From its opening lines, the first-century Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses reveals itself to be as mercurial as its shape-shifting subjects. While the poem begins in the familiar rhythm of Ovid’s earlier poetry – the lilting, rising-falling meters of elegy, a common form of Roman love lyric – a surprise awaits its Latin readers in the second line when the poem reveals that it’s not going to be in elegiac couplets after all, but in the grand epic hexameters of the Iliad and the Aeneid. In two manuscript variants, Ovid even seems to crack a joke about the metric switch-up at the exact moment it takes place: “Gods, breathe on my beginnings (for you’ve changed those, too)” (“nam vos mutastis et illa” (I.2)). But the surprises don’t stop there – the Metamorphoses boldly announces a break from poetic traditions by remixing old myths and genres. While the poet’s ambition to tell stories from “the earliest origins of the world to my times” aims for history-making on an epic scale, his invocation to the gods to help him “spin a song” suggests the finely spun and resolutely anti-epic aesthetic of the Hellenistic poet Callimachus. Slippery contradictions and abrupt changes are thus woven into the very fabric of the Metamorphoses itself.
But while the theme of transformation wasn’t new to Ovid, who finished the poem five centuries after the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’s well-known aphorism “everything changes,” his poem’s particular brand of metamorphoses reached dangerous new extremes. Thwarting classical distinctions between human and beast, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as one critic writes, “exults in the body’s seemingly endless subjection to physical change and continually finds new metaphors and situations that intensify rather than allay anxiety.” Slick, witty, and urbane, Ovid’s stories are also notoriously full of trauma and violence, especially committed by gods against women. In the first two books alone, three girls are raped by Zeus, while a fourth is nearly raped by Apollo before being mercifully turned into a tree; meanwhile, the gods wipe out the race of men, and the son of the Sun streaks through the sky, his flesh consumed by flames. Bodies are transformed left and right: girls turn into cows and bears, gods disguise themselves as bulls, grieving sisters take root in the earth and ooze tears of amber. It’s as if unable to erase these acts of violence, the universe of the Metamorphoses tries to contain them by changing both perpetrators and victims into forms beyond human recognition.
Throughout the centuries, Ovid’s Metamorphoses has functioned as an unlikely cultural barometer, with various stories, motifs, and themes falling in and out of favor depending on prevailing moods. If every period reimagines Ovid’s tales as their own, then the Ovidian remakes of the last century – ranging from the explicit, such as Ted Hughes’s Tales from Ovid, to the oblique, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and every vampire, zombie, superhero, and shape-shifting monster-of-the-week in between – have seemed especially obsessed with the dark eruptions of violence in Ovid’s myths. (What’s the sex-switching killer Marty from Season 1 of the X Files than an Amish-alien update of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus? Or Battlestar’s gorgeous Cylons but a race of deadly Galateas?) The editors of the volume of poems After Ovid tellingly highlighted the Metamorphoses’s “affinities” with twentieth-century terrors and anxieties, including “holocaust, plague, sexual harassment, rape, incest, seduction, pollution, sex-change, suicide, hetero- and homosexual love, torture, war, child-beating, depression and intoxication.” It’s all a far cry from the anonymous fourteenth-century French author of Ovide moralisé, who insisted that the tale of incest between Myrrha and her father Cinyras was an allegory of love between the Virgin Mary and her Heavenly Father!
Interestingly, however, one of the most beloved Ovidian adaptations of the last several years – MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient Mary Zimmerman’s Tony Award-winning production Metamorphoses, featuring a monumental, ever-shifting pool of water at its center – has taken a sharp turn away from the contemporary focus on violence in Ovid’s work. The acclaimed director, playwright, and professor often mentions in interviews that she’d always been drawn to Greek and Roman myths (beginning with a childhood encounter with Edith Hamilton’s popular 1942 volume Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes) because of their frightening, bloody and sexual content, and it’s true that the myths Zimmerman uses in her play correspond to some of the most disturbing stories in Ovid’s work that feature, among other horrors, self-cannibalism, blood sacrifice, rape, and genocide. In addition, through a tragic twist of history, Zimmerman’s play itself became intimately linked to trauma, attaining symbolic status as public therapy for grief when it was performed off-Broadway a few weeks after 9/11. “For New Yorkers today who encounter the same recorded visions of terrorist destruction whenever they turn on their televisions,” New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote at the time, “Ms. Zimmerman’s portrayal of tragic scenes repeated has an anxious and immediate familiarity…[It] is speaking with a dreamlike hush directly to New Yorkers’ souls.”
