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Long XYZ Blog

Long XYZ Blog

XYZ has had a number of meanings. In my youth you could say quietly  to some male friend at a party “XYZ!” and it meant: Examine Your Zipper! That is, Your Fly is Open. Today’s long blog isn’t about that; it will be in three parts, under those three letters.

- The X is about pronouncing that letter when it occurs in Chinese names and words written in pinyin, the transcription system now used pretty much everywhere to write the sounds of Chinese words. I write this one as a service to my readers who are not Chinese readers, or readers of Chinese. We see a lot in the news lately about someone named Xi Jinping, who is expected to become China’s next leader, but who has been out of public sight for several weeks, except for a brief appearance. I don’t mean to offer an opinion on where he was, but only to call attention to the trouble that news-people on TV have with pronouncing his name--and the names of Bo Xilai, the deposed power in Zhongqing, and others. They have been properly taught and get those X’s almost right, but not quite. So let me outllne some background information about pronouncing pinyin, the transcription system used in today’s China, replacing the older Wade-Giles system that was in common use until around the late 1960s or so. I will use “py” and “WG” for these.

Xi in py (hsi in WG--hard to type on computers because the correction system assumes you mean his and changes it to that)--xi in pinyin is pronounced almost, but not exactly, like English “she.” How different? The initial consonant is more in the front of the mouth, the teeth and tongue, instead of the back of the mouth. When we say “she” and “show” we think the initial consonant is the same, but with most people they are slightly different--in “she” it’s more frontal, in “show” further back. Pinyin distinguishes the two slightly different sounds by spelling the frontal one with an x, as in xi and xu (WG hsi and hsü--that u or ü is pronounced like the French u) and the back one with sh, as in sha and shou (WG same). The Chinese linguists who devised pinyin distinguished, that is, two slightly different sounds that English doesn’t, since it uses the same initials for she and show.. That is, they reflected a phonetic difference that was not a phonemic difference--a difference in sound that doesn’t make a difference In meaning.  

How do I come to know about phonetics and phonemics? Because I took a course of that title given in the Oriental Languages Dept. at U. C. Berkeley back ca. 1949, given by a remarkable woman named Mary Haas. The chairman of the department, the great Peter Boodberg, had hired her as (he felt) a necessary addition to a department that was heavily philological--devoted, that is, to the reading of old texts. He told us the difference: “Linguists go out and capture an informant, philologists go out and capture a text.” Mary Haas, an energetic red-haired woman, specialized in Thai and in American Indian languages and dialects--she told us one Friday that she was going off for the weekend to talk with the only other living speaker of their common tongue. And she taught us about such matters as the joining of words and compound words--the difference between “weeknight” and “weak knight.” (I embarrassed her by suggesting another in a paper: “catch it” and “----“ (meaning cat shit--proper ladies were still embarrassed by such vulgarities in 1949.)

Boodberg also taught us about the origins and development of the Chinese writing system. It isn’t a “pictographic” system--the Chinese don’t (as Symbolist poets once imagined) write in pictures; nor is it, properly, an “ideographic” system--the characters don’t write ideas. They write words--so it’s properly to be called, as Boodberg taught us, a logographic system. Most graphs or “characters” consist of a semantic element, a “radical,” that indicates a general range of meaning (water, fire, person, tree, etc.) and a phonetic element that indicates how it is to be pronounced. Each graph stands for a monosyllabic word, which consists of a vowel or dipthong that can stand alone or be preceded or followed, or both, by a consonant--in standard or “Mandarin” Chinese the final consonant can only be n or ng; in Cantonese words can end in other consonants. Monosyllabic words are commonly combined into bi-syllabic, or even tri-syllabic, compound words. The Chinese do not have (as the Japanese and Koreans do) a properly phonetic script, so they have to use characters for their sounds, for instance in the name Meiguo for America--mei country--the mei isn’t there for its meaning (“beautiful” but for its sound: the second syllable of A-mei-rica.. (Adopted into Japanese, it becomes Beikoku, inescapably “beautiful country.”)

