A New Kurt Vonnegut Museum Opens in Indianapolis … Right in Time for Banned Books Week

“All my jokes are Indianapolis,” Kurt Vonnegut once said. “All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis.” He delivered those words to a high-school audience in his hometown of Indianapolis in 1986, and a decade later he made his feelings even clearer in a commencement speech at Butler University: "If I had to do it all over, I would choose to be born again in a hospital in Indianapolis. I would choose to spend my childhood again at 4365 North Illinois Street, about 10 blocks from here, and to again be a product of that city’s public schools." Now, at 543 Indiana Avenue, we can experience the legacy of the man who wrote Slaughterhouse-FiveCat's Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions at the newly permanent Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library.

The museum's founder and CEO Julia Whitehead "conceived the idea for a Vonnegut museum in November of 2008, a year and a half after the author’s death, writes Atlas Obscura's Susan Salaz. "The physical museum opened in a donated storefront in 2011, displaying items donated by friends or on loan from the Vonnegut family" — his Pall Malls, his drawings, a replica of his typewriter, his Purple Heart.

But the collection "has been homeless since January 2019." A fundraising campaign this past spring raised $1.5 million in donations, putting the museum in a position to purchase the Indiana Avenue building, one capacious enough for visitors to, according to the museum's about page, "view photos from family, friends, and fans that reveal Vonnegut as he lived; "ponder rejection letters Vonnegut received from editors"; and "rest a spell and listen to what friends and colleagues have to say about Vonnegut and his work."

The newly re-opened Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library will also pay tribute to the jazz-loving, censorship-loathing veteran of the Second World War with an outdoor tunnel playing the music of Wes Montgomery and other Indianapolis jazz greats, a "freedom of expression exhibition" that Salaz describes as featuring "the 100 books most frequently banned in libraries and schools across the nation," and veteran-oriented book clubs, writing workshops, and art exhibitions. In the museum's period of absence, Vonnegut pilgrims in Indianapolis had no place to go (apart from the town landmarks designed by the writer's architect father and grandfather), but the 38-foot-tall mural on Massachusetts Avenue by artist Pamela Bliss. Having known nothing of Vonnegut's work before, she fell in love with it after first visiting the museum herself, she'll soon use its Indiana Avenue building as a canvas on which to triple the city's number of Vonnegut murals.

You can see more of the new Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, which opened its doors for a sneak preview this past Banned Books Week, in the video at the top of the post, as well as in this four-part local news report. Though Vonnegut expressed appreciation for Indianapolis all throughout his life, he also left the place forever when he headed east to Cornell. He also satirically repurposed it as Midland City, the surreally flat and prosaic Midwestern setting of Breakfast of Champions whose citizens only speak seriously of "money or structures or travel or machinery," their imaginations "flywheels on the ramshackle machinery of awful truth." I happen to be planning a great American road trip that will take me through Indianapolis, and what with the presence of an institution like the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library — as well as all the cultural spots revealed by the Indianapolis-based The Art Assignment — it has become one of the cities I'm most excited to visit. Vonnegut, of all Indianapolitans, would surely appreciate the irony.

via Smithsonian.com

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Kurt Vonnegut: Where Do I Get My Ideas From? My Disgust with Civilization

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22-Year-Old P.O.W. Kurt Vonnegut Writes Home from World War II: “I’ll Be Damned If It Was Worth It”

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Human All Too Human: A Roman Woman Visits the Great Pyramid in 120 AD, and Carves a Poem in Memory of Her Deceased Brother

The phrase “history is written by the victors” is a cliché, which means that it is at least half true; official histories are, to a significant degree “written,” or dictated, by ruling elites. But as far as the actual writing down, and excavating, narrating, arguing about, and revising of history goes… well, that is the work of historians, who may work for powerful institutions but who are not themselves—with several notable exceptions, of course—politicians, generals, or captains of industry.

This is all to the good. Historians, and Twitterstorians, can tell stories and present evidence that the victors might rather see disappear. And they can tell stories we never knew that we were missing, but which humanize the past by restoring the lives of ordinary people with ordinary concerns. Stories of everyday ancient Romans and Egyptians, for example, or of ancient Romans in Egypt, visiting and vandalizing the pyramids.

In one such poignant story, circulating on Twitter, a Roman woman named Terentia carved into the limestone facing of the Great Pyramid sometime around 120 AD a touching poem for her brother, who had just recently died. As told by medievalist, linguist, and Senior Editor at History Today Dr. Kate Wiles, the poem might have been lost to the ages had it not been discovered by German pilgrim Wilhelm von Boldensele in 1335.