What makes all of this ironic, however, is that Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses isn’t really about trauma and violence at all, but about the redemptive power of love. Not that these themes are incompatible, or course, or that the play abandons the former entirely. But what struck me as I watched the revival of the original 1998 production of the Metamorphoses at the Lookingglass Theatre this past January was how often – and how resolutely – Zimmerman’s work swerved away from violence: the darker elements of Ovid’s myths were repeatedly swapped out for more heart-warming renditions, and one of the most romantic stories, the tale of Eros and Psyche, was imported from another source (the second-century author Lucius Apuleius’s Metamorphoses) to underscore the play’s central theme of love. During these episodes, I couldn’t help feeling that something was lost in the sentimentalizing. (I’m not alone in this view – classicist Justine McConnell described aspects of the play as “almost cloying,” and Brantley suggested that in another context, it could register as “too precious…too arts-and-crafts.”) Instead, for me the most powerful moments in Zimmerman’s visually ravishing production took place when the mythic narratives confronted horror head-on; furthermore, these moments were most effective when they were closed off in ways that were most Ovidian, through a sudden shift in genre or tone, a breaking of a frame, or a silent dissolve into nothingness.
Zimmerman’s warming art
The nested tale structure of Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses begins and ends with the story of King Midas. As in Ovid’s version, Zimmerman’s Midas is a foolish and greedy king (updated here as a self-absorbed tycoon) who reluctantly rescues the god Bacchus’s companion Silenus from his drunken wanderings around the neighborhood. The grateful Bacchus grants Midas one wish, and the king prays for everything he touches to turn into gold. (“That’s a really, really bad idea,” Bacchus says, dryly.) Still, Midas gets his wish, and as he races around the pool he becomes giddier by the second as each touch yields more riches. But then, the inevitable tragedy happens: Midas’s young daughter leaps into his arms and is instantly transformed into gold. Grief-stricken, the king begs Bacchus to reverse the magic, but the god refuses. Bacchus does hold out a glimmer of hope, however – if Midas journeys to the end of the world, he will find a pool of water that reflects the stars; once Midas washes his hands in it, everything will be restored. And indeed it is, as the contrite Midas and his daughter are happily reunited at the end of the play.
Zimmerman’s style has been described as an “original and warming art,” with the “ability to transform an audience into willing (and often weeping) children.” As it happens, the story of Midas’s daughter isn’t found in Ovid’s poem but in an 1852 children’s collection of myths called A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys by none other than the author of the Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne. (Charmingly, he gives Midas’s daughter the very nineteenth-century name of Marygold.) While Zimmerman’s borrowing of this plot element from a children’s book (a kind of Ovide moralisé, as it were) resonates with her own nostalgic childhood encounters with classical myths, it also reveals something about the pattern of editorial changes throughout her play, where the very adult motifs of sexual desire are often transformed into far more idealized and innocent notions about love.
One striking example was Zimmerman’s comic retelling of the story of Pomona and Vertumnus – a nymph who prefers gardening over boys, and a strapping young god who’s desperate for her love. In this episode, the hapless Vertumnus dons disguise after disguise to get ever closer to his beloved, and in an old woman’s garb, he tells Pomona the tragic story of Myrrha, a young girl who scorned love and was thus cursed by Aphrodite to fall in love with her father Cinyras. While “this story got Vertumnus nowhere,” as the deadpan narrator informs the audience, Pomona suddenly turns to him and orders him to peel off his old woman’s clothes one by one. Startled by her boldness, Vertumnus obeys, and the tale ends happily with young love fulfilled: “When at last the god revealed himself just as he was, much to his surprise, he had no need of words. Little Pomona was happy with what she saw, unadorned and undisguised. Soon enough, the vine was clinging to the tree.” In Ovid, the tale of Pomona and Vertumnus is the final “love” story in the closing book of the Metamorphoses, completing the arc from the first “love” story of the river nymph Daphne and the god Apollo in Book I, which isn’t a love story at all, but a story about attempted rape. As if the parallels are too obvious, Ovid simply hints at rape in the later story, stating obliquely that Vertumnus is “prepared to use force” (vimque parat, XIV.770). Fortunately for everyone, Pomona is instantly taken with the god’s naked beauty and the hinted act never takes place – instead, sex occurs naturally and consensually within the idyllic boundaries of the garden walls – but the troubling specter of sexual violence haunts the supposed happy ending and closes Ovid’s entire work with an ambivalent commentary on the ever-fraught relations between women and men.
In contrast, Zimmerman’s take on the theme of love throughout her play tended to be idealistic and a bit clichéd, as in her retelling of Pomona and Vertumnus, and in the hushed call-and-response narration at the end of her adaptation of Apuleius’s story of Eros (“love”) and Psyche (“soul”). “It’s just inevitable,” said one narrator. “The soul wanders in the dark, until it finds love. And so, wherever our love goes, there we find our soul.” Such optimism – Zimmerman’s “warming” effect – carried over even into stories that had little to do with romantic love. In the tales of Phaethon and Erysichthon, the traumas at their core were substituted or softened with more agreeable, audience-friendly details. The tragic myth of Phaethon, for instance, was turned into a droll exchange between a spoiled rich brat and his therapist. Stretched out on a floating raft in the pool, the whiny Phaethon confessed the anxieties and insecurities of a son who once craved the attention of his absent father – the sun god Helios – and begged his dad to prove his paternity by (what else?) handing over the keys to his car. Starkly missing from this story was the terror of Phaethon’s epic fall from the sky, the smell of his burning flesh, the wails of agony from the scorched earth, and the murderous justice of Zeus. While a few of these details were briefly mentioned in passing, their mythic, cosmic force was diminished in the comic treatment, replaced instead by a comfortably familiar Freudian family drama.