Back to x’s in pinyin: in the early to mid-1970s, when this system was introduced in what we then called Communist China, scholars of Chinese had the option of beginning to use it or sticking with Wade-Giles; and of course the more progressive (such as Fred Wakeman) adopted it immediately, while the more regressive (including myself) held out for some years. I was just beginning to write my series of books on later Chinese painting, and when I saw that the first important artist in my Yuan-dynasty book would be (WG) Ch’ien Hsûan, (py) Qian Xuan, I decided that pinyin was too much to impose on my readers and opted, conservatively, for Wade-Giles spellings. On our 1973 delegation trip to China we saw, as we drove through Shanghai, signs reading “PIXIE” and for a time wondered: are they selling pixies? But then we realized that it was the new spelling for what we knew as p’i-hsieh, or shoes. Much later I was to marry someone named Tsao Hsingyuan (WG) who explained that her father had preferred that spelling--part of what got him in bad trouble. And I pointed out (bad joke) that the py version, Cao Xingyuan, started out like a sign in the road reading “Cow Crossing.” (Xing used to appear on road signs meaning “Crossing”)

Now on to Y.

- The Y is about--nothing at all. Or about You, who were fooled--there isn’t any Y. Or if there is, it’s like the old Mickey Mouse Club song on radio--they would spell his name, and when they came to Y, it was: “Y? (Why?) Because we love you!” That isn’t my message--I don’t even know most of you--but it gets us on to:

-Z is for--you guessed it--old Mr. Zhang again, my old friend the artist-forger Zhang Daqian. He has appeared in quite a few of these blogs. So why do I bring him back again? To report and present new evidence that the painting titled “Riverbank,” a would-be antique painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is really one of Zhang Daqian’s many forgeries. You may ask: Why do we need more evidence? What you’ve presented before is overwhelming, decisive. (Thank you.) But, strange as it may seem, the True Believers in “Riverbank”’s antiquity refuse to acknowledge all this evidence, or to confront it in any way. So I can only, with the help of friends, go on piling up the evidence, with a sinking feeling of: surely there has to come a time when they feel the need to respond? But will I live to see it? Two new developments to report:

- A further insert will soon be added to Addendum 2B of the “Pure and Remote View’ series, the one titled “Riverbank: A Closer Look.” It will report, and show, the recent discovery of a “try-out” earlier version of “Riverbank” that has turned up. It’s owned by the prominent collector Gary Ho, and was brought to my attention by Dick Barnhart. Mr. Ho and the painting were both in Vancouver, and he generously brought it to my house so that I could see it and Rand Chatterjee could make lots of whole and detail photographs of it, photos we have used for the insert, along with an audio by me. It proves to be a smaller painting, ink on silk, similar in composition to “Riverbank” but simpler, and painted in the style that Zhang Daqian used for his “Dong Yuan” and “Juran” forgeries. And it exhibits the same manner of “aging” and artificial ripping, done by Zhang with the help of his “ager,” whom I believe to have been the Tokyo mounter Meguro Sanji--the same, that is, as the rest of his forgeries on silk, with the tell-tale “brickwork” pattern. The new insert will appear about forty minutes into Addendum 2B--you can fast-forward to reach it, without re-watching the whole--and will last for about seven minutes. Watch for this--I will try to notify you when this new insert is actually added to the online lectures.

- Another message, with pictures, from my correspondent (whom I know only through emails) John Rohrer--I reported his discoveries about how details in “Riverbank” match up exactly with similar details in old and published paintings signed and acknowledged by Zhang Daqian, in a blog dated to April 19th this year and titled “More About Old Mr. Zhang and His Finest Production (Or One Of them).” Mr. Rohrer now writes a longer letter, telling me how he had bought and read the “Issues in Authenticity” volume (based on the Met’s 1999 symposium about “Riverbank”--see my Addendum 1B)) and at first couldn’t decide who was right, but later became convinced that I was right in seeing it as a Zhang Daqian forgery. He writes that he agrees with my (and Sherman Lee’s) arguments about the “wrong” treatment of the water, and adds:

“Second, I think I found Zhang Daqian's signature treatment of tree branches in Riverbank. Zhang Daqian trees are at times 'mind trees' that do not really exist, but instead bend and twist into abstract patterns that could not be found in nature. He tended to leave the unpainted media as the base for some of his trees. Examples are attached.

