Advertising: we like it like that

eBay France 1 eBay France 2 eBay France 3This gentleman, caught on camera while painting in a frenzy reminiscent of Nick Nolte’s abstract painter in Scorsese’s”Life Lessons” segment of the trilogy New York Stories, is a Frenchman who won an eBay auction to star in a commercial together with an item for sale. He painted the item during the filming of the commercial itself, which ends in a surprise finale. The painting was then auctioned off, and ended up selling for Eur 2,090 on Nov. 25.

Watch the full commercial on this page, and find nine others built around a similar concept here.

Candidate Romney, voters need to know about your faith

Interesting article by Christopher Hitchens on, discussing Mitt Romney’s success in deflecting all questions about his faith: journalists who cover Romney’s presidential campaign have been bamboozled into self-censoring every time that a question about Mormonism occurs to them, and Romney himself has said that such questions, were they to occur, would be “un-American”.

But the Mormon faith does have some grey areas that, to a reasonable observer, may appear, well, questionable. Romney’s family, Hitchens reports, “is, and has been for generations, part of the dynastic leadership of the mad cult invented by the convicted fraud Joseph Smith”: a church that, until 1978, was an officially racist organization. To this, I would add that Romney’s faith seems not to be extraneous to ineffective public policy decisions that Romney made as a governor of Massachussets, such as funding abstinence-only sex education in schools – a policy that was quickly overturned by his successor after a federal study found that “students in programs focusing solely on abstinence are just as likely to have sex as those not in such programs” (and, one imagines, have it much less safely).

American voters need to choose a leader they can trust. Or at least not mistrust any more than they mistrust their current President (a born-again Christian who is living proof that, well, anybody can get a second chance in America). Coming clean about the dark corners of one’s faith seems to be a prerequisite to even start building that trust.

Kindle = iPod: incredibly dumb notion of the week

Jeff Bezos is a visionary and, who knows, one day I might be tempted to get myself a Kindle (assuming future versions run on something different than Sprint’s EVDO network). Yet, what I have found to be noteworthy this week is not the device itself, but the hype calling the Kindle “the iPod for books” (here are headlines from Newsweek and Business Week).

It requires the thinking person just about thirty seconds’ effort to come up with at least four reasons to dispel this superficial and downright weird notion.

  1. When I bought my first iPod, I spent a weekend or two loading the hundreds of CDs I had bought and loved in my previous life as a music listener. Then, I sold many of the CDs on eBay. When I buy my first Kindle, I will have no way to load onto the device the paper jungle that threatens to take over my home. I suppose I could search for digital versions of the books I loved best, but (as correctly noted by Peter Kafka writing in the Silicon Alley Insider) there is just no way that the Kindle can suck up all my books the way the iPod did with my CDs.
  2. Does it matter, anyway? What people do with their music is listen to the same music they know and love over and over again. (To get some variety, I have always opted for the iPod with the fattest memory around, and never owned a Nano or Shuffle, because I would otherwise hardly listen to anything else than the collected works of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, I’m afraid). What people do with reading, unless they have a serious obsession with one particular piece of work, is move on to new book after book after book. I am occasionally tempted to go back to rereading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but I guess what I will do next is to move on to Taleb’s The Black Swan.
  3. The iPod changed the way we listen to music by giving our lives a soundtrack in shuffle mode. I don’t think I will ever read snippets of books in shuffle mode – call me a traditionalist, but I’m still a fan of linear narratives and long-form essays with their arguments neatly laid out in the correct order.
  4. The most attractive capability of the Kindle, in my opinion, is the ability to search the full text of the books in its memory. So, for example, if I wanted to compare the recurrence of the word “whale” in the Bible, Moby Dick and Pinocchio I could run a quick stat on the Kindle. This makes for an interesting party game (although serious literature and language scholars are better served in their research by more industrial-strength databases and tools). That’s not something that has really occurred to me with the songs on my iPod. It might be an idea for Apple to get the thing to load full lyrics texts together with the music, but it would hardly be a game-changer.

I’m sure you can find more, but, when people tell you that “the Kindle is the iPod for books”, these are just a few of the reasons why you would be well justified in saying that that’s an incredibly dumb notion.

Jane Smiley on de Sade’s Justine and the morality of the novel

A few months ago I submitted to your attention, dear readers, a few notable excerpts from Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography. I am now enjoying a rather more diverse piece of literary criticism, Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.

Smiley, an acclaimed biographer of Charles Dickens and the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Thousand Acres, writes thoughtfully about such broad topics as “What Is a Novel?” and “Who is a Novelist?”; in her sixth chapter, “Morality and the Novel”, she needs to deal with de Sade and his Justine.