However, a darker psychosexual subtext was eliminated entirely in Zimmerman’s retelling of the story of Erysichthon, a king who scorned the gods and chopped down the goddess Ceres’s sacred tree. Ceres punishes Erysichthon by summoning Hunger to possess his stomach until his appetite becomes insatiable. Once he pawns off everything he owns for food, Erysichthon turns next to sell a member of his family. In Ovid’s legend, Erysichthon ends up prostituting his daughter, who in a chilling prayer begs the god Neptune to rescue her: “Save me lord, you who stole my virginity!” Her former rapist does in fact hear her prayer and instantly transforms her into a fisherman. When Erysichthon learns about his daughter’s new shape-shifting abilities, he eagerly sells her off again and again; each time she changes into another form – a mare, a bird, a deer – and successfully escapes her captor. The ugliness of the irony rests in the parallel between the rapist who becomes the girl’s protector, and the supposed protector – the girl’s father – who becomes her pimp. (This only goes so far, of course, until Erysichthon ends up feasting on himself.)
In Zimmerman’s retelling, I was surprised to see the character of Erysichthon’s daughter replaced by his elderly mother, whose relationship to Neptune and resulting transformation was vastly different in tone: “From the briny deep, Poseidon heard her prayer, pulled her into the water, and changed her back into the little girl who used to play along his shores. The salty water licked the years away, until she emerged: the one who gave him praise in childhood, shouting as she ran among the waves. This is the kind of sweet, unbidden praise the gods adore and do not forget.” While this brief, charming scene – featuring an adorably doddering performance by the actress playing the mother – provided welcome relief from the desperate, rangy hunger of Erysichthon and captured a childlike aesthetic of wonder that Zimmerman strives for in her work, I couldn’t help thinking that if Zimmerman had kept the story of the daughter intact, it would have actually strengthened a key thematic arc of the play, reinforcing the motif of daughters and shady fathers who are also bad kings (Midas, Erysichthon, and Cinyras). Together, the three tales would have constituted a powerful overarching narrative about the downfall of rulers who violate the rules of family, sex, and nature and are in turn violently consumed by their own lusts.
. . .
But there were a few tales that I felt Zimmerman’s production really got right. Among them was the tragedy of Ceyx and Alcyone, whom Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare had all championed as an ideal embodiment of married love, but – perhaps unsurprisingly – to whom modern Ovidians have tended to give short shrift. It was great to see this story get the powerful, operatic staging that it deserved. After the opening sequence of the Midas myth, which ended too abruptly – while the image of Midas’s daughter freezing into position was shocking, we weren’t given time to absorb the tragedy of her transformation – the long, drawn-out narration of the story of Ceyx and Alcyone felt well paced, with all of the hybrid elements of the story slowly coming together and building up an unbearable degree of tension until the terror-stricken Alcyone came face to face in a dream with the ghost of her drowned husband. Also moving were the tales of Orpheus/Eurydice and Myrrha/Cinyras, whose emotional force was heightened in relief against the comic tales that framed them. I especially loved Zimmerman’s beautifully rendered two-part narration (and in some parts, a literal pas de deux) of Orpheus and Eurydice. While Part One was a faithful adaptation of the famous version in Ovid, in which Orpheus leads his dead bride out of the Underworld but loses her forever when he glances back to see if she’s still there, in Part Two — based on the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1908 poem “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes” — the perspective shifted to Eurydice, who was slowly revealed to lose all memory of her human self as she retreated further and further into the state of death. It was here, at the dead center of the play, that life and love lost all meaning, and death absorbed Eurydice – and all the audience with her – into a strange state of peace and oblivion.
Critics frequently mention that the visceral power of Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses lies in its images, which haunt the memory long after they disappear. (The most-cited images, interestingly, are the ones where figures are frozen or caught acrobatically mid-air in postures of grief or death.) My own heart stopped when Myrrha melted away into the water, disappearing underneath the edge of the pool, as the story suddenly shifted back to the sparkling comedy of Vertumnus and Pomona. It was like watching the drive of incest literally plunging into the unconscious and lurking there, hidden, as the next few stories (Phaethon, Eros/Psyche) continued to riff on lighter psychodramatic themes.