“To quote you: ‘open mind and open eyes’

Your student, John Rohrer”

And later he wrote that this has become, for him, “a project that I have been putting some thought and energy into. Since I found the signature pattern of twisted and downturned branches in Riverbank, i have been looking for other matching characteristics. I am trying to create a detailed study that matches up the placement of 'knots' in the trees, the bark patterns, and the way trees are 'planted to the ground'. The overall placement of branches and foliage is also starting to show distinct patterns.”

I will reproduce below the two new diagrammatic juxtapositions he sent me, in which he matches (and labels) images copied from old Zhang Daqian paintings with those in “Riverbank.” They are, needless to say, entirely convincing, and would convince anyone (as I’ve said many times) with open mind and eyes. But “Riverbank”’s True Believers will, I assume, continue to look the other way and pretend that Cahill, Rohrer, and other anathemized Doubters aren’t really there. So, if you have read this far, which are you? More than the dating of a painting depends on your answer--it’s a matter of--as I’ve been earnestly advised not to say but will anyway--a matter of intellectual honesty.

James Cahill, September 18th, 2012


September Blog


September Blog

My previous blog, on comic strips, was dated August 30th, which is when I typed out the original draft, although by the time I had reread and corrected it and sent it off to be posted it was into September. This one obviously has to be dated in September. And that, to an old person lying awake in bed thinking about what to write in his next blog, inevitably--at least for this old person--brings to mind: September Song.

And if naming that doesn’t call up anything in your mind, you are too young to know one of the great American songs, composed by a great German composer who became an American, Kurt Weill. It’s one of the songs in his musical “Knickerbocker Holiday,” The play, and the words of the song, are by Maxwell Anderson, and his libretto is best unremembered--he was an anti-FDR isolationist and conservative. But forget that, think only of the song. It was sung in the musical, and in the original recording, by Walter Huston--the famous actor whose son, the director John Huston, brought him back in his “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” to play the old prospector. (John himself appears in the film as an American tourist who is stopped on the street of a town in Africa more than once by Humphrey Bogart, who asks him for money.) Walter Huston starred in quite a few Hollywood movies of the 1930s--“Dodsworth” was one of them--most of them worth seeing. In “Knickerbocker Holiday,” which played on Broadway in l938 into ‘39, he is the aging Peter Stuyvesant who sings this haunting song to a younger woman he is courting: “Oh it’s a long long time/ From June to December/ But the days grow short/ When you reach September--/ When the autumn weather/ Turns the leaves to flame/ Then you haven’t got time/ For the waiting game--/ Then the days dwindle down/ To a precious few--/ September,/ November--/ And these few precious days/ I’d spend with you--/These precious days/ I’d spend with you.”  Walter Huston made the first recording of the song, and I remember, as a young person, disliking his old voice and wondering why they hadn’t got somebody better to sing it. Now, in a DVD reissue that collects original Kurt Weill recordings, it’s a treasure.

I used to be able to sing it myself, accompanying myself on the piano--the piano part is relatively easy to play--and I remember in those days in the 1980s when Hsingyuan and I were separated before our marriage, me in Berkeley and she in Beijing, recording it secretly and sending it to her on one of the small audiotape cartridges we used for messages. Perfect for someone of my age to send to someone so much younger whom he loved.

