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Los Angeles Review of Books: David Bromwich’s “How Words Make Things Happen”

When it comes to chroniclers of the United States’s political decline, readers today are spoiled for choice. But none brings quite the same background to the job as does David Bromwich, in whose bibliography early titles like A Choice of Inheritance: Self and Community from Edmund Burke to Robert Frost (1989) and Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic (1983) have given way to, most recently, American Breakdown: The Trump Years and How They Befell Us (2019). An eminent scholar of, among other things, 18th-century poetry, criticism, and philosophy, Bromwich has in recent years turned up every few months in left-leaning publications like The New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books to offer commentary on American politics. That he takes a dim view of Donald Trump is no surprise, but his view of the intellectual fashions of the left so volubly opposed to Trump is even dimmer, and more incisive for it.

American Breakdown, Bromwich’s second book this year, closely follows How Words Make Things Happen, an infinitely less topical-sounding text that would seem to belong more to the roster of Bromwich the distinguished English professor than Bromwich the political commentator. But it does clarify that the author looks upon politician and poet alike with the same critical eye — or rather, that he listens with the same critical ear. That goes for the political speechwriters as well. “He was the first man of the right to leaven his moralism with jokes,” Bromwich writes in a damning piece published shortly after the death of William Safire and later collected in the volume Moral Imagination (2014). “With fun and ‘pace,’ with plenty of euphemisms, and with calculated self-depreciation, he did more than anyone else to legitimate a reactionary president, Ronald Reagan, as a new kind of centrist.”

One might expect a man of the left to condemn a figure who “connects the political style of McCarthy with that of Rush Limbaugh.” But Bromwich doesn’t go easy either on the likes of Barack Obama, who, as he summed up in a 2014 LRB piece, “watches the world as its most important spectator.” The headline of an earlier essay in that same publication delivers a plainer assessment: “A Bad President.” What sets Bromwich off about both Safire and Obama is their abuse of language, and not the kind of syntactical misfires on which critics of George W. Bush fixated, and critics of Trump now fixate, with such righteous glee. In Bromwich’s view, Safire used words to stoke the flames of the Vietnam War, and later to press forward the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Obama used words first to make promises — closing Guantanamo Bay, restraining domestic surveillance — and then to retroactively convince his supporters of the obvious impossibility of keeping those promises.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Korea Blog: The Bitter Korean Neorealism of Yu Hyun-Mok’s “Aimless Bullet”

South Korean films, as even casual foreign viewers come to believe, are meant to critique South Korean society. To the extent that this precept holds true, the country’s most acclaimed films bring its society in for the severest treatment: take Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (버닝), to name a recent example, or Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (기생충), to name a more recent and more widely celebrated one. Looking back to the pictures most often named as the masterpieces of Korean cinema, one finds even harsher indictments, none perhaps harsher — nor more highly praised for its artistry — than Yu Hyun-Mok’s Aimless Bullet (오발탄). Shot in 1960, less than seven years after the armistice agreement that put the Korean War on hold, the film takes such a bitter view of life in the developing South Korea that the country’s government almost suppressed it entirely.

It took an outsider, so the story goes, to clearly perceive the artistic virtues of Aimless Bullet, specifically an American consultant to the Korean National Film Production Center. That consultant persuaded the Korean government to at least allow the movie enough of a release in Seoul that it might qualify for foreign film festivals. Despite being quickly pulled from Korean theaters, it eventually played at the 1963 San Francisco International Film Festival (the sole surviving print used for the Korean Film Archive’s extensive 2015 restoration) and met with praise from the likes of Variety, whose critic praised its “brilliantly detailed camera work” as well as its “probing sympathy and rich characterizations.” The aesthetics and themes would have seemed broadly similar to those of the Italian neorealists, filmmakers whose work was still in vogue in America at the time. Yu credited Bicycle Thieves as an influence on his style, and the like of Vittorio De Sica and his cohort had already prepared Western audiences to find cinematic interest in downtrodden people and war-torn places.