But this unresolved dark current made the final sequence – the story of Baucis and Philemon, rounded out with the reunion between Midas and his daughter – seem too pat an ending in comparison. I do admit that in many ways, the story of Baucis and Philemon was a perfect coda for Zimmerman’s play — a tale of faithful love in old age, with the poor elderly wife and husband rewarded by the gods for welcoming them (Zeus and Hermes disguised as weary travelers) into their home and, unlike Midas, asking for a wish rooted in love rather than greed. (Their wish: to die at the same moment. The gods’ gift: to give them a grand new home, and to turn them into trees at the moment of their death.) Zimmerman’s play concluded in a magical, softly lit tableau, with the entire company kneeling in the pool, arrayed around the transformed Baucis and Philemon and surrounded by bowls of glowing candles, whispering to the audience, “Let me die still loving, and so, never die.” When the lights went out, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, including mine.
But there’s more to the story in Ovid — much, much more. While it’s still about the love between an old couple and their selfless generosity towards strangers, and even includes light touches of rustic humor, with the gods chuckling as they watch the old couple huffing and puffing as they chase their goose around to catch and cook it for supper, there’s also a holocaust, where Zeus and Hermes wipe out an entire country in a massive flood to punish people for their lack of hospitality. In a heartbreaking scene, the grieving Baucis and Philemon are shown weeping for the death of their fellow neighbors and mourning the destruction of their homeland. All this, compounded with the fact that the gods destroy the couple’s lifelong and beloved cottage with its cozy hearth, only to replace it with a cold marble temple and install the old couple – who acquiesce less through desire than fear – as its servants.
In Ovid, in other words, there is no heartfelt sense of closure. There is only the wrath of the gods, the stiffening of bodies into bark, and a desperate whisper — “Farewell.”
. . .
Of course, there’s nothing more Ovidian than altering Ovid and, in the process, creating new stories with transformed new meanings (the Latin word “auctor” in the classical and medieval periods meant both “author” and “one who adds” to already existing material — both of which Ovid was a master), and Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses is supremely Ovidian in the breadth of its emotional range and the sudden shifts in tone, genre, and perspective within its various tales. But despite the complexity of the interwoven narratives and their near-flawless and moving execution in performance, Zimmerman’s production raised many questions about what, and how, these classical myths are supposed to mean for modern audiences. Should they feel “universal,” like so many critics praised about Zimmerman’s retellings, transcending time and place and somehow revealing to us an unchanging commonality about human experience? Should they be “redemptive,” uniting everyone in the end through love and repentance? If so, then Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses succeeded beautifully, not least of all by creating a sacred space where the audience could share in the experience of marveling at these direct transactions between humans and gods.
In reality, however, these myths don’t provide any kind of resolution or consolation. The gods aren’t just, and these ancient archetypes aren’t meant to be empathetic, or even “relatable.” By skirting the darker elements of the myths and bringing the various threads together in an emotionally satisfying coda, Zimmerman’s work seemed to avoid the more difficult questions of how to deal with the aspects of myth that remain stubbornly beyond understanding, full of random terror, violence, and mystery. And yet, based on the rapturous reception that the show has received since its debut, perhaps Zimmerman’s humanized Ovid has become “our” Ovid — a luminous, familiar balm for our times.
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5.19.13 — As always, Daniel Mendelsohn says it best, this time re: a new staging of Euripides’s Herakles in a new article in NYRB.
 This moment in the Metamorphoses reverses the charming “surprise” of Ovid’s earlier erotic work, the Amores, when Ovid is thwarted in his Virgil-like attempt to write about “arms and wars” when Cupid swoops in from out of the blue and steals away a metric foot, turning Ovid’s would-be epic into elegy.
 Charles Segal, “Ovid’s Metamorphic Bodies: Art, Gender, and Violence in the ‘Metamorphoses,’” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics 5.3 (1998), pp. 9-41.
 Cf. Sarah Annes Brown, The Metamorphoses of Ovid: From Chaucer to Ted Hughes (London: Duckworth, 1999).
 Michael Hofman and James Lasdun, After Ovid: New Metamorphoses (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1996), xi.
 For quotes from the play, I use Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses: A Play, Based on David R. Slavitt’s Translation of The Metamorphoses of Ovid (Evanton, IL: Northwestern UP, 2002). While Zimmerman based the language of her text on Slavitt’s free-verse but otherwise faithful translation of Ovid’s work, the narrative changes she makes in her play are her own.
 Richard Goehner Zoglin and Amy Lennard, “Gods in the Wading Pool,” Time 158.24 (2001): 72.
 In Ovid’s version, the story of tragic love that Vertumnus narrates is not that of Myrrha and Cinyras, but Iphis and Anaxarete.
 The earnestness of these words, spoken like mantras, is very different in style and tone from Apuleius’s own attitude towards his story; as Edith Hamilton wryly notes, “It is a prettily told tale, after the manner of Ovid. The writer is entertained by what he writes; he believes none of it” (Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (New York: New American Library, 1969), 92).
 As Zimmerman explained in a PBS interview, “Willa Cather said I’ll never be the artist I was as a child. And I really love that idea that like when you’re a child and you don’t have much, you’re so purely imaginative. And I like the idea of going back to that aesthetic, you know, to like just making things up and making do.”
