Saturday, January 29, 2011

Nabokov's Butterflies; Ellen Stewart's Death (La MaMa)

[The lobster & the canary will be moving their physical abode to Manhattan's Lower East Side this week, so may be a little delayed in posting. But please stay tuned!]

C.P. Snow famously wrote of the two cultures-- science and the arts-- as sundered, incommensurate endeavors, a dialogue of the deaf. Yet, as Snow knew well and lamented, the bifurcation is recent. Goethe made a serious study of optics, Erasmus Darwin and Humphrey Davy promoted in verse some of their discoveries, while Keats and Shelley keenly followed the latest scientific news. Richard Holmes's The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (2008) is a particularly fine survey of how poets, artists, naturalists and chemists found common ground for discussion two centuries ago.

Thus, it pleases me greatly to read this past week that entomologists have vindicated Nabokov's theory on the origins of the Polyomattus blue butterflies. Nabokov once said: “A writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.” This is how Erin Overbey starts a January 27th essay on The New Yorker blog, that in turn links to the Jan. 25th New York Times article reporting on scientists' acceptance of what had been Nabokov's long-spurned hypothesis.

Click here for more.

The other news that hits is the death at age 91 on January 13th of Ellen Stewart, a protean, hugely influential figure in 20th-century American culture. Founder 50 years ago of LaMaMa ETC (Experimental Theatre Club) on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Stewart pioneered Off Off Broadway, broke and bent all sorts of genre rules and artistic protocols, helped invent new aesthetic vocabularies, and launched/collaborated with an enormous range of the country's best stage and musical talent. (Among many others: Pacino, DeNiro, Olympia Dukakis, Harvey Keitel, Richard Dreyfuss, Bette Midler, Sam Shepard, Harvey Fierstein, Nick Nolte, Elizabeth Swados, Meredith Monk, Philip Glass.)

Many of the techniques and attitudes she helped foster have moved from the fringe into the American mainstream. Many folks who have never heard of Stewart or LaMaMa are nevertheless conversant now in the styles she and they pioneered, much as people who have never heard of Schwitters are comfortable with collage. That's a deep and pervasive legacy.

For more, read Mel Gussow's obituary in the NYT: click here.

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