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Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews

by Geoff Dyer


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*Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism*

*A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice*

*A New York Times Top 10 Nonfiction Book of the Year, as selected by Dwight Garner*

Geoff Dyer has earned the devotion of passionate fans on both sides of the Atlantic through his wildly inventive, romantic novels as well as several brilliant, uncategorizable works of nonfiction. All the while he has been writing some of the wittiest, most incisive criticism we have on an astonishing array of subjects—music, literature, photography, and travel journalism—that, in Dyer's expert hands, becomes a kind of irresistible self-reportage.

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition collects twenty-five years of essays, reviews, and misadventures. Here he is pursuing the shadow of Camus in Algeria and remembering life on the dole in Brixton in the 1980s; reflecting on Richard Avedon and Ruth Orkin, on the status of jazz and the wonderous Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, on the sculptor ZadKine and the saxophonist David Murray (in the same essay), on his heroes Rebecca West and Ryszard Kapuściński, on haute couture and sex in hotels. Whatever he writes about, his responses never fail to surprise. For Dyer there is no division between the reflective work of the critic and the novelist's commitment to lived experience: they are mutually illuminating ways to sharpen our perceptions. His is the rare body of work that manages to both frame our world and enlarge it.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555975791
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 03/29/2011
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 444,690
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Geoff Dyer is the author of four novels and five genre-defying books, including But Beautiful; Out of Sheer Rage, which was a National Book Critics Circle finalist; and, most recently, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. He lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

Otherwise Known As The Human Condition

Selected Essays and Reiviews: 1989-2010

By Geoff Dyer

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2011 Geoff Dyer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-026-0


Jacques Henri Lartigue and the Discovery of India

This photograph was taken by Jacques Henri Lartigue on the Cap d'Antibes in 1953. He was almost sixty by then, had been photographing for half a century. The picture is of a woman — I don't know who — propped up on a lilo or lounger on the terrace of some presumably luxurious hotel or villa. She's wearing a swimsuit and one of those fun wigs made of strips of colored paper that you can buy in party shops. You can't see her eyes, she's wearing a pair of big plastic sunglasses, but there's a hint (and this is the lovely flirty thing about the picture) that she is glancing up at the photographer — which means that she is also glancing up at me, at us — rather than reading the unbelievably serious book in her hands: Nehru's The Discovery of India! It looks like it's about eight hundred pages long and weighs a ton. It wouldn't be anything like the same picture if she was reading Bridget Jones's Diary, which, obviously, hadn't been published back then — but that's another thing about the picture: it could have been taken yesterday, it could have been taken today (especially now that white sunglasses are in vogue again).

The book is a touch of genius — the genius either of contrivance or of the moment — but, actually, if any element of the picture were removed (the wig, the glasses, the painted nails or lipstick) it would be thoroughly diminished. That's the thing about all great photos, though. Everything in them is essential — even the inessential bits. It occurs to me that another important component of a photograph is the things that are not in it. The inclusion of certain things can not just diminish a photograph but destroy it. In this case — all the more remarkable in a photograph taken in 1953 — the absence of a cigarette (so often considered an accessory of glamour) or ashtray is crucial to its allure and its contemporaneity. A cigarette would "date" or age the photograph as surely as it ages the faces of the people who smoke them. If there were any evidence of smoking I would have to look away. As it is, I can't tear my eyes away. I can't stop looking at her.

So who is she?

But there I go, forgetting one of my own rules about photography, namely, that if you look hard enough a photo will always answer your question — even if that answer comes in the form of further questions. Well, whoever she is, she's beautiful. Actually, I can't really tell if that's true, for the simple reason that I can't see enough of her face. But she must be beautiful for an equally simple reason: because I'm in love with her. Lartigue, too, I suspect. Now, plenty of men have photographed women they love but this picture depicts the moment when you fall in love.

That's why the suggestion that she is looking up, meeting our gaze — the photographer's, mine — is so important: this is the first moment when our eyes meet, the moment that each subsequent meeting of eyes will later contain. If this picture is of a woman Lartigue has been with for ten years it actually proves my point: that look, that meeting of the eyes, still contains the charge of the first unphotographed look from way back when. As for me, since I've only just seen the photo, it's a case of love at first sight. And that, I think, is why Lartigue became a model for so many fashion photographers. The most effective form of subliminal seduction — the best way to sell the dresses or hats featured in photos — is to make men fall in love with the woman wearing them, and photographers are all the time trying to emulate or simulate that feeling. With Lartigue, though, it's for real, and the accessories on offer are what? A daft wig, some zany sunglasses, and a hardback of The Discovery of India! That's the charm of the picture, its magic.