 To be fair, Cinyras was tricked into sleeping with Myrrha, but then again, what good father would willingly have sex with a girl who was described as “shy,” “afraid,” and “your daughter’s age”?
Shuggie Otis at Lincoln Hall, April 16, 2013. (Image credit: Chuck Sudo/Chicagoist.)
This past Tuesday, C. and I went to go see the R&B legend Shuggie Otis perform at Lincoln Hall. When we arrived, there was a sign on the door that announced, “At the artist’s request, absolutely no photography or videotaping of the show allowed.” A few minutes into the set, a bewildered older gentleman in front of us was escorted out of the hall to have his camera erased by a security guard.
It figured. This was, after all, the famously reclusive Shuggie Otis, who all but vanished from the music scene after the release of his brilliant 1974 album Inspiration Information. Son of Johnny Otis, “The Godfather of Rhythm and Blues,” the younger Otis gained a reputation as a guitar prodigy as a teenager, performing with the likes of Frank Zappa and Etta James (whose career his dad helped launch). In 1970, B.B. King called Otis his “favorite new guitarist.” The Brothers Johnson covered Otis’s tune “Strawberry Letter 23” (from his 1971 album Freedom Flight) and turned it into a megahit overnight. After Inspiration Information—which Otis composed, arranged, and played nearly every instrument on—was released, the Rolling Stones tried to recruit Otis as their new guitarist, and Quincy Jones offered to produce Otis’s next record. But Otis kept saying no: no to the Rolling Stones, no to Quincy Jones, no to David Bowie, and no to virtually every other major opportunity that came his way. (“I didn’t want to be a sideman. At that point I was too interested in getting my own ideas out,” he said in a recent New York Times interview.) Inevitably, the offers dwindled, and Epic Records dropped him from the label. After that, it seems, Shuggie Otis sunk into the shadows, surfacing once in a blue moon for the odd gig here and there.
“Jennie Lee,” from Here Comes Shuggie Otis (1970)
But Otis’s career had a huge break in 2001 when David Byrne re-released Inspiration Information on his Luaka Bop label after years of underground buzz. Suddenly, everyone seemed to be talking about Shuggie Otis. At least it seemed like it to me, who first stumbled on Otis’s record when I was hanging out in a music store in Oakland waiting for my friend to finish running her errands. At the time, I was obsessed with neo-soul—it was the era of Maxwell’s Now, Alicia Keys’s debut, and the reincarnation of Raphael Saadiq through Lucy Pearl, and the Soulquarians collective was pumping out one great album after another, including Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, Jill Scott’s Who Is Jill Scott?, and D’Angelo’s long, long-awaited Voodoo. (There were cheesier incarnations, too, like India.Arie and Musiq Soulchild, who never could quite keep up with his own beat.) That afternoon, though, when I spotted Inspiration Information’s retro red and orange cover, slipped on the headphones and pushed play, I was instantly blown away by the lush psychedelic grooves of the title track and the hushed, sweet falsetto of Shuggie himself. Who the hell is this new guy? I thought, and checked the liner notes. Originally released in 1974, it said. I couldn’t believe how modern this stuff sounded. I felt like I was sliding into a Möebius loop, with the shimmering, organic sounds of the album transporting me into the past and doubling back into a present that had already happened, three decades ago.
“Inspiration Information,” from Inspiration Information (1974)
Critics hailed Inspiration Information as the most important re-release of 2001: Rolling Stone gave it four stars, Spin nine out of ten; Billboard called it “singular, sexy music, dislocated in time…unbelievably wonderful.” Shuggie Otis was back, except it was Prince and ?uestlove who were raving about him this time around, and J Dilla, Outkast, and Beyoncé who were covering his tunes. However, Otis didn’t stay in the spotlight for too long. His live performances for the album tour were erratic and badly received. Furthermore, as Otis recently revealed, his longtime love Lillian Wilson passed away days after Inspiration’s re-release, which pulled him into a deep depression, fueled by alcohol.
But Otis is making his second comeback in twelve years, and this time it seems purposeful and—most importantly—driven by the man himself. This week, Inspiration Information is being released for the third time under Epic/Legacy, packaged together with a second album called Wings of Love that consists of previously unreleased tracks by Otis spanning three decades, mostly from the ’70s and early ’80s. Otis appeared on the national stage last Friday in an energetic set with the Roots on Jimmy Fallon, and on Tuesday night here in Chicago, Otis’s show was surprisingly extroverted, including several raucous, crowd-pleasing blues numbers like “Me and My Woman” and “Picture of Love” that were also (to me) the least interesting parts of the set, though they harkened back to the era when the teenage Shuggie was honing his blues chops with T-Bone Walker and Al Kooper. Half of Otis’s set was from Inspiration Information, but the analog intimacy of the original compositions was often drowned out by the joyous blasts from the horn section. Behind the band were ceiling-high stacks of Marshall amps, ranged around the musicians and Otis himself—dandied up in crushed velvet and ruffles—like a fortress wall.