I was an early Kurt Weill enthusiast, even fanatic, long before the new production of his great Dreigroschenoper or “Threepenny Opera” in New York in 1953 brought him back to national attention. I had bought a 78 RPM recording, three 10” disks in an album issued by Bost, of six of his songs sung by his wife Lotte Lenya with Kurt Weill himself playing the piano. A dubbing from this, another treasure, is still available on the same DVD of old Kurt Weill recordings--buy it, listen to it over & over! “Soerabaya Johnny,” “Au fond de la Seine,” “J’Attends un Navire,” “Lost In the Stars”--all very poignant, moving, authentic. (The same DVD collection includes a Danny Kaye performance! in which he sings one of his scat songs.)

I was in New York on my Metropolitan Museum fellowship in 1953 when the “Threepenny Opera” opened at the Theatre de Lys in Greenwich Village in the new translation by Marc Blitzstein, with Lotte Lenya starring--I went to it over & over, and introduced it to all my friends at the Met. (I recall one of them, afterwards, beating on my door and saying “Play Mack the Knife for me!”--she couldn’t go another day without hearing it again.) I organized a Kurt Weill evening for those friends, playing the old Bost records and others I had collected.  And I wrote a long, fervent fan letter to Lotte Lenya, telling her about my passion for Weill’s music, asking where to find the sheet music for his songs, speculating (correctly, as it turned out) which song had been the first that inspired the whole Blitzstein translation. She wrote me a long, self-typed reply, several pages, which I treasured for years but can’t find now. (Maybe it’s in the Cahill Archive at the Freer.)

I owned a piano score for the “Threepenny Opera” and used to play and sing quite a lot of it. It’s based loosely on the old Gay/Pepusch “Beggar’s Opera,” which I also used to know more or less by heart, from another great recording. The Brecht/Weill work uses only one song from the “Beggar’s Opera,” with new, German words. The original-cast recording of their “Threepenny Opera” is only of excerpts, unfortunately, but is nonetheless another treasure. If my memory serves, the street-singer who sings the famous ballad about Mack the Knife (“Und der Haifisch/ Der hat Zâhne/ Und die trâgt ehr/ Ins Gesicht--“) was none other than the famous leftist singer Ernst Busch. (My daughter Sarah likes the Louis Armstrong recording, with Lotte Lenya helping; for me it’s all wrong, the outcome of an unfortunate coming-together--see the previous blog--of a great singer & great song for a mis-matched performance--he doesn’t really care about the lyrics.) Unhappily, the original Dreigroschenoper performance was not only never completely recorded, but was never made into a movie that was true to the original- -the Pabst movie based loosely on it, fine as it is in itself, is pretty much an independent creation (Pabst moves it to London and tacks on a new ending, with Queen Victoria arriving in a carriage!.)

Among my favorite songs in the Brecht/Weill original are Mack singing to Jenny about how love either lasts or doesn’t--“Die Liebe dauert, oder dauert nicht/ In dies oder jener Ort” (from memory, probably wrong,) and the great finale of the second act, a rousing leftist angry song calling on the mighty of the world to share their wealth--“Erst muss es möglich sein/ Auch arme Leute/ Von grossen Brotleib sich ihr Teil zu schneiden!” (First it must be possible for poor people to also cut their slices from the great loaf of bread. I’m sure that’s wrong, but it’s close enough.) I used the music for this finale in one of our Faculty Club Christmas Party musicals, the one in 1971, to address the budget-cutters whom Governor Ronald Reagan had sent to our campus. (I had to sing it myself--nobody else in that year’s cast knew the music well enough.) My first stanza--the whole is accessible on pp. 10-11 of the CYCTIE on this website--went:

You gentlemen who come to trim our budget

And show us how we should economize

It’s very clear, however much you fudge it

You’re here to hurt, and not just to advise.

You say that smaller classes have to disappear,

You say that we should auction off our books,

The fate you plan for us is like Procrustes’ bed—

You’ll trim the limbs until the patient’s dead.

A university can surely perish

When they attack who are supposed to cherish.

All this is, I hardly need to say, deeply applicable to the situation we are in now, and my first thought is: where is our Brecht-Weill team to write great songs attacking what Wall Street and the super-rich are doing to our society? And my second thought: Yes, but the Brecht-Weill side lost out, and Hitler came to power. Is that our future? Can we only write bitter songs and think bitter thoughts, and helplessly watch it all happening? And that’s my suitably bitter ending for today’s blog: September, November. . .