Knowing Latin, Von Boldensele read the poem, found it moving, and copied it down. (See his manuscript at the top.) Wiles quotes a part of the prose English translation:

I saw the pyramids without you, my dearest brother, and here I sadly shed tears for you, which is all I could do. And I inscribe this lament in memory of our grief. May thus be clearly visible on the high pyramid the name of Decimus Gentianus….

We can surmise that Terentia must have had some means to travel, but in Wiles' abridged Twitter version of the story, we also might assume she could be anyone at all, grieving the loss of a close relative. Terentia’s grief is no less moving or real when we learn that the inscription goes for on several lines Wiles cut for brevity.

Turning to Emily Ann Hemelrijk’s book Matrona Docta: Educated Women in the Roman Elite from Cornelia to Julia Domna, Dr. Wiles' source for the Great Pyramid poem, we find that Terentia wasn’t just an educated, upper class woman, she was a very well-connected one. The inscription goes on to identify her brother as “a pontifex and companion to your triumphs, Trajan, and both censor and consul before his thirtieth year of age.”

In his anthology Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome, Ian Michael Plant provides even more historical context. Of Terentia, we know little to nothing save the Von Boldensele’s copy of her six hexameters (and possibly more that he ignored). Of Decimus Gentianus, however, we know that he not only served as a consul under Trajan but also as governor of Macedonia under Hadrian. Terentia “chose the pyramid for her epitaph to provide a suitably grand and everlasting site for her tribute to him,” writes Plant. (Cue Shelly’s “Ozymandias.”)

Not only is the poem about a victor, but it appears to shift its address from him to the ultimate victor, Emperor Trajan, in its final lines. Should this change our appreciation of the story as a slice of Roman tourist life and example of ancient women's writing? No, but it shows us something about what history gets preserved and why. Despite historians’ best efforts, especially in public-facing work, to make the past more accessible and relatable, they, too, are limited by what other cultures chose to preserve and what to pass over.

Hemelrijk admits, “the poem is no literary masterpiece,” but Von Boldersele saw enough merit in its sentiments to record it for posterity. He also made a judgment about the inscription’s historical import, given its references, which is probably the reason we have it today.

via Dr. Kate Wiles

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

20 Years Before John Cage’s 4’33”, a Man Named Hy Cage Created a Cartoon about a Silent Piano Composition (1932)

Quite a find by Futility Closet:

In John Cage’s 1952 composition 4’33”, the performer is instructed not to play his instrument.

American music critic Kyle Gann discovered this 1932 cartoon in The Etude, a magazine for pianists.

The cartoonist’s name, remarkably, is Hy Cage.

Need any background on Cage's 4'33"? Explore the posts in the Relateds below.

via Boing Boing

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The Proper Way to Eat Ramen: A Meditation from the Classic Japanese Comedy Tampopo (1985)

There is a right way to eat every dish, as an ever-increasing abundance of internet videos daily informs us. But how did we navigate our first encounters with unfamiliar foods thirty, forty, fifty years ago? With no way to learn online, we had no choice but to learn in real life, assuming we could find a trusted figure well-versed in the ways of eating from whom to learn — a sensei, as they say in Japanese, the kind of wise elder depicted in the film clip above, a scene that takes place in a ramen shop. "Master," asks the young student, "soup first or noodles first?" The ramen master's reply: "First, observe the whole bowl. Appreciate its gestalt. Savor the aromas."

Behold the "jewels of fat glittering on its surface," the "shinachiku roots shining," the "seaweed lowly sinking, the "spring onions floating." The eater's first action must be to "caress the surface with the chopstick tips" in order to "express affection." The second is to "poke the pork" — don't eat it, just touch it — then "pick it up and dip it into the soup on the right of the bowl." The most important part? To "apologize to the pork by saying, 'See you soon.'" Then the eating can commence, "noodles first," but "while slurping the noodles, look at the pork. Eye it affectionately." After then sipping the soup three times, the master picks up a slice of pork "as if making a major decision in life," and taps it on the side of the bowl. Why? "To drain it." To those who know Japanese food culture for the value it places on aesthetic sensitivity and adherence to form, this scene may look perfectly realistic.