There was a lot of awkward tension during the night, however, with some high drama going on in the rhythm section. As C. pointed out, the drummer was pushing the beat too fast (“he’s got no pocket!”), and the keyboardist kept shooting daggers at him, at one point stopping completely, walking over and waving his arms at the drummer like an enraged conductor (or metronome, for that matter). At several points throughout the night, the clearly pissed off keyboardist switched off the programmed drum beats—so essential to Inspiration’s distinctive sound—which the drummer couldn’t seem to stay in sync with, as a tight-lipped Otis blazed through his guitar licks. (“I know that face,” C. said. “It’s the ‘trying to get through the gig’ face.”) The show concluded rather perfunctorily with a long blues coda, with Otis seemingly avoiding the keyboardist’s backward glances at the drummer. He finished with a flourish, bowed graciously, and then slipped offstage. “He owes us ‘Strawberry Letter 23,’” I muttered ungraciously. “They’re probably going to fire the drummer first,” C. replied.
Minutes later, Otis and the band re-emerged to the crowd chanting, “Shuggie! Shuggie!” Everyone, that is, except the drummer, who was replaced by another man who looked a lot like Otis. “Oh my God, they totally fired the drummer!” I exclaimed. Without a word, the band launched into “Strawberry Letter 23,” and suddenly everything fell into place. The new drummer killed it, and all tension melted away in the soaring buildup to the fluttering, other-worldly duet between Otis and the other guitarist at the end of the song. Other mysteries were soon cleared up, too. Otis’s lineup turned out to be a family affair: his son Eric was on supporting guitar, and the hot-headed keyboardist Russ Stewart was a cousin. The new drummer Nick was Otis’s brother—he was actually supposed to be the original drummer, but for some reason couldn’t make it to the show until the encore. (The beleaguered replacement was Mike Reed, director of the Pitchfork Music Festival, who’d been called in last minute to fill in for Nick. In hindsight, therefore, the keyboardist’s dismissive, irate treatment of Reed seemed overblown and undeserved.)
So is Shuggie Otis back for good? It’s hard to say, of course, given the idiosyncratic track record of his entire career. But even with the strange tensions of Tuesday night’s show, I know that every moment the elusive Otis shares with us—writing, recording, performing—is a rare gift that we can’t afford to take for granted.
. . .
Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that the original drummer was Lucky Otis, Shuggie Otis’s son.
Spent a few days in beautiful Puerto Rico, staying in Old San Juan and venturing out to the northeast coast and El Yunque rainforest in the Sierra de Luquillo mountains.
View of Fuerte de San Cristobal from our hostel balcony.
Calle O’Donnell, on the west side of Plaza Colón.
The resplendent 19th-century esplanade Paseo de la Princesa, culminating in the Raíces Fountain, a sculpture that features the Taíno, African, and European ancestors of the islanders.
La Muralla, or the City Wall, built by the Spanish in the late 1700s to guard Viejo San Juan against, you know, other colonialists.
Speaking of colonialists, we kept running into feral kitties who’d marked out their territories all through the old town. This well-camouflaged kitty — which C. thought was an example of a chimera cat — was stealthily glowering at us from its spot.
Looking out over the Caribbean from the vantage point of the 16th-century Spanish fort El Morro.
Along and north of Calle Norzagaray, a jarring juxtaposition of tourist gems and extreme poverty: the historic Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery; schoolkids taking a breather outside the Museo de Arte e Historia; the drug-ridden slum community of La Perla, born of slaughterhouses and blocked out from the rest of the town by the city walls — the streets of this neighborhood remain pointedly unlisted in tourist maps.
The “Pigeon Park” at the end of La Calle del Cristo, where a bird pooping on you = una bendiga de Dios.
“Hmm, we could bless that.”
The other big fort in town — El Fuerte/Castillo de San Cristóbal, where you can see the more popular El Morro from one of the old sightlines. After this walk, C. announced he’d had enough of forts, and I kinda felt the same. So we rented a car and drove east to El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System. None of the famous fauna, including the Puerto Rican parrot and the beloved tiny coquí frog, chose to come out and play (although you could hear the frogs singing in the trees — at least until I started rudely mimicking their calls), but the Mina Falls trail was flush with tabonuco, palo colorado, and palm trees, along with the eponymous waterfalls.
Other places near San Juan we were lucky enough to visit: La Playa del Luquillo on the northeast coast; the Mercado de Río Piedras a couple blocks south of the University of Puerto Rico; and the beaches of Escambrón, Piñones, Loíza, and Carolina.
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And now, we’re back in Chicago, where it finally, finally feels like spring.
(For more photos, click here.)
Photo credit: Tommy Ton for Style.com.
In light of Fashion Month, just wanted to repost a couple of essays relating to style & fashion:
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the elusive perfect look
Models in between shows, S/S ’13, New York. Photo credit: Tommy Ton for Style.com.
“It’s that damn Hansel – he’s so hot right now!”