James Cahill, September 3rd, 2012.

Comic Strip Blog


Comic Strip Blog

My previous blog, left up far too long--more than two weeks--was a serious one, looking back over my past career and assessing my present state. This one will be un-serious; it will begin with a note on a movie and go on to write about comic strips.

I introduce the movie by mentioning a planned video-lecture: it will be titled “Chance Comings-together” and will make the argument that major achievements in art  (including movies and ballet) can come about through happenstance, when people and circumstances fall into place as if directed by providence or auspicious forces to bring into being some highly successful work. I’ve collected images and information for several of these, including (older examples) Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” Fitzgerald’s “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’ translation. And for more recent examples, Leonide Massine’s “Tricorne” (Three-cornered Hat) ballet  and Jean Renoir’s “Rules of the Game” movie. So, what if a similar conjunction of people and circumstances happens again--will they all fall into place once more to produce a major, successful work? Last night I watched with high anticipation a 1956 movie, shown for the first time on Turner Classic Movies, that raised that question. The English title was “Elena and Her Men”; the director was the same great Jean Renoir whose “Rules of the Game” is my favorite of all films. Cast included Ingrid Bergman, and as her co-star (along with Mel Ferrer and Juliette Greco) Jean Marais--he who played Orpheus in Jean Cocteau’s haunting movie of that name, and also (with fur all over) the Beast in Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast,” a film that all children should know by heart before they are teens (mine all did). So: with all these coming together, was another great movie produced? My own view: no, it was a disaster--I could hardly stay awake for the whole 95 minutes. Everything went wrong. The people and the circumstances just didn’t fall together into a successfuj work this time. But perhaps being unrepeatable is the very essence of my chance comings-together.

My main topic for today, however, inspired by my secret inner feeling (still present after decades) when I read the NYTimes every morning (“All very well, but where are the comic strips?) is: Why hasn’t any comic strip of the kind that one really anticipates reading at the start of every day, as we used to do, emerged in recent years? For decades I and my children and family would greet the morning paper, wherever we were--not the NYTimes but a local paper--to see some particular comic strip for that day. Most of you will remember them: the ones that somehow went beyond the daily little joke, that really engaged reader-viewers with the characters in them. Just for starters: in recent years, “Calvin and Hobbes,” before its creator stopped doing them; before that, “Peanuts” (Charlie Brown, Lucie, and the crew); before that, “Pogo”--and so on back. Why no successor, no comic strip with characters and situations that one really cares about, becomes emotionally involved with? (Yes, I know, there is “Doonesbury,” but that’s become more political than engaging, at least for me.) In Vancouver I used to buy the Vancouver Sun and other local papers, or read them at the supermarket, partly to read the comics pages. Anyway, let me go back over some of the comics that have been, in this way, seriously engaging for large audiences over the decades--the kind we used to talk about among ourselves (“Did you see what happened to Snoopy this morning?”)

I’ll begin--no, not with “Little Nemo”, I’m not that old--but with George Harriman’s great “Krazy Kat” series, which ran in daily papers from 1913 until the author’s death in 1944. About that, let me only say that I’ve bought pretty much all the “Krazy Kat” reprint collections as they came out, and gone through them with fascination and pleasure--they form a tall pile on one of my bookshelves. If there is a cartoon that rose to the level of high art, this is it. With one simple plot and three main characters, Harriman strung out a rich world of endless invention, crafting a hybrid language for them to speak (New York Jewish/Yiddish played a big part in it) and placing them in a quasi-surreal landscape that changed from frame to frame. (The same Harriman did the illustrations for the early publications of “Archy and Mehitabel,” but that appeared in daily column, not as a comic strip.)

