Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Marvin Bell | On Bertrand Russell and Camus

Bertrand Russell with his children c1935 (public domain)
Marvin Bell in M. Bell and C. Merrill, After the Fact: Scripts and Postscripts. Buffalo NY: White Pine Press, 2016, pp. 100-101—

Bertrand Russell, May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970. An event of mind that lasted almost ninety-eight years. We shall not see his kind again, but are beset by ideologues pretending to be thinkers. I was hurrying along Broadway in the Capitol Hill District of Seattle. As I sped past two men deeply engaged in conversation as they walked, my hand bumped the wrist of one. I glanced back to say "excuse me" and kept going. But the bump must have "cleared the wax from my ears," as our teachers used to put it, and I realized that the older of the two was talking about Albert Camus. He was talking about Camus, Existentialism and meaninglessness. That was the word he used: "meaninglessness." I had overheard him say that meaninglessness was "a big idea." I couldn't just keep going. I went back and confirmed that they were indeed discussing Camus. I asked if they knew his essay on the myth of Sisyphus, who was sentenced to eternally push a boulder up to the top of a hill from where it would always roll down again. The older man (the other was much younger) said that in fact he had just been talking about Sisyphus. So I asked if he knew the very last sentence in the essay. "It's very important," I said, trying not to wag my finger. Well, he didn't, and he looked as if he wanted me to tell him, and I did. The last sentence in Camus' essay, the last of Camus' ideas about this man Sisyphus—who has been sentenced to an eternity of what seems to be meaningless suffering—is, "One must imagine Sisyphus happy." The older man was delighted at this information, and the younger one's eyes lit up as if he had been given permission to be cheerful. I felt like a Boy Scout of philosophy. I hadn't helped anyone across the street. I hadn't offered a way to escape the dark matter and sticky stuff. I had simply pointed out that one could live there. And I have lived there myself, largely as a fly on the wall, a bystander at the parties of the famous, a guest whose photo was taken in the movie star's bathtub, a tourist in international hot spots. We date watersheds, ages and eras, firsts and lasts, but nothing is over until no one remembers. Blessings on the lone scholar who looks again and recovers our words. Nonetheless, I have, like Bertrand Russell, no illusions. 

Albert Camus (1957), Library of Congress Prints & Photographs

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Louis MacNeice on English Dog Shows

Canine Portrait © Roy R. Behrens
Louis MacNeice, The Strings Are False: An Unfinished Autobiography. London: Faber and Faber, 1965, pp. 138-139—

An English dog show is very very English; you meet all the people you never would have thought of inventing. Dog-fanciers can be divided into two classes—those who look very like their dogs and those who look exactly unlike them. While there are old ladies showing Pekinese who look like Pekinese themselves, there are also gigolos with bulldogs or bruisers with Yorkshire terriers. The show is a wonderland of non-utilitarian growths. Through the smell and the noise and the clouds of chalk you can distinguish dogs that have been passed through the mangle and dogs with permanent waves, Bond Street ladies in veils and Amazons all boots. The human beings talk to each other roughly and curtly but twitter and coo to their dogs. There sportsmen and sportswomen who work their dogs in the field, and there are hermits from caves of melancholia who might have been artists or had lovers. You feel his nose to be sure that he is not ill, you chop up his meat so neatly, you put in his cod liver oil and a spoonful of lime for his bones, you brush him and comb him and pluck him and every so often you worm him—you are proud if he passes worms and proud if he doesn’t.

It’s not fair, that’s what it’s not, judge don’t know a dog from a carthorse, I tell you straight been showing for forty years and never in my life I mean when I say, see the dog he put up well would you believe it, no it’s not fair, that’s what it is, it’s not.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Mason City, Wright and Book Design

Poster © Roy R. Behrens 2017
Above Frank Lloyd Wright’s achievements in book design will be the subject of an evening talk during National Library Week at the Mason City Public Library, in Mason City IA. Titled Frank Lloyd Wright: Mason City and Book Design, the one-hour presentation will start at 6:00 pm on Tuesday, April 11, 2017. The speaker is author and design historian Roy R. Behrens, who teaches graphic design at the University of Northern Iowa.

Frank Lloyd Wright was an architect, art collector and teacher. His Mason City landmarks are widely known, consisting of the Stockman House, and the City National Bank and Historic Park Inn Hotel. But he also designed furniture, fabrics, dinnerware and stained glass windows. It is not usually noted that he was also a book designer.

In a richly illustrated talk, Behrens will focus on Wright’s efforts at book design, beginning in 1898 with The House Beautiful, a hand-bound letterpress book about interior home design. In that and subsequent efforts, Wright was influenced by various trends in architecture and design, among them the Arts and Crafts Movement, Japonisme, Art Nouveau and Art Deco.

Among Wright’s friends were two prominent book designers, Elbert Hubbard and Merle Armitage. The latter grew up in Mason City, and went on to become the manager and promoter for ballerina Anna Pavlova, operatic soprano Amelita Galli-Curci, humorist Will Rogers, and other star performers. He wrote and designed books about some of the finest artists of the twentieth century, including Martha Graham, Igor Stravinsky, George Gershwin and Edward Weston.

Also featured will be the work of New York publisher Steven Clay, a Mason City native who graduated from Mason City High School in 1969. After moving to New York in the 1980s, Clay established Granary Books, which became a leading distributor of limited edition, experimental “artist books.” In 2013, the archive of Granary Books was acquired by the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University, calling it “one of the country’s most significant artist book publishers.”

In addition to slide examples of the books of Wright, Armitage and others, the talk will include a selection of the actual books from the speaker’s book collection. The event is free and open to the public.


Roy R. Behrens, UNI Professor of Art and Distinguished Scholar, teaches graphic design and design history. He is internationally-known for his publications about art, design and the history of camouflage. The author of eight books and hundreds of published articles, he has appeared in films and interviews on NOVA, National Public Radio, 99% Invisible, Australian Public Television, BBC and IPTV. His most recent book is Frank Lloyd Wright and Mason City: Architectural Heart of the Prairie (2016).