But those who know Japanese cinema will have recognized immediately the opening of Tampopo, the beloved 1985 comedy that satirizes through food both Japanese culture and humanity itself. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert describes the ramen-master vignette as depicting "a kind of gastronomic religion, and director Juzo Itami creates a scene that makes noodles in this movie more interesting than sex and violence in many another." Not that Tampopo, for all its cheerfulness (Ebert calls it "a bemused meditation on human nature in which one humorous situation flows into another offhandedly, as if life were a series of smiles") doesn't also contain plenty of sex and violence. Walter Benjamin once said that every great work of art destroys or creates a genre. Tampopo creates the "ramen Western," rolling a couple of cowboyish truckers (seen briefly in the clip above) into booming 1980 Tokyo to get a widow's failing ramen shop into shape.

Through parody and slyer forms of allusion, Tampopo references cinema both Western and Eastern, and its cast includes actors who were or would become iconic: the student of ramen is played by Ken Watanabe, now known to audiences worldwide for his roles in Hollywood pictures like The Last Samurai and Inception. The master is played by Ryûtarô Ôtomo, a mainstay of samurai films from the late 1930s through the 1960s, who chose this as his very last role: the very day after shooting his scene, he committed suicide by jumping from the top of a building. (Itami would die under similar circumstances in 1997, some say with the involvement of the Yakuza.) Now that internet videos and other forms of 21st-century media are disseminating the relevant knowledge, we can all study to become masters of ramen, or for that matter of any dish we please — but can any of us hope to rise to the example of elegance, and hilariousness, laid down by Ôtomo's final act on film?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch 15 Films by Designers Charles & Ray Eames

If you’re reading this, chances are good that you live in the modern world, or at least visit it from time to time. But what do I mean by “modern”? It’s a too-broad term that always requires a definition. Sometimes, for brevity’s sake, we settle for listing the names of artists who brought modernity into being. When it comes to the truly modern in industrial design, we get two names in one—the husband and wife team of Charles and Ray Eames.

The design world, at least in the U.S., may have been slower to catch up to other modernist trends in the arts. That changed dramatically when several European artists like Walter Gropius immigrated to the country before, during and after World War II. But the American Eames left perhaps the most lasting impact of them all.

The first home they designed and built together in 1949 as part of the Case Study House Program became “a mecca for architects and designers from both near and far,” notes the Eames Office site. “Today it is considered one of the most important post-war residences anywhere in the world.” “Famous for their iconic chairs,” writes William Cook at the BBC, the streamlined objets that “transformed our idea of modern furniture,” they were also “graphic and textile designers, architects and filmmakers.”

The Eames’ film legacy may be less well-known than their revolutions in interior design. We’ve all seen or interacted with innumerable versions of Eames-inspired designs, whether we knew it or not. The pair stated their desire to make universally useful creations in their succinct mission statement: “We want to make the best for the most for the least.” They meant it. “What works good,” said Ray, “is better than what looks good because what works good lasts.”

When design “works good,” the Eames understood, it might be attractive, or purely functional, but it will always be accessible, unobtrusive, comfortable, and practical. We might notice its contours and wonder about its principles, but it works equally well, and maybe better, if we do not. The Eames films explain how one accomplishes such design. “Between 1950 and 1982,” the Eames “made over 125 short films ranging from 1-30 minutes in length,” notes the Eames Office site, declaring: “The Eames Films are the Eames Essays.”

If this statement has prepared you for dry, didactic short films filled with jargon, prepare to be surprised by the breadth and depth of the Eames' curiosity and vision. Here, we have compiled some of the Eames films, and you can see many, many more (15 in total) with the playlist embedded at the bottom of the post. At the top, see a brief introduction the designers’ films. Then, further down, we have the “brilliant tour of the universe” that is 1977’s Powers of Ten; 1957’s Day of the Dead, their exploration of the Mexican holiday; and 1961’s “Symmetry,” one of five shorts in a collection made for IBM called Mathematica Peep Shows.

Just above, see the Eames short House, made after five years of living in their famed Case Study House #8. The design on display here shows how the Eames “brought into the world a new kind of Californian indoor-outdoor Modernism,” as Colin Marshall wrote in a recent post here on famous architects’ homes. Their house is “a kind of Mondrian painting made into a livable box filled with an idiosyncratic arrangement of artifacts from all over the world.” Unlike most of the Eames designs, the Case Study house was never put into production, but in its elegant simplicity, we can see all of the creative impulses the Eames brought to their redesign of the modern world.