Some I will name without commenting on in detail include “Bringing Up Father” (Maggie and Jiggs, a wife with high-society pretensions vs. a man who kept his low Irish taste for the likes of corned beef and cabbage); “Barney Google” (I can still sing several verses of the song if one pushes the right button); “Mutt and Jeff;” “The Katzenjammer Kids,” which took us back to German Expressionism, Struwelpeter, and Lionel Feininger; “Popeye,” with Olive Oyl, Wimpy the lover of hamburgers and Alice the Goon Girl; the extraordinary “Smokey Stover,” the ultimate surrealist strip--“Nov schmoz kapop” is still part of my inner vocabulary, although I haven’t used it much in actual conversation, and I can never visit a notary without wanting to tell him or her about “Notary Sojak.” “Gasoline Alley,” starring Skeezix and others in a family drama with characters who really aged with the years; “Blondie,” starring the ill-starred Dagwood and his endless troubles with his boss, his next-door neighbor, and people who came to his door. Popular adventure strips included “Prince Valiant,” for which I always admired the drawing (tradition of Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth) more than the story; and “Terry and the Pirates,” with an exciting serial-like story line that intersected with real events.

Then there was ” L’il Abner,” which ran from 1934 to 1977, and introduced political and social commentary to the comic strip. Everybody read it, knew about Sadie Hawkins Day when the girls pursued the boys, and about Mammy and Pappy Yokum (I still find myself repeating his line “It war mainly true” on relevant occasions.) All these have their websites of special admirers and collectors, as I find on Googling them. (I am leaving out the comic-book characters such as “Superman” and “Batman”--I wish I had kept the first Superman which I bought for ten cents at a store in Fort Bragg--I did keep, fortunately, a run of early “Mad” Magazines that my daughter Sarah still treasures.)

Then there was--and still is, in numerous reprints and picture- and song-books, of which my younger children have quite a few--the great “Pogo,” the possum who lived in the Okeefanokee Swamp in Florida along with Albert the Alligator and a rich cast of other characters. It ran from the 1940s until after Walt Kelly’s death in 1977. If there was a strip (other than “Krazy Kat”) that created its own language, this is it; and it created also an endlessly entertaining world of place and characters, rich comic-narrative invention. It carried on the tradition of injecting social and political commentary into the stories and characters, even including a bitterly mocking portrait of Senator Joseph McCarthy. We could all sing, around Christmas, “Deck us all with Boston Charley, Walla-walla Wash and Kalamazoo.”

Coming to more recent times, and strips that will be remembered by those much younger than myself: the great American (and foreign) favorite was of course “Peanuts,” about which I needn’t say much of anything. The trials of Charlie Brown and his friends Lucie, her brother Linus, and Schroder who played Beethoven on the piano, of Charlie’s dog Snoopy who imagined himself a World War One flying ace and led a scout troop of little birds, and all the rest--nothing more need be said. And then, bless the gods, there was “Calvin and Hobbes,” whose daily and Sunday adventures we followed until its creator decided to stop drawing them. My wife Hsingyuan and our twin sons still treasure the Complete Calvin and Hobbes that I bought them as a Christmas present.

So, then, to my question: Why has there been no such daily and Sunday strip in more recent times? OK, I can think of and name a few that readers may call to my attention, such as the long-running one about the Viking warrior and his dominating wife, or the endless soap-opera about Mary Worth--those don’t qualify, in my book. Have we (as I sadly believe) entered an age that doesn’t encourage or welcome the creation of these alternative comic worlds and the lovable characters who used to populate them? Just about the only continuing joke that raises an inner smile in me is the NYTimes editorial columnist’s one about Mitt Romney’s dog riding to Canada on the roof of his car. And that allows me to conclude this long blog by writing: It’s been only a few hours since I watched the owner of that car make his much-admired speech at the GOP convention in Florida, and I’m inspired to worry: have we lost our ability to see through such false posturing, lacking as we do the comic-strip characters such as Pogo and L’il Abner who would have exposed him for the fraud that he is--a cold fish who is misportrayed, with bottomless funding, as a caring individual?  If so, alas for my poor country! And with that, good night. (August 30th 2012.)

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