03/return-of-baffler-interview-with-john.html). That led me to their online archive, which includes Albini’s piece. Essentially, it’s a breakdown of a fairly typical major-label record deal, and it shows how a band can sell 250,000 copies of their first record and mount a successful tour, and still end up deeply in debt to their label. If nothing else, it makes one think that the new/emerging music business, in which labels are so much less important and the music itself is not selling in the way it used to, is maybe not going to be SO much worse for the artists. In any case, I found this really eye-opening when I read it the first time, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t already seen it. 

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