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Nov 19, 2017

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Retro Reads (Vol. 4.6)
by Dawn Yun
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 4.6
by Tom Wolfe
1981, Simon & Schuster

If you want to know how to write, read this book. If you want to know how to dress, read this book. If you want to know about modern art and architecture, read this book.

Think the Barcelona Chair, the Seagram Building in New York and anything minimalist. Bauhaus (which began in Germany in 1919) is all about starting from zero? The Bauhaus concept was to unite the arts under the umbrella of architecture, create plain worker housing and avoid being bourgeoisie. In reality, everyone involved with the movement was, well, bourgeoisie. So the word took on the most damning of meanings. At all costs one wanted to avoid creating something people could point to and declare "How very bourgeois." Which so reminded me of college art classes. The greatest fear one had, the worst thing one student could say to another about her work was "How very derivative." It was enough to cause one to drop out of art school and do something random, like major in business.

But -- let's get back to zero.

Among the greats who taught at the Bauhaus school were photographer Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, furniture designer Marcel Breuer, architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and painters Paul Klee and Josef Albers. Albers taught the introductory Bauhaus course. His inimitable style was to drop a handful of newspapers on a desk and tell students to get busy. He'd be back in an hour. With competition akin to football players at the Super Bowl, each of the students would work tirelessly in an attempt to top each other, creating airplanes, birds, yachts and more. Always, one student would take a piece of newspaper, fold it in half and plop the tent on the desk to the snivels of his classmates. The esteemed Albers would march back into class, eye the paper machinery and pick one as the epitome of all things Bauhaus. Always -- it was the tent.

"This is a work of art in paper," he said marveling at the folded parchment. "This makes use of the soul of paper." And every cortex in the room would spin out. So simple! So beautiful... It was as if light had been let into one's dim brain for the first time. My God! -- starting from zero! Few people can turn a phrase quite so succinctly, beautifully and sarcastically as Wolfe can. He of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Bonfires of the Vanities and A Man in Full fame.

Again, let's return to zero.

With little money in Europe to build their oh-so-vanilla buildings, the leading Bauhaus lights lit out for America. There they found a receptive audience at Harvard. America's most talented and intellectually gifted students were drilled the line "less is more," a line originated by Mies van der Rohe. Less is more exactly summed up the Bauhaus style. Less is more. How very ground zero!

During this time, among the Bauhausers Frank Lloyd Wright was considered pretentious scum. Too bourgeois, while Buckminster Fuller, he of geodesic dome fame, brilliant. Besides the difference in architectural styles, Wright was considered too independent, while Fuller was believed to be either genius or insane. Better to side on the former. It always comes down to personalities, doesn't it?

The Bauhaus influence resulted in buildings that all looked the same. Similar boxes of glass, steel and concrete. Simple, yes. Inspired? Not really. In other words -- b-o-r-i-n-g. The thing was, Bauhaus was all about minimalism, and America in the fifties was all about excess. Think big, honking, gas-guzzling cars and you have a snapshot of the country at that time. What were rebellious architects to do? Go elaborate! Add cornices and columns, divide up those damn boxes. Edward Durel Stone, the architect of New York's original Museum of Modern Art, abandoned Bauhaus for a more extravagant style, much to the derision of his former brethren. In fact, when the Modern was to have an addition, he wasn't asked to expand it. Instead, Philip Johnson, a protege of van der Rohe, was given the commission.

Yet, today Stone's work, including the Gallery of Modern Art in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., stands as important parts of the urban American landscape. Bauhaus represented then - and represents today - a minimalist style that continues to influence modern culture, from dance to art to music.

What makes From Bauhaus to Our House a worthwhile read isn't just the history of modern architecture and the artsy politicking going on, rather, it's the lessons of editing. The essence of all good art, whether writing, building or music, is found in vetting the unnecessary and keeping the essentials, making From Bauhaus to Our House required reading.

by Albert Camus
1946, Vintage Books

Imagine you're the kind of person who lets life happen to you. Nothing upsets you. You adjust well to situations. You don't have strong opinions. You're quiet. Such is our protagonist, Mersault. The book begins with the passing of his mother, which from all appearances, doesn't seem to affect him much. In fact, nothing seems to impact him. His feelings remain bottled. The shadow of indifference is his veil. Dutifully, he attends his mother's wake at the old-age home where he'd placed her. There he encounters the stares and questions of the people who knew her. For the past year he'd visited her infrequently, because the trips would have taken up his Sundays, getting to the bus was troublesome and tickets were expensive. The day after his mother's funeral he runs into a former typist in his office, Marie. He'd always liked her and she him. In the afternoon they make love. Their relationship begins, progresses. She wants to marry; Mersault agrees. She asks if it's out of love or because she's asking him. Because she's asking him, he says. Marie is disappointed but knows that honesty is Mersault's way. From Mersault's perspective, there could be no other way but to voice what he's not feeling.

Mersault's life begins to fill. Raymond, a neighbor in his building, is a bear of a man who lives off women and abuses them. But Raymond wants to be Mersault's friend. Mersault agrees, since Raymond's doing all the work in building the friendship - other than showing up, little is required of him. Raymond wants to teach his ex-girlfriend a lesson. It involves the police, a lie and Mersault's backup. Mersault agrees to help Raymond for one reason: because he asked. Mersault and Marie are later invited to Raymond's friend's beach house. While there, they're approached by a group of Arabs. Raymond has mistreated the girlfriend of one of them, and now it's pay-back time. Raymond goes for his gun. Alarmed, Mersault convinces Raymond to give him the weapon. He'll hold it. Raymond gets slashed by an Arab and they all run. Later, Mersault's taking a walk when he's surprised by that same Arab. Threatened, confused, sweating from the summer humidity, beaten down from a relentless sun, he fires. The Arab falls. Mersault shoots four more times at the supine form.

"That's when everything began to reel. The sea carried up a thick, fiery breath. It seemed to me as if the sky split open from one end to the other to rain down fire. My whole being tensed and I squeezed my hand around the revolver. The trigger gave; I felt the smooth underside of the butt; and there, in that noise, sharp and deafening at the same time, is where it all started. I shook off the sea and sun. I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I'd been happy. Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness."

Actions have consequences, but what part does circumstance play? Very little when your character's on trial. Rather than being tried for the crime, which he admits to, Mersault's put on trial for being an unloving son, an uncommitted lover, a befriender of a woman beater. A cold, driftless, unfeeling person. And this is where Mersault's life no longer becomes his own. Justice spins out of control as the fabric of his being is spun threadbare and this private man is exposed as someone he himself doesn't know. His situation causes him for the first time to feel. It's only when he's confronted with his final lot that he exposes his emotions and reveals his soul.

I first read this book at age 13 in junior high for a class on existentialism. I always considered it one of the most important books of my youth. Some two decades after rereading The Stranger, I realize just how dark a kid I was, and as an adult, am no longer. Could living in California versus New York have something to do with the change? The lean prose of The Stranger makes for joyful reading. If you want to think deep thoughts, read this book. If this were cast as a movie today it would star Tom Cruise as Mersault, Chris Penn as Raymond and Gwyneth Paltrow as Marie (in the blockbuster version). Cast as an independent film it would feature Sam Rockwell as Mersault, Chris Penn as Raymond, Parker Posey as Marie.

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