By the looks of it, people didn’t come much more downtrodden in the early 1960s than South Koreans. Adapting a novella by Yi Beomseon, Yu find his main characters in a hillside shantytown home to refugees from the north the peninsula displaced by the war. In one of its houses live two brothers: Cheol-ho, a clerk at an accounting firm with two children and a pregnant wife, and Yeong-ho, a wounded former soldier and current hard-drinking wastrel. Their sister Myeong-suk out-earns the both of them by going on “dates” with American soldiers. Traumatized into a kind of living death, their mother never leaves her bed, repeating the same phrase day and night, sometimes muttering and sometimes shouting: “Let’s get out of here!” (This line in particular is supposed to have been a point of contention with the South Korean censors, who thought she meant they should all go back to the north.)

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Open Culture posts on David Lynch

Since 2012 I’ve written about all manner of topics at Open Culture, and you can find a selection of some of my favorite posts over the years in the Open Culture section of my essays page. I often write there about filmmakers, and few filmmakers as often as David Lynch. Here are all my posts on the auteur of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks, and much else besides:

Korea Blog: Notes on the Camp of the Pyongyang Pub, Where Seoulites Eat and Drink Like It’s North of the 38th Parallel

North Koreans aren’t especially hard to come by in Seoul. Here and there around the city I’ve had the chance to attend a few talks given by defectors from the other side of the border, the most recent of which happened as part of the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism. That day’s North Korean was a 35-year-old guy whom the host asked to discuss aspects of daily life in Pyongyang, like dating culture and how girls there wear their makeup differently than they do in Seoul — at least to the extent that he could remember them. A small North-South cultural exchange club had done its part to bring him onstage, and as part of their regular series of events they also held a North Korean cooking class last weekend. There I learned to make ogeurangjuk (오그랑죽), a kind of porridge with rice, adzuki beans, and gnocchi-like dumplings made of potato, potatoes being an agricultural specialty of the North as well as the northernmost province of the South.

Our teacher was a genuine North Korean, a woman who’d arrived in South Korea just one year before I did. I wondered whether I would struggle to understand her Northern accent and vocabulary, but I needn’t have; not only did she speak more or less like a Southerner, she’d also acquired a Southerner’s command of English — or rather, Konglish — loanwords. (She also introduced herself with an English name, “Jessie,” which she uses on her North Korean cooking Youtube channel.) One of the shockinghan things she found upon arriving in the South, she told us, was how sweet Southerners eat their own porridges. Ogeurangjuk, by comparison, has what one might call an understated flavor, hence the bowls of salt provided at each cooking station. But the salt wasn’t enough for another of the Northerners present, a voluble young guy who helped out with the cooking and cracked jokes at every opportunity. He dug through all the cooking supplies in the kitchen until he came upon a bag of sugar, his exaltation at the discovery of which suggested a ready assimilation to Southern tastes.

But like a surprising number of others in his generation of South Korea-resident North Koreans, he didn’t take great pains to conceal his national origin. He even popped up in a recent Youtube video, produced for a channel created by national news agency Yonhap’s Unification Media Institute, about the Pyongyang Pub (평양술집), a newly opened eating and drinking establishment meant to give Seoulites a taste of the Northern capital. But by all appearances it does so less to encourage unification, or even to promote cultural exchange, than to capitalize on a potential trend, a practice not unknown in the South Korean marketplace. It has also benefited from stirring up controversy: it made the news back in September, before it even opened, when it was ordered to take down the portraits of former North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il hung on the building’s exterior in the same manner — North Korea travelogues never fail to mention it — as they hang, by law, in each and every North Korean home.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Open Culture posts on self-improvement

Since 2012 I’ve written about all manner of topics at Open Culture, and you can find a selection of some of my favorite posts over the years in the Open Culture section of my essays page. Below I’ve gathered my posts having to do with how to improve your habits in writing, thinking, learning, and other areas besides:





Korea Blog: An American in Taiwan — with a Korean Tour Group

South Koreans couldn’t go freely abroad until 1989, at which point the repressed desire to do to so turned into potent fuel for a still-blazing travel industry. This industry has a media side, producer of books and television shows in a quantity and variety surprising to even the most travel-minded foreigners. It also has a tourism side, comprising the countless companies offering package trips of various lengths to countries and cities all over the world. Or at least I gave up trying to count the companies when I checked in at Incheon Airport last week for my own first Korean package tour, three days and three nights in Taiwan, a popular foreign destination for Koreans since Koreans have had foreign destinations to make popular.