As I said at the beginning, they're all crucial, these ditzy accessories. The book lends a hint, at the very least, of the exotic. And the wigs and glasses give the picture its faint but unmistakable touch of the erotic. If you want to see her without the wig and glasses then you are already starting to undress her. Not that there is anything explicitly sexual about this — it's more that you want to see what she really looks like. In other words, you want an answer to the question the picture insistently teases us with: to what extent is it posed, contrived? I'd love to know. It would probably be possible to find out by consulting one of the many books about Lartigue currently available, but I prefer a less scholarly, more direct, but — I hope — not too intrusive approach. "Excusez-moi, mademoiselle. J'espère que je ne vous dérange ..."



Robert Capa

Works of art urge us to respond in kind and so, looking at this photograph, my reaction expresses itself as a vow: I will never love another photograph more.

The caption on the back of the postcard on which I first saw it read "Italian soldier after end of fighting, Sicily 1943." The Allies invaded Italy in July of that year; Palermo, the capital, was captured on July 22, and by August 17 the whole of Sicily was in Allied hands. Victory in Europe was still almost two years distant, but Robert Capa's photo is like a premonition of — and coda to — the end of the war in Europe.

When I next saw the picture, in a book of Capa's work, it had a different caption. This time it read: "Near Nicosia, Sicily July 28, 1943. An Italian soldier straggling behind a column of his captured comrades as they march off to a POW camp." This is much more specific — but which of the two most accurately expresses the truth of the image (as opposed to the circumstances in which it was made)?

At first it seems that the entire meaning of the picture changes according to the caption but then one realizes that whatever the circumstances surrounding the picture frame, Capa has deliberately isolated this young couple (making both captions misleading since neither mentions the woman). As Steinbeck remarked, Capa's "pictures are not accidents." The visual truth of the photo pushes the circumstances in which it was taken beyond the edge of the frame, out of sight. Following Capa's example, I too prefer to "crop" the narrative, to concentrate on the story contained by the image, to transcribe the caption inscribed within it.

Capa's picture recalls and complements another: André Kertész's photograph "A Red Hussar Leaving, June 1919, Budapest." In the midst of the commotion of departure, a man and a woman look at each other for what may turn out to be the last time. In Another Way of Telling, John Berger has written of how the look that passes between them is an attempt to store the memory of this moment against everything that may happen in the future. Capa's photograph shows the moment when all the unvoiced hopes in that photograph — in that look — come true. And not just the hopes of Kertész's couple, but the hopes of all lovers separated by war.

The hot Mediterranean landscape. Dust on the bicycle tires. The sun on her tanned arms. Their shadows mingling. The flutter of butterflies above the tangled hedgerow. The crumbling wall at the field's edge is the result not of the sudden obliteration of bombs, but of the slow attrition of the seasons. It is possible to grow old in this landscape. All the sounds — the rustle of cicadas, the noise of his boots on the road, the slow whir of the bicycle (his or hers? it has a crossbar) — offer an irenic contrast to the deafening machinery of tanks and artillery. The photograph would be diminished without the bicycle; it would be ruined without her long hair. Her hair says: this is how she was when he left, she has not changed, she has remained true to him.

Noticing these things fills me with longing. I want to be that soldier.

Since that is impossible I resolve to go on a cycling holiday in Sicily. I want, also, to know their story. When did they meet? Have they made love? How long have they been walking? Where are they heading? How long is the journey? The photograph itself urges us to ask questions like this, but if we look — and listen — hard it will provide the answers. Listen ...

They do not care how long the walk ahead of them is; the greater the distance, the longer they can be together like this. She will ask about the things that have happened to him; he will be hesitant at first, but there is no hurry. She begins to remember his silence, the way it was implied by his handwriting, by the letters he sent. Eventually, he will tell her of the friends he has lost, the terrible things he has seen. He is impatient for news of friends and relatives, back in their village or town.