- Mugatu, from Zoolander (2001)
Spring/Summer ’13 fashion season is in full swing, and the glittering mobs of fashionistas have taken over the World Wide Web again, from style blogs to Vogue’s newly revamped Style.com (featuring new “instant” runway shots in real time and bigger, sleeker slideshows!). At the visual center of all this frenzy are the models themselves, strutting their way down the catwalk and flitting past street style photographers in uber-cool model uniforms with their runway hair and makeup intact.
(To read more, click here.)
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the banality of beauty
When you see this photo,
do you think it’s beautiful?
I found it on a fashion/design blog a few weeks ago, and I thought it was beautiful. So did the blogger who posted it, along with the several commenters on the post, who wrote things like:
I have the bottom image as my desktop background. Aren’t they beautiful?
These shots are stunning!
Intrigued, I dug around a bit to find out where the photo was taken from. Turns out that this image is part of a series on warzones in Congo by the Irish photographer Richard Mosse. For these photographs, Mosse used recently discontinued Kodak Aerochrome infrared film (which itself has a long history tied to war, devised by the US military in the 1940s to detect camouflaged enemy positions and structures) to produce these otherworldly effects in otherwise straightforward photojournalistic images—jarring, defamiliarizing, and yet at the same time (and this is where I see a problem) aestheticizing.
(To read more, click here.)
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Now, back to the shows!…
In Susan Cain’s popular and critically well received book on introversion, Asian Americans are painted with the wide brush of a “model minority” myth, yet again.
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(An edited version of this post appeared earlier in Hyphen on February 21, 2013.)
The other day I ran into a warm and friendly colleague who has an exasperating habit of dropping offensive remarks into almost every conversation we have. This time, she’d been chatting with a former student of hers who mentioned he was taking my class this semester. “She’s not what I thought she’d be like,” this student told her.
Curious and amused, I asked her what he meant. She cheerfully replied, “Well, you know we non-Asians automatically assume you Asians are all quiet and serious.”
The thing that killed me was that she wasn’t even joking. Even worse – that maybe, just maybe, there was the tiniest grain of truth in what she said about what “non-Asians automatically assume” about all us Asians out here. (Oh yes, I’m cringing too.)
As it happens, I’d just finished reading Susan Cain’s much buzzed-about 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, which was re-released in paperback last month. Defining extroversion and introversion loosely along a continuum rooted in biology, psychology, nurture, and culture (which I’ll come back to), Cain describes how American culture has promoted and rewarded extroverted personalities since the dawn of the twentieth century, and consequently devalued and even pathologized introversion. This overwhelming emphasis on the self-promoting, booming-voiced “salesman personality” type has come to dominate most of our esteemed and visible cultural spheres, from the halls of Harvard Business School to the multiplex megachurch and the open-plan workspace, as well as nearly every aspect of our lives, including “who we are and whom we admire, how we act at job interviews and what we look for in an employee, how we court our mates and raise our children.”
But such pervasive attitudes are dangerously misguided, Cain contends. At least one out of three Americans has an introverted personality, and many of the most creative innovators and movers and shakers of our time – including Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Steve Wozniak, and our current president – can be categorized as introverts. In an interview on Amazon, Cain drew parallels between the status of introverts today and of women at the cusp of second-wave feminism: grievously wronged second-class citizens in a world designed to shut them out. In part, therefore, Cain’s book positions itself as a soft-spoken yet rousing manifesto aimed at nothing less than a full-scale Introvert Revolution.
Indeed, after the book’s initial publication last year, introverts came out of the woodwork in droves to (loudly) sing the book’s praises, pushing Quiet to the top of national and end-of-the-year bestseller lists. Thanks to Cain’s thoughtful, well researched, and rapturously received work, introverts across America – and indeed, the world – finally felt acknowledged and validated.
As an avowed introvert, I was totally on board at first. Where have you been all my life, Susan Cain? I thought as I raced through the pages. That is, until I started reading Chapter 8. Then, things sort of screeched to a halt.
The chapter, titled “Soft Power: Asian-Americans [sic] and the Extrovert Ideal,” follows several young Asian Americans from the largely affluent city of Cupertino, California (home of Apple Inc.) over the course of four years as they transition from high school to college. Cain’s aims in this chapter, presumably, are to set the values of the town’s Asian American community in sharp relief against the “extrovert ideal” of mainstream America and meditate on their differences.
“In the West, we subscribe to the Extrovert Ideal, while in Asia (at least before the Westernization of the past several decades), silence is golden,” Cain writes.
To my dismay, as that cliché-ridden line illustrates, the subtle nuances that Cain employs throughout the rest of the book suddenly disappear in this chapter. (Another embarrassing example: “From a Western perspective, it can be hard to see what’s so attractive about submitting to the will of others. But what looks to a Westerner like subordination can seem like basic politeness to many Asians.” All this to segue into an anecdote about a Chinese American Harvard Business student and his assorted roommate problems.)