But before getting to Justine, a quote about how one – in Smiley’s opinion, and in mine – becomes a novelist, which is out of a compulsive habit of reading as a child:

Undoubtedly, we were reading for all the wrong reasons — escape, pleasure, avoidance of responsibilities and human contact. We were reading because it was easy and fun and because we were unsupervised. We were reading to find companions more congenial than those around us. We wanted to fill our heads with nonsense and tune out practical considerations. We were not, most likely, athletic or useful sorts of children. We were reluctant to help around the house or to go outside and play. […] We were reading because we had two lives, an inner life and an outer life, and they were equally important to us and equally vivid.

Ever met children like these? Ever been one?

And, now, to Justine.

Justine was published in 1791, during the French Revolution, and the novel’s theme, you might say, is the right of every man of rank to do whatever he wants with any woman he can gain access to, preferably by force. […] In Justine, the goal is not to reinforce the social order but to maximize the exploitation of female flesh. […] It seems obvious that de Sade wrote Justine for pornographic reasons — that is, the plot and the protagonist are there to serve the author’s and the reader’s shared desire to fetishize sex and cruelty and to use images for lascivious excitement. Even so […], de Sade makes rape part of the apparatus of state control as expressed by individual members of the ruling class (most of whom possess formal authority; they are not renegades or rogues). […] Justine is a true heroine; she never betrays herself, always tries to understand and survive, never loses her moral compass. Surely she speaks for the author as much as the men do. […]

Ostensibly shocking and immoral, Justine actually promotes a certain moral point of view — that integrity and virtue can be retained and recognized in the face of relentless suffering. In addition, to expose secret corruption is to challenge its existence because of the nature of the novel as a common and available commodity.

Louise Bourgeois at the Tate Modern

There may be many alternative universes out there. In some of them, there are planets that resemble ours, and in some of these, beings that we would recognize as humans behave almost like us. They have developed their own religions, and some of them worship strange idols, artifacts we would recognize as ancient but could not quite place in the history of any of our civilizations.

Louise Bourgeois has been there. She has brought back – and carved in marble or cast in bronze or in latex – the idols from this other universe. Some of them shapeless, many of them headless, all of them blind. They are blind, but they watch us in our dreams.

In the photo: Nature study, 1984-94, Private collection.

Coupon for two tickets for the price of one to the Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the Tate Modern in London: here.

On prostitution vs. slavery: The Economist and Emma Thompson

You run a newspaper. You are a libertarian and believe in free enterprise. Prostituting oneself is legal, and the prostitution market is in principle one of the finest examples of supply and demand at work. In an ideal world, you believe, prostitution would be a career option just like any other – with health insurance, taxes, and regular contributions towards one’s pension plan. You also believe that allowing sex to be bought and sold in reasonably open circumstances can make things safer for the workers involved.

So, do you accept advertising for sex services on your pages? The Economist admits having pondered the question and decided not to: in their case, it’s not worth the potential loss from offended readers and other advertisers. Yet, they know they’re not necessarily doing the right thing: in Suffolk, where five prostitutes were murdered last year, a local newspaper group decided with the police that the ads should continue, in order to stop the trade going underground.

The Economist article even praises Web sites that, while hosting reviews for sex workers “as if they were books on”, encourage their readers to call a hotline and report any suspected child prostitution or sex slavery. It is a sad reality that sex workers may be posing as free agents, when in fact they are exploited, trafficked and enslaved. Actress Emma Thompson courageously lends her face to the Elena/Maria character telling her story in this harsh video campaign sponsored by the Helen Bamber Foundation and The Body Shop, “Trafficking is Torture” (thanks to Stefano for circulating the video).

What is to be done about trafficking? How does one reactivate the moral compass that shuts down in men who use enslaved prostitutes? Is it merely an economic matter – slave services being cheaper than those of free agents? Or is there for some men an extra element of satisfaction and thrill, a non-monetary value, in exercising power over someone who can’t say no? Or both?

Build some exquisite beauty into your life

No, I don’t know what I mean by that. I just know that the phrase popped into my head. It popped into my head after a particularly gruesome few days of bad airport food, long lines, trashy paperbacks, and jet-lagged, sweaty nights.

What would you do? Designate an armchair for reading three Emily Dickinson poems each night? Set your iPod to play Cocteau Twins all the time? Go out and look for handmade chocolates? Make sure to watch the horizon at sunset from the plane windows?