Proximity has something to do with it: reachable within three hours’ flight, Taipei is closer to Seoul than even most American tourist-destination cities are to Los Angeles. Taiwan has also had a place in my own consciousness at least since I began watching the films of Taiwanese auteurs like Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, and Edward Yang, but my investment in Taiwanese cinema as a whole never quite matched my investment in the Korean and Japanese varieties. My knowledge of Taiwan itself lagged behind proportionately, though at some point it began to look like a manageable entry point into the unignorable Sinosphere, without the burden of intimidatingly vast size and historical complexity presented by mainland China itself — and, more practically speaking, without the extra charge for a tourist visa.

Korea and Taiwan also have a deeper commonality as fellow members of what Dutch Asia specialist Ian Buruma calls “the old Japanese empire” in God’s Dust, a book based on Buruma’s travels around Asia in the 1980s that I happened to throw into my bag as I left for this trip. In it, Taiwan and South Korea share a chapter that takes as its theme the shape of Japan’s colonial legacy. “Modern Seoul looks more like Tokyo every day,” Buruma writes, “with its neon-lit coffee shops, its bric-a-brac modern buildings and its neon-lit pleasure areas tucked away behind the steel and glass.” In Taipei “Japanese culture is everywhere, in a Western guise, its origins blurred, suppressed, or forgotten,” a phenomenon that “makes the surface of modern Taiwan so familiar to anyone who knows Japan.” Everywhere in the South Korean, Taiwanese, and Japanese capitals are “forms of modern kitsch twice removed from their source, and thus they almost defy interpretation.”

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Korea Blog: Learning Korean with Duolingo, the Mercilessly Addictive Language App

Over the past few weeks I’ve plunged into addiction: an addiction to Duolingo, the language-learning app that has claimed more than a few formerly normal lives since it launched for the public seven years ago. Or perhaps the word “normal” is excessive, given that the population most susceptible to Duolingo addiction distinguishes itself precisely by a willingness to stare at a screen and grind through foreign-language quizzes for hours at a time. Sensing, perhaps, the fate that could befall my already shaky time-management system, I avoided looking up or learning anything about Duolingo when first I heard of it. My Korean teacher brought it back to my attention a year or two ago, when he started using it out of a “Despacito”-stoked interest in acquiring a little Spanish. He mentioned to me that the app had recently added a Korean-language course, suggesting I give it a try and let him know my opinion on its effectiveness.

Even without the assistance of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, Spanish would still be the most popular language among English-speaking Duolingo users. Of the 23,400,000 English-speakers studying the language of Cervantes through the app, I wonder how many are my fellow Americans trying to ameliorate their embarrassment about their lack of functionality even after enduring five to ten years of compulsory Spanish classes in school. In second place after Spanish (albeit with about ten million fewer learners) comes that alternative bane of the Anglophone schoolchild’s existence, French. Despite the French language’s much-bemoaned loss of status and claim to universality over the past century, becoming francophone nevertheless remains an aspiration for many of us, not least, as I wrote about in a LARB essay last year, because of the high regard in which the French hold their language, and the high standard of its use to which they hold themselves.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Guardian Cities: the Rise of the City Critic

“On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy,” wrote EB White in his 1949 essay, Here Is New York. White sizes up both the positive and negative potential of the teeming Manhattan with the familiarity of a native and the heightened awareness of a visitor. A longtime contributor to the New Yorker magazine, White also wrote the classic children’s book Charlotte’s Web and co-wrote the influential writing guide The Elements of Style. In Here Is New York, he takes that versatility further, giving us a new way of seeing the city in an early example of what we might today call city criticism.