Despite a paragraph-long disclaimer about not wanting to encourage broad ethno-cultural stereotypes, such as “describing Asians as a ‘model minority’ – even when meant as a compliment,” the rest of the chapter proceeds to talk about “Asian cultural and personality styles” as if they were a unified field. Cain makes little to no distinction between “Asian” and “Asian American,” let alone the finer shadings within each: ethnic and national differences are superficially pointed out but generally elided, along with class, generational, and other crucial differences. Thus, the Cupertino kids – who themselves come from a wide range of backgrounds – are discussed in virtually the same breath as Chinese kids, Tibetan monks, Hiroshima victims, Japanese proverbs, and Gandhi.
So how exactly do Asians (to use Cain’s main term) fit the introvert bill? The handful of high school students she profiles indeed personify attributes typically associated with introversion, at least in their self-descriptions. But some people she interviews – including a Cupertino woman named Hung Wei Chien, who came to the U.S. from Taiwan in the ’70s for grad school and whom Cain describes as “one of the most jolly, extroverted people I’ve ever met” – seem to be included in this chapter to round out a claim for a kind of blanket “cultural” introversion that is nothing if not broad-stroked. For example, when Chien laughingly describes her long-ago experience as the “quiet student” in her linguistics class, Cain immediately chalks it up to Eastern deference – but couldn’t something else like, um, language barrier have been at least part of the issue?
Since Cain’s own definition of introversion is already fairly broad, based less in personality theory than in cultural perceptions of the term (for which she has come under some criticism), her attribution of an “introvert ideal” to virtually all Asian-related cultures unhelpfully clouds the picture even more and – what’s worse – lumps Asians and Asian Americans under yet another model minority myth.
Ironically, Cain herself warns against the dangers of perceiving all Asian Americans as quiet introverts, at least in the realm of business. In an earlier blog post on her website, Cain cited a UC Riverside study in which a group of businesspeople, given identical information about fictional employees, consistently ranked Caucasian Americans as having higher leadership potential than Asian Americans. When I first read this, I thought that perhaps here Cain was making more nuanced claims than in the book, but unfortunately this wasn’t the case. While she warns again against cultural stereotyping, Cain is ultimately less interested in dispelling myths than in considering the hypothetical scenario that “even if all Asian-Americans [sic] were introverted, the idea that quiet people can’t make good leaders is sheer nonsense.” In other words, the very existence of the “Asian introvert” myth is just too useful to Cain’s straw man argument here – i.e., that “the idea that quiet people can’t make good leaders is sheer nonsense” – for her to dispense with completely.
Indeed, in an uncomfortable echo of Tiger Mom (made explicit in another blog post subtitled “The Real Reason ‘Chinese Mothers Are Superior’”), Cain argues in the chapter that despite her misgivings, she would rather risk overgeneralizing about Asians than keep the valuable secrets of Asian introversion from the public eye: “There are too many aspects of Asian cultural and personality styles that the rest of the world could and should learn from.” At this point in the book, I needed to take a long break. Up to that point, I’d thought Cain was talking to introverts like me; suddenly, I felt completely sidelined. If I were supposed to be her audience, then why did I have to confront an othered (and unrecognizable) ideal of “my” culture, so that I too could “learn something from Asians” through Cain?
Surprisingly, it was hard to find others who shared this view. In fact, I only found one: in an otherwise admiring review of the first edition, Harvard student Faith Zhang briefly expressed unease over Cain’s conflation of cultural and individual traits in this chapter. But this was a lone dissenting note in a sea of critical praise. This is a damn shame, because there’s much more at stake than just the elisions in this book. For if Quiet – which values and, for the most part, embodies the traits of perceptivity, sensitivity, and deep critical thinking – can rehash such sweeping generalizations about so-called “Asians,” how much more pervasive and blunt-edged is this stereotype in other cultural spaces and in our everyday lives?
Evidence, of course, is everywhere in our workplace, from the aforementioned UC Riverside study to my frustrating run-ins with my colleague. It’s happening in our schools, as numerous studies indicate, where stereotypes about the quiet, studious Asian super-scholar means that Asian American students are resented by their peers, are called on less often in class, and are less likely to receive help for overlooked emotional, social, and psychological issues. And it’s happening in our national discourses, from the overly sunny 2012 Pew report on Asian Americans to the frequent omission of the 73% of Asian American voters who voted for Obama from the “majority-minority” narrative of the 2012 election.
This large-scale, insidious pattern of cultural stereotypes about the Quiet Asian – whether in the guise of older model minority myths or in newer forms like the “Asian introvert” – continues to turn down the volume on our heterogenous voices, identities, and communities day in and day out. Wearisome as this conversation may seem, therefore, the re-release of Susan Cain’s Quiet provides an important opportunity to push back – loudly – and work towards dismantling these stereotypes yet once again.
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2.22.13: Beautifully written piece today in Hyphen reading the Life of Pi as a deconstruction of pervasive global model minority myths.
3.5.13: Ah! My life is complete — I’ve been cited in Wikipedia. ;)