On The Magic Island

By W.B. Seabrook with illustrations by Alexander King.

In 1929 a travelogue was released that would, through the chain reaction it set off, have a profound effect on American popular culture and by extension the American collective consciousness. It was written by a fellow with a questionable resume of personal traits said to include alcoholism, occultism, sensory deprivation, and sadism, who would ultimately commit suicide by pill-overdose. His is not a household name, and is rarely spoken, yet it is through the continued fascinated invocation of another name altogether that we unknowingly evoke his legacy: Zombie! Zombie!! Zombie!!!

06.29. filed under: belief. books. death. film. history. people. 4

Hsueh Shao-Tang, Stamp Connector.

Quote: “Several years ago, at a sumptuous Chinese dinner in Geneva, my hosts asked whether I would do them a favor, or, rather, a favor for their cook, who had prepared the banquet. I intended driving through the Alps later that night, to arrive at dawn on the French Riviera for celebrations honoring the ninetieth birthday of Pablo Picasso; who would surely remain behind his locked gate working, as on any other day. He once had sighed, “If people could only give me their wasted hours! Instead, they bring me things.” So, when my friends explained that their cook wanted me to take a gift to Picasso “from an admirer who never met him,” I tactfully declined. My friends actfully persisted. ‘This one is different! It’s a good-luck picture, the Chinese god of Happiness and Long Life—made from tiny fragments of postage stamps.” Next morning I arrived on the Riviera as the gift-bearing envoy of Hsueh Shao-Tang . . . master artist and master chef.” –David Douglas Duncan.

06.20. filed under: art. history. people. 7

Mincing Our Oaths

Thoughts on being a potty-mouthed atheist in a world of Religious profanity.

As a bona-fide + atheist I find myself curiously conscious about the oaths I speak. Every time, in a moment of anger, I inadvertently begin barking “Jesus!” or “Christ!” or “God Damn it!” I feel slightly embarrassed afterward, as if my thoughtless reliance on these oaths, and others like them, were a betrayal of my own ideals. + It is almost as though the involuntary use of these words, signifiers of Ideas I reject, reveals some sort of personal weakness. + What it reveals, however, is the simplest of dumb-dumb facts. Namely that the English language is so brim-full of Religious oaths, that to remove them from one’s vocabulary would effectively render you, in your anger, red-faced and vein-popped but mute. 

06.18. filed under: belief. ideas. life. observations. 4

Are you familiar with the Federal Writer’s Folklore and Life Histories project? It was a subsection of the larger FWP (itself a New Deal arts program) undertaken to support writers during the great depression. The Folklore Project, in particular, has fascinated me for years because at bottom it is simply a collection of the musings of ordinary people walking the 1930’s streets; and largely anonymous ordinary people at that. For example, the typewritten text above is all we are given by way of biographical information on the man who dictated a piece I came across today, and wanted to share. See below for I’m a Might-Have-Been, recorded in New York circa 1938.

06.15. filed under: history. humanity. people. 2

Abracadabra!

Can you begin to imagine the amount of time spent by the human race in pursuit of magic? I am not speaking metaphorically here. I mean can you imagine the sum total man-hours devoted to actively invoking, incanting, intoning, beseeching, divining, scrying, summoning, chanting, conjuring, and casting? And though, so far as we know, not a single minute of all that feverish sorcery yielded the intentional result with greater efficiency than chance, magic continues, and will continue, probably forever. And do you know why? Well, setting aside the fact that the whole endeavor is damn poetic specifically because of its futility, fascinating because of its baroquely fanciful trappings, pathos-packed because of its provenance, and let’s face it, pretty hilarious on the whole, there is another, simpler reason; one which I believe will be self-evident if you take a gander at what I’ve set out for you below…

06.11. filed under: belief. history. humanity. play. 7

Objectified Circuitry

There is something terrifically satisfying about seeing, with your own eyes, the humble genesis of world-changing creations. The image above is a case in point. What we see pictured here, as I’m sure many of you already know, is the world’s first integrated circuit, created by Jack S. Kilby in the summer of 1958. That this creation, with its bubbled wax and carefully twined wire, is the work of human hands is unmistakable. The seemingly messy, cobbled-together, simplicity of it is heartening somehow when one compares it to the microchips of present day, which a human hand is not meant to touch and could only hope to damage with its meaty, imprecise groping. This is a technology which though reality-shaping has, in large part, been complexified right out of direct human contact.

06.07. filed under: bits&bytes. design. history. science. 4

This photograph, shot in 1840 and titled Self Portrait as a Drowned Man, is not of a drowned man, and if it had been it would be far less interesting or important. This humble image, so far as anyone knows, can claim all of the following honorifics- First instance of intentional photographic fakery. First photographic practical joke. First use of a photograph as propaganda / protest. And, quite possibly, a result of the world’s first reliable photographic process, direct positive or otherwise.

06.04. filed under: art. history. people. 2

I wonder whether any of you have seen the film Lars and the Real Girl? It was a sweet, chaste sort of film considering its casting of a Real Doll as the female lead, and though I enjoyed it I couldn’t help but spend its entire length being reminded of the altogether less sweet, less chaste, true life corollary of “Oscar and the Alma Doll.”

The synopsis of this tale might go as follows- In 1911 Viennese artist Oskar Kokoschka (or as the German press referred to him “der tolle Kokoschka”) meets Alma Mahler, the widow of composer Gustav Mahler. A relationship begins consisting mainly of hot sex and expressionist painting. Or “the good life” as it’s sometimes called. Oscar, for his part, falls obsessionally, passionately, possessively hard. Alma... not so much.

06.01. filed under: art. history. people. 6

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