Given how long we’ve relied on the work of critics on film, music, food, and much else besides, as well as the ever-increasing relevance of cities in our lives, it’s time we recognised city criticism as its own distinct category of writing. But what is city criticism — or rather, what isn’t it? Despite dealing with the built environment, it isn’t architecture criticism, not in the sense of treating structures like sculptures, indulging in a “collective obsession with idiosyncratic starchitect buildings,” writes Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic. Architecture matters in city criticism only to the extent that it explores “what’s designed and built in the context of a broader narrative,” writes Curbed urbanism editor Alissa Walker. “What’s happening in the surrounding community, what political efforts hindered progress, and, conceding all those externalities, can the project still best serve the audience that it is intended to serve?”

To Walker, city criticism isn’t about buildings, but about people: a city critic must be “someone who’s going to all the public meetings and listening to what all the elected officials say, [but also] out in the city itself, riding buses, hanging out at coffee shops, talking to people about how that policy affects them.” Yet city criticism isn’t reportage. Like movie or restaurant reviewers, city critics write from their own perspectives, in distinctive voices enriched by knowledge and experience, but wearing their erudition lightly. City critics understand that places reveal themselves through details encountered by chance, glimpsed and overheard.

Read the whole thing at the Guardian.

Korea Blog: Old Man Gobau, the Unflappable Comic-Strip Star Who Witnessed South Korean History

Start asking Korean high-school students what career they want, and — assuming they’re giving the honest answers rather than the prestige answers — it won’t be long before someone says they want to be a comic artist. Or rather, they’ll probably say “webtoon” artist, that being the term of art for the form of comics now seen on screens all around the country. Unlike the horizontal newspaper comic strips I grew up reading in America, webtoons read vertically, from top to bottom, not for any reason to do with the now horizontally-written Korean language but for better scrolling on a cellphone. Though digital, the format also harks back, if inadvertently, to the progenitor of all modern Korean comics: Old Man Gobau (고바우 영감), whose four vertical panels appeared in national newspapers daily for 45 years, from not long after the Korean war until the final year of the 20th century, and whose creator Kim Seong-hwan died last month at the age of 86.

Only the rare teenager has thus actually read Kim’s strip, given that its long run — the longest of any comic strip in Korean history — ended the same year the oldest among them was born. But most of them will recognize Gobau himself, with his round spectacles and the single hair sprouting from his flat head. In one of the 14,139 daily strips in which he stars, Gobau explains that he began with three hairs but lost one during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and another during the Korean war. That Kim made it to the end of his life with much more hair than his signature creation was a stroke of luck, given all he’d experienced: born in Japanese-occupied northern Korea in 1932, he had the misfortune to be 17 years old at the outbreak of the war. It wasn’t long thereafter, in hiding from the North Korean troops sweeping every occupied Southern city for able-bodied young men to conscript, that he came up with the name Gobau, meaning a strong or stubborn rock, which he first adopted as a nom de plume.

“A high-school student and part-time magazine illustrator when North Korea invaded,” journalist Andrew Salmon writes of Kim in The Asia-Pacific Journal, “he recorded the dramatic events of those days in unique style: with that blend of delicate Oriental watercolors and the sensitive pen cartoons that would later become his trademark. After Seoul’s September 28th 1950 liberation, he was employed as a war artist by the Ministry of Defense, but it is his early sketches that capture what it was like to be a civilian on the peninsula in the midst of total war.” The sights Kim saw, drew, and painted included the smoke and flames of the fighting drawing ever nearer; hopelessly ill-equipped South Korean troops, North Korean tanks rolling through a fallen Seoul; his terrified and disconsolate countrymen; and plenty of dead bodies, both Southern and Northern. He then bore witness to the waves of joy and sorrow that accompanied South Korea’s transformation from an impoverished, shell-shocked half of a country into an industrial society that quickly joined the ranks of the world’s most highly developed nations.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