See many more of the Eames filmic essays in this YouTube playlist. There are 15 in total.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch Robert Hunter (RIP), Grateful Dead Lyricist, Perform His Legendary Songs “Bertha,” “Sugaree,” “Box of Rain,” “Friend of the Devil” & More

Even if you aren’t a fan, a mention of the Grateful Dead will conjure hirsute Jerry Garcia and band, lit by psychedelic lasers from without, hallucinogens from within. You’ll recall the Dead’s logo, the skull with a lightning bolt in its crown; you’ll remember tie-dye shirts with rose-crowned skeletons on them; you’ll see again those grinning, dancing bears your college roommate stuck all over her laptop and on the back of her beat-up 30-year-old Toyota.

You might call to mind these pictures with more or less fondness, but you need never to have heard a single song or have stepped into the parking lot of a Dead show to have imbibed all of the band’s iconic imagery.

Deadheads, however, will see these many signifiers as windows onto a richly textured extended universe, one filled with lore and trivia, and inhabited by-behind-the-scenes creatives who built the band’s look, stage show, and folk-occult mythology.

The Dead were at the center, but their legacy would never have carried such weight without Owsley Stanley, for example, nicknamed “Bear”—who inspired the dancing (actually, marching) bears and came up with the skull and lightning bolt (both drawn by artist Bob Thomas). Stanley also bankrolled the Dead with money from his LSD empire, built their “wall of sound” system, and served as producer, sound engineer, and all-around generative force.

No less critical to the band’s existence was Robert Hunter, the lyricist who penned the words to “Truckin’,” “Dark Star,” “Casey Jones,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “Terrapin Station,” “Ripple,” “Jack Straw,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Box of Rain,” “Touch of Grey,” and other songs central to their huge live and studio catalogue, including favorites like “Bertha,” a live-only tune “probably” about “some vaguer connotation of birth, death and reincarnation. Cycle of existences, some kind of such nonsense like that.”

So Hunter told an interviewer about “Bertha”’s origin, adding for clarification, “but then again, it might not be. I don’t remember.” The lyricist, who died yesterday, wrote “dreamlike variations on the American folk tradition,” notes Neil Genzlinger at The New York Times—songs that “meshed seamlessly with the band’s casual musical style, helping to define the Grateful Dead as a counterculture touchstone.”

Hunter earned the admiration not only of the band and its legions of fans, but also of fellow songwriters like Bob Dylan, who thought of Hunter as a peer and often collaborated with him. “He’s got a way with words and I do, too,” Dylan told Rolling Stone. “We both write a different type of song than what passes today for songwriting.” Like Dylan, Hunter worked in a mystical vein, “with a boundless knowledge of subjects running the gamut from classic literature to street life,” notes The Washington Post.

Hunter was a natural storyteller who wrote “authoritatively about everyone from card sharks and hustlers to poor dirt farmers and free-spirited lovers.” His narratives provided the Dead with a cohesive “weird American” folk center to anchor their free-form musical experimentation: a base to return to and exclaim, as Hunter famously wrote in “Truckin’,” “what a long, strange trip it’s been.” Though he was himself a musician, “proficient in a number of instruments including guitar, violin, cello, and trumpet,” he never appeared onstage with the band in all their 30 years.

He preferred to stand in the wings or “sit anonymously in the audience.” Like Stanley, he intended his creative efforts for the Grateful Dead, not the Grateful Dead featuring Robert Hunter. But that doesn’t mean he never took the stage to play those legendary songs—only that he waited until a couple decades after the band’s last gig. Here, you can see Hunter play fan favorite “Bertha” (top), and several other of his beloved Dead songs: “Sugaree,” “Scarlet Begonias,” “Box of Rain,” “Brown Eyed Women,” "Ripple," and “Friend of the Devil.”

These performances come from appearances at the Stafford Palace Theater and Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in 2013 and the Newport Folk Festival in 2014, before niche audiences who knew very well who Robert Hunter was. But while his name may never be as well-known in popular culture as the many artists he collaborated with and wrote for, Hunter nonetheless left an impression on American culture that will not soon fade away.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood Examined on Pretty Much Pop #12

Wes Alwan, who co-hosts The Partially Examined Life philosophy podcast with PMP host Mark Linsenmayer, joins the discussion along with PMP co-hosts Erica Spyres and Brian Hirt to discuss Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood in the context of Tarantino’s other films.

Wes thinks the film is brilliant, even though he’s not otherwise a Tarantino fan. How is this film different? We consider T’s strange sense of pacing, his comic violence, his historical revisionism, and casting choices. Is this a brilliant film or a fundamentally misguided idea badly in need of an editor?

Some articles we drew on:

Wes is working on a very long essay on this film that isn't yet complete, but he’s written plenty of other long essays about the media and has recorded several episodes of his own PEL spin-off show, (sub)Text: Get it all here.

This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

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