She will tell about her brother, who was also in the army and who was wounded, about his parents, about the funny thing that happened to the schoolteacher and the butcher's dog. They will walk along, their shoulders bumping, noticing everything about each other again, each a little apprehensive of disappointing the other in some small way. At some stage, perhaps when they are resting by the roadside or perhaps when they lie down to sleep under the star-clogged sky, she will turn to him and say, "Am I still as pretty as when you left?"

Knowing what his answer will be, feeling the roughness of his hand as he pushes the hair behind her ear, watching his mouth as he says, "More. Much more."

And the defeat of Italy, the end of the war? Maybe they will talk of that too, but not now, not now ...



If I Die in a Combat Zone

Requiem is a tribute to "the 135 photographers of different nations" who died while covering the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Designed as a memorial — the endpapers, inscribed with the names of the dead, deliberately echo the Vietnam "wall" in Washington, D.C. — it is not just a book of more or less startling photographs held together by an editorial concept. Requiem is a great photography book: a book, that is, with its own visual grammar and narrative coherence.

The first photos, taken by Everette Dixie Reese in the 1950s, are elegant, classical images of a serene and exotic landscape. Photographs from the war will show combat-haunted GIs with "the thousand-yard stare"; Reese photographs an old Vietnamese man with a thousand-year gaze. Another irenic image shows a Buddhist monk — the Western ideal of wisdom — but there are hints, too, that this is a part of the world where rivers have run routinely red. A twelfth-century stone relief shows a battle between the Khmer and Cham armies in 1177. In a picture by Pierre Jahan, a French sentry's helmet gives him the look of an invading conquistador, which, in a sense, he is. An aerial shot of the Red River Delta shows a landscape that seems nothing else so much as camouflage patterned. Military aircraft begin to appear in Reese's cloud-strewn skies, followed, in 1954, by French paratroopers. Then, in photographs by Jean Peraud, we get the first of the images of combat that will make up the bulk of the book. A few pages later the death of Robert Capa in the Red River Delta is announced.

Capa's dying in Vietnam provides an essential continuity from images of the Second World War to those in this book. Many of Capa's famous photos, from the Normandy invasion to the liberation of Paris, show soldiers tramping out of the edge of the frame, trudging from one battle to the next. The last photos he took, minutes before treading on a mine on May 25, 1954, show a column of soldiers wading through waist-high grass. They could be the same soldiers he had photographed in 1944. One of them even raises a rifle in familiar salute. Then Capa is blown to pieces. The column of soldiers marches on, invisibly, into the deepening conflict of Southeast Asia.

In keeping with this implied continuity, the war in Vietnam looks, at first, pretty much like the Second World War. In the early stages of that conflict, writers tended to see it through a poetic optic derived from the 1914–18 war, specifically through Wilfred Owen. In the same way, photographers tended to view the war in Vietnam through a filter or lens developed to cover the Second World War. The emphasis is on the ordinary, individual soldier, usually in moments of great danger. This is not surprising. After all, details of vegetation, topography, and complexion aside, the experience of men at the sharp end of combat remains fairly constant. The uniforms are different, but in every other respect, Dana Stone's picture of South Vietnamese troops on a devastated hilltop outpost in Ha Than in 1968 could have been taken at Passchendaele fifty years earlier (in common with many accounts of the Third Battle of Ypres, a section of Requiem is titled "The Quagmire"). Robert J. Ellison's shot of an ammunition dump exploding in front of three Marines is like a full-color version of W. Eugene Smith's classic image of four Marines cowering from an explosion on Iwo Jima. (The pictures in Requiem do not only look back in time. Kyoichi Sawada's photo of a dead Vietcong soldier being dragged behind an armored vehicle anticipates Paul Watson's even grislier image of a U.S. soldier being hauled through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993.)

As the war progresses, so it begins to develop its own visual style. Capa had said that he preferred a powerful picture to one that was technically perfect. In Vietnam — most evidently in Catherine Leroy's images published by Look in "full-bleed" (as the technical term so accurately puts it) — this distinction becomes increasingly blurred. Larry Burrows took carefully composed images, but for many photographers immediacy undiminished and unmediated by anaesthetic formal concerns was everything. This was not simply because of the exigencies of battle; or, rather, developments in non-combat photography lent themselves particularly well to the hazards of Vietnam. By the mid-1960s Robert Frank's apparent indifference to traditional photographic virtues had become an ordering aesthetic in its own right. In Bystander: A History of Street Photography, Colin Westerbeck remarks that Garry Winogrand was trying "to see what is left of photography, what the essence of it is, after you give up the formal French rationality that Cartier-Bresson always hangs on to." Where better to explore that question than a war where any vestige of rationality could be annihilated in four hours at My Lai? The Second World War had a shape, a purpose, that became evident both in the larger narrative (from Capa's pictures of D-Day to George Rodger's images of the liberation of Belsen) and within each of the individual, incremental pictures that make up that narrative. As the war in Vietnam progressed so it came to be seen — quite literally — as confused, chaotic, purposeless. Three years before he went missing in action in Cambodia, Dana Stone wrote to his parents that "the risks were getting way out of proportion to the gains. I seemed to be getting the same pictures that I had made many times before and as I became more accustomed to the war what had initially been interesting and exciting became dull and frightening."

That was in 1967, by which time, according to Susan Moeller in her book Shooting War, three subject areas of combat imagery had begun to define the war visually. The main one of these was "men slogging through paddies." She might have added "in torrential rain." America's increasingly absurd involvement in Southeast Asia is nicely suggested by Henri Huet's picture of GIs wading through a paddy, keeping their weapons dry by holding them above the waist-deep water — even though the sky itself is flooding. (One soldier, incidentally, is holding his rifle one-handed in a way that inevitably recalls the soldier who greeted Capa eleven years previously, further reinforcing the impression that we are seeing the same column of men, tramping from battle to battle, from war to war to war, eternally.) In another of Huet's pictures a soldier is completely submerged: all that can be seen above the surface of the water are hands and weapon.

The other two subject areas mentioned by Moeller are men calling in artillery and men leaping from choppers. These choppers have become the virtual logo of the Vietnam War. So much so that, through a process of infiltration by media association, songs by Hendrix and the Stones swirl inaudibly around the rotor blades of the choppers in this book. To put it another way, these photos of choppers constitute a kind of visible sound track. They are immediately identifiable as images from the Vietnam War because they look so like stills from a film. The real is authenticated by the pervasiveness of the fictive — which, in turn, was derived from photos by Tim Page, Burrows, and others.


Excerpted from Otherwise Known As The Human Condition by Geoff Dyer. Copyright © 2011 Geoff Dyer. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi

Introduction 3


Jacques Henri Lartigue and the Discovery of India 9

Robert Capa 12

If I Die in a Combat Zone 15

Ruth Orkin's V-E Day 20

Richard Avedon 25

Enrique Metinides 31

Joel Sternfeld's Utopian Visions 36

Alec Soth: Riverrun 40

Richard Misrach 44

William Gedney 51

Michael Ackerman 67

Miroslav Tichý 71

Saving Grace: Todd Hido 78

Idris Khan 82

Edward Burtynsky 87

Turner and Memory 91

The American Sublime 95

The Awakening of Stones: Rodin 100

Ecce Homo 113


D. H. Lawrence: Sons and Lovers 123

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Beautiful and Damned 129

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender Is the Night 137

Pounding Print 146

Richard Ford: Independence Day 150

James Salter: The Hunters and Light Years 156

Denis Johnson: Tree of Smoke 162

Ian McEwan: Atonement 166

Lorrie Moore: A Gate at the Stairs 170

Don DeLillo: Point Omega 173

The Goncourt Journals 177

Rebecca West: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon 184

John Cheever: The Journals 193

Ryszard Kapuscinski's African Life 200

W. G. Sebald, Bombing, and Thomas Bernhard 205

Regarding the Achievement of Others: Susan Sontag 212

The Moral Art of War 215


"My Favorite Things" 231

Ramamani 236

Def Leppard and the Anthropology of Supermodernity 239

Editions of Contemporary Me 245

Is Jazz Dead? 252

Cherry Street 264


Blues for Vincent 269

Loving and Admiring: Camus's Algeria 272

Oradour-sur-Glane 280

Parting Shots 286

The Wrong Stuff 291

Fabulous Clothes 300

The 2004 Olympics 308

Sex and Hotels 315

What Will Survive of Us 319


The Airfix Generation 327

Comics in a Man's Life 333

Violets of Pride 341

On Being an Only Child 346

Sacked 356

On the Roof 367

Unpacking My Library 374

Reader's Block 378

My Life as a Gate-Crasher 382

Something Didn't Happen 386

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (with particular reference to Doughnut Plant doughnuts) 391

Of Course 404

Sources and Acknowledgments 417

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