From my interview archive: architecture critics Christopher Hawthorne, Alex Bozikovic, Owen Hatherley, and Jonathan Meades

I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

In trying to understand a place, I begin with its architecture. This puts rural environments at a disadvantage against urban ones, granted, but as you may have guessed I spend most of my time in cities anyway. That cities would become central to my personal and professional worldview seemed a vague possibility when I began the public radio show The Marketplace of Ideas in Santa Barbara in 2007, and had become an obvious fact by the time I moved to Los Angeles and turned it into the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture in 2012. Somehow I never did any architecture-centric interviews on the former, but I wasted no time doing them on the latter.

The first Los Angeles interviewee to come to mind was the architecture critic who had helped familiarize me with the city even before I got there: the Los Angeles Times‘ Christopher Hawthorne. His yearlong “Reading L.A.” project coincided with the final months of my preparation to move and my first few months in Los Angeles, and the following year I was able to read his series on the boulevards while getting to know those boulevards first-hand. In between came our interview, recorded in the back garden of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, just one of the hidden-in-plain-sight aspects of Los Angeles — the garden, not the hall itself, which couldn’t be less hidden in plain sight — of which he and his work have made me aware.

Not long after I took Notebook on Cities and Culture worldwide, a listener recommended I record a season in Toronto, a city to which I admit I’d never given much thought. (This had less to do with its being Canadian than its being on the eastern half of the North American continent; I’d been making occasional trips to Vancouver since childhood.) Naturally, I first looked up Toronto’s most prominent architecture critic, the Globe and Mail‘s Alex Bozikovic. Through talking with him and other experiences there, I came to realize how much Toronto and Los Angeles have in common, less on their surfaces than in their depths: long stretches of obsession over attaining “world-class” status, for example, or reputations as “ugly” that few particular vistas justify and a modern identities built on the sheer variety of its population’s foreign origins.

The more cities I visited, the more instinctively I looked for architecture critics to interview in them. This naturally made a conversation with Owen Hatherley as essential in London as the brown sauce on the English breakfasts we ate while recording. It was equally essential, in a different way, that I book a flight from London to Marseilles to interview Jonathan Meades — not, strictly speaking, an architecture critic, but something closer to a generalist critic who happens to write a great deal about buildings and the build environment. (He also happens to live in Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation, which I certainly wasn’t going to miss chance to enter, let alone record an interview inside.)

At the time of our interview, Meades had just finished production on his documentary Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry, at the end of which he delivers one of my favorite architectural statements of all time:

The destruction of Brutalist buildings is more than the destruction of a particular mode of architecture. It is like burning books. It’s a form of censorship of the past, a discomfiting past, by the present. It’s the revenge of a mediocre age on an age of epic grandeur. It’s the cutting down to size of a culture which committed the cardinal sin of getting above its station, of pushing God aside and challenging nature. It’s the destruction, too, of the embarrassing evidence of a determined optimism that made us more potent than we have become. We don’t measure up against those who took risks, who flew and plunged to find new ways of doing things, who were not scared to experiment, who lived lives of perpetual inquiry. Here was mankind at its mightiest. Brutalism has to go. For it is the built evidence of the fact that once upon a time, we were not scared to address the Earth in the knowledge that the Earth would not respond, could not respond.

In the years since these interviews I have, of course, moved to Seoul, but just last month Christopher Hawthorne made his first visit here in his current capacity as the City of Los Angeles’ Chief Design Officer. A couple years ago, Owen Hatherley came to write up one of my own top hangouts, Sewoon Sangga. And having spent more time in Toronto this past year, I’ve made sure to catch up with Alex Bozikovic and have him fill me in on what has gone on there, architecturally and otherwise, over the past half-decade. (I’m happy to report that Robarts Library still stands in all its Brutalist glory.) And as for Jonathan Meades, well, what I wouldn’t give to read his take on Asia. Is there a publication we can convince